It starts like this: A beautiful night in Paris, the sky dipped in dusty blue, pinpricks of light popping into existence. She hasn't been Ladybug for long, and the thrill of standing on the tops of buildings and watching the lights shine on the Eiffel Tower hasn't worn off yet.
She's alone, and it's chilly and windy, but she can't stop the grin that stretches itself across her face. Marinette has never felt anything other than ordinary - ordinary grades, ordinary looks, ordinary talent, less-than-ordinary social skills. But as Ladybug, she can do so much.
She's never felt more free than standing above the world, watching the stray cars crowd together on the streets of her city. And she may be alone, but she feels so big and more like the herself she's always wanted to be.
A sharp voice cuts through her thoughts. "Hey."
She turns around, ready to bolt away from whoever it is that caught her in her favorite midnight pastime, but her gaze is met by a frowning boy in a dark suit. A dark suit that eerily reminds her of her own tight-fitting outfit.
"Who are you?" The boy wonders.
"Ladybug," she answers without thinking. "Who are you?" She shoots back.
The boy grins, all sharp edges and confidence. "Chat Noir." He holds out his hand for her to shake. "You're the one that I've been seeing jumping around buildings and kicking ass?"
She smiles a little. "That would be me. I haven't seen you around, though."
"That's because I'm stealthier than you." Chat shoots back. Her eyes widen and Marinette lets out a short bark of laughter. Chat grins in response. She doesn't tell him that while she's never seen him before, she's heard the stories.
Alya has taken it upon herself to spin tales of the two figures that many Parisians swear they see at night, dancing on the rooftops and breaking bones. She herself is the girl of sunset, bright and strong and a fiery inferno. She's only been told of the boy who travels in the shadows, a creature of midnight who moves in corners and underneath the stars.
Glancing at the boy next to her, bright green eyes shining and messy blond hair drifting in the wind, she is certain that he is the mythical boy who fights when she cannot.
Marinette slides down to rest on the shingles of the roof, and Chat moves to sit next to her. She's never met him before, but she feels oddly comfortable sitting next to this strange boy and watching how the moon glints off his dark suit.
He turns to her. "Have you noticed that things are getting stranger around Paris?"
Marinette nods. "Those people who just started showing up with powers, you mean?"
"Mm, yeah," Chat agrees quietly, fiddling with the strap of his belt. Marinette wonders where that bright confidence he was filled to the brim with just moments ago went. She understands, though. She's only had to face one or two of those people, but it was terrifying and grounding and made her realize what exactly she was risking.
"Hey," she starts slowly. She doesn't know this boy but she's sure that he's capable of doing just as much as she can. She doesn't know why but she feels as though she can trust him. "Would you...maybe want to team up?"
Maybe some of her reasoning is selfish - it's getting to be a lot, sometimes. Battling villains and juggling homework and sleep and friends and life. She's starting to learn more about first-aid than she ever cared to learn, and it scares her.
But then again, maybe Chat has selfish reasons, too. It seems to her that he might, because his shoulders drop in relief and his eyes shine a bit brighter, a soft smile evident by the quirk of his lips.
"That sounds great, my lady," he replies cheekily.
Chat is overconfidence, cockiness, excited grins, fist bumps at two a.m. Marinette has never seen him look shameful for the puns he spouts with ease and he never seems to hear her when she tells him to 'knock it off'.
She tells herself that he's insufferable, that he has no depth, that he's just her partner, just there to watch her back.
She doesn't quite believe it.
Because while Chat is usually the overconfident superhero she sees every time they meet, she notices things sometimes. Marinette is well practiced in the art of noticing, trained in her constant glances at Adrien to try to talk to him. While her focus is almost always on her crush, her skills are certainly not exclusive to him.
She notices, sometimes, that Chat just looks so sad.
He pushes a family out of the way of a bolt of ice and for a moment, grim determination is replaced with a faraway wistfulness. After a battle, his shoulders slump, heavy with something that she can't describe. He asks her questions and when she doesn't answer, she can see his grin shift from natural to forced.
Chat reminds her of an actor who is extraordinarily well-versed in the role he is expected to play.
It makes her feel heavy.
Sometimes they run into each other accidentally.
Often it's at the start of a fight, a commotion they both heard of separately and rushed to the same scene. And sometimes, it's just a coincidence.
