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We Break Things Down Just to Build Them Back Up Again

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Marinette is sitting against the wall, hugging her knees to her chest, praying for her heartbeat to slow down, when Adrien Agreste finally says something that cuts her heart in half.

Adrien is sitting next to her, his hand on her arm, and for a moment it’s comforting. The way he’s looking at her, with concern, like he cares. He’s once again broken his promise, failed to have her back, and part of her wants to slap him for that but there’s a greater part of her is just happy that she isn’t facing this alone. He’s giving her an ear, even if her racing brain isn’t letting her speak. He’s giving her his time. He’s giving her his touch.

And yet she finds herself guiltily wishing Chat was here instead. Adrien, bless him, so sweet, so kind, is nonconfrontational to a literal fault. He’s a calming presence once things are over, but in the moment he’s completely unreliable.

Chat wouldn’t have let Lila get away with what she said. Chat would’ve ripped into the other girl on her behalf. Actually, come to think of it, so would pretty much anyone else in the class.

She’d been so happy that first time, when Adrien had believed her. Now she’s wishing it had been anyone else. Even Chloé would be better than this. At least if she were to say something it would be some kind of solidarity.

Instead, Golden Boy Adrien has to open his mouth and act like he lives on top of a fairy mountain. "I don’t know why you’re so insistent on going after her,” he says, like he’s the one in the right here, like Marinette is the instigator instead of the classmate who won’t stop lying to everyone. “I mean, yeah, she’s lying, but it’s not like she’s hurting anyone—"

Something in Marinette snaps.

“Not hurting anyone?” she rasps. “Not hurting anyone?”

And all of a sudden, Marinette has had enough. Enough of Adrien Agreste’s simpering, enough of his appeasement, enough of his refusal to stop obvious wrongs. "She’s hurting me, Adrien!” Marinette croaks. “She attacks me every ten minutes! It’s a miracle I haven’t been Akumatized!”

Adrien starts at the word, as if he hadn’t even considered the possibility, and Marinette’s rage mounts. What Paris has he been living in for the last year? He, of all people, should know what happens when this kind of injustice festers! But no, this is the boy who still defends Chloé even when she refuses to get better. Even when everything she does causes supervillains to line her wake.

Adrien grabs her hand, and she wants to pull away, but he’s looking at her with that stupid expression on his face again—the be-the-bigger-person, the turn-the-other-cheek, and Marinette realizes she’s sick of it. “If you let it go,” he says, “maybe she’ll stop.”

Marinette feels her veins chill. ”That’s your solution?” she snaps. “Roll over and hope she decides to have mercy?” Adrien, she realizes, isn’t kind—he’s a coward. She’s been passing up her brave and loyal Chat for this?

”I can’t believe I ever thought I was in love with you,” Marinette spits.

Adrien's entire face goes slack. "You... what?" he croaks.

Marinette yanks her hand away from him in disgust, clambering to her feet. "I hope you're happy with yourself, Agreste," she snarls, storming away down the halls of the school.

She thinks she hears him choke, sob, behind her, but she can't be sure if she's imagining it. Still, she lets herself be satisfied, for a moment, that maybe for once Adrien is looking at her and seeing something other than a nervous wreck.


It's only once Marinette makes it home that what she's done finally sinks in, and when she pushes through the door to the Dupain-Cheng bakery it's taking everything in her not to burst into tears. She’s ruined everything. The last thread that’s kept her hanging for three weeks now, and she’s broken it herself. She’s going to lose all of her friends, and Adrien is never going to love her, and she’s going to have to go back to being alone again—

Her mother, behind the counter, sees her face and immediately drops her tongs. “Marinette?” she says. “What’s wrong?” Her face twists. “What’s that Lila girl done now?”

Marinette shakes her head, and finally breaks. “It’s—it’s not—it’s not—it’s not—not Lila,” she blubbers, collapsing onto one of the chairs. “It’s Adrien.”

