A/N: I wrote this as a one-shot - and then it ended up being 15k words so I've broken it into three chapters for easier reading. I'll post one each day.


"You know what?" Marinette said, staring down her friend. "I'm done."

"You so aren't. You're still head over heels with him."

"Not that. I'm done with you constantly trying to set us up. Don't you get it?" she pleaded with her friend. "It's not something you can make happen, and if you did, I'd blame you for ever."

"But you're perfect together, and you both just have to realise it", Alya grinned.

"See that? That's exactly what I mean", Marinette said. "You just can't leave us alone. I can't even be friends with him because you're all over us." She sighed. "It's been four years. Four years I've known him. And I still can't be friends with him." She glared at Alya. "Because of you".

"Hey, I'm not the one who can't get a word out around him".

"Well, I'd have learnt how to by now if I was ever allowed to just talk to him without being pushed at him or it being part of a plot." Marinette shook her head, fully exasperated. "Look, I don't want to fight you on this any more. I've given up."

"Great", Alya smiled. "So you're coming to dinner with us then."

"No, I'm not." Marinette smiled back, but it felt forced. Forced through a wall of anger she hadn't felt since Hawkmoth was defeated. "I've got a prior engagement."

She turned and walked away, leaving her best friend standing there. After a minute, Alya shrugged. Marinette would be at dinner. She always was if Adrien was coming.

But that night she didn't show.


Two years later...

Marinette raised her stylus to the tablet, then put it down again. She knew the design was perfectly fine, and changing it at this point would only make it worse. She also knew she was just trying to avoid thinking about things.

One thing in particular. Or maybe two.

The train rattled on. She swiped up a blank page on her tablet and began scrawling randomly. She hadn't seen any of her friends. Supposed-friends. For two years. That day with Alya, she hadn't been kidding. She had an interview in Berlin for a design school, and she had the train pass in her pocket. But instead of getting to tell her friend the big news, Alya had been all Adrien-this and Adrien-that. Marinette hadn't been thirteen for a while even then. It had just been easier to walk away. Shut her old phone off, drop it in a bin as she boarded the train. Her parents had her new number, and had agreed not to give it out to anyone. They'd asked her if she was sure, because friends were what got you through the tough times. She'd shrugged and said they'd stopped being friends a while back, and she just hadn't noticed right away. Plus she had all her friends' numbers on the new phone if she changed her mind.

It had been a lie, but also a half truth. She looked down at the tablet and wasn't surprised to see she'd scrawled a pair of cat ears. There was one tiny red friend – and one magic phone – that had gone with her. And it had Chat Noir's number in it. He was the one person from Paris she'd stayed in touch with while out of the country. After defeating Hawkmoth he'd asked her, politely and with none of his usual smirk, if they could hold off on the identity reveal. It was unexpected, but she agreed. He'd waited long enough for her condition to be met (though she'd never thought it would take so long to defeat Hawkmoth – thirteen year olds were so optimistic!). She could wait for whatever it was he needed. And they'd called each other at least once every week since. Just friends. But friends who knew something nobody else in Paris did. What it was like to run over the rooftops, what it meant to have fought for years, sometimes on little sleep, all the while pretending that you must have just forgotten to do that homework or assignment. What it was like to win, after so long.

Who it was they'd won against.

The police and courts had kept Hawkmoth's identity suppressed. The final battle had been big, extravagant, dramatic. Everything everyone had come to expect, topped with a literally earth-shattering showdown. But the very last moments of it, the three of them trapped in an iron box that was rapidly shrinking, Cataclysm already used up, Lucky Charm spent, bare minutes from detransforming, nothing left except one desperate chance. Those moments still terrified her in her nightmares. If Hawkmoth hadn't been distracted by something she couldn't see in the dark, for just that one moment... She forced her mind away. It had happened, it was done with. She and Chat reassured each other of that every week. Those last moments in the box had been out of view of every camera. Nobody saw who Hawkmoth was. Except her and Chat, and the waiting police. Gabriel Agreste had quietly retired, as far as anyone else knew, and only she, Chat, Adrien and Nathalie knew that his "retirement villa" was maximum security.

After that, it had been even harder to try and talk to Adrien. She knew what weighed him down, but as Marinette she couldn't say anything. Sometimes literally, though she'd mostly gotten over the stammer by then. She'd look at him, and her throat would seize up with all the things she couldn't say, couldn't let slip out. As far as she knew, he'd never told anyone about his father. Though, maybe in the two years she'd been gone, he'd broken his silence and at least told a friend. She hoped. It was a big thing to carry on your own.

She would know.

