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Braver Than I Thought

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0.

Adrien finds out first.

He doesn’t mean to, of course – he’s tumbling headfirst out of the alley he propelled himself into, having shed his transformation somewhere between six and ten feet in the air (not his most graceful effort, he’ll admit), when he sees none other than Marinette Dupain-Cheng sneaking a kwami into her purse. She’s glancing over her shoulder, back pressed against the tree she must have ducked behind after the akuma battle.

Thankfully, she’s looking away from him because Adrien doesn’t move from where he’s sprawled on the sidewalk. In fact, he thinks he might just live here for the foreseeable future, just him and the concrete, trying to forget that Marinette Dupain-Cheng is Ladybug, of course she is, it’s just his luck.

To think, just the other day after the picnic, he was hugging his pillow and gushing to a very disgusted Plagg about how lucky he was to know two of the most amazing girls in Paris, and miraculously, it turns out they’re the exact same person. Of course, Ladybug has to be Marinette Dupain-Cheng: class-president, prodigy fashion designer, and artist for two of Jagged Stone’s album covers. His lady never does things by halves.

Adrien wants to cry into the sidewalk. He’s been beating back a slow wave of feelings for Marinette for the past month (because he was determined that his heart belonged only to his lady), but with this new realization, he doesn’t think he’ll make it. This can be how the obituaries describe him – at one with the concrete, clothes smeared with alley dirt, having hit his head against every third rung of the ladder he grabbed to slow his fall.

A businesswoman steps over him. Her phone is glued between her head and shoulder, and her hands are busy taking notes, but she doesn’t miss a beat while walking, like moaning teenage boys having existential crises while lying supine in the middle of the street are everyday occurrences.

Then again, thanks to Hawkmoth, this was probably less exciting than an average Tuesday.

A shadow falls over him. Adrien peeks one eye out from behind his forearm and sees a concerned-looking Nino peering down at him.

“Uh, you good, bro?”

I realized that I’m in love with Marinette Dupain-Cheng and that I can never look Marinette Dupain-Cheng in the eyes again on the same day, Adrien wants to cry.

He turns onto his stomach and pulls his white overshirt over his head. “I’m peachy,” he says instead.

And if his voice breaks in the middle of the word, and he sounds more “I’m having a midlife crisis at the tender age of fifteen” than “peachy” – well, he’s sure Nino wouldn’t notice the difference anyways.

 

5.

Nino notices it immediately.

To be fair, it’d be difficult not to notice – he’s slumped over his desk Monday morning nursing a juice box like it’s coffee when Adrien stomps into the room like a man on a mission, shoulders set and expression hard. He passes by his own seat without glancing at it, walks determinedly up the stairs and careens to a stop in front of where Marinette and Alya are discussing the Ladyblog. Well, more accurately, where Alya is gesticulating wildly about the Ladyblog while Marinette looks like she has long abandoned any pretense of being an attentive friend and is currently attempting to melt into the ground to sleep for another twelve to sixteen hours.

Adrien’s face is red.

Nino slurps at his juice box.

Upon seeing Adrien standing near them like a statue in winter, Alya immediately stops her gesticulating (let nobody tell Nino that his girlfriend isn’t the best wingman on the planet). She punches Marinette none too gently in the shoulder.

Marinette doesn’t stir.

“Oh, good morning, Adrien, you look absolutely dashing today.” Another punch. “Marinette thinks you look pretty too.” This time, by the sound of it, there’s a kick underneath the desk.

Marinette jerks upright, the picture of sleepy annoyance. “What.”

“Don’t you think Adrien looks pretty today?” Alya prods.

Marinette squints at Adrien, who’s still standing stock still at her side, red enough for Crayola to feel inadequate about the vibrancy of their own colors. “He’s always pretty,” she mutters groggily.

Nino’s mildly impressed. Who knew a half-asleep Marinette could be so smooth?

Adrien must have been equally flummoxed because he flushes hard enough that he could have passed for Ladybug in terms of color scheme. His grip tightens to absurdity on his bag. For a moment, it looks like he might be able to power through the embarrassment, but then his entire face crumples, like an especially flimsy and garishly red house of cards, and he flees, ducking under a surprised Miss Bustier in the doorway.

