A/N: Some responses to reviews at the end of this chapter. Thanks for reading and all the follows, favourites and reviews!
They stretched out, lying down either side of the barrier. Marinette pulled the blankets up around her – it really was getting cold. Either that or she was really worried about this conversation.
"I'll start", Chat said. "I might as well begin ripping the bandaid off." She reached up and squeezed his hand, lying loose at the top of the couch. He squeezed back.
"So, civilian me used to have friends", he said. "Not many, but there were three or four in particular I saw fairly often. One I'd known since I was very little, one I'd made friends with at school, and two others that often hung out in the same vicinity. One of those latter two was the problem". He sighed. "Some of this will make more sense once you know who civilian me is, but I'll come back to that when you ask me to. Anyway", he went on, "what happened was that I'd try to hang out with my friend from school, but this other person kept making it really awkward. I liked them, but... you know how you said you felt like you were a project, not a person? I was always being studied, planned about, organised. I already told you that my civilian life is very rigid, full of rules. My oldest friend was pretty bossy, always trying to run things their way and expecting me to follow along. I thought that was normal, but my school friend taught me it wasn't. So I'd started to think that with more friends I'd have more freedom. But here was this new person trying to box in my choices, too. And I never really knew why. One night, not too long after Hawkmoth, I just snapped. I'd had to pick up all this extra stuff as a civilian because... well, we'd finished high school and... anyway. I was exhausted. I wanted to hang out with a friend. This person took what should have been just chilling with my friend and turned it into this big dinner plan, with all these hints about how special it was going to be. I told them I wasn't free for that, I actually had a lot of other stuff I needed to do. Which wasn't completely true, I'd blocked off the evening to just do my own thing, hang out with my friend for an hour or two and then maybe yowl on the rooftops or something, I don't know. You'd told me just the night before that you were planning to go away to study, so I was feeling a bit down. I really didn't want to be with lots of people". He stopped, breathed in and out carefully. Marinette squeezed his hand. "They just said 'It'll be good for you, we'll see you at nineteen' and that was it. It was like they hadn't heard anything I'd said. I turned, and I walked away. I blocked their number, and the numbers of the friends we'd had in common just in case that person tried calling me from someone else's phone or something, and I didn't contact any of them again." He stopped for a moment. "I could have, I suppose. But... it would have been hard. And I really was super busy as a civilian. There was so much I had to deal with, and so much I couldn't tell anyone about or let slip even the slightest hint of. It was just easier to leave it all and move on, you see?"
She did see. "Did you ever hear anything from them again?"
"No, not really. The guy who'd been my friend at school, we've passed on the street once or twice and I don't blank him if that happens. Mostly though he's easy to avoid. He... has a job in the public eye, so I hear about where he'll be sometimes. Then I try to avoid having any work in the same place at the same time, so that he and I aren't forced to hang out at a predictable time and place that the other person might find out about." He paused, like what he'd said was a complete understatement or simplification, then went on. "The others... well, if they tried to reach me, I chose to not know about it."
"Oh, Chat", she said. "You've been as isolated as I have. Here I thought you'd kept your civilian friends."
"Just like I thought you'd kept yours, my Lady."
They both laughed dryly. "We are a pair, aren't we", she said. "Heroes of Paris, risking our lives weekly and sometimes daily, in unpredictable and unplannable situations, always on the alert for the next time it's all going to go up in smoke or down in flames, and the thing we can't handle is ordinary friends. That lecturer I had who was a military psych? He said that one of the things that gets soldiers is the constant alertness because you know you can't predict the mess but you'd better be ready for it or else. And then you go back to a normal life, and you don't know how to switch that alertness off and you don't know how everyone can just ignore all these little things that you are seeing all the time. It's pattern recognition, but you can't tell the difference between safe patterns and life-threatening ones any more. He said so then a lot of ex-soldiers end up isolating themselves, because dealing with civilians is too hard".
Chat Noir exhaled loudly. "That's pretty... spot on".
"You had to say it, didn't you?"
"Yep. So, my Lady, how did you lose the civilians in your life?"
"I threw my phone in a bin."
The sound of his laughter made it worth it, for just a moment. "That's... joyously simple", he breathed.
"I was pretty angry at the time. And fed up. It helped that I was getting on a train, so they couldn't just go around to my place and find me. I swear, they would have turned up with a spare phone battery just to make sure I had the power to take their calls."
He huffed. "Yeah."
"There was still all the social media, of course", she admitted. "But I'd been playing with a new set of accounts online anyway, I was thinking maybe for a home business or something while I was studying, and I hadn't told anyone about them yet. So I just logged out of all my old accounts. I didn't remember the passwords even then, they were saved on the phone I threw away. So not logging back in was easy".
"I envy you", he said, reaching his hand over the barrier to find hers. "I guess you'll find out soon enough, but, I don't have any anonymity. At all. I've managed to keep this apartment a near-secret only with a lot of effort. It simply wasn't possible for me to drop off anyone's radar. So I had to block people, and use a very good PA to help block them for me."
"Like Hawkmoth did", she said. "Not that I'm comparing you to him at all. But he did have an incredibly good PA".
"...yeah, like Hawkmoth". His voice was almost ironic.
They laid in silence for a few minutes. Marinette thought about the things Chat had revealed. A rigid life with many rules, no time to rest and no anonymity? However had he coped with the comedown after they finally beat Hawkmoth and there was no immediate need for Chat Noir?
Oh, yeah. He hadn't.
She hadn't done a lot better. But at least she'd been able to lick her wounds in private, and going to another country meant she hadn't had to pretend nothing had changed in her life. Some of the class discussions with that lecturer had helped too. She couldn't imagine having not had any of that.
"Chat, I'm... I'm going to take the sleeping mask off. I'll stay right where I am, you don't have to look, not now, not any time. But... I think Tikki and Plagg are right. It's not about the shadow in the room. It's about you and me. Us. I think we need to do this next bit of our life, whatever it is, together as much as we can."
He stirred, then let go of her hand. "OK", was all he said.
She slipped the mask off, dropped it on the floor and waited -
...but all she heard was him lying still in the blankets, just centimetres away.
Suddenly the silence broke. "Laisse-moi te chanter, D'aller te faire en, hmm-mmmm".
Chat's phone was over on the coffee table they'd pushed aside. "I have to answer it this time", he said, sitting up and stumbling masked towards where the phone was. He grabbed it, facing away from her and pulling up the mask a little to see the screen as he swiped. She could see from where she lay that his hair was back to the familiar blond, but other than that he could be anyone.
No. He was someone. Someone she knew very well. He was her own Chat Noir, and she couldn't let him lose himself.
"It's me", he said. "Sorry, I have someone here." Pause. "I answered the second time when it was safe". Pause.
"Ladybug". Pause. "Yes, I am."
A surprisingly long pause in which she could hear the other person's tone of voice become insistent.
"All right". He tugged the mask back down and held out the phone towards where she sat. "She wants to talk with you."
Her breath caught, froze. "Who is it?"
"Oh, no, no, my Lady, it's fine. It's not... whoever we were both thinking of. It's... my PA".
Surprised, she leant over to reach for the phone, and fell over the couch spine. He caught her almost without trying, even blindfolded as he was, as if it was something he'd done more than once before.
As if it was something she remembered him doing, and while she couldn't put her finger on when or where, for some reason the anonymous blond in her memory wasn't Chat Noir.
"Ladybug". The crisp voice in her ear broke her train of thought. Familiar, but she couldn't place it. Someone she'd spoken with when she lived in Paris, but didn't know well.
"Yes, I'm here", she answered.
"Who are you with right now?"
The question seemed odd. "It's just me and, um, your boss here?" she replied. She couldn't give his civilian name, but she didn't want to out him as a superhero either.
"So he's Chat Noir at the moment", the voice said. "Has he told you who he is under the mask?"
"I actually called him about something else, but this is important. Please make sure he does tell you who he is. He needs you to know, he needs you as an active ally, but he's... set in his ways."
"Pass me back to Chat now."
Marinette held the phone out to Chat and said "She wants to speak to you again".
After a fumble or two his hand connected with hers and he took the phone. He listened to the other end for a minute.
"All right. Yes, I think you're right. They've seen him in action, they've asked for him specifically. We have to book him if he's at all available, and I know he'll make himself available for this without question. Maybe tomorrow we can look at who we could get to be the frontispiece of our end. I know I'm our biggest drawcard right now, but we need to start sharing the spotlight amongst some of our other talent, see who we can start to raise up in my place." Pause. "Yeah, you're right. But... we can strategise tomorrow. Hey, maybe I could talk Ladybug into it". Pause. "I don't know. She could possibly be a great fit, but it's unknown". Pause.
