Nobody's perfect.

To be fair, Marinette used to think Adrien Agreste was about as close as a human being could get, but a part of her always knew that was her infatuation talking. After last night - their date, she reminded herself. It was a date. (Still, she struggled to believe it… ) But, after their date of jumping through the Paris museums, stopping at random cafes for food and drink, laughing til she was breathless as they walked the Seine, and being subjected to so many puns she thought it was going to kill her, Marinette knew better.

Adrien had flaws, just like everybody else.

One of which, apparently, was time management.

Not that she was one to talk about bad budgeting in terms of her schedule. After all, Marinette was the one who agreed to work full-time while still in high school, president of her class, on top of preparing her portfolio for design school while trying to feign something that might be called a social life. Oh, and of course, there was the tiny responsibility of being a 24/7 on-call superhero, duty-bound to keep an entire city safe.

Some people - a lot of people - seemed to think Ladybug was perfect, but Marinette knew that wasn't the truth. Knowing Adrien was susceptible to that same sort of imperfection, despite being seen as an idol to his fans, was actually something she admired and appreciated. He was a human, and Ladybug - she - was a human. Neither of them were perfect, and that was okay. Weaknesses made them real.

Marinette gasped, realizing that she was nearly drowning her crinums during her idle daydreaming. She wretched back her arm and the watering can from its spot perched in midair, a scowl forming as she watched the soil drink up the miniature lake she had forced upon it, watching droplets form and fall from the petals. Thankfully, this pot happened to be one of her heartier ones, and the roots seemed to be begrudgingly accepting of the handily-given shower.

Shaking her bouncy ponytail, Marinette firmed her jaw and forced herself to be more attentive. Too bad for her flowers, that was all but impossible today.

Again, she found herself humming quietly, turning over the events of yesterday in her mind. It was a puzzle, but she was missing all the pieces. Adrien had the missing ones, the key corners that helped the picture come into view, but he hadn't had time to share them with her. At best, there was some sort of rough image coming into view, but she just couldn't figure out what it was. The whole thing was frustrating to no end, hence the forced attempt at peaceful humming, trying to drown out her anxieties.

What was it Adrien wanted to tell her?

He was… so many things, to her. More than she ever really bargained for, if she was being honest.

Sampling a handful of vocabulary in her head of just what Adrien Agreste was, Marinette composed a careful list. Impossibly kind. A natural gentleman. Charming. Impressive, respectful, and even-tempered. Quick to apologize, easy to forgive, and, right now, frustratingly absent.

After a moment, her grimace flickered as the tension relaxed around her shoulders. She lowered the watering can and plucked up a little ladybug that had settled into the petals of a failing cluster of zinnias, scooping it up from the few clinging leaves that remained.

Slowly, very slowly, Marinette began to smile - and as it spread, it felt easier. Warmer. Right, like it belonged there all along, but she just hadn't known it yet.

Adrien was a model, a friend, and so much more. Sure, he may not be out jumping along the rooftops, fighting crime with the city on his shoulders, but that amount of pressure was at least something Marinette could relate to. The bad and the good, he was just...

"Real," she murmured to the little ladybug, carefully placing it down on stronger soil so it might have a better chance to thrive.

No one heard her talking to herself, thankfully. The shop was empty but for her (and a sleeping Tikki in the back room, who seemed even more worn out than Marinette). It was just past one o'clock. The day hadn't given much in the way of sun, rain, or much of anything but dreary, pewter clouds. As a result, the streets were sparse of people, and the constant gray overcast that shrouded the Paris skyline was ever-threatening the streets with rain. Though the clouds had not yet blanketed the city in sheets of rain, an occasional rumble overhead made it clear that it wouldn't be long.

Rainy days in general were even slower than normal. It never did bother her, especially not today.

In fact, Marinette was pretty sure she preferred this pace, quiet and gray, of her private garden at that very moment. Colors cast in muted hues and barely a sound, but for those warning roars of the coming storm, her plants plants seemed sleepy beneath the clouded skies - but maybe she was just projecting? After all, she was plenty tired from the late night before, and the usual bright backdrop of lush green and vibrant blooms were not gray in a lifeless way, but in the way the sea might look as the sun is just beginning to creep over the horizon. Calm. Radiating with potential, that comfort of the inbetween of life on full blast and total austerity. The scene was set to give her some much-needed time to be alone with her thoughts, to process, to work on this damn puzzle

Deep breath, she reminded herself. Just another hour.

After getting home two minutes before her curfew the previous night, Adrien politely stayed behind to bid her family goodnight, and to her, a private word. Just thinking about what was supposed to be a "quick" conversation made her face burn red and her heart race so severely that Marinette ducked her head, even when there was no one around to notice.

It had taken the a proper week of their budding relationship for her to really believe it wasn't all a dream... or worse, a delusion. Things had been going well… too well, if she was being honest. Her life felt as if it had been split in half, one foot in the realm of clumsy-everyday Marinette and the other tipping on her toes, a smiley-kissy-unreal version of herself whenever Adrien was around. The whole thing seemed unreal; a fantasy, a Disney movie, a fairy tale. But then, Marinette was no princess. She was still fidgety and awkward and didn't know how to handle herself around him. Princesses don't have day-jobs that have them up early the next day.


The previous evening

Ever gracious, Adrien pulled out the intricate metal stool for her to take a seat. Marinette smiled politely, but shook her head.

"Thank you, but I'll stand. The dress might snag."

The blond eyed her distrustfully for a moment, thinking she was just again denying him the chance to be a gentleman, so she twirled lightly in her ballet flats to exaggerate the pouf of her skirt. It was mostly tulle with a fine silk lining underneath, neither of which would bode well against sharp objects or pointed corners. Better just to not risk it.

After a moment, Adrien adopted an adorable smirk and merely shook his head, taking the seat. "Suit yourself," he quipped, adjusting his tie.

Marinette was almost made dizzy by her eye-roll.

It was about fifteen 'til eleven, and the show would be starting soon. Nino, seated opposite Adrien with his girlfriend propped on his knee, didn't seem half as concerned about the time as Marinette would have expected.

They'd only left Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle about twenty minutes ago, and they'd finished crossing the Seine but hadn't made it to the Louvre yet. The streets were crowded as the dinner-hour, but with dark sky above and dazzling streetlamps warming the passing faces, Paris was alive and the night seemed still young, still full of potential.

"I think things will start a little late, to no one's surprise," the DJ declared, taking a hearty slurp from his iced tea and turning his phone around, displaying some Twitter feed Marinette didn't know. Alya snatched Nino's drink and stole a sip herself, silencing his protests with a suggestive wink.

Busying herself with a mango boba tea of her own, Marinette wasn't really heeding their flirting any mind. In truth, it was taking everything in her to not complain, so keeping her lips sealed seemed the better option altogether.

After all, she was deadbeat tired.

Spent.

Exhausted.

Drained.

Her feet hurt to the point where her legs actually began to ache, the weight of many hours of walking and many more hours of work seeping into her bones. Only slightly bitter, Marinette certainly wished she could have accepted Adrien's invitation to sit, but she undoubtedly wasn't going to ruin the amazing dress he had somehow gifted her by sitting on a metal chair. Sitting on his lap was an option - as Nino and Alya were demonstrating clear as day a few feet away, their giggling dying with a rather aggressive bout of kissing - but she trembled to even think of something so brash. If Adrien offered, she would eagerly (probably too eagerly) accept, but she couldn't imagine the thought coming from her lips in the form of a suggestion.

So instead, Marinette hummed quietly to herself and savored their third stop of the evening for random food. The mango was sweeter than the Summer night air, and the odd texture of the boba made for a tart and interesting surprise when mixed with the straight sugar of the drink.

It didn't take long for her attention to wander from her friends as Adrien began to question Nino on some of the show's details, probably in an attempt to stop him and Alya from sticking their tongues in each others mouths. Not only was the show something difficult for Marinette to be excited for - her poor, poor feet were protesting at the mere mention - the girl found it surprisingly easy to get lost in the passings of people around her. An evening like this was like a blood moon; rare, captivating, and impossible to overlook.

Paris was never dark at night, not really, but the vibrancy and brightness that flooded the streets on this particular evening were by no stretch a normal sort of light. There was energy in the cobbled roads, spirit in the trees that decorated the XXX adronisment. Admiring smiles, bright bubbles of laughter, anxious chattering - all of it was a melody, and the city was the orchestra pit. Music wove through the lamp-lit streets, the notes a gift that Marinette wanted to treasure for as long as she could.