She looked back at the sketch on her tablet, and added a few lines. A smile stretched out under the ears. Gods, she missed seeing that smile. But in just an hour to go, she'd be back in Paris again.

The thought was not comforting. The thing about leaving is, sometimes you didn't want to come back. But she had a good reason. Chat had asked her, very politely, if she would like to be his guest at Diner en Blanc.

She'd said yes.

Of course, a dinner where everybody wore white meant no black leather. Or red spandex. So they'd talked it over. He still... wanted to remain masked. To her, but also in general – he didn't want to be recognised by his friends and have to explain her. That was OK with her, because she didn't want any civilian former-friends to recognise her either. They could have said the other was a date from an Internet site, of course, but... the masks just made it easier. Anonymity in a cast of white-clad thousands. The odds of someone recognising them were small. She hoped.

Her parents thought she was arriving tomorrow. She didn't want to have to give any explanations about tonight. She tapped her tablet, and smiled again. Friends were a rare thing in her world, now. She'd made a few at her new school, but kept them distant enough to not have to answer any difficult questions. And when someone did inevitably ask something, she simply pretended her German or English or Italian wasn't quite good enough and "misunderstood" the question. It wasn't much of a stretch, she still got the subtleties of Italian and English wrong regularly anyway. Her parents still regularly asked "if there was anyone", but they'd not been bothered by the answers she gave. However, going on an actual date with someone, even a friend? She knew they wouldn't let up about it.

The PA announced arrival in five minutes. She looked up, surprised, and laughed. Apparently she could still lose far, far too much time to worrying about a boy. As she made sure she had her wheelie case and shoulder bag with her, she carefully didn't think about how she'd successfully avoided thinking about the Other Problem in the process.

The Travellers' Lounge at the station was convenient. She paid for entry and a shower, then took her white (of course) wheelie case through. She fed Tikki, who'd slept through the train ride and now offered hair advice. It took her nearly an hour to be happy with her primping and fussing, but it was worth it. And she had the time. She'd agreed to meet Chat on the lawns near the Eiffel Tower at seventeen, to wait for the text that would tell them where Diner en Blanc was to be held. Nobody ever knew until the last minute, that was the fun of it. She smoothed her sundress out. The satin lining was giving a little static as it rubbed against her white stockings. She liked the lace overlay though, with its simple, large white polka dots. Spots without being spotted. The dress also had a cargo-style pocket on one hip. Just big enough for a phone, or a wallet, or a kwami. Tikki flew in and snuggled up into the cotton padding Marinette had put in, then went back to sleep. She smoothed her hair one last time, checked her eye makeup, and then put on her white mask. A simple outline adhesive mask, bought from an online store that specialised in supplying drag queens and stage performers who needed such things to Stay On. She thanked her luck that she wasn't allergic to any of the common adhesives, because the mask felt like it had been superglued to her face. Then she closed her white case and marched out of the station, pulling it behind her.

She wasn't the only person in white on the street, though there weren't too many. A scattering of people all nodded to each other and her, a shared secret. That was part of what made this fun – knowing that tonight she wasn't the only one keeping a secret, or waiting for one to be revealed. She went to the next taxi in line, and the driver smiled at her. "Where are you waiting tonight, mademoiselle?"

"La tour de Eiffel, sil vous plait".

He nodded, and drove.

There were many people in white waiting. Most were with family or friends, laughing, talking, enjoying the relative warmth of the late afternoon and the still-blue sky. White folding tables and chairs lay in stacks against white hampers. People sat or stood, occasionally checking a phone. Marinette felt completely unnoticed as she walked up the avenue and she enjoyed the feeling. She got to the spot where Chat had said to look for him, and looked around. Sure enough, there was a tall, slender man nearby, waiting on his own by a small stack of goods. Admittedly, tall and slender men weren't in short supply in the park tonight. But no other was wearing... well.

White t-shirt, probably from a discount department store, her designer brain noted. Incredibly cheap. White jeans, also probably discount based on how they sagged around the knees. A little too big, too, needing to be held up by a belt. Which had a very badly sewn white tail attached. The T-shirt had some bits of white fabric attached, also sewn more haphazardly than anything she'd seen since college, that gave a vague impression of Chat Noir's uniform. She looked up into green eyes, not quite as green as she was familiar with, but close enough, and across the plain mask around them to a pair of white cat ears on... white hair. She smiled. His eyes crinkled. "Have I spotted you?" he said.

She laughed and gestured to her dress. "Perhaps. I was here to catch up with a friend". He touched his ears and laughed back, a sound she'd grown familiar with over the last couple of years. Then he extended his arm. She took it, and he pulled her in for a hug. It felt good.

