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Marinette wakes to the purple-tinged darkness of predawn twilight and the sound of birdsong.

She lies still for some time—four minutes, maybe five, who knows—listening to it, breathing slowly, watching as the light suffuses with warmer tones of red and orange.  It was almost mocking, she thinks, how cheerful, how utterly unconcerned that sound was, when the world around it was burning to the ground.

Eventually she finds the will to roll herself out of bed.  She changes out of her sleep clothes, exchanging them for a close-fitting tee, loose jeans, and a loose jacket, and a few other accoutrements she scoops from a drawer, slipping them on with practiced ease.

Then, so armed and armored, she opens her trapdoor.

She freezes as she’s about to descend through the open portal—voices in the kitchen, calm ones.  The same way the physician had been calm when she had diagnosed her grandfather with terminal renal failure a few years ago, and told all of them that there was nothing that could be done.

“I’ve checked the books two or three times now, Tom,” Sabine says.  “I know that we’ve already made all the acceptable cuts that we can, but we’re still in the red.”

Marinette hears her Papa sigh.  “How bad is it?”

“You’re not going to like this, Tom,” Sabine says.

“Give it to me gently, then,” Tom says, his tone dry.

“We can run on our savings for another four months or so,” Sabine says, “assuming that the situation doesn’t deteriorate further.”

“Assuming,” Tom says.

“Assuming,” Sabine echoes.  “Maybe we can stretch it out to six months if we tighten our belts, but we’d need to dip into our investments, assuming they don’t drop too much more in value.”

Marinette hears her Papa swear under his breath.  “I knew sales were down, but I was hoping that it wouldn’t be that bad.”

“Down by half ever since this mess started,” Sabine says.  “At least we have most of the loans paid off, otherwise we’d be in even worse shape than this.”

Tom grunts; Marinette hears a chair creak as his weight settles onto it.

“I don’t get it, Sabine,” Tom says, his voice lost and weary.  “I don’t.  We’ve had attacks here before, but the city’s always bounced back.  But now it just seems like—like all Paris is cowering.  Like a beaten dog.”

“We’ve never had so many in so short a time,” Sabine says.  “And they’ve never been so devastating, and at least then the authorities had leads.  Clues.  Some idea as to what was happening, who was doing it.”

Marinette hears a rustling of cloth as her Mama walks over to stand in front of her Papa.  “People are scared, Tom.  They know that there’s nothing anyone can do to protect them, and that even if there was, everyone with power enough and influence enough is too busy politicking and posturing to actually do anything, and they’re terrified.  Regardless of how deep in denial they might be about it.”

Tom snorts.  “Well, someone is certainly doing something.”

“They’re trying,” Sabine says.  “But they can’t save everyone.”

Tom is quiet for a moment.

“No,” he says.  “I suppose not.”

Marinette hears her Mama kiss her Papa on his brow.  We’ll do what we can, then,” she says.  “Go.  See to the bakery,  I’ll be down in a couple hours with a pot of tea for you and Jean and Iman.”

“More bad news there, I’m afraid,” Tom says.  “Iman’s leaving.  She gave me her notice yesterday.”

Sabine pauses.  “Oh.  Did she say why?”

“Not really,” Tom says.  “Just that Paris didn’t feel welcome anymore, and that she was going to move back in with her parents.”

“I’ll put out a hiring notice, then,” Sabine says.  “And don’t forget that Mari wants to you come to school today for that class thing they have going on.”

Tom grunts in the affirmative, rises with another creak of strained wood, and leaves, his steps clomping down the stairs.

Lose the bakery, Marinette thinks, stunned.  They might lose the bakery.  Lose her home.  A place that she knew her parents cherished deeply, that they’d built almost literally from the ground up.  And Iman—she’d been with her Papa since week one!

Marinette stays put until all she hears is the sound of her Mama clearing dirty dishes off of the dining table, then descends.

“Morning, Mama,” Marinette says.  She manages to keep the tremble out of her voice.

“Good morning, dear,” Sabine says.  “Sleep well?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette lies.

Sabine accepts the words at face value and nods to the counter, where half of one of yesterday’s baguettes lays next to a serrated bread knife and a few jars of jam.

“Eat up quick,” she says, “or you’re going to be late for school.”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says meekly.

She scarfs down half a dozen slices of toasted baguette, picks up her backpack from where she’d left it the night before, and scurries downstairs—

“Wait,” Sabine says.

Marinette pauses, one foot on the top step, and turns to look over her shoulder.  “Yes, Mama?” she asks meekly.

“You brought the pepper spray?” Sabine says.

Marinette suppresses her incipient sigh of teenaged disillusionment and fishes the small tube from her pocket.  She shows it to Sabine, dangling it between thumb and forefinger.

