Actions

Work Header

The Rejects Club

Chapter Text

Nino reaches across the table, bringing a palm down to cover the soups and salads portion of Adrien’s menu. “My dude,” he intones with great solemnity. “I know your handlers have got you brainwashed and everything, but you’re not actually a rabbit. Mec, you need to eat some real food. Seriously.”

Adrien’s nose crinkles as he chuckles, “Nino, I appreciate your concern, but I like salad.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Nino informs as if he’s revealing the decade’s biggest conspiracy.

Adrien scratches at the back of his neck, lips pursed. “Would it make you feel better if I ordered it with salmon?”

“Dude, Adrien, just get a galette or something. How about some pasta? Baked spaghetti slathered in cheese and—” Nino cuts himself off as he notices the grimace quickly spreading across his best friend’s face. “—Problem?”

Adrien shakes his head and tries to smile, but it still comes off a bit pained. “There’s this one photographer I work with that always describes the poses and expressions he wants from me in terms of reactions to pasta. I have nightmares where he screams at me for not being able to capture the essence of taking a bite of spaghetti affectionately prepared for me by someone who loves me.”

Nino winces and feels a sudden gratitude that he only has to deal with normal people problems. “I can see why you wouldn’t be a fan of pasta, dealing with that.”

“Yeah,” Adrien sighs, resting his elbow on the table and cupping his cheek in his hand. “Besides, I really just want a salad. I’m not especially feeling like carbs at the moment.”

Nino raises an eyebrow and smirks puckishly. “I bet you’d change your tune if Marinette showed up with a box of pain au chocolat or mille-feuille.”

Adrien rolls his eyes and clicks his tongue. “Oh, Nino,” he chides. “Everybody knows that everything Marinette makes is magically carb-free. Duh.”

Adrien looks over his shoulder, searching the restaurant for any sign of their tardy companions. He turns back to Nino with a frown. “Alya said they were on their way, right? Did they want us to order for them, or has she texted you with an ETA or something?”

Nino pretends to check his phone for messages for Adrien’s benefit because the model does not know that Marinette and Alya are currently hiding within earshot, waiting for Nino to ask Adrien The Question.

Nino shrugs. “Dunno. Last I heard, they were en route, so they should be showing up any minute.”

Adrien hums thoughtfully and returns his gaze to the menu, studying the non-salad options just to please Nino.

“So…what do you think of Marinette?” Nino asks, seemingly out of the blue.

Adrien gives a start. “Marinette? Marinette’s great, why?”

Has Adrien missed something? Has Marinette been acting weir—weirder than normal lately? Is there something wrong with Marinette that a good friend would have noticed?

Adrien never feels like a good friend.

Nino shakes his head, chagrinned. “Dude, I meant ‘what do you think of Marinette romantically’.”

Adrien stares perplexed at his friend before repeating, “Romantically.” like a contestant in a spelling bee who has never heard the word he has been asked to spell.

Nino nods. “Romantically.”

The staring contest continues until Adrien finally regains enough composure to reply, “I don’t.”

Nino’s eyebrow begins to climb. “You don’t.”

“Think of her romantically,” Adrien amends, hand going to the back of his neck to scratch self-consciously. “I mean…sure, Marinette is, objectively, an attractive girl, and she’s super nice and everything…. I like hanging out, the four of us, and I think she’s funny and kind of cool when I see her interacting with other people, but, even though we’ve known each other for, like, four years now, I don’t really feel like I know her very well, you know?”

Nino’s eyes narrow, and Adrien preemptively answers the anticipated “What do you mean you don’t feel like you know her very well? We’ve all been hanging out regularly for nearly three years, Dude”.

“—I mean, yeah, we’ve spent time together in a group, but Marinette doesn’t really talk to me unless she has to, and when she has to, it always seems to make her super uncomfortable. How could I think of her romantically when we’re not even all that close as friends?”

Nino nods slowly, gazing down at the tabletop but not seeming to really see it.

“Besides,” Adrien continues to make his case. “There’s someone else.”

Nino’s head automatically snaps back up. “What? Mec, seriously? This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Adrien’s cheeks light up in a rosy, photogenic blush, and a soft, dreamy smile spreads lazily across his lips. “Well…yeah. It’s not something I really talk about because most people would think I was crazy or delusional or something, but…Nino, I’m in love with Ladybug.”

Nino blinks. Once, twice, and then theatrically sticks a pinkie finger in his ear as if to clean it out. “Sorry. What? I thought I heard you say you were in love with Ladybug.”

Adrien’s blush deepens in response, and he shrugs bashfully.

“Dude. I know you didn’t have a lot of practice with interactions with other human beings before you transferred to our school, so, as your best bud, I feel like I owe it to you to explain that celebrity crushes—while perfectly fine and normal even—aren’t substitutes for actual romantic relationships in the real world.”

Adrien blows out a slow, disappointed breath and mutters down at the table, “Nino, I know you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I am serious. I am desperately in love with her. I have been since we were thirteen.”

“Dude, I don’t doubt you at all. I know that if you say you feel that way, it’s real for you. The problem is that there are literally half a million people in Paris alone who are in love with Ladybug. Now, you’re awesome, and I know how rich and famous you are, but, somehow, I don’t think Ladybug is ever gonna return your feelings.”

Adrien winces as if Nino has physically struck him.

Nino continues in a coaxing tone like one beckoning to an injured animal. “Wouldn’t you rather try getting to know a real girl—someone accessible, attainable? Marinette’s really great once she warms up to you. She’s just nervous around you because you’re an Agreste. You know, what with your father and your modeling career and your mansion and your bodyguard and your servants and everything. She’s just a little intimidated.”

“After four years?” Adrien wonders aloud not for the first time.

“Okay. Yeah. She’s a lot intimidated,” Nino concedes. “But—”

“—I’m sorry, Nino, but could we drop this? Please?”

Adrien sends him a pleading look, visibly uncomfortable, and Nino knows that he won’t be doing anyone any favors by continuing to press, even though the girls are counting on him.

Nino gives a slight nod of assent, going back to the menu, even though he had already decided what he was going to order before they got there.

“I know Ladybug might never return my feelings,” Adrien adds in a miserable whisper a few seconds after Nino had thought the discussion was over. “but I can’t just give up on her. I’ve already given her my heart, and I don’t think that’s something you can give a second time.”

“All right,” Nino breathes. “I get it.”

Part of Nino thinks it’s cute how much of a romantic Adrien is. Another part worries that Adrien has read too many fairytales. Relationships in real life aren’t like in the books and the movies, and he’s concerned that Adrien’s only going to end up hurting himself and missing out because of his naivety. Not that now is the right time to get into that.

“But if you change your mind…” He lets the suggestion hang out there. Adrien can make his own decisions; Nino just wants his friend to know what the options are.

An awkward silence falls between them, and it’s at least two minutes before either of them speaks.

“Nino, why’d you bring this up all of the sudden?” Adrien cautiously considers his friend.

Nino shrugs. “Dunno, Mec. I was just thinking…” He trails off as something over Adrien’s shoulder catches his eye.

Adrien turns to see Alya making her way to their table, looking grave.

She raises a hand halfheartedly in greeting.

“Hey.” Nino’s eyes search hers, silently asking, “Marinette?”

Alya shakes her head slowly, and there’s a fire smoldering in her hazel eyes. Alya is ticked but doing her best to keep it together because exploding and chewing out Adrien for what he unwittingly just did to Marinette will not help anyone.

“Hey, Alya,” Adrien sings cheerily, relieved because he believes her arrival will dispel the tension leftover from the previous conversation.

Adrien frowns as it dawns on him that something—someone—is missing. “Where’s Marinette?” He gives the restaurant a quick scan.

“Bathroom,” Alya replies tersely. “She’s not feeling so good. I’m gonna take her home.”

Nino nods knowingly. “Want me to drop by with food later?”

Alya shakes her head. “She’s not gonna wanna eat, but thanks, Babe. I’ll text ya later.”

She turns to go but Adrien stops her. “Wait. I’ll call for a car, and—” He starts to stand, but Alya puts a strong hand on his shoulder and forces him back down.

“Don’t worry about it, Agreste. I’ve got this,” Alya insists. “You and Nino have dinner. I’ve gotta go.” She’s off before Adrien can get another word in.

He turns to Nino and frowns. “Gosh. I hope Marinette’s okay; Alya seemed really upset.”

“Yeah…” Nino mutters distractedly, feeling guilty on many levels: for his part in breaking Marinette’s heart…for going along with Alya’s scheme and going behind Adrien’s back… “Alya’s really protective of Marinette.”

Silence descends once more, and Adrien tries to resolve it with small talk because this heavy atmosphere is making him uneasy: “Did you decide what you’re going to get?”

Nino shrugs. “I don’t know. Suddenly, I’m not all that hungry. Maybe just a salad.”

Adrien nods and mutters, “Yeah…I don’t have much of an appetite either.”

 

Text Log

20:38

Alya: She finally cried herself to sleep.

Nino: Wanna come over and watch a movie or something?

20:44

Nino: Al?

Alya: Your best friend is a loser.

Nino: Be fair.

Nino: He never would have said all that to her face.

Nino: This is our fault for going behind his back and for getting her hopes up.

20:47

Alya: We had to do SOMETHING. She’s been nuts about him for four years now.

Alya: And who the hell carries a torch like that for a celebrity?!

Alya: Crazy people! That’s who!

Nino: Al, he doesn’t know that’s not normal. It’s not his fault.

Nino: He had some good points about not really knowing Marinette well.

20:50

Alya: He’s still a loser.

Nino: Do you wanna come over and have this fight in person?

Alya: No. I want to come over and snuggle and watch a movie,

Alya: but I’m covered in snot and tears.

Nino: Come anyway.

Nino: I feel like a crappy friend, and I could use some snuggling.

Alya: Be there in ten, Babe.

Alya: Order Chinese.

Chapter Text

The room feels like it always does: too expansive, too empty, too sterile. Adrien is a zoo animal trapped in a museum display: Behold perfect teenage boy in his natural habitat.

It’s suffocating on a good day. Today, after that awkward dinner with Nino, it’s unbearable.

“Plagg, wanna go for a run?” Adrien enquires in a hopeful singsong.

“Not on your life, Kid,” the kwami scoffs, floating off towards the minifridge in the corner filled mostly with cheese. “Why don’t you go play a video game or something?”

Adrien pouts. “Because I want to burn off some nervous energy. You heard how weird things were at dinner.”

Plagg snorts before swallowing a whole wheel of Roquefort. “You made things weird at dinner. How about that one game where you stomp around and wave your arms like a wounded squirrel?”

“DDR?” Adrien tips his head to the side, wearing a blank expression.

“Sure.” Plagg shrugs.

“How about we go for a run instead?” Adrien smirks, showing more teeth than strictly necessary.

“Oh n—” Plagg begins to sigh, but Adrien cuts him off.

“—Plagg! Transform me!”

With a flash of green, Adrien and his problems are gone, and Chat Noir is free to roam the rooftops of Paris. He vaults out of Adrien’s floor-to-ceiling bedroom window and races along the Left Bank, following the Seine towards Notre Dame. He crosses over to the Right Bank near the Pont des Arts just as the bells of one of the many churches in the area strike nine o’clock.

He stops to survey his surroundings, taking in the stars (mostly washed out by the city lights but still visible) and the comforting mutterings of the streets of Paris: cars honking, purse-dogs barking, people sitting outside at a nearby café laughing. The day crowd is turning in while the night owls are just starting to come out to play.

Chat crosses the Pont Saint-Michel, and he’s over by school, over by Marinette’s house. He wonders if she’s feeling any better. Her bedroom light is on, so he ventures closer to investigate, landing on the little row of chimneys overlooking her balcony.

Low and behold, Marinette Dupain-Cheng is out in the pre-spring night air, hair down around her shoulders and in her pajamas, slumped over the railing.

Chat is about to call out to her when he sees her body convulse with a stifled sob. He hesitates. Either she needs help because she’s so sick that she’s in enough pain to make her cry, or Chat needs to go because he’s intruding on a very private moment that Marinette would be upset to find out he was witnessing.

Chat’s decision is made for him when he notices a toxically beautifully purple and black butterfly drifting in on the breeze, heading straight for his unsuspecting friend.

“Marinette!” he shouts. “Akuma! Watch out!”

She jerks up, going rigid as she whips her head this way and that in search of the threat. Spotting it coming in on her left, she backs up and trips, upsetting one of her flowerpots.

Chat Noir leaps down from his perch, landing in a squat in front of Marinette and then drawing his staff with a flourish as he comes to standing. He puts himself between his friend and the akuma, holding his staff like a sword and daring the butterfly to try to get Marinette on his watch.

“Over my dead body, Papillon,” Chat hisses, the hair on the back of his neck starting to rise. “I won’t let you have her!”

The akuma lists from side to side, seeming to consider this declaration before lunging forward, towards the baton.

“Chat Noir!” Marinette shrieks, launching herself at him awkwardly, succeeding both in knocking him out of the way and shoving him into the little wooden tea table.

“This place is too crowded,” Chat groans, pushing himself back up while simultaneously keeping one eye on the attacking akuma. “Come on, Princess. We’re getting out of here.”

Before Marinette can protest, she’s scooped into his arms and letting out an involuntary gasp as he bounds from rooftop to rooftop, dropping down suddenly from time to time, making her stomach drop, and then leaping just as quickly and effortlessly up two stories.

“Don’t worry, Princess. I’ve got you,” he whispers reassuringly into her hair.

Marinette tightens her hold around him and looks back over his shoulder.

The akuma is keeping up.

“Chat Noir, you can’t outrun this thing,” she gently breaks the news as Chat crosses the Pont Neuf back over to the Right Bank.

“I’ll be damned if I don’t try,” he insists, teeth bared. “I swear, I’m not letting him get you.”

“Chat Noir, I don’t think it’s after me anymore,” she informs, brow creasing. “I’m calm now. I think it’s after you.”

Chat gives her the best quizzical look possible from his current angle. “Me? What do you mean?”

“Your negative emotions are a lot stronger than mine at the moment,” she explains as Chat tears through Les Halles, swinging a left and coming up on the Louvre. “You need to calm down. Stop running and take some deep breaths. It can’t get you, if you’re calm.”

Chat reluctantly slows to a stop in order to follow her instructions. “Okay,” he sighs, “but if that thing flings itself at you again, we’re bolting.” He sets her down but keeps her close, placing his hand at the small of her back as he turns to stare down the approaching akuma.

“It’s not going to get me,” Marinette whispers, and it takes a minute for Chat to register that she’s saying this aloud for his benefit. “There’s no need to be scared or angry because I’m stronger than Papillon.” She wraps her arms around his right one and hugs it to her chest. “I can win against this thing.”

Strangely enough, he believes her. His fists and jaw start to unclench, and his breath begins to even out.

But then the akuma catches up. It’s mere feet in front of them.

Chat tenses.

“Shh,” Marinette coos. “I’m safe. There’s no need to get upset.”

Chat forces himself to take another calming breath.

The akuma floats, considering the pair for a minute. It seems to tip to the side in confusion before giving up and flying off.

There’s a beat in which they both hold their breath until the akuma flits out of sight. Then, Marinette’s legs give out on her, turning to jelly as she slides off of Chat’s arm and sinks to the rooftop.

“Marinette!” Chat gasps, kneeling beside her, frantically checking for injuries. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

He gets a giddy chuckle for his trouble. “Yep. All good.”

Her unnatural laughter does not inspire confidence. “You…sure about that, Princess?”

She gives him a thumbs up, still giggling in a manner that is borderline hysteric. “Absolutely. I just almost got myself and Paris’s favorite superhero akumatized because this is the day that I’m having.”

Suddenly, she comes to her senses, and her eyes widen. She’s on her feet, searching frantically for any sign of the akuma. “Chat Noir!” She catches his arm just as he stands. “You have to go after that butterfly. Call Ladybug. It has to be purified, or it could akumatized somebody else!”

Chat Noir puts a hand on her shoulder. “Whoa, Princess. Calm down, or it could come back for you.”

An expression flickers on Marinette’s face, as if she’s unsure whether that would be a good thing or not.

Chat scans the area and shakes his head. “I don’t see it. Even with my night vision…”

“Well, we know it flew off that way.” Marinette gestures towards the Louvre with one hand while the other rakes through her hair in agitation. “Can’t you go after it and see if you find it? If someone else gets akumatized, it’ll be all my fault.”

Chat raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. “Princess, if someone gets akumatized, it’s Papillon’s fault. Sure, that akuma might have originally been after you, but in order to get akumatized, the other person has to be experiencing some kind of negative emotion anyway, right? And you’re not the one causing them to feel that way, so how is that your fault?”

Marinette purses her lips, staring him down as she attempts to come up with some way to counter his logic. After a minute, she blows out a long sigh and visibly deflates. “All right, but I’d still feel better if you went after it.”

“And leave a cute girl all alone on a strange rooftop at night in her pajamas? I don’t think so,” Chat scoffs. “I’ll call LB and give her a heads up, but an akuma attack really isn’t such a big deal, Princess. I’ll keep an eye on my phone for alerts, or I’ll see it stalking the streets, tearing up Paris, and so will Ladybug. If someone else does get akumatized, we’ll take care of it. No need to worry, see?”

Marinette fails to be reassured. Her brow creases and her eyes narrow. “It sure seemed like a big deal to you two minutes ago when I was the one about to get akumatized,” she observes.

Words momentarily escape Chat as he realizes that she’s right. He was nearly ballistic when it was Marinette about to become Papillon’s puppet. He files this away to consider later and dips into an exaggerated bow.

“That’s because you’re special.” He takes her hand as he straightens, and their eyes lock as he places a chaste kiss on her knuckles. “A knight should never have to fight his princess, and I could never raise a hand against you, Marinette.”

She stares at him dumbly, vaguely startled. He’s seen this expression before over the course of their friendship. It’s the face she made when they’d just met as Marinette and Adrien and he’d handed her an umbrella and apologized for her bad first impression of him.

He can almost see the thoughts as they wiz through her mind: “Is he serious?”, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?”, “What do I even say to that?”

Adrien knows that Marinette isn’t really fond of Chat Noir. She doesn’t dislike him, and she appreciates what he does for Paris, but she’s not infatuated with him like she pretended to be when they first met. She’ll stroke his ego from time to time, but she’ll also mock him behind his back. She thinks he’s too full of himself and a raging flirt to boot. Marinette doesn’t put Chat Noir on a pedestal, and that’s something he kind of likes about her.

She finally remembers to withdraw her hand, and the eye contact breaks as she rolls hers dramatically at his theatrics. “Well, let’s just hope you never have to. Ladybug will get really ticked if you refuse to help her fight an akuma.”

“Do you think she’ll get jealous?” Chat snickers. He can only dream.

Marinette gives him another eye roll. “No. Now, if you’re not going after that akuma, at least call Ladybug and tell her to be at the ready. Please?”

“Anything for you, Princess.” With a wink, he activates the phone function of his staff. It goes to voicemail, so he leaves a message. “Happy?” he asks Marinette.

She looks tired and cold.

“Appeased,” she corrects with a shiver.

It’s late March, and the nights are still cold, especially for someone in a thin, spaghetti strap tank top.

He opens his arms to her. “Come on, Princess. Let’s get you home.”

She nods and lets him scoop her into a bridal style hold.

The sprint back to her balcony is accompanied only by the street sounds, the lap of the Seine, the pre-recorded audio-tour playing in at least six languages on the bateaux mouches tourist boats coming and going on either side of the Ile de la Cité.

He sets her down gently and finds himself missing the extra warmth. It wasn’t terribly noticeable through the suit, but Adrien rarely has much contact with other people outside of photoshoots. Holding her was nice.

She abruptly scampers down into her room through the skylight entrance, and Chat wonders if that’s it and where his goodbye kiss is. He’s not left to ponder long as she pops back up with blankets.

He raises an eyebrow, wondering what the heck is going on. It’s too cold for her to sleep out here. “Camping out, Princess?”

“Keeping watch,” she informs, wrapping the duvet around herself and getting comfy in her deckchair. “In case there’s an akuma attack.” She holds out the other blanket to him. “Sorry I don’t have another comfortable chair. Did you want to…” She trails off, remembering herself and suddenly feeling silly. “Though, I guess you have better things to do than sit around on my balcony waiting for an akuma attack that may or may not happen.”

“No, not really.” He reaches out for the blanket and makes himself as comfortable as he can on the wooden crate. “I’d actually like to hang around a bit and make sure you’re really all right, if you don’t mind.”

Marinette bites her lip and is about to argue when it occurs to her that “That might not be a horrible idea. I’m kind of…not at my best today.”

Chat nods. “We all have some version of ‘that day’ at some point or another.”

She sighs in defeat and wonders, “Even you?”

Chat keeps nodding, doesn’t mention the day his mother disappeared and his father shut down. It’d make them both feel worse, and somehow it doesn’t feel equal to Marinette getting food poisoning and almost ending up akumatized. It feels unfair of him, but he can’t help but think that she has no frame of reference for how bad things could really be. Not cheerful, kind Marinette with all her friends and her loving family and her bright future full of possibilities.

Chat Noir stops his dark thoughts in their tracks and tries to focus on the fact that his friend almost got akumatized. “By the way, how did you know you could fend off an akuma? You weren’t just guessing or testing a theory; you were certain.”

Marinette nibbles on her lip, and her smile comes out pained. “That’s…not the first time Papillon has tried to akumatized me.”

Chat’s mouth falls open.

“It’s actually…” She looks away, doing a mental tally. “Yeah. It’s happened a few times before.”

“You’re kidding me. You? But you’re so optimistic and forgiving and…what the hell happened?” He never would have guessed. He’s sure his eyes resemble tennis balls at the moment, he’s so stunned.

With a sheepish grin, she recounts, “The first time, I was fourteen, and my classmate—you know her. Chloe? The one that gets everyone akumatized?—she ruined the birthday present I had made for one of our teachers, and I lost it. The teacher took me aside and helped me calm down, saying that as Class Representative, I had to set a good example and stay calm and react with poise and all that.”

“So what happened?” Chat asks, even though he already knows the answer. He remembers that day. He just didn’t realize that that’s how it all had started.

Marinette winces. “I calmed down, but when my teacher saw the butterfly, she freaked out, and her fear for my sake got her akumatized.”

Chat takes a deep breath and lets it out. “I bet you felt bad afterwards, didn’t you?”

Marinette puts on a brave smile. “There wasn’t a whole lot of time to wallow in guilt what with the army of zombies, and everything turned out okay, but…yeah. Afterwards I felt horrible.”

There’s a beat before Chat asks, “What happened the other times?” letting his curiosity get the better of him. “You said this had happened a few times?”

Marinette rolls her eyes. “I’ll tell about just one more incident because all the other times I feel really stupid about the reason I was upset.”

He leans in, resting his forearms on his thighs to listen to her story.

“I was almost fifteen, and this really horrible classmate of mine—you’ve fought her any number of times. Lila—I couldn’t stand her because she was a huge liar. Seriously. Every other sentence past her lips was an enormous fabrication, but nobody else could tell. Everyone loved her and thought she was so great. So, I kept trying to expose her, but then she cornered me in the girls room and told me that if I didn’t stop, she was going to ruin me and make all my friends turn against me. So—”

“—Whoa. Seriously, Princess?” Chat can’t help but exclaim. This revelation has completely blindsided him. “She actually said all that?”

Marinette shrugs. “Well, I’m obviously paraphrasing since this was, like, two and a half years ago, but, yeah. That’s the gist of it.”

“I had no idea Lila was that bad. I mean, I knew she lied her head off, but I didn’t realize she could be so…vicious.”

Marinette shrugs again. “Girls can be like that, unfortunately. Guys just wallop the tar out of one another, but girls beat each other up mentally. Anyway. I was understandably upset because she could really make everyone hate me, so—”

“—No, she couldn’t of,” Chat breaks in, causing Marinette to blink, suddenly off balance.

“What?”

“She couldn’t have made all of your friends hate you,” Chat clarifies. “I’ve seen you and your friends, Princess. I’ve seen you interact with your classmates and your community. People love you, and there’s nothing Lila could have said to make everyone stop.”

Marinette sits staring at him for nearly half a minute in pleasant surprise. “Thanks, Chat Noir. That’s…actually, really good to know.”

“Any time,” he assures with a trademark grin. “So…you were understandably upset, and…?”

With a smile, Marinette resumes, “And I ran off to lock myself in a bathroom stall and have a meltdown. Thankfully, I saw the akuma before it could touch me, and I remembered how it didn’t go after me the last time after I had calmed down, so I decided to test the theory, and it worked. The akuma actually ended up getting Lila instead. Now, every time Papillon comes after me, I force myself to take deep breaths and get control of my emotions. It’s worked every time since then.”

Chat Noir mentally takes a step back to reevaluate his friend. He’d always known she was cool and fierce from seeing her stand up for others, but he hadn’t really realized quite how powerful and determined she was.

“You’re really strong, Marinette.” He gives her an appreciative nod. “You’re really amazing.”

She halfheartedly raises a shoulder and lets it drop. “I don’t know about that. I’m weak, and there’s darkness in my heart just like anybody else. I just don’t let the darkness and the weakness win.”

“That’s what’s so amazing,” he insists. “Most people lose that battle. I lose that battle. Take the compliment.”

A pleased blush and a proud smile spread across her face. “If you say so, I guess I will.”

A companionable silence settles between them, and they find themselves taking in the surroundings, on the lookout for akuma. Marinette skims the news on her phone, and Chat checks for alerts.

When it becomes obvious that nothing bad is happening at the moment, Marinette stands, letting the comforter fall off of her shoulders.

Chat Noir cocks his head to the side.

“I’m going to go make some hot chocolate. Do you want any?”

The moonlight reflecting off of her hair makes it shine blue as it swings free of its pigtails. Even though she looks a little rough with messy hair and residual puffiness to her eyes, she looks good. She’s resilient.

“I really shouldn’t.” His dietician would do backflips. “But if you’re making some for yourself and it wouldn’t be any trouble to make a little extra for me, I’d love to have some.”

She smiles, bright and bubbly like usual. “Two Dupain-Cheng special hot chocolates coming right up. I’ll be back in five, Minou.”

Chat’s ears perk up. Has she called him that before? It’s a common cat name, like calling your dog “Spot”, but Ladybug has teasingly called him “Minou” before, and the association makes his spine tingle.

“Looking forward to it, Princess.” He can’t get the smile off his face even after she’s ducked back inside, leaving him alone on the balcony with the Paris skyline.

Marinette returns right on schedule with two mugs of drinking chocolate. Astonishingly, she manages to get up not only the narrow steps to her loft but also the distance from her loft to the balcony without spilling a drop. The clumsy Marinette that Adrien is used to seeing has been replaced by an agile acrobat of sorts.

She sets the mugs down on the wooden tea table and scoots one towards him. “Bon appétit!”

“Thank you, Princess.” He takes a cautious sip of the piping hot liquid and ends up with fresh cream on the end of his nose.

Marinette giggles as she wraps herself back up in her cocoon of blankets and gets comfortable on her lawn chair. “You’re welcome. Thank you for participating in this stakeout with me.” Her expression quickly shifts to somber, and she picks up her own hot chocolate mug to hold for warmth. “And…thank you for earlier, Chat Noir.”

She averts her eyes, looking down into her cup.

He bites his lip and hesitates before asking, “If you don’t mind telling, what…exactly happened today?” Almost immediately he backpedals. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want. That was rude of me. I didn’t mean to pry. I just thought…maybe it would help to talk it out? B-But—!”

“—It’s…” She chews nervously on the inside of her cheek, looking up to meet his eyes only to look back down several times in succession. “It’s okay,” she affirms. “I don’t…mind exactly…I just…I’m trying to think how to explain it.”

“Take your time,” he urges. “but don’t feel like…I mean, you don’t have to talk to me about it. Sure, I might have helped out a little earlier, but you don’t owe me anything for it.”

Marinette purses her lips and tries to come up with a way to explain without revealing the full force of her humiliation or her secret identity. She takes a sip of her hot chocolate and then changes her grip on the mug with a sigh.

“It was a lot of little things building up until I got to the breaking point,” she starts hesitantly. “You know. The usual forgetting this or tripping over that. Saying something stupid, making a fool of myself. Getting back a bad test score.”

She looks up at him and smiles bashfully. “It got progressively worse as the day wore on. I’m, like, ninety percent positive that I got food poisoning at lunch. I felt miserable, but I was supposed to have dinner out with my best friends, so I was trying to tough it out to go to that.”

Her face falls, and her gaze dips back down into her cup. “But before I made it to dinner…” She bites her lip and shakes her head. “There’s this guy.”

Chat nods knowingly with a frown of sympathy.

“I’ve liked him for forever, but he said he doesn’t think about me like that.” She doesn’t even try to hide the hurt in her eyes, on her face, in her voice. “It’s fine. I don’t hold that against him because he actually made some good points, but…” Her brow furrows in frustration, and her teeth clench. “What really got me was that he thinks he’s in love with…with the other me.”

Chat Noir is suddenly lost. “Other you, Princess?”

Marinette purses her lips as she looks up at him. “I…kind of sort of have a secret identity too.”

This is news to Chat. His eyebrows shoot up. “O-Oh?”

She nods. “It’s nothing as exciting as yours.” She waves her hands nervously, banishing the thought from his head before he can start to misunderstand. “You know how my friend Alya has the Ladyblog? How there are online bloggers and video streamers and people who do video game speed runs and-and…you know, internet celebrities? Typically they go by pseudonyms, and no one knows who they are in real life, but they have fans and people who follow them. I’m…like that. I have a secret identity.”

“Like…you have a top-secret sewing blog or something?” Chat tries to keep up.

She nods enthusiastically, going with it. “Yes! Or something, and the guy that I like likes my alter ego. He’s convinced that he’s madly in love with her, even though they’ve only talked briefly, like, a handful of times—you know, online.”

“Right.” Chat frowns, wondering what kind of guy picks an anonymous sewing blogger over Marinette Dupain-Cheng. “Wow. Sorry. I’m sure that was really…upsetting.” Maybe Marinette has bad taste in men.

“I’m totally ticked!” Marinette exclaims as if she’s reliving the indignity of being turned down for a fantasized version of herself. “He’s so wrapped up in that fake that he doesn’t even see me! I mean…sure, she’s, like, a part of me, but…she’s not the real me. The idealized picture of her that he has in his head doesn’t really exist. He’s ‘in love’ with a daydream, and he can’t get his head down out of the clouds long enough to realize that I’m standing right in front of him.”

She shakes her head, setting down her mug on the table so she can cover her face with her hands. “Not that it’s entirely his fault. I haven’t exactly been able to show him how great I am. We really haven’t had many deep, lengthy conversations, so maybe I’m just as guilty of not seeing the real him as he is of not seeing the real me, but…”

She tentatively raises her head and peeks through her fingers at him. “Sorry. I know you asked, but you probably didn’t expect to get dragged into all of this stupid teenage drama. Do you kind of at least get where I’m coming from? Why I’m so angry and disappointed and hurt?”

She drops her hands from her face and looks him in the eye. “It would be like someone telling you to your face that they love Chat Noir, but they don’t feel anything for the real you, the you that you are under the mask.”

Chat smiles sadly, setting his hot chocolate down beside hers. “Yeah. I hear you. I get why you’re upset, Princess, with the guy you like turning you down for some unrealistically perfect version of you. I’d probably lose it, if I were in your shoes. Only…it’s a little different for me. Chat Noir is the real me. Well, okay. He can be a little bit of an act at times, but this Chat Noir sitting on the balcony with you is more real than that pretty dress up doll I pretend to be day in and day out. If Ladybug turned me down for that fake, I’d be wrecked.”

“Chat Noir…I’m so sorry.”

He looks up in surprise to find a stricken expression her face. An aura of guilt oozes from her. He forces a reassuring smile for her sake. “Hey now, don’t make that face. It’s not your fault LB doesn’t return my feelings.” He picks up her mug and hands it back to her. “I’m supposed to keep you from getting upset again, not make you upset myself.”

She takes the cup and brings it to her lips, but, somehow, the unease doesn’t seem to dissipate from her features.

“Cheer up, Princess,” he coos gently. “I know it stings now, but it’s not gonna hurt this much forever. That guy is an idiot, if he can’t see how wonderful you are. Furthermore, he’s a jerk for turning you down so brusquely. Clearly, he doesn’t deserve my princess’s heart.”

“Oh, Minou,” Marinette sighs, the shadow of a smile beginning to peek out from the corner of her lips. “Thank you.”

“Any time.” He winks, picking his own mug back up and taking a swig. “God, this is fabulous. I might fall in love with you just for the hot chocolate.”

“Aaand you ruined it,” Marinette scoffs, shaking her head in disapproval, but she’s still smiling.

Chat gives her a nonchalant shrug. “Change of topic: Have you ever thought about what kind of akuma you’d be? I know you’re a designer, but have you ever done any akuma-inspired sketches?”

Marinette chews on her bottom lip as she thinks about it. “You know, I can’t say I spend much time thinking about akuma outside of the attacks. I mean, sometimes, when I get really frustrated helping out down in the bakery I jokingly picture myself getting akumatized into some kind of pastry-destroying abomination. Or sometimes I’ll run into problems with my various designing projects, and I imagine getting turned into a spider-themed akuma with some kind of sewing needle attack and thread and yarn as webs. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and doodled any of my ideas, though. I worry that if I ever do get akumatized, I’ll be a monster for you to deal with. It’ll probably cause a lot of problems.”

“Don’t worry, Princess.” Chat stretches out his leg and taps her foot with his own. “If anything ever happens and you’re not able to fight off Papillon, I’ll save you.”

She quirks an eyebrow and teases, “What ever happened to ‘I couldn’t raise a hand against you, Princess’?”

Chat leans back and shrugs, arms wide and palms up. “I’d probably end up tackling you to the ground and immobilizing you while Ladybug retrieved the akumatized object. I don’t think that necessarily counts as ‘raising a hand’.”

“Who says I’d let you immobilize me?” she scoffs. “I’m not going down without a fight, Chat Noir.”

He holds up his hands in a placating gesture. “All right, all right. You’re right. I’m sorry. There’s no way someone as feisty as you would go down that easily. You’d probably beat me within an inch of my life. It would be like a scene out of an anime: I’d keep trying to get through to you, speak to my Princess within the akuma. In the end, it would work, and you’d force Papillon out on your own, but, at that point, I’d be severely injured, on the brink of death. You’d come to your senses and run over to me, taking me into your arms while starting to cry, calling my name and begging me not to go and finally confessing that you love me just before it’s too late and I lose consciousness. You’d kiss me, and magically my wounds would be healed and we’d live happily ever after.”

Marinette is silent a beat too long, and Chat turns to find her staring dumbly at him for a second time that evening.

“Sorry.” He sheepishly scratches at his cheek. “Too much?”

“Have you actually thought about this?” Marinette wonders, slightly disturbed but unsure of the exact cause. “Me getting akumatized?”

Chat shrugs, going back to the drinking chocolate. “Maybe in passing. I think it’s mostly that I’ve seen far too many anime.”

Marinette takes this in with a thoughtful hum and adds Chat’s play-by-play of events to her list of horror scenarios in which she gets akumatized. This is by far the nicest one, even if it does involve kissing Chat Noir. She could easily see herself crying over her partner’s battered form just as he detailed—minus the kissing and the confession.

“What about you, Chat Noir?” Marinette leans forward, pulling her thoughts away from that nightmare and centering her focus on him. “Have you ever thought about what you’d be like akumatized or what would trigger it in the first place?”

He grins, trying to put on a brave face, but his smile comes out dented. “Probably a little too often to be healthy. I don’t exactly have an image in mind as far as a theme for the costume, but my power would be getting people to listen to me.”

He catches the way her eyes narrow slightly in confusion, and he elaborates preemptively. “You see, in my day to day life, I feel a bit like a life-size doll. My father is a little controlling, so my schedule is pretty strict. I always have to go here, stand there and smile in such and such a way, attend this event, take such and such lessons, do this sport, wear those clothes. It’s…confining.”

He misses it as Marinette’s frown intensifies.

“I think, one day, when I’m finally pushed over the edge, my power will be to boss other people around. I’ll get my father to cancel all my extracurricular activities and let me quit the family business and…” Chat’s throat feels like it’s tightening. “…and I’ll get my father to spend some time with me.”

“That…sounds really rough, Chat,” Marinette hesitantly breaks in, knowing she’ll feel even more awkward if she doesn’t say something. “I’m sorry. I never imagined your home life would be…like that.” The words feel woefully inadequate. “Is…Are things better with your mom?”

Chat winces involuntarily. “My mom…” It feels like trying to speak with pebbles in his mouth, but he wants to tell her for some reason. It’s been sitting on his chest crushing him for years now, and he finally has the chance to get it off behind the anonymity of his mask and the darkness of the night.

He takes a slow breath. “My mom disappeared a few years ago.”

She gasps, her hand flying to her mouth as she stares incredulously.

Chat nods and keeps going. The building momentum makes it feel easier. “She didn’t say goodbye or anything; she just…wasn’t there one day. She didn’t leave a note, and I haven’t heard from her since—not even on birthdays or holidays or just to let me know she thinks about me from time to time or that she loves me or…”

He looks up and smiles nervously. “This is going to sound horrible, but I hope she’s dead. I hope something really terrible happened to her and she died instantly because, if she’s not dead, that means that she abandoned me without a second thought and never looked back, and that’s…terrifying,” he confesses. “I don’t want to think about that.”

“Chat?” Marinette calls to him softly, reaching out and carefully placing her hand on his knee as if she’s afraid to break him. “Chat, have you ever talked to anyone about this? Is there someone you could talk to?”

He looks away with a shrug, pretending to study the neighboring school’s roof. “You mean like a shrink? My father doesn’t believe in therapy, so…this isn’t something that we talk about. It’s like I was saying: he treats me like a doll. We don’t talk about it. It’s a freakin’ sinkhole in the middle of the mansion’s foyer, and we don’t talk about it. We walk around it and pretend that it’s not there, and I’m supposed to pretend that it doesn’t affect me, that I’m not bothered by it. I’m supposed to be a good boy and smile for the camera and pretend I don’t have feelings other than the ones my father wants me to show.”

Marinette has no words for this. She is seventeen and completely out of her depth. The worst thing that’s happened to her is the constant stress of everyone counting on her to repeatedly save Paris.

Chat always acts so goofy and cheerful. She had had no idea that he was dealing with anything like this, and she has no clue how to help her partner.

As Marinette silently panics, Chat is still talking.

“I guess Plagg is kind of like a therapist,” he reasons, unaware of Marinette’s internal conflict. “Uh, Plagg is my…he’s the little magical creature that lets me be Chat Noir. He’s called a kwami. He’s…” Chat’s brow furrows under his messy bangs. “He’s actually not the kindest or most understanding person…kwami. Mostly he’s there to give me a good kick in the pants when I need it and tell me how I’m an idiot when I need to hear it. He doesn’t coddle me…but, one time out of ten, he’ll say something really nice just when I needed someone to.”

“Chat, do your friends know what you’re going through? That you feel this way?” She bites the inside of her cheek so hard it almost draws blood. “Is there anything they could do to help?”

He smiles gently to try to reassure her as he finally picks up on her distress. He pats her hand and shakes his head. “I think my friends see a little bit of it. They know my father has me on a tight leash, and they know my mom’s not around, but I don’t think it’s really dawned on them what that feels like. We’re only seventeen, and they all have close, happy families. Besides, like I mentioned before, the me I am when I’m not Chat Noir isn’t exactly real. I mean, there’s enough truth in it for us to be actual friends—I’m not completely plastic with them like I am when I’m out in public—but, like the persona you use on your sewing blog, my day to day personality is a curated performance. I don’t think they’d know what do to with me if I broke down and started saying stuff like this to them,” he chuckles wryly.

“What about Ladybug?” Marinette asks in a small voice, feeling miserable. Suddenly her own problems feel so tiny. “Have you talked to her about any of this?” She knows he hasn’t, and the guilt is suffocating. She hasn’t been there for him.

Chat rolls his eyes dismissively. “When would I? It’s not like I really see her outside of akuma battles. Sure, we run into each other every once in a while when we happen to be out for a run across the rooftops of Paris at the same time, but most of the time we’re too busy fighting an akuma or in a rush to get to safety before our transformations run out. There’s not enough time to sit her down and whine to her about all the ways my life sucks.”

“You’re not whining, Chat, and Ladybug wouldn’t see it that way. Maybe you two could make time?” Marinette suggests. “You could ask her if she wants to meet up once or twice a week to do a…I don’t know, a patrol or something. Kind of like what you and I are doing right now. You two could do a lap or two to make sure that all’s well and then sit down and talk for a bit.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Chat allows. “I might mention starting a patrol.” As he considers it further, a frown slowly spreads across his face. “Though, even if we do start meeting up outside of battles regularly, I don’t think this is something I feel comfortable talking about with Ladybug.”

Marinette is absolutely floored. What has her alter ego done to alienate her partner like this? “What? What do you mean? Why not?”

“She’ll think I’m a loser.” Chat’s smile is full of chagrin. “Princess, I don’t necessarily think this is the kind of stuff you discuss with a love interest.”

Realization strikes, and his eyes round, his lips form a small “o”. “Though, I guess I’ve already blown that because I’m talking with you about it, huh?”

Marinette gives a start, the red stain to her cheeks visible to him in the moonlight for the briefest of seconds before she turns away, pulling back from him. “Chat Noir, we both know that I’m not seriously a real love interest.”

“Oh?” he chuckles. “I didn’t know that. One of us is clearly mistaken.”

She half-heartedly swats at him.

His good humor returns, and a mischievous grin blossoms on his lips as he purrs, “Are you the kind of girl who falls for sob stories, Princess? I don’t know if I want you falling in love because you pity me.”

“Oh, Chat Noir,” Marinette groans even as she begins to feel a little better now that the oppressive atmosphere has lifted a bit. “I’m hungry. Do you want to come downstairs with me and help polish off the leftover pastries?”

Chat’s ears perk up. “Are you kidding? Hot chocolate and pastries from Tom and Sabine’s? What did I do right to deserve such delicacies?”

She rolls her eyes fondly as she stands and deposits her blanket on the lawn chair.

“Don’t tell me it’s because the princess feels sorry for her knight now that she’s learned how pathetic he really is,” he teases, voice light despite the dark undercurrent to his words.

Marinette tenses and slowly turns back to face him. “Chat Noir?”

“Yes, my princess?” he hums.

She purses her lips, concern evident on her face. “You shouldn’t turn the things you’re insecure about into a joke. Don’t try to get other people to laugh at the things that hurt you, okay?”

Chat stands with a shrug, averting his eyes as he drops the blanket she gave him into the chair with hers. “It’s just how I deal with stuff like that. Joking is my armor.”

She hesitates. She knows there’s not much she can do about Chat not feeling comfortable sharing his difficulties with Ladybug at the moment, but maybe she can make up for where she’s lacking as a partner without the mask on.

“You don’t need to wear armor around me.”

His eyes widen as he considers her. Would it be so bad to let his walls down with her every once in a while like he’s been doing tonight? He does feel a little lighter after sharing with her. Obviously, talking to her as Adrien isn’t an option, but as Chat…

“Everything…okay?” she ventures after he’s been staring at her in amazement for an unreasonably long time.

“Yeah, Princess. Fabulous. It’s just that I’ve never had a girl ask me to take my clothes off for her before.”

Marinette makes a sound halfway between choking on her tongue and an alley cat yowl. “That is NOT what I meant, and you know it!” she squeaks, turning on her heel and heading for the skylight back into her room. “That is it. I am eating all of the leftover pastries myself!”

Once she disappears down the hatch, she calls back up, “Be careful not to get boot prints on my bed!”

He takes that as an invitation to follow her and obliges, careful of his shoes as he descends onto her bed. “I don’t think you could eat too many pastries by yourself,” he taunts as he makes his way down from her loft. “You’re so tiny, I don’t believe you’d be able to fit more than one or two.”

She opens her trapdoor and lowers her voice. “Well, seeing as I’ve been literally throwing up since lunch and I skipped dinner, I think I’ll manage to find space for three or four.”

He follows her lead and replies in a whisper, “Do you really think it’s a good idea for you to introduce that much food into your system so soon after being sick?”

Marinette shrugs, guiding him to the kitchen and pulling out a stool for him at the table as she goes to fetch the box of leftovers without turning on the lights. “We’re about to find out.”

Chat grimaces. “I’m not sure I want to be present for this.”

She sets the box down on the table in front of him and climbs into her seat, smiling coyly. “You mean to tell me that my knight isn’t going to hold my hair out of the way for me while I throw these pastries up later?”

“Can’t I just slay a dragon for you instead?” he offers, watching eagerly as she lifts the box lid.

She rolls her eyes. “Those are an endangered species, Chat. You can’t just go around slaying them willy-nilly. Besides, what if regurgitating these sweets makes me so upset that I get akumatized? Then it’ll be all your fault for letting your guard down.”

“Princess, we both know you’re made of tougher stuff than that.” He matches her eyeroll.

“I don’t know.” She grabs a handful of napkins from the counter behind her and sets one down for him to place his chosen pastry on. “I did just get summarily rejected by the guy I’ve liked for four years in favor of my fake alter ego today. Maybe I’m not feeling all that resilient?” she giggles until the reality of her words hits her.

“O-Oh,” she whispers, tears beginning to well up and spill over. “Shoot.” She tries to smile through the pain and force herself to laugh. “I think it’s maybe a little too early to joke about that. Shoot. I was doing so well up until that point too.”

“Hey.” Chat picks up one of the napkins and gently dabs at her tears. “Shh. It’s okay, Princess.” He stands and opens his arms. “Would a hug help? People like hugs when they’re upset, don’t they?”

She nods, getting to her feet and wrapping her arms around his torso. It’s nice to bury her face in his collarbone and just be held.

“Sorry,” she whispers.

“Don’t be,” he immediately assures. “It’s fine, Princess. Go ahead and cry; I’ll keep watch for any evil butterflies.”

They stand there like that, feeling safe and warm, for nearly a full minute before a door opens, startling them out of the moment.

“Marinette? I thought you were asleep,” Sabine calls, making the pair jump.

Chapter Text

Sabine turns into the kitchen, and it’s her turn to give a start when she finds her daughter springing away suspiciously from the leather-clad half of Paris’s crime-fighting duo. “Oh! Chat Noir! To what do we owe the honor?”

Sabine tries to smile and pretend that she did not just catch a boy embracing her daughter.

“M-Maman!” Marinette shrieks and devolves into the stuttering, spazzing mess that Adrien is more accustomed to.

Chat really hopes that Marinette doesn’t wake Tom up. Tom may have the temperament of a marshmallow most of the time, but he’s fiercely protective of his little girl, and he’s big and intimidating. Chat doesn’t want to mistakenly get grilled about his intentions towards Marinette. He doesn’t think Tom and Sabine will buy the “just friends” angle.

“I was asleep,” Marinette begins to blather, complete with wild arm flailing, as she puts herself between her mother and Chat. “But then I woke up, and I got upset again.”

Sabine is about to say something, perhaps inquire about Chat’s presence, but Marinette steamrolls over it.

“Thankfully! Chat Noir was patrolling the neighborhood, and he saw the butterfly and saved me from being akumatized.”

Sabine’s eyes go wide in horror, and she opens her mouth to speak, but Marinette isn’t finished yet.

Now we’re just hanging out, and he’s keeping me company to make sure I don’t get upset again. Isn’t that nice of him?”

Finally, Sabine is allowed to get a word in edgewise, but she finds herself speechless and only nods.

“Sooo I know we have that rule about no boys in my bedroom after a certain hour, but…exception?” Marinette smiles wide, showing both her top and bottom rows of teeth, and looks at her mother expectantly.

Sabine nods slowly until she can find her voice to confirm, “Y-Yes. Exception.”

“Thank you, Maman!” Marinette cheers, leaning in to give her mother a quick peck on the cheek. The next second, she’s grabbing the box of pastries and the napkins and pushing Chat Noir towards the stairs back up to her room.

“We’ll try to keep the noise level down,” Marinette promises as they ascend the steps. “And we won’t stay up too late. After all, Chat Noir has to get back home before his family misses him. See you tomorrow, Maman. Good night!”

The door shuts behind Marinette, and she breaths a deep sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, down in the kitchen, Sabine draws her crane pattern dressing gown tighter around her and attempts to process what she’s just seen.

It’s ten thirty on a school night, just hours after Marinette has had her heart broken by long-time crush Adrien Agreste, and yet Chat Noir was just in Sabine’s kitchen, looking awfully cozy with his arms around Marinette.

How long has this been going on, and what does it mean? She knows one thing for certain: if she wakes Tom up to tell him this now, he’ll barge upstairs and ruin everything. Better then to toss and turn over it herself for the rest of the night and not tell him until morning.

 

“O-kay,” Marinette sighs, collapsing to the floor on top of the trapdoor in an oddly graceful fashion. The pastries remain completely undisturbed in their box. “That was awkward.”

 “What’s going to be awkward is the next time I run into your parents,” Chat laughs nervously. “I’m pretty sure your father is going to tie me to a chair and interrogate me when he hears about this.”

“Probably.” Marinette shrugs, setting down the pastry box and spreading out some of the napkins. “But, before that, they’re going to ambush me and give me a stern talking to about safe sex. Then we’ll probably go on a family outing for condoms and birth control pills. I’m super looking forward to it.” Sarcasm drips off of each word.

Chat winces. He’s pretty certain that if their places were reversed, all he’d get from his father would be a severe lecture about not causing a scandal and dragging the family name through the mud. It would be a supercharged version of the dressing down he periodically gets about not doing anything to land himself in the gossip rags. He’s not sure if Adrien’s even allowed to sleep with anyone…ever.

“Do you think they’d give you the opportunity to explain that it’s not like that first?”

Marinette exhales loudly, hanging her head. “I doubt it. You see, the truth is that I’ve never even been on a date before because I’ve been so hung up on the guy I told you about earlier for almost half a decade now. My parents are going to blow this way out of proportion.”

“Sorry, Princess,” Chat offers softly. “You’re not going to die of mortification or get akumatized over this, are you?”

Marinette lets out a burst of laughter that turns into a snort. “Hell, no. Gosh. I would die of mortification if that were the thing that I finally got akumatized for. Now, come sit down and help me eat these pastries.”

Chat takes a seat on the floor opposite her and studies the delicate treats laid out before him. There are two different kinds of fruit tart, a pain aux raisins, a cheese Danish, a mont blanc, and a bichon au citron as well as a handful of macarons in a variety of flavors.

“Which one do you like best?” he wonders, not wanting to step on any toes.

She shrugs and pushes the box towards him. “Take what you want, Chat Noir. It’s not like I never get these.”

He bites his lip and considers like a chess champion contemplating their move a few turns ahead before finally selecting the tropical fruit tart.

Marinette nods her approval and takes the raspberry tart, chomping into it without ceremony. With her other hand, she sets aside two of the macarons, both different shades of pink—perhaps raspberry or strawberry or rose?

“How do you stay so skinny living in a bakery?” Chat snickers, taking a bite of his own tart. The custard is thick and creamy, and the pear and mandarin orange are both fresh-tasting and juicy.

“Parkour,” she responds without thinking.

He doesn’t notice as she tenses up and waits for his reaction. “Seriously, Princess? You? Parkour?”

Marinette finds herself unexpectedly offended. “What? You don’t think I could do it?”

He smiles sheepishly and shrugs. “I’ve seen you trip over your own feet on multiple occasions.”

Oddly, this is the last straw.

“What is it with people underestimating me today?” Marinette growls, springing to her feet and going in search of her tennis shoes.

“What? You were serious?” Chat Noir watches her cautiously, feeling like he’s really put his foot in his mouth this time.

She wheels around on him, one shoe on, the other still hanging halfway off her foot. “Yes!” she hisses. “I don’t need a stupid magical suit to be worth admiring. Marinette Dupain-Cheng is plenty awesome all on her own, and I’m going to prove it, so put the tart down and come on.”

She finishes sliding on the other shoe in a fluid motion as she turns to march back up to her loft and out onto the balcony.

Chat Noir reluctantly sets his tart down on one of the napkins and follows obediently. By the time he catches up, Marinette has one leg swung over the balcony railing.

Chat panics. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Princess, what the hell are you doing?!”

“Relax. I do this all the time.” She rolls her eyes and flips over to the other side, hopping down into a crouch on top of the dormer window. “But don’t tell my parents!” she calls back up to him.

From there, Marinette carefully lowers herself and strolls casually along the lip of the roof (causing Chat’s heart to stop) and to the drainpipe from whence she scales her way down three stories.

Chat follows using his staff to slowly lower himself to the street, keeping pace with Marinette’s descent in order to catch her when—if!—she slips. He’s finally able to breathe properly again when her feet touch sidewalk.

“Okay. I was wrong,” Chat admits in an unnerved attempt to appease her. “You have mad parkour skills, Princess. Now, can we please go back to your room to eat pastries using less exciting means?”

“Fat chance,” she scoffs, going around to the other side of the building and looking both ways habitually before she crosses the street. “We’re going to the park, Chaton.”

“I think the park is closed, Princess.” Chat frowns, but at least now Marinette is safely on solid ground. “What are you going to do, hop the gate?”

“Yep,” she chuckles and then pointedly passes up the waist-high gate at the entrance to the park.

Chat is just about to mention this oversight when Marinette takes off at a run, jumping on top of the bumble-bee-yellow mailbox and gracefully transitioning into a handstand on top of the wrought iron fence.

Chat’s mouth drops open. Where the hell is his clumsy classmate, and who is this alien who’s replaced her?

Marinette begins to walk along the fence on her hands as if she has never in her life struggled to walk the conventional way. As the cherry on top, she performs a front walkover to come to standing and smiles sweetly yet superiorly down at him.

“Oh, Minou, I’m just getting started,” she laughs and then flips backwards off of the fence, landing in a crouch that looks as smooth and natural as his own. Immediately, without losing momentum, she goes into a back handspring followed by a backflip.

“Okay,” he confesses, leaping up and over the fence after her. “I could definitely not do that without the suit. You win, Princess. Marinette Dupain-Cheng kicks butt.”

“Finally,” she sighs in vindication as she turns and approaches one of the trees. “I was beginning to doubt myself after the day I’ve had.”

She runs up the chosen tree into a backflip, back handspring, side flip combination.

Chat can only stare in amazement. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Three years?” She shrugs distractedly as she picks out her next target.

“For real? How come you’ve never mentioned it?” Adrien is slightly shocked at how little he truly knows about this girl who he’s seen nearly every day over the past few years.

This question gives Marinette pause. “Chat Noir, tonight is the most you and I have talked, like, ever. When was I supposed to mention that I’d taken up parkour?”

He shrugs. “The princess has a point.”

Marinette decides on her next trick and smirks as she goes over to one of the benches along the perimeter of the park. “Okay. One last stunt, and I think I’ve proved my point. Then we can go back to pastries.”

He gives her a thumbs up. “Sounds like a plan.”

Marinette takes a running start and vaults effortlessly over the bench. She goes straight into a cartwheel followed by a series of back walkovers, looking like a slinky until she springs up to land in a crouch on the second tier of the fountain at the center of the park.

She looks down at him with a triumphant grin, exhilarated by the exertion. “Who trips over her own feet now?” she challenges.

Chat puts his hands up in defeat. “This knight knows when he’s lost. I owe you an apology.”

“Apology accepted,” she confirms as she stands up and leans back against the top tier of the fountain. She looks up at the night sky and smirks, pleased with herself.

Chat gazes up at her—hair a mess, pajamas rumpled, but eyes shining. She’s never shown this side of herself to Adrien before, and he wonders why. What’s kept them from truly becoming friends? He doesn’t think she’s still upset about the gum incident, but could it be that she has never completely shaken the negative associations with him from that time? Is that why she always looks so uncomfortable around him? Is it all subconscious?

“What made you decide to take up parkour?” Chat finds himself asking.

Marinette’s smirk of victory slips into a slight frown. “Honestly? I got tired of being weak and clumsy. I didn’t want to be powerless if you or Ladybug couldn’t come and save me, so I worked to develop some skills to help me hold my own.”

Chat nods, smiling proudly at her. “You’ve never been weak, Marinette.”

She’s about to open her mouth to reply when a passing police officer shouts, “The park is closed, Miss Dupain-Cheng! I believe I’ve told you this at least five times before!”

“Yes, Officer Raincomprix,” Marinette sighs, hopping down from the fountain. “Sorry, Officer Raincomprix!”

Chat and Marinette make their way towards the exit, and, just for kicks, Marinette does a front handspring off of the waist-high gate out of the park.

Chat shakes his head as he swings himself over the gate as well. “You did that just to show off.”

Marinette shrugs coyly before turning a shamefaced grin on Roger Raincomprix. “Sorry again. Chat Noir didn’t believe I could do parkour, and it wasn’t like I could start doing flips and wall runs in my bedroom. Won’t happen again.”

Roger shakes his head, hands on his hips as he mutters, “That’s what you said the last time.”

“Good night, Officer Raincomprix!” Marinette takes Chat Noir by the wrist and tugs him after her as she dashes back to her house.

Chat Noir cracks up. “Break into parks after hours much, Princess?”

“I mean, it’s right there,” she attempts to excuse her behavior. “It can’t be helped. Besides, it’s not like I’m vandalizing anything, and the poles on the merry-go-round and the lampposts are so convenient to practice on.”

Chat Noir’s eyebrow quirks. “Practice what?”

Marinette freezes as she realizes her mistake. Instead of backpedaling, she decides to press forward unabashedly. “Pole dancing. I started pole dancing to build upper body strength before I could begin parkour.”

He stares at her as if his mind has short-circuited.

With my clothes on,” she huffs in exasperation.

“I wasn’t—!” he sputters. “I would never—!”

Marinette wears an unimpressed expression.

“Okay, that’s a lie. I’m a seventeen year-old guy, Princess. Cut me some slack?” he pleads for mercy.

She deigns to roll her eyes at him once more and gives his bell an annoyed flick.

Taking that as a sign of forgiveness, Chat ventures, “You know, I’ve never actually seen pole dancing before, and I’ve probably got the wrong idea about it. Do you think we could break back into the park so you could show me?”

They reach the side entrance leading to the Dupain-Cheng residence, and Marinette realizes that she’s forgotten something.

“You’ll have to take a raincheck, Minou. I’m a little tired right now after the day I’ve had,” Marinette answers as she stares at the door.

Chat looks between the door and his classmate. “I’m sorry, Princess, but if you and the door are having a staring contest, my money’s on the door.”

“I forgot to grab my key,” Marinette sighs by way of explanation and starts to make her way over to the drainpipe to begin her ascent.

His eyes narrow. “Hold on. Didn’t you say you were tired?”

She shrugs.

Chat holds out his hand to her. “Need a lift, Princess?” He indicates his baton.

Marinette grins sheepishly and accepts his offer. “That would be nice, actually, but, just for the record, I could have made it on my own.”

“I don’t doubt that, Princess,” he assures, securing an arm around her before extending the baton. “I’m through underestimating you.”

“Glad to hear it,” she chuckles, wrapping her arms around him for the ride up.

He deposits her on the balcony and retracts the staff.

Marinette goes over to the tea table and picks up her long-forgotten mug of once-hot cocoa. “Whoops,” she sighs and takes an experimental sip. “It’s cold.” She shrugs, tipping back her head and finishing the beverage off.

Chat grabs his own mug and does the same before Marinette can get out, “You don’t have to—”

He lowers the now empty mug and sighs happily. “It would have been a sin to waste it. Besides, it’s still good. It just tastes like chocolate milk.”

She smiles at how oddly sweet he is now that they’re not in the middle of an akuma fight and now that he’s not shamelessly flirting with Ladybug. She’s seen a new side of her partner tonight, and she finds that she actually likes him as a person more than she thought she would.

“Here. I’ll take your cup,” she offers.

He hands it over, and they make their way back down into her room to finish their pastries.

Marinette sets the mugs on her desk and plops down on top of the trapdoor once more.

“Barring the door?” Chat chuckles, taking his place and picking up where he left off with his tart.

Marinette rolls her eyes. “I once had a boy come over a couple years ago to play video games in order to practice for a school-sponsored event, and my parents kept popping up and bothering us literally every ten minutes. Hopefully they’re both sound asleep, but, if not, this should deter them from interrupting.”

“They care about you.” Chat smiles sadly. “I’m sure it’s probably annoying at times, but isn’t it nice to have someone to worry and fuss over you?”

Marinette’s face falls, and she looks down at her tart. She wants to say, “Surely there’s someone who worries and fusses over you too”, but what if there isn’t?

“I’ve been setting timers on the lights and the sound and entertainment system in my room for years now when I sneak off, and no one’s ever confronted me about it. I could stay out all night, and no one would miss me until it was time for the next appointment.”

Marinette starts to say, “But your friends worry and fuss about you, don’t they? And Ladybug cares about you”, but Chat Noir speaks first with a strained smile.

“Sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to darken the atmosphere with my messed-up home life again. I just meant…even though your parents might occasionally be a pain, try to look on the bright side and remember you’re lucky.”

“It’s okay, Chat.” Marinette’s lips curve into a gentle smile, and she meets his eyes. “You don’t have to apologize for telling the truth.”

“But I feel bad because I can tell I’m making you uncomfortable,” he mumbles, taking the penultimate bite of his tropical tart.

“I’m uncomfortable because I feel guilty and helpless,” she explains. “All things considered, I have it pretty good, but there’s nothing I can do to make it better for you. That’s not your fault, and you shouldn’t feel like you can’t talk about those kinds of things because it makes other people feel bad. Didn’t you say you do enough pretending and suppressing your feelings in your day-to-day life?”

Chat’s jaw slackens, and he nods, speechless.

“Well, you don’t have to pretend here. I know you don’t know me well, so you might not feel comfortable sharing, but know that this princess does care about her knight and that this is a safe place if you ever need it.” With a warm, reassuring grin, she pushes the box of pastries towards him again. “Have another.”

He takes the pain aux raisins, thinking, to hell with what his father would say.

His voice cracks with emotion as he replies. “T-Thanks, Princess.”

“Anytime,” Marinette assures with a wave of dismissal. “I keep telling you, it’s no big deal. I get plenty of pastries. I mean, I do live over a bakery.

Chat rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “You know what I meant, Princess.”

She shrugs, picking up the bichon au citron and taking a bite. “Yeah, I do, and my answer’s the same: Anytime. It’s no big deal. Everyone should have somewhere they don’t have to be fake. I can’t promise I’ll be able to help or that I’ll even know what to say, but I can at least listen, right? Give you a break from pretending.”

“Princess, it sounds like you’re inviting me back,” he hums thoughtfully. “Am I hearing you right? I don’t want to take any liberties.”

She nods, raising a hand to cover her mouth as she finishes chewing. “You’re welcome here, Chat Noir. Besides, didn’t you want to come back to see my pole dancing sometime?” she teases.

He snorts, a tentative smile uncurling on his lips. “Yeah, I can’t miss that educational opportunity…. I’m just kind of worried that you’ll come to regret letting me in eventually. I mean, I’m not like everyone thinks I am, so try not to be too disappointed.”

“What is there to be disappointed about?” Marinette’s eyes narrow. “Isn’t it even more impressive that you go out there and give saving Paris your all despite having real life problems to deal with? I honestly think I respect you more knowing that you’re not really a huge, perky goofball without a care in the world.”

Chat is quiet for a minute as he processes this. “Still. I can’t help but feel like I’m deceiving people when I act one way in public but, in actuality, I’m someone else entirely. I feel like that line from that one song ‘I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream’.”

Marinette blinks, staring at him hard with her pastry halfway to her mouth. “…Did you just quote Taylor Swift at me?”

Chat’s eyebrow creeps up into his hairline. “Is that a bad thing?”

Marinette shakes her head. “I mean, I don’t particularly like her or her music, but there’s nothing wrong if you do.”

Chat gives a halfhearted shrug. “I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other. I met her once, though. At the…uh…at a dinner event thing.”

Marinette tries not to think too hard about what Chat Noir was doing at a fancy gala dinner with celebrities. “And what was she like?”

He takes a bite of the pain aux raisins and chews thoughtfully before answering. “Nice enough. Probably just as fake as I was being, but…I think she’s just a human being with typical human being problems and the added challenge of living in the limelight. Maybe her exes are right, and she’s nuts; maybe the gossip rags just demonize her to sell copies. Either way, being a celebrity is rough, so I try to cut her and the rest of them some slack.”

To Marinette, it sounds like he’s speaking from personal experience—more than just being Chat Noir. This is going to drive her crazy later, wondering who he could be, what his life is like.

“You’re a good person, Chat Noir,” Marinette observes, finishing off her bichon au citron.

Chat stares at her in disbelief, wondering how she has drawn this conclusion from their interactions that evening. “You think?”

“Mmhm.” She smiles at him sleepily, beginning to run out of juice despite the sugar she’s just put into her system. “I may have misjudged you this whole time, and now I’m really sorry about that. Wanna be friends?” She holds out her hand to shake on it.

He accepts, taking her hand in his. He doesn’t say aloud what he’s thinking: he’s wanted to be her friend for four years now. Instead, he goes with, “Marinette Dupain-Cheng, it would be an honor.”

They sit in a companionable silence as Chat eats the rest of his pastry.

Marinette reaches into the box for a mint green macaron and has to stifle a yawn before she can pop it into her mouth.

“I should probably get going,” Chat politely excuses himself. “You need your rest, and I don’t want to be responsible for you falling asleep in class tomorrow.”

“I’m—” Another yawn catches Marinette by surprise. “…not sleepy?” She smiles sheepishly through the lie.

Chat rolls his eyes. “Are you going to be all right if I leave, Princess?”

“Should be. I think I’m just going to go to sleep, so there shouldn’t be much opportunity to get upset between now and school tomorrow.” She winces as she remembers. “Besides being grilled by my parents about you at breakfast, I mean.”

“I think you’ll survive; my princess is tough.” He gives her a wink of encouragement.

“Let’s hope so,” she sighs, beginning to pick up the napkins they had used in lieu of plates.

Suddenly a thought strikes Chat Noir: the two pink macarons that Marinette set aside earlier are missing. Inexplicably, this really bothers him. He was watching her almost the entire time, and he didn’t see her eat them. He certainly didn’t eat them, and he’s heard Marinette mention before that she can’t have a pet because of the bakery. And yet the macarons are gone.

“What happened to the macarons?”

Marinette blinks at him and then looks down at the three still left with the Danish and the mont blanc in the box. “Macarons?” she echoes.

“The two pink ones that you set on that napkin earlier.” He points.

Marinette looks and freezes in horror, as if he has just caught her holding a bloody knife. Turning back to him with a wide smile, she laughs nervously. “I don’t know. Did I eat them? I feel like I might have eaten them, but I can’t really remember. Gosh, I’m more tired than I thought.”

Chat’s instinct is to press because he is almost ninety percent certain that she did not eat the macarons, but, if she didn’t, what other logical explanation is there? Isn’t it weird of him to be so hung up on the issue in the first place?

“Hey,” she calls, jerking him back to the present. “Does your…um…kwami, was it? Uh…Plagg? Does she—he?—eat? Like, um, people food?”

This throws him slightly. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. He does. He likes cheese a lot, but he can eat other things too. Why?”

“Do you want to take the rest of the pastries home and share with him?” she offers. “I was just thinking that maybe he got hungry, keeping you transformed so long, and if he’s conscious while you’re transformed, he can see us having hot chocolate and pastries, and I thought that maybe he’d like some too. Do you think?”

Chat breaks into a broad grin. “Actually, yeah. He’d like that a lot. Thanks, Princess. That’s really sweet of you, being so thoughtful. I’m sure Plagg will appreciate it, especially the cheese Danish.”

“I’ll have to set aside some cheesecake bites for him the next time I know in advance that you’ll be coming around.”

Chat shakes his head. “Be careful, Princess. You know what they say about feeding stray cats.”

She quirks an eyebrow and teases as she gets to her feet, “Are you warning me about Plagg or about you, Chat Noir?”

He stands with a shrug. “Both?”

She shakes her head and hands him the half-empty pastry box. “Come on. I’ll see you to the door—uh…balcony.”

He follows her up to the loft and through the skylight, and they stand at the balcony railing a little awkwardly, both of them feeling like something more than a “Well…goodnight” is called for but unsure of what to say.

Marinette bites her lip and tucks a stray strand of hair nervously behind her ear. Moonlight shimmers in her blue-black locks, and the strand slips free once more.

Marinette blows out a long sigh. “You see, this is why I always wear my hair up. It’s so in the way.”

“But it looks really pretty down like that.” The words leave Chat’s lips before he’s even fully conscious of the corresponding thought forming in his head.

She rolls her eyes dismissively with a chuckle. “Flirt.”

“Geez,” he sighs overdramatically. “Can’t a guy pay a girl a compliment without her doubting his intentions?”

“Not when it’s you,” she replies automatically. “You flirt like it’s exhaling.”

“Only with you, Princess,” he counters.

“And Ladybug,” Marinette reminds.

“Fair,” he admits. “But that’s still only two girls. I don’t think flirting with two girls makes me a flirt when there are thousands of other girls out there that I could be flirting with.”

“Somehow I doubt it’s just me and Ladybug,” Marinette snorts. “Isn’t there maybe a ‘Countess’ or a ‘Duchess’ or a ‘My Queen’ out there besides ‘Milady’ and ‘Princess’?”

“Would you believe me if I said that there wasn’t?” Chat smiles, but there’s something sad and almost hurt in it.

She’s nicked him.

“If there’s not, I get why you flirt with Ladybug, since you like her, but why on earth would you flirt with me? You don’t like me like that, and it’s not like I’m particularly…” She searches for the word but doesn’t find it. “…particularly anything, really.”

“You sell yourself short, Princess,” he softly assures.

Her mouth transitions through several shapes as she attempts to piece together her response, but nothing comes out.

He lets himself laugh at her. “You really have a problem accepting how awesome you are, don’t you?”

She shrugs bashfully and crosses her arms over her chest to fight off the cold night air.

Chat leans to snag one of the blankets from the deckchair. He sets down the box of pastries on the tea table to free up his other hand to assist in wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.

“Well,” he begins to excuse himself, once again collecting the pastry box. “Time for me to go. Thanks again for everything tonight, Princess.”

He turns to leave, but she catches him by the elbow. “Chat Noir.”

He waits patiently while a parade of expressions marches across Marinette’s face.

“Sorry,” she finally gets out. “For a lot of things.”

He’s about to tell her that she has nothing to apologize for, but she cuts him off.

“—No. Just…let me apologize. Like I said before, I’ve been misjudging you for a long time about a lot of things. I’ll try to do better in the future, and I hope you and I will become better friends too. I had a lot of fun tonight, so…make sure you come back, okay?” She gives him a tentatively hopeful glance, like she’s afraid of being rejected a second time in one day.

“Be careful, Marinette,” Chat snickers. “If you keep looking at me like that, I’ll think you’re serious and you’ll be stuck with me.”

The tension breaks, and she smiles with a fond eyeroll. “Somehow, I think I’ll manage to live with that.”

“Maybe for the first few years, but cats live a long time,” he teases.

“That’s a good thing,” she counters. “I get attached easily. Besides, after a month or two, I’ll be able to tune out your voice, so we should be set.”

He snorts. “Good to know? Good night, Princess.”

Her grip on his elbow tightens. “Chat Noir?”

“Yeees, My Princess?” He laughs internally. This is the longest goodbye on record.

She looks him in the eye, her demeanor solemn as she leans in and ghosts a kiss against his cheek. “Thank you for saving me, Minou.”

Just as quickly as it happened, it’s over, and Marinette retreats, releasing his arm and taking a step back. She smiles awkwardly, a blush dusting her cheeks.

Chat is pretty sure the mask is the only thing keeping his own blush from view. His face feels hot.

There’s a beat, but then Chat regains his composure, putting on a sloppy grin and chuckling, “Oh, we both know that this princess saves herself. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Marinette shakes her head. “You’ve saved me more times than you know, Chat Noir, and I don’t think you’ve ever been given the credit you deserve.”

“Well,” he decides, puffing up a little. “It’s nice to get some appreciation from a cute girl, so thanks, Princess.”

“You mean from a girl whose parents run a bakery.” Marinette winks.

Chat shrugs. “Okay. Yeah. The bakery doesn’t hurt.”

“Good night, Chat Noir,” she chuckles. “Thanks again.”

“Good night, Princess.” He gives her a two-finger salute and bounds off over the rooftops of Paris, back to the mansion.

Marinette watches him go with a sigh, suddenly feeling exhausted. She drags her heavy body down the skylight, kicks her shoes off, and sinks into her bed.

Tikki zips out from her hiding place and snuggles into the pillow next to Marinette’s head. “Marinette, I’m so sorry about the macarons. I didn’t think he’d notice.”

“Don’t worry about it, Tikki,” Marinette yawns and then tilts her head to nuzzle her kwami. “I set those two aside for you, and I didn’t think he’d notice either. I didn’t realize he was watching me so closely.”

Tikki hesitates. There’s a lot she wants to say, but Marinette is mentally, physically, and emotionally worn out. “It’s good that Chat Noir was in the area.”

She doesn’t mention the terror she experienced when she thought Marinette was about to be akumatized or her guilt for not keeping better watch when she knew her chosen was vulnerable.

“Yeah,” Marinette mumbles, half asleep.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Tikki whispers, reaching out to stroke Marinette’s hair.

“Yeah. Me too. Thanks, Tikki.” Marinette’s eyes drift shut.

“What do you think about what happened tonight with Chat Noir?” Tikki isn’t expecting a thorough response, but she’s betting that she’ll get something interesting and honest.

“That was weird,” Marinette snorts, curling up into a ball on her side. “Really weird, but weird in a good way.”

Tikki smiles, giving Marinette’s forehead an affectionate kiss. “Good night, Marinette. Sweet dreams.”

“Sweet dreams, Chat,” Marinette mutters, hair falling into her face.

 

Meanwhile, across town, Chat Noir sneaks back into Adrien Agreste’s room after checking the area for any unwanted witnesses who might uncover his secret identity.

“Detransformation,” he whispers.

Chat Noir melts away, and only Adrien is left in a dark room too big for one person. Perfect teenage boy is back in his natural habitat.

“My cheese Danish!” are the first words out of Plagg’s mouth as he wizzes around Adrien’s head.

Adrien sighs good-naturedly, setting the pastry box down on the coffee table and opening it for Plagg to dive into.

The kwami eats the mont blanc and one of the macarons as well for good measure.

“Good?” Adrien chuckles, picking up a pastel yellow macaron—lemon? Pineapple? Banana? Honey.

“Kid, you need to forget about Ladybug and try to get this Marinette girl to marry you instead,” Plagg advises.

Adrien spares Plagg an eyeroll. “And this has nothing to do with the fact that it would be convenient for you if my in-laws ran a bakery.”

“Of course not,” Plagg scoffs, boldfaced. “Why would you even say that? I’m clearly looking out for your best interests. The hat kid was right about her.”

Adrien shrugs, slumping down onto the couch. “I doubt she’d be interested at the moment, even if I was interested in her—which I’m not. She just got her heart broken by some guy she’s been crazy about for nearly half a decade. She’s not going to just get over that in a matter of days or weeks. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be a rebound. After the torture I’ve suffered for four years at the hands of Ladybug, don’t you think I deserve a little more consideration than that?”

“Oh, Kid,” Plagg sighs, floating over to land on Adrien’s knee. “You’re a mess.”

Adrien raises an eyebrow. “Gee. Thanks, Plagg. I love you too.”

“I think Marinette would be good for you. That’s all I’m saying.” Plagg pats Adrien’s knee in a rare attempt at comfort.

“Because she was nice enough to think of sending treats home for you?” Adrien grabs the last remaining macaron and pops it into his mouth—something floral. Gardenia? Lily of the Valley? He’ll have to ask next time; it’s actually pretty good. “You just want those cheesecake bites she mentioned.”

Plagg shakes his head. “It’s because she saw you tonight—the real you—and she didn’t flinch. How many times can you say that Ladybug really saw you?”

Adrien looks away, pushing down a flurry of thoughts he doesn’t want to sort through and deal with. “I know Ladybug and I aren’t ever going to happen, Plagg. You don’t have to rub it in.”

Plagg gives a little snort and goes back to the pastry box to search for crumbs. “I keep thinking that if I bring it up often enough, one day you’ll actually hear me and stop running into the same wall over and over again. How many times has she rejected you now?”

“Seven,” Adrien mumbles.

“Uh-huh.” Plagg nods, unimpressed. “And how’s that working out for you? Does that make you feel good? What? Are you hoping she’ll change her mind and say yes if you keep asking? You do realize that, at this point, you’re toeing the line of sexual harassment.”

“Are you trying to get me akumatized?” Adrien wonders, attempting to push down the sudden upwelling of negative emotions.

Plagg shrugs again. “I don’t think he’s still up.”

Adrien leans back to check the clock; it’s almost midnight. “You’d think my intense negativity would wake him,” he grumbles. “Do you think he has my channel on mute? If so, that kind of pisses me off. He’s purposely choosing to be ignorant of the times I’m in distress.”

“Would you be more or less mad if he didn’t have you on mute and he was knowingly ignoring all the times you were upset?” Plagg wonders.

Adrien pales. “Let’s add that to the list of things I’m not allowing myself to think about. Ever.”

“Marinette is nice, isn’t she?” Plagg not-so-helpfully changes the subject. “It was nice spending time with her and not having to try to figure out what she meant to say.”

This gets a laugh out of Adrien. “Okay, yeah. That was nice. I tell you, sometimes I get a headache trying to piece her mangled French back into something comprehendible. I mean, she’s a lot better than she used to be, but sometimes I still have to concentrate really hard when she talks. It was refreshing to hear her get so many complete, complex sentences out at once. I wonder why she’s like that around Adrien. She seems to be able to talk normally to everyone else. Do you think Nino’s right and I intimidate her?”

Plagg shakes his head. “At this point, I’ve lost any hope I had of you ever figuring it out on your own.”

Adrien frowns, getting the feeling that his intelligence has just been insulted.

“Just go to bed, Kid. It’s too late for this conversation.” Plagg abandons the thoroughly licked pastry box and floats off towards the minifridge to chase his Danish down with Stilton.

Adrien picks up the box and wonders how he’s going to destroy the evidence. Would it be considered an abuse of his power if he Cataclysm-ed it into oblivion? He shakes his head and deposits it in his rubbish bin, taking out a little of the trash on top before inserting the box in order to hide it in the middle.

Adrien changes for bed and slips between the covers.

His dreams feature a parkour contest between Marinette and Ladybug as well as a replay of Marinette’s thank you peck on his cheek…only it’s Ladybug, and she kisses him on the lips, whispering, “You’ve saved me more times than you know, Chat”.

Chapter Text

Marinette dreams that Ladybug and Adrien are making out on her balcony. When Ladybug notices Marinette’s presence, she pulls away to smirk condescendingly.

Adrien frowns and looks at Marinette with pity. “Sorry, Marinette, but I’m already in love with Ladybug. I can’t see you as anything more than a friend, and it’s not like we’re even good friends in the first place.”

Suddenly Chat Noir is there, holding out a rose from Marinette’s flowerbox to Ladybug. “Milady, won’t you at least give me a chance? I’m serious. I’ve loved you for years now.”

Ladybug laughs in his face. “Silly Kitty. Could you drop it already? That joke stopped being funny four years ago.”

Ladybug goes back to kissing Adrien as Chat visibly slumps and slinks over to collapse onto Marinette’s lawn chair, looking distraught.

Marinette pulls up her crate to sit on and suddenly she and Chat Noir are at a café in the Marais. Ladybug, now a giant, stomps past, holding Adrien in her fist.

Chat Noir and Marinette launch into action, running along the rooftops to catch up with the rampaging superhero. Marinette throws a macaron, knocking Ladybug over so that they can reach and rescue Adrien—who does not want to be rescued.

Once Ladybug is defeated, Chat Noir and Marinette land on the Pont Alexandre III.

Chat smiles warmly, saying, “Well played, Princess.” Instead of their customary fist-bump, Chat leans in and kisses Marinette on the lips.

Marinette jerks awake. “What the hell?” she hisses, scanning her surroundings, trying to shake off the remaining fog of the dream.

“Marinette?” Tikki looks up at her chosen in concern. “Marinette, what’s wrong?”

“I think I had a super messed up dream.” Marinette runs a hand through her hair, still trying to get her bearings. “Ladybug and Adrien weren’t making out and making fun of me, were they?”

Tikki frowns, uncomprehending. “Marinette, you are Ladybug.”

“What?” Marinette snorts. “No, I’m not. Chat Noir and I were just fighting Ladybug…and then he kissed me. Tikki, did Chat Noir kiss me?” Marinette looks down at her companion with wide eyes full of anxiety.

Tikki tries not to laugh. Marinette can be such a spaz sometimes. “No, Marinette. Ladybug and Adrien were not kissing, you and Chat Noir were not fighting Ladybug, and Chat Noir did not kiss you. …You did kiss him, though.”

“What?!” Marinette shrieks, almost jumping out of her loft. “No! No, I didn’t! That’s not something I would do!”

Yes, you did. Last night on the balcony when you thanked him for saving you. It was really sweet,” Tikki adds just to be facetious.

“Oh my gosh. I did! I kissed Chat Noir on the cheek!” She sees the two used mugs on her desk from the hot chocolate, the crinkled napkins that never made it into the waste bin, her shoes kicked off unceremoniously on the floor. “All that really happened.”

All of the sudden, Marinette deflates. “And Adrien really did reject me for Ladybug.”

Tikki flies up to give Marinette a gentle pat on the head. “It’s okay, Marinette. Don’t let yourself get upset again. Like Chat said, it may hurt now, but it won’t stay this painful forever. It’ll get better day by day.”

“Yeah, but that does nothing to make me feel better now,” Marinette grumbles, throwing off the covers and making her way to the shower.

After a minute of reflection, she sighs. “I’m sorry, Tikki. Thank you. I appreciate you trying to comfort me, but I’m just not in the mood to look on the bright side and try to feel optimistic right now.”

“It’s okay, Marinette. You don’t have to put on a positive attitude right away,” Tikki assures. “You’re allowed to be upset; just, don’t give into despair and make yourself a target for Papillon again, okay?”

Marinette nods and begins to get ready for school.

 

Marinette can hear her mother bustling about in the kitchen, so she steels herself before making her way down the stairs to confront head on what she is sure will be an inquisition about Chat Noir.

“Good Morning, Maman,” she greets tiredly, already ready to go back to bed.

“Good Morning, Honey.” Sabine looks up with a sunny smile. “Oh! Your hair looks nice, you wearing it down like that.”

Marinette bites her lip, setting down her bag and taking her seat at the kitchen table. “Yeah? Thanks. A friend said something about wearing it down, so I thought I’d give it a try.”

Sabine sets a plate of toast and eggs down in front of her daughter, and then, instead of heading back down to the bakery to help Tom, she takes a seat opposite Marinette and looks at her expectantly.

Marinette sighs. “No. I am not sleeping with Chat Noir. We are not dating. We are not interested in each other romantically. We just became friends last night, for crying out loud. I was serious when I said that he just happened to be passing by when an akuma tried to attack me. He might come back to hang out sometime, but there is nothing happening between him and me. Okay?”

Sabine puts up her hands in surrender. “Okay, Honey. If that’s what you say, but you sure looked comfortable with his arms around you last night.”

“You saw that?” Marinette groans.

“I might have been watching for a few seconds before I slammed the door and started stomping about,” Sabine confesses.

Marinette resists the urge to smack her head against the table. “Maman, he was just giving me a hug to make me feel better because I was starting to get upset about Adrien again. Chat was joking about how tough I am, and then I said something like maybe I wasn’t feeling all too resilient at the moment because the guy I’d liked for half a decade had just totally rejected me. I was joking, but then it really sank in that that had happened and I’ve wasted five years of my life liking Adrien, and…”

Marinette starts to tear up. She grabs her napkin and wipes at her eyes before the tears can fall. “I realized that it was too soon to joke about that, and he wiped my tears away and gave me a hug because he’s a good friend, so don’t try to make this out to be more than it is. I just got my heart broken, so don’t try to fling me into some other guy’s arms because you think it’ll help me forget Adrien. Besides, Chat Noir is a really great guy. He deserves better than to be somebody’s rebound, especially after everything Ladybug puts him through.”

Sabine gets up and goes to wrap her arms around Marinette. “Okay, Sweetie. I’m sorry. I’ll call off your father and let him know it was just a misunderstanding. I’m glad that you have good friends like Alya and Nino and Chat Noir to support you.”

“Yeah,” Marinette sniffles and returns Sabine’s hug. “And awesome parents who love me. I’m lucky.”

“Do you want to stay home today? Alya is downstairs waiting to walk with you, but I can tell her you’re still not feeling well,” Sabine offers.

Marinette pulls back from her mom and shakes her head. “No. I should go. If I sit around here all day, I’m more likely to get upset. At least school will be a distraction.”

Sabine bites the inside of her cheek. “Even though Adrien will be there?”

Marinette winces. She had forgotten. “Yeah. I mean…it’s not like I can avoid him forever, so I should probably just get it over with.”

Sabine nods in understanding. “Okay, but if you need to call it quits halfway through the day, you just come home, all right?”

Marinette puts on a brave smile for her mother, giving Sabine a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Maman.”

 

Alya wraps her arms around Marinette in the foyer, giving her a reassuring squeeze, and they head to school in silence. Marinette can feel the anxious energy coming off Alya in waves. She wants to ask Marinette how she’s feeling, how the night went, if she wants Alya to beat Adrien up for her, but she lets Marinette have space and doesn’t force her to talk.

They arrive at homeroom without having exchanged a word.

Nino stands when he sees them. He does not read Marinette’s mood as well as Alya and asks, “Hey. How are you feeling? You okay?”

Alya rolls her eyes and sighs in exasperation. “Babe, of course she’s not okay. She just got her heart put through a trash compactor.” Alya loses her willpower and turns to Marinette. “Do you need me to beat him up? I will seriously pound his face in. I might just do it anyway. I’m super ticked.”

Marinette grimaces. “And what are you going to tell him when he asks what it was for? That we set him up and were eavesdropping the whole time and now you’re upset that he’s upset me by turning me down for a celebrity crush?”

Alya clicks her tongue. “What makes you think I’d deign to answer him? I’m not talking to him anymore.”

“Al, don’t,” Nino sighs.

“Alya, you two are friends,” Marinette argues. “You like him. Don’t mess that up on my account. I just want us all to carry on like normal and pretend that nothing’s wrong, okay? That’s the best thing you can do for me right now, all right? If everyone else keeps acting like normal, maybe I can too and this will all blow over.”

Alya grumbles under her breath, shoulders raising up to her ears. “If that’s what you really want, Marinette, I’ll try to cool my jets. If you change your mind, though, I’m totally up for taking revenge at any time.”

“I’m not hearing any of this,” Nino mutters, fiddling with his hat. “I’m all for pretending everything is pre-apocalypse status quo.”

“Thanks, guys.” Marinette takes out a weak smile of appreciation for her friends.

“Morning, guys!” a regrettably familiar voice calls to them, and Marinette tenses as Adrien draws near. “Hey, Marinette.”

Adrien comes to stand right beside her, and Marinette has no choice but to turn and fake a smile. It hurts so much worse than she had anticipated. “A-Adrien. Um…hi.” Even her voice sounds pained.

Then there’s that look of genuine concern on his face as he studies her. “Are you doing okay? I heard you got food poisoning yesterday. Are you feeling any better?”

He’s inadvertently jabbing a finger in the wound. It would be easier if he were some jerk not worth caring about. Why does he have to be thoughtful and sweet? Why does he have to care for her a little bit but just not enough?

“I…No,” she responds disjointedly. “I haven’t. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know. I…Thank you, Adrien. That’s…” Tears start to spill down her cheeks, and her smile breaks.

The look of alarm on his face and the “Marinette, I’m sorry I—” are more than she can take.

“—Excuse me!” she squeaks and bolts, running for the bathroom on the far side of the school where she’s sure that no one will find her and hear her crying.

Alya and Nino dash after her, and Adrien joins them a second later once he gets over the shock of Marinette’s abrupt breakdown. Adrien is faster than his two friends, so he keeps up as Marinette weaves down the halls and corridors, making quick turns. Alya and Nino lose sight of them, leaving only Adrien to follow Marinette into the girls’ bathroom.

He hesitates at the door, weighing his options. Marinette probably doesn’t want to talk to Adrien. What is he even doing here? It’s not like he’ll be able to help her, but it’s not like he can leave her vulnerable to an akuma attack either.

He takes a deep breath and pushes the door open. Marinette is sobbing loudly in one of the stalls, so she probably doesn’t hear his entrance.

He clears his throat and tentatively approaches the stall door. “Princess?”

With a sharp inhale, the sobbing stops, and Marinette hops down from her perch on top of the toilet tank. “Chat Noir?” she whispers incredulously.

“Hi, Princess,” Adrien chuckles self-consciously.

“What are you doing here?!” she gasps, turning the handle to open the door.

“Whoa!” Adrien catches the top of the stall door and holds it closed.

Marinette gasps again when she sees his bare left hand.

“Sorry, Princess,” he laughs sheepishly. “I didn’t exactly have time to transform when I saw you running down the halls crying, so…I’m not all Chat at the moment. Can we leave the door closed? Ladybug would kill me if I got my secret identity found out.”

“Ladybug wouldn’t kill you, Chat Noir,” Marinette mumbles. Does she really come across as so strict to her partner?

Adrien rolls his eyes sadly. She can’t see it, but she can hear it in his voice. “Okay, no, but she’d give me such a lecture I’d wish I were dead, so…”

Marinette releases her grip on the door handle. “I promise I won’t peek.”

“Thanks,” Adrien sighs, letting the door go. “So…how is my princess today?”

Marinette lets her head thunk against the door. “Super. I mean, that’s why we’re here, right?”

“Is that playful sarcasm or ‘Shut up, Chat’ sarcasm? I can’t see your face to tell.”

“Playful,” she chuckles.

“Did the confrontation with your parents about your new boyfriend go well?” he risks teasing.

Marinette grimaces. “Oh, Chat. I totally snapped at my mom. She gave me this look, and before she could ask, I went off on her, telling her there was nothing funny going on and you were just being a good friend and that she had no business trying to make you into my rebound because you deserve a lot better than that. It turned out okay in the end. She gave me a hug and said she was glad I had such good friends like you and Alya and Nino, but…I kind of felt bad for blowing up like that.”

Adrien’s brow creases as he realizes something off about her statement. The “you” is Chat Noir. Alya and Nino are also good friends, but someone is missing. What about Adrien?

“Chat?”

“Sorry. I was just…” He bites his tongue. This is no time for him to be thinking about himself. Marinette needs him.

“Does it bother you, me talking about my mom?” Marinette wonders.

It hits him that she thinks he went silent because of what he told her the night before about his mother abandoning him.

“No, Princess,” he assures. “It’s fine. I’m actually really glad that you and your mom have a good relationship. I don’t want you to feel like you’re walking on glass around me.”

She purses her lips, only half believing him. “Okay, but if I do say something that upsets you, promise you’ll let me know?”

Adrien smiles softly at her thoughtfulness. “Okay. If you ever say something that’s too upsetting for me to talk about, I promise I’ll tell you…. Thanks.”

“Anytime, Chat Noir.” Her voice has a smile in it, but he can still hear her sniffling.

“Here.” He takes out a tissue from his pocket and hands it over the stall door to her.

She takes the tissue with her left hand and then catches his hand with her right one before he can withdraw it. She threads her fingers through the fingers of his left hand. She could really use a hug, but this will have to do.

“Is this okay?” she inquires hesitantly, as if she expects him to say no. “Just for a little while. I don’t want your arm to fall asleep or anything, but…”

He gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “It’s fine, Princess. I’ve always wanted to hold hands with a cute girl over a bathroom stall door anyway, so now I can check it off my list.”

“You are awful,” she snickers, enjoying the warmth of his ungloved hand in hers.

