dedication: to this whole fandom. y'all p cute but like. where is all my mari-centric fic at?
notes: this feels like high school, ew.
notes2: please don't hate me for this.
title: and we have all grown so very, very old
summary: Better keep your head down. — Marinette/Adrien, Tikki, Alya.
She shakes her hair out of the pigtails the day she turns eighteen, and doesn't look back.
"Marinette…" says Tikki, shaking her little head, dark eyes wide as a frown creases her face, pulls her eyebrows together. The colour's leached out of her. Little by little, every day, Marinette has watched her fade. Crimson to arterial sunrise to cerise to pale pink dawn; there is nothing of Ladybug's shiny red shell here, anymore.
But Tikki doesn't say anything else. She doesn't have to.
"I know, Tikki," Marinette murmurs. She tucks the tiny kwami into the crook of her neck, beneath her ear. It's strange to have her hair down and loose like this, and it brushes against her collarbones, every strand a different length. The morning sunlight pours in through her bedroom window cold; Paris is grey and rainy, today. Maybe she should have expected that. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," Tikki says, but it comes out a whisper. They're always tired, these days, the both of them—the fusion isn't supposed to last this long. A year, sometimes two, but no more. Humans and magic don't mix well. There's a reason there is only one Ladybug.
Marinette sighs with her whole body. University is different than secondary school. She doesn't have class for another three hours, but in the interim she has a dress to finish. Fingers pricked bloody on the basting needle, she's bled for this dress already. The white fabric prints red, and she probably won't ever wear it. This is a good deconstruction of her entire life, she thinks. She is not bitter; she is tired. There is a difference. There has been no chance to heal, no rest, no breath let out after the inevitable inhalation. She hasn't slowed down a day in her life: not for her parents, not for Alya, not even for Adrien. She can't. She can't.
The clock ticks. She sits at her desk, and over the buzz of the sewing machine, Tikki hums a little lullaby into her ear in a language that Marinette doesn't know. It's beautiful, a strangely-familiar rise and fall of notes, but it is sad.
Tikki drifs. She does it more and more often as the days' pass, and Marinette doesn't know how to bring her back. She doesn't know if she can.
(There can only be one Ladybug.)
It is Marinette's birthday, and she is so quietly, infinitely sad.
Alya smokes of the rooftop of the Biology twice a day. She has no business there, because she's never had a class there in her life, but usually it is a quiet place. And when Marinette finds her there—and Marinette always finds her there, because they have known each other and known each other and know each other still—and leans against her, they both take a minute to figure out how to breathe again. It's a recalibration. She's got an ancient flash camera hanging around her neck. Journalism suits her, even on the bad days.
"Want one?" Alya asks, offers up the cigarette between her fingertips. It is clean and white, and it hides its poison inside itself. Marinette thinks of the dark dense flourless cake her mother makes, always covered in something colourless and sweet to obscure the bitter cocoa and calories, and wonders. The little things were always going to be the end of her.
"Yes," Marinette says, and it's only a little grateful as she takes the slim thing from Alya's brown fingers. She inhales, and for a moment the cherry flares brightly, red-gold with the influx of oxygen. It is pure force of will that keeps her from coughing it all back up. She hasn't coughed on a cigarette since she was sixteen, sneaking out of maths to giggle with Alix and Mylène under the cover of the trees, Mylène's older sister's stolen cigarette's burning away between their fingers far too fast.
Instead, she holds the smoke in the lungs until it hurts.
"Breathe, Marinette," Alya reminds her. Her gaze is fixed on the horizon. They know each other far, far too well. "You have to breathe."
She lets the smoke out of her lungs through her nose, a great cloud of dragon-smoulder. It lingers for barely a second before it dissipates into the air like it had never been at all. Marinette doesn't apologize, because she knows Alya hates apologies when there's nothing to apologize for. It's all wasted words.
Marinette breathes in, again.
For a very long time they stand together, passing the cigarette back and forth, smoking it down until it's nothing but a stub. Alya stares at the horizon, eyes hard behind her glasses. They don't see each other enough, anymore, and Marinette can feel Tikki beneath her hair, struggling to pull in air. She knows she shouldn't smoke. It's killing them both.
She just can't help it.
"I like the hair," Alya says, when she finally looks at Marinette again. Her glasses are a little crooked, but she's grinning. She reaches over to tug at a loose strand. It blows out of her fingers with the wind, with the smoke, and for a moment they're fifteen again, Alya holding up red ribbons, red suits you, Mari, you should wear it more. "Happy birthday, Marinette."
"Oh," says Marinette, dropping her gaze. She can't help the way her lips curl up. Alya always did know how to make her feel better. "Thanks."
