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A Kitten's Heart

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It didn’t matter that her camera was shaking when a moving car shot up into the air on a torrent of sewage from an open manhole cover. It didn’t matter that she missed Chat Noir pull the driver out in time or that she didn’t get the lucky shot of the lucky charm dropping into Ladybug’s hand. Helicopters and high tech camera equipment would catch the action better than she could. News reporters would get all the details on Pipeline and her gross sewage powers without any help from the Ladyblog.

Alya needed to use her connection with the superhero team to get an answer to one good question.  A deep question. A real question. Her exclusive interview with Ladybug had been labeled nothing but a fluff piece. If Alya wanted to secure a partnership between TVi and the Ladyblog, and snatch a huge jumpstart on her career as a reporter, she needed to get a response from the heroes of Paris about something poignant.

Poignant. That’s what the exec told her, and it felt like TVi code for mean.

But even superheroes are celebrities, and that’s what reporters do, isn’t it?

Ahead of her, Chat Noir caught a polkadotted surfboard, red with black spots like all of Ladybug’s lucky charms, and he pushed it below his feet mid-air while jumping into the torrential sewage water. On cue Ladybug, standing on a rooftop, used her yoyo to pull a large marquee over the gushing sewers, pushing the waters and Chat Noir straight into Pipeline.

“Surf’s up,” Alya said to herself, trying to imagine whatever quip Chat Noir had used while impaling Pipeline’s orange vest with his baton. Unless she missed it, Chat Noir hadn’t used his Cataclysm power. That meant he should have time for questions while Ladybug had only minutes before she would bug out of the scene. Chat Noir never took a question seriously, and with these questions, that might be what Alya needed.

“Pound it!” the two superheroes called out as Alya got closer, bumping their fists together. This would be her chance. Alya could feel her palms sweating and her mouth dry up.

“That was a sticky situation,” Ladybug said, shaking a little muck off of her knuckles and trying to suppress a giggle at her partner. Alya’s fingers tightened around her camera to steady the shot.

Chat Noir had gotten himself covered in sewage water, and it still dripped from his claws, from his flattened wet hair, and from his nose. For a split second he looked mortified that their fist bump had gotten muck on Ladybug’s hand. But it was quickly replaced with a beam of delight and a bow. “I’ll stick to you any day, my lady.”

Ladybug rolled her eyes and let out a loud groan. “Not this day, kitty.”

Ladybug had done it again. Alya began laughing. She couldn’t believe her luck, how perfectly they had set her up. “Chat Noir! Chat Noir?” she called out. “Can you take a question for the Ladyblog?”

The dripping cat turned to look at her, and Alya was happy to see that he showed zero embarrassment for his smelly wet look. His face was all smiles, his eyes as giddy as ever. “A question for – moi? I’d be happy to.”

Alya remembered the TVi exec’s remarks. Prove that you’re a reporter, not just a fangirl with a blog, he had told her when he gave her the list of questions. This was her moment to do just that, to make her career, to demonstrate that she can be tough with her heroes instead of gushing after them.

“Chat Noir, how does it feel that Ladybug keeps rejecting you?” she asked with a laugh. And then she regretted it. She heard the snicker coming out of her own mouth and immediately thought of Chloe. But she was committed now. She held herself steady as she finished her question the way she had rehearsed it, staring into Chat Noir’s green eyes without really seeing him anymore, like she was looking into her mirror at home determined to get through the words. “When she finally breaks your heart, are you going to be the next Akuma victim, or will you go straight up supervillain all on your own?”

Somehow Chat Noir held his smile, and it still looked real.

“Whenever she puts a bruise on my heart, she’s only giving it another spot to prove that it’s her lucky charm.” He rushed his claws through his hair and shook a little sewage to the ground. “Now this cat’s got to clean himself and get a catnap.” He briefly stuck out his tongue and winked. “You can put that image on the Ladyblog.”

He thrust one end of his baton into the ground and pole vaulted away onto a nearby rooftop. Alya looked on as he ran off over the rooftops, in awe of how slick and unfazed he was by her question. For a brief second she threw aside her doubts about the meanness of the question she had to ask. Instead of getting riled up, Chat Noir had given her a witty answer, a video that was sure to go viral, and a pose that belonged on memes. The Ladyblog was going to swarm with comments from fangirls swooning at the thought of Chat Noir cleaning himself with his tongue like a cat. And he had almost certainly sealed the partnership deal that the TVi network had promised her.

“That was low, Alya,” Ladybug said to her. The words were like her yoyo, wrapping around and strangling out Alya’s excitement. It dawned on her that Chat Noir had left without even saying goodbye to Ladybug.

But Ladybug didn’t offer Alya an opening to talk. She threw out her actual yoyo and followed after her partner’s dripping trail of sludge.

Alya dropped her head and almost dropped her camera. That so-called poignant question had gotten one hell of a pose out of Chat Noir. But she tried to fight back tears as she reached for her phone. She needed to speak with Nino.

She realized what the TVi execs had done to her. Ladybug had looked at her like the two of them were done. And Alya couldn’t blame her.

- - - - - - - - - -

Chat Noir was supposed to be humbled by a little sewage, not humiliated with the question of their lives, asked by a friend but phrased like a high school bully, for his feelings to be put on display and mocked for the public.

He looked cute in the dripping muck, Ladybug thought when she had thrown the surfboard into the air, which then dissolved into her Miraculous Ladybug damage-fixing wave that cleaned up the sewage everywhere but her kitty. She still didn’t understand how that power worked. Did it leave him in a mess because part of her wanted it to or because that was somehow lucky?

It didn’t feel lucky. Poor Chat. She was proud of him for how well he handled it. He took that question while covered in sewage and didn’t even hesitate. But he had to find it humiliating, didn’t he? Was Chat Noir really that happy even with the muck and that question or was this proof of his ability to fake it?

Damnit, why didn’t she know him well enough to answer that? Maybe she did know. Chat Noir took off without even a glance her way, let alone his usual goodbye bow. He couldn’t even look at her with heartbreak on his mind. And his expression was just a little too steady, unless she was overthinking it.

And what had gotten into Alya to ask him that question? Marinette still loved her friend, but how dare she interfere with their partnership like that. Chat’s heart was Ladybug’s to break at the time and manner of her choosing, not to be forced on them abruptly by a reporter. Damnit, Chat, for being so public with his affections.

And damnit, why had she been so public with her rejections? Some people were picking up on it and treating him like dead weight. This was her fault. Her partner was awesome, and Paris should know that. Well, everyone in Paris except for Chat.

“Here kitty kitty,” Ladybug whispered after she came up against the hotel window. She noted traces of muck against the glass. Her partner had gone inside through here.

Beep, beep.

Her earrings buzzed for the fourth time. She shook her head. Chat was gone, and she was out of time.

It was just as well. What was she going to say him?  Yes, I’m going break your heart, so get over the pain, get out there, and still be ready to die at an akuma’s hand for me. What a kind partner she was. I’m going to break your heart even though you’re always there for me, even though I trust you more than anyone I’ve ever met, and even though I refuse to actually get to know you, Chat. What a friend she was. I’m going to break your heart because I’m in love with a prettyboy model I can’t even talk to. Ohh yes, she knew she did right by Chat Noir.

But she couldn’t help it. She was in love with –

“Adrien?” she let out. Just as she was about to toss out her yoyo to go, Adrien had come out through the hallway door just below the window she was sitting against. He seemed focused on something that was cupped in his left hand.

Every time Marinette saw him her heart jumped into her throat and choked up her words. But right now she was Ladybug. She had something she had failed to talk to Adrien about all week, and damnit, she had thirty seconds left of her Ladybug confidence to force herself to commit to it. She swung around the corner of the building, pushed through the first window she could find, and let out a yelp as she hit the floor in her normal school clothes.

- - - - - - - - - -

“She’s got a point, you know. That’s how villains are made.” Plagg grumbled from inside Adrien’s cupped hand, nibbling on a wedge of cheese but still irritated from his rushed washing in the bathroom sink. “Believe me, I know, you wouldn’t be my first.”

As Adrien stepped out of the bathroom he briefly wondered which had been harder, cleaning the sludge out of his hair or cleaning it out of Plagg. Most of it didn’t stick to the Chat Noir costume, and most of what did had moved to drench the kwami when he dropped his transformation. But Adrien should have known Plagg’s goading commentary would bite worse than the washing.

“No, Alya’s wrong,” Adrien said, and for the moment he believed it.  “Ladybug isn’t going to break my heart.”

“How can you be so sure, huh?”

