Marinette was dragging her feet on her way home. She knew that even if she went back to Adrien's place, Nathalie wouldn't let her in. Nathalie hadn't even answered when she'd buzzed, but the woman Marinette had spoken to had informed her that Nathalie was sitting with Adrien—which meant there was no point in Marinette transforming to sneak in to visit Adrien. That would invite more questions than she wanted to answer.
She could, however, turn around and go back to Nino's.
He'd made it clear he didn't want her, but she didn't get the feeling that it was for the reasons he'd stated.
"Do you think I should go back, Tikki?"
Tikki knew exactly who she was talking about, as she'd been weighing her options for the last ten minutes. Marinette had opened her purse so she could more easily converse with the kwami, but despite the lack of crowds, Tikki had chosen to remain in her hiding spot. "That's your decision, Marinette."
Which wasn't an answer. "I know, but... Maybe…maybe you should go back, just to see. It wouldn't take long to figure out if he needs me."
"Do you want me to go?"
That meant Tikki was willing but didn't approve. Marinette sighed. "I don't know. Didn't you get the feeling that he was distracted?" He'd been worried about Adrien, yes, but there had been something else…. She didn't know what.
Alya hadn't told her the whole story; Nino's demeanour had made that clear. And if Alya hadn't passed on the whole story, then Nino hadn't told her, and he wasn't likely to tell Marinette if he hadn't told Alya. And she couldn't very well get the story out of Adrien; she didn't even dare risk sending Tikki to check up on him if Nathalie was there.
What was more troublesome was that she wasn't certain whether the secret was something she should know—for Adrien's sake, since she was sure it was still connected to him. She knew everyone was trying to be there for him, but no one else knew, and she…. She needed to do what she could to protect him.
She still felt awful about what had happened. He was always the gentleman, insisting it wasn't her fault, but it had taken her weeks to get him to stop trying to take the blame for it himself. Not that she was really sure he had; he'd simply stopped saying that in front of her.
Really, though, she felt like she hadn't done as her father had advised. She hadn't done anything to make amends, not really, not where it counted, because Adrien, her Chat Noir, he….
He had never lied to her. Not directly. Not as far as she could tell.
But that had been Before.
She wasn't so sure about Now.
She didn't want to doubt him, but she'd seen how broken up he'd looked when he'd thought he'd lost Plagg, and she'd seen how easily he could slip on a mask in the days since. She felt like she'd done so little for him, but she didn't know what she could do. Alya was trying to be very good about giving her the space she'd asked for, but…. How was she supposed to help Adrien through this when she had no idea what he needed? He wouldn't tell her, but he might not even know. She wasn't sure she knew what she really needed.
Maybe a friend who would give her straight answers. Tikki had been terrible for that as of late. Sometimes, Marinette thought she could do with less blind support and more structured direction. "Maybe it's not Nino," she admitted. "Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm reading more into this because I'm still on edge about Adrien."
She was very careful not to ask Tikki about what had happened in the past now, although she made sure to give the kwami plenty of opportunities to bring it up herself. Tikki seemed to dislike answering direct questions about the past. At least, Marinette had come to realize that they almost always ended up on an entirely different topic within minutes of her first question, and she never seemed to gain much information in those first few vital seconds.
Tikki might seem like an open book, but she could be awfully tight-lipped when she wanted to be.
"This isn't your fault, Marinette." Tikki had been repeating those words for weeks. "You fought. You won. You knew you couldn't always do so without loss. Try to be thankful that the situation isn't worse than it is."
Sometimes, for someone who must have seen so much and be so wise, Marinette was convinced Tikki didn't know anything.
And then she thought about what Tikki must have already witnessed to have become this way, and the thought sobered her. Because Tikki was right. It could be worse. This wasn't a scoreboard to keep track of wins and losses; this was real life, and mistakes were costly. Her mistakes, and Adrien's, and everyone else's. One poor decision or quick, ill-thought action could be amended—or it could have disastrous consequences. There was no way to know until it was too late.
Just like they hadn't known about Hawk Moth.
She'd been going over it in her head for weeks, trying to figure out if there was a way they could have known, but there had never been enough clues. There had only been a hastily executed plan and enough bad luck for two lifetimes.
