Marinette is done her history short-answer questions (they are crappy answers because she was too busy chasing an akuma all over the arrondissement last night to study; this one did not get Chat Noir, but oh Gods she hates mind-control akumas) and sketching something that might eventually be a practical armor redesign (it has always bothered her that she is the only one of the six of them—eight if she counts Hawkmoth and Mayura—who looks as though her armor was painted on with a texture brush instead of designed) and eating another croissant (technically speaking, last night she skipped dinner) and minding her own business when Alya squeals and grabs the pencil from her hand: "Girl, why didn't you tell me?"
"…Tell you what?" Marinette asks warily. Alya has the exact gleeful expression she was wearing to tell all of Paris that Ladybug was a troisième student at Collège Françoise Dupont. Their crowding-around classmates range from skeptical to eager. Adrien has his model face on, and Lila's lips are pressed thin and flat.
"Who you're dating!"
"I'm not dating anyone, Alya." Which Alya knew. "Give me back my pencil."
"See," says Lila, smug, "they're both lying."
Oh, this is gonna be good. "I'm sorry, everyone, I heard Lila's voice and I started listening to Meghan Trainor." Marinette does not have her earbuds in, but from the way Adrien's face contorts before smoothing—as though he was about to laugh and does not dare make a sound—he understands perfectly. "Would someone please catch me up on the conversation?"
"Lila says," begins Adrien perfectly pleasantly, reaching for his phone, "and you know she's friends with Ladybug so you know how plausible this is—"
"—Lila has been dating Chat Noir."
"Bullshit," says Marinette.
"Let me finish," says Adrien, looking up at her. In her purse, Marinette's phone dings: only texts from Adrien have that particular chime. "She said they've been kissing." He glances down, and she follows his gaze: her purse. "She may be implying they've gone farther, I'm not sure."
He meets her eyes and directs his attention back to her purse. Irritated, Marinette gets out her phone.
"Whose reputation she is trying to protect here, I am also not sure," Adrien continues, as Marinette eyes that text:
Adrien 💌: play along? please I am begging you
Marinette stares at him.
"Thing is," Adrien goes on, "I know it can't be true. Chat Noir doesn't seem like that kind of guy. And I know—and I told them this, Marinette—that he's dating you."
"What le fuck," says Marinette. That is the blue screen of death message. What le fuck.
—Okay. Okay, she can—she can work with this. Lila does not get to get away with this one. Ladybug may have to yo-yo Chat to a streetlight so he murders neither Lila nor Adrien, but Lila does not get to be believed here.
That is, since Adrien is lying his sorry ass off, the only thing Marinette can think of for what Adrien is thinking here.
"Why would you tell them that?" she demands. Is it furious enough? Too close on the heels of her initial shock, or not close enough? "Did it occur to you that there's a reason I didn't even tell Alya?"
She's focused on Adrien. She will not sell this if she is visibly not. She cannot tell whether Alya is buying this. Or whether anyone is.
"Now, I would not call it dating," Marinette rolls on, "and I do not keep track of who else he kisses. I sincerely doubt Lila is his type. But you could have said that part, and it would not be a problem. This part?"
She does not even need to feign anger: the forward lean, the taut muscles, the scowl are all real. Chloé and Lila are Hawkmoth's favorite targets bar Xavier Ramier and August Leclair. Chloé and Lila have each claimed for the record that she is Ladybug's best friend. These are related statements.
"This part, he should not have told you about! You sure as fuck should not have told anyone else!"
Oh, now Adrien looks guilty.
"I liked not being Hawkmoth's first choice for a hostage situation, Adrien!"
He goes absolutely dead white.
"Thank you for that," Marinette adds, flattening her tone exactly as though she is yanking her emotions under control, and shoving her phone and sketchbook into her purse with a silent apology to the horrified Tikki. "Thank you so much. Excuse me, I have someone to go throttle." She leaps onto her desk, then onto the next desk toward the door, avoiding the crowd, and storms out of the classroom, slamming the door in Adrien's face.
Outside the cafeteria kitchen service entrance, there is a little corner. As long as no one sees Marinette go in—and no one does—Ladybug can yo-yo straight up to the roof and run.
