Ladybug was smiling when they bumped fists, but not as brightly as she used to, and even that fell away as she turned to scan the park. Her attention paused on two of the models Adrien was working with today—one just de-akumatized, the other already babbling apologies to her friend for the fight sparking that emotionally vulnerable state—and moved on: "I should find Adrien," she murmured.
Chat Noir inwardly winced. Ladybug had at least three minutes on her timer—well, her 'timer', but they couldn't rely on her having more than five minutes yet, and if Hawkmoth didn't yet know she'd partially cracked the five-minute barrier then they certainly didn't want him to learn, and she hadn't figured out how to explain the trick of it to Chat anyway—and Chat himself only had two. The akuma victim had a friend with her already, which made checking on her a lower priority. And Adrien, who had been pretty visibly in the middle of things for the first ten minutes of this battle—well, Ladybug had dubbed his class 'our problem children' and Chat had to agree. Ladybug wanting to check on Adrien, or (if Chat had time) have Chat 'check on Adrien', was entirely sensible; if it were, say, Marinette, if Ladybug weren't going looking yet then he certainly would be.
But the thought of finding Adrien was so clearly saddening her, and she equally clearly wasn't moving to find him—
What did I do?
"Hey," Chat said instead. "Come find me later if you want to talk, okay?"
Ladybug gave him a long look, then sighed. "Yeah, I guess. If you want." He blinked at her, confused. "I don't want to talk about this with you, Chaton. I know it's going to hurt you. But maybe I do need to talk to someone, and there isn't anyone else who'll understand. So. Only if you want."
Damn him and his lovesick heart. "Come find me later," Chat repeated.
Ladybug smiled again, still dim and sad but sincere. "Get lost already."
Chat swept her a bow, extended his staff, and vaulted away.
Moments later, Adrien sneaked back into the park, trying to look like he'd been hiding from the action starting the moment the akuma had lost track of him. He caught sight of Ladybug, who turned toward him only long enough to look him up and down, nod once, and yo-yo off. He hadn't even gotten closer than ten meters!
What did I do?
Trying to arrange a time to meet when they were both supposed to be in civilian mode meant a frustrating game of kwami-mediated phone tag, as always; not for the first time, Adrien wished Ladybug would let him buy them a couple of prepaid phones, or trade pseudonymous emails, or join a messaging app neither otherwise used, or something.
…He was in no way saving a folder of things he would send her if he could. Lies, the very thought of it.
Adrien dropped by Tom and Sabine's before heading out to meet Ladybug; whatever conversation she wanted to have would probably hurt less with cheesecake. Or whatever—it was close to closing, but not so close to be an issue if Adrien's order was flexible and not complex. Marinette was sweeping the storefront when he arrived; when she noticed him, she tripped over the broom, scattered her dust pile, and whacked her head on a display case. Mama Cheng sighed, shaking her head and smiling. Marinette, fiery red, refused to look his way.
"You want to go get some acetaminophen or something, Marinette?" Adrien suggested. Someday he would figure out what he'd ever done to her, but that probably wasn't today; meanwhile he could at least run damage control, because that was what friends did, right? "I can finish sweeping while your mother rings me up."
Marinette nodded weakly, all but threw the broom at him, and bolted upstairs.
…She usually at least tried to talk to him, even if it did come out nonsensical. What, Adrien thought yet again, did I even do?
"That girl," Mama Cheng said, and she was still smiling but— "What do you want, Adrien?"
"Cheesecake." Adrien focused on the dirty floor. He didn't want to think the rest of this thought. "Plain, four slices, if you have them. Two boxes. Please."
He really did not want to think the rest of this thought.
Mama Cheng moved to gather his order.
"Why don't you support her better?" Adrien blurted.
"Pardon?" She sounded startled.
He hadn't meant to say that. Marinette probably wouldn't be happy if she overheard it. It might not even help. But it was too late to take it back, even if he wanted to try.
"I know you both love her," Adrien told her, determinedly sweeping out a corner. "I know you make sure to spend time with her." He paused, turning to watch Mama Cheng. "But it seems like every time I see her with either of you, something happens, and she needs your help, and you don't give it to her."
And Mama Cheng knew the polite-smile mask trick too, it looked like. Damn it. Figuring people out was enough fun when they weren't trying to hide things.
Adrien refocused on the next patch of floor. "I know how she acts when she knows I'm there and when she doesn't, or when she does but I'm not important. I'd think the problem is me, except I heard about when Papa Dupain got akumatized." Heard about, caused, bonnet blanc, blanc bonnet. "Her crush broke her heart, she ran off crying, and nobody followed her." Adrien glanced over again; Mama Cheng was settling cheesecake slices in a box. "The crush probably figured he couldn't without making things worse."
Chat still hadn't owned up to Ladybug about how Copycat happened, either. There was probably no way they could have handled Marinette getting akumatized over how Chat Noir felt for Ladybug without a really unpleasant conversation afterwards. Especially since—having found out the hard way how much it sucked working with a partner who would as soon one froze to death, a condition that had abruptly thawed about ten minutes after Chat Noir waylaid Alya to insist, as Ladybug already had, Alya take down the Ladyblog photo of the kiss they couldn't remember—Chat was actively trying not to let Ladybug feel he couldn't be happy if she didn't return all his feelings.
It wasn't working so great. He didn't think he could.
But Ladybug's happiness mattered too. More, really, than his own. And if she ever got the notion that he wanted anything in the romantic and/or—not appropriate thoughts with somebody's mother watching—vicinity with her more than he wanted anything else with her, enough to jeopardize what they already had?
Well, that would be the end of that, wouldn't it?
Adrien kept sweeping, letting the but and the why hang unspoken in the silence.
"There's only three slices of plain cheesecake left," Mama Cheng finally said. "Do you want to leave it at that, or add something else?"
He didn't look over. "Is there a slice with chocolate?"
Adrien nodded. "That, please. Where will I find a dustpan?"
Mama Cheng directed him, adding, "Marinette doesn't often want our help. When she does, she asks for it."
Adrien moved silently to fetch the dustpan.
"She doesn't talk to us." Mama Cheng sounded matter-of-fact, shading maybe to sad. "We try, but—we can't help her if she doesn't want us to."
"I guess." Adrien crouched down to sweep the pile of fallen crumbs and misplaced Parisian street into the dustpan. "I stopped asking my father for help on much of anything a long time ago. About when I figured out the only things wrong with my life that he ever tries to help with are the ones he can fix by telling his executive assistant to go spend money." He moved the dustpan, the better to sweep up the bits that wanted to go under or around it. "Doesn't mean I don't need his help, or don't want it, or don't wish he would offer. Just that he won't help, and if I ask him to, it might be worse than if I just deal with it myself. So I don't ask anymore." He leaned the broom on the nearest display case and straightened up, facing her with the full dustpan in hand and no idea why it mattered so much that he tell her this. "I don't know what Marinette might think. But I know you're better than that."