"Yes, that would mean I'd have to tell her. Fine. Fine. Now, can I go back to being uncontactable for the night?"
A moment later, he hung up. She sat on his side of the couch still, waiting.
"Did you recognise her voice?" he asked, still facing away from her.
"It was familiar but I couldn't place it", she said.
He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "I keep thinking this will be easy. All I have to do is say two words, or take the mask off. Or I hope maybe suddenly you'll work out who I am without my saying anything at all. But you haven't. And I just can't."
Instinctively, Marinette stood up, and manoeuvred around the mess of furniture until she was right behind him, pressed against his back. She reached up and touched the elastic of his sleeping mask with both hands, cradling his head. "I can do it for you, but only if it's OK with you. If you trust me to do this for you. I have your back."
He said nothing for a long, long minute. They stood there together, pressed close, her touching the mask but not holding it, him facing away.
Finally he breathed out. "All right."
She lifted the elastic over his head and dropped the mask away, but put her arms back around him and stayed where she was. "Turn around when you're ready, Kitty."
He turned around in her arms, and his eyes were still closed. Smiling, she kissed his eyelids then pulled back a little to see his face. Her breath caught.
Really, he was right, and she should have put it together by now. But she'd made the very simple mistake of assuming even up to the last minute that they hadn't known each other as civilians, any more than in passing.
As soon as you took that assumption away, it was obvious.
"Oh, Kitty", she said, tracing his face. "You really did have a much bigger burden to bear than I realised." A moment after, she burst out laughing. His eyes flew open in shock. "What's so funny?" Then he paused, took in her face, and stopped talking completely, mouth gaping open as if all the words were on mute.
"What's so funny is that you do have Hawkmoth's PA".
His mouth moved without words for a moment more, then he finally got out "She came with the family business".
For some reason, that struck Marinette as really funny. She sank back down onto the couch, tugging him – Adrien! - with her, and they let the laughter take them.
"Also", she said a few minutes later, "we're idiots".
"Yes, yes you are", came a voice from across the room.
"Plagg! Leave them be!" Tikki scolded from their hiding spot.
"Well, my Ladynette", Adrien said, as his breathing came back to something like normal. "I ghosted you".
"Hang on, no. What time did you block me, do you remember?"
"It was about half an hour after that conversation, so, just before the end of work? Maybe about seventeen?"
"My train was at sixteen thirty. So I ghosted you first. Oh, and I was too busy talking to you every week to notice".
They laughed again.
"Are you going to keep doing that?"
"Only until I get used to the idea. Which might be a little while. Anyway. What I was going to say was, why don't we have our conversation about what we've been up to all over again? Because I'd actually like to know what you were doing in Germany, I just was trying to avoid asking you for any details that I wouldn't be able to share as well."
"Mmm. How about you start with whatever it was on that phone call that you were talking about getting Ladybug into?"
He leaned against her with a sheepish look. "Oh, that. Um." He rubbed the back of his neck. "So, that school friend I didn't blank but kept avoiding?"
"I'm guessing... Nino."
"Yes. Well, I might have, um, paid for some other fashion gigs to book him in when people in my company started showing interest in his DJing, so that he was too busy to work on any of our shows with me in them. I think he knew, but he didn't mind because it was good pay and good work. But then that exposure meant he just kept getting more popular, more on people's minds, and now one of the businesses that Agreste is partnering with has insisted we book him for our winter show."
"Victim of your own successful plan, Adrien Noir."
He poked her.
"Hey! If you can do it, I can try too."
"I'm better at it".
She sighed. "Yes, you are. Most of the nicknames I have for you are... tainted."
The shadow in the room loomed over them again, for a moment.
"So, I suggested to Nathalie that we get some of our other models to lead the show. I can't let Agreste become a one-man-thing anyway, it's too big and too exhausting and I don't have my father's, um..."
"Ego", came the voice from across the room.
"I was going to say stamina, Plagg. Anyway, I've got to hand some parts of it over to people, and we've got access to talent. Time to see who's willing to take it a step further. Shake up what we're doing a bit, maybe a lot."
"Ladybug is NOT going to model clothes for you."