Tonight is a coincidence. A chilly wind blows through her dark hair as she jumps through the dark skyline, taking in the painting of lights and buildings below her.
It doesn't take long to reach the tower, her nimble steps dancing over the railing as she swings her way to the top. The Eiffel Tower is so busy during the day that sometimes she likes to just sit on the top once it closes, sketching the lights of the city and watching the stars.
Normally she's alone, braving the chilly air and feeling for the first time like she's finally breathing. Today she reaches the top only to see a figure hunched over, eyes closed as his hair drifts in the wind and white earbuds plugged into a phone lightly gripped in his hands. She's never seen Chat without all of his suit on and it's a strange feeling, seeing the skin on his hands for the first time. He still has his mask on but his gloves discarded next to him and she can practically feel the air of exhaustion around him.
Gently, she crouches next to him, folding her legs underneath herself and lightly poking him in the shoulder. He slowly cracks on eye open, expression devoid of the usual flirty glance he gives her. She's not sure if this is a better alternative.
"Chat," she starts quietly. "You could really hurt yourself up here if you're not paying attention."
He looks at her softly. "Aw, could it be that my lady truly cares for me?" He shoots back, but it feels forced and weak.
She doesn't respond, just glances at his messy hair and shivering hands. She's never seen Chat really look like a person - he's her friend, absolutely, her confidant, her partner. The flirty character she can't get to leave her alone. But he's always strong, confident, a superhero. In this moment, he seems more to her like a normal boy. His gaze is lost in thought as he stares out over Paris, thin fingers gripping his phone with an intensity she can't understand. He removed one ear bud so as to listen to her better, so she gently picks it up. Soft ukulele filters out of it and she's pleasantly surprised to hear a soft cover of La Vie en Rose filtering through the speakers.
Quand il me prend dans ses bras , il me parle tout bas, je vois la vie en rose. Il me dit des mots d'amour, des mots de tous les jours, et ça me fait quelque chose.
"I didn't strike you as the gooey romantic type," she tells him, a quiet laugh making its way from her throat. He shrugs but a lopsided smile is filling up his face.
"Sometimes people surprise you," he responds. "It's not so much the lyrics, though," he adds. "I just love the sound. It takes me away from my own world." Sharply, he glances back at her, and she can see a light blush dusting his cheeks, like he couldn't believe what he had just said.
She smiles at him, and he bites his lip and looks back over the city. Ladybug can feel the weight of his unexplained depression pressing down on her. "Are you okay?" She ventures to ask, fiddling with her hands. She feels more like Marinette now than Ladybug, her practiced anxiety and awkwardness filtering through.
Honestly, she expects him to deny it, which is why she is so surprised when her partner shrugs and glances back at her. "Not really," he admits. "But it's fine. I'll get over it."
He's not looking at her anymore, and the song has changed to some quiet American tune that acts the soundtrack to the setting in front of them - lights sparking on toy buildings beneath their gazes, a watercolor sky painted with glittering stars and shades of blue.
She doesn't really feel like she knows who this person is, because Chat Noir would never be this quiet for this long. For the first time, she really finds herself wondering who he is outside the mask. "Do you want to talk about it?" she wonders, instead of dealing with the crippling feelings of who is he is he ok what's going on she's starting to think about.
He shrugs again, but exhales softly. "It's really not a big deal," he starts, and Marinette stays quiet. "It's more that today I just couldn't deal with it all. I have a lot going on outside of this," he gestures between the two of them. "My family isn't the best. I never really have control of my own life. I've sort of gotten used to the stress and the exhaustion, but some days are harder than others. Today was just a little bit too much." He's very deliberately not looking at her, staring at the blinking lights beneath them.
Marinette isn't sure what to say. Here she is, with her partner who she was certain she had all figured out - a two-dimensional boy with an affinity for puns and incredible fighting skills. A close friend that she can trust, but never someone who was holding in a life of sad secrets. She's sure that Ladybug would have some comforting line to say, something that could turn the distant frown on Chat's face into a self-assured grin. But she is more Marinette than Ladybug right now, and the most she can do is pull her partner into a hug. She rests her head on his shoulder, arms gently wrapped around him as soft piano music filters through the earbuds they're sharing.
She expects him to say something snarky and flirty, but Chat just moves closer to her and wraps his arms around her. She's looking at the skyline, not his face, but when she feels a cold droplet land on her arm, she's no longer certain that his shaking is from the cold.
