He was late. The knowledge thrummed under his skin as Chat Noir planted a foot on the edge of his windowsill and pushed off sharply, launching himself into the air. His feet hit the rooftop and he ran forward, reaching for the baton on his back. The late summer wind caressed his face as he vaulted through the streets. Normally Chat enjoyed the sensation, and it was one of his favorite parts about patrolling.
But tonight, it was a reminder of how hot his left cheek was compared to the rest of his skin.
A flash of red to his right had him changing his trajectory; he swung around and headed in Ladybug's direction. She was sitting on the edge of a rooftop, swinging her legs back and forth over the open air. He landed behind her, silent as always, but she still turned her head to see him. It was like she had a sixth sense that enabled her to know when he was near.
"Hey kitty," she drawled in a way that always made his heart skip a beat. "What's up?"
"Not much. You ready to patrol?"
Ladybug stretched her hands over her head and sighed. "Yeah, I guess." She stood, lazily swinging her yoyo in a circle. "It's been quiet tonight. I wasn't sure if you were coming. I was almost ready to head home."
"We don't have to. I’m a little tired too," Chat said. He was trying to sound normal, but obviously he failed – probably because he’d never before turned down an opportunity to patrol with her. He took every opportunity he could to spend time with her.
Ladybug turned around and looked at him. "Chat?"
"You sound weird. What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He didn't look at her, purposely keeping her on his right. He stared at the Eiffel Tower in the distance like it was the most interesting thing in the world. His eyes blurred.
"Chat," she said again. "Look at me."
Reluctantly, because he’d never been able to deny his lady anything, he did. He could've run, but his bad luck was such that it probably would've made an akuma appear, and then Ladybug would've seen his face anyway. Or she would’ve gotten mad at him for running and made their next few times together unbearably awkward. He wasn’t sure which was worse. It was better, he thought, to just get it over with. So he turned to face her head-on, letting her see.
She gasped, a hand flying up to cover her mouth. "Oh my gosh. Chat, what happened?"
Chat licked his lips. He’d come up with a bunch of excuses. There hadn’t been an akuma attack in over a week, so he couldn’t use that. He also couldn’t say he’d hurt himself while patroling, because the bruise extended up beneath the part of his face that his mask covered. He’d intended to tell her what he would tell his friends at school the next day, which was that he’d tripped and hit his face.
Instead, what tumbled out of his mouth was the truth: "My father."
Ladybug looked stricken. "Your fath - oh, Chat." She stepped closer, her gloved hand reaching out to gently grip his chin so that she could angle his head for a better look. He wanted to tell her that it looked worse than it did, but that would've been a lie. In truth, it really hurt.
"I know you don't want to hear about my civilian life," Chat said miserably. "Sorry."
"No. Don't be sorry. I want to hear this." Ladybug pursed her lips. "Can you wait here? I'll be back in five, no ten minutes."
A little bewildered, and wondering if she was just saying that but not wanting to ask, he nodded. She gave him one last look before she threw out her yoyo, leaping off the roof. He didn't watch her go, instead taking a seat on the edge of the roof. If he closed his eyes, it was easier to make himself believe that he could still feel the soft touch of her hand against his chin.
True to her word, she was back in ten minutes. Ladybug landed beside him and clipped her yoyo back to her suit. Instead of taking a seat on the edge like he expected, she backed up until her back was pressed against the chimney and sat, setting a bag down beside her. Chat looked back at her, confused and then stunned when she patted her lap. She couldn't be suggesting what he thought she was suggesting, could she?
"My Lady?" His voice came out strangled this time.
“Come here, Chaton,” she invited.
He didn’t hesitate, scrambling over to her. He carefully laid down, placing his head in her lap and gazing out at the city. She moved above him, rummaging through the bag she’d brought with her. He flinched when something cold settled on his cheek before realizing that it was an ice pack. She’d gone home to get him an ice pack. He had to squeeze his eyes shut to hold back the tears. With the ice pack beginning to numb the pain, it didn’t even hurt as much as he was expecting.
"Is that better?" she asked softly.
"Much," he said, bringing up a hand to touch the ice pack. She pushed his hand away and resettled the pack to better cover the curve of his cheek, holding it in place. Her other hand came to rest on his head, and she began to lightly scratch at his scalp.