“Hey, I am a good friend. It takes a lot of guts for a guy to barge into the women’s restroom like this. I’m risking having my identity exposed on top of the off chance some girl comes in here and starts hitting me over the head with her purse because she mistakes me for a pervert. I expect pain au chocolat or something for this,” Adrien teases.

Marinette rolls her eyes even while dabbing at the tears still slipping from them. “Are you telling me you’re only my friend because my parents own a bakery?” she snorts.

“Nah. The bakery is only a side perk. Though, Plagg is trying to get me to marry you for the bakery. He really enjoyed the treats you sent home for him last night. Thank you again.”

Marinette giggles, and Adrien perks up, relieved that this is actually working. “I didn’t realize that the bakery made me such a catch.”

“I’m sure that you’ve heard the old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Princess.” He sticks his tongue out, even though she can’t see.

“Does that apply to kwamis as well?” she hums.

“It sure applies to Plagg. He’s eating me out of house and hom—Ow!”

“You okay?” Marinette frowns as Adrien winces.

“Yeah. Fine. Plagg just kicked me in the ribs,” Adrien grumbles.

“Oh,” Marinette snickers. “Hi, Plagg.”

Plagg flies out of Adrien’s shirt and up and over the stall door. “Hello, Marinette,” he greets with a suave bow. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

She blinks speechlessly at the tiny black cat but quickly gets over the initial surprise and smiles. “It’s nice to meet you too, Plagg.”

“I know my chosen can be an idiot at times, but do you think you could accept him as your mate?”

“Plagg!” Adrien hisses. “Marinette, just ignore him.”

“He has material wealth and desirable genes to pass on to offspring,” Plagg continues his pitch.

Marinette can’t help bursting into a laugh. “Oh, Plagg. You do know that if I marry Chat, I won’t be living at the bakery anymore, right? I’d move out and live with him.”

“Plagg, I am going to kill you,” Adrien seethes. “No more fancy, imported cheese. I’m buying you the cheap stuff from the grocery store.”

Plagg ignores Adrien, floating up so that he’s at eye level with Marinette. “Like the kid said, the bakery is a ‘side perk’. He needs someone sweet like you in his life to make him feel cared for.”

Marinette’s cheeks flush as she realizes that Plagg is serious.

“PLAGG. Get the hell back here right now before I come in there after you.” Adrien is about to die of humiliation.

Plagg flies up to whisper low in Marinette’s ear so that Adrien can’t hear. “I’ve told him time and time again to give up on Ladybug. Hopefully, as he interacts with Marinette more, he’ll realize how wonderful you are on this side of the mask and finally fall in love with the right girl. I hope you’re able to do the same.”

Marinette’s mouth drops open, and she’s suddenly incapable of getting out a response.

Plagg pulls back and gives her a wink. “Think about it.”

“O-Okay,” Marinette stammers, suddenly struggling to control her body temperature and heartrate.

“Plagg, I’m counting to three. One,” Adrien snaps.

“Oh, hold your horses, Kid. I’m coming.” Plagg rolls his eyes and shoots back up and over to the right side of the stall door, back into Adrien’s shirt.

“We are going to have a talk when we get home,” Adrien growls through clenched teeth before turning his attention back to his friend. “Princess, I am so sorry about him. He’s not really fit to be seen in public.”

“It’s—” Marinette clears her throat, struggling to get the nervous laugh out of her voice. “It’s okay, Chat Noir. I…I don’t mind. He’s cute.”

“There is nothing cute about that little monster,” Adrien grumbles, sending Plagg a pointed glare.

“He cares about you,” Marinette counters on Plagg’s behalf. “Maybe he doesn’t go about it in the ways you’d like, but it’s sweet that he wants to make sure that you’re taken care of by a loving partner. I’m touched that he thinks well enough of me to pick me as a partner for you.”

“That’s…a relief,” Adrien confesses. “I mean, not that I have romantic designs towards you or anything, Princess, but…if Plagg did the same thing to Ladybug, I’m sure she’d get offended and try to laugh it off. I’m glad you can just take it in stride and not let it make things weird between us.”

The flustered smile slips from Marinette’s face and shatters as it hits the ground. Why does Chat think the worst of Ladybug like that? Has she really scarred him so severely over the years?

Marinette gives Adrien’s hand a squeeze. “Don’t worry about it, Chat. I’m not going to let something like your kwami or my parents trying to set us up spoil our friendship.”

“Good to know,” Adrien sighs.

Silence settles between them for a beat or two. Marinette’s no longer sniffling.

“You doing okay, Princess?” Adrien asks hesitantly, afraid of setting her off again.

“Yeah. I’m feeling better now. Thanks,” she sighs, putting herself back together. “I’ve been a little raw all morning, but when I got to school, I was talking with my friends Nino and Alya, and then one of my classmates came up and asked if I was feeling better because he knows I had food poisoning yesterday, and…I don’t know. I just lost it. This is going to be tough to get through if little things like that are enough to push me over the edge.”

“You’ll make it,” Adrien offers in encouragement, tightening his grip on her hand. “It might be challenging at times, but you’re strong enough to get through this. And, if it helps, know that I’ve got your back, Princess.”

“Thanks, Chat Noir.” Marinette sighs, resting her forehead against the door between them. “It helps a lot.” She gives his hand a final squeeze and lets it go. “I should be okay now. I need to get back to class, and I don’t want to make you too late either. Thanks for coming after me.”

“I’d follow you anywhere, Princess.” He adds a flirtatious wink solely for his own benefit.

“Oh, please,” she snorts.

“By the way, I saw that you wore your hair down today like I said you should. I only glimpsed you briefly as you tore past my classroom window through the halls, but your hair looks super cute like that. You should wear it that way again sometime,” Adrien chuckles, not even half teasing.

Marinette cracks up. “Flirt.”

Adrien injects a hurt tone to his voice. “I am being one hundred percent genuine. Why do girls never believe me when I tell them how pretty they are?”

“It’s probably the leather. It makes you look like a bad boy player,” Marinette doesn’t bother to stifle her bout of giggles.

“I’m not wearing leather right now,” Adrien whines.

Marinette hums as she considers. “I was picturing you wearing leather.”

“Well, picture me wearing something you can take me seriously in,” Adrien huffs.

Marinette cracks up anew. “I can’t take you seriously in anything but the suit. The ears, the mask, the tail, and the bell don’t go with anything I try to put you in.”

Adrien rolls his eyes and sighs in exasperation. “Then picture me naked, why don’t you? Because your hair looks pretty, and I swear I’m not just flirting with you, Princess.”

There’s a bang from within the stall as Marinette falls over into the side of it, laughing.

“What now?” Adrien shakes his head, a smile born of pure frustration making its way to his lips.

“Cognitive dissonance. I can’t picture you naked telling me my hair is pretty and still take you seriously. That is the very essence of flirting.”

Adrien bangs his head against the stall door. “Are those seriously the words that came out of my mouth? Did I really just tell you to picture me naked? God, I’m tired.”

“You’re still wearing the ears and the mask and the bell,” she adds helpfully, still cracking up.

“Great.” Adrien begins to chuckle as he hits his head against the door a second time. “Do I have nice abs, Princess?”

“I can’t tell,” she snickers. “You’re lying on my bed on your stomach with a sheet thrown across the inappropriate bits.”

Adrien gives in and laughs. “We have really weird conversations, Princess.”

“You started it,” she accuses through her giggle fit.

“Yep, and now I’m going to finish it.” Adrien cards a hand through his hair as he begins his retreat. “You’re obviously going to be fine, so I’m heading back to class. Give me, like, five minutes’ head start before you come back into the halls, okay? Ladybug would seriously be mad if I accidentally revealed my identity.”

“No worries,” she assures, her laughter finally dying down, leaving her tired. “I have to wash my face and compose myself a little before I head out. Thanks again for coming to save me, Chat Noir. Have a good day.”

“You too, Princess.” Adrien spares her a fond smile before taking his leave, hustling back to homeroom.

He runs into Alya and Nino in the middle of a systematic search of all storage closets, empty classrooms, and restrooms. “Did you guys find her?”

Nino shakes his head, taking off his hat to wipe at his brow with the back of his hand. “No luck, Mec. You?”

Adrien shrugs. “I lost her over by the chemistry labs. Man, she’s really fast.”

“Well, let’s head over there and restart our search,” Alya sighs heavily. “I’m really worried about her. What if she gets akumatized?”

Nino winces. “We’d all be doomed.”

Adrien raises an eyebrow at what seems like an extreme reaction. Sure, Marinette would be a tough akuma, but… “Why do you say that?”

Nino freezes, trying to come up with a reasonable explanation that isn’t the truth. “Uh…I don’t know, Mec. Marinette just seems like final boss level akuma, is all. Don’t you think?”

Adrien shudders. “I don’t really want to think about that.”

Thankfully, he’s saved from considering it as Marinette turns right out of one of the side corridors into the main hallway. She looks both ways cautiously, as if she’s searching for something and almost half afraid she’ll find it.

Adrien has a pretty good idea of what that something is.

Marinette jumps at first when she sees them but then tentatively approaches. She seems distracted. “Hey.”

“Are you all right?” Alya runs up to her, putting her hands on Marinette’s shoulders and inspecting the smaller girl for damage.

Marinette’s eyes are a little puffy and red, but, overall, she looks fine.

“Yeah,” Marinette mutters, still scanning the halls. “Hey. Don’t tell me who it is if you did see him, but did you guys see a guy around here out in the halls?”

Alya’s eyes narrow.

Adrien does his best to keep a neutral, non-‘caught-red-handed’ expression.

Nino frowns. “A guy?”

“Yeah.” Marinette blinks, eyes finally coming to focus on Nino. “About yea high.” Her hand comes to rest at about the level of Adrien’s head. “Blonde hair, green eyes? Don’t tell me who it is if you did see him, but…did you see him?”

Nino blinks. “Blonde hair, green eyes, this tall?” Nino glances at Adrien. “You mean other than this one?” He hooks his thumb towards the model.

Marinette makes the mistake of looking at Adrien. She pales and quickly looks away, shaking her head vigorously. “N-No. No way. Maybe his eyes aren’t really green. Maybe his hair changes color too and he’s not really blonde either?”

Alya takes her by the cheeks and forces Marinette to look at her. “Marinette, are you okay? You’re babbling.”

“Oh!” Marinette snaps to attention, smiling shamefacedly. “Sorry about that. Yeah. I’m fine, I just…I don’t know what happened back there. I…”

Alya gives Marinette’s cheek a gentle pat, putting a hand at the small of her back and ushering Marinette back to class. “It’s okay, Girl. So long as you’re doing better now.”

 

Marinette actually makes it through the rest of class without having a meltdown. Whenever she catches sight of Adrien or starts thinking about the Ladybug from her dream smirking at her evilly, she makes herself think of Chat Noir naked and has to suppress a chuckle. She remembers the press of his hand in hers, and she forces herself to keep fighting the negative emotions. She can’t put him through Marinette getting akumatized without the help of Ladybug to save the day.

The final bell rings after what feels like an eternity, and Marinette starts packing up her books so she can go home and collapse on her chaise longue and maybe throw herself into a complicated sewing project.

Unexpectedly, Adrien stands and turns to talk to her. “Hey, Marinette.”

Marinette turns to stone. “H-Hey. A-Adrien.” It feels like her vocal chords are rusted in place.

Alya stands up beside her, ready to pounce, but Nino catches her by the arm and gives her a stern look, utterly unusual for the normally laid-back DJ.

“I was wondering,” Adrien pushes forward, choosing to ignore his friends’ weird behavior. “I’ve got fencing and Chinese after school, but I’m free later this evening. Did you maybe want to hang out? We could go get ice cream or go to an arcade or something.”

The gears in Marinette’s brain start to move slowly. “Hang out? You? A-And me?”

He nods, baffled at why this is so hard.

“AndNinoandAlya?!” she blurts out, panic slowly creeping into her voice.

Adrien’s eyes widen at the sudden outburst. “Uh…no?” He scratches his cheek awkwardly. “I was thinking maybe just the two of us. I recently realized that you and I don’t spent much time together on our own, and I was hoping that we could hang out and get to know each other better. I should be done with Chinese by seven, so what do you say I swing by your place to pick you up at seven thirty?”

Marinette looks terrified, making Adrien think, “What the hell did I do?”

She takes a nervous bite of her lip and accidentally bites too hard, making herself jump. Her hand flies to her mouth to check for blood. Finding none, she looks back up at Adrien. “I…um…I don’t know. Tonight isn’t really—I don’t wheel fell.” She shakes her head. “Feel well. Still. Food poisoning.”

“Oh.” Adrien tries not to look disappointed. “Well, I hope you get well soon. You have my number if you feel better later and change your mind, but…if not, maybe some other time?”

“Sure!” And yet she shakes her head no. “I would really love that!” Her hair goes flying, a couple strands sticking to her lips. “Some other time for sure.”

This is the very definition of sending mixed signals. Would she love to hang out with him, or would she rather eat live scorpions? He honestly can’t tell.

He tries one last Hail Mary play. “By the way, your hair looks really cute today. You should wear it down more often.”

Marinette’s eyes widen. Her fake smile falters, and her lips begin to quiver.

The same compliment that made her giggle only hours before has now made her burst into tears.

“Thanks,” she chokes before bolting on him a second time in one day.

Alya slams her palms down on the desk between them and growls, “Are you freaking serious, Agreste?!” Then she’s off after Marinette.

Adrien looks in horror at Nino. “Oh my God. Nino, what did I do?”

Nino pulls his cap down over his face and shakes his head, groaning in frustration.

Adrien looks around at his other classmates. Most of them are staring at the spectacle. Some of them are looking at him in pity, others are shaking their heads, and a few are looking at him with disgust.

Adrien mentally goes back over everything he just said, but he can’t identify his error. He turns back to Nino. “Was it what I said about her hair? It looks good! Was I not supposed to tell her it looks good? What the hell did I do?”

Nino claps a hand on Adrien’s shoulder and then moves to collect the things the girls have left behind. “It’s…Marinette is just a little sensitive right now, Dude. She’s going through some stuff, so expect her to be a little more flighty than usual, okay?”

Adrien bites his lip, helping Nino gather Marinette and Alya’s books and papers. “Do you know what’s going on? I mean…did Marinette or Alya tell you?”

Nino looks conflicted. His brow creases, and he purses his lips. “Dude, there are a lot of factors in play here. You know we’re best buds, but Marinette’s a good friend too, and Alya…” Nino shakes his head and levels a serious look at Adrien. “You know I want to marry her, right? If she finds out I told you and breaks up with me, I’m going to be a car crash and you and I aren’t going to be able to be friends for a while. This is that level of messed up, okay? So, it’s not that I don’t want to tell you…”

Adrien nods. “No. I get it, Man. Don’t worry about it.” He picks up Marinette’s notebook and motions Nino out into the hall where the mass of shouting students gives them more privacy than the classroom. “Look, I overheard this rumor that some guy that Marinette’s liked for a long time now rejected her. Is that what this is about?”

Nino looks immensely relieved and then panicked and then relieved again. “You just happened to overhear that part? Not who rejected her or why or anything?”

Adrien shrugs, running with the half-truth. “I didn’t hear who it was she had a crush on. Is that what’s going on?”

Nino tips his head to the side, considering. “Well, I guess it’s okay, since I’m not the one who told you. If Alya asks later, you heard all this through the rumor mill. I refused to tell you anything.”

Adrien shrugs. “Sure. I’m not going to throw you under the bus, Nino.”

“Okay,” Nino sighs. “Yeah. Marinette got rejected by a long-time crush, so she’s pretty wrecked about it. There’s really not much more to it than that. She’s going to be even more of a mess than usual for a while, so hold on tight for that.”

“Is that why Alya’s so…combustible?” Adrien tries to put it nicely.

Nino nods in confirmation. “Yeah, Marinette is like a sister to Al. She’s fiercely protective, and she’s really afraid that Papillon’s going to come after Marinette while she’s like this, so…yeah. Alya’s really stressed. If she tries to rip your head off, don’t take it personally.”

“I’ll…try,” Adrien concedes. “I guess you’re not allowed to tell me who this jerk is? I’d kind of like to rip his face off for brushing her off like that for a celebrity crush. I mean, who does that?”

Adrien doesn’t notice the way Nino begins to look at him like he’s grown butterfly wings.

“I mean, he doesn’t even have the decency to let her down gently,” Adrien huffs, grip tightening on Marinette’s notebook until the spirals start to cut into his palm. “Who the hell goes and makes a girl cry like that? Obviously, he didn’t care about her at all if he didn’t even stop to consider her reaction or the fact that she could be akumatized. You’re sure you can’t tell me who I need to go run an épée through?”

Adrien finally looks back at Nino and sees the funny look. “What?”

Nino looks at Adrien in suspicion. “You know more than I thought. Who did you say you heard this from, Mec?”

Adrien evades the question because he can’t very well say that Marinette told him. “No one person. Just little bits of the rumor here and there. I kind of pieced it together myself, so…did I get anything wrong? Some guy did turn Marinette down for some internet blogger celebrity or something, right?”

Nino nods slowly. “Yeah. Something like that.”

“Marinette has sucky taste in men,” Adrien sighs. “I’m kind of ticked that she’s wasted so much time on this loser.”

Nino withholds his opinion of Marinette’s taste in men. “Dude, are you sure you don’t have feelings for her? You’re pretty riled up over this, and you did just ask her out on a date and tell her her hair was pretty. Care to clue me in?”

Adrien rolls his eyes as they make their way down the school steps and over to the bakery. “It’s not like that. Marinette is a friend. Sure, we’re not super close, but I do like her, and I don’t want bad things to happen to her. I feel a little protective of her too, just like you and Alya. It’s nothing romantic, though.”

“So…the date and the hair?” Nino presses.

“It wasn’t a date,” Adrien sighs in exasperation. “Can’t a guy and a girl hang out together without it being a date? I was serious when I said that I realized that we didn’t hang out much and that I wanted to get to know her better. Nino, you made me realize that last night when you asked me how I felt about her. Remember I said that I didn’t really know her because we didn’t talk much? I was trying to fix that.”

Nino accepts this and moves on to his last point. “And the hair?”

“I was trying to be nice. I knew she’d had a rough day, and I thought she’d appreciate the compliment. I didn’t know it’d make her cry.”

Nino gives Adrien another pat on the shoulder and takes the girls’ stuff from him as they reach the bakery entrance. “It’s okay, Dude. You were trying to be a good friend. It’s not your fault that Marinette’s not in good headspace right now.” Nino squarely blames himself and Alya for that one.

“Is there anything I can do to help, do you think?” Adrien looks at Nino hopefully.

Nino shakes his head. “Dude, I don’t know. Maybe just give Marinette some space for a little while?”

Adrien’s face falls. “But…doesn’t she need her friends’ support right now?”

Nino’s lips press into a thin line. “Maybe let Alya handle that? It doesn’t seem like you’re having too much luck in that department right now. Sorry, Mec.”

Adrien looks down at his shoes and feels helpless. Why is it that nothing Adrien does is good enough? Chat Noir was able to help Marinette today, but Adrien only made her cry. What’s the difference?

“Sorry,” Nino repeats, a little softer, seeing how hard Adrien is taking this. “I’m going to run this stuff inside for the girls. Don’t you have fencing?”

“Oh. Yeah,” Adrien sighs, reluctantly turning back towards school. “Um…I guess, just let me know if you think of anything I can do to help besides just giving her space, all right?”

“Sure, Dude.” Nino smiles, but there’s pity mixed in with the affection. “Have a good night.”

“Yeah. You too,” Adrien mumbles, heading for fencing.

He can’t shake the feeling of uselessness all through practice. Kagami totally kicks his butt and then berates him for his lack of focus. She reminds him of Ladybug in all of the worst ways sometimes.

He’s distracted all through Chinese and accidentally asks his tutor if his tutor’s cousin eats Chinese people instead of asking if the cousin was Chinese. He has a feeling that his father is going to hear about this. At least it will probably make Nathalie crack a smile.

Finally, at seven o’clock, Adrien is free to have a stern talking to with Plagg about not trying to arrange marriages on his behalf.

That was sexual harassment,” Adrien hisses. “You’re lucky Marinette’s so chill. I wanted to strangle you.”

Cheese privileges are revoked—but only symbolically because the minifridge has just been restocked, and Adrien is pretty sure Plagg could magically phase through it if he was really motivated, even if Adrien put a padlock on it.

“So…” Plagg smiles evilly once Adrien gets all of the yelling and reprimanding out of his system. “You want to go see your girlfriend?”

Adrien looks at Plagg blankly. “Girlfriend?”

“Yeah. You said you’d pick her up for your date at seven-thirty. You better get going if you’re going to make it in time, Kid.” Plagg’s grin widens until half his oversized head is a smile.

Adrien rolls his eyes, sinking down onto his couch. “Plagg, Marinette said no. And it wasn’t a date.”

“Marinette said no to Adrien,” Plagg reminds mischievously. “I don’t think she’d say no to Chat Noir.”

Adrien considers this. Nino had told Adrien to give Marinette some space. No such instructions had been given to Chat Noir.

“Want to go for a run, Kid?” Plagg eggs him on.

Adrien does not take any further convincing. “Plagg, transform me.”

Chapter Text

Chat lands on Marinette’s balcony some ten minutes later. The light is on in her room below, so he taps gently on the skylight and waits.

It takes her a minute, but Marinette soon climbs the ladder to the loft and peers up nonplussed at what she expects to be a pigeon.

He gives her a little finger wave, and her face lights up as soon as she realizes that it’s him.

Marinette scrambles up into her loft and unlatches the lock on the skylight. “Chat Noir!” she greets, far more pleased to see him than she was to see Adrien that morning.

“Princess!” he matches her excited cheer.

She laughs and gives him a bright smile. “Come in, Minou. I was just working on a sewing project, so pardon the mess.”

She heads down to the main room, and he follows suit, noting that, yes, it is indeed utter chaos with bolts of various fabrics half unfurled and cloth scraps and fat quarters spread out all over the floor, making it hard to safely walk. Based on the amount and variety of supplies Marinette has out, it looks like she’s been at this for a while and has switched projects a time or two. Right now, the dress form in the middle of the disaster zone is wearing a nearly-finished party dress in shimmery black with venom purple and toxic green tulle accents. A matching half face mask hangs around the dress form’s neck.

“Princess, it looks like the fashion fairy threw up in here. How long have you been working on this?” Chat snickers, watching her take Twister-esque wide steps and little hops around the worst of the fabric pileups.

“Uh…” She balances on her tippy toes and looks over at the clock. “Wow. Couple of hours?” She goes back to making her way over to her desk via an extremely circuitous route that takes her virtually around the entirety of her tiny bedroom. “I started after school—well, after I cried for, like, twenty minutes.” She arrives at her desk and somehow manages to pull out the chair for him.

She frowns when she realizes how difficult and treacherous the pathway between Chat Noir and the chair is. “Sorry. I was going to offer you a seat, but this place really does look like a fabric store exploded, doesn’t it?”

Chat shrugs and makes life easier for her by taking a calculated leap the few feet from the bottom of the ladder to the desk chair. “No sweat, Princess.”

“I’m gonna start cleaning this up,” she sighs. “I honestly didn’t realize it had gotten that bad.”

“Don’t do it on my account,” he urges, watching her pick up one of the fabric bolts and wind the cloth back into place.

“No, I do need to start tidying up. It’s going on eight o’clock, so I should probably stop with the sewing and maybe do some sketching instead.” She slips a foot under another bolt, tilting it up so that she can grab it without bending down. Her hair falls into her face, and she blows it back up with a frustrated huff.

“Can I help?” Chat offers, feeling awkward.

“No, I’m good,” Marinette turns him down with a sheepish smile. “I know it doesn’t look like it with the current mess, but I’m a little particular about my materials, so it’s easier if I just do it myself. Thanks, though. Help yourself to a cookie, if you like. Behind you to your left.”

Chat turns to find a half-finished plate of cookies sitting on the desk. There’s one set aside on a napkin with tiny nibble marks along the edges. Chat frowns but does not comment and instead takes one of the chocolate chip cookies off of the pink and white polka dotted plate. “Thanks, Princess.”

Chat savors the chewy dough and the way the chocolate chips melt in his mouth. He contemplates asking his father to get the Dupain-Chengs to cater the desserts at the next function.

“So…you came home from school, cried for twenty minutes, and then started working on one of your design projects. How did the rest of the day go after we parted ways in the bathroom this morning?”

“So-so,” Marinette sighs. “There were bumpy parts, but, all-in-all, I think it went about as well as could be expected. At least I made it through the whole day.” She looks back over her shoulder and beams at him. “Thank you again for this morning. Picturing you naked really helped me get through the rest of the day.”

She says it without a hint of sarcasm.

Chat’s face explodes in a flood of red as he smacks himself in the forehead. “Always glad to be of service, Princess, in any way that I can, but I think your parents and Plagg are going to have a field day with this one.”

Marinette shrugs, picking up the scattered pieces of cloth covering her floor. “In all seriousness, thinking of you today did make me smile when I started to feel down, so I am really grateful. I’m not just giving you a hard time. I appreciate what you did for me, especially since it put your identity at risk, and I know how worried you are about upsetting Ladybug with that, so…thanks, Chat.”

He gives her a thumbs up. “Like I said, I’ve got your back, Princess.”

Marinette pauses in her work to lean up against her ladder, hooking her arm through one of the rungs and pursing her lips as she studies him.

“Like what you see?” He spins in the chair so that he’s facing her and spreads his arms as if to better show off the merchandise.

She nibbles at the inside of her cheek. “You go to my school.”

He shrugs. “Maybe I go to your school, maybe I was just looking in on you.”

“You go to my school,” she reiterates. “I always wondered how you managed to get on the scene so fast when an akuma attack broke out in junior high, but it was because we go to school together.”

Chat shakes a finger at her. “Princess, it’s no fair you taking advantage of my kindness to ferret out my secret identity.”

“Ladybug can’t be mad at you if I guess right,” Marinette argues even while she internally scolds herself for capitalizing on the situation, going behind Chat’s back to find out his identity while keeping her own a secret, and putting them both in danger by playing this game in the first place.

“Ladybug can be mad at me for being careless,” Chat points out.

With a sigh, Marinette goes back to cleaning duty.

Chat is a little surprised at how quickly she sorts through all the bits and pieces, putting them in order before stashing them in their designated places. The floor is swiftly becoming visible.

Chat takes a moment to look around, noting how nothing has really changed since the last time he was in here. He can’t remember if that was as Adrien hanging out with the gang or as Chat fighting one of the surprising number of akuma who find their way into the Dupain-Cheng residence. On second thought, there is one major difference: the walls are noticeably bare.

“What happened to all your pictures?”

Marinette trips over a bolt of black tulle. “Pictures?” she groans, pushing herself up to sitting.

Chat indicates her sparse walls. “I know it’s been a while since I fought an akuma that was out to get you in here, but last time I could have sworn that you had your walls plastered with pictures of that model guy. You know. Your airhead blonde friend? What’s his name? The Gabriel model.”

Marinette’s eyes widen, and her complexion turns wan. “Oh. He’s not…”

An airhead or her friend? Chat wonders which part she’ll deny.

Marinette takes a deep breath and picks herself back up, brushing herself off. “I still am a big fan of Gabriel, but it was time for a change, time to diversify. I just haven’t had time to cut out and print all the new pictures by other designers that I want to put up yet. Plus, it was getting kind of weird having tons of pictures of a guy I actually knew on my walls staring at me. Kind of stalker-ish.”

“You or Adrien?” he wonders.

He wants to ask if she’s seen the new Gabriel spring line. There’s this one picture he’s secretly proud of. He thinks it really captures a glimmer of the real him, and he wonders what she’d think of it. Maybe Adrien will ask her…whenever he’s allowed to stop “giving her space”.

“Do you want to go out?” the question pops out of his mouth before he can fully think this through.

Marinette manages to get her feet tangled in the fashion mess and falls over onto her chaise. “W-What?!” she squawks.

He winces at his idiocy. “Outside. Do you want to go outside? I mean, like, to an arcade or karaoke?”

“Oh.” Marinette slumps over the chaise longue in her relief. “Okay. Good. I was going to have to throw something at you and warn you not to start with me.”

“Don’t worry, Princess,” Chat assures with a chuckle. “I know better than to ask you out until we’re both well and good over our current heartbreakers. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be for a while.”

“So you are planning on asking me out eventually,” she snorts.

Chat returns her glare with a wink. “These cookies are making me think that you may be marriage material after all. Plagg might be on to something.”

With a yowl of indignation, Marinette finds a skein of Easter egg green yarn and lobs it across the room at him. Unfortunately for her, the other end of the yarn is currently caught in the tangle around her ankles. It unravels in midair, coming up short of her intended target.

Chat cracks up, spinning around in the desk chair in his delight. “Wow, Princess. Just…wow.”

“Oh, shove another cookie in your mouth, why don’t you?” she pouts halfheartedly, trying to wiggle free.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he hums triumphantly. “You need help, Princess?”

“No,” she insists, even as she slips off of the chaise, landing on her back on the floor, feet still hanging over the seat of the chair.

“You sure about that?” He shoots her a look of concern.

“No,” she grumbles, acknowledging her defeat. “I swear. These are the kinds of things that happen only to me.”

Chat gets up and goes over to help her unknot the jumble of yarn, thread, and fabric. “You are all kinds of special, Princess.”

Tom Dupain picks this exact moment to poke his head up through the trapdoor. “Everything okay, Marin—Chat Noir!”

“Everything’s fine, Papa,” Marinette sighs, giving her father a sheepish smile. “I tripped…again, and now Chat is helping me get untangled because this is the kind of grace and coordination your daughter was born with.”

Tom nods slowly, still trying to parse the scene before him.

“Good evening, Mr. Dupain, Sir.” Chat smiles, but he’s sure he looks nervous.

Tom gives Chat a nod of acknowledgment but still turns to his daughter and asks, “Marinette, what is Chat Noir doing in your room?” The tone reveals that Tom considers “Chat Noir” to be on the same level as a cockroach. It sounds more like, “Marinette, what are you doing with that giant tarantula in your room?”

“Chat is taking me out to do karaoke. You know, to help me feel better. Because he’s a good friend. Remember? You and Maman had a conversation this morning?” Marinette gives her father a look that informs Chat that the Cheng women run this household.

Tom backs down, somehow managing to make himself look smaller under his daughter’s warning gaze. “Right. Well, don’t stay out too late. It is a school night after all.”

“Don’t worry, Papa,” Marinette assures. “We’re just going out for an hour or so. He’ll have me in bed by a decent time.”

Alone,” Chat adds in response to the death glare he is currently receiving from Tom.

Tom responds with a mutter of dissent but dutifully backs off. “Okay, Sweetheart. Have fun. Be safe.”

“Papa, I’ll be with Chat Noir. How much safer could I get?” Marinette rolls her eyes fondly.

“You could be going with Ladybug,” Tom grumbles. “Good night, Marinette. Chat Noir.”

“Night, Papa.” Marinette waves him off.

“Good Night, Mr. Dupain,” Chat adds hesitantly.

The trapdoor closes, and Chat sighs. “He doesn’t like me.”

“If it makes you feel any better, he was a big fan until yesterday.” Marinette gives Chat a sheepish smile.

Chat shakes his head sadly. “And now today I’m public enemy number one.”

“Number two,” Marinette corrects. “The guy who broke my heart is number one on the black list. My dad is just wary of you because he’s feeling a little overprotective of me right now. He’ll warm up to you again once he accepts that you’re not a threat.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that.” Chat bites his lip as he concentrates on undoing a particularly stubborn knot. “It would probably feel emasculating to have a father not consider it to be a threat to leave me alone with his daughter in her bedroom after dark.”

Marinette closes her eyes, shaking her head. “I’m not sure what you want, Chat. Are you?”

Chat finally succeeds in resolving the yarn tangle, and that ends up being the lynchpin to undoing the whole mess. Chat smirks as Marinette is finally able to get her feet free. “I want to take you to do karaoke.”

She smiles tiredly. “I’d like that. They say the best way to heal a broken heart is to scream angry breakup revenge songs.”

He frowns as it occurs to him: “Are you sure you’re up to it? You’re not still feeling ill from that food poisoning yesterday, are you?”

She pauses in the middle of getting to her feet to shake her head. “No. I’m feeling fine today. I mean, I’m tired, but I stopped throwing up last night before you showed up, and I really haven’t been feeling bad physically today. Thanks for asking, though.”

“Oh?” Chat is confused. Didn’t Marinette just tell Adrien a couple hours ago that she still wasn’t feeling well because of the food poisoning? Maybe it was really because of the rejection thing and she just didn’t feel like explaining it to Adrien in the middle of the classroom like that? There has to be some logical explanation that doesn’t include Marinette straight up lying to Adrien just to get out of hanging out with him, right?

“That’s good. I’m glad you’re better,” Chat responses distractedly. “Uh…I guess…shall we go?”

Marinette is about to give an enthusiastic affirmative when all of the sudden it occurs to her that maybe this is not a good idea. “Wait. I mean…can we go out in public like this? Just…like normal? Won’t the paparazzi have a field day and blow things out of proportion and come and invade my personal life because they think I’m dating Chat Noir? And then Papillon will find out we’re friends and try to use me to get to you? That’s what supervillains do, right? Capture the love interest and the friend slash sidekick and then make the hero choose which one to save? I kind of don’t want to end up in that situation because I know you’d pick Ladybug over me, and I don’t want to die by being dropped into a vat of acid or a tank full of piranhas or whatever the other clichés involve.”

“Wow.” Chat has to hold in a laughter attack because he can see that she’s not joking. “Princess, you really know how to worry in depth. Talk about worst case scenario.”

“It could happen,” Marinette huffs, collecting the remains of her mess and dumping it onto the chaise longue to worry about later. “Isn’t it better to be prepared with a plan in case worse comes to worst?”

“You forget that the hero always manages to save both the love interest and the friend,” Chat points out.

Marinette purses her lips, and Chat is a little hurt that she seems to be doubting his abilities.

“Besides, Ladybug could save herself, and I’m betting you’d be able to take Papillon in a fight anyway, so things probably won’t even come to that,” Chat tries to reassure her.

Marinette does not look appeased. “But what if Papillon comes after my family?”

Chat is silent. He’s pretty sure that he and Ladybug would save the day as per usual, but when he considers how upset the whole ordeal would make Marinette, hanging out together in public just doesn’t seem worth the risk.

“How about if you go in disguise?” he suggests.

Her cornflower blue eyes widen as she considers this option. “A disguise. So they don’t know it’s me. That could work, if we conceal my identity, but what kind of disguise could I wear?”

Chat motions at the almost-finished dress on the dress form in the middle of the room. “Would that be too cold?”

Marinette’s mouth opens and closes several times. The dress isn’t really ready yet. She still has to add some finishing touches, but it’s structurally sound. All the pins are out of it, and it’ll hold together just fine. She didn’t exactly make it for herself, though. It isn’t something Marinette would ever wear. It was supposed to be a fanciful design to pad her portfolio. But it would fit her. She had made it her size; she could wear it.

“Give me fifteen minutes,” she calls back over her shoulder, grabbing the dress and heading down to the bathroom to change.

Twelve minutes later, a beautiful young woman comes up through the trapdoor with rosy pink cheeks freshly blushed and wine-red lips stained with lustrous gloss that still looks wet. Her midnight blue hair is pulled up into an elegant bun. A black lace choker encircles her neck, and the dress hugs curves Chat had never known existed. The neckline is tasteful, but still a lot lower than anything Chat has ever seen Marinette wear before.

Good God. Marinette Dupain-Cheng has a figure, and it is a superb one. Two mesmerizing blue eyes gaze at him questioningly from behind the mask, and Chat finds himself knocked breathless.

Marinette tucks an independent-minded bang back behind her ear and squirms. “Do I look okay?”

This is when Chat realizes that he’s been staring at her with his mouth hanging open.

She is visibly uncomfortable. “I don’t really wear clothes like this. Do I look weird? On the bright side, I don’t think anyone will recognize me.”

Chat gets his act together. He puts on a confident, disarming smile and bows. “You look gorgeous, Princess.” He offers her his arm.

Rolling her eyes, Marinette takes it. “Flirt.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” he snickers, unsure of whether or not he’s kidding. “Ready to go, or did you want to put some shoes on?”

“Shoes,” Marinette decides, breaking away from him and going to her closet for a pair of sensible pumps.

“Wouldn’t heels work better with the dress?” All of the fashion rules drilled into Adrien suddenly make a guest appearance.

“Yes,” Marinette sighs. “but, Chat Noir? Do you honestly think I can walk in heels? I’d break an ankle and an arm and my nose within the first ten steps. The best I can do is a minimalistic wedge.”

Chat grimaces at the thought of accident-waiting-to-happen Marinette in high heels. “The princess has a point.”

“Just let me grab my purse and…” She trails off as she realizes that she can’t take her usual one because it’s too distinctive. She nibbles on her lip in thought—making it apparent that she is not used to wearing lipstick—before going to get a plain black purse out of her trunk. She goes back to the day-to-day pink one and quickly transfers only the necessities. This accomplished, she pauses.

Marinette smiles sheepishly at Chat. “Odd request, but could you turn around and cover your eyes for a second?”

Chat shrugs and does as bid, deciding not to question it. That does not mean that the thought of “What is she doing?” does not bother him for hours afterwards.

Whatever it is, it only takes her five seconds. He hears her purse click closed, and she announces that she’s all set to go.

“You go first.” She indicates the ladder with a nod of her head.

When he looks confused, she clears her throat and motions to the dress she’s wearing.

“O-Oh. Right.” Chat blushes and quickly makes his way up to the loft and out onto the balcony.

She’s right behind him, and he gives her a hand up even though he’s pretty sure she doesn’t need it.

“Is it all right if I carry you?” He doesn’t want to assume just because he’s scooped her up and carted her off during akuma attacks.

She nods and slips her arms around his neck. “Ready.”

He is suddenly aware of how close their faces are. Does she know how pretty she is? Has anyone ever told her? Should he tell her? Would she believe him?

She didn’t like it when Adrien told her her hair was cute.

“Chat? Problem?” She’s looking at him in concern.

He has got to stop spacing out. “Nope. All good.”

He takes her in his arms and takes off, traveling the several blocks to Le VIK Karaoke in a matter of minutes. He called ahead to reserve a private room while she was getting dressed, so it’s ready for them when they arrive.

The attendant is shocked when the person who shows up is actually Chat Noir. “We get a lot of people who reserve rooms under fake names like ‘Ladybug’ and ‘Jagged Stone’,” she explains, still star struck.

Chat shrugs it off and hands her twenty euros for the first hour.

“You actually reserved the room under ‘Chat Noir’?” Marinette chuckles, finding the entire situation beyond amusing.

“What? Did you want me to use my real name, Princess?” He wiggles his eyebrows at her. “Your real name?”

“Stop,” she giggles, giving him a playful shove as the attendant guides them to their room.

Once the door is safely closed behind them, Marinette flops down on the couch and skims the song selections. “Where are you keeping your wallet in that skintight suit?” Marinette wonders, fiddling with her mask.

“I left the wallet at home and just stuffed some cash in one of the zipper pockets.” He points to the little zipper she has never paid enough attention to notice before along his ribs on either side of his suit.

Marinette briefly pauses to consider the injustices in life. Her suit does not have pockets.

“Hey look!” She perks up. “It’s your song.”

Chat cocks an eyebrow and leans to look over her shoulder down at the screen to learn what she has deemed ‘his song’. Chat groans. Blank Space by Taylor Swift. “Look, Princess. Just because I quoted the song, that does not make it mine. You automatically recognized an obscure line from the middle of the second verse. If anything, you are just as guilty as I am.”

Marinette shrugs. “We’re singing it. Pick up your mic.”

“Princess,” Chat groans again.

“Too late. I selected it.” She smiles innocently, grabbing her own microphone as the music starts up and the words appear on the screen.

Marinette actually has a pretty good voice. She’s not able to hit all of the high notes, and sometimes her pitch wobbles a little, but she’s not bad to listen to. Her English pronunciation is actually pretty accurate too. There are words she struggles with, but without having received the expensive education with the private tutors Adrien was privileged to have, her abilities are laudable.

She really gets into the song, dancing in her seat, making dramatic hand gestures, playfully nudging him. Halfway through the second verse, Chat is beginning to enjoy himself.

Next, Marinette sings Maroon 5’s Payphone by herself, swaying to the beat. When she gets to the part of the chorus that goes “all those fairytales are full of it. One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick”, she surprises Chat.

His eyes fly wide open as he chuckles, “Princess! This is the clean version!”, pretending to be scandalized. Part of him really is.

“I’ll curse in English if I want to.” She sticks her tongue out at him, grinning facetiously. “I just got my heart broken, remember? I’m kind of holding a grudge against fairytales and love songs at the moment, so screw it.”

He puts his hands up in a placating gesture and lets her be.

After that, she ropes him into singing Catch My Breath by Kelly Clarkson.

“I’ll come in for the chorus. You sing the verses,” she instructs, and he obeys.

He’s heard the song before, but it’s never occurred to him how close to home the lyrics hit. It’s a very Adrien song.

She stares at him in blatant amazement as he sings, coming in for the chorus like she said she would but then clamming up to hang on his every note.

When the song ends, he quirks an eyebrow at her. “Something on my face?”

“Your voice is magnificent, Chat!” she coos. “Do you sing professionally? Is that how you’re famous? I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to think of who you could be behind the mask because it sounded like from what you were saying that you were rich and kind of famous because you said you attended events with celebrities like it was no big deal, so—”

“—Slow down, Princess.” He catches her hands and holds them still to keep her from squirming. “Geez. You’ve been putting a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?”

She shrugs, trying to downplay her enthusiasm. It doesn’t work so well after she’s literally just been squealing at him. “I’ve been trying to think of famous and or rich people who go to our school, but—”

“—Princess,” he scolds lightly. “You know you can’t try to figure out my identity. That’s against the rules. You don’t see me over here trying to find your sewing blog online, do you?” Not that he isn’t tempted.

Marinette sighs, looking up at him with a pout. “Oh, all right, Chat. I’m sorry. I’m just…super curious.”

Those blue eyes coming at him from behind the mask kill him. It reminds him of Ladybug.

“Let’s sing something in French now!” At the drop of a hat, she’s all barely-contained excitement once more. “Do you know this one? It’s on the radio a lot nowadays. À Nos Souvenirs by Trois Cafés Gourmands.”

Chat stifles a chuckle. The Gorilla is fond of that song, but he’s embarrassed about it. “Yeah. Let’s sing that.”

She hops to her feet and pulls him up as well. “Come on. This is a song you have to dance along to.”

Adrien would be embarrassed to get up and sing and dance. Chat Noir doesn’t have to care about what his father or anybody else would think—besides Marinette, but he gets the feeling that she would never judge him for being a silly teenager. Okay, maybe she’d judge him a little, but she’d still associate with him afterwards and make an inside joke out of teasing him about it from time to time. In a good way, like he does with Nino.

They take turns singing lines, occasionally singing together. Marinette bounces with energy, dancing around as they sing, and Chat joins her. During the part at the end, Marinette links her arm with Chat’s and they go around and around in circles, occasionally switching arms and going the other direction. At the end, they collapse on the couch, laughing their heads off.

“My favorite part is the ‘pa-ya-pa-ya-pa-pa’,” Marinette giggles. “It’s a nice song, though. A little patriotic, but I think we all feel that way about the French countryside.”

Chat nods in agreement. “I like the line about pictures of cows,” he sighs, catching his breath.

Marinette grabs the little tablet and starts scrolling through the options. “Hmm. Is there anything you want to sing?”

“I’d like to hear you sing Indila,” Chat admits.

Marinette purses her lips. “Maybe next time. The songs I know by her are a little sad for where I am right now.”

“I can respect that.” He quickly backs off. “Do you like Christine and the Queens?”

Marinette tips her head back and forth, weighing her opinions. “Her videos are really cool, but I don’t know that I like the music itself. How do you feel about Maître Gims?”

Chat nods. “That guy can sing. I feel like his music is a little repetitive, but I like him every once in a while.”

“Really? I like a couple of his songs,” she hums. “Est-ce que tu m’aimes?”

Chat jumps. His heart does a backflip, and his face goes scarlet. He’s actually considering the question when she frowns, cluing him in that he’s misunderstood.

“What? I like that song of his the best. You don’t? It’s okay if you don’t, Chat. You’re allowed to have opinions different from mine. It’s not going to destroy our friendship or anything.”

“No, it’s fine.” His hand rubs at the back of his neck as he explains, “I forgot that that was a song title for a second there, and I thought you were asking me if I loved you. That’s why I got a little weird.”

Marinette takes this in stride, falling over laughing and swatting at his arm. “S-Sorry,” she wheezes. “I don’t know why that’s so funny. You pulled the strangest face. I might have to spring that one on you later sometime. That was good.”

“I’m so glad you find my minor panic attack amusing, Princess,” he sarcastically remarks. “Next time my mother abandons me or something, I’m coming straight to you so you can make me laugh about it.”

She looks up at him, half in concern, half in curiosity. “Can you joke about that?”

He scrunches up his nose in thought. “Sometimes.”

“You’re not just putting on your ‘armor’?” she double checks.

He shakes his head. “Not right now. I go naked for you, Princess, remember?”

Marinette breaks into a new fit of giggles, swatting at him and mostly missing as she rocks back and forth.

“I have never met a girl who was easier to get to laugh,” he marvels. (When he’s Chat, anyway. Adrien makes her tense up and cry.)

“You calling me easy?” Marinette snorts, rocking herself up to sitting.

Chat feigns innocence. “I would never.”

She smacks his arm once more for good measure before picking up the tablet and going back to the song list.

“Gosh, you’re violent,” he playfully whines.

She reaches up and tugs on his cat ear, eyes still on the screen. “You like it.”

“I don’t think we’re at the stage of our relationship where I tell you those kinds of preferences.” He watches her face, waiting for a reaction.

He’s not expecting her to smirk. She lets his ear go so that she can flick his bell. “You didn’t have to tell me. You’re easy to read.” Her eyes go back to the tablet. “This majorly counts as flirting, by the way.”

“You’re flirting back,” he argues.

She doesn’t deny it. She’s about to make a sassy retort when she realizes what she’s doing. “Yeah. And we should probably stop. A little friendly flirting every now and then is fine, but this, now, is a slippery slope. I’m not going to lie: I don’t find you entirely unattractive, Chat, and I know you’ve noticed that I’m not exactly ugly either. I don’t want this friends thing to end up as friends with benefits while we both try to get over our broken hearts. I don’t want us to end up hurting each other.”

“I hear you, Princess.” He gently pats her hand. “‘Just friends’ is what I want too. I think we’re both too messed up over our unrequited loves to be able to have any kind of healthy relationship anyway.”

She nods. “Yeah. Good talk?” She peeks up at him hesitantly.

He gives her his ‘spaghetti dinner with your best friends’ smile and affirms, “Good talk.”

“Next song?” She smiles just as brightly.

“Something by Édith Piaf?” he prompts.

“Classic!” She grins evilly as she spots the perfect song choice. “Come on, we’re singing Non, Je ne Regrette Rien!”

And they do, maybe a little too enthusiastically.

Marinette goes back to the song list and groans when she spots one in particular. “Ugh. I can’t stand this song.”

Chat peeks over her shoulder. “Alors On Danse by Stromae?” He has to hold back a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad. My friend actually has it set as his ringtone. I think he likes the beat more than the lyrics, since the lyrics are kind of depressing, but…” Chat trails off when he notices that she’s staring at him.

“Nino Lahiffe?”

It takes a moment for her confusion to register. How could he have been so careless? Of course Marinette knows what Nino’s ringtone is.

“You’re friends with Nino?” she presses when he doesn’t respond.

Chat bites his lip. “Uh…can we pretend that I’m talking about some other friend that you don’t know who couldn’t possibly be a clue to exposing my identity?”

She smiles sympathetically and shrugs. “Why not? But now we have to sing Alors On Danse in honor of Nino.”

Chat begrudgingly acquiesces and even gets up to dance when she tells him to. This actually makes the song kind of fun.

After that nonsense, Marinette picks up the tablet once more to find their next song. “Oh! Frozen!”

Chat almost smacks himself in the face. “Princess, no. If we sing that song, it’s going to be stuck in our heads for days.” He doesn’t dislike the song; he just knows what a powerful earworm it is.

“It’ll make me think of you,” she replies sweetly.

“And curse me for taking you to do karaoke,” he warns.

She waves away his concern. “I like this song. I’ve learned it in four different languages so far: French, English, Japanese, and Spanish. I’m trying to learn it in Chinese—you know, since I feel like an embarrassment to my mother’s side of the family and kind of want to do something to make it better—but the Mandarin version is kind of hard. Tones are…” She searches but cannot find a suitable word to describe the struggle she has with tones as a non-native speaker.

Chat’s ears twitch. For the shortest of split seconds, he considers how believable it would be for it to be a coincidence that both he and Adrien Agreste speak Chinese. In the end, the urge to impress this girl wins out. “I can sing it in Chinese.”

Marinette stares at him, half surprised, half unsure if she believes him. “Really?”

“Yeah. I once had my father’s secretary block off two hours of his time so I could make him watch the movie with me in Chinese as ‘language study’. Then I learned the song as ‘language study’ when I didn’t feel like working on my history project so that he couldn’t complain that I wasn’t doing anything productive.”

Perhaps this is oversharing. Does that sound pathetic that he has to schedule time with his father? Does confessing to procrastinating on a school project make her think he’s lazy?

Marinette laughs and claps her hands, urging, “Sing it!”

“Right now?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Yes. First verse into the chorus. Go.” She watches him expectantly.

“Acapella?”

“Can you do it?” There’s her doubt creeping back. “If you need the music, we could always play the version in the system. The lyrics on the screen will be in French, but you could just sing it in Chinese.”

Something in him urges him to show off. “I can do it acapella, if you like, Princess.”

So he does, and it actually goes pretty well.

She stares at him with wide eyes, drinking in the sound of his voice and delighting in the song. This kind of admiration is sort of intoxicating. He wonders if there’s any way he could bottle it so he could have some when he was feeling particularly low as Adrien. What would he have to do to get her to look at him like this always? Ladybug has never looked at him like this, but all he has to do to please Marinette is sing.

When he finishes the first round of the chorus, she jumps to her feet and bounces, clapping for him.

“Oh my gosh! I need to record you singing sometime. I could listen to you all day,” she gushes. “If you’re secretly some pop star, you really need to find a subtle, non-identity-revealing way of introducing me to your music because I could totally be your biggest fan.”

Yes, this is definitely something Adrien needs in his life: Marinette following him around and being his cheerleader, letting him know how awesome she thinks he is on days he feels like he can’t do anything right. Maybe he could pay her?

“Sorry, Princess. I’m really not a vocal artist, but, now that you mention it, maybe that’s something I should look into.”

“Definitely. I’ll be the first one to buy a copy of your album,” she promises. “Now, let’s sing Let It Go in French!”

Chat shrugs. “It’s already stuck in my head, so why not?”

Marinette doesn’t actually have the range required for Let It Go, but her enthusiasm more than makes up for that fact.

After Frozen, Marinette wants to sing Jagged Stone. Likewise, Marinette does not have the vocal chord type necessary for rock and roll, but she has fun jumping up and down and playing air guitar anyway.

This is exactly what Adrien wanted for Marinette when he invited her to go get ice cream and hit up an arcade. He wanted her to smile and laugh and forget about that absolute bastard that chewed her heart up and spit it out.

Why wasn’t Adrien able to do this for her? Why isn’t Adrien ever good enough?

Marinette turns to grin widely at him, eyes shining like she’s having the time of her life.

Chat returns her smile and thinks, at least there’s Chat. At least Chat can hold her hand over a bathroom stall door and make her crack up when she pictures him naked and make her snort in laughter when he tells her her hair is pretty. Adrien may not be able to be there for her, but Chat can still be a good friend.

Their hour runs out, and they reluctantly get up to go.

Marinette’s face is glowing. He can tell even with half of it covered by the mask.

She links her arm through his and announces, “This was great! Thank you, Chat…. I have a lot of fun with you.”

“I have fun with you too, Princess.” Nino was right: Marinette is really and truly great once she warms up to you. “We’ll have to do this again sometime.”

She nods enthusiastically as they ascend the stairs. “Next time maybe I’ll sing you some Indila: SOS or Love Story or Dernière Danse.”

They exit the building, Marinette’s arm still comfortably looped through Chat’s, and are immediately bombarded with camera flashes and shouts of “It’s them!” and “There they are!”

Unbeknownst to the pair, the karaoke club attendant had posted online that she had just seen Chat Noir go into Le VIK Karaoke with his girlfriend, “Princess”. The rumor circulated fast, and the press as well as regular fans had congregated outside the establishment to lie in wait.

Chapter Text

Marinette is stunned. There are disorienting bursts of light from the cameras and people calling out to her from all sides: “Princess! Look here!” “Princess! Chat Noir!” It’s worse than after an akuma battle as Ladybug. At least as Ladybug she can get away at her pleasure. As Marinette, she’s trapped, at the mercy of the press of the mob. Is this what it’s like to be a celebrity?

Thankfully, Chat Noir keeps his head under pressure and acts fast. “No photos of the princess, please. Thank you everyone. Good night.” He smiles calmly for the cameras and then scoops Marinette into his arms, launching them up and out of the crowd’s reach.

He heads along the rooftops in the opposite direction of the bakery, so as not to lead the paparazzi to Marinette and her family. He lands in the Square du Vert-Galant at the very tip of the Ile de la Cité where the trees and darkness provide some cover.

He sets her down next to one of the benches and helps her into a controlled collapse. “You all right there, Princess?”

Marinette nods, still in a bit of shock. “Fine. Just…taken by surprise. I’m not really used to crowds like that.”

Chat nods in understanding, taking a seat beside her. “Yeah, I guess that could be unnerving if you’ve never experienced it before. I’ve kind of just grown up with it.”

Marinette frowns. “There you go dropping hints again. Do you want me to discover who you are or don’t you?”

He shrugs with a mischievous grin.

She sighs, letting herself go almost limp as she tips over, resting her head on his shoulder. She looks down at her hands. “I’m shaking,” she observes.

He takes her right hand in his and begins to massage it gently, careful of his claws.

She closes her eyes and concentrates on breathing. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He finishes with her right hand and moves on to her left. “It’s just the adrenaline wearing off. You’ll be okay in a minute or two.”

Marinette allows herself to relax, reminding herself that she’s safe with Chat Noir.

“I’m the one who should be apologizing,” he whispers. “I should have listened to you. I thought you were just catastrophizing when you were going on about the paparazzi and Papillon finding out we were friends and using you against me, but—”

Marinette lifts her head and looks him in the eye. “—Chat Noir, I was catastrophizing. I didn’t think any of that stuff would actually happen either, but…it’s okay. I’m not hurt, and my identity isn’t discovered. Our picture will probably end up online and in the papers, but this will blow over in a week or so. There’s no need to make a big deal out of it.”

His worry dissolves into an affectionate grin. “You’re so cool, Princess. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have mistaken for my girlfriend.”

She rolls her eyes but returns his smile. For an instant she thinks about teasing him with a “How about Ladybug?”, but now’s not the time to summon that particular demon. For now, it’s just Chat Noir and Marinette having a lovely evening free of heartbreak.

“I could do a lot worse for fake boyfriends,” she replies instead.

Just then, from up above on the Pont Neuf, they hear the distinctive cry of “It’s me, André—André, the ice cream man of the lovers of Paris!”

Marinette’s face lights up.

Chat raises an eyebrow at her. “You want ice cream? Aren’t you cold enough already?”

She gets to her feet and tugs at his wrist. “It’s never too cold for André’s ice cream! Besides, I’ve been wanting some ever since a classmate mentioned going for ice cream today. You can treat me to celebrate my new dress ending up on the front page of tomorrow’s news.”

Chat smiles through the chagrin and reluctantly gets to his feet. “All right, but I don’t trust you to go up the stairs to the square in those shoes. You’re going to break something.”

With a roll of her eyes, Marinette consents to being airlifted up out of the park and onto the bridge.

André is set up in the square by the equestrian statue of King Henry IV, and his eyes widen as Chat Noir sets Marinette down several feet in front of him. “Why, what do we have here?”

“Hi, André.” Marinette waves sheepishly. “We were hiding from the paparazzi, but we heard your song and couldn’t resist.”

“My, what a lovely lady you have with you, Chat Noir.” André beams in approval. “What can I get for the superhero couple tonight?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not lucky enough to be her boyfriend.” Chat is quick to clear up the misunderstanding, but it sounds like he’s doing it more for Marinette’s benefit than his own.

“He probably doesn’t mind because he thinks it might make Ladybug jealous,” Marinette finds herself mentally snorting.

“But what would you like, Princess? My treat,” Chat finishes, giving her a deferential look.

Marinette bites her lip as she considers. “Surprise me, André. You know best.”

Marinette is surprised when she ends up with exactly the same cherry and mint combination that André prepared for her on her very first visit years ago. He obviously doesn’t recognize her, so how could he tell? Maybe it is magic after all.

Chat also lets André decide and ends up with strawberry with chocolate chips, blackberry, and blueberry. He tries to pay André, but the ice cream man insists that it’s on the house for Paris’s hero and his princess.

Marinette wonders how André stays in business; he always seems to be giving the ice cream away.

They thank André and head over to sit on the bench in one of the little rounded nooks cut into the side of the bridge.

“Thanks for the ice cream, Chat.” Marinette decides to smile, thinking that there are other guys out there with cherry red lips and mint green eyes besides Adrien Agreste. She just hasn’t found her prince yet.

“I didn’t actually pay for it, but I’m willing to take the credit.” He gives a self-satisfied shrug and digs into his ice cream—which resembles Ladybug a bit too much for Marinette’s comfort.

She doesn’t argue. “You would have paid, if he had let you…. And I could have made it up those steps without tripping and breaking both of our noses. For the record, I could have scaled the wall up into the square.”

He pauses mid-lick to shoot her a skeptical look. “In that outfit?”

Marinette purses her lips. “I could have done it barefoot if I had had a pair of shorts with me.” Momentarily, she forgets that the mask she is wearing is not red with black spots. “Do you think I could Lucky Charm-up a pair of shorts on command like that? I feel the intense need to prove myself because I feel like you don’t believe me.”

Chat winces. “Maybe, if you were Ladybug, but let’s not and say we did, okay, Princess? Didn’t I tell you last night that I was through doubting you? You never have to prove your mad parkour skills to me again. I believe you could scale that wall.”

Marinette considers for a moment and then nods, mollified. “Want a bite of my ice cream?” She holds it out to him.

“Sure.” When he leans in, she presses it forward, dabbing the end of his nose with it. “Hey,” he pretends to pout, but it’s hard to be convincing when he’s starting to laugh at the same time.

Marinette smiles innocently and offers the cone once more. “For real this time.”

He raises an eyebrow distrustfully but leans in once more and is rewarded with delicious mint. “Want some of mine, Princess?” he offers, licking the ice cream off the end of his nose.

“Sure.” Marinette is not the least bit surprised when Chat exacts his revenge. She laughs at the blueberry ice cream her nose is now sporting. She leans in a second time and is allowed to sample the strawberry chocolate chip.

“You’ve still got ice cream on your face,” Chat snickers once Marinette has attempted to lick it off like Chat did and failed.

“Your tongue is longer than mine,” Marinette grumbles.

“What can I say? I’m blessed,” he simpers.

She lightly smacks his arm.

“Violent princess,” he hisses, feigning pain. “I don’t know why everyone’s always trying to rescue these things.”

Marinette ignores him and attempts to lick the ice cream off her nose once more. “Did I get it?”

He inspects her and laughs. “No. Here.” He leans in and sticks out his tongue before realizing that this is a bad idea he’s having. He pulls back. “That’s not appropriate friend behavior, is it?”

“No,” Marinette affirms, eyes still wide in shock. She’s pretty sure everyone within a mile radius can hear her heartbeat.

Chat grabs one of the napkins and wipes the ice cream off her nose for her.

“Thanks.” She manages an embarrassed smile for him as she struggles to get her heartrate back down to normal.

“Sure thing, Princess.”

They eat the rest of their ice cream in a comfortable silence as boats pass on the river below and the water of the Seine laps in a soothing rhythm. The night crowd of Paris is just waking up; the buildings’ lights sparkle, rivaling the stars.

Nearby, church bells strike the half hour: ten thirty.

“I should probably get you home,” Chat sighs, not quite ready for the evening to end yet. “I did promise your father to have you in bed alone at a decent hour, and ten thirty on a school night is kind of stretching the definition of ‘decent’.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Marinette grumbles, leaning backward and kicking her legs.

“Please don’t fall off the bridge.” Chat holds his breath. It’s not like she’s even close to falling. There’s enough of a back to the bench that she won’t fall over unless she’s really trying, but this is walking-disaster Marinette Dupain-Cheng we are talking about here. He knows the unthinkable calamities of which she is capable of being the catalyst.

“I’m not going to fall off the bridge,” she sighs, shaking her head.

Then, seemingly just to make him miserable, she slips off her shoes, stands on the bench and proceeds to walk along the bridge railing. It’s fairly wide—wider than the fence she was walking on her hands the night before—and made of solid stone that’s not going to sway beneath her, but this situation still gives Chat a heart attack.

“Princess, please get down.” He tries to keep his voice level and calm.

“Nope,” she answers with a petulant pop to her ‘p’.

He hops up on the railing behind her, ready to dive for her if anything happens.

“Re-lax, Chat Noir,” she giggles and spins.

“No spinning!” he yelps.

She turns so that she’s walking backwards—this does nothing to help him relax—facing him and smiles. “Minou, it’s f—ah!” She bends one knee, taking the other foot off of the railing and pretending to stumble.

She’s expecting him to give a start, and then she’s going to straighten up, laugh, and tease, “Gotcha!”

She does not expect him to grab her and pull her into a crushing embrace. She’s smashed to his chest where she can feel his heart hammering, his breath coming in ragged bursts against her neck, and the arms wrapped tightly around her shaking.

Now, she’s kind of afraid to tell him it was a joke. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t all that funny.

She finds her arms circling around him, and she whispers, “Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I…I’m fine.”

He pulls back slightly, not yet willing to let go of her, and there is true fear in his eyes. “Let’s…not do something like this again, okay?” His breathing is finally starting to even out. “Princess, I’ve lost people before, so it makes me really nervous when people I care about are in dangerous situations. Could we maybe avoid stunts like this in the future?”

She nods, feeling ashamed. “Sorry. I didn’t realize…I—”

“—It’s okay, Princess,” he assures, putting on a comforting smile. “I’m not mad. No harm done.” He eases up on his grip enough to cup her face in his hand and carefully run his thumb along her cheek. “Let’s get down, though, okay?”

She nods again and lets him carefully help her down to the sidewalk. He goes and gets her shoes, helping her slip them on like in Cinderella.

Marinette feels awful…until Chat Noir gives her a pouty look and asks, “Where’s my princess’s smile?”

She attempts one for him, but the results are not satisfactory.

“I know what will make you smile.” He wiggles his eyebrows at her. “Your hair looks really cute like that too. You should wear it in a bun again sometime.”

True to form, Marinette laughs. “I don’t think I can, Chat. What if someone notices my resemblance to Chat Noir’s girlfriend, Princess? I might never be able to wear my hair in a bun again.”

Chat fakes a gasp. “The horror of the very thought! What have I done? I’ve limited my princess’s hairdo options…even though I’d only ever seen her wear her hair the one way up until yesterday! Wow. Somehow, I think you’ll survive, Princess.”

Marinette shrugs. “What can you do? I guess I’ll just have to go back to pigtails for the rest of my life.”

“You rock the pigtails, Princess.” He gives her his signature wink, and she instantly brightens up. Okay, so she’s rolling her eyes at him, but this is a vast improvement from the guilty look she was wearing just minutes before.

At least he hasn’t made her cry like Adrien.

Thank goodness for Chat Noir.

“All right,” Chat sighs. “Time to get you home before your father hunts me down and skins me alive.”

“I don’t want to,” Marinette protests but opens her arms to be scooped anyway.

“If it’s any consolation,” Chat offers. “I don’t particularly want to return you. I’d much rather have you follow me around the rest of my life.”

“I don’t think Ladybug would go for that,” Marinette hums, settling into his arms as he propels them upwards to the rooftops, his own private streets.

“She might just have to get over it,” Chat snorts.

Marinette contemplates what he means by that as he takes a roundabout route back to the bakery, letting her down on her balcony.

“Well, I guess this is goodnight.” Chat’s hands, feeling awkward at their empty state, find their way to the back of his neck.

“Wait,” Marinette instructs before disappearing down her skylight. She returns a little over three minutes later with a small take away box from the bakery. “Cheesecake bites for Plagg and a pain au chocolat for you.”

“You didn’t actually have to get me a pain au chocolat for the bathroom this morning, Marinette,” he laughs bashfully, feeling the tiniest bit bad that she took him seriously but glad to have the pastry anyway.

She shrugs. “I feed people. It’s how I show affection.”

“Well, it’s much appreciated. Though, I feel that the cheesecake bites are only going to make Plagg more adamant about my marrying you,” he warns.

“It is what it is.” She opens her arms in a wide shrug with her palms up, at peace with the situation. “Thanks again for tonight, Chat Noir. I really did have a great time.”

“Same here, Princess.” He feels like there’s something else he should be doing like ruffling her hair or leaning in for a peck on her cheek. At the same time, that doesn’t feel strictly appropriate.

“I’ll see you again soon?” There’s a hopeful note in her voice.

“Yeah, but you won’t recognize me,” he teases.

He has to hold in a laugh as she puffs out her cheeks in annoyance.

“No. In all seriousness, I’ll come visit you again in the next day or two, make sure you’re still doing okay,” he promises.

Marinette gives a start. “Oh. Oh, yeah. I’d almost forgotten. I really don’t think about him much when you’re around. Not as often as normal, anyway.”

Chat’s eyes widen in surprise. “Oh, yeah?” What do you know? Adrien is finding a way to help out after all. “I guess I’ll have to keep hanging around and bothering you, then.”

“I’d like that,” Marinette admits, fiddling with her one stray bang again.

“Sweet dreams, Princess.” Chat winks and prepares to take off.

“Sweet dreams, Chat!” she calls after him.

He leaves the masked beauty standing on the balcony, and somehow his heart feels lighter.

 

Adrien arrives back at the Agreste mansion a little less than twenty minutes after that, having used a slightly longer route along the Right Bank.

Plagg tackles the pastry box as soon as he’s free of the transformation. “Cheesecake bites!!!”

Adrien rolls his eyes with a smile of endearment, flopping down on the bed and opening the box with one hand.

Plagg dives in and devours every morsel.

“Don’t get slobber on my pain au chocolat,” Adrien mumbles at the rambunctious kwami.

“I would never.” Plagg has no compunctions about lying. “So…have fun with your girlfriend?”

Yes,” Adrien sighs.

“So she is your girlfriend,” Plagg snickers. “I don’t hear you denying it.”

“Because it wouldn’t do me any good to argue with you about it now that you’ve got this idea in your head,” Adrien explains. “I’m through wasting my breath about how we’re just friends and nothing romantic is going to happen between us.”

“Suuuure,” Plagg chortles. “I felt your heart jump when she came through the door in that dress. There were a couple of times this evening where you were having some not very ‘just friends’ thoughts about her; I could feel it.”

Adrien ignores Plagg and represses the knowledge that what he says is true. He plays the “hormonal teenage male” card and excuses his behavior. “Plagg, why can’t she just be friends with Adrien? What’s making it so hard? What did I do to screw things up with her this bad? I mean, everything feels so natural between us when I’m Chat; why does she clam up around Adrien? Is she going to hate me when she finds out that Adrien and Chat are the same person?”

“You’re going to tell her?” Plagg looks up from the cheesecake bites long enough to register Adrien’s pained expression. His chosen is having yet another internal struggle.

“She’s going to figure it out,” Adrien corrects. “How many other blonde, green-eyed, rich boys who speak Chinese and are friends with Nino go to our school?”

Plagg shrugs, not allowing himself to get caught up in the drama. The drama is constant, and Plagg knows it would tire him out. “You underestimate the power of denial.”

“Denial?” Adrien sits up and frowns, taking his pain au chocolat out of the box.

“You saw how she rejected the idea that you were Chat Noir out in the hall today when hat-boy said that you were the only blonde, green-eyed guy of a certain height that they’d seen. If she doesn’t want Adrien to be Chat Noir, she simply won’t see it.” Plagg turns his attention to cleaning his paws.

Adrien ponders this. “Somehow, that does not make me feel better.”

“Eat your pastry, Kid,” Plagg suggests. “That will do it.”

 

Sabine greets her daughter with a frown of concern when Marinette comes down for breakfast the next morning.

“What did I do?” Marinette decides to get it over with and just asks as she takes her seat at the table.

Sabine sets down Marinette’s crêpe and then goes to get the morning paper before sitting opposite her daughter. “Honey, I don’t want to push the issue, but are you sure that there’s nothing going on between you and Chat Noir?”

Marinette groans and reaches for the paper. “How bad is it? It’s all a misunderstanding, Maman. We were exiting the karaoke box, and I just had my arm looped through his—you know, just friendly-like, like I do with Alya. Okay, yeah, I know Alya’s a girl and Chat’s not, and that kind of makes a bit of a difference, but—”

Marinette freezes when she actually sees the front page. There she is with her arm through Chat’s, smiling up at him just before they walk out of the karaoke club and are pounced upon by photographers and fans. He’s smiling back at her, and if Marinette didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the situation, she too would have said that they were a cute couple.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. There are more photos.

Marinette and Chat in the park on the bench: Her eyes are closed, and her head is resting on his shoulder as he massages her hand.

Marinette and Chat eating André’s ice cream: Marinette is laughing as she bops him on the nose with her cone. Marinette is leaning in to take a bite of Chat’s ice cream. Chat is leaning in to lick the ice cream off of Marinette’s nose before he realizes that this would be inappropriate. The angle of the photo makes it look like a kiss.

Marinette and Chat walking on the railing of the Pont Neuf: Marinette is walking backwards, smiling and laughing, while Chat visibly frets over her. Marinette and Chat are caught in a desperate embrace. Chat cups Marinette’s cheek while his other arm encircles her.

Marinette has just enough presence of mind not to curse out loud in front of her mother. Internally, unladylike language flies left and right.

“I…can explain,” Marinette assures.

“Okay.” Her mother waits patiently.

Marinette points. “This is after the paparazzi attacked us and we escaped to a park. I was kind of freaked out, so he was helping me calm down and ride out the aftershock of the adrenaline burst.” She moves on to the ice cream shots. “Friends share ice cream. André just happened to be passing by, and I wanted ice cream, so we got ice cream. André’s ice cream isn’t just for couples. And then the one where it looks like he’s kissing me is taken way out of context. I had ice cream on my nose, and he was going to lick it off, but then he realized that that was crossing a line, so he pulled back and wiped it off with a napkin. There was no kiss.”

“And the bridge?” Sabine encourages, secretly a little disappointed about the not-kiss.

“I got up on the railing and was messing with him because he was afraid I would fall. Then, I stupidly pretended to fall to get a rise out of him…only I really freaked him out, and he quote-unquote ‘caught’ me…and kind of had to hold on to me for a bit to be sure I was really okay until he calmed down because, apparently, he’s lost people he’s cared about before and is more scared than I realized that it’s going to happen again,” Marinette confesses, ashamed all over again.

Sabine nods slowly as she processes what her daughter has said. “Did you have a good time?”

“Yes.” Marinette gives a shy smile. “Karaoke was a blast, and the ice cream was fantastic. I have a lot of fun when I hang out with Chat. He’s really thoughtful and sweet, and he’s always going out of his way to make me laugh and keep me smiling.”

Sabine pats her daughter on the head and nods in acceptance. “Okay. I’ll let your father know.”

“Thanks. Sorry.” Marinette sends her mother a guilty grimace before digging into her breakfast.

“It’s okay, Sweetheart. I suppose this is all part of having an almost grown daughter.” She tips her head to the side, considering. “Well, I guess it is a little unusual with a professional model and a magical superhero in the mix, but…”

A horrifying thought suddenly occurs to Marinette. “Maman? Do you think anyone else will recognize me from the photos?”

Sabine’s brow furrows as she picks up the newspaper and inspects the pictures once more. “I’m not sure. Maybe not. I knew it was you right away because I knew you were out with Chat Noir last night. There is the added advantage of being your mother, but I don’t know that other people will automatically know that it’s you.”

“I’m kind of worried about people finding out I’m friends with Chat Noir,” Marinette admits, beginning to chew nervously on her lip. “I mean, what if Papillon tries to use our friendship against Chat? What if he starts targeting you and Papa?”

Sabine rests a steady hand on Marinette’s shoulder. “Marinette, if Chat Noir is as good of a friend as you say, you shouldn’t let fears like that stand in the way of spending time with him. Friends like that are worth the risk.” She gives Marinette’s arm a squeeze of encouragement and smiles in a way that lets Marinette know for certain that her mother will always be on her side.

“Now, hurry up and eat your breakfast. You don’t want to be late for school.”

“Thanks, Maman,” Marinette calls after her mother as Sabine heads back down to the bakery to help Tom.

 

Alya meets Marinette at the residence door with a squeal of excitement. Clearly Alya has been patiently holding this in for far too long.

“Girl, you will never guess what happened last night!”

Marinette’s eyes go wide. A grin begins to break out on her face. “Oh my gosh! Nino proposed!! Oh my gosh, Alya!”

Alya frowns and stops bouncing up and down. “What? No. No, Marinette. We’re not…” The usually loquacious future journalist suddenly is at a loss for words. “Don’t you think it’s a little soon for that?”

“You’ve been dating for four years now,” Marinette pouts. “Don’t you ever think about your future together?”

Alya squirms. “That’s…kind of Nino’s thing. I sort of want a university degree and a career before I settle down, but—more importantly—Chat Noir has a girlfriend!”

Marinette stops mid-step, a look of terror shining like a neon sign on her face. “W-What?”

“Yeah!” Alya is back to being ramped up. “I could kick myself. I went to bed at, like, nine last night, so I didn’t see until this morning, but it’s all over the internet. The Ladyblog is blowing up over this.”

“What?” Marinette repeats, the side of her mouth twitching. She really hopes she doesn’t look as guilty as she feels.

“Her name is ‘Princess’. At least, that’s what Chat Noir calls her. Look.” Alya whips out her phone and shows Marinette a picture that someone has posted on the Ladyblog.

It’s a new one featuring Marinette looking cozy in Chat’s arms right before he takes off to escort her home.

“They’re disgustingly cute.” Alya swipes to the previous picture of Chat and Marinette embracing on the railing of the Pont Neuf.

Marinette’s face is burning.

“Check out the kiss.” Alya adds fuel to the fire, showing Marinette the picture of Chat leaning in to lick the ice cream off her nose. “This is the biggest superhero news in months, and I completely missed the scoop!” she groans.

Marinette is still alarmed that so many pictures were taken without her knowledge. She didn’t see anyone, didn’t sense anything, and yet…so many pictures. “Do you really think they’re a couple?”

Alya looks at her like she’s said something incredibly stupid. “Did you look at the same pictures I looked at? Of course they’re a couple. If they’re not, they’re going to be sooner or later. Did you see the way he looked at her? The way she smiled and laughed at him? It’s love, Marinette.”

Marinette is pretty sure that it’s just two heartbroken fools taking comfort in one another’s company, but she knows that nothing she says will convince Alya once Alya has an idea in her head.

“Frankly, I’m really glad for Chat Noir,” Alya snorts.

This catches Marinette by surprise. “Why do you say that?”

“He’s been hung up on Ladybug so long that it was starting to get a little pathetic. I mean, she’s turned him down how many times now? And she’s not even particularly kind about it,” Alya points out, and it’s an uppercut to Marinette’s conscience. “I’m glad he’s moving on. Besides, Princess is really cute, and she seems over the moon about him. I’m officially switching my allegiance to team Princess Noir.”

Marinette almost trips up the school steps. “P-Princess Noir?”

“That’s the ship name,” Alya informs. “You know. Like Lady Noir? Adrinet—Oh!” Alya slaps a hand over her mouth, eyes as big as donuts. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t—”

“—Like DJ Wifi?” Marinette asks, doing her best to crack a smile. She remembers Chat Noir complimenting her hair, and it becomes a little easier.

Alya’s stiff posture softens, and she gives Marinette a nod of encouragement. “Yeah. Like DJ Wifi.”

“DJ Wifi is my OTP,” Marinette snickers. “So how do you think Princess and Chat Noir met?”

Alya launches into some off the mark theory as they make their way to their lockers. It’s kind of amusing to have her best friend come up with these wild tales about her fake love life with Chat Noir. It’s also a relief that her best friend doesn’t seem to recognize her in the pictures. That’s probably a pretty good litmus test.

Marinette opens her locker and jumps when a recording begins to play. It’s the second verse of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space sung by Chat Noir.

Alya frowns in confusion at the little speaker setup spewing English. “What the hell?”

Marinette bursts out laughing and falls over into the lockers next to her own.

“What the hell?” Alya repeats.

Marinette only laughs harder when the recording gets to the “Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream” part.

Chat sings through the chorus once, and the recording ends.

Alya waits for Marinette to get her giggles under control and stand back up straight before asking a third time, “Marinette, what the hell?”

“It’s…” Marinette grasps at an explanation. “He’s a friend of mine.” It’s not a lie. “The song is a joke between us. He knows I’ve been a little down lately, so he must have made the recording and snuck it in my locker to make me laugh.” Not a single lie. She’s doing pretty well!

Alya blinks and looks at the tiny speaker. “That was him singing?”

Marinette nods and can’t help gushing, “Isn’t he amazing?”

Alya whistles in appreciation. “Your boy has talent. Who is this mystery friend of yours?”

Mayday. We’re going down.

Marinette sends Alya a pained smile. “I’m sorry. It’s a secret.”

Alya’s eyebrow quirks, the journalist within her smelling a scoop. “You have a secret friend who just happens to be male with a dreamy voice?”

Marinette gives a shrug of helplessness. “You know I’d tell you if I could, but I can’t.”

The eyebrow arches pointedly. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng, do you have a secret boyfriend? The best friend code of ethics requires that you divulge this information at the very least.”

“He’s not my boyfriend, Alya.” Marinette replies with such sincerity and a touch of wistfulness over her recently broken heart that Alya believes her.

Alya nods. “Okay. Just a secret friend who happens to be a boy.”

“Yeah,” Marinette confirms. “A really good friend.”

“Must be if he went to all this trouble to make you smile,” Alya reasons, tentatively giving Secret Boy the provisional best friend stamp of approval.

“Hey, Nino!” Marinette calls out when she notices the DJ off a little ways talking with Adrien.

Adrien politely excuses himself, and Nino makes his way over to Marinette and Alya.

“Nino, can you get the audio off of this thing and make it so I can put it on my phone?” Marinette begs, looking up at him with big, soulful eyes like it’s the only thing in the world she wants.

He gives the device a once over and shrugs. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Now, what’s this I hear about your secret boyfriend?”

“Secret friend who just happens to be a boy, Babe,” Alya corrects with an eye roll. She threads her fingers through his and gives him a tug towards the door. “Hey, did you hear that Chat Noir has a girlfriend?!”

Once they get to the classroom, Alya pulls a newspaper out of her bag and slams it down on her desk like a winning poker hand. “Look at this!”

Nino does and instantly cracks a smile. He looks up and grins knowingly at Marinette. “Nice mask, Marinette.”

The girl in question nearly passes out. So much for no one recognizing her. She glares sewing needles and pins at Nino, trying to non-verbally get across, “I swear, if you say anything, I am going to pummel you.”

“Yes, Nino,” she replies in a stilted tone. “It is a very nice mask that she is wearing. I think so too.”

“The dress is gorgeous, Marinette,” Adrien helpfully chimes in, coming up to look at the pictures as if seeing them for the first time. (As if he hasn’t been going over them again and again all morning.)

Marinette jumps, nearly putting a hole through the ceiling. “W-What?!” she shrieks.

“The dress.” Adrien points. “It’s really well-made, Marinette. The design is brilliant; even my father liked it.”

Marinette is stuck for a moment. Does Adrien recognize her as well? It sure sounds like he does. It sounds a lot like he does and he’s complimenting the dress that he assumes that she made herself. Which she did. This is where the conflict comes into play: does she stay and ask Adrien what exactly his father said and what exactly he liked about it and if he had mentioned anything that could have been done better, or does she flee because this is the boy that broke her and she still can’t deal with seeing him/interacting with him/looking him in the eye/having him look at her?

Before Marinette can come to a conclusion, Adrien speaks again.

“Chat Noir has really good taste,” he adds with a wink.

Marinette’s brain shatters. “Excuse me?”

Adrien’s grin falters, and he begins to wonder if this violates his orders to “give her space”. “I said that Chat Noir has really good taste? In women?”

Is that offensive? Does it sound like he’s objectifying her? Why is this so hard? This would not be a problem if he were Chat. If he were Chat, she would roll her eyes at him, smack his arm, and come up with some sassy remark. But he’s Adrien right now, so chances are that she’s probably going to cry.

“I mean…I think so, anyway.” His mouth keeps running, and he can’t stop it.

She’s still staring at him. He can’t read her expression, but he can tell that it’s not good. Any minute now, she’s going to start crying, and it’s going to be his fault. Again.

“Sorry!” He backpedals hard. “Should I not have said that? I meant it as a compliment. I didn’t mean to offend you. I—”

“—It wasn’t a date!” Marinette yelps and runs off.

There it is. He’s ruined everything yet again. Just when she looked like she was in such a good mood after hearing Chat’s recording too.

Alya and Adrien move at the same time to go after her, but Nino holds them back. “Sit tight everybody. I’ve got this one.” He doesn’t give them time to argue before he dashes out the door, yelling after Marinette.

Adrien sinks into his chair and lets his head smack against the desktop. He literally pulls on his hair in his frustration.

“Good going, Agreste,” Alya growls, throwing herself into the chair beside him.

Adrien lifts his head to glare at his friend. “Do you want to fight, Alya?”

She’s about to pick up the gauntlet he’s thrown down when he cuts her off.

“—Look, I’m sorry. I know you’re really stressed out about Marinette because she’s your best friend, and you’re worried she’s going to get akumatized and everything, but how do you think I feel?” he challenges. “Marinette and I may not be close, but she’s my friend too, and at least you’re able to do something for her. Every time I try to help, I only seem to make things worse. I feel miserable and useless,” he snaps.

Alya thinks that he deserves it for everything he’s put Marinette through, but there’s no way of telling him that without exposing Marinette’s secret.

Adrien deflates, and his tone loses the bite as he continues, “Marinette was one of the first friends I made after transferring here—the third friend I’d ever made in my life—and she’s important to me. Don’t you think I want to cave that bastard’s face in for her too? Only no one will talk to me about it so that I know who I need to punch. I mean, I didn’t even know that Marinette had a crush on anybody, I’m so out of the loop.”

Alya’s eyes narrow in suspicion, her temper suddenly frosting over. “What’s all this now?”

“The guy that Marinette confessed to who turned her down for some internet celebrity,” Adrien snorts.

Deep trenches form in Alya’s brow. “Is that what Nino told you?”

“Alya,” Adrien sighs. “Nino wouldn’t tell me anything. Anything. What I know, I gleaned from hushed conversations that I overheard bits and pieces of.”

Really?” Alya presses, not quite willing to believe it.

“YES,” Adrien hisses. “Because his relationship with you is more important to him than I am. You seriously have no idea how much your boyfriend loves you, do you?”

Cowed on one front, Alya holds her ground on another. “Fine. But what right do you have to be all upset about Marinette getting rejected for an internet celebrity when you just rejected her the other day because you think you’re in love with Ladybug?”

For a moment, Adrien is knocked speechless. “Nino…told you…about that?”

Alya rolls her eyes and snorts. “Sunshine, I put Nino up to asking you.”

That…hurts.

He gulps. “Oh.”

Suddenly his insides feel hollow, but then it dawns on him how silly he’s being. Nino’s allegiance to Alya trumps everything. Adrien knows that there are no secrets between the two of them. What made Adrien think that Nino would make exceptions for him?

Adrien gets ahold of himself and nods in resignation, accepting the situation. “Of course you did. Okay. Well, I hope he also told you that the reason why I said that I didn’t think of Marinette romantically is because we really don’t know each other all that well. But I did say that I thought she was attractive. It’s not like I completely shot the idea down like that other goon, and, unlike him, I never would have said any of that to Marinette’s face if she had confessed to me.”

Alya pauses to stare hard at Adrien. “Wait. Seriously?”

“What kind of person do you think I am?” Adrien scoffs, insulted by the very insinuation. “Alya, I never would have said, ‘Gee, Marinette. Thanks, but I’m in love with Ladybug.’ You don’t just say stuff like that to people! Geez.”

“Then…” Alya feels like her blood has turned to molasses. “What would you have said to her?”

Adrien blinks and arches an eyebrow. “In some fantasy world where Marinette had a crush on me?”

Alya nods.

Adrien shrugs helplessly. “Thank you. It makes me really happy to know you care about me, but I’m really hung up on someone else right now, and I don’t think I’m emotionally able to be in a healthy relationship at the moment. I also don’t feel like I know you well enough to be able to tell whether or not we’d be a good match. Maybe, while I’m trying to get over my heartbreak, we can spend some more time together, getting to know one another as friends. Then, once I’m emotionally available and if you still feel the same way about me, maybe we can go on a date or two and see what happens.”

Alya’s tongue is glued to the roof of her mouth. She is a horrible friend, and she has severely messed everything up with her plotting and her scheming.

“But,” Adrien continues with a heavy sigh. “Marinette hates me, so it’s not like I’m ever going to have any use for that monologue.”

“You think Marinette hates you?” The shock is enough to free Alya’s tongue.

Adrien gives her a look of misery. “Doesn’t she? Okay, maybe ‘hate’ is a little strong, but in what mixed up universe is the way she acts towards me a sign that she likes me? She tolerates my existence, and she’ll be civil and make me feel included when you and Nino hang out with her, but she always looks so uncomfortable when it’s just the two of us. We occasionally have our good days where she’ll speak to me like I’m a regular human being, and I’ll feel like maybe we’re becoming real friends at last, but that never lasts for long. Sometimes I think she’s only nice to me because she wants to intern with my father—not that she’d need any preferential treatment to get a spot, but more that she’d be afraid I’d bias my father against her if she wasn’t nice. I don’t know, Alya. She makes zero sense to me.”

“Ooooh, Sunshine,” Alya sighs, pillowing her arms on top of Nino’s desk and resting her chin on them. “I’m sorry. Everything’s all screwed up, and I don’t know how to fix it. Just…Marinette doesn’t hate you. She wants to be your friend too. It’s just that…you intimidate her.”

Alya knows that it’s too late to put everything back in the bottle. She can tell Marinette what Adrien said he would have said if she had confessed, but she thinks it will only make things worse. She doesn’t want Marinette nursing feelings for Adrien for the next few years while they all wait for Adrien to get over Ladybug. What if after all that Adrien still doesn’t have feelings for Marinette? Marinette will have lost another few years of her life pining after the same boy. It’s better if Marinette never knows and is allowed to get over Adrien. False hope might be worse than no hope at all.

Chapter Text

“Marinette!” Nino shouts, beginning to wheeze. “Please slow down! I can’t keep up!”

Marinette takes pity on her friend and comes to a halt, crossing her arms and letting the tears fall right there in the hallway.

“Thank you,” Nino gasps, trotting to a stop to catch his breath. “Let’s…Over here.” He indicates the gym equipment storage room where no one will bother them.

Marinette hops up on a pommel horse, making herself comfortable, while Nino collapses on the stack of tumbling mats.

“Stupid question:” Nino begins, “How are you doing?”

She gives him a bland stare, wiping away the tears sliding down her cheeks.

“Yeah. I thought so,” Nino sighs, taking off his hat and rubbing his brow with the back of his hand. “You know, I never got the chance to apologize to you for going through with Alya’s stupid scheme and getting us all into this mess in the first place. I never should have listened to her.”

Marinette shakes her head, cutting Nino some slack. “What were you supposed to do, Nino? Tell her no? Tell Alya no? Besides, I was just as complicit. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen,” she sighs, leaning back and kicking her feet. “He’s right. We barely talk. I don’t think we’ve had even five deep, meaningful conversations, so how did I think he was going to have feelings for me? I was telling my friend—the secret one—the other day that Adrien doesn’t see me, and maybe I don’t see Adrien either.”

“You mean Chat Noir?” Nino inquires tentatively.

Marinette jumps, almost unseating herself. “What?!”

“Your secret friend. It’s Chat Noir, right?” Nino clarifies.

Marinette blushes. “Yes?”

Nino gives a nod, a knowing smile coming to his lips.

Marinette shakes her head. “The other night after Alya left, I woke up and got really upset all over again. Chat Noir just happened to be passing by, and he saw me. We got to talking, and…now I have a friend I have to keep a secret. Please don’t tell Alya?” Marinette begs, eyes entreating.

“As hard as it is to believe, I am capable of keeping a secret from my girlfriend when absolutely necessary, Marinette.” Nino makes a little cross over his heart. “She would flip if she knew you were friends with Chat Noir. She’d be unbearable, and that’s not what you need right now.”

“Thank you, Nino.” A hesitant smile slowly starts to stretch from the corners of Marinette’s mouth.

Nino bites his lip and struggles with his next question. “This…it isn’t really my place to ask you, but I think that I might be the only one who knows to ask, so…bear with me for a minute here: Have you ever thought about being with Adrien as Ladybug?”

Marinette blinks. Her head tips to the side, and her nose scrunches up. “What? You mean like dress up like Ladybug and… What?”

Nino shakes his head. “No. Like, ‘Ladybug’s kwami’s name here, transform me!’ and then yo-yo your way across town and sweep him off his feet with the mask and the suit on and everything.”

Marinette is silent on the outside. On the inside, she is screaming and throwing things and running around the room.

“Have you thought about it?” Nino presses.

Marinette’s mouth drops open. “I…I’m n-n-not. I mean, I can’t be. How could you possibly think—?! I trip over my own feet, for crying out loud!” she wails.

Nino shrugs. “Yeah. That really threw me for a while, but, if you’ll notice, whenever Marinette is in the zone, in action mode, the clumsiness goes away.”

Marinette forces herself to take a deep breath. “Okay. This is happening.”

“Sorry.” Nino rubs the back of his neck self-consciously.

“I can handle this.” Marinette sounds like she’s trying pretty hard to convince herself.

“I sure hope so. After all, you did out Alya and me to each other and then drag us off to the final boss battle without much time to process,” he tests the waters with a little teasing.

Marinette purses her lips. “I did do that, didn’t I? But that was an emergency.”

Nino shrugs. “So is this.”

“Hardly,” Marinette scoffs. “How long have you known?”

Nino does a mental count. “Years? Not long after you picked me, actually. I started putting the pieces together, and once I saw it, it was really obvious. You and Ladybug aren’t all that different.”

“We are,” Marinette ruefully insists. “Trust me on this one, Nino. Tikki—my kwami—has been trying to convince me for years that I’m still Ladybug even without the mask on, but I’ve never truly been able to believe her. Sure, Ladybug is a part of who I am, but she’s all the best bits distilled into one larger-than-life girl. Ladybug isn’t some independent personality that’s always perfect and smart and brave; she’s a small piece of a real girl with problems and insecurities. I can’t just go put on the suit and sweep Adrien off of his feet. Even if I put on the suit, I still wouldn’t be the girl he thinks he’s in love with.”

Nino purses his lips. “You know, he never would have shot you down like that if he knew you were listening. He told me yesterday that talking to me made him realize that you two don’t know each other very well and that he wanted to try to fix that. He likes you and thinks you’re really cool, you know.”

Marinette nods. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

Nino grimaces. “Maybe when the wound has healed up a little, give him another chance?”

Marinette shakes her head. “I’m actually still pretty mad about the whole being turned down for an idealized version of me that he’s barely exchanged ten sentences with.”

“He’s still legit crazy about her, though,” Nino informs, feeling the need to stick up for his best bud.