“Stunner?” Sabine asks.

Marinette puts the spray away, twitches aside her coat to reveal a holster on her belt, flicks it open, and pulls out a matte-black brick with the same rough dimensions as a smartphone, but several times thicker and with a molded plastic grip.

“You charged it?”

Marinette flicks off the safety and thumbs the activation stud; the kitchen immediately fills with a sharp, intermittent popping, bright blue light casting harsh, flickering shadows on the walls.

Sabine nods, unphased.  “Baton?”

Marinette reholsters the stunner and hikes up her pantleg, revealing the collapsible steel baton in its nylon sheath, strapped to her leg.

“Mama,” Marinette says half-heartedly as Sabine nods her approval.  “Do I really need all of this?”

“If you need it,” Sabine says, “then you’ll have it available.  You have your ID?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

Sabine gets up, walks to Marinette, and engulfs her in a hug.

“Be safe,” she whispers in both benediction and fervent hope.  “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mama,” Marinette says, hugging her back.

Marinette scurries downstairs and across the street and runs smack into the queue at the checkpoint.  It takes perhaps ten minutes for everyone to shuffle forwards; Marinette keeps her eyes down as she hands her ID to one of the men staffing the checkpoint, and tries not to curse when they inevitably ask her to step aside, call for a female gendarme, and pat her down, which takes another five minutes or so.

The “brief”, “spontaneous” interview they decide to have with her thereafter consumes another ten.

She hurries into school without much further incident, slips into the classroom, and gets two steps in before she’s nearly taken off of her feet by a hug from Alya.

“Sorry,” Alya says as she straightens, holding Marinette at arm’s-length by the shoulders.  “You were late, I was getting worried.”

“I’m fine, Alya,” Marinette says with a smile as the two walk to their seats, then winces and holds a hand to her rib in mock agony.  “At least, until you hugged me.  I think you cracked a rib.”

“Oh hush.”

“Did they give you much trouble at the checkpoint today?” Marinette asks as she takes her seat.

“Not enough to worry about,” Alya says, waving a dismissive hand.  “Not important.  I wanted to show you this.”

She fishes out a folded, battered fragment of newspaper from her back pocket and places it flat on the desk in front of Marinette with a decisive air.  Marinette reaches over, picks it up, and scans over its contents.

“So they found a dead man in the Seine,” she says.  “Not to be callous, Alya, but what’s so important about that?”

Alya leans towards Marinette and lowers her voice to a near-whisper.  “This article,” she says, pausing for emphasis—or possibly, Marinette thinks, merely for the purposes of drama, “was published two days before the first attacks happened.”

Marinette shrugs.  “People die all the time, Alya.  Someone being killed two days—“

“Four days,” Alya corrects.  “I did some digging and they dated him as being two days dead when he was found.”

“—four days then,” Marinette continues, “before Papillon made his big speech and started murdering people doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s connected at all.”

“The timing is suspicious,” Alya insists.

“And so’s that burglary of that diamond store the day before,” Marinette says.

Alya rolls her eyes and leans in.  “Different situations and you know it,” she says, jabbing a finger at the picture on the newspaper.  “Anyways, I know some people who know some people who know some people who were around when they fished the guy out, and I’m going to go talk to them.  Wanna come with?”

Marinette tries to look disappointed.  “I really can’t, Alya, sorry.  Mama and Papa want me back home right after school, you know how it is.”

“Mari, come on,” Alya pleads.  “I’ve got a good feeling about this, really.  It’s something big.”

“And you said that about the last lead you spent a week chasing down,” Marinette says as gently as she can.  “And you ran into a wall with him, remember?  And failed the history test.”

“Really, Mari?” Alya says.  “History?  History?  There’s a mass-murdering monster running around loose and that’s what you’re worried about?”

“I’m worried about you, Alya,” Marinette says.  “Ever since this—thing all started, you’ve become obsessed with it.  You spend all your free time working on—on leads, and digging for videos, and getting your nose into business that’s literally killed people.”  She looks down at her hands, which have knotted themselves in her lap at some point in the past minute.  “I just don’t want you being one of them.”

“I’m not going to be,” Alya says.

“Even though we hope you are,” someone says sotto voce, shrilly and unpleasantly.  Everyone ignores it.

“But you might,” Marinette says.  “All it’ll take is just one piece of bad luck, Alya.  One little bit of bad luck.”

“I’ve been careful,” Alya says.

“Luck isn’t exactly something that rewards ‘careful’, Alya,” Marinette says.

Alya snorts.  “You’ve never heard of crisis being equal parts danger and opportunity then.”

“That’s a different situation entirely, and you know it, Alya.”

“Mari,” Alya says with a lