Adrien entered Tom and Sabine's Bakery with some trepidation after fencing practice. Marinette had seemed even more nervous than usual when she'd insisted that he, Alya, and Nino meet her at her house after school—though also as determined as he'd ever seen her, which was saying something. He was inclined to pay extra attention to Marinette on the rare occasions she was able to get over her shyness around him, but he had to admit that the urgency with which she'd asked had piqued his curiosity as well; doubly so after how awkward she'd been the past week.
"Ah, Adrien, there you are!" Adrien smiled at the imposing figure of Tom Dupain, who stood behind the counter and beamed at him. "Nino and Alya are already upstairs if you'd like to go wait with them. Oh, and take this tray of cookies up with you as well, if you'd be so kind! They're a bit over-baked to serve to customers, but they're still fine to eat, and I hate to see good food go to waste." Mr. Dupain pressed a tray of chocolate chip cookies into Adrien's hands.
"Thank you, sir," Adrien replied, only fumbling for a moment. He eyed the treats suspiciously; they didn't look over-baked to him, but maybe it was something only an expert would notice.
"Please, call me Tom," the man insisted. "Now head on up; I'm sure Marinette will be ready for you shortly. You remember the way, right?"
Assuring Tom that he did indeed remember, Adrien took the tray to a side door in the bakery's interior and up a flight of stairs. Something rustled in his jacket pocket, and Plagg poked his head out. "I smell food," he announced.
Adrien hushed the kwami and gestured to the tray. "Marinette's dad gave me some cookies. There's no cheese in them, but you can have one if you want." Adrien plucked a sweet from the tray and held it out for Plagg. Maybe he'd get lucky and the kwami would have a change of heart and/or tastebuds; it would be really nice to smell like something other than cheese.
The kwami examined the cookie in front of him, dipping a paw into a melted chip and bringing it to his mouth to taste. "Seems like something Tikki would like," he commented, taking a huge bite.
"Tikki? Who's that?"
"Ladybug's kwami," Plagg clarified, shoving the rest of the cookie into his mouth. "She always did like sweets." He chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed and belched. "Not bad, but I still prefer Camembert."
Adrien rolled his eyes; apparently Plagg was done dropping hints about anything interesting. "I'll get you some when we get home. In the mean time, you need to quiet down, or my friends will notice you!"
Plagg made a show of grumbling, but zipped obediently back into Adrien's jacket pocket. Soon, almost inaudible snoring came from the kwami's hiding place. With an internal sigh of relief, Adrien finished ascending the stairs to the Dupain-Cheng living quarters.
"Adrien, bro, you made it!" Nino exclaimed when Adrien walked in. "And you brought snacks, nice!"
"Sorry I'm late," Adrien replied, setting the tray down on the couch-side table.
Alya shrugged and took a cookie from the tray. "It's fine, Marinette was doing some last-minute cleaning anyway."
"I don't know why," Nino said. "Girl's got one of the cleanest rooms I've ever seen, even when she's been on a project binge." He bit one of the sweets neatly in half and hummed in pleasure at the taste.
Alya huffed. "She's nervous, Nino. She probably wanted some time to collect herself before she told us whatever important thing she was talking about." Alya looked pointedly from Nino to Adrien and back at her boyfriend.
"Oh. Oh! You think she's going to—" Alya hushed him, and Nino snapped his mouth shut.
Adrien eyed his two friends; obviously there was something going on here. "So did Marinette tell either of you why she wanted us to come over?" he tried.
Nino shrugged with a forced casualness. "Nothing more than she told you, dude. She even clammed up when Alya tried to press her, said she wanted to tell all of us at once."
Alya crossed her arms and scowled. "I should totally have best friend privileges with regards to secrets and surprises," she grumbled.
"Oh, yeah?" Nino challenged. "What about, like, birthday presents and stuff?"
"Especially then!" Alya huffed. "I swear, it's like you didn't even read the standard best friendship agreement clause before signing the papers."
"Adrien and I have a gentleman's agreement sealed with a handshake, thank-you-very-much," Nino sniffed. "All that paperwork is just—"
"Oh good, you're all here!" The three friends' attention snapped to Marinette, who was halfway down the stairs from her attic room. She still seemed a little nervous, Adrien thought, but no less determined than earlier that afternoon. "Come on up. You can bring the snacks if you want, but leave the tray; I don't want Dad to have an excuse to interrupt."