Alya's grin softens into something a little sadder, a little more melancholy, and she slips her arm through the crook of Marinette's elbow to drag her close. The pull of rough cotton against skin sends a flood of emotion through the pair of them. When Alya closes her eyes for a moment, it looks almost like she's praying. Tikki shifts beneath her hair, leans up and whispers, sorry.
Marinette's cheeks are suspiciously wet.
Dear god, it must be raining.
"I'm fine," Marinette laughs when her mother pokes at the spaces between her ribs, batting the older woman away. "Just stress. Don't worry so much, Mama."
"They work you too hard at that school," her mother frowns, frowns, arms crossed beneath her breasts over her stomach, the gentle curve of her hip. She's a soft warm thing, is Sabine Cheng, and Marinette loves her desperately. There is no one in the world that Marinette loves the way she loves her mother. To see her like this, worried lines deep in her forehead…
"No, Mama," she replies, shaking her head, unable to tuck the wry smile away before her mother catches sight of it. "That's just me."
Her mother squints at her for another moment, but she's always trusted Marinette, even when she maybe shouldn't have. There have been a lot of nights Marinette has pretended to be in bed asleep when really she was swinging through Paris' claustrophobic alleys with Chat Noir at her back, laughing with the sheer exhilaration of being alive. Akuma behind them, dirt between their teeth: these are the things Marinette remembers about being Ladybug. These are the things Marinette loves about being Ladybug.
But they are not things she can tell her mother.
A beat. And then—
Her mother shakes her head, soft and fond. It's the exact same motion that Marinette just used, a little to the left then right then left again, skin and bone and sinew all in perfect tandem. So that's where I get it, Marinette thinks, a little dizzy. She is more like her mother than she has ever wanted to be, but it's never quite enough.
"Adrien came by," her mother says. Her eyes take on the same soft fondness that's still lingering around her mouth, and she reaches up to chuck her daughter under the chin, because it's easier for her to reach than the top of Marinette's head. "He looked a little out of sorts, dear. Did you break his heart?"
Marinette makes a sound like something dying. "Mama! Why did you—?!"
"He's waiting for you upstairs," Sabine chortles when Marinette presses a messily haphazard sort of kiss to her cheek. It's the only thanks either of them know how to give. "I expect him to stay for dinner. You can tell him that, from me!"
Even through the closed kitchen door, Marinette can hear the laughter. She's never going to live it down.
(Maybe it's better that she doesn't.)
She takes the stairs two at a time, all the way up to her loft. The door's been left a little bit ajar, and all she can think about is how much of a mess her bedroom is, fabric swatches everywhere, feathers and half-finished hats, her dress-form covered in a paper cut-out pattern, did she even fix her bed this morning—
Breathe, Marinette, she hears Alya say. You have to breathe.
Marinette breathes in, Tikki struggles for it, and she pushes open the door.
He's sitting on her bed, very quietly, looking at something dark in his cradled palms. It's all too much, suddenly, here in her mess-in-a-dress room. It's all too much: Adrien's blond hair and her cold fingers, the feeling of his mask beneath her hands as she peeled it away from his face, and some solid wall inside of Marinette very simply crumbles. The loss of that last line of defense ratchets up her throat and escapes her mouth in a whisper-soft sob, and she can't stand it, can't stand it anymore. Adrien is in her room, on her bed, ripped jeans and black shirt and white jacket like something out of a dream she had when she was still young enough to have dreams, and Tikki is dying.
"Tikki's dying," she says, voice breaking on the word, instead of something rational like what are you doing here or smart like is there an Akuma or what did I miss. The world is upside down. "She's dying."
"I know," Adrien says. He doesn't look up at her, thumb stroking across the slumbering ball of life in his hands. He shakes, just a little bit. "Plagg, too."
"They can't be dying, Adrien," Marinette says, but she doesn't know who she's trying to convince. The lump at the top of her throat throbs, and she has to swallow hard to speak around it. "They've watched over ever Ladybug and every Chat ever! Ever! Always! Tikki said so, and she wouldn't lie. So why is she dying?"
"I don't know," he says.
"What are we doing wrong?" Marinette asks, and it tears out of her. She can feel Tikki against her throat, whispering something, but it's too quiet to hear over the pound of her heart in her chest. "Why is this happening?"
"I don't know," Adrien says again, and now he does look up. His eyes are very green—she always forgets how green they are—and he stares at her quite steadily, entirely level. "I don't know, Marinette."
"Oh," she says, and closes the door behind her. There's a wobble to her knees, and it's easier to sink down to the floor than it is to remain standing; she doesn't think her legs would have held her up much longer, regardless. Tikki slips out of her hiding place beneath Marinette's hair to settle down in her hands. It is very like a shattered mirror: the same picture, but just a little bit off. A girl instead of a boy. Red instead of black.