If not more.
She didn't pretend that she really understood what Adrien was going through. She certainly didn't pretend that she knew how he felt—now or in that horrific moment—or try to downplay it. She tried not to assume, but she suspected she failed at that rather miserably. Even Tikki had admitted that Adrien seemed to be curling in on himself rather than sharing what he felt, so guesses were often all Marinette had.
Guesses, and the knowledge that they had kept secret from everyone else.
Tikki hadn't said they could tell anyone now. Granted, Marinette hadn't asked, not directly, but Tikki always hid whenever her parents were about or when Alya dropped by, she kept quiet all through school, and she never strayed far. Marinette hadn't transformed since her flight to Adrien's house, but Tikki's constant presence meant she thought it might still be a possibility, and Marinette doubted Tikki's reasons for staying close were the same as hers.
It was like Tikki thought this was the beginning rather than the end.
Considering that most days, Marinette had moments that she wanted to scream but couldn't find the breath for crying, she didn't want to think about what Tikki feared might be coming next.
She wasn't ready.
Neither of them was.
Adrien didn't even have his Miraculous.
"We need help, Tikki," Marinette admitted. "We can't do this by ourselves." She finally stopped walking and plucked Tikki out of her purse to hold her up to eye level. "There must be someone else who knows about this. Someone gave your Miraculous to me, and Plagg's to Adrien. That time that you were ill and needed help— That man must surely know something."
"Can he help? Can we talk to him?"
"It's not that simple, Marinette."
Tikki opened her mouth, but a shriek startled them both before she could answer. Marinette spun, looking for the source of the sound, but it was Tikki who found it first. "There," she said, pointing at the shadow that was clinging to the edge of a rooftop.
Marinette's heart jumped into her throat. She retreated in search of cover and finally crouched behind a trash bin. It wasn't ideal, but she didn't have time. "Tikki, spots on!"
Her yo-yo took her to the rooftops in seconds, making it easier to find her aerial path toward the figure. On her final swing, though, she froze. It was Chat Noir. It couldn't be—Adrien didn't have his ring—but she'd know him anywhere, and below him was his fallen baton, and—
It wasn't Adrien.
This was Chat Noir, but not her Chat Noir.
She'd lost her momentum, so Marinette dropped to the ground. She picked up Chat Noir's baton—he had probably extended it earlier, but it had collapsed on impact—and threw out her yo-yo so she could get to the roof herself and rescue this kitty.
When she was finally above him, keeping a firm grip on the taut yo-yo cord with her left hand, she reached down with her right. "Give me your hand."
Scared brown eyes, rimmed with Chat Noir's familiar green, stared back at her. "L-Ladybug?"
She pulled him to safety, handed him back his baton, put away her own weapon, and let him catch his breath on the side off the roof. She didn't say anything. She wasn't sure she trusted herself to speak anymore.
She might not have seen it if she didn't know how this worked. If she didn't know, she might not have thought to look. But she did know, so she could see, and she could see him more plainly than she had ever seen Adrien.
She knew this Chat Noir.
It wasn't his identity that surprised her, not really. What surprised her was how much seeing him hurt. She looked out at the skyline instead, hoping he couldn't see the tears that threatened to fall.
"Thank you," he said. "I'm N— I'm new at this."
"I know," she said quietly.
"I misjudged the angle, I guess, and collided with the edge, and kinda…dropped the staff."
"It can take a bit of getting used to." She knew she had had a fair bit of trouble at first, not trusting her yo-yo or believing in its capabilities, but as far as she had ever been able to tell, Adrien had taken to this like a fish to water.
Her new partner laughed nervously. "I…I didn't know if you were still around. I'm glad you are."
Marinette took a breath, realized she couldn't say anything, and simply let it out again.
"I'm sorry. I know I'm not who I'm supposed to be. Chat Noir, I mean. I'm not supposed to be Chat Noir."
"Don't say that." Why couldn't she bring herself to look at him? "You have your Miraculous for a reason."
"Actually, I'm not so sure about that."
Something that might have been a laugh escaped her lips. "Try to believe in yourself. It's a lesson I learned, to trust myself and my partner so that I could do what was right."