Sharing a confused glance with his other friends, Adrien grabbed a few cookies before following them up the stairs to Marinette's room.
The space in question was just as neat—and just as pink—as Adrien remembered. He was interested to note that a lot of her pictures of him had been replaced with pictures of the four of them as a group, Marinette with her other friends, or of Gabriel ads featuring different models. He felt a slight pang at that, knowing he wasn't her favorite, but it was still nice to see her room decorated; all the blank space on her walls when he'd come over to practice Ultra Mecha Strike III had been disconcerting. Marinette hadn't struck him as the sort to leave any design space unused, even if it wasn't her usual medium.
Marinette gestured for the three of them to sit down, then seemed to lose confidence. She paced back and forth a couple of times, ran a hand through her bangs, and blew out a heavy sigh. "Right," she said. "Right, I can do this." Adrien exchanged another glance with Nino and Alya, this time worried, but Marinette turned to face them and started speaking in earnest before he could say anything.
"I have something important I really need to tell you—all three of you. Alya, you've been getting a little too close to the truth lately. While I'm pretty sure it's by accident, since you're not looking as actively now, Tikki and I still agreed that it would be better to address this now than to wait for you or someone else to figure things out."
Tikki? Adrien wondered. He swore he'd heard that name recently, but where?
Marinette didn't give him any time to think about it, though. "Nino, you've been a good friend for years, and you deserve to know, too," she continued. "I'm also counting on you to hold Alya's phone and make sure none of this ends up on the internet. As for Chloe, well." Marinette huffed out a breath. "Chloe's going to have to wait, but Adrien..." She looked directly at him then, wearing an expression he couldn't quite parse. "I think it's most important of all for me to tell you this."
Adrien stared at his friend, completely baffled. What on earth would Marinette need to tell the three of them that she had also considered telling Chloe, of all people? What could possibly be so important, and so delicate? And why would telling him be so important to her?
Meanwhile, Marinette had stopped talking and looked pointedly at Alya until the girl handed her phone over to Nino. Nino turned it off and slipped it into his back pocket, then shot Marinette a thumbs up. "Good to go!"
"Okay." Marinette blew out a breath and smiled nervously at her companions. "Tikki, spots on!"
A wave of pink-red light washed over Marinette; a few seconds later, the sparkles faded to reveal Ladybug.
Adrien fell out of his chair.
"Holy shit! Nino, gimme my phone back, I have to get this on video!"
"Hey, no way! You heard Marinette; no letting any of this get online, which means no phone for you until I'm sure you can be trusted with it."
Holy shit is right, Adrien thought. Marinette was Ladybug. This explained everything; her comments about Alya getting "too close" accidentally, why she might have included Chloe, why he was the most important one to tell. After all this time, she'd really finally trusted him enough to tell him—
Something inside Adrien shut down. Tell him, as in Adrien, not Cat Noir, her crime-fighting partner of over two years. She'd trusted Adrien and two civilians—three civilians, as far as Marinette knew—more than her fellow superhero, who had been fighting by her side and saving and being saved by her since they day they first transformed. She'd nearly trusted Chloe more than Cat Noir, and yeah, it was probably because Chloe was already publicly a superhero, and he knew all the reasons why Marinette hadn't told her, but wasn't that all the more reason she should have told Cat Noir first?
Adrien plastered his best model smile on to disguise his broken heart. "Wow, Marinette," he said, interrupting Alya and Nino's ecstatic chatter. "You're really amazing!" He got to his feet and dusted himself off. "Thanks for trusting us with this," he said, the words like ashes in his mouth. "It really means a lot to me, and I promise I'll keep your secret." It would have meant more to Cat Noir.
Another flash of light washed over Ladybug, leaving Marinette in her place, her kwami (Tikki, apparently; and that explained where he'd heard the name before) floating by her face. "You're leaving already?"
"Yeah, sorry," Adrien lied blithely. "I didn't have much time between fencing and Mandarin, so I've really got to get going. I'll see you around, Marinette."
Adrien had made it down the stairs and into the living room when he heard the door to Marinette's room slam. "Adrien, wait!"
He pasted his model smile back on and turned to face Marinette. "Yes?"
She stopped in front of him and shifted nervously. "Now that I've told you, I was w-wondering... would you like to go on a date sometime?"
