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I’m sorry for your loss.

The words flooded over Adrien, the voices blending together. Deepest sympathy. So sorry to hear. My sympathies. Sorry for your loss. He couldn’t remember now what it had been like with his mother; he suspected people had been able to say more about her, to recall some trait or some story to share and laugh and cry, but his father had dealt with people solely on a professional level for so long….

Adrien wasn’t sure how long he stood there in the entryway to his home. It was filled with flowers from well-wishers, some heavily scented and some just brightly decorative. He didn’t know the origins of all of them, though he knew some. His classmates. The various clubs to which he belonged. Nino’s family. Alya’s. Chloé’s. Marinette’s. Some were from people he didn’t know, ones given to Nathalie and other staff, which was nice to see. There were even bouquets from a few of the business his father had dealt with, and Adrien wished he suspected they had been sent with more intention than as a courtesy or to, perhaps, curry favour, but he couldn’t….

This wasn’t right.

None of it was right. It shouldn’t be this way. It shouldn’t have happened.

Adrien watched dumbly as Nathalie accepted another casserole on his behalf. She looked cross, angry, and in the next blink she’d schooled her features to a carefully blank coldness. She received the food with what the naïve might call a smile and sent it off with someone else before resuming her post beside him. Her glare sent some people—people Adrien was fairly sure he didn’t even know—scurrying to speak with some of the other staff. The heads were gathered here today, for this. Most of them looked stunned, as if they couldn’t believe this either.

And they didn’t even know.

Adrien closed his eyes to shut out the sight of everything in front of him, but the memories came immediately. “Use your Cataclysm!” Ladybug had cried. “Get his Miraculous!” And Adrien had invoked his power, and then he’d attacked Hawk Moth, and then….

“Dude, come back to me.”

Adrien opened his eyes and looked at Nino, who was standing in front of him. “Hey,” he managed weakly. “Thanks for coming.”

Nino clasped his shoulders. “I’m here for you, man. Any time. Seriously, wake me up in the middle of the night if you have to. I want you to, got that?”

Adrien nodded. “Thank you,” he said again.

Nino’s hands dropped. His feet scuffed the marble flooring. “Look, you didn’t deserve this. It’s not fair, but even if I don’t know what you’re going though, I’m gonna listen, okay? So you talk if you need to talk.”

Another nod, but this one was false. Adrien couldn’t talk to Nino. Nino didn’t know. No one knew.

After this, though, Ladybug might suspect.

“Hey, Adrien, Nino.” It was Alya, with Marinette in tow. He wondered when the crowd had begun to shift from nameless adults to his classmates. How long had he been standing here? It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been. “Adrien, I don’t know what to say, except that you’re strong and you’re going to get through this, and we’re here—we’re all here—for you for whatever you need, whenever you need it.” She gave him a quick hug before facing him again. “Remember that.”

Alya stepped back, giving him a small smile to acknowledge his murmured thanks, glanced at Marinette, and then led Nino away.

Marinette looked at Adrien and her mouth opened, but no sound came out.

“Hi, Marinette,” Adrien said. “Thanks for coming.” He wished the words didn’t sound as if they were spoken by rote. This already felt unreal, and the repetition wasn’t helping.

Marinette enveloped him in a crushing hug. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. This is my fault. I should never….” She began to cry, shoulders shaking as she sobbed into him. The lump in Adrien’s throat grew, and he had to wipe at his own eyes, squeezing them closed against the tears.

“You’re being silly.” He had to force the words from his mouth and take careful breaths to make sure his voice didn’t crack, but the tears ran down his cheeks despite his efforts. They betrayed him. “This has nothing to do with you.”

Marinette still hadn’t released him, and she clutched him tighter at those words. “It has everything to do with me, kitty cat,” she mumbled into his chest.

“We’ll never defeat Hawk Moth if we always wait for him to make the first move,” Ladybug said. She spread a map of Paris on the rooftop in front of him. Dozens upon dozens of little Xs dotted it, overlapping with circles. “The crosses are for where we know someone was infected by an akuma, the circles for my best guess.”

Somehow, it was no surprise that he almost couldn’t see his school beneath the pen markings. “This is like what’s on the Ladyblog.”