Adrien hesitated. He wasn’t sure where this certainty was coming from. Ladybug rejected Chat Noir’s advances constantly. But that’s almost what he wanted from her. She acknowledged him. She was playful in the way she turned him down. I’ll stick to you any day, he had said, and as usual she replied in kind, Not this day, kitty. When Chat Noir put his arm around Ladybug’s shoulders, she didn’t merely push him away and flee, but lifted his hand off her shoulder and dropped it by his side.

Adrien didn’t feel like his partner rejected him. She could have asked him to stop, or told him outright that she wasn’t interested, or even have pulled away from him in a clear sign of disdain for his antics. Instead Ladybug played her part, rejecting his flirting with wit and exaggeration, like a game that they played together as friends.

But that didn’t mean they would end up together. How long could their game last? Neither of them was involved with anybody yet – unless she was and never mentioned it, and she wouldn’t do that, would she? They never really talked about those kinds of personal things. Adrien didn’t mean to flirt with a girl who was with somebody else. That’s not the kind of cat he wanted to be.

“She’s not going to break my heart because I know her,” Adrien began, trying slowly to figure out how to justify his certainty to Plagg and to himself. “Ladybug wants to think I’m just in love with a costume, but she’ll feel differently when she understands my feelings are more than that. It’s that bold creativity, her amazing kindness, her talents and bravery. There aren’t other girls like that.”

Somebody let out a yelp from around the hallway corner. Adrien barely heard it.

“That sounds like Marinette,” Plagg said.

“Yeah... I suppose it does.”

Plagg shot out of Adrien’s hand and dived through the fabric into his jacket pocket. Just ahead of him Marinette stepped in from around the corner wearing the expression of a girl in search of something. But her face lit up as she saw Adrien.

“Adri – uhh, hi Adrien!” she squealed, and then her hands ran up to grab her face, as if she could pull her voice back down to normal through a lever in her cheekbones.

“What – err...” Adrien stumbled his words for a moment, his chest tightening at the sight of her. Boldly creative, Marinette had designed a feathered hat that impressed Adrien’s father the fashion designer, and she had put together an album cover for rock star Jagged Stone. Amazingly kind, Adrien knew Marinette to comfort many of their classmates both before and after they terrorized Paris under the control of Hawkmoth’s akuma. Talented and brave, Marinette had kept her head better than he had as Chat Noir when the two of them faced Evillustrator, even advising him on how to use his baton to escape one the villain’s traps.

Plagg had put all of these thoughts into Adrien’s head by accident, he realized. Adrien had misunderstood the kwami like the oblivious dork he was.

“Hello Marinette,” Adrien managed to say after a second. “What are you doing here?”

“I was, uhhm, looking at an exhibition of your fashion victory – I uhh,” Marinette said. “I was. Looking into. A new. Victorian. Fashion. Exhibition.”

What was he supposed to make of that? Adrien never knew, and he usually ignored it. He had come to accept that most girls behaved differently around him in one way or another. As a teen fashion model for his father’s designer label, many girls knew his face, and his name, and some quotes from an interview he had given. He decided a long time ago that the moment a girl threw herself at the model she threw away her chances with him. But that wasn’t Marinette. She had always kept an awkward distance even as they had become closer as friends.

“I heard about that,” Adrien said. “It’s being hosted here in the hotel by one of my father’s competitors.”

“Would you come with me tomorrow?” Marinette said as fast as she could, as if the words were a villain killing her from within and spitting them out was the only way to save her life. “A-Adrien?”

“My dad won’t like it, but sure Marinette,” Adrien said. “I’m always happy to ditch my bodyguard for a friend.”

“Then I’ll tomorrow you... see,” Marinette said, looking down at her hand as if she was trying to figure out what she had said wrong.

When she breaks your heart...

Adrien looked into Marinette’s beautiful blue eyes and remembered Alya’s question. He risked the pain of a heartbreak with Ladybug, and that was fine. Superheroes endure pain, inward and out. That was part of being Chat Noir. But what would happen after such a heartbreak? He felt a crushing weight on his heart as he struck a possibility he had never had the courage to think about. For a second Adrien had to fight to keep himself standing, to keep his face from melting, to hold his model pose. Were his festering feelings for Ladybug putting their partnership at risk? Would his jealousy lead him to behave badly, or scare Ladybug into keeping her distance, and poison the incredible trust between Ladybug and Chat Noir which kept Paris safe?

If so, then those feelings might have to go.

“Okay.” Adrien smiled at her. Despite his sudden turmoil, she did make smiling at her easy. “What if we call it a date, Marinette?”

“A – a – date?” Marinette did something weird with her hands, like a mime building a box around her face. Even her bizarre gestures were creative and brave. “Huhmm, okay A-Adrien.”

Marinette let out a happy squee, but then she seemed to find herself speechless, like one of their classmates who had rehearsed their presentation only to stumble unprepared when it came time to take questions.

...will you be the next akuma victim?

From what Plagg had told him, the negative emotions that drew an akuma would have to be intense to break through the power of the miraculous. Adrien wasn’t worried about himself.

“But you have to make me a promise, Marinette.”

“A promise?” Marinette asked.

“So many people at our school have been akumatized that sometimes it feels like you and I are the only ones left who haven’t.”

“It’s scary, isn’t it?” Marinette answered darkly.

“It’s all of that high school drama,” Adrien said. “And I know how you and Chloe fight. I don’t want that to happen to you. So no matter what happens between us tomorrow or afterwards, even if we break each others’ hearts, you have to promise that you’ll still come to me as your friend if you ever feel sad, or angry, or alone, because I promise to do everything I can, whatever I have to, to cheer you up and keep that from happening to you. Even if it’s dumb, or if I’m the problem and you just want to hit me, or if it’s another guy and you don’t think I’ll understand. I’m serious, Marinette, whatever happens between us you are my friend, I am here for you, and I don’t ever want to see you in magical spandex running amok in Paris.”

Somewhere in the middle of all that Marinette had started laughing at him. It was a kind laughter, and she reached out her hand and touched his cheek where Adrien could feel himself blushing.

“Always the kindest, Adrien,” she said. “I promise you I’ll remember that you’re here for me the next time I feel that low. But the same goes for you, Adrien. You can come to me about anything, alright?”

Adrien found himself nodding.

“I mean, wow, you in magic spandex?” Marinette went on. “What would your evil power be anyway? Making the girls of Paris swoon for... uh-humm.”

Chapter Text

Ladybug closed the trapdoor to her room and Marinette Dupain-Cheng fell backwards onto her bed. “This is really happening, Tikki!”

Tikki flew out of Marinette’s vanishing Ladybug costume and dived into her purse. “I’m so excited for you Marinette!” she exclaimed as she pulled into the air taking tiny bites from a cookie. “You’ve earned a little more happiness.”

Marinette smiled to herself, her body flooded with so much energy she couldn’t stop squeezing her pillow. Adrien called it a date. She pushed the pillow tighter into her chest, trying to press her heart into submission, but it was no use, it was beating too fast and did not want to stop. And why should it? Adrien had made it a date, with Adrien.

She had to tell Alya – uehg, maybe not Alya just yet. But her parents? And Nino? And Juleka, Rose, Alix and everybody else? She accidentally bit her lip trying to picture the look on Chloe’s face when she finds out. And she’d have to tell–

She sat bolt upright and dropped the pillow to the floor. Damnit, no, no, damnit. The shock hit her so hard she almost didn’t realize the low pain rising in her chest. “This is really it, then, Tikki. I’m going to have to tell Chat Noir.”

Tikki finished off the last crumbs of cookie. “What do you mean, Marinette?”

“What Alya said this morning, Tikki,” Marinette began, looking into Tikki’s eyes. Didn’t she realize how serious this was? “I’ll have to tell him I’m with somebody else. You know how he feels about me. If things go well with Adrien, I have to break Chat’s heart.”

“Ohhh Marinette,” Tikki let out. “Chat Noir may be in love with you, but he’s also your friend. He’s stronger than Alya gave him credit for. And so is your partnership.”

“Is it?” Marinette asked before she could help herself. She remembered Chat Noir’s smile as he crashed into Pipeline, his giddy expression when he quipped and bowed to her. “He always has so much fun out there with that cocky grin on his face.”

“What are you afraid of Marinette?” Tikki asked as she hovered there, looking as if they weren’t in the middle of a crisis. Did kwamis just not understand?