"Tell me," she murmured. "I don't care about our identities."
His throat burned at her kindness, because he knew she did care no matter what she said. "It was - it was stupid. My birthday is next week."
"Okay," she said slowly.
"Usually my father forgets about my birthday, but he actually asked me what I wanted during supper." Chat bit his lip, remembering the flash of excitement that had gone through him. First off, he'd been shocked that Gabriel remembered. Secondly, he'd been flummoxed that his father actually cared enough to ask. Ladybug, sensing his distress, scratched a bit harder. He couldn't help nuzzling into her touch.
"What happened?" she coaxed.
Chat chuckled bitterly. "I was honest. I told him that I wanted a birthday party with my friends from school. Apparently that wasn't really the answer he was looking for. He said he wanted to know what I really wanted, and I said that it was a party." It sounded stupid now, in retrospect.
Like she knew exactly what he was thinking, Ladybug said, "You have the right to want a birthday party, Chat."
"Not according to him," he murmured. "He said that the thing I should want the most was my mom back."
He closed his eyes. "My mom disappeared about a year before we got our miraculouses," he confessed. "No one knows what happened to her."
"Oh," Ladybug breathed, the comforting movement of her fingers pausing. He couldn't bear the feelings that welled up inside of him without the petting, and butted his head into her hand again. It was a relief when her fingers started up again.
"And I do miss her! Of course I do. It's just - that was three years ago. I'll always miss her, but I've started to move on. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" He flinched, ashamed, when his voice cracked.
"Of course it is," Ladybug said immediately. "No one would blame you for that."
"My father does. When I said that to him, he slapped me."
Ladybug readjusted the ice pack over his cheek. "What happened next?" she asked. To someone who didn't know her, she would've sounded calm. But Chat knew better. He heard the unrestrained fury in her voice and it soothed something restless and aching inside of him.
"Nothing," Chat mumbled. It wasn't entirely true. Nathalie had leaped forward and inserted herself between Adrien and his father. He was pretty sure she hadn't done it to protect him, though; it was more like she was trying to protect Gabriel, because she hadn't even acknowledged Adrien. Neither of them had. Gabriel had just been standing there with an odd expression on his face, shoulders heaving from exertion, and Nathalie had grabbed his hand and towed him out of the room. Adrien had stood there alone for a few minutes, hand cupping his burning cheek, before he realized he was late for his patrol with Ladybug.
But he couldn't really explain that to Ladybug. Not without telling her about Nathalie and the frankly weird relationship she had with Gabriel. That would be sharing more information than Ladybug would be comfortable with, and the last thing he wanted was to make Ladybug regret letting him find comfort in her.
"He didn't apologize?" Ladybug pressed.
Chat laughed again. "My father doesn't know the meaning of the word."
Ladybug was quiet for a moment. Then she said, "Scale of one to ten, how okay would you be with me punching your dad in the face?"
"That would definitely give away my identity," Chat said, smiling in spite of himself. His answer was a very solid ten. He would pay good money to see that.
"I've never cared less about our identities," Ladybug said. "I can't believe he hit you."
"It's okay," Chat said.
"Chat! No, it's really not."
He rolled over so that he was facing the sky, trapping the ice pack between his cheek and her tummy. The distressed look on her face hurt as much as it warmed him. He reached up, tracing a claw over her cheek. "He's never hit me before, My Lady."
"That doesn't make it okay."
"No, it doesn't," he admitted. "But he's my father."
"Not for much longer if he ever touches you again," Ladybug muttered. "Is there anyone you could tell?"
"Besides you? No. I'll just tell my friends that I tripped at fencing," Chat said. It would be easier that way. He couldn’t imagine Nino’s reaction if he were to tell them the truth, but it wouldn’t be good. The last thing he wanted was to see Nino getting akumatized again.
Ladybug frowned, her blue eyes filled with a mixture of sadness and anger. She stroked his hair. "Thank you for telling me," she said.
"I find that I can't lie to you even if I try," Chat admitted. She hadn't made him get up yet, so he decided to push his luck. "My Lady, could I lay on your lap for a little while longer?"
"Of course," Ladybug whispered.