Her quiet studies turned solemn after a minute or two. Down the sidewalk, where the road turned to a side-street, she had spotted a familiar face. It tugged at her heart, driving an uncomfortable wedge between the bodice of her dress and her ribcage, where her arteries began to thrum frantically.

"I'll be right back," she announced abruptly, cutting Nino off mid-sentence.

Realizing her rudeness, she smiled shyly at Adrien, sparing Nino and Alya only the briefest of glances. "S-Sorry, just, I see someone I know. I think. I'll… I'll be just one minute…"

Beside a curious raise of blonde brows, none of her friends had any sort of protest so she quickly skirted away.

At the corner, an old man sat and watched the streets, much as she had been doing moments ago. He was quiet and, as Marinette approached, she could tell he was sporting a wistful-looking smile.

A cardboard sign sat at his feet, along with a styrofoam cup from what could only be a gas station. From the angle she approached, Marinette couldn't read the sign, but given the circumstances she could only assume it was some sort of request for money. The nearer she got, the more her nose wrinkled at the uncomfortable smell of fish and grime.

Only a few feet away, Marinette took a wide but tentative step towards the corner. "Excuse me?"

At her call, the man blinked a few times and looked her way with a toothy grin. Despite the state of his wares, he had a surprisingly bright smile. The teeth within weren't particularly white, but the expression completely lit up his face.

"Aren't you… Wilhelm Naser?"

At first, the man didn't respond. He seemed almost suspicious of her dress and the degree of her extravagance, but his eyes softened once Marinette gave him a tiny smile.

"Yes. You probably know me as Pêcheur, though, don't you?"

"W-what? I-I, er, I mean…"

"From the papers. I get it. Everyone calls me that now, honestly. Did you need something?"

Marinette bit her lip, at least allowing herself a little relief that she hadn't accidentally outed herself. She only recognized him as the fisherman who had been akumatized last week because of her double life, not the news. The face-to-face encounter they'd had in the corridor of City Hall was still all too fresh in her mind.

Why did she even come over here? There wasn't really anything that prompted it, but, just seeing him, so familiar… and so sad, by himself… it drew her to the corner. She just had to know if it was him, hoping that she was wrong.

She wasn't.

With a weak nod, Marinette took another step closer.

"R-right… the papers," the lie came out so easily it bothered her, but she shoved the thought aside for now. "I saw… after the akuma attack, the mayor tried to take the fisherman's bill to…" Her voice trailed off when the man looked away, waving to an elderly couple who walked by.

"I'm surprised someone your age reads the paper, no offense," Monsieur Naser said with a wry smile once the pair passed them fully. "But yes. The bill was shot down."

"Oh," Marinette breathed out. She really didn't know what else to say - the pieces sort of fell into place. Wearily, she took another step, angling herself to read the sign.

TRAVAIL PERDU. J'AI DEUX ENFANTS.

TRAVAILLERA POUR DE LA NOURRITURE.

That hurt. Badly.

He had two kids, no job, and no food.

Marinette knew it was wrong, but, the whole mess felt painfully like her fault. Or, if not that, at least her responsibility to do something about it.

A compartment in the back of her mind told her she was being harder on herself than was necessary, but that voice was meek and was quickly drowned out by the sound of a passing group of teenagers who jeered at the old fisherman, words like dirty and gross mixed-in with their whisperings.

Hawkmoth had akumatized this civilian because the man was upset when his job was threatened, and Ladybug had taken away any chance he had to gain some sense of justice. Sure, the man's attack on the mayor and nearly killing herself and Chat Noir were a far cry away from getting real justice - a better economic state of affairs for the seafaring family-man - but it had been a glimmer of hope for him, hadn't it? Marinette had taken that away, and she felt her hands start to shake.

"What are your kids' names?" The dark-haired girl blurted, not sure what came over her. She positioned herself between the man and the snarky teenagers, hoping to provide some sort of barrier.

He nearly jumped to get out his wallet, his enthusiasm palpable in the cool night breeze.

"Juliet and Liam," Monsieur Naser offered proudly, holding up a photo from his battered-looking coin purse. Marinette bent slightly, careful not to mess up her gown, and accepted the picture in her free hand.

Of course. They had to be the cutest children in all of Paris.

Marinette's heart shattered just a bit more, sighing as she returned the photo to him.

"They're precious little ones," she said without any sort of conviction. Monsieur Naser seemed to pick up on her sullen reaction, and waved a half-hearted wrist towards her.

"Really, Mme., it's okay. We're getting along okay." He tucked the picture back into his wallet and put the well-worn piece of leather away.

Marinette felt a lump form in her throat, but she pushed it down. With great effort, she tried to force herself to sound sympathetically-curious rather than devastatingly-guilty.

"Do you… did you lose your job because of Lad- er, because of the akuma?"

Monsieur Naser hooked a bristly gray eyebrow up at her, and his beard twitched into something of a smirk.

"Nah," he said, adjusting his cap and averting his gaze. "Don't worry about me, Mme. My job was on its way out before anything Ladybug or Chat Noir could have done. It's a bigger issue than just me, you know? Politics, bah!"

Lips pursed, Marinette began to speak when her bitter curiosity was interrupted by the voice of a child. A dark brown crown of curls leapt past her, and a small girl dropped a few coins into Monsieur Naser's cup. She waved shyly towards him and turned on her heel, her orange-red striped kabyle robe twirling around her shins. A brown complexion and amber eyes, sparkling and full of life, looked up to meet Marinette's wary gaze.

"Puh-'incess! You look like… like a Puh'-ncess! It's - it's pretty!"

And just like that, the girl promptly bolted without another word, ducking behind her mother a dozen or so yards down the street. The woman smiled knowingly at her daughter and sent the odd pair a mismatched wave, and the once-fisherman returned it with the most enthusiastic "merci!" Marinette had ever heard.

"See? Paris does what it can. We'll be okay - my kiddos will be okay," the man repeated once the mother-daughter duo continued down the streets, getting drawn into a magic performance on the main drag. It would have been reassuring, if Monsieur Naser didn't sound like he was trying to convince himself of the same thing.

"I wish I could help, but I haven't any money," Marinette offered quietly, holding her hands out to the sides. With the gown and the plans of the evening, she hadn't even thought to bring a purse. Alya was carrying her cell phone and her wallet in her own bag, and she knew it didn't have any cash.

"Um, Marinette?"

Monsieur Naser and the so-named girl turned abruptly, surprised by a new voice that entered the conversation. Her heart squeezed with a different sort of fear when she realized it belonged to Adrien, though it took her several long seconds of blinking to even recognize him; she had been that lost in her train of thought.

"Oh. Hey." She greeted lamely, not sure what to do. Monsieur Naser adopted that same approachable grin from earlier and held a hand high above his head towards Marinette, seeing as the man was still seated in front of his cardboard sign.

"It's Marinette, then? You're a sweetheart, but really, I'll be okay. Go have fun with your friends."

"No, I'm interrupting," Adrien said with a hand raised, taking another step nearer. His own lips were tight, and if Marinette didn't know better, she thought he seemed a bit paler than usual, his gaze locked on Monsieur Naser's face. "Aren't you the man from the akuma the other day - Wilhelm -"

" - Naser, yes. And you're Adrien Agreste. A face I'd know anywhere!" The man finished for him, leaning back on his tail-bone to widen his view of the both of them. Marinette felt shame color her cheeks, realizing that the way she and Adrien had greeted him is probably all he's known by anymore. Did that happen to other akuma victims? Did their lives ever just sort of… not go back after she used her Lucky Charm?

Adrien offered a handshake, clearly a little unsure of the whole situation, and inched closer to Marinette.

"I'm so sorry to hear about your job, Monsieur Naser," Adrien said quietly, and Marinette glanced over at him in surprise. He sounded nearly as affected as she felt, but the man just released a low sigh and pushed himself to standing.

He was taller than Marinette, but shorter than Adrien. His wild beard and lackluster clothes made him look something of a feral Santa Claus, though Monsieur Naser was a bit thinner than the typical jolly red character. Hands brushing together to rid them of excess dirt, he sighed at the pair of them with a sort of tired amusement.

"Is this your girl?" Monsieur Naser asked lightly, directing the question towards Adrien.

A hand quickly tucked itself beneath her elbow, round the far-side of her waist. Marinette sucked in a sharp inhale of air, but thankfully, was not pressed to respond.

"Yes." Adrien answered. There was no hesitation, and the bluenette felt her face grow even warmer.