”Oh, honey,” her mother says, coming out from behind the counter. She starts rubbing her daughter’s back, letting her cry herself out.

“Tom?” she yells to the back. “Can you watch the front for a few minutes? Marinette needs me.”

”Of course, Dumpling,” her father calls back. Within a minute he’s come through the door and waved them upstairs.


Collapsed onto her mother’s lap in the living room, Marinette—haltingly—tells her everything. Except the Chat Noir bits, of course, those are private. The whole time, her mother doesn’t stop holding her, cooing, and occasionally snarling whenever Lila comes up. The only reason her parents haven’t tried to get Lila expelled yet is because Marinette begged them not to.

When Marinette finishes, her mother is silent for a while before speaking. “I won’t say what that boy is doing to you is right,” she says, finally, “because sweetie, you really do deserve better.” She smiles, rueful. “You know you deserve better, don’t you sweetling?”

Marinette nods. “It—it sounds like there’s a... a ‘but’ coming,” she sniffles.

”Well,” her mother sighs, “it does sound familiar.” She smiles. “Rather like your father, in fact.”

Marinette looks up at her and blinks in confusion.

”You met Roland last week,” her mother says, still massaging her back. “Do you think he was a good parent?”

Marinette shakes her head.

"If there were ever two people who should not have had children," her mother continues, “it was Roland and Gina Dupain. Neither of them was particularly affectionate towards your father.” She smiles. “Oh, I’m sure they loved him well enough—in their own ways—but they never really thought to show it.”

Marinette is staring at her mother now, listening with rapt attention. This is starting to sound a lot like Gabriel, and she thinks she might know where this is going.

”Roland never gave your father any kind of approval, or kindness,” her mother continues. “Everything he said was about the ways Tom was a disappointment. As you can imagine, growing up in a house like that...” She waves her hand. “It does things to people.” She grimaces. “When people can’t get love from their families, they start to think they don’t deserve it. Your father thought that maybe if he acted better, if he acted kinder, if he just did what he was told without complaining, maybe his father would love him.” She grits her teeth. “But a man like that doesn’t ever express love,” she spits. “So things just kept getting worse.”

Marinette peeps in alarm. She’s seen her mother angry before, but the way she’s speaking about her father-in-law... she’s never been this furious.

Her mother smiles down at her. “When I immigrated to Paris,” she says, “things were very hard for me. I was a Chinese immigrant in an unfamiliar and unforgiving culture.” She looks up at the ceiling, soft look on her face. “Your father was one of the few bright spots in my life during that time. He was always so kind. But..." She sighs. "Roland nearly ruined it." Her face grows hard. "The things he would say to me... about me..." She growls. "Your father refused to stand up for me. Kept telling me 'give him a chance, he'll love you.'" She shakes her head. "You know how that turned out."

Marinette nods. Her father disowned, her grandfather unaware of her very existence. Not a particularly happy family dynamic.

Sabine licks her lips. "The truth is," she says, "I nearly left your father over it. I told him I couldn't be with someone who just stood by and let other people treat me like that without saying anything."

"Wait... really?" Marinette whispers, her eyes wide. She'd never known this part of her parents' relationship—she'd always believed they'd known they were soulmates from the start, never had that kind of relationship-ending disagreement.

Sabine nods. "Really," she says. "And he knew I was right—the way his father was acting was unacceptable. So he made the hardest decision he'd ever made in his life and confronted Roland over it."

"And his father disowned him," Marinette whispers.

Sabine nods. "That was a rough night, let me tell you," she says. "But what you have to understand is that the behavior your father learned never just applied to his relationship with his father—it's something he still does with everybody. He still forgets that he's allowed to disagree with me, sometimes." She stares off toward the kitchen, clearly not actually seeing anything. Just thinking. "From what you've told me of Adrien," she says, "Gabriel is much, much worse than Roland ever was. I'm not surprised Adrien has so much difficulty with confrontation."

