Adrien tried for what had to be the millionth times to edge out of his and Nino's hiding spot, his mind blanking on even the flimsiest, lamest excuse as he listened to the sounds of the battle raging a street over. There were fewer screams now; whether that meant that the civilians had cleared out or had all been turned into statues, he wasn't sure. But Ladybug had been fighting for a good hour now, and she had used her Lucky Charm exactly seven minutes and twenty-three seconds ago. The battle should have been over by now.
"Dude, what are you doing?" Nino hissed, yanking Adrien back into hiding behind the counter of a flower stall. "If it's the block party across the street, can't it wait until after the Akuma is taken care of? There's a time and place for eating!"
Adrien didn't respond. He wished that they had gone to hid under the tables that had been set up for a party of some sort. There was an extensive cheese spread, which Plagg could have enjoyed while he tried to get away to help Ladybug. Right now, the cheese was very much out of reach. He could practically hear Plagg's whimpers.
"Update on the Ladyblog," Nino said suddenly, and Adrien leaned back to peer over his friend's shoulder at his cell phone. "Alya said that Ladybug is retreating, probably to recharge."
Adrien winced guiltily. If he had managed to shake Nino off, he could have been helping Ladybug, and the Sculptor would have been defeated by now.
Footsteps echoed on the cobblestones of the street. Adrien leaned forward just enough to get a good view of the street without exposing himself. Seconds later, Marinette dashed into view, glancing over her shoulder as she ran. She slid to a stop in front of the food-laden tables and dumped something on the table. Adrien craned his neck to try to catch a glimpse.
"I can't stay, she's following me," Marinette said quietly, backing away from the table. Who was she talking to? "I'll come back soon, promise. I need to keep track of-"
A loud bang cut off the rest of what Marinette said, and she shot off down the road. Nino watched her go curiously as Adrien leaned halfway out of their shelter, trying to see what- or who- Marinette had been talking to. A moment later, Nino yanked him back by the collar of his jacket.
"Dude, the Sculptor must be after her! Hide!"
"Ladybug will save her! Get your ass back in here, Adrien!"
Adrien retreated reluctantly. Whatever she had put on the table- a kwami, perhaps? Oh my god, what if she was Ladybug- wasn't visible from where they were, too hidden among the platters of cookies and cakes. Ladybug had never mentioned what her kwami liked to eat, but it would be so, so fitting if it was sweets.
Sweets for the sweet, my Lady.
She'd probably hit him.
The sound of more footsteps made both boys tense up again. They expected to see the Sculptor with his laser eyes chasing after Marinette.
Instead, they saw Alya.
"Why was Marinette running from Alya?" Nino hissed curiously as the reporter vanished around the corner. "Shouldn't they be sticking together?"
Not if Marinette is Ladybug, Adrien thought to himself. Out loud, he said, "Maybe the Sculptor was chasing Marinette, but she lost him and somehow Alya ended up following her instead."
Marinette couldn't be Ladybug. He'd definitely seen her during attacks...right?
Nino made a sound of agreement before they both fell silent again. Nino pulled out his phone again and scrolled through the Ladyblog and the other news sites, looking for updates. There were none- all civilians in the area that hadn't been turned to stone had vacated or were in hiding.
Two minutes later, the muted slap-slap-slap of Marinette's shoes on the pavement made its way up the street. She had only just rounded the corner when a large figure landed on the ground with a loud thud. Marinette skidded to a halt, eyes wide, and Adrien winced as he realized that he was about to see one of his nicest classmates be turned to stone. The Sculptor turned to her, eyes gleaming evilly as he considered her.
"Ah! You'll look pretty as a sculpture, my darling," he cooed, stepping closer even as Marinette's head whipped side to side in a panic, looking for an escape. She took a wary step backwards, then another. "Stand still and smile for me-"
Marinette snatched an abandoned bag of apples off of the ground and lunged, even as the Sculptor's eyes lit up. The beam of light shot at her just as she whipped an apple at the supervillain. The apple absorbed the beam, turning to stone as Marinette dodged forward. It cracked to pieces on the pavement.
"Hah, you think you can avoid me?" the Sculptor laughed, his eyes flashing again. Another apple turned to stone, then another as Marinette dodged the flashes. Next to Adrien, Nino whipped his phone up and started filming.
