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“Marinette, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

“Well, I am.” Marinette carefully didn’t look back at her kwami, instead focusing her attention on her math book. The numbers swam before her eyes; she was already behind on the material, and no matter how many times she read the page the information meant nothing. The headache pounding away in her temples wasn’t helping.

She glanced over at her phone and felt a twinge of panic when she saw the time. She only had another twenty minutes to finish all of her math homework and start plotting out an essay for her French class, plus she was supposed to memorize a brief passage out of their English book and start researching for a presentation. Looking down at the three pages of math problems, Marinette knew there was no way she was going to get even a quarter of the page done.

For a moment, she was tempted to drop her face into her hands and cry out of sheer frustration. It would probably make her feel a hell of a lot better, but ironically she just didn’t have the time. Not only did she have to finish her homework, she had promised that she’d help her maman close the bakery tonight and she still had to patrol with Chat after that. And that wasn’t even counting the stupid presentation she was supposed to be starting, plus the merchandise she was supposed to be working on for Kitty Section, and the new design she wanted to start for that contest, and Master Fu had been mad she hadn’t come for training today…

Anxiety made her throat tight as she thought of everything that she was supposed to be doing, and she had to stop and spend a couple of minutes just breathing. When had she gotten to the point where there weren’t enough hours in the day? Marinette couldn’t even remember. It was like things had slowly crept up over the past few months until suddenly she was flailing to keep everything under control.

“Are you sure you’re fine?” Tikki asked, so close to Marinette’s ear that Marinette startled badly and knocked pretty much everything on her desk onto the floor.

“Marinette?” Sabine called. “What happened?” The trap door opened a moment later and Sabine poked her head up.

“Nothing, Maman,” Marinette said resignedly, staring at the mess of books, papers, pencils, pens, fabrics, sewing materials, magazines and other assorted things now on her floor. It would take ages to sort it all back into some kind of order.

“Okay. Are you ready to come help me?” Sabine asked.

“Sure,” Marinette said dully. The mess would still be there when she got back. She stood up and walked over to the trap door, following her maman downstairs to the bakery… where she almost had a heart attack when she saw the state of the place. The mess upstairs had nothing on this.

“It’s a mess, isn’t it? Your papa’s new macaron recipe has been a real hit. Customers are flocking into the store! Thanks a lot for helping out, Marinette. I have to help your papa with a big catering order,” Sabine explained.

“Wait, you’re not going to help me?!” Marinette blurted out.

“I’m sure you can handle it yourself. It shouldn’t take more than two or three hours,” Sabine said, already turning away.

Forget crying. Marinette was going to have a nervous breakdown. “But Maman, I – I’m really busy tonight. I have so much homework to do –”

“You’ll be fine,” Sabine said with a smile. “If you do this for me, you can go out with Alya this weekend!” She winked at Marinette and disappeared back behind the curtain.

Marinette stared at the curtain and then slowly looked around again. Her chin quivered as she took in the mountains of dirty utensils, the streaked windows, the fingerprints upon every visible surface, the dirty display cases, the muddy floor, the crumbs all over the counters, the untouched cash register. And to top it all off, her maman still thought that going out with Alya would be a good reward.

“Marinette?” Tikki said quietly, popping out of Marinette’s pocket. “I’ll help you. It’ll be okay.”

“You’re… you’re right,” Marinette croaked, wiping discretely at her eyes. She took a deep breath and forced a shaky smile. “It’s… it’s fine.”

She moved over to the cash register, biting her lip when she saw that it hadn’t been cashed out all day. Math was never her favorite subject, and her head was already spinning: cashing out the register required so much attention to detail. She usually had to check and recheck her numbers to make sure she had everything right. That alone was going to take at least an hour.

“How come your maman doesn’t know that you and Alya aren’t as close as you used to be?” Tikki asked suddenly.

“Umm… I dunno,” Marinette said, hitting the appropriate buttons on the register. “I’m pretty sure I’ve told her… or maybe I didn’t.” That was bullshit. But she couldn’t blame Sabine for not remembering. Her maman and papa were both so busy.

“And what about Lila?” Tikki pressed. “Why haven’t they done anything about her?”

“I didn’t tell them,” Marinette said. Her parents still thought Lila was an angel with a terrible disease that made her prone to lying all the time.

“Why not?” Tikki asked.

“Because,” Marinette mumbled, which wasn’t an answer and she knew it. She took the receipt from the register with the day’s totals and turned around, only to jump when she saw Tikki hovering right behind her on eye level.

“Marinette,” Tikki said sternly.

“What can they do, Tikki? Absolutely nothing. It’s not a big deal. I can handle Lila,” Marinette said.

Tikki’s frown deepened. “They could talk to the school, or to Madame Rossi, or even just offer you some support. Why don’t they ever ask you what’s wrong? You look so tired all the time. Surely they must notice.”

“Tikki…” Marinette put a hand to her throbbing head. “Please, I don’t want to talk about this. It’s a good thing my parents don’t pay attention to me, okay? It means I can go and be Ladybug and not have to worry about them.”

“Do you really believe that?” Tikki asked quietly, sounding almost… sad?

“I… yes? I don’t know,” Marinette said, uncomfortable. “I don’t want to talk to them about Alya or my other classmates… and especially not about Lila. They won’t care anyway.” She muttered that last part under her breath. “And even if they did, they’d just be like every other adult in my life. They’d take one look at Lila’s smarmy smile and believe everything she says.”

