Come New Year’s, the kitchen smells like ginger and sesame and wine, a cloud of fragrance that wafts to the rafters and presses itself flush to the windows of the house.
Marinette is on the stool with the wobbly back leg, hands dipped in rice flour, tongue pressed up to the roof of her mouth as she pinches together pork mince dumplings by the seams. They’re ugly as sin, but at least they’re edible. Alya and Nino’s are a fifty-fifty split between holding together and falling apart, and Adrien—
Adrien is hunched over the far corner of the table, neatly sandwiched between Nino and the wall. His hands are sticky, and his lip is bitten, but he persists in unpicking and starting once more, as though someone might sneak up behind him with a ruler to measure the pleats in his dumpling pastry.
“So, Marinette." Alya's voice is hushed in the quiet. "Are we actually going to get to eating these tonight, or…"
“Maman is making hotpot, but you can come over tomorrow if you want. How long is everyone staying?”
“Girl,” says Alya, matter-of-fact, “I am not leaving your house until you feed me, not even at knifepoint.”
“I can stay until eight,” he answers promptly. “Then my parents are out to a thing and I have to watch Chris. Adrien?”
Adrien jolts upright as soon as he’s spoken to, hands hovering guiltily, eyes wide and startled.
“Um,” he says, and looks down at the table; then away from the rest of them, chewing his lip. “My father said I have to be home for dinner. Sorry, Marinette.”
She follows his line of sight into the kitchen, where both her parents are bustling about. The counter is laden with bags of ingredients: beef and fish in yellow styrofoam trays, slender enoki mushrooms, and an emerald abundance of leafy vegetables that Marinette can only name in Chinese. Sabine is the one who's wielding the knife. Tom is planning out the next day’s display, a too-small clipboard in his too-big hands, his voice a low and gentle rumble against the quiet backdrop of radio music.
“Dude,” says Nino, “why don’t you just stay? It's not like your dad is home to know.”
“I wish I could." Adrien is watching Sabine at the sink with a soft, wistful kind of curiosity. “Nathalie is coming to pick me up, though.”
Nosy as ever, her papa wanders over. Marinette, anticipating embarrassment, picks up the cookie sheet of dumplings and slides off her stool until her slippers touch the floor.
“Maybe another time," Tom remarks to Adrien, while she half-skids, half-hops her way to the ground. “Nino and Alya have dinner with us all the time. We always make more than any of us can eat.”
He looks at Marinette, who can feel her face darkening, and his eyes crinkle upwards, as though he’s trying not to wink.
“Marinette would love to have you, wouldn’t she?”
“I’m gonna put these in the freezer,” she blurts, as Adrien turns to stare at her, all eager green eyes. She bolts from the kitchen before Alya’s laughter can stop her, clattering downstairs to the dimly lit bakery.
If only it was anyone else. If only Adrien had ugly teeth; or talked loudly on the phone in public spaces; or walked very slowly in the middle of the sidewalk, like the sandy-haired tourists that cluttered the Champs-Elysées. If only he had some glaring flaw that Marinette could latch onto, like a castaway to a raft. A little less perfection wasn’t so much to ask.
"Marinette," says Tikki, right on cue, "your papa doesn't mean any harm. You remember how he was with Chat Noir."
She opens the door to the big bakery freezer and stands in the backdraft of icy air, letting it cool her burning cheeks.
"I know," she mutters. Sliding in the sheet amidst three or four others, she shuts the freezer as gently as she dares.
Looking for an excuse to linger downstairs, she takes three bags from the stack on the counter and ducks out of the cooling room adjacent to the storefront. She stuffs them to brimming with unsold pastries: cookies with smudged icing, lumpy scones, day-old éclairs with variety glazes. The temptation to pop one in her mouth is strong, but she resists. Sabine will never forgive her for spoiling her appetite.
“Save me an éclair,” Tikki peeps from her pocket. “I’ll have one with strawberries, if there’s any of them left.”
Marinette takes a deep, rattling breath; picks out a pastry to set aside for Tikki, and splits the rest evenly, two to each bag.
Her friends will thank her for her service later.
Later comes too soon, and by the time the sky is dark, Marinette is walking Adrien out to the curb, the coat her papa insisted she wear as bulky as a cloud around her shoulders.
The sky overhead is one enormous bruise—purple in the center, the color of old wine, and streaked with clouds in soft shades of grey. She doesn't bother looking for stars. The only time they’re ever visible is when she’s perched on Chat’s knee, high above the lights, the wind off the rooftops whipping her hair into a frenzy as he rockets them skyward, up up up.
“Okay,” says Adrien, looking up from his phone with a smile. “Nathalie says she’ll be here in two.”
“Th-thanks for coming over." Thank God her parents are still inside—the last thing she needs right now is their prying. Scrounging up what little courage she has, she thrusts a plastic bag into Adrien’s hands.
“My parents want you to take these,” she blurts. “It’s some of the dumplings we froze earlier, and some pastries for the road.”
"This is way too much," he says, wide-eyed. "Won't they be mad if you give me this many?"
Marinette almost laughs. She's spent her whole life being the single kid in class whose mother gave gifts to her teachers at Christmas. Who does he think he is? Trying to out-polite her parents? She steps back away from him, thrusting her hands into her coat.
"Really, you're helping us out by taking them. We're not going to sell them, and they'd just go to waste, so..." She shrugs. “You can cook the dumplings at home, if you can’t make it tomorrow.”
Adrien hesitates. His smile falters, just a little, as he fingers open the mouth of the bag.
"How do I cook them?" he asks, almost too soft for Marinette to hear past the distant bustle coming from the crosswalk.
“Just keep them in the freezer until you want them, and then boil them.”
“How what?” she says stupidly. “Just—in water? In a saucepan? It’s just like doing pasta.”
She'd never pinned Adrien as one to be shy, but no other word comes to mind for the way he looks at her askance, his shoulders stooped.
“I don’t know how.”
“To cook pasta?” she asks—and regrets it instantly, as Adrien’s face turns cherry tomato red in the dim glow of the surrounding streetlights.
