Ladybug could only wonder at how in the world she had ended up in this situation, standing on the rooftops of Paris surrounded by a strange combination of surveillance equipment and bakery leftovers, and watching Rena Rouge fangirl in front of a cringing Chat Noir with all of the queasy fascination of someone watching a car crash in slow motion- she didn't want to see it, but she couldn't look away.
How she had gotten here... well, that was something that had been several months in the making, and on a path that had taken more than a few unlikely turns. Maybe not all of them had been well thought-out, but she wouldn't have changed them for anything.
And it had all started with her dad. Her dad, his need to feed everyone who was hungry ... and maybe a bit of a lingering fixation on Marinette's 'confession' to Chat Noir.
If you feed a cat, you'll never get them to leave.
As Marinette had found out several months prior, that applied to cat-themed superheroes, too.
After an evening akuma attack that ended in front of the bakery, Mr. Dupain had offered the exhausted superheroes bakery leftovers. Ladybug had accepted a couple cookies- all the better for not having to sneak them for Tikki later- but Chat Noir had been entranced by the options. Eating everything would have made him sick, though- there was a lot of chocolate and sugar and butter, even for a teenaged boy- and so he had dithered, indecisive.
And then Mr. Dupain had suggested that maybe Chat Noir could come around a couple times a week in the evening and sample from the leftover bakery wares and perhaps even hang out with the family. Ladybug had thought that her partner would gently turn down that second part- after all, every minute they spent in their superhero forms meant another minute taken away from their civilian lives, another minute where they could be found missing, another minute of unexplained absence.
But Chat Noir seemed delighted by the invitation. Twice a week, he showed up and hung out for pastries and Mecha Strike or a movie. That inched up to three times a week after a month and a half, and Marinette started doing her homework with him, too. She had to be careful not to slip up- after all, he was her partner and so she knew more about him than a normal civilian would- but once she got used to it (and once she made sure that the Miracle Box was very thoroughly hidden), everything went smoothly.
Three akuma attacks in oddly close succession that ended up affecting the bakery put both Marinette and Tikki- and the rest of the kwamis under her guard- on high alert. The next time that Chat Noir came over, he seemed twitchy, too, and confessed after ten minutes that he was getting concerned that somehow, Hawkmoth had heard about him coming to the bakery. Maybe it was just a coincidence, of course- after all, the bakery was located in the area of Paris that got hit with the most attacks- but it was just putting them all on edge.
So one evening, they set aside their video games and sat down as a family to come up with a plan that would let the superheroes find Hawkmoth and end the threat for once and for all.
It was simple, really, and in all honesty, the police force should have come up with it ages ago. All they needed was a grid of cameras set up across the city, allowing them to track where the akumas were coming from. Then they could figure out where the lair was, figure out who Hawkmoth was, and finish everything for once and for all. It would be a lot of work, though, and not something that the two main superheroes could feasibly pull off on their own, at least not without sacrificing a lot of sleep.
So they had tapped Carapace and Rena Rouge to help them, since the two of them had the most experience out of their array of superheroes. They were setting themselves up to a long night even with the two extra members of their team, but with every extra person they added to the mission, the possibility of someone talking and Hawkmoth finding out about it and adjusting his strategy rose.
...in retrospect, perhaps it hadn't been the smartest move to tap Rena Rouge if the goal was the information not leaking at all, but they couldn't call in Carapace and not Rena, since Nino would no doubt mention the outing to Alya and she might be sore about not being included. Hopefully Alya could appreciate the importance of the information not getting out at all until Hawkmoth was defeated.
In all honesty, Ladybug admitted to herself as she glanced around at her assembled team and the bags and bags of cameras they had to set up, she probably shouldn't be using her old backup teammates at all. After all, Hawkmoth knew their identities now, and even if this wasn't a battle- even if they were doing their best to not be spotted- having them out and about could result in their families getting targeted. It was fully possible that Hawkmoth hadn't immediately and completely exploited his knowledge of Chloe's identity to go after her family just because they were so famous and well-connected. Alya and Nino's families didn't have that protection.
