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A Different Approach

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A rush of red magic flowed around Cat Noir, and the world returned to normal. He let out a breath of relief. The akumatized supervillain had destroyed most of his school this time, which was not something he liked to see. He and Ladybug had gotten most of his friends and teachers to safety before it had happened, but there were a few left unaccounted for, and he was afraid of what could have happened to them. With all the exploding walls and falling rubble that had been flying around . . .

But everything was fine now. Ladybug’s magic had put everything to right.

He shared a celebratory fist-bump with his partner, and his ring beeped. A moment later, her earrings did the same.

“Better go,” she said, still beaming with victory.

“Miss you already, Milady,” he shot back, getting half an eyeroll in response. She’d made it clear she was only interested in him as a friend, but Cat Noir was not so easily dissuaded. He’d wear her down eventually.

Before they could both bound away, a child’s cry caught their attention. The akuma victim was a little kid, and he was looking around, lost and scared and crying for his mom. Ladybug’s magic didn’t put the victims back where they’d been originally, which was usually not a problem, but they were usually a lot older. Cat Noir took a step toward the kid, but Ladybug held her arm out across his chest, stopping him.

“I can handle it,” she assured him.

“But your spots—”

“I’ve still got three minutes.” She pointed to his ring. “You’re on your last one.”

He looked down. She was right. With a small yelp of panic, he darted away, trusting that Ladybug would get the kid sorted before she transformed back.

Cat Noir ducked into the boys’ bathroom and slammed the door behind him, pressing his back against it to make sure no one followed him in. He barely had time to glance around and see that he was alone before the transformation swept over him and an exhausted Plagg plopped onto the floor.

The kwami’s green eyes blinked open. “A bathroom floor? Really? I guess I should be glad you didn’t transform in a stall and let me fall into the toilet.”

Adrien scooped him up in his hands. “Sorry, Plagg. You want me to, uh, give you a bath?”

Plagg’s cat eyes widened in horror, and he found the energy to lift himself into the air. “Don’t you dare! I can clean myself, thank you very much.”

Adrien shrugged and opened his outer shirt. “I’ll get you some food as soon as I can, but while I’m here, I actually do need to use the toilet. Turns out there are some down sides to a costume that’s stuck on with unbreakable magic.”

A couple minutes later, he stood in one of the stalls, having just zipped up his fly and about to flush, when he heard the bathroom door burst open and then slam closed. Before he could open the stall door to ask whoever it was if there was another attack happening—because it sure sounded like someone had just flown into the room as if fleeing for his life—a flash of light came from outside the stall, and he heard distinctly feminine panting.

Phew,” said what was definitely a girl’s voice. “That was close.”

His hand, already on the latch of the stall’s door, fell to his side. Well, this is awkward. For a second, he wondered what he should do. Given how out of breath the girl sounded and the fact that she’d run into the boys’ bathroom apparently without realizing it, it could mean there was danger, which he should find out about right away so he could get Plagg some food and go deal with it. But what if she was escaping some normal teen drama situation and the wrong bathroom thing was a simple mistake? If Adrien showed himself, the girl would be embarrassed, and he’d rather not embarrass her if he didn’t have to.

As he stood pondering this, he heard a second voice say, “It sure was.” Adrien frowned. That didn’t sound like any girl he knew. It didn’t sound like any girl his age at all. It sounded way too . . . small.

He heard a click, a rustle, then a sound like munching.

“Eat quick, Tikki,” said the girl. “I need to get back out there. I wasn’t able to find any adult to get that poor kid home, and I told Alix I only needed her to watch the boy for a minute.”

Ladybug?! Adrien almost shouted it in surprise, but he slammed his hand over his mouth and managed to keep the thought in his head. Curiosity flared inside him, and he looked through the crack in the stall between the door and the wall, shifting until he found the angle that gave him a view of the bathroom door and the girl standing in front of it. He could see hair that looked like Ladybug’s, and clothes that were definitely not Ladybug’s but vaguely familiar, but the girl’s face was hidden by a small, red thing floating in the air with its back to him, which seemed to be eating a cookie. A small, red thing that could only be a kwami.

It is Ladybug! It took everything he had not to do a little dance of excitement. He may have still bopped up and down a bit without moving his feet, and he definitely grinned like a maniac. She was right here! As soon as her kwami moved, he’d see who she was!

Suddenly, he stood straight, losing his view through the crack. He shouldn’t be spying on Ladybug. This was his partner. She trusted him. She didn’t want him to know who she was, and he wanted to respect that—no matter how much he also wanted to know her real identity.

Adrien clenched his fists at his side, stiffened his back, and set his jaw. He’d resist the temptation. He had to. For Ladybug.

“Recharged, Tikki?” the girl asked after another few seconds.

“Yes, but . . .” The kwami’s voice sounded stronger now, but wary, and it trailed off.

The girl gasped.

Adrien grimaced. He didn’t have to peek to guess what was happening. Ladybug’s kwami had alerted her to the fact that one of the stall doors was closed and the bathroom wasn’t as empty as she’d thought.

