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One Thing After Another

Chapter Text

He couldn't stop looking at it. The way it was just sitting, pushed off to the side of his peripherals. He'd turn to look at it, but every time he'd get it directly in his sights, Nino would jolt him back into the conversation. They were talking about lunch or something—where they should go. He didn't know.

And, actually, he really didn't care.

It belonged to Juleka. She'd used it to bring in all her props for the presentation she'd given earlier that morning. Her posters were still taped to the board, which meant it was empty.

Boxes, especially big, cardboard boxes, were not meant to stay empty.

It was logical to assume she'd probably put all her stuff back in the box before taking it home. But, as it were, she was in the back of the room chatting, just as they all were, which meant the box was being forlornly ignored. He was uncomfortable with it. Someone needed to fill that box. All that space, bordered by tall sides. It was meant to hold things. There should be something in there.

Boxes should not be empty!

"What about Marinette's parent's bakery? Adrien?"

He snapped his head around to Nino. "Hm? What?"

"We were thinking about going to Marinette's for lunch. That sound good to you?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, whatever." Waving off the conversation, he looked back at the box. It was starting to make him anxious.

"Okay…" Nino muttered, looking between Alya and Marinette with a questioning brow. Adrien didn't notice. His eyes had narrowed—he was glaring at the box. If someone didn't pack it up soon, he was going to have to do it himself. It was unacceptable, leaving a box just lying around. Doing nothing. Being empty. It went against everything inherent in why a box existed in the first place. They were made to hold things, so that was what it should be doing.

It was damn near wasteful.

He couldn't take it anymore. Something had to be done.

Pushing himself from his seat, he didn't bother with an explanation—clearly, everyone else should be agreeing with him. With a critical eye, he went right up to the box and stared down into it. Completely and totally empty. Good sized. Looked pretty sturdy, like it wasn't over-used. Very good. It was a respectable box. It reached him at about knee height and looked just big enough for someone to stand in.

The posters wouldn't fill it up, not technically. Which was inefficient. A box should be used to its fullest potential.

He should get in it. That would fill it up.

He'd later blame the impulse on Plagg, but in that moment, such wasn't even crossing his mind. Instead, he easily lifted his leg and climbed inside—first one foot and then another. As soon as he was in, he took a short, satisfied breath, and turned some, if only to get a better feel for it. He kind of wished it was taller, because then he could slink down and hide. But it'd do.

Maybe he should sit down.

Finger tapping his chin thoughtfully, he was just about to configure how best it would be to settle himself lower—he'd certainly fill the space better if he sat down—when he noticed that everyone in the room was staring at him. He blinked, looking up. Alya and Nino were both gaping, silent, as they watched, and even Marinette was managing to stare at him without blushing.

Even Chloe was silent, and that was pretty incredible.

It was then that he realized he probably shouldn't go around standing in other people's boxes. Or any boxes, for that matter. Because normal people didn't go around standing in boxes. Granted, he wasn't exactly normal, but no one else knew that.

And maybe he would have jumped right out were it not for the irrational apprehension keeping him in place. Because he liked the box—it was closed and clean and comfortable—and he didn't want to get out of it. He just wanted to sit down, curl up, and watch the room with his eyes just above the lip. Like a spy.

But everyone was still staring at him, and he was still staring at them, and he was pretty sure that eventually someone was going to have to say or do something. And, odds were, if it wasn't him, he'd have to somehow answer for his actions.

It was just a box. Why were they being so weird about it? Maybe Juleka would give it to him if he paid her for it. Then he could put it in the middle of his bedroom and sit in it without anyone there to watch him.

Maybe he should just find his own box.

That was probably the better idea. He didn't want to leave this box—it was very comfortable and would no doubt remain empty for some time after he vacated it. Which was, again, a waste. But it wasn't his box and maybe it was a little strange that he'd taken such a liking to it.

Yeah, he should probably get out.

Despite how he wanted to stay, he slowly lifted his feet and stepped out. Everyone watched him as he did, but he pretended to ignore them. Because it was only once he was out of the comfort of the box that he realized how strange this must really look.

Thus, without a word or a look at anyone, he walked slowly toward the door. Too fast and they'd see he was nervous. He stayed easy and casual, like there was nothing amiss. It was quiet behind him, but he didn't acknowledge it. Rather, he strolled right out the door and turned down the hallway, only letting the deep red flush drown his face once he was safely sprinting to the bathroom.

He could hear Plagg laughing inside his bag, which only mortified him further.

oOo

Later than evening, as he was trailing Ladybug into a warehouse where there was evidence of an akuma attack, Chat spotted probably the sturdiest, emptiest, most perfect box he'd ever seen. It was a wooden crate, actually, but, really, there was no big difference to him.

With a manic smile and no second thoughts, he sprinted, jumped, and landed square in the middle of it. Sinking down until only his narrowed eyes, hair, and ears were above the edge, he watched as Ladybug turned to him, eyebrows furrowed.

He grinned wider, though she couldn't see it.

Because she wasn't giving him any weird looks—not any weirder than usual, anyway. Instead, she just pursed her lips and rolled her eyes before continuing on with her investigation.

Yes, this was definitely the most comfortable box he'd found yet.

Chapter Text

She liked watching him.

"You ogle anymore, Marinette, and he's bound to notice," Alya whispered, laughing when Marinette snapped out of her reverie and glanced over with wide eyes.

"I wasn't ogling!" she hissed, pouting as she did, and only got an eye roll from her best friend. Ahead of them by a considerable distance, Adrien was jogging. They were in gym, Marinette having been trailing him discretely for some few minutes. It was free gym, which meant they got to choose the activities they partook in, so long as it was adequately straining on their physical capacities. Jogging a few miles around the gym was usually Marinette's go-to warm up for such things. She couldn't help it if Adrien did the same thing.

"You were," Alya persisted. "You like to watch him in those baggy shorts and sweaty t-shirt. Admit it. Not a bad backstage view, really."

"Alya!"

"Well, one of us needs to be honest."

Marinette pouted and ignored the way her neck flushed with red. She had half a mind to run on ahead, at a pace Alya couldn't match. But that would mean passing Adrien, as well as giving away her above average physical capacities.

Besides, Alya was right. Adrien did look good in those shorts.

"Are you two gossiping?" Nino came up on Alya's other side then, waggling suggestive eyebrows as he kept pace with them. At least for the moment. Physical activity wasn't exactly Nino's thing and Marinette knew he'd duck out after a few laps.

"Why does it matter?" Alya asked with her typical amount of sass. "Even if we were, it's not like we'd tell you." Nino feigned hurt, frowning as he placed his hand rather dramatically on his chest. "Besides, I doubt you'd have any interest in gossip, even if we were indulging."

"That's probably true," he agreed. "You can't even get me to watch your Ladyblog."

"That's because you're a jerk. And don't compare the Ladyblog to gossip," she muttered in irritation. "All of my reports are based in factual evidence." This claim earned her a scoff from Nino, which only caused Alya to glare. Reaching out, she pinched him hard on the arm and he swerved to the side to get away, nearly knocking into the wall.

"Are you just going to let her abuse me?" Nino asked dramatically, looking at Marinette—as if she would act as a viable defense against Alya. She couldn't even throw her best friend off course as Ladybug, let alone at any other time.

"You and Alya's lover's spats are none of my business," she replied shortly, quite proud of herself when she got a joint gape in response. It was funny, really, how shocked others got when she displayed her "spitfire" side. What would they think if they knew she was Ladybug? Certainly there was a reason no one suspected.

"We are not 'lovers,'" Alya made sure to correct, Nino turning his offended gape on her. "We went on one date."

"One awesome date!" Nino corrected.

"Reliving that glorious day again, huh?" Marinette almost jumped right out of her skin at the sound of that voice. Because when had Adrien fallen back to their group and why was he jogging right beside her?

Her heart rate immediately skyrocketed, her own gape parting her lips as she looked up at him. Because, really, how could he be exercising, yet still manage to look absolutely perfect? The beads of sweat on his face weren't rolling, but merely sitting, as if to add sparkle to his already tanned, perfect complexion. His blonde hair wasn't the slightest bit out of place, swept gracefully to the side despite any dampness. His breathing was easy, his lithe, muscled body working without even the slightest bit of strain.

And then he smiled—that small, pretty smile that lightened his green eyes just enough.

Marinette almost turned to a puddle on the spot. Instead, she yanked her eyes away from him and stared at her feet, trying not to hyperventilate about how close he was.

"It was glorious," Nino defended, sticking his tongue out at Alya. "Best date you ever had." His comment clearly wasn't directed at Adrien.

"Yeah, well, it's the only date you've ever had," Alya countered, Nino pursing his lips as Adrien released a light laugh. The sound of it sent chills through Marinette's spine and it took all her control not to buckle under her weakening knees. Thankfully, Alya laid a supporting hand on her shoulder.

"Are you okay?" Adrien asked then, looking directly at Marinette. Apparently he'd noticed her weakening disposition.

"Uh, yeah- I'm just- running- uh- long time- tired- hah…" She blushed further.

"If you're tired, you should take a break," he recommended, eyebrows furrowing in sincere concern. And then he had the audacity to look her up and down, as if to survey her condition.

Marinette almost tripped over thin air.

"But, uh, wow, I never realized how good of shape you're in," he continued, sounding quite innocent despite the way Alya's eyebrows shot up. He smiled at her again. "Never would have guessed."

"I- uh- er- gah-"

Kim slid in front of them abruptly, startling the whole group.

Well, perhaps "startle" was a bit of an understatement. Nino, Alya, and Marinette all jumped, but Adrien did something quite different.

Perhaps Kim had thought he'd been being smooth, sliding in front of them with a toothy grin, but that wasn't the impression Adrien apparently got. Eyes blowing wide, he came to a skidding halt, his head rearing back in surprise. But it didn't end there. Apparently having intended to startle them a bit, Kim was close as he slipped before them, Adrien reaching out toward him.

He didn't attack, per say, but he did use Kim as a kind of springboard. Hands outstretched, his fingers barely touched the other boy, pushing back just enough for Kim to falter a step. But it was enough to give Adrien momentum. Body twisting, he stretched himself back—as though he were avoiding some kind of incoming assault—before turning. And as he did, Marinette caught the look on his face.

Not only were his eyes wide, but his mouth had pulled back into a kind of alarmed snarl, lips pulling at one corner to reveal teeth. And as he swiveled around, his hair finally lost its collected integrity, slipping around into a ruffled mess as he spun and pushed himself in the other direction.

But, even more surprising than that, was the howling yelp that left his throat. Not exactly a shriek, but somewhere between that and a shout.

All of this in a matters of only a few seconds, before he was fumbling around fully and sprinting away.

Marinette blinked after him, gaping more at his behavior than Kim's. Because, for a moment, he hadn't looked like Adrien Agreste at all. She wasn't sure what he'd looked liked, but that stoic calm Adrien always seemed to exude had vanished completely.

She wasn't the only one to notice either.

"Wow," Nino laughed, all of them watching as Adrien finally slowed once he'd reached the other side of the gym, bending over as he caught his breath. "You really scared the shit out of Adrien." Nino was buckling over in giggles shortly after, Alya following suit.

"Ha, yeah," Kim replied, blinking as though he too were surprised by Adrien's reaction. "I was just gonna ask if you guys wanted to play dodge ball."

Marinette didn't bother with a response, letting Alya answer for her as she kept her eyes on Adrien.

He really hadn't looked like himself at all, even for being scared, and Marinette really didn't know what to think of that.

oOo

She could see him pouncing from one building to another, a flashing silhouette in the dark. She swung after, silent as she came toward him from the side. He was balanced on the edge of a long strip mall, sprinting toward their meeting place at the Eiffel Tower.

Well, she'd already found him, so she might as well get his attention.

Pushing herself off with one strong swing, Ladybug soared through the air. Silent and precise she aimed for the edge in front of him, calling his name as she landed. "Chat!"

"Yeowaaahck!" Not the greeting she'd expected.

Skidding to a halt, Chat's green eyes rolled, his whole body flipping around. Flailing, he swung to the side, boots clattered as he dashed down upon some angled shingles before vaulting bodily off the building. And, more importantly, away from her.

"Chat!" she yelled, aware that she must have surprised him.

But he'd already darted off, leaping to the shop on the other side of the street. It wasn't until he'd safely climbed to the steeple that he turned to look at her, ears perking as his tail shot up straight in continued alarm.

"Just me!" Ladybug shouted across to him, her hands going to her cocked hips.

"Ohmygod, you scared me!" he shot back, his whole posture dropping as he slumped down into a crouch. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Sighing, Ladybug shook her head before tossing her yoyo and swinging over to him.

Chapter Text

Who would have thought that Juleka had a pool? Or that she'd be the type to invite her entire class over for a pool party. Adrien wasn't complaining, in any case—despite his generally neutral attitude toward water sports. Really, he was lucky to be there at all. His father had only allowed it because he'd already been on his "required" one-week vacation a year. A silly kind of distinction to be sure, but not that surprising when his father treated him more like an employee than a son anyway.

Just because he was in attendance, however, didn't mean he had any intention of getting in the pool. Even before he'd become Chat Noir, Adrien had taken very little interest in water activities. Generally speaking, he didn't like being wet and avoided it when possible. He showered regularly of course, but it was mostly the feeling of sitting in wet clothes, bathing suit or not, that got to him. Just the idea of that sticky fabric clinging to him made him shiver.

No, he much preferred to spend his pool time lounging in the sun, hands behind his head as he leaned back against an extended patio chair. Around him, everyone else was bouncing around, laughing, joking, and he took in the general splendor of the event. Through slitted eyes, he observed, thankful that Nino had long since stopped trying to get him into the pool.

He was also thankful Chloe had thought it below herself to attend, and so the attitude of everyone was much more happy-go-lucky than would have been otherwise.

Surveying the pool, Adrien spotted Alya and Nino at the far end, swimming and splashing water at one another. Floating on her back beside them was Marinette. He couldn't help that his eyes were continually drawn back to her. Not only was it amusing how she simply floated atop the water despite any disruption, but her swimsuit was probably the cutest thing he'd ever seen.

It was a modest one-piece—this was still Marinette after all—but it was red with black polka dots, a halter-top, and had a bow tied just under the bust. He'd seen many a unique swimsuits in his line of work, but it was the simple elegance of Marinette's that caught his attention. Plus, it reminded him of Ladybug.

In fact, with those big black sunglasses over her eyes, Marinette herself reminded him of Ladybug. He'd never realized it before, how alike they looked. Same hair, sure, but black pigtails weren't exactly unheard of. Yet, add on how still and confident she was on the water, with her lips pulled into a relaxed line, and he could have sworn that, maybe-

"Are you really going to sit up here the whole time?" Nino had hefted himself from the water and was padding over to him. He flopped down on the chair beside Adrien's own, Adrien making sure to avoid any splashed overflow from his friend's soaking body.

"I like the sun, Nino," Adrien said simply, having been basking it its warmth for some time. "I'm good here."

"Dude, it's pool party," Nino drawled. "You need to get in the pool at some point. I realize you look magnificent up here with no shirt, just lounging around, but you'd have more fun if you joined us."

"I really wouldn't," Adrien countered.

"Dude."

"I'm fine, Nino."

With a huffing sigh, his best friend stood and walked away, Adrien's attention falling to the pool. Marinette wasn't on her back anymore. Rather, she as treading water with her sunglasses on her head, Alya laughing beside her.

Adrien liked watching her. Marinette, that was. She was so shy and seemingly clumsy, yet sometimes he caught himself surprised by her grace. She drew his attention the same way some of the models he'd worked with did. Like she was in complete control of every part of her body. From the way her shoulders rolled to how her arms moved easily against the water—like wings, not the paws everyone else seemed to have. He didn't quite get it, really, how someone who tripped so often could possess such elegance otherwise.

But these were all subjective observations by Adrien. He'd been modeling since he was a kid, and so these were things he noticed. She was pretty cute too, he supposed. Especially in that swimsuit.

"And up we go!" Starting, Adrien sat up, gripping at the cushion beneath him as his chair was lifted. Glancing to the sides, he took in both Nino and Kim, the two of them holding him aloft as they stepped forward.

It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were doing.

"No, no, no, no, NO!" Adrien found himself begging, trying to scrape himself down off the chair before they could toss him. But he was too slow. They were at the edge of the pool within the moment, tipping the chair and causing him to slide out. He tried to claw out at the cushion on his way down, to stop it, but he simply didn't have the leverage.

With a surprised yelp, he went splashing into the water.

Adrien could swim, of course, but that didn't mean he liked doing it. Or that the assault hadn't surprised any kind of refinement out of him. Rather, all he could think about was the water, how it wove in around him as he splashed beneath the surface. It slipped into every crack and crevice of his body, soaking his swimsuit and stinging his eyes.

With a desperate heave, he fought against the tumbling of his body, fighting his way to the surface. Toward the sunlight that was muddled through the water.

With a heaving breath, he broke the surface, unable to focus as he flailed for anything but water. His hair was drenched and fell, shaggy, across his vision. And he knew he was gasping—and not in the comical, joking way. Rather, he tried to see as best he could, to find the edge of the pool.

Thankfully, he wasn't too far, his fingertips brushing the concrete as he fought for it. Scrambling, he splashed his arms up over the edge, still unable to see because of his hair.

The sides of the pool were slippery and he was definitely in the deep end. He tried to push himself up and out, but his toes kept slipping down the side. Which left his arms scraping and thrashing up over the edge. Wildly, even. Because he didn't want to be in the water and he couldn't get out.

He couldn't get out!

Thrashing more madly, any kind of logic calm could have given him vanished. Instead, he was left a desperate, soaking, splashing mess without the appropriate claws to pull him from the water that just kept trying to suck him back in.

"Shit! Adrien!" He could hear Nino above him, and then there were strong arms trying to grab his shoulders. But the contact only unnerved him further. He lashed out, he knew he did, even as he could do nothing to stop it.

"Help me, Alya!" A voice behind him. There were hands on his back, pushing him. He didn't care. Rather, they gave him the support he needed. Dragging himself, sprawling, from the pool, he scraped his way out, nails scratching as he found dry land.

Squirrely and shaken, he crawled away. Until he was up by the chairs again, his hair, body, everything still dripping as he crouched down and tried to escape it all.

"What the hell, Nino?!" Alya was yelling, Adrien watching through his strips of hair as she and Marinette easily pushed themselves from the water.

"Sorry!" Nino said, standing somewhere off to the side where Adrien couldn't see. "I didn't realize he, like, couldn't swim or something!"

"Well, he was staying out of the water for a reason!" Marinette snapped, Adrien gulping as she quickly whisked her way over to him. He knew he should be embarrassed by his behavior, but he was too shaken to control himself. Instead, he stayed down in a crouch, nails digging into the concrete as he trembled.

Marinette laid a hand on his shoulder and he shied away from it, trying to get as low to the ground as possible.

"It's okay, Adrien," she said gently. "Here, Alya brought a towel." A moment later, his back was wrapped in soft fabric, doing little to alleviate the wetness still coating him. But it was something, and it was warm, and so he found his back bowing against it.

But there was still water leaking through his hair and streaking down his body, and his lungs still felt like they were on fire. He hated it. He hated every bit of it.

He tried to shake some of it away, but it wasn't doing much good. For one, he didn't seem to have control of his whole body, so all he ended up doing was shaking his left foot rather neurotically as water sank down between his toes. It was horrible.

"Here, you're okay." Marinette was still there. She put her hand in his hair and pushed it back, finally giving him a full view of the party. Everyone was silent, watching him, and that did not make it any better. It made him want to slink away and hide under the nearby picnic table. It was only the way Marinette's hand sifted through his hair, keeping it back, that rooted him in place.

"I can't believe you!" Alya yelled, smacking Nino hard on the shoulder. "What if he'd drowned?!"

He couldn't have. He really could swim, but maybe it was better if he just let them keep thinking that he couldn't. Maybe that would save him some of the shame.

Or maybe he could just hide behind Marinette. She was small, but he could curl up pretty inconspicuously sometimes.

"Dude, I am so, so sorry." Nino was practically groveling, Adrien staring up at him through wide eyes as his best friend begged forgiveness. "I didn't know you couldn't swim. I was just playing around. I'm such an asshole and I'm so sorry!"

Adrien just gulped, unable to find any words.

"Let's give him some space, okay?" Marinette said gently, still combing her fingers through his hair. It was the only good feeling he was experiencing in that moment and so that was what he focused on. "He's alright, just shocked, I think." She wasn't just speaking to Nino. Her words were meant for everyone, and so the stares eventually began to pull away.

"Marinette…" Alya was still there, Nino having turned away with slumped, ashamed shoulders. He didn't go far, however.

"It's okay," Marinette replied, smiling up at her friend—before she turned her kindness on him. "Why don't we go inside," she recommended softly. "I'll get you another towel." He didn't know how to agree or not, it seemed, but it was easier to simply follow her lead when her hand went from his hair to his arm. She gently pulled him up, leading him across the yard on shaky legs to the screened-in patio.

Once there, she released him, Adrien unable to figure out what to do as he stood in the middle of the sunroom. He had his arms held out away from his sides, his shoulders tense and hunched. He tried to jiggle the chilled water from his foot again, but it didn't work.

"Here, this will help," Marinette assured, taking a towel and wrapping it around his head before pulling the one already tugged up on his back more securely around him. "Sit down, okay?"

He did, directed as he was by her to one of the wicker couches.

He was glad she sat down beside him, and that her hand was making comforting circles through the towel on his back.

"I'm sorry Nino and Kim did that," she said quietly. "I don't think they meant any harm. If they'd known, I don't think they would have."

He knew that, even if he couldn't find the words to voice it.

"I know what it's like to be scared," she continued. "I've… been in enough situations that made me terrified to know. So it's okay. You're safe now." Was she trying to reassure him? Or perhaps make him feel better about his rather dramatic reaction to being dropped in the water? Either way, he was thankful for the towel around his head. He'd regained enough of himself to blush, but hopefully she couldn't see that.

It took a few moments, but soon he was finally able to take a deep breath, the feeling of water trickling over his skin becoming more of a nuisance than an actual phobia.

He cleared his throat, grateful when his voice finally returned to him. "Sorry," he choked out.

"It's fine," Marinette said, smiling softly.

"Thank you."

He didn't mean to make the calm hand circles on his back falter, or to cause her to tense beside him. But as her touch retreated, he couldn't help glancing over at her.

She wasn't looking at him, instead fiddling with her hands as she stared down at the floor. He could see the flush to her shoulders, neck, and face, and how she fidgeted a bit beside him. He wasn't sure why she was abruptly uncomfortable, but, really, this was the Marinette he was more familiar with. Not the confident, sassy one he'd met as Chat Noir those times, or the one that stood up to Chloe. It was disheartening, actually, that he seemed to make her so nervous.

He didn't get it, really. Because what was there to be unnerved about? He'd just humiliated himself in front of all their classmates. Certainly, if there was anything intimidating about him or who he was, then this kind of thing trumped that.

He wished she'd look at him. She was cute, and he appreciated what she'd done.

"Mari-"

"Adrien?" It was Nino who interrupted them, Adrien glancing over to see his best friend coming in through the screen door.

And just like, Marinette was up. She fluttered away, twitching and only half-smiling as she headed for the door. She nodded once to Nino, casting Adrien one last look before she flitted out of sight.

Adrien felt his shoulders slump beneath the towel.

oOo

It was like the pool party two weeks before all over again. Only, this time, he had the pleasure of knowing what was coming from a five-story throw. The water was rushing up toward him, his baton was tossed to the other side the Seine, and there was nothing to stop his plummet.

He knew he was flailing, hopeless as it was, and that something between a scream and a yowl was echoing from his throat. Because not only was the water going to be cold, it was going to hurt.

Stupid akuma!

"Chat!" Her voice called out above him, the sound of her yoyo zipping through the air the equivalent of angel's chorus in that moment. It was getting close—he didn't know if anything she did would be fast enough—but he hoped nonetheless.

The feeling of that indestructible string wrapping around his ankle had never been so welcomed. Protected by the leather armor, which was much stronger than one would be lead to believe, he was only a nose away from being submerged when he was yanked to the side.

Wind whipping his hair, he let the momentum of her rescue provide him with the pull to maneuver. They were headed for the Pont Marie, her nimble form landing atop the bridge just before he slid in beside her. On all fours, he registered how she retracted her yoyo as he arched his back, still feeling anxious after the near water debacle. If he'd had fur, he was sure it'd be standing on end, his tail having shot straight up as he lifted a single paw in a kind of defensive dance. He didn't mean to act so "cat-like," but it wasn't exactly something he could control sometimes. Because, even as he flicked his focus out over the water, a hiss left his snarling lips, ears pinning back against his hair.

"Uh, you're welcome?" Ladybug said as she clipped her yoyo back to her hip. She crossed her arms over her chest as she watched him, Chat's attention flicking to her as his ears perked back up. Realizing what he'd done, he stood, straightening awkwardly as he cast her a sheepish grin.

"Heh, sorry," he replied. "I'm not particularly fond of water, is all."

"A kitty who doesn't like water?" she asked with a sly grin. "What a surprise."

"I appreciate the save, My Lady," he said with an elaborate bow. "A plunge into the Seine certainly would have been catastrophic for me."

"Yeah, I bet." She rolled her eyes. "C'mon!" Her gaze flashed with that determined flare, Chat grinning in response. "We've got an akuma to deal with."

Nodding, he willingly sprinted after her, never tiring of seeing that red flash leading the way.

Chapter Text

The hissing always took her a bit by surprise. Really, it shouldn't, because she suffered similar side effects, though they weren't nearly as apparent as his. For one, her sense of smell was skewed since becoming Ladybug. Not in any inherent ways, but different than before. She also suffered from flight longing, which left her anxious sometimes, when she wasn't flitting around the city.

The point, in any case, was that she harbored side effects just like he did, but, nevertheless, when Chat went feral, she was always taken aback. Generally because of the violence of it. Not that his behavior wasn't justified.

It'd been a rough night, to say the least. This particular akuma wasn't giving them any leeway. Already they'd been dealing with it for some four hours, constantly at chase or being chased. He was a plant-like akuma, calling himself Poison Ivan, and his skills with foliage were a serious detriment to both superheroes. If he wasn't trying to lull ladybug into a sense of peace with manufactured gardens, then he was trying to drug Chat with catnip. Needless to say, they were both pretty exhausted and fed-up.

It'd been a clumsy move, what had landed Ladybug in hot water. She'd been too tired to react quickly enough and gotten caught by a vine. Harshly and with force that would leave quite a few bruises, she'd been slammed into the constantly growing garden taking over the east side of the city. Had it not been for Chat coming in, claws raging, to cut the vines apart, she might have lost it completely.

He'd slashed through the foliage, using his third cataclysm that night (which, of course, meant two occurrences where he'd had to detransform and recharge. Ladybug, too, had been forced to once already as well).

He'd reached her, just as those vines had been reaching for her earrings. And as he'd sliced her free, the akuma had risen up out of the shadows, smiling at how vulnerable they'd appeared. Surrounded in plants still, Ladybug had been gasping for breath after having nearly been suffocated by the vines, Chat crouching over her protectively, hackles raised.

They'd had no defense, not while Ladybug had recovered her breath, and he'd reverted to natural, animal instincts as a result. The only things he'd had at his disposal.

Teeth bared, body bowed, he'd hissed and spat and growled as the akuma surrounded them in waving vines. Like a demented floral dream, it swayed around them, growing thicker and more unbearable by the second. Ladybug blinked up at it all, watching as the moonlight began to dim behind the fast-growing plants.

Her energy was coming back. She had to do something. Because, for all Chat's strength, his feline instincts weren't going to save them.

Locating her yoyo on her hip, despite her location lying beneath Chat, she pulled it up before shouting for her lucky charm. There wasn't nearly the grace to the move as usual, not with her so out of it, but the can of weed killer dropped down to her anyway.

This charm didn't require strategy or forethought. It was born out of desperation in a situation that was already too unlucky to get worse. Tossing the can to Chat, who caught it despite his frenzied, slitted eyes, she watched as he bounded forward, his torn uniform flashing with more blood than she would have preferred as he risked his whole life in order to get a direct shot.

Scratching and hissing as he launched onto the akuma, he sprayed the weed killer right into Poison Ivan's face, the akuma screaming as both he and the foliage all around them shriveled back some.

Finally standing despite her exhaustion, Ladybug put one last push into her step, launching herself forward. There was no poise, no finesse, but got the job done. She grabbed the tall hoe from the akuma's flailing arms, wasting no time in shattering it against the ground.

It was over.

With sagging limbs and heavy lids, she purified the demon, closing her eyes when a good chunk of her power engulfed both herself and Chat. The stinging of cuts faded, the ache of bruises lessoning. The process didn't clear them of their wariness or exhaustion, but it took care of the surface problems, which was what allowed them to keep their identities. And that, really, was what was important.

With the foliage gone, they were standing in a thin, cobblestone street, local shops standing tall around them. It was dark in all the windows, as it was nearing three in the morning. That, and part of Poison Ivan's technique had been putting all of the city to sleep, so, as a result, no one was awake anyway.

Even Ivan was asleep, despite having just been de-evilized. He lay in the street ahead of them, Chat slumped and sluggish as he dragged himself toward the poor man. Normally they'd go out of their way to return victims to where they'd started, if necessary, but that wasn't an option tonight. Instead, Chat made sure he was safely stowed in an alley where he could wake up and figure things out for his own.

He then returned to Ladybug, the two of them breathing heavily as they looked between each other with sagging expressions. Even Chat's ears were drooping.

"That's definitely in the top ten," he muttered, laying a hand on Ladybug's shoulder. The gesture was meant to be friendly, but his hold was heavier than usual and Ladybug was weaker. Which resulted in her stumbling into him, her shoulder knocking into his chest as the top of her head hit his chin.

He let out a short, bitter laugh.

"Top five," she corrected, unashamed as she leaned her hand against his chest to keep herself upright. He'd wrapped his around her back, trying to keep her standing. But they were a disaster no matter their attempts, and soon, with waning strength both, they collapsed in the street, more on top of one another than not.

"My Lady, have you fallen for me?" Chat managed to ask after a moment, his legs around where she'd basically landed in his lap.

"Really? You had to get that in?"

"I do what I can."

"Ugh."

He fell back fully then, laid out on the cobblestones as Ladybug toppled with him. She ended up with her head resting on his collarbone, his arms wrapped around her waist as she closed her eyes.

She wouldn't lie and say she didn't feel safe with him—that she didn't trust him explicitly. Of everyone in her life, he was the one she knew she could depend on in anything. Thick or thin, battle or no, he was the knight she hadn't asked for. He had his quips and his flirtations, and his horrible puns, but that was nothing in comparison to the conviction she had in everything that he was.

He was Ladybug's best friend, which was a much taller order than being Marinette's best friend—though Alya was impressive in her own right. He was her partner, her companion. Without him, she'd fall. She knew that perfectly well.

"Chat," she murmured, listening only vaguely as their respective miraculous' beeped at them.

"Yes, My Lady."

"Thank you."

Pause.

"For what?"

"For everything."

She could hear his heart beating beneath her ear, steady and strong. And she felt the way his silent chuckle reverberated around his whole body, like a purr. Maybe it was. Or a mix of both. No matter the case, she allowed herself to be snuggled against it like a blanket, eyes closing as the rise and fall of his chest lulled her.

Their miraculous' beeped again. And still they said nothing.

Ladybug had always been adamant about them keeping their identities hidden. Mostly for the safety of not only themselves, but their family and friends as well. Because one weakness lead to another, and another, and so on. But sometimes she found herself wondering when it'd finally slip. When would one of them be unable to get away fast enough, or need the other to get home.

Or if they'd simply be too exhausted to fight it.

She wondered if, perhaps, this was that night. Were she fully awake, were she not so drained, she'd have the energy to be anxious. To get upset over their depleting power. But there, atop Chat's warm chest, she knew there was nothing to fear. Not in that moment.

And because of that blessed security, she couldn't find any shred of energy to move.

Rather, she was asleep before she'd even phased out of her transformation.

Sleeping on the back streets of Paris, even buffered by a warm chest and held by strong arms, couldn't last. She knew as soon as she was coming to again that she couldn't have been resting for more than a few hours. The lack of light through her lids told her it was still night, or very early morning. Like the day was waiting for them to get up and meet it, even without the proper amount of needed sleep.

"Chat?" her voice croaked out, eyes still tightly closed.

"Mff." Good, he was awake.

She knew they were detransformed. It wasn't leather beneath her cheek, but cotton, and her ankles were exposed above her flats. Not only that, but the hand on her waist was bare, skin on skin where it was resting on her hip. She could feel that her shirt had ridden up.

She didn't have to ask to know his eyes were still just as closed as hers. He wanted to know her, she knew that, but he wouldn't break her trust. That was something she knew with certainty he'd never do.

"We should go home."

"Ennnggg."

"Before someone comes out and finds us laying in the street."

"Nnnrrrggg."

They lay there for another fifteen minutes before Marinette finally found the little bit of energy it would take to sit up. With a great sigh, she pushed herself up off of him, still conscious to keep her eyes closed. His fingers lingered on her hip, gradually falling away as she forcefully put distance between them.

Tikki was tucked on her shoulder, she could feel, which meant that she was fully accounted for. Turning her face up at the sky, she finally opened her bleary eyes, resting between Chat's legs only a moment longer before rising shakily to her feet.

She didn't look down to see what kind of shoes he was wearing, or the color of his jeans. She kept her focus on the stars.

"You are leaving me, My Lady." Chat finally found words, his voice hoarse and choppy.

"Until next time," she assured.

"Until next time."

Taking a step forward, she didn't lower her gaze until he'd be completely out of her peripherals. Blinking herself into an awareness that would at least get her home, she wandered into the night.

She didn't have to look back to know his eyes were still closed.

oOo

It was a hard day, to say the least. Still suffering from the Poison Ivan akuma, Marinette had stumbled into class and barely noticed that Adrien was absent. Which said a lot about her attentiveness, because usually she was hyperaware of Adrien's location at all times during school.

She was scolded by their teacher, but her drooping, disheveled form seemed to dissuade any further punishment. She slumped down beside Alya, who cast her a concerned look. Marinette waved her off, knowing her friend would accept the usual excuse—that the bakery had been booked with a huge order and that she'd been up most of the night helping. Though it wasn't the truth, it wasn't out of the ordinary.

She spent the majority of the morning with her head in her arms, dozing in and out.

Lunch was a welcome break. Still foggy-eyed and weary, she'd stumbled after Alya and Nino, willing to simply follow them and be satisfied with where that led.

"Ah, see, there he is," Nino said ahead of her, Marinette barely pulling her head up to watch as Nino headed across the locker room. To the far side where, head bowed, Adrien was pulling things in and out.

Marinette perked up just enough to be paying attention to Nino's approach. And to take note that Adrien didn't appear to have noticed.

"Hey, man!" Nino said loudly, clapping Adrien on the back.

With a start, Adrien turned on him, hands coming up in alarm. In the same moment, his lips pulled back slightly, something between a snort and hiss coming from between his lips.

Both Marinette and Alya raised their eyebrows at the noise.

"Dude, did you just hiss at me?" Nino asked with a short chuckle. "Like a cat?"

"Shut up, Nino," Adrien rumbled back, a growl sitting at the back of his throat as he slumped into a less alarmed sort of posture. "I'm seriously going on, like, no sleep right now." He slammed his locker closed, bag slung over his shoulder. Despite the claim, Marinette evaluated that he looked just as handsome as always, even if his hair wasn't combed quite as perfectly.

Well, she could certainly sympathize with his condition.

"Ah, no offense, dude, but, even at my worst, I don't hiss at people."

Marinette thought of Chat, quite out of the blue. He hissed. He and Adrien were the only people she'd ever heard hiss, actually. At least in a "serious" manner.

"Can we just go eat or something, please?" Adrien drawled as he walked by them, feet dragging. "Before I fall down?"

"I think that's probably best," Alya said with a chuckle. "I don't know that Marinette's gonna be able to stay standing much longer either." A fair assessment.

They didn't go far for lunch, just to the picnic tables in the park nearby, beneath some trees. Marinette found her thoughts wandering as she picked through the lunch her mother had given her, since she and her father were catering that afternoon, and, thus, wouldn't be home during her lunch hour. Not that she couldn't go home, but why be in an empty house when she could hang with her friends?

Or, at least, this had been the logic before the akuma in the middle of the night.

Eyes heavy, she glanced between them all, Nino and Alya indulged in light conversation as she and Adrien silently chewed. She wondered, absently, when it had become a regular occurrence that she ate with Adrien. Likely, Alya and Nino's blossoming relationship was to blame. When Adrien wasn't at a photo-shoot or being monopolized be Chloe, he spent his time with Nino, who spent his time with Alya, who was usually with Marinette.

She'd been eating lunch with Adrien a couple times a week for the last month, actually. She still stuttered and blushed around him, and the two hadn't really shared in any meaningful discourse, but, with her nerves out of the way due to her exhaustion, Marinette was finally seeing the pattern. Usually she was so flustered that all she could think about was the fact that she was getting the opportunity to eat with Adrien. Not that the opportunity had actually presented itself more often recently.

Her fatigue kept her calm, a certain degree of pleasure thrumming in her chest at her realization.

She should talk to Alya so the two could make a plan. Initiate strategy "actually talk to Adrien with words instead of sounds." That would do.

Without even finishing most of it, Adrien pushed his food away. Marinette watched him robotically, eating her roll and not really tasting it. Head propped up in her hand, she kept her focus on him, too tired to care if he noticed. Not that he would. He looked just as burnt out as she did. Dark under his eyes, body stiff. Even his clothes were rumpled.

"Hey." Adrien cut into Alya and Nino's conversation without any tact, forcing them to cut their words short. "I'm gonna take a nap. Wake me up later." That was, before class started again.

Like spaghetti sliding against porcelain, Adrien turned and shimmied down off the bench. Crawling on all fours, he slipped out of the shade of the tree above them until he found the sunlight. It was there that he collapsed on his stomach, hands at his sides as his cheeks rested heavily in the grass.

Marinette had half a mind to copy him.

"What is up with him?" Alya asked, Nino's response drowned out by Marinette's inability to multitask in those moments. Instead, she watched Adrien. The sun danced across his tanned skin, the wind ruffling his shirt. His eyes were already closed, mouth hanging open slightly.

He looked so peaceful.

Pushing her own food away, she laid her head down in the crook of her elbow, eyes bleary with tired tears as she kept her attention on Adrien. She watched him, lulled into a sense of peace by his own drowsiness. Until her own consciousness was leaving her, the fight to keep her eyes open totally lost.

It was a warm day, Adrien's mop of blonde hair and Chat's steady heartbeat the last things she thought of before dropping out completely.

Chapter Text

It. Was. Spectacular.

He'd been looking at it since the akuma had lured them into the paper plant. And now that the demon had been purified, he could finally get a good look at it. No protruding edges, no wrinkles. It was smooth, at just the right level that he could reach up and touch it. Crisp, clean, rolled so neatly.

And so big.

Stretching out, Chat pulled his leather-clad hand down the surface, feeling the weight. He imagined the texture was chalky, even if he couldn't exactly register that much detail. But the sheer bulk of the paper roll made it difficult to really examine any more—because his light touch hadn't been enough to move it.

Well, it was a good thing he had extra strength from Plagg. And that he had claws.

Grinning despite himself, Chat reached up with both hands and speared his claws into the paper's surface, relishing in the way he dug into the multilayered surface. Muscles straining, teeth gritted, he slowly rolled the paper downward, his biceps straining with the effort.

The loose end of the roll flapped down by his feet, beginning to pool there.

Yanking his claws loose, he immediately jammed them back into the paper above his head, once again forcefully rolling the paper downward. It was a workout, but it was oddly satisfying. And so he repeated the process three more times—until the thick paper pooling at his feet started to get in the way.

Crouching down, he began to rip through the paper, shredding it until he could toss it to the side. Out of the way. The feeling of the paper tearing between his fingers was wonderful, and as soon as he'd cleared the way, he reached up again and submerged his claws in the roll.

He didn't even give it a second thought before he began to unroll the paper once again.

"Chat?" Ladybug's voice. "What… What are you doing?!"

Eyes wide, Chat considered himself for a moment, unsure how to reply. And a little too ashamed to turn around. Because, well, what was he doing? Enjoying this nice, big roll of paper, for one. Yet, he had the feeling Ladybug wouldn't share that sentiment.

Slowly, claws still imbedded on the paper roll, he turned his head over his shoulder to look at her. She was gaping, eyes darting first from him, to the roll, to the shredded wrappings of paper all around him.

Okay, so maybe he was out of line.

"Chat!"

"Uh…" He didn't know what to say. So, he did the next best thing.

He ran.

Yanking his claws from the paper roll, he bounded up on top of it. Crouching, he glanced just long enough at Ladybug to pull a shred of paper from under his nail with his teeth before leaping up onto the paper press. With one final bound, he was wriggling out the open window near the ceiling and dashing into the sunlight.

"CHAT!"

oOo

"Really?" Adrien was not amused. "I thought this was supposed to be an actual, productive study night. Not an excuse for you to make out with your girlfriend." Nino looked like he was in actual, literal pain beside him, dancing on his toes as they headed out the front door of the school.

"It will be!" Nino defended. "Just, Alya will also be there."

Adrien rolled his eyes.

"C'mon, it's okay, right? Like you said, you're dad isn't around this weekend, so it's the perfect opportunity. And what's a Friday night without girls, huh?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"'Girls?'" Adrien mimed. "As in, plural?"

"Marinette's coming too," Alya interjected, sliding in beside them with Marinette dragging at her side. The shy girl didn't say a word, despite apparently being part of the equation. Instead, cheeks red, she stared down at her feet.

Adrien really didn't understand what was up with her sometimes.

"Fine, whatever," Adrien agreed, waving them all off as they headed for his car. "But I'm getting this essay done. Tonight. So if you and Alya want to go have sloppy make-outs, you'll have to do it in the yard."

"You'd put us in the doghouse?" Nino asked, feigning hurt.

"I don't have a dog."

"The cathouse?"

"The only house I'm going in is yours," Alya said, poking Adrien on the chest as his driver held open the door for the lot of them. "And don't get your hopes up, Nino. I want to get this essay done too." She said as much as she, quite forcefully, shoved Marinette in the car ahead of her. She slipped inside following, Adrien ducking in and then Nino.

Adrien cast Marinette a worried look across from him—was she having trouble breathing?

"Are you okay?" he asked, honestly concerned.

"Uh!" She snapped her attention to him. "Fine!" She squeaked.

"Right…" Adrien narrowed his eyes in her direction, but didn't push the subject. She was so… strange. Because sometimes she was super cool and confident, like when they were in that gaming tournament (or when she was around anyone but him), and sometimes she was a sputtering mess.

Was he really that intimidating?

"Sweet!" Nino was celebrating beside him. "Friday night at Adrien's, no adults. Gonna be swag."

"Nino, Nathalie is still there," Adrien corrected. "And the cooks. And the house staff." And his driver, for that matter. Right in front of them, pulling the car out into the road.

"Well, yeah, but…" Nino pretended to shrug it off, like such details were irrelevant. "Whatever. Still gonna be awe-some." Alya shook her head, Adrien thankful at least one other person was on his same wavelength.

Marinette was staring at her feet. He frowned.

"Seriously, I want to get this essay done too," Alya repeated. "I missed the one akuma attack we had this week, so I can't have homework getting in the way if there are any this weekend. I hate it when I miss Ladybug and Chat Noir." She slumped back in the seat, Adrien grinning just slightly.

"You act like akuma attacks are a good thing," he said.

"They are when you run the Ladyblog," she replied with raised eyebrows.

"Fine, we'll work, but we have to have some fun too." Nino gave in, if only slightly. "You can't have a sleepover at the Agreste mansion without doing something other than school work."

"A sleepover, really? How old are you, five?" Alya crossed her arms.

Nino glared at her. "What else would you call it?"

Adrien furrowed his eyebrows thoughtfully. "I've never had a sleepover before." Everyone, even Marinette, stared at him. "What?"

"Dude." Nino laid a single hand on his shoulder. "Dude."

Adrien pursed his lips. "A little elaboration would be helpful."

"Duuuuuuude."

Alya barked a laugh, even Marinette giggling. The small sound drew Adrien's attention, his eyes flicking her way. Which, of course, made her stop and start staring at her feet again.

Seriously?

"Don't worry, we'll make your first sleepover memorable," Nino assured, nodding quite seriously. Because, naturally, this was serious business.

"Are we going to paint our nails and braid each other's hair?" Adrien asked with a sly grin.

"Don't tempt me," Alya threatened, all of them laughing. Marinette smiled. Despite how he wanted to, Adrien decided it was probably better not to smile back at her. Maybe if he didn't put too much attention on her, she'd learn to breathe around him.

Where was the confident girl that had stood up to Chloe? That had pulled him out of the pool? He really wanted to get to know her, but she was making it near impossible. After all, he didn't have too many friends. Really, Nino was his only one. And Alya through him (Chloe, kind of, but he wasn't too sure about that anymore). Marinette seemed nice. Why couldn't she just talk to him? At least, regularly?

He'd been over to her house to play video games. That had gone okay. And she'd even had dinner with him when he'd translated for her uncle.

He didn't get it. Maybe she needed adjustment time?

But why?

The drive to his house wasn't long, the four of them tumbling out and up the stairs. Pushing through the front doors, he led them immediately up to his bedroom. Nino had been there numerous times before, and so the grandeur had long since worn off him. Alya, by contrast, simply shrugged at his skate ramp, climbing wall, arcade, and personal bathroom.

Marinette looked around, turned red, and said not a single word.

"Okay, essay time!" Alya announced, much to Nino's groaning response. Sure, it was Friday, but Adrien didn't want to be doing it last minute either. He was with his friends anyway, which was a nice change to his Fridays (which were generally spent alone). He'd take it, essay and all.

Unfortunately for Nino, the essay writing took longer for all of them than anticipated. Lounging about in his room, they worked on it until about seven, at which point Adrien ordered pizzas. They took a short break to eat, but then were back at the books. It was nice though, having people around, and Adrien found that he quite enjoyed the whole experience. Marinette had even spoken a few sentences to him during dinner, even if it had been about their schoolwork.

Progress was progress.

Adrien and Alya had finished the essay by around ten, which was excuse enough for Nino to stop. The three of them played at the arcade for a while after, Marinette determined to finish her own work despite their noise making. Eventually she came over to watch them, smiling at how thoroughly Adrien kicked Nino's butt at Dance Dance Revolution. And then actually laughing when Alya did the same to him.

She, of course, declined to play herself.

When they got to Mario Cart, however, she did pitch in. Nino and Alya didn't stand a chance against the other two once they got to the console games, much to their dismay. And when they moved on to Mecha Strike III, the only ones that even got their hands on the remotes were Adrien and Marinette.

He didn't win against her, obviously, but it was okay, in the end. Because she was so much more fun once she relaxed. By the end of the game, she was laughing, celebrating even, and Adrien was groaning in defeat. Flopping against his couch, he watched as she danced from her position sitting next him, her behavior pulling a small grin to his face despite his loss.

"You're still the best, Marinette," he said, sighing. "I didn't stand a chance." His words seemed to put a stopper on her celebration, her lips pursing as she glanced over at him.

"You're- You're really good too, Adrien." She cleared her throat. "We should play teams, on the internet. Like we did at my house. We'd be unstoppable."

"Yeah?" Adrien leaned forward again, feeling warm from her compliments. "That would be-"

"What? No!" Nino interrupted. "No more Mecha Strike. It's loud and I'm tired." He was lying flat out on the carpet beside them, moaning far more than necessary.

"I thought sleepovers were supposed to be about staying up all night and stuff?" Adrien asked, laughing.

"Someone as gorgeous as me needs their beauty sleep," Nino countered. "I'm too old to pull all-nighters."

"Wow, you better watch out for university then," Alya said, staring down at him from where she was perched on a rolling chair. "I hear it's rough."

He groaned again.

"We have been playing a long time," Marinette muttered. "It's almost one." Even as she spoke, Adrien could practically see her retreating into herself again, offering him a small smile before she glanced shyly away. He had half a mind to punch Nino for interrupting them.

"Yeah, okay," Adrien ultimately agreed.

"You said you had something I could sleep in?" Alya was looking at Nino as she asked, her boyfriend having sat up.

"Yeah. I'll sleep in this shirt and you can have the one I brought with me," he verified, Adrien looking between the two of them before his focus tripped to Marinette again. He was amused by the pale, dawning realization on her face.

"You didn't bring clothes, did you?" he asked, smiling only a little as Marinette turned to him.

"N-no." They'd come directly to his house after school, Alya's and Marinette's decision to tag along made during the day, unlike the plans he and Nino had been privy to in advance.

"Don't worry," Adrien assured as he stood. "I've got something you can wear."

"Uh, but- you don't- uh- uh-" Marinette was stammering again, Alya laughing. Supposing he shouldn't be surprised by how she'd regressed, Adrien refused to acknowledge her stumblings, instead going directly to his dresser. Pulling out his smallest t-shirt—black with cat prints on it, from his days when he'd first become Chat Noir—and a pair of blue plaid pajama pants with a tie, he then pulled out similar attire for himself before returning to Marinette.

"Here," he said simply, holding out the articles for her. She was beat red, lips pursed tight as she accepted the clothing. And still Alya was giggling, Adrien furrowing his eyebrows as he looked between the two. When he got nothing, he glanced to Nino. But his best friend just shook his head and sighed.

"C'mon, Marinette," Alya commanded as she stood, grabbing her friend by the arm. "We'll change in the bathroom." Fumbling across the floor behind Alya, Marinette said nothing, the room falling into a stifling silence once they were safely closed off from the boys.

"Man," Nino eventually interjected, Adrien still staring at the shark sign posted to his bathroom door curiously. "I swear Marinette was gonna combust. I thought I saw steam coming out of her ears."

"I don't get it," Adrien admitted, looking to Nino with a sigh as he began to change his clothes. "We were having fun when we were playing video games, but then she just… Am I really that intimidating or something?"

Nino raised his eyebrows. "Wait, you don't… That's what you think?"

"She talks to everyone else just fine. Why else would she be such a mess around me?"

"Oh, dude." Nino shook his head. "She's…" He looked liked he wanted to say something more, but clamped his mouth shut a second later, apparently thinking better of it. "You know what, don't worry about it." He waved off the situation. "Marinette just takes a bit of time to warm up to some people."

Adrien wanted to interrogate him, because Nino was holding something back, but before he could, the girls reemerged—Alya in one of Nino's shirts and pair of shorts, Marinette in his cat t-shirt and pants that were clearly way, way too long.

It was kind of cute, actually. Marinette was cute—even if she was staring down at her feet, refusing to look at him.

"Uh, so, someone can have my bed," Adrien offered and before he could finish, Nino was jumping on board.

"Alya and I will gladly accept." He winked at his girlfriend, who scoffed and rolled her eyes, giving Marinette a look that plainly said, "this guy thinks sharing is going to go well for him, but he's wrong."

"Okay…" Adrien narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "That's my bed though, so don't be weird." He knew nothing would happen, not with him and Marinette still in the room, and with Alya making the expressions she was, but he still felt the need to make it clear.

"But funny business is half the appeal," Nino objected.

Alya smacked him on the arm.

"And you can have the couch, Marinette," Adrien said as he turned his attention to her. "I'll sleep on the floor."

"Oh, no, that's okay," she jumped in immediately. "I can sleep on the floor…"

Adrien offered her a soft smile. "It's my house and if anyone is sleeping on the floor, it's me." She'd looked away again. "I'll get some extra blankets and pillows." He went to the closet to pull them out as Nino vaulted himself rather violently onto the bed, Alya sitting beside him afterward. Pulling out three comforters and two pillows, Adrien laid a set on the couch before settling himself, with the extra comforter, behind it.

"Thank you," Marinette said meekly, making her way around to the couch. Adrien simply smiled, waiting until she'd lain down to release a silent sigh. Watching to make sure everyone was settled, he then went and flicked the lights off before laying down on his makeshift blanket-bed.

As usual, sleep was hard to come by. He blamed Plagg for this. He'd never had any issues with sleeping—until he'd become Chat Noir. Something about being nocturnal, or so Plagg had said. He slept some hours most nights, but was, more often than not, spreading small catnaps out during the day and sleeping in the afternoons when he didn't have anything else going on (a rarity).

He sighed, again.

"Hey." A hissing voice beside his ear caught his attention and he turned to see Plagg sitting there. "I'm hungry," he whined quietly. "You haven't brought me any food because of your friends." He was glaring accusingly.

And, well, Adrien did feel a little bad. He should have snuck some cheese up from the kitchen and let Plagg eat on the upper balcony or something. But he'd completely forgot.

Well, he was awake anyway.

Throwing his blanket aside, he stood, cupping Plagg in his hands as he peered around the room. His night vision wasn't nearly as good as when he was Chat, but still better than most by a considerable amount. It appeared that everyone was sleeping, so he crept toward the door before quietly toeing his way to the kitchen.

Once there, he slipped through the darkness to the fridge, releasing Plagg to buzz around in a hungry frenzy. He found some camembert, as he'd begun requesting it regularly months ago, as well as a gallon of milk. Grabbing both, he got a dish for Plagg, a glass for himself, and set them up at the bar near the back of the room. Lastly, he pulled some of the chocolate chip cookies the staff regularly bought at Marinette's parent's bakery from the cupboard and took a seat.

"Oh, camembert, camembert, sweet camembert!" Plagg chanted beside him, Adrien rolling his eyes as he poured himself a glass of milk and took the lid off the cookie container.

Head propped up in his hand, he dunked one of the cookies in the milk and watched as Plagg slowly began to munch down the cheese. It wasn't exactly the most exciting pastime, despite having the best cookies this side of town at his disposal, and Adrien was soon huffing into the darkness, leaning back in his seat as he munched. He flicked his eyes to the window on the other side of the room a few times, but ultimately found no entertainment.

Shifting again in his seat, he turned toward the wall on his other side, attention snagging a moment later.

There, about six inches from his head, was a paper towel roller, conveniently sporting a roll of paper towel. The loose end was hanging down, the whole thing attached to the cabinet hanging above his head. Still dunking his cookie in his milk and munching, Adrien lazily dragged his finger down the roll, which easily began to rotate and release the loosened paper down onto the bar.

His thoughts began to wander.

What was he doing that seemed to scare Marinette so much? He just didn't get it. As far as he could remember, he'd been nothing if not nice to her. Granted, he generally tried to be nice to everyone—if only to dissuade the rich-kid stereotype that Chloe felt all too obligated to uphold—but he'd always tried to be extra nice to Marinette, simply because she sometimes looked at him like he was going to jump on her or something.

Sure, as Chat Noir, he did his fair share of jumping, but Adrien wasn't like that. "Adrien" was the perfectly behaved example of a cultured youth. Easy manners, empty expressions, the whole deal. He didn't say too much of anything, but always enough to get by. He was approachable and distant in the same moment, welcoming, but not apt to get too personal. Clearly, he'd made exceptions with Nino and Alya, allowing them into what his father probably considered the dreaded friend zone, but he wouldn't mind doing the same for Marinette. She was so nice to everyone, and seemed constantly concerned with everybody. He'd rarely met someone so seemingly selfless or ready to jump in for the sake of others—Ladybug being the exception. Granted, Marinette was also a bit excitable (when she wasn't around him) and got carried away with her ideas. But he liked that—it showed passion.

It was something he wished he could have, but wasn't allowed to feel. Too much emotion was frowned upon.

He just couldn't figure out what else he could do to make Marinette comfortable. He couldn't change the fact that he was rich, or a model (though he blamed that mostly on his father). And he certainly couldn't be blamed for his dashingly good looks. But perhaps it was these unchangeable aspects that threw her off. It irritated him, actually. Like she was judging him, maybe, even if it wasn't in a hostile manner. He wasn't his money or his job or his appearance. He liked to think he was more than that, even if others were rarely allowed to see as much.

Marinette just struck him as the type that would see through those things. So why was it she could with everyone but him?

What did she think of Chat Noir, then, he wondered?

Maybe he should ask her.

He didn't have his cat ears or senses, but, nonetheless, he felt it almost like a jolt had gone through him—like something had changed in the air. Pausing in his unraveling of the paper towel, he shifted his gaze across the room. To the door.

Plagg had already zipped under the bar, Adrien narrowing his green eye against the darkness.

Someone was there. She was quiet, but he could see her just fine. Marinette.

What was she doing, sneaking down into his kitchen?

She was looking around, her purse clutched in her hands. Odd. Of course, he wouldn't imagine anything nefarious of Marinette—she struck him as being as harmless as a mouse most of the time. But still, it was strange that she'd wandered down here.

A direct approach was usually best.

"Hey," he said, tone straight.

She must have jumped two feet in the air. It'd looked like she wanted to scream, but she slammed her hand over her mouth before she could, glancing his way in startled surprise. He grinned, reaching up for the string hanging from the light above his head. With a click, his corner of the bar lit up.

"What are you doing?" he asked smoothly.

"Adrien." She breathed out his name in obvious relief, closing her eyes as though needing a moment to collect herself. "I'm sorry- I didn't- I thought-"

"Do you make a habit of wandering around other people's houses in the middle of the night?" he asked, rather serious despite the small smile that had formed on his lips.

"What? No!" She was shaking her head adamantly, clutching her purse to her chest with white knuckles. "I wasn't- I wasn't wandering. I just- I couldn't…" She sighed, shoulders dropping in defeat—which, oddly enough, seemed to make her less nervous. "I'm sorry. I'm kind of a midnight snacker and I couldn't sleep."

"Oh." Adrien held back most of his amusement, if only for her sake. "That makes two of us." He gestured to the seat at the bar across from him. "Cookie?"

She was clearly hesitant, glancing around the room nervously before focusing back on him. Ultimately, however, she gave him a nod before scooting her way over. She sat down across from him, staring down at the bar as she bit the inside of her cheek.

"Milk?" he asked, having grabbed another glass from the cabinet above his head. She nodded and shrugged, Adrien taking that as verification enough to pour her a glass—since he was an irresponsible teenager and had kept the milk out.

While he'd done that, she'd reached into the container and grabbed a cookie.

"Oh," she squeaked, "these are my parents' cookies."

"Wow, recognized them that fast?" he asked, pushing her glass of milk across the bar. "Yeah, they're the best. And, well, my father always has to have the best. Of everything." He rolled his eyes and took a sip of his own milk.

"Is that… is that a bad thing?" she asked, clearly hesitant. But at least she wasn't stuttering, even if he could see the slight redness to her cheeks.

"Depends on where his expectations fall, I guess," he muttered.

"Ah…" Marinette was fiddling with her cookie, before finally pulling her milk closer and dunking the bottom half in. She looked around again, the silence growing, and eventually paused in her search when she saw the paper towel.

Adrien had forgotten about it.

"Expecting a mess?" she asked. A comment about which Adrien had to pause to consider before replying. Because, well, was she poking fun at him? Or even making a lighthearted comment?

He was pleased, to say the least.

That, of course, didn't mean he had a viable explanation.

"Er, well," he shrugged. "I was just… bored, I guess?"

"So you unraveled your paper towel?" she asked, cocking a skeptical brow.

Another shrug. "It was there."

"Oh… okay." No, she didn't know what to make of it. But there was really no proper recovery, so he let it lie. He could feel the way Plagg was chuckling silently, sitting on his knee under the bar, and he had half a mind to bang the kwami into the wall.

"So, uh…" He was searching for some other topic to change to. Something to get her talking to him. "What do you think of Chat Noir?"

Okay, so that hadn't been the smoothest subject change. At all. Maybe he really did need to get some sleep.

"Chat?" she asked. "Chat Noir?" She seemed to consider the question for a moment, frowning as she did. "I mean, he seems nice enough. He's a superhero and all. Why?"