“I can’t cook at all, to be really honest. I’m—” He pauses. “I’m kind of not allowed in my kitchen at home. Our chef locks it up whenever he isn’t using it.”
“Oh,” says Marinette, a little bit flabbergasted. Adrien looks distinctly embarrassed, and she herself is strongly considering melting into slime and escaping through the gutter. Instead she blurts, “Do you want me to show you how? You can come over Wednesday, right after school.”
"I can't Wednesday," Adrien says instantly. Her anxiety explodes at the speed at which he says it. It's somewhat abated when he continues, eyes hopeful— "What about Friday? I'll tell my father we have a project to work on for class."
The weirdness of Adrien needing to lie to his father barely even registers past the drumming in her temples. But as he opens the plastic bag and fishes out a profiterole—taking a neat but hasty bite, as though he's scared it'll disappear—it's replaced by something a little more tempered. Swallowing her butterflies, she makes herself smile.
"Friday it is. Friday sounds great."
Alya is going to be absolutely insufferable.
The weekend arrives in scintillating sunlight, and Adrien is waiting on the heat-soaked sidewalk when the great double doors spit her out onto the steps.
It’s a warm day for winter, resplendent in light. Cold shards of sunshine bounce off the asphalt, reflecting from the windows of the apartments lining the street. If she’s lucky, it’ll turn into her favorite kind of night—icy and clear, with just a lick of wind, chilly enough to reach her through the spandex of her suit.
But Ladybug's confidence seems worlds away now. She walks very carefully a few steps behind Adrien, pointedly looking everywhere except the back of his head, until they’ve let themselves in through the back door of the bakery.
“My parents are catering an event downtown,” she says, as he pivots slowly to take in the glass displays. “I’ve got to mind the register for a few hours, but once we close for dinner, I’ll show you whatever you like.”
He nods, setting down his satchel behind the counter. Belatedly, she stammers: “Can I get you a snack? We have chips, or pastries, or…”
“Do you have those little danishes? With the cream cheese filling?”
“Not from this morning, but let me check the leftovers from yesterday.”
This is normal. She repeats it to herself again and again as she clambers upstairs to the first-floor kitchen, shucking her flats on the last of the steps. Adrien and I hanging out as friends, because friends is what we are—good friends—great friends. Alone. Totally normal. Normal, normal, normal.
She returns downstairs with a flowered plate of danishes, and Adrien takes one with a radiant smile.
“Thanks,” he murmurs. “Is it okay if I do my homework here?”
“You can come behind the counter with me if you want, but I’m just—“ She clears her throat, a little too loudly. “I’m just working the register. It’s nothing special.”
“I like it,” says Adrien, quiet to match the room. “I like being here. With you, at your place.”
Marinette—who’s halfway through tying back her hair—spits her scrunchie out of her mouth in a fit of shock. Adrien chews and swallows his danish, oblivious.
The silence stretches on too long to be comfortable. Marinette stands mute, mouth full of glue, until Tikki pinches her side from inside her blouse pocket.
“Neat,” she says at last—a pathetic little croak that’s closer to a wheeze than a spoken sentence. Spine stiff and shoulders squared, jaw clenched tight like a Christmas nutcracker, she pivots on her heels and swings open the door to the shopfront, marching away from Adrien and out to the light of day.
Neat? she thinks furiously for the rest of the afternoon. That’s all you say when Adrien tells you that he likes being with you, alone, at your place? Neat? Neat? That’s the best you can do?
Tikki must have noticed the hike in her pulse, because she pats her reassuringly from inside her pocket. Marinette fights the urge to groan aloud—or better yet, curl into a ball behind the counter and remain there, unmoving, until she’s eaten by ants.
At least her breakdown goes unnoticed. Adrien is perched on a stool by the back counter, soundlessly shaping English syllables, a pack of index cards spread out in front of him. There’s a gentleness to the way he moves—as though everything he touches is spun from blown sugar. She pries her eyes away before he catches her staring, her fingers shaking as she counts out the bills.
At last, the bakery closes, and Eloise—the new assistant—ushers them out so she can sweep up the shopfront. Marinette leads Adrien upstairs to the main house, switching on the living room lights as she goes.
“Are you here by yourself a lot of the time?”
“Winter’s a busy season,” she grunts, rummaging through the wardrobe on the upstairs landing. With her outstretched fingers, she manages to tease out the crate of spare slippers that Sabine keeps for guests. “I don’t mind having the house to myself sometimes. My parents are so nosy about literally everything.”
Adrien picks out a pair with blue sequined flowers and pads his way into the kitchen behind her.
“Okay, so…do you know what kind of stove you have at home?”
“Our stove is gas, but electric is about the same, it just takes longer for the burner to heat up.” She points at the range hood. “The fan is in there. If you’re cooking anything smoky, you need it for the fumes.”
Feeling a little silly, she fetches a saucepan out of the cupboard, fills it with seven hundred milliliters of water, and sets it on the stovetop for Adrien to see.
He looks at it in silence for a second, an expressive dint between his eyebrows.
“Would you mind showing me more?”
“More?” says Marinette, wiping her palms across her cardigan, trying to stave off the creeping fear that she comes across as condescending. “More kitchen stuff?”
“Sure? I mean, we could—we could cook d-dinner, if you want?”
“Can we?” asks Adrien, with such transparent eagerness that Marinette is bemused. She knows that Adrien’s first year at school was a year of other firsts, as well. Maybe doing chores is a novelty to him—like forging his father’s signature, or being out after dark, or eating any simple carb with a calorie count in the triple digits.
“Sure. I think my parents would like that.” She smiles at him, warmly, and it feels almost natural. “They can eat the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.”
Adrien hangs behind her like a curious kitten as she digs through the fridge for fresh ingredients: carrots, tomatoes, bok choy, green chives. She’s never seen him look so out of his element, pink-cheeked and nervous in the warm white light.
“Who taught you to cook?” he asks, as Marinette takes the vegetables over to the sink and shows him how to wash them properly: carrots with a brush to scrub the dirt off the skin, bok choy under water to purge the grit from between the leaves.
