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“Oh no.” Marinette fumbles with a box of pencils as she tears through her locker. “No, no, no! Where’d it go?!”

“Lose something?”

Marinette jumps at Alya’s voice behind her. “My sketchbook!” She shrieks. “I can’t find it anywhere!”

She feels Alya’s hand on her back. “Calm down, girl. You probably just left it at home.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Marinette pulls at her hair and turns away from the locker. A sigh escapes her as she accepts that her sketchbook isn’t going to be found. “I looked at home all night last night! I thought I must have left it here!”

Alya purses her lips. “It’ll turn up. Come on, we need to get to class, but I’ll help you look for it, after, alright?”

“You’re the best, Alya.” Marinette sighs. “And you’re right.” There’s a pit in Marinette’s stomach even as she says it but knowing Alya has her back does lessen the weight of it.

Still. It’s her sketchbook. She’s an artist! A designer! Her sketchbook is the cumulative work of the last five months and she isn’t sure she can handle losing it. So many sketches – granted, she never plans on making most of them, but looking back on the process helps sometimes. How many times has she looked back at old designs that never went anywhere and drew inspiration from them? Even the duds are important. And that’s not even starting on the multiple rough drafts she has in there that she’s still excited for and wants to make.

At least she has extra copies of the designs for the dress she’s currently working on. If she loses her references at this stage, she might as well kiss the whole project goodbye. That wouldn’t just be effort wasted, but money and time on fabric and stitching.

The worst part, though, is that she legitimately has no idea how she could have misplaced it. Sure, she had it out at school yesterday, but she knows she put all of her things back in her backpack.

“Just try to focus on class for now, alright?” Marinette felt Alya nudge her, bringing her back into the moment.

Marinette shakes her head slowly. She’s right. We can look for it later.

With a deep breath, Marinette let the classwork and lecture carry her worries away. She isn’t exactly the most academically inclined student, but she could appreciate what those people would tell her sometimes; that when they get lost in a good problem or get too deep into research, they lose track of time and things just pass by.

It’s not like Marinette hasn’t experienced that phenomenon before. It’s part of what she likes about hand-sewing. She can just get lost in a sort of trance as she works and she enters that flow state. It’s not something she would associate with academics, usually, but she has to admit that it’s similar when she manages to push her worries aside and let her focus stay on the classwork.

The classes go by quickly, and that’s the end of Marinette’s peace that day.

The first strike is another cruel lie. Marinette has been dealing with Lila for months now, and it’s fine. Try as she might, Lila isn’t going to isolate Marinette entirely. Alya, Nino, and Adrien still hang out with her, and minus Adrien they often have lunch together. When they don’t, it’s because Marinette is letting Alya and Nino have some time together, not because either of them don’t want her around. And even then, nine times out of ten, one of her other classmates is more than happy to spend time with her if she wants to. At the very least, what Marinette has built is far too strong to be toppled in mere months.

That being said, no one takes kindly if Marinette tries to call Lila out on lying, so Adrien was right when he told her that outing her isn’t going to do any good. Or, at least, outing her the way Marinette had planned. The best thing Marinette can do, really, is ignore Lila, let her previous statements speak for her lack of enthusiasm about hanging out together, and try her best to be as friendly as she can otherwise. So long as she isn’t hostile, she’s not giving Lila any ammunition. And if she doesn’t give Lila ammunition, she has nothing to worry about.

That doesn’t stop Lila from trying, though. “Marinette. Please stay for a moment.” Mlle. Bustier says. Marinette furrows her brow and shares a look with Alya, but gestures for her friend to go ahead without her.

All the students file out of the classroom, and Marinette packs up her things, but stays patiently in her seat. Once everyone else is gone, Mlle. Bustier calls Marinette up to her desk. “What’s up?” Marinette asks.

Mlle. Bustier wears an atypical frown, deeply set into her face. “Marinette, I’ve heard some troubling rumors.”

“Oh?” Marinette has no idea what they could be, but Mlle. Bustier seems to be waiting for her to act like she knows exactly what’s going on. I mean, none that involve me. Unless she heard I’m Ladybug? But that’s impossible. If that’s a rumor, then someone would have told Alya by now and I would have heard it. Even if it wasn’t about me.

Mlle. Bustier retains her frown, but her stern countenance weakens just a little at Marinette’s confusion. “I heard that you cheated on yesterday’s test.”

“Cheated?” Marinette isn’t sure how she reacts, if she’s honest. She doesn’t think about what she shows outwardly because in her own head she’s just shell-shocked. She can’t think anything at all.

Mlle. Bustier nods slowly. “Marinette, be honest with me. Is there any truth to these rumors?”

Marinette hesitates a fraction too long. She’s still processing the accusation. “What? No, of course not! You know I wouldn’t do that!” Inwardly, Marinette is already panicking. Cheating?! Who would accuse me of cheating? And why? I haven’t eve- oh… Lila. Of course. Stamping down all the panic and fury as best she could, she thought of words that have helped her so many times up to this point. Every problem has a solution.

“Of course, you understand that I have to speak with you.” Mlle. Bustier says softly. “Even if it’s just a rumor, I have to make sure.”

“Of course, I understand.” Marinette says quickly, putting on her best smile. There’s an easy solution right in front of her. An inconvenient one, but an easy one. After all, the literature test yesterday was one that she had the rare chance to finish reading the whole book it was over. She’s more prepared for it than most tests she takes. “If you need me to, I can retake the test alone. I should have time after school this week.”

Mlle. Bustier finally smiles, the same expression Marinette is much more used to seeing on her teacher. “That won’t be necessary. We don’t throw out tests based on one student’s claims alone. I do believe that you wouldn’t cheat, and your willingness to retake the test only proves it.” Something warm swells in Marinette’s chest. She grins and puffs up a little. A small victory. A plan foiled. It feels good, whether she’s doing it as Ladybug or Marinette. “You can go now.” Mlle. Bustier says. “I’m sorry for taking your time.”

“No worries, Mlle. Bustier. I understand. You can’t just ignore accusations like that.”

She honestly thought she’d end up having to retake the test. Or worse. But she’s glad that Mlle. Bustier is the kind of teacher she is.

Really, though, Lila should know better. Cheating on a test? Everyone knows Marinette wouldn’t do that. There’s no way she could get Marinette in any legitimate trouble with a lie like that. Not with Mlle. Bustier, at least. If she says the same thing to Mme. Mendeleiev, then maybe Marinette might feel it, but this? This is weak, even by Lila’s standards.

Marinette leaves the room not expecting anyone waiting for her, so when she finds the hall abandoned, she thinks nothing of it and simply makes her way home.

Now all she needs to do is find her sketchbook.

“Hey, girl!” Alya’s voice comes from Marinette’s phone. It’s a bit more subdued than normal, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about. “What was that with Mlle. Bustier about?”

Marinette shrugs even though the phone camera is pointing at her ceiling instead of her. The box in her hands rattles a little. “Apparently, someone told her that I cheated on yesterday’s test. She had to follow up. Not a big deal.”

“Cheated?” Alya asks. Marinette furrows her brow because… well, she expected Alya to sound just a tad more incredulous. Or, at least, surprised. “So, what’s going to happen?”

“Nothing, as far as I know. Mlle. Bustier knows I wouldn’t cheat. And, I mean, I didn’t, so she won’t punish me just because someone said I did.”

Alya sighs. “Good. I knew Lila had to have been mistaken.”

The stone in Marinette’s gut drops. It sets the water there boiling. She suspected Lila, of course, but to get it confirmed sets a strange mix of exasperation and fury off inside her. Because first of all, how dare she accuse Marinette of something like that, but on the other hand, it fell so flat that it’s kind of pitiful. “Lila?” Marinette says. “It was her?”

Alya groans. Apparently, Marinette’s distaste comes across as clear through her voice as it normally does through her face. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Now you’re just going to use this against her, aren’t you?”

Marinette set down her box and overturned the things inside it. “Why would I do that?”

“Uh, because of that grudge you have?”

Marinette scoffs. “Please. This is no different than anything else she’s done to me. Actually, this has been a pretty poor attempt at hurting me, since she kind of failed big-time.”

“Girl, I’m sure she was just mistaken. She doesn’t have it out for you.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Marinette says. “Look. I do believe that she did this on purpose. But it doesn’t really matter. All she managed to do was get two minutes taken out of my day. It’s really no big deal. I’m not going to blow up at her or anything because of this.”

“Marinette…”

“Trust me, Alya. I really couldn’t care less about that right now. All I care about right now is finding my sketchbook.”

Alya sighs. “Yeah, okay. I believe you. Oh, and I asked around. Looks like no one at school has seen it. You sure it isn’t in your room, or your bag?”

“I’m going through my room for the third time now.” Marinette whines. “It’s really just not here.”

“Maybe you took it downstairs? You sketch in your living room, sometimes.”

“Yeah, I looked there, too. I even asked my parents to keep an eye out for it.” Marinette is really starting to lose faith at this point. She’s rapidly running out of places to triple-check.

“It’ll turn up.” Alya says. The confidence in her voice is, as always, relieving. “Just don’t give up, alright? And I’ll keep looking around, too.”


 

No matter what she tells Alya, the lie about her cheating does bother Marinette. Not too badly, but it does. Because that is a major accusation. If Lila had gotten away with it, she could have ruined Marinette’s reputation completely. Definitely in the classroom, but if it got out further, which Marinette isn’t sure Lila wouldn’t ensure, her professional reputation as well.

She could probably recover. She’s still just a teenager, after all. But she’d have to fight harder than she already is. Even though she’s young, she does have connections, and if a scandal like that came out it could cast doubt on her design, too, on whether she’d be willing to steal designs, and there’s a real chance she’d have to remake those connections. She has such an advantage at her disposal with her work for Jagged Stone and Clara Nightingale that is very much in peril if Lila keeps trying plots on that scale.

So yes, it does bother Marinette, but not too much. Despite it all, she does believe that the truth will come out and she has the truth on her side. So long as Mlle. Bustier doesn’t believe she’s a cheater, she’s in little danger from wild accusations like that so long as she doesn’t actually cheat.

But then again… that’s how propaganda works. The dirty looks – just a couple, not the whole class by any means – that greet Marinette when she walks into the classroom the next day remind Marinette of that fact. Even if it’s not the truth, if it’s what people hear, and especially if it’s all of what people hear or what they hear over and over, they’ll start believing it.

And to her credit, Lila is persistent.

Alya nudges her, and Marinette sees the look that Alya points from her to Lila. She shakes her head. “Don’t.” She says softly, just for Alya’s ears. “It’s not worth it.”

“But-”

“It’s an honest mistake, right? If she really did think I cheated, she did the right thing by telling the teacher.” Marinette says smoothly. It really isn’t worth it. Every confrontation is another moment for Lila to spin. It’s better to just let it die and not make it into a federal issue. Besides, no apology from Lila would be genuine, anyway, so Marinette doesn’t want it. And she especially doesn’t want to have to accept it or risk looking like the bad guy.

No. It’s better to let it go.

Alya smiles at Marinette and nods and leaves it alone. Marinette appreciates that Alya wants to get Lila to apologize, even if it would do more harm than good, so she touches Alya’s arm and smiles back. Thanks.

It still nags at her, deep in the back of her mind, and she knows in another time she’d be freaking out over what Lila might do, if she’s willing to lie about that, but she has much better things to think about than another of Lila’s failed ploys. Her sketchbook really does just take priority in her mind.

And then comes strike two.

Marinette can’t really express how wonderful the art program at Françoise Dupont is. In just that small room there is all the basic supplies and materials. Paints and pencils and clay and the rest, but for the art club there’s so much more. Alix has a whole billboard set up and spray paints with a mask and everything. The members of Kitty Section there have an area where they can practice with microphones and speakers and a little stage. As long as they clean up after themselves and don’t get too in the way of regular art classes, the art club gets more than Marinette ever could have expected.

That applies to herself, too, of course. She has a dress form and a small folding table to work on that, since no one else in the club regularly works on fashion design, is largely just her own. It’s not hers, of course, but it may as well be and everyone knows it.

That said, if someone wants to use her table or her dress form, all they have to do is ask. Nathanaël has used her mannequin before, and a lot of students have borrowed her sewing table.

Marinette walks into the art club expecting to work on the little project she has going there. It’s a side project, really, but she’s pretty excited for it. She likes to experiment with her projects at school, so even though she isn’t too far into this one, it’s fiddly and difficult and took a lot of time to get to where it is. She’s never tried this shape before, so it is an interesting challenge. Or, if not that, she’ll look around to see if she left her sketchbook there. It really can’t be, since she had used it and found it missing between the last times she’d been in the room, but as time wears on she becomes less sure and more desperate, so she may as well look anyway. The last thing she expects is the same dirty looks from when she stepped into the classroom. From more people this time.

But that happens sometimes. Lila says something, people give her some looks, and it wears away. Marinette doesn’t let it bother her anymore. What’s not okay is when she turns into the storage room to pull out her project and finds bright, garish, clashing fabrics draped and pinned haphazardly on the dress form. Marinette assumes it’s supposed to be a dress.

Okay. She takes a deep breath. The panic in her chest is familiar enough that she can stamp it down long enough to take stock of the situation. She’s got the tools for that, at least. Calm down. Someone else wanted to use it. That’s fine. They must have put my dress around here somewhere. She doesn’t own the form, so she can’t be mad that someone else has taken it. It’s definitely rude, but there’s only one, so she understands. It must have just been someone who was here while Marinette wasn’t, so they couldn’t ask her to take her dress off of it. That’s fine. Even if they do have… questionable taste. They just haven’t done it before. She thinks, examining the garment. Yeah. This is just someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The designer and the girl in her can’t begrudge that. If someone else in the school is taking an interest in design, even just a passing one, she shouldn’t be critical of a beginner. I can tell what it is! I think. So that’s good. That seam should really be placed a little further to the side, though.

With a shake of her head, she dismisses the garment on the form. With dread, she begins searching for her own piece. It is, theoretically, in a place where she can take it off the form without problems, but if the same person who made the dress on it removed hers… well, Marinette really doesn’t trust that they knew not to touch any of the pins.

Whoever it is is clearly a beginner, so they might not recognize exactly what stage Marinette’s dress is at. It’s all put together and everything, but not sewn. It’s just held together by pins and… well… at the school, the pins are also a shared resource.

But where can Marinette’s dress be?

Marinette looks around the dress form and finds nothing. She looks on the shelf nearby, where she normally stores her things and where it makes sense to put anything taken off the dress form standing directly next to it, but no luck there, either. She sweeps through the rest of the room, but her dress isn’t anywhere to be found. She goes back to her shelf and… Hang on. No. No, no, no, no, no!

It can’t be gone! Who would even mess with my sketches?! All of her references, from her sketches to her research on techniques, were stored there with her dress but it isn’t just her dress that has vanished, but her entire project. This can’t be happening. Not with my sketchbook gone, too!

There’s a tension in her chest and her breath is short and she throws a hail Mary because she doesn’t know what else to do. She pokes her head back out into the art room and calls out. “Hey, guys? Has anyone seen my project?” A few people glare at her – she still doesn’t know why – but the ones that don’t shake their heads. Oh. Oh, no. Marinette sighs.

She’s turning away to search the storage room again when Nathanaël slaps his hand over his mouth and gasps audibly. He doesn’t let go of his paint brush so bright blue paint splatters across his face and over his shoulder, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Before she can say anything, he drops his brush and sprints over to the doorway Marinette is standing in. Marinette stumbles back at his sudden approach. “Nathanaël?”

“It couldn’t be.” Nathanaël mumbles. His face is still frozen in that terrified gasp as he drops to his knees and grabs the trash bin next to the wall. “There’s no way someone would…”

He reaches in and pulls out scrap after scrap of beautiful red fabric, each one torn and with its own scar of muddy paint or used tissues or marks of discarded pencils. Very, very carefully, Nathanaël lays each piece flat on the floor, and a very familiar shape emerges.

When he’s done, Nathanaël covers his mouth again. He looks like he’s about to cry, but Marinette can’t be sure because she has to look through her own tears to see.

“I saw it earlier…” Nathanaël says. “I thought it was scrap you threw out, because it’s just pieces, but…” He chokes over his words.

Marinette doesn’t know what overcomes her when she reaches over and digs through the trash can herself. There, at the bottom, destroyed almost beyond recognition by the paint that had gotten in the can, are her sketches and references. Her patterns are missing entirely.

Irreparable.

She’d have to start from scratch.

And she doesn’t even have her sketchbook to just pick a new project from.

“Marinette, I’m so sorry. I can’t image who would do something like this.”

Marinette can. She can, but this time even she isn’t sure she’s right. She has no evidence Lila has ever stepped foot in the art room in her life, much less that she’s tampered with her project. Even though she has a lot to hate Lila for, and even though this feels like such a targeted attack and the first one that comes to mind is Lila, this time, Marinette can’t even blame her. It could very easily be exactly what Marinette first thought it is – a rude beginner who just doesn’t know any better.

That doesn’t make Marinette feel any better.

Nathanaël’s tight, tight hug does a little. Just a tiny, little bit. She hugs him back and cries into his shoulder even though it smells like paint.


 

When Alya offers to go on a manhunt to find the one who destroyed Marinette’s project, Marinette is tempted to let her. If it is Lila, then Alya may very well bring Lila what’s coming to her. Or, Lila will manipulate the situation and go for pity and accuse Marinette of attacking her for trying to get interested in design. Marinette doubts Alya would fall for that completely. Maybe enough to get off Lila’s back, but not so far as to actually buy the implication that Marinette is just upset that Lila is using the dress form and not the (almost certain) intentional destruction and trashing of Marinette’s own project.

It’s tempting, but… if it really is just some poor fool who doesn’t know any better, then there are quite a few people who would be much better to send after them than Alya. Alya can be a little aggressive, especially with matters like this in which Marinette is clearly and obviously wronged. She isn’t an artist herself, but Alya spends enough time with Marinette to know how important every project is to her. No one just tosses someone else’s projects, no matter the situation.

Marinette looks through her phone as Alya rants. In her list of text conversations, she finds a name that she hasn’t talked to in too long. Really, too long. With the shadow hanging over her, she thinks that maybe, if anyone could help her past this atrocious week, maybe he can. No offense to Alya, but… well, as much as Marinette loves her, family is always on another level. He’ll always know her best, even if she doesn’t see him too often during the school year.

“Alya.” Marinette says. She’s tired. After a day like this… she’s just tired. Too tired for Alya’s anger. She’s appreciative, but she just can’t handle it right now. “What’s done is done.”

“What?! Come on, girl. Whoever did that to you was way out of line! We need to find them and teach them a lesson!”

Marinette sighs. It’s already a loss. I won’t get that dress back. “Please, just… I’m tired. I just want to find my sketchbook and move on.”

Alya watches her carefully but nods and opens one of her drawers to look for her sketchbook. There’s a fire in her eyes, a determination, and she moves fast. Marinette methodically combs her room once more, and then together they look through the rest of the house in near silence.

Still no sketchbook.

Marinette falls asleep almost as soon as she hits her pillow that evening, but she’s fitful and when she wakes up she feels even more tired.

This is the worst week of my life. At least there hasn’t been an akuma. She flinches at the mere thought, and sighs heavily. And now I’ve jinxed it. Can’t wait for today’s fight.

When she gets to school, after a walk that feels a hundred times as far as it truly is, Marinette is dumping a few things in her locker when Alya comes up to her with strike three.

“Marinette!” Alya yells. “You won’t believe this!” She’s waving her phone like Marinette can read the conversation on it. “Lila found your sketchbook!”

There’s a rollercoaster that Marinette’s heart decided to take a ride on. It soars up, when she hears “found your sketchbook.” Found. We found it! And then the rollercoaster plummets suddenly when the track disappears. “Lila found…” Lila.

Oh, no.

Marinette knows she’s pale, and the look Alya gives her is incredulous but humoring. No. No, no, no. I can’t. I can’t deal with this. She’s done something and I can’t… I can’t handle this.

“Marinette! Alya!” Lila’s voice. Marinette feels like she’s rotting. Like Chat Noir just cataclysm’d her from the inside out and she’s rapidly disintegrating. Tears are in her eyes before Lila can even pull out her own crocodile versions. “I’m so, so sorry!” Lila says. “I found it, but it looks like something got to it. Probably the pigeons. It was under the stairs, so they must have gotten to it while everyone was in class or gone home.”

Lila holds out her hands, and the sketchbook within them.

If one can even call it a sketchbook anymore.

It’s completely and utterly obliterated. Torn to shreds. Every page. The harder covers are pretty much all that’s left. The spiral binding is twisted and gnarled. The only thing even identifying it as Marinette’s sketchbook is her name, barely legible, scribed inside the thick, hard cover. Not a single page, not a single design is recognizable. Most aren’t even there.

Trembling, Marinette takes the disfigured sketchbook and clutches it tightly to her chest. Everything she’s been working on. Months of her life. Gone. Just like that. Because of her.

Marinette can’t tear her eyes from the book, though, to see what Lila is doing.

“I’m so sorry, Marinette. This must be terrible.”

She doesn’t trust herself to speak. All she can choke out is. “Don’t.”

In her periphery, she can still see Lila recoil. “Sorry? I… I know you don’t like me, Marinette, but you know this isn’t my fault. You don’t need to push me away.”

“Don’t.” Marinette breathes once more.

She feels Alya’s hand on her back. “Mari…”

Marinette peels herself away violently. “Go. Please. Just… leave me alone.”

Marinette is heading for the doors, but she hears Alya behind her. “Come on, Lila. It’s not you, I promise. It’s just that that thing is super important to her. She’s going through a lot right now. I’m sure she’ll come and thank you for finding it once she calms down.”

Thank her. The very thought is insulting. Marinette chokes on her own breath and runs. A few people call her name, people she must have passed, but she hardly hears them. She runs and runs until she collapses in the grass. She’s in the park outside the school, she knows, but past that she just cries.

When her tears stop coming, she’s still alone. The few passersby around look at her oddly, but it’s schooltime so there aren’t many people around.

She stares at the remains of her sketchbook and swallows the sticky lump of phlegm in her throat. She sniffs back the last of her tears and sets her jaw. Tikki is in her purse, and makes her presence known with a quiet press against her side, but… it doesn’t help.

She really did think she could handle Lila, but this… this is a new level of cruel. This is beyond her initial threat. This isn’t just manipulation, it’s the dismantling of Marinette’s base. Her art, her design, that’s what she can always go back to. Tikki tells her that every problem has a solution, but her art? It’s the creativity that allows her to see the solutions even when they aren’t obvious.

But with that gone… she only has one more thing to turn to.

She pulls out her phone and finds the right name and presses the call button. She knows he’s in class, but she hopes that he’ll pick up anyway. They don’t usually call each other. If they need to talk it’s usually through text, so she hopes he’ll realize it’s important.

But she does feel bad about pulling him out of class. After the second ring, she’s about to end the call and just text and wait, but then there’s a click and a breathy voice. “Mari? What’s up? I was in class.”

Marinette chokes on her words. “S-sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The voice on the line is immediately tense. “Are… are you crying? Marinette? What happened?”

Explaining everything takes a long time, because Marinette keeps crying even more throughout it, but he’s patient and waits for her to tell her tale without interrupting her. When she finally finishes with the last bad thing of the week, she hears a heavy exhale. “Damn.” He says. “I’m… so sorry. That’s a lot.”

“Y-yeah.” Marinette wipes at her eyes again. Her lids are starting to hurt from how often she’s done that. “It’s just too much. All on top of each other.”

“I hear you.” He sighs. “What are we going to do?”

“Do?” Marinette hesitates, and then she chuckles ruefully. “What can we do?”

“Well,” he says, “we have to do something. It’s not going to get better so long as you have that girl on your back.”

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t prove she’s lying. I can’t call her out.”

“Maybe not, but we’ll figure something out.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. I’ve got your back. We’ll figure it out together. After all, what are brothers for?”

Chapter Text

“Of course. I’ve got your back. We’ll figure it out together. After all, what are brothers for?” He says.

Despite all that has happened to her this week, the assurance of her brother still manages to make her laugh. She chuckles, a real, genuine one. “Thanks, Tommy.”

“Aw, you wouldn’t have called me if you didn’t know I’ve got you, sis.”

Marinette grins. “True. But what are we going to do?”

Thomas is quiet for a while. All Marinette can hear through the phone is some quiet humming. “Well…” He says slowly, after a while. “I do have one idea. You probably won’t like it, though.”

Marinette groans. When a sibling says that, there’s never a good idea coming. Still, she doesn’t have anything else, and even if it’s not a good one, it still might be a solution. “What is it?”

“So… do you remember when we were kids and we used to watch a bunch of movies with the twins that switched places and pretended to be each other?”

Marinette covers her face. “You want to twin swap.”

“Hear me out!” Thomas laughs even as he makes his case. “Look, this girl isn’t going to leave you alone. If you can’t stop her, your only choice is to avoid her. I mean, I don’t really want to be known as the twin here, but if it means you’re not getting bullied, you could always come to my school instead.”

“Leave my school?” Marinette gasps. “What about my friends? This is my school; I can’t just pack up and leave.”

“Sis. Your friends are ignoring how much of a bully this girl is being. If you have to, you can make an excuse for transferring and keep in contact with them outside of school. But staying there isn’t good for you.”

Marinette doesn’t want to admit it, but Thomas does have a point. Lila is upping her game, targeting things that she very much can get to and which very much do hurt Marinette deeply. If this kind of attack on her art of all things continues… then she’ll be forced to the point where she has no choice but to move schools. At best. And she does have a responsibility to stay healthy and ready because Ladybug can’t exactly take a mental health break.

A new school… might be the best idea she has right now. But she can’t just leave. Her life is at Dupont. Her friends are there. She can’t uproot because of one bully. Even if no one else can see she’s a bully.

“Maybe not.” Marinette admits. “But how does that lead to swapping places?”

“I know you don’t want to leave.” Thomas says gently. “You’ve got everything all set up there, and you don’t know my school. So, a swap would give you an opportunity to check out Solset, and me and opportunity to scope out your situation and give you a real second opinion on whether you’re better off moving or if you’re just scared and making excuses to stay. And yeah, I know you’ll do that, sis.”

He’s right. “That’s a surprisingly good reason for an absolutely ridiculous idea.” Marinette says.

Thomas laughs loudly. “I know, right? Come on, you know you’ve always wanted to do this.”

“Your voice is deeper than mine.” Marinette says.

Flawlessly, Thomas says, in a very impressive imitation of her voice, “Is it?”

Marinette sputters. “When did you learn to do that?!”

“Don’t act like you haven’t been preparing for this since we were toddlers, sis. We’re twins. Come on, do me.”

Marinette purses her lips. I hate that he’s right. “Ugh, fine. You’re mean, you know that?”

“Ooh, impressive! Yours might be even better than mine! Now all we have to do is talk about what we both need to know to blend in with our friends. I remember seeing your friends last summer. Is it the same group?”

“Uh, yeah.” Marinette sighs. “Alya’s my best friend. And Nino and Adrien are the boys.”

“I remember. Nino’s the one with the hat. Adrien is the one you’re in love with.”

Marinette feels herself flush. “W-what?!”

“Sis, you do realize I have to be you. I have act like you, and so I need to act like you around your crush. No lying.”

Marinette growls at the teasing in his voice. “I don’t remember ever even agreeing to this idea.”

“Yeah, but you will.” He says smugly.

Mean. “Maybe. What about you? Who’s your crush? How do I need to act around them?”

He chuckles. “You got the easy end there. No crush to speak of, so no special orders.”

Marinette covers her face again. “Wait, hang on. I just remembered. You’re bigger than me. There’s no way this will work.”

“I’ve seen your closet. You have to have something that’ll fit me. We’re pretty much the same height, anyway. It’s just shoulders and waist because I’m a dude and you’re a girl. It’ll work. Trust me.”

Marinette snorts and shakes her head but she does trust him. He’s her brother, after all. Besides, she has always wanted to try swapping places for a day just to see if she can get away with it. “What about my hair?” She asks.

“I actually grew mine out. If yours is the usual length, we just need to style it. Remember my hair at the end of the summer?”

“Yeah. You haven’t cut it?”

“Nope. I wanted to try something different.”

“Well, that’s convenient.”

“Isn’t it? With the right make up, we should get by with no problem at all. Well, except for behavior, obviously. Have you met my friends?”

“Nope. Who am I looking out for?”

“Well, I think the one you really need to watch out for is Ross. He’s my roommate, so you’ll have to dodge him. Don’t worry too hard about it, though. He… well, there’s pretty much no chance he’ll rat you out if he does figure it out. He’s not a meddler.”

“Oh. Great.”

“I’ll send you some pictures of the group. I don’t really talk to too many people outside them, so you should be alright with these guys. What about you?”

“You should probably at least know the names of all my classmates. I’m class president, remember?”

“Damn, that’s right. You’re like, important.” He chuckles again. “Well I’ll handle it. I’ll need to know the minefield, though. Who am I looking out for?”

“Just Lila, really. She lies pretty much constantly, and everyone knows I don’t like her very much. Be friendly, but don’t spend time with her and you should be fine.”

“Got it. What about Chloé? She was a nightmare before.”

“Eh. Comparatively, she’s actually growing on me.”

“Wow.”

“I know. She has gotten better. Her attitude is still rotten, but she’ll probably leave you alone. If not, you can call her out. I’ve done that before.”

“So, calling her out or not, both make sense for you?”

“Yeah, it kind of depends on my mood.”

“Cool. I don’t have a minefield here, so you’re safe that far, but you should get some info on my friends.”

“Good idea.”

Marinette sits in that park chatting with Thomas about their plan for a long, long time. She isn’t sure exactly how long, but it speeds by as she talks to her brother. It feels like no time at all, but it also feels like a long overdue hours-long chat. Despite everything, she’s somewhat at ease now that she had that talk with him. He brought her down to earth and proposed his ridiculous solution and distracted her and helped her get past the tragedy still sitting in her lap.

She looks down at it again, and there’s a pang in her chest. It’s just so much work gone out the window. But it’s not going to happen again. One way or another, she and her brother would make sure of that.

She looks back to the school, and then over towards home, and bites her lip. She has a lot of information to mull over, a lot to write down just so she doesn’t forget, if she wants to pull this off. Not to mention she’s going to need to go through her closet and pick out some outfits for her brother. Maybe I’ll stick him in a skirt. She snickers. Honestly, he’d probably rock it. But no, not if I have any pants for him. I don’t want to make him shave his legs. Although… maybe with leggings?

Mind working in fashion once more, Marinette smiles and heads home. Her parents look at her destroyed sketchbook and usher her up to her room without a thought of school, so she doesn’t have any problems. We have to tell them, at least.

Her father heads back downstairs to man the bakery, but her mother hugs her tightly on her chaise. “Oh, honey.” Her mother says. “I’m so sorry about your sketchbook.”

“It’s okay.” Marinette says. She can’t keep the sadness out of her voice, though, now that the sketchbook is back in the forefront of her mind. “But, uh… Maman, I don’t… I don’t really want to go back to school.”

“I understand.” Her mother says. “Can I ask what happened to your book? Where was it?”

Marinette bites her lip. “There’s this girl at school, Lila. She… well, she says she found it like this. But she’s lied, a lot, and she’s been messing with me, so I think she probably stole it.”

“Excuse me?” Her mothers voice is soft, but Marinette recognizes the edge in it. It’s the sound her mother takes when she’s trying hard to maintain her composure for Marinette’s sake. “What exactly has this girl been doing?”

There’s no way they don’t notice I’ve switched with Tommy, even just for a day. And we haven’t even set a time to stop it, assuming we don’t get caught. I have to tell them. With that thought in her head, she does. She tells them everything, as much as she can, with only the small alterations to omit her own role as Ladybug. How she found out about Lila’s lying, even her shameful following of Adrien because of jealousy, and everything she knows and suspects Lila of doing to her since then. She doesn’t hide when she’s only convinced it was Lila, as opposed to knowing Lila did it, but her mother’s face grows stonier and stonier regardless.

With a controlled sigh, her mother looks her in the eyes. “Marinette… I’m so sorry. I should have noticed.”

“It’s not your fault, maman. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.” Her mother gives her a look that hurries her along. “But, uh, this with my sketchbook? I… can’t handle it. If she keeps doing that, then…” Marinette shakes her head. “I could handle her before. That’s why I didn’t say anything. But, uh, Tommy had an idea about what to do about it.”

With an amused smile, as if she knows exactly what’s coming, her mother arches her brow and says, “Oh? What is this idea?”

Marinette flushes. “We want to switch places. Just for a while. I’ll pretend to be him and go to his school and he’ll pretend to be me. The idea is that I can scout out his school if I decide I can’t handle Lila and want to leave, and he can scout out my situation to figure out if there’s really any way to stop it and, you know, see if I can really handle it.”

Her mother nods slowly and closes her eyes. “That might be the best reason to swap places I’ve ever heard.”

Marinette snickers.

“Much better than your excuse when you were eight.”

Marinette can’t help the burst she lets out. “Oh, god, we were ridiculous.”

Her mother smiles fondly at her and hugs her tight. “If that’s what you want to do, then your papa and I heard nothing about this.” She winks. “I’m proud of you. It’s smart to look at your options, and to rely on your brother. If you decide you need to transfer, you know we’ll support you.”

“I know. Thanks, maman.”


Solset Academy really isn’t anything like Françoise Dupont. For one, it’s massive. It has a whole campus! Marinette doesn’t just need to worry about what room she’s in, but what building. Thomas, when they met up at lunch, gave her a map and his class schedule, but… she’s chronically late when she’s across the street and knows exactly where the classroom is. This is going to be a bad time.

At least Tommy has some sense of fashion now. She relishes in the clothes, so different from her usual. It’s not something she’d usually go for, but it’s fun to dress up. Unfortunately, a lot of Thomas’ lower-cut shirts are out for obvious reasons, but he still has a nice selection. Maybe she’ll make a designer of him yet. A simple crew neck, some frankly impressively nice jeans (Where the heck does he find these?!), with real pockets, no less, and a stylish jacket? Timeless. Hair thrown back to frame her face like some sort of dark-haired Viking? Fun. Makeup to give her more masculine features? So fun.

If nothing else goes right about this plan, at least she has this.

Okay. She thinks. Tommy said that his dorm is this one, so I need to head… that way. Next class is in thirty minutes, so I should look around the dorm first. I don’t know, maybe I should just head straight to class, so I have time to get lost. But he said his class is nearby, right? She checked the map and double-checked the schedule, all on her phone so as to not look like she’s new and lost. Yeah. Just across the way. So, I should make it fine, I just need to figure out where the room is.

She manages to find the dorm with little trouble and from there finding the right building for the class is simple. She checks the time and decides that, no, she’s better off just going to class. The dorm can wait.

She sips her coffee as she wanders the hall, reading each of the door numbers. “Walk like you know where you are.” Her brother had said. Good advice. He also said that coffee is fine to bring into class, and that he does often, so she should be fine. She’s still a little nervous about that. It is his idea, though, so it must be alright. Oh, thank god. That was easier than I thought. Marinette sighs in relief when she spots the right door number. To be safe, she double checks it before entering.

Third column, back row. God, Tommy, how do you stand being in the back like that? She makes her way up to her seat. Luckily, the room is structured similarly to her own classroom, so that’s a little comforting to her nerves.

When she sits, she tells herself to breathe. Nerves are going to make it more obvious. Come on, you can pretend to be your own brother. We prepared for this. She smiles. I wonder what Chat would think of this. I mean, just telling him I have a twin brother would probably give him a heart attack, but pulling a stunt like this? God. I’m actually tempted to let him know.

But I can’t. Okay, so this is math, right? It’s going to be tough to keep up if they’re far off where we are. Maybe we can work on our homework together, so we can each stay caught up with our own work and aren’t lost with each other’s. We weren’t really thinking about actual class when we decided this, were we? Maybe I can record the lecture? Secretly, if I have to.

Marinette is going through Thomas’ phone to find the recording function when someone else slides into the seat next to her. She feels his arrival before she looks up to see him, and she’s immediately a little uncomfortable because he just sits down and sidles up right next to her. Like, their thighs are touching.

“Hey, love. How was lunch with your cool new friends?” The voice was smooth and teasing and playful. The way he leans over her, his arm around her back on the back of the seat, puts her on edge.

Wait. Love?! Tommy, you little…

There’s no way Thomas would just forget to mention a boyfriend. She asked about a love interest! And then she glances up and, oh. Oh, shit.

Because that face is familiar and she hates it.

Okay, so it’s not really the face so much as the attitude, the posture, the tone in his voice, and the way he’s looking at her. She knows that look very well. And sure, he has bright blue hair, which is quite a bit wavier than Chat’s unkempt but straight hair, but, well, she knows for a fact that the Miraculous can change hair color and texture. Heck, it changes his eyes, so of course it can.

She recognizes him, too, from the photos Thomas has shown her. Chat Noir is Arno Buenaventura. Holy heck. Marinette is absolutely baffled, to the point that she doesn’t even think to move away. This is the last thing she expected to happen when she plotted this swap.

Wait, my brother is dating Chat Noir?!

Chat had gotten the hint a while ago. He still makes advances, but they’re usually tamer and he doesn’t throw fits over it or lie about them like he used to sometimes do. Could he really have…? No… there’s no way. But… that’s absolutely him, right?

Marinette really, truly, has no clue how to feel about this.

“Tommy?”

On one hand, it’s her brother and her partner and if they’re happy, well… that’s great, right?

“Hey, Tommy? Love? Buddy? You listening?”

On the other, though, Chat Noir does have some creepy-ish and entitled tendencies. She thought he was curbing that, but if he found a boyfriend instead, well… maybe not. Maybe his attention is just directed elsewhere. She doesn’t want her brother in a relationship with someone like that. As much as she loves Chat, he needs some work before he’ll make a good boyfriend. And she can only accept the best for her brother.

“Tommy. Hey. Snap out of it.”

His snapping fingers in front of her face jolt her out of her reverie. “Sorry, what?” She asks, only barely catching herself and remembering to speak in her brother’s voice.

Arno (Absolutely Chat Noir) leans back and laughs bright and clear and grins at her. “You seriously zoned out, there. What, did you get lost in my eyes?”

There’s absolutely no way in hell this man isn’t Chat Noir. She glances nervously at his hands. He has to have the ring. That would confirm it.

Arno is wearing multiple rings, actually, and though none match the signet ring that Chat Noir has, Marinette can’t be a hundred percent sure that none of them turn into it when he transforms. Her own Miraculous don’t change shape, but they do change color, and the transformation can change someone’s hair and eyes, so it’s not a ridiculous leap.

“Tommy? Hey, I know I’m beautiful, but I really prefer you when I can talk to you.”

Marinette shakes her head roughly. “Uh, sorry.” She says. “Just got a lot on my mind.”

“Must be some story if you’re this out of it. What’s going on?”

Marinette is painfully aware that at no point has Arno moved away from her in any capacity. If anything, he only presses closer. Even though her mind is still screaming, she manages to throw out an excuse. “Uh, my sister. She’s having a rough time at school.”

Arno’s hazel eyes turned soft. Well, softer. The absurdly soft look he’d already been giving her is still seared in her mind. Hazel, but I already know for a fact that Chat’s eyes change color. Maybe it’s not just the sclera. He’s just about the right size, though. And that look… oh my god. “Aw.” Arno purrs. “Is she going to be okay? Do we need to go over and give her some hugs?”

Marinette is just about wheezing because not only is Chat Noir in her brother’s class and friend group and his boyfriend but he’s so soft? Holy heck he’s even worse than he was with me. “No.” Marinette chokes out. “We’re working on it. I think she’ll be alright. Just a tough week, you know?”

Arno pats her shoulder. The one opposite the side he’s sitting on. He doesn’t remove his arm from around her. Oh my god. “I get it. But, hey, if she does need some hugs, you know I’m always available.”

And then he winks, and Marinette absolutely cannot deal with this. Oh my god, please let class start already.

With literally zero regard for her personal space, Arno leans over her and reaches across the desk to grab her coffee. His chest is centimeters from her face, and she thinks she might actually appreciate the view if he was, say, a little further back and she wasn’t standing in for her brother, who conveniently forgot to mention just how close Arno apparently gets to him. He does have a nice chest, to be fair. The problem is that none of this is for her, and she’s still freaking out because this is definitely Chat Noir, and this is a whole new level that she never expected her brother to be in. How is she supposed to react to this?

Practically speaking, the fact that Arno is Chat makes it quite a bit easier. Marinette knows how to handle him, and she’s already comfortable with him, as Thomas supposedly is, so she should be able to pull off pretending to be her brother. But on the other hand, Chat Noir is in love with my brother?!?!

Arno licks his lips way too purposefully before setting the coffee down. “Wow. That’s almost as sweet as you. Is there more sugar in that than usual?” Than usual?!

Heck. It’s true, Marinette likes her coffee quite a bit sweeter than her brother does. She didn’t expect anyone else to try it, nor did she expect that any of Thomas’ friends would know exactly how he likes his coffee. Come on, this is ridiculous! “Uh, yeah.” She says. Play if off, play if off. You can do this. “Must have had my sis on my mind when I got it.” She smiles. “She’s got a crazy sweet tooth.”

Arno gives her a look that makes her feel like he’s looking into her soul, but then he shrugs and grabs the coffee again. He takes one more sip before returning it to her side of the table, leaning over her again to do so. “I like it. It’s good to try something different now and then. Even if it is basically just sugar water.”

Excuse you. Don’t drink it then. “Haha.” She laughs awkwardly. “Yeah. For sure.” She desperately wants to ask him if he’s always practically cuddling with her brother, and it’s taking everything she has no not out herself by doing so. She can’t exactly tell him to back off, either, because what if he is always this close? Plus, he’s called her “love” more than a couple times. Are they supposed to be dating? But why didn’t Thomas mention that, then? All he said about Arno was that he’s a close friend and a brief summary of his personality and likes and dislikes but none of that addresses this.

Well, it’s a good thing this guy is Chat Noir, because if she has a stranger getting like this, even if they don’t know that she doesn’t actually know them, she’d be a lot more uncomfortable. As it is, she thinks she can roll with it. It’ll be fine. I’ve flirted with Chat more than my fair share. This is practically normal.

Except for, you know, the part where it’s my brother that he’s all over.

Yeah, that’s still weird.

When the teacher walks into the room, Arno finally unlatches from her and moves away, a little bit, to get his things on the desk in front of him. I think I need to see how he is around the rest of our friends until I make a decision about flirting, though. Because I really don’t think Thomas would just not tell me to mess with me. I mean, I’m sure there’s something, but not a whole boyfriend. Maybe this is just how he is? He flirts with Ladybug. Yeah. Maybe he’s just always flirty. They are close, Thomas said that, so maybe he just gets affectionate with his friends. He’s pulled similar moves on me a few times but brushing him off all the time was probably enough for him to temper that a bit.

Yeah. That makes sense. Still. If Chat was really in love with me like he said he was, he’s in a whole other damn galaxy for Tommy. It’s like Chat but turned up to a million.

It’s so weird.

Having him at her side, though, still just a tad (actually, quite a bit, considering the length of the desk) too close for normal seat mates, does bring her some comfort. This may be just about the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to her, and he may be playing a major role in that, but she faces weird all the time with some of the ridiculous akuma they fight. With Chat at her side, she’ll be fine. Civilian or not.

Seeing Chat Noir in class may be the last thing she ever expected, but she’s honestly a little grateful. There’s still the unaddressed panic about finding out who Chat is, but it is relieving to have him with her as she goes undercover into this new school. Now that I think about it. If I transfer, that’ll mean I’ll go to school with Chat. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad idea.

