Marinette stood shakily at the end of third period. She huffed out a cleansing breath and looked up to see that Adrien was already waiting for her, and she elected to ignore the questioning glances from her other classmates.
"Ready Princess?" Adrien asked as he reached for Marinette's bag.
Chloe scoffed again but quickly moved on when she caught the look on Adrien's face. Marinette smirked at the protective stance, walked forward to touch his shoulder, and whispered for his ears only, "Down Kitty."
She giggled at the surprised delight on Adrien's face, but Alya caught her eye with a puzzled look. Alya asked, "Do you guys want some company?"
As recently as last week, Marinette wouldn't have been able to have a one-on-one meeting with Adrien without backup, but things had changed completely. She didn't want to hurt her feelings, but she only wanted Adrien to be there. "Can we take a rain check? This is going to be stressful, and I don't want too many people around. Keep your fingers crossed for me though!"
Alya continued to watch her even as she left the room. It was unnerving how well Alya could read her.
Marinette blindly followed Adrien as he led her towards the entrance to the school, trusting him to get her home safely while she was completely distracted.
Adrien asked her, "How are you feeling?" and she didn't want to lie to him, so instead of answering she merely shrugged.
"That good, huh?"
When she still didn't reply, Adrien said tensely, "Talk to me, Bug."
Marinette replied shortly, "That sucked."
Adrien chuckled a little and answered in equal brevity, "It did."
She finally looked up at him and burst out laughing. It was an absurdly opposing reaction to her earlier panic, and her laughter had a manic edge to it, but it felt nice to let out some of the bottled tension with him.
As they were nearing the bakery, and she stopped laughing abruptly, ending on a sobering sigh. "Umm, Adrien? I need to tell you something."
"Something like you already tried to do a backflip without me being around to watch?"
"Ha ha," Marinette replied sarcastically. "That's not going to happen."
"Oh, I bet it will. You are already feeling a little better. Give it another week, and you'll be scaring Alya with your shenanigans."
"Ugh, Alya! She knows something is up, and I have a feeling that she finally figured out it has nothing to do with you. That was good cover, even if it did make me seem a little pathetic. As if I would get akumatized over a boy. Really! She has so little faith in me."
"I don't think that's true. About the faith in you part. Alya knows that you have never been akumatized before, but everyone has a weakness, Princess, and she incorrectly assumes that I am yours."
"That's not an incorrect assumption, Kitty. Do you remember fighting Volpina? It was the only time I almost gave up my earrings willingly." Marinette shook her head hard to stop the memory from overwhelming her. "Nope, nope, nope. Not thinking about that."
She whooshed out all the air in her lungs and gulped another lungful before turning the subject in the conversation as well as her mind. "Besides that's not what I meant. I need to tell you before we go in that my mom will probably assume that you are Chat Noir. I didn't want you to be blindsided if she is acting weird."
Adrien appeared to be overwhelmed for a moment. He breathed out, "You took my advice?" When she nodded, he leaned in and kissed her lips softly. "I can't describe how much that means to me, Milady."
He was running the back of his hand gently down her cheek when a voice that Marinette didn't recognize called out humorously, "Fancy meeting you here, Mr. Agreste."
Adrien blushed deeply, and Marinette giggled. She had never seen him so embarrassed, but she was astonished as she watched his embarrassment disappear behind a carefully coined smile.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Martin. It is a pleasure to see you again." He reached out a hand for a professional handshake. "This is my friend that I told you about. Marinette Dupan-Cheng, meet Jacqueline Martin."
"Charmed. I have heard much about you from your mother, dear, and I am excited to see what you are capable of." Jacqueline spoke professionally, but there was an undercurrent of amusement in everything she said. Marinette was confused by her amusement and tried to not take it personally. Is she laughing at me?
"Shall we enter?" Jacqueline didn't wait for a reply, electing to walk into the bakery assuming the teens would follow.
Adrien rolled his eyes and walked in behind her, and Marinette followed his lead, watching calmly as he re-introduced Jacqueline to her mother. She was tuning out their small talk, but Adrien brought her attention back around with, "Would you like to go ahead and set up in the living area as your mom suggests? Or we can grab lunch first?"
Sabine interjected, "Yes sweets, go ahead and set up, and I'll bring you and Adrien some lunch. Jacqueline, do you need anything?"