Monsieur Naser ran a hand down his chin and through his beard, apparently deep in thought. "You both seem like nice kids. I can't ask you to stick around with me all night, because I'm not exactly a hot-date," he gestured his tattered clothes with a witty grin, and Marinette couldn't help but crack a small smile. It still felt wrong, but she couldn't help it.

"But listen, I appreciate you stopping to check on me. I really do. It means a lot to know that there's people out there who can spare a word and a smile to - "

"Wait, Monsieur Naser," Adrien interrupted, blinking suddenly. He tapped around his suit pockets until securing his wallet, and Marinette cringed. Was he really going to give the man money? For some reason, that made her feel even more awful - Adrien shouldn't pay for Ladybug's mistakes, literally or figuratively.

To her surprise, though, he fished out a business card instead of paper or coins. The fisherman blinked twice at it, looking back and forth from Adrien and Marinette with a skeptical look.

"Le Grand Paris? I don't think I can afford those digs," he remarked with a cheeky smile. "Thanks, though."

"No, no," the blonde shook his head and tucked away his own wallet. "I know the owners. It's not much, but I am 100% certain they could give you some kind of work. The Hotel is always looking for staff, if you don't mind working with your hands. It probably wouldn't be as satisfying as working on a boat, but…"

Marinette inadvertently began to squeeze Adrien's hand at her hip, and she was sincerely surprised to realize she was blinking away tears. Why was she getting so emotional? Talk about embarrassing, she thought ruefully, but couldn't bring herself to stop.

"I - wait, are you…? Do you mean this? Monsieur Agreste, I can't - this was my fault, it wouldn't be right to…"

"Please. It's the least I can do." He sounded sadder than Marinette would have expected. "Chat Noir and Ladybug… Paris owes you this much. If there's work and I can help get you in, then it would be wrong of me not to. It wouldn't be fair to your kids for me not to."

Both men stared at each other for a long moment, no movement but for the shaky piece of cardstock in Monsieur Naser's hand. He looked much more severe without his signature grin, and Adrien beside her appeared stern and, if Marinette didn't know any better, guilty.

The tension quickly became too much, so the girl squeaked a few sounds of distress and discomfort that broke the silence.

"It's Adrien," Marinette chirped. Two pairs of eyes, green and gray, blinked suddenly and looked at her.

She could feel herself begin to simmer with embarrassment, but Monsieur Naser deserved a little better than her bashful shame or hung head - Adrien was right. Paris owed him this much.

"What?" The blond asked eventually, not unkindly.

Marinette pursed her lips and nodded, feeling a wave of unsolicited confidence boil in her blood.

"It's Adrien," she repeated, directing her attention to the old fisherman. He looked rather like a deer in headlights, but did not interrupt. "Not Monsieur Agreste. That would be… that would be his Dad, or him using his last name to give you this. But he's not like that, Monsieur Naser, I promise."

His beard twitched, the lips beneath finally moving towards something like a smile. Marinette used that as an opportunity to continue.

"This is just… Adrien. I know him, and I promise, if he wants to help you, he'll do whatever he can. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. Chloe - er, the Bourgeois family, the ones who own the hotel - aren't going to make things easy on you. They want people who will work hard; I just finished doing a contract for them myself. I've got the scars to show for it."

Marinette glanced down at her hands, smirking at the bandage around her palm where her shears had sliced a clean line down the center. She wasn't joking; it very well might leave a scar.

"But you… you and Liam and Juliet, and maybe your wife or - or their mother, you said you'll be okay. I don't doubt it for a second, Monsieur Naser, but if Adrien can help you be better than okay, I'd say take him up on that offer. You're… what you're going through, for them, is not just okay. It's impressive and selfless and just… just let him help. Let Adrien help you, and when your arms are sore and legs are stiff and you just want to go to sleep at the end of the day from working so hard, then you can thank him. So, please?"

She kept the waver from her voice until the very last words, smiling towards the business card and hoping her face looked earnest. It was probably closer to pained or exasperated, but she supposed that would have to do.

"I… yes. Yes, okay." The fisherman wiped a hand across his eyes, and to Marinette and Adrien's surprise, lunged forward and engulfed them both in a hug. "You kids… you're something else, you know that? Thank you. Thank you."

Adrien looked over his head towards Marinette, and when he caught her eye, he sent her a grateful nod before hugging the man back. It was an awkward group embrace, but Marinette couldn't care less about how strange they probably looked or if the tulle of her skirt was getting a little wrinkled.

While the man was the one to initiate the hug, Marinette was pretty sure she needed it more than he did. It was warm and safe, like hugging her own father, but the shaky laugh Monsieur Naser released when he pulled away spoke volumes. He didn't know it, but it was the one thing she needed more than anything.

Forgiveness.

The man didn't know she was Ladybug, so he wasn't forgiving her. He was allowing Marinette to forgive herself.

After some vigorous reassurances and more than a few sighs of relief from all three of them, Adrien and Marinette finally untangled themselves from the weather-worn man and bid him farewell. He scooped up his sign and took out his wallet again, skirting down an alley and waving over his shoulder while he went.

Quietly, the pair took a slow pace as they returned towards Nino and Alya. Marinette was studying the intricate cobblestone, unsure of what she could possibly say.

Adrien, thankfully, took on that burden for her.

"Thank you."

Surprised, Marinette glanced up and blinked twice. "What?"

The night looked like it was starting to catch up to him, small bags squeezing against his cheek bones when he smiled. "I said, thank you. If you hadn't told Monsieur Naser that… I don't know if he would have accepted."

"Oh. Um…" She licked her lips, trying to keep a conversational distance from the whole Ladybug and Chat Noir side of the topic. It made her mind work a little slower, making her take several seconds to answer.

"I was only being honest," she said with a concentrated scowl. "The man has worked with his hands his whole life. The sea was his life… I couldn't imagine waking up one day and realizing the bakery was out of business because of some union dispute - not that my parents are in a union, or anything."

She shrugged before continuing, and Adrien nodded along. "I guess it would be hard to just… have a huge part of your life swept out from under you. I get the feeling that he just needed someone to remind him that it's okay to not be okay. There's nothing wrong about wanting to be better."

The thought hang in the silence between them for a moment, and before either could comment, Nino hollered over in their direction from the front of the cafe.

"Aye! It's time to go!"

Marinette grinned despite herself, feeling a little burst of enthusiasm when she saw how visibly excited the DJ-to-be was. Alya was perched beside him, holding his hand patiently like a Mom taking their child to Disney World.

"We'd better hurry before Nino loses it," she quipped, taking a few hurried steps forward and turning around so she was facing Adrien.

In an attempt to finish out the evening with some amount of normalcy intact, she fixed her face into a smile and met his eyes. "Ready?"

Adrien stopped walking momentarily, and gulped.

"Oh. Yes. Ready."

The concert was just as concert-y as Marinette anticipated it would be. Lots of pushing and happy cheering, vivid colors and flood lights blotting out the stars, and music so loud Marinette was positive it was in her bloodstream, forcing her pulse to flux with the backbeat. The only thing that was a little strange was seeing Clara on stage with a weird amount of recognition - with Jagged Stone, for instance, she felt like she really knew him. Clara, though, she sort-of-knew, but a lot of their interactions had been when she was akumatized. Her thoughts kept drifting back to Monsieur Naser and how handily his life had fallen apart after the akuma attack, but now with a small amount of peace. She hadn't been the one to lose him his job, and though she was the one to take away his hope - she could at least credit herself and Adrien as being the ones to restore it.

By the time the concert was over, the couples bid one another goodbye; Alya and Nino assured they'd be fine when they offered to walk back to the Cesaire house for the night. After mild protesting, Marinette reluctantly let them go with the promise that they would text the group when they were safely at home. When all was said and done, Marinette was so sleepy that she barely cringed when Adrien put his hand on her lower back, helping to guide her into the backseat of the silver sudan she'd come to associate with a fluttery happiness in her stomach. Adrien slipped into the backseat beside her, looking about as exhausted as she felt.

They sat in silence for the brief car ride back towards the bakery, and Marinette was grateful. It didn't feel like a heavy, awkward silence where she'd be burdened to think of something to say - in all honesty, she was too tired for that even if it was that kind of silence. No, this was more of a fleeting peace, a restitute from the warm night air and aching feet and longheld secrets. In the back of that car, even if it was just five minutes, she was just Marinette, and she was just sitting with Adrien, and she was just going home. No akumas, no guilt, to haunting sense of responsibility. No work, no flowers, no croissants. No homework, no math exam, no detention. She just was, and it was serene and somehow thrilling at the same time.