Nino turns back around in his seat to see a now fully awake Marinette blinking in confusion. Her eyes haven’t moved from where Adrien had been standing, and a light blush is beginning to crawl up her cheeks. Upon seeing half the class staring at her with varying degrees of amusement and bafflement, she groans and buries her head in her arms. Alya pats her back sympathetically, and Nino reaches across the distance between their desks to do the same.

“Was it something I said?” Marinette’s voice is muffled and tinged terribly with something like despair.

Nino meets his girlfriend’s accusing eyes, which are clearly asking, “What the hell is going on with your boy?” He shrugs the best he can with one available shoulder, the other arm still attempting to console an inconsolable Marinette.

Where Adrien is concerned, Nino learned a long time ago to let go of things like taking showers in the middle of akuma attacks and jumping off skyscrapers and flopping like a headless fish in front of obvious crushes.

There’s only so much Adrien-related stress that Nino can take.

 

4.

In her defense, when Marinette tumbles into the locker room after making a likely nonsensical excuse to Miss Bustier, eight apologies for her accidental bluntness at the ready, she isn’t expecting to see Adrien clutching a black blob to his chest and bewailing his woes with all the tragedy of particularly upset Shakespeare protagonist.

She skids to a stop at a row of lockers and, before she can consider the legal and societal consequences of eavesdropping, ducks down behind them. The little blob in Adrien’s hands wriggles, and two unamused green eyes flop into view.

Marinette blinks. That’s a kwami.

“Why am I like this, Plagg?” Adrien half-wails. “I couldn’t even talk to her. It was like I didn’t know what words were. Why didn’t I know what words were?”

The blob blinks lazily. “’Cause you’re a hopeless romantic.”

That is so very obviously a kwami.

“I know words. I know lots of words. Big words even.”

“Sure, kid.”

But that means –

“I can even put those words into sentences. I’m doing it right now.”

“Uh huh.”

Adrien Agreste is Chat Noir.

In some ingrained last-ditch effort at identity perseverance, Marinette shoves her phone into her mouth and silently screams around it. Adrien Agreste is Chat Noir. But that means all those times Chat told Ladybug he loved her– If Adrien is Chat–

That means Adrien is in love with Ladybug.

Marinette resists curling into a ball and wailing. Oh, god, she should have known. Of course Adrien would be in love with Ladybug – she’s so cool, and she saves Paris, and she has perfect hair, and he has perfect hair, and they would be perfect together, and how’s Marinette supposed to compete with that?

Just as she’s considering rolling into one of the lockers and living there for the rest of her life, a small movement at her side hastily drags her back to reality. Tikki’s blinking up at her disapprovingly. Marinette hates when Tikki blinks at her disapprovingly; it’s inexplicably effective. Marinette’s current theory is that the high eye to face size ratio in kwamis make every emotion –

Wait a minute. Kwamis. Marinette has a kwami. Marinette is Ladybug. Which means if Adrien’s Chat Noir, and Chat Noir’s in love with Ladybug, and Marinette is Ladybug, then by the transitive power of love…

Marinette leaps to her feet triumphantly. “Adrien’s in love with me!” she declares, almost giddy with joy.

There’s a beat of silence – all-consuming silence, silence long enough for all her momentary happiness to freeze solid and clink to the ground. Ever so slowly, she turns, trying to keep her movements as predictable as possible.

Adrien stares at her with all the composure of a startled fawn. One of his hands is shoved up his shirt, where there’s a – once again, so terribly obvious – lump the shape of a kwami. The other hand flails around a moment before settling at the back of his neck. It’s such a shy, endearing gesture that Marinette immediately feels herself melt. She’s content enough to sink into the ground and become Marinette-goo for the next two weeks. And then they’ll date and go see movies, and she’ll propose one day on top of the Eiffel tower (the section with no gawking tourists), and he’ll say yes, and then they’ll get married on a beach in October, and her parents will make them a Ladybug and Chat Noir themed cake, and Plagg can be the flower cat, and Tikki will be the ring bearer, and Adrien’ll talk about how amazing and eloquent her love confession was in his vows–

Wait, that’s right. The love confession.