"Actually, I was hoping that you might help on some of the design lines, if that dress you wore tonight is any indication of what you're able to do. If we did our show as a showcase of some of the young and hip designers moving through our ranks, it makes a..." He stopped. "Let's not talk about this now. I'm supposed to be off work. Maybe I can bring you along to tomorrow's meeting with Nathalie?"
"How did you swing that, anyway?" she asked, puzzled. Nathalie had been headed for jail time along with her former boss, Gabriel, but Adrien had managed to get the courts to assign her as his personal PA instead in some kind of deal. Another reason she hadn't tried to talk to him after Hawkmoth's defeat, just in case she gave it away.
"It was complicated", he admitted. "But Nathalie had been pretty badly damaged by the Miraculous. She needed better and more reliable medical care than the minimum security facilities could give. So as Adrien I suggested that she perform "community service", helping keep the big secret and keep business partners from asking problematic questions. She had the perfect skillset. I encouraged it too as Chat Noir when I gave evidence to the judge on Miraculous damage and the likelihood of her reoffending, you weren't there for that testimony. She and the courts accepted house arrest on those terms, and I installed her in an adapted apartment in the Agreste headquarter building. Her bracelet doesn't let her leave the building, but she has work and home and medical care all there so she's OK." He looked down. "I told her who I was before I'd let her officially accept it though. She had to know that she was actually being rehired as Chat Noir's PA, and she'd be keeping more secrets than the courts knew about."
"That was risky", Marinette said, stroking his hand. "But you're right, she's got the perfect skillset. She kept anyone from realising Hawkmoth's secret for years." She drew in a breath, but it was too late, the words were out, and Chat Noir's – Adrien's - eyes went blank. "Even me", he admitted.
"No, no, kitty. You didn't know. It wasn't your fault. I wanted to tell Adrien that so many times, but... I couldn't speak with him. You. Um."
"Yeah", he sighed. "Intellectually, I know it's not my fault, but you know? I just keep thinking. All those years we fought him."
"All those years he kept you at arms length and emotionally abused you so that you'd hang off his words without questioning his actions", she interrupted. At his shocked look, she continued. "Oh yes, we saw. But you were SO NICE that we couldn't break you out of it."
"I still should have realised."
"Sure, and I should have realised my best friend was right next to me the whole time and kept getting invited to stuff with me. I didn't. Did you?"
He actually blushed. "No...t consciously."
From across the room, Plagg called out "He sleep talks sometimes. Kid, it'll cost you a wheel of Camembert for me to not tell her what you said about Marinette".
Adrien got up from the couch, went into the kitchen, and came back with an entire wheel of Camembert which he handed to Plagg. Marinette looked at him with raised eyebrows, and he shrugged. A small smile crept across her face.
"Plagg, how would you like the rest of that Cambozola?" she said slyly.
"Ooh, the Bug plays dirty", Plagg teased. Adrien's face went even redder.
In the end, they talked for another three hours, slowly filling each other in on the details of the last two years. Adrien admired the photos of Marinette's school assignments, both clothing and non-wearable design pieces, and laughed at her stories of attempting to live in Berlin with her imperfect German. She got him to tell about some of the fancy parties he'd been to, and to open up about running a business, especially being thrown into it at the top like he had been. He'd only been studying part-time, it turned out, trying to fit in the units of business management plus some humanities classes here and there around the demands of the company, and that was only possible with Nathalie's extreme scheduling-fu.
"Thankfully my position as head of the family business counts towards additional credit as 'work placement or internship'," he said, stretching. "Otherwise this degree would take forever. And I'd really like to get my MBA eventually. I feel a bit like an impostor most of the time".
"Well, technically, you are", she teased him. He gave her a mock pout, and she added "You're pretending to be Adrien Agreste when you're really Chat Noir". He laughed, then sighed. "Both now, really", he said. "Or is it neither?"
She hugged him. "At least you have the internship bit sorted out. I'm not looking forward to trying to organise my one this year. Every student in the class wants the same places".
"Hey, I have an idea on that", he said, frowning. "Come do your internship with me over the holidays".
She sucked in a breath. "Kitty..." she began, "a place at Agreste is on the top of everyone's list. I'd..."
He put a finger on her lips. "You'd be a perfect fit. And I didn't say with Agreste, though it would be. I said with me".
"That would be even worse! It would be queue-jumping. You have all these great people working for you already and I'd be going straight over their heads."
He took her by the shoulders, and looked her in the eyes.