But Ladybug and Chat Noir had needed more helpers, and she didn't want to put new people on patrol on their own. So they had to stick with their identity-compromised team for now, and just hope against hope that Hawkmoth wouldn't spot them and wouldn't attack Nino and Alya's families.
"Okay, so I made a grid of the part of the city Chat Noir and I decided should be covered," Ladybug told the others, handing out both set-up instructions for the cameras and the maps she had made. It had taken a bit of work to find and download a maps program that she liked and then figure out how it worked to get the grid placed over it, but it had been worth it. "This covers Hawkmoth's usual akumatization range, and shows which direction I thought the cameras should point. This will be the initial set-up, and then once we get a couple weeks of footage, that should be enough to shrink the grid down a bit and hone in on Hawkmoth's lair."
Rena Rouge accepted the paper and glanced over it with a groan. "This is so spread out! We're going to be going all night, and I'm gonna be exhausted. And I have my sisters to babysit tomorrow, too," she added to Carapace with another small groan. "They'll run me over, I know. But I'm happy to help!" she added quickly. "It's just going to be a long night."
Carapace nodded. "Yeah. Getting all of the cameras set up, and making sure that they all work- that's, like, what? Ten, twenty minutes per camera, probably, if you count in travel time between spots, which- well, I'm no math whiz, but with all of the cameras we have..."
"I would have spread things out over a couple nights, but I thought it would be best if we could get this off of the ground right away," Ladybug told them, glancing towards her partner. Her partner, who was digging behind the chimney for something. Ladybug continued regardless. They didn't exactly have much time to waste. "We'll split up in teams and work our way around the city. Hopefully after the first couple cameras, we'll have things down to a science."
Chat Noir nodded, popping out from behind the chimney with a bag in hand. "Yeah! And to help the night go faster, I brought pastries!"
…for some reason, Ladybug was starting to feel the faintest tendril of dread curling in her gut.
"Oh, sweet!" Carapace was up at once, a grin on his face. "Butter and sugar, the best late-night companions! I can buy next time. I know pastries can get expensive really fast."
"Oh, it's no problem," Chat Noir assured him with a grin. "I got these for free, actually, because I have this, uh, friend, and I told her dad that we were doing a stakeout all night, and so he gave me the leftovers from their shop." His smile turned smaller, entirely fond. "She- they're fantastic, really."
In the split second of silence that followed, Ladybug's brain picked up on Chat Noir's wording, that smile, pieced together exactly what conclusion Rena Rouge would draw from that, and strongly considered turning around and banging her head against the nearby chimney because really, what had she done to deserve this?
"She's actually your girlfriend, isn't she?" Rena Rouge demanded, a wide grin spreading across her face. She pointed at Chat Noir. "I can tell from your expression! She totally is!"
"No!" Chat Noir protested, but Ladybug could see the red seeping out from under his mask even in the dim moonlight and she muffled a sigh. Alya wasn't going to let this go, she just knew it. Her friend had convinced herself that the pastries were from Chat Noir's secret girlfriend, based on the world's flimsiest evidence, and now that he had blushed, she wasn't going to be convinced otherwise. "No, we're- we're just friends!"
"Denial!" Rena Rouge sang, trying to snatch the bag out of his fingers. "How very classic. Just 'fess up, you've got a girlfriend and you're trying to hide it!"
"I don't- I don't even understand how you even came to that conclusion!" Chat Noir protested, holding the bag up higher reflexively. "No, she's just a friend that I made in the mask, and we realized that it would be dangerous for me to keep visiting with Hawkmoth still at large after her house got targeted a few times. That's all!"
"You know, you're protesting waaaay too much," Rena Rouge said smugly, leaning right up into Chat Noir's space. "And don't think that I didn't notice that blush, Mr. Just-Friends, and- got it!"