Marinette takes a breath. The locker room at school right after finding out her partner’s secret identity via somewhat accidental eavesdropping wasn’t the ideal confession scenario she’d always imagined, but Marinette could make do.

“Adrien,” she says, vaguely aware of how hopelessly lovestruck her voice sounded. “Adrien, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time now.” She steps forwards and grabs the hand that’s not still trying to stuff a wriggling kwami out of her view. “I –”

The locker room doors burst open.

“You guys in here?” Alya calls.

Nino’s head pokes in after her. He looks bemusedly at their intertwined fingers. “Are we interrupting something?”

“No!” Adrien almost screeches, and it says something about how very in love Marinette is that she even finds his screeching cute. He pulls his overshirt together over the Plagg lump the best he can with only one free hand since she’s refusing to ever let go of his other.

“Yes,” Marinette says, glaring at Nino. “Very clearly, yes.”

“Miss Bustier sent us after you guys.” Alya raises an eyebrow. “Those were some dramatic exits you two pulled.”

“We have to drag you guys back to class too, unfortunately,” Nino says. “Sorry.”

Marinette frowns. She was so close. Usually, by now, she would have dissolved into an incomprehensible mess, but something (probably adrenaline, so much adrenaline) was driving her. She doesn’t want to stop when she’s so close, but Miss Bustier being disappointed in the both of them would be a fate worse than death.

Sighing, Marinette begrudgingly lets go of Adrien’s hand. Now that she’s no longer caught in the hazy daydream of proposal-wedding-honeymoon-cake, she can see that he’s flushed red all the way down to his neckline. A quick touch to her own face reveals that she’s not much better.

Nevertheless, she’s not discouraged. It’s barely noon, after all – an entire day full of potential love confession-worthy moments awaits.

 

3.

“So, you avoided Marinette all day? That’s cold, dude.”

Adrien presses his face further into the bench he’s lying on. The wood is uneven and pokes into his cheek at some places. It’s all he deserves, really. “I know, I’m the worst,” he says.

Nino nudges Adrien’s head with his leg as he tries to get comfortable in the remaining thirty centimeters worth of space not taken up by Adrien’s body. “I wouldn’t say the worst. There’s always Hawkmoth.”

Adrien glances up at Nino. “That’s such a low bar, man.” It must be worse than he thinks.

“You just gotta take your own advice. Remember?” Nino removes his hat, puffs up, and does an absolutely terrible impression of Adrien’s voice. “’Marinette’s never going to fall in love with a statue.’ What ever happened to that?”

“That Adrien was a naïve fool. Unblemished by the casualties of life.” Adrien pulls at his shirt, wishing that it had a hood he could hide in. “You have to help me, Nino.”

Nino snickers, obviously equipped with a very fine sense of irony. Adrien wants to say that it’s very much not appreciated. Still, he lets Nino physically drag him off the bench and to his feet.

Adrien doesn’t even know why he’s so worried. How is this any different than confessing to Ladybug as Chat? But Chat’s cool and suave and makes people swoon while Adrien is decidedly not so. And what if Marinette doesn’t like him back? Of course, he’ll cherish her friendship forever because she’s so utterly wonderful, and he’s just thankful to be beside her as classmates and partners.

But also, Adrien might die.

“I don’t know,” he says, “What if Marinette doesn’t like me back?”

Nino stops from where he’s dusting off Adrien’s shirt. “Are you serious, dude?”

“She’s so cool! And I’m so… me.”

Nino looks like he’s four misplaced words away from strangling Adrien. It’s a surprisingly unfamiliar expression. Usually, Nino has endless patience for Adrien’s tragic bemoaning.

“Marinette totally likes you,” Nino says after a deep breath. “Trust me, man, she thinks you’re cool and pretty and all that jazz. You just got to tell her how you feel.”

Adrien blinks. “She thinks I’m pretty?” he asks hopefully.

“You are literally a model.”

