Spring means a fresh start. It should mean new beginnings, a slate wiped clean and the growth of something beautiful.
But it doesn't feel that way.
Marinette's eyes follow the leafy stem of a sprout, struggling to break free of the wet snow clinging to the sidewalk. The last remnants of winter, scarce but holding pitifully fast as the sun melts what's left.
It shouldn't be so difficult, to leave the cold behind. But as her gaze watches the stem tremble in the cool wind, she feels a kinship with the delicate little leaves.
"You haven't touched your drink."
Marinette glances up, attention wrenching away from the ground to meet Alya's honeyed irises.
The park is cool, but a far contrast to several weeks before, when they sat on this very bench and huddled together for warmth. Pink and white buds collect on the trees around them, clustering together and promising a floral, aromatic vision in the month to come.
If Marinette were in a better mood, she might have been out here sketching it.
But in the wake of recent events, she had hardly had the appetite to eat, let alone participate in the hobbies that usually brought her pleasure. Save for the routine treks made to school, she had hardly left her room for more than a few minutes at a time.
Alya had dragged her out into the cresting sunshine, and it was yet to be seen if the idea had been a good one.
"I didn't pull you out of your room just so you could mope out here, too."
Marinette studies her hands, her cup loosely clasped between them. It's odd, that this is the first time in a small eternity that she hasn't worn gloves. She nearly feels vulnerable without them.
"I'm not moping," she says quietly.
Alya considers her. She glances down at her own cup, studying it before she takes a long drink. It's several long seconds before she speaks.
"I heard from Nino that Adrien has been forbidden to come back to school."
The abrupt mention of his name snatches Marinette from her hazy reverie. Her stomach drops, mouth growing dry.
"His father is forcing him to tour Europe this year, and since we have summer break, we probably won't see him again until autumn."
"That's sad," Marinette forces out.
"It really is," Alya sighs, "The poor guy isn't even allowed to see anyone until he leaves."
Marinette can feel the scrutinizing gaze on her, watching, evaluating her reactions. No one could contend that Alya is a good reporter, but her investigation skills are inarguably on another level.
"I don't see what this has to do with me."
Alya lets out a noise somewhere between exasperation and disbelief.
Marinette glances up, and for the first time, she feels something akin to guilt tug at her. Alya throws up her hands.
"Since when are you apathetic to your friends? Since when do you not care about Adrien's wellbeing? For God's sake, girl, you've been crazy about this guy for years now and you don't care that his father is shipping him off like a caged show animal?!"
Her throat tightens, and Marinette fights the urge to choke on the tears she's been forcing back the past few days.
"I told you I wouldn't press you for answers," Alya says, her voice pitching lower, "But I also told you that I wish you'd confide in me. No matter what it is, I'll be there for you in the best way I can."
Marinette frowns, mentally tracing the lines running across her palms. Soft grooves paving her skin, nails worried to a short length, and fingertips dark pink from the recent weather. If she could disappear into the shadows of those lines, she would.
"I know, but you don't understand–"
"Then help me understand! Explain it to me!"
Heat pricks at her eyes, bubbling dangerously close to the surface. It's not as though Alya hasn't seen her cry before. She's spent plenty of lonely occasions being comforted by her best friend – heart breaks and disappointments plentiful in their time together at school.
But she's so tired of crying. The last several days were nothing short of hellish, hours paid in the recesses of her room, sobbing achingly into her blankets and listening to Tikki's soft, sympathetic assurances. The first two days she could hardly breathe, and the pain of it only gave way to sleep. And even then, when she tried to sleep voluntarily, her mind was haunted by images and thoughts she couldn't force down.
Embarrassment, anger, sadness…
"He did something, okay? He lied to me. He humiliated me and made me feel like an idiot."
Alya stares, and Marinette plows on, swallowing down the thickness bobbing in her throat.
"I'm not stupid, okay? I know I messed up, too. I sort of knew but I didn't want to believe it, and I reciprocated and somewhat encouraged his advances, even though I kept telling him no. I was confusing and stupid and–"
"In love?" Alya supplies.
"Yeah," Marinette blunders.
"Like he was?"
Heat rushes into her face, crawling up her neck. Marinette flusters.
"Why didn't you want to believe it – whatever 'it' was?" Alya prods.
Marinette sets her cup down, pulling her knees to her chest. She tucks her chin into the fabric there, cheek pressing against the soft scratch of material. It feels grounding, and she lets out a slow breath.
She had thought about this a lot, honestly.
Why she had felt so mortified and angry, why the thought of acknowledging Chat's real identity made her more fearful than she would willingly admit.
