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Marinette

In hindsight, maybe covering the closing shift at a hole-in-the wall diner in this part of town was not her brightest move.  Really, working at a hole-in-the-wall diner anywhere in this city at any time of day was probably not the best thing she could have done as a newcomer.  But food and rent and fabric cost money, and despite holding the title of Guardian of the Miraculous, the position was vastly underpaid.  Without a real job and with the income from her most recent commission having mostly been put toward her first six months of rent (what else was she going to do with that amount of money in the crime capital of the country?), food and furniture, money was becoming scarce.  So here she was, two weeks into her job waiting and cleaning tables after the few stragglers in Miss Katie’s Diner, just a few blocks south of the worst part of town.

Miss Katie herself had looked dubious when Marinette had submitted her application, but upon noting that the frankly tiny French woman held not one but four blackbelts in various martial arts, the owner had shrugged and hired her on the spot.  As a child, Marinette had had boundless energy, and before she’d turned three, her mother had placed her in gymnastics classes and begun what would become a life-long pursuit of self-defense in multiple martial arts.  In the beginning, it had all been in the name of trying to exhaust the exuberant toddler into a nap and a full night’s sleep.  It had gone on to serve her well in her time as Ladybug.  But with the threat of emotional terrorism long gone from Paris, all that training now served as a way to ensure her survival in the brutal hellscape known as Gotham, New Jersey.

There were only two patrons left, their table littered with an appalling assortment of empties and several pizza pans.  She found herself grateful that they hadn’t been the only ones at the table in the beginning.  Two human beings would never survive ingesting that much alcohol, no matter the amount of pizza that had accompanied it.  But their companions had left more than a half hour ago, and their tab had been paid.  Sighing, Marinette glanced at her watch and groaned internally.  Katie wanted the diner shut down and cleaned by 2am.  It was 1:45, and this last table was, frankly, a disaster.  She was going to have to kick them out if she were ever going to go home.  It wasn’t her favorite thing to do, but thankfully, she’d mastered the glare and commanding voice she needed to use to clear a space when she was fifteen.  She would only use it if she needed to.

“I’m sorry to say, gentleman,” her deceptively soft voice interrupted their own hushed conversation as she reached for a few of the empties, “that it’s about time to close up.  Your tab has already been paid, and Miss Katie is pretty strict with closing time.  I need you to gather any of your belongings and head home.”

They didn’t respond beyond the taller man on her left giving her a glance from the corner of his eye.  She stifled yet another sigh and continued to gather empty glasses and bottles.  Maybe when she returned to pick up the rest and clean the table, they’d get the hint and leave.  She doubted it, but a girl could dream, right?  With the first round of bottles disposed and the glassware in the dishwasher, Marinette squared her shoulders and approached the delinquent customers again, this time with no pretense of politeness.

“Sirs.  The diner is closed, and I have a job to do.  It is time for you to leave.”

Her change in demeanor and tone got their attention, and alarms rang in her head as the man on the left stood, placing his hand on her back.  Even years after her stint as a hero had ended, Marinette’s reflexes were lightning fast.  She stepped away from the tall stranger, and when he reached for her again, she twisted her arm over the offending appendage and jabbed at a pressure point in his lower back, stunning him, before striking his face twice in quick succession and kicking him away from her.  As he slumped, unconscious, on the floor, his partner had risen from his chair.  She spun and kicked him back into his seat, but he stood again quickly and swung at her.  She dodged, swinging back and managed a glancing blow.  The stockier figure retreated, only to pick up a nearby chair and fling it at her.  She registered a deep satisfaction when she caught the leg of the chair, and her assailant’s eyes blew wide as she delivered one final kick to his stomach and he tumbled away, knocking his head on the corner of a nearby table and crumpled in a heap on the floor, unconscious as well.  Marinette huffed a sigh and pulled her phone from her apron to call the police while clearing the table, only to hear the door to the little diner burst open and two sets of feet rush in.

It is too late for this bullshit.

“Sorry, we’re closed,” she bit out as she ended her call, not bothering to look at the newcomers.  “Someone will be in around six to open again.”

She was met with silence, which meant the pair was staring and she would have to address them face on.  Arms laden with a tray full of bottles, glasses, and the stack of pizza pans, she turned with her best scowl firmly in place, only the stop in her tracks and stare at the pair of vigilantes who were—as she had suspected—gawking between her and her now motionless would-be attackers.

“O-oh.  Um…H-hi there.”

Ah, the stutter.  She’d been so sure she’d grown out of that.  But it seemed like surprises brought out her more embarrassing ticks.  That thought foremost in her mind, Marinette point blank refused to move her feet.  If eloquence had fled the building, that meant her balance was bound to abandon her as well and she had less than zero desire to clean broken glass from the floor that she had already swept and mopped.

“Miss, are you…all right?”  The marginally shorter figure in black and blue asked in a gentle tenor voice.

She nodded, not trusting her voice to be steady.  She really hated surprises, and her burst of adrenaline was quickly fading, meaning she was about to crash.  She whipped her head around, hoping for a nearby chair and empty table for her tray of dishes.  The taller of the two masked men holy shoulders, Batman.  How was that fair, or even possible? seemed to read her like a book, and approached her slowly, stance open and non-threatening.  He pulled a chair from somewhere and gestured for her to sit, which she did without question.  Neither did she protest when he gently tugged the pile of empties and dishes from her hands.  Then he was squatting in front of her.

“Damn, Pixie Pop, that was impressive.  I mean, we just caught the tail-end there, but that was…really something.  You don’t look like you even have a scratch on you.”  His voice was deep and friendly, and despite the frankly strange combination of a red domino mask and what could only be described as a similarly-colored muzzle covering most of his face, she thought he might be grinning at her.  She managed a breathless giggle.

“Thanks.  Kind of par for the course around here.  But you’re right, I’m not hurt.  I don’t even know what they wanted, but I don’t think I would have liked it much.”  She glared at the prone figures, whose hands were now being zip tied behind them by the other vigilante.

Nightwing, her memory suddenly supplied.  She’d done her research before coming here.  Sure, she never intended to interact with the local crime stoppers in a heroic capacity.  But it was a good practice to become familiar with any heroes in a new city.  So, if the shorter one in blue was Nightwing, the broad one before her, giving her a curious head-tilt, was either one of the Robins or Red Hood.  Given the distinct lack of traffic light colors and despite the current lack of a hood, she settled on Red Hood.

The man in question was peering at her, she imagined it was quizzically.  It was rather disorienting to not be able to read his emotions with three quarters of his face covered.  But then she saw the dark brow raise in an arc above the domino mask.

“You regularly get attacked in here?”  He sounded like he was torn between being concerned and trying to joke.  She appreciated the effort.

“I mean, we have our fair share of drunks who get a little too handsy.  I can handle myself, obviously,” she gestured to the knocked-out pair at Nightwing’s feet, “but it’s not usually quite so violent.  Or so goddamn late.  I just wanted to go home; I really don’t think it was too much to ask.”

That earned her a snort from both vigilantes, and Nightwing spoke up again.

“I agree.  But I doubt they were mad at you for kicking them out.  We’ve been tracking their group for a few days and weren’t able to really catch up until tonight.  What’d you do with the rest of them?”

Oh, now she had about a million questions.

“There were four others with them.  They paid the tab and the other four left about an hour ago.  I didn’t hear where they were going.”

Flashing lights and sirens distracted her for a moment, as a squad car pulled up outside the diner and an older man exited, dressed not in GCPD blue but a suit and trench coat.  Nightwing greeted the man with a nod as he entered the diner.

“Commissioner.”

“Nightwing.”  Commissioner Gordon gave answering nod.  “Just these two?  I would have thought the trafficking ring would be bigger.”

Trafficking.  Trafficking!

She would have been sold to the highest bidder to do kwami only knew what.  Bile rose in her throat and she suppressed the urge to gag.  But the shudder that ran through her was impossible to miss, and Red Hood—who had yet to look away from her, like he was trying to uncover her many (too many!) secretes—definitely noticed.  Slowly, tentatively, he reached for her shoulder, the warmth from his enormous hand seeping into her and making her feel comforted and safe somehow.  She wanted to be alarmed by her reaction to the man, but she couldn’t find it in herself to distrust him.  Some kind of magic, probably Trixx’s uncanny knack for reading people’s intentions, sparked in her chest and told her Red Hood was someone she could trust.

“I want a do-over,” she muttered to no one.  “I should have punched harder.”

At that, Red Hood laughed out loud, the sound reverberating through her and making her smile in spite of herself.  She hadn’t realized a vigilante, especially one with a reputation like Red Hood’s, could be filled with so much joy.  Her smile widened at the idea that was suddenly coming together.  Because she wanted to do something for him, to thank him for lightening the mood.  She had to give her statement to the police commissioner, and she really should go to bed.  But she suddenly wasn’t tired anymore, and she wanted to repay his kindness, his gentle demeanor in the face of the brutality of his city.

After the laughter had died down, Commissioner Gordon took her statement.  She gave the story quietly and calmly, describing in detail—twice, because the older man simply couldn’t believe she’d been able to disable two men twice her size in a matter of minutes—all that had happened before Nightwing and Red Hood had made it into the diner.

“I’ll have to come by again tomorrow, to get the security footage from Katie as evidence,” Gordon mentioned apologetically, and Marinette simply nodded in response.

She didn’t mind.  She wasn’t working tomorrow, so she wouldn’t be there.  But she would have to text Katie to let her know what had happened.  She stood and began collecting the pile of empties and dishes that had been discarded by Red Hood.

“And what do you think you’re doing, little lady?” Nightwing asked in surprise.

“I do have a job to do, sir,” she reminded him.  “Elliot will be here in three and a half hours to get everything open by six.  It wouldn’t be fair to make him finish what I started just because two idiots tried to attack me.”

***

Jason

Her soprano voice was too casual when she talked about being attacked.  It was clear she’d had years of martial arts training, but it had also been clear she knew the ramifications of being abducted by human traffickers.  A normal person would jump at the chance to go home and would have been halfway through breaking down by now.  Especially someone new to Gotham, and if her heavily accented English were any indication, this tiny woman had come here from France—and she hadn’t been here long.

Not to mention, who in their right mind voluntarily moved to Gotham, New Jersey?  It was essentially the crime capital of the country and ranked high on the list of the world’s most dangerous cities.  Only someone who was running from something would come to Gotham on purpose.  Most people who grew up there didn’t stay if they could help it.  Hell, he’d left for several years—not of his own volition, at first, but coming back had been both a necessity and a burden—and he only remained out of his ingrained sense of protectiveness over his adoptive brothers.  Especially the younger ones, even though he’d tried to kill Tim at first (out of misplaced rage, but it still happened) and Damian had had little to no tolerance for him when they’d first met (if he were honest, the kid had come a long way in the last eight years.).  But he’d be damned if they didn’t get a chance at a semi-normal life, even with Bruce as their father.  And Dick, too, although he’d deny any perceived need to be protected.  Being a vigilante was dangerous, and Jason and Damian had both already died, Tim had nearly died, and Dick was doing double duty—cop by day, vigilante by night.  They pretended they’d had a choice, but they hadn’t.  And Jason just wanted them to be as happy as they could be.  If there was anything he could do to keep them even marginally safe, he’d do it.

He recognized that same drive in the petite French—French-Chinese?—woman now cleaning the remaining parts of diner she hadn’t reached before being so rudely interrupted.  He wasn’t sure how he’d seen it, exactly, but it was there in the way she spoke, the fire in her sapphire eyes it should be illegal to have eyes that blue, Jesus, the way she held herself as she moved.  She’d faced trauma and loss like he had.  Maybe that was how he’d known she’d needed to sit when all the fight had left her.  Or maybe it was something else.  Regardless, he could tell she’d come to Gotham to escape, although whether she was running from her past or a very real and present danger, he had no way of knowing.

He moved to help her, and she offered him a smile.  It was small, but sweet and genuine, and it lit up her eyes in a way that was entirely unfair.

“You really don’t need to do that,” she murmured, her cheeks flushing an attractive pink.

He shrugged in response, and grinned at her--even though his masks made it unlikely she could read his expression—before pulling an armful of empty beer bottles from her grasp and dumping them in a nearly-full bin.  Whistling cheerfully, he sought out the spray bottle full of cleaner and a cloth, both on top of a wire rack there was no way the pixie could reach, then headed out to wipe down the only remaining table, ignoring the woman’s spluttered protests, even as she continued to fill the dishwasher.

Nightwing finished loading the bastards into the back of Gordon’s car, and waved the commissioner away before joining him again inside the diner.  Jason heard him explain the situation to Batman over the comms and silenced his own to avoid the echo.  He was surprised when Nightwing silenced his comm after checking in.

“All right, Little Wing, we’re walking her home, yeah?”

Jason nodded.  No way was he letting her find her way home alone after this, no matter how definitely not defenseless she was.  She didn’t deserve to look over her shoulder the entire way.

“Red Hood, you’ve been cleaning the same table for five minutes.  I think you got it.”

The mischief in her voice caught him by surprise, and he whipped around to face her, delighted at her willingness to interact with him.  He was used to civilians being intimidated by or even frightened of him.  But not the pixie.  She was smirking at him oh no and holding her hand out as though waiting for him to hand something over.  Probably the cloth and cleaner.

“Gotta be thorough, Pixie Pop.  Can’t let poor Elliot do all the work when he comes in.”

She giggled and rolled her eyes, and his heart soared at the sound.  What the hell was the matter with him?  It wasn’t like this was his first interaction with a gorgeous woman, although he didn’t often get to verbally spar with a woman who could probably also hand him his own ass.  Maybe that was it.  Gorgeous and strong.  Almost his exact type—if she somehow ended up to not be clinically insane, he was doomed.  Reluctantly, he handed over the spray bottle and cloth and watched her scale the wire shelf to put them away.  Something about the way her body moved made heat creep up the back of his neck and spread over his cheeks.  Nightwing nudged him with an elbow, and he scowled at his brother.

“Would you like us to walk you home, Miss?” Nightwing offered.

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, but the smile that graced her face was almost blinding.

“Thank you, Nightwing.  That would be lovely.  Oh!  I’m Marinette, by the way.  Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  Not that it matters, really.  I mean, I’m sure you meet a ridiculous number of civilians during patrol, but how rude of me to not introduce myself.  If you’re ever around here and not, you know, kicking ass and taking names, stop in and I’ll make you something on the house.  Katie doesn’t seem to mind, I sent something home with Harley and Ivy the other day after they helped kick out some local gang members, and she was fine with it.  Otherwise, if my place is on your patrol rout, I usually have cookies or pastries in the house.  I could leave some out for you.”

She was speaking rapidly, and her face was bright red as though she knew she was babbling but couldn’t stop and was embarrassed by it.  She had locked the door and was leading them down the sidewalk, chattering as they went.  Jason was relieved they were headed in the opposite direction of Crime Alley, but if she lived within walking distance of Miss Katie’s she would still be awfully close to the worst part of town.  In what seemed to be much too short a distance for her to live safely, they’d reached an apartment complex.

“You got a roommate, Pixie?” Jason asked hopefully.

He knew it was likely someone like her—beautiful and personable and strong—had someone else in her life.  But no one had seemed to try to contact her since the diner had closed—and it was surely much later than she normally would be arriving home—and he was worried about her being alone.

“Nope,” she replied as she turned the key for the entrance.  “Just me.”

She stopped just inside and stared dejectedly at the stairs ahead of her, Jason and Nightwing hovering behind her.  A small groan escaped her, before she shook her head, then turned to smile at them.

“I’m all the way on the fifth floor.  Thanks for walking me home.  I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than watch me make it all the way to my apartment.”

The smile she gave didn’t quite reach her eyes, and Jason realized she must be dreading the climb to the fifth floor.  He grinned.

“I could swing you up to your balcony, if you’d like,” he offered, and saw Nightwing’s head snap around to stare at him, mouth hanging open in surprise.

Surprise, Dickie-bird, I can be a gentleman.

Marinette laughed lightly, like tinkling bells, and rested her hand on his forearm.  The heat from her small hand seemed to settle into his bones.

“You look like you could just fucking launch me up there, and I could sleep on the chaise for a few hours,” she giggled.  The profanity sounded shocking but delightful in her sweet, accented voice.

He laughed out loud in surprise.  God, he hadn’t laughed like this in a while, not since he’d last seen Roy, and that had been months ago.

“That’s probably true, but also probably not the safest choice I would have ever made,” he agreed after a few minutes of cathartic laughter.  He was rewarded with true laughter from the woman, and heat flushed through him again.

“No, probably not,” she conceded.  “Stairs it is.”

But she made no move to go anywhere, like she was waiting for something, or unsure of how to make her exit.  Nightwing cleared his throat and Jason rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’m gonna finish up patrol.  I’ll see you…later?” his brother stared at him, probably questioning his already-dubious sanity.

“Yeah, I’ll be around.  Probably going home tonight, though.”  His apartment, not the manor.  He’d started getting restless there, it had been too long under the same roof as Bruce.

Nightwing nodded, mouth set in a suspicious line.  Marinette stepped closer to his brother and stood on her toes to place a light kiss to his cheek.

“Thank you, Nightwing.  Stay safe out there.”

Jason tried to suppress the sudden jealousy that flared within him at the gesture.  There was nothing in her expression but kindness and concern.  She truly meant what she’d said, she worried for his brother’s safety.  She was bordering on perfect in Jason’s eyes.  He was so fucked.  How was she doing this to him after barely an hour together?  He wanted her affection, too.  He wanted…well.  Things he probably couldn’t have.  Marinette was well out of his league in multiple ways, not the least of which was that she was a civilian and no matter how capable she was of defending herself, she didn’t deserve to be pulled into the world of secret identities and double lives and danger around every corner.  Even if he’d met her as Jason Todd-Wayne and not Red Hood, she would still be in danger of being kidnapped and held for ransom, not to mention being harassed by the media constantly.  He didn’t want to think about subjecting her to that.  But something about her was drawing him in, and he’d always been a bit reckless, so…

“Here,” he offered, turning slightly so his back was partially facing her.  “Hop up, I’ll give you a lift to your place.”

He glanced over his shoulder to see her flush scarlet, darker than she had been before.  That ready blush was doing things to him.  He grinned roguishly at her, forgetting again that she couldn’t see it.  He watched as she decided what her answer would be, seeing the determination fill her sapphire eyes as she took two steps back.  He faced forward again, grin never faltering as she ran and jumped, landing squarely between his shoulder blades.  It felt entirely natural to grip her legs behind her knees, even as her warmth soaked through his leather jacket and made him shiver as heat licked down his spine.

Chapter Text

Marinette

Marinette Dupain-Cheng, what—and I cannot stress this enough—the actual fuck?!

She’d just leapt up on a perfect stranger’s back!  And dammit if it didn’t feel right to be there.  His large, warm hands fit behind her knees like she’d been made for him, and the little burst of sparks inside her chest felt suspiciously like Tikki’s magic.

Oh, no.

That’s what she got for trying to outrun Fate, she supposed.  It just followed her, playing the long game.  Adrien wasn’t her other half; and she’d finally learned that even though Plagg was the yang to Tikki’s yin, it didn’t mean Plagg’s holder was Marinette’s yang.  And Adrien had given Plagg up after his father’s arrest anyway, and he had just recently come out of the closet with the announcement that he was dating Luka Couffaine.  Both of her exes were together.  Fate was just cruel sometimes.  Or perhaps it was just…conniving, if that sort of drama had pushed her into the arms of a tall, dark stranger who made her feel safe after years of torment and trauma.

She shook herself mentally.  She could spiral later.  Said tall, dark stranger was very warm beneath her—don’t snuggle in, Marinette, that’s fucking weird—and she was getting a piggy-back ride to her apartment like she was four years old.

“You good?” he asked, deep voice vibrating through his back.

She tried to ignore the pleasant warmth that settled in her stomach when he spoke.  In answer, she nodded, tucking her chin against his shoulder as he started to climb.

“Apartment 408,” she hummed against his neck, fascinated by the flush that rose before her eyes in addition to the goosebumps.

It took much less time than she expected for them to reach the fifth floor, although she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised.  Red Hood was much larger than she was, she probably barely registered as added weight.  And he was clearly extremely fit, and not exhausted despite the late hour.

He stopped in front of her door and hesitated before letting go of her legs and she slid down his back, keeping her hands on his sides for what was longer than strictly necessary—but the feel of him beneath her hands…she was entranced fascinated by the clear musculature hidden beneath the brown leather jacket.

Amazed at her own daring and sudden ability to flirt—thanks, Plagg, let’s just be inappropriate with a perfect stranger who also happens to be a vigilante who could snap me in half—she trailed her left hand across his waist as she stepped around him and offered a little grin as she unlocked her door.

“Do you have time to come in?  I’m too stressed to sleep, I thought I might make some pain au chocolat.”

She hadn’t meant to say the words, they just came out.  Her eyes widened as the whites of the domino mask did the same as he stared down at her.

“You’re just gonna whip up some chocolate pastries at three in the morning?” his voice followed her into her apartment, dripping incredulity.

“Well, I mean, it’ll take a while, the dough will have to chill for a while, probably an hour and half total.  You don’t have to stay, I mean I’ll end up doing this anyway.  But you’re welcome to stay if you want!  I thought I might make them tomorrow, but I bake when I’m stressed so…”

Stop talking, Marinette, he does not need to know your weird ticks!

“Hey, it’s your apartment.  I could help…maybe.”  His voice turned hesitant and he reached up to rub the back of his neck.

The gesture reminded Marinette so much of Adrien, she felt a little homesick.  And then she saw that the action had lifted his shirt and she glimpsed the very defined v of his apollo’s belt and felt her face flush.  She whipped back toward the kitchen hopefully before he could see, trying to collect herself.

For Kwamii’s sake, woman, pull yourself together!

“Have you made pain au chocolat before?” she asked, almost certain of the answer.

“Aah…no.  I’m actually banned from the kitchen at my dad’s.”

She turned back to smirk at him and make a quip about being a kitchen nightmare, and oh boy, that was a mistake.  The leather jacket had come off, revealing the plain, black, short sleeved t-shirt beneath.  The apollo’s belt had been bad enough, but his arms.  He looked like the statue of David, like he’d been carved from marble.  She recovered slightly more quickly this time.

“You can help if you promise not to burn down the entire building.  And also, if you take the muzzle off.”

“Muzzle?”

“I didn’t know what else to call the bottom part of your mask.”

“It’s not a muzzle, I can still talk!  It’s a…uh…huh.  You know, I don’t actually know what it’s called.  But I’m the only one of us who actually covers their whole face.  I am continually amazed that people don’t figure us out.”

Marinette raised an eyebrow.  She’d sort of wondered about that with all the pictures she’d seen when researching Gotham.

“Okay, well, I’m new here, so off with the muzzle.  It’s not like I’ll be able to figure it out.”

Red Hood hesitated, then shrugged before removing the offending face mask.  Oh god, she suddenly wished he’d kept it on.  She’d just wanted to be able to hear him better.  But damn that jaw could cut glass, and even though the scar running the length of his face from temple to jaw made her heart ache with the reminder of the violence in this place, it certainly added to the rugged countenance.  This was not fair.  Still, she reached for her apron and directed the vigilante to wash his hands while she gathered ingredients.

--

Two hours later, and Marinette wanted to regret everything, but she was laughing too hard to feel anything other than pure joy—something she hadn’t felt since her childhood.  Her tiny kitchen was an absolute, unholy disaster: flour covered every surface, including Red Hood’s hair (the plain, black t-shirt was most definitely not black anymore), and somehow butter had made its way to the ceiling.  The ceiling!  Which was due to his undeniably adorable enthusiasm for bludgeoning the frozen brick of butter into a workable slab to be folded between the layers of pastry dough.

“I see now,” she gasped between peals of laughter, “how you’re banned from your father’s kitchen!”

They had both sunk to the kitchen floor, her head was resting against the cabinets below her sink so she could watch the oven, and he was resting against the refrigerator.  His laughter just spurred her on, and she was going to have a serious talk with Tikki later about what the hell this pull was between the two of them.

“Listen,” he insisted, pulling in his own gasping breath, “I’m a decent cook.  But the chemistry involved in baking is just beyond me.  You don’t need directions to cook stuff.  You can just go by smell and taste.  But god forbid you mis-measure the salt or flour or oil when you make goddamn birthday cake.  Or  fuckin’ chocolate chip cookies.”