She let him lay on her lap for over three hours, until Chat saw her eyes drifting shut and realized she needed sleep. She hugged him tightly, her arms winding around his neck, and kissed his unbruised cheek. Then she pressed a box into his hands with an admonition not to open it until he got home. Chat, bemused, promised, and waited until he was back in his bedroom and sitting on his bed to open the box. There, he found a selection of pastries and a note that contained Ladybug's phone number and a request that he reach out to her immediately if it ever happened again.
"She cares," Adrien breathed, holding the note like it was made of gold.
"Of course she does. Personally, I think you should've gone with her punching idea," Plagg grumbled, tail lashing the air.
Adrien waved him off and programmed the number into his phone. The ice had numbed his cheek to the point where he was able to fall asleep without too much trouble; he made the mistake of rolling over early the next morning and jolted awake the instant the left side of his face made impact with the pillow. He grunted and lurched upwards, realizing that it was only twenty minutes until his alarm would've gone off anyway. Plagg was still sound asleep, so Adrien made his way into the bathroom alone. He switched the light on and sucked in a sharp breath.
Yeah, there was no way he was going to be able to hide that.
He leaned in closer to the mirror, tipping his head. For once, having pale skin was not a blessing. The bruise covered the apple of his cheek and up into the eye socket, giving him a pretty spectacular black eye. It looked puffy and swollen and felt worse. Adrien sighed. If only Ladybug could launch her cure and heal him up. Better yet, if only her cure could reverse time and make this whole situation go away.
He didn’t feel like facing his father or Nathalie, so he ate a couple of the pastries Ladybug had given him for breakfast and transformed. Plagg went into the ring without even a whisper of protest, which was unusual but much appreciated. Chat slung his backpack over one shoulder and leapt out the window, taking the shortcut to school. He landed in an alley, de-transformed and walked casually into the school yard.
"Hey Dude!" Nino called out, and Adrien turned automatically towards his friend's voice. He spotted Nino, Alya and, surprisingly since there was still ten minutes before the bell rang, Marinette, standing over by the wall. Adrien walked over to join them, inwardly bracing himself for the inevitable questions. His friends did not disappoint.
"Oh my god!" Alya blurted out once he got close enough. "What happened?"
"Good morning to you too," Adrien said mildly.
"Dude," Nino said, somehow managing to convey both curiosity and grave concern with one word.
Marinette didn't speak, but her wide eyes said it all. Adrien sighed, lightly touching his cheek like he could the bruise from their stares.
"I tripped at fencing practice," he said, and Marinette twitched.
"You tripped?" Alya repeated, stepping closer and pushing her face closer to him.
Adrien shrugged and let his hand fall. "One moment of clumsiness is all it takes sometimes."
"Wow, your dad must've freaked," Nino said.
Adrien let a wry smile slide across his face. "That's one way to put it."
"You should put ice on it. It looks swollen," Alya said.
"I iced it last night," Adrien told her. "For about half an hour." Ladybug had offered to get him more ice once the pack melted, but he'd declined. Her presence had helped more than ice ever could.
"You should ice it again tonight," Marinette said softly. There was something in her eyes that Adrien couldn't discern. She'd never looked at him like that before, yet it was strangely familiar at the same time. It tickled at the back of his brain, an answer that slipped further out of reach the harder he reached for it.
"Yeah, I will," Adrien said, and smiled at her. She blinked and then smiled back, but something was decidedly off about her smile. It looked kind of wobbly.
"So does this mean your photoshoot tonight got canceled?" Nino asked.
"Uh, I don't know. Probably not." He couldn't imagine that happening. Adrien strongly suspected that Nathalie would order the make-up artists to do the best cover-up job that they could. If it worked, things would proceed as normal. If it didn't, or if the make-up stood out as unnatural, they would just have to stick with profile pictures. His right side was usually his best side anyway.
"Damn," Nino said, deflating. "I was hoping that you'd be able to hang out."
"I'll check my schedule," Adrien promised. "But it gets busy this time of year."
"Busy enough that you'll be busy on your birthday?" Alya asked. Nino frowned and Adrien glanced down, uncomfortable.
"Probably," he said.
"I have to go," Marinette announced suddenly. Adrien looked up at her. She looked like she'd come to some kind of decision. Her mouth was set in the thin, determined line that she always wore when she was ready to go toe-to-toe with Chloé, except Adrien knew for a fact that Chloé wasn't at school today because there was some sort of event that she'd pitched a fit about wanting to attend. As per usual, Mayor Bourgeois had caved. Chloé had tried to get him to attend with her, but Adrien had begged off. Now, he was grateful that he had.