"Dude, that's awesome," Nino gasped, holding out his phone. "Oh my god, just look at her go!"
"Why is she heading at the Sculptor?" Adrien hissed as a flash narrowly missed the girl. "Shouldn't she be trying to get further away?"
Marinette was zig-zagging back and forth as she threw apple after apple, drawing nearer to the food-laden table as she spun and wove between flashes of light. Adrien cringed as her supply of apples dropped lower and lower, the bag getting limper as it emptied. Marinette was being surprisingly agile as she dodged back and forth, fighting her way forward towards the Sculptor instead of away. The second she ran out of apples, Marinette latched onto the food on the table. Stone fruit salads clattered onto the cobblestones, followed by stone pasta. The Sculptor wasn't looking so pristine now, streaks of fruit juice and mayonnaise covering his front. His flashes of light were coming more frequently now, but Marinette didn't seem to be having any trouble keeping up.
"This is awesome," Nino gasped. "Man, just watch her! She knew she'd have more to work with if she got in close to the table!"
"She should still at least try to be getting away from the Sculptor," Adrien insisted, his heart in his throat as he watched. "It's not safe for her to be fighting!"
He promptly got shushed by an excited Nino.
"Hah!" Marinette yelled as she smashed what looked like pasta salad straight into the Sculptor's face. She dodged his grasping fingers and vaulted cleanly over the table, snatching several objects off the table as she sprinted away from the Sculptor. The supervillain was clawing at the potato salad that was coating his face and keeping him from using his powers. Adrian craned his neck to look at what Marinette picked up- several lemons, a knife, and...a pie? Her selection seemed as random as Ladybug's sometimes were.
"What is she doing?" Nino hissed. "The Sculptor's only going to be incapacitated for a little while, this is hardly the time to cook!"
Marinette didn't waste any time in chopping open the lemons and squeezing them over the pie. Her eyes flicked back and forth between her task and the Sculptor, still wiping potato salad out of his eyes. As soon as he cleared out almost all of the potato goo, she aimed another pie at his face, hitting him dead-on with gooey cherry filling and buying herself more time.
"Look at that aim!" Nino gasped into his phone, still filming eagerly, earlier comments forgotten. "Where did she learn how to do that? Could we be looking at the famous Ladybug out of costume?"
Adrian's heart skipped and nearly stopped. He'd sort of started suspecting of the sort when Marinette had run past earlier, but...Marinette? She was braver than he originally thought, even when she helped him at Chat Noir.
Marinette finished squeezing out the lemons and vaulted back over the table, grabbing her pie as the Sculptor straightened up, wiping the last of the previous pie out of his eyes. He looked up, just as Marinette smashed the citrus-laden treat right into his eyes.
Her plans became obvious immediately, as the Sculptor doubled over with a howl, clawing at his eyes. Marinette kicked out his knees while he was distracted and he went down immediately, feet finding no traction on the food-covered cobblestones. She lept onto his upper back, pinning him as she used two cloth napkins to tie the pie plate to his face. Another handful of the plaid cloths left him hog-tied on the ground.
"Oh, this is so cool," Nino whispered excitedly. "Ladybug out of costume, it just has to be!"
Adrian nodded, dumbstruck and gaping as Marinette rolled the sculptor over with a grunt, eyes scanning his body before finding the akuma-tized tool in his front pocket. She didn't even hesitate before grabbing it and tossing it onto the table. Marinette grabbed a frying pan filled with what could only be stir-fry and brought it down with a crash, splintering the wooden handle of the tool and releasing the dark butterfly as the contents of the pan scattered everywhere.
Then she froze.
"She forgot that she's not transformed," Adrien murmured. "Shoot, the akuma is getting away!" That was bad. That was very bad. She would have to transform and follow it before it got away-
The familiar whiz of a yo-yo cut off his thoughts as the akuma was snatched up in a red blur. All three of them turned to watch it vanish onto the roof of a nearby building. Seconds later, the white butterfly fluttered away and Ladybug's trademark sparkly red Cleansing Light swept through the street, twisting around a smiling Marinette and returning all of the scattered food to its proper place. The Sculptor shimmered back into a normal man, blinking up at the sky as he tried to figure out what happened.