They dissolved into giggles once again, only interrupted by the sound of her kitchen timer signaling it was time to remove what Red Hood had dubbed the “disaster pastries” from the oven.

She slid a little in the layer of flour coating the linoleum, and his arms shot forward to steady her.  She was struck again by the sensation of warmth and safety that seemed to sink into her bones.  She definitely didn’t mind, but she straightened quickly out of habit, and he dropped his hands immediately once she’d regained her footing.  She smiled her thanks as the heat from the oven wafted her hair away from her face.

“These actually don’t look too bad.  I think we did okay, even with the mess,” she giggled once more as she glanced around what used to be a kitchen and was now a war zone.  “You should take these with you.  I imagine the rest of the Bats and Birds might not be too happy with you skipping out on the rest of your patrol.  I’ve always found that fresh, French pastry can soften the hardest of hearts.”

Well, not quite the hardest.  Gabriel and Lila had never come around.  But Gabriel had gone insane with grief—he’d needed more help than pastries could offer.  And Lila…Marinette was pretty sure her Italian nemesis from lycee was a sociopath.  There was no softening that heart.  Red Hood looked like he wanted to argue, but she was having none of that.

“Good food is meant to be shared,” she insisted.  “And I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.  Please take them with you.”

Red Hood raised his hands in surrender and stood to dust himself off.  Flour rose in a cloud around him and he gave a dramatic cough as he waved the cloud away from his face.  The black t-shirt was mostly black once again, but his hair was almost entirely white, instead of black with one, odd white streak through the front.

“Come here,” Marinette demanded, reaching for his hair.

Catching on quickly, Red Hood bent forward, and she threaded her fingers through the mop of hair, marveling at just how soft it was beneath the coating of flour.  She may have run her fingers through his hair one or two more times than was strictly necessary don’t judge her, how dare you.

He glanced at her through the mask, and her breath caught as she dropped her hands.  Wordlessly smirking, he grabbed a broom from beside the refrigerator and began to sweep the floor while she cleared the counters and filled the sink with the vast array of dishes and utensils from their adventure.  It was pleasantly domestic, even at 5:30 in the morning.

There is an American vigilante sweeping my kitchen.  What even is my life?

It was almost seven o’clock by the time the kitchen was even close to clean.  The pain au chocolat were cool enough to package in a few clean take-out containers for Red Hood’s partners, and she forced the peace offerings on him when he protested once more.

“I am a grown-ass man, what’s the Bat gonna do, ground me?”

She’d given him a stern glare and a raised eyebrow.

“He could bench you, and then where would the city be?”

Her eyes were closing of their own accord by now, but she muscled through, starting to shoo him out the door.  But he was suddenly like the marble she’d thought of earlier: immovable.

“All right, Pixie Pop, you’re dead on your feet.  Time for bed.”

He scooped her up in one arm, still cradling the containers of pastries in the other, and carried her to her room, despite her admittedly feeble protests.  Once he’d settled her on her bed, it seemed to call to her, and she wasted no time burrowing under her comforter.  Hood’s hand was suddenly near her face as he tugged the blanket up farther.  Impulsively, she grabbed his hand and kissed his knuckles, murmuring a soft thank you.  She thought she heard a soft gasp from him but was too exhausted to worry too much about crossing lines and being invasive.  She was asleep within seconds and didn’t hear him leave.

--

When she woke, she was tucked into her bed, fully clothed, with a note on the pillow beside her head.  He had remarkably elegant handwriting.

I’m expecting more French pastries next time.  Stay safe, Pixie Pop.  See you around.

Warmth spread through her chest as she smiled at the little bats he'd drawn in place of a signature, and it wasn’t kwami magic this time.  She recognized this feeling and she tried to squash it.  It was too soon to feel this way.  She’d spent a few hours with Red Hood, and for kwamii’s sake, she only knew his call sign!  Leave it to her to fall for yet another man with secrets.  Well, at least she was no stranger to secrets.  Smile firmly in place, she set the note on her nightstand and went back to sleep.

***

Jason

He’d meant to go back to his apartment.  He really had.  But the memory of Marinette—the light in her eyes as she’d laughed on the kitchen floor, the way her hair had floated around her when she’d open the oven door, the feeling of her hands running through his hair trying to shake out all the flour his eyes hadn’t rolled back in his head, what are you talking about, the kiss she’d given his hand before passing out asleep—had taken over his brain and, on autopilot, he’d ended up back in the Batcave.

“I didn’t think we’d see you today, Little Wing,” Dick greeted him as he dismounted from the motorcycle.

He’d paid attention to the debrief—mostly—while destroying Marinette’s kitchen.  Apart from the incident at Miss Katie’s, the city had generally been quiet.  Dick had been vague about Jason’s whereabouts when he’d joined the others in the Cave, and he was grateful.  He hadn’t really wanted to come down from his high after he’d tucked the petite French waitress in her bed in a run-down apartment only steps away from Crime Alley.  After he’d ridden to the manor wearing a face splitting grin.

He shrugged in response to his favorite brother and turned toward the string of monitors.  Tim must have gone to bed by now.  Or, more likely, was still up and working on actual Wayne Enterprises shit that Jason had never bothered to learn.  Which was fine.

“Meh, the computer’s here, and I’m curious about Little Miss Badass.  Figured I’d do some research first.”  And then go home after breakfast.  Besides, he’d brought the pain au chocolat Marinette had insisted he share with the rest of the Bats.  He’d already left them with Alfred.  And who could pass up breakfast from Alfred? 

Dick made a noncommittal noise in his throat and left the cave, presumably to go eat.

The perks of being adopted by a billionaire definitely included access to servers that bordered on illegal.  Fuck, the amount of investigating Tim did on a regular basis probably was illegal.  But again, being adopted by a billionaire just meant that everything had a price tag, and realistically nothing was too expensive.  Jason wasn’t about to invade Marinette’s entire life.  He didn’t need her social security number—although, she likely wasn’t a citizen, so there wouldn’t be a social to find—or her birth certificate or anything.  He mostly just wanted to know where she had trained and who had taught her to bake, damn those pastries were amazing.  Who had trained her to be that effective, that efficient?  It didn’t take long to find out.

 

Marinette Dupain-Cheng

-Age: 25

-Born: August 8th, 1996; Paris France

-Education: College Francois Dupont; ESMOD

-Occupation: Freelance fashion designer, owner of Coccinelle by MDC; currently employed at Miss Katie’s Diner, Gotham, New Jersey

-Residence: 14685 S. 27th St. Apt 408, Gotham, New Jersey

Parents: Deceased August 10th, 2014; Tom Dupain, Sabine Cheng; owners, operators Tom & Sabine Boulangerie Patisserie

 

So, she was MDC.  That was a fun little piece of information he’d have to hold over Tim’s head later.  The man was obsessed with discovering the identity of the by-commission-only designer.  And here Jason had stumbled on that identity by mistake.  The more he read, the more distraught he became.  Words jumped out at him, Akuma, Terrorist, Ladybug, Chat Noir, Gabriel Agreste.

No wonder she had so many fighting skills.  She’d been part of what Parisian news sources had dubbed “The Akuma Class” when she’d been in the French equivalent of high school; her parents must have insisted if she hadn’t.  And then her parents had died, just after the terrorist’s arrest, only two days after her 18th birthday.  He couldn’t blame her for leaving.  The things she must have seen… He remembered hearing about the situation in Paris from Wonder Woman, hearing how Ladybug—a teenager!  What the fuck?!  Why were their so many child heroes in the world?!—had begged the Justice League to stay out of Paris until Hawkmoth had been dealt with.  He’d watched the news reports of various Akuma attacks, some of which had involved millions of deaths—all reversed by Ladybug’s Miracle Cure.  Everything he’d read insisted that victims never remembered their demise.  But what about the survivors?  The people who had watched them die, unable to do anything?  And the heroine herself?  And her partner, the cat?  They’d watched their city burn and drown and crumble into dust again and again.  That kind of trauma must have left its mark.

He didn’t blame Marinette for fleeing France.  He would have run, too.  But to Gotham?  Not likely.  But as he read more of her information, he could understand a little of the draw.  The cost of living was certainly low.  And it wasn’t a stretch for her to take Amtrak in to New York if she were looking for a career in a fashion house—Audrey Bourgeois had StyleQueen’s headquarters in Manhattan and the woman had offered Marinette a job designing for her.  He wondered why the young designer hadn’t accepted.

And then there it was, as he dug deeper into her past—her present wasn’t giving him much by way of answers—she’d been involved in the Hawkmoth events.  Directly involved.  She’d been Multimouse, had been outed in a fiasco of epic proportion when Ladybug and Chat Noir had lost all support from their team members.  Because one brat had decided she was more important than the fate of the world.  He was more grateful suddenly for the progress Damian had made since arriving at the manor.  The kid had been a brat, thanks to his upbringing in the less-than-stellar League of Assassins, but he’d learned.  Bruce had at least given him some tools to understand that the world wasn’t everything Talia and R’as had said.  But…

But Marinette.

She’d been part of the hero team.  She’d been exposed to and used magic and the only thing he could tell it had done to her had been to make her surprisingly strong for such a small person.  Not that he’d been around her long enough to find out anything else.  But Bruce had always hated magic, even though he had used it himself to resurrect his only biological child.  He’d always insisted that those who used and were exposed to magic were never the same, that it messed with their minds and their physiology.  The magic that had resurrected Jason had definitely messed with his head.  Thinking about Marinette…he didn’t want her to be crazy.    And Bruce wasn’t always right, anyway, he reminded himself.

After all, he’d left the Joker alive, even after Jason had been murdered.  And even though that rage had dulled over the past several years, the pain never really left him.  The injustice.  It was why they never called him in when the Joker escaped.  They knew he’d never be content to just let him walk away.  And they were right.  The thought abruptly entered his mind—the disturbing, terrifying image of Marinette suffering as he had at the hands of the Joker—and Jason couldn’t breathe.  His chest closed up and his hands fisted in his hair and he knew the Pit Madness was to blame—he could feel the supernatural rage taking over his mind.  He fought—fought hard—and after fifteen minutes (his shortest time yet) of fighting, the haze receded, and he could breathe mostly normally.

No.  Not a chance in hell would he allow that to happen.  Never again, not to anyone else, but especially not her.

“Jay, where’d these pastries come from?  I’ve only had better in France,” Tim called from the entrance to the cave.  Before Jason had a chance to answer, his younger brother, the Replacement, had all but materialized at his side.

“Whatcha workin’ on?”

“Dick and I met this girl last night.  It was crazy, Timber.  It was like…like Talia or R’as had trained her.  So I looked into her a little to see if she’d been part of any militant groups.  But instead, I found all…this.”

Tim scanned the information, eyes growing wider and wider as he took it all in.

“Dang, four black belts?  Wait, where’s the footage from last night?  This is the woman Dick was talking about?  Wait, are these pastries from her?!  Is that where you were all night?!  Jesus, Jay—”

“Hey, hey!  It wasn’t like that.  We walked her home and Dick took off, and she invited me in.  I helped her make pain au chocolat.  She said she bakes when she’s stressed.  Makes sense now, her parents were bakers.”

Tim paled, and Jason had to sort through his words to find his misstep, but he came up blank.

“Tim.  Timbo.  Earth to Timothy!  What’d I say?”

“Look at her, Jay,” the younger man murmured, tone laced with horror.  “She fits all the criteria—dark hair, blue eyes, tragic past.  She’s better off than we were, with the black belts and stint as a superhero.  She can’t ever meet Bruce, he’ll try to adopt an adult.”

Now Jason’s eyes widened in horror.  It wasn’t like he would be opposed to seeing more of the little pixie.  But whatever feelings he had for her…they were not in a brotherly capacity.

“She’s an adult, like you said, Timmy.  He can’t adopt her.  And anyway, she—”

“OH MY GOD!” Tim shouted, and Jason nearly flipped the chair when he jumped.

“Jesus Christ, what?!”

“She’s MDC?!  You couldn’t have led with that?!  Dammit!  I’ve been trying to find her for months and you and Dick just happened to meet her?  At some shit-hole diner where she’s a waitress?!  What is my life?!”

Jason laughed as his brother threw up his hands spun on his heel, grumbling about needing more coffee to deal with this.  Coffee didn’t sound too bad, actually.  He emailed the file to himself for further investigation and erased everything from the computer’s history.  Tim was right:  Bruce did not need to know about Marinette Dupain-Cheng.

Chapter Text

Marinette

Two weeks.  It had been two weeks since The Incident.  That’s what she was calling her short-lived fight with the would-be kidnappers adult-knappers?  Just…knappers?  English would always find new ways to annoy her and the city was disturbingly quiet.  Sure, she’d left out cookies and macarons and pastries for any stray bats or birds passing through, and occasionally, they got eaten.  Red Hood must have decided to only tell a few bats or birds about her offer.  Marinette always knew when he’d stopped by while she slept—he’d taken to leaving little squares of paper featuring sketched red bat silhouettes under the empty plates she left on her balcony.  She’d kept them for a reason she refused to explore too closely.  She just couldn’t bring herself to throw them away.  So, they were tucked safely away in the pocket of a new, yet nearly-full sketchbook used exclusively for her new, never-to-be-realized project: revamping the suits the vigilantes wore.  Especially Robin’s—what self-respecting shadow-lurker wore such obnoxiously loud colors?

--

Tonight’s shift at Miss Katies seemed to be on par to be as boring as the past two weeks had been.  She supposed she should be grateful for the lack of excitement: it meant that the luck and good fortune she’d been sneaking into her patrons’ food and drinks was extending into the rest of the oppressed city.  But now she was bored.  Marinette’s teenaged years, and even a few years following graduation, had been non-stop action.  Even after Hawkmoth had been brought to justice, there had been the years she’d spent  searching and eventually landing in Asia, following the trail left by the League of Assassins and destroying the Lazarus Pits they’d been so bent on creating.  She had decided to come to America after the last Pit had exploded into non-existence and the poor soul suffering from Pit Madness had been cleansed.  The pull she felt twoard a new epicenter of misery and misfortune had been so faint, she’d known it had to be half a world away.  So, she’d returned to Paris for her few remaining belongings, meditated on just where the tug was guiding her, and caught the next flight to Gotham.

Honestly, with the city’s reputation for crime and danger and deranged criminals, she’d expected…more.

The chime over the door sounded, and Marinette caught sight of a bubbly blond and statuesque redhead sauntering in.  She’d tempted Fate again, it would seem.  Harley and Ivy were always good for a little excitement, whether they intended it or not.  Tonight, they entered hand in hand, apparently on a date, and Marinette smiled at how sweet a couple they were.  They’d really turned things around for each other, she’d learned.  Both Batman and Bruce Wayne had testified on Harley’s behalf during a particularly nasty trial featuring the Joker.  They’d managed to convince the court that Harley was a victim of abuse—Marinette knew that was true, the Joker wasn’t capable of caring for anyone, even himself—and she’d left Gotham entirely to receive extensive mental health rehabilitation.  And for some reason she’d come back and then ended up with Ivy.  The last time the pair had come into Miss Katie’s they’d been ridiculously pleased to tell the story when Marinette had asked how they’d become a couple.

The happy couple in question found a table in her section and she gave them a genuine smile as she approached.

“Evening, you two.  It’s been a while.  What are you in the mood for tonight?”

Harley’s nose crinkled as she smiled widely at the noirette, and Ivy’s smile was gentle and kind.  Marinette wondered vaguely what the others in the diners saw when they looked at the little trio—she could imagine how different it must have looked from the Harley and Ivy of the past.

“We heard a little rumor, Darlin’.”  Harley’s smile transitioned to a good-natured smirk.  “Heard ya had some visitors a couple weeks ago.  Met Nightwing and the Red Hood?  And they didn’t even need ta save ya.”

She tired to fight the flush that crept up the back of her neck and over her cheeks, but of course, there was nothing she could do to stop it.  She just smiled back noncommittally.  Something that Ivy caught immediately.

“Oh, we always knew you could handle yourself, little Marigold,” her voice was full of affection and approval, and Marinette bathed in it.  It was almost like hearing her maman’s voice again.  “But that secret smile means something else, don’t you think Harls?”

Harley peered up at her, and she worked hard to keep her shoulders from curling inward under the scrutiny.

“Ooooh, have a little fun with a vigilante, darlin’?  Which one?  Wait, what am I talkin’ about!  It’s gotta be—”

She stopped suddenly at the look of warning from her partner, and Marinette let loose a silent sigh of relief.  She didn’t want to talk about this in front of the other patrons.

“I mean, I kicked ass,” she admitted with a satisfied grin to match Harley’s.  “But Nightwing and Red Hood just walked me home and made sure I got inside safely.”

“And those darling French treats you leave for them are just coincidental, are they?” Ivy prompted.

Dammit, her face had just cooled down and now it was heating back up again.  And for what?  Nothing actually happened, except for an epic explosion of flour in her kitchen and a brush of her lips across Red Hood’s knuckles that she had been trying very hard to not think about thanks a lot, Ivy.

The chime above the door rang again, saving her as she looked up to see a young man, around her age, stumble through the door looking exhausted…and looking like her savior from this conversation.  She turned back to her second favorite couple (Kagami and Chloe would always come first in her heart, but Japan was awfully far away, and time zones were a bitch.) with a triumphant smile.

“I’ll let you two figure out what you want, and I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Don’t think you’re getting’ outta tellin’ us about Hood, Miss Thing!” Harley all but shouted at her.  She winced.  Ivy didn’t come to her rescue this time.

She stopped at the set of hot plates to grab a pot of coffee for the new customer—really, he looked like he was sleep-walking—and approached him slowly, hoping not to startle him.

“Can I get you anything?”  She kept her voice low and kind, knowing that being approached abrasively when barely awake was a recipe for disaster and potential injury.

“Whatever’s got you and the former Rogues in a such a good mood,” came the surprisingly lucid reply.

Marinette snorted.

“Serotonin?  In this economy?”

Steel blue eyes widened in surprised delight—he had a sweet face; it kind of reminded her of Luka when they were younger shut up heart, you’re fine—and he laughed once.

“Fair enough.  Even Bruce Wayne can’t afford it right now.  Caffeine, then.  The next best thing.”

Marinette bit her lip and snickered.

Don’t do it.  Do not say it, it’s not that funny.  Don’t—

“More espresso, less depresso?”

Now it was her turn to stare in shock and glee at the man seated before her.  He was truly laughing; his whole body was shaking with mirth.  She hadn’t even used magic, she’d just made a terrible joke despite her best intentions.  But she could supplement the joy with a little good fortune.  She filled his mug nearly to the brim and asked if he wanted cream or sugar.  He just shook his head, cradling the mug between both hands.

“Nah.  I like my coffee black, like my brothers’ souls.”

“Pfft, rude.”

“You’d agree if you met them.”

“I seriously doubt it.  Unless they’re literally the Joker or Scarecrow.”

“Sing it, sister!” a voice blared in her ear.

Aaaand, I’m deaf.

Harley was suddenly slinging her arm over Marinette’s shoulders.

“Marigold, come back, we’re huuuuungry,” she whined dramatically.  “Oh hey, Little-Middle Wayne.  Whatcha doin’ on this side-a town?”

Marinette tensed at the name.  Wayne.  She was serving a Wayne, a member of one of the richest families in the world.  There was a Wayne in Miss Katie’s diner.

“I was visiting Jay,” he replied, as though he’d known Harley all his life.  Maybe he had.  Or maybe the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, and he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings or to whom he was speaking.  “He told me to come grab some coffee before I went home, or he’d make me sleep over.  Coffee was definitely the better choice.  This is great, by the way,” he added, lifting the mug in salute to Marinette.  “What roast is this?”

She managed a sly glance at him.

“Sorry, trade secret.  You’ll just have to come back if you want more.”

He raised an eyebrow and smirked at her.

“Fair enough.”

He settled into his seat, and Marinette retreated to Harley and Ivy’s table, towing the former along with her, to take their order.

--

The young man—the Little-Middle Wayne, as Harley had dubbed him—was her last customer, the rest of her patrons having scattered around one o’clock.  She had about a half-hour before she really should be in bed, and although she didn’t relish the thought, she knew she had to send him on his way.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wayne,” she murmured as she approached his table once more.  “It’s time for me to close up.  I’ve got some travel cups if you want to take your coffee to go.”

She tried for an apologetic smile, and returned it.

“Sorry, Miss.  I didn’t realize I’d been here so long.  I got wrapped up in a project.”  He gestured to the tablet on the table before him, and she paled as she saw her own designs on display.

“Oh?  Trying your hand at fashion design, Mr. Wayne?  I could give you some pointers if you like—” What?!  Shut up, stop talking, what are you doing?!—“I went to ESMOD in France after lycee—um, like your high school.”

He grinned at her and motioned for her to sit with him.  Well, no one else was coming in, she could spare a few minutes to try to keep him away from her other secret identity.

“No, not really,” he assured her.  “I’m just a big fan of this designer’s work, maybe you’ve heard of them?  They only go by MDC, and they’re commission-only.  Nobody seems to know where they’re based or anything about them, except that they started in France.  And the wait for a commission has been ridiculous lately.  My father’s having this event in a few months—he hosts it every year, a charity gala—and he wants all of us to get fitted for suits.  Normally, we’d all go to the same place, but I’ve been hoping to commission something by MDC.”

It was too good to be true.  No way was one of the richest men alive—with connections to people like Giorgio Armani, for kwamii’s sake!—looking to commission her.  Way too good to be true…

Or…

Or was it Luck?  She’d never been able to tap into Tikki’s Luck unless it really, really mattered—like in Akuma battles.  But she’d been studying the Miraculous Grimoire and had taken to imbuing the coffee with some of Tikki’s magic, and this man had had at least four full mugs since he’d been there.  Maybe he really was hoping to commission her, and his Luck had finally changed.

“I…I might be able to help with that, too,” she heard herself whisper.

His eyes snapped to her, and she read the triumph in his blue gaze.  He’d suspected her…somehow.  The idea made her stomach turn, but it was too late to recant.  She pulled a business card from a secret pocket she’d sewn into her apron—the cards had been a gift from Kagami when she and Chloe had left for Japan last year—but withheld it when he reached for it with stunned eyes.

“On the condition that you tell no one who I am,” she added her caveat.  He pouted.

Like a child, he stuck out his lower lip and peered at her through dark lashes.  She couldn’t keep the stern set of her mouth with that face staring at her.  She snorted.

“I can agree to that.”  He seemed to sense her disbelief and added, “Being a Wayne means getting really good at keeping secrets.  If we didn’t, all of our private lives would be available on every media platform out there.”

She nodded, supposing that was true.  The only things she’d been able to learn about the Wayne’s had come from the Wayne Foundation website.  Certainly, there were articles about the patriarch, Bruce, and his various contributions to charitable organizations—and his recent engagement to one Selina Kyle.  But there was very little about any of the Wayne children.  Not that any of them were children, really.

Focus Marinette, he’s waiting for you.  Speak words!

Still somewhat skeptical, she handed over the business card.

“Send me an email and we can set up a time to get your measurements.  I’m working on a few other commissions right now, for regular clients.  Depending on what you’re looking for, I will probably be able to get it finished in enough time.”

He honestly looked like a little kid at Christmas with the way his eyes lit up as he looked between her and the business card.

“Oh my gosh, thank you!” he exclaimed, thrusting his arm forward to shake her hand.  “This is incredible, thank you so much Miss--?”

“Marinette,” she supplied, shaking his hand firmly.  “Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  I look forward to your email, Mr. Wayne.”

“Tim, please,” he corrected her warmly.  He really did remind her of Luka.  She ignored the squeezing of her heart as she nodded.

“Tim.  Now, I really do have to kick you out so I can close up and go home.”

He nodded eagerly and fled the diner excitedly.  She didn’t watch to see which direction he headed.  It was none of her business, although she did worry for the son of a billionaire in this neighborhood.

