The hardest part of being a superhero is no longer being a superhero. It's been five years since Marinette last saw Tikki; since she last saw Chat Noir; and she can't take it anymore.
"Ladybug! Ladybug, over here! Ladybug, we're all curious – what's the hardest part of being Paris's beloved superhero?"
Ladybug stops and purses her lips for a moment, tapping her chin as she thinks it through. "I think I'd have to say it's keeping my identity hidden from everyone, even my closest friends," she says before a soft beeping cuts her off. "And actually, speaking of that – time's up. Sorry, but I've gotta go! Bye!"
Marinette pauses the video, catching Ladybug midair as she bounds over the Parisian rooftops. She lets out a shaky sigh, pushing her hair away from her face as she tries to compose herself. She knows she shouldn't be here, knows she shouldn't be torturing herself like this. It's a lazy Sunday afternoon in her new apartment; it's snowing outside, there's a half-empty glass of wine by her right hand, and the now-inactive Ladyblog is pulled up on her desktop.
She had been so naïve back then, at fifteen years old. Now she longs for the days when her only troubles were her double life, the akuma, and her pathetic crush on the teenage supermodel who had attended her middle school. Her flippant answer in the video is no longer true. It never was – she just hadn't known it at the time.
At twenty-three, those old worries of hers no longer exist. The akuma attacks are a thing of the past – she and her partner defeated Hawkmoth years ago; they'd stripped him of the Miraculous he possessed and set the butterfly kwami free from servitude. They'd stood proud that day, the pink kwami thanking them before taking her Miraculous and flying off to wherever it was the kwami went when they weren't with humans. Never before had they felt more like they'd mattered.
Unfortunately, that top-of-the-world feeling hadn't lasted for long.
Marinette still sometimes catches herself opening her mouth to say something to empty air; still turns to blank space, expecting to see the little kwami who was her constant companion all the way through high school. But there's no flash of red. There's never any flash of red. She's not there, and she'll never be there again.
Tikki had explained it to her, of course. Over the millennia that she and the others had been fighting evil, it had never not ended in tragedy. She had jumped from human to human, finding a new hero each time the previous one died or lost the will to continue fighting. Each time the butterfly kwami's Miraculous fell into the wrong hands – again.
She'd been at a loss when Marinette and her partner finished the fight together, neither of them dead and neither of them broken. Despite all Tikki had tried to pretend otherwise, there had never been any choice in what came next. To allow a human access to a kwami's power when there was no longer any reason was dangerous.
And Marinette understands. Truly, she does. Without purpose, it would be so easy to abuse that power. As with many things, though, understanding doesn't stop it from hurting.
It's a dull ache; one that never truly goes away, but rather hangs in the heart like an ominously dark cloud. It doesn't rain, but it's not sunny either, and it just leaves her feeling grey when she doesn't keep herself busy.
What's the hardest part of being Paris's beloved superhero?
The hardest part is the one part no one ever talks about. It's the one part no one ever thinks about while they're still riding the high of being a superhero in the first place.
The hardest part of being a superhero is what happens afterward.
The hardest part of being a superhero is no longer being a superhero.
Marinette takes a long sip of her wine. It's dry and white, because although she has always preferred red wine, she avoids the color whenever possible. It's been years, and still she cannot see even a flash of red without remembering the vibrancy of her youth. The memories are bittersweet, the reality just bitter.
As for her crush from middle school, well, she did eventually build up the courage to confess to him. But by the time she had, what was the point? They were to attend different high schools, and she would never really get the chance to see him, even if they did live in the same city. It wouldn't be fair of her to tie him down like that when he would likely meet some gorgeous model who had a heart and brains as well as beauty. How could she ever hope to compare?
And so, like other things in life, she had let him slip through her fingers.
Draining the last of the wine from her glass, Marinette turns back to the Ladyblog and clicks to the next video. She remembers this one, remembers being there and being so proud of how happy she was able to make her best friend. Alya is the one constant that has remained from her teenage years. They don't see each other often, with Alya travelling the world as a well-known journalist and blogger, but they text almost every day.
A year after Tikki left, Marinette finally told Alya the truth. That she was Ladybug. That she was no longer Ladybug. That no, Ladybug wasn't just taking a break. That there was, in fact, no more Ladybug.
Her best friend took the news extremely well. Far from angry, she sank to the floor and cried alongside Marinette at the unfairness of it all. When the two could cry no longer, she grabbed Marinette's wrist and dragged her out of their shared apartment to distract her from feeling sorry for herself.
But Marinette can never be distracted for long before that familiar melancholy settles back in and she finds herself watching the good old days on the Ladyblog, longing to catch a glimpse the carefree happiness that is now such a distant memory. And, perhaps, a glimpse of the boy she has not seen since Tikki left, a man she misses more than she ever could have anticipated when she was fifteen.
Her partner, Chat Noir.
To this day, she feels it's her fault. Had she not insisted they keep their identities secret, perhaps they would still have each other. If she had not spent so much time second-guessing her decision to tell him who she was after they defeated Hawkmoth, perhaps they would still be together.
As it is, he's just another ghost. A ghost that haunts her whenever she hears someone make a terrible pun. That haunts her whenever she sees a cat on the street. That haunts her whenever she sees the lime green she has come to associate with him. That haunts her whenever she sees green in general.