"Oh, just… trying to start conversation." He'd grabbed another cookie and was focusing far too closely on it. "I prefer Ladybug myself. Chat doesn't seem like he's much help to her most of the time."

"That's not true," Marinette cut in, quick as could be. "Chat Noir and Ladybug are partners. She couldn't do half the things she does without him. I mean, sure," she cocked an eyebrow, "he thinks he's smooth stuff and is a little obnoxious, but he's invaluable to her."

"You think so?"

"I'm positive."

"What do you mean, he's 'obnoxious?'"

"Oh, c'mon." She was staring at him like he'd been born yesterday. "You've seen Alya's videos. He flirts all the time, and he's obsessed with bad jokes and puns. 'Obnoxious' is probably an understatement."

"What? No." Adrien was shaking his head. "He only flirts with Ladybug. And besides, puns are the- the crème de la crème of humor." She clearly didn't agree with him. "Think about it, they're brilliant. Creating humor by manipulating language? What more intelligent comedy could there be?"

"Plenty, I'm sure."

"Well, you're probably right about one thing," he said. "He probably does bug her."

It took all of his concentration not to grin.

"Really?" Her remaining half a cookie hung lazily in her hand, expression flat.

"What?"

"You know what really bugs me?" she asked, far too much sass in her voice for Marinette Dupain-Cheng. "Insect puns."

He did grin then, though he kept his eyes on his glass of milk. "Hmm, well, what about cat puns, in honor of Chat Noir?" She was glaring at him—he didn't have to look up to know.

"Those are even worse."

He did meet her gaze then. "Are that catastrophic for you?"

"They're definitely not the cat's meow, if that's what you're asking."

"You have got to be kitten me." He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. "Cat puns are hiss-terical."

"You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Why? Beclaws I'm litter-ally the funniest?"

"Puns are awful."

"Clawful, you mean."

"You know," she leaned forward a bit, looking at him through narrowed eyes, "I'm feline like we're not on the same wavelength about this."

Okay, yeah, he really did smile then. "You're just jealous because my particular purr-suasion of jokes are so purr-fect."

"No, they're really not." But she was grinning too, dipping another cookie in her milk, so he had to be getting somewhere. After all, nothing like a few bad puns to lighten the mood.

"Why're you lion to me?"

"Ugh."

"Just tail me what other jokes you'd rather hear, if mine are so in-furr-ior."

"Anything but cat puns."

"Ah, but puns are still a viable option?"

"I'd rather they weren't." The broad smile pulling across her lips told him different. "Seriously, you have to have something better than puns."

"Puns are always better," he assured.

She nodded once, but the gesture came across as more of a challenge than anything else. Well, he was never one to back down, especially from a cute girl that he was finally getting to say more than a few jumbled words to him.

"Okay, okay," he said far too seriously, straightening in his seat and clearing his throat. "Prepare thyself, for I am a thesaurus of excellent puns—most of which I have cultivated from the nearest corners of the internet."

She sighed—far too dramatically, as far as he was concerned.

"Tell me this." He held a knowing finger up between them. "What do coral get stressed about?"

Either she wasn't actually going to answer on principle, or was giving him the satisfaction of being able to say it himself. Either way, he didn't object.

"Current events," he said, grinning and slapping the bar once with his hand.

"That's terrible."

"What do you call a snobbish criminal going down the stairs?"

She put her finger on her chin thoughtfully. "Chloe Bourgeois."

"A condescending con descending. Also, that was not very nice, Marinette Cheng. Chloe is not a criminal." He was very specific in his wording and she actually laughed as a result. Out loud. Which caused him to, quite unintentionally, smile far wider than his father would have approved of. "How about this? Where did Noah keep his bees?"

"Oh." She rolled her eyes. "In the ark hives, obviously. What did I tell you about insect puns?"

"That you completely bee-spised them."

"Adrien, stop!" She was giggling, her cheeks finally red with amusement instead of nervousness. "They're all so bad."

"You're laughing, aren't you?" he asked, unable to hold back a chuckle of his own. "Clearly, they can't be that bad if you find them funny."

"I don't find them funny," she tried to say through giggles.

He gave her the most lackluster look he could muster.

Shaking her head, she put her elbows on the bar and covered her heated face with her hands. "I can't believe you like puns," she muttered, seemingly more to herself than to him. "Why is this my life?"

"I don't just like puns, I love them," he made a point of saying. "And you should too. They're brilliant." She peered up at him over her hands, brows furrowed in what he'd almost label as annoyance. Feigned annoyance, probably, but annoyance nonetheless.

He liked this side of Marinette.

Leaning forward on the bar, he grinned far too deviously than most people had ever seen. "A crazy wife says to her husband that moose are falling from the sky. He says, it's reindeer."

Her arms fell flat to the countertop with a thump, her lips pulled tightly into a serious expression.

"What did the grape say when it got crushed?" He leaned a little closer. "Nothing. It just let out a little wine."

She huffed.

"Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? I hear it's good, but has no atmosphere."

Was she going to smack him? He kind of hoped she'd try.

"I had a joke about murder that would have really killed, but I'm sure you're sick to death of those."

"I am!" she blurted out, speech freeing the tense line she'd forced her lips into, and so the corners pulled up into a small grin. "Where do you find all these terrible puns? I know you're not making these up all on your own."

"What?" He reared back, placing a hand over his chest. "Of course I do." No, she didn't believe him, not even a little. "Alright, alright." He slumped, giving in. "I might spend a little too much time on tumblr. There are a lot of bad jokes and it's not my fault they end up on my wall."

"You? Tumblr?" That smile was flashing broadly across her face again. "I never would have thought." A mischievous glint sparked in her eyes then, which was far more disconcerting than he'd have expected. "What would all your fans think if they knew? That the great Adrien Agreste saw all their pining tumblr posts about him."

"Hey!" He pointed at her. "I do not look myself up on tumblr." It was a terrifying thought. "I indulge in much more interesting pastimes."

She raised a single eyebrow, arms crossing over her chest.

"Well, you know," he said, abruptly uncomfortable. Because this wasn't something he was supposed to be sharing with people. He had a public image to uphold, a family name, and that meant others didn't know what he did with his spare time on the computer. Ever. Even if it was harmless. "Just… normal things."

"You know, by not telling me, you're only making it worse," she reasoned.

"There's nothing to be worse about!" he countered. "I follow video games and stuff. And sports. And… manly things."

Was that a scoff? Did she actually scoff at him? Who was she to scoff at him?

"I bet your tumblr wall is full of bad puns and… cat pictures."

He glared. She wasn't that far off actually, but most of the cat pictures were for Plagg. "And other things…" he added tightly.

She was staring at him quizzically, looking up and down as much of him as she could. It made him self-conscious, like she was evaluating him somehow, and he reached up to straighten his hair.

"I bet," she said slowly, "that your wall is just a long list of anime pictures."

He blanched. "What?!"

"Yeah, it's all anime."

"It is not!"

"It is."

"I don't like anime."

"You probably do."

"I don't."

A buzzing silence fell between them, Marinette far too comfortable as Adrien squirmed under her gaze. He didn't get it, how she'd turned the tables on him so thoroughly. Minutes before, she'd been at the mercy of all his worst puns, and now he felt like he'd been caught red-handed with his hand in a cookie jar—barring the cookies they were already eating. Her blue eyes seemed to sear right through him, far sharper and intent than he ever remembered them being before.

"I don't like anime…" he muttered, pouting, and she said absolutely nothing to verify that she believed him. "I might like a little anime…" Okay, and now she was smirking. Since when did Marinette smirk? This whole thing was stupid. "I watch some. Only a few. Not- not too many. Like, not over five. Not over a dozen. Probably over a dozen, but I'm not obsessed or anything…"

Would she stop smirking like that?

"Okay! Fine! There's a lot of anime!" he admitted in a rush, neck and cheeks red. She laughed, really, actually laughed, and he let his posture drop into a "kicked puppy" kind of bearing, which did not procure any sympathy from her. "You got me, okay?" he mumbled. "I'm a total weeb. But I have to have something to watch when I'm flying all over the world, being an awesome model! Did I mention I'm an awesome, famous model?"

She rolled her eyes. "You're not a weeb, calm down." There was a long pause, as if she were sizing him up again. "Did you watch the Sailor Moon remake?"

He slammed his palms down on the bar. "Yes! It was terrible."

"I know." She giggled, leaning forward again. "The animation was so bad!"

"I was hoping they'd make Usagi way more badass, like in the manga, and with the good characterization of the original anime. But no."

"Maybe season two will be better."

"I'm not holding my breath."

"Do you often watch magical girl animes?" she asked rather slyly.

He frowned. "Sailor Moon is a classic." He'd admitted a lot of things in the last half an hour, but the fact that he had a soft spot for magical girl anime was not going to be one of them. "Any cultured human being with an interest in anime should have watched Sailor Moon. It's, like, a requirement. Just like you can't honestly call yourself a fan of JRPGs if you haven't played Final Fantasy."

"Final Fantasy VII was not the best one."

"Of course not," he agreed with a flippant wave. "VI was by far superior."

"I've always liked IX the best."

"That one was also very good."

"But there was always something about the main character of that one having a tail that got to me," she said, glancing up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "I dunno, just seemed kind of silly."

"There's nothing wrong with having a tail," Adrien said before he could stop himself. "The protagonist in IX was a very well-rounded and well-developed character. You shouldn't judge him on his appearance."

"No, I guess you're right," she agreed before sighing. And Adrien could practically feel the way the attitude between them was deflating—like a slow leak. As if only their conversation had been keeping her from sinking into her bashful ways.

"Are you excited to play the remake though?" he asked, quickly jumping on the first thing that came to mind. "Of Final Fantasy VII, I mean. Even if it wasn't the best one in the series."

"Yeah." She nodded, smiling again. "But, I don't have a PS4, so…" She shrugged.

"I have one," he cut in, almost too quickly. "I mean, you could play it here… if you wanted to. When my father's not around." Yeah, he was flushed again. Because, really, he wasn't any good at this whole "friendship" thing. Nino was the first friend he'd ever really had, and even that he was stumbling over. He was used to being alone, to being left to his own devices. It was exciting to be talking to Marinette like this, to learn that they had more things in common than just video games. But he didn't want to scare her away either, and being too forward was likely to do that. She was skittish as it was.

"Oh…" She'd hunched into herself, eyes dropping to the bar as pink leaked up her neck. "That… I'd like that."

And because he didn't know what he was doing, and because he didn't want to make any promises that might let her down, he fumbled on when he shouldn't have. "I mean, it might not be that often, because my father doesn't like me having people over. So when he's here, you couldn't… be here. But he's gone a lot, so it'll probably be alright."

"Oh, of course."

The silence that followed was heavy and awkward, and he knew it was his fault.

Which was why he was surprised when Marinette was the one to try and remedy it. "If you tell me that your favorite character from Final Fantasy VII is Cait Sith, I might have to pinch you."

He couldn't remember the last time he'd smiled so broadly. Or honestly. It was one of the best feelings he'd experienced in a long, long time.

Chapter Text

Marinette, well, she was caught between being ecstatic and so nervous that she fell right out of her seat. Or that was what she felt like, when she had the silence to sit back and think about it.

When they were talking though—her and Adrien—it all seemed somehow easier. Even if he did share an overeager interest in puns, much like a certain cat she knew. But maybe that was okay—she'd built up a tolerance. It was too nice, sitting there in the dark with him simply chatting. They'd gotten together a few times—like before the Mecha tournament and with her uncle—but the conversation had never gone much deeper than pleasantries.

This… this felt different. Because Adrien was still the boy from her class that she'd been crushing on, but also somehow… not. Or maybe that was just part of getting to know him better. Yet, somehow, that didn't feel like the total truth. It was more like he was letting her peer behind some indivisible mask she hadn't realized was there before.

"No, no, no," he said, chuckling as he poured himself another glass of milk. "The new movies are total rubbish. Aside from the fact that Kirk would never be such a terrible captain in the first place, Spock is just too emotional."

"I'm not saying that," she replied, huffing as she stirred her fifth cookie around in her milk. "I'm just saying that they did a really good casting. It's not the actors' fault the writing is so shoddy."

"Did you see the trailer for the new one?" he asked. "My English isn't that great, so I couldn't understand much of it, but it looks like an action movie. Star Trek wasn't supposed to be action."

"If they could tie it together well enough." She shrugged.

"But they won't."

"Oh, one of little faith." Not that she was really disagreeing.

"Hey, it's not like the new movies have the best trek record, not in my captain's log."

She released an exaggerated, one-note laugh, which was enough to pull a self-satisfied grin out of him. "You're so funny."

"I do my best." He snapped half a cookie into his mouth.

They both whipped around shortly after, when light abruptly splashed into the kitchen from the hall beyond.

"Shit," Adrien hissed, standing. Marinette didn't know what the big deal was, but she stood as well, only getting nervous because he was. "C'mon," he whispered. "We need to get back upstairs."

"What? Why?" she asked quickly, watching him reach out and grab what was left of the milk gallon and the cookies, leaving his glass.

"I'm only supposed to have Nino over," he muttered, Marinette scooting around the bar to meet him on the other side. "Most of the staff wouldn't mention it, but if that's Nathalie, she's going to be mad."

"Nathalie?" Marinette asked, keeping her tone low now, as they swiftly cut across the back of the kitchen and through another door, Adrien closing it behind them just as Marinette saw a figure entering from the hall.

"My father's assistant," he explained, handing her the half gallon of milk before using his free hand to take her by the arm and gently lead her down what was some kind of side corridor. "She stays here, but doesn't usually bother me unless she has to. It'd have been different if she'd caught us earlier, but she'll be really ticked if she finds you and Alya now." Because it was late. Night. And he had people over that he wasn't supposed to—and not just for afternoon studying.

"Oh…" Marinette said simply, keeping up with him and trying not to focus too much on how his hand was wrapped gently around her arm. She clutched her purse with the connected hand, trying to think on that instead.

He led them around the backside of the house, up through the middle until they reached the foyer. He paused at an arching doorway, Marinette forced to stay close behind by the warm grip he had on her arm. Which made it difficult to concentrate. He was so close, his shoulder at her nose as he peered carefully out into the foyer. Breathing became a challenge, if only because she was so close and hit so hard by Adrien. Not the boy himself, but, rather, his smell.

Even in her head, it sounded creepy. Because, sure, in romance novels and the like, they were always going on about scent like dew in the morning or fresh sheets or similar. Like the smell of a person was not only strong enough to pinpoint, but also describe with relative terms.

But this was different. Mostly because, as Ladybug, she had a heightened sense of smell, which meant that those exaggerations in romance novels were quite real to her.

Adrien smelled like eating a batch of freshly baked cookies in the middle of a tropical rainforest. A more abstract image to pop into her head, but that was all she could think of to describe him. And even then, it wasn't totally accurate. Really, all she could know for certain was that he smelled good.

A little like leather too, but not nearly a strong as Chat's overpowering leather smell.

He smelled so good, in fact, that she had to blink in order to collect herself, before turning her nose to the side. Sure, his clothes smelled like him (which she was still wearing!), as did his room and, really, his entire house, but what had just shot through her was active scent, was him as he stood before her, and it was almost overwhelming.

"C'mon," he whispered, pulling her, stumbling slightly, out of the doorway. "Before anyone comes." Conscious of how long Adrien's pants were on her body, and of the fact that she needed to focus and not be distracted with other things, she trailed quietly after. Together, they were totally silent, the shifting of the milk in the gallon jug making the most noise as they slipped discreetly up the stairs.

Swinging to the right, they darted down the hall, practically jogging as they went to Adrien's room. It was only once they'd slipped inside and clicked the closed behind them that they both took a much-needed breath of relief.

"We left our glasses down there," Marinette realized, her whispering somewhat rushed as she looked up at him. He cringed, appearing as though he were debating on what to do. But before he could, a soft tapping on his bedroom door ran their blood cold.

For a moment, neither of them knew what to do, instead only able to simply stare at one another through bulging eyes as the seconds ticked. But then the doorknob was turning, someone was coming in, and they had to do something.

"Behind the couch!" Adrien hissed, shoving the cookie container into her hand before gesturing to the furniture. Nodding, she whipped around and scurried down behind it, listening through quiet, rapid breathing as he addressed the intruder.

"Nathalie," she heard him say quietly, Marinette thankful that the drapes over the huge windows were already pulled shut. Hopefully, that would deter anyone from noticing two bodies in Adrien's bed, as opposed to one.

"Adrien." Her voice was a little louder than his, but still low. "You're still awake."

"Yeah." He didn't offer any further explanation.

"Were you down in the kitchen?" She didn't sound accusing. Rather, she didn't sound particularly anything, but Marinette got the idea that such wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"Nino and I were down there a little while ago," Adrien murmured back. "Why?"

There was a long pause, Marinette's nerves surging with every second of it that passed. Until, finally, Nathalie spoke again.

"You left the light on," she finally explained. "And glasses out. Plus, there was paper towel everywhere. The staff is here to take care of the house, not clean up after you."

"Right. Sorry."

"Please try to be more considerate in the future. I would rather not alert Mr. Agreste, needlessly, of your activities with your friend, lest he should put a stop to them."

"Of course."

"Try and get some sleep. It serves no purpose, staying up all night."

Adrien didn't offer her a final response, the next thing Marinette heard being the door closing. She didn't get up from where she was crouched behind the couch, not right away. It wasn't until she became hyperaware of the cookies and milk in her hands that she finally unfolded. Standing, she set both what she'd been handed by Adrien, as well as her purse, on the floor beside the sofa before turning toward the door.

He was still standing there, his hand on the knob, back to her. Mariette watched him for a moment, before flicking her gaze to the bed. Alya and Nino were mere lumps of light breathing and vague snoring—they hadn't been awakened by the commotion. Which, Marinette thought, was probably good. Adrien's shoulders were stiff and he still hadn't left the door—quite as though he was too deep in his own thoughts to do so.

She bit her lip, wondering what she should do, if anything, and was just opening her mouth to say something when he finally turned.

Their eyes met in the darkness, the both of them blinking before Adrien put his gaze on the floor and shuffled his way over to her.

"Sorry," he murmured, once he was on the other side of the couch from her. "Nathalie's just… It doesn't matter."

It did matter—Marinette could tell that it did. She wouldn't say it was common knowledge, the fact that Adrien had a difficult relationship with his father. It was easily deduced, in any case, and she could see some of that spelled out before her, despite the darkness. She wanted to ask, but she wasn't sure it was her place to do so.

Maybe she just had to be more discreet about it.

"Is she going to be angry?" she asked, hands twined before her as Adrien leaned on the back of the couch. "She's going to realize we're here in the morning, isn't she?" Because he couldn't hide Marinette and Alya forever.

"Probably," he replied, their voices barely above a whisper. "But that's the thing." He grinned. "By the time morning gets here and she realizes you two stayed the night, it'll be too late. It won't be my screw up anymore, but hers for letting me get away with it. So, she won't mention it to my father. Not if there's a risk she could be punished too." It seemed clever, maybe, on the outside, but all Marinette really registered from the explanation was as sense of repressed sadness.

"Why doesn't your father want you inviting people over?" The question hadn't seemed too invasive—she'd thought it'd be safe—but when his attention immediately twitched downward, she wondered if perhaps she'd gone too far. That she'd hit that invisible line despite how careful she'd tried to be.

"He just… doesn't want me distracted," Adrien replied, his tone guarded. Whether what he said was true or not, it wasn't the whole of what he implied. "He wants me to think about my future and friends don't fit into that. Because I'll just leave them behind anyway." Bitterness. So much bitterness.

Marinette couldn't locate a response right away, instead pausing to very carefully consider what she said. "That's kind of silly," was what she finally decided on.

"What?"

"It's a silly philosophy," she said, turning away from him and sitting down on the couch, the comforter he'd given her previously fluffing up around her hips. "So many people seem to have this preoccupation with the future. With… ignoring what's happening now in favor of only thinking of what's to come. Maybe your father's right." She turned her head over her shoulder to look at him. "Maybe you will leave your school friends behind, but that doesn't make them any less valuable now. Constantly anticipating the future doesn't make it come any faster, it just rushes you through life. Enjoying the now should be a priority, even if we're still mindful of what's to come."

She turned away again, looking down between her knees at the floor. Placing her hands on her thighs, she ran them up and down anxiously, feeling the soft cotton of Adrien's lounge pants. She was hoping he wouldn't respond poorly to what she'd said, but there was no telling.

She didn't look up when she felt the couch shift beside her, as he sat down on the other side of the sofa. She was too afraid.

"You know, it's funny," he began after a second, Marinette still keeping her attention downward. "My mom, she used to… think that way."

Now Marinette had no choice but to look up, whether she wanted to or not.

"She was always telling my father to slow down, to enjoy what the world was while they had it. I think she's the one that… kept him grounded, maybe. Without her…" She watched him choke on the words, as though he simply couldn't get them out. Wedged in his throat, maybe, where it was safer to keep them.

"I'm sorry, Adrien," Marinette murmured, unconsciously reaching out to him. It was her natural compassion that spurred her, that gave her the courage to lay her hand on his arm despite how the thought of doing so would normally send her into a tizzy. Because Adrien was a human, just like all of them, and he was in pain. Model, crush, whatever, it didn't matter. Humanity was what it came down to, so that was what Marinette reacted to.

"It's not your fault," he mumbled quietly, one of those restrained, small smiles showing up on his face. After seeing him so relaxed downstairs, Marinette actually found the expression distasteful. Once, maybe, she'd thought his soft smiles were dignified. She wasn't quite so sure anymore.

She didn't know what else to say. She didn't know what had happened to Adrien's mother and she'd definitely be stepping over a line in asking that. Instead, she simply let her hand sit for a moment—she let herself be there—before watching as Adrien silently closed the subject. He turned away, an invisible barrier dropping between them.

Marinette pulled her hand away, fidgeting for only a second before reaching down beside the couch. There, she retrieved the cookies and milk again, taking the chance to slip one of the confections into her purse. Tikki was the whole reason she'd gone down to the kitchen in the first place, after all.

"We've eaten almost half the cookies in here," she whispered with a small smile as she turned to face him, sitting cross-legged before setting the cookies and half gallon of milk between them. "My parents would be so disappointed."

"What? Why?" Adrien's attitude, though still somewhat reserved, had lost some of its defensiveness. He turned to face her as well, one knee leaning up against the cushions.

"I grew up in a bakery," she mumbled, reaching for one of the cookies as she did. "There were very strict rules about how much of anything I could eat."

"I bet that was cool though," he said, grabbing another cookie himself. "You're parents seem pretty awesome."

"Yeah, when they're not being nosy."

"Better nosy than…" He stopped himself short, as if sensing he'd been about to go backward from where they'd come. "I liked your dad. It's cool that he's so into Mecha Strike. You're lucky."

So she'd been told, many, many times. Not just about her parents, but about life in general. It seemed almost unfair, that her family was so seemingly functional in comparison to his. Abruptly, she felt bad bringing it up at all.

"Hey, no, I'm sorry," Adrien cut in, Marinette unable to hide how her thoughts tripped across her face. "Your family's really cool—I want to hear about them. Don't let me and my father's… emotional constipation bother you. It's normal, at this point—I shit you not."

She almost didn't catch that one.

"That was tasteless, Adrien," she said flatly. Shaking her head in exaggerated disapproval, she reached for the gallon of milk, slipped off the cap, and took a swig. She stared at Adrien the whole time, watching as he slowly blinked back at her. He was fighting to keep a straight face, but her gulping straight out of the gallon seemed to be tripping him up. His chest was shaking with unshed laughter, it only being Marinette's sputtering giggle that finally convinced him to let go.

Probably because she'd spit up some of the milk and it was dribbling down her chin as she finally pulled the gallon from her lips. Doing her best to keep quiet, she reached up and wiped her chin through her laughter, Adrien only giggling more manically as she did.

"I'm tasteless?" he asked, snorting a bit on the words. "That's probably the least ladylike thing I've ever seen you do!"

"Well, who said I was a lady?" she asked petulantly, licking her lips inside her smile as she slammed a fist to her hips. "You're probably more of a lady than I am, Fabio."

"Hey, that's a low blow." He pointed at her through the darkness. "And I am much manlier than you are."

She rolled her eyes.

"All you did was drink milk out of a jug like an animal," he hissed, reaching out and swiping the jug from her hands. "You're not exactly setting the bar very high."

"Oh, but what a sight that would be," she awed. "The great Adrien Agreste drinking his milk right out of the jug. The impropriety! The scandal! What would your father say?"

"Your sarcasm is not appreciated," he whispered dryly, "though perhaps somewhat unexpected." He'd narrowed his eyes. "And my father would think it wholly unnecessary and vulgar."

"Best put the jug down then," she continued. "Before you hurt yourself."

His glare hardened further. "Rude."

She knew it was silly—that they were acting like children—but that didn't seem to make the least bit of difference to them. Rather, instead of acting like the adults they nearly were, Marinette watched with only halfway-contained amusement as Adrien hunched his shoulders into some of the worst posture she'd ever seen before pulling the jug to his lips. He glared at her the whole time, his adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed.

Marinette was almost taken by the sight, oddly enough, but her brain beat her body to the punch.

"Wow," she mused. "You're really milking that for all its worth."

Adrien choked. Coughed, actually, snorting a laugh as he yanked the jug from his lips. Milk bubbled from between his lips, his eyes closed tight as he tried to both swallow and laugh at the same time.

Unfortunately, it didn't go in his favor, as soon there was milk spilling out of his nose. Marinette gaped, trying to hold back her snickering and failing miserably.

"Ah, holy shit!" Adrien said a little louder than he probably should have, more milk leaking from his nose and mouth despite how he tried to swallow. "Fuck! Ow!" He was laughing though, too, his humor fighting a losing battle with his facial orifices, which left Marinette cackling at the disgusting display.

He reached up to try and quell the flow, but the way his whole body was shaking with laughter halted any really successful attempts, milk dripping onto his shirt as he set the jug somewhat snappishly aside.

Marinette was holding her stomach, doubled over, body practically convulsing as she tried to hold back her laughter. Because they couldn't be loud, not with Alya and Nino on the other side of the room, and it was taking every bit of her self control not to burst at the seams.

It was a sight she'd never thought she'd see—Adrien with milk shooting out of his nose. Part of her wished she'd taken a picture and another never wanted to share the moment with anyone else ever.

She was shaking so badly, she feared she might topple right off the couch.

Adrien wasn't fairing any better. He was still sniffing, snorting, trying to clear his sinuses despite how his own laughter was hindering any progress. Continually trying to gracelessly wipe his nose and mouth, he really only managed to smear the liquid into a sticky mess, his hand eventually cupping itself over his lips as he tried to silence his amusement.

Marinette was having a incessantly more difficult time keeping quiet, her breath huffing as she attempts. The effort was taking so much out of her that there were tears gathering behind her eyes, until finally her laughter began to slip out.

"Sh- shhh!" Adrien tried to hush, despite how his mouth kept twitching into a wider and wider smile. "You'll- You'll wake them up!" He'd reached out to her, laying a trembling hand on her shoulder.

She managed to look up at him through damp lashes, the sight of his moistened lips and chin only setting her off further. Throwing her head back, the rest of her body followed, Adrien's failing attempts to put his hand over her mouth only resulting in her falling back with him quivering nearby, their giggling only marginally discreet.

Her stomach was aching, she was laughing so hard, and trying so desperately to be quiet. She'd been aiming to flop backward on the couch, but her trajectory was off and before she could stop herself, she was tumbling over the side and onto the floor.

She hit with a thump and "hmph," her legs following her down as she slid disjointedly onto her back, knees bent as she tried to catch her breath against her laughter and failed.

Her falling off the couch only made it worse, Adrien huffing, breath rapid as he looked down at he, eyes clenching and un-clenching periodically. He tried to catch his breath a few times, but just couldn't do it. His whole body trembled as he snickered above her, eventually collapsing onto the cushions so he could curl up against his own amusement.

Maybe, really, it wasn't that funny. And maybe someone else looking in wouldn't see the same kind of humor in it that they did, but that idea was hardly relevant to them. The laughter continued, uncontrolled, until their stomachs were sore and their cheeks ached. Until they were sweating and dizzy, and totally breathless.

And even then—when they had no choice but to catch their breaths instead of laugh—short spurts of giggles managed to filter out, usually when they happened to look at one another.

It took minutes upon minutes for them to calm down, their bodies feeling prickly and weightless afterward.

Marinette was sure her head was floating up by the ceiling somewhere by the time she could breathe again, her teeth hurting and her muscles loosening in an oddly gratifying way from her position on the floor. She could hear Adrien's heavy breathing above her, the sound only bringing a wider, more straining grin to her already smiling lips.

They didn't speak for some time, as if waiting for their heads to find their way back to their necks.

"Wow," Adrien eventually muttered. "That seriously hurt. I didn't know milk up your nose would be so painful."

Marinette's whole body wanted to laugh again, but she just couldn't find the energy. She was a puddle of self-satisfied goo on the floor, the idea of moving at all completely and totally foreign.

She could barely see straight.

I haven't…" She finally managed to find a few words. "I haven't laughed like that in a long time."

"I don't think…" Adrien started between deep breaths. "…I've ever laughed like that."

The words took some moments to trickle down through Marinette's thawing body, their implications having an almost sobering effect. Her vision began to clear, her head settling back into place. Yet, she didn't know what to say. She stayed down on the floor, wondering if there was anything she even should say. But perhaps the experience was enough. Perhaps comfort, after such a display between them, would only sour what had happened between them. He wasn't trying to down them, she didn't think. Just facing facts, no matter how unfortunate those may be.

"Well, now you have," she finally decided to say, knowing the words were too late for the previous comment, as well as being repetitive. Yet, they seemed to instigate movement into Adrien, as he sat up a few seconds later and peered down at her.

His cheeks were flushed from the exertion and there was a small smile on his lips. Reaching toward her, he held his hand out, Marinette taking only a moment to gather herself before she accepted the offered assistance and let him pull her back up on the couch.

Side by side, they sat in a heap, staring heavy-eyed at the draped window in front of them.

It wasn't until Marinette was waking up that she'd even realized she'd fallen asleep. And, unfortunately, it wasn't the easy, tired-eyed kind of moment she might have preferred. Rather, it was a dream that jolted her awake—one that left a rather apparent ache in the front of her head.

Green eyes. And a boy in white. But then she could have sworn Chat was there too. Yet, before she could grab enough of it to understand, it was slipping away with the morning light that was seeping in through the cracks in the drapes.

"Well, look at you," a voice cooed in her ear, startling her some. Glancing to her right, she came face to face with Alya, who was grinning from her position bent over the couch. "Have a fun night?" Her eyes flicked to the other side of the couch—a gesture—and so Marinette turned her attention over her other shoulder.

She almost jumped right out of her skin.

There, beside her, less than a foot between them, was Adrien. He was asleep, his cheek smushed against the back cushions of the couch. His mouth was hanging open a bit and he'd curled up in the blanket originally intended for Marinette, which she'd not used. And maybe, were it not for the crusty milk remains under his nose and on his chin, she might have continued to freak out about the fact that she'd slept on the same couch with Adrien Agreste all night (well, not all night—a few hours).

But at the sight of the milk, everything that had happened the night before came flooding back. The jokes, the cookies, the laughter. Marinette's shock and panic deflated like a punctured balloon, her and Adrien's escapades having an almost calming affect on her nerves.

It'd really happened—she'd really eaten cookies all night and watched Adrien shoot milk out of his nose. Somehow, this didn't make being around him seem quite so scary.

Though the fond warmth in her chest did heat up a few more degrees.

"We were just hanging out," Marinette whispered, conscious not to wake up Adrien (who was so close!) as she turned back to her best friend. "Don't give me that look."

Alya looked far too pleased with herself, as if she'd somehow made the whole situation possible. Not that it was a "situation," per se, or so Marinette grumpily told herself. It was all perfectly innocent. Maybe even too innocent.

"I'm not giving you a look," Alya assured, despite still giving the same look. "I'm just… observing."

"Yeah, well, observe somewhere else," Marinette said with a pooch of her lips, which resulted in Alya sticking out her tongue. And soon they were both sticking out their tongues, leaning closer together as if that would somehow make the gesture more insulting.

"What are you two doing?" His voice was groggy, both girls glancing quickly around. Adrien. He was yawning, rubbing his eyes before pulling his arms above his head in a stretch. His whole body bowed with the motion, Marinette noticing the way his shirt rode up as the blanket fell away from his shoulders.

Hips. Pointed, skinny hips above sagging pajama pants.

Marinette pulled her knees to her chest and pretended to rub the sleep from her own eyes.

"I should be asking you that question," Alya replied, cocking her hips as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I thought you were going to sleep on the floor. And here you were telling Nino and I not to get up to anything."

Marinette did not appreciate the obvious implication, her head slowly turning to glare up at her best friend.

Adrien was far less bothered by the comment, grinning stupidly as he finally finished stretching—like he'd had to stretch every single part of his body—and slumped back down into the cushions.

"We were just hangin' out," he replied smoothly. "And eating cookies. And drinking milk."

"Trying to drink milk," Marinette added with a shy grin.

Adrien chuckled, still somewhat drowsy as he reached up under his nose to rub at the sticky crust there, a frown creasing his lips as he did.

"Right…" Alya had narrowed her eyes, but seemed to accept the explanation despite the curious look she cast down at Marinette. "Well, Nino's still sleeping, but I'm hungry, so…"

Adrien was already twisting around to look back at his bed, Marinette doing the same shortly after. Nino was still half covered in the gray comforter, the top if his head sticking out as well as the bottoms of his legs. The blanket moved as he breathed, shifting slightly. It didn't appear as though he was going to wake up any time soon.

Well, were that not for the way Adrien had begun creeping up on him.

Unfolding, he'd stood only a second on the couch before bending his legs quietly over the back. Hardly shifting the cushions, he silently stepped down on the other side, a devious grin spread over his lips as he eyed the vulnerable Nino.

Neither Marinette nor Alya did anything to interfere with his advances.

His creeping was initially slow, shoulders tense as he hunched a bit and toed over the floor. He'd craned his head a bit, as if to verify totally that Nino was, indeed, asleep, before hunkering back down into his predatory skulk.

He was about halfway to the bed when he paused. Balancing on the balls of his feet, he shifted back and forth just a bit, as if testing his balance and footing, before clenching his fists and sinking just a bit lower. Not totally into a crouch, but more as though he were preparing himself to pounce.

With strong, coiled legs, he then darted forward—quicker than either Alya or Marinette had expected. And silent too. He flashed over to the bed, pausing just long enough at the edge to coil again before bouncing into the air.

Hands outstretched and fingers curling like claws, he landed heavily atop Nino.

With a pained yell and a flurry of flailing limbs, Nino was awake, Adrien remaining on top of him for only a second before he was deftly rebounding from his first pounce and vaulting back off the bed again.

"What the hell?!" Nino flipped himself over immediately, looking wide-eyed and outraged as Adrien landed on the floor beside the bed. "You asshole!" Grabbing a pillow, he chucked it with only a look in Adrien's direction, but the blonde was too fast.

He'd already turned on his heel and sprinted away, skirting up to the bathroom door and slipping inside just as the pillow flew by.

They could all hear him giggling on the other side of the door.

"Children," Alya said shortly, shaking her head as Marinette smiled.

oOo

Okay, so she was only a little bit worried. But not that worried. Chat had missed patrols before—sometimes civilian life just got in the way. But he'd specifically phoned her twenty minutes ago saying he was on his way to the regular meeting place. Yet, there Ladybug stood, arms folded as she peered out over the rooftops. Evening had already dropped in, which wouldn't make it any easier to see a black form skimming across the rooftops. Still, she looked for him.

He was late sometimes, but not usually this late.

Frowning, Ladybug pulled up her yoyo and flipped it open. She tried to call Chat, waiting through the beeping that was inevitably not answered. Maybe he'd gotten caught up with something, or someone. Petty crime, perhaps. She would have preferred he'd told her though, so she could help him.

But maybe it hadn't been a big deal.

She shouldn't worry. Chat was a big boy—he could take care of himself. Especially seeing as he had the advantage of superpowers. Whatever it was that was holding him up, she was sure there was good reason.

And so she waited another twenty minutes, continually checking her yoyo for contact that never came.

Finally, huffing and ignoring the worry in the pit of her stomach, she decided that, perhaps if she got a little higher, she might have a better chance at spotting him. It was a stupid idea—she wouldn't be able to locate a black shadow in the darkness of Paris—but it was something to do to preoccupy herself. She didn't like being helpless, even if it was just the smallest of feelings.

With a snapping twist, she turned to leap out across the rooftops.

And was sent jumping backward when a lithe black shadow dropped down directly in front of her.

In her civilian form, Ladybug was jumpy anyway. But when transformed into her alter ego, she was even more so—if only for defensive purposes. Which meant that random figures falling out of the sky before her usually sent her nerves into overdrive and her heart into her throat.

But she was still a professional.

Her hand had immediately dropped to grip her yoyo, legs carrying her into a backflip that had her rocking backward until she was on her feet again. Legs spread wide, she was on the defensive, eyes narrowed as she glared at the intruder.

He was crouched, arms outstretched into claws. It was a comically exaggerated pose, actually, and was only further overstated by his manic grin.

"Chat," Ladybug said flatly, not at all amused by his entrance.

"Aw, c'mon," he whined, straightening. "You didn't even yell."

Ladybug had straightened up as well, her fists landing on her hips as she pursed her lips. Chat was still moaning over his failed attempt at scaring her, but she was too busy trying to quell her irritation to really listen. She was relieved he'd finally shown up, but, for whatever reason, his lax attitude was seriously rubbing her the wrong way.

"What?" he finally asked, upon noticing her silence. "You're not seriously mad I tried to scare you, are you?"

She wanted to smack that stupid, cocky grin right off his face.

"Where were you?" she snapped.

Her severe tone clearly surprised him, his smirk vanishing as he frowned.

"You said you were going to be here forty minutes ago," she continued. "I've been waiting." Yes, she was scolding him, and no, he did not appear to be taking it with any sense of shame. Rather, the ears atop his hair twitched before leaning back a bit, his tail whipping first one way and then another.

"I got caught up in something," he replied defensively, haughtily crossing his arms over his chest. "I didn't know I was supposed to report my every move to you."

Ladybug just barely withheld growling. Really, she and Chat didn't fight that often. Most of the time, all they did was bicker and it never escalated into much. But she couldn't help it this time, simply being angry with him and the fact that he didn't seem to take this whole thing as seriously as she did.

"If something came up, you should have contacted me. I could have come and helped you," she rebuked hotly.

Chat's eyes narrowed, ears falling flat back against his head as his tail continued twisting harshly back and forth. "I didn't need your help," he countered. "If I did, I would have called you. I don't need you babysitting me."

"I was waiting for you!"

"Well, sorry that me escorting someone home was such an inconvenience for you. Next time, I'll let her get lost alone in the dark!"

"All you had to do was pick up your baton and tell me what was holding you up!"

"Why? It wasn't a big deal!"

"I didn't know that!"

"Well, if it had been, I would have told you! What the hell, Ladybug?! I'm not helpless without you!"

"I know that!"

"Then back off!"

"I was worried about you!"

She wasn't sure whether she'd meant to admit as much or not, but it'd slipped out anyway. Still glaring, still steaming in irritation, she scowled, despite the fact that his own angry expression had been wiped away by surprise. Ears perking forward, his tail came to a grinding halt in its swinging, lips parting as he digested the words.

Ladybug tried to keep up her irritation, if only to hide the flush that was quickly rushing up her neck.

"You were worried about me?" Chat asked breathily.

"Of course!" she snapped. "You're forty minutes late and you weren't answering your phone!" She stomped one foot. "For all I knew, you could have been attacked by an akuma or something!"

"I… Sorry." Chat's ears drooped.

"You should be," she hissed. "Now let's go." Turning on her heel, she whipped out her yoyo, thankful she was no longer facing him so she could let her flush take over her entire face. Without another word, she sprung off the roof, yoyo zipping out.

She could hear Chat bounding off after her, though she didn't see the warm, quiet smile on his face.

Chapter Text

He thought it was kind of cute, actually. That she'd been avoiding him for the entire patrol. Normally, he'd have taken her embarrassment as reason enough to tease her, but she'd seemed exceptionally mortified after admitting to how worried she'd been about him. So, for her sake, he's stayed silent on the subject. He got the feeling that, if her were to bring it up, he wouldn't get the typical eye roll and scoff. Probably something worse, and he had no desire to be mean. Chat was a tease, but he wasn't callous.

As it were, they were nearing the end of their patrol, Ladybug sitting above him from their perch midway up the Eiffel tower. They were a rung apart, Adrien peering up at where her feet were dangling back and forth. It was a nice quiet between them, not forced. Sometimes these were his favorite moments with her—being able to just exist with her nearby. It was comforting, knowing she was there, even if they were only taking in the Paris cityscape, no words exchanged as soft snowflakes drifted down past them.

Reaching up, he wiped a particularly cold flake from the tip of his nose, thankful that, somehow, the leather of his costume warded off the chillier temperatures. He wondered if Ladybug had a similar-

His thoughts were interrupted when that familiar, spotted yoyo dropped down right in front of his face. Blinking stupidly, he stared it in some confusion, unable to process what was happening before it was zooming back up.

His head shot back with it, following the red blur back between her swinging feet.

She stared down at him, a grin unfolding across her lips. He smiled as well, not entirely sure what to make of her expression.

A moment later, the yoyo dropped back down in front of him. It hung there for a moment, Chat not understanding what he was supposed to do. He looked back up at her, a curious frown overtaking his smile. But she was still grinning, jostling the yoyo.

Which snapped his attention back to it.

She giggled, yanking the yoyo back up a moment later.

Chat watched it zip away with the tiniest bit of frustration blossoming in the back of his thoughts. What was she getting at?

She kept laughing, probably at the confused expression he was throwing her way. He still didn't get it. Did she want him to grab it? Why? If she wanted him to come up there, all she had to do was say so.

It dropped down in front of him a third time, Chat's eyes narrowing as he watched it shift from side to side. Well, if she wanted him to grab it, he guessed he'd oblige.

Reaching out, he went to wrap his clawed fingers around the invincible string, only to have it flit back up to her the moment he was about to grab it.

Gaping, and more frustrated than before, he stared up at her, only to see her covering her mouth with a gloved hand, stifling her giggles.

He pursed his lips in annoyance, about to say something, but then the yoyo was in front of him again, distracting him from his irritation.

A snowy breeze picked it up this time, blowing it away from him, which, in turn, made it swing back closer. Leaning back a bit, he reached up and batted it away. The force if his hit sent it rocking away, coming back faster than the time before.

He went to bat at it again, but before he could, it went zooming back up.

Leaning forward, he glared up at her, not at all amused by her continued amusement at his confusion.

Pursing his lips, he looked away, turning his head completely when the yoyo fell back down in front of him. He crossed his arms over his chest and refused to be baited into whatever game she was trying to play.

He could see the way the yoyo jiggled in front of him however, as though she were shifting it higher only a little bit at a time.

Taunting him.

He growled. Hoping to take her by surprise, he reached out for it suddenly, the yoyo barely skimming his nails before she gasped and yanked it back up away from him. Grabbing the support beam he was sitting on, he used it to keep himself seated, his gaze challenging now as he stared up at her.

She laughed, clicking her heels against her own rung before dropping the yoyo in front of him again.

This time, he didn't give her even a moment, grappling out for the yoyo immediately. She squeaked, just barely managing to bounce it back up out if his reach. He watched it with a snap of his neck, a small, daring smirk creasing his lips.

She glared at him, but her own grin was still there.

He'd get it next time.

There was her own dare in her gaze as she let the yoyo go again. Chat watched it intently the whole way, his whole body tensing with anticipation. And as it swayed to his level, the wind picked up slightly, blowing it out.

He reached for it anyway, stretching his arm as far as it'd go. He'd catch it. He had to.

But the wind had really caught it, pulling it out of reach. He strained to get it, leaning out and cringing as he did.

So close. His claws were just barely skimming the smooth surface, if he could just-

But it was zipping back up again, Chat fumbling with both hands to try and swipe it.

Or, wait…

No, it wasn't that Ladybug had yanked the yoyo back up. The way his stomach summersaulted told him that. Because, abruptly, he felt as though he were flying.

Not flying. Falling.

He'd just jumped off the Eiffel tower.

"FUCK!"

"CHAT!" Ladybug screamed his name above him, but that was hardly what he needed to be focused on. Wind whipping his hair, he grit his teeth as he reached back for his baton. The fall, when considering how quickly he was picking up speed, wasn't that far. And so he quickly shoved the rod out in front of him before extending it toward the ground.

With a harsh rebound from him, it hit the ground and he clotheslined around it, barely holding on as he clumsily wrapped his legs around the thin piece of metal.

Not wanting it to fall over, he then extended it straight up, the force of the push against the ground below keeping it standing.

Eyes wide, he shot up until he was level with Ladybug, only glancing down again once he'd sufficiently balanced the baton in place.

That had been way too close.

Ladybug was staring at him, stunned, with one hand around her yoyo and the other flat against her chest. Likely, she'd been about to go after him. Thankfully, he'd caught himself before she could—she probably wouldn't have been fast enough anyway.

Taking a few calming breaths, he cleared his throat, finally composed enough for a deep, humiliated flush to sink into his entire face.

"Well," he mumbled out. "I think it's time I went home for the night." Ladybug was gaping at him. "Yes. It's getting late. So." He bowed his head. "Farewell, My Lady." Tearing his eyes from her, he groaned to himself as he leapt from the baton, pulling it back up short before extending it again to get him from the tower and to the nearest roof.

He didn't have to look back at Ladybug to know she was still shell-shocked by the whole mortifying event.

He wanted to dig a hole, curl up in it, and die.

oOo

"Did you see the video?" Alya was whispering behind his and Nino's heads. Adrien was listening, if only because it was just five minutes from lunch and he was starving. The lecture was over material he already understood—a review—and so Alya's quiet words were the better distraction from his grumbling stomach.

"What video?" Marinette whispered back.

"The one from last night," Alya explained, stifling a laugh. "You didn't see it?"

"No."

"Oh my god, girl. It's hilarious." Adrien could hear the way their chairs shifted, meaning they'd likely leaned closer together. "Someone saw Ladybug and Chat Noir hanging out on the Eiffel Tower, so they started recording them. And part way through the video, Chat Noir fell off the tower!" She was still giggling, Adrien sighing to himself. He had half a mind to slam his head onto the desk.

"That's not funny!" Marinette hissed back. Adrien could almost hug her.

"It is so funny," Alya replied. "I'm pretty sure that, if you listen close enough to the audio, you can actually hear him swear before he catches himself on his baton. Seriously, you need to watch it."

"I don't want to watch it…" Marinette murmured. "What if he'd gotten hurt?"

"Well, he didn't, and-"

Class ended before she could finish, Adrien ignoring the warmth in his chest that had risen at Marinette's concern for him. After all, it wasn't as though she knew he was Chat Noir. Still, it was nice to know not everyone thought his idiocy was "hilarious," even if he did deserve to be laughed at.

"Hey, you guys want to come with me and Adrien to that sushi place down the street?" Nino asked, his invitation one for lunch, obviously. The two girls behind them, who he'd turned to, looked between one another before agreeing with a shrug. Casting them a casual smile as well, Adrien stood, his focus going first to Alya before landing on Marinette.

She smiled shyly back at him, but said nothing.

This was how'd it'd been all day.

Granted, he was just as much to blame as she was. Because, really, what was he supposed to say to her? She'd spent the night at his house, where they'd stayed up all night, eaten cookies, told stupid jokes, and laughed so hard they'd nearly passed out (after he'd snorted milk out his nose). It sounded awesome when he described it to himself, but then he remembered that he and Marinette weren't that close, that the evening was really some kind of a weird anomaly, and all he could do was smile at her and rub the back of his neck.

He couldn't just go up to her and say, "hey, we had a really fun time together, let's be really good friends and hang out a lot, 'kay?" Well, maybe that would work—he had promised to let her come over and play video games with him. But, at the same time, that didn't seem like it was quite socially appropriate. Wasn't friendship supposed to gradually build and then these things happened, so that the two parties could be totally comfortable with it afterward? How had he and Marinette even gotten to the point of being so comfortable that he'd brought up his mom? He didn't even talk to Nino about his mom.

But, more importantly, how did he get there again? How did he get past the smiling and actually reach the strange, amazing comfort zone they'd found over the weekend?

It was very frustrating. Or maybe he was just thinking too hard about it.

Shaking his head to himself, he slung his bag over his shoulder as he trailed Nino out to the lockers. Ahead of him, Alya was relaying to Nino the antics of Chat Noir, which he chose to ignore. Instead, he looked at the back of Marinette's head. She had it pulled back in her typical pigtails—similar to how Ladybug wore her hair—but she'd tied something new into the bands. As if to celebrate the three inches of snow they'd gotten the night before, she now had two tinkling bells hanging from each tail, Adrien watching as they jostled slightly with each step she took.

It was only when she looked back at him that he focused otherwise.

She smiled, apparently having noticed his staring, and he returned the look. She blushed, quickly glancing away again, and Adrien supposed he was glad he wasn't the only one who was uncomfortable. Then again, discomfort was pretty normal for Marinette when she was around him. Maybe he shouldn't be glad.

Agreeing to meet Nino out front, he went to his locker. Pulling on his black peacoat, he buttoned it before pulling the blue scarf his father had gotten him for his birthday from the hook in the back. Looping it around his neck, he clicked his locker closed again and slung his bag over his shoulder.

It was chilly out, snowing again, and he almost slipped on the first step as he headed down to where Nino, Alya, and Marinette were standing outside the school. As soon as he met up with them, they headed out, Alya and Marinette beside one another with Nino at Alya's ear, interjecting into their conversation from behind. Adrien was just behind him, once again contemplating his predicament with Marinette as Alya pulled out her phone to show them the Chat Noir video.

He only ended up thinking in circles, however, his attention eventually falling to other things—though these things were still pertaining to Marinette.

She really was cute. The hair he obviously liked, because it reminded him of his Lady, but it wasn't just that. He couldn't place exactly what it was, be it her smile or her fluttery movements, but there was just something about her that he found endearing. He liked to watch her—the way she walked, the way she fidgeted, the way she picked up a glass. There was something so intentional about everything she did, even when she was tripping over herself. It made him think that maybe she wasn't nearly as clumsy as she put out, that she let herself fall, rather than being unable to help it. He wanted to know why—to understand her. How was it that someone so seemingly awkward could also be so wrapped up that he likened her to an enigma.

She was simply interesting. There were layers of her that he knew, somehow, existed, that she wasn't making known to him.

But it wasn't as though she was hiding, not like he was forced to. It was more as though a mirage existed around her. She moved and people saw what she wanted them to see, making what they expected a reality.

Maybe it was caused by insecurity, by her own self-doubt, but he got the feeling that even that, somehow, was part of it all.

Why?

"You two ever been here?" Nino asked as they walked through the door to the nearby restaurant. "It's Adrien's favorite place! Guy loves himself some raw fish." Nino winked at him teasingly, drawing Adrien from his thoughts of Marinette.

"Sorry that I happen to be cultured enough to appreciate the cuisines of other societies?" he rebuked as they walked up to the hostess' podium, just inside the door.

"There he goes, being cultured on us," Nino mocked. "You know, just because you're rich, doesn't make you cultured."

"That's true," Alya agreed. "Chloe's plenty rich and I know she's not cultured."

"Don't compare me to Chloe," Adrien said with a frown. He appreciated Chloe for being his childhood friend, but she'd certainly grown up into… something else. He was still nice to her, but that was about where their relationship ended, despite what she might think.

"I wouldn't dream of it," Alya replied with a smile, laying a hand on his arm as they were escorted to a booth in the back of the restaurant. Alya slid in one side, followed by Nino, so Adrien smiled and gestured for Marinette to slide in before him.

She smiled back, of course, and was silent as she scooted.

They all removed their coats, gloves, scarves, etc, and wedged them into the corner of the booths, which pushed those sitting together even closer. Alya and Nino didn't seem to have any problems, Nino's arm slung over Alya's shoulders, but Adrien and Marinette were knocking elbows and thighs. The contact didn't bother Adrien, but he didn't want to make Marinette uncomfortable, so he slid as close to the edge of the seat as possible before pulling his arm up to lay over the back of the bench.

She was huddled in her place, opening a menu and focusing intently on it.

"Uh, wow," Alya said with a scowl as she peered through her own menu. "This place is a little pricey."

"Yeah, it's authentic," Adrien said easily. "Don't worry, I'll pay."

"What?" Marinette finally addressed him, Adrien ignoring how his heart flipped in his chest. Because usually that was something only Ladybug could do to him, so there was no reason why Marinette would affect him in such a way.

"I pay for Nino," he said with a shrug, smiling down at her. "Really, it's no big deal. I love this place and I'd rather other people enjoyed it too, rather than worry about the cost."

"Huh, I guess chivalry isn't dead," Alya muttered.

"Well, yeah, but…" Marinette frowned. "You don't…"

"It's fine, really," he assured, pulling his hand down to place on her shoulder. "Order whatever you want." He could see that she wanted to object further, but her polite manners stopped her. To continue refusing his offer would border on rude.

"Careful, Adrien," Nino warned, leaning his head toward Alya. "She eats a lot."

"You jerk!" Alya wacked him on the arm.

"Probably not any more than I do," Adrien replied.

"Seriously, you wouldn't think it to look at him, but this guy's a black hole for food," Nino explained, sounding far too aghast. "I don't think I've ever seen someone order three entrees and eat them all in one sitting. Other than him." He pointed his thumb in Adrien's direction.

"You make that sound like a bad thing," Adrien said with a mock frown. "Don't food shame me. Lunch is the only meal I get to decide for myself."

"His dad keeps him on this strict model diet," Nino muttered. "It's ridiculous. It's all balanced on how active he is and how many calories he burns. I don't even want to think about calculating it."

"The only problem," Adrien took over, "is that I'm way more active than my dietician knows I am, so…" He shrugged. "I get my extra entrees where I can." He stuck out his tongue at Nino.

"Isn't that unhealthy?" Marinette asked, brows furrowed. Leave it to her to be concerned, though Adrien wouldn't say he didn't appreciate it. "If you're more active than your dietician knows, shouldn't you tell them?"

"It's alright," he assured, offering her a small grin. Which was usually enough to tide most people over. When Marinette's expression only darkened further, his lips faltered in a way that usually only his father could procure from him. "I'm not starving, I promise," he went on, having long since grown accustomed to the sensation of always being a little hungry. "Obviously, I can get food whenever I want. We ate more than a dozen cookies between us the other night, so, obviously, food isn't scarce."

And yet she remained unconvinced.

Thankfully, Alya cut in—probably sensing that the topic was getting a little touchy, even if it wasn't dissuading to Marinette. Her concern was more than capable of trespassing over social boundaries, apparently.

"Marinette could probably give you a run for your money," Alya teased. "She's little, but she eats twice as much as I do."

Marinette glared at her. "Well, maybe I'm more active than you realize."

"You must be, considering you're way stronger than me, and all the boys in our class," Alya agreed.

"What's so wrong with me being a good shape?" she countered with a pout. "Girls can be strong too."

"There's nothing wrong with it," Adrien said. "There needs to be more strong women in the world, both physically and otherwise." He said as much as he focused on his menu, Ladybug flashing through his head.

"I agree." Alya nodded. "But Marinette still eats a ton, that's just a fact."

"Well, clearly I make use of it," was the mumbled response. "Not my fault I was raised to appreciate food."

"I thought you said your parents put limits on what you could eat because of the bakery," Adrien stated.

"They do," Alya verified. "On the sweets."

"Really, Alya? You're not going to make me feel bad about how much I eat." Marinette had closed her menu. "I eat what I want and there's nothing wrong with that. Women are food shamed all the time, which is part of the reason why we have so many issues with eating disorders and body image and-"

"I know, girl," Alya said, tapping Marinette's hand with her own. "I was just teasing. You know I'm just as much a feminist as you are."

"And I love you both for it," Nino said with a grin.

The waiter came over to take their orders shortly after, both Adrien and Marinette ordering two entrees each, as well as a separate sushi platter—if only to spite the other two.

The wait for their food wouldn't be long, not with an Agreste present, but it wasn't something they could get around entirely. Nino and Alya were soon teasing each other, Adrien watching them for a few moments before turning his attention to Marinette. She'd fallen silent after they'd ordered, which wasn't so shocking, but still drew Adrien's attention.

He ended up smiling to himself at the sight of her. She was slumping now, her eyes heavy as she stared blankly at their friends, clearly not actually watching them.

"Long night?" he asked.

"Huh?" She flicked her attention his way. "What? Oh, no. I just… The cold makes me tired." As if to accent her point, she had to stifle a yawn with the back of her hand.

"Not much of a winter person?"

"Not really," she replied. "I mean, I like winter, but there's just something about it that makes me tired. Like, exhausted all the time." She smiled. "Guess I'm just made more for warm weather."

Despite trying to find something else to say, Adrien was at a loss, only able to smile tightly back at her. And so the short discussion died, much to his nagging frustration. Marinette turned away, blinking some before her eyes grew heavy again.

Alya and Nino were giggling under their breath at each other.

Adrien silently huffed.

He watched Marinette, who, without anything to stimulate her, was getting heavy eyes again. Not as though she would actually fall asleep, but more like she was simply resting. He wanted to talk with her, but he couldn't think of anything to say. He didn't have any real qualms with simply watching her, but she'd probably notice eventually.

He tried to look away, but was caught when she shifted slightly beside him, one of the bells hanging from her hair barely jingling.

It was a cute addition to her style, and he appreciated that she paid attention to such small details. He felt like it said something more about her, though he couldn't quite place what.

Instead, despite himself, he reached up and gently fingered one of the bells, Marinette's eyes now completely closed and, thus, making her unaware of his attention. She wasn't asleep, but she was oblivious enough not to notice, and so Adrien didn't think anything of it.

Sitting slightly sideways, he rested his chin in his other hand, head slightly cocked as he ran the short ribbons attached to the bells through his fingers. They jingled as he did, the light chiming pleasant to the ears. There were two on each pigtail, so they clinked together some as he handled them, the thin metal warming under his touch.

Her hair was soft too, which he only noticed because his knuckles brushed it as he continued to finger the bells. It'd always kind of reminded him of a paintbrush—Ladybug's hair too. But it wasn't stiff or coarse. It was softer than his own hair, which was required to be pampered regularly. He wondered if it was naturally like that, or if she had a certain product she used.

It was nice, his hands getting distracted from the bells by the allure of the short pigtail. The tip, which graduated into a point, looked like it'd be stiff, but fanned out as soon as he touched it. Pinching the hair between his fingers, he rolled them gently, taking note of how thin the hairs were. Delicate, almost. Yet, it seemed bouncy nonetheless, not drab like others with thin hair could be. Her pigtails didn't droop, but stayed perfectly in place.

Yet he couldn't feel any product on the strands…

He ran his fingers down through the entire tail, eyebrows furrowing as he did. No, he didn't feel anything like hairspray or gel. Was her hair just naturally like this then? So perfectly without frizz, yet bouncy without being overly thick? How lucky.

He batted at it, the bells jingling as he did. And it bounced right back into place.

So he batted at it again. And a third time. Until ne noticed that her big, blue eyes were open, watching him from heavily lashed corners. She didn't say anything, Adrien's hand frozen mid-swipe as he considered what he'd just been doing.

It was then that the total silence of the entire table became apparent, Adrien looking quickly from Marinette to Nino and Alya. They were all watching him, concerned creases to their brows.

He cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Dude," Nino said flatly. "I get that you were, like, homeschooled for most of your life, but that doesn't excuse you being weird, like, all the time."

"I'm not weird…" Adrien defended weakly, pouting in tandem with the light flush of his cheeks.