She casts a longing look to Thomas’ backpack, which seems suddenly so far away. Tikki is hidden in there. Surely, she’ll have an idea of how to proceed from here. In the meantime, though, Marinette isn’t sure she can handle all of this at once. Focus on making it through the day, then unpack when you’re alone. Let’s just file all of this into a box for later.

She takes a deep breath to center herself and focuses on her materials. She spies a few people with their phones still out, so she dares to pick up her brothers’ once more and discretely finds the recording function. It won’t have the best sound this way, but she can’t be sure she’s allowed to have it, so she presses record and slips it into her brother’s backpack, taking the chance to give Tikki a look to let her know exactly what Marinette is feeling.

Tikki smiles encouragingly back at her, and Marinette gets the distinct impression that that look alone is not enough for Tikki to realize that not only is Chat Noir literally right next to them, but Marinette knows it.

She feels a nudge and jumps. Arno is looking at her with his brow furrowed. “You alright, love?”

“Yeah. Fine.” Marinette says, smiling. “Don’t worry about me.” She nudges him playfully for good measure, and that seems to make him loosen up a bit. She hadn’t even realized how tense he is, since he still acts so relaxed, but there is a distinct change in his muscles.

Marinette swallows hard as her throat goes dry when she realizes that Arno is very much showing off with that tight shirt. Not because of the sight she realizes is in front of her (though she has to admit, it is quite a fine one. It wouldn’t be the first or last time she appreciates Chat Noir’s muscles.) but because she’s positive that sight is specifically for her brother. The physique? Probably for Arno himself. But the low-cut shirt (a neckline which she was warned needs to be deliberately filtered out of Thomas’ own closet at the risk of drawing attention to her own chest), the sleeves that are basically just a second skin around his shoulder and biceps, how the hemline rises up when he stretches (which he does, of course, before putting his arm around the back of her seat once more)? There’s no way that’s not for Thomas. She just can’t convince herself Arno isn’t either dating or wooing Thomas.

And if they aren’t dating? If Thomas isn’t messing with her and he legitimately just didn’t think to mention it? Then Thomas must just have no clue that Arno is helplessly in love with him.

That’s impossible! Marinette thinks, catching Arno’s eye once more. He gives her an adorable grin. Anyone with eyes can see how he feels!

She taps her pencil on her notepad. Then again, Adrien doesn’t seem to notice how I feel about him. Could Tommy really just be that dense? No. No, that’s ridiculous. But then why didn’t he mention it?

Man, nothing makes sense.

“Hey.” She feels Arno catch her shoulder and pull her close. His breath is hot in her ear. “Smile for me.”

She can’t help the way her face heats up. “W-what?”

“Smile. You’ll feel better. I promise.” Arno is positively beaming when she looks at his face. “I mean, your smile makes me feel better, so it’s got to do the same for you, right?”

Marinette can’t help herself. She snickers at first, but then just starts laughing. He’s really trying, and now the shock is starting to wear off, it’s starting to just be kind of adorable. If Tommy didn’t tell me how to respond to him, does that mean I should just make a decision on my own?

But then, that leads to the question on whether I want to get my brother together with Chat Noir.

Whatever. Just act natural. You can talk to Tommy about it tonight. She’s already grinning because of her laughter, but she looks up at him and pats his head. “That’s sweet. Thanks.” She sees the tinge of red on Arno’s cheeks and snickers. As she turns back to her desk, she adds, “But it’s your smile that makes me feel better. Not mine.”

Arno flushes a deep red and stares at her for a moment. Oh, man, maybe Tommy really doesn’t flirt back with him. She thought that, with how close they seemed to be physically, he surely flirts at least a little. But if that can turn Arno into a mess… well, maybe she needs to reconsider. At least he’s still better than Marinette when Adrien is involved. Arno may be approximately the same shade of red, but he still grins and doesn’t make any attempt to move away.

Actually, she’s sure he moves just a little bit closer.

Chapter Text

When class finally ends, Marinette is working on her game plan. Arno is an interesting beast to tackle, and though he’s undoubtedly the most complicated to deal with, considering the whole romance thing and him being Chat Noir and all, she suspects that going through life with Thomas’ friends may be a bit more difficult than she imagined.

And she needs to have some words with Thomas for not mentioning how madly in love Arno is with him. A little warning would have been nice.

After putting her things away and taking out her brother’s phone and ending the recording, she looks up to see that Arno is waiting for her at the edge of the table. She flashes him a smile, which he gladly returns, and she follows him out into the hallway.

“So…” Arno draws his word out and rocks on his feet. “You want to hang out until Cam’s show?”

Thomas had, at least, told her about the school play going on that evening. Even though they had ultimately decided to start the switch today, because Marinette isn’t sure she can handle seeing Lila again just yet when the destruction of her sketchbook is still so fresh, Thomas really wants to see it. Luckily, there’s a solution that works out for everyone without putting off the twin switch plans.

Marinette shakes her head. “No, sorry. I want to call my sister and knowing her it might take a while.”

Arno pouts a little, making an adorable face as he crosses his arms. “Aw. Okay, I get it. But, hey, why don’t you invite your sister to the play? It sounds like she could use a break. And maybe a hug?”

Marinette chuckles. “I think I will. But, in the meantime, I’m going to head back, alright? I’ll see you at the play.” She’s impressed again by Arno. She planned to bring up inviting her “sister” herself, but he beat her to the punch, even though going to a play together is a very date-like thing to do.

Of course, Ross should be there, too, so maybe the date aspect is already ruined? Either way, Marinette appreciates how thoughtful he’s being. Based on his behavior with her as Ladybug, she had entertained the thought that he would be against the idea of bringing extra people.

Then again, he never complains about bringing in new heroes. Only the occasional complaint about the unfairness of Marinette knowing more about them because of her picking who gets the Miraculous. And that is a pretty fair complaint, honestly. She’s sure Ross just has no interest in Thomas – maybe he’s just completely straight – and as his sister Marinette is obviously no threat, so the more the merrier.

“See you soon, love.” Arno winks at her and it feels suspiciously like a promise instead of a farewell. Marinette shakes her head, hiding her smile, and finds the door.

She isn’t entirely sure what to expect in the dorm room. Thomas says he keeps it clean, but also that Ross can be a little dirty. So, she thinks that maybe it will be lived in and maybe just a tad messy.

No, apparently not. When she steps into the room, the first thing she notices is the thin layer of sand in the entryway. Okay, weird. I’m not even sure where he would have found sand.

The room is clean and utilitarian. There are a few plants and a colorful tapestry as decoration, but the color scheme is otherwise all neutral and slick. There’s clear wear on all of the dorm furniture, which makes sense considering how many generations of students have probably used them. It’s as far from cluttered as it can get, though. There are a few things out in view, still, but they all seem to be placed purposefully and where they’re supposed to be. A row of shoes line the wall directly next to the door, so Marinette puts hers there and tries to jump over the sand covering most of the entryway.

When Thomas says that Ross is “dirty,” Marinette quickly discovers, he means that Ross tracks actual dirt around the place. The door to Ross’ room is open and a quick peek tells her that he’s not even untidy in his own space, but there is a suspiciously large pinecone on what she can see of his desk. She doesn’t look too closely, so as not to invade his privacy, especially as she isn’t even technically supposed to be there.

The dark skin, short hair, and the quirk in his brow as he glances out when she passes by his door match perfectly with the picture Thomas has shown her. She can’t be totally sure, since she doesn’t spare any more than a glance and a quick wave, but she thinks he has a leaf stuck to his shirt sleeve.

To ponder over that and what on earth Ross could be doing to even be getting this much dirt into the dorm is a tempting prospect, but Marinette decides that one question at a time is more than enough and shuts herself into Thomas’ room.

Thomas doesn’t usually close his door, he says, so even though she is right now and Ross should leave her alone, Marinette decides it’s not safe to shed her disguise until Thomas arrives. But she must close the door, because otherwise Ross would surely hear her.

“Tikki.”

Tikki flies out of the backpack she places next to the desk. She’s already giggling. “This is so much fun, Marinette! I didn’t know you could be such a good actress!”

Marinette smiles wryly and shakes her head. “Well, it’s just my brother. If there’s anyone I can pretend to be, it’s him. But I actually have something important to ask you about.”

Tikki tilts her head. “Oh? What is it?”

Marinette takes a deep breath. Her mind is going a mile a minute as she starts thinking about what her encounter with Arno means. “If I guessed who Chat Noir is, would you confirm it for me?”

“Marinette.” Tikki frowns. “You know the rules. It’s too dangerous for you to know yet.”

“I know, I know.” Marinette says. “But I think I do.”

“What?! You do?”

“Well, yeah. I mean it’s not like he changes personality.” Marinette rolls her eyes. “It’s hard to miss.”

Tikki makes a strange face at that, one that Marinette can’t decipher before it disappears. “I’m sorry, Marinette, but if you have a guess, it’s best to keep it to yourself. I can’t confirm or deny any guess for Chat’s safety. And you definitely shouldn’t ask him about it!”

“I understand.” It’s disappointing. Marinette was hoping that she could clear this up quickly and things would become a bit clearer with how she should treat Arno. I guess I just have to trust my gut, then. And it says he’s Chat Noir. “Thanks anyway, Tikki. I should call Tommy. We need to get ready for the play tonight.”

With Tikki’s affirmation, Marinette takes out her phone and gives ger brother a call.

“What’s up, sis?” Thomas’ voice is just as casual as always, which comes at a relief to her. She knows that sending him into Dupont means that he’s the one subject to Lila’s bullying and he has even less than Marinette to back his side. That he still sounds cheerful means that either Lila hasn’t tried anything after the sketchbook, or whatever she’s done isn’t too bad.

“Why didn’t you tell me you have a boyfriend?!” Marinette hisses sharply, trying hard not to laugh and give away that she’s not upset with him.

She hears a choking sound from his side of the line. “Woah, wait, excuse me? Boyfriend?”

Marinette clears her throat and puts her voice imitation to work for someone else. “See you soon, love.” She says, not even managing to capture the tone that really seals the deal when Arno says it.

She can hear Thomas sigh, and then chuckle lightly. “Yeah, that’s just Arno. I didn’t really think to mention it since he does that with everyone.”

“Really?” Marinette asks flatly.

“Really! That’s how he talks to everyone.”

“Uh huh. And all the flirting?”

“Flirting? Pfft. What flirting?” The words are horrifying because they sound entirely sincere.

Marinette slaps her hand to her face. Hard. My brother is a goddamn idiot. God help me. Okay, you know what? This is not my problem to solve. It might still be fun to flirt with Chat a little bit. Maybe that’ll get the ball rolling for him. But really, I don’t think he could be any more obvious so it might just take telling Tommy outright. “Oh my god.”

“Arno does not flirt with me.” Thomas insists. “We’re close, yeah, but I told you that. Your pal Alya probably flirted with me today as much as he does.”

Considering her experience today, Marinette finds that statement just a little alarming. “Ugh, whatever.” She says, shaking it off. If that’s how he wants to be, then fine. I’ll just handle Arno my way. “When are we meeting up for the play?”

“I’m already on my way. In the dorm, right?”

“Yeah. I’m back already, so whenever you get here should be fine.”

“I’ll hurry. Getting all this makeup off is going to be a pain.”

“It’s not that bad. Might have to use the sink, though, so Ross might start to suspect something.”

“Yeah, but he’s the least of my worries. Speaking of, have you met him yet?”

“He’s here in the dorm, but I haven’t talked to him, no.”

“Cool. As I said, he won’t meddle even if he does find out.”

Marinette chats with Thomas a while longer as he makes his way over, and soon enough they’re slipping into Thomas’ room together and wiping their faces down to get rid of the makeup. Thomas hands Marinette a dress out of his bag as he strips out of her day clothes and tosses them in. And Marinette throws Thomas’ clothes into his hamper as she gets the dress on. It’s a mess of frantic changing and checking each other’s makeup and hushed whispers and loud laughter.

She appreciates that he thinks to bring her something nicer to wear to the play than her casual clothes, although he also puts on a short-sleeved button-up that Marinette has been eyeing. It’s a nice shirt, and she’s a little sad that she won’t get her chance to steal it during their little swap. He smirks at her like he knows what she’s thinking. She sticks her tongue out at him. Rude.

When they’re both ready, Thomas texts Arno and leads Marinette back into the living room. “Yo, Ross, you ready for Cam’s show?” Thomas calls, peeking into Ross’ room. There’s a pause before Thomas laughs. “Yeah. Come out and meet her. Ross, this is my sister, Marinette. Sis, Ross.”

Ross exits his room and looks Marinette up and down. It’s strangely unnerving. His coal-colored eyes burn into her and make her feel like an ant under a magnifying glass. Then, he smirks, a dangerous, wolfish expression, and raises his hands to sign his words. “She’s your twin? I don’t see the resemblance.” It’s a good thing I learned sign language, or else we’d never be able to pull off the switch.

That was on Tommy’s insistence, though. Did he plan this switch the whole time, or just want me to be able to talk with Ross?

“Me neither.” Thomas jokes. “She’s way prettier than me.”

Ross shrugs. “I wouldn’t know. Are we heading out?”

“Yeah, Arno’ll meet us outside the theater.’

Ross nods and turns to Marinette. “It’s nice to finally meet you. Your brother never shuts up about you.” He signs.

Marinette can’t help but chuckle as they start filing out of the dorm. “Is that so?”

Ross simply smirks wickedly and walks past her. Marinette was warned that he’s not exceptionally talkative, but Marinette is starting to think she likes that about him. She isn’t sure what exactly Ross is teasing about – it’s probably more directed at Thomas, anyway – and yet even without vocalizing a single thing Ross speaks volumes more with his tone than his actual words.

She does wish he’d explain why his wry smirk is directed at her though, when the words are a jab at her brother. It could be that it’s just as innocent a comment as it sounds, but Marinette’s gut tells her that Ross is more than he seems, and his words even more so. It’s something about the way he looks at her. As if they’re in on some secret together despite only just meeting. He can’t possibly have figured out that we switched already, can he? He only saw me for half a moment!

Or maybe my disguise isn’t as good as I think it is, and Arno is just as dense as Tommy. Marinette shakes her head and rolls her eyes after glancing at her brother. “Arno doesn’t flirt with me.” We’ll see about that.

When they meet up with Arno, it takes about as long as Marinette expects for the flirting to start. Maybe just a tad longer, but that’s only because she doesn’t expect Arno to give her quite so much attention.

As soon as he catches sight of them, Marinette can see Arno perk up and grin (and his smile is so infectious) and he waves and says, “Hey! You brought your sister!”

Marinette gives him a demure smile, trying to act more nervous, as if she hasn’t met him before. “Hi.” She says. “I’m Marinette.”

Arno eagerly takes her hand and shakes it vigorously and then drops it and immediately holds out his arms. “No hard feelings if you’re not comfortable with it.” He says. “But from what your bro was saying earlier I thought you might want a hug.”

Marinette glances at Thomas, who looks back with a quirked brow. She laughs and accepts Arno’s hug. It’s warm and cuddly and he’s bigger than her so she has her face firmly in his shoulder and he absolutely envelops her as he wraps her up in his arms. He holds her firmly, so that she can feel his wishes through touch alone. The wish for her to have better days and for her to be happy for as long as happiness can last. But he’s so gentle, too, and even though she feels like he’s wrapped her up in a blanket he never traps her, and she knows she can get away with a simple step back.

Honestly, it’s a much nicer hug than she’s ever gotten from Chat Noir. He’s more possessive then, often more aggressive, and unwilling to let her go, even if he does always acquiesce. That makes her hesitate a little, only because it’s odd, but she doesn’t know what to do with that thought so she brushes it aside. “Don’t worry about me.” She says when Arno lets her go. “I’m alright. Thanks for inviting me out here, though.”

“Of course! I’ve wanted to meet you for forever!” He says. “I mean, you’re Tommy’s sister. It’s about time we finally met.”

Marinette shares a grin with him. “Remind me to get you some pastries from our place. You haven’t ever come over, have you? You have to try them.”

“I have been, actually.” Arno grabs her hand, his eyes sparkling. “But I will absolutely have any of those heavenly pastries you’re willing to give me.”

“Oh, you’ve been?” That surprises Marinette. He must have come over during the summer, since Thomas almost never returns home during the school year. Or, he wanted to try the food and took a trip on his own. “That’s a shame I must have been out. We could have met much sooner.”

“Ha, tell me about it. I’ve been bugging your bro for ages to meet his folks, you included, but no.” He holds onto his “o” in a mock whine. “He’s always too busy.” Arno leans in close to stage-whisper in her ear. “I think he’s just lazy and doesn’t want to make the trip back.”

Marinette snorts. “That sounds like my brother.”

“Hey!” Thomas protests. “After all I’m doing for you, this is the thanks I get?”

Marinette just sticks her tongue out at him, and gets the same gesture in return, and then all of them are laughing. Marinette swears she can even see Ross chuckle a little.

“Have you ever seen a musical?” Arno asks her, leaning in close to listen to her response.

Marinette grins sheepishly. “Only once. I’ve seen a few other plays, though. Mostly ones put on by my school.”

Arno nods like she’s just said something wise. “You know, I fell in love with your brother at a musical.”

Marinette is thankful that she doesn’t have to hide her choking over her shock this time, because she’s sure she’d never be able to pull it off if she were still pretending to be Thomas. She expects heavy flirting now, but to just come out and say it? Oh my god.

Thomas snorts. “Yeah.” He says. “Last year – Arno’s first one here – we saw each other in the lobby before they opened the doors and since we were classmates and were both alone, we teamed up. That’s how we became friends.”

Marinette tries to hide her wince as she quickly glances back to Arno. Oof. Friends. God, Tommy. She’s been on the receiving end of that unwitting friendzoning with Adrien more times than she’d like to remember, but this is even worse because Arno is straight up saying he loves him.

For his part, Arno takes it in stride. Because Marinette is looking for it, and probably because she knows him so well as Chat Noir, she sees how, for just a second, his smile no longer reaches his eyes. He’s handling this a lot better than I do. I should ask him for the secret. “Believe it or not,” Arno continues, “Camille was in that one, too. She wasn’t the star like she is for this one but recognizing her on stage was a big reason we first talked to her, too. So, really, a musical pretty much brought us all together.”

“Which one was it?” Marinette asks, because anything is better than lingering on what just happened.

Into the Woods.” Thomas says. “Camille was one of the step-sisters.”

“I still think,” Arno says, “that Cam was only given such a minor role because it’s unfair to let her star in every show.”

“She wanted to be the witch.” Thomas says.

“And what a witch she would have been.” Arno covers his heart dramatically. “I’ve heard her sing Last Midnight. It was a crime to give that role to anyone else.”

Marinette looks at Ross, then, realizing that he hasn’t given any input. He doesn’t sign anything for her, but he matches her gaze and his amused smirk tells her more than enough. “I’m sure.” Marinette says. “So, I take it Camille will be Sally tonight?”

Because she’s still looking at him, Ross nods. It’s a sharp movement punctuated by the popping of Arno’s reply of, “Yep.” Marinette pulls her gaze away from Ross to look at Arno as he gently nudges Ross’ shoulder. It’s a much softer and tentative touch than he’s used on anyone else, even Marinette, which strikes her as curious. He probably doesn’t really like being touched is all. Doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would. “I think Ross is going to need to step out when she sings Mein Herr or he’ll swoon.”

Ross snorts softly and signs, “Along with you and every other person in there.”

“Not me!” Arno chirps proudly. “Everyone knows I only have eyes for Tommy.”

Thomas, clearly reading the comment as entirely a joke, playfully shoves Arno. He shakes his head but doesn’t directly comment on Arno’s most recent confession. “Maybe true,” He says to Ross, “but we know you’re the one she’s singing to.”

Ross scrunches up his nose. “What an honor.” He signs too carefully to be enthusiastic. His lip is curled up slightly and his brow drawn down as he shows exactly what he thinks of that idea.

Marinette giggles. “Do you not want her to be singing for you?” She asks.

Ross blinks at her and then smiles gently. He shakes his head and signs, “It’s better than the alternative.”

Thomas nudges her side. “We tease him and Camille about being in love, just because they tease me and Arno. No one’s actually together, though.”

After a painful glance to Arno, Marinette refocuses and asks, “Do you want to be?”

Another glance tells her that Arno’s face turns about three shades redder, but Thomas and Ross are unaffected. “Nah.” Thomas says. “It’s all just innocent teasing.”

This time, Marinette sees Ross give a look to Arno. It’s not exactly sympathetic, but there’s definitely some notes of sympathy there. It’s enough that Marinette can tell that Ross isn’t as clueless as her brother. Good grief.

“Oh, okay.” Marinette nods. “But why is her singing for you good, then?” She asks Ross.

Mein Herr is a breakup song.” Ross signs with a coy smirk on his lips. “I’ll gladly let her leave me.”

“Oh!” Marinette giggles. “That makes sense, then.”

“Hey, Tommy.” Arno nudges Thomas gently. “Hope you’re ready to play defense for Cam after this.”

Thomas rolls his eyes and glances to Marinette. “Oh, I am. Her fanboys are going to go wild.”

“She has fanboys?” Marinette asks.

“Oh yeah.” Arno says. “It dies down most of the time but she’s literally a professional actress, and she’s the most beautiful woman in the school, so there’s usually someone trying to harass her. We like to keep them away.”

“Aw.” Marinette feels warmth in her chest. “That’s so kind of you to protect her.”

“Protect her?” Arno laughs loudly. “Oh no, love, we’re protecting those poor boys. Cam can handle herself.”

She notices Ross wave and looks to him as he signs. “There was one stalker who was bothering her not long after we met. She broke his arm.”

“And his balls.” Arno winces.

“And his nose.” Thomas says.

“We decided for the sake of her not getting expelled we’d just try to keep those guys away from her.” Ross signed with only a small smirk to show his amusement.

“It’s entirely selfish, I assure you.” Arno says. “We couldn’t possibly let her get in any more trouble because of dumb boys. Of course, we also can’t in good conscience tell her not to kill them, so it’s best if we just take matters into our own hands before she has to.”

“I let her pretend I’m her boyfriend, sometimes, to get rid of guys, which doesn’t help Thomas’ teasing.” Ross signs.

“I think we’re the only ones who actually believe it.” Thomas says. “No one else believes Ross would ever date.”

“Or,” For the first time since she’s met him, Arno’s face twists into something less than a smile, “they think Ross ain’t good enough for her on account of him being mute.”

“Or they’re racist.” Ross signs, his countenance unaffected by the topic.

“I think that’s why Cam uses him instead of one of us.” Thomas says. “It pisses people off more.”

Marinette catches Ross’ eye and sees him look pointedly to Arno and then roll his eyes. Or she picked him because you two are supposed to be together. Dummy. Marinette joins Ross’ conspiratorial smile and looks back to the others.

It doesn’t take too much longer before the doors open and their group files into the theatre. It’s an impressive place, with a high ceiling and practical, but pretty, arches along the walls. Marinette smiles. She quite enjoys the theatre, but she can’t help but feel a small pang of guilt.

The reason she’s there, after all, is because she’s avoiding her friends. Sure, that may not be the main reason, but she’s definitely doing it. She can’t handle dealing with Lila, and her friends are a dangerous beast these days. They’ve found a nice balance between Marinette and Lila’s rivalry (or, what they perceive as Marinette’s unwarranted dislike) and maintaining friendships with them both, but beaten down by the attack on her sketchbook and project, Marinette has lost some faith that Lila won’t manage to tip the scales in her favor.

Obviously her friends will support her when something so obviously tragic happens to her, but there are moments, like when Lila hands her the ruined sketchbook, and Alya so clearly expects Marinette to thank Lila for it, and is so clearly disappointed (if admittedly understanding) when it doesn’t come, that Marinette thinks it won’t take much to turn them for real.

She knows she should have more faith in her friends than that, but… it’s hard when they don’t even take her seriously when she voices any negative opinion about Lila. Marinette gets that it’s better for them to just brush it off and for her to just try to pretend Lila doesn’t exist than to test that and make her friends choose. It’s a little cruel to make a friend choose between her and another of their friends, especially since they can’t seem to see that Lila’s lying. But at the same time, to stay quiet all the time is suffocating.

She can go to Alya for support about her destroyed sketchbook, but she’ll never get any catharsis because the one responsible can’t even be blamed. It’s a trap, and Marinette is thoroughly caught in it.

But Thomas by her side is a support that she knows will never falter. And she has been starting to doubt Chat Noir, but meeting Arno has renewed that faith in full force. If she’s right about him, and they’re the same person, then it seems likely to her that the red flags she’s gotten from Chat Noir are more mistakes than indicators. Maybe he does still need a little bit of work, but if he’s Arno? From what she can tell, that’s another pillar she can rely on.

It’s harder to trust than usual, but even her friends who are taken by Lila haven’t abandoned her. What she needs is a friend who can see through Lila’s lies and will, if nothing else, listen and let her vent.

Almost against her will, Marinette’s eyes drag from the stage to Ross, at her side opposite Thomas. She hasn’t known him long, and he doesn’t talk too much, so she can’t be sure, but she suspects that he’s far more astute than the average person. Then again, she also thinks the same about Alya, and she’s fully taken in by Lila.

So, who knows? For now, all Marinette can do is let her school problems stay in school and enjoy this little excursion for what it is. A nice break. It’s enough, for now. She’s got a good show, good company, and she’s far out of Lila’s reach. Aggression, anger, and revenge can all come later, if she decides to invite them. For now, she’s glad for the chance to breathe.

It would be interesting though, she thinks, to see Thomas and his friends meet her friends. Even Lila. Maybe if they do meet Lila, the uncertainty deep in her gut will disappear. One way or the other.

She lays back in her comfortable seat and closes her eyes. What a wild day.

As it turns out, the play is a perfect ending to that wild day.

Camille is as beautiful as the boys describe her. Her hair, like liquid onyx, is covered by a wig (Marinette knows from the pictures her brother has shown her that Camille’s hair is much longer than the short bob she’s wearing on stage) and yet the wig suits her no less than her natural hair. The sultry whisper in her voice as she belts out lines clearly and proudly and the poise and grace with which she handles herself all leave even Marinette a little breathless.

The boys aren’t wrong. Camille goes for seductive in her rendition of Mein Herr, and she pulls it off like she pulls off every other word, tear, breath, and blink in the show. Through it all, Marinette is so utterly captivated that it’s only during the times when she’s not on stage that she can think that Camille sounds strangely familiar, like she’s talked to her before. (Marinette looks her up on her phone after the show, remembering that Arno called her a professional actress. Turns out, it is Camille who voices Ladybug, starring alongside Adrien as Chat Noir, in that animated movie a while back. Marinette is a little honored that Camille played her, and she can’t help feeling a little star struck as she stares at the casting entry. Eventually, though, she shakes it off, thinking, Small world.)

“There you are, boys.” Camille’s voice is rougher when she’s not playing a role. A little throatier, more rugged. It loses none of its siren-like magic. “Thanks for coming.” Marinette sees her without her wig and her breath catches in her throat. Instantly Marinette is just inspired. Camille is so beautiful in pretty much every way and Marinette can’t stop the ideas for dresses to stick her into.

“Are you kidding?” Thomas grins and goes to hug her. “Ross was swooning! We wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

Marinette catches Ross rolling his eyes before he steps forward to greet Camille with a smile and a pat on the shoulder.

Arno practically tackles all three of them as he leaps to hug Camille. “That was so great! Love, I’m blown away!” Off to the side, Marinette can see a crowd watching them. Or more precisely, watching Camille.

Camille handles the boys’ affection like a pro and snorts. “Yeah, yeah. I know.” Her gaze lands on Marinette, and Marinette squirms a little under her sharp stare. “And who’s this? You look like… oh, could it be? Tommy, is this your sister?”

“Yep!” Thomas announces proudly. “My sister, Marinette.”

Camille steps forward and Marinette hesitantly holds out a hand for her. “It’s nice to meet you. You were beautiful on stage.” Red. No, black. Maybe Ladybug themed? She could pull it off.

Camille takes Marinette’s hand in both of hers and grins wickedly as she shakes it vigorously. “Thanks.” Playful, but sexy. Maybe a little more sexy. That seems more her vibe. Or maybe that’s the costume? I could see her in anything. “Hey, Tommy?”

“Yeah, Cam?”

“Why didn’t you tell me your sister is the prettiest little thing?”

Marinette barely catches the statement, but she does, and she flushes just as deeply as she ever has around Adrien. Camille Lebeau just called me pretty, oh my god!

“What? Ew, no, Cam. You’re not allowed to cheat on Ross with my sister.”

Ross snorts loudly, but Camille just grins and shoots back, “Can’t I? I always said that I was a rover.”

Marinette giggles at the reference to her character, and Thomas shoves her gently in protest but laughs along, too.

“Seriously, though.” Camille says. “You’re just cute as a button, you know that? It’s an honor to finally meet you, Marinette.”

There’s something so incredibly powerful about Camille, in a way much different than Ross. Ross makes Marinette feel like he can see through her, like he knows more than he should, but Camille just exudes confidence and poise and she’s intimidating simply by wont of the fact that she’s strong.

“Ah, the star of the show!” Someone else, outside of their group, calls. Everyone turns to see the man who calls out Camille. “You were wonderful up there tonight.”

“Thank you.” Camille nods to him.

That starts an onslaught of guests talking to her. As if they’ve all suddenly summoned the courage to do so now that they aren’t the first past what Marinette assumes most of the people around know are her friends. It’s all a little overwhelming, but Marinette has seen Adrien go through similar things and even helped him avoid them once or twice, and she’s not exactly a nobody herself as Ladybug, so all in all it’s not too bad.

Camille chats with guests for a few minutes before a group of large men approach her. Instantly, Marinette can feel a chill miasma cover her group, who are off to the side a bit to allow everyone to approach Camille.

She feels Arno’s gentle touch on her shoulder. “Heads up, love.” He says. “Those guys are bad news. It might be time to take off.”

She swears she hears a growl from one of her group as they observe the situation, but everyone stays in their positions while Camille graciously greets the strange men. No one says anything. Marinette tries to listen in on Camille’s conversation over the noise of the rest of the guests.

“You really are something else, Millie.” One of the men, who seems to be the leader, says, leaning close to Camille. “You’re twice the actress your mom is, and a hundred times more beautiful.”

Marinette catches a glint in Camille’s eyes that seems to say “Only twice? Only a hundred?” but Camille doesn’t voice that. Instead, there’s a reserved, proud smile on her lips as she says, “I would never say such a thing about my mother, but I suppose I should thank you for it.”

There’s a hungry look on the man’s face, and Marinette feels the boys around her tense a little more. “And I bet you’re a thousand times the woman. Why don’t you come to my place and show me?”

Arno and Ross, leaving Thomas to hold onto Marinette’s arm, take just a single warning step closer to the conversation. Camille, however, just lowers her gaze and scans the man up and down. “No, thanks.”

Without another word, Camille starts to turn away. The man reaches out, but like lightning Ross is there holding the man’s wrist. He manages to get just centimeters away from grabbing Camille, but in the end he can’t lay a finger on her.

Ross releases the man and crosses his arms and fixes a glare on him. It should be comical, given how much shorter Ross is than the man, but though the man is large, Ross is quite muscular himself, and his glare, Marinette finds just by glancing over, is more deadly than a gorgon’s.

It’s impressive to Marinette that the man even has the gall to get in final words, fixed under Ross’ glare as he is, but as Arno collects Camille, who still seems cool as a cucumber, the man hisses, “Oh, you’re going to hide behind your retard, huh? I’ll show you how a real man treats a lady.”

Ross says nothing, and Marinette is guided by her brother to Camille’s side. Camille grins and takes her arm and they walk out as if the man simply doesn’t exist, while Ross stays behind to ensure the man can’t interrupt and make them acknowledge him.

“Ignore him.” Camille says in Marinette’s ear. “He’s like that all the time. It’s not worth it.”

Honestly, that man is lucky that Thomas and Camille have such a firm grip on her, and that Thomas has the foresight to hold her back, because Marinette is on the verge of turning around and tearing him apart herself. “He can’t just say things like that and get away with it!” Marinette hisses back. “Not just you, but Ross, too! That’s not okay!”

“It’s not.” Camille says. “Ross has a thick skin. Don’t worry about him. Trust me, one entitled guy’s opinion isn’t enough to bother him.”

Marinette knows it’s true. From first impression alone she would believe Camille’s words. Ross is strong. Still. He shouldn’t have to deal with that. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. I guess there’s problems everywhere, huh? I guess just running to a new school wouldn’t just solve everything. It’d just change the issues I’m going to have to deal with.

It’s not the first time Marinette’s seen boys like that, anyway. She’s seen both girls and boys fawn over Adrien in similar ways, even her own behavior may have crossed that line once or twice, especially in regard to her jealousy, and being a girl, she’s dealt with boys like that herself. Heck, even Chat Noir is like that, sometimes, getting possessive and obsessed with her, but that’s something she’ll be dealing with either way. My problems won’t disappear by changing schools. I know that. But maybe I can get Lila off my back.

It’s still worth thinking about.

Chapter Text

What a day. Thomas sighs as he rises from the warm bed he’s missed from home. The comforting scent of bread and pastries is one he longs for every day he’s gone, and to have it back is more relaxing than he expects.

He was raised in a bakery. His mornings just don’t feel right without something in the oven. It took a while to adjust when he first went to boarding school but coming back feels like greeting an old friend.

It’s nice.

Last night, though, was interesting. With Marinette and his friends all in one place, and of course Travis had to show up. It still gets on Thomas’ nerves when people insult Ross’ speech – or lack of it – no matter how many times he watches the insults roll off Ross like nothing but a passing breeze.

But he knows Ross is in good hands with Marinette. If anyone is even more willing to lay the smack down on Travis than Thomas himself is, it’s his sister. And the twin swap ruse should be enough to keep her in line. Mostly.

Besides, it’s Ross. Nothing bothers Ross. Or Camille, really. And as he said, he’s more scared for the people who insult Camille than he is for Camille’s feelings. She’s a tough girl. A lot tougher than Thomas, that’s for sure.

Thomas has other things to think about, anyway. Like Lila.

He’d be lying if he says he doesn’t take pleasure in her confusion. Marinette would never walk into the classroom and pull off being completely unaffected by what she’d called him about, but Thomas absolutely can. He figures that’s the best approach, for now, to feel the waters and not make too much of a fuss over something that didn’t even happen to him.

He does want to throttle the girl for daring to touch someone else’s art, especially his sister’s, but he’s a step removed so he has the benefit of being able to hold back.

After carefully applying his makeup and picking his outfit (Marinette has such an awesome wardrobe and he’s honestly so jealous. He’s currently picking just a few things to steal) he sets out for Marinette’s school for the second time. Yesterday, he was lucky enough to have his engagement with Camille’s show. He didn’t even need to lie about it, since Marinette went, too. But today he’ll either need an excuse to avoid Marinette’s friends, or deal with more casual hangouts. Neither are particularly good options for his secret identity, but he figures he’s learned enough about acting from Camille, and he knows his sister well enough, that he should be able to handle it.

“Marinette! Girl, you’re on time again!” Alya’s voice pierces Thomas’ ears. Heck, I forgot how terrible Mari’s habits are. Again. “This must be a new record.”

He grins and puts on his sister’s voice and giggles nervously. “I’m really trying my best.” He says. “We’ll see how long I can keep it up.”

“Well, I believe in you. How was the show last night? It was at your brother’s school, right?”

“Yeah.” Thomas says. “One of his friends was the star. It was so cool to finally meet her and the rest of his friends.”

Alya nods sagely. “Yeah, they don’t come by much, do they?”

He shakes his head. “It’s a boarding school, so they don’t have much reason to leave campus except for fun.”

“Who doesn’t?” A boy walks up. Nino. Thomas greets him warmly. Nino is one of the few in the class that Thomas knows personally beyond a few chance meetings during the summer. They were all in the same class when they were much younger, before Dupont and Solset. They weren’t really friends, and Thomas remembers him as somewhat of a loner, but to be fair Thomas himself isn’t any better. It’s nice to see him.

“My brother and his friends.” He repeats. “I don’t see them much because of where they go to school.”

“Ah, Solset, right? That sucks, dude.” Nino says.

“What?” A gasp sounds as another person approaches. “Marinette, I didn’t know you have a brother!”

Thomas turns to see Lila standing there. He shrugs. “He doesn’t come up much, since he’s not home.”

“Oh, that’s too bad. How old is he?”

“We’re twins, actually.”

“Really? Why doesn’t he go to school here with you, then? Don’t you live just across the street?”

Thomas nods patiently, and Alya pats him on the back like she’s proud of him. Well, if Marinette is how I think she is, Alya probably actually is proud of me just for talking to Lila like a normal human being. “He didn’t want to go here, is all. He’s always been a bit adventurous, so it didn’t really surprise us when he asked to go to school away from home. Solset is perfect for him since it’s close enough if he needs us, but it’s a boarding school and he can be on his own. Plus,” he snickers, “neither of us were eager to be known as the twins at school. We’ve been there. It gets tiring.”

Alya laughs. “I can see how. Before we moved here, everyone just knew me as Nora’s sister.”

“Ah, siblings.” Thomas rolls his eyes.

“I feel you, girl.”

“That’s so interesting!” Lila says. “But, oh, I just remembered! Alya, I had a great idea that I thought you’d like!” Thomas watches carefully, and notices how Lila keeps a careful eye on him as she talks to Alya. It’s sketchy. “It’s not as exciting as the last time, of course, but it occurred to me you might be interested in hearing about the actress who played Ladybug in that animated movie. You know Adrien yourself, of course, but I know Camille Lebeau pretty well. I can tell you all about how she worked on getting into character and everything, if you want.”

You know Camille? Thomas has to resist the scoff that tickles the back of his throat. If his sister hadn’t prepared him for her, he may give her the benefit of the doubt for all her claims yesterday. It doesn’t really matter, in the end, since he doesn’t believe her to start with, but that would be his clue if he had.

“No way!” Alya exclaims. “For real, girl? That’d be awesome!”

Thomas can’t resist interjecting. He’s sure he looks a bit more smug than he really should when he speaks, though. “Really? You know Cam?” He realizes his slip the moment the pause gets too long to correct it. Heck. At least Marinette actually did meet her last night.

Alya, it seems, doesn’t miss his slip. “Cam?!” She shrieks. “You know Camille Lebeau?!”

Lila’s expression doesn’t falter even a little. “Of course, I know her!” She says to Thomas. “We met at a gala my mother put on years ago.”

Thomas has to resist snorting, because while Marinette knows Camille, she has no concrete reason to think Lila doesn’t. Camille has a large group of acquaintances, after all. Though, if Lila hasn’t met Adrien Agreste until that very year, he doubts she’s ever met Camille. They run in the same circles, and while he’s not versed on the subject, he doesn’t think the Lebeau family does too much that the Agreste family isn’t also invited to. Camille told him about how Adrien was one of the few people her age she could reliably find at those parties. With the other being Chloé Bourgeois, who effectively ensured she never actually became friends with Adrien.

Besides, Camile despises Lila’s type more than Thomas has ever seen anybody hate anything. It makes total sense, considering Mme. Lebeau, Camille’s mother, is pretty much the grown-up version of Lila. A social climber with no real merits except a reasonable talent for acting and a creative head for manipulation. Camille knows her type, so there’s no way Lila would ever get past her.

 “Cam and her mother are regulars at all sorts of big events around the city, and you know how often I go to those. It’s only natural that we’re close.”

Thomas shudders slightly. The way Lila says “Cam” sounds suspiciously like how Travis Baker says “Millie.” Still clever of her to use the nickname I used. If horribly uncomfortable.

“Hold on.” Alya says, grabbing Thomas’ shoulder. “How do you know Camille Lebeau? She’s a movie star!”

Thomas purses his lips. With a glance at Lila, and at Adrien Agreste, who is coming up the stairs and approaching them, he says, “She goes to school at Solset Academy.” And then he shrugs. “She was actually the star of the play I went to last night. My brother introduced me to her after the show. They’re good friends.”

Adrien catches up with them, then, and asks, “Who’re we talking about? You have a brother?”

Thomas chuckles and nods. “A twin. He goes to school at Solset Academy. We were talking about how he, and apparently Lila, are both friends with Camille.”

Adrien’s eyes gleam. “Camille Lebeau?” He perks up slightly.

“Yeah. Her.”

Adrien pauses for a moment and furrows his brow. “Hang on. Marinette, your brother. Is his name Ross?” Thomas grins, happy that Camille talks about them even away from school and shakes his head. “Thomas?” Adrien tries next.

“That’s him.” Thomas says. “Thomas Dupain-Cheng. He’s named after Papa.”

“That’s so cool!” Adrien hops cutely in place in excitement. “She talked about him all the time when we were recording together for that movie.”

Hecking checkmate, Lila. Thomas thinks smugly. He catches Lila’s glare, but he can tell that she knows she’s lost this round. If she tries too hard to recover, she’ll accidentally reveal herself, and she can’t risk that, so she has to let this one go. And I didn’t even really try. It’s your own fault for claiming one of my best friends, liar.

“Adrien!” Alya grabs him roughly, but they’re both excited so they both just kind of jump together. “Lila had the best idea. Do you think you and Camille could come on the Ladyblog? You know, talk a little about the movie and how you prepared for your roles as Ladybug and Char Noir?”

Adrien hesitates visibly, there, and rubs his neck. “I, uh, I’m not sure. I’ll see if I can fit it in my schedule, if you want, but I don’t talk to Camille much personally, so you might be better off asking Marinette to get in contact with her. And, she’s probably just as busy as I am. It might be impossible to get us both together.”

Alya waves him off. “If that’s impossible I’ll just interview you separately.” She says. Thomas holds back his chuckle at how Adrien pales a little. Are interviews with Alya really that bad? I almost don’t want to send Camille into this, if that’s the case. But the Ladyblog isn’t a small thing and talking about it there would hype up the movie again, so I think Camille might be down. If it’s me asking.

Plus, I doubt Marinette would deny her best friend. So… sorry Cam. I got to ask.

“Do you think you could ask your brother to ask her, Marinette?” Alya turns to him with huge, pleading eyes.

“Oh,” Lila interjects, “Alya, this is the Camille Lebeau we’re talking about. She’s way too busy to accept every interview offer. You shouldn’t bother her.”

Alya blinks, her excitement a little squashed. “But Marinette’s brother is a friend of hers. I’m sure he could convince her to talk to me.”

“I’m her friend, too.” Lila says sweetly. “Which is how I know she doesn’t do interviews. She’s way too busy! I mean, between her career, the drama club at her school, photoshoots, and her regular training, she just doesn’t have time to spare.”

To be fair, Camille famously doesn’t do interviews. But, if one truly is her friend, they know that it’s definitely not because of a lack of time. Camille has loads of free time, and next to Arno is always dragging Thomas and Ross around to do things. Part of why she goes to Solset in the first place is because it’s a boarding school and she has just that much more independence from her mother, and so her day-to-day schedule is largely in her own hands.

Obviously, she has gigs and everything, but she also arranges those through her agent. Mostly her mother just throws opportunities at her. Since she’s always working on something her mother is satisfied, but since she never takes more than one job at a time, she’s not too bogged down. At least, that’s how Camille explains it to him.

“It would just be rude to bother her with something like this.” Lila concludes. “But don’t worry!” She says when Alya’s expression turns crestfallen. “I can fill in for her. She told me all about the Ladybug and Chat Noir movie last time we saw each other. I’ll sit with Adrien and answer your questions. After all, I’ll always have time for you.”

