Marinette woke up screaming, but her parents didn't even bother to come running this time. After two weeks of broken sleep and constant reminders of her failures, Marinette was a wreck. The nightmare memory of Chat Blanc plagued her every night, and the fear of being akumatized herself grew with each passing day.
She checked the clock, thankful that it was at least after 4am this time, and her parents were awake already. She decided to get out of bed and take a shower, hoping that getting ready for the day early might allow her some dozing time before class.
After a long luxurious shower, Marinette walked out of the bathroom right into her waiting mother. She took in the worried look on her mom's face and stifled a sigh. "Oh, good morning, Mom. Everything ok?"
Her mom gave her a strange look that clearly meant "are you kidding me?", but her mom's actual words were gentle. "Marinette, you need to talk about whatever it is that is causing this. It's been weeks now, and it doesn't seem to be getting better."
"I already told you, Mom. I'm not interested in talking about this with a stranger." Marinette hadn't meant to use that disrespectful tone, but there was no way Ladybug could talk to a therapist about Chat Blanc or the potential destruction of the world.
"You have an appointment before school today. I expect you to keep it. Whatever you decide to talk about it up to you, but you will not miss this appointment." Or, her mom could take it out of her hands.
"Ugh! Fine. What time? Can I at least get a little more sleep first?"
"The appointment is at 7:30, feel free to get some more sleep." Sabine reached out a hand to touch her daughter's face. "We will help you get through this if you let us, sweetheart."
Marinette nodded. There wasn't anything she could say that would be true.
(I will be fine, just need time) – not true
(I'm Ladybug, this isn't going away) – definitely not
(I'm terrified that I'm going to cause the end of the world) – nope, waaaay too dramatic
"Ok, I'll go try to talk to the therapist. I'm sorry to worry you, Maman."
Marinette meandered back up the stairs feeling exhausted. She collapsed back on the bed and fell asleep again.
The appointment went mostly how Marinette expected. The therapist had asked about the symptoms first – panic attacks, nausea, lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, vivid nightmares. That was easy to talk about as her parents already knew all of it, and she didn't have to lie.
Then the therapist had simply asked, "What triggered this?"
Marinette opened her mouth and closed it again. There was no point in therapy if she wasn't honest, but there was no point in therapy for LADYBUG because she couldn't be honest. She sighed and shook her head.
"Ok, we can come back to that. Marinette, it seems that you have been through a tragic event that has triggered these nightmares. Your mom had told me that you are a highly creative person, but that you had stopped working on all of your hobbies, even refusing to bake for the last couple of weeks. I want to make a suggestion if you are open to it."
"It can't hurt."
"Hmm, indeed. Marinette, I want you to try an art therapy technique. Next time you either cannot fall asleep or wake up from a nightmare, try drawing aspects from your dream. It can help you come to terms with your anxiety over the event and possibly open your mind to discussing the event with someone you trust."
"Okaaaaay," she said skeptically. She didn't mean to be rude, but it didn't seem likely to help.
"For your other symptoms of anxiety, let me recommend breathing exercises. Let's try one now to get the feel for it." She led Marinette through several rounds of deep breathing. It turned out to be helpful, and Marinette marveled that she could feel an immediate difference. She felt calmer, like normal almost.
She left the office in a weird haze, but her anxiety grew steadily as she walked up to the school. It was time to face them again, almost every ally she had betrayed in the same place. (I lied to them. Mislead them. Exposed them to Hawkmoth. Betrayed the trust they placed in me. Now they are all in danger, and I can't keep them safe.) She took several cleansing breaths, but it didn't help as much without someone directing her breathing.
She put her hand out towards the doorknob but noticed a flash of purple next to her. Instead of going into class, she ran around the corner checking quickly that no one would see her and transformed into Ladybug. She nabbed the butterfly out of the air and cleansed the evil purple. It wasn't a relief to see the white butterfly flutter away like it usually was. She was terrified that another one would come for her.
Ladybug pulled out her bug phone and sent an SOS to Chat Noir. (Someone I trust.) She tried to keep the tone casual, but upon rereading her message, she had to admit that he would be on high alert all day. Though, that was probably for the best. It read: Kitty, I need to meet you after classes today. Can you get free?
The response came immediately: Of course, Bugaboo. When and where?
She suggested a place close to the school and gave herself enough time to get home and talk to her parents before meeting up. She dropped her transformation and walked back towards the classroom feeling a little bit relieved. Even if she couldn't tell Chat exactly what was going on, she could trust him to understand why.
She looked at Alya and Nino, then around at Max and Kim, finally landing on Chloe. Her emotions were swinging wildly from sadness, to anger, then landing on self-contempt. She took several deep breaths again and walked over to the teacher's desk to leave her doctor's note excusing her from being late.
As she moved towards her desk, she locked eyes with Alix in the back of the room. Alix was frowning slightly, but she nodded sympathetically to Marinette. Marinette smiled faintly and sat down. She had been feeling that Alix was almost ready to become Bunnyx, and with the akumas coming after her alter-ego, Marinette knew that time had come.