Mama Cheng's eyes were wet. "The trash is right there," she said, pointing. "Wash your hands."
Adrien followed instructions. Mama Cheng dealt with the register and told him the total—"less €2.50, to pay you for a quarter hour of work; don't argue, young man," and Adrien closed his mouth over his half-formed protest—and collected his money and sent him on his way. He glanced back on his way out; Mama Cheng was watching the back of the storefront, shoulders low.
He probably shouldn't have said anything. Especially since Marinette could have come back at any moment and heard it all. She hadn't—Adrien would have heard her; his senses kind of sucked when he wasn't masked, but his default music volume had been creeping down for ages, which Plagg claimed as evidence that he only thought his unmasked senses sucked because he was comparing to his masked self, not his pre-mask self—but she could have.
Weird, now he thought of it, that she hadn't.
Not that Adrien was curious or anything. Especially not with his Lady to meet.
Ladybug's tracker led Chat Noir to a rooftop overlooking the Pont des Arts. "Hey," she said when his boots hit the shingles, without uncurling herself or turning her head.
"I brought a peace offering," Chat said, coming to settle beside her. Ladybug glanced at the T&S boxes and flicked her fingers as though shooing them away; he set them down on his other side. "What do you need?"
"Hawkmoth's head on a plate." Chat let out a bitter laugh, but it wasn't as though he could disagree. "The Peacock wielder's too," Ladybug continued, "and both kwamis safe. That task force the EU claims they're organizing to come talk to us."
"Without sounding like they think we're children and incompetent and should really hand over our Miraculous to the adult experts," Chat added.
"Oh, you got that too? Damn. I was hoping I was catastrophizing."
"What did Tikki say?" Chat wondered.
Ladybug's shoulders twitched, like a half-begun shrug. "Not the first time she's had to suggest planning how to fake her wielder's death, she says."
Chat nodded. "Plagg said that too. I mean, he's been saying something of the sort for a while, but that's because if I ever seriously do run away from home, my father will find me and drag me back and lock me up, and I will probably actually die. Possibly by clawing my own throat open with my bare hands," he added, more rueful than sour or bitter, but Ladybug shuddered anyway. "But if first we convince him I'm already dead…" He spread his hands, then let them fall to his knees. "Making Ladybug and Chat Noir vanish, with or without our teammates, and with or without vanishing the people under the masks, is going to be a lot harder than just making the boy under this mask vanish." He paused. "Or the girl under yours."
Ladybug buried her face in her knees. "I hate that I am actually considering this," she said, muffled.
"We don't have to," Chat observed. "At least. Not yet."
"I guess not." Ladybug turned her head; her face was streaked with tears. "Ready to talk about the thing I know will hurt you?"
Chat knocked his elbow against her side. "I'm not that fragile."
"I know. I still don't want to hurt you."
"I—" love you so much; you're the first person who's ever cared "—really appreciate that. But I want you not hurting more than I want me not hurting." He put on the brightest smile he sincerely could. "Fire away."
She nodded. "The boy I'm in love with," she said, and bit her lip, watching his face fall. "Told you," she added, very small.
"Did he hurt you?" Better, so much better, to focus his anger on defending her, not on a retaliatory attack when he knew she wanted anything but to hurt him. "I am happy to kick his ass."
Ladybug shook her head. "No, no. That's…you're sweet to offer, but that solves a different problem." She snorted. "I'm pretty sure I could shotput his ass half a block without the mask anyway. He doesn't eat enough."
Given Chat's own development in the past couple of years, he would be unwilling to bet against unmasked Ladybug if she bet she could shotput Ivan half a block. He wasn't sure he could do that himself—Rose, certainly; any of the intermediate sizes of classmate, possibly; Ivan, probably not—but he wouldn't doubt her if Ladybug said she could. "What do you need, then?"
Ladybug uncurled far enough to put her left hand on his right. (Anyone else trying to get that close to his Miraculous, he might punch; he'd started shaking left hands or not at all after the third nightmare after Simon Says in which his father stole the ring right off his too-trusting hand.) She swallowed, twice, and changed her grip to squeeze his hand.
Chat put his other hand over hers. "Take your time."
"I don't deserve you," she muttered, and before Chat could find a response to such obvious nonsense, she continued, "I need you to help me break my heart."
"I'm serious, Chat," Ladybug said, and she sounded it; often enough she would say that through a laugh that proved she was lying, no matter how strongly she intended otherwise. "I can't focus. I need to spend more time with you, so we get better. Rena Rouge and Carapace, too."
She didn't mention Queen Bee, but he hadn't really expected her to. When the next occasion arose that Ladybug thought they needed the Bee Miraculous in play, Chat was planning to see if he could get either of the loveliest girls in his life to smile when he explained why he thought Sapis was a great name for the Bee-wielding Marinette. (Si·sapis·sis·apis; it was, he admitted, funnier in Latin.)
"More time," Ladybug continued in frustration, "going through the Ladyblog and the news reports and everything out there that has even a scrap of anything we can use."
"Stay off Catscratch," Chat said immediately.
Ladybug rolled her eyes. "Catscratch has nothing original except their shitty attitudes. And even then, it's just standard-issue racism and misogyny. Nothing we don't deal with unmasked."
"I know." Adrien hadn't figured out yet how to pay intellectual property lawyers on Alya's behalf to handle the plagiarism lawsuit she kept loudly wanting to press, since Nathalie monitored his accounts, and he didn't want to risk drawing her attention to the cash he withdrew at irregular intervals and then deposited most of in a bank account neither she nor his father knew about. Nor did he have any idea how Chat Noir could raise a legal stink about anything without facing a demand for his legal name. And since the Catscratch community's whole point seemed to be half Ladybug had cheated Chat Noir out of the superior power set, half he already had it and she was stealing top billing, and their reasoning all amounted to he was French (a term that in this practice excluded Alya, two hundred years of French-speaking ancestry or no) and she was neither? He wasn't too sure he could claim defamation without being laughed out of the courthouse anyway. "Still."
"Yeah. And whatever time I can spare from world-saving, I should probably think about spending on trigonometry, because if Hawkmoth doesn't kill me, math tests will."
"I'm pretty good at math," Chat volunteered. But— "What's this got to do with your boy?"
"He's not my boy." Ladybug leaned against him, one arm still holding her knees to her chest. "I'm not sure he even knows I'm interested. If he does, he's ignoring it with all his might." (Chat spared a moment to silently curse this callous little fool, whoever he was.) "But I can't think about much else."