“My mom, mostly.” She pulls out the cutting board and the big knife from the stand on the counter. “Papa’s the better baker, but cooking runs in Maman’s side of the family. I guess I grew up with it, but I’m not really that good at it.”
Her mother would have julienned the carrots, but Marinette is too impatient to be bothered. Besides, Adrien is watching her like an eagle, and she’s more likely than not to cut herself with the peeler.
“She’s been trying to get me to cook meals on my own,” she mumbles, bunching the chives and chopping them into neat pieces. “I’ll need to know how when I leave after lycée.”
“When you leave?”
“Yeah, you know, if I get into university? But I guess that you’re in no rush to move out. You’ve got your dad’s whole house pretty much to yourself.”
Adrien chews his lip in thought, watching her slice the tomatoes into quarters and the carrots into ribbon-thin sticks.
“I think about moving out all the time,” he murmurs. “Like, all the time. I really don’t want to stay with my father any longer than I absolutely have to.”
He says it like it’s a secret, and Marinette blinks.
“I never actually thought about living by myself, though. Like—having to cook and pay rent and do laundry, and stuff. I mostly just thought about how cool it would be to have people over whenever I wanted.” His volume drops, as though he’s admitting something embarrassing. “I guess—sorry, I guess that’s kind of dumb.”
Marinette pauses, her hands still damp. Carefully, she sets the knife on the bench so that she doesn’t get distracted and drop it on her foot.
“It’s not dumb. It’s not like you magically know all that stuff if you don’t have anyone around to teach you.”
She slides the cutting board across the countertop, offering her best encouraging grin. “Why don’t you have a go at the chopping? Do a tomato, it’s easier than a carrot.”
She shows him how to position his hand so that the flats of his knuckles are turned towards the blade, safe from a careless slip of the knife. She shows him how to rotate the tomato so that the flat of each piece sits firmly on the board. It’s easy to guide Adrien’s fingers using her own, so much so that she barely registers doing it, though his touch turns her skin to pins and needles.
It takes them barely any time at all.
“What’s that?” Adrien asks, once Marinette returns from her second trip to the fridge with a handful of eggs and a pack of dou gan.
“It’s—” she begins, and then stops, frowning. She always just calls it what Sabine calls it in Mandarin. She raises the packet up to her face and squints at the Roman letters on the plastic.
“It’s dried bean curd. It’ll go together with the carrots and the chives, and the bok choy will be a dish on its own.”
“What does it taste like?”
“You’ll get to try it when it’s made.”
“But how are we going to cook it?”
“You’ll see in a minute,” says Marinette, exasperated—and freezes in alarm, her heart rate jumping. It’s Adrien who’s with her—not Alya, not Chat. But Adrien looks back at her with a nervous little grin that strikes a bright spark in her too-small chest, and the tension in her stomach eases, a tightly sealed bud opening its face to the sun.
Once the rice is washed and boiling, the actual cooking takes no time at all. There’s barely room for more than one person in front of their tiny, cluttered stove, but stir-fry is simple enough that she can’t mess it up. Tossing the food with a wooden stirrer, she breathes in a mouthful of fragrant steam, Adrien’s presence at her elbow a constant tick at the edge of her awareness.
It doesn’t look awful, considering the state of her nerves. The greens are tender, sprinkled with sesame, and the stir-fried dou gan is neither salty nor bland. She starts the soup last, after the two other dishes have been scraped onto plates. Tipping the tomatoes into the bottom of a saucepan, she pushes them around with the stirrer, standing back from the stove to avoid the spitting oil.
“Can you get those two eggs and beat them in a bowl for me?” she asks. Adrien nods, traipsing away in his little blue slippers. The tomatoes fry off before he finishes digging around in the half-open drawer of cutlery and chopsticks, and she covers them in water from the kettle by the sink.
This is normal, is the thought that occurs to her then—a gentle tug of realization, like a ribboned kite string threaded between her ribs. This is as normal as it’s ever been. She and Adrien move around each other without brushing, without colliding, without stumbling or stuttering or apologizing— straightforward teamwork to finish a task.
It’s a shame it won’t last. They’ll eat and they’ll laugh, and she’ll walk him to the curb, and the weekend will rush by in a blaze of winter minutes—but by Monday, her stammer will be back in full swing.
“You want to try swirling the egg in?”
“How do I ‘swirl it in’?”
“Tip it out a little at a time while I stir the soup. You won’t mess it up,” she adds, when Adrien opens his mouth and begins to look anxious. “When you’re cooking for yourself, it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you screw something up, then you can just start again.”
Adrien nods seriously, his eyes fixed on hers, as though Marinette’s stuttering is in some way profound. She would say more—about the sketches she’s scrapped, the fabric she’s ruined, the imploded cakes she’s pulled out of the oven—but the words have dissolved into slush in her mouth. She bows her head over the sweating stove, stirring the soup with a long plastic ladle and watching as Adrien tips in the egg.
Yellow-white on lucky red, it blooms and flowers, like ink in water. Marinette tastes the soup to make sure it isn’t oily, then offers Adrien a scalding spoonful.
“It’s good,” he says softly. “Is it meant to be an appetizer?”
“I eat soup last, but no one is stopping you from having it first.” She sets down the ladle and crosses the room to fetch their bowls from the adjacent counter. “You can put in corn starch to thicken it, or add potatoes and stuff, but it’s the easiest soup I know how to make.”
“You can make more soups than this? More meals and things?”
“I mean, I can, but stir fry is simple.”
Adrien picks up the two plates of food, one of greens and one of dou gan, and carries them over to the tiny table. “Thanks for cooking with me,” he says, clambering gracefully onto a stool as Marinette joins him with two bowls of rice. “And...thanks for having me over. For dinner, I mean.”
“Of course,” she says instinctively. “We can do this whenever you want.”
Her response is by rote—more politeness than anything else—and she freezes in place as Adrien straightens.
“You really mean that? You wouldn’t mind teaching me?”