“I have to hurt him, Tikki,” Marinette began slowly. Inside her all of that happy energy, that romantic enthusiasm for her date with Adrien, began to turn against her. Her chest felt hollow, her eyes watered, her hands began pinching into the blankets on her bed. “What if this changes things with him? What if I can’t make it fun for him anymore?” She wanted to stop, to claw onto her sanity for another moment, but she couldn’t stop herself. She had spent a year hiding from this moment with Chat Noir only to find that she’s stockpiled a year’s worth of dread. The tears flooded down her face, each droplet pulling two or three more from her eyes. “Ohh Tikki. What if he stops showing up? I can’t do this without Chat Noir. Adrien isn’t worth it. My happiness isn’t worth it. Not when all of Paris is at stake. I can’t lose my partner.”

“Ohhh Marinette,” Tikki grabbed a tissue from Marinette’s desk and landed on her shoulder, dabbing at her face. “Chat Noir will be alright.”

“I can’t lose my friend, Tikki...” her words caught in her throat, even as her tears stopped. “Can I even call him that when I keep pushing him away? I don’t know anything about him.”

“Of course he’s your friend!” Tikki dived the dirty tissue into the trashcan, flying out through its sides with a scolding shake of her head. “I know that if he heard you say that it would hurt more than the heartbreak, Marinette. And you’re not going to lose him. Has he given you any reason to doubt him?”

“No, he’s been the perfect partner...” Marinette said, and then began to smile, just a little. It was nice to see a bit of emotion from Tikki, who was usually calm with her wiseness. And she was right. “All of my doubts are coming from me. I’m the one behaving poorly here. I push him away, and I keep him at a distance. I act like I don’t trust him. When I do. I trust him completely.”

“Then trust him now,” Tikki said.

“You’re right, Tiiki.” Marinette picked up her pillow and lay back on her bed. She had a date with Adrien and a partner she could trust. It was silly to think they had to be at odds. “Still, Tikki, I can’t just hurt him and expect him to go out there and risk his life for me. I’m in love with Adrien. But I owe Chat Noir better than this.”

“You owe him your honesty.” Tikki nodded and flew near the bed to hover next to Marinette.

“You’re right, Tikki. And more than that, I owe him a fair chance.” While Marinette was talking, Tikki twitched in the air and put one hand to her head. Marinette didn’t notice in time. “I need to make a real effort to get to know him...”

“Eahh!” Tikki clutched her head with both hands and shrieked, and then she fell down through the side of the bed and straight through the floor.

“Tikki!” Marinette leapt from her bed. What had – there was no time for thought or confusion. Tikki was in pain and fell down into the bakery. Marinette grabbed her phone and hurried down the ladder after her.

“Yes Alya, I’m ready for that assignment!” she said as loudly as she could into her phone while she walked past her parents going through invoices at the table. At the display counter behind them, Tikki was quietly sobbing and gasping, crying from a plate of macaroons. It was only luck that nobody had heard her.

“Tikki, what happened?” Marinette whispered, lifting the kwami in her hand. Tikki’s eyes were half closed, and her color was red instead of pink. Marinette felt her neck tighten. She needed to make Tikki better. “Are you alright?”

“It’s Schtitz,” Tikki whispered, her words frazzled and shaken. “The dragonfly Kwami... I can sense him… he’s in so much pain...”

- - - - - - - - - -

Ladybug sat in a blue chair on the theater balcony, at ease in a way that wasn’t, offering a pleasant half-smile without committing an ounce more of her joy to the moment. She looked straight ahead, her hands and face oddly still, her eyes curious and calm.

“So Chat Noir is a huge flirt,” Alya’s voice came slowly, and Ladybug nodded in turn. “Does he flirt with all of the girls or just with you?”

Ladybug halfway rolled her eyes and then giggled. “You’d have to ask him that.”

“Did you ever ask him to stop?” Alya asked.

“Chat Noir’s flirting annoys me to pieces,” Ladybug began with a light groan. But then she blushed, and her voice became warm. “It’s also really sweet. Fighting these villains could be a nightmare, and Chat Noir keeps it light and fun. That means everything to me. I wouldn’t ask him to change at all.”

Adrien paused the video and threw the remote into his couch.

Ladybug wouldn’t ask him to change at all. His flirting is really sweet, keeps things light and fun –means everything to her. She had said all of that to Alya in a public interview, but Alya was still certain that Ladybug would break his heart.

“Is Alya seeing something here that I’m not?” Adrien asked the question aloud to his room. The light rustling of a cheese wrapper answered him. “Plagg? Plagg, get out of the trash can and talk to me.”

”Ohhhh. How should I know?” Plagg groaned, flying out of the trash with a small piece of tinfoil dropping from his mouth and falling back into the can beneath him. “You’ve watched it eleven times now. You’re hopeless.”

“Come on, Plagg,” Adrien told him. The kwami wasn’t always upfront with his advice, but Adrien had nobody else he could turn to when it came to Ladybug. “You’re like ten thousand years old. You must have learned something about romance by now.”

“Fine…” Plagg said. He flailed his hands about with sarcasm as he went on. “One-time only, because you’re not going to like it. Are you sure you want it?”

No, between Alya’s scathing question, the kwami’s change in attitude, and Adrien’s own growing doubts, he suddenly wasn’t sure he wanted to hear more pessimism for the day. “Tell me, Plagg.”

“Fiiiine.” Plagg crossed his arms and frowned. “Forget about whether or not she likes your bad come-ons. There’s only one thing that matters.” Plagg flew right in front of Adrien’s face and looked him in the eye. “You’ve been throwing yourself at Ladybug for over a year now, Adrien, and she’s still saying these things to Alya, not to you.”

Alya has the guts to ask, Adrien wanted to counter, but the remark died in his heart. He could feel his heart sinking. If he wasn’t so tense his hands might have been shaking. Plagg was right, and that was it. He had been partners with ladybug for over a year and he still knew nothing about her.

She probably knew even less about him.

He used to try, but their secret identities got in the way. There were too many questions that they just had to ignore. How did you know that name? What are you doing here so quickly? Horrificator just sealed off the entire school building and you were already inside? Some questions you just didn’t ask. Some clues you just didn’t follow. He forced himself to ignore and forget them. More than wanting to know her identity, he wanted her to trust him with it. So she put up a wall and he respected it. He kept clear of the line.

Maybe he kept too far from that line. Their partnership was solid and growing stronger by the week. They saved each other’s lives, they saved Paris, and they had fun doing it. But on a personal level they stagnated a long time ago. He didn’t know her name, her age, her favorite color, whether she was dating, or had siblings, or had hobbies, or what she wanted to do with her life. He stopped asking, and she never offered. And he made excuses for it.

But then she told Alya in an interview that his flirting meant the world to her. That wasn’t secret identity stuff. That was cat and bug. She took this tidbit of truth about their relationship, the kind of information that he craved so desperately from her, and she handed it to Alya, not to him.

Was that it? Was that one fact the proof he was looking for that he didn’t have a chance with her – that she was going to break his heart? That it was time to move on? He hated this kind of guesswork.

There was a quick double knock at the door. Adrien had just enough time to shut off the television while Plagg dashed into his jacket pocket. The door opened. Upright and looming, Adrien’s father stepped into the room, his eyes taking in the empty cheese dish, the remote on the couch, and Adrien’s guilty face. Mr. Agreste’s hands were locked behind his back. The only emotion he ever showed came through the furrowing of his eyebrows.

“Adrien, I need to speak with you.”

“What is it, father?” Adrien answered. His body wanted to pull away, but he didn’t move.

“Nathalie informs me that you have a date tomorrow night.” Mr. Agreste’s eyes narrowed in on his son’s.

Adrien quickly wondered what had given him away and decided that he dropped too many hints to pinpoint one. Was it the dumb grin on his face? His sudden concern about whether his favorite scarf could make it home from the cleaners? Or had she heard him stutter while he made reservations on the phone at two different restaurants?

“Yeah… I do,” he answered. He wouldn’t keep it from his father, not when he was taking an interest in him. Even after all this time he had to give him the chance, to believe for a moment that he cared, even if it meant his own disappointment. “I’m going out with Marinette.”

“Ahh, the girl who designed the derby hat at your school.” Was there a touch of approval and satisfaction in his voice? Adrien may have imagined it. But he remembered her. His father had remembered his friend Marinette. “Is it... serious, between the two of you?”

“I don’t know,” Adrien said, and he wanted to stop talking. But his father still stared at him motionless, offering a silence that expected more. “I think she’s wanted to do this for a while, but I love having her as a friend.”