Chat Noir yelped, scrabbling after Rena Rouge as she danced away with the bag. "No, wait-"
"It's from the Tom and Sabine bakery- wait!" Rena stopped dead in her tracks, jabbing a finger into the air. "That means- that means that Chat Noir's mystery girlfriend is Marinette! Oh, that girl has been holding out on me! She didn't tell me a thing! Oh my god I cannot believe this I've been trying to set her up with Adrien for forever and she's been dating you and- I can't believe that she didn't say anything! I'm going to end her-"
Ladybug wondered if it would be possible for her to move to, say, Antarctica. She was going to kill Alya. Could she not have spilled that particular secret to Chat Noir? Sure, maybe Marinette wasn't exactly the most subtle person in the world about her crush, but she had taken down most of her Adrien-focused posters after he had seemed to be more interested in Kagami, so it was possible that he hadn't figured it out on his own.
Also, it was so not cool that Alya was telling someone else about Marinette's crush when she had promised not to.
Next to her, Chat Noir had blanched, wincing as Rena Rouge ranted on. He knew as well as she did who was behind Rena Rouge's mask now, after Chloe's little expedition to the dark side, so he knew exactly what his little flub had gotten Marinette into.
Well. Time for some damage control, it seemed.
"And how are you going to explain knowing about anything in the first place in order to interrogate her?" Ladybug asked Rena Rouge, crossing her arms as she leaned back against the nearby chimney. "Because as I see it, there's no way to explain that away. If there's anything going on in the first place, which Chat Noir has already said there's not."
"Well, maybe her parents-" Rena Rouge started, ignoring the last bit of Ladybug's comment, but Carapace shook his head.
"Her parents would never tell anyone if she asked them not to, you know that," Carapace told her. "Admit it, there's no way to ask her about it unless you want her to figure out that you're Rena, because I just know that this dude is going to tell her that he told us." He jutted a finger at Chat Noir, who was still spluttering.
"Well now he will, because you said that!"
"I'm still not dating her!" Chat Noir insisted, properly red now. "I'm not, she is seriously just a friend-"
Rena Rouge just wagged a finger at him. "Deny all you want, but I saw the clues there and you can't fool me! I'm a reporter, remember? I catch clues that other people don't, even if you're trying to hide them!"
Ladybug hastily stopped herself from choking on her laughter. Right, Alya was totally super-observant. That was why she hadn't picked up on everything that was wrong with Lila and her stories yet. Or caught on to the fact that her best friend was Ladybug.
"Okay, let's divide up the pastries then, one bag for each pair," Ladybug said loudly over Chat Noir. As much as she really didn't want Alya thinking that she- well, Marinette- was dating Chat Noir, arguing with Alya wasn't going to get them anywhere. It would probably make Alya even more convinced, actually, if Marinette's experience with trying to convince Alya that Lila was a big fat liar was anything to go by. Ignoring her entirely in favor of not reacting to her comments was far more likely to get results. "Rena, hand over the bag, please."
Smirking widely, Rena Rouge did just that. Chat Noir pulled a second bag out from inside of the larger one- apparently he had come prepared, smart kitty- and handed it over, then retreated to Ladybug's side with the larger bag.
"Okay, so I've color-coded which spots each team will take," Ladybug told her teammates, gesturing to the map in her hand. "One person installs, the other keeps watch. I know we want to go fast, but we can't take any risks. No drawing attention to yourself, either- keep hidden, no pictures. We can't have Hawkmoth catch on and adjust his location."
Rena Rouge saluted, cheeky smile in place. "Got it, boss!"
Ladybug sent her a Look. Carapace sighed and stepped in. "Right, we'll be careful. No tricks or showing off, I promise."
"Marinette is absolutely going to kill me," Chat Noir groaned as Rena Rouge and Carapace dashed off with their bag. "Rena's her best friend, and when she thinks she has a scoop she never lets go. Never."