Five minutes later, if that, Ladybug's yo-yo phone rings. It's Chat Noir: is there an akuma? she wonders, hoping guiltily that there is: five minutes isn't long enough for her to tell him 'Marinette found me and told me everything' and expect to be believed.
"So I fucked up," Chat begins. He must be running too, from how his hair's flying.
"That's a first," Ladybug deadpans. It's the same phrase he used when he finally 'fessed up to getting Théo Barbot akumatized, but under his determined expression she can see he's scared. "Where's the akuma?"
Chat blinks three times and his eyes bulge, his mouth falling open. "Oh fuck," he says, "that's—she might—fuck, Ladybug, help!"
An icy tendril twists around her heart. "Where's the akuma?" she repeats.
"Not—no akuma. That I know of. Yet." Chat Noir does not do lost for words; that chill invites friends. He's looking frantically about him, now, and she's not sure but she thinks he's turned around. "She might—Bug, I didn't think I'd hurt her—"
Okay, the Adrien and Lila situation is going to have to wait. "Breathe," Ladybug orders. "Breathe, kitten. You panicking won't help."
"And sit down," Ladybug adds. "Pick a roof and stay there. I'll find you." She hangs up.
He does not pick a roof and stay there: his tracker shows him darting around first the building where Marinette lives, then the park beside it. Ladybug lands on that building's roof, the north end, and whistles: Chat Noir's attention snaps to her.
When he lands beside her, Ladybug glances him up and down: she knows that stance—it's the one where he is desperate for a hug, but not badly enough to take one without rocking back and forth a bit first, arguing with himself. She throws her arms around him to short-circuit that: from how he's shaking and how he clings and babbles "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" into her hair, he must be even more scared than she thought. Possibly of how Ladybug will react, on top of whatever else.
(Ladybug really hates her partner's loved ones. Every last fucking one of them. Herself included specifically and by name.)
"Talk to me," Ladybug says.
"Okay, okay." He sounds like he's trying to calm down and brace himself. "Okay. So."
She steers him over to the wall: this end of the roof, like by her balcony, has a flat space for the convenience of the electrical maintenance workers and whoever else, and a wall with the breaker box and somebody's balcony on the other side. If he's leaning on the wall, he'll stay upright without needing to lean on her, which means she can step back and watch his face.
"So," Chat repeats, slumping back against the wall; when she steps back, his hands stay on her waist, and she lets hers rest lightly on his biceps. (Task manager. Task: appreciate his muscles in any non-platonic manner. End task.) "I fucked up, Bug. I really, really—I'm sorry—"
Professional. Calm. "Tell me what happened."
"There's a couple girls in my classes," Chat says, pausing at points to choose his words. "Emme, she's really brave and really kind and her opinion means a lot to me. More than almost anyone's. And Elle, she's…well, there's probably the makings of a decent person in there somewhere. If she decided to take up, I don't know, stage acting. Instead of lying so often Emme said point blank today she stops listening any time Elle's lips are moving."
"Can't tell me their names?" Ladybug asks.
Chat gawks down at her. Then shakes himself: "If you want to skip to the part where I take my mask off—"
"No, no." She can't—no. "Go on."
"Emme hates liars as much as you do," Chat continues. "So you can guess how well she and Elle get along."
Ladybug nods: Elle and Lila would probably get on terrifyingly. Terrifying to each other or to everyone else, she isn't sure.
"And today Elle decided to tell our whole class that she is dating me. Like." Chat Noir flicks his tail up to wrap around Ladybug's upper arm. "Me. And of course that's bullshit, and everyone should know that's bullshit, because Elle is not you. I heard her claiming to be Rena Rouge two weeks ago—I told her she'd better hope you never heard that, because then she wouldn't be Rena Rouge anymore, and it actually shut her up for a couple days, imagine that—but she has never said she's you."
"I'm tempted to point the actual Rena Rouge at her now," Ladybug says. It's even true. Alya might not be able to say anything, but Rena Rouge would tear the girl apart.
He laughs; that's better. "If you do, I want video. But Emme sits right behind me and I want her to like me, right? So I thought I'd call Elle on her bullshit, and Emme could enjoy the schadenfreude if she wanted, and even if not, Elle might not say anything else for a while. This is me trying to figure out what I was thinking, so you know." Something about the way he isn't smiling— "Because I was not thinking. It did not occur to me civilian me is not a primary source on this me's love life."