The entire time, she had been so livid – not with Chat Noir, but with herself. She'd felt guilty, convinced that he was torn between two people and it had been her fault. That as Ladybug and as Marinette she had been playing his heart, and she was the real villain between them.
But then he'd admitted to knowing who she was the whole time, and she had felt humiliated and silly. And truthfully, she didn't know how to admit that to herself, let alone say it to him.
"I was scared," she whispers.
Alya considers her quietly for several long moments, her brows drawing together thoughtfully.
"Were you scared that he wouldn't want you? Or–"
"No," Marinette scoffs, "He made it fairly clear how he felt."
The girl takes a long breath.
"I can't explain everything to you, Alya. You have to trust me when I say that it's important that I keep some things to myself."
Alya nods, setting her cup down next to her friend's.
"You mean like how Adrien is Chat Noir?"
If Marinette could jump out of her skin, she would have. But the words are striking, sinking icily down to her bones, and she finds herself frozen instead.
"Come on," Alya laughs, "You thought it wasn't obvious?"
When Marinette stares, mouth hanging agape, Alya continues.
"You suddenly start acting weird around Adrien – getting comfortable with him, dropping the stutter, becoming conflicted on spending time with him. And then, I catch you hiding Chat Noir in your room and getting cozy with him."
Alya smiles ruefully.
"Did you already forget that I showed you photos of him dressed like Chat Noir? They look painfully alike. Only an idiot wouldn't make that connection after all the evidence you both provided. And by the way – that excuse you concocted? Terrible. You're both horrible liars and should hope nobody else figures it out."
Marinette doesn't know whether she should be grateful or frightened. Alya's nonchalant behavior demands both, and she finds herself nearly feeling relieved despite it.
She slumps against the bench, head falling back.
"You know how dangerous it is for you to know this, right?" Marinette murmurs.
"Not that dangerous I'd wager," Alya says casually, "Considering that you know it."
Marinette purses her lips.
"Look, I might not know the full situation – which, from what you said, I'm certain I don't. Maybe he hid some things from you, and maybe you said some things that were uncalled for. But whatever happened between you–"
Her eyes narrow, fixed on the bobbing trees in front of them.
"It's… well, it's end game, you know? Just like with us, I know that no matter what fights we have or what we might disagree on, it's still not going to change what we have. Because I love you, girl. And in the end, that's all that matters."
Marinette's heart dips. Alya's thick curls waver in the breeze, eyes thoughtful behind the lens of her glasses.
When she leans into the girl's side, Alya lets out an amused noise.
"You're my favorite, you know?" Marinette says.
"Yeah, I know."
It's warmer here, and Marinette decides venturing out wasn't such a terrible idea.
A couple of kids chatter amiably a yard away, light jackets and boots guarding them from the sprinkling of rain that is forecasted to come. They clamor down the sidewalk, beelining for the park, laughter and excited voices carrying them along.
The possibility of a shower doesn't seem to deter them, and Marinette wonders at how carefree they must be at that age. How carefree she used to feel in their shoes.
"So, what now?" she sighs.
Alya leans forward, her hands folding in front of her. Her gaze moves from the children to Marinette, something pensive and decisive in it.
"Now, you ask yourself some important questions."
Marinette meets her eyes, and the warmth from before slowly starts to bleed away. When she doesn't respond, Alya pushes forward.
"Is he worth it? Or, more importantly, are you going to regret it if you don't find out?"
Something heavy sinks into her stomach. And for the first time in days, the gnawing guilt and raw unhappiness is replaced by something she can't discern.
Alya reaches for her cup, standing. The comfortable proximity disappears, following her.
"I think you might want to find those answers sooner than later."
She extends a hand, and Marinette considers the tangerine glove. She hasn't stowed them away yet, still opting for a little bit of warmth in the remaining cold.
And as Marinette takes her hand, following her out of the park, her eyes move again to the little stem. Still weighed down by the snow, wriggling hopefully in the direction of the sun. Just like Alya, still struggling to shirk winter.
It does rain, but it's not a shower.
The forecast calls for something heavier to come later in the night, and Marinette is glad she'll be safe in her room, behind the confines of her glass windows.
Tikki warms herself next to a small flame, a candle on Marinette's desk that has been switched out consistently for the kwami's comfort. The little, scarlet creature watches the seamstress pace across the floor before dropping onto the chaise.
"Is he worth it? Or, more importantly, are you going to regret it if you don't find out?"
Alya's voice rings in her head.
"I think you might want to find those answers sooner than later."
Marinette rolls over on the chaise, burying her face in the pillow there. She watches the rain begin to patter against the window across from her, listening to it as it hits the roof above.
She's spent a lot of time in this same spot during the past few days, feeling equally sorry for herself and angry.
All those moments shared between them – the intimacy, the touching, the confessions. He was Adrien for the entirety of it.