"Oh no, Sabine. I have two more lunch meetings today, and I will probably eat at the last one. Thank you though. You are so thoughtful."
Marinette sprinted up the stairs to her loft and quickly reviewed the public-approved stack of canvases before walking back down. She couldn't see her feet around the stack of paintings, so she was especially careful, thinking wryly, If I drop these, Chat will never let me live it down.
She set the paintings around the room on every available surface, then started breathing exercises again. In-2-3-4, out-2-3-4. Again.
She repeated the process until the door opened, and the trio walked in. Her mom gasped in apparent astonishment to see the room covered in paintings, but Adrien and Jacqueline took it in stride, walking from painting to painting without comment.
After almost half an hour of tense (for Marinette anyway) silence, Jacqueline spoke to Adrien, "Nathalie has underestimated your abilities, Adrien. I thought you were offering me a diamond in the rough, but she is clearly a diamond of the first water." Jacqueline looked directly at Marinette and asked, "Is this your first time creating with this medium?"
Marinette nodded anxiously, "Is it so easy to tell? I read a few articles about how to use oil paints effectively before starting, and it made sense to me. It's the opposite of drawing in a way."
"In what way?" She asked sounding interested in Marinette's perspective.
Marinette considered her answer hoping it wouldn't sound too cheap. "When I draw, I start with the main image and the longest lines of that image, then add in details. But with paintings, I start with the background first, trying to give the main image a believable setting. It's layered and deep, building instead of flat."
Jacqueline gave Marinette a once over and nodded once in approval. "We'll refer to it a 'limited debut' instead of an amateur showing. You clearly have an understanding beyond amateur status." She tapped her finger against her chin thoughtfully. "Yes. Here's what we will do: first, call Nathalie for help with arrangements. Second, Adrien mentioned you are connected with Jagged Stone. Will you be able to get in touch with him about your show opening?"
"Um, yes. I can contact his assistant."
"Good. Third, your mother has told me previously that she is friends with Nadja Chamack. We will need to get the word out quickly, and a teaser on her morning show would be perfect."
"You want to use our friends to sell paintings?" Marinette asked mild irritation.
Jacqueline was taken aback, "That is the nature of this business, child. Neither Ms. Chamack nor Mr. Stone will be concerned. They will most likely view it as Mr. Agreste did, as an opportunity to help you get your start."
Marinette raised her eyebrow skeptically, but Adrien rubbed her back in a soothing circle and reassured her, "She's right, Marinette. This is exactly how it is supposed to work. You are the talent, and we are your mouthpiece." She was poised to argue, but Adrien leaned down and murmured in her ear, "Art is as much about sales as creativity. So is design. This is good practice for when you become famous."
Adrien clicked his tongue and said aloud, "You would gladly do this for anyone you knew, and one day you will be in a position to. Don't think about it as using others, but as making connections. You aren't forcing anyone to help you, you are asking. It's ok to ask for help, especially because no one succeeds alone."
He took her hand with a squeeze, and Marinette was jarred by the double meaning. This was Chat Noir helping her as always, and she had never refused his help. It had never even occurred to her to.
Finally, she smiled in resignation at Jacqueline and said more confidently, "Which part do you need me to do?"
"Contact Mr. Stone's assistant and find a date for Friday night. Someone handsome and famous would be best," Jacqueline tittered. "And then, if Nathalie is willing to help you organize, then you will follow her instructions." Jacqueline reached out to shake Marinette's hand and continued, "I am excited to be doing business with you Ms. Dupan-Cheng. Adrien, please let Nathalie know to expect my call. Immediately if you can. Time is of the essence."
Sabine walked Jacqueline out, and Marinette only waited for the door to close before she threw her arms around Adrien seeking comfort. He murmured against her hair, "I've got you, Little Bug."
"I'm sorry I'm such a mess. This is good news, and I'm still—"
Adrien cut her off, "Hey, hey now. I freaked out when you told me I might have to fight you. You have every right to be freaked out about actually fighting me. The stress will color everything you do for a while with panic." He kissed her hair lightly, "You will feel better soon, and then you'll feel a little better and realize that you didn't feel all-the-way better, then you'll feel a little better again, and eventually this feeling will only be a very bad dream."