Marinette did not tell Chat that she had a fever. She didn't tell her parents, either, and while she's sure Alya had figured it out in school - she had been shaking and shivering and sneezing all day - she never really expressed the sentiment of "I have a fever" in words.
So when she collapses, sweating and watching a world colored with haze, she's not surprised to hear the panic in Chat's voice.
He rushes up to her, concern overflowing in his expression. "Ladybug?" He asks with a panicked expression, gripping her shoulders. She tries to explain what's happening but she can only choke out the word "fever" before she starts coughing too much to talk. Chat looks nervously around them, where there is a crowd beginning to form, and then at his ring, which is slowly blinking, alerting them to their impending doom.
Ladybug is still really out of it but she thinks she can hear him curse, running a hand through his tousled hair. His worried face fills her vision and urgently he whispers, "Lady, I'm going to grab you and carry us to somewhere more private, okay?"
She nods tiredly, more concerned with trying to stay somewhat alert and aware than what Chat is actually saying to her. She can hear Tikki's urgent warnings that her transformation is going to wear out soon, what does she plan to do, Chat is still here - but absolutely no part of her has the energy to deal with that so instead she closes her eyes and ignores the world. The ride is bumpy - Chat's arms are gripping her thin frame and she can feel him urgently rushing across buildings, trying not to jostle her as he jumps across the rooftops.
They end up in front of an antique-looking library, a grand building that she cannot fathom walking into unnoticed. But Chat seems to have other plans, because he ducks behind the wall of trees and sneaks into the basement entrance.
"How do you know of this place?" Ladybug wearily coughs out, glancing at Chat suspiciously.
"I come here sometimes to get away," he replies, placing her gently down on a faded couch. "They know me - well, me without the suit - here. My fa- um, someone I know is very generous in donations. The owners are nice and let me do my homework here sometimes." Marinette shivers as she surveys the room - the basement is dim and dusty, but the entire place is deserted. Ornate bookshelves tower over them, soft lamps along the walls the only source of light in the room. The chairs all look unused and the tables are mostly empty, save for scraps of paper scattered across them. It looks like hardly anyone has entered the room in ages.
"You come in here?" Ladybug tries to sit up, pushing herself up with shaky arms before giving up. Chat sees her struggle and, completely ignoring the frantic beeps of his ring, moves to help her. She pants with fever as she leans against the couch.
"You need to go," She wheezes out. Chat looks outraged.
"No! You're sick," he whispers frantically. "You need someone to take care of you!"
"Your ring is about to run out!" Ladybug insists. Chat frowns.
"I'll get you settled and then I'll leave until my ring recharges. You can let your ring recharge while I'm gone, too." Chat decides. Marinette opens her mouth to object but is stopped by the cough that escapes her throat. She's glad that it's only Chat, and not Adrien, who is seeing her in this state - she doesn't think she could live it down if her crush saw her red and wheezing.
Defeated, Marinette nods. She can see the determination in Chat's gaze, as he frantically searches the room for something.
She finds out what it is a moment later - he found the bathroom and soaked paper towels with cold water, which are now being placed on her forehead. Marinette wants to object, to push Chat away and tell him that she can take care of herself, but she's overheating and shivering and coughing and honestly, it's nice.
She should have just told her parents that she was sick and stayed home - any other high school student would have. But Paris depends on her ability to fight, and Ladybug does not want to let her city down. She doesn't want to go back to feeling like the incapable and boring Marinette - she cherishes her new abilities and confidence so dearly that she could not force herself to stay home, cuddled in her warm blankets. No matter how badly she wanted to.
Something heavy and soft falls across her body. A glance down reveals a thick blanket, and she glances at Chat in surprise. "A blanket?" She wonders. "How on Earth did you find that?"
Chat grins, worry still present in his laugh but less so. "I come here a lot," he admits. "I do a lot of my first-aid down here. You come to one place enough and you start to stash things in corners."
Marinette frowns. "Do the owners know?"
"Of course not!" Chat laughs, like it's a joke. "They just know that I come here a lot as, well, myself. They don't know about the sneaking and the superhero-ing." He turns away and starts rummaging with a bag, pulling out a bottle of water.