She thinks he’s pretty. He tries not to melt. “I think she’s pretty too.”

“Cool, but don’t tell me that.” Nino bodily turns Adrien around and points to where Alya and Marinette are walking along the river towards them. “Tell her.”

Adrien freezes. “Nino, what did you do?”

“My hand may have slipped and accidentally texted my girlfriend our location.” Adrien can hear him grinning, that traitor. “I believe in you.”

“Nino, you said you would help me!”

“This is totally me helping. I read somewhere that we learn best under intense, in-the-moment pressure.”

“That is so decidedly untrue. Nino.”

“Wow!” Nino calls out in a voice that would not sound casual to even the gentlest of acting critics. “If it isn’t my girlfriend, Alya. What a remarkable coincidence. Would you like to walk down this very romantic river with me?”

Alya’s grinning too, which means she must also be in on this nefarious scheme. “Nino! I am so surprised. Yes, I will go with you. It’s a shame I must leave my best friend Marinette here. Ah, well, surely someone else will keep her company.”

The two of them walk away with truly impressive speed.

Marinette smiles softly and does a half-wave with one hand. It’s painstakingly adorable. Adrien can’t look at her directly.

“Hi, Adrien,” she says.

Say something, you idiot, a voice that sounds disturbingly like Plagg yells in his head. “Hi,” he manages to choke out. Good, now say her name. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng.” Not her full – that’s it, I give up.

Maybe Adrien's freaking out enough that his poor neurons have gained access to kwami telepathy.

“Marinette,” he tries again. Just be Chat. Just be Chat. “You’re a thief.”

She stares at him, looking strangely and suddenly guilty. “What?”

“I mean, are you a heart? Because I’m a thief. And you stole it.”

Maybe if he asks his dad, he can go back to being homeschooled.

Marinette laughs nervously. “If this is about that time I took your phone, I promise I was only borrowing it, and it’s because it had this voicemail on it that was super embarrassing, you know–”

Homeschooling wasn’t that bad. He was terribly lonely sometimes and used to line his stuffed animals along his bed and hold entire conversations with them, but at least he wouldn’t be in this situation right now.

“–and I thought that if you didn’t like me like that, you know, that’s not how I wanted you to find out, and if you really didn’t, then I would be really embarrassed–”

Sure, he’d miss Nino and Alya. And maybe even Plagg.

“–and I promise I meant to give it back eventually, and I wore oven mitts and everything!”

But then… he would never know Marinette Dupain-Cheng, his lady – the girl’s fallen hopelessly in love with.

Adrien squares his shoulders. Takes a breath.

“Marinette, I really– I mean, I think I might–” He can do this. “I love–”

“Citizens of Paris. Fear me! For I am the Green Machine, and I will make sure everyone in this city gets their daily required nutrients.”

Adrien and Marinette share a glance.

“Well, that’s not so bad,” she shrugs.

“Also, I am banning bread.”

Marinette’s expression darkens. “I changed my mind, we need to destroy him.”

Adrien feels his heartbeat quicken. “We?”

She jumps and hastily backs away. “Uh, I meant, we should run. And destroy him by being good civilians and hiding. Because we’re civilians. Bye, Adrien!”

Adrien blinks. She couldn’t possibly know that he’s Chat Noir, could she? He’s so sure that his strategy for hiding Plagg this morning in the locker room was foolproof – no way she could have seen through his brilliant improvisation. But could she still know? Or does she just know he knows? Or maybe she knows but thinks he doesn’t know she knows, but he actually does know–

“Kid, are you going to keep standing there, or are we going to help Ladybug?” Plagg bumps his head none too gently into Adrien’s nose. “Your thinking’s giving me a headache.”

Adrien sighs. At least he’ll always have Plagg.

“Alright, Plagg – claws out!”

 

2.

Alya’s not sure what she’s expecting when Ladybug swings headfirst into her room that afternoon.

To be honest, she isn’t expecting Ladybug at all, but months of finely honed reporter instincts have her fingers reaching for her phone before her mind can even process the situation.