“That’s where I got the idea,” acknowledged Ladybug. “It might not work, but it’s worth investigating, isn’t it?”

Adrien looked at the map. There was no immediately obvious pattern, but if he considered the clusters and the farthest reaches of the akumas, the fact that the edge of the city was rimmed by circles because neither he nor Ladybug ever reached Hawk Moth’s victim before the destruction began…. “You’re looking for a central point.” She wanted to identify the centre of the attacks, to try to discern Hawk Moth’s position from the only clues he had ever given them.

Ladybug nodded. “We don’t know what we’re looking for, but trying to narrow it down has to help. If nothing else, we’ll be able to rule out this part of the city. I can’t imagine he’d find it easy to move his lair; he needs to be working out of somewhere.”

“I’ll try to follow the next akuma you cleanse,” Adrien offered. “Maybe they return to Hawk Moth.”

“Or maybe they lead away from him, if it isn’t just random.” Ladybug smiled at him. “Good thinking.”

“M-Marinette?” Adrien didn’t know what to say. He stood frozen in place, his arms still pinned to his side by hers. Marinette?

“I’m so sorry, Adrien. I never should have insisted we try to fight him like that.”

They hadn’t really known what they were looking for, but Adrien had seen the sliding doors hiding the window for what they were. It had taken not inconsiderable strength to force them open, but it had only taken a glimpse of the kaleidoscope of butterflies through the window for him to know they’d found it. Hawk Moth hadn’t been there, and the butterflies had seemed harmless enough, alternatively flitting around or settling down. If he hadn’t known better, he might not have guessed at the extent of the evil the akumas could spread.

He didn’t stay long that first time. He’d scampered to the top of the dome and called Ladybug. She’d met him there and swung down for a quick examination herself, as wary as he had been that Hawk Moth might show up. Once they’d memorized the structure, they’d met elsewhere to discuss. To plan.

It had been Ladybug’s idea to wait until they fought an akuma victim in the vicinity. It had been her idea that he head to Hawk Moth’s lair the moment the akuma was freed, before she’d caught and cleansed it. She’d assured him that she’d be right behind him but had pointed out that if they were to attack Hawk Moth, to deal with the source and not the symptoms, they needed to attack when they knew he would be there.

Ladybug hadn’t been late in following, exactly, but she’d needed to use her Lucky Charm to defeat the villain and wouldn’t have been able to maintain her transformation without allowing her kwami to reenergize. They’d tried to avoid that, using their special powers, but they’d needed a bit of Ladybug’s luck to get through the last fight. Cataclysm hadn’t been needed, so Adrien had been able to leave with the confidence that he wouldn’t lose his transformation the moment he faced Hawk Moth.

When Adrien broke through the circular window that marked Hawk Moth’s lair in a shower of shattered glass, Ladybug was not on his tail. His spinning staff took the brunt of the impact, so he didn’t need much time to recover. That was just as well, because even as the akumas scattered, others began to blacken. He began spinning his staff again, using it as a shield as they flew at him with unnerving accuracy and with more ill intent than Bubbler’s bubbles.

Adrien danced and dodged, spinning and slicing the akumas from the air as he advanced inch by painful inch. Hawk Moth did not retreat. He just stood there, waiting, one hand resting on his cane, the other clenched into a fist in anticipation.

He watched.

He smiled.

The butterflies swarmed. Adrien risked a glance behind him and realized not every akuma had targeted him; some had avoided him and escaped out the window, either to waylay Ladybug or to infect the innocent people of Paris. He tried, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t shake off the akumas that landed on him. They covered him, blotting out his vision, and it wasn’t until after he was trying to scrape them off with both hands that he realized he’d dropped his staff.

Hawk Moth began to chuckle.

“You…you’re….” Adrien swallowed and managed to disentangle himself from Marinette. Tears still ran down her cheeks, but she wasn’t sobbing any longer. She sniffed, pulled some tissue from her pocket and wiped at her eyes and nose, and looked at him. She still trembled slightly, but she’d squared her shoulders, and for a moment, she looked like…like herself. It made his breath catch. “My lady?”