They broke apart at the sound of the door opening back up. Adrien looked longingly at the lunch Sabine carried in and sat at the small table.
He seemed jittery, and Marinette thought it must be because her mom might or might not know who he is. She clarified the issue to set him at ease, saying proudly "Mom, I know you remember Adrien, but I wanted to re-introduce you to my partner. This is Chat Noir."
"Of course he is, dear. I knew as soon as I saw you two kissing in front of the shop," Sabine said to the embarrassment of both teens. She put a comforting hand on Adrien's shoulder though and continued seriously, "I cannot thank you enough for watching my little girl's back. I'm so glad you have found each other." She chuckled to herself and turned the subject, "Now, I know you two are looking for a little stress relief, but please remember that you are only 17. You are too young to raise kittens, so be responsible. Do you understand me? Or do I need to be more explicit?"
Marinette studiously avoided looking at either of them, electing to memorize the shape of her own hands. She hurriedly choked out, "I und-d-erstand."
"Ok, because –"
"No mom, please. We both get what you are saying."
"Good. Adrien, you are welcome to continue sleeping here as often as it is necessary, but I assume your father doesn't know you are out of the house?"
"He does not." Oh god, his face! It's almost purple.
"And you intend for it to stay that way?"
"Yes, I was not intending for anyone outside of the three of you to know who I am… or that I have slept here."
"Good. I think that's wise, meaning no disrespect to your father, dear." She said again.
"Umm Mom, would you like to meet the rest of our team?"
"The fox girl and turtle –"
"No." Marinette closed her eyes against the thought of her allies. "No, they won't be able to help us again. Hawkmoth knows who they are."
Adrien grabbed her hand and squeezed, deciding to finish her thought for her, he called out, "Plagg, Tikki, can you come out please?"
Sabine gasped eliciting an amused chuckle from Plagg, but she ignored him, pointing at Tikki exclaiming, "You're the red-blur that I see out of the corner of my eye sometimes! You ARE real. I kept telling Tom that the bakery was haunted by a cookie-eating ghost, but he told me I was crazy!"
Tikki laughingly responded, "Pleased to meet you! I didn't know you had ever seen me, but I do love your cookies. I was so thrilled when I woke up here and smelled the bakery downstairs."
Plagg piped in, "That's great and all, but I don't see any cheese."
"Plagg!" Adrien admonished.
Marinette cut-in before war could break out between Adrien and his Kwami, "There are fresh cheese-balls on my desk. I took them upstairs before class this morning."
"You're spoiling him," Adrien watched as his Kwami phased through the ceiling into Marinette's room.
"I'm spoiling him? You only give him the finest cheeses. He's bragged about his holder's ability to judge quality cheeses before."
Adrien's mouth dropped open in astonishment. "That's the best thing he's ever said about me."
Sabine stood to leave, smiling broadly at the two heroes. "I have to get back to the bakery to help with the lunch rush. You two watch the time, ok?" She turned back at the door and called earnestly, "Thank you for trusting me with your secret."
When she left, Marinette mused, "Yesterday, only Alix knew my identity, today three people do. By tonight four people will know." She sighed heavily and ruined her pigtails by trying to run her fingers through her hair. "You know, this is basically my worst nightmare, and I did it on purpose."
Adrien suggested they get the calls out of the way to distract her, so Marinette called Penny while Adrien called Nathalie.
Penny was thrilled about Marinette's news and said she would get back to her with Jagged's availability. Nathalie was hesitant to get involved until Adrien dropped the news that Marinette was his girlfriend. Marinette had quirked an eyebrow at him, but he only shrugged until he could get off the phone.
He was nervous, and Marinette thought it was absolutely adorable. With their current dynamic being all over the place, she was willing to take the lead to set him at ease. "Adrien, I would love it if you were to consider me your girlfriend."
"Really?" He asked enthusiastically, but his smile became mischievous as he asked, "What if I considered you my intended?"
Marinette was taken aback for a second, but she recovered quickly, replying slyly, "That's how you are asking me to marry you? I'm surprised, Kitty. When you finally told me you loved me, there were soft candle-light and rose petals beneath a sky full of stars. I think you are slipping in the romance department."
He snorted at the unexpected retort but didn't comment beyond that. "Come on, Bug. It's time to face Alya."