--

The last few days had been a bit of a whirlwind.  Tim had emailed almost immediately, god, he must sleep as little as she did asking her to come to Wayne Enterprises to get his measurements.  Somehow, it made her feel better about his commission—he’d obviously recognized that her working hours didn’t line up with his, and he had the flexibility to accommodate her.  So, she’d dressed as professionally as her creative heart had allowed why did everyone in this cesspool insist on wearing black?  Were they mourning the city’s lost exposure to joy and the visible color spectrum? and tried not to get lost on the way to the top floor of the Wayne skyscraper.  It had taken very little time to take Tim’s measurements, and she had taken a moment to express her approval of the suit he was wearing; it was clearly well-made (as it should have been for a billionaire’s son) and it was well-tailored to his narrow frame.  She’d had to measure around his waist and hips twice to be sure she’d done it correctly—didn’t the man ever eat?  Before she’d left, she’d set a small metal container on his desk and a little bubble of joy filled her heart at his exclamation upon opening the gift.  She’d set aside a few macarons from her latest vigilante batch and packed them in with some of the Luck-infused coffee she’d been serving at Miss Katie’s.

“Don’t work too hard, Tim,” she’d reminded him before she’d left.  “Those are supposed to be a reminder to take a little break.”

The two days following that had been consumed with sketching the bare bones designs for Tim’s suit for the charity gala.  Marinette wasn’t sure what kind of aesthetic he was looking for, as they hadn’t touched on it much while she’d taken his measurements.  But red seemed to be his color.  The button down beneath his vest had been a rich burgundy that contrasted beautifully with his fair skin and dark hair.  She smiled while she sketched, making the connection to her own tendency to wear red for the same reasons.  Not at all because she missed being Ladybug.  She had a new mission, thank you very much.

Now she was trudging into her apartment after her sixth and final shift of the week.  Her body was exhausted, but her brain was whirring away.  She’d emailed Tim the morning before to inquire after his color and style preferences, and she hadn’t yet heard.  But it been little more than a day, so she was hopeful his duties as co-CEO of a multi-million-dollar global conglomerate were to blame for taking up his time.  She was hopeful he would remember to take her suggestion and take a break for his own health and sanity.  She was about to disregard her own advice and get back to sketching when the thought of gifted macarons made her glance at her balcony.

The plate of macarons was only half empty.  Slowly, she slid the door along the track to investigate.  There was no note.  Had her visitor been a random stranger?  Usually, the plate was empty if a bat or a bird had stopped.  Her last two weeks had been too quiet, had it been the calm before the storm?  Something caught her attention above her, and the hair on her neck stood on end.  Was someone waiting out here for her to drop her guard?  She refused to look up, refused to let on that she knew she wasn’t alone.  Instead, she stood stock still, gazing over the smoggy skyline and waited for another sound from the balcony above her own.

“Ah shit,” came a low, disgruntled voice, and then there was a body tumbling down in front of her.  A body attached to a cape.

And then a familiar muffled laugh floated down to her, and her racing heart lifted at the sound.  She had visitors and they were friendly.  Marinette approached the pile of caped and masked vigilante and extended a hand to help him to his feet.

“Good evening, Monsieur,” she murmured with a sly smile.  “And why are you and M. Red Hood hiding on my neighbor’s balcony?”

“Hey, how’d you know it was me?”  A masked face hung upside down in front of her suddenly, and then righted itself as he flipped himself over to land lightly on his feet.

Show off.

“Well, how many vigilantes does this city have room for?  And I don’t imagine Nightwing would laugh at his partner’s misfortune.  He strikes me as too honorable.”

“Please,” the shorter man in front of her spoke with a voice saturated with cynicism.  “He would absolutely laugh at me falling off a balcony.”

“I see.”  And then something occurred to her.

“You’re…brothers—OhmygoshpretendIdidn’tsaythat!  Don’t answer, don’t say anything, I’m not supposed to know!”  She clapped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes.  Because if I can’t see them, they can’t see me, that’s how that works, right?

You know better, you were a hero, you’re the Guardian, you have your own secret identity, what is the matter with you?!

She flinched hard when large, gloved hands wrapped gently around her wrists and tugged her hands away from her ears.  She opened one eye to peek up at Red Hood.  The way his cheeks lifted, she imagined he was grinning at her.  Her heart absolutely did not skip a beat at the memory of his boyish grin.  She stepped away to give him some space on the cramped little balcony.

***

Jason

Oh no.  Oh.  No.  She was too observant.  How had she even figured out they were brothers?  Everything he’d read about her had indicated she was an only child.  How could she have known their interactions were an indication of a fraternal relationship?!

Well, even if she was closer than anyone had ever been to figuring them out, she clearly had an idea of how necessary it was to keep a secret identity a secret.  Her eyes squeezed shut like she was hiding from them, and after her insistence that they neither confirm nor deny her assumption, she covered her ears as thought they’d actually answer her.  It would have been sweet if she hadn’t been apparently panicking—a fact Jason confirmed when he made to tug her hands away from her head and her body locked down and jolted back from his touch.  The one eye she opened peered up at him uncertainly and his heart clenched at the fear he saw.  He tried for a reassuring grin dammit, Jay, she can’t fuckin’ see you and was pleased to see her relax a little, even as she stepped away from him.

“So, am I losing my touch?  They weren’t good enough for you this time?” Marinette joked, obviously trying to change the subject, and nodding to the half-empty plate of macarons.

Jason felt his eyes go wide in surprise and knew as soon as Tim started to babble over him, he’d been panicking as well and was trying to cover it.

“No, they were great—”

“We just hadn’t finished and—”

“And you came out and surprised us, so we hid—”

“And we thought you might want some, too!”

The little pixie looked amused and startled as they practically tripped over each other to reassure her.  Jason wondered what had gotten Tim so riled up since it was their first meeting.  But he couldn’t dwell on that insignificant fact, not when Marinette’s eyes narrowed a fraction like she’d started to figure something out.  Jason’s stomach twisted: Tim, Bruce and Damian all made that face when they were near to a major discovery.  He was pretty sure his brothers had learned (maybe inherited in Damian’s case) that expression from Bruce.  It was a look that promised trouble.  And then, just as quickly as the expression had appeared in her eyes, it was gone.  Like she’d forced the thought from her head.  She reached for a macaron a little too quickly, and his stomach clenched further.  She’d reached some kind of conclusion, and it was probably about them if she were using the treats she’d left them as a distraction.

“All right, all right, I get it.  You loved them, you were just being courteous.”

Her bell-like giggle tugged at the corners of his mouth.  Why he fought the smile, Jason wasn’t sure.  Maybe because he felt ridiculous for being so quickly drawn in by the everything about her.  He knew this infatuation was completely irrational.  But he couldn’t help it.  When she settled onto the chaise and gestured to the chair nearby, Tim sat immediately, and Jason scowled.

“Well, come on, Hood.  There’s room here by me, if you don’t mind sitting next to someone who probably smells like greasy American diner food.”

“American hamburgers are a delicacy,” he insisted, only too glad to take the seat next to her.  “But don’t you need to go to bed?  It’s almost 3 in the morning.”

She smiled up at the overcast sky.

“No.  I’m not really working tomorrow.  Oh!  Unless my new client decides he’s ready to talk aesthetic!  I did his measurements a couple days ago, and I started sketching a little—it’s nice to have a suit to work on, all my other projects are for dresses.  Everyone seems to be going to this Wayne Charity Gala thing.  But anyway, I can always ask for an afternoon meeting.  I’ve got some time before I really need to go to sleep—!”

She stopped suddenly, like she was expecting an interruption or for someone to comment on her ability to speak without needing to pause for breath.  But Jason refused to interrupt, and—if the way Tim was leaning toward her was any indication—so did his brother.  She seemed to take their silence as permission to keep talking, giving a small nod before continuing.

“So, all is well in Gotham tonight?  You’re not usually here when I get home…”

“Yeah, Pixie Pop, things have been quiet for a couple weeks now.  We’re still working on tracking those bastards who tried to take you.  They keep movin’ and there’s been talk, but nothing’s happening.”

Jason knew he was tempting fate by even bringing up the more minor criminals.  But he didn’t want her thinking they’d just stopped looking for the disgusting excuses for human beings who’d tried to abduct her the night they’d met.  He just wanted her to feel safe.  Well.  As safe as anyone could feel in this godforsaken city.

“And Arkham’s been quiet, too,” Tim added.  “For once.”

Jesus Christ, Timmy…

Talk about tempting fate!  It was practically a law—if someone commented that no one had escaped the laughably-low-security prison masquerading as an asylum don’t even try to tell him it’s a mental health facility, what a fucking joke, within a matter of days someone dangerous would be on the loose.  He was struck again by the image of Marinette suffering at the hands of the Joker.  He felt his heart start to race but he tried to breathe through it.

No.  Not here.

As a rule, he kept his fits of Madness to himself now.  A few too many people had reaped the consequences of his loss of control.  And, as much as he was loathe to admit it, it was kind of nice to be on patrol with his brothers again, now that Bruce had deemed him “stable enough”.  Even the Replacement.  The brat was a handful, but they had some things in common—probably the reason Bruce tended to keep them separate—so the few times they were paired up it wasn’t the worst thing.

But he was intimately aware of what the Joker could do.  And the idea of that lunatic getting his hands on his new friend was quickly sending him into the Danger Zone.  He was vaguely aware of his breathing—how it was too fast, too harsh to be subtle—and the sickly green haze creeping into his vision.  There was the sense that someone was speaking to him.  Tim.  Trying to bring him back.  He locked his body down, refused to move, refused to hurt the woman sitting too close for safety in a momentary lapse of control.

Heat settled into his shoulder.  That same heat that had sunk into him the night he’d walked her home.  She was touching him.  She was touching him she was touching him and he could so easily kill her and she had no idea but she was touching him and it was distracting and the warmth from her tiny hand was so soothing and he wanted her to stay with him—

Hood!”

Her voice broke through the buzzing in his brain and the haze around his vision.  Her hand was still on his arm.  He slowly turned to meet her worried bluebell gaze.  He was drowning in blue and somehow it made his breath come easier.

Merde…Are you all right now?”

He didn’t trust himself to answer, and he was glad for once of the mask that hid him from her—hid his shame and embarrassment.  Normally he hated the necessity of anonymity.  He just wanted someone to see him, he missed human connection.  And the night they’d destroyed her tiny kitchen…he’d found a connection, and he wanted so badly to keep it.  But the mask would get in the way.  He couldn’t get close to a civilian.  It was dangerous for everyone.  He would never risk exposing his family like that, they already put themselves in enough danger; and the risk to the civilian was near astronomical.  He couldn’t let himself be so selfish, no matter how much he wanted her to be in his life.  She was speaking rapidly in French with his brother, and he caught the words Lazarus Pit.  His head snapped around to glare at Tim and then whipped back to gape at her when she gasped in recognition.

“You…know about the Pits?” he rasped.

“I…I—that is…Yes.  I know.  And I know they’ve all been destroyed.  I just…I know it’s naïve, don’t judge me, I just didn’t think there were others who…suffered the effects.  I thought…I thought it was done.”

“Wait, others?!”

Tim’s voice cracked like he was 15 again.  Jason would have laughed if he hadn’t been completely terrified by and stuck on the fact that little pixie Marinette knew about the Pits and what they did.

“No, no, wait.  Go back to the part where you know what the Lazarus Pits are?  And then come forward to the part that they’ve all been destroyed?!”

His voice was too loud, he knew it.  But this was too much.  She knew too much, and her voice cut through the haze and her touch was warm and made him feel safe in a way he hadn’t since before and he didn’t know what to do.  She had flinched away from the volume and he was instantly regretful.  It was like being near her made him feel everything at a greater intensity.  Everything.  Sticking around would be dangerous.  For her, for Tim and Dick and Damian and Bruce and Babs and Steph and Cass and Duke.  He would forget himself, he could see it happening.  He would get wrapped up in the joy she’d already shown she could make him feel—from something as simple as turning a mixer on too high and a resulting explosion of flour—and his wild mood swings would put her in harm’s way and his family would be left to pick up the pieces and it would just further cement him in his role of Family Disappointment.

Just like it had a moment ago, her soft voice cut through the panic and pulled him into the now.  She was pressed back into the arm of the chaise dammit, he’d really freaked her out but her expression…he didn’t deserve her concern, her worry.  Not when he was barely holding himself together, barely keeping himself form hurting her.

“Hood, it’s okay.  I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—to scare you or worry you.  It’s just…we had heroes in Paris and Ladybug, she was kind of the leader, and after everything with Hawkmoth—he was kind of a super-powered domestic terrorist—after she and her team found him and took his Miraculous, she told the team that she had to leave.  And she did.  She traveled all over and checked in with everyone when she could.  But she was traveling the world for a couple years searching for the League of Assassins and the Lazarus Pits, and ended up in Asia for more than a year, destroying them.  The Pits, I mean.  She um…the League, not so much.  There were victims of the Pits, and she was able to—to cure them.  I…I can’t talk about it much.  Ladybug’s not active anymore, but her identity was the only one that truly mattered.  None of the team ever found out.  Nobody in Paris did, even m—her parents.  But when she came back, she was never the same, and she just couldn’t stay in Paris anymore.  That’s what she told everyone.  And one day, she just…left.  She didn’t tell anyone where she was going, just that—that no one would hear from Ladybug again, un-unless sh-she was needed.”

To his credit, Tim, who was all but vibrating with curiosity, seemed to understand that this Paris native had a lot of unhappy memories that she wanted to talk about but couldn’t.  Jason couldn’t blame Tim for wondering.  He desperately wanted to know everything about what had happened in Paris.  But Marinette had curled in on herself, and her bluebell eyes no longer held his and he missed them.  As she’d explained, his muscles had loosened, and the Madness had dissipated.  And now he raised a hand to reach for her but stopped short.  She still looked so frightened and almost ashamed, and he wasn’t convinced she wasn’t afraid of him after his outburst.  After all of their casual touches that first night, he’d thought maybe she was as touch-starved as he was.  But now…if she were afraid of him, he wouldn’t touch her.  He wouldn’t do that to anyone.

“You, uh, sound like you know a lot about…that.”

Oh, real eloquent, Tim.  Sweet Jesus…

She paled.  She was already essentially porcelain-skinned, but suddenly there was almost no color in her cheeks and Jason worried she might faint.

“O-oh, well I…” she hesitated for an instant, then sighed, hanging her head.  “I was part of the team at first.  I was Multimouse.  Then Chloe had a breakdown and Miracle Queen was a thing, and a bunch of us got outed.  I was never Multimouse after that.  Ladybug and Chat Noir were on their own for a while until they found a few new teammates.  But they kept in touch with…most of the team.  There were some falling outs.  But most understood why we couldn’t fight together anymore.  And Ladybug really needed some support.  There weren’t very many people who knew about the Lazarus Mission.  Not in Paris.  There was a rumor, though, that she’d asked for help from the Justice Leagues, even though she’d made it clear they couldn’t enter Paris while Hawkmoth was active.”

She raised her head, her eyes seeming to implore them to understand as they flickered between him and his brother.

“There were too many people who could have done real, permanent damage if they’d been akumatized,” she explained.  “Ladybug’s cure would have fixed everything, but that was only if she’d won.  And, given that none of us had any real training—we were just sort of given this jewelry and thrown in to figure it out—there was no telling how things would have ended.  If Ladybug had lost, ever…” she shuddered, looking away once more, and Jason saw tears building in her eyes.  “I’m told the world would have ended.  For Ladybug, losing just was never an option…  But, anyway.  There was a rumor she’d asked the Justice Leagues for help in finding the Pits.  No one really knows how that panned out, but she sent the Miraculous team a message when the last Pit was destroyed.  I thought that was the end of it.  It never occurred to me that victims of the Pits would have escaped the League of Assassins and moved on elsewhere.  Were you…I don’t mean to be offensive, I’m sorry.  But was it by choice?  Or did they force you into the Pit?”

Jason blanched.  She was so direct.  But she obviously knew more about his situation that anyone else, even his family.  He could feel Tim’s eyes boring a hole in the back of his head.  Better to just get it out of the way.

“It felt like a choice at the time,” he admitted, refusing to look at either his brother or the woman next to him.  “But, looking back on it, they would have forced me eventually if I’d said no at first.”

Tim made some kind of distressed noise in the back of his throat and Marinette’s face, now that he could bring himself to look at her again, was so pale and distraught, he wished he hadn’t answered at all.

“Are you still in touch with Ladybug?” Tim asked the Parisian sharply, not giving her a chance to respond to Jason’s admission of guilt.  “Do you think she could help Hood?  It’s been years, is there a time limit—a-a point of no return?  How does it all work?  Is it a spell, what about John Constantine, could he help if Ladybug can’t?  What if—”

“Jesus, Double R, give her a chance to talk!”

Jason hadn’t realized how much Tim actually cared.  A new warmth spread through his chest as he understood the barrage of questions for what they were: a desire to help him, to bring him back into Bruce’s family fully.  He wasn’t sure he wanted that; he still held a lot of resentment for Bruce for leaving the Joker alive after everything that bastard had done.  But Tim apparently wanted him around, and now the questions were out and despite how much he fought against it, Jason couldn’t keep the hope from rising within him.  If Ladybug could help him, could cure him…he could live.  Really live.  He could move on and be safe around other people, no matter what he was feeling.  A flurry of visions raced through his imagination, many of them involving Marinette in scenes of domestic bliss with him and he once again didn’t trust his own voice.  So rather than supplement Tim’s request for the cure with one of his own, he waited in tense silence for Marinette’s answer.

Chapter Text

Marinette

Merde.  She’d offered to cure him.  She’d fucking offered to cure Red Hood of Pit Madness!  It had been years since she’d destroyed the last Pit, cleansed the last soul—well, she’d thought they’d been the last.  How could she have been so naïve to think there weren’t others?!

Because the League of Assassins doesn’t just let people go, a rational voice in her head—it sounded suspiciously like Plagg—reminded her.

And then Red Robin—that had to be what Hood had meant when he’d said double R—had started spouting questions and she hadn’t known where to start with answering them.  She could pretend to get in contact with Ladybug, but she hated lying and she’d just barely avoided lying to them when she’d explained how she knew about the Pits to begin with.  She dearly wished she could just have admitted to leading this double life, but it wasn’t just about her.  She had a box of gods to protect, and the secrecy was so deeply ingrained in her after twelve years, the idea of sharing her Miraculous struggles made her want to be sick.  Still, Hood had shared some of his darkness with her, would it really be so bad to lessen her own burden?

Too soon!  Her conscience screamed at her.  That was probably true.  But it would make everything easier…

The tension surrounding the three was palpable.  Hood looked like he was ready to bolt at any second—he was clearly fighting off the Madness, and she was impressed with his success.

What a life that must be, to constantly patrol his emotions and the actions associated with them.

Sure, she and the rest of Parisian society had had to police their own emotions during Hawkmoth’s reign, but any damages caused never had lasting ramifications thanks to her Miracle Cure.  Hood had killed people, and now that she knew he’d been a victim of the League’s obsession with the Lazarus Pits, it was clear that many if not all of those deaths had been the result of a fit of Madness.  The realization made her want to hug him and never let go.  She suppressed a sigh.

“She’s not active, like I said.” Marinette finally addressed Tim’s questions.

Carefully—she had to tread the line between secrets and lies so carefully.  “But I’ll see what I can do.  That is, if you want to, Hood.  My understanding of the process is that it’s very painful.  And it could compromise your civilian identity.  Not publicly, Ladybug would never do that.  But she would probably learn who you are under the masks.  If you aren’t ready for that, she would understand, I know she would.  But it must be exhausting to live with Pit Madness for so long.  If you’d like to try, I can let her know.  But I don’t know how I’d contact you…”

Her eyes caught on the last macaron left on the plate, and an idea came to her.

“Actually,” she murmured, and she saw Tim follow her line of sight with a puzzled look on his face.

“What about a code?  I could communicate through flavors, if you’d like?  Like, when I’ve heard from Ladybug, I’ll leave out strawberry macarons.  And if you decide you want to do this,” she looked to Hood, “I’ll leave out pistachio…like a green light.  And I’ll meet you that night to talk about timing and such.”

Her stomach trembled with nerves and a hint of premonition.  She might have to out herself.  The thought was terrifying and thrilling.  To have no secrets from someone… It was almost a comforting thought.  She almost thought she might be ready to come out as MDC, maybe after the Wayne Charity Gala, if Tim’s suit was well-received.  She’d have to think more about that.  But if she outed herself publicly as MDC and then was able to share her superhero identity with Hood why did she trust him so much already?  She had so many questions for Tikki then she would have one person in her life from whom she would keep nothing. 

Hood sighed and scrubbed at the back of his neck.  Why did all the men she’d ever been attracted to do that?  What did it signify?  Nerves?  One of the many great mysteries of the universe.

“I think,” his deep voice was wavered in uncertainty.  “I think I could be ready.  If she’s willing.  If her identity is as much a necessary secret as you say it is, then I can trust her to keep mine to herself.”

Red Robin’s head whipped from Marinette’s face to Hood’s and his mouth hung open in what she could only assume was shock.  Obviously, that response had been unexpected.

“I just…I’m tired, you know?” Hood went on.  “You’re right, it’s damn exhausting to be on guard all the time.  I don’t want to keep hurting people, and if there’s a way to get rid of the rage, I’ll do it.”

“Hang on,” Red Robin interjected.  “Wait, you can’t make this choice lightly, Hood.  What if there’s a cost?  There was a cost when you went into the Pit.  What if there’s an equal cost of reversing the effect?  Doesn’t A always talk about balance in the universe?  What if curing you throws off the balance?”

This was new—someone in their life knew about the delicate balance of the universe.  Marinette tried to keep her sudden, desperate curiosity from showing on her face, even as she hurried to reassure the pair of masked men before her.

“Whoever this A is, they’re right about balance,” she said, drawing attention back to herself.  “But reversing the effects of the Pit would be restoring some of the balance.  The Pits threw the universe out of balance, they were never supposed to exist.  They’ve been destroyed, but the fact that you’re still suffering, Hood, needs to be rectified.  You’re not in balance, and thus the universe is not in balance either.”

Merde.  Fils de pute.

She was going to out herself tonight at this rate.  Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing.  These were vigilantes, protectors of this desolate city.  Trixx’s magic flared, reminding her of that first night when she’d decided she could trust Hood.  Being the Guardian was getting a bit overwhelming, having the ability to use all of her charges’ magic at any time.  Sometimes involuntarily.  Because the tiny God of Chaos called Plagg was alongside Trixx, trying to coax her into giving in to the impulse to share her burdens and reveal herself to her new friends.  And then, there was Tikki’s magic.  Trust them, it seemed to say.  Trust yourself, trust your instincts.  She sighed.

“Come on inside, you guys,” she said decisively.  “We have some details to nail down.”

She saw the two glance at each other, some unspoken communication passing between them.  Red Robin stood first, the set of his mouth seeming apologetic.

“Actually, I have to get back.  The big Bat will be wondering about us.  We’ve been gone longer than we normally would have.  Well, longer than I normally would have.  Hood usually does his own thing.  I’m assuming you’re not coming back tonight?”

Hood shook his head.

“Nah, I’m gonna work out the details with Pixie Pop.  Maybe try to convince her to get some sleep.  If I could convince you to sleep, too, I would.  I’ll keep the comm on, but just to listen.  Bats doesn’t need to know about this yet.  Especially if Ladybug isn’t gonna be able to help.  He won’t like it if she does, but it’s not his choice.  I’d rather deal with the fallout than the leadup, you know?”

Red Robin nodded and looked like he might argue, but instead assured he’d keep the details of this meeting to himself.

“This can be just between the three of us for now.  Nightwing’ll feel left out though.  I’ll let you decide whether you want to tell him or not.”  He gave a quick wave and, firing his grappling hook, swung away over the rooftops of Gotham.

Marinette was standing in the opening of the patio door, watching as Hood’s gaze seemed to follow his brother’s retreating figure.  This was actually better.  If she was going to do this, if she was going to share the truth, she’d rather do it with just Hood there.  Not that she was outright distrustful of Red Robin, but she wasn’t yet convinced he would be able to keep this secret to himself.  He struck her as the excitable type—much like herself—and it had been her experience that secrets got told when the babbling started, whether it was intentional or not.  She stepped back into the living room as Hood turned to approach her.  He stopped just inside the doorway and waited for her to slide the door closed before speaking again.

“Thank you for this,” he stammered, and her heart clenched at the sincerity and sorrow in his voice.  “I—I thought this was just how my life was going to be, forever.  I didn’t know it could be different.  I kind of forgot what hope felt like.  So thank you.”