Marinette swallows hard as the young teenager's face shows up next her own, grinning and cocky and everything she remembers. Tears prick her eyes, and she hastily stands and makes her way to the kitchen to refill her wineglass, leaving the video to play on. She stands in the middle of the tile floor, blinking up at the ceiling as she fights a losing battle to control her emotions.
Wiping angrily at the tears that escape to roll down her cheeks, she fills her glass full and returns to the computer. As she watches the image of their younger selves argue, she wonders – not for the first time – if he ever thinks of her. And if he does, if it's anything good.
It's ironic, really. As the years of their partnership had passed, and she slowly got over her dream of Adrien, she had found herself gravitating closer and closer to Chat Noir to the point where her feelings for him hurt more than her feelings for Adrien ever had. She was forced to keep the distance between them, else Hawkmoth target their relationship as a weakness. Telling him would have ruined that. Revealing her identity would have ruined that. And so, as she'd silently fallen for him, he'd slowly given up on her.
"I was a right bitch," she whispers bitterly to no one, taking another sip of her drink. "I wouldn't blame him if he didn't want anything to do with me now."
Nearly five years have passed since Tikki was forced to take her leave. In that time, Marinette graduated early from fashion design school, in part by overworking herself to fill the void left by the absence of Ladybug in her life. She's now in her second year working for a prestigious company in the fashion industry while fighting to get her own line off the ground, and it's everything she ever wanted it to be.
And yet, as the holidays approach, she once again finds herself overly aware of the dark cloud in her heart. The seasonal melancholy hits her every year. Christmas is in two weeks, and she hasn't decorated. She hasn't decorated in five years. The red and green decorations are too much. They're just too much for her pathetic heart to take.
Marinette leans back in her desk chair, tearing her eyes away from the computer screen to watch the snowfall beyond as she sips her second glass of wine. She knows this is not what Chat would have wanted for her. All he'd ever wanted was for her to be happy, whether that was with him or it wasn't.
But she'd never gotten the chance to make that decision for herself.
She glances back at the Ladyblog. Two glasses of wine is not enough to get her drunk, but it's enough to plant ideas in her head. If she still looks through the blog, what are the chances that he does as well? She chews anxiously at her bottom lip. She's gone five years without closure, isn't that enough?
The other part of her says she's gone five years without closure – what's one more? And one more after that?
But she's tired. She's tired of the what-ifs and the maybes and the regrets. Oh, the regrets. She's tired of holding out for a man she doesn't actually know. She's tired of being hung up on the past. Gulping down the rest of her drink, she summons what's left of her Ladybug courage and enters the admin password Alya gave her years ago.
She makes a single new post, the first one outside of the forums in five years.
I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. I need some sort of closure. If you read this, know that I'll be standing beneath our favorite spot on Christmas Eve until midnight. I'll wear a red hat and mittens. Please don't feel obligated to show – I'll understand if you don't.
She realizes as she posts her message to the blog that she will excite a large number of old Ladybug fans, but she hopes her message is vague enough they won't realize she means the Eiffel Tower. Of course, their favorite spot had been the platform near the top, but that's impossible now as civilians. She will settle for beneath it.
If he even shows. She doubts he will – she's only given him two weeks to see the blog post, and even if he does see it, she doubts she's high enough priority now for him to drop whatever other plans he had for that evening.
A part of her says that's okay.
A part of her says she did that on purpose.
She decides not to think about it too much. What she is going to do is shut off her computer, take a short nap to clear her head of the alcohol, and throw herself into the last-minute details for the designs she'll be debuting at the annual Holiday Fashion Show tomorrow.
It's her chance to truly break into the fashion scene, and she isn't going to squander it with her melancholic longing for things long past. After all, she has a future before her, whether that includes Chat Noir or not.
She wakes to the shrill chirping of her cellphone.
Blinking wearily as she sits up, she rubs the sleep from her eyes and squints at her alarm clock. She groans when she realizes she still has half an hour left to sleep before she has to get up, but she also knows she needs to pick up this phone call. In her sleep-blurred mind, she vaguely wonders if it's her model calling her with a last-minute conflict. Her heart seizes in momentary fear that does more to wake her than the alarm itself.
When she picks up, however, it's Alya's contact photo that stares back at her. Marinette sighs, tempted to ignore her so that she can get her extra half-hour of sleep, but she knows Alya won't let up until she answers. She yawns loudly as she says, "'Ello?"
"Marinette!" Alya exclaims, "You are awake!"
"I wasn't until about thirty seconds ago," Marinette grumbles. "What do you want, Alya? I have half an hour before I'm supposed to be awake, so if it can wait …"
"No, it really can't," her friend insisted. "You updated the Ladyblog last night! And with a request to meet Chat Noir, at that! Do you know just how many emails I'm getting right now?"
Marinette groans loudly, flopping back down onto her bed. "That was such a terrible idea. Do you think I should just take it down?" She laughs bitterly. "What are the chances he's gonna see it, anyway?"
"Mari …" Alya pauses, trailing off concernedly. "Yesterday was one of those days, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Marinette admits quietly after a moment. "It doesn't happen so much anymore, but yesterday … God, I just miss him so bad sometimes, Alya." Her voice cracks, and she doesn't even attempt to disguise it. It's six o'clock in the morning. She's not awake enough to deal with this, and if there's anyone she doesn't need to hide around, it's her best friend.
There's silence on the other end of the line for several seconds before Alya finally says, "Then you shouldn't take that post down. I'll deal with the emails, don't worry."
"… Are they bad?"
