"So I figured out why these two aren't dating and reportedly never have been," said Adrien Lockhart (thus dubbed because he was pretty, blond, obliviated, and a fucking liar), draping his arms over Space Cadet Marinette's shoulders from behind. Real Marinette continued to chop onions for the dinner she was stuck preparing for their guests, since of course Space Cadet Marinette would be eating with her family and the farthest Adrien Lockhart had gotten from her was downstairs to the bakery, where Real Adrien might or might not still be.
"Is it because I'm a klutz and a coward?" asked Space Cadet Marinette, leaning into his embrace in a way that made Real Marinette's heart hurt, and making no more attempt than he was to keep her voice down enough that Real Marinette could pretend not to hear. "Because that's her take." She waggled an elbow in Real Marinette's direction, her hands being occupied holding Adrien Lockhart's. "And sometime while she was being a klutz and a coward and never getting her words out, he fell for someone else, who does not like his jokes. Can't be her, obviously, because she does so like his jokes."
"I do not believe either 'klutz' or 'coward'," Adrien Lockhart told her. "I flatly do not believe it. He doesn't either," he added, eyeing Real Marinette with the worried sort of smile she usually saw from Chat Noir when he thought Ladybug wasn't taking good enough care of herself. "His words were 'a little clumsy' and 'really brave'."
Real Marinette's heartbeat tripped over its jumprope.
"He did say he's in love with someone," continued Adrien Lockhart with excessive cheer for someone who claimed to be in love with Marinette herself, "and you will never guess who."
"I don't want to know who," snapped Real Marinette. She didn't. She didn't. It wouldn't—it wasn't very heroic of her to want to murder whoever it was who made Adrien hurt like that. Safer for everyone if she didn't know.
"Mm-hm," said Adrien Lockhart. "You won't mind if my lady takes a guess or three, then."
—Coincidence. It had to be. A turn of phrase that meant nothing to him—
"Ladybug," said Space Cadet Marinette.
Adrien Lockhart made an exaggerated shocked face. For her benefit, because he was still leaning on Space Cadet Marinette from behind.
"Well," said Real Marinette, trying not to sound too bitter, "I don't know how I'm supposed to compete with that."
"Sounds like a personal problem," said Space Cadet Marinette. Then paused, regarding Real Marinette, and ducked out from under Adrien Lockhart's arms to extend her a tentative hand.
Real Marinette set down the knife.
"You don't know, do you?" asked Space Cadet Marinette. "Neither of you know."
"…That would explain it," said Adrien Lockhart, his tone gone flat. "M. Turtle did sound surprised."
—Adrien Lockhart knew.
She had him pinned to the wall almost before she knew she was moving. "You can't tell him," Real Marinette snarled up at him. "You can't tell anyone! You can't—Adrien, if anyone finds out, anyone—Hawkmoth has used our loved ones against us before!" She was crying now, the water spilling from her eyes nothing against the furious flames in her heart. "One of the worst attacks yet—we lost Queen Bee because Hawkmoth had her family. Rena Rouge went down protecting Carapace and then Carapace went down because Rena did." Adrien Lockhart was only half paying attention: looking off to one side and biting his lip. She shook him. "We can't risk Chat Noir's loved ones that way," Marinette told him, "and we cannot risk mine!"
Adrien Lockhart looked down at her, awestruck. "You're beautiful."
"—You're as bad as he is!" Real Marinette released him and whirled away, glaring across the empty living room out the window. "He never wants to keep it in his pants either, and there are more important things!"
Behind her, Adrien Lockhart laughed. "I'm pretty sure pants feels are the least important part of what your partner feels for you," he told her, vastly amused and pretending not to be. "But let me ask you something."
Marinette paused, listening, the tears stilling for now.
"You don't know where the akuma is right now, and neither does your partner. Otherwise you'd both be out there fighting right now. Right?" She nodded. He continued, "You can probably contact your partner when neither of you has the fancy magic weapon phone toys. But you don't, do you?" She nodded again. "So when is he supposed to talk to you when you're not in the middle of a fight?"