Don’t cry.  Do not cry, you are Ladybug and Multimouse and the Guardian—you are strong enough to not cry about this!

“Hood, that’s…don’t thank me, that’s ridiculous.  You deserve to be in control of your own body and mind.  And…you might not want to thank me just yet.  Like I said, the process is painful.  Um…and I should tell you some more about it before you really agree.”

She spied Tikki peeking around her bedroom door.  The little god gave a nod of her round, red head.  Of course she’d been listening as they talked.  Now Marinette had silent confirmation that revealing herself was a sound choice.  She could do this no I can’t, she could absolutely do this nope, nope, nope, too scary, too soon! it was the right thing to do.  Hood’s raised eyebrows betrayed his misgivings at her statement.

“What do you mean?  Is it dangerous?  Are there negative consequences?”  He was wondering if she’d been lying to placate Red Robin.  She shook her head emphatically.

“No!  No, it really does tip the balance back toward normal.  It’s not dangerous, really, but I meant it when I said it was painful.  It makes you relive all the pain you felt before and during the Pit transformation.  You relive all the very worst parts of your life.  And the part about Ladybug finding out your civilian identity…She relives those events with you.  So if you’re anyone…well-known…she’ll know.  I’ll know.”  She ducked her head as Tikki zoomed out of her hiding place and settled on her Chosen’s shoulder.

Hood stepped back with a wordless exclamation.  Marinette raised sorrowful eyes to his—presumably—shocked face.

“Red Hood, meet Tikki, Goddess of Creation, and resident of the Miraculous of Creation.  She is the reason Ladybug could do all she did.  And,” she stuck her hand out to shake, struggling but ultimately succeeding in keeping her eyes on him, “meet the former Ladybug.  Marinette Dupain-Cheng, also known as MDC.  Also known as Guardian of the Miraculous.”

She left her hand extended in front of her as Tikki chirped a Hello! but gave up trying to maintain eye contact.  She would give both of them a moment to process this.  She couldn’t tell how much time passed, it was excruciating regardless of how many minutes or hours they stood in stunned silence.  The tears that had built up listening to him thank her for offering to give him his life back were threatening to overflow.  There was nothing she could do about it.  And then her hand was enveloped by his, and she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

“It’s...nice to meet you, Ladybug.  Marinette.  And Tikki.  I feel a little…bamboozled, if I’m honest.  That was…a lot to learn in an hour.”  She cringed.

“Sorry about that.  I haven’t had the chance to talk about this since I left Paris.  And even in Paris, there were things I couldn’t tell the others.  For their own safety and for mine.  But Tikki seems to think I should trust you with this, and she’s been my voice of reason for the past twelve years.  I don’t know where I’d be without her.”  She nuzzled the little god’s head with her cheek.  Tikki patted her affectionately, then floated up in front of Hood.

“Marinette is right, Red Hood.  Cleansing you of the Pit Madness will be incredibly painful, and it is likely that your identity will be revealed to her in the process, should you decide you aren’t ready to share it before then.”

Hood seemed to jolt in surprise.  Surely he hadn’t thought she expected him to remove his masks just because she’d chosen to tell her own secrets.  She’d just thought he might be more willing to trust her if he knew the truth!

“Wait, you don’t have to tell me!” she scrambled to assure him she had no expectations.  “This was—I just wanted you to trust me.  I thought it would be easier for you to decide what to do if you had all the information.  You don’t need to do anything you’re not comfortable with, I promise.”

He stepped back from her exuberance and she cringed again.  She was overtired and she knew it, and it was making her almost giddy.  But then he reached up and removed the muzzle-mask to reveal the boyish grin she’d been seeing as she dreamed remembered from their pastry adventure.

“Chill, Pixie.  I’ll admit, I’m not ready to show you my whole face yet.  My identity comes with a lot of baggage.  And a lot of brothers who might try to kill me if I told you anything without talking to them.  And Bats would be pretty pissed.  But you don’t have to freak out.  I appreciate you trusting me with your identity.  Identities.  Not a lot of people would trust me with anything, especially something that important.  So, thanks.”

Why did he have to be so sweet and so attractive?  Okay, it was time to lighten the mood.  Ignoring his unnecessary thanks, Marinette tapped her chin thoughtfully.

“All right, I don’t have to work, I think I mentioned that before.  And I need to destress.  Can I trust you to not destroy my kitchen if we make chocolate chip cookies?  I’m all kinds of freaked out and it’s a recipe I memorized when I was six so I can freak out and still go through the motions.”

Hood laughed and shook his head.

“You sure like to play with fire, Marinette.  You know why I’m banned from my dad’s kitchen.  You saw what happened last time.  You sure you still want my help?”

She blushed and glanced shyly at him through her lashes.  The way his face transformed when he smiled and laughed was completely unfair.

“I did, in fact see what happened last time I let you in here.  I continue to find flour in strange places.  But that was also the most fun I’ve had in a very long time, and the discussion we just had was too serious for me to just go to bed.  I need to bake it out of my system.  If you don’t want to stay, I totally get it.  But I figured I’d offer.”

Please stay, it feels nice to have someone else in my home again.

“I can stay.  Red already told everyone I wasn’t coming back.  So if you’re ready for another disaster, I’m in.”

***

Jason

Well, the kitchen wasn’t as much of a disaster as the night of the Disaster Pastries.  The cookies though…the same could not be said for the cookies.

“How did you even do this?!” Marinette cried amid peals of laughter.

She picked up what appeared to be a perfectly flat cookie, only to have it melt away from her hand.

“They’re puddles!  How did this happen?!”

Jason felt his cheeks redden even as he joined her in laughing at the Puddle Cookies.  He knew exactly how it had happened, and he didn’t want to admit it.

“I told you last time, chemistry is not my friend!  If you don’t measure exactly right, shit like this comes out of the oven!”

Except he hadn’t just mis-measured.  He’d lost count entirely as he’d added cups of flour to the dough.   When they’d scooped the dough onto baking sheets, it had seemed normal to him, but with little experience to guide him, how could he know?  Marinette had been cautiously optimistic about the outcome, but her optimism had been misplaced.  He couldn’t find it in himself to be disappointed, though.  The way her laughter lit up her face kept him smiling wider until he was sure his face would split.

“Okay, lesson learned, I guess.  Written recipes only if I’m this tired.  Since you can’t be trusted to follow spoken directions and I can’t be trusted to make sure it’s right, apparently.  At least the mess is mostly contained to the sink, this time.”

She turned to the mess in question and grinned at him while she filled the mixing bowl with soap and water and got started washing the dishes.  Hood grabbed a pile of cookie and shoved it in his mouth.  It tasted like a cookie.  It actually tasted like a really good cookie.  But Marinette was absolutely correct—they were puddles.  Disaster Pastries followed by Puddle Cookies.  This was part of the reason Alfred had banned him from the kitchen in the Manor.  At least he hadn’t set anything on fire here.

“Okay, no, I’ll wash these.  Go sit down, Pixie Pop.  You probably haven’t slept in more than 30 hours.”

He expected her to protest, and she did, via a very cute pout.  He shook his head and pointed at the couch in the living room.  She huffed and flicked water at his face before escaping retaliation by scampering into the living room.  It took him almost no time to wash the bowl, measuring cups and spoons and mixing blade.  He stacked them carefully in the too-small drying rack and turned to speak to his host, only to see her passed out on the couch, curled in a tight ball.  A soft smile on his face, Jason went in search of a blanket.  He didn’t want to trespass in her bedroom, but he peeked in through the open door, hoping the little red goddess—who had excused herself while they attempted to bake—might be able to show him where a blanket was.  But the deity was curled up on a pillow at the head of the bed, sound asleep.  He backed out of the room silently and continued his search elsewhere.

It didn’t take long to find her frankly alarming stash of blankets.  Who needs an entire linen closet full of blankets, what the fuck?!  He grabbed one at random and turned back to the living room.  He wondered briefly if he should just pick his sleeping friend up and tuck her in bed the way he had his first time here.  But when he reached her side, she looked so peaceful, he couldn’t bring himself to disturb her.  It was when he’d unfurled the blanket over her that he realized she was shivering.  It wasn’t that cold in the apartment, was it?  He tucked the blanket close to her shoulders and went to check her thermostat.  She’d set it to 72 degrees, but he couldn’t be sure if her heat actually worked.  It worried him a little.  She was just so small.  He settled to the floor in front of the couch and leaned his head back to rest against the seat cushion.  It was so still in the tiny one-bedroom.  It suddenly struck him as lonely.

Normally, he looked forward to the safety and silence of his own apartment, especially after any amount of time spent at Wayne Manor.  The place was just too damn busy, with all of Bruce’s adoptees running around, he found himself craving the solitude and peace of the upscale apartment Bruce had bought him a few years ago.  Maybe it was that Marinette’s home didn’t quite feel like a home yet.  She’d been living in Gotham for little more than a month now and didn’t seem to have really settled in yet.  His thoughts travelled to all they’d discussed in the last few hours.  She was Ladybug, Parisian hero.  Not only that, but she was also apparently some mystical Guardian of the literal gods who granted her and others their powers.  It explained her supernatural strength, and her willingness to live in Gotham.  But he remembered all Bruce had said about what magic could do to a person.  When another shiver wracked her body and the cushion shuddered with her, he wondered if susceptibility to cold was a result of the magic that was ever-present in her life.  He started to drift as he contemplated the consequences of her life as a magical protector.

--

Jason wasn’t sure at first what pulled him from sleep, but it was sudden.  His head jerked up as he gasped, reaching for the knife in his belt and looking around frantically, having forgotten where he was.  The inconsequential apartment was disorienting—he’d thought, at first, he was at his own apartment, or even the manor.  But he was…still on the floor in Marinette’s place.  He’d fallen asleep leaning against the couch.  But what had startled him awake?  His heart was pounding as though he’d been dreaming.  But he always remembered his dreams they were always terrifying, and he always woke in a cold sweat, and he had no memory of anything terrible happening.  Then a sound reached him that sent chills down his spine.

“No,” Marinette’s bell-like voice begged from his right.  “No, please.  Don’t hurt him.  Please.”

He scrambled to turn around, wondering if waking her was the best choice.  She was curled even tighter than she had been before, and her face was lined with stress.  It made him want to hold her until she calmed.  He watched, paralyzed with indecision as he tossed and turned, moaning wordlessly until she shot up, reaching forward with a gasp.

“Hood!  No!”

She’d been dreaming…of him?  It hadn’t been a good dream, of that he was certain.  He crouched before her, taking her hand gently in his.  Her sapphire eyes were wide and wild, her hair was damp with sweat and she was shaking, although he didn’t think she was cold anymore.

“Hey,” he murmured, squeezing her hand gently, “hey, you’re okay, Pixie Pop.  It wasn’t real.  You’re at home, you’re safe.”

Her terrified, dazed expression tore at him.  God, he never wanted to see that look on her face again.  She didn’t seem to hear him, just stared at him, uncomprehending.

“Marinette,” he said a little louder, “it’s okay.  You were dreaming.  It’s gonna be okay.”

Slowly, she seemed to come back to herself.  Her eyes seemed to clear, she seemed to take him in, even as confusion flitted over her face.  He’d take confusion over that stark terror any day.  What had she seen that had frightened her so badly?  He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.  She glanced at their entwined hands, and then peered into his face.

“Hood,” she breathed her voice sending liquid electricity throughout his body.  He wished she knew his name so he could hear her say it like that.

“I’m here,” he answered, hoping that was what she was looking for.

He didn’t have a lot of experience with this.  Dick had night terrors, but Alfred had always been the one to help him through it when Jason had first come to the Manor.  And he’d never told anyone about the terrors that haunted his own dreams, so someone had yet to be there to help him work through the aftermath.  He thought his heart might have actually cracked in his chest as Marinette’s expression morphed into something broken and tormented and he’d thought the dread had been bad but this was so much worse.  To his enormous surprise, she pulled her hand from his and threw her arms around him and sobbed into his neck, babbling in French.  He couldn’t keep up, couldn’t follow what she was saying between the muffled sound of her voice, the hiccups, and the speed at which she spoke.

“Pixie Pop, it’s okay.  You’re okay, you’re safe,” he murmured into her hair as he hesitantly wrapped an arm around her and rubbed circles into her back.

She pulled back suddenly, scrubbing at her eyes before burying her face in the blanket and taking a deep, shuddering breath.  It seemed to stem the tears at least a little.  She peeked at him, expression mortified.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.  “I didn’t mean to just throw myself at you, I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

Jesus Christ, of all the things to apologize for…

“Pixie—Marinette, it’s fine.  I get it.  You didn’t make me uncomfortable, I promise.  I know about bad dreams.”

She nodded, but she looked skeptical.  And exhausted.

“Why don’t you go to bed, Marinette.  You’ve only been asleep for a couple hours, and you’ve got some strawberry macarons to make,” he added with a wink.  “Red and I’ll be back on patrol tomorrow and we can talk logistics then.  What do you think?”

She nodded mutely and detangled herself from the blanket he’d used to cover her.  She froze and stared at the blanket, then pulled her gaze back to him.

“Did you…?”

He shrugged.

“You looked cold, so I found a blanket.  Need a hand getting up?”

She didn’t respond directly, but when he offered his hand, she took it and held it while he walked with her to her bedroom door.  She turned the handle and crossed the threshold before suddenly turning back and standing on her toes to kiss his cheek, just as she had done with Dick two weeks ago.

“Um…thanks, Hood.  For—for being here and helping me with…that.”  She looked away, that attractive pink flush settling on her cheeks.

“Anytime, Pix.  Go to bed.  I’ll see you tonight, all right?”

She nodded almost drunkenly and stumbled toward her bed.  He pulled the door closed quickly when he saw her move to undress.  As he left the apartment, he brought his hand to his cheek.  He’d been jealous of Dick for the kiss he’d gotten, and now he was practically flying because he’d gotten the same.  Marinette wasn’t insane.  She was obviously hurting from some unknown past, she was less obviously living with side effects of extended use of a magical artifact; but she was strong and intelligent and selfless and beautiful.  And she wasn’t crazy.

He was doomed.

Chapter Text

Marinette

She’d tried to sleep after Hood had left that morning.  But the nightmare had remained, burning like a brand behind her eyes.

Adrien, Chloe, Kagami, Luka…all dead at Hawkmoth’s feet.  That wasn’t new.  But last night, there had been a new body to add to the list.  Last night, Red Hood stood between her and the terrorist, used his body to shield her.  And just before she’d jolted awake, he’d fallen.  Gabriel Agreste had released his transformation and stabbed Hood through the gut with a sword pulled from his cane, and he’d fallen to the ground at her feet.  There had been nothing she could have done to prevent it.

So, since sleep evaded her, she let her brain wander while she remained motionless in bed.

She’d revealed her many identities.  To Hood, someone who’d had no prior knowledge of the existence of kwamii or Miraculi.  That should have terrified her.  She’d never trusted anyone with all those pieces of herself.  But maybe that was where she’d gone wrong.  Maybe that was why it had been so easy for Lila to turn almost all of her friends against her.  Even—maybe especially Alya.  Perhaps she had kept too many secrets.  It had been out of necessity, to keep her friends and herself safe from being targeted by Hawkmoth.  But Alya had never come around, and Marinette had never gotten the chance to explain.  So maybe that was why she’d decided to trust Hood with her secrets.  He understood the necessity of anonymity, so she somehow knew he wouldn’t out her.  And she desperately needed some kind of support system.  She couldn’t carry on in solitude like this; it would drive her insane, and she didn’t relish the thought of doing a stint in Arkham.  Not to mention how completely out of the question that would be, given her duties as Guardian.

Okay, so she’d decided to trust Hood.  And maybe that was what had triggered her nightmare, why he’d joined the cast of casualties that would have been her fault had she not succeeded in her mission as Ladybug.  She took a deep, cleansing breath as she reminded herself that they had won; Gabriel was behind bars, Adrien was safe and happily entangled with Luka and she was moving on; she’d made new friends, even though she couldn’t know who they really were.  She wanted to laugh at herself: leave it to her to befriend vigilantes.  Her life couldn’t just be normal, could it?  No, normal didn’t exist for the Guardian of the Miraculous.  She shook off the melancholy thought and tried to turn her mind to more pleasant things.

New friends.  Maybe Nightwing, probably Red Robin, and Red Hood.  She wasn’t sure she liked the title of “friend” for Red Hood.  It didn’t seem to paint a complete picture of her feelings regarding him.  And now that she was alone with her thoughts—all of her charges slumbered peacefully in the Miracle Box or curled up somewhere soft in her bedroom, and the vigilantes off to wherever they went after patrolling the city—she knew she had to explore what those feelings were.

He was undoubtedly attractive.  There was no denying that.  The broad planes of his chest, the sharp line of his jaw, and the chiseled muscles of his arms had been regular fixtures in her imagination since they’d met two weeks ago.  And he was obviously intelligent, even if he was somewhat crass and abrasive.  And, possibly the most alluring thing about him, he clearly cared about other people.  He might be violent with the many criminals that plagued Gotham, but it was in defense of the innocent and helpless.  Many of her customers had told her stories of Hood stepping in to help them in times of need, even when criminals weren’t involved.  If those stories were to be believed—and she had no reason to doubt them—he had a soft spot for the street kids, especially.  Imagining Hood playing basketball or sharing food with the local children brought a wide smile to her face.

This wasn’t the same as it had been with Adrien—she knew better than to put Hood on a pedestal and declare he was perfect.  She knew everyone had flaws; Hood was no different.  Nor was it the same as it had been with Luka—sure, Hood was sweet and respectful and had a bit of protective streak in him.  But somehow, she didn’t think she would have to give up her own independence for him, if this infatuation ever went anywhere yeah right, Marinette, get a grip.  Not that she’d had to give anything up for Luka.  She hadn’t given him a chance to ask her to.  He’d decided to tour with Jagged, and it was a fantastic opportunity for him.  But she had responsibilities that would have prevented her from going with him.  And it wouldn’t have been fair to either of them for her to ask him to wait for her to figure out what she wanted, nor for him to ask the same of her.  So, she’d ended their brief tryst, both of them had cried…and now he was paired with Adrien.

And she…had a crush on a vigilante.

Of fucking course.

--

At some point Marinette must have fallen asleep because the chiming of her phone jolted her awake amid sunlight streaming in through her window.  She fumbled to open the email notification from Tim.  She’d been right about red being his color.  He mentioned preferences for the fit of his pants, and she was pleasantly surprised at his knowledge of current trends and classic, timeless styles.  It was refreshing to not have to explain so much to a client.  At the end of his email, he asked if she would bring any sketches to Wayne Enterprises so they could discuss them in person.  Adrenaline surged through her as she read the request and she sat straight up, before finishing the sentence and flopping back onto her pillow in relief.  He didn’t want to see her today, thank the kwamii.  She was fit for neither man nor beast today.

Glancing at the time, she was pleased to see it was nearly eleven in the morning.  After a few more minutes of enjoying the warmth of the sun as it splashed over her face, Marinette decided enough was enough and she forced herself to get up and be at least somewhat productive before she needed to start on the strawberry macarons.  The thought reminded her that she hadn’t cleared the balcony after the…excitement of the night before.  That would be her first stop, then.

She was surprised when she opened the patio door and found a little square of paper sticking out from below the empty plate.  Her stomach flipped pleasantly at the sight of Hood’s handwriting.

See you tonight, Pixie.  Thanks again for everything.

The goofy smile spreading over her face felt like it might reach her ears.  She pocketed the little note to be stashed away with the others later.

--

Four hours later and Marinette had overhauled her apartment.  She’d been in Gotham for nearly six weeks, and it still hadn’t felt like a home.  She needed to change that.  If she could afford to have a support system, she could afford to start to put down roots here.  Who knew how long it would take to cleanse this place?  It might be a lifetime pursuit.  So, she’d deep cleaned everything, from her bedroom to her bathroom to her kitchen how was there still flour in the cabinet seams!?.  She’d decorated a little with photos and fairy lights, and before she knew it, her apartment looked like a place she would choose to inhabit.

She pulled Hood’s note out of her pocket to re-read it, to feel her heart tumble over itself and let the silly grin split her face again.  She pulled out the sketch book of vigilante projects and retrieved the little bundle from the pocket in the back.  If he kept leaving her notes, she would have to find a new hiding place for them.  She added the newest note to the bunch, tucked them safely back in the pocket and gathered some pencils to continue sketching.

--

Two hours passed in a blur, as she worked out a new jacket for Hood that theoretically included Kevlar to give him more protection from villains like the Joker, Two-Face and Penguin, whose preferred weapons appeared to be in line with his.  Red Robin’s new uniform—as well as the various Bats’ and Robin’s—no longer included capes.  Aesthetic be damned.  Robin’s uniform would have significantly more muted colors.  She wanted to differentiate him from Red Robin, so most of his ensemble was a deep green, with silvery grey accents, lending more to lurking in shadows than his current fashion disaster of stoplight colors.  She’d also been doing some research into fashion technology prodigy Lucius Fox, and she’d decided that since these projects would never come to fruition, money was no object, and she could therefore use his various technological advances in her theoretical designs.

She’d incorporated Fox’s fabric that utilized an electromagnetic current to become semi-rigid, planning for it to fold away at the vigilantes’ sides and accessible to be used as a glider if they needed to jump from buildings or bridges.  There would be no reason to fear the cape getting caught on passing traffic or electrical wires and poles.  And everything was fire-proof, especially Hood’s ensemble since he had a reputation for getting close to explosions.  She was quite pleased with her brain child, even if it would never be realized.

Her flurry of creativity was interrupted by the alarm she’d set for herself: she needed to start on the macarons.  And maybe take a nap while she waited for her late-night visitors.  Maybe.  If she could keep her mind off Hood long enough to settle her heart.  She pulled out the most recent note and grinned once more, before replacing it and hiding the sketchbook in her nightstand.  She turned on Jagged Stone’s most recent album and set to work on a batch of strawberry macarons.

As her Ladybug creations baked, don’t you dare judge the spots, she knows she just said aesthetic be damned, but this is different!  Presentation is important! Marinette went back to designing.  She had made excellent progress on her newest works for Jagged and Clara, and she was certain they’d be ready to send out in about two days.  She’d even managed to knit a hat and mittens for eight-year-old Bowie to be sent along.  So, she was left with continuing on with her vigilante project.  She pulled it from its hiding place and settled onto the couch, lifting her knees to replicate a table top.

In what seemed like no time at all, a shrill ringing jerked her out of her design haze, and she all but threw her sketchbook to the floor as she flew from the couch to remove the macarons from the oven before they could burn.  She filled them with extra care and arranged them artfully on the little plate she’d been using exclusively for the Bats and Birds.  Satisfied with her presentation, she collected the sketch book with Tim’s designs, made her way to the balcony, kicking her secret project out of sight under the couch as she went, and settled down to sketch while she waited.

--

She woke slowly, warmer than she expected to be, considering she’d fallen asleep on her balcony.  She wasn’t sure what pulled her from sleep, but it was likely the sense that she wasn’t alone.  A panicked hiss reached her.

“Whoa, what are you doing?!”

She opened her eyes, careful to remain motionless so as to not attract attention to herself.  She was surprised to see Nightwing on her balcony along with Red Robin and Red Hood.  By the way Hood’s shoulders were tensed, she figured Nightwing was questioning the removal of the mask that hung from one of Hood’s hands.

“It’s fine, Monsieur Nightwing,” she mumbled, not fully awake yet.

Hood spun to face her so quickly, she worried he might fall over.  She spoke through her yawn as she continued, trying to assuage the concern she could see in the set of Nightwing’s mouth.

“I’m so new to Gotham, there’s no way I’d recognize his face on the street.  The hair though…”

She narrowed her eyes at Hood as she considered what more he could do to protect his identity.  She came up a little short on ideas in her sleep-addled state.

“You should consider, like, a hat or something.  Maybe an actual hood to match your call sign.  Hmm…I should try to remember that,” she offered, shaking her head at the man’s transparency.

She was slightly comforted by the laughter that came from both Nightwing and Red Robin, but still noted the tension in the former’s stance.  He was clearly uncomfortable here.  How much had they told him?  Was he as uncomfortable with magic as Hood had said Batman was?  Had Hood outed her and brought Nightwing along as backup?  No, she refused to believe that.  They existed in anonymity, and she’d decided to trust him with her identities.  Doubting him now would only make this more difficult.  The best choice, the only choice was to ask them about their increased numbers.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of three of you on my balcony?  I should have made more macarons.”