"Oh," Marinette says. She's known for a while that the image of Adrien Agreste, perfect golden boy, is a lie; she's known that he's shy, and sometimes a little awkward. She never would have pegged him for insecure, though. And she never would have guessed how deeply, deeply unhappy she's suddenly realized he must be. He doesn't allow Chloé and Lila to treat him like that because he enjoys it—he simply doesn't know how to ask them to stop. "He..." she begins, stops, thinks. "Maman, I think he might need help."

"Probably," Sabine says, kissing her daughter on the forehead. "But it doesn't have to be your responsibility to give it to him." She strokes Marinette's hair, humming slightly as she does. "You have a big heart, sweetie, but you need to remember to look after yourself first."

Marinette's barely listening—she's already formulating a plan. Because what is being Ladybug good for if she can't help the people she cares about? "Don't worry, Maman," she says. "I'll be fine." Step one: apologize to Adrien for what she said today. Step two: she's not sure yet, but she'll figure it out when she gets there.

She's gonna teach that boy to stand up for himself even if it kills her.

Chapter Text

Adrien walks through the rest of his day completely numb. He can't even process the things Marinette said to him; he thought she—that they were—he thought—he was trying to—

When he gets home, he shuts himself in his room, away from anyone who can see him, and collapses onto his bed. He's curled up in a fetal position, and he can't feel his fingers, and he can't stop shivering...

Don't be so dramatic, he hears in his father's voice. It's unbecoming. He stays as quiet as possible so nobody else hears him, nobody else comes in, nobody sees him like this. Weak. Helpless. Vulnerable.

It's bad enough that Plagg sees him like this.

"Kid?"

Adrien shuts his eyes.

"Kid, come on. Talk to me."

Adrien sobs, then immediately snaps his mouth shut, trying to trap the sound back in his throat.

"Adrien," Plagg breathes, and Adrien breaks.

It's only seconds before his pillowcase is soaked through, because he's done exactly what he's been trying so hard to avoid—he's lost someone, and worse, that someone is Marinette. Kind, gentle, sweet Marinette, Marinette who always gives everyone a second chance, Marinette who—who—

Marinette who said she was in love with him.

Every part of him is collapsing. She was—she was—he can't deal with this. She's—he's ruined everything.

She needed him. She needed him, and he failed her. He's destruction and bad luck, he should've known better than to try to fix things when he breaks everything he touches. His father's right—he's just a disappointment—

"Kid!" Plagg shouts. "We gotta move!"

Adrien looks up, sees the black butterfly fluttering around his room, and his heart squeezes. For a moment, he thinks... maybe it'll be better to just surrender to it. To let go. To have someone else drive for a change, someone else to be responsible for his mistakes. Maybe Hawkmoth would do a better job.

But he can't betray Ladybug. And if Chloé can fight off being Akumatized...

He looks up at Plagg, Plagg who is frantically swinging his paws around with crackling black energy, trying to atomize the butterfly before it can reach his charge. Plagg, who despite being a curmudgeonly glutton who never really says thank you for anything, despite being lazy and apathetic, cares more about Adrien than anyone he's ever known. Knows his failings, knows how bad a friend, bad a son, he is, and yet has never asked to leave, never given him anything but support (in his own cantankerous way). He feels a single bright spark of warmth flare in his chest.

He pictures feeding each of his emotions into that spark, letting himself go numb, burning away every single feeling of doubt or inadequacy that the Akuma could latch onto. Focusing on feeling nothing. Feels nothing.

The Akuma's headlong advance toward him stops, and it flutters, confused, before Plagg catches it and it bursts into a cloud of black dust. Plagg turns to him with a barely perceptible grin on his tiny face. "Nice work, Kid," he says—and then he sees Adrien's face, and his expression drops.

"Adrien," he says, "what did you do?"

"Does it matter?" Adrien snaps, rolling back into bed. "It worked."

Plagg is silent for a moment, but then Adrien feels him settle in next to his sternum—right on his heart, in fact—where he curls up and begins purring.