"You did something with your hair. Should I call you Chat Blanc?", she said, pulling back and looking at his face. A shadow crossed it, and he pulled her close again. Not as a lover, but so that his voice could remain very quiet and still reach her ears. "I really didn't want to be recognised as my civilian self. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all. I really don't want to be recognised as mine either."

He traced her mask with one finger, and smiled. "I'm not sure how much that mask really hides anything."

She sighed. "Nothing on that particular website did."

His phone chimed, and he checked it. "It's the location. Milady, how do you feel about accompanying me to Parc André Citroën?"

"Of course", she laughed, and bumped him carefully, casually, with her hip. "Would Plagg like to ride with Tikki in my pocket?"

"On it", an unfamiliar voice said, and she felt more than saw a flash of black fly from his jeans into her dress pocket.

They joined the people walking through the balmy evening. She carried two chairs as well as pulling her wheelie case; he tucked the table under one arm and carried the hamper with the other. They didn't really talk about it, just flowed back into working together, reading each other's cues. It was nice. Comforting, even.

"Oh dear", he said, looking forward.

"What?"

"The gentleman in front of us. With the waistcoat that is longer than the front of his tails jacket".

She grinned. "Terribly incorrect. But I'm surprised you noticed."

"Well, I do know a tiny bit about fashion", he replied with a wink. She stopped and when he stopped to look back at her, deliberately, slowly, looked him up and down. "Really", was all she said.

"Admire the view all you like, my Lady. But it's true." As they resumed walking, he said quietly "Let's just say that poor clothing choices make it easier for me to not stand out in a crowd." She nodded at that, but had to ask. "Did you make this outfit yourself?"

"Yes!" he smirked at her. Then the smirk softened. "There's nobody in my house who knows their way around a sewing machine. I had to dig my mother's old one out of storage. Luckily there was a manual for it online. I think I did all right." He preened a little, making her laugh, then executed an almost perfect runway twirl in the terrible, terrible shirt that had her laughing right out loud. They walked a little farther before he quietly said "Your dress is really beautiful. It captures you perfectly. And it's right on point with the current styles".

She was oddly pleased. "It should be, I made it. Though I hadn't expected you to notice." She smiled at him fondly.

"You made it? So... is that what you've been studying all this time so far away, mystery lady?" His speech was flirtatious, but his eyes cautious.

"Yes, actually. Though I won't say any more if you don't want me to."

"Hmmm." He didn't reply any further. The swing of the picnic hamper got larger, and higher.

"Chat, careful, yeah?" When he glanced at her surprised, she flicked a glance at the hamper. He slowed the swing, abashed. "Sorry. I shouldn't shake up the contents."

"It's OK", she reassured him. "I know some things are still... difficult to talk about." She looked over at him and asked "Is there anyone else you've been talking to?"

He sighed. "Not really. I.. there was someone I thought about talking with." Suddenly he grinned. "You might know him. I'm pretty sure he's Carapace." His eyes danced with laughter at her expression. "There was something he let slip once that clued me in, and then once I thought about it it seemed pretty likely. The dude has a pretty distinctive attitude, after all."

"You know him in real life?" The question slipped out before she could stop it. "Never mind, don't answer that unless you want to."

"It's OK. He's not someone I see often. I did think that he might... well, some nights are just..." His voice trailed off. She stopped wheeling her case and took his hand.

"Full of dark dreams", she finished. He nodded. "Yeah", she said. "So did you talk to him?"

"I couldn't bring myself to find out if I was right. And then... I didn't want to reveal myself if I was wrong."

"I understand". And she did. She took the case back in hand, they turned the last corner, and there it was. Parc André Citroën. "How do you want to do this from here?" she asked.

"Would you mind if we headed for, um, an edge? I don't relax in crowds as well as I used to."

"Suits me."

He laughed at the pun, knowing it was there to reassure him. "Also, maybe we could look around before we unfold the table, just make sure there's no-one we obviously know too close to us."

"Definitely", she nodded.

They found their way to a place about two table spaces in from the edge of the crowd. Nowhere special, nowhere that anyone would look at twice. No-one they knew nearby, either, though for a heart-stopping moment she thought she'd seen Alya's familiar outline a few tables away. But the woman turned, and it was someone else.

Marinette was not going to think about Alya now.