Ladybug winced, nodding. She could just see it now, her best friend leaning over into her space whenever the teachers weren't looking, dropping heavy-handed hints about dates and dating in a not-so-subtle attempt to get Marinette to slip up and admit that she was dating someone, since Alya wouldn't be able to accuse her of keeping her 'relationship' with Chat Noir secret without admitting to how she got the idea in her head in the first place. After that hypothetical slip, Alya would be relentless as she tried to get Marinette to then tell her who the secret boyfriend was, at which point she could then interrogate Marinette about what Chat Noir was like outside of battle, if she knew his secret identity, if Alya could interview him.
Even though Marinette wasn't dating Chat Noir, it was still going to be absolutely infuriating to have to deal with. She would have to do some damage control on her end, too, letting her parents know about Alya's assumption and making sure that her dad knew that he was not, under any circumstances, to make any jokes or say anything that would egg Alya along. How she would explain the whole situation and how she knew about it without giving away any secret identities, she didn't know, but if nothing else her time as a superhero had made her better at coming up with excuses.
Well. Sometimes she was better. Sometimes panic took over her common sense and she ended up blurting the first thing that came to mind, the rest of her brain already focused on something else.
"I don't even understand how she got girlfriend out of that," Chat Noir complained as he scooped up their share of the camera bags so that they could head for their first point. "Like, all I was doing was talking about how I got pastries from a friend's family and how nice it was for them to give us their leftovers, and the next thing I know, Rena's off with her theory."
"It was the way you said 'friend'," Ladybug informed him. "She was reading too far into your hesitation, and then you were smiling at the thought of your friend, and you mentioned the friend was a she."
Chat Noir whined. "But that's nothing, though! Doesn't everyone smile when they think about their friends? Unless they're fighting, I suppose, but the rest of the time?"
Ladybug shrugged the best she could as they swung through the air. "I didn't say that it had to make sense, just that that's how she was thinking."
"I thought that Alya wanted to be an investigative reporter, not a tabloid reporter," Chat Noir grumbled. "That kind of thinking seems more in line with the latter, not the former."
Ladybug hastily hid another grin. A lot of Alya's questions could fit better into tabloid thinking, honestly, and even more of her posts on the Ladyblog. Otherwise, there would be a whole lot fewer speculative posts about Ladybug and Chat Noir as civilians and a lot more posts looking into whatever clues they might have about Hawkmoth's identity. Still, they were still young, and so it was perhaps a little unfair to judge too much. "Don't let her hear you say that. She will end you."
"Oh, I know she will." They landed in tandem, Chat Noir starting to set up their first camera while Ladybug kept watch. The rooftop was quiet, just like she had hoped- their grid had gotten disrupted by the Grand Paris, because the chance of someone seeing them was way too high unless they waited until crazy late- and it wasn't too hard to find a spot to attach the camera, something that would have a good vantage point without being overly easy to spot in case a security guard came up.
Hopefully Rena Rouge and Carapace would take all of that into consideration. It was entirely possible that Rena would be too distracted by her 'scoop' to really give as much thought as usual to what she was doing.
"I did have a thought about the whole picking new holders thing," Chat Noir told her as he set up the camera, his fingers flying, and Ladybug jolted out of her thoughts to give him her full attention. "Hawkmoth knows who our current people are because they transformed into their normal outfits when they were under Miracle Queen's spell. But what if they just mixed up their transformations? It would have to be big changes, because otherwise that could tip them off, and maybe they would have to change hair color or something, too, but…"
"It could work," Ladybug agreed at once, happy with both the change of subject and the suggestion. She really liked that idea, actually. There were only so many people that she knew and thought could be good fighters, and about the last thing that she wanted to do right now was pick out and train in completely new superheroes, especially with Mayura showing up to fights more and more often. "New transformations, new names. We might want to re-introduce the 'new' superheroes gradually, though, or Hawkmoth could get suspicious. After all, it should be hard to find and screen new superheroes that we can trust, so having a bunch of 'new' holders all at once could be really unrealistic."