She noted Nightwing pretend to relax against the balcony railing while Red Robin took the same seat he’d had the night before.  And Hood remained standing, like he wasn’t sure of his welcome.  For kwami’s sake, this whole meeting was for him, he could sit down!  She patted the chaise, indicating it was open to use and he seemed relieved that she would allow such a thing.  She had a moment to register sorrow at his uncertainty before he answered her question.

“Well, I figured since Nightwing’s met you, too, he might want to know about what’s happening.  Double R and I gave him a little background before we came over.  He wanted to tag along, and I don’t know, see for himself?”

“I’ll be honest,” NIghtwing interejcted, “I wasn’t convinced I’d remembered you correctly.  I’m still having trouble, seeing you now.  You’re not exactly imposing, little lady.  Four black belts or not, it’s hard to believe you took out two men twice your size in less than ten minutes.”

“Less than five minutes,” Marinette shot back, pleased when Hood laughed loudly with Red Robin, allowing grin to spread over her face.

“And yes,” she continued, “I know what I look like.  Katie almost didn’t give me the night shift because I’m so small.  She said the only reason she did was because of the black belts.  Now, let’s move on, shall we?  There are some logistics we need to discuss.”

Hood seemed to tense beside her and she wished he would speak his mind.  She didn’t like this skittish side of him; it didn’t fit with the confidence he usually exuded.  It made her wonder which was the ‘real’ Hood.  Although, she supposed, she had always been much more confident behind her Ladybug mask than when she was just Marinette.

“You made contact with Ladybug?” Red Robin asked.

“I did,” she said, hoping none of them heard the wobble in her voice.  “She’s willing to start the process.  She wants to start with just meeting you, Hood, and probably you two as well.  She will probably need your help if Hood agrees to this.”

She looked to Hood, regretting not giving him all the information the night before.  But she hadn’t wanted to overwhelm him, and she really wanted to help him.

“Wait, what do you mean, she’ll need our help?” Red Robin asked.  “And why wouldn’t Hood agree?”

She took a deep breath, wondering how best to word things.  This was not going to be a popular subject.

“I mentioned last night that Ladybug would learn Hood’s identity in the process of cleansing the Pit Madness—” there was a small movement from where Nightwing stood by the railing— “but she reminded me that if there were others close to him involved in the worst parts of his life, she would learn about them as well.”

She stopped speaking suddenly as she saw Nightwing suddenly straighten and start toward her.

Not good.  So not good.  Bad choice of words, Marinette.  They’re brothers, you can’t just say things like that without thinking.

And then Hood was standing between them, blocking Nightwing’s path to her.  Her heart began to race.  There wasn’t much room on the balcony, someone was going to get hurt if they started fighting up here.  Not to mention, they shouldn’t be fighting because of her.

“She’s not a threat, Nightwing.” Hood’s voice was dangerous.  Nightwing seemed to ignore him, trying to change directions, but the wider man moved with him, and there just wasn’t space on the little balcony for alternate routes.  Marinette scooted back against the backrest of the chaise.

“I trust her.  Back off, now.”  Hood’s voice grew louder, and her stomach lurched as he reached for his brother.  She settled just a little as nothing violent transpired, as Hood’s gloved hands simply held Nightwing back from advancing on her.

Red Robin had left the chair and was suddenly at Hood’s side.

Not both of them!  They shouldn’t be fighting about this.  God, what am I doing?

“I already did the research, Di—Nightwing,” Red Robin said firmly.  “Marinette won’t compromise anything.  She knows why we keep our identities a secret.  She won’t out us.  I know she won’t.”

“Sorry, Marinette,” Nightwing offered, but she could hear the distrust in the apology, even without looking at him to read his body language.

A heavy body joined hers once more on the end of the chaise, but she was too consumed with her own guilt and uncertainty to check who had sat down.

“Pixie Pop, it’s okay.”  Hood’s voice was low and cautious, like he was approaching an injured animal.  Like he was afraid she would bolt from them.  She wasn’t convinced that was the wrong choice.

“Is it?”  She could hardly raise her voice above a whisper, but she succeeded in looking up at him.  “Hood, are you sure this is what you want?  You haven’t had very long to think it through, and there are obviously other people who have a stake in this too.  If I were in Nightwing’s place, I wouldn’t trust me either.  I mean honestly, given that reaction, Ladybug will probably end up knowing all of the Bats’ and Robins’ identities, and maybe even others’.  If you were in Nightwing’s place, wouldn’t you want a say?”

The other victims of the Lazarus Pits hadn’t had family left, they’d had no one to protect, no one to speak for them.  But Hood had people in his life who cared about him, people who very obviously would feature in his memories—the memories they would share if he went through with this.  It changed everything about the situation.

“I would, Pix,” he conceded.  “You’re absolutely right.  I’d be pissed if the golden boy over there decided to risk everything and expose us to someone I’d only met once or twice.  But I also know that getting my own mind back isn’t anyone else’s choice but mine.  If anyone tells the Bat, he’ll find a way to stop it, and I want a life, Marinette.  I want to be able to control myself and be safe around people again and I can’t have that if I have to constantly keep fighting against Ra’s’ voice in my head.”

One of the brothers made a sound of surprise.  But she wasn’t focused on them anymore.  Hood seemed to have retreated into himself.  His breathing was calm, so she felt mostly confident he wasn’t struggling with the Pit Madness at the moment.  She cursed the Demon Head for all he’d taken from this man.  She wanted to touch him, to hold him until he relaxed and knew he was wanted in the world—that he had worth that wasn’t contingent on what the League had done to him.  She stretched a hand between them, stopping just before she laid her hand on his arm.  Because she could only imagine what the League had actually done.  And if he was remembering that, she could hardly believe he’d welcome a stranger’s touch.  Despite their moments of normalcy in his previous visits, she had to admit they still didn’t know each other.  So she let her hand hover over his forearm, allowing him the choice to pull away or to accept what she offered.

He gave a small nod, and she slowly dropped her hand onto his arm.  The heat of him traveled all the way to her core, and she wondered if he felt anything like this while she was touching him.  If he did, she hoped it was as comforting as she intended it to be.  The odd warmth felt like magic, like Tikki’s magic—goddess of love and creation that she was.  Marinette couldn’t help but hope that somehow it was helping him.

“If you’re absolutely sure,” she murmured, wondering if cleansing him was still the right choice when it put so many others at risk, “then we should go inside and discuss…things.”

Perhaps Nightwing would be more open to the whole thing if he knew who and what she was.  Her stomach twisted as she considered exposing herself and the kwamii to more people.  It didn’t feel right, but it didn’t feel entirely wrong either.  It felt…like maybe her timing was off.  But the tension on the little balcony was pressing on her and she wanted so desperately for everyone to relax.

“It’ll be easier this way,” she decided, giving his arm a gentle squeeze before letting go.

“No, hang on, just…wait.”  His voice sounded desperate, and she hesitated to rise from her seat.

“Gives us two minutes, guys.  Two minutes,” he implored the other vigilantes, before gesturing to her living room.

She moved stiffly, leading the way inside.  Hood followed, sliding the door closed and walking ahead of her into her kitchen, out of sight of the baclony.  She lifted an eyebrow and folded her arms over her chest as she waited for an explaination.

“Don’t tell them.” he uttered. 

She felt her eyes widen in surprise.  He didn’t want them to know who she was?  Why would he make things harder for himself.

“You don’t have to,” he continued almost desperately.  She worried for him.  What had him so distraught?

“It’s not fair for you to give everything just for me, for that idiot in blue to feel better about this.  It’s not his choice whether we do this or not.  It’s mine.  Nightwing gets…nervous isn’t the right word, it’s not enough…but it’s the best I’ve got.  I think he heard your words as a threat instead of a caution.  You were right, a bunch of us are siblings, and even if we weren’t, we’re family.  Even the ones who aren’t legally related.  Nightwing’s got some big issues with threats to his family; he doesn’t react…well.  But that’s his problem, not yours.  You don’t have to feel obligated to tell him and Red who you are.  Ladybug can do this for me and disappear again and no one will have to know any differently.  You won’t have to hear from any of us again if you want.”

Marinette couldn’t understand.  She hadn’t run into many empathetic people in her past.  But Hood seemed to comprehend that there was danger in divulging her secrets, and he seemed truly worried about what could happen to her if her identities were exposed.  It made her want to cry for reasons she couldn’t really explain.  Relief, perhaps?

“Thank you, Hood.  I…I would have told them, if not everything, at least about being Ladybug.  They’ll likely figure it out if they agree to help with this.  I can’t maintain a transformation for very long when it’s done.  Are you sure, though?  I understand Nightwing’s… hesitance.  Based on his reaction, he thinks the painful things I’ll learn involve some of his—your family.  If I’m right, it won’t be too hard to figure out the rest.  I wouldn’t try, but it might come to me if I were to meet them in public.  I would never, ever do anything with that information, please believe me.  But I’ve only met your brothers twice each now.  It makes sense for them to not trust me at all.  Curing the Madness will already be difficult for you, there’s no reason to add to that.  If they don’t have all the information, they might not be willing to help.  And well…I’ll need the help.  You’re so much bigger than I am and you’ll probably…fight back.  I won’t be able to do anything about that on my own.”

His mouth dropped open in what she thought might be horror.  She wondered which words had caused that reaction.  She’d meant it when she said she wouldn’t be able to subdue him when he fought back.  He was bigger than either of the traffickers she’d taken down, and he was a vigilante; he undoubtedly had years and years of training.  Regardless of her own abilities to defend herself, he was too huge to stave off while also curing the Madness.  She would need his brothers’ help.  Possibly even Batman’s, although given all Hood had said about the man’s distaste for magic, she wondered if she’d have his support in any capacity.

“Okay,” Hood whispered.  “I still don’t think they need to know everything.  But maybe that you were Ladybug?  It’ll make it easier to explain all the details if they know they’re getting it from the source.  But the rest you could probably keep to yourself.  Especially the Guardian thing.  I still don’t really get that part.  But it sounds more important than an identity that’s been…retired, for lack of a better term.  What do you think?”

Marinette relaxed considerably at the idea of only outing her past heroine identity.  It was certainly more attractive than giving all the details of her guardianship.

“I think I can live with that.”

***

Jason

Marinette was asleep on the chaise on her balcony when Jason landed on the railing.  She'd waited up for them; or at least, she’d tried.  The thought filled him with warmth even as he frowned at her lack of blanket as she shivered against the chilled night air.  Silently padding through the open balcony door, he collected the blanket from her couch and was turning back to cover her when he kicked something beneath the couch.

He'd fallen asleep reading and dropped enough books on the floor to know what it felt like to kick a book.  He bent to retrieve it, hoping he hadn't torn any pages, only to find his own body on the page before him.  She'd drawn him, as Hood.  But not as he was now.  The difference was subtle, but he could see it.  The colors were more muted, the red splashed across his chest plate darker, the constant leather jacket was black instead of brown, with red stripes running the length of each arm.  The notes in the margins mentioned something about fireproofing.  Had she met Lucius?  He couldn't imagine where or how that would have happened.

But she was a fashion designer, and Lucius was well-known for his innovations in fabric technology, so he supposed it wasn't too much of a stretch to believe she'd know about some of his projects.  He felt blood rush to his face as he considered how much thought she'd given his safety.  Jason was sorely tempted to flip through the sketchbook to see if she'd put any thought into the rest of his family's gear.  But he thought better of it, deciding it would be invasive.  Damian had never appreciated anyone seeing his paintings or sketches without permission.  Marinette likely felt similarly about her designs.  But probably a little less murdery.  He hoped.

He was unfurling the fleece blanket over his sleeping friend as Tim and Dick landed softly above him.  The three stilled as Marinette stirred, and relaxed when she didn’t wake.

“I think she sleeps about as often as you, Timber,” Jason murmured without looking up.

“Yikes,” his brother answered, and he knew it was one hundred percent sincere.  “Explains the knack for exceptional coffee.  You know she brought me some when she came to get my measurements?”

Jason’s head snapped around, and he caught Tim’s face going pale as he slapped a hand over his mouth.

“When she did what now?” he growled.

“Okay, relax, Jay.  She’s my favorite designer, I’ve been trying to commission her for months, but every time I looked, she wasn’t taking new clients.  So, I met her at the diner a few days ago and asked her face to face.  She accepted on the condition that I didn’t out her.  And I didn’t,” he added defensively.  “This doesn’t count since you found her first.  Which sucks, by the way.  Of course you’d just stumble across something like that after a random run in, when I’ve been trying to find her for months.”

Jason grinned at him as he pulled off the lower portion of his mask.

“Whoa, what are you doing?!” Dick hissed.  Jason had forgotten to mention Marinette had already seen part of his face.

“It’s fine, Monsieur Nightwing,” a sleepy voice murmured from behind Jason.  He whipped around.

Marinette was pushing herself upright, looking adorably disoriented as she tugged the blanket he’d laid over her up and around her shoulders.

“I’m so new to Gotham,” she continued, speaking through a yawn, “there’s no way I’d recognize his face on the street.  The hair though…”

She squinted as she peered up at him, and Jason felt his cheeks redden.

“You should consider, like, a hat or something.  Maybe an actual hood to match your call sign.  Hmm…I should try to remember that,” she murmured before shaking her head.

Dick burst out laughing, and Tim shook with barely suppressed laughter.  Jason couldn’t help but grin as well.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of three of you on my balcony?  I should have made more macarons.”

Dick leaned back against the railing while Tim settled into the chair he’d taken the previous night and popped a macaron in his mouth.  Jason didn’t want to presume he was welcome to share her chaise again.  She might have trusted him with some of her secrets, but he wasn’t about to assume she trusted him near her after witnessing his near loss of control the night before.  Those round blue eyes gazed up at him, looking far more innocent than they had any right to as she waited for an answer.  She tilted her head to the side and patted the chaise, indicating he was welcome to join her.  His smile grew wider as he took a seat before answering.

“Well, I figured since Nightwing’s met you, too, he might want to know about what’s happening.  Double R and I gave him a little background before we came over.  He wanted to tag along, and I don’t know, see for himself?”

“I’ll be honest,” Dick took over, “I wasn’t convinced I’d remembered you correctly.  I’m still having trouble, seeing you now.  You’re not exactly imposing, little lady.  Four black belts or not, it’s hard to believe you took out two men twice your size in less than ten minutes.”

“Less than five minutes,” Marinette shot back, and Jason laughed loudly with Tim in surprise, pleased when a proud grin graced her face.

“And yes,” she conceded, “I know what I look like.  Katie almost didn’t give me the night shift because I’m so small.  She said the only reason she did was because of the black belts.  Now, let’s move on, shall we?  There are some logistics we need to discuss.”

Her tone was serious and focused, and Jason was suddenly second-guessing letting Dick come along.  He’d been with Bruce the longest, as the first Robin; he’d no doubt had the anti-magic rhetoric pounded into his brain.  What if he told Bruce?  What if they refused to let Marinette Ladybug cure him?  What if—oh god, he didn’t want to think about it—what if they came for her?  Not that he thought Bruce would kill her; “no killing” was a hallmark of the man’s personality.  But if he banned her from Gotham, where would she go?  Would he see her again?

“You made contact with Ladybug?” Tim clarified, distracting him from his panic.

“I did,” she answered, and Jason was sure he was the only one to catch the waver in her voice.  “She’s willing to start the process.  She wants to start with just meeting Hood and probably you two as well.  She will probably need your help if Hood agrees to this.”

Her eyes met his, and he had to give her credit: she was a good actress.  It was almost like he hadn’t had this conversation with him less than 24 hours ago.

“Wait, what do you mean, she’ll need our help?” Tim asked.  “And why wouldn’t Hood agree?”

She took a deep breath, and Jason suddenly had the impression he still hadn’t gotten the entire picture, despite the early morning reveal.

“I mentioned last night that Ladybug would learn Hood’s identity in the process of cleansing the Pit Madness—” in his peripherals, he saw Dick tense— “but she reminded me that if there were others close to him involved in the worst parts of his life, she would learn about them as well.”

Dick straightened from the railing suddenly, and Jason recognized the singular focus—the intention to eliminate a threat against his family.  Jason understood the trepidation, but he knew Marinette better than Dick.  He knew she wouldn’t out them; she had her own secrets, and she understood the need to remain anonymous.  He stood to block his brother’s path to the Pixie beside him.

“She’s not a threat, Nightwing,” he growled.  Dick ignored his insistence, moving to step around him, but Jason was wider than his older brother, and there wasn’t much room on the little balcony.  Dick seemed intent on going through Jason to get to Marinette.

“I trust her.  Back off, now.”  He raised his voice and set both hands on his brother’s shoulders.

Tim had risen from his seat but didn’t seem to have decided what to do beyond look between Jason, Dick, and Marinette.  When he finally moved to Jason’s side, Jason felt…well he wasn’t sure.  Something between relief that Tim was on his side and resignation that his younger brother appeared to have recognized his growing affection for the girl offering to help him Ah, fuck.

“I already did the research, Di—Nightwing,” Tim broke in, pulling Dick’s focus from the woman on the chaise.  “Marinette won’t compromise anything.  She knows why we keep our identities a secret.  She won’t out us.  I know she won’t.”

With his hands braced on Dick’s shoulders, Jason knew when the tension released from his brother’s muscles.  Dick stepped back to the railing, but the set of his mouth was skeptical and the furrow in his brow told Jason this would be a hard-won fight later.  If for no other reason than Dick hadn’t been involved from the beginning.

“Sorry, Marinette,” Dick said, voice too tense to sound sincere, but he didn’t approach her again.

Jason turned to her, apology ready on his tongue, but it died when he saw her wide eyes staring between them.  The fear there wasn’t quite as jarring as when she’d woken from the nightmare the night before, but it was still there, and he hated it.  He dropped back onto the chaise and tired to look her in the eye, but she didn’t seem to see him.

“Pixie Pop, it’s okay.”  He wished he had something better to say to assuage her fears, whatever they were this time.

“Is it?” her voice was soft and uncertain, but she finally looked up at him.  “Hood, are you sure this is what you want?  You haven’t had very long to think it through, and there are obviously other people who have a stake in this too.  If I were in Nightwing’s place, I wouldn’t trust me either.  I mean honestly, given that reaction, Ladybug will probably end up knowing all of the Bats’ and Robins’ identities, and maybe even others’.  If you were in Nightwing’s place, wouldn’t you want a say?”

Okay, he had to admit it, she had a point.  If Dick were about to make a decision that put all of them at risk—no matter how much Dick trusted the person he was confiding in—Jason would have been livid knowing he hadn’t had a say in it.  But he also knew Bruce would shoot this down in an instant, and he didn’t think it was his father’s choice whether he got to have his own mind back.  He understood what she was getting at, but he didn’t agree with all of it.

“I would, Pix.  You’re absolutely right.  I’d be pissed if the golden boy over there decided to risk everything and expose us to someone I’d only met once or twice.  But I also know that getting my own mind back isn’t anyone else’s choice but mine.  If anyone tells the Bat, he’ll find a way to stop it, and I want a life, Marinette.  I want to be able to control myself and be safe around people again and I can’t have that if I have to constantly keep fighting against Ra’s’ voice in my head.”

There was a gust of breath from behind him; he wasn’t sure which one of his brother’s he’d surprised with that statement.  But it was true.  When he’d start to lose control, the voice of Ra’s al Ghul was there in his head, trying to dictate his movements and actions.  He just wanted his mind back.  He wanted to feel like his body belonged wholly to him again, and no matter how much Bruce might argue, this was his choice and his alone.  And he wasn’t sure exactly why—maybe because she’d trusted him with her own secrets—but he trusted Marinette with this, with himself with his heart.  Her hand twitched toward him, stopped like she wasn’t sure she was allowed to touch him, then reached into the space between them and hovered above his forearm.  She was waiting for permission, for his permission to touch him.  Like his body really did belong to him.

He was grateful for the mask hiding his eyes as they welled with tears as he nodded nearly imperceptibly.  That same heat that accompanied her touch settled into his bones and he almost wondered if it was magic.  If she was somehow healing him this way—with gentleness and understanding.  He didn’t know if that was possible, but Marinette had already proven to him that there were a multitude of things about the universe he didn’t understand.

“If you’re absolutely sure,” she whispered, still sounding uncertain but he didn’t think she was uncertain of him this time, “then we should go inside and discuss…things.”

Oh god.  His eyes blew wide, and his eyebrows shot toward his hair.  Was she really going to reveal herself to his brothers?  Why?  To gain their trust?  He knew it would be easier to explain everything if they knew who she was, but she was allowed to have her own secrets.  Hell, she had no idea who any of them were, why would she work so hard to have them trust her when she didn’t know anything about them?  She was too giving for her own good.  As if reading his thoughts, she gave his arm a squeeze.

“It’ll be easier this way,” she said decisively.

“No, hang on, just…wait,” he begged her.

She didn’t have to do this, not for him and certainly not for his brothers.  She didn’t have to make herself vulnerable for him.  His heart twisted at the very idea that she was only considering this because it would be easier for him.  She was already giving him so much, she didn’t have to give everything.  It wasn’t right.  He looked to his brothers.

“Gives us two minutes, guys.  Two minutes.”  Dick didn’t respond, but Tim nodded as Jason stood and gestured to the patio door.

Once inside, he slid the door closed and led the way to Marinette’s little kitchen so Dick wouldn’t be able to read their lips.  Marinette raised an eyebrow and folded her arms over her chest as she waited silently for him to explain himself.

“Don’t tell them,” he blurted.  It was obviously not what she was expecting by the way her bluebell eyes went round.

“You don’t have to,” he insisted.  “It’s not fair for you to give everything just for me, for that idiot in blue to feel better about this.  It’s not his choice whether we do this or not.  It’s mine.  Nightwing gets…nervous isn’t the right word, it’s not enough…but it’s the best I’ve got.  I think he heard your words as a threat instead of a caution.  You were right, a bunch of us are siblings, and even if we weren’t, we’re family.  Even the ones who aren’t legally related.  Nightwing’s got some big issues with threats to his family; he doesn’t react…well.  But that’s his problem, not yours.  You don’t have to feel obligated to tell him and Red who you are.  Ladybug can do this for me and disappear again and no one will have to know any differently.  You won’t have to hear from any of us again if you want.”

One eyebrow remained lifted in a graceful arch as she listened.  He knew he’d been panicking, but he also knew he was right.  She had the choice to tell them whatever she wanted; he didn’t want her to feel like she was forced to give up everything she’d worked for years to protect, just to placate his overprotective brother.  As he finished rambling, the eyebrow lowered, and her expression softened.

“Thank you, Hood.  I…I would have told them, if not everything, at least about being Ladybug.  They’ll likely figure it out if they agree to help with this.  I can’t maintain a transformation for very long when it’s done.  Are you sure, though?  I understand Nightwing’s… hesitance.  Based on his reaction, he thinks the painful things I’ll learn involve some of his—your family.  If I’m right, it won’t be too hard to figure out the rest.  I wouldn’t try, but it might come to me if I were to meet them in public.  I would never, ever do anything with that information, please believe me.  But I’ve only met your brothers twice each now.  It makes sense for them to not trust me at all.  Curing the Madness will already be difficult for you, there’s no reason to add to that.  If they don’t have all the information, they might not be willing to help.  And well…I’ll need the help.  You’re so much bigger than I am and you’ll probably…fight back.  I won’t be able to do anything about that on my own.”

He gaped at her in horror.  He wanted to believe his brothers would step in to help him through this, even without all of the details.  But what if they wouldn’t, knowing magic was involved?  He didn’t want to hurt her.  God, that was the last thing he wanted.  Thinking about it made his blood run cold.

“Okay,” he breathed.  “I still don’t think they need to know everything.  But maybe that you were Ladybug?  It’ll make it easier to explain all the details if they know they’re getting it from the source.  But the rest you could probably keep to yourself.  Especially the Guardian thing.  I still don’t really get that part.  But it sounds more important than an identity that’s been…retired, for lack of a better term.  What do you think?”

He could tell she’d resigned herself to just giving up every facet of her life if it meant she could fix this, and the idea that there were things she didn’t have to share was clearly a relief.  Her arms unfolded and the tense lines of her face relaxed.