As soon as the car stopped, Marinette let herself out the door, unable to stop herself from smirking by the little pout Adrien put on. Stubborn as he was, he got out of the car with her and walked her towards the front. Her parents were inside, beaming and waving, and they quickly popped through the doorway to give pleasantries.

Once her parents seemed satisfied, she caught look of Adrien's expression and was surprised to see how stressed he appeared. Too pale, clearly exhausted, and eyes dimmed by some unknown troubles.

"Um, Mari?" He coughed, looking carefully at her. She felt a warm rush of color find its way to her cheeks, infallibly flustered whenever he spoke directly to her like this.

"Y-Yes?"

"Can I… um… a word. Just a second. Let's step outside?" He gestured towards the door, and Marinette rose a brow. Something seemed off, and not just the needing-more-sleep kind of way. There was almost… fear in his voice? No, that couldn't be right. Could it?

Mutely, she nodded and led them just outside, and she tried to pull together something that might reassure whatever was troubling him.

"I'll see you soon… maybe tomorrow?" Marinette asked, almost cringing at how hopeful she sounded. They stood under the warm lights of the bakery that streamed through the front windows, much of the streets having gone dark and silent by the late hour. The sign of her parents shop creaked overhead in the night breeze, and Adrien appeared to be watching it, deep in thought. Marinette could tell there was something bothering him, but she didn't know if it was appropriate to ask. The best she could do was smile patiently, if not for him, then to mask her burning anxiety over his silence.

"...Yeah. Maybe tomorrow." He answered eventually, blinking a few times before finally meeting her gaze - but only for a moment. He quickly glanced down at his watch. "Sorry. I'm uh… tired."

Marinette leaned away and nodded, not sure what else to say - things were starting to almost feel awkward. Had she done something wrong? Was he having second thoughts? Maybe she'd misread everything. Maybe she had been too forward in the garden earlier, blurting out how amazing she thought he was so early. She guessed she seemed absolutely foolish.

He probably is trying to think of a way out, or - or he's trying not to hurt my feelings.

It's not like she hadn't always known it was a possibility, but after having so much… so much happiness in the past week, the prospect of losing him now ripped her throat like she'd swallowed burnt toast and decided to use acid as a chaser.

Forcing an even tone, Marinette warily looked at the door.

"Well…" It had to happen eventually. "If you're, um, you know… if you didn't have fun tonight, or something, I wouldn't be offended."

The lie was tied off with a clench in her jaw, but Marinette forced herself to continue with some amount of dignity.

"If you just wanted… to be, um, friends again… I -"

Adrien gripped her shoulders suddenly, attention snapping to her face.

"What? Wait - what are you saying?"

Marinette thought she heard her brain rattle when he held her, or maybe that was her heart fluttering in her ears. Whatever it was, shaking around inside of her, it was quiet, but so present. For a moment, it filled her completely, an impossible sound that was hard to tell if it was a sad song or a sweet melody. It reminded her suspiciously of hope, but she'd gotten used to beating down that urge after three years of pining so she tried to dispel it entirely.

Just this once, you stupid feelings. Be quiet, just this once.

Tuning out her own buzzing brain, Marinette sighed heavily and averted her gaze. "I - you seemed upset? Or… I guess I just figured you decided I wasn't... that you wanted to go back to being just friends. I - I would understand! Tonight was fun - at least, sorry, it was for me. But if you..."

She trailed off, watching his expression shift with understanding.

Confusion furrowed his perfect brow for a few seconds, and Adrien looked like he'd forgotten how to speak French and was trying to remember how to conjugate all over again. Once the moment passed, however, his face flickered to horror, just for a flash of a moment, before lighting up into a smile so brilliant it almost made her stumble backwards. If not for his steady hands on her shoulders, she very well might have done just that.

"Marinette - no. No, no, no. I can't - just, no. Never, ever think that. I'm so sorry. I wasn't - I was just trying to - I mean… ugh, how can I explain this? I feel like a jerk now, I didn't mean..." He sighed and lowered his hold on her, but not completely. His hands slid down her arms, trailing a tingle of icy awareness in their wake, and his fingers came to rest on her own. She didn't want to let the feeling, that blissful, wonderous feeling creep back into her chest, but it did anyways. It was turning her skin pink, and her pulse began to race - surely, she was imagining that his touch seemed alarmed, like he was worried she might disappear if he let go?

Tumultuous feelings smacked around her ribcage, sending her heart into a mad spiral of emotion. She had been so certain that he had made up his mind to end things, that now the metaphorical whiplash felt almost literal, her neck tight with tension as he struggled to find whatever words were escaping him.

"I promised you - earlier. In the garden… I had to tell you something. I just got caught up with Nino and Alya, and then we ran into Monsieur Naser and then the concert right afterwards... I got off-track. But I know I don't want to lie to you, I just really want to... be able to be honest with you. This is weird and confusing. I'm sorry."

Marinette opened her mouth, but didn't really have any words prepared, so she just released a tiny, "Oh."

Adrien didn't seem surprised, and he began to fidget with his jacket.

"Right. Now I've just made it cryptic and weirder. Um, so, you know… So I wanted to… I wanted to tell you something. But I forgot to do it earlier, and now I feel like, I don't want it to be rushed… It's important, so I want to be able to actually talk about it. But now I feel like I'm lying if I don't tell you, or stalling, or something. Ugh."

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and when he resurfaced, something changed. A force awoke behind his emerald eyes, a resolve that made Marinette's worries still.

"I wanted to ask if you can wait, and I promise, promise this time, I'll tell you everything. Can we talk about it tomorrow? I'll tell you everything, and I promise - it's nothing bad! Really, or at least, I hope you won't think it's bad."

Adrien was watching her imploringly, his voice becoming steadier as he finished. Marinette, by comparison, genuinely didn't know what she was feeling anymore. It was like her whole mind and body had numbed itself from trying to process and reason out too much all at once. For some inane reason, her imagination cooked up an image of those stupid huge wheels from game shows, and her emotions were flicking by as the spinner began to lose momentum. Fear flashed by in fat pink letters, then replaced by Hope, Happy, fat pink Fear again, Worry, Anxiety, a very thin sliver of Happy again, and a very long set of Confusion that ultimately clicked the wheel to a stop.

"Oh! So close!" The fake-host would say, the pointer just skirting past the edge of Confusion, landing on Emotional Bankruptcy.

It was all just too much to handle, and she was too tired, had been drawn too thin, and the long-awaited snap had clearly sent her over some sort of edge of sanity.

Adrien didn't leave her alone to her thoughts for long, though. Carefully, he used the back of his hand to brush aside some of her fringe, and Marinette felt her spine shiver. The gooseflesh that pricked her forearms was embarrassingly obvious, but she tried to rub it away anyways.

"Marinette. I had a great time tonight, with you I don't think I've had such a fun time - maybe ever? And that's saying something - I've done some pretty crazy stuff."

Though still troubled, she couldn't fully stifle the short chuckle that escaped her. He wouldn't believe half the crazy stuff she had done, if telling him she was Ladybug was an option.

"Someday I'll have to hear about this crazy stuff," she teased with a small smile.

Adrien laughed, visibly relieved. "Oh, I think you'll find out soon. Whether or not you'll believe it is another story..."


Present

Obviously, Marinette was working herself up - probably over something that wasn't all that important - but the curiosity burned her lips and boiled her blood. She'd never seen Adrien so nervous before, and it was impossible to know what he could have possibly wanted to tell her. Late last night, her speculations had kept her up despite the exhaustion. The questions bubbled up her throat madly, trying to find purchase in the still night air of her bedroom. Overhead, the moon hung almost sadly above her skylight, trying to wish her some peace so she might be able to sleep. It came eventually, but not before a few birds began to sing beyond her window.

Finishing the watering for the day, Marinette heard a few droplets of rain begin to splatter on the ceiling of the greenhouse. She glanced up, watching the skies open, and tried to let the sounds soothe her. Adrien said he would be coming to see her around two. She just had to wait and she would have her answers.

Marinette plodded gently to the back room, spotting a red kwami curled up on her purse, awake. Her blue eyes were open and looking down at Marinette's phone, almost looking annoyed.

The company and conversation would make for a great distraction, and Marinette sat down at the desk.

Smiling, she tilted her head to the side. "Hi, Tikki. Feeling better?"

The kwami opened her mouth and let out a huge yawn, still looking down at the phone. "Mmm. I think so. How are you holding up?"