“Uh—” She feels her face beginning to color. “I mean—sure I can, b-but I only know the basics? Wouldn’t you be better off with a professional cook?”
Adrien’s face falls dramatically. Marinette almost chokes on a mouthful of spit.
“I mean—if you’d be happier with me, then sure, I’d be glad to! You can come over again? Same time next week? I can invite Alya and Nino, if that’d make it more fun.”
“Only if you’re sure it’s okay,” he says, his grin returning, small and shy. “But maybe it can be just you and me for now.”
Before Marinette can separate her thoughts from the teakettle shriek that fills her ears, he picks up his chopsticks and pokes them into his bowl, taking a healthy bite of rice.
“That’s—” Don’t say neat, don’t say neat, don’t say neat. “If that’s how you want it, then sure, that’d be great.”
She seizes her chopsticks, picks up a mouthful of dou gan, and shoves it into her slackening mouth. Good. She’s doing good. That was almost a normal response. She forces herself to chew and swallow before levelling a closed-mouth smile at Adrien, her gut doing flips through her roiling belly.
“What’s your favorite meal?” she manages. “I’ll look up a recipe, and we can try it next week.”
Adrien waits until she’s filled her own bowl to serve himself from the plate of bok choy, carefully taking a spoonful less, as though he’s scared she’ll accuse him of eating too much.
“I like croquettes. Are those hard to make? I guess they’re more like a snack than a meal, but…”
“It’s fine,” says Marinette, her voice pared down to a squeak, her overactive mind already at work. She’ll need potatoes (obviously), flour (she lives in a bakery), breadcrumbs (bakery), eggs, seasonings, oil— “I guess I’ll see you next weekend, then?”
“Next weekend,” he promises, digging into his bowl, and Marinette feels her hammering heartbeat simmer down into something a little like music.
The recipe Marinette looks up on her phone says that croquettes have to be chilled before they’re breaded and fried, but it doesn’t state for what length of time. Adrien can only stay until six, so she whacks them into the blast freezer for as long as she dares. Tom takes pity on them and fries the first batch, working the control panel with the ironclad confidence of a man who’s suffered second-degree burns.
The first batch is poor, despite their best efforts. They split along the seams like overstuffed pillows, and she and Adrien eat them shamefacedly as they wait for the second batch to chill.
“I should get better at making these,” says Marinette, once Tom shoos them out to keep an eye on the storefront. She’s perched behind the checkout, elbows on the counter, eyes lazily fixed to the double glass doors. “I have this friend who’s obsessed with them.”
“Someone I know?”
“Nope. He’s from work.”
“Where do you work?” asks Adrien, popping a croquette into his mouth. She shouldn’t be surprised that Adrien is curious—he’s the only one of their friends who has a career. Marinette’s parents pay her for her shifts, and Alya makes an allowance babysitting, but that’s closer to doing chores than working a real job.
She doesn’t get paid to be Ladybug, either. Maybe she and Chat Noir should start taking tips.
“It’s an online internship thing,” she says vaguely. “That’s why I’ve never introduced him to you guys.”
“If he’s a friend of yours, then I’m sure he’s cool.” Half the platter is gone by now, and Adrien shows no signs of stopping. “Is it fashion related, or something else? My dad’s designers do some internships, but—”
The door swings open, and Adrien cuts himself off, dropping out of sight behind a display case of macarons.
Marinette thinks it’s strange, for a moment. Then she remembers that Adrien is a celebrity, and that the last time they’d been in public alone, they’d been chased by a horde of screaming fans from the Place des Vosges to the metro downtown.
Fortunately, she’s expecting the woman who enters—a long-time customer of Tom and Sabine’s who’s been buying from the bakery since Marinette was knee-high. She’s fatter and squatter than Marinette remembers, but her rimless glasses are instantly distinct. She approaches the counter with measured steps, and Marinette smiles at her, waiting to be addressed.
“Hello, Minying,” the woman greets her. “Your mother told me you’d have my son’s cake.”
“Hello, auntie,” she responds in Mandarin. Reaching into the mini-fridge under the counter, she pulls out a box tied shut with red ribbon. Adrien straightens from behind the glass case, slightly pink but no worse for wear.
“Good evening,” says the woman, switching seamlessly to French. Her smile is warm, but mercifully devoid of recognition. “You must be a classmate of Marinette’s.”
“Adrien,” he says politely. “It's a pleasure to meet you.”
“Your face looks familiar. Have I seen you somewhere before?” She peers at him from behind her spectacles. “At a fashion contest of some kind, maybe?”
Recognizing the flush on Adrien’s neck as nervousness, Marinette inserts herself between them, using her body to block him from sight. She proffers the box from her side of the counter. Through the square of clear plastic in the monogrammed lid, she glimpses the perfect chocolate cake: dark, smooth glaze like ice on a lake, with decorative dollops of white and blue cream.
“Thank you for stopping by, Madame Li,” she says brightly. “Wish Victor a happy birthday for me.”
In the darkness of her balcony, legs crossed where he sits on her deck chair, Adrien says: “Could I ask you something about earlier, Marinette?”
“Minying is your Chinese name? Which characters does it use?”
“Min as in min gan,” she responds, taking a slow sip of the soda in her hand. “Ying as in ying hua.”
Adrien hums, as though he’s thinking, and then he puts down his drink on the table beside him.
“If you could understand Mandarin all along, then why did you need me to translate for your uncle?”
Marinette chokes on a piece of croquette. In the space between swallowing it and clearing her throat, she decides that she’d rather fling herself from the railing than admit the truth to Adrien’s face.
“My Chinese isn’t great—”
“But you learned by ear, right? So your pronunciation has to be better than mine.”
He doesn’t sound accusing, just a little curious. Marinette picks up her soda and chugs it.
“I understand more than I speak,” she says, when she’s finally got back enough air to speak. “When I’m talking to my mom, I mix Mandarin and French. Conversing with native speakers is a lot harder.”