Thomas looks over to Adrien, sure that he knows Camille isn’t half as busy as he is and is therefore more likely to have time to do the interview, but Adrien just meets his gaze and shakes his head almost imperceptibly.

That makes Thomas’ jaw drop. No? No, what?

“Aha, yeah.” Adrien says. “We’re both super busy, so you’re probably better off just forgetting about the interview. I’m really sorry, Alya. I wish I could, but…”

And now you’re lying?! And Marinette is in love with you?!

Though, it sounds like Adrien just doesn’t want to do this. Maybe he’s just taking advantage of Lila’s excuse to try to shut down the whole thing. Can’t imagine why, but either way it’s not really better.

“I can rearrange my own schedule to fit yours, Adrien.” Lila purrs. Thomas shudders again. Again, she reminds him of that creep, Travis, who keeps going after Camille. “If it’s us, we can do it the next time you’re available.”

“I really shouldn’t.” Adrien says, rubbing his neck again. “Even if I do find time, I’m really not supposed to give public statements without my father’s approval. I hope you understand, Alya.”

Alya nods dejectedly. “I understand Adrien. I know it’s not easy having to watch what you say. I’d appreciate it if you could ask your dad, but…” She shrugs. “I know he’ll probably just say no. Still, thanks for considering it. It was a good idea.”

Lila crosses her arms, but Thomas thinks she can see that she’s not winning Adrien over. “Well, there’s always the original idea.” She says. “It can just be me.”

“That’d be great, Lila.” Alya smiles again and appears reinvigorated. “I need to prepare some questions. When would be a good time to do it?”

Thomas watches silently as an idea strikes him. Can I? No, that’d be too mean.

“How about tomorrow? I’m available after school. We can film it at five, while there’s still light.”

It’d be so easy. Cam would never- wait, no. It might actually just convince her to do an interview.

“That sounds great! We can use the school courtyard like last time.”

It’s like they’re asking for it. Marinette wouldn’t approve, though.

“Great! I’m looking forward to it!”

But it’s not Marinette who’s here right now, is it? Oh, man, but I’ll have to go through her to get to Camille again. Why’d we switch phones? Well, we’ll see. I have to try, right? It’s for Alya. He snickers. Oh, yeah. I have to.

He lays under the radar as the school day goes on, but during lunch he takes the opportunity to slip back home and text Marinette.

TD: hey sis i have an idea
TD: or well alya has an idea
TD: she wants to interview cam about the lb & cn movie she did w Adrien
TD: cam will be against the idea but if you mention that your bully is claiming to be her friend she’ll be there
MD: Tommy why are you like this?
TD: i have no idea what youre talking about
MD: Did you already tell Alya that Camille will be there?
TD: of course not!
TD: obviously i plan for her to show up and interrupt alyas interview w lila
TD: u kno the bully who is claiming to speak on cams behalf
MD: Yeah. That. Why are you like That?
TD: u in or nah
MD: Tell me what to say, My Brother.
TD: thought so
TD: just mention how this girl is lying and that you heard from “Marinette” that she was taking part in an interview with “your sister’s” best friend.
TD: tomorrow at 5, your school
TD: cam will do the rest
MD: Idk this seems kind of manipulative.
TD: i mean thats basically all the facts
TD: tell her as much as you want im just saying you probably wont have to ask her to go over and mess lila up
TD: you saw how much she liked you last night
MD: Yeah, I get the impression she can be scary if she wants to be.
MD: OMG btw? She’s like, literally a goddess??
MD: I never expected her to pull out this grunge business but I am absolutely here for it.
TD: lol ye thats how she usually dresses dont go swooning
MD: I would never.
TD: exhibit a the a is for adrien agreste
MD: I hate you.
TD: love u 2 sis ;3

It doesn’t take too long for Thomas to get another text from Marinette telling him that Camille is really scary when she’s angry, and that she’s apparently planning to go over not only to interrupt the interview, but to go find Marinette and hang out just to spite Lila.

Which, quite frankly, is kind of predictable Camille. Luckily, it’s not like Thomas has anything better to do tomorrow, so he’s content to stick around long enough to see the fallout. Knowing Cam, she’ll play it off like she didn’t even know the interview was happening. “Oh, do either of you kind strangers know Marinette Dupain-Cheng? I wanted to surprise her, but silly me realized I can’t really wander around another school without a pass. Oh, you know her? That’s wonderful! Do you think you could grab her for me real quick? It’d only take a moment. I’d be ever so thankful.”

Thomas snorts. Yeah, I love you, Cam.

There’s an interesting air in the school that day. Lila is sticking to Thomas’s group like glue, and she keeps looking at him like she expects him to blow up at her. Marinette probably would. Sucks for Lila. By the time the day ends even Lila’s façade is starting to break and he can tell she’s getting frustrated.

Alya declares that they’re going to hang out together, alone, and even denies Lila tagging along. Thomas half-expects Lila to pull some stunt to insist on it, but she must just be too frustrated. She’s probably reassessing. I should expect a new attack soon. He thinks.

“Girl what’s gotten into you?!” Alya exclaims when they enter Marinette’s room together. “Like, don’t get me wrong, I’m so proud, but you’re like a whole different person ever since what happened to your sketchbook.”

Thomas winces. Really? Don’t bring that up. It’s bad enough it happened in the first place. “Well, life’s too short.” He says casually. “I did a lot of thinking, talked things through with my brother, and, well, I’m working on it.”

“Okay, but with Adrien? With Lila? There’s no way you just turned around so quickly.”

Thomas snorts. He’s still not sure how to address the Adrien issue, so he tries to deflect. “What, do you think I actually like Lila now? She’s still a liar. She doesn’t know Cam. Or, if she does, she’s not as close as she makes it out to be.”

Alya shakes her head with a sigh and a chuckle. “Yeah, there’s my girl. You know it does make sense for them to know each other, right?”

“Pfft. Not if you know Cam.” Thomas rolls his eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, right? I’m sure Lila can speak publicly for Cam without her permission.”

“It’s different.” Alya says. “It’s a reliable source, but since it’s not Camille’s own words she has a barrier from the media.”

“Do you know why Cam doesn’t do interviews?”

Alya furrows her brow. “Because she’s too busy. She’s more focused on her work and school than on talking with reporters.”

Except talking with reporters is literally part of her work. “Mhmm.” Thomas hums, leaving no doubt what he thinks of that explanation. Unfortunately, Marinette actually shouldn’t know a detail like that about Camille, and it wouldn’t make that much sense for him to have already explained it to her. So, he doesn’t have a legitimate counter. “All I’m saying is that from the tales she and my brother were telling me, they spend quite a lot of free time together. I think there’s more to it.”

“Now you’re the one acting like a conspiracy theorist, girl. Can’t you just be happy I’m getting this scoop?”

“I am happy for you.” Thomas says. “But you know I think Lila’s a liar. You can’t blame me for being concerned that you want to put your credibility on her. If she’s telling the truth, I will be the first to congratulate you for this. But I just want you to be careful.”

Alya stills at his words and taps her chin. With a small hum, she smiles. “I see where you’re coming from. I have to say, again, that there’s no reason why Lila would lie to us, especially about this, but… thanks for caring, girl. You don’t need to worry though. I know we can trust Lila.”

Thomas hums doubtfully but doesn’t argue. It’s not worth it, he thinks. Alya has made her position on Lila’s candor perfectly clear, and he’s given her his warning, so he’s guiltless. Besides, there’s a good chance she won’t post that interview, anyway, after Camille crashes it.

“Well,” Alya finally says, “either way, I’m glad you’re at least suffering Lila being around now. I know you can’t be happy about it, but I’m proud of you for trying. It really does make things a lot less tense for the rest of us, so thanks. In return, I’ll try not to dispute you so much and let you rant a little more when she does get on your nerves. Deal?”

Thomas giggles and grins. That’s actually a pretty sensible deal. At least, if Lila doesn’t take things too extreme. Things like the sketchbook can’t keep happening but so long as it’s mostly just lies at least Marinette’s friend is as reasonable as she can get while still believing Lila. “Deal. I’ll keep trying, but no promises.”

“And what about Adrien? You talked to him like a normal person! Yesterday, too. I thought it was a fluke at first, but you managed it today, too!”

Okay. How to tackle this? “Hey! I’ve been making progress! Really, nowadays it’s just when I think too hard about it, like if I try to confess to him, that I just can’t talk.”

Alya snorts. “Yeah, sure. I guess you have a point.” Oh, thank god. I pulled that out of my butt. “At this rate, you’ll be able to tell him how you feel in no time!”

“Yeah! Definitely!” Yeah, right. Good luck with that, sis.

Overall his hangout with Alya doesn’t go too badly. It’s a little strange being in Marinette’s room like it’s his, but he had the foresight to snoop around earlier so he at least doesn’t fumble around not knowing where anything is.

Alya, he was warned, is observant, but he either pulls off his disguise well or her observation fails her, because he’s pretty sure she doesn’t suspect a thing by the time she leaves. Which is good.

Thomas has one job during this ruse, and that’s to figure out Lila. He doesn’t need Alya messing with things. Though, she does seem to be a good friend for Marinette, despite Lila. She said she’s starting to feel a bit isolated, but at least her friends aren’t ditching her. Different opinions can be hard, but Alya at least seems determined not to let it hurt the relationship. Which is… admirable. It shouldn’t be hard for those two to come right back together again once Lila’s out of the picture.

Speaking of. We’ll probably be ending this whole switch thing soon. It’s almost a shame. I’ve always wanted to do this. Thomas snickers to himself. Ah, well. Lila will be exposed, and Marinette won’t have to worry about her anymore. I’d call that a win. Can’t wait to see everyone’s faces when we tell them we switched.

Confident and ready, Thomas wraps up his day and prepares for tomorrow. It comes soon enough, and he’s excited to see what happens when school ends.

Lila sticks close again, enough that it starts to make Thomas uncomfortable. Having her nearby makes his skin crawl, and it’s a terrible sort of nostalgia and dread he feels when he starts getting a bit anxious. Jesus. He doesn’t know if she’s doing this specifically to bother him (well, he does, but he doesn’t know if she knows her presence is having that effect on him, or if she simply is giving him opportunity to make an ass of himself by blowing up at her) or if she’s putting some other dastardly plan into motion or if she’s simply soaking in the admiration of Marinette’s friends, and reveling in the fact that “Marinette” has to witness it.

Really, it could be any of them, but Thomas is really starting to hate it.

Marinette hasn’t mentioned this… lurking, so either she hasn’t noticed or it’s a recent thing. Given Thomas’ radically different attitude towards her than Marinette’s, it wouldn’t surprise him if it’s the latter.

He’s just thankful he’s gotten a much better grip on his anxiety since he’s been going to Solset. And now he’s doubly glad he made that decision back then. This is stressful. Just go away, you harpy.

Even so, the lightness of his pockets only compounds on the stress. He can handle it. He knows how to handle it. But he really misses the worry stone he always carries with him. It’s something he never lets go of, so he had to give it to Marinette for the swap, but it would really come in handy here.

He’s sure Lila notices him starting to get jumpy, because when no one else is looking she gives him a sinister look. Luckily, he still has the presence of mind to return it with his own smug one. The smugness, admittedly, isn’t hard to come by. Not when he knows Camille is practically already on her way.

When Lila sits down with Alya for the interview, Thomas makes himself scarce. He sticks close enough to watch, and for Alya to find him if she needs him, but he doesn’t want to get involved with the actual business of it. They’re fairly close to the entrance of the courtyard, so he takes a seat on the stairs to the upper classrooms. He can still hear them if he listens closely, only because most of the other students have already left.

Though, really, the actual interview doesn’t interest him. So, instead of listening, he pulls out a new sketchbook (One he hasn’t told Marinette that he got for her. He’s planning on leaving it in her bag for her to find when they switch back.) and opens it to start drawing. He’s no Marinette but having grown up with her he knows a fair bit about design. It’s not his passion or anything, but he dabbles, and as an artist he’s on par with her at least, so he doesn’t think it’ll be too obvious if someone does take a peek, especially as there’s none of Marinette’s actual sketches to directly compare it to.

Besides, inspiration is inspiration, and if he designs something that he can steal from Marinette later, well, that’s just how it is sometimes. A dabbling designer he may be, but a talented tailor he is not. If he makes an interesting enough design, he can probably get Marinette to make it for him.

He’s mostly through the rough outline when he hears a shriek. That’s my cue. Looking up, he catches a very familiar sight. Camille Lebeau, in all her glory. Thick boots, worn flannel, distressed jeans and rock band t-shirt. She’s very Camille today, in her classic ensemble, and she’s as drop-dead gorgeous as she is in literally anything else. Her hair streams behind her in that magical way that beautiful people’s do, defying gravity as if the wind itself, which to him feels like it’s blowing in the opposite direction, is just lending her a hand to make her entrance that much more breathtaking.

Despite Camille’s insistence to the contrary, Thomas would say she could have just walked off the pages of a magazine. “No one actually looks like that.” He can hear her voice and the rolling of her eyes as she scoffs. “It’s edited beyond recognition.” He shakes his head and chuckles. Yeah, well, you’re no less pretty in person, Cam.

“You’re Marinette’s friend, right?” Camille asks, smooth and clear and authoritative enough that Thomas can hear her without a problem.

“Oh my god! You’re Camille Lebeau!” Alya jumps in place and reaches out. “I can’t believe you’re here! Oh my god! Wait, Marinette? Yeah, I’m her best friend, Alya Césaire!”

Camille smiles tightly, but warmly. “It’s nice to meet you. You run that blog about Ladybug, don’t you?”

“Eeeeee!! Camille Lebeau reads my blog!!! Oh my god!”

“Camille!” Lila calls warmly, sidling up next to her but not close enough for Camille to push her away. “What are you doing here? I would think you’d be super busy. To what do we owe the visit?”

Camille purses her lips and looks Lila up and down, clearly unimpressed. “I’m looking for my friend Marinette, actually, but I can’t wander freely around a school I don’t attend. Do you know where she is, miss…?”

She leaves off, clearly asking for Lila’s name, but Lila hurriedly covers it with, “Oh, Marinette? I think she took off a few minutes ago. Maybe you could try her place?”

Alya arches her brow and takes a look around the courtyard. “She’s just over there, actually.” She says. “Go on in! The school won’t mind. Oh! Wait! Do you think you could spare a few moments to talk about your role as Ladybug in the recent animated movie? How did you prepare for the role? What did you think was most important to nail for getting into character as Ladybug? Are you a Ladybug fan?”

Camille calmly holds up a hand to silence Alya. “I’m sorry. I don’t go into details about my process. But, because you’re my dear Marinette’s friend, I’ll let you in a little secret.” Camille leans in and winks as she says, “I’m more of a Chat Noir girl.” She laughs loudly, from the belly, as if she made a hilarious joke. “In case you couldn’t tell.” She flicks the collar of her flannel with as much sass as Thomas has come to expect from her and walks in his direction.

“Camille?” He blinks carefully at her. Of everyone, she’s the most dangerous for his ruse. She taught him everything he knows about acting, after all, so she knows his tics. And, being an actor herself, she has a critical eye for it. He’s not exceptionally worried, though. He does have the significant advantage of Camille not knowing Marinette too well yet, so he’ll be fine. “What’re you doing here?”

“I came to see you, of course!” Camille leans in close, letting her hair fall to block Alya and Lila’s view of her face. “Is it just me, or is that girl with your friend trying a little too hard?” She winks.

Oh my god. He giggles nervously. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Your brother told me what’s happening.” Camille says gently, holding out a hand for him. There’s a certain pain in her eyes when she says, “I’m so sorry about your sketchbook. No one deserves that.” Only because he knows her well enough to know that she would feel that empathy does he know that she’s not acting for Marinette’s sake. That’s the danger with her. She’s such an excellent actress that even as one of her best friends he sometimes has to rely on his knowledge of her to determine if she’s serious or just acting. She’s pulled off some stunts before that were just impressive.

“O-oh.” He says with a hesitance he’s sure Camille would be proud of if she knew he’s acting. “Thank you.”

Louder again, so that the others can hear, including the other straggling students who happened to be around, Camille says, “What say you we get out of here? I’ve got loads of free time. Oh! I never have had your family’s baking. Tommy and Arno are always raving about it. Why don’t you pick out some of your favorites for me, hmm?” She takes his hand and starts walking with him, giving him little choice in the matter.

Not that he minds. The shocked expressions on both Alya and Lila’s faces are more than sweet enough. And, well, it’s about time Camille gets a taste of the best bakery and patisserie in Paris. He’ll gladly help her out there.

Chapter Text

Knowing – or “knowing,” as Marinette still hasn’t actually gotten any hard proof – Chat Noir’s civilian identity is having an interesting effect on their partnership. It’s almost painful to admit, but he is absolutely right when he insists that it would be a positive thing for them.

At least, it is for her.

She ultimately decides not to say anything about it. After all, Tikki says it’s best to keep her guesses to herself, and despite her certainty Marinette is aware that it’s still just a guess. If Tikki can’t confirm it for her, that means that she and Chat Noir still aren’t at a point where it’s safe or wise to be sharing identities, despite the evidence to the contrary in front of her, and Marinette trusts Tikki’s judgement enough to not ask Chat about it and let his reaction confirm it for her.

She probably can tell him that she has a good guess without too much issue, and that would be more honest with him, but she’s still just a little wary around him. He’s better than he was, but if she comes at him with identity talk he might relapse and get pushy and try to insist on figuring her out like she’s figured out him.

Naturally, there’s every chance he already has, considering how easily she recognized him. Arno has met Marinette now, so it’s not like he’s only ever seen her disguised as her brother. But if he has, he isn’t mentioning it, and as Marinette’s own decision on the matter shows, she thinks that’s for the best.

That doesn’t mean nothing changes, though.

“My Lady, can I ask you about something?”

Marinette hesitates, and she fears he wants to ask about her identity, but if he brings it up anyway there’s no reason to hide that she has a guess. Just don’t let him actually say his guess and it’ll be fine. She agrees, and the two escape from the scene of the akuma together rather than separately. There’s not too much time, but their timers are practically part of them now so they’re very much conscious of exactly how much time they can waste.

Chat Noir doesn’t seem nervous. He scratches at his neck and grins at her. “I don’t want to complain, since you seem happier than you’ve been in a while, but it took you a while to get to the last couple akuma.” He says. “Is this going to be more regular? Has something changed, or… were these just flukes? I just want to know if I should expect you to arrive when you usually do, or if it’ll take a bit longer. I can handle it if it’s the latter, but better to plan for it, right?”

Marinette sighs slightly. I didn’t even think about that. “Ah, you’re right. Sorry, Kitty, I should have told you ahead of time. I’m in a different part of town for a while, so yes, it takes a bit longer to get over here. I’ll let you know when things go back to normal, okay? Until then, try to hang in there for me. It shouldn’t be too long.”

She’s aware how lucky she is that both today’s and yesterday’s akuma were after school hours. She did have to bail on Arno yesterday for it, but Arno accepted it with such grace she doesn’t feel too bad. Which isn’t surprising, honestly, since he was probably hoping for an excuse to get away and transform too. Chat Noir arrived earlier than her to both attacks, but he’s no doubt used to the distance so that isn’t surprising either.

Briefly, she thinks, Maybe I should give Tommy the Miraculous, too. Then he’ll be able to mimic my awful schedule perfectly. Haha, yeah, no way. She snickers at the thought of her brother in her Ladybug outfit. There would be no pretending to be her in that suit. It might be worth it just for Chat’s reaction. Especially after their identities are eventually revealed. Imagine his face if he found out the love of his life is also Ladybug! Ha!

But, no, she can’t tell Thomas about being Ladybug in the first place, and even if she could it would be horribly irresponsible to make him take over for her while she’s away. She’s not that far, yo-yo considered, and it’s not worth the commotion over a few minutes travel time.

“Oh? What could drag you so far away from me? Should I be worried?” Chat Noir asks.

Marinette chuckles and gives him a pat on the head. “No need to worry. I am dealing with a few things, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.” Or, nothing Tommy and I can’t handle together, at least.

Chat Noir purses his lips and hums softly but doesn’t argue. “If you insist, my lady.”

Marinette rolls her eyes and then gives him a quick hug. “I do. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier about the distance, but it’s really nothing you need to worry about. Do let me know if me getting here a little late gets troublesome, though, okay?”

Chat Noir’s face is red as he nods silently.

“Alright. Time to go. See you next time, Kitty.”

Marinette takes off and is halfway back to Solset before she realizes that she wouldn’t normally have hugged Chat Noir like she did. They don’t do that, really. Personal space admittedly isn’t much of a thing between them, on account of the physical nature of their job, but they still never casually hug goodbye or anything like that.

Huh.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and a lot of implications she’s not sure she’s ready to face, but she is sure of one thing. The only real difference is that she knows he’s Arno. And she’s not mad about it. Not at all. She likes it, and she’s more comfortable with him now.

He had her going for a while, thinking his love for her is sincere, and maybe it was, but knowing he’s just a natural flirt (and he is) put Marinette’s mind at ease more than she would have suspected. Knowing he’s in love with someone else is… relieving.

Even if that someone else is her brother.

There are still those red flags. As much as she wants to, she can’t ignore those. Not when her precious brother is the one on the line. But for her? It’s sort of a green light to stop worrying so much about how he’ll interpret her actions.

Maybe she shouldn’t have worried about that to start with.

Speaking of her brother, she wonders how Thomas is getting along with Adrien. He’s cagey about it at best when she asks, so he’s either setting a bad standard for her and talking to Adrien like a normal person (on the bright side, her “relapse” into stuttering will be easily explained once the swap is revealed) or he’s embarrassing her by going over the top.

It doesn’t really matter, in the end, because Adrien and the others will know it’s Thomas by the time Marinette does return, so it’s not a big deal what kind of antics he gets up to. And, in fact, neither does it matter what she does. Still, tempting though it may be, flirting with Arno would ultimately be a mistake. She’s gone back and forth on the thought basically since she met him, but she thinks she definitely shouldn’t do that to either of them.

Arno will know it isn’t Thomas when he gets back, yes, but in the meantime, she’d be getting his hopes up. Dropping that bomb, that it isn’t Thomas who flirted with him, would be cruel. Best to just pretend I don’t notice. Like Tommy apparently doesn’t.

“Tommy! There you are! Get over here!”

Uh oh. Marinette isn’t even in the dorm yet (The best place she finds to transform is just a short walk away, with the exception of Thomas’ room itself, which she’s nervous about using since the window is low to the ground and much more conspicuous than her own balcony.) but the growl that calls her over stops her in her tracks. She nearly drops her key when her movements come to that sudden halt.

Looking over, Marinette spies Camille flagging her down and carefully changes course to her friend. “What’s up?” She asks.

Camille looks angry. She shakes her phone in Marinette’s face. “Marinette texted me earlier.” She did? Really, Tommy? “Apparently Lila’s got people convinced that your sister called me over, using you to manipulate me into messing up my ‘insanely busy’ schedule to do so, all just to make her into a fool. She’s insisting that she actually is my friend and that your sister spread rumors about her to me to get me to pretend like she isn’t.”

Marinette winces. Honestly, the first part isn’t that far from the truth. It was Tommy’s idea, though, so it really was the one of us who’s close to you who wanted to bring you into it. That counts for something, right? “Well, heck.” She says.

Camille narrows her eyes. “Didn’t she tell you about this?”

Double heck. “Uh, not yet.” Marinette shakes her head. “She usually tries to handle things on her own, if she can. She probably only told you because the lies are about you.”

Camille grunts and nods. “Probably. She asked me not to do anything. So long as my own rep isn’t messed up. And we both know how much I care about that.” She rolls her eyes and a small smile graces her lips. “Still, it’s frustrating to just watch this. I don’t know how you can sit back and watch her get treated this way. Your sister is like a little angel! I’m going to tear this witch a new one if something doesn’t put an end to her soon.”

“I” can’t. Marinette has to fight her smile. Considering he’s the one over there right now. In an effort to make her amusement less suspicious, Marinette says, “You met her twice.”

Camille snorts. “So? When was the first time I got into a fight for you?”

Marinette doesn’t actually know that, so she smacks her hand to her face and hopes that’s a reaction that makes sense.

“That’s right. Besides, she’s your sister. I’d slay any enemy for her just for your sake. No one touches my family.”

Family. That’s a step. That’s how she thinks of Tommy? Of me? Marinette can feel her cheeks begin to warm. Oh. Admittedly, she’s a little starstruck. This is Camille Lebeau, after all. She’s on the same level as Adrien, at least. But she’s primarily an actress, while Adrien is primarily a model. They both venture into each other’s fields, obviously, but acting tends to give a wider audience than modelling does, so really, she’s likely even more renowned. And she’s standing there calling Marinette family. Oh my god.

“Hey, Tommy.” Camille’s voice is deadly serious. It’s laced with such potent venom that Marinette can’t help but flinch. The next words soften, along with Camille’s countenance. The venom is still there, but it’s directed elsewhere, and the gentleness is for her instead. “I understand if you can’t tell me.” Camille says slowly. “But I need to know. Is your sister like you? Does she have the same anxiety problem?”

Marinette wants to lie, but Camille looks so earnest. Somewhere deep inside Marinette knows that telling her this is probably signing Lila up for a hospital visit, if the stories she’s heard are any indication. She can’t find it in herself to feel entirely guilty about it, though, and her anxiety has never truly been a secret. “Not exactly the same.” Marinette says. “But, yeah, she’s got anxiety, too.”

Camille seems to search her for a moment, looking deep into her, and then she says, “What can you tell me about it?”

Marinette runs a hand through her hair. “She, uh, tends to catastrophize. She’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong.” It takes all of her self-control to remember to throw in compliments and caveats like her brother absolutely would, or like she would do for her brother. “She’s smart and capable and she knows it, and honestly she’s usually better than I am with social stuff, but if it’s something important, like her crush, she’ll turn into a complete wreck. She’s kind of clumsy, so she’s usually worried about messing something up. That kind of thing.”

Camille closes her eyes and taps her chin. “I see.”

“She’s got a pretty good handle on it most of the time.”

“Like you.”

Marinette hesitates. “Yeah. Apparently, her crush has been bringing some of that back, though. Mostly the catastrophizing, and mostly just in regard to him, thankfully. Not his fault, as I understand it, just the crush thing.”

Camille nods. “Who’s her crush?”

“Uh… I don’t know if that’s something I should…”

Marinette is stopped by a hand on her shoulder. “No worries. I get it. I wouldn’t want you going around spilling the beans on my crush either.” She winks affectionately and conspiratorially and Marinette wonders if she actually does have a crush on someone. Marinette doesn’t think so, from how the boys were talking before, but… I think she’s joking. Maybe?

Camille crosses her arms and sighs. “This must be awful for her.” With a huff that declares all conversation on the matter over, Camille says firmly. “We’re going to help her.”

At first, Marinette is touched that Camille cares so much, and that she’d go out of her way to help her. And then Marinette remembers the scenario she’s currently in, and why that would be a bad idea. “Oh, no need, really!” She starts to say. “As I said, she prefers to handle things on her own if she can. She’ll ask for help if she needs it, I promise.”

“Mhmm.” Camille hums. “You didn’t have a problem with me popping over to interrupt that interview yesterday.”

“That was about you.” Marinette says defensively. “That girl is lying about you, so I had to tell you. It wasn’t to protect Marinette.”

Camille huffs again and runs a hand down her face. “You can’t expect me to sit back and do nothing. Your sister is being bullied! And there’s no way that’s not exacerbating her anxiety. If you were in that situation, you’d be an absolute mess.”

The confidence with which she says that shakes Marinette deeply. Because it is Thomas in that situation, now. She put him in that situation. He still seems confident that he can handle it, when she talks to him over the phone, but it’s true that according to him Lila hasn’t actually tried very much just yet.

And he does have anxiety.

You better get out of there if she starts really bothering you, bro. You have an out. I’m trusting you to take it. Marinette shakes her head. “Probably.” She finally answers Camille’s accusation. What would Tommy say? “She’s stronger than me, though.” He’s said it before, and probably will again, so Marinette decides it’s a safe card to play, even if she doesn’t necessarily believe it. “We just got to trust her for now.” We’re already working on it. Letting Camille or the others meddle too much could just throw everything into absolute chaos.

Camille clearly isn’t happy about Marinette’s position on the subject, but she relents. “Fine. You know her better than I do. But if this doesn’t get better, I will kidnap her and enroll her here with us.”

Marinette laughs. There’s still the chance that’ll happen anyway. “Yeah, yeah.” She sighs, and there’s a pit in her stomach. She hasn’t asked, and isn’t sure she should, but… Camille says Lila convinced people that Marinette manipulated her to turn on Lila? Who does “people” include? “Hey, uh, I don’t suppose my sister mentioned if Alya or her other friends believe what Lila’s pitching about yesterday, did she?”

“Augh!” Camille yells and throws her phone into Marinette’s hands. “That’s the other thing!” Her rage is reignited, clearly. Marinette thinks she might have made a mistake asking that. “Her friends are toxic as all heck!”

Marinette blanches. “Y-you think so? They seemed alright when I met them.” Under the circumstances, Marinette thinks her friends are being pretty great. She can understand that they believe Lila, and none of them treat her any differently despite her dislike for their other friend. At least, not while the topic of Lila isn’t brought up. And most of the time it isn’t. It’s not a pleasant topic, so they don’t broach it if they don’t need to.

“I know that Lila’s type.” Camille growls. There’s a darkness in her eyes that sends a chill down Marinette’s spine. “She doesn’t care about anything but herself. From what I hear, she specifically started a rumor that Marinette used her brother’s connections to spite her and to take away one of her friends. I’ll bet that isn’t the first nasty rumor she’s spread, too. I’m sure she’s crying to anyone who’ll listen about how ‘mean’ Marinette is for not wanting to be her friend. I wouldn’t be surprised if she took special effort to excise your sister from the social crowd at school. She’s already discredited her, hasn’t she? Or do her friends actually believe her when she warns them about the lies?”

Marinette feels a little like she’s been punched in the gut. It’s like she’s been there the whole time. “It’s not like that.” She protests. “Her friends are just also friends with Lila. They believe in both of them.”

Camille scoffs harshly. “Exactly. Toxic. Tommy, I want you to listen to me. This is important, okay?”

Marinette nods stiffly, frozen under Camille’s stony gaze.

“The best advice I could give your sister is to get out. Her friends? They’re fools. That doesn’t make them bad people, but that does make them bad for Marinette. Pretending neutrality is nothing but a pretty act to cover up enabling a bully. A friend who won’t take your side is no friend at all.”

Marinette’s throat is dry, but through the waxy stopper in it she manages to ask, “So, they can’t be friends to both of them?”

“No.” Camille is so emphatic that Marinette has to check herself to make sure she isn’t shaking. “If two friends are fighting, you find out the truth. You look for it and you keep searching until you find it. Then, you grab it by the balls and hit your friends over the head with it until the one in the wrong realizes that. Usually, there’s some guilt to both sides, if they’re really friends. Then, you make up and you’re still friends after. If Marinette’s friends think Lila is their friend, too, they should be doing everything in their power to get to the bottom of it and figure out if there’s any truth on either side. From what I understand, this has been going on for a long time now. Way too long for those friends of hers to be any good.”

Marinette steps back. Her chest burns. Camille isn’t wrong, really, but Marinette still can’t accept that about her friends. They’re good people, and they’re doing their best, and they love her. They aren’t the fiends Camille makes them out to be. What does she know, anyway? She’s barely met Alya. She doesn’t know them. “They’re really not that bad. Marinette told me her friends help her a lot, even with this.”

Camille shakes her head like a dog snapping the neck of its prey. “I’m sure they do.” Camille hisses. “I’m sure they help Lila, too. Do you know what kind of person that girl is? I do. I’ve met that kind of girl before. I grew up with that kind of girl.” She shakes her head and scoffs. “Let me guess. She’s all over Adrien. He probably even seems pretty uncomfortable with it, but she doesn’t care because landing him means landing status and money. Wouldn’t be surprised if she’s even spread rumors about them dating.”

“Well, uh…” She does and has. A lot.

“Seems like Marinette’s the only one who sees her for what she is, so by discrediting her, Lila is untouchable. That status, that fame, it’s safe. It’s hers. She isn’t going to stop, you know. It doesn’t matter that her friends believe Lila, it matters that they believe Marinette. She will tear down every bridge your sister has. She will leave your sister utterly alone and betrayed by all her friends. It’ll take work, I’m sure, but if her status is at stake, she’ll do it.”

“I don’t think she can.” Marinette protests. The cold in her gut only chills further, though. “Her friends wouldn’t leave her.”

“Uh-huh.” Camille clicks her tongue. “Tommy, I’m telling you this because I love you. You’re an idiot. You said yourself that Marinette’s friends already believe her. What’s first?” Camille taps her chin exaggeratedly. “Oh, let’s see. First, her friends try to play mediator. They just want everyone to get along. Surely, they think, if we all just gave each other a chance, we could all be friends. Sound about right?”

It’s eerie, how accurately Camille can guess how things have gone in Marinette’s classroom since Lila’s arrival.

“Next they finally accept that the two just aren’t meant to be. Fine, they think, if that’s how it is. So long as we can be civil, it should be okay. We just don’t talk about the other girl to her. No big deal. But that’s not how it goes, is it? For Marinette it is. For Marinette, it’s better to just avoid the topic altogether. They know all about her grievances, so as long as they don’t push them together there’s no problem. There’s no need. They’re good friends, after all.” Camille says “good friends” with such spite that Marinette can only assume this is more personal than she thought.

“Well… yeah. Isn’t that good?”

Sadly, this time, Camille shakes her head once more. “That’s not the truth of it. The truth is that while Marinette is playing nice, Lila is poisoning the well. It starts with the crying. ‘Why, oh, why doesn’t Marinette like me? I’ve never been anything but nice to her!’ Pfft.” The voice Camille uses isn’t Lila’s, but it has the same feel to it. Exactly the same. It’s sticky, like sugar, but leaves a bitter taste in Marinette’s mouth. It’s honestly a little disquieting to hear Camille’s voice take on that quality. “Then there’s the rumors. From what Marinette told me about Lila’s reaction to yesterday, those have already started. Probably have been going on for a while now. Her friends don’t believe them, of course.” It’s mocking, the way she talks about Marinette’s friends. “Marinette is too good for that, they think. It must be a mistake. Just a mistake. It can be cleared up no problem.”

The memory of Alya’s sigh overtakes Marinette. “I knew Lila had to have been mistaken.” Marinette can’t bring herself to respond, but Camille doesn’t seem to need her to.

“You know what happens after that? They start thinking that maybe there’s some truth to what Lila’s saying, after all. I mean, they still can’t believe Marinette doesn’t like her in the first place, so maybe, just maybe, Marinette isn’t who they thought she was. Maybe she is capable of something like that. Maybe she would try to take away one of Lila’s friends. With how many tears Lila’s shed over it, with how unbothered Marinette seems by it, maybe she would.”

With how tempted Marinette is sometimes to do something drastic to get back at Lila for all the little torments she’s had to endure, maybe she would. Marinette ducks her head.

“I’ve seen it happen, Tommy. I still see it happen. All the time. So long as Lila is believed, her friends have doubt. If her friends doubt her, they’re no friends of hers. I won’t let that happen to your sister. That’s why I’m going to do something about it. I’ll trust you and her for now, that she can handle it, but if this gets any worse, I’m taking her out of there before it’s too late.”

“W-what about her friends? Her school?”

“She’ll lose them. Better than having them chase her out. Trust me. If she comes here, her friends might stick around for a while. But… Lila won’t give up just because of that. Marinette still knows, and the people around her still talk to Marinette. She’s going to ruin Marinette’s reputation, until all of her old friends hate the sight of her. All behind her back. But that’ll be fine. She won’t need them anymore. She’ll have us. She’ll make new friends here. Real friends, and if we take her out before they turn completely, Marinette will still have her old friends as support until she finds her footing here.”

Marinette bravely faces Camille as she asks. “How do you know this’ll happen? Why are you so convinced it’ll end so badly?”

“You know.” Camille shakes her head slowly and covers her face for just a moment. “This girl’s just like Mom. I saw it the moment I laid eyes on her. Mom’s been ruining people my entire life. I know how it works.”

The feeling that overtakes Marinette isn’t quite like anything she’s ever experienced before. She doesn’t want to believe her friends will turn on her like that. They haven’t so far and aren’t showing signs of it. It’s been long enough that surely, they’ll be okay, right? And yet… the lead in her chest, the iron in her lungs, they say something different. “H-hey, Cam?”

“Yeah?”

“How would you stop her?”

Camille clicks her tongue again and sighs. “Honestly, Tommy, I wish I could tell you I knew a foolproof way. But, I don’t. Mom always got her way. I’ve never actually seen her lose. I’m sure she has. I have a good idea of when she might’ve, but… she never let me see what happened. Makes sense, but it’s still frustrating. If you want my honest opinion, I think she should just transfer to Solset as soon as she can. She needs to get out of there, and we’ll be here for her when she misses her old friends. It’s the best-case scenario I can think of.”

Marinette can’t accept that. “There has to be another way.” She says. “There’s got to be a way she doesn’t have to leave her friends.”

Camille’s voice is cold when she says, “Her friends already left her.” She sighs and shakes her head. “Sorry. Maybe there is. Maybe I’m just jaded. I’m in, if you get any ideas, but you already knew that. Keep what I said in mind, though. I really don’t want to see your sister hurt any more than is inevitable.”

Marinette bites her lip. “Is there a sign? Do you think? That it’s too far to turn back?”

Camille hums and taps her foot. “Well… I can’t say it’s a certain thing, but it’s a pretty good sign. If your sister doubts that her friends are on her side, that’s your huge red flag. If she doesn’t believe in them anymore, they clearly don’t believe enough in her, and that means Lila’s got too much control. If your sister can’t control the situation, all that happens is what Lila says happens. That how Mom works.”

Marinette doesn’t want to admit it, because she hates facing that it’s happening, but she already has doubted her friends. Quite a bit, actually. Even during this very conversation. “How does she know she’s not just catastrophizing?”

Camille inclines her head. “That does complicate it, but honestly? If her anxiety is acting up, then her friends don’t matter. Her situation is bad anyway, and clearly, they’re not helping enough, so I’d say still get out of there. But you know more about anxiety than I do. Maybe Ross could help there?”

Marinette is quiet for a long moment as she considers Camille’s advice. “I’m not sure.” She says eventually. She knows Camille has a good point, but still… she’s not ready for that. She can’t believe there’s no hope for her school and her friends. It’s not even all that bad there, usually. The last week is just bad because of the project and sketchbook. She can handle it. Her friends still have her back.

But Camille says that’s how it always starts. Sometimes it takes a while, but the liar always wins.

No. It’s fine. This is exactly what Thomas’ side of the swap is meant for, anyway. If Thomas says it’s hopeless, then maybe she’ll consider it. Until then, she has to believe in her friends.

That’s what friends do, after all. They believe each other.

“All I’m saying,” Camille says, “is be careful. And be prepared in case the situation isn’t salvageable. I might be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But…” She shakes her head. “Keep a close eye on her.”

Luckily, it’s pretty much impossible for Thomas to be keeping any closer of an eye on the situation, so there’s that. Marinette nods. “Of course. Thanks for telling me.”

“I’m going to be watching, too.” Camille says. “You should be careful.” This time, when she says it, it’s playful and accompanied by a wink. “If I have to watch too closely, I might just kidnap your sister anyway. She’s such a sweet little thing, I might not be able to help stealing her for us.”

Marinette chuckles. “I don’t think she’d appreciate that very much.”

“Oh, she’ll learn to love us. You did, somehow.”

Marinette rolls her eyes. Yeah, I wonder how. At least I have my side of this figured out. “You didn’t give me any choice.” Camille smacks her arm gently for that comment but laughs loudly.

“You bet we didn’t. You’re stuck with us. And now, so’s your sister. Whether she likes it or not.” She flicks her hair over her shoulder, so elegant and refined and yet somehow the polar opposite of the haughtiness and brattiness that Chloé has doing the same gesture.

Marinette’s job for this swapping of places is to figure out if Solset will be a good place for her. Her brother by her side has always been a draw, but with Camille and Arno and even Ross? She can make it here, if she has to. She’d still rather not leave Dupont, but if it comes to it, she does believe she can be okay here. With time.

Chapter Text

Thomas thinks he’s doing pretty well, all things considered. He’s pretty sure Alya suspects something, but she definitely doesn’t suspect that he’s not Marinette. Adrien might be the actual densest boy alive, so Thomas honestly barely even pretends to be his sister with him. Nino is… well, he’s something. It’s hard to read him, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea about Thomas’ true identity.

Of course, Lila is a pain in the neck. Always there. Always lurking. Granted, most of the time they’re hanging out with their friends so she’s not technically lurking, but he keeps catching her watching him, sneering at him, and it’s starting to become just a tad unbearable.

“Is there a problem?” He asks, loudly, when Lila is standing just a little too close to him and staring him down like a dog watching a particularly juicy morsel. His fingers twitch toward his pocket, where his worry stone should be. Alas, it’s with Marinette, so he’s stuck with his other tactics. He feels that loss more viscerally than he expects. I didn’t think I was that reliant on that thing.

Alya whips her head around, probably at the aggressive and frustrated tone of his voice, and asks, “What’s going on?”

Thomas largely ignores her. He meets Lila’s gaze and stares her down. His chest buzzes and his stomach flips to do it, a testament to just how far she’s unnerved him already, but hopefully he won’t have to deal with that much longer. The problem is innocuous enough that calling it out will probably make Lila more aware of that behavior. At least, around other people. She still lurks, sometimes. Thomas doesn’t hold out hope that this will fix that.

Lila puts a hand over her chest as daintily as a beast like her can and pretends to be shocked. You’re too exaggerated. Real surprise hardly ever looks like that. God, and you claim you’re friends with Cam. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t doing anything. Did I make you uncomfortable?” She says. She sounds so much like Camille’s mother that Thomas almost gags. He’s only met the woman once, and that is more than enough.

“Yes, you did. Is there some problem you have with me? Your staring is starting to get irritating.”

“Staring? I wasn’t staring.” Lila says. “I was just listening to the conversation.”

“Uh-huh.” Thomas scoffs. He rolls his eyes. “And people wonder why I can’t stand you.”

“Hey, hey,” Alya cuts in, “hold on, now. I’m sure we can clear this up.”

“I’m sure we can.” Thomas says. His annoyance is clearly leaking into his voice. More than he intends. He can tell his agitation isn’t going to help him. That is very much not the kind of tone he wants to take when Marinette’s friend is only trying to defuse the situation. He never really even meant for it to escalate beyond drawing attention to Lila’s behavior. Calm down. Breathe. Like Ross taught you. His fingers rub together, a habit – but it doesn’t help much without his worry stone. There’s something calming in the movement itself, though, even if it’s small, so he doesn’t stop himself.

Lila’s crocodile tears start up almost immediately. “That’s such a mean thing to say! I thought we were finally starting to become friends.” She sniffs.

Alya tries again to speak, “Marinette, I’m sur-”

“Look, I’m trying, here! I’m not even implying you mean anything by it, I just want you to stop staring at me, an- and stop standing so close!” Thomas takes a step back as Lila steps forward to reach out.

“Calm down, dudettes.” Nino tries. “This isn’t anything we need to yell over.”

Thomas bites his tongue and nods. He has to hiss a little, a sharp breath to expel some of the nervous energy inside him, just to respond calmly to Nino. “Yeah, sorry, I’m just agitated. She’s really getting on my nerves and it just irritated me more that she denied even doing it.”