"You doubted yourself?"
The incredulity in his voice almost made her want to laugh again. "Chat Noir—the previous Chat Noir, I mean—had more faith in me than I did at first." She swallowed; the correction had been a painful one. "I was ready to pass along my Miraculous to someone else, someone that I thought was much better suited to this than me."
"But you didn't."
There was a beat of silence, as if he were waiting for her to continue. "May I ask why?"
"I realized I needed to be Ladybug."
She didn't want to get into the details. He must have realized that because he merely hummed in agreement before changing the subject. "Look, I don't know how to say this, but if you don't see me again, don't worry, okay?"
Confusion finally had her turn to look him in the eye. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm going to fix this," he said. "Like you always do. I'm going to make this right."
She spoke slowly, careful to keep her voice even. "Why are you so convinced this isn't already right?"
"Because I know things aren't supposed to be this way. And Plagg, he's the, uh, kami—"
"Yeah, that. He told me who I should talk to. So I'm going to sort this out. If I can survive getting there, anyway." He gave her a shaky smile. "Maybe I should just go back to street level."
"No, I'll help you get the hang of this. We might both need you to know it, despite what you think." She climbed to her feet, braced herself on the slope of the roof, and held out her hand again. "Come on, Chat Noir." She couldn't bring herself to call him by any of the pet names she'd had for Adrien. Certainly not yet, even if she managed it in the future.
He still looked reluctant. "I'm not Chat Noir."
"You are now."
He sighed but took her hand and let her pull him to his feet. "But how can you trust me to be your partner when you don't even know me?"
I do know you. "You'll get the hang of things faster than you think, and I already trust that you'll do your best. You're here, aren't you?"
"Yeah, just…. You're Ladybug," he blurted. "You're amazing. And I'm not. I'm just a kid."
"You're someone with a hero's heart," she countered, "or you wouldn't be here with me right now. Now, have you figured out how to work your baton?"
She ran him through the basics anyway and made him practice until he was comfortable with it. It wasn't just splitting it in two or extending it; he needed to know things like how to call her or someone else and how to access its map and GPS coordinates, because while he said Plagg had tried to explain this to him, he hadn't understood any of it.
He had a good arm, and after a few trials, he realized his staff would go where he wanted when he threw it and how it could come back to him like a boomerang. He hadn't wanted to really trust it to hold him when it was magically adhered to the wall, but she had him tug at her mask like Lady WiFi had done to prove her point: the baton wouldn't be going anywhere until he wanted it to. And, while she proved that he could spin it fast enough to deflect small pebbles, he still refused to attempt helicoptering with it.
"I'm not him, the real Chat Noir. My arms won't take that."
"But the magic—"
"I doubt my muscles, not the magic."
She put her hands on his shoulders. "You're stronger than you think. I never imagined I could have the endurance I do, but that's because I'm not just relying on me; I'm relying on Tikki. If you don't trust yourself, trust Plagg."
He gave her a skeptical look. "Plagg?" he repeated. "But Plagg just…eats everything in sight and asks for more."
"Because when we transform, we're drawing on their energy, and they need to replenish it. That's why you only have five minutes after you use Cataclysm before you lose your transformation entirely. Didn't Plagg—?"
"Yes, he told me that, too. Believe me, I asked a lot of questions. I just…." He threw up his arms, easily dislodging her grip. "I don't know. I'm not ready for this. This isn't me. It's supposed to be Adrien!" His eyes widened when he realized what he'd said, and he immediately backed away. "Um, did you, uh…."
"I know," she replied quietly, "but I haven't for long. We built our partnership without ever knowing who was beneath the mask."
"So then everything people said—"
"We're not dating," she said dryly. "We always tried to keep our personal lives separate, tucked out of view, so that we wouldn't give the other one too many clues about who we might be in case we knew each other outside of this."
"But, uh, wouldn't you realize that anyway? From how you look? Or sound?"
Marinette let out a bitter laugh. "Oh, I wish we had. Some things would have been simpler, and others might've been avoided altogether." She sighed, remembering Tikki's warnings. "But things might have been much worse, too."
There was a beat of silence. "Worse than they are?" her partner finally ventured.