Adrien felt like his father saw right through him, even though he knew that was nonsense. His father’s stare searched for fault, not truths. But Adrien sometimes accepted a head-canon for his father, a vision of his father that he imagined to be true, even if it wasn’t. His loving head-canon father forced Adrien to see himself through better eyes, to see his decisions more clearly. Was it normal to have head-canon for your father? Should he ask Nino? Maybe it was better to keep that question to the anime forums.

Marinette liked him. All of the girls liked him. It wasn’t real. If Adrien was going to start dating, and get over Ladybug, he could start by doing this for a friend. They would look at the fashion designs and chat over dinner. Then Marinette would quickly realize that he’s not the guy she likes in the magazine, she can drop her nervousness, and they could end up being better friends. In the meantime, he could try and get his mind off Ladybug for a while and see if that changed anything between them.

Or everything could go wrong.

“Marinette’s amazing,” Adrien went on. “And I want to try being with her, but I don’t want to hurt her if it doesn’t work out.” Adrien looked up at his father and decided to give him a chance. “What do you think I should do father?”

“Go. Enjoy your date, son,” his father answered. He seemed to try and smile. “Perhaps we will know more about Ms. Dupain-Cheng and your feelings for her afterwards.”

He turned for the door before he looked back at him and added, “Make no mistake, Adrien, I expect you to handle your dating life with the same integrity and professionalism as all of your other endeavors.”

And just like that, his father walked out, closing the door behind him.

“What was that about, Plagg?” Adrien wondered aloud. “Was he actually trying to be... fatherly?”

But Plagg didn’t answer. He gave Adrien a moment of silence.

And then the kwami screamed. He screamed like death, like a fire that was shivering in the rain, like a lightning bolt in terror, like a cat in Schrodinger’s toilet. Adrien rushed to Plagg’s side, cupping him in his hands and close to his heart. “Plagg! Talk to me. Tell me what I can do. Plagg?”

- - - - - - - - - -

Chat Noir sat perched on the roof of Notre Dame, looking over the river with his baton between his legs and one claw flicking occasionally on his bell. Ladybug watched him from the distance, taking a nervous breath before throwing out her yoyo and swinging in beside him. “I knew you’d be out,” she said, trying to be casual.

“I wish it was a happier night,” Chat Noir muttered in a tone that was unlike him. He didn’t look at her but stared into the night sky. “Plagg said transforming would help with the pain. I’ve never seen him so shaken up. How is Tikki?”

“She’s not taking it well,” Ladybug answered. “And Tikki’s in a fraction of the pain Schtitz must be in. I’m worried, Chat. What could do this to a kwami?”

“I figure it’s either something magical, like an akuma, or it’s something high tech, like a weapons lab.” He finally turned to look at her, and Ladybug’s stomach lurched when she saw the sadness on his face. Was it only about the kwami? Or had the morning affected him? “I saw on the tracker that you stopped by Master Fu?”

“I did… he said there hasn’t been any sign of Schtitz or the Dragonfly Charm since World War I. Unless the miraculous bearer comes forward, I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

“No,” Chat Noir lowered his head. “It’s going to be a long night for the kwami.”

That means a long night for the two of us here on this roof, in costume, with no Akuma in sight. So tell me about yourself, Chat.

“While we have a moment,” Marinette began, her Ladybug confidence beginning to drift. “I wanted to talk to you…” Wait, did that sound too forward? She didn’t want to put him on the spot. She just wanted to talk as friends, to get to know him a little better, to give him a fair shake after…, “after what Alya said.”

Chat Noir jumped up from his spot. “Right. No. You don’t need to say anything, Ladybug.” He ran his claws through his hair, looked at her, and smiled, his deep green eyes begging her to stop breaking his heart. “I, hrmm. I’ve decided to start dating.”

What? Start? …dating. She had tried to never think about it, but she knew. Chat Noir was the flirt of Paris. That’s what everyone believed. Every week he could pick a new princess for the night. And she usually played along as if that were really him. “You’re the only one, Marinette,” Alya had once told her. “People send in their stories to me all the time on the Ladyblog, and while everyone knows Chat Noir is a huge flirt, as far as I can tell you’re the only one he’s actually flirted with. Just you and Ladybug.” That is, in costume. Out of costume… Marinette knew the boy at her side, and he flirted the way he did because he was as nervous about relationships as she was.

“What do you mean start, kitty?” she asked, trying to keep casual and hoping to keep him talking. “I’m sure you’re the life of the town.”

“I mean what I said, Ladybug.” Chat Noir took two steps back and turned to look over the Paris skyline. His voice was shaky and he seemed determined not to look at her. “I’m taking somebody out, a friend from my normal life, and... I think you and all of Paris know how I feel about you, and that hasn’t changed yet, but I can see what’s happening, that it was always inevitable… so if I start acting a little differently towards you it’s because I want to respect her.”

And just like that, all of her fears faded away. She had spent a year dreading the day she would break his heart, and now, perhaps, he had taken the hint and spared them both. About time, Chat.

But this isn’t what she wanted tonight. And he looked so... heartbroken.

“I know I keep pushing you away, but I care about you, Chat, more than I know how to put into words.” He still didn’t look at her, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He deserved more than the sadness in his face. “This girl you’re dating had better be good enough for you.”

And then his expression lit up, and he turned to look at her with a smile, and his eyes, somehow, transformed him back into the optimistic kitten she had always known. “I can tell you that much for sure, Ladybug. This girl’s incredible.”

Chat Noir was moving on. Ladybug was so relieved. He should step back that annoying flirting he does. He might pay her less attention and focus more on the supervillains. It was a relief to be free of that burden of fearing his heartbreak. The cat could find a new human pet. Maybe he would finally take saving Paris seriously.

This is what relief feels like, right?

The weight was off her shoulders. He was going to be with somebody else. Ladybug tried to picture a normal guy, a normal girl, a boring conversation, a girl who would know the real person behind Chat Noir.

And she would have no idea of the incredible and selfless things he did all the time. For Paris. For everybody.

For her.

Chapter Text

“I think that’s everything that needs to be said.” Chat Noir squatted on the edge of the roof. His hand swung around to grab his baton. “I’m going to go for a bit of gallivanting. If you’re still around, maybe I’ll be back later, my lady.”

“Before you go, Chat,” Ladybug interrupted him. She had never done this before, but if anybody deserved this from her, it was her partner – her friend. “I have an idea. I want to help you with what you’re going through, if there’s a chance this will work.”

Chat Noir smiled back at her the way he would when they talked about a supervillain. Maybe their partnership was in less danger than she thought. “Alright then. What did you have in mind?”

Ladybug grabbed her yoyo and threw it into the air. “Lucky charm!”

Bright lights and sparkles obscured a small object that fell into her hand. It took her a half-second of staring at the red and polkadotted item to realize what it was. “An old flip phone?”

“Good call,” Chat Noir said.

“Here, this is for you.” She held it out for him. She tried her best to keep her smile from growing too wide. This was for him to figure out.

“But we already have phones,” Chat Noir said as he slowly reached out and took it. He flipped it open and began pushing buttons with his claws. “Hey, there’s one number saved on it!”

“That’s so awesome,” Ladybug whispered. “Maybe it’s the number for the girl of your dreams?”

“Wait, I know this number.” Chat Noir jumped. “It’s hers! It’s for the girl I’m taking out tomorrow!”

“No way!” Ladybug shouted. Could her Lucky Charm really do this for him? Could ancient magic really solve problems of the heart? “You have to call her, right now, on that phone. She could be thinking about you –

- - Oh! She could be missing you, and doubting you, and just knowing that you’re thinking about her could be just what she needs from you. That’s so romantic!

- - Or, no! She could be with another guy! CALL HER RIGHT NOW! You have to stop her from making a huge mistake she’s going to regret!

- - OR what if she’s NOT the right girl for you? And calling her right now will help you two realize that. That would mean… Chat, I’m so sorry, I–”

“I like that you’re more excited about this than I am, bugaboo,” Chat Noir laughed. But that cat was a dirty liar with a look of terror in his eyes. He took a long moment steadying himself, and his expression kept shifting from a giddy grin to a nervously forced half smirk. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

He pushed the send button.

Ladybug jumped. Lousy timing. It was past midnight, damnit. But the phone in her back pocket began to vibrate. She reached back to reject the call without taking it from her pocket. Even if it was important, it could wait a few minutes. “Did she answer?”

Chat Noir shook his head. “No.” He handed Ladybug back the phone and she took it on instinct. “Thank you Ladybug. It’s enough for me to know that it was her number.” Without another word he winked and jumped from the rooftop, vaulting off into the city.