(Callous little fool who didn't even want to know what a priceless treasure as Ladybug's heart was right there for his taking, if only he were willing to offer anything of himself in return. If only he were willing to notice her.)
"That's the problem, Chaton." She sounded so tired. "There's so much I need to think about, and all I'm thinking about is him. There's so much I need to do, and most of what I'm doing is increasingly desperate schemes to get his attention. If he'd just tell me no, I think I could stop. If I knew for sure he doesn't want me, it would hurt for a while, but then I could be done." She lifted their joined hands to her cheek; it wasn't a kiss to his hand, but it was tantalizingly close. "And then I could do my job better. Right?"
"I hate this whole line of reasoning," Chat told her, and then, because he remained a lovesick fool who didn't bother looking till he'd leaped, continued "Are you sure you don't want me to sweep you off your feet? I could make you so happy you forget all about him."
Ladybug didn't answer.
"…Bug?" Chat asked, when the silence became uncomfortable.
"Speaking personally," she said slowly, "don't." And of course that hurt, but she kept talking: "You shouldn't be anyone's second choice, Chat. Or anyone's rebound. You're worth so much more. You deserve so much better. Don't answer that," she added, and Chat, who had in fact been about to say how much he didn't believe this, kept his mouth shut. "I know what you want," she continued. "And you deserve to get what you want. Generally speaking. Terms and conditions may apply."
"But I can't give you that right now."
—I can't right now implied maybe I can later.
Gods. That hope would have him walking on air for years.
"I don't want to think about speaking professionally," Ladybug said, quiet and sad. "Because it might be a different answer."
The words different answer rang in his ears, now and never in heartwrenching cacophony.
"You're my best friend," Chat told her, words hurrying out as though there might not be another chance. "You know that, right? You're my everything. I want as much of you as you want to give me. I don't care how long I have to wait. I don't care if I never get more than this at all. Just please don't take anything away. Please, Ladybug, I can't lose you."
Ladybug uncurled her legs altogether, to push herself up to kiss his cheek. Chat stared at her, heart singing almost loudly enough to drown the persistent drumbeat of she doesn't really want you.
"We're good, Chaton," she said. "I promise."
He found the composure to nod.
Ladybug settled back more comfortably against him. "For now, I still want your help breaking my heart."
Chat nodded, and peeled his right hand away so he could sling that arm around her, offering what comfort and support he could. "What do you think will work best, in terms of making you think about him less? I can trash-talk him. I can go ask him what he thinks of you and bring back the answer. I can trash-talk you to him first, if a more negative answer will help more. I'll be lying but I can do it."
"Lying won't help." She sighed. "I don't want him to think badly of me. I think he did for a long time. I don't think I said a single sentence to him with all the words I meant in the order I meant them the whole first year I knew him, and I trip over myself while he's watching at least once a week. I did that today, and the first thing he did was say he'd help clean up. I think we're finally getting past the bad parts."
"No trash-talking you," Chat said. "Got it."
"I don't think he'd believe you anyway." For the first time all day, if not all fortnight, Ladybug sounded happy. "I've been getting so much better at talking to him that we're really friends now. It's just my heart I can't tell him about. And he goes out of his way sometimes to make sure I feel appreciated—he called me an everyday Ladybug once, can you imagine?" She laughed. "That was the first time I ever thought maybe Ladybug isn't so much the mask as the girl."
Chat Noir could, in fact, imagine. "Doesn't Tikki ever tell you about other Ladybugs? There's no way anyone else could do what you do."
"If you say so," Ladybug said, and the words might mark her reluctance to believe him, but her tone said she probably did. "…Does Plagg tell you about other Black Cats?"
"Now and again." He thought about wrapping his left hand around the ring on his right, but that might mean hugging Ladybug too tightly, and anyway he would have to drop her hand first. "Not often. I think he loses too many of us, and I don't want to hurt him."
"Not you," she said at once. "He's not losing you."
"We weren't planning on it," Chat assured her.
"Yeah? Tell that to someone who hasn't seen you die."
Chat blinked. Other than Style Queen's attack—and he'd been Adrien at the time; when she'd yelled at him later for losing his Miraculous, it had mostly told him she thought Chat Noir had been perfectly fine, somewhere else—he was pretty sure he didn't remember ever dying. It was something of a rarity, in post-Syren Paris, not knowing how it felt to die. Hawkmoth himself must be in that minority; it was probably not very heroic that the anger masking pain in Ladybug's voice made Chat Noir want to change that. "When was this?"
"Timebreaker." Ladybug slipped her hand out of his; he found her arm snaking around his waist before he could protest the loss. "I fell. She was going to vanish me before I could get away. You got in between." There was a distinct wet sound to her voice. "You were holding me. I could feel your heartbeat. And then I couldn't feel you at all."
…He'd actually sort of known this. Ladybug hadn't led off with 'your life depends on it' that day, but it was definitely the first thing she'd said once she saw Chat Noir. But he'd cracked a joke to distract her, because even that early in their partnership he'd known she worked better annoyed or amused than anxious or alarmed. (And, okay, yes, because the thought of dying lost a lot of appeal with both seeing Ladybug and being Chat Noir to live for, and he hadn't wanted to think about it at all.) And then the second Ladybug had thoroughly distracted him, and…
Well, he hadn't thought about it again. He would have had to think about how she'd looked when she told him the akuma had killed him the first time and would try for seconds. She hadn't looked anguished, he thought, exactly, but how much time did she remember from multiple angles? Was it as much as ten minutes? Whatever impact his death could have had on her, it probably hadn't fully hit until after the battle.
—She was sniffling. That wouldn't do. "Hey," Chat said softly. "I'm here. I'm right here, LB, I'm not going anywhere."
He twisted some to get one arm under her knees, the other under her butt, and levered her to sit sideways in his lap; her legs knocked one cheesecake box over and pushed the other away. This wasn't, he realized too late, the best way to sit them so she could hear his heart beating, but she let her right hand rest on the pulse point of his neck, and that was close enough to the same thing.
"I can't lose you," Ladybug whispered.
"I'll be more careful," Chat promised. "And I'll always come back to you."
Ladybug's fingertips traced little circles on his skin. "That's the best I'm getting, isn't it."
Chat Noir, who did not have the power to fix things magic broke and who was therefore the more expendable of the pair of them whether she liked it or not, did not see reason to lie. "Probably." It also wasn't something he wanted, or wanted her, to dwell on. "We wandered. Your boy."
"Chaton." She leaned more solidly into him, then abruptly went still. "—Chaton, is that a baton in—"
"Shut up." People experimented, now and again on blistering hot days, with frying eggs on sidewalks. His face was not that warm. Probably. "It happens around pretty people, it happens a lot when you touch me, and until and unless you decide we're together, I want to pretend it isn't happening at all."