"Eh," is the response. "Some of them have guessed that I know you personally. Others think you came to me just to have me post the message. Seriously, don't worry about it. I'm in media – I know how to avoid the question."
Marinette laughs through the lump that has formed in the back of her throat. "You're the best, you know," she says shakily, tossing a forearm over her eyes. "Except for, you know, calling me at six o'clock in the morning."
"Sorry," Alya says unapologetically. "But hey, it's your first big show today! Are you ready?"
Deciding she won't be getting any more sleep that morning, Marinette sits up and swings her legs over the side of the bed. "It's just a charity thing," she says. "I haven't made the big leagues yet, Alya, but I'm as ready as I'll ever be. I've checked and double-checked everything – even triple-checked it! My models are ready, the makeup artists knew which palettes they'll be using … I keep feeling like I'm forgetting something important, though."
"Are you ready to see Adrien?"
Ever since she learned that that she would have the opportunity to design for the Holiday Fashion Show, she'd buried herself in her work, determined to prove herself. It wasn't that she had forgotten that Adrien would be modelling for his father's company, it just … hadn't been at the forefront of her mind.
She takes a deep breath and lets out a sigh. "Again," she says, "as ready as I'll ever be. I doubt he'll even recognize me, though. I've seen him like, twice since middle school."
"But you'll recognize him."
Marinette rolls her eyes, even if Alya can't see her. "How could I not? He's only in like, every fashion magazine ever."
"So what's the problem, then? Go up to him. Reintroduce yourself. It's not like you were strangers back in middle school."
"Alya, for God's sake. It's been, what, eight years? Seriously, I'm over him. That was always a stupid fantasy, anyway."
"Did I say anything about dating? It sounds like you're not as over him as you think," Alya teases, laughter in her voice. "I'm just saying that as far as networking goes, he's probably the best connection you can get."
Marinette flushes bright red in the privacy of her room. "Right. Of course. Well, I'll see what I can do."
"Oh, Mari," Alya says affectionately. "You never change. Good luck today, all right? I have to get to work. The news waits for no woman!"
"No, it doesn't," Marinette agrees. "I'll let you know how it goes."
"All right. I'll talk to you later. Smile, girl! This is your day!"
"Thanks, Alya. Love ya."
The call ends, the line goes dead, and she's left alone in her apartment once again. Well, at this point she's too awake to actually fall back asleep, and so she pushes herself from her bed, wincing as her feet meet the cold floorboards. Crossing the room to her dresser, she picks up the outfit she laid out the night before.
She takes her time in the shower. She has an extra fifteen minutes to kill, so why not? She uses the time to center her thoughts, which are still scattered in all different directions. Chat. The Ladyblog. Adrien. The fashion show. The lattermost is the one she needs to focus on right now. The fashion show is all that matters.
It doesn't matter that it's only a charity event. There will still be several big-name companies as well as other aspiring designers attending, and she needs to impress them. This fashion show is what could give her the break she needs.
She slides into the smart baby-blue business dress she bought while she was out shopping with Alya the week before, the one that matches and emphasizes the color of her eyes. She would have made one herself, but she had been so swamped with the pieces for the show that it hadn't been possible. She layers it with a well-cut white blazer and matching accessories, and puts extra time in on her makeup.
After all, she wants to make a good impression.
She even takes the time to curl her hair into soft ringlets. She pins half of it back, letting the rest of it tumble freely around her shoulders. Gone are the days of the short pigtails she wore in school. She's been letting her hair grow out since she no longer needed to keep it short for Ladybug, and so after five years, it's quite long.
Marinette gathers the things she'll need for the show. After she eats breakfast, she checks to make sure she has everything. She slides on her boots, unwilling to dirty her white pumps in the snow, and checks for a third time that she has everything.
She glances over to her computer, where she knows the Ladyblog is still pulled up from the night before. She's tempted to check the forums; tempted to see what people are saying about her. Tempted to see if there's any sign that Chat Noir has received her message.
Instead, she takes a deep breath and turns away. As much as she wants to know, she doesn't want to know. She knows now that she should have just let sleeping cats lie, but it's too late for that.
Hailing a cab, she makes it to the venue in plenty of time. She tips the driver, then steps out onto the sidewalk with her armful of clothing and her white pumps hooked over two fingers. She shivers as the cab drives away and hurries into the building – of all the things she could have forgotten, she's glad it's her coat.
Marinette slips her white pumps on as soon as she's in the door, shoving her boots into the large purse she carries. Her pulse races a million miles a minute, and she takes deep breaths as she steadies herself. She needs to check in, and they'll tell her which room she's in. One thing at a time, she tells herself. One thing at a time.
She's entirely unprepared to see him again so soon.
She turns the corner, and suddenly there he is – Adrien Agreste, model extraordinaire. The man who used to be the boy she had a crush on back in middle school; yet another boy whom she never quite got over, despite what she tells herself and Alya. She glances at him for only a quick second before fixing her gaze on the hall before her.
" … What, really? When was this?"
He's on the phone with someone, and he's so engrossed in the conversation that he doesn't even notice her as she walks right past him. Her suddenly aching heart reminds her that some things never change, despite the fact that he has. Despite the fact that she has.
The screechy voice on the other end of the line carries though clearly, and although she doesn't mean to, Marinette can't help but eavesdrop as she passes.
"Last night! Isn't it so romantic, Adrien? It's been five years!"
"I know," Adrien says, his lips pressed together thinly. "Look, Chloé, as fascinating as this is, I've really got to get back to work. I'll call you later, okay?"