So Chat Noir was a cinnamon roll after all. Maybe she would start teasing him about that.

Beep. Beep.

She looked down at the lucky flip phone in her hand and fought the urge to open it. Who was this cat tamer that had him so infatuated? She could be a nerdy school girl. A flirty model? She was probably a band girl writing songs about him. He would be so into that.

Marinette giggled at the possibilities as she tossed the flip phone into the air and shouted, “Miraculous Ladybug!” A wave of light wooshed through the air, and the phone vanished into the night.

And so did the record of her missed call.

- - - - - - - - - -

It had never happened before, but Marinette got into school a few minutes early, her head too busy to be tired. Ms. Bustier was at her desk, and throughout the room a handful of students were standing and talking near their seats.

Alya was already in her seat looking miserable. Marinette glanced away and tried to keep her head down.

“Marinette! What’s up with you girl?” Alya called out to her. Always so nosey, that one. “You haven’t been answering my calls.”

Marinette barely looked at her as she sat down quietly. “…it’s nothing, Alya, I’ve just been busy.”

She had spent her short walk to school trying to convince herself that Alya didn’t deserve this from her. This anger belonged to Ladybug, and as Alya’s friend Marinette needed to swallow her secret rage and bear it. But sense was losing this battle. Maybe she and Chat came out of it better than she was afraid. But Alya put their friendship and their partnership through the ropes last night. How could she do that to them? Wasn’t she a friend?

Adrien emerged through the classroom door, radiant, carefree, dreamy, like he was walking on air. Marinette’s mind sank into her chest and snuggled with her heart. Adrien smiled at Nino and waved at Chloe, but then he turned and he walked up to Marinette.

“Hi Marinette!” he asked. He said? Adrien was speaking to her. Marinette was hardly aware of anything anymore. “About tonight, I was wondering if you’d let me pay for dinner after the exhibit, or if you’d rather get ice cream together?”

“You would be amazing with dinner,” Marinette said as she dropped her chin into her hand. Adrien’s face was inviting and peaceful. Her littlest finger curled up against her lower lip. “Or ice cream?”

Alya nudged Marinette hard with her elbow so she would sit up. “What she means to say,” Alya leaned in, “is that she’s okay if you want to pay for dinner.”

Marinette pointed up at Alya. “Yeahhh, that.”

“That’s terrific,” Adrien said with a soft laugh. “I’ll see you tonight, Marinette.”

As soon as Adrien turned to sit in his chair in front of them, Alya whacked Marinette lightly in the side. “The two of you are going on a date? Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“I thought I dreamed it,” Marinette answered, breathless.

“Ha!” Alya laughed. “That’s probably what I would’ve thought if you told me. Good for you Marinette. I knew it would happen someday.”

She should’ve sounded happier, but something in Alya’s voice came across heavy and sad. Marinette had been too busy with her own anger and fluster, but now she pulled herself together to look at her friend. Alya’s shoulders sagged, and her eyes at rest kept drooping down to her pencil. “What’s wrong, Alya?”

She flopped her head down onto the table and looked at her from over her arm. “I’m in real trouble Marinette.”

“I heard about your big question,” Marinette said before she could wonder if it was even on the Ladyblog. “Why would you ask Chat Noir something that mean, Alya?

“I didn’t have a choice.” Alya lifted herself up to flip a few pages through her open notebook and slide it over to Marinette. “The TVii execs gave me this list of awful questions and offered to cut a deal with the Ladyblog if I could get an answer for even one of them. But it was all lies, Marinette. Ladybug is pissed at me. Her fans are turning against the Ladyblog.” In front of them Adrien began typing on his phone. “And the execs are saying we don’t have a deal because Chat Noir didn’t really answer it, even though he couldn’t possibly have given a better answer.”

Marinette tried reading through the questions Alya gave her but pushed them away with the first one. Ladybug, how much is Chat Noir holding you back, and how will you go about replacing him? Just, damnit, no, she didn’t have room for those emotions right now.

“Mari, they sabotaged me.” Alya went on. “They wanted to turn Ladybug against me.”

“But Alya, this list is terrible.” Nothing Alya had said was good enough, not for this. Marinette pointed at the questions. “Deal or not you know better than this. I thought you wanted to support them, not hurt them.”

“I know. I know Marinette.” Alya took a long moment to steady herself. Any of the anger Marinette still had left in her drained out when Alya continued speaking. Her voice was unsteady, her eyes were watery, and there was so much sadness in Alya’s tone that it sounded like goodbye. “I’ve been a mess. My mother served a plate of coq au vin to Jagged Stone a couple days ago, and somehow there were shards of broken glass in the chicken. Jagged’s in the hospital, my mother’s lost her job at the hotel, and she’s been blacklisted out of every restaurant in France. So this is it, Mari. If I can’t get the Ladyblog making money soon, we’re going to have to leave Paris.”

No. Must all her friendships be in jeopardy? “We have to fix this Alya.”

“I don’t have a chance now,” Alya said, and she seemed so sure of it. Marinette put her arms around her friend and hugged her. “I don’t know how it happened, but the two of them used to talk to me. Thanks to that stupid question Ladybug and Chat Noir are never going to talk to the Ladyblog again.”

Five or six phones around the class beeped at once. A few more were slower on the bandwidth and beeped a second later.

Marinette was already thinking of ways to reconnect Ladybug with the Ladyblog when Alya thrust her phone into her hand. “Mari, Mari! Chat Noir posted on the Ladyblog!”

Marinette took Alya’s phone and began scrolling through the page. There was Chat Noir’s winking avatar, smittenkitten, flashing the peace sign, along with his post.

This cat’s a friend of the Ladyblog, and nothing is going to change that. To answer Alya’s question, Paris knows I’ve got your back, and not even a broken heart will ever knock this feline off his feet. I’ll be happy to answer every question Alya wants to ask. And I urge all my loyal fans out there, let’s continue to support the Ladyblog any way we can.

Purrfectly yours,

Chat Noir

“Ohh I love that slick cat,” Alya let out.

That was awesome, Chat. Marinette smiled softly at her partner as she reread the message and scrolled through the Ladyblog. He cared as much as she did. He already took care of the first step towards helping Alya through this.

Chat Noir’s picture winked at her from the phone, his tongue out, his hair covered in sludge. He did look cute when he wasn’t so full of himself, Marinette caught herself thinking. People were resharing the pose he gave when he told Alya that the bruises on his heart were only the spots of Ladybug’s lucky charm. How could he keep so cool when -

If Ladybug doesn’t want him, I’ll take him. #adoptastray #BatheThatCat #LadiesHugNotBug

327,514 shares, just since yesterday?

Damnit, that cat’s going to have no problems moving on. Will the cat charmer he’s dating now tame his heart? Or will he jump from flirt to playboy? His bruised heart wasn’t her lucky charm anymore. Anything could happen with him. Whether she was ready or not, things between her and Chat Noir were growing, changing, moving forward, and Marinette would never get the sweet and flirty boy at her side back the way he was before.

- - - - - - - - - -

If she had said anything about her suspicions to Marinette, that girl would freak out. And for anything else that would be fine. But this was her mother, and her future, and her sanity. Alya had enough freak out of her own to keep in control. Not to mention her mother trying to put on a good face. And her two sisters to worry about, with the temper tantrums they were bound to have when they find out that their mother is out of work from her job as head chef.

At the hotel.

At her daddy’s hotel.

Shards of glass? In a dish? That didn’t just happen, certainly not to someone as experienced as her mother was. Somebody did this. And Alya wanted to tell Marinette. They could throw down their rage together. They could drive home her vengeance. Alya wanted it badly. But she had no proof. Frankly, she had no reason to even suspect Chloe Bourgeois, except for knowing her. What Alya needed was the one boy who could make things right. And he was rummaging through his locker.

“Hey Adrien,” Alya said as she tapped him on the shoulder.

“Hey Alya,” Adrien smiled at her. “Am I in for a bruising question about my love life?”

Deserved.

“Maybe. Should you be?” Now that he mentioned it, she had quite a few things to say about that too. “I heard you ask Marinette to dinner. And a fashion exhibition? What brings this on suddenly?”

“I want to start dating,” Adrien answered. “I may as well start with a friend.”

You’ll start with her, huh?

“I hope you’re taking her seriously enough Adrien,” Alya said. “Don’t pretend you don’t know how she feels about you. I don’t want you setting her up for a huge heartbreak.”