Ladybug's face was pretty pink too; at least what he could see of it. And it kind of looked like she might be maybe considering this.
…Damn everything. "You said you don't even want to think about thinking about me like that until you're over your boy, remember?"
"Stop calling him my boy." She rearranged herself in his lap, which seriously did not help that particular problem, and hesitated. "Should I get you off? —Get off of you," she corrected, enunciation careful and face aflame.
Yeah, he was just going to ignore that. Very loudly. Marinette he might have teased about such a blatant, and blatantly accidental, remark; it was a lot more her style anyway. Marinette also wasn't interested in Adrien, not even a little, no matter how much Alya tried to matchmake them, and as Chat Noir he supposed he couldn't say anything to Marinette about that sort of remark regardless without hurting her feelings even more. And Ladybug he just…couldn't comment on that. Either of him. Ever.
"If you want to move, move," he told her, "but I'm okay if you are."
Chat determinedly watched the foot traffic on the Pont des Arts. "I put you there, didn't I? The boy," he added before this ship could sail any further into dangerous waters. "What do you want to do?"
Ladybug considered. "I want to say," she said finally, "you should go talk to him. Find out what he thinks about me, like you said. But I would have to tell you my name, and…"
Shit, yeah, he hadn't thought of that. "Never mind that, then."
"Which probably means I need to talk to him myself." Ladybug drew in a deep breath and let it out. "I've been trying, though. I have been trying at least once a week for two years. And every time, Chat, every single time, something goes wrong. Spending more time and attention coming up with more ways to try to talk to him about this is the thing I want to stop."
"Yeah." Since Ladybug didn't seem to want to get up, embarrassingly obvious boner or otherwise, he let his arms drift back up around her. "When do you usually see him?"
"Every weekday and sometimes weekends. I sit behind him in class."
"You should probably fix that," Chat noted. "Sit across the room or something, just so you're looking at him less."
"Good idea." She paused. "I still want to be his friend, you know. I don't want to shut him out, or make myself think badly of him, or give him any reason not to want to be my friend anymore. And that's for him, as much as me. He doesn't have very many friends to begin with, and his closest friend is dating my closest friend but you, and—"
"It would suck and hurt a lot of people," Chat filled in. "So we don't want to go there."
"Exactly." Ladybug heaved a sigh. "I did think about it. Cutting him out of my life. Everyone, really, except you. More time to work that way. But there's got to be some reason to go out world-saving, right?"
That made too much sense. "Yeah—if there's not much in it for us, how long would we care?" Too painfully much sense. What else could she do, then? Well, what had she done? "What ways have you tried to get his romantic attention?" He hesitated. "Or sexual attention. If the difference matters to you. And I think that came out wrong anyway."
"I know what you meant," Ladybug assured him, tensing up and blushing again. "Um. Promise you won't make fun of me about this later?"
"Nothing I learn tonight is something I'll ever tease you about. Cat's honor." Except the fact she'd asked meant this was probably going to be really fun ammunition. "Unless you change your mind later."
"Chat." She pulled in another deep breath. "Okay. So. Not that I'm planning on having any sex with anyone anytime soon, you understand." Damn it, that boner had been fading. "But we're sixteen, so if we both wanted, we legally could. I'm pretty sure some of our classmates have. I'm not sure at what point I'll be old enough for people to start thinking it's embarrassing I haven't. And it's…um, it's definitely something I've thought about. With him. And, um, a couple other friends." She gulped, and very quietly added, "And you."
"What I'm hearing," Chat said, redoubling his resolve to keep this ship in familiar, if not necessarily safe, waters, "is that mutual sexual attraction isn't enough basis for any relationship you're in. The romance has to be there. Otherwise it's just friendship. However occasionally awkward."
"Something like that," Ladybug agreed, slowly relaxing. "So, no. I haven't tried to get his, um, sexual attention, because that's not the important part. I also wouldn't be the only person at our school who has tried that on him, and I don't want him thinking that's all I want or the important part of what I want, and…so a couple of my classmates are really nasty. I get enough of being called an insert sexist bullshit here without giving them any reason besides I exist."
"So we can rule that out too," Chat said. "So how have you tried to get his romantic attention?"
"Oh, everything." She snorted. "Since you so generously promised more safety from teasing than I asked for, I'm starting with the humiliating ones. The other month I wrote him a love letter and I gave it to him right before he left on a weekend trip. Or that was the plan. I was running an errand for my grandfather at the same time, and when I realized what I actually did I was too mortified to text my friend and explain. I got my grandfather sorted out, but I guess my friend just never noticed what the note said didn't make sense with what I said about the note."
"Wrong note?" Chat asked, feeling his heart speed up. This sounded a lot like Marinette's misadventure the weekend he'd gone to London—Alya had even pulled Adrien aside later to ask about the note, then nod wisely and say "Wrong note" without letting on what the right note might have said—but that couldn't be.
"Wrong note," Ladybug confirmed. "He came back from London and proudly handed me a bag of constipation pills."
It couldn't be.
"Well," Chat managed, "at least you know he'll never be too embarrassed to buy you tampons."
"So I'm told." Ladybug buried her face in his neck. "Not tampons, though. Hate tampons. Pads."
She really wanted her money's worth from his promise, didn't she? "Aren't tampons supposed to be better for athletic activity, or something? And as often as we're bouncing around Paris…"
"Yes. They are. I hate them." She bit off each syllable.
"Sorry, sorry!" Chat might have held up surrender hands, if she weren't still in his lap. "I didn't realize it's a sore subject."
Ladybug deliberately took a calming breath. "It's fine. You're fine, you didn't know, and it's worth thinking about." She moved her hand down to his heart. "I wasn't regular before. I'm still not. Tikki says I'm not eating right, but we haven't found 'right' yet. It might just be not enough for how active I am—a lot of teen athletes who should get periods don't, and that's why—but I eat everything in sight. So Tikki thinks I should be looking for tasty human-edible bugs or flowers, because for Miraculous wielders the weirdness never stops."
"I purr," Chat told her; he wasn't going to extract a no-teasing promise in return, because he hoped she'd feel bound by his. And either way, it probably wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to be able to relax enough around someone who made him happy (and wasn't Plagg) to purr. "I really wish I knew how to cook, because I keep getting yelled at about not eating my vegetables, and I have found whole blogs full of ways to trick small carnivorous humans into eating their vegetables. Somebody put catnip tea in our kitchen; nothing has happened yet," he reassured her, and she relaxed out of the tension she'd just gained, "but it smelled tempting, so I haven't opened the tea cabinet since. I hear you took out Malediktator's squad by waving a laser pointer at me after he convinced me I'm the small fuzzy sort of cat; I probably did not need to be whammied to do that."