She takes a shallow breath and settles onto her palms. There’s only one chair, so she’s sitting on the ground, sandwiched between the balcony railing and her steadily growing menagerie of plants.
“But you’re right, that wasn’t the real reason Alya called you. She thought I could use—a friend. For the company.”
She waits for it, then—the twist in her gut, like a white-hot corkscrew through her belly. She’s almost startled when it doesn’t show up. There’s only the gentle rhythm of Tikki’s snoring, a soft lump in the pocket of her shirt.
“I’m glad I was there,” says Adrien quietly. “I’m sorry about everything that happened with Chloe.”
“Don’t hold it against Alya, she’s just looking out for me. She technically didn't lie about me needing a translator.” Her pulse pitter-patters, soft as rain. “Sometimes I just can’t get out what I need to say. Proficiency has nothing to do with it, you know?”
Adrien unfolds himself from the deck chair, his long, long legs barely stretching to reach the ground, and stands up.
“Yeah,” he says softly. “I know what that feels like.”
He picks up his phone and his empty plate, and Marinette joins him in cleaning up the spread, her movements slowed by a pleasant lethargy. This is the closest they’ve been in weeks, and the lack of blood-sucking, brain-boiling panic is a welcome change to the usual state of affairs.
She can love him like this, she decides to herself, as she hauls open the trapdoor to let them inside. There’s a tenuous space between his body and hers as they squeeze down the ladder and into the warmth of the house. All of her unspoken words seem lighter—bubbling and sparkling in the birdcage of her chest, like soda fizz and syrup, sweet on the back of her tongue. She could reach out and touch him with no fanfare at all, but instead, she keeps her hands shoved deep into her pockets.
She can love him just like this: at a distance, but not a desperate one. In time, he’d understand the language she was speaking.
Marinette comes down the steps after school with a parcel propped between her hands, wrapped up safe in a brown paper bag.
She thrusts the bag into Adrien's hands as he brushes past her on his way to the curb for pickup. On the far side of the staircase, Alya straightens where she’s sitting, too subtly for anyone else to notice.
Drunk on her new boldness, Marinette blurts, "I thought we could do something a little different for our next cooking lesson."
Her gaze is fixed to Adrien's face, but she knows that Alya is pricking up her ears, ready to run interference at the first sign of trouble.
"Open it and have a look,” she says softly. There’s a couple of kids—kids she doesn't even know—loitering on the steps to watch what she’s doing. People always watch her with Adrien, the way drivers on the highway crane their necks when they pass a particularly grisly wreck.
Adrien opens the bag, his curiosity plain to see, and Marinette stares hard at his long piano hands as he unwraps a blush-pink bento box. His eyes grow wider—and wider, again—as he slides open the lid and peers at its contents.
"Wow, Marinette. Did you make every one of these?”
She scans her handiwork critically; searching for mistakes in the tiny rolled omelettes, the bite-sized pieces of chicken, the brightly colored garnishes of lettuce and cherry tomato. She'd thought it looked pretty, but maybe Adrien thought it was stupid. He had no real use for a packed lunch at school, and there were probably a hundred streetside cafes where he could buy himself a crepe if he got hungry during a shoot.
Maybe it is stupid. Maybe she should’ve stuck with French and Chinese instead of trying to make something new and different and exciting.
"I love it," says Adrien, as though he can hear her private thoughts. "It looks incredible.”
“It’s a little different to what I usually cook, but most of the techniques are ones I’ve used. I’ve made omelettes tons of times, and—” She’s babbling, but at least she’s talking about something instead of nothing. “And the rest is just—prepping ingredients and frying them, like we’ve already done—so I think you’ll find it easy, too.”
“If you don’t mind showing me,” says Adrien, reluctantly shutting the box and tucking it away inside his satchel.
Marinette bites back the embarrassing urge to squeal.
“Neat,” she squeaks out—because she might as well embrace neat as her new default. “S-see you Friday, then.”
Once Adrien has waved goodbye and vanished from her sight, she pivots in place and comes face-to-face with Alya, whose eyebrows have practically vanished into her hairline.
“Cooking lessons?” she asks. “Did I hear that correctly? You, Adrien, and a closed-in space with cutting tools and open flames?”
“Shut up. It’s going well. I haven’t been weird or nervous at all.”
Alya hikes her eyebrows higher, and she sighs, plopping down to a seat on the steps.
“Okay, fine. I’ve only been as weird as I usually am.”
“Marinette,” says Alya, as she sits down beside her and pulls a water bottle out of her bag, “the only weird thing is that you keep getting him alone, then chickening out of asking him out.”
“It’s not like that.” She’s almost surprised when it feels like the truth. “I’m not trying to confess to Adrien, okay? I like having him over. I like being able to help him. I’m really not thinking about anything else.”
She opens her backpack, pulling out her sketchbook and a cellophane bag of coconut drops, stretching her legs to their full length across the steps. They’re nowhere near as long as Alya’s, despite the kitten heels on her boots.
“I like being his friend.” It’s almost as much of a confession as the one locked up in the back of her throat. “I can’t be his girlfriend without being his friend first, right? And if he doesn’t like me that way, then—”
She pauses, sketchbook spread in her lap. Adrien is one of her favorite subjects to catastrophize about (she’d tell him she was in love with him, and he’d hate her forever, and Gabriel would get her blacklisted from the fashion scene for good, and all of her friends would stop speaking to her on sight and she’d have to switch schools and get plastic surgery so that no one would see and recognize her at the bakery), but lately, her fears seem increasingly frail in light of a warmer, clearer reality.
“—then we can still be close,” she finishes lamely. “And I can still be important to him.”
And I can still love him, she thinks to herself. She can love him in the language that she’s spoken all her life: a cake on the table for special occasions; black sesame candies for small celebrations; hot mint tea for cold winter nights and mung bean soup for the dry heat of summer. Acts of service, small and sweet. She can learn how to love him in whatever way he’ll accept—to be strong enough, soft enough, to withstand even heartbreak.
“You know who else is close and important to you? Me.” Alya leans over, swiping a coconut drop from her lap. “Why don’t I get a bento box friendship? How come Adrien is the friend that you feed, like a hot, blonde, oblivious baby bird?”