Nino and Adrien were frozen.
"Marinette is...not Ladybug?" Nino managed as the last of Ladybug's Cleansing Light vanished from the street. "Wow."
Adrien could only nod in agreement. He had been totally convinced that Marinette was Ladybug- her hair was right, her eyes were right, the way she moved in a fight was right- and the discovery that she wasn't Ladybug was a shock.
As Marinette gathered up her things from where she had dropped them, Nino burst out from behind the flower stall they had been hiding behind. "Marinette! That was so awesome! Adrien and I totally thought you were Ladybug for a minute there before she trapped the akuma! Where on earth did you learn to fight like that?"
Marinette jolted in surprise as Nino rushed up to her, Adrien trailing behind. Her eyes went comically wide before her face settled into a more normal expression. "I- I don't know? I mean, I've watched all of the videos Alya posted on the Ladyblog, so I guess the adrenaline took over and I just kind of started imitating how Ladybug fights." She giggled nervously. "It was really just a giant blur after the first few apples."
"You could practically replace Chat Noir as Ladybug's partner, Marinette," Adrien joked. "I think you'd get along well with Ladybug."
Marinette ducked her head with a shy smile and laughed. "I'd get grey hairs prematurely if I had to do stuff like that all of the time! I think I'll leave the fighting to the heroes." She glanced at her watch as Nino opened his mouth to ask another question. "Oh! I told my parents that I'd help them in the bakery today and I'm going to be late. See you at school!" With that, she took off down the road.
She was being humble, Adrien could tell. Her fighting skills were absolutely fantastic, even if they were just adrenaline-produced. She never seemed to lose her head in a crisis, even when she was with him as Chat Noir and they got trapped in a box.
If there were any more kwami out there looking for a human partner, he was totally going to nominate her. She and Ladybug would probably get along like two peas in a pod.
Marinette raced up the fire escape on the back of the building Ladybug's yo-yo had come from. She hadn't seen Tikki on the table where she left the kwami- though there were certainly a lot of cookie crumbs- so she assumed that her kwami was probably responsible for the yo-yo and Cleansing Light.
How? I thought they needed a human partner to do that!
Tikki was waiting for her on top of the building, grinning as Marinette stumbled onto the roof. "That was amazing, Marinette! I got worried there for a minute!"
"How did you even manage that, Tikki?" Marinette questioned, scooping up her kwami. "I thought you needed me to purify the akuma!"
Tikki giggled. "You fought like you were transformed, and forgot that you weren't! Ladybug's essence was really, really strong, and so I could use Ladybug's powers even though we weren't together. That hasn't happened in centuries, Marinette!"
Marinette couldn't even find her words. It hadn't happened in centuries? Wow.
"I got trapped in a mountain of cookies when one of the apples toppled a plate, and so I was eating my way through and it took forever!" The kwami let out a sigh. "The cookies were tasty, though," she added with a giggle. "And then you were already fighting the Sculptor and couldn't really get away, and then I saw those boys watching, so I decided to come up here to help, because I could tell Ladybug's essence was strong enough!"
"I hadn't even noticed them," Marinette admitted. "That would have been bad."
"Really bad, since the dark one was filming the entire thing," Tikki pointed out.
Marinette groaned. "Nino was filming? Oh, no- and he'll have sent it to Alya to post, I just know it!" There went her secret identity.
Tikki bopped her on the shoulder. "No, Marinette, it's a good thing! You were seen in the same frame as Ladybug- well, as Ladybug's yo-yo," she giggled. "It's evidence that you aren't Ladybug, even though you are."
"Oh, yeah, that's right!" She couldn't believe that she had forgotten that. Nino had even said it himself, that they had suspected her until they saw the yo-yo. "So I should be telling Alya that it's okay to post on the Ladyblog, then."
"Yes, of course! But shouldn't you transform and get back home? Alya will go looking for you there first and Ladybug needs to get off the roof."
"Of course! Tikki, transform me!"