“He’s just like Chat Noir,” Marinette sighs with a roll of her eyes.

“At least Chat Noir actually knows her a little better,” Nino offers, unsure why he’s sticking up for Chat as well.

Marinette shrugs. “I wonder what they’d do if they ever found out that the superhero girl in spandex was just Marinette all along. That would probably throw a bucket of cold water on them.”

Nino bites his lip. “Maybe, but what if they still loved you afterwards?”

Marinette stops her leg kicking in mid-swing. “I’ve never considered it. I always assumed that once they found out, they’d be mortified at their mistake and that would be the end of it.”

“Okay, but what if it isn’t?” Nino challenges. “What if Chat Noir finds out and is able to look you in the eye and tell you he still loves you?”

“Chat Noir?” Marinette asks warily.

“Yeah.” Nino grins. “Chat Noir. Why not? Let’s talk about Marinette and Chat Noir while we’re at it…or are you going by ‘Princess’ nowadays?”

Marinette groans. “Those pictures are not what they look like. It’s all a misunderstanding. He didn’t kiss me; he was just going to lick ice cream off of my nose, and the hug is actually just him catching me because I almost fell off a bridge, okay?”

Nino puts his hands up in surrender. “You guys are really just friends?”

Marinette nods. “We’ve kind of formed The Rejects Club. He’s hanging out with me, trying to keep me from being too sad over Adrien, and I’m hanging out with him, trying to help him get over Ladybug.”

Nino opens his mouth to comment but then thinks better of it.

Marinette heaves an enormous sigh and dismounts from the pommel horse. “Yeah, yeah. I am aware how messed up it is for Ladybug’s alter ego to be helping him get over Ladybug, but it’s for his own good. Trust me. He can’t spend the rest of his life fawning over someone who doesn’t even exist.”

“All right then.” Nino clears his throat. “So…to recap: you’ve decided to get over Adrien and move on, and Marinette and Chat Noir are just friends.”

“Got it in one.” Marinette gives her stamp of approval as she leans against one of the uneven bars.

Nino decides to be facetious. “But what if, in getting over Ladybug, Chat Noir starts to fall for Marinette?”

Marinette slips and almost falls over. “W-What?! No. No way that would happen.”

“Just throwing it out there,” Nino chuckles.

“Don’t laugh,” Marinette whines. “This is my actual life that you’re messing with with these hypotheticals.”

Out of the blue, something occurs to Marinette: “Oh my gosh! Nino! Does Alya know?!”

Nino blinks. “About?”

Me! Ladybug!” Marinette hisses under her breath, afraid to shout it.

Nino shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. She’s never said anything about it, and I’ve never told her, so I don’t think so, unless she’s figured it out on her own. She hasn’t given any indication that she has.”

Marinette nods, struggling to process. “Okay. That’s…that’s good. Sorry. I just had a minor freak out for a minute there.”

“It’s all right, Marinette.” He hesitates before adding, “You do know that I’m here for you, right?”

She looks at him and really studies him.

“If you ever need to talk about any of this—or anything else, for that matter,” he offers. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, and if you ever need to bounce any of it off someone…”

Marinette gives him a tired smile. “Thank you, Nino. I really do appreciate it.”

A look of understanding passes between them.

“You ready to go back to class, or are you going to reveal that you know even more of my secrets?” She tips her head to the side and gives him a smile that lets him know that she’s going to be okay for now.

“Nah, I think that’s all the secrets for now…Princess,” he chuckles.

Marinette gives him a playful glare. “There’s only one person who’s allowed to call me that, and you’re not him, Nino.”

“So long as you remember who your friends were before you got famous, Mrs. Noir.”

He grins.

She elbows him in the ribs.

 

Near the end of first period, Adrien passes Nino a note: “Is she okay?”

It is only then that Nino realizes that Adrien has been antsy throughout class. He’s been dying to pass this note, but there hasn’t been an opportunity.

Nino considers his answer. “Touch and go, but she’s tough. Are YOU okay?”

Adrien seems surprised at this. He thinks about it before scribbling back, “Honestly? No. I’m pretty messed up over this. I made her cry. AGAIN.”

Nino is about to offer his friend some words of comfort when Miss Bustier snatches the note. She is on the verge of scolding them when she perfunctorily skims the note, pauses, and then reads it once more. She looks at Adrien—who looks miserable—and smiles gently, setting the note back down between them.

“I’ll have to ask that you boys continue this discussion after class. Don’t let me catch you again, okay?”

Both Nino and Adrien mutter apologies, and the class resumes.

During the break between classes, Nino turns to Adrien and gives him a reassuring clap on the shoulder. “Dude, I know it’s rough, but try not to take it so personally, okay? This isn’t your fault.”

“Thanks,” Adrien sighs, faking a smile for Nino.

Nino can tell that Adrien is going to continue to take this personally and blame himself. If this keeps up, Marinette is not the only one that they’ll have to put on akuma watch.

 

Adrien somehow manages to barely skate through the photo shoot after school. It finishes up at seven o’clock, and after he messes over his dinner, he retreats to his room to practice piano for an hour. He works on Chopin’s Preludes, focusing solely on the ones in the minor keys because that’s just the mood he’s in.

He’s working on one in B minor and keeps messing up at the same exact spot two-thirds of the way into the song. He returns to the beginning and plays it through again each time he makes a mistake partly to wallow in the misery of his failure, partly to punish himself for whatever he did to make Marinette hate him, and partly to drive everyone else within hearing range insane so that he won’t be the only one who’s miserable.

He’s going back to the beginning for the seventh time when Plagg flies over and lands on his hand. “Kid, this has got to stop. Why don’t you play something else?”

“I want to play this,” Adrien grumbles, feeling obstinate.

“But Chopin is so depressing,” Plagg argues. “It always sounds like he’s crying.”

“Well, he was depressed,” Adrien retorts. “He had good reason to be depressed. He was sick, and George Sand really did a number on his heart, so can you really blame the guy?”

“Kid, how about you go climb your rock wall?” Plagg suggests, hopefully. “Or do you want to play that DND game where you stomp around and wave your arms like a wounded squirrel?”

“DDR,” Adrien corrects, beginning the song again, despite the fact that Plagg is still on his hand. “And no thanks. I kind of just want to sit here and feel wretched.”

Plagg exhales slowly, attempting patience. He will not let the drama get to him. “No one really wants to feel wretched. Wouldn’t you rather…watch some TV? You can watch other people be miserable for you. It takes all the work out of it.”

“I’m good, Plagg. Thanks,” Adrien mutters listlessly.

Plagg flies up to the top of the piano and waits until Adrien gets to the part he’s having trouble with. Adrien makes the same mistake and dutifully goes back to the beginning to try again.

“This is a cry for attention,” Plagg surmises. “You think that if you play the song and mess up so many times, your father will come to check on you.”

“Not really.” Adrien shrugs. “He’s probably too busy hanging out in his lair, waiting to terrorize Paris. I know the most that will happen is Nathalie will peek her head in to ask if I’m okay. I’ll lie and tell her I’m fine, and she won’t press the issue because she still feels weird about acting too much like a mom. Honestly, I’m probably just driving the Gorilla nuts. I’m surprised he hasn’t quit by now. My father probably pays him well or something.”

“Maybe he likes his job?” Plagg counters.

“As a glorified babysitter? I wouldn’t think so.”

Adrien gets to the part once more, and it goes as well as the other times.

Before Adrien can restart, Plagg chimes in, “Kid, let’s go for a run! Doesn’t a run sound like fun? I think a run would be really nice right about now. You could even drop in on your girlfriend and possibly get us some baked goods.”

Adrien rolls his eyes. “Plagg, Marinette doesn’t want anything to do with me. She can’t stand to have me around.”

Plagg nods. “I thought that was what was really bothering you. Are you still upset about making her cry again today? She was so happy when she heard your dorky recording this morning. Why don’t you stop with the piano and go make her another one? I bet she’d like that.”

“Do you think she’d still like the recording if she knew who was really singing?” Adrien sighs, resting his head against the top of the piano.

Plagg takes another deep breath in preparation for this. “Okay, so Marinette is a little weird about Adrien, but didn’t journalist-girl tell you that Marinette doesn’t hate Adrien? That Marinette wants to be Adrien’s friend, but she’s just intimidated?”

Adrien makes an ambiguous muffled noise. He’s not sure whether he believes Alya or not. It kind of feels like Marinette doesn’t even want to be in the same room with him.

“Okay. So what if Marinette doesn’t like Adrien? Why is that such a big deal? The Adrien she knows isn’t even the real you anyway. What’s better, do you know who she does like?” Plagg baits.

Adrien sighs. “Chat Noir?”

“Chat Noir!” Plagg nods a little too enthusiastically. “See? She does like you, and I bet she’d be glad to see you, if you popped over to her house to visit, so what do you say?”

Adrien sits up and shrugs. “Plagg, transform me?”

He can’t explain why it’s important for Marinette to like Adrien…or at least not hate him. He knows that she likes the real him: his dorky side, his morose side, his egotism, his insecurity, but he’s afraid that if she figures out that Adrien and Chat are one and the same, he’ll lose her friendship when he’s only just now beginning to fully enjoy it.

Chapter Text

“Chat Noir!” Marinette greets him with a huge grin when he knocks at her skylight.

“Princess!” he sings, beginning to feel a little better already.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d come tonight. Come on in. I was just working on some sketching.” She motions for him to follow and then proceeds down from her loft to the main floor.

She’s changed out of her day clothes and is wearing black yoga pants with an oversized, powder blue sweater. There are graphite smudges along the side of her hand and down her wrist and arm. She’s even got a little bit on her cheek.

“What are you sketching?” Chat wonders as Marinette flops back down onto her stomach on her rug with her sketchbook.

“You can sit wherever you like.” Marinette indicates the desk chair, the chaise longue, and the floor. “I’m working on a new masquerade dress, since my ‘Princess’ disguise is sort of compromised now. Tell me what you think.”

Chat sits on the floor in front of Marinette with his back up against the chaise.

She hands him the sketchpad, and he marvels at the lovely design that looks like it could have come straight out of Swan Lake.

“That’s gorgeous, Princess. Really nice lines. The design on the bodice is kind of fun too. Is it ballet-inspired?” He hands it back and smiles as her eyes light up with excitement for her creation.

“Yeah. It’s kind of my take on Odile, the black swan. It’s mostly going to be black with neon blue accents—kind of a Frozen crossover. I’m thinking the skirt will be black cloth with blue tulle underneath, and I’ll have the hem of the skirt kind of slit so that the tulle shows in places.”

“Princess, are you going through a neon-colored tulle phase?” Chat snickers. “Are they going to look back in the annals of fashion and say, ‘Why, yes. This is from the great designer Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Noir’s neon tulle phase. Notice the innovative and bold combination of color and material.’?”

“When do I pick up the third last name?” Marinette snorts.

“In give or take six years when we finally realize we were meant to be together and accept that there’s no one else we’d rather spend our lives with.” Chat shrugs, and it rolls off of his tongue easily.

Marinette hums pensively. “And when do I become known as a great designer?”

“Next year. You win this big contest, and Gabriel Agreste hires you on the spot. All of Paris falls in love with you. People can’t get enough of your designs.” He nods sagely.

“I can’t argue with that.” Marinette smiles down at her sketch, going over some of the lines, erasing others, and adding a few little details here and there. “And when do I figure out your secret identity, since you’re so up to predicting the future over here?”

Chat grimaces at the very thought. “Any day now, at the rate I’m going.”

“Don’t worry, Chat. Ladybug can’t be too angry with you,” Marinette assures, giving his foot a playful tap with the end of her pencil.

Chat sighs, hugging one of his knees into his chest. “Actually, I’ve kind of been more worried today that you’re going to be angry with me.”

Marinette pauses in her work to look up at him in concern. “Chat, why would you say that?”

Chat looks away. “I don’t think you like me very much in real life.”

“Is this not real life?” Marinette wonders. “I can only think of two people I don’t like much, and they’re both girls, so I think we’re okay, Chat. Why? What did I do that made you think I don’t like you?”

Chat shakes his head. He can’t look at her. “Nothing in particular. Maybe we just don’t know each other very well when I’m not wearing a mask, so I’m just interpreting that wrong, but…I just can’t shake the feeling that you’re going to be disappointed.”

Marinette pushes herself up to sitting and then leans forward on her hands and knees so she’s at eye level. She moves so that Chat has no choice but to look at her. “Chat Noir, didn’t I tell you the other night that I wasn’t going to be disappointed in you?”

“That was that you weren’t going to be disappointed, getting to know what the less-than-perfect guy behind Chat Noir is actually like, NOT that you weren’t going to be disappointed when you learned who the guy behind Chat Noir is,” he points out.

Internally, Marinette is laughing at the irony. She constantly worries that people will be disappointed if they learn that she’s Ladybug. She never would have thought that Chat Noir would have the same problem. She wishes she could tell him this to make him feel better, but she knows he’d be disappointed if he found out she was Ladybug.

“Chat Noir, didn’t you say that this you is the real you?” she prompts.

He nods, waiting for her point.

“Well, I like this you, so it doesn’t really matter who’s on the other side of that mask, does it?”

He bites his lip. “I don’t know. What if I’m…I don’t know…Max?”

“Max has been akumatized.”

“Nino?” Chat tries.

Marinette rolls her eyes. “Akumatized, and you’re so not Nino.”

“Kim?”

“Akumatized, but, Chat, it would be fine. Whoever you are is fine.”

“Adrien Agreste?”

Marinette goes oddly still. The mild amusement at this game is gone from her face, and she’s looking like she’s trying to curb her gut reaction.

“That would be fine, Chat.” Only her tone sounds more like the serene panic of “That would be a disaster, Chat.”

Chat is getting the feeling that it would not be okay for him to be Adrien Agreste, and that stings. “No, seriously, Marinette. What if I’m Adrien Agreste?”

“Chat…” She sits back on her haunches and looks uncomfortable.

“You wouldn’t be disappointed or angry or…?” He knows this is a bad idea, but something in him wants to press until she tells him why she dislikes him so much.

“Chat, you’re not Adrien Agreste, so let’s just drop it, okay?” Her voice sounds strained, and her eyes are beginning to look moist. “Whoever you are, it doesn’t matter. I know the real you, and that’s what counts, okay, so you don’t have to be so stressed about it.”

“Sorry. I’m sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to upset you. I…” He bites his lip a little hard and hisses. “Sorry. I just…was worried you wouldn’t be my friend anymore.”

Marinette reaches out and gives his hair and cat ears a good tussle. “Oh, Minou. Don’t worry. When the time comes, we’ll figure things out. I may be surprised, and it may take me a while to reconcile some guy that goes to my school with my friend Chat Noir, but we’ll work through it. I’m pretty sure you’ll have a hard time adjusting when you find out my secret sewing blogger identity too, so I think we’re even.”

Chat chooses not to inform her that he doesn’t think his world will be rocked in quite the same way by her sewing blogger identity reveal.

“I’m not good at not worrying,” Chat sighs, eyes slipping closed as she continues to massage his scalp. “But keep doing that, and maybe I can learn not to worry.”

Marinette giggles when Chat begins to purr. “Feel good?”

“I’m about to melt into a puddle,” Chat confesses, his entire body finally letting go of the constant stress and tension. “I really need to take you home with me. Everyone should have their own personal Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

Her hand moves down to rub behind his human ear, and he leans into her touch.

“Lie down,” Marinette commands, moving her sketchbook out of the way.

Chat instantly obeys and finds himself with his head in her lap for his trouble.

She methodically works with both hands from the base of his neck to the top of his mask. “Is this okay, or is this weird?” Marinette wonders. “I know you’re not an actual cat, so…should I be petting you?”

“I’ll be whatever you want me to be; just, please, don’t stop,” Chat whimpers. Physical contact with another human being is so rare for Adrien. This feels like dying and going to Heaven.

“Just this once, Chat,” Marinette warns.

Chat makes a vague sound of acknowledgment but is not currently capable of higher thought. Her touch completely undoes him. Part of him could die of happiness; another part wants to burst into tears. All of the emotions he’s stuffed down over the years are slowly bubbling to the surface, leaving him feeling raw. Somehow her fingers make it all a little more manageable.

“Whoops.” Marinette breaks him out of his trance some minutes later with a little gasp.

Chat cracks one eye open. “‘Whoops’?”

“I’m sorry.” Marinette bites her lip. “I didn’t realize I had pencil smudge on my hands. You…may have graphite smears in your hair now.”

“It’ll wash out. It’s fine,” he sighs sleepily, nuzzling her thigh. “Don’t stop, Marinette.”

Marinette blushes at the too intimate gesture but tentatively returns to her ministrations. His hair is so soft, and it feels nice to run her fingers through.

She’s a little worried, though. She’s never seen Chat like this before. Something’s seriously wrong; she can tell he’s upset and brooding over something. He’s obviously distracted, but she doesn’t want to press in case he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it. They may have grown closer recently, but she still doesn’t know him well enough to know when it’s okay to ask and when it’s better to just let him be.

“How was your day, Princess?” Chat mumbles after several more minutes of silence.

Marinette hums as she mentally goes over it and evaluates. “So-so. Seeing the pictures in the paper this morning was a shock. I’m a little disturbed that someone was that close, taking pictures of me, and I didn’t even realize it, but…it’s really not as bad as I thought it would be to be on the front page of the news. Once I got over the frustration of everyone completely taking things out of context and the fear that people were going to recognize me, it was actually kind of amusing to have everyone talking about us. I liked hearing Alya’s wild theories about our fake love life. Did you know we have a pairing name?” Marinette chuckles.

“What? ‘Princess Noir’?” Chat smiles. “Yeah, I kind of got a kick out of that. It has a nice ring to it. By the way, I’m saving those pictures to put into a scrapbook for our children. ‘This is Mommy and Daddy’s first date.’”

Marinette’s chuckle turns into a snort. “Oh, stop, you shameless flirt.”

“You’re not afraid to go out in public with me again, are you?” Suddenly his tone turns serious, and he opens his eyes to watch her reaction.

Marinette smiles down reassuringly at him and shakes her head. “No, I’m not afraid. I was talking with my mom this morning about that and what could possibly happen if Papillon figures out who I am, and she told me that friends like you are worth the risk, so I should keep hanging out with you anyway. I think she’s right. You’re good for me.”

Chat flushes, and not even the mask can hide how red his face has become. “I…I’m glad. Thank you. That makes me really happy to hear, Marinette.”

She gives his nose a small bop and goes back to her rhythmic massaging. “I really appreciated the recording you left in my locker today, by the way. It made me crack up. Alya probably thought I was nuts, but…it really made my day, so thank you, Chat.”

“You’re welcome.” A proud grin begins to spread across his face, and she can tell he’s inwardly congratulating himself. “Yeah, I saw the way you fell over laughing. That was kind of the high point of my day.”

A sudden chill runs through Marinette. “You were there? …I didn’t see you.” How can he be so close without her realizing it? What if they walk past each other every day and she just doesn’t know? What if she’s talked to him? Have they had conversations without her knowing it? The thought is too surreal.

“Princess, you looked right at me…or…at least in my general direction. I’m pretty sure you saw me, even if you didn’t really pay me much attention.” He shrugs, but she doesn’t get the full effect from her current angle.

“Do I know you?” This has her panicking for some reason. “I know you said you got the impression that I didn’t like you, but have we, like, talked?” How could she not recognize him?

He begins to shake his head but stops when it interferes with the head rub. “No, not really. No one really knows me, and you and I have only had minor conversations.”

“What about?” Marinette wonders, feeling a little like she’s been set adrift. She wracks her memory for any conversation she’s ever had with a blonde boy.

“We talked about Chloé once.” When she was leaving and everyone was throwing a party and Adrien was the only one who was upset.

Marinette frowns. “I’ve talked to dozens of people about that pest.”

Chat laughs softly. “I’ll give you a hint: I borrowed something from you once and never returned it. I did, however, give you something similar a few months later.” Chat grins at his own cryptic clue. He doesn’t think she’ll get that it was the lucky charm.

Marinette is stumped. All she can think of is a pencil, but she’s loaned pencils to nearly everyone. “Another clue?” she entreats and then stoops to bribery. “I’ll keep massaging.”

He smirks. “I once leant you something, and you’ve never given it back.” The black umbrella is still in her umbrella stand over by her vanity.

Her forehead creases with the effort of thought. “Do you know if I still have it?”

“It’s in this very room,” he snickers.

Later, Marinette is going to go through each and every one of her possessions in an attempt to locate the borrowed item. For now, she gives a little growl of frustration.

“Don’t stress about it, Princess.” He can tell this is going to drive her crazy.

“This is going to drive me crazy, Chat,” she reports through clenched teeth.

“How was the rest of your day?” he inquires in an attempt to divert her train of thought.

She rolls her eyes, and with a little puff of breath, she lets go of the topic. There will be plenty of time to stew over it later. “Not bad. There were a couple little blips, but I remained mostly stable.” She winces as she remembers: “So, Nino may have discovered my secret identity.”

Chat’s eyebrows rise. “How did Nino find out?”

Marinette shakes her head. “He’s oddly perceptive. He took one look at the Princess Noir pictures this morning and figured out I was Princess too. At first, I was a little—okay A LOT—freaked out about the whole identity thing, but, apparently, he’s known for a few years now, and he hasn’t said anything to anyone, so…maybe it’s okay. I don’t know. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole situation. This entire time I thought it was a secret, and I had been thinking about, maybe, when the time came, how I would tell someone, and there’s always been someone that I thought deserved to know first, so…maybe I’m a little sad that I won’t be able to tell him first anymore now that Nino knows.”

Chat’s ears twitch, and he wonders who this “him” is. “You’re not talking about the slug you confessed to, are you?” he tentatively asks, feeling strangely irked.

She shakes her head. “He’s not a slug.”

The annoyed sensation gets worse. He can’t believe that she’s sticking up for this jerk after all that he put her through. It really bothers him that she still has feelings for this guy.

Chat’s eyes narrow. “As your friend, I reserve the right to hate his guts, Princess.”

Marinette nods, oddly touched at Chat’s loyalty. “Thanks, Chat. But no. The person I wanted to tell first is a friend who has been helping and supporting me this whole time. He doesn’t know my real identity, but he’s been fighting by my side all along, and I wanted to tell him who I really was first.”

“I don’t see why you still can’t when you’re ready.” Chat sighs, turning so that she has a better angle on his left ear. “It’s not like you told Nino, so this other guy can still be the first person you tell yourself.”

“That makes sense,” Marinette realizes and brightens. “Thanks, Chat.”

“Anytime,” he mewls.

She nibbles on her lip and hesitates before asking, “And how was your day?” She has a feeling that if seeing her burst out laughing and fall into the lockers next to hers was the high point of his day, his answer isn’t going to be very positive.

He stills. “Today was one of those days where I wonder if Papillon has my channel on mute because it would have been really easy to akumatize me.”

Marinette’s mouth falls open in shock at the implication that this is not a one-time thing but that Chat has had multiple days where he felt vulnerable to akumatization—so much so that he’s now joking about it. Only he doesn’t sound like he’s joking.

“Oh, Minou,” Marinette whispers, unsure of what else to say.

He looks up at her and smiles. “Plagg was right. I really needed to come over and see you. I was just sitting at my piano, wallowing in how miserable I felt, playing the same song over and over, making the same mistake, and driving everyone nuts. Plagg told me I needed to get my butt over to see you, and he was right.”

Chat pulls away and sits up so he can meet her gaze at eye-level. “Thank you for this, Marinette. I’m feeling a lot better now.”

A shy smile tugs at her lips, and she reaches out to gently pat the top of his head. “Always happy to help, Minou…. You play the piano?”

Chat stiffens, wondering how many guys she knows with blonde hair and green eyes who are his height, go to her school, speak Chinese, are rich and famous, and play the piano. The list keeps getting shorter.

“Well…yeah. I mean, a little. I’m not very good. It’s just…” His lips press together in a thin line. “My father plays the piano, and sometimes I can get him to play a duet with me, so…”

“You practice so that you have an excuse to spend time with your father,” Marinette realizes.

Chat nods. “Is that pathetic?”

Marinette is quick to shake her head. “N-No. Not pathetic. Maybe a little unusual, but your life isn’t exactly usual, is it? Your father must be pretty busy…. Is he some kind of businessman?” Marinette asks before it occurs to her that this is maybe prying a little too much into his identity under the mask.

Surprisingly, Chat answers fairly readily. “Sort of. He has his own company, but it’s not a typical kind of business…and it’s become all-consuming these past few years. Since my mom disappeared, he’s been throwing himself into his work, so it’s hard to find free time to spend with me. I just…piano is something we can do together, so I practice, even though I don’t always enjoy it. I do a lot of things I don’t necessarily enjoy as a way to spend more time with him.”

“That sounds really hard,” Marinette mutters.

“Yeah. It’s…” Chat thinks about it. “…lonely.”

Marinette is in the middle of coming up with something comforting to say when Chat’s stomach growls loudly. She blinks. “Did you eat dinner?”

Chat smiles bashfully. “For certain values of ‘eat’. If by that you mean did I push food around my plate with my fork. Not a lot of it actually made it into my mouth. I was kind of upset at the time.”

Marinette gets to her feet and heads for the trapdoor, motioning for him to follow. “Let’s get you some food, then. We have some cheese tortellini soup leftover from dinner. It’s got tomato chunks and spinach and portabella mushrooms. And the cheese tortellini, obviously. Does that sound good?” She peeks tentatively over her shoulder back at him as they reach the bottom of the steps. “If not, I can always whip up something else.”

“No, that’s okay. Tortellini soup sounds perfect. Thank you.”

She waves him over to his seat at the table while she gets out the soup and a bowl.

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually had tortellini soup before,” Chat muses, watching her pour out a portion and put it in the microwave.

“It’s nothing special,” Marinette assures. “It’s actually pretty simple, but it’s a nice comfort food recipe from the Italian side of my dad’s family. I’m sure it won’t hold a candle to whatever your professional chef usually makes you, but…”

“You’d be surprised at how quickly you get tired of the professional chef,” Chat sighs wistfully. “Sometimes I think it would be really nice if someone just made me a croque monsieur or something.”

“You actually have a professional chef.” Marinette shakes her head in wonder. “Well. We’ll have to do croque monsieur some other time, but, for now, here’s some tortellini soup.”

She sets the bowl down before him, and he takes an experimental sip to test the temperature. Finding it suitable for consumption, he digs in and is instantly a fan.

“This is awesome, Princess. Did your mom make it?” he gets out between bites. He hadn’t realized how famished he was until just then.

Marinette beams. “No, it was my turn to make dinner tonight. I’m glad you like it, despite its plebian origins. Just let me know if you want seconds.”

Chat looks down into his quickly emptying bowl and bites his lip. “I might take you up on that.”

Marinette lets him eat in silence for a bit and gets him a second helping when he asks for it. She waits until he’s halfway done with his second bowl before speaking up.

“Chat Noir?”

“Princess?” he echoes.

“Do you mind if I ask why you were so upset today? You don’t have to talk about it, if you’d rather not,” she quickly adds. “I just thought that if you did want to talk about it, I could listen and maybe help? Not that I think I could be much help, but…” She waits patiently and lets the question hang in the air between them.

Chat bites down on his spoon as he contemplates the pros and cons of telling Marinette that Marinette has been plaguing his thoughts all. Day. Long. “There’s this girl,” he hesitantly begins.

Marinette raises an eyebrow. “Should I be jealous, Minou?”

This gets a chuckle out of him. He shakes his head. “No, Princess. It’s not like that. She’s…just a girl I want to be friends with, but I think she hates me, so… It’s just been bothering me. That’s all.”

“What makes you think she hates you?” Marinette leans forward, resting her elbows on the table.

Chat fidgets. “She…gets really awkward around me. I’ve seen her talk normally to other people, and she’s actually super friendly and kind, but with me she seems really intimidated and reserved. She gets all flustered and clams up. She’s not mean to me or anything. She doesn’t exclude me or talk bad about me behind my back, but…I get the impression she doesn’t feel comfortable when I’m around, and lately I can’t even talk to her without making her burst into tears. So…what do you think? Does it sound like she hates me?”

Marinette presses her lips together in thought. “That’s bizarre.”

Adrien thinks so too, but Chat holds his tongue.

“Well…it doesn’t sound like she hates you,” Marinette reasons. “It could be that she’s scared of you or intimidated by you.” She hesitates. “There’s one more option. I know some girls get like that when they have a crush on someone. Maybe she likes you, Chat.”

Chat looks Marinette straight in the eye and weighs her words. He tests the thought ‘Marinette likes me’ and dismisses it out of hand.

He shakes his head. “No. She’s probably just intimidated. That’s what two of my other friends have said too.”

“Sorry, Chat.” Marinette gives him a weak smile.

Chat shrugs. “There’s nothing anyone can do about it. I’ll just…keep trying to be nice and approachable.”

“I’m sure she’ll warm up to you, if she gets to know you better,” Marinette assures, and Chat finds it painfully ironic.

“Let’s hope so,” he replies, going back to his soup. “I don’t know how much longer I can take things the way they are at present. I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around her, and still nothing I say ever turns out to be the right thing. I’m always upsetting her.”

Marinette reaches out and sets her hand on top of his. “Minou, try not to let it get to you. If she has an issue with you, that’s her problem. Don’t let her ruin your day over it. Do you need me to go and talk to this girl for you?”

That would be an interesting conversation, and as much as Chat would like to watch that… “Princess, I don’t see how you could without finding out my identity.”

“Oh.” Marinette deflates. “I hadn’t…thought of that.”

“I appreciate the offer, though.”

Chat finishes his soup, and, after cleaning up, they head back to Marinette’s room. She sinks back down to the floor, and he joins her with his back up against the chaise.

“That kind of reminds me,” Marinette sighs, grabbing her sketchpad. “Apparently there’s a guy in my class that thinks I hate him too. Alya just told me about it today.”

“Who would that be?” Chat feigns ignorance, interested in hearing Marinette’s side of the story. “I mean, you’re really nice to everyone…besides Chloé, I mean.”

Marinette takes a deep preparatory breath and lets out a begrudging sigh that sounds a lot like “Adrien Agreste”.

Chat pretends to be baffled. “Adrien? But aren’t you guys friends? I mean, I see you and him and Nino and Alya hanging out all the time.”

Marinette grimaces. “It’s…complicated. Sometimes I act really…” She makes a convoluted hand gesture. “…weird around him. I don’t know. He’s not a bad guy—on the contrary, he’s really sweet—but…”

“Do you not like him?” Chat asks almost disinterestedly. Adrien holds his breath.

Marinette’s face contorts into an expression that’s hard to read. “It’s not that I don’t like him.”

“Did he do something?” Chat wonders, almost hoping she’ll say yes so that he can fix it.

“Not exactly,” she hedges and then sighs, “Not that he knows.”

This does not help Adrien in the slightest.

“Mostly, it’s my fault, and…I don’t want to talk about this.” She shakes her head, putting an end to the discussion.

Chat bites the inside of his cheek before deciding to push a little farther. “Okay. We don’t have to talk about it, but…do you mind my asking what you’re going to do about it?”

Marinette rolls over onto her back and spreads out like a starfish. “I don’t know. Nothing, probably. I can’t deal with him right now. I’ve got too much crap of my own to be considerate of his feelings.”

“But…Sorry. I can’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for him. What if he’s feeling as bad as I am right now?” Chat feels slightly bad about how self-serving he’s being but not bad enough to stop.

“Oh, Minou,” she coos. “The difference is that I care about how bad you’re feeling. Adrien Agreste can go jump in the Seine.”

Ouch. The Seine is filthy.

“I take it you’re mad at him?” Chat guesses as Adrien goes back over every interaction he’s had with Marinette lately that would make her say something like that.

She has the grace to look ashamed. “Maybe a little bit. It’s not his fault, though.”

Chat resists the urge to bang his head against the wall. “You’ve lost me, Princess. Do you hate this guy, or do you want to be friends with him?”

She thinks about it. “…Friends, but not right now.”

“I see.” Chat does not.

She sighs. “Chat, what do you want me to do? Write him a letter that says: ‘Dear Adrien, I don’t hate you. I just can’t stand looking at your face right now because it makes me burst into tears. Forgive me for being a little emotional; I just got my heart ripped out and stomped on, so I’m a little psycho at the moment. Please bear with me because I’m going to be acting even stranger than usual for the next few months as I recover. I hope we can be friends once I’m done having my quarter-life meltdown. Also, your smile is dreamy. Love, Marinette. P.S.: I saw the new Gabriel spring line, and there was this one photo of you that was really spectacular. The one with you jumping off the bench. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about that picture that was really gripping.’? Is that what you want, Chat?”

She looks up at him, and he’s staring down at her in awe. “What? What is it?”

“You saw that picture?” Chat asks in a hushed, almost reverent tone.

Marinette quirks an eyebrow as she rolls over onto her stomach to frown at him better. “Yeah? I pre-ordered the new spring line catalogue. I got it the day it came out. Whhhhyyy?” She stretches the word out into two octaves.

“Did you really think that one was spectacular?” That was the one he had wanted to show her. That was the one where the camera had finally captured a glimmer of the real him. He’d been fooling around while Vincent’s crew prepped the next scene in the Square Jean XXIII, and Vincent had just happened to take the picture as Adrien jumped off one of the benches, looking energetic and carefree.

Marinette shrugs, missing the entire point. “Yes. It’s the most natural shot I think I’ve ever seen from Adrien. Usually he looks really posed—I mean, still good, but…posed. It was good to see him with a little more life in his performance. Why are we talking about this? Are you into fashion?”

Chat shakes his head, still wearing a goofy grin. “No reason. I don’t actually care for fashion all that much, but…so you think Adrien Agreste’s smile is dreamy?”

She swats at him, missing on purpose. “Chat, shut the hell up. It’s his job to have a dreamy smile.”

A thought occurs to her: a way to turn the tables and have him on the retreat. “You have a dreamy smile too, Minou.”

As expected, Chat blinks, ears standing straight up as his eyes widen. “What? Me?”

She pokes him on the nose and laughs at the stunned face he’s making. “Totally, Minou. To die for.”

He rolls his eyes, deciding that she’s teasing him. “No. Seriously. Do you really think his smile is dreamy?”

Marinette sighs wearily. “Yes? I’ll tell you a story. So once I was caught out in the rain, and Adrien just happened along with an umbrella. This was still when I was legit mad at him because of a misunderstanding, but he apologized and gave me the umbrella…which promptly closed up on me. He burst out laughing, and, I’ll tell you, Chat, his smile nearly knocked me over.”

This makes Adrien’s day: her nostalgic smile, the way she laughs about it. It’s a fond memory for her too.

“Now that I think about it, I still have that umbrella.” She looks over to her umbrella stand and grins sheepishly. “I guess I’ve stolen it at this point.”

“He’s rich enough to buy another—one that doesn’t close up on people. Besides, I think he’d be happy to know you look back on that day and smile and laugh….” Chat’s tone turns solemn. “I really think he’d be happy to get your ‘letter’ too.”

Marinette shakes her head and sighs. “There’s no way I’m writing that down. I sound insane.”

“You sound honest. Trust me, honesty can be quite refreshing,” Chat assures. “You really did mean everything you said, didn’t you?”

Marinette shrugs. “Yep. Want to be friends, can’t stand his face, little bit psycho, dreamy smile, love Marinette, photo,” she summarizes.

“Will you write it out for me?” he pleads. “I won’t show it to him—or anyone—or anything like that. I just…”

“You want my Dear Adrien letter?” Her eyebrow slowly inches up.

“It would make me feel better about the girl who I think hates me.” He tells the absolute truth.

“This is weird, but I guess it’s no more weird than me picturing you naked to keep from getting depressed over being rejected,” she reasons, turning to a fresh page in her sketchbook and starting to write.

“Dear Chat,” she begins and proceeds more or less exactly as she had before with Chat’s help in remembering the order and the phrasing. She signs “Love, Princess”, adds the post script, tears out the page, and hands it to him.

“There you go. Just to make you happy.”

“Thank you, Princess.” He catches her hand and kisses it. “You’ve really made my day.”

“Anything to help a friend,” she replies, taking his hand in her own and pulling it to her lips. “Are you doing better now that you’ve had a head rub, a good dinner, and a copy of my verbal letter telling some other guy that I don’t hate him?”

“Much better,” Chat assures, sneaking a look at her clock. “I should probably get going. Don’t you have a rule about no boys in the bedroom after a certain time?”

Marinette shrugs. “You’re the exception, remember? You’re here making sure I don’t get akumatized.”

Chat purses his lips and puffs out his cheeks. “I wonder about that. Tonight, I kind of came over to make sure that I didn’t get akumatized.”

“Also an important goal.” Marinette waves away his reservations. “Don’t worry about the no boys in the bedroom rule. If my parents complain, I’ll throw a fit.”

Chat’s head tips to the side. “You throw fits? Somehow I can’t imagine it.”

She smirks. “Ah. You see, that’s the genius of my plan. I don’t throw fits, so if I ever decide to, I don’t think my parents will know how to handle it.”

“I don’t think you’d know how to go about throwing a proper fit,” he snickers.

“Oh? And I suppose you throw plenty of fits, Chat?” she challenges.

Chat does not deign to visibly show that she has hit the nail on the head. “No, but I’m confident in my ability to throw one if I ever needed to. I’ve seen Chloé do it enough. How hard can it be?”

Marinette nods. “There you go. All I have to do is channel my inner Chloé, and I bet I could throw a fit too.” She pauses and revisits that thought. “Do I have an inner Chloé? I don’t want an inner Chloé.”

“You know, Chloé’s not really all that bad, Marinette.” Chat still feels the need to stick up for his oldest friend, despite everything. “I’m not saying everything she does is fine or excusable, but—”

“—Yeah, I know.” Marinette surprises Chat. “I’ve met her parents; I know she’s got real human being issues too. I may not like her, but she’s not evil or anything.”

“Precisely.” Chat grins, really happy that Marinette understands, even if she’s not always able to take the higher ground where Chloé is concerned. “Well, on that note…” He gets to his feet and starts for the ladder to the loft.

“Wait. Let me go grab something for you and Plagg to take home.” She’s halfway to the trapdoor before he can protest.

“Princess, I’m going to get too big for my suit, if you keep feeding me pastries,” he jokes, only he’s not really joking.

She rolls her eyes. “A few extra pounds aren’t going to kill you. Besides, Plagg can hear you, and he’s going to be sulky if you turn down treats on his behalf.”

Chat knows that she’s right.

She comes back up the stairs with a small box of macarons and cake pops. “Here. This won’t do too much damage to your waistline. Plagg, make sure you share with Chat, okay?”

“Thanks, Princess.” Chat takes the box from her with a genuine smile. He lets his hand rest on hers a little longer than strictly necessary. “Plagg and I both really appreciate your friendship.”

“I feel the same.” She returns his smile, and he wants to reach out and tussle her hair.

Instead, he scoops up her hand once more and places a lingering kiss on her knuckle. “It’s kind of nippy out there on the balcony, so I’ll see myself out. Have a nice rest of your evening, Princess. Sweet dreams.”

“Sweet dreams, Chat Noir. I’m glad you dropped by.”

That makes two of them.

 

The next morning, Marinette opens her locker to the dulcet tones of Chat Noir singing Kelly Clarkson’s Catching My Breath for her. She closes her eyes and sways as she listens, appreciating the effort he’s put into this for her.

A lot of the other students stop to listen as well.

At the end, Alya whistles. “Marinette, please tell me your boy intends to go pro. I want him in my iTunes.”

Marinette shrugs. “He said he would consider it. I’m not sure if he was serious, but I’m going to press the issue.”

“Nino!” Alya calls when she spots her boyfriend standing off to one side with Adrien.

Like the day before, Adrien slinks off and Nino approaches.

“What’s up, Al?”

“I need a copy of today’s serenade too, Babe.” She takes the speaker setup from Marinette’s locker and hands it to her boyfriend.

Nino salutes with that goofy grin he reserves for Alya. “Can do.”

Nino and Alya walk ahead while Marinette drops behind, gripping a little case of macarons to her chest and rehearsing her lines one final time.

Nino and Alya go into the classroom ahead of Marinette, and Marinette hangs back to take some deep breaths. “You can do this,” she encourages herself. “You are Ladybug.”

She gulps and marches into the room. She makes eye contact with her target and has to imagine Chat naked to keep from bolting like a coward.

Adrien freezes. Marinette is looking at him either with determination or in anger. He tentatively raises his hand in greeting. “Uh…Hi, Marinette.” It sounds more like a question.

Marinette bites her lips to keep the tears at bay. She can do this. “Just pretend that he’s Chat. You can talk to Chat, can’t you? He’s Chat, and he’s afraid that you hate him and don’t want to be friends anymore. Now, go over there and set him straight.”

She makes it to his desk without tripping and sets the box of macarons down in front of him without crushing them in her nervous, trembling state. “G-Good m-m-morning.” So far so good, even if she’s stuttering. She closes her eyes, pictures Chat in front of her, and tries again. “Good morning.” That sounds more natural. “Look. I’m sorry. I don’t hate you, okay?”

Marinette opens one eye to find Adrien beaming like the sun in front of her.

Her heart panics, her brain explodes, and her lungs forget how to function.

“Thank you, Marinette. You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that.”

She can’t deal with him right now. This hurts, and she cannot deal with looking at him and having him looking at her.

“Excuse me,” she squeaks and flees, tears starting to escape their prison.

Alya gets up to go after her but doesn’t have to go far since she’s stopped just outside the classroom door to dig the heels of her palms into her eyes and take deep breaths. “I’m really proud of you,” Alya whispers and begins to rub Marinette’s shoulders.

Back inside the classroom, Adrien turns to shine his smile on Nino.

“Someone is ecstatic,” Nino observes, still not quite sure what to think of the scene he’s just witnessed.

“That went really well, don’t you think?” Adrien is nearly bouncing in his seat. “She said she doesn’t hate me, and she gave me macarons!”

Nino nods. “Yeah, I saw that.” He’s tempted to add “Kind of a low bar to trip over, don’t you think?”, but Adrien is clearly on cloud nine over this, so who is Nino to ruin this for his best bud?

He’s also itching to ask, “Mec, are you sure you’re not crushing on Marinette?” because Adrien is way too happy about this, and he’s been acting weird about Marinette in general ever since the incident the other night at the restaurant.

Nino doesn’t have the heart to ruin Adrien’s good mood.

What he does end up asking is, “Dude, is that pencil smudge behind your ear?”

The seemingly innocuous question makes Adrien freeze and enter panic mode. “W-What?! Do you think Marinette noticed?!”

The terror on Adrien’s face baffles Nino, but he shrugs and takes it in stride. “Dude, I don’t think she was looking at you all that closely. She kind of had her eyes closed most of the time.”

Adrien nearly collapses in relief. “Oh, thank God. Be right back.” He dashes for the restroom, flying past Marinette and Alya, to have Plagg help him scrub off the remains of Marinette’s graphite from the night before that he must have missed in the shower.

Chapter Text

Later that fine Thursday, Papillon strikes. It starts with a parking ticket and turns into a behemoth made out of cars like something out of Power Rangers or the Transformers movies. The villain has a rocket fist attack that sends a full-size car hurtling towards its target. One of these rocket fists actually comes crashing through the second story window into their classroom, interrupting the English lesson.

Marinette instantly takes charge, making sure everyone safely and calmly evacuates before, instead of heading for the exit herself, going back into the school, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going to see if there’s anyone who needs help. I felt several shots hit the building, so there could be people trapped or injured.”

Adrien’s heart sinks. He’d rather have her with the group where he can see her and know she’s safe. There’s no telling if or when the building could collapse due to all those blows. Adrien felt at least four impacts.

He turns and is about to go after her when Nino catches him by the wrist. “Whoa. Hold on, Mec. It’s dangerous in there. We need to get to shelter.”

“But—”

“—She’ll be okay. Marinette’s tough as nails, Dude,” Nino reminds Adrien. “You, however…your father will lock you up and never let you come to school again if something happens to you, so we’ve got to keep you safe. Besides, Ladybug and Chat Noir will be here soon; they’ll get everything fixed.”

 Adrien mumbles something Nino doesn’t hear over the rampaging supervillain and consents to be led towards safety. Adrien and Nino “accidentally” get separated, and Chat Noir is on the scene in thirty seconds flat.

Ladybug is already on the school roof, getting a feel for the situation.

“Good Afternoon, Milady,” Chat greets as he lands beside her, but his heart isn’t really in it. He’s preoccupied with thoughts of Marinette in a crumbling building.

She doesn’t seem up for small talk either. “Hey, Chat Noir. I’d tease you about your girlfriend, but we don’t have time to mess around today. People could be trapped inside the school.”

“Yeah, and my ‘girlfriend’ is one of them,” Chat mutters. “What are you thinking, Milady?”

“Look there.” She points to the windshield of the car making up the villain’s head. “There’s a ticket stuck under the wiper blade. That’s got to be the akumatized object.”

“Let me guess. I’m on distraction duty while you scale the giant?” Chat winks and prepares to dive into action.

Ladybug gives the nod, and he’s off, jumping down to street level and calling out to the supervillain.

The lumbering car contraption gives chase, shooting out a rocket fist or two for good measure while trying to stomp on Chat who dodges back and forth between his legs.

Meanwhile, Ladybug takes a running leap onto the villain’s shoulder and makes her way towards the head. Unfortunately, it turns ninety degrees and looks right at her before shaking her off.

Ladybug lands hard and is just getting to her feet when the villain shoots a rocket fist right at her. The car speeds along the ground on a collision course. Ladybug fumbles for her yoyo, but she’s not fast enough. She won’t be able to find a suitable target and yoyo to safety in time.

Chat sees the impact coming and extends his baton, launching himself towards her and pushing her out of the way just as the car hits. The last thing Chat sees is Ladybug knocked to the ground out of harm’s way.

Chat’s body goes flying, and Ladybug screams.

Nino and Alya appear out of nowhere and are able to get to Chat’s side before her.

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug shouts, dashing over to where Nino is already checking his pulse.

Ladybug skids to a stop in front of her two friends. “Is he…?” She doesn’t know what goes at the end of that sentence. Chat has never stayed down like this before. She shakes her head. “What are you two…?”

“We lost track of one of our friends and came looking for him,” Nino explains as briefly as possible. “Ladybug, you go after the villain; we’ll stay with Chat Noir.”

Still in a daze, Ladybug nods and heads back into battle, but not before she overhears Nino and Alya whispering.

“Babe, is he okay?”

“He’s not breathing. Should I do CPR?”

“What if his ribs are broken? You could pierce a lung if you did the chest compressions.”

“I’ll just start rescue breathing, then, without the compressions.”

“It’s kind of sexy that you know CPR, Babe.”

Ladybug calls for her Lucky Charm and ends up with a boomerang. She casts a glance around, taking in her surroundings, searching for items to aid her. She spots a precariously placed paint can, a crane with a wrecking ball attached at the end, and a cement truck. This is a little more heavy-handed than her usual plans, but, given the situation, she thinks it may be called for.

She throws the boomerang, knocking over the can of paint which falls onto the controls of the crane, causing the wrecking ball to swing around. First, it hits and knocks over the villain before flying into the cement truck, turning it over and causing it to spill its contents onto the walking tower of cars.

Ladybug scampers over to the villain’s head and grabs the parking ticket, ripping it in half and then purifying the akuma that comes out of it. She catches the boomerang as it returns to her and then throws it in the air, shouting, “Miraculous Ladybug!”

She hopes that’s enough to fix things. If not… She doesn’t want to think about “if not”. She keeps her mind carefully blank as she rushes back to her partner.

Chat is just beginning to stir when she reaches his side. He blinks, and the first words out of his mouth are, oddly enough, “Marinette?”

Ladybug, Alya, and Nino blink in unison.

He looks pointedly at Nino and Alya. “You two are her friends, right? Did you see if she made it out of the school safely?”

“Yeah,” Nino readily replies, earning an odd look from Alya. “I saw her come out when we doubled back looking for another friend of ours.”

Alya’s brow creases. “I didn’t. You sure, Babe?”

Nino rolls his eyes. “I don’t think I would mistake someone else for Marinette, Al. She’s kind of distinctive. I saw her come out half-carrying one of the other students. Looked like she had dug him out of a pile of rubble or something.”

“That’s Marinette all right,” Chat chuckles and then stops because it hurts his ribs.

“You okay, Dude?” Nino hesitates to ask.

Chat nods. “Just got the wind knocked out of me. Thanks.” He tries to push himself up to seated and succeeds with a little difficulty. “Well, at least now I know what it actually feels like to be runover by a car. I can check that one off my list.” He gives them all a sheepish smile, trying to downplay the ordeal.

Then he notices Ladybug standing awkwardly to the side, staring at him like she’s about to strangle him or burst into tears. It looks like she hasn’t decided which just yet.

“Everything okay, Milady?” He tries to stand but requires Nino’s help.

“You idiot,” she whispers. “What were you thinking?”

Chat shrugs, regaining his balance and standing on his own. “I wasn’t really thinking. I saw you in danger and just…reacted.”

She bites her lip, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. “It’s not that I’m not grateful for you always saving me.” She struggles to keep her voice steady. “I just wish you would think a little more, Chat Noir. What would I do if something happened to you?”

This is the calm before the storm. He can tell that she’s this close to blowing up at him. “Sorry, Milady,” he responds in an attempt to keep her on the right side of calm. “I’ll try to play it safer in the future, but I will always protect you.”

She looks like she’s about to scream or hit him.

Thankfully, Nino intervenes. “Ladybug, your earrings are beeping.”

She bits her tongue to hold in her protests and nods. “Chat Noir, are you going to be able to get home okay?”

“Don’t worry, Milady. I’ll be fine,” he promises with a wink.

She hesitates a moment longer until her final beep sounds. “I’m holding you to that, Chat Noir,” she threatens and yoyos off to safely detransform.

Chat waits until she’s out of sight before nearly collapsing, leaning heavily on his staff for support.

“Whoa!” Nino and Alya put their hands up in tandem to catch him if need be.

“Sorry. I’m all right,” he rushes to assure them. “It’s just taking a little longer than usual for Ladybug’s magic to work. I’m going to go take a catnap somewhere safe, and then I’ll make my way home.”

He extends his baton and escapes before either Alya or Nino can argue. He pole-vaults his way over the school and lands on Marinette’s balcony, collapsing onto her lawn chair and curling up for a good half hour before his body stops aching and he feels strong enough to get home.

 

Adrien walks into the Agreste mansion an hour and a half after the akuma attack to find Nathalie pacing the foyer. Her normally pristine appearance is now in a disheveled state, and her hair has fallen out of its bun. Her aloof façade is hanging off of her in tatters, and he’s actually able to see that she has real, human emotions.

When she sees him, she pounces. “Adrien! Oh, thank God! Why haven’t you been answering your phone?!”

Adrien’s eyes widen as she marches over to him, takes him by the shoulders, and begins to inspect him for damage.

“I…My phone is broken,” he offers his feeble excuse. “It was an accident, but someone bumped into me, and I dropped it, and it got stepped on this morning before the akuma attack, so it didn’t get fixed when Ladybug restored everything else. I didn’t think you’d need to get a hold of me. I’m sorry.”

She visibly takes a deep breath, internally stepping back. She releases her grip on his shoulders and puts her veneer of professionalism back on. “Are you okay? I saw the news coverage of the attack today, and it looked like the villain shot cars through your school building.”

Adrien cringes. “Yeah. That happened, but, I mean, I’m all right. Sorry, Nathalie. Is my father worried?”

She takes a quick look around to make sure that Gabriel isn’t within earshot. “He would be if I hadn’t told him that I had been in contact with you and that you were fine.”

Adrien nods knowingly. “Thanks, Nathalie. Sorry again.”

She looks at him hard. “May I talk to you about something?”

That sounds ominous.

Adrien shrugs. “Uh, sure. I guess. What is it?”

“Let’s go to your room, if that’s all right,” she suggests and begins to lead the way.

This has Adrien suspicious. His room is secure while still offering him the most privacy of any of the rooms in the mansion. This signals that Nathalie doesn’t want to take the chance of being overheard.

They head to Adrien’s room, and Nathalie shuts the door behind them. She goes over to the couch, resting her hands on the back of it and looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows.

“Did you happen to see the akuma fight today? Perhaps from the news broadcast or your friend’s blog?” She gets straight to the point, only Adrien isn’t quite sure what that point is.

“Yeah. Against the giant Transformers guy. It…really looked like a tough fight,” he hedges. “Why do you ask?”

“You saw what Chat Noir did? Jumping into harm’s way to take a blow intended for Ladybug?” She takes a deep breath.

“Yes?”

“That. Was incredibly dangerous. What if Ladybug couldn’t defeat the villain? What if Chat Noir died? I know he doesn’t always think things through before acting, but he can’t keep putting himself in the path of danger like this.” She does her best to keep her voice steady and even, but it still shakes.

Adrien frowns. “Nathalie, it’s Chat Noir’s job to take the hits for Ladybug. That’s why he’s there. I don’t think he’s going to stop anytime soon just because it’s risky. Chat Noir believes in Ladybug…and he loves her. He’s happy to be her shield, even if it comes with risks.”

Nathalie turns, and her eyes bore through him. “Adrien, Chat Noir’s father would be devasted if something ever happened to him.”

Ah. She knows. Somehow this only annoys Adrien.

He rolls his eyes. “Nathalie, I’m sure that Chat Noir’s father is too busy trying to take over the world to notice.”

Nathalie glares at him. “Adrien, you know that’s not true.”

“Do I?” he challenges, putting his hands on his hips and stretching up to his full height. He’s almost as tall as she is. “I’m pretty sure it would take Chat Noir’s father a few days to realize that his son was gone if Chat Noir snuck out a window and ran away. Chat Noir could probably hire a body double to pretend to be Chat Noir in his day to day life, and Chat Noir’s father wouldn’t notice for maybe a month. I mean, it’s not like Chat Noir’s father eats meals with him or goes out of his way to spend time with him with any kind of regularity. How long do you think it would take Chat Noir’s father to notice, Nathalie?” Adrien snorts sarcastically.

If she wants to get on his case about his wellbeing all of the sudden, fine. Two can play at that game.

Only the look she gives him is so sad and contrite. “Oh, Adrien…all right. If you can’t believe that Chat Noir’s father would be upset if something happened to him, can you at least believe that Chat Noir’s father’s secretary would care? She might not always show it, but she worries about him. She worries when she sees the footage on the news of him getting batted about by supervillains. She frets when she finds his room empty. She’s afraid that one day he’s going to walk out the front door and never come back because something is going to happen to him and Ladybug won’t be able to fix it. She was out of her mind with worry today.”

Adrien finds himself speechless at her earnest confession.

“R-Really?” he stammers.

She lets out a sigh of exasperation. “Yes! Despite my name, I’m not really heartless! I haven’t spent the past decade helping to raise you only to lose you like I thought I did today!”

Adrien closes the distance between them in seconds, enveloping her in a hug that’s completely inappropriate for an employee and her boss’s son. Adrien doesn’t care. “I’m really sorry, Nathalie.”

After she gets over the initial shock, Nathalie rests her head against his and lets her arms encircle him. “I am too,” she whispers. “Especially because I know you’re not going to change.”

There’s a knock at Adrien’s door, and the two spring apart.

“C-Come in?” Adrien calls.

Gabriel opens the door and peeks inside with a frown.

“Father,” Adrien gasps, nearly bowled over by the surprise. “Is something wrong?”

“Adrien, Nathalie,” Gabriel greets perfunctorily. “I was just checking in.” He fixes Nathalie with a questioning gaze. “Is everything all right, Nathalie? You’ve seemed upset today.”

“Um, no. I’m sorry.” She fidgets like Adrien’s never seen before, fiddling with her hair. Now he knows why she normally keeps it up in a bun. “You see, Adrien’s phone was unfortunately broken this morning, so it’s been a little difficult to keep track of him. With the akuma attack, it was a bit stressful since he had to use a variety of friends’ phones to keep in contact with me. We were just discussing alternate plans, should something like this happen again in the future.”

Gabriel nods, easily swallowing the lie. “All right then. If that’s all it is, carry on.” He pauses, hesitates, and then adds. “By the way, Nathalie, I like what you’ve done with your hair today.”

Gabriel does not wait for a response.

The door shuts, and Adrien frowns at Nathalie. “Well. I’m jealous.”

Nathalie’s eyebrow quirks at him. “Of me? Why ever would you say that?”

“Oh, I’m sure I don’t know,” Adrien snorts. “Here I am always in emotional turmoil over something or another, and he never so much as asks how my day went. Meanwhile, you over here, all you have to do to get his attention is stress out about whether I’m passed out in a gutter somewhere, and he’s all like, ‘Oh, my precious Nathalie, you seem upset today. Are you okay, my love?’ I don’t know, Nathalie. Why would that make me jealous?”

“Because you’re reading into it things that are not there,” Nathalie hisses, cheeks going as red as the streak in her hair.

Adrien shoots her a bland look. “Nathalie, I have eyes. I may not have much experience with love, but I’m not oblivious. You two need to hurry up and get married already so I can have a little sister before I have to leave for university.”

Nathalie looks away and takes a deep breath, running her fingers through her hair in what is obviously a nervous tic. “Adrien, this is not an appropriate topic.”

“Like anything else we were talking about was?” Adrien sighs but gives up for the moment. “Does Father ignore me when I’m upset on purpose?”

Nathalie bites her lip and considers whether this is better or worse than their previous line of conversation. “…I believe he can tune certain people out,” she confesses. “He didn’t the first month or so, but…he might have mentioned that you wore him out with your mood swings. Adrien, he doesn’t know how to interact with you or comfort you when you’re upset. It was distressing for him.”

“So he decided it would be better to let me deal with it on my own?” Adrien sighs.

Nathalie winces. She doesn’t have a good answer for him. She’s well aware that her charge has a less than ideal family life, but she has no way to improve it. Nothing she can say will make things better, so she changes subjects slightly. “How long have you known about your father?”

Adrien shrugs, letting the topic slide away from him. “Two and a half, maybe three years?”

Nathalie stares at him in shock. “And you haven’t told anyone?”

Adrien shakes his head. “Why would I?”

She purses her lips, trying to understand. “I thought…why wouldn’t you tell Ladybug?”

“Selfish reasons.” He looks away. “Nathalie, I know that it’s not world domination; this has something to do with my mom, right?”

“Yes,” she whispers. “Is that why you haven’t told anyone?”

Adrien gives a start. “No. Not at all. My mom’s dead or gone and doesn’t want to be found. I want you and my father to get married and give me some little sisters and brothers. I haven’t told anyone because, one, I don’t want you and Father to go to jail or anything like that. Two, I don’t want people to know that my father’s the one who’s been terrorizing Paris the past four years. Three…if Papillon is defeated, what use is there for Chat Noir anymore? I don’t think I could survive without Chat…. Not to mention never seeing Ladybug again…. That would kill me.”

Nathalie nods in understanding.

“…Father doesn’t know anything about Chat Noir, does he?” Adrien is almost ninety-eight percent certain, but some confirmation would be nice.

Nathalie shakes her head slowly. “I’m not telling him. I firmly intend to stay out of it.”

“So we should probably go back to pretending that neither of us knows anything?” Adrien suggests.

“Yes, but, before we do, do you mind me asking how you found out?” Nathalie inquires.

Adrien tips his head to the side. “There were a lot of little things, but that was back towards the beginning. The main thing was Papillon’s unwillingness to akumatize me. I ignored it at first, but after so many years, it was the only logical explanation left. After all, I’m probably the most akumatizable person in Paris.”

There are many things Nathalie could say, but instead she steps forward and gives Adrien a hesitant pat on the shoulder. “Did you see that I refilled your minifridge with cheese the other day?”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks, Nathalie.” Adrien is a little confused as to why this is coming up now.

As she makes her way to the door, she adds, “Just let me know when you’re running low. I know how much kwamis can eat for being so little.”

Adrien’s eyes widen. “What does Duusu eat?”

Nathalie grimaces. “Pistachios. The shells get everywhere…. You’re sure you’re okay? No signs of internal bleeding? I feel like I should have you examined.”

Adrien shakes his head and smiles. “Nah. I’m a little sore, but I’m fine. Thank you, Nathalie…for a lot of things.”

She gives a nod as well as a rare glimmer of a smile, and then she’s gone.

 

Even though he took a half-hour nap on her balcony as Chat and saw her at school as Adrien, he feels like he hasn’t gotten enough of Marinette’s company for the day. He finds her waiting up on her balcony with only a blanket to ward off the chill night air.

Chat has no sooner landed than he is enveloped in Marinette’s arms. She hits him a bit like the car from earlier that day and almost knocks him over.

“Minou!” she gasps, and the words start spilling out of her mouth. “Oh my God, Chat! Are you all right? I saw the footage of today’s battle!” Suddenly she remembers and jumps back. “Oh my gosh! Did I hurt you?! Are you okay? I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”

“—Princess!” he cuts her off. “Settle down. I’m fine.” He spreads his arms and does a practiced model’s turn. “See? Everything present and accounted for. Ladybug fixed everything. I’m okay.”

Out of nowhere, Marinette’s mood swings in the other direction, and she goes from being worried to angry. She smacks him on the arm and snaps, “You idiot! What were you thinking jumping in front of that car like that?!”

This is what Chat was afraid would happen with Ladybug after the battle. If she hadn’t had to go before she detransformed, Chat imagines that this is the kind of explosion he would have gotten from Ladybug.

“Marinette,” he calls softly, resting a hand on her shoulder and trying to keep his voice soothing. “It’s my job to protect Ladybug so that she can save Paris.”

“I hate her,” Marinette seethes with cold fury. “I hate what she does to you. You lose your head completely and you do stupid things like taking a hit from Chronogirl or being struck by Dislocoeur’s arrow or that time with the kissing zombies or—”

“—Marinette, that’s not Ladybug’s fault,” Chat tries to interrupt her before she can get any more upset. “Don’t hate her for it.”

“Chat, as your friend, I reserve the right to hate her guts!” Marinette snaps, jabbing him in the shoulder. “Stop loving her! How can you keep loving her with the way she treats you?! She stomps all over your feelings, uses you like a tool in battle—don’t interrupt me, Chat. I’ve seen footage of her actually throwing you at an enemy. I hate her.”

“Marinette, I can’t just—”

“—Try harder!” she shouts, tears beginning to slip down her cheeks. “Because what if next time Ladybug can’t fix everything? What if you take the hit for her and actually die, Chat? What then?”

“Ma—”

“—I thought you were dead!” she gasps, letting the sobs come out. “When I saw you get hit and then just lying there so still, I thought you were dead. Then Nino and Alya were saying how you weren’t breathing, and I was terrified, Chat! I thought I had lost you! What am I supposed to do if you’re not okay the next time you take the blow for that stupid, selfish, ungrateful partner of yours?!”

He raises his hands in a placating manner and speaks softly, like he’s trying to pacify a wild animal. “Marinette, I’m really touched that you care so much about me, but I need you to calm down now before you end up painting a target on your back for Papillon, okay? Can you do that?”

“I am calm!” she growls through tears.

She is so not calm.

“You’re such an idiot, Chat Noir!”

“Yes, I am a huge idiot, and I’m sorry, Princess. Could you please sit down so we can talk about this?” he tries.

“No!” she shouts. Her hands keep clenching and unclenching like they’re itching for something to grab and throw. “I don’t want to sit down and talk about this! I want to scream at you and slap some sense into you!”

“Fine.” Chat takes a deep breath and marches straight at her, sweeping her off her feet.

Marinette gives a little yelp as he carries her over to the deckchair and sits down with her on his lap.

He pulls her into his chest with one hand while the other drapes her forgotten blanket around them.

“There,” he announces. “Now we can be warm while you scream at me.”

Marinette is silent.

Tears continue to spill down her cheeks, but she is too stunned at the fact that she is now practically lying on his chest to put up much of a fight.

“Aren’t you going to hit me?” he prompts, studying her face.

All of her righteous fury crumples into soft sobs. She wraps her arms around him and tucks her head under his chin.

He can feel her trembling and the cold wet of her tears against his neck.

“Shh,” he coos, running a hand up and down her back. “It’s okay. I’m all right, Princess.”

“I thought you were dead,” she mumbles into his collar. “I was so scared, Chat.”

“I’m sorry for putting you through that,” he whispers into her hair. He had never stopped to think before about how the risks he took as Chat Noir could affect the people who cared about him. He had never known that there were people who knew to care for Chat Noir.

“It…made me realize how important you are,” Marinette admits. “I mean, I know we haven’t been friends long, and I’ve always thought you were important; I just never realized how important you were to me.” She looks up at him as if asking for permission to care about him.

He takes his thumb and gently wipes at her tears. “Thank you.”

“Chat, I don’t ever want to find out what it’s like to lose someone.” She looks him straight in the eye and begs, “Please, never do that to me again.”

He tugs her back in so that her head is resting on his chest once more. “I’m sorry. I can’t promise you that. Even if I weren’t in love with her, protecting Ladybug so that she can do her job is part of my job. I’ll tell you what. I can promise you that, in the future, I’ll try to stop and think a bit before doing something dangerous like that. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have a whole lot of time to make these decisions, but…I’ll try to value my own life a little more…and I’ll keep working on trying to get over Ladybug. I don’t really want to be in love with her anymore either. How does that sound?”

He can feel her nodding against his suit. “You’re irreplaceable, Chat. Even if something happens to you and they pick a new Chat Noir, that person wouldn’t be able to fill your place. You should stop acting like you’re an expendable part only there to do one job.”

“If something did happen to me, I’d want you to be the next Chat Noir,” he replies in an undertone.

She gives a start. “What?” She sneaks a peek up at him. “Me?”

“I can’t think of anyone who would be better.” He shrugs. “If anything ever happened to Ladybug and I got the chance to pick someone to give a miraculous to, you’re at the top of my short list.”

“You’re not serious,” she snorts, snuggling into his chest. “I don’t think I’m miraculous material.”

I do,” he stresses. “I can’t think of anyone more qualified. You’re strong, brave, kind, trustworthy… Marinette, I saw you run back into the school today to help anyone who might have been hurt or trapped. I heard you dug someone out of a pile of rubble.”

She’d been Ladybug by that point, but there’s no way Marinette can correct him.

“You’re a superhero even without a suit; imagine what you could do with magic powers,” he tempts.

Marinette’s face glows in the dark, and she’s pretty sure he can feel the heat coming off of her through his suit. “What miraculous would you give me?” she wonders, unable to help her morbid sense of curiosity. “The rabbit? The sheep?”

He snickers. “Nothing quite so docile. You’re more of a dragon or a tiger…something with teeth and claws that nobody dares to mess with.”

“Hm,” she mumbles, eyes slowly drifting closed. “We could be cat-themed superheroes together.”

“That would rock. What would your name be?” He’s actually becoming kind of fond of this fantasy where Ladybug goes on vacation and he fights beside Marinette instead.

“Bangle,” she giggles sleepily. “Like ‘Bengal Tiger’.” After a minute of thought, she adds, “My costume would look kind of like Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin, and I’d fight with brass knuckles and throwing daggers.”

Chat would like to see that.

“I don’t want anything to happen to Ladybug, though,” Marinette confesses. She doesn’t want anything to happen to Tikki.

“Yeah,” Chat sighs, letting go of his thoughts of Marinette in her Jasmine costume, kicking supervillain butt. “I may have to mention the idea to Ladybug, though, so she can keep you in mind the next time we need backup.”

Marinette gives a thoughtful hum.

“You falling asleep on me?” He tries to angle his head to get a look at her face, but it’s impossible with her curled up like she is.

“I’m worn out,” she mumbles. “Super stressful day.”

“I concur.” He rests his head against hers. “Why don’t you head down to your room and go to sleep, Princess?”

She shakes her head almost infinitesimally. “I want to stay with you a little longer.” Her arms tighten around his torso. “Listen to your heartbeat so I know you’re not dead. Come down with me.”

The aforementioned heartbeat picks up the pace. “Princess, I know I’m the exception to the no boys in the bedroom after hours rule, but I don’t think I’m the exception to the no boys in the bed rule. Your father will flatten me with a bread peel first and ask questions later.”

“Shhh. You’ll wake the hamsters,” she fusses, wiggling until she’s more between his legs lying on her stomach than sitting on his lap.

Marinette Dupain-Cheng has checked out.

“Okay, but only for fifteen minutes,” Chat warns her unconscious form. “I’m waking you up in fifteen minutes, Princess, so you can get into a proper bed.”

He sighs and looks up at the stars as he begins to stroke her back once more.

She’s so soft and warm. This is really nice. Awkward, but nice.

Chat is jolted awake sometime later when the skylight opens and Sabine calls out for her daughter. There is an awkward silence as Sabine registers Marinette curled up comfortably, asleep in Chat’s arms.

“Good Evening, Madame Dupain-Cheng. This is not what it looks like.”

The unconscious Marinette does not help matters by nuzzling his neck.

Sabine nods. “She keeps telling me that, but she was up here for hours waiting for you in case you dropped by. She was a wreck, and I can understand why; I saw the footage of today’s attack.”

Chat nods shamefacedly. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to worry her.”

Sabine shakes her head. “What were you supposed to do? Let Ladybug get hit? I may be a little biased, but I’m glad that you take such good care of your partner, Chat Noir. Ladybug protects us, and you protect Ladybug. It’s reassuring to know that someone is looking out for her. Marinette will have to learn to live with the worry.”

Chat pauses to digest this. It’s oddly reassuring to have someone on his side, not yelling at him for being an idiot.

Marinette readjusts, inadvertently putting pressure somewhere uncomfortable for Chat.

He breaths in sharply.

Sabine grimaces. “She’s a bit of a snuggler. Did she cry herself out? I heard her shouting at you earlier.”

Chat winces. He’s pretty sure that everyone inside the ring road heard Marinette shouting at him. “More or less. There was screaming and crying. I was trying to get her to calm down so she didn’t get akumatized, and I may have had to resort to extreme measures to get her to sit…then we were talking and kind of fell asleep. I think she’s just mentally and emotionally exhausted from everything that’s been going on lately.”

Sabine nods knowingly. “She may be strong, but she’s only seventeen. One girl can only take so much. I’m really grateful that you’ve been there for her, Chat Noir.”

“She’s been there for me too,” Chat confesses. He purses his lips and hesitates before asking, “Is it really okay for me to be here? I mean, for me to visit her like this?”

Sabine considers her answer but not for long. “I trust you two. She’s old enough to make her own decisions if you two decide you want to be something more than just friends. For now, I think you’re good for her. I hope that Marinette is good for you too.”

Chat looks away, down into Marinette’s hair and replies, “She really is.”

Sabine gives a decisive nod. “That’s good to hear…. Well. Since it’s past ten and Marinette seems to be dead to the world, would you mind helping me get her down into bed?”

Chat blushes but agrees. “Uh…sure. If you can pull her covers down, I can get her in through the skylight.”

Sabine prepares the bed down below while Chat lifts Marinette, carrying her back into her room. She’s a lot heavier while unconscious.

He tries to set her down, but she clings, putting him in an awkward position. “Come on, Princess,” he coaxes. “Let go. It’s time to go to bed, and I can’t come with you.”

She grumbles something that sounds like “stupid cat”, “don’t have nine lives”, “macarons”, and “Adrien”.

He wonders what kind of dream she’s having or if she’s only half asleep. Could it be that she’s seeing a mangled mashup of today’s events?

He thinks he hears “I still love you, even if you’re only in love with her”, and it irks him. Why does she have to dream about that slimewad of all people?

“See you tomorrow, Princess,” he whispers once he and Sabine have successfully managed to untangle Chat from Marinette’s grip. “Good night, Madame Dupain-Cheng.”

Chat makes his way home, brainstorming ways to make Marinette’s crush pay as well as methods of how he can extract the identity of this crush from one of his friends.

Chapter Text

Adrien collapses into bed with a lead-laced sigh.

“You all right, Kid?” Plagg nudges his chosen’s shoulder. This is as close as he’s going to get to mentioning how worried he was. “That villain today really did a number on you.”

Adrien hums thoughtfully, rolling over onto his other side. “Yeah. I can’t say that would rank as one of my favourite battles. I’m fine now, though…just exhausted.”

Plagg pats Adrien’s arm and nods. “Well, just go to sleep, Kid…and good job today,” he adds in a whisper.

“Thanks,” Adrien mumbles, closing his eyes with a smile.

He knows that this is Plagg’s way of telling Adrien that he cares.

Fifteen minutes later, Adrien still can’t seem to fall asleep. He rolls back over to his right side for a while before settling onto his back. He sighs.

“Plagg, are you still up?”

“No,” Plagg groans. “What’s wrong? I thought you said you were exhausted.”

“I am, but I’m having trouble getting my brain to turn off.”

Plagg lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Let me guess. Is that trouble’s name ‘Marinette’ by any chance?”

Adrien grabs his extra pillow and hides his face in it. “Yes?” he mumbles in embarrassment. “I’ve never slept like that with anyone before. I mean, I guess ‘sleep with’ isn’t really—‘sleep with someone in my arms like that’?—But she was so soft and warm, and her hair feels like cashmere! It was really nice holding her and stroking her back and her hair and—she smells like a bakery, Plagg! Is that weird that I was smelling her? I mean, it was kind of hard not to with her so close and her hair in my face, and…I’ve never held someone like that before. It was really…amazing. I’d kind of like to do that again. Is that weird?”

Adrien lowers the pillow from his face to peek at Plagg who is giving him the exact deadpan expression that Adrien expected.

“Teenagers,” Plagg sighs. “If this is how you’re acting after snuggling with a girl, you’re going to be insufferable when you finally mate with her.”

“Plagg!” Adrien squeaks, his entire body heating up and turning as red as a lobster. “It’s not like that…even if my body does have a mind of its own,” he begrudgingly admits. “We’re just friends.”

Plagg nods, curling back up on the pillow next to Adrien’s. “Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that, Kid.”

“It’s true,” Adrien protests. “Even if my body does react to her, there’s nothing sexual about it. I just like snuggling with her…. You know, in a companionable way. Friends do that, don’t they?”

Plagg continues to nod in a manner that suggests that he believes Adrien is fooling only himself. “Sure, Kid. Maybe during nap time as toddlers, but I think you’ve passed the age of platonic snuggling with the opposite sex.”

Adrien bites his lip and frowns. “Says who? That’s a stupid rule. Alya and Nino snuggle all the time.”

The words are no sooner out of his mouth than he realizes he’s not really helping his argument.

“Yes, and I’m pretty sure they’re mates,” Plagg replies flatly.

“No comment. Rose and Juleka snuggle,” Adrien pouts.

“Also mates—and both female.” Plagg gives a dismissive eye roll.

Adrien stares. “Wait. Really? I thought they were just close friends.”

Plagg snorts. “Sometimes it worries me how unobservant you are. Do you want me to tell you who else in your year is mating with whom?”

“No. I’m good,” Adrien insists.

He’s a little disturbed. He didn’t think Nino and Alya were sleeping together. He would have thought Nino would have said something…though Adrien was kind of oblivious to the fact that his best friend had a girlfriend for nearly two months, so…but maybe Plagg just means “couple” when he says “mates”. Adrien’s kind of afraid to ask.

Rose and Juleka is kind of a shock. Juleka had mentioned once that she liked girls, but…how long have she and Rose been going out? And there are other kids in his year sleeping with one another? When the hell did that happen? Just how out of touch is Adrien with his school’s social dynamics?

“Marinette hasn’t…mated…with anyone…has she?” It slips out of his mouth before he can pounce on it and hold it down.

Plagg smirks. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Adrien buries his face in his pillow once again to keep Plagg from seeing just how red it’s become. “I don’t know why I talk to you. You’re not my friend, and you purposely set out to embarrass me and make me feel bad about myself.”

Plagg could say many things: “Because you have no one else.” and “I’m sorry.” are among them.

There’s a beat-too-long silence before he answers, “No, Kid. She could have. She could have had any number of guys, but she was too caught up in that one guy to give her other suitors the time of day. Feel better?”

“Worse,” Adrien moans, tossing the pillow to the side. “Since you know so much, can you tell me who this jerk I’ve been hearing so much about is? I’d really like to challenge him to a duel or something.”

Plagg snickers, clearly amused at Adrien’s plight. “I could tell you, but I don’t think I will. You wouldn’t like the answer. For what it’s worth, he’s not a jerk, and you’d lose in a fight against him.”

Adrien’s jaw drops, and he struggles with a series of emotions: incredulity that his kwami could be so cruel, continued disbelief that people keep defending this primordial scum, hurt that his kwami doesn’t think he can win in a fistfight for a friend’s honor, anger that Plagg is holding out on him, and frustration that, yet again, Adrien doesn’t seem to be good enough.

Chat Noir could win a fistfight for Marinette.

“Is it Kim?” Adrien snaps. “Is that why you don’t think I could beat him up?”

Plagg shakes his head. “My meaning was more philosophical than literal.”

Adrien is constantly losing the fight against himself.

“Is it someone in my class?” Adrien tries, knowing it won’t get him anywhere.

Plagg shakes his head more in disapproval than disagreement. “We should probably go back to our discussion of platonic snuggling. I’m not telling you, Kid.”

Adrien studies the ancient being, weighing his options. “You know, Plagg, I bet there are any number of extremely expensive cheeses that you’ve never had the opportunity to try before. I bet we can make some kind of deal.”

Plagg smiles at Adrien’s cute attempts at bribery. “Not this time, Kid.”

Adrien blinks. “Who are you, and what have you done with Plagg? Did you seriously just turn down expensive cheese?”

Plagg shrugs. “Some things are more important.”

Adrien’s brow scrunches up in confusion. “Now I know you’re sick. What could be more important than cheese?”

Plagg shrugs mysteriously.

Adrien is more important than cheese, and he would be a mess if he knew the identity of Marinette’s crush. Better for Plagg to keep his mouth shut and let Marinette and Chat Noir fall in love, making the crush identity issue moot.

“Here,” Plagg offers. “Let me help you with your vain attempts to convince me that your snuggling with Marinette earlier was purely platonic: Marinette and journalist-girl snuggle. They’re both female, though.”

With a groan of defeat, Adrien kicks off the covers. “Fine. Snuggling with her was blurring the ‘just friends’ line. Are you happy? Is it so wrong for me to enjoy a little human contact from time to time? I’m actually a really tactile person, so I kind of struggle with the fact that no one ever touches me, okay?” Adrien snaps, tears beginning to break free and spill down his cheeks. 

“Why can’t it just be okay for Marinette and me to snuggle or hold hands or for her to give me a head rub without it having to be romantic? Why do you have to make me feel ashamed about it?” Adrien demands with a growl.

Plagg tenses, realizing that he’s miscalculated and that they’ve somehow ended up in dangerous territory where Adrien’s insecurities about his parents live.

“Sorry, Kid,” Plagg offers in a neutral tone, trying to deescalate the situation before the real “monsters” wake up.

Adrien is tricky. He can be perfectly fine one minute, and then, the next, the littlest thing can set him off. His father skipping a meal that they were supposed to have together brings on a three-day slump in which Adrien wallows in the belief that he’s not important to his father. 

A reprimand concerning a test score or a piano performance that’s anything less than perfect reaffirms Adrien’s belief that he’s not good enough and results in unnecessary levels of moping.

Adrien is not allowed to go on an outing with friends, and it turns into a day-long pity party about how lonely Adrien is.

Plagg will be the first to admit that the kid has legitimate complaints, but the years of neglect and emotional abuse have left Adrien with no resilience. When something bad happens, it’s a catastrophe. Adrien’s emotional reactions are often extreme, and no one has ever taught him self-soothing or any kind of coping mechanism.

If Plagg doesn’t get a handle on the situation and Adrien hits the breaking point, it could go one of three ways.

Least likely, Adrien gets up and breaks something. This has only happened a handful of times over the years, but Plagg dreads this outcome most. There are usually jagged shards leftover after the breaking is accomplished, and Adrien often nicks his fingers as he cleans up and hides the evidence. Adrien always stares at the sharp pieces with an intensity that makes Plagg uncomfortable. He has no idea what Adrien is thinking and feeling, whether it’s remorse at having “screwed up” yet again, hurt at having no one to confide in, or something darker and destructive. Plagg can’t be sure, and he worries that accidental cuts on fingers could become intentional harm elsewhere.

The second, more popular option is that Adrien locks himself in the bathroom, turns the shower on to help drown out the sound, and sobs and screams into a pillow. Once he’s cried and screamed himself out, he clams up and carries on like an emotionless robot for days.

The most likely outcome is Adrien forcing a transformation and going out to run himself into the ground until he’s too worn out to think or feel. Plagg worries that suppressing emotions like this for four years now is taking a toll on Adrien and doing more damage than good. It may feel like escape now, but Plagg knows that it will only come back to bite Adrien in the long run.

Plagg hopes that in the future there will be a fourth option: visit Marinette. Unfortunately, at this late hour, after the stressful day that they both had, that’s not presently on the table.

“I was just giving you a hard time. I didn’t mean to upset you,” Plagg explains, holding his breath.

“Well…you did upset me,” Adrien mumbles, wiping at the tears still slowly processing down his cheeks like a receivingmom line of mourners.

“And I’m sorry.” Plagg throws his usual scruples out the window and apologizes. 

Normally, he can act callous, self-centered, and unsympathetic, and Adrien will shrug it off. Right now, however, Adrien requires a gentler approach. Plagg likes this chosen; he doesn’t want to have to find another one anytime soon, and if that means letting go of his pride from time to time and apologizing, so be it.

“If you and Marinette both agree that you can platonically snuggle, that’s fine. I’ll try not to make a big deal out of it. Okay?”

Adrien considers this before tentatively agreeing. “…Okay…. Thanks, Plagg.”

Silence descends upon them as Adrien wipes away the last of his tears and resettles under the covers.

Plagg lets the silence reign a beat longer before he whispers, “You doing okay, Kid?”

Adrien nods, making a noncommittal noise. “Just thinking again…. My mother and I used to snuggle when I was little. I used to sit on her lap, and she’d fold her arms around me and wrap us up in a blanket and read me stories. Snuggling with Marinette today kind of reminded me of that. It felt safe and warm in a way that was more than just physical heat. I don’t know. Like I keep saying, there was nothing sexual about snuggling with Marinette, but…somehow, I think Freud would have a field day with me and my ‘mommy issues’.”

Adrien chuckles self-deprecatingly, but Plagg does not respond. This is Adrien joking about something that truly hurts him. Plagg has learned to identify this the hard way.

At the beginning of their partnership, Plagg once joked about Adrien’s “mommy issues” and spent the next week worried that his charge was going to try jumping off the Tour Montparnasse without his suit on again (this time with no Ladybug to catch him).

Plagg does not joke about Adrien’s mother.

Eventually, Adrien fills the soundless void on his own, continuing, “Today with Marinette, it made me realize that I don’t experience that kind of warmth often…or maybe at all. I can count the number of times my father has hugged me over the past four years on one hand. I…miss Marinette’s warmth, the reassuring weight of her against me…. It’s like, I know I’m fine temperature-wise, but I feel like I can’t get warm enough without her…. I’m cold…. I feel like something’s missing.”

He grabs the extra pillow and hugs it to his chest, as if trying to make up for Marinette’s absence.

“…I feel like that about Tikki,” Plagg confesses, hit by a rare bout of romantic nostalgia.

Adrien stares, utterly shocked. “Wait. You do? For Ladybug’s kwami?”

Plagg acts so aloof all the time that Adrien sometimes wonders how much emotion Plagg is actually capable of.

Plagg shrugs. “Of course I do; Tikki is my other half. Sure, we steal moments here and there, but it’s never enough, and not even cheese can fill that kind of void. Believe it or not, I can sometimes understand what you’re going through, Kid.”

Adrien quietly reflects on this revelation for almost a full minute. “…Now I feel kind of stupid and naïve.”

“Why’s that?” Plagg quirks an eyebrow.

“Because you’re missing your soulmate while I’m over here whining about how I’m emotionally starved of physical contact with others. Somehow those two things don’t feel equal,” Adrien mutters.

“How do you know Marinette’s not your soulmate?” Plagg challenges, trying to implant the idea in Adrien’s mind.

“Plagg,” Adrien groans. “How many times do I have to tell you that—”

“—Not all soulmates have to be romantic, you know,” Plagg informs. “We’ve had Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous holders throughout the ages that have been platonic soulmates. Maybe Marinette is yours. That would explain why you’re so drawn to her.”

Adrien begins to squirm. “I don’t know, Plagg. I don’t really understand what’s going on with me. I mean, this is all happening kind of suddenly, isn’t it? We’ve only been hanging out the past four days.”

“I hesitate to remind you that you knew Ladybug for approximately one hour before you decided you were in love with her. Deciding that Marinette is your platonic soulmate after four days feels far more reasonable to me,” Plagg snickers.

“I don’t think it would sound very reasonable to Marinette,” Adrien mutters, giving his pillow a little squeeze. (It doesn’t feel the same.)

“Based on how Marinette has reacted to all of the nonsense and all of my shenanigans the past week, how do you really think she would react if you told her you thought that you two might be platonic soulmates?” Plagg challenges.

Adrien opens his mouth to respond, but Plagg stops him.

“—No. I want you to really think about it. How did she react when you opened up to her about your home life and when you were depressed about thinking she hated Adrien and when I told her I wanted her to be your mate? How did she react?”

Adrien frowns as he reviews his memories of the past week. “She was always kind and supportive…nonjudgmental. Marinette’s always been pretty chill.”

“So how do you think she would really react to the soulmates thing?” Plagg prompts.

“She’d probably chuckle—but not in a mean way. More amused than anything. She’d raise an eyebrow and consider it. Then she’d probably shrug and answer, ‘Maybe’,” Adrien replies, and he can almost see the scene playing out before him, see her smile, hear her voice, her laughter.

“That sounds about right,” Plagg chuckles.

Adrien falls into a contemplative silence. “…Marinette loves me,” he declares with awed certainty and a hint of bafflement at why this might be the case.

Plagg’s eyes go wide. Has his charge finally come to this realization after four long, frustrating years? “Loves…Adrien?” He seeks clarification.

Adrien shakes his head. “No. Chat Noir. Marinette loves me as Chat Noir.”

Plagg sighs. Of course not. Why would Adrien suddenly wise up out of the blue? “Kid, I think you have that backwards. I think Chat Noir is in love with Marinette.”

“Not like that, Plagg,” Adrien groans. “I meant that she loves me like Nino loves me. Like, she cares about my wellbeing and she wants me to be happy and she’d be really sad if I died.” Adrien rolls onto his side facing Plagg and props himself up on his elbow. “You saw how upset she was about me diving headfirst into danger today and almost getting myself killed. She cried for me…. I don’t think anyone’s ever cried for me before.”

Adrien bites his lip and hesitantly continues. “It feels good to have someone to cry for you. Is that weird?”

Plagg shakes his head. “No, Kid. That’s normal. Everyone should have at least one or two people to cry for them. That secretary lady would probably cry for you too.”

A tired smile gently pulls at the corner of Adrien’s mouth. “Yeah. Nathalie probably would. That made me really happy today when she said that she worried about me. All this time I’ve been sneaking out, thinking no one even noticed I was gone, but she’s been worrying about me the whole time…. Today was actually a good day, despite almost getting stomped out of existence by a supervillain.”

Plagg secretly worries about Adrien’s lack of perspective, but, upon further consideration, maybe finding out that two people really do care about him balances out the fact that he almost got killed.

“Yeah,” Plagg yawns. “Good day…. Go to sleep, Kid.”

Twenty minutes later, Adrien is still tossing and turning.

“Kitten,” Plagg hisses.

Adrien tenses, picking up on the annoyance in his kwami’s voice. “Sorry.”

“Marinette still?” Plagg grumbles, silently cursing Master Fu for sticking him with another teenager.

“Maybe?” Adrien sheepishly admits.

“Well, get up then,” Plagg instructs, making a shooing gesture. “Go record another song for her or write in your diary about how soft her hair is or something. Clearly rolling around in your bed obsessing over her isn’t doing you any good.”

“I’m not obsessing,” Adrien grumbles, but he throws off the covers anyway and gets out of bed. “You know, I wonder if she’d like a recording of me playing something on the piano. She did sound kind of interested the other day when I slipped and mentioned that I played. Don’t you think?”

“Sure, Kid.” Plagg is back to his usual, disinterested demeanor. “Piano sounds like a great idea—just no Chopin, okay?” he hastily adds. “Chopin is too depressing for the situation. Platonic soulmates call for Schumann or Ravel.”

Adrien sits down at the piano bench and frowns. “You know, I don’t even know if she likes classical music. I know she’s really into Jagged Stone, but the other day at karaoke, we sang a whole bunch of different genres. Maybe I should do a piano cover of a popular song?”

Plagg shrugs and mumbles, “Whatever gets you to settle your hormonal teenage brain down the quickest so that we can go to sleep.”

Adrien pretends not to hear the front half of Plagg’s complaint. “Do you even need sleep, Plagg?” He scrolls indecisively through his iTunes library, searching for something easy enough to transpose late at night while still being suitably impressive.

Chat may have downplayed his musical abilities before, but now he really wants to take Marinette by surprise. He wants to see her face light up as she opens her locker door and hears his playing. He wants to witness her eyes widening and her lips rounding into a little ‘o’ of awe.

He listens to a couple songs before picking one and beginning to experiment on the piano.

Two full hours later, he’s got a presentable first recording. With the vocal recordings, he usually does three and then picks the best from among them. He gets the second one done and is about to start on the third when a knock comes at his door.

Adrien jumps, and Plagg reluctantly absconds to the bedside table drawer where Adrien is keeping Marinette’s “Dear Adrien” letter.

“C-Come in?” Adrien calls, unsure of what to expect when the door opens.

He knows that Nathalie, his father, and his bodyguard Victor should be the only ones besides him left in the house overnight, but he still doesn’t anticipate his father poking his head into Adrien’s room at nearly three o’clock in the morning.

“Adrien? What are you still doing up?” Gabriel crosses his arms over his bare chest and frowns—partly a frown of disapproval but mostly a squint because he’s not wearing his glasses.

“F-Father!” Adrien stutters, banging his knee on the underside of the piano as he stands. “I was just…uh…practicing the piano?” Adrien chuckles nervously. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

It shouldn’t be possible. The walls are thick, and both Nathalie and Gabriel’s rooms are on the other side of the mansion…unless Gabriel was out walking the halls for some reason.

Gabriel shakes his head, tentatively approaching and coming to a stop beside the piano. “No. I just happened to be up already. I heard you playing, so I thought I should check on you, seeing how late it is. Why aren’t you in bed?”

Adrien bites his lip and tries to come up with something that sounds plausible that doesn’t include telling his father “There’s this girl…”.

“I…was, but I couldn’t get my brain to turn off, so I decided to just get up and do something useful with my time.” Adrien gives his father a bashful smile.

The creases in Gabriel’s brow deepen. “What were you thinking about?”

“Uh…”

“There’s this girl…”

“…The akuma attack today.” Sure. Let’s go with that. It sounds legit.

Gabriel’s head tips slowly to the side. “What about the attack?”

“You almost killed me.”

Adrien meets his father’s questioning gaze with a solemn expression he’s not sure that Gabriel can make out without his glasses. “I almost died. A car came crashing through my classroom window—I sit up front near the window.” He holds up his forearm, showing it to his father. “Glass went flying everywhere, and some of the shards sliced through my arm. I mean, the wound’s gone now, since Ladybug fixed everything, but what if the car had come through the wall, a few feet to the left? What if the glass shards flew a few centimeters lower or higher? I know there have never been any fatalities due to akuma attacks before, but there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?”

Gabriel is staring at him in horror, jaw slack, eyes wide. His arms drop to his sides. “Nathalie said she’d talked to you and you were fine.”

Adrien shrugs. “I didn’t want to worry you guys, so I may have overexaggerated how ‘fine’ I was. But, I mean, I was fine. I wasn’t bleeding out or anything, and, thanks to Marinette, my classmates and I all got out safely, so—”

“—Marinette?” Gabriel’s brow furrows once more.