Marinette never hears the response, but at this point she doesn't want to. 'Chloé' can only mean Chloé Bourgeois, who had been – and still is, apparently – Adrien's childhood friend. She remembers him trying to avoid her back in middle school, but it seems they've reconciled. Did that mean Chloé had finally achieved her goal, then?
Isn't it so romantic, Adrien? It's been five years!
She swallows that little bit of irrational jealousy that rises. She has absolutely no right to be bitter, and although she wants to stop, although she wants to look back, she continues on forward. The show must go on, after all. She checks in without any issues, and is directed to the room in which she'll be allowed to prep her models.
The room is already a flurry of activity when she arrives. Her models, Elise and Xavier, introduce themselves as they sit in the makeup chairs and are fussed over by various stylists. Marinette smiles and engages them in idle chitchat as she hangs the garment bags on the rack provided for just that. Very carefully, she extricates the outfits that she has put so much of her time and energy and soul into.
Alya was right. This is her day, and she isn't about to let any handsome, green-eyed ghosts from her past ruin it for her.
In a strike of good fortune, both Elise and Xavier make it down the runway and back without any mishaps or wardrobe malfunctions. Marinette stands paralyzed backstage, only able to hope for the best; but then again, she's always been lucky.
And then, finally, after many weeks – months, even – of hard work, it's over.
Marinette smiles freely as she swirls the champagne in her glass, discussing her designs with the couple who ultimately bought them. The auction after the show was fascinating, even if she didn't have the money to buy any of the pieces herself. Her designs hadn't sold for as much as most others, but she wasn't discouraged. It's to be expected, after all. She's an unknown, just starting out.
The couple excuses themselves, and Marinette nods graciously. "Thank you for your time," she says honestly. Alone once again, she looks around the room in which the reception is being held. It's a large reception hall, almost a ballroom, and she feels incredibly out-of-place. She doesn't belong here, among the rich and the elite; not when she's renting a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Paris.
Her job pays well, yes, but most of that money either goes straight back into materials for her own designs or gets tucked away for her startup. Her family may have money, but she still struggles to make ends meet sometimes, as she's determined to make it on her own without her parents' help. It's something she's certain no one here – except maybe her fellow unknowns – have ever experienced.
She wants to get out of here, and soon. The reds and greens of the holiday decorations that adorn the hall make her antsy, reminding her of her folly from the night before. All she wants to do is return to her modest, drab, one-bedroom apartment and celebrate with something a little stronger than the bubbly champagne she sips absently.
But she can't leave – not yet. Not until she speaks with one Adrien Agreste, whom she has accidentally kept within her line of sight all afternoon. She watches him now from across the room as he speaks with a few of his father's colleagues, poised and confident and everything she remembers from that one year in middle school, except more.
He's grown, of course. He probably stands at least a head taller than she does, not that she's gotten close enough to test that theory. He's lost the last traces of baby fat that she remembers – now he's all sharp lines that his tailored suit emphasize well. His hair is longer, too, brushed back out of his face as he runs his hand through it.
He had been cute in middle school, but the word no longer applies to the man who stands before her. He is so much more attractive in person than on the pages of the fashion magazines she subscribes to, but still just as – if not more – unattainable.
Not that it matters. She gave up on him years ago. She's dated other people, though none of her relationships ever lasted very long. Whatever she's feeling now, it's just a celebrity crush. There's nothing now that differentiates her from any of his other fangirls.
Why, why did she always have to fall for the ones she could never have? She may be luckier than most, but she's always been unlucky in matters of the heart.
He finishes his conversation with the older men, and Marinette knows that it's now or never. Swallowing the rest of her champagne, she summons the last scraps of her Ladybug courage and steps forward. The sound of her white pumps clicking against the parquet flooring lends her confidence as she straightens her back and puts her game face on.
He's facing away from her, so he doesn't see her approach. She clears her throat lightly before saying, "Adr- Mr. Agreste?" She contains a wince as she catches herself just in time. They might have been classmates – almost friends – at one point, but it's been eight years. He turns, and it's all she can do to keep her voice steady. "Marinette Dupain-Cheng," she introduces herself, holding out a hand. "I, uh, designed the Magie d'Hiver pieces."
He takes her hand, his smile reaching his dazzling green eyes. "I remember your name from the list," he says before pausing, a contemplative look on his face as he surveys her own. "Hey, I thought your name was familiar! We went to school together, didn't we?"
Marinette's heart leaps as she lets go of his hand. He remembers her! "Y-yeah," she says. "Françoise Dupont, grade three."
"That's right!" he exclaims. "That was my first year in public school. I don't know how I could have forgotten!"
She chuckles. "It's been eight years," she says. "I don't blame you."
"You sat behind me," he muses. "It's all coming back to me now. You always were sketching new designs and winning those contests – it's great to see you here! How have things been?"
Marinette blinks. He's asking her about her life? She shrugs. "After high schoolI was accepted to l'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale, and I shared an apartment with Alya for a while. You remember Alya, right?" When he nods, she continues. "I graduated early, started working for a fashion company, and I'm currently trying to start my own line. There's not really much else to say."
He gapes at her. "L'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale? That's only one of the best fashion schools in the world! And you graduated early? That's great, Marinette!"
"Thanks, Adrien. Uhm, what about you?" she asks, eager to get the conversation away from herself. She tries not to dwell on how quickly they've fallen back into using first names. It's only natural for old school friends, right?