"Well I probably only drowned four or five of my flowers, so, okay." She smiled at her own joke, and Tikki giggled. "I just wish I could know now… The whole thing was just… just so unlike Adrien. I hope it's nothing, like, that could impact his health or something. I feel like WebMD. My mind just keeps going 'he must have cancer' or 'he's got a rare condition and only has a month to live.'"

At that, her kwami snorted and shook her head. Marinette grinned sheepishly, knowing how ridiculous she sounded - though, to be honest, she was only conflating the truth for the joke by a tiny bit.

"Well, seeing as your life isn't a teen novel, it's probably not something life threatening," Tikki said after her amusement settled. "Young Couple Finally Gets Together, and then He Dies… I'm skeptical."

"Good point," Marinette answered with a smirk. "...Although I'd feel really bad now if that is what's happening."

"Oh, Marinette…" her kwami sighed. "I know I've probably said it too many times, but you do worry yourself too much. Maybe it could even be good news?"

Nodding, the girl adjusted her apron and crossed her legs. She looked up at the glass ceiling, watching the storm pick-up.

"See, I considered that too. The only good news I could think of might be something with his parents. Maybe they found out what happened to his mother, or maybe his father has decided to be… I don't know? Nicer, to him?"

There was a long pause, longer than Marinette thought necessary for such banal brainstorming. She glanced down at the desk to see Tikki scowling, arms crossed, looking like she'd just been told she wasn't allowed to have cookies for a month.

"Tikki?"

Her kwami blinked deliberately.

"Hmm? Oh," she pulled herself into the air, floating gently a foot from Marinette's face. "Sorry. I was, er… thinking. I guess I'm not sure what… Adrien might want to tell you. I guess I… wouldn't worry, since you don't… umm…"

Clearly, there was something on her red companions mind. Out of the both of them, Marinette was usually the one tripping over her words.

"Tikki, what's wrong? Are you still tired?" The teen asked, offering Tikki her palms to rest in. Biting her lip, Tikki shook her head, anteane bouncing in response.

"No, no… I just… Hmm. I think you won't need my advice for this one. I believe in you, getting through whatever it is Adrien needs to tell you. You're smarter and stronger than you know, so…!"

Before Marinette could open her mouth to respond, Tikki flew away and phased through the wall - something she was known to do when she would go hide in the Banks' roses.

"H-Hey! Tikki, are you sure you're okay!?" Marinette shouted, hopping up immediately. While she appreciated her kwami's confidence - indeed, her heart was swelling at the reassurances - it was also really unlike Tikki to just leave Marinette on her own to something. The kwami's advice was like a cornerstone to her confidence; it kept the tower from crumbling, a foundation that she could always rely on.

Half-foot through the front, Marinette nearly leapt out of her skin when there was a knock at the back door. Scowling, she tried to spot where Tikki may have hidden, but she quickly gave up at went to the door. Their delivery team usually didn't show until around three, but they must be early; Tikki would have to hide anyways, so Marinette decided to suspend their conversation for now.

Carefully undoing the lock, she tried to remember how to talk like a normal human being, whose mind wasn't thrumming with worries and questions and a definitely unhealthy amount of happiness, so much that it was almost cruel. How could she ever live knowing how it felt to be this happy all the time?

That question might freak out the delivery man, she thought wryly and opened the door.

"Hey there, looks like you're a - Chat Noir?"


Dripping wet, Chat Noir smiled sheepishly while the grumbling flower girl retrieved him a towel… again.

"Hi, Purr-incess. I hope you don't mind. It was raining, and you are always so kind and accepting of me." He batted his lashes as Marinette tossed him a navy towel, identical to the one he used the last time this happened.

She rolled her eyes and smiled, and sparklers burned in his chest at how beautiful a sight it was.

"No problem, Chat. Though you should really consider seeing if there's an umbrella attachment for your baton."

He laughed, tail swishing. "I'll have to look into that. Maybe you'd design one for me?"

Marinette crossed her arms and raised a brow, standing in front of the desk. "It would cost you. And I'm not cheap."

"I'd spare no expense for someone so lovely," he said, honestly, though Marinette didn't know that.

"Pfft," she plopped down at her chair, gesturing the chaise. "Wanna sit? I have some time to kill until two. Unless customers come, which means -"

Chat wasted no time making himself comfortable in his practically assigned seat - curling slightly, he smiled contently and closed his eyes.

Sleepily, he huffed an indignant little noise. It was easy to forget that he'd been here so frequently as Adrien that the rules were all but ingrained into his head. Naturally, Marinette would feel the need to re-explain.

"No noise, no trouble." He quipped, sparing her the need. "I'll be a good kitten, purr-omise."

Besides a eye roll and a smirk, Marinette didn't bother scolding him for the puns. She merely shook her head and sighed.

They were quiet momentarily after that, and Chat didn't mind the slightest. Maybe it was something he carried over from being Adrien, or maybe it was just his cat-like tendencies, but rainy days had always been something he had a sort of love-hate relationship with. He hated getting wet, which made patrols miserable, his hair would get in his eyes, the suit felt sticky and too cold, and it was so freakin' loud in his ears, at least when he was outside. If he could stay inside, though, he practically adored stormy days, the quiet peace provided by a storm kept photographers away, and it helped him to relax. Let the world carry on the chaos for awhile; Chat was content to watch from the window.

Now that Chat no longer had droplets of water soaking his mask, he could see Marinette properly - and boy, did she looked tired. Unsurprisingly, Chat guessed she probably was after last night… and the day before that. And the week before that, now that he thought about it. She'd basically been drowning in work since the last time he popped in during a thunderstorm, recalling her small confession as to how cumbersome a job she had.

That's a loaded question, chaton.

While his civilian-self had been able to help in small doses, Chat frowned at the dark circles that framed her delicate blue eyes. The constant labor-intensive work, piled atop a general lack of sleep, constant responsibility, and socializing (meaning you're part of the problem, idiot) was probably started to catch up with her. Really, Chat felt tired just thinking about how she could possibly keep up with it all.

"Chat? Are you okay?" Marinette was leaning forward now, eyeing him carefully.

Blinking, Chat realized he was staring at her blanky. He flushed and prayed Marinette might not notice from the amount of his face covered by his mask.

"Of course!" He responded, shaking his hair out. "Just daydreaming. I was just, uh, thinking about…"

How incredible you are? How stupid I am to be doing this?

How Ladybug is probably going to murder me?

"Errr… how I… how I hadn't seen you since the akuma!" He blurted the first lie that he could dream up, and facepalmed internally. Suave.

Marinette didn't seem phased, thankfully. She grabbed her familiar clipboard and looked at it absently.

"Oh, right. That was a strange one. The lady actually ended up being really nice…"

"Is that so?" Chat replied, eager for a distraction. "Considering she tried to turn you into a working-zombie, that's quite a nice thing to say."

"Well…" Marinette smiled, scribbling something in the margins of her notes. "She was under a lot of pressure. I wasn't exactly the nicest person to her, either. Not that it was an appropriate response to go and grab a bunch of people around Paris and then zombify everyone, but, I sort of see her side of things, too."

She paused, tapping her chin. Chat considered weighing in, but the thoughtful knit in her brow suggested she was not yet finished. Placidly, he decided to listen to the rain, heavy and calamitous as it washed the city clean.

After several long seconds, Marinette seemed to find the words she was looking for and met his eye.

"Hey, Chat?"

"Hi," he teased, knowing she was trying to get his attention - not a greeting.

As sure as the sunrise, she scowled in his direction before continuing.

"Do you ever… or rather, after an akuma, are you okay? I never thought about it until Madam Pomeroy - er, the Planificateur - and last night I actually saw - met, I actually met Pêcheur. It was a total coincidence, but..." she trailed off, biting her lip.

Unwittingly, the cat grimaced and averted his eyes. It shouldn't have come as such a surprise that Marinette had been thinking about their accidental encounter with Monsieur Naser. After all, it's almost all he had been able to think about since they walked away from him on that noisy Paris street corner.

"Ahh…" he started, unsure of how to answer.

He decided to go with the generic superhero response. (Although, his brain argued, if you're going to tell her who you are anyways, then why bother hiding how you feel? The other side of his conscious, trained to protect his identity at all costs, scolded that part of him - and then there was the part of him that sat idly by, kicking his feet and waiting for the right moment to tell her, tuning out the heart-mind argument entirely. Honestly, the whole amalgamation of Adrien-Chat personalities struggling in his head right now were distracting enough that he nearly forgot the subject entirely).