“Yeah. You remember my friend Marinette. She’s won a couple of your contests?” Adrien prompts. “You tried to akumatize her the other day?”

“Ah, the Dupain-Cheng girl.” Gabriel nods as recognition comes to him. “She’s a very stubborn, strong-willed girl.”

“Hell yeah she is.”

“She’s the bravest person I know,” Adrien brags, swelling up with pride. “She made sure our whole class got out of the building before going back in to search for others who might need help. She doesn’t even need magic powers to be a superhero.”

The angle of Gabriel’s frown changes slightly as he steps forward to study Adrien better. “Do you have feelings for this girl?”

“What?” It feels as if Adrien has had the floor pulled out from under him. It’s as if his feet are in the air and he’s only got seconds before he lands hard on his back. “N-No. Marinette is just a friend.”

“I see.” Gabriel actually does. “Perhaps you should invite her over sometime. I know I’ve interacted with her briefly before, but I would be interested in sitting down and conversing with her at length, perhaps over dinner sometime. Do you think she’s ever been to Fouquet’s?”

Adrien’s mouth opens and closes several times before he manages to get out, “Uh…No. I don’t think she has. I mean Tom and Sabine’s is a very successful bakery, but they’re a frugal, down-to-earth family. I don’t think they go out and spend a couple hundred euros on dinner often.” Adrien eyes his father with suspicion. “Are you serious? Because I think Marinette would really enjoy the chance to talk to you…and get dressed up for dinner. She’s passionate about designing and looks up to you.”

“Of course.” Gabriel shrugs with arms wide, palms up to the ceiling. “You’ll have to talk to Nathalie about clearing time in my schedule, but I’d be glad to take you two to dinner and get to know your friend.”

This is bizarre. Gabriel does not make an effort to get to know Adrien’s friends beyond running background checks on them and their families. Adrien suspects that this has something to do with the fact that Marinette is female and that Gabriel did not believe Adrien when Adrien said that he didn’t have feelings for Marinette. After all, neither Nino nor Alya has ever received an invitation to Fouquet’s.

“Okay,” Adrien tentatively agrees. “That would actually be really great. I’ll check with Nathalie and Marinette and see if we can come up with a date.”

“Speaking of dates,” Gabriel hums, a facetious half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “You don’t have one for tomorrow’s gala yet, do you?”

Adrien shrugs. “I was just going to hang out with Chloé, since she’ll be there too, but she’s not my official date or anything.”

“Then why don’t you ask Miss Dupain-Cheng?” Gabriel prompts. “Don’t you think she would enjoy meeting all of the big names in fashion?”

Adrien’s ears perk up. “Yeah, she…she would. It’s a little last minute, though. I don’t think she has a suitable dress just lying around her house.”

There’s the Princess gown, but that’s out of the question.

“No matter.” Gabriel easily waves Adrien’s worries away. “Bring her by after school tomorrow, and she can pick something from a previous year. The hem might not be right, as she’s considerably shorter than the typical model, but that could be fixed fairly easily. We should have something suitable in her size.”

“If you’re sure it’s okay; I bet she’d be thrilled.” Adrien purses his lips. “…You know, I meant it when I said that she was just a friend.”

“I’m not saying that you didn’t,” Gabriel chuckles. “Only…I spent two years saying the same thing about your mother.”

Adrien opens his mouth to speak, but no words come to him. He closes his mouth, frowns, and makes a soft grumble of frustration. “Even if she weren’t just a friend, now isn’t exactly a good time. She just got rejected by the guy she had a crush on.”

“As I’m sure you’re already aware, since you almost akumatized her over it.”

Adrien stops to briefly wonder if his father knows the identity of Marinette’s crush. Unfortunately, it would be impossible to ask without tipping his hand and revealing that Adrien knows. It would be far less costly to obtain the identity of Marinette’s crush from a classmate like Rose or Max or Kim.

“Well,” Gabriel announces in a tone that suggests that Adrien has helped him prove his point. “To me, it sounds like now would be the perfect time to invite Miss Dupain-Cheng somewhere fun as just a friend to help cheer her up. She could probably stand to have someone there for her to help support her. Don’t you think so?”

“…Yeah,” Adrien mumbles. “I’ll ask her to the gala…and about dinner too.”

Gabriel nods his approval.

“…Can we go back to discussing akuma attacks and mortality now? Talking about my non-existent love life is kind of…” He grimaces.

The mild amusement leaves Gabriel’s face in an instant. “Was it just today’s attack in particular that’s bothering you, or is this something you’ve worried about before?”

Adrien shrugs noncommittally and looks away. “Maybe it was just today in particular. It honestly wasn’t that bad—I mean, it was seriously fine. I just got a few scratches—but…it was stressful because the whole time I was worried about Marinette after she ran back into the school to help dig others out of the rubble. I wanted to go in after her, but Nino physically held me back and dragged me off to shelter, so… I just kept thinking, ‘What if something happens to her and Ladybug can’t fix it?’.”

Adrien looks up at his father and whispers, “Do you ever worry that one day I’m going to walk out the front door and never come back?”

It’s a cruel question since Adrien’s mother did exactly that, but Adrien needs to know if his father even considers the possibility that Adrien could get caught in the crossfire when Gabriel goes on the warpath.

“I mean, accidents happen,” Adrien softly prompts. “and here in Paris with the akuma, it’s even more likely. I’ve been caught up in any number of the attacks, and, if not for Ladybug, Style Queen in particular would have killed me. There have been others too. Do you ever worry?”

Gabriel pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head. “Adrien, if I allowed myself to consider the dangers of the outside world, you would never leave the house. Honestly, I felt better when you were homeschooled, but Nathalie has informed me that I am under no circumstances allowed to take you out of school, so you have her to thank for your continued freedoms. Does that answer your question?”

“Good old Nathalie.”

Adrien smiles softly. “Yes, Father. Thank you.”

“Are you still dwelling on thoughts of your own mortality, or do you think you’ll be able to go to sleep now? You’re not going to be at your best for the gala tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep,” Gabriel warns.

Adrien shrugs. “That’s what coffee and concealer are for.” An idea strikes him. “But, you know what would make me feel better?”

Gabriel’s eyebrow quirks as he crosses his arms. “What is that?”

“If you bought me a loop station.” Adrien puts on his best innocent grin.

The eyebrow rises higher. “What is a…‘loop station’?”

“It’s a piece of recording equipment. You can record up to five tracks and play them back. There’s this guy on YouTube, Peter Bence, who does some amazing mixes with one, and I kind of wanted to try my hand at playing one of his arrangements. The loop station I was looking at was only five hundred euros, so…” He gives his father a hopeful look.

Gabriel frowns. “Adrien, you have your own money from modeling and your allowance, and you can spend it however you want. You don’t need me to approve your purchases or buy things for you.”

Adrien deflates. His gaze falls to the black and white of the keyboard beside him, and he reaches out to absentmindedly run his fingers over the keys.

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I just thought…it would be nice to get a present for no special occasion to remind me that you love me,” Adrien mumbles.

He knows that Nathalie picks out his Christmas and birthday presents. He appreciates it, and it’s not like his father forgets, but…it would be nice to have something that was really from Gabriel, even if Adrien has to ask for it specifically.

“Adrien, spending money on someone doesn’t mean you love them. That’s not what love is,” Gabriel corrects, suddenly concerned. What has he been unconsciously teaching his child that Adrien equates spending money with love?

Adrien looks at his father in confusion. “Doesn’t it? I mean, that’s how you show that you love me, isn’t it?”

Gabriel is taken aback. “No, Adrien. When you love someone, you spend time with them…”

Which Gabriel suddenly realizes that he doesn’t do often.

“…and…do enjoyable things together and…talk…”

This is the first real conversation he’s had with his son in at least three weeks beyond confirming times of appointments, greeting in passing, or perfunctorily apologizing for having to cancel plans with Adrien.

“…and, yes, buying presents. Buying presents is a very good way to show people that you love them and that they’re very, very important to you,” Gabriel hedges, internally panicking. “Why don’t you show Nathalie the loop station that you want tomorrow, and she can take care of the details.”

Adrien blinks, still studying his father with a hint of perplexion. “Okay. Thanks. That sounds good.”

“Is there anything else you want?” Gabriel inquires a little overeagerly.

Adrien isn’t sure where this is coming from, but he’s not going to argue. “Well, since you asked, I’ve been wanting a new piano—an upright like Peter Bence has in his video.”

Gabriel balks. “What’s wrong with your baby grand or the antique down in the foyer? It was good enough for Beethoven,” he adds under his breath.

Adrien shrugs. “Nothing. I just want an upright. You’re the one who asked what I wanted. I only asked for a loop station.”

Gabriel purses his lips. “Right. Sorry. Well, show Nathalie what you want tomorrow so she can contact Luc. Luc should be able to find one for us.”

Adrien bites his lip and decides to press his luck. “Since you’re being extraordinarily generous, do you think we could pay to have it shipped next day delivery? I’d kind of like to have it to practice on over the weekend while I’m not busy with school.”

“Of course. Just tell Nathalie.” Gabriel makes a mental note to order Nathalie flowers.

Adrien’s face lights up. “Awesome! Thanks, Father!” On an impulse, he closes the distance between them, wrapping his arms around Gabriel for a quick hug.

Gabriel’s frown softens, and he gives his son a fond squeeze. “You’re welcome…. I do love you, Adrien.”

Adrien rests his forehead on Gabriel’s shoulder. He’s still a few inches shorter than his father. “Yeah,” he sighs. “I know. I love you too.”

The moment ends, and they pull apart. Suddenly things feel awkward.

Gabriel stuffs his hands into the pockets of his pajama pants and nods to the piano. “What are you practicing?”

“Officially?” Adrien grins sheepishly. “Chopin’s Preludes.”

Gabriel’s nose scrunches up. “Chopin is so depressing. He’s a genius, but…depressing.”

Adrien shrugs. “Yeah, well…I’m kind of in a mood for Chopin.”

Gabriel wonders if he should be concerned. One more thing on which to consult Nathalie. “What about the song I heard you playing earlier? I didn’t recognize it. It was nice, though. Was it a modern composer?”

Adrien blushes. “Uh…yeah. It was actually a popular song that I arranged for piano. I have a friend who wanted to hear me play, but I don’t know if she likes classical music, so…”

“The Dupain-Cheng girl?” Gabriel intuits with a knowing smile.

Adrien runs a hand through his hair, avoiding his father’s gaze. “No? It’s…Alya.”

Gabriel nods. “You should invite Miss Dupain-Cheng over to hear you in person.”

Adrien could die of embarrassment on the spot. “It’s not like that. Our relationship is purely platonic.”

Gabriel shrugs. “I wasn’t implying that it wasn’t. I just suggested inviting her to hear you in person.”

“I think too many invitations at one time might be overwhelming,” Adrien sighs, ghosting his fingers over the piano keys—the beginning notes to Für Elise one octave too high. “It’s not like we’re particularly close, and she’s kind of going through some stuff, so I don’t want to bug her too much.”

Gabriel nods, understanding. “All right. I won’t press, but she’s a nice girl, and I think spending time with you might help her get over her heartbreak quicker. Give her space, if you think she needs it, but don’t give her too much space.”

Gabriel reaches out and gently touches his son on the shoulder in a rare show of support. “Good night, Adrien.”

A soft smile breaks through Adrien’s troubled expression. “Thanks, Father. And thank you for coming to check on me. It was good talking with you.”

Gabriel bites his lip. “Yes. We’ll have to do this again sometime soon.”

Adrien sits back down at the piano and waves goodbye as Gabriel exits.

The smile drops off of Gabriel’s face as soon as the door is closed behind him. He trudges back to Nathalie’s room and slips under the covers with a sigh.

She gives a stretch, and her eyes flutter open. “Gabriel? I thought you were going back to your room so we didn’t get caught?” she teases, but then registers his expression. “What’s wrong?”

With another sigh, he pulls her to his chest, burying his face in her hair. “I am the worst father.”

Her arms slip around him, and she gives him a reassuring squeeze. “No, Gabriel. You had the worst father, and you’re doing a good job raising Adrien despite all that. What happened?”

Gabriel briefly recounts his conversation with Adrien about the akuma attack and Adrien’s request for a loop station. “I’ve been rich less than half my life, but it seems that I’ve already internalized the rich man’s strategy of throwing money at a problem. My son thinks spending money on someone is how you show that you love them, and when I was trying to explain to him how people normally show that they love one another, I realized that Adrien was right. The only way I express love for him is by throwing money at him…so we’re buying him a loop station and an upright piano.”

Nathalie blinks and props herself up on her forearms to look down at Gabriel in confusion. “We are?”

Gabriel grimaces. “I felt bad about not expressing my love for him in a way that didn’t involve spending money on him…so I offered to buy him whatever he wanted.”

Nathalie nods. “Yes, Gabriel. That was obviously the solution to the problem.”

Gabriel’s grimace shifts into a pout. “Are you mocking me? I should fire you.”

Nathalie smirks. “You won’t fire me. You can’t; I’d be too hard to replace.”

Gabriel rolls his eyes, reaching up and stroking her hair. “There are plenty of people who would pounce on your position the second it opened up.”

Nathalie shakes her head slowly. “As your assistant? Yes. However, you overlook the fact that you would need at least four people to replace me. You’d need to hire a personal assistant, a new henchman, a governess for Adrien, and a new lover. I doubt you’ll find another woman willing to take on all of my various roles. Even if you find four new employees to take over my responsibilities, I don’t think they’ll last as long as I have. You’ll have to replace them on a fairly regular basis. I expect the assistant will last six months, the henchman two weeks, the governess one year, and the lover…I pity the poor woman. You’ll need a new one after a month.”

“Nathalie, could you at least let me pretend that I still have the ability to fire you?” Gabriel sighs, lifting his head to nuzzle her shoulder.

“Let me think about it…. No,” she snickers. “Now what’s this about ‘we’ buying Adrien a new piano?”

Gabriel bites his lip and smiles bashfully. “Well…I’m paying for it, and I might have told Adrien to talk to you about the details so that you could order it and arrange for delivery.”

Nathalie shrugs. “That’s fine. I’ll have time after all the festivities this weekend are over.”

Gabriel’s smile becomes strained. “Sorry. I may have agreed that he could have next day shipping so that he could get it on Saturday and practice over the weekend.”

Nathalie’s jaw drops. “You want me to find a piano, close the deal, and get the piano here by Saturday?”

“Yes?” Gabriel keeps smiling, but it’s undeniably dented.

“Gabriel, I am not a magical genie,” Nathalie snorts.

Gabriel sighs. “Sometimes I miss the days when you used to say ‘Yes, Monsieur Agreste’ whenever I told you to do anything.”

With a roll of her eyes, Nathalie relents. “Fine. I’ll get it done somehow.”

“Thank you, Nathalie. You’re wonderful.” Gabriel leans in for a quick smooch. “I’m sorry. I know you’ve already got your plate full with tomorrow’s gala. I’ll buy you some flowers?”

Nathalie shakes her head with a sigh. “You don’t need to throw money at me, Gabriel.”

“What if I just feel like getting you flowers?” Gabriel challenges.

Nathalie rolls over onto her back, her shoulder still brushing his. “Get me flowers then.” Her fingers intertwine with his.

“Do you like your dress for the gala?” he whispers, trying to imagine her in it.

An image of Emilie flickers to the surface of his mind, unbidden.

“My blue, peacock-themed evening gown?” Nathalie chuckles. “I love it, Gabriel. Not very practical for running around behind the scenes making sure that everything runs smoothly and nothing blows up, but…it truly is lovely.” She laughs ironically and adds, “Are you planning on wearing you butterfly tie and cufflinks? Maybe see how many more hidden butterflies you can add to your outfit without becoming obvious. Maybe we should get ‘Papillon’ and ‘Mayura’ put on our nametags while we’re at it.”

Gabriel rolls his eyes as he turns to kiss her neck. “She thinks she’s funny.”

You’re the one who thinks he’s funny. I know that I’m funny,” she snorts. “Maybe Adrien can go as Chat Noir and have his friends dress as Ladybug, Rena Rouge, and Carapace. Miss Bourgeois is already the real Queen Bee. We could be a complete set.”

Gabriel’s nose scrunches up in distaste. “That’s not funny, Nathalie.”

“It’s funny for reasons you can’t even imagine, Gabriel.”

“I don’t think Adrien would make a very good Chat Noir,” Gabriel adds.

Nathalie shrugs, snuggling up to Gabriel and resting her head against his shoulder. “Maybe so. Regardless, tomorrow is going to be extremely unpleasant…. I should quit.”

“Don’t quit,” he groans. “Are you trying to get me to beg?”

“I like it when you beg,” Nathalie admits with a facetious chuckle. “All right. I won’t quit, but only because of Adrien.”

The lightheartedness drains from the atmosphere. “Nathalie, do you really think I’m doing all right with Adrien?”

“Of course. Adrien is a good boy, isn’t he? He doesn’t act out, he performs well in school, and he comports himself properly in public. He’s not perfect, but I believe he’s doing about as well as could be hoped for for a boy in his situation,” Nathalie summarizes. “Doesn’t that mean that you’re doing a good job raising him?”

Gabriel shakes his head. “I’m afraid that’s more due to Emilie’s and your influence, Nathalie.”

“Nonsense,” Nathalie waves away Gabriel’s praise.

“I’m afraid it’s not. After Emilie…maybe even before that…I’ve never really known how to interact with him. You and Emilie have always been the ones to…” Gabriel reaches up and begins running his fingers through Nathalie’s hair once more.

“How about mentally? Does Adrien seem all right emotionally to you?” Gabriel holds his breath.

Nathalie rolls over and props herself back up so that she can see Gabriel’s face. “Why? Did he say something that concerned you?”

Gabriel shrugs. “Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but he said he was in a mood to play Chopin.”

Nathalie nods slowly. “I think that might be a teenager thing in general. I know you didn’t have a typical adolescence, but I can assure you that it’s normal to be moody like that.”

“So you think he’s normal? Not depressed?” Gabriel presses, needing confirmation.

Without thinking, Nathalie bites her lip.

Gabriel zeros in on the gesture and frowns.

Nathalie grimaces. “No, I wouldn’t say that Adrien was strictly normal, but he’s not really abnormal either. He has some depressive bouts and some unhealthy habits, but… He loves you Gabriel, and he knows that you love him, even if you don’t always show it how he would like.”

Gabriel’s face falls. “Is there any room in my schedule this week where I could watch a movie or play a board game with him? There has to be an hour or two somewhere.”

Nathalie chews on her lip as she tries to remember everything on the calendar. “I…don’t know off the top of my head. I’ll check in the morning, though. …Things may be a little tight gearing up for Fashion Week.”

“Cancel a photo shoot or his Chinese lessons, if you have to,” Gabriel instructs. “Some of the things he said… I need to fix this.”

Nathalie doesn’t think a lifetime of parental errors can be fixed by a game of Monopoly, but at least it’s finally come to Gabriel’s attention that he could be making more of an effort.

“Of course, Gabriel.”

She can tell he’s brooding over it.

“Try not to stress over it too much,” she coaxes, tracing soothing patterns on his chest. “At least Adrien has a strong support system. His friends all love him very much, and they’re there for him.”

“Speaking of friends,” Gabriel leads in in a way that suggests that he’s getting at something. “What can you tell me about Marinette Dupain-Cheng?”

Nathalie’s eyebrows rise slightly. “In what respect? And why her in particular?”

“I believe Adrien has feelings for her.”

The eyebrows rise higher. “Did Adrien finally realize that he has feelings for her? Did he tell you that?”

Gabriel’s brow creases. “No. He actually told me that she was just a friend, but the way he spoke about her, the look on his face… What do you mean ‘finally realize’? How long has this been going on?”

Nathalie lets out a long breath of frustration. “That boy. He’s been saying that she’s just a friend for four years now, but he’s been showing signs of interest in her for just as long.”

Gabriel gives a stilted nod. “That sounds familiar.” Adrien is Gabriel’s son in all the worst ways. At least Gabriel had some awareness of his feelings for Emilie and Nathalie. “Does he really think she’s just a friend, or is he intentionally suppressing his feelings? Do we know?”

“It appears that he really believes it.” Nathalie gives a helpless shrug. “But this week, since Tuesday, his interest in her has seemed to spike. He’s been talking about her more often.”

Gabriel’s lips press together. “She apparently confessed to and was rejected by the boy she liked on Monday. She was the one that I mentioned that I tried to akumatize but she fought me off and Chat Noir interfered.”

Nathalie’s lips form a small “o” of surprise. Things make more sense. Of course Adrien would be thinking about Marinette more what with recently saving her from being akumatized.

“When I suggested that Adrien invite her to hang out more, Adrien said that he didn’t want to overwhelm her, as she was going through some things. Do we know who her crush is? If we can get him out of the way—perhaps transferred to a different school—that should open up space for Adrien to step in.”

Nathalie frowns. “I’m not sure. For a while I thought she had a crush on Adrien, but… Gabriel, do you really think it’s wise to meddle in your son’s love life? Especially considering he’s unsure of his own feelings?”

The look of determination on Gabriel’s face morphs into a pout. “But she’d be the perfect daughter-in-law. You’ve seen her skill; she could take over the family business.”

Nathalie shakes her head. “If it’s meant to be, it will happen on its own…. It’s better if you let it happen on its own.”

“I just don’t want Adrien to miss out.” Gabriel deflates. “I, personally, have always been an idiot when it comes to relationships. I’m lucky that I didn’t miss my chance with Emilie and with you… I don’t want Adrien to lose the opportunity and regret it the rest of his life.”

“He’s only seventeen, Gabriel,” Nathalie shushes gently. “Let it be.” She runs a hand through his hair and down the side of his face. “You can’t fix or force everything for him.”

Gabriel places his hand on top of hers. “I know, but…I’m so afraid that he’ll never know what this is like.” He gives her hand a squeeze. “He’s never even tried dating. I was married at twenty.

“And I didn’t find you until I was thirty,” Nathalie reminds. “We’re all different, Gabriel. Adrien may be your son, but he’s not you. Let him go at his own pace.”

Gabriel struggles with this for a long minute, studying her face, reflecting on how lost he would have been without Emilie in his teens and twenties, how lost he would have been without Nathalie now. He wants to ensure that his son knows what it’s like to have a loving partner’s unconditional support.

Gabriel sighs, closing his eyes and leaning into Nathalie’s touch. “I suppose the first step would be to stop trying to akumatize her.”

Nathalie nods. “I can guarantee that Adrien would try to save her himself. It might make him realize his feelings for her, but it would also put him in enormous peril.”

“Shame,” Gabriel grumbles. “She’d be strong. I’ve always had the feeling that if I could get her, she’d be the one to finally defeat Ladybug and Chat Noir.”

Nathalie doesn’t disagree. Nathalie has theories about the girl the papers are calling “Princess”, and Nathalie is afraid that this princess may become Chat Noir’s weakness. Agreste men will do crazy, desperate things for the women they love.

“Oh, well,” Gabriel sighs, letting the conflict go. “Step two will be bringing Adrien and Miss Dupain-Cheng together more often. There are plenty of dinners and shows coming up. Make sure to remind Adrien to invite her. Invite her to everything.”

“Gabriel,” Nathalie groans. “This is the definition of meddling.”

Gabriel waves dismissively. “I’m not meddling. I’m simply creating opportunities. It’s up to Adrien to invite her and to her whether she attends.”

Nathalie shakes her head. “I will periodically remind Adrien that Miss Dupain-Cheng is invited to all events, but I’m afraid you’re just going to annoy him, Gabriel. He gets to make very few choices in life, and if it appears that you’re taking a choice away from him, he might resent that and act contrary to your wishes. Once again, I’m advising you to let him be.”

Gabriel bites the inside of his cheek as he considers this. “Then…tell him he may invite ‘a friend’ more often. That’s still an opportunity, but the choice whether or not to invite her will be his.”

Nathalie nods. “Understood.”

There’s a beat of peaceful silence between them in which they study one another.

Gabriel closes the distance for a chaste kiss before pulling back with a smile. “Thank you.”

She hums in pleasure, nestling back into her spot in his arms. “Feel better?”

“Yes,” he sighs contentedly. “…I was serious about your hair today. You should wear it down more often.”

Nathalie gives an exasperated sigh and a slight shake of her head. “I looked a mess.”

“You looked beautiful,” Gabriel corrects sleepily. “It reminded me of the way you look here.”

“In bed after you’ve run your hands through it?” she snorts. “Somehow I doubt me running around with bedroom hair is going to help us behave professionally during the day.”

Gabriel considers this. “Oh. Probably not.”

“I think I’ll stick with the bun,” she chuckles, kissing the underside of his jaw.

“Wear it down for the gala,” he entreats.

“I’ll think about it,” she allows. “Go to sleep.”

Chapter Text

Marinette wakes with a groan and wonders why she’s still in her day clothes.

“Tikki?” she calls softly.

Her kwami gives a little stretch before coming to nuzzle Marinette’s cheek. “Good Morning, Marinette!” she chirrups, chipper as ever. “How are you feeling?”

Marinette shrugs and shakes her head in puzzlement. “Oddly well-rested. I slept like Sleeping Beauty, despite falling asleep in my clothes. I had a couple weird dreams, though.”

“Oh?” Tikki settles onto Marinette’s stomach to listen.

“I only remember the one: Chat Noir and I were babysitting Alya and Nino’s hamsters because we had just found out that we were gonna have kittens and we wanted some practice before the kittens came. Isn’t that ridiculous?” Marinette chuckles.

Unexpectedly, Tikki frowns. “Marinette,” she starts sternly. “You are not allowed to have his kittens until you graduate from university. You two have been moving too fast this week!”

Marinette sits bolt upright, upsetting Tikki from her perch. “Tikki!” she shrieks. “It’s not—it’s nothing like that!”

Tikki is unconvinced. “You’re literally dreaming about having his kittens. You think I don’t hear you talking in your sleep? All your ‘Chat’ this and ‘Oh, Chat!’ that.”

Marinette stares, horrified. “I talk in my sleep?”

Tikki nods.

“Oh my gosh!” Marinette sucks in a huge breath. “What do I say?!”

With a bone-weary sigh, Tikki shakes her head. “Oh, mostly…” She stops herself from mentioning the sighs and giggles of “Adrien”, knowing it will only upset her charge.

Tikki schools her expression into a gentle smile and answers, “…nonsense. Nothing bad, Marinette. Nothing identity revealing. Alya would have already teased you about anything she overheard you say at a sleepover, so it can’t be that bad, right?”

Marinette considers this for a moment before nodding. “Okay. Well…just for the record, I am never having Chat Noir’s kittens, so you don’t even have to worry about that. It was just a stupid dream. Chat and I aren’t interested in each other like that. I mean, we’re just now actually becoming real friends this week after sort of, kind of knowing each other for four years, so I wouldn’t say that we’re moving too fast, Tikki. If anything, we’re just making up for lost time. No need to stress out about it.”

Tikki purses her lips, studying her chosen briefly before letting it go with a sigh. “If you say so, Marinette. I trust that you know what you’re doing…. But how are you doing after yesterday? Are you feeling all right?”

Marinette is about to ask why she wouldn’t be and what Tikki is talking about when it comes back to her. “Oh!” she gasps. “…Oh… No wonder I slept so soundly; I was exhausted.”

Tikki nods but doesn’t respond, letting Marinette have time to process.

“Chat Noir was here,” Marinette suddenly remembers, looking around her for any sign of him. “We were up on the balcony, and…” She groans. “I yelled at him and cried all over his suit and fell asleep on his lap.” She collapses back down onto her bed and hides her face in her pillow. “Kill me, Tikki.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Tikki lies through what is supposed to be a reassuring grin.

Marinette lifts her head to give Tikki a deadpan look. “I screamed at him, got tears all over him, and fell asleep on top of him. I sounded like a crazy person, and the whole sixth arrondissement probably heard me. I’d be hard pressed to say how it could get much worse than that. Tikki, he’s never going to come back here again.”

“Marinette, you’re overreacting.” Tikki floats over to pat Marinette on the shoulder. “Even after all the yelling and the crying, he still said that you were on the top of his list to give a Miraculous to if he ever needed help in a fight. I don’t think he hates you or anything, Marinette.”

Marinette gives this fact some consideration. “He did say that, didn’t he?”

Tikki nods encouragingly. “And you should have seen the way he snuggled with you after you fell asleep on top of him. He was so sweet, petting your hair and stroking your back and making sure you were covered up. He’ll come back, Marinette.”

Marinette reaches up to run a hand through her hair. “…I hope so,” she admits. “I enjoy having him around.”

 

Alya meets Marinette at the residence door, launching into Princess identity theories. Marinette laughs at some of the more outrageous ones (Princess is real royalty from a small island nation that Chat happened to rescue while shooting on location for his latest movie).

“Maybe it’s Alix,” Marinette adds her own two cents. “She’s about the right height, don’t you think? I bet her hair would look pretty in a bun.”

Alya rolls her eyes. “Girl, pretty as she is, Alix is a stick. Princess has curves.”

Marinette shrugs. “Maybe I’m Princess. She looks a bit like me, don’t you think?”

Alya bursts out in a laugh. “Marinette, you would never wear something like that. It’s too sexy.”

For some odd reason, this rubs Marinette the wrong way. “I could be sexy,” she pouts.

“If stupid Adrien Agreste would stop fantasizing about my alter ego for two minutes, he’d see how sexy I could be.”

Marinette spots Nino chatting with Adrien as she and Alya enter the locker room. “Nino! I’m sexy, aren’t I?”

Nino blinks, a flicker of surprise racing across his face before his expression settles on sheepish. “Marinette, it’s not that I don’t love you to pieces, but I can’t say that you’re sexy with my girlfriend standing right there.”

Marinette tries to smile and laugh it off, but she finds herself still annoyed.

Alya claps her on the back. “Don’t worry, Marinette. I’ll say it: you’re sexy…but in a take charge, save the day kind of way. Princess is more suede and leather and pillows and silk scarves and four poster beds in mediaeval castles.”

Marinette’s face slowly tightens into a frown of confusion. “Alya, you’ve lost me.”

“I’m trying to say that she’s like a high-class S and M dungeon in a mediaeval setting while you’re more like a teen romance novel,” Alya attempts to clarify but only muddies the waters further.

Marinette bites her lip to keep from saying anything. Somehow, this feels like a personal attack, even though she objectively knows that it’s not. She turns to open her locker and is surprised and disappointed when no music begins to play.

“I guess I scared him off after all.”

Marinette sighs and reaches in to get her History text.

She’s taken unawares once more when she sees the little speaker and a note.

“What’s it say?” Alya prompts, trying to peek over her shoulder.

Marinette shields the note from Alya’s view in case Chat has been indiscrete and reads: “Good Morning, Sleeping Beauty. I couldn’t remember if you said you just didn’t feel up to singing Indila songs or if you didn’t want to hear them either. I forgot you had said that until after I made the recording, but I thought I might as well give it to you anyway, so here’s SOS by Indila. No hard feelings if you don’t feel like listening right now. Maybe in a couple weeks? (I did this at two in the morning.) Smile!”

Marinette chuckles, folding the note and sticking it in her bag. “I had said something the other day about not being in a good frame of mind to sing the three Indila songs I know, and he was worried that maybe I didn’t want to listen to them either, so he didn’t want to set the song to play automatically like usual in case it would upset me,” Marinette summarizes for Alya (and the small crowd milling around, trying to pretend that they’re not just waiting for Chat’s new recording to play).

“Aww,” Alya coos. “Girl, your boy is a sweetie.”

Marinette shrugs. “I can’t lie. My boy’s the best.”

She presses the play button on the speaker setup and is pleasantly surprised when a piano cover of the song begins to play.

“Woooow. Mystery Boy plays piano too?” Alya whistles low in appreciation. “Where did you find this guy?”

“He found me,” Marinette hums, her eyes slipping closed as she listens to Chat play. She sways to the beat, smiling despite the sad lyrics that she knows go with the beautiful music.

Chat is really good. Not only does he sing like a professional, his playing is skillful as well.

She gets caught up in the music, and it’s over too soon. She hums again in pleasure as the last chord resonates.

Her eyes slowly open and reveal Adrien Agreste fast approaching. She doesn’t have time to flee before he stops in front of her, leaning forward to rest his left hand on the locker to Marinette’s right side, just at her shoulder level, tactically pinning her in between his arm and her open locker door.

“Good Morning, Marinette.” He gives her one of his dreamy model smiles.

“M-Morning…Adrien,” she manages, but she’s pretty sure her eyebrow or her lips are twitching. Why is he in her personal space? Why is he looking at her like that? Why couldn’t he look at her like that last week?

Stupid Adrien Agreste.

Every muscle in her body is urging her to flee, but he’s got her trapped. She’s going to cry.

“Calm down and think of Chat naked.”

That does the trick temporarily. “Can I help you?” She forces a smile, but her voice sounds terse.

“I hope so.” He grins optimistically, summoning up all of his Chat confidence. “I know it’s a little last minute, and I’m sorry about that, but I need a date for tonight’s gala, and I was hoping you could come.”

Marinette’s jaw slackens. “D-D-Date? For the gala tonight with all those celebrities? You want me to be your date?”

“Yeah.” He leans in just the slightest bit closer, backing her into her locker, and smiles conspiratorially. His voice dips into a whisper. “Everyone who’s anyone will be there, including France’s top designers. I’d love to take you around and introduce you to everyone. It could be a great networking opportunity,” Adrien baits, silently urging her to accept.

“Don’t run away from me this time. Please don’t cry.”

“Wow,” is all that Marinette can say.

All the top designers in France. A personal introduction. Adrien is offering her the chance of a lifetime. Marinette scrambles to find some way to justify accepting, but she knows that she can’t. She can’t be his date and torture herself by going around on his arm all evening pretending that he didn’t just break her heart that Monday. She can’t act normally around him. She can’t even go back to acting weird in the way she did before Monday. She won’t be able to survive an evening with him. Even if she doesn’t break down in tears and embarrass herself in front of everyone at the gala, the emotional damage of having spent the night as Adrien’s “date” will only set her recovery back. She needs to stay away from this boy.

“I would love to,” she whispers sadly, tears beginning to gather at the corners of her eyes. “but I can’t. I mean, in the first place, I don’t have anything to wear.”

“No worries,” Adrien assures, and at first Marinette thinks she’s being let off the hook. Unfortunately, he continues, “My father said to bring you over after school and you can pick out something from a previous season. We literally have hundreds of dresses; we’re bound to have something that will work. Father said we could even fix the hem if you find something that’s too long.”

Her eyes widen, and she stares. “A Gabriel original? He said I could wear a Gabriel original?”

Why is this happening to her now? Does life hate her? Marinette would have been over the moon if Adrien had asked her last Friday. This Friday it just seems like a cruel joke.

“Yeah.” Adrien grins, taking her shock as a good sign. How could she possibly resist? “My father really would like for you to come. He said he’d like to meet you and get to know you better.”

“He did?” Her voice jumps up an octave. “Gabriel Agreste did? Me? Are you sure he meant me?”

Adrien chuckles. “I doubt there are two people with your name, Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

“-Noir,” he mentally adds.

“So what do you say?” He doesn’t bother holding his breath. He’s confident that there’s no way she’ll be able to pass this up, even if she doesn’t necessarily feel like hanging out with him as Adrien right now.

She bites her lip, makes the mistake of looking him in the eye, and has to look away.

The way he’s looking at her hurts. There he is beaming at her from less than a foot away, eyes shining in nervous excitement. It’s like they’re trying to let her in on a joke or tell her a secret, but she doesn’t understand.

“I would love to more than anything, but I really can’t tonight. I’m sorry.” She apologizes to his feet, unable to hold his warm gaze. “Thank you for inviting me, and please thank your father for his generosity and apologize on my behalf.”

At least she’s speaking to him in complete sentences now.

Adrien stares, thinking he’s misheard. “What? Really? You…can’t?”

But the deal was too good to refuse. Meeting her designer idols and wearing a Gabriel original, and all she had to do in exchange was spend a few hours with Adrien. How could she not say yes?

“I can’t. I’m…busy,” she fibs.

“If you can’t come for the whole evening, could you at least make it for an hour or so?” he presses, thinking he understands the problem.

“I…can’t.” Tears slowly begin to trickle down her cheeks. “Sorry. I’d like to, but… If you’ll please excuse me, I need to get to class.”

Marinette looks up over his shoulder at Alya and shoots her a look that clearly screams, “Help me!”

It’s a punch to Adrien’s gut: he’s the kind of guy girls have to recruit their friends to rescue them from.

Suddenly Alya’s arms are around his waist from behind, physically pulling him away from Marinette. “All right, Agreste,” Alya sighs, holding him back while Marinette escapes. “She said no, so give up already.” Her tone is more of pity than anger.

“But…” He feels lost. “Just let me know if you change your mind!” he calls after Marinette’s fleeing form.

“She’s not changing her mind, Sunshine.” 

Alya tries to break the news gently even while at that same time the ugly part of her wants to rub it in his face: How does it feel to be rejected, Agreste? She’s still a little ticked on Marinette’s behalf, but mostly she just feels guilty. She’s hurt the both of them.

She lets him go with a consolatory pat on the arm before dashing off after Marinette.

Nino quickly fills his girlfriend’s vacated position, resting a hand on Adrien’s shoulder. “Mec, this is not giving her space,” he informs as kindly as he can manage.

Nino holds his tongue concerning the actual violation of Marinette’s personal space. If Nino didn’t know better, he would have sworn that Adrien was coming on to Marinette.

“I thought going to the gala would cheer her up, even if she did have to spend time with me,” Adrien grumbles. “She’s not busy tonight, Nino; I’m just that awful to her.”

Nino winces and gives Adrien’s arm a series of light pats.

“What did I do?” Adrien asks in a small voice, eyes begging his best friend for answers. “If I knew what I did, I could fix it,” he pleads.

“No, Mec, you couldn’t.”

Nino shakes his head. “It’s not you, Adrien. It’s her.”

Adrien’s face falls.

“You okay?” Nino already knows the answer, but he asks anyway to give Adrien the opportunity to lie and save face.

Surprisingly, Adrien shakes his head sadly. “I’m a mess. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get much sleep. I was up until three because I couldn’t stop thinking about her, so—” He stops abruptly when he realizes what he’s admitting to out loud.

Nino takes off his hat to wipe his brow with the back of his hand. He bites his tongue. There’s no use in scolding Adrien for falling in love with Marinette just as she’s trying to fall out of love with him. All he can do is accept the situation as it is and try to make the best of it.

Nino nods slowly. “She’s really gotten under your skin this week, hasn’t she?”

Adrien’s cheeks color, and he nods. “I don’t know what to do.”

Nino sighs, reaching into Marinette’s locker for the speaker setup to retrieve the chip with the latest song. He shuts the locker door behind him and turns the dial so that it locks.

“Don’t talk to her. Don’t look at her. Don’t think about her. Most importantly, don’t agonize over this. It’s not your fault,” Nino suggests, already suspecting about how well Adrien will be able to follow these instructions.

“I don’t think I can do any of that,” Adrien sighs. “You know how, like, you’ll see a sign saying not to walk on the grass, and then you just have to walk on the grass? Or when there’s a wet paint sign, and all of the sudden you just really feel the need to touch the paint? Or when they put a fence up along the edge of a high place so people don’t jump, but then all you want to do is climb over the fence and jump? It’s kind of like that.”

Nino bites the inside of his cheek as he studies Adrien. He wants to ask, “Do you feel like jumping off of ledges often?”, but he’s really afraid of Adrien’s answer. He’s afraid because the other two things Adrien named are common, trivial impulses. Does “jump” seem so mundane a thought to Adrien?

“Do you want to hang out tomorrow?” Nino offers. It’s the best he can do for his friend without dragging Adrien to see a therapist. “It’s supposed to be nice. I don’t know. We could walk around, get brunch. Maybe play some video games or something? Do you think your old man would let you, or do you have model stuff to do?”

Adrien’s whole demeanor brightens. “I’ve got stuff tomorrow night, but my day is clear. Father will probably let me hang out with you during the day, if I ask.”

“Cool. Just let me know.” At least Nino is able to help one of his friends. He hopes Alya has some luck with the other one.

 

“Today needs to end,” Adrien groans as he straightens his boring grey and black tie in the boring mirror, getting ready for the boring gala that evening.

Nathalie won’t be coming to get him for a little under an hour still, so he doesn’t know why he’s dressed and ready to go so early. Perhaps it’s because he had nothing else worth doing.

Adrien slumps into his desk chair and crosses his arms, determined to be miserable while he waits while also not rumpling his suit in the process.

“You okay, Kid?” Plagg sighs. He doesn’t want to know, but he asks anyway.

“I’d be better if my girlfriend would associate with me on this side of the mask,” Adrien grumbles.

Plagg grimaces. “Kid, it’s one thing when other people call her your girlfriend in order to tease you, but it’s kind of weird when you do it yourself. It makes you sound delusional.” Plagg pauses to study his charge. “…You do know that she’s not really your girlfriend, don’t you?”

Adrien wants to throw something. He glares at his kwami and seethes, “Plagg, of course I know she’s not my girlfriend. I was being sarcastic. Obviously, she’s not my girlfriend if she’d rather stay at home than go to a society event she really does want to go to with me.”

Plagg doesn’t respond but only looks at his charge in pity. This isn’t Adrien’s usual drama. This is real pain.

Adrien sighs, pushing himself up out of the desk chair. “I need to calm down.”

This, at least, is progress, Plagg thinks. Normally, Adrien is completely unaware of how he is feeling and what he should do about it.

Adrien goes over to his bedside table and pulls Marinette’s “Dear Adrien” letter out of the drawer. He’s put it in a plastic sleeve to protect it from getting worn. He forces himself to take deep breaths as he reads.

“She thinks my smile is dreamy,” Adrien chuckles, the creases of his frown finally smoothing out. “She doesn’t hate me, Plagg. She says she wants to be friends after she’s done having her meltdown; she just can’t deal with me right now.”

Plagg nods, trying to be supportive, pretending that this isn’t the tenth time that they’ve read the letter and had this discussion. 

Even after four years of living with Adrien, Plagg is still sometimes surprised at how Adrien clings to certain things. Once Adrien receives a crumb of kindness or affection, he refuses to let it go because he’s afraid there might never be another one. Adrien still brings up this one instance from three years ago when Ladybug kissed him on the cheek. 

Plagg understands that Adrien has been living in an affection desert for a long time and that that’s part of the reason why he’s so susceptible to Marinette. She freely and abundantly gives what he’s yearned for his entire life. She makes him feel good; Adrien hardly ever feels good. It’s no wonder he finds her irresistible.

Gradually Adrien’s content smile fades into a pensive frown. “But she also told me that I could go jump in the Seine.”

Plagg wants to hit Marinette over the head for planting that idea in Adrien’s mind. There are very few buildings over six stories within the ring road to watch out for, but the Seine is omnipresent. Plagg is never going to be able to get that thought out of Adrien’s head now that it’s taken root.

“…Nino’s not telling me the whole story. I must have done something,” Adrien mutters, beginning to mope.

“You know what Marinette also said?” Plagg prompts, trying to steer them away from this tar pit.

Adrien tips his head and looks at Plagg, distracted from his new favourite source of anguish. “What?”

“You heard what she said to journalist-girl today. ‘My boy is the best’,” Plagg reminds.

Adrien had given a trill of joy upon hearing those words in the locker room, but they had been quickly overshadowed by the subsequent refusal of Adrien’s invitation.

Adrien’s face lights up. If he were Chat, his tail would be flicking in delight. “You know, I know that Alya was the one that started calling me Marinette’s boy and that Marinette just kind of went with it, but part of me was really happy that she didn’t balk at the idea of asserting some kind of claim on me. I…” Adrien blushes and gives an embarrassed chuckle as he puts the “Dear Adrien” letter away. He rubs the back of his neck. “Part of me really likes the idea of belonging to someone.”

Plagg nods. He knows that Adrien feels alone and disconnected often. Connections to others mean the world to him. Being able to put a possessive pronoun in front of something is important: my friends, my lady, my father, my princess. It’s part of the reason why he wants “my father’s personal assistant” to officially change to “my step-mother”. Adrien wants the right to make a claim. He wants her to be “his” instead of just something of his father’s that he only has secondary rights to. She’s been the only mother he’s known for years now, but he still doesn’t feel like he has the right to treat her as such.

“And she said you were the best,” Plagg teases, coming over to nudge Adrien’s shoulder playfully.

She’s the best,” Adrien sighs happily, but it only lasts a moment. The sigh turns wistful, and they’re back to melancholia. “I wish she thought I was the best all the time.”

Plagg wants to bang his head against a wall. There is just no keeping this child happy when Adrien is determined to be glum.

“Why don’t you go run over and see her real quick?” Plagg gives up and suggests. He’d rather not expend the energy transforming Adrien, but he knows that the kid is going to be as insufferable as Romeo pining after Rosaline in Act One if Plagg doesn’t bite the bullet and facilitate a meeting.

Adrien looks at the clock. “Plagg, we’re leaving in forty minutes. Even if I run over there without taking any precautions at not being seen, that’s ten minutes. If I come back and don’t bother with doubling back anywhere or trying to disguise my route, that’s another ten minutes.”

“That still leaves you with twenty minutes with your princess,” Plagg baits, knowing those twenty minutes will make Adrien more manageable throughout the rest of the evening.

Plagg can see the internal struggle playing out on his charge’s face. 

Adrien bites his lip, runs a hand through his hair, and begins to pace in agitation. “Plagg, that would be really irresponsible. I mean, if someone sees me, my identity could be exposed—more importantly, Marinette’s identity as Princess could be exposed. I could be putting her at risk. Ladybug would be so pissed at me if she found out, and if I’m late for the gala, my father will be disappointed in me. And maybe Marinette really is busy tonight after all.”

Plagg shrugs. “Hey, it was just a suggestion. No need to get so wound up about it. If you don’t want to go spend time with your girlfriend, that’s fine.”

Tikki would be furious if she knew what Plagg was encouraging Adrien to do. Adrien makes enough rash choices on his own; he really doesn’t need his kwami playing devil’s advocate.

Adrien purses his lips.

“Just for the record, I bet you could make it there in seven minutes.”

Chat makes it in six and a half.

Chapter Text

A very small part of him hopes that Marinette really is busy tonight. Adrien is going to be majorly bummed if it turns out that Marinette lied to get out of spending time with Adrien. The larger part of him hopes that she’s home and available for a visit, the instant gratification of seeing her now as Chat eclipsing the misery Adrien will feel later.

“Good evening, Minou,” Marinette coos as she pushes the skylight open.

“Sucks to be you, Adrien Agreste,” Chat mentally snorts, grateful that he’s not Adrien at the moment.

“Good evening, Princess,” Chat hums as he takes her in: hair down, oversized sweater, clingy yoga pants. It’s just a typical Friday night at the Dupain-Cheng residence. He dips into a sweeping bow. “Always lovely to see you.”

“You too, Chat Noir,” she chuckles, shaking her head and smiling at his theatrics. “Come on in.” She indicates her room below with a nod and begins to descend.

“Actually,” His tone stops her. “I’m afraid that I can only stay for a minute, and if I come in, I’ll never want to leave…so, unless you don’t mind being stuck with me, I should probably stay up here.”

Marinette rolls her eyes and ducks down to grab a blanket before climbing up onto the balcony to join him. “It’s not that I don’t love you, Chat, but I don’t think my parents would let me keep a giant cat what with the bakery. Do you need a blanket too? It’s still a little chilly at night.”

“I’m good, thanks. Are you warm enough, Princess? I didn’t mean to make you come out in the cold.” Clearly, he didn’t think this through.

Marinette gives an unconcerned shrug. “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

She smiles at him, and he’s tempted to test the boundaries between them.

Before she can process what he’s doing, he’s stepped forward and pulled her into a hug. “If you get cold, we can always cuddle for warmth.”

Marinette does not return the hug. She frowns, raising an eyebrow instead. “Chat, what are you doing?”

He pulls back slightly to grin down at her, but he still has her in a loose hold. “Hugging you. Problem, Princess?” He didn’t think hugging regularly would fly with Marinette, but it was worth a try. Adrien could really use more hugs.

“Since when do we hug?” she wonders but doesn’t move to push him away.

There was that time the first night in her kitchen when she’d started to cry, and he’d technically “hugged” her when she’d almost fallen off of the Pont Neuf, but this is an entirely different kind of hug altogether.

“Since yesterday.” Chat pouts. “You’re the one who started it. Remember? I landed on your balcony, and you tackled me.”

Marinette’s face pales and then flushes. She winces. “Yeah. Sorry. I did do that, didn’t I? …But…that was kind of under special circumstances. Normally, guys and girls our age who are just friends don’t really hug like this, Chat.”

“So, you’re saying that I only get a hug if I almost die?” Chat hums sadly, laying it on a little thick. “You’re going to make me do desperate things, Princess.”

Marinette groans. “Don’t you dare. That’s manipulative, Chat.”

Chat rolls his eyes. “That’s not being manipulative. That’s just getting you to…” He stops as he realizes what he’s saying. “…do what I want.”

His arms drop to his sides, and he takes a step back. “Oh my gosh. I’m a manipulative person.” Panic overtakes him with this realization.

Marinette steps closer, resting a hand on his arm. Her brow creases at the fear evident in his voice. “Shh. No, you’re not.”

“I am,” he insists. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears; it muffles the sound of her voice. “Oh my gosh. I’m just like my father.”

“Let’s sit down,” Marinette suggests, awkwardly guiding him over to the deckchair. She’s pretty sure that this is an anxiety attack. She’s not really sure what to do about it, but she figures getting Chat to calm down will be the best thing. If she can get him to calm down, maybe she can go get her phone and google what to do for someone having a panic attack. “Chat, it’s okay. You’re not a manipulative person. I was joking.”

He shakes his head. His hands are trembling.

She reaches out and takes them in her own, giving them a reassuring squeeze. “Shhh. It’s okay, Minou.”

“I am manipulative,” he whispers. “My first thought if someone won’t do what I want is to bribe them. What does that say about me?”

“You’re not manipulative; you’re just rich.” Marinette fights the urge to roll her eyes.

“I guilt-tripped my father into buying me a new piano this morning. That was manipulative.” Chat scans his memories, searching for other instances where he may have manipulated someone.

Her hands moving up to his hair distract him. She’s giving him another head rub.

Chat’s eyes slip closed, and he leans into her touch. After a minute, his breathing evens out, and he begins to purr softly.

She rubs for a minute or two until he’s seemed to calm down.

His eyes snap open as soon as she pulls back, and he gives her a dazed, questioning stare. His eyes whine, “Why did you stop?”

She laughs. “There’s my Minou. You feel better?”

Chat blinks, coming back to himself. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Sorry about that. I don’t know what… I just…”

She reaches out and gives his bell a bop. “Don’t worry about it. It’s really not a big deal.”

“But I—”

“—You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” she prompts and then blushes. She looks down at her shoes. “Didn’t you kind of already? Last night?”

He opens his mouth to respond with something like, “I’ll always be there for you”, but she speaks first.

“Now, if you’re feeling better, could you please do something about your tail?”

His eyes widen. “My tail?”

She smiles weakly and points down. “It’s molesting me.”

He looks and is surprised to find that his tail has looped around Marinette’s ankle and started climbing up her calf like an amorous vine.

Chat’s jaw drops, and he nearly dies of embarrassment. Internally, he screams at his tail to cut it the hell out as he tries to find the mental “switch” that controls it. It seems to get the message and slowly uncurls.

Chat jumps to his feet and almost trips backwards as he exclaims, “Oh my gosh! I am so sorry, Marinette. I swear that I did not do that on purpose. I didn’t even know it could do that,” he chokes, voice coming out strangled and pitchy.

Chat imagines that Ladybug would get mad if Chat’s tail tried to climb up her leg, but what does Marinette do? She bursts out laughing.

She shakes her head and smiles at him, holding her aching sides. A single tear runs down her cheek. “Don’t worry about it,” she snorts, wiping at her eyes and trying to get her giggles under control. “No need to flip out over it. I mean, it’s just my leg. If it tries to get into my pants, then we’ll have a problem.”

Chat collapses back into the deckchair, covering his face with a palm. “I can’t believe you just said that,” he hisses, trying not to think about his tail or her pants.

That’s the kind of bawdy joke Marinette would make with Alya. He can’t imagine her saying something like that to Adrien. Has Chat achieved Alya-level comfort with Marinette?

“Are you done mercilessly teasing me now, or were you still going?” he groans.

“I think I’m done, thanks,” Marinette snickers. “Do you think you could learn to control it?”

Chat blushes, lowering his hand to give her a pleading look. “I’m sorry. I’ll try. I swear that I won’t let it—”

“—Oh! No!” She waves her hands frantically. “Sorry. That’s not—I didn’t mean it like that; I meant, do you think you could learn to control it so you can pick up things?”

Relief washes over him. “Oh,” he sighs, relaxing back into the chair. “I don’t know. Maybe.” He tries, and the tail gives a flick. “I’ve never thought about it before. I mean, the tail just kind of…it’s got a mind of its own, I guess. I’m only subconsciously aware of it.”

“Can you feel it?” Marinette wonders, tentatively approaching to give the tail a poke.

It flicks, making her give a start.

Chat laughs at the cute exchange.

“I can sort of feel it.” He shrugs. “It’s not the same as if you touched my arm or anything, but there’s some sensation there.”

She studies the tail with pursed lips before holding out her arm towards it. “Try to wrap it around my wrist,” she urges.

Chat tries, and it’s easy enough, only the tail doesn’t stop with the wrist. The tail seems to like the idea of snaking up Marinette’s arm. It pokes her cheek.

Chat’s face heats up. “Uh…I’m not exactly…I’m not doing that.”

Marinette cracks up once more at his expense. “Try to grab the teapot off the table next,” she suggests.

The tail uncoils from her arm at Chat’s behest, but it doesn’t seem interested in the kettle. It makes a vague, halfhearted swipe in the teapot’s direction before calling it a day.

Chat sighs, slightly disappointed. “Wow. This is embarrassing. It looks like I’ll have to work on this at home.”

Marinette shrugs and goes to lean against her balcony railing, facing him. “So, how are you doing on time? You said you could only stay a minute?”

Chat internally panics as he pulls his phone out of his zip pocket. If he leaves himself ten minutes to run home, he can stay another thirteen with Marinette.

He gives her a confident grin. “We’re fine. I can hang out another twenty minutes or so before I need to head home.”

Being ten minutes late isn’t going to kill anyone.

Marinette nods, her expression taking on a solemn air. “Listen. About last night,” she hesitantly leads in. “I’m really sorry, Chat Noir. I didn’t mean to—with the yelling and the crying…” She winces. “…and the falling asleep on you. I’m sorry. I—”

“—No.” Chat cuts her off. He’s on his feet and at her side in an instant. “Don’t say you’re sorry. It’s okay…. I mean, I understand. I really wore you out yesterday, but…I actually wanted to thank you.”

Her face scrunches into a frown of confusion as he smiles at her in gratitude. “Thank me?”

“Yes. For the screaming and the crying,” he clarifies.

Her nonplussed expression intensifies.

“I forget sometimes that I matter,” he confesses reaching out and resting his left hand on the railing at her side.

It’s an echo of their position earlier that day as Adrien and Marinette in the locker room, only Marinette is noticeably more comfortable with Chat. She doesn’t seem to mind that he’s pinned her. She holds eye contact and even seems to lean in towards him.

“Last night, you said that I wasn’t just some tool for Ladybug to use in battle, and I honestly needed to hear that. I shared with you before that a lot of the time I’m fake and I feel like a life-size doll that my father plays house with. I do think of myself as a tool sometimes,” he admits, inclining his head towards hers. “So I’m grateful that you yelled at me last night. It kind of woke me up and made me realize that my own safety is important too because there are people who care about me who would cry and miss me if something happened to me.”

“Oh, Chat,” Marinette whispers, and her voice cracks as if she’s about to cry. She pulls him into a comforting hug, resting her hands on his shoulder blades. “Oh, my Minou.”

“I’m going to try not to make you cry like that ever again, Marinette.” He nuzzles her ear, letting his arms wrap around her like they’ve been aching to do since he deposited her into her bed the previous night.

She gives him a squeeze, wishing that he could make this about himself and not her. She wants him to take care of himself not because he’s afraid of upsetting her but because he himself thinks he’s worth taking care of.

He hums contentedly, enjoying the heady scent of pastries that’s permeated her hair. “You know, Marinette,” he teases. “You should be careful. You’re teaching me that all I need to do to get a hug is make you feel sorry for me. This isn’t going to help me curb my manipulative tendencies.”

“Stupid cat,” she sighs, rolling her eyes even as she holds him tighter. “Chat Noir, if you want a hug, all you have to do is ask,” she grumbles.

“May I have a hug?” he chuckles into her hair.

She pulls back slightly to give him an unamused glare. “Chat, I’m hugging you right now.”

He smirks. “I meant ‘may I have an additional hug after this one’.”

She purses her lips. “No. Get your tail under control.”

He looks down and witnesses it weaving through her legs, looking rather comfy wrapped around her right thigh.

He winces and tries to convince it that this is not how one treats ‘just a friend’. “I’m really sorry. I’ve never had this problem before.”

“It’s actually kind of funny.” She chuckles, turning to look out at Paris at night. Her balcony has the best view of Notre Dame all lit up.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying this,” he snorts, coming to stand beside her, his shoulder brushing hers. “because, frankly, I’m sort of mortified.”

“You should be. Your tail gropes people,” she giggles.

He groans and hangs his head as he pouts, “Princess, I’m being serious.”

“So am I.” She grins, and it’s all mischief and levity.

Chat rolls his eyes and clicks his tongue. “No, you’re not. You’re teasing me, and you’re deriving sadistic pleasure out of it.”

“He knows me so well.” She shrugs and looks up at the stars, a soft, content smile on her lips and in her eyes.

It makes him feel calm.

They listen to the sounds of Paris at night for a minute or two before he hesitantly dares to voice a thought: “You know, even though we haven’t known each other for long, I feel like I’ve known you for years.”

As soon as the words have left his lips, he’s wishing he could swallow them again. What if he’s being too honest? What if she doesn’t feel the same way? Is what he said weird? Will it scare her away?

He jumps at her gentle laughter, his blood turning to ice until she replies, “Yeah…. I get that feeling too. It doesn’t feel like only a week since we became friends, does it?”

The tension drains from him, and he smiles as he looks up, trying to spot what she’s looking at. He allows their brushing shoulders to become solid contact, leaning into her slightly.

This is what’s missing from Adrien’s life: solid contact with another warm body to reassure him that he’s not alone in the world. It’s something so small and so simple, but it means everything to him.

The minutes slip by, and it’s only when a nearby church bell tolls that Marinette frowns and shoots him a questioning glance. “Isn’t it about time for you to go? You said twenty minutes, right?”

Yes. Yes, it is definitely time for him to go, but…

He shrugs and plays it off nonchalantly. “I can hang around for a few more minutes…unless I’m keeping you from plans. Do you need me to go?”

She shakes her head. “No. I don’t have anything planned tonight. I was just working on my Odile dress when you showed up, so no reason to leave on my account. I just didn’t want you to be late for…” She trails off as she realizes that she doesn’t know where he has to be. “…whatever it is that you have to do,” she finishes lamely.

He waves away her concern. “It’s just a kickoff gala for Fashion Week. I have to go as poster boy for my father’s company, but it’s not gonna matter if I’m a little late, so long as I make an appearance and talk to all the people I’m supposed to talk to.” He’s dreading the very thought of it—smiling and being pleasant, making chitchat when all he’d rather be doing is hanging out on this balcony.

He’s so caught up in his dread that, at first, he misses the look of surprise mixed with a dash of horror on her face. Once it does register, he panics. “What? Did I say something? What did I say?!”

“You’re in the fashion industry?” Her voice is small and tremulous, eager and excited while at the same time frightened to discover his identity.

He could smack himself as he wonders how many guys she knows with blonde hair and green eyes who are his height, go to her school, speak Chinese, are rich and famous, play the piano, are friends with Nino, and work in the fashion industry. He can think of a grand total of one, and he’s betting that as soon as she sits down and compiles a list, she’ll come up with the same answer.

He is sunk, but if he’s going down, he’s at least going to go down honorably. She’s going to freak and be mad over his identity, but he won’t give her the opportunity to be mad at him for lying to her.

“Yeah.” He shrugs as if this is nothing. He’s not risking Ladybug’s wrath. He’s not risking Marinette’s friendship.

“I’m a model.”

There. He’s said it. She’s got him.

Her eyebrow inclines. “A model?” She laughs. “You, Chat?”

She doesn’t believe him.

“Of course I’m a model.” He preens, giving a flex. “How could someone this beautiful not be a model? You don’t believe me, Princess?”

On the inside, he’s floored. How can she not believe him? How is this even happening?

She covers her mouth with a hand, trying to keep her giggles down. “Sorry. I don’t know. I just…you don’t act like a model.”

What do models act like? As far as he knows, she only knows the one, and she doesn’t even really know him.

“I’ll prove it,” he snorts.

Part of his brain is jumping up and down, shrieking at him to just let it go. “What are you doing, Agreste?! What the hell are you doing?!”

The other half is too busy being annoyed to listen to the more reasonable side. “Does she not think I’m handsome enough to be a model?”

“How are you going to prove it?” Marinette wonders, crossing her arms and watching him with an amused little grin.

“By acting like a model,” he explains. “Watch me pose and be impressed by my beauty and professionalism.”

He can tell she’s biting the inside of her cheek, trying to keep from laughing at what she perceives as antics.

He positions himself in front of the balcony railing with his back to it. He rests his elbows on it casually and bends a knee up so that his foot is braced against one of the bars. As the final touch, he looks to the right, off into the distance.

“My left side is my better side,” he explains, angling his chin to best catch the light and cast shadows. “Just add one vacuous expression, and we’re done. Apparently, the blank look comes across as enigmatic, but I’m really just staring off into space thinking about how much I’d rather be at school or hanging with my friends or leaping from rooftop to rooftop.”

Marinette studies him, frowning. She’s seen this pose before…Adrien’s done this pose before…vacuous expression and all.

“Take a picture, Princess,” Chat snickers. “It’ll last longer. …Is that too cheesy to say, even for me?”

Marinette groans, pushing aside her thoughts of Adrien to roll her eyes at the blonde currently in front of her. “Yes, Chat. That is definitely too cheesy, even for you.”

He gives a shrug, smiling as he comes out of the pose. “Do you believe me now, or do you want me to do another one? I have dozens.”

“I don’t know,” Marinette chuckles, not yet decided one way or the other. It’s so hard to tell with Chat.

“Seriously?” Chat sighs, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand while he cards the other hand through his hair. “Here I am serving you my identity on a silver platter, and you ‘don’t know’? Hold on a second.” He skims the balcony for a suitable surface. “Let me drape myself over something. You’ll see.”

He picks up the teapot and ceramic cups from the table and gently deposits them onto the crate before taking their place. He lies on his back, hanging off the table, with one knee propped up. He grins at her upside-down.

“There,” he proclaims. “You see how sexy I am? I’m gorgeous. How could I not be a model?”

Marinette stops trying to hold in her laughter. “Oh, yeah,” she sputters. “I see it now. I would buy whatever perfume or table or car you were selling, Chat. Very sexy. Maybe you should go into modeling.”

He cannot believe this. Is this what Plagg was talking about? The power of denial? This is kind of insulting. She’s not dumb, so why is connecting the dots so hard for her? Objectively, Chat knows that it would be better for everybody if Marinette remained in the dark, but at the same time…

“No more subtlety.”

Chat shrugs with a sigh. “Like I’ve tried telling you before, I’m already a model. I’m Adrien Agreste.”

The laughter dies in her throat, and she stares at him as if he’s slapped her.

He instantly regrets telling her.

“That’s not funny, Chat Noir,” she whispers, the tears beginning to fall.

He curses under his breath as he rolls off of the table. He’s by her side in seconds flat, stroking her face and her hair, wiping away the tears with the pad of his thumb.

“Shhh. I’m sorry,” he coaxes. “You’re right. That wasn’t funny. I’m sorry. I’m not Adrien Agreste. I’m sorry, Princess. That was stupid. Please don’t cry…. I’ll be anyone you want me to be,” he begs, and a part of him really means it.

He doesn’t like Adrien Agreste much either sometimes.

“Sorry,” Marinette whispers, clearing her throat. “I’m overreacting.”

“No, you’re not.”

Chat hopes that she’s right and she is just overreacting, but that’s not the kind of thing you agree with a girl on (right up there with “I think this dress makes me look fat”).

“I know that guy upsets you. I should know better than to joke around like that. I’m sorry, Marinette.” She has no idea how sorry he really is.

She shakes her head and rubs at her eyes. “It’s okay, Minou.” She looks up and tries to smile for him. The result comes across as distressed, but he appreciates her efforts on his behalf.

It is so far from being okay. She’s going to hate him when she finds out who’s under the mask.

“Sorry.” She gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I’m just feeling a little emotional at present because—well, you probably saw in the locker room today or at least heard about it—Adrien asked me to go to the gala with him.”

Chat nods in the least incriminating fashion he can manage. “But you said no…even though his father offered to let you borrow a Gabriel original to wear.”

She nods in confirmation, a miserable expression washing over her face. “I really wanted to go.”

“Then why didn’t you?” he wonders. “You told Adrien you were busy, but…”

Her shoulders hunch up to her ears, and she averts her gaze. “I don’t think I could handle it, being around him like that all night. I mean, you see me, Chat. I can’t even hold a five-minute-long conversation with him without bursting into tears. There’s no way I could go to the gala. I’d embarrass him and myself in front of all the people I hope to work with someday. It’d be a disaster, and I can’t risk it, even though it’s killing me that I’m missing it.”

“Oh,” Chat breathes. That makes a whole lot more sense. It certainly feels a lot better than having her turn down the invitation just because she doesn’t want to spend time with Adrien. “…Is there a specific reason he makes you cry?”

She looks down and kicks at the ground with her toes. “He reminds me of my crush. I look at him, and all the pain comes rushing back.”

Why? Why him? Why this atrocious bad luck?

“Do they look similar?” Chat guesses.

She nods with a wistful smile. “Very much.”

Well. If that doesn’t beat all. At least Adrien has a clue to the crush’s identity now. All he has to do is harass all of the other blondes until he finds one with a crush on a sewing blogger.

“My poor princess,” he whispers, tugging her into his chest, wrapping her in a protective embrace. “Shhh,” he coos, beginning to sway from side to side, rocking her gently as he continues to stroke her hair and her back.

He can feel her melt into him, her arms loosely circling around his waist as she lets go and accepts his comfort. “I feel kind of bad,” she mumbles into his chest.

“What do you mean?” His ears quirk to attention.

“That was really nice of Adrien to invite me. His father too, to offer to let me wear one of his dresses. I feel bad for having to turn Adrien down…. He looked really disappointed,” Marinette sighs. “I’ve been such a jerk to him this week when all he’s trying to do is be nice. None of this is actually his fault, but I can’t seem to stop taking it out on him. He’s probably not even going to want to be my friend once this is all over, and I wouldn’t blame him.”

“He would understand, Princess,” he assures, giving her hair a nuzzle. “He does understand. He knows you’re dealing with some stuff right now. He’s not going to stop wanting to be your friend over something like this.”

“How do you know?” She blows out a slow, tired breath that feels warm against his neck.

Chat shrugs. “I know him. I know how jealous he’s been of Nino and Alya’s closeness to you. He wants to be your friend too. Four years of wanting to be friends isn’t going to go away just because you go psycho over some jerk breaking your heart for a month or two.”

Marinette pulls back to study Chat’s face. “He told you that?”

“Not in so many words. We’re not super close or anything,” Chat hedges. “but I can tell. He thinks you’re awesome.”

Marinette’s cheeks glow in the dim light with a pleased blush. She smiles softly and confesses, “I think he’s pretty awesome too.” There’s a beat, and she looks him in the eye and says, “And so are you, Minou.”

Chat’s stomach does a backflip of pure joy, and his pulse thrums giddily. She thinks he’s awesome—both sides of him. All of him. It’s like a dream.

A stray thought startles him out of his euphoria: “I could kiss her”.

He blinks. “Where did that come from? Are you so love-starved, Agreste, that you would throw yourself at the first girl that said she thought you were awesome?”

Another part of his brain whispers, “But she said we were awesome. Both of us. All of us.”

“You don’t have to look so shocked,” Marinette chuckles, oblivious to Chat and Adrien’s internal struggle. “You say it yourself so often; is it weird to hear someone else confirm your awesomeness?”

Chat gives an embarrassed laugh, trying to cover his minor lapse. “Yeah, I guess it is. I bet I could get used to it, though, if you want to tell me how great I am more often.”

Marinette rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “And give you an inflated ego? That would be doing all of Paris a disservice.” Her teasing laughter dies down after a minute, and she gives him another earnest look. “You’re a good friend, Chat Noir. Thank you for…all of this. I’m feeling a lot better now.” She gives his shoulder a grateful pat as she breaks away from him, stepping back to lean against the railing once more.

He instantly misses her warmth.

“I’m glad I could help.” He sighs contentedly, taking his place beside her and looking up at the stars, his shoulder resting comfortably against hers.

“This is what peace feels like.”

They stand in silence for a minute before Marinette remarks, “Don’t you have a party to get to? You’ve been here over half an hour. At this point, I think you’re stretching the definition of ‘fashionably late’.”

He gives a soft groan of displeasure. “Let me worry about the clock, Princess. You’re not the one who’s set to turn back into a pumpkin.”

Marinette shrugs. “I don’t want to be the reason you get in trouble. If your father is anything like Adrien’s, for all I know, he could put you under house arrest for a week for some minor infraction, and then I wouldn’t get to see you.”

She’s joking (sort of), but her words jar him. She’s right.

“I’d still sneak out to see you,” he promises, giving her shoulder a little nudge. “He hasn’t put bars on the windows yet, and, even if he does, a Cataclysm or two would fix that.”

“And expose your identity,” she sighs.

He bites his lip. He knows she’s right and that he has to go, but it’s so hard to extract himself. Being with her feels so good and warm and safe. He doesn’t want to go back and be Adrien in that cold mausoleum with all the stupid rules and expectations and loneliness.

A crazy idea strikes him. “You should come to the gala with me.”

She cocks an eyebrow at him, giving him a sidelong glance before beginning to enumerate all the reasons why his idea is crazy. “I don’t have a dress.”

“Princess has a dress,” he counters.

She shakes her head. “Yeah, but Marinette can’t wear it, and I can’t show up as Princess. And it’s not like you can show up as Chat Noir either; you have to go as…as the other you, and I can’t go with the other you because I can’t know your identity.”

Chat Noir deflates, grumbling childishly, “I want you to go to the party with me.”

She tips her head to rest against his shoulder for the briefest of seconds in a gesture of comfort before straightening up again. “I want to go with you too.”

“Next year, you’re coming as my date,” he announces with a certainty that doesn’t allow for argument. “I’m going to take you around and introduce you to all the fashion big wigs, and we’re going to get you an in at whatever fashion house you want.”

This makes Marinette laugh. “That sounds wonderful, Chat, but I’m afraid we’d have the same problem. Princess and Chat Noir can’t attend when people are expecting the other you.”

He shakes his head and corrects her. “You’re going to realize who I am under the mask any day now, so there will be nothing stopping me from taking Marinette as my date next year.” 

Provided she’s forgiven him and gotten over her weirdness towards Adrien by that time.

“Okay,” she relents. “Next year we can go together.”

“I wish next year was tonight,” Chat sighs. “I am not looking forward to this. Just one more thing ‘perfect son’ has to force himself through to win his father’s love…or at least to not earn his father’s ire.”

Marinette puts her arm around his shoulders. She can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have to jump through hoops to “win” a parent’s affection. Her parents have always given that freely. Even when Marinette was cranky or sad or talking back to her parents, she knew that they still loved her. She can’t fathom what it’s like not to have that assurance and support.

“Is there anything good about going to the event?” she prompts, holding her breath that there is some silver lining to discover.

“I made you uncomfortable again,” Chat realizes, feeling guilty.

“Like I told you before, don’t worry about making me uncomfortable,” she reminds. “I could stand to be uncomfortable a little more often, if only to remind me how good I have it.”

He begins to squirm. “I don’t like making you uncomfortable. It feels like I’m doing something wrong that I need to make up to you.”

With a deep breath, Marinette turns him to face her and takes his face in her hands. “I care about you. This is what friends do, Chat Noir.”

He coaxes a smile for her, and it’s easier than he expected. “I’m glad that I finally got to be your friend.”

“Silly cat,” she chuckles, cheeks flushing in embarrassment at the honest gratitude on his face. “You’re not the only one.” She gives his bell a flick before letting him go. “Now tell me one good thing about attending the party tonight.”

He shrugs, crossing his arms. “I guess I’ll get to see my oldest friend. She’ll be there with her mother, but we should get to hang out at least a little bit, so that will be fun while it lasts. We don’t spend as much time together as we used to.”

“Oh?” Marinette hums, not having to feign interest. “Is your friend pretty?” She doesn’t know why she’s asking. Maybe because it’s one of the only “safe” questions she can ask that won’t give clues to Chat’s identity.

Chat chuckles at this. “Objectively? Yeah. She’s very attractive. She’s cute when she’s happy, but she’s a lot like me, so she’s not really happy all that often.”

He bites his tongue before he can add that he’s concerned that she’ll end up with an alcohol problem someday if he doesn’t watch her. That’s a little bit too much honesty, even with Marinette.

“Should I be jealous, Minou?” Marinette teases in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

Chat shrugs nonchalantly. “Seeing as she’s like a sister to me? Probably not. It would do you as much good as my being jealous of Alya. I’m not going to stop you, if you want to be jealous over me, though.”

“Doesn’t sound worth the effort,” Marinette jokes.

“Nah,” he confirms. “She really is just a friend.”

After the words have left his lips, he wonders where the emphasis on “she” came from. Chloé really is just a friend…as opposed to who else who isn’t?

“I guess I’ll concentrate my efforts on being jealous of Ladybug, then.” Marinette pulls him from his thoughts by invoking The Name.

She notices the way he stiffens and immediately backpedals. “Sorry. Is that something I shouldn’t joke about? That was insensitive. I’m sorry. I—”

“—I wish you could come tonight,” he sighs, cutting her off and leaning into her personal space to brush back a rogue bang. “You’d be the prettiest princess there. No one would be able to take their eyes off of you.”

Marinette is taken aback at this abrupt change of pace. It takes a minute for her to regroup enough to think to reply, “You’re such a flirt. You should go, Chat Noir. You’re going to be really late.”

“I don’t care.” He catches her hand in his own and brings it up to his face for a nuzzle. “I’d rather be here.”

Marinette snatches back her hand with a roll of her eyes. “Flirt,” she accuses once more. “Chat Noir, you’re going to get in trouble.”

“It’ll be worth it,” he purrs with an unreadable expression, leaning in closer.

She doesn’t know what’s gotten into him. Is he trying to distract himself from thinking about Ladybug?

“Seriously,” she snorts flatly. “Stop.”

“Your hair is cute.” Chat reaches out to play with a lock. “You look gorgeous when you wear it down like that.”

Marinette bursts out in a fit of giggles, batting his hand away as she laughs, “Oh my gosh. STOP.”

He pulls back, an innocently content smile on his face. “Okay, but only because I got you to laugh.”

It suddenly hits her that he was trying to cheer them both up and help the mood recover from her slip about Ladybug.

She smiles and reaches out to tussle his hair. “Thanks, Minou…. Now, go.”

With a shrug of resignation, he takes her hand and gives it a respectful kiss on the knuckles. His phone has been buzzing in his pocket for the last twenty minutes anyway. He’s probably giving Nathalie a migraine, so it would be best if he headed home sooner rather than later.

“I won’t be able to visit tomorrow, but I’ll be back on Sunday…I mean, if that’s okay.” It suddenly occurs to him that he’s been over every night this week. Is that a little excessive?

“I’ll look forward to it,” she assures, and her smile is so genuine that his fears evaporate.

She likes having him around. She thinks he’s awesome.

That thought alone makes him want to throw his arms around her.

“Marinette?” He catches her hand once more.

She tilts her head and waits for him to continue.

“Dance with me,” he entreats, earning him a quizzical expression from her.

“Dance with you?” she echoes.

“Just one dance before I have to go to the ball without my princess,” he presses, desperate not to leave her yet.

“There’s no music,” she points out, an amused smile settling onto her lips.

“I’ll sing something,” he offers.

She shakes her head fondly, giving in. “All right. If it will get you off my balcony and to the party before you get in trouble, I’ll dance with you.”

With a trill of delight, he quickly pushes the furniture off to one side to give them room.

“Would now be a good time to tell you that I don’t really know how to dance?” she chuckles as he takes her in his arms, moving them into a proper dance position.

“Just follow my lead.” He winks, giving her an encouraging smile. “You have amazing muscle control—I saw it when you did parkour—so I bet you’ll be a natural.”

“You’ve also seen me trip over my own feet,” she groans. “Don’t blame me when I step on yours.”

“You’re fine,” he stresses and then starts to sing “Once Upon a Dream” from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

“Seriously?” Marinette laughs as he begins to guide her around their limited dance floor.

He grins mischievously and keeps singing.

Her stomach flips as he spins her, and Marinette finds herself, strangely enough, having a lot of fun dancing with this goofball.

The song eventually comes to an end, and Chat pulls her in for a hug.

She lets him. He’s cozy, and she really doesn’t mind letting him hold her like this. It would be different if she were Ladybug, needing to keep a professional distance for their own safety and the safety of Paris, but she’s not Ladybug right now. None of the stringent rules apply. Marinette and Chat Noir can hold each other like this, and it feels right.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” he breathes into her hair.

“Keep dreaming, Chat,” she chuckles but lets him stay a minute longer.

She can’t imagine what’s going on in his head, what pain he’s suffering that makes him reach out for her and latch on like she’s a life raft. She gets the feeling that he doesn’t get held like this often.

Right now he’s comfortable with a touch of melancholy, but there have been times when she’s felt the fear and desperation in his embrace. It doesn’t cost her anything to let him hold her. In fact, it’s kind of nice. In the summer this will become an issue, but, for now, this is nice.

 

When Adrien arrives back at his room, Nathalie is sitting on his couch, arms and legs crossed, waiting for him.

She’s wearing a Chinese-inspired, peacock blue dress with an embroidered feather pattern. It’s slit halfway up the thigh on both sides and has a tasteful yet flirtatious peekaboo cutout in the chest area with a high collar. Her hair is down, and she has her contacts in.

They stare at one another for almost a full minute before Adrien hops down from the window and issues the order for Plagg to detransform him.

“…I’m…really late,” he observes sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Yes. You really are,” she tersely agrees, her fingers drumming impatiently. “Is your new phone broken too, or have you just been ignoring my calls for the last half hour?”

Adrien winces. He really didn’t think this through, did he?

“Sorry.” He tries to smile, but it comes out as a grimace. “It…was never a good time to pick up the phone?”

Her unamused glare is unwavering.

“I was at—”

“—Miss Dupain-Cheng’s house,” Nathalie finishes. “Yes. I received your note—thank you for that, by the way. I may be mad at you for your truancy, but I really did appreciate your letting me know where you were. That was very thoughtful of you, Adrien, and if you remember in the future, it would help me worry less if you could do that again.”

“Sure,” Adrien readily agrees. “I’m sorry, Nathalie. I only meant to drop by for twenty minutes, but the twenty minutes went by so fast, and I started thinking, ‘Would it be so bad if I were ten minutes late?’…but then ten minutes became twenty, and twenty became thirty, and… I wasn’t really thinking.”

Nathalie takes pity on him, uncrossing her limbs and thawing a bit. “I do understand, you know.”

Adrien blinks, his head tipping to the side. “You do?”

“Yes,” she confirms but does not elaborate. No child wants to hear about their parent’s love life. “Even though I understand, you’re still in trouble. Your father is furious.”

Adrien winces. “What did he say?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been answering my phone either.” She shrugs. Three years ago, she would have been panicking. Being unfireable clearly has done wonders for her mental health. “He’s called me three times, though. Has he called you?”

Adrien actually looks at his missed calls and winces again. “Twice.”

Nathalie nods, mentally steeling herself for her boss’s wrath. She is interrupted by an incoming text. Looking at the screen, she chuckles softly and reads, “‘Why do we even have phones if no one ever answers when I call?’”

“I’ll talk to him,” Adrien volunteers with all the eagerness of someone about to go in front of a firing squad. “I’ll…I don’t know. I’ll come up with something.”

I’ll talk to him,” Nathalie corrects. “I’ll just tell him that I had one of my fainting spells and that you were taking care of me.”

Adrien’s eyes widen. “You’d do that? Nathalie, you are epic.”

“It’s not entirely a lie.” She shrugs unconcernedly. “I did have one of my fainting spells earlier this evening. It’s not such a big deal to change the timing and lie about you being there. Besides, he’s more lenient on you when he’s worried about me. This way, no one gets yelled at.”

Adrien comes closer to inspect her appearance. She doesn’t look sick. “Nathalie, are you feeling okay? You shouldn’t force yourself, if you’re not well.”

She waves away his concern. “I’m fine now, so try not to worry yourself over it. Go ahead and finish getting dressed so that we may leave. I’ll call your father to explain and let him know we’re on our way.”

Adrien nods obediently as Nathalie gets to her feet and unlocks her phone. She pauses when she’s halfway to the door. “…I notice that Miss Dupain-Cheng will not be joining us this evening.”

He shrugs, trying to pretend that he’s not bothered. “Yeah. She had a family thing that she couldn’t get out of, so…”

“…So…” Nathalie frowns. “You went over to her house as Chat Noir for an hour?”

Adrien bites his lip. “Uh…” He averts his gaze, trying to come up with a plausible story. After a few seconds, he sighs and gives up. “Actually, she’s kind of going through some stuff right now. The guy she likes rejected her on Monday, and apparently I remind her of him, so she doesn’t really want to be around me at the moment because it upsets her, so…she can’t go to the party with me.”

Nathalie nods slowly as she tries to process. “Is that what she told you?”

“That’s what she told Chat Noir.” He gives a shrug of helplessness.

“She doesn’t know.”

Adrien shakes his head sadly. “No, but she’s going to figure it out any day now, and then she’ll hate us both. I’m trying not to think about that—Can we go to the party now? I just need to switch out my tie and cufflinks, and then I’ll be all set.”

Nathalie opens her mouth to react. She feels like she should offer some reassurance or comfort, but that has never been her role, and this seems too important to screw up. Better to not try to touch the wound.

“What’s wrong with the tie and cufflinks you’re wearing?” she replies instead.

She’s rewarded with a bright, mischievous smile that almost looks genuine. “I asked to borrow ones that Marinette made to wear to the party to show off and get her name around.”

Nathalie’s eyebrows pinch together, and she reaches up to push her glasses further up her nose, forgetting that they’re not there. “You mean Chat Noir borrowed them. How are you going to explain Adrien Agreste showing up in photos wearing them? That seems a little obvious.”

His grin widens, taking on a smug character. He’s clearly pleased with himself as he pulls out two sets of ties and cufflinks. “I asked for one for me and one for a friend to help with exposure. Adrien Agreste is the friend—Case closed.”

Nathalie shakes her head, letting a rare smile slip. “Those are actually quite nice. She makes lovely accessories.”

“Doesn’t she?” Adrien preens as if his own work is being praised.

“Which are you going to wear? I like the black and green one. It goes with the grey and black of your suit, giving it a pop of color without being garish or distracting from the rest of the outfit.” Nathalie pauses to wonder if she’s starting to sound too much like Gabriel.

“I don’t know.” Adrien purses his lips in thought, studying the two ties. “I was leaning towards the green and black one too, but if I wear the blue and grey one, I’ll match you.”

Nathalie’s eyes widen slightly. “If you like, you can take the other one with you and switch halfway through. You could say that Chat Noir thought Miss Dupain-Cheng would get more exposure if Adrien Agreste were wearing her designs.”

Adrien’s face brightens, and he nods in agreement. “Excellent idea, Nathalie!”

“Well, now that that’s settled, meet me in the car in five minutes.” She chuckles to herself as she watches him. He may not realize it yet, but his feelings are so obvious to her. He’s practically tripping over himself, he’s so lovestruck.

Chapter Text

Gabriel meets Nathalie and Adrien on the steps out front of the venue, coming down to the car to open the door for Nathalie and give her a hand out. She’s no sooner standing in front of him than he’s swept off his suit jacket, draping it over her shoulders. “I told you to go lie back down,” he whispers, resisting the urge to touch her hair or cup her cheek.

“And I told you that I was fine,” Nathalie counters. “You need me here tonight.”

“I need you farther into the future than just tonight, Nathalie,” Gabriel hisses. “Didn’t we just discuss how difficult it would be to replace you?”

“I’m fine,” she repeats, voice softening slightly. “Adrien took excellent care of me.”

“Adrien?” Gabriel blinks, suddenly remembering that there’s a world out there that consists of more than just Nathalie and that he has a son in it. He turns to look at Adrien who has been contentedly watching the entire exchange.

Gabriel clears his throat, half turning towards his son. “Thank you, Adrien. I appreciate you taking such good care of Nathalie in my absence.”

Adrien gives a shrug. “You’re welcome, but I was happy to do it. Nathalie is important to me too.” His gaze shifts to the personal assistant. “How long has this been going on, Nathalie? I seem to remember something like this happening a time or two before a couple years ago, but the way you said you’d had ‘one of your fainting fits’, it sounded like this was a pretty common occurrence.”

Nathalie sidesteps his question. “Oh, it’s not as bad as all that. Nothing for you to be concerned with, Adrien.” She buries the topic by turning to Gabriel and remarking, “Unfortunately, Miss Dupain-Cheng will be unable to join us this evening.”

“Oh?” Gabriel looks slightly disappointed before turning to gauge Adrien’s reaction. “What a shame. I was looking forward to exchanging a few words with her.”

“Yeah,” Adrien sighs, trying to look adequately discontent and yet not entirely despondent over it. “It was too last minute, and she had some obligation that she couldn’t get out of. She told me to thank you for inviting her and offering to lend her a dress. She was really grateful and super disappointed that she couldn’t make it. She sends her apologies.”

Gabriel nods, shrugging it off. “Well, that’s unfortunate, but maybe next time….” He pauses before adding, “You must be disappointed too, though.”

“More than you know.”

Adrien fakes a smile, and it’s his best one of all the fake smiles that evening. “Well, yeah, but I already asked her, and she agreed to be my date next year, so there’s that to look forward to.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s eyes widen in interest, pleased that his son is taking initiative. “Well, that’s a step in the right direction.”

“Yep.” Adrien shoves his hands in his pockets and indicates Nathalie with a tip of his head. “But don’t you think we should get Nathalie inside before she freezes?” That should officially put the conversation about Marinette to bed.

“Right, of course.” Gabriel’s hand goes to Nathalie’s back, and he begins to escort her into the hall.

Nathalie sighs, reaching up to adjust glasses that aren’t there. “Honestly, it’s not that cold out. It’s almost April,” she protests even as she obediently follows Gabriel’s lead.

Once they’ve reached the vestibule, Nathalie repays Adrien for using her as a scapegoat by casually commenting, “Gabriel, did you see Adrien’s tie?”

It is a testament to how concerned Gabriel is over Nathalie’s latest fainting fit that he didn’t fully process what his son was wearing.

Adrien might have been able to sneak by in a fez and a bowtie.

Now that Nathalie mentions it, Gabriel’s eyes narrow and zero in on the tie. “This…isn’t one of mine, is it? I don’t remember this one.”

“It’s…uh…I made Marinette lend it to me,” Adrien confesses. “I thought that if she couldn’t make it to the gala, I could at least wear something she’d made and show it off, kind of get her name out there.”

Gabriel nods his approval. “It’s very well-made, and the design is quite interesting. That was a good idea. She’s lucky to have someone with your influence on her side.”

Adrien shrugs, trying to play it cool even as he blushes. “Well, what’s the use of being rich and famous, if you can’t use it to help out your girlfriend, right?”

Adrien claps a hand over his mouth the instant he realizes what he’s said. “Friend,” he clarifies in vain. “Not girlfriend. Just friend. She’s not…” He groans, hiding his face in his hands. He blames Plagg for this. “She’d smack me if she heard me calling her my girlfriend—Not that she’s a violent person or anything! She just…”

He peeks between his fingers to find both his father and Nathalie trying (but failing) not to laugh at him.

Adrien sighs and lets his hands drop. “You know what? You were right. I should have gone to bed at a decent time last night. Coffee and concealer don’t do anything about my mouth spouting idiocy.”

“I warned him,” Gabriel snickers sotto voce to Nathalie.

“Why don’t you go find Miss Bourgeois, Adrien?” Nathalie suggests, giving him an out.

Adrien takes it. “Don’t mind if I do.” With a graceful bow, he’s off in search of Chloé.

Fortunately, she’s not hard to spot. She’s out on the dancefloor with some model in his mid-twenties who looks kind of like a Ken doll. Her dress is dazzling white with lemon yellow and black accents. She’s wearing her hair down in banana curls with a barely-there silver tiara on top in place of her usual sunglasses.

Adrien taps the lughead on the shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?” Adrien shoots the other model an innocent smile even as he thinks, “You don’t have a chance with her.”

The Ken doll grumbles under his breath but doesn’t make a scene as he bows out.

“Adri-chou!” Chloé trills, throwing her arms around his neck and scrunching her nose up in delight.

“Hey, Bee,” he chuckles, leaning in for the customary air kiss on both cheeks. He adds a third kiss to her forehead for good measure. “What did I miss?”

“Absolutely nothing,” Chloé sighs, moving into a dance hold with her hand on his hip and his on her shoulder. She begins to lead him in a waltz even though the music that the band is playing isn’t right for one.

He follows her lead, easily slipping into her rhythm. “Absolutely nothing?” he repeats. “Somehow I don’t believe it. You mean to say that no one’s asked you to marry them yet? No nouveaux riches committing horrendous etiquette or fashion faux pas? No one drunk? No one break anything yet? Wow. I’m glad I missed the first hour.”

Chloé rolls her eyes as she guides him into a spin. “Two confessions of undying love from one of the Italians and one of the Andalusians. Nouveau riche wearing a knockoff suit he paid too much for. Monsieur Rocambole and Prince Sernine are currently drinking Inspector Juve under the table—I have no idea why any of the three are here. Two broken plates; one broken glass,” she reports.

Just as he ducks to go under her arm, another plate meeting its untimely end can be heard in the background.

“Mazal tov,” they snicker in unison.

“Three broken plates; one broken glass,” Chloé amends. “You know, this game isn’t any fun to play by myself.” Suddenly she switches things up, changing to a tango, jerking him abruptly into position before throwing him into a quick dip. She grins wickedly as she yanks him back up. “Where the hell have you been?”

“Geez. What’s with the violence?” Adrien sighs, pretending to mind. “Are we doing the Argentine tango? If so, then no ganchos, Chlo. The last thing I need is you flicking those high heels of yours between my legs. You could kill a man with those things.”

“That’s the point,” she snorts, forcing Adrien into an open position for a promenade. “They’re for self-defence. Unlike the rest of my teammates, my identity isn’t a secret, so I’m susceptible to attack at any time. I have to be prepared, even in a ballgown.”

“Fair enough,” he relents. “Then I definitely don’t want those heels kicking up between my legs.”

“You’re dodging the question,” Chloé grumbles, whipping Adrien around so that his left leg flicks behind him into a boleo. “You’re never late like this. Where were you?”

“Officially?” he sighs as her thigh comes in contact with his, displacing Adrien’s leg and coaxing him into a little embellished kick of his right foot in front of his left. “Nathalie wasn’t feeling well. She fainted, and I was taking care of her. That’s why we’re late.”

Chloé hums, digesting this as she slides her leg out in front of him, forcing him to lift his own leg and step over, performing a pasada. She repeats this several times, guiding him back and forth. “Did she really pass out? Is she okay?”

“I wasn’t actually there, so I’m not sure what ‘one of her fainting spells’ entails,” Adrien sighs, dragging his foot up Chloé’s calf as he lifts his leg to step over. “I think she’s okay now…but apparently this happens from time to time, and I just didn’t know about it, so I’m kind of worried.”