Adrien wakes up to the sudden cold shock of Plagg slipping inside his ribcage, and he instantly knows there's someone in his room. He strains his ears—the creak is coming from the window hinges, not the door. Someone is breaking into his room.

He lies on his bed, frozen. There aren't any weapons in his room, he can't transform, and without the suit he can't fight. His heart starts beating faster and faster, his pulse pounding in his ears—

And then the backs of his eyelids light up pink, and he hears a soft and familiar voice.

"Adrien?"

Instantly, his eyes snap open, and he twists to see Marinette kneeling next to his bed. Her hair is down, he notices, and something about that strikes him in the chest just above where Plagg is hiding—it's beautiful. She looks like she's been crying, but... like it was hours ago. Now she looks worried, determined.

"Marinette?" he whispers. "What—what are—" He looks over at the window. "How did you even get in here?"

"I... climbed," Marinette says, like it's the easiest thing in the world. And maybe it is—he's never tried it without the suit. Adrien makes a mental note that it is (unsurprisingly) physically impossible to keep Marinette out of places where she wants to be, but—

Why does she want to be here?

He's pretty sure, after the way they parted this afternoon, that she never should've wanted to see him again. Instead, she didn't just come to him, she broke into his house to talk to him.

"What are you doing here?" he manages to croak. Barely. Like if he says the words, she'll vanish, either like a hallucination or because she's realized she doesn't want to be here, and...

"I came," she whispers, taking his hand, "to apologize."

He boggles at her, speechless, and she averts her gaze. "Can I..." she says, her eyes moving to the bed. "Can I sit?"

He shifts, sitting up, making room for her in the bed, and she climbs in next to him, drawing her knees up to her chest. Neither of them speaks for a moment—he's wracking his brain, trying to figure out why she wants to apologize, he's the one at fault here and she made that perfectly clear, when—

"You don't feel safe in your house." She whispers it so softly he almost doesn't hear it, and it's not a question—she says it like a certainty.

He blinks. "It's—it's my house," he says, but she turns her eyes to him, and they're so blue, and it shoots right into his chest that she's right: he doesn't feel safe here. Not like he does at school. Not like he does at Nino's. Not like he does... not like he did with her.

He starts shaking. "Oh my god," he mumbles, and he's trying to grab himself but his hands won't stay still...

And Marinette, bless her, sees his hands and smiles. "You're stimming!" she whispers, excited. She holds up her hand. "Here, try snapping," she says, proceeding to do exactly that.

He repeats the motion, and his chest sparks—he feels, not good, but better, like some of the discomfort has drained out of him through sound. He does it again, one more snap filling the room, and suddenly he giggles.

Marinette's beaming at him. "I didn't know you stimmed," she says.

”I don’t know what that is,” Adrien says. He snaps again, and wow does that feel good.

Her tongue pokes out of her mouth as she thinks. “You know how I... I flap my arms around when I’m anxious?”

”Oh,” Adrien says, his hand falling to the bed. “Father... Father doesn’t let me do that.”

Marinette’s face falls. “Should’ve known,” she says. She places a hand on his shoulder. “Adrien, the things I said today...” She chews on her lip, not looking at him. “I didn’t... it’s hard for you to stand up to people, isn’t it.”

He laughs. “Hard?” he says. How can it be hard? He’s Chat Noir. He stands up to supervillains.

Marinette stares down at her hands as her fingers wander aimlessly. “Yeah,” she says. “I... you’re always so uncomfortable when Chloé throws herself at you, but you never ask her to stop.”

”I don’t mind.”

Marinette grabs his wrist, shakes her head. “Yes, you do,” she insists. “You don’t like it.”

Adrien tries to argue, but... but she’s right. He hates it. He hates the way Chloé touches him. And... and...

He gasps.

”Shh, shh shh,” Marinette says. She wraps her arms around his head, pulls him down, pats his back. He sobs into her shoulder.

”Marinette,” he says, finally. “Am I... am I a bad friend?”