Marinette figured he brought up Alya to pay her back for teasing him, but she could definitely one-up him. She just needed to bide her time.
They walked back to the school, and it wasn't hard to find Alya. She and Nino were waiting on the school steps, and for the first time in two weeks, Marinette was happy to see them. She bounded up to the couple and declared excitedly, "Don't make plans for Friday night, or cancel them if you have. Apparently, I am going to have a very successful gallery opening, and you would not want to miss it!"
Alya giggled happily. "Nino and I have a date night so no worries, girl. We will be there."
Adrien nudged her with his shoulder lightly and nervously asked, "Jacqueline mentioned you would need a date. Do you maybe want me to be your date?"
"Of course I expect my boyfriend to be my date! Did you think for one second you could get out of this? You got me into this mess, partner, and I expect you to see me through."
Adrien smirked triumphantly while Alya shrieked in astonishment. "But…" She looked over at Nino who was wearing a smug grin. "You guys were only gone for the lunch hour! How did you settle that so quickly?"
Marinette followed up calmly, "Does it seem fast to you? It took much longer than I was hoping for." She looked over to Adrien and winked. Flirting with Adrien was becoming her favorite pastime. She was disappointed when he wasn't flustered by her though.
"I can't believe that it took you until lunch to ask me," Adrien shot back. "I think we could have settled this before class if you hadn't changed the subject."
"She asked you?" Alya asked incredulously.
"Hey!" Marinette was irritated at the unflattering implication, but Adrien cut across her, "Of course! Marinette is heroic. She jumped right in to save me when my courage failed."
Alya snorted, but Nino just smiled at them all until the bell rang. He patted Marinette's shoulder as she walked by and murmured simply, "I'm glad."
Adrien grabbed her hand as they walked into the courtyard, and there were excited murmurs that followed them to the classroom. A few of their classmates stopped to congratulate them, but Alix actually stepped into their path to stop them just as the second bell rang. The other students dutifully walked into the classroom, but Adrien and Marinette stopped to talk with the third member of their team.
Alix punched Adrien's arm and said, "That was some proposal!"
"What?" Adrien blinked at her rapidly, and Marinette had to cover her mouth to avoid laughing at him.
"She will love it, and she'll say yes, but her dad is going to warn you that 18 is too young."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Adrien wailed. "You are putting thoughts into my head, woman."
Alix chortled, "No I'm not. You've already thought about it, otherwise I wouldn't have seen it."
"That's not hard to guess. I've been thinking about what it would be like to marry Ladybug for like three years!"
Marinette felt a little queasy at his admission. He wants to marry Ladybug. Why does that upset me? I AM Ladybug. Besides, he already told me that he is in love with all of me… why does that hurt so much to hear?
"Lotus Blossom? LB? Earth to Marinette. Are you ok?"
Marinette nodded enthusiastically, albeit untruthfully. These two miraculous holders were the least likely to believe her lie, but she felt a strong desire to run away and hide. "I uh… Can you tell Ms. Mendeleiev that I went to the restroom? I'll be right back." She ripped her hand away from a startled Adrien and ran down the stairs. She tripped on the last one, but picked herself up and high-tailed it to the restroom before she could start crying in the midst of class again.
Marinette broke into staggered sobs as soon as the door was closed, and had to blindly stumble to the sink. She didn't look around to make sure she was alone, and she was shocked by a weak push to her shoulder. She tried to move out of the way, but the pusher was insistent, and she finally looked up into the contemptuous eyes of Lila Rossi.
"So, you think you won because Adrien is finally returning your affections? That didn't stop you from looking like a complete idiot this morning." Lila laughed menacingly. "Everyone has been whispering about you today. It's all anyone could talk about at lunch: how poor, sensitive Marinette is overwhelmed."
Marinette chanted in her head, don't sink to her level.
"You are only a momentary distraction to Adrien. His father is going to send him to Milan for university, and then he'll be able to find someone with actual talent to build his life with."
Marinette turned away to wipe the remaining tears from her eyes. Lila's bullying always steeled her resolve, and it cleared her mind now of the negative thoughts. Adrien wouldn't go to Italy. He would have to give up his miraculous if he left Paris. She started walking towards the door, but Lila pushed her back again.