"Go? Go where?" Alya asked, puzzled. Marinette didn't respond, except to hook her arm through Alya's and march towards the school, dragging Alya along with her. Adrien watched them go in confusion.
"Girls," Nino said, shrugging when Adrien turned to him for an explanation.
"That was weird, though," Adrien said.
Nino just shrugged again and pulled out his phone. "Wanna listen to this sick new playlist I made?"
The two of them didn't make it into school until the bell rang. By that point, Marinette and Alya were sitting at their desks and whispering to each other. Adrien caught a brief glimpse of a notebook with several scribbles in it before the book vanished when they realized he was there. Alya smiled at him, all innocence, which made Adrien narrow his eyes at her in suspicion. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that Alya was never innocent.
The school day passed by slowly, mostly because Adrien was dreading going to his photoshoot. His father was noticably absent when Adrien got there, and it turned out that things had already been smoothed over with the make-up team. Adrien wasn't sure what lie they'd been told, but no one asked him any questions when they ushered him into the tent and sat him in the chair. He succumbed to their brushes, letting them do whatever they wanted to do, and ignored the occasional spark of pain. He was Chat Noir; he'd dealt with worse.
Hands down the best part about the day was when he met Ladybug on patrol. She had another bag with her and was already sitting braced against another chimney. When Chat landed next to her, the first words out of her mouth stopped him cold.
"I think you should take a picture of your bruise."
"What?" Chat said, genuinely befuddled. "Why?"
Ladybug looked up at him. Her eyes were deep and dark and sad. "I just think you should. Just in case."
Just in case of what? Chat didn't ask, because he thought he already knew what she would say and it made his stomach twist. "I - he wouldn't do it again. It was just a one time thing."
"One time is too many," Ladybug said quietly.
And the thing was, she wasn't wrong. He knew that. He sank down beside her, pulling his knees to his chest. He never said he would, but that night when he got home and he de-transformed he snapped a selfie with his cell phone. The flash went off and captured the bruise on his face in perfect detail.
If someone had asked him, Adrien would've said of course he'd see his father before his birthday. He would've been wrong. As the days ticked closer, he ate all his meals alone. All communication to and from his father was filtered through Nathalie. She never brought up what had happened, and Adrien couldn't bring himself to ask. What he really wanted to know, which was whether or not Gabriel regretted slapping him, was not something Nathalie could answer. And even if she could, he was too afraid that the answer might not be what he wanted to hear.
Gabriel's silence kind of spoke for itself anyway, didn't it?
By the morning of his birthday, the bruise had faded enough that it was barely visible. Adrien ate breakfast by himself, as per usual, and allowed the Gorilla to drive him to school. He didn't see any of his friends or classmates in the school yard when he got there, so he headed inside. He made his way to his locker, swapped out the books he'd need for the morning, and continued on towards his classroom. No one in the hallway gave him a second look. It was at once a relief and somewhat lonely.
Then he opened the classroom door.
"You're good, it's okay."
Only Adrien's superior hearing, courtesy of three years and counting as a miraculous holder according to Plagg, allowed him to hear Marinette's whisper beneath the shouts of their classmates, but no one could have missed the hand she laid on his arm. He unclenched his hand, looking at her; thank god she was there, because otherwise he might've transformed right in the middle of Collège Françoise Dupont. He didn't handle surprises nearly as well since becoming Chat Noir, mostly because surprises were almost always of the akuma variety.
How had Marinette known that? It was like she'd foreseen his reaction, but how?
Marinette was smiling. "Happy Birthday, Adrien," she said softly.
"What?" Adrien said, dumbfounded, and promptly forgot all about Marinette's weird actions when he got a look at the classroom and saw the huge Happy Birthday sign, balloons, and streamers.
One by one, his classmates and Ms. Bustier came up to wish him a happy birthday individually. Nino was the last, grinning so wide it stretched from ear to ear. "You finally got a party," he said excitedly. "I mean, it sucks that it has to be at school but at least this way your dad couldn't say no."