Adrien stared at her, smile wiped from his face. This was why she wanted to tell him? The important reason she wanted to reveal her identity to Adrien specifically? So she could ask him out? Did she think that being Ladybug would automatically get him to accept?
Adrien ruthlessly shoved down the part of him that wanted to do exactly that. He'd loved Ladybug from the day he'd met her, and Marinette really was amazing, but if she couldn't trust Cat Noir as much as she trusted Adrien, then saying yes would only lead to disaster. "I'm sorry, Marinette," he said stiffly. "I don't think it would be a good idea." Turning quickly so he wouldn't have to see her reaction, Adrien left the bakery.
Adrien spent the ride home in sullen silence. His visit to Marinette's house had barely taken twenty minutes, which meant the Gorilla was still fairly close when Adrien called for him. This made the trip back home, and to the sanctuary of his room, that much shorter.
Once inside, Plagg floated out of his jacket pocket to hover by Adrien's ear. "Why so down, kid? I woulda thought you'd be delighted to finally know who Ladybug is!"
Adrien huffed out a sigh. "She told the wrong me," he said glumly. "She should have told Cat Noir first, and then I could tell her who I am, and she wouldn't need to tell Adrien because I'd already know."
"Well, aren't you glad to know anyway?"
Adrien thought about it. "Maybe?" he said. "I mean, I've wanted to know since the day I met her, but this isn't how it was supposed to happen! She should be able to trust Cat Noir with anything, way more than some civilian, even if we are friends!"
He slumped in on himself, a heady cocktail of emotions stewing in his gut: Jealousy, anger, hurt, and betrayal. He'd thought Ladybug trusted him more than anyone else, and it turned out that she held three civilians in higher regard—one of whom she could barely form complete sentences around. "I just... want to know why she trusts Adrien more than Cat."
Plagg hummed thoughtfully and dug a wedge of Camembert from the stash Adrien hid in his room. "Well, you've got patrol tonight, right? You should ask her then." The kwami stuffed the entire wedge into his mouth, outright taunting the laws of physics.
Adrien groaned. "I can't do that; she doesn't know who I am. As far as I know, she doesn't even want to know. As soon as I bring it up, the cat's out of the bag!"
Adrien could practically sense Plagg rolling his eyes. "Well, maybe she's going to tell Cat-you tonight anyway. Didn't she say Alya was getting too close to figuring things out on her own? Maybe Ms. Super Sleuth found something that forced Marinette's hand, so she had to tell Alya first, and she decided to get you and Nino out of the way at the same time."
"Yeah, maybe," Adrien allowed, a spark of hope lighting the embers of his heart. It was a better explanation than he could come up with; better than her trusting Adrien more than Cat, at any rate. "...Wait, I thought you fell asleep after eating that cookie. How did you hear all of that anyway?"
Plagg snorted. "Please. As if I could sleep through you falling out of your chair!"
Patrol seemed to take forever to arrive that night. Occasions to see his Lady has always taken more time than they rightfully should, but the unique combination of anticipation and dread Adrien was experiencing seemed determined to drag out every torturous second. He managed to distract himself with homework for a few hours, only to end up more distraught than he'd thought possible when he ran out.
Half an hour before he usually left, Adrien's patience finally ran out. Plagg seemed fed up with Adrien's pacing as well, because he didn't even complain once about the wasted energy, just complied with a quiet grumbling that, for him, was practically a blessing.
Cat Noir took to the roofs with enthusiasm. Between the fresh night air and the exertion of rooftop travel, he felt almost like himself again. He took his time getting to the place where he and Ladybug (Marinette, his mind reminded him) were set to meet up that night, trying to lose himself in physical activity.
Unlike earlier that evening, time caught up to him far too fast, and soon he actually had to rush to reach the starting point for their patrol route. He was panting when he arrived, but his rooftop run had done wonders for his mood. Maybe Plagg was right; maybe Ladybug really had wanted to tell him first, and circumstances had prevented her.
A soft thump on the rooftop behind him alerted him to his Lady's arrival. Finding an almost natural smile, he turned to face her. Ladybug's eyes were slightly bloodshot, and Cat had to force down a pang of guilt; he'd hoped that turning her down wouldn't have had such a big impact, but it seemed that she liked Adrien more than he'd thought. Still, her smile, like his own, was nearly as bright as usual. "Evening, Cat," she said.