"With our luck." Tikki had described worse to her before, and Marinette didn't want to get into the details now. She hadn't brought it up to Adrien; she hadn't thought he needed that. But she was still trying to use that knowledge to feel a little better about the horrible situation.
It wasn't okay.
It probably wouldn't ever feel okay.
But it wasn't the end of the world, and that was something.
Even if it still felt like the end of Adrien's world.
She needed to distract herself before those thoughts caught up to her and had a chance to settle. "Follow me," she ordered, and she took off running as if she could leave behind her guilt and her doubt, her grief and her despair. She was Ladybug. Adrien might not be able to be Chat Noir, but she was still Ladybug. She still held a responsibility to be the hero Paris needed, even if they had defeated Hawk Moth.
"Wait!" The cry came from behind her even as her feet left the rooftop and she swung out on her yo-yo. "I'm not…. Hold on!"
She couldn't fix this.
The new Chat Noir certainly couldn't fix this, whatever he thought.
It wasn't something any of them could fix.
Marinette's chest hurt, and her exertion wasn't masking that ache. She pressed on. He was following her. More importantly, he was keeping up to her. She could tell that much, even if he hadn't caught her. It was a start.
But because it was only a start, only the start, she changed her trajectory and headed for Notre Dame rather than the Eiffel Tower; it would make for an easier landing point. This Chat Noir hadn't found his feet quite yet.
Her partner landed beside her a moment later, looking shaky and out of breath. "What were you thinking?" he gasped.
She turned a small smile on him and spoke the acceptable part of the truth, the part that held no pain in its acknowledgement. "That if you followed me, you might focus more on keeping me in sight than on how impossible following me seemed."
He frowned at her. "That doesn't explain why you just suddenly took off like that."
"Sure it does. If I'd given you warning, you might have overthought things, maybe even convinced yourself that you couldn't do it. But you can. You just proved that to yourself."
"Yeah, I guess that's true," he allowed, "but you still look…." He shifted uncomfortably. "I don't mean to pry, but I want to be here for you if I can be, okay? Until your real partner is back."
"Chat Noir is my partner. And that's you."
"But it shouldn't be. That's what I'm trying to tell you. But I guess you're right, too, because I am your partner until things get sorted out, so maybe, uh…." He swallowed. "Maybe try to talk to me? If you need it? Adrien…. Adrien's going through a rough patch right now, something really bad, but he doesn't really want to talk to me about it, y'know? And I don't know what to do. When I try to do something, I just make things worse. But everyone always says talking about stuff helps. And you…. You look like you need to talk."
So he could see it on her face, then.
He could see how much she felt like breaking down and crying.
He thought he wouldn't be a good partner, but he already knew her better than he realized, and she was fairly certain he hadn't figured out who she was.
"I'm fine," she said thickly, forcing the words past the lump forming in her throat.
"Um…am I supposed to pretend to believe that or call you on it?"
She tried to smile, wasn't sure she managed it, and instead held her breath to try to hold in the sobs. Whatever Plagg had told him, he still didn't know. And he didn't deserve to be burdened with this. He shouldn't have to imagine the feathery feeling of blackened akuma covering them both, blotting out their vision even if they could never take hold. He shouldn't have to imagine the desperation of their fight, what had driven her to call out to Chat Noir or him to obey, or the fatigue—had it been fatigue or fortune?—that had led to the mistake. He hadn't seen the mask burn away, didn't still have M. Agreste's expression seared into his memory, couldn't imagine Adrien's horror at the discovery.
He wasn't carrying the guilt of the lie, of the cover up.
He didn't have to pretend that it had only been a heart attack.
He didn't have to pretend that Adrien's grief was simply the loss of another parent.
He didn't have to pretend that he had no good reason to be affected by Adrien's loss, that he didn't feel it as much as he did.
He had no twisting guilt in the pit of his stomach that made him feel as he were the most awful person in the entire world.
She shouldn't bring him into this, into any of it.