“I think I can live with that.”

Chapter Text

Jason

It had been quick work to give Tim and Dick the Cliff-Notes version of the more important parts of Marinette’s heroic past.  They met Tikki, who’d deemed them fit to know the less important secret.  And just like that, two of Jason’s brothers were on board with curing him.  Dick had seemed close to tears when Marinette had explained that once everything was done, Hood would never have to fight with his own mind again, that he would be free to feel and express his own emotions without fear of hurting anyone.  Dick had thrown his arms around him—he’d gone tense for a moment before hesitantly returning the hug.  Marinette had turned her attention to clearing the long-empty plate of macarons from the balcony and taking it to the kitchen sink.

They were making to leave now; Dick and Tim were already perched on the balcony railing.  Jason remained beside their host, waiting for his brothers to depart.  Dick seemed to get it first, giving a two-fingered salute and leaping from the building.  He heard Marinette’s breath catch as Red Robin followed, firing his grappling hook at the building across the street like a semi-responsible adult before taking flight.  Jason could see her tracking their movements until their silhouettes blended with the darkness.  When she turned back to him, she was much closer than he’d thought.  It scrambled his brain and he spoke the words he’d been holding in since the night he’d carried her up the stairs.

“I’ve been thinking,” he murmured.  “I think…I’d like you to know me before we do this.  I’ll tell my brothers when I get back tonight.  They won’t be able to stop me, but I figure they should at least know I plan to tell you.  Although I won’t make it easy for you, Pixie Pop.”  He grinned crookedly at her, and nearly melted was delighted grinned more broadly when she smiled back.

“I won’t just introduce myself, you know?  You’ll have to just figure it out.  But I…” he hesitated, reaching up and holding his hand just centimeters from her jaw.

He wanted to thread his fingers through her hair, to feel the heat of her sink into him again.  But this had to be her choice.  What he wanted didn’t matter if she didn’t want the same.  He watched her shudder as the wind picked up, watched her shift and lean her face into his hand.  He just barely contained the shock and joy that swelled within him.

“I want—I’d like you to know me as me, too.  Not just as Red Hood.  If you want.”

“I’d—I’d like to know you, too.”  He couldn’t stop himself from running his thumb along her cheek.

But she shivered again, and he smirked as he once again considered the possibility that an unintended side-effect of using magic for twelve years was susceptibility to cold.  He was close enough to kiss her what the fuck kind of cheesy 90’s romantic comedy did I just walk into? but instead, he dropped his hand in favor of reaching for the blanket she’d discarded on the chaise.  He’d kept her awake and chilled long enough.

“Maybe I’ll come see you at Miss Katie’s then.  See if you can recognize me by just my rugged good looks.  Like I said, I won’t make it easy for you.”

She smirked back, and his heart flipped over.  Jesus Christ, this is ridiculous.

“Sounds good to me.  I should warn you: analytical thinking was most of what helped me save an entire city.  You’ll really have to work to fool me.”

He felt his eyes go wide as she tapped the end of his nose with one finger.

He laughed once before replacing his mask and climbing onto the railing to follow his brothers.  Mimicking Nightwing, he offered a salute and launched himself backward from the balcony before flipping once and firing his own grappling hook to swing away.

Jason barely paid attention as he followed the path his brothers had taken toward the Batcave.  He was too consumed with the giddiness threatening to overwhelm him.  He almost wished he hadn’t taken his motorcycle out tonight—he felt like he could do a full triathlon and still have energy to burn.  But he had driven, and he loved that bike, so he knew had to get the energy out before he did something especially reckless while he was driving.

He wondered if this was what Dick felt like, flipping and spinning through the air.  It was exhilarating, and it definitely did the job.  Mostly.  At the very least, by the time he’d retrieved the motorcycle from its hiding place, he was able to think coherently.  Not that he wasn’t still completely over the moon that Marinette wanted to get to know him as a person oh god what if she hated him?  What if he wasn’t enough?  What if she was wrong about being able to control himself and he really was just a terrible person and he hurt her?  What if--.  He could just operate and think around that now.  And those thoughts circled around to Dick. 

Jason understood, he really did.  Rationally, he knew he would have reacted much more strongly to the idea that someone was threatening to expose his family.  But Dick didn’t understand everything.  They had to talk about this.  He had to make his brother understand what it meant that Marinette had shared her identity with them.  If for no other reason than he would need another person backing him up when Bruce found out what they’d done (or were going to do, depending on when the World’s Greatest Detective second greatest.  First went to Tim, now figured them out).  But it wasn’t the only reason.

He wanted Marinette to be a regular part of his life.  His civilian life.  He wanted it more than he’d wanted almost anything before in his life.  Her friendship alone would be a gift, even if he did want to kiss her senseless.  Doomed.  Just fucking doomed.  And if she were going to stick around, he wanted—he needed his brothers to want her there.  Alone with his thoughts, he could admit that they were his family, that he loved them even when they pissed him off.  And he wanted them to approve.  He wanted Marinette to belong and to feel welcome as much as he wanted those things for himself.  So he had to make his big brother understand.

Dick was the only one in the Cave by the time he made it back.  Jason had definitely planned it that way.  He’d given input during the debrief for once, even as he raced through Gotham’s streets.  He was nervous, unsure where to start, even as he realized he was glad that Dick seemed to know they needed to clear the air.

“Listen, Little Wing.”  Hey, look at that, he didn’t even have to start!  “I’m sorry I threatened your friend.  I just…look, we’re Waynes.  If she were to give us up, none of us would ever be safe again.  And I can’t lose any more family.  We lost you and Damian and Bruce.  We almost lost Tim.  I can’t do it again.  I won’t let anything happen to you guys.  I know she wasn’t threatening us, I get that.  But she just outed herself to us!  She barely knows us!  Although she seems to know you pretty well.  But if she’s so willing to give up her own identity, who’s to say she wouldn’t do the same to any of us?”

“You’re an idiot, Dickie-bird.”  Okay, that wasn’t exactly true.  It certainly applied to parts of this situation, but only because Dick was letting his emotions get in the way of logical thought.

“She wasn’t actually willing to give up her identity.  She thought she had to, to get you to trust her.  I was the first person she’d ever given her identity to.  Ever.  In her life.  She took up being Ladybug when she was a kid—she was thirteen, Dick.  Thirteen!  And then her team got outed, and then she lost her folks when she was sixteen, and still had to fight for two more years.  None of her teammates ever knew her identity—they still don’t.  Her parents didn’t even know.  Think about that for a minute.  Imagine being Nightwing and living here with Bruce, except Bruce isn’t Batman and you can’t tell him anything about where you’re sneaking off to at night.  Think about being thirteen years old and living with Bruce and not being able to tell this huge secret because it could get everyone you love killed.  I mean, we all run that risk every time we put on the masks.  But at least we know about each other.  And at least for us, there aren’t universe ending consequences of someone finding out what we do.  That’s what would have happened if that terrorist had figured her out back then.  So, I guarantee she won’t let it slip.  She’s gone twelve years keeping her own secrets.  It’s gotta be second nature by now.”

He watched his brother’s eyes grow wider and more horrified as he explained.  By the end of Jason’s little speech, Dick’s expression had gone from shocked to enraged.

“Who just dumps all that responsibility on a kid?!  Somebody at least trained her, right?!  I mean, I remember hearing that we weren’t allowed in Paris; it wasn’t really relevant to me at the time, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.  But she had a mentor or something, right?”

Jason could tell Dick was just reaching for hope at this point.  And he knew he shouldn’t get too much into it.  Marinette hadn’t been comfortable telling them about being a Guardian.  And frankly, Jason still didn’t understand that part of her life.  She hadn’t explained, and he was okay with that.  He’d meant it when he’d said she didn’t have to give them everything just so they’d feel better about her helping.  God knew they’d kept worse things from each other, even when they lived in the same house.  Manor.  Whatever.

“Nobody trained them, Dick.  They got thrown into a war and learned as they went.  Marinette at least had martial arts training outside of being a hero.  But she had to learn the rules of the magic she was given as she used it.  Tikki, the little red bug-goddess, she gave her what she could, but she’s a goddess.  She’d been around for centuries, probably longer.  How was she supposed to teach Marinette hundreds of years of rules and techniques and magic over the last twelve years?  I mean, look at Constantine.  He had to learn their shit for years before he was any good at it, and he had somebody to teach him, daily.  He studied and practiced and did nothing else.  Marinette and her team still went to school and worked had lives outside of the mask.  Like we do, but they didn’t have Bruce and Alfred making sure they finished their homework or benching them when they were too tired to function.  So, I promise she gets the whole secrecy thing, and she knows exactly what it’s like to live this life… What?  What’s wrong?”

His brother had suddenly gone pale.

“You said—at Marinette’s, you said she destroyed the Pits.  All of them?”

“Yeah.  They’re gone.”

“She’s not a threat to us, but think about what that means, Jay.  If she destroyed the Pits, she knows about the League of Assassins.  She must have encountered them at least once.  And survived.  I haven’t heard anything about Talia’s whereabouts, but if Marinette took out the League’s source of power, she’s a threat to the League, to Talia.  And—”

Oh god.  Talia.

The Madness didn’t creep this time.  It rushed in as Jason panicked.  And there was Ra’s’ voice, urging him to use the rage he felt at the image of Talia finding Marinette; use it to kill Talia, to kill anyone who threatened Marinette or his family or him.  His chest was closing, the green was being eclipsed at the edges by darkness—his vision narrowed until Dick was calling for him at the end of a long tunnel and his hands were trying to rip his hair from his skull at the same time they were trying to hold his brain inside his head.  He felt more than saw Dick step toward him.

“No!” he ground out.  “Run, Dick.  Get out!”

He was going to hurt someone.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t want to.  But he could feel himself losing control.  He had to stop this, he had to make himself safe.  If he lost control now, he wouldn’t have anyone to help him keep Marinette safe from Talia or Bruce or the Joker or anyone.

Marinette.

Even her name sounded like home and safety and warmth.  He could remember what it felt like when she touched him, the way those feelings soaked through his clothes and skins and settled into his bones and brought him back to Earth, grounding him.

Marinette.

He wanted to be safe for her.  He would be safe for her.  He wanted her to know him, he had to be safe for her.

Jason sank to his knees, the cold stone floor of the Cave jarring him out of his panic just slightly.  Just enough that he could take a gasping breath.  Just enough that he could glimpse Dick still standing there, staring at him helplessly.  He wasn’t sure how much time passed while he knelt on the floor, but eventually the green haze receded from his vision and Ra’s’ voice was silent.  Jason let his hands drop from his hair and let his body slouch in defeat.  And then Dick was next to him, slinging an arm around his shoulder and tugging him back until he was sitting in a marginally more comfortable position.  For the first time since he’d left the League, since he’d given up working for Black Mask, he let his brother try to comfort him.

“I told you to run, you moron.  You should have left me here.  My guns are still on me; I could have killed you.”

The scolding was half-hearted at best.  He just didn’t have the energy for it, and truth be told, he was glad Dick had stayed.  He’d always been alone after Fits.  This was…this was okay.  Kind of nice.  All right, fine, he wished it had always been this way.

“I’m sorry, Jay.  I didn’t know it was that bad.  You never let us see you—no, we never stick around to help you.”

Jason shrugged.

“Used to it.”

“Yeah, well you shouldn’t have to be.  You don’t have to go through that alone.”

“I think I do.  I can’t really explain what it’s like.  It’s…I don’t get to control what I do.  I’m exhausted, Dick.  It takes so much out of me to fight back.”

“You didn’t do anything to me just now,” Dick pointed out.

Huh.  That’s a first.

It was time for a subject change.  He tipped his head back and stared at the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling.

“I’m gonna tell her, Dick.  About me, about the Red Hood, all of it.  I want…She deserves to have some kind of warning about what she’ll see.  And I—” Jesus, was he really gonna just keep talking?  “I want to get to know her, you know?  There’s something there, Dick.  I’ve never felt this strongly about someone before.  I don’t even know what it is.  But I want her to stick around.”

Dick jostled him, laughing a little.

“Just gotta keep her away from Bruce, huh?  So he can’t adopt her?”

“She’s twenty-five, dude.”

“He’d find a way, you know he would.”

Jason grumbled and staggered to his feet.  Cold, stone floors weren’t much fun to sit on.  Especially after a Fit when all he wanted to do was collapse into bed.

“Come on, asshole.  Don’t you have to work this week?”

Dick mumbled something petulant that he couldn’t quite make out, and that just made him grin.  It was almost like before.  Before the Joker and Talia and the Lazarus Pit.  Almost.  It was getting easier to genuinely smile at least.

--

He didn’t see Marinette for the rest of the week.  He stopped by during patrols—she kept leaving out treats, so they hadn’t scared her off, thank god—sometimes with one or two of his brothers, sometimes alone.  When he stopped by alone, he’d leave her a note.  More often than not, he’d just sketch out a bat so she’d know he’d been there.  As much as he loved the idea of romantic gestures, as often as he read Austin and Dickinson, he regularly found himself with no fucking clue unsure of what to write.

When Tim told him she’d brought him coffee and madeleines when she’d come to finalize the designs for his suit, Jason thought he might combust with jealousy.  Not the ugly, possessive kind.  He just...envied Tim for being able to talk to her so casually.  They were becoming friends, Tim said, and the jealousy grew.  It had been almost six days since they’d last spoken, and even though he’d suggested he’d visit her at the diner, he hadn’t figured out how he would go about that.  The answer came by way of Timothy Drake-Wayne, who interrupted a rare night off from patrol to tell him he was being mopey and annoying.

“You live a mile from Miss Katie’s, Jay.  Just go get a cup of coffee.  That’s what I’m doing.  I told Marinette that you live nearby, anyway.  My brother, Jason, not Red Hood.  Put a bandana over your hair and take your bike over there.  Sweet Jesus, this should not be that difficult for a man who’s read Pride and Prejudice sixty times.”

Jason had never been so irritated and so grateful at the same time.  Granted, Tim was a literal genius, but he wasn’t always great on the common sense.  This time, though, Jason thought he might actually be on to something.  So, he agreed, forgoing his helmet in favor of a bandana tied into a skullcap, and kicked his bike to life once Tim had left.

His younger brother was already at a table when Jason sauntered through the door to Miss Katie’s Diner.  With practiced ease, he took in all the details he could as he made his way to Tim.  Five customers besides himself and Tim.  Three men of varying size, all looking shady, but the diner was only blocks from Crime Alley.  Everyone looked shady late at night.  Poison Ivy and Harley sharing a milkshake like it was 1952.  Just the one visible entrance and exit, but there was sure to be a door out of the kitchen.  And then he saw her.  Dressed in her usual loose black t-shirt and pants, with an apron tied around her waist, Marinette was smiling widely at Harley as she refilled her coffee cup.  She turned to survey the diner, looking for anyone who might need coffee while she still held the carafe.  When she recognized Tim, the smile that lit her face was almost blinding.  And then she made eye contact with him, and he was lost, drowning in blue.  Jason felt heat climbing the back of his neck and over his ears as she approached, smile no less bright for the shock she’d shown at seeing him.

“Hey, Tim!” her chiming-bells voice made it clear she was sincerely happy to see his brother.  “Who’d you bring with you?  I’m surprised you’re willing to share the coffee with someone else.”

She winked, and the heat flamed on Jason’s cheeks.

“This is my brother Jason,” Tim replied, kicking him under the table.  “He’s the one who suggested this place to me when I first came by.”

He found his voice and offered his hand to shake.

“Jay,” he introduced himself.  “I did tell Timmy about Miss Katie’s, but I haven’t been here in a long time.  It’s been around since I was a kid, back when Katie’s mom owned the place.  She used to give me free food when I lived on the street.”

Marinette’s eyes betrayed her surprised and he felt almost like she had x-ray vision as she looked him over.

“You lived on the street?” she asked, then smacked a hand over her mouth.  “How rude of me, I’m so sorry!  I just meant…well, you seem to be doing well now, anyway.  What made you come by tonight?”

She was staring and staring and staring at him.  Did her miraculous actually give her x-ray vision, like Superman?  Or had she figured him out already?  He wasn’t about to give it away if she hadn’t.

“You said it already.”  He fought and fought not to smirk at her.  She’d notice.  She’d warned him analytical thinking had helped her survive and defeat a terrorist.  “Timmy said you made the best coffee, and I figured I’d find out if the genius over here was right.”

She smiled widely how could one smile contain so much light?  Was that a Miraculous thing, as well? and gestured to the mug sitting upturned before him.  He flipped it and as soon as it was full, made to drink it.

“Let it cool, you’ll burn yourself!” she admonished him.  “And then you won’t be able to tell whether Tim was right or not.”

Marinette winked at him and turned away to return the carafe to its warmer.  Jason sat for a moment, the coffee mug suspended halfway between the table and his mouth as he watched her flit from table to table.

“Oh, god, you’re as bad as Dick,” Tim muttered.

Jason gasped and put a hand over his heart in mock dismay.

“You take that back!  Richard John Grayson is an embarrassment.  I am a hopeless romantic.”

“Same thing,” Tim muttered into his coffee, sighing after he’d taken a drink.  “It really is the best.  You think she puts magic in it?” he added in a whisper.

Jason stared at his brother.  He hadn’t even considered it, and even though it was possible, he couldn’t fathom the reason she might have to do so.  So he feigned indifference and shrugged.

“Can’t see why she’d bother.  What would it even do?  Wait, don’t answer that.  Someone’ll hear us and god, I do not want to deal with that.”

He took a sip of his own coffee damn, Tim was right, it was exceptional and felt the now-familiar, yet still exhilarating warmth settle into him.  Had Marinette made magical coffee?  Why?  To what end?  He watched her interact with Ivy and Harley, laughing and blushing as they apparently teased her for something.  He wondered how often the pair of reformed rogues came to Miss Katie’s.  They were obviously very familiar with Marinette.  She’d mentioned that first night that the two had help evict some drunks.  It made him feel a little better that two of Gotham’s most dangerous women seemed to have a soft spot for his friend.  Even if she knew how to kick ass defend herself, her size made her look like an easy target and it never hurt to have connections.

Jason and Tim sat and observed the little diner for a short while, Marinette refilling their mugs twice and asking if either of them wanted to take coffee to go.  Tim all but begged for more coffee, and Jason decided he could handle the extra caffeine for one night.  Although, without patrol, he wasn’t sure what he’d do with himself.  Maybe he’d patrol anyway.

“…obviously close to the Waynes.  We’ll need to do this different-like.”  Bruce’s last name, the name he avoided from tacking on to his own surname caught his attention, and by the look on his brother’s face, Tim had heard it, too.

The group of three he’d noted as “shady” when he’d entered the diner were talking about his family.  Jason kept his hands around the mug so he wouldn’t react.  The heat was grounding him.

“Might have to follow her home, take her from there.  Or tell the Mistress where she lives.  She said she wanted her alive, but after what she done to Jake and Sid, it don’t seem like she’ll come quiet.  Mistress might want to do this herself.”

Marinette suddenly appeared at his side, offering two Styrofoam coffee cups and lids, steam rising from the top.

“Here’s your coffee.  The travel cups are on me.  We can’t use it in the morning and I’d hate to see it go to waste.  No arguments, Timothy; we’ve been down this road before.”  Tim hadn’t even had a chance to speak, but his mouth was open as though he’d meant to contradict her.  Instead, he rolled his eyes and lifted his mug in thanks.

“Thanks,” Jason bit out, and she looked at him oddly.

“You okay, there, Jason?” she asked, her genuine concern pulling his attention from the group he was focused on not killing right there.  “You look a little pale.  Can I get you some water, or something to eat?”

He made himself relax, forced himself to smile at her, even though he knew it didn’t look remotely sincere.

“I’m all right.  Just heard someone say something about someone I know.  Took me by surprise, I guess.”  He couldn’t keep his eyes from flitting to the offending parties, and cursed himself when she followed his gaze.

He glanced at her again and saw the color drain from her face.

“I see,” she said, and her voice had a similar bite to his when he’d thanked her.  She recognized them?

“Excuse me a moment, Jason, Tim.  I have some customers to…dismiss.”

But she didn’t go to the table full of criminals.  Instead she walked to Harley and Ivy and sat with them for a moment, leaning forward and whispering conspiratorially.  Without warning, Harley jerked back with an outraged exclamation.  Jason watched, entirely confused by what was going on, as Marinette held Harley by the arm while she looked pointedly at Ivy.  And then he watched in shock as vines snaked their way from below the women’s table and up the backs of the traffickers—only now he wasn’t sure that’s really what they were—until the men were lifted from their seats and tossed unceremoniously out the door.  There were sounds of struggling and a few shouted curses, and then the vines slithered back in, holding a small wad of cash that was deposited in the tip jar.

Marinette was shaking her head and grinning at Ivy.

“They owe you, Marigold.  They had the audacity to come back after the first two got arrested.  It’s only fair.”  Ivy’s voice was loud enough he could hear her insistence.

Jason suddenly knew what he would do with his caffeine high.  He shared a look with Tim when he saw their friend rise to finish her shift.

“I’ve got somewhere to be,” he murmured to his brother.  “Nobody’s gonna get hurt.  I’m calling Dick and Babs, and we’re finding out who these guys really are.  I’m just going to be eyes and ears.”

“I’ll go back in a minute,” Tim offered.  “Think she figured you out?”

Jason stood and looked to where Marinette was chatting happily again with Ivy and Harley as she surveyed the diner once more.  When she glanced his way, he lifted his cup in salute and tuned to go.

He had an assassin to find.

***

Marinette

“So, there’s no such thing as soulmates?”

She was awake much longer than she’d intended to be.  But she’d been determined, dammit, and Tikki had taken the long way in answering Marinette’s questions about the immediate—and shockingly strong—pull she felt toward Red Hood.

“No, Marinette.  Plagg and I are yin and yang, so to speak.  Opposites that exist in harmony.  But we’re physical manifestations of concepts.  Our existence can’t be compared to humanity.  You know all this.  You’re human, Marinette.  You have free will to make your own choices and mistakes.  I admit, I considered creating soulmates eons ago.”

Marinette had a feeling she meant that literally.

“But it would have taken so much from humanity,” the little goddess continued, “so I decided against it.  Previous Guardians simply wanted the Black Cat and Ladybug wielders to work in harmony as Plagg and I do.  Along the way, the translations of the Grimoire were either misread or purposely exaggerated.  But it is because you are a Ladybug wielder that you feel emotions so strongly.  Had you never been Chosen, the attraction you feel to Red Hood would likely have been there the first night you met, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as strong.  I am essentially the goddess of love, you know.  I’m not saying you love him.  Not yet.  But I think it’s a definite possibility.  Much like whether his brothers will be worthy of learning of your Guardianship, only time will tell where you and Hood end up.”

--

The next week passed fairly uneventfully.  Tim asked her to meet him at Wayne Enterprises with her sketches two days after the meeting with Nightwing.  He’d been essentially over the moon, all but gushing over what she’d planned so far.  She’d gone what she was sure was an alarming shade of red when he’d asked if she was sure the price she’d given him was enough.  Only Jagged had ever been so outrageously generous.  And just like she did with her pseudo-uncle, she politely assured Tim that the price was accurate.  He’d looked extremely skeptical, and she had the sneaking suspicion he wanted to argue his way into paying more, but she’d interrupted him with another package of Lucky coffee beans, this time accompanied by madeleines.  The childlike glee and surprise written all over his face made her laugh in delight.

“You’re an angel sent from Heaven, I swear,” he crowed.  “I almost want to introduce you to the rest of my family just to brag, but then they’d be begging you to bake for them, too.  And stay away from Bruce if you can manage it.”  His voice turned serious.

“I know you said you hadn’t met any other Waynes—which honestly seems impossible, if I’m honest, there’re just so many of us—but Bruce has a type, and you fit it.  Not a romantic type, he’s engaged!” he added quickly at her shocked expression.  “I meant a type for adoption.  You’d fit right in.  All the official adoptees have black hair and blue eyes.  Well, except Cass and Duke, so far.  Seriously, he’ll try to adopt you, stay away from him.”

Marinette laughed again, even though she could tell he meant every word.

“Tim, I’m twenty-five.  Legally, he can’t adopt me.  Besides, I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a big family like that.  I can take care of myself, you don’t have to worry about me.”