Chloé stops mid-step, turning Adrien so that they’re face to face. “I’m sorry.” She gives his hand a little squeeze. “I may not always show it, but I’d be a wreck if anything happened to Jean. For kids like us, sometimes the servants are more family than our actual family, so…if you need someone to talk to…I know I’m not the most empathetic person, and I know we’re not as close lately as we used to be, but…I might be able to understand, and maybe that would help.”

She shows a rare glimmer of true kindness, and he loves her for it. He knows how hard it is for her to think of people other than herself.

Just as quickly as it came into being, the glimmer goes out. “I mean, if you don’t feel like it, that’s fine. I certainly have better things to do, and—”

He cuts her off with a quick hug. “Thanks, Chlo. I might take you up on that sometime.”

She nods, trying to regain her composure after stooping to embarrassing herself by showing genuine emotion. “Sure, but, I mean, there’s probably nothing to worry about. It’s not like our parents ever tell us anything, and your father would never let anything happen to Nathalie. He’s probably got the best doctors working on it or something, so I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape.” She’s trying to comfort him in her own way.

“Thank you, Chloé,” he chuckles, knowing that it’s probably true. “…Can I lead now?”

She snorts at the very idea. “No. I lead. I have to dance the follower’s part with all of these other pretty-boy-walking-egos. You’re the only one who bothered to learn the girl’s part too, so you’re the only one I get to lead.”

Adrien figured, but he thought he’d ask. “Oh well. It’s actually kind of nice not to have to plan out the next step myself.”

“Foxtrot,” Chloé announces, pulling him back into the proper hold and beginning the slow, slow, quick-quick pattern. They whirl about the dancefloor in companionable silence, spinning and gliding, Adrien following Chloé’s confident strides toe to toe.

“So…” she sings just when he thinks she’s forgotten about it. “Unofficially, why are you so late?”

Adrien blushes, keeping his gaze firmly out over her right shoulder, refusing to make eye contact.

“Does it have anything to do with Marinette Dupain-Cheng?” Chloé snickers, and Adrien’s brain helpfully tacks a “-Noir” onto the end.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that my tardiness has anything to do with Marinette,” Adrien grumbles.

This only gets a hardier chuckle out of Chloé. “Oh, Adri-chou…that always means ‘yes’.”

He breaks form to shoot her a sulky look. “Am I wearing a sign or something?”

“Honey, you’ve had ‘Marinette Dupain-Cheng’ written all over your face since Tuesday.” Her expression contains a hint of pity, but mostly it’s amused.

“It’s not like that,” he grumbles, going back to looking over her shoulder.

“Then please tell me what it is like because this week has been insane,” Chloé huffs. “What is even going on between you two? Suddenly you’re all goo-goo eyed over her, but she starts crying whenever you talk to her. I heard a rumor that she’d confessed to her crush—which I always thought was you—but then I heard that he turned her down for a sewing blogger or something? And then there’s Marinette’s Mystery Boy secret admirer guy. I don’t know what the hell is going on. This is the problem with not having many friends, Adrien. I’m always so out of the loop, and no one tells me anything.”

Adrien shrugs and gives her the condensed version.

Chloé purses her lips. “So, the guy that looks like you, do you think it could be that one fanboy of yours that you sometimes hang out with?”

Adrien frowns, his feet coming to a stop. “Wayem?”

“I don’t know.” Chloé rolls her eyes in a fashion that indicates that she is insulted that he thinks she would waste mental space on such an insignificant peon’s name. “The one with the brown hair and the high-pitched, shriek-y voice that dresses like you.”

Adrien had been under the assumption that he would be looking for another blonde, but Marinette never really specified in what way Adrien and her crush looked similar. Maybe Chloé is on to something.

“But…Wayem doesn’t go to our school. How would Marinette know him?” Adrien tries to keep calm and think this through logically.

Chloé shrugs, forcing him back into a dance hold and beginning a slow dance that actually matches the music the band is playing. “How would I know? Maybe they both belong to one of your fanclubs or something. Why are you so hung up on finding out who rejected Marinette? They’re obviously not into her, so they’re not your rival in love or anything.”

Adrien makes a mental note to text Wayem later to find out if he’s met Marinette and, if so, if he knows of any good sewing blogs. “Chlo, I keep telling everybody that it’s not like that. I’m really not interested in Marinette romantically; I only want to be better friends with her, and I need to find out who her crush is so that…”

He trails off, realizing that he doesn’t know why it’s so important for him to know who Marinette’s crush is. So he can try to beat him up for her? So he knows whom to direct his irrational anger toward? …So he knows what kind of guy Marinette is into? But what good would any of that do him?

“…So that?” Chloé prompts impatiently.

He smiles sheepishly, throwing on his model charm to make up for his lack of a valid response. “I don’t know. I guess…” Suddenly the answer comes to him. “I think it will help me understand her better. It’s a piece of the puzzle I’m trying to solve.”

Chloé nods, clearly not satisfied. “May I ask why you’re suddenly obsessed with her out of the blue, if it’s not romantic? It kind of comes across as you having a thing for broken, depressed girls since her getting rejected and having a meltdown is what seems to have flipped your switch. Monday, she gets turned down, and then—bam!—Tuesday, you’re all about Marinette Dupain-Cheng. You see how this looks, right?”

Adrien chews on his lip as Chloé slowly turns them. “Yeah, okay. I can see how it might look to other people, but…I can’t really explain it. This week, I talked to her, and I saw a side of her that I hadn’t known existed. We’re more alike than I had realized, and—”

“—Wait. You talked to her?” Chloé snorts in disbelief. “And she got more than three coherent sentences out so that you could see a side of her you hadn’t seen before?” Chloé cocks a skeptical eyebrow. “Was this before or after she ran away crying?”

An idea occurs to Adrien. “Online. We talked online. I recognized her username because it’s the same one she uses for another site, but she doesn’t know that the guy she’s talking to is actually me.”

Chloé’s eyes widen in surprise, and she gives a small nod. “Oh. Oooh. You’re her secret Mystery Boy that she can’t tell anyone about,” Chloé gasps. “…Adri-chou, why did you never tell me you could sing? You’re magnificent. We need to get you a record deal; I’ll have Daddy arrange it.”

Adrien grimaces. “Whoa, Chloé. Hold on. Thank you, but I’m not really interested in a record deal right now. Marinette can’t figure out who I am. It would upset her, and then she wouldn’t want to associate with me online as well as in real life, and I don’t want to lose her friendship. It’s bad enough as is that I’m misleading her. Please.” He pins her with a look of desperation, emerald green eyes shimmering at her. “You can’t say or do anything.”

She’s always been a sucker for his eyes. “Fine,” she grumbles. “Whatever. Delay your singing career for Marinette Dupain-Cheng. See if I care.”

“Thank you, Chloé.” He leans in, depositing a kiss of gratitude on her temple.

She grumbles a reluctant, “You’re welcome.”

They carry on slow-dancing in silence for a minute or two before Chloé tentatively inquires, “So…you just want to be better friends with her? That’s it? I don’t see what the big fuss is. Why is that so appealing to you that you’re going to all this trouble and secrecy over it?”

Adrien considers a moment before answering, “She listens to me, and whatever I’m thinking or feeling, that’s okay. She doesn’t judge me…she doesn’t like me any less because of it, and I can tell her anything, Chloé. About my mother, my father…all the really awful, dark things that I’m afraid to say out loud to anyone else…I can tell her. She listens, and even though I can tell that she feels like she’s in over her head when I say some of that stuff, she does her best to be supportive and let me know that it’s okay to not be happy and smiling all the time.”

Chloé bites her lip as she wonders why he’s never thought to talk to her about any of this. He’ll briefly hint at things from time to time, but he hasn’t poured his heart out to her since they were children. It kind of stings, but somewhere inside Chloé finds it within herself to be happy that Adrien finally found someone else with whom he could get those things off his chest.

“Chloé, I’ve had more deep, honest conversations with Marinette this week than I’ve had with anyone else in years. That’s what’s worth all the trouble and secrecy. This is what’s been missing in my life.”

“It sounds to me like you just need a therapist,” Chloé scoffs.

The hurt look on Adrien’s face instantly makes her regret it.

“Sorry,” she forces the word out. It’s easier because she actually feels it. “Ignore me. I’m just jealous…but I’m also glad that you found her…. Just…be careful, Adrien. She’s not some perfect angel sent down from heaven to save you. She’s just a human being with her own problems to deal with. Don’t be too disappointed when she’s not everything you need her to be.”

Adrien fixes his gaze over Chloé’s shoulder. “I know…she’s been talking to me about some of her issues too. She’s only seventeen; I don’t expect her to save me.”

“Good. Because as spectacular as you think she is, no one human being can be everything for another. You’ll only get hurt if you idolize her and pin all of your hopes on her.”

An image of Ladybug smiling and reaching down to help him up flickers into Adrien’s head.

“No,” he sighs. “I already tried that before, and it tore me up on the inside worse than when I started. No more idolizing.”

Chloé tenses slightly, wondering whom he could be talking about. It really has been years since they truly confided in one another, and sometimes she worries that she doesn’t actually know Adrien anymore.

“Okay,” Chloé sighs softly. “…So, if Marinette’s so great, why are you not interested in her romantically?”

Chloé catches a sad smile coming to Adrien’s lips out of the corner of her eye.

“We’re both kind of emotionally wrecked at the moment. Neither of us is in any shape to start a stable, healthy relationship, so…yeah, she’s gorgeous, and I could see myself maybe falling for her someday, if things were different, but…her friendship is incredibly important to me. That above all else is what I want to protect, and, right now, that precludes any kind of romantic relationship.”

Chloé nods her approval, accepting his answer. “Okay. That’s actually really level-headed and mature of you, Adrien. I know that if I found a guy like that, I would totally dive headfirst into a whirlwind romance with him. We’d probably end up in bed after a week and completely mess everything up.”

Adrien winces and sighs, “Yeah, I’m trying really hard to stay out of Marinette’s bed. Right now, the goal is to translate the relationship we have online to the relationship between Marinette and Adrien, so…”

“Well, if you ever think of anything I can do to help with that, let me know,” Chloé offers. “I don’t expect there to be anything, since Marinette and I mutually loathe one another, but you never know, right?”

Adrien laughs at the thought of Chloé being his wingman with Marinette. “Thanks, Bee. I don’t think so either, but I really appreciate it anyway.”

“…We should maybe make an effort to hang out more often,” Chloé remarks after a beat. She smiles nervously. “I miss you.”

He’s taken by surprise at her sudden show of vulnerability. “Yeah. I would like that. I miss you too, Chlo.”

Chloé blushes, looking away. “I mean, Sabrina is absolutely incompetent when it comes to doing my nails. I obviously need you back in my life.”

Adrien breaks into a chuckle. “Typical Chloé.” “Any time. Just give me a call or a text, and we can plan something.”

They tentatively agree on breakfast the following weekend, and the conversation drifts to lighter topics such as Chloé’s new Via Spigas and Adrien’s new piano before Chloé’s Andalusian suitor comes to cut in.

Adrien graciously bows out, assuring Chloé that he’ll “Talk to you later” before going to start his rounds, chatting with the long list of clients and backers his father expects him to schmooze with. He manages to work in mentions of Marinette and her work where appropriate without coming off as too eager. Much to his delight, there seems to be genuine interest, more than just people being polite because of who his father is.

All in all, the evening turns out to be rather successful.

 

“Dude, I’m telling you that Marvel wins hands down,” Nino sighs as they sit by the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Adrien shakes his head. “Nino, you’re never going to convince me when DC is clearly better.”

“You have bad opinions,” Nino groans.

Adrien kicks Nino’s chair.

Nino guffaws. “Dude, be careful. Yer gonna knock me into the water with the ducks, and that water is disgusting.”

“You’d deserve it. You’re mean,” Adrien pouts as he gets to his feet. “Come on. I wanna go get some brunch, so let’s walk while you insult and belittle me.”

Nino shrugs and gets up to follow. “The Avengers, man.”

Adrien stubbornly shakes his head. “I liked Suicide Squad better.”

Nino mirrors Adrien. “You need to see Deadpool 2. It was even better than the first one.”

“I didn’t really care for the first one,” Adrien snorts, guiding them out of the park and north towards the Seine and the Ile de la Cité.

“Lies. Come on, you like that kind of rogue, antihero vibe,” Nino coaxes.

“I like Batman,” Adrien corrects. “He gives all of us rich kids with mommy and daddy issues some hope for the future.”

Nino sucks in a breath and pulls a face. “Mec, Batman is not a good role model. Please.”

On the inside, Adrien is cracking up. If Nino only knew.

“Fine,” Adrien snickers, running his fingers along the bark of a tree, the black wrought iron bars of a fence as they pass. “How about Wonder Woman? Wonder Woman beats out Marvel all on her own.”

“Meh.” Nino wiggles his hand, open palm down.

“What do you mean ‘meh’?” Adrien snorts indignantly. “How dare you?”

Nino gives Adrien a playful elbow in the arm. “You’re biased because she reminds you of someone.”

Adrien promptly wilts. “…Yeah…. She does.”

“Whoa. Dude, what happened?” Nino eyes his friend in concern.

Adrien shakes his head. “I’ve sort of decided that I need to give up on Ladybug for my own good.”

“You…sort of decided? Or are you for sure doing this?” Nino asks hesitantly, wary of pushing the wrong button.

“I’m doing it,” Adrien answers with slightly more conviction. “I’m giving up on Ladybug. I’ve already wasted four years of my life pining after someone who’s never going to return my feelings; running along after her wagging my tail for any longer would just be pathetic.” He looks up and gives Nino a broken smile. “Besides, you were right. It’s just a ridiculous celebrity crush. I don’t know her—not the real her. Chat Noir probably doesn’t even know the real her, and he’s the one who spends the most time with her. I’m wasting my life chasing after a phantom, so it’s time to stop and try to move on…eventually find a real girl who I can get to know and who can get to know me…as hard as that is to admit.”

Nino claps a supportive hand on Adrien’s shoulder. He keeps it there for a long moment before giving Adrien’s arm two pats and letting go. “That’s probably for the best, Mec.… Don’t worry. It might not feel like it now, but there are other really great girls out there. You’ll find your princess eventually.”

Adrien nearly trips but manages to catch himself before he ends up on the pavement. “M-My what?” he chokes.

Nino raises an eyebrow but graciously does not comment. “Your princess, Dude. Don’t girls always talk about finding their prince? Wouldn’t it make sense if guys found their princess? I mean, mine turned out to be a journalist, but…”

“Oh!” Adrien laughs nervously, his heart still up in his throat. “Yeah, no. That totally makes sense. Sorry. For a second there I thought you meant Princess—with a capital ‘P’—like from the papers.”

Nino’s eyes widen, and then he chuckles, amused at the confusion. “Oh, Marinette? Dude, no. She’s Chat Noir’s princess. You can’t have that one; I honestly think he’d fight you over her.”

“Right.” Adrien bites his tongue in an attempt not to swallow it. “Yeah, he’d completely destroy anyone who tried to mess with his princess.” He tries to imagine how a fight between Adrien and Chat Noir would play out. Unfortunately, he thinks he knows which side Marinette would be cheering on, and it’s not Adrien’s. “He’d kick my butt for sure.”

Nino notes the funky atmosphere that has become localized around Adrien and attempts to clear it away. “Speaking of Marinette…”

Adrien tenses.

“…Your decision to give up on Ladybug…that wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with her would it? The timing is kind of…” Nino shrugs. “I mean…this week you’ve been a little…” He bites his lip, trying to finesse things. “…well…you know.”

Adrien turns to frown in bewilderment at his best friend. “Uh…no, I’m afraid that I don’t know.”

“Dude, you’ve been acting like a lovesick puppy,” Nino clarifies bluntly, tossing tact out the window. “I know you said it wasn’t like that, like, a dozen times, but you’ve been staring at her every opportunity you get with this look like you want to go over and wrap your arms around her and nuzzle her, but you know you can’t, and it’s just eating you up on the inside.”

Adrien’s jaw drops. “I…I don’t…”

Who knew that Nino could read him so well? It really has been driving him crazy all week that Marinette is so close and yet completely inaccessible to Adrien. What Chat Noir could do so easily—elbow her playfully, rest his chin on her shoulder, touch her hair—is impossible for Adrien. It makes him feel invisible. He’s right there, literally sitting in front of her, but she doesn’t see Chat Noir.

“And then there’s the doodling,” Nino sighs, sick of being perplexed.

“Doodling?” This time, Adrien has no earthly clue what Nino is talking about. “What doodling?”

Nino rolls his eyes, incredulous that Adrien is seriously trying to play dumb. “In the margins of your notebook. Dude, I sit right beside you; I can see you doing it.”

Adrien continues to look nonplussed. “Doing what?”

Nino’s frown makes his disapproval known. “Writing her name. Over and over again in different fonts as you stare off into space.”

“Really?” This is news to Adrien.

Nino’s annoyance slowly turns to bafflement. “Seriously, Dude? You really don’t know that you’re doing it? Open your Lit notebook to the notes you were taking in class yesterday. I kid you not, in the margins, it says ‘Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Noir’, like, at least twenty times.”

Adrien’s hearing goes out. Nino’s still talking, but it’s muffled to the point of unintelligibility.

Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Noir.

That proves it. There’s no way that Nino could be making it up—exaggerating, maybe. Maybe it’s only written five or six times instead of twenty, but—there’s no way that Adrien didn’t write it like Nino says.

“—with little hearts and pawprints dotting the ‘i’s!” Nino’s voice once more becomes audible. “I mean, I know Alya can get really intense about her ships, but…Dude, it’s a little weird for you to be daydreaming about Marinette and Chat Noir getting together. Could you please explain this to me?”

Adrien bites his lip and decides to go with the truth: “I don’t know.”

Nino nods, trying to be patient. “You…don’t know?”

Adrien shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. I didn’t even know I was doing it, Nino. I was exhausted yesterday and basically just running on caffeine. Maybe that had something to do with it.”

“How about the fact that you told me you were up until three AM thinking about her?” Nino presses, moving over to the right side of the sidewalk as they pass a young mother walking the other direction.

Adrien shakes his head. “How can I help thinking about her? I’ve been worried about her all week. I’ve been thinking about what if she gets akumatized. I’ve been thinking about who the guy who rejected her could be. I’ve been agonizing over how I can’t do anything to help her, and whenever I try, I only make her burst into tears. I’ve been feeling useless and worrying about if she secretly hates me. She’s on my mind for a lot of different reasons, Nino, and none of them are of a romantic nature.”

Nino nods again, not responding right away. He can sense that it’s time to back off. “…Okay. That’s fine, Dude. I was thinking maybe you were in denial about your feelings, but if that’s not it, then that’s not it.”

“It’s not like that,” Adrien sighs, kicking at a rock and missing. “and I’m beginning to think that I’m under a curse where I have to have some version of this same conversation with a different person every day for the rest of my life. This is the third day in a row that I’ve had to explain that I’m not interested in Marinette romantically and that I just want to get to know her better so we can be friends.”

Nino lifts an eyebrow. “Who else did you have this conversation with?”

Adrien groans. “Well, for starters, my father at, like, two in the morning Thursday night going into Friday. Then with Chloé at the party last night. My father thinks I’m in denial and that I really do have feelings for her, so he’s trying to help set me up. Chloé…my conversation with Chloé actually went pretty well. She understood where I was coming from, and I really think she got it.”

“Well, what did you tell Chloé then?” Nino prompts, hoping to have a similarly successful discussion.

Adrien reflects for a minute, gathering his thoughts. He knows he won’t be able to tell Nino the same story as he told Chloé about talking with Marinette online. It won’t work. “I explained to her how I’m really messed up right now emotionally, so I’m not in any shape to have a relationship, but I see how Marinette is with other people. I want something like that with her. On Monday, you made me realize how we don’t know one another well, and I’m desperate to fix that. I realize that now isn’t really a good time, but…stupidly, I can’t stop trying. At heart, I’m just like all the other rich kids: I’m really bad at accepting that I can’t have what I want.”

“Okay,” Nino sighs, still not sure that he buys it. Adrien sounds like he’s lying to himself. “There’s no point in pushing you, if you’re still trying to figure things out yourself,” Nino decides. “…So long as you’re certain that you just want to be friends with Marinette. Just don’t change your mind about that.”

Adrien slows his pace to better study Nino’s expression. “What do you mean? Change my mind about wanting to be friends with Marinette?”

“Change your mind about wanting to be just friends with Marinette,” Nino amends. “Whatever you do, don’t go falling in love with her now as you try to move on from Ladybug. You’ll get your heart stomped on all over again.”

Adrien blinks, coming to a stop. “Why? Why do you say that? Does she secretly hate me? She said she wanted to be friends once she’s done having her meltdown over that toad that broke her heart,” Adrien pleads, as if Nino has any control over Marinette’s feelings towards Adrien. “I heard a rumor that she was only acting weird around me because I look a lot like that guy, so I remind her of what happened. Is that not it? Did I do something? Nino, this is serious,” Adrien pleads. “You have to tell me what’s going on. What did I do? Please.”

Nino chews on his bottom lip as he reaches out to put his hands on Adrien’s shoulders. He wonders where Adrien keeps hearing these bizarre rumors. “Look,” he sighs. “Mec, it’s fine. Everything is fine. Marinette doesn’t hate you. She gave you the macarons the other day and told you herself; you remember. You didn’t do anything, so just chillax a bit, okay?”

Adrien hangs his head and reluctantly falls into step beside Nino. He knows Nino isn’t telling him the truth. “Fine,” he mumbles.

“Dude, you can be her friend eventually…just not right now. Remember how you were supposed to be giving her space?”

Adrien gives a halfhearted shrug.

“Okay. Let me remind you,” Nino sighs, dissatisfied with Adrien’s response. “You are supposed to be giving her space.”

“Why?” Adrien snaps. “Why do I have to give her space? Who says that that’s what’s best? Maybe I should give her less space. Maybe exposure therapy is what she needs. Maybe if I’m around her all the time, she’ll stop seeing that slug when she looks at me and start seeing me. If she could just see the real me, she wouldn’t burst into tears all the time; she’d be able to be around me. Heck, I bet she would even like me! Why do I have to give her space?”

“Adrien,” Nino groans, sweeping off his hat to run a hand through his hair. “Come on. You know you’re being selfish. Yer gonna get her akumatized.”

“What’s so selfish?” Adrien scoffs back. “Maybe she’s the one that’s going to get me akumatized. You’ve seen what a mess I’ve been this week.”

Somewhere in the back of Adrien’s mind, a thought rumbles: “That was manipulative, trying to make him feel sorry for you and give you what you want. You know you’re not going to get akumatized. Your father is tuning you out because he doesn’t want to deal with you.”

Nino shakes his head. “Yeah,” he breaths. “The thought had crossed my mind, but Paris needs her.”

Adrien stops walking and stares blankly at his best friend. It feels like his stomach jumped off a cliff and still hasn’t hit the bottom of the ravine.

It takes a minute for his defence mechanisms to kick in, and he laughs, smiling brightly at just about the second Nino realizes how his words might come across to someone who doesn’t know Marinette’s secret.

“Wow,” Adrien chuckles. “I mean, I don’t disagree, and I’ve often thought to myself ‘Paris doesn’t need you’, but, somehow, it feels different when someone else says it out loud.”

“Dude. Dude, that is not what I meant.” Nino waves his arms frantically, at a loss as to how he can fix this without outing Ladybug.

Adrien resumes walking, keeping his carefree grin cemented on.

“Adrien,” Nino sighs, trotting to keep up with Adrien’s power walk. “Don’t smile like that.”

“Like what?” Adrien feigns ignorance. “I’m just smiling.”

“No, you’re not.” Nino’s mind whirls, grasping at straws. “That’s your ‘I hate life’ smile.”

Adrien’s grin falters momentarily, slipping into a frown of confusion. “You’ve catalogued them?” He schools his expression back into a grin. “What’s this one?”

Nino grimaces. “That’s the scary one—the one that makes me want to hide all the sharp objects.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adrien snorts. “I’m smiling because I’m happy. I mean, how could I not be happy? I’m rich and famous and gorgeous, and everybody loves me. Of course Paris needs me; who else’s face would they put all over the billboards?” His laugh boarders on maniacal. “And, I mean, I have such good friends that it doesn’t matter that I’m not allowed to hang out with them very much, and I know how much my father loves me, even though he never makes an effort to spend time with me. Plus, I’m totally unaffected by my mom running out on me when I was thirteen. Why would I not be happy? My life is perfect! I’m not a complete mess. Why would you have to worry about hiding the sharp objects?”

Nino grabs Adrien and pulls him into a hug.

Adrien is so shocked that he goes rigid, unsure of what to do.

“Just stop for a sec, okay?” Nino’s trembling. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Oh?” Adrien’s shield lowers slightly. “How did you mean it?”

“I meant…” Suddenly an idea strikes. “Chat Noir. Don’t you think he’d be a wreck if his girlfriend got akumatized? He wouldn’t be able to fight against her. I know I wouldn’t be able to fight Alya, if it were me. Ladybug would be on her own, and—not that I think Ladybug couldn’t handle it, but—Paris would be in serious trouble. So what I was thinking when I said that was that Paris needs Marinette to be safe and not akumatized.” Nino pulls back to look Adrien in the eye. “Does that make sense?”

Adrien considers.

“Come on, Adrien. You know I love you, Man. I would never imply that the world would be better off without you. You know that,” Nino pleads, trying to make his case.

“Sorry,” Adrien concedes. “I guess I’m just used to everyone I love and trust turning on me, so I didn’t think you would be any different.”

Nino stares, studying Adrien’s face, but there’s no hint of malice or backhandedness to Adrien’s voice. He isn’t being spiteful. He’s just stating a fact. “Really, Dude? You know I’m not like that.”

Adrien shakes his head. “My mother didn’t seem like that either, but she still abandoned me. My father has been selling me to whatever product marketing campaign pays the right price for years.” He silently adds, “and Ladybug only keeps me around to help with the akuma without wanting to really get to know me.” “…Nino, what foundation do I have that tells me that what we have now is going to last? I want to believe that you’re different, but, so far, no one else has been.”

Adrien waits expectantly for Nino’s answer. He ends up waiting for a solid minute because Nino is too aghast to say anything.

When he finally does speak, all that comes out is, “Shit, Dude.”

Adrien breaks away, turning on his heel and resuming his original course. “Never mind. Forget that I said anything.”

Why is Sunday night so far away? Would Marinette object to Chat Noir showing up on her balcony in the middle of the day? He could really use some head pats.

“Whoa. Dude, no,” Nino hurries to catch up. “Adrien…are you okay?”

“I will be once I get some brunch,” Adrien lies, refusing to meet Nino’s gaze.

Nino has no clue what to say, so he just concentrates on keeping up, trusting that the right words will come eventually. Two minutes later, when the “right words” have still yet to materialize, Nino gives up and asks, “Is there anything I can do?” because he has to say something, and no better options are forthcoming.

He knew that Adrien’s life was warped, but it had never truly sunk in how bad things actually were.

Adrien purses his lips, not answering right away. “…You could tell me who Marinette’s crush is.”

Nino groans and shakes his head. “Dude, no. You know I can’t. Alya would—”

“—You know what, Nino? Surprisingly, reminding me how your girlfriend is more important to you than I am is not making me feel better. Thanks for trying, though.” Adrien takes his fake smile back out and staples it on.

“Adrien, that’s not fair,” Nino grumbles, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to just let Adrien get akumatized. Ladybug and Chat Noir would save his sorry behind, and the incident should bring enough attention to how poorly Adrien is doing that Adrien’s father should finally agree to get his son some help. The boy has obviously needed a shrink for years now.

Meanwhile, a little voice that sounds suspiciously like Marinette’s is buzzing in Adrien’s ear: “That’s manipulative, Chat.”

Adrien comes to a stop with a sigh. He looks up at Nino with a kicked puppy expression. “I’m sorry, Nino. Forget I said anything, okay? I’ve had a rough week, and I haven’t been sleeping well, and I just want Marinette to be my friend because she’s, like, the third most awesome person I’ve ever met, and I’m really ripped up about the whole giving up on Ladybug thing, so please forgive me for acting insane…okay?”

Nino bites his lip, studying Adrien once more. With a sigh, he reaches out and places a solid hand on Adrien shoulder, giving Adrien a solemn look. “Adrien, it’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong, okay?”

“I feel like I did,” Adrien mumbles.

“Fine. Then I forgive you.” Nino doesn’t bother arguing. “Can you forgive me?”

Adrien’s brow scrunches into a befuddled frown. “For what?”

“For making you feel like you’re not important enough,” Nino elaborates. “For not realizing how much pain you’re in.”

Adrien shakes his head. “I know I’m not—”

The word “important” dies on his lips as the image of Marinette screaming at him and crying floats to the surface of his mind. He’s important to Marinette.

“…any competition for Alya,” Adrien modifies. “And, I mean…that’s okay because it’s not like I want to be your girlfriend or anything, but…I’m just jealous because you three always seem to have secrets that I’m not a part of. Marinette confides in you two, but not Adrien, and sometimes you and Alya will go off and whisper, and I…I sound pathetic and whiney, don’t I?”

“Dude, you don’t,” Nino assures. “I’m sorry…. You do know that I love you, Adrien, right?”

Adrien nods.

“I really do care about you,” Nino stresses.

“I know.” Adrien wonders what Nino is getting at.

“And I’d be really wrecked if anything ever happened to you, okay?” Suddenly Adrien sees what Nino is leading up to.

“Okay,” he agrees meekly.

Nino struggles to get the next question out. He doesn’t want to, but he knows that he has to ask. “…Adrien, you’re not thinking about hurting yourself, are you?”

Adrien looks away, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “…Not concretely, no.”

Nino nods, blowing out a long breath. “Okay. That’s good. Thank you for telling me…. You know, if you ever do start thinking about it concretely—or even if you just start thinking about it abstractly—you can call me. I want you to call me. It doesn’t matter if it’s three AM and we have a chemistry test the next day; I want you to call me.”

“…I’ll think about it,” Adrien concedes.

Nino gives him the thumbs up. “Good. Thank you.”

There’s a beat of awkward silence before Adrien works up the courage to ask, “Are we…okay now?”

“Yeah, Dude,” Nino readily agrees.

“You’re not mad at me or anything?” Adrien hesitantly tests the waters. He and Nino have had small spats over the years, but this is their first major falling out. Adrien doesn’t have a lot of experience with fights, but now he’s fought with both Nino and Alya in the same week. He’s seen in movies where friends make up after fights, but he’s not sure that that’s how it works in real life. In Adrien’s experience, once something is broken, it usually stays broken.

“No, Dude,” Nino assures, sounding a little surprised. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”

Adrien shakes his head. “No…. So…we just…go get brunch now?” He’s not quite sure how this is supposed to work.

Nino nods his approval. “Sounds like a plan. I assume you have some place in particular in mind, since you seem to be leading the way?”

A genuine smile comes to Adrien’s face as he remembers his original plan. He checks the time on his phone and finds that they’re still on schedule. “Yep. I want pain au chocolat, and there’s only one place that will do.”

“Where’s that?” Nino inquires as he takes a minute to assess their surroundings.

“You’ll see,” Adrien chuckles, a grin of excited anticipation spreading wide on his lips.

They walk four more blocks, and Nino is horrified to find that they’ve come to a stop out in front of Tom and Sabine’s.

“Dude, no,” Nino hisses, visions of Tom beating Adrien to death with a bread peel playing on the screen of his mind. “Any other bakery in Paris—take your pick—just not this one.”

Adrien clicks his tongue. “Nino, if I’m going to blow my diet and risk having my dietitian and my father furious at me, I insist on eating pastries that are worth it. This is the only bakery in Paris, as far as I’m concerned.”

Adrien makes a move towards the door, but Nino intercepts him.

“Dude, no!” Nino is panicking on the inside, and he’s not doing such a great job of hiding it externally either. “Okay. Okay. Confession time: Marinette’s parents might be under the mistaken belief that you’re part of the reason why Marinette has been so upset lately. You are not going to receive a warm welcome if you go in there. We should really try to find another bakery, Mec.”

Adrien purses his lips, considering his options. “Do me a favor. Text Marinette and see if she’s home.”

Nino raises an eyebrow in suspicion. “Why?”

“I’m not gonna bother her. Just see if she’s in,” Adrien urges.

With a sigh, Nino obeys, and within twenty seconds they have their answer.

“She just got out of bed not too long ago, and she’s still getting dressed,” Nino summarizes. “I ask you again: why do you need to know this?”

Adrien smirks. “If she wasn’t home, there would be no point in bothering her parents, but since the princess is in…” He takes advantage of Nino’s lowered guard to push open the bakery door and slip inside.

“Dude!” Nino barks, scrambling in after Adrien. “Your princess is in another castle; leave this one alone!”

Chapter Text

Thankfully, the bakery is experiencing the typical pre-lunch lull when Adrien and Nino arrive, so there are only two or three other people sitting in the café to witness whatever scene is going to unfold.

Tom and Sabine are both up at the counter, and Tom tenses when he spots Adrien. His brow creases, and his shoulders rise up to his ears, the muscles in his arms going tight as he brings his hands to his hips. He inclines forward slightly at the head and looks for all the world like a bull about to charge and skewer the man who has ripped his beloved daughter’s heart out.

Fortunately, Sabine’s fury is like a glacier where Tom’s is like a volcano. She manages to keep a cool head and intervene before anything can get broken (be it bones or china or otherwise). “Tom, I need you to go move those sacks of flour I mentioned earlier.”

Tom opens his mouth to protest, but Sabine cuts him off with a hiss. “Now, Dear.”

Tom lets out a guttural growl of displeasure but does as his wife bids.

Meanwhile, Nino makes all kinds of apologetic gestures behind Adrien’s back. He silently mouths, “I am SO sorry! I couldn’t stop him. There was nothing I could do. I tried to stop him. I am SO sorry!” He hopes that his frantic arm movements adequately convey how helpless and lacking in agency (and, therefore, blame) he is.

“Good Morning, Madame Dupain-Cheng,” Adrien greets brightly.

Nino winces. “Adrien. My Dude, we should go. We shouldn’t be here.”

“Good Morning, Monsieur Agreste,” Sabine returns stiffly, formally.

The temperature in the bakery noticeably drops.

“What can we do for you today?” Her tone carries a hint of “hurry and order and leave”.

“I would like a pain au chocolat, two strawberry cheesecake macarons, and a hot chocolate, please.”

“That will be eleven euros,” Sabine reports, taking his money and handing him his receipt before going to get together his pastries and drink.

While Nino orders (receiving much warmer service), Adrien goes to a table at the midway point of the café and makes himself at home with his back to the door. He stealthily maneuvers the macarons into his satchel for Plagg.

Nino joins Adrien a minute later, a disgruntled look still on his face. “Dude, you are so not cool. You’re lucky Mama Cheng called off Papa Dupain. I’m serious, Mec; you can’t just waltz in the front door. Remember when Romeo invited himself to the Capulets’ party? It’s kind of like that.”

Adrien smiles innocently. “Yeah. Romeo meets Juliet and they fall in love and get married and eventually bring their families together again in the end.”

Nino shoots Adrien a deadpan look like a throwing dart. “I was referring to the fighting and the maiming and the killing aspects of the play.”

Adrien shrugs. “I don’t actually like that play. I fail to see the appeal of hormonal teenagers making stupid, rash decisions.”

“Believe it or not, I’m not having a whole lot of fun with that right now either,” Nino snorts.

Adrien ignores his friend. “Now, Twelfth Night is really something. Viola and Duke Orsino’s is a good love story. They manage to fall in love despite the lies and her keeping her identity secret.”

Nino shrugs, beginning to pick at his quiche. “Haven’t seen that one. Not really a big fan of Shakespeare after Romeo and Juliet in Lit last year.”

Adrien sighs. “Just watch She’s the Man with Amanda Bynes. That pretty much does it justice.”

He lifts his hot chocolate to his lips and gives an experimental sip. It’s good—rich and thick and creamy with a hint of spice that curls around his tongue—but it’s not the same as the hot chocolate that Marinette made for Chat on Monday night. Some ingredient is missing, but he’s not sure if it’s nutmeg or cardamom or chili powder.

“Adrien?” Nino nudges Adrien’s foot with his own, finally succeeding in getting his friend’s attention. “When convenient, please come out of your hot chocolate trance and explain to me what we’re doing here. You’re not hoping to run into Marinette, are you?”

Adrien gives an enigmatic shrug and checks his phone for the time.

It should be any minute now.

“Why would I purposely put myself in her path when I know she doesn’t want to see me?” He feigns innocence, giving Nino a sweet smile.

Nino groans. “Because you’re a single-minded wreck with no willpower, Dude.”

Adrien opens his mouth to defend his honor but is promptly interrupted by the arrival of a deliveryman carrying an awkward, oblong package about the size and shape of five ironing boards stacked together.

Nino raises an eyebrow at Adrien’s obvious interest, but he gives up after a minute and turns to watch the deliveryman approaching the front counter. “I have a package for a Miss Marinette Dupain-Cheng?”

Sabine’s first thought is to ask why the deliveryman is trekking through the shop instead of ringing at the side residence door like she and her family always indicate whenever they order anything. She quickly sets this aside, as it is too late to do anything about it now and there is a deliveryman with a large parcel standing in the middle of her bakery to deal with.

“I’m her mother. I can sign for it.” Sabine holds out her hands for the clipboard.

The deliveryman frowns. “I’m sorry. I have specific instructions to deliver it directly to Miss Dupain-Cheng. Is she here?”

Sabine purses her lips and lets out a slow sigh. “Just a minute, please.”

She goes around back and can be heard asking Tom to run up and fetch Marinette.

It’s only a minute or two later that the girl in question makes an appearance, coming through the back of the bakery wearing a skirt and legwarmers over thick tights and an off-the-shoulder crop top with a spaghetti strap tank top underneath. Her hair is mostly down with only the top section tied back with a pink ribbon. The outfit as a whole gives the effect of an extra in the musical Fame.

“I don’t remember ordering anything,” Marinette hums as she signs.

“Does it say who it’s from?” Tom takes the box from the deliveryman and inspects it.

“There’s a card,” Sabine observes, gently tearing it free of the tape keeping it secured to the box. She chuckles as she reads the front: “To my princess, from Minou.”

“Oh my God,” Marinette laughs, half a chuckle, half an exaggerated groan. She takes the card from her mother and opens it to read to herself: “Dear Princess, Just a little gift to assist the great designer Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Noir with her neon tulle phase. Smile!”

“Oh my God, he didn’t!” Marinette giggles, setting the card on the counter and going for the box. She peeks inside and squeals. “He did!” She pulls out one of seven bolts of neon-colored tulle. “Oh my gosh. I don’t know if I should smack him or hug him. This is ridiculous. Where does he get off spending all this money on me on a joke? Stupid rich people.”

“Is it a joke, if he knows you’ll actually use the material?” Sabine challenges, pulling out a bolt of ice blue tulle.

“No?” Marinette smiles sheepishly, bouncing a little in excitement as she pulls out another bolt, this one in midnight blue. “These are gonna be perfect for my Odile dress!” she chuckles gleefully.

“Oh, no,” Tom sighs. “She’s got that look on her face.”

Sabine nods in confirmation. “She’s going to be up in her room creating all day.”

“Don’t start here in the bakery, Sweetheart.” Tom puts one hand on Marinette’s back while the other starts shepherding the bolts of tulle back into their box. “Why don’t I take this upstairs for you? You can run wild up there.”

“Thank you, Papa.” Marinette gives her father a grateful kiss on the cheek and watches longingly as her tulle disappears around back.

“You have a good friend,” Sabine observes, shooting her daughter a knowing smile.

Marinette shrugs, unable to keep her exhilaration under wraps. “My boy is the best.”

Nino turns to ask Adrien how he knew Chat Noir was going to have a package delivered to Marinette’s house at that exact time, but Adrien is already on his feet and set on a collision course with Marinette. Nino nearly face-plants into his quiche. He gives up. Let the world end; see if he cares. He is too fatigued to prevent this when Adrien is dead set on driving straight off this metaphorical cliff.

“Hey, Marinette,” Adrien chuckles sheepishly, rubbing at the back of his neck as he summons up his model’s smile.

Marinette jumps. “Oh! A-Adrien!” Her eyes take on a panicked expression, like she was expecting a stick but has instead picked up a snake. “W-What are you doing here?”

He puts up his hands placatingly. “Sorry. Just give me two seconds, and I’ll leave you alone. I didn’t come to bother you. I’m just here for the pain au chocolat…and to return something.”

She blinks and eyes him warily. “Return something?”

He holds out the ties, neatly folded, as well as the cufflinks.

Marinette turns to stone. “Where did you get those.” Even her voice is cold and monotone. Her face reveals horror and racing thoughts.

He doesn’t keep her in suspense: “Last night at the gala, an acquaintance asked if I would help him get your name out by showing off your designs. I insisted on returning them myself so I could be the one to give you all the business cards people gave me to pass on to you.” He takes eleven out of his pocket and surrenders them with the ties and cufflinks. “They all really liked your craftsmanship and said that if you wanted a summer internship to put together a portfolio and contact them. It’s not a for sure thing, but at least it’s a foot in the door, and I’m confident you’ll be able to earn a spot on your own merits.”

“Oh my gosh,” Marinette gasps, taking in some of the names on the cards. “Are these real?” She’s tempted to pinch herself.

“Of course,” Adrien chuckles, memorizing the look of astonishment etched into her features. “You’re really talented, Marinette. It’s only natural that other people appreciate your work…. Speaking of which, I’ve personally become rather fond of that green tie. Do you think you’d be willing to sell it? I’d love to own a Marinette Dupain-Cheng original. I’ll pay whatever you want.”

He smiles hopefully, willing her to say yes. He kind of wants a memento of the evening—standing shoulder to shoulder with her and feeling warm and safe in her presence, looking up at the stars together and wishing that the moment would never end, dancing with her on her balcony…

Marinette blinks as his words sink in. “You really like it?”

He nods. “It’d be my new favourite tie.”

She gives him a tentative, shy grin, holding it out. “It’s yours. Take it as my thanks for working so hard to spread my name around and show off my work.”

His heart jumps as their fingers brush when he takes it back from her. “Thank you. I mean, I was happy to do it.”

Adrien half expects this interaction to end here. In his head, once they got to this part without her running away crying, the scenario would work out in one of two ways. At this point, Marinette will either politely excuse herself to go work on her Odile dress, or she’ll try to milk him for details about Chat Noir’s identity. He’s prepared for both, and he knows it would be better for her to leave without prying, but a large part of him wants to keep talking to her like this, like two normal human beings, while he’s Adrien.

Marinette bites her bottom lip indecisively, and Adrien’s eyes track the movement.

“So.” Marinette begins promisingly.

“Hm?” Adrien perks up, trying to draw his gaze away from her lips, but it’s hard to do while she’s nibbling nervously on the one.

“This…acquaintance of yours.” She sets the remaining tie and the cufflinks down on the counter and inches forward, committing to this bad idea.

He tucks his tie in his pocket and mirrors her, taking a step in. “Yeah?”

She backpedals, hands flailing. “Never mind! I can’t. I really shouldn’t ask.”

“You can ask me anything,” Adrien assures, already certain he’s going to end up kicking himself for this later.

Marinette freezes, studying him and weighing her options. She stares him straight in the eye.

Adrien smiles, almost giddy with the thought, “She’s looking right at me and not breaking into tears!”

Marinette sighs, giving in. “Okay. What the hell? If you say so. You can’t tell me his name, but…is he another model, by any chance?”

She looks at him with such curious, clear blue eyes.

Adrien immediately realizes that he’s miscalculated. When he was practicing for her interrogation, he didn’t take into account Marinette sucking him in like this. He had meant to give her short, succinct answers, tease her with half-answers to her questions. He didn’t factor in the strong urge to shout, “It’s me! I’m Chat Noir!” that he’s feeling now.

“Sort of,” Adrien responds in the most casual manner he can manage, as if this information is inconsequential. “I mean, he dabbles; he’s not, like, full-time or anything.”

That was where Adrien had intended to stop. Instead, he finds himself compulsively adding, “He does some acting too—commercials, small parts in films, extra roles on TV. His mother actually did some acting as well. She did small, avant-garde, indie films like my mom. That’s how I first met him. Uh…that’s not to say that we necessarily know each other well, though. We’re really just acquaintances.”

Somebody shoot him. He can’t stop. Not while she’s looking at him with such rapt interest. She’s looking at Adrien. They’re having a normal conversation!

“An actor, huh?” Marinette chuckles. “I could see that.” She brushes her rogue bang back behind her ear and grins sheepishly up at him. “This is going to sound really strange, but what does he look like?”

Adrien bites his lip. “You know, he did mention that I couldn’t tell you anything about him. Something about keeping his identity secret? I don’t know if I should—”

“—Oh, just a vague physical description won’t hurt anything,” Marinette presses, smiling innocently as she tips her head to the side coquettishly. “Didn’t you say I could ask you anything?”

Adrien can’t tell if she’s doing this on purpose or just instinctively, but she seems to know exactly where his buttons are. “That I did,” he concedes. “Well…he’s blonde.”

“What kind of blonde? White blonde? Gold blonde? Dirty blonde? Strawberry blonde?” She wonders how different Chat looks out of his suit. While it’s true that Marinette and Ladybug are practically carbon copies, both Alya and Chloé’s hairstyles change when they transform. It’s not unthinkable that Chat Noir and whoever he is under the mask look different.

Adrien fumbles. Leave it to an artist to ask for such specifics. “Um…kind of a yellow gold?”

“And his eyes?” Marinette prompts.

“Green.”

“What shade?” she demands.

He has to think about this one. “Uh…I don’t know. Peridot?”

“How tall is he?” She shoots one question off right after the other.

“I think we’re about the same height,” Adrien volunteers.

“What’s he like?” Marinette eagerly inquires. “I mean, personality-wise. I know what he’s like with me, but what is he like with other people?”

“Fake. So fake when he’s not with you,” Adrien internally sighs.

Outwardly, he nibbles on his bottom lip, looking conflicted. “I really shouldn’t be telling you this. He said I wasn’t supposed to—”

The words evaporate off of his lips as she steps in closer than socially acceptable for “just friends” of the opposite sex. Her hand goes to play with the lapel of his overshirt, her fingers running up and down over the buttons.

“Please?” She shoots him a pleading look up through delicate eyelashes. “I’m not asking for his name or anything. Just what he’s like. Can’t you tell me a little bit about his personality? I want to get to know him better.”

Adrien melts, hyper-aware of her fingers as they occasionally skim his chest. “Okay, but just a little bit.”

Marinette perks up. “Thank you!”

“He’s…” How best to describe his public persona? “Polite and friendly enough if you talk to him, but he doesn’t go out of his way to interact with others. He’s really put together…kind of like he’s always on stage, playing the role that’s been given to him. He’s really careful about his image because he doesn’t want to upset his father or let him down. He seems kind of aloof, but he’s really funny once you get past the façade he puts up. He has the best cat puns.”

This makes Marinette burst into a laugh.

Adrien’s heart soars. “She’s not crying. We’re talking!”

“I’ll bet he does,” she snickers, but then her gaze turns pensive. “You know, it sounds like you actually know him pretty well, despite not knowing him very well.”

Adrien shrugs, trying to break eye contact but struggling to do so. “Well…I can kind of relate, so…. But you really don’t know who he is, do you?”

Marinette shakes her head sadly.

“Did you two meet online or something?” Adrien slips his own lie into her subconscious, hoping she’ll pick it up and repeat it, serving both of their purposes and offering him corroboration.

Marinette pounces on the plausible excuse. “Yes! That’s exactly it! I met him online, and while he knows who I am, I don’t know who he is. For some reason, he needs to keep his identity secret. I don’t know all the details, but I’m trying to respect that….”

She bites her lip and smiles bashfully around it. “So…What else can you tell me about him?”

“I really shouldn’t.” He’s already said far more than he had intended. Even though he hasn’t given away anything major yet, he knows he needs to stop while he’s ahead. “He’d be hysterical if he found out. I’ve already said too much.”

Marinette’s lips purse, a discontented frown settling between her eyebrows. She doesn’t want him to stop while he still has information he’s yet to divulge.

Her hand slowly slides up his chest to his shoulder, snaking around behind his neck. Her other hand comes to join it so that she’s got her arms around his neck, her body just barely brushing up against his in a way that hurts and teases.

His hands automatically settle on her hips.

“So don’t tell him, and I won’t either,” Marinette instructs, a mischievous smirk clouding his better judgment.

Where did she learn to do this? Are all women gifted with the innate ability to fog up men’s brains and bend them to their will? He wasn’t prepared for this.

“Well…” He tries to fight her hold on him, but he can literally count the freckles on her nose, they’re so close. “I don’t know very much, but…he’s allergic to feathers. I also know that he has a cat named Plagg who he’s really fond of, but he’s actually a dog person.”

Marinette’s nose gives a delighted scrunch. “He is? He doesn’t have any other pets besides Plagg, does he? Has he ever had a dog?”

Adrien shakes his head. “No. His father is really strict. No animals in the house…besides Plagg, for some reason. I don’t think he’s ever had a pet.”

“Do you know how he feels about hamsters?” Marinette tests the water. “I’ve always wanted a hamster.”

“I’m not aware of any standing opinions on hamsters, but, if you like them, I’m sure he’d be on board.” Marinette can have a whole petting zoo, if she wants.

But Marinette is already on to her next question. “He doesn’t have any siblings, does he? He seems like an only child.”

Adrien cringes. “I…I really shouldn’t tell you any more. He’ll be mad enough as it is.”

Disappointed, Marinette sticks out her bottom lip.

“Don’t pout,” Adrien chuckles, taking a mental snapshot. “He told me that if you gave me trouble, I was supposed to tell you that you were a bad princess and that your hair looks cute.”

Marinette devolves into her customary giggle mess and pulls away from Adrien.

He bites his lip to keep from giving a mewl of disappointment at the loss of contact.

“Sorry,” Marinette chuckles, smiling guiltily up at him and playing with a strand of her hair absentmindedly. “I am being bad, aren’t I?”

“I’ll say.” Adrien gives himself a mental slap and recomposes his cool, model persona. “You were totally manipulating me.”

“I was not,” Marinette scoffs, giving his arm a playful swat.

Adrien’s heart sings at this sign of friendship normally reserved for Chat Noir.

“You were totally pulling my strings with your pouty lips and your batting eyes and your ‘Please’ and ‘So don’t tell him’,” Adrien playfully accuses. “Don’t play innocent. I saw you using your charms to bend my will to yours, Marinette.”

She rolls her eyes, waving him away. “Oh, please. Thanks, but I’m not so conceited that I’d believe my ‘charms’ would actually work on you of all people.”

Adrien wonders what she means by this, since it sure feels like her charms are specifically suited to work on him in particular.

“But thank you,” she continues, a faint blush starting to burn and gain strength on her cheeks. “For telling me about him…and advertising my designs at the gala last night…and inviting me to the party in the first place.” She gives him an apologetic look, gravitating towards him once more. “I’m really sorry that I couldn’t go with you, Adrien. I mean that. You’re a good friend…” She smiles down at their shoes as she adds, “…and you’re really sweet.”

She looks up at him shyly, as if she’s carrying an embarrassing secret that she wants to tell him but just can’t bring herself to.

Finding some internal wellspring of courage, Marinette rolls forward onto her tiptoes and leans in to kiss Adrien on the cheek. “Sorry I’ve been such a jerk to you all week.”

She’s done this before both to Chat and to Adrien, but there’s just something about this time that sets Adrien on fire. His cheek positively sizzles where her lips touched his skin. His brain momentarily goes offline, and in the interim between the kiss and when Adrien finds the circuit breaker to reboot the system, idiocy escapes his lips.

“You can be a jerk to me anytime,” he sighs wistfully, lost in the blue depths of her eyes.

Marinette raises an eyebrow but looks amused.

Suddenly Adrien realizes what he’s said. “Not that you’re a jerk!” he squeaks, frantically attempting damage control. “You’re the person nicest—uh—nicest person I know. You’re so fine—kind!—and thoughtful and pretty—uh!—pretty awesome and…” He needs to stop babbling. He must sound like a lunatic. She probably thinks there’s something wrong with him. “What-I’m-trying-to-say-is-that-you-weren’t-being-a-jerk-and-I-think-you’re-wonderful!” He gets out in one breath and then smacks himself in the face. “I need to stop talking.”

“I find that putting a hand over my mouth or biting my tongue usually helps,” Marinette offers, trying to keep from laughing too hard. “Just be careful that you don’t hurt yourself biting your tongue.” She can’t help her curiosity. “…Is that what I sound like when I get flustered?”

Adrien groans, peeking at her between his fingers. “No, you sound a lot cuter.”

Marinette can no longer control her giggles. “Wow. Adrien Agreste, are you flirting with me?”

“Yeah,” Adrien sighs before he can catch himself. “—NO! I meant no. Because that would be stupid and insensitive—not that I wouldn’t like to flirt with you, but we’re just friends, and that wouldn’t be appropriate. Not that I don’t think you’re—”

Marinette takes pity on him, placing her fingers over his lips before he can further dig the hole he’s been working on. “Maybe stop talking?” she suggests with a grimace of pity. “I’ve kind of wished Alya would have clapped her hand over my mouth any number of times in the past. As your friend, I’ll let you in on a secret: don’t talk when flustered. You’re not going to be able to say what you mean, and you’ll only make it worse the more you talk. Now, I’m going to do you a favor and leave, but thank you again for…everything.”

She removes her fingers from his lips and rests them on her own as she tips her head to the side in what could possibly be an innocent, thoughtful gesture OR a deliberately suggestive one.

Adrien’s mind tries to compute “her fingers, my lips, her fingers, her lips”, but it keeps crashing.

“See you Monday,” Marinette chuckles, giving him a little finger wave as she turns to go.

She scoops up her belongings and mouths, “Oh my GOD!!!” to her mother (who has been watching the scene with equal parts amusement and confusion) before scurrying around back and up to her room.

Adrien stands stunned as he watches her go. His fingers gingerly touch his cheek and run over his lips, trying to process what just happened.

Marinette disappears around the corner, and a great deal of the fog that’s been impairing him lifts from Adrien’s mind.

He jumps for joy and pumps his fist in the air. “She kissed me!” he trills, turning to throw his arms around Nino who has taken the opportunity to approach both to usher Adrien back to their table and to check the model for fever.

“She doesn’t hate me!” Adrien gasps, overjoyed at the realization. “This is the best day ever!”

“Uh huh,” Nino confirms even as he shakes his head. It’s as if thirty minutes ago they weren’t just having a rather desperate conversation about how messed up Adrien’s life is. “Best day ever,” he chuckles, pushing Adrien back down into his seat.

“Nino, I just talked to Marinette!” Adrien jumps to his feet.

Nino pushes him back down. “Yeah, I saw that. You two had, like, a whole conversation, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Adrien sighs happily. “She talked to me like I was anybody else. She didn’t freak out or stutter or anything!”

“Yeah, no. That was you, Dude,” Nino snickers, going back to his quiche.

Adrien doesn’t seem to hear him as he continues to gush, “We had a normal conversation!”

Nino bites his tongue before he can burst Adrien’s bubble by telling him that nothing about the conversation he had with Marinette was normal. Marinette does not normally hang off of and seduce her fellow interlocutors. That was not a conversation so much as a showcase of sexual tension.

“So what exactly were you two talking about?” Nino tries instead. “From what I could piece together, it sounded like you were discussing some actor she’d met online.”

Adrien grimaces. “Uh…she was kind of milking me for information as to the identity of her Mystery Boy.”

Nino claps a hand over his mouth, staring at Adrien in shock. His hand slowly slides away, and he whispers so softly that Adrien almost doesn’t hear. “Chat Noir? You know Chat Noir? You know who Chat Noir is?”

Adrien’s grimace grows. “I mean, we don’t know that the Mystery Boy is him for sure, do we? We’re just guessing based on the fact that those pictures of him and Marinette together on their date showed up in the papers the same day that he left his first recording in her locker. Maybe he’s really just some guy she met online.”

Nino bites the inside of his cheek and tries not to panic. He knows that the Mystery Boy and Chat Noir are the same person. Marinette confirmed it to him herself. “Okay. Yeah,” he agrees distractedly, shoving a bite of quiche into his mouth. “Let’s just…” He takes a minute to chew and then swallows. “Let’s not discuss this. You could be in serious danger if anyone thought you knew. Let’s pretend this never happened.”

Adrien shrugs and easily agrees, going back to his pain au chocolat and his quickly cooling hot chocolate. “…Marinette kissed me,” he sighs a minute or two later, still dwelling on the feeling of her lips on his cheek.

Nino wants to smack himself and Adrien. “Dude. My Dude, listen to me. Like I warned you before, you cannot develop feelings for Marinette.”

“I’m not,” Adrien scoffs, sounding like he genuinely believes it.

Nino puts his hands up. “Good. Because she’s probably going to end up with Chat Noir. So if you were, by some coincidence, to find yourself falling for Marinette, I would counsel you to cut it the hell out. I would say, ‘Dude, don’t do this’ because she’s gonna break your heart, and that’s not what you need after coming off a four-year Ladybug high. Okay? I just want to make sure that you understand that Marinette will wreck you.”

Adrien rolls his eyes, completely dismissing Nino’s warnings. “Nino, Marinette and I are just friends.”

Nino feels the urge to shake Adrien. “Then what the hell was that just now? When you two were talking. I saw the way you were looking at her. I saw the way she turned your mind to goo when she put her arms around your neck. Dude, you were practically purring. Do you just want to sleep with her or something and not date her? You keep saying you’re not interested in a relationship with her, but, the past couple days, it’s just been so obvious that you’re into her.”

Adrien’s brain begins to process this information. “Do you want to sleep with her?” sets off the alarm bells, and the walls go up, rejecting that line of reasoning and refusing to entertain any other such thoughts.

“No.” Adrien recoils. “Nino, if I have to tell you it’s not like that one more time, I’m going to explode. I just want to be her friend. I’m excited that we seem to be making progress; that’s all.”

Because if he’s going to be her friend, he can’t have those kinds of feelings for her. What’s more important: this flicker of romantic interest he’s experiencing or having someone around who accepts all of him, the good along with the ugly? It’s obvious. Like he explained to Chloé, it’s more important to have her friendship. He can’t let these burgeoning feelings jeopardize that.

He’d rather have her by his side as someone who will sit with him and calm him down when he has a panic attack, someone who doesn’t hold it against him when his tail develops a mind of its own, someone who will knock some sense into him when he doubts his own worth, someone who will humor him and dance under the stars as he sings just to make him happy. He needs one person in his life that he can count on no matter what, someone who won’t flinch when they see how screwed up and damaged he is.

He’ll stuff any kind of romantic feeling down if it means he gets to keep having week after week after week like the one he just had with Marinette beside him.

“I just want to be her friend,” Adrien repeats in an attempt to both cement his resolve and convince Nino.

Nino nods, thinking, this is what denial looks like. But Adrien is wearing such a lost, distressed expression that Nino is afraid to push.

“Fine,” he relents. “Cool. I get it. Just friends. I’m sorry I misunderstood…. Can I ask you one thing, though?”

“What is it?” he tentatively inquires.

“Could you stop chasing Marinette into collapsing buildings? I meant to talk to you about this earlier, but—”

“—I didn’t—” Adrien tries to protest.

Nino wags his finger. “—Don’t think I don’t know where you went after we got ‘separated’ on Thursday during the akuma attack. You took the first opportunity to go after her with no regard for your own safety, Mec.”

Adrien has the grace to blush as he smiles sheepishly. “Ha. I guess you got me.”

Nino shakes his head. “Dude, Marinette can take care of herself. She’s a tough chick, and she knows what she’s doing.”

Adrien knows this, but he can’t fight his growing instinct to try to keep her safe. “But—”

“—No buts,” Nino firmly decrees. “You can’t be putting yourself at risk like that. It’s bad enough that she has to be too courageous and selfless to just run when there’s danger. It’s bad enough that Alya has to go running after the action too. Come on, Adrien. I have to have at least one person that I care about safe.”

Adrien suddenly finds his tongue in knots. That’s really sweet of Nino. “Thanks…. I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking on Thursday.”

“You mean you weren’t thinking besides about how something could happen to Marinette,” Nino chuckles knowingly.

Adrien rubs at the back of his neck, giving a helpless shrug.

“I’m the same way about Alya,” Nino confesses, and then a thought hits him. “Which is why you should probably try to cut that out. Aren’t you two just friends?”

Adrien gives a start. “O-Oh. But…”

“And have you ever considered,” Nino bites his lip, trying to phrase it carefully. “I mean, it’s a long shot, but what if she’s Ladybug running off to transform?”

The thought “Marinette equals Ladybug” is a scrap of metal that gets stuck in the cogs of Adrien’s brain, making the entire machine cease to function.

“I mean, anyone could be Ladybug, right?” Nino continues, trying to make his point while still sowing doubt. “What if it’s Marinette and she runs off to transform and you go after her and get yourself in trouble and she ends up having to save your sorry behind before she can fight the akuma? I mean, have you ever considered it?”

“Marinette,” Adrien repeats slowly. “as Ladybug. Ladybug as Marinette.”

The idea is ludicrous. Sure, they share several notable similarities, but the personalities are worlds apart. Ladybug is hard and unyielding; she has her softer side, and she’s not mean or anything, but she’s definitely guarded. She keeps a distance between them, even when they have a few minutes to joke or make small talk. She’ll be friendly with him—they are friends—and sometimes she’ll even go so far as to be honest, and when she does, she’s the most beautiful person he’s ever met. He sees glimmers and fragments of the real her on the rare occasions she lowers her walls, but most of the time it’s just business. She trusts him with her life, and she truly cares about him as her precious partner and equal, but she will never really let him in.

Marinette, on the other hand, is an open book. Marinette is a kind, loving, accepting person. Her smiles are always real, her tears genuine, her laugh never forced. When she’s mad, she screams. When she’s sad, she cries. She smiles when she’s happy, laughs when she feels like it, and never tries to deceive him. Unlike his Lady, his Princess never hides.

Both are good and kind and beautiful in their own ways, but they are not alike. Ladybug sends his heart soaring one minute and then crashing the next. Marinette makes him feel like he’s flying, gently supported by a constant breeze. Marinette would never hurt him like Ladybug has been doing the past four years—intentionally or not.

Adrien frowns. “You really think she’s her? I don’t see it.”

Nino blinks, wondering if Adrien is blind. “No.” Nino brushes the question aside. “I’m just giving you a very good example of one of the many reasons why you shouldn’t rush into a crumbling building.”

For some reason, the way that Adrien easily dismisses the idea of Marinette as Ladybug irks Nino. Despite the way Adrien was just tripping all over himself because of Marinette, can he not see how truly awesome she is? Why doesn’t he think she could be Ladybug? For all that he claimed to be in love with the superhero, he sure doesn’t see her clearly.

“…But, you know…just for argument’s sake…Marinette is the only person I know who could take on an akuma without a Miraculous. Believe me,” Nino insists. “I tried it with Alya’s sister, and it’s harder than Ladybug and Chat Noir make it look. But I believe Marinette could do it.”

“I do too,” Adrien readily concurs, surprising Nino. “I’d pity the poor akuma she set her mind to taking down. I have no doubt that she could be Ladybug, Nino. She could do the job…. She’s just not Ladybug. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I don’t believe Ladybug could be Marinette. Ladybug just doesn’t have what it takes.”

“Oh.” Nino is speechless at this turn of events. And pleasantly surprised until he remembers that he’s supposed to be dissuading Adrien from developing feelings for Ladybug’s alter ego.

“Speaking of which,” Adrien appears to return to his normal state, munching on his pastry and taking occasional sips of his warm chocolate. “How is Marinette doing as far as getting over that cretin goes? Is she doing okay? I mean, has she talked to you or Alya about it anymore?”

“She’s slowly getting better, I think,” Nino offers, poking at a fragment of broccoli in his quiche. “I mean, she’s still pretty flighty and bursts into tears and runs off, as I think you’ve noticed, but she’s trying really hard to keep it together, and she manages it most of the time. Alya mentioned that sometimes in class Marinette will get a really sad look on her face and just kind of space out or start to tear up, but she’s able to pull herself back together on her own most of the time. I think Chat Noir—or the Mystery Guy or both or whoever—is helping.”

Adrien brightens at this. “You think?”

Nino nods a confirmation.

“Has she…talked to you about Chat Noir? I mean, I know Alya doesn’t know Princess’s identity, but…” Adrien bites his lip and waits hopefully.

Nino looks unsure of whether he should say but eventually decides to share. “We did talk about him, yeah. Apparently, he’s been coming over in the evenings to check up on her and hang out. She likes talking with him. He cheers her up, and she’s really fond of him…. They’re probably going to end up together.”

Adrien can feel his face getting hot, but he tries to act cool as he inquires, “Did…she say anything about having feelings for him? How do you know they’re going to end up together?”

Nino shrugs, smiling fondly. “She thinks they’re just friends, but she’s as clueless as…” He trails off, rethinking the jab. “…some other people who are also clueless.”

Adrien doesn’t pick up on the veiled insult. He tips his head to the side. “If she says they’re just friends, how do you know she’s wrong? I think she would know better than you.”

“Sometimes it’s easier for others to tell what you’re feeling than for you yourself,” Nino explains. “Maybe she’s in denial or she’s trying to keep it from being the truth, but she’s not completely indifferent to him. I first noticed it a couple years ago when Nathaniel got akumatized and Marinette and Chat Noir had to work together. If she hadn’t been harboring her existing crush, she would have noticed Chat Noir a lot sooner.”

And Chat Noir would have turned her down because of Ladybug. The thought makes Adrien feel queasy.

“But…do you think it’s a good idea for her to date Chat Noir?” Adrien asks, and it’s part morbid curiosity, part concern. “I mean, he’s supposed to be the embodiment of bad luck and destruction. I don’t think I would want a friend of mine caught up in that. If people find out they’re dating, won’t that make Marinette a target for Papillon?”

Nino shrugs. “Marinette can look after herself, and I trust Chat Noir to do his part protecting her.”

“So Chat Noir gets carte blanche to protect her, but I don’t get to run into crumbling buildings after her?” Adrien snorts at the irony.

Nino rolls his eyes. “Mec, the dude’s a superhero. You’re a model.”

Adrien picks up his hot chocolate and grumbles into the mug.

“I think Marinette and Chat Noir are good for one another, based on what she’s told me. They may just be friends now, but I’m looking for that to change once they both get over their respective unrequited loves.”

Adrien purses his lips. “How can you be so sure that he’ll end up returning her feelings—provided that she even develops them?”

“You didn’t see him the other day after the akuma attack,” Nino snickers. “When he woke up, the first thing he wanted to know was where Marinette was and if she were safe. He didn’t ask if the fight was over or where he was or how Ladybug was or what had happened. She was the first thing on his mind, and he was desperate to know she was okay. If that’s not an indication of being receptive to any possible feelings Marinette might develop for him, I don’t know what is.”

Adrien’s face is tingling. His body feels so hot, he’s sure his brain is about to boil. He had been so worried about Marinette that he hadn’t thought to think about anything else. He tries to come up with an excuse, tries not to admit that Nino might be on to something.

“Plus, you saw the pictures of their ‘date’,” Nino adds, chuckling. “They’re already acting like a couple.”

“Aren’t you concerned that he’s just using her as a rebound from Ladybug?” Adrien wonders. It’s a thought that he’s tried to step on and squish several times over the past week when any kind of vaguely romantic feeling towards Marinette has snuck up on him.

 Nino considers this for a moment only before rejecting the idea. “Nah. He’s not like that.”

Adrien is baffled. “How do you know?” Not even Adrien knows.

“He’s a lot like you when it comes to love,” Nino observes. “He’s fiercely loyal, and once he’s committed to something, he sticks with it. He’s let Ladybug spurn and reject him for four years now without giving up. I expect he’ll show Marinette the same devotion. He’s not the kind of guy who does things by halves. I mean, look at the gift he sent her today.”

Adrien blushes, rubbing the back of his neck as he laughs. “Yeah, okay. Seven bolts of tulle might have been a little over the top….”

“Don’t worry about her, Adrien. Marinette’s going to be okay,” Nino assures, finishing off his quiche. “She and Chat Noir will figure things out. She may be a little out of it for a month or two longer, but she’ll be okay. She’s already doing better. Besides, she’s a fighter.”

“Yeah,” Adrien sighs. “She’s pretty incredible. She’ll be all right.”

Adrien pops the last bite of pain au chocolat into his mouth and chews slowly. “So…I know Marinette’s been avoiding me because I remind her of her jerk-face crush, but she did pretty well today talking to me, since she was too distracted, trying to gather info on Chat Noir’s identity, to remember that she can’t stand to be around me.” He looks up hopefully at his friend. “Do you think she’d be able to hang out, the four of us, next week?”

Nino bites his lip, his brow creasing slightly, causing Adrien to quickly amend, “Or, if not, how about the week after that? I’d really…I mean, I’d like to see her. We haven’t hung out all week,” he adds softly. “We were supposed to have dinner Monday, but that didn’t pan out, and then we didn’t get to do anything the rest of the week, so I kind of miss her, you know? And Alya’s been mad at me this week, so…I’d really like to hang out with my friends—if Marinette is up to it, I mean.”

He strains to smile, but it comes across as a flinch. “If not…I mean, it’s not a big deal. I’ll…I can deal…if she still doesn’t want to spend time together, but… She did really well today, didn’t she? Don’t you think that maybe…?”

Nino reaches out to pat Adrien on the head. “I’ll talk to the girls and take their temperature on it. I can’t promise anything, but…Marinette doesn’t hate you. She does want to be friends; it just might take some time for her to get to a place where that’s possible. You just gotta be patient.”

Adrien nods resignedly, trying to stay strong.

“Hey,” Nino calls gently, giving Adrien an encouraging smile.

Adrien tilts his head to the side, questioning.

You’re doing really well too. I’m proud of you.”

A grateful smile blossoms on Adrien’s lips, and a single happy tear escapes to roll down his cheek. He feels like a total mess lately (and not for the first time). It seems like everything he does is wrong and he’s making mistake after mistake.

Nino’s reassurances mean the world to him.

“Thanks,” he struggles to get out. “…I mentioned earlier that Marinette was the third most awesome person I had met in my entire life, right?”

“Yeah?” Nino’s eyebrow quirks.

“Well, you’re the second,” Adrien sheepishly admits.

Nino grins as he breaks out in a pleased chuckle. “Aww, shucks. Dude, you’re making me blush. I think I know who’s number one, so I guess I can settle for being number two…. Wanna head back to my house to play video games?”

“I’d like nothing better.”

Chapter Text

Marinette turns the corner into the back of the bakery and finds Tom waiting for her. Her elated mood changes to one of panic when she sees the look of confused suspicion on her father’s face.

“What was that?” Tom whispers. There is no judgment in his words, only honest bafflement.

Marinette shrugs, shaking her head. “No idea. I’m about to go upstairs to scream into my pillow and process…whatever that was.”

He nods, unsure of what to do. This is usually Sabine’s thing. “Okay. You’re not feeling upset, though, are you? Not feeling akumatizable?” he clarifies.

She thinks about it before shaking her head. “No. I think I’m all right. I might have a heart attack, but I don’t think I’m going to get akumatized.”

“Okay.” Tom nods again, and the conversation fizzles out into an awkward silence. “…Do we not hate Adrien Agreste anymore?”

“No, we don’t hate him. He’s…” Marinette struggles for a classification.

Tom frowns. “Do you still have feelings for him?” It is obvious that he disapproves.

Marinette chews on her lip, considering. “Maybe residual feelings, but…he’s just a…a friend now.”

Tom’s frown softens, taking on a wary aspect. “And…how about Chat Noir? I know how much fabric costs, Marinette.”

Marinette begins to splutter nervously, waving her hands the frantic way she used to when the subject of Adrien came up. Tom accepts this as adequate proof of Chat Noir’s new status.

“What?! No! He’s…he’s just a friend. He’s rich, Papa. A couple hundred euros is nothing to him.”

Tom nods knowingly, a mischievous smile coming to his lips. “Marinette, I don’t think it’s advisable to have two ‘just friends’ at the same time. What if they find out about one another?”

“Papa!” Marinette shrieks, giving him a swat on the arm.

“I’m on team Marichat,” he announces earnestly.

“Papa!” Marinette chokes. “Just the other day you were giving him death glares. What happened to that?”

“Oh, I’m still going to keep up the act so that he doesn’t get too full of himself,” Tom assures, already making plans for the wedding cake. “But you should invite that boy over for dinner.”

Marinette groans. “I love you, Papa, but I have to go up to my room to freak out now.”

“Have fun, Sweetheart,” he chuckles, calling after her as she heads for the stairs, “Hey, when is Chat Noir coming over next?”

“I’m not telling you, if you’re going to make a big deal out of this,” she snorts. “He’s just a friend!”

Marinette picks up her pace, taking the stairs two at a time until she reaches the second-floor landing. She sighs as she rounds the corner and heads up the stairs to her room, collapsing onto her chaise longue. She screams into the throw pillow.

Tikki floats nervously at her side, unsure if she should begin helping Marinette to process what has just happened down in the bakery with Adrien or if it would be better to wait and let her chosen scream about it a little first.

Marinette saves her the decision by pushing herself up and whipping around to squeak, “Oh my gosh, Tikki! Did that actually happen, or did I just fantasize it?!”

Tikki smiles good-naturedly. “No, Marinette, you really did just flirt shamelessly with Adrien Agreste, and he really did go completely to pieces.”

“Oh my gosh!” Marinette repeats. “What just happened? Am I in a different dimension? In what universe does Adrien Agreste get flustered by me?”

“In the same universe where you go behind your partner’s back and pump Adrien for information on Chat Noir’s identity,” Tikki replies, ripping a hole in Marinette’s rapture.

“Oh.” Marinette blushes.

Tikki is oddly satisfied to see that Marinette at least feels some guilt over it.

“Yeah…I…I mean…Chat knew I was going to ask when he let Adrien return the ties,” Marinette lamely tries to excuse her behavior. She looks up hesitantly at Tikki.

Tikki is still crossing her arms and giving Marinette a disappointed look. “You’re supposed to be better than this.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not, okay?” Marinette sulks. “You may have had thousands of years to get your righteousness and unshakable character down, Tikki, but I am seventeen and flawed—deeply, deeply flawed.”

Tikki thaws slightly, coming over to pat Marinette on the head. “You’re not that bad.”

Marinette wilts. “I feel bad. I must be the worst Ladybug Miraculous user in history. How could I not realize how badly I’ve been treating Chat all these years?” She buries her face in the pillow once more. “It’s like I stopped seeing him as a person somewhere along the line. I learned to tune out his flirting because I didn’t think it meant anything…even after he told me—told Marinette—he was serious. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore after I told him there was somebody else, and…I’ve been so callous. I should have been there for him, but I turned out to be just like everyone else in his life.”

Tikki keeps her mouth firmly shut.

The pillow drops to Marinette’s lap, and she looks at Tikki for some kind of reassurance.

Tikki sighs, going to nuzzle Marinette’s cheek and wipe away the tears.

“And he’s so nice to Marinette,” she mumbles as her fingers grip and release the pillow. “The recordings in my locker…taking me out when I was feeling down…offering to take me to the party…coming to check on me and sitting and talking with me…and now buying me all this material… He’s so nice, and all I’ve ever done is hurt him.”

Tikki takes solace in the fact that now Marinette will never willingly reveal her identity to her partner. It’s selfish of Tikki, but it keeps her child safe.

“You’re not as bad as all that, Marinette. You’ve been a good partner twenty times for ever time you’ve messed up. Besides, you’re going to apologize, aren’t you?” Tikki prompts. “Tomorrow? Are you still planning on intercepting him when he comes to see Marinette?”

Marinette nods. “Yeah, but I doubt one apology will make up for everything I’ve done over the past four years.”

“It will be a start at least, and then you can work on being better in the future. It won’t make up for the past, but I think you’ll both feel better afterwards.” Tikki gives Marinette what is meant to be an encouraging smile. She’s not sure if it quite has the desired effect.

Marinette still looks unsure. “Maybe I can start being better both as Ladybug and Marinette. Maybe if I do my best from this point on, he won’t be as mad at me when he finds out I’m Ladybug.”

Tikki goes rigid. “Marinette, you can’t tell him!”

“I’m not planning on telling him,” Marinette scoffs. “The last thing I want is for him to find out. I’m just thinking that there may come a time when I don’t really have a choice. If we keep spending time together like this, he’ll probably put two and two together and figure me out on his own.”

With a stiff nod, Tikki alights on the throw pillow. “So…do you want to go back to being freaked out over what happened with Adrien now?”

Marinette doesn’t miss a beat. “I can’t believe he’s actually a model!”

Tikki blinks. “Adrien?”

Marinette rolls her eyes. “Chat! And an actor! I wonder if I’ve seen anything with him in it.”

Tikki frowns, letting out a displeased grunt. “Oh. We’re talking about Chat Noir’s SECRET identity.”

“Tikki, either I do this out loud or I do it silently by myself. Either way, it’s still going to happen. Would you like to be a part of this conversation?” Marinette offers.

“You don’t do anything silently,” Tikki pouts. “Continue.”

Marinette ignores the jab. “At least now I know he’s still blonde and green-eyed. That should help me narrow down the suspects at school.”

Tikki buries her face in the pillow and screams. “Marinette, you’re not supposed to be looking for him outside of the mask!”

“And he likes dogs!” Marinette giggles, tuning Tikki’s naysaying out. “You know, I can see him as a dog person. A dog would be good for him. Cats are too independent. Chat would do better with something that needed him and offered him unconditional love because it doesn’t sound like anyone else in his life is taking care of that.”

Tikki gives up.

“We’ll have to get something relatively small.” Marinette launches into planning, always pragmatic, even in her daydreaming and catastrophizing. “We couldn’t have a big dog in a small Paris apartment. I know some people do it, but I don’t know how. It’ll need to be on the big side of small too, otherwise the kids will probably hurt it when the kids come, and I don’t want something so small I’ll trip over it or step on it. Maybe a Shiba inu? I like their curly tails! Do you think Chat would like a Shiba inu?”

Tikki stares at Marinette uncomprehendingly. “Are you…planning your future dog with Chat Noir?”

Marinette blinks, the implications not having yet sunk in. “Huh. Yeah. I guess I am.”

Tikki silently counts to three.

“Oh my God! What am I doing?!” Marinette shrieks, hands flying to her face. “And I mentioned children too, didn’t I?! What the hell am I doing?! I am NOT having his kittens. I swear!” She groans, shaking her head. “I can’t believe this. This is his fault with all of his ‘Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Noir’ and his ‘in six years we’re going to realize there’s no one else we’d rather spend our lives with’. Uhg! It’s penetrated my subconscious!”

“Adrien was acting pretty goofy today,” Tikki remarks in a merciful attempt to get Marinette to switch mental tracks.

It works.

“Oh my gosh,” Marinette snorts. “What the heck was that about?! Has everything in my life decided to upend itself this week?!”

“Maybe you should call Alya about it,” Tikki suggests, skillfully managing her chosen. After four years together, it’s become almost an artform.

“You’re right! She’ll know what to do.” Marinette is stretched out on her chaise, tapping on Alya’s number in seconds.

“Marinette!” Alya greets cheerfully. “Hey, Girl. What’s up?”

“Alya, I’m having the weirdest day, and I need you.”

“Oh boy,” Alya sighs, closing her laptop and scooting her chair back from her desk. “Okay. Start at the beginning. What happened?”

“The beginning,” Marinette repeats, mentally picking at the knot that this day has become, trying to find the beginning of the string. “The package,” she decides.

“Package,” Alya echoes.

“You know my Mystery Boy?”

Alya snorts at the question.

“Well, he sent me a package at the bakery this morning. He got me seven whole bolts of neon-colored tulle! Can you believe it? I got ruby and burnt orange and lemon and poison dart frog green and midnight blue and ice blue and magenta!”

“Seriously?” Alya balks. “Isn’t that…kind of expensive? How much would seven bolts cost?”

Marinette bites her lip, doing the math in her head. “I’m not sure what he paid for it, but the quality seems good, so…maybe four or five hundred.”

“Euros?!” Alya chokes.

“Maybe he got a good deal or a discount for buying in bulk,” Marinette hums thoughtfully. “Part of me wants to lecture him about expensive gifts, but he’s loaded, so I kind of get the feeling that this is chump change and he’s going to look at me like Chloé does sometimes. You know. When she makes her ‘what is the deal with these poor people’ face.”

“Stop,” Alya commands, trying to keep up. “Your boy is rich?”

“A little bit?” Marinette giggles. “He does some modeling and some acting. His mom was an actress too—nothing mainstream, though—and his dad has his own company.”

Alya blinks. This sounds oddly familiar. “Marinette…don’t get upset, but is your Mystery Boy Adrien?”

Marinette drops her phone and has to retrieve it before she can exclaim, “No! Absolutely not! There is no way that he’s Adrien.”

“Sorry!” Alya immediately drops it. “They just sounded kind of similar. I mean, what are the chances that you know two models our age with actress mothers and fathers with companies. If it’s not Adrien, then do you mind telling me who this guy really is, or do you still have to keep it a secret?”

Marinette rubs her lips together indecisively before answering, “Okay. Confession time. I don’t actually know his real name.”

“The hell?” Alya responds flatly.

“We met online!” Marinette hastily coughs up the brilliant excuse Adrien supplied her with. “I don’t know how he knew who I was—maybe he recognized my username or something—but we’ve been talking, and he’s really great, and it even turns out that we go to the same school, but he needs to keep his identity secret—I guess because he’s a celebrity or something?—and I don’t know who he really is.”

“Then how do you know all that stuff about him being a model and his family?” Alya challenges. “I don’t like this. He could be just making this stuff up. You know, there are scammers that do this all the time, Marinette. What if—”

“—He’s not making it up. I mean…” Marinette tries to think fast. “I can explain. I know someone who knows him in real life. I actually just found out some of that stuff today, but…I’ve been talking to him every night this week for at least an hour…or two…or three. We talk about everything, and he’ll occasionally let something slip about his life, so…I’ve been piecing things together. He actually told me he was a model last night, and I didn’t believe him at first, but today Adrien was in the bakery when Chat’s present—”

“—Wait. Hold that thought on Adrien too, but Chat? Chat Noir?” Alya’s brain hurts so much right now.

“No!” Marinette shrieks. “Not Chat Noir! I meant—! ‘Chat’ is what he goes by. Online. It’s a nickname,” she laughs nervously. “He’s a fan of Chat Noir, but he’s not, like, actually the Chat Noir. Because that would be ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as him being Adrien Agreste!” Her laugh sounds positively panicked at this point because the thought of Chat being Adrien is still not funny.

“Right.” Alya internally sighs. It’s a good thing she loves Marinette; dealing with her can be exhausting sometimes. “Okay. To recap: ‘Chat’ (who is not Chat Noir) is the name your Mystery Boy goes by because you met him online. He knows who you are. You don’t know who he is. He is not Adrien Agreste, but he just so happens to be a model too. You can confirm this because you know someone who knows Chat in real life. Is that right?”

“Yes.” Marinette stamps her seal of approval on, perhaps, one of the biggest, most elaborate lies she’s ever told.

“Okay.” So far so good. “And then you said something about Adrien being in the bakery today when Chat’s present came. What the hell is up with that? How did your parents not murder him on sight?”

“Small miracles,” Marinette mumbles. “So you know the gala Adrien invited me to yesterday?”

“Mmhm.” Alya strains to follow.

“Chat, being a model, was going too. I obviously couldn’t go with him without him revealing his identity to me, so instead of taking me, Chat offered to wear one of the ties I had designed and walk around showing it off—don’t ask about how I got him the tie. It’s a long story. He also asked for a second tie to give to an acquaintance to do the same. That acquaintance happened to be Adrien—”

“—Does Chat know about Adrien?” Alya interrupts, suddenly finding it imperative to have this piece of information so that she can fully flesh out the developing love triangle in her mind.

Marinette blinks, completely thrown by this sudden tangent. “Uh…yes and no. He knows I got my heart broken recently, but he doesn’t know that it was Adrien who was my crush…. He also might be under the impression that Adrien makes me cry because he looks a lot like my crush…. Also, he might think that my crush turned me down because he has a crush on an anonymous sewing blogger instead of Ladybug, but…why should we split hairs over little details like that?” She forces a laugh, hoping that Alya won’t demand an explanation of how exactly Chat came to these conclusions.

Alya just sighs wearily. “Okay, Marinette. So the acquaintance that Chat gave the other tie to was Adrien. Please continue.”

“And Adrien came into the bakery today to give back the ties,” Marinette picks up, glad that the majority of the lying should be out of the way now. “I might have taken the opportunity to leach as much information about Chat as possible from Adrien.”

On the other end of the phone, Alya’s jaw drops. “From Adrien. You talked to Adrien?”

“I interrogated Adrien,” Marinette giggles. “Alya, I don’t think I stuttered once. I got out complete sentences and looked him in the eye and didn’t switch my words around.”

“Get out,” Alya gasps. “Girl, I am so proud of you!”

“Don’t be,” Marinette groans, remembering. “I kind of did something bad.”

“Oh?” Alya cocks her head to the side. “How so?”

“I wasn’t supposed to try to figure out Chat’s identity like that. It was a total breach of trust, and Adrien was told not to say anything about Chat’s identity, but I made him anyway, even though I knew that,” Marinette mutters in shame.

“Well, I don’t think that it’s fair that Chat knows who you are but you don’t know him,” Alya scoffs, condoning Marinette’s behavior. “Besides, you couldn’t have made Adrien talk, if he really didn’t want to…. You didn’t tie him to a chair and rip his fingernails off, did you?”

“No!” Marinette breaks into a brief burst of laughter before her nervous chuckles come back. “Actually…I flirted with him.”

Alya’s eyebrow shoots straight up into her hairline. “Excuse me. You what?”

“I flirted with Adrien Agreste!” Marinette squeals, still not able to believe it herself. “I did the whole batting your eyes and pouty lips and getting in his personal space and touching his chest and playing with the collar of his shirt—Alya, I wrapped my arms around his neck! I don’t know what I was thinking! It was insane, but I did it!”

“Holy crap,” Alya snorts. “Damn! You go girl! How did he react?”

“He went to pieces! To pieces, Alya! By the time I was through with him, he was stuttering and blushing and—God, Alya. He sounded like me! But-that-was-after-I-kissed-him-on-the-cheek. Oh my gosh, I kissed him on the cheek!”

“Who are you and what have you done with Marinette Dupain-Cheng?” Alya snorts, running a hand through her hair as she shakes her head in awe. “Girl, I am impressed. I am so proud of you. How did that feel?”

Marinette is silent for a moment as she gathers her thoughts. “…Exhilarating. It was fun, and it made me feel powerful and giddy…but maybe not in a good way.”

Alya frowns. “Oh? How so not good?”

Marinette presses her lips together as she rolls over onto her back. “Having that kind of power over someone can go to your head, you know? Having him there like that, grinning goofily at me, melting in my hands…I kind of wanted to hurt him…just because I could. You know, kind of as revenge for the pain he’s caused me…but at the same time that it was tempting, it was also a scary thought because, deep down, even if he would pick Ladybug over me, Adrien is still my friend. It’s not his fault he’s been oblivious to my feelings all this time. I’m the one who’s most to blame. Still…”

“The important thing is that you didn’t hurt him just because you could,” Alya tries to soothe her, picking up on the distress still evident in Marinette’s voice.

She doesn’t realize that the reason Marinette is upset is because even though Marinette didn’t hurt Adrien, Ladybug has hurt Chat Noir dozens of times without any kind of excuse.

“Do you think Adrien is interested in me?” Marinette wonders, trying to distract herself. “He’s been acting really bizarre the past few days. Part of me thinks he’s just being nice because he has some idea of what happened, but…yesterday and today…he was flirting with me. Totally hitting on me…. Do you think he’s suddenly interested?”

Alya grits her teeth and thinks very hard about her answer.

“Alya, do you think I should give Adrien another chance? I mean…what if I confess to his face this time? Do you think his answer would be any different now that he’s acting interested? Do you think he’s changed his mind?”

Alya remembers her conversation with Adrien earlier in the week and what he said about wanting to get to know Marinette better while trying to get over his crush on Ladybug. She knows she can’t let Marinette waste any more time on Adrien.

“Girl, I’m going to say this because I love you: Don’t look back. Give up on Adrien. Even if he is showing some interest in you now, he’s still in love with Ladybug. He’s been harboring a crush on her for years, and that’s not just going to go away overnight. I don’t want you getting led around by the nose and used as a rebound while he gets his head back on straight. You deserve better than that.”

Marinette takes a deep breath, letting Alya’s words sink in.

“Besides, do you even still feel the same way about him anymore after this week?” Alya prompts.

Marinette hums softly to herself. “I don’t know,” she admits. “It’s…kind of been an eye-opening week. I still find him attractive, but…it occurs to me that I don’t really know him as well as I thought I did. Memorizing someone’s schedule and pouring over the answers they give in magazine interviews isn’t a substitute for actually sitting down and getting to know someone. I can’t say that I really know what I’m ‘in love’ with, but it’s not the real, flesh and blood Adrien Agreste. I’m probably about as bad as him crushing on Ladybug, honestly.”

“So?” Alya nudges gently. “What do you want to do?”

“Step one, get my own head back on straight so that I stop crying at the drop of a hat. Step two, actually get to know the real Adrien Agreste,” Marinette decides.

“What’s step three?” Alya inquires.

“Don’t know yet,” Marinette chuckles. “I’ll figure it out when I get there.” She feels more calm now that she at least has the beginnings of a plan.

“And what about your Mystery Boy?” Alya snickers. “How does Chat fit into all of this?”

“Chat?” Marinette blinks, wondering how Chat fits into all of this indeed.

“Don’t you get the impression that maybe he kind of likes you?” Alya presses. “He just spent a couple hundred euros on neon-colored tulle for you like it was no big. And the recordings? Come on, Girl. He’s serenading you. And you spend a couple hours talking to him every night? Doesn’t this smack a little too much of a rom-com to you?”

“Oh, gosh,” Marinette snorts. “No. Alya…no. He’s…he’s in the middle of dealing with some stuff too. He’s finally decided to give up on the girl he’s been crazy about, so…we’re sort of ‘reject buddies’. It’s not…there’s nothing romantic going on.”

“Maybe there should be once you two both get over your crushes,” Alya suggests. “Despite all the mystery surrounding him, he sounds like a good guy who would treat you right. I’m not saying you should slap a collar around his neck now or anything, but…maybe just keep an open mind while you work on getting over Adrien. Maybe Chat just turns out to be a dear friend. Maybe he turns out to be the love of your life. You never know…after all, I never would have picked Nino out of a lineup.”

This last detail makes Marinette’s heart skip. She never would have picked Chat, but…

“Okay,” she agrees. “All I’m promising is to keep an open mind, though.”

“Perfect. That’s all that I’m asking for.”

 

Nino’s phone buzzes in his pocket, distracting him and costing him the game. He sighs as Adrien gets up to do his victory dance.

The text reads: “What did your boy do to my girl?”

He snorts and types back: “I should be asking YOU what your girl did to my boy.” “She broke him.” “Actually still hanging with said boy. TTYL?”

“Alya?” Adrien surmises. Normally Nino doesn’t text other people when they’re together unless it’s important. Alya is always important.

“Yeah. I told her I was with you and that we’d talk later,” Nino explains, picking up his controller. “Ready to kick my butt again?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Adrien snickers.

 

Adrien heads home at three-thirty to get ready for that evening’s photoshoot, and Nino grabs his phone to text Alya back as soon as Adrien’s whisked away by his driver.

“Wanna meet up? I need to talk to you.” “Place des Vosges Louis XIII statue to talk?” “Then Chez Marianne or L’As du Fallafel for dinner?”

“Sounds good. Meet 16:45.”