A beat later, Chat cleared his throat and tried again. "It's okay. Mostly, I'm happy the people are safe. No one has ever gotten hurt or seriously injured from any of the akumas, thanks to Ladybug... So as long as everyone's okay, then I'm okay, too!"

He tried for one of his most believing smiles, but Marinette seemed severe.

"Well, I'm glad you see it that way. I guess it's good that… Ladybug is able to fix the physical damage. That is the most important part - everything else is just social stuff that needs to be ironed out."

"Exactly. To some extent, I can't help but hope everything goes back to normal for the people involved, but it's hard to know where my responsibility as a superhero ends. How far - how much can I be accountable for that person? It's not the easiest question in the world," he mused quietly, not as saddened by the idea as he had been last night. The thin line of responsibility still wasn't very clearly defined for him, but being able to help even one person - Monsieur Naser - had felt like a huge accomplishment. Marinette, too, had the opportunity to help Madam Pomeroy after the woman had been akumatized, and though it was small, Adrien had been able to assist in that as well. Both cases had felt immensely rewarding, and the grips of guilt had slackened a bit.

"Akumas have become so common." He continued, tapping a claw to his chin. "It's not like, a good thing, necessarily. But most of the time I feel like people are accepting and forgiving of whoever was the victim, you know? It can happen to anyone for the most unexpected of reasons. Everyone deserves at least one bad day… Hawk Moth just makes that a little more literal."

Finalizing his statement, Chat shrugged and turned wearily in Marinette's direction with a small grin. A streak of life played across her features, turning into a beaming smile, and the hero swore it suddenly felt much stuffier in the small office. He made a pointed effort to look everywhere - anywhere - else.

The clock on the wall caught his eye. He was supposed to be here in about forty-five minutes, without the suit. Why did the days drag on when he so needed them to hurry?

"Thanks, Chat. I think that makes me feel a lot better… a-about you and Ladybug! I'm glad to know that you both… probably… feel okay with the way things are. It helps me understand you better."

The masked-hero smiled and nodded absently, still studying the clock. It felt sort of wrong to accept her thanks in that respect, because honestly, he didn't know if he believed what he was saying. Much less how Ladybug might feel, enigmatic as she was.

"Oh!" Marinette shot up suddenly, and Chat's glanced in her direction. "I just remembered - there's something I wanted to show you!"

He cocked his head to the side, eyes trailing after the quickly receding head of dark hair as it bounced around to the front of the store. Unabashedly, he took the opportunity to patiently rant to himself.

She's so pretty. So, so pretty. Ugh. I'm the luckiest unluckiest guy in the world.

When Marinette returned, she had two hands poised behind her back and sported a grin so wide it borderlined devilish. Chat couldn't help but return the expression, sitting up and leaning over the side of the chaise upon her approach.

"Oh, a surprise?"

"Yep! Well, sort of. It's not a gift or anything, but, I thought you'd appreciate this…" she paused and passed whatever-it-was behind her back, undoing the twisted circle of her fingers to reveal the secret she had hidden. In her hands, a small plastic pot sat with vibrant pink petals, wide and soft as they met around a brilliant yellow base. Something about them almost seemed Hawaiian, and to no surprise, Chat was entirely unable to identify whatever they were. He could at least recognize that they were supremely beautiful, and their odd shape and almost swollen-center made them unlike all the other flowers he had seen.

A smile fixed itself to his face, wonderous and curious as to what new mystery of botany she'd decided to share with him.

"What's this?" He leaned down to inhale the scent, which was subtle and oddly bittersweet.

"An anemone." Marinette answered matter-of-factly, stopping to set down the pot on her desk. She turned back to face him. "All this talk about akuams reminded me of these - but don't worry, they aren't your en-mone-y."

The girl across the room finger-gunned at the end of her joke. Promptly, her expression turned mortified when she realized her actions, face brighter than a dozen roses.

Unable to help himself, Chat began to positively cackle. He clutched his ribs and bent at the waist, trying to breathe through Marinette's obvious embarrassment. Her face turned the most hilarious, petulant shade of crimson he could imagine, and after pointing out as much, she punched him in the arm. It hurt, and Chat was only mildly concerned by the fact that he liked that it hurt.

"Mari, call me a smitten-kitten," he managed between some chuckles. "Please, tell me about these anemones. Do they have a weakness I should know about, in case I need to defend myself?"

Marinette was clearly fuming, but her good-nature allowed her to accept the teasing with only another punch to Chat's arm.

"Well, if you must know, I was intending to show them to you specifically because, while these are anemone, they're more colloquially called a lucky charm flower. It reminded me of you - of you and Ladybug - and I thought you would appreciate it. They're new blooms from the past few days."

Chat's tail danced with this knowledge, and he knelt beside the desk to come to eye-level with the tiny plant. "Oooh. This is a Lucky Charm, huh? It's got a lot less spots then the kind I'm used to. Colors are a bit more subtle, too."

Marinette snorted at that, and the cat felt a swell of pride fill his chest. Making her laugh was almost as brilliant as feeling the smile on her lips when they kissed - no, who was he kidding? That feeling was in a totally different stratosphere. But, making Marinette laugh still did feel pretty great.

Chat hummed to himself. "Well, I do appreciate you showing me. It's nice. It's sort of like…"

He glanced up at Marinette, who was occupying the space beside him at the desk. She leaned against it and looked down, meeting his gaze with a small smirk.

"It's like the Marinette version of Lucky Charm. If there's anyone that could fix a city and save the day with nothing but flowers, it'd probably be you."

Chat stood to full height again, only to be reminded of how adorably short Marinette was. Her head came only to his chin, if he was standing with perfect posture.

"O-oh," she replied in a low voice. "W-well, that's… that's nice of you to say… Heh. But me? Do a Lucky Charm - pfft. Hah! Good one."

If he could, he would've kissed the blush from her face (or, maybe, hopefully, elicited a second wave of the soft color in her cheekbones).

Well, you could. Just gotta tell her you're Adrien and, bam, you can kiss her!

Ladybug will have my head on a stake, though. Worth it?

Risking a glance at Marinette's lips, bowed and pink, he thought it might just have been reason enough to let his partner to kill him.

Ladybug…

Audibly groaning, Chat leaned his head back along his shoulders and took a step away, resting a hand against the desk in a show of exasperation. He furrowed his brow and studied the passing storm splash against the rooftop. Familiar guilt had returned, creeping up and clenching his abdomen painfully in the form of second thoughts and a maelstrom of doubts.

He, Adrien, promised Marinette that he'd explain himself. Surely, after he must have freaked her out last night, she deserved an explanation. More troubling than that, Chat was genuinely worried about the sustainability of their relationship if he didn't tell her about his secret identity - what if he had to sneak away during a date, or was unavailable to talk for no-good-reason? Lying to her constantly was going to wear him down, and the sweet girl standing at the desk deserved much better than his flimsy excuses.

Warning alarms flared in his head, sounding annoyingly like Plagg.

It's dangerous.

If you really care about her, would you put her in danger?

Is being happy more important than keeping her safe?

Does that justify lying? Not just sometimes, but always?

A shadow-puppet of the mind danced around his imagination, taking on shapes of every kind - joyous and sweet, with pigtails or braids. Swinging from rooftops and carrying flowers, or shadowy and angry with friendly eyes and crinkly smiles; more shapes, more feelings, they were starting to feel overwhelming.

"I have to go," Chat blurted, taking another step away. He glanced at the flower pot, small, pink and soft as the blooms framed the mess strewn about the desk.

Marinette, whose attention had wandered back down to her clipboard, looked up quizzically. Understanding came in the form of a frown.

"Oh. It hasn't even stopped raining." Did she sound disappointed? Did Chat want her to be disappointed? "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

He hopped towards the door, one hand at his hip and the other reaching for his baton.

"Well of course," Adopting a breezy, almost dismissive tone, Chat racked his brain for an excuse - another lie. "I've, uh, just got something to take care of with Ladybug, I just remembered! She'll never let me hear the end of it if I don't get going right meow."

Marinette's frown turned to a full scowl for a moment, but she ultimately shrugged and picked up the Lucky Charm flower. She placed it on a ledge by the door, looking almost mystical against the gray, water-kissed windows. "Well, if you ever need to ruin more towels, you know my couch is always open."

"An offer I won't soon forget," he practically mewled, bending at the waist to bow.