His face was sweet and forlorn as she spoke and once again, she was reminded of Luka.  This time though, thinking of Luka didn’t make her heart hurt nearly as much.  Just a minute little pang, more like she missed the memory of him than she really missed being with him.

Tim cleared his throat, looking a little embarrassed.  Marinette tilted her head to the side inquisitively, wondering vaguely if she looked as much like a dog doing so as Red Robin had the other night.

“I should tell you, Marinette, I did a small background check on you before asking you here the first time.  It’s normal procedure for Wayne Enterprises when we do business with people, and it’s nothing outrageously invasive.  But I did learn about what happened to your parents.  I’m sorry.  I know a little bit about that, although I don’t imagine my circumstances were normal by any stretch of the imagination.  My mother and father were…not model parents.”

She just barely managed to restrain herself from reaching for his hand to squeeze.

“Oh, Tim, I’m sorry.  Even if they weren’t the best, they were still your parents.  It’s clear you loved them as a child.  Every child does, it’s how we’re made as people.  I won’t keep talking about them if you don’t want to, but if you ever do want to talk, I’m a good listener.”  She offered him what she hoped was a gentle smile.

He returned the expression, his smile small but genuine.

“Thanks, Mari.  Can I call you Mari?”

She nodded.  Her friends called her Mari, and she’d started thinking that Tim was becoming a friend.

“You know, you’re much kinder than most people in this city.  I wasn’t expecting that.  You get used to attitude and false courtesy in a place like this.”  He gestured vaguely to the business operating outside of his office.

Marinette nodded.  She’d experienced the high-society business world a little while she was dating Adrien.  She’d hated it honestly.  It all felt so performative.  Like a show, only worse because it was just part of life for the people around her.  It was exhausting.  Maybe that’s why Tim seemed so tired all the time.  Although she thought it was more likely that he was a workaholic like she was.  It made her wonder if gifting him coffee was wise.  But she had only really perfected infusing Luck into coffee and baked goods.  She supposed it was because she enjoyed both so much.  So, until she could expand her abilities to something else, she would continue to enable her friend’s caffeine addiction.  She wondered if there was a way to infuse Luck into her designs.  She didn’t think it was likely for some reason.

Five days later, she had finished the templates for Tim’s entire suit, purchased the fabric and chalked the outlines to cut.  Between working on his commission and her shifts at Miss Katie’s, she’d been too exhausted to venture out onto the balcony in search of Hood the vigilantes.  But she knew they stopped by.  The plates she filled before leaving for work were empty the next morning.  And if Hood had visited, she knew it by the little scrap of paper left under the plate.  The notes were little more than hieroglyphics; sketches of bats and the occasional hello or stay safe.  She treasured them.  It had been so long since someone had so clearly cared for her this way.  She adored Chloe and Kagami, of course, and that wasn’t to say Adrien and Luka hadn’t been affectionate.  But Kagami was quite stoic and Chloe’s version of caring involved gifts and offering to kill people who hurt her.  And she hadn’t spoken to either Adrien or Luka since she’d left to destroy the Lazarus Pits.

And now she lived in Gotham, the City of Crime.  She was friends with vigilantes and former rogues.  Tikki told her it was Luck.  Marinette thought Fate might be a twisted little bitch toying with her.  Still, she set her latest batch of meringues on the table next to her chaise and headed to Miss Katies.

Harley and Ivy came in mere minutes after she’d tied her apron around her waist, and sat themselves at what was apparently their table.  Marinette grinned widely and greeted them as she came around the counter with a carafe of coffee.  A group of men had been seated and their orders taken before she’d arrived, and she kept a careful eye on the trio.  They looked…unsavory.  She knew she shouldn’t be judging her patrons based on appearance, but a little spark that felt like Trixx assured her she was right to be distrustful.  They looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t quite place them.  They’d probably been in during her shift before.  They weren’t outright disrespectful, so she didn’t feel the need to kick them out.  Yet.

The little spark of magic grew as the night wore on, and Marinette was getting nervous and restless.  She had no real reason to dismiss the little group and no desire to upset them.  She simply kept her distance, only going to the table if she noticed anyone needed a refill or to clear empty plates.  She tried to keep her hands from shaking.

Just a half hour before she needed to close, she turned to see Tim sitting in his usual seat near the door and accompanied by a giant one of the largest men she’d ever seen.  She felt the involuntary smile split her face at the sight of her friend, but when she made eye contact with his companion, her brain ground to a halt.  She managed to maintain the smile as her mind worked at double speed to understand what she was seeing.  The cerulean eyes gazing at her from under a black skullcap were like nothing she’d ever seen before.  But his face seemed somehow familiar.  But she’d definitely remember someone of his stature coming in while she worked.  Had she met him in passing on the street?  She didn’t think so.  She would absolutely have remembered those eyes.  She moved forward, greeting Tim and asking about his friend.

It was his brother, Jason, the one he’d mentioned when Tim had first stopped in the little Diner.  Jason.  The name seemed to suit him.  Wait.  Jason.  Jason Todd-Wayne.  This was the brother she’d read about, who’d been in the news years ago when he’d disappeared and everyone had presumed to be dead until he turned up suddenly years later.  Tim had said his adoptive father had a type.  Jason fit it, and so did Tim.  And, she had to admit it, so did she.  Maybe she would have to steer clear of Bruce Wayne.

Both men ordered coffee and nothing more, which wasn’t surprising for Tim.  He never ate when he stopped at Miss Katie’s.  If it was this late, he was looking for a caffeine fix.  Marinette lamented enabling his destructive behavior once more, even as she kept refilling his mug.  With a few minutes left in her shift, she offered the brothers coffee to go, in an effort to keep from wasting it.

When she returned with two to-go cups, nearly overflowing, she felt the change in atmosphere immediately.  Something had happened in the time it took her to fill the cups and return.  Something bad.  She received a non-answer from one brother, no answer at all from the other, but when Jason’s eyes flickered to the surly trio a few tables over, she suddenly recognized the men.  They’d been part of the group that had attempted to abduct her the night she’d met Hood and Nightwing.  She had absolutely zero desire to fight in the middle of the diner.  She didn’t need to ever do that again.  She was tired and tomorrow was her day off again.  She wanted to go home when her shift was over.  So she excused herself overly politely and stalked over to Ivy and Harley’s table to do something she’d never done before: pass off the responsibility of protecting someone.  So that someone was her, it was still her job to keep people safe, wasn’t it?

“Mari!”  Harley’s enthusiasm was contagious, and Marinette was grateful for it so she could keep up the pretense of Pleasant Waitress.

“Hello, ladies.  It’s just about time for me to close up,” she dropped her voice, leaning forward and eyeing the two significantly.  “And the table behind me is not going not let me leave.  Any chance either of you want to get your hands dirty tonight?”

Harley’s eyes narrowed and she made to rise, but Marinette held her gently by the arm until she sat back.  Ivy seemed to know what she was after.

“Consider it done, little flower.”

And with that, vines snaked out from beneath the table, hoisted the trio of men, and sent them flying out the diner door and into the street.  When the men took off, the vines retreated and Marinette shook her head when a large wad of bills made its way into her tip jar.

Ivy was insistent that she deserved it, that the men had deserved what they’d gotten.  She could hardly pay attention: someone was watching her, and she turned to find the culprit, although she suspected she knew whose eyes were on her.

Jason turned to leave the diner, raising his cup of coffee in salute and mussing Tim’s hair as he went.  Marinette had the overwhelming urge to watch as he pushed the door open, struck again by the feeling that she was missing something very obvious.  Her eyes raked over him before he made it through the doorway and she suddenly had to sit down.  Why had she become a fashion designer?!  What good was this doing her—living in a city full of masked vigilantes when she could judge a person’s measurements just by looking at them?! And he’d thought he’d made it difficult for her to figure it out!  Had she really figured it out?  Maybe she was wrong.  She hoped she was wrong, but somewhere inside she knew it was useless.  She dropped her head into her hands and groaned in defeat.

“What’s wrong, Darlin’?” Harley asked.  “Realized ya got a crush on a Wayne?”

She groaned louder when Ivy laid a tentative hand on her elbow.

“Marigold, you sound so distraught.  What just happened?”

Why did Ivy remind her so much of her maman?  Now she felt the compulsion to divulge a secret that wasn’t hers to share!  How could she be honest with two of her favorite Gothamites and still maintain the secrecy that was tantamount to the Bats’ safety?  Ivy was absolutely right, she was distraught.  There was no other word for it.  And in this state, she could only come up with one thing.  She raised her head and looked forlornly between the pair.

“The butts match,” she nearly wailed.

After a beat of silence, Harley threw her head back, wrapped her arms around her middle, and cackled.  Marinette could hear her heels against the floor as her friend kicked her feet in glee.  Ivy wasn’t as obnoxious, but she too gave a gentle laugh, and patted Marinette’s arm.

“Oh, little flower,” Ivy tried to console her quietly.  “I’m surprised it took you this long.  Or was this your first time meeting him?  Outside the mask, that is,” she added in a whisper.

Marinette forgot her despair and whipped her head toward the red head.  Ivy knew?  How much did she know?  When had she found out?  Did Hood know?  Red Robin?  Nightwing?  Batman?!  Oh god, if she confirmed it and they found out and the Bats didn’t know someone else knew their identities, they’d blame her and Batman would kick her out of Gotham and she’d have no way to cleanse the city and she’d end up destitute and alone and she’d never see Hood again and Oh god, what was she going to do?

“Mari, relax.”  Harley had calmed and was resting a hand on her back as she had a mental breakdown.  “Pammy and I have known for years.  Makes livin’ here a little easier if I’m honest.  Just don’t let ‘em know you know.”

She only groaned louder.  Of course Harley thought it was that simple.  She only had the one secret to keep.

This is a fucking disaster.

Chapter Text

 Jason

Was he grinning like an idiot?  Yes.  Did he care?  Not at all.

Jason hadn’t tried as hard as he’d promised to hide himself from Marinette.  But he’d never been accused of being patient.  He was so tired of hiding.  He hid from Gotham under his masks, he hid from his family in his apartment across town from the manor; he didn’t want to hide from her, too.  There was something about her that welcomed people in.  She’d made friends with Harleen Quinzel and Pamela Isley in less than a month; if she could get Poison Ivy to warm up to her, he doubted there was a single sane person on the planet who could fight the warmth she offered.  It did make him wonder how she’d ended up living alone in a cheap apartment in the City of Crime.  He’d have to ask her about that later.  For now, he was pretending to wander through the streets while he kept an eye on the man who’d spoken of a Mistress at Miss Katie’s.

The others had split from the man, mumbling about going home since the night was a bust.  But the speaker clearly had other ideas.  So, Jason followed him discretely.  He kept up a group chat with Dick and Tim, hoping for any information about the man, but so far, he’d learned nothing exciting.  The guy was just a run-of-the-mill low-life-for-hire.  That wasn’t Talia’s style.  But who else made people call her Mistress?  He cringed internally as he remembered the word slipping past his lips when he’d had to speak to her.

What did Talia want with Marinette?  That was the real question.  He didn’t want to think too hard about it.  Because if he acknowledged the thought, he’d have to consider it was correct and he wasn’t sure he’d survive the panic that would follow.  But it was impossible, as always, to get his brain to just shut up for once, and the answer was staring him in the face as he stalked the thug through the early morning.  Talia had tailed Marinette from one of the Pits the pixie had destroyed.  She must not have been certain of the young woman’s identity, or she would have struck immediately.  The idea that Talia al Ghul had been living in Gotham for nearly two months made Jason want to be physically sick.  After all she’d done to him and his family, even her own son…He wanted her gone, away from this city and his life.

He was pulled from his rising agitation by the sight of the man he’d been tailing ducking under an awning in front of a nondescript hotel.  Jason forced himself not to arch an eyebrow.  This was the last place Talia al Ghul would stay.

Which is probably why she’s there.  No one would expect it.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind, it was followed by the realization that Talia was desperate.  She was staying in a seedy hotel when she had the means and desire to stay in the Gotham Grand.  She was hiring common thugs to do her dirty work, when normally she wouldn’t trust a mission to anyone but the most highly trained assassin.  What was her game?  The uncertainty made him nervous.  Jason hated being nervous.  He put a lot of energy into appearing confident—it went a long way to help him win fights.  Sheer bravado and fighting skills perfected over many years made for a near-unbeatable combination.  But he was severely lacking in bravado at the moment.  He whipped his phone out of his pocket, desperately typing a message to Dick.

ToddTheUndead:

Talia’s in Gotham.  Here for Marinette.

FlyingGrayson:

You tailing her?

ToddTheUndead:

Gonna try.  Can you get a message to Mari for me?

Just a note, she’s probably asleep by now.

FlyingGrayson:

Mari?  Since when is she Mari?

 

Shit, when had he started calling her Mari?

 

ToddTheUndead:

Really?  Right now?

FlyingGrayson:

Sorry.  On it.

You sure this is about her?

ToddTheUndead:

100%

--

Jason waited in the shadow of a neighboring building for nearly two hours for the man from the diner to exit the seedy hotel.  How long could it take to relay a message that he and his friends had gotten tossed on their asses by Poison Ivy?  Not two hours, that was for damn sure.  The man was probably dead by now.  Which meant there were two ways this could go: Talia would take matters into her own hands, which was more her style; or she would put one of the others in charge of kidnapping Marinette.  But why?  He’d thought it over time and again waiting for any sign of the assassin and he still couldn’t figure it out.  If she wanted Mari dead, she would have done something about it by now, wouldn’t she?  So, what was the angle?  There was no way this was about Damian; he’d never met Marinette.  It had to be about the Pits.

Jason sighed in frustration.  He pushed off the wall he’d been using for support while he waited and began walking toward his apartment.  He had to force himself not to walk any streets that would take him past Marinette’s home.  He wouldn’t lead Talia to her.  A shadow flickered to his left, and he tracked the movement even as he continued to walk.  It wasn’t the usual shadow everyone in Gotham had come to know and dismiss.  This shadow had no cape and blended in just a little too well to be anyone in his family.  It was still a shadow he recognized.  He had a tail.  A deadly tail.  A feral grin split his face as he left the door to his building open just enough that the shadow could slip inside after him.  He heard it latch but kept up the pretense of ‘going home.’  Not that it mattered.  She knew he’d been tailing her, and she knew he’d seen her tailing him.

ToddTheUndead:

Been made.

FlyingGrayson:

WHAT?!  Where are you?

ToddTheUndead:

At home.  Don’t bother coming.

It’ll be over by the time you get here.

--

It was a little anticlimactic, he thought, as he pushed his knee into Talia’s back.  She tried to rip her arms from his grasp, but he’d always been stronger than she was.  Her eyes were wild, feral in a way he’d never seen in another person—not even in his own reflection.

“Let go of me, Jason Todd.  Your death for this will be slow and painful.”

“Not much incentive for me to let go then, is there?”

He’d meant the words to come out jokingly, but he was seething.  She’d come into his city, the city he’d sworn to protect since childhood.  She’d followed him into his apartment.  He might have left the door open for her; she’d made the choice to follow him inside.  She’d threatened Marinette.  She was lucky he was keeping it together enough to stop himself from killing her here on his living room floor.  There were footsteps behind him.  Two sets of footsteps.

“What are you doing here, mother?”

Shit.

The sound of Damian unsheathing his katana seemed to echo in the sudden silence.  Talia stopped struggling under him, but Jason didn’t dare relax.  That was a death sentence, and once was more than enough.

“That is none of your concern, traitor.”

She flinched as the end of the sword stopped its swing an inch from her nose.  Jason would never admit he’d flinched as well.  The kid had been silent walking around them.

“Attack us and I will gut you where you stand,” Damian promised, then raised his gaze to Jason.  “Let her up.  It’s time she went home.”  He glared at Talia.  “And stayed there.”

No.  Absolutely not.

 Every muscle fought against him as he rose from the ground, pulling the assassin with him.

“What do you want with her?” Jason snarled at the back of her head.  “The woman from the diner—why do you want her?  Tell me, and the kid can take you to wherever your private jet is.  Alive.”

He meant every word.  He didn’t care if killing her made him less worthy of what Marinette had offered him than he already was.  At least she’d be safe.  Well…safer.  Talia seemed to stall, once again struggling to pull away from him, but he didn’t trust her with her hands free.  She could run when she was done talking.  He tightened his grip and she snarled.

“I want my own mind back!  That girl, she can cure the Madness of the Lazarus Pit.  I am lucid for mere days at a time.  I want my mind to be my own again.”

That brought him up short.  It explained her seriously out of character behaviors.  And it was exactly what Jason wanted for himself, what Marinette was offering him.  But he couldn’t let Talia anywhere near Marinette, not if she were admitting to being even slightly out of control.  Talia had always been vicious; that drive to succeed, all her years of training under Ra’s combined with the insatiable bloodlust he was all too familiar with…he wouldn’t let that within fifty feet of Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  Before he could answer, Damian scoffed.

“It cannot be done, Mother.  Yours is a lost cause, as is the League.  Your order is dead, Ra’s is dead; you are the last.  Go home.  I will escort you to ensure you make your flight.  Do not return.”

Jason watched carefully as Talia’s gaze darted between Damian and whoever was still in behind him.  He hoped it was Dick and not Bruce—he wasn’t ready to explain this to Bruce.  Not yet.  He felt the assassin slump in what he hoped was defeat and relaxed his hold on her wrists just a fraction.

A fraction too much.

In a motion too fast to follow, she wrenched her wrists away from him, kicked the katana out of her son’s hands and caught it by the hilt.  But when the blade flashed, it was like watching a movie in slow motion.  Jason was entirely powerless to stop it from shearing through the Robin suit and slicing into his youngest brother’s side, even as he whipped a gun from the holster at his side.  It wasn’t the first time there had been blood spatter in his living room and it probably wouldn’t be the last, but the red seemed to scream at him in the instant between the swipe of the blade and the crack of the butt of his pistol against Talia’s skull.  Nearly simultaneously, mother and son collapsed.

Dick thank god it wasn’t Bruce rushed forward and caught Damian under the arms as the younger man fell, but none of them bothered with Talia as she lay unconscious on the floor.  Jason scrounged up some zip ties and secured the woman’s arms behind her back before turning to his brothers.  Damian was nearly unconscious.

“Jay, I can’t—How do we—Do you have anything?”  Dick, normally calm and stoic in an emergency, was barely coherent, bordering on frantic.  Jason wasn’t much better, but he tried.

“Not here, I don’t.  Not what we’d need.”

The med kit he kept in the apartment was full of the basics, but what Talia had done to Damian…he didn’t have the supplies or the skills to fix it.  He glanced in the direction of the manor.

“It’s too far,” Dick whispered.  “Jay, I don’t—what do we do?”

He had an idea.  He hated it, but he had an idea.  It was so late, and he knew he had no business dragging anyone else into this, and Damian would probably try to kill him for it, but…

“I’ll take him,” he said with finality.  “Get her the fuck out of my apartment.  Get her back to whatever hole she’s been living in.”

Dick seemed relieved that someone else was taking charge.  He backed away as Jason hefted their brother and headed toward the roof, Damian’s grappling hook in one hand.  Talia was soon slung over Dick’s shoulder and he followed Jason into the early morning air.  At least the sun wasn’t rising yet.

“Where are you taking him?”

Jason levelled a look at his brother, but otherwise didn’t respond.

“Got it.  Kid’s not gonna like it.”

“Well, he’s gonna have to get the hell over it.  It’s not like he gets a choice.  He gets to live, not much to complain about there.”

With that, he fired the hook and swung away, debating the entire way whether it was a good idea.  It didn’t matter, he decided as he dropped heavily on Marinette’s balcony.  She was the only one near enough he knew they could trust, and she sewed.  How different could stitching a cut be than sewing a dress?

A lot different, moron, this was a terrible plan…but it’s the only plan I’ve got .

He was trying to decide just what to say, how to explain and beg for help when the balcony door slid open so hard it bounced off the frame.  Marinette looked almost ethereal as she stood in the doorway, staring at his brother in horror, framed by a soft halo of light from inside.  Her expression changed quickly into one that he recognized: the look of a plan being made under duress.  Tim’s situational planning face was nearly identical.  The comfort he felt watching her eyes shift from horror to determination knocked the breath from him and all he could do was whisper a single word.

“Help.”

She turned and scurried into the apartment, waving for him to follow.

“Lay him on the table,” Marinette called as she raced to another room.

He’d barely set Damian on the little table in her kitchen when she was back with a truly impressive first aid kit.  Part of him wanted to ask, but he just couldn’t bring himself to speak.  This was why he’d come here.  He’d watched her keep herself together twice now under stress—she was steady-handed and sure of her actions.  And she was obviously prepared for disasters like a vigilante bleeding onto her kitchen table.

“Go wash your hands, Hood.  Sorry—Jason.  That’ll take some getting used to,” she directed him, and he jolted before doing as she said.

He knew he hadn’t tried very hard to mask his identity at the diner, but so few people ever figured them out.  Although, he thought, those who did were all heroes or vigilantes themselves, and even if she wasn’t active, Marinette fit the bill.  Of course she’d figured him out after one meeting.

He continued to do as he was told, holding Damian’s tunic away from his body as she cut it away from the vicious slash; handing her antiseptic, thread, gauze, tape, anything she asked for; watching in fascination as she worked carefully to put his brother back together.  It took less time than he thought, but long enough that they were still working to clean up when Dick snuck in through the balcony door.  In a movement as swift as Talia’s had been, she whipped her scissors at the intruder.  Jason stifled a gasp as his older brother ducked just in time to avoid the blades.  The scissors clattered against the glass door behind him, and he held his hands up in surrender.

“It’s just me, Little Lady.”  Dick’s tone was placating, but Jason was caught by the blazing fire that remained in Marinette’s eyes even as the tension left her frame.

Holy hell.

She had been immediately and entirely willing to throw scissors hands at whoever she’d thought Dick was, in defense of Jason and Damian; and he’d glimpsed the formidable warrior she’d been in her former life.  Then she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  When she opened her eyes once more, the fire was gone, replaced with fear and apologies.

“Close the blinds,” her voice came out with a slight waver, but she continued as though everything were normal.  “No one should see you in here.  Any of you.”

Jason watched as Dick froze for a full thirty seconds as he processed the shift in mood before shooting glances between the two of them as they stood flanking Damian.  Finally, wordlessly, his older brother turned and pulled the blinds closed.  Marinette had returned to gathering the strips of bloody gauze and putting away the medical supplies.  He wanted to help somehow but within seconds there was nothing more to be done.  When Marinette returned from putting away the first aid kit the thing’s like a travel-sized walk-in clinic she faced Dick with wide, remorseful eyes.

“I’m sorry I tried to skewer you with medical scissors.”  Jason wanted to laugh, and Dick’s mouth twitched, but her tone was so serious and apologetic that he held back.  “You surprised me is all, and I thought you were whoever did this to Robin.”

She waved behind her to the prone figure on her table as she spoke, and he watched as a tremor ran through her.  He wondered what it meant: was the stress of stitching Damian up catching up with her?  Was she really that worried about—what?  Offending Dick by throwing a pair of scissors at him?  Neither of those were off the table, but looking closer at her expression, Jason wondered instead if she was remembering something similar from her days as a hero in Paris.  The forlorn expression faded quickly as Marinette shook her head.

“You guys can sit,” she offered, gesturing to the sofa and single chair in the living room.

Dick looked between the two of them, then opted for the lone chair.  Marinette folded one leg beneath her as she settled onto the couch and Jason found himself grateful for the excuse to sit near her again.  He tried (and failed) not to notice the light flush that bloomed over her face and ears.

“So, um…is it okay if I ask what happened?  And why not take Robin somewhere more secure?”

Her curiosity was, of course, understandable, but Jason really didn’t want to get into it.  She knew about the League of Assassins, she’d understand exactly how much danger she’d been in—still could be in, if Talia decided to come back.  He could clearly picture the terror and dread from her nightmare the last time he’d been here and his desire to never see it again intensified.  But Marinette was one of the few people Jason knew who stood a chance of defending herself from Talia al Ghul and she deserved to know why he’d dragged her into this mess.