Nino gets there at four-thirty and takes a seat at the base of the statue to wait. Children are shrieking with joy, running around the little play area at the southeast corner of the park, and a saxophonist is playing under the arch leading into the courtyard, the sound reverberating with an extra spine-tingling something. People of all ages are spread out on blankets, enjoying the brisk, early spring day and the cool warmth of the early evening sun.

“You’re awfully early,” Alya snickers as she comes up beside him. “Eager to see me?”

“You know it,” he chuckles, rocking to his feet.

“Hey, Babe.” Her nose scrunches up in pleasure, and she leans in to give him a quick smooch.

He catches her around the waist and pulls her back in for a longer kiss. Their lips eventually part, and he takes a moment just to bask in her presence. “Have I told you I love you yet today?”

“I mean, saying it again wouldn’t hurt,” she teases, planting a quick kiss on his nose. “I love you, Nino.”

“I love you, Alya,” he echoes, giving her neck a nuzzle before breaking away and slipping his hand into hers.

They walk over to one of the benches, and Alya climbs up to sit on the seat back with her feet resting on the seat. Nino shakes his head and sits on the bench in the conventional way, resting his head on her thigh.

She snatches his hat and places it atop her own head at a jaunty angle. “I assume you want to talk about what happened with Adrien and Marinette at Tom and Sabine’s today?”

“Hm?” Nino looks up at her and blinks before remembering. “Oh. Yeah. We can talk about that first.”

Alya frowns. “We need to talk about something else?”

“Yeah, but the easy stuff first,” he suggests.

Alya bites her lip. “Damn. This is the easy stuff? Okay. That’s fine. We can handle this. If we can save the world, we can sort out a little messy teenage romance drama, right?”

“I sure hope so,” Nino sighs.

“So what exactly happened at the bakery?” Alya prompts. “I got Marinette’s version of it, but she’s a little…excited about flirting with Adrien and actually having it work. I don’t think she’s a totally reliable narrator.”

“The short version is that Marinette used her secret seductive techniques to force Adrien to tell her about the true identity of her Mystery Boy—who she apparently met online and who is secretly a model that Adrien knows in passing.”

Alya nods. “Yeah. She told me all that.”

“She did?” Nino blinks. “Even the part about meeting online?”

“Yep,” Alya confirms. “From her point of view, the secret seductive techniques were more a fluke than anything deliberate that she’s been holding back on all these years. She was still pretty surprised herself that she managed to look him in the eye and talk to him without having one of her usual fits…or one of her more recent brand of fits.”

Alya places the hat back on Nino’s head. “What does Adrien have to say about what happened?”

Nino groans, pulling his hat down to cover his face. “You know that old line? Denial: Not just a river in Egypt?”

“Oh boy,” Alya sighs.

“Yeah. He’s totally tripping over himself over her, but he’s got it in his head that he just wants to be her friend because she’s one of the most awesome people ever. It would be sad if it weren’t so frustrating.”

Alya winces. “Poor guy. So what’s our move?”

Nino shakes his head. “I told him to forget about her. I told him that it was fine that he just wanted to be friends and that I understood that he wasn’t interested in her romantically, but that if he ever started to change his mind, he needed to forget about it because she’d break his heart. I told him I think she’s going to end up with her Mystery Boy.”

Alya nods her approval. “I basically told Marinette the same thing. She asked if I thought maybe Adrien was interested in her now and if she should try actually confessing to him face-to-face this time, but I told her to slam that door and never look back. I don’t want her waiting around for him any longer while he tries to get himself together. I don’t want her to be some kind of rebound from Ladybug for him. I know it’s wrong of me to play God and make these decisions for them…especially since my scheming is the reason we’re in this mess to begin with…but I can’t let her waste any more of her life when she has other options.”

Nino’s eyes widen slightly. “The Mystery Boy?”

“Apparently his username is ‘Chat’,” Alya snickers. “I told her that he seemed like good people and that she should just keep an open mind about him while she works on letting go of her feelings for Adrien. I think if she does that, the rest of it will work itself out.”

“‘Chat’, huh?” Nino snickers. “Yeah. I think that’s for the best too.”

“Well…. Not bad, huh?” Alya jokes. “One messy teen romance drama solved. What’s the harder thing you needed to talk to me about?”

Nino looks up at the sky and takes a deep breath. “You know how we sometimes worry that Adrien is depressed?”

Alya bites her lip. “Y-Yeah?”

“I don’t think we’re worrying hard or often enough,” Nino sighs.

Alya slides down from the top of the bench to sit on the seat next to him. “What happened?”

Nino shakes his head. “Today…we were talking about Marinette. I didn’t realize how upset he’s been about it…. I said the wrong thing, and we kind of had a misunderstanding where he thought I meant that his existence was meaningless, and…” Nino clears his throat. “he agreed with me—or at least with what he thought I had said.”

“And he really meant it? He wasn’t just being…I don’t know, overdramatic?” Alya tries to clarify.

Nino gives her a lost, helpless look. “Al, he thought I had said that Paris didn’t need him, and then he told me that he had thought the same thing, only it hurt when someone else said it out loud.”

Alya takes a deep breath, wrapping one arm around Nino’s shoulders as the fingers of her other hand thread through Nino’s. She curses softy, burying her face in Nino’s shoulder.

“We got it sorted out, and he knows I didn’t mean anything like that, but when I asked how he could even think I would say something like that, he told me that everyone else in his life who he had ever trusted or loved had screwed him over at some point or another, so he just assumed that sooner or later I would do the same.”

“What the hell?” Alya whispers. “I know his home life sucks, but how could he say something like that to you? That’s…I mean, overreact much?”

“No, Al.” Nino gives her hand a squeeze. “He wasn’t saying it out of spite or trying to get back at me. He wasn’t sulking or being dramatic. More than anything, he was confused as to why I would even need to ask. He wasn’t making an accusation; he was just relaying a fact.”

“What the hell?” Alya repeats.

“You know how his mom disappeared?” Nino prompts, hoping to clear things up for her.

Alya bites her lip. “I had forgotten about that.”

“Well, he hasn’t. He thinks she walked out on him. He thinks she abandoned him and left him behind with his father because she didn’t love him enough to take him with her. You should have seen his face, Al.”

Alya stiffens, hesitantly looking up at Nino.

“I knew his mom was out of the picture,” Nino continues softly, eyes misting over. “but I had never stopped to really think about what that meant, what that felt like. Can you imagine how he feels every year when everyone else is making plans for Mother’s Day and talking about the gifts they’re buying and all that? Heck, I’ve probably blathered on insensitively about it myself, and he’s probably just sat through it making polite comments or something. I don’t know. I don’t recall him ever making a big deal about it, but that must have hurt him, right?

“And his dad.” Nino shudders, and Alya does too. “I mean, we all know Gabriel is a giant prick who somehow manages both to neglect and abuse Adrien, but the way Adrien was talking, it sounded like Adrien saw it as if his dad sells him to different companies to advertise products. It sounded like Adrien feels like his dad treats him as a thing that he owns and can do with as he pleases.”

There’s a beat of uncomfortable silence as Nino lets this sink in.

“Al, I know we’ve both had spats with our parents before, but…” He gives her a pointed look. “Is it any wonder he doesn’t expect anything from anyone? The two people that were supposed to take care of him have failed him so spectacularly.” Nino winces. “And I feel like I’m failing him too. I didn’t even notice how bad it was until today.”

“Babe, it’s not your fault,” Alya tries to sooth him even as she too feels a sharp pang of guilt. It’s not like she’s done any better. “We’re still only seventeen. I know we save the world part-time, but we’re not supposed to have to deal with this level of crap. How could you know when Adrien usually acts so normal?”

Nino raises an eyebrow. “Nothing about that kid is normal, Al…” He sighs and gradually relents. “…but, yeah. I get what you mean. He does a good job of hiding it most of the time. It’s not like he’s ever sat down with me and said, ‘Gee, Nino. My life sure is a wreck. I feel like I’m drowning. Can I get a little help here?’ before today…and even today, he didn’t ask for help…. I think…he’s just accepted that his life is always gonna feel like treading water.”

Nino pulls his cap down over his face with one hand and gives Alya’s hand a squeeze with the other. He curses resignedly under his breath.

“Do you think there’s anything we can do to help?” Alya prompts, trying to get Nino to think proactively instead of dwelling on how overwhelmed he feels.

Nino slides the hat back into place and nods. “Prove him wrong. Prove to him that there are people who care about him and who will stick by his side no matter what. His friends are family to him, and we’ve been really letting him down this week with everything that’s been going on.”

He gives her a hesitant look. “Do you think Marinette would be able to hang out, all four of us, this week? It would mean a lot to him.”

Alya bites her lip. “I don’t know. I can check with her, but…I mean, she’s doing surprisingly well, but I don’t know if she’s really had enough time. She’s still pretty mixed up about him, and I don’t necessarily want her pushing herself. She’s tough, but she’s still just a seventeen year-old girl. She could lose it and get akumatized so easily, and I don’t want to risk that. Maybe you and I could hang out with Adrien? Do you think that would help any?”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt.” Nino shrugs. “I know you’re right about Marinette, and I don’t want to put any of this on her shoulders because I know she’d push herself and force herself to be around him to her own detriment, if she knew what a bad state he was in…but Adrien’s seriously messed up over everything that’s going on with her. He asked about hanging with her specifically, so…”

“I’ll ask her,” Alya repeats, nodding resolutely. “…He’s legit that upset about her?” She peeks up curiously at her boyfriend.

“Oh yeah,” Nino sighs. “I think he’s been in denial about his feelings for her for longer than just this week. He’s always admired her and had a sort of soft spot for her. He’s wanted to get closer to her for years, but—well, you see the way she acted around him. He knows he makes her uncomfortable. But this week…this week has been a whole other level of crazy and confusing for him. I don’t know where he’s hearing all of these bizarre rumors, but with the lack of information from us and all the disinformation he’s getting from the gossip mill, he’s super frustrated. He just wants to help, and it’s killing him that he only seems to be making it worse. He’s…really a mess.”

“Is…he doing okay right now?” Alya’s almost afraid to ask. “I mean, was he okay when he left you?”

Nino scratches his cheek. “That’s the funny part. He was. He was fine. I mean, one kiss on the cheek from Marinette, and he was literally proclaiming it the best day ever. It kind of makes me more concerned that something like that was able to turn his whole day around when not an hour before we had been talking about whether he was thinking about hurting himself. That kind of emotional whiplash isn’t healthy.”

Alya sighs deeply. “She really does have the power to hurt him pretty badly, doesn’t she?”

“Yep,” Nino sighs, taking off his hat to rub at his brow with the back of his hand.

“You’ve had a rough day, haven’t you?” Alya moves so that she’s sitting up on the backrest to the bench once more with one foot on either side of Nino. Her hands go to his shoulders and start massaging.

He lets out a soft groan as his eyes slide closed.

“Don’t worry,” she whispers comfortingly. “We’ll take care of Adrien. He’s gonna be all right. We won’t let him down.”

Chapter Text

“Adrien, you are on fire tonight…even if your head is in the clouds,” Philippe—a young, somewhat green photographer that Gabriel has recently brought on—snickers, snapping a shot of Adrien leaning up against one of the trees in the Jardin du Palais Royal.

“Sorry.” Adrien blushes, and Philippe takes the opportunity to snap another picture.

“Don’t be sorry; you’re rocking this shoot. Those pictures we took by the fountain were phenomenal,” Philippe gushes. “Please, continue to space out. But do it while walking this way. I want to get a shot of you with the trees lining the path on both sides.”

Adrien does as instructed, throwing in a brush of his hand through his hair and a shy smile for free.

“Perfect. Stop and give me a three-quarters view.”

Adrien acquiesces.

“Chin up slightly. There,” Philippe cackles as everything falls perfectly into place. “Okay. They should be ready for us at Buren’s Columns now, so let’s head over.”

Adrien gives a nod of assent and begins to follow.

“So what are you thinking about, if you don’t mind me asking?” Philippe tentatively inquires, just a hint of suggestiveness in his voice, as they make their way out of the garden and into the courtyard housing over two hundred black and white striped columns of varying heights.

“Oh.” Adrien blushes again, looking away.

Philippe’s camera is instantly on him.

“Nothing. I mean…I’ve just got a lot on my mind, you know?” Adrien smiles sheepishly, getting into place on top of a nearby column with his one knee hugged into his chest, his other leg dangling off the column.

“Yeah,” Philippe chuckles. “I can relate. Does she have a name?”

Adrien is momentarily flummoxed, creating a rather cute shot. He quickly recovers, though, leaning back and giving the camera a cocky smirk. “Come on, Philippe. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“Ooooh?” Philippe stretches the word out over three notes. “So there was kissing?”

“Just on my cheek.” Adrien hops down and leans on one of the other columns, his arms resting on top with one hand cupping the cheek that Marinette kissed.

“Still. Way to go,” Philippe congratulates, giving him a thumbs up.

Adrien rubs the back of his neck but tries not to let his embarrassment show. His look comes across as dreamy on camera.

“Whatever she did to you, make sure to thank her for it from me because it’s translating to photographic gold,” Philippe snickers, pleased with the evening’s work.

Adrien’s entire face goes red, and he buries it in his hands. “Stop,” he groans, not really minding the playful teasing. “You’re making me blush.”

“It looks good on you!” Philippe assures. “Now climb up on top of that column over there and look down at the camera like you know how sexy you are. Don’t fall, or your father will have me executed.”

With a roll of his eyes, Adrien does as asked, trying to keep a hold on his professionalism. It’s really difficult when his mind keeps wondering back to Marinette’s lips…Marinette’s eyes…Marinette’s laugh…and all with Adrien, not Chat.

They do a handful of poses more with two additional outfits before the shoot wraps up for the night.

Philippe is about to pack up when Adrien has a sudden impulse: “Can I try something and see if it works real quick?”

Philippe shrugs and gets his camera ready once more. “Go for it, Kid.”

Adrien goes to one of the columns at waist-level and drapes himself over it backwards so that he’s hanging off of it, looking at the camera upside-down. It’s the same pose that Chat did for Marinette the night before on her tea table.

“Very nice,” Philippe whistles his approval, snapping a few shots. “You can even see the boxer band with the shirt riding up like that. The ladies are going to love this.”

Adrien wonders what Marinette will think. Will she even see it? If she does see it, will she finally put two and two together and figure him out?

…What then?

 

“You seem…happy. What’s wrong?” Nathalie inquires hesitantly as she drives him home after the photoshoot on Victor the Gorilla’s night off.

This gets a laugh out of Adrien. “Wow. Am I usually so broody that your first thought when I’m happy is that something is wrong?”

Nathalie makes a small, distressed noise. “I…That’s not what I…”

“Marinette kissed me,” Adrien chuckles, reliving the moment for possibly the hundredth time that day. “On the cheek, but…”

Nathalie’s mouth falls open. “She kissed…Chat Noir?”

Adrien shakes his head, laughing happily. “Adrien.”

“Oh.” Nathalie is at a loss as to what one says to a boss/boyfriend’s son when he starts talking about getting kissed by a girl he supposedly does not have a crush on. Is she required to tell Gabriel about this? Should she give Adrien some motherly advice? Would that be weird? Would she be overstepping the boundaries of her job?

Thankfully, Adrien is oblivious to Nathalie’s discomfort, mistaking her awkward silence for her usual taciturn behavior. He continues dreamily, “It was like getting electrocuted…if getting electrocuted was a pleasant thing.”

“I can’t say I’m familiar with the sensation.” She chuckles softly at his lovestruck demeanor.

“I really wouldn’t recommend it. It’s sharp and painful. It burns, and then you keep feeling these phantom twinges of pain afterward,” Adrien states matter-of-factly.

Nathalie turns to gape at him for a moment before calmly pulling the car over, clamping her eyes shut, and resting her head on the steering wheel as she rides out the feeling of nausea that has suddenly overcome her.

“Nathalie! What’s wrong?! Do I need to call an ambulance?!” Adrien tries to remain level-headed, but panic quickly edges into his voice.

“No, I’m fine, Adrien. Just feeling a little queasy.” She tries to assuage his fears through gritted teeth.

“It’s not another one of your fainting spells, is it?” he asks, afraid to learn the answer.

She shakes her head, slowly getting ahold of herself. She takes a deep breath and turns to look at him, guilt and regret clearly written in her eyes. “You know what it feels like to be electrocuted,” she reports succinctly. “And, Gabriel and I, we are the ones that did that to you. I feel like the worst…”

She draws a blank. She was about to say “mother”.

“…pseudo-parent,” she completes, “ever.”

“Step-mother,” Adrien corrects, confidence bolstered by the still-fresh memory of Marinette’s lips. “You’re my step-mother. Don’t deny it. You’ve been living with us for the last three years and helping to raise me for a decade…all that’s missing is a trip to City Hall to finalize a divorce and sign a marriage license. You’re my step-mother, and you’re a good one. I’m lucky to have you.”

Nathalie reaches out uncertainly and rests her hand on his shoulder. “Just pretend that I denied everything if your father asks, but…thank you. I’m afraid I’m failing rather miserably, but thank you, Adrien.”

“I don’t think you could do any worse than abandoning me without saying goodbye,” Adrien jokes (only he’s not joking) with a pained smile. “That’s the precedent I’m working with, so, as long as you say goodbye before you walk out on me, you’re at least doing better than your predecessor.”

Nathalie’s fingers on his shoulder tighten. She wishes she could tell him that his mother never would have left him if she had been given a choice, but that is not her secret to reveal. “I am not leaving you,” she whispers, voice as cold and determined as steel. “Even if your real mother does come back. I am not leaving you.”

He rests his hand on top of hers and gives her a genuine smile. “I don’t want my quote, unquote ‘real’ mother back.”

The moment lasts for a beat, and then Nathalie gives a deferential nod, reclaiming her hand and turning her eyes back on the road.

“You sure you’re okay?” Adrien nibbles at his bottom lip as he eyes her nervously.

“I’d be better if my step-son didn’t feel the need to put himself in danger while saving Paris from my boss,” she sighs.

Adrien tries not to laugh too hard, as he can hear the misery embedded in her tone, and he knows it well himself. “You may be the only person whose life is as screwed up as mine.”

“Are you able to derive any comfort from that fact?” she wonders as she merges back into traffic and resumes their journey home.

“Yes and no,” he sighs, turning to look out the window at the passing smears of light. “It makes me feel less lonely, but, at the same time, it makes me sad to think that someone else’s life sucks as much as mine.”

Nathalie purses her lips, trying to focus on driving while her brain simultaneously starts making a list of ways she could make Adrien’s life suck less. First on the list is to clear Gabriel’s schedule so that father and son can at least eat dinner together one night this coming week.

 

Plagg twitches uncomfortably as Adrien gets ready for bed (humming snatches of the latest song he’s been working on for Marinette).

“Kid…do you need to talk?” he finally bucks up and asks. “About anything that happened today? Today was kind of…a rollercoaster.”

Adrien shrugs. “We can talk about how Marinette kissed me, if you like.”

Plagg winces, mentally going over the exhausting day filled with rough conversations with Nino. Of course Adrien’s brain clings to the kiss instead.

“Are you two still just friends after that?” Plagg snorts. It was meant to be a snide comment made under his breath, but Adrien hears and answers.

“Aren’t we? Doesn’t that prove that we’re friends?” He shuts off the light and pulls back the covers, climbing into bed.

“I don’t know. Your other friends don’t wrap their arms around your neck and make eyes at you. Try imagining that scene with the journalist-girl or hat-boy,” Plagg suggests facetiously.

Adrien groans, shutting his eyes. “Don’t be gross, Plagg.”

Plagg shakes his head. “Whatever. Keep being just friends with her until you end up with your tongue down her throat. We can have this conversation again then.”

“Plagg,” Adrien growls low in warning.

Plagg cannot wait for the biggest “I told you so” moment of his life. He can feel it coming any day now.

 

Adrien wakes feeling uncomfortable, the last snatches of a dream still echoing in the corner of his mind. Something about Marinette asking Chat to zip up her dress…but then the dress never actually ended up getting zipped. And somewhere along the line Marinette had gotten switched out for Ladybug with whom Chat had done some extremely indecent things in Marinette’s room.

Adrien groans, trying not to overanalyze his subconscious as he shuffles to the bathroom for a cold shower.

Breakfast is its usual, lonely affair, and then he’s free for a few hours to perfect the new song he’s working on for Marinette before the one o’clock business luncheon. The luncheon is followed by an afternoon fitting that goes twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to. Afterwards, Adrien makes quick work of the last of his school assignments before finishing Marinette’s recording.

He looks at the clock and wonders if five is too early to drop in on his princess. It’s still light outside.

With a sigh, Adrien gets out his phone and starts going through his iTunes library, scouting for possible options for future recordings for Marinette, since she seems to enjoy them so much.

This keeps him busy for about an hour. When he looks at the clock again, he groans.

“Just go,” Plagg sighs, knowing that his chosen will be unbearably annoying until he gets to see Marinette.

“But…it’s still going to be light out for over an hour. Shouldn’t I not risk someone seeing me?” Adrien puts up some semblance of a responsible front.

“Just go,” Plagg groans.

Adrien doesn’t argue. With a shrug, he leaves a note for Nathalie, sets his sound system to play the third of thirty different piano practice routines he has prerecorded, and transforms, bounding off to Marinette’s house using a suitably circuitous route.

He’s almost there when he spots Ladybug pacing the school’s roof, directly in his path. He’s a little surprised to find that he’s tempted to avoid her in favor of spending more time with Marinette. He chalks it up to the fact that the last time they saw each other on Thursday, she was about to rip his head off for nearly getting himself killed.

He considers the likelihood of him getting past her without her seeing him for approximately ten seconds before deciding to bite the bullet and go talk to her. He lands on the school roof several yards from her and is surprised to hear her talking to herself.

“—your best idea yet! Why not sit and wait for a few hours when you have no idea when he’ll be coming? It’s not like you had anything better to do like your math worksheet or that lab report you’ve been putting off. Why not sit and wait and give yourself time to reflect on your sins? After all, there are so many of them! Why, just the other day—”

“—Am I interrupting something?” Chat calls out, beginning to feel awkward for listening in. “Because I can come back later.”

Ladybug jumps, nearly falls over, pinwheels her arms wildly, and somehow manages to come back to standing, looking cool with her hand on her hip and a confident grin. “Chat Noir!” she greets, nerves evident in her voice. “What a surprise!”

Chat chuckles, thinking, “God, I love her.”

He internally winces once he catches himself.

“Good evening, Mil—ahem—Ladybug.” He probably shouldn’t be calling her “Milady” anymore. If he can ween himself off her in small ways, it’ll make it easier to let her go. “What are you up to on this fine spring evening?”

She bites her lip and takes a steadying breath. “Actually, I was hoping to catch you on your way to your girlfriend’s.”

Chat blinks, momentarily bewildered. “Girlfriend?”

Ladybug begins to fidget, looking uncomfortable as she brushes a bang back behind her ear. “Uh…yeah. The bakery girl? Tom and Sabine’s daughter. What was it? Marie Dupain-Cheng? No. That wasn’t it. Antoinette? Help me. There are, like, two million Parisians; I can’t remember them all.”

“Marinette,” Chat supplies. “How’d you know it was her?”

“That’s it!” Ladybug strikes her left palm with her balled fist. “Marinette. Gosh. That’s bad. I just talked to her yesterday too…or, rather, got yelled at by her yesterday,” Ladybug grumbles under her breath.

“What?” Chat is completely at a loss. “You…spoke with my girlfriend yesterday?”

Ladybug sighs, sinking to the roof in a crossed-leg position with impressive fluidity.

It briefly dredges up a memory from Monday night: Marinette collapsing gracefully to sit on top of her trapdoor.

But then Ladybug is talking again, and Chat shakes it off. “Come. Sit,” she instructs, indicating the surrounding roof as if it is a lavish Arab palace with plush pillows on which to lounge scattered everywhere. “Unless you have somewhere else you need to be.”

He shrugs, taking a seat. “Marinette wasn’t really expecting me at a certain time, so I’ve got twenty minutes or so to kill. What was that about running into my girlfriend yesterday?”

“I was out and about last night, and I just so happened to land around here. She was on her balcony,” Ladybug gestures vaguely in the proper direction. “and she called out to me. You know, she doesn’t like me all that much?”

Chat opens his mouth to protest, but Ladybug cuts him off.

“—Or at all, really. Like, I think she would have beat me up, if I had landed within reach.” Ladybug leans forward to confidentially inform him, “Your girlfriend is scary, Chat Noir.”

Chat attempts to defend Marinette. “She—”

Ladybug doesn’t let him. “—She chewed me out about how I treat you, and—you know what?—she was right.” Ladybug averts her eyes and flicks at an imaginary pebble stuck in the treads of her boot. “I’ve been a pretty crappy partner the past few years…or maybe since the very beginning. I don’t know.”

She peeks up at him sorrowfully. “I’m sorry, Chat Noir. I’m sorry for completely disregarding your feelings even after I realized you were serious. I’m sorry that I’ve taken you for granted and have never thanked you properly for all that you do for me. I’m sorry that I’ve treated you like a tool in battle. I haven’t been a good friend. In fact,” she scoffs at herself. “I’ve been a sucky friend. I’ve been the worst friend ever. I haven’t even been a friend at all, and I’m seriously regretting that. I’m ashamed that it took your girlfriend yelling at me about what a horrible human being I am to make me realize how bad I truly am.”

“Ladybug,” Chat calls softly. His instinct is to go to her, put an arm around her, hold her hand, but he fights it, balling his fists and forcing himself to sit still.

“Don’t tell me I’m wrong, Chat Noir,” she sighs, looking at him miserably. “I’m in the wrong. Listen. Even though I still can’t return your feelings, I want to try to be better as a friend. I want to be someone you feel like you can rely on, so I was thinking that maybe the best way to do that would be to get to know one another better.” She bites her lip and begins twisting a pigtail around her index finger. “I know we talk when there’s time during a fight or afterward or when we happen to be out in costume at the same time, but…I’m aware of the fact that I keep things kind of superficial.” She grimaces. “What would you say to doing a regular patrol together a couple times a week? We could do a few circles around town, maybe sit down and…I don’t know…talk? About something more consequential than the weather?”

She bites her lip and smiles nervously at him, triggering another memory of Marinette. “What do you say?”

He gulps, rubbing at the back of his neck as he digests everything she’s just laid before him. “Gosh…Wow, L-Ladybug. I…” He clears his throat, shaking his head to get his thoughts in order. “Uh, I appreciate the offer, and your apology actually means a lot to me, and while I’d love to be better friends and spend more time together outside of work…”

He can’t. He is never going to get himself out of the pit his feelings for Ladybug have become if he doesn’t stop digging. He can’t spend more time with her and get to know her better while he’s still desperately in love with her. He needs to cut himself off.

“…but I have a girlfriend now, and my free nights are hers first.” It’s a convenient excuse, even though he knows it’s wrong to use his friendship with Marinette like that. “She knows how I feel about you, that I still have feelings for you too, and I wouldn’t want to give her reason to be jealous.”

Ladybug smacks herself in the face. “O-Oh. Of course. Your girlfriend. Duh. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course your girlfriend wouldn’t want you hanging out with the ex-crush all the time. Sorry. That was dumb of me. I didn’t even think of Marinette.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I mean, it’s still kind of a new thing; we’ve only been dating since Monday…. Maybe you and I could do a patrol once a month,” Chat offers, unable to stop himself. “If it’s only once a month, I don’t think Marinette would have a problem with that.”

Ladybug nods, smoothing her hair and getting her nervous blush under control. “Okay. Great. Yeah. That sounds super. So long as your girlfriend doesn’t mind.”

Chat nibbles hesitantly at his lip. “…Speaking of Marinette…you’re not mad, are you?”

Ladybug stares at him and then blinks twice. “Mad,” she repeats as if she’s unsure of the meaning in this context. “Mad about what?”

Chat shifts uneasily, avoiding her gaze. “About me dating someone as Chat Noir.”

“Oh.” It had never occurred to her to be angry. “I hadn’t actually thought about it…. I guess it is a little…”

“Dangerous? Irresponsible?” Chat suggests, voice soggy with guilt. “I know it’s idiotic what I’m doing, but…it just kind of happened, you know? I met her like this, and I just sort of…kept seeing her like this. I didn’t mean to let this happen, but…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Ladybug urges. “Chat Noir, I’m not in a position to boss you around or tell you what to do. Now that you mention it, it’s probably not a good idea, but if you and Marinette are careful, I don’t see why you can’t keep…doing whatever you’re doing.”

“You’re really okay with this?” He gives her an odd look, like he’s wondering if she’s been replaced by aliens.

She nods. “If you two are happy together. Just be careful, okay?”

He absolutely buzzes with delight. She can see him nearly jumping for joy where he sits. “I will,” he promises.

She wonders what he would have done if she had forbidden him from seeing Marinette.

There’s a beat before he gathers the courage to continue. “So…speaking of Marinette…”

Ladybug quirks an eyebrow. “Okay, I know having a girlfriend is new for you, but there are other topics out there. They do exist. We can talk about something other than Marinette.”

“Just one more thing,” he promises with a childish whine. “I’ve been thinking that she’d be an awesome addition to our team. Don’t you think? Maybe the Tiger Miraculous?”

Ladybug’s brow condenses into a heavy frown. “Chat Noir, your girlfriend is cute and everything, but she’s a walking disaster. I mean, I’ve seen her trip over her own feet pretty much every time I’ve run into her—sometimes literally run into her…or, rather, have had her run into me. I just don’t think that she’s superhero material.”

Ladybug is surprised to see Chat visibly bristle.

“No offense, but you can be a bit of a klutz with that yoyo of yours sometimes. I can’t count how many times you’ve tripped yourself up and gotten tangled,” he snorts defensively.

Ladybug’s mouth drops open as she stares at him. “…I can’t believe you just said that to me.” It kind of feels like a slap, even if she knows it’s true.

“Well, you called my girlfriend a walking disaster,” he retorts.

“But it’s true!” she huffs, annoyed that he is simultaneously calling her a klutz and defending her from herself calling her a klutz. Mostly, she’s irked with Marinette for getting into this situation in the first place.

“Tell me, have you crashed into any billboards lately, Ladybug?” He eyes her pointedly, hands going to his hips.

She scrambles to defend herself. “That usually only happens when I’m being thrown by an enemy!”

“My princess is more agile than you think,” Chat continues his assault, managing to sound both proud, protective, and suggestive all at once. “The next time something happens to you, I’m giving her the Tiger Miraculous.”

“Go right ahead,” Ladybug harrumphs, feeling a twinge of jealousy tiptoeing up her spine. “See how well the klutz handles it, having to save Paris all the time. I bet she wouldn’t last a week.”

Marinette almost didn’t.

“I bet she’d do at least as well as you, if not, better.” He smirks condescendingly, preening at her over his girlfriend’s perceived virtues.

Ladybug clicks her tongue, getting to her feet and putting her hands on her hips to shout, “Well, if you like her so much, why don’t you just marry her?!”

Chat rises to the challenge, getting up and leaning in so that he’s in her face as he retorts, “I’m considering it.”

Ladybug freezes, her mind bursting into flames as she remembers that Marinette—SHE—is the topic upon which they are conversing.

“…Really?” she whispers, unsure of how she feels about this turn of events.

Chat deflates slightly and sighs, shrugging. “I don’t know.” He smiles brokenly. “I’m honestly still a wreck over you. I don’t know what I’m doing. Heck, I don’t know if she’d even be interested, but part of me feels like it wouldn’t be a bad thing to let myself fall in love with her…. So long as it doesn’t mess up our friendship, I mean. That’s the most important thing.”

Ladybug leans back against the wall jutting up out of the roof and wonders aloud, “Is your friendship with her really that important?”

Chat has never seemed to worry about messing up his friendship with Ladybug or even their partnership with his confessions…even after she’s rejected him at least half a dozen times.

Chat nods, a solemn expression settling onto his countenance. “It is. I don’t think you know what it’s like to think that there’s nothing good about you and then have someone tell you, ‘What are you talking about? It’s right here. Are you blind? There’s another one’. I don’t think you know what it’s like to think that you’re a complete mess and then have someone tell you that they like you anyway and that you’re not so bad and that they’re kind of messed up too, so who cares? Marinette likes me, even when I’m not putting up a front. That’s really precious and rare.”

Ladybug nods, biting her tongue. She wants to tell him that she could have liked him too if he had ever trusted her with that side of himself…but she knows she’s the one who never made it so that he could open up to her. She slammed the door in his face first. It should come as no surprise that he’s shutting her out now.

“She’s…lucky to have you,” Ladybug finally mutters down at her boots. “…I kind of regret never realizing how lucky I was…. That’s part of what I wanted to tell you tonight.” She peeks up at him.

He’s listening, keeping his guard up and not outwardly wearing his emotions, but he’s listening and keeping an open mind.

“…Even though I can’t return your feelings and it wouldn’t have worked out between us and you’re right to move on…I wish I had handled everything better and that things had worked out differently,” she offers, knowing it’s hollow comfort.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “It makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who regrets how things turned out, though. I feel kind of ridiculous saying this, since I know I’m at fault for messing things up too, but…I forgive you, Ladybug.” He smiles coaxingly, trying to offer her an olive branch.

She smiles too. His forgiveness is more than she could have hoped for. “Thank you,” she replies earnestly.

He shrugs, looking off over her shoulder in the direction of the bakery. “And who knows? Maybe you’re right. Maybe you and I would have been a disaster, and maybe things are better this way…. After all, my girlfriend’s the best.”

Ladybug finds herself blushing at the wistful look on his face. She has to swallow and steady her voice before she can say, “I hope things do work out with you and Marinette—whether you decide just to be friends or you get serious about each other or whatever…”

It’s hard for her to get the words out when she herself doesn’t really know what she wants from her relationship with Chat as Marinette. She knows Ladybug and Chat isn’t an option, but…now that Adrien is out of the picture… If there had never been an Adrien in the picture, Marinette wonders if she would have been more receptive to Chat’s advances. Even though she wasn’t interested in him romantically, she was never blind to his charms.

Chat sends her a grateful smile, looking relieved and encouraged by her words. “Thank you. That means a lot to me, Ladybug. I don’t really know what the future has in store either, but it feels good to know that my partner has my back.”

“Speaking of having your back,” Ladybug adds with a smirk. “make sure you tell her that I’ll rip her eyes out if she breaks your heart.”

At the stricken look on Chat’s face, Ladybug rolls her eyes and adds, “Don’t worry. She said nastier things to me yesterday, so she shouldn’t get offended.”

“You two…really don’t like each other, do you?” he laughs nervously, trying to inject some levity back into the conversation.

“Nope.” Ladybug shrugs, not even trying to sugarcoat it. “That’s part of why I think it would be a disaster if I gave her a Miraculous. We wouldn’t be able to work together.”

Chat sighs, reluctant to let go of his daydream of fighting beside Marinette.

“…She’s probably jealous of me,” Ladybug suggests, crossing her arms and looking out at the Seine. “I mean, here I am fighting crime with her boyfriend, everyone admiring me. Everyone loves Ladybug—even you—but…what she doesn’t know is that I’m jealous of her too.”

Chat cocks his head to the side. “Ladybug?”

“I’m jealous because she’s at liberty to be herself, and the people that love her love her for who she is. No one loves me for who I am,” Ladybug laughs mirthlessly. “They love who they think I am. They wouldn’t like me so much if they knew the truth…. Do you ever feel like that sometimes?”

She turns to look at him, searching his face with the most unguarded expression he thinks he’s ever seen from her. The usual, figurative mask she wears is gone, leaving only vulnerability.

“More often than you’d think,” he confesses.

She nods.

They’ve reached a silent understanding: they’re okay. They’re going to put the past behind them and be better in the future.

Suddenly, a cheery smile appears on Ladybug’s face, and she teases, “Well, I won’t keep you from your girlfriend any longer. I know you’re probably just dying to see her.”

Chat rolls his eyes and shakes his head as she readies her yoyo.

“Remember to tell her what I said about scratching her eyes out,” she instructs, and he realizes she’s serious.

Actually serious.

His pretend girlfriend and his crimefighting partner seriously can’t stand one another.

Ladybug blushes and tentatively adds, “And also tell her…thanks. Thanks for the kick in the pants yesterday.” Her temerity is back the next second as Ladybug continues, “And also that I hate her. See you later, Chaton!” With a wave, she’s off, swinging over towards the park by Marinette’s house.

Chat waves after her until she’s disappeared from view, dipping below the buildings. He frowns, mind spinning as it tries to take in everything. He sits on the roof of the school and sighs.

It figures that Ladybug would finally decide to open up to him and start trying to fix their relationship just when he’s resolved to give up on her…just when he’s become unavailable. After all, it isn’t like Chat is going to dump his pretend girlfriend just because Ladybug has finally deigned to notice him. Chat is serious about this fake relationship.

“Maybe I need to reevaluate my life choices,” Chat sighs to himself…but then a thought pops into his mind, making him grin, “Maybe after I see Marinette.”

Chapter Text

Marinette is surprised when she has enough time to swing through the second story window she left open back at the bakery, run up the stairs, dash into her room…and then pile her hair up into an elegant bun AND pick out a suitable freerunning outfit all before Chat Noir arrives.

“He should have been right on my heels,” she internally grumbles, holding up the black cargo pants and then the green ones, trying to decide which works better with her long-sleeved black crop top.

The green ones have just won when she hears the telltale tapping on her skylight.

She jogs up the steps to her loft and unlatches the window, greeting him with a sunny smile. “Chat Noir!”

“Marinette!” he echoes, laughing as he returns her grin.

“Come in,” she invites with a tip of her head, stepping out of the way before starting down to the main level.

He follows, careful not to step on her bed with his boots.

When he gets to the bottom of the stairs, he finds himself with an armful of Marinette.

“What’s this?” he snickers, letting his arms wrap around her in return. (He’s a little chagrinned when his tail loosely makes itself at home around her hips.) “I thought I only got a hug when I almost died.”

“This is a thank you for all that tulle,” she explains, pulling back slightly to meet his gaze. “I have so many ideas for how I’m going to use it! Even then it’ll probably still last me a couple years. Thank you, Minou.”

The look on her face and excitement in her voice make him feel warm and giddy. Never before has he been so glad to be rich. For the first time he’s truly grateful that he has money to throw around on things like fabric. He’s never seen the point in having more than one needs, but now he thinks that it might be worth a little effort to stay rich if it means he can make Marinette smile like this.

He’s a little surprised when she raises her hand and gives his chest a solid whack.

“And that’s for spending a ridiculous amount of money on me. What the hell, Chat? You can’t just go out and buy a girl hundreds of euros worth of fabric like that!” she scolds, but she’s still grinning, flushed with the anticipation of everything she’s going to create.

He shrugs. “Princess, I have literally every material item I could ever want and more besides that I don’t want, don’t need, and didn’t ask for. What else am I supposed to spend my money on? You told me that you show affection by feeding people; well, I show affection by spending money on them. If we’re going to be friends, you’re going to get gifts…. I feel like I should make a joke about dead mice or something.”

Her nose scrunches in distaste. “I’d prefer if you’d refrain, so can we just pretend that you made the joke?”

“That’s fair,” he concedes and then changes tactics. “Please let me buy you gifts?” He gives her the sad kitty eyes. “I’m only good at two things: looking gorgeous and spending money. Please let me spend money on you?”

“Chat,” Marinette sighs, catching his face between her palms and forcing him to meet her eyes. “There are so many things you’re good at. Don’t even joke like that.”

He blinks.

She realizes he wasn’t joking.

“Oh, my Minou,” she groans, hanging her head and screwing her eyes shut as she fights the urge to find out who his parents are, berate his father for neglecting his son, and hunt down his mother so Marinette can give her a tongue lashing for all the self-worth issues she’s caused.

Marinette looks up at him, face full of determination. “Chat Noir, you are painfully sweet. You’re kindhearted and valiant and selfless and funny—”

“—You think I’m funn—”

“—when you’re not making cat puns and smart and thoughtful and a good friend, and none of that has anything to do with how attractive you are or how much money you have. Okay?” she stresses, praying that he understands and manages to internalize at least one or two of the things she says.

He grins with an innocence that glows like spring sunshine and pulls her in to nuzzle her ear. “It’s funny. I was just telling someone about how you were able to see the good in me when I couldn’t see it myself.”

“Are you blind?” Marinette whispers, resting her hands on his back, her cheek against his chest.

She’s never met someone so in need of a hug before.

“There’s so much good. How the hell do you manage to see so much bad that’s not really there?” she mumbles into his shoulder.

“Practice,” he hums, giving her a little squeeze before letting her go.

“Well, practice seeing the good,” she snorts. “I’ve given you a list to start with. Try seeing those first, and then add to them yourself.”

“Okay,” he assents, making a mental note to try. “…Can I please buy you gifts anyway?”

Marinette covers her face with both hands as she groans in frustration. “Fine. But nothing too expensive.”

“Define expensive,” Chat inquires sheepishly. “I think we have different ideas of what that means.”

Marinette’s eyebrow twitches. “Just out of curiosity, what do you consider an expensive gift?”

Chat’s head tilts to the left as he ponders this question. “A chateau? Maybe a car, unless it were for an anniversary or something. An island. A—”

“—Stop,” Marinette chokes, her eye twitch getting worse. “You’re joking, right? You’re just messing with me. You can’t really buy…” She gulps as she registers the confusion on his face. “You’re not joking. …Your family really has that much money?”

He chuckles like she’s said something cute. “Princess, I’ve been modeling and doing commercials and stuff since I was two, and my parents have never touched a cent of my earnings. Sure, most of it’s tied up in a trust until I come of age, but that’s my money. I don’t usually walk around advertising it, but I can buy whatever I please…only I don’t want anything. So what do you want?”

Marinette is silent as she stares off to the side, trying to wrap her head around that kind of wealth.

“A new sewing machine?” he tempts. “I could buy you a fabric store. How about an atelier where you’d have room to work?”

“No,” she whispers, returning her gaze to his face. “Chat, I don’t want you to feel like you have to buy my friendship. I don’t hang out with you because of what you can buy for me. I know people have probably used you like that before, but that’s not how real friendship works. You should know that; you said you were friends with Nino, didn’t you? Real friends would want to spend time with you, even if you didn’t have two euros to rub together.”

There’s a slight flutter in Chat’s stomach, a mix of pleasure and disappointment. “So…I can’t buy you presents?”

She breaths out slowly, trying to keep from shaking him. “You really want to spend money on me?”

“You’re always feeding me, even when I tell you you don’t have to,” he counters. “You have extra food lying about, so you give it to me because you care about me and want to share what you have. I have extra money lying around, so I want to share it with you in the form of material objects. Tell me those two things aren’t the same,” he challenges.

She purses her lips, knowing that he sort of has a point, even if the scale is completely out of proportion. “Okay,” she relents. “Just not too often, and keep it cheap—no more than twenty euros.”

He rolls his eyes. “Five hundred.”

She narrows hers. “We are not negotiating.”

“What if I want to buy you a cute designer skirt or a handbag or some jewelry?” Chat wheedles stubbornly, guessing at desires she’s never allowed herself to acknowledge because they were so far out of reach.

Marinette’s hands go to her hips, and she stands her ground. “You’d have to take me on a date first because those are the kinds of gifts you get a girlfriend, and you and I agreed that we weren’t even thinking about crossing that bridge until we were both over our current crushes. Which—spoiler alert—we are so totally not.”

“Fine.” Chat puts up his hands in defeat and steps back, mentally shouting at his tail to untangle from its lazy loop around Marinette’s waist. “…One hundred euros? And things like concert tickets and fabric and backstage passes for you and your friends…invites to fashion shows… Is that platonic enough?”

Her frustration relents, and she smiles at him and nods. “Yeah. That should do it.”

“You’re not mad at me?” he verifies. The last thing he needs is to add a fight with Marinette to his growing list of altercations with friends this week.

She shakes her head, eyes softening. “No, Minou. Just disgusted by your wealth, but that’s not your fault. …Why don’t you come see how my latest creation is coming along thanks to you?”

She motions him over to the dress form she has set up on the carpet by her chaise longue.

“Is that your Odile dress?” he whistles in appreciation, taking in the amazing work she’s accomplished in such a short amount of time. “I see you’re already putting the tulle I gave you to good use. It looks like it’s nearly done.”

“Mmhm!” She beams with pride, going over to straighten and fuss, making small adjustments. “It’s still got pins in places, but it’s really coming together. I’ve been working on it practically nonstop the whole weekend.”

“It looks spectacular, Princess. I can’t wait to see it on you.” He can almost picture it: the bodice hugging her figure, the sweetheart neckline accentuating her curves. If only she could wear heels, her calves would look—

“—Me?” Marinette gives a start. “On me? I wasn’t planning on…I didn’t actually make it to be worn.”

He gawks at her. “You’re kidding me. How could you make something so beautiful and then deny it the opportunity to live up to its full potential? That dress is wasted hanging out in storage. I’ll come up with an occasion for you to wear it myself, if I have to.”

She gives a snort and shrugs off his theatrics. “All right. Maybe Princess can wear it on your next ‘date’ with her. I didn’t expect you to feel so strongly about objects being allowed to fulfill their destinies.”

He never would have expected it from himself either, but the thought of never getting to see Marinette wearing the Odile dress…

“Speaking of fancy occasions, how was the gala on Friday? As bad as you were expecting?” She motions for him to take a seat on the chaise as she removes some of the pins from the dress and sticks them between her lips, readjusting a piece of fabric in the skirt.

“Actually, it went rather well,” Chat reports, making himself at home on the chaise. “I was pleasantly surprised. I reconnected with my childhood friend, and we had a lot of fun talking and dancing.”

“The pretty friend who’s not very happy?” Marinette asks around the pins in her mouth.

“Yeah.” Chat’s smile comes off a little tarnished in places. “I was able to talk to her about some things that most of the other people in my life don’t seem to get, so…it was good to finally have someone understand where I was coming from. This week has been a frustrating mash-up of the same conversation coming to the same unsatisfactory conclusion over and over again. It was a relief that at least one person got it.”

Marinette’s lips press down on the pins, and she runs her tongue against the points without thinking as she internally debates the pros and cons of poking at what is obviously a sore subject.

“You probably don’t want to have the same conversation again,” she leads in tentatively. “but is there anything I can do to help? …Do you think I’d get it?”

He looks at her for a moment, considering before a faint blush creeps out from under his mask. “Probably better than anyone. I’ve been trying all week to convince everybody that we’re just friends and that I’m not secretly in love with you.”

“O-Oh!” Marinette gives a start, and the pins drop from her mouth, getting lost in the carpet.

She looks down and frowns, getting to her knees to search. “Drat.”

He joins her, carefully running a gloved hand through the plush carpet.

“You don’t have to—” Marinette starts to protest but is cut off when one of the pins pricks her.

She jumps, retracting her hand.

“That’s why you should let me help. It’s safer with the gloves on,” he informs in a way that implies he knew this would happen; however, he doesn’t say “I told you so” or bring attention to the fact that she really is a walking disaster.

“Let me see.” He holds out his hand, and she surrenders hers for his inspection.

A tiny bead of blood is forming like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.

She gives a little “Oh!” of surprise when she finds her finger in his mouth, his tongue wrapping around it in a soft, too sensual caress that makes her whole body heat up. She knows she’ll be replaying this moment again and again later.

He removes the finger from his mouth, giving it a little kiss before meeting her dumbstruck gaze with a sheepish smile. “Do people not do that in real life?”

She shakes her head, not trusting her voice.

“Figures,” he chuckles. “Sorry. This is what happens when you keep a kid separated from his peers for thirteen years and he learns social interactions from Japanese anime.”

Oh. No wonder.” Suddenly, everything about Chat Noir makes so much more sense. “Don’t worry about it,” she assures.

“As my friend, it’s your job to tell me when I do weird, not normal stuff,” he advises. “Nino’s been working on it for years, but I have a lot of catching up to do…. You should probably go wash the cut and put a bandage on it. I’ll find the rest of the pins.”

“Thank you, Minou.” She smiles through her embarrassment as she gets to her feet. “Sorry. There were five total.”

“I know. I saw,” he assures, picking one of them out of the carpet and adding it to the first.

She’s a little surprised that he was watching so closely.

When she returns, he proudly presents her with five pins which she carefully takes, thanking him once again.

She goes back to fussing needlessly over the dress to distract herself and give her hands something to do.

“So. I think we were talking about the gala?” he resumes. “Advertising your ties and cufflinks actually gave me some incentive to talk to the long list of people my father gave me. We’ll have to do something like that again next time. It made the unpleasant part of the evening fly by.”

“Glad I could help,” Marinette chuckles. “Thank you again for doing that. I was amazed when Adrien dropped off all the business cards yesterday. I really appreciate you helping me.”

“Any time, Princess.” Chat bites his lip as he moves to the difficult part of the conversation. “Sorry about Adrien.”

Marinette raises a questioning eyebrow. “Sorry about what about Adrien?”

“Letting him return the ties. I know being around him upsets you, but he was kind of insistent, and since he had done me the favor of wearing the other tie and helping to spread your name around… I shouldn’t have asked him in the first place, since I know how you feel about him—”

“—How I feel about him?!” Marinette momentarily stops breathing.

Chat gives her an odd look. “That you two are kind of on the outs and you don’t want to be friends with him right now?”

“Oh!” Marinette giggles nervously. “Right.”

Chat blinks and continues, “…but I figured, if you want something to sell, slap Adrien Agreste’s face on it, so, since he’s infinitely more famous than I am, I asked for his help. But I’m sorry you had to deal with him,” Chat concludes, looking guilty. “He means well. He’s just stupendously clueless, and he wants to be your friend more than anything. He really admires you.”

“It’s okay, Chat,” Marinette insists. “I seriously appreciate what you did for me, and…it actually wasn’t too bad seeing Adrien yesterday.”

He raises a suspicious eyebrow at her, knowing he’s caught her in his trap. “Would that have anything to do with the fact that you got him to sing like a canary about my identity?”

Marinette tenses, a blush quickly working its way down her neck. She avoids eye contact. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Chat gets to his feet and walks around her, back and forth, in a semicircle as he sizes her up.

Marinette keeps her gaze locked on the dress, pinning and unpinning. It feels like she’s being stalked by a hungry predator.

“‘Don’t tell him, and I won’t either’, was it?” Chat hums.

Marinette’s heart sinks.

“That only works when the other person has a spine…or no conscience,” Chat chuckles, coming to stand directly behind her. “Unfortunately for you, Adrien Agreste has no spine and a rather loud conscience.”

With a sigh, Marinette abandons the dress and turns to face him wearing a contrite expression. “Are you angry with me?” She hesitantly looks up at him.

His countenance speaks of amusement, not annoyance. “I should be.” His hands go to his hips.

“But you’re not,” she finishes, a sheepish smile slowly beginning to take shape on her lips. “You knew I was going to ask him.”

He flutters his left hand, palm down. “Eh, it was fifty-fifty whether you’d pounce on the opportunity or you’d be too upset by Adrien’s face to talk to him more than you had to. …I should be disappointed in you.”

“But you’re not.” Her grin gains traction. “Because you want me to figure you out.”

He frowns, considering. “Part of me wants you to figure it out already. I mean, I’m just the tiniest bit exasperated that it’s taking so long. I feel like all I do day in and day out is drop hints. …The rest of me is terrified that you’ll freak when you find out.”

“It drives me nuts when you say that,” Marinette snorts. “I can’t for the life of me imagine why I’d react so negatively. You’re sure you’re not just catastrophizing? Usually that’s my job.”

Chat shrugs, arms out and palms up. “I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? Figure it out already, Princess.”

“I’m trying,” she whines. “I know a lot of people, but you don’t seem like a fit for any of them.”

He rolls his eyes. “Haven’t I told you that I’m not like this without the mask? I don’t act like me. …Not even around you.”

Her eyes widen. Her mouth feels dry as she struggles to ask, “How close?”

He raises an eyebrow. “How close what?”

“Are you?” she clarifies. “I mean…do we have any classes together? Is your locker close to mine? Do I pass you in the halls every day? Have we had whole conversations that I don’t even remember?” She presses her lips together firmly to keep the bottom one from quivering.

It’s upsetting to think about what all she could be missing.

He reaches out and tucks the usual errant bang back behind her ear. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“I’m not sad,” she fibs, rubbing at the single tear that has managed to escape its prison. “I’m…frustrated…. How close?” she stares into his eyes and asks again.

He looks away. “Sometimes you look at me, but you don’t see me. We’ve exchanged a few words here and there over the years, but I don’t feel like we’ve ever really talked. Sometimes I’m close enough to do this,” He reaches out and bops the end of her nose lightly, enjoying the way her bright blue eyes go wide. “but, if I did, you’d probably be weirded out because he hasn’t earned the right to infringe on your personal bubble. He’s not me with you, and you’re not the you you are with me when you’re with him.”

“…That’s sad,” Marinette whispers, suddenly aware of a hollow space she desperately needs to fill. She needs to find him.

“Very,” he agrees. “And kind of lonely.”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles and wonders, “Why can’t I see you?”

He shakes his head. “Plagg thinks you don’t want to.”

“But I do,” she insists petulantly, puffing out her cheeks.

“And that’s why I’m thinking you’ll freak out when you do discover the truth. It seems like you don’t want me to be me,” he explains.

She gives a huff of indignation. “That’s ridiculous. You’re still going to be you no matter who ‘you’ ends up being.”

Chat puts up his hands in surrender. “Don’t blame me. You’re the one who can’t seem to figure it out.”

“Well, give me more clues,” she demands.

He gives her an incredulous look. “You want more clues? Even after everything you got out of Adrien yesterday?”

Marinette averts her gaze and sulks, “It’s not like I got much out of Adrien.”

Chat clicks his tongue. “He told me what he told you, Marinette. About my smalltime acting career, the modeling, my mother’s acting… Why did you ask what I looked like? You know what I look like.” That point has been bothering him.

She crosses her arms and shrugs a shoulder. “I was thinking that maybe you looked a little different without the mask. I mean, Chloé does. It’s slight, but…I thought maybe you were the same way.”

“That’s actually pretty clever of you, Princess,” Chat hums, impressed at her ingenuity.

Marinette gives a small smile. “I thought so. And it sounds like the shades of your hair and eyes are a little bit different…provided Adrien gave me an accurate description. I’m not really counting on it, since I don’t see what reason he would have to study your features in depth.”

“True,” Chat grants.

“So…one more clue?” Marinette tries, figuring she has nothing to lose.

No,” he insists. “You’re going to have Ladybug mad at me. Besides, you just found out yesterday that I’m allergic to feathers; that’s a huge clue.”

She gives him a playful swat on the arm. “Chat, I’ve known you were allergic to feathers for years.”

Chat blinks. “You…did? How?”

“Monsieur Pigeon. Remember? You were sneezing all over the place.”

“Oh.” He’d forgotten.

“Are you really a dog person?” she wonders, giving him a sideways glance.

“I am,” he confirms with a chuckle. “Are you surprised?”

“I was at first,” she admits. “but when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense…. How do you feel about Shiba Inus?”

It feels like this is a test that will decide the course of his destiny. He answers carefully: “I like their curly tails. Why?”

Her eyes light up. “I feel the same way! I was thinking a Shiba Inu would be a good dog. They’re small enough for a Paris apartment, but they’re big enough that I wouldn’t step on them and the children could play with them without hurting them. What do you think?” she chuckles excitedly.

He tentatively steps closer. “A Shiba Inu would be great,” he whispers, mentally taking the image for a test-drive: a Paris apartment with Marinette in the kitchen with flour on her cheeks and in her hair as she makes crêpes from scratch for breakfast while the Shiba Inu romps around on the floor with the children.

Chat frowns. “How many children do you want?”

“Three,” she replies without thinking. “Hugo, Louis, and…” Her voice cracks as she realizes what she’s doing. “…Emma,” she gulps. “But that was with…”

Tears start to well in the corners of her eyes.

“Hey.” His left arm circles loosely around her while he reaches up with his right hand to tip her chin up and wipe away the tears. “Have I told you how gorgeous your hair looks today?” he prompts, getting a weak smile out of her.

“Thank you, Minou,” she coos, but then, a moment later, she’s sighing. “It was really delusional of me to come up with some future family with a guy I don’t even know well, huh?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s normal to think about the future like that,” he argues.

Her head tips to the side oh so slightly as she asks, “Do you?”

“I…” He looks away. “It’s a little different, but I often…I guess…write myself into other people’s families. Like, I imagine what if I was born Nino’s brother, or what if your family adopted me. I imagine different presents for myself a lot, but thinking about the future? Not too often. I…have a hard time coming up with good futures. I mean, I’ll think about it, but it doesn’t feel real. I can’t see myself actually getting out from under my father’s thumb and getting married and having a job I like. It feels like too much of a fantasy, so I usually end up thinking ‘what’s the point?’.”

He looks back at her and frowns. “Why is it that whenever I try to make you feel better I always end up making you feel sorry for me? This has got to stop,” he sighs. “I’m not that pathetic. I haven’t completely given up on being happy in the future.”

“So long as you don’t give up,” Marinette whispers, reaching to run a hand through his hair, gently massaging his scalp.

With a sigh, Chat leans in and rests his head on her shoulder, nuzzling her neck. “A Shiba Inu sounds really nice,” he mumbles. “And three children. I really like children. They laugh at my jokes and never have ridiculous expectations of me. …A Paris apartment…” He holds his breath as he continues, “Wouldn’t you want something bigger than an apartment? I could buy us a mansion, if you wanted.”

Her hand stills for a moment, but she resumes the head rub as she answers, “You mean in six years when we realize we’re meant to be together?” she snickers. “I don’t want a mansion. I want what I have now…plus a few extra rooms what with the two extra children.”

“And a clothing boutique on the ground floor instead of a bakery?” he chuckles. “Or did you want your own fashion empire? In that case, the boutique downstairs can be the flagship store. Or maybe downstairs is your atelier and the boutique is somewhere else.”

“I think we’re getting six years ahead of ourselves, Chat Noir,” she sighs, her hand slowly extracting itself from his hair.

He lifts his head off of her shoulder and steps back to a proper distance.

He’s not sure yet what he wants his relationship with Marinette to turn into. Undeniably, there’s a physical pull, but, at the same time, he doesn’t want things to go any farther than this. Things are cozy and comfortable as they are. He’s just glad that he has someone whom he can joke (but kind of not joke) about marrying like this. It feels genuine, like the friendship he has with Nino.

“Your tail,” Marinette giggles, breaking him from his thoughts.

He looks to find it still curled possessively around her hips. “S-Sorry! I—”

“—Don’t be!” she laughs harder. “I think it likes me. I think it’s tired of being your tail and wants to come be my belt. Doesn’t it look good on me?”

Chat tries to stomp on thoughts of “Doesn’t your tail look good on me” and all of the inappropriate ideas that stirs up.

“Stellar, Princess,” he chuckles nervously, willing his tail to cut it out.

As if sticking its tongue out at him, it winds the rest of the way around her hips and dips into her front pocket. He has to manually extract it—which is awkward and brings him a little bit too much into Marinette’s personal space for his comfort at the moment…despite the fact that he was not five minutes ago nuzzling her neck.

It’s a constant surprise to find out what feels platonic with Marinette versus what feels too intimate.

Thankfully, Marinette giggles as he wrestles with his tail, helping him feel less self-conscious.

“I swear it doesn’t do this with other people,” he grumbles, giving the offending appendage a castigating shake.

“Good to know I’m special.” Marinette is still giggling as she gives a spin and comes to sitting on her chaise. She pats the seat beside her.

“You’re all kinds of special,” he snickers, sinking onto the chaise as bid.

She raises an eyebrow curiously. “What’s that supposed to mean? It sounds like it could either be a compliment or an insult.”

“Take it how you will.” He shrugs with an enigmatic air. “…Not to change the subject, but there is one thing I’m kind of annoyed about. It’s really, really stupid, but—”

“—What did I do?” Marinette wonders. It feels like she’s had the breath knocked out of her.

“You seduced Adrien Agreste,” he sulks, feeling like an idiot for Chat being jealous of Marinette flirting with Adrien, but, for all she knows, they’re two separate people and she was flirting with another guy. They’re not, and she wasn’t, but Chat still manages to be irked by it now that he’s no longer Adrien.

Come to think of it, she kissed Adrien on the cheek!

“What?!” Marinette’s face goes magenta. “I did no such thing,” she protests.

He stares her down. “Oh? Are you telling me you didn’t run your hand up and down his chest and wrap your arms around his neck and kiss him?”

“Where did you hear that from?” she chokes.

“Nino and Adrien. According to Nino, it was pretty humorous. Apparently, you broke Adrien,” Chat snickers.

Internally, Adrien gives Chat a kick.

Marinette rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. “It wasn’t like that. The kiss on the cheek was a thank you for helping show off my designs at the gala and also an apology for being a jerk to him all week. I don’t see what you have to be annoyed about.”

“I’m jealous,” Chat whines, seeing if pretending to be childish gets him anywhere.

“You are childish,” he mentally berates.

“I want a kiss too.” He leans in expectantly.

She puts a finger to his nose and pushes him away. “Dream on, Chat Noir.”

A moment too late she realizes that that was something Ladybug would have done—HAS done. Has done any number of times.

He blinks at her then frowns.

She can see the wheels in his mind beginning to turn.

She panics, leaning in and placing the ghost of a kiss on the tip of his nose.

He blinks again and then grins. “Am I dreaming?”

Marinette reaches out and pinches his cheek.

“Ow,” he sulks, batting her hand away. “I guess not.”

“Stop being jealous of Adrien,” she snorts. “There’s nothing to be jealous of. I mean, I can’t stand the sight of him, and I’ve been acting like a complete loony around him all week. What’s more, I totally used him to get information about your secret identity. Think about that for a second. The only time I’ve voluntarily talked to him this week has been to get info on you. Sure, he got a kiss on the cheek, but would you really want to trade your week with his over it?”

“Nah,” Chat decides. “Now that I think of it, I got a kiss from you this week too. Monday, on your balcony when we said goodnight.”

“See? No reason to be jealous,” Marinette insists.

“As always, sucks to be Adrien Agreste,” Chat snickers at his alter ego’s expense.

“…Do you think so?” it occurs to Marinette to ask.

Chat tips his head to the side. “Think what?”

“That it sucks to be Adrien?” She pins him with her piercing blue eyes. “I don’t know him well, but his situation is kind of like yours. Do you think it sucks to be him? …Does it suck to be you?”

“It…” He tries to unstick his gaze from hers, but he’s unsuccessful in his attempts. “…Not right now. It doesn’t suck to be me right now, so…if Adrien really is anything like me, it probably does suck to be him because he doesn’t have you.”

“Is my friendship really that special?” Marinette wonders for the second time in as many hours.

Chat shrugs, finally managing to look away. “It’s been the highlight of my week.”

“What a coincidence,” she chuckles self-consciously. “Becoming friends with you was the highlight of my week too…. Was that really just a week ago? It feels like…”

“Four years?” he suggests.

She nods. “I feel like I’ve known you such a long time, but I didn’t really know you at all, and now I’m playing catchup.”

“That makes two of us,” he sighs, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “…You got anything exciting going on this coming week?”

Marinette shakes her head. “Just designing mostly. Alya and the girls were talking about maybe going to a movie together. I get the feeling that they don’t know what to do with me. They want to give me space to work out my feelings, since they know how long I liked that guy, but they’re afraid to leave me alone too long. I don’t know if we’ll end up hanging out or not, but it shouldn’t interfere with your visits, since you typically come over after seven.”

His heart feels light in his chest at her mention of his visits. She says it like they’re a given, a regular and natural thing in her schedule.

“Do you have any exciting plans?” she prompts with an easy smile.

He does for once. “Well, most of the week is the usual mess of extracurricular activities right after school with free evenings to spend with you until you get sick of me, but Thursday is a little special.”

She inclines her head towards his with genuine interest.

It’s a little strange for him. He knows “how was your day?” and “what do you have going on this week?” are normal conversations that other human beings have, literally, on a daily basis, but this is rare for Adrien.

“My father’s personal assistant told me this morning that she managed to clear my father’s schedule on Thursday night, so he’ll be available to have dinner with me.” Chat tries to hold in his excitement. He knows it’s not normal to be this jubilant about having dinner with your father, and he doesn’t want to let Marinette see what a big deal this is to him. He doesn’t want her feeling sorry for him. He knows she has meals with her own parents all the time. Most of his classmates do.

“That’s awesome,” she replies politely. “Where are you guys going?”

Chat smiles sheepishly. “We’ll probably just eat in, and, after dinner, I’ll twist his arm and get him to play board games with me.” His tail begins to flick in excitement.

She notices the tail and begins to pick up on the fact that this seemingly mundane event is important to her friend. “That sounds like fun. What board games do you like to play?”

“Mastermind and Battleship are our old standbys. We play a lot of different card games too like Go Fish and War and Gin Rummy and Egyptian Rat Screw. If I’m lucky, I can get him to commit to a game of Monopoly,” Chat snickers.

“You like Monopoly?” Marinette surmises.

“No?” Chat grins sheepishly, scratching at his cheek. “I mean, it’s okay, but I don’t really like it. It’s a really long game, though, and over the years I’ve become proficient enough at cheating that I can keep a game going for a couple hours. Father usually cuts me off at two, but…that’s two whole hours he has to spend with me.”

Marinette bites her lip, realizing that, like practicing the piano, this is just one more thing Chat doesn’t necessarily enjoy that he does so he can spend time with his father. “Your dad really is busy, isn’t he?”

“…Yeah,” Chat sighs.

“Do you think he’d make time to meet your girlfriend, if you started dating someone?” she inquires tentatively.

He raises an eyebrow. “Yes. Why?”

“I was thinking,” she hums. “Next week, after I’ve discovered your secret identity, maybe we could start fake dating, if that would create more opportunities for you and your dad to spend time together.”

“You’re such a good friend, Marinette. I appreciate the fact that you would even consider helping me out like that,” he chuckles, oddly touched. “You’d have to figure out my secret identity first, though, and you’re kind of failing at the moment.”

“Hey,” she whines.

He receives a slap on the arm for his trouble.

“Oh.” Suddenly he remembers.

“Oh?” She arches an eyebrow at him.

“Ladybug.”

Marinette goes very still. She’s not even breathing.

“I actually ran into her on the way over here.” He grimaces.

“It’s taken him this long to remember?”

“O-Oh?” Her own smile comes out rather pained.

“Apparently you two spoke yesterday?” he prompts.

“That depends on your definition of ‘speaking’.” Marinette turns so that she’s angled away from him as she confesses, “I might have gone off on a diatribe directed at her. I was…a little angry.”

“Define ‘a little’.” Chat’s almost afraid to ask.

Marinette chews nervously on her bottom lip. “So, this week, I might have made time to go back through footage of a couple hundred akuma battles from the past four years and catalogue all the ways Ladybug had been a sucky partner. What I discovered kind of made me sick, so…when she landed on one of the neighbors’ roofs last night, I couldn’t resist calling out to her and sharing my findings.”

She risks a peek over her shoulder at him.

His mouth is hanging open, and he’s staring at her like he doesn’t believe that she’s real. “You seriously did that?”

Marinette’s face loses all traces of color as she begins to wave her arms wildly. “I’m sorry! I know I should have stayed out of it. Your relationship with you partner is none of my business, and I shouldn’t have interfered like that. I know she works hard and the city owes her so much, but I kept thinking, doesn’t she owe you, Minou? I—”

He places his fingertips on her lips and smiles affectionately. “—Shh. I meant you seriously went back through all those videos because of me?”

She gives a very small, humble nod.

“That must have taken a long time,” he adds thoughtfully.

She blushes, reaching up to move his hand. “I didn’t go through all of them. I was going to go through all of them, but…I couldn’t watch anymore.” Tears begin to form at the corners of her eyes. “I know it wasn’t all bad. Heck, most of the time you guys were a great team. You had each other’s backs and worked well together, but…there were dozens of times where I thought, ‘Why did she do that?’ or ‘Why did she say that?’ or ‘That was mean.’ or ‘That was thoughtless.’ There were dozens of things I wish had been different, so…I told Ladybug about them, and I wasn’t very nice.”

“She mentioned that,” Chat chuckles softly, reaching up to wipe Marinette’s tears away carefully with the pad of his thumb. “I believe her exact words were that my girlfriend was scary and that she got the impression you would have beat her up if she had been within range.”

Marinette smiles through gritted teeth. “Not really my finest moment, honestly. I bet the entirety of the fifth and sixth arrondissements heard me shouting. It was pretty ugly.” She looks down at her hands in her lap and reaches up to scratch her head. “I bet Ladybug thinks I’m a psycho now.”

Chat makes a vague noise that’s neither a confirmation nor a denial. “It’s hard to tell what she thinks, but she did tell me to tell you thank you for what you did. She might not of enjoyed your conversation, but she told me she was grateful for the kick in the pants you gave her. I’m grateful too.”

Marinette’s eyes widen slightly as she looks up at him with curiosity. “You are?”

He nods. “Thanks to you, Ladybug and I were able to sort some of our issues out. It felt really amazing when she apologized to me, and it kind of gave me a sense of peace about the relationship. I feel like we’re in a better place as partners now that we’ve talked, and it’s all thanks to you.”

Marinette looks away, vigorously shaking her head. “I really didn’t do anything. Please don’t thank me.”

Chat purses his lips at this, but it’s rather obvious from her body language and the look on her face that she’s not just being modest and that she would find it upsetting if he pressed. With a sigh, he lets it go. “All right. Just know that I appreciate you, okay?”

“I know you do,” she mumbles, mentally reminding herself to show her appreciation for him more often.

He bites his lip before hesitantly continuing, “Also, Ladybug gave me two more messages to give to you, but, before that, I have some explaining to do.”

Marinette blinks, turning back to face him full on once more. “Oh? About what?” What had she said that would necessitate an explanation?

He scratches at his cheek, averting his eyes. “I…may have let Ladybug believe that we’re dating.”

“Oh.” Marinette blinks again. “Is that it?”

Chat hangs his head. “I’m sorry. Somehow she realized that you were Princess, and she started referring to you as my girlfriend. I should have stopped her and cleared up the misunderstanding, but…” He looks up at her wearing a defeated expression, ears droopy. “I was too much of a coward, too proud, and too embarrassed,” he confesses. “I’m sorry. She…She’s kind of my weak point, you know? I swear I didn’t do it because I was trying to make her jealous. It was more…once she started saying ‘girlfriend’, it was too hard to admit that I didn’t actually have someone who liked me. It…felt good to be able to look at her and have her think that I didn’t need her anymore because someone else thought I was good enough, someone else wanted me, even if she didn’t. I was too embarrassed to admit to her of all people that I didn’t have anyone who loved me.”

With a jerk, he straightens, and his words come out all at once. “Sorry! It’s not that I’m trying to excuse my behavior. I’m just trying to explain so you know why I did what I did. Obviously, what I did was wrong, and, obviously, at the next opportunity, I’ll tell Ladybug the truth, but—”

“—You don’t have to tell her,” Marinette insists, catching him by the wrists. “It’s my fault that she thought we were dating.”

Chat’s eyes narrow in confusion. “What?”

I told her I was your girlfriend,” Marinette fibs. What’s one more lie, if it makes him feel better? “When she was here, I said a whole bunch of horrible stuff. I called her rude, mean names that implied she was a female dog, and I told her not to mess with my boyfriend…only I used a different four-letter word that wasn’t so nice.”

Chat’s jaw drops yet again as he stares incredulously. “No wonder she said she hates you—She told me to tell you that. Also, that she’ll scratch your eyes out if you break my heart. Then she said that you had said nastier things to her yesterday, so you shouldn’t be offended. Geez.”

“Yeah. Sorry, but there’s no love lost between the two of us,” Marinette chuckles, and then her mood turns somber. “But, anyway, it’s not really any of Ladybug’s business if you’re seeing someone, and I don’t mind if she thinks we’re dating, so I say don’t bother clearing up the misunderstanding with her…and…” She bites her lip. “Chat, your value is not defined by who does or does not love you. Ladybug doesn’t get to decide whether you’re ‘good enough’; you’re already good enough. You always have been from the very start, even before you were Chat Noir. She doesn’t get to take that away from you just because she doesn’t return your feelings. Does that make sense?”

He looks down at her hands, still holding his wrists lightly, and purses his lips. “Objectively, it does, but that doesn’t make it feel true.”

“Fine,” she huffs. “Then how about this? I love you and I think you’re good enough and I say that you’re the best. Does that count for anything?”

A warm smile rises like the sun on his lips. He flips his hands over so that he’s holding her wrists too. “More than I can say,” he whispers.

Marinette exhales slowly, feeling tired.

He’s broken in so many places; it’s going to take years to fix. She doesn’t know if she has the energy, but she can’t bring herself to give up on him. Deep within she knows she wants to keep trying to make it better any way she can.

His smile turns mischievous as he gives her arm a squeeze. “You love me, Princess?”

She gives a small grunt of irritation. Mostly, she’s glad he’s feeling better, but there’s a part of her that’s kicking herself because she knows that she’ll never hear the end of this. “I love you as a precious friend,” she snorts, extracting her hands from his. “I love you so much, I just want to smack you sometimes.”

“I don’t know if I’m into that,” he hums, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“Insufferable flirt.” Marinette rolls her eyes, getting to her feet and going over to her desk to grab the freerunning outfit she had picked out earlier. Halfway to the desk, she looks back over her shoulder at him and asks, “Wanna find out?”

He crosses his arms, shooting her an approximation of a disapproving look. (It would be more believable if he weren’t still grinning.) “Okay, now who’s flirting, Princess?”

“I am,” she announces proudly, picking the clothes up off of her chair. “Do you want to go for a run? There’s still a good twenty minutes of light left.”

“A run?” He weighs the word. “As in a jog around the park next door?”

“Kind of like that.” She smiles impishly. “Only…on the rooftops.”

Chapter Text

“You…want to go for a run on the rooftops?” Chat verifies.

Marinette nods enthusiastically. “It’s super fun. There are all kinds of obstacles to jump over and dodge, and leaping from one roof to the next is always such a thrill…” She trails off as she realizes to whom she’s talking. “But I guess you know that, since you and Ladybug run on the rooftops all the time.” An embarrassed blush slowly radiates from her cheeks outwards. “Actually, now that I think about it, it probably wouldn’t be much fun running with me, since I don’t have a yoyo or a baton to help me cover ground fast. It would be a lot slower than you’re used to.”

“Slower isn’t always a bad thing,” Chat offers, getting up from the chaise. “I’d love to go for a run with you.”

“Really?” Marinette brightens.

“Really,” he insists. “A run would be great.”

“Okay.” She beams, hugging her change of clothes to her chest. “But if after five minutes you think it’s super slow and boring, just let me know, and we can do something else. All right?”

“Sounds like a plan. You gonna go change?” He nods to the clothing in her arms.

“Yeah, give me like five minutes.” She winks and rushes off.

He tries not to stare when she comes back in a tight, black, long-sleeved crop top that shows off her toned stomach. The baggy green cargo pants are stylish yet functional.

“What do you think?” she chuckles, grabbing her Princess mask and the lacey black choker Princess wore to karaoke from her desk and putting them on. “It’s my Kim Possible outfit.”

“Kim Possible?” Chat arches a questioning eyebrow, watching Marinette as she transforms into Princess.

“It’s an American cartoon about a high school girl who’s a secret agent in her spare time—‘I’m your basic, average girl, and I’m here to save the world.’ She manages to balance school, relationships, and saving the day. Kim’s really an inspiration…I mean…for those of us just trying to balance school and relationships. Not saving the world. Well, not me anyway. I’ll leave that to you,” Marinette chuckles nervously.

Chat shakes his head. “You look awesome…but do you mind me asking why you put on makeup to go for a run?”

Marinette strikes a pose. “Princess has an image to uphold. Besides,” she chuckles, motioning for him to follow her up to her loft and out onto her balcony. “Marinette doesn’t wear makeup except for special occasions. If Princess always wears makeup, it will help differentiate us.”

She moves one of her planters out of the way and climbs up on the ledge from which she jumps up and grips the edge of one of the little chimneys on the ledge above. She pulls herself up and then hops down to the roof on the other side of the wall of her balcony area.

Chat follows, echoing her actions even though he could easily bound over to the other side in his suit. He wants to experience something of what it’s like for Marinette navigating the terrain.

“Sorry. This beginning part is a little tedious until you get to open roof space,” she apologizes as she begins her climb up the rungs sticking out the side of the next wall jutting out of the roof.

“No worries, Princess,” Chat assures. “This is kind of interesting, actually. Normally I just jump or use my baton to vault all over the place. I’ve never really thought about how a civilian would have to move around up here. I’m in pretty good shape, but I don’t know if I could do this without the suit.”

She gets to the top and waits for him. “So long as you’re not bored to death.” She smiles sheepishly as he comes to stand beside her, looking around.

He doesn’t really see what her next move is. He could make the jump to the next stack of chimneys, but—

“—I’m going to jump to the next stack of chimneys,” she informs him, interrupting his thoughts. “Don’t freak out.”

He grabs her arm before she can begin her jump. “What? No! It’s too far away. And that ledge is tiny. There’s no way you’re landing on that. What if you fall?”

She grimaces and tries to be patient as she explains, “Chat, I’m not going to fall. I do this all the time—don’t tell my parents.”

“About that.” Chat frowns. “You do this kind of thing all the time and your parents don’t know? What if something happens to you? What if you get hurt up here? I mean, look how high up we are. What are you going to do if you need help?”

“Call you?” she suggests with a wide grin.

“You don’t have my number,” he replies with a deadpan expression. “I’m getting a cheap burner phone so that you can call me, and then I want you to call me before you go ‘running’, tell me how long you expect to be out, and then again once you’re back on solid ground, so I know when to start and stop worrying.”

“Yes, Mom,” Marinette sighs. “Look, Minou, it’s fine. This is an easy jump.”

His grip on her arm slackens slightly. “…I love you too.”

She stares at him, a faint blush starting to creep out from beneath her mask as a light breeze plays with the little wisps of hair that have escaped from her bun.

“Like you said earlier, ‘I love you as a precious friend’. I feel the same way about you.” He looks down at their shoes. “I just found you, Princess, and I’m terrified of losing…” He makes a vague hand gesture, indicating the two of them. “…this. Whatever this is,” he concludes. “Sorry.”

“No. It’s okay,” she relents. “I’m sorry. I…we don’t have to do this if it makes you nervous. We can go back to my room and play a card game or watch a movie or just talk. I’m sorry I didn’t think about your feelings when I suggested this. I…”

She should have remembered how freaked out he had been on the Pont Neuf when she’d “slipped”. She should have thought of the way he had told her that he’d lost people before. She hadn’t been thinking.

“You know what?” He smiles at her shyly. “Go ahead and take the jump. I don’t know why I’m being such a wuss about this. I can just catch you if I need to, right? And didn’t I say I was through underestimating you? If you say you can make the jump, you can make it.”

She studies him for a moment. He seems calm and sure, but she detects a slight tension in the set of his shoulders. “Are you sure about this, Minou?”

He nods. “What do I have to be worried about? I mean, you’re safe with me, aren’t you?” He’s trying to convince himself.

“Of course I am,” she giggles. “My knight has my back. Watch this.”

He stiffens, muscles tensing, ready to launch into action.

It turns out that all that build up and psyching himself out was for nothing. Marinette eyes her target, takes a calculated leap, and lands in a squat on the edge of the ledge. She takes a second to balance before she comes up to standing and smiles at him.

“Easy jump,” she announces.

He breathes a sigh of relief and makes the jump himself. “Okay.” He nods. “That wasn’t so bad.”

“Nope,” she agrees. “Ready to continue? There are two more hops like that before we reach an open area where we can run.”

“All right,” he acquiesces, following her lead, always staying close enough to intercede should something go wrong.

She makes the next jump and the one after that until she’s able to hop down onto a flat, relatively open section of roof. “Is it going to freak you out when I jump from one rooftop to the next?”

He bites his lip. “Probably a little bit until I get used to it, but don’t let that spoil your fun. I’ll just stay close enough to catch you.”

She nods her approval of his solution. “Okay. But let me know if I do anything that makes you too uncomfortable. This is supposed to be fun, and it’s not going to be fun if I stress you out.”

“All right. Thank you, Princess.” He runs a hand through his hair. “I appreciate you making concessions for the sake of my protective streak.”

Marinette shrugs. “Let it never be said that I’m a bad ‘girlfriend’. And on that note…” She reaches out and taps Chat on the nose. “Tag.”

She takes off at a run, leapfrogging over a small cluster of chimneys before hanging a left and hopping a gap between two buildings. She vaults another cluster of chimneys, giggling as she runs flat out to make the larger leap from the current roof to the next one across the alleyway. She ducks into a roll and pops up straight into a run.

Chat is right behind her, watching her every move with eagle eyes—at first out of concern, but his worries quickly dissolve into wonder and awe. He had always thought Ladybug looked gorgeous running the rooftops with ease, but now that he sees Marinette…her elegance and strength are something else entirely, and it is a treat to see. He’s so glad he swallowed his apprehensions and let her do this. She was born to move like this, and it would be a crime to try and stop her.

She takes him by surprise as she slides down the slanted side of a roof to run along the edge next to the gutter.

He’s not really a fan of her getting so close to the thirty-foot drop, but she looks so cool doing it that he can’t bring himself to say anything.

She gets him again as they come up to a series of dormer windows which she strides across like so many stepping stones dotting a pond. She doesn’t even seem to see the street and the cars down below as she runs straight ahead confidently.

He thinks that this is kind of fun as he follows. It’s different, not relying on the baton. The suit still makes it a great deal easier, but there’s something organic and almost freeing about doing this on his own. He finds himself laughing as he shadows Marinette, leaping from one building to the next through this intricate maze of interconnecting, blue-grey tiled roofs.

Marinette comes upon an impasse: a seven-foot wall where the building in front of her is taller than the one she’s on, so she gives a little hop and pulls herself up by her fingers. It’s not effortless, but the exertion is clearly fluid. There’s a practiced elegance to it that’s impressive.

Chat finds himself gawking. “This girl is so cool.”

And then she runs out on a ledge and leaps through the air to a rooftop below, bringing her heels up to the side and tapping them before enacting a graceful landing.

She waits for him to land beside her before grabbing his hand and pulling him down to lie on the roof with her, facing the Eiffel Tower.

They’re both breathing heavily from their sprint and laughing giddily.

The last glimmers of sunlight are slipping below the horizon as twilight gives way to night, but those fragments of crimson glow softly in Marinette’s eyes and seem to make her lip gloss shimmer.

Chat turns onto his side, bracketing her, and props himself up on his elbow to look down at her. He’s struck with the dizzying urge to kiss her. He knows this is mostly due to his brain misinterpreting his body’s signals: his heart is racing, he’s breathing heavy, and all kinds of endorphins are flying every which way. The real culprit is the awesome workout he just got, but his brain is reading the symptoms wrong and trying to tell him, “These are the things that happen when we’re in love; therefore, we must be in love.”

Chat forces himself to take slow, deep breaths, trying to get his heartbeat to even out before he does something stupid and ruins his friendship with Marinette. Making out on rooftops is not something they need in their lives right now.

“Do you think that’s a star or a planet?” Marinette whispers, making Chat blink.

He tears his gaze away from her face and looks where she’s pointing.

“I never bothered learning the names of constellations or anything,” she admits. “Oh! It moved.”

“Could be the space station or an iridium flare,” he offers, not seeing it. “It’s still too bright out to really see anything, but later there should be Orion and Taurus and Leo and Gemini…. Maybe we should go stargazing together.”

“Paris isn’t really an ideal stargazing location, though,” Marinette sighs, straining to make out the faint balls of light slowly becoming visible. “City of Lights and all that. If we wanted to see anything, we’d have to go out to the countryside.”

“…We could go in August. You’ll have figured out my identity by then and hopefully forgiven me. We could go to my family’s chateau and spend a weekend during the break,” he offers, tentatively beginning to plan. They could bring Alya and Nino too, drive out on Friday, and then come back Sunday afternoon.

“That would be neat. I’ve lived in Paris all my life, so I’ve never had the opportunity to see the stars.”

“We’ll have to fix that,” he whispers, getting caught up in her beauty once more. “…Do you know how amazing you are?”

She laughs as if she thinks he’s joking. “What would you do if I said yes? If I say no, are you going to tell me?”

He rolls his eyes and whispers, “You’re amazing, Marinette Dupain-Cheng. I’m sorry it took me so long to realize it.”

She shrugs, still looking up at the sky. “Don’t worry about it. It took me a long time too, and there are still times when I forget and need the people who love me to remind me.”

“I’m glad we did this,” he hums. “We should do this again.”

“I’m usually up for a run, so that’s definitely a possibility…. Do you want to come with me to a skatepark on Saturday? I was going to go to the Parc de Bercy and try some things out at the Thomas Mougne fountain. We could get lunch and maybe see a movie or…I don’t know. Whatever we feel like.”

“As Chat Noir and Princess? During the day?” It’s probably not a good idea, but…

“Sure.” She shrugs. “Why not? We’re not doing anything wrong, and we’ve got as much right as anyone else to go to a public park or eat out together or pay to see a movie, don’t we? Maybe if we act normal, everyone will treat us like we’re normal.”

“You’re going to get a lot of press coverage,” he warns. “I don’t want to be the reason people start invading your privacy. If someone finds out who you are… Do you want to risk it?”

She looks him in the eye and doesn’t have to think before she answers, “Yes. I want to be able to hang out with you whenever I want to hang out with you. It might go down in flames, but this is step one.”

“All right,” he easily concedes. “Put me down for a solid maybe for Saturday at Bercy. I’ll have to check my schedule and get back to you; I can’t remember that far ahead what all is going on.”

“I’ll tentatively begin looking forward to it,” she chuckles, returning her attention to the sky.

They lie there on the roof in silence for a bit until the gentle breeze picks up.

“You’re not cold, are you?” He eyes her inquisitively, searching for signs of her being uncomfortable.

“A little, but it’s not too bad,” she admits.

“Do you want to go?” He doesn’t. He’d rather stay here, but…her comfort is more important than what he wants.

“No. Let’s stay a little longer,” she suggests, but it comes out sounding like more of request.

He only hesitates a moment before scooting in closer so that her side is pressed to his front, his arm draping over her. “Warmer?” He hopes the darkness hides his blush.

Marinette suddenly finds herself very warm indeed. “Yes, thank you, but you probably don’t want to touch me. I’m all sweaty and gross.”

“You’re not gross, Princess,” he assures. “I don’t mind.”

As if to accentuate his point, his tail curls gently around her hips.

He gives a tiny growl of displeasure from the back of his throat. “Stupid tail.”

“It’s a good tail,” Marinette chuckles, running her fingers over the leather and playing with the tip. “It’s a very affectionate and protective tail.”

Chat tries very hard to keep his breathing even as her fingers continue to stroke. He hopes she doesn’t look at his eyes. He knows they look different as Chat, so it may be hard to tell, but he’s pretty sure his pupils are the size of small asteroids at the moment. He subtly shifts his hips back away from her.

Marinette doesn’t seem to notice as she dreamily stares up at the sky.

All of the sudden, her fingers come to a stop, and she turns to look at him. “I know you said that your tail wasn’t as sensitive as an arm or a hand or something, but…can you feel this?” she wonders, giving the tail a tentative poke.

He gulps. “Vaguely? Not really?”

He feels it in the pit of his stomach and all the way south.

“It’s not bothering me,” he lies.

He is nothing but bothered.

Her head tips slightly, as if she senses something off in his response but can’t quite place it. “Do you want me to stop?”

That’s the million-dollar question.

“You don’t have to.”

But she probably should because their faces are only a little more than a handspan apart, and he’s insanely curious as to what her lip gloss tastes like.

He’s about to ask her when church bells begin tolling eight o’clock.

Marinette sits up and points at the Eiffel Tower. “Look.”

Chat pushes himself up to sitting and sees the tower begin its nightly light show. The mansion isn’t too far from the tower, so he could see it every night, every hour, on the hour after sunset, if he cared to. Normally, he doesn’t. It’s just another bright, shiny object in a city full of sparkle.

Tonight, however, he feels like he could watch those lights dance for hours so long as Marinette was by his side. There’s a look of childlike delight on her face as she smiles, absorbed in the show.

He puts an arm around her, pretending only to be interested in keeping her warm.

She rests her head on his shoulder, and, for the five minutes that the light show lasts, it’s simultaneously bliss and torture.

The show soon comes to an end, and Marinette pulls away, standing up and smiling down at him. “Ready to head back?”

“As my princess wishes.” He winks as he gets to his feet and is just about to ask permission to pick her up when someone calls out to them from the street below.

“Princess! Chat Noir!”

Marinette and Chat look down just as a dozen or so pedestrians look up.

“Look! It’s Princess and Chat Noir out on a date!” a female fan coos, taking out her phone and snapping a photo.

More people look up, many of them also taking pictures. Some wave.

Marinette, bless her heart, smiles and waves back.

Chat chuckles, slipping an arm around her waist as he gives the quickly-growing crowd a finger wave.

“They’re a lot less intimidating from four stories up,” Marinette whispers, an amused note to her voice. “This isn’t so bad.”

Chat finds himself relieved that Marinette seems to be growing accustomed to the limelight. If they ever became a real couple, attention like this would be unavoidable, so he’s kind of glad that she’s slowly getting used to it now.

“Kiss!” a young man from the crowd shouts, and the chant is quickly taken up.

Startled, Marinette’s first reaction is to blink and cock her head. Once the initial surprise passes, though, she laughs and turns to Chat. “May I kiss you on the cheek?”

Chat feels his face go red. “Uh…sure. I mean, yeah. Anytime, Princess.”

She smiles nervously, turning to face him and slipping her arms around his neck. She leans in and presses a chaste, yet firm kiss just to the side of his mouth.

It feels just like being electrocuted (if being electrocuted were a pleasant experience) all over again, and his cheek continues to tingle even after she pulls back.

The crowd gives a collective cheer, some of them clapping, others whistling loudly.

Chat leans in as Marinette pulls away, giving her hair an affectionate nuzzle. “Ready to go home, Princess?”

“Ready,” she affirms, and he scoops her up, taking a convoluted route back to the bakery in case anyone tries to follow.

 

Marinette gives a stretch as she descends through the skylight and down from her loft. “I’m hungry,” she yawns, slipping off her mask, unclasping her choker, and tossing them onto her desk to put away later. “Would you like me to fix you something too?”

Now that she mentions it, he had a snack but didn’t eat dinner. Only… “You don’t have to go to the trouble,” he assures. “I wouldn’t want to be a bother.”

She stops and turns to glare at him. “Chat Dupain-Cheng-Noir. I am making something for myself, and it would not be a bother or any trouble at all to make something for you while I’m at it. Are you hungry?”

“…Yes,” he replies in a small voice.

She nods, satisfied, and an easy smile returns to her face. “How about I whip up some croque monsieurs for us? You mentioned that the other day, didn’t you? How sometimes you just wanted someone to make you a sandwich?”

He perks up immediately, touched that she remembered. “That would be great, actually.”

“Perfect. Sounds like a plan.” She reaches up and yanks her ponytail holder out of her hair, giving her head a shake and letting her hair cascade down to her shoulders. “Do you mind if I jump in the shower and rinse off real quick first? I swear I’ll only be ten minutes. Since I’m constantly oversleeping, I’ve become the queen of fast showers,” she laughs.

“Uh, sure,” he chuckles, hoping he sounds casual. He’s trying really hard not to think about her showering. “Yeah. Go right ahead. I’ll…” He leans against her desk chair, trying to look cool and collected. Unfortunately, the chair moves under his weight, almost taking him with it.

She giggles as he stumbles, catching himself on the ladder up to her loft. “Smooth, Minou.”

“Yeah,” he sighs, smiling through gritted teeth. “I thought so. Like I was saying, I’ll wait here and try not to get into trouble.”

“Feel free to check out my collection of books and movies while you wait,” she offers, indicating the modest bookshelf sitting on her wraparound desk. “I promise I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He waves goodbye as she grabs a change of clothes and disappears down the trapdoor. As soon as the door’s shut, he collapses into her desk chair with a heavy sigh. He tries really hard not to think about her naked.