And still, nothing is okay.
Tikki closes her eyes, her head against the soft fleshy bit of Marinette's palm. Her every breath is a labour, but she goes quiet, eventually, until the only indication that she's alive at all is the slight expand and contract of her body. I'm sorry, Marinette remembers, but she does not cry.
Adrien slips off her bed and onto the floor, crawls through the detritus of Marinette's life to sit at her side. He's always doing that, always slipping himself into her cracks so that everyone else will think she's whole, and it's the most natural thing in the world to drop her head to his shoulder. She thinks of Alya, of the cigarette burning itself out between her fingers. His skin is so warm; warm as sunshine, warm as tea. It burns all the way through her, too.
"What are we going to do?"
Neither of them really know who voiced the question. It might have been neither. It might have been both. They are all quiet, human and kwami and kwami and human, aching to breathe. Smoke in the lungs, pin-prick fingertips, Marinette's hair around her face: this, this is growing up.
"We have to let them go," Adrien says, what feels like a long time later, but was probably really only a few minutes. He makes everything so intense, she doesn't know how to quantify it. "We should have done it a long time ago."
"Paris still needs us," Marinette says, one hand up to rub at her eyes. "Paris still—"
"Do you remember," he starts, very softly, "that Akuma in the museum? The one who tried to sacrifice Alya, with the Egyptian… ness. The mummies?"
Pharaoh. Nefertiti. Alya, the column of yellow light, the black empty circle in the sky. A sacrifice for a five-thousand-year-old necromancy ritual. Marinette remembers. "Yes."
Adrien sighs out something like fatigue, and opens his mouth to continue just as Plagg shifts. He goes perfectly motionless, and waits for the kwami to still. He waits for a very long time. Marinette stares very hard at the wrinkles in his jeans. Wrinkles are such ordinary things, and so inconsequential. They are much easier to concentrate on than whatever is happening here, Tikki and Plagg and the death of everything she has ever known.
"That—I think we're getting too old," Adrien says, at last. He closes his eyes for a little longer than a standard blink. She watches as his lashes brush his cheek. "I think we've gotten too old for the magic, Marinette."
"True, though," he says. The bob of his Adam's Apple catches her eye. She doesn't remember that ever being there before, that sharp jut in his throat. He looks older than she's ever seen him look, lines in his face that she isn't sure how to parse apart.
Maybe he's right. Maybe they have all grown so very, very old.
She looks down at Tikki in her lap, at Plagg in Adrien's, thinks: a year, maybe two. She'd always known that Ladybug wasn't forever, but it had been nice to pretend. Alya's hard eyes, her mother's fond smile, and Adrien—even Adrien, mostly Adrien, if she's honest—these are things Marinette knows and loves and cherishes.
But who she is is not who she was three years ago. Who she is is not who she was even yesterday.
If this is growing up, I don't think I want it.
"Are you sure?" she asks, because she has to be sure. She has to be sure that he's sure, that she's not going to be doing this alone. It'll kill her, if she does this alone. "Adrien, are you sure?"
"Yeah," he says. His shoulder presses into hers. "Plagg is—he's ready to go, too."
"Oh," Marinette says, and swallows hard.
"What—what's going on? What are we talking about?" Tikki asks. She's blinking up at them both. The droop of her antennae squeezes around Marinette's heart, and she doesn't know how to do this. She doesn't think she will ever really know how to do this, but Adrien's not wrong. All the other Ladybugs have been young, and Marinette has seen too much to be young, anymore. Maybe they all have. She only barely feels it as Adrien carefully takes her earrings out, drops them into her empty other palm. Everything feels very far away.
"It's okay," Marinette whispers, as she offers up the Miraculous. She hasn't taken the stupid things off in three whole years. There's a tear in the pit of her eye. "It's okay, Tikki. We're okay, now. I know you're tired. So am I. The next Ladybug—she'll be better, right?"
Tikki looks up at her, all liquid dark eyes and kind smile, nearly grey in the shadows at the end of the day. The round circles of Ladybug's Miraculous glint between them. For a painful, heart-stopping second, there is nothing at all. The Miraculous stays in Marinette's palm, and Tikki doesn't touch them. She just looks at them, innocuous round and red earrings, like she doesn't want to touch.
And then: "Marinette…"
From somewhere in her chest, Marinette finds a smile. Adrien is a heavy, warm weight at her side, and that makes it a little bit easier.
"I know, Tikki," Marinette says. "I know."
Tikki doesn't say anything else.
She doesn't need to.