“Ladybug!” Alya says, pressing record. “What a surprise! Can you tell us how exactly the Green Machine was–”

In a single graceful movement, Ladybug has a palm against Alya’s mouth, the other hand slipping the phone from her grasp with an ease that Alya finds highly suspicious. Who would have thought that one of Paris’s superheroes has such sticky fingers?

“Alya, I need to talk to you off the record.”

Alya’s eyes widen. “Rena Rouge?” she asks, only it comes out muffled behind Ladybug’s palm.

Ladybug laughs awkwardly and takes a step back, handing the phone back to her. “No, it’s not superhero related.” She scratches the back of her neck, looking suddenly shy. “Actually, it’s pretty personal, but I couldn’t think of anyone else to go to, and you give great advice– I mean, you certainly seem like you give great advice. Because, you know, reporters are observant and all.”

Alya puffs up a little, basking in the praise that’s coming from Ladybug of all people. “Well, I do give great advice. My best friend can vouch for me. Let me call her–”

“No!” Alya’s phone flies out of her hand and hits the back wall before she can blink. Ladybug laughs nervously and guides them to flop onto Alya’s bed instead. “Let’s just talk, okay?”

Alya feels like she should be more offended on her phone’s behalf, but she’s too excited at the prospect of hanging out sleepover-style with Ladybug to protest. She rolls onto her stomach and cradles her chin in her hands.

“Alright, girl. Spill.”

Ladybug leans back onto her hands. There’s a soft blush on her cheeks that has Alya itching to grab the nearest device capable of photography and snap endless pictures, but she resists.

“There’s this boy,” Ladybug says, which definitely isn’t what Alya’s expecting, but she’s flexible. It’s one of the perks of being an intrepid reporter. “And I really like him.”

“It’s not Carapace, is it?”

“What? No, no, it’s not Carapace.”

 “Good, I like Carapace.”

“It’s Chat Noir.”

Ha! Nino owes Alya twenty euros.

“And the thing is,” Ladybug continues, “I know he likes me. He likes Ladybug. And I always rejected him because I kind of had my own crush, but I accidentally sort of found out his secret identity the other day, and it turns out I’ve liked him all along – I mean, what are the chances, really – but now I don’t know if he likes me me or if he just likes the mask because I’ve tried to confess to him, and he keeps avoiding me, and if it turns out he does hate me, then we’ll never get married and have two dogs and a hamster–”

Alya feels her own eyes widening more and more the longer the rant progresses and hastily holds up her hands before her eyebrows can touch her hairline. “Whoa, there, Ladybug.”

Ladybug’s mouth snaps closed, and for a moment, she looks almost mortified at how caught up she had been with her own words.

“First off,” Alya says, “if this thing with Chat Noir doesn’t work out, then I gotta introduce you to my friend Marinette – you two would get along great.”

Ladybug flushes. “I–”

“Second, I’m going to tell you the same thing I told her. You got to stop listening to your crazy nonsense brain and just tell him how you feel.”

As a superhero, Ladybug always looks larger than life, but now, she suddenly seems very small. “But what if he doesn’t like what’s behind the mask?”

“Do you only like the one side of Chat Noir?”

“Of course not.” She looks utterly offended that Alya would even suggest otherwise. “I accept all of– Oh.”

Alya smiles and reaches for Ladybug’s yo-yo. “Here, you guys can talk to each other on this, right? Call him right now.”

“He detransformed after the battle and ran away from me, I don’t think he’ll pick up.”

“Then text him! Do it now, before you chicken out.” Alya jumps to her feet and plants herself between Ladybug and the window. “I won’t let you leave until you do.”

Ladybug stares at her yo-yo for a moment; then, all at once, determination blossoms across her face. “I’ll do it,” she declares.

Her fingers move faster than Alya’s expecting, and in no time at all, Ladybug lets out a sigh of relief and presses the send button.

“That was quick,” Alya comments.

Ladybug laughs, rubbing the back of her neck. “Well, it’s been a long time coming.” Her yo-yo chimes. “Ah, he responded!”

Alya leans in eagerly. “What did he say?”

There’s no reply.

“Ladybug?”