"He'll move on so fast and never think about you again."
Marinette scoffed derisively. "Whatever Lila. Adrien's been obsessed with me for years. That's not going to change." Wait. Oh no, I said that OUT LOUD!
"You think so? That is so mean of you to say, Marinette. I bet it would hurt his feelings to hear you talk like that about him," Lila threatened with a characteristic lack of real remorse for Adrien.
"You leave him out of this. He's done nothing to you except try to be your friend."
"You're the one who said it. I think he has a right to know that you think so little of his feelings that you would characterize it as 'obsession'."
"Back off, Lila! I won't let you hurt him."
"He's my friend, Marinette. It's my duty to tell him that you are playing with his emotions because he's never had a real girlfriend before. He's needs someone to point out your falsehood, or he'll be duped by you."
"He won't believe you, no matter what you say. He trusts me."
"Of course he will, stupid. Your guilty conscience will give you away." Lila stepped right into Marinette's face and continued in a sickly-sweet voice, "The key to a good lie is a nugget of truth. The truth in his mind telling him that you don't feel that way about him, or the truth in your eyes that you said something heinous about the boy you supposedly love. Either nugget will work."
Marinette's mind went blank. That was a stupid trap to fall in, she admonished herself fiercely.
As she sank back into despair, she heard the telltale sound of Bunnyx's Burrow opening behind her. Chat Noir called for "Cataclysm!" and dissolved yet another akuma. Marinette turned around to see a murderous glare on her partner's face.
"I'm going to say this very plainly because you don't seem to be getting the message," Chat Noir growled at Lila, "STOP. MESSING. WITH. MY. FRIENDS."
Lila smiled aggravatingly in unholy amusement. "Oh look here. The Chat is protecting the little mouse. Does your boyfriend know how close you are?"
Chat Noir chuckled in response, "Did Adrien finally get his act together then? 'Grats, Mari."
Lila's smile dissolved instantly. "Whatever." She flipped her hair and sauntered out of the bathroom.
Marinette collapsed into Chat's arms, blubbering about him having to save her twice in one day.
"I won't apologize for saving you (even the times it was at the risk of my own life) because I know you won't accept it. So, you don't apologize for needing to be saved because I won't accept it. Fair enough?"
"How did you even know I needed you?"
"You never showed up for class." Sure enough, the bell rang for the end of the lesson, and Bunnyx's Burrow appeared in front of them.
Bunnyx called out, "Adrien is coming to look for her. You need to be gone now."
Chat started to protest, but Bunnyx cut him off briskly, "Now Chat. You'll see her again in less than two minutes."
Chat kissed Marinette's forehead and walked away. She smiled as he turned around to look at her right as the Burrow disappeared, but a sharp knock on the door startled her out of her reverie.
The knock sounded again with a frantic call of, "Marinette? Are you in there? Are you ok?"
Marinette walked out without looking in the mirror, not wanting to know how horrible she looked at the moment. Adrien visibly relaxed when he saw her.
"I saw that harlot walking back towards the classroom, and I thought she might be to blame for you missing Chemistry."
"You came to save me, so we are ok."
He beamed back at her, "All in a day's work, Princess." He placed a gentle hand on the small of her back and guided her towards the staircase.
She turned pensive, trying to make sense of Lila's vitriol. There's a nugget of truth in all her lies. "Adrien? You would tell me if you were leaving the city for university, right?"
"I would," he assured.
"So, your father isn't sending you to Milan for university?"
"How do you know about that?"
She blanched. "It's true?"
"It's true that he wants me to go to Milan, but I have already told him that I am not leaving Paris. I have only applied to the best fashion business schools in Paris, and I have enough money to pay my own way. There is literally nothing he can do to stop me, so no, I am not leaving Paris."
"How did Lila know your father wanted you to go to school in Milan? I am assuming you didn't talk to her about it."
"No, I only talked about it with Nino," Adrien admitted worriedly.
Marinette tapped her finger against her lips while she thought. "I don't think Nino spilled, Kitty. She only knew that your father wanted to send you."
Adrien looked relieved for only a second before he became agitated again.
"What's up now, Kitten?"
He smiled fleetingly, "I love it when you call me that." He sighed again and worried, "What if she heard directly from the source? My father has been pushing us together in ad campaigns for years now. I've even mentioned to him that I would rather not work with her, and he just ignored my request."