Ladybug landed on the roof behind Chat Noir. He was humming a familiar tune, "Little Kitty on a roof all alone without his lady." It was so innocent and carefree, but it triggered Ladybug's panic. Her shame encompassed her as her breath became erratic as she fought for control.
Her partner heard her staggered breathing and turned suddenly sensing something was wrong, but as he came closer, Ladybug had to fight the urge to fight him off. She had unconsciously moved into a defensive stance, and Chat Noir noticed putting his hands up in a motion of surrender. "Easy there, LB. It's just me, your lovable stray kitten."
She smiled despite her panic and began the process of calming down again. "Sorry Kitty, I didn't mean anything by it."
Chat cocked his head to the side and considered her. "What's going on, Ladybug?"
No flirtation, no nickname, Ladybug noted. I must look exactly how I feel. "I need to give you an assignment, and I can't explain why. But I desperately need to get some sleep." She gave him a reassuring smile, but he didn't seem convinced.
"What do you need me to do?"
She smiled genuinely then. He was so dependable. "Do you know Marinette Dupan-Cheng?" she asked trying to introduce the subject slowly.
He startled violently at the name. "What about her?" he asked urgently.
She faltered at his tone. "She-she's been going through a hard time. I've been trying to keep tabs on her, but I can't be around her all the time. AND more importantly, I need to get some sleep before I lose my mind."
"Please explain, LB. As must as you can."
"Kitty, I'm scared. I…" how could she say the truth while concealing that it was her alter-ego they were discussing? "She is important to me, and…" She hesitated again, feeling the tears starting up. She let out her breath in a whoosh and tried again, "I can't fight her if she becomes akumatized. I've told Tikki if Marinette is akumatized, she is to take out my earrings and bring them to you."
She had shocked her partner. He was floundering, opening his mouth and closing it over and over like a fish.
"I need you to camp out in front of her bakery tonight and stop any akumas from entering. I know you probably need sleep as much as I do, so let me know if you can't do this. I can make other arrangements."
"Of course, I can. I just don't understand. What's going on with Marinette?"
"That's not for me to say." More like, I CAN'T say, but meh. Playing semantics isn't exactly lying.
He nodded at that. Secrets ruled their lives. He wouldn't share his secrets, and she wouldn't share hers. It was the only way to keep them safe, even if she now knew that feeling of safety was an illusion.
"Kitty, is there someone that you trust? Someone who could fight with you if Marinette…" she trailed off not wanting to think about what an akumatized Ladybug would mean.
"Yes. Can it be one of your chosen allies?"
She nodded. That was what she had expected. "Ryuko?" she asked while opening her yo-yo.
"Uh, no. I was thinking Carapace. We need to protect her." He reached back and scratched his neck. Ladybug knew it was one of his tells. Her partner was upset, and she wasn't sure what to make of that. He hadn't had a lot of interactions with her alter-ego, so he might be reacting to her distress.
She pulled out the Turtle Miraculous. "Chat Noir, this is the miraculous of the turtle. You will keep this miraculous concealed unless it is needed. Only then should you give it to Carapace. This is a good choice; Nino is in her class. He can watch over her at school. When you talk to him, make sure Rena Rouge doesn't know."
"But Alya is her best friend."
Ladybug closed her eyes for a second. Chat Noir saying the real name of her ally was another reminder of how bad she had messed things up. "Yes, but she has been akumatized herself several times, and I don't want her involved in this. It will complicate things further. Be careful what you tell Carapace. He will want to involve Rena Rouge, but it's too risky."
"That doesn't make sense."
Ladybug growled in frustration. "I can't explain it right. I trust Rena Rouge, but she cannot know about this. She is too focused on the Ladyblog, and she is too astute. I don't want to risk her finding out too much about what is going on."
Her frustration was mirrored on her partner's face. "I will follow your plan. No matter what, I will protect Marinette. I don't want to fight her either."
Ladybug raised her eyebrows in surprise at that. "Oh umm…"
"I will do what is necessary, Ladybug. I just don't want it to be necessary. Especially not fighting her as Mister Bug. I'd much rather fight at your side, against almost anyone else."
Ladybug wanted to lean in and hug him, but she had already drawn this line. She wouldn't overstep it. Ever since their impromptu hug in the Seine before fighting Miracle Queen, she had been feeling drawn to her partner. She shook her head to clear those thoughts, but Chat watched her in confusion. You cannot give in to these feelings, she chastised herself. You cannot do that to him again.
"Your face is very expressive," he murmured.
She closed her eyes against the look in his eyes. It was concern, but deeper emotions that she could not explore were hidden underneath. "I have to go." Her eyes shot open, and she was sure her expression carefully masked her feelings again. "I need to get a nap in."
She nodded. She was unused to feeling so exposed while wearing a mask. She surreptitiously ran a hand over her face to ensure it was still in place.
"Don't worry, Milady. I will protect Marinette. Get some sleep, we'll talk again soon."
Her eyes followed every movement as he bounded away. He's not for you, stupid, she thought viciously. You cannot let these feelings grow.