Ladybug’s entire face has drained of color, her suit now standing out in stark contrast against her skin. Then, as if moving in slow motion, her entire body crumples forwards, and she brings her arms up to cover her head.

A fiery protective rage washes over Alya. “Five minutes alone with him as Rena Rouge, that’s all I’m asking.”

Ladybug giggles and groans almost simultaneously. “It’s not that.”

“That’s fine, I’ll fight him now, no powers needed.”

“No, no, it’s just–” Ladybug groans again, slumping forwards. “I pressed the wrong contact. I sent that text to Chloe Bourgeois.”

 

1.

Under normal circumstances, Marinette thinks she would have been overjoyed about sitting on the edge of a fountain next to Adrien Agreste in a park devoid of all other people. In fact, awkward tension aside, she’s still very much overjoyed. But it’s time to take Alya’s advice – to take her own advice. She coughs, summons up as much Ladybug courage as she can muster, and turns to face him.

“Adrien, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.” She takes a breath. “I’m Ladybug.”

There’s a beat of silence – certainly not what Marinette was expecting – and then Adrien laughs softly. His cheeks seem permanently stained with red.

“Yeah, I kind of knew that.”

She blinks. “You knew?”

“Just for a day! And I found out by accident. I didn’t mean to, I promise.” He turns to meet her eyes. “I’m Chat Noir.”

Marinette blinks again. “Uh, yeah.”

Adrien flushes to the roots of his hair. “Wait, you knew?”

“You were crying to your kwami in the locker room.”

“But I hid Plagg expertly the moment I saw you!”

“You shoved him up your shirt. He was still moving.”

“But I thought–” He buries his face in his hands. “I can be sneaky.”

She pats him awkwardly on the shoulder and tries not to think about the very loud and obvious bell on Chat’s collar. “The sneakiest.”

Adrien seems to recover a bit at the praise and takes her hand. “Then you must know what I’ve been trying to tell you, m’lady.”

The honorific, which was once the cause of many an eyeroll, suddenly makes Marinette feel very warm and goopy inside. “Go on,” she smiles.

“I love–”

An astonishingly loud peal of thunder cracks through the air, and the sky breaks open, soaking them to the bone in seconds. Marinette pushes back her dripping mop of hair and physically forces herself not to stomp like a petulant child.

“Oh, come on!”

 

+1

“I can’t believe you and Chloe dated for twenty-seven minutes.”

Adrien grins into his towel as Marinette huffs and falls back onto her chaise. She’s changed into fluffy sweatpants and a T-shirt, and his heart is doing somersaults around in his chest.

“It’s not my fault Chat and Chloe both start with the same letters. And it was seven minutes at most. The other twenty was spent trying to convince her that it really was just a misunderstanding.”

He laughs and gives his hair one last rub before letting the towel fall into her laundry hamper. “It’s really nice of your parents to let me stay here to wait out the storm.” He tugs on the hem of his shirt. “And thanks for letting me borrow some of your clothes. I’m amazed you had something exactly my size.”

Marinette chuckles, sounding oddly nervous. “The consequences of having amazing luck, I’m sure. It’s certainly not something that was designed for you specifically.”

“I’m the lucky one, m’lady.”

“You’re going to keep calling me that now?”

Adrien tries and probably fails to hide a grin. “When we’re alone, sure.”

She sighs, a half-smile on her lips, before scooting back in the chaise and extending an arm. “Come here, kitty.”

The blush that had been plaguing him for the past day and a half returns with a vengeance. “You mean with– With you?”

There’s a very Ladybug-like smirk on Marinette’s face. “There’s room for two.”

He hastily plops onto the chaise with none of the elegance he was hoping for and tries to hide his burning cheeks when she laughs and pulls him into a more comfortable position. Head pillowed in the crook of her arm, he stretches out a hesitant hand and can’t stop the ridiculous grin from blooming across his face when she takes it.

“Marinette, I love–”

He feels soft lips in his hair and stutters to a stop. His lungs seem to have forgotten how to take in air.

When Marinette laughs at his sudden lack of voice, he feels the vibrations from her chest wrap around him. She kisses him again.

“I know.”