“I haven’t done anything!” Lila protests. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, girl.” Alya says evenly. “It’s alright. Even Marinette said she doesn’t think you’re doing it on purpose. Have you been watching her?”

“Why would I?” Lila gasps suddenly. “Oh! Unless… no.” She turns her glistening eyes to Thomas to give him the full force of her pitiable expression. “It can’t be that this was your plan all along, could it? I did wonder why you suddenly changed your mind about me, but I just can’t believe that it was all to make me look like some villain!”

“Lila, Marinette didn’t mean it like that, girl.” Alya says. “Yeah, she could’ve said it nicer, but she never called you a villain.”

Thomas rolls his eyes. “If that was my plan, it’d be a pretty bad one.” He’s happy to find that he’s managing to control his voice again. His best soft, olive-branch-extending imitation of his sister. Got it. “It’s no secret that I’m not your biggest fan. But I’ve been trying to make peace. I really do want to be your friend, Lila.” That phrase alone is sour on his tongue. Even though he’s only acting, he’s still not sure Camille will forgive him if she hears he said that. He’s not sure he forgives himself. Maybe taking it a little too far. “But it feels like you’re watching me, and that’s honestly starting to make me uncomfortable even being around you.”

“Well, I don’t know why you feel that way because I haven’t been treating you any different than anyone else.” Lila whines. “Honestly, I’ve been getting stressed because I feel like you’re watching me. Like you’re looking for something you can turn against me.”

“Okay, this isn’t working.” Alya grabs Thomas’ arm and pulls him to the side and he sees Nino following Alya’s lead and doing the same with Lila. Adrien is there, watching Thomas specifically with that sad, doe-eyed, disappointed expression. That’s starting to get annoying, too, but at least that problem isn’t bothering his anxiety. Instead, it’s just making him question his sister’s taste in men. At least he’s pretty. “Marinette, please, calm down.” Alya sounds tired, and Thomas understands why. This isn’t the first time he and Lila have butted heads over small things. Lila seems to be trying to make it look like Thomas is just here to sabotage her.

It’s definitely a plan, though not an effective one. For as wishy-washy as Marinette’s friends seem to him (He doesn’t even want to think about how Camille would see them, but he’s sure her opinions color his own. Marinette seems to think they’re all angels.), they do stubbornly refuse to accept Lila’s accusations, direct and indirect, just as they refuse to accept his. So that’s… workable. For now.

Thomas groans, and it’s difficult for a moment to maintain his sister’s voice. “Ugh, I know. I’m trying not to get all excited but it’s just…” He sighs and covers his heart with a hand, feeling it beat too fast for an average school day. I hate this so much. I know Marinette has the same problem as me. If Lila’s messing with her anxiety, too, then there’s no way I’m letting her just tough it out here. It needs to be solved or she needs to get out of here.

He feels Alya’s hands on his shoulders and appreciates the gentleness of her voice as she talks. “Hey, I get it. I know that’s hard. I’m sure Lila’s just curious about your change of heart and doesn’t realize she’s paying you so much attention. Tell you what, I’ll keep an eye on her and see what I can do. You just let me know if you’re still getting anxious around her, okay? Don’t give up, though. It’s really cool, what you’re trying to do. We all appreciate it.”

Thomas nods. He’s sure he’s a lot calmer now. The static in his chest has dulled. It’s not gone, not as far as his usual when he’s with his own friends at his own school, but it’s a perfectly manageable level for someone undercover. He thinks, anyway. “Yeah. Thanks, Alya. Sorry I yelled.”

“No worries, girl. Lila will understand.”

Thomas blanches for a moment. “Oh, god, do not tell her about my anxiety. Please.”

Alya chuckles good-naturedly and nudges his shoulder. “Come on. I would never go around telling people. You know that. It’s your business.”

Thomas sighs in relief. “Right, yeah. Thanks.”

“Though, if she did know, I’m sure she’d take effort not to make you feel that way, you know. I understand why you don’t want to tell her, but it might be a good idea.”

“Uh, haha, no.” Thomas shakes his head. “No way.” She’ll absolutely use it against me. And there’s no way I’m giving her that ammunition against Marinette. “Sorry, but that’s not happening.”

Alya shrugs and turns away to guide him back to the group. “If you say so. Now, let’s get this settled, alright?”

Nino, Adrien, and Lila are standing together when Thomas and Alya approach, and Nino nods to Alya before saying, “Okay, dudes, we good?”

Lila puts on a smile. “I’m so sorry if I caused stress for you, Marinette.” She says. “I’ll try to be more careful about my behavior around you.”

Thomas hums. The apology isn’t sincere in the slightest, but only Lila and he know that. “I’m sorry I yelled.” He says, instead of accepting her apology. “I know you weren’t doing anything on purpose.”

“There! See? We can all get along.” Alya says before Lila or Thomas can say anymore. “Now what were we talking about before?”

She goes with Nino and Adrien off on whatever the new topic is, and Lila gives him a curious look before following along. Thomas isn’t entirely sure what to read into it, so he just accepts that something is probably going to come soon enough and moves on. It won’t do him any good to get back into that worrying habit. He’s already struggling with his anxiety here as it is. It’s not even just Lila who stares at him. Sometimes, he’ll walk into a room to find half the people there glaring at him like he just killed someone’s puppy. I don’t know how sis can stand it here.

Marinette tells him the lurking is new, so it probably is in response to his nonchalance towards Lila. She probably is just trying to figure him out, he thinks. But still he walks into the library and a few heads turn to glare at him and he’s left wondering if Lila’s lurking really makes that much of a difference. Eyes are on him, anyway, no matter where he is in this godforsaken school. So, if he’s being totally truthful, Lila’s egregious staring could just be his mind playing tricks on him. It might not actually be as bad as he feels like it is, just because he’s already on edge from all the others. In fact, that seems possible, since Lila surely is cleverer than to openly watch him like that.

Maybe I was in the wrong. Still, she’s doing it at least a little. It’s not helping. And it’s fair to assume she’s the one behind the others, too, so it’s still her fault.

He lingers on that thought throughout the day. He doesn’t feel at all guilty, of course. Lila deserves a lot worse than a lukewarm yelling match. Still, he thinks he needs to figure out his best course of action soon, before either he does something he does regret, or the situation gets him back into old habits. It was hard enough getting out of that the first time, and he only managed it with Ross’ help.

“Okay, that’s it. What’re you planning?”

Thomas jumps. He’s not totally ashamed to admit that one. After all, despite his disguise and the fact that he’s not at all uncomfortable in his sister’s clothes and name, it does still take some nerve and attention to willingly and purposefully enter the girls’ bathroom rather than the boys. It’s the single place in the school that he’s most paranoid someone will find him out. Probably because it would be the worst place to be found out. So, the sudden harsh and angry voice does startle him quite a bit.

Of course, it’s Lila. Thomas decides to just not say anything yet.

Lila stalks toward him. “Let me tell you, whatever game you think you’re playing, you can’t win.”

Thomas arches his brow. “So, if my game was ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ you’re saying it’d be a paradox.”

Lila just scrunches her nose and furrows her brow. “What? I’m not stupid. I know you’re not just going to give up!”

“Says who?” Thomas smiles. This, at least, is a proper showdown. It doesn’t mean anything, and he won’t get anything actually solved here, but he can definitely come out on top purely on entertainment factor. How kind of her to come talk to me in private. It’s kind of annoying watching what I say all the time. “What if you’ve made your point? Obviously, I don’t want to be alone. That’s what you’re trying to do, isn’t it? So why would I fight any more than I have?”

“Don’t patronize me.” Lila hisses. “You’re way too stuck up to even consider it. you made your choice already. It’s too late for that, anyway.”

“Aw, that’s a shame. After all, I just so desperately wish we could be friends.” Thomas mocks her openly, glad to finally be given the chance to. “Pfft. Why’d you bother trying to corner me here?” He asks. “We both know this isn’t going to accomplish anything. For either of us.” He moves forward. Lila tries to block his way, but even though he isn’t large by any means, he does have the advantage of having more strength in what muscle he does have than her. It isn’t at all difficult to brush past her. In fact, he has to be extra careful not to push her aside. Even if talking to you was in the plan, it’s not like I’d just tell you. “Kindly leave me alone.” He says, exiting the restroom.

There is a lot he wishes he had said. He could have played with her more, mention how it’s clear he’s not believed about her anyway, so there’s no point fighting, or how she’s really gotten to him and she’s already won, but really, it’s a useless conversation. And maybe it’s Camille’s influence, but when he has Lila alone like that, he’s sorely tempted to just punch her in the nose, so he figures it’s the best idea to put an end to it quickly and move on. Marinette might stay to square down, but she also might have more hope that a bathroom chat will do literally anything for the situation.

Honestly, Thomas doubts anything short of removing Lila from the school will truly solve the issue. Maybe she’s spiteful enough to lash out even then. Either way, Lila’s next move will come sooner or later. Hopefully it will be more interesting, and just as ineffective.

“Hello, Ma-Ma-Marinette.” Thomas’ stomach drops, but for a completely different reason than anything to do with Lila. That voice is one that he definitely does not recognize.

He makes it to the bottom of the steps of the school’s entranceway and looks over to the boy that’s calling him. Thomas’ mind searches desperately for any reference of who this guy is, but it eludes him. He’s kind of cute, though. Sis would dig the rocker vibe. So, uh, maybe a little starstruck? Or… minor crush? Or is he, like, a classmate’s sibling or something? He could totally be that one girl’s brother. What’s her name? I swear she’s even one of the ones I was in class with before.

“How’s your day?” The boy asks.

Thomas’ mind grinds to a halt as he tries to register the boy’s question over his own attempts at figuring out his approach. Just… act natural. “Uh, good! I had a really… great day.” So, he has that teasing stuttering thing. Marinette probably stuttered when she introduced herself. That sounds like her. Which means… they’re friends? Love at first sight? No, she’s in love with Adrien. Got to be a crush, though, right? She’s usually better with people than that, if that’s why he’s doing that. He could just be making fun of her around Adrien.

Ugh, there’s just no way to tell.

“That’s good.” The boy says. “You know, you seem different today.”

Heck. “Oh? Do I?”

“Mmm.” Thomas shrinks a little under the boy’s gaze. “You seem… happier?” This is happier? I’m miserable here. That’s probably telling. “There’s more than that.”

“Ahaha, yeah!” Thomas says quickly in an effort to get this strange boy to stop trying to figure him out. “I’m just in a good mood, I guess!”

The boy tilts his head slowly. “Good. I was worried, when I heard about your sketchbook.”

Why do people keep bringing that up? “Yeah, but there’s not much I can do about that. I got a new one.”

The boy doesn’t have the chance to reply, because an actual familiar face comes barreling up to them. She waits a total of about a second before interrupting and shoving herself into the conversation. “I need to talk to you, Dupain-Cheng.”

Thomas holds back his sigh. “Hey, Chloé. What do you want?”

Chloé crosses her arms and taps her foot and glares at the boy with them, but he smiles coolly at her, so she rolls her eyes. “Ugh, I said I need to talk to Marinette. You run along now.”

The boy chuckles. “I was talking to her. You’re the one that interrupted.”

“Ridiculous.” Chloé rolls her eyes. “Utterly ridiculous. But you know what? I don’t really care. You can stick around. It doesn’t matter. Dupain-Cheng, I demand you tell me what on earth you think you’re doing!”

This is unexpected. Thomas stumbles over his words mostly just because he has legitimately no idea what Chloé is after. “Uh, sorry, what? I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“Don’t play dumb! Everyone knows you can’t stand Lila. What’re you planning, getting all buddy-buddy with her?”

Thomas exchanges a look with the confused-looking boy with them and snorts. “Who said I’m getting buddy-buddy with her? And why would you care?” Last Thomas checked, Chloé is the school bully. Her vicious attitude in this conversation alone only confirms that she hasn’t changed much since he’s seen her last. I swear, going to Solset was the best decision of my life. I really should have just brought Marinette with me from the start. Though, being “independent” was a large reason why I went there in the first place so if she went there’s a good chance I’d be the one stuck here with Chloé and Lila.

“You’ve been hanging out with her!” Chloé accuses him harshly. Which, to be fair, is true. But also, to be fair, he doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter if he wants to spend any time with Alya and the boys. He doesn’t exactly invite Lila to follow them around everywhere.

“What’s that got to do with you?” Thomas frowns. His experiences with Chloé is one of the few things he has in common with Camille, in terms of their childhoods. They’re from such different backgrounds that when they talk about the past there isn’t too much they can legitimately relate to, but they both know Chloé Bourgeois like the unpleasant cling of an old skunk spray.

Little miss princess that she is, she’s always been putting people down and tearing people apart. Thomas honestly thinks she’s to thank in part for his anxiety, and probably Marinette’s, too. So, needless to say, he’s not particularly inclined to trust her. At least with Lila he’s stepping into the situation without having ever met the girl. No preconceptions. With Chloé… it’ll take some work before he’s willing to accept Marinette’s claim that she’s gotten better. He’s not really seeing that, so far.

“Lila’s fooled Sabrina.” Chloé huffs. “And my Adrikins. People are supposed to be worshipping me, not some two-faced interloper. That’s what it has to do with me. As much as I hate to admit it, you’re the only person besides me who has any backbone, so I’m not going to watch as my one ally here rolls over for Lila. What changed?” She demands. “What’s up?”

Thomas shares another look with the rocker boy on the steps. The boy’s eyes are wide. “Chloé, did you just compliment Marinette?” The boy asks.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Chloé huffs, flicking her hair over her shoulder. “I only said she’s not fooled. Lila’s lies are so obvious it’s not exactly a high standard.”

Thomas snickers. To be fair, that she’s talking to me at all about this means Marinette might be onto something. I guess I can give her a chance. It has been a few years, and she is a superhero now. If Ladybug trusted her enough to give that title back to her, then she can get one chance from me.

I wonder what Cam would think about this.

“Okay.” He says. “So, I’m not as much of an idiot as you think everyone else is. Not a compliment, sure. What do you want?”

“I want you to tell me what you’re doing!” Chloé stamps her foot. “Last week you couldn’t stand the sight of her and now you’re trying to get along? I don’t buy it!”

“Why not? She’s so obsessed with getting everyone to like her, she can’t exactly cause a huge ruckus when we’re in a group.”

“And that’s not even all! What happened to you that now you’re talking to my Adrikins? I only tolerated you because I knew you wouldn’t get anywhere if you tried. Who do you think you are just… turning around like that? It doesn’t make any sense!”

Thomas shrugs. “I’ve been getting better.”

The rocker boy visibly shrinks when Adrien is brought up. He doesn’t look quite wounded, but the name clearly affects him. “You’ve been getting along better with Adrien?” He asks.

Thomas fights off a grimace. This boy is Marinette’s type, if he’s ever seen it. From how he says that, there’s a chance this boy is even into Marinette. But… Marinette likes Adrien. Thomas knows that. Harsh. “Uh, haha, yeah.”

Chloé’s eyes shift quickly between Thomas and the other boy and after a long, awkward moment she grabs Thomas’ arm and physically drags him away. The rocker boy looks like he’s going to follow, but Chloé stops just on the other side of the entrance and whispers daggers. “And what’s up between you and Luka? I could’ve sworn you liked him! Not as much as Adrien, obviously, but still. Something’s weird about you, Dupain-Cheng, and I want to know what it is!”

“What?” Thomas’ voice takes on an even higher pitch than his sister’s voice and he tries to back away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Me and- Hahahahaha, funny, Chloé. You’re hilarious.” Thomas makes good use of his fluster by throwing it at crush shenanigans instead of the fact that he’s not, in fact, Marinette. “Like I would ever even consid- ahh!”

Thomas would like to say that there is something on the sidewalk that day. Someone leaves a bike unattended, or a huge dog comes running past and takes his feet out from under him. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that he trips over his own feet.

But as he’s tipping backwards, he feels a hand close around his wrist and yank him back forwards, wrenching his shoulder and throwing him in the opposite direction, crashing into the girl who saves him.

Chloé shrieks and pushes him away, nearly sending him toppling anyway, but by then he’s managed to find his footing. I’m going to go ahead and blame that on Marinette’s shoes. He thinks, feeling his face burning already. Heck.

He looks up to Chloé, who he expects to be ranting and raving, but instead she’s covering her chest as if violated and is staring at him with horror and disbelief. Double heck. Chloé sucks in a breath, and Thomas knows she’s figured him out. He crashed straight into her, and god knows Marinette has done that enough times, too, and no amount of crossdressing or makeup can give him breasts. Well, technically I could have… “Thomas?!” Chloé screams.

Thomas cringes. “Tell the whole city, why don’t you?” He grumbles back.

Chloé smacks her hand to her face. “That makes so much more sense!”

The rocker boy, who Thomas assumes is Luka, is rushing over to them. “Are you alright, Marinette?” He reaches out, but Thomas flinches away instinctively. It’s not so much that Luka is about to grab his shoulder so much as that Chloé just screamed his true identity to the world and trying to keep up the lie now to the boy who watched the whole thing seems… improper.

“I’m… fine.” Thomas says. “Thanks for the save, Chloé.” To be honest, that she reacts instinctively to save him surprises him more than anything. He knows that’s not really something she would think about, since it happens so fast, but he definitely wasn’t expecting her to even try. Really, he thinks she’s more likely to point and laugh. But apparently, he’s wrong. Weird.

“Why are you here?” Chloé demands at a more reasonable volume. “Where’s Marinette?”

Luka blinks, confused, and turns to Thomas, but Thomas decides to answer before Luka can bother with asking what Chloé’s talking about. It should become clear soon enough anyway. “She’s at Solset. Pretending to be me.”

Chloé crosses her arms and scowls. “So, what, this is just a prank? A twin thing?”

“Twin?” Luka parrots softly.

“Mostly.” Thomas answers. “Though I’m here to investigate Lila, too.”

Thomas can see Chloé’s mind whirl, can practically hear it hum, as she pieces everything together. It’s a long, awkward silence. Eventually, Chloé finally breaks it by saying. “Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous! So, I was right the first time! She’s giving up!”

“She’s going to do what’s best for her.” Thomas counters protectively. “We haven’t decided yet what that is.”

“No way! She is not leaving this school! I’m not letting her run away!”

“Who said you have any say in the matter?”

“If Marinette can stand up to me, she can stand up to Lila! She’s going to make me look ridiculous if she backs down now!”

Thomas groans. “All you care about is your own image! You’re just like Lila, you know! I’m surprised you don’t get along!”

“Don’t compare me to her! She’s a peasant!”

“You’re still doing this! Honestly, Chloé, I had hoped you’d grown up just a little!” Thomas takes a step forward. “You don’t have any right to dictate what my sister should or shouldn’t do!”

Luka is about to interfere, but Chloé strangely stills and doesn’t yell back. That alone takes Thomas off-guard, too, and the fire leaves his belly as quickly as it came. Chloé is gritting her teeth and digging her nails into her arms. She mumbles something too quiet for Thomas to hear.

“Huh? What was that?”

“I said, you’re right!” Chloé snaps. “The truth is… I don’t want Marinette to leave.”

Thomas crosses his own arms and examines her. She seems sincere, insofar as it seems to bring her great pain to admit this. “Why?” Chloé stubbornly refuses to answer that, so Thomas says, “I’m not leaving my sister to be bullied for your ego. Give me a reason, or I’m telling her it’s time to transfer to Solset with me.” He’s halfway there already, so he’s not totally bluffing. If she does call him on it, he’ll definitely go through with it. He’ll still see what he can manage with Lila in the meantime, but honestly… he’s not optimistic.

He’s agitated every moment he’s in school, there are clearly nasty rumors spreading with how people glare at him, and while Lila hasn’t done any major attacks to him specifically, those terrible attacks she made on Marinette’s art can’t be forgiven. Thomas doesn’t even have to ask to know his friends’ opinion on the matter. If they see what he’s seeing, they wouldn’t even hesitate. Especially Camille, and she has the most experience with this kind of thing.

Really, the only other option is taking out Lila, but Thomas doesn’t know how he can do that, if it’s even possible. Marinette’s friends all stand by her ardently, so there’s no swaying them, and even if he does manage to convince the faculty Lila will just twist it and make Marinette live with a target on her back for the rest of her days at Dupont and beyond. Faculty punishment doesn’t stop Marinette from becoming a pariah, and Thomas will never let that happen. Moving is the best idea he has.

“Because!” Chloé wails. “She’s the only one who’s on my side!” Thomas just arches his brow at her. She pauses to examine her nails and then puts a nasty grin on her face. “Well… besides you.”

“Me?” Thomas repeats. “Chloé, you’re the worst bully I’ve ever met.”

“Clearly not! Marinette never ran away from me!”

“She did, actually. For, you know, most of our childhood. I did too, for that matter.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about! God, pay attention! Look, Marinette is all attached to her little friends, right? So, if you help me take down Lila, you don’t have to take Marinette away and break her poor little heart!”

Thomas shakes his head in amazement. “Wait, wait, wait. You want me to help you take down Lila?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying! Marinette told me once, that all that’s needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Right now, the evil is Lila, and I’m Queen Bee, the hero who’s going to take her down!”

Thomas risks a glance to Luka, who remains quiet but shows his concern clearly on his face. “Uh-huh.” Thomas says. “And your terms?”

Chloé smiles smugly and says, “I’ll keep your secret, so you can keep pretending to be Marinette. In exchange, you’ll help me show the rest of the school what Lila really is.”

Well, it’s one approach. If I want to make any efforts against Lila, it seems like I’ll have to work with Chloé. That being said, I can still back out at any time if things go belly-up. It’s not like I can really save Marinette’s reputation, since Lila’ll drag it through the mud after she leaves, anyway, so… maybe. Maybe it’s worth a shot. For now. I did tell Marinette I’d do what I can.

“Are you in, or not?”

Luka surprises them both by speaking up then. “I am.”

“Huh?” Thomas makes a face. “Do you even go to this school?”

Luka grins sheepishly. “No, but… it sounds like this girl is bullying Marinette. I probably can’t do much since I don’t go here, but if there’s anything I can do, let me know, okay? I want to help her.”

Thomas looks him up and down and nods. Why couldn’t Marinette have fallen for him instead? Doesn’t even go here and already he’s more willing to fight for her than Adrien. “Fine.” Thomas says, turning back to Chloé. “I assume you have a plan. Or, are you going to make me do everything like when we were kids?”

Chloé turns her nose up at him. “Of course, I have a plan! Who do you think I am?”

Chapter Text

Solset Academy is a very nice place. Marinette is finding the classes easy enough to follow, despite her dropping into the curriculum (luckily, Dupont and Solset aren’t at too different places, as she quickly finds out), and all of the teachers are very helpful and encouraging when she participates. Some teachers more than others, of course, but on the whole each one is passionate about their subject and there’s a more personal approach to the material. More than once, Marinette is reminded that she’s welcome to come talk to the teacher outside of class hours if she has any questions about the material, or even just the subject more broadly.

There does seem to be more of an academic focus here, though, and the art program is not quite as carefree with their funding for the club’s students, as far as she can tell. It’s hard to judge accurately, since Thomas isn’t in the art club, but when she does stop by the art room, she doesn’t see any of the grand accommodations Dupont provides like Alix’s billboard. There is a dress form, though, so as far as Marinette is concerned it’s not too bleak.

Geology club with Arno is something else, though. Arno knows more than Marinette thinks there is to know about rocks, and he’s more than happy to share that knowledge. It’s kind of adorable, but Marinette has to admit she doesn’t have any real interest in the subject. She can’t ignore him, though, when he speaks so passionately.

That club, on the day that Marinette is there, is a show-and-tell style meeting, where various members bring rocks from their own collections to share with the rest of the club. Marinette sees so many crystals and metals and other minerals that she can hardly keep track of it all. Of course, Arno is right there leaning close to her and interjecting with more fun facts that the presenters leave out. Apparently, on most days it’s more scientific and the club is actually working on a project together that Marinette can’t even pretend to understand.

It’s funny. Marinette never thought Chat Noir would be so interested in geology of all things. Even if she separates Chat Noir from it, she never would peg Arno Buenaventura as the type. And yet the way his eyes light up when one of the other members brings out a lump of stone is almost the same light that shows up when he spies her after they’re apart for more than a few minutes.

Camille is in the acting club, of course, which gives Marinette hope for the arts section of the school. After all, if an actress like Camille finds Solset’s theatre program acceptable, then surely the school doesn’t neglect the arts too sorely. Unfortunately, though, Marinette doesn’t have any reason to tag along and spy on what goes on there. But she’s not much of an actress, anyway, so it probably doesn’t really matter.

The other unexpected one is Ross. It’s not until he’s taking off in the middle of hanging out together that Marinette finds out he’s actually in some biology-focused club. He doesn’t say the name, and there’s no good way to ask what Thomas would obviously know, so she only gets what she gleans from the short conversation about the day’s activities. Research, from what she understands. And apparently some of the members like to bring their pets.

Between the clubs and the classes, Marinette finds herself not just finding Solset acceptable, but actually liking it there.

Still, it’s hard to come out and say that it might be better for her. As far as she can tell, Dupont does have a better art club, the sciences don’t captivate Marinette as much as they clearly do the others, even Camille, and besides it all, all of Marinette’s friends are at Dupont.

It’s not an easy decision.

She’s sitting at her desk, scribbling down a new design (that is the other thing, she’s inspired again, which feels like a miracle after what happened to her sketchbook), when she hears a knock on the doorframe. She looks up to read Ross’ signs. “Yeah?”

“You have time to talk?” He signs, arching his brow.

Marinette mirrors the gesture. It’s rare that Ross wants to just talk. Even when everyone is together, he’s not especially talkative. Setting her sketch down, Marinette backs up from the desk and shifts to face him properly, so she can sign alongside with her words when she responds. “Sure. What’s up?”

Ross takes that as an invitation and enters the room. As he passes by, he plucks Thomas’ worry stone off the desk and holds it when he settles down cross-legged on the bed. Marinette turns further so that they can talk properly.

Ross still doesn’t say anything for a while, though. Instead, he carefully examines the smooth, worn stone in his hand. Marinette isn’t sure what’s so interesting about it, though if Ross can follow Arno’s enthusiastic lecture about the thing, maybe he knows something she doesn’t. It just looks like a grey rock to her. Maybe one she’d find in a river, all smoothed by the water. Honestly, she only holds onto it because her brother is insistent that he always keeps it with him, so it’d be suspicious if she doesn’t.

Of course, she knows what a worry stone is. Her brother even recommended she get one, last year, probably around the time he got that one, but when she tried it out, she didn’t find it does much for her, so she sort of forgot about it. Hers is probably still in her room somewhere. Still, it doesn’t serve any purpose for her, so she’d rather not walk around with a rock in her pocket. But her brother insists. The only other thing he makes a point to make her wear is a bracelet that Arno gave him. That, Marinette understands a little better.

Really, she worries about him, especially after her chat with Camille not long ago. Not only is she putting him into a situation she knows is stressful, she’s taking away one of his tools to handle that stress because of the swap. I hope he’s doing okay. Wouldn’t put it past him to lie over text just to stop me from worrying.

Ross turns the stone over in his palm a few times and slowly runs the pad of his thumb along the flat of it. It’s still a long while more before Ross finally sets the stone down on the bed next to him and begins to sign his words. “I’m not really sure how to approach this.” He signs. “Or if I should.”

“That’s okay.” Marinette says with a gentle smile. “Take your time.” She secretly hopes this isn’t anything serious, though by how he’s acting she suspects it is, simply because it is super inappropriate for her to be pretending to be Thomas when Ross decides to reveal some deep secret or something. She doesn’t even want to think about what she’d do in that situation. Still, if she can help, she will.

Ross lets out an odd, uncomfortable groan and signs, “Look, Cam is making me do this, okay? We both know it’s none of my business.” Marinette smiles a little at that. That makes a lot more sense than him suddenly wanting to have a serious chat with me. “Did something happen between you and Arno?”

Marinette doesn’t know how to respond to that. At all. Heck. What did I do?

As usual, Ross’ gaze penetrates her. But this time, he reveals that he actually does know what she’s thinking. “Something did happen.” He signs. Not a question. “And you’re not together.” He makes a somewhat disgruntled face but doesn’t sign any more.

His expression betrays that he has more to say, something Marinette hasn’t seen very often. Ross tends to speak his mind or not indicate he’s hiding any thoughts. So, she hesitantly asks, “What?”

“Nothing.” He signs, maintaining that odd expression. “That’s just more disappointing than I thought it would be.”

Marinette doesn’t know how to respond to that, either.

“What happened?” He asks. He leans forward, eyes trained on her, but not searching. They light up with the same fire Marinette’s only sees in them when Ross is defending Camille or talking about his research. It’s odd. Rather off-putting, actually, given how cool he normally appears. Still, his eyes are like coals, and the embers aren’t at all out of place.

Marinette can’t help blushing a little when she realizes that Ross actually is interested now and isn’t simply asking as Camille’s proxy. Is my relationship with Arno really that interesting?

Well, yes. Tommy’s is. I’d be about a hundred times worse, honestly, so I guess I can’t complain.

She has to keep herself from groaning aloud at the thought. I messed up, didn’t I? Something about how I’ve been treating Arno is different than how Tommy does. Despite the realization, Marinette still tries her best to deny it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, dude.” She says. “Nothing happened.”

Ross crosses his arms and purses his lips and narrows his eyes and Marinette wishes she can shrink so he can’t see her. He watches her, and she knows his mind is working overtime, trying to figure everything out. Wrong answer. She thinks. Totally wrong answer. Heck.

It’s not her fault. Alya, she thinks, would question more. She’d insist that something is different, maybe list what she perceives as different (giving Marinette a convenient list of things to keep an eye on), and then, after a back-and-forth, if Marinette can convince her, she’d concede. Marinette never expected Ross to just take her at her word and start trying to figure more things out.

Eventually, after a too long and too awkward stalemate with her squirming in her seat under his ineffable gaze, he moves his arms once more to hold up his hands and sign, “Then what happened to you?”

Double heck. “What do you mean?” Marinette asks, laughing sheepishly. “Have I been acting strange?”

Ross scrunches up his nose in an expression that strikes Marinette as uncomfortably wolfish. Almost like he’s baring his fangs. “A little.” He signs. “Since Cam’s show.” Triple heck! “But mostly I’ve just never seen you flirt with Arno before.”

“Uh, woah, I’m sorry, what?!” Marinette hardly needs to feign surprise. Sure, she’s flirted with Arno, but she’s fairly certain that was only when they were alone. It didn’t take long before she figured out what an absolute imbecile her brother is about Arno’s crush and she put a stop to that for blending-in purposes.

Now Ross furrows his brow. “Yeah.” He signs. “You’ve been flirting with him since the play.”

“No, I haven’t!”

“Yeah. You have.”

“Have not!”

Ross silences her and wins the argument with a single, tired look. Have I really? I specifically tried not to! Just how dense is Tommy, anyway? Marinette cringes, because she got a good taste of exactly how dense her brother is at the play. Okay, maybe I haven’t been playing oblivious enough.

Marinette freezes when she sees another shift in Ross. He goes from slouched and quizzical to sharp and piercing like a blade. He narrows his eyes, and this time when he pulls up his lip Marinette even feels like she’s staring down a wolf. He has her pinned in the embers of his eyes alone, and there’s something even more fiery there, something that burns even hotter, and something that catches Marinette more off-guard than the rest of his sudden change.

Because he’s not leaning towards her anymore. He’s not attentive like he was. He even uncurls his legs and backs up just a little. In one of his hands he clutches tightly Thomas’ worry stone. His breathing is even, but tense and audible, and Marinette only realizes what’s happening because of her experience shepherding people away from akuma attacks, and because she recognizes what she feels in that very moment.

Ross doesn’t make a sound, but he doesn’t need to. Marinette can’t be sure he’s not half a moment away from bolting. As she doesn’t know exactly what thought occurred to him to cause this dramatic change in behavior, that would be less than ideal to say the least.

Marinette isn’t sure she’s ever seen, even in her experience with akuma, a person who looks more like a cornered animal than Ross in that moment. “Ross?” She says tentatively. Carefully, slowly, she holds her hands in front of her to show him she’s not going to attack him. She ditches the signing in favor of it, since quick motions don’t strike her as a good idea, and she knows there’s nothing wrong with his hearing.

She sees Ross’ angled jaw clench tight, and when he moves his hands it’s to rub gently at the worry stone. His chest expands and contracts ever so slowly. Then, after a long time, he sets down the worry stone once more to sign a name. It’s slow, deliberate, and long. Marinette has seen it many times before, but the moment seems to stretch on into eternity even more than it did when she was only just learning the signs. “Marinette.”

It’s an accusation, and not one that Marinette can deny. Not after seeing Ross’ reaction to the realization. Even if she can pull off that recovery, she doesn’t want to trick him. Instead, she averts her gaze, embarrassed and a little scared, and nods. “Yeah.”

Ross grits his teeth for a moment and stands suddenly. He leaves without another word, Thomas’ worry stone in hand. Marinette stares at the doorway, wondering what he’s thinking. And then, not long after he vanishes, he reappears. “Just…” He signs, “a moment.” He shakes his head and retreats back into his own room.

From within Thomas’ room she can’t see it, but she hears it loud and clear. It’s the very first time she’s ever heard Ross’ door close. Oh heck, I messed up. What happened? Being found out is one thing. Thomas even told her that Ross is likely to figure her out. But this? She never expected this reaction.

Her gut sinks into the core of the earth and burns up in the molten rock there. Ross is hurt, badly, because of a lie Marinette told. It’s a prank, mostly, sure, but it’s still deceit that hurt one of her brother’s best friends. We should never have done this switch in the first place. Marinette covers her face. God, I’m an idiot. And a hypocrite.

Marinette wallows there for a long while, just sitting in her chair thinking about all the ways she could have done this better or have avoided this completely. The whole point of this is to get away from the lies and the cruel pranks. Marinette wouldn’t have classified the swap as cruel, but Ross certainly doesn’t seem to find it funny. Now, she even worries he might be akumatized. There wasn’t even a reason for me to hide. We just did it for fun.

She isn’t sure how long she sits there, but Ross comes back before she makes any move to do anything but ruminate on the incident. It feels like ages, but Marinette can’t be sure.

He stares into her again, and somehow, it’s even more disconcerting now that she’s not trying to hide her identity. She looks up at him when he steps towards her.

To Marinette, he looks like he’s struggling. He hesitates before he reaches out to her. Even as he gently lifts her hand – not even grabbing it, just slipping his hand under hers to lift it – he keeps his browed furrowed and his lips tightly drawn.

Marinette is surprised by how rough his hands are. They scratch at her, despite his gentleness. But she’s more surprised by the cool, smooth stone dropped into her palm.

She looks up at him, and when she wraps her fingers around the worry stone, Ross pulls his hands away to sign. “Tell your brother that was a stupid idea.”

Marinette only nods, because she can’t quite tell if he’s angry or joking.

Ross closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it.” He signs. “I’m fine.”

“Are- uh, are you sure?”

For just a moment Ross glowers at her and Marinette feels a fear in her gut once more. It’s a deadly glare that freezes her in place like it’s turning her to stone. But the look passes quickly, and the chill in Marinette’s veins subsides as Ross’ expression adopts more warmth. “I’m fine.” He repeats. “I don’t like not knowing who I’m talking to is all.”

Marinette can’t help but think that Ross more than just doesn’t like it, but if he’s telling the truth about what the reaction was about then it was to realizing she’s not Thomas, and not to her being Marinette, which is… better. Marinette decides that full disclosure is probably the best policy to have any chance of him not hating her. “Okay.” She says uncertainly. “I guess I should explain why I’m here.”

Ross glances quickly between her and the bed and, after a split-moment’s hesitation, takes his seat on the bed once more. He doesn’t sign anything, so Marinette starts on her story, from the beginning, and tells him everything. Everything with Lila, everything at Dupont, her brother’s plan, the possibility of her transferring, and, though she’s loath to admit it, the admittance that the transfer seems more and more likely by the day. She recognizes, and reveals to Ross, how she’s been feeling better even despite the stress of hiding her identity.

By the end of her story, Ross has that same glower once more, but Marinette isn’t so stricken by it because she knows it isn’t for her. The only thing he signs for her, after a long breath, is, “You should transfer.”

Marinette gulps. “You really think so?”

“You’re already avoiding them, aren’t you?”

Marinette ducks her head. I am.

“Just so you know,” Ross signs, “none of our group takes kindly to abuse of any sort. Bullying or negligence, it doesn’t matter.”

Marinette almost chuckles. “I am starting to get that impression.”

“And Cam’s already adopted you, so you might as well transfer and make it official.”

A small laugh finally escapes her. “Yeah. I’m still thinking about it, but… you’re probably right.”

Ross rolls his eyes and his lips curl into a very faint smile. He stands again and makes for the door. At the aperture, he turns to sign to her. “Think about it. And don’t forget you’re supposed to be at Arno’s soon.”

“Oh, no, I forgot!” Marinette jumps up from her seat and rushes to collect everything she needs. Ross smirks and turns to his own room without another word as Marinette whirls about.

She’s out the door not too much later than is necessary. On the brief walk to Arno’s dorm, Marinette can’t help but wonder what actually happened with Ross. It’s none of my business, though. She thinks, after a short while. How Ross reacted, so terrified and dropping so quickly into a desperation like a caged wolf… it concerns her very much. He normally seems so put together and competent and strong that such a look on him is frightening even to her, a superheroine who hasn’t even known him very long.

Not to mention, she respects how quickly he managed to recover. She has practice working herself down from agitation, and from extreme emotions, both from her general experience with anxiety and her experience with Lila and the akuma. That Ross is so competent at such a thing makes Marinette wonder if he has similar experience working through things like that. Actually, I think Tommy mentioned once that Ross taught him a lot of the techniques he uses when his anxiety acts up, so he must have some sort of experience with it. But why, though?

No, it’s none of your business. You shouldn’t bother him about it, especially not after this… cruel prank. Maybe I should tell Arno, actually. If Camille and Ross think I’ve been flirting with him, he might, too. I’ll have to hurt him, but… it’ll come out eventually, and prolonging it won’t help anyone. With luck, he won’t have noticed, and it’ll just be the fun little prank it was supposed to be.

There’s bile in her throat and butterflies in her stomach, but she forges onward into the dorm. In the lobby, she has to text Arno to let her into the actual dorm, and she can’t help but grimace when he comes bursting out of the door to the rooms with his unmatched smile.

It’s hard not to smile when he looks at her like that, but guilt does a pretty good job of tempering her.

Arno notices immediately. “Are you okay?” His brow comes together and he reaches out to her.

Marinette clears her throat and skirts around his outstretched hand. “We’ll, uh, talk in your room. Okay?”

Arno nods and leads the way.

To be honest, if Marinette is to guess, she would say Arno is the messy one of her brother’s friend group. Even as Chat Noir he strikes her as the type whose room would be cluttered and unkempt. That’s not to say Arno ever seems unkempt, in fact, quite the opposite (he’s rather striking), but if she has to pick one, she would think Arno’s room would be the messiest.

That assumption is… sort of true. Arno certainly has the most things out and around the place, but they’re all decorative and have their place and, weirdly enough, there isn’t a speck of dust anywhere to be seen. Unlike Thomas or Marinette herself, there’s nothing strewn on the floor, unlike Ross, there’s no dirt or smudges or tracks of the outside (something she very much expects there would be, considering his personality). There is a box of magazines which Marinette is surprised to find she recognizes haphazardly poking itself out from underneath Arno’s bed, but that’s the only thing not put totally away.

If she doesn’t count the rocks, anyway, but she knows enough about Arno now that those aren’t really out of place. On every surface, there are stones, minerals, gems, the whole spectrum. A rainbow of crystals lines the windowsill, a cut geode stands proudly as a bookend, plain and fantastic-looking stones alike appear on the desk and shelves. There are even a fair number of fossils carefully placed about the room.

Atop the dresser, there’s a toolset and a tray with a stack of sandpaper, and atop the short bookshelf is an overflowing assortment of jewelry. Feminine, masculine, some pieces she recognizes Arno having worn, and many, many, many more that she’s never seen before. Nearly every piece, be it necklace, bracelet, earring, ring, or other, has some sort of stone on it.

That’s the most cluttered and disorganized place in the room, but its beauty is undeniably stunning. Even though there doesn’t seem to be a method to the madness of their arrangement, strung up on displays or laying peacefully on the surface, there’s no tangling of the cords and each piece is beautiful and eye-catching.

Marinette has never seen a room, especially not a dorm room, sparkle quite like Arno’s. And she’s quite jealous of his jewelry collection.

“So… what’s up?” Arno worries his lip as he watches her, shifting on his feet.

Marinette breaks out of the trance the glittering stones put her in and remembers her decision. She hugs herself and averts her gaze. “The truth is, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make.”

“You… do?” Arno sounds so uncertain that it breaks Marinette’s heart.

Don’t mislead him. She chides herself. Get to the point. “Yeah. Actually. I wasn’t going to say anything, but… Ross found out and I realized this might have more consequences than I thought.”

“Ross…” Arno repeats slowly. “What is it?”

“I’m not actually Tommy.” Marinette says, allowing herself to use her normal voice but still not looking at him. The sparkling crystals are a good enough distraction. “I’m Marinette. We sort of swapped places.”

She hears a soft sigh, so gentle she almost misses it, and then raucous laughter. “Wait, really?!” Arno gasps. Marinette’s gaze snaps up to him, and he’s standing there clutching his stomach. “Oh, love, you really got me good! I had no idea!”

With that infectious smile and laugh, Marinette can’t help but laugh along herself.

“Oh! But that means this is the first time you’ve seen my room, right?” Arno bows dramatically and winks and gestures to the room. “Welcome, welcome. Please, make yourself at home.” He dissolves into giggles again. “Marinette! God, that’s brilliant!”

Marinette is giggling now, too and gratefully follows him to take a seat on the bed. “Honestly,” she says, “I can’t believe I managed to keep it up as long as I did.”

“Ooh! Wait! I want to guess! It was, uh…” Arno scrunches up his nose cutely and sticks his tongue out as he thinks. “Oh! The play! Right? Well, not at the play. That day, maybe lunch? I thought you were weird after lunch.”

“Spot on.” Marinette says. “We did switch back for the play.”

“Which totally threw me off!” Arno exclaims. “I thought Tommy was back to normal, so I ignored the afternoon! That’s mean, love.”

Marinette giggles some more. “We didn’t actually do that to trick you. We just didn’t think you’d buy the disguises if we were standing next to each other.”

“Speaking of! Marinette! Your skill with makeup! That’s amazing!” Arno leans in closer to examine her face, and Marinette is amused enough to let him. “And if Tommy is doing the same thing, that must mean he’s good, too. You think you two could make me look like my sister?”

“Ahaha, maybe! I’ve never seen her, but we could definitely try.”

“Oh, god.” Arno collapses back to lay on the bed. “That’s so great. You have no idea how many times I’ve tried to convince Lizzy to swap with me like that.” He sits up again and looks at her with all of the room’s sparkle in his eyes. “You have to be the absolute coolest sister. Want to switch with mine?”

Marinette covers her mouth as she laughs. “I’m sure your sister is just as cool as me.”

“Nuh-uh. She’d never let me do something like that.” Arno clears his throat and wiggles in his seat as he straightens his posture. “How many times do I have to tell you?” He says in a feminine voice. “We’d miss school if we tried that!”

Marinette nods along seriously. “Tommy and I have been working on our homework together.” She says. “And recording lectures. We talk a lot.”