Marinette lowered her head slightly, keeping her eyes to the floor. "And - Chat? I know you… you never really told me what was happening with your, um, personal problems. And that's okay!" She straightened, hands up defenseively. "But I actually, um, wanted to say - the reason the plant is in the window is actually my invitation to you. If you ever need to talk, and you see the Lucky Charm in the window, that means I'm available and you don't have to knock and stand out in the rain anymore. The door's always open for you, if the, ah, Lucky Charm is there."

Throat dry, Chat weakly nodded. Marinette was so kind, it was almost starting to hurt, and the soft smile she gave him wasn't helping.

"Be safe, Chat Noir."

Don'tKissHerDon'tKissHerDon'tKissHerDon'tKissHer…

Barely, he managed to clear his throat and gave her a two-fingered salute instead. "Always, Princess."

Allowing himself get thoroughly soaked, again, Chat vaulted a few blocks the other direction and dropped between two buildings, finding a narrow thoroughfare that was mercifully clean as far as alley's went. He sighed and leaned his head against the bricks.

"I'm an idiot," he said as he turned his baton to face him like a phone, trying to reach Ladybug's yo-yo.

To his surprise, she answered on the first ring.

"Hello, minou," her clear, confident voice answered. "Something wrong?"

"How can you read me that easily, LB? Does the suit give you psychic powers, too?" He teased, and she just released an exasperated sigh.

"No, kitty, I just assumed you wouldn't call during the middle of a Sunday unless something was wrong - an akuma… or something else?"

"Right… right…" he said, stalling. God, she was going to kill him, wasn't she?

Clenching his jaw, Chat tried to sound casual. "So, listen… I haven't had the chance to tell you lately but, uh… I have a… friend now, who is - that is, she is, a girl. A friend-girl."

Amused, Ladybug replied, "I'm familiar with the concept."

"Heh, right. And she - well, actually, I'm dating now. Her. She's my… girlfriend."

There was a pause, and Chat wasn't sure what sort of reaction she might have. Part of him was tensing in wait for the laughter and teasing he half-expected, or to bashfully answer questions about Marinette without telling Ladybug too much, or for her all-business attitude to just ask "And…?"

What he did not forsee was the twinge of sadness that colored her tone when she answered. "Oh. Huh. That's… that's great, Chat. Congratulations."

"Is that… are you okay?" He asked, biting his lip.

"I'm fine," she snapped. Back to 'business as usual,' apparently. "So did you call just to clue me in, or was there something you needed?"

Chat cringed, but tried not to sound too affected for sake of the conversation. He wasn't done yet.

"Yeah, soooo… I did want something. Advice, sort of."

"Sure." Ladybug prompted.

Eyes shut, the hero quietly listened to the rain and his partner's steady breathing for a moment. It helped him to gather his thoughts.

"LB. You said before that there was - there was some guy that you were interested in. You don't have to tell me how that worked out or anything - I understand, it's personal." He paused, reflecting on the irony. "But if you did ever end up with him, did you plan… or imagine you would… tell him?"

Not unkindly, Ladybug said, "Tell him? Tell him what?"

"You know… about who you are. If he knows you beneath the mask, did you ever wonder… how do we do this, with people we date? I mean, I'm sorry to just sort of dump this on you -" he began to speak faster, his nerves getting the best of him. "But this girl, she's amazing, LB. I am seriously so happy with her. I just want to make her happy, and of course I don't want to put her in danger, but I hate lying to her. I know I shouldn't and I know it's unsafe, but I want to tell her my identity. I couldn't go through with it without talking to you first, because I realize we're a team, Bugaboo. I can't - I would never reveal anything about you, but I don't know if I can keep lying to her."

As the desperate rambling grew to a close, Chat allowed himself a long, slow inhale.

"I guess, what I'm asking - what would you do? You're the only person who could understand."

Once he finished, the pair fell into silence. Not the sort of companionable silence they often shared - no, this was darker, thicker, a mask of black. So dense it threatened to crush him, Chat refused to be the one to break it. He had said so much - too much, probably - but he couldn't take it back. In fact, even if he could, he wouldn't. Marinette was more important than suffering a little embarrassment.

Ladybug's voice, when it finally came, was soft. "Chat, I - I don't even know where to begin."

He waited, and she sighed. Words slowly stringed together, forming sentences that were uncharacteristically sad.

"Well… first of all, thank you for being honest with me. I'm glad you wanted to talk to me about it first because we are partners, and whoever this person is doesn't change that. We'll always have each other, so it's important that we approach these sorts of things together." She paused briefly.

"I… I can imagine this is a hard decision. I'm happy you have someone you care so much about. I have someone, too. I don't like lying to them. I don't like lying to my family, or my friends. Actually, I don't like lying, period. There isn't exactly a right answer to your questions, though. If you… don't tell her, you'll have to keep putting on the front. I get that, and it's hard. It's really hard. But you'll keep this person safe, and if you want to be with them and be at least happy some of the time with them, that requires them to be alive. I wouldn't put it past Hawk Moth - or anyone who doesn't like us - to target these people if they were ever connected to you. But, I'm honest when I say, I can't fault you for wanting to change that. If you could tell them, it would probably be a huge relief, and with proper care and planning, you could probably develop ways to keep them in particular safe during akuma attacks and the like. To make sure they aren't a tool used against you."

Ladybug went quiet for several long seconds, before adding, "To answer your question - what would I do? I wouldn't tell them, probably ever. And that absolutely, positively sucks, Chat. But I would pick lying to their face everyday over putting them in danger. And yet... I'm not you, Chat. I want to reach through the phone and throttle you for even thinking of doing something that irresponsible, but I can't… and not just because my phone doesn't do that." She hummed, tone a bit lighter. "Your life and her life will become much more complicated if you tell her. It's whether or not you believe she can be trusted, absolutely trusted, with the information. I don't want you to tell her, and things will be irrevocably different if you do. I'll still be your partner, no matter what happens, so… we'll face whatever happens together. Okay?"

As much as Chat wished he could say there was some grand moment of catharsis with Ladybug's words, he had no such luck. Anxiety roiled in his stomach as he tried to reach some sort of resolution , now with the added weight of his partner's input. It was a hopeless situation; he couldn't put Marinette in danger just to relieve himself of having to tip-toe around his identity. It was selfish and irresponsible, just as Ladybug pointed out. So why was accepting it so hard?

Certainly, Marinette didn't do anything to justify him putting her in danger, but along the same vein, what kind of person was he if he continued to lie to her everyday? He had no idea how long he could keep it up. Ladybug was stronger than he was, in more ways than one, and this conversation only served to remind him of that.

"Chat? You okay?" A sympathetic voice asked through the phone, and he answered her with a rare bit of emotional honesty.

"I don't know - not really. I mean, I just hate that we have to do this to the people we care about."

Gently, Ladybug responded, "It's because we care about them that we have to do this. I'm sorry, kitty."

"Nah, don't apologize. At least talking as sort of cleared my head - I'll think on it some more and I'll let you know how things work out… Thanks, LB."

"...Well," she said after several seconds. "Okay. If you want, I can try to make some time tonight to meet if it'll help, to talk about. After 9 PM, probably."

Grateful, Chat thanked her for the offer and said he might take her up on it. They quickly said their goodbyes after that, with plentiful "good lucks" and worried comments from his partner's end.

Ladybug thought it was a bad idea, but still, still, he hadn't been able to talk himself out of it.

If there was anyone who'd be able to knock sense into him…

"Plagg, claws in."

A quick zip of green light filled the alley momentarily, and to Plagg's fortune, the rain finally stopped. Adrien stood against the wall with a gloomy expression, his kwami hovering in the air before him.

"I can't make decisions for you, kid," the cat stated simply while his charge recovered a piece of cheese from his pocket.

"I know. I just need you to talk me out of it, and then it'll be my decision not to tell her."

Cheeks already partially-stuffed, Plagg rolled his eyes. "'Ou know t'at 's bas'illy the sa'e t'ing, 'ight?"

In lieu of a direct answer, Adrien merely pursed his lips and waited for his kwami to finish eating.

"Okay, fine," Plagg grumbled after another large bite. "Let me ask you two questions. Question number one - why do you want to tell her?"

"That's a stupid question. You know why," the teen answered irritably.

"Just do it. Tell me why."

Adrien finally focused his attention on his kwami, surprised by the serious tone Plagg had taken.

"Well, fine. Okay. Marinette is a kind, caring person. She also happens to be my girlfriend. I can't stand being around her, thinking about how she doesn't know - and especially after the last akuma, where she was in danger, I was so scared for her. Like, I couldn't even think straight, I just rushed into the building to get her out. It was stupid and reckless, but I just think about telling her all the time now. It had been nice at first before there was any akumas that I had to think about, and she had been so busy this week that I just sort of managed to ignore it, but I can't anymore. I want to be honest with her, because that's the least she deserves. And what she really deserves is so much more."