Honestly, that was one of the three blank spots in his head he wanted filled because of what he was missing, not just because something was. There was more to Oblivio than that kiss, of course—he was particularly curious about his Chat Carton cosplay—but what were the odds he could get those two blanks filled and not the third, or the lot? And remembering Dark Cupid would be emotionally complex at best, because he was pretty sure he knew what he thought he'd been doing when Ladybug kissed him. He didn't remember calling Cataclysm that day, but he definitely remembered using it; he knew, also, what those arrows had done to Rena Rouge. If Chat were to remember Ladybug kissing him on Valentine's, therefore, he would also remember rejecting her. Hating her. Wanting, and trying, to kill her.
Pinballing through a bunch of akuma toys or not, though, playing hunt the little red dot just sounded fun.
"Does buying you a laser pointer count as teasing?" Ladybug wondered, and Chat laughed. "Anyway, that all means my period is not a monthly problem. And in the suit, it is never a problem. Tikki does something about it. I have not asked what, because I don't want to know. It is possible I seek out reasons to be Ladybug those weeks," she added, "because that's the best way I've got to stop cramps dead. But the rest of the time, pads work just fine."
"Noted!" Chat said, and Ladybug snickered. "Moving on! Wow, we really don't want to talk about how to break your heart, do we?" She thumped his chest with her fist, then spread her hand again over his heart. "So, next horrifying tale of failing to catch this boy's eye!"
"You're enjoying this too much," Ladybug accused him without bite. "So. One time I roped several friends into helping with an elaborate plan to get him away from the responsible adult so I could ask him on a date, which was going to be right then, with my friends setting the mood." Chat tried to stifle his laughter. "Yes, I know. But André's stand was right there, and we had a basket of rose petals for scattering. We also had a voice chat and a whole bouquet of code names. One friend was code-named Rose. One friend is real-named Rose. Not same friend."
Not laughing at this was not that easy.
"I mean, it would have gone to shit when the akuma hit anyway," Ladybug observed, and thankfully she sounded sort of amused too. "But in hindsight, the failure point of this plan was really obvious. The other failure point," she added dryly. "After the dust settled—so part of the plan had a rickshaw," which told him which akuma. They'd debated whether to call him 'Baby Giant', since he really was, or 'Lollipop', since he'd only said that, 'kitty', and 'vroom'. "And he asked if I wanted him to take me home, and I told him no, I would get home in a coleslaw."
It had to be. It couldn't be. It had to be.
"—Chat? Is something wrong?"
No. The other thing entirely. "Why?"
"Your heart rate hit the stratosphere," Ladybug told him, tapping her fingertips where her hand still rested on his armor. "Did I say something…?"
"What if," Chat began, mouth dry, and swallowed, and started again. "You said you want to tell him how you feel, so he can reject you. So you can clear him out of your head to make room for more important things, everything you can't think about until he tells you no."
"That's it," Ladybug confirmed softly. "That's exactly the plan."
Chat nodded. "But what if he says yes?"
Slowly she raised her head, straightening up to watch his face and let him see hers—pale, wide-eyed, with a couple more tears threatening to fall, though the last lot had dried. "What did you say?"
"What if he doesn't reject you?" Oh, Gods, what if she never again asked? "What if he really wants you, and he's just too clueless to realize you want him?" No wonder he'd heard cheering when he was leaving Marinette's Heroes' Day picnic. Adrien was probably the last to know. "What if—"
What if she did ask, and he got everything he wanted with chocolate chips on top, and then she decided she couldn't have a boyfriend and save the world at the same time and she took it all away again?
Chat closed his eyes—it hurt, it hurt so much to ask this, but if there was ever a question he needed answered more, he couldn't think of it. "Speaking—speaking professionally," he said, "what if he says yes?"
He could feel the pulse of his blood in the quiet, and the warmth of Ladybug's hand on his heart.
In the smallest voice he'd ever heard, Ladybug asked, "…What about you?"
"Don't worry about that," Chat told her, smiling a little. "We didn't set out to talk about my heart, remember?"
"Chaton," snapped Ladybug, and he opened his eyes. She wasn't glaring, quite; she looked too worried for that, but about what? "Something I said scared you, and you immediately started talking about if he says yes to me, which most people would think implies I'm saying no to you, which I already know you hate hearing and don't want to discuss. And you're holding me too tight."
—Was he? Shit—
"…That's not what I meant," Ladybug said, alone on the shingles.
Chat Noir, crouched three meters away and looking the other direction, shrugged noncommittally.
"Please tell me what's wrong."
Was anything? He didn't know. Not enough information. He let himself sit back, legs long and lolling; he kind of wanted to curl up tight, but she already thought something was wrong, and then she would be sure something was.
Ladybug pressed herself warm against his back, her thighs on the outside of his hips, legs wrapping to put her ankles on the inside of his calves. She draped her arms loosely around his waist and laid (he thought) the side of her head between his shoulder blades, and he probably shouldn't think about where that put her breasts. He had no clue what to do with his hands.
He probably ought to peel her off and leave.
"Talk to me," Ladybug ordered.
Fine. "Speaking professionally," Chat repeated, "what if he says yes?"
"Not important." The hell it wasn't, but she almost sounded like she really thought it wasn't. "We're only even talking about my love life because it's making it hard to do my job. Our job, Chat, remember that? The thing where we keep our city safe because no one else can? The thing we don't do so well when we're angry or hurt because of each other? The thing I can't do without you?"
…it was a really good thing Plagg had talked him out of quitting being Chat Noir, even if it did still hurt that he didn't get to know who Rena Rouge and, now, Carapace were. Or Ladybug herself, of her own volition.
"Someone else could use your Miraculous," Chat pointed out anyway. "Or mine." And would have, if he'd quit that day. Whether Adrien would have been committing suicide by Syren was beside the point, because it didn't much sound like Ladybug would, on finding out he'd once been Chat Noir, have let this alternate-timeline Adrien live.
Ladybug snorted. "Don't let the EU expert task force people hear you say that."
And it wasn't just the city, was it, that two tiny gods and a reticent old man had trusted to two teenagers who hardly dared admit to themselves how fragile they were.
"You can't even answer that," Chat said slowly. "Can you. You don't know how it might affect you professionally if he says yes. You've never actually thought about it."
"Have so," Ladybug retorted, her arms tightening around him.
"So tell me."
She stayed silent.
Chat let his left hand rest on her knee, his right hand on hers. It wasn't fair that he knew something she didn't, now, but she didn't want to know. And Adrien could solve the whole problem they were here to discuss by just…dropping by the bakery tomorrow, or waiting till he saw Marinette on Monday, and breaking her heart.
Problem: That would break her heart.
And tear his out of his chest and put it through a meat grinder, but…minor details.
"Remember Style Queen?" Chat asked instead.
"Vividly," she said, exceedingly flat.