That’s what you’ve been doing every night!” Arno slaps his knee. “And that’s genius! I’ve got to pitch it to Lizzy.”

“Oh no.” Marinette says. “I’ve created a monster.”

“You have to help.” Arno begs. “I can’t believe you pulled it off! It’s my childhood dream come true! The ultimate twin prank! And if we have help from twins who’ve already gotten away with it, Lizzy can’t say no.”

“Hmm, tempting.” Marinette teases. And then she sighs. “But, no. After how Ross reacted to finding out, I’m not all that keen on the prank anymore.”

Arno sucks in a hissing breath and winces. “Oh. Yeah, I guess that would… what happened?”

“Well, first, he came in to talk to me about how he and Camille think I’ve been flirting with you.”

Arno smacks himself in the face. “Ugh. Don’t remind me.”

Marinette grimaces. “I’m really sorry, by the way. Tommy didn’t say anything about… uh, and after the play I swear I was trying to ignore it. I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s alright.” Arno says, subdued. “Really. I’m a twin myself, so I really can’t be mad about you pulling off the ultimate twin prank. I should’ve guessed though.” He snorts and rolls his eyes. “I’ve been saying I love him for a year and he still just can’t get the hint.”

“If it helps, I’ve been literally dying inside with the knowledge that my brother is the densest person on the planet. It’s so hard to pretend I don’t even notice it.”

Arno shrugs. “It’s probably my fault. Partly, anyway. It’s not like I haven’t told him I love him in just a friend sense before. A lot.”

Marinette shakes her head and scoffs. “It’s definitely not your fault. Honestly, I don’t know how you can make it any clearer.”

“Aha. I guess.” Arno shakes his head. “Anyway. Ross. What happened?”

“Right.” Marinette bites her lip for a moment. “Apparently Camille told him to talk to me, so he did, and I guess telling him that nothing happened to make me change my behavior towards you gave him the hint.”

Arno nods and chuckles softly. “Yeah, that’s like him.”

“Anyway, he realized I’m not Tommy and kind of… uh…” Marinette trails off, because she doesn’t know how to describe what she saw.

“Like a big old momma wolf with her pups in a corner?” Arno finishes.

“Uh, yeah. That’s one way to describe it.”

Arno winces. “Yeah. How is he?”

“Well, after he realized I’m Marinette he… took a moment and seemed to calm down. It was really only a couple minutes.”

A soft hum escapes Arno’s lips as he nods. “Good. He’s got a, uh, complicated history. Don’t take it personally, ‘kay?”

“I didn’t.” Marinette promises. “But it did make me realize that tricking people about who you are isn’t exactly the nicest thing to do. That’s why I decided to tell you now. Since Ross seemed to think I was flirting with you, and I really didn’t want to give you, uh… false hope?”

Arno hums and nods. “Yeah. I get it, love.”

“Besides,” she says, “the swap wasn’t really about the prank, anyway.”

Arno arches his brow and looks over to her. “Oh?” He blinks and hisses again. “Oh. Right. You’ve mentioned, a bit, about what’s going on at your school.”

“Yeah. I’m still waiting on Tommy to call it, but… really, we swapped so that I could check out Solset. He’s investigating the situation at my school, and he’s going to tell me if he thinks I should transfer here.”

Arno perks up at the word “transfer” but his expression remains concerned. “You’re thinking about changing schools?” Marinette nods. “Oh, Mari, we’d love to have you here!” He grins and bounces excitedly. With a cough and a quick preening he corrects himself. “Uh, I mean, I know how hard it is to leave your school. I move around a lot, you know. Never stay in the same place for more than a few years. Or haven’t, anyway, I’m still holding out hope.” He grins, as if to show that it doesn’t bother him. “So, I know. But, if you do decide to come, we’d be more than glad to have you, love.”

Marinette giggles once more. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah, definitely! And now that I know why you’re here, I can give you a proper tour of the place. I’ll show you all the best places on campus!” He smacks his chest proudly. “Scout’s honor!” His cheeks color as his expression changes again to shock. “Oh, right, this must all seem weird to you.” He rubs his neck awkwardly and grins, gesturing with his other hand to his room. “Well, I’m sure you figured out already that I kind of love geology. But, and I don’t think this came up, I’m also something of a jeweler. It’s a hobby. And, oh, my god, wait right here!” He gets up and darts to his bookshelf, where the bulk of his jewelry is on display.

When he comes back, he has in his hand a delicate silver chain with small gems set as pendants hanging across the front like individual raindrops. A dazzling crimson, and a dark black, alternating to a total of five gems each set a centimeter or two apart. “A gift!” He announces. “For my hero and, I hope you don’t mind, honorary little sister.”

Marinette gasps. “What? No, I can’t accept that!” It’s a beautiful necklace, and though Arno has an excess of jewelry she’s sure that something like that can’t be easy or cheap to make. Not to mention, he’s implying he made it himself.

“Please, I insist!” Arno holds the necklace out to her. “This would look great on you, and, I mean, you’re Tommy’s sister.”

Marinette makes a face, and is only half-joking when she says, “You can’t win him over by buttering me up.”

“I know!” Arno insists. “That’s not what I meant. I mean that Tommy is family. And that means you are too. Seriously, don’t worry about it and just take it.”

“But… that must be expensive.”

Arno snorts. “I mean, I guess. As hobbies go, mine isn’t the cheapest. Gems and all that. But it’s not like I’m going to wear it, love, and what’s the point of jewelry if it doesn’t go to a good home? Come on, it’s not as valuable as you think, and I cut the gems myself so that makes it even cheaper on my wallet.”

Marinette doesn’t want to be swayed, but it is such a beautiful necklace, and… Did he call me family, too? That’s two of them, now.

“And, uh, I did make it for you, you know. We hadn’t met at the time, I know, but I did always intend on giving this one to you when we did.”

Really? She shakes her head. She isn’t entirely sure if he’s just that smitten with her brother or if he’s just that kind of person who creates beautiful handmade gifts for his friends’ families he’s never even met. Neither would surprise her. “Alright. If you insist, I suppose I can accept such a beautiful gift.”

Arno’s grin stretches from ear to ear as he lowers it into her hand. “Next I see you all dressed up as yourself, love,” he says, “I look forward to seeing you with it.”

Marinette is accustomed to giving handmade gifts. She sews and bakes and creates things for people all the time, especially her friends. But it’s an entirely different experience to be on the receiving end, especially with something so beautiful and (she thinks, despite his insistence) expensive. This is something I couldn’t get for hundreds of bucks at an actual jewelry store!

It may not necessarily be true. The design is simple, and the gems are small, and she isn’t entirely sure what the gems actually are, though they certainly look expensive to her untrained eye. Maybe it really is as inexpensive as Arno insists, but it looks like something only Chloé or maybe Camille could afford.

But despite that, and despite her joy at the surprise gift, Marinette’s gut sinks a little because she can’t help but think that there’s no way she can wear something like this to school. Not with Lila there already sabotaging her. If Lila decides to steal it, or break it, or something like that, Marinette would be devastated. Even if it isn’t all that expensive, a handmade gift is always invaluable.

“What’s wrong?” Arno asks. His voice is soft and gentle, like he knows exactly what Marinette is thinking.

Marinette gulps down the lump in her throat and hold the necklace back out to him. “I’m sorry, but… well, you know about Lila. She’s already targeted my things, and I couldn’t bear it if she broke or stole one of your pieces. It’s better if you just don’t give it to me.”

“Nonsense.” Arno carefully takes Marinette’s hand and curls her fingers around the necklace, trapping it in her fist. “You can’t live in fear of her. Besides, didn’t you say Tommy’s going to figure it out? He’d never send you back in somewhere like that, so he’s either going to handle it, and you’ll have nothing to worry about, or you’ll be coming here, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Here, why don’t you put it on? Doesn’t exactly match your outfit, but it’ll still look beautiful on you.” He winks and lets her open her hand so that he can take the necklace and string it around her neck. She moves her hair for him as he fastens the clasp.

She can’t really see it when it’s on her, but she warms under the cool silver of the necklace.

“There we go. Absolutely gorgeous, love.”

Marinette snorts just a little and giggles. “You’re saying that because I still look like Tommy.”

Arno snickers. “Yeah, maybe. But you don’t look half bad when you’re you, either.”

Chapter Text

Thomas wouldn’t call himself spiteful, or vengeful, or anything like that. He likes to think he holds to a certain moral standard. He doesn’t have any principled stance against revenge, per se, but he does have a stance against causing unnecessary suffering.

That being said, Lila is a menace, and there is not a chance in hell that Thomas will simply sit back when she threatens his family. If the best tactical decision he has to achieve that end of solving the Lila problem is to team up with his, his sister’s, and his friend’s childhood bully, then he can swallow that. It’s for his family, after all, and anyway, there’s an old saying about keeping one’s enemies close. This time with Chloé might prove helpful in itself.

In fact, it’s startling to him just how quickly the situation does an acrobatic freaking pirouette off the handle and he’s left thinking of her not only as a partner in his plot, but an ally on his side.

It starts with Camille’s gambit. Things are relatively okay, following that interrupted interview, but then Lila kicks into gear and everything comes crashing down faster than Thomas can keep up with.

There’s always someone who believes what Lila says about Marinette, Thomas discovers. When he first arrived the harshest and most cruel rumors were only believed by a small subsection of the school’s population, but now… things are a bit different.

He’s used to odd or dirty looks when he walks into open areas of the school. The library, the hallway, the courtyard, even the art room. Once, one of Marinette’s classmates even gives him a dark look. But this new development takes him completely off-guard, if only because it happens days after the incident with Camille. He knows the rumor that has been started, of course, but none of his classmates bought it.

And yet, he walks into class and gets the stink-eye from Alya of all people. Did I do something? He thinks, at first, as he makes his way to his seat. As he walks by, Adrien gives him that familiar “disappointed dad” face, and Nino openly cringes. Yikes. He catches Chloé glaring at him, but it’s not the “I can’t believe you” glare that Alya’s giving him. It’s just her usual setting. Lila’s in the back with a small group looking smug, but that’s not new.

“Girl!” Alya hisses when he slides into the seat. “Tell me you didn’t! You promised you wanted to get along!”

Thomas purses his lips. “What did I do?”

“You only started hanging out with Lila so you could mess with her.” Alya says wickedly. “Like calling Camille Lebeau here to play that cruel prank on her. I thought you really wanted to get along!”

Thomas can only stare at her with his jaw on the floor because he can’t believe what she is accusing him of. “Wait.” He shakes his head roughly. “You believe that?”

“Well it certainly explains your one-eighty with Lila!”

Thomas gapes some more before Nino gently interrupts. “Alya, dude, come on. Don’t be ridiculous.”

I’m being ridiculous?” Alya scoffs. “Marinette’s the one who still hates Lila for no good reason.”

“And yelling at her and accusing her of lying about trying to give Lila a chance isn’t going to help that, dudette. You got to trust your girl. If you don’t believe she’s trying why should she try at all?”

“She hasn’t tried for months, and I’m supposed to believe she just changed her mind? With no ulterior motives?”

Nino frowns. “She’s your best friend, Alya.”

“That’s why I’m trying to talk to her about it, if you’d butt out.”

Thomas recoils along with Nino (and Adrien, as well) because Alya’s voice holds no less venom in that statement than when she accuses Thomas of lying about his goals with Lila. At least, in Thomas’ case, she’s half-justified. Thomas is lying about that, to be fair. It’s not why he’s hanging out with Lila, but he is still lying. It’s just easier than avoiding her, really, and he doesn’t exactly want to wind up in a confrontation every time Lila opens her big mouth, so saying he wants to be her friend is the best option available to him.

Still, that’s no reason to talk to Nino that way. And her accusation towards Thomas is still wildly off the map. He can feel the denim of his jeans under his hand. Instinctively, he’s still reaching for his worry stone, but it’s not anxiety he’s trying to quell. I can’t believe she even talks to her boyfriend like this. And she’s Marinette’s best friend?

“Well?” Alya crosses her arms and fixes Thomas in his seat with her gaze.

Thomas can’t help but meet her glare with his own. It’s insulting, what these people think about his sister. Strangers in the hall is one thing, but this is her best friend.

Thomas’ own best friend is Arno Buenaventura. That man would never, ever, in a million years throw that kind of biting accusation at him, and he would never do that to Arno. They’re family, and family watches out for each other. They don’t tear each other apart.

Camille has a complicated history with family, with a lot of negative feelings tied to it, and Ross doesn’t even know what it is, but together they and Arno and Thomas make a family, and that means more to each and every one of them, even Arno and himself, who have wonderful blood families, than anything in the whole world. Thomas will go to hell and back for any of them, but especially his best friend.

Clearly, that concept doesn’t mean much to Marinette’s group.

“Well, what?” Thomas hisses back. “You’ve clearly made up your mind. We’ve already talked about this; in case you’ve forgotten. If you’ve decided I lied then, then clearly you just don’t trust me, and I don’t see what trying to defend myself here will do.” Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas catches a jerking movement of blond hair as Adrien recoils from Thomas’ own tone. Calm down.

“Hey, don’t talk to me like that! I’m trying to clear things up!”

“You’re trying to make me admit to something I already told you I didn’t do. Something I thought you believed me about.” Thomas grits his teeth. “I can’t believe my best friend would believe I’d do that.”

“What? You have to admit your behavior is fishy!” Alya’s voice is raised far beyond a harsh whisper, now. And Thomas isn’t exactly keeping quiet, either. The rest of the room, though, one could hear a pin drop in.

“You didn’t think that last time we talked about it!” Thomas taunts. “Did I go back in time and change my intentions?”

“Ugh! This is what I’m talking about! You’re always accusing Lila of-”

“I never even mentioned Lila! But clearly, she’s the one who convinced you I’m not to be trusted, if you’re so quick to defend her!”

“Woah! Hey!” Nino suddenly bursts out. “Chill out, dudes.”

“Shut up!” Alya whips around to point her finger in Nino’s face. “Don’t defend her!”

Nino sighs, shakes his head and turns to Thomas. “Dude, please. You’re both hot right now, you need to chill before you can talk anymore. You dig?”

Thomas is scratching at his leg, missing his worry stone. It only makes him more agitated. Still, Nino’s right. He tries to still himself and takes a deep breath. “Yeah.” He says, voice calmer, though his nerves are still pretty shot. “Thanks, Nino.”

Nino ducks his head and tugs down the brim on his cap and holds up a thumbs-up with his other hand. Thomas swears Nino sighs with relief.

It takes Alya longer than it takes Thomas, but she calms herself, too, after she realizes that he’s trying to settle down. “I’m sorry.” Alya says. “I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“Neither should I.” Thomas says, in lieu of accepting the apology. In truth, he’s still pretty furious with her. Up until now, he thought that she was on his sister’s side. That at the very least she won’t doubt Marinette, even if she doesn’t believe the truth about Lila. But no. I’m too optimistic. Cam could have told me this would happen sooner or later. Still pisses me off.

“And you’re right. It was wrong of me to doubt you. I’m sure Lila’s just nervous because of your history. I let her own doubts get to me. Can you forgive me?”

Absolutely not. Thomas wants to laugh in her face. Forgive her? For completely turning on his family? Not a chance.

But it is Marinette’s best friend. Marinette would at least try to forgive her. And… though Thomas can’t forgive her, she’ll be important for Marinette in the transitory period if she transfers. It’s possible that she’s not so far gone that she can’t at least be useful there. So, Thomas doesn’t have much choice but to swallow his pride.

Since they’re both sitting properly in their seats again, and Thomas wants to avoid a make-up hug ruining his disguise, he takes the initiative and nudges her shoulder gently. “Of course, I can.” Even then, he can’t bring himself to ask for her forgiveness. That will just have to do. “You’re my best friend, after all.”

The rest of the day is fairly normal, until Chloé steals him away at lunch, much to Alya and the boys’ confusion. “This is worse than I thought.” Chloé announces, tapping her foot quickly. “We need to sort this mess out ASAP so you can get out of here.”

Thomas snorts. “What, you’re not happy to have me around.”

Chloé looks at him like he’s a particularly grotesque fast food meal. “You’re hot-headed.” She says eventually. “You’re going to mess up Marinette’s chances here if you’re not careful.”

“What?” Thomas scoffs. “That was my fault?”

“Uh, yes! You totally lost your cool! It’s utterly ridiculous! I thought you wanted to stop Marinette’s friends from hating her, but instead you’re yelling at them!”

“She was yelling at me! And I can’t just let her accuse Marinette of those things!”

“This is what I’m talking about! You’re way too aggressive!”

“And we’re not going to be aggressive?”

“Not to Alya! God, you’re an idiot!”

Thomas rubs at his temples. All this is starting to give him a headache. “You sound like Adrien.” He mumbles.

“What about Adrien?” Chloé’s voice is dangerous, but it doesn’t scare Thomas anymore.

“Oh, he knows about the lying. He told Marinette not to call her out. Blah, blah, high road, something about Lila being akumatized, I don’t know. Honestly, he’s pissing me off with that sad, self-righteous, faux-disappointment he can’t seem to stop looking at me with.”

“Ugh, so that’s why he’s doing that.” Chloé collapses dramatically into her chair. “I should probably be more angry than I am that he’s just ignoring Lila, but honestly, it doesn’t even surprise me.” She rolls her eyes as Thomas takes his own seat. “But speaking of the others, we need to get started with the plan.”

“Right. The plan.” Thomas says flatly. “You mean, the one you haven’t told me?”

“I told you the gist!”

“You told me, ‘make her suffer’, which really isn’t much of a plan, so much as a goal.”

“You’re insufferable, you know that?”

“You’re worse.”

“Ugh, stop getting distracted!” Chloé smacks the table loudly. “We have to start gathering allies. The more people we have on our side, the better off we’ll be.”

Thomas groans. “You’re talking like we’re going to war.”

“We are.” Chloé says sternly. “And this war is a numbers game. If we can get more people to believe us than believe Lila, we win. That’s why we need people we can trust will have our backs. People who won’t be swayed.”

Thomas wishes he has those people. He’s got three of them at Solset he’d be happy to share with Marinette. Here, though? He’s not optimistic. “I’m sure you already have some people in mind.” He says.

“Naturally.” Chloé flicks her hair over her shoulder. “You’re going to recruit Nino.”

“Nino.” Thomas repeats. Not the worst idea. He seems the most reasonable in the core group.

“Yeah. And most importantly, you can’t get Alya.”

“Wasn’t going to.” Thomas growls. “She’s already turned her back once this morning. I don’t trust her far as I can throw her.”

“Good.” Chloe nods. The twinkle in her eye takes Thomas off guard because it almost resembles respect. “I thought you might be as stupid as your sister and insist on trying to work with her.”

“She’s not stupid.” Thomas says. “Just attached. I don’t care about Alya.”

Chloé smirks. “Anyway. If Adrien knows already, he’s a possibility. I’ll try to talk to him, but we shouldn’t count on it.”

“Are you going to tell him we’re working together?” Thomas asks. “And that I’m not my sister?”

“No.” Chloé says. “Not unless he’s fully convinced to help us.”

“Good.”

“I’m also going to talk to Alix. She’s usually pretty smart, compared to some of them, and she doesn’t hate me as much. Plus, if I can snag her, then she’ll have sway with more of the others.”

“Right. You know the classroom better than I do, so I’ll trust your judgement.”

“You better.” Chloé says. “Now get away from me, loser. And don’t you dare forget to talk to Nino.”

Thomas snorts and stands to walk away. “I won’t. Good luck to you, too, Chloé.”

“I don’t need luck. I’m Queen Bee.”

Thomas rolls his eyes and goes to actually find lunch.

Recruiting Nino goes fairly smoothly, all things considered. Thomas sends him a text as he eats his lunch and they agree to meet after school. Alone. Once Thomas explains the situation to Nino, he actually seems relieved, if not a little scared. “Damn.” Nino says, after Thomas explains. “I didn’t realize it was that bad. I knew Marinette wasn’t having a great time, but… now I feel like an ass.”

“You defended me from Alya.” Thomas says. “Your own girlfriend. Far as I’m concerned, that means you’re cool. And, now that you know, I trust you won’t be fooled by Lila anymore.”

Nino makes a pained face. “I don’t… want to believe everything Lila’s saying is a lie. But I can’t deny she’s been saying some pretty awful things about Marinette. I’m just surprised Alya doesn’t seem to notice. Whenever I try to point it out, she just brushes me off, saying I’m listening to Marinette too much, but… honestly I’m not even sure when the last time we hung out alone was.” Nino takes a deep breath and finally meets Thomas’ gaze. “I don’t know all this about lying, but I’ll do what I can if it means protecting Marinette from those rumors.”

Thomas is beyond frustrated, because after the incident with Camille he can’t believe that Lila’s still getting away with the simple lies, but the fact of the matter is that it’s only one incident and Thomas himself is still a third party so maybe from Nino’s perspective it isn’t so straightforward.

That’s fine. Thomas will take what he can get. Someone willing to fight for his sister’s reputation is already leagues better than anyone else in the class, in some ways even Chloé. That’s enough for his purposes.

Thomas meets with Chloé, later, and Nino tags along, and though Nino doesn’t know to look for him, Thomas isn’t quite sure how to feel about the fact that Adrien isn’t present. On one hand, he’s glad. Adrien is one of the most annoying of the students to him, always looking down on him. But, he’s Marinette’s crush, so it really would be better if he does come.

At least Luka is there. Maybe Thomas can give Marinette a little nudge. She did admit to liking him during one of their late-night chats. Or, as good as, anyway. Getting flustered and avoiding the topic and launching into a spiel about Adrien isn’t exactly subtle.

Unfortunately, Alix isn’t there either. Thomas takes that to mean that Chloé is entirely unsuccessful in swaying her, too.

“You got Nino.” Chloé says when they walk into her room. “Good.”

“You got Luka.” Thomas says. “Remarkable work.”

Chloé clenches her jaw and takes a steadying breath. “We both knew my two were long shots.” She says tersely. “Don’t patronize me.”

Luka shakes his head at them both. “Juleka is a no-go, too.” He says.

Thomas groans. “So, searching for allies isn’t going well.”

Chloé crosses her arms as she thinks. “Maybe Nathanaël? Otherwise, I’m not sure we’ll get any more help within the class.”

“Great.” Thomas says. “What now, oh, Queen Bee?”

“Now, we have to make people see the truth. Lila’s getting bolder, so it should be easier. First, we need to remind everyone why they love Marinette. That means you, Dupain-Cheng, need to be extra nice. To everyone. Even Adrien and Alya and yes, Lila.”

Thomas hums and nods. “Alright. I’ll make some macarons or something. Good enough?”

“That’s a good start. You know your sister. Just be as insufferably sweet as her but dial it up to max.”

Thomas makes a face. “Are you sure I have to be nice to Lila?”

Chloé just glares at him. He takes that as a yes.

Nino frowns. “What about me?”

“I want you protecting Dupain-Cheng.” Chloé says. “You’re actually her friend, so taking Marinette’s side won’t be weird. Just do like you did this morning. Fight for her honor, or whatever.” She waves him off.

The meeting is pretty straight-forward. Nino seems convinced enough, though Thomas still doubts he’s quite the trustworthy person his own friends are, but that can’t be helped. If he plays his role, he’ll be fine.

Of course, Thomas doesn’t count on just how precipitous the situation is. Neither does Chloé. It’s like Lila’s a step ahead of them.

Like he’s ordered to, Thomas brings in some homemade macarons to class the next day. He’s actually feeling pretty good. It’s great to bake again. He only really just realizes while he’s doing it just how much he misses the activity. So, when he goes into the school with treats he’s proud of, he’s walking on cloud nine.

Then strike two comes careening around the corner leaving Thomas feeling like a deer in headlights.

No one wants his macarons. Which is, quite frankly, insulting. At least Nino eats like four of them, and despite himself Thomas can’t help but smile when Adrien covertly steals one from Nino, too.

Still, overall, it’s rude.

He comes in with his box and grins and offers them to the class, and Nino comes up and grabs one but then Kim warns him off, saying that Thomas has been spending time with Chloé, so they’re probably poisoned.

More than anything, Thomas is insulted that they think he would ruin a perfectly good macaron by throwing off its flavor profile with some unnecessary additive. Excuse you.

Nino pops it into his mouth anyway and gets to enjoy the wonders of Thomas Dupain-Cheng’s baking. At this point, as Thomas takes his seat and even Alya (admittedly politely) declines a macaron, Thomas just calls it as their loss. They don’t want to support Marinette like real friends? They don’t want to have Thomas’ baking? Fine. They’re throwing away the best things in their lives, but fine. That’s their decision.

Okay, maybe I’m taking the baking thing a little personally.

Thomas eventually offers macarons to Chloé and Sabrina, and despite Sabrina’s questionable loyalties they both take one. Chloé notably doesn’t comment on the taste, but Thomas is content with that. With her attitude, no comment is a compliment in itself, and besides, even though he can’t resist giving one to her, the whole reason the class declines them is because Thomas is apparently besties with Chloé now so a compliment of all things would be incredibly suspicious.

Nino, though, openly praises them, which strokes Thomas’ ego a little. Adrien praises them, too, though not openly. That just makes Thomas roll his eyes. Coward.

By the end of the day, Nino convinces Alya to take one, and Adrien to work up the courage to take one without hiding it, but no one else gives into temptation. Their loss.

Really, it’s all kind of surreal to Thomas, so he can’t say it really stresses him out or anything. It’s just weird. Overnight, just like that, most of the class is treating him like he’s Chloé 2.0 and it’s weird. And, even weirder, it makes him think that maybe giving Chloé a chance is the right decision because if he’s actually treated like this every day he might turn out a little crazy, too.

Still, for just that day, he’s wandering through a fog. What on earth is happening? He wonders. How did it turn so quickly? It’s so dramatic of everyone that he’s honestly too thrown off to be offended by it.

Alix shuns him in the hallway, Juleka hugs herself and turns away to avoid him as he passes, even Mylène bites her lip and pointedly ignores him when he gets close.

It’s weird.

“What is happening?” He asks loudly after some students pack up their things and leave the art room right after he enters, with pointed glares and whispers directed at him.

Nathanaël is on a stool in front of his easel, working on whatever project he has going on, and glances over his shoulder to Thomas. He sighs heavily. “The class decided to shut you out. It’s only meant to be for today. They all just agreed that it would teach you not to hang out with Chloé.” He shrugs. “They don’t want you turning into her.”

Thomas furrows his brow. “And, ignoring me so that Chloé is the only friend I have is the way to do that?”

Nathanaël shrugs again. “We don’t all agree. I thought the same, and obviously Nino, Alya, and Adrien are still talking to you.” Mostly. Lila is hanging off them and pointedly ignoring Thomas, which makes everything pretty awkward. After a while, Thomas just splits on his own and tells the others not to worry about it. Nino fights for him, but it isn’t worth it. “Are you alright?”

Thomas sighs. Chloé said he’s a possibility. And he’s on my side of this. Maybe I should tell him more. “Not really.” He says, taking a chair near Nathanaël. “Now that no one’s watching, and as thanks for telling me what’s happening, do you want a macaron? I still have a few left.”

Nathanaël’s face lights up when he sees Thomas open his box. “Really? Are you sure? It was pretty rude of me to decline in class.”

“Don’t worry about it. If the class conspired something like ignoring me, I understand that you wouldn’t want to draw attention to yourself like that.” Even though Nino could. But you aren’t as close to Marinette as he is, so I’ll forgive it this time. Besides, you don’t strike me as the outgoing type. I know how hard it is to go against the flow like that. Really, Thomas’ patience with Nathanaël is mostly because of his own anxiety. From what he’s seen, Nathanaël would really struggle to stand up to the class like Nino, even in the relatively innocent setting of this morning. There was a time that Thomas couldn’t, either.

Nathanaël sighs and sets down his brush. “Thank you.” He says, reaching for a macaron.

It’s a nice moment. Then, it’s ruined. Strike three, and Thomas doesn’t even understand how Lila can cook this up so quickly.

Nathanaël’s phone buzzes. Thomas’, or rather Marinette’s, does not. Nathanaël quickly checks the message and just about chokes on his macaron. It’s only after Thomas jumps in to pat the other boy on the back that Nathanaël recovers, gasping, and gives Thomas a strange look.

“What?” Thomas asks. “Are you okay?”

Nathanaël coughs a few times more. “I’m fine. But… Marinette, really?”

Thomas blinks dumbly. “What?”

Nathanaël turns his phone to show Thomas the picture that he, and everyone else in their class sans Nino and Thomas himself, just received.

Thomas just about chokes, too, on nothing but air. Then, he looks at name of the sender. Lila. Another text is just under it, reading, “I’m so sorry, but you all deserve to know. Especially Alya.”

The picture is of a place Thomas hasn’t ever seen before. It looks like it could be on campus, but Thomas doesn’t know where. It would probably be a fitting place for the subject of the photo, if it actually happens, which it won’t and hasn’t.

Front and center, oblivious to the camera, is Marinette and Nino together. Kissing.

Nathanaël’s phone is just about exploding from the buzzing, so Nathanaël pulls it away with a disbelieving look at Thomas and starts scrolling. It’s in a group chat. With the whole class. Except Marinette and Nino, of course.

“That’s actually kind of impressive.” Thomas mutters. He’s thankful when Nathanaël looks at him that he doesn’t accidentally drop his imitation of his sister’s voice when he’s just musing. The voice is more habit than thought about now when he’s at school. “It’s believable, I’ll give her that.”

Nathanaël purses his lips. “You’re saying it’s fake?”

Thomas snorts. “Obviously. I wouldn’t do that to Alya, neither Nino nor I like each other like that, and even if we did I wouldn’t say we did. When is she saying she took this picture?”

Nathanaël quickly turns back to his phone and scrolls feverishly. After a few long moments his eyes go wide. “Just now.” He says. “She’s saying she caught you and immediately sent this out. But… you’re here with me.”

“Yeah.” Thomas says. “She slipped up.”

“I’ll let everyone know.”

Nathanaël starts typing, but Thomas suddenly feels this strange protectiveness. The poor boy can’t even work up the courage to accept a macaron in front of the class. Thomas knows that feeling. Thomas also doesn’t know what triggered this most recent attack, since up until now, to Thomas’ knowledge, Lila has only targeted Marinette. This picture can ruin Nino just as easily as her.

So, before he can even think about what he’s doing, Thomas grabs Nathanaël’s wrist to stop him. “Hold on.”

“Huh? But, it’s fake! I can’t let Alya and Nino get broken up because of a lie.”

Thomas bites his tongue. It’s true, and Nathanaël might be believed, and that might put the brakes on this particular lie, but… this is just a single battle. There’s a war going on. More importantly, it’s a war that Nathanaël doesn’t have to be a casualty in. Chloé will kill him if she finds out what he’s doing, but his own sense of justice won’t let him let Nathanaël do this blindly.

“Tell them if you want,” Thomas says, “but I just don’t want you next on Lila’s hit list. Nino’s been standing up for me. If nothing else, I want to check with him to see if Lila talked to him at all before doing this. I won’t stop you. In fact, I’d really appreciate you standing up for me. But it might get Lila on your case, too, and I won’t judge you at all if you don’t.”

And he won’t judge him. That’s the truth. Adrien is one thing. Adrien knows and is actively trying to put Marinette down for standing up for herself. Or, Thomas for standing up for Marinette, which is really the same thing in this case. That’s why Adrien pisses him off so much. But Nathanaël knows and wants to stand up for Marinette, not against her. Even when he’s scared to do so in front of the class, he’s kind enough to fill her in and talk to her when no one is watching.

Thomas can accept that kind of support. He doesn’t need or want Nathanaël to paint a target on his back to support Marinette openly. So long as he does so, legitimately, it doesn’t matter if Lila can see it or not. And remembering his own struggles with his social fears and nerves, something like Lila is the worst thing that could have happened to him. He and Marinette are lucky in that they’ve mostly got a handle on themselves before Lila came in, and Thomas could prepare ahead of time for it, but Nathanaël isn’t so brave. Lila can and will tear him apart.

Obviously, Thomas will support him if he decides to argue for Marinette. Thomas will defend anyone who’s on his sister’s, and therefore his own, side. But he certainly won’t judge Nathanaël for taking a quieter approach. Thomas has to at least warn him about what can happen.

Hesitantly, Nathanaël puts his phone down, still glancing nervously between it and Thomas. “Are you sure?”

“For your own safety, if you’re going to tell people, you should tell them individually, but I’d wait until I get the chance to ask Nino.” He sighs. “Lila threatened me before she started her attacks on me. She gave me an ultimatum, to join her or lose my friends. She might have done the same to Nino. He’s the only one aside from Chloé who openly defied the class’ agreement about me. Yesterday, too, when Alya yelled at me.”

Nathanaël looks between Thomas and the phone a few more times and sighs. “I’ll text Alix.” He says, typing again into the phone. “And see what she says.”

Alix, as it turns out, is not as scared of consequences as Nathanaël understandably is. She bursts into the art room just a minute later, panting, and once she catches sight of Thomas, she starts furiously typing on her phone without so much as a “hello”.

Thomas gapes in wonder as Nathanaël shows him the chat. Without placing any responsibility on Nathanaël, Alix insists that Marinette is with her alone, and they’re hanging out so Marinette can’t possibly have been kissing Nino just now.

Lila tries to change her story, saying that, silly her, she doesn’t mean just now, she means earlier today, and she’s been agonizing over whether to send the photo or not, and that creates a divide in the chat. Alix’s insistence, and a glance at her tells Thomas she’s angry, convinces a couple that the whole incident is fake, but most of the class still accepts Lila’s story.

Eventually, Alix slams her phone on the table, sending pencils and markers rolling off the edge. “Marinette!” She howls. “What is happening?”

Thomas is, frankly, kind of afraid of her. She reminds him of Camille right now, except instead of some creeper or her deadbeat family, it’s Thomas who’s in danger. Still, he does his best to explain. He tells her the gist, what he can without revealing himself. The threat, Nino realizing that Lila’s trying to damage Marinette’s reputation and making steps to defend her, his suspicions about that being why Lila uses this attack now.

Alix is downright growling. “And if Alya breaks up with him over this, Lila will swoop in to pick her up. Your best friend will be firmly on her side.”

Oh, heck. That’s actually clever.

Alya hasn’t responded to the chat, but Thomas can feel his gut sinking. “And she’s already taken Lila’s side once. With that picture, she’ll probably believe her.”

Alix nods. “How did she get that, anyway? You never actually kissed him, did you?”

“Of course, not!” Probably. I don’t know what Marinette gets up to. Definitely not after Nino and Alya got together, at least. “She probably faked it.”

Alix makes another disgruntled noise. “I’ll see if I can get Max to take a closer look at it. That should settle it.” She turns her glare on Thomas. “I’ll believe you for now, Marinette. Because Nath vouches for you and because Lila has been trying to start rumors about you.” She sighs, and her glare softens. “Some of which I’ve believed, but this is a little far. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, so until this picture is checked out, I’ll count you innocent until proven guilty. Fair?”

Thomas nods, a little taken aback. “Fair. Thank you, Alix.”

At least it’s not all bad. Thomas thinks.

Then he walks into the classroom again. It’s a warzone. Alya is in tears, screaming herself hoarse, Nino is in tears, looking around to everyone in disbelief. Lila and Adrien are off in the back, silent observers, with Lila clinging to Adrien. Chloé and Sabrina are in the front, looking down on the whole scene like it’s just some mild inconvenience. Max, Kim, Mylène, and Ivan are all backing Alya, throwing arguments at Alix, Nathanaël, Rose, and Juleka, who stand close at Nino’s sides. Mostly at Alix, who’s doing most of the actual arguing back.

It’s a mess.

And then Alya notices that Thomas has come into the room and things quiet at her booming rage. It’s only Alya’s show now. The things she says… Thomas is only glad that he’s the one standing here, and not Marinette herself. That thought, and that alone, keeps him grounded.

There’s no chance to defend his sister, either, because Alya’s screaming is a constant deluge of everything Thomas worries she can be. He tries, for the sake of a realistic reaction, to put Arno’s face behind Alya’s words, but he just can’t. It immediately dissociates in his mind, and he’s left with more of a comical impression of it than anything else. He tries Camille, who would be more likely to yell, but even then, he just can’t convince himself that the image he’s trying to conjure is real. Ross’ face does nothing to help, either, but Thomas kind of expects that one since he can’t really imagine Ross yelling anything at all.

He’s tried to imagine Ross talking before, but he can’t settle on a voice that would fit him. There’s something so Ross that’s enigmatic and has that broody and mysterious vibe, but it also has to be gruff and scrappy, and maybe even gentle. Even if he could speak, Thomas doesn’t imagine he’d do so very loudly.

Thomas blinks, Alya’s running out of words, which snaps him back to reality, and really, he only feels numb. He’s tired. He feels like the past couple weeks in Dupont is a boot camp designed to push him to his limit. Most of all, he misses his family. His mother and father have been a blessing, but he misses his chosen family more than anything else. A close second, strangely enough, is his worry stone.

It’s cruel, he thinks, that this gauntlet he’s entered into also asks him to leave behind his two greatest physical connections to his best friend. The worry stone and his bracelet. The gifts his best friend gave him when they first kindled their friendship. His best friend; his bright, ridiculous, solid best friend. He misses his bracelet, too, but it’s not quite so relevant to the situation. And even past that, the worry stone is the only thing he can really hold that connects him to his savior and his lifeline. Ross, who taught him how to stop being afraid.

He’s tired, he misses his friends, and he’s done with this farce of a family that Marinette has.

He knows Alya is feeling betrayed. He does. But he thinks maybe this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He can’t bring himself to even try to make excuses for her. Or for any of the others, but Alya is and always has been the most important. She’s Marinette’s best friend, after all.

He doesn’t defend himself, when Alya finally loses her breath. He can’t summon the energy for it. Nino is pleading, Alix is telling her for the thousandth time that neither Marinette nor Nino would ever do that. There’s no point. He sees it in her eyes. She’s made her decision, and he doesn’t have the energy for this anymore.

Adrien catches his eye, and Thomas can’t even summon the energy to get angry at that familiar disappointment. The expression is different than usual, but Thomas gets the same impression. He can’t convince himself to care whether Adrien actually believes the story or not. He can’t convince himself to care enough about Dupont and its people not to just take his sister and leave.

Maybe he’ll leave an open door for Nino, if he decides to come along. If nothing else, Nino doesn’t deserve to become the next Marinette. Despite the rumors that will circulate if he comes to Solset, too, he and Marinette can even support each other. And if he stays here, he’ll only be driven to the point that he has to consider leaving anyway, or else he’ll be driven somewhere rather more drastic.

Thomas isn’t even involved, and he feels so, so tired and hurt and… he can’t keep coming to school here. Everything he does only makes everything worse. It’s an uphill battle, and he’s already losing. And so what if Chloé, a bully, is on Marinette’s side? So what if Alix and Nathanaël and Juleka and Rose are with her?

Who cares?

Alya is the most important, and Lila is worse than Thomas ever believed. Even if she only has part of the class, Lila can and will find a way to break Marinette. She’s already halfway there with Thomas.

It’s not worth it. This school and the students in it can all burn for all Thomas cares. All he cares about is Marinette. It’s not his job to fix Dupont. He’ll remember who ultimately sides with Marinette, and if they need him, he’ll welcome them at Solset, but the rest?

If they can stomach doing so, they better say good-bye. Because there’s no way Thomas will ever let his sister step foot in this school again.

Chapter Text

Marinette is surprised to say the least when she arrives at the most recent akuma attack. It’s at Dupont, which isn’t so surprising, but the akuma is Alya for some reason, which very much is.

Chat Noir is already kind of wiped out, which Marinette feels guilty about, but ultimately the fight itself is nothing to write home about. She gets it all taken care of, and then she sees him.

The picture-perfect image of herself, sitting on the steps to the entrance of the school, cradling her phone in his hands and rubbing idly at the screen like it’s a worry stone. His eyes are… dull. His expression is shadowed, and Marinette feels a sinking in her gut. The worst part about it is that, when she thinks about it, it’s not much of a surprise at all. She can hear it in his voice every time they call each other. It’s been happening, getting worse and worse, so it’s really not a surprise.

“Ah!” Chat Noir pants. “Perfect timing, my lady.”

Marinette worries her lip and glances between Chat Noir and her brother quickly before focusing on her partner. “Chat…” She says. “I think we’re going to need to talk soon.”

“Oh?” Chat Noir grins and sidles up to her. “Whatever about? Could you be planning some romantic surprise for me?”

Marinette rolls her eyes. The flirting is so ridiculous now. It was never good, or subtle, but now it’s just funny. Still, Marinette isn’t really in the mood for a joke. “Just… the day after tomorrow, okay? We’ll talk then.”

He takes her hand and kisses it. “It’s a date, my lady.”

And then he’s off, and Marinette stands there weighed by the lead in her chest. Something is happening in Dupont, clearly, if Alya is akumatized again. What little Marinette manages to pick up from how the akuma behaves is painting a scary picture for her, and her brother looks… defeated.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, and bitter to boot, but Marinette has been preparing for this. She’s known every day that it’s a possibility that’s only becoming more and more likely. And despite how much it will hurt, she will do well at Solset. She’s confident in that.

So, she heads back to the dorm, grabs her brother’s phone, and waits.

It’s a long time before he calls. So long that Marinette eventually removes her disguise. I won’t need it anymore. Then, she sits right back down, waiting even more. She hardly even notices that she isn’t alone when the screen finally lights up and she has to answer the phone.

She lifts it, hesitates, and looks around and there’s Ross, leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed, and head bowed. He’s not looking at her, but she knows he’s watching. It’s more comforting than she wants to admit, knowing that he’s watching over her right now.

She presses the button, and the call connects. There’s silence.

Marinette hesitantly swallows past the thick mucous in her throat. “Yeah? Tommy?”

She can hear him sigh. It’s patchy and metallic through the phone. It’s a long time more before he finally says, “I’m calling it.”

Marinette flinches, but she’s not sure why. She knows already. Her chest is tight, like something is wrapped around her, crushing the breath out of her lungs. “Calling what?” She asks, because she has to.

“I can’t stay here anymore, and… I’m sorry, but you’re not going back to Dupont.” He sighs again, and when Marinette closes her eyes she sees him run his hand through his hair. “Lila made a fake photo. Of you and Nino. She’s saying she caught you two kissing and now the class is in an all-out war. Everyone’s taking sides, Alya is… God, I don’t even want to tell you what she said to me.” Marinette feels a little like she’s been punched. It can’t be true. Of everyone, surely Alya is the one who will never believe it. “It’s all just screaming and fighting and it’s not even just Alya and Nino and me. Everyone’s taken sides and… Marinette, the whole class is being torn apart. I don’t know what to do, and… I need to get out of here.”

Marinette can’t force words past the lump in her throat. She can’t believe what he’s telling her. Just a few days ago, everything was normal! How can things go so far downhill so quickly? Numb, in disbelief, Marinette looks up.

Ross is looking into her again. He raises his hands and signs to her. “Sounds like things there got to the tipping point. What’ll you do?”

In him, Marinette sees none of the curiosity his question implies, but she does see calm confidence. She sees something so grounded and solid and she cries because she knows there’s not really a question at all. There’s no option. No choice.

“I understand.” She chokes out. “You can come back.” Your friends miss you.

“…I’ll talk to you soon. I’m sorry, sis. I really did try.”

“I know you did, Tommy.”

The call is cut, and Marinette is alone with silence again. She doesn’t know how long she sits like that, just crying to herself, not caring that Ross can see her.