"That sounds cruel." Adrien was closer behind her now, moving with caution and cat-quiet feet. "If he's said or done something that means you don't want to think about being in love with him, and he's still trying to win you over, that sounds cruel to you. But if you don't want to talk to him at all, except when you need him to help with an akuma, that sounds cruel to him."
"It is," murmured Marinette.
"Then why do you do it?" He was right behind her. Almost as close as he just was to Space Cadet Marinette. This Marinette had plenty of room to move, everywhere else to go—she didn't think he could follow her, or that he would try… "I didn't think you were the type."
Fuck it. This Adrien was imported from the middle of the Oblivio attack anyway. He'd be going right back where he came from, and then he would forget the whole thing. And it wasn't like he was going to break her heart, now was it?
Marinette turned and fell the bare five centimeters into his arms.
"Because I can't," she said into the fabric of his collar. "He keeps throwing himself on every grenade that comes my way. Everyone needs Ladybug to keep going and make it through and save everyone, and he keeps dying, and—he's already too important to me, Adrien, don't you see? I—" The tears choked out the fury, smoke and steam rising into the evening.
"Oh," said Adrien, holding her close. "You should—you should tell him that. I think he'd understand."
"If you say so."
"I do say so." He nuzzled her hair. "I—um. I don't know if this will help you any. But my Marinette told me, if you want me to, I should kiss you."
"…When did she say that?"
"Little while ago." Adrien pulled away from her, just far enough to be able to meet her eyes. "Do you want to?"
Did she want to?
Marinette's phone rang.
"Hold that thought," she told him, abandoning the warmth of his arms. That was Chat Noir's ringtone. He didn't have Marinette's number, of course, but it hadn't been difficult to work out how to make both their civilian phones spoof their weapons' numbers, once they'd actually sat down to work on it. "Need me?" she asked her partner.
"Remember Copycat?" asked Chat Noir.
That one hadn't been too hard on Ladybug, but it hadn't been great, either. Especially not for her subsequent fantasies, which did not always listen to her wanting to daydream about kissing-et-cetera Adrien, not Chat Noir.
—Space Cadet Marinette was not in the room.
"—oh don't tell me," snarled Marinette. "At least it's not a different akuma. Tikki, spots on!"
Adrien Lockhart was watching her, smiling. Not gawking, like she'd expect from her Adrien. Just smiling, and giving her an encouraging thumbs-up.
Ladybug opened her yo-yo, pleased to find the call was still connected. "On my way."
Chat Noir tapped one end of his staff on the concrete next to the spare Ladybug's feet, watching the map on his baton screen. Spare Ladybug hadn't resisted being bound with his tail and her own yo-yo—she didn't even look mildly miffed anymore; more as though she were seriously contemplating the sort of thoughts Adrien didn't dare have except in the comparative privacy of his own bedroom, in the silence of night, and preferably having locked the door behind Plagg first. But then, considering how she'd greeted him, these thoughts probably were not new to her…?
What past had Memory Lane plucked her from? His Ladybug had never entertained such thoughts as this Ladybug looked to be having, and hated being reminded that he occasionally had far more vanilla ones—
—The ladybug tracker that was moving toward this hidden rooftop had a green pawprint tracker right behind it.
What was Blank Slate Adrien doing in armor at all, never mind following Original Ladybug?
Chat texted her a heads-up and braced for impact.
Original Ladybug hit the rooftop and dashed straight to Spare Ladybug, with barely a nod and smile for Chat Noir. "What were you thinking?" she demanded, glaring down at her kneeling counterpart. "Were you thinking?"
"I was thinking it is actively painful to watch you two," said Spare Ladybug with a smirk.