Marinette sat in the dark of her bedroom with her sketchbook out. She was sitting on the floor drawing in the moonlight, not wanting Chat Noir to know she was still awake if he was out there.
Several failed sketches were balled up around her, as she tried to capture the most vivid of the images haunting her.
Ladybug swam down to the base of the Eiffel Tower carefully holding her re-breather over her mouth and nose. It looked like a bomb had exploded leaving dark stains on the ground around the familiar landmark. She gasped as two cataclysmed figures came into view. Her enemy, Hawkmoth, was a sinister statue turning away from the mess he had made like a coward, caught as he was poised to run away. But the other figure! It was her. She studied the anguish on her own face captured as she had tried to reach out to help her partner while he self-destructed.
Ladybug reached out to touch the cataclysmed figure, to touch her own face. She watched in horror as the figure dissolved into dust and gently floated away on the current.
"Cataclysm!" a voice called out on her balcony.
Marinette burst into furious tears. She couldn't even relive memories without risking damning the city she vowed to protect.
She jumped as her skylight opened and a dark figure emerged. "Marinette? Are you ok?"
"Don't come near me!" she croaked out.
"Ok ok. Don't worry, I won't move. Just answer me, are you ok?"
"Chat Noir?" She shook her head violently to clear the image of Chat Blanc chasing her. "I'm sorry. Yes, I'm ok. Um, you can come in. I know you probably need to recharge. I won't look." She flipped over her sketchbook to hide the drawing and turned away from the skylight.
"Oh, umm, ok. Claws in."
She startled as a kwami floated over to hug her cheek. Plagg wiped a tear off her cheek and said, "It's ok, Pigtails. My kitten will protect you."
Marinette smiled at his out-of-character show of emotion. "Do you want a cheese ball? I have some left over from earlier on my desk over there."
Chat Noir, or rather whoever his alter-ego was, scoffed as Plagg raced over to get to the treat. In typical Chat fashion, he said, "Well this is awkward."
Marinette snorted. "Yep, and that makes it better."
Her partner laughed at that, a delicious full-out laugh that made her toes curl. She closed her eyes to fight the temptation to turn around, to finally know him. To cover her confusing emotions, she asked him, "What are you doing here though? You just happened to be on my balcony when I was falling apart?"
He shuffled around nervously behind her. "Umm, someone noticed that you've been struggling and asked me to check up on you tonight." The kwami floated behind her, and she heard a whispered, "Claws out!" A flash of light indicated that her partner was once again transformed. She relaxed and turned around.
"Hi, Chat Noir. It's been a while."
"Marinette, what's wrong? Do you want to talk about it?"
He gave her an out, and she almost took it. But, she suddenly realized that she did want to talk, and there was no one else she could be honest with. Well, mostly honest anyway.
"I don't know how much I can tell you. I saw something that I wish I hadn't, and I have been having nightmares about it. Vague enough?"
"Umm, that's pretty vague, but I think I understand." He sat down next to her on the ground. "What's all this paper?"
He leaned over to pick up one of the discarded sketches, and Marinette panicked. "Don't! You can't look at that!" She lunged to slap the paper ball out of his hand.
"Sorry. I didn't… I mean, I was just curious. I didn't mean to invade your privacy."
"Ugh, sorry. I overreacted, but you shouldn't look at any of these. Ladybug told me not to tell you what I saw. I've been drawing it. The therapist I saw this morning said it would help the images lose potency, but as I focused in on the worst of the images, I uh… lost control of my emotions again." She sighed and ran a hand through her loose hair. "It's not helping yet, but it's the first day trying."
"So, Ladybug talked to you about what's going on? Like she knows and you have someone to talk to about it?"
Marinette shook her head in confusion. She wanted to be honest, but she needed to preserve the illusion of being two people. "I guess, but I don't want to add to her stress, you know? There are plenty of things that she's seen that she can't talk about. She doesn't need to add my baggage to her stack."
Chat slipped an arm around her and pulled her into his side, just holding her. "It'll be ok, Marinette. Plagg's right, I'll protect you."
She reached out and ran her hand down his cheek. She didn't think about the fact she wasn't transformed or that Chat barely knew her. She intensely wanted the love he offered Ladybug now that she knew she couldn't have it. She leaned up and kissed his cheek. It was as close to the line as she would allow herself to get.
"Thank you, Kitty. I appreciate your help tonight."
He gazed down at her affectionately before tucking her head into his shoulder. "Try to sleep, Mari-Mouse. I'll keep a watch out."
"You don't mind staying?" she whispered. She knew she was asking too much of him. He didn't know how close they were, he must consider her to be practically a stranger.
"I'll be here as long as you need me."
"Do you mind… well umm… like getting more comfortable?" Ugh, that's embarrassing, she thought. She tried to clarify, "I haven't slept particularly well in a couple weeks."
He cleared his throat and stumbled through, "Of c-course. Let's settle on your bed."
She got into bed and made room for him. He surprised her by cuddling up with her, pulling her in close. She closed her eyes tightly to hide the tears forming. Her last thought before sleep claimed her was, he's not for you… mmm, but I can pretend for tonight.