She gave one sharp nod, and then her composure crumbled again. “I never imagined…. I didn’t know…. I feel awful. If I’d never….”

Adrien hugged her again slowly, still trying to wrap his mind around this latest shock. Ladybug was Marinette. She’d realized who he was, and after what had happened…. “It’s not your fault,” he murmured into her hair. The words were true, but that didn’t make them any easier to force out. “I never thought it was your fault.”

It was his.

Someone caught his hand, and Adrien lashed out on instinct. The grip of those long fingers might as well have been iron. He couldn’t shift them, couldn’t make them loosen. He felt his ring slide slightly and tightened his hand into a fist, but the intruding fingers began to pry open his own with disturbing ease.

“Finally,” Hawk Moth gloated, “your Miraculous is mine!”

“Get away from him!”

The voice was Ladybug’s, her timely appearance likely accounting for all the good luck Adrien was due for the entire year. He felt her yo-yo wrap around him and then he was yanked back, away from Hawk Moth. Ladybug had him free again in seconds, and the disturbance had been enough to dislodge some of the akumas. His vision cleared in time for him to see Ladybug dive for his staff, kicking it back to him before getting to her feet and—to his dismay—falling into the same trap he had by spinning her yo-yo around in an attempt to keep the akumas at bay.

Adrien snatched up his weapon and scrambled to his feet, moving so he could cover Ladybug.

“Look at him,” she said as quietly as she could, nodding at Hawk Moth. “He has a Miraculous, too.”

Adrien knew immediately what she’d seen; he’d suspected the same himself upon his first glimpse of Hawk Moth. He might not know who was beneath the villain’s mask, but he knew how to unmask him, and he knew how to stop him. They just needed to get his Miraculous.

“I know. I’ve got an idea.”

Ladybug didn’t ask him to explain. Quite aside from the fact that they would be overheard, she trusted him. Adrien knew that and appreciated it, so he wasn’t surprised to hear her say, “Go.” She would cover him, just as he did for her whenever she was enacting one of her ideas.

“We both made mistakes,” mumbled Marinette. Her arms had snaked around him again and held fast. He found himself absently rubbing her back, trying to comfort her as much as she was trying to comfort him. He breathed in her scent, trying to block out the suffocating smell of the flowers. They had both made mistakes.

But his was…. His was worse. His had been irreversible.

“I don’t blame you. I never blamed you. You must know that, my lady.”

“I still blame myself. I shouldn’t have pushed for a confrontation. I’d just…. I thought things would be better once it was over.”

Adrien couldn’t bring himself to say that things were better now; he wasn’t sure it was true. He felt…hollow, empty, filled only with an ache that made him want to curl up into a ball and cry, but he couldn’t. He needed to be strong. He needed to get through this.

Ladybug was here. He could lean on her, borrow some of her strength. He certainly needed it. He could count on one hand how many hours he’d slept in the last two days, but how was he to sleep when the horrific scene began to play out in his mind every time he closed his eyes?

Ladybug—Marinette—was the only one who knew the truth, besides him and their kwami.

She was the only one who really understood what defeating Hawk Moth had cost him.

She was the only one who knew just how broken he was.

It didn’t take long for Adrien to realize that Hawk Moth’s cane was his weapon. Controlling the akumas was more akin to his special power than anything else, except that he didn’t appear to tire nearly as quickly as Adrien or Ladybug ever did when Cataclysm or Lucky Charm was used.

He didn’t appear to tire as quickly as Adrien or Ladybug did normally, either.

With all the akumas present, the fight was not two on one; he and Ladybug were never able to combine forces and fight Hawk Moth together. Using the akumas, he had been able to divide them, and it was all too real a possibility that he would also succeed in conquering them and stealing their Miraculous.

“I can’t get close enough,” Adrien said as he was forced to fall back once more. “It’s not going to work.”

Ladybug pursed her lips but didn’t stop spinning her yo-yo. She was getting tired; he could see it. He was certainly getting tired. Akumas clung to both of them, if not as many as had first covered him. Their movements were getting slower, more sluggish, and he and Ladybug both sliced fewer and fewer akumas from the air.

“Take an opening when you see it,” was all Ladybug said, and then she attacked.