“You don’t need to worry about that, Alya.” Adrien shook his head. “Marinette’s not in love with me. By the end of the night she’ll figure out I’m not the fantasy boy in her magazines, and we’ll laugh the whole thing off.”

“And when you’re wrong?” Alya snapped at him. “You think you’ve got it all figured out.”

“No, am I supposed to?” Adrien groaned. “I don’t think I’m wrong, Alya, but if Marinette does really like me, then I guess we know what happens next.”

“Tell me,” Alya demanded.

Adrien hesitated. And then blushed. “A second date.”

“Right. Umm. Okay, then.” Alya turned to go before she remembered what she had really come to talk about. But the school bell was about to ring, and she had just been snippy with him. Maybe it was too late to bring it up.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother,” Adrien said. Alya smiled. This kindness was exactly why Marinette liked him so much. He really was an oblivious dork to be rambling about magazines.

“Thanks Adrien. The whole thing doesn’t make any sense.” Alya paused. The best way to handle this was to come out and say it. “Would you do me a solid? Can you find out if, maybe, Chloe was involved?”

Adrien’s face went through soo many expressions.

“Chloe? Do you have any reason to - *sigh* - never mind. I’ll ask her. But, uh, not until Monday. I’m… trying to avoid her until after tonight.”

The boy was smarter than he looked.

“Marinette’s right, you really are the best Adrien. You two are going to have an awesome first date.”

- - - - - - - - - -

“He’s here!” Tom shouted across the bakery. Ohh did he need to learn to keep his emotions down already. Sabine could see the boy at the door just fine. So could all of the people standing in line for macaroons and cake.

And Marinette wouldn’t need any help knowing it, either. She came stumbling out of her room, dressed in her old pink skirt, a black striped blouse that wasn’t what she was wearing five minutes ago, and the black and pink jacket they had picked up together. She looked beautiful, and Sabine was pretty sure she wasn’t just telling herself that.

Marinette nearly fell over as she walked from her ladder to the front door.  Adrien, who was every bit as pretty as a sculpture, wore a dark orange jacket with a black shirt, a sky blue scarf, and a blue tie to match.  Sabine almost gave him a little wink when she saw the Ladybug pin on his lapel but didn’t want it taken the wrong way.  Those heroes needed their support any way they could show it.

“I’m afraid everyone’s going to have a five minute wait,” Tom said to the line of customers as he came by and waved her out. “Sabine, he’s here, he’s in the front.”

“Yes, Tom, you’re embarrassing her.” Sabine came out from behind the counter and touched her husband with both hands on the shoulder. Adrien and Marinette were both watching them. Marinette was horrified, although Adrien seemed amused by it. “Sit down, sweetie, they don’t need to see you making a scene for them.”

“Good bye!” Marinette shouted as she pulled Adrien out through the door and closed it behind them.

“Teenagers need a little embarrassment now and then,” Tom sat down in the bench by the window with a grin. “I want to hear what they’re saying.”

“Shh!” Sabine whispered at him, curling into the seat beside him. “You’ll hear better if you don’t scare them away.”

“Before we get in the car,” Adrien was saying. They could hear clearly enough. “There’s something I need to say to you Marinette.”

“Okay…” Marinette answered. Sabine leaned in to Tom’s shoulder, shaking her head quietly at how nervous she sounded. It brought back memories.

“I’m sorry to be forward about this,” Adrien went on. “But I know that you like me.”

Sabine could feel herself shaking with tension.  Tom rubbed one hand gently across her back.

“Me? Like you...? I don’t… no… uhm, yes?” Marinette blurted out. She desperately needed to find her confidence. “Did Alya tell on me? Because she lies.”

“I need you to put those feelings aside,” Adrien said, and Tom gave off a little grunt of confusion. “A lot of girls like me, and it’s usually... well, I don’t trust it.”

“What does that mean?” Tom spoke as quietly as he could. “Why is he saying that?”

“Wait ‘til he’s finished,” Sabine waved him off. Hopefully the boy was about to say exactly what her Marinette needed to hear from him.

“I – I don’t...” Marinette stuttered. “But we’re, date. Understand?”

“What I trust is your friendship, Marinette.” Adrien said. “That’s important to me. And I want to go out with you tonight because I. Like. You. I don’t know how much or where this goes. I don’t know if I’m even ready for this. But I want you to calm down. I’m your friend. It’s just a night. I already know you’re amazing. And you’ll do fine, okay Marinette?”

Sabine wanted to go out and give him a hug. And was Tom chuckling? Sabine grabbed one of the love handles on his belly to get him to stop. He was about to blow their cover.

“Thank you for that, Adrien,” Marinette said.

“I’m glad to -”

Marinette leaned in, touched her hand to one cheek, and kissed him on the other.

“Awwe,” Sabine whispered softly. She couldn’t help it. They were just so beautiful together.

“Woo!” Tom let out, and Sabine leaned into him before the noise had finished rumbling through his mustache. “Hush you!” she shouted just as loud.

“I... uhmm,” Adrien stammered, “…gorilla, car, drive?”

Marinette gave the two of them an angry look through the window as she grabbed Adrien by the arm and pulled him to the car. “Come along Adrien. It’s time.”

They got into the car together, and Adrien’s bodyguard drove them off on their date.  Hopefully their first night as a couple would be every bit as happy as her and Tom's, and perhaps just a little less daring.

Chapter Text

Adrien understood that he didn’t know what he was doing.  Asking Marinette out was impulsive, and getting over Ladybug was impossible.  But a single date would dispel Marinette’s illusion of his romantic grandeur, and he could go back to being the boy he always was – only heartbroken instead of lonely.

And how would that happen?  He had no idea, and no intention of pushing that somber moment along.  He was on a date with his friend, and even if it was mixed up and foolish, he was going to make the most of his night with Marinette.  After all, her last date was a private canal cruise with a supervillain, and the least that Adrien Agreste could do was give her a better dating benchmark than that one.

He did have that model reputation to uphold.

“I know the exhibit doesn’t start for over an hour, Marinette,” he told her in the car.  "But I thought we could spend some time talking over tea at La Couer Café on the pier. My old music teacher plays piano there, and he’ll be playing tonight."

“Your old music teacher!” Marinette gasped, skipping right over the music and oceanview setting.  “Was he strict?  Did he rap your fingers when you made a mistake, or did he make it fun?” She lightly placed her hand on his wrist.  “You have to tell me stories, Adrien.”

Stories.  The arm she touched twitched a little closer to her, but Adrien’s thoughts fumbled through the ordered annals of his memories.  Stories?  His music teacher was a bit of an android and a bastard.  So much of Adrien’s life had been lonely and regimented, the same story every day, without any quirks, personality, or a punchline, at least before he started school, before he received his miraculous.

This was how it was going to happen.  This was how he would lose her, and sooner than he expected.  She had immediately hopped over the romantic distractions and shot straight for the personal.

Against this attack, a dark and thrilling instinct awoke within Adrien Agreste.  Life’s great moments demanded risks.  But could he?  Would it be fair to her?  He had no choice.  If he was going to lose, he would do so as a boy at war.  If one of them was going to enjoy this night, it might as well be him.  He looked up at Marinette with an evil smirk.

“Most of the time he would B flat with me, but sometimes, if I was discordant…,” he winked at her, “…he could B sharp.”

 

“. . . .”

 

Her laughter – both of her hands pulled in over her mouth – above her fingers her cheeks were flush – her eyes didn’t roll but looked directly into his – Adrien’s heart bumped into his ribs and fell back against his spine.

What was happening?  She – she liked it?  She liked his bad pun?

Marinette finally looked away from him as the car pulled in near the café.  “We’re here,” she said, and she was all smiles, blushes, and short glances his way as she got out of the car ahead of him and offered him her hand.

“Thanks,” Adrien said as he let her help him out of the car. When he stood beside her, he took in the evening city lights reflecting on the water, the calm breeze blowing through the pier, the soft sound of a slow but upbeat arrangement – and the silhouette of the girl in front of him, highlighted in pink on her skirt and blouse and jacket, up to the blush beneath her bluebell eyes.  “I like the way you’re dressed.  You are beautiful tonight Marinette.”

“I like how beautiful you are when you’re dressed, too,” Marinette replied, and it took her a second to realize she had said anything wrong.  Her cheeks went shock red and she looked away with an embarrassed gasp.

Still.  Again.  Sure she was flustered, but couldn’t Marinette see him as something other than a pretty model?

Not when that’s about all he was.  When his claws weren’t out, he didn’t have much left in him that wasn’t fake and perfect.  He’d even had his entire outfit made bespoke around his sky-blue scarf, a decision he made months ago after he found her signature sewn into one corner of the fabric.