"Fair enough," the black cat said, still hovering a few inches away. He backed up to the opposite wall, only a few feet away, and met his chosen's stare. "Now tell me why you don't want to tell her."

"Ah," Adrien sighed. "It would put her in danger, if someone found out she was dating Chat Noir. She could be targeted or used to get mine or Ladybug's miraculous."

"Tsch. There's your answer, you big moron."

Groaning, Adrien leaned his head back against the bricks. He tried to enjoy the quiet peace of the city after the storm, savor it while it lasted.

"I have no idea what you're even talking about. What is the answer?"

"God, you're dense," Plagg snarked. "Think about how much it took you to answer each question. Use that brain of yours, I know it's in there."

The blond closed his eyes, doing as his kwami bid. He was pretty sure he understood what Plagg was getting at - it was a lot of the same feeling he had when explaining to Ladybug. He could go on for hours about all the reasons he wanted to tell Marinette about his double-life, but at the same time, that didn't make it the right choice. If anything, it was the wrong choice because he would just be acting blindly out of emotion. He had too much responsibility, too much that he owed to Paris, to just throw around such damning information.

"It's selfish to tell her," Adrien eventually said, opening his eyes. Plagg had reclined to a prone position, sprawled out on an invisible hammock with his paws behind his head.

"Maybe." He thought about it. "Probably."

"So I shouldn't tell her."

"Maybe." Plagg said again. "Probably."

Adrien breathed a sigh - not of relief, exactly. Something that was like acceptance, but tasted an awful lot like reluctance. "Okay. Okay. Then I'll tell her something else as Adrien."

"Another lie," the cat kwami mused, opening an eye and looking at his charge. "You can manage that."

"Seriously?" He narrowed his eyes towards the black annoyance, green eyes matching. "Are you trying to make me feel worse, Plagg?"

"...Maybe."

"If you say probably again I swear I will -"

"Geez, lighten up!" The kwami held up two hands defensively, coming out of his show of relaxation. "All I'm saying is, you're making a choice here. You'll go back and lie to her, and you'll keep on lying to her. That's the same thing you've been doing for the past three years - no big deal, right? Or you could…"

Adrien brought his palms to his eyes, trying to force some pressure to stop the headache he could feel coming on. "Ugh. I can't."

"You can. And heck, you might. You didn't make any promises to Ladybug that I recall."

"But what about Marinette?" Adrien groaned, dropping his hands and staring daggers at the gravel at his feet. "What about her? She doesn't need all of this added to her already crazy-stressful life. She's got the job, her parents, her friends, and she's trying to go to design school and -"

Plagg cut in, flying in close to Adrien's nose. Voice sharper than he'd ever heard it before, the kwami narrowed his gaze. "Did you think, for maybe just one second, your little girlfriend might want to know?"

"W-well, after I freaked her out last night - probably!"

"That's not what I meant, you beautiful dunce," the kwami visibly drooped, exaggerating his exasperation by slouching. He took a moment to breathe steadily. "You're going to owe me extra cheese when this day is over. I meant as Chat Noir. You aren't just Adrien, and you aren't just Chat Noir. You're both, because you're the same. And she clearly cares about you as Chat Noir, too. If you're going to be miserable around her, thinking about how awful and terrible you're being, then you'd be better off just breaking up with her."

The alley was sucked clean of air momentarily, Adrien gasping the last bit of stale oxygen remaining between the ends of the buildings. He felt as if Plagg had slapped him, and the look in his kwami's eyes was so dangerous, he might as well have done just that. Adrien's chest tightened, and his heart was a storm all its own, thundering and battering against his rib cage.

Eventually, the teen blinked slowly and choked out a few words. "I-I can't. I couldn't."

"Then, give Master Fu the ring back, and you'll never have to worry about Paris again."

"But - you - we… I can't. I won't. I'll never turn my back on this city," Adrien promised. A tiny smile of approval came from his kwami, but it flickered away and was replaced by a knowing frown.

"Then we're back to square one. Break up with her."

"I -"

Plagg's lips thinned, and he raised a doubtful brow. "Let me guess; you can't. Then you're at an impasse, kid."

Furrowing his brow, Adrien leaned back further into the bricks, trying to will himself to phase through them and not worry about such stressful things. Walls couldn't possibly have as many troubles, right? He wondered where his old Agreste walls had crumbled; somewhere between the Russian Snowdrops and kissing Marinette under the quiet, muted light of the greenhouse. They were torn down, and with it, the sense of consistency he'd carefully constructed over the past three years.

"Listen to me." Plagg demanded, sitting cross-legged and hovering about a foot away. "You're going to wear yourself down until you're crazy at this rate. If you're going to keep being Chat Noir and you want to keep dating this girl, you owe it to Paris that you're focused and on top of your game all day, everyday. You can't afford to be distracted. So it's the ring or the girl; or, you keep both and tell her your secret."

"B-but, I -" Desperate, Adrien tried to see another way, trying to ignore the cheery sound of bells that began to play in his ears. He shouldn't be happy about this! This was breaking every rule in the non-existence miraculous-wielder's handbook. "Plagg, you know this is wrong. You have to."

"Oh, I do," he gave a mirthless chuckle, but never dropped his stare. It was unusual for his kwami to be so serious, and it made the whole experience feel that much more strange.

"Do you love this city?" The black cat asked, coming towards his charge and settling into a comfortable ball on his shoulder.

"Well, duh, of course."

A pause.

"And do you love this girl?"

Adrien, unwittingly, felt heat rise from his chest, creeping up his neck and engulfing his face in a furious blush. His voice caught on the automatic denial, the trained practice of not letting himself get into this exact situation that he was in right now.

"N-"

Plagg lifted his head and angled one pointed-ear towards his charge's head. "Hmm?"

A million thoughts played through his mind like an old film reel, the miles of tape catching every-so-often on the images. They came and swept by fast and fleeting, but they were so many and so sudden that Adrien began to feel quite overwhelmed.

His mom. Hugs from Nino. A fist bump. High-fives, and laughs, and something with a cell phone camera. An almost kiss. And another, and then a few more. Then, a real kiss. Red masks, red cheeks, pigtails. Blue eyes and kindness so pure it made his heart squeeze. A nudge from a reporter, a surprising smile from his father. A teeny-tiny Madam, clutching to his arm. Handshakes, firm and weak, and laughs and smiles and victory dances. Flowers - so many flowers - and colors so wild and wide as the sunset. Reds and blues and soft purples, yellows that would shame the sun, crowded by whites and greens and so much life that he felt just a small piece of the ecosystem in that tiny place. Humbled. Honored. So very, very human.

Marinette. Marinette. She was human, too. Real, and soft, and pretty. Easy to forgive, impossible to forget. Life bloomed beneath her fingertips, and compassion radiated from her presence. The infectious twinkle of her laugh, and the thrilling flash of pink that would stain her porcelain cheeks. A flower at the window, an invitation for honesty. Pink and delicate and unlike anything else - just like her.

God, she was perfect. Not in the literal sense of the word, but to Adrien, she was living, breathing perfection. She didn't need a pedestal or a crown, because she could carve her own path and weave her own crown. Her impossible sense of independence and reliability, sweet and self-assured, was like a terrible addiction that he craved every second of the day.

Perfect, and effortless, and everything he could have ever wanted.

Plagg watched him slowly work through his own emotion, looking almost smug. The original question floated to his mind, and -

Oh.

Oh, no.

I'm in love with her.

...

He was so screwed.


****Author's Note:

hi everybody! so sorry for how slow things are going now-a-days, my muse has been really uncooperative with writing lately. in general, and for this fic in particular - *sigh*

im trying not to force content for content's sake, because I feel like that will cheapen the fic as a whole and I don't want that. I'm trying to just relax and be calm and let inspiration ebb and flow as it does; hopefully, i'll be feeling back up to task sooner rather than later.

and, a fun fact: this chapter was a hard one to write in PARTICULAR because I'm sort of bothered by the idea of a lofty, perfect reveal without struggles and consequences. the whole idea of them revealing by accident is cute and hilarious but at the same time, if either of them were to make the decision knowingly, it only seems real to me that it wouldn't be so simple as just dropping the transformation one day and, oh boy, everything is perfect now! no, in my mind, there would be lots of internal struggling, and of course an irritated plagg just eager to get it over with without saying too much. hah!