All of her friends. Her best friend. She’ll have to say good-bye to all of them. Her best friend hates her for something she never did. Even those on her side, if there are any besides maybe Nino, she’ll have to leave behind.

It’s best for her. She knows. But… It’s like she’s just dropped her heart. It’s in that free-fall, like when she’s climbing stairs in the dark, and thinks there’s more steps than there is. Her heart plummets like her foot through the air, utterly shocked and confused and lost and betrayed. She’s frozen in that unexpected descent that sends her spiraling.

There’s a gentle creak of a door, and a blur of bright blue bobs towards her and she’s enveloped in that blanket-fresh-out-of-the-laundry hug of Arno’s and he squeezes her tighter than before, holds her closer, and lets her cling to him and cry into his chest.

There’s a hand on her back, not long later. Smaller than Arno’s with the odd scratch of manicured nails as it carefully rubs her back. Camille is the only one to speak, whispering meaningless encouragement with none of the hate or spite or blame that Marinette expects her to hold for Marinette’s friends at Dupont. It’s only soft, like any more weight behind the words will cleave Marinette in two.

Marinette isn’t so sure that isn’t true.

When she cries herself out, she buries her head deeper into Arno’s shoulder. “I don’t want to say good-bye.” She whimpers. “I don’t want to leave them.”

A big hand, rough but so gentle and warm and careful, cups the back of her head. “I know.” Arno says. Marinette knows he does, and that means more than she can express.

When she has no more energy left to mourn, she slowly separates from Arno. There’s no resistance keeping her close. He just slides his hands to her shoulders and smiles. “We’ll come with you.” He says.

Marinette thinks maybe she’ll start crying again, when he says that. “You- you don’t- you don’t have to.”

Marinette is thrown a little off-balance when Camille slings her arm over her shoulders. “We will.” She says. “You need to get your paperwork, and we’re not letting you go in there alone for even a moment.”

Ross is still standing against the doorframe, still aloof, but when he sees her look to him, he raises his head and his hands once more and signs, “Naturally. You’re family.”

“N-no.” Marinette protests, wiping at her eyes. “You guys have school.”

“You let us worry about that.” Camille says. “Family comes first.”

“Always.” The little squeeze on her shoulders that accompanies Arno’s voice makes her finally smile. “And, by the way? I was right.” Marinette raises her brow at him, wondering what he means. He reaches to her neck and slips his fingers under the delicate chain of the necklace he gave her not long ago. “It’s beautiful on you.”

It’s such an ugly, broken sound she makes, but Marinette can’t help but laugh. Silly, silly kitty.

True to their words, the three don’t leave Marinette alone for a moment. When Thomas arrives at Solset Academy, he’s looking like himself, in some of Marinette’s more masculine clothes, and doesn’t waste a moment in pulling Marinette into his arms. She’s done crying, by then, but she appreciates her brother so close regardless. Even all this time he’s been fighting for her, they haven’t truly had many opportunities to be together. It’s so relieving, having her family by her side once more. It’s been too long since it last happened.

Only once Thomas is with her do the other three split off on their own, and then it is only to talk to their teachers and notify them that they’ll be missing class for the next few days. Marinette tries to protest, but she’s quickly reassured that it’s no trouble.

But it still doesn’t sit right. She can’t pull them out of school just because of something so silly like this. She can be strong long enough to get the papers and get them submitted, no matter what awaits her back at Dupont. She can last that long. But they insist. Since she can’t condone lying, she asks Ross, while the others are distracted, what they’re all telling their teachers to just get a few days off without any issue. Ross just smiles enigmatically at her and signs, “Family trouble.”

When that sinks in, Marinette can’t find it in herself to argue any further than that.

That very evening, they all pack up and move out. It’s dark by the time they reach the bakery, and Marinette is more exhausted than she’s been in a long time, and if her eyes aren’t playing tricks on her, her brother is no better off than she is. They step inside, and the scent of bread and pastries hits her nose and Marinette almost cries again because that smell is home.

She’s home, with her family, and the day ahead of them will be hard but with that backing her, Marinette will be fine. Eventually. For now, she just wants to sleep.

And she does, and the next morning she rises from the warm bed she’s missed. The comforting scent of bread and pastries reminds her where she is, and it’s more relaxing than she expects.

Her gut is still tangled, but at least she has bread and family. That’s something.

When she descends, she finds that she’s the last one up. That isn’t so surprising. School has already started, as Marinette discovers when she looks at the clock. Her mother and father are standing in the kitchen with Thomas and the others all together and they all look at her as she enters.

Their eyes on her feel haunting, almost. She knows they only care, but the attention is foreboding and Marinette squirms under it. Arno steps forward to hand her a cup.

Marinette takes a sip without even glancing at the contents. It’s coffee. Sweet, just like she likes it.

“Marinette, honey.” Her mother says. “We know the situation. You brother and his friends explained. And we know what they think, but what’s your decision?”

Marinette holds the cup to her mouth and lets the hot coffee sear her lips. She doesn’t dare pull it away just yet, because she knows then she’ll have to answer.

She knows the answer. It isn’t a decision to start with, so of course, she does. But… she still can’t give up on them. Everything Thomas says is happening is terrible, but she has to believe that her friends are better than that. That they can pull through this. And… if she just runs away, what kind of friend does that make her?

But it’s not a decision. She had a choice, once, but that was a lifetime ago. It was when she first called Thomas and agreed to switch places with him. There’s no choice anymore. Now, she either turns her back on her friends in the midst of their worst moment, or she turns her back on her new friends, who call her family and treat her like… even more than that. It’s the ones who need her and might reject her help even if she tries, or the people who want more than anything to see her happy.

Marinette fondles the delicate little teardrop stones around her neck. She wants to stay. She really, truly does. But… this is for the best. For her. She tries and tries to get through to her friends but they just don’t listen. Things are at their tipping point at Dupont, sure, but maybe the tipping point for Marinette is and always has been that sketchbook. She can’t wait for things to settle down and she can’t jump to everyone’s rescue. This is beyond Ladybug, and it’s beyond Marinette.

With no obvious improvement by now, there’s no decision to be had, no matter how deeply Marinette wishes there is. “Yes.” She answers. “I’ll transfer to Solset.”

Her parents nod, share a sad look, and let her know that they’ll be on their way to Dupont to get the papers immediately. Marinette needs to tag along because if nothing else she can leave the school with one parting gift. She won’t be believed, most likely, but she can still tell Principal Damocles why she’s leaving. Maybe Mlle. Bustier, too. And besides that, it might be the last chance she gets to see Dupont from the inside.

And of course, her brother and his friends insist on coming, too.

With luck, everyone will be in class. They should be, in any case. Hopefully it won’t take so long that they’re released for lunch. Marinette will be in and out, easy. She’ll take her last stock of the school and miss her friends.

It’s for the best. She doesn’t want to leave without saying goodbye. She desperately wants to see them at least one last time. Yet, if Thomas is right, if she sees them, she’ll only end up leaving on a sour note. Even if they have that note of her leaving, she can still preserve her own impression. She can still think back on them fondly, and without regret. It’s the best-case scenario.

Their small crowd enters the school with a purpose and stalks immediately to the offices. It’s there that they wait. There’s so many of them that they’re asked to wait outside. That’s fine. Marinette is feeling a little nauseous, so she ducks out, and the rest of the group leave just the adults to deal with the process.

And they wait. And wait. It takes far longer than Marinette expects. Eventually, she’s called inside, and she ends up telling her story to Principal Damocles. Her brother is sent for, and he tells the part he’s involved in. Everything that happened after he started coming here.

Marinette can’t say if the principal believes them or not. She has a hard time meeting his gaze. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Her parents come in next and the principal tells Marinette and Thomas that they can go. Their parents can handle the rest of the paperwork.

It’ll take a bit, she’s told, but they’ll be sent the final papers soon and then they need only to bring them in and that’ll be that. Communicating with Solset for the transfer papers mean it can’t just be a sign and go, but that’s fine. Marinette isn’t going to attend class in the meantime. It’s not a big deal. Just a day or two.

She and Thomas retreat, leaving their parents with the principal, and exit the offices to greet the others.

“-ave your autograph?!”

Marinette blinks at the lights and yells and crowd.

“-ou transferring here? Oh, my god, I’ll be going to school with a real movie star!”

“Marinette! How are you doing, love?” Marinette is grateful when she feels Arno’s hand on her back. With his support, she regains her bearings.

Someone must have noticed Camille, and apparently classes have either let out, or students care a little more about Camille than academics. Judging by the number of students around, Marinette guesses the former. She shares a look with her brother and feels a chill down her spine. Oh, no.

There’s no way this doesn’t draw the attention of people Marinette is very much not eager to see.

Like a moth to a flame, Alya Césaire is there with her phone to record the event. Behind her is Adrien. Marinette’s heart flutters a little, but her brother admitted to her the night before, when he came clean about all that happened at Dupont, his own impression of Adrien. He’d been hinting at it, but he finally gave it to her straight then. Marinette can’t help but disagree, but… she can see it. And while Thomas obviously can’t dictate her love life, she values his opinion and she can recognize that he’s not entirely wrong. He’s not right, but he’s not wrong. Adrien is good. Marinette is sure of that. But… it’s as Camille says. What he’s doing with Lila, humoring her while trying to pacify Marinette, that doesn’t make him bad. He has good intentions. He wants what’s best. He’s not bad. But that does make him bad for Marinette.

It shocks Marinette to her core how half-hearted that little fluttering inside her is. Like a flame sputtering out. Maybe if he tried harder. Maybe if he tried as hard as Nino. Or even Luka.

Speaking of Nino, there he is, on the other side of the crowd. His cap is pulled down low, shadowing his face deliberately. Marinette catches him looking towards Alya, but she doesn’t even glance his way.

And Lila is here too, of course. Hanging off Adrien’s arm. Marinette should be more jealous than she is. Instead, she just feels pity. For Adrien. It’s the path he’s choosing, but in Marinette’s mind his place with Lila is a special kind of misery.

“Hey, uh- sorry, um… I just… hi. I mean… hi, Marinette.” Nino is next to her, suddenly, and Marinette isn’t sure why. The lie Lila is spreading about him and her will surely only be worse for this. Her leaving is already going to give that enough credibility. Honestly, she expects him to avoid her. But he doesn’t.

She can feel the tension in Arno’s muscles and Camille comes over, cracking her knuckles. Ross stays where he is, a little separated from them all, but Marinette can tell he’s watching.

“Friend of yours?” Camille asks loudly. “Or do you want me to get rid of him?”

“No.” Marinette says quickly. Quietly. “This is Nino.” He’s pale, like he’s looking at Death itself in the face rather than Camille Lebeau.

Arno relaxes immediately. Camille stares him down for a moment longer. “Good. Tommy told us about you.” She says. Her smile is back, easy and friendly and welcoming. “You’re welcome at Solset, dude. If you need us.”

Nino blinks at her. “Uh, thanks.”

“Oh, yeah.” A tight, bitter voice calls over the crowd. “You should go! We don’t want a cheater here!”

Nino swallows and ducks his head once more. “I- uh…” He mutters. It hurts Marinette’s heart to see him like this. He turns closer to her, so she can hear him. He isn’t speaking very loudly. “I saw Camille was here and… I guess these are your other friends. I’m… glad. Glad you have them. I- um, I just- I wanted to say goodbye. That’s why you’re here, right?”

Marinette remembers that Nino would know about this. Or, at least he’ll have the knowledge necessary to figure it out. He knows it was Thomas here for the past couple weeks, and he knows why Thomas was here. So, this can’t be so surprising. “You can come, too.” Marinette says. “I don’t want you to be…”

“To be you?” Nino chuckles drily. “I’ll think about it. Not sure it’s practical for us to send me to Solset, though.”

“We’ll figure something out.” Marinette says. “I promise. Just think about it. And you can always talk to me if you need someone on your side.”

Nino smiles, finally, just a little, weak thing, and nods.

“What are you even doing here?” The voice that comes from the crowd is so venomous, so filled with hate, that it actually makes Ross step away from the wall, just a little closer to Marinette. Nino visibly flinches. “I thought we were going to have a good day. Why’d you bother showing up?”

Marinette turns to the voice. And there is Alya. Lila’s at her side, with Adrien. All three are shooting her entirely different looks, but none of them are entirely kind.

“That’s none of your business.” Camille growls even more harshly than Alya does. “Back off, before I make you.”

Adrien tries to step forward. “Cam, this i-”

“Don’t you even start, Agreste.” Camille grabs his collar and lifts him easily off the ground. “You talk to Marinette; I’ll take out your tongue. You look at her; I’ll take out your eyes.” She drops him, letting him stumble back in fear. “And if you take a single step toward her, you’ll lose more than your legs.”

Adrien is white as a sheet and actively backing away, but Alya doesn’t flinch. “Don’t talk to Adrien like that! What did he ever do to you?”

“What did he do to Marinette?” Camille corrects her. “And the answer is plenty. And for that matter, you’ve done more than enough, yourself. I’ll only warn you once.”

“Marinette is the one out of control! She stole my boyfriend!”

“It takes two to tango.” Camille growls. “And Marinette wasn’t even here. She was at Solset, with me, for the past two weeks.”

“That’s ridiculous! She’s been in class!”

“No, actually.” Thomas steps forward. “I have. After Lila destroyed my sister’s sketchbook, we switched places. And that picture? I don’t even know where that is. I never kissed your ex, and he never kissed me. Lila faked it because Nino actually trusted Marinette.”

“Stop lying! The picture is proof! And stop trying to cover for her. I know Marinette. I wouldn’t miss an imposter in her place.”

Thomas grits his teeth and clutches his worry stone tightly (Marinette wonders how he managed so long without it, since he seems so relieved with it in his hand). Camille steps between him and Alya. “Back off.” She growls. “I really couldn’t care less about your trust issues. This doesn’t concern you.”

“Yes, it does. Marinette was my best friend. I want to know how she has the guts to show her face after what she did.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Camille replies. “You won’t ever have to see her again. We’re here to get the paperwork. Marinette is going to be with people who actually listen to her, and care about her.”

Marinette almost misses it, since she’s focused on Alya and the pain that pervades her own body, but Lila’s eyes narrow when Camille says this. Her expression twitches, like a sudden flash of static on the television.

“Finally, some good news.” Alya says. “Good riddance. We don’t want her here, anyway.”

Camille rolls her eyes and pointedly checks her nails. A very Chloé-esque gesture that for once comes across similarly. There’s no doubt that she’s looking down on Alya and on every other student in the crowd. “I’m sure you don’t.” She shakes her head. “You never do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. None of your business.”

Lila steps forward unexpectedly. “Oh, no.” She cries. “Look what I’ve done. I knew I shouldn’t have shown everyone that photo. Now everything is falling apart!”

“You call that acting?” Camille scoffs. “You’re worse than I thought. If everyone’s fooled by you, no wonder Tommy got away with his disguise so long.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Lila.” Alya says, softer. “You did the right thing. We deserved to know what kind of people Marinette and Nino are.”

“Well, maybe, but I still feel like I need to apologize.” She turns to Marinette. Thomas pockets his worry stone and immediately gets between them, ready to intervene. “I never meant to make you feel like you need to leave, Marinette. I only wanted everyone to know the truth. I didn’t want you to be driven out.” Marinette shivers at the look Lila is giving her. It’s unnerving and gross like sweat under her shirt. “And you, you’re Marinette’s brother, right? I’m so sorry about all this. I didn’t want to hurt your sister.”

“God, you really are insufferable.” Thomas groans. “Shut up. None of us buy a word you say.”

“Of course, you don’t!” Alya screams. “Because all Lila ever does is try to be good and your sister just puts her down for no reason. I’m sure you and your friends are all the same way.”

“Well, Marinette,” Lila says softly. “If this is the last time we see each other, I don’t want it to be on such a horrible note. What do you say? Can we hug and leave peacefully?” She holds out her arms, and in the brief moment where Marinette and her brother and his friends are all too taken aback and disgusted to react, she jumps forward and crushes Marinette in a hug. In her ear, wet and slimy, are the words that Lila whispers. “How does it feel, hm?”

She backs off with no more than that, and without warning hugs Thomas, too, loudly saying, “I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me, too!”

Marinette counts Lila lucky that Thomas doesn’t lay her flat right then, but she backs away quickly enough that even Camille doesn’t have time to actually get physical with her.

“That was weird.” Arno mutters. “That was weird, right? Yeah. Weird.”

Thomas makes a strange face and narrows his eyes at Lila, who’s now by Alya’s side and wipes his hands down his shirt like he’s wiping off slime from where Lila touched him.

Camille has her hand on his shoulder. “Did she try anything?” She whispers.

“Don’t think so.” Thomas says, still squirming. “But that was terrible.”

“She’s got some scheme.” Camille says back. “Check your pockets. Have your wallet?”

Thomas does as commanded and stops suddenly. He’s pale, and then red, a faster change than Marinette has ever managed to pull off. “Lila!” He roars. “Give it back!”

Marinette can see it, just for a moment, a smooth stone in her palm that looks like she might have just plucked it from a river. It slips into Lila’s bag in the next moment. “Give what back?” Lila cowers behind Alya. “I only gave you a hug!”

“You stole it!” He growls. “How dare you even touch it!”

Camille is already holding Lila and Alya both by one hand each. “What the hell did you take?” She asks darkly.

“I didn’t take anything!” Lila says. “Help! Someone! They’re attacking me for no reason!”

Camille releases Lila for just a moment. Only long enough to shift her hand from Lila’s shirt to her throat. “I don’t like liars.” Camille says.

Marinette feels her own rage build. All of the attacks. All of the lies. Fine. That’s fine. But this time, Lila has a choice. She knows who’s who, and she chooses to target not Marinette, but her family. Marinette may not totally understand her brother’s attachment to that worry stone, but she can’t quell her fury seeing Lila get her grubby paws on something so precious to him.

She’s seeing red. All she knows is that Thomas, Camille, and herself are going to teach Lila a lesson she won’t soon forget.

But something holds her back. She struggles against it, but it holds fast. She turns to unlatch herself from it, but sees Arno’s hazel eyes blown wide, staring past her, and she forgets her rage long enough to follow his gaze.

The hazy purple fog of an akuma transformation is already dissipating when Marinette catches sight of it. Heck. There, in front of Lila, is the akuma. A person made of colorful crystal. All sharp and angles everywhere. There are no distinguishing features, not even on the face, except for a band of smaller crystals around one of the wrists. That’s the hand extended towards Lila. A rainbow around his wrist, the crystals glow with energy, and the light reflects throughout the rest of his body making him shine like Arno’s room.

Alya tackles Lila out of the way, and out of Camille’s grip, before the blast from the akuma’s bracelet flies into the crowd. Camille doesn’t need to move, nor does she. The shot misses her by a hair.

Tommy… Marinette is numb. She can’t even think. Lila got her own brother akumatized.

How dare she.

Chat Noir drops in, before anything else happens. Marinette is thankful for that.

Wait.

Marinette turns to the man who’s still holding onto her, frozen in horror as he stares at her akumatized brother.

What?

Marinette looks back and forth between the two several more times before it sinks in. He’s not Chat Noir?! Double heck! Now I feel like an idiot! Oh, god, I’m so glad Tikki wouldn’t let me say anything. If I got it into my head to actually talk to him about it… Oof. My head hurts. She holds a hand to her head.

There’s no time for this. I need to transform.

Marinette tries to take stock of the situation. Chat Noir and Thomas are staring each other down, or as well as one can stare down a faceless crystal akuma. The students in the crowd who were hit by the beam are…

Marinette has to squint, because it’s not totally clear, but they seem to be just fine. No, they have some strange crystal growths on them. Most, but not all, of them are expanding, slowly crawling down the panicked students’ bodies to, presumably, encase them entirely.

Chat Noir calls to the akuma. “Quartz wrong with you? Don’t you think this might be a little too much?”

Surprising both Marinette and, apparently, Chat Noir, Camille snorts. Loudly. “Not enough for that witch.” She growls.

The akuma raises his crystalline hand and fires another blast. This time at Chat Noir.

Chat dances out of the way and goes into his usual spiel. Taunting the enemy. Marinette notices that he’s more passive than she’s come to expect. He hangs back more. Makes the akuma chase him. Probably because he thinks she’ll take a while longer to arrive.

Speaking of.

The one good thing about akuma attacks is that they’re very distracting. It makes sneaking away to transform pretty easy, all things considered. When she’s Ladybug and back on the scene, she has to reassess everything.

Thomas and Chat Noir are going head to head, dancing around the whole courtyard. The blasts from Thomas’ akumatized bracelet give him an advantage in that he doesn’t need to move to make Chat run, though Marinette isn’t sure if it’s possible to tire out an akuma that doesn’t even have lungs.

Not far from where it started, Camille and Alya are having a tug-of-war with Lila. Lila’s crying, of course, and for once Marinette isn’t sure it’s fake. Camille certainly isn’t handling her gently. Nearby, Ross is picking up Lila’s bag, which Marinette assumes Lila dropped when the fight began. Nino and Arno both are staring wide-eyed at the battle, and Adrien is nowhere to be found.

Without any hesitation, Marinette zooms into the fray. This is her own brother, and she’ll do what’s necessary to save him from Hawk Moth. There’s no time for second-guesses or doubts about her opponent. She’ll handle it like any other akuma.

She’s not sure why, but she thinks that if her brother is akumatized, he should be a particularly strong one. Not that Thomas is particularly strong. Well, he is, but not physically. In fact, he’s quite small for a boy. That’s part of why they can pull of the twin swap thing. It’s just that since it’s her own family, she feels like he should be special somehow. Like, the brother of Ladybug has to be the strongest opponent yet.

It’s strangely offensive to her, deep down, when he isn’t. She knows Hawk Moth has no way of knowing that Thomas is her brother, and has no reason to treat him any differently, and truthfully, she’s not sure what determines just how strong an akuma is compared to the others, but still. It’s rude that Thomas isn’t even on the list of the top strongest akuma.

He’s just a standard gunner-style akuma, really. Like Reflekta or Pixelator, but with crystals instead of transformations or pictures. Admittedly her and Chat’s melee doesn’t do much good considering he’s literally made of crystal, but they’ve fought much tougher akuma impervious to physical attacks, too.

It’s trivial, really. She and Chat jump around a little bit, they try to tie him up, she gets, of all things, a worry stone as her lucky charm, and things fall into place from there.

As soon as the red-spotted stone falls into her hands, she backs up to give her space to look towards the few people still outside the offices. Arno recognizes her lucky charm first and calls over to the others. That distracts everyone long enough for Alya to yank Lila out of Camille’s grip and send both of them toppling over. Camille turns back to Lila, demanding Thomas’ worry stone, but Ross is way ahead of her and casually tosses and catches the smooth stone like a tennis ball.

Marinette locks eyes with him, sees him smirk, and then raises her hand to catch the stone flying towards her.

“Hey, crystal man!” She calls, mindful of using his name when she shouldn’t know it. “Look what we got back for you!”

Thomas actually pauses, and that blank face turns towards her.

“Your friends got it back for you, isn’t that great?” She says. “Here, it’s important to you, right?”

He raises his hand and, weirdly enough, signs to her. “Lila still needs to be punished.”

“Sure.” She says, because she can’t bring herself to disagree, and anyway, Chat Noir is slinking up behind Thomas like the cat he is. “But go ahead and take this back first. Look, your friend has Lila. She’s not going anywhere.”

Thomas reaches for the stone in her hand, and it’s just about when his bracelet starts glowing again, clearly to blast her and take her earrings along with his worry stone, that Chat pounces and cataclysms the bracelet.

Simple. Offensively easy. Risky, perhaps, but not excessively so. Thomas wants the stone, so she gives him the stone. There is never any chance that he won’t be distracted long enough to beat him. So long as Chat doesn’t screw it up; but he doesn’t, so it goes just fine.

If her brother has to have an akuma legacy, Marinette wishes it is a little cooler than that. At least he has a cool enough design. Not like poor Nino.

And then when her brother appears again, behind the evanescing purple haze, Marinette is suddenly so relieved that she almost forgets to capture the akuma before it flies away.

Okay. She thinks. In hindsight, that was terrifying. Maybe it’s good that he was so easy. She feels like she needs to sit down. Oh, my god, my brother was akumatized.

“Lovely to see you again, my lady, as always.” Chat Noir is there at her side. And who the heck are you? She groans. Okay, hindsight again. I probably shouldn’t have been so sure about Arno. The flirting threw me off. “I’m looking forward to our date tomorrow.”

Ugh. “It’s not a date, Chat. I just need to update you on something.”

“Sure, sure.” He says, and that tone is back, and Marinette can’t believe how she’s missed it the past two weeks. She hates that tone, and she isn’t sure anymore if he’s just been better or if she’s been willingly ignoring it because she assumed that he’s not actually interested in her. It’s a tone that seems to say that he’s only humoring her, and that no matter what she thinks it’s definitely what he says it is. God, I’m an idiot. “Keep telling yourself that, my lady. I know you’ll fall for me eventually.” It’s obscene.

“Hey!” Marinette whips her head around to see Camille standing there, looking no less furious than when she was facing off Lila or Adrien. Behind her, Arno is hugging Thomas like his life depends on it, and Ross is kneeling nearby, keeping a calm eye on things. A glance back and Marinette can see Chat pale under Camille’s rage. “The lady said it isn’t a date! And you’re supposed to be a hero?” I thought Cam likes Chat.

“I mean no offense.” Chat Noir says smoothly. “My lady and I are bound by destiny, is all. We’re meant to be.”

Camille crosses her arms, taps her foot, and looks over to Marinette. “You buy that?”

Marinette drops her head into her hand. Almost involuntarily, she says. “No. For the last time, Chat, it’s not a date and we’re not going to date.” When she realizes what she just said, she quickly turns to Camille and adds, “But our personal lives really shouldn’t be broadcasted to the public. I’d appreciate you not getting involved. I can handle this one.”

“Yeah.” Chat Noir says. “Our relationship is none of your busi- yowch!”

Marinette gasps as Chat Noir recoils from the impact. Camille shakes out her fist like the blow was nothing at all to her. Camille Lebeau just punched Chat Noir in the face.

This is the strangest day of my life.

“No offense, Ladybug, but if you don’t shut up your stupid sidekick, I will.”

“You just punched me!” Chat yowls.

Camille raises her fist. “You want another?”

Chat just growls and reaches towards Marinette. “Come on, my lady. We should get go- hey!”

When the heck did he even get over here? Marinette stares helplessly at Ross with an iron grip on Chat Noir’s wrist. He positions himself between Marinette and Chat Noir. She’s looking at the back of Ross’ head, but the scene feels familiar, and Chat Noir cowers under Ross’ gaze a lot more than that guy harassing Camille at the play did.

Ross lets Chat Noir go, but only to let Chat back up even further from where Marinette is standing. He doesn’t sign anything, but he doesn’t need to. His sentiments, Marinette knows by now, are the same ones that Camille has. “You don’t get to touch her.” Camille growls, stepping up alongside Ross.

“She’s my partner!” Chat protests. “You act like I’m going to hurt her! We’re meant to be together. Of course, I wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Okay, someone hold me back before I murder one of Paris’ heroes.” Camille growls. Arno and Thomas both are standing now, just off to the side, ready to jump in if necessary.

The beeping of her Miraculous brings Marinette back down to earth. “Hey. Guys.” She gently touches Camille and Ross’ shoulders. Ross shrugs her off as he turns to look, but Camille keeps her eyes on Chat Noir. “It’s okay. I appreciate the thought.” A lot. I don’t think anyone’s ever taken my side on this. “But you don’t need to protect me from Chat. He won’t hurt me.”

“Yet.” Camille mutters. “Ladybug, listen. I have so much respect for you. But I’ve seen abusive relationships. A lot of them. That boy can’t hear a word you say if it’s not what he wants to hear. If Chat Noir doesn’t improve that attitude, or if he does try something, my door is open for you, okay? No questions asked. Identity safe and everything. And if you need me to punch him again, I’d be more than happy to.”

Marinette can’t help but chuckle. She doesn’t think she’d call her relationship with Chat abusive by any means. He’s harmless, if annoying. Sometimes he can overreact and get them in dangerous situations, but that’s from neglect of his duties, not any active threat to her. And she’s never pretended he doesn’t have room to improve. “Don’t worry about me. But I do need to get going.” After handing Thomas his worry stone back, she looks up to Chat, who’s still pale under Ross’ renewed scrutiny. “I’ll talk to you later, Chat.”

As she’s flying away, she hears Camille’s howl behind her. “Well? Get out of here, you entitled piece o-”

“Cam!” Arno gasps.

Marinette giggles, imagining Arno covering Camille’s mouth. This is the weirdest day ever.

Chapter Text

It’s a new day, Marinette. Marinette sighs as she stares at her ceiling. She breathes in the scent of the morning bread and it’s more comforting than she remembers.

Yesterday wasn’t the first day someone in her family was akumatized. She’s an old pro at that now. Between her father, her grandfather, her grandmother, and her great uncle, her brother being added onto that list isn’t exactly a freak-out moment. She can handle fighting her akumatized family.

Really, it’s the rest of the day that she’s still trying to process.

Thomas’ friends are all still in her home, which is weird but entirely welcome. They teamed up yesterday to defend her – Ladybug her – from Chat Noir, which is definitely weird and much less welcome, but then Marinette thinks that if these people who regularly deal with men harassing Camille so quickly identify Chat Noir as a threat to Ladybug… maybe Marinette is a little too lenient with him. Maybe she just isn’t seeing the signs.

Well, she does see them, to be fair. It’s why she was confused when she thought he was Arno, but she was also convinced that he was Arno and that… seems unfair. To Arno.

Marinette covers her face, thoroughly embarrassed that she’d been so certain just because of a little flirting. His hair is blue. She groans to herself. Of course, he’s not freaking Chat Noir!

But more than that, Chat’s entitled tendencies, especially towards her love and trust, haven’t totally gone away. He’s better than he was at, say, the close of the Oblivio incident, enough that Marinette thinks he’s learning, but he’s still insistent that they’ll wind up together eventually.

All this with Lila and I’ve sort of neglected him. And thinking he’s Arno probably made it worse. Oh, well. I just need to tell him about the transfer. Maybe do some thinking about how to more efficiently get here and back. It’s not a ridiculous distance, but it’s still going to be more trouble than before. Even staying stocked on cookies will be more difficult.

After yesterday, when she saw firsthand what her classmates think of her now, Marinette isn’t too fussed about leaving. It’s still sad. She still aches. She still doesn’t want to. But she’s accepted it. She had accepted it a long time ago. Probably from when she first decided to switch with her brother. Even still, these people were her friends. Nino still is, despite the pain that friendship has and will cause him in the classroom.

That means something, and Marinette feels very much like she’s just abandoning him.

It doesn’t help that most akuma appear closer to Dupont than to Solset. Permanently moving further from the attacks is the last thing Ladybug needs to do.

Even still. What choice does she have? She just needs to meet up with Chat Noir, tell him the situation so that he knows she’ll keep being late, and then get the paperwork filed. She can figure out how to make things easier for Chat after she figures out her new schedule.

With that resolve, Marinette goes about her day. She does a lot of thinking that day, on Chat and on her friends and on Lila. Thomas tells her that Luka is actually pretty cool, and that he played a part in getting Juleka to doubt at least enough to be on Marinette and Nino’s side in the most recent debacle. Rose, too. Then Alix and Nathanaël are on her side, too, even if that may just be because they were in the right place at the right time.

There’s still that. She hasn’t lost everyone. Not entirely. Even though she’s leaving, she’s comforted by that. Camille’s warning that she will lose everyone is sharp in her mind like a razor bouncing around, but for now, for the transition, she’s not entirely alone. And, of course, she has Camille and Ross and Arno and her brother, too.

There’s still that.

It’s a long day. It stretches on into infinity, and it’s warmer than it should be. It’s sticky and Marinette can feel the heat of the ovens even from the furthest corners of her home. Her friends distract her, though. They pass the time playing video games or teasing each other or even doing schoolwork – anything but think about what’s happening. Marinette even lets Camille dig through her closet, and at Camille’s insistence has the chance to take her measurements. No design is promised – Camille doesn’t ask her for that, only mentions that she’s interested – but Marinette appreciates that, too. Inspiration is returning to her after her weeks at Solset, but Thomas’ akumatization and the whole confrontation with Alya and Lila leaves her feeling not quite so creative.

Maybe, Marinette thinks, she’ll make something soon. Camille is so stunning, so perfect, like she’s just stepped out of a magazine, and she’s made herself clear that she’s more than just friends with Marinette. She’s family. It would be a shame not to design something for her. Soon, but not yet. Not until Marinette is settled at Solset and has a better idea of where her life is going now. To make something that will fit Camille Lebeau, the Cam that Marinette knows now – that’s not a project to be rushed. It must be worthy of her.

Maybe, while she’s at it, she’ll make something for Arno, too. As a thank-you for the beautiful necklace he made for her. And maybe something for Ross, just because he’s family now too, and as a thank-you and an apology for her time at Solset so far. Yeah. Soon. As soon as I’m settled, I’ll start thinking about that.

Eventually, Marinette shuts herself up in her room and tells the others that she’s going to sleep early. They all understand. After everything that happened, they all understand that Marinette wants to call the day a bit early. That’s good. And if everything goes according to plan, it’ll be the truth.

But in the meantime, Marinette has to meet up with her partner. She’s out flying across the rooftops just after shutting her trapdoor. She understands that Chat Noir will probably have concerns. She does, too. But she’s tired, so she wants this to go quickly. Soon, she has to actually put in the paperwork, and then in a few days she’ll be attending Solset officially. Filing the paperwork will be the worst part, though, because it means going back to Dupont for the last time. Now that she knows what to expect, she’s not even holding out hope of things going well. Still, it will be nice if she can see Nino, or even Juleka or Alix or Nathanaël. Just one last time before she’s not their classmate anymore.

Even if they can still see each other outside of school, it isn’t the same. Besides, without anyone defending her, there’s no telling how quickly she’ll be cast aside even by them. Marinette at least wants to take advantage of the time she has with them.

“Ah, my lady! Can you believe those guys yesterday?”

“Hm?” Marinette blinks, not expecting his sudden question. “Sorry, who?”

“Camille Lebeau and her friends! They acted like I was some kind of bad guy!”

You’re still thinking about that? Marinette sighs, and softly chastises herself. It’s understandable. He was the one painted as a bad guy. Of course, he’d take it personally. “Oh.” Marinette shrugs. “I don’t know what was up with that.”

Chat Noir gets close to her – practically presses himself against her. She leans away, but he leans into her. “I’m a hero! I’m a nice guy! I just don’t get why she had to punch me.” He finally backs up just enough just to rub his nose like it still hurt.

Marinette takes a careful step back. “Look, Chat, I’m tired. I just wanted to update you on my living situation.”

“Oh?” Chat Noir leans in again, and Marinette takes yet another step away from him. “Are you finally going to tell me where you live?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Marinette runs her hand down her face. “I meant how I’ve been further away for the past couple weeks.”

“Oh! Of course! You’re finally coming back to me, I take it? I should expect you on time again?”

“No, actually.” Marinette cringes a little as she says it. “Actually, this new situation is becoming a bit more permanent.”

“What? But…”

“I know, Chat. I’ll try to figure something out. Now that I know this’ll be a regular thing, I’ll start trying to figure out how to get here faster, okay? Just please bear with it for a while. I’m… really trying.”

There’s a long moment of quiet, and then she feels Chat Noir’s hands on her shoulders. “Hey, bugaboo. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She says, carefully removing his hands from her. “It’s just a tough situation right now, and I don’t like being so much further away from the attacks and leaving you on your own.”

“Aw, my lady, I knew you loved me.”

“Chat, I’m being serious. Just hold on for a while. I’ll figure something out.”

Chat Noir hums softly and grins at her. “Of course! I’ll hold out as long as I need to, bugaboo. I’m anything you need me to be. And, I’ll prove that Camille wrong about me, too.”

Marinette sighs. She thinks about what Camille and Ross did, certainly, but not enough to warrant bringing it up like Chat is. But that makes sense. She reminds herself. He’s the one offended by it.

“Honestly, I can’t believe she can even think that. I’m a hero! And we’re obviously destined! Of course, I’m going to want to be close to you. You understand that, right, bugaboo?”

“…Not really, no.”

“What?! Come on! You’ve got to see by now that we’re meant to be!”

He grabs her again, a tight vice around her arms. Marinette recoils on instinct but she can’t pull out of his grip. “Chat, I’ve already told you so many times. I can’t return your feelings. I’m sorry, but it’s not going to happen.”

“Oh, I know that.” Chat Noir rolls his eyes. “Until we beat Hawk Moth and it’s safe to reveal ourselves, there’s no way we can really date. Of course, I understand that. I mean after. Just because we can’t date now doesn’t mean we can’t be close.”

Marinette just curls her lip slightly and stares at him, uncomprehending. “Wh- huh?” She shakes her head. “I mean, yeah, that’s true, but that’s not at all what I said.”

“I think Camille just doesn’t understand that you’re perfect for me! That we’re perfect for each other!”

“Chat, even if that were the case, if you’re doing something that a stranger immediately thinks is a red flag, you might still want to reexamine your behavior.”

“Huh? Don’t tell me you agree with her! She’s ridiculous! I mean, come on! You know me. All of Paris knows I’d never hurt you.”

“Chat.” Marinette tugs against his hold weakly. He’s squeezing her very tightly. More tightly than usual.

“I think she’s just paranoid. I mean, she’s an actress, so she has guys after her all the time. I bet she’s just projecting all of her issues onto our relationship.”

“Chat, let go of me.”

“I mean, come on. It’s silly, right? You agree with me, right? Anyone who thinks I’d hurt you is clearly delusional. I’m a nice guy! I wouldn’t hurt anyone! I save people every day! But I especially would never hurt you.”

“Chat, you’re hurting me.”

“But of course, you agree with me. I can’t tell you how happy it made me when you defended me, my lady. It just proved to my heart how much you care.”

“Chat Noir!” Marinette finally raises her voice, silencing Chat. “Let go of me. It’s starting to hurt.”

Chat Noir releases her like he’s burned. “Oh! Right, sorry. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. Camille! I still can’t believe she punched me! I don’t deserve that!”

Marinette is starting to think maybe he deserves it. “Are you the slightest bit self-aware?” She mutters.

“What was that, bugaboo?”

“Ugh, nothing, just…” Marinette sighs once more. “Just…” I’m tired. I don’t want to keep having this conversation. Even the guy I like is… I don’t really want to think about romance at all right now. I can’t believe how delusional you are. Maybe I can get him to lay off? Telling him off doesn’t work, so… what would Camille do? While admittedly not likely to be the most morally upstanding path to take, Camille is undoubtedly effective in her approach with men. She’s driven off more than enough of them to prove that, despite the most insistent ones. Well, she uses Ross as a fake boyfriend. Maybe if I say I have a boyfriend, he’ll finally get it through his head that I don’t like him. Worth a shot, anyway.

Ugh, boyfriend. Adrien’s out, now. I don’t think I even like him that much anymore, really. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe I’ll just grow old all alone and end up as a crazy old lady with twelve hamsters.

Though… there is Luka. Even Tommy approves of him. Maybe… maybe it’s worth exploring. Not yet. Not soon. If Luka’s still interested when I am ready, maybe then.

“…Just?”

Marinette shakes her head roughly. “Sorry. Just… you need to understand that we aren’t going to be together. Not romantically, anyway. We never will, not even after we beat Hawk Moth and if we reveal ourselves.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, my lady. I love you, and you love me. Once these masks are out of the way, we’ll be together!”

“I don’t love you, though. Not that way.” She sighs. “Chat, I didn’t want to tell you, because you know how I am about personal details, but… I suppose this much won’t give anything away.” It’s weird, lying to Chat. Her experience pretending to be her brother makes her feel strangely prepared for it. Or maybe that’s just two weeks of being around Camille. Still, she doesn’t like lying. But she doesn’t really have many other options anymore if she’s ever going to get the message through to him. “I have a boyfriend, Chat.”

“You- you what?!” Chat Noir shrieks. “How could you do this to me?!”

“Sorry, what? To you?”

“I told you I love you! You’re supposed to be mine!”

Marinette recoils. “Excuse me?”

“We’re Ladybug and Chat Noir! Yin and Yang! Two halves of a whole!”

“Says who?”

Chat Noir pauses for a moment and then shakes his head sadly. “I can’t believe you’d do this. I mean, you know we’re meant to be. It’s kind of rude to string this guy along like that.”

Sometimes, Marinette thinks, there are moments when she wishes she can be more like Camille. If she can allow herself to do what she feels, without regard for consequences or image, she’d punch Chat in the nose harder than Camille ever could. Calm down. It doesn’t help to get worked up. “Look, Chat. If that’s what you have to think, then fine. I do hope you can accept this eventually, though. You deserve the chance to fall in love with someone who returns your feelings.”

“I already have! You just haven’t realized it, yet.”

Marinette shakes her head. “I’m tired.” She says. “I don’t want to do this anymore. Good night, Chat.”

“Bugaboo, wait!”

He calls after her, but Marinette leaves without a glance back. It’s too much right now. She’s already so tired, and she’s already so sad, and on top of everything, now she’s had to reject Chat yet again (something she’s actually becoming more and more numb to, to the point that she hardly even feels badly for him anymore) and if he does finally get her words through his thick skull, she runs the risk of losing one of her few remaining friends. The only one that will, without a doubt, still be in her life after she transfers, and she runs the risk of losing him.

It hurts, but not as badly as she expects. Camille is right, after all. Chat Noir is so blinded by his love, so utterly lacking in empathy, that he doesn’t even hear her when she tries to talk to him and that… isn’t really friendship at all. It hurts bad, but it hurt more yesterday.

She only realizes it when she’s lying in bed, because she’s been immersed in so much sadness and pain and numbness and heavenly distractions since then, but the biggest disappointment in the last few days, the thing that stings most deeply, isn’t her friends turning on her or her family getting akumatized or even transferring schools and leaving her old friends behind. Those hurt, but every one of them, with the exception of the akumatization, was entirely expected when they happened. None of them surprise her, and even Thomas being akumatized – she feels guilty because she’s sure he wouldn’t have succumbed if he hadn’t been subject to Lila for two weeks before yesterday – but still it’s just a run-of-the-mill akuma. It’s nothing to think twice about. It works out and they move on. She’ll keep an eye on him, but he has excellent friends if he needs them.

No, the worst thing about the past couple days is ironically the thing that she hardly thought about in the moment. It’s masked by her surprise and her berating herself for her foolishness. It’s covered up by her disbelief and even the humor in the fact that she was so completely and utterly wrong. The very worst thing to happen is finding out that Arno Buenaventura is not, in fact, Chat Noir.

If Chat is Arno, then that changes everything. If Chat is Arno, then he loves someone else, and all his strange behavior towards Ladybug is just a joke. She can see Arno joking about a superhero pair being soulmates destined for each other. It is a romantic notion. She can’t quite see him taking it as far as Chat does, but if he is Chat then that means it’s all innocent and he doesn’t really mean it and if he does make her uncomfortable it’s entirely by accident.

But he’s not Chat Noir. Chat is some nameless boy Marinette doesn’t know, and so she can’t ignore the red flags for anything but what they are. She can’t justify them, and she can’t excuse them. She has to face the fact that Chat isn’t really her friend. Not anymore, at least. And that… that is a deep, dull ache that has curled into her bones since she saw the two together. It’s not sharp, it’s not like the betrayal of Alya, or the lies of Lila. It shakes her to her core like a drumming bass, so deep that it feels like her bones are trying to escape her body.