"Well, I'm still modeling," he says, gesturing slightly at himself, "as you can see. But I finally got my degree in physics last year, so I'm pretty excited about that."
Physics? She knew he had liked the subject in middle school, but she didn't know he had liked it so much he decided to get a degree in it. Then again, she remembers, he had gone to a science and tech high school. She's mystified. How can one man have it all, brains and beauty? It's just not fair.
But then again, life isn't fair.
"You said you designed the Magie d'Hiver pieces, right?"
Her focus returns to him. "Oh, yeah," she says. "I know the name's kind of dumb, but I couldn't think of anything else."
"The name doesn't really matter, Marinette. Those designs were absolutely gorgeous."
"Yes, really. When the sparkles of the dress caught the light, they really resembled snowfall. And manipulating the paneling of the skirt so that it resembled the legs of the Eiffel Tower? That's so clever!"
Marinette does all she can not to flush under his praise. "Thank you," she says.
"They were just so different," he continues, running his hand back through his hair again. "Everyone usually really goes for the holiday theme, you know? Red and green and Christmas trees … everything. There are usually one or two pieces for Hanukkah as well, but plain winter pieces are rather rare."
She shrugs. "I'm … not really a fan of red or green," she admits honestly.
"I think they work well together," Adrien says, an expression she can't decipher flashing across his face. "They're complementary colors, after all."
"They did work well together," Marinette mumbles absently. When Adrien looks at her curiously, she hastily backtracks. "I mean, they do, but I'm just –"
"Not a fan," Adrien finishes for her. "Yeah, I can understand that."
It's only then that Marinette notices his dress shirt is a pale blue color that's only a little darker than her dress. Apart from his eyes, he's not wearing red or green, either. His tie isn't even festive, unlike most of the ties the other men are wearing.
She doesn't ask.
She needs to get away before she undoes all the hard work she's put into forgetting about him over the past eight years.
"It looks like someone else wants to speak with you," she says, nodding at a woman hovering a few feet away. "I should let you get back to the reception. It was … good to see you again, though."
"Wait, Marinette!" He grabs her wrist gently before she can turn, but lets go quickly. Too quickly, her rebellious heart whispers. She ignores it and looks at him questioningly.
"Maybe we could hang out sometime?" he asks, hesitant. "Alya could come too, and Nino could Skype in from California. We could all, you know, catch up or something. You guys were my first friends, you know."
She doesn't even think about it before she says, "Okay, sure." Fishing her cellphone out of her purse, she asks, "What's your number?"
He gives it to her, and it's the same number she's had memorized for years. She doesn't even need to type it into her phone, but she pretends to anyway. She looks up and smiles as she puts her phone away. "Okay, I'll text you when I get home."
She doesn't run away.
It's a called strategic retreat, and it's a perfectly acceptable battle tactic. After all, she's been compromised.
She's been so compromised.
She leaves the reception directly afterward. Her nerves are so frazzled that she knows she'll just make a fool of herself if she tries to talk to anyone else. In fact, she even forgets to put her boots back on before she leaves the building, thus ruining a perfectly good – and expensive – pair of shoes.
Her cellphone is a lead weight her purse. The more she tries to ignore it, the stronger she feels its presence. She hadn't thought it possible, but the cab ride back to her apartment is more nerve-wracking than the one to the event was, and her leg bounces the entire time. So obvious is her distress that the driver even asks what's wrong, and when she tries to tell him, no words escape her lips.
She settles for, "It's complicated."
The driver nods in understanding. "Ah," he says. "I've been there. Old flame of yours?"
Marinette only hums non-committedly in response.
The climb up the stairs to her fourth-floor apartment is excruciating, even as she takes the steps barefoot with her ruined shoes hanging off her fingers. She fumbles with putting her key in the lock, but after several tries manages to open the door to the apartment. She steps inside, closes the door behind her, drops all her things, and then heads straight toward her bedroom.
Collapsing facedown atop her bed, she screams into the pillows.
Why is this happening to her? She was – well, not happy, but existing just fine before he had to catwalk right back into her life.
She had told Alya that morning that she was ready to see Adrien again, but the throbbing in her chest tells her she lied. Feeling hot tears beginning to well in her eyes, Marinette doesn't even try to stop them from spilling over.
Her life is set. She has a degree from one of the top fashion schools in the world. She has her own apartment. She has a well-paying job. She has a few friends from work that she hangs out with from time to time. She keeps in touch with her parents, and sees them fairly often. She's working on starting her own clothing line, and just debuted her own pieces at a show for the very first time. She should be happy.
But she's not. She's done. She's exhausted. She's tired of the constant reminders of all the things she's given up. Of all the people she's lost by her own hand.
If anything, seeing Adrien today has only thrown in her face what a wreck her life has become. He completed a physics degree while modeling, he looks great, and he seems to be in a fairly happy relationship with his childhood friend Chloé Bourgeois. She, on the other hand …
She's crying tears of mascara into her pillow, alone in the dark but for her thoughts.
She knows she promised Adrien she would text him when she got home, but her phone is still in the entryway and getting up to grab it is the last thing she feels like doing right now. She'll wait until she's not so emotionally unstable to text him.
She strips herself of her clothes and pulls the pins from her hair before sliding beneath the covers. She doesn't bother to remove her makeup – her pillowcase is already ruined. Her brave face has crumbled, and instead of facing the world as her own broken, battered self, she simply escapes it.