"Like keep some of the old ones for a bit, then have then 'swap out' for the 'new' ones," Chat Noir filled in. He grinned at her. "Nice thought."
"But definitely no more Chloe," Ladybug finished. Then she made a face. "And no Lila, either. I heard that Alya was talking about how good of a holder Lila might be, and…"
Chat Noir's face screwed up in disgust. "Oh god no."
"We might have to do a team briefing at some point and say no helping Lila at all, because she fakes injuries all the time to get help and take our attention away from the fight," Ladybug offered after a pause. She watched Chat Noir tweak one last wire, then check the camera before giving her a thumbs-up. They gathered up their bags, then made a beeline for the next spot before picking up the conversation right where they left off. "It'll sound bad, probably, but I don't want to risk Lila trying to steal a newbie's Miraculous."
Chat Noir looked startled. "You think she would?- actually, no, don't answer that, she would totally jump at the chance to get magic powers," he corrected himself before Ladybug could say anything. "And I don't want her anywhere near magic powers. She already gets akumatized enough, and the thought of her always having access to superpowers..."
Both of them shuddered.
"Well, with any luck, we'll take Hawkmoth down soon and Lila won't have access to any powers," Ladybug said after another minute. Chat Noir was finishing up with this camera, doing one more test to make sure it was running before they moved again. "Her or any other bully in the city."
Chat Noir grinned. "Yeah. I honestly can't wait."
A week and a half later, Ladybug and Chat Noir got word from the police chief that the cameras had picked up enough butterflies to tighten their camera grid, which meant another late-night stakeout. Once again, Mr. Dupain and Mrs. Cheng insisted on sending bakery leftovers with Chat Noir, and he accepted the bag and went on his way with a wince.
This really wasn't going to do anything to convince Rena Rouge that he wasn't dating Marinette.
"I owe Marinette so many apologies already for this past week," Chat Noir told Ladybug when they met up. Behind her, he could see Rena Rouge and Carapace, plus Ryuko, a new Snake, and Chiron, who had joined them in a battle earlier that week. Clearly Ladybug had realized that there would be more work involved during this patrol, since they first had to gather up all of the cameras in order to be able to set them up in the slightly tighter grid. "Alya's been dropping hints nonstop to try to get her to admit that she's been secretly dating me. And now I have treats again, and she's going to take that as confirmation that I am dating Marinette and her parents are just trying to spoil her boyfriend, because that's just how her parents are."
Ladybug nodded, glancing over her shoulder. "Yeah, honestly? That's the least of your concerns. Alya spotted you running over to Marinette's house one evening with a giant blanket under your arm, so now she thinks that you were staying over."
Chat Noir spluttered, feeling himself turning even redder. How had Alya seen that?! "No! No, no, we were having movie night and I love curling up in a huge pile of blankets, so I brought one of my own and then one as a gift because I like taking naps over there in a huge blanket pile and I just wanted to expand Marinette's collection, I wasn't-"
Ladybug was giggling.
"Stop laughing," Chat Noir whined. "I swear, you're just as bad as Mari is. She'll offer up her blankets and pillows so that I can have a 'cat-nap in the sun', as if I'm an actual cat and not just a cat-themed superhero, and then offer me catnip tea-"
"But do you take the blankets and the naps and the tea?"
Chat Noir sighed. Something told him that Ladybug somehow already knew the answer. "...yes."
"Ah-hah, Chat Noir! Guess what I saw this week?"
Chat Noir cast a save-me look at Ladybug, then threw in some kitten eyes for good measure. His partner was unmoved.
...that was probably for good reason, honestly. He had gotten himself into this whole thing with his stomach- after all, while he tended to go to the Dupain-Cheng bakery mostly for the company now, since they gave him far more attention than his own father, he had started coming over largely because of the promise of leftover bakery treats- and now he had to get himself out.