Marinette is honestly surprised at how much Chat is letting slip - but then again, she's always been the one who wants to keep the secret between them a secret. He thrusts the water bottle out to her, and she gratefully takes it. His ring beeps again, and Chat groans.
"Alright, I'll be back in fifteen minutes," he promises. "I'll knock before I come back in so that you can transform back, and I'll bring stuff to help!" And with that, Chat runs out the door. Marinette can see a flash as he runs out the door, but she's really too tired to care.
"Tikki," she wheezes out, and her transformation disappears. Tikki floats around her head frantically, squeaking out worried sentences too fast for Marinette to comprehend. "Shush," Marinette laughs weakly. "You get some rest. We need to be transformed before Chat gets back."
"Okay..." Tikki agrees, but she looks just as worried as Chat did moments ago. Marinette smiles at her, snuggling into the blanket that Chat had draped over her. The sky is bright outside and while she still feels disgusting and completely sick, she's also exhausted, and general grossness does not win out against exhaustion in battle.
She doesn't even realize that she's dozed off until there are three sharp knocks at the door. A quick glance out the small window reveals that the sky has been dyed in shades of orange, and she knows that her parents will be worrying soon. There's only so far the lie 'I got caught up in studying at the library' can go.
"Come in," she answers the knocks with a sore voice, motioning Tikki to transform her.
Chat sprints in, hauling a bag that is certainly pushing its carrying capacity. "Everything good?" He wonders, turning to face Ladybug. Weakly, she nods.
"Here you go, my lady," Chat smiles, presenting her with blessed medicine. "I assume you've got people waiting for you, so you need to be on your feet as soon as possible," he infers correctly. "I also got you these." In his gloved hands are a warm croissant and a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate, and Marinette can practically feel her mouth water. Quickly she dry swallows the pills, grabbing at the food that is offered to her.
"You sure got better quickly," Chat laughs, and Ladybug sticks her tongue out at him. It turns into a cough, but Chat looks less worried, and she takes this as a win.
Chat smiles as she bites into the food and pulls the blanket up more. "I can pay you back for this," she tells him as she swallows.
"Shut up," he grins. "You're sick and I'm paying, and that's final. If you want to, though, I'll certainly accept a kiss as payment."
Marinette may be tired and in lots of debt to Chat for this, but she snorts. "In your dreams, kitty," she snorts. She may be sick, but as her laughter fills the room at his dejected look, she feels a lot better.
She is trying so, so hard to not scream.
Marinette can feel her shoulders shake with tension as she wraps a bandage around Chat's arm - he has his suit pooled around his waist. It's strange experience, seeing him with his mask on but only a ripped tank top covering his chest. She slowly slides scissors across the black fabric, pulling it off of his frame, feeling a pang of guilt every time he flinches at the movement. Finally managing to remove the fabric, she glances at his injuries and has to hold back a gasp.
He's got scars, but that's not news - she does too. It seems as though that's fairly standard with the whole 'superhero gig'. What is news is the long, bleeding gash that cuts through his chest and the deep scratches and bruises peppering his arms.
She can't blink the memory out of existence - Chat jumping in front of her, his arms spread out and protecting her as shards of glass bombarded him and imbedded themselves in his suit and skin. She can't stop thinking of the blood that dripped off his face and back and chest like paint dripping onto canvas. The way he flinched every time he tried to move, the way he was bleeding so much and so fast and oh god that cannot be good what if he faints what if he dies- Marinette shakes her head, turning back to glare at her partner.
"What were you thinking?" She grits out, angrily trying to thread a needle. She can see Chat watching her actions warily, and she wonders if he's more afraid of the needle or of her.
"I was thinking that you were going to get hit! Shouldn't I be getting thanked right now? Isn't this the scene in the movie when the grateful heroine gives the hero a kiss?" Chat winks at her but the cockiness is lost when he flinches as she pulls out another shard of glass.
Ladybug is fairly certain that her glare could kill right now. She knows that Chat is at least somewhat right - she should be grateful. He risked his life for hers and she should be hugging him, not yelling at him.
But all she can think about is what could have happened. He could have bled out, or been shot in the heart or the neck. She could have had to watch him die, could have found herself partner-less and actually missing his flirty comments. She could have lost her friend.
Marinette takes a deep breath.
"You jumped in front of me," she starts, trying not to yell or cry or throw the needle at the wall. "I was going to take that hit, and you risked your life to protect me. Why?"