"Marinette, there is no queue. There is literally nobody else I could hire in the position I'm talking about, because they'd have to... well, they'd have to know about my father. And other things. I appreciate you'd feel out of your depth – gods, do I appreciate it", he groaned. "But Nathalie and I will organise for you to have the same sort of mentoring you'd have gotten in a normal entry-level internship, and I will manage the other staff issues that might come up about it because that's actually my job. Your designing skills are up to par, I know what I'm looking at, it's only experience that you lack. Which you have to get somewhere, so why not with me?"
She wavered. "It would be.. fantastic", she admitted. "I feel a bit like it's too good to be true, which worries me". It did more than worry her. It sent her thoughts spiralling into so, so many ways it could all go wrong and she'd be hated in the industry forever.
"Bug, think about it this way", Plagg interrupted. "Agreste is a family business, emphasis on family. You're not jumping any queues if you marry in".
"Plagg!" Tikki yelled. "Not helping!" She grinned at her holder. "He's right though, you know." Marinette and Adrien looked at each other and both blushed very, very red.
"Let's, um, leave that discussion for later?" he said finally.
"Agreed", she said instantly.
Tikki piped up. "I don't want to stop you two talking, but what time is that meeting with Nathalie? It's four am now".
"Uh-oh", Adrien said. "The meeting is at eight. Lady Mari, how do you feel about getting some sleep?"
"I think it sounds like a good idea", she said, and looked back at the couch. The very narrow couch. He looked at her, she looked at him.
"Do we need that barrier any more?"
"Not really, no."
She grinned. "Let's start a new chapter then, kitty. Spots on!"
It took quite a bit of muffled swearing, and a bit of arguing over which end went first, and there was at least one stubbed toe on a chair that wasn't pushed far enough out of the way. Chat Noir had to push the elevator button with his tail. Then getting through the fire escape door was just annoying. But eventually they got the Lucky Charm couch up onto the rooftop.
"Together on three?"
"How about on zero? We're already together".
They lifted the couch, smiling.
"Zero! Miraculous Ladybug!"
The couch made it almost two metres out from the building before turning into a swirl of pink and silver ladybugs that expanded out across the city, looking for things to heal and restore. A handful of the ladybugs settled on Chat Noir and Ladybug before disappearing into tiny sparkles, and they smiled at each other. It was definitely time for them to begin healing too. With each other. Hand in hand, they went back downstairs to get some sleep.
Alya's phone alerted her awake. Then alerted again, and again. She mumbled, swiping at it, glaring at the screen. It was six thirty am, and she'd only got to bed at three after going to the club Nino was working at for the night. It had been a really good party vibe and she'd danced for hours.
The feed scrolling down her screen woke her up fully. Someone had captured a video of Ladybug's familiar charm spreading across the skyline and posted it on a news forum. Not her blog, which had fallen out of prominence in the last year or two. And not her employer's website either. The video had an insane number of hits for this time of the morning, especially when only posted – she checked the timestamp – about an hour and a half before. Darnit. Things had been so quiet for months that she'd set her keyword triggers to not wake her until they reached a critical number. She was going to regret that.
Her phone rang. It was her editor. "Alya, first sighting of Ladybug in two years. Tell me you're on this".
"I am now".
"Why weren't you on it already, superhero specialist?"
"Because it's 6:30 am?"
"Up and at'em, junior. That story should have been on our site first, and you weren't around to see it. Get to it."
A/N: Review responses! Thank you to everyone who leaves them, I love reading them no matter what you say. It's nice to know people are reading and reacting to the story! I really wanted to write something that was fluffy but also post-war with all that entails. If you want your heart torn apart, check out the book they discuss.
There've been lots of reviews all saying one thing, so here's the answer to the Big Question: no, you will not see Alya's response or resolution in this story. It's titled "In Her Absence" because the point of the story is that everything important happens when Alya's not there to see it or be part of it. (You thought it was Ladybug's absence?! Nope, it's Alya's.) She is only the shadow in the room that has shaped everything else to bring it to this point. This is crucial, which is why I can't put her POV back into the story. If you want more Alya, feel free to check out "The Cat With Earrings" (the other story I'm working on atm, which is Alya/Nino saving the day with a largely absent Ladybug and Chat Noir). I'm also working on a historical with Alya/Trixx in the Celtic culture of Halstead D, though who knows when that will be ready to go up. So Alya's about - but not in this story, sorry!