Over everything else, over all the louder, more obvious hurts, she almost misses it. But her chat with him brings it right up to the surface.

It’ll be fine, though. She can deal with him. Once he gets over what Camille said, he’ll go back to normal. If he gets worse, and still refuses to accept her rejection, she’ll have to seek help. Master Fu, maybe, or she can be vague and ask Camille about it. Despite what Camille says, he’s no actual threat to her. She’s Ladybug, after all. Even if he does try something, she can handle herself. But he won’t. If nothing else, he won’t try anything until after they beat Hawk Moth. He says himself that he understands that much, after all.

So, there’s still that. Right?

Despite that knowledge, Marinette is shaken by the realization that Camille hasn’t gotten a single thing wrong about the Lila situation. The way that she muttered “yet” tugs at the back of Marinette’s mind and gut.

Chat is a good guy. He’s not capable of something like that. He’s just naïve. A good talk with Master Fu and he’ll get things figured out. I probably need to talk to Master Fu, anyway. Maybe he’ll have an idea about how to get to the fights faster.

Marinette falls asleep with that assurance and wakes up once more to the comforting scent of the morning bread.

Marinette plans ahead this time. The papers for her transfer should come in today, and Marinette agrees with her parents (and Principal Damocles, over the phone) that it would be best to hand them in after school tomorrow. She hopes to see Nino one last time, and maybe Rose and Juleka and Alix and Nathanaël, but she’s not sure seeing anyone else is a very good idea. Going after school reduces the odds of seeing anyone, though it isn’t so late that it’s impossible, which is both sad and sensible, and Marinette is torn, but she knows it’s for the best. In the meantime, though, she asks to go out alone for a while, and her parents and brother and brother’s friends all reluctantly agree.

It’s just a hop skip and a jump to get to Master Fu’s place, and she needs to get this sorted out before she can deal with everything else.

It’s resolve in her gut today. The ache is there, but she’ll get past it. She knows it. She won’t let it hurt her. She won’t let everything happening hurt her. She won’t let the villains win. She’ll make the most of her life, no matter where she is.

And, if she’s honest, there’s not much more calming than sitting in a quiet little parlor with a hot cup of tea. Maybe that’s another reason why she’s so determined to talk to Master Fu so quickly. She might need that to face what’s coming tomorrow.

“Tell me what troubles you, Marinette.” Master Fu says, and Marinette does.

Hoping for advice on how to get to the attacks faster, she tells him about transferring schools. Hoping for reassurance that she’s doing the right thing, she tells him why she decided to transfer in the first place, including her plan with her brother and the opinions of his friends. Curious of his take on the situation, she tells him about mistaking Arno for Chat Noir. But when she tells him about Camille and Ross defending her from Chat Noir, and the conversation with him last night, she isn’t quite sure what she’s hoping for.

On the matter of the mistaken identity, at least, he seems amused by Marinette’s story. The rest of it, though, is a different story. Of course, Marinette has told him already about part of it. The situation with Lila, which has been brewing for months now, is something she’s talked with him about before. She’s also mentioned to him, through the phone, that she’s been a little further from the akuma than usual for the past couple weeks, just so that he wouldn’t be alarmed.

But on the whole, the recent events are a surprise to Master Fu, and Marinette can see him slowly grow more and more concerned as her story continues. When she’s finished, Master Fu takes a long, purposeful sip of his tea and gently places his cup down. “I think you made the right choice, Marinette. It is wise to remove yourself from such a dangerous situation.”

“I don’t know.” Marinette says. “I wouldn’t say dangerous.”

“Danger to your mental well-being is no less serious than to your physical health. Doubly so when all of Paris depends on you as Ladybug. You should not feel badly for deciding what is best for yourself.”

“I know that. It’s just hard to leave my friends behind.”

Master Fu nods sagely. “Speaking of. You told me what happened with your friend Camille and Chat Noir, but you did not say your opinion on it.”

“My opinion?” Marinette shifts uneasily.

“Yes. Do you agree that he is… overzealous in his pursuit of you?”

“Well…” Marinette bites her lip. “No. Sort of? No. I don’t think it’s as bad as Camille implied. I don’t need her defending me from Chat. He’s not going to… well… he’s… sort of blind to my feelings, I think. But I don’t think he means anything by it. He’s just… wrapped up in his crush. Like I was with Adrien.”

Master Fu closes his eyes and takes another sip of tea before responding. “It sounds as if you have been very clear with him. A partner who does not listen is not much of a partner. Or, do you disagree?”

“That’s true, but… what can we even do about it?” Marinette sighs. “It’s not like I can be much clearer than I have. I even lied about having a boyfriend just to get him to back off, but… he’s in denial. I hope he figures it out, but either way, I still need him to fight akuma.”

Master Fu hums softly. “Do you?”

“Do-” Marinette snaps her head up to stare at Master Fu as a gasp escapes her. “Of course, I do! I can’t do this on my own. And Chat…”

“Ah, pay me no mind.” Master Fu murmurs. “Simply a passing thought. Of course, you need Chat Noir. But that does not mean you need the one who currently holds the Miraculous.”

“You’re…” Marinette gapes in horror. “You can’t take his Miraculous away! Sure, he’s not the most pleasant to work with, anymore, but he’s been improving! Yesterday was just bad because Camille stepped in and that made him mad, I think. He doesn’t deserve to have his Miraculous taken over a mistake.”

“Perhaps not.” Master Fu furrows his brow. “And yet, what did you feel when you realized your friend Arno is not Chat Noir?”

Marinette fixes her gaze on the floor. She doesn’t want to admit it, even though she’s already basically told him. The words that leave her mouth bring with them an encroaching shame that buries itself within her. “I… was disappointed. And scared. And… I doubted him for a while.” She closes her eyes. “If he were Arno, I know he’d never be capable of forcing his crush any more than he does now. I… know he would never hurt me. Or, I believe that, anyway. I used to believe that about Chat implicitly, but… sometimes, like last night, when he gets worked up, it’s like he can’t even hear me. And then, I doubt what he might be willing to do to get his way. When I met Arno and started to get to know him, I thought my doubts about Chat were all in my head, but then when I realized they aren’t the same person… they came back.” She glances up to see Master Fu nod slowly. “I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t doubt Chat Noir.”

“On the contrary, Marinette. Especially after what your friends at school put you through, you should be very cautious of behavior like that.” He sighs. “I should have realized what kind of person he is.”

“But, he’s a good person. I know it.” Marinette says. She can’t help but try to defend Chat Noir. He’s her partner, after all, and despite everything he’s her precious friend. The only one she has who will never leave her. She hopes. “He’s just…” Deluded? No… “He’s just… trying his best.” She says eventually. “He’s doing what he can, and he’s scared that he won’t get his happy ending, and he doesn’t know what to do without it.”

“Are you sure he does not believe he is entitled to his happy ending, regardless of your opinion?”

“He does deserve it.” Marinette clenches her fist tightly, feeling her fingernails dig into her palm. “He deserves his happy ending, once we take down Hawk Moth. He’s earned it, so many times over. And, he can be so, so sweet. He just… needs to realize that his happy ending isn’t with me. He might be a little fixated on that.”

Master Fu frowns. “I do not want you defending an abuser, Marinette. If he is hurting you, you needn’t protect him.”

Marinette is quiet for a long time. Chat does hurt her. Sometimes. But she’s made more than enough of her own mistakes. He’s fixated on her, obsessed with her as his ultimate prize for taking down Hawk Moth, and that is, without a doubt, a terrible thing of him to do.

And yet, Marinette can’t hate him for it. He does it because he loves her. She just can’t believe, after all this time fighting together and talking and hanging out together that he’s a bad person. He needs to get better. Marinette knows that. But he can get better, if they give him the chance. If they just take the right approach to finally get through to him. Once he does, he will be the best friend, and the best person Marinette could hope for. She’ll be glad she didn’t give up on him.

“Marinette.” Master Fu’s voice is warning her. She explains what she thinks, and his scowl only deepens. “Take a step back. You have friends. This Camille, this Arno, Ross, your brother. They are your friends. And, once you get to Solset Academy, you will make even more. Are you defending Chat because you are scared to let him go, as you are with your friends at your school? It is not your responsibility to fix him.”

Marinette feels each word viscerally. They don’t quite strike her, but they hold such power that the aftermath feels similar. “I… don’t know.” She admits. “I’m scared of being alone. But… I do have faith in Chat Noir. I mean, you wouldn’t have given him the Miraculous in the first place if he wasn’t a good person, right?”

Master Fu’s countenance softens, and he picks up his cup once more. “No. Of course, not. Forgive me, Marinette, for pushing you. But I need to know your honest opinion.”

“You… do? Why? You’re not actually going to take his Miraculous, are you?”

“No.” Master Fu smiles sadly. Marinette is caught up in his gaze, dread in her stomach and breath stagnating in her throat. “Not yet.” He sighs. “People change, Marinette. Always. We are always changing. Always learning. Sometimes, those changes are not positive ones. It is possible that Chat Noir’s love has changed him for the worse. But you are right. He is a good person. I believe that as well.”

“Oh. Good.”

“Still, his behavior cannot be tolerated. You know this, even if you are afraid to admit it. I will attempt to teach him, as I should have done long ago. If my lessons do not stick, then perhaps he has changed too much and is no longer suitable for the Miraculous. Do you find that acceptable, Marinette?”

“I…” Marinette hates this. She hates that she’s even thinking about it. But… Master Fu is right. She’s done all she can and more to get the message through to him. She’s lied about her own love life, she’s been direct, she’s let him down easy, she’s even tried to tell him just what she thinks about the whole “destiny” he’s conjured, tried to tell him that there’s no magical connection making their fates inevitable.

The future isn’t inevitable. And even if the one with the ladybug Miraculous were meant to be with the one with the black cat, there’s nothing saying that Chat Noir, whoever he is behind the mask, is the black cat she’s supposed to end up with, or even that she is the ladybug he’s meant to be with. The mere implication of taking his Miraculous away is proof enough of that much. Marinette has hope that maybe if it’s Master Fu saying it, he’ll finally let “destiny” go. Master Fu is the authority on the mystical side of the Miraculous, after all. If he lets destiny go, then maybe he can let her go as well.

“I trust your judgement, Master Fu. If you want to reexamine Chat Noir, then I trust your decision.”

“That is all I ask.” Master Fu sighs. “The Miraculous are meant to be in balance. That does not mean that those chosen for the Miraculous are perfect pairs. As I said, people change. Sometimes, even that which was in balance finds itself tipping too far one way or the other. It is always wise to keep an eye on the scale.” There’s a long pause as he drinks his tea. “I will speak with Chat Noir this afternoon. You go home and put this matter out of your mind. You have more than enough to worry about with school alone. I chose Chat Noir for his role, and so I must take responsibility and guide him to be the best he can be. I see now that being so removed as I have been is… not working.” A pause. “Let me worry about Chat Noir, Marinette, and good luck with everything else. I know you are strong enough to push through.”

Marinette smiles, because she does, too. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

The day comes too soon, but Marinette is prepared. As the clock ticks down she flutters around her room rifling through her closet and old projects and her fabric supply.

“I hope you don’t think this is too forward of me, Marinette.” Camille purrs from the chaise, where she’s reclined like a Roman philosopher. “I was sort of hinting at it earlier, but I was thinking it might be better to ask after the move. Seeing you like this, though, I can’t help it. Would you consider commissioning something for me?”

Marinette trips over her feet and lands squarely on her face. Camille rushes over to help her up, even fussing over her. “I’m fine.” Marinette insists. “But, are you serious? Me? Make something for the Camille Lebeau?!”

Camille laughs loudly. That guttural, full bellied laugh that Marinette loves more every time she hears it. “Of course! I’ve seen Adrien wearing you before, haven’t I? And Jagged Stone, of course. Clara Nightingale, too. It’s like every celebrity who knows you wants a piece.” Camille giggles harder as Marinette turns red. “Honey, I’m the rule, not the exception. Wanting you to design for me is hardly a surprise.”

“Still!” Marinette gasps. “I just- you’re- I’m- I would be honored!” She smacks herself in the face. “But… I can’t. Since I’m going to have to move into the dorms and everything, I can’t be making much if anything for a while. I’m not even sure how easily I’ll be able to get my sewing machine to Solset, if I take it at all.”

Camille waves a hand. “Don’t worry about that. I’m not talking right away. I know you’ll need time to get settled. I just wanted to let you know I’m interested.” She grins, and then, with a wink, says, “So, put me on the waiting list, okay?”

Marinette isn’t ashamed to say that she just about swoons right there. Camille Lebeau wants to wear her designs! Granted, Marinette already got that idea yesterday. It really isn’t a surprise, since she’s already all but put in the order. But still! Camille Lebeau wants to wear her designs!!!

“And don’t you dare pull an Arno and refuse to let me pay you. I’m tired of slipping cash into his wallet.” She snorts. “I mean, I’m sure he knows what I’m doing, but he still insists that everything’s a gift. Honestly, I’m still pretty sure I’m underpaying him for what I’m getting.” She touches one of her earrings fondly.

Marinette laughs. “Well, so long as you let me give you actual gifts, I’ll take commissions from you, too.”

Camille’s grin grows wider. “That works for me.” She takes a bite of her croissant and takes her time chewing it. “By the way.” She says. “Totally unrelated, but Arno told me about your talk with him. When you told him you weren’t Tommy, I mean.”

Marinette frowns and eyes her warily. “Yeah? What about it?”

“Well,” Camille sighs, “I was kind of hoping you’d help me do something about your brother. Arno… really at least deserves an answer, and honestly I don’t think Tommy is going to get it through his head anytime soon.”

Marinette groans. “Tell me about it. He still insists that Arno doesn’t even flirt with him.” She giggles as Camille rolls her eyes. “Which is extra stupid, because he realized Luka was flirting with ‘me’ almost immediately. According to him, anyway.” She shakes her head. “Anyway, I agree. Arno’s worked up the courage to confess more than enough times now. Tommy needs to at least realize what’s happening.”

“Thank you!” Camille throws her head back dramatically. “I’m going to send him up, alright? Just try to talk to him, okay? You mentioned he’s been meddling with your love life, so it’s only fair.”

“I wouldn’t call it meddling.” Marinette can’t help but blush. “He just gave his recommendations and brutally honest thoughts is all.”

“Then do that. Not really expecting much, but if you join in, we can hopefully break through to him before we’re all old maids.”

Marinette giggles. “Sure, I’ll do my best. Please, send him into my office.” She jokes, gesturing to her room.

“Right away, Mademoiselle.” Camille grins wickedly and gets up to exit the room.

Marinette knows that this is all just Camille’s way of distracting her from what’s coming later today. She does. But Arno is a freaking trooper putting up with Thomas’ obliviousness, and he’s a wonderful man besides. It’s a worthy distraction. And, truth be told, Marinette appreciates the distraction just for its own sake. She knows what’s coming, and she’s ready, but the waiting is… excruciating. This will at least take her mind off of it. If it goes well, it might even give her something to be happy about.

It isn’t long at all before her brother is peeking his head in. “What’s up, sis?” He asks. “Cam said you’ve got some super important business.”

She can tell from the tone in his voice that Camille made it perfectly clear that this isn’t a serious conversation. Which… may or may not be a good thing. It is serious, just not “I’m leaving my school and can’t handle my life” serious. Still, it’s better, probably, to not worry him. “I do.” Marinette says dramatically.

“Well? What’s this about?” He has an easy smile on his lips that Marinette finds strangely amusing. It’s nice seeing her brother relaxed like this. She hasn’t exactly been meeting up with him over their twin swap ruse, but she could tell from his voice alone how much the time spent at Dupont weighs on him. It’s a large reason why, when she saw him after rescuing Alya from her akumatization, she was hardly even surprised. This is how he should be. Happy, relaxed, confident.

Now, how do I approach this? “What do you think about Arno?”

Thomas furrows his brow, but he’s still smiling. “What do I- what do you mean? He’s my best friend. I love the guy.”

Marinette rolls her eyes. “I mean would you date him?”

“Date?” Thomas flushes and rubs his neck. “Well… why? Is this… wait, are you back on that whole ‘he likes me’ thing?” Thomas groans loudly. “I told you, sis; he’s just like that.”

Marinette sighs, and unfortunately has to concede ground there. I already tried the direct approach, so I’m probably not going to break through that way. “True. He’s flirty.” So, I need to pretend that it’s irrelevant, I guess. “But that’s not what this is about. I mean, you’ve made your opinions clear on Luka, who I specifically said wasn’t an option.”

“Is that still true, by the way?” Thomas smirks. “Haven’t been hearing much Adrien talk recently.”

“No.” She admits. “Because I value your opinion and realized my, uh, thing with Adrien went too far sometimes. I still don’t think he’s as bad as you make him out to be.”

“Don’t expect you to. Just saying.”

“But!” Marinette says firmly. “You can’t dodge this! You made your opinions clear, so now it’s my turn. You should date Arno.” She crosses her arms with all the air of finality she can muster. “He’d be great for you. You’ve got to know that.”

Thomas rolls his eyes. “I don’t argue that. Arno’ll make a wonderful boyfriend for almost anyone. What’s your point?”

“My point is: if Arno were to ask you out, right now, what would you say?”

Marinette snickers when Thomas blushes. “What kind of question is that? That’s just a pointless hypothetical.”

Not if I get a positive answer. Maybe him actually asking you on a date will finally get it through your head that he likes you. “Answer it anyway! Here, I’ll do the same thing. If Luka asked me on a date right now, I’d say no, because I have all this school stuff to deal with, but another day, I think I’d probably give it a chance.” Marinette looks away. “Only after making sure he knows that it’s just… you know… a chance.”

Thomas narrows his eyes at her. “And Adrien?”

“No.” Marinette answers. If this is what it takes. Cam, you better appreciate this. Arno, too. “Same reason. I might consider it later, depending on how the whole school thing turns out. You know Lila will keep talking about me after I leave, so… but,” she shakes her head, “yeah.”

Thomas frowns that frown that people have when they’ve been called out. Marinette smiles because she knows asking about Adrien was just an attempt to avoid answering.

“Well, bro? Answer. Arno comes up here and asks you on a date. What do you say?”

Her grin only widens as Thomas’ face turns redder. “Well, I would- that is- I’d… Well, I couldn’t say no.”

“That’s a yes.”

“I didn’t say that!”

“You literally did. That’s what that means.”

“Shut up! I just mean that- it’s not like it’ll happen. He doesn’t even like me like that, so who cares about a hypothetical?”

Marinette, just to tease him, leans in close to his face. “Do you have a crush on Arno?”

“Uh, no!” Thomas’ face is redder than Marinette used to get around Adrien and she can’t help but find joy in it. “I definitely did not say that!”

“Mhmm. But you’d absolutely say yes if he asked you out.”

“Well… yeah?” Thomas’ voice is squeaky. “That’s totally unfair, though! Who wouldn’t say yes! He’s like… the most precious being in the world! And he’s hot – and don’t you dare, you know that’s just an objective fact – I bet you’d say yes!”

Marinette snorts. “Same reasoning. I’m in no place to accept a date right now. Besides, even if you deny it, we all know Arno only has eyes for you.”

“He does not!” Thomas groans. “I swear you guys are all just imagining things.”

“He literally said that, Tommy! That was literally only his own words! And do you really think that everyone else around you two is hallucinating this? Is everyone else wrong, even Cam and Ross? Or do you think it’s just a little more likely that you’re being an idiot?”

“Everyone’s wrong!” Thomas says. “I know my relationship with my own best friend, okay? Give it a rest.”

“Your ‘best friend’ that you want to date.”

“Ahhhp, ahp, ahp!” Thomas wags his finger at her. “I said I’d say yes if he asked me, not that I want to date him. I’m sure as heck not going to go and ask him.”

“But that you’d say yes means you can see yourself being all romantic with him.” Marinette says.

“Well, sure, I can see it. I mean, come on, he’s a catch. And he’s my best friend. If I had higher standards than him, I’d never find a boyfriend.”

Marinette smacks herself in the face. “How can you say things like that and insist that you don’t like him?”

“Hey! That’s all just facts! If anyone would say no to him, who would they say yes to?”

“You know, usually, seeing them romantically and loving them that way plays a little bit bigger of a role than that.”

Thomas rolls his eyes. “Obviously. Like, Ross would probably say no. But…” He flushes again and ducks his head. “Well… it’s not like I haven’t thought about it. With Cam and Ross teasing me about it, and everyone insisting that he likes me, it’s kind of hard not to. I won’t say I’m in love with him, but… I mean, I’m open to it. I can see it happening. I’m just not about to go and make things weird because something could happen. I’m happy how we are right now. I like just being best friends.”

Oh, my god, Camille is going to flip. Now we just need to convince Arno to ask him out. Honestly, probably won’t even be hard. He’s not like me. I’m still jealous about how easily he can say things like that. Marinette smiles. “If you say so.” She shakes her head. “I just wanted to let you know what I thought.”

Thomas makes a face at her but sighs and ends up rolling his eyes. “Yeah, I kind of asked for it with my bothering you about Luka, so fair’s fair. You going to come downstairs and hang with the others? We’re playing Mecha Strike.”

“If you really want your butt handed to you, sure.” Marinette grins and follows her brother to the trapdoor.

Ultimate Mecha Strike requires absolute focus. Still, there are five of them (six, if Marinette’s dad decides to play a round now that the morning rush is over) so in the name of fairness, Marinette finds time to pull Camille aside and tell her about her conversation with Thomas.

When Marinette finishes her story, Camille just looks at her with a devilish glint in her eyes and says, “You’re a miracle worker. This is so happening,” and leaves. When Marinette spies her talking alone with Arno, she knows that there’s nothing that can stop this particular wheel. It’s in motion now, and it’s a good thing to keep her mind on as the time ticks ever more towards the fated hour when she’ll have to return to Dupont for the last time.

It’s almost painful to Marinette just how quickly Arno asks Thomas out. Like, all the frustration and shenanigans she’s been through just to still have never asked out Adrien, and Arno comes back from his chat with Camille – looking doubtful of all things – and with just a glance and a grin in Marinette’s direction flops down on the couch, drapes his legs over Thomas’ lap, and asks, “Hey, do you want to go on a date with me?”

Thomas loses that match, though Ross doesn’t look particularly proud of the win. Understandably, since Thomas’ controller is on the ground.

His expression, at first, is just wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock. But then he squints and glowers at Marinette. She holds her hands up innocently. Wasn’t me. Mostly. “Haha.” Thomas says flatly. “Very funny.”

“What? No, I’m serious.” Arno says. “I love you. I want to go on a date.”

“I know Marinette put you up to this.”

“Well, she mentioned your conversation to Cam.” Arno admits. “And that helped me pluck up the courage to just ask. But I’ve wanted to for forever. I just couldn’t figure out how to say it to make you take me seriously.”

Thomas blinks, gaping at him. “You- wait. You swear?”

“Pinky swear!” Arno grins. “I’ve been saying I’m in love with you for months! I know I’m flirty, love, but I thought you’d get the hint! I’m totally serious. If you want to, too, we should go on a date.”

“Why didn’t ever just ask before? I would’ve figured it out if you’d actually asked me out!”

“Well,” Arno wrings his fingers awkwardly. “I wanted to. Seriously considered it for a while. But you just didn’t even seem to notice when I’d flirt, and you’d always just brush me off when I said I love you… I kind of thought you were trying to send your own hints that you’re not interested, and I didn’t want to put you on the spot if you were. But I was never sure, so I thought it might be worth it to keep trying. Just until I got some kind of reaction.”

“Oh.” Thomas grimaces. Marinette does too. That sounds kind of familiar. Poor Arno.

“Anyway.” Arno shakes his head. “No worries, love. I get it. I just thought I should finally ask.”

“Hey, wait!” Thomas fumbles over himself to sit up and lean closer to Arno. “I never answered. I… if you’re really serious… then sure. I think I’d like to go on a date with you.”

With how Arno brightens, Marinette thinks one wouldn’t be remiss in thinking he’s the morning sun. Camille is starry-eyed, even Ross’ gentle smile is broader than usual. But nothing compares to the glittering smile that Arno has. Though, as he wraps his head around the idea, Thomas starts to get pretty close.

No matter what else happens today, Marinette thinks, it’s a good day.

And it is. The day goes on and it’s fun. Marinette feels some growing tension, but it’s not too bad with the elated atmosphere around her. She really does love her brother’s friends, and having him home, too, is a treat, but despite that and the happiness of the day, she knows what the day is all leading up to, no matter how they distract her.

Eventually, the clock ticks down and it’s time to leave.

Of course, Thomas and Arno and Camille and Ross accompany her like her personal bodyguards, each a step away around her to protect her no matter what side someone approaches from. Her parents are off to the side, watching with some amusement and much appreciation at how these people care for their daughter. And their son.

The plan to arrive after school is a good one. The courtyard is almost empty when they walk inside. Unfortunately, the “almost” includes everyone except the people that matter the most.

She hears them before she sees them. Even just walking the steps up to the school, she can hear their raised voices carrying from the courtyard. When she gets close enough to see, it’s obvious what’s happening.

Most people have cleared out, except for one or two onlookers, mostly deeper into the school who look rather hopeless and have no chance of slipping past the confrontation in the middle of things. Marinette isn’t quite sure how only her class is remaining otherwise, unless they planned for this, but clearly the argument didn’t start until most students were gone, or else there would be a larger crowd.

On one side, Nino, boldly looking down his nose at those across from him. His stance is rigid, but his shoulders are back, and he roots himself, unflinchingly. Alix, resolutely raising a pointed finger and her booming voice. She’s subtly crouched, ready to spring to action. Nathanaël, clutching his sketchbook to his chest and hiding beneath his bangs, he’s hunched like he’s scared, but he stands strong and doesn’t back down. Juleka is behind her hair, too, but she’s wound up like a tiger preparing to pounce. Even from this distance, Marinette can’t miss the deadly look in her gaze.

On the other side, Alya, righteously presenting her phone. Her Ladybug charm swings like a flail. Lila, for all the world she looks like a victim. Tears and all. Adrien, he looks defeated. He’s small, hugging himself, he covers his face with his hands, but he doesn’t seem invested in the argument going on. As she gets close enough to see his face, if Marinette didn’t know any better, she’d say he regrets his role. Yet he’s still standing on Lila’s side, for all that’s worth. He isn’t fighting Nino, but he isn’t fighting with Nino, either, so what good does regret do? Kim is on their side, too, jeering and leering. Ivan and Mylène, disapprovingly crossing their arms and frowning.

Thomas and the others close rank around Marinette before her classmates notice her. She appreciates that, even if it doesn’t really help. There’s not much they can do to stop the inevitable.

“What are you doing here?”

Marinette sighs when she hears the voice. To be honest, she isn’t even sure who exactly calls her out. She doesn’t really care. They all sound the same. It’s all Lila’s voice, to her ears. Camille bristles, but Ross touches her shoulder to hold her back. They part enough for Marinette to face her old classmates directly. “I’m just finalizing the transfer.” Marinette says calmly. “Don’t let me interrupt… whatever this is.”

“Go on, Marinette.” Alix sighs. Her voice is tense, but gentle. Pained, a little. “Just ignore these clowns. You do what you need to.”

“And I- we- we’re sorry.” Nathanaël says, not meeting Marinette’s eyes. “I hope you have fun at Solset.”

Marinette isn’t sure what to say. She can see Camille cross her arms and look them over. She hears Lila’s side of the group erupt into jeers and taunts. But Nathanaël looking so small and defeated, like how Marinette felt at the end of it all after her sketchbook was destroyed, jabs into her heart unexpectedly.

Nathanaël is fighting for her. And she’s turning her back on him. Some hero.

But no. None of this is any of her business anymore. It’s not her responsibility to fight Lila. That chapter of her life is over. She just needs to turn in the transfer papers and move on.

She’s about to walk away, about to grab her parents and walk right past everything until they’re safe in the principal’s office and she never has to come back to Dupont ever again. But then she, and everyone else in the courtyard, is thrown back on their heels by the arrival of a third group.

They march down the stairs from the upper classrooms, descending slowly into the fray like royalty, their scorn clear in their words. “This is ridiculous!” Chloé shrieks. “Utterly ridiculous! Dupain-Cheng, I forbid you from transferring to that no-name, waste-of-space school! You aren’t going anywhere!”

“Me?” Marinette looks up at Chloé with only disbelief. “That’s none of your business.”

“Who cares what you think, Chloé?” Alya says. “Marinette should leave. And good riddance.”

“No.” Chloé reaches the bottom of the stairs and stamps her foot. Sabrina, next to her, is furiously scrolling through her phone, not even looking at what’s going on. Max is with her, too, and Rose, strangely enough, but the weirdest addition is Luka. “Marinette isn’t going anywhere, because you all are going to get over yourselves and apologize so she doesn’t have any reason to leave.”

“I’m going to apologize?!” Alya laughs. “Because Marinette is a two-faced snake? Yeah, right! We haven’t done anything to her. Marinette brought everything down on herself.”

Chloé laughs, a high-pitched whine of a noise. Despite her now being on equal footing with Alya, she still looks like she’s standing at the top of the stairs, looking so far down her nose that it’s a wonder she can see Alya at all. “Oh, really?” She scoffs. “Ugh, I can’t stand trying to talk to you losers. This is what I get for trying to be helpful. Max!”

At her command, Max steps forward and holds up a tablet. On the screen is the infamous “kiss”. The straw that broke the camel’s back. The lie that is still tearing everyone apart.

“Unlike some people,” Chloé says, “Alix wasn’t so stupid as to believe anything someone sends her. She convinced Max to check the picture Lila sent everyone for tampering.”

“Oh, and now you’re going to expect us to trust you over Lila?” Alya hisses. “Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone knows you’re a bully. I bet you’re just threatening Max to lie about it.”

Max clears his throat. He chokes on his words as he speaks, and Marinette is pinned by his gaze when he manages to look up at her. “Actually, I did it in an attempt to sway Alix to our side.” He says. “As you know, I believed Lila as well. That is why it brings me great pain to admit that… the photo has clearly been edited. I haven’t been able to find the picture that was used for Marinette’s side of this photo, but Nino clearly is copied from this photo here, of him and you, Alya.” Max swipes on the screen to the next picture, revealing a photo that Marinette thinks was on Alya’s social media a few months ago. She barely recognizes it, but it’s clear that Nino was copied from it. There’s some editing to the lighting in Lila’s picture, but laid side by side there’s no mistaking it. “Taking this new evidence into account, I can only conclude that there is a one hundred percent chance that Lila was dishonest when she distributed her edited photo.”

There’s a stunned silence followed by Lila’s voice, but she’s quickly cut off by Kim. “You lied to us!” He exclaims.

“I’ve never lied!” Lila protests. “Max is obviously only saying that because Chloé is threatening him. Or maybe Alix is. We all know how she can get sometimes.”

“Excuse me?” Alix rears up, but Kim jumps in again before she can defend herself.

“Heck no! Max wouldn’t lie about this, and Chloé wouldn’t help Marinette unless it’s the truth. We can see the picture, Lila. Stop lying.”

Marinette spies Ivan and Mylène whispering to each other.

Chloé smirks and snaps her fingers. “Sabrina!”

Sabrina steps forward. “Lila has changed her story on when exactly the kiss supposedly happened several times now, so it’s hard to pin down exactly when we need the alibis, but as we all know, Marinette, or rather Thomas, who was here in her place at the time, was with Alix in the art room at the time of the initial accusation. I’ve managed to acquire photographic evidence, with the time-stamp verified by Max, of Marinette’s personal whereabouts at the same time. She was at Solset, as claimed.” Marinette looks to the others and catches Camille winking at her.

Sabrina continues, and continues scrolling through her phone. “Nino was on his way home at the time, so the actual minute is unaccounted for, but by digging through time-stamps in his computer files we can see that he edited an audio file mere minutes after the accusation, which he would not have been able to do had he not been nearly home when he was supposedly kissing Marinette under the stairs.”

Nino’s eyes are wide at that claim. “You guys could have asked to look at my computer, you know.”

Chloé snickers, and there’s a sharp breathy exhale from next to Marinette that she registers as Ross laughing, too.

“Nino having no knowledge that we were even looking for this data is only further proof of his innocence. He couldn’t have tampered with the time-stamps if he tried, and even if he could, Max could have uncovered it.” Sabrina clarifies. “Max.” She swipes on her phone, and the screen of the tablet changes, showing a picture Camille took of Marinette (disguised as Thomas, though this would be after she revealed her true identity to the others) horsing around with Arno, and the timestamp on it. The next photo is a file manager. Luckily for Nino, most of the files are nonsense names, or maybe shorthand, so there’s nothing embarrassing. But one of the timestamps clearly shows that it was worked on right when the kiss supposedly took place.

“Well, Lila?” Chloé’s hands are on her hips and she’s leaning forward threateningly.

“I already told you! That was just a mistake! The picture was actually taken earlier in the day.”

“Weren’t they hanging out with you that whole day?” Alix calls. “Alya and Adrien were with them the whole time, too!”

Alya clutches her phone like a life raft. “I… they must have snuck away at some point. I was talking with Adrien for a while. The three of them could have done that in the meantime.”

“Oh, yeah. They snuck off just to go kiss like little babies.” Alix scoffs. “They aren’t even making out! It’s just a little peck. Who sneaks away to do that? Besides, the photo is fake in the first place so who cares?”

Alya turns to Adrien for backup, but Adrien just shakes his head. He still looks distraught, and when he speaks, he sounds nearly on the verge of crying when he says, “Please, I don’t want to get involved.”

“Coward!” Alix yells. “You can settle this by just saying they were with you all day! Why’re you so afraid to admit you were wrong?! Max did! I did! You and Alya both, you’ll destroy anything left of your friendships because you’re too proud to admit you’re not perfect!”

“Ah-hem!” Chloé pointedly clears her throat, silencing the group once more. “Luka, if you would.”

Luka smiles warmly at Marinette and steps forward to face the crowd. “So, uh,” he says, “Alya posted that video from a few days ago. Of that rad crystal akuma.” There’s a knowing smile thrown Marinette’s way, but she thinks it’s for Thomas rather than her. (She looks to him, and notices Thomas’ cheeks color slightly.) “And everything before that.” Luka pulls out his own phone and projects the Ladyblog itself onto Max’s tablet. “A lot of people on the Ladyblog have already pointed this out, but if you pause the video here,” he gestures to the tablet, “and go in slow-mo, you can actually see what happens.”

Lila pales when she realizes what’s happening. Alya’s complexion is just as pallid.

“Right here.” Luka pauses the video. There’s a loud gasp from the crowd, even Nino’s side. “Lila pickpockets Marinette’s brother. And a few frames later,” he moves the video along, “that’s Thomas’ worry stone in her hand there.”

Chloé nods approvingly. “So,” She says, “ready to apologize, yet?” There’s a tense pause. “Or, do we need even more receipts? Because we have them. Rose.”

Rose steps forward, but chaos has already broken out.

“I defended you! I trusted you! I believed in you!” Alya wails.

“And I would never betray that trust! They’re all lying! They edited the video. Max is a genius, I’m sure he can do that!”

“The video is streamed directly from the Ladyblog. My blog! It’s unedited! I know because I’m the one who took it and posted it!

“How many other things have you lied to me about?” Alya shrieks. “I thought you were my friend! But you were just using me. You manipulated me! For what? Fame? Why did you break me and Nino up? Why would you even bother to do something so cruel? And Marinette… you’ve been after her from the beginning!”

As Alya screams, Marinette feels Camille’s grip on her arm and her breath in her ear. “Uh, oh.” She says, but her voice is teasing. Like she finds the whole thing funny. She probably does. Marinette is kind of numb to it all, honestly. She’s flabbergasted that Chloé of all people is doing this, and that it seems like Lila is finally facing consequences, but… does it matter?

Maybe. Maybe if this happens, she can stand by the ones who stood by her. Nino and Alix. Nathanaël and Juleka. Even Chloé. The others with her. Max… maybe? He is at least willing to examine evidence more closely. With some prodding. Maybe she can stand by them. Her friendships at Dupont won’t be the same, but if this happens, she doesn’t need to abandon them.

“What is going on out here?!” Principal Damocles’ voice is uncharacteristically booming as he emerges from the shadows.

“Principal Damocles!” Lila cries. “Please, help! Chloé and Marinette made up such cruel lies and now everyone is bullying me!”

Chloé rolls her eyes. “Sabrina! Give the principal the file.” Sabrina does as she’s told, and Chloé glares at Principal Damocles. “That’s all the proof you need. Lila has stolen from other students, and repeatedly bullied and slandered her classmates. I trust you’ll give her the punishment she deserves.” Chloé sniffs and goes back to examining her nails. “I’d hate to have to call my daddy about this whole thing.”

The principal stumbles over himself to get Lila into his office. The thumb-drive Sabrina hands him is clutched tightly in his large fist.

“Pfft.” Chloé rolls her eyes as soon as the office doors shut. “My daddy has already heard about this.”

And that’s that. With Lila gone, all of her old classmates are practically fighting for the chance to apologize to Marinette. Only Camille and Ross’ shield keeps them from crowding her. For her part, Marinette keeps her head down.

She never expected this. She never expected Lila to lose. Now that she has… Marinette doesn’t know if transferring is still the right thing to do. Up until this moment, she didn’t have a choice.

Her brother takes her hand in his, and Marinette accepts his silent support for a few long minutes before she looks back to him. Their parents are standing back, sending encouraging smiles her way. Thomas himself keeps his brow furrowed and his lips pursed. “It’s your choice, Marinette.”

Camille smirks. “This Alix girl is pretty cool.” Alix approaches when she hears her name and accepts Camille’s offer of a fist bump. “And Nino was always on your side. It’s up to you.”

Ross doesn’t look at her. He’s focused entirely on the crowd torn between approaching her to apologize and cowering from his glare. Still, his hands are on his hips rather than crossed, and there’s something much less severe about his gaze that convinces Marinette that, to him, the threat is gone.

She’s thrown off-balance when Arno nudges her. “Don’t worry. We can always hang out other times. Especially during the summer. I know you want to stay with your friends.”

Marinette wonders how Arno can possibly have come to that conclusion when she’s still confused herself. And yet, when she looks at Nino she smiles. She knows the right thing to do.

For Paris, Dupont is much closer to the epicenter of akuma attacks, and she won’t have to be late so often, and Tikki will have all the cookies of the bakery when she needs them. For herself, it never did sit right with her that she needed to leave her friends. She knows it’s what’s best for her, what was best for her, while Lila had influence. But now?

Now, there’s no more choice than when Marinette decided to leave. She has friends that stand by her even through Lila’s manipulation, and so she has to stand by them. She wants to stand by them.

It’s not the same, anymore. Nino is the only one that never wavered. He’s frowned at her, sure, and he’s called her out when she admits to doing things that are uncool, but he never doubts her when it matters. Not like the others. It’ll take a long time to rebuild trust with everyone, if it happens at all, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try, or doesn’t want to, or even that she doesn’t care about her old friends. She does care. A lot. The idea of leaving has been tearing her apart, so now that it’s not necessary… is there really any choice?

And anyway, as much as she doesn’t like her, Chloé put a lot of effort into keeping her here. Marinette has to wonder at her motives, but it is still a good deed. Maybe, just maybe, they can eventually be friends, too. That would be a story for the history books.

Marinette is surprised when Camille lets Luka pass by the shield, but she’s thankful when Luka puts his hands on her shoulders. He enraptures her in his eyes and says, so calmly, like a cup of hot tea in a small, quiet parlor, “Your melody’s back.”

Even after all this time, Marinette still doesn’t quite understand how he thinks. Still, if he says so, she trusts him. She gives him a smile, touches his shoulder, enjoys their moment, and then slips past him to face the crowd.

“Are…” Nino swallows thickly. “Are you still going to transfer?”

Marinette looks to him, and then the others, and then Alya. “Do you still want me to?” She asks.

There’s a chorus of indignant cries, but Alya’s is the only one Marinette hears. “I’m sorry. I understand if you do.”

“Ugh! I already said you’re not going anywhere!” Marinette is taken aback by Chloé stomping towards her. “These losers have apologized, so shred those ridiculous papers already and come back to school! God!”

Marinette giggles. “Okay.” Chloé, despite her demeanor, whips her head around in shock at Marinette’s response. “Thank you, Chloé.”

Chloé flushes and huffs and takes Marinette’s outstretched hand. She gives her one firm shake and then pulls away. “Whatever. I didn’t do it for you.”

“Why did you do it?”

Chloé stamps her foot again and turns on her heel. “Like I have to explain myself to you. Keep dreaming, Dupain-Cheng! Ugh!” She pauses for a moment on her march away from everyone. “I’ll see you losers in class.”

“See you later, Chloé!” Marinette calls, waving after her.

There’s another long silence. “You…” Alya approaches, but Camille is between them. She’s off to the side, slightly, so that Marinette and Alya can see each other, but she’s careful to block Alya from getting too close. “You’re going to stay?”

“I’ve got a feeling I won’t need to worry about Lila anymore.” Marinette says. “So, sure.”

“Ha!” Alix claps her on the shoulder roughly. “Good to have you back!”

“You sure?” Thomas nudges her. “I mean, no complaints, so long as Lila’s out of the picture, but you’re still welcome at Solset.”

“These guys did turn on you.” Camille says icily. “Well, except Nino, of course. I’m not sure about sticking around with folk who don’t trust you.”

Marinette nods. “It’ll take time to rebuild trust, but Lila didn’t fool everyone. Even with Alya, it was only that last one that things really turned bad with.” She smiles and turns to the others. “I can forgive them. I… am hurt, but I can forgive them. And I’m not sure how much I can trust some of them if something like this happens again, but I do still want to be friends. They deserve another chance.”

Camille clicks her tongue. “You’re more forgiving than I am, Mari.” She sighs and shakes her head with a smile. “How many chances have they had? But, it’s your decision. I’m confident you can handle this place now, so I won’t try to kidnap you.”

Marinette giggles. “It’s really not as many chances as you think.”

“I’m with Cam – you can handle it if Lila’s removed.” Thomas pipes up. “Still. I count at least three. For Alya, anyway.” He frowns. “Er, that is, chances that she screwed up. Classmates are all somewhere up in there. Adrien’s the worst offender. Please tell me you aren’t giving that guy a quadrillionth chance, too.”

“Adrien?” It’s Alix who asks. “What’d he do worse than us?”

Marinette finds Adrien in the crowd while Thomas tells her. “Oh, he’s known for sure that Lila’s been lying since day one pretty much. Told Marinette not to call her out. Let Lila get away with a lot more than she would have if my sister were on her case the whole time.” Adrien sinks into himself, and when it looks like he can’t shrink any further he starts sinking into the ground. “Really annoying. Always giving her the stink eye. I think he was trying to make her, like, take the high road, or something, but let me tell you. I got real sick, real quick, of him looking all disappointed in me for any little thing. Like either of us should be above defending ourselves.”

Alix practically has smoke coming out of her ears. “He did what?!”

“Granted, he didn’t really do much but stand there as Lila’s trophy wife and dish out some top-tier mom looks, but still. For the guy that said he’d have my sister’s back, I expected a lot more.”

“Tommy!” Marinette hisses. “That’s enough.”

As cathartic as it is to air that dirty laundry, to call Adrien out for how he’s been acting, Marinette knows better than to kick a guy while he’s down. Adrien is already out of it. He has been since before Marinette even got there. Even as Thomas talks about him, as the others turn to glare at him, he doesn’t even try to argue. He just ducks his head and takes it. Like he deserves it.

Maybe he does.