"Because the world shouldn't have to lose a gorgeous person such as yourself, my lady," Chat grins, smile only broken by a brief wince of pain as he moves. Marinette frowns.
Chat quirks an eyebrow. "No?"
"No!" She says again, more passionately. "That's not a real answer, Chat. Stop deflecting. You've done this plenty of times now - you even got erased from existence once!" She can hear her voice crack as she remembers Chat's arms around her, strong and sure, but slowly fading.
Chat looks shocked - his green eyes are wide beneath his mask, mouth open in surprise. He licks his lips nervously, pulling his eyes from her stare to look at the ground.
"Look, Ladybug," he starts. "You're my friend. I didn't want you to get hurt."
Marinette crosses her arms. "That's a better answer, Chat, but that's not fair to me. You're my friend, too. Do you think I like seeing you this way?"
"Shirtless?" Chat smiles, not as wide or as bright as before, but just as cocky. "Why, my lady, I'm hurt that you don't like it."
"Shut up," she says, a small smile making its way to her face as she grabs bandages and pulls them closer to their homemade hospital. "Really, though," she continues. "You're one of my closest friends, Chat, I don't want to see you keep getting hurt because of me."
He mumbles something that's either not as much as I don't want you to be hurt or it's not like anyone would miss me and she's not sure which makes her heart sink more.
It takes a while for her to gather the courage and strength to finally choke out a quiet, "What?"
Chat frowns and avoids her eyes. He's always been good at figuring her out, no matter how much he ignores it sometimes. She's sure he can feel the tension and concern rolling off of her in waves. He gulps. Marinette watches.
"I don't have very many people in my life," Chat starts slowly, as if every word takes more strength than he has. "I treasure those that I do have a lot. You, my lady, are one of those people. If I can protect you from harm, I am absolutely going to. And if something does happen, well, there are really not very many people who would miss me."
Ladybug wants to scream and cry and throw a tantrum and slap Chat across the cheek. She does none of those things.
Instead, she slowly gathers a handful of bandages, gently wrapping them around the cuts on his arm. Then she lightly grips his shoulders and pulls him into a hug, gathering her arms around his back and carefully avoiding the gash on his chest. She can feel his breath hitch, and she doesn't think it's from pain this time, as he wraps his strong fingers around her arms in a simple gesture of thanks. She smiles against his back. She doesn't want to admit it, but she feels at home here, with him, and that realization should scare her but it doesn't.
"Hey, what are your hobbies? Besides the badass kicking-butt thing," Chat asks out of the blue one day.
They're lounging on a random roof, staring out at the scenery of Paris rather than patrolling. There had been a recent decline in akuma possessions, and it was nice to be able to just relax in the warm sun for once.
Marinette fidgets, sneaking glances at her partner. He has shed his leather sleeves in the heat, suit pooled around his waist and tank top covering the largest scars.
"Hello?" Chat asks again, frowning.
Ladybug squeaks out, "Why do you want to know?"
Chat shrugs, searching her face with his deep green eyes. "Just curious." He says. "I feel like I don't know you as well I should for someone that I'm this close to."
Ladybug tries to cover the red of her face - recently, the smallest things had been causing her to turn the same shade of red as her suit. She doesn't want to consider it, but she wonders if maybe she was developing a small cru - no, she can't even finish that thought.
"I like to design," she admits, surprising even herself. Clearly, Chat's surprised by the volunteered information as well, evident as his face lights up and his mouth opens in a small 'o' of surprise.
"That's fantastic!" He smiles. "You know, I actually have a friend who likes to design as well. I'm sure you'd get along."
"Really?" Marinette asks, biting back the urge to tease 'you have friends?'.
"Yeah," Chat nods. "She's good, too." He blushes quickly but then frantically turned back to Ladybug. "I'm sure not as good as you, though!"
Ladybug laughs. "I'm sure she's fantastic. It's nice to know you have someone watching out for you, fashion-wise."
Chat's easy smile is replaced by a strained, practiced one as he sighs, "You have no idea."
Marinette doesn't ask.
Next time, she's the one to declare out of the blue, "Let's play a game."
Chat raises an eyebrow. "There are so many things that sentence could lead to," he smirks, painting Marinette in deep sunset.
"Shut up, kitty!" She blushes. "I mean like, some kind of 'get-to-know-you-game'. I feel like it's about time that we know each other's favorite colors, you know?"