Just like Madame Bustier had today, when Lila had dramatically claimed that she had an eye condition that made researching for long periods of time too painful. And it just so happened that Marinette and Lila had been paired up to do a presentation together for science. Madame Bustier had quickly decided it was fine for Marinette to do all the research, and Lila would do the actual presentation.

Yeah right. Presentation day was next week. Marinette was positive that Lila would develop a mysterious illness that left her throat too sore to talk, or her fingers too crippled to put together a poster board. One way or another, there was zero doubt in her mind that Marinette was going to be the one doing the whole project but Lila would somehow wind up with all of the credit.

She swallowed roughly. “And… and even if they didn’t, they wouldn’t stand up for me anyway.” She stood there for a moment, remembering her maman’s comment about how complicated the situation was when Lila tried to get Marinette expelled from school. No matter how much her parents claimed they’d believed Marinette hadn’t stolen anything or pushed Lila down the stairs, that comment told her there was a seed of doubt. And that hurt way more than Marinette was capable of putting into words.

“When you go patrolling tonight, I’d like to speak with Plagg,” Tikki said suddenly. “Would you be okay with that?”

Marinette blinked at her in surprise. “Uh… sure? I better get moving, then. Otherwise I won’t even have time to go for patrol.”

“Right,” Tikki said, nodding. “Let’s get to it!” She smiled at Marinette, who tried to smile back.

It turned out that Sabine’s estimate was a little off. It took over four hours for Marinette to get the register counted and everything cleaned up to the level of quality that her parents expected. She was completely exhausted by the time she switched off the lights and ventured back into the kitchens. Much to her surprise, there was no one back there. Confused, Marinette ventured upstairs.

“Maman? Papa?” she called out, entering the apartment. Everything was quiet. She realized her parent’s door was shut and moved to listen. Hearing the distinct sound of papa’s snores, she cracked the door open and saw that they were both in bed asleep.

“They went to bed and left you down there alone?!” Tikki hissed.

“I guess they were tired,” Marinette said, gently closing the door. She wished she could go to bed, but at least she wouldn’t have to worry about her parents overhearing her leaving. They both slept like the dead.

Tikki looked furious. “That is absolutely no excuse!” she ranted as Marinette made her way back upstairs. “Didn’t they realize you were still in the bakery working? I can’t believe their nerve!”

She kept ranting away, but Marinette tuned her kwami out as she knelt down and gathered the mess still on her floor. There was no time to sort through everything now, so she dumped it onto her desk. She’d probably get yelled at tomorrow for leaving her room so messy, but she was going to be late to meet Chat and Marinette really hated to keep him waiting.

“Tikki, are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” Tikki said. “Yes, I certainly am.”

“Tikki, spots on!” Marinette said. Tikki zipped into her earrings and red light flashed in her room. At one time, transforming into Ladybug had left Marinette feeling excited and energized. Tonight, it took way more strength than it should’ve just to haul herself up the ladder to her bed. She sluggishly pushed the window open and climbed out into the cold, late fall night.

The breeze helped to revitalize her a bit, enough so that she jumped off her balcony rather than just falling off the way she usually did. Ladybug swung her way south, heading for where she and Chat usually met up for one of their patrols. He’d beaten her there tonight; the blond hair and green eyes, shining strangely in the lights, were pretty hard to miss. She landed lightly on the edge of the roof and stumbled.

Chat was there instantly, catching her with gentle hands. Rather than pull away, in a moment of pure weakness, she leaned against him. He was the only one who really touched her anymore. Her maman and papa sometimes gave her a rapid-fire hug and kiss in the morning, but that was it. And she knew that Chat was always eager for touch, so she told herself she was doing it to benefit them both.

“Tired?” Chat asked softly.

“I think I passed tired about six months ago,” she admitted, glancing at him. His eyes were shadowed and his face was leaner than it should’ve been. Concern punctured through the thick film of exhaustion that made everything seem so distant, but she wasn’t sure what to do or say.

Chat chuckled. “I know that feeling. Do you want to patrol tonight, or…?”

They really should, but Ladybug didn’t think she could. “Tikki wants to talk to Plagg,” she said instead. “We could sit on either side of the chimney?”

“Sure,” Chat said, seeming surprised by the request. He carefully let her go and went to the far side of the chimney. Ladybug sank down on her side, leaning back against it. She rested her swimming head against the cool stone and closed her eyes.

“Spots off.”

“Claws in.”

Tikki tumbled out of the earrings and immediately darted off somewhere behind Marinette. She heard a furious, whispered conversation start up to their left, but, with the way that the wind was blowing, Marinette couldn’t really make anything out. She wondered if Chat could, because his hearing tended to be better than hers even when they were civilians, but she didn’t bother to ask.

She pulled her legs up against her chest, the better to shield herself against the wind – it was cold now that she wasn’t transformed, and she wished she’d thought to put on a jacket – and waited for Tikki to be finished. The thought of everything that waited for her at home made her headache worse, and dwelling on what her day would be like tomorrow was equally unpleasant: Madame Bustier had promised plenty of classtime to work on their presentations, and she was sure Lila was going to figure out some way to make Marinette’s life miserable.

Sometimes she wished… she just wished… Marinette gulped and blinked, shivering, and pushed those thoughts from her head. It was fine. It was all fine. It had to be. She was Ladybug; she could handle everything, right? She had to. There were no other options.