The model in him couldn’t help it.  To have something in his life everything around it had to be perfect, and what better way to show off a bright blue scarf than a contrasting dark orange jacket?

“Umm, I’m sorry about that,” Marinette said as she looked back at him. "I like your jacket.  I think it's sweet that you’re proud enough of your father's scarf to build your whole outfit around it."

He was… proud.  She was too polite to admit it, and Adrien was too ashamed of his father to address it.  But her scarf was a good enough gift for his father to steal the credit for giving it.  And Adrien wanted to show it off - he wanted to show off his friend Marinette, to remind his father that she was good enough.  He built his outfit around her scarf because he was proud of her – inside his skull Adrien’s brain shrunk back into a corner and let it all out.

His head canon for her had been wrong. He saw himself too much as a model. Marinette saw him with such different eyes. And already those eyes began to make his world spin in ways that felt so much deeper, real, and right.

Adrien offered a wave to his old teacher playing soft tones on the piano as he led her to their seat on the waterfront with her scarf stuck in his head. Although he knew fashion, creativity like Marinette’s and his father’s remained a wonder to him, and he had wracked his mind for half the morning looking for something he could offer her on the subject more than wows and reassuring compliments.

"How have you been coming along with your fashion designs, Marinette?" he asked her between sips of tea and bites of speculoos. When she gave an uninspired answer about having trouble balancing her designs while making up for her tardiness in school, he added, "That's a shame, Marinette, because I know how talented you are."  He had brought a nondescript black bag with him.  He laid it out on the table in front of them and pulled a spiral bound, home-printed book from it.  "I thought maybe you might find this helpful to you at all?  It's a collection of scans from my father's older sketchbooks."

For half a moment her eyes widened and she flipped through a few pages like she was looking through a lost treasure.  But then she looked up at him and began to laugh softly.  "This is really amazing, Adrien.  I can't even tell you.  And it makes me feel better because I got you something too, but I was worried it was going to be too much."

She removed a small chocolate brown box from her purse and slid it over to Adrien.  His mouth watered and his stomach rumbled.  A lifelong model diet had helped him develop an unhealthy craving for anything from her family's bakery.  But his heart lurched when he removed the gold ribbon and opened the box.  Inside, the top of the box was printed with Ladybug's photo; the cookies inside had a red strawberry filling with chocolate-covered nuts for spots.

"I know you like her, Adrien, so don't make me regret this."  She gently tapped the top of the box, and she gave him a wink when he noticed the writing scribbled across the printed photo.

Cher Adrien, stay dreamy. Ladybug <3

Adrien looked at the writing for a long moment.  When he looked from the photo up at Marinette, her cheeks had dropped into her hands, and she had been watching him with glazed eyes, blushed cheeks, and a gaping smile.

Adrien had been afraid that his head would be flittering and unfocused, jumping between Marinette and a sadness surrounding his rejection by Ladybug. But even with these words in front of him, the look in Marinette’s bluebell eyes – his attention belonged solely to her.  The smile on her lips.  Was she having fun?  The blush in her cheeks.  How long could he keep this up?

He closed the box and thanked her for the gift.  When would her disappointment begin?  That was the wrong question. He realized that now.

Was he prepared to fall in love with her?

- - - - - - - - - -

The fashion exhibit consisted of three large halls filled with bulging bold layered dresses and a couple of mannequins wearing topcoats and suits.  Old hats sat above every dress and mannequin, covered the walls on careful shelves, and decorated the walkways from glass boxes on pedestals.  Colors soft and bold, patterns plain and disturbing, fashion intellectuals snobbish and brilliant, welcomed Adrien and Marinette to the Victorian era, preserved for display.

Madame Faux Pastella had displayed over a hundred pieces of Victorian fashion that had inspired her new Spring wear line which she dubbed the Cure for Corsets.  Select items from the new line would be shown later on a runway set up in a fourth grand hall.

Adrien knew his place at events like this.  And it wasn’t making small talk over the straps on the bustles.

Thankfully Marinette had him covered, and by now he knew it.

“It’s incredible to think about the hours of labor and skill that went into stitching each one of these dresses,” she said. “I bet your father puts in a lot of work, too?”

But of course she made it personal again.

“He never stops,” Adrien answered her.  “If he had his way neither of us would ever leave the house, and we’d still never see each other.”

“That’s so sad Adrien.” She took him by the hand and just held it for a moment. Then she gave him a teasing smile.  “So fashion model, which of these dresses do you think would look best on me?”

“These dresses - ?” Adrien said, and he could feel his cheeks warming with a blush.  He tried to picture Marinette in a wide layered dress, but all it did was distract from how beautiful she already was…  He wasn’t ready to say that.

He looked down an aisle of dresses to see if he could find one for an answer and saw a familiar old woman wearing a ruffled red blouse and a bold sleeveless jacket of fake gold thread, ornamented in large beads that pretended to be gemstones.  Her face looked like it had been spray-painted white before she put her makeup on, and she wore a skirt that looked identical to the dress she was standing next to.

Madame Faux Pastella took one look at Adrien and gasped.

“Everyone!” she shouted out. She fanned her face with one hand, pretending to be flustered.  Or she might actually have been blushing underneath her makeup.  “We have a bit of a fashion world celebrity here today!”

Adrien slowly began to step backwards. Marinette giggled.  People began crowding around them, with more steadily trickling in from the other rooms of the exhibit.

“I’d recognize your Agreste designer clothes anywhere,” Madame Pastella pulled her fists to her chest in excitement, biting her lip with a face that was too old for her expression to be flattering, too fake in her sweetness for it to be sincere.  “May I present teen fashion model, Adrien Agreste!” she gestured widely, as if Adrien’s presence was her surprise gift to her guests.  “Surely you could be kind enough to try something on for us?”

“I – I can’t, really,” Adrien muttered weakly.  Marinette was looking at him.  He didn’t need all this attention in front of her.  Couldn’t these people go away?  And stop acting like his pretty face and Agreste name meant he was better than anyone?  It didn’t matter, there was nothing he could do even if he wanted to.  “I’m not supposed to… it’s in my contract.”

“You have a contract with your father?” Marinette began, but Madame Pastella cut her off.

“Ohhh, I think surely we can put all of our cameras and phones down for a moment, if it means Adrien Agreste would try on an off-label topcoat?”

Marinette softly touched his upper arm.  “Whatever you’re comfortable with, Adrien.  It’s okay if you just want to go.”

Adrien offered her a quick smile and a nod before turning to Madame Faux Pastella.  He hoped it wouldn’t come to leaving early.  “I’m sorry, Madame Pastella. I can’t.”

“Well okay then,” she answered him tersely, a strange smile forming tightly across her face. “Ladies and gentlemen, we do have on display here tonight the Agreste Designer EGO.”

“Excuse me?!” Marinette shot back before Adrien could realize what was happening.

“Just. Like. His father.”

Rage.  He didn’t even know Marinette had that much anger inside her.  For just one moment the muscles in her face contorted, and her right hand kept grasping a patch of air by her waist as if something was supposed to be there.

“Marinette,” he placed a hand on her shoulder.  He had to jump in before things got worse. “Just, just let it be, alright?”

“No Adrien.” She took three steps towards Madame Faux Pastella. The crowd around them was blankly silent.  Adrien didn’t know what he could say.  “You don’t have to be brave, Adrien, not when I’m the reason you’re here to be subjected to this,” she said, looking back at him.  Then she turned to face Madame Pastella.  “This boy you’ve insulted doesn’t have a drop of ego in his entire body. I, on the other hand, am far too proud to see someone I care about insulted for not wearing your lazy patterns, anachronistic cuts, and subpar stitching.”

Madame Faux Pastella let out an exaggerated gasp and clapped her hands to her chest, one and then the other, creating two dramatic thumps.  “Subpar stitching?!”

Around them the crowd of people laughed.

But Adrien had fallen into his own internal world.  You don’t have to be brave.  Was that how she saw him?

It had to be, right?

He had pushed her onto the grass to help her dodge the shot. He took her hand and ran with her. He wanted nothing more than to keep her safe, and he had done everything he could – but that meant letting go of her hand – saving her meant abandoning her to join Gamer’s inhumane power supply.  It’s true, he returned moments later as Chat Noir, and he took her as far away from the danger as he possibly could.  But Adrien didn’t.

Adrien ditched her.

He didn’t have to be brave.  If she knew him she would never say that. But she couldn’t know him.