She laughed at Chat's antics setting up the table, and finally gave him a hand. Then the first chair collapsed under him as he sat down, tangling itself in the second chair leaning still folded. He bounced back up, whipping his tail indignantly with one hand. Marinette apologised, but he stopped her. "It's all in fun. That's what I love about Diner en Blanc." He gestured around. "All these people, dressed in white to hide their differences, rich next to poor, everyone sharing the same beautiful evening." The joy in his eyes was louder than she'd seen for a long time, years even. "And I'm sharing it tonight with you!" There, the flirty cat was back. She welcomed it, knowing it was just a disguise to hide how deeply he felt right now about the world.

They'd learned that about each other, in their long-distance conversations these last two years. So much of everything they'd known about each other was just more mask.

She felt it explained how they'd never accidentally worked out the other's secret identity, even after years of working so closely together. Well, that and the fact that they'd never seemed to have any part of their civilian lives in common.

Together they got the chairs untangled. He pulled a chair out for her and gestured to take a seat. Then with the flourish she expected, out of the hamper came a white linen tablecloth, two white china plates and a pair of white linen napkins. She took those and began folding them. Her first fan came out looking a little too like a peacock's tail, and she quickly undid it and began folding a fleur-de-lis instead. Tonight was about new memories, not old. Gods knew they both needed them. Chat smiled as she passed him his. "Neat fingers", he said, producing a white napkin ring and pulling the tail of the fleur-de-lis through it, then showing her.

The napkin ring had little cat faces on it. She mock-glared at him. "That's probably an insult to elegance right there".

"Hey, cats are by far the most elegant of all creatures". He brushed his ears and winked at her. Then he began pulling food out of the hamper. "A first course, to nibble upon while the night settles in".

Two hours later, they were still smiling. Dusk had come, and darkness was just following it. The sky was that perfect dark blue that lets the first stars shine through if you are anywhere far enough from the city lights that they can be seen. The food had been very, very good – if in slight disarray from enthusiastic swinging. She didn't know where Chat had got it from, and while he wouldn't name an outlet, he did say that he didn't make it himself. A noticeable amount of it had disappeared into Marinette's pocket during the night, a curious habit that her dining partner politely made no reference to. They'd been careful about all their references, of course – dining in such close-packed quarters with strangers, they couldn't let anything slip. But it had been good to just be with each other, in person. And in the spirit of the night they'd enjoyed casual moments of conversation with the people on tables immediately by them. Marinette had forgotten how nice it was to speak just a few words in her own language and have strangers know what she meant. They were both relaxing. She could almost see Chat Noir's spine uncurling, unkinking like a cat's.

Which was what made it all the harsher when she heard Alya's voice just as she leaned down to the hamper by their feet to see if there were any more cheese gougeres.

Instinctively she stayed down, pretending to keep looking in the basket, and a gentle pressure on her shoulder said that Chat was telling her to stay down as well.

"I tell you, Nino, this has been amazing. I'm glad we came." Alya's voice was clear enough that they must be walking along the edge of the diners. Marinette was glad she'd suggested not being right at the very edge. "The only thing that would have made it better is if that rumour about Chat Noir and Ladybug attending was true."

"Unlikely," she heard Nino snort. "Even if Ladybug was back in town, there must be more than fifteen thousand people here. What are the odds we'd see them even if they were?" His voice faded away as he spoke, and she assumed the two had passed them by. She waited another ten seconds or so, and then the pressure on her shoulder eased and she sat back up.

"I'm a little less interested in who gets the last cheese gougère now", Chat said, dabbing his face with the napkin he'd been hiding behind.

"Me too, Chaton", she said. The good feeling of the evening had fled, and she knew it was just her but hearing Alya again had simply dampened everything. She attempted to put on a smiling face again. "I told you I'd bring some dessert. Care to take a guess?"

"Is it something we can take with us?" Chat was edgy now, too. If his white tail had been real, its tip would have been flicking. As it was, there was a slight tremor in his fingers as they laced around hers.

"It's miniature kouign amman, and yes. We can take it with us." She squeezed his fingers and patted her shoulder bag. "Shall we pack up slowly so as to enjoy the breeze?" She knew her partner of old would recognise the cue to stall, to let the enemy get far enough ahead to not realise Ladybug and Chat Noir were behind them.

So now she subconsciously thought of Alya as "the enemy". Well, that wasn't exactly unexpected when you got down to it.

They packed up as unobtrusively as they could, taking care to remove all trace of themselves. Around them, other diners were beginning to do the same. They timed their movements, even their teasing farewells to the people they'd spoken to over dinner, so that nothing about them stood out. Then they picked up their gear, and quietly walked away.

"So, you and the Ladyblogger", Chat said finally when there were fewer people close by.