Chat laughs. "I've felt like that since day one, my lady. I'm glad we're on the same page now."
Ladybug giggles, gently slapping him on the arm. "Shut up, Chat. Friends know other friends' favorite foods. It's just common courtesy that we go through the awkward, random-trivia stage that we completely skipped over."
"Okay," Chat smiles. "How about we each get to ask each other random questions and the other has to answer truthfully? Nothing super weird or intrusive, I promise," he says, noticing Ladybug's crossed arms and pursed lips, ready to argue. Ladybug glances at the genuine look in his eyes and smiles.
"Okay," she agrees. "But you go first."
"Sure," Chat nods, thoughtfully running his hands through his hair. "Oh, okay!" He grins triumphantly. "Favorite subject to learn?"
Marinette frowns. She wasn't really the biggest fan of school overall. "French." She decides after thinking about it for a moment. "I like having the freedom to write whatever I want, without being bound by correct answers."
Chat's smiling at her like she's the sun. "That's great!" He says enthusiastically. "I'm actually the opposite, though. I love physics - the way that everything comes together to make sense, how everything has a purpose and a place. It's really calming, actually."
"I didn't figure you to be someone who liked school, kitty." Ladybug giggles.
"Appearances are deceiving, my lady!" Chat crows.
"Sure," she snorts, lightly punching him in the arm. "Okay, my turn...Favorite language, other than French?"
"Chinese!" Chat responds immediately. "I'm learning it now and it's one of my favorite things."
"Really?" Ladybug wonders aloud. "I actually have a cru- friend who's taking Chinese now."
"It's a small world," Chat laughs. "Okay, so what's your favorite language?"
"Hm..." Marinette considers. "I really like Italian and Russian. I can't speak Russian at all, but I like how it sounds. I'm only a beginner in Italian, though."
"That's still cool!" Chat smiles. "Favorite book?" He asks, wasting no time.
"I don't read much," Marinette sheepishly admits. "I guess I mostly like cute romance novels? I don't really have a favorite."
"I'm exactly the opposite," Chat says. "I love reading. I have a bookshelf filled with Asterix and Obelix and the Bob Morane novels, and Victor Hugo and Sherlock Holmes and a couple of manga series...I could spend days just reading, honestly."
"That's incredible!" Ladybug gushes, feeling more like Marinette and Adrien than Ladybug and Chat. "I wish I could do that. I just don't have the attention span to be focused on musty writing for so long. I prefer drawing, or writing my own stories."
"That's still great!" Chat insists.
Marinette smiles. It was nice to finally get to open up and learn about her partner, even if they still didn't know who the other was. It was like she was finally learning more about the boy behind the mask, and she liked it. A lot. More than she would care to admit.
"Only a couple more," she decides, glancing at the dark clouds threatening to overtake the light blue of the sky. Her parents would be worried if she were out in a storm for too long.
"How about a rapid-fire round?" Chat suggests. "No explanations, just answers. More information for less time."
Ladybug grins. "Sure, why not?"
"Okay, favorite food?"
"Dalk galbi." Marinette replies immediately.
"Wow," Chat glances at her. "I'm not even sure what that is?"
"Spicy Korean stir-fry with noodles." She explains. "It's really good!"
"I'll give it a try sometime," Chat smiles. "Mine would have to be croque monsieur, honestly."
"Favorite instrument?" Ladybug wonders in response.
"Piano," Chat answers quickly and easily. "It's my favorite thing in the world. You?"
"Hm, probably flute!" Marinette responds. "Favorite sport?"
"Besides ass-kicking?" Chat laughs. "Fencing and soccer. You?"
"Soccer!" Marinette grins. "Well, and also ice skating, though I am terrifically bad at it."
"I'd like to see that," Chat glances at her, eyes wide and sparkling with hidden mirth.
"In your dreams! And okay, last one - it's your turn."
"Favorite color?" Chat finishes creatively.
"Pink!" Marinette responds.
"Blue." Chat smiles. "And, fin!"
"That was really fun," Marinette admits.
"Hell yeah it was!" Chat laughs, face lighting up like the North Star. He looks beautiful - his normal, overconfident smile replaced by a genuine laugh so real and happy it could have made flowers bloom.
He's a star, but Marinette is certainly not blushing.