“Geez,” Chat groans giving Marinette’s pink desk lamp a gentle poke. “This is all Nino’s fault. ‘What do you think about Marinette, Mec?’” Chat parrots. “‘I don’t think about Marinette,’ he replies innocently, completely unsuspecting. And then boom!” Chat leans back in the chair, pushing off so that he rolls halfway across the room. “Well, you do now, you idiot.”

He sits up and scoots the chair back into place, picking up the black cat plush that sits by Marinette’s computer monitor. He holds it like Yorick’s skull from Hamlet and directs his soliloquy to it.

“I feel like I’ve gone from zero to sixty in, like, two seconds when it comes to her,” he grumbles. “I mean, I go four years just thinking of her as a friend—a cute friend, yes, but just a friend—and then suddenly I get hit by a car and she freaks out and falls asleep in my arms, and now…”

He takes in his surroundings forlornly. “Now,” he whispers, “I’m sitting in her room, talking to her cat plushie about how I feel like I’ve got my wires crossed while she takes a shower.”

He sets down the plush as he groans once more for good measure, realizing that Plagg can hear him and will probably bring this up later.

“I am so screwed.”

The cat plush grins salaciously, and he can almost hear it accuse, “You wish you were so screwed.”

He gets up and heads over to the chaise longue, giving the Odile dress on the dress form a passing glance. He stuffs down the momentary mental image of Marinette in the dress and collapses facedown onto the chaise, burying his face in the throw pillow.

It wasn’t just Thursday. Wednesday she had him turning to goo as she gave him a head rub, and Tuesday she made his heart skip so many times between karaoke, getting ice cream, and nearly falling off the Pont Neuf.

When did this start? Which was the first time she registered as something more than a friend on his radar? The goodbye kiss on her balcony on Monday? When she hadn’t flinched when she’d found out how messed up his life was? As she’d stood on the second tier of the fountain in the park by her house and looked up at the stars after showing him her parkour skills? Hugging her in the kitchen as she cried over another guy? The way she’d looked when she’d told him he didn’t have to wear armor around her?

“Hot chocolate,” Chat mumbles into the pillow. He pushes himself up on his forearms and sighs. “She got up and asked me if I wanted hot chocolate, and the way the moonlight reflected off her hair and her eyes…she had been crying, but she looked pretty…and strong…. She called me ‘Minou’ for the first time.”

He takes a deep breath and pushes himself up the rest of the way, going over to Marinette’s little bookshelf to try to distract himself until she gets back.

He chuckles when he sees that she’s a fan of Miyazaki Hayao’s work. She also seems to have a taste for action movies and martial arts films. He makes a mental note to bring over his collection of Batman films from the nineteen-nineties. Maybe they can have a movie marathon and spend a whole day rolling around on the couch together.

Chat smacks away the mental image of literally rolling around on a couch, limbs entwined with Marinette’s. Maybe he shouldn’t be allowed to go running with her again if it puts his mind in his pants like this?

The trapdoor opens, throwing a figurative bucket of ice water on him…until he catches sight of a freshly-showered Marinette in black yoga capris and a fluffy, sunflower yellow, off-the-shoulder sweater.

“I’m back,” she announces.

“I missed you,” Chat greets, earning an eyeroll from her.

“I’m sure you did for the whole—” She peeks at the clock. “—seven minutes I was gone. Hey, did you want to borrow the shower while I make the sandwiches? I mean…do you even sweat in that suit?”

He shrugs. “Only a fraction of how much I’d sweat normally, but a shower wouldn’t be a bad idea, if you don’t mind.”

He could use a frigid shower to help get his mind back in the safe, platonic zone after the excitement of that run.

She motions for him to follow her down through the trapdoor to the second floor where her bathroom is located, to the left of the stairs as you descend, behind the kitchen.

“If he wants, Plagg can join me in the kitchen while you shower, and I’ll get him something to eat,” she offers. “You can open the door a crack and call for him when you’re ready to transform back. The kitchen is just on the other side of the wall, so he’ll hear you. Sound good?”

He nods, stepping inside.

She points to the cabinet over the toilet. “Towels are in there, and feel free to use my shampoo and body wash. It’s my private bathroom, so all the stuff in there is mine. My parents have their own bathroom, so no one will bother you. Just give me a shout out, if you need anything.” With a wave, she turns, shutting the door behind her.

Chat sighs, and, with a word, his transformation drops.

“Don’t say anything,” Adrien hisses under his breath as Plagg appears. “This is totally normal. I’m seventeen. I have raging hormones. Have you ever been seventeen? It’s horrible. She’s one of the most wonderful girls I’ve ever met, and she’s pretty and kind and smart and-and hot, so it’s only natural I want to sleep with her. It doesn’t mean we’re anything more than friends, so don’t say anything.”

Plagg blinks. A small miracle occurs, and Plagg keeps his voice low. “I wasn’t going to mention your urges to mate with your friend.”

Adrien purses his lips. “Well…you would have brought it up later, so don’t say anything about it later either.”

Plagg crosses his arms and looks away petulantly. “I was merely going to remark that Marinette is a very thoughtful girl, and I like children. Having grandkittens would be nice someday, but NOT right now, so try to keep your head on straight. You’re still just a kitten yourself.”

Adrien rolls his eyes, but his frown softens into a grateful smile. “I have the feeling that I’ll always be a kitten to you.”

“And you would be right,” Plagg snorts. “I don’t know about this Shiba Inu.”

“Is it weird to fantasize about marrying someone who’s supposed to just be your friend right now?” Adrien begins to chew on his lip. “I mean, this started out as a joke, but…it’s kind of stopped feeling like a joke. This is weird, isn’t it?”

“Kid, stop worrying about what’s normal or weird and what’s supposed to be or not supposed to be. You’ll have fewer headaches if you do,” Plagg advises.

Adrien’s frown comes back. “But—”

“—Okay. You know what?” Plagg interrupts. “The sum of human experience dictates that you marry your best friend. Since hat-boy and journalist-girl already have claims on each other, that leaves you with Marinette or the spoiled girl.”

Adrien grimaces. “Chloé is practically my sister.”

“Then you’re marrying Marinette. Congratulations. Now, if you’ll excuse me, your fiancée promised me food. Do me a favor and take a long shower.”

Plagg phases through the bathroom door, leaving Adrien to face the shower: still wet and slightly steamy from Marinette’s use and smelling of strawberry shampoo and oatmeal body wash.

“Don’t be weird, Agreste,” he coaches himself, taking off his shirt and trying to fight down a full-body blush. “Don’t make this weird.”

 

Plagg floats into the kitchen to find Marinette softly giggling over something with Tikki.

“Hello, Sucrette!” he trills, swirling around Tikki thrice before tackling her for a nuzzle.

“Don’t call me that,” Tikki whines in frustration but still returns Plagg’s cuddles.

“Awww. Your boyfriend calls you ‘Sucrette’, Tikki? That’s adorable,” Marinette giggle-snorts, heading for the fridge to get out a plate of chocolate-covered fruits and cheeses.

“You’re one to talk when yours calls you ‘Princess’,” Tikki harrumphs, returning Marinette’s volley with a calculated spike.

Marinette winces. “I don’t recall signing any legally binding documents. He’s not mine yet.”

“‘Yet’, she says,” Tikki snickers to Plagg.

“Hush.” Marinette sets the plate down on the counter. “Plagg, help yourself. I wasn’t sure what you would like, so I tried a bunch of different things. There’s dark chocolate with raspberries with sharp cheddar, dark chocolate and blue cheese, dark chocolate with blueberries and brie, and goat cheese with mint chocolate. Let me know what you think, so I can make improvements next time. You can have some of the chocolate-covered berries too.”

Plagg reluctantly leaves Tikki’s side to inspect the platter. He tentatively picks up a goat cheese and mint chocolate bite by the toothpick and pops it into his mouth. Instantly, he melts. “De-liiiicious,” he purrs. “Please marry my kid.”

Marinette laughs as she goes to the cabinet to fetch a skillet. “That good, huh? I’m glad.” She sets the skillet on the stove and picks up a chocolate-covered strawberry, holding it out to Tikki. “Hungry?”

Tikki pretends to demur. “I should really watch my girlish figure.”

Marinette rolls her eyes and hands over the strawberry. “Eat.”

Tikki swallows the strawberry whole before turning to stage whisper conspiratorially at Plagg. “My girl is the best.”

“Why do you think I’m trying so hard to annex her?” Plagg snorts, picking up a piece of cheddar and dark chocolate with raspberries.

With a chuckle, Marinette leaves the kwamis to eat and snuggle as she gathers the ingredients for the croque monsieurs and starts preparing the sandwiches.

“You know,” Plagg addresses Marinette as she mixes together an egg, shredded cheese, and crème fraiche in a small dish. “I like you, but you’re crafty.”

“‘Crafty’?” Marinette frowns. His tone implies that crafty is not an admirable quality.

“Tricky,” Plagg clarifies. “With the way you’re playing both sides of the mask on him.”

Plagg’s words hit a sensitive spot, and it takes her a few seconds to respond.

“I’m not the only one with two identities around here,” Marinette mutters defensively, smearing the crème mixture onto one side of the bottom slices of bread.

 “True, but he’s actively trying to give himself away to you.”

“Which he shouldn’t be doing,” Tikki pipes up, irritation evident in her voice.

“If you had it your way, he would never know who Ladybug really was,” Plagg remarks with a pointed glare.

“He doesn’t need to know,” Tikki argues.

“He needs to know eventually,” Marinette corrects. “Plagg’s right that this isn’t fair to Chat.”

Plagg gives an approving nod, pleasantly surprised.

“He doesn’t need to know now,” Tikki reluctantly amends and then rounds on Plagg with a hiss. “And she doesn’t need to know who he is! Do you know what kind of damage that could cause?”

“D-Damage?” Marinette stammers, mind momentarily struggling to load. “Tikki, what do you mean?”

“To your safety,” Tikki adds for Marinette’s sake. She turns to glare at Plagg. “To their safety, right?”

Plagg rolls his eyes. “Whatever you say, Sucrette.”

“Neither of them needs to know anything,” Tikki insists.

“I think they should put everything out in the open and return to square one, building up from there. You know, scorched earth,” Plagg suggests, crossing his arms.

“Why is your solution always to destroy everything?!” Tikki screams as quietly as she can manage through her frustration.

Marinette tries to focus on layering alternating slices of ham and emmental cheese, spreading another layer of the crème mixture in the middle, as the kwamis bicker. She’s struck by how much they resemble an old married couple.

Eventually, Plagg gives up. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Sucrette, because you’re not changing my mind, and it’s obvious that I’m not changing yours.” With a shrug, he floats up to land on Marinette’s shoulder. “So.”

Marinette takes a deep breath, putting the top slices of bread into place before adding another layer of crème and a generous sprinkle of shredded gruyère. When she can avoid it no longer, she looks sidelong at Plagg. “‘So’?”

“How much of what you told my kitten earlier was true? On the roof of the school,” Plagg demands.

Marinette shrugs her right shoulder. “All of it. I mean, the essence of it. Obviously, the conversation I claimed happened between two separate people only happened between me and myself in my head, but…I went back through the tapes of the fights and catalogued all the ways I sucked as a partner. Then I berated myself for a solid hour—I said some very, very horrible, not-nice things to myself—and decided that I needed to find some way of apologizing. Everything I told him was essentially true. I want to be a better partner and a better friend to him as Ladybug too. I have to be careful not to encourage his feelings for her, but…I intend to do better.”

Plagg gives Marinette’s cheek a pat. “All right. Just be careful with him,” he instructs before flying off to return to Tikki’s side. “This one’s a good one,” he reports to his partner.

“I think so,” Tikki coos.

“Plagg?” Marinette bites her lip as she transfers the sandwiches into the skillet and turns on the stovetop burner.

“Yes, ‘Princess’?” he teases.

The worried look on Marinette’s face softens marginally. “Is Chat all right?”

Plagg’s response is not immediate, and this makes Marinette’s concern spike.

“It depends what you mean by ‘all right’,” Plagg hedges. “You already know he’s a bit of a mess. What are you expecting me to tell you?”

She takes a breath to steady herself and looks Plagg in the eye. “Whether or not I could wake up one day and not have a partner anymore because it all finally got to be too much for him.”

Plagg looks away first. “I worry about that sometimes. He’s hit some pretty low points in the past, but I don’t think he actually wants to die. He just wants to escape from the pain. Most of the time, I’m more worried about him picking up a substance abuse problem or self-harming.”

Marinette sits with Plagg’s words for a minute, trying to wrap her head around them before she’s able to speak. “Is there anything I can do to help him?”

“You’re already helping him. Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Plagg encourages. “You’re the best escape from the pain that he’s found to date.”

Marinette winces. “Until he discovers who’s been hurting him as Ladybug for the past four years.”

“…Tikki’s probably right about that one,” Plagg concedes. “We may need to wait awhile for the reveal.”

“Now he agrees with me,” Tikki sniffs.

“He’s going to hate me,” Marinette groans, placing a lid on the skillet.

“He’s not going to hate you,” Plagg scoffs. “I guarantee that if you can keep him from finding out for a few more weeks, he’ll be so in love with Marinette at that point that he’ll forgive her anything.”

Marinette rolls her eyes, trying to focus on not burning the sandwiches. “Yeah, right.”

“You’d be surprised what he forgives his father for,” Plagg replies darkly. “What you’ve done is just a drop in the ocean compared to his father. The kid will forgive you once you sit him down and explain who you’ve been turning him down for all these years and how you regret that now that you’ve gotten to know him better. Besides, Ladybug’s going to be better from now on, isn’t she?”

Marinette nods docilely. “I’m not looking forward to explaining myself.”

“But think about how much better things will be once you don’t have to lie to him anymore,” Plagg prompts. “…You’ll get through it, Princess. After all, my Sucrette only chooses the best. If she’s accepted you, you’re brave, strong, and compassionate enough.”

Plagg’s wink of encouragement and kind words bring a tired smile to Marinette’s face. She gets the impression that Plagg doesn’t lavish praise often.

“Thank you, Plagg.” Marinette reaches out and gives the ancient being’s head a grateful scratch.

Tikki adds her thanks in the form of an affectionate nuzzle.

Just then, the bathroom door creaks open a crack, and Adrien calls out to his kwami. “Plagg? Was that a long enough shower for you?”

“No! Marinette and I are bonding. Get back in there for another half hour, and don’t come out until your entire body is pruney,” Plagg shouts.

“Plagg,” Adrien sighs in exasperation.

Marinette stifles a giggle.

“All right. Give me a minute,” Plagg grumbles. He turns to Tikki, catching her around the waist and dipping her into a kiss.

“Plagg!” Tikki squeaks. “You’re setting a bad example for the children.”

Plagg rolls his eyes, smiling puckishly. “Goodbye, Sucrette. Until we meet again.” He gives Marinette a nod of acknowledgement. “Bye-bye, Princess.”

“I like him,” Marinette chuckles to Tikki as Plagg goes to Adrien.

“I do too, but don’t tell him I said that,” Tikki sighs, going to hide among the couch cushions.

A minute later, Chat Noir emerges from the bathroom and pokes his head into the kitchen. “Hey, Princess.”

“Hey.” She raises a hand in greeting before directing him towards the table. “The croque monsieurs will be done in just a second, so go ahead and take a seat.” She removes the lid from the pan and uses a spatula to check the bottoms of the sandwiches.

Chat does as instructed. “I hope Plagg wasn’t annoying. I apologize for anything and everything he said.”

Marinette shakes her head. “No, he was fine. We had a nice chat, actually…. Plagg’s sweet, and he loves you a lot.”

“He has a funny way of showing it,” Chat sighs, sitting down at the table and watching as Marinette moves about the kitchen: turning off the burner, plating the sandwiches, grabbing cups from the cabinet and filling them up with water, setting a plate and a glass down in front of him…

It’s all strangely domestic and utterly foreign to Adrien. He could get used to this. He could grow accustomed to watching Marinette move around a kitchen…maybe someday learn to move around a kitchen in sync with her, helping prepare dinner for the family while Hugo, Louis, and Emma play with blocks on the living room carpet, Plagg and the Shiba Inu supervising.

“Would you like something besides water?” Marinette asks, setting her own plate down and tearing him away from his daydream.

“Just water is fine, thank you,” he assures. “And…thank you for this, Marinette.”

“Dinner?” She shrugs. “Sure thing. Like I keep saying, it’s no big deal.”

“It’s a big deal to me,” he informs her with a shy smile. “I know this is abnormal, but I typically eat my meals alone at home. At school, I have lunch with my friends, but I eat breakfast and dinner by myself at a table meant to seat twenty. Sharing a meal with someone at a cozy little table like this is a big deal to me, so…even though it probably feels weird to be thanked for something so commonplace…thank you. It’s nice for me to have a little piece of ‘normal’.”

She stares at him in disbelief, unsure of what to say. “…You’re…welcome,” she finally decides.

He scratches at the back of his neck. “Sorry. I keep showing my hand and letting you find out how bizarre my life is.”

“That’s not something you have to hide from me, you know,” she replies softly. “How can I even try to make it better, if I don’t know what the problem is?”

“I don’t know if it’s something that can be made better,” he answers bashfully.

“You should come over and have dinner with us on Wednesdays,” Marinette suggests. “Wednesdays are my night to cook. You could come over and help me, so that you don’t feel like you’re intruding or getting a free meal or whatever other mental hang-up you might have about it.”

“Your parents wouldn’t mind?” It sounds too good to be true.

“I don’t think so, but I’ll ask,” she offers. “I mean, my dad did say I should invite you to dinner sometime, but I’ll check to see if a standing invitation on Wednesdays is okay.”

“Provided they say yes, I feel like I should tell you sooner rather than later that I don’t actually know how to cook anything, so I don’t know how much help I’ll be in reality.” He tries to smile, but his genuine embarrassment gets in the way, and the smile comes out pained.

Marinette’s head tips to the side. “Define ‘anything’.”

“Well, if the kitchen staff walked out tomorrow, I could probably get water to boil, provided I could find a pot, so maybe I would be able to make ramen noodles. I’ve seen that in anime before. I also understand the basic theory behind a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I’ve never actually made one. I’m optimistic, though. I’ve seen people use microwaves and can openers in movies and on TV before, so I could probably microwave a can of soup too.”

She frowns. “You do know that you can’t microwave the can, right?”

He blinks. “…I do now?”

Marinette cringes. “You can’t put metal in a microwave. You’ll start a fire.”

“Oh. Good to know,” he forces a laugh. “Okay. Maybe the microwave is a little beyond my current skill level, but I’m sure I could cut up some vegetables and make a salad. I’m probably good with knives.” A thought occurs to him. “Though, now that I think about it, handling a knife is probably nothing like an épée, so…”

Marinette is struck by two realizations.

One: she needs to teach this boy to cook. She knows that she’s nothing to write home about herself when it comes to non-bakery items, but she can at least make some basic dishes as well as a variety of soups, sandwiches, and salads.

Two: “You fence?”

Chat is faced with a decision. He knows this could be the tipping point where she can no longer deny the striking similarity between Chat Noir and Adrien Agreste. If he fesses up to fencing, she’s probably going to figure him out, and she may freak out and stop talking to him for a little while…but there’s also the chance that Marinette and Chat have become good enough friends at this point that her fondness for Chat will win out over the weirdness between her and Adrien.

Chat decides to take a gamble and go all in. “Yeah. I fence. I’m on the school’s team whenever my work schedule allows me to attend practice.”

Marinette takes a deep breath as she studies him. “I…I’ve watched the fencing team practice before.”

“I know. I’ve seen you and Nino and Alya when you guys come to watch Adrien.” He smirks.

She bites her bottom lip, concentrating, trying to recall the other team members. “Are you any good?”

Would she have even noticed him? Probably not. She was always so intent on Adrien. Now that she tries, she can’t name a single other member of the team besides Kagami.

“I’m very good,” he boasts. “Kagami usually puts me through my paces, but I’m one of the best members of the team.”

Her fingers drum the table in frustration. “Are you better than Adrien?”

“Not better, no,” he admits. “but I’m every bit as good.”

“Will you be at practice this week?” She’s really tempted to find someone who can hack into the school’s system and get her the fencing team’s roster. Maybe she can cash in a favor from Max.

Chat frowns. “You know, I honestly can’t remember what all I have going on this week. I usually go at least twice a week when piano, Chinese, and work don’t get in the way. Are you going to come stakeout fencing practice? I doubt it will do you much good, since we wear masks for the majority of practice. You won’t be able to pick out the blondes.”

Marinette sighs, picking up her croque monsieur. “Ugh. Fine, but I’m going to find you sooner or later.”

“I hope so. I mean, I’ve given you enough clues,” he snickers. “I’m kind of thinking I’m going to have to detransform in front of you in order for you to get it.”

“Hey,” Marinette whines.

“Even then, I’m kind of afraid you’ll say, ‘Where did Chat Noir go, and how did this loser get into my room?!’”

She balls up a napkin and launches it at him. “Idiot. Eat your sandwich, and then I’m going to teach you how to make croque monsieur so that you don’t starve to death or burn your mansion down in the event that your fancy kitchen staff walks out on you.”

His tail perks up, flicking in excitement. “Really?”

“Oh my gosh, yes,” she sighs, shaking her head. “Everyone should at least be able to make a sandwich.”

 

The skylight closes behind Chat, and Marinette collapses onto her bed with a sigh. “I’m exhausted. He’s such a rollercoaster.”

Tikki comes out of hiding to snuggle up to Marinette’s cheek on the pillow.

“I mean, one minute we’re laughing and teasing each other, and then the next he’s having a panic attack or I’m having a meltdown. I feel like this isn’t normal.”

“You’re going through a lot right now, Marinette,” Tikki coos. “It’s only natural for you to be emotional…and maybe Chat Noir doesn’t have anyone else he can be vulnerable like that with. Maybe he keeps everything bottled up and you’re the first person he’s trusted enough to break down in front of. Maybe it’s good for you two to be able to break in front of one another…so long as you’re able to put yourselves back together and laugh and smile again afterwards.”

Marinette nods. “It kind of feels good to go to pieces and then have him tell me it’s okay…that I’m going to be okay.”

“I’m sure he feels the same way about you,” Tikki assures, gently stroking Marinette’s cheek.

Marinette stares up at the ceiling, letting it all sink in. “…I told him that I loved him.”

“You did,” Tikki affirms, studying the shocked look on Marinette’s face. “You tell Alya and Nino that you love them,” she offers.

“And he told me that he loved me too,” Marinette whispers, lost in her thoughts. “…and he told Ladybug that his friendship with me was really important…precious…”

“…Are you okay, Marinette?” Tikki asks nervously. “You’re looking a little overwhelmed.”

Marinette breaks out into a fit of hysteric giggles. “I…don’t know. I’m not sure exactly what I’m feeling. It all changes from one minute to the next. I mean, just in the past few hours I’ve wanted to slap him, shake him, hug him, kiss him, scream at him, rip his clothes off and have sex with him—”

“—Oh dear,” Tikki groans.

“—and I can’t even tell what’s real and what’s the result of me being a mess over Adrien,” she chuckles, her panic beginning to die down before abruptly spiking again. “…Tikki, I’m starting to seriously think about marrying this guy, adopting a dog together, and having his kittens in six years. A week ago—one literal week—I would have rather jumped off a bridge. This is all happening too fast.”

“Marinette,” Tikki tries to break in on Marinette’s frantic train of thought.

“—And the worst part is that I don’t know if it’s actually happening at all! Maybe I’m just transferring what I felt for Adrien onto Chat because he was the one who was there to pick me up right afterwards, and, I mean, Chat’s hot and sweet, and I have fun with him, so…is this what they call rebounding? Am I just subconsciously using him to make myself feel better? …Wouldn’t that be fitting?” Marinette groans, covering her face with both hands. “I’m always just using him, aren’t I? Gaaaaah. And he’s enough of a mess without me playing with his feelings as Marinette on top of Ladybug.”

“Marinette!” Tikki squeaks, pulling on one of Marinette’s fingers. “I need you to stop.”

Marinette lowers her hands and blinks owlishly at Tikki.

“Just…relax,” Tikki counsels. “Everything is fine. Everything is going to work out. Don’t judge the contents of your thoughts; just let them be. Let them come and go like passing clouds.”

Marinette chuckles. “You sound like a guided meditation app.”

Tikki smiles despite herself. “Marinette, you don’t need to overanalyze your thoughts and feelings right now. It’s a crazy time for you, and what you need to do is focus on getting better emotionally. Don’t fight your feelings.”

Marinette’s eyebrow arches suspiciously. “What about when I feel like ripping Chat’s clothes off? Or sticking my tongue down his throat?”

Tikki rolls her eyes. “I’m talking about your feelings. Please continue to police your actions so that you don’t rush into something you’ll both end up regretting. I’m trying to say that you don’t need to police your thoughts because it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling. Don’t judge or agonize over the things that pop into your head like you’re doing right now. Does that make sense?”

Marinette bites her lip. “You’re trying to tell me to focus on feeling better while still acting in a mature, responsible manner to the best of my abilities and that I shouldn’t worry about every time I want to kiss Chat because it will all sort itself out if I focus on getting emotionally healthy. You’re trying to tell me to stop freaking out.”

Tikki gives Marinette’s head a loving pat. “Yes.”

“I guess…in six months, if I’m still wanting to make out with Chat, that might be some indication that it’s real and not just transference of feelings or rebounding from Adrien…so maybe I shouldn’t worry about it until then?” Marinette surmises, looking sideways at Tikki for confirmation.

Tikki nods. “Yes, if you have your head on straight by then. Right now isn’t the best time for you to be making important life choices…so don’t.”

Marinette slowly begins to nod in understanding. “Okay. All I have to do is stop worrying about it.”

“I know,” Tikki sighs, floating over to curl up in her spot on the pillow. “Easier said than done.”

“Yeah. Thanks anyway, Tikki,” Marinette sighs, pushing herself up and climbing down out of her loft to change her clothes to get ready for bed. She pauses in the middle of pulling on her sleep top.

“Do you think Chat and Plagg have conversations like this?”

Tikki gives a snort. “I doubt it. Plagg is many things, but a good listener is not one of them. He’s impatient, unsympathetic, and rash. Chat Noir is probably on his own.”

“Poor Chat,” Marinette whispers, grabbing her pajama pants and slipping them on.

 

Meanwhile, across town, Adrien Agreste is having his own mini-meltdown.

Plagg gives a warning growl, “Kitten.”

“Sorry,” Adrien whispers, rolling onto his other side for a fifth time. “but how am I supposed to sleep when I smell like strawberries and oatmeal? I smell like her!” he hisses. “This is probably what her pillow smells like, probably what her sheets smell like. How am I supposed to sleep when everything smells like Marinette?”

“Then get up and write a song for her, why don’t you? Go play on your new piano or make another recording for her or something, but just stop with the squirming. I’m going to sleep in the sock drawer.”

Adrien sighs, closing his eyes and trying not to think about Marinette.

It’s like when someone tells you, “Quick! Don’t think about pink elephants!”

Chapter Text

Sabine does a doubletake upon entering the second floor living space. “Marinette! You’re…awake…and already eating breakfast.” She looks down at her wristwatch and then up once more to openly gawk at her daughter.

“Good morning, Maman!” Marinette greets with a hand wave as she finishes choking down a slice of baguette topped with butter and raspberry jam. “I need to get to school before anyone else today, so I set my alarm early.” She grabs her bowl of yogurt and hurriedly spoons the last of it into her mouth.

Marinette grabs an apple from the fruit dish as she begins her mad rush out the door. “Love you. See you after school. Bye-bye!”

“Wait.” Sabine catches Marinette by the arms as her daughter leans in to kiss her on the cheek. “We need to talk. It’s important.” She guides Marinette back to the kitchen and indicates one of the stools.

“Maman, can it maybe wait until after school? I kind of—”

Sabine places that morning’s newspaper down on the table in front of Marinette, effectively cutting her off.

There on the front page are pictures of Chat Noir and Princess from the previous evening’s date: them lying on the roof, Chat snuggled up to Marinette, keeping her warm with his tail wrapped protectively around her. Them sitting, watching the Eiffel Tower’s light show with her head on his shoulder, his arm around her. Her kissing him on the cheek…only it doesn’t look like she’s just kissing his cheek from that angle.

“How did someone get pictures like this?” Marinette wonders as she studies the images. “They must have been in a building nearby with a higher vantage point…but we were on the fourth floor…and that kiss isn’t really a kiss, Maman, if that’s what you’re freaking out about. Some fans down on the street saw us and started chanting for us to kiss, so I asked Chat if I could kiss him on the cheek, and he said yes, so I did, and it’s really not a big deal. We’re kind of…comfortable in each other’s personal space. But it’s completely innocent—I swear—it’s just like how I snuggle and hug and kiss Alya. It’s not—”

“—Marinette,” Sabine finally sighs. “Whatever you decide you want to do or not do with Chat Noir is fine. So long as you’re smart about it, I’m trusting you two to make your own decisions. What I am ‘freaking out about’, as you put it, is this!”

Marinette follows Sabine’s finger to the bottom of the page where a series of smaller photographs is displayed. It’s Princess and Chat Noir running the rooftops. There’s an excellent shot of Princess making a huge jump, tapping her heels in midair before landing. A couple more show her striding across dormer windows and vaulting over small chimney stacks. She looks awesome.

“Why do I get the impression that that wasn’t your first time running on rooftops?!” Sabine’s voice pitches up and cracks.

Marinette’s jaw drops as she internally says some words that would have her mother cleaning her mouth out with soap. “Oh.”

“‘Oh’,” Sabine huffs. “Marinette, it’s one thing to go with Chat Noir, and it would be one thing if you were—I don’t know—Ladybug…or Rena Rouge or Queen Bee with magical powers to help protect you, but to be doing that kind of thing as you, as Marinette… Honey, do you know how dangerous that is?! You could get hurt, and no one would know where you were, no one would be able to get to you!”

“You sound like Chat,” Marinette sighs, burying her eyes in the newspaper to avoid her mother’s gaze. “He freaked out too, and he joked about getting a burner phone specifically for me so I could call him before runs so that he knew when to worry and when I was safe. Actually, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking, so you probably don’t have to worry about that anymore, but I know what I’m doing, Maman. I know I seem like a klutz in everyday life, but I’m different when I’m doing parkour and freerunning. I mean, look at the pictures. I’ve been doing this for three years now, and I’m good at this.”

Sabine forces herself to take a deep breath and really look at the photographs. Marinette is right. Princess is an athlete: graceful, strong, and in control.

“I do go with other people sometimes,” Marinette mumbles, running her fingers nervously over the dimples of the apple in her hands. “I’m not always by myself. I have parkour friends…. I knew you and Papa would freak, so I didn’t tell you. I love doing this, and I didn’t want you to try to take it away.”

Sabine nods, attempting to keep in mind what it felt like when she was seventeen. “Honey, I’m not going to take anything away from you. If you really love it, I’m…I’m going to keep letting you run on rooftops.” She can’t believe she’s saying this. Her inner voice is running around, screaming about all the ways Marinette could get hurt, how dangerous this is, how reckless. “But you’re going to have to be more careful about this. You need to tell your father and me when you’re going, where you’re planning on going, how long you think you’ll be out, and when you get back safely. If you’re out very long, you’re going to have to check in with us. Honey, I love you, and it makes me just sick thinking that, for three years, I had no idea you were sneaking out to run on the tops of buildings.”

Marinette tentatively looks up and takes in the stricken expression on her mother’s face, the fear evident in her eyes. She gets up and goes to Sabine, wrapping her mother in a tight hug. “I’m sorry, Maman. I didn’t even think about it like that.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Sabine sighs softly, returning Marinette’s embrace. “You’re young, and you think you’re indestructible. All these akuma attacks have gotten you used to being in danger, so you’ve stopped registering danger as something bad to avoid. Promise you’ll work with me on this and be safer in the future?”

“I promise, Maman. I’ll let you guys and Chat know next time before I go out.”

They give each other one last squeeze before slowly extracting themselves.

Sabine smiles impishly. “Now that that’s out of the way, am I allowed to tease you about your date with Chat Noir, or does that upset you?”

Marinette rolls her eyes and groans. “No. No teasing. It wasn’t a date, and I have no earthly clue how I really feel about him, so…no dating until after I get my head back on straight. It’s only been a literal week since Adrien.”

Sabine puts her hands up in surrender. “All right. You just let me know when that changes, though, because I think you two are cute together, and he’s obviously interested in you.”

Marinette gives a start. “What? Really? How can you tell?”

“That he’s interested in you?” Sabine chuckles. “Just look at the pictures. This one where he has his arm around you, for example. You’re looking at something off in the distance, but he’s sneaking glances at you out of the corner of his eye. Look at the photo of you two snuggling on the rooftop. Look at his face, the way he’s looking at you like you’re precious. That’s not just the look of a lust-filled teenager, Marinette; that’s a look of adoration. He’s obviously crazy about you.”

Marinette collapses back down onto the stool. “But…we only truly met a week ago.”

“Sometimes it only takes a few minutes,” Sabine replies sagely.

Marinette gazes up at her mother, eyes pleading. “Maman, how do you know if you really like someone or if you’re just using them to make yourself feel better about getting your heart broken?”

Sabine’s knowing smile subtly shifts into an unsure frown.

“Because we’re both kind of messed up right now, and I don’t want us to hurt each other,” Marinette whispers, fear tinging her voice.

Sabine leans in and gives her daughter’s temple a kiss. “I think, in this case, only time will tell. Be patient, and don’t jump into anything, Sweetheart,” she advises.

Marinette nods. “That’s what…a friend told me too. Thanks.” She gathers her courage and gets to her feet, placing a goodbye kiss on either side of her mother’s cheeks. “Have a good day, Maman. I’ll see you when I get home.”

“You too, Honey!” Sabine calls after Marinette, hoping she’s said the right things. Being a parent is more of an artform than an exact science.

 

“Do you think you could get Alya to find out where Marinette buys her shampoo?” Adrien finally bites the bullet and asks Nino as they walk into school together that Monday morning.

Nino stops and slowly turns to pull a face at Adrien. “Dude, I will ask Alya, but why do you need to know where Marinette buys her shampoo?”

Adrien’s mind goes blank as he searches it for plausible excuses. “Uh…I was just…On Saturday, when she kissed me, she smelled really good, and I thought that maybe it would be nice if my hair smelled like strawberries too. Is that weird?” Adrien cringes. “Shoot. That’s really weird, isn’t it? Am I a creep?”

Nino bites his lip. What he wants to say is, “No, Mec. You’re just stupid in love with her. Love makes you do really crazy, stalkerish things sometimes. I mean, look at Marinette. She’s been in love with you for years now and does all kinds of bizarre things that could technically be considered creepy. You two should probably talk about this and just freakin’ make out already because you’re both driving me bats.”

What Nino actually says is, “No, you’re not a creep, Mec, but that is pretty weird. I’d advise against being shampoo twins with Marinette.” A figure up on the first-floor walkway catches Nino’s eye. “Speaking of which…what is our princess doing?”

Adrien looks to find Marinette leaning over the railing on the upper floor, studying the crowd below her with single-minded intensity, scribbling furiously into a notebook.

Adrien chuckles. “Probably making a list of every single blonde that goes to our school in a futile search for her superhero boyfriend’s secret identity.”

Nino sighs. “That girl.”

“Let’s go say hi,” Adrien suggests cheerily, already heading briskly across the basketball court towards the stairs leading up to the second level.

Nino races to catch up and grab Adrien by the wrist. “Dude, no. We talked about this; you’re supposed to be giving her space.”

“Nino, please?” Adrien begs. “Just let me say hi to her. I swear I won’t stick around if she looks like she doesn’t want me bothering her. Please? She was okay on Saturday, right? We had a whole conversation then. She kissed me. Maybe we’re over this whole weirdness around Adrien thing and she’ll be fine from now on, but just let me go and say good morning, okay?”

Nino reluctantly releases Adrien’s arm with a resigned sigh of, “Fine. Just…stay behind me and don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t invade her personal space. Don’t tell her how beautiful you think she is. Just…be more chill around her, Mec.”

Adrien’s face lights up as his selective hearing kicks in. “Have you heard of that musical?”

Nino frowns. “What musical?”

“Be More Chill. Remind me to show you on YouTube later. I can sing the whole opening number in English,” Adrien boasts. “I can actually do most of the numbers.”

Nino doesn’t know why he’s surprised when Adrien seems to excel at everything else besides social interactions, but… “I didn’t know you could sing.”

If Adrien had Chat’s tail, it would be flicking with excitement. “Yeah. I’d actually like to go into theatre someday.” Suddenly his good mood deflates. “…In a parallel universe where what I want to do with my life matters and is taken into consideration.”

Nino bites his lip. He’s kind of tempted to give his buddy a head pat because Adrien is looking like a kicked puppy. “…Are you any good at singing?” he asks in an attempt to cheer Adrien back up.

That does seem to do the trick—Adrien is all confident smiles once more—but it makes Nino worry how wildly Adrien’s emotions fluctuate.

“At least as good as Chat Noir.” Adrien preens, puffing out his chest as they ascend the stairs. “Our voices actually sound pretty similar.”

“That dude can sing,” Nino affirms. “You’re really that good?”

“Yeah, pretty much exactly that good.” Adrien grins, trying not to show how proud it makes him that Nino thinks Chat Noir can sing.

Nino hums thoughtfully. “You’ll have to show me sometime. Hey, Marinette.”

“Hey.” Marinette replies reflexively, barely sparing Nino a flicker of a glance. She doesn’t even seem to register Adrien, so intent is she on her surveillance. “Hey!” She seems to have a small epiphany. “Nino, can you tell me what that guy’s name is? The blonde sitting on the bench down there to the left of the door. The one in black with the blue headphones.”

Nino squints. “Uh…that’s Luc Hackert. His mom is French, but his dad is Swiss. They just moved here…a year and a half ago? Why?”

“Boo,” Marinette grumbles. “If he’s only been here a year and a half, it can’t be him. Shame. He was cute.”

Nino tries to keep from laughing, but he fails. “You really are making a list of all the blondes at school trying to find Chat Noir.”

Marinette’s shoulders rise up to meet her ears as she mutters something unintelligible and scribbles a name as another blonde walks in the door down below.

“My friend, people are going to start spreading rumors about how you have a thing for blondes,” Nino snickers, stepping in to rest one arm against the railing.

Marinette rolls her eyes. “My friend,” she echoes, “people have been talking about how I have a thing for blondes for years now.”

Adrien arches an eyebrow.

Nino frowns. “Cupcakes, you do realize that Adrien is—”

“—Oh my gosh! That guy that just walked in!” She grabs Nino’s sleeve and tugs. “Who’s that? He could be a model, right? I mean, he’s gorgeous.”

Nino spots the athletically slim, stylish blonde walking through the courtyard. Nino’s seen him around, but he doesn’t know the guy.

“Étienne Saint-Cloud,” Adrien helpfully supplies.

“Étienne,” Marinette tests the name on her lips. It comes out like a sigh. “Étienne,” she giggles. “Saint-Cloud is a bit of a clunky last name to add to Dupain-Cheng, but…”

Nino shakes his head. He worries about this girl. “Marinette, does Chat Noir know that you’re trying to find out his secret identity?”

“Of course he does.” She shrugs, adding “Étienne Saint-Cloud” to her list with little pawprints over the “i”s, each pad in the shape of a heart. “He was over for dinner last night, and I told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to find him.”

“Uh-huh.” Nino nods slowly. “And does Chat Noir think that this is a good idea?”

Marinette has the grace to blush as she writes down the name of another blonde as he enters. “…No. He’s actually kind of convinced that I’m going to hate him when I find out his identity, but…”

“Does Ladybug think that this is a good idea?” Nino asks pointedly.

Adrien is surprised by the way Marinette full-body winces.

“…No?” she squeaks in a very small voice. “Not even Marinette thinks that this is really a good idea, but I’m in a little deep now to back out, aren’t I? Besides, it would be so much more convenient if I could just talk to him at school and invite him to hang out like any of my other friends. I know I’m not being very smart, and I know I’m being a total hypocrite, and I know that this isn’t fair to Chat, but—”

“—You just want to be able to kiss your boyfriend without the paparazzi interrupting,” Nino snickers.

Marinette smacks Nino’s arm with her notebook. “He’s not my boyfriend, and that kiss last night was just on his cheek.”

Nino frowns. “What kiss?”

“Have you not seen the papers?” Marinette hums disinterestedly, taking down another name. “Alya will tell you all about it, I’m sure. Who’s that in the green shirt talking to Alix?”

“Dunno.” Nino shrugs. “Sorry.”

“Jean Duval,” Adrien offers. “He dyed his hair blonde recently. It’s really brown.”

“Then he’s not Chat,” Marinette sighs. “One less person to investigate, I guess. …Gosh. Why is this so hard?”

“Why do you really want to find him so badly?” Adrien wonders softly as she writes down another name. “This seems like a lot to put yourself through. What makes you think he’s worth the trouble?”

Marinette doesn’t seem to have to think about it as she answers immediately while still writing yet another name. “It makes me really sad to think that he could be sitting behind me in class without me even noticing. It makes me feel like I’m missing out on the little things like passing notes in class or eating lunch together or studying in the library or doing homework or complaining about how many papers we have to write. His friendship is really important to me, so moments like that are precious, and we’re missing out on them because I’m too dumb to figure it out.”

“You’re not dumb.” Adrien wrestles with the upwelling of joy mixed with sadness within himself. “If Chat Noir were any kind of a man, he’d gather his courage and reveal himself to you, the rules be damned.”

Adrien knows he’ll never have the guts to do it. He’s too afraid of rejection.

Marinette shakes her head. “He’s only holding back now because of his feelings for Ladybug. He loves her to pieces, and he’d never do anything to upset her like that.”

Marinette knows what kind of man Chat truly is.

“…I shouldn’t be doing this,” she sighs, draping herself over the railing. “This is underhanded and selfish and so incredibly stupid. If Papillon found out and tried to use me against him…” Marinette groans, straightening up and closing her notebook. “There are rules for a reason. I don’t need to know. I shouldn’t know. I have to tell him to stop giving me hints; we’re being reckless.”

“But wouldn’t it be worth the risk to be able to go to the movies together or walk down by the Seine or hang out in a park or eat dinner at a restaurant?” Adrien almost pleads, earning a cocked eyebrow from Nino who wonders yet again why Adrien is so invested in Marinette and Chat Noir’s relationship when it would seemingly get in the way of Adrien’s chances with Marinette.

Marinette bites her lip, obviously conflicted. She looks down at the milling blondes below and shakes her head sadly. “As much as I want that, I need to put his safety first.”

“He doesn’t care about his safety. He’d rather have more time with you,” Adrien insists, wanting to grab her and make her really look at him.

She laughs and looks at Nino. “And how would you know?”

Nino frowns, pointing at Adrien.

“Because I am him.” To hell with the rules. He’ll make her see him.

Marinette turns to face him, and, immediately, annoyance takes over her formerly dazed expression. “Ugh!” she groans, burying her face in her hands. “You know, that’s hilarious because sometimes he’ll claim to be you just to screw with me and make me mad, and this joke is getting really old, Chat Noir,” she hisses. “You’re not Adrien, so stop it.”

Nino’s frown deepens as he looks back and forth between his friends.

Adrien melts in defeat, putting on his “I hate life” smile. “You…really don’t like me, do you?”

“I’m sorry.” Marinette sighs, letting her hands drop to her sides. “Don’t be silly, Minou. Of course I—” She comes to a dead stop as the blonde in front of her really and truly registers.

She sucks in a huge breath and squeaks, “Oh my gosh! You’re not Chat; you’re Adrien!” as she begins to back away. “Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry! I thought I was—I didn’t get much sleep last night, and—and I’ve been thinking about Chat so much, I—Ah!”

She bumps into the railing and starts to tip over it backwards.

Adrien lunges and grabs for her, realizing that there’s a fifty percent chance he’ll only succeed in going over the railing with her. In that event, he hopes he can transform fast enough. The suit would absorb the impact, and he could break her fall.

Thankfully, no desperate measures are needed.

Adrien catches hold of her wrist and yanks her back into himself even as his own body continues to travel forward colliding with her. His knee bangs against one of the bars as he stops himself with his right hand on the railing.

They get the breath knocked out of them and stay there a minute, Marinette smashed against his chest, trembling from the burst of adrenaline. Only Adrien’s left arm is wrapped around her, but it’s pressing her so tightly against him that she can hear his hammering heartbeat…or maybe that’s her own.

“It’s okay,” Adrien whispers into her hair, voice unsteady. “I’ve got you.”

It sounds more like he’s reassuring himself.

“Are you okay?” he gulps.

Finding herself shocked speechless, Marinette nods.

Adrien sighs, some of the tension leaving him as he tentatively circles the other arm around her. The embrace becomes more of a hug than a vise grip.

Unbidden, memories of almost falling off the Pont Neuf come rushing back to Marinette, and it feels wrong to be in Adrien’s arms when Chat Noir could be watching.

“Th-Thanks.” Marinette clears her throat, trying to sound less freaked out and more in control of the situation. “But I have to go.” She flattens both of her palms against his chest and pushes him back. “Sorry.” She avoids eye contact as she turns to stumble away.

“Wait!” He catches her by the wrist once more and smiles forlornly in resignation. “You don’t have to run away this time. I’ll go.” He keeps smiling bravely as he walks away, but his shoulders sag, and his gaze is downcast. The look in his eyes reads “misery”.

And it reminds her of Chat—Chat on Wednesday, depressed because he thinks that a girl he wants to be friends with hates him. Adrien thinks she hates him.

“Adrien!” Before she can think better of it, she calls out to him.

He turns, looking at her with cautious optimism.

“We haven’t hung out in a while what with everything that’s been going on.” What is she saying? “We should do something, the four of us, together this week.” Someone stop her. “Like maybe go for a picnic during the lunch break on Wednesday?” Stop her!

Adrien’s face lights up like the Paris skyline. “Really?”

She smiles through gritted teeth, mentally smacking herself.

“That would be…perfect, actually,” he laughs, running a hand through his hair. “Would Wednesday lunch work for you and Alya, Nino?”

Marinette whips around and glares at Nino, quietly hissing, “Tell him no. Make something up. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.”

Nino smiles and calls out, “Sure, Mec! Picnic on Wednesday. Sounds good! I’ll tell Alya.”

“Nino,” Marinette whispers, distress dripping from the word.

“Awesome!” Adrien gives a little fist pump. “See you guys later!”

“Later, Dude!” Nino raises a hand and waves in parting before turning back to Marinette to address her quietly. “Look how excited he is. I can’t take that away from him.”

Marinette sighs, turning to bang her head against the support beam. “I’ll have to be sick on Wednesday. I can’t do this. I can’t be around him.”

“Marinette? Do you think you could try? Please?”

She’s struck by the solemn, almost desperate, tone in Nino’s voice. She looks up at him, eyes narrowing. “What do you mean? Why?”

He shakes his head, keeping his voice low. “I don’t want you to push yourself if you really can’t do it, but…do you think you could paste on a smile and muddle your way through?”

Marinette considers for a moment, studying Nino’s face. He looks calm and casual for the most part, but there’s a hint of panic lying just below the surface. “Maybe. Why are you asking me this?”

Nino takes a furtive look around before stepping in and lowering his voice further. “Look, I wasn’t going to tell you this. I didn’t want to put one more thing on your plate when I know you’ve already got way more than you need to be dealing with right now, and I don’t want you thinking this is in any way your fault because this is squarely on me and Alya—”

Marinette takes him by the arm and gives it a squeeze. “—Nino, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”

Nino breathes in slowly and lets out, “Adrien’s really wrecked about things with you. This past week has been tough for him with Alya turning into a dragon seemingly at the drop of a hat, me putting my relationship with Alya before my friendship with him, and you…” Nino winces.

“Freaking out and bursting like a dam every time he tries to say something nice or even just be around me?” Marinette grumbles.

Nino nods. “Yeah. I worry that he feels like we’re jumping ship on him. Marinette, I don’t want to stress you out about it or make you spend time with him if you really can’t, but…he’s not okay, and, if you can, he could really use his friends right now.”

Marinette bangs her head against the wrought iron support beam once more. “Fine. I can do this. I can make it through a picnic with you guys on Wednesday. It’s not going to help me get over him any faster, but I can try to get through a picnic.” She eyes Nino curiously. “You really think he’s in danger of being akumatized over this?”

Nino bites his lip. He stares at her, looking small and lost. He shakes his head.

Marinette frowns skeptically.

“Akumatization is the least of our problems,” Nino whispers ruefully. “Marinette, I’m worried he’s going to ‘fall’ off his rock-climbing wall or ‘accidentally’ swallow a whole bottle of pills.”

It feels like someone is holding a pillow over her head. She can’t breathe, and Nino’s voice sounds muffled all of the sudden as he continues.

“I’m sorry. I know it’s not fair to push this on you, but I’m honestly kind of getting scared, Marinette. He’s my best bud, and I don’t…I can’t lose him. Whoa! Hey!” Nino’s eyes go wide, and he reaches out to try to catch Marinette as her legs buckle.

He only succeeds in slowing her down as she sinks to the floor. He goes with her, shaking her shoulder, worried by her blank look. “Hey! Marinette!”

Both of them. She has to worry about losing both of them, not just Chat. How did she overlook this for so long? How did she never notice? Is it possible that Nino is merely overreacting? No. Nino’s always been so laidback. He wouldn’t be this afraid unless he had sufficient cause. That leads her back to: How did she never notice? She’s been staring right at him, watching his every move for years, and yet…all this time, she’s never truly seen anything, has she?

“I can go on Wednesday,” she reiterates, using the railing to pull herself to her feet.

“You…sure about that?” Nino enquires, watching her cautiously as she dusts herself off and smiles.

She nods. “I know you blame yourself and Alya, but the truth is that I’m at fault for this mess too. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t return my feelings. It doesn’t matter that he picked my alter ego over me. Right now, Adrien needs me as his friend, and I’m going to do my best to be there for him.”

Nino smiles warmly, giving her chin a chuck. “That’s my girl. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not as good as Ladybug; you’re a hero even out of the suit, Marinette. …You sure you’re going to be all right?” He gives her a scrutinizing look.

Marinette shrugs. “We’ll just have to see…but, for now, we need to go get the notebook I dropped over the railing and head to our lockers. We’ve got a little less than fifteen minutes to get to class.”

Nino nods, following behind her as she makes her way to the stairs.

She stops at the top and gawks as she notices Étienne Saint-Cloud ascending, her notebook in hand.

He comes to a stop in front of her and smiles, an effervescent grin with a hint of shyness, holding the notebook out with one hand while the other reaches back to rub at his neck. “I…think you dropped this.”

“Thank you.” All traces of worry over Adrien fade from her face to be replaced by a soft smile filled with anticipation. Her eyes take him in with tentative hope, searching for something familiar, something she can put her finger on as proof of his identity.

“Oh!” She steps closer to actually take the notebook. “Sorry. Thank you. Um…I’m Marinette.” She holds out her hand to shake.

He chuckles. “I know. I see you and your friends at fencing practice a lot.” He takes her hand and brings it to his lips. “Étienne Saint-Cloud. Pleased to meet you, Marinette.”

She nearly melts. Her stomach does a backflip. Chat. This could be Chat!

“Not as pleased as I am to meet you, Étienne,” she almost purrs, sending him a sultry look as she tucks her bang back behind her ear.

Étienne’s eyes widen slightly in interest, and he steps in, subtly resting his hand on the banister beside hers so that their fingers brush. “I don’t know about that. I’ve kind of been wanting to introduce myself to you for a while now.”

“Well, now you have,” Nino pipes up, putting an arm around Marinette’s shoulders and starting to shepherd her away. “If you’ll excuse us, we need to get to class.”

“Hey!” Marinette squawks. “Nino! What the hell?” she hisses before turning back to call over her shoulder, “I’ll see you later, Étienne!”

“I don’t like him,” Nino declares as he drags her the rest of the way down the steps. “It’s weird seeing you flirt with him.”

He can’t shake the feeling that Étienne Saint-Cloud is going to make Adrien a jealous mess which will only make Nino’s life harder because Adrien will, one, be a jealous mess and, two, be in denial that he’s a jealous mess because why would he be jealous when Marinette is only a friend whom he claims not to think about romantically? Nino can’t deal with Étienne Saint-Cloud right now.

“But…” Marinette pauses. “You’re not friends with Étienne?”

Nino shoots her a sideways odd look. “I’ve never met the guy.”

Marinette deflates and lets out such a miserable, piteous, “Oh” that Nino stops to make sure she’s all right.

“What? What’s wrong?!” he demands with a hint of panic. Why is everything going to hell lately?

“Chat said you two were friends, so if you’re not friends with Étienne, Étienne isn’t Chat,” she sighs. “Dammit. Just when I thought I’d found him.”

Nino stares at her blankly. “I’m friends with Chat Noir?”

He can handle being Carapace and dating Rena Rouge and being friends with Ladybug and having to tolerate Queen Bee on a semi-regular basis. Each of these things took varying degrees of time and freaking out to get used to, but, for some reason, Chat Noir is the last straw. He can’t bear the thought of one more of the people he cares about being in danger, and Chat Noir purposely puts himself in danger far more often than anyone else on the team.

Marinette shrugs. “That’s what he said. I don’t know if you’re super close or if he just meant that you guys talk sometimes, but…he called you a friend. How many blonde friends do you have?”

Nino purses his lips. “There’s the obvious one.”

Marinette rolls her eyes. “Excluding the obvious one. He’s not allowed to be Chat Noir. That would be too screwed up, me getting over him by falling in love with him all over again.”

Nino’s eyebrows shoot up into his hat. “Holy crap. Did you just admit that you’re falling in love with Chat Noir?”

Marinette considers this briefly.

Mentally curses.

Curses out loud.

“Geez. Language,” Nino snickers.

Marinette glares at him before repeating herself, louder and with extra emphasis on the f. “Well. I’m either falling in love with him or using him to feel better about Adrien. Take your pick. I don’t have the mental energy to worry about the distinction right now.”

“Geez,” Nino repeats as he nods. “Either way, I agree. Adrien’s not allowed to be Chat Noir. I worry about him enough as is. I can’t deal with my best bud going out there and fighting monsters, getting tossed into the sides of buildings all the time. It’s bad enough with you, and, at least, with you, I know Chat Noir’s there to take the really nasty blows like that car last week. I can’t deal with Adrien being the one to take those hits.”

Marinette is silent, lost in contemplation.

“…I have maybe about twenty blonde friends of varying degrees,” Nino sighs.

Marinette perks up. “Can I have a list?”

Nino shakes his head. “You need to stop, and I’m not enabling you, Marinette. If Chat Noir wants you to know who he is, he can tell you himself, but you shouldn’t be looking for him like this. I’m sure Tikki has a very good reason for insisting that your identities remain secret. I mean, safety is the obvious one, but… What if, by openly searching for him, you draw the wrong kind of attention and other people figure him out? I have to tell Alya this all the time. I’m not opposed to you knowing. Yeah, that would bring its own dangers, and it’s probably not a good idea, but the real problem is tipping other people off by your search…. Is this making sense?”

Marinette looks down at her feet and nods. “I’m so stupid. I got so caught up in my selfish desire to find him that I didn’t even stop to think—”

“—You’re not stupid or selfish, ma pote.” He throws an arm around her shoulders, resuming their trek to the locker room. “You’re a human being falling in love.”

“Or using him as a rebound,” Marinette sighs, putting an arm around Nino’s waist and resting her head on his shoulder.

“Regardless, it’s at times like these that you need to count on your friends to stop you from acting silly.” He gives her shoulders a little squeeze.

“Thanks, mon pote,” she giggles.

Chapter Text

Marinette does not anticipate being greeted upon entering the locker room by dozens of pairs of eyes gazing expectantly.

“There you are!” Alix huffs, grabbing her arm and pulling her away from Nino.

“Hurry up before you make us all late for class, Dupain-Cheng,” Chloé snorts and pretends to file her nails disinterestedly.

“Hurry with what?” Marinette squeaks as she’s roughly passed along through the unusually crowded locker room.

“Everyone’s been waiting for you to get here to open your locker,” Alya chuckles as Marinette comes to a stop in front of her.

“We want to hear what song your boyfriend recorded for you today!” Rose explains, a smile stretching across her entire face, her eyes filled with excitement. “It’s so romantic!”

Marinette grimaces. “Rose, he’s not my boyfriend.”

Rose’s whimsical grin twists into a pout. “If he hasn’t asked you out yet, maybe you should stop waiting and ask him.”

Marinette briefly considers banging her head against her locker door. Instead, she just ends up opening it.

The entire room goes silent as the introduction begins to play. It’s Chat on piano, but Marinette doesn’t immediately recognize the song. The intro is catchy and upbeat, and it’s about thirty whole seconds before the opening chord of the vocal line comes in with a flourish.

Marinette’s eyes widen, and a grin slowly spreads across her lips as she realizes what she’s hearing.

“It’s Despacito!” someone in the crowd gasps.

Some people start to sing along to the instrumental version while others begin to dance, everyone enjoying Chat’s performance.

At points, it sounds as if Chat’s hands are flying across the keyboard as layer upon layer is added to the song. He is most definitely showing off, and it makes Marinette almost giddy knowing he’s doing this to impress her and make her smile.

She wishes she could hear him in person, see his fingers moving, the muscles of his back working, his powerful shoulders as he makes the piano sing. She’s sure she could sit and watch him for hours. She’s always admired musicians, and it would be such a treat to see him live.

Laughing, Alya grabs Marinette’s hand and whips her into a spin. Marinette laughs too and begins to dance with her friend.

Meanwhile, from the opposite wall of lockers, Nino smirks as he watches Adrien watching Marinette.

“Cute, huh?” Nino snickers.

“Yeah,” Adrien chuckles and then blinks. “Wait. What?”

“Don’t worry about it.” He playfully elbows Adrien. “So, not only does he sing, but Marinette’s boyfriend also plays rockin’ piano. I mean, how many hands does this guy have?”

Adrien rolls his eyes, crossing his arms as he leans back against the lockers. “He’s using a loop station to record and play back the parts that repeat in the background while he does the melody.”

Nino nods slowly. “Why didn’t I think of that? …Could you play something like this?”

Adrien shrugs. “With a couple hours of practice, I probably could. I’m not the most talented pianist, but I bet I could give Marinette’s boyfriend a run for his money.”

“Do you have a loop station?” Nino inquires.

A satisfied smirk slides into place on Adrien’s lips. “I actually just got one this weekend.”

Somehow, this feels cryptic to Nino, but he doesn’t get the chance to press the issue before the song ends and practically the entire room is begging him for a copy of Chat’s latest performance.

 

It’s the period after lunch, and Marinette is trying very hard to concentrate on a rather dry lecture concerning the Transcendentalist Movement. She did not enjoy Emerson’s essays, and while Walden had some very poignant moments and interesting ideas, it could sometimes be a little boring and preachy and come off as pretentious considering Thoreau was pretty much Emerson’s exotic pet who could only afford to go off and live in the woods because Emerson was footing the bill. It just wasn’t practical for the average person. No, Marinette is really hoping they can hurry up and talk about Walt Whitman…or go back to Romanticism. She’d really enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. 

She’s pulled from her thoughts of tragic beauties living in poison gardens by the buzz of her phone in her pocket. She jumps, banging her leg on the underside of the desk and earning her an amused look from Alya.

Marinette smiles sheepishly, waiting a minute until everyone’s attention is no longer on her to surreptitiously slip her phone out of her pocket and check the incoming text.

“I am so bored right now.”

An unknown number using proper spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. She doesn’t know anyone who texts like this.

A second text appears: “How’s your day going, Princess?”

Marinette has to contain a trill of excitement as her stomach does a flip.

Before she can shoot back a response, a third text comes in: “Sorry. I’m not bothering you, am I? I know we’re in the middle of class.”

“Hi, Minou. ^.~” she types back, copying his style and forcing herself to spell things out and use punctuation because she doesn’t want him to think she’s a lazy slob. 

“You’re fine.”, “My brain was about ready to drip out my ears, I’m so bored.”, “I’d much rather be talking to you.”, “My day’s not bad so far.”, “Yours?” she shoots off in rapid succession.

“Not bad on my end. Crazy morning, but relatively calm rest of the day. I have piano and a fitting after school, but I should be able to make it to your house around eight. May I come over?” he replies in one long text.

“Of course.” “You’re always welcome.” She looks up to make sure Miss Bustier’s back is still turned before returning her eyes to the screen, trying to play it off as her looking at her notes.

There’s a warm feeling in Adrien’s chest as he reads her words thrice: always welcome. It feels a little surreal.

Deep down, he knows that his father loves him and is doing his best after his mother left them to pick the pieces of their lives up and keep going. That doesn’t make the mansion a warm, comforting place where he feels at home. His father’s love is suffocating more than anything. It feels like chains. It does not make Adrien feel wanted and accepted exactly as he is.

“Welcome” is a foreign concept to Adrien.

“I know. I mean, I know you said that, but I didn’t want to assume I could literally just drop by whenever.”

Marinette sighs. He can hear her exasperated release of breath behind him.

She types: “Minou, that’s kind of what ‘always welcome’ means.” “Obviously, don’t be dropping by in the middle of the night while I’m trying to sleep” “unless it’s an emergency” “but you can literally just come over.” “It’s not like I’m super busy or anything.” “I’m usually just working on a creation or playing video games or doing homework.” “Nothing important.”

“But what if you have people over?” They’ve been lucky so far that he hasn’t knocked and been met by Alya. He knows she’s over there quite a bit.

“They usually go home before dinner,” “but I can text you if anyone’s going to be over after seven,” she offers. “I can’t believe you got a burner phone so quickly.”

“Okay. Sounds good. The perks of being rich. :P My father’s assistant is a godsend. She had one of the servants drop the phone off during lunch,” Adrien types with his left hand while he takes notes with the right.

“What did you tell her you needed the phone for?” Marinette can’t help but wonder.

“You,” he replies, and Marinette’s heart leaps.

“She knows about you,” he clarifies.

Marinette inhales deeply—a calming breath.

Adrien almost turns around to see her expression. He only stops himself because he knows he’ll get caught.

Nino reaches over to write in the margin of Adrien’s notes: “Sup with the flip phone? Are rich people going retro now?”

“Does she think I’m your girlfriend or something?” Marinette texts.

Adrien deals with Nino first, switching the phone to his right hand under the desk and writing in Nino’s notebook with his left: “It’s just for someone I can’t text from my regular phone.”

To Marinette he writes, “No. She knows about us. And that I’ve been sneaking out to visit you. I told her about your parkour habit this morning and that I needed a phone I could use to contact you without giving away my identity.”

In the interim, Nino has written “Who?” in Adrien’s notebook.

“Secret,” Adrien writes back.

“Girlfriend?” Nino waggles his eyebrows. “That is totally the kind of phone you get when you’re having an affair, Mec.”

Adrien rolls his eyes, scratching out Nino’s comment. In Nino’s notebook, he writes, “Sure. I have a secret girlfriend.”

“Who is she?” Nino is positively leering.

Adrien groans softly and whispers, “I was joking.”

Nino grabs Adrien’s notebook and writes at the top of the page: “I don’t think so. I see you over there smiling and blushing. You’ve got ‘lovesick puppy’ written all over your face.” Nino slides the notebook back to Adrien with a smirk.

Adrien glares pointedly, momentarily ignoring the buzz of the phone in his hand.

Nino only smirks harder, so smug and so sure of himself, like he knows better than Adrien.

There’s a brief flicker of doubt in Adrien’s mind: What if Nino does know better?

This thought only serves to annoy Adrien, and, thus, he blames Nino for what happens next.

Adrien seizes Nino’s notebook and writes in large block letters that fill an entire page, “FINE. MARINETTE IS MY SECRET GIRLFRIEND, AND I’M CRAZY ABOUT HER!!!”

A piqued “Ahem!” is the only warning the boys get before Caline Bustier snatches the notebook to review the contents. She blinks, the irritation leaving her as she looks at Adrien whose entire epidermis has gone vermillion.

Adrien looks like he wants to fold up like a telescope and disappear.

Mindful of the possibility of getting her student akumatized, Caline closes the notebook and sets it back down. “Really?” she whispers, indicating the notebook.

He shakes his head, looking miserable. “I just wrote that to get Nino off my case.”

Caline nods slowly, lips pursed. “Okay. Adrien, could I please speak with you out in the hall for a minute?”

“Yes, Miss Bustier,” Adrien mutters, getting to his feet and beginning the walk of shame to the door.

“Miss, this is my fault,” Nino insists, standing and trying to defend Adrien. “I’m the one who started it. If you’re going to punish someone, it should be me.”

Caline smiles reassuringly up at Nino. “Don’t worry. Everything is fine, Nino. Marinette?”

Marinette jumps, banging her leg on the underside of the desk for a second time. “Yes, Miss Bustier?”

“You’re in charge for a few minutes. Everyone, please behave,” Caline instructs before slipping out the door behind Adrien.

Out in the hall, Adrien forces himself to look up from his shoes and meet his teacher’s gaze. “I’m sorry for disrupting class, Miss Bustier. I shouldn’t have been texting or writing notes. That was disrespectful, and I’m sorry,” he dutifully apologizes, feeling guilty.

Caline blinks at him in surprise before the comforting smile resumes its almost perpetual place on her lips. “Thank you, Adrien. I appreciate that, but I didn’t bring you out here to scold you. You’re not in trouble.”

Now it’s Adrien’s turn to blink. “I’m not?”

She shakes her head. “While it’s true that you shouldn’t be passing notes or texting in class, I think that there’s a more important issue that we need to talk about. Adrien, are you okay?”

His kneejerk reaction catches him before he can even consider her question: “Of course. I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

A slight wrinkle forms on her brow. “You’ve seemed very upset lately.”

He shakes his head a little too insistently, eager to throw her off his scent. “No. Not at all. I’m…I’m fine.” He sends her a beatific grin.

The wrinkle on her forehead shifts into a full-blown frown. “Okay. That’s good to hear, Adrien. I was only concerned because the contents of the notes you and Nino have been passing recently have been a little… You’ve sounded distressed,” she modifies.

He breaks eye contact. “I’m…fine,” he repeats, willing it to be true.

He thinks of Marinette jumping from rooftop to rooftop, Marinette with graphite smudges on her checks, Marinette looking up at the stars, Marinette kissing Adrien’s cheek, Marinette with puffy eyes and tearstained cheeks and moonlight reflecting in her hair.

A warm sensation starts in his chest and radiates outward, causing a calm smile to peek through Adrien’s previously uneasy expression.

“I’m going to be fine,” he assures.

Caline reluctantly nods. “Okay. I’m glad to hear that, but…if you ever feel like you’re not fine or you’re not going to be fine, I want you to know that you can talk to me about it. If you’re not comfortable talking with me, that’s okay too, but please let me know, and I can help you find someone else you feel comfortable talking with. If you’re ever going through something, Adrien, I want you to know that you don’t have to go through it alone. Your other teachers and I are here to support you.”

He’s taken aback by the utmost sincerity in her voice.

“I…expect it must be challenging for you,” she adds hesitantly. “You have so much more on your plate than other people your age.”

Adrien tenses, wondering if she knows about Chat Noir.

She continues, her words coming out in a rush, dispelling his fears, “I mean, what with your career as a model on top of all the lessons and extracurricular activities your father has you do, it must be very stressful, and if you ever needed to talk to someone…” She bites her lip, wondering if she is getting through to him or only wasting their time. Adrien is always so reserved; she can rarely tell what he’s actually thinking. “…I just want you to know that there are people here whom you could talk to.”

“Thank you, Miss Bustier.” Adrien takes out a smile of gratitude for her. “I really do appreciate you letting me know, but…I think everything’s going to be okay. Things are just a little rough now…” He chews absently on his lip. “…with Marinette.”

She nods slowly, almost afraid to speak for fear of breaking the spell. “…I have noticed that you two seem to be on the rocks recently. …Did something happen?”

Adrien shakes his head. “I don’t really know. I can’t…even think of a way to adequately explain it, but… I think things are going to be okay; we’re just both…kind of upset right now.”

Caline keeps nodding despite her lack of understanding. “Okay. Well…if you feel like talking about this some more—or about anything else for that matter—I’d be happy to listen.”

“Thank you, Miss Bustier,” Adrien replies with a genuine smile. He knows he won’t take her up on her offer, but he appreciates that she took time out of her day to let him know that he isn’t alone. “You’re an awesome teacher.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she laughs and demurs. “Shall we head back to class?”

They walk in to find Marinette standing up front, leading a class discussion.

“—a good point, Juleka, but I think, for me, that one of the biggest ‘truths’ was that in essentially losing everything, he realized what he could live without and, also, what was truly…” Marinette freezes when she realizes that the teacher has returned. “…important. Miss Bustier, we were just talking about the ‘truth’ that Thoreau found out in the woods and what we took away from the book regarding what it meant to ‘live’ and to ‘live deliberately’. I hope that was okay?”

Caline blinks as Adrien returns to his seat. “Um…actually, that’s wonderful. Thank you, Marinette…. I was honestly expecting you all to be talking amongst yourselves when I came back, so thank you all for using the time productively…. Why don’t we…go ahead and continue this discussion? Did someone else have something to add?”

Five hands go up.

Adrien partially tunes out as he surreptitiously pulls out the flip phone under his desk.

Marinette’s last message reads, “Your father’s assistant knows your identity?!?!”

Adrien grimaces, quickly typing, “Sorry for the radio silence. Got caught and sent to the principal. I’ll explain next period.”

 

“Your father’s assistant knows your identity?!?!?!?!” Marinette types again a little over half an hour later in Madame Mendeleiev’s Physics class.

Adrien sighs and types, “Yes? ^.^;”

“Minou!!!” “Who else knows?!” “How did she find out?!” come back at him in rapid succession.

“Calm down, Princess,” he assures. “It’s just her. I’m not really sure how she found out, but it seems like she’s known for at least a year or two now, and she’s never said anything before Thursday. She kind of flipped out over the car incident. Well, ‘flipped out’ by her standards. She’s a little glacial, or at least she pretends to be most of the time, so any expression of emotion is kind of a big deal for her.

“Anyway, there’s no need to worry about it because she’s not going to tell anyone,” he stresses to the best of his ability via text-based medium.

“Minou, if your father’s assistant was able to figure it out, don’t you think other people might too?!” “I think this calls for some worrying!”

Adrien glances back over his shoulder at Marinette, taking in the parlor of her face, the anxiety in her eyes. It would be a lot easier if he could just turn around and explain everything. Her knowing his identity would explain the majority of it all on its own.

With a soft sigh, Adrien looks down at his phone and attempts to clear up his muddled family situation in a block of text.

“Okay. You know how my home life is screwed up?” he begins.

“Yes?”

He takes another peek over his shoulder. Marinette’s brow is furrowed, and she looks worried. It’s like she’s bracing herself to learn even more of his dark secrets and already trying to figure out what she’s going to say to convince him that everything’s going to be okay.

Adrien takes a deep breath. “Well, it’s never not been screwed up, even before my mother left. My parents married young due to an unplanned pregnancy, and, while they loved each other like crazy, they were also at each other’s throats a lot. They were both finishing school and working on their careers and trying to raise a kid, and once my father became successful, my mother didn’t know how to be a society wife and hostess, and I hear that she kind of resented being put in that position and having people expect her to be and dress and speak and act a certain way. I’ve only heard this secondhand, since this was before me. By the time they had me, everything was already held together with rubber bands. I mean, my parents obviously still loved one another, but…I don’t know how to explain it. I remember them being insanely in love and acting all lovey-dovey, and then at night they’d be screaming and breaking things. They had similar personalities. They were both really collected and serene until they lost their tempers, and then it was a war zone. I’m pretty sure I was a ‘save the marriage’ baby. I guess it worked well enough because they were still madly in love when she disappeared, so…”

Adrien looks back over what he’s written and is tempted to erase it all. Why is he telling her this? Why is he letting her see what a mess his life is? Why would she want to get involved with a guy with this much baggage?

His finger hovers over the back arrow for a long few seconds, and then he hits send.

If there’s anyone he trusts to stand by his side, it’s Marinette.

“Okay, Agreste. We’re doing this. If she rejects you after this, she was never worth it,” he tells himself, knowing that he doesn’t believe it. Marinette is worth anything and everything. “You can’t take it all back, so keep talking.”

“I’m telling you all this because it’s important to understanding my father’s assistant’s role in my life.”

He thinks about it and adds, “Maybe I don’t need to tell you the whole story, but I kind of want to. Can I keep going, or do you want me to stop? Is this too much? I’m sorry. I’ve never really talked to anyone about this before. You know how I mentioned my father doesn’t believe in therapy? I think I need a therapist. I think I’ve needed a therapist my entire life. I don’t mean that I expect you to play that role, but…I think I could use someone to talk to, and I don’t know that I trust anyone else. Sorry. I’m probably over-sharing. We don’t have to do this. If you want, I can just say that it’s okay for my father’s assistant to know, and we can just leave it at that. You can just delete my message, and we can pretend that this never happened.”

He hits send before he can blather stupidly at her any further. His face feels flushed. His heart is beating so fast he can feel it inside his ribcage. This is panic. He shouldn’t have started this. She’s going to be weirded out.

Adrien waits and tries to concentrate on the blur of formulas on the board. It might as well be Arabic. Normally he’s stellar at Physics, but right now his mind can’t focus. It’s squarely one row behind him with Marinette.

He peeks over his shoulder.

The expression on her face instantly calms him. It’s warmth and sunflowers and fields of lavender on a spring afternoon. It’s acceptance and concern and pure affection. If they were sitting together in her room having this conversation, she would be making gentle shushing noises and running her fingers through his hair as he rested his head in her lap.

Adrien wishes that were the case. He should have waited until that night to explain in person, but a part of him knows he would have chickened out if he had waited.

“Minou, I love you,” her reply reads. “Whatever you need to say is fine.” “Nothing is ever too much or over-sharing between us.” “Okay?”

Adrien feels like he can breathe again. “Okay. Thank you. I love you too, Princess.”

He takes a slow, deep breath and resumes his narrative. “So. That brings us to my father’s secretaries.” He bites his lip. “My father loved my mother, but he wasn’t always faithful to her. He got a new secretary practically every other month, sometimes more often. I don’t think he was involved with all of them—in fact, I think most of them couldn’t stand him and quit on their own—but the infidelity was enough of an issue that when I was seven and my father’s current assistant started, I asked her if she was my father’s new girlfriend because that’s what I had heard my mother yelling at my father at night, and that’s what my brother called them.

“Maybe my mother was just being jealous for no reason. I mean, she could be like that sometimes, and my father did spend a lot of time on work and, therefore, with his secretaries and not with her, so maybe it was all just my mother’s delusion. The depth of my father’s grief at losing my mother makes me think that he never could have cheated on her, but… Anyway, my father’s current assistant…I feel like I should make up a name for her. …How about ‘Nathalie’? That’s the name of Adrien’s father’s assistant, right? so it should be easy to remember.”

He hits send and starts on another block of text, slowly exposing the chinks in his armor that he normally tries so hard to keep hidden. “Nathalie was different from the others. The others were just there for my father, but Nathalie actually took an interest in me. Like I mentioned before, she’s not the warmest person, and she’s really not the mothering type, but I knew she cared about me more than in just my capacity as her employer’s son. Even when I was little, she talked to me like an adult and treated me like my thoughts and opinions mattered. Nathalie was also different in that she kept a strictly professional relationship with my father. She and my mother even seemed to be frenemies at times.

“Nathalie has been in my life for ten years now, and she’s the only person I’ve ever been able to count on being there when she says she’s going to be somewhere and doing something when she says she’s going to do something. Sure, she occasionally drops the ball, but her track record is solid. She takes care of me. And about a year after my mother left, Nathalie and my father did start dating. Nathalie moved into the mansion with us about three years ago. Of course, they both deny it, but they love one another, and I’m kind of hoping they make it official soon. So, you see, it’s not like some random employee of my father’s found out because I was careless or something. Nathalie figured it out because she’s the closest thing I have to a mom.”

Adrien sighs softly, adding one final text: “That’s it. That will teach you to ask simple questions, Princess. :P Nothing in my life is ever simple.”

A few minutes pass during which Adrien makes a feeble attempt to absorb Madame Mendeleiev’s lecture, but it’s useless. His mind is awhirl with memories and ghostly whispers echoing inside his head.

“I don’t believe that ‘girlfriend’ was among the job duties listed in the advertisement. To my understanding, I am to be your father’s secretary.”

“I’m tired of your brooding genius act, Gabriel! I didn’t marry a fashion empire; I married a man who was passionate about something! Now, you can either keep your ‘muses’ or you can keep this marriage.”

“I’m through with you both! My only regret is that I can’t take Adrien with me before you turn him into a childish, egotistical, selfish megalomaniac like the two of you!”

“All right children, I’ll show you what a man who’s got nothing to lose can do!”

Adrien’s phone buzzes, distracting him from his thoughts.

“No, Minou.” “This has taught me that I need to ask you so many more ‘simple’ questions.” “I have so much to learn about you,” “and I want you to ask me ‘simple’ questions so you can learn more about me too.” “Thank you for sharing.” “I love you. <3” “and I’m glad you have ‘Nathalie’.”

Adrien chances another look back at Marinette and finds her smiling serenely, affectionately down at the phone in her lap.

He wants to tell her to look up and smile directly at him, but the distance between Marinette and Adrien feels almost unbridgeable at the moment. It’s strange because Marinette and Chat have never felt closer. She gets him. They’re on the same wavelength. He decides to take comfort in that instead of dwelling on the whole Adrien problem.

“I love you. <3” he types back with a sigh of contentment.

Beside him, Nino sighs in frustration. “Dude,” he whispers. “Stop looking at her. You’re being so obvious.”

Adrien blanches. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Nino rolls his eyes. “Marinette. You two are texting, aren’t you?”

Adrien shakes his head, praying not to be caught in this lie and have his identity exposed. He’s not ready for Marinette to know…despite the fact that he’s been desperately trying to reveal himself for almost a solid week.

“I’m texting my secret girlfriend, remember?” Adrien fibs.

Nino looks unimpressed. “You said Marinette was your secret girlfriend.”

Adrien frowns. “…I was joking.”

“Monsieur Lahiffe. Monsieur Agreste,” Mendeleiev snaps. “You will kindly cease the private discussion.”

Both boys mutter a quick, “Sorry, Madame” that neither really means.

“…Unless you were trying to throw me off and you really are texting Marinette,” Nino accuses, eying his friend intently.

Adrien groans. “Yeah, Nino. I’m definitely texting Marinette who runs away crying every time I try to talk to her because we’re secretly dating.”

Nino’s lips press together so hard they go almost pale. He pulls out his phone and texts Alya: “whos cupcakes texting”, angling his phone so that Adrien can see.

Behind them, Adrien hears Alya snicker something softly to Marinette.

Marinette mutters something back and then shrieks as Alya snatches the phone from her. “ALYA!!! I swear! I will end you! Give it back! That’s private!!”

“Miss Dupain-Cheng! Miss Césaire!” The piece of chalk in Madame Mendeleiev’s fist cracks in half.

Marinette—who has sprung to her feet and half-tackled Alya in an attempt to retrieve her phone before Alya can see the personal things Chat has written—blushes, smiles sheepishly, and grabs her phone back before retaking her seat.

“Sorry, Madame,” both girls chorus.

A few seconds later, Nino’s phone vibrates with Alya’s answer: “chat” “probably sending each other mushy flirty texts since she doesnt want me to see”.

Nino shows Adrien the text and adds in an undertone by way of explanation, “‘Chat’ is what Marinette’s Mystery Boy goes by online, apparently. Very original of him, don’t you think?”

Adrien sighs, shaking his head.

“You’re not secretly Chat Noir, are you?” Nino snickers under his breath, clearly joking.

“Yeah, Nino. I’m secretly Chat Noir attempting to seduce Marinette using my superhero status,” Adrien deadpans.

Nino titters in amusement. “Yeah. That’s what I thought, Mec. I guess you’re in the clear…. Unless… Are you sure you’re not sexting Marinette, pretending to be Chat Noir? That would be a little messed up, Dude. I know you like her, but—”

“—NINO!” Adrien hisses, face going scarlet. The hue darkens as he remembers he’s in the middle of class.

“Monsieur Agreste!” Madame Mendeleiev looks like she’s going to have an aneurism. “Miss Césaire, kindly switch seats with Monsieur Lahiffe.”

The remainder of class passes fairly without incident. Adrien can hear Nino and Marinette occasionally chuckling as they most likely pass notes.

Adrien risks a moderately quick glance back to find Marinette trying to stifle a giggle as she reads something Nino has written in her notebook.

A twinge of jealousy electrocutes Adrien’s chest as he thinks, “I wish she was that comfortable with Adrien.”

But then Marinette smiles, and Adrien finds himself doing the same. How can he be grumpy when Marinette brings such warm sunshine to his life?

“You know, you’ve been looking at her all day,” Alya quietly laughs.

Adrien’s shoulders rise up to his ears, and he answers defensively, “She’s nice to look at.” He cagily looks away.

Alya nods slowly. “Be careful, Agreste,” she hums knowingly, looking infinitely pleased and extremely amused at what Adrien feels is probably his expense.

 

The last class of the day is Calculous with Madame Mendeleiev, and Adrien is still feeling unfocused despite normally enjoying maths. The numbers on the board swim lazily as his mind is distracted by the girl sitting behind him.

His fingers are itching to text Marinette, but Alya is right beside him, and the last thing he needs is for her to steal his phone and see messages sent to “Princess” that will match up with the texts Marinette has been sending to her Mystery Boy “Chat” if Alya managed to glimpse anything when she grabbed Marinette’s phone before.

An incoming string of texts from Marinette on Chat’s phone makes Adrien’s pocket buzz, and he physically can’t resist. The pull is too strong, so he throws caution out the window.

“I’m in Calc right now” “and I am incredibly bored.” “We went over this material last time,” “and I actually got it for once.” “I guess I should be grateful that I’m not struggling at the moment?”

Adrien smiles, wondering if Marinette could use a tutor. How would Adrien go about suggesting it, though? Marinette probably won’t even want his help, but he can always ask her as Chat, if Adrien gets turned down.

He switches his phone over to his right hand and pretends to take notes with his left so that the phone will be harder for Alya to peek at or snatch. “I’m in the same boat,” he admits. “My class is basically just reviewing a previous lesson too, so I’m having trouble concentrating.”

He hears Marinette chuckle softly behind him, and it sends a pleasant shiver down his spine.

“I bet I’m not helping. ^.~ <3”

He can almost imagine the flirty, teasing tone to her voice.

“You are actually just what I need, Princess,” he corrects.

There’s a beat of too-long radio silence, and Adrien begins to wonder if he’s said something wrong. He peeks over his shoulder to find Nino scribbling something in Marinette’s notebook.

She writes something back before returning her attention to her phone. She grins when she sees what he’s written, her nose scrunching up adorably. “You’re such a flirt, Minou.”

Something in his words must have read as suggestive without her being able to hear the relief and assurance that would have been in his voice if he were free to talk to her out loud.

He’s about to deny flirting when a new text from Marinette pops up: “So…” “how did you get my number anyway?”

Adrien has to stop and think about it, and, in the end, it doesn’t help. “I don’t remember,” he responds honestly.

Marinette’s amusement fades into a frown. “Seriously?”

“I’ve had it for three or four years,” Adrien types back in his own defence. “I can’t remember how I got it. You might have given it to me yourself when we did a school thing together, or maybe I asked Nino for your number at some point. I don’t think you asked Alya to ask Nino for mine, and I think I would remember you asking me directly.”

Marinette’s frown is instantly erased, replaced by a wide-eyed look of shock.

She and Chat Noir have done a “school thing” together. A project? A study session? That would mean that sometime over the past four years she and Chat have been in the same class. How has she overlooked him this long? How has she missed it, him being so close?

“You’ve had my number for three or four years?” she types in incredulity and then adds as an afterthought, “Do you get to use it often?”

She briefly wonders if she has text messages in her phone from Chat as a civilian, but she dismisses the idea rather quickly. She would remember if one of her other friends texted in full, complete sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization. Besides, Chat has mentioned that Marinette and Chat’s civilian side don’t really talk.

“Yep. I’m pretty sure I got it not too long after I transferred here. And, no, not often. I can’t actually remember a time when I called or texted just you.” He’s been a member of a brief group text between her, Nino, Alya, and himself, but he can’t recall reaching out only to Marinette.

“You’ve called me before, though,” he adds and only thinks better of it after he’s already hit send. This is probably going to freak her out.

Adrien risks looking over his shoulder once more to find Marinette staring at her screen like it’s suddenly morphed into a scorpion. He sighs, earning a curious look from Alya.

“Who you talking to?” she writes in his notebook.

Adrien fights the urge to bang his head against his desk and responds, “Secret girlfriend.”

Alya looks oddly troubled by this, and he wonders if she believes him. She purses her lips and looks thoughtful for a while, but she doesn’t write anything in reply.

“I have your number in my phone?” Marinette asks, and Adrien gets the impression that her voice would be small and shaky if she were speaking aloud.

Adrien suddenly prays that Marinette has many, many contacts in her phone because he’s going to be in trouble if she only has ten or twenty.

“I think so,” he replies, deciding to be a bad person and throw her off by telling the truth. “I mean, that’s part of the reason why I had to get a separate phone just for you. If I had given you my regular number, it would have shown up as ‘existing contact: Adrien Agreste’.”

Marinette huffs in annoyance.

Adrien finds himself growing frustrated. Shouldn’t he be the irritated one? Here he is metaphorically hitting her over the head with his identity, and she’s having none of it. He gets the impression that if he dropped his transformation in front of her, she’d still refuse to believe Adrien could be her Minou. He could almost see her telling him, “No. Go be somebody else”.

He puts the phone away and takes some deep breaths, rubbing at his forehead and pinching the bridge of his nose as a new text comes in. He ignores it for five whole minutes as he tries to calm himself.

“It’s going to be fine,” he attempts to assure himself. “She’s going to accept you and keep loving you despite Adrien because she knows the real you. She loves the real you.”

He tries to call up his memories of Marinette’s reassurances.

“She said that it would be okay and that you two would figure it out.”

He keeps telling himself that it’s going to be fine as he gathers the courage to pull out his phone once more and see what Marinette has written.

“Did you put Adrien up to that this morning?”

Adrien blinks, trying to remember what exactly Adrien did this morning. He’s unable to come up with anything that would elicit that response. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. What did Adrien do?”

Marinette huffs in annoyance and shoots off a barrage of texts. “So, this morning I came to school early” “so I could get here before everyone” “and watch all the blondes come in” “and take notes.” “I bet you can guess why.” “Nino caught me,” “and he made me realize that I needed to stop” “because it could be bad if I attracted the wrong person’s attention” “and ended up exposing your identity.” “But then Adrien said that you would want me to take the risk.” “When I asked him how he would know,” “he said it was because he was you.” “I thought you two were ganging up to prank me.” “Gosh, I was so mad.” “You didn’t put him up to that?”

Finally, the onslaught stops, and it’s Adrien’s turn to respond.

“Not I. That was all Adrien, Princess.”

He was wondering if she’d bring up what happened after Adrien had revealed his identity to her: for a few seconds, she saw him. She saw Chat even though he was still “Adrien”. Marinette might not have consciously realized it, but her subconscious knew and was beginning to mix the two.

He supposes that it’s a start. If he can keep getting her to see Chat in Adrien and Adrien in Chat, she might finally be able to see them as the same person and accept them both.

“If you didn’t put him up to it, why would Adrien say something like that?” Another exasperated snort comes from Marinette behind him.

Adrien bites his lip and wonders how far he should push things today. “Have you considered the possibility that he was telling the truth?” he tries.

“STOP.” “I will turn my phone off” “and leave us both to suffer through boring review lessons,” she threatens, and he can almost hear her grinding her teeth.

“Sorry, Princess,” he retreats, deciding to pick his battles.

A minute or so passes in awkward silence, and Adrien worries at his lip as he wonders how to get the conversation back on track. It abruptly hits him: “Your hair looks super cute today.”

Marinette snickers, an amused grin coming back to her lips. “Flirt,” she accuses, shaking her head. “Thanks.” “I’m told that I rock the pigtails.”

“That you do.” He smiles fondly, remembering the previous Tuesday when he’d told her that: karaoke, the park, ice cream, the Pont Neuf…

He gives a shudder at that last one, and it takes him back to that morning, watching Marinette tip back over the railing. If he had been a second later…if she had fallen and he hadn’t been able to transform in time…if he hadn’t caught her…

“I nearly had a heart attack this morning when you almost fell over the railing,” he types. “Thank God that Adrien caught you.”

Marinette grimaces. “You saw that?”

“And the way Adrien held you afterwards. I’m pretty sure he has a crush on you.”

The “send” button is pressed before Adrien can fully appreciate what Chat has just said. That realization takes an additional two seconds, and when it hits, it leaves panic in its wake.

Mentally, Adrien turns to Chat and shouts, “What the hell?! Why would you say that?! What do you think you’re doing?!”

Chat smiles sheepishly back at Adrien and shrugs. “Sorry. I forgot I was talking about us for a second there. But you have to admit, you did hold her like a boa constrictor this morning.”

“You did too when she nearly fell off the Pont Neuf!” Adrien accuses, not stopping to wonder if now is the best time to be having this internal finger-pointing match.

Chat shrugs again, unfazed. “I have a crush on her.”

The cogs in Adrien’s brain begin to whirl futilely like the spinning wheel of death on a computer loading screen. “You do?”

Chat nods, grinning goofily. “I mean…a little bit. I’m not going to act on it, but it’s there, don’t you think? If I’m going to marry her in six years and have three kids and a Shiba Inu with her, I have to have at least a crush, right?”

Adrien wants to slap Chat. “That’s a joke. That was just supposed to be an inside joke.”

Chat waves Adrien’s protests away dismissively. “I don’t want it to be a joke.”

“Well, that’s not something you get to decide,” Adrien fumes. “You know, this is what I hate about you. You’re so reckless and impulsive. You think that just because you have that mask of anonymity to hide behind, you don’t have to face the consequences of your actions. Well, there are consequences, Chat Noir—if not for you directly, then for me.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re me right now,” Chat chuckles impishly. “At least as far as our princess is concerned, anyway.”

“But you’re talking about me, telling Marinette that I have a crush on her,” Adrien splutters. “This is exactly what I was talking about. I’m going to have to deal with the fallout of this later. Why can’t you just think for five seconds before doing anything?!”

“Relax.” Chat rolls his eyes at Adrien’s overreaction. “You don’t know that there’s going to be fallout. Maybe it’ll be fine. Maybe she’ll take pity on you and be nice to you if she thinks you like her.”

“OR she could come up to me and say ‘Hey, I heard from a reliable source that you like me. Sorry. I like someone else, and, even if I didn’t, I don’t date nerds’,” Adrien counters. “I don’t want Marinette to reject me! You’ve probably just made things super awkward between us! What if she doesn’t want to be around me because it’s too weird?! What if she doesn’t want to be friends anymore?! You’ve ruined everything, you stupid cat!”

“Marinette would never do that,” Chat assures, resting a hand lightly on Adrien’s arm. “Besides, she’s probably just going to roll her eyes and tell me I’m wrong about you crushing on her.”

Before he can argue further, Adrien is brought back to the present as the first in a long string of texts filled with pent-up frustration makes his phone buzz: “Trust me, Minou.” “Adrien freaking Agreste does NOT have a crush on me.”

Adrien can only blink helplessly as he senses an aura of resentment emanating from behind him.

“In fact,” Marinette continues, mashing the keyboard on her touchscreen. “I don’t even register as female to Adrien freaking Agreste.” “I’m just a friend.” “Just a friend.” “Over and over and over again” “like he’s insulted that people would even think” “he would ever have feelings for me.” “No! He would rather nurse a pathetic crush on Ladybug”

Adrien flinches but tries not to physically recoil and alert any of the others that something is wrong. It’s hard because Marinette thinks he’s pathetic. He feels pathetic. Even he knows that it is pretty bad to hang on to an unrequited love for four years, but…it hurts when someone else says it.