"Good evening, my Lady," Cat Noir replied with a bow. "Is there anything you'd like to talk about before we get started tonight?" He tried not to sound too hopeful.
Ladybug only shook her head, though. "Nothing in particular. Was there something you wanted to say?"
The bottom dropped out of Cat Noir's stomach for the second time that day. Plagg had been wrong; she hadn't meant to tell him before Alya—she hadn't even meant to tell him at all! What was he supposed to do now? Confront her? Pretend he didn't know and act like everything was normal? Drop his transformation and force a confession out of her?
"Cat Noir? Are you ...okay?"
Cat gritted his teeth and looked away from her. Later; he could deal with this later. "I'm fine, Ladybug," he bit out. "Let's just get going." Not waiting for a response, Cat started off running, preparing to extend his staff for the first big jump.
A whirring sounded in his ears and he was caught in midair as Ladybug's yoyo lassoed around his midsection. He was yanked back a moment later and deposited on the rooftop in front of her, her eyes sparking. "You know I hate liars, Adrien," she said severely, her yoyo winding back into her hand with a snap. "You've never lied to me before about anything that wasn't to keep your identity a secret, and I especially don't want you starting tonight."
Cat opened his mouth to retort when the entirety of what she'd said registered. "Wait, time out," he said, forming a T with his hands. "What did you just call me?"
"...Your name?" Ladybug's words seemed to hit her as well then, and her face went pale. "Oh god, I'm sorry! I know I shouldn't be calling you by your name, but with everything that's been going on today and this whole mess, it just slipped out! I promise I'll be more careful in the future. Just, please tell me what's actually wrong?"
"I never told you I was Adrien, though," he said faintly, mind swimming.
"But... Last week, that day when you and Nino went out to lunch with Alya and me," she said, expression slack. "You called me 'my Lady' when you held the door open, and you spent the whole meal making puns. I thought you'd figured out my identity and were trying to get me to guess yours—and it worked."
He remembered that meal. Marinette had recently been opening up around him, after years of awkward shyness, and he's been so happy about it that he'd loosened up more than usual himself; that is, he realized, he'd acted more like Cat Noir. "I didn't," he said at last. "I didn't know until you told me today. I... wait." He frowned. "If you thought I already knew, why did you tell me today? And why didn't you say you knew who I was?"
She made a face at him. "Because Nino and Alya were there? I wasn't about to tell them a secret that wasn't mine to share. As for why I wanted to tell you..." She looked away briefly, fiddling with her yoyo. "I've been so adamant about keeping our identities secret from each other and not saying anything, I thought it was important for me to actually tell you who I was, to show you how serious I was about everything. Especially since I thought we might..." She shook her head. "You don't feel that way about Marinette, though, and no matter how you feel about Ladybug, I wouldn't—"
"That's not why I turned you down," Cat interrupted, almost dizzy with hope. "I thought you didn't know who I was, remember? And if you didn't trust me enough to tell all of me who you are, if you didn't feel the same way about Cat Noir as you felt about Adrien, I didn't think I would be able to handle it. As for how I feel about Marinette..." Wide blue eyes drew up to meet his, and he smiled. "If there was ever anyone thought I could love as much as Ladybug, it's Marinette Dupain-Cheng." His grin turned faux-sheepish, and he rubbed the back of his head. "Think I can change my answer now?"
Laughing, Ladybug (Marinette!, Cat's mind sang to him) pulled him into a tight embrace. "Of course, you silly cat!" she said as his arms came up around her. "You think I would turn you down after all of that? I wouldn't let you go for all the macarons in Paris."
"That's good, because I don't want to let you go, either. Think we could take care of patrol like this?"
Ladybug giggled and pulled back from him. She shook her head and pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose, making his tail curl up in delight. "Sorry, Kitty, I don't think it would work out." Stepping back, she pulled her yoyo back out and started spinning it. "Ready to go?"
Cat Noir smiled; his partner sounded a lot happier than when they'd met up that evening. He knew he was. "Just one more thing," he said. "Since you told Nino and Alya your identity, is it okay if I do the same? Not Chloe yet," he added quickly. "I don't think she's ready, either. But, well, if our best friends can handle knowing who you are, I think they can handle knowing who I am, too."
Ladybug nodded, eyes twinkling. "How about tomorrow after class? I think it'd be a great day for surprises all around."