"You were just playing with Marinette's hair like some kind of weird cat. We've talked about this." Nino laid a hand on Adrien's arm across the table, a look of exaggerated seriousness on his face. "Personal space, man. Respect it."

Adrien was not amused.

Alya laughed.

"It's fine," Marinette assured with a small grin. "Alya plays with my hair all the time." Yet, despite her claim, she did flash Adrien an oddly curious, searching look, which he didn't understand.

"It's very tempting," Alya said with a nod.

"See?" Adrien gave Nino the most superior look he could muster. "She doesn't mind." Reaching out, more so because he really wanted to than because of the point he was trying to prove, he swatted at Marinette's pigtail again, glaring at Nino.

"My name's Adrien and I'm a real cat," Nino mocked. "I don't want to be a real boy."

"Cats are awesome," Adrien defended, swatting again at Marinette's pigtail despite being somewhat unconscious of it. "I'm flattered to be compared to one."

"See, Marinette?" Alya winked. "I told you Adrien was Chat Noir. Just put some black leather on him and he fits the part."

Adrien almost choked. Almost. It was only his lifetime's worth of training in and exposure to publicly stressful situations that saved him. That allowed him to purse his lips at Alya's obvious teasing.

"Yeah, right." He rolled his eyes. "While that would be awesome, I'm too busy to be a superhero. But," he smirked, winking once, "I would fit the part purr-fectly."

Both Alya and Nino barked out laughs at his lame joke, Adrien having expected the same response from Marinette. Especially after the night they'd shared joking about how bad his puns were. But, instead, she was staring it him with wide, unreadable blue eyes, all the color having drained from her face. He tried to keep up his smirk, but her blatant staring was practically stealing it off his face.

Now he was uncomfortable. "What?" he eventually asked.

His question seemed to snap her out of whatever oddly intense stupor she'd fallen into, though the color didn't return to her cheeks.

"Nothing!" she said a little too loudly. "I need to go to the bathroom." He was pretty sure the people four tables away could hear her announcement. "Let me out."

"O-okay," Adrien stammered, sliding out quickly. She shot from the booth like she'd been burned, hold her purse so tightly that her knuckles were white with the strain.

"Are you okay?" Alya asked.

"Fine!" Marinette practically snapped, her harsh tone causing them all to flinch in surprise. "Sorry," she said then, shying away. "I just… Bathroom."

Turning swiftly, she marched away.

Sitting back down, Adrien stared after her in concern, as did the other two.

"Is she okay?" he eventually asked, turning to Alya.

"I… I don't know." All she could do was shrug, the three of them sharing in equally concerned looks before the moment was interrupted by their food arriving.

Chapter Text

"Tikki!"Marinette hissed as soon she closed the bathroom stall. Thankfully, there was no one else in the restroom, so she could panic in peace. Popping open her purse, the little red kwami zipped out, her own big eyes searching Marinette's for the reason behind her meltdown.

"What is it, Marinette? What happened? Is there an akuma?"

"No!" she screeched, the way Tikki flitted back making her more self-conscious of her tone. "I think Adrien is Chat Noir!" she whispered out, Tikki floating closer again. She slapper her hand over her mouth as she said it, like she'd just let slip some kind of dreaded secret.

"Really?" Tikki asked, seeming surprised. "Are you sure?"

"I…" Marinette took a moment to gather her thoughts—to take a deep breath and try to calm down just a little. "I'm not totally sure, I guess. But…" Well, the realization had simply smacked her before she'd had time to properly digest it. Which had sent her running for the bathroom. "I think, maybe, he could be?"

"Why do you think that?"

"Because he…" She closed her eyes, separating her thoughts and grouping them accordingly, willing away her panic in the same motion. "He likes cat puns," she muttered out. "And he was playing with my hair, like a cat. And, now that I think about it…" He'd had other strange behaviors, hadn't he? Cat-like behaviors. "Would Chat Noir have side effects from the miraculous like I do?"

"He would, yes," Tikki verified. "Why? Do you think Adrien is showing side effects?"

"He was playing with my hair, Tikki. But not like how Alya does. Like how a cat does. Even Nino and Alya said so. And he's done stuff like this before. Like the paper towels, and the hissing. Oh god, Tikki, what if Adrien is Chat Noir?!" She bounced in place, not knowing what to do with the potential discovery, which left her bursting at the seams.

"What if he is?" Tikki asked. "You don't know for sure. Maybe they just have a lot in common."

"They do have a lot in common," she murmured, as though she'd only just realized as much. "They both have blonde hair and green eyes, and they're about the same height. Same build. Do they sound the same? I don't know! Chat's always so flirty and ridiculous, I hadn't noticed before if they have the same voice. Because Adrien isn't like that, is he?"

But, then again, maybe he was? No, he wasn't nearly as flamboyantly flirtatious as Chat, but that didn't mean he couldn't be. Adrien Agreste had an image to consider, a reputation. Chat's reputation was built on his actions, not on a name.

"Oh no, Tikki, what do I do?" The boy she'd been crushing on forever could be her partner! The annoying cat she'd come to depend on and trust, and who was one of her best friends. Who was constantly flirting and- and-

Wait, had that been Adrien flirting with her the whole time?

She felt lightheaded.

"Take a deep breath, Marinette," Tikki said calmly. "You don't know for sure if it's true or not. Maybe it's just a coincidence. There's no reason to get upset. Unless, of course, the idea of Adrien being Chat Noir is bad?"

Was it? Was it bad? Marinette didn't know. She'd always kept Chat at a distance because of her feelings for Adrien. She'd never thought of him that way, despite his playful advances. But if he and Adrien were the same person, what did that mean? Did that mean she had feelings for Chat after all? Or were they separate? Yet, she'd gotten to know Adrien a little bit over the weekend, which had only revealed that he was even more like Chat than she could have originally fathomed. Yet she'd only liked him more as a result.

And disliked the mask he'd always worn—that which she'd always thought was Adrien Agreste, but maybe wasn't? No, that wasn't right. Was he both?

"Oh god," she choked out. "I like Chat, don't I? I like Chat Noir." Whether Adrien was Chat or not, this realization cropped up almost as harshly as the one she'd had out in the restaurant. Because if Adrien was more like Chat than she realized, and she liked him even more upon getting to know that, then she must like Chat too. Maybe it sounded like some kind of demented math equation, but the clarity of the idea made it apparent it was true. If only because of the way her heart flipped in her chest.

She liked Chat. She liked Chat and Adrien.

Adrien was Chat. Maybe?

"You wouldn't be the first Ladybug to fall for Chat Noir, Marinette," Tikki replied. "Nor will you be the last. Chat Noir and Ladybug are partners—they're supposed to be together."

"Yeah, but, together together?" she gasped out.

"That's up to you." Tikki shrugged.

"Can you tell?" she asked. "Is there some way for you to know if Adrien is Chat Noir?"

"No." Tikki shook her head. "Plagg and I agreed a long time ago not to reveal our hosts to one another, not before they find out for themselves. It tends to get messy if we force it prematurely."

"So- So Chat has a kwami too, right?" She knew this, but she asked anyway.

"Yes."

"Then Adrien could have a kwami?" she deduced.

"If he's Chat Noir, then Plagg is his partner. Just like I'm yours."

"But Adrien, he can't be Chat Noir," she continued, more to herself than Tikki. "Adrien is polite and well mannered. He's- he's not like Chat." But, what did that really mean? Because Chat was polite, really, in a roundabout way. And he was well mannered, even if he projected like he wasn't. He'd never done anything inappropriate, never stepped over any lines. He was respectful, even if his flirtations would lead someone to assume otherwise. And like Adrien, he was kind, considerate. Intelligent. Compassionate.

He was always putting himself in harm's way for her. Would Adrien do that?

Was Adrien that… dedicated to her?

"But… what if he's not Chat?" she murmured, unaware of the oddly forlorn tone to her voice.

"Oh, Marinette." Tikki flitted right up in front of her. "You won't possibly know unless you confront him." She gaped at the idea. "And if you don't want to do that, there's no point in worrying yourself sick about it. If you're not sure, then watch him. Watch Adrien. Maybe you'll notice something that will debunk the idea. Or that will prove it's true. But panicking about it isn't helpful to anyone." A soft scolding. "Chat Noir is your friend, Marinette. And so is Adrien. Would it really be that bad, if they were the same?"

"I don't… I don't know," Marinette said, shoulders slumping as she stared at the floor. "Maybe- maybe not."

"Then what are you so upset about?" Tikki asked with a smile.

"I… I'm just shocked, I guess." That, if Adrien was Chat, he'd been in her class this whole time. Sitting right in front of her. She'd been to his house and they'd eaten cookies together. They'd shared bad jokes and laughed till their sides hurt.

They'd connected and it'd been so easy.

Because, maybe, there was a precedence.

"You should go back out with your friends," Tikki said. "They'll be worried about you."

"You're right," Marinette agreed, shaking her head as though to rid herself of any extraneous thought. "I should… I'll head back out." She was still in shock—still trying to digest. It felt like her whole world had been turned on its head. But she was Ladybug, wasn't she? Ladybug wouldn't let this sort of thing get to her—she'd push forward and deal with it.

So that was what Marinette would do too.

Nodding, she opened her purse for Tikki before heading out of the stall. Taking a deep breath, she steadied her legs as she walked out into the restaurant, schooling her expression into something calm and collected—even if her insides were roiling.

The food had arrived—she could see it as she approached the table. The other three were eating, but looked up when she approached.

"Are you alright?" Adrien asked almost immediately, Marinette swallowing hard as she looked to him. Green eyes—so green. And if he mussed his hair slightly, it'd look convincingly like Chat's. Just add the ears.

They really did look… identical. How had she not seen if before?

"I'm fine," she choked out. "I just got an upset stomach all of a sudden, but I'm good now. Promise." She smiled awkwardly, aware of the concerned looks all her friends were sporting. "Can I sit down?"

"Oh, yeah!" Adrien jumped up, gesturing for her to sit. Smiling tightly, she slid back in where she'd been before, Adrien settling down beside her, still looking far too concerned.

"Wow, this looks really good," she said as she surveyed her order, far too invested. She didn't meet the eyes of any of her friends, thankful when her first bite seemed to dissipate their suspicions. Nino and Alya took back up whatever conversation they'd been having in her absence, Adrien grinning just barely around his sushi.

Marinette couldn't help it now, watching him. She tried to be discreet, whether she was or not a mystery to her. It was as though she saw Chat everywhere in him now. All that which had previously been Adrien, which had been unlike Chat, was now overpowered by that which "wasn't." As though she just hadn't been able, or been unwilling, to see the resemblance before. But now that she could see it, she couldn't unsee it.

The way he sat, ankle crossed over his knee under the table. The way he handled his food, fingers delicate and precise, but quick in their movements. Even the ways in which he cocked his head, as though he was so accustomed to having an extra pair of ears that he moved as though they were there even when they weren't.

It was small, subtle things, but she knew Chat so well, she was picking up on it all right away—now that she knew where to look.

In sent butterflies loose in her stomach, the idea that—at that very moment—she could be sitting next to Chat. Her partner; the friend she trusted so completely with her life. He could be the young man right beside her, eating sushi while discreetly trying to slip some of the cheese coated morsels into his backpack.

Oh god, Adrien was slipping sushi into his backpack!

The same way she sometimes did with food for Tikki when she went out.

And the only reason she'd even noticed at all was because now she knew to notice. She understood what he was doing—a motion so familiar, yet would have gone completely under her radar simply because he was so good at hiding it. He was feeding Plagg.

Plagg was with him.

Just like Tikki was with her.

If, if, he was Chat Noir. She had to remember the "if."

Geez. Plagg was in his backpack. Wow. This was almost too much.

So similar.

It was almost ridiculous.

"Man, I don't know how you don't get tired of that stuff," Nino was saying, eyeing Adrien's multiple trays of traditional sushi. "You eat it, like, every day." Marinette tried to focus back up on the conversation, if only to stop herself from internally combusting about other things.

"I bet your trips to Japan with your dad were always exciting," Alya joked.

"Uh, not really. My taste in sushi is… more of a recent development." He shrugged.

"Yeah? How recent?" She shouldn't have asked. Marinette knew she shouldn't have asked. But all her head was chanting was "Chat! Chat! Chat! Chat!" She was betting his interest in sushi, in fish, was only about as long as Chat Noir had been around.

"Uh, last year or so," he said simply, popping another bite into his mouth with his chopsticks. "I mean, I've always liked it, but it's just something I've been more in the mood for recently. Settles my stomach, actually."

Marinette nearly face-palmed, but was just able to hold herself back.

She wasn't going to survive this.

Afraid of what might slip out, she stayed purposefully silent for the rest of their lunch, all of them standing to leave when they had about fifteen minutes left of their break. Slipping on their coats and other winter essentials, they headed out into the snow, Alya at Marinette's side as if she'd noticed her continued odd attitude despite any attempts to hide it.

Nino and Adrien were bickering behind them, laughing and poking fun at each other. Marinette only half listened, using all the force she could to try and think of anything but Adrien. The effort was giving her a headache.

Her severe concentration was broken about halfway back to the school when someone's hands lifted swiftly at her pigtails, sending the bells jingling.

Nino was arm in arm with Alya, so it could only be one person.

Adrien was playing with her hair again.

Her heart almost vomited right out of her mouth.

"Dude, what is up with you and Marinette's hair?" Nino asked, when Adrien had patted her pigtails a second time before batting up at them again.

"Pigtails are cute," he admitted, no shame at all. "What? She said she doesn't mind."

"Per-son-al space, man!" Nino said slowly, as if doing so would somehow spell out the idea. "You're such a weirdo. Why is it that no one seems to realize this but me? You're weird!"

"You're weird!" Adrien rebuked childishly—as if unable to come up with any better a response. Which was reasonable, she supposed. What would he even say? "I can't help it? Dangly, shiny things catch my attention these days because I'm part cat!"

His toying with her hair became more insistent, and she could see the way Nino was glaring at him. They were probably glaring at each other, Adrien's behavior only spurred more by the fact that Nino was pointing it out.

Well, she was about fed up. With all of it. She didn't let Chat get away with being obnoxious, so she shouldn't let Adrien either. It was then that she realized what a bias she'd really had—because if she'd never realized who Adrien could actually be, she would have been ecstatic over the attention, no matter how odd it was. But the idea of Adrien being Chat had somehow grounded her infatuation—even if it was still there—which meant she wasn't about to put up with his childish antics.

"Okay!" she announced, when her pigtails were still being violated. "That," she whipped around, her pointer finger extended as she shoved it right up onto the tip of Adrien's nose, "is enough!" He stumbled back, eyes going crossed as he stared down at her finger, her reprimand taking him by surprise.

Pulling her hand back, she gave Adrien one stern look as he pouted, rubbing his nose with his fingers, before she whipped around and headed off again.

Nino was laughing and Alya, well, she was gaping—because Marinette had never treated Adrien like that before. And considering how nervous she normally got around him, it was probably pretty surprising. It was a little surprising to Marinette too, but, then again, if Adrien was Chat, then she had no reason to be anxious around him.

Mostly because Chat was a giant dork and there wasn't a single thing about him she found intimidating. She respected him, sure, among other things, but she certainly never got nervous around him.

She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of making her nervous—not anymore. Stupid cat, she couldn't believe he'd actually done this to her—made her fall for him as Adrien. What a trick. It was embarrassing. How he'd laugh at her if he found out.

Ugh.

"I thought you didn't mind," Adrien said uncertainly behind her, far too much mope in his tone of voice.

"Well, now I do," she said shortly.

"What…? Why?"

"Because you're irritating."

"Oh… What?"

"You're irritating me," she said flippantly, Nino laughing harder as Alya's gape only got bigger. "Go chase snowflakes if you really need something to do."

"Um, rude," he rebuked, much like he had the night they'd spent hanging out in his house. There was a slight pause before, as if to add ammo to his point, he reached up and actually yanked on her pigtails.

"Don't do that!" she hissed, whipping around and slapping him once on the shoulder. He shied away from her, chuckling, and held up his hands in mock defense. She leveled a finger at him, a warning, which did very little in making him ashamed of his actions.

"Okay, kiddies, I thought we were adults here," Nino interjected, despite his teasing smile.

"Hah!" was all Marinette managed to say before turning on her heel and stalking toward the steps of the school.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Adrien asked, jogging after her. "Hey!"

They'd left Nino and Alya behind.

"It doesn't mean anything," she said simply. "Why? Are you paranoid?"

"No…"

She grinned. "Then don't worry about it."

Without another word, she headed inside. She went straight to her locker, aware that she'd lost Adrien somewhere along the way. Knowing Chat, though, he'd show up again, so she kept up her guard. And was, therefore, not surprised when she closed her locker and he was standing there, glaring down at her.

"I'm totally adult, thank you very much," he said as soon as she'd caught sight of him.

"Yeah, I bet," she said dryly, rolling her eyes as she turned away from him to head to class.

"I am!" he continued to claim, sidling up beside her. "I get dressed and feed myself all on my own. I even do my own laundry once in a while."

"Shocking!"

"I know! I'm very talented." He laid his hand on his chest, grinning like an idiot, and Marinette was, in that moment, wholly convinced he had to be Chat. He looked and sounded just like him.

"Those are the kinds of skills that will get you places," she agreed as they walked into the classroom together. "Next thing you know, you'll be cooking your own meals and setting your own bedtimes."

"Exactly. I'm looking forward to putting all that on my resume."

"Adrien Agreste," she mocked as they headed to their seats, "professional model and average adult—knows how to use a microwave."

"You can make almost anything in a microwave," he pointed out civilly, leaning backwards on his bench as Alya and Nino joined them. "Ask anyone. I made a cake in a microwave once."

"Then it wasn't a real cake, trust me," she made quite clear. "I grew up in a bakery—I know cakes. And no self-respecting cake can be baked in a microwave."

"I ate it. All of it."

"Probably gave you brain damage…" she muttered.

Alya gaped at her again. "Marinette!" she squawked, clearly taken aback by the insult. Because who in their right mind would dare insult Adrien Agreste anyway, let alone Marinette? Well, how the tables had turned.

"I do remember feeling somewhat nauseated afterward," Adrien admitted. "But I chalked that up to being a twelve year old and eating an entire cake by myself, not the cake itself. But even if it was bad, I don't see how it could feasibly give me brain damage."

"It's all those micro waves," Marinette said simply, as if it were obvious. "We don't even keep a microwave in my house and look how well I turned out." She smiled sweetly at him.

"Please, I sit in front of you in science. I saw your grade when the tests were passed back." Her eyes bugged, as it was her turn to gape. "Maybe it's not micro waves, but there's something going on there." He pointed in her general direction, finger snappy.

"Adrien!" Even Nino was offended on her behalf.

"I can't believe you looked at my grades!"

"I can't believe you think I got brain damage from a cake!"

"Well, obviously it wasn't just that. Probably all the chemicals you put in your hair too. How many bottles of hairspray did I see in your bathroom? At least half a dozen?" She grinned again, shrugging innocently.

"I take hair care very seriously!" he hissed.

Marinette crossed her arms haughtily over her chest. "Yeah, I bet you do."

"What is going on over here?" Both Adrien and Marinette snapped their attention to where, lording over their desks, was Chloe. She had her fists slammed on her hips, eyes narrowed she looked first to Adrien, then to Marinette, and back again. "Is she bothering you, Adrien?" She'd gestured to Marinette with her thumb, almost as if she wasn't even there—or at least not worth acknowledging directly.

"What?" he asked.

Marinette found she didn't like watching it, how all the Chat just seemed to seep from his expression. It wasn't that she preferred "Chat" to "Adrien," but she could see that mask falling into place. Maybe Adrien wasn't as totally boisterous as Chat, but he certainly wasn't the blank slate that was wiping through him, accented by the way he hunched his shoulders almost defensively away from Chloe.

"Marinette," Chloe replied simply. "I heard what she was saying. If she's bothering you, you can come sit by me." She leaned over Adrien's desk, smiling and batting her eyelashes.

He leaned further away, smiling uneasily.

Marinette curled her lip, already disgusted. As well as jealous, but that was pretty normal. The difference, this time, was that she was offended at the audacity Chloe had in marching over and interjecting herself between them—between Ladybug and Chat Noir. This wasn't just Marinette and Adrien anymore, and Chloe had no right to impede on that. Not as far as Marinette was concerned.

But there was nothing she could do about it.

"She's not bothering me," Adrien said simply, offering a little bit more of that soft smile. As if that would somehow pacify the situation. "I'm fine. We were just joking around."

"'Joking around?'" Chloe asked snottily, Marinette rolling her eyes as she sank in her seat. "That's not what it sounded like." She glared pointedly at Marinette, who cocked a single eyebrow at her. "How dare you talk to Adrien like that. Who do you think you are?"

Marinette narrowed her eyes into her own glare.

"Stop it, Chloe," Adrien said, voice even and smooth. "She wasn't doing anything wrong."

"I beg to differ," was the petulant response.

"Put a sock in it, Chloe," Alya spit out.

"Mind your own business!"

"Chloe, stop. You're being mean," Adrien scolded evenly, finally pulling a small frown. "Marinette's my friend. We were just talking. You don't need to worry about it." Or be so protective, Marinette was thinking. She was pretty sure she'd heard that Adrien and Chloe had been childhood friends. Were they still?

"I will worry about it!" she pushed on, scowling at Marinette. "Watch what you say! Adrien's twice the person you ever will be, he was born that way, so you'd better watch your step!"

Alright, Marinette definitely wasn't going to take this kind of abuse. Standing, she was leaning out over her desk, glaring hard at the blonde. "Why don't you watch your step, Chloe," she murmured dangerously. "It'd be too bad if your designer shoes ended up outside during gym class."

"Is that a threat?"

"It's an option," Marinette corrected. "Don't push me." She probably wouldn't put Chloe's shoes outside, not unless she got somehow more intolerable than usual, but, damn, if Marinette wasn't angry about what she'd interrupted.

Chloe was growling.

"Just stop," Adrien cut in, tone still even, if not stiff, as he reached up and laid a hand on Chloe's arm. Marinette would be lying if she claimed the gesture didn't infuriate her further. "Class is about to start."

Still seething at Marinette, Chloe continued to glare for a few more moments before huffing in a rather snotty manner. "You're always welcome at my table, Adrien," she said as she whipped around, marching back to her seat before slamming herself down on the bench.

Adrien watched her go, Marinette sitting back in her seat with a rather apparent thump.

As if hearing the noise, Adrien immediately turned back to her. She took in his uncertain, questioning look for just a second, before she focused down on her desk, still pulling a rather irritated expression. She said nothing. Neither did anyone else. And if Adrien had been going to, he was interrupted when their teacher walked in to start class.

Marinette didn't dare peer up again, not until she knew he'd sat down. She wasn't really angry, not anymore anyway. Chloe was always ridiculous and she wasn't exactly the type to hold a grudge. No. Mostly, she was frustrated. Because she didn't understand Adrien. Granted, he had a history of being civil with Chloe and generally putting up with her attitude, but now that she knew about Chat, it didn't make any sense. Why wouldn't he tell her to buzz off? Instead, he let her pick a fight over him, with barely an attempt at stepping in to defend his "friend." Now, perhaps she was a little biased, being Ladybug and all, but it seemed almost… cowardly to do nothing, as Adrien had. And Chat was definitely not a coward.

In fact, Chat was so far from being a coward that the whole situation made her doubt Adrien being him altogether. It was only her good sense that told her to scratch that and think about the situation more thoroughly. Really, the only time she'd ever remembered Adrien calling Chloe on her crap was when he'd been helping her with her uncle from China. And even then, he hadn't been as confrontational as she had been. Chat though, he was plenty confrontational.

So why…?

She stared at the back of his head, taking in the tension to his shoulders and the way he was hunched over the desk. She'd seen Adrien like this before, but it was nothing like how he'd been at lunch, or even when they'd been talking before Chloe had butted in. He was closed off, if not still approachable simply because Adrien was known for being nice. He'd been much more open only moments before, and at the sushi place. And during the sleepover. But he didn't appear defensive or aloof, so…

If he wasn't a coward and he wasn't standoffish, then…

Was Adrien, was Chat, shy?

The term didn't ring completely right in her head, because if he was shy, it wasn't in the traditional, stereotypical sense (not like he got uncomfortable meeting people or even conversing with their classmates). Yet the term was the closest she felt she could get. Because Adrien struck her as being almost timid now. She'd always just chalked his behavior up, previously, to being, like, the nicest person in their class. But knowing him as Chat skewed her perceptions. Chat wasn't nice to everyone—he could throw some pretty good shade when he wanted to—but Adrien never spoke a foul word about anyone.

Why would Adrien be so shy, so reserved, that he'd let Chloe walk all over him? That he'd been letting her all year (and probably prior)? It wasn't like being Chat turned him into a completely different person—she'd already been tallying their similarities. More importantly, though—just before Chloe had interfered—she'd had him bantering with her like Chat would with Ladybug. Yet, as soon as Chloe had come up, his personality had done a complete one-eighty.

Would he have behaved that way if anyone had interjected, for any reason? Was he only able to be silly and tell jokes with people he was comfortable with?

Did that mean he was comfortable with her? With "Marinette?"

Why would Adrien be shy to begin with? He was a model! And an Agreste!

Unless… that was the whole thing to begin with. He'd been homeschooled most of his life, controlled by his father, scheduled excessively. He even had a dietician. If she took these variables into account, then maybe it made sense. He was sheltered, had probably spent a lot of his life alone.

So, if Adrien was shy, why was Chat… not?

Unless… Was Chat shy too? She supposed it might be harder to tell. For one, when they were masked, they were usually more preoccupied with akuma than social niceties. There was also the added addition of no one knowing who they were, so they could act however they wanted without consequences to their regular lives.

Was that it?

She couldn't be sure—she wasn't even positive "shy" was the correct word to label him with. Maybe he was simply… insecure? "Shy" just didn't seem right.

But, she did know one thing for certain.

It was pretty much the most adorable thing ever.

Now, she wasn't saying it was adorable that Adrien let Chloe act around him as she did, but when she considered Chat—that it was Chat acting this way—well, it was almost too much. She was smiling about it despite herself. She didn't exactly like the potential source for such behavior, but she could appreciate it on a base level. Flirtatious, cocky, self-assured Chat was actually a timid, insecure boy that was currently sitting, tense, before her, probably worried that his own restraint had made his "friend" angry with him.

She didn't need him to defend her, really, and wouldn't expect it, but she could understand his sentiment.

Wow, this was just… She'd have to investigate this more later, with "Chat." Until then, however, she was mostly overcome with bittersweet sympathy. Poor Adrien. She should do something to reassure him. So he wouldn't think she was irritated with his behavior.

Tapping her nails on the edge of her tablet, she considered her options before reaching into her bag under the table. She pulled out her notebook, flipping it open to the first blank page. Slowly, so as not to make any noise over the lecture, she tore a page from the binding before ripping a smaller piece off of that. Crumpling it into a small ball, she narrowed her eyes at the desk in front of her.

She had excellent aim, thanks to her yoyo and advanced senses. Just based on the weight of the paper ball in her hand and the size, she could estimate how hard and where to throw it. With a flick, she sent it flying over Adrine's shoulder, knowing it'd landed on his tablet in front of him by the way he flinched in surprise.

He picked up the paper ball a second later, examining it before setting it aside.

Marinette ripped another piece from the page, ignoring the, once again, shocked look Alya was giving her as she rolled it.

Biting her lip, she threw the new ball over his other shoulder, the aim just perfect enough that it skimmed the bottom of his hair on the way by. Before landing on his desk.

His head twitched to glance at it before he picked it up and, looking at it only shortly, set it off to the side with the other one.

Marinette held back her grin. She could see in the way his posture had calmed and how his head was cocked just slightly that he was waiting. He was on guard.

She slowly tore another chunk of the paper, able to imagine how his ears would have twitched in her direction had they been propped up atop his head. He'd be ready this time.

With the paper rolled, she flicked it over his right shoulder, this time further to the outside, and had to bite her cheek when he twitched to watch it before it'd even landed. With reflexes no normal human would have, his hand bolted out and came down hard on the paper ball, catching it against the desk before it'd even come to it's intended landing.

She laughed, but kept it inside.

He tensed as soon as he heard her ripping another piece of the paper, waiting like a stalking predator for her to make another advance. With precise showmanship, she flicked it at the perfect angle right over his head. If he wasn't quick, it'd land just over the edge of the desk on the other side.

Not that she should have underestimated him. He was ready, reaching up with slicing speed to catch the ball before slamming it to the desk, trapping it beneath his palm.

"Mr. Agreste," their teacher said suddenly, Adrien's attention snapping her way. "Is there a reason you're slapping your desk? Do you need something?"

"Ah, no, sorry," he said lamely, staring dutifully back down at his tablet.

Marinette rolled her eyes, but thought it was probably best not to throw any more paper. Instead, she tried to set her attention up on the lecture, but was quickly pulled away from it again when a sheet of folded paper was tossed back onto her desk.

Looking around only quickly to make sure no one important—like their teacher—had seen, she opened it.

Are you trying to get me in trouble?

She smiled, reaching into her bag to grab a pencil before writing a reply. Alya was leaning toward her, reading over her shoulder, but she didn't mind. Not like anything incriminating was going to be written between them.

Just making sure you were awake ;)

Folding the note up, she skimmed it back down to him, not at all as surprised as Alya when he snapped it right out of the air, catching it as it zipped by his ear.

It didn't take him long to discreetly toss it back over his shoulder to her.

Since when was it your job to keep tabs on me?

The exchange continued for some minutes, Alya always leaning in to read when it was Marinette's turn to write.

I do sit behind you. It seemed like the considerate thing to do.

Ah. Clearly, this was all about my wellbeing and productivity in class. How thoughtful.

Of course. Wouldn't want you falling behind, as you're so smart. Obviously smarter than me.

I really did see your grade by accident. Besides, I'm sure there were a lot of people who did worse than you.

How encouraging.

I'm good at science stuff. I could help you if you want.

Alya gave her a "look" after reading that one, as if to say, "if you don't take advantage of this opportunity right now, I'm going to do something drastic." So Marinette had no choice but to take him up on his offer, even though she wouldn't have said no anyway.

That might be good. I'd like to keep my grades up if I can, but science isn't really my thing.

Cool! Can I have your number? So we can text? I don't have it.

Alya was jabbing her in the side with her elbow, jostling Marinette as she tried to compose some kind of response. It was stupid, she knew, that she was fumbling now, just because Adrien had asked for her number. Especially since she and Chat talked over their "phones" all the time.

That was what she had to keep telling herself. This was Chat! So there was no reason to feel all fluttery because he was asking for her number. There was nothing romantic about it, at all, and even if there was, it's Chat!

But also Adrien. Adrien and Chat. What did that mean? Agh! She just needed to give him her number and get it over with. She'd leave out the fact that she had his already—like she'd ever admit to Chat that she'd gotten it from Alya in an attempt to leave him a ridiculous message.

She tossed the note back with her number and a smiley face, jumping only a bit when it was her phone that buzzed next, as opposed to the note sliding across her desk.

Adrien 3 3 3: Awesome! I'm busy most of this week, but maybe we can hang out this weekend?

Marinette tapped her fingers on the side of her phone, pooching her lips as she considered what to type. Well, first and foremost, she had to delete the hearts from Adrien's name. So she did that. Then returned to the message.

His use of the term "hang out" was curious, as it wasn't implying only that he'd help her with science. But he had previously claimed she was his friend, so maybe assuming it was more was safe. Yes. Probably. Chat wanted to hang out with Marinette—Ladybug was going to get to know Chat outside the mask. They were going to be friends. Marinette and Adrien.

Her stomach twisted in both apprehension and excitement, both of which she had to quell before she could type out any kind of response.

She eventually settled on a simple: Sure! Sounds good!

That seemed to close the conversation as, soon after, their teacher called everyone together to work in groups and there was no time for texting. Adrien eventually ended up leaving early for a photo shoot, and so, without him there, Marinette was finally able to relax a little.

Which only made her sleepy, exhausted from the day's revelations. Alya wanted them to hang out after school, probably to talk about everything that had happened that day. But Marinette refused.

Instead, lethargic and drained, she dragged herself home and fell into bed.

oOo

She was standing with one leg pulled up on the edge of the roof, the winter chill whipping at her back as she peered out over the city. She hadn't originally planned to be out as Ladybug that Friday evening, but the akuma attack had forced her hand. Thankfully, it'd been an easy process—neither she nor Chat had been required to use Lucky Charm or Cataclysm. Which was why she was now in no rush to get home, instead surveying the city below where, moments before, there'd been damage spread as far as the eye could see.

Sometimes, the power Tikki had given her was astounding.

"Another job well done." Chat had come up beside her, grinning as he did. She flashed him a smile as well, always preferring the easier purified akuma to the ones that wore them out entirely, for obvious reasons. But with the lack of challenge, there was no excuse for them to part ways, with the exception of claiming prior engagements. Marinette had considered the lie, but knew there was no reason for it. She'd already patrolled with Chat twice that week and made it through just fine. One more night wasn't going to send her careening into revealing herself. Besides, they worked together all the time—she had to learn to deal with it.

Learn to accept the fact that it was Adrien (potentially) in the leather cat suit fighting at her back.

"Of course!" she said simply. "As if some silly akuma could get the best of us." She almost tapped his arm, a friendly gesture, but then hesitated. It was stupid—Ladybug had no issues being friendly with Chat. But this was also Adrien, so what did that mean?

No, it didn't mean anything. She couldn't let her knowledge interfere with their partnership. Neither Chat nor Adrien would appreciate that. Chat was Chat, simply put, and there was no reason to act any differently.

"We are the purr-fect team, My Lady," he murmured, leaning in closer to her. She cocked a skeptical brow at his devious grin, not falling for his suggestive stare, before turning back out to watch the city. She wondered if she could wheedle such a look out of Adrien. For all the playful banter they'd been sharing in the last week, she hadn't gotten him so far as to flirt with her. But maybe that was something he only saved for Ladybug.

Like Adrien had said during the sleepover—Chat only flirted with Ladybug.

A slight frown creased her lips, but she didn't let herself focus on the cause for too long.

Rather, she was distracted when one of those clawed hands came up and batted at her pigtail. Looking over quickly, she saw that Chat was purposefully trying to get her attention, a curious look on his face, which was cocked slightly to the side.

Her smile softened, the memory of Adrien playing with her pigtails the Monday previously spurring her to take a few steps away. Which only seemed to make Chat more puzzled. Clearly, she wasn't doing as good a job of hiding her emotions as she would have liked.

"Chat?" she said after a moment, as she stepped over the edge of the building and sat down on the lip.

"Yes, My Lady," he replied, coming over before sitting down beside her. There was only about an inch between them, Ladybug wishing she wasn't so hyperaware of such things now. Before, she never would have thought twice about something so unimportant.

"Do you…" She furrowed her brows as she considered what she was about to ask. "Do you like being Chat Noir?"

The question clearly took him by surprise, his cat eyes blinking dumbly as he watched her. Watched as she eventually peered up at him, waiting patiently for him to digest the query.

"Well… sure." He rocked a bit as he answered, heels slamming against the brick building. "Who wouldn't like being a superhero?" It wasn't the answer she was looking for. That was only surface information. But, really, she didn't know what she'd wanted to hear him say. Or why she'd even asked in the first place. She only knew that wasn't what she'd wanted to hear.

"I guess that's true…"

"Why?" He grinned, but the expression didn't hold the strength that it normally did. It wavered, becoming small—as if he were hiding behind it. Like how Adrien smiled when he was being civil with, well, anyone. Is that how it happened? Was Adrien, Chat, "timid" when he was unsure? "Thinking about retiring?"

"What? No." She laughed lightly at his question, finding it somewhat amusing that he was actually insecure with the idea—otherwise his smile wouldn't have been so limited. But, well, maybe it wasn't that funny. Chat didn't want her to leave him—Adrien didn't want her to leave him. No, it definitely wasn't funny after all. "I was just wondering."

"So long as you are Ladybug, I shall be quite content to be Chat Noir."

"And what if I wasn't?"

He just shrugged, which wasn't any sort of suitable answer.

"What do you like about being Chat Noir?" She changed her tactic.

He smirked, this time with his typical kind of Chat deviousness. "Getting to work with you, obviously."

She was not amused.

"Why do you want to know?" he asked, chuckling. "They say curiosity killed the cat, you know."

"Good thing you're the cat and I'm not then, huh?" she asked, poking him on the shoulder. He huffed, eventually pulling his eyes from hers to stare up at the cloudy sky thoughtfully.

"I like being Chat because…" He shrugged. "I dunno, I get to be myself when I'm Chat Noir. There's nobody telling you what to do or how to act. Everything that I am is based on what I do. It's… it's nice."

"You're not yourself when you're not Chat?" she asked quietly, already feeling like she knew the answer.

"No, it's not that I'm not… me." He paused for just a moment. "It's just that I also have to be somebody else on top of myself. Like there's this expectation that I have to fill, whether I want to or not. There are all these rules and sometimes I don't feel like I'm in charge of my own life. But as Chat, all that goes away. It's… liberating."

"I'm so sorry, Chat," Ladybug said quickly, laying a hand on his arm. "I never thought your civilian life would be…" So lonely? She didn't dare say that—it'd be giving away too much. But that didn't make her words any less true. She'd always assumed that Chat's life outside his alter ego would be the same as when he was in it. That he'd be some kind of wild child dressed in leather causing mischief wherever he went. But that had been stupid.

"It's really not that bad," he replied quietly, smiling softly. The expression was so "Adrien" it was dumbfounding. "I just… feel like I get to take my personal mask off when I put Chat's on, if that makes any sense." He bumped his shoulder into hers playfully. "You probably know me better than anyone in the world."

"Me?"

"Yeah. Sure, we don't know each other outside this," he gestured between them. "But you're the only person I feel like I can really be myself around. You're my best friend, Ladybug."

She didn't know what to say to that. It'd never been difficult, admitting to herself that Chat was Ladybug's best friend. Alya was Marinette's, the two in different categories in a way. And even though Chat was also Ladybug's only friend, that didn't diminish his position any. Yet, hearing him say it back, and not just with the implication that his words came only from Chat, but from Adrien too, was nearly enough to break her heart.

Why? Because for all their crime fighting, Ladybug and Chat's relationship was still distant. They talked sometimes, but this was one of the most personal conversations they'd ever had. They trusted each other implicitly, but that didn't require discussion. It didn't require acknowledgment. It was simply how they were—inherent in being Chat Noir and Ladybug.

But that wasn't something someone could survive on. Humans were social creatures and no matter trust or love, if that connection wasn't held together with the small trappings, then it wasn't fulfilling. Which told Ladybug that Chat, that Adrien, was completely starved when it came to personal relationships. He had Nino, sure, but apparently even they weren't close enough. Not if Ladybug knew him better than anyone in the world.

She felt horrible in that moment, for having always kept him at arm's length. Especially since he'd accepted the distance and still valued it beyond any other relationship he had.

"You're my best friend too, Chat," she said quietly, her hold on his arm tightening. He smiled down at her, but it was that soft, Adrien smile that could mean so much but so little all at the same time. And she didn't know what it meant, coming across beneath Chat's mask.

It was then, in those few seconds, that she came to a determination. She was going to be Chat's friend, always, and she was going to be Adrien's too. Marinette was going to be his friend, be there for him. Somehow, she'd make sure of it. And not just a friend in the casual sense. She was really going to be his friend.

She was going to be there for him on both sides of the mask, whether he knew it or not.

They sat in silence for a few moments following, as if allowing the depth of the conversation to wear away. But they didn't seek to leave, or even move. Rather, they'd somehow ended up closer, their arms barely touching as their thighs brushed.

It was comfortable, normal, and when Chat leaned his head on Ladybug's shoulder—his pointed ears brushing her neck and cheek—it just seemed… right.

"Hey," Ladybug said after a few minutes, reaching up to ting his bell with a flick. "You know that video of us from last weekend? The one that went viral?" The one where he fell off the Eiffel Tower, more specifically.

"Yes," he growled, not removing his head from her shoulder.

"It's a meme now."

"Augh! Why?!"

She smiled.

Chapter Text

Adrien was excited. Not only had he managed to free up his entire Saturday by telling his father he had to study for a huge test on Monday (which, for the record, was not technically false), but he got to spend at least a little while of one day with Marinette. At that point, there was only one other Lady he'd rather hang out with (well, and maybe Nino, but he hung out with Nino all the time), but, as that wasn't viable, Marinette was a close second.

Why? Because, as it would turn out, Marinette was awesome. He wasn't exactly sure how it'd happened, but Marinette had finally stopped getting nervous and shy around him. No more warming up, no more stuttering words. The previous week had done wonders in that department, the how of it more or less irrelevant to him. Because Marinette was not only sweet, but she was probably one of the coolest girls he'd ever met. At least, as far as his interests. She was into games, she liked anime and manga, and, best of the best, she wasn't afraid to joke with him. Which was actually pretty amazing, considering where she'd started.

He hadn't expected it, the sheer ferocity of her wit and sarcasm. Who would have known that Marinette had even one sarcastic bone in her tiny body? Well, maybe Alya, but he sure hadn't anticipated it. If there was anything he appreciated about Marinette, it was her willingness to meet him in banter. She wasn't afraid to insult him (mostly because none of it was true), and she didn't get upset when he dished it back out. He loved it, to be honest. Because she just "got" it. He didn't feel like he had to worry about his image or what he said to her for fear it'd come back to him. Because she knew perfectly well that none of it was serious.

It was relieving, actually, to have someone like that outside Ladybug.

That, however, didn't make going over to her house any less nerve-wracking. He'd be lying if he said he wasn't anxious. Because, for all of his praises of Marinette, that didn't mean they'd be able to keep up the rapport they'd begun. That was his biggest fear—that he'd start talking to her and suddenly the dynamic between them would be gone. That she'd regress back into being nervous, or, worse, simply decide he wasn't worth her time.

It'd be really disheartening to be rejected by her, but so far they'd been getting on pretty well. So, hopefully, that wouldn't happen. He'd made sure to watch her closely over the last week, but she'd never seemed to grow tired of his stupid jokes, despite how others usually did. Even Nino. That was what was so great about Marinette. Nino sighed and rolled his eyes when Adrien got too obnoxious, so he usually didn't keep it up long, but Marinette was different. She may have the same reactions, but there was something about the way she smiled—about how she looked at him, as if daring him to keep going—that was different.

She liked his jokes, even if she pretended she didn't. Or, that was what he was hoping. He usually held the same hopes for Ladybug and, so far, she hadn't cast him out. So hopefully he was looking for the right signs from Marinette too.

That was what he told himself as his driver pulled up beside the corner bakery. It was nearing eleven, when they'd agreed to meet, so, though he was a bit early, he decided to head inside anyway. Backpack slung over his shoulder, he ducked out of the car, shivered against the cold, and walked swiftly toward the bakery door.

It was warm inside as he entered, as expected, and there were two customers present as well a Marinette's father. The huge man stood behind the counter, having glanced up when Adrien entered before offering a friendly wave. Adrien returned the gesture, smiling as he approached.

"You can go on back," Tom said simply, motioning to the door that led into the rest of the house. "Feel free to leave your shoes and coat by the door, if you two are going to stay."

"Sure, thanks," Adrien replied, making sure to smile one final time before heading past the counter and into the back of the bakery. Stepping through the door, he peered around and located the coat rack in the corner, as well as a rug where he could leave his snowy shoes.

He'd already hung up his coat and was thumbing off his second shoe when Marinette's mother came around the corner.

"Ah! Adrien." She smiled. "I thought I heard someone."

"Oh, yeah, sorry," he said, cringe-smiling as he set his shoes neatly on the rug and turned to her fully. "Your husband just told me to come in…"

"Oh, don't worry, honey," she said, waving off his concerns. "Any friend of Marinette's is welcome in our home any time. And considering how much she talks about y-"

"Mom!" Marinette had come down the stairs to the right, speaking through gritted teeth as both Adrien and her mother looked her way.

"Oh, there you are," her mother said. "I was just about to come get you." Adrien waved up at her in the same moment, cocking an eyebrow at the accusing look Marinette was casting her mother. Yet, if her mother was offended by the look, it didn't show.

"Thanks," Marinette said flatly, coming down the rest of the stairs. "We have a lot of studying to do, so…"

"Of course." Sabine nodded. Marinette was still giving her mother a funny look, Adrien furrowing his eyebrows curiously. But, well, it was none of his business. So he didn't ask.

"C'mon, Adrien," Marinette muttered, taking him by the arm before tugging him up the stairs.

"It was nice seeing you again," he said with a wave at Sabine, smiling shortly. Sabine smiled back with a nod, Adrien turning to trail Marinette up into her loft bedroom.

"Leave the door open, Marinette!" Sabine called as they reached the top, Adrien watching as Marinette paused to groan before stepping up into her bedroom. He grinned, but decided that maybe it was best not to comment.

Her room was the same as he remembered from both times he'd been there—once as Adrien and once as Chat. Pink, stylish, and clearly used as a workshop for her designing endeavors. Apparently, there had been some kind of project at hand recently. There was fabric strewn all over her corner counter, as well as a few pieces of clothing hanging from hooks on the wall. A garment bag lay on the floor beside her couch and her ironing board was standing up in front of her computer.

"Sorry about the mess," she said with a wince as she went to fold up the aforementioned ironing board. "There was a competition yesterday and, so, I've been busy. Also, sorry about my parents."

"It's fine," he assured simply, casting her a small grin. "I think it's really cool that you're so passionate. And I like your parents." He really did admire Marinette's investment in being a designer. It wasn't every day that someone as young as she was brave or dedicated enough to enter competitions and such things. If it wasn't her talent that got her far, then her determination certainly would.

"Yeah, but they can be…"

"Invasive?" he offered, remembering her wording from before. "It's fine, really." She was lucky, to have parents that would even bother to be obnoxious. He hadn't even spoken to his father face to face in over a month.

"Yeah…" She continued with her ironing board, cleaning up around her computer as Adrien turned to take in the room more thoroughly. His gaze immediately caught on the dolls leaning up against the wall abutting her workstation. Walking over, and conscious not to knock any of her supplies, he bent over to examine them closer.

He couldn't act as though he'd seen the dolls before, though he had as Chat. There were more than he remembered now though. Ladybug, Lady Wifi, Evillustrator, Rogercop. There was also Bubbler, Puppeteer, and Reflekta. Oddly enough, Chat Noir was missing. But he knew she'd had one. He also found it curious that she kept up enough on Ladybug and Chat Noir's exploits to go to the lengths of making dolls. But maybe she was a bigger fan than he'd thought.

"These are really cool," he mentioned, picking up the Ladybug doll. He didn't need to turn to know she'd paused in her cleaning to look at him. "I didn't know you were such a big fan."

"Oh, yeah," she replied, sounding somewhat uncomfortable. Which did spur him to turn to her. He hadn't intended to make her uneasy. Maybe her interest in Ladybug and Chat Noir was something she preferred only to talk about in passing? "I just really respect what they do. You know, saving the city and everything."

"Yeah, they're pretty great," he said, still smiling. "You don't have Chat Noir though."

"Oh, yeah, hah." Was she blushing? Why? What had he said to cause that again? He frowned. "Uh, actually, Chat, he's… I keep him up beside- beside my pillow." She tapped her fingers together nervously and stared down at her floor.

"Yeah?" he asked, grinning and trying not to look too flattered. "I thought you said Chat was obnoxious." He eyed her through narrowed eyes, amused as she fidgeted between one foot and another before leveling him with a glare. At least now he understood why she was uncomfortable.

"He is obnoxious," she said flatly, walking toward him. "Just like you." She flicked him on the nose, causing him to flinch and squish his eyes closed. In the same moment, she slipped the Ladybug doll from his hands before he could stop her, strolling away again.

He rubbed his nose. "I was looking at that," he said, pouting.

"Well, she's mine. Maybe I don't want you to look at her." She stuck out her tongue, clearly teasing, and Adrien was thankful to note that her discomfort seemed to have evaporated. She was smirking, which in turn pulled his grin back into place.

"Why? She's very well made. Much better than those plastic ones you see at the toys stores."

"You think so?"

"Sure." He shrugged.

"It's too bad they don't make any Chat Noir toys," she said, frowning down at the Ladybug doll. "I don't understand that…"

"Ladybug's amazing," he reasoned. "She deserves to have toys made after her. She's always the one that saves the day, and purifies the akumas. Chat's more like her sidekick, so…" He shrugged.

"Chat's her partner," she corrected firmly, looking straight at him. "If they make toys of her, they should make toys of him too. He's just as amazing."

"You know, I've met plenty of Ladybug fans, but I don't know that I've ever met anyone as obsessed with Chat Noir as they are with her. He just doesn't have the fan base she does. That's probably why they don't make Chat Noir toys. Besides, why should they make toys of him when you're clearly more than capable?"

She rolled her eyes at his compliment.

"I'm serious," he went on. "I'd much rather have one of your dolls than those cheap toys."

"You want me to make you a Chat Noir doll?" she teased.

"Would you?" Yet, unbeknownst to her, he was quite serious. "But I don't want Chat. It'd be really cool if you could make me a Ladybug doll though. I'll pay you, if you want." Maybe it was a little weird for a teenage boy to want a Ladybug doll, but they weren't little kid dolls—they were handmade art pieces. Not like he was going to sleep with it or something. Maybe.

Marinette slept with a Chat Noir doll, so what the hell.

"You… you want a Ladybug doll?" she asked with a cocked brow.

"Yeah! Ladybug is awesome." He eyed her knowingly, placing a hand on his chest. "I'm a big fan of hers, you know."

"Yeah, I bet." She scoffed. "Well, you don't have to pay me. Here," she held out the Ladybug doll, "you can have this one, if you want."

"No." He shook his head hastily. "That's yours. I don't want to mess up your collection."

"It's fine, Adrien." She still held the doll out. "I can make another one, easy."

"It's okay, I don't want-"

"Just take the doll," she scolded, dangling it out in front of him. "Or I'll tell everyone you asked for one in the first place." He didn't take her threat seriously, but still wasn't sure. It was her doll, after all. She'd made if for her band of baddies.

"If I take that one, Chat Noir will be sadly outnumbered," he reasoned, taking the doll from her anyway. He held it delicately, aware of the hand stitching and flopping limbs.

"He'll survive. He's scrappy," she said simply. "Besides, if you feel that bad about it, then don't think of me as giving her to you." She waved him off as she sat down on her pink rolling chair. "Instead, you're just… borrowing her indefinitely." She moved her mouse, clearing away the screensaver to reveal a selfie of her and Alya.

"Perpetual borrowing, huh?" he asked, smiling and supposing it would be rude to further object. Slipping the doll into his bag, he batted away Plagg, who was trying to smack his hand back out, before zipping it and removing the bag entirely. He laid it on the desk beside Marinette's little purse, conscious not to disturb the loose fabric also lying there.

"Sure." Marinette shrugged, zipping her cursor through their school website to their science homework. "I'm not worried. Ladybug always turns up when Chat needs her. She'll be back if he gets overwhelmed." She winked at him, which caused him to chuckle shortly before he pulled the folding chair she had in the corner up beside her and sat down.

"Too bad Ladybug can't help me with this horrible assignment, though…" she whined a moment later, laying her head on her folded arms as their homework loaded onto the monitor.

"Yeah, I don't think that's something in her skillset," he joked. "But, lucky for you, I'm here." He poked her head with one finger, which roused her enough for her to lean back into her hand, though she still slouched and moaned as if in pain. "C'mon, it's not that bad," he said, laughing. "I already did it, so I got it."

"Mmm, good for you…"

"So I can help you!" he said, nudging her with his elbow. "You'll get it, trust me."

And so they went to work. It was actually a review—an assigned review that had to be submitted before the test on Monday. So there was a lot of material to cover. But Adrien had been distracted with photo shoots most of the evenings prior, and with photo shoots also came time sitting in cars or waiting, so he'd had plenty of time to finish it. Marinette struggled some, but once she understood the information, she was usually fine. She had a general grasp, but had to have small details pointed out to her, which Adrien was able to do with little trouble.

He didn't mind helping her. Sitting there, with her, the studious back and forth was comfortable. Not as heated as when they were teasing each other, but relaxed and… easy.

It was relieving, actually. As well as being afraid their back and forth would somehow come to a stop, he'd also feared that, when they didn't keep it up, they'd become awkward with one another. But quiet with Marinette was just as easy as bickering. She was focused on her assignment, he was watching her progress, and nothing about it was forced or bloated. He pointed out her mistakes, she sighed in annoyance, and that was it.

Like they'd been doing it forever.

It wasn't until his phone buzzed in his pocket that he was jolted into awareness of other things. Marinette cast him a quick look at the sound, but resumed her work on the assignment a second later, while he retrieved his phone to see who had texted him.

Chloe: Adrikins! Come hang out with meeeeeeeee! I'm bored!

Adrien pursed his lips, trying to figure out the best way to respond. The truth wasn't an option, not with how much he knew Chloe loathed Marinette. He'd never understood Chloe's dislike, but, then again, there were a lot of things about Chloe that perplexed him. Well, best to just be vague.

Adrien: Busy today, sorry :(

He was not surprised when she shot back a response almost immediately.

Chloe: You're always so busy! But I suppose I understand. Well, you should come by whenever you're done with whatever modeling or fashion things you're doing. I'll have the cooks prepare whatever you want so you can come and relax ;)

Adrien: I appreciate the thought, but I'm going to be pretty busy all weekend. Plus homework for school. And you know that whenever we hang out, I just end up distracted.

Well, the truth was, more or less, that she always ended up distracting him—whether he wanted the distraction or not. She was, well, she was Chloe. Had to be the center of attention at all times. Which meant that there was little to be done as far as work when she was around. Usually she ended up parading her newest outfits around, asking him for fashion advice, and gossiping about their classmates. Which he could put up with on occasion—she was his friend, after all—but he didn't subject himself to it with a willingness that could be considered all that generous. She was… rather irritating most of the time.

Sometimes he felt bad. Because, really, for all of Chloe's faults, she was extremely loyal and kind to him (well, with Chloe's brand of "kindness," anyway). They'd been friends a long time, but as they'd grown older, they'd become too different to relate as they once had. They had very little in common and very different outlooks on life. Still, she'd never purposefully done him wrong and so he found it difficult to fault her when it came to their relationship.

He could, however, fault her for her treatment of others. But calling her out did very little good, so he generally just tried to avoid confrontation with her all together (unless she was being really, really disrespectful. Like with Marinette's uncle). It was easier to fix the damage than try to prevent Storm Chloe, or so his experience had taught him.

Chloe: I suppose that's true. Homework's just no fun when we're together ;) But we should hang out soon. I want to go downtown and purge on all the winter fashions. And you know you're my shopping guru. I trust your judgment on everything.

Adrien: Yeah, maybe after this round of tests or something. You should be more focused on school than shopping, Chlo. Grades are important ;b

Chloe: My grades are perfect.

Because Sabrina did all her work.

Adrien: If you say so.

Chloe: OMG! Can you believe what Marinette said to me yesterday?

On to the gossip. To be honest, he didn't quite recall what Marinette had said. He hadn't been there. But he'd remembered hearing about it after lunch. Something about Chloe's hair, he thought. To be honest, he kind of tried to drown out Chloe when she was complaining about their classmates. One, because usually she deserved whatever crime she was always claiming was done against her. And, two, because he liked their classmates and didn't appreciate talking bad about them.

In fact, Chloe's subject change made him somewhat uncomfortable. He was literally sitting right beside Marinette. He didn't want to be talking about her right under her nose, especially when considering how much he liked her.

He didn't want to be in the same boat at Chloe—talking about people behind their backs. But that was all Chloe ever seemed to do. Maybe he should just ignore the text.

"Who are you talking to?" Marinette's question caused him to flick his gaze her way. Her tone was simply curious and if he claimed "nobody," she likely wouldn't push the subject. But it seemed wrong, somehow, not to tell her. He knew she and Chloe disliked each other more than most of their classmates disliked Chloe. He didn't want their friendship to be dented by his affiliation with Chloe.

He didn't want to be dishonest. Or, at least, not anymore dishonest than being himself required.

"Uh, just Chloe," he said, cringing.

Marinette's expression dropped about as much as he'd expected it to. Her eyebrows furrowed skeptically and her lips pulled into a distasteful frown. He simply offered a shrug in response, supposing there was nothing else he could really do.

"Why do you bother replying?" she asked, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth. "She's so…"

"Horrible?" he offered, grinning. "Yeah, I know. But," he shrugged, "I've known her forever—she was the first friend I ever had. I dunno, I guess I feel bad if I ignore her too much." Because he did, in fact, ignore her a considerable amount. As much as he could comfortably get away with, actually.

"Just because you've known her a long time doesn't mean you have to put up with her nonsense," Marinette reasoned.

"I don't, really. I just don't want to hurt her feelings, is all."

"She hurts everyone else's feelings."

"That doesn't mean I should go out of my way to hurt hers when she's done nothing to me."

Marinette did not look pleased with his response. "She's been terrible to everyone in class as well as lots of other people. That kind of behavior shouldn't be condoned, or ignored." Was she reprimanding him? Annoyance flared up in him despite himself. "Chloe needs to be put in her place."

"And some day, she will be," Adrien rebuked, frowning. "But I'm not going to be the one to put her there."

"You might be the perfect person to put her there."

"What?"

"You're the only person she likes at all," Marinette continued. "She adores you. To the point of it being ridiculous. If there's anyone she's going to listen to, it'd probably be you."

Adrien could understand what she was saying, as well as her point of view. But that didn't mean he agreed with it.

"That's not how Chloe works," he corrected. "I have gotten after her before and it doesn't change anything. Chloe only listens to Chloe. And anyone objecting to that loses her attention. Just because she likes me doesn't mean she respects me." Chloe didn't respect anyone, period. Except maybe Ladybug—and even that was limited.

"If you stopped giving her the attention she wanted, then maybe she'd learn something. She's downright cruel, Adrien. You can't possibly agree that's okay."

"Of course not," he snapped, growing more irritated. "But fighting fire with fire doesn't solve anything. Say I did what you said, you think that'd really change anything? It wouldn't. Chloe'd just be bitter and angry with me. She likes me, but she doesn't like me that much. It wouldn't make a difference."

"What about the principle of-"

"What principle?" She looked surprised that he'd interrupted her. "There's no point in alienating her. It'd change nothing. She may be cruel, Marinette," he shook his head, "but usually cruelty is created by something else."

"Being a spoiled brat, maybe."

He was disappointed. He didn't want to be, because he understood why Marinette felt the way she did—especially given that Chloe was much nastier to her than anyone else. But Marinette had also always been so kind and willing to go above and beyond for anyone. It saddened him, to think that maybe Chloe—whose behavior wasn't even worth considering most of the time—had jaded her. Strictly speaking, Chloe wasn't worth that kind of effort, not in this respect, and he was disheartened to think that Marinette—who seemed so strong and compassionate—had let someone so petty get under her skin. Maybe that wasn't fair—maybe he should be more sympathetic—but it was hard to feel that way when he'd been surrounded by harsh people all his life.

Maybe that was Marinette's whole problem. She'd never had to deal with that kind of crowd.

"Chloe may be a spoiled brat, but there are plenty of spoiled, rich kids that can get whatever they want that are totally different," he rebuked, tone cold. "Chloe's life isn't as perfect as you think it is. And yes, she takes her frustrations out the wrong way, but that doesn't mean retaliating with the same attitude is the right solution."

"You think I should feel bad for Chloe?"

"I'm saying that cruelty and pettiness breeds cruelty and pettiness, and that not everyone is strong enough, or has the support system, to fight it off. It's easy for someone like you to think it'd be simple, but not everyone grew up with perfect parents and can be friends with everybody. For some people, it's not that easy."