He heard small, clumsy movements and frantic whispers of, “Oh, no! What should I do?” that the girl apparently thought were quiet enough that he wouldn’t hear, followed by a tiny, barely audible shushing sound. Then the girl laughed very loudly and very fakely. “Glad I could help, Tikki, my friend and fellow classmate who also goes to school here and is a human girl my age!”

Adrien facepalmed as quietly as he could. Come on, Ladybug, get it together. You can do this! Why was she acting so weird? Ladybug was always so confident and collected. What was wrong with her now?

The door opened, the girl stomped loudly on the floor as if someone were leaving, and the door slammed shut again.

“Now I guess I’ll go to the bathroom while I’m here,” she said to the room at large.

Adrien inwardly groaned. Just leave, Ladybug. Just turn and leave and I won’t see you!

He almost said it out loud, but what if she recognized his voice? She’d know Cat Noir had maybe seen who she really was, and things might get weird between them. And would she even believe him that he hadn’t seen, knowing as she did that he wanted to know her real identity?

Then, with the sneaky craftiness of a bull elephant, the girl who was Ladybug walked straight to his stall—which, he realized an instant too late, he’d already unlatched the lock of before he’d heard her first Phew—and pushed it open.

The door smacked him in the arm and made him stumble. He lost his balance, fell backward with a cry, and landed on the toilet.

In the shock of the moment, he looked up into her eyes before he could stop himself. He gaped, stunned speechless.

It was Marinette. His brave, bold Ladybug was awkward, babbling Marinette.

“Adrien?” she squeaked, her hands flying up to cover her mouth even as a blush painted her whole face, the effect looking a lot like a red mask. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t—” She looked around. “What are you doing in the—”

Boys’ bathroom?” he finished, standing.

Her eyes widened in humiliation. She glanced down, then covered her eyes before she could register that his clothes were all where they should be, and stepped back. Then stumbled, of course, because it was Marinette, and Adrien had to dive to catch her before she hit the floor and gave herself a concussion.

For a brief second, he held her in his arms like they were dancing, and he had the urge to say something flirty and outrageous. But he couldn’t do that. He wasn’t Cat Noir; he was Adrien. So all he could manage was to let a blush bloom across his own face, help her find her footing, and step back.

“I’m so sorry, Adrien!” she squeaked. “I was in a hurry and I—needed a—door—to, um, bath in and—now I have to—” She turned to run, but he grabbed her hand, jerking them both almost off their feet, but he held on. She didn’t try to pull away, instead staring at their joined hands with what looked a lot like terror.

“Marinette, wait. I need to . . .” He rubbed the back of his head. He felt awful. He hadn’t wanted her to feel embarrassed about her mistake when she was only some girl he didn’t know. He wanted it even less knowing it was his friend Marinette. And he hated seeing Ladybug in such distress. “It’s okay. It’s fine. I won’t tell anyone.”

Her gaze shot to his, and he realized with a start that what he’d said could mean two different things.

“I’ve made mistakes, too,” he clarified. “I won’t tell anyone about this, so you don’t need to be embarrassed. It’s just me.”

“Heh heh. Yeah. Just you,” she said with a stiff, painful smile.

I should let go of her hand. The thought crossed his mind, but the message wasn’t communicated down his arm. He’d held Ladybug’s hand before, but never without their gloves. Her bare skin felt nice against his.

But from the panic in her face, it didn’t look like she was enjoying it very much. And if she knew he was Cat Noir, taking advantage of this panicked out-of-costume moment, she’d kick his tail half-way across Paris.

He could let her go, but then she wouldn’t know what he knew or didn’t know, and that would bother her. “Don’t run off. Wait a second,” he said, dropping her hand.

She turned like she was about to run off. “Can’t. I need to—”

“The little boy. I know.”

She stopped and faced him, and the naked fear in her eyes made him ache to hug her and tell her everything was fine. “What little boy?” she asked in a tight breath.

“Why did you open the one stall door that was closed?” he asked gently. He didn’t make her answer, continuing before she could. “Was it to see who was in there? To see what they’d heard? And . . . seen?”

She laughed manically and made an overly casual hand gesture. “What? Pfft! No. It was just, uh, me being stupid Marinette! You know how I am! Why, what did you hear?”

“Everything.”

“And,” she said, all the false confidence gone, “see?”

“Your little red floating friend.”

“Oh! You mean—my cat! That’s my cat! It’s a special breed!”

Adrien was pretty sure he heard Plagg make a sound of indignation from inside his pocket. “Who is also a human girl your age?”

Marinette slapped her hand over her face. “It was nothing! Please, Adrien, just—you didn’t see anything, okay? Forget whatever you saw!”

“Marinette, I can’t!” He needed her to know her secret was safe with him. “But I won’t tell anyone! I promise!” He had more he wanted to say, but she didn’t let him finish.

She made a face that looked like a cross between a cringe and a smile, and ran out of the bathroom.