Task: make sense of what is going on here. Status: not responding.
"So you said you, Chat Noir, are dating—what, yourself?" asks Ladybug.
"Oh no," says Chat with a bitter laugh, "it's worse than that. I told our whole class Chat Noir is dating Emme."
Task: preserve secret identities. Status: not responding.
"She didn't even hear it the first time," Chat says. "She wasn't paying attention. I texted her to play along, and once she heard what I said, she did—it was beautiful, LB—but now there are fifteen people who think Mlle. Emme Intégrité-et-Confiance is the best person beside you for Hawkmoth to kidnap if he wants to coerce me into things."
He's looking at her with such fearful, burning determination—
Task: preserve secret identities. End task.
"I asked if you'd seen an akuma," Ladybug says, "and you said no, but there might be about to be. Emme?"
Chat nods. "I think I really upset her," he mumbles, looking over her shoulder and away.
"Nothing has exploded yet," Ladybug notes, checking the Ladyblog app on her yo-yo for the latest-submitted akuma reports for the form of the thing. Alya needs to hire moderators or something, except that Alya can't afford to pay them, and Marinette won't suggest getting volunteers for fear of being voluntold. "Do you know where she is?"
"I—no. She left the classroom, that's the last I saw. I don't think she's home? I knocked on her window, but—"
"All right then." Ladybug steps back—Chat Noir follows, his fingertips not leaving her waist, nor his tail her arm—and claps the yo-yo shut. "Let's start there. We'll keep her safe," she adds. "I promise you."
"—Okay," says Chat, and lets go, and runs south along the roof.
Tour Montparnasse looms southeast over the Paris skyline.
Chat stops on Marinette's balcony and peers through her skylight. Ladybug lands beside him and kicks the latch: he catches her hand before she opens it. "That's breaking and entering."
Ladybug gives him a flat look, grabs his wrist, pops the skylight open with her other hand, and drags him through it after her. They land in a heap on Marinette's bed, and Ladybug rolls to pin him to the sheets, her hands on his shoulders, her knees bracketing his hips.
Task: appreciate his muscles in any non-platonic manner. Status: not responding.
"Goddamnit, Adrien," says Ladybug.
She meant that to be dispassionate, but she heard the whine to it: she can feel, now that no one can be watching, the burning of tears she won't shed.
Chat Noir is staring up at her, eyes wide, jaw slack. She's seen Adrien look that way before. Right—right when she kissed him, actually. On Heroes' Day. Since she has to clarify that to herself now. Only then he looked happy, too, and now—
"Goddamnit, Adrien," Ladybug repeats. He flinches, and no. No, that's—no—
"I don't understand," Chat says. (Task: decide whether to kiss him. Status: boom.)
She's going to start sobbing if she isn't careful. She runs one hand over the base of his cat ear instead. "Your hair's longer," she tells him. "I guess your father decides when it gets cut?"
"I don't understand."
He's lying. That's Adrien's model face: the only thing she thinks he could want to hide right now is how he feels that she is right.
"Elle," she says. "You wouldn't name her because you know I know her. I hope Hawkmoth does target her again," Ladybug adds with wholly unprofessional virulence. "Maybe one day she'll figure out not to tell these lies. You'd think being akumatized the same day she told the world she's my best friend would have taught her something."
"Let me up," murmurs Chat, and Ladybug—remembering Volpina, remembering Adrien and Chat Noir and realizing how, exactly, Chat could have been so confident Volpina did not have Adrien—rolls to the side. He sits up, resting one hand on her trembling shoulder. His voice shakes: "You—you heard about that."
" 'Heard about'," Ladybug repeats. "Kitten." She grabs both his biceps. "Kitten, I was there. Spots off. I was there."
Chat squeezed his eyes shut the moment he heard 'spots'. Sweet of him—exactly what she expects of him—but not at all what she wants from him. Not now. Not anymore.
"I think I owe you some apologies," Marinette says, resisting the urge to fold forward into his arms. She's been lying to him—she's lied to him so much— "I was trying so hard not to fall in love with Chat Noir—"
His eyes fly open.
"Marinette," he says, smiling, and sobs. "Marinette, I'm so sorry."