They were walking up to their next class, and their conversation had to be postponed. Adrien squeezed her hand and let go so she could take her seat.
She immediately pulled out her sketchbook and started the process of immortalizing Chat's ferocious face as he stared down Lila.
Chat Noir landed on Marinette's balcony with a soft thud. It had been a grueling rest of the day, and Chat was exhausted. His heart thumped eagerly as he knocked on the skylight.
Marinette called out breathlessly, and Chat entered hastily, concerned about the cause, but Marinette was giggling uncontrollably. Unharmed.
Chat's breath caught at the vision of loveliness before him. Her cheeks were pink, and her eyes danced in happy merriment. She was more alive than she had been in weeks.
He was smirking in response, just staring at her until she cocked her head to the side in confusion. He flushed and awkwardly said, "Uh hi."
That set her off laughing again. She jumped up from her chair and launched herself into his arms, nuzzling his neck. He spun her around in circles until he was too dizzy to stand and then collapsed happily onto the couch with her on his lap.
He caught himself staring at her lips and wondered if she would welcome a kiss. He murmured, "Claws in" and leaned in hopefully, but Marinette gasped dramatically. He stopped suddenly, inherently looking around for trouble.
"I'm sorry, Kitten. I'm still not used to this," Marinette whispered as she leaned in to kiss him with a brief peck. "It will get easier."
Doubt settled into his mind, even as he tried to push it away. He asked in (what he hoped was) a nonchalant tone, "Are you sure about this Mari? Cuz I don't want to push –"
She cut him off to reassure him, "I am sure. I never wanted anyone but you." She kissed him fiercely, and his worries melted away… until she started giggling again.
"What is it? You are ruining my confidence here."
"It's not you. It's my dad."
"Oh, uh, ok?"
She giggled again, and Adrien was starting to feel insulted.
"I'm sorry, really! But he was all 'once you stop making out with that boyfriend of yours, make sure you work on your Chemistry.' He was so proud of himself for making a 'Chat-worthy' joke. It was really funny."
He laughter was infectious. It always had been, and he was drawn into her warm enjoyment. "Sounds like he took it well."
"Well, he spent almost an hour making fun of you for turning me down for Ladybug. He thinks it's hilarious that he was akumatized because you were rejecting his daughter for his daughter." She trailed off murmuring, "It was decidedly NOT funny, but he doesn't remember almost beating you to death."
"Yeah, that was not a fun fight. Honestly, if I hadn't been completely dazed, I probably would have figured you out then. There was no way to have rescued you and then be above us still."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to get serious. I had a really nice evening talking with my parents about being Ladybug, and I've been feeling a lot better." She sighed, "Normalcy comes and goes so quickly. Anyway, my dad wants to have you over for brunch again."
"You spent hours laughing about my idiocy?"
"Pfft, no. Just about half the time." She kissed him quickly. "The rest of the time was teasing me for constantly rejecting you while I was clearly in love with you. I tried to reason out of that one, but he just laughed harder."
She looked up at him expectantly, but he didn't know what she wanted him to say. She shrugged and said, "Maybe you just had to be there. It was so much fun."
He tried to smile, but the day had crushed out all his energy. Being around Marinette always helped recharge some of the energy, but he might be too far gone. He ventured to ask, "Are you going to be ready for bed soon? I'm a little out of it."
"Oh! I'm so—"
"No need to apologize, love. It's just fighting an akuma without you sucks. It took Nino and I five freaking hours to decide to just capture the akuma before it got you. Then I had tried to use Nino as bait so I could get away to find Alix, but you were too smart for that even under Hawkmoth's control. You are a fearsome foe."
"I didn't think… I mean I didn't know…" She blinked rapidly, looking like she was going into another panic attacked.
Adrien felt his eyes widen alarmingly. "Shh… no no! It's all ok, Marinette. I'm so sorry I brought this up. I had just been hoping that knowing who each other is meant that we could talk about this stuff more openly, but I should have realized that this would be a touchy subject for you."
Marinette looked at him with a fierce longing before she leaned in with a sigh of surrender. They continued sinking into shared passion until his mind was completely blanked. It was the best nights' sleep he had ever had.