Adrien had kissed her. Adrien had listened to her cry, had dragged her into his chest and cradled her there. Adrien had visited her late in the night, had teased and flirted with her…
Chat Noir had walked her home from school, watching her fluster, stammer, and trip over herself.
Her heart squeezes. Embarrassment has been her companion for too many agonizing hours, and she shuts her eyes tightly, warding against it. But the only other emotion that comes is regret.
Regret that she hadn't known or hadn't tried to.
"You can't change the past," Tikki says aloud.
Marinette's face warms, and she turns, glancing over her shoulder in the kwami's direction. The miniature flame flickers, illuminating the small face hovering over it.
"Sometimes I feel like you can see straight through me, Tikki." Marinette says quietly.
"Maybe I can," the creature responds.
She says it lightly, but Marinette still stares. Sometimes she forgets just how old Tikki is, that she's a sentient being involved in the makeup of the universe's magical fabric.
It's hard to tell with those round, innocent eyes.
"You're not hard to read, Marinette."
The girl frowns, lifting herself into a sitting position.
"Well, then what do you think I should do?"
Tikki paws the edge of the candle, peering into the melting wax. She doesn't respond for several beats, and Marinette almost wonders if she heard her at all. It's a minute or so later when she finally responds.
"I told you some time ago that you would eventually need to share your identity with Chat Noir. That knowing each other – working together in tandem and understanding one another completely – is a strength that every Ladybug and Chat Noir come to embrace in time."
"Without it, you leave yourselves open to distraction."
"I remember," Marinette whispers.
"It's inevitable that pain and misunderstanding come when partners don't trust in one another completely. When you don't share your feelings or fears, I would imagine it makes it difficult to understand each other."
Marinette swallows thickly.
"While Adrien had kind intentions, you're still right to feel deceived. He shouldn't have taken advantage of you when he knew the truth."
A torrent of rainwater pours over the glass, splashing over the pane. Marinette watches it collect, zigzagging over the surface.
"However," Tikki says softly, "I think humans are allowed some leniency of understanding – especially those that have the weight of the world on their shoulders. While he could have handled things differently, it's important to understand that Adrien is still just a boy. Just as you are still just a girl."
"And I wouldn't expect any more perfection in his choices than I would you of yours. While I'm not human, I've seen enough of your kind to know that even heroes can be flawed. And to assume anything more than that is…"
"Heartless," Marinette sighs.
Tikki considers her thoughtfully.
"Anyone can lie and abuse the trust of others, Marinette. But I think with the intentions in mind, you may find that Adrien is worth forgiving. And more importantly, I think you may need to forgive him for yourself."
Marinette studies the lights strung across her walls, casting a warm glow over her dreary room. It feels nostalgic, to a time weeks before when she and Tikki would burrow themselves in her blankets to ward off the cold weather.
She remembers their conversation here.
But she also remembers the boy with blond, mussed hair that sat in this very spot, head hung forward and forehead pressed to her stomach. His voice raspy and pained as he tried to make her understand.
Worse still than blaming Adrien, is knowing that even she isn't without fault.
It's dark and half past ten when Alya calls Marinette.
The rain has subsided for now, and Tikki sleeps deeply, curled atop her blankets. Marinette blinks blearily past sleep and the darkness cocooning her room. Her phone buzzes against her shoulder, burning brightly and displaying Alya's picture.
Marinette squints as she fumbles for the phone, presses it haphazardly against her ear.
"What?" she grumbles.
"You know you're my best friend, right?"
"What do you need?"
"I'm glad we're on the same page here," Alya concedes.
"Alya, it's getting late. What is it?"
There's barely a pause before the voice pours in from the other line.
"I'm pretty sure there's an akuma out on the Seine, but no one has arrived yet. So I'm going to–"
Marinette shoots up.
"Alya, don't you dare go out on that water by yourself!"
"I'm not," she says shortly, "That's why I'm calling you first. That way you can come with me."
Marinette's heart picks up, hammering fretfully against her ribs.
"Meet me on the docks, please? I can't miss this scoop."
The line disconnects and she's left only with her shallow breaths and the darkness of her room, her hand moving to her ear. She feels the familiar shape of her earring, the cool roundness pressed against the flesh there.
And she knows that even if she were to call Alya back now, there would be no persuading her out of this. In the last few years, she hasn't had much luck with winning the reporter over from reckless endangerment.
Anxiety stretches across her nerves, and she moves for the ladder on her bed.
Marinette collects her things, tugging on clothes as quickly and quietly as she can. When she wakes Tikki, she can already feel her pulse rising.
Just when she thinks she's left late night rendezvous behind her, she's proven wrong.