“Because Adrien is actually nice to me, Césaire.”
“Oooh, Dupain-Cheng, you think I’m not nice to you? I guess we’ll just forget about the time he found your phone under a bench at fencing.”
“I’ll show you nice,” says Marinette tartly. “You’d better be out of throttling range by the time my hand comes out of this bag.”
But Alya is already laughing, ducking across the steps, her eyes full of mischief and her hands strewn with crumbs—and she can’t help but grin until her cheeks threaten to split, her cake-shaped love pressed up tight to the joint of her ribs.
“Okay, Marinette, I have good news and bad news.”
“Bad news first,” says Marinette compulsively. She has a book open in front of her at the cramped kitchen table, and her phone is smooshed against her cheek, precariously perched on the crest of her shoulder.
“My dad says I can’t come. I told him we were working on a project for school, but he’s making me do it at home.”
“Is he there right now?”
“No,” Adrien replies, with a foreign edge of annoyance. “I’m supposed to stay home and study while he’s out.”
She glances across the room at the ingredients on the counter, washed and ready for Adrien’s arrival. Perhaps they’ll keep until next week, though she’ll have to buy the vegetables fresh.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the good news?”
“I gave Gorilla my credit card before he dropped me off at school, and he bought me some things while I was still in class.” She can practically picture Adrien beaming. “And someone unlocked the kitchen for me, so……we can still cook.”
“Wait, you—” She adjusts the phone against her shoulder. “You gave him your credit card? Did you ask for it back?”
There’s a brief pause from the other end of the line.
“Never mind,” says Marinette, before she can wonder if Adrien should be allowed near a stove by himself. “How do you want to do this? We both cook and then compare?”
“Do you want to do a video call? That way you can show me what you’re doing?”
“If you like.” A smile seeps into her voice, unbidden. A call might usually have made her nervous, but Nino had a habit of Facetiming Adrien when the three of them went out for fun as a group. They’d pass him between them in his little glass prison, asking his opinion on movies and snacks, as though the four of them were there together in the flesh. A small, silly part of her is enamored with the idea of always carrying Adrien with her, tucked up small and safe beside her heart, to be held like a secret wherever she went.
The first part of the call goes well. Marinette mixes soy sauce and sake; chops her chicken and sets it to marinate; and cracks her eggs into a blue and white rice bowl, whisking them up to a fluffy froth. Adrien’s camera is a little bit lopsided, but she can see his setup well enough: white marble walls and black granite benches, strewn with a colorful constellation of food. The silver ring that he wears on his right hand winks in and out of sight, like a passing star.
She’s halfway through the process of adding the mirin when Adrien’s voice pipes up from the speakers.
“I don’t think I have a tamagoyaki pan.”
“I don’t have one either,” she replies, raising her voice in order to be heard over the clattering from Adrien’s end of the call. “Just use a nonstick frying pan, that’s how I did them the first time.”
“How can I tell if it’s nonstick?”
“Most fry pans are these days. Unless it’s stainless steel, or—”
An ear-rending beeping erupts from her phone, and she narrowly avoids dropping her bowl into the sink.
“Great," Adrien mutters. Marinette cranes her neck, but the screen shows only a black granite counter with the cluttered remains of his soy marinade.
“Hold on, Marinette, just give me a minute to—”
“Is that an alarm? What’s going on? I haven’t even started cooking anything yet.”
“Me neither, I just—”
“Wait. Did you turn on the stove without putting anything on it?”
“I haven’t lit the stove yet,” says Adrien, in a tone she thinks she’s supposed to find reassuring. “I‘ve turned it on, but—”
“You—” Marinette grabs her phone out of its stand and fights not to lose her entire shit. “Um, okay, that beeping you hear? It’s telling you to hurry and turn off the stove before the room fills up with toxic gas. So yeah, maybe go and do that? Maybe stop talking and do that. Right now.”
For a few tense seconds, she holds her breath. Adrien whispers somewhere offscreen, and his sneakers squeak loudly as he patters across the tile. Then there’s a click, and the alarm cuts off.
Adrien’s camera flips into selfie mode. The screen shakes wildly, and he comes into view: hair tied back in a tiny ponytail, bright red T-shirt a horrid clash with the checkered straps of a lime green apron.
“I’m sorry,” he squeaks, looking utterly mortified. “I thought it’d be safe without—y’know, the fire.”
Marinette can’t help herself. She turns her camera into selfie mode as well, offering him a glimpse of her brightly flushed cheeks. But as soon as Adrien meets her eyes, she snickers, hysterical, and slaps a palm across her mouth.
“Wow,” he mumbles. “That bad, huh?”
“You could have literally blown up your house.”
“Wait, what?” The increased alarm in Adrien’s voice makes her snicker even harder. “Are you serious right now? It could have exploded?”
“No, it’s okay,” she wheezes pathetically. “You’d have to leave it on for longer than a few minutes.”
“Seriously?” says Adrien, a concerning mixture of alarmed and impressed. The situation really isn’t that funny, but something about the ludicrous combination of his apron and his hair and his dumb, pretty face makes Marinette slump forward in a wild fit of laughter, clutching her phone in her hands like a lifeline.
“Okay,” she croaks, once her delirium has finally subsided. “Open a window and restart?”
“Sure,” says Adrien, his voice gone soft. “If you have the time to spare, then maybe we can try again.”
“I always have time,” she replies without thinking. Adrien smiles back at her, his face bright with color, a pleasing pink that blooms across his cheeks and up to the tips of his ears beneath his hair.
(If she really feels like pushing her luck, she can picture him blushing with something more than embarrassment.)
On Saturday, Adrien sends her a photo of his slightly lopsided tamagoyaki, and Marinette types out her entire response in a separate note before she sends it.
On Sunday, she decides to bake something special.
She decides on egg tarts, because they're one of her favorites, and because her papa can help her with molding the casings. The hours trickle by in a steady stream. By the time her pastries have browned in the oven, the sun is slipping towards the horizon.