She swallows. “I...” she begins, stops, closes her eyes. “You don’t mean to be.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that.


”I’m sorry I haven’t been... been standing by you,” he says eventually, once he’s calmed down. “This is—” He chokes. “This is all my fault.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marinette murmurs. “It’s Lila’s and your father’s. Never yours.” She pulls back, looks him in the eye. “I’m sorry I blew up at you today,” she says. “I was just... frustrated and hurting, and I took it out on you.”

”It’s okay,” Adrien says. “I’m okay.”

Marinette purses her lips. “You know you don’t have to be,” she says. “Okay, I mean.”

He—he doesn’t know what to make of that either. Nobody’s ever said that to him before—he’s always had to be okay, he’s always had to forgive and move on, he’s always had to “be the bigger person,” even than the adults around him. And it strikes him for the first time how unfair that is.

Marinette grips his shoulder, massaging it slightly. “Adrien,” she says. “I—I want you to know... you will ALWAYS be welcome at the bakery.”

He states at her, uncomprehending.

She smiles. “Any time you need to get away from...” She gestures in a wide circle, encompassing his entire room. “...this, any time you need somewhere safe, my parents and I will do our best to be there for you.” She smiles, reaching into her purse and lifting her phone. “And if you can’t get away physically, I’m just ten digits away.”

His throat trembles as he tries to speak. “You—you mean it?” he says.

”Yeah,” she says, squeezing his hand. “I do.”

Then she looks away. “I should probably... go,” she says. “My parents don’t exactly know I’m here.”

A nervous giggle escaped Adrien’s mouth. He clamps his jaw shut immediately, but she’s already heard it, and she turns to him and smiles.

”I’ll see you in school tomorrow,” she says, then walks over to the window, opens it, slips out onto the balcony, climbs over the railing, and then completely disappears from sight.

Plagg emerges from Adrien’s chest, staring after her. “Well,” he says. “That was unexpected.” He looks up at his charge. “How’re you feeling?”

”I’m... not sure,” Adrien confesses, standing up and walking over to the window, swinging it shut. “It’s been a really weird day.”

It’s only once the latch clicks shut that he realizes that he’s forgotten to ask Marinette what she meant when she told him she was in love with him.

 

Chapter Text

The next morning is a little easier on Marinette than the previous few weeks have been. Sure, she’s got a few fresh bruises from falling off Adrien’s balcony—she hadn’t really planned how to leave once she’d gotten there, kind of forgot she couldn’t just transform back in front of him—but otherwise, she feels a lot better. It’s always been easier to focus on someone else’s problems instead of her own; trying to help someone else seems to circumvent her anxiety and make even the impossible seem easy. (Alya calls it the “mom friend override.”)

So, focused as she is on Adrien’s problems, it’s easy enough to ignore Lila and Chloé and pretend they aren’t there. She’s made sure to get to school early this morning, in case Adrien needs her support, but he’s not here yet. She finds herself watching the door, tuning out Alya’s latest rant about whatever’s going on on the Ladyblog.

She sees Adrien through the windows of the classroom, and her heart rate picks up. Careful, girl, she thinks. Don't get distracted—he needs a friend, not a crush.

Adrien pushes through the door, a little more slumped than usual, his eyes glued to the floor. She can always tell when he's not feeling great, of course, but she's never been able to get much nuance; usually too distracted by his face to see what's behind it. Right now, with a little bit of work, she pushes past that instinct, that distraction, and realizes that something about the way he's standing is familiar—it's the same way Chat held himself after Copycat and Syren. He's feeling guilty.

(She'll wonder about the similarities in their body language later.)

"Morning, Adrien!" she says as brightly as she can manage, forcing a smile. She knows he'll probably be able to tell it's not entirely genuine—she knows that he's feeling guilty about her, and she's getting a bit of guilt about hurting him like that—but she hopes he'll at least appreciate the effort.