Chloé was right: Marinette is no perfect angel destined to save him, and her unconditional love and acceptance does not extend beyond Chat Noir.

“who he’s only talked to a handful of times” “than even consider me romantically.” “Do you know what he told Nino the other day?”

Adrien’s eyes glaze over, and he barely registers the stream of text assaulting him. He knows what Adrien told Nino last Monday, and the bottom drops out of his stomach as he realizes that Marinette knows too.

Somehow, it had been fine—still hurtful and kind of gnawing at him even now, but fine—when Adrien realized that Nino told Alya everything, including information Adrien had thought he’d shared in confidence. It made sense for Nino to not withhold anything from his girlfriend. Adrien didn’t like it, but he understood why things were the way they were. Nino’s first allegiance was to Alya, and that was fine.

What other choice did Adrien have? Stop being friends with Nino? It wasn’t like Adrien had friends to spare, so this had to be fine.

It stopped being fine when Alya turned around and told Marinette everything that Nino had told her.

It had been proven that Chat could tell Marinette anything and be cared for and supported in a judgment-free atmosphere. Adrien and Marinette had no such arrangement, and there were some things—a lot of things—Adrien didn’t want Nino repeating to Alya repeating to Marinette.

Adrien wonders what else Marinette knows.

“freaking Ladybug.” “Did I mention I hate her?” “Next time you see her, remind her for me, please.” “Tell her she can go jump in the Seine.” “Adrien freaking Agreste can go jump in the Seine too,” Marinette concludes her tirade.

“I’m thinking about it, but the Seine is really gross, Marinette,” Adrien begins to type and then stops and stares at his screen. With a sigh, he erases the message.

He momentarily considers getting out Adrien’s phone and texting it to her from there. That would get the point across. She wouldn’t be able to deny they were the same person then.

Unfortunately, that kind of reveal, while being incontrovertible, would freak Marinette out, destroy the trust between them, and ruin his chances of fixing things with her. He can’t let Chat’s impulsiveness have full reign here. Adrien has to play his cards very carefully.

At least now he has some idea of why Marinette is mad at him on top of not wanting to be around him because he resembles her crush. He also knows why Nino and Alya won’t tell him what the problem is: this is their fault.

With another sigh, Adrien stares numbly at Chat’s phone, trying to strategize.

He doesn’t really get the opportunity as Marinette starts typing at him furiously once more: “I’m sorry, Minou!” “I didn’t mean that.” “Well, I did mean it,” “but I’m really sorry that I meant it.” “I’m sorry you have to see what an ugly person I am.” “I know I have no right to get angry about all that.” “Adrien is allowed to like or not like whoever.” “It’s none of my business.” “I don’t even care.” “I’m sorry.” “Gosh, I’m such a witch lately.”

Adrien smiles melancholically, still feeling raw but glad to accept her change of tone. “Marinette,” he types, breaking up her frantic apology.

“…Yeah?” she hesitantly replies.

“It’s okay. You’re not an ugly person,” he sends off on its own before starting to write a longer message. “I know you’re having a hard time lately. It’s okay to be a little emotional and lose it sometimes. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that saying Adrien had a crush on you would nick a sore spot. I can see why you’d be sort of upset with him after the horrible day you had last Monday. I mean, what with all the little things going wrong, the food poisoning, your crush turning you down for your sewing blogger alter ego, and then hearing from Alya about how Adrien just dismissed you out of hand because of his celebrity crush…. That’s a lot to deal with.”

He hits send and hesitates for a moment before adding, “And what Adrien said was pretty insulting. I would be kind of ticked if somebody just shrugged me off like that too. You’re within your rights to be annoyed with him.”

“It’s not Adrien’s fault, though.” Marinette sighs, resting her chin in her palm, not even bothering to pretend to take notes anymore. “I shouldn’t take all of this out on him.” “He’s such a sweet guy,” “and he’s always so kind and thoughtful.” “I adore Adrien.”

Adrien can feel his cheeks heating up, and a corresponding warmth fills his chest. He wishes he could hear her say it out loud.

“I’m just a little out of my mind right now,” she admits. “…So…I know you and Adrien are friends and everything,” “but could you not tell him about what I said?” “He doesn’t know that I know about that,” “and I don’t want to make things any worse than they already are between us.” “I don’t want to hurt him,” “and I don’t want him thinking I hate him.” “I love Adrien, and I know he’s been kind of not okay this past week” “what with everything that’s been going on.” “I don’t want to upset him even more.”

“My lips are sealed,” Adrien promises.

“Thanks, Minou.” A small, relieved smile begins to peek through Marinette’s worried expression.

Alya leans over to write at the top of Adrien’s notebook page, “Is Marinette your secret girlfriend? You two are texting, aren’t you?”

Adrien is tempted to ignore her, but he’s familiar with how persistent Alya can be. He reaches over with his left hand and writes, “Yeah, Alya. I’m secretly her Mystery Boy Chat, going behind her back, seducing her online because she won’t talk to me in real life. That definitely makes sense.”

Alya quirks an eyebrow. “Is that sarcasm I detect, Agreste?” she snorts softly when Madame Mendeleiev turns to write on the board. “Because I see her texting, you reading, you responding, her reading, her texting you back.” She grins like a shark and reaches for his phone. “What are you two talking about? Hm?”

Adrien panics, gripping the flip phone tightly and glaring as he snaps, “Seriously, Alya? Haven’t you meddled with my love life enough lately?”

Alya’s hand retracts with a jolt, as if she’s been bitten by a snake. A flash of horror flickers across her face, making Adrien feel slightly bad.

“Sorry,” he mutters, looking back down at his phone, avoiding her gaze. “I really am just talking to my secret girlfriend. That’s all.”

She gives a noncommittal mumble, returning her attention to the front.

In the interlude, Marinette has sent another text: “Be sure to tell Ladybug what I said, though.” “She’s earned my ire one hundred percent.”

Adrien bites his lip. He feels like he should maybe defend his partner a little bit. Marinette tends only to focus on Ladybug’s shortcomings and the one time out of twenty that she drops the ball and doesn’t live up to her full potential. Sure, Chat has had rough patches with his partner over the years, and, yes, there are things he would change between them besides her lack of interest in him romantically, but Marinette doesn’t seem to see what a wonderful, caring, brilliant woman Ladybug is. What’s more, Ladybug’s confidence seems pretty shaken by her run-in with Marinette.

…But now isn’t the time or the place. Besides, there’s a bit of a self-serving conversation that Adrien wants Chat to have with Marinette.

“I’ll let Ladybug know, Princess,” he assures. “But back to Adrien for a minute, please. You do know that he never would have said any of that to your face, right? Not that you would ask him out or anything because I know you two are just friends and you don’t feel that way about him, so you wouldn’t ask him what he thinks about you in a romantic sense like Nino did, but…if you had asked him out, he wouldn’t have turned you down like that. Alya did tell you what Adrien said last Wednesday, didn’t she?”

Adrien’s really hoping so since it seems like Alya tells Marinette everything else.

“what” is all that comes back on Marinette’s end. A second later, she hastily corrects, “What?” “What did Adrien say?”

Adrien looks over his shoulder to find an ashen-faced, dumbstruck Marinette sitting on the edge of her seat, staring anxiously at her phone.

“Last Wednesday, Adrien was mad at your crush for treating you so poorly.” Adrien hits send, adopting Marinette’s rapid-fire texting approach so as not to keep her in suspense. “He was trying to get Alya to tell him who your crush was so he could challenge him to a duel,” “but Alya asked what right Adrien had to be upset” “when Adrien had basically just rejected you himself on Monday.” “Then Adrien told Alya that if you had confessed to him, he would have said” “that he isn’t emotionally available at the moment because he’s trying to get over someone he’s liked for a long time” “but he thinks you’re the most amazing girl he knows, and he’d like to get to know you better and become better friends” “while he’s trying to get over his crush.” “Then, once he’s over her, he’d like to take you out on a couple dates and see if you’d be right for one another.” “Didn’t Alya tell you any of this?”

Adrien looks up at the sudden clatter behind him.

“Whoa. Marinette?” Nino calls as Marinette shoots to her feet, grabbing her purse and stumbling towards the exit faster than Adrien’s ever seen anyone stumble before.

“N-Nurse’s office!” she calls back over her shoulder as Madame Mendeleiev shouts after her.

There is a beat of surprise where everyone is taken aback, and then Adrien is on his feet too, racing after her. “I’ll make sure she gets there okay!” he informs their teacher, not stopping to hear whether permission is granted.

“I’ll go too!” Nino volunteers, getting up to follow, since he already knows how effective Adrien will be at comforting Marinette.

“Sit down, Monsieur Lahiffe,” Mendeleiev snarls. “Monsieur Agreste is more than enough of an escort without the rest of the class running out on the lecture as well.”

Chapter Text

Marinette is completely unaware of the fact that she’s being followed as she flees the classroom, making a mad dash for the gym equipment storage closet off one of the back hallways on the ground floor.

Adrien hesitates to follow her in as is. Adrien is going to be useless right now; Marinette needs Chat.

He bites his lip and pushes the door open just the tiniest of cracks. “Princess?” he calls.

There’s a rustle from within, then a sniffle of, “M-Minou?”

“Sort of?” he chuckles sheepishly. “Almost, but not quite at the moment.”

“…Just come in like that,” she mutters.

Adrien’s heart stops. He wants to, but…with all the “Adrien drama” they’ve had today, he knows that now is not the best time. A reveal right now will not serve either of them well.

“Not today, Marinette,” he gently declines. “Can you close your eyes for a second, please?”

“…They’re closed,” she sighs, her tone conveying exactly how put out she is that they still have to play this secret identity game (even though it’s Ladybug who has always insisted under Tikki’s instruction).

He pushes the door open and steps inside, making sure it closes all the way behind him before he whispers, “Plagg, transform me.”

Marinette can see the flash of green light even with her eyes closed. “Can I open them now?”

“Go for it,” he prompts, hastily making his way over to where she sits, curled up with her knees to her chest, her back up against one of the wooden vaulting boxes.

She sniffles, wiping at her eyes and cheeks.

Chat sinks to the floor beside her, his arms going around her, pulling her into him as he coos, “Oh, my princess. I’m so sorry.”

She immediately rearranges their position. In lieu of the awkward, slightly uncomfortable side hug, she moves so that she’s in between his legs, facing out and lying back against him, resting her head against his shoulder.

Out of nowhere, it dawns upon him that he’s been yearning to do this all day. His arms have been aching for her.

Mentally, Adrien has to laugh at himself. “You’re such a lightweight, Agreste. A cute girl shows you a little bit of affection, and you’re sunk. …This wouldn’t happen if your parents had hugged you as a child.”

He dismisses the thought, choosing instead to enjoy Marinette’s warmth. He tightens his hold, his tail protectively curling around her torso.

She chuckles and gives the sentient belt a fond pet.

Chat nuzzles her hair and whispers ruefully, “I’m sorry for always making you cry, Marinette. I didn’t realize you’d get so upset over the whole Adrien thing. I honestly thought Alya would have told you.”

Marinette shakes her head, letting her eyes slip closed as she relaxes into his embrace. “It’s fine, Minou. It’s not even… It’s not you,” she assures. “It’s not even Adrien or what he said or what he would have said or what Alya didn’t tell me or…”

Slowly, she realizes that it’s all of those things.

“…It’s me,” she resumes. “This is all on me. It’s all in my head…. I feel so stupid. I don’t even know why I’m crying, Chat.”

“You don’t have to know why you’re crying…. Sometimes I don’t,” he confesses. “Sometimes it’s everything all at once. Sometimes it’s nothing at all. I think, with me, the little things and the big things just build up until something tips me over the edge, and then I start crying because my father couldn’t come to Parents’ Day or some other banal reason like that. You’ve been having a pretty sucky week. Maybe the drama with Adrien today was just the last straw.”

She nods, turning her face to nuzzle his neck. “I am feeling pretty overwhelmed.”

It takes her a minute to think to ask, “But how are you feeling, Minou?”

He’s taken aback by the question. “Me?”

“You,” Marinette confirms, and her breath on his neck tickles pleasantly. “We’ve been talking about some pretty heavy stuff today. That must have been…” She can only guess. “…rough?”

“A little,” he concedes. “I’d be lying if I told you it doesn’t all still hurt, but…at this point, I’m kind of…not ‘numb’ exactly, but…resigned—resigned to the way things are. Like I said, things have always been a mess. I didn’t know what ‘normal’ looked like until a few years ago when my father finally let me attend school and I got to meet people my own age and see what their families were like. I know there’s no ‘fixing’ my family, even if my father and Nathalie do get married. We’re never going to be like other people, and I’m just going to have to be okay with that. At least I have a family. Even though it’s not the most affectionate or healthy, at least I have my father and Nathalie and Plagg and my bodyguard. I’m lonely sometimes, but I’m not totally alone.”

Marinette rests a hand on his arm and gives it supportive squeeze. “…Tell me if it’s something you don’t want to talk about, but…earlier, you briefly mentioned that you have a brother? Are you two…not close?”

She feels Chat go tense and immediately backpedals. “Chat Noir, all you have to do is say the word, and I’ll never bring it up again. Just tell me to, and I’ll drop it.”

Chat nibbles at his bottom lip. “It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with the subject. It’s…I’m not allowed to talk about him.”

Marinette opens her eyes and cranes her neck to try to get a glimpse of his expression in the dark. “Is he like a secret agent or something?”

Chat chuckles. “No. Just a homicide detective. I meant…he’s been quote, unquote ‘dead’ to my family for almost a decade now. Any mention of him would send my father into a volcanic fit and make my mother have one of her meltdowns. My parents are both really wildly emotional people, so…we don’t talk about my brother.”

Marinette’s mind is positively boggled at the prospect of parents so thoroughly cutting off their own child. “What,” she begins to ask but then bites her lip. “How,” she starts again but is met with a similar mental roadblock. She sighs. “Am I allowed to ask what happened?”

Chat thinks about it and finally shrugs, tipping his head to rest against hers so that he can breathe in the scent of strawberries and oatmeal and the Dupain-Cheng bakery. “I mentioned that my brother wasn’t planned and that he came when my parents were still pretty young. He’s twenty-five right now, eight years older than I am. I think it’s safe to say that if my parents still screwed up as badly as they did with me after having my brother to practice on, his childhood must have been an even bigger train wreck than mine. He never got along well with our parents—constant nit picking and squabbling and huge fights almost as big as the ones my mother and father had with each other. It was pretty ugly.

“My parents did love him, and I think a part of him loved them too—there were good times—but…my parents both had complicated relationships with their own parents—I’ve never met my grandparents—so I’m thinking my parents had no idea what they were doing. Neither of them knew what a marriage was supposed to look like, and neither of them knew how to raise a kid, so I think they did the best they could, but their best wasn’t really…adequate.”

Marinette is tempted to snort, “Couldn’t they have read a parenting for dummies book or taken classes or gone to a counselor?” She’s not inclined to give Chat’s parents the benefit of the doubt. She loves their son, and she sees what their mistakes and neglect have done to him. So what if they had a hard time growing up? So what if they didn’t know what they were doing? So what if they were young and stressed out and trying to do work and school and parenting all at the same time? They should have stepped up and been there for Chat and his brother. They should have tried harder, done more, especially after their financial situation improved.

Marinette can tell that Chat is trying to make excuses for them, though. He needs this to not be his parents’ fault. He needs to pretend that they did their best and that what happened with his family was inevitable. Marinette silently swears to have a chat with his parents at a later date once she figures out Chat’s identity and tracks his mother down, but, for now, she plays along, giving Chat what he needs. He doesn’t need to hear that he has lousy excuses for parents that could have done better if they’d loved him and his brother more.

“It must have been really hard for them,” Marinette whispers. “…and for your brother…. What is your brother like? I mean…it sounds like he’s not in your life at the moment? Do you know him…”

She struggles to decide between “well” and “at all”.

“…very well, or…?”

Chat sighs softly, giving her hair another nuzzle, comforting himself. “He’s a lot like our father, actually. He’s quiet and stoic and judgmental. He’s a little afraid of getting attached to people because…I mentioned that I had lost people? We both did. Bodyguards mostly, but…for kids like us, staff become family.”

Marinette gives a start and cranes her neck to look at Chat’s face once more. “People have really tried to kill you?! What the hell? Don’t you work in the fashion industry? Who would try to kill little kids over something like that?!”

“Mostly it was kidnappings gone wrong,” Chat quietly corrects, squeezing her a little tighter and hiding his face in her hair. He takes a calming inhale of her sugary scent.

She reaches up and behind her to give his head a slow, deliberate massage.

He begins to purr in pleasure, his tail tightening and loosening in turns around her.

“That’s such a nice sound,” Marinette sighs.

“’S embarrassing,” Chat mumbles hazily.

“Why?” she wonders.

“I’m transparent enough as is. Then I go and start purring when…”

He’s not sure how to end that sentence without tipping his hand. Usually only Ladybug makes him purr. It would be lame to say, “when I’m happy”. It isn’t exactly happiness that makes him purr so much as physical pleasure, but saying, “when I experience physical pleasure” makes him sound like a pervert. It’s not always sexual. He doesn’t get a lot of platonic physical affection, so when he does, it’s always a bit of a sensory overload for him.

It’s not that he’s aroused…though he’s getting there with Marinette pressed up against him, and thinking about it isn’t making it go away. Suddenly, the flood gates are open, and he’s remembering how she looked after her shower the previous night, how the still-steamy shower smelled of her when it was his turn to take his clothes off and get in.

He tries to turn it off, think of something else, but his mind draws a blank because there is a very pretty girl sitting between his legs, plastered all up the front of his body, rubbing maddeningly gentle circles along his scalp. There is no denying his physical attraction to Marinette. His brain knows that any kind of romantic relationship with her right now is inadvisable for the both of them in their current states, but his hormonal, seventeen-year-old body wants sex. He can only hope he either dies on the spot of mortification or that she doesn’t feel the growing bulge against her.

No such luck. She pauses, fingers going still for a moment as she briefly reflects, before resuming the head rub as if nothing is amiss.

He gulps, tongue feeling thick in his mouth as he stutters, “S-Sorry. I am so sorry. I don’t—I didn’t—I mean, I—um—”

“—It’s okay,” she assures in that all-accepting way of hers that makes him feel like he’s all right as is, clueless, socially awkward, damaged idiot though he is.

“Really?” He has to wonder. “I mean, the purring is one thing, and that seems to freak Ladybug out enough as is, but this…” He sighs.

“Involuntary physical reaction,” she supplies, hoping he can’t see how red her face is. She’s trying not to make a big deal out of this, but oh my gosh, Chat Noir wants her! …At least…his body does.

“Honestly? I’m lounging all over you, giving you a head rub. You’re a teenage guy, so what were either of us expecting? Frankly, your self-control is impressive,” she offers, attempting to walk them both back from the edge.

“T-Thanks. And sorry. I—”

She cuts him off before he can even start. “—You have the same effect on me sometimes, so don’t even worry about it.” She brings her hands down out of his suitably mussed hair to rest on her lap, and she scoots her hips forward a few inches to alleviate the pressure.

Chat gulps again. “I…do?” He turns her on? He makes her feel like this too?

She hums noncommittally. “Yesterday, when I pricked my finger and you put it in your mouth and wrapped your tongue around it, I nearly went through the roof. Girls are just lucky that you can’t tell by looking at them.”

“Oh,” he replies in a tiny, strained voice.

“Do you need me to get off you?” She’s not really sure what just friends are supposed to do in a situation like this. “What do you want me to do?”

He makes a strangled noise as many lovely, completely inappropriate suggestions come to mind. “Sorry,” he chokes. “Could you just kill me and put me out of my misery? I think this is the most embarrassed I’ve ever been in my life.”

“I once tripped and smashed a whole cake into my crush’s chest at a public event. At least right now it’s just the two of us, and one of us really doesn’t think this is a big deal,” she shares, completely distracting him.

Marinette once tripped and smashed an entire cake into Adrien’s chest at a school event.

A weird sense of déjà vu overtakes him, and Chat frowns, wondering, “Has this…happened more than once? I mean, I know you can be a little…not so graceful at times, but…have you smashed multiple people with cakes, by any chance?”

If she says yes, then no big deal. If she says no, nothing makes sense anymore.

Marinette groans. “I’ve tripped and smashed people with cakes, pies, hot drinks, macarons…you name it. I really wonder why my parents let me help out anymore. Ladybug was right; I am a walking disaster.”

“She said that to you?” Chat tenses, mentally beginning to plan how he’s going to approach his partner concerning her treatment of his girlfriend. This can’t be allowed to continue.

“After I called her some extremely colorful things,” Marinette admits.

“You two,” Chat sighs. “What am I supposed to do with you? She’s still one of the most important people in my life, you know, and she’s really awesome, Marinette.”

The sincerity in his voice makes her stomach flip and the color rise on her cheeks.

“I hate that you two are fighting like this.”

Marinette shrugs. “Just be happy two pretty girls are fighting because of you. You’re never going to peaceably get the two of us in a room together; that’s just how it is.”

Chat deflates.

“Maybe for the wedding,” Marinette concedes. “I’m sure we’ll come to terms with each other over the next six years.”

“I sure hope so,” Chat mumbles. “I don’t want my future family to be like my current family where people hate each other and don’t speak for a decade.”

The teasing tone drops out of the air.

“…We were talking about your brother,” Marinette remarks hesitantly. “…You were saying what he was like.”

Chat nods, letting his head rest against hers once more. “Like our father, he always had trouble expressing his emotions, but I knew he loved me. He was never very affectionate, but he showed he cared in other ways. He taught me things, always explaining patiently when I didn’t understand. He would come to my room and comfort me when I had a bad dream or when mother and father were fighting. He protected me. He tried to make things better for me. He was still a kid himself, but he tried to be an adult in a house full of adults that had never learned how to be adults. He was my hero. I—” Chat’s voice cracks, and Marinette can feel a tear land on her neck.

“Minou, if this is too hard, we don’t have to do this.” She rests a solid, supportive hand on his arm.

He shakes his head. “What makes it hard is that I’ve never been allowed to talk about him. My mother slapped me once when I whined about missing him. She broke down in tears and hugged me afterwards, but…like my mother’s disappearance, my brother is a collective family wound that we ignore. I want to talk about him.”

“Okay,” Marinette agrees, patting his arm. She has no clue what else to do for him.

“I really admired him. He kind of anchored me through the rest of the drama and the chaos. If I’m in any way normal…or, at least, not broken, it’s because of him…and Nathalie…. He left, though,” Chat squeaks as he fights back the tears. “The day he turned sixteen. I was seven, going on eight. He couldn’t take it anymore, and he left. He told my parents that his only regret was that he couldn’t take me with him, but…”

Chat is quiet a moment as memories sneak up and prod at him.

“Nathalie, where’s Félix? It’s been a whole week, and he hasn’t come back. He’s not answering my calls, and I can’t get ahold of Bridgette either.”

“Adrien…Félix isn’t coming back, and you shouldn’t let you parents hear you talking about him. Okay?”

“…He never came back for me. I understood while he was still a teenager. He moved in with his girlfriend and her family, got a job and paid rent, helping out with their family business while going to school. They got married and moved to Marseille after high school, and he got a job as a police detective. She runs her own shop…. I thought maybe…once they were older and settled…he would come back for me.”

“But he didn’t” hangs heavily in the air between them.

Marinette doesn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry” feels hollow and trite. Instead, she turns her head and places a gentle kiss on his cheek. She can taste the salt from his tears on her lips. She squeezes his arm.

“It was really dumb,” Chat scoffs. “I was such a stupid, naïve kid. Of course my brother couldn’t come and take me away from my parents. There are the legal issues on top of the logistics. He didn’t have the time or the money to take care of a kid. I didn’t think about that until I was older, though. I was fourteen before I finally realized that he wasn’t coming back.” 

Chat chuckles darkly. “I actually spent the year after I got my Miraculous worrying about how I was going to tell my brother that I couldn’t move to Marseille without revealing that I was Chat Noir. After my mother disappeared, I was particularly bad. I thought for sure that he would come for me as soon as he heard the news. I even packed a bag and kept it hidden in my closet, so I’d be ready to go as soon as he came, but…”

He never did.

“I was so stupid. I’m still stupid. I get these delusional ideas in my head,”

Like this fantasy about marrying Marinette in six years and having a happy family with her.

“and then I hold onto them because I’ve spent my whole life watching too much anime and Disney movies. A part of me really believes there are happily ever afters, but I also know that I need to stop assuming the role of damsel in distress waiting for my prince to come and I need to take some responsibility for the direction my life is going. Yes, my family is broken, and I feel like people I love have abandoned me, and that’s tragic and everything, but I’m not as powerless as I pretend to be sometimes. I need to suck it up and grow up already. I mean, my brother did.”

“You’re not stupid,” Marinette whispers, feeling so small. Her problems always look so petty and pointless when compared to his. Her chest might hurt when Adrien smiles at her, but she has never known true pain like Chat’s. What is her teenage relationship drama when compared to the neglect and disappointments Chat has suffered?

She pushes herself up to turn around and face him, still kneeling between his legs. She takes his face in her hands and makes him look at her. She can’t see quite clearly in the dark, but she knows he can see her.

“Chat Dupain-Cheng-Noir, you are one of the strongest, smartest, most wonderful people I know. You’ve had to deal with so much crap in your life that no one else has a clue about. I think you need to give yourself a break. Yes, eventually, it would be good to be self-sufficient and resilient, but don’t beat yourself up because you’re not there yet. You’re seventeen, and no one’s ever been particularly helpful with any of the stuff you’ve had to go through. I’m not so sure I can offer any help either because this is honestly way over my head, but the least I can do is tell you to give yourself permission not to be perfect. Okay? Does that make sense?”

She feels him nod and turn to kiss her palm.

“Thanks, Princess,” he hums, feeling oddly better. “Just getting it off my chest a little helps.”

She’s reluctant to ask, but… “…You’re positive that your father wouldn’t let you talk to a guidance counselor or something? It’s not a big deal. Lots of people do it, and you’d think with everything you’ve been through…”

He shakes his head, and she growls in frustration.

“I hate your father. He’s going right to the top of my list next to Papillon and Ladybug and Lila.”

Chat bursts out laughing, and Marinette finds herself, strangely, relieved, as if the ceiling has been pressing down on them and suddenly it’s lifted.

“Thank you, Princess. I really appreciate you getting mad on my behalf,” he chuckles, smiling happily. Weirdly enough, talking about the sucky aspects of his life with her has put him in a good mood. Perhaps it’s the snuggling.

Marinette shrugs. “You need me to beat someone up for you, you just let me know, okay? I’ll get Alya to help me break their kneecaps. No one gets away with hurting my boy—not your parents, not Ladybug, not Papillon. I’ll take all four on at the same time,” she insists, trying to keep a straight face.

It only makes him laugh harder. “Look at my princess; she’s small but mighty.” He reaches out to ruffle her hair, teasing, “My hero.”

She rolls her eyes, giving his nose a bop.

“…Ready to go back to class?” he prompts. He pulls out his baton and glances at the time. “We’ve still got about forty-five minutes left until school’s over.”

Marinette considers for a moment, entertaining the idea of heading back to Madame Mendeleiev’s classroom. A realization hits her, and she groans. “Noooo.”

“No?” Chat arches an eyebrow. “Any particular reason?”

Marinette wilts, hanging her head as she grumbles something that resembles, “Adrien Agreste.”

Chat purses his lips and counts to three. He can’t do this. He’s too drained, but what other choice does he have?

“I just…can’t face him. I’m too…mixed up,” she explains, crawling back over to sit beside him with her back up against the wooden vaulting box. “Conflicted. Confused. Lost,” she sighs.

“Why?” he prods. It doesn’t seem too complicated to him.

Marinette is silent for what feels like a long time. Just when he’s about to give up on getting an answer, she whispers in a tiny, mortified voice, “You can’t tell anyone—especially not Adrien. I don’t care how good of friends you two are. I’m telling you this in confidence, okay?”

Chat nods eagerly. “Of course. What is it?”

“Don’t you dare laugh,” she grumbles, pulling her knees into her chest and leaning more heavily against him, their sides pressed together.

“Princess, I won’t.” He bites his upper lip just enough to hurt, assuring that he won’t laugh, no matter what she says.

“Okay.” She inhales deeply. “So…I might…perhaps…have the teeniest, tiniest, most miniscule…crush…on Adrien Agreste.”

Chat blinks.

Marinette is interested in Adrien Agreste.

He blinks again.

He is Adrien Agreste.

“W-What?” he chokes out the word. “Wait. Adrien? My Adrien? The one that I keep claiming to be? You…you…like Adrien?”

She turns and gives him the oddest look. “Yes? I mean…just a little bit. It’s nothing major, but…why is it so hard to believe that I’d like him?”

Chat looks away, grateful that she doesn’t have good night vision and can’t possibly see how red his entire face is. “You’re…freaking awesome. I don’t…understand what a girl like you would see in a guy like him.”

Marinette sighs, giving her knees a squeeze. “I’m honestly barely better than a fangirl. I have been a fan for a couple years now, but even though I kind of know him personally from hanging out in a group and seeing him in class, I don’t really know him. I like him because he’s handsome and kind and smart and funny, but…now that I really stop to think about it, my feelings for him are pretty superficial. I think I have a general picture of who he is, but I don’t actually know. If he’s anything like you, he could be completely different than I think he is. Maybe he’s got me totally fooled. I have no way of knowing. I mean, with you, I spent four years thinking you were an inveterate flirt with nothing more to worry about than the next akuma fight. See how wrong I was, Chat? I could be wrong about Adrien too.”

“It sounds like you won’t know for sure until you sit down and talk to the guy,” Chat offers gently.

Marinette shakes her head. “I’m not really feeling up to it right now. My feelings are all over the place after last week, and what he said still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, even if he would have answered differently if I had asked him in person if he liked me. I don’t…know how I’m feeling right now…. It’s confusing and distressing. The only thing I can say for sure is that I’m in no state to date anyone right now, and…even if he has changed his mind about me, I don’t know that I’m interested in Adrien anymore. I kind of want to snuff out any feelings I may or may not have had for him and start over as just friends. I really do like him, but, right now, I don’t want to be around him because he makes me have to think too hard. I want to focus on feeling better and getting my feet back underneath me, but that’s not easy when Adrien keeps making me second guess myself. I feel like I’m playing the ‘what if’ game with him, and it’s not a good feeling.”

Chat nods. “I think I’m starting to get it. Alya knew you were kind of interested in Adrien, and she had Nino ask Adrien how he felt about you. She was trying to set you up with Adrien as a rebound after your jerk-face crush turned you down earlier that day.”

Marinette goes tense. She makes a small, miserable noise.

“I’m not sure how I feel about Alya using Adrien like that, but—”

“—It isn’t like that,” Marinette groans, coming semi-clean. “Alya has been trying to set me up with Adrien for years now.”

Chat’s tail gives a nervous flick. “…Oh…. Years? Really? …I…don’t know how I missed that.”

Marinette snorts, shaking her head. “Yeah, I’m not sure either because it was pretty obvious. Some of the schemes Alya came up with were…like the neon signs in Las Vegas: loud, obnoxious, and blatantly unsubtle. Gosh, it was so embarrassing,” Marinette giggles, hiding her face in her hands.

It’s hard for Chat to tell if these are fond memories or memories so mortifying that Marinette wishes she could forget them.

He clears his throat. “I can only imagine, knowing Alya. I’m glad it was Adrien she tried to set you up with, though. Adrien has his own issues, but at least he’s a thousand times better than your slime-wad crush. Adrien would have treated you better.” He stops as a thought occurs. “Though…I guess if you were already in love with that other guy, you wouldn’t have been interested in dating Adrien.” He bites the inside of his cheek, and his tail flicks once more. “Has that changed? …Once you get your feelings sorted out, do you think you’d be interested in Adrien? I mean, after you get to know him better as just friends for a while, of course.”

He finds himself holding his breath as she closes her eyes and breathes out slowly and deliberately.

“Well…no.”

It feels like being jabbed in the side with a pin.

“Oh.”

It doesn’t stop hurting. His elation from earlier when she’d said she had a crush on Adrien quickly drains away.

“It’s really too complicated,” Marinette mutters. “I think I’m better off just trying to repair things with Adrien and be friends.”

“Yeah. Sure,” Chat mumbles in return, her words not truly sinking in.

It’s been a while since he’s last felt this disappointed. She’d given him hope, telling him about her attraction, but, just as quickly, she’s taken it away.

“Because…well…then there’s you,” she squeaks out, playing with the hem of her pant leg.

Chat’s head whips around to look at her. “M-Me?”

“Chat Noir,” Marinette lightly scolds. “Please tell me that you’ve noticed that I have a bit of a developing crush on you.”

His eyes widen, and the breath is knocked out of him a second time. “On me?”

He sounds just as confused about her crush on him as her crush on Adrien.

Marinette panics. “I—Yes. I’m sorry. Is that weird? I thought…you seemed like—”

“—Oh,” he gasps, reaching out and catching her hand. “Wow,” he chuckles, starting to feel lightheaded. “I thought it was just me. I…kind of have a crush on you too. I’ve never…had someone like me back before.”

It’s difficult for him to wrap his head around. She likes him too.

Marinette smiles shyly, giving his hand a squeeze. “Well, surprise. I like you too, Minou.”

“Wow,” he repeats, a giddy giggle tickling his throat. “Wait. Am I supposed to ask you out now?”

Marinette shakes her head. “Not yet. I was serious when I said that I wasn’t in any shape to date anyone right now. This is all happening a little too fast for comfort. It’s only been a week since I got my heart broken and we started hanging out, and I’m a little suspicious of how quickly I’m developing feelings for you. I mean, I’ve always thought you were attractive, and I’ve always been pawsitive that you were clawesome—”

“—Would it be inappropriate to propose marriage to you on the spot?” Chat whimpers, his tail not so subtly curling around her hips.

She rolls her eyes and snickers. “Wait six years. –even when I did think you were a huge flirt, but…I’m a little worried that I’m just taking my feelings for my crush and transferring them onto you because you are handsome and amazing, and I’m really vulnerable right now.”

“Oh.” Chat bites his lip. “That…makes sense. So…you’re not sure if what you’re feeling is real?”

“No.” She wasn’t sure this morning, but now she knows. “This is real. At least…there’s enough real feeling at the heart of it. I’m sure that I do like you, Chat, but, at this point, I’m not certain if I want to try to be in a relationship with you or if we’re better off staying friends.”

“Oh,” Chat hums thoughtfully. He’s pretty sure he knows what he wants, but there is the fact that he fell head over tea kettle in love with Ladybug in less than twenty-four hours. He doesn’t have a good track record as far as contemplating his feelings and thinking before acting upon them.

“We’re honestly not over our previous crushes yet, Chat,” Marinette reminds. “Like we’ve agreed before, I don’t think we should jump into anything until we’ve made peace with those leftover feelings.”

Chat nods his agreement, not happy about it, but knowing it’s the right way to go about things. “Yeah,” he sighs. “I know you’ve got a good point.”

“We should probably wait…maybe a month or two? I’m not sure how long it will take, but…I think it’ll be worth it to take the time and sort things out now on the front end. I think it’s important for us both to be sure of what we want going forward because dating could seriously wreck our friendship, and that is the last thing that I want. I’d rather not date you and stay friends than jump into something and lose you.”

His tail gives her a little squeeze as his head tips to the side to rest against hers. “Yeah. I’ve only had you for a week, and I’m already struggling to imagine a future without you in it. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize our friendship, so…no hurry, and no pressure. I’ll follow your lead, My La—P-Princess,” he hastily corrects, hoping she doesn’t notice the slip.

No such luck.

Marinette chuckles, earnestly amused. “Wow. First time calling me the wrong name.”

“Sorry,” he grumbles, ears burning vermillion.

She shrugs. “I won’t hold it against you now if you don’t hold it against me the first time I call you ‘Adrien’.”

The red hue spreads quickly from Chat’s ears all the way down his neck. He silently curses, knowing that this girl is going to give him a heart attack. His brain helpfully supplies him with a forged sound clip of Marinette’s voice moaning, “Adrien”.

Marinette quickly fills Chat’s shocked silence. “I’ll try to sort things out as quickly as possible,” she promises solemnly. “It will still take some time, but I’ll try to have an answer for you concerning what I want us to be within two months. I don’t want to keep you in limbo for an unreasonably long time, but I don’t want to rush this too much either because I don’t want to hurt you or myself, and I don’t want to lead you on.”

She swallows hard, voice picking up a twinge of anxiety. “I don’t want you and me to be a repeat of your relationship with Ladybug. I don’t want to make the same mistakes that she did.”

Chat bites his lip and internally debates with himself before deciding that he needs to say something. “Marinette,” he calls softly. “Thank you for going to bat for me with Ladybug. I’m really happy that you’re on my side, but…I don’t think you have a very clear understanding of what my relationship with Ladybug is actually like.” He gently breaks the news to her.

All Marinette can do is blink. “O-Oh?”

“No,” he assures.

Marinette keeps her mouth shut, accepting that this is going to be a very enlightening conversation.

“I don’t think she realized I was actually serious about her until Glaciator,” he chuckles softly with a touch of regret. “You thought I was just a giant flirt too until you got to know me. I guess it’s how I act. Like I’ve said, I haven’t exactly had real life examples of healthy relationships, so when trying to express my feelings to Ladybug, I used what I had seen on TV and in movies.”

“Oh.” Marinette grimaces. Chat had always come off as a walking over-the-top cliché. Now she understands why.

“Yeah,” he laughs. “Now that I have more real-world experience, I realize that I must have seemed ridiculous. No wonder she thought I was joking, but once she did see that I had real feelings for her, she was honest with me. She told me that she valued my friendship but that there was another guy she already liked. She told me up front that our job as superheroes had to come first, and that precluded a romantic relationship.”

“That must have hurt you,” Marinette whispers, realizing how selfish she’s being. When he wanted her, she said no and made all kinds of excuses about safety and duty, but now that she wants him, she’s willing to throw all of Tikki’s rules and her own better judgment out the window. She feels like such a hypocrite.

“She was right, though,” Chat stresses, standing by his partner. “Ladybug has always taken her job very seriously. People count on us, and she puts them first. She tries so hard to be professional, even if that means doing things she doesn’t want to do, like keeping me at arm’s length. I may have become a little bitter about it over the years, but I know she doesn’t really want to push me away. She may not be interested in me romantically, but she does wish we could be closer. It’s fallen on her to uphold the status quo because I have zero self-control when it comes to her. I’m surprised that she isn’t more resentful towards me after four years of policing things between us.”

“I think you give her too much credit,” Marinette mumbles, running her finger along the edge of his belt wrapped around her waist. “I have to admit that Ladybug is pretty awesome at her job, and she does seem to try her best to be a proper superhero, but she’s no angel, and she’s not perfect. She might use her duty to Paris as an excuse sometimes when her true motives are selfish.”

Chat clicks his tongue and chuckles. “No. She’s not perfect, but I think someone has a bit of a personal bias against the subject of our conversation.”

“Maybe,” she reluctantly admits. “More than he knows.”

“Regardless, if something is wrong between us, it’s mostly my fault, not hers. I’m not saying that she hasn’t made mistakes too, but…Marinette, I am not the wronged party in this partnership. I’m the one who has let my feelings sour my relationship with Ladybug. She has put up with every single one of my temper tantrums and always forgiven me and tried to smooth things over afterwards. I’m the one who complicates things between us when I keep confessing to her. She’s within her rights to be annoyed. Wouldn’t you if you told a guy no and he wouldn’t leave you alone?”

“I still feel like she could have been nicer about it,” Marinette grumbles. Him giving her a free pass doesn’t sit well with her. She doesn’t want to be forgiven so easily and freely.

He shrugs. “Like you said, she’s no angel.”

She bites her lip, running her finger back and forth over the holes in the belt. “I don’t understand why you like her so much. I get that she’s cool and pretty and has super powers and everything, but she doesn’t seem worth all the trouble you go to for her. You know. Jumping in front of cars and everything.”

Chat winces, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Well…I guess I get to see a side of her that others don’t. She may look cool and collected and in control on camera, but she’s not always like that. A lot of times she’s freaking out. If not visibly or out loud, then on the inside. Ladybug is brave and smart and strong, but she’s also just a regular seventeen year-old in over her head. Sometimes she’s unsure of herself or flat out scared, but every time she rises to the challenge. She sets her fears and reservations aside, and she does what she needs to do to save the day.”

Chat is positively glowing as he talks about her. Marinette can see it even in the dim lighting. She can hear it in his voice, and it makes her feel lightheaded. His love for her is overwhelming.

“You should have seen her when we first started. You remember when Ivan was akumatized? Ladybug had no clue what she was doing. She was only thirteen, and she felt like she was completely out of her depth. I could tell she wanted to throw in the towel and let an adult handle things, but, in the end, she stepped up, and she was amazing. I didn’t fall in love with the perfect superhero that a lot of people see her as. I fell in love with a klutzy, scared, imperfect girl who found the strength within herself to fight even though she was afraid and unsure.”

Marinette tips her head back, trying to keep from crying. She hopes he doesn’t notice because she doesn’t know how she could explain the tears away. She can’t tell him that she’s crying because she’s an idiot and she’s wasted four years of both of their lives rejecting the most wonderful, amazing boy on the face of the earth for a cute, sweet guy she barely knows. 

Stupid Marinette. Stupid Adrien.

She wishes she could apologize and accept him now. She wishes she could tell him…

She bites her lip and momentarily considers saying, “I’m sorry. I’m Ladybug, and I am the biggest fool for not realizing how special you are. Can you ever forgive me?”

She gulps, trying to summon up the courage. She’s afraid of the fallout. Maybe she’s already ruined things between them. Maybe he won’t want her anymore once he finds out how she’s been deceiving him.

Before Marinette can say anything, Chat speaks. “Sorry.” He clears his throat nervously. “That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Gushing about the old crush to the new crush?”

“No,” she quickly assures. “Well…a little, maybe, but…I really needed to hear that. You love her more than I ever gave you credit, and I’m sorry I thought you were the same as all the rest who idolize her. You actually did see the real her and loved her anyway, didn’t you?”

“As much as she’d let me,” he chuckles forlornly.

“Ladybug is such an idiot,” Marinette sighs. “She has no clue what she’s missing out on.”

“You’re too kind, Princess,” he hums softly, nuzzling her ear.

“I’m…” She hesitates. “Going to try to let you see the real me too,” she promises him and herself. 

Things are too complicated for a reveal today, but she’ll tell him soon…in a few weeks…or a month…or two. Before she gives him her final decision about what she wants for their relationship in the future. Before she lets him say yes to Marinette, she’ll give him the whole truth. Hopefully, at that point Ladybug’s behavior towards him will have improved and he’ll truly care enough about Marinette to consider forgiving her deception. She just has to wait it out, not let them rush into anything.

“Gradually, I’m going to stop keeping secrets from you. I’m going to let you see all the ugly things about me, and, then, in a month or two, if you still think you want me, I’ll be the luckiest girl in the world.”

Chat snorts skeptically. “You say that as if I’m going to learn something that changes my mind. I’m far more afraid that you’ll want to back out as you keep learning about how screwed up my life is.”

“Oh, Minou,” Marinette sighs.

“Oh, Princess,” Chat echoes. “I’m serious. I’m pretty sure I know what my answer will be, but I’ll try to be patient until you’re ready. Like they say, some things are worth waiting for.”

“And you’re one of them, Chat Noir,” Marinette giggles, turning to touch her nose to his.

He hums thoughtfully, trying to shove down the anxiety and focus on how happy he is that he’s lucky enough to have a shot with this girl.

“We’ll see, Princess. After all, I’ve got secrets too.”

Adrien Agreste has a lot of work to do in the coming weeks if she’s going to accept him at the end of it.

She takes his hand in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. “We’ll see,” she agrees. “But for now, I expect the both of us to be on our best behavior and act like just friends until we officially decide we want to be more. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” He nods, squeezing her hand and then letting go. Mentally, he urges his tail to keep itself to itself. It gives her hips one last hug and then sadly withdraws from her personal space. He scoots over two or three inches so that they’re no longer leaning on one another, plastered against each other from hip to shoulder.

“Good start?” he wonders.

“Good start,” she verifies.

There’s a beat of uncertainty before he once again proposes, “Ready for class?”

Marinette considers for a minute before groaning, “Adrien Agreste.”

Chat is so sick and tired of dealing with Adrien Agreste.

“Screw Adrien Agreste,” he scoffs.

Y-You screw Adrien Agreste,” Marinette splutters, waving her hands frantically. “Leave me out of it! …Actually,” she hums, reconsidering Adrien and Chat Noir before her better judgment can kick in. “—No. Never mind. Pretend I didn’t say anything.”

Chat opens and closes his mouth twice before shaking his head and responding, “Okay. Let me rephrase: Ignore Adrien Agreste. He’s honestly not worth all this fuss, Princess.”

“He sits right in front of me,” Marinette counters. “You try ignoring someone who sits right in front of you.”

“You should give ignoring someone who sits right behind you a try,” he mutters. She has no idea what a mind ninja she’s been to him today.

Her head cocks curiously to the side, and she blinks. “What?”

“Nothing,” he grumbles, avoiding her gaze. “Just…seriously. Don’t let him get to you. He’d feel awful if he knew he was causing you this much stress.”

Marinette shrugs halfheartedly. “I know. I am being absolutely ridiculous, creating drama where there doesn’t need to be drama. It should be so simple: things didn’t work out? Tough luck. Get over it. It’s just…”

“Still overwhelming only a week out from the apocalypse?” he guesses. “I mean, what with the double whammy of your long-time crush and then Adrien not turning out to be a suitable rebound after all…”

“It would be easier if I could just get away from everything and take some time to sort things out in my head, but, unfortunately, the world doesn’t slow down just because you’re having a bad week.” Marinette exhales out a long, low sigh. “And it’s not like I can blow off Adrien for the next month until I’m ready to be around him again. I’ve been enough of a jerk to him this past week.”

“Princess, that’s not your fault,” Chat tries to convince her, but it’s not working.

She rolls her eyes and gives his foot a playful kick. “Stop forgiving me and making excuses for me and offering me outs all the time. Just let me be a bad person. Be mad at me. Be disappointed.”

“It sounds like you’ve already got that covered,” he observes.

A sweet blush begins to form on her cheeks, and she smiles in gratitude.

“…Hey. You’ll never guess what happened this morning.” She nudges his arm, switching topics.

He’s fairly certain he can guess, seeing as he witnessed the important bits.

“It’s all your fault,” Marinette continues, but her tone is teasing.

His eyebrow shoots up into his hairline. “What did I do?”

“You’ve somehow gotten the idea that you’re Adrien planted in my subconscious,” she accuses.

He mentally does a victory dance.

“so this morning when Adrien said he was you, it really screwed with me. I mean, Chat, it was Adrien standing in front of me, but I saw you for a minute there. Yeah, your voices sound similar, and you’re both blonde and green-eyed, but…it was totally bizarre. So it’s your fault that I have to go on a picnic with Adrien on Wednesday,” she abruptly concludes.

“What?” Chat can only blink in confusion.

“He reminded me of you,” Marinette clarifies. “I was about to run away and start crying again this morning, but he looked so sad, like he was going to cry, and he looked. Like. You. It was just like last week when you were sad about the classmate you want to be friends with, so I invited Adrien and Alya and Nino on a picnic on Wednesday so that he wouldn’t be sad and think I hate him. So it’s your fault that I have to hang out with Adrien on Wednesday.”

Chat nods, slowly processing. It sounds like he’s doing a pretty good job of being his own wingman, but… “You know, Princess, you don’t have to hang out with Adrien if you don’t want to. I don’t want you pushing yourself when you’ve had such an emotional week. I think it’s safe to say that I’m more than a little compromised on this issue, but you are my first concern. Yes, you’re doing better every day, but I don’t know that you’re out of the woods yet, and I couldn’t bear it if you were akumatized. Forget about Adrien. He wouldn’t want you to force yourself either.”

She shakes her head adamantly. “No. You don’t understand, Chat. I can’t back out of this. It’s important to him,”

He wants to tell her, “You’re important to him”, but he’s not sure how well it will be received.

“and I’ve been such a horrible friend lately when he’s really needed someone to be there for him. What’s worse,” she groans. “I’ve made things complicated with his other friends, and this morning Nino said—”

The force of it hits her all over again, and instead of numbness she feels pain and fear and guilt. Her words become sobs.

Chat panics. This is exactly what he was talking about. Marinette is obviously not emotionally stable yet, despite all her progress.

He pulls her into his chest so that she’s lying between his legs once more. His tail curls around her torso, squeezing gently in addition to the solid, protective embrace of his arms. He makes frantic shushing sounds that probably do nothing to calm her as he strokes her back and pets her hair.

“Marinette, it’s okay. Shh. Calm down, Princess. Shh. Talk to me. What’s wrong? Shh. Tell me, and I’ll fix it. Everything is going to be fine.”

He will make it fine for her.

As she clings to him and continues to wail, he has half a mind to pull out his phone and text Nino, “What the hell did you say to Marinette this morning?”, but he needs both of his hands to hold and comfort her, and he’ll be damned if he’s letting go.

“Shh.” He nuzzles her hair, cooing softly. “Marinette, my princess, it’s okay.”

Her desperate hold on him tightens, and she buries her face in his neck.

He can only hope his father is too busy for an akuma at the moment. Otherwise, Adrien will never be able to forgive himself for all these years of waffling back and forth. All the times he started to try to steal the Butterfly Miraculous only to back out. All the times he started to say something to his father, try and get him to give up, only to lose his nerve.

“You’re just selfish, Agreste,” he mentally berates, his inner voice scathing. “You didn’t want to risk losing your comfy home and your spoiled lifestyle. You couldn’t stand the thought of having the last scraps of your family taken from you and having to make it on your own. You didn’t want to face the shame of having everyone looking at you and saying ‘That’s Papillon’s son’. You didn’t want this all to end. You didn’t want to defeat Papillon and have to give up your own Miraculous and never fight beside Ladybug again. You wanted to keep playing at hero for as long as you could. Well, some hero you are. Now Marinette’s going to have to pay for your selfishness.”

“Shh. I-It’s okay,” Chat mumbles, voice cracking as he fights down tears. “I’ve got you, Princess.”

He scans the room for incoming butterflies and sees nothing. He knows it could be any minute now. Sometimes it all happens in less than thirty seconds.

He briefly considers taking the akuma for her when it shows up. He could throw his baton at it before it got near her. His chief negative emotion right now stems from not being able to protect her, so maybe he’d be turned into some kind of knight or a dragon that could. She’d be safe, wouldn’t she? He wouldn’t hurt her if his main objective was to protect her…right? Is he willing to risk it? If he hurts her while akumatized, he’ll never forgive himself. (The list of “I’ll never forgive myself if”s is becoming quite long.)

Would it be better to let her be akumatized and then defeat her supervillain form quickly? But Ladybug isn’t on site to purify the akuma. This could be like with Ivan all over again. He’d have to wait for Ladybug. And with Marinette so close, she’d probably get his ring first. They’re in a bad position. She’s on top of him, pinning him down. But if he gets akumatized, he’ll give his ring up voluntarily…maybe.

Unless he’s not Chat Noir at the time. If he detransforms, his father won’t akumatize Adrien. Unless the rules have suddenly changed concerning that. And Gabriel has akumatized others in Adrien’s vicinity before. Though, he’s not sure if his father would akumatize someone physically in Adrien’s arms at the time. But if he detransforms and Marinette knows his identity…but would she remember afterwards? Today isn’t a good day for her to realize that he wasn’t lying about the whole Adrien thing. Adrien isn’t exactly clear how the link between Papillon and the akuma works either. If Marinette knows he’s Chat Noir, will his father know too?

Unbeknownst to Adrien, his father is in the middle of a conference call concerning last minute changes to the Fashion Week line and is far more likely to akumatize the employee he’s shouting at.

Regardless, the point becomes moot when Marinette cuts into Chat’s harried thoughts by looking up and hiccupping, “N-Nino told me this morning that Adrien has been really d-down lately. You know him. You know how sometimes he gets kind of disheartened. He seems really cheerful most of the time, but I don’t know how much of it is an act. Lately, he hasn’t been able to act cheerful. As oblivious as I am, even I have noticed it. Nino’s worried that Adrien’s…that he’s depressed and that…” Marinette squeezes her eyes closed, shaking her head as she wills this all away, wishing it weren’t happening. “…that Adrien’s going to try to kill himself,” she squeaks.

Chat feels suddenly off-balance, like he’s missed a step going down stairs. “W-What?”

Marinette continues to shake her head. “Chat, I know Adrien and I aren’t close, but he is precious to me. I don’t want to lose him before I can have the chance to truly get to know him. Chat, if you’re right and Adrien does have some kind of feelings for me, I can’t risk hurting him and pushing him over the edge. I’ve done enough already. I can’t hurt him again.”

“Princess, look at me,” Chat pleads, cupping her cheek in his palm to help focus her attention. “Adrien is not going to kill himself. I promise.”

She shakes her head, unable to put faith in his words.

“He would never do that to you,” Chat insists.

Marinette blinks, startled. “T-To me?”

“To you guys,” Chat corrects. “You, Nino, his father and Nathalie, the Gorilla, Alya… He wouldn’t. Sure, sometimes he’s not too thrilled with his life and he doesn’t want to be Adrien Agreste, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to stop living altogether. There are things that make him truly happy in his life—chief among them is being with his friends. He hasn’t totally lost hope, even on the worst days. He’s an escapist, not suicidal.”

Marinette chews thoughtfully on her lip, appraising his arguments. “Minou, are you absolutely sure?”

“Princess, yes,” he stresses.

She still doesn’t look convinced. “How can you know that?”

“He knows what it’s like to be left behind. He loves you all too much to do that to you, no matter how much he’s suffering.” He runs his thumb over her cheekbone and confesses, “Adrien and I have talked about this at some length, Marinette. We can both understand where the other is coming from because we’re in the same boat. We’ve talked about it, and I swear to you that neither of us is going anywhere.”

She searches his eyes for a long moment before relief washes over her. “Okay,” she sighs, dropping her head to rest back on his shoulder. “Good, because I’ve kind of been freaking out about the two of you lately.”

His tail gives her a reassuring squeeze as his hand goes back to petting her hair. “Don’t worry too much. We’re both hot messes, but mostly it’s because we’re drama queens. Our lives aren’t the greatest, but they’re far from the worst, and we know it. We’ve both got issues, but it’s nothing a little therapy and autonomy wouldn’t fix.”

“Okay,” she whispers again. “I trust you…. You and Adrien actually seem pretty close. You were totally playing dumb last week when you pretended not to know him—‘That airhead model friend of yours? What’s his name?’—weren’t you?”

Chat shrugs halfheartedly. “Guilty as charged. I couldn’t very well go around admitting to being friends with Adrien Agreste, could I? He doesn’t have a lot of friends, so it would definitely give away my identity.”

Marinette nods sleepily against his chest. “I’m glad you two have each other…. Be sure to remind him that we all love him very much, okay? I’d do it myself, but I think it’d be weird coming from me.”

“He’d turn five shades of magenta if it came from you,” Chat chuckles, feeling his face racing through several red hues. “I’ll tell him, Princess.”

“Good,” she mumbles lethargically.

“You falling asleep on me?” he hums in amusement.

“‘xhausted,” Marinette complains. “Five minutes.”

“Five minutes,” he agrees, fully intending to let her sleep until the end of school bell rings. If she has any problem with the Calculous material, either Adrien or Chat can offer to tutor her later. The class was pretty much all review anyway.

Chat is almost about to doze off himself sometime later when the gym storage closet door opens and Nino calls out, “Adrien? Marinette?”

Chapter Text

Nino peeks into the gym storage closet and is met with two luminescent green eyes. He jumps. “Ch-Chat Noir?”

“Shh,” the superhero entreats in a hush. “The princess is sleeping. Come in.”

“Is she all right?” Nino squints in the dim light, finding his way over to sit on the stack of tumbling mats across from Chat.

“Yeah. Out cold. She’s had a pretty draining day between me and Adrien,” Chat sighs, voice low.

Nino purses his lips. “Oh…. Speaking of Adrien, have you seen him around? He ran out after Marinette, but…I asked to go to the restroom about twenty minutes after those two left class, and I haven’t bumped into him. I’ve been doing a room-by-room search.”

Chat nods. “I saw him and Marinette running past my classroom and followed. Marinette went in here, and I managed to convince Adrien that it was probably a better idea for me to talk to her, since he’s not been having a whole lot of luck with her recently. Most likely, he’s off moping…. I kind of get the impression that he’s developing a crush on her.”

Nino sighs, shaking his head. “Yeah. Just when she’s decided she wants nothing to do with him.” He pauses, eyes going wide. “Uh…Did Marinette tell you that…” He bites his lip.

Chat smirks. “What?”

Nino fidgets. “How much has she told you about what’s going on with Adrien and her crush and everything?”

“Mostly I’ve been getting half-truths,” Chat confesses. “At first she didn’t want to talk about it, but, since then, we’ve been growing closer, and she’s told me a little more here and there. To the best of my understanding, last Monday Marinette confessed to her crush of four years and got turned down because her crush has a crush on a sewing blogger—who, I’m told, you somehow figured out was also Marinette. Alya, knowing that Marinette was kind of interested in Adrien too, convinced you to help her try to set Marinette up with Adrien as a rebound from that jerk she liked…only that backfired because Adrien—the dope—is in love with Ladybug. You told Alya what Adrien said, and Alya told Marinette who then was upset with Adrien because—I mean, ouch. Twice in one day? And Adrien wasn’t even particularly tactful because he didn’t know that what he thought was a private, judgment-free conversation with his best friend was going to get broadcast down the grapevine and end up hurting Marinette.”

Chat feels slightly vindicated as Nino winces and hangs his head.

“Furthermore,” Chat continues. “Adrien apparently resembles Marinette’s primordial-slime-of-a-crush, so it’s doubly hard to be around him. Marinette has since decided that she’s not interested in Adrien anymore and that she’s swearing off guys for the next month or two while she tries to get her feelings straightened out. That’s what I know.”

Nino nods, wondering how Chat Noir has come to have such a clear and yet oddly wrong understanding of the Adrien-Marinette mess.

“I should go find Adrien,” Nino offers as he gets to his feet, feeling heartsick for his buddy. “He’s probably miserable at not being able to help and confused because the poor dude doesn’t even know what’s going on.”

“I wouldn’t,” Chat cautions. “I think he’s mad at you for the moment.”

Nino’s worried frown turns into one of puzzlement. “Me? Why?”

Chat looks down at Marinette, avoiding eye contact. “I might have accidentally let slip that you helped Alya try to set him up and then told Alya everything he’d told you in confidence, knowing she’d turn around and tell Marinette. At least now he knows the real reason why Marinette’s been freaking out around him all week…and why you wouldn’t tell him what that reason was.”

Nino hisses a string of curses under his breath.

“You can see why he’d be ticked now that he’s started to develop feelings for her and his chances have already been pre-ruined by his friends, right?”

Nino curses again, rising to his feet to pace as he takes off his hat and cards a hand through his hair. After a minute, he takes a deep breath and sits back down, returning his cap to its usual position.

“Okay,” he sighs. “Well, at least now I can stop feeling like a crappy friend in private, right? That’s kind of been eating away at me. And I don’t have to find the courage to fess up myself,” Nino chuckles nervously. “Really, this is win-win, right? Now I just have to…I don’t know. Grovel, I guess. How mad was he?”

Chat makes a noncommittal noise. “More hurt than anything.”

“Oh.” Nino’s face falls. “Shoot. I’d kind of prefer if he were livid. I’d feel better if he punched me or something.”

“I think the most he’s going to do is look disappointed,” Chat mumbles.

Nino curses. “Man, I can’t take the sad puppy eyes. You’re friends with him, right? Has he ever looked at you with the sad puppy eyes? They’re killer,” Nino groans. “Shoot. I guess I deserve it, though.”

Chat hums, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“Oh well.” Nino flops over onto the tumbling mats, giving up. “I’ll…figure it out. …We’ll work it out. I mean, he’s my best bud. I can’t lose him over something like this; he’s too important.”

“Yeah,” Chat sighs, knowing Nino is right no matter how upset and hurt Adrien is right now. “Your friendship is really important to him too. He’s just kind of hurting at the moment.”

Nino exhales slowly, sitting back up. “So…speaking of friends…Marinette happened to mention that you and I are friends.”

“Did she?” Chat chuckles. “Why? Did she ask you for a list of all your blonde friends or something?”

Nino smiles sheepishly. “Yep. Actually, she found this one guy who she thought might be you, and they were flirting. I pulled her away from him, and she asked why I was being such a grouch and if I weren’t friends with the guy. When I said no, she knew he wasn’t you because apparently the two of us know one another.”

Chat’s cat ears twitch in irritation. “Who was Marinette flirting with?”

Nino scratches at his cheek. “Uh…you’re not going to beat him up, are you?”

Chat actually has to think about it. “…No.”

Nino’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “Dude, you’re lying.”

“Nino, of course I’m not going to beat up a civilian as Chat Noir.” Chat tries to be convincing, as if this is the most ludicrous suggestion he’s ever heard.

“So you’re going to beat him up when you’re not Chat Noir,” Nino surmises.

Chat purses his lips, not deigning to answer.

Nino shakes his head. “All right, Mec, but if one of my friends beats up Étienne Saint-Cloud, I’m going to know it’s you.”

Chat tries not to sulk.

Nino clears his throat and leads in with, “Speaking of revealing identities—”

“—Nino, I can’t tell you,” Chat cuts him off.

Nino snorts. “Good. Because I don’t want to know. Akuma attacks stress me out enough as is with Alya dashing into the fray and Marinette running into crumbling buildings to do her civilian hero thing and Adrien always disappearing. I don’t need to know who you are and spend the fights worrying about you too. I already had a nightmare over the weekend about you getting hit by a car, and that was before I knew we knew each other personally. Can you imagine how freaked out I’d be if I knew who you really were?”

Chat bites his lip. “Oh. Yeah. That’d be…not good.”

“Yeah,” Nino confirms with a touch of sarcasm. “What I was going to say was that you need to tell Marinette before she accidentally exposes you to the wrong people.”

Chat bites his lip harder. “I want to, and, I mean, I will. It’s just that now…isn’t really a good time.”

“Mmhm.” Nino nods slowly. “When do you think would be a good time? In my experience, there’s never really a ‘good’ time that just magically falls into your lap. You have to make time for these kinds of things, otherwise, there comes a point where it all comes out—at the worst possible time—and not at all the way you wanted it to.”

Chat grumbles softly in frustration. “I will tell her. I’m trying.”

Nino frowns, his brow scrunching in incredulity. “Maybe try harder, Mec. You’re making it too complicated. It really doesn’t have to be this hard.”

“She’s the one making it complicated,” Chat sulks. “I told her, and she didn’t believe me.”

Nino blinks. “She didn’t believe you.”

“She didn’t. Believe. Me,” Chat repeats.

“Shoot, Dude.”

“Yep,” Chat sighs. “So I’m working on trying to get her to accept both sides of me. I think it’s working.”

“Can’t you just tell your kwami to detransform you in front of her?” Nino suggests. “She’d have no choice but to believe you then.”

Chat winces. “That…would kind of be disastrous. She’d probably freak and be upset with me. We’re not exactly on the best of terms in real life right now, so I kind of need to smooth things over on the other side of the mask before I go revealing my identity for real.”

“Dude,” Nino sighs in sympathy.

“Yeah,” Chat whispers sadly, turning to nuzzle Marinette’s hair to comfort himself.

“Dude,” Nino reiterates. “Do you need help with anything? I’m not sure what I could do, but…”

Chat purses his lips in thought. “I don’t know if you can do anything for me personally without me revealing my identity, but…if you could keep doing your best to get the Adrien-Marinette problem fixed, that would definitely make things easier. Right now, it’s a little hard because Marinette gets upset at the drop of a hat sometimes, and I have to be careful not to push her over the edge. Adrien’s going to do his best too, but if you could help him repair the relationship, Marinette would be in better headspace to deal with my identity drama.”

Nino nods resolutely. “I can try, Mec. As I’m sure you know, it’s kind of a tricky business.”

“Yeah. I don’t believe it’s impossible, though.”

So long as Marinette doesn’t hate Adrien. Which, apparently, she doesn’t, so things should work out eventually.

“It’ll just take time,” Nino agrees. “…Speaking of Marinette, what happened? She was texting you, wasn’t she, when she ran out of class?”

“Adrien,” Chat groans. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Adrien.” Nino shakes his head. “I’m concerned about that kid. He’s been bad enough lately already. I’m not excited to deal with him once Marinette is through with him.”

A trill of fear surges through Chat. “What do you mean?”

“You said yourself that you think Adrien’s developing a crush on Marinette,” Nino reminds. “Truth be told, whether he’s realized it or not, he’s had a bit of a low-grade crush on her these past four years. Maybe he really wasn’t interested in her romantically the whole time just like he claims, but he’s always admired her and had a soft spot for her. Everyone could tell. And now, this past week, it’s been obvious that he’s falling hard for her since he’s decided to give up on Ladybug. Meanwhile, she’s trying desperately not to be interested in him. How do you think that’s going to end, Mec?”

“You think she’s going to break his heart,” Chat mumbles, the bottom dropping out of his stomach. “…You don’t think she’ll change her mind if they start talking and hanging out and become friends? Adrien can be pretty sweet and charming, you know. She was kind of interested in him before the kerfuffle. What makes you think she can’t fall for him again once things get straightened out?”

Nino laughs, and Adrien tries his hardest not to take it personally because he’s supposed to be Chat right now, and Adrien has no right to be eavesdropping on this conversation.

“You,” Nino replies simply, completely confusing both Adrien and Chat.

“Me?” Chat stares at his friend, feeling utterly lost in this mess.

“You.” Nino indicates Chat and Marinette with a wave of his hand. “You think I don’t see what’s happening here? Marinette may be a rampant snuggler, but this…you two look awfully comfy.”

For the first time, Chat thinks to blush at what must appear pretty suggestive. “She was upset because you told her you thought Adrien was going to kill himself—he’s not, by the way. What was I supposed to do?”

“How do you know Adrien’s not suicidal?” Nino challenges softly, sounding tired. “No offence, but the guy’s mood swings are disconcerting at best, and some of the things he says…Chat Noir, if you know me, you know I’m a pretty chill dude. I don’t freak over nothing.”

“Trust me. I’ve talked to him,” Chat assures. “He might run away and join the circus, but he doesn’t want to be dead. That’s not the escape he’s looking for. He wants to live to see things get better. Just…keep being there for him. That’s the best you can do, Nino.”

Nino frowns at Chat suspiciously. “How come he talked to you about this? Adrien doesn’t have many friends, and I don’t recall him ever mentioning you. I don’t remember ever seeing him being all buddy-buddy with another blonde model. I’m supposed to be his best friend, and this was before he found out about the whole mess with Marinette, right? Why didn’t he talk to me about it?”

Chat looks away. “This was a few years ago when he was still pretty upset about his mother walking out on him, and then he found out some things about his father that really left him feeling lost.”

“Over summer break about a year and a half after we met when he dropped off the face of the earth and didn’t talk to anyone for two months,” Nino realizes and then frowns, muttering to himself, “He said his father was keeping him really busy.”

“It wasn’t a lie,” Chat informs in an undertone, “but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. He didn’t want to bother you with spoiled rich kid problems.” He shrugs, avoiding Nino’s gaze.

“If he was thinking about suicide, he should have called me,” Nino snaps, hurt that his best friend hadn’t been able to trust him. “That’s not ‘spoiled rich kid problems’. Doesn’t he know he can talk to me about anything?”

“He wasn’t seriously considering it. He was just…really lost. And he didn’t know how to talk about it. With anyone,” Chat struggles to explain. “He does know that you’re there for him, Nino.”

“He talked to you,” Nino spits, hackles rising as jealousy blindsides him. “How the hell did he manage to talk to you about it if he supposedly couldn’t talk with anyone?”

“Because…” Chat flounders. “brought it up. I was…I was going through some stuff at the same time, and I don’t have a lot of friends either, so…I was the one who brought it up to him.”

“…You were thinking about taking your own life too?” Nino gapes openly.

“Not seriously,” Chat stresses. “It was just…I was in a bad place, and I was kind of freaking out. I wasn’t really thinking clearly, and that was just one of many options. Seriously. Running away and joining the circus was way higher up on the list, but I needed someone to talk to, and—”

His voice catches, and tears begin to sting back behind his eyes.

He needed someone to talk to, and there was no one.

He was fourteen and a half, and his father was Papillon, and he couldn’t talk to anyone. Not Plagg who never took anything seriously, never had anything helpful to say. Not Ladybug who would do the right thing and send his father to jail. Not Nino who might tell. Not Alya who’d publish the scoop of the decade on her blog. Not Marinette or Chloé whom he didn’t feel particularly close to at that point and who would never look at him the same way again if they only knew.

There was no one. No one he could trust. No one he could turn to for advice. So he’d sat alone in his room, Plagg hovering awkwardly, torn between giving Adrien space and trying to comfort the boy.

Plagg hadn’t known what to say.

“You…okay, Kid?”

“Fine.”

“…You sure?”

“…Yeah.”

“…Adrien?”

“…Y-Yeah?”

“…Do you want some of my Camembert?”

“No…. Thanks, Plagg.”

And Adrien had thought of many, many outlandish plans. Everything from stealing the Butterfly Miraculous to trying to talk his father out of it, running away, living on the streets until he was old enough to access the money being kept for him in trust, going to live with Félix and Bridgette in Marseille, seeing if one of his friends’ families could take him in…succumbing to the despair he was feeling and giving up, hitting the reset button.

Eventually, he gave in to his cowardice and his selfishness and decided to do nothing, but, for two solid months, he had struggled bitterly. He still struggled from time to time, but he was still in the same boat with no one he could really rely on. It was easier not to think about it. It was easier not to do anything and hope everything would turn out for the best.

“—and Adrien was there for me. I needed someone…and Adrien was there.” 

Just Adrien and Chat until the bitter end…at least until his father eventually did get caught and Adrien had to give back his Miraculous. Then, he wasn’t sure what Adrien would do, but…

“So you and Adrien have been pretty close ever since or something?” Nino grumbles, trying to keep the resentment out of his voice but failing.

“Something like that,” Chat mutters, laughing darkly on the inside as he thinks that Nino wouldn’t be bristling like this if he knew the sad truth. “We’ve known each other since we were little, but I wouldn’t say we’ve ever been close.”

“Yet he can talk to you and not to me,” Nino challenges.

Chat tries not to jostle Marinette too much as he runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “Well, maybe it’s because he doesn’t have to worry about me turning around and blabbing to Alya and Marinette all the time.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he regrets it. He’s letting the stress of the day and his annoyance get the upper hand and come between them.

Nino stares at Chat like the superhero has struck him. “Look,” he snaps a little too loudly. He winces, waits to see if he’s woken Marinette, and then lowers his voice. “Look. It is not like that. I don’t turn around and tell Alya everything. For one, she doesn’t ask. For two, she doesn’t care.” Nino instantly backpedals, “Not that she doesn’t care about Adrien. She does. We just don’t spend our time together discussing him. The thing with Marinette was…” He winces. “Okay. That was really lousy judgment on my part and probably the crappiest thing I’ve ever done to him, but it’s not like that all the time. It’s not like I’m Alya’s spy.”

“Okay.” Chat shrugs his right shoulder, too tired to fight about it. “I’m not the one you have to convince.”

“Aren’t you? I mean, if you’ve got so much pull with Adrien… Besides, if you and I are friends too, I don’t want you thinking I’m always a backstabbing lapdog. I may be insanely in love with Alya, but that doesn’t mean I always put her before my friends. Sometimes she has genuinely horrible ideas and needs to be stopped. I’ve told her no plenty of times when she’s tried to drag me into her schemes to set Adrien and Marinette up. This time was just…”

Nino shakes his head with a sigh filled with regret. He looks away.

“Marinette is extremely important to Alya—It’s like how Adrien is to me—and she kind of wore me down. I shouldn’t have let her twist my arm, but I did, and now we’re all in this mess, and I regret it.”

He looks back at Chat, fatigue flooding his face. “I don’t expect to be forgiven right away—I don’t want to be forgiven right away—but can we just try to move past this? I’m not a bad friend; I just made a giant mistake that I’m planning never to repeat.”

Chat nods. “I’m willing to put it behind us. I’m not going to trust you blindly like I did before, but I’m going to try not to hold a grudge. After all, Adrien is the one you screwed over. Chat Noir is making out pretty well as a result.”

Nino grimaces, taking in Marinette nestled almost too snugly in Chat’s arms. “Yeah. I can see that. How does it feel to get the girl, knowing it’s going to hurt one of your friends?”

“It’s not my fault he didn’t want her until a week ago,” Chat scoffs, not answering the question.

He doesn’t want to sound like a jerk because the truth is that the thought, “Sucks to be you, Adrien Agreste” has crossed his mind more than a few times.

“Besides, she’s not mine,” Chat adds, giving Marinette’s hair another nuzzle.

“Yet,” Nino hums, unamused. “I give it two weeks.”

“We’ve talked about it, and we’ve decided that we’re not jumping into anything,” Chat informs with a chuckle. “Marinette said she wants a month or two of just being friends while she figures her feelings out. She’s not sure she wants our relationship to go in a romantic direction; she might just want to stay friends, so this is far from a foregone conclusion.” Chat’s expression clouds over as he adds, “She may never be mine.”

Nino laughs outright. “Ha. Like I said, I give it two weeks.”

“What makes you so sure?” Chat challenges, once again feeling put out that Nino claims to know better than he does about his own love life.

Nino rolls his eyes. “Neither one of you does things by halves, and you’ve both spent the past four years pouring your energy into unrequited loves. You might put up a good front for a while, but, sooner or later, you’re going to kiss her, or she’s going to kiss you, and that will be the end of it. I fully expect you both to snowball pretty quickly, since it’s difficult to think straight when you both know the attraction is mutual.”

Chat snorts indignantly. “You don’t think we’ll be able to make mature, responsible decisions and we’ll end up using each other as rebounds.”

“Is it really a rebound if you end up in a stable, long-term relationship with someone?” Nino snickers. “You are serious about her, aren’t you?”

Chat is silent for a minute, considering. “…I think I might be.”

Nino frowns. “You think you might be?”

“It’s complicated,” Chat mumbles. “Last week, if you had asked me what I thought about Marinette, I never would have said that I was interested in her romantically. This is kind of happening fast, and I can understand why Marinette is a little wary of jumping the gun. There’s no telling if the feelings she thinks she’s developed during this week-long, whirlwind friendship are real and whether they’ll last.”

“I notice that you’re not questioning your own feelings but hers,” Nino observes.

Chat hums softly. “I…really like her. This past week…” He shakes his head, laughing at himself. “I’m such a lightweight. A pretty girl smiles at me and tells me she thinks I’m awesome, and I start planning our wedding…. This past week has been wonderful, and I’d be ecstatic if Marinette did decide she wanted to go out with me, but her friendship is the most important thing, and if she decides she just wants to be friends…”

He bites his lip and shakes his head. “I’m going to have to be okay with that. Can you understand why I would be a little hesitant to declare myself in love with her? I can’t afford to let myself be in love with her because I can’t love in vain again. Ladybug was…” He grimaces and corrects himself. “Ladybug still is…”

Nino nods, a twinge of sympathy zinging through his chest. “Don’t worry about it, Mec. It’s okay,” he assures gently.

“If Marinette says she’s serious, I’m one hundred percent serious too,” Chat swears. “Until then…for my own mental health, I think I need to keep my feelings simmering at a crush. I don’t think I’d be able to recover from a broken heart twice. I’ve been letting Ladybug kill me slowly for years now, and I don’t need to go through the same thing with Marinette.”

“Yeah,” Nino sighs. “Yeah. I…I don’t know why I even questioned whether you were serious. I know what kind of guy you are when it comes to questions of the heart.”

“Really?” Chat snickers. “Most people think I’m just a silly flirt.”

Nino shakes his head. He’s seen the way Chat looks at Ladybug, the way he devotes himself to her. As Carapace, he’s seen how selflessly Chat Noir loves. “I’m more observant than most people.”

“Fair enough.” Chat shrugs. “I don’t care so much what other people think of me. So long as Marinette and Ladybug know the truth.”

Nino bites his lip. “…So…we’re friends, right?”

Chat shrugs again. “I think so. Why?”

Nino hesitates, debating how to say it. “I’m trying to decide whether I owe allegiance to you where I should say something or her where I should keep my mouth shut, but, since this would negatively impact her too if things went south, I think that I’m morally obligated to say something: Don’t agree to date her until she tells you about the sewing blogger secret.”

Chat blinks, surprised at the anticlimactic denouement. “Seriously?”

“I know,” Nino groans. “It sounds stupid, but I am dead serious, Dude.”

Chat raises a skeptical eyebrow. “No offence, but I don’t think Marinette’s secret sewing blog is going to change my mind about her. What? Does she make S and M apparel or some other kind of fetish-y…something?”

Nino’s jaw drops.

“Because I’m not really sure what my preferences are, but that’s something we can figure out together if and when we become a couple,” Chat offers diplomatically.

Nino’s horrified face turns radish red, and he makes a strangled chicken sound. He tries not to see Marinette and Chat Noir experimenting with bondage in his mind; he’s not altogether successful.

Chat takes Nino’s reaction as an indication that Marinette is into something extremely unusual. He frowns and continues, “It can’t be that bad, can it? And, I mean, I’m willing to try almost anything once. I’m already used to being ordered around and told what to do all the time, so I can’t imagine—”

“—No!” Nino finally manages to squeak as he shakes his head violently. “It’s nothing like that. It’s…” Nino hesitates, gnawing on the inside of his cheek. “It’s not something I can explain, but this will all make sense when she tells you. Until then, you’re just…” Suddenly the irony of the words on the tip of his tongue hits him, and a strained smile pulls at his lips. “…you’re just going to have to trust me.”

Chat grins in annoyance. “Blindly? Like we just discussed I would no longer be doing?”

Nino bites his tongue and nods slowly. He taps his fist lightly on the tumbling mats several times. “Yep,” he answers sheepishly.

“Can you give me any kind of hint as to why the sewing blogger thing is important?” Chat tries to negotiate and meet Nino in the middle.

Nino shakes his head mournfully. “No. All I can say is that if I care about you at all, I don’t want you giving Marinette your heart until she’s completely honest with you. Do you think I care about you, Chat Noir?”

Chat breaks eye contact, but he can still feel Nino’s piercing gaze on him. He takes a minute to contemplate his answer.

“Of course I think you care about me, Nino.”

Despite the recent road bump, Nino has been there for Adrien these past four years. Who else has consistently gone to bat for Adrien with his father, assuring that Adrien gets to participate in more friend activities and has a birthday party of some kind every year? Who else has gone out of his way to patiently explain social mores to Adrien without laughing, without judging? Who has always been there to lend a sympathetic ear when Adrien needed to complain? Who has laughed with Adrien and shared with Adrien and never made a big deal out of it when Adrien was forced to cancel plans?

Of course Nino cares about Adrien.

“Then don’t fall in love with Marinette until she tells you the whole truth,” Nino cautions. “Other than that, if you can work things out, I think you two will be good for each other. We’ll deal with the fallout with Adrien that you and Marinette being in a relationship will cause when we come to it, I guess, so just worry about you and Marinette.”

Chat nods, not sure what to say. He can’t tell Nino that there will be no Adrien fallout if Chat and Marinette start dating. To know that for sure, he’d either have to be psychic or Adrien himself, and he can’t risk giving Nino any clues. Chat has a feeling that Nino will be more perceptive than Marinette and less in denial. He’s probably pressed his luck too much already.

“Thanks,” Chat mumbles.

Nino bites his lip and hesitates before asking one more time, “You’re positive that Adrien isn’t going to hurt himself? He told me the other day that he wasn’t currently thinking about it concretely, but that still didn’t sound good.”

“Nino, he’s fine,” Chat stresses, tired of having the same conversation.

“He is not fine,” Nino snaps, back on the offensive. “And if you can’t see that, you’re not much of a friend after all.”

Chat opens his mouth to protest, but no words come out. Chat is supposed to be a good friend. A good friend would not easily brush off another friend’s concerns of this magnitude.

But Adrien is fine. What does Nino want him to say?

“I was thinking about talking to Miss Bustier, you know,” Nino sighs, taking off his cap to run a hand through his hair before replacing it.

“What?” Chat practically yelps.

Marinette makes a soft, groggy noise.

Chat carefully begins to pet her hair and emit a low purr.

She settles back in his arms and drops off soundly once more.

Silence reigns for nearly a minute before Chat chances whispering, “What? Why?”

“Who else could I go to?” Nino scoffs as quietly as he can manage. “His father doesn’t give a crap about him—”

“—Th-That’s not true,” Chat feebly contradicts, only fueling Nino’s contempt.

“I call bull,” Nino hisses. “Gabriel Agreste treats his son like a plaything. He only does the minimum he’s required to do not to go to jail for neglect. That man only cares about himself. Do not defend that snake to me.”

Chat presses his lips together so hard they go white. He tries to keep a blank face as he waits for Nino’s words to stop stinging. “S-Sorry.”

Nino attempts to shake it off. “Don’t worry about it, Mec. That sub-human creature just really gets my goat, is all. So, it’s not like I could go to him about Adrien. His first thought would probably be concern over how it would look if the papers got wind of it. He wouldn’t help; he’d probably just give Adrien a lecture about how disappointed he is, yell at him for being ‘weak’, and then ground him for two weeks. That’s kind of Gabe’s MO, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Chat holds his tongue. He knows his father wouldn’t do that, not about something like this. His father loves him, and if Adrien really was suicidal, he knows his father would be there for him…even though Adrien is hard pressed to say how exactly. Perhaps he would give Adrien an awkward hug or offer to get Adrien a therapist or maybe even offer to go to the therapist with Adrien or…probably have Nathalie handle the whole thing because they’re still gearing up for Fashion Week, and his father wouldn’t have the time personally at the moment.

But Adrien is not suicidal, so the point is moot, really, and the fastest way to get through this unpleasantness is to not fight it, let the words roll over him and disappear into the ether.

“Don’t tell Miss Bustier you think Adrien’s going to kill himself,” Chat pleads. “She’s already worried about him because of the notes you two have been passing lately, and there’s really no need. Adrien is—”

The word “fine” dies on his lips.

“—going to be okay. He’s not going to do anything, and he’d be mortified if he knew we were having this conversation. There is no need for concern like this Nino,” Chat tries to impress upon his friend.

Nino shakes his head. “If you say so.”

“I do,” Chat sighs. “But if you don’t believe me and feel the need to talk to someone about your concerns, talk to Nathalie.”

“The secretary-girlfriend?” Nino balks. “That ice queen won’t be any help. She’s on Gabriel’s side, not Adrien’s.”

Chat’s brow furrows slightly. Sometimes he worries that Nino is right and that Nathalie can’t be trusted, but…

“Nathalie is Adrien’s de facto mother,” Chat asserts with confidence he doesn’t altogether feel. “She does care about Adrien, even if she doesn’t always show it, and if you want to talk to someone about Adrien, she’s the one who can make a difference…but I’m telling you, Nino, Adrien is not in danger of harming himself.”

Nino stares at him long and hard before eventually nodding and letting it go. “All right,” he sighs, pushing himself to his feet and starting to make his way towards the door. “Good talk, Chat Noir. It looks like you’ve got things covered here, so I’m going to head back and catch the last few minutes of class.”

Nino pauses with his hand on the handle and turns back to look at Chat. “Be careful next akuma attack, okay?”

“I will,” Chat responds, slightly taken aback at this abrupt change of subject.

“And the one after that,” Nino adds. “And the one after that too. People care about you, okay?”

“Okay,” Chat tentatively agrees. “…Thanks, Nino.”

Nino nods. “See you sooner than I’ll realize,” he chuckles as he leaves.

Chat has to chuckle softly too.

A few minutes before the end of day bell, Chat wakes Marinette and sends her back to class to collect her things so that no one sees her and Adrien come out of the same closet.

“I’ll see you tonight, Princess,” he promises with an airy kiss to the side of her cheek.

“Eight o’clock-ish,” she confirms with a nod and an enthusiastic smile.

Chat waits a few minutes after she’s left to drop his transformation, and then Adrien continues to sit as his eyes adjust. He’s struck by how much darker the room is with Adrien’s vision, despite the faint light coming in through the tiny rectangular window close to the ceiling.

Plagg floats soundlessly at the level of Adrien’s knees, and Adrien wordlessly takes out and hands Plagg a piece of cheese.

Plagg thoughtfully chews the Camembert for once instead of inhaling it, buying himself time. He’s hoping that Adrien will be the one to break the silence.

Several minutes pass, and the clatter of students out in the halls getting ready to go home echoes in the distance.

Finally, Plagg breaks the stalemate. “You’re quiet.”

“So are you,” Adrien chuckles. “I’m tired.”

“So am I,” Plagg sighs.

The unnerving silence returns.

“…You’re quiet,” Plagg repeats.

“I’m sick of talking,” Adrien answers with a shrug.

Plagg nods. “…What are you thinking about?” There are so many options, and about half of them scare Plagg.

“I’m cold,” Adrien laughs at himself. “Marinette is really warm, and I miss her.”

Plagg keeps nodding. This is an acceptable focus for Adrien’s attention.

“Maybe you two can snuggle some more tonight,” Plagg suggests. “Maybe watch a movie or something.”

“Snuggling isn’t very platonic,” Adrien groans.

Plagg clicks his tongue. “Friends snuggle. Like pink-girl and goth-girl.”

Adrien raises an eyebrow. “Rose and Juleka are both girls…and I’m pretty sure they’re mates.”

Plagg waves dismissively. “Hat-boy and journalist-girl also snuggle.”

“Also mates,” Adrien hums.

“Well, maybe Marinette is supposed to be yours,” Plagg encourages.

“Don’t get my hopes up,” Adrien sighs, running both hands through his hair. “Let’s just stick with the platonic soulmates thing.”

Plagg makes a noncommittal noise, landing on Adrien’s knee to look up and study his chosen’s face.

Adrien looks distracted, mind going in half a dozen directions.

All this drama lately is wearing Plagg out. Moody teenagers are not his favourite thing, but he likes this one, and he’s determined to do everything he can to keep him, even if that means getting off his lazy butt and talking about feelings.

“How come Marinette doesn’t have a nickname?” Adrien inquires out of the blue, throwing Plagg off.

“Nickname?” Plagg’s tail twitches.

“Like how you call me ‘Kid’ and Alya ‘journalist-girl’ and Nino ‘hat-boy’ so you don’t have to remember our names,” Adrien clarifies. “Marinette is the only one with a name. Why is that?”

Plagg can’t tell him that, in his head, he thinks of Marinette as “Tikki’s girl”.

“She has a nickname. She has a few,” Plagg dodges. “They’re not very flattering: tricky-girl, trouble-girl, stalker-girl, klutz-girl, minx-girl, blind-idiot-girl… I didn’t think you’d appreciate any of those.”

Adrien grimaces. “You…don’t like Marinette?” It could be problematic if Adrien’s kwami and future (fingers crossed) spouse don’t get along, but they seemed pretty buddy-buddy before, so…

“Oh, I like her,” Plagg assures. “I just have very complicated opinions about her.”

“Care to share?” Adrien tries, not expecting anything to come from it.

“Nope,” Plagg snorts.

Adrien nods, crossing his arms, leaning back, and looking away, going back to his own thoughts.

Plagg frowns. “…I do remember your name, Adrien. That’s not why I call you ‘Kid’.”

As an immortal being, watching humans die is a fact of life for Plagg. Using their names only leads to attachment, and losing something you’re attached to over and over again across the millennia corrodes you. It’s easier to fight attachment, to try not to care, and, even if you do care, to pretend that you don’t.

“Do you call them all ‘Kid’?” Adrien wonders. “I know I’m just the latest in a long line, and I know there will be plenty after me. I know I’m not special, but—”

“—You’re all special,” Plagg intervenes before the self-deprecating pity party can start. “Each and every one of you. Henry, Jacques, Amparo, Kakeru, Sophia, Zelda…you’re all special, and I remember all of you.”

There’s a beat of surprised silence from Adrien. All of the sudden, the storage closet feels crowded; the ring on his finger feels heavy with the weight of the individuals who wore it before him.

“Jacques was ‘Idiot’, and he embraced it. Amparo was ‘Rabbit’, and she hated it. I used to call Kakeru ‘Dono’ because it made him blush, and Sophia was ‘Brat’ because she really wasn’t, and it was fun to give her a hard time,” Plagg recounts, letting the sadness and the loss wash over him.

They sit with their feelings a moment before Adrien dares to ask, “Why ‘Kid’?”

Plagg shrugs. Adrien was so young when he received the ring. He was still so young, and he needed an adult, a parent. It had just seemed natural for Plagg to adopt Adrien as his “kid”.

“Who knows?”

Adrien’s lips purse, and his nose wrinkles. “You do. You just don’t want to tell me.”

Plagg shrugs again, a mischievous smirk rising to his lips.

Silence falls between them once more, and the far-off sounds of students packing up to head home begin to dwindle.

“What exactly are we doing sitting here in the dark, Kid?” Plagg finally asks. He’s uncomfortable with the brooding atmosphere.

“Avoiding people,” Adrien sighs. “Specifically Marinette, Alya, and Nino. I don’t really feel like talking to them as Adrien. I don’t really feel like talking.”

Plagg nods, in understanding. “Today was a pretty heavy day. You talked about some important things, though. It sounds like you got a lot figured out—with Marinette in particular.”

Adrien chuckles giddily at the memory. “I can’t believe she has a crush on both of me.”

“Why not?” Plagg scoffs. “Objectively, you are a very attractive prospective mate. Any girl with sense would want you to father her offspring. You have very desirable genes and material wealth to provide for a family.”

Adrien sighs, burying his face in his hands. “That’s not really how human mate selection works, Plagg. I may be rich and handsome, but some girls are turned off by what a big dork I am or how I’m kind of clueless about things that are common sense to most people. Then there’re the emotional and mental health issues. No one wants to get involved with someone like me.”

“When has anyone ever turned you down?” Plagg scoffs. “When has anyone ever told you any of that or broken up with you? Kid, you’ve never been in a relationship with anyone besides those fake publicity stunt dates your father has you do. No one has ever said any of that stuff to you in real life; it’s all in your head.”

Adrien misses nearly everything Plagg has said and zeroes in on the first question. “Ladybug has turned me down.”

Plagg shakes his head. “Because there was someone else, not because of any of the things you just said. Why don’t we shelf the issue for now and come back to it once Marinette has decided whether she wants you despite your imagined shortcomings?”

Adrien nods in agreement, getting to his feet and heading for the door. He reaches out for the handle but pauses before taking it. With a sigh, he rests his forehead against the door.

“I don’t want to do the rest of today. I’m exhausted.”

“Come on, Kid,” Plagg tries to encourage. “It won’t be too bad.”

Normally he’d say something like “Tough luck” or “Too bad time’s not going to stop on your account”, but Adrien has had a rough day, a rough week, and is in need of gentler handling.

“You’ve got a free hour after school before piano, and you’ve been practicing a lot lately, so the piano lesson should be a breeze. Maybe you’ll do so well that the instructor lets you out early,” Plagg suggests.

Adrien laughs sheepishly. “What I’ve been practicing hasn’t been the assigned material, Plagg. I’ll be lucky if I can do a decent job of sight-reading Ravel because I don’t think my instructor will be as impressed as my schoolmates by Indila’s SOS or Peter Bence’s arrangement of Despacito.”

“You never know,” Plagg contradicts. “The pieces may be popular music, but you still played them skillfully. Even if the piano lesson doesn’t go well, you’ve just got the fitting afterwards, and you can use that time to space out and daydream about your girlfriend,” Plagg titters.

Adrien squirms at the thought, face flaring bright crimson. “Is it weird that I really, really want her to decide she wants to be my girlfriend? I mean, this is pro