“Well, to answer the second question,” Dick’s embarrassed voice answered, “I panicked.  Jay took it from there.  We were too far from…anywhere else that might be secure enough and had the right supplies for this, so Jay decided you might be able to help.  To answer the first…I’m still not entirely sure, honestly.”  His brother looked to him to fill in the blanks, and Jason sighed heavily.

“Robin would be able to answer more specifically, but I doubt the kid’ll want to.  But, long story short, the ‘traffickers’ whose asses you kicked were actually hired to take you, specifically.  By the League of Assassins.”

She flinched, but her expression barely altered from its original curiosity.

“That’s not really…their style,” she said carefully.

“No, it isn’t,” a tight voice came from the kitchen.  All eyes turned to the now-conscious Robin, who had pushed himself halfway to sitting.  Jason imagined there was a glare coming at him from beneath the domino mask.

“But,” he continued, “’they’ are only one now.  And she’s…unstable, to put it lightly.”

Damian hissed through his teeth as he tried to rise from the table, and Marinette jumped up from her seat to help him.

“She…Tal—Talia?  Talia al Ghul did this to you.”

Damian’s face whipped to hers, one eyebrow raised, and Jason couldn’t blame him for wondering what that statement meant.  Her pixie face was pale, but her voice had been deadly when she demanded clarification.

“You know Talia?”  Damian’s voice was quiet, unsure.  There was a slight undercurrent of suspicion, but Jason didn’t think it was directed at Marinette.

“We’ve met,” came the short answer.  “Unstable is an understatement.  She threatened to kill me if I didn’t help her.  But I can’t help her, it would kill us both.  What her sister did…killing her and reviving her so many times in the Pit…there would be nothing left of her if I cured her.  And I wouldn’t survive long enough to accomplish it, regardless.  Mon dieu,” she gasped suddenly, taking a step back, “she’s here?  In Gotham?”

Her eyes darted first to the door into the apartment, then the patio, and lastly flickered to her bedroom before resting on Damian, who shook his head.

“No.  Well, I assume since the three of us are here, she is no longer on American soil.”  The domino masked focused on Dick for confirmation, who nodded.

“I put her on the plane myself and watched them take off.  She’ll be back to Nanda Parbat in a matter of hours.”

Two nods met the statement, one sharp and one meek.  That one small gesture pulled Jason from the sofa and had him crossing the room to stand nearer to Marinette.  Damian’s raised eyebrow was directed at him now, but he ignored his youngest brother, instead meeting the woman’s concerned gaze with what he hoped was reassurance.  He wanted to say something comforting, but he wasn’t sure what that would be.  He could hardly promise Talia wouldn’t be a problem in the future—the assassin was too unpredictable.  Damian didn’t give him the chance to try.

“Wait, you said…you can cure someone of the Madness from the Lazarus Pit?  So, it’s true.  But…how?  Why you?  You’re hardly…formidable.”

Marinette snorted and then dissolved into giggles, and Damian looked to him to explain, but Jason merely shrugged.

“Oh, mon petit colombe…looks can be deceiving.  I was the one who destroyed the Pits.  I assume you knew they’d been destroyed.”

He nodded and Jason stared.  Why wouldn’t he have shared that information with the rest of them?  But that didn’t matter, and he doubted Damian would explain himself anyway.

“I’ve been keeping track of my mother—Talia’s movements for several years.”

Marinette choked on her laughter and swayed on the spot.

“Your—mother?  You…you’re an al Ghul.”

She stepped back until she hit the wall behind her, eyes once again flitting around the apartment as though looking for an escape.  The bluebell gaze swung wildly between the three men until they landed back on Jason and he wanted so badly to reach out to her: there was terror rising in her eyes, and it wasn’t the same as it had been before.  She was afraid of him.  Of all of them.  The fear mixed with betrayal and he couldn’t understand, but he hated it—hated the guilt that swirled in his stomach at her reaction to him.  But just as quickly as all that emotion appeared, it faded.  She just…shut it down, and he worried for her, that she was able to control and repress her feelings so quickly.  She turned her gaze back to Damian.

“Explain.”  It was the same tone she’d used that first night, to the thugs in the diner.  It was not a request, but a demand.  Bruce used that voice, and Jason knew Damian would recognize it; he only hoped Damian would comply.

“She left me here, essentially on my father’s doorstep, when I was ten.  I was supposed to either convince him to join or fund the League, or, failing that, kill him.  Father had…other ideas.  And when I was thirteen, I officially left the League.  Talia did not take it lightly, and I have been keeping track of her since then.  She disappeared recently, but I didn’t think it was concerning enough to announce it, as there was no talk of it elsewhere.  But she was here for you, to convince you to cure her.  And for that, I apologize.”

“She…she left you here?  In Gotham, with your father?  When you were ten.  You were raised in the League…”  Marinette slid down the wall, head in her hands.  After a brief moment of silence, she looked back up at Damian with sorrow in her eyes.

“What kind of childhood is that?  How—you know what, no.  It’s none of my business.”  She shook her head, eyes closed.  Then, after a deep breath, she stood once more and returned to Damian’s side.

“Thank you for telling me your story, Robin.  I’m sorry I was so blunt.  Talia…the League…I’m sure you can imagine that destroying the Lazarus Pits put us rather at odds.”  She smirked and shockingly, Damian returned her expression.

“I think there’s someone you should meet,” Marinette offered after a moment, and a little red blur phased through the door of her bedroom.

***

Marinette

How many breakdowns is a person allowed to have in one day?

She’d just barely come down from panicking about learning Hood’s name and identity a fucking Wayne!  Oh god, that means…Tim! only to find the man in question had landed on her balcony unmasked and carrying a bleeding teenager in his arms.  Of course, she’d done her best to stitch the gash in the boy’s side, but mon dieu, it had been so similar to when Chat had been sliced open by Hawkmoth…she almost hadn’t been able to do it.  But Robin wasn’t Chat Noir, and Hood—Jason had asked for her help, and dammit if those blue-green eyes weren’t outright begging her to save them both.  Failure hadn’t ever been an option, and so she’d persevered.

And now, she’d learned Robin was an al Ghul—there was an al Ghul in her apartment, but there was also an al Ghul out there in the world looking for her, and the one in her apartment had apparently been injured while trying to keep Marinette from danger.  She longed for that brief moment a week ago when everything had been calm and she’d thought Gotham was almost tame.  Why would I let myself even think that?!  This is the City of Crime!  Could she trust this boy…man?  Hood—Jason, come on Mari—seemed to think so, and so did Nightwing, and that made her feel just the tiniest bit better.  Then again, she still didn’t know them very well, and if he’d been trained by the League of Assassins, he could very well be using them, manipulating the situation in his favor.

But hearing that Talia had just abandoned her child not that she was surprised, the woman was a wreck and that he’d defected from the League had gone some way to assuage her fear.  But he’d only been ten at the time!  Which meant he’d been raised until then by the League; he’d probably killed before he’d lost any baby teeth!  Not only had Talia abandoned her child, she’d also entirely robbed him of his childhood.  And now he was a vigilante!  Marinette wasn’t sure she had much room to talk as she’d taken up being a superhero as a child herself; but her parents had given her a lovely early childhood.  She’d gotten to play and make friends and have normal adventures.  She had doting grandparents, and early in collége she’d had many friends, and Robin…he hadn’t had any of that.

Trixx’s magic flared in her chest as she apologized for treating the young man so harshly.  He was someone she could trust.  He was coming into this with a little more knowledge than Hood—Jason, dammit! —and the other two had had.  If he were Talia’s son, he would have been in line to take over after Ra’s and would have learned about the Miraculi and the Order of the Guardians.

When Tikki zipped out to land on her shoulder, Marinette saw Jason’s eyes widen in shock.  She smiled gently at him but didn’t have time to explain before Tikki was introducing herself to the youngest vigilante in the room, and they were off—Robin asking rapid-fire questions and Tikki answering them without batting an eye.  At some point, Tikki floated away from her shoulder to hover at eye level with Robin while they conversed, and Marinette finally felt steady enough to approach Jason.

“I didn’t ask before,” she murmured, making him jump.  “Are you hurt at all?  From—with Talia?  You and Nightwing were tailing those men, and she hired them.  I assume you were involved tonight, too.  Are you all right?”

His expression seemed…surprised.  Vigilante life must have been terrible, she decided, if it made a person feel surprise at having someone care whether they were injured.  But he shook his head, and she saw no sign in his eyes or body language that he was trying to hide anything.

“Nah,” he whispered.  “I knew she’d follow me; I was prepared for her.  Sorry I brought the kid here, I just…I didn’t know where else to go.  I don’t have a fuckin’ Urgent Care in my bathroom like you do.  Where’d you get that thing, anyway?”

“I don’t know what an Urgent Care is, but I put that kit together years ago.  When I was still in Paris.  There were enough close calls that I figured someone on the team should have at least a little bit of medical training.  This isn’t my first time stitching someone up.  Chat Noir, when we finally beat Hawkmoth, he—Gabriel tried to…” she took a breath and tried a different route.  “That cut on Robin’s side…that’s from a blade.  A sword.  His mother really tried to kill him?”

Jason’s eyes were full of understanding as they met her glance.

“I don’t know if she really tried to kill him,” he said.  “I think she just wanted to escape.  But we all know she’s…unhinged.  Maybe she did try to kill him, and he was too fast.  Listen, Pix, I’m sorry you got dragged into this.  If you wanna change your mind, you don’t have to help me with this, you don’t have to be involved—”

“It’s a little late for that, Jason,” she interrupted, heavily emphasizing that she knew who he was.  “Besides, I wouldn’t just back out because of one Assassin.  I knew what I was getting into when I moved here.  And you know I can defend myself if I have to.  You deserve a full life, Jason.  I want to help you have it.”

Now she grinned at him, and was pleased when he returned the gesture, even if his smile was a little nervous.

“If anything were going to scare me away, it would have been your atrocious baking.  And yet, here you are, still allowed in my kitchen.  So, stop worrying about it.”  She nudged him with her hip, and he tentatively wrapped a muscled arm around her shoulder and pulled her into his side.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

She hadn’t had a real hug in ages.  It took more effort than she would have believed possible to restrain her enthusiasm.  Instead of throwing her arms around him in return, she settled for gently squeezing him around the waist with one arm of her own.

“Of course,” Marinette replied, trying to stifle a yawn.  The warmth that accompanied this hug had seeped into her once more, but more than that was the ridiculous amount of body heat Jason seemed to emit, and the sensation was rather like being wrapped in several blankets.

“How long have you been up this time, Pixie?” he asked with a low laugh.

“Since about ten yesterday morning,” she admitted.  “And I’ve been doing better about sleeping, thank you very much!  That was until you came in the diner tonight.  You hardly even tried, Hood—Jason, sorry!  But really, you said you weren’t going to make it easy for me, and covering your hair was the best you could do?!  It is an actual miracle none of you have been figured out yet.”

Nightwing suddenly spoke up from behind them.

“Oh, we’ve been figured out before,” he assured her.  “But everyone who ever figured it out was a super.  Or, I guess, married to a super.”

“Ah, well I fit right in, then, don’t I?” she teased, and Jason hugged her tighter.

Nightwing’s response was interrupted by a soft pink glow from the kitchen and silence descended upon the apartment until the glow faded.

“Thank you, Tikki,” Robin said with a formal bow of his head.  Tikki just nuzzled his cheek.

“It was no trouble,” she trilled.  “You’ll be back out there fighting crime by the end of the day.  But the sun’s coming up soon, and if you and Nightwing want to make it home unseen, it might be a good time to leave.”

“We’re not kicking you out!” Marinette scrambled to explain.  “It’s just…you’re rarely out during the day unless something really terrible happens and I wouldn’t want anyone to worry, or for Batman to come looking for you or for you to get into trouble or—”

“Mari, relax!”  Jason gave her a little shake, and she snapped her mouth shut, silently enjoying the thrill accompanying his use of her old nickname.

“Actually, Batman doesn’t know we left,” Nightwing admitted.  “A probably figured it out, but someone’s always sneaking out, so they usually don’t worry.  Tikki’s right, though, we should probably head out, Robin.”

The younger man nodded and swung his legs over the side of the table to stand, stretching experimentally.  Marinette wondered if someone in their life knew how to remove stitches.  She had to assume that was the case.  It wasn’t like they could just go to a doctor in costume.  The risk involved…She put it out of her mind.

“Be safe out there,” she insisted, as the pair exited via the balcony.  Nightwing offered a salute and Robin gave her a silent nod before swinging away.

Marinette let out a heavy sigh, unconsciously leaning into the figure beside her.  Until she realized that figure was Jason.  She shot upright and stepped away, immediately missing the warmth, but not wanted to overstep his boundaries.

“Are you going, too?” she asked as her face flamed.

“I…Do you want me to go?” he asked, a small smirk playing at the corners of his mouth.  She tried not to stare.

“No!  I mean--!  You don’t have to, I’m not kicking anyone out, like I said.  I just…don’t you all have a…debriefing or something?”

He shrugged and answered, “Yeah, but it’s not my night for patrol.  They’ll have some questions but Di—Nightwing can answer as well as I can.  I kept him updated after I left Katie’s.”

She nodded seriously, trying not to read too much into his near slip-up with Nightwing’s name.  She didn’t need to know!

“Okay, well, I’m much more awake than I was last time—shut up, I am!  Want to try chocolate chip cookies again?  There has to be one thing we can do right in this kitchen.  We’ll find a way to lift your kitchen ban at your dad’s.”

“I’ve said it before, you’re playing with fire, Pixie Pop.  But I’m down for chocolate chip cookies.”

--

An hour later and she decided that they weren’t so bad this time, the cookies.  At the very least, they weren’t liquid, and they definitely tasted like cookies.  But they just weren’t...quite…right.

“Okay, they’re not puddles!  This is progress!”

She could barely speak around the giggles as she lifted a cookie from the cooling rack.

“Mari, they’re two dimensional.  That’s not better!” Jason was laughing uproariously as he held up a cookie of his own.  “Don’t get me wrong, they’re fucking delicious.  But I think I’m a lost cause in the baking department.”

Marinette placed a hand over her heart and gasped in mock horror.

No!  No one is a lost cause!  I’ll remind you, we made perfectly edible pain au chocolat the first time you were here!”

“Yeah, but I basically carpet bombed your kitchen with flour!”

And then it was too had to speak for laughing.  Marinette doubled over, gasping for breath.  She reached out for the edge of the table to steady herself but missed and stumbled forward.  There were hands there to catch her, but they were shaking with laughter as badly as she was and once she’d collided with the body attached to the hands, both of them continued to fall.  Marinette could trace her trajectory, almost as though she were moving through molasses, and braced for impact as she neared the corner of the table—only to find herself pulled sideways and landing on another human being, those same hands holding her securely against his chest.  The raucous laughter seemed to echo in the chamber beneath her ear, and she gloried in the sound—it was like freedom, and peace, and home.

She missed the feeling of home.  But as much as it hurt to remember, as much as her eyes stung with tears she stubbornly refused to shed, the joy bubbling from the man who’d caught her was infectious and she was overcome by a new fit of giggles until the tears spilled over and she was struggling to catch her breath.

Mon dieu, Jason, I’m sorry!” she gasped.  “I swear I’m a walking disaster!”

His arms tightened around her and she felt his head and shoulders lift from the ground as he answered.

“Nah, Pix, you’re just sleep deprived.”

She raised her head from his chest and was captivated by the pair of cerulean eyes that were twinkling down at her.  Jason’s gaze was soft and affectionate and the utter joy that emanated from him threatened to take her breath away.  He seemed to feel everything so deeply and she envied him for the ability to do so.  Sure, she’d been allowed the freedom to feel everything completely for the last nearly eight years, but that didn’t mean she knew how to do it.  All those years of strict self-control, squashing negative emotions…well, those behaviors had morphed over time until she was repressing any strong emotion.  Luka had been able to coax something out of her even more than Adrien had.  But those breakups had negated most of the progress she’d made.

Yet here she was with a near-stranger a very attractive, affectionate stranger who Tikki and Trixx think you can trust who was so genuine she couldn’t help but allow her emotions to rise to the surface.  It was new and terrifying and exhilarating.

“I am that,” she giggled in agreement.  “Aren’t you, though?  Tired, I mean.  It was supposed to be your night off and you haven’t slept yet!”

She knew she should get up, get off his chest and let him leave—he needed more sleep than she did, surely, so he could continue to fight the crime that plagued his home—but his arms remained circled around her waist and he was so warm…she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.  Jason’s shoulders relaxed beneath her as he let his head rest against the floor once more.

“Meh, I’ve definitely had worse.  I know, I know,” he said quickly, interrupting her sputtered insistence that she had also had worse, “just because we’ve both been up longer doesn’t mean we don’t need sleep.  I don’t think I can sleep yet, though.  Too wound up from thinking about what could have happened tonight, you know?”

She did know.  How many sleepless nights had she spent during Hawkmoth’s reign, worrying over her team and school and her former friends?  How often had she agonized over things she could have done differently, tried to make contingency plans in case things went wrong?  She nodded and finally moved to sit up, and he followed her.

“I get it,” she murmured.  “Well, if you want, you can stay.  We could watch a movie or something brainless on TV.  I really should work on Tim’s suit some more—I was in the middle of embroidering when you showed up.  But I just don’t have the brain capacity for that anymore.  So.  What are you in the mood for?”

Jason held a hand out and tugged her up to stand as he rose gracefully from the kitchen floor.

“I dunno, Pix.  Whatcha got for movies?  TV’s kinda shit at five-thirty in the morning.”

Marinette waved her hand toward the box that contained her movie collection—she had yet to unpack it.

“Feel free to rifle through that mess.  I haven’t had a good day to just be lazy since I moved in, so it’s probably a jumbled mess.  I’m gonna put pajamas on.  I might have something comfy for you if you want?  My papa was about your height, and probably about as wide in the shoulders.  The pants might be a little big, though…”

“Don’t worry about it, Pixie Pop.  I’m good like this.”

Her eyes followed his hand as he gestured to himself, and heat flooded her face when she saw he noticed.  Trying to save herself from further embarrassment, she turned abruptly and closed herself in her bedroom to change.

“Relax, Marinette,” Tikki hummed in her ear.  “It’s okay to be attracted to someone.  You’ve been alone for so long now; I know it must be a little nerve-wracking to open up to someone.  But Jason clearly trusts you.  I think—and Trixx agrees with me—you two will be very good for each other.  Just take a deep breath and let things happen in their own time, even if that timing surprises you.”

Marinette opened her mouth to give a snarky retort but was distracted by an excited exclamation from the living room.  She hurried back through her door, pushing her arms through the sleeves of an oversized Jagged Stone t-shirt, to see Jason’s face split in a wide, gleeful smile.  When he met her eyes, the excitement she saw took her breath away.  So not fair.

“You have them both!” he exclaimed at her raised eyebrow, displaying her copies of Pride and Prejudice.  “Most people I know only have the 2005 version, but you have both!”

This explanation only caused the eyebrow to stay arched.

“I definitely did not have you pegged as a classical literature fan.”

“You and everyone else.”

Damn those bright eyes, they were shining with boyish hope and the joy that had been emanating from him moments before when they’d fallen in the kitchen was back full force, and there was no way she could deny him anything when he looked like that.

“Okay, so which one do you want to watch?  I don’t think we can make it through the entire miniseries in one sitting.  Well, I won’t make it, I’ll definitely fall asleep.  But um…if you wanted to…we could start it, and then--i-if you want—we could, I don’t know, make it a regular…thing?”

Oh, for Kwamii’s sake, Marinette, how old are you?!

But he didn’t seem to notice her stammering, broken sentence.  His expression shifted to one of pure shock, followed by that boyish joy once again.

“Yeah?” his voice was almost breathless.  “I mean, if you want to, I’d lo—really like that.  No, I’d love it, Mari.  It’s one of my favorites.  Got me through some rough parts of my life, honestly.”

She grinned at him, caught up in the whirlwind of his excitement, and plucked the case of DVDs from his hand to insert it into the system she had set up below her television.

“Then make yourself comfortable, Jay,” she called over her shoulder.  “It’ll be nice to have another human being around for a while.”

Once everything was up and running, she joined her friend on the sofa.  As the opening credits rolled, she felt him lean back and toss an arm across the back of the couch.  And then his voice, tentative and shy, broke the quiet.

“Pixie, can I ask?  How is it someone like you doesn’t have anyone in their life?  I mean, I get the whole secret-tiny-gods part.  But…besides them, you’re totally alone here, and I don’t get it.  You—you’re like sunshine incarnate.  I mean, you made friends with Poison Ivy!  How do you not have a roommate, at least?”

She snorted.

“I thought you said you got the whole secret-tiny-gods thing?”  When he didn’t respond, she sighed and continued, “Well, it’s a long story, and not one I really want to get into right now.  It’s not a happy story, and tonight was already a lot for me.  But I’ll give you the abridged version.”

He sat up and turned toward her, and she tucked her legs up under her chin while she thought about how to begin her story.

“A long time ago, before everything changed in Paris, I had lots of friends.  I was friends with most of my class in collége, except for Chloé—which still makes me laugh, since she’s one of my favorite people now—but right before we moved to lycée, a girl transferred to our school from Italy.  She was…difficult.  She came in full of smiles and fantastic stories and swept everyone up in all the wonder.  But no one bothered to check whether the things she said were true.  Except me.  And when it turned out that nothing she said was right—everything, every person she said she knew, every favor she’d offered was a lie—I called her on it.  And—I’m skipping a lot of details here, because it’s painful and I’d rather not right now—she eventually threatened to take all my friends away.

And then I was doing the Ladybug thing, and the things she said…she was very good at manipulating the situation to her advantage.  I would disappear to fight, and she would lie about where I’d gone—she once tried to tell everyone I was working with Hawkmoth! —and I couldn’t dispute her without giving myself away, and later she said I was bullying her.  Like, physically.  Adrien and Chloé ended up being the only ones to know she was lying about everything.  And Adrien and I dated for a while, until his father—who we didn’t know yet was Hawkmoth—told him to play nice with Lila and he chose to do that and keep his freedom to ever leave the house.  And so, we didn’t stay together for very long after that.  But Chloe and I got really close—out of necessity at first.

So, it’s not like I don’t have friends.  And I did date again after Adrien.  But Luka and Adrien are together now—and if that’s not a mindfuck, I don’t know what is.  And Chloé ‘s in Japan with her girlfriend Kagami, who I also made friends with later in lycée.  And then after we took down Hawkmoth, I was doing the whole Lazarus Pit thing and I ended up here.  And being alone was just…habit by then, I guess.”

Marinette sniffed, and was surprised to find tears running down her face.  When had she started crying?  Jason’s hand settled on top of hers, and she raised her eyes to meet his.

“Well, they’re all idiots,” he murmured, smiling so kindly, she felt her heart might shatter.  “Nobody deserves to be abandoned and alone, Pix.  And whenever you’re ready to talk about everything that happened, I’ll be here.  It’s the least I could do for you, for what you’re offering to me.  But really, I just enjoy being with you.  You let me be myself, and I don’t have to hide anything from you.  And I hope you know you don’t have to hide anything from me, either.  Not—not that you have to tell me everything!  Just—you can—if you need to talk about stuff, I’m here, you know?”

Marinette dried her tears and smiled at the man before her.

“You look like you could use a hug,” he said, returning her smile and opening his arms.

She scooted into his embrace and they settle into a comfortable silence as he held her against him while Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy discussed Netherfield on the screen.  After several minutes, Jason shifted so he was leaning against the arm of the sofa and tugged her closer, so she was laying against his chest.

“If you’re tired, Mari, go to sleep,” his deep voice rumbled beneath her.

She had to admit, her eyes felt heavy.  And it was very comfortable, tucked into his side and enveloped in warmth.  Before she could even try to fight it, exhaustion seemed to win, and her eyes just wouldn’t stay open.  Jason moved slightly under her, and the sounds of Pride and Prejudice disappeared.  She tried to protest, but words were hard, and sleep was so tempting.

“It’s alright, Pixie Pop, go to sleep.  We’re making this a regular thing, right?  We’ll start over next time.”

“’Kay,” she answered.

He made to move her, to stand and leave, but she wasn’t having that.  It was too comfortable; sleep came too easily this way.  She finally felt safe, like the weight of her duties wasn’t resting solely on her shoulders and she could finally relax.  And in her sleep-addled state, she made the request she’d forced down when he’d visited previously.

“Stay.  Please.”