Of course she must see him as a coward.  Had she come to peace with that?  Maybe.  But that wasn’t who he was.  And he would probably have to ditch her again.  If they continued dating, if he fell in love with her the way he found himself wanting to, he would have to do it a lot, every single time there was trouble.

Yet again he found that Marinette made him see himself in different ways.  Adrien the model wasn’t just fake and perfect.  He was fake and flawed.

He stepped forward and took Marinette by the shoulder for the second time. “Marinette, don’t.  The last thing we need is an akuma interrupting our night.”  He looked into her eyes, took a second to admire her strength, and then turned to Madame Pastella. “I’m sorry, Madame Pastella, please forgive us.”

“Alright Adrien,” Marinette said, offering him a sheepish smile before continuing in a tone both kind and forced. “I’m also very sorry, Madame Pastella. Your designs really are lovely.”

Many of the people surrounding them nodded, a few even clapped, and somebody grumbled, “There’s always more drama than there needs to be.”

But Madame Faux Pastella had fallen silent and still, her face curious and blank.

“What’s this, now?” she began.  “You’re worried about hurting MY feelings?  Because I might become an akuma?”

She gave out a sickly fake laugh.  The people around them joined her with laughter that was a little more real.

“You certainly do live the privileged life, boychild Agreste, to be able to avoid the bad moments with such fervor.”  The contempt in her tone carried more villainy in it than the super-powered akumas that had so often tried to kill him.  “Do you truly believe that a bad moment could ever be so rare as that?  Hundreds of thousands of people are having bad days right now across Paris.  I’ll go ahead and admit it, I have bad days all the time, and so does everyone around me.  And like most of the people in Paris, nobody I know has been seized by a butterfly yet.”

Adrien reached down and held Marinette’s hand.  Both of them squeezed tightly.

“Believe me,” Madame Pastella went on.  “There’s nothing about your arrogant pretty boy face and your girlfriend’s petty fashion ignorance that’s special enough to change that now.”  She waved them to the door, and a few people stepped aside to make room for them.  “But go on, you can leave knowing that my mood today is just as bad as it was yesterday, and yet Paris will still be perfectly safe from me.”

- - - - - - - - - -

Adrien was… lonely.  No, dreamy. Sad?  And hot.

He was the quiet broody type, only he was chatty, charming, and damnit, he knew how to smile.

Marinette was starting to figure him out.  He was the best puzzle ever.  And the more she asked him about himself, the more he gave her that look, that scared shy smile that made her heart squeal.

Alya had warned her ahead of time. Adrien had told her himself. And Marinette took their words to heart.  He didn’t want to be with some girl crushing on him. He wanted to be with a friend.

Marinette really wanted to be both.  Crushing on Adrien was too much fun.  And being friends with him was easy, and right.  And she was sure he was feeling the same way.

How long did it take him to scan and print his father’s sketchbooks?  Gabriel was so secretive about things like that Adrien had to have done it himself, and just since she asked him out yesterday.  She was going to spend the rest of her fashion career flipping through it, and he did it for her so casually.  That was kind, and it had to mean something to him.

He said she was beautiful.  And he blushed, a lot.  And then, damnit, she told off Madame Pastella.

Had she been too mean?  Did it intimidate him?  He might’ve been afraid of her now, and not in more of the coy, afraid-to-be-personal sort of way.  They had left the exhibit holding hands, but then he started pulling away, and she couldn’t think of any other reason why.

“Thanks for calming me down back there,” Marinette said when the they got back into the car, trying to repair some of the damage.  “That was a disaster.”

“I’m just sorry you couldn’t enjoy the exhibit,” Adrien said.  And he smiled, because of course he smiled.  And he even looked at her warmly.  But it was in his tone.  A twitch in his eyes. The lack of touch.  He was responding to her.  He had lost his initiative.

Or maybe she was imagining it.  Were all boys this good at hiding their feelings?  At least the cat hid his feelings with puns.

When they got to the restaurant she could never afford, he took her hand to lead her out of the car, but then he let go to shut the door with both hands, and never took it again.

The inside of the restaurant was covered in beige and shades of muted green, making a subtle backdrop for the bright flowers on the tables and the lights that spotted the dance floor. But Adrien had the waitress take them to a table across the other end of the room where they could talk with less noise.  And for twenty minutes they talked about Nino and Alya, about homework and class, and their kind teacher Ms. Bustier. 

Adrien’s eyes followed the waitress’ hands as she lay his plate of roasted duck, cannellini beans, sautéed apples, and a side of baked camembert in front of him.  But then after the waitress left, his eyes kept staring, down, at his plate, and wouldn’t come back up for air.

“This isn’t being fair to you, Marinette,” Adrien said at last.  He lifted his eyes to look at her, and somehow just the sight of his expression made her want to cry.  “You’ve always been an amazing friend. And spending time with you tonight, this has been everything to me.  But.  I think we should stay as friends.”

Friends.

This was happening. No arguing with him. No making a scene. Just take it. Be a friend. Feel all the feels later. Decide if she wanted to hate him, later, but ohh, she could never.

Maybe a friend really was all he wanted from her from the beginning. But that wasn’t right. He told her he liked her – with his words, with his eyes and his smile, with the way he took her hand. This date wasn’t fake. Something went wrong.

“…friends,” she said. It was hard not to cry. It was hard not to get flustered. It was hard not to dump out all of her feelings onto him.  She was Ladybug, damnit.  She could be strong enough to deal with this like a decent human being, even if it was going to hurt to look at him for probably the rest of her life. “I want to be your friend, Adrien. But I can tell that I did something wrong. Or that something happened. And even as your friend I want to know what that was.”

“Wrong…?” Adrien didn’t hesitate. “Marinette, you’ve been nothing but amazing tonight. You’re insightful, you’re brave, and it’s been great for me to be able to open up to you. I would love to spend more time with you.  It’s just… that there’s…”

His voice died in him.

Adrien just said she was amazing.

Damnit.

“There’s somebody else?” She had to know.

For half a second Adrien smiled before his face turned into a guilty cringe.  “There is someone else I had feelings for, and she turned me down.”  He shook his head, and his face put on an awkward smile. “But it’s not about her.  There’s something that we do that nobody else is a part of. And it wouldn’t be fair to let myself fall in love with you if I can’t let you share in the most important part of my life.”

She should’ve known what mattered most to him.  From the beginning.  He had even signed a contract.

“Of course you’re in love with a model.” Marinette looked aside and stared at some checkered painting on the wall, taking a breath to catch all her loose feels before they spilled.  She wiped a napkin across her eyes as quick as she could. It was better than letting them tear up. “So was I.”

“Right. The modeling.” Adrien’s face became still, the same awkward smile lingering a little long. “That’s… what’s most important to me.”

“I hope she returns your affections,” Marinette said. Or she tried to say, but it was closer to a mumble.  She stood up and pushed in her chair. Adrien’s face still didn’t change. Even if he looked a little cute, he was hiding his real feelings by now. “I’m going to go.  I think I need a few Adriens – uhh, days, Adrien.”

“Yeah…” he said. And then Marinette turned to go, and it was like something in the boy broke.  “Wait, Marinette!” he called to her. She turned back.  His eyes were wide and pleading. “That isn’t what I - the truth is I’m Ch – chahh! –“

Her sky blue scarf – his, rather – it leapt off the chair and snapped around his neck while he spoke, cutting off his expression, his words, and his air, strangling him. Adrien buckled forward and fell off his chair.

Marinette leapt forward. With one hand she pulled back at the scarf choking against his neck, and with the other she snatched a steak knife from the table and cut through the fabric.  It fell loose around them, and Adrien looked up at her with a face that made her melt.

“Ohh, the young boychild Agreste has a savior.”

Her sickeningly high pitched voice echoed around the room.  Her dark red dress swept the floor around her when she walked through the main doors.  A crippling gold corset narrowed her waist into an inhuman feat of evil slender.  A ring of different colored gemstones circled about her neck in a spinner, with the one in the middle a sky blue hue.

“Will this savior die for her boy?”

“DON’T TOUCH HIM!” Marinette shouted. “DON’T TOUCH HER!” Adrien had shouted with her.  Together their voices wracked the room.

“Madame Faux Pastella?” Marinette asked as she got a good look at her.

“Ohh no no my dears.” Her sickly white face smiled beneath a butterfly bonnet.  “She was too old fashioned for me.  I am,” she flung her hand out with a flourish as she screamed out her name, “FASHIONISTA!”  Confetti shot from her sleeve and landed across people’s dinners.  “And today I will end the Agreste designer name.”