She was gaping now, looking more shocked at the heat with which he'd defended Chloe than angry. But maybe it was because he liked her, because he had faith in her compassion, that he got irritated at all.

Because someone like Marinette had to be worth that effort, right? Because if she wasn't, then who was?

"There's no excuse for Chloe's behavior," he continued, voice a little quieter—less confrontational. "But there's also no excuse to treat her the same way she treats other people. Clearly, if her attitude is any kind of evidence, being mean to her only makes her meaner. And I have no desire to contribute to a disgusting spiral she's already caught in."

Honestly? He felt bad for Chloe most of the time. Because she didn't know what she did or why she did it. Like an animal that was just trying to defend itself by hording anything it could get and biting anyone who threatened that. She didn't know any better. If she did have conscious awareness of her own behavior, it'd be much, much worse than it already was. That was his biggest fear for her. That someday she'd realize how nasty she was and instead of feeling remorse, she'd be too deep in her hole and only fall further. As it were, she was convinced everyone adored and loved her, and maybe that was the safest place for her to be.

He knew what it was like to know different. To be so small in comparison to the world around you that your existence hardly mattered. Maybe, if he'd learned his lesson later, or not at all, he'd be more like Chloe than he liked to consider.

"I… I never thought of it that way before…" Marinette mumbled, seeming suddenly meek. Which Adrien didn't like any better than belligerence. He liked Marinette's confidence and humor, how everyone around her seemed to feed off that energy.

So he smiled, his irritation vanishing as if it'd never been.

"Chloe's more complicated than you think," he said quietly.

"I guess…" Marinette sank a bit in her seat. She didn't slump, but it was more as though she'd retreated into herself. Not defensively, but like a curious mouse that was too wary to come out of its hole. "But I don't…?"

She didn't understand.

"Chloe, she…" He sighed, trying to consider how much he actually wanted to say. "She's grown up getting whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. But it's all… material. She never knew her mother—she died just after she was born. And her father's always been more concerned with his career than her. She goes running to him whenever she can, sure, but that's the only way she knows how to get attention from him. He worries about her and cherishes her in his own way, but he's never been emotionally close or supportive. You could say," he eyed her knowingly, "that her father's lack of 'real' attention is the only love she's ever known. He showers her with whatever she wants, but he doesn't give her what she really needs."

He felt as though Marinette were listening during his whole explanation, which was probably what had spurred him to keep going as far as he had. Because, really, Chloe's personal life wasn't any of Marinette's business. Yet, despite her initial judgments of Chloe, he felt that Marinette wouldn't intentionally use such information for the wrong reasons, or spread it around. There was something about her demeanor, about the empathy inherent in her disposition, that told him it was okay to trust her.

He wanted to trust her.

"You sound like you've thought about this a lot," she said, having come back from her hesitant curiosity with a small smile.

"Uh, well." He chuckled shortly, ignoring the flush that wanted to flood his cheeks as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Chloe and I, we grew up in… similar situations. So I guess I've spent a lot of time trying to make sure I don't act like she does as a result."

"You're nothing like Chloe," Marinette assured simply.

"Yeah, but I could have been."

"I don't believe that." Her sweet smile stretched further. "I could never imagine you acting anything like her. You're nice to everyone, even when you shouldn't be."

"Hah, I guess." He leaned forward, tapping his fingers on her desk. "I dunno, I think you're giving me a bit too much credit."

"You should give yourself a little bit more." She rolled closer to him, but still within her own space and leaving him to his. "You could have been more like her, but you're not. That says a lot about who you are."

"Mmm, maybe." He didn't say that the only reason he and Chloe were different was because there was one, huge, gaping variance between them. That sometimes he felt like his whole life rode on that one variable. He didn't say this, but oddly enough, he wanted to.

He wanted to tell her, even though he'd never wanted to share such things with anyone ever before.

There was something safe about her, something familiar. Something he hadn't felt since…

"Adrien?" She cocked her head at him, those big blue eyes so concerned and open, as if he actually deserved that kind of consideration. He didn't know if he did or not, but the fact that she thought him worthy was near enough to choke him.

Because he wanted to tell her, somehow, but the long-held repression he'd always used as a defense was making it difficult. Was warning him that this was too much for someone to know, that it was too risky. That taking chances was a bad idea because then people could see you, and that made you vulnerable. That made you victim to the world and its caprice.

His father had taught him that lesson.

"It's okay, Adrien," she murmured, her hand coming up to land gently on his arm. Nothing more was said—she didn't specify "what" was okay—and yet that didn't seem to diminish the idea. More as though it didn't matter what he was thinking or feeling, she'd be okay with it. Total acceptance.

It was a concept he'd never encountered before. It was confusing, conflicting even, and for a moment all he could do was look at her with slightly parted lips. And yet she was steady—he could tell her or not tell her, he could say anything—and she'd accept it.

How was that even possible? She was clearly judgmental of Chloe, which meant she would be of others. So why was he an exception?

Why him?

"I… It's…" He blinked, head twitching as though he meant to shake it, yet caught in being unable to by the way the words were pushing at him and how his habits were pushing back.

Her hand tightened just a little on his arm. Reassuring. Encouraging. But not forceful.

"Chloe, she-" He tried to find it, the right explanation. But it was hard. Because he'd never said this before, and part of him didn't want to say it. But part of him really, really did. "She lost her mother… before she knew her. I-I guess there's a difference in… understanding things when you have this… absence that you don't know what to do with, versus-" He paused, looking down toward the desk. "Versus having that absence and knowing what's supposed to go there."

Chloe didn't know what it was like to lose. She knew what it was like not to have, to be without, but she didn't have the comparison. She'd never had everything, so she didn't know the crippling feeling of losing it all. That was the difference between them—she thought she had everything, she was ignorant, but he wasn't. No matter how hard he tried, nothing could fill that emptiness. He saw through the clutter, whereas Chloe used it as a shield against things she'd never know.

Her family, no matter how broken, had always been broken.

He'd had to watch his fall apart.

"Adrien…" Marinette's voice was soft, barely a whisper, and yet it pounded in his head. "Adrien, I'm so sorry…"

"It's okay," he said weakly, more so for himself than for her. "It was a long time ago." That was what he told himself to reason with it. That was what his father said. So that was how it had to be.

And so, naturally, Marinette contradicted the very notion. "That doesn't matter," she said. "Something like that never goes away. I couldn't even imagine…" The thought was so horrific that she couldn't even finish the sentence.

He tried not to be bitter, but he was anyway. "I think the worst part is that nobody knows what happened to her. She was just gone one day, and that was it." No certainty, no closure. No answers. He'd always be left wondering. And waiting, even though he knew doing so didn't make any sense.

Maybe Marinette would have said more—maybe she'd known the exact thing to say. But before she could, the sound of someone coming up the stairs jolted them both. Suddenly, they were back before her computer, teenagers in a room where the door had to be left open. Doing homework. And maybe Adrien used that as perspective—to make everything else seem far away.

"Are you two still studying?" Sabine asked, poking her head up through the door. "It's almost one. I thought maybe you'd be getting hungry." She smiled sweetly, Marinette's hand having fallen from his person as they'd turned in their seats. "I made stir-fry."

Marinette looked to him questioningly, all that sympathy and acceptance hidden away.

He appreciated that.

"That sounds great," he said, smiling.

"Yeah, I didn't even realize how hungry I was until I stopped working," Marinette groaned, clutching her stomach. "This is why science is unhealthy."

"Without science, you wouldn't know what was unhealthy in the first place," Adrien pointed out, poking her on the shoulder.

"A perfect world, lost."

Sabine rolled her eyes and Adrien laughed.

"Come downstairs, then," Sabine ordered simply, gesturing to them as she turned. "Before it gets cold."

Pushing herself from her seat, Marinette headed for the stairs, Adrien following close behind. They could smell the food wafting up toward them as they descended, Adrien finding himself hungrier than he'd realized as well.

Sabine was generous with the helpings, which he appreciated (being Chat Noir as well as having a limited diet made him hungry constantly) and soon both he and Marinette were sitting on the couch in front of the darkened television, she with her legs crossed atop the cushions and he with one ankle over his knee.

"This is really good," Adrien found himself muttering around a mouthful of vegetables and chicken. Not that he was entirely surprised. Marinette's uncle was a world renowned chef—why shouldn't Sabine, his niece, be good? Or maybe he just wasn't used to eating anything homemade that wasn't also mindful of a calorie count.

"I'm glad you like it," Sabine said from the kitchen behind them. "Eat as much as you want, honey. Teenagers need all the food they can get."

"You're always telling me that if I eat too much, I'm going to get fat," Marinette said with a pout.

"That's because you come down here in the middle of the night and sneak a dozen cookies every two days," her mother practically scolded. Adrien almost choked on his food, the flat, dry look on Mariette's face nearly enough to make him cough. "Teenagers need good food for growing, not sweets."

It would seem his kitchen wasn't the only one Marinette sought to pillage.

"Well, I'm old enough to eat what I want," she said, her tone playfully rebellious. "I don't care if I get fat—I like cookies. There's nothing wrong with that." She stuffed a forkful of stir-fry into her mouth.

"Of course not," Sabine agreed. "You know I'd love you no matter what. However, I'm a little concerned at what you're next dentist bill will be."

Marinette huffed and Adrien laughed, covering his mouth so as to prevent any food from falling out.

"And you." Sabine had come around the couch, her sharp eyes trained on him, which immediately wiped the mirth from Adrien's face. "You were skinny the last time you were here. All skin and bones."

"Mom," Marinette muttered. "Don't bother him. He's a model—he supposed to be skinny." Which was, well, kind of true. Adrien also just had a high metabolism and was extremely active. Which helped in keeping him muscled and thin. It wasn't so much that he desired to be, so much as it simply was. Though he was pretty sure that if he started putting on weight, his father would have his diet altered.

But he tried not to think about that.

"I don't care what he is," Sabine said firmly. "Young people need to eat. Bad enough you don't put on any weight." She was looking at Marinette now.

"Mom!" Marinette squawked. "You were just telling me I was going to get fat!"

"Because you eat two batches of cookies a week! Don't know how you stay that tiny on such a diet, but you should be gaining weight and you should be eating better."

"Oh my god…" Marinette muttered, covering her forehead with her hand in shame. "She's doing this on purpose…"

Adrien laughed again, but decided it best not to comment.

"I'm going to get you more," Sabine said then, tapping Adrien on the shoulder. Apparently, that was the last straw for Marinette.

"Maybe he doesn't want more," she said as she stood. "Maybe we're done. Maybe we're going to go study some more." Unsure what to do, Adrien stood as well, supposing he was thankful he'd pretty much finished all that had been on his plate.

"That's fine," Sabine said as they went to put their dishes on the counter. Before Adrien could do so, however, Sabine slipped it from between his fingers and spooned another entire plateful before handing it back to him.

"Uh, okay…" he said dumbly.

"Ugh, Mom! Just-" Marinette pulled on her pigtails. "C'mon Adrien." She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back toward the stairs. He stumbled, but held on to his dish the whole way.

"Leave the door open!" Sabine reminded.

"I'm never bringing any of my friends but Alya here ever again!" Marinette stated, stomping her way up with Adrien close behind.

"That's okay!" Sabine called back as they stepped up into her room. "I only care about meeting your boyfriends anyway!"

"AUGH!"

Adrien tried his best not to laugh, but failed. And he knew Marinette didn't appreciate his failure by the way she glared at him. He cleared his throat awkwardly, focusing on the plate in his hands, and tried to look preoccupied.

"Just sit down and eat your food," she muttered out eventually, gesturing toward the couch. Turning away, she then flopped down in her computer chair and hunched over her desk, probably glaring at the science review.

"Am I supposed to eat or not?" Adrien asked teasingly, taking her order and sitting on the end of the couch anyway.

"You better," Marinette said, turning to look over her shoulder at him. "You are too skinny."

He gaped.

"I'm serious," she said stiffly. "You better eat all of it." She turned her attention back to the computer.

Recovering, Adrien pursed his lips and tried to think of something to say. Nothing was coming to mind, however. Mostly because, well, he was skinny and the stir-fry was really good. Perhaps this wasn't the worst situation he could give in to.

Ultimately shrugging, he ended up finishing the entire second plate before setting it aside. Rolling his shoulders, he considered joining Marinette at the computer again, but paused when his eyes caught on the garment bag lying on the floor beside him. It was of good quality, heavy material, very large. Reaching down, he pulled aside the top flap closest to him, where it was unzipped, to see what was inside.

Nothing. It was empty.

Well, that seemed rather silly. She had clothes hanging up all over her room, totally unprotected, and an empty garment bag. Which she'd just left lying haphazardly on the floor. It was a waste.

Well, maybe there was something in it and he just couldn't see because it was shoved to the back of the bag. Perhaps she'd forgotten it was there. Which would be bad. Crumpled up and forgotten about, any article of clothing could get misshapen and wrinkled.

He should investigate. For Marinette.

Crouching down in front of the bag, he pulled up on the open flap, staring through narrowed eyes into the shadowed corners. He couldn't see anything, but that wasn't to say something hadn't been shoved up into the far ends. Reaching in, he felt blindly, but found nothing but the fabric of the garment bag.

Not that his arms were long enough to stretch all the way to the corners.

Ducking down under the flap, he stuck his whole head in, getting down on hands and knees. He continued to stretch forward, reaching around in the dark. Until his whole body was extending into the garment bag. Which, eventually, resulted in him being unable to remain on his knees.

Slowly, like an accordion expanding, he leaned in until he was on his stomach, legs folding at his knees as his feet dangled back behind him. He was nearly, completely, inside the garment bag, only his legs sticking out—which was actually beneficial. He could reach the very back corners of the bag now, his slightly heightened night vision somewhat helpful as he felt around.

He wasn't finding anything. No forgotten clothes or anything.

He scraped his nails along the top, inside edge of the bag.

Were those pockets?

Maybe there was something inside those…

"You damage my garment bag, Adrien, and you're buying me a new one. That's the only good one I have." Marinette's voice drifted over, sounding neither affronted by his behavior nor amused. Rather, her tone was unimpressed, flat, and dry. Which he took offense to. He was in there for her, in case she had forgotten something. He was trying to be thoughtful.

"I'm not- I'm just…" He huffed, frowning. "I'm looking for something, okay?"

"Sorry to break it to you, but the door to Narnia isn't in my garment bag."

He rolled his eyes. "You don't- Just stop talking." He couldn't concentrate. He was pretty sure he'd found pockets. Now he just had to figure out how to get into them. Was there a zipper? Or maybe velcro?

He preferred zippers. Velcro was unnecessarily loud. Like bubble wrap.

Carefully trailing his fingers along the seams of the garment bag above his head—despite still being on his stomach—he bit his lip, toes curling as he peered into the darkness. It was an awkward position, having his hand bent up over the back of his head, and he almost decided to turn over.

Before he could though, the sound of zipper teeth coming undone drew his attention. It was above and behind him, coming up along his back. Until light was pouring in and he was craning his head around to see what was happening.

Marinette was opening the garment bag, standing above him.

Was that a spray bottle in her hand?

"Out," she said firmly.

"What?" Adrien didn't understand. He also didn't move. Actually, he kind of wished she'd zip the garment bag back up.

"Out," she repeated. He probably shouldn't have glared at her. That had probably been the wrong thing to do.

She pulled the trigger.

Alright, so, yes, he should have been expecting it. He'd seen the spray bottle, he'd known what it did, and he'd pretty much instigated her actions. Yet, despite this logic—despite knowing exactly what the spray bottle implied—he was still shocked when the water misted all over his face.

Starting, his hands flew up as his feet flailed, struggling to get him standing as he wiped temperamentally at his face. He might have hissed, but he couldn't be sure in his frenzy to scramble out of reach of the spray bottle. And when he did manage to get up, body rocking him from the floor, he immediately turned defensive.

Whipping around to face her, hair askew and his shirt riding up, he raised his hands in mock claws, his balance on his toes as he hunched, spine bending into a shallow "C" as he shuffled away.

If he'd been Chat, his tail probably would have been curled and whipping aggressively, ears flat against his head.

His attention was zeroed in on the spray bottle, which was still held up threateningly.

"Garment bags aren't for playing," Marinette said, grinning deviously. Adrien hardly noticed however, squinted eyes unable to look away from the spray bottle. That was the real enemy.

She shifted closer suddenly, causing his eyes to widen as he bowed further and hopped back. "doON't do thatttttt," he growled.

"What?" she asked. "This?" She jumped closer, feet wide-set while he tucked his chin closer to his neck and pulled a single hand closer to his face.

"I don't. Like. Water," he hissed.

"It's just a spray bottle." She shook it, water sloshing inside the transparent, pink plastic.

"Don't…"

She jolted another step forward.

"DOn't!"

And another.

"wHHYyyy?" he whined. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why shouldn't I?" She asked, jumping toward him again before aggressively shoving the nozzle up until it was only a few centimeters away from his face. He reared back, chin going high as he stared down his cheek at it. His lips were pulled into a snarl, a growl thrumming in his throat.

"Stop…" He warned. Threatened.

"What if I just…" Her blue eyes narrowed, fingers twitching over the trigger, "…accidentally…"

"Marinette…"

Her grin stretched further.

"Don't…"

He could see her fingers collapsing, squeezing, on the trigger, so he reacted.

Ducking down abruptly, he snapped his hand out, smacking the bottle aside. It flew from her hand and struck harshly against the wall on the other side of the room.

Still low on his haunches, he sliced forward, wrapping his arms around her thighs before hefting her up onto his shoulder. It was only once she was there—with the bottle safely out of commission and his offender in custody—that he really realized what he was doing.

Unfortunately, his brain wasn't quite fast enough.

Using the momentum from the swing onto his shoulder, Marinette came down hard against his back. Upside-down, she latched her arms backward around his thighs, her strength strapping his legs together as hers kicked out beside his head. As if she'd somehow gotten leverage against the air, she pulled, yanking his legs out from under him.

With a loud bang against the hardwood floors, they fell. Adrien's chin collided hard, the rest of his body falling shortly after as she landed on top of him.

Before he'd even regained clear vision after the impact, he felt her shifting atop him and his defensive instincts went on high alert. Her legs flew up from beside his head, her body whooshing as she jumped and swung around above him. In the same moment, he flipped himself onto his back and curled his legs up to his chest just as she landed, her feet spread wide in what would have been framing his thighs.

Abs straining and arms folding backward to propel him up, he pushed his whole body off the floor, feet jerking him up. Teeth gritted, he surged toward her. So high, in fact, that he locked his legs around her neck before she could react. Reaching out in the same moment, he grabbed her ankles and pulled.

With another floor shaking crash, they collapsed on the ground, this time with Marinette under him. She was scowling, her head nestled against the tops of his feet as she grabbed him by the shins and tried to pry his legs apart.

He clamped them more securely around her.

Which spurred her to act otherwise. With the kick of a strong leg, she freed her ankle from his grasp before pulling her leg up into the air. With a fast swipe, she then let it fall, her heel impaling itself against his shoulder before he could turn out of the way.

"AuGH!" That was definitely going to leave a bruise. And had, unfortunately, loosened his hold around her head.

She took the chance.

With a buck of her hips, she dislodged him enough to slip out from under him.

He wasn't quite sure how it'd happened, but the next moment she'd flipped him onto his stomach and pinned him down—one foot on the back of his knee while the other stretched over and came down on his forearm. One of her strong arms had pulled his other behind his back painfully, her final hand submerged in his hair as she pressed his cheek into the hardwood.

He could practically feel the way the wood grain was indenting his skin.

Struggling, he tried to unbalance her, but nothing would do. He growled and spit, the nails of the hand not pinned against his back flexing against the floor.

"Surrender!" she hissed above him, breath huffing.

"Never!" he managed to get out.

She shoved his face harder into the floor. "Do it!"

He growled.

"Marinette!"

They both fell silent, their attention snapping to the door in front of them. There, standing on the top step, was Sabine, eyes wide and hand over her mouth as she stared at them. Clearly, she was shocked. Well, maybe that made sense. Adrien was kind of surprised by the whole thing himself.

"What are you doing?!" she gasped out, her question clearly directed at her daughter.

"Uh, well, uh." Marinette was stammering. "We were- I was just- It was only a fight…"

"A fight?!"

Adrien tried to pull his head up, but Marinette just pushed back against him, much to his chagrin. He'd known she was in good shape, but hadn't fathomed she'd be this strong.

"I thought the house was falling down!" Sabine said accusingly.

"N-no, just us…" Marinette sputtered.

"Can I get up?" Adrien mumbled—he was starting to have trouble breathing.

"Oh! Yeah!" Marinette was off him in a flash.

Breath heaving, he sat up, looking only once at the way Marinette had bounded away from him, tapping her fingers nervously as she stared down at her feet. He then turned his attention to Sabine.

"Why were you fighting?!" she asked swiftly, her fists slamming to her hips.

W-well," Marinette fumbled, twisting her fingers together, "there was the garment bag and-and I told him to get out, but he didn't and-"

"She sprayed me!" Adrien fired out unintentionally.

"Itwasjustwater!" she hissed, turning on him. "Big baby!"

He glared up at her, rubbing the side of his face.

"So you decided to karate chop each other?!" Sabine asked, still aghast.

"Well, it- not exactly like… that…" Marinette's explanation faded into a mumble as she focused again on her feet.

"How old are you? Both of you?!" Sabine looked between them, Adrien finally beginning to feel shame painting his cheeks. He took his chance and stared down at the floor as well, crossing his legs under him in the same moment. "I shouldn't be breaking up fights, of all things! That's not what I expect to find when my daughter brings a boy into her room! That's the last thing I expect to find!"

"Sorry…" they both muttered, Adrien drawing circles on the floor with his finger.

"You should be!" Sabine huffed, pointing to her daughter. "For goodness sake, Marinette! Don't beat up your friends! And you!" She turned her attention to Adrien, who flinched. "Don't… let my daughter beat you up!"

"I didn't let her…" he mumbled out petulantly.

"What did you say, young man?!"

"Nothing…"

"That's what I thought." She huffed one last time. "For crying out loud." Shaking her head, she cast them both one last disapproving look before turning and marching down the stairs. It was only when she was safely back down on the first level that the air between them became thick. Not with nerves, but with the belligerent stubbornness they were both utilizing in refusing to look at one another.

Adrien, rather, distracted himself with his hair, setting it back into place as best he could before unfolding into standing. He patted down his jeans and straightened his shirt sleeve. He snuck a look at Marinette in the same moment, but she was refusing to look at him. Standing straight and still, she didn't even bother trying to straighten out her pigtails, which were coming undone on one side.

He pursed his lips and looked away again. He knew she'd glanced at him then, but by the time he went to try and catch her gaze, she was staring off to the side once more.

His shoulders (one of which was incredibly sore) slumped.

And yet she still refused to even acknowledge him.

So he did the logical thing.

Reaching out, he shoved her. Right on the shoulder, so hard that she squawked and stumbled away.

When she whipped around to glare at him, he was smirking.

Flying at him the next moment, she was a flurry of tossing limbs, Adrien only managing to catch one of her wrists while her other hand sank into his hair and yanked his head back.

"WHAT. DID. I. JUST. SAY?!" Sabine's voice yelled up at them, causing them both to freeze.

Their voices fell from their lips in unison as they looked to the open door above the stairs. "Sorry!"

They could practically hear Sabine sighing up at them in frustration.

Chapter Text

"Ah! Alya! I'm going to screw it up! I'm going to do horrible!" Marinette was pacing, her hands in hair as she grasped painfully at the strands. "I'm not ready for this! I'm not nearly experienced enough! I'm going to make a complete fool of myself! Oh, Alya!" She turned suddenly, dashing up to where her friend was sitting on the bench just inside the school building. "I'm going to fail!" She collapsed, burying her face between Alya's knees.

"Oh, Marinette, calm down," Alya said, her hand falling to her best friend's hair in a comforting, yet strict, manner. "This is why you entered the contest in the first place, isn't it? Now you're a finalist!" It was good news, Alya was saying. She should be excited, Alya was saying.

Well, she wasn't!

"You don't understand," she whined, turning to look up at her best friend again. "What if I make something disgusting and then everyone sees it and then they remember and for the rest of my life I'll be known as Marinette Cheng, the school girl who ruined her career before it'd even started?!" She was heaving by the end of her explanation.

"Girl! Get a grip!" Alya laughed. It wasn't comforting. "You'll do fine. You wouldn't have been picked as a finalist if you didn't have what it takes. And you've got three months. Just take a deep breath before you hyperventilate."

"My life is over…" Marinette groaned, quite as though she'd heard absolutely nothing. Turning away, she huddled beside the bench, resting her head against the wall as every good design she'd ever had suddenly became a horrific and unforgiving mess, unworthy of even being seen, let alone praised.

She had graduated from panic to despair by the time Adrien and Nino showed up.

"You girls ready?" Nino asked, only noticing the dark cloud forming over Marinette secondly.

"We're ready," Alya assured, exasperated.

"Is Marinette okay?" Of course it was Adrien who asked. Ugh, Adrien, who knew everything about fashion (probably) and would only verify that she submit a retraction from the competition.

"Yeah, she's just having a bit of a panic," Alya said flippantly. "Don't worry, it's pretty normal."

"Uh… Wait, what?" Adrien was still concerned.

"She got accepted as a finalist for that design competition she entered last week," Alya explained. "And now she's panicking. She'll be over it in a minute." Of course she'd be over it—once she'd accepted her failure and the inevitability that she'd probably be disqualified anyway, once the judges realized the mistake they'd made.

"Oh!" Adrien was looking at her, but she refused to meet his eye. "But that's great!"

"She knows," Alya explained. "She just has to get all her insecurity out in one dramatic swoop before she can be rational again. Just give her a few minutes."

But of course, as they'd been the ones pick her designs in the first place, they couldn't disqualify her for their own mistake. Which meant it was up to her to back out. That'd be the wise thing to do—cover up their mistake as well as prevent herself from making anymore.

"Marinette." Adrien's voice.

Then again, even if they'd made a mistake, it was a golden opportunity. No, she didn't deserve it, but maybe she could come up with something.

"Hey, we're going to lunch. You gonna be okay?"

"She'll be fine in a minute, Adrien, I'm telling you."

Even if she didn't pull through with something that impressive, it was a way to get her name out there. Maybe, instead of thinking she was ridiculous for trying, she'd be admired for her guts. Even if her clothes were nothing compared to the other designers, at least she'll have tried. That had to count for something.

"Marinette?"

Besides, she'd been designing since she could pick up a pencil. Maybe she didn't have the taste or knowledge of some other designers, but that didn't mean she couldn't come up with something good. She could stand on her own. She could do this.

She could do this!

"I need my sketchbook!" she announced, standing abruptly. She hadn't realized Adrien was crouching down beside her until her arm knocked him in the face in her flurry, sending him toppling back on his butt. Eyes wide, she realized her mistake too late to do anything. "Adrien!"

"I'm okay," he said, laughing and rubbing his chin. Blushing, Marinette reached down to help him up, having no problem pulling him to his feet once he took hold of her hand.

"Sorry…" She fiddled with her pigtail and stared at the floor.

"It's okay, really," Adrien said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "I'll stay back next time."

"I told you she'd be fine," Alya remarked as she pushed herself up from the bench. "Best to stay back when she gets that way—all excited and nervous. She starts flailing around, tripping over nothing. An overly-excited Marinette is a dangerous Marinette."

"Shut up, Alya," Marinette muttered, still blushing as she hunched her shoulders and grabbed her backpack from where it was sitting on the bench. "I thought we were going to lunch…"

It was with that—despite scattered laughter—that they headed for the doors. It was warmer out, the snow that had fallen the day before melting into a slushy mess. A thaw, which wasn't so surprising considering it was only the beginning of November. The cold would return, no doubt, but they were going to enjoy the sweatshirt only weather while they could.

"Let's just grab something from the bakery and go to the park," Alya suggested, stretching her arms out as though to take in the sun. "The temperature is supposed to drop again at the end of the week." In other words, they needed to take advantage while they could—muddy or not.

Nobody objected to the plan, so they headed quickly across the street and invaded the corner bakery. There were a good number of customers, what with it being lunch time, and both Marinette's parent's were hard at work bagging and cashiering. The four teenagers waved as they entered, getting only short smiles back before they started perusing the goods.

"A man cannot survive on bread alone…" Nino muttered, his attention having immediately gone to the donuts despite his griping.

"I could," Adrien replied simply, not nearly as picky as Nino as he opened one of the available plastic bags and began dropping things inside. Marinette and Alya were on the other side of the store, pretending to be preoccupied by the sweets when, in reality, Marinette was watching Adrien and Alya was watching her.

"You going to tell me what's going on between you two or what?" Alya eventually whispered, her voice soft enough that only the two of them could hear. Twitching to face her, Marinette blinked stupidly, not knowing right away what her best friend was referring to. It was only when Alya gestured in Adrien's direction that she understood.

"'Going on?'" Marinette asked. "Between me and Adrien? N-nothing."

Alya crossed her arms and cocked a skeptical, disbelieving brow.

"I'm seriously," Marinette hissed out. "We're just friends."

"Friends? Really?"

"Yes!" Marinette was pouting by that point, making a show of fiddling with some pre-packaged brownies. "We just… We're friends, that's it."

"Okay…" Alya took a huffing breath. "But that's not what you want, obviously."

"What? Oh, well, it's not- It's not that simple." The look on Alya's face told her there was no point in being vague. "I mean, of course I like him. My feelings didn't just- Look, it doesn't matter how I feel, okay?"

"Um, no?"

"I just want to be his friend. Before anything else, that's what I want." She peered across the bakery at Adrien again, who was bickering over something with Nino. "It doesn't matter if it… becomes something else or not. He- he's lonely, I think, and I just… want to be there for him however he needs. So if friendship is what I can do, then…" She shrugged.

"Oh my god," Alya breathed out, her hand going to her chest. "You're in love with him."

"What? Alya! That is not what I just said." And yet a blush flew up from under her shirt and covered her cheeks.

"I mean, I always knew you really, really liked him, but you're, like, actually in love with him."

"Alya!"

"What a load of… Are you seriously giving me the whole 'as long as he's happy, I'm happy' spiel? For real, Marinette, you've got it bad. Like, really bad. Way worse than I thought you did. You have to do something."

"No!" Marinette's eyes widened in horror. "I mean, not- not right now. Alya, I'm finally getting to know him." Kind of. She'd already been friends with Chat, but that wasn't exactly common knowledge. "I'm not going to jeopardize that with- with- Just don't say anything, alright? I'm just fine being his friend. I never even thought I'd get that far."

"Marinette…" Alya's look turned pitying. "That's not exactly fair to you." Which, Marinette supposed, was easy to say with Alya's limited perspective. She didn't know who Marinette or Adrien really were, or how deep their relationship actually went. Even if it wasn't romantic, her partnership with Chat was one of her most valued friendships. No, there was no way she'd ruin that with a "crush," or whatever it was she felt for him. She couldn't even get up the guts to tell him she was Ladybug—there was no way she was pushing it further. Or, even worse, trying to enter into a romantic relationship with him without telling him the truth.

It was all completely out of the question.

"It's fine, Alya, don't worry about it," she said through gritted teeth as the boys started to head across the bakery toward them. She could tell her best friend still disapproved, but the conversation was over.

"You guys get what you wanted?" Nino asked, already munching on a donut despite not having yet paid. Alya'd managed to grab something before, which she held up as evidence, and Marinette simply snatched the closest packet of brownies before offering a smile.

"That's not lunch," Adrien pointed out to her, frowning. His plastic bag was under his arm, bulging with what he'd selected.

"I'm not really all that hungry," Marinette replied, sliding by them to get in line with the other customers. What she said wasn't a lie—between the news about her status in the design competition and Alya's interrogation, her nerves were taking up any space her stomach might have had for hunger.

"I find that hard to believe," Adrien had the audacity to say. She whipped around and glared at him. "You ate half that large pizza with me on Saturday." After their study session (fight session, whatever) as well as following lunch and all their snacking in-between. "I know better than that by now. If you don't get something else, I'm going to tell your mom you're eating brownies for lunch."

"Why're you so annoying?" she asked, reaching out and grabbing a few packaged rolls off the nearest shelf. She held them up for mock examination before whipping around and standing with purposefully terrible posture as they waited.

"Just lookin' out for you, Mari."

"My name is Marinette," she mumbled out.

"Sure thing, Mari."

"Ugh."

"You two sound like an old married couple," Nino complained. Both Marinette and Adrien whipped around to look at him, though Marinette with far more enraged gusto than Adrien, who merely looked curious. Based on the smirk tugging at Nino's lips, he'd known exactly the reaction his comment would procure, Alya face-palming her forehead as Marinette simmered.

"Ah, get it," Adrein said a second later, grinning as he turned back to Marinette. "It's a pun. Married. Mari." Nino rolled his eyes and shook his head, quite out of Adrien's line of view, and Marinette had half a mind to punch him right in the face. If she could beat up Adrien without her powers, Nino wouldn't stand a chance.

"Righto, Adrien. It's a pun," Nino said, patting him on the shoulder. "That's definitely what I meant." Alya was smiling, trying to cover it up, and Marinette scowled. They were treacherous traitors. How dare they. And Adrien was clueless, thank goodness.

"I knew my puns would rub off on you eventually," Adrien continued, looking far too self-satisfied about the whole situation—one he clearly didn't understand even slightly. Marinette wasn't sure how to feel about that, so she swiveled back around and glared at the person in front of her.

"Don't get carried away," Nino replied. "Besides, pun or not, you and Marinette do argue like an old married couple." He was going to keep pushing the subject? Where was the duct tape when Marinette needed it? "And you guys have only been dating, like, a week?"

"What?"

"What?!" Marinette's screeching question came out much harsher than Adrien's as she, once again, whipped around to face them.

Behind Nino, Alya had gasped—before almost doubling over as she tried to contain her giggles.

"Marinette and I aren't dating," Adrien corrected simply, frowning as he did.

"Oh, you're not?" Nino feigned surprise. Marinette wanted to strangle him. "Huh, guess I just figured you were, what with the way you're hanging out together and eating pizza and going on dates."

Adrien finally caught on to his teasing, not looking the least bit amused. "We're just friends. What's wrong with a guy and girl being friends? I do all those things with you too." He poked Nino on the shoulder. "That mean we're dating?"

Finally, Alya had managed to compose herself, Marinette casting her a seething look. The only reason Nino would say something like this was if he knew she liked Adrien, and the only person that would have told him as much was Alya. Thankfully, her best friend was now looking appropriately ashamed.

"Sorry, bro." Nino raised his hand innocently. "I was just assumin' based on the evidence."

"We're not dating," Marinette said, tone steely. Both Nino and Alya took note of her flat, angry expression, their own faltering before she gave them the out by turning away. She said nothing else on the subject, too busy trying not to stomp out of the bakery to give them the time of day.

"Er, honest mistake," Nino tried to rectify awkwardly. "Shouldn't assume- Makes an ass- All that. Uh, too bad, since Marinette's pretty great and all."

Could she just die? Be struck by lightening? Something? Anything?

"Uh, yeah, she is." Adrien was confused again. Good. Marinette preferred it that way. Stupid friends. Stupid Adrien. Stupid Chat, just for good measure. She couldn't believe them. "But I, uh, like someone, so…"

"You do?" Alya asked, Marinette closing her eyes and thanking anything and everything that the last customer in front of them was just getting their receipt. She took the situation by the reins as the way was cleared, for once beyond thankful her parents were there to save her.

"We're just buying lunch," she said, voice loud enough to draw her three friends' attention.

"Oh, none of you needs to buy anything," Sabine assured, smiling. "You just go on ahead and take it." Which was usually what they said, but it was only polite to at least act as though one intended to pay. It'd be pretty rude of them to just walk in, take some food, and walk out.

"I have a lot." Adrien held up his bag, smiling shortly. "I can pay."

"That's alright, honey," Sabine persisted. "Here, take another roll." She basically pushed it on him. "And go enjoy the weather while it's nice."

Maybe Adrien wanted to object further, maybe Nino and Alya wanted to offer to pay as well. No matter, Marinette didn't give them the chance. With a quick goodbye that was both civil as well as hasty, Marinette turned on her heel and marched from the bakery. If her parents and friends noticed her rapid farewell, they didn't bring it up. Rather, Her parents waved, smiles wavering just a bit, and the other three followed her out.

"I want to work on my sketches," she said as soon as they were back on the sidewalk. "You guys go to the park." She didn't even look at them as she said it, instead distracting herself with shoving her food into her backpack.

"Uh, Marinette…" Alya tried to interject.

"See you guys in class." She was off, leaving them behind without another word. She knew her attitude was tasteless, and that she'd regret acting the way she was before she'd even returned from lunch, but she couldn't help feeling somewhat betrayed. She knew that neither Alya nor Nino had meant any harm, that maybe they'd thought they were helping, but they didn't understand the whole situation. It was so much more complicated than it used to be.

Maybe, once, she'd have been able to easily forgive such teasing. Even appreciated their efforts. But it was bad enough trying to work through hers and Adrien's identities, let alone her feelings for him. She wasn't even sure getting involved with him would be a good idea. What if it jeopardized their partnership? What if they broke up? She didn't want to lose Chat. And if suffering in silence guaranteed that wouldn't happen, she'd do it.

These thoughts filtered in and out her whole walk, her temper gone by the time she finally reached Place De Varsovie. Walking between the tall columns and statues, she collapsed on the stairs—her favorite place to draw. It had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower and the fountains before it, as well as lacking the clutter of the city. She had appreciation for Paris in all its forms, but there was something about this place—her garden of inspiration—that settled her. Even if it did have too many pigeons hopping about.

"Marinette?" Tikki was peeking up at her from inside her purse. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she said quietly, not wanting to draw the attention of anyone around. "I was just irritated. But I'll apologize to Alya and Nino when I see them." And Adrien too, she supposed. "You should stay hidden. There's a lot of people."

Nodding once, Tikki sank back into the tiny purse, Marinette clipping it closed before she dropped her backpack from her shoulders. Pulling out her sketchbook as well as her pencils and eraser—which she set down beside her leg—she opened it up to a fresh page and let her mind wander. Wander, that was, to anywhere but Adrien.

Which, of course, would mean that as soon as she'd managed to get her focus on her designs, he would show up.

"Mari?" Pencil pausing on paper, she looked over her shoulder. Adrien was standing there, bag of food still in hand as he stared down at her in concern.

She managed a small smile.

"Sorry about that," she said, forcing the words to be easy. "I didn't mean to snap at you guys."

"Are you alright?" He'd come to a halt about a meter away, but closed the distance between them as he asked his question. "You seemed kind of upset…"

"No." She had to deny, deny, deny. "I'm just… stressed about this competition and I guess Nino's teasing just rubbed me the wrong way. I'm okay now though, promise. I'm sorry I worried you."

"It's fine," he said, though he still looked a bit concerned. Removing his bag from his shoulder, he sat down beside her. "You really shouldn't stress about the competition. You'll do fine, I'm sure of it."

She was thankful he was accepting her excuse, that he hadn't ascertained anything from what had happened. Or, at least, hadn't for now. She'd have to have a talk with Alya. And Nino.

"Yeah." She sighed. "It's just a really big deal, you know? I mean, I know I'll be part of the first wave of designers, but…" She'd be in the section that showed first, in the early afternoon. Not even on the same runway as the big designers, she'd have to find her own models somewhere and organize herself within one joint show of other designers. There wouldn't even be seats around their runway. Rather, it was for only those who cared to watch. But still, it was something. More than most people her age got. She'd probably be the youngest there.

"You'll do great," Adrien guaranteed, reaching out and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Trust me, I'm part of this every year and I see the competitors. You've got a great chance at doing well. I'd volunteer to be one of your models, were it not for the fact that I'll be part of my father's line."

"Thanks, Adrien," she said, truly appreciative of his support. "I mean, even if I don't do great, I still get to see all the real designers later, which is more than a lot of other people." Because the first-year competition just decided who would get to show a full line the following year. The big designers, like Gabriel Agreste, weren't competing. They showed later, on the official runway with celebrities and, well, important people there to watch.

She'd get a free seat, but it'd be in the back. Which was still amazing.

"You are a real designer," he corrected. "You shouldn't doubt yourself, Mari. I know you've got the confidence to do this. Don't let nerves get you down."

He had such a perfect smile.

"Why are you calling me 'Mari,' anyway?" she asked, trying to overcome the poignancy of his statement.

"Oh, uh, sorry." He shrugged, his hand drifting up from her shoulder to rub at the back of his neck. "Just kind of keeps slipping out. I'll make sure to use your full name from now on."

"No, it's fine. I don't mind, just curious. I guess it's a wonder no one's ever called me that before."

"Well, Marinette is a pretty name."

"Not nearly as pretty as Adrien." She said it with a sense of mocking awe, doing whatever she could to lighten the mood. "Adrien Agreste, no less. I'm sure women swoon at the mere mention of it."

"Hah, well, what can I say?" He flipped his hair dramatically. "My charm is absolutely agresting."

She scoffed. "Gag me, please."

"I am the star of my father's show, after all."

"Aren't you always?"

"No, actually." He held up his finger knowingly. "I'm usually the face of his show, but this will be my first year walking the runway."

"Really?" Marinette furrowed her eyebrows curiously. "Why haven't you done runway before?"

"My father's exact words were 'You're finally six foot. Time to make use of you.'" He shrugged.

Marinette wasn't sure whether to laugh or offer comfort.

"Do you like being a model?" The question popped out before she could stop it. She wasn't sure if that was too personal or not personal at all. Maybe it didn't matter.

"I…" Adrien looked to the Eiffel Tower, appearing thoughtful. "No one's ever asked me that before." Marinette frowned. "I dunno. I guess I don't really know the difference. I grew up in it. It just kind of… is." He looked back at her. "Do you like baking?"

"Ah…" She found she didn't know. "I don't hate it, I guess." It could get irritating if her parents needed help with some kind of big order, but she didn't find that she loathed the idea. Yet, she wasn't in love with it either. It was like a chore—something that had to be done and that she knew how to do, which made it relatively easy to accomplish.

"Modeling's just… something I do, I guess. Even when my mom was around, I was doing it. Little kid catalogues and stuff."

"But it's not your passion?"

He gave her a curious look.

"Like designing," she explained. "That's what I'm passionate about. I can bake just about anything, but that's not what I want to do forever. Do you want to be a professional model, even after we're out of school?"

"I… I don't know." The realization seemed to take him by surprise, which made Marinette feel bad. "I've never really thought that far ahead."

"Really?"

He stared down at his hands, as if he'd find the answer he was looking for in their shallow creases. "My future's not something I've ever had to worry about. My father, he… takes care of everything." He huffed. "Wow, how have I never thought about this before?"

"You can do anything you want, Adrien. You're father can't… control you forever." It was risky, saying something like that. Whether it was true or not, acknowledging Adrien's father, openly, as being overbearing was quite different than simply implying it. Kind of like how taking action was different than the consideration of doing so.

"Yeah, I guess that's true." But he didn't sound totally invested in the idea. Fearing she was trespassing on dangerous terrain, Marinette tried to think of a new topic. It was one thing for him to bring up his family issues on his own and quite another for her to ask. She wasn't going to press the subject.

"Bet being a model has its perks though," she started. "That person you like. Are they a model too?" Alright, so she hadn't picked the best topic to change to. But when he'd mentioned liking someone before, she'd found her curiosity shooting through the roof. Was it Ladybug? Was that who he was referring to? Or someone else? Abruptly, her need to know skyrocketed.

"Ah, no." His brows smashed together. "At least, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure she's not."

"You don't know?"

"We don't really… talk much about our personal lives," he admitted, looking somewhat uncomfortable.

"Why not?" She blinked innocently, as if that would make her prying less invasive. One second she was reeling herself in and the next she was asking things she knew she shouldn't. It wasn't fair, not with what she knew, and she should stop. She shouldn't ask him any more.

"Ah, she just… prefers to keep things professional between us, I think." A good answer, really—had he not already claimed "she" wasn't a fellow model. But that didn't mean it had to be Ladybug. He probably knew tons of incredible people all over the world. When she thought of it that way, it seemed less likely that his flirtations with Ladybug were real. How many beautiful people must he know?

Could she even compete with that?

"You've never tried to… pursue her?" She was horrible. She couldn't believe she was actually doing this. There was no way she could be angry with Alya and Nino after this—not when she was so much worse.

"I… thought about it." He shrugged. "But I don't want to mess up what's between us. Besides," he took a deep breath, "she's made it pretty clear she doesn't feel that way about me. Even without me actually telling her how I feel."

"Oh, I see."

Marinette had never felt more ashamed of herself. Or more like an idiot. Or, frankly, any more like a complete asshole.

"It's okay though," he continued, pushing optimism into his voice. "She's way out of my league." He gestured wide with his arm, only adding more distance.

"Wh-What do you mean?" Marinette squeaked out.

"She's…" He wasn't looking at her as he spoke, his eyes narrowing some. "She's like the sun. It's, like, you can't help but be drawn to her. She has her own gravity and once you're caught in it, that's it. You're finished." He chuckled bitterly. "Everyone adores her, and for good reason. She's just… the most incredible woman I've ever met."

"Wow…" Marinette said, despite herself. Because he couldn't possibly be talking about Ladybug, could he? That just couldn't be possible. She knew Chat respected her, but was this how he really felt?

Was he talking about Ladybug?

What if he wasn't?

But…

What if he was?

She didn't deserve him. Not talking like that; not singing such high praises. And especially not after what she'd just done. It was unforgivable, the way she was pretending. And here he was, baring his soul because he trusted her. God, it was…

It was nauseating. How could she do this to him?

She had to tell him. She had to.

But what would she even say? Where were the words? She should have told him everything ages ago. He'd hate her—despise her. He'd see that she wasn't perfect, that she wasn't this bright ray of light he thought she was. That she was anything but.

She was a liar. And she was manipulative. What had she done?

She couldn't tell him. He couldn't know.

It was selfish, but she couldn't lose him. Not Chat. Never Chat.

She knew she had to do it, but she just…

She just couldn't.

"But it's alright," he continued, seemingly unaware of the panic she was going through beside him. "She's probably got someone already, someone better than me. Someone who's just as… amazing as she is."

"Who is she?" Her tone was barely a whisper. But no! She had to stop! She was out of control! She was horrible! Despicable! Did this count as playing with his feelings? Was she toying with him? No, no, no! She didn't want to. She didn't want to hurt him.

Why had she dug herself into this hole?

Why hadn't she just been honest when she had the chance?

"Ah, well." A light blush flooded his cheeks. "You probably don't know her."

The perfect answer. She could latch onto that. If he was talking about Ladybug, then he didn't want her to know. And if he wasn't, then this woman was beyond her. She wouldn't ask anymore. She didn't want to know.

She didn't want to know!

"Probably not," she agreed, ignoring how her smile wavered as she forced it to her lips. "She can't possibly be as amazing as you say if she doesn't think you're a catch," she joked, elbowing him lightly. A friendly gesture—because they were friends.

"Hah, thanks."

She didn't know what to say after that, afraid of what would spill out of her own mouth. Rather, biting the inside of her cheek, she focused back on her sketchpad. If only for some kind of distraction, she began sketching again, not entirely sure what her lines were doing or what they'd make.

But it was calming—it was something she did all the time—and so, soon, the light scratching of her pencil on paper lulled her into a sense of normalcy. She could push her guilt and shame behind the excuse of creativity. She was being responsible, working on her designs. She was doing what she was supposed to be doing. Following the rules of good conduct and responsibility.

That didn't, however, stop her from noticing when Adrien leaned into her space. So close, in fact, that he was clearly looking over her shoulder.

"What are you doing?" she asked, shielding her deigns unconsciously. He looked like he was going to say something, but then thought better of it. Leaning away again, he pooched his lips and stared down at his feet.

It occurred to Marinette a second later that he'd probably just been watching her draw. But, well, she didn't really like it when people watched her work. It was her creative progression—something she sometimes considered private. Flicking her gaze between him and her pad only a few times, she soon went back to work. She kept a bit of her attention trained on him, however, unsure whether the silence between them was comfortable or not.

She couldn't see his face, strictly speaking, but that didn't stop her from noticing when he situated his whole body in her direction. Or when his hand came forward and lightly tapped on one of the two extra pencils sitting on the step beside her thigh.

She managed a quick, full look at him, noting that he looked distracted. Or, perhaps, just thoughtful.

He rolled her pencil toward the edge of the step, blocking it from falling before rolling it back. He did this three times, as if rebounding the pencil between his thumb and pointer finger.

On the fourth roll, he let it go.

With a quiet clatter—the two of them watching it—the pencil fell over the edge and onto the following step.

"Really?' Marinette asked, looking directly at him, eyebrow cocked.

"What?" In the same moment that he asked, his hand seemed to move of its own accord. Because he'd pushed her eraser over the edge of the step as well, but with enough force that it almost sprang further.

Marinette reached out and caught it midair, before it could bounce out of reach. "Could you not?" Her expression had become scolding as she replaced both the pencil and the eraser beside her.

"What are you designing?" he asked a second later, leaning in closer again.

She pulled back, simply out of habit. "Nothing really," she said vaguely, noting how he'd frowned. He was getting awfully Chat-like, invading her space. And not in the helpful, charming way he did when he assisted her with homework or put a hand on her shoulder. This was obnoxious, "Chat" kind of invading.

On guard, she hesitantly returned to her sketching. It did not surprise her when, a moment later, his hand darted out and he knocked both her pencils and eraser down the steps.

"Excuse you!" she said sharply, reaching out to grab her supplies before they'd clattered too far away. "I'm trying to work." She replaced them beside her again.

His hand was reaching out almost immediately, despite how his straight, unadorned expression was locked with hers.

"No," she said firmly, finally deciding to move the supplies altogether. She set them on her other side, much to Adrien's disappointment. He slumped beside her, Marinette releasing an annoyed huff before she returned her attention to her sketchpad.

"What are you thinking about designing?" he asked a moment later, stalling any attempts she had at creating anything with yet another interruption. She cast him a rather exasperated eye, but he didn't seem to be bothered by it. Instead, head cocking slightly to the side, he slow-blinked at her. "Can I watch you?"

"Uh…" She cringed.

"Please?" His head cocked a little more, until it was practically on top of his left shoulder.

"I don't usually like people watching me design," she said somewhat hesitantly. "Kind of gets distracting."

"I won't be distracting," he lied. She knew better.

When she didn't immediately respond, he pulled his head up and cocked it the other way, blonde hair flopping about as he tried to make his smile as endearing as possible. It wasn't. Chat had used that tactic often enough before and she'd refuted him every time.

"You will be," she finally determined.

"I won't." His ear was touching right shoulder, green eyes far too innocent. "Please?" When she didn't say anything, his whole body began to tilt, until his head was at a downward angle. "Pretty please?" He was going to fall over if he wasn't careful. In fact, Marinette almost wanted to push him. It'd only take a light nudge.

But, fortunately or not, she didn't have to. When she still didn't give him the positive affirmation he wanted, he just kept going. Until his head was practically upside-down while he looked at her. With his hair dragging on the concrete, he kept grinning, Marinette's eyebrow climbing to skeptical heights.

"Please?" he asked again, until his upper half finally outweighed his lower. The top of his head brushed the ground and, like a noodle, he slipped down fully. Lying on his back, he continued to stare at her, blinking and grinning despite the awkward, backward "C" his whole body seemed to be making.

Marinette sighed. "Okay…"

He popped up almost immediately.

"I don't know why you want to though," she eventually admitted. "I'm not, like, drawing some kind of masterpiece or something." A lot of what she'd be doing in the early stages would just be light sketches before she turned to a new page.

"It's your creative process," he explained, scooting closer to her as he did. "Half of what makes art amazing is how you get there. I'm not very artistic myself, but my dad used to let me into his studio, when I was little. I loved watching him sketch."

"Well, I definitely won't be as good as your dad."

"You're awesome, Mari. You're you. That's more than good enough." He was right behind her shoulder at this point, Marinette forcefully reminding herself that this was also Chat and that he was constantly invading her space. It didn't matter that he looked like Adrien at the moment, or that his left leg was folded, abutting her lower back while the other stretched out beside her. Just so he could look comfortably over her shoulder.

None of that mattered. Not one bit.

She had not asked for this misery…

Shaking away her nerves as best she could, she hunched forward and forced herself to sketch. Anything, it didn't matter. Whatever she could conjure to keep busy. She went through figure after figure, sheet after sheet, just getting down whatever she could as fast as she could without looking like she was trying too hard.

And, oddly enough, Adrien really wasn't the big of a distraction. She could feel his presence, but he was quiet—still even. Watchful, perhaps. He didn't say anything, didn't comment, and Marinette gradually allowed herself to find his presence… soothing. He was behind her in all her endeavors, and there was something about that familiarity that kept her balanced. That made her feel…

Safe.

She didn't think she deserved to feel as such, not after how she'd treated him, but she couldn't help it. He was Chat Noir, her partner even when he couldn't contribute.

She should tell him.

Why couldn't she tell him?

"Hey, Mari?" His voice, which was so close to her ear, made her jump. "How long have we been out here?"

Her eyes bugged. Reaching into her bag, she grabbed her phone and checked the time.

"We're half an hour late for class!" she gasped out.

"Oh." Adrien didn't sound too perturbed by the situation. Irritated with his lack of disturbance, Marinette turned her head over her shoulder to send him a glare. He just shrugged. "I miss school all the time."

"Well, I don't," she huffed, slamming her sketchbook closed. She was late a good chunk of the time, but she didn't usually skip or miss days (unless there was an akuma). That just meant more work to make up.

Reaching for her bag, which was sitting on the step in front of her, she hastily began packing her things away. And as she turned to her right, to get her extra pencils and eraser, she was just in time to watch a single hand bat the whole collection into the air.

The supplies went flying, clattering down to the bottom of the stairs.

He'd seriously reached all the way around her just to do that? "Sometimes I loath you," she muttered, craning herself to the left to catch him in her sights again.

He shrugged.

Growling, she reached up and pinched his nose, causing him to fall back dramatically. Collapsing onto his back, he rubbed at his victimized appendage as Marinette pushed her way to her feet and leapt down the stairs. Grabbing her scattered supplies, she dropped them back in her bag before swinging it onto her back and taking the stairs two at a time back up.

"C'mon," she muttered to Adrien, who was finally beginning to get up. "I don't even want to know what Nino and Alya are going to say now." She had him clamped by the wrist, his free hand just managing to grab up his bag as she dragged him back toward the street.

"They'll probably tell us that we should be more pun-catual."

He was so lucky she already liked him.

oOo

She wasn't that disappointed. At least Chat had had the decency to tell her he was running about an hour behind on patrol, which served to ease her nerves. But still, she'd been looking forward to their romp through the night. She hadn't gotten to hang out with Adrien or Chat since Monday, and now it was Friday. Actually, Adrien had been gone until that very morning. Supposedly, he'd gone to New York with his father for a fashion show. The fact that Chat had been absent that whole time as well seemed to prove they were the same person after all, though she didn't really hold any doubts anymore.

Still, she'd… missed him. Granted, when Chat wasn't around, she missed him anyway, but this was more acute somehow. Maybe it was because she'd also been missing Adrien, the fact that they were one and the same making it worse. Or perhaps it was simply how apparent she was of her feelings for both of them nowadays. No matter, she'd been antsy to see him all day and having to wait another hour had only accentuated the fact that he'd been gone.

But she'd wait. She could distract herself.

As it were, she'd gotten herself a good collection of rocks, scavenged from the snow-covered garden on the other side of the sidewalk. Flat, thin, they were piled up on the concrete edge by the river, which only sat up about two feet from the water. She was currently scavenging for a few more, wanting to make sure she had enough to get at least one good throw it.

After finding three more good ones, she turned back.

She was not surprised to see Chat crouched down by her pile, staring at the rocks curiously.

"Careful, Kitty," she teased, making sure to hide her thrill at seeing him. "You might fall in."

"What's up with the rock collection?" he asked, head cocking to the side curiously as he peered up at her. "I didn't think ladybugs had an affinity for such things."

"I was bored, waiting for you," she replied, ignoring his sass. "I was going to skip them over the river." She dropped her last three down into the pile, hand going to her hips as she stared down at him.

"Yeah, sorry I was late, My Lady," he said, grinning. "I ran into some unforeseen snags. Can't always be helped with claws like these." He held up his hand, as if she actually had to look to know he had them.

"I'm sure," she said, feigning disinterest.

"So let's see it," he issued a moment later. "These rock skipping skills of yours. The river's pretty quiet, so that should help, right?"

"Yeah." She picked up a rock and tossed it into the air, aware of the way his cat-eyes followed it up and down. She then pulled her arm back, corrected her aim, and let the stone fly.

It skipped only twice.

"That was rather anticlimactic," he said flatly.

"Shut up," she scolded, smiling despite herself. "I have to warm up first."

"I could help you out with that, if you want." He winked.

She frowned. "Nice try, but not what I meant." She picked up another rock, ignoring how wings fluttered around in her stomach. Since when had Chat's flirting meant anything? Never, that's when. She didn't even know if he was sincere or not.

She needed to focus on the rock.

Eyes narrowed, she craned her arm back again, this time carefully watching the waves as she adjusted her grip. She was just about to let it fly when her body came to a stuttering halt, distracted by a rattling and then a plop.

Attention flicking over, she was just in time to watch one of her rocks vanish beneath the water.

She furrowed her brows and looked to Chat. He was watching where the rock had sunk in as well, his hand held out over the water. At first, Marinette wondered if the rock had simply been unbalanced and he'd tried to catch it before it fell in. But after watching it tumble, he then turned back to the pile, scooted another rock toward the edge, and tipped it in.

"Hey!" She whipped around on him with an accusing finger. He'd turned to look at her immediately, cat-eyes too big and mouth hanging open too far—hand caught in the cookie jar. "Don't do that!"

"Do what?" he asked, slow-blinking as his hands worked ahead of him. With one swipe, he knocked half of the rocks over the edge, the plopping sound of them hitting the water jerking his focus from her. He leaned over to watch.

Ladybug gaped. "Chat! Stop!" There were only five rocks left! Flat, even rocks were a lot harder to find than they looked.

"I just…" He looked back to her.

His fingers twitched toward the other rocks.

"Chat…" she leveled a finger at him. "Don't…" Where was her spray bottle when she needed it?

He blinked at her again, tapping one of the rocks with his nails. It slid toward the edge, balancing just above the water.

"Stop it right now," she muttered out dangerously.

His hand paused, hesitating above the rock. Wavering, maybe, and she continued to point her finger at him in warning.

Like she should have expected that it'd actually do any good.

With a final twitch, their eyes still locked together, he knocked the rock into the water with a rattle and a plop.

"Chat!" Her outraged shout startled him. Jumping up, he cast her one smarmy grin before knocking the rest of the rocks into the water with the tip of his boot. She reached for him, trying to grab anywhere, but he was too quick. With a single bound, he was on the lamppost above her head.

Frustrated, she chucked the rock in her hand up at him. He dodged it easily, sticking out his tongue before hopping to the top of the next lamppost.

"I hate cats!" Marinette yelled after him, whipping out her yoyo.

She was after him in a flash.

Somehow, probably with the help of his baton, he'd launched himself from the lamps and onto the roofs of the buildings nearby. Swinging after him, Ladybug listened as the wind whipped by her face, using the sounds as best she could to manage her trajectory in the dark. Thankfully, the city was pretty well lit, so she could see enough to throw herself over a few chimneys before landing deftly atop some shingles. Yoyo zipping to her side as she bent up out of her crouch, she took a quick look around, but had pretty much given up before she'd even started.

She'd lost Chat, of course. For one, she didn't have the blessing of night vision, and, two, he was wearing black. He'd had the upper hand from the start. Still, she knew him well enough to realize that didn't mean she was alone. He was watching her, probably. Hidden away somewhere nearby.