Somewhere in Marinette’s mind, she hears Master Fu’s voice, warning her off defending someone who’s hurt her. And she knows. She knows that there may be no saving whatever they had. She knows that with Adrien, she doesn’t even particularly want to save it. Thomas doesn’t like him at all, and after their last confrontation Marinette has the idea that Camille is pretty set against him, too.

She trusted Camille with her instincts on Chat Noir. Enough to talk to Master Fu about it, anyway. And she trusts Camille and Thomas both on their judgements of Adrien. Neither of them want him anywhere near her.

It hurts, a bit. Despite everything, she still cares about him. It’s not the love it was, but she definitely does care. So, it hurts. But she knows she’d welcome him back readily. She knows she’ll forgive him. He did have good intentions. She knows how badly she wants to be his friend. How badly she wants to be Alya’s friend again, too.

She’s just not sure where the line is between forgiving a friend and defending an abuser. That scares her. It’s through that fear that she has to come to her decision. That being said, Camille and Ross and Thomas and Arno… they will allow her to be friends with Adrien, if she wants. That says something, too. Not that they could stop her, or that they’d really force her into anything, but even so not one of them would so willingly give her the option if they genuinely consider him a threat.

But whatever the outcome; this right now? Berating him in front of everyone when he already looks like he’s lost his whole world? This isn’t worth it.

“Adrien.” Marinette is taken aback when it’s Arno that steps forward and crosses his arms and looks down at Adrien. His eyes are clouded somehow, and Marinette knows that he can tell that Adrien is already checked out of the whole deal. He touches Adrien gently, gentler even than he handles Ross, and directs his attention towards Marinette. “Do you want to say anything?” He asks.

Adrien can’t meet her eye. “I… I’ve done a lot of bad… without even realizing…” He shakes his head roughly and clenches his jaw. “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. I never wanted…”

“Yeah, well.” Camille clicks her tongue. “This isn’t happening now. Arno, let him go.”

Marinette looks over to Camille. “What do you mean?”

Camille sighs, shaking her head. “Adrien… I don’t know what’s up with you, alright? I’m not going to pretend to. And I’m not accusing you of anything. This time. But…” She hardens her gaze. “This… state you’re in? Marinette isn’t forgiving you like this. I’m not letting her empathy for your tears cloud her judgement. Shape up. Own up. Get your head out of the sand. Once you’ve figured yourself out, then come back.” She looks up to the rest of the class. “That goes for all of you. Apologize if you want, but that’s as far as it’s going today. Understood?” She scans the crowd. “Good. And even if she does forgive you, I’m not so nice. I will be watching. And, for the record, I don’t think she should forgive you all.”

Ross snorts. “They messed up.” Most of the class won’t understand him anyway, so when he signs, it’s for Marinette. “Honestly, I’m with Cam. But then, I’ve never been good at forgiving. What do you say? How many chances do they get?”

Marinette worries her lip. The class is avoiding meeting her eye, probably thinking about Camille’s words, but that’s fine because Marinette isn’t looking up to their eyes, either. “Arno? Tommy? What do you think?”

“I think it’s up to you.” Thomas says. “But if I have a say, I vote against Adrien. It’s one thing to be fooled, but he knew what was happening and either actually thought what he was doing was the best thing or has a lot more wrong with him. Plus, again, he’s really annoying.”

Marinette shakes her head. Arno comes close to her and pulls her into his side. “If you really want my opinion, love,” he says, with an arm around her shoulder, “I’d say they’re your friends. Everyone makes mistakes, but so long as we own up to them, we’ll be okay. I think you want to forgive them. Or, at least, I would. And that’s as good a reason to forgive as any.”

It is. It’s as good a reason as any Marinette has ever heard. “Still…” Marinette says quietly. “I’m not sure I can trust some of them anymore.”

“That’s fine, love. I never said it’d be the same. Forgiveness can come without trust.” With an easy smile and an odd look to the class, he adds, “And, it can come without forgetting. I’m just not sure friendship can come without forgiveness.”

Camille snorts. “Softie. They ain’t a friend without trust, either.”

Arno shrugs and smiles. “Well, not like us. But not everyone can be like us, love. I think, that so long as you work towards it, you can be friends while you’re earning trust.”

Camille tilts her head. “Huh. Maybe. If you want it hard enough.”

Ross rolls his eyes and glances to Marinette. “Well? What will you do?” He signs, just for her.

Marinette honestly isn’t sure yet, but she knows Arno is right. She does want to forgive them. She does want to trust them. She doesn’t want to separate from them completely just because of a mistake. Or several. So long as they know what mistakes they made, and they own up to them, Marinette can forgive them. She thinks she ought to, she thinks she wants to, and she thinks she can.

She also thinks that maybe Camille and Ross’ distrust of them will make them good sounding boards, in the future. Arno and Thomas, too. Like Master Fu. She thinks that, if she can’t trust herself not to take forgiveness too far and excuse or defend someone who’s hurting her, she can definitely trust them not to let her.

As a matter of fact, she knows it.

“It’s okay, everyone.” Marinette says. When she catches Camille’s eye, she amends her statement. “Well, not okay, but… you know what I mean. This whole thing was a mess, and it was Lila’s fault. Cam’s right, that we should cool down before moving forward, but… I do want to move forward. Okay? I still want to be friends.” She smiles as she catches Alya’s eye. “If you’ll have me.”

Alya nods as she steps forward. “I’ll earn your trust.” She says. “I will. I promise. I should have known better than to doubt you in the first place. I know I’m starting from scratch again – no, less than that – but I’ll do it. I… all I want is to be your friend again.”

Marinette looks her in the eye and lets her smile grow just a tiny bit wider. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Chapter Text

Marinette expects her brother home. He texted her the day before, and school has just closed for the summer, so she’d be expecting him anyway. What she doesn’t expect is the chanting.

“Double date! Double date! Double date!”

That voice sounds familiar. Marinette can’t help the ear-to-ear grin that stretches across her face. Without a care for the show she was watching, Marinette springs to her feet and rockets through the house to the living room, where her brother and his boyfriend are waiting. “Arno!” She exclaims.

Arno gasps. “Marinette! It’s been too long, love!”

He catches her when she runs up to hug him, which makes Thomas roll his eyes. “I swear, you two are more in love than we are.”

“Nonsense, babe.” Arno says, nudging Thomas’ shoulder playfully. “We got nothing on Cam.” When Thomas snorts in response, Arno giggles and turns back to Marinette. “But seriously, how’s it going? Especially with Luka. I want to go on a double date!”

“Luka and I aren’t dating.” Marinette rolls her eyes. “Yet.”

“Then let’s change that!” Arno smirks mischievously. “On a double date.”

“Sure.” Marinette groans. “Let me just lay on top of him like a cat and ask him out like it isn’t a big deal or anything.”

“Sounds good! Let me know how it goes!”

“I was joking, Arno!”

Arno snickers. “I know. But I did that. Don’t see why you can’t.”

“Because I’m not you.” She reaches up to ruffle his baby blue hair. “It’s not as easy for me.”

“Again, don’t see how.” Arno snorts. “Considering you’re a precious little angel that literally everyone who likes girls has a crush on.”

“Shut up!”

“But… double date?”

Marinette frowns and meets his big, imploring eyes. “Ugh, fine!” She groans as she relents. “I’ll text him. Don’t get your hopes up, though. It’s been long enough I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s over me.”

“It’s been like, a few months, love. That’s really not that long. Especially when he knows all the stuff that went down at your school.”

Marinette rolls her eyes. “So, what’s this double date you have planned?”

“We’re going to see Cats!”

Arno is grinning that sparkling smile of his as if that explains anything. Marinette just shakes her head and looks to her brother. “We got tickets to Cats over in the Théâtre Mogador.” Thomas says. “Next weekend. Four tickets, but Ross is busy, and Cam said she’s seen the show about a thousand times, so she recommended bringing you for a double date. Arno latched onto that idea. We were thinking dinner afterwards, too.”

Marinette sighs wistfully. A show and then dinner? Sounds idyllic. “That does sound nice.” She admits.

“But…?” Her brother prods.

“But, I’m… kind of scared to message Luka.”

“Pfft. You got nothing to be scared of, love.” Arno wraps his arm around her shoulders and carefully leans on her. “From what Tommy’s been telling me, that boy is head over heels for you. He’ll be delighted.”

“Yeah, well, no offense but Tommy isn’t exactly the leading expert on love.”

“Hey!” Thomas protests. “Rude!”

Arno just lets out his sparkling laugh. “That’s true. I swear he still doesn’t realize when I flirt with him.”

“I’m right here, you know.”

“We know, babe.” Arno shakes his head. “But you have to admit you’re helpless.”

“I don’t have to admit to anything.”

“Anyway, it’s just a text, love. Just ask him if he wants to join us. I don’t even mind if you two do the whole ‘is it a date or is it not’ kind of thing.” He winks

Marinette groans. “Ugh, don’t. My heart can’t take another one of those.”

“Had many of those, have you?”

“Dude, I had a bunch of those with Adrien. Don’t even get me started with all the ones with Luka so far.”

“Huh. You want me to text him for you?”

She has to admit, she’s tempted. Letting Arno craft the text would be infinitely easier. Still. “No, I’ll do it. Just give me a moment.”

She takes out her phone and opens her conversation with Luka. Okay, it’s not complicated. Just inviting him to go see a musical. And dinner. Honestly, we’ve done both of those before, just… not as a date.

I think.

Don’t overthink it. Just ask. She takes a deep, steadying breath, and types and tries not to think about what she’s typing.

“Hey, Tommy’s group got tickets to Cats next weekend, but Cam and Ross aren’t going. What do you think about a double date?”

Only once she hits send does she dare examine what she’s actually typed. And it’s fine. Maybe it is easier than I thought. Then, her phone chimes and she jumps because she isn’t expecting Luka to respond so quickly.

“The musical? Sounds great. I’ll be looking forward to it.”

“He’s in.” She says.

“Yes!!!” Arno whoops and jumps in place, pumping his fist. “Double date! Double date!”

Thomas flinches. “Yes, it’s very exciting, but please use your inside voice.”

“Oops.” Arno blushes and chuckles. “Sorry. Here, love, let me send you the details. You can forward them to Luka.”

Marinette watches him send the message, and copies the message to Luka’s conversation as she asks, “So, where are Ross and Cam, anyway? Are they not coming over?”

“Eh.” Thomas shrugs, finally moving to go sit down. Arno sits close and puts his arm around Thomas, while Marinette takes a separate seat. “They’re getting their summer plans sorted. That means Cam needs to have a long talk with her mom.”

Despite having yet to meet Mme. Lebeau, Marinette has been friends with Camille long enough now to have heard the stories. “Yikes.” She says.

“Yeah.” Thomas nods along. “Ross has a lot more to deal with. I think today he’s talking to his agent.”

Marinette hums. Since he doesn’t have school, and has moved out of the dorms, it makes sense that they should talk and figure out how to proceed through the summer. It’s a similar situation to Camille, she suspects, except that Ross doesn’t have a parent to work, or argue, with.

“If it’s anything like last summer,” Arno says, “we should see a lot of him.”

“Probably. Unless he decides to work more.”

“Wouldn’t blame him.”

“Anyway.” Thomas smiles and turns back to Marinette. “How’re things with your friends? Plans for the summer?”

Marinette chuckles awkwardly. “Good enough.” Things with the others can still get awkward sometimes. For the most part, things have gone back to normal, but friendships have shifted around, the groups have changed, and there are still moments that remind her what happened. Which is good. It would be unwise to forget, even if she has forgiven. Still, they’re not the most pleasant moments. “And nothing big. My class is planning a picnic today, for dinner, to celebrate the start of summer. You’re welcome to come, if you want.”

“Definitely!” Arno grins. “It’ll be nice to meet them properly! Probably!”

“It’ll be good to see how things are going with my own eyes.” Thomas says. “No offense, sis, but I don’t want to be friends with them.”

“None taken.” Marinette rolls her eyes. “Just do remember that all that stuff was months ago, okay? And, for the record, half of them didn’t even believe Lila.”

Thomas purses his lips. “Not for the worst of it. They still let you feel isolated. Is Lila going?”

“Oh, god, no. We don’t invite her anywhere.”

“Good. In that case, I’ll try to be civil.” He sticks his tongue out playfully.

She gives him the same gesture right back.

“How about Adrien?” Arno asks.

“He’s invited.” Marinette answers. “He’s still kind of… well, you’ll see if he makes it. Not everyone has forgiven him.”

Arno chuckles softly. “Love, even I haven’t forgiven him. I’ve been told I’m very forgiving.”

“Too forgiving.” Thomas corrects. “But yeah, I know we haven’t been around all the time since then but if even Arno can’t forgive him, then that’s saying something.”

“Boys…” Marinette shakes her head. “He just did what he thought was best.”

“Oh, I get that.” Arno says. “It’s just a bit different when what he thought was best is objectively wrong.”

For that, Marinette shoves him. From where she is, she has to lean over the space between her chair and the sofa, so she doesn’t get any real force behind the push, but still he (very dramatically) topples over onto Thomas. “You’ve been spending too much time with Cam.” She teases.

“He’s right, though.” Thomas counters, pulling Arno more properly into his lap rather than splayed out half off the sofa. “There’s a difference between not embarrassing her and willingly letting everyone be tricked.”

“Which is why the class is still split on him.” Marinette says. “But he should be coming. And, I have to remind you again, that was months ago. I know you haven’t seen him since then, but please don’t forget that.”

“No worries, love. I’m the very picture of polite!” When Arno says that with his head in Thomas’ lap and legs thrown over the back and armrest of the sofa, dramatically covering his forehead with the back of his hand, Marinette can’t help but giggle.

“If I could tolerate him for two weeks in the thick of it, I can handle him for an evening.” Thomas says.

Marinette isn’t quite sure she believes them. Arno, sure, she believes completely. She’s never even heard of Arno being anything but kind to anyone at all, even during the confrontations at Dupont back then. But Thomas? Well, she believes him that he can be civil. Whether he chooses to be or not is another issue entirely. That’s not even starting on how, since Thomas and Arno will be there, and the picnic is a bit later in the day, the chance of Camille and Ross showing up is fairly high, all things considered. Marinette welcomes them, of course, and her classmates won’t dare say anything about it, but she’d rather not have Camille dismember anyone.

But whatever happens, Marinette is sure she can keep Thomas and his friends in line, if Camille or Ross even end up coming. As far as she’s concerned, this picnic is going to be a nice, relaxing, fun get together, whether they like it or not.

Still, she texts Alix and the others to let them know they’ll have a few more people.

It’s not like they’ll be the only non-classmates, anyway. If they were, Marinette might not have invited them. But since Ondine, Luka, Kagami, Marc, and she’s pretty sure at least most of Mme. Mendeleiev’s class was invited, no one can possibly be under the impression that it’s exclusively a class thing.

That is on purpose, of course. Everyone knows that if it were a class gathering, even if school is over, they would be obligated to invite Lila. And that’s not just a technicality, either, because Marinette’s own morals won’t let her purposefully exclude Lila from a group she does technically belong to. That being said, since this is just a gathering of friends, they’re under no obligation, moral or otherwise, to invite the girl who is no one’s actual friend.

Marinette does feel a little guilty about that. She knows how much it hurts to be left out. But she’s given Lila several chances to be better, even two after the whole debacle a few months ago, and she repeatedly demonstrates that she’s incapable of change. So, there’s really not anything Marinette can do for her.

It really sucks, especially given Marinette’s weirdly renewed faith in people after Chloé stood up for her, but that’s just how it is. Maybe someday Lila will let go and accept her mistakes. But Marinette has a feeling that by the time that day comes, if it does, she and Lila will be so far out of each other’s lives that Marinette will probably not even hear about it. It’s not her problem, anyway.

Marinette retreats to her room to prepare for the picnic not too much longer after Arno and Thomas arrive. She doesn’t really need to dress up, but she does feel that an outfit a tad more summery than her everyday school clothes is warranted. Besides, her being in her room getting ready means that it’s Thomas and Arno who have to help pack all the food.

It’s not an excessive amount, since the gathering is so large that everyone has agreed to bring their own food, but it’s still always fun to pawn work off onto her brother.

Soon enough, though, she’s ready and helping with the last of the packing and they’re all out the door, waving good-bye to her parents.

Alix is already in the park, barking out orders to Nathanaël, Ivan, and Nino as they get everything set up. And over the next half-hour or so, everyone else trickles in.

“Hey dudes.” Nino greets them when he has time between tasks Alix gives him. “Where are the scary ones?”

Arno snickers but Thomas just smirks as he answers. “Don’t worry. Cam and Ross will be here later.”

Nino laughs, too, as he nods. “Well, good to see you guys again. Hopefully, we’ll have more time to hang now that it’s summer.”

“That’s the idea. Though, we might hog Mari from the others.” Arno gives Nino a wink.

Nino smiles, but Marinette can see the ever-so-slight cringe on his features. “Eh, they can take her when you’re off on date night.”

Arno snorts loudly. “If they can pry her from Cam.”

“Marinette!” Marinette turns when she hears the familiar voice. Alya is there, her excited expression fracturing when she catches sight of who’s with her. Regardless, she approaches. “You’re here early.”

“Yeah.” Marinette greets her with a hug. “I wanted to help make sure everything was ready.”

Alya smiles, but Marinette can see how her eyes keep darting over to the boys. “Yeah. That’s just like you. Anything I can help with?”

“You should ask Alix. She sort of took charge.”

“Ah, sure.” Alya touches Marinette’s arm hesitantly. “Hey, I heard Adrien got the okay. This would be a great chance to confess to him, you know?”

The words strike Marinette’s heart in a way that she didn’t know was possible. It’s almost pity, but surprised and sad and empty. It’s just the way Alya proposes it – so close to sounding desperate – and just how wrong she is. It highlights everything still wrong with their relationship, and Marinette just doesn’t know how to fix that.

She catches Arno’s eye, and he responds for her. “No need for that, love.” He chuckles, weakly but easily. “I don’t think her date next weekend will appreciate that very much.”

“Date next…” Alya’s eyes go wide. “Oh!” Marinette flinches when Alya’s gaze falls quickly to the grass. “Oh. Right. I guess… never mind, then.” She starts to back away, slowly. Marinette feels her heart tugged along with her. “I should, uh, I should go help Alix set up. Good to see you, Thomas. Arno. Glad you could come.” She sends a desperate glance towards Nino, and the tension is palpable, but she doesn’t directly acknowledge him otherwise.

As soon as Alya turns her back, Marinette sees Arno put his hand on Nino’s shoulder, and as soon as she’s out of earshot, Arno leans in close to him. “You two still…”

Nino slowly shakes his head. “Yeah. I think she still blames herself. I’m… starting to think there’s no hope for…”

Arno hugs him, and Nino hugs back. There’s a lump in Marinette’s throat because of all the effects of Lila’s lying, she never thought this would be one of the permanent ones.

But she gets it. She does. And no matter how many times she tries to talk to Alya about it, or how many times Nino does, they haven’t broken through to her. Alya still barely allows herself to be Marinette’s friend, and then Marinette is mostly sure it’s largely just to be close enough to make it up to Marinette. (To do things like help set her up with her crush, except their strained relationship means she doesn’t even realize that Adrien isn’t that crush anymore. And that realization crushes both of them.) The idea of her getting back together with Nino… well, Marinette has to admit she can’t see it happening anytime soon. Not because either of them don’t want to, but because Alya still insists she doesn’t deserve to.

Maybe she doesn’t. Marinette doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that it’s possible to know something like that. If it is, she knows she’s already biased, so her judgement probably isn’t the best. But even still, she wishes Alya could stop beating herself up over it. She’s made her mistakes, that’s true, but she’s owned up to them. She doesn’t need to keep punishing herself. At the very least, not for Marinette or Nino’s sakes.

“Hey,” Arno says softly. “There’s always hope. But… you are right. If she doesn’t let herself be happy, she can’t be happy with you.”

Nino nods. “I know. Even if we did get back together, it wouldn’t work until she forgives herself. It’s… probably better to move on.”

“Probably.” Arno nudges him, a sad smile on his face. Even with as somber and small as it is, it still has that strange infectiousness, that optimism so clear in his expression, that makes Nino smile too. “But who knows. Maybe one day, you two can fall in love all over again. Stranger things have happened.”

“Heh.” Nino runs his hand under his glasses, clearing his eyes. When he pulls his hand away, his expression is back to the more confident, more relaxed one Marinette is used to. “Yeah. You’re right. Thanks, dude.”

They bump fists like a couple of bros and grin at each other. “Just so long as you don’t turn your unlimited charm on my boyfriend, Lahiffe.” Arno teases.

“Excuse me? It was your boyfriend that decided to cross-dress and seduce me.”

Arno giggles. “He wasn’t my boyfriend then, love. But I really shouldn’t worry, anyway. No matter how charming you are, Tommy wouldn’t even notice unless you pin him down and spell it out.”

“Hey!” Thomas protests. “Rude!”

Together, they ride the wave of that laugh through to the finish. Then, when they calm down and there are smiles on everyone’s faces, Nino turns away. “I think I saw Aurore get here earlier. I’m going to go say hi. See you later, dudes.”

“Later, Nino.” Marinette calls. “Come on, boys. You haven’t actually met anyone else properly, have you?”

“Oh, I hung out with Alix and Nathanaël once!” Arno chirps.

“I technically hung out with them for two weeks.” Thomas says.

“Ha, ha.” Marinette rolls her eyes. “Come on.”

Thankfully, Thomas is perfectly friendly as Marinette introduces him to people – though noticeably more so with anyone outside of Marinette’s class. Arno is friendly with everyone equally, and actually hits it off with Kim after accepting his challenge to climb to the highest branches of one of the trees while stringing up lights. He falls off from a frightening height but laughs it off with only some scratches and his first official loss in a series of challenges that Camille would later coin as “A.K.A. The Stupid Olympics”. (The A.K.A. is important, and is said every time, because it stands for Alix, Kim, Arno. But though no official record is ever found, Marinette catches Camille herself participating once or twice.)

After Marinette and Thomas are sure Arno is okay, they continue the rounds, meeting other classmates and other students. Marinette just finishes thinking how pleasantly surprised she is at how well everything is going, with Arno’s natural charisma and friendliness and Thomas making an effort to get along, when, just as they’re parting ways with Mireille, Marinette turns to find herself face to face with Adrien.

That alone wouldn’t be cause for concern. She’s dealt with Adrien since the confrontations. But Thomas hasn’t. And, by his own admission, Adrien is the one, not counting Lila herself, that even Arno hasn’t found forgiveness for. She can’t deny that she’s nervous for them to be together once more.

“Hey, Marinette.” Adrien says with a nice smile.

Nice. Not good. Not bad. Just nice. Marinette honestly doesn’t feel any particular way about it, and it’s only in a moment like this, with the sun so close to touching the horizon, in a private moment at a happy place, that that lack of reaction strikes her once more. It reminds her how she would have felt, had they been in this situation just a few months ago.

It’s embarrassing, who she was back then. But then, everyone has grown since that time.

“Hey, Adrien.” She says, because she has nothing else to say.

Adrien looks to the boys on either side of her. “Hey, uh…”

“Thomas.” Marinette’s brother nods curtly at him and crosses his arms.

“Arno.” Arno reaches out to shake Adrien’s hand. There’s a pleasant smile on his face, a far cry better than Thomas’ frown, but compared to his greetings of everyone else this feels downright frigid.

“Right.” Adrien says. He rubs his neck. “Good to-, uh, I’m, uh, glad you could make it.”

“Me too.” Arno says. Then, Marinette just about has a heart attack when Arno says, “I don’t really like you.”

Adrien seems to choke on his own spit, but then, Marinette is, too. “What? Why?” Adrien asks.

“Well, all I know about you is from that incident a few months ago. And, you know, I figure it makes things easier to move on from here if I’m clear with you. I don’t like you. I’ll give you a chance, love, but you’re starting from the negatives.”

Adrien crosses his arms defensively. “I don’t even know you. Why should I care?”

“Because I’m Marinette’s big brother-in-law.”

“We’re not married, babe.” Thomas calls.

“Semantics.” Arno shoots back. Arno crosses his arms then, in an impressive show to demonstrate just how big he is (and he is, and Marinette has to laugh again because those muscles should have been a clear giveaway when she thought he was Chat. When he flexes like this it’s obvious that Arno has a lot more muscle than Chat Noir does.). It’s almost funny, considering Arno still has a perfectly pleasant expression and is smiling easily at Adrien. Marinette can see exactly the moment Adrien picks up on the unspoken threat, though, when his eyes flick down to Arno’s pronounced biceps and he takes a careful step back. “Anyway, Adrien. Marinette says she’s still your friend, so, since we’ll be getting to know each other better now that school’s out, I thought things would go smoother if I didn’t hide anything. You understand. Hiding things from friends usually doesn’t end well.”

“Yeah.” Adrien says, gulping. “Right.”

“Good!” Arno chirps, letting his arms fall once more. He wraps one around Adrien and leans into him casually. “I look forward to getting to know you.”

“Arno!” Marinette grins when she hears the voice that calls to him. It’s another familiar voice that she’s been looking forward to hearing again. Everyone turns to face it, and there, in all her glory, is Camille Lebeau, with Ross at her side, raising their brows at the scene in front of them. “Are you giving Adrikins here grief?”

She’s teasing and gentle when she says it, almost disapproving. But when Arno denies it, she purses her lips and shakes her head. “That’s a shame.” She turns to Marinette and gives her a hug. “But you.” She says, pulling back to look into Marinette’s eyes while holding onto her shoulders. “You beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful little dove. We’re hanging out more.”

Marinette giggles. “Of course! We have more time, now, so we have to.”

Camille holds her arm as she turns to face Adrien. “And, you’re going to have to walk me through who to hurt and who not to. It’s been a while.” She smiles devilishly. “I might forget.”

Marinette covers her face when Adrien cowers away. “Don’t hurt anyone.” She says. “Including Adrien. Really, it’s okay. My classmates are cool.”

Camille clicks her tongue. “Mhmm. Well then, Adrikins, why’re you just standing there? We’re all friends here, aren’t we?”

Ross signs a rude comment in response to that that Marinette decides is better left unspoken. “Ross!” She hisses quietly, while Camille distracts Adrien.

“What?” He signs, smirking. “He can’t understand me, anyway.”

“Maybe not, but you can’t just say that!”

“Can’t say that he shou-”

Marinette feels heat in her cheeks and quickly looks away, not even wanting to see what Ross has to say.

“Actually,” Adrien says, “I was hoping to talk to Marinette alone.” Really? Marinette eyes him curiously. She can’t imagine what he could possibly want to talk about that the others can’t be around for, but he does seem nervous. He’s fiddling with his ring and he’s shifting on his feet and he can’t seem to hold eye contact.

Camille snorts. “Yeah. That’s likely.”

“Guys, it’s fine.” Marinette touches Camille’s shoulder to pull her back. “Tommy, Arno, why don’t you introduce Cam and Ross to some of the others? I’ll catch up.”

Camille scowls. “Mari, you precious angel, I’m not sure about leaving him alone with you.”

“What do you think will happen?” Marinette asks calmly. “Remember, all that stuff was months ago. We’re fine, now.”

Camille glances towards Adrien. “Just a bad feeling.” She shakes her head and sighs. “Fine. But I’ll be keeping an eye on you two, so if you even think of trying anything, Adrikins… well, you’ll regret it. Let’s leave it at that.”

She takes the others away, and Marinette can see the concerned looks from the others. Glancing between Camille and Adrien and Marinette.

“So.” She turns back to Adrien, who is still holding himself tightly. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I- well, I, uh…” Marinette furrows her brow when she notices the red dusting his cheeks. “Well, honestly, I’m not really sure about this, but… I think I have to do it.” Marinette raises her brow and waits. He’s struggling to get the words out, so she’ll wait for him to do so in his own time. “I… I think I… I think I really, really like you, Marinette. Like, love, like.”

It’s so… odd. How she feels. His words catch her off-guard. They rip the rug out from under her. Past that, though, it’s just… odd.

“So, uh, Marinette. Do you- I know that- well, I know you like me, so… what do you think? Maybe we should… go out?”

Odd. Marinette scrunches her nose without meaning to. It’s too odd. Now, of all times. It’s not a bad time, honestly. It makes Marinette wish she’d had the forethought to ask Luka out here instead of through text. She’s not sure she’s brave enough yet for that, though. Still, it would have been special. Sunset, trees strung with lights, a party with friends and food and the heat of the start of summer. And, if necessary, plenty of ways to avoid each other after the rejection.

It’s so odd to Marinette, how her eyes seek those avenues on autopilot. Camille and the others are still there, on a blanket, not even trying to hide the fact that they’re watching. Chloé catches her eye for a half-moment, and there’s a small quirk of her brow. Nino gives her a minute nod; she knows he’s ready to have her back if she needs him. The crowd is large. It wouldn’t be hard to lose someone in it.

“Marinette?”

But first she has to answer. That’s odd, too. She’s daydreamed this exact scenario so often. It’s even more odd that she’s starting to forget exactly how those dreams went. “Adrien…” She says. Softly, gently. That tone that she can’t help. It’s the one that says what’s coming before the words get here. “I’m sorry, but… no. I can’t go out with you.”

“What?” Adrien gasps. “But… you- you’re always so nice to me. You’re so kind, even though no one else is.”

Marinette does feel badly for him, and her heart is twisted up in more than one way, but none of that sways her, or lets in any amount of regret. She knows that it’s better this way. And, honestly, she just doesn’t love him like that anymore. There’s no other answer she can give. “I’m nice because I don’t like hurting anyone, Adrien. And because you’re my friend.” She resists the urge to cringe. “Friend” is probably only rubbing it in. “But I don’t love you like that. I’m sorry.”

“But- but it’s not fair!” He pulls at his hair. “I spent so long… so long so focused on her and- and I just- I know we could be great together, but everyone is telling me we can’t and- and I know we can’t. I know she doesn’t love me. And then you… you’re so nice to me, even though everyone else hates me now. You’re the only one that still cares about me. And I just- I- I thought- this is it… This is how it’s supposed to be. I know- I know you love me! You have ever since school started! So why change your mind now? Why’re you doing this to me?”

“Okay!” Camille interrupts, inserting herself between them. “That’s a lot to unpack. Bu-”

“Cam.” Marinette grabs her shoulder, stopping her. “It’s okay.”

“Uh, no.” Camille scowls. “What I just heard was definitely not okay.”

Marinette sighs. “No, of course not. That’s not what I meant. I meant… let me handle this. Please?”

Camille looks between them and sighs. She steps away, but only a few steps. There’s no illusion that she’s leaving them alone. “Fine.” She levels her glare on Adrien. “But if you touch her, no one will find your body. You talk, only.”

“Marinette…” Adrien hardly seems to have noticed Camille’s intrusion. “You love me. We love each other.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve loved you, Adrien.”

“That’s not- that’s not true! Why’re you lying to me?” He’s so desperate. Marinette can’t help but pity him. What got him to this? Have the others really been that bad to him? I thought we were okay… are they only being kind to him in front of me? Are they… I know most of them don’t like what he did, but… behind my back? “I know you love me! You’ve loved me all year! And how you’ve been so nice to me… you can’t just pretend you don’t feel it!”

“Adrien.” Marinette has to force herself to talk coldly to him. She wants to comfort him. He’s so distraught, so pitiful, that she can’t help it. But the things he’s saying… even if Marinette doesn’t handle this, Camille will. Later, if necessary. And if Marinette doesn’t do it herself, there’s no telling if Adrien will get the hint. If she’s too soft… she could end up reliving what happened with Chat Noir. Better to nip it in the bud. Even if it hurts. “I don’t love you. I haven’t since I went to Solset a few months ago. How you handled Lila’s lies… how I handled my crush… it just wasn’t healthy for either of us. I’ve moved on, and I’m sorry if you read it differently, but I’ve only been treating you as a friend since then.”

“But… if you gave me a chance, I could…”

“Adrien.” Marinette shakes her head. “I like someone else. In fact, I already have a date lined up with them. I’m sorry, but we’re not happening.”

“But- but you have to-” Adrien cuts himself off, making a frightening choking sound and looking like he’s been struck by a bus, and after a long, long, tense moment of him gaping at her (she doesn’t dare drop her gaze) he drops his head into his hands. “Oh, god, I’m doing it again! Marinette, I… I’m sorry. I- I should- I shouldn’t- I blew up at you and I- I just- I know I can’t do that! But I did it anyway and I- I’m sorry, Marinette! God, I’m so sorry. I’m going to- I’m just- I got to… I’m sorry. You… of all people…. You don’t deserve- me. That. I’m- I’m sorry.” He turns, then, and runs.

At least I won’t have to avoid him.

Marinette kicks herself for that thought, and for hurting him so badly. She’s holding her face in her hands, breathing deeply, trying to sort through the absolute dumpster fire going on in her gut, when Camille slings her arm around Marinette’s shoulders, throwing her off balance and bringing her mind back to focus. “I wish you wouldn’t have apologized so much, but not bad. Kid clearly has issues. Seems like he’s… well, at least trying to work on it, though. Good for him.”

Marinette looks up to her, and to Thomas and Arno and Ross and Nino and Chloé and, standing there with absolute astonishment on her face, Alya. There are a few more people, too. Marinette didn’t realize they’d drawn such a crowd. Her cheeks start to burn along with the rest of her. “I wasn’t too mean?”

Camille laughs, loudly. A full bellied, head-thrown-back laugh like a sailor in a tavern. “Honey, last time I rejected a guy, I broke his clavicle.”

“That was yesterday.” Ross signs. “He had it coming.”

Despite the situation, how she burns with embarrassment and guilt and confusion and, if she’s totally honest, just a tiny bit of pride, how she sees a lot of the crowd take a wary step away from Camille, Marinette can’t help but giggle. “That’s you though, Cam.”

“Damn right.” Camille laughs even more.

When Camille calms down, Marinette has to ask, “Is he going to be okay?”

“Oh, yeah. He’ll be fine.” Camille waves off the concern. “He just won’t be able to come after me for a while.”

Marinette shakes her head. Camille’s rejection tactics notwithstanding, Marinette has other things to deal with before she can hide away and try to process what just happened. She turns to Nino. “Hey, Nino. No need to uh, out Adrien or whatever in front of everyone. But… do you know what he was talking about? A lot of that was… well it sounded like he has a lot more going on.”

“No clue, dudette.” Nino shrugs, watching the direction Adrien left in. “It sounded like he had another girl… I knew he liked someone but never got any more than that. And…” He ducks his head. “I know I haven’t exactly been the nicest to the guy recently, but I didn’t think…”

“It can’t be you.” Alya says vehemently. She’s shaking her head, staring off into the city the same way Nino is. “It can’t be. I know you’re not besties anymore, but you’ve never been mean to him. I… have I?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Césaire.” Chloé scoffs. “That was no one’s fault.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Camille says, “but Chloé’s right. I don’t know how you guys are in school, but even I don’t believe that that was anything but his own issues.”

“Why don’t we just try to forget this?” Marinette decides. “Adrien’s clearly going through a lot right now. We shouldn’t judge him or jump to conclusions. Let’s get back to the party.”

“You heard the lady.” Alix says loudly, turning on the crowd still gathered. “Party time! Go! Go! Get on with it! Have fun, or I’ll make you!”

Alix turns to look at Marinette over her shoulder. There’s a concerned look, briefly, and then a smile and a wink and Alix goes back to forcing everyone to socialize again.

It’s impossible to miss how there are a lot of groups, mostly smaller ones, whispering to each other on the outskirts, casting strange glances towards Marinette and in the direction Adrien went, but on the whole people return to their games and in larger groups or while distracted by things to do, the party starts up again.

“You okay, love?” Arno bends down to look her in the eye.

Marinette smiles, a hard one to summon but she manages it. “I will be. That was just… surprising. And… it was a lot.”

“Hah, yeah, you can say that again. Guess not every time can go as well as ours did, huh?”

Marinette bites back a grimace. “I feel guilty.”

Arno blinks, and his smile slowly slides off. “I know, love. But you know it’s not your fault. You’ll be okay.”

“I know.”

Ross taps his foot, brow furrowed and lips pursed. “So,” he signs, “do we want to unpack all of… that?”

“God, no.” Thomas blanches. “Please tell me no.”

Marinette giggles. “No. That’s all Adrien’s business. Unless he wants to talk to us about it, there’s no need to dig into it.”

“Thank god.”

Ross sighs exaggeratedly, too, in relief.

“I’ve got a few guesses.” Camille says.

“Hey, same!” Arno exclaims, raising his hand excitedly.

Marinette frowns at those two. They both have devious grins and they keep sharing glances. Marinette knows they’re already sharing theories just through eye contact alone. “There’s going to be enough rumors already. I don’t want you two adding to them.”

“Don’t worry, my dear, sweet, precious, Marinette.” Camille croons. “We’re just going to… compare notes. That’s all. We don’t start rumors, promise. We know better than that.”

Marinette keeps the two in her gaze a while longer. “No rumors.” Marinette repeats.

“Pinky promise!” Arno chirps.

Marinette sighs. “Fine. Go.”

They practically sprint away, chattering up a storm as they do. Ross rolls his eyes. “They can be like a couple of old maids sometimes.” He signs.

“You can say that again.” Thomas groans.

Ross just smirks and shakes his head. He grabs Thomas’ sleeve and tilts his head towards Marinette before leading Thomas away. Marinette is confused until she sees Thomas look past her and smile. “We’ll be nearby if you need us, sis.” He says.

Marinette turns around. Her breath catches in her throat, because for a moment she forgot that he’s here. Luka. He approaches as Thomas and Ross leave. It’s like he’s been waiting his turn. “Hey.” He says quietly. “You okay?”

Marinette feels her cheeks heat up again. She nods. Oh, god, he saw all of that.

“You know… maybe it’s improper to say this, but… it made me happy when you told him you like someone else.” Marinette closes her eyes. I’m going to combust. Why did he have to hear that? “Although…” She hears his voice take on a teasing purr. “You were talking about me, right? There’s not some other guy you have a date planned with?”

“Oh, my god, don’t mess with me right now, Luka!” She hits his shoulder playfully and covers her face with her free hand. “This is so embarrassing.”

Luka laughs. “Sorry. I thought it’d lighten the mood. You don’t have anything to be embarrassed about, though.” She feels his calloused fingers wrap around her own hand. “As I said, it made me happy.”

Marinette chuckles. She shakes her head. She grabs onto his sleeve with the hand that he’s not holding. “Sorry. This is just… I’m a bit overwhelmed right now.”

“That’s okay. I’ll stay with you until you’re whelmed, and then we’ll go back to the party. Sound good?”

Marinette giggles. “Yeah.” He starts the movement, but she dives into it. She wraps her arms around him tightly and holds him and buries her head into his shoulder. “Yeah. Thanks, Luka.”


 

“Hey, Ladybug.”

Marinette lets out her breath. It’s wicked away by the wind before she can catch it again. Chat Noir stands a respectful distance away from her, curled up over himself like he was a few months ago, after Master Fu’s initial talks with him. “Chat Noir.” She greets. “What’re you doing out at this time of night?”

He flashes her a strained smile. “I could ask you the same thing.”

Marinette shakes her head. “Just a busy day. Lots on my mind. I thought this would be a good chance to… sort through it all.”

Chat Noir hums, but it sounds a little more like a groan. “Yeah. Same here.” They sit quietly for a while longer, just watching the city together. “I…” Chat says. “I thought transforming might take my mind off it. Help me clear my head. But… it just reminds me how terrible I am.”

Marinette flinches. It’s taken several talks with both Master Fu and Camille to get it through her head, but Marinette still fights herself to stop from immediately telling him he’s not really a bad person. He’s not. Marinette still believes that with all her heart. But she knows he’s trying to change and even if it means letting him wallow and beat himself up, that’s better than excusing and justifying his old behavior. Very carefully, Marinette says, “What happened?”

Chat Noir can’t meet her eyes. After the rollercoaster of the day, with all the tumult still in Marinette’s heart, it hurts more than usual. “I… think I fell in love with someone else.”

Marinette blinks. It’s surprising, but it’s good news. She smiles. “That’s great. I’m happy for you.”

He shakes his head roughly. “No. I… I asked her out already. She said no.”

Oh. Oh, Chat. Marinette reaches out to him, with every intention of giving him the hug he deserves. Marinette knows how difficult it was for him to accept that she isn’t meant for him, and how he still struggles with reminding himself that any romance with her is already dead. But she’s seen him accept it. She knows he’s guilty about it, and that he wants to be better.

Deep inside, a voice whispers that this is a good thing. Because though Chat is getting better, he’s still not anywhere near a healthy mindset regarding romance just yet. Whoever this girl is, Marinette thinks, despite the great guy that Chat will eventually grow to be, made the right decision. But still, her partner is hurt because of it and he’s trying and just the fact that he acknowledges his feelings and tried with this other girl speaks volumes to his growth so far. So, she reaches out to hug him because she knows she would need a hug, and she can’t see how it could hurt.

But Chat recoils, pulling at his hair, distraught. “No, I don’t- I don’t deserve you. Your kindness. I… When she rejected me, I blew up at her. I did the same thing I’ve been doing to you since I met you. I did it again and I… I really messed up. I thought I was getting over that… mindset, but…”

“Chat…” Marinette says softly. “You are getting better. I’ll be honest; I don’t think you’re quite ready to start dating, but you are getting better. What did you do after you blew up at her?”

“I… I ran away. I apologized and ran away. I didn’t know what else I could do. And… everyone was staring at me. God, everyone’s going to be talking about me all summer. I really deserve it, though. She didn’t deserve me.”

“You apologized and removed yourself from the situation.” Marinette clarifies. “So, aside from not freaking out in the first place, you did the best you could. Once you realized what you were doing, you handled it as well as anyone could.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you saw it. I was… disgraceful. I’m just so ashamed of myself.”

Marinette purses her lips. She isn’t sure what to say, and she’s afraid of saying the wrong thing. “What did Plagg say?”

Chat covers his face. “He was… I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that mad. Not even after all the stunts I pulled on you. And then… then he realized that I already know how badly I messed up and… well, he just said ‘you know’ and left me alone.”

Marinette nods. “You do know.”

“I do.” His voice breaks. “I’m sorry. I really don’t deserve to be a hero. She… that girl I asked out today… she’s the one that should be a hero. Not me. Maybe I should just give her the Miraculous.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Chat.” Marinette sighs. “If you really think you can’t handle the Miraculous, you should give it to Master Fu and let him decide what to do with it. But you know that we’ve already been through this. We all decided there’s no need for you to give it up.”

“As long as I show I’m improving.” Chat says. “But I messed up. I messed up and I lost my chance.”

“We don’t villainize people for mistakes, Chat. Mistakes can do a lot of harm, that’s true, and they can mess things up pretty bad, but what’s important to be a hero is that you acknowledge them and strive to be better. Neither Master Fu nor I expect you not to make any more mistakes. We just want you to keep learning from them and to keep working on yourself.”

Chat chuckles ruefully. “All I can do is keep working at it, right?”

“Right.”

He nods and runs his hand through his hair one more time as he struggles to compose himself. “No more dating for me, I think.” He says, the pained chuckle cuts Marinette deep, but she can’t help but agree. “No matter where my heart ends up. I’m just… not ready for that. Clearly. And… Ladybug, you and Master Fu will keep watching over me, right? I don’t… I don’t want to be this way. I want to be the hero that Paris deserves. The one you deserve. So… keep watching me, okay? I don’t want to let you down anymore.”

“We believe you can do it, Chat. You know we do.”

“Yeah.” He sniffs one last time. “I know. And that means the world to me.”