"Yeah," Adrien said dazedly, sweeping his gaze across the room. He felt kind of like crying when he looked at all the happy faces.
Nino took pity on him. "Come on. Let's have some cake. Marinette brought it in."
The cake was three tiers and chocolate with blue and green frosting, and it was absolutely delicious. Adrien ate two pieces and might've gone back for a third had Nino not declared it time for presents. He sat in quiet shock as each of his classmates presented him with a gift, ranging from a bouquet of flowers from Rose to a beautifully drawn picture of Ladybug from Nathanael. Chloé gave him a framed picture of the two of them walking the red carpet. Nino's gift was a set of new headphones and three new playlists personalized for Adrien. Alya's was a compilation of all the best footage of Ladybug she'd gotten for the Ladyblog. Each gift was so thoughtful that it made the urge to cry even worse. He'd never had such an amazing birthday.
Marinette's gift was last. She set a beautifully wrapped box in front of him with a small smile. "If it's okay, I'd rather you waited until after school when you're alone to open this."
"Sure," Adrien said. He was overwhelmed enough that he didn't even mind the odd request. She smiled again, wished him a happy birthday, and went back to her seat. Adrien picked up the box, surprised by how light it was, and tucked it safely into his backpack.
Ms. Bustier cleared her throat. "Alright class. I'm afraid we have to get back to work now," she said, amidst groans. Ms. Bustier just smiled; she didn't make them take the decorations down quite yet, or put away their remaining plates of cake, but she did insist that everyone take out their mathematics books.
"Thanks for the party," Adrien whispered to Nino.
Nino raised both eyebrows. "Don't thank me. This was all Marinette."
"Yup. She's the one who asked Ms. Bustier for permission and then coordinated everything. I never even thought about having a party for you here. Pretty genius. Your dad can't say no if it's happening here," Nino said.
Adrien itched to turn and look at the girl behind him, but he couldn't. And when lunch came, Marinette was the first one out of the classroom. She didn't come back until the very end, which meant he didn't get a chance to talk to her. She was the first one out the door when the dismissal bell rang, too. He watched her go with rising frustration, wondering why she wasn't sticking around. Maybe she was too shy to accept his gratitude? But Adrien had to thank her. No one except for Nino had ever done so much for his birthday.
He went from school to a fencing lesson to a Chinese lesson before he had the chance to open Marinette's gift. In the safety of his bedroom, with Plagg hovering over his shoulder in curiosity - he didn't think that kwamis counted when it came to privacy - he unwrapped the green ribbons and took the top off the box. Inside was a single macaron, dark chocolate with bright green filling in between, and a note. Adrien picked up the note and froze.
Happy Birthday, Kitty. Love, Your Lady.
"Holy shit," Adrien said out loud, stunned. Suddenly a whole lot of things were making sense.
"Finally put it together, did you?" Plagg said.
"Claws out!" Adrien yelped, rather than answer, and scrambled to the window.
Marinette was sitting on her balcony, waiting for him. Last time he'd been there, she only had one lounge chair and a table. Now she had two lounge chairs, one on either side of the table. There were two mugs and a platter of macarons that matched the macaron in his gift. A red kwami was sitting on the table, munching away on one of the macarons. Chat felt light-headed as he landed on the railing, looking at the kwami. Tikki, if he remembered correctly. That was a glaring sign that he hadn't misinterpreted Marinette's note.
"Mari?" he asked shakily.
She looked up at him. "Hi Adrien."
She knew. He de-transformed. "How did you...?"
Marinette touched her cheek. "It was pretty obvious."
Oh, right. Adrien hadn't even thought about that. He sank into the chair across from her. "It could've been a coincidence."
"You told Ladybug that you were going to tell your friends you'd tripped at fencing," she said flatly, and he winced.
"Yeah, okay. That's fair. Sorry, I -"
"Don't apologize. You didn't do it on purpose."
That was true. He was just glad she wasn't angry. "Thank you for the party. It was awesome."
"It was all you wanted for your birthday," Marinette said, and suddenly he recognized that look he hadn't been able to identify before. She was angry, just not at him. "All you want was a party and he wouldn't give to you. He hit you instead. Because you wanted a party!"
Adrien didn't know what to say.
"Did he apologize the next morning?" she asked, like she already knew the answer, and he shook his head slowly.