It's only a few days later that Marinette plays connect-the-dots with this new information.
Chat plays the piano.
She hears Adrien playing it beautifully on her way home for lunch later that week.
Chat speaks Chinese.
Adrien has an A in that class, and his pronunciation is better than anyone else in the school.
Chat likes to read.
It's only after this that Marinette notices that Adrien carries worn paperback books everywhere he goes, corners torn with age and love.
Chat's favorite color is blue.
Marinette has known forever that Adrien loves blue - it's the color of the scarf she made him, the ink he uses to take notes, of her daydreams of them together.
Chat likes fencing.
Adrien is one of the best on the fencing team.
Chat likes physics.
It's the only class that Adrien never seems distracted in, the stress lines and circles that Marinette has been noticing fading as a look of pure concentration overtakes his features.
Chat sort of looks like Adrien -
- fluffy blond hair, bright green eyes, smile filled with kindness and hope, even if Chat's is mixed in with overconfidence and bad jokes. Strong hands and arms and legs, same clumsy mistakes and sweet voice and powerful words.
She plays connect-the-dots and they form constellations, twin stars pointing towards the same Earth, the same point in time, the same conclusion.
Marinette really isn't sure where to go from here.
"What was so urgent?" His voice is smooth and easy, legs dangling over shingled rooftops as he glances down at her, the concern in his eyes only lightly veiled by laughter and confidence.
Ladybug fidgets, which is such an absolutely Marinette thing to do that she cannot even focus on where to begin. How is she supposed to form words? What's the proper way to phrase the question she isn't sure that she wants to ask?
"Ladybug?" Chat wonders quietly, wide green eyes wandering over her face.
She gulps, purposely avoiding his gaze as she stares out at the scenery of Paris. It's a view she has etched into her eyelids by now - the bright lights, ever-moving beneath them, against the dark watercolor backdrop of the sky at midnight. Midnights in Paris were her time with Chat, the time separate from her everyday life and worries, the stress of being herself.
She's about to ruin that.
Does she want to ruin that?
Does she need to?
Steeling her nerves, Marinette faces her partner. He looks more visibly worried now, eyes roaming her face for some sign of what's wrong.
"So, um," Marinette starts, stuttering as Ladybug for what she can only imagine is the first time. All of her confidence that comes with the mask has been pushed out of her, released like air from a balloon. "Look, I just- I wanted to know..."
She can't finish.
"I'll just show you," She breathes out hoarsely, releasing Tikki and her transformation.
Bright red flowers flow around her, air pushing up her hair and the red and black melting away to dark blue and pink, the colors of her everyday life, her everyday personality, her everyday self.
She still hasn't looked up at Chat.
If he's who she thinks he is, she doesn't want to see the disappointment that must be etched into his eyes, his soul, his mind, because brave, strong, confident Ladybug is really just shy, awkward Marinette -
She's not looking but she can hear him breathe out harshly, followed by the noise that comes from the same brush of air when she releases her transformation, and she knows Chat is out of costume too.
"Marinette?" She hears her partner wonder, and it takes everything in her not to flinch. She doesn't look up, but her brain is in overdrive, analyzing his tone, his words, what he might be thinking - disappointment resentment hatred emptiness betrayal
"Marinette, can you look at me?" And when was the last time Chat used that tone around her? Quiet and caring, sweet and non-judgmental, entirely Adrien.
She looks up briefly, and there he is, the boy she's been stammering and stuttering around for months now, fluffy hair and green eyes and all, orange lights glowing against his expression.
He doesn't look upset or disappointed.
In fact, he's smiling.
The smile is enough to shake her out of her panic, and she somehow manages to quietly shriek, "Are you smiling?"
He laughs - laughs! - and smiles at her, genuine and real and bright. How had she not noticed Chat in Adrien before? It was suddenly very clear to her how much of the same they were, how much of Adrien she had been ignoring everyday in school. "Yeah," he grins. "Honestly, I kind of suspected that it was you. I'm glad."
Something in Marinette's voice reaches a shrill pitch she swears it has never gone to before when she squeaks out, "You suspected that it was me? Since when?"
Is Adrien blushing? Some part of her brain registers that, yes, the boy is beet red and staring at his feet when he answers. "When we were talking, I just sort of realized how much you looked and reminded me of, well, you - and then, I don't know, I guess it just sort of hit me. It was a nice surprise, honestly."