It's only after much rebuke and encouragement from Alya that she finally texts him, three days later. She doesn't have to wait long for a response, and in a way that only makes things so much worse, as guilt consumes her for not texting him sooner like she said she would. He accepts her excuse of being busy with work, but she suspects he sees right through it.
They fall into an awkward back and forth, filled with innocent questions and mindless small talk that's punctuated by long gaps between messages. It's like neither of them really knows how to speak to the other after so many years, and Marinette takes comfort in the fact that he seems to be struggling as much as she is.
In the week leading up to Christmas, Marinette throws herself into her work at the company and volunteers to take hours at her parents' bakery. It's the Christmas rush, she tells herself, and her parents need the help in order to take some of the pressure off. Her parents insist she stay for dinner most evenings after the bakery closes, and so her own design work gets pushed late into the night.
As much as she tries to ignore the truth, she knows she's running herself ragged trying to distract herself from the impending meeting beneath the Eiffel Tower between herself and a man who probably won't even show. Despite the more logical part of her telling her she shouldn't, she stalks the Ladyblog's forums, which buzz with life for the first time in half a decade. Their obvious enthusiasm does nothing to encourage her; in fact, it only makes her more afraid of thoroughly disappointing everyone, including herself.
She doesn't speak a word of this to Adrien, of course. To confess something so personal would be far beyond the boundaries they have tacitly agreed on. She confides only in Alya, but still she makes light of the situation, not wanting to worry her friend any more than she already has.
Her anxiety only grows exponentially worse as Christmas Eve draws nearer, but time waits for no man. The fated night barrels down on her like a runaway freight train, and thus it is that she finds herself digging desperately through her closet for the hat and mittens she had announced she would be wearing. She searches for ages, but to no avail.
The traces of her ladybug luck have deserted her at long last; she has the hat, but only one red mitten.
Marinette sighs as she rocks back on her heels, the splashes of red taunting her mercilessly. She had promised Chat she would be wearing both a red hat and red mittens. Would he still be able to find her if she wore only the hat? Would he have been able to find her even if she'd had both the mittens?
These are questions she cannot answer.
She forgoes heavy makeup in favor of simple mascara, eyeliner, and a touch of lip gloss she knows will be gone by the time she sees him. If she sees him. She keeps reminding herself of the conditional, reminding herself that while there's a slim chance this will go right, there's an even greater chance her heart will be shattered to pieces once again.
"But at least I'll have closure," she whispers to herself, meeting her eyes in the mirror, "and that's more than I have now."
Taking a deep breath, she pulls the red knit hat down over her hair, which she's separated into pigtails for the first time in years. They're much too long to be Ladybug's pigtails, and they probably won't help Chat recognize her at all – they never did when they were the correct length – but she does it for herself more than anything. She gives up on finding the other red mitten, and pulls on a blue one instead. She looks silly, wearing one red mitten and one blue, but it's the best she can do.
She slides her phone into her purse and grabs the bag of pastries from her parents' bakery off her desk. While she hasn't spoken to her parents about her plans for the night, her mother had handed her the bag with a meaningful look in her eye before she left earlier that evening. Marinette feels tears prick her eyes as she thinks of her parents' unconditional support, and she hopes Chat will accept the treats as a peace offering.
It's eight o'clock by the time she runs out of reasons to dawdle. With a lurch of excitement in her heart and no small amount of anxiety in her stomach, she decides to walk the distance to the Eiffel Tower in order to give herself more time to settle her conflicted feelings.
She reaches the Tower all too soon. Taking a deep breath of the crisp wintry air, she takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of the lights and the people milling about. The lines to get to the viewing platforms are long, and Marinette smiles. How many rings are in pockets tonight? How many confessions are sitting on tips of tongues, waiting to be released into the atmosphere? How many will go home the happiest people alive?
With an aching heart, she hopes she'll be among them.
Avoiding the masses of people as best she can, she maneuvers her way to a position as close to the center of the Tower as possible. She clutches her bag of goodies, dismayed by the number of people. While she's not the shortest person she knows, she isn't particularly tall, either. Will Chat even be able to see her, let alone recognize her?
It's likely she'll be standing there for a long time, and she knows that. After several minutes spent simply observing the others around her, she bites down on her lower lip and pulls out her phone to begin playing a silly game to pass the time.
An hour passes.
An hour and a half passes.
She exhausts her list of games, as she's unable to focus on any of them for longer than a few minutes. Giving up on distractions, she scans the crowd for anything that resembles a familiar face. Surely, with that blond hair and those greener-than-green eyes she remembers, she would recognize her ex-partner if she were to see him.
It's nearing ten o'clock when someone comes up and taps her on her shoulder. She startles, her heart leaping into her throat as she whirls around to face the person behind her. Her eyes land on his face, illuminated by the lights of the Eiffel Tower above them, and she gapes wordlessly for several moments.
"M – Marinette?"
She can't help it. She gasps. "Adrien?" she squeaks. "Wow, uh … hi!"
Adrien grins at her as he rubs at the back of his neck. "Hey! I wasn't expecting to see you here tonight," he says sheepishly. "I, uh, actually thought you were someone else there for a minute."
Marinette laughs, but it sounds forced even to her ears and she mentally kicks herself for it. "Sorry to disappoint you," she says wryly. "It's just me."
"I'm not disappointed," he insists, but there's something in his voice that suggests that he is. He shrugs. "Hey, at least you're not some random stranger – that would have been embarrassing." He pauses, and his eyes widen. "I don't mean to say that, like … oh, geez, that came out so wrong. It's good to see you, Marinette. I'm glad I ran into you."