"Other me incoming, LB," Chat warned, catching sight of his partner's tagalong, and Original Ladybug half turned: enough to see Blank Slate Chat Noir coming and sling her yo-yo at him. (Chat himself didn't move—after all, his oblivious past self might do them a favor by not kissing his equally obliviated Ladybug, whenever he got back to her. Much as it hurt to consider that loss.)
—Blank Chat pole-vaulted over her line of fire and landed next to Spare Ladybug. "You okay?"
"I'm in a little bit of a bind," said Spare Ladybug, blushing cheerfully, "but I'll have this one whipped in no time."
Chat Noir's mind jammed.
"What?" squawked Original Ladybug.
Blank Chat flicked a glance at her, another at Chat Noir himself, and smirked at Spare Ladybug, unbuckling Chat's belt and tossing it back in Chat's direction. "Is he showing you the ropes, then? How knotty."
Spare Ladybug's yo-yo fell to the concrete beside her, cord fully retracted—note to self, thought Chat Noir, if Ladybug gets mind-controlled, restraining her with her yo-yo won't work—and she threw herself into Blank Chat's kiss.
"I don't understand," said Chat Noir, dazed. Original Ladybug stepped back towards him, not turning away from the impossible sight. "He was kissing—another girl—just an hour ago!"
"Yeah," said Original Ladybug, her voice trembling just a hair. "I guess he was." She glanced over at Chat. "Someone you know, I take it."
"A friend," Chat told her, quiet. "Or, rather, an earlier release of a friend. Version sixteen point something." Current Marinette was seventeen, the same as he was. "If I can even still call her that. I don't know. I wish I could," he added, lowering his voice because no way did he want Blank Chat overhearing and feeling as hurt as he himself was, "but she hasn't really talked to me in…a while. And last time she did, she didn't—she didn't say we're not friends, but she didn't—I don't want to hurt her," he tried to explain. "She's too important to me."
Original Ladybug nodded, expression unreadable, half watching him, half watching their other selves get lost in each other: Blank Chat nibbled at Spare Ladybug's ear, provoking a squeak and a swat and a pause for her to bury her face in his pink neck, saying something Chat couldn't make out over the jingling of Blank Chat's collar bell. Chat Noir envied him.
"Do you know why she stopped talking to you?" Original Ladybug asked.
Chat shook his head.
Original Ladybug swallowed. "Tikki's going to kill me," she muttered. "I'm not sure I won't kill me."
"Please don't," said Chat Noir at once.
She shrugged, a shallow vertical motion of the shoulders as she hugged herself. "There's reasons 'mortify' is spelled like it is. Fatal embarrassment."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yeah, you've never been humiliated in your life, have you." It wasn't a question that might allow disagreement, however wrong she was. Original Ladybug watched the others a moment longer, noticing perhaps how they both had half an eye on their voyeurs. "You told her you're in love with someone else."
Chat Noir's full attention snapped to her. How did you know that? he did not dare ask.
"Your friend," Original Ladybug clarified. "Version seventeen point whatever. You've never seen her in a romantic light, have you?"
"Why would I?" It wasn't that he didn't, exactly. But she clearly didn't see him that way—one thing Marinette was never shy about was telling people exactly what she thought of them; that was exactly why he'd wanted to befriend her, specifically her, in the first place!—and that meant it didn't matter. "You're right here."
"Am I, Chaton?" Original Ladybug turned to face him full on, ignoring Blank Chat and Spare Ladybug whispering and snickering between peppering each other with little kisses. "You hurt Marinette every time she hears you say she's just a friend."
"She doesn't want to be just your friend, Adrien."
Chat stared at his partner, lost for words.
"If that's all you want," Original Ladybug continued, hugging herself more tightly and pinning him with a warning-off glare when Chat moved instinctively to hug her, "then that's all you'll get. But she can't hang out with you until she can get herself to where that's all she wants to give."