"Don't." Sorry is good to know but doesn't mean anything. "Just. Just stop dying, all right?"
"Stop dying," Marinette repeats. Damn it she is going to cry. "Don't you think I was scared enough of losing my partner before I knew I told him to jump off a skyscraper?"
This is Chat Noir, this is her partner, this is the one person she can trust with anything in the world, and if he really believes Marinette is brave and kind and everything he says he loves when Ladybug does it, then she knows how he'll answer this. She knows how he'll feel.
"Don't you think I was scared enough of—of losing—" This is her partner. "—of losing my crush before I knew—" No, she is not thinking that, that is not thinkable— "—damn it, Chat, no more taking Cataclysm to your ribs, all right?" That is not a much safer thought. "My heart can't take it!"
"Marinette," Chat repeats, awed, and gathers her close. "Marinette."
"Marinette?" That's Alya.
"Shit," mutters Chat, and moves to leap out the skylight, but Marinette hangs on.
Three knocks on the trap door. "Marinette?"
"Go away, Alya!" She doesn't need to feign a sob.
Alya opens the trap door and hurtles into the room. "Marinette, I—"
And looks up at Marinette's bed, and stops.
"Go away!" shrieks Marinette.
"Alya," says Chat Noir, sounding altogether serious and mildly threatening and not at all as though he was just panicking, weeping, or reeling, "I hear a lot of your classmates already know about this."
She blinks up at him. "Yes, I—"
"For Marinette's safety," Chat interrupts, "I trust you'll confirm that these rumors are false?"
He wants Alya to what? To—oh, to whisper the truth to their classmates, for some values of 'truth' anyway, and deny it to everyone else—that's brilliant.
Alya slumps. "I hate you," she informs him, or possibly them. "I hate you and I hate journalistic ethics and I really, really hate you."
"Love you too, Alya," Marinette says, leaning into her partner's arms and grinning only a little brighter than she's truly feeling. "Now get lost."
"I—okay. You should come back to class, though. Maybe we can do a sleepover tonight, so you can tell me all the exciting deets you couldn't mention before."
Marinette rolls her eyes and smiles.
Alya turns to leave, then turns back. "Uh, what about Adrien?"
Chat snorts. "What about Adrien?"
"Oh, I'm going to strangle him," Marinette tells Alya, watching Chat from the side of her eye. "And I will make him like it."
He swallows hard.
"…I'll tell him to avoid you for a while," Alya says faintly, and bolts, the trap door crashing shut behind her.
Chat slumps. "I'm sorry," he says again. "Please don't hate me."
"I don't. I couldn't. I triply can't now. I'm not even angry—yeah, you shouldn't have said anything, but nothing horrible happened and we'll be fine." He doesn't straighten. Marinette eyes him. "Did you miss the part about my crush?"
"No." He stares down at his lap. "Just having a little trouble figuring out why the second-bravest person I know—wait, no. Why the absolute bravest person I know, who hates liars—whose hating liars is why I fucked up today, because I wanted to impress her more than I wanted to keep trying to keep Lila from escalating—"
"Marinette, you never told me this before. I asked you more than once and you told me you're a fan of my work." He's kneading her blanket, one-handed and nervous. "We're just friends—I kept telling myself that because of Ladybug, but I never heard otherwise from Marinette, either. And now—"
He lifts his head from its miserable droop. "Why did you lie?"
She can't tell him about the thing where Adrien and Kagami taking a romantic carriage ride would be the end of the world and also involve Marinette locked in the Tower of London. She can't. Not now.
"Adrien—if I'd told you before now how much I want to kiss you—"
She does. She needs him to see she does.
"—what would you have said?"
One beat. Two. Three.
Something in Chat Noir visibly snaps: he drags her up for a kiss—fierce and heated and—
Oh, this is why she's always known loving him would destroy her.
When they separate, breathing hard, Marinette knocks against his collar bell, setting it jingling. "That is not what you would have said, kitty," she says, laughing.
"It is so!"
"Bullshit," says Marinette. With as dedicated as Chat Noir has always been to Ladybug, she can't imagine Adrien kissing anyone else. Even his everyday Ladybug. "I know you're lying."
"Yeah," Chat says—is this the happiest she's ever seen him? "But you don't care."
"Bullshit," she repeats for appearances, and kisses him again.