"I don't," he told her, ignoring the pointed rebuke he was pretty sure she was implying. "Not most of it. I don't know where you got the idea I lost my ring."
"Plagg told me."
"Plagg told you," Chat repeated. "Well then. I guess Plagg is eating cheddar for the next month. I'm sick of his Camembert making me smell like sweaty socks anyway."
Chat's ring beeped, loud and shrill. No pads winked out.
"What else did you expect, Plagg?" he demanded. "You lied to her! You know she hates liars."
Beep beep beeep.
"If your excuse is trying to protect my secret identity, bullshit." It probably was. That wasn't the point. "I know I wasn't the only one hit. Nowhere near it! I don't think she'd have gone looking for a list of ex–glitter statues to figure which one was me. And I really didn't need her thinking I'm careless and irresponsible!"
"Oh, Chat," said Ladybug. She sounded like she was crying again.
Chat took a couple moments just to breathe, to calm back down. "I didn't have a chance to run," he told her. "If I had gotten three more seconds between seeing Style Queen and getting glittered—I wouldn't have had a good chance." For practical purposes, there wasn't any getting under that catwalk, and anything else he could have hidden behind, he would have had to reach first. "But I didn't have any chance. This ring has only come off twice since I met Plagg," he added; it was abruptly important she know this. "Not counting, like, oh I got gunk under it and I need to wash my hands. And even then it's never been off longer than it took to get clean, and never out of my hands at all."
Ladybug threaded the fingers of her left hand through the fingers of both their hands.
"Not counting times like that," Chat repeated, "it's only been off twice."
"Dark Owl," said Ladybug.
"That's one," he agreed. "You were there the other time, too. But you didn't notice, and neither did anyone else, so I really didn't want to tell you. Everyone was about to notice," he clarified, "but I got it back on before you got the freezer open, so neither you nor Lady Wifi saw anything."
"…ah," said Ladybug, and sniffled. "That's why you said 'take your time'. I thought I'd misheard."
Chat squeezed her knee and didn't answer.
"I'm sorry," Ladybug said into the back of his shoulder. "I should have—I don't know. Tikki doesn't lie. I don't think I should have expected Plagg might. But you've never let me down as badly as I thought you did with Style Queen. I should have known something else was wrong."
"Forgiven," Chat told her. "Don't feel too bad about it, either. I have the worst time getting the truth out of him sometimes, but he's never lied. To me," he added, glaring down at his ring.
Wisely, the ring stayed quiet.
He was going to regret asking this, he knew. "So…when else have I let you down?"
"Only the once that matters. The Gorizilla attack."
"Where were you, anyway?" she asked.
Um. "I…can't answer that." Chat paused. "But your plan for getting off the skyscraper isn't what happened. Is it."
"No. I meant to jump with Adrien. Or a lot sooner after. Gorizilla grabbed me." …That explained that. "And then he dropped me. I guess because he was still Adrien's bodyguard, and you weren't there yet so the only way Adrien wasn't going to go splat on the pavement was if I caught him."
Not the only way. But he still didn't know what he would have done, if she hadn't been able to catch him in time. "Not splat," Chat corrected. "The impact force would have been spread out over enough surface area it wouldn't have broken the skin that badly. He wouldn't have any skeletal structure left to speak of, but—"
"Shut up," Ladybug interrupted, prying herself off of him. "Shut up, I'm about to be sick."
"Sorry!" he exclaimed. She was swallowing repeatedly, pulling her knees back to her chest; it was hard to tell with only starlight, but she did look extra pale. "Sorry, I just—I google morbid shit sometimes," he told her, as if that explained anything. "I shouldn't—I'm sorry."
She shrugged one shoulder. "Guess I know which nightmare I'm having tonight. Might still be Timebreaker, but that's weekly. This one I haven't had in a while. Probably overdue."
"I'm sorry," Chat repeated. He had legitimately felt his stomach plummet less during that jump. "But—he jumped before you thought he would. Didn't he."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I know. I'm sorry. But didn't he?"
"I don't want to think about it!"
"Didn't he?" Chat pressed. "This is important."
"You thought you would have to convince him to trust you that much," Chat said. "You didn't know—you don't know—you're the only person on earth who can tell him to jump, and he'll ask how high on the way up." He looked away, afraid of what her expression might tell him. "Or down. As the case may be."
"I don't understand," whispered Ladybug.
"Think about it," Chat advised. "And think about if you really still want him to reject you so you get over him. I'll help, if you still want that." Please no. "But think about it. And about what if he says yes, too. Before you decide. Then let me know."
"Chat, please stop getting my hopes up."
She sounded—not sad. Not even sad. Just—
"Is that what I'm doing?" Chat asked, not wanting an answer. "Do you even want him to say yes?" He had signed up to co-star in an action-adventure magical girl anime, damn it. Not a tragically doomed romance. "Look, just—you said," he began, "you said you haven't tried getting him to look at you like—" (don't say sex kitten) "—like you want him to make sweet love to you."
"Nor will I!"
"You should." He couldn't look at her. He couldn't tell her the truth. "Next time you expect to see him, wear red. It doesn't even have to be more revealing than you usually wear. Just red. Maybe something cut to show your muscle. Or just skip to kicking his ass in hand-to-hand," Chat added, thinking very firmly of the humiliating things Kim would say if he saw Marinette knock Adrien on his ass. "Gods all know he deserves it."
"No, Chat," Ladybug repeated. "I told you. I don't want him thinking that's all I want from him."
"He won't," Chat assured her. "You're too good a friend for that thought to cross his mind. Right? He just…hasn't noticed you want him at all, I guess." And Adrien was going to be up all night reevaluating his whole life. "You can't tell him what you feel? Show him."
"…You have some oddly specific suggestions," Ladybug said at last.
"Imagine that," Chat said sourly. "I know his type, all right? I know exactly why he's been going all starry-eyed over Kagami Tsurugi."
Because Kagami—confident, powerful, and wearing red—reminded Adrien of Ladybug.
So did Marinette, of course. But not like that.
"You just…" How should he phrase this? "Need him to see you're his type."
"—I didn't—look at me." He didn't. "Look at me, Chat."
"I didn't say who he is," said Ladybug, wide-eyed and trembling and pale.
"You should go home," Chat told her. "Settle your stomach. Get some rest. Think."
"I didn't tell you who he is," Ladybug repeated.
Not in so many words. Not in a way that sounded like she trusted him—either face of him—with that much of herself. And not like she thought Adrien loving her was a realistic possibility.
He had to get off this roof before—
Chat rolled to his feet. "Yeah," he told her, getting out his baton. "You did."
He was halfway across the Pont des Arts before realizing he'd forgotten all about the cheesecake.