He starts at the sound of his name, blinks a few times as he looks up at her, and for a moment he meets her eyes, confused. Then his face erupts in light as he realizes she's smiling at him. "Hi, Mari," he says, soft and shy.

Her diaphragm inverts at the sight of his smile, at the thought that it's for her, and she takes a second to force the butterflies back down her esophagus into her stomach before she speaks. "Are you feeling any better than yesterday?"

"What happened yesterday?" Nino says, turning in his seat to look at Adrien.

Adrien slides his backpack onto his seat and unzips it. "We, uh..." He coughs. "We got into a fight."

Alya's head snaps around to Marinette, eyes wide with shock and quite possibly horror. "You got into a fight with Adrien?" Alya hisses.

Marinette purses her lips and nods, swallowing. She doesn't want Alya asking what it was about—it hurts to think about, but she doesn't trust her on the topic of Lila anymore. So she says nothing.

Adrien shrugs as he pulls his history textbook out of his bag. "It wasn't that big a deal," he says, laying it on the table. "Honestly I think it helped me more than it hurt—?"

Suddenly Chloé is on top of him, basically draped across his body. "Oh, Adrikins!" she cries, ignoring his flinch. "I'm so sorry Dupain-Cheng was mean to you!" She rounds on Marinette, arm still wrapped around Adrien's shoulder. "You better not have hurt—"

”Um, Chloé?” Adrien interrupts. He holds up a hand like he's about to press on her sternum, to push her away, but Marinette can see his chest tighten. “Can you... back up a little?”

Marinette’s heart leaps in her chest. He’s doing it. He’s... actually standing up for himself.

Chloé turns to him and blinks. "What?"

"I, uh..." Adrien swallows, his mouth hanging open, as he tries to pull away; he tugs against her arm, with no real strength to it, and Marinette’s breath catches in her throat. Come on, come on—

“Oh, no!” Chloé yelps, leaping backward and covering her mouth with her hands. “Adrichou, are you sick?”

Adrien swallows. ”I’m... yeah,” he says, his shoulders slumping. “I’m, uh, might have a cold.”

”Your dad didn’t let you stay home?” Nino says.

Adrien shakes his head.

Chloé stares at her hands in horror. “Ex-excuse me,” she says, shoving past Adrien and bolting for the bathroom.

Alya, Nino, and Marinette all watch her go, before Marinette turns back to Adrien. His body is still slack, still loose—she can see his disappointment in himself, the way he’s devastated at what he probably thinks is a failure, and for a moment her entire mental process grinds to a halt behind the words murder Gabriel Agreste.

“Hey,” Marinette says. ”I’m proud of you.” She smiles again, holding out her hand. “That can’t have been easy for you.”

He stares at her in shock, his eyes drifting between her face and her outstretched hand. ”I didn’t follow through,” he says. “I—I’m not sick, I just—”

”That’s okay,” she says. “Asserting boundaries is hard”—she winces internally, remembering all of the sleep she’s lost just because she can’t say no—“and that was—was a good first step.”

“Wait,” Nino says. “You’re not sick?” He turns back to look at where Chloé went. “You just—dude, you lied to Chloé.” He turns back to Adrien, grinning. “Is it weird to say I’m proud of you?”

“Way to go Agreste!” Alya cheers, throwing a fist in the air. “Standin’ up for yourself!”

“You don’t need to get it right away,” Marinette murmurs.

The tension bleeds from Adrien’s body, and finally, finally, he looks like he’s not expecting someone to kick him. He’s relieved, she can see it, in the wavering corners of his smile, in the shining tears at the corners of his eyes. “Thanks guys,” he croaks.

Then he lays his hand, softly, in Marinette’s palm.

Her heart kicks into overdrive. She can feel the sweat gathering on her skin. The way he’s smiling at her, the way he’s—she forces it down. He needs her coherent. He needs her friendship, not her love.

”Are you feeling better?” he says, his eyes soft and kind.

”I am now,” she says, and this time her smile is real.