She giggles as he stumbles over his words. "It's okay," she says. "I know what you mean."
Silence falls between them for a minute, and Marinette takes the time to deal with her own sense of disappointment that trickles through her. She'd really thought for a second that it had been Chat who'd clapped his hand down on her shoulder. Tears threaten to spill, but she holds them back. There's time yet. There's still time.
"So what are you doing out here tonight?" Adrien asks awkwardly. "Are you waiting for someone?"
Marinette looks up at him, absently taking note of the fact his hair isn't brushed back the way it was the last time she saw him. It instead hangs loosely around his face, a few strands falling into his eyes. It's almost reminiscent of the way she remembers it from middle school, and she bites back the bitter nostalgia as she answers his question.
"Yeah," she sighs, gazing down at the bag in her hands. "I'm meeting an old friend. He's uh, really busy, so he said he might be here any time between now and midnight."
She realizes how lame that sounds just a little too late.
"Christmas present?" Adrien prompts after an awkward moment, gesturing at the bag.
"Of sorts," she answers, not wanting to explain the real reason she's carrying the pastries. "And you?" she asks. "Are you meeting anyone here?"
A wistful look falls over his face, and he smiles gently. "Only the love of my life," he says absently, turning the single rose she hadn't noticed him holding over in his hands. He then appears to realize what he said, and he flushes brightly. "I'm sorry. You … probably didn't need to hear that much."
Marinette swallows down the petty jealousy that wells in the back of her throat. Of course he's waiting for Chloé. Meeting beneath the Eiffel Tower is such a romantic thing to do, and although she never really saw Adrien as the romantic sort in school, a long time has passed since then. She shouldn't be surprised.
And yet she is.
"No," she says, forcing a genial tone. "No, it's all right. That's good. That's … really good. I'm so happy for you." She pauses, hedging over her next words. "It's so sweet that you brought her flowers. Well, a flower."
Adrien laughs. "It's actually fake," he says, presenting it to her for inspection.
Marinette takes a leaf between her fingers before looking up at him in confusion. "But … you're Adrien Agreste," she says. "You can afford flowers in winter, and more than one of them, too. Why choose a single fake one?"
Especially if your girlfriend is Chloé Bourgeois, she doesn't say.
"I don't want to scare her off, really," he says, abashed. "And fake flowers last longer than real ones, so … yeah."
"I think it's cute," she says. "I hope she appreciates it."
He smiles softly. "I hope she does, too."
Maybe Chloé has changed. Adrien must know her well, if he's dating her. Perhaps she's mellowed out; Marinette hasn't spoken to the girl in years – Chloé went to the same high school as Adrien – and so who is she to know any better?
The two fall into inane chatter as they stand there, each waiting. They talk about school. They talk about fashion design. They talk about Adrien's modeling career and his fight to obtain his physics degree while still working. For a time, Marinette almost forgets the original reason why she's standing there, freezing beneath the Eiffel Tower. Everything fades away until it's only the two of them, having the longest conversation she's ever held with him.
But all good things cannot stay.
Eventually, the alarm she set for midnight goes off in her purse, and in an instant she's aware of all the other people around them. She sighs heavily as she silences the alarm, tears welling in her eyes as she realizes how distracted she's been by Adrien. Eight years later, and he still has that effect on her. It's almost shameful, she thinks.
She's missed her opportunity, again. She could have played a more active role. She could have gone looking for him, instead of just standing there hoping he would find her. But she hadn't, because she'd been so damn wrapped up in a man who's already taken, for god's sake. She's so ashamed of herself, and she swallows past the lump that lodges itself in her throat.
It's with aching feet and a freshly broken heart that she finally acknowledges the truth. She's never going to see Chat again. He never found her. He doesn't want to see her. But with this, now, perhaps she can finally get over him.
"Marinette? What's wrong? Is it something I said?"
"What?" Adrien's panicked questions break her out of her reverie, and with horror she feels the winter wind chill the liquid trailing down her cheeks. She reaches up to brush at it, then swallows hard as she wipes both cheeks angrily with her mismatched mittens.
"Oh, no. No, it's nothing you said. You're fine. It's silly, really," she says as her heart shatters. "I should … I should go, actually. It's late."
"But," he protests, "your friend –"
She smiles bitterly. "I guess he's not coming," she sighs. "It's all right. I was … I was expecting this, really."
"I hope Chloé shows up soon," she says, forcing a brighter smile despite the jealousy and pain and the scattered shards of her heart. "It's really terrible of her to keep you waiting like this."
She's jealous. Not only because Chloé has Adrien, but because Adrien has Chloé and that's something she has never experienced. The closest she had ever gotten to that sort of trust and emotional intimacy with someone was with Chat Noir, five years ago, even if that relationship had never been romantic.
And she misses it.
Adrien simply stares at her, and she shakes her head. "Merry Christmas, Adrien. Maybe I'll see you around." She turns to leave.
"Wait!" he calls after her when she's three paces away.
She stops. Of course she stops. She would do anything for this man, and that's why she needs to get away. "What is it?" she asks, clenching her fists as she turned back to him.
"What do you mean?" he says, "About Chloé? Where does she come into this?"
Marinette looks at him, at the confusion written upon his face. "I thought that was who you were waiting for," she says slowly. "Aren't you two dating?"