"Me what?" she replied, concentrating on getting the wheelie case's wheel off the rut it had run down.

"I saw you flinch when she was near. I know I didn't want her to see us, which is why I tapped you to let you know. But when you sat back up, you'd lost most of the..." His hand waved vaguely. "The expression in your face".

"Hm", she replied, more a sound than an actual word. Chat left it at that, as she'd done for him earlier. But a few minutes later, he added "She must be able to keep a secret though. If she really is dating Carapace, that is."

Marinette looked at Chat, who held her eyes. "Yes, OK", he said, "I want you to tell me if I was right".

"It's Carapace's choice, not mine" she replied.

"That's confirmation enough", he grinned. "All you'd have had to say was "It's not him", but I know you can't do that if it's not true".

She grimaced. "You've got to know me too well".

"Really?" He almost sounded sad, and she looked straight back at him. There was vulnerability there.

"No", she smiled, "never too well." She put all the reassurance she could into it. Right now that wasn't as much as it could be, thanks to the new chill inside her. But she knew he knew that, and bumped him with her hip as she walked to emphasise it. "Hey!" that unfamiliar voice complained. "Watch out a little!". She and Chat both laughed.

"So, my Lady. Which remarkable and gracious abode am I escorting you and your luggage to?" The comment was flippant, but it caught Marinette off guard.

With all the detailed planning, she'd forgotten something. She needed some place to stay tonight.

The look on her face must have told Chat the story, because he laughed. "Are you telling me that my Lady's clever and complex plan left out something that obvious?"

She looked at the ground. "...yes".

He laughed some more, then hip-bumped her. "Hey, I know. I'm sure Queen Bee would put you up." Then he put up his hands in mock-shielding against the daggers of her eyes. "What? She's gotten better over the years."

Plagg stuck his head out of her pocket just enough to look up at her and say "No, she hasn't". Then Tikki dragged him down again.

"Seriously, though, if you need a place to crash I know she'll have it sorted in under thirty seconds. She's good like that."

"How much of that thirty seconds will I have to spend listening to her gloat about how I couldn't have done anything without her?"

From the pocket, Plagg called out "Twenty nine", before being hushed.

"I like your kwami", she giggled.

"So", he began to tick off on his fingers. "Not Queen Bee. Not Carapace, because he's working at a club tonight like he does most nights, but also because you don't want to see the Ladyblogger."

Marinette liked that he listened to what she said and ran with it without trying to argue her down. She really didn't want to have to explain it, and probably couldn't without giving away who she was. And if Chat Noir had talked to Carapace enough to realise who he was, which probably wasn't that hard but still, he probably had met other of the Ladyblogger's friends along the way. Including, maybe, one who was no longer a friend.

Maybe never had been.

She sighed. "Chat, I... I just got tired of being one of her projects."

He put a hand on her shoulder. "I... shouldn't say this, but I understand."

She shot him a look from under her eyelashes. Interesting. So he had known her personally. Chat Noir had been part of Alya's reporter focus, but that was part of Ladybug and Chat Noir's life together, nothing secret. To phrase it like that meant it related to his civilian identity as well. And that was news.

He went back to ticking off his fingers. "Family?"

She shook her head. "I didn't want them to ask who I was going on a date with, so I told them I was arriving tomorrow." He laughed.

"Well, my lady. That leaves two options. We ring around some non-Chloe-approved budget hotels and get you booked in, or, and this is not compulsory or trying to push you in any way, you accept the hospitality of the Chat Noir Suite."

"I like sweets!" piped up a high-pitched, chirpy voice from Marinette's pocket.

"Tikki!" she hissed. Chat grinned. "I like your kwami too", he said. "I promise to be a perfect gentleman. But also", and he looked a little sheepish, "I'd enjoy staying up late talking with you. If you'd rather do that in a hotel somewhere where you can send me away when it's time to go to sleep or just when you've had enough, that's fine with me. But I've got plenty of space at my place, and a spare bed, and you'd be more than welcome."

It was the kitten eyes that got her. That, and the promise of staying up talking late. Normally she had assignments, or he did, or both, and they couldn't work on them while talking without giving away anything about themselves. This... was a free night. They could keep talking. She smiled at the thought, and felt something uncurl along her spine again. She pretended to think it over for a moment longer, but her mind was made up.

"I guess I have one question, kitty", she said, then held a deliberately agonising pause. "Do we eat the kouign amman on the way, or when we get to your place?"

He leapt up into the air with a look of glee. "My place! Let's christen it with all the crumbs!"

"What have I gotten myself into?" she muttered with an eye roll. As she'd intended, it just made his glee more vivid.