Adrien slipped into the bakery shortly after noon. "Hi, Mama Cheng," he said, waiting till she was between customers. "Is Marinette around?"
"She's probably still sleeping." Mama Cheng looked him over, noting his green button-down—it wasn't that much dressier than his usual lighter-weight shirt over a tee, was it?—and his two bagfuls of grocery purchases. "Why do you ask?"
"…we might've had a fight last night." Adrien adjusted his hold on the heavier bag, unwilling to meet her eyes. "I wanted to bring an olive branch. Try to clear the air. I don't know."
Mama Cheng glanced over at another chime from the doorway. "You're welcome to go up to our apartment," she told him, paying attention to this customer's order, "but if she's in her room, I should find out if she's up, not you."
"Which might be a while," Adrien acknowledged, eyeing the line. "I can wait."
"Go on up, then. It's unlocked."
Adrien nodded and headed upstairs, setting one of his grocery bags on the kitchen counter. The other he put on the floor; it mostly held the cheddar he'd gotten Plagg. He could still hear Mama Cheng downstairs, telling a customer their total, and a little more distantly, the hum of a mixer, a thump-thump that might be hand-kneading bread, and Papa Dupain humming to himself. From above, only silence.
Upstairs, Marinette's phone rang.
"Ah, you're awake," said Mama Cheng downstairs. "Your friend Adrien is here. He says you fought last night, so he brought a peace offering." Marinette's words, two floors up, were indistinct—though he shouldn't hear even that much; Plagg must have been right after all. (And Marinette had definitely overheard that conversation last night, hadn't she. Augh.) "He didn't tell me," Mama Cheng replied. "I suppose you should come down and find out." Marinette said something. "All right," said Mama Cheng. "And Marinette? You know you can always come to us if you need help with anything. Or want it."
"I know that, Maman," said Marinette. Adrien couldn't read her tone.
"I wanted to make sure I said it." He could make out Mama Cheng's tone just fine, but he wasn't sure what it meant. "Because of something Adrien said last night. You've grown to be such an independent young woman over the past few years, and your father and I…we're never sure when we should offer to help you. I suppose we haven't done so well at being there when you need us."
"I thought so," said Mama Cheng sadly. "If you need homework help, or advice on how to handle a problem with a friend, or…anything, really. We're here."
"I know, Maman." Marinette sounded happier. "Thanks. Tell Papa, though," she added, almost laughing, "he is not allowed to scare off any more romantic prospects. Not—not without reason," she clarified. "Which he did not have. I will ban him from meeting them altogether if he scares off another sweet one."
"Understood!" Mama Cheng was definitely laughing. "Go talk to your friend."
"Thanks, Maman. I love you."
"I love you too." A moment later, Mama Cheng was apologizing to a customer for the delay, and scattered thumps upstairs suggested Marinette in motion.
Marinette herself descended the stairs a few minutes later. She was still wearing pink, Adrien noted, a pale rose peasant blouse and azure jeans; it suited her—and it illustrated why everyone in the school, just about, was or had been vocally heart-eyed over her to Adrien's knowledge—but he had heard, even if he probably couldn't admit he had heard, Mama Cheng tell her he was here. By name.
Which meant either she was ignoring his advice or she'd chosen not to follow it.
"Hey, Marinette," Adrien said, smiling at her.
"A-Adrien," said Marinette, with a weak smile.
"So I think I screwed up last night," Adrien said, rather than dance around the point. "I actually think I've been screwing up for a while, and I just hadn't noticed." Marinette blinked at him. "And I figure pretending I didn't will just make it worse."
"You didn't, though," Marinette told him, twisting her fingers around each other. "You finished my sweeping. That's all."
"That's all?" Adrien repeated, disbelieving. "That's it, full stop, end of story?"
Marinette nodded. "It was sweet."
"I did nothing else with you last night," pressed Adrien.
She shook her head.
How had she not realized? "So this morning I went to the Quartier Asiatique," he told her. "Among other places." He started unpacking the grocery bag on the counter. "I don't know what to do with any of this stuff. But at least now you have it, right?"
Marinette stared at him. At the bag of cricket flour. The packages of silkworm pupae and locusts. Honey-roasted sunflower kernels. Dried lavender and chamomile flowers. Fresh marigolds, labeled organic and safe to eat. Candied violets. She stared at him some more.
"You said you're not eating right," Adrien reminded her. "I thought…"
Never mind what he'd thought: she was trembling, her fingers digging white-knuckled into her elbows as she tried to—what, make herself small enough to slip his mind?
"I fucked up," he realized. "I'm sorry, I'll—"
"He told you," said Marinette, and repeated it, as though settling the fact into her mind: "He told you." Then disbelieving anger: "He told you?"
…um. "Which he?"
"What do you mean 'which he'—"
She stopped. Drew one deliberate breath.
"He and I were talking last night after I saw you." Stiff, sharp, brittle. Glaring. "You—came up. He must have run straight to you. Because I told him that for the first time last night, and—" She swept her arms out, encompassing him and the food he'd brought in the gesture. "Here you are."
"You told me," Adrien corrected. "Marinette, you told me."
"No," she said, shaking her head slowly, then faster. "No, no, you're lying—" She was backing away, white-faced. "How could—I saw you," she protested. "When, when Gorizilla—I saw you both!"
—Oh. "You mean the day we got chased all over town by a bunch of my overenthusiastic fans?" Adrien asked, leaning ever so casually against the counter. "Including one who wears close enough to my size, wanted me to autograph a life-sized cardboard cutout me, and was happy to do anything I asked without question in exchange for my email address? Even something really weird, like wearing my clothes for a few minutes while standing with Chat Noir?"
Marinette stood staring at him for a long moment.
"And you had that helmet," she said slowly. "So where the whole cardboard you would have been really obvious, if you decapitated it…"
"I got him a new cutout," Adrien said sheepishly. "I wasn't trying to fool you." He rethought that. "I mean, I was, but I didn't want to."
"How long have you known?"
"Last night. The coleslaw bit was too specific to be anyone else."
"I told you about my periods," Marinette said distantly, pink in her cheeks.
"I told you I could shotput you down the block."
"I don't doubt you could."
"I was sitting in your—" She stopped, going very red.
"We could do more of that," Adrien told her, failing (he suspected) at nonchalant. "If you want."
"If—if you think it would be a problem, professionally," Adrien said, unwilling suddenly to look at her, "then let's just…not go there at all. You're the first friend I ever made on my own. You're the best friend I've got. Speaking personally," he had to make clear, "if you think you might decide you can't have a boyfriend and do your job at the same time, then we need to stay friends, full stop, end of story. I know I can handle being your friend and partner and nothing more. I know I can't handle getting more and then getting that taken away."
She nodded. "Still processing," she said, holding up one finger. "Give me—give me a bit."