Once her parents have turned in for an early night, Marinette packs a few of the ugliest tarts and rouses Tikki from her shoebox bed, transforming inside the privacy of her room. She times her leaps from rooftop to rooftop until she arrives at one of her favorite spots: a nook overlooking the Rue de Rennes, lit by the winking golden windows of late-night cafés and trendy shops.
She should've guessed that she wouldn't be alone for long. Her yo-yo had pinged her as soon as she’d transformed, alerting her to the fact that Chat Noir was active and circling back to meet her from the Notre Dame cathedral.
"Good evening, my lady," he greets her, landing on the rooftop with a clatter of loose tiles. "What have you got there?"
"Nothing that would interest a stray cat like you."
"Ladybug," he whines, overaffected as always, moseying into Marinette's alcove and dropping to a seat beside her. "I'm hungryyy. I'm boooored. I've had a hard day."
"What was hard about it, chaton?"
"The lack of your sparkling presence, of course," he says, without missing a single beat. Marinette picks up one of her precious tarts and shoves it into his grinning mouth.
Chat spits it out and looks at it with interest. "What’s this?”
"It's an egg tart."
"Like a quiche?"
"No, it's a dessert. The filling's like custard. Have some if you’re hungry, I’ve eaten my fill.”
She can’t ask Chat about whatever is bothering him, but food reliably improves his mood. Without waiting for a second invitation, he pries the tart from its silver armor and takes a big, ungracious bite.
"You look happy," he says around a mouthful of crust. "Is that what all these pastries are for?"
She always feels it, however he tries to hide it: the gentle press of Chat’s curiosity, nipping her heels like a mischievous breeze. Crossing her ankles and tucking them beneath her, she turns the question over in the back of her head.
"I baked them to bring to school for my friend. It’s someone I don’t often see out of class.”
"How so?” asks Chat, sounding genuinely curious. “You always talk as though you get to see your friends whenever you want."
Don't you? she wants to ask—but of course, she doesn’t. Now that Chat is pressed up against her, she can feel the tension in the dip of his back; the tiny droop in his faux leather ears, which are subtly flattened into his hair. He's always extra silly on his lonelier nights. The string around her heart pulls tight.
"Which friend is it?" he continues, before Marinette can find an answer. “No, actually, wait. Let me see if I can guess.”
He straightens a little, his eyes glass-green.
"Is it Glasses?" he asks. Marinette shakes her head, and Chat continues easily, counting off each option on the fingers of his left hand. "Is it Skater girl? Scaredy-cat? Marceline? Princess Bubblegum?”
"No," she mumbles. "It's a boyf—I mean, it’s a friend who’s a boy."
"A boy?" says Chat, visibly racking his memory. "You don’t really talk about friends who are—oh."
The pleasant warmth in her belly evaporates. Chat curls up with his knees to his chest, making a pointed effort to smile at her brightly.
"That's great, Ladybug. It's great that you've been..." His throat bobs, a miniscule motion. "I’m glad that you've been hanging out with him more. It’s a good thing, right? That the two of you are friends now."
Adrien is the only one of her friends without a nickname. Whenever he crops up in their rooftop conversations, Adrien is always just capital H Him.
"You know, Chat, you don’t have to front.” She’s always been honest, for better or worse—for worse, she thinks, as Chat stiffens against her, his tail laid flat and tucked against his side. "It's not going to hurt my feelings if you don't want to talk about him."
"But I do.” The response comes quickly enough to spook her. "Of course I do, of course I want to—"
He stops mid-sentence, takes a slow breath, and carefully relaxes the tension in his shoulders.
"I mean, you don't talk about yourself very often," he continues, in a passingly natural tone of voice. "I just want to hear it, no matter what it is."
Marinette pauses, thinking it over, the empty tupperware cold in her lap.
"You can tell me about him if you want," says Chat, his smile small but devastatingly sincere. "I want to know more about him. What is he like?"
The ache in her ribcage crests and peaks, and she turns to look at him in the haze of the streetlights, her mouth run flush with the taste of salt.
“I used to get so nervous talking to him,” she says slowly. “Not because he was mean to me, or anything like that. It’s like my head would go empty, and I’d just—go stupid, and then I’d freak out and start panicking about nothing and he’d have to just stand there and watch me do it.”
Chat doesn’t speak, but his ears unflatten from the curve of his skull and flick in her direction, perked and listening.
“It's really nothing to do with him. He’s silly and gentle and thoughtful and sweet. He’s so kind, and so good, and he deserves to be happy. It makes me happy just to see him happy.”
The secret dissolves as she speaks it aloud, coating her tongue like a spoonful of sugar. Chat’s tail perks up and entwines itself around her.
“How can he not feel the same way about you?”
“I don’t know,” says Marinette, because it’s hard to think straight with her partner so close—the comforting bulk of his body a bulwark, steadfast and strong as the rising of their chests. “Right now I’m just trying to be his friend.”
She takes a deep breath, then diverts her voice to something light.
“Besides, I said all that flowery stuff about him, but I’m not really sure it can go anywhere serious. The guy can't cook to save his life.”
Chat spins to face her with so much excitement that his arm clips into the side of her shoulder, nearly knocking the container out of her hands. His ears stand up straight amidst the spikes of his hair.
“I can cook.”
"Yep,” says Chat, all sunbeams and swagger, a welcome change to his earlier quietness. “I’d cook for you every night of your life, my lady.”
Marinette turns to face him fully, raising a single incredulous eyebrow.
“I don’t eat kitty kibble, chaton. But I’ll Lucky Charm a can opener for you anytime you ask.”
“I’m serious,” says Chat, looking so genuinely affronted that she bites her lip to hold back a laugh. “I can make soup! I can make lunches. I can cook you meals from three different cuisines.”
It’s almost—almost—a little bit impressive. Instead of admitting it, she rocks in Chat’s direction and shoves his shoulder aside with her own, trying to bump him off his balance. He cocks his head and winks at her, slyly.