So with an exaggerated sigh, she marched her way up the angled roof, until she'd reached the top of the steeple. With a huff, she sat down and let her head fall into her hand. She pretended to stare out over the rooftops, her senses actually trained on anything but.

She was not surprised, therefore, when a black shadow dropped down on the other side of the roof and began to slink over. He was crouched low, wary of her, but not to the point of actually being fearful. Rather, as she peered at him out of the corner of her eyes, she saw that he was smiling, teeth bright in the dark.

"You're a bad kitty."

"I simply couldn't resist," he murmured, voice warm. "Forgive me, My Lady?"

She snorted and glanced back out at the city.

"Come now, not even I can be purr-fectly well behaved all the time," he said, still creeping toward her. Lightly falling snow nipped at his ears and they twitched. Ladybug tried not to find it endearing as she looked back at him. "I sincerely apologize about your rocks, Bugaboo."

"You think calling me that is going to make me forgive you any faster?" she asked dubiously, unsure whether to roll her eyes or grin when he held his hands below his chin like paws, pouting far too dramatically. "Yeah, right."

"I kit you not!" he objected, finally sidling right up beside her, though he was still balanced in a crouch. "I'm furry sorry. Cat's honor."

She sighed again, refocusing on the rooftops.

"Ladybug." He said her name specifically to ask that she look at him, which she most certainly did not. "Ladybug." Nothing. "Lady of my life, most wonderful, beautiful, and exemplary, Ladybug." She would not rise to such bait. "My Lady, to whom there is no equal. The sun envies your brightness and the night sweeps its curtains aside at the sight of you. It is your light the moon reflects, and for whom the stars spark-"

"You're terrible." She finally turned to him, smiling despite herself.

"I am speaking the truth only." He winked. Again. He did that far too often.

"Oh, just go… chase your tail or something." She waved him off, slumping as she stretched her legs down the side of the roof.

"Um, first off," he pointed a very fabulous claw in her direction, "dogs chase their tails. I am clearly feline. And second," he pouted again, "why're you bein' mean to me?" No, she did not bother with a response. "I said I was sorry," he whined, leaning his head against her shoulder. "They were just rocks." His hair was brushing her neck as he rubbed his cheek against her suit, his arms coming up to wrap around her own. "I'm sure you're very good at skipping stones."

His ears were poking her in the face, causing her to scowl. Reaching out with her free hand, she pushed back on his face, but he only bungeed back worse. He was now rubbing his head against her jaw, his arms coming up to circle her shoulders and pull her closer.

"Let me go," she muttered, trying to shimmy away. He only clamped to her tighter.

"Not until you're my friend again," he said dramatically.

"Ugh, Chat." Her continued attempts to wiggle away were in vain. "You're always my friend. Now stop."

His grip on her finally loosened. Apparently, though, that didn't mean he was too intent on giving her any personal space. Rather, he turned to her with a Cheshire grin, his nose only centimeters from her own as she turned to give him an unimpressed look. Which only amused him further.

Hugging her again, he pressed his cheek to hers and attempted to squeeze the life out of her.

"Oh my god, Chat, you're going to suffocate me," she muttered, finally giving in. She was limp in his hold, supposing there was no point in fighting. Not literally, anyway. She could throw him off if she really wanted to, but that'd be pretty drastic for Chat's typical inability to keep to his own personal space.

Well, seeing as Chat was Adrien, maybe this wasn't so bad after all. Okay, perhaps it was a little nice, being held by him.

No! Give Chat an inch and he takes a mile! Stupid cat!

"Alright, down boy," she issued, shoving his face away as she reared back. He kind of listened, his head falling to her shoulder, before his arms dropped down around her waist.

As if slowly collapsing, he stretched out, his legs framing the steeple of the roof as his head sank lower and lower, eventually coming to rest on the outside of her thigh. He kept his arms looped around her, loosely, and she knew if she pushed him away, he'd sit up. That was exactly what she'd normally do, actually, when he got too clingy. And yet, she couldn't bring herself to.

Instead, heart pounding rather swiftly in her chest, she allowed her hand to rest gently atop his hair. His leather ears flicked as she brushed them unintentionally, but otherwise, he didn't move.

He was waiting for her to shove him away.

But she didn't.

And because he was Chat, he pushed the envelope a little further. Pulling closer to her, he slid his head up into her lap, his tail flicking lazily behind him as his arms tightened just a bit, circling her completely.

She could see the small smile on his lips as she looked down at him. But as his eyes were closed, he couldn't see her puzzlement, or the way she hesitated before she laid a hand along the top of his back while the other remained in his hair.

"What are you doing, Kitty?" she asked after a few moments, her voice much softer than she'd intended.

"Tired," was all he muttered out. "Jetlagged."

"Where'd you go?" He'd told her, of course, that he wouldn't be around for almost four days, but she hadn't asked for details. Details weren't something Ladybug usually wanted—not when protecting their identities was so important.

What did that mean, if she knew who he was?

"Away," he said vaguely. "Doesn't matter. Back now." He really did sound tired. As if to reiterate this point, he yawned, his whole jaw stretching like it wanted to come apart. Exaggerated, maybe, or just cat-like.

"You can't tell me a lazy kitty like you wouldn't like a vacation," she teased.

"Vacation is great. Being away is not."

"You missed Paris?"

Pause. "I missed you."

She didn't know what to say to that. Her breath had nearly caught in her throat, but she evened it before it could be noticed. When Chat had said such things before, it'd always been in jest. She'd never taken it to mean anything. Yet, now, she didn't know—didn't know if he was serious or not, that was. Whether the compliments and the flirtations were even sincere. She liked to think that Adrien wouldn't lead her on, wouldn't make her believe in something that wasn't there. But it was only recently that she'd even wanted his, Chat's, honest attention, that she'd realized her feelings for him.

She wasn't sure she was brave enough to believe it was real. Just like she wasn't quite brave enough to tell him the truth.

"I worry when I'm not around," he continued, when the silence between them stretched to uncomfortable levels. "I mean, you're amazing and can take care of yourself, but still. Akuma are unpredictable." If he'd realized her silence was prolonged, he didn't mention it. He moved on. And so she did too.

"There weren't any akuma attacks while you were gone," she said, wanting to assure him. "I'm glad you're back too. Sometimes I wonder if I'm really as amazing as everyone thinks I am."

He cracked a single eye open then, looking up at her curiously. "Of course you are," was his simple response. "You could probably fight akuma in your sleep."

She laughed. "Maybe. But… I dunno, I guess sometimes I wonder what people would think, if they knew…" She should continue. She forced herself to. "If they knew I was just an ordinary girl, behind this mask."

She felt Chat stiffen around her and she wondered, fleetingly, if she'd gone too far. But before she could fully come to a conclusion, his arms were slipping out from around her and he was turning over. Until he was facing her, though his head still lay heavily in her lap.

"You're anything but ordinary, Ladybug," he said, sounding almost scolding.

She smiled. "Sorry to break it to you, Kitty, but I'm just like everyone else under the costume." And it wasn't like she was some world-traveling supermodel either. She was, quite literally, an average girl—be it her grades, her financial standing, popularity. She was totally and completely typical.

"That's not what I meant," he said, far more serious all of a sudden. "Of course you're like everyone else, but it's not like our costumes change our personalities." Even if, on the surface, someone might think that it did. Chat and Adrien seemed pretty different until one looked closer, and maybe Marinette and Ladybug would to those not paying attention. But, really, the only thing that changed when she transformed was the affect she had on the people around her. As Ladybug, she could tell someone what to do and, generally, they'd do it. It was easy to get what she wanted. Marinette didn't have that same luxury, so she had to resort to other means. But what Chat said was true—she didn't feel like a different person as Ladybug, just more in control.

More significant, maybe.

"You're amazing because you're you," he went on. "Mask on or off doesn't make a difference." He was frowning, clearly distressed by what she'd said, for whatever reason, and so she sought to correct that.

"Of course I'm me," she verified, smiling. "I just mean that, sometimes, I think everyone assumes we're Ladybug and Chat Noir all the time, and they might be disappointed when we're not superheroes twenty-four seven."

"Then they're stupid," he said simply, causing her to laugh. "I'm serious. Granted, I'm gorgeous no matter what I have on." She snorted. "But no one wants to walk around in a skintight suit all the time. I mean, could you imagine going to the grocery store? Or school? Every man and woman would be swooning after me—nothing would ever get done."

She slapped him lightly on the chest. "You're incorrigible."

"I'm cat-tastic, My Lady."

She rolled her eyes.

"Seriously, though." Abruptly, his stern tone returned. "It doesn't matter how 'ordinary' you think you are, you'll never be less than absolutely incredible in my eyes. I could never be disappointed in you for being you, Ladybug." He smiled, the expression gentle.

So she returned it. "Thank you, Chat," she murmured, placing her hand in his hair again.

"Of course, bugaboo." His smile went feral. "You're almost as purr-fect as me."

She was not amused.

Which, of course, caused him to chuckle. It faded quickly though, the silence that fell between them comfortable as opposed to expectant. Chat eventually closed his eyes again, expression relaxing as Ladybug dared to lightly massage his scalp. Their patrol wasn't going according to plan, obviously, but neither seemed intent on correcting the matter. Rather, snow drifting down lightly, Ladybug stared half-lidded down at Chat, her own constant exhaustion from the chill beginning to creep up on her.

It was a strange, slight rumbling noise that jolted her back into total awareness. Brows furrowing, she paused in her massaging, squinting as she listened.

There was no doubt—the noise was definitely coming from Chat himself.

He was purring.

She had to slam her hand over her mouth to stop herself from giggling, the very idea of what was happening nearly enough to send her manic. Granted, when reflecting on Chat's (and Adrien's) previous behavior, it wasn't all that shocking. But still. Purring. That was almost too much.

Ladybug took a deep breath, pulling at her composure. Yet, despite this, she couldn't simply sit. She had to say something.

She leaned over him, smiling as she booped his nose. "Are you purring, Kitty-Cat?"

The rumbling emanating from somewhere in his chest came to an almost gargled halt, Chat's eyes mere slits as he glared up at her. "Why you got to ruin the moment?" he asked, sounding far more accusing than questioning.

And so she didn't bother holding back—she laughed. Laughed so hard that she almost sent Chat tumbling down the side of the roof.

It wasn't until she'd caught her breath that she saw him smiling again, purrs once more vibrating from somewhere deep, deep inside him.

She supposed that was sincere enough for now.

Chapter Text

"That went smoothly," Chat said triumphantly, the last of Ladybug's purification swirling around them before disappearing. "Then again, perhaps the better way to look at it is that it could have been worse."

Ladybug, finally having caught her breath, grinned at him.

It'd been a challenging fight, but Chat wouldn't go so far as to say they'd struggled. It'd been a workout, sure, but they'd been on the ground and stuck to one area of the city, which always made things easier. Not like they were riding a flying police car, or a dragon. He'd take a super strong weightlifter over the akuma that could fly any day.

"It definitely could have been worse," Ladybug agreed, the two of them taking note that, with the akuma gone, people were beginning to come back out of their homes. With a knowing look at one another, they sprang into action, soaring up onto a nearby roof before vaulting a few more streets over.

Dealing with the populace and the press wasn't always bad, but it wasn't in good taste, nor was it a safe habit, to simply be standing around for interviews and attention all the time. They had their identities to think of.

"At least it didn't take too long," Ladybug reasoned, peering up at the afternoon snow filtering down from the clouds. "I hate chasing them all over. I have better things to do."

"Ha, I bet you do," Chat said, laughing good-naturedly as he came up beside her. "You strike me as the type that's probably busy all the time." He'd crossed his arms over his chest, looking her up and down with an admiring eye that she didn't fail to notice. It wasn't a lewd look, however. He'd never do her the dishonor. Rather, it was real admiration—because Ladybug was amazing and it wouldn't surprise him to find out that she thought superhero work was a tedious annoyance in comparison to her civilian life. Unlike him—he loved being Chat Noir.

"I don't know about that," she said, poking him lightly on the nose. "But I'd certainly rather be doing other things." Getting the akumas was thrilling, sure, and exciting in its own way, but Chat was pretty sure they both preferred vaulting and dashing over roofs when they weren't running for their lives.

"What kinds of other things?" Chat asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. Both of their miraculous' had been beeping at them, but they still had a bit of time. And it wasn't like Chat had a schedule to stick to now. The akuma had already made him miss most of his Friday fencing practice, so there was no point in trying to rush back now.

"Wouldn't you like to know," she replied, twining her fingers behind her back as she leaned toward him just a bit. There was a teasing smiling playing on her lips, which only spread Chat's grin further.

"I actually would," he confirmed. "The secret life of Ladybug is something I'm always interested in." Which wasn't a lie. He wanted to know her—all of her—but he knew she didn't feel the same way. Still, it never hurt to suggest that they at least be friends outside their work, even if he'd come to accept the inevitable rejection.

"Well," she pulled her hand forward and tapped her chin thoughtfully, "it's really not that exciting, but I'm flattered you'd think so." He could almost sense the "but" coming. He was, therefore, moderately surprised when, instead, she turned and walked to the edge of the roof.

Pulling her yoyo from her hip, she winked at him. "Maybe we'll get lunch sometime and talk all about it." With that, she was off, Chat frozen as her words slowly—as though letter by letter, sound by sound—sank into his brain.

And even after they did, he still wasn't sure he was hearing them right.

"Wait…" he muttered, despite being completely alone on the rooftop. "…What?"

Had she just… Had that… She couldn't have been serious. Ladybug would never…

This had to be a dream.

Just to make sure, Chat reached up and pinched his own ear. He wasn't sure if the whole "pinch me and I'll wake up" thing worked if one did it to themselves, but he wasn't sure what else to do either.

Because Ladybug had just implied that… that she'd like to get lunch sometime? With him? Outside their hero duties? Granted, it could just be a flirtatious remark, but, even when he had occasionally gotten her to reciprocate his suggestive comments, she'd never offered any kind of positive response. She'd never proposed that they do anything together, let alone "get lunch."

What did this mean?

Belatedly, Chat's heart surged up into his throat, beating fast as he lost general feeling in all his limbs. He blinked, gaped, and looked generally stupid, staring off into the empty horizon. Even the beeping of his ring couldn't gather his attention.

It was like he'd been smacked flat across his whole body. Because Ladybug couldn't have been serious. He'd been flirting with her for over a year and she'd never shown the slightest bit of interest.

No, it had to be a mistake. She'd hadn't just proposed they- they go on a date. That was ludicrous. The more logical explanation would be that she just wanted to… reveal their identities to each other? No, that didn't make any sense either. She was more unlikely to want that than to want a date with him, right?

He must have heard her wrong. This wasn't possible.

It was also very, very confusing.

Slowly but surely, warmth began to spread through him again, subduing the shock. Which was when the rational to stop her, to get clarification, hit him, but, obviously, it was too late for that.

His ring beeped again.

Peering down at it, his memory was finally jogged of where he was and what was happening. As a result of his shock, he'd accumulated a good layer of snow on his shoulders and hair. Shaking it away, he forced his legs to move despite how they felt disjointed from his body.

Habit carried him bounding through the city, until he located a small ally near the school that he knew was usually safe. Dropping down into it, he did a quick look around before de-transforming.

"About time!" Plagg said, spinning up in front of his face. "Where's my cheese?"

Lips pursing, Adrien reached into his backpack for the supply he usually carried. He'd barely gotten it loose before Plagg was taking hold. Hovering beside Adrien's head, he gnawed away before eventually just swallowing the whole chunk of camembert whole.

"That feels much better," Plagg said happily, slouching despite his floating. "I thought you were going to stand up there 'til we were frostbit. All she did was say you should have lunch some time."

Plagg was snickering—not that Adrien wouldn't have realized his teasing without the laughter. Glaring at the kwami, he marched from the ally, only good grace keeping him from shoving Plagg out of his collar.

"Maybe she likes you after all," Plagg muttered.

"Shut up. You're irritating me."

More snickiering.

Ignoring the headache that was quickly pounding to the front of his skull, he skirted in the back of the school before shooting his way toward the front doors. Thankfully, fencing had just ended, so both students and coaches were nowhere to be seen—probably in the locker rooms.

Which gave Adrien the chance to slip, unnoticed, out to his waiting car. Ducking inside the back of the vehicle, he wiggled only a little as Plagg sank down his shirt until he was burrowed in the pocket inside the breast. A special pocket that Adrien had added to all his shirts, actually, since Plagg didn't like being in his backpack all the time.

The drive home wasn't long, yet Adrien's circling confusion made each second tick by at an agonizing pace. He kept trying to somehow dissect what Ladybug had said, but it was so unbelievable that he had no choice but to assume there was nothing to make of it. He'd loosened her up enough to flirt back and, as a result, he was confused. It was his own fault, really.

The best thing to do would be to forget it'd even happened.

Doing so proved easier thought than done. Thankfully, he was going over to Mari's to hang out with her, Alya, and Nino, so that would be a fair distraction. It was a sleepover actually, which he was not opposed to. The others didn't exactly call it a "sleepover," but he didn't mind the juvenile term. He'd never had the chance to get any sorts of those childhood experiences in, so he'd take them where he could now. Besides, it wasn't as though they'd be unsupervised like at his house. Which meant that there was bound to be good food.

Clearly, he had his priorities in line.

Up in his bedroom, he packed his regular duffel—the one he took to Nino's. He hadn't told Nathalie that he was going to Mari's. He'd lied and said he was going to Nino's, which was pretty normal. His father wasn't home to check him and Nathalie would call his cell if she needed anything. Therefore, he didn't feel unsafe with the lie. Sometimes he had to do what he could to get even small things, and this was one of those things.

It taken months of convincing for his father to even allow him over to Nino's, especially after the birthday party debacle. He wasn't about to go through the same thing with a girl—he'd never get to see Mari again.

"It's really not so hard to believe, you know," Plagg started up again, sitting on his bed as he packed his clothes in the duffel. "You and Ladybug work together all the time—maybe she does like you."

"I don't want to talk about it, Plagg," Adrien said, trying not to sound too disgruntled and knowing he'd failed.

"I thought this would be good."

"Well, it's not!" Adrien snapped, regretting it as soon as he saw Plagg's frown. "Sorry, I don't mean to be a jerk. I just…" It was easier when she'd been rejecting him, honestly. He'd known where he stood and what to expect. Now, with one comment, all of that was thrown out the window, making way for all the nervous energy he'd long since thought he'd conquered.

"It doesn't matter what it meant." Plagg spoke again after a few moments. "You won't know until you ask her, and you won't be able to do that 'til you see her. And even then, I doubt you'll mention it anyway."

Adrien pursed his lips, but didn't bother defending himself. Plagg was probably right.

"C'mon." He held his backpack open. "I'll be sure to slip you something while we're at Mari's." Seeming to approve of the plan, Plagg whizzed into his backpack before Adrien zipped it closed. Hefting his duffel onto his shoulder, he headed back out to the car, not even bothering to say anything about leaving. Nathalie had his schedule—no point in saying goodbye.

Thankfully, the sight of Mari's family's bakery always put him in a better mood. He quickly explained to his driver that he'd get a ride back to Nino's with his mom before getting out, thankful when the car pulled away. It was like getting a heavy blanket off his back.

The bakery was crowded this late in the afternoon, everyone getting out of work, and he could see that both Tom and Sabine were busy as he slipped in. Yet, despite this, Sabine still took time away for him, leaving customers as she beckoned him behind the counter.

"Oh, there you are, honey," she said warmly, arms outstretched as she laid them gingerly on either side of his jaw. She had to stretch up to reach him, but that didn't seem to be much of a deterrent. "Everyone else is already here. My, you're so skinny. And so tall. Too skinny to be so tall." She was clicking her tongue disapprovingly, causing Adrien to smile despite how she held him firm in her grip. "Do you eat enough?"

"Yeah, I do, promise," he explained easily. "I'm just really active, that's all."

Her eyebrow rose knowingly, hands finally releasing him as she looked him up and down. Her gaze was critical, like she was looking for something, which perplexed Adrien some. But perhaps she looked at all Mari's friends that way? Maybe she just had enough in her to care that much about everyone.

She sighed. "You take this into the house with you," she eventually dictated, handing him a package of lemon tarts. "And you make sure you tell Marinette if you want anything. I mean it." She pointed at him much the same way Mari did when she scolded him. "You're welcome to anything in our kitchen."

Did he really look that emaciated? He couldn't imagine he did…

Huffing, Sabine reached out to him again, laying a single hand on his cheek. "You're such a nice young man," she eventually said, though it looked like there was more than just that wanting to come from between her lips. Adrien couldn't help it, he cocked his head curiously, but she only smiled. "Now you go on in the house," she issued, gesturing toward the back door.

"Uh, okay, thanks," Adrien managed to get out as he was herded through. Still somewhat bewildered, he pushed his way into the back of the bakery, closing the door to the noise of the business while zeroing in on the sounds of his friends in the small living room across the way.

Sabine's behavior was soon forgotten.

Having shed his shoes, he dropped his duffel beside the bar with Nino's, already watching as Mario Kart played on the television. Alya and Nino sat on the section of the couch facing the television, while Mari sat in the corner of the sectional. Unlike the other two, who still wore their school clothes, she was already decked out in sweats and a tank top, a plethora of unhealthy snacks spread out on the cushions beside her. They were all wholly focused on the game.

"No, no, no! AGH!" Nino's car spun out on a banana, Mari laughing as her Yoshi passed him by, taking his first. Alya was in fifth, looking focused despite her lackluster performance.

Supposing there was no better way to do it, Adrien made sure to step right in everyone's line of sight as he headed for the far end of the sectional. Alya gave him a dirty look while Nino growled. Mari simply looked around him, remaining intent on the screen.

Pushing her snacks between them, he sat down on at the other corner, having made sure to bring the lemon tarts with him. He opened the package, watching the remainder of the race while he munched. They were amazing (the snacks, not his friends), but that was only to be expected.

By the time the race was finally over—Mari having been crowned the champion—he was done with the tarts and had begun rifling through Mari's stash. Because he really was hungry. Fighting akumas made him just as hungry as Plagg most of the time. And sometimes just as exhausted.

"Doesn't even say hello," Nino grumped. "Just comes in and starts stealing food."

"Why do you care?" Adrien asked, not even bothering to look up as he picked out a box of cheese crackers. He'd slip some discreetly into his backpack when they started playing again. "It's not your food. Besides, Mrs. Cheng said I was welcome to anything in the kitchen."

"Those aren't technically in the kitchen," Nino sassed.

"You aren't technically in the kitchen," was the best Adrien could come up with on his empty stomach, his focus on opening the box before he began stuffing his face. Beside him, Mari had her hands in a potato chip bag, chewing with as much attention on the food as he had.

"Look at them," Nino muttered. "Two peas in a pod."

Adrien ignored him, instead setting the opened cracker box beside his leg before taking hold of the oreo package.

"I want those too," Mari objected.

"Give me the chips."

She was thoughtful for a moment before nodding. They made the exchange, Adrien glad to note the chips were of the sour cream variety before he shoved a handful into his mouth. They both ignored how the other two rolled their eyes.

"Are we going to keep playing or are you guys too busy ruining your dinners?" Alya asked.

"We can keep playing," Mari said through a mouthful of cookie. With the package in her lap, she retrieved her remote. Adrien was asked if he wanted to play, but he declined. He needed to get his appetite under control before he could concentrate on video games.

Another race commenced, Adrien hardly paying it any mind. He ate some chips, devoured some crackers, rifled through what else was there. When he reached for the oreos, Mari lifted her arm so he could steal a few from where the package sat opened in her lap, she not even bothering to look his way as he did. In the midst of it, he slipped Plagg a stack of crackers, not worried about crumbs. Plagg always ate those too.

By the time the race was over (Mari had won again, of course), he'd eaten enough to at least slow down, and so was able to take up his own remote despite continued snacking.

"This is such bullshit," Nino grumbled once the next race ended. It'd been more between Marinette and Adrien, to be honest. The other two hadn't even stood a chance as they'd battled for first. Adrien had managed to nab it by a car length, much to Mari's glaring frustration.

"You better watch your language when Sabine gets in here," Tom said from behind them, jolting the group as they turned. He was removing his apron, hanging it on a designated hook. Nino looked properly ashamed and mumbled an apology, which only made Tom chuckle. "I was just about to start the lasagna," he continued. "Three batches. That ought to be enough for you all?"

"Maybe," Nino muttered, looking accusingly at Adrien, who stuck out his tongue before shoving another handful of crackers into his mouth. He didn't get to eat like this often, after all, so he'd take whatever he could. Maybe he was a food hoarder.

"Even if Marinette and Adrien eat an entire batch each, I'm sure the rest of us can manage with one," Alya said, Mari frowning. Yet, there was no objection to this assessment either.

"Marniette usually does," Tom said with a wink.

"Dad…" Mari was pouting. "Why is everyone always making fun of how much I eat…?"

"Seriously." Adrien cast Nino an accusing look.

"Now, now, let's all be nice," Tom said, beginning to pull out all his needed supplies. "Growing girls and boys all need proper meals."

"Depends on which way you want to grow," Nino muttered with a sly grin, his comment clearly directed at Adrien, who threw a cracker at him. And because Adrien had excellent aim, it hit him right between the eyes.

"Let's just play another game, shall we?" Alya tried to mediate.

"I don't wanna play against those two," Nino said sourly, crossing his arms over his chest. "They always win."

"I could let you win, if you want," Adrien offered, ever-munching.

"Screw you, dude."

"Well, if they don't want to play, we can up the difficulty," Mari said, looking directly at Adrien. "150cc instead of 100." She was clearly trying to bother Nino, which Adrien was more than happy to do.

Adrien shrugged. "This is true. It's no wonder we're winning."

"You two are fucking meant for each other," Nino muttered out vehemently.

"Language."

"Sorry, Mr. Dupain."

"How about this," Alya interjected. "Nino and I will walk to the ice cream place a few streets over and get desert while Tom cooks. That way, you two can get all your video game rage out on each other while us less worthy players make ourselves useful elsewhere."

"I am not unworthy," Nino said petulantly, which earned him a skeptical brow from Alya.

"You guys don't have to do that," Mari said, all teasing gone from her expression. "I can go get the ice cream, if that's what everyone wants."

"It's fine," Alya said, already standing. She looked at Nino expectantly, who groaned and stood as well. "It'll give us time to ourselves." Mari looked like she wanted to object further, but faltered when Alya gave her a stern look. There was something going on between them—some sort of communication—but Adrien didn't know what. Guess that was why they were best friends.

"Just don't be gone too long," Tom said. "We're supposed to be keeping track of you."

"Sure thing," Alya assured, smiling as she and Nino went to the door. They were gone within minutes, Adrien shoving one final cracker into his mouth before he looked to Mari.

"You wanna play Mario Kart?"

"No…"

"You… wanna play Mecha Strike?"

"Yes."

And so it was done.

With the game changed, they resituated onto the part of the couch that Alya and Nino had vacated (snacks piled between them, of course) before they set at each other. Adrien liked playing Mari—she forced him to consider strategy when most others would just button mash. She was challenging, to the point of being almost impossible to beat. Much like him, she picked the same robot every time—the Ladybug robot—just like he chose the Chat Noir robot (the game was locally made, which explained the personas), and it was clear that she used the character religiously, as she knew all the best combinations and attacks.

Honestly, it'd given Adrien something to strive for. He'd spent quite a few nights playing, trying to get better just so he might stand a chance against her. This was the perfect time to test his progress.

"You want to play on competitive mode?" she asked.

"Yeah, that's fine." Competitive mode really should have just been called super hard mode. It used the same mechanics as all the other modes, but there was no time limit. As well, characters had the chance to gain items, levels, and health points during the battles, based on their strategy and performance. In this way, the fight could go on forever, points gathering and going to the player who wins at the end. He'd seen that all the high scores on this particular console belonged to MARILB, which wasn't so surprising. But he'd be damned if he wasn't going to aim as high as possible.

The battle was soon in full swing, Adrien biting his tongue as Mari typed away at her remote like a keyboard. He was happy to see, though, that he was standing his own against her much better than he had when they'd played at his house last. All his practice was paying off. Beside him, Mari was even beginning to look like she was trying, her body hunching as she peered at the screen. Their fingers typed viciously, Adrien pointedly ignored how his hands and forearms began to ache. Time fled swiftly in the midst of battle, but he wasn't about to let a little pain get in the way.

About forty-five minutes into their game, Tom had finished putting the lasagna together and come to watch them while it cooked. He said nothing, just hovered in the background, and Adrien only noticed him for a moment before he was back in on the action.

They were actually sweating by the time Nino and Alya returned, any smart comments that were made about their endeavors going ignored by the two on the couch. But an hour of constant button mashing was bound to wear on anyone. Adrien wasn't as skilled as Mari, though he'd practiced, and as his hands grew tired, he began to lag—to flounder despite how he tried to keep up. They'd been playing so long that Mari would have a new high score to add to her collection, which irked him even more.

Not only that, but he could see the confident little grin on her face. She was going to win and she knew it.

He growled. He didn't want to lose.

Quite without warning—as the idea simply popped into his head of its own accord—he reached out and batted her remote from her hands.

She gasped and he smirked.

Diving for the remote, she fumbled to get back in, but he took the advantage for himself. He pummeled her. And on this level, with them as strong as they were, even a second's interruption was too much. He had her beat before she could catch up, the sight of her red health bar before it expired oddly satisfying—even if he had used underhanded means to accomplish the feat.

"Adrien!" She breathed out his name when his robot was announced the champion, her tone full of dismay.

What was probably the most rewarding, however, was that the new high score went to him. His name went straight up her rankings and took the top. It was so high a score—so beyond any of the others—that the only way she'd ever rid herself of his name was, likely, to challenge and beat him, or battle someone as good or better than they were.

Upon seeing how this happened—how his name marred her record—she turned to him again, dismay turning to rage.

"Adrien!" she hissed out.

"Oops?" he said, laughing before offering her a cringe. It was in no way apologetic, though, which only infuriated her more.

"You cheated!" The accusation sounded almost sinful, as if he'd committed the worst possible crime against her.

"I won fair and square," he said, if only to miff her further.

"You ruined my top score!" she said, voice a little louder this time. "By cheating!"

"It's not my fault you can't hold on to your remote," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

"You- you-" She was pointing at him. But he didn't acknowledge it. Rather, he glanced back at the screen where ADRIEN, simple as it was, blinked at the top of her lineup.

Her hands hovered on either side of her head like talons. "I will destroy you!"

"Go ahead and try." Maybe it was a fault of his own, that he assumed she meant in-game. He should have known better—should have drawn on experience and her aggressiveness with spray bottles. But he didn't. Instead, he was caught on the defensive as she lunged at him across the couch.

Snacks went flying, crackers bouncing across the floor as the box flew from his lap. He tried to grapple with her wrists, but she'd already put too much force behind her tackle. With her on top of him, he went toppling over the arm of the couch, legs flying.

Somewhere behind them, Nino swore.

They landed with a heavy thud on the floor, bodies sprawling. Mari had been sent sliding on the hardwood, Adrien on his back with his legs hung up over the arm. He knew better now though—he couldn't stay vulnerable for long. Gabbing the edge of the couch, he used it for leverage to spin himself around. Knees pulled close, he was just in time to see Mari coming at him, flying with arms outstretched.

There was vengeance painted all over her face.

He hissed.

Unfortunately, she wasn't going to get her revenge. Though he'd been ready for her, Adrien hadn't needed to be prepared. In one fell swoop, Tom was there. He scooped his daughter up just as she was about to get ahold of Adrien, his huge arms holding her back. She struggled against him, arms flailing and legs kicking, but it was to no avail.

She had to give up eventually, her small body slumping in her father's hold as Adrien smirked up at her from where he was huddled against the couch.

"We need to get you two a padded room or something," Tom said calmly. "You're going to tear the house down."

"What the hell?! Really?!" Nino was far more offended by the display than Tom was, Alya gaping beside him. "This is messed up!"

"They're just having a bit of fun," Tom said, smiling as he finally set his daughter back down. Adrien was mocking her, thumbs in his ears as he waggled his fingers and stuck out his tongue. She was snarling all the while.

"You two are messed up," Nino repeated, gesturing between them. "You need to get that under control."

No one was listening to him. Mari was too busy simmering while Adrien continued to pull faces. He even tugged up his nose like a pig at one point, but that nearly resulted in her jumping at him again—were it not for the way Tom held her shoulder to prevent her.

"Marinette!" Alya finally managed to gasp out. Her dismay seemed to shock Mari from her rage, blue eyes darting from Adrien to her best friend. Clearly, though, Alya didn't know what else to say on the subject, which procured a look of flushed shame from Mari.

Taking that as his cue (that he was safe), Adrien stood, refraining from any more faces as he straightened his mussed hair. Flattening his shirt in an overly dignified manner, he sniffed, becoming the gentleman he was supposed to be. No one was convinced, but that was quite beside the point.

Mari pouted beside him.

"How about this," Tom started after a few seconds, returning to the kitchen as he did. "You two take a break from the games for a while, sit down, and let the other two play." They were being treated like children, which, Adrien supposed, they probably deserved. Tom's suggestion wasn't so much that as it was a command anyway, so Adrien felt obligated to oblige as he trailed Mari to the section of the couch up against the wall.

She glared at him the whole time, but he remained unbothered. Rather, he feigned total and complete indifference as he sat down beside her.

Nino and Alya joined them, picking up the remotes with hesitant looks at their friends. Mari sat with her legs crossed under her, having tugged her eyes from Adrien to look purposefully away. He did the same, ankle crossed over his knee as he watched Alya and Nino pick the easy level for Mecha Strike.

Really, though, now that he didn't have Mari's focus, he did feel a bit ashamed. Just a bit though, because she'd started it. Well, kind of. Maybe he had cheated, but she'd been the one to lunge at him in the first place. Yet, well, maybe he could understand it a bit. He'd be pretty peeved it someone beat out his high scores by cheating too, though he wasn't sure he'd actually attack them. Then again, maybe he would.

Daring a look at Mari, he saw that she'd slumped back against the cushions and was staring down at her lap. She was picking some invisible filth from under her thumbnail, far too preoccupied for such a pastime.

Reaching out, Adrien poked her knee. Her attention flicked up to him, but neither said anything. He wondered if maybe he should apologize, but that didn't seem right. Really, they'd only been messing around. Even if Mari had been upset about her high score, he couldn't imagine she'd actually been upset. Really, they'd just been roughhousing, which was, perhaps, a bit unusual for their age. He hadn't intended to hurt her and he'd never feared she would him. Not any worse than a few bumps and bruises anyway.

But maybe that was strange? He wasn't sure. Being Chat Noir skewed his perceptions a bit, he supposed. He was used to being knocked around—to being able to take a hit. Sure, he was more vulnerable as a civilian, but still stronger than most. It didn't bother him that Mari got a bit physical. He liked it, to be honest. To have a friend to exercise his physical prowess with. Maybe Tom was right—maybe they did need a padded room.

In any case, that he and Mari didn't find their behavior odd didn't go very far in convincing their other friends of such. Nino and Alya were still giving them occasional strange looks, but Adrien ignored them. Rather, he kept his attention on Mari, waiting for some kind of verification that he wasn't wrong in his understanding with her.

He blinked, slowly, as he waited, never pulling his eyes from hers as a few seconds ticked by.

The small smile that eventually crawled onto her lips was the assurance he'd needed. He grinned back, even more certain when she reached out and poked him in the same way he had her. Even if everyone else thought they were bizarre, it worked for them—for their friendship—and that was what mattered. Nino could call him weird all he wanted, it didn't matter. And it clearly didn't matter to Mari.

Maybe she was a bit weird too.

They exchanged a few more knowing looks, between themselves and the television screen, making sure to look pointedly at one another whenever Nino or Alya made some kind of grave mistake in their fighting style. The back and forth didn't go unnoticed, especially not when Mari giggled in response to Adrien's eye roll at one of Nino's less thought-out battle strategies.

He knew none of it would bother Alya, but that it'd definitely get under Nino's skin. Which Adrien was totally okay with.

"Seriously?" Nino eventually said, pausing the game to look at them. "You have something to say, then say it."

"I didn't say anything," Adrien replied, shrugging.

"That's the problem," Nino muttered. "Are you and Mari going to judge our playing the whole time? Because if you are, please do me the courtesy of at least being obnoxious enough to point out everything we're doing wrong."

"Why would I do that?" Adrien asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "Like I'd give away all my secrets to you."

Nino frowned and Alya shook her head, though a smile hovered at her lips as she and Mari looked at one another.

"Why am I even friends with you?" Nino asked, the question clearly directed at Adrien.

"Because I'm awesome," Adrien offered, causing everyone in the room to huff.

"Well, why don't Awesome and the rest of you come get dinner," Tom interrupted, the fact that he'd let loose a lame dad joke not bothering anyone (he was a dad, after all).

Food was always a good way to break through tension, and to bring bad attitudes back around to good ones. Maybe Nino had only been hungry, or maybe Adrien and Mari were simply in better off with more than junk food in their systems. Either way, the "incident" between Adrien and Marinette was soon forgotten, or at least decided too abstract to dissect.

The lasagna was eaten with the gusto of four teenagers, two of which had the appetite of three each. They spent the rest of the evening watching movies in their pajamas, laughing and tossing popcorn through the dark. At around ten, both Tom and Sabine went to bed, entrusting their home with the teenagers—which might not have been a very wise decision, but, then again, perhaps wasn't so bad either.

With blankets and pillows as sidekicks to their films by the time midnight rolled around, everyone but Adrien had fallen asleep, his green eyes wide as he watched the last few minutes. It was only once the credits were rolling and he'd glanced around that he realized everyone was out but him.

Alya and Nino were huddled together on one side of the sectional, Mari beside him and curled up on her side. Except, that was, for her foot, which had stretched out across his lap during her snoozing.

Unfortunately, he needed to get up and use the bathroom, which required that he try and shimmy out from under her. He did his best to be careful, but ended up disturbing her anyway.

"Sorry," he whispered as her face scrunched, whole body pulling in as she balled herself up. She wasn't awake enough to offer a response, but he supposed it was the thought that counted.

Easily able to navigate his way through the house with his strengthened vision, he did what he needed to before heading back out.

He was surprised to note that the light above the kitchen counter was on, and that Mari stood before it. She was on her tiptoes, trying to grasp up onto the highest shelf in the cupboard.

With no effort on his part, Adrien strolled over and grabbed the graham cracker box for her, reaching right above her head. He handed her the snack box with a smile.

"Thanks," she said, voice a little crumpled from sleep. She'd turned so she was facing him, leaning back against the counter as she reached in and took hold of a cracker. Once her hand was out of the way, Adrien grabbed one himself, flipping around until he was leaning against the counter beside her.

"I didn't mean to wake you up," he murmured after a moment, conscious to keep his voice down.

"It's okay," she said, smiling. "I'm a pretty light sleeper, so it's not your fault." She pointed to herself. "Always alert, that's all."

"I'm like that too," he replied. "When I do sleep, anyway."

"Trouble?"

"Mmm, sometimes. Guess I'm just more of a night owl, really. Plus, nightmares keep me up more than I'd like to admit." He hadn't meant to say that. Much like he'd been refusing to think about Ladybug all evening, his dreams were a topic he preferred not to bring to the forefront. Ever. Mostly because there was nothing to be done about it and no one safe to talk to.

"Nightmares?" Mari said, not really like she was asking a question. "I get those too."

Adrien hadn't expected this. "Yeah? Drives me crazy. Plus, most of the time, I wake up feeling like I'm falling right out of the sky. Doesn't matter what it's about, falling always wakes me up."

"Yeah, that's the worst," she agreed. "I hate that feeling. I mean, I'm not afraid of heights or anything, but just… being that far gone, you know? I wake up sweating from it."

"It's kind of funny, actually," Adrien went on. "Because I'm not afraid of heights either, like, at all. I even like them a good chunk of the time." He didn't elaborate. "But free-falling just… makes me nauseas."

"It's feeling like you don't have any control," Mari sympathized. "I could go on rollercoasters without batting at eye. But just… that feeling of falling without any support. It's crazy, how cruel dreams can be."

"I actually know this guy, he's a skydiving instructor. He helps with all the aerial themed shoots we do. He offered me free skydiving any time I want, but I still haven't taken him up on it. Like, I want to, because having a parachute is way better than… but, I dunno, I guess I'm afraid to go through with it."

"Why?"

"Because I'm afraid I'll chicken out," he said with a bitter laugh.

She smiled. "It is pretty terrifying."

"It shouldn't be though." Not for him, anyway. Not after everything he went through as Chat. But, then again, he had nightmares, didn't he? And some of them were much worse than falling. "I mean, really, people do it every day and are just fine. And a parachute is pretty good insurance. Still…" He shook his head. "I dunno, I guess nightmares are nightmares for a reason."

"Maybe." She wasn't any more invested in such a defense than he was, it would seem. "I'd probably feel the same way, if someone offered me that opportunity. I'd want to do it, but…"

"Someday," Adrien replied, trying to be optimistic. "Someday I'll willingly face things like that, instead of letting them chase me down." Through nightmares or real life. But why face something he knew was going to get him eventually anyway? There were going to be akuma, and some of them would fly. Like always, he'd deal with it in whatever way he could. Just like there was a chance that something worse could happen. It wasn't healthy to dwell on such things, even if his subconscious did.

Mari silently offered him another cracker, no longer looking drowsy. He took one, the two of them falling into a comfortable silence. They munched for a few minutes, Mari's eyes distant as she peered across the room. Adrien watched her, the way she slowly chewed, how her thick lashes came down and brushed her cheeks. The way her tiny freckles stood out only in the direct light, and how her blue eyes swam with activity.

She was beautiful, really. Intelligent, active. Ambitious.

Not for the first time, his chest tightened as he watched her.

Ladybug's image flashed through his mind. Closing his eyes, he tried to wish it away, but it stuck anyway. He wondered, despite not wanting to, if things would be different if he weren't so stuck on Ladybug. If he'd feel differently about Mari. It was the first time the thought had occurred to him outright, but wasn't so surprising. Mari was incredible, really. In a lot of the same ways Ladybug was. And maybe, if he weren't hung up on someone else, he'd have found himself pursuing her as more than just a friend.

But that didn't feel right and he was guilty even entertaining the idea. It wouldn't be fair to Mari, to want something more from her when so much of himself was distracted with someone else. Even if that someone didn't want him.

Or did she?

He didn't know.

He wondered, sometimes, if he'd be alone as long as Ladybug was around. If he'd ever get over her. It didn't seem likely. But he didn't blame his partner for that either. It wasn't Ladybug's fault he was enamored with her. That he'd fallen head over heels the moment he'd met her.

That was his problem and no one else's—least of all Mari's.

"You okay?" The question jolted him from his thoughts, Adrien blinking as she cocked her head just a bit. She was concerned, so he smiled.

"Just thinking," he explained. "Nothing important."

She didn't believe him, but that was okay. "I have an idea," she said rather suddenly, grinning as she set her cracker box aside. "Have you ever gone camping?"

"Uh… yes?" He was a little unnerved by where this was going.

"My dad and I, when I was little, we used to camp in the living room. We'd get brooms and chairs, and we'd spread them out all over the room, using the brooms to connect them. And we'd spread blankets in-between, like tents."

Adrien blinked. Because he didn't know what else he was supposed to do.

"C'mon," Mari said, making her way toward a closet beside the front door. Opening it, she collected two brooms before handing them over to him. Adrien took them without comment, eyebrows furrowed. He was curious, but he didn't bother with questions. He'd know soon enough.

With the brooms in hand, he watched as she then pulled two folding, dining chairs from the same closet, hefting them under her arms before finally closing the door. She brushed past him, looking first to the living room, where their two friends were still sleeping, before turning sharply and heading up the stairs to her bedroom.

"Uh, is this okay?" Adrien asked, standing at the bottom of the steps as she turned to look at him. It was one thing for all of his friends to stay in his bedroom, where he was generally unsupervised and when he had no parents within the immediate vicinity to care. Sure, he'd been to her room before, but her parents had specifically asked that she keep the door open. He couldn't imagine they'd appreciate him going up there in the middle of the night when they were all asleep.

"Why wouldn't it be?" she asked innocently, yet Adrien felt as though it was some kind of trick question. So he didn't answer, instead remaining stubbornly at the bottom of the stairs. "It's fine," she eventually assured. "Nothing's going to happen. Unless… I should be worried that something will."

"No," he said swiftly. "But…"

"I trust you, Adrien." She smiled. "That's enough."

Leaving it at that, she turned away and continued up the stairs. Pursing his lips for only a second, Adrien eventually stepped up after her. He'd make sure to leave the door open though, if only out of respect for her parents.

Her room was the same as before, with one major change. There were plants. Everywhere. Some in little pots, some hanging down from the windows. Some sat on the floor in big buckets, others stuck in corners. He recognized a few of them from her balcony, but not all.

"Why all the plants?" he asked outright, as she went to the lamp on her work counter and flicked it on.

"Oh, yeah." She shrugged. "Some I brought in for the winter, but most of them are from Mrs. Allard down the street. She always has all these plants on her porch in the summer, but never has anywhere to put them in the winter. So I… store them in here and give them back in the spring."

Adrien cocked an eyebrow. It was kind of an odd arrangement, really. "Do you just do it to be nice or…" Because, he supposed, it would be unfortunate if all the plants were to perish in the winter chill.

"Um, no. I mean, yes, but also no. I like plants. I like taking care of them and they… comfort me, I guess. When it's cold and miserable outside." That's right, she didn't like winter. Or the cold, in any case. "They make it a little stuffy in here actually, but I like it. So long as I don't look out the window, I can forget there's snow." She was fingering the large leaf of a particularly bushy plant with a red hue to the leaves.

"I like plants," he said, as if the comment somehow made it clear that he was passing no judgment. Going over to the nearest one, which was against the wall behind her door, he batted at one of the leaves and watched it bounce.

He did it again, a little harder, and was about go at it a third time when Mari's hand reached out and grabbed his wrist.

"Don't destroy my plants," she scolded, Adrien blinking. Shaking her head, she left him and went to a closet on the far side of the room. Watching her, and supposing she was a better distraction than the plant (maybe), he saw her begin to tug all sorts of extra bedding from the shelves. Pillows, comforters, sheets. Until they were all strewn about behind her.

"We keep all the extra bedding in my closet," she explained once she was finished. "Not a whole lot of space anywhere else." She had a few thin blankets hanging over her arm, which she set on the couch before she retrieved the chairs she'd set down previously. With a degree of certainty Adrien couldn't understand, she unfolded them and set them in a slight arc outside her work area, using her rolling chair as well. The setup wasn't underneath her bed, but just outside it.

Once that was done, she grabbed the brooms, which Adrien had placed against the wall. She balanced them on the backs of he chairs, forming a sort of fence. And once she was satisfied they were in place, she retrieved the lighter blankets and clamored up the stairs to her loft.

Still observing, Adrien remained quiet, arms crossing over his chest.

Once she was on her bed, she unfolded one of the blankets before, with a great throw, flapping it over the side of the black banister. Once it was hanging down, trailing on the floor, she crouched and tucked the ends under her mattress, holding it in place.

She did the same with another blanket, until they were hanging like curtains down into her work area.

With that, she came clamoring back down the stairs.

"Come help me," she issued simply. Following her past the fence of broomsticks and chairs, he listened as she commanded him onto the backside of the blanket. He then held it up and out away from him, so she could get a good look at the bottom edge.

She'd retrieved a tin can full of heavy-duty binder clips. With her tongue bitten between her teeth, she unfolded another blanket and lined it up, corner for corner, with the one Adrien held. She then clipped the two together, at least ten clips used to keep it together.

With a fwump, the blanket was then abandoned while the did the same for the other, the end result being curtains hanging from her bed that were now much, much too long.

She was on a mission, however. Crouching low, she ducked under the broomstick fence before whipping around to face him. "Hand me the end of the first blanket," she commanded, and so he did. With the two attached, it easily reached her over the broomstick, enough extra fabric there to accumulate on the seats of the chairs, which she'd turned outward initially. She then commanded he do the same with the other blanket, which left him standing beneath…

Well, beneath a tent.

The blankets slumped across the broomsticks before sweeping upward, Adrien admiring the coverage for just a few moments—before he heard Mari thumping around outside. Ducking down under a broomstick—because the blankets were held up on the chair seats and, therefore, didn't touch the ground and instead droopped in-between, he witnessed Mari stacking heavy books onto each seat, holding the blankets in place so they wouldn't slip away at their own weight.

"You and your dad used to do this?" Adrien asked, admiring the indoor tent. He'd never done anything like this with his parents. If they'd wanted a tent, they'd went and gotten one, and used it accordingly. This broom, chair, and blanket setup was both ridiculous as well as miraculous.

The idea of being underneath it was growing more and more appealing.

"Sure," Mari said with a smile. "But don't think we're done yet." She winked, before heading over to the pile bedding she'd left by the closet. There, she pulled out two more heavy blankets before returning to the tent. With a flap, she let the dust fly before she laid them out across the skeleton of the brooms, going long-ways. She put a generous amount of weight on the canopy of the blanket already held down, which allowed for the one she was putting up to stay in place. It fell down past the chairs like a bed-skirt, closing up the bottom as just a bit of extra fabric pooled on the floor.

Adrien had been watching her, and so mimicked her actions on the other side, taking no offense when she delicately corrected his work once he'd stepped back.

Yet, still, they weren't finished. She'd run out of light blankets, but had some dark colored sheets. Quickly climbing back up onto her bed, she dropped one down the side, to close in the end of the tent, and then draped another down the stairs before reaching out and pinning it along the outside of the window frame, the window remaining outside the tent.

"Oh, how do I get down now…" she muttered, and so ended up unpinning the sheet to come back down the stairs before having to enlist Adrien's help, and his height, in pinning it back up.

It was a mismatched conglomerate of fabric that would likely fall down at the slightest breeze. But, perhaps, that was why they were inside and using books to hold down the corners instead of heavy, metal pins.

"That should do it," Mari said, sounding satisfied. She then hopped back to the bedding pile and attempted to pick it all up at the same time. Which resulted in Adrien rushing over to help her, the two of them hauling it to the tent together.

There was one corner along the side that was left open, so Mari pulled out a smaller sheet and clipped it as a door, which she then swept up onto the large blanket to keep out of the way.

With all the rest of the bedding sitting outside the door, she ducked inside before getting down into a crouch. "We need all that stuff in here," she explained, and so Adrien—careful not to disrupt the chair and broomstick to his right—began handing her the pieces as she asked for them.

First all the thick comforters, of which there were four. With knowing ease, she spread them out on the floor, two layers to create a comfortable place to sit. She then demanded all the pillows. There were a lot, some old and worn and obviously from days when Mari had wanted dinosaurs or puppies as her room's aesthetic. Because of the work bench, there was no good place to really prop them up, but she laid them around to border the space, like a mismatched sofa made entirely of pillows. Lastly, she demanded whatever was left—more sheets, smaller blankets, pillowcases—which she pinned down from the work counter to hide the gaping spaces beneath. By the time she was done, there was at least a foot of stuffed fabric all over the floor, bordered by stacks of pillows.

Adrien liked the look of it. A lot.

"Just one last thing," Mari said as she came out the "door." She gestured with one finger, as if asking him to wait a minute, before she quietly went back downstairs.

Adrien considered. He could stand and wait for her, or he could go inside the tent. There seemed to be no reason to stand about aimlessly, so he was soon crouching down and crawling through the thin opening. The layers of blankets kept his knees from bruising on the hardwood, and as he crawled the distance to the far side (which was actually only about a meter away), he ignored the urge to close the flap behind him. Instead, he sat and admired what she'd created.

A small space, made completely of things that were soft. Closed in, dimly lit, comfortable. Yes, this was very good. It made his skin tingle in the best way and he had to push back on the clogging vibration that was welling up in his throat. Instead, he set his hands on either side of his thighs and let them massage the blankets. Not to heavily though—just enough to really feel the stuffing.

"Snacks are always necessary," Mari said as soon as she'd come back. Her arms were loaded down with everything they'd been munching on previously, plus more. She'd also managed to locate two more heavy comforters from somewhere else in the house, which she left just outside the "door" as she awkwardly walked on her knees to get in.

She dumped the snacks at the head of the tent, beneath the broomsticks, before yanking the other comforters inside. This made the space even smaller, but Adrien didn't complain. Rather, he was grateful when she finally pulled the flap to the tent closed. Grabbing hold of the comforter she'd pushed his way, he pulled it up over his head until it was gathered behind him. Then, taking the two corners beside his ears, he pulled it around him and collapsed forward atop the mess of bedding.

All that stuck out was his hair and eyes as he looked at Mari.

"Having a good time?" she asked with a smile, her own comforter wrapping around only her lower half as she picked through a tube of trail mix.

"This is really fun," Adrien found himself saying, the words muffled against the fabric of the comforter. His speech was stiff, but it didn't result in insincerity. Rather, it came out as somewhat intense, as though getting too enthusiastic despite the thrill would somehow disrupt everything, which would be bad.

He felt that familiar vibration rising up in him again and he swallowed it back.

"Good," Mari said, sounding rather self-satisfied. "I thought you might think so." She shoved another handful of trail mix into her mouth before she lay down on her stomach beside him, propped up on her elbows. Her comforter covered most of her, but she didn't seem nearly as intent as Adrien on being as submerged as possible. Rather, her attention remained on the snacks, which she ate with a sense of regularity.

Adrien was just happy to be all closed up in the blanket, which was closed up in the tent, which was closed up in the house. It was very pleasant.

Very pleasant indeed.

"You want any of this?" she asked after a few moments.

"I'm good," he assured, aware that his pupils were probably blown wide not only at the thrumming enthusiasm inside him, but due to the lack of light. Another side effect of being Chat—how wide his pupils would go, until almost no green was visible. Usually it wasn't a problem, but with Mari so close, he became abruptly paranoid—and ashamed—of the strange affects being a superhero had on him. He knew he sometimes acted rather out of ordinary, but he always hoped that most such behavior was passed off as him simply being unique. He knew he had a get-out-of-jail-free card by being homeschooled, but that didn't mean actual, physical changes would be as accepted.

Turning his nose into the bedding, he pulled the comforter a little higher and closed his eyes.

"You can't go to sleep now!" Mari objected. "Not after you woke me up and we went to all this effort."

He chuckled into the blankets. "I'm not going to sleep," he said, despite how he kept himself covered. "Just… appreciating the aesthetic." Which, he supposed, was the civilized way to put it. "Why? What else are you supposed to do in here?" Really, it was more like an extravagant bed than anything else.

"Plenty of things," Mari said, biting a cracker as she did (he could hear it). "Like… snack, and… talk."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"I dunno. What do you want to talk about?"

"I asked you first."

"Okay…" He peeked back out at her to see that she was tapping her chin thoughtfully. "How are things going with that girl?"

Of all the things she had to ask about.

"Same," he lied. He didn't want to talk about it. Didn't want to think about it. Not when he was so comfortably cocooned and under the cover of such a fabulous piece of blanket architecture. Things were easy like this, simple. Like he was isolated from having to think too hard. But not in the bad way, like he was generally accustomed to. This was warm, safe even, and he wasn't alone. Mari was there too, and he took more comfort in that than he really should.

"Oh, well, that's not very interesting."

"Not a whole lot of progress ever gets made in that department," he verified. "But hey, I told you all about my love life. What about yours?" Time to turn the tables.

"M-me?" she squeaked.

"Yeah. There's got to be someone you like. What self-respecting school girl doesn't have a crush?"

"That's very stereotypical of you."

"If it's any consolation, I'd believe you if you said there was no one. You're definitely not a stereotypical girl."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"Good. It was supposed to be." He smiled despite how she couldn't see.

There was a considerable pause then, Adrien taking no liberties in pushing her. After all, he was very secretive about his own dealings in many ways—he wouldn't deprive anyone else of the same. He wouldn't even be offended if she didn't want to tell him. Sometimes it wasn't about trust, but just one's own insecurity.

She had said she trusted him. He'd take her word for it.

"There is someone," she finally said. "But… it's a long story."

"We're not exactly short on time." He was simply trying to be encouraging, if that would help her.

"No, I suppose not," she said with a bitter chuckle. "It's… just more complicated than a crush." Poking his head back out from under the blanket, Adrien watched her. She was staring at the bedding, expression distant. He stayed silent, willing to listen if she wanted him to.

"He's like my best friend," she continued. "I mean, Alya's my best friend, but he's from a different… situation. That's kind of how best friends work sometimes, I think. You can have more than one, and sometimes those friendships mean different things.

"He's one of the most important people in my life. I couldn't imagine being without him—not anymore. But that makes everything between us harder sometimes. I want to tell him, but I… I don't want to lose him either, you know?" She smiled over at him, looking sad anyway.

Adrien was already frowning. "Mari, if he's as good a friend to you as you are to him, then even if he doesn't return your feelings, he'll stay your friend. If he wouldn't, then he's not good enough to be your friend."

She seemed to take in his words well enough, but that sad smile remained.

"It's not quite that simple," she said quietly. "I've… not been as good a friend to him as I should have been." She sounded almost choked up as she said as much, which tugged at Adrien's concern. Pulling his blanket down a little further, he propped his head up on his hand and waited. "I've been keeping something from him," she admitted, breath shaky. "Something about him that he doesn't know that I know. And something about me too. Lying by omission, I guess." She sighed and covered her forehead with her hand. "I should have told him as soon as I found out, but I was too scared. And I'm still scared, because…"

"Mari?"

"Because if I tell him now, and he knows how long I've known, I'm afraid he'll… hate me. And I don't think I could handle that." As though ashamed of her own words, she laid her head down on her arms and groaned somewhat pathetically. It wasn't a humorous groan though. It was pained, and guilty, and desperate.

"Mari…" Adrien sat up fully, reaching out a comforting hand and moving it in slow circles over her back. "I can't imagine it's as bad as all that. Whatever it is you know, I'm sure he'll forgive you if you just tell him the truth. Nothing is unforgivable."

"But what if he doesn't?" she said into her arms. "He's wanted to know something about me that I've refused to tell him forever, but then I figure out his secret and don't even tell him? What kind of friend does that? He's always respected my privacy and… and when it was up to me to do the same thing, I didn't. What if he can never trust me again? What if he leaves me?"

"Mari, calm down," Adrien said, scooting a little closer to her. Reaching out with both hands, he wrapped them around the back of her shoulders and massaged them lightly. "I can't imagine it's that bad. You haven't committed some kind of heinous crime against him, right?" He didn't need an answer to know. "Whatever it is, it's forgivable. And if he's really your friend, he will forgive you."

"But what if he doesn't…?" she mumbled.

Leaning down a bit, Adrien whispered, "He will," and continued to massage her shoulders. "Anyone who knows you even a little can reasonably say that you wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone—at least, not emotionally." And not without reason. He wouldn't put it past her to punch someone in the face though. Or kick their ass in general.

"I just feel so terrible about it," she murmured. "And I'm still afraid to tell him. I can't lose him, Adrien. He's so important to me."

He continued to rub her shoulders, knowing there was very little he could say to reassure her. It was a situation outside of him. And even if he was more familiar with what was between her and this guy, he couldn't whisk away her insecurities. He could be there as a shoulder to lean on, and a friend to vent to, but he couldn't act for her.

So he did what he could—what he was grateful for when he'd shared himself with her. He was there. She didn't strike him as the type that would cry, not without really good reason, but that didn't mean she wasn't hurting. He knew the ache of unrequited affections, and so he didn't underestimate what she felt.

Rather, he rubbed her muscular shoulders until he felt her tension seep away. Until she sighed and got back up on her elbows, turning to look at him with a smile that, maybe, wasn't quite so sad. He didn't remove his hands from her person and she didn't seem to mind.

"You really think he'd forgive me?" she asked quietly.

"If he knew what was good for him," he said, smiling back.