Everyone was fawning over Marinette the next day at school, chattering about her fighting and 'how cool is it that you got to help Ladybug like that! I wish I had the guts to do that!'as the designer blushed and sunk down in her seat. Adrien couldn't totally understand why she had even agreed to let the video be posted when she was clearly uncomfortable with the attention, but Alya had probably begged a lot.
It was a cool video, after all.
Something was bugging him about it though, even several days later. He watched the video again, focusing on the little details in the way Marinette fought. It really was uncanny how many of Ladybug's mannerisms Marinette had picked up, from the unusual approach to the using things as a springboard and vaulting over the table like it was nothing to the way she scanned her surroundings-
That was it. It was the way Marinette scanned her surroundings that was so very Ladybug, not one smooth scan but stopping and fixating on several objects before using them in a fairly simple yet unexpected way. It was weird, because Adrien was certain that Alya had never recorded Ladybug doing that. But Marinette clearly wasn't Ladybug, because Ladybug was on top of the building when Marinette was on the ground, and Ladybug had left the top of the building and swung right over their street after Marinette went home.
"I don't understand," Adrien murmured, watching it again. "It can't just be coincidence that they both do that..."
Plagg, tired of watching the video for what had to be the fifty-seventh time, snickered quietly. He wasn't about to let Adrien know that it was in fact possible for Ladybug's kwami to transform herself into the yo-yo and do the Cleansing Light by herself in certain conditions- and, if he was right (and he definitely was), those conditions had been met by Tikki's most recent holder.
"Maybe they know each other in real life?" Adrien mused, sitting back in his chair. "Maybe they've worked together before- that's it!" Plagg jumped as his charge sat bolt upright as though he had been shocked. "Marinette vanishes during class sometimes; Ladybug must text her for help or something, and then she goes out hand helps her fight!" It certainly made sense; after all, there were times when he got out of class and rushed over to help Ladybug but she was already done or was finishing up. Marinette probably had to work hard to stay out of the public eye, since repeated involvement in fights would surely catch Hawk Moth's attention and then he would target her. Adrien frowned at the thought.
Surely Ladybug would have thought of that? He'd have to ask her. Maybe Marinette just did behind-the-scenes manipulation to slow the villain down. That would be safer.
He brought it up that night during patrol, after apologizing for not being able to help ("I got stuck with my friend and he wouldn't let me out of his sight." "You have friends?" "Me-owch") and handing over a gift of chocolates.
Ladybug blinked. "Um. Yeah, she's helped me on a couple occasions after she was so helpful with the Evillustrator and I gave her a couple hints so she could work well with you if things didn't go smoothly- y'know, using words and surroundings as weapons and looking for solutions that aren't obvious at first. I think she's learned well, don't you agree?" Ladybug added teasingly.
"But isn't it dangerous to have a civilian helping you?" Chat Noir pushed. Marinette was kind enough that she might not think of the consequences of sticking herself in a villain's path. "She doesn't have a mask to hide behind!"
Ladybug blinked at him. "I... don't have her fight. Normally she just tries to distract the akuma so I can sneak up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Now, don't we have a city to patrol?"
After patrol was over, Adrien lay in bed thinking about all of the clues. Suddenly, things were making a lot of sense- Marinette must have run into Ladybug after she used a Lucky Charm when she raced past the first time, probably getting food for her kwami. Maybe Ladybug had even entrusted her kwami to Marinette while she herself kept an eye on the destruction going on and tried to figure out a way to win. The kwami probably had returned to his Lady when Marinette was fighting the villain and wouldn't notice- of course! That was why Marinette had come back, why she had fought as hard as she could instead of trying to run. She was buying time for the little kwami to get back to Ladybug, at great risk to herself.
Wow. His classmate was braver and more selfless than he had ever thought. He wondered how his lady had met her- clearly Marinette must know Ladybug's secret identity. Were they relatives, maybe? They certainly had a similar appearance. Ladybug's connection to Marinette certainly explained why she always got to the scene so quickly when attacks happened at school, and why she knew the names of all of their classmates, and- oh! The book she dropped right before the Pharaoh attack must have been Marinette's book that she was carrying for some reason- maybe his classmate had lost it and Ladybug had picked it up to return to her, but then got tied up by an attack. It all made sense now.
As his boy drifted off to sleep, Plagg could only shake his head. Humans are so ridiculous, really.