“Why is it so hard to believe, buginette? My taste in snacks is beyond reproach.”
This time, she puts her back into the shove, and Chat goes laughing off the edge of the gutter to land with a clash on the rooftop below.
"Marinette?" says Adrien, his eyes swiftly drawn to the foil-wrapped baking tray clasped in her hands. "Is that whatever we're making on Friday?"
Marinette fidgets where she stands on the sidewalk. Alya is already moving at the edge of her sight, dragging Nino to a comfortable distance a few paces away on the concrete steps. Her heartbeat speeds to a familiar polka, but she plants her feet and sets her shoulders.
"No, actually. These are just for you to eat." She offers it to him, and he takes it carefully, unwrapping the silver foil from the edges.
"I just—" she begins, as the curiosity shatters clean out of Adrien's expression. Her age-old nervousness lodges in her throat; but she swallows it down, a sticky mouthful, so she can offer him her brightest smile.
"I t-think you're learning really fast, and you should be proud of the progress you’ve made." She manages a nod at the tray in his hands. “I baked these for you. They're one of my favorites."
Adrien's eyes are wide, wide, wide; his pupils big, his lashes dark. She darts a look at the platter of tarts—but they’re perfect; pale brown and flaky around the edges, the custard filling smooth as silk. Her baking, like her talking, is full of mistakes; but this time, Marinette is right to be proud.
"Do you want to try one?" she says hesitantly. Adrien jolts, nearly dropping the glass tray. His knuckles are white where he clutches it for purchase.
"You made these for me?" he croaks, in a voice she never thought could come out of his mouth—wobbly as jelly and cracking at the edges.
"They're egg tarts. Not like a quiche—they're desserts." Despite the fluttering in her stomach, she holds his gaze steady. "You don't have to be polite. I already had some last night."
Her hesitation turns to mild relief as Adrien picks up the closest tart, pops it out of its silver tin, and eats the whole thing in three large bites.
Without pausing, he picks up a second—then a third.
The tarts aren’t small—each one is the size of her palm—and they’re several euros each when they're sold at her parents' bakery. Even on her most indulgent days, she limits herself to two or three. She watches with mingled delight and alarm as Adrien eats his way through the tray, as though the treats might abruptly turn into stones.
"Are you alright?" she hedges. "You seem a little…”
Chipmunk-cheeked, his hands full of tarts, Adrien blinks back at her with watering eyes.
"You made these for me. I have to eat them all.”
“I—okay? If you want, then sure. There's, um—" Marinette blinks as he picks up the last tart and crams it gracelessly into his mouth. "There's nothing stopping you. They’re for you, no one else.”
She's baked Adrien pastries countless times, but he's never reacted quite so strangely. Even Alya has ceased her charade of poring over Nino's workbook, watching from the steps like a bespectacled hawk.
Adrien swallows his final mouthful and stands there holding the empty tray, his face a fetching shade of pink. There's a few golden crumbs at the corner of his mouth, but he either doesn't notice or simply doesn't care.
Slowly—because it feels like the whole world is waiting for her to do something—Marinette reaches out and brushes them away. Adrien's blush deepens to a dark, delightful red.
"Did you like them?" she asks, letting her hand fall back to her side. Her fingers are tingling, but for the first time she can recall, she appears to be the more composed of the two of them.
Adrien makes an effort to clear his airway, but his face stays the same, bright and blistering.
"They were delicious," he whispers, in that same sandpaper voice. "They were even better than the ones last night."
Before Marinette can process what he’s said, he leans across the too-wide space between them and sets a kiss to her burning cheek.
"Thank you," he says, his voice as soft as his lips—and then he pulls back and stands before her, fidgeting, his blush having spread from his cheeks to his ears and all the way down to the hollow of his throat.
The ones last night?
It's the kiss, more than the words, that jolts her into remembering. Marinette's memory is a double-edged sword—as sharp for her successes as it is for her failures; a mental museum for every embarrassment. She’s done things with Adrien that she’ll regret when she’s ninety; but she has better, brighter memories of him as well: his brilliant green eyes looking out at her, full of wonder, as she stood suited up by the window of his car; his hand around hers as he dragged her through the subway; his arms around her waist as they slow-danced at the party; golden, golden, a world full of warmth.
(His brilliant green eyes behind a smooth black mask, full of carefully swallowed hope, his soft, soft lips on the apple of her cheek.)
He looks at her now with no such hope, but so much fear that her heart snaps in two. If he had his false ears, she thinks they'd be drooping. His face is very, very red.
Her head fills up with a glittering roar. Calmly—as though she's done it a hundred times before—she steps into his space, puts her hand on the back of his neck, and kisses him squarely, long enough to taste him.
There's a loud kerfuffle as Alya drops her workbook. From the look on Adrien's face, she doesn't think he's heard it.
Marinette steps back, her hands fluttering free, and a humiliating squeak works its way between her lips. She can’t think straight enough to panic. Adrien claps his hand to his mouth, stunned into slack-jawed, disbelieving silence.
"Thanks for the taste," she whispers, stupid. "It was just as sweet as I always imagined."
The urge to flee into oncoming traffic is smothered in its crib when Adrien stutters—so shocked, so flustered, that he seems he might faint.
"That's—" he starts, and then stops, swallowing hard. "Marinette, you can’t just—I didn’t even know that you—”
At last, he straightens and squares his shoulders. "I'll see you on Friday?" he asks, voice low. "Or this evening, maybe? At—y’know, patrol?”
"Sure," says Marinette, too stunned to do anything but nod. “P-patrol. I do patrol. I’ll s-see—see you then."
"Neat," he says feebly. "Super duper neat.”
And then—as though his brain has caught up to his body—he scrunches his face up, turns a red that could blind bees, and escapes up the stairs in the direction of the school doors, satchel forgotten on the steps behind him.
Before Marinette can think to chase him—before she can so much as start to parse out the prospect of going to class with Chat Noir—there’s a pointedly loud cough from the steps behind her.
"Wow,” whispers Alya, low and reverent. “Is there any way I could get that recipe?”