He was surprised by what happened next. Because one moment she'd been down on the floor and the next she had her arms wrapped tightly around his neck as she pulled him into a hug. She was warm, light, but still tugged him downward due to their height difference—even sitting down.

Her hair smelled of lilac and cinnamon.

"Thank you," she whispered into his ear. "I'll try to find the courage to tell him the truth."

Though his reaction as a bit delayed by surprise, his smile did return at her words. Really, he wasn't accustomed to these types of hugs. The only person who even ever hugged him, really, was Nino (and Chloe), but his best friend's embraces were light with masculine integrity. This, though… this was different. It meant something. And so he reached his long arms around her back and held her as tightly as he could. He pulled her tight against him, cherishing the way her body bent to his. It wasn't sexual or even slightly erotic. It was a reverent experience, at least for him—that someone wanted to be this close to him at all, in this personal way.

He could feel her spine against bare forearms, her ribs beneath his fingertips. The way she breathed against him and how her warmth spread from every part of her body that touched his. Maybe the hug hadn't been intended for him; maybe the comfort that was supposed to have been taken from it wasn't his to have. But he took it anyway. He was greedy with it, holding her as tightly as she did him.

It was simple for some people, to accept such gestures, but he wasn't sure he'd ever take this for granted. He'd hold her as long as she wanted—cherish the way her breath splashed across his neck. Maybe he'd even get the chance to steal similar gestures in the future.

He hoped so.

It was some moments, before her hold on him finally began to loosen. He didn't want to let her go, but knew better than to hold onto something that wasn't his. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, as though she were embarrassed by her actions, but he rubbed his hand up and down her arm reassuringly.

He'd accept such embraces anywhere, anytime.

Soon she was huddling back under her blanket, distance between them again. Taking the cue, Adrien pulled his own comforter on, before flopping back down atop the bedding. Mari wasn't nearly so wrapped up as he was, and seemed to find the way he curled up amusing, if the way she giggled said anything. He wasn't bothered though—it was good-natured laughter, with which he could find no fault.

She reached out a second later, ruffling his hair above he blanket. And because he was apparently touch deprived (and also part cat, curse that it was), he pushed back against her hand instead of shying away from it. It wasn't the most obvious thing he could do, though, so he didn't worry too much. Not like someone was going to see him appreciating human interaction and think "Ho, ho, ho! There's Chat Noir!"

He hoped.

Apparently taking his response as a positive reaction, she buried her fingers further into his hair, kneading his scalp only lightly with her fingertips. It was familiar, like when he could get Ladybug to occasionally do the same thing, and so, against what would probably be considered better judgment, he let her continue. Turning his nose into the bedding, he shifted to her touch until it was rubbing just behind his ear.

Which was a bad idea.

Because it always felt so good.

She chuckled a bit to herself, no doubt finding his behavior amusing, but there was nothing wrong with enjoying a good head massage. For a few moments, she kneaded where he asked, before her touch began to lighten.

His inherit response was to push back, to ask for more, and so she continued.

The motions were lulling, his eyes drooping closed beneath the dim shadows of the tent. Until his whole body was slack inside the comforter and all he could really register were her fingers on his scalp.

He fell asleep eventually, waking—curled up beside her—being the next thing he recalled.

He didn't remember how her hypnotic touch had relaxed his defenses, and how drowsiness had damaged them further. He didn't register when sleep kicked them aside entirely.

And he definitely didn't remember the way the vibrating rumble finally broke from his chest, humming beneath the tent flaps as he dropped off entirely, his nose smushed into the bedding. Or how she kept kneading the noise out of him for minutes afterward.

None of it came to mind when he woke, and so he could say nothing in his defense when she didn't mention it. Instead, they went downstairs before anyone else had risen, made breakfast, and discussed what sort of pranks they could play on Nino while he still lay vulnerable on the couch.

Chapter Text

"Wait, Alya and Nino aren't coming?" She didn't mean to sound so skeptical, but, well, she was. And if the way Adrien reached up and uncomfortably rubbed the back of his neck said anything, it was that he realized his invitation was rather… incongruous.

"Well, I asked them just now, but I guess they already had a date night planned or something." He fidgeted, the two of them standing just inside the school. Classes had only recently let out, so there were a few other students milling around as well. "I mean, you don't have to if you don't want to. I guess I just… kinda thought it'd become a Friday thing or… something. But I was probably wrong or whatever, and I know it'd be weird if it was just you so I get if you can't, that's fine. It probably is inappropriate and I totally get that. You know what, after Alya and Nino said they couldn't, I just shouldn't have said anything. Forget I mentioned it."

He was about as red as a tomato.

Marinette laughed. "It's okay, Adrien," she assured. "I was just surprised they weren't coming, is all. And, well, you are right." Adrien's awkwardness overcame her as well. "I mean, it's one thing for, like, you and Nino to…" Why did the phrase "spend the night together" come to mind? That wasn't right. Definitely not. "For you two to have a sleepover, and it's kind of different if you and I…"

"I know, I'm sorry." He shook his head, trying to backtrack as fast as possible. "It didn't even occur to me until you… looked at me like that. I'm really sorry. I'm still new to this whole 'having friends' thing and I forget… stuff. Like that girls and boys aren't supposed to hang out alone, together." The way he said it made the whole thing sound like such a foreign concept. What difference did it really make, whether it was Nino he was hanging out with or her, really? They were friends, weren't they? What was wrong with that? Just because he was a boy and she was a girl didn't mean they couldn't behave themselves.

"It is kind of silly," she sympathized. Her hand flexed around the handle of her umbrella. "You know what, it would probably be fine. It's not like we haven't hung out like that before." More times than he realized, actually.

"Really?"

"Yeah." She nodded. "I trust you."

It was almost comical, the way his whole posture seemed to drop in relief. Marinette had to release a giggle.

"Sorry," he said a moment later, probably in response to her mirth. "I mean, not for, well, whatever. I just like having someone around on Fridays, you know? My house gets pretty lonely sometimes and it starts the weekend off better."

"Don't apologize." Because now she definitely couldn't say no. "I'll just, uh, tell my parents I'm hanging out with Alya for the night." Like she had before. There was some guilt about such things, but she'd been fibbing to them in relation to Ladybug business for so long that it didn't last. This was kind of like Ladybug business, in a way.

"Are- Are you sure?"

"I'm sure." She threw him a smile.

He finally returned the expression, the two of them turning toward he door only to halt mid-step. It'd been drizzling before—as it'd been predicted to do with the temperatures just a little above freezing—but it'd turned to all out rain while they'd talked. Granted, Adrien's car wasn't too far, but it was falling heavily enough that they'd be soaked by the time they reached it.

Marinette could already see the way Adrien was curling his lip. Right. He didn't like being wet. Good thing she brought her umbrella.

Pulling it up, she stepped outside the front door and opened it as they stood beneath the overhang. The black umbrella popped open easily, Adrien peering at it before taking pause. He raised a hand, pointing at it, as his mouth fell open.

"Hey, wait… Isn't that…?" He stared almost suspiciously at the umbrella.

Marinette smirked. "I've found it to be quite useful." She held it up higher, so it'd be above his head. "Shall we?" She winked at him, despite herself.

He laughed, the whole scene striking Marinette as being achingly familiar. To think, he'd been Chat Noir that whole time. It was a little hard to believe, but she found these days that she'd grown quite accustomed to the idea.

In fact, it was nearly impossible to imagine it any other way.

Both of them crowding up under the umbrella, they headed down the stairs and across the concrete to the waiting car. Taking the umbrella from her, Adrien held it up as he opened the door. She climbed in first and he followed her in, closing the umbrella and shaking it once before shutting the door.

He handed it back to her with a knowing smirk.

The driver didn't question her presence there. Rather, he pulled the car away from the school without a word, Marinette pulling out her phone to text her parents about her "plans." She also texted Alya, asking that her best friend cover for her should her parents, for some reason, question the matter.

She didn't bother responding to the series of exclamation points she got back. Alya would no doubt want all the details, but she wasn't going to think about that for now.

"My father's not home, as usual," Adrien explained once she'd stowed her phone again. "And since we got you and Alya out of the house last time without Nathalie noticing, we should just be able to go upstairs without being bothered. My father's had her loaded down with work because he's so busy with the new line anyway, so she probably won't even come out of her office."

"What about…?" Marinette gestured to the driver.

Adrien smiled, the expression turning grateful as he looked to his driver. "He won't say anything."

That seemed to solidify the point, so Marinette didn't question further. Adrien's mansion wasn't far anyway, their arrival immanent. The car pulled up in front of the gate, a path shoveled through the snow from the street to the stairs, which were fully cleaned. The rain pounded down around them, weighing on the snow until it was dented into a slushy mess.

Marinette was the first to step out—the car had pulled up on her side—and so she took her turn holding the umbrella up as he climbed out. With the rain thudding on the black plastic above them, they walked through the gate toward the house.

About halfway there, a swirling gust of wind came out of nowhere. It swooped down between the walls and scooped right up under the umbrella. Startled and unprepared, it slipped right from Marinette's hand. With a flapping whoosh, it was sent tossing up into the air. Gasping, she turned to watch it, as did Adrien, as it was carried up over the wall and out of sight.

They stood, side by side and blinking, for a few quiet moments as the rain hammered down on them. Until Adrien crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at her with feigned disappointment.

"I can't believe you just let my umbrella fly away like that."

Marinette frowned, though the expression was laced in irritation. "I'm sorry. Next time, I'll just magically predict when a huge burst of wind is going to come out of nowhere." She slammed her fists to her hips. "And it was my umbrella."

"It was mine first."

She couldn't quite find an adequate comeback for that—seeing as it was, technically, true—but she couldn't simply accept his word as final either. As if he'd won or something equally ridiculous. So, instead, she reached out and shoved him lightly on the shoulder.

What she didn't expect was that when he took a single step back to keep his balance, he'd hit a patch of ice, slip, yelp, and fall flat on his butt in the snow. But that is what happened, his green eyes blinking in affronted surprise.

She could only imagine that the wet, disgusting snow was not only cold, but quickly seeping through his jeans. Based on the look of discomfort that had slipped down over his surprise, he was feeling the effects. It was only natural that Marinette laugh, so she did.

Which he didn't appreciate, of course. With a quickness she knew he had, but still wasn't fast enough to avoid, he leaned up, grabbed her wrist, and yanked her down.

With a squeak of her own, she landed face first in the snow beside him, laid out as the chill quickly leaked in through the fabric of clothes. Above, the rain was still pounding down, only adding insult to injury when she immediately scrambled back onto her hands and knees.

It was Adrien's turn to be laughing. It didn't matter that he was just as wet as she was, sitting uselessly beneath the rain, or that she was glaring at him as snow slid down her cheeks in slicked clumps. But, at least, his humor gave her the chance to dig up a big clump of snow and smash it smack-dab in the middle of his face.

His laughter came to a grating halt.

He blinked stupidly, Marinette smiled, and for a moment the tension of immanent action rose between them. Until, finally, as if it was snapped by their own unanimous thoughts, Marinette was struggling to get up while Adrien lunged across the snow to stop her.

He grabbed her by the ankle and pulled it out from under her, tripping her as she landed, hands flat, back in the slush. Unwilling to go down without a fight, she squeezed both her hands in the snow, taking hold of two heavy, wet snowballs before she kicked out against him and spun.

She released the snow as soon as she caught him in her sights, satisfied when one slammed into the side of his head and he other the center of his chest. Recovering didn't seem to be necessary this time around, however, because—soaking and dripping with snow—he gathered a huge clump in his arms and grinned.

Marinette squeaked, but knew she couldn't escape. Instead, she curled in on herself and braced for the inevitable. It didn't take long. Adren was on his knees, dropping the avalanche over her head within the moment.

Marinette squealed, whole body spasming as the snow leaked down her front and back, chilly streaks beneath her shirt and coat, and even some down her pants.

Adrien was laughing again, sitting back on his ankles beside her.

"Enough!" he said through it, before Marinette could retaliate. "Please."

Marinette cocked skeptical brow, but didn't retaliate. Instead, she simply sat—a sopping, soaked mess in the snow and rain.

"I hate being wet," he admitted, despite the smile still gracing his lips. "You win."

She considered his words for only a moment, eventually deciding they were good enough. "Alright," she agreed, standing. Holding out a hand toward him, she offered him help getting up, which he took. Their fingers were sodden and chilled, but Marinette didn't mind. Instead, she fought back the flush that abruptly wanted to wash through her as their hands clasped together.

She turned away from him as soon as he was standing, taking her hand back as she stepped through the slushy snow and back onto the shoveled path. Adrien followed right behind, the two of them clambering up the stairs and hastily into the house.

Getting in the doorway, into the warmth, only made their conditions all that much more apparent. Their clothes were heavy, dripping, and Marinette could feel the way her jeans scraped harshly at her skin, unforgiving in their wet state. She could tell by the way Adrien stood awkwardly beside her, arms held away from his sides, that he felt the same.

"C'mon," he said, shaking some of the snow from his legs in the same moment. "Upstairs. I'll get you something." He headed on as he said as much, Marinette ignoring the heat that wouldn't sink back down below her neck as she trailed close behind. She didn't have any extra clothes (again), so she'd have to borrow something of his (again). She wasn't sure, exactly, how she felt about this, but her options were limited.

Why had she agreed to this? Coming over to his house, alone, had definitely been a bad idea. Right? Because it wasn't like she spent hours upon hours alone with him anyway. This really was vey confusing sometimes.

She really should just tell him the truth. That would solve things, maybe. And he'd said… he'd said he'd forgive her, right? Well, maybe she was taking the conversation a bit out of context in that respect. Or maybe back into context?

Thinking about it really was going to give her a headache.

He pushed them through the door to his bedroom, which was dim due to the heavy clouds circling outside. He flicked on the light however, Marinette watching as his damp shoes left wet marks across the floor as he went directly to the closet.

The clothes she ended up with were the same ones as before, as well as a towel.

"You can change in the bathroom," he said, gesturing that way. "And I- I can take your clothes and throw them in the dryer downstairs. If- if that's okay." He was rubbing the back of his neck again.

"Sure," Marinette said quietly, casting him a small smile before she turned and headed into the bathroom. She let out a relieved breath as soon as she shut the door behind her.

This was Chat, this was Chat, this was Chat. She had to keep telling herself that. And yet, this thought didn't bring her the comfort it once had. Because Chat was also Adrien and she liked them both, or just the one, and they'd become so mixed in her head these days that the thought of dealing with Chat versus Adrien was no longer comforting. They were one and same. She liked him, Adrien—Chat—and she was over at his house, alone, and…

She just needed to take a deep breath and remember that they were friends. That was the most important thing.

Trying to use this as her calming thought instead, she began to strip down. First her coat, then her boots. Jeans, shirt. She wasn't pleased to note that her underwear was soaked through as well, and would no doubt seep with wetness through the soft fabric of his shirt and pajama pants.

She groaned, miserable.

Slipping her underwear down, she then removed her bra as well, abruptly hyperaware that she was standing, naked and dripping wet, in Adrien's personal bathroom.

Jumping over to the door, she quickly locked it and only took a marginal amount of comfort in doing so.

Ignoring her own blushing reflection in the mirror, she quickly grabbed the towel to dry off, patting her pigtails only, before pulling on the pants and shirt he'd given her.

She still felt unfortunately exposed, however. She glanced longingly down at her undergarments, but knew that putting them on would only make the whole thing worse. With a sigh, she reached down and gathered all her clothes together. Technically, her bra wasn't supposed to go in a dryer, but she supposed an exception would be made this one time. What would she even say to him? "Oh, yeah, my bra is soaking wet so I'll just hang up here in your bathroom while it dries." Yeah right!

Shaking her head, she wrapped her underwear and bra in her shirt, before folding that in her jeans. Until it was a tight ball of wet clothing. She pulled her coat over it all last, hugging the clump to he chest as she opened the bathroom door. Boots in her other hand, she stepped out, finding Adrien sitting in his computer chair rubbing a towel roughly over his hair.

He was dressed similarly to her, of course.

"Um…" Marinette knew she was still blushing. "Do you have a robe or- or something?" She still held her clump of clothes to her chest, hyperaware of the fact that she was without anything under Adrien's clothes. Granted, she wasn't hugely blessed in the breast department, so it wouldn't be that obvious she was without a bra in his loose fitting shirt, but still. She'd appreciate another layer.

"Oh, sure," he said, clueless to her insecurities as he pulled his towel away and stood. His hair was a mess, sticking up and ruffled, and the sight of it did bring a small smile to Marinette's face as he walked back over to his closet. He retrieved a long, gray robe that would no doubt reached all the way to her mid-calf. Not that she was complaining—more fabric, the better.

"Here, I'll go throw your clothes in the dryer," he offered, Marinette only slightly hesitant to exchange her carefully clumped ball of clothes for the robe. But she had no choice, really, so fighting was pointless. "And you can put your boots over by the register," he pointed across the room, where his own were lying on their sides, using the heat to dry. Nodding, Marinette hugged the robe to her chest instead, returning Adrien's small smile as he headed out.

She released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding as the door clicked behind him. Going quickly to the register, she laid her boots down appropriately before slipping on his robe. Pulling it around herself, she tied it securely and tried not to think about Adrien throwing her clothes in the dryer. Hopefully he'd just throw the ball in and go. But, then again, he'd have to go retrieve her clothes as well, so he'd end up… handling her undergarments one way or another.

She needed to not think about that. After all, everyone wore underwear (she assumed), so it really wasn't worth making a big deal about. Adrien was a big boy—he could handle it.

Forcing herself to see logic, she dragged herself over to his couch and sat down. Reaching up, she slipped the bands from around her pigtails, snapping them around her wrist as she slowly began to comb her fingers through her hair. It wasn't really doing much good, the damp locks hardly wanting to be cooperative after getting soaking in such an awkward position and then drying slightly.

Still, she tried, Adrien returning shortly after.

If he'd encountered her undergarments, he didn't mention it.

"I have a brush," he said, as he walked in. "One sec." He went directly to the bathroom without giving her the chance to respond, returning shortly after with a hard brush, which Marinette was thankful for. She needed something to get out knots.

"Here." He handed it over as he sat down beside her.

"Thanks," she said with a small smile, taking the brush to her hair with expert levels of knot-pulling at her disposal. Thankfully, her hair was generally manageable, so it wasn't as bad as some people had, but still, it was a frizzy, wavy mess as a result of the out-of-character wetness.

"Um, be careful please," Adrien said, staring at her as she yanked the brush through her hair. She paused and looked at him with an amused brow. "That's a good way damage your hair."

"I have to get the knots out," she argued, grinning at the look of aghast discomfort on his face. "It's a little hard to be careful when I can't see what I'm doing." She was about to return to the familiar, albeit somewhat painful, task, when his hand reached out and grabbed her wrist.

"Then let me do it," he said simply. "It's painful just watching you."

"Oh my god." She rolled her eyes. "What a baby." But she didn't stop him from removing the brush from her hand. Instead, she sighed and turned away, so her hair was falling down her neck before him. She tried not to tense when his fingers carefully began to sift through the damp locks, or when he gently took the brush down against them. But he really was careful. He only did a small section at a time, and whenever he came across a knot, he made sure to hold the hair away from her so he wouldn't tug on her scalp.

She relaxed a bit.

"Your hair is so wavy," he said after a few minutes.

"It's because of the knots," she replied. "It's not like that if I brush it as soon as I get out of the shower, and then put it up. It's all frizzy now too." Her shoulders slumped a bit. "Stupid rain."

"I think it's pretty," he admitted, Marinette biting the inside of her cheek as she tried to suppress a blush. She was going to stay some sort of red this whole "sleepover," she was sure of it. "Why don't you ever wear it down?"

"More difficult to manage," she explained. "Gets in the way." She couldn't imagine how annoying being Ladybug would be with her hair down. She wouldn't be able to see most of the time.

"Oh. Why don't you cut it short, then?"

"I have before. But there's always that awkward stage between short and long that's so irritating to deal with. Can't put it up, can't keep it out of the way. Honestly, keeping it long enough to put up is the easiest way to deal with it."

"You could just shave your head," he joked.

"I could."

"Don't shave your head. Please."

"Why not?" She grinned, despite the fact that he couldn't see. What would Chat even say if she showed up one day, bald Ladybug? "I could be like One Punch Man."

He sighed. "I wouldn't try and stop you. But I've seen lots of hair and yours is nice. You should keep it, if you ask me."

"I'm not going to shave my head," she assured. "I'd get cold."

He laughed.

The silence between them was comfortable after that, Adrien diligently working while Marinette distracted herself with looking around his bedroom. It only took him, maybe, ten more minutes to finish, before Marinette was running her fingers through her hair as she turned back to him.

"There, see? No casualties." He held up the brush with a teasing smile.

"It would have been fine."

"I don't know." He clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "It was looking like a pretty hairy situation there for a while."

Marinette pursed her lips in disapproval. "You're stupid," she finally decided, reaching up and flicking him on the nose.

For once, he didn't flinch back. "Rude," was all he said. So Marinette offered him a small smile, reaching up and pulling her hair over her right shoulder. It wouldn't go back up into pigtails correctly, not anymore, so she looped one of her hair bands around it loosely, keeping it settled over her shoulder.

Adrien watched her the whole time, only blinking and flicking his gaze away when Marinette caught his staring. She tried not to blush, and so did he. Neither of them succeeded.

"Sorry," he eventually apologized, which only made the whole thing more awkward. "You just remind me of someone."

Marinette swore her heart stopped beating for just a moment. "Who?" she squeaked out.

"Uh." He rubbed his neck (he'd been doing that a lot) and glanced back at her out of the corners of his eyes. "My… mother, actually."

Not what Marinette had expected.

"Oh," she said lamely. "I… Really?"

"Yeah. I mean, not in a weird way," he corrected quickly, waving his hands out in front of him. Though, really, Marinette couldn't quite figure what "weird" would entail. "Just how you… act, sometimes. And…" He blushed deeper. "H-how you move. Kind of light and fluttery like. Just… stuff like that." She offered him a small smile—because what else was she supposed to do? "And that. That right there. When you smile."

Which, of course, caused her smile to falter. "Uh, I'm sorry. Is… Is that okay?"

"What?" He practically yelled the word. "Yeah! It's fine. I didn't mean to give the impression… It's okay. Not bad, actually. I mean, it's not like, when I look at you, you actually look like her, or I think about her, or… or something. Just that you're kind of like her. But not too much like her, really. Just a little bit. Good ways only. Not… Not creepy ways, or anything."

"Creepy?"

"Ugh, not- that's not what I meant. I just mean that I like that you and her are a little bit alike. But not, like, in a weird way. Like, you don't actually look like her. But, I…" He sighed. "You don't look anything like her, really. It's just that sometimes you do things like she used to do them. And it's not good or bad. It just… is."

He looked like he'd given up.

Marinette smiled again, reaching out and laying a single hand on his arm. "It's okay. It's not creepy. I'm flattered, really." Which wasn't a lie. She didn't know anything about Adrien's mother, but he clearly missed her a great deal. If she was something like the woman that Adrien held in such high regard, then she was grateful for such compliments. "I'm sure she was a wonderful person."

"Yeah." Her reassurance seemed to ease his nerves. "She was amazing. I… I miss her a lot." He sighed. "So does my dad." Marinette cocked an eyebrow. "I know, wouldn't think it to look at him. But I think that's the whole thing. He wasn't always… like he is."

Marinette wasn't sure how this conversation had gotten so personal—how it'd slid down that slope—but she wasn't going to try and turn them back around.

"It's stupid, because I feel bad having to sneak my friends around all the time," he continued, sounding very apologetic. "But he's just so… controlling about everything. And I know it's only because he's overprotective, and that he only pushes me because he wants me to be the best I can be," even if he ignored him a great deal as well, "but still. It's not like having friends is a bad thing, and he's…" Adrien huffed, finally smiling a bit himself. "I don't remember where I was going with this."

Marinette's hold tightened a bit on his arm. "It's okay. I'm here to listen, even if you don't know what you're talking about." Her lighthearted joke seemed to jolt him from his slump. Allowing her hand to slip away, she twined her fingers together in her lap and flicked her gaze to the couch cushions. If only to try and prevent any prolonged staring making things awkward again.

"Are you hungry or anything?" Adrien asked after a moment, standing and rounding the couch as he did. "I can go down to the kitchen and get something."

"Yeah, that sounds… good." There was something wedged into the couch cushions. Eyebrows furrowing, Marinette reached down and pulled the small object free. It was a small circle with a button on the top. She pushed it. A small, red beam shot onto the cushion beside her.

A laser.

Drawn back by her silence, Adrien leaned over the back of the couch. "Oh, that." He was watching the red light as Marinette circled it slowly over the couch cushion. "That's a cat toy. I have a cat… sometimes."

She cast him a curious look, but he just shrugged. She didn't know how someone could "sometimes" have a cat. But perhaps his kwami resembled a cat? That would make sense. Maybe his kwami played with the laser. Tikki liked to sleep in her plants and managed any aphids that got inside her bedroom. It seemed logical.

It didn't get by her, though, that Adrien's own focus had zeroed in on the laser. She peered at him curiously, slowly grinning when she saw how blown wide his pupils were and tense his jaw was. Tension that was gradually seeping through the rest of him.

She spun the laser a bit faster, giggling some when his whole body flinched at the abrupt motion.

The sound of her laughter, however, snapped his attention away. He glanced over at her, lips pursed as a light flush rose up from his neck. Stepping back from the couch, he looked as though he was going to head to the door—probably to get them food. But Marinette wasn't about to let this chance slip away.

Getting up on her knees, she leaned over the back of the couch and flashed the laser down by his feet. His eyes snapped to it immediately, Marinette biting her bottom lip to try to stop herself from laughing.

She could see it in his posture, how he wanted to jump at it. He twitched where he stood, but his self-control just managed to keep him in place. Rather, turning his head almost as though it were painful, he marched toward the bedroom door.

Marinette was two steps ahead of him. With a quick flash, she zipped the laser up to the door across the room, watching as Adrein faltered and paused in his steps to watch it. She flitted it twitchingly back and forth, his head going from side to side in response.

Until he managed to get a grip. Growling, he slowly turned his head over his shoulder to glare at her. So she did the reasonable thing and popped the laser down by his feet again, which yanked his attention downward.

And, apparently, his control had slipped for the moment too. Because in one dropping leap, he was crouched on the floor, hands slapping against the hardwood as he pointlessly tried to catch the red dot.

Marinette giggled, covering her mouth with her free hand as she wiggled the laser down across the floor. His pupils were blown wide again, eyes big and round as he stared with far too much determination as the dot trailed bit by bit across the floor.

She could see him shifting on his toes, back and forth, and could imagine the way his tail would be up, flitting back and forth, were he Chat. And then, as if to add more humor where it wasn't needed, his hips began to wiggle, moving his butt back and forth as he leaned forward, preparing to pounce.

It took all of Marinette's self-control not to fall back on the couch in hysterics.

Legs tense, bending back for a spring, Adrien bounded, vaulting across the floor and landing smack dab where the laser had been dotting. Except that, as soon as he landed, Marinette whipped the laser further away.

He didn't stop this time, however. Instead, scrambling across the floor on all fours, he dashed after the little red mark. Gasping, Marinette leaned forward, if only to keep up with him. His nails clawed at the hardwood, clattering as he chased. And Marinette, who was somewhat caught off guard by his gumption, cringed and accidentally ran the laser up the far wall.

Determined, Adrien tried to follow it, vaulting into the air as he tried to crawl up the wall. His efforts were to no avail, and so he eventually just ended up standing with his hands laid against the plaster, glaring at the red dot above his head. He tried to bat at it a few times, and even jumped again, as if he could really propel himself high enough, but none of it got him the evasive dot.

His failure seemed to be what eventually brought him back down to earth. Somewhat. Turning, he put his glare on Marinette, who immediately let up on the laser, blinking as innocently as she could.

"Gimme that," he demanded, holding out his hand as he stomped toward her.

"What? No!" She stood, stumbling back away from the couch. But he kept coming. So she used the only weapon at her disposal. She clicked the laser back on and trailed it in front of his feet.

His focus snapped to it right away, his whole body looking like it wanted to jump. But he held himself back, forcefully closing his eyes as he rubbing the bridge of his nose. Marinette, meanwhile, had walked around the couch, defensive and waiting for any sort of aggressive tactic.

"Give me the laser pointer," Adrien demanded again, holding out his hand blindly, as he was refusing to open his eyes.

"No can do," she said through a bit of laughter. "If you want it, you'll have to come and get it." Yes, it was indeed a threat, but she was more than willing to pay the price.

Huffing, Adrien finally opened his eyes again, pinpointing her across the room and refusing to look anywhere else.

He marched forward again, Marinette supposing she'd have to use her position to her benefit. Flicking the laser back, she pointed it directly above her head, so the red dot sat just atop her hair. And as he finally closed in on her, she skirted quickly aside, keeping the laser pointed where she'd been.

She was more that giddy when he went right for the laser, pawing temperamentally at the wall as she whizzed it back and forth.

But it was an internal battle—one moment he was after the laser and the next he was pushing back on whatever instinct was telling him to chase it. Like trying to spring a slinky from drying concrete, he pushed away from the wall, shoulders hunched in a feral manner as he turned his attention back on her.

"Give me that right now!" he demanded, frustrated.

"Oh my, how scary," she teased, dancing back across the room. "I'm being threatened by the house cat."

"Give me that laser right now or I'll… dump you out in the snow!"

Marinette was not impressed. "Oh yeah?" she asked, tossing the laser up into the air and catching it lazily a second later. "You better catch up, then, Kitty Cat."

"Mari…"

She cocked an eyebrow and grinned, his own teeth grinding together in irritation.

And, maybe, the game would have continued—despite Adrien's objections—were it not for the shocking and menacing sound of his bedroom door clicking open.

Whipping around, Marinette's breath was sucked out of her, eyes wide as all the color drained from her face. She was only about a meter from the door and didn't have the time to hide. Rather, all she could do was stand stock-still as a of pair white loafers and red slacks pushed through into the room, follow shortly by a trim-fitting silver vest, pearl suit jacket, and Gabriel Agreste's stern expression.

Marinette was pretty sure she was already dead.

Those sharp blue eyes snapped immediately to her, the sound of Adrien's stuttering breath behind hardly registering. At first, Mr. Agreste appeared surprised, his thin lips actually parting. His shock was quickly downgraded to confusion, and then further to thin-eyed accusation.

Marinette had never wanted to be more invisible in her life. Because not only was she a girl in Adrien's bedroom when she wasn't supposed to be, but she was also wearing his clothes. This was bad.

This was really bad. She never should have agreed to come.

"Why are you here?" Mr. Agreste asked slowly, head cocking slightly as he folded his hands behind his back. He was asking her directly, Marinette acutely aware of everything about her person—to her unkempt hair to Adrien's long robe to her bare feet.

Gulping, she tried to find something to say, but nothing came.

"Sh-she's just here to work on a project, Father," Adrien cut in, the sound of his voice nearly making Marinette jump. He'd come up beside her, thankfully drawing his father's attention so she could breathe again. "We're… partners."

"I see…" No, he didn't believe one word of it. "Why is she wearing your clothes? And, furthermore, if you're working, why are you up here and not in the dining hall where I said such things were supposed to take place?"

Marinette glanced over at Adrien, helpless to do anything as he fumbled through the situation. "It's raining," he blurted. "We both got soaked coming in, so I threw her clothes in the dryer. That- that's why we're up here. For… changing… clothes."

This was not going well. This was not going well at all.

"What's this project you're working on?" Mr. Agreste clipped.

"Uh…" Adrien's own expression had drained of much of its color, showing just how panicked he was as well. And he saw this man on a somewhat regular basis. Marinette supposed that said a lot about their relationship. "It's for… social studies…"

"Current events!" Marinette blurted out abruptly, her hand shooting up to cover her mouth a second later, if only because of how loudly she'd spoken.

"Current events," Adrien confirmed, clearing his throat as he did. "Presentation. On a current event. Research. That kind of thing."

Mr. Agreste knew they were lying. He wasn't even trying to hide his disapproval.

"I see," he said stiffly. "Well, there are laptops downstairs. In he dining hall." He stepped aside, the motion a signal for them to leave the bedroom. Marinette jumped into action, daring to peer up at Mr. Agreste only quickly before she shuffled out. Adrien followed more slowly, Mariette not brave enough to glance back at whatever looks they exchanged.

Rather, she was caught between wanting to run and being frozen with nerves. She didn't know how to get to the dining hall, but if she stood around too long, Mr. Agreste was going to catch up. It was bad enough she admired him as designer, let alone how scary of a person he actually was.

Thankfully, Adrien was at her side in seconds, hand brushing her elbow as he guided her down the stairs. They looked at each other only quickly, exchanging scared looks, before deciding that staring at each other with Mr. Agreste right behind them probably wouldn't be a good idea.

By the time they were in the dining hall, speaking to one another was completely out of the question. Rather, Adrien retrieved two laptops from a cabinet and simply handed her one. Mr. Agreste knew they were lying, so they had two choices—either they played their parts or admitted to their wrongs. Neither was appealing, but Adrien seemed intent on pretending, so Marinette did the same.

They didn't dare sit next to one another. They sat across from each other at the table, Mr. Agreste taking a seat at the head after having pulled a tablet of his own from the cabinet. He sat with ease, only glancing up at them occasionally as they clicked away at their keyboards.

It was probably the longest twenty minutes of Marinette's life. Complete and total silence while she and Adrien distracted themselves with reading articles with absolutely no purpose. Yet they dared not do anything else, as if Mr. Agreste would simply know they were vulnerable and call them on their lies. It was counterproductive to be silent when they were supposed to be doing a group project, but with Mr. Agreste lording over them, it felt like the only option.

Twenty minutes of suffering, before Mr. Agreste's voice nearly jolted Marinette right out of her chair.

"Nathalie," he called, voice smooth and only slightly raised.

A woman with dark hair and red accents stepped into the room a few moments later. "Yes, Sir."

"Please go down to the laundry room and retrieve Ms. Dupain-Chengs clothes. I'm sure they're dry by now." Neither she nor Adrien had told him her name. Which meant he remembered her from what few interactions she'd had with him previously. That somehow made it all worse.

Nathalie retreated, Marinette fiddling with her fingers under the table. She couldn't see Adrien around the laptop and didn't dare strain to do so. Instead, she waited, heart pounding, until Nathalie returned.

"There's a bathroom through here," Nathalie explained, handing Marinette her clothes as she awkwardly pushed back her designated dining chair and got to her feet.

Once in the bathroom, she locked the door and began in haste. She'd never changed clothes so quickly (with the exceptions of her transformations, of course). She folded Adrien's clothes up once she was out of them, handing them to Nathalie before she took a deep breath and bravely reentered the dining hall. Her confidence had increased tenfold now that she was in her own clothes, but Mr. Agreste was still an intimidating figure.

"Um." Adrien had already been looking at her, once she'd come back, and her attempts to speak drew Mr. Agreste's attention as well. "I should probably go home," she decided, tapping her fingers together as she did.

"So soon?" Mr. Agreste asked coyly.

"I… only had a little while to work," she lied. "My parents are expecting me."

Mr. Agreste smiled just slightly. "How unfortunate. Would you like a lift home?"

"Oh, that's okay," she said quickly. "It's not that far, I can walk." Whether it was inappropriate or not to allow her to do so, Mr. Agreste didn't object further. He simply nodded, as if her trekking by foot through the rain was simply expected. And perhaps fitting.

Adrien abruptly stood. "I'll walk you to the door." He didn't give any chance for his father to stop him. In one swift motion, he was heading down along the table, meeting Marinette at the end. Gently touching her elbow again, he guided her through the house to the front door, grabbing an umbrella from a nook on the way. They didn't stop inside. Rather, they only paused once they were outside and the front door was firmly closed behind them.

"I am so sorry," Adrien murmured as soon as she turned to him. They stood beneath the awning of the house, rain still shimmering down around them. Not nearly as heavily as before, but present nonetheless. "I shouldn't have put you in that kind of position and-"

"Adrien, it's alright," she assured, smiling softly. He became quiet, but his lips were clamped tightly shut. As though holding back words by force. "I'm not upset. He's… scary, sure, but I've dealt with worse." There was a difference between a social threat and an actual threat. Were Mr. Agreste the latter, she'd have had no hesitation in dealing with him. But different situations called for different reactions. And different levels of fear that were allowed to be felt.

"I'm still sorry you had to go through that, even if… Well, maybe I deserve to be punished," Adrien muttered, holding out the umbrella he'd grabbed in the same moment. "I did sneak a girl into my bedroom."

"But you didn't do it for the wrong reasons," she replied, taking the proffered umbrella. "You have the right to friendship. Even if your father doesn't think so. Or thinks he's protecting you from something."

"Bad influence I suppose." Adrien scoffed.

Marinette glanced down at the steps, her smile slipping away. "He probably thinks very poorly of me now." If he'd ever thought well of her in the first place, or thought of her at all. But it didn't reflect well, to be found in Adrien's bedroom in his clothes with no supervision. She knew what that looked like, even if it wasn't true.

Adrien reached out, taking her hand in his own. A comforting gesture, she knew, and so she was surprised when she glanced up and saw such sheer hardness in his gaze.

"I won't let him," he said firmly, squeezing her hand a little tighter. "You're not at any fault here, Mari. I'll make sure he knows that."

Her lips parted for just a moment, eyes blinking as his words sank through her. Until, finally, they pulled another shy smile to her lips. "So dramatic," she murmured, causing him to smile as well.

Neither of them acknowledged that their hands were still held firmly together.

"Oh," Marinette said with a start, reaching into her pocket with her free hand. Holding up the one that was held in Adrien's, she finally separated them, filling his hand with her other fist as she dropped a single, small object there. "That's yours."

The laser.

"Oh, yeah," he said, reaching up to rub the back of his neck as he stared down at it.

"For the occasional cat in your life," she continued.

He released a short, polite chuckle, returning his gaze to hers. She continued to smile, but, ever so slowly—like paint dripping—his own fell away. Until his expression was shadowed with curiosity instead. Head slowly cocking, his stare narrowed some, became more intense, as he watched her.

Marinette felt her nerves spike and her cheeks heat up.

"Well," she interjected, pulling the umbrella out to the side as she opened it. "I better go."

This seemed to snap him out of his thoughts. "You sure you don't want a ride?" he asked, as she stepped down the first stair and pulled the umbrella up over her head.

"I'll be alright," she said, turning back to him. "I can take care of myself."

"You sure? It's pretty miserable out."

She winked. "You worry too much, Kitty."

With that, she continued on down the steps, not looking back to see how he'd taken her comment. She focused on the sidewalk, thankful when she'd exited the gate and was safely out of sight.

oOo

Danger had always been part of the price. They'd both known it going in and they knew it now, when it was rearing its head right in front of them. Marinette found it all rather ironic, really, that the week before she and Adrien had stood inside her kitchen and spoken about this exact thing. This exact fear.

She knew he was afraid, just like she was, but there was no time to consider fear when action was necessary. It was one thing to be frightened and quite another to allow that fright to incur panic. Ladybug and Chat Noir were saviors, heroes. They weren't allowed to panic—it was their job to quell whatever it was that caused such things.

Even if they risked their lives to do it.

Her hand was sore, from holding onto the edge of the wing. And her eyes ached, the air constantly whipping by causing them to water. She couldn't talk, couldn't speak to Chat over the sound of the propeller, but, thankfully, they didn't always need voices to communicate.

He was crouched on the other side of the plane, on the opposite wing. His expression was serious, shadowed even, but not unnerved. They couldn't afford to feel uneasy.

The akuma, she was sure, was in the pilot's goggles. But the plane was an older, sports plane—the wings sat above the cockpit—which made it difficult to access. That, and the erratic way the man affected was flying tended to hinder their attempts to get at him. She'd already used her lucky charm, but instead of giving her a rope, it'd turned into a red-spotted slingshot. Then again, perhaps rope would have been useless. There was nowhere for her to tie it, to safely swing from the wing into the cockpit. She'd likely fall to her death if she so much as tried.

She was probably going to fall to her death anyway. Sure, their powers made them nearly infallible, but how far did that really stretch? Would she be safe, falling from thousands upon thousands of feet in the air? Would her body shatter inside the protective barrier being Ladybug created, leaving her a broken mess when that shield evaporated?

She couldn't think about such things. She had to focus.

They—she and Chat—had only seconds. The pilot was looking up between his wings with a scowl, and Ladybug could see the way thoughts formed in his head, how an idea sprung forth. His hands griped steadily at the control wheel, confident in the ignorance that being an akuma created.

He wanted them gone, out of the way, and both of them knew what he'd try to ensure that.

They looked at each other, eyes meeting across the length of the wings. They had to act. They had to do something. Otherwise it'd all be for naught. The only reason they'd gotten to the plane in the first place was because they'd thrown themselves on it as it'd passed the Eiffel Tower. They hadn't been able to get it down fast enough, they'd gone to the clouds with it, and this was the only chance they had.

Ladybug gripped her slingshot. She pursed her lips and Chat nodded.

The plane began to tip, to spin in her direction. Letting go, Chat allowed the momentum to carry him. Dashing down the wing toward her, grabbed her around the waist as they were tossed by the immanent spin.

She let go.

His muscular arms held her back to his chest as they rolled, the clouds, sky, and ground becoming a jumbled, whirling mess. Trusting him, Ladybug gritted her teeth and let Chat assure their safety. He pulled them away from the plane, a buffer against the wind and the fall as she pulled the slingshot up and took aim.

The plane was barrel rolling, the distance between them growing. But she took her shot. She estimated the wind resistance, the angle, and how strong she was against the force of falling, even with Chat's body shielding her own. She let the large marble fly, watching as the red dot zoomed off.

It clattered into the planes propeller as it spun, jamming its way into the middle and causing a loud, cracking break.

That was enough for now. That was all they could do for the moment.

Other issues were surging up fast.

The force of the fall caught her breath before she could even breathe it in, sucking it above her head with the fog of the clouds. Together, back to chest, they were an iron ball plummeting through the sky. So she pushed away, floundering through the air was she turned to face him.

He was wide-eyed; so was she. She'd used up her powers and was falling on borrowed time. She had her yoyo and he had his baton, but this wasn't a shallow fall like when they'd been tossed over with Rogercop, or even Fang the Dragon. This was different—this was so much worse.

They were gaining speed with every moment, plummeting toward an ant city that would be larger than life faster than they could pinpoint where they'd land. The sky was empty all around them, the air thin and cold.

There was nothing.

She was out of ideas.

"Chat!" she screamed, trying to do what she could to turn her body into a buffer, but even swimming toward him wouldn't be enough. Not with the tunnel of air that rushed past her ears—that loosened her hair and sent her dry tears streaming upward.

Her heart beat hard in her chest, every throb painful as her nerves finally grew numb with terror. Because this was it. They weren't going to make it this time.

They were really going to fall.

Chat grappled toward her, slightly lower in the plummet than she was. She reached back, stretched to grab him. And when her hand wrapped around his arm, she knew it was the last grounded feeling she'd ever have. Chat would be the last thing she ever touched.

She strained against the digging force to grasp at his other arm as well, his claws sinking into her suit as he attached himself to her in the same way. She could see her own horror mirrored in his green eyes, his own dry tears leaking up past his mask.

She inched further up his arms, until they were nearly nose-to-nose—a broken human chain plunging toward earth.

"Chat!" she called again, her tears becoming more than just stress as her voice choked her. He cringed, teeth gritted, and held her arms until they hurt. She could see the way he gulped, how his own breath hitched despite how the wind whipped it out of him. She knew his own tears were the consequence of grief now, and of fear.

What would be said of them? About how they'd ended? Would the press keep filming, even as they fell and smashed to bits against the city rooftops? Or would they stop? Would they know that this was the end, or would the city continue to hold out hope until it was too late? As if their heroes really were invincible. Would her parents watch it, be subject to the filming of her last moments falling through the clouds even after they found out she was Ladybug? Were they watching her now? Were her friends?

She didn't want them to see—to bear witness to the shame and the carnage. She wished this wasn't happening. Maybe, a small, tiny part of her—when faced with this end—wished she'd never become Ladybug in the first place. Wished Adrien wasn't Chat and that she was still trailing after him like an ignorant schoolgirl.

But it was easy to wish away responsibility when it wasn't worth worrying over the consequences. When those consequences were a reality never to be seen.

"My Lady." Chat's voice, though loud against the wind, was soft to her ears. She blinked at him, not knowing what else to do as he pushed his forehead against her own. "You…" He smiled. "You have freckles. Did you know that?"

Her whole chest was clogged with the emotion that welled through her, that brought the same demented, bitter, hopeless smile to her own face. She tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a sob than anything else. Her nose bumped Chat's, those green eyes—though masked with feline overtures—searching her own, trying to find as much solace within her as she did him.

They'd danced around death together so many times before, and there was no one she'd rather face it with than him.

She didn't think about it—didn't need to and didn't see the point. He was there, with her, like he'd always been since this whole crazy Ladybug and Chat Noir thing had started. There was no room for hesitation, not anymore.

He was already close—only a hair's breadth away—and she easily closed the distance between them. She pushed her lips to his, no consideration for softness or delay. No nerves, no guilt, nothing tried to wedge its way between. There was no space for it, not in those moments. She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that, maybe, the way her stomach fell up against her spine was just a side effect of being with him—that she was falling into him and not through the sky.

That it was perfection that was felt between them, not despair.

She couldn't see if he was shocked—if their current situation even allowed for the sensation. But it was only a second and he was pressing back against her, lips pulling harshly at her own. No tenderness—not like how he'd been looking at her before. This was all desire and desperation, yearning tinged with distress. A thousand things all at once, muddled and sparking and chaotic.

But so honest. She could feel it in the dried pressure of his wind-blown lips, in how he pulled at her own—the last thing he'd ever taste. That, maybe, he wanted to taste. So much passion, lined with severe intention. But with the same steadiness that held her close and refused to let go—even as the world itself prepared to break them apart.

For the first time since she'd vaulted onto that plane, she dared to regret.

It hit her so fiercely that it left her gasping against him, eyes fluttering open with ripping tears. It wasn't fair. None of this was fair. She hadn't done either of them justice, hadn't given them a chance. She'd pushed him away when she shouldn't have; wasted time she'd taken for granted.

And now it was slipping through her fingers—sand she'd never had a hold on in the first place.

She couldn't let it go. She couldn't let it end this way.

Gritting her teeth, she tore her gaze from his. Frantic, she tried to think of something. Anything that would give them a fighting chance. If there was ever a time when she needed luck, this was it.

The sky above was empty, aside from the smoking trail of the plane as it'd dove for the ground. Below, the city waited, quiet and spread out for miles.

But between…

Between, she found hope.

There were two media helicopters hovering below, coming in to get a better view of what little action there was to be had. The one to the north was closer, yet still so far off. It was the one chance they had.

Adrenaline spiked inside her, pushing away the fear and panic. She found action, no matter how slight. Pulling her legs under her, she yanked Chat to her side, until her arm was wrapped tightly around his waist. He embraced her as well, holding tight as she grabbed her yoyo with her free hand.

With an aggressive yank that sent the weapon out, she watched as the wind caught it, carrying it above her head. In the same moment, she gathered the line with her arm, pulling it harshly back and allowing the invincible string to line rows around her arm. Until she had the circle base in her grip once again.

They were falling fast, seeming to accelerate the closer they got. She could make out the buildings now, the tiny pinpricks of cars in the streets.

If she waited too long—until the helicopters were within clear range—the two of them would pass by before she could do anything. Which meant she had no way of gauging a proper landing point. She had to make a move on faith—an educated guess.

Begging for any luck left in her, she gripped Chat tighter, wrapping her legs around one of his thighs as he enfolded himself around her in the same manner. Jaw tight, teeth grating, she pulled her arm back. She measured the wind, the strength of her throw, the distance. She put as much as she could into the wind up, inhaling deeply.

With a great, expiring breath, she let it fly. The yoyo zipped out into the air, just as their plummet carried them close enough to the helicopters to see the news logos.

She could make out the colors of the roofs below.

Looping her hand multiple times around the yoyo string, she buried her fingers as deeply into Chat's side as she could. His claws scraped at her ribs in the same way.

The yoyo arced, losing strength fast. But if it could go just far enough.

The faces of the gaping reporters inside the helicopters appeared and disappeared as they plunged, the "whomping" of the rotors passing as though a gust of wind on their own.

She tensed, both watching as the red yoyo drifted farther. The two of them ate up the distance on the string, the slack pulling down with them.

The yoyo whizzed on, however. Until it reached the underbelly of the helicopter. Catching just in time, it slipped through the rungs of the landing gear. With only seconds of slack left, it dropped down and twisted harshly around itself, string tangled with string as the slack ran out.

Ladybug trusted it.

She knew that what happened next would be painful, but she was ready. She gritted her teeth to prevent herself from doing so in the moment. Her arm stiffened; she made sure Chat was still held close, muscles straining.

With a great, bouncing vibration, the string went tight. It carried all the way down to her arm, her whole body whiplashing with Chat's against the force.

She cried out, the pain burning through her arm and shoulder. She knew it was only the suit—only magic—that kept her arm attached to her body—that held her together when she should have been ripped apart. The agony was immense, the sheer force of their whipping bodies enough to knock the helicopter off balance. It spun in the air above them, tilting to the side with the force of their snapping weight.

The agony scorched through her like oil and fire, surging to every limb. Her vision went black for a moment—whether it was due to her snapping neck or her mentally shredded arm, she didn't know. But everything went numb, like she'd been slammed into concrete, and it was only the beeping of her miraculous against the wind and the "whomping" rotors that kept her conscious.

That, and how her side went cold.

It all happened in a matter of seconds, but to her it felt slow. Like a bucket of ice-cold water was washed down her suit, shocking away the heat. It didn't matter that the helicopter was struggling to keep itself in control, beginning to spin even as she dangled from it. It didn't matter that her vision was blurry with pained spots and that her body felt like spaghetti. None of it mattered.

Because he was falling. And she was the only one that could catch him.

The whiplash from her yoyo must have been too much for both of them—the force just too great. She should have attached him to the yoyo with her, wrapped them both in the string. But she hadn't, and now she was watching as he fell away, eyes wide and arms flailing in any attempt to get back to her.

Chat had no way of catching himself from this height. He could bound and leap, but he couldn't "fly" like she could. His baton might catch him falling off the Eiffel Tower, but, though they'd slowed their decent some, they were still hundreds of meters from the ground. Thousands, maybe.

She had to do something.

The helicopter, which was still trying to right itself as it spun through the air, jerked her swaying body to the side, giving her enough slack to yank on the yoyo attached to the landing gear. With a single pull, she snapped it tight, as she had so many times before.

As though bending to her will, the string keeping it attached to the helicopter rapidly untangled before is broke violently away. She was falling again, but this time with a purpose.

Arrowing her body downward, she listened to the zipping sound of her yoyo as it retracted. She watched Chat's plunging body the whole way, their eyes locked as he waited for the rescue that she'd initiated dozens of times before. But their was a weighted anxiety now—they were still so much higher than usual, not out of danger, and the pumping shock from prior was still running through them both.

As soon as she felt the familiar weight of her yoyo back in her hand, she pulled back and whipped it down. Teeth grinding, she aimed past him, despite how he reached out to grab the string. And as the yoyo angled itself beneath him, she yanked back.

Like a well-trained pet, it bounced back up and looped around his torso, Chat finally managing to grab the string as it tightened about his middle.

Ignoring the ache that still thrummed through her whole body, she jerked the yoyo back toward her, Chat's weight straining her muscles as he lurched with it.

Colliding hard, she grabbed hold of him again, wrapping one arm around his neck as he hugged her around her back. As he'd come back up to her, she'd tugged her yoyo again, causing it to snap from around him and back to her hand.

Together, they were falling again, but not hopeless. Not without options.

Not at uncontrollable speeds.

Stretching her muscles yet again, she tossed the yoyo toward the nearest building—a skyscraper downtown. Just as they plummeted past it, her yoyo caught on a metal banister, looping and looping and, finally, giving her back her control.

The string whipped them around, circling the skyscraper until they were headed for the glass. Ladybug braced her feet for the landing while Chat reached back for his baton. With a skilled throw, he extended it and aimed for the side of the building. It stuck just as they collided with the glass, Ladybug trying to hold herself back, but unable to stop Chat slamming his back harshly between.

Thankfully, his baton was situated right beneath them. Because Ladybug was trembling as soon as she was stationary. Like the abrupt lack of air rushing by had been what supported her.

They slipped down the side of the building, Chat holding her as the yoyo came snapping back to her hand. He balanced for a moment on the baton, but Ladybug couldn't help being dead weight. Her body felt like jello, stretched and taut and thin, contained only within her suit.

Chat kept her close, however. She watched—bleary eyed over his shoulder—as he slammed his claws into the building, giving himself a momentary anchor. He then pulled a single leg up, wrapping it around her hips and pinning her to him as he reached down with his other hand and retrieved his baton.

He sent the weapon spearing toward the ground. As soon as it slammed into the sidewalk below, he pushed off from the building, grabbed hold of her, and sent them soaring up into the chilly, afternoon air. It was only when they were level with the top of the building that he vaulted, his baton condensing up after him.

As soon as they hit the solid rooftop, he was toppling to his knees. He still held her tight and only set her sitting once he'd safely lowered her there.

She didn't let him go. She hadn't even realized she'd grabbed hold of him in her trembling, sagging disposition. But she must have because her arms were circling his neck and her nose was buried in his hair.

He didn't release her either. He fell back on his butt and pulled her to him, his own hands shaking despite how he gripped her.

The feeling of falling, of seeing their end, was still fresh in both their minds. It didn't matter that they were steady on the rooftop, or that the ordeal was seemingly over. All that mattered was that they clung to one another—to the only thing they'd had in those terrifying moments when everything had been zeroing in to nothing.

When their own existence had become nothing but what they'd held in one another.

It took some moments, but, eventually, Ladybug began to feel again—feel anything besides desperation. She could soon register Chat's warmth beside her, and how he breathed in and out. She could feel the wisps of his hair against her cheek, and the way his hands gripped at her back. And this soon led to the rooftop, to the chill of the air and the sounds of the city. Of helicopters and traffic and life.

Her eyelashes fluttered as she slowly pulled her head back. Not away from him, not that far. Even if she'd wanted to, he wasn't letting her go. Rather, they faced one another, as if verifying that the other really was there as they passed their gazes together.

Abruptly, like a burst of sunlight finally breaking through the clouds, Ladybug was assaulted by a high of sheer relief and bliss. A huge smile broke across her face, a joyous shout leaving her lips as she thrust forward. She pulled her arms tight around his neck again, her chin over his shoulder as he surged back at the sheer force of her embrace.

"We're alive!" she cried, holding him tight even as he struggled to remain sitting up. "We did it!"

"Ha, you did," he corrected, voice rough. He didn't sound nearly as at ease with the situation as she was, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Because he was alive, and she was alive, and they'd fallen together and they'd both made it to the other side intact.

They'd both faced that fear, though by force, and made it through.

They'd made it.

Much like they had before, they held one another. But it was calmer now, with reality rushing back at them. And, maybe, they would have eventually ended up somewhere else, somewhere neither of them had been before, but the world called them back first.

Their miraculous' beeped, helicopter rotors beat closer, and an eruption of screams across town jolted them from their embrace. Yanked away from one another, they whipped their heads around to the shrieks, knowing that noise far too well.

The sound of innocents facing something they couldn't understand and couldn't defend against.

"The akuma is still out there." Ladybug stated the obvious. "We need to let our kwami eat. And maybe get him before he possesses another plane." She had no desire to be up in the air again.

"Right, of course." Chat gulped against the words, pushing back on anything that would get in the way of that reality. They had a duty—a job to do. Everything else had to wait. There was no other option.

Standing, and pulling herself away from Chat despite how oddly painful and empty if felt, Ladybug skipped up onto the edge of the building, her hand going to her yoyo.

She almost let habit carry her out, send her tossing into the air, but something caught her first. Something inside of her. Something that, maybe, wasn't Ladybug at all.

Turning, she saw Chat standing there, staring up at her. Perhaps caught in the same blinded web she was. His green eyes searched, his mouth parting slightly as their stares met again.

She smiled, murmuring, "You better catch up, Kitty Cat," and let her yoyo fly.

Chapter Text

He was exhausted. Longest Sunday of his life. Despite having the protection of his miraculous, his body ached horribly. And the sheer stress, physical or otherwise, had drained his mental capacities. To say he was at his limit would be a bit of an understatement. Because not only had he almost died, but the woman of his dreams had kissed him, while they were falling to their deaths, and he honestly didn't know what to make of that.

Well, other than that it had been equally the best and worst moment of his life. Okay, maybe that was a bit dramatic—especially when considering the life he'd led—but that was what it felt like as he collapsed on his bed, the evening sunset streaming in through his window. Plagg was equally as tired beside him, having stuffed his face with cheese before drifting down to slumber away atop the bed pillow.

Adrien wondered if Ladybug was as equally exhausted, wherever she was. And he wondered what the kiss had meant, if anything, or if it'd simply been spur of the moment.

He hadn't had the chance to ask her. They'd recharged and met back up to take out the akuma, thankfully able to do so before the crazed pilot could get in the air again. Unfortunately, the drama of the ordeal had drawn in dozens more reporters than normal, which the two had wanted to avoid. It'd been difficult, however. With the news helicopters and the sheer persistence, it just hadn't been safe for them to stay together.

So they'd split, Adrien left with no answers and a roiling headache that seemed to swell whenever he thought about the kiss too hard.

He'd kissed Ladybug. And not while he'd been brainwashed. She'd kissed him and he'd kissed her back. It'd been both wonderful and terrible, if only because of the circumstances, and yet he couldn't force it from his head. It sent his heart jolting constantly, his hand coming up to pull at his hair as he groaned.

What did it mean?!

He lay in bed for a while, contemplating these same things over and over again, even getting to the point where he wanted to transform just to try and get in contact with her. But that wouldn't be fair to Plagg, so he quickly gave up the idea.

What eventually proved to be a minor distraction was his phone, which buzzed in his bag. The sun had long since set completely, leaving his room dark. But he'd laid his bag on the floor beside his bed, and so it took little effort to retrieve it, night vision not required.

A text message.

Nino: Did you see what happened today?!

Adrien: Yeah, rough stuff.

Nino: I hope Chat Noir and Ladybug are alright.

Adrien appreciated his concern.

Adrien: I'm sure they're fine, don't worry :)

Nino: Yeah, you're probably right.

Pause.

Nino: How'd your sleepover with Marinette go on Friday ;)

Oh, right, that. Just thinking about what had happened brought an embarrassed flush to Adrien's face. He really should text Mari, if only to make sure she wasn't so freaked out by his father that she never spoke to him again.

Well, and about something else.

He wasn't certain how she'd figured it out, but he was pretty sure Mari knew he was Chat Noir. He'd puzzled through it all Friday night and it was the only thing that explained her behavior. It was one thing for him to, say, unravel a roll of paper towel, and quite another to chase a laser light around the room. He'd tried his hardest to resist temptation, but she hadn't made it easy, to say the least.

She'd teased him, taken the very, very strange behavior in stride, and called him "Kitty" to his face. Much like Ladybug did, actually. And now that he thought about it, there'd been other things too. Like how she'd wielded the spray bottle.

She knew he was Chat Noir and she'd known for a while. What he didn't get was why she hadn't said anything. And how she'd figured it out in the first place. Sure, he'd encountered her a few times during Akuma hunts, but nothing too drastic. Yet, maybe it'd been enough? He wasn't sure.

No matter, he had to talk to her about it. He was confident—was hoping—that she'd keep it to herself. That she already had been. But he wouldn't know until he asked. Which was another issue all on its own. Because he supposed there as a chance she didn't know and was just overly accepting of his strange habits. And linked them correctly to cats, even if she didn't know why.