He was normally the one who did the bulk of the close combat fighting, giving Ladybug more time to work, to analyze the situation, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take on an enemy head on. She was at a disadvantage—her weapon wasn’t designed for that—but she used it as she could, blocking attacks and alternatively trying to disarm Hawk Moth and tie him up.

Adrien couldn’t rest—the akumas would overwhelm him if he did—but he was free to try to get behind Hawk Moth, to try to force him to fight the battle on two fronts. He was free to take advantage of any mistake Hawk Moth made.

But it was Ladybug who made the mistake.

She was the one who misjudged Hawk Moth’s next move and the speed with which he carried it out, not he hers.

She fell with a cry.

Adrien growled and pounced, knocking Hawk Moth away from her.

“Use your Cataclysm!” she yelled. “Get his Miraculous!”

Hawk Moth threw Adrien away with surprising strength, but Ladybug had used his distraction for what it was. Adrien was on his feet again and had invoked his power, the deadly Cataclysm swirling about his right hand which bore his Miraculous, before Hawk Moth had a chance to extract himself from the winding prison of Ladybug’s yo-yo. Adrien wasn’t sure what Cataclysm would do to Hawk Moth’s Miraculous, but he reached for it anyway.

Hawk Moth twisted, and Adrien’s fingers brushed his chest instead of the butterfly Miraculous.

“It’s okay to cry,” Marinette whispered. “It’s good to cry.”

Adrien hadn’t realized it, but Marinette’s hair was wet with his tears. “I-I never meant….” He couldn’t finish.

“I know.” The arms around him tightened. “I know.”

Hawk Moth stiffened, the magic remaining for a moment where Adrien had touched him. And then it spread, rusting away his costume and his identity as Hawk Moth. The Miraculous clattered to the floor. The akuma attack stopped abruptly, the fluttering of butterfly wings becoming less frenzied as the black magic vanished.

Adrien saw his father’s face staring back at him, saw realization and—worse still—recognition settle in his eyes before they went blank.

Horrified, Adrien stumbled back.

There was no akuma to cleanse this time, no way to reverse the damage.

This was his fault, and no one except for Marinette knew the truth. Everyone else believed Gabriel Agreste’s death had been sudden, that his heart had given out for entirely natural reasons. Adrien almost wished the body had crumbled to dust as a result of the Cataclysm so he hadn’t had to face the accusation frozen on his father’s face.

The body was gone now, of course; Nathalie had arranged for the cremation to be completed as soon as possible. But she had only found the body in his father’s study after Ladybug had taken it there thinking it better for everyone if the truth about Hawk Moth was never known.

Ladybug had returned to the tower to try to talk to him afterwards. For once, he hadn’t wanted to see her, and though she had been hesitant at first, she had finally left him alone to recover his wits.

He’d let his transformation wear off back in the tower and hadn’t transformed since.

As far as he knew, neither had Ladybug.

They hadn’t needed to, without Hawk Moth.

He didn’t know what had happened with Ladybug’s kwami, but Plagg had long since given up trying to talk to Adrien and had merely hidden his room, gorging himself on cheese and—maybe—waiting until Adrien was ready to listen to him. Adrien didn’t know. He wasn’t sure he could bring himself to care after what had happened.

He wondered, not for the first time, if Hawk Moth’s final twist had been deliberate, and—as before—firmly turned his thoughts away from that line of thinking. He would never know. He could never know. It was too late to get answers.

“But you can’t blame yourself either, Adrien,” Marinette said earnestly as she turned her face up to look at him. “Promise me you won’t.”

“I can’t.” Adrien’s voice cracked. “After everything…. I can’t. I don’t want to lie to you, my lady.”

“You don’t have to.” Marinette reached up and brushed the tears from his cheek. “You’re strong, Adrien. You can get through this. We can get through this. Together.”

“But what if we can’t?”

“We will,” she whispered fiercely. “You only need to be willing to try.”

The idea was almost laughable, except that Marinette was not suggesting everything would be the same. It would never be the same. He would never be the same, and neither would she. But maybe they could be less broken.

“Thank you, Marinette,” Adrien said. For the first time that day, he truly meant it. “Thank you.”