She'd closed her eyes, but tears began to spill down her cheeks anyway. She was facing away from him, but when she began to shake, he came over. "Hey," he called softly, laying a hand lightly on her shoulder. "Plagg told me you guys beat Hawk Moth. Obviously that wasn't easy for either of you, but I want to help you, okay? I might not know you as well as I know Adrien, but you've done so much good for Paris. Let me be here for you to help repay your kindness for that if I can't do it as a friend."
He thought she was hesitant because he was a stranger to her.
Marinette drew a shaky breath and forced herself to face him. "I don't think you can do much more than you already are." She wiped the tears from her cheeks and tried to steel her resolve. "You are a good friend to Adrien, and you're willing to protect Paris in his place."
Her partner hesitated. "Um, about that. I really don't think—"
"You didn't have to follow me," she pointed out. "You could have continued on wherever you were going, but you followed me. Why?"
"Because you told me to!"
"That's not the real reason." At least, she hoped it wasn't.
Sure enough, he shook his head. "No, I guess not. I just…. I dunno. I guess I was worried. About you. No one's seen you in weeks, you or Chat Noir, and I guess…."
"But Plagg told you we defeated Hawk Moth."
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean everything's instantly better. I mean, look at you. Adrien's going through some other stuff right now, but you…. You're still…." He trailed off and then tried again. "It can't have been easy. I don't need to know exactly what happened to know that winning that war cost you guys something. One of my friends has been going on and on about your disappearance, and the fact that you showed up now…." He shrugged. "Would you have, if I hadn't nearly killed myself trying to do this?"
"I don't know," Marinette admitted. She'd wanted to avoid it for as long as possible. Transforming was just a reminder of what had happened with Hawk Moth. Of the death she had caused, of the life she had traded. It had been her call, even if it had been by Chat Noir's hand.
"Well, there you are, then." He sat down beside her. "Look, I can see that something bad happened, but so did something good. Maybe you need to try focusing on the good. You look like you've been forgetting it in favour of the bad."
"You're not going to ask, then?"
"I don't expect you to trust me. Not yet, anyway. Not unless it's something I need to know."
Marinette turned and hugged him. "Thank you," she whispered. "But you have to know that it's not because I don't trust you. I do trust you. I just don't think I should be the one to share it with you."
"Not without consulting your partner?"
"It was our fight," she said, pulling back. "We were in it together. But the burden of bearing the consequences has fallen to him."
Her partner winced. "On top of everything else? Poor Adrien. No wonder he…. Never mind. I'm going to help him, even if it's just in some small way. And I'm going to try to help you, too, and then maybe I'll actually earn the trust you seem to have in me."
He stood up, but she grabbed his arm to stop him before he could run off on her. When she got to her feet, she said, "You earned my trust a long time ago."
"But I haven't done—"
"Nino." She was careful to speak his name quietly enough that it wouldn't carry, but it was enough to freeze the words on his lips. "You've never done anything to lose my trust."
"You…you know who I am?"
She let go of his arm and nodded. "I hadn't wanted to see the truth with Adrien or I would have realized who he was before, too. At least, I want to think I would have. But I'm not similarly blinded with you."
"But…you actually know who I am. But I'm a nobody. Not like Adrien." He frowned. "How do you—?"
"Not here. Tell me where you were going. I'll take you there. I…I don't think this can be fixed, but I can't do this anymore. Not by myself."
He was still staring at her as if trying to figure out whether or not he knew her. "You really—?"
"I'll explain as much as I can after." Tikki wouldn't be happy, but Marinette really wasn't sure she could do this anymore. Adrien needed someone. She needed someone. Even together, they were still lost. And…and maybe it would be a step in the right direction, a step toward making things right, toward making amends, as Nino surely thought and as her father had advised her to do.
Besides, even with Nino as her partner, she wasn't sure how much use she would be when facing an actual fight instead of just a rescue.
Saving someone felt very different from defeating them, even if it came to the same in the end.
"Are you sure? I mean, if you and Adrien didn't know each other before, then maybe even if you know me, we shouldn't—"
"No. I'm sure." She was sure of very little these days, but this felt right somehow and nothing had for so long. "I want to do this."
Nino deserved to know.
Maybe if he did, she wouldn't make the same mistakes.
And maybe he could help, even if she couldn't tell him everything.
She had to hope that things would get better.