Perhaps he'd have to weasel the information out of her somehow…

Ladybug would be disappointed—that someone had figured him out. But he supposed it could be worse. Mari was cool, at least. No, he wasn't comfortable with the situation, but it was better than, say, Chloe figuring it out. Or, worse, his father. He didn't even want to entertain that possibility.

He returned to Nino's text.

Adrien: It didn't. Got caught by my father :/

Nino: Oh, dude, really? That sux.

Adrien: Yeah, it was horrible.

Nino: I bet. Are you in huge trouble?

Adrien: Eh, it's complicated. I'll tell you about it at school. Don't really want to type it all out.

Nino: OK. Bet you were disappointed though. Couldn't keep Marinette all to yourself ;)

Adrien sighed into the darkness.

Adrien: I told you, we're not like that.

Nino: Yeah, sure.

Adrien: I'm serious. She's just a friend.

Nino: Well, I don't know why you're keeping it that way. You obviously like her and she likes you. What's the deal, man?

Adrien had to pause to consider. Because, well, he did like Mari, but not quite like that. Not because there wasn't potential, but because he wasn't allowing himself to "like" her. He had Ladybug—a situation that was now even more confusing then ever. He wasn't going to get involved with Mari and screw up the awesome friendship they had. He had more class than that.

He didn't quite get what Nino meant though, saying that Mari liked him. He'd talked to Mari about the boy she liked and he definitely wasn't it. Maybe Nino was just assuming.

Adrien: I don't feel that way about her. And she doesn't like me that way either.

Nino: Dude, you are so blind. Like, in so many ways. Marinette is totes into you.

Adrien huffed, shaking his head to himself.

Adrien: Look, I get why you might think that, but seriously, she doesn't like me. Trust me, I know.

Nino: Trust me, she does. Alya told me.

Adrien didn't know what to make of that.

Adrien: What are you talking about?

Nino: Just what I said. I still can't believe you didn't figure it out. That's why she used to get all nervous around you. She's got a HUGE crush on you.

Adrien read the text three times, an uncomfortable knot forming in his stomach. He didn't like where this was going. One, because if this was true, this wasn't something Nino should be telling him. And, two, he didn't like the idea of Mari feeling that way about him. Mostly because, well, he couldn't return those feelings, even if he wanted to, and he didn't want to hurt her.

Did she really have a crush on him? Was that why she'd been so… amazing around him? No, that was just Mari. Besides, he knew she didn't like him. Nino's facts must be wrong.

Adrien: Well, she must not anymore. She's not nervous around me and I know she likes someone else.

Nino: Dude, no, she still likes you.

Adrien. No, she doesn't.

Nino: Yeah, she does. Alya told me.

Adrien: It's probably old news. She doesn't like me anymore.

Nino: Alya was telling me about it on Friday. She and Marinette talk about it all the time. She likes you. Dude, you are so clueless.

Adrien: No, that doesn't make any sense.

Nino: Why not? Everyone can see it but you, lol.

Adrien: Because she likes someone else.

Nino: I don't think so. She's been pretty head over heels for you since, like, the second day you started school with us. So, like, forever. And Alya says she still is. I think Alya probably knows best.

Staring up at his ceiling, Adrien found that he was incredibly frustrated by the whole conversation. Because Mari didn't like him. He was certain. She liked some other guy—someone she was close to. That she was paranoid about hurting because she'd lied to him about something. Adrien didn't fit any of those categories. Granted, he and Mari were getting closer all the time, but they hadn't been what he'd consider "close" in the past tense. And he couldn't think of anything she'd have lied to him about.

Unless…

There was always the Chat Noir thing. She'd said she'd found something out that she wasn't supposed to, that she feared this guy would be angry if she told him she knew. Which, he supposed, fit the bill. But it still didn't add up.

She'd talked about this guy in a much more personal manner than he could think would justify his and Mari's more recently developed friendship. Not only that, but he was pretty positive she'd mentioned that this guy had wanted to know something about her too—that she'd refused to tell him and that she felt like she was violating his privacy as a result.

There wasn't anything of the like that Adrien had ever wanted to know about Mari. She wasn't exactly mysterious. And if he did take the Chat Noir thing into consideration, then she'd have to have some kind of secret that was equivalent. Which would be impossible. Only Ladybug could be on equal terms with that. And besides, there was nothing that big about Mari that he'd ever wanted to know. That he'd even fathomed existed.

So, unless she was also a superhero in disguise, none of this added up.

Wait…

Sitting up suddenly, Adrien peered critically through the darkness, his phone pushed off to the side. He wasn't exactly staring at anything. Rather, he was just trying to somehow order his thoughts.

Mari knew he was Chat Noir—he was just going to assume that for the moment. And she was comfortable enough with the fact that she didn't get weirded out by his strange behavior like Nino did. In fact, she teased him about it, like it was totally normal.

She'd called him "Kitty Cat."

Ladybug called him that…

"H-hey, Plagg?" Adrien asked quietly, his voice somewhat squeaky as his nerves slowly started to buzz up his whole body.

"Whaaaaaaat? I'm tryin' to sleep…"

"Do you think… Do you think Mari could be- that she could be Ladybug?"

His question didn't procure an immediate response, causing Adrien to turn slowly backward. The little kwami was still nestled on his pillow, but his head was raised, vibrant green eyes blinking. And yet, even as they stared at one another, Plagg said nothing.

"Plagg…"

"I can't comment on the subject," the kwami finally decided, looking away. "Tikki and I swore not to interfere with these sorts of things. She's as likely as anyone to be Ladybug, I suppose."

Adrien scowled. "You're no help." Whipping forward again, he glared across the room, out the windows and into the shadowed sky.

Part of him was denying that such a thing was possible—because Mari and Ladybug were nothing alike. But justifying such thoughts was much harder, once he really got down to it. Mostly because, as it would turn out, Mari and Ladybug had plenty in common. Yet, for whatever reason, he'd been convinced otherwise.

They were both confident, aggressive go-getters. They were both kind and compassionate. And they both joked around with him and put up with his ridiculous antics. The only difference, actually, was how shy and uncertain Adrien had initially thought Mari was. But if what Nino said was true, that explained away such behavior.

The both of them even had similar builds, dark hair, pigtails. Blue eyes.

They even had… the same freckles…

Gaping, breathless, with his heart surging into a fast, nervous beat, Adrien reached up and wove his hands through his hair, gripping tight.

"Holy shit," he hissed out, eyes wide. "Holy shit! Mari is Ladybug. Mari is Ladybug!" How had he not realized before?! How had he been so stupid?! It was completely and totally obvious! They were literally the exact same and he hadn't even considered it until that night. Granted, he'd made light comparisons, but never actually fathomed it in any concrete fashion. Because Mari… Mari was sweet and nice and wonderful and strong and confident and amazing. And Ladybug was all those things too, but on this extremely high level that he'd never imagined he'd be able to reach. She was out of his league—so far ahead that he'd never catch her. She was a friend, certainly, but also this unattainable figure that was always dancing around in his peripherals.

Mari, though. Mari was close. She was on the ground, with him. She was funny and cute and playful and holy shit, the two most incredible women in his life were the exact same person! How was that even possible?! How had he been hanging out with Ladybug so casually this whole time?! They'd played video games together, and gone out to eat, and snuck around his house, and wrestled.

Oh god, he'd wrestled with Ladybug. No wonder he'd lost!

Okay, maybe wrestling as a bit of a light word—they'd, what, sparred? No wonder she hadn't gone easy on him. She'd known who he was!

How long had she known?

Abruptly, the very day, the very moment, came flashing back to him. He wasn't sure why he knew, or remembered such a seemingly insignificant point, but he did. The sushi restaurant. She'd been ill, and after that-

That was when everything had changed.

"But that's not that long ago…" he muttered, standing as he did. Two fingers tapping his chin thoughtfully, he paced in front of his bed, trying to organize his timetables as best he could.

Nino had said that Mari had liked him long before they'd been as friendly as they were, which meant that she'd had feelings for him prior, as Adrien, not as Chat Noir. Which would explain Ladybug's constant rejections of his advances—that was, if he'd been the reason for his own misery.

But Nino had also said that she still liked him, which meant that she did despite knowing he was Chat Noir. In fact, their relationship had only flourished as of late, which now made perfect sense. No wonder she'd connected with him so well, and claimed such comfort and trust around him. They were already… best friends.

She'd told him once, as Ladybug, that he was her best friend, just like she was his. And if Mari was Ladybug, then it explained his own effortlessness with her, why she was so easy to get along with. She was his Lady, the love if his life, his best friend in a world that only they could understand.

And, according to Nino and Alya, she liked him? He found it hard to believe, or perhaps just hard to accept. And yet, the kiss rushed back to him.

But it just seemed all too good to be true. Mari, the girl he'd found more security in as of late, was the same as the only other girl who could claim the same right? It seemed both contradictory and perfect, both unbelievable and obvious.

To be quite frank, he didn't quite know how he felt about the whole thing.

Gulping, Adrien sat back down on the edge of his bed and placed his forehead in his hand, elbow jabbing into his knee.

He wanted to believe it, he thought. Because if Mari was Ladybug, then it was okay to have feelings for her. It was a weight he hadn't even realized he was carrying around in the first place. And it also meant that Ladybug liked him—Chat Noir and all. That was the linchpin, actually, wasn't it? That was why she'd managed to get close to him, to open up and allow him to do the same in return. Because she'd known how to get to him.

Was he irritated, that she hadn't given him the same luxury?

"You better catch up, Kitty Cat."

He was catching up, but she was already a hundred feet ahead of him, as usual. She was right, he had wanted to know her identity since the very day they'd met. But he'd respected her privacy. Had she really violated his by not telling him? Were her concerns justified?

He didn't know. Some sort of logic was telling him he should be irritated, but the feeling wouldn't stick. Mostly, he was relieved.

Mari was Ladybug. Mari, who liked him. Who was his friend as well, and who was just so… perfect.

Which made sense, he realized. Because Ladybug was perfect. To him, anyway, even if such a definition varied from person to person.

Reaching back across his bed, he retrieved his phone. Going to his images, he thumbed through them. Until he reached a photo of Alya and Mari he'd saved from facebook. A selfie.

Why had he saved it in the first place? Well, he knew. Because, he'd thought to himself, Mari looked so pretty, smiling the way she did. The way Ladybug did.

He'd been so blind…

His phone vibrated in his hand, causing him to jump. The notification said he had a new text. He half expected it to be Nino again, but when he investigated, he nearly choked when it wasn't.

Mari: Hey, are you awake?

His nerves spiked again, his mouth going dry as his thumbs hovered over the keyboard. Was he scared? Why would he be? Maybe because Mari could yank the whole fantasy right out from under him. She could reject him, take back the kiss, their friendship. His newfound hopes that she was, in fact, who he thought she was.

No, she didn't know he knew. This was just Mari. She just wanted to know if he was awake.

He could do this. One step at a time.

Adrien: I'm awake. What's up?

All he could do was breathe as he waited, watching and nearly jumping when ellipsis danced across his screen.

Mari: I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay.

So vague. But he could put the pieces together now. Finally, it all made sense. And yet, didn't seem to at all. Or maybe such thoughts were simply his insecurities getting the better of him.

Adrien: I'm fine.

He paused before he dared type again.

Adrien: Why?

Each second that passed between messages was a harsh pounding in his head.

Mari: No reason. We just haven't talked since Friday.

Since the debacle with his father. That seemed so far away now. Everything seemed far away, thanks to the traumatic day and his own still floundering realization.

Adrien: Don't worry about it. I'm still sorry about that whole thing. My father's always difficult. You shouldn't have had to deal with it.

Mari: I don't mind :)

Adrien didn't know what to say to that. Would that be where the conversation would have normally ended? Or would he have come up with some witty retort? He didn't know. It was almost like he was removed from himself somehow, swimming through her words and trying to make sense of them in a way he hadn't struggled with before. Once, her concern would have been just that. But now, it was different. Now, he was trying to understand her words, not just read them.

Mari: Adrien…

Addressing him by name? In a text? This couldn't be good. It was direct, certainly, but also procured a degree of concern. Would that have been the result either way, or was he now too paranoid to tell the difference?

Did it matter?

Adrien: Yes?

He was going to give himself a heart attack with how tense and jittery he was.

The telltale ellipsis appeared, then disappeared, then reappeared again. As if to express her own thoughtfulness.

Mari: Nothing, never mind. I'll see you at school tomorrow :)

Nothing, she said. Yet, he had the feeling this wasn't a conversation about "nothing." The only question, really, was whether he was brave enough to address it—to push her for answers. His hesitance, however, gave him that answer. He wasn't.

It was easier, though, to tell himself that it wasn't an issue of courage, but of certainty. That Mari being Ladybug seemed obvious to him now, yet that didn't mean he knew for sure. Maybe it was a coincidence, how similar the two were. Even down to the freckle, maybe. No matter, he couldn't outright ask her.

Well, maybe he could. If she knew he was Chat, then what did it matter? Then again, he wasn't absolutely sure if she was truly privy that knowledge either. With how he'd been acting around her, though, any probing would definitely give him away.

He felt like he was sitting in the middle of a seesaw and one move in either direction would send him toppling down. He had to be careful, if not for the sake of his identity, then for the sake of his feelings. Maybe it was a fault to be cautious when it came to potential broken hearts, maybe it wasn't, but he'd lived through it. Ladybug was important to him, as was Mari. He had no desire to jeopardize anything with either of them.

He's lost his mother; he barely had a father. He wouldn't lose anyone else, not if he could help it. Which meant that restraint was necessary.

Dealing with this carefully was the best option.

Solidifying this despite his nerves, he took a deep breath and finally sent a reply back.

Adrien: Sure thing :) See you tomorrow.

The conversation was ended quite sufficiently. Such cleanness didn't help him sleep through the night, however. He tossed and turned the whole time, thinking either of what Nino had told him, the kiss, or his own uncertain revelation. Tie in how sore he was anyway and he woke miserable and stressed.

He tried to calm his anxieties, but no amount of deep breathing, stretching, or hot shower eased him. Rather, he ended up climbing into the car to go to school with a stomach so tight he hadn't even been able to eat breakfast.

Entering the school hadn't been so nerve-wracking since his first day all that time ago.

"Hey, man!" Nino greeted, the two of them meeting in the locker room like usual. Adrien was putting his coat and gloves away, and only managed to throw Nino a small smile.

Nino had reached up, like he might slap Adrien on the back in a friendly manner, but hesitated and ultimately thought better of it. "Man, you don't look so hot. Are- are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Adrien assured. "Just tired. I didn't sleep very well last night." He closed his locker, bag slung over his shoulder like usual as the two headed for class.

"Well, don't push yourself if you're feeling out of it," Nino replied, looking honestly concerned. "Everyone's allowed off days sometimes."

"Thanks," Adrien said, managing another smile as they made their way up the stairs. They were in class shortly after, Adrien unable to stop the way his eyes trailed to the seat behind his own. Mari and Alya weren't there yet, however, and so he was left feeling no better or worse as he slid into the bench he and Nino shared.

Not much in the mood for conversation, he stared down at his desk, aware of the concerned looks Nino kept tossing at him. He must really look out of it, because even Chloe forewent her typical invasiveness when she entered, which was a blessing of sorts actually.

Only when he heard Mari's familiar laugh did his head shoot up.

Alya came in first, then Mari right behind her.

She appeared tired as well, but that wasn't the worst of it.

No, what was most striking—to more than just him—was the sling wrapped around her shoulder, holding her arm aloft.

Adrien couldn't bring himself to question her condition. Rather, wide-eyed and aware of his own aches, he sat stiff and pale in his chair. He was hoping Nino would ask, because he wanted answers, but his friend remained silent as well, watching Mari just about as carefully as he did, as she walked by them.

It was Kim who shouted down the question. "What happened, Marinette?"

She was just at the corner of his desk when she paused to answer. "Nothing, it's okay. Just a precaution."

"What'd you do?" Adrien blurted despite himself, immediately regretting the words despite not knowing why.

Her head snapped around to him, her lips slightly parted. Such big, blue eyes, and those freckles…

He gulped, heart racing.

"I… fell," she said. Adrien had no idea how to reply, so he didn't. Straight-faced and stiff, he turned away from her. He stared at the front of the room and tried not to look as shell-shocked as he felt.

"But it's not serious," she continued, her voice turned away from him. Like she was addressing the rest of the class. "I'm only wearing this sling because my parents insisted I did. I'll probably be fine by tomorrow." She'd moved on, going to her seat, and Adrien had never been more grateful when class started. Not so much because it provided a distraction, but because it kept everyone's attention elsewhere. So hopefully no one more than Nino would notice his internal panic.

He spent the majority of the class reasoning with himself. It didn't matter how Mari had hurt her arm. It didn't even matter if she was Ladybug. Mari was still Mari and he needed to stop freaking out, just, in general. What he should be putting his attention on was figuring out whether she was Ladybug for certain, not jumping at every word she said.

In fact, it was this focus that allowed him to breathe easier. If she was Ladybug, then he wanted to know for sure. Which meant he had to investigate. Therefore, he had to be levelheaded around Mari. It was that simple. He had a goal and it required certain behaviors to be reached. This, he could do.

If there was anything he was good at, it was performing.

He hammered this notion into head for the remainder of class, feeling much steadier in his position by the time lunch rolled around. Really, what preoccupied him the most at that point was how he was going to figure out whether she was Ladybug or not. The most obvious thing to do would be to make her say something that only Ladybug and he would know. But that was easier said than done.

Looking back, he tried to pinpoint the moments when Mari had reminded him most of Ladybug. Generally, he found, it was when they were alone and when he was comfortable enough to…

Well, to be Chat. It was a strange way to look at things, but it made sense, in a way. He knew he restrained himself when he wasn't Chat, and generally let himself go when he was. That wasn't to say he was a different person, but that certain situations called for certain manners.

So, logically, if he was going to get what he wanted out of Mari, he had to "Chat himself up," so to speak. Which was a lot harder to do purposefully than just… be himself. He was Chat, of course, but it was kind of like forcing himself to be excited and jump around when everything around him was sad and depressing. It was just… awkward to consider.

And probably worse to actually execute. But he had to try—if only for his own sanity.

Mari and Alya had entered the locker room ahead of them, so Adrien quickly skirted to his locker, shoved on his coat, and then headed up the column of lockers to get a look at Mari in the next corridor over.

Nino was watching, but Adrien ignored him.

Rather, gulping against his nerves, he took a huffing breath and marched over to her. Head held high, he hesitated for only one moment before coming up beside her. All he'd wanted to do was lean his hand against the locker beside her own, all smooth like, but he miscalculated how far he was and ended up slamming his hand into the metal by accident.

She jumped and whipped around, gaping at him in surprise.

Adrien pursed his lips and moved on. "Hey," he said, hoping the word didn't sound nearly so foreign to her as it did him.

"Hi…" she said, looking moderately amused as she placed her available hand on her chest. "You scared me." Smiling a bit, she returned her attention to her locker, pulling out her coat and leaving her backpack.

"How're you feline?"

"What?"

"Your arm."

"Oh." Mari glanced down at the sling with a frown. "It's alright. Just sore from… It's really not that bad. My parents were just worried when I had trouble picking up a cup this morning." She huffed, closing her locker as she did. "It's really fine."

"You sure? You shouldn't push yourself."

"Yeah, I'm sure." Her frown turned to a glare as she focused again on the sling. "This thing is more tedious than my arm. I don't actually need it. Seems silly to wear it and I look stupid, since there's nothing even wrong with my arm anyway." She jostled the sling, as if that proved a point, before sighing and beginning to pull on her coat.

Getting it on was proving to be a struggle, however, and so Adrien reached out to help her. He held it up as she slipped her good arm inside the sleeve, pulling up the other side and letting it hang over her "bad" arm.

He then laid his hands on her shoulders, leaning down.

"I don't think you look stupid," he murmured into her ear, taking a quick look at her earrings as he did. The jewelry was usually pretty well hidden by strips of hair, but he took a meaningful look this time. They were round, dark red, but not blatantly suspicious. Then again, his ring turned a different color when it was inactive. Ladybug's earrings could be the same.

He refocused on Mari. "I think you look puuurrrfect."

She went rigid, stiff, in his hold, before turning her head slowly over her shoulder to look at him. When their noses nearly brushed as a result, it seemed to send a jolt through her. Pulling away quickly, she took a step back, his hands falling to his sides as she faced him.

There was a questioning, defensive look to her, as she looked him up and down. And when their eyes met, Adrien—because he wondered how far he could push it—smirked. But not a regular smirk. He made sure to put all the suggestive flirtation he could manage into it.

What he got was not what he'd expected. Ladybug didn't put up with his flirting. And, well, he'd never really flirted outright with Mari before. Not as Adrien, in any case. And what he'd said to her as Chat during previous encounters he'd consider more akin to charm than flirting.

He half expected Mari to cross her arms and haughtily tell him off. That was what Ladybug would do. Instead, he was witness to one of the deepest blushes he'd ever seen. It washed up through her unforgivingly, splashing across her entire face—from her neck to the very tips of her ears.

"Wh-what did you just say?" she squeaked out.

Adrien blinked dumbly.

"Hey! You two ready?" Alya interrupted, drawing Marinette's flicking attention.

"Yes!" she said, voice much too loud. "Let's go!" She grabbed Alya by the arm, casting Adrien one final, wide-eyed look before she practically dragged Alya out of the locker room. Adrien stared after, gaping a bit as he did.

"Dude, really?" Nino asked from beside him. "I didn't tell you she liked you so you could torment her."

"What?" Adrien turned on him. "I wasn't- that's not-" That wasn't what he'd meant to do. He'd expected a totally different reaction, not that.

But, then again, maybe he was looking at this the wrong way. He wasn't Chat Noir at the moment. He was Adrien Agreste. This wasn't Chat flirting with Ladybug, this was Adrien flirting with Mari. Mari who, Ladybug or not, supposedly had a crush on him (which still wouldn't make sense unless she was Ladybug! Augh! This whole thing was so confusing!). And he'd just used her feelings as a means to an end, hadn't he? Whether it'd been intentional or not.

Maybe he was going about this the wrong way.

"God dammit…" he muttered, head dropping as he sighed.

Beside him, Nino shook his own head before patting Adrien on the back in an effort to get them moving. They were supposed to be going to the Italian buffet place with the girls. Shuffling through the halls and out into the snowy day, Adrien saw that Alya and Mari had waited. But Mari was turning Alya to walk quickly down the sidewalk before the boys even reached them.

Like she was avoiding him.

How had he already screwed this whole thing up so badly?

And if Mari really was Ladybug, and she knew he was Chat Noir, why would his flirting unnerve her as much as it had? Then again, she didn't know that he knew she was Ladybug (if she was). Maybe that was the whole difference. Ladybug had been pushing off Chat's advances forever—it was practically habitual. But Mari had never had to deal with Adrien flirting with her. That implied that he was interested in her—in Mari, not Ladybug. Because, again, she didn't know he knew.

This was so bizarre. Maybe he should go about this more directly.

Maybe.

But maybe not. That sounded awefully…

Terrifying.

The girls stayed ahead the whole walk. And when they were picking seats in the restaurant, Mari took up a seat beside Alya instead of beside him, like usual. It was then that he noticed the funny looks Alya was giving him too. Mari must have told her what he'd said.

Great. Perfect. This day couldn't get any better.

Saying not a single word, Adrien turned toward the window. Slumping in his seat, he tried to ignore the awkwardness he'd done a good job of initiating in the first place. When a waiter came by to take their drink orders, he only got water. And when they all stood to get food, he claimed not to be hungry when Nino inquired into his lack of motion.

And, really, it wasn't a lie. His knot of nerves was back. He didn't think he'd ever be able to eat again, at this rate, without the threat of throwing it all back up again.

He sank a bit more in his seat.

It took him a few minutes after Alya and Nino had returned for him to note that it was taking Mari an awfully long time to come back. Sitting up, he peered at the two of them, his abrupt attention causing pause in their conversation before he glanced out at the buffet.

It took him a moment, but he spotted her eventually. Standing with a plate of food, she was giggling. Talking to someone.

Nathanael.

Adrien's eyes narrowed into a glare, his fingernails scratching at the table.

Nathanael. Everyone knew he had a crush on Mari—even Mari knew it. And there he was, scratching his head and smiling as Mari laughed at something he'd said.

No, this was not happening.

Adrien had never been so assaulted by jealousy in his entire life. It was on him so quick that he didn't even register the growl that was coming from between his snarling lips until it was already happening.

Alya and Nino gave him startled looks, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Because, really, what was Mari doing? She knew Nathanael liked her, but she also knew that he liked her. Well, that Chat liked Ladybug and, thus, that he liked her. Yet there she stood, as if he wasn't sitting right there watching the whole thing!

Maybe Nathanael had caught her off guard, cornered her into conversation. That sounded more reasonable. She was trying to eat, for goodness sake.

This wouldn't do.

Pushing back on his chair, Adrien was standing and stalking across the restaurant without a single word to explain himself. Rather, abruptly aware of how tall he was in comparison to Nathanael, was well as how much stronger (skinny he may be, weak he was not), he marched right up beside Mari, knowing full well that he'd surprised them both.

Their conversation faltered to a halt, Nathanael gaping up at him while Mari turned and furrow her eyebrows. At first, he thought she might blush and look away, still recovering from earlier, but as she looked him up and down, her expression changed. That was, it hardened, making no room for things like embarrassment.

"Yes?" she asked somewhat stiffly. His defensive posture only got worse.

He'd had his eyes firmly planted on Nathanael, but they flicked to Mari at her question. "Your food's getting cold," he muttered darkly, turning his glare back on Nathanael.

The redhead visually shied away a step, which pleased Adrien considerably.

Mari was gaping, he knew—he didn't have to look directly at her to know—and the silence seemed to knock some sense into Nathanael.

"He's right, Marinette," Nathanael said somewhat hastily. "I should go back and eat too. See you in class." With that, he was spinning around and speed-walking away, Adrien glaring after him the whole way.

It was the sound of Mari's plate that startled his attention back down to her.

She'd slammed her food down on the edge of the buffet table beside them, her expression hard as she crossed her arms over her chest.

She looked angry, but Adrien was just glad Nathanael was gone. In fact, he had to push down the pleased vibration that threatened to purr out of him when he had Mari to himself again.

"That was inappropriate," Mari hissed out as second later, which snapped Adrien from his satisfied disposition. "What's wrong with you?"

"Nothing's wrong with me," he muttered defensively. "Were you going to stand up here talking to him during the entire break?"

"If I wanted to! Why do you care? It's none of your business who I talk to and who I don't." They were keeping their voices low, but the hostile waves echoing between them kept others from coming near.

"You know he likes you." Adrien leaned closer to her.

"So what if he does?" she said back fiercely. "I'm not spoken for, last time I checked."

Adrien growled again, the noise remaining deep in his throat but audible nonetheless.

At the sound, Mari's eyes widened just a bit, but it wasn't in shock. Rather, it was in outrage, her lips pursing into a thin line as she took another step closer to him. Until they were nearly nose to nose, with him looking down and she up.

"You listen to me," she whispered heatedly. "I get it, how hard it is. But there are certain behaviors that are acceptable and others that aren't. This is not okay. Control it, Adrien. Because I will not have you threatening every boy I decide to talk to, do I make myself clear?"

He didn't budge.

And her own lips pulled into a scowl. "I said, Chat, do I make myself clear?"

His father had always said he could be stubborn, like his mother. This was, perhaps, the worst time for that facet of his personality to show itself. Because he knew he was wrong, somewhere, floating in the back of his thoughts, but the jealousy was still there, simmering, and it was telling him to stand his ground. Even if doing so was a pointless protection of territory that wasn't his in the first place.

He'd seen Mari disgusted, but the expression had never been directed at him before. Disappointment lingered there too, a final statement as she stepped back. Gestures snapping, she grabbed her plate before stepping around him. He watched her, as she stomped back to the table. She didn't look back once.

In fact, she didn't say a single word to him for the rest of the day. By the time his "mood" wore off, it was too late.

He'd screwed up. Really, really badly. He knew that. And he was mortified. As soon as his own anger had waned, he'd seen the great degree of his misstep. Not only was he ashamed of himself because he'd literally tried to place control where he had no business doing so, but also because it reminded him strikingly of his father. Which made it all the more unacceptable. Mari, Ladybug, she could talk and be with whomever she pleased. It was none of his business, not unless she wanted it to be.

He knew being Chat Noir was mostly to blame, but that didn't excuse it. In fact, that only made the whole thing worse. Regulating his powers and their affects was his responsibility. Sometimes it was harmless when he didn't, but other times it wasn't. If he couldn't adapt, then he had no business being Chat Noir in the first place.

This was almost as bad as the time he'd let his jealousy result in someone else becoming an akuma. But the territorial feelings were rare, and so they'd hit him unexpectedly. Still, there was no excuse.

He wanted to apologize, but he didn't get the chance. Class kept them busy and, once school ended, Mari had whisked her way out of sight before he could catch her. He'd even tried texting her, to no avail. Granted, he'd only sent one message—because this didn't exactly seem like something they should text about anyway.

Mostly due to there being a lot more going on between them than his inappropriate behavior.

And so he eventually ended up at home, glum and regretful as snow clouds thickened outside his window.

The patrol later that evening looked bleak.

oOo

She didn't even turn to him when he pounced down beside her. She was standing near the edge of the roof, arms crossed and hip cocked as she stared out at the city. Chat, therefore, hesitated, shifting from one foot to another before he dared approach. Yet, even once he was right beside her, she said nothing.

Unsure what to do with himself, he stretched up onto the ledge, standing there a moment before hunching down into a crouch. He was at her eyelevel, therefore, even if she was refusing to so much as look in his direction.

He hated this. Granted, it was pretty much all the verification he needed as far as identities were concerned, but this wasn't exactly how he'd wanted the whole thing to go down.

Speaking was much more difficult than he would have preferred as well. What would he even say? "Sorry I was a territorial jerk even though all we did was kiss. And also sorry I did it before you knew I knew who you were, so it was worse." Yeah, that wasn't exactly the smooth ride he was hoping for.

Then again, maybe he didn't deserve such luxury.

He wished she'd just look at him.

Tentatively, he twitched his fingers, almost afraid as he reached out. Lightly, he let one of his claws poke at her arm. And when he got no response, he pushed a little harder. Not to scratch her, but just to try and get her attention.

When she turned her head away from him, his whole heart fell to his feet.

Spurred more by desperation, he reached out again. He laid his fingers gently against her suit, not pressing or holding. Asking, maybe. Begging.

At first, he thought she was going to continue ignoring him, but then her shoulders dropped and a deep breath expelled from her lips. Slowly, she turned toward him, Chat searching her gaze for anything. For everything.

What he found was downturned blue eyes, slightly pooched lips, and lightly flushed cheeks.

Not exactly what he'd been expecting, but not nearly as bad as he'd envisioned. In fact, the general lack of animosity gave him the courage to speak.

"I'm sorry," he blurted out, ears drooping. One of them twitched nervously. "I was out of line. I know that. It'll never happen again." Taking his hand back, he turned his eyes downward, trailing his claw slowly over the concrete ledge he was perched upon.

It took a moment, but she eventually answered. "I know," she muttered, fiddling with her own fingers. "I'm not mad. I was just… surprised mostly, about… a lot of things. And it was a lot to take in. I shouldn't have ignored you. I just… didn't know what to say. I still don't…"

"You're really not angry?" he asked, looking up at her again.

"No." She smiled, despite the light blush on her cheeks. "But I think poor Nathanael's going to be terrified of you from now on."

"Ugh, I know." Reaching up, Chat covered his face with his hands, embarrassed. "I should apologize to him. He definitely didn't deserve that."

"No, he didn't." She giggled a bit, the sound a comfort. And only reiterating more severely that Ladybug really was Mari. He'd know that giggle anywhere now, or, at least, he swore to himself he would. "I think it probably took all the courage he had to speak to me at all. And… I know what that's like."

She was staring out across the city again.

Chat didn't know what to say. It'd never crossed his mind, not until Nino had brought it up, that the reason Mari had been so uncomfortable around him was because she'd liked him. How much of her nerve had it taken to approach him the few times she had? And how could someone like him possibly make her nervous when she was so… incredible?

Why would she have even liked him in the first place?

Clearing his throat, Chat finally found a few words. "You don't seem to have much trouble these days."

"No." She chuckled, turning back to him. "You're not exactly intimidating, Kitty." She brought her finger up and poked him lightly on the nose.

He smirked. "I had you blushing pretty good this morning."

"I was caught off guard," she claimed, frowning. Her cheeks flushed a little deeper.

"I could tell."

Snorting, she glanced away again, re-crossing her arms over her chest as she did. But Chat was just so thankful she wasn't upset that he couldn't be fazed by her haughty attitude. Creeping closer, he touched her arm again, his thrill at the situation only increasing tenfold when she didn't step away.

It was unprofessional, but he didn't care. Because Ladybug was there, and she wasn't angry, and she was Mari, and it was all wonderful.

Leaning in, he pushed his cheek against her arm, cherishing the sheer closeness of the contact. She let him, and so he pressed closer. He wrapped his arms around her small figure and tugged her toward him. She tensed a bit, but didn't push away. And so he sat down fully on the ledge, his legs hanging in on either side of her.

Her own hands landed gently atop his shoulders, Chat taking every inch she was giving him. Until he was flush up against her, his hands grasping at her back as he nestled his head against her chest. Swallowing hard, he closed his eyes and just… felt her. The way her heart beat fast in his ear, how her warmth contrasted with the chill of the wind at his back. The steadiness of her breath and the sensation of her fingers running gently through his hair.

He never wanted to let her go.

"Chat?" Her voice was soft, but clear. Had hadn't realized just how soothing hearing his name echoing in that voice had become.

Where was this tide of… emotion… coming from?

"I'm so glad it's you," he choked out, holding her even tighter. He didn't know why his breathing was shaky, or why he was so suddenly upset. Relief, perhaps? That she wasn't someone like Chloe? Or thankful that of everyone, she was Mari. Because who was he to deserve that kind of blessing? "I'm just so glad you're you." A funny thing to say, maybe.

Or not so funny at all.

"Oh, Chat…" she murmured, her fingers still trailing through his hair. And though he hated it, how it assaulted him, the memory of his mother doing the same thing came crashing in. Ladybug wasn't his mother—he didn't want her to be—but there was something in that gesture. Something he hadn't realized he'd wanted. Something he needed.

Something he missed.

He held tighter, burrowing his nose against her.

"You're… you're not angry with me?" she whispered after a few moments, sounding uncertain.

"No." His voice was somewhat muffled against her. Childish, maybe, but, somehow, that felt okay. "I couldn't care less about any of that." She was there. She had been, as Ladybug and… and, as soon as she'd realized who he was, she had been as Mari too.

Really, he didn't ask for much. A few friends who came around once in a while, a bit of a social life outside the modeling world. He'd learned not to ask for too much because it either never came to fruition or was swept away once he had it. But she was there—she'd gone out of her way to be. When she'd found out, she could have turned away. She could have valued her identity first and their friendship later. But she hadn't. It didn't matter whether he'd known she was Ladybug or not—she'd been his friend. The kind of friend he'd never fathomed he'd ever get.

"I'm still sorry," she murmured. "I should have told you as soon as I found out. I just… got scared."

"It doesn't matter," he mumbled. "I-"

They were interrupted by the sound of a door slamming open behind them.

On the defensive, Ladybug whipped around, hand over her yoyo, and Chat was on his feet behind her, baton already in his hands and extended.

"Oh, sorry…" The man was startled. Based on his attire, it was safe to assume he was a security guard. What building were they on? "I didn't realize it was… Ladybug and Chat Noir. I th-thought it was some… teenagers or something." The man was probably more startled by his own entrance at that point than they were.

Their guards lowered, Chat returning his baton to his back while Ladybug straightened.

"No, it was our mistake," she assured. "We stayed a little too long." Though he couldn't see it, Chat was positive she was wearing a comforting smile.

"Stay as long as you like," the guard said, eyes wide.

"We were just heading out," she replied. "Thank you, however." Stepping up onto the ledge, she waved once over her shoulder before tossing out her yoyo and lifting off. Chat offered a salute before vaulting off as well, only moderately shaken after having such a poignant moment interrupted.

Blinking, he recovered well enough, trailing Ladybug over the rooftops of Paris. She headed out along their regular patrol route, Chat keeping up with ease. He wasn't bothered that she didn't stop or slow down, as if to pick up where they'd been previously. Rather, he didn't know what else he would have said to her, or how far off his surging emotions would have taken him. Not to say he was thankful they'd been impeded upon, but he wasn't irritated either.

Where else would he rather be? He was with Ladybug, like always, bounding through the night, free and with the most important person in his life. That sounded pretty good to him, quite honestly, and he'd be happy to do it forever. After all, what good were patrols, really, other than for the two to have an excuse to be together when there was no akuma to force it?

But, unfortunately, forever didn't exist. And eventually, after over an hour, they began to get close to the end. Chat knew the exact building she'd stop at, how she'd drop onto the roof and turn to wait for him.

No, he didn't want it to end. He didn't want to go home.

Especially not now that he knew where to find her.

Watching her swing up and away, he acted on impulse. Sliding to a stop, he bounded back against the momentum and took off to the east, scrambling to put as much distance between himself and Ladybug as he could—if only for a little while. He knew he had the advantage—he'd hidden away from her on many occasions during night patrols—and so he wasn't too worried about her catching up.

Nor was he surprised when, some minutes later while he was still dashing over rooftops, he got a text on his baton.

Pulling it up, he didn't stop running even as he read it.

Ladybug: Where are you? Are you okay?

He hadn't meant to worry her, but knew that any response would set her at ease. He'd acquired a plethora of black cat emojis, which he'd downloaded both to his personal phone as well as his "Chat" phone. And so he sent her a simple one—a tiny, cartoon black cat trudging along an invisible landscape with slitted, determined eyes. It was cute—like him, naturally.

He kept his baton in hand as he leapt between streets, landing gracefully before he kept going.

Ladybug: I'm serious. Where'd you go? I know you're up to something.

All concern had left her words, and so Chat felt no guilt in continuing to string her along. He sent her another emoji, this one of the same style, only the little cat was running across the white background, panting just a bit.

Ladybug: You're so obnoxious. I don't have time for games. We have a chemistry test tomorrow, so I can't be chasing you all over Paris.

As if to scold her for reminding him of such things, his next cat was flopped on its back with an escaping soul floating teasingly above its head. Not to say he would struggle with chemistry—he was actually quite good at it—but that was hardly the point.

Ladybug: I'm serious! I'm waiting for you. If you don't show up soon, I'm gonna go home.

The next emoji was the black cat rolling around on its back—just because.

Chat, in the meantime, had reached his destination. Skirting around a chimney, he settled himself to hide behind it, peering up above only once to make sure he had a clear view before he settled into a crouch.

Ladybug: Are you really doing this right now? It's late. I'm not going to wait here for you all night.

The cat was sitting, twirling its tail. Waiting.

Ladybug: You're so annoying! I'm going home.

He sent her the same sitting cat.

Ladybug: I'm really going to go home.

A yawning cat this time.

Ladybug: Omg, Chat, really? :(

A sleeping cat.

Ladybug: Fine. I'm going home.

He sent her nothing after that. Instead, he crept around until he could get a clear view past the chimney without being much noticed by anything across the street parallel. He stayed perfectly still, eyes wide as he watched. And waited.

It took some few minutes, but, eventually, that flash of red swung into his line of sight. With a graceful arc, she went up and came down, her whole body flashing pink as she landed on the balcony across the way. Abruptly, as she turned to glance out across the night sky, she was Mari instead of Ladybug.

The sight sent a thrill through Chat's entire system.

With an annoyed huff, she turned and stalked toward the door. Taking his chance, Chat pushed his powerful legs from the roof and into the air with a single bound. Without any fuss, he landed with a slight tap on the banister around her balcony.

She whipped around on him as soon as he landed.

"You alley cat, what are you doing?" she asked, fists landing on her hips in the same moment. Despite her reprimanding tone, Chat grinned, slipping down off the banister. Tail curling behind him, he twined his fingers together behind his back and approached her. She didn't move, standing her ground as usual, even when he stood directly in front of her with an overly satisfied smirk.

"I just thought I'd drop in," he muttered.

"Uh huh." Clearly, she was not as amused as he was. "You know, being here or out there doesn't change the fact that we still have a chemistry test." She flicked his bell. "I still need sleep and you still need to go home."

"I'm hurt, Princess," he purred, laying a hand on his chest. "Would you really leave this poor, mangy stray out in the rain?"

"First of all," she held up a finger, "it's not raining. Second, you're not a stray. And third, I'm glad we can both finally agree that you're mangy." Reaching up, she ruffled his hair, much to his frowning distaste.

"How cruel." He hung his head. "I am to be abandoned to the cold, unforgiving winter. Banished simply for showing up, desperate, on a doorstep and begging for little."

Mari rolled her eyes.

"What obstacles will I face, trespassing on the night all alone?" Dramatically, he clapped his hands together and fell to his knees. He looked up at her, blinking as innocently as he could. "Do not make me face them, Princess. I'll surely perish."

"You're ridiculous," she muttered, tapping him on the nose. "I can't let you in. It's late. And we'll never get any sleep."

Chat smirked again, tossing her a single wink. "No, I'm betting we wouldn't."

Her eyebrows shot up into her bangs and she pursed her lips. "Be careful, Kitty. Don't push your luck."

"I'm pretty sure you have enough luck for the both of us."

"Not enough to get you lucky." Leaving it at that, she turned on her heel and headed back toward her door.

Chat shuffled on his knees after her. "I'll be good, I promise."

"Right, sure."

"Cat's honor."

"Is that supposed to mean something?"

"Don't you trust me?"

She did turn back to him then, standing just beside the door in the floor that lead down into her bedroom. "Of course I trust you," she replied. "It has absolutely nothing to do with that and everything to do with you being distracting." She sounded quite serious now. "We'll never go to bed, you know that."

"I hardly sleep anyway."

"Well, I'm tired all the time," she countered. "A ladybug needs her winter hibernation. Besides, like I've said multiple times already, we have school tomorrow. Go home, Kitty." She pinched his ear affectionately. "And I'll see you in the morning."

She crouched down, lifting the door to her bedroom before turning and beginning to climb down the ladder.

"I don't want to wait until the morning," he muttered, knowing he sounded childish. "Just a few minutes. Hot chocolate, coffee, something."

"No!" She giggled. "A few minutes will turn into more minutes, and that'll turn into hours. We need to be responsible about this." About them spending time together. Because the freedom they enjoyed was beyond what most people could claim for themselves. And their friendship made it easy for time to pass them by.

"I'm always responsible," Chat claimed stubbornly, Mari reaching up behind her head to begin pulling the door down. "I'm too responsible. Have you seen my schedule? I speak fluent Chinese. I'm a fencing champion. All I do is practice. Did you know I play the piano?"

"Are you complaining or trying to impress me?"

"Which do you prefer?"

"Neither."

"Did I mention I'm also a superhero?"

"I gathered that all on my own, thanks."

The door was closing, Chat leaning down on all fours to keep her in his sights as the crack grew slimmer and slimmer.

"I'm also a supermodel. And I'm rich—well, my father is rich."

"Goodnight, Chat."

"No? Nothing? Did I also mention I'm lonely, hungry, and desperate for affection?" The door was nearly closed, his cheek pressing into the wood floor of the balcony as he bent sideways to look at her. "And that Chloe wants me to go shopping with her tomorrow and I couldn't keep saying no?"

This finally did cause her pause. "That does sound horrific." Only her eyes and nose were visible, but he could tell she was frowning. "But," she went on, Chat waiting in baited breath, "I'm sure you'll survive."

"Ugh, not even a shred of sympathy." He groaned, closing his eyes as his whole body slumped into a heap outside her door. Which, of course, would be when she'd decide to strike.

He didn't even know it was happening until he felt the warmth on his cheek. Eyes flying open, he tried desperately to turn to her, but the moment was passing even as he grasped at it. The mark of her kiss burned into his skin and he tried desperately to chase her lips as she sank away. The door closed over her head, Chat only millimeters from getting his nose skinned off in his attempts to catch her.

Her heard the click of the lock a second later.

"Augh! No!" He moaned, collapsing atop the door. "My Lady, I wasn't prepared!"

He could hear her giggling below him, but the door remained shut tight.

"I wasn't ready!" he continued to lament. "You caught me off guard."

No response. But perhaps it was simply just desserts after what he'd done to her earlier that day.

Groaning again, he flopped over onto his back and covered his face with his hands.

What suffering.

Chapter Text

Tuesday

"Good morning, My Lady." No, she wasn't surprised. She'd assumed the first thing he'd do would be to come over and see her. Not even two seconds into her locker and he'd leaned back against the one beside her lazily, arms crossed over his chest as a slight smirk pulled at his lips.

Adrien's lips.

Marinette had promised herself she wouldn't be nervous. That would only add to his smugness, probably. Still, she couldn't stop the slight blush that seeped across her cheeks as she glanced up at him, though she did a good job of keeping herself calm. Because, honestly, this was still a bit too much. It'd been easier when he hadn't known—he'd kept his distance, at least as far as the flirting. But she'd known as soon as she'd realized he'd figured her out that such would come to an end. Only now it wasn't Chat that would be making suggestive eyebrows in her direction, but Adrien. And that…

That made her heart want to stop in her chest.

"Good morning, Adrien," she said stiffly, robotically putting her winter things away in her locker.

"How are you on this lovely winter morning?" His entire tone was teasing, which only managed to annoy her (like usual). Really, this attitude wasn't going to fly. She wasn't going to be a mess of nerves while he got to be, well, Chat. That wasn't the least bit fair.

If he was going to be Chat, she was going to be Ladybug. It was that simple.

She turned to him, one corner of her lips pulling into a smirk of her own. "I'm quite well rested," she remarked.

He cocked a single eyebrow. "I bet." Hand coming up to sit above the corner of her locker, he turned toward her. He really was a considerable amount taller than she was, and much, much too close for her sanity. "Did you dream about me?"

She almost scoffed. "I dreamt about plenty of things," she replied, closing her locker as she did. "But you," she poked him on the chest, "weren't one of them." With a graceful graze, she brought her finger up and ran it quickly along the underside of his chin, before she turned on her heel and headed off. Normally she'd wait for Alya, but she wasn't sure she could continue to deal with Adrien if she stayed in one place for too long.

But, of course, he followed her. How could she be filled with so much excitement and so much dread all at the same time?

It took a few moments, but he eventually came up beside her again, his arm slipping casually around her shoulders. She was certain she was having heart palpitations.

"I dreamt about you," he admitted quietly, Marinette hyperaware that every student they passed gave them a curious look. Because Adrien's hold, while seemingly casual, was made intimate by how close he'd put himself, and how he hung over her. She had half a mind to push him away, if only to spare herself the gawking.

"Some things are better kept to ourselves," she said shortly, her words her only defense against him. "I have no desire to hear about your dreams." Supposing that was a good time to pull away, she grabbed the hand hanging off her shoulder before spinning out from under him. She let him go a second later, like releasing a hot iron. His lips parted at her actions, then he frowned, but she didn't think much of it. Rather, she was much more relieved when she spotted Alya coming across the central courtyard with Nino.

"Bad morning, all," Nino remarked with slumped shoulders.

"I've found the morning to be quite satisfying," Alya stated, looking pointedly at Marinette. She smiled weakly, assuming Alya must have seen some of her exchange with Adrien. She'd been so surprised the day before that, of course, she'd told Alya what he'd said—the flirting that was. And now she was regretting it a bit. Because that look meant Alya wanted details. Most of which Marinette couldn't give her.

What was there even, really, to say anyway? She and Adrien weren't… "doing" anything, strictly speaking.

Adrien looked like he was going to say something, but before he could, they were interrupted.

"Adrikins!" They all flinched at the voice, Chloe bounding over a second later. She grabbed Adrien by the arm, tugging down and placing a messy kiss on his cheek despite his cringe.

Marinette almost wanted to grab the skinny blonde and throw her across the room. She wasn't sure if she was more upset by the fact that she was hanging off of Adrien in the first place or because her sloppy kiss had covered the area where Marinette had pecked him on the cheek the night before. Abruptly, she could sympathize with Adrien's feelings the day before about Nathanael, even if she wasn't going to act as he had.

"Hey, Chloe," he said somewhat awkwardly, bending away from her as soon as he got the chance.

"Are we still on for shopping tonight? Or do you really have a shoot instead?" she asked, still pressed up against him as she blatantly ignored everyone else. Her hold was intimate, far past friendly, which was pretty normal. But it still bothered Marinette. It'd always bothered her, granted, but this time it was more so than usual.

Yet, just as she'd told Adrien he had no claim on her the day before, so too was she in the same boat when it came to him. Yet, somehow, things still seemed different. They were on the same page now, weren't they? He'd been pursuing her, right? That was the correct interpretation? And yet he did nothing to shove Chloe off. He just let her hang off of him like a leech.

Honestly, Marinette had been trying to be more patient with Chloe. She still despised her, but Adrien's insight into Chloe's home life had given her a little bit of understanding. But that didn't justify any of Chloe's actions, nor did it justify Adrien not doing anything about them. At least, when it came to the sort of thing going on at the moment.

She understood him not wanting to hurt Chloe, but Marinette also felt she wasn't wrong to be injured by his lack of action.

It was almost too unbelievable to think about, that maybe she and Adrien were on the precipice of something more, but if that was, indeed, true, then Chloe couldn't act this way any longer. No, she couldn't be allowed to act this way.

But there was nothing Marinette could do. She and Adrien weren't together, and so Chloe could be as close as Adrien allowed. Yet, if Adrien really did want her—Marinette—then he should be discouraging Chloe. It didn't matter if Chloe took the hint or not. In fact, it was Adrien that Marinette was finding she was more irritated with.

She didn't feel it was hypocritical. Yes, she'd spoken with Nathanael the day before, but she hadn't let him touch her. And she and Adrien hadn't had any sort of communication about their situation while that had been happening. True, no lines had been drawn as of the current moment either, but something had changed between yesterday and then.

He should be pushing Chloe away. But he wasn't. He wasn't even attempting to. It didn't matter if it was a lost cause or not, or whether it would actually stop Chloe. What mattered was that she, Marinette, was standing right there, watching the whole thing, and he didn't even try.

The more she watched, the more hurt she got. Until her heart was beating so loudly in her ears that she couldn't even hear was Chloe was going on about. Rather, swallowing hard, she finally tore her gaze from them. But only at the expense of turning away as well. Without a word, she whisked herself in whatever direction her feet would take her. To whatever room was anywhere but there.

She didn't even know Alya was with her until they'd reached the bathroom. Heart still pounding in her ears, she bent over a sink and closed her eyes.

"Marinette?" Alya's voice only registered in the back of her thoughts.

She shouldn't be upset about this. It was just normal Chloe stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, why did she almost feel like she could sit down and cry?

Maybe because this was her own fault. She'd teased him and pushed him away the night before, when she could have solidified what they were doing. Then she could have ripped Chloe away from him and felt perfectly justified in doing so. Instead, she'd forgotten how lucky she was and let herself get wrapped up in her own nerves, just as she had that very morning when she'd pushed him away again. Sometimes it seemed like Ladybug and Chat were alone in their own world—that there was no one who could touch them or interfere. But that wasn't the case when they were Marinette and Adrien. There were other variables, other considerations.

But, even if she had messed up, that didn't excuse him either.

"Hey, it's okay," Alya was saying, circling her hand gently over Marinette's back and finally managing to drag her from her miserable thoughts. "It's just Chloe being Chloe."

"He didn't even try and push her away," she muttered. "I know it's Chloe and that she's horrible, but he could have tried, right?" She glanced over at Alya, looking for some kind of verification that she wasn't totally and utterly wrong.

"I…" Alya's eyebrows furrowed. "Why would he, Marinette? I mean, is… is there something going on between you two?" Her gaze intensified. "What happened?"

"Nothing… happened, specifically." Was she lying? She wasn't even sure herself. How had this gotten so confusing so quickly? "He just was…" What? Paying attention to her? Flirting? Literally trying to get into her house if only to spend time with her? "I think he's interested, but if he is, then he'd at least try and push Chloe away, wouldn't he?"

Was she making a big deal out of nothing?

"I…" Alya's expression turned to annoyance. "If he's made it clear he wants to be with you, then yes, he should have tried. Especially with you standing right there. And especially with how he acted about Nathanael yesterday." Because, really, if Marinette was being a hypocrite, then he was too. Everybody knew Chloe wanted to date Adrien, even if her sentiments were more focused on her image than being genuine.

"You think so?" Marinette still wasn't sure.

"Yes." Alya crossed her arms harshly over her chest. "What a jerk."

"I- It's not quite as simple as all that," Marinette tried to explain, even though she knew she really couldn't.

"It seems pretty simple to me," Alya countered. "He told you he was interested and then he just lets Chloe keep acting that way? No, that's bullshit."

"Alya…" Maybe she shouldn't have said anything. "It's really a lot more complicated than that."

"How complicated could it-"

They were interrupted by the sound of the bell.

Starting, they both dashed from the bathroom and up into class, successfully making a scene as they entered.

Marinette couldn't bring herself to look at Adrien—both because of her own hurt and an odd sense of guilt.

Maybe it was another missed opportunity, she didn't know. Halfway through class, he got up and left, probably to go to one of his usual photo shoots.

If he so much as cast a single look in her direction, she didn't glance up from her tablet to know.

 

Wednesday

Adrien had not expected to be assaulted the moment he stepped out of his car.

Okay, well, maybe "assaulted" was a strong word, but Alya was certainly holding on rather tightly as she grabbed him by the arm and forcefully dragged him around the side of the stairs. Until they were behind some bushes and safely out of sight and earshot of any other students.

"What the hell, Alya?" he asked as soon as he got the chance, yanking his arm from her hold with an affronted frown.

"What is wrong with you?" she hissed, her fists slamming to her hips in the same moment. Taken aback by her ferocity, Adrien actually shied away, unable to stop as his defenses immediately began to build. "How could you act that way around Marinette?"

"What?" He had no idea what she was talking about. "What way? I haven't even seen her since yesterday." An unfortunate fact. His shoot had taken nearly all day, what with his father's new line, and he hadn't even had the time to text her between takes. By the time he'd gotten home, it'd been so late that he'd decided against chatting. He hadn't wanted to wake her up.

"Did you tell her you liked her?" Alya pushed, her question causing Adrien's eyebrows to shoot up. He wasn't sure whether to be annoyed or surprised. He'd kind of just assumed that what was happening between him and Mari would stay between them. At least, until it was "official" (he was hoping it'd become official, anyway). Yet there Alya was, clearly in possession of more information than he would have liked.

"I might have," he said somewhat passive-aggressively. "Why?"

"I can't believe you!" she stated somewhat loudly. "Nino told me he told you that she'd liked you forever. And then you tell her you like her back, but let Chloe hang all over you?"

"What?" He honestly had no idea what she was talking about.

"Yesterday morning," Alya explained. "Chloe was all over you and Marinette was standing right there. Did you even try and push Chloe away?"

He was so confused. "That was just Chloe being Chloe," he defended, really beginning to get irritated. "That's how she always is. I don't think Mari would ca-"

"Kind of like how you didn't care when Nathanael was just being regular Nathanael on Monday?" He gaped, despite his embarrassment over the whole ordeal. But he and Mari had worked that out already.

"That's hardly the same thing," he countered. "Nathanael has a huge crush on her. And I was out of line anyway." He could admit his mistakes.

"Chloe has a thing for you."

"It'd different with Chloe."

"How?"

"Because she doesn't stop even when you tell her to!" This had not been the conversation he'd anticipated having when coming in that morning. All he'd wanted to do was skip over and see Mari and maybe try and steal a kiss if she'd let him. That had basically been his main goal since Monday night, actually. Not his only goal, of course, but a very important one. "That's just the way she is."

"I don't care if that's 'just the way she is.'" Alya made air quotes with her fingers, which did not warm him any more to the discussion. "Marinette was standing right there. The least you could have done was try and push her away!"

"Why does it even matter?! Mari probably didn't even care anyway!"

"Actually, she did!" A claim which caused him pause. "She cared a lot. You really upset her."

"Why would she have been upset?" He was a little less annoyed now, what with the concern that was crowding in.

"Gee Adrien, I don't know. Maybe because Chloe ran up and kissed you and you didn't say anything? Maybe because she was attached at your hip and you didn't push her away? The same reasons you got pissed at Nathanael?"

"It wouldn't have done anything."

"That doesn't matter! What matters is that you didn't even try. What if you and her start dating, huh? You think it'd be okay for Nathanael to be all over Marinette like that?" His whole expression darkened. "I didn't think so. It's not about Chloe, it's about you. I get it's easier to just ignore Chloe most of the time, but there is a line. The least you can do is acknowledge it. Or quit leading Marinette on."

"L-leading her on?" He practically choked on the words. If there was anyone being led about, it was him! How long had he been chasing Ladybug? He was still chasing her! Teasing was all well and good so long as it came to something, and so long as Mari didn't get hypocritical about it. What the hell? "I'm not 'leading her on,'" he hissed.

"Well, that's what it looks like," Alya rebuked. "She's liked you since you started here you know! She's practically in love with you!"

He gaped. He was shocked, really, but also angry. And hurt. He couldn't say it, that he'd practically been in love with her that whole time too, and had to suffer just as well. But just because he couldn't admit it, didn't mean it wasn't true.

"And she's never been anything but nice to you," Alya went on. "So if you like her, then be with her, but don't yank her around."

"I'm not yanking her around," he snapped. "She's- You don't get it. It's a lot more complicated than you realize."

"I don't care how 'complicated' it is. Marinette's my friend and I won't let you hurt her again!" With that, she whipped around, hair flying as she stomped up toward the school.

Mouth hanging open, Adrien stared after her, rooted to the spot. Thoughts buzzed back and forth through his head at a rapid, unforgiving pace. It was like he'd just walked through a whirlwind and now everything he'd thought was set and right side up was a mess. But, really, despite it all, the most prominent sensation flowing through him was a sense of betrayal.

He didn't like games, especially mind games, but Mari's teasing had seemed innocent enough—at first. So he'd let himself enjoy it, because he trusted her. Because, for all their own crisscrossed mix-ups, his faith in her—as both Ladybug and Mari—never wavered.

And yet here he was, standing outside the school feeling like he'd been slapped in the face!

Leading Mari on! As if! Maybe she had liked him for as long as he'd liked her, but she'd never said anything about it. He was the one that had put himself out there to be rejected by her time and again, secretly hoping that, someday, she'd change her mind. Finally, he'd thought that day had come—that things would finally work out. Though she'd still pushed him away, he'd assumed it'd been with a sense of teasing endearment.

But she was the one that had known who he was and decided not to say anything. She was the one that kept avoiding his advances even though they both knew how the other felt. Yet she had the audacity to think he was "leading her on?"

Ridiculous!

Teeth grinding, he finally marched himself into the school, more than happy to let his sour temper cushion him against the hurt feelings underneath. Why had Mari even told Alya what was going on in the first place? He got that they were best friends, but he'd thought this whole thing was between them—him and Mari—only. Not like he was running around, gossiping to Nino about it.

She was the one that had always wanted to keep their identities a secret, but apparently she didn't bother with anything else?

The whole thing was absurd.

He was scolded as he walked into the classroom, but he didn't say anything. Rather, unable to hide his own foul attitude even if he avoided looking at Mari, he slid into his seat and glared at the desk.

Alya and Mari were whispering behind him, but he drowned it out. It was easier, and more comforting, to listen to his own heart beat and focus on trying to stay angry.

Maybe so he wouldn't begin to feel anything else.