"You—know Marinette," Chat managed. It wasn't surprising. If Adrien weren't among the troisième class that was still, years later, most tangled in Hawkmoth's bullshit, he would long since have made a point of getting acquainted with all of them and befriending as many as he could. Of course Ladybug had thought the same thing. They'd met during the Evillustrator attack, anyway; they'd cooked up Marinette being date bait together.
"Adrien," repeated Ladybug, almost as though Chat hadn't spoken: one corner of her lip had twisted up at his words. "Marinette's in love with you."
"—That's not possible," Chat said, dazed, as though she'd hit him over the head with a brick. "That's—I'd know. She never said. She would have said!"
Original Ladybug snorted. "I tried. I caused more than one akuma trying."
"That sounds like a story or three," said Blank Chat, laughing. Spare Ladybug's cheeks were pinking up again.
"Shut up," Original Ladybug snapped at him with the barest turn of her head. "Remain in your oblivious bliss, both of you."
Oblivi—oh. Oh. Blank Chat wasn't kissing different people at all!
"It's bad enough this one's about to start connecting all the dots," Ladybug added with a self-deprecating little laugh.
"Figures," said Chat Noir, not sure whether to laugh at himself or Cataclysm himself a hole to hide in. Or just Cataclysm himself; it would get him away from the sad look in Ladybug's eyes for a little while. "The one person I know who's as incredible as you are, Ladybug—the one person beside you who I least dare hurt, part because she's that precious—" Original Ladybug's cheeks turned carmine. "—and part because if I hurt her then everyone we both know will tear me to shreds—"
Chat swallowed, intent on her. He could see Marinette behind her mask now. How had he missed her before?
"Of course she's you."
Original Ladybug didn't smile.
Chat whirled on their counterparts. "You with all the experience being in love with Marinette," he commanded, "help me!"
Spare Ladybug doubled over laughing. "All two hours of it?" inquired Blank Chat, catching her and grinning. "I'm still learning the ropes here myself!"
Original Ladybug rolled her eyes, taking her yo-yo off her hip and toying with it, not unlike cat's cradle. "Not funny," she told Blank Chat, and returned her attention to Chat himself, throwing the yo-yo a few decimeters down and letting it sleep. "Not funny at all."
—There was an odd bump on her yo-yo cord—
"Did you—" began Chat, heart pounding.
Ladybug smirked, licking her lip in a way that didn't—quite—look calculated to set his heart burning. (Definitely heart, only heart, nothing he'd be afraid to discuss in public.) "I'm knot sure what you're talking about."
"Oh just kiss already!" called Spare Ladybug.
Chat Noir glanced at her, and at Blank Chat standing behind her with his arms draped over her shoulders, and returned his full attention to his own Ladybug. "Well," he said, aiming for just shy of cocky. "Can't disappoint the lady."
She met him halfway.
"That might be a different future from that point, though," Adrien argued, his arm slung around Marinette's waist as they walked to school. "Not a change to our past. So we don't know whether they did anything differently."
"Timetagger changed the art displays," Marinette reminded him. "Timebreaker, the earlier version—dissolved, I guess? Merged with—" She flailed her free arm, looking for words. Even without the risk of anyone but her partner overhearing, she wasn't sure she could find the right ones. "The photo's still there. I checked!"
"I didn't," said Adrien, voice low, warm breath tickling her ear.
"Marinette! Adrien!" Alya jogged over. "Can I interview each of you real quick? I'm trying to figure out Memory Lane's patterns, and you both—" She stopped dead, staring at them. "What happened yesterday? What did I miss?"
"You were there for the important part," Marinette lied. Alya'd met their oblivious younger selves the same time Marinette had. Then she'd bailed to go find more data points named other people's past selves, dragging Nino with her, and Marinette's parents had gone back to work, and only then had the oblivious ones started making out. "We talked a little longer, that's all."
Alya eyed them. "That's all? I know there's more than that. You can't even give me a hint?"
"I'm a-frayed knot," chorused Marinette and Adrien.