"What? No, we're not. Where did you get that idea? Don't tell me the tabloids ran some stupid article again," he groans.
"Oh. Uhm," Marinette says, extremely embarrassed. "I, uh, overheard your conversation with her on the phone before the holiday show a couple weeks ago. I heard her say something about it being five years and romantic, so I just, y'know, assumed …"
She trails off, her cheeks burning. Adrien gazes down at her and laughs, which only adds to her mortification.
"Sorry," he says, apologetic. "It's just, Chloé was calling me about the post on the Ladyblog, the one where Ladybug asked Chat Noir to meet her here tonight. She's always been a huge fan of Ladybug, did you know that? Since we were in middle school, even. It's like that post was the best thing that's happened to her in years."
"Oh." Marinette is honestly lost for words. She had been so sure they were together. It takes her a few moments to realize exactly what it was he had just said. "Wait," she says, with no small amount of desperation lacing her words. "You said she told you they were meeting here tonight. How did you know that? The note never said where they were meeting!"
Adrien just looks at her, stricken. "I, uh …" he laughs uneasily. "Did I say that? I mean, it was just a guess, really. They, uh, used to spend a lot of time here, so …"
"Was it really?" she pleads, cutting him off. "Was it really just a guess?" Tears pool in her eyes as she turns away. Stupid. She's so stupid. To think that Adrien, of all people, could have been Chat. She needs to give it up. She needs to get away now, before she makes an even bigger fool of herself. She'll go back to her apartment, lick her wounds, and begin the arduous process of putting herself back together again.
She already knows it won't be easy, and so she's going to start now.
"Wait," Adrien pleads, catching her arm before she can flee. "You asked how I knew. How I knew, not why I thought so. Is this really where they were going to meet? Why are you so sure? How are you so sure?"
There's more than a hint of desperation in his voice as well, and Marinette bites her lip hard as she looks away. It would be so easy to lie. To tell him that Ladybug told Alya, who told her. The lie sits poised at the tip of her tongue, waiting to spill over between them, but it doesn't.
The truth does instead.
"Because I'm the one who wrote the damn thing in the first place!"
She's so far gone that she doesn't realize the words have left her mouth in a shriek until the catches the stares of several bystanders. Sobs wrack her frame, and she doesn't even try to contain them as Adrien stares down at her in shock.
"It's me, Adrien. It was me, the whole time. Surprise!" She laughs bitterly. "I'm Ladybug. I was Ladybug. I'm the one all of Paris was looking for. Is looking for. I was a superhero but I'm not anymore and I never got a chance to tell him and you probably don't even believe me and – oh, God, please don't tell anyone."
Several long seconds pass in loaded silence. She's about to turn and run when she's pulled into strong arms. Her face is pressed into a firm chest, and her hands rise to grip his coat as best she can with mittened hands as she cries. Tucked under his chin, it's only the vibration of his vocal cords that alert her to the fact he's speaking.
"What?" she sniffs, unwilling to pull away until it's absolutely necessary. She'll hold onto this one comfort for as long as she possibly can.
"My lady," he murmurs reverently against her hair once again, this time loud enough that she can hear him. "It was you. It was always you. We went to school together! How could I have been so blind?"
Marinette freezes, unwilling to believe the words she's waited so long to hear. Bracing her heart, she pulls away just far enough to see his face. "Adrien?" she asks hesitantly; tremulously. "Chat? Is it really you? Are you really – It can't be. You can't be, it's not possible!"
Adrien takes her hand and presses it to his lips. "It's really me, Marinette – my lady," he whispers. "I can't believe it. I can't believe I found you. It's really you. You're right here. I can't believe it's you!"
She barks a laugh, deciding that she will deal with the further revelations and implications that come along with the fact that Adrien is Chat Noir – or was – at a later date. For now, she just buries her face back in his chest like it's where she belongs.
"I'm so sorry," she murmurs. "I'm so, so sorry. I meant to tell you. Really I did! But I was scared, and then I tried but I couldn't find you and then Tikki was gone, and I was too late. It's all my fault and I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," Adrien – Chat Noir – insists. "I could have told you who I was even before we defeated Hawkmoth. I knew we were running out of time. I could have let the cat out of the bag, could have let you reveal yourself to me in your own time."
She sniffs again, the tears running down her face now those of happiness. "Still with the puns?" she asks brokenly, looking up at him. "Some things never change."
He grins, then lets go of her as he takes a step back. "So, uh, I guess this is for you," he says, holding out the single, fake rose.
She takes it daintily, holding it up to her nose as if to smell it. "Ahh," she says, "Plastic. My favorite." She then holds up the bag with the bakery items within it, slightly squished after their embrace. "And this is for you – it was actually a peace offering, to be honest. They should still taste good, at least."
She squeaks when Adrien wraps his arms around her waist and picks her up, squealing when he spins her around. They're laughing, he doesn't hate her, and they're together again. There are many things they still have to work out, but now they're actually in a position to do so and she's the happiest she's been in five years.
Speaking of things they'll have to work out …
"So," she prompts as he puts her down, "'Love of your life,' huh?"
Adrien blushes furiously. "Well, you know. It was never really a secret."
She laughs, and lets it go. There will be plenty of time for all of that later. For now, she just wants to bask in the relief that reuniting with her partner has given her. "Merry Christmas, Chat Noir," she says, his name rolling off her tongue as easily as it had five years before.
"Merry Christmas, Ladybug."
And everything is right with the world.