The day was slow. Alya tugged Marinette off for lunch with her while he and Nino stayed behind. He'd be lying if he said he didn't regret seeing those pigtails disappear outside the school doors, but, then again, lying was easier than trying to figure out the tornado that was spinning between them.

Nino tried to question him, but he didn't budge on the subject. Though, to Nino's credit, he didn't try that hard to find answers to begin with.

By the time the end of the day rolled around, Adrien was still simmering with irritation, if only out of willful belligerence.

"Adrien!" It was Mari. It was Ladybug. His body stopped of its own accord, giving him no choice but to wait as she caught up to him. Maybe he wanted to wait. Or maybe he just wanted this to stop being so confusing.

Perhaps it was all one and the same.

She came up beside him, fingers fiddling together as she stared at the ground. "Can we talk?"

He followed her to the secluded area under the stairs. Saying nothing, he crossed his arms and looked to the side. He'd seen the snobbish look enough times in the fashion world, so it wasn't too difficult to mimic. Even if it did feel like a foreign mask stretching over his features.

Mari gulped. "Alya told me she talked to you. I don't know exactly what she said, but I'm sorry. She shouldn't have said anything."

"Why not?" he muttered, trying to remain annoyed. He had to stand up for himself sometimes, right? Wasn't that how this whole thing had started? "You obviously tell her everything."

"That's just childish," she scolded, her nerves suddenly gone as she dropped her hands to her sides. "You know that's not true. If I told her everything, then she wouldn't have said anything in the first place."

"Well, you clearly told her enough."

"I didn't tell her any more than what we've been confiding in each other since we met. She's my friend. And she's always been there when I needed her. She shouldn't have said what she did, but that doesn't mean her intentions were bad."

"Oh, well, forgive me for being upset then. Next time I'm yelled at by one of your friends, I'll just assume their intentions are good and take it. Because that makes it okay."

"That's not fair."

"You don't see my friends yelling at you about how frustrated I am. Oh, wait, that's because I don't tell them our personal business." He gestured between them.

"I was upset! She was comforting me! I couldn't not tell her!"

"I do a pretty good job of not telling anyone when I'm upset!"

"Well, some of us don't like to suffer alone!"

It was a low blow. She knew it just as well as he felt it.

Adrien took a deep breath, if only to compose himself, while Mari stared guiltily down at the floor.

"You could have talked to me," he said after a moment, voice low. "If you had an issue with something, then telling me instead of ignoring me would have been better."

"I wasn't ignoring you."

"Mari, you didn't even try and talk to me about it. No texts, nothing. I didn't even know you were upset until Alya cornered me this morning."

"You were busy."

"Not that busy! Maybe I wouldn't have gotten in touch with you 'til later, but I would have come right over if that was what you'd wanted." He'd do anything for her, didn't she know that? "I'm sorry if Chloe's behavior bothered you, but avoiding me isn't going to solve anything."

"It wasn't Chloe," she said quietly, glancing back up at him. "Look, I know you don't want to… 'put her in her place,' but you didn't even try and push her away."

"That's just the way she is. Saying something isn't going to make a difference."

"That's not the point! If we start… this, then are you really going to just let her act that way? You know 'us' will only make her angry and she'll be even worse than she already is."

"I don't see the point of wasting any attention on it. We both know how she is, so why-"

"Because it's disrespectful!" Mari interrupted, which didn't do much in easing Adrien's mood. "You'd honestly just let her walk all over you even if we were together? What about me?"

"There is no 'you' in the equation right now!"

She pursed her lips. "So that's makes it okay? It doesn't matter that you've been flirting with me and-"

"No, it clearly doesn't matter!" he hissed, taking a step closer to her. "How do you think this whole thing makes me feel, Mari? You think it's hard on you, just because you've had feelings for me this whole time?" She gaped. Because he wasn't supposed to know that. "I've been putting myself out there from the very beginning and been rejected every single time." It didn't matter if his advances had been taken in humor or not. It didn't change the facts of the situation. "And now, when I finally think I have a chance, you're still rejecting me. And then I get accused of leading you on?"

"I did not say that," she objected stiffly. "I never said I thought you were leading me on. And I'm not leading you on either, or rejecting you."

"No," he said bitterly. "You just get uncomfortable and evasive every time I try to talk to you about us, or touch you, or suggest we-"

"You don't talk, you flirt!" she said accusingly. "And you don't touch, you hang all over me. Sorry it makes me nervous!"

"Well, I guess I'm at a loss! You know how I feel, so I try to pursue you. What else do you want? For me to stand in a corner and wait for you to get up the guts to hold my hand? What the hell else do you want me to do?!"

"I don't know!"

"That's helpful!"

"Everything was fine before Monday!"

Before he'd found out.

"Right, it was. Everything was perfect. I was still stupidly oblivious and you had the distance that makes you so comfortable. You know, I wasn't mad when I found out you'd lied to me." Lied by omission, anyway. "But now I'm starting to question why you did it in the first place. Why isn't this easy?"

"Why would it be easy?!"

"Because, supposedly, you've liked me this whole time too, and I've been head over heels for you for over a year! And yet, here we are!"

"And that's my fault?!"

"It's not mine! I'd have been with you months ago if you'd given me the chance! And days ago, if you'd stop pushing me away!"

"I'm not pushing you away!"

"Then what are you doing?! One kiss while we're falling to our deaths doesn't exactly count as reciprocation!"

"I'm trying! It's not that easy, okay?! I'm afraid!"

"You think I'm not?! You think the idea of entering into a relationship with my partner and best friend doesn't terrify me?! But I'm putting myself out there, Mari! Even when every experience I've had is telling me I shouldn't! What's your excuse?!"

"I don't have an excuse!"

"Then why are you so scared of me?!

Jaw tense, she stared up at him, both of them breathing hard. "I don't…" But then her breath became shaky, her lips trembling. "I don't know…"

"Kiss me," he begged. "Right now."

Her eyes grew wide at his demand, lips parting as she floundered. She didn't lean forward; she didn't gather her courage. She just stared at him, all the color draining from her face as her hands balled into fists at her side.

And Adrien found he was sinking with her.

"I'm yours, Mari!" he said, hands stretching open at his sides. "I was yours the day we met!" The day she'd come crashing into his life. "Forever, if you want me to be!"

But his words only seemed to upset her more, tears gathering at the edges of her eyes as he stepped forward and gripped her by the upper arms. He leaned down, so they were at eye level—desperate for her to understand.

"I love you, Mari," he said, his own voice breaking. "And I know you love me." The tears broke through, slipping down her cheeks even as she tried to lean away from him. He didn't let her. "Kiss me, Mari. Please."

He needed that from her. So badly that he couldn't even explain to himself why. The validation, perhaps. The physical confirmation that he never got from anyone anymore. Or maybe just her proof that what he was saying was true. That he hadn't trailed her every move for so long in vain.

"I-I… I…" She stuttered, breath catching as yet more tears rolled down her cheeks. "I can't…"

Adrien felt like he was under water. It was so heavy, and so suffocating. Like he was sitting at the bottom of a pool, cold and alone. Always alone.

Why did the feeling have to be so familiar? Why had he put himself in a position to be dropped into that vast well all over again?

Why were his efforts always so futile?

He squeezed her arms a little tighter, as if to take one last bit of her warmth before he released her. His own teeth clattered as he stepped back, as he forced himself from the situation. Because if there was anything he could do—if there was anything he was good at—it was letting go.

He gulped, but it did little good. His own tears still came, streaking unhindered down his cheeks as he forced himself to look away.

It was the only way he knew how to deal—the only thing he knew how to do. Despite how painful it was, he forced himself to walk away. Each step he took tightened the noose around his neck, until he wasn't sure if he was breathing or dying.

He didn't look back. That was the worst thing he could do, he knew.

There was only one choice—one option.

Move on.

 

Thursday

They hadn't even looked at one another.

The very thought of the fact twisted inside Ladybug's chest, weakening her legs until she was trembling. Gripping the edge of the building until her fingers ached wasn't even enough. She fell anyway, knees colliding with the roof as she leaned her forehead against the inside of the ledge.

He hadn't come.

She wasn't sure why she'd thought he would.

How could he, after what she'd done? Or hadn't done—to be more specific. It was because of her cowardice that he was miserable. But not just him. They were both suffering, and now…

Now she'd lost her partner.

This was what she'd been afraid of, wasn't it? Why she hadn't told Adrien; why she'd kept lying and hiding and keeping a distance. Because of this exact situation. It'd been safer, keeping their identities to themselves. That was how they'd maintained professionalism, even if Chat had always been a bit on the forward side. The barrier between their real lives and their superhero lives had kept them balanced. Kept them out of trouble.

But then she'd had to go and figure him out. Then he'd gone and done the same for her. And now everything was ruined.

This was why she'd been afraid to tell him. One way or another, she'd known it'd strain their relationship. Strain it until it snapped. Now she was alone, crouched down on a roof as snow flitted by atop a chilly winter wind.

She wished she could take it all back. What she'd give to be clueless, lovesick Marinette again, hopelessly wishing after Adrien, who'd always been nice, but been focused elsewhere. Unattainable.

Unthreatening.

Impossible.

She'd daydreamed about him—about their future and their kids and their pets—but, deep down, she'd never really thought it was possible. And so it'd been manageable to do things like give him birthday presents and bracelets and other nonsense. She'd wanted him, badly, but there'd always been that doubt. The part of her that'd always known his affections lay with someone else. That she hadn't stood a chance.

But then he'd turned out to be Chat and her whole world had been turned on its head. Now, suddenly, she'd been his object. It'd opened so many doors, but they'd been doors that Marinette hadn't been ready to open.

And now it was too late. She hadn't been brave enough. When the real test had come—when they hadn't been fighting for their last moments and acting out of desperation—she'd failed. All he'd wanted was for her to kiss him, to seal the deal. But she couldn't. Because what if she had? What if they'd gotten together and then, weeks, months, years down the line, something had happened? Something that had ripped them apart forever?

She knew she couldn't take that, so she'd pushed him away. She'd kept him in the same spot he'd always been. In a position of security where the static lack of progression would keep them both equally as close as far. Equally nowhere as somewhere.

But it'd all backfired somehow. It was over before it'd even had the chance to begin.

Maybe this was better. Cleaner, somehow. End it before it had the chance to end on its own. Because everything ended eventually, didn't it? She was just facing the inevitable. One way or another, they'd have been pulled apart. Be it by a breakup, by divorce. Old age. Death.

This way, she could keep the memory of everything they'd shared untarnished.

At least, that was what she tried to tell herself.

But she knew it wasn't true. This wasn't the same kind of end and she had tarnished it. Her. It'd been her fault alone. He'd wanted to keep going—to reach for things yet untouched. Walk blind into the unknown.

How could he have been brave enough to do it, after having lost so much himself? But maybe that was it. Maybe that was the difference. His life was full of ups and down, wins and loses. The consequences were something he was already familiar with, a hand he'd already been dealt. But Marinette, she'd never lost.

But, then again, she'd never won either.

No, that was a lie. She had lost.

She'd lost him. And it was the most painful experience of her life.

She'd tried to stop change, but that had been what was inevitable. There was no way Adrien would have wanted them to stay as they were, perpetually dancing around one another. Typical, it may have been, but ultimately unfulfilling. Contentment—it wasn't a result. It was a state of waiting. Waiting for either something better or something worse.

Why had she elected for something worse?

Why had she willingly taken that road?

Why had she hurt him?

Maybe they wouldn't have lasted forever, but some time was better than no time, wasn't it? It had to be better than this… this feeling of empty desolation. She wasn't numb, not like she'd thought she'd be. Not like she'd wanted to be. It was an open, festering wound that she'd carved into her own skin. That she'd sliced through him too.

The more she considered it, the more she wondered why she'd thought this would be easier somehow. Maybe their time together would end, and maybe it'd be painful, but, in those moments, as she crouched, trembling and alone on that rooftop, nothing seemed worse.

Perhaps this was her own, personal desperation—seeping up through her until it rang so loudly through her body that she could have sworn she was plummeting from the sky all over again.

She'd almost lost him then too. How was this any different? Why wasn't she scrambling to get him back?

What was she doing?

Blinking, she turned her head up toward the night sky. Snow fell, true, but the clouds were choppy, occasionally ripping apart to reveal the light behind, only to join together again later on. Not clear, but not hopeless either.

She'd been the one to do this. So she had to be the one to make it right.

He had bared it all for her, taken a chance, and she'd stabbed him when he'd been most vulnerable. Maybe he wouldn't forgive her—maybe he'd never trust her—but she had to try.

Even if she was afraid. Because the idea of feeling like this, like her world was thinning to insignificance, to nothing, was worse than fear. What was she without him? She'd been the one to correct him, hadn't she? Ladybug was nothing without Chat Noir. He was her partner.

She couldn't abandon him.

But, most importantly, she didn't want to.

Swallowing hard, she stood. There were no familiar steps nearby, no purring voice in her ear or teasing comments. And it all felt so completely wrong. Like her suit was itchy and too big. Sheer and absolute discomfort.

Pulling her yoyo from her hip, she cast it out into the night before swinging. She knew where she was going, even if she didn't consciously acknowledge it. Pulled along by instinct, maybe, that she'd been fighting, she soared her way around chimneys and over rooftops. Until she was landing on the familiar, rounded roof of the Agreste mansion.

She didn't have the night vision Chat did, but she was still able to estimate about where his room must be when considering she'd been inside previously. And as she hooked her yoyo and scaled down the back side of the mansion, she easily came upon the giant, floor to ceiling windows of his bedroom.

Graceful and quite, she toed down. Until she was balanced on the bottom edge, one hand up holding her yoyo while the other pressed against the glass.

She could see him. Awake. Back to her, he was bent over one of the multiple computer monitors he had. She couldn't see what he was doing and, quite honestly, she didn't care.

Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she raised her fist in preparation to knock. Yet, just as she did, a tiny black smudge with big, green eyes zipped up in front of her. It blinked at her, tiny tail twitching. She gaped, because she'd never seen any other kwami but Tikki before. Plagg, because that was who it must have been, cocked his head just a bit, looking her up and down, before flitting away from the window.

She couldn't follow his dark shape through the large bedroom, but she saw him silhouetted against the computer monitor a moment later.

Adrien had turn to him, the two speaking for only a moment before Adrien was whipping around to look at her.

His green eyes were wide, surprised maybe, and she laid her hand against the glass pathetically. She knew she was hunched inside her own shoulders, looking ashamed and apologetic as she peered at him through shadows.

It took him a moment, but he eventually stood. Clad in sweatpants and a t-shirt, he slowly approached the window, lips parted some beneath his furrowed brows. And the closer he got, the more ragged her breathing became. By the time he was standing directly in front of the window, her mouth was dry, her eyes searching his own.

For something. A sign, a gesture. But she couldn't read anything. It was like he was wearing a veil, which was almost too much.

Because it meant he didn't trust her. Not that she blamed him.

She'd broken his heart.

Looking away, she pursed her lips, trying to keep herself under control and knowing she was failing. She swallowed, and blinked inside her mask, but not all her defenses held.

One lone tear did manage to escape, dropping away a moment later.

A tap on the window drew her attention back to him.

He was even closer now, nearly up against the glass. He'd laid his own hand on the window, matching up to hers. She flicked her focus to that, flexing her fingers as snow flitted down around them.

She glanced back up at him. For a moment, all he did was watch her, as if, perhaps, he was looking for something too. So, though she was Ladybug, she tried to push everything that she felt, all her sorrow and regret, to the forefront. If only so he could see just how sorry she truly was.

She hoped he saw. Wished it, more than anything.

When he smiled, just barely, and that veil seemed to disappear, she almost fell back in relief. Thankfully, her finger secured to her yoyo held her aloft.

Leaning in, he laid his forehead against the glass, the breath from his nose fogging it a bit, before it'd fade and fog again.

It reminded her of a heartbeat, steady and rhythmic, albeit as silent as the night itself. Only the clicking of the snow touching down seemed to make any noise, even the streets beyond quiet.

Leaning in herself, she placed her own forehead against his own, the thick pane of glass between them. He watched her, and she watched him, their breath fogging up the glass together. First one, and then another. Until, somehow, they were breathing together.

For a moment, it was manageable, but soon the glass began to suffer for it, foggy to the point where it couldn't fade fast enough. Until the warmth of their breath on both sides made it nearly impossible to see.

But she could see it, his small smile, which had widened into a grin. And which eventually became a light laugh that she couldn't hear.

She wanted to hear it. But, instead, she laughed with him, reaching up to wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand.

In the same moment, he pulled his own hand back and pointed to the side. He gestured with his head as well, to her right—his left. She wasn't sure what he was telling her, but as he began to walk along the window, she followed. Until they hit the end and he pointed again.

Leaning out around the corner, she saw that there were more windows on the wall inclining from her own. These weren't like the barred windows where they'd stood, however. These were tall, but thin, and looked as though they might open if prompted from the inside.

Tugging on her yoyo, she pulled it loose before swinging her way over to the nearest windowsill. And as she landed, feet tapping lightly, the window was abruptly pulled open.

He stood below, watching where she stood on the sill, uncertain.

Blinking, he gaped a bit, as if struck by the same act of stillness she was. She didn't know what he saw as he stared up at her. What kind of figure she cut in his mind's eye. But whatever it was, it wasn't what she wanted to be.

Because what she wanted was to be with him. Crouching down, she crept closer to the inside edge of the window, Adrien's gaze locking with hers as she reached one leg down and into the house. Directly in front of him, she slipped the rest of the way inside, until she was standing with only centimeters between them.

He didn't back away. Rather, he simply watched her. And she did the same for a moment, completely silent.

Wavering for just a moment, she reached up and laid her gloved hands gently on either side of his cheeks, the warmth from his skin instantly flowing through her. It seemed to thrum from her fingertips to her toes, and, suddenly, it didn't matter if she was scared or not, if this would someday end. Because it was happening then, and, really, that seemed the most important.

She didn't feel the chill at her back, or notice the way snowflakes drifted in and settled, melting around them.

All she registered was him. The both of them, together.

Why had she been so afraid of such a thing in the first place?

He didn't move when she leaned up toward him. He didn't do anything except watch her, his lashes falling only slightly as he peered down. As she pushed herself carefully closer, until she could feel his soft breath on her lips. Their noses bumped, Ladybug not even daring to blink as their gazes trailed back a forth.

She waited, just a moment, until his eyes finally fell completely shut. Hers did shortly after, what little distance remained between them closing as she pressed her lips softly against his own.

The kiss wasn't desperate or driven, not like when they'd fallen. It was tentative, quiet even, and echoed only of tenderness. He returned the touch, once she'd started it, the two standing together in the calm—alone in a world of their own.

It was only when words, which rushed up through her with the suddenness of a tidal wave, came to Ladybug, that she broke apart. Just enough to speak, their lips still so close that only a sliver of air could be caught between.

"I do love you," she murmured.

Reaching up, he gently allowed his hands to graze up the sides of her hips. Holding her by the waist, he pulled her to him, until her body was flush up against his own and her arms were flowing back to circle around his neck.

He pressed his lips to hers that time, reclaiming the air between them with a fervor slightly more forceful than before. She met him equally, her heartbeat quickening in her chest as she was granted more of him, breath catching before she allowed herself to simply breathe him instead.

His hold on her hips tightened, her body warm against his as she pushed back. As she pulled his bottom lip between her own, as though tugging him all the closer.

He responded by deepening the contact, Ladybug taking a step back when he leaned in. Until her lower body was up against the wall, the rest of her inclined slightly into the empty space of the open window.

She trailed her hands from around his neck. Down his chest, her fingers flexing over his collar before she gripped tightly at the fabric of his t-shirt. Towing him lower, she silently implored him to take more of her, or give more, whichever suited. His own hands trailed up her sides in the same moment, leaving a heated path that flowed up through her with the gasp that left her lips.

A gasp that he gathered for himself, catching it between his own lips as he chased hers once again. As he drew her to him, bidding she open up further, if only so he could get a better taste of her. As if he needed it, required it in a way that was growing more desperate by the moment.

A ravenous persistence that was rising, warm and heavy, through her as well.

She held his t-shirt tighter, relishing in the way his body pushed up against hers, how his hands created sparking friction as he held her. Now that she had him, she didn't think she'd have enough. She was dizzy with it, light-headed and longing.

"Adrien?"

The voice jarred them both to a grinding halt, their mouths parting to heavy, labored breathing, bruised lips, and flushed cheeks.

"What is it, Nathalie?" Adrien managed to choke out after a moment, the haze beginning to clear as Ladybug peered at her reflection in the bathroom mirror behind his head.

"Are you alright? I got a security alert about one of your windows being opened." Because why would he open any of his windows in the middle of the winter?

"I'm fine," he replied. "Just… needed some fresh air."

"Well, close it," she reprimanded. "There's no reason to have a window open in the dead of winter."

"A-alright." He'd looked back to Ladybug, green eyes blinking in the slight glow of the snow littered night. She could still feel some of the heat that was being mirrored back at her, like a tight coil in the pit of her stomach, but their interruption had also dropped reality back over their heads.

Smoothing her hands back out over his shirt, Ladybug smiled, shifting until she could use his shoulders as leverage. Bending herself back, she lifted up onto the edge of the windowsill, Adrien's hands slipping from her sides to her forearms, as if to hold on as long as he could.

Crouched on the sill, she leaned forward and stole one last kiss from him, the distance then put between them tasting bittersweet. Leaving burning imprints everywhere he'd touched her, his hold on her slipped away as she stepped out through the window.

She kept her gaze locked with his as long as she could, pausing for only a moment before swinging out and away, into the chilled winter night.

 

Friday

It hadn't been that hard to convince Nathalie and his driver/bodyguard that he was meeting a few friends half an hour before school started to finish a project. And he was more than thrilled when, as he pretended to slip in through the front door of the school, the car drove off, headed back toward his father's mansion.

As soon as it was out of sight, he turned and headed quickly back down the stairs. With a bit too much skip in his step, he walked as quickly as he could to the sidewalk and across the street parallel. To the bakery on the corner, the sight of which brought a small smile to his lips, which he tried to contain with little success.

Fingers tingling, he pushed his way in through the front door, Sabine and Tom both behind the counter. They glanced up as he entered.

"Adrien!" Sabine said happily, wiping her hands on her apron as she came around the counter to meet him. "It's so good to see you." She gently laid her hands on his upper arms and, for a moment, Adrien thought she was going to hug him. He wouldn't have objected, whatever her reasons, but she ultimately didn't, instead settling for squeezing his arms a little tighter. "You're looking very well," she went on, surveying him up and down. "No bumps or bruises I see."

"No." He laughed, furrowing his eyebrows curiously. "Should I have?"

Sabine's own brows went up a bit. "No, I suppose not. Just with the way Marinette sometimes-"

"Sabine," Tom interrupted, drawing both their attention. "Don't harass the boy. Are you here for Marinette?"

"Yes!" Adrien did smile fully at that, Sabine leading him by the elbow up to the counter. "I just got to school early and I figured, since she's right around the corner…" A total lie, of course, but no one needed to know that.

"She's actually not even up yet," Tom muttered, sounding exasperated as he organized some bread behind the counter. "Doesn't get up 'til ten minutes before school these days."

"Oh…" Adrien was a little disappointed.

"It is about time for her to get up, though," Sabine cut in, her and Tom sharing a single look before she focused back in on Adrien. "Why don't you go get her up? I'm sure she won't mind."

Adrien was surprised, but not displeased. Of course, he knew Mari would mind, but that was quite beside the point. "Sure," he agreed, glad when they both nodded toward the backdoor. Turning away, he failed to notice the knowing look the two parents shared before they returned to their business.

The house was quiet as Adrien entered, the ticking of an analogue clock the only interruption. Slipping off his shoes at the door, he cast only one quick look around to make sure Mari wasn't there before he stretched two steps at a time up her stairs. Careful to be quiet, he pushed his way through the door in the floor, Mari's room seeming familiar despite it having been a few weeks since he'd last been there.

The plants were thriving, still pushed into every nook and cranny. He thought, maybe, that there were more. An aesthetic of pink and green, with the exception of the mismatched, patched colors in the center.

She'd never taken down their tent. It still hung, draped and much shabbier in the daylight, from her bed. A bed, he noticed, that was empty.

Slight warmth whirred in his chest.

Popping out from inside his bag, Plagg zipped around the room, circling a few times before he began hovering about the plants. Adrien thought, perhaps, he was looking for something—someone—and so he left the kwami to it.

Approaching the side flap of the tent—the "door"—Adrien flipped it open before getting down on his hands and knees and peering inside.

It was dim, what with the lack of light able to flow in, and reminded him somewhat of a cave. The comforters and pillows were still spread out and stacked, creating a rather comfy little hideaway when there wouldn't have been otherwise.

In the middle, there was a single, out of character lump. Layered in two heavy blankets and covered completely, it breathed just a bit, shifting the thick fabric only enough to be noticed if one really bothered to look.

Adrien knew he was smiling like an idiot and he didn't care one single bit.

Crawling into the tent, he paused thoughtfully for just a moment before reaching out.

"Wow, it's really dark in here," he said loudly, gradually patting his way up the mound of blankets. "I don't think I can see." Which was, of course, ridiculous, as he had excellent night vision. "What's this?" He thumped the top of the mound a little harder. "Gee, I wonder."

"What are you doing here?" she muttered out, voice muffled by the layers of fabric surrounding her. He could still tell her voice was rough with sleep, and probably irritation.

"Is that you, Mari?" he asked, sounding far too aghast. "I didn't even see you there." He patted her form more severely, with both hands this time, and she curled up tighter beneath his touch. "You're snug as a bug in a rug under there."

"Go away…" she groaned. "It's too early for this."

"Too early? We have twenty minutes 'til school starts. You better brace yourself."

"I can deal with that. It's you that's the problem."

"Rude."

Backing off on the patting, he found the edge of the comforters. Lifting them up some, he leaned down and peered inside, pulling until he spotted her slight form burrowed away beneath them. Her blue eyes were cracked just a bit, glaring as he grinned. Her pink pajama pants and oversized sweater only added more allure to her grumpy disposition.

"Why, good morning, Bugaboo."

"Go away," she said again. "You're letting all the warm out."

"My sincerest apologies, My Lady. I'll rectify the situation henceforth." Ducking up under the blankets, he let them drop around his person as he wiggled his way under. She didn't look the least bit amused by his actions, but that was hardly enough to deter him. Making sure they were both securely closed in by the blankets, he shifted his way closer. Until he was right up beside her.

She watched him the whole time, as he reached up and wrapped an arm around her middle, his other elbow supporting him as he leaned in. Finally, as he laid a single kiss on her cheek, he seemed to break through her foul morning mood. Giggling, she pressed her cheek into the blankets, but didn't shy away. Rather, as he let himself lay down beside her, she unfolded her own arms and pulled them up and around his back, giving him the room to snuggle as close as he wanted.

Burying his nose in her sweater, he tugged her close, until they were lined up together with one of his legs hooking up around her own. Only the weight of the blankets and her chin atop his hair seemed to register, all else light and unimportant.

He didn't even bother trying to stop the rolling purr that vibrated out of his chest. There was no stopping it anyway, not on the high he was on, so fighting would be pointless. The way she was lightly running her nails along his back didn't help in quelling the reaction either. Not that she seemed to mind. She giggled again at the initial sound, but didn't comment.

He knew they only had minutes, but he'd take whatever he could of this, whenever he could. Just being close to her, in all her forms whenever she allowed. That was paradise, as far as he was concerned.

What he didn't expect was a return gesture. He registered it within moments, probably because he was nestled right up to her chest. It wasn't really a noise so much as a hum. A feeling really, like a buzz that radiated from her core. No sound, barely there, but present nonetheless.

He cuddled closer, her sweater soft against his skin, and purred louder.

"You keep that up and my parents will hear," she murmured, her voice seeming to mimic the sensation she was putting off herself. But he didn't care how noisy he was. She was there, she was pleased he was there, and that thrilled him so deeply that the only expression he could get out was the rhythmic rumbling. It didn't help that her own humming relaxed him further, like constant, light fluttering of wings all around him.

He wondered if she was always like this when she was resting. God, he hoped so.

"Marinette! Adrien?!" Sabine called up to them a few minutes later. "You're both going to be late!"

And so, despite some reluctance on both their parts, Mari shooed him from her bedroom while she got ready. Sabine tried to offer him some breakfast, but he declined on the pretense that he'd already eaten (which was true). Instead, supposing it was less awkward to loiter where loitering was allowed, he stepped back out into the bakery and distracted himself with looking over the shelves while Tom whistled nearby.

Mari was out and dressed ten minutes later, hugging her parents goodbye before she skipped up to join him. They both waved as they exited, the chill of the winter day hitting them both as they strolled down the sidewalk.

Adrien almost reached up and slung an arm around her shoulders, but, before he could, she reached out and delicately twined her fingers together with his own.

He smiled down at her, even if she refused to look up.

"Ugh, I wish winter was over," she muttered, shivering inside her jacket as they crossed the street. "Or that I could stay in bed all day."

"So long as I could be with you," he smarmed.

"Don't even start."

He chuckled.

They got a considerable number of stares from other students as they headed up the stairs and inside. Mari's hand tensed in his own, but he squeezed it reassuringly, which seemed to ease her nerves.

They didn't separate until they reached the locker room. It was then that Adrien was approached by Alya. She huffed when he glanced around awkwardly, uncertain why she was there and how he should respond.

"I'm sorry about what I said," she eventually admitted. "Marinette said you two worked everything out and that I caused more problems than solved them. I was just…"

"It's okay," Adrien assured, reaching out and laying a hand on her shoulder. "I know you were just trying to look out for her. And… you weren't totally wrong about everything. Friends again?"

She huffed, smiling a bit as she did. "We were never not friends. And I'll try to mind my own business a bit more from now on. Especially after hearing the way you guys were arguing…"

All the color drained from Adrien's face, his hand stiffening as he robotically removed it from her person. "You heard that?" his voice ghosted out, his mind racing to recall every word he and Mari had exchanged despite having previously wanted to avoid doing so.

"Don't worry," Alya said, winking as she turned away. "I'm the only one that overheard. And I can keep a secret."

What did that mean?

What did that mean?!

She was gone before he could ask, only the sight of Alya and Mari chatting as he rounded the hall of lockers setting him a bit more at ease. They didn't appear the least bit perturbed, so perhaps he was making something out of nothing.

Better not to worry until he had to.

"If I'd known you two would get together as soon as I spilled the beans, I'd have done it a long time ago," Nino remarked as Adrien slid his arm around Mari's waist.

"First off, it wasn't quite that simple," Mari corrected, Nino and Alya hand in hand beside them as they headed to class. "And secondly, you're both terrible for violating my privacy."

"What'd I do?" Alya asked.

"You told Nino," Mari made clear.

"Who told me," Adrien finished.

"Yes, because, clearly, the consequences were murder." Nino gestured to the two of them.

"It was almost a disaster," Mari defended, Alya and Nino entering the classroom ahead of them.

"That," Nino turned back to them, "was your guys' fault, not mine." Leaving it at that, Alya and Nino seated themselves, Adrien and Mari sharing a single look as they followed.

Adrien's attention was caught before he could sit down, however, Mari slipping out from under his hold at the same time. Nathanael was sitting in the back, having darted his gaze purposefully down to his sketchpad upon being spotted

Adrien cringed, guilt unfolding inside him. The only comfort Mari could give him, however, was a knowing look as she pulled away. She headed across the room, to the single plant in the corner that their homeroom that had been gifted to them on parent show and tell day by Rose's mother, who was a flouriest (fittingly). Mari had long since been the one taking care of it, which Adrien supposed made sense now.

Knowing he had to own up to his mistakes, he headed up the stairs to Nathanael, forcing his shame to give him courage with each step.

Thankfully, the apology wasn't nearly as painful as it could have been. Nathanael was the forgiving type and Adrien really didn't have a bad rap for being a jerk in the first place. With the excuse of having had a really bad day and taken it out in the wrong fashion, Nathanael accepted his apology and all was well.

Feeling better with that out of the way, Adrien glanced quickly around and saw that Mari was still in the corner of the room, bent over the large plant. Strolling over, he clasped his hands behind his back as he bent over beside her.

He didn't expect to see her finger in her mouth as she flicked her eyes up to his in surprise.

Eyebrows furrowing curiously, he glanced from her to the plant, his keen vision picking up on a single, tiny green bug climbing up one of the leafy stalks. It would seem they had a bit of an infestation.

His eyes darted immediately back to Mari. "Did you just eat an aphid?!" he hissed out, conscious of keeping his voice between only them. "Did you just eat a bug?!"

"…No…" she said weakly, her fingers pinching her lower lip nervously.

His eyes narrowed. "Yes you did!" No, he couldn't help the manic grin that tugged at his lips.

Nose scrunching rebelliously, she stood up straight and stiff as a board. "Shut up," was the only defense she could muster, smacking him lightly on the shoulder as she turned away and began to march toward her seat.

"I'm just teasing," he murmured as he caught her, putting her march to a stop as he wrapped his arms around her middle and laid his chin on her shoulder. "Eat as many bugs as you want," he whispered into her ear. "I'll still love you."

She sighed.

"What is this?!" Chloe's voice boomed across the classroom, drawing everyone's attention. She'd just walked through the door and was staring, wide-eyed, at Mari and Adrien, who were still quite attached as they stood at the front of the room.

Neither one of them did more than blink at the outrage in her voice.

"What are you doing?!" she practically screeched, pointing at them. Everyone else in the room remained silent. "Why- Why are you…? Adrien! Why are you hugging Marinette?!"

Her term was interesting. Because it was kind of like a hug. If spooning hugs were the norm for everyone.

"Ah…" Adrien tried to come up with a reasonable response to her question, while still remaining quite attached to Mari. "Because… she's my girlfriend?" Honesty was the best policy, he supposed.

"WHAT?!" Chloe shrieked, causing everyone in the room to shy away. Despite her outburst, Adrien could feel Mari holding in laughter, her body trembling a bit with it as she reached up and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. "Your- your girlfriend?" Chloe managed to stutter out. "I- You- This is ridiculous!" She stomped one foot like a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum. "She can't be your girlfriend! She's nothing but a-"

"I suggest," Adrien interrupted, tone abruptly cold as he separated from Mari. As he came to stand beside her, their hands held together, "that you be very careful about how you finish that sentence." The threat in his voice was very clear, which caused Chloe to snap her mouth shut. She looked like she wanted to keep going, to burst or explode, but it would appear that her shock left her speechless (amazingly). And so, with a loud, snarling huff, she stomped to her seat and slammed herself down, glaring at Mari all the while.

Mari, who just rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, go Marinette!" Kim then yelled down to them, hardly giving into the expected awkwardness that should have followed Chloe's display. "'Bout time!" He was clapping, Adrien furrowing his eyebrows as Mari covered her face with her hands. Most of the other students either then broke out in laughter or clapped and hooted as well, which only seemed to mortify Mari more as she walked with a defensive hunch to her seat.

Adrien was beyond perplexed as he took his own seat in front of her, turning back just as Ivan reached forward, patted Mari on the back, and told her "good job."

Groaning, she buried her face in her arms atop the desk.

"What's happening right now?" Adrien asked, leaning toward Nino.

"Dude, I was not kidding when I told you how obvious it was," he said, not at all conscious of keeping his voice down. "Everyone knows Mari had a crush on you, except you."

He gaped. "But you and Alya…?"

"We were the only legitimate sources," he explained. "But seriously, dude," he patted Adrien on the shoulder in a rather patronizing manner. "Everybody could tell. It's okay though. Not your fault you're a bit slower than the rest of us."

Adrien pursed his lips and shoved his hand away.

Mari, all the while, was still trying to hide away from the conversation.

"I'm so glad you two finally got together," Rose cooed from above them. "Juleka and I always thought you'd be cute together."

Adrien laughed, if only because he couldn't believe this was happening. Had he really been the only one who didn't know? To say he felt stupid was a bit of an understatement. Clearly, he wasn't observant enough or something.

"Yeah, if Adrien ever got around to noticing," Alix remarked, acting quite as though she wasn't interested in any of it.

"I did notice… eventually…" he said lamely, aware that this whole conversation must be torturing Mari. He'd have to buy her flowers or something later. Maybe a bouquet infested with aphids. No, that'd probably just make her angry (even if it would be funny).

"Because Nino told you," Alya scoffed. "Please, don't take credit where there is none."

Adrien frowned. "I couldn't have been that obvious…"

"It was," Nino persisted, before a small, devious grin made its way onto his lips. "That Mari had a thing for you was as obvious as the fact that Chat Noir has a thing for Ladybug. Which is really obvious, in case you didn't know."

The change in conversation caused Adrien's lips to purse, his eyes darting quickly to Alya, who was trying to hide a laugh behind her hand, before going back to Nino. Nino, who looked far too superior for his own good.

Even Mari had finally glanced up, looking between all three of them in confusion.

But maybe it was coincidence. Adrien was sure there was a chance it was coincidence.

"You two should kiss!" Mylene suggested all of a sudden, giggling like she'd said the most inappropriate thing possible.

"NO!" Chloe shouted as she whipped around.

Poor Nathanael was hiding behind his sketchbook.

"Yeah! Kiss her!" Kim hooted, pumping his fist at the same time. Abruptly, Mari wasn't the only one red-faced. Adrien tried to push back on his blush, but it didn't work. It didn't help any when Max joined in on Kim's chanting, and then Nino and Alya too, a few of the others also commencing in a repetitive "kiss her, kiss her!"

Mari frowned down at him, her posture hunched defensively as she sat back in her seat. Adrien could only manage a shrug however, because what could he really say? His defeated attitude caused her to sigh, which brought a small smile to his lips.

There were worse things, after all.

Getting to his knees on the bench, Adrien leaned up toward her, his fingers gripping the front edge of her desk to keep him balanced. With her hands still folded in her lap, Mari struggled with her nerves for just a moment before, after a slight groan that she tried her best to muffle, leaning in as well.

It was clumsy, on the spot as they were, but Adrien managed to get a short kiss out of her. It only lasted as long as the rest of the class could go without more cheering and clapping, which wasn't long.

"Yeah, Adrien!" Nino called, far too loud for being right beside them. "You go get her, dude, whoo!"

Mari broke them apart first, shoving Adrien back—her finger pushing into his cheek—before she covered her scarlet face with her hands and sank down in her seat.

Adrien grinned, watching her all the while.

Yeah, it was true.

There were definitely worse things.

 

Saturday

"That akuma didn't stand a chance," Chat said, obviously pleased with the evening's battle despite it having interrupted their first date.

"Of course not," Ladybug agreed, smirking up at him as she waved to the crowd gathered below. They were perched on a lower level of the Eiffel Tower, reporters' cameras flashing as a few dared try and scream questions up at them. "We're unstoppable when we're together, don't you think?"

"Of course, My Lady," he replied, his hands and chin propped up on his baton, which was extended to his feet. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Wouldn't you?" she teased.

"How could I? We're puuurrrfect together."

She rolled her eyes, before deterring her gaze to the crowd. "They're awfully persistent tonight."

"Well, I'm here, after all," Chat said and she scoffed. "But, say, why don't we give them what they want?"

"What they want?" she asked incredulously. "And what's that?"

"Something to talk about," he said, grinning as he leaned a bit closer to her.

She eyed him disapprovingly. "You're a bad kitty."

"I'm your kitty."

"I suppose that's true."

She'd looked away from him again, as if she'd honestly be able to ignore him for any great length of time.

"My Lady," he purred, leaning even closer. "Will you do something for me?"

"What?"

"Kiss me?"

She finally turned fully, looking him up and down. As if sizing him up. "And why would I do that?" Her arms crossed haughtily over her chest.

"Because you want to."

"Hmm," she smirked with feigned thoughtfulness. "I suppose you're not wrong."

"Of course not," he countered. "You love me."

Finally, her smirk broke into a full smile, a slight flush running across her cheeks. "I guess I do."

Despite their equally bright grins, she leaned forward, Chat meeting her halfway as they lightly pressed their lips together.

The crowd beneath them went wild, but it didn't matter. Because she was there, and he was there, and nothing could have been better.

Somewhere out in the crowd, a single voice rang out above the others. "Yeah, Chat Noir! You go get her, dude, whoo!"

They parted, they smiled, and everything was perfect.

 

~Fin~

Chapter Text

BONUS CHAPTER!

Deleted Scenes/Scenes that had no place/Scenes that have been floating around in my head for this fic, but that didn't go with the story as a whole. I thought you guys might like them, if only for a light chuckle. And you've honestly all been so supportive, I thought, maybe this will brighten someone's day. 

Enjoy :)

 

Education

"I still don't know if it makes me want to laugh or cry." Sabine wasn't sure what Alya and Nino were talking about in such hushed tones on the other side of the bakery, but it made her frown.

"I dunno, it kind of makes sense," Nino murmured back. "I mean, now that I know."

"How'd you find out?" Alya practically hissed at him. Sabine continued organizing the shelves, pretending quite well like she couldn't hear what they were saying.

"Well, to be honest, Adrien's really not that conspicuous, not when you hang out with him all the time," he muttered. "And once I had him figured it out, it didn't take long to put Marinette in her place—not with the way they act around each other."

"I suppose that makes sense," Alya agreed. "They do act awfully ridiculous around one another. I probably should have started suspecting something when Marinette tackled him off the couch that one time."

"Yeah, I try to stay out of their way, personally. Wouldn't want to accidentally get knocked across the room when one of them isn't watching where they're throwing their fists."

"Or claws." Alya giggled.

"Have you two found what you were looking for?" Sabine finally interjected, supposing there was only so long she could pretend not to overhear before they noticed. The two teenagers turned to her immediately, eyes wide in surprise.

"Yeah, just this," Alya said, holding up a small cake. "Two month anniversary."

"Oh, how nice," Sabine cooed, smiling as she headed for the counter. The teenagers followed, seeming oddly quiet as the cake was set down beside the register. "Young love. I wish Marinette could experience that."

"Yeah, it's great," Alya said stiffly.

"Tell me, Alya." Sabine was suddenly severe as she leaned across the counter toward them. "Is that nice boy, Adrien, dating anyone?" Their eyes widened. "I think we all know Marinette likes him and I think they'd do well together."

"Uh…" Alya looked to Nino for support, but he only shrugged. Which left her sufficiently to the wolves—or Sabine's piercing, narrowed eyes, in any case. "Actually, I think… I think they are dating."

Sabine's eyebrows rose in moderate surprise. "Really? She didn't say anything about that."

"Well, I think it's only been about a week," Alya said, cringing like she'd given away a secret that maybe she shouldn't have. "Marinette didn't tell you?"

"She most certainly did not," Sabine replied, finally ringing up the cake as she kept her voice carefully masked. "But if it's only been a week, I'm not surprised. Don't you worry," Sabine said, casting Alya a reassuring look, "I'll wait for her to tell me." No, no she wouldn't. But there was no point in getting Alya and Nino wound up about the whole thing and spoiling everything before she and Tom could gather themselves.

"I'm sure she will soon," Alya replied, taking the cake back once it'd been paid for. "Thanks, Mrs. Cheng."

"Of course, dear." She nodded as they backed away. "You two have a lovely evening." They each smiled before they turned and headed out the door, leaving Sabine alone to the late afternoon. Pausing beside the register to consider for just a moment, she wrung her apron before tamping her foot firmly and turning toward the bakery kitchen. It was around the right corner, where Tom was preparing things for the following morning.

"Tom," she said firmly, drawing his attention. He blinked at her, recognizing her tone as being quite serious and, thus, deserving of full attention. "It's happened."

"What's happened?" he asked, eyebrows furrowing.

"Marinette and Adrien," she said firmly. "They started dating. A week ago."

His eyes bugged. Setting down the mixing bowl he'd been cleaning, he wiped his hands on his apron as he came up in front of her. "Sources?"

"Alya and Nino," Sabine said strictly. "Just now. Best source we could have asked for."

"I see." Tom tapped his chin thoughtfully. "This is serious."

"Very serious indeed," she agreed. The two shared in thoughtful eye contact for a few moments then, before Tom finally took a deep breath and straightened.

"Should I pay Blanche a visit?"

"I think you'd better. Tomorrow morning. I'll have Marinette bring Adrien around after school."

"Right."

"And make sure you get everything," Sabine made totally clear, leveling a finger at him. "Every diagram and model she has. We need to nip this in the bud while we still have the chance."

"Of course." He was staunchly with her. "I'll get everything, I promise."

Sharing in one final, knowing look, they returned to their duties, all the while preparing themselves for what was to come.

oOo

"They didn't say why?" Adrien asked, eyebrows furrowed as he looked down at her. Marinette could only shrug, however, and link her fingers more tightly with his. It was snowing, and cold, and she found it to be quite miserable even if the walk from the school to her house was only a minute, tops. Add on top of that the fact that her mother had practically demanded she bring Adrien around after school and she was pretty sour.

Neither of her parents would explain why they wanted to see him, which made her all the more suspicious. They were always up to something.

"It'll be interesting, of that I'm absolutely positive," she assured as they reached the bakery door, their hands falling apart as they entered.

"There you two are!" Sabine said happily, bustling from around the corner. She passed by Marinette completely, but laid a hand on Adrine's cheek fondly, which caused him to blink in surprise. Following, she moved to the front door, locked it, and turned the sign over so the shop was officially closed.

Adrien and Marinette shared a look. An ominous, dreading, confused look.

"Come with me," Sabine issued, far too upbeat for Marinette's comfort. Sighing, she cast Adrien one last warning look before they trailed her mother through the bakery and into the house. Peering across the house as they removed their coats and shoes, they saw that both Sabine and Tom were standing in the living room. But that wasn't the strange part. What baffled both Marinette and Adrien were the plethora of bulging stands covered in white sheets. There were at least six of them, spread out in front of the television, but she couldn't possibly fathom what they were.

"Ah, good," Sabine said as they came over, both slow and wary as they peered between the parents and the suspicious sheets. "Sit down." Sabine's words, though seemingly kind, were firm. A command, and so both Marinette and Adrien did as they were told, the sound of the cushions squishing under their weight echoing around the room.

For whatever reason, they made a conscious effort to keep a good chunk of space between one another.

Tom and Sabine shared a look, one that made rocks drop into Marinette's stomach.

"So," Sabine started, ever the one to do the talking. "We've heard some very interesting news recently." She looked pointedly between the two teenagers, Marinette already able to deduce where this was going.

"Very interesting," Tom parroted.

"Is it true?" Sabine asked, smiling as sweetly as ever. Marinette knew the look wasn't to be trusted. "That you two are dating?"

Adrien looked immediately to Marinette for help. Because these weren't his parents, after all. He didn't know how to properly deal with them.

Marinette sighed. "Yes, it's true."

"That's wonderful!" Sabine announced, clapping her hands together. Adrien appeared moderately surprised by her enthusiasm, but Marinette knew better. This wasn't it—things were never that simple when it came to her parents' schemes. And this was definitely a scheme. "We're so happy for both of you."

"Very happy," Tom agreed, crossing his broad arms over his chest. It made him look even larger than he already was, Adrien doing well to gulp and peer momentarily down at the floor.

"But!" Sabine held up a single finger. "This also draws up a substantial number of other considerations." Naturally, or so Marinette thought to herself. This was why she hadn't told them in the first place. Invasive, as usual. "I'm not going to beat around the subject," Sabine went on.

"No beating," Tom added.

"We know," Sabine finished, leaving the declaration open.

Marinette glanced quickly at Adrien, because he was waiting too, but aside from the fact that their relationship status was now out in the open, they could think of nothing else her parents could possibly "know." And so Marinette eventually answered with a hesitant "Okay?"

"We know you're Ladybug," Sabine finally made clear, looking directly at her daughter.

"And that you're Chat Noir." Tom completed the statement.

This… this left both teenagers in a state of shock. Marinette's eyes were wide, her mouth hanging open as all the color drained from her face. And Adrien, he was tightlipped and pale, looking terrified in comparison to Marinette's baffled surprise. She knew he was paranoid about people finding out—that his father would hear of it and take his ring away. It paranoid Marinette as well. She'd grown far too comfortable with her secret identity.

"But- How- I-" Marinette tried to ask, but it didn't work.

"Please, honey." Sabine eyed her knowingly. "How many times did you think you could disappear out of your room without us noticing, or come crashing back in during the night. You weren't nearly as quiet as you thought you were. We've known for a while."

Marinette slammed her mouth shut, but that didn't mean she wasn't still astounded.

"And we put the pieces together about you," Tom looked pointedly at Adrien as he spoke, "the day Sabine caught you two roughhousing in Marinette's bedroom. There's only one other person that could possibly take on Ladybug and even offer up a fight. Besides, you both eat food like it's going out of style."

Adrien glanced down at his lap, ears turning red.

Marinette couldn't believe she'd been so careless. And that her parents had known for a while and said nothing.

"Don't get us wrong," Sabine started again. "We're not here to scold you for that. In fact," her expression softened honestly, drawing both teenagers' attention, "we're quite proud of you both. Even if it is… dangerous and reckless and-"

"And we try not to think about that, because we know Paris needs you," Tom interrupted. "Proud as we are, however, that doesn't change this new development."

"What development?" Marinette questioned dumbly.

"You two dating, that's what," Sabine explained, gesturing between them. Her tone had reclaimed it's strict, no nonsense manner. "We thought that such a thing was bound to happen eventually, what with how well you two get along as heroes, and so we've been preparing."

"Preparing?" Marinette again, because apparently Adrien dared not speak.

"Yes." Sabine nodded simply. "It came to our attention, after figuring out you were Ladybug, that we were not dealing with a parent's typical teenage problems. In fact…" She sighed. "We've come to realize that you two are quite beyond our control."

This made both Marinette and Adrien curious.

"We know you two go out late and run around the city, and that you're out 'til all hours of the night, and that you're doing it for the sake of the city." Tom summed up their patrols quite well. "And we also know that it would be unfair to both of you as well as the rest of Paris to try and put a stop to such things."

"Even if that means you two will be alone far more often than any teenagers have the right to be," Sabine added coldly.

Marinette was beginning to see what this was about.

"We can't stop you from acting how you deem fit, or going where you please." Tom leveled his stare at Adrien. "So we're going to do our best to warn you both about the potential consequences."

Adrien visibly sank in his seat.

Marinette couldn't believe this was actually happening.

"We know, of course, that you both are probably quite well-versed in these things already," Sabine explained. "But we just want to make sure we rehash a few things, if only for our own comfort."

"And I'll say this," Tom interjected, sitting straighter and looking all the more threatening for doing so. "You screw up," he was still keeping Adrien in his sights, "and get my daughter pregnant, I'll skin you alive. Do I make myself clear, Cat Boy?"

Adrien shrank away as best he could, swallowing hard. "Yes, Sir."

Marinette wanted to shrivel up and die.

"Now." Sabine was looking far too satisfied with herself. "Let's get started."

"Started?" Marinette squawked. "Started with what? Wasn't that it?" Couldn't they both just run away now?

"Oh, honey," Sabine cast her a sympathetic look. "We've only just begun." Reaching up, she drew one of the white sheets back, to reveal a large, graphic poster titled "Birth Control, Pregnancy, and STDs."

Marinette was quite positive the sheer mortification of the whole situation caused she and Adrien both to stop breathing.

Tom smiled. "It's time for an education."

 

Home Base

This wasn't, exactly, what Adrien usually meant when he said he'd "drop in." But he had limited options and Ladybug couldn't take on the akuma all by herself. Besides, what good were people that knew his identity if he couldn't even use them to his advantage?

Bounding down onto the balcony, he skidded to the door before reefing it open. He knew he'd broken the lock, but hopefully Ladybug's lucky charm would rectify the situation.

Pulling the door up from the floor, he dropped in without pause, landing on Marinette's bed before he jumped down onto the floor. He fell with a thud, the last beep of his miraculous going off as he heaved open the door the lead out of her bedroom as well.

Catching Plagg in his hands as the kwami zipped out of his ring, he clamored down the stairs two at a time, before jumping the final three. He landed with far less grace at the bottom, nearly falling over as he spun on his heel and skidded around into the kitchen.

"Adrien?!" Both Tom and Sabine had risen from their seats in the living room, but he paid them no mind. Rather, yanking the refrigerator open, he quickly scanned what was inside before grabbing a big block of colby jack cheese. It wasn't Plagg's favorite, but it'd have to do.

Unintentionally slamming the door to the fridge closed, he ripped open the sealed bag of cheese before dumping the block on the counter.

"Adrien." Tom tried to get his attention, but he was busy breaking the cheese into a small chunk as Plagg sat, tired, on the counter beside him. "What's going on? Is everything alright?"

He really didn't have time for questions.

"C'mon, Plagg! Here we go!" He held the block of cheese up to the kwami's nose.

"Egh! That's not camembert!"

"It's all I've got!" He shoved the cheese into the kwami's open mouth.

"The akuma attack is all over the news!" Sabine was saying, gesturing toward the television. "What are you doing here?! Where's Marinette?!"

"Just eat the cheese, Plagg!" Adrien griped.

"I don't want to!"

"Do it! Or I won't feed you for a week!"

"Did you leave my daughter all alone out there to fight that thing on her own?!" Tom asked. Adrien ignored him. He didn't have time to explain the finite details of miraculous usage or kwami care.

"Fine!" Plagg snapped, beginning to gnaw on the bit of cheese. "But if I ever have to degrade myself to this low quality garbage equivalent again, I'll-"

"Less talk, more eating," Adrien demanded, shoving the cheese into the kwami's mouth before he grabbed him up and darted around Marinette's gaping parents.

"Where is Marinette?!" They both yelled at the same time.

"Plagg! Claws out!" Throwing open one of the windows, Adrien leapt out, transforming as he careened toward the street below. Just before he hit, he pulled out his baton, extended it, and threw himself up into the air. Over onto the roof across from the bakery, before he was pumping his legs into a sprint across Paris.

Left in his dust, Sabine and Tom gathered at the window, wide-eyed and stricken as they stared after.

"I get the feeling…" Sabine managed to get out after a moment, "…that this is going to happen a lot."

"Yeah…" Tom blinked, the two unable to find anything else to say on the matter.

 

A Premature Reveal

(How the texting conversation almost went in Chapter 13, except that I didn't like the tension it removed from later parts, so I axed it. I still like the conversation though, and apparently thought it worth saving, so here it is. This is right after Adrien realizes Mari is Ladybug.)

[Adrien's] phone vibrated in his hand, causing him to jump. The notification said he had a new text. He half expected it to be Nino again, but when he investigated, he nearly choked when it wasn't.

Mari: Hey, are you awake?

His nerves spiked again, his mouth going dry as his thumbs hovered over the keyboard. Was he scared? Why would he be? Maybe because Mari could yank the whole fantasy right out from under him. She could reject him, take back the kiss, their friendship. His newfound hopes that she was, in fact, who he thought she was.

No, she didn't know he knew. This was just Mari. She just wanted to know if he was awake.

He could do this. One step at a time.

Adrien: I'm awake. What's up?

All he could do was breathe as he waited, watching and nearly jumping when ellipsis danced across his screen.

Mari: I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay.

So vague. But he could put the pieces together now. Finally, it all made sense. And yet, didn't seem to at all. Or maybe such thoughts were simply his insecurities getting the better of him.

Adrien: I'm fine.

He paused before he dared type again.

Adrien: Why?

Each second that passed between messages was a harsh pounding in his head.

Mari: No reason. We just haven't talked since Friday.

Since the debacle with his father. That seemed so far away now. Everything seemed far away, thanks to the traumatic day and his own still floundering realization.

Adrien: Don't worry about it. I'm still sorry about that whole thing. My father's always difficult. You shouldn't have had to deal with it.

Mari: I don't mind :)

Adrien didn't know what to say to that. Would that be where the conversation would have normally ended? Or would he have come up with some witty retort? He didn't know. It was almost like he was removed from himself somehow, swimming through her words and trying to make sense of them in a way he hadn't struggled with before. Once, her concern would have been just that. But now, it was different. Now, he was trying to understand her words, not just read them.

Mari: Adrien…

Addressing him by name? In a text? This couldn't be good. It was direct, certainly, but also procured a degree of concern. Would that have been the result either way, or was he now too paranoid to tell the difference?

Did it matter?

Adrien: Yes?

He was going to give himself a heart attack with how tense and jittery he was.

The telltale ellipsis appeared, then disappeared, then reappeared again. As if to express her own thoughtfulness.

Mari: Are you free tomorrow?

Adrien: Uh, earlier in the day, I think. I have a photo shoot in the afternoon. I can't exactly remember the time though.

Mari: Never mind then.

Abruptly, his fingers were working fast—like some sort of opportunity was slipping through his fingers and he'd lose it if he didn't act fast enough.

Adrien: Why? We can still hang out earlier, if you want. I wouldn't mind that.

He watched, breath tightly controlled as those ellipsis appeared. It did that twice more, Adrien gripping the phone tight as Plagg floated up to read over his shoulder.

Mari: It's not important. I just need to talk to you about something, when you have the time.

It was difficult to control his frenzied typing.

Adrien: What do you need to talk to me about?

Mari: I'd rather do it in person. I'm sorry. I know that's strange.

His blood pumped fast, but was somehow also cold inside him. Waiting, perhaps, for some kind of heat that he couldn't provide all on his own.

He was caught—continue to play the fool or not. Let it go or hold on. Somehow, it seemed a very important decision in that moment. Perhaps because he had to decide whether to take a chance or not. To bet on her, on himself too, and maybe that plummeting moment that had caught them both in the sky only hours before.

His heart wanted to beat out of his chest.

He had to say something—had to take action, one way or another.

Mari: Actually, never mind. It's really not important.

Time was up. Now or never, that was what he felt—even if it wasn't true.

Because it was important.

Adrien: I think we both know that's not true.

He'd sent the message before he could stop himself. And, as they had before, the ellipsis came and went, came and went, as if echoing her own nerves. Maybe they mirrored each other, both of them hunched over their phones in the darkness. Seemingly alone together, despite being apart.

But never too far. The distance between them was never great, no matter the miles.

Mari: I don't understand what you mean.

For the first time since he'd begun figuring out this whole ludicrous situation, irritation swelled up inside him. He pursed his lips as he typed.

Adrien: I'm not angry with you.

Adrien: But please don't lie to me anymore.

He waited. Because she had no choice but to respond to that, even if it did take her at least three minutes to do it.

Mari: I'm sorry…

Adrien: I know.

Mari: Please don't hate me.

He sighed, shaking his head as his irritation dissipated.

Adrien: I could never hate you. I don't think I could if I wanted to.

Adrien: You know that.

Mari: I should have told you.

Mari: I was scared.

Mari: I'm so sorry.

Adrien: It's okay, Mari. Really.

Mari: You have every right to be angry.

Mari: I'll understand if you are.

Mari: You don't have to pretend for my benefit.

Mari: I did this.

Adrien: Calm down, lol. I can practically imagine you getting all worked up. Look, I'm not angry, I promise. I'm just…

What was he, really?

Adrien: I'm just tired, honestly. And I know you are too.

Mari: I'm fine.

Adrien: How about this. We both stop lying, okay? I'm not fine, you're not fine, neither of us is fine, lol. We're exhausted, I know I have a huge headache, and texting about this really isn't the best option.

Mari: I'm sorry, Adrien…

Adrien: I know. It'll be okay. I promise.

Adrien: I'll come by tomorrow and we'll talk about it, alright?

Mari: Alright…

Adrien: Hey

He sent her the first Ladybug sticker he could find. Thankfully, it was cute. Then again, Ladybug's were always cute, so perhaps there'd been no getting around that.

It took her some moments, but she eventually sent him the same sticker in return, which was enough to bring a small smile to his face. Because it was verification—even if it was in a small, quiet way. But it was enough, at least for the moment, and he closed the conversation with one of the many black cat emoticons he'd collected.

A happy cat, with an anime grin and a bouncing tail.