"I haven't seen or spoken to him since," he admitted.
Marinette was quiet for a moment before she took a deep breath. "So, I've decided I'm not going to punch your dad."
"Oh?" Adrien said cautiously.
"I'm going to kill him."
He stared at her. "What."
"It'll be easy," Marinette said, far too calmly.
"You can't use Ladybug to kill people," Adrien said.
"I don't need to. I was going to do it with my bare hands, but Plagg can help," Marinette said, and Plagg suddenly looked far too interested by this conversation. "I'll get the Fox miraculous from Master Fu. Alya can provide me with an alibi. One Cataclysm later and he'll never touch you again." There was something dark and determined about her that should've been frightening, but really just made Adrien feel warm from head to toe.
"You can't kill him," he said.
"Yes I can. He touched you and you're mine. My kitty."
He didn't argue that because, well, it was true. "You're better than that," he said honestly. "You're better than him."
Her face crumpled. "Move in with me. Please don't go back there. I hate the thought of you being under that roof after what he did."
Adrien had to breathe through the sudden surge of want. "I'm only seventeen. I can't."
"Yes, you can. Adrien, he hit you. No one would make you go back if you didn't want to. You could be emancipated. I've looked into it." Marinette was chewing on a strand of hair, watching him with wide, nervous eyes. "You can live with me."
"Did you even ask your parents about this?"
"No. Not yet. I wanted to make sure you were okay with it first. But I will, and I'm sure they'll say yes."
He wasn't so sure about that. "They might not want another kid around."
Marinette stood up and moved to sit beside him. She took his hand. "It's only for a year. If they don't like it after that, we'll move out together."
Her hand was so soft, and warm, but strong, anchoring him. Adrien swallowed and leaned against her, resting his head on her shoulder. He was sure, if he asked, she would let him put his head in her lap just like he had when they were on the rooftops. He thought of the mansion, with its huge, empty halls and the lack of warmth. He thought about the bakery, where Marinette's parents had always welcomed him with kind smiles and words. He thought about his lady, and the fear and anger she'd displayed on his behalf, and how much he hated to leave her when patrol was over.
He thought about his father, and how it turned out you could love someone and dislike them at the same time. Because he thought he'd probably always love his father, but he might just hate the man that Gabriel Agreste had become. And as much as he wanted to insist that it would never happen again, he couldn't be sure. It wasn't like Gabriel had gone overboard apologizing. Even an ounce of remorse would've gone a long way, but there had been nothing.
"Could you tell them?" he whispered.
Marinette squeezed his hand and kissed his cheek. The cheek that had been bruised. He might've cried a little, sitting there on her balcony with his lady and their kwamis. She wrapped her arms around him and rocked him back and forth until he got himself back under control. He didn't want to be there when she talked to her parents, so she left him on her balcony with their kwamis in his lap. Adrien sat there and looked out at the city, trying to remember what life was like when he could be sure that his father loved him. It was a lot harder to remember than it should've been.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed before someone returned, but it wasn't just Marinette. Sabine Cheng came up onto the balcony too. Adrien put a hand over his stomach, where Tikki and Plagg were hiding beneath his shirt, and tried to smile.
"Hi, Ms. Cheng," he said quietly.
"Oh, honey," Sabine said, sinking down on his right. Marinette sat on his left. Both women hugged him. He could feel Marinette's tears soaking his shoulder even as Sabine gently ran her hand through his hair.
"I don't mean to impose," Adrien said.
Sabine shook her head. "You're not imposing, Adrien. Not even a little bit."
"I took a picture," he said, and felt Marinette stiffen in surprise. He took his phone out and flipped to the picture. "I just - so you can see I wasn't making it up."
It turned out that Sabine looked a lot like her daughter when she got angry. She stared at the picture and her face got tight and her eyes got bright, but her voice was soft when she spoke to Adrien. "We believe you, honey. It's good you have proof, but you don't need to show it to us. It's okay. You can share Marinette's bed tonight, and we'll look into getting something more permanent set up for you tomorrow."
"My father," Adrien began.
"Tom's gone to have a word with him," Sabine said, hugging him again. "Don't worry, Adrien. Everything will be okay."
Sitting there, two sets of arms tight around him and one of them belonging to his lady, Adrien could actually start to believe it.