It takes a lot for Marinette to register everything he just said - she's not really sure how to act around this boy anymore, because on the one hand he's her crush and she loves him and stutters and can't speak around him, but on the other hand he's Chat and he's her best friend and she trusts him with her life but speaking has never been hard around him and looking him in the eye is easy.
Not to mention her brain is still breaking down his words, trying to make sense of nice surprise in relation to her being Ladybug, but something is not computing because all she can intelligently come up with to say is, "Huh?"
Adrien looks nervous. "It's just - Well, I mean - you're nice, one of the nicest girls in our class, and you're always so strong and creative and bubbly and I guess I'm just surprised that I missed it for this long. You make a good Ladybug, Marinette."
And Marinette might not really know how to act around this boy anymore, but she knows that she still loves him from the bottom of her soul because no one else could make her feel this happy just to know they don't hate her, they still want to be around her. She has to bite back tears as she launches her arms around her partner's shoulders. She's not sure who she is more right now, Marinette or Ladybug, and she really can't tell whether or not she's hugging her crush or her partner as his strong arms wrap around her waist and his breath hitches in her ear.
Maybe it doesn't matter.
Maybe she can be both, and so can he.
Their identities were a closely-guarded secret for so long that it is honestly surprising to Marinette how little things change in the long run.
They're awkward, for a bit - Adrien seems to be struggling with being himself around her, now, little bits and pieces of his internal sass coming through in moments before he shuts himself down, an automatic reaction to being 'imperfect'.
Marinette herself is struggling with her deep-seated crush for Adrien and how the feelings she was developing for Chat clash against her ribs - they're the same person but things are different, now, and she's not sure how to go about telling him.
But Chat - Adrien - is still her partner and close friend, and so she makes it her mission to keep him happy and himself, whatever that means.
If she sees his 'perfect' mask slipping on, a product of modeling and his father and denial of himself, she slaps him out of it with a well placed joke or an opening for him to flirt. She notices that she touches him more easily, turning fake smiles into genuine ones with a loop of her arm around his shoulders or a poke in the ribs.
Alya has been having a heart attack every day since Marinette found out, unable to comprehend where her best friend suddenly got a connection with Adrien deep enough to be touching shoulders and laughing at inside jokes. Marinette comes up with dumb excuses that she knows her best friend will never believe, but she is too wrapped up in understanding Adrien for who he really is to truly care.
It doesn't take long before she and Adrien are sailing over buildings like they used to, playful banter now accompanied by homework stress and stupid jokes about their classmate's antics.
It feels more right than it ever had before, smiling with Adrien every morning in class about a job well done, an akuma purified or robbery stopped.
She feels more whole than she had before, because Marinette and Ladybug really are the same person, just like Chat and Adrien are the same boy she loves and has always loved.
Their days begin and end with each other and it is the best feeling in the world, knowing he is there, that Adrien is Chat and he will always have her back and she will always have his.
"Hm?" Marinette looks up from the view, the same one she's seen over and over again but can never get sick of - blue bleeding into yellow, a impressionist painting of Paris at night.
Adrien is sitting next to her with a behemoth of a novel, shoulders bumping against hers in the chilly air.
"I, uh, I've kind of been wanting to say this for a while.."
Marinette giggles. "Spit it out, kitty."
He takes a deep breath, gloved fingers tapping against the page of his mystery. "I like you."
Marinette's face is a fire hydrant. "What?" She squeaks.
"It's fine if you don't!" Adrien is frantically waving his hand, denying all obligations. "It's just, I felt like I should wait a bit to let you know... I know I made it pretty clear I was in love with you as Ladybug but I just...I love you as you, and that hasn't changed at all and -"
Marinette isn't sure when she became so forward - probably around the same time she realized that she wasn't anyone different when she wears red and black - but suddenly she leans in, closing the gap between her and Adrien as she presses her lips against his. Her hands come up around his shoulders, gripping them like a lifeline as she pulls back, flushed and wide-eyed.
Adrien's face mirrors hers, but he looks so happy and she recognizes the glint of flirtation she saw in every one of Chat's smiles and she hates (loves) how it makes her even more red and she can't think of anything to do but to wrap her arms around his shoulders and kiss him again.
He returns it and it's awkward but perfect, just like the both of them in everything they do, and she wouldn't have it any other way.