Rena Rouge was oozing smugness as she sauntered towards him, the rest of the group watching as she did. "I saw someone visiting his girlfriend late in the evening. And that someone was carrying blankets with him- did you have a sleepover?"
"No!" Chat Noir denied at once, because that wasn't what had gone on, not at all, and seriously, how had Alya even seen that? "We were having movie night and I wanted to be comfortable!"
….from the way Rena lit up, that hadn't been the right thing to say.
"Oooh, he admits to having a date night!" Rena Rouge exclaimed, clearly delighted. "That's so cute!"
"No, it was a family movie night that I got invited to join and her parents were there!" Chat Noir protested, but he could already feel the conversation spiraling out of his control. Alya- Rena- was only going to hear what she wanted to hear, that much was obvious.
Also, the chortling kind of gave away the fact that his protests meant nothing to her.
"Oh, I know how that goes," Rena Rouge told him wisely, and Chat Noir only just managed to avoid her familiar elbow to his ribs. "The parents were there to keep things from getting too spicy!"
"No!" Chat Noir insisted, even though it was completely futile. He understood now what Marinette had muttered earlier in the week, about how Alya had a bulldozer personality. She just didn't stop.
"Your blush says otherwise!" Rena Rouge crowed, and Chat Noir cursed his burning cheeks. "Hah, I knew it-"
"He's blushing because you're insinuating that he's getting intimate with someone he's told you he's just friends with," Ladybug cut in with a long-suffering sigh, and Chat Noir almost melted with relief. If Rena had kept talking, he wasn't sure how he would be able to look Marinette in the eye when he went in for his regular visit tomorrow, or even at school on Monday. "And if you keep pestering him about it when he's already told you that there isn't a relationship beyond a friendship there, then maybe I'll tap someone else to help out in your place."
Rena went very, very still at that, and then took one careful step back away from Chat Noir. Behind her, Carapace's eyes were huge, and the other three superheroes had paused in their conversation to look over, too.
….well. Clearly all of them would think twice now about crossing Ladybug.
"Now, let's not waste any more time talking, since I know some people here can't sleep in tomorrow morning and we don't want to stay out forever," Ladybug continued, her flat tone vanishing in an instant and immediately getting replaced by something far more cheery. The difference was jarring, and Chat Noir couldn't blame all of the temporary heroes for taking a wary step back. "I've already given out maps of which teams have to collect which cameras and where you'll put them. A couple cameras will stay in place, but they have to be checked to make sure that they aren't running low on battery or anything."
"And I have pastries," Chat Noir offered, because he really couldn't eat all of them on his own. "I just need to sort them so that we have three bags instead of two, because I didn't know that we would have more people."
"I'll help!" the Snake offered, pushing jet-black hair out of his face. Luka had apparently gone for non-colored hair and a completely different hairstyle with his new transformation, and it was a little unsettling. "Uh, do we need a third bag too, or…?"
With Cobra's help, it took no time at all for them to divvy up the treats, and then Rena Rouge and Carapace were off like a shot. The others lingered, and Ladybug raised an eyebrow at them. "Do you have a question?"
"Yeah, uh- what was that earlier?" Cobra asked, clearly nervous about asking. "If you don't mind us asking."
"Rena Rouge was making a mountain out of a molehill and wouldn't drop the topic," Ladybug told them with a sigh. "If she tries telling you anything about Chat Noir having a girlfriend, it's not true. She just took some stuff out of context and won't listen to anything we say to the contrary."
Ryuko let out a sigh. "I know people like that in my normal life. Exhausting, aren't they?"
"It can be frustrating," Ladybug agreed. "Hopefully she'll learn to be better soon, though, and I think I got her to drop it for now. So let's get going, team! Those cameras won't move themselves!"
As their group scattered, Chat Noir could only hope that Ladybug was right.
a/n: This is part 1 of 2! Part 2 will be coming soon enough.
As always, comments make my day! :)