"All right." He paused. "You don't have to say anything now. Or today. Or even this month. And if it'll help, I can go."
"No!" she yelped, lurching forward. Stopped. "No, don't—don't go."
"All right," Adrien repeated.
"Wait—wait right there," Marinette said, pointing a shaking finger at him, and bolted up the stairs.
"…All right," Adrien told the empty room.
From upstairs came the muffled sound of Marinette's screams.
Adrien went to slump onto one of the dining stools. "Plagg, how much am I fucking up right now?" he asked.
Plagg poked his head out of Adrien's jacket. "I'm too hungry to talk about feelings. Where's my Camembert?"
"I told you last night," Adrien reminded him. "Cheddar. For a month. Because you lied to her."
"Hmph," said Plagg, and vanished again.
Marinette clattered back down the stairs. Adrien turned, and felt his breath catch.
Black ballet flats. Tight black jeans. Black blazer, slung over her shoulders and held there by a silver sweater clip, red enamel roses on either end of the chain. And a fitted sleeveless crimson V-neck top.
For a moment, there was only the sound of his heartbeat, and the sight of her.
"…Eyes up here."
Adrien jerked his gaze up past her smile, his face burning. "Where were you hiding that?" he asked, incredulous. He was used to seeing Ladybug in all her muscular glory. What the hell. "You're—I—"
He stopped. Stood up. Made sure his knees would hold him. Started toward her. Slowly: she might yet bolt again. Or he might.
"You like?" Marinette asked, hesitant.
The sincere answer could only be 'I love'. "What, did you think I was kidding?" Adrien asked instead.
Marinette rolled her eyes, her stance relaxing. "Hard to tell with you, Chaton. Oh, Tikki ate all the cheesecake," she added. "She said she thought you meant half for Plagg but she's not happy he lied either, as she will explain at length to him later. Plagg, I don't think she's speaking to you right now." Plagg stuck his head out long enough to blow a raspberry; Adrien laughed. Marinette moved over to the kitchen counter. "What am I supposed to do with all these?"
"Google recipes?" He came to join her, crouching first by his other grocery bag to pull out the one remaining thing he hadn't bought to bring home. "Your parents might know some things, too."
She nodded, opening the jar of candied violets, and popped one in her mouth as he straightened up beside her. "Oooh," she said appreciatively, and turned to him. "You want—"
Adrien held out the single red rose.
"…I'm scared," Marinette admitted, looking up at him. "We might screw things up so bad. Or we might not—and that's scarier than anything."
"Even with everything?"
Of course, akumas were a known quantity by now. Hawkmoth too, mostly. This, though? Anything this precious? He wasn't sure he dared even kiss her, not when their kisses around Dark Cupid and Oblivio had both gone so wrong—and he knew, he knew, while obliviated they had both wanted that, and they both wanted it now.
"Yeah," said Adrien. "Same."
She reached for his hand.
Footsteps ascending the stairs: they both turned toward the door. Marinette plucked the rose from his grasp and moved to get out a water glass and kitchen shears; Adrien didn't follow.
The door opened. "Marinette, could you—" began Papa Dupain. He stopped, looked them over, and came to the kitchen for a closer look. "What's this?"
"Adrien and I might have had a fight last night." Marinette compared the heights of the rose and the glass, then sheared off much of the rose stem. "He comes bearing gifts."
"…of lavender and silkworms," said Papa Dupain slowly.
"I promise it makes sense in context," Adrien told him, hoping his blush was going unnoticed.
"And a red rose," said Papa Dupain, watching Marinette fill the glass with water.
"No comment," said Marinette.
Papa Dupain eyed Adrien. "You do know what red roses stand for, son?"
Marinette smacked the glassful of rose onto the counter, sloshing out some water. "Papa, if you scare him off—"
Adrien looked up at Papa Dupain. "I don't scare that easy, princess."
"Not my point," said Marinette. She started putting the packages of food away. "What did you want, Papa?"
"We got a big rush order. I need your mother in the back."
"I'll cover the counter," Marinette said at once. "Let me go change first, though."
"What for?" blurted Adrien.
Marinette smirked at him, leaning in and reaching to—and he did not have a collar bell for her to ring, they realized at the same moment. Her hand hung for an awkward moment in the air, till she dropped it to rest on his shoulder. "I wanted to make your brains melt out your ears," she told him. "Did it work?"
Her touch burned; Adrien swallowed. "…You tell me."
"I'm going back downstairs now," said Papa Dupain, backing away.
"Wait, Papa," said Marinette, turning sweetly to her father. "Neither of us knows anything to do with most of what Adrien bought. I'm hoping you and Maman have ideas?"
"Lavender shortbread," said Papa Dupain at once, smiling. "To begin with."
She grinned. "Thanks!"
"Don't take too long, please." He vanished back downstairs.
Adrien looked guiltily at his bagful of cheddar. "I…should probably go. Get my cheese in the fridge. And stuff."
Marinette frowned down at the bag. "How long before you're missed?"
Of course she knew this was an unauthorized outing. "Probably evening."
She scooped up the cheese bag. "Stay," she said. "Please." She started stacking cheddar blocks in the fridge. "You shouldn't have to be alone, with people you know won't notice if you vanish for hours, and who complain you don't eat your vegetables instead of finding things you'll enjoy eating vegetables in. And who probably don't feed you enough in the first place." She pulled her phone from her pocket, unlocked it, and held it out. "Any of those look tasty?"
"Personally vanishing unnoticed for hours is professionally convenient," Adrien observed, moving close enough to take the phone.
"No argument." He started glancing through her browser tabs. Spinach meatballs. Tomato-based spaghetti sauce, extra carrot. Zucchini 'noodles'? "You looked up hidden-vegetable recipes," he said, awed. "You came home last night, and—" He shook his head and looked up. "How did I get this lucky?"
"Haven't yet, have you?" said Marinette archly, closing the fridge. Then went brilliantly red in the face.
He put on his biggest, most innocent eyes. "Does that mean I might?"
"I'm tempted to find out if I actually can shotput you down the block," she told him, very tart.
Get up close and personal with all the muscle she was showing, when she was neither masked nor armored, so she could demonstrate again just how incredibly strong she was? Sign him up. Adrien shrugged, faux casual. "Can I put my mask on first? It'll hurt less on impact."
She rolled her eyes. "I think we're a little past trust falls, Adrien. Though if you die on me again, I reserve the right to feed your ass to the dogs."
"Noted." He moved half a step closer. "I meant it about the ass-kicking, my lady," he told her, letting his voice go low.
One moment Marinette stood a safe distance away, the next she wasn't quite pressing her full length to him; not a gift—wisely enough, since she had somewhere to be right now—but a promise. She grinned in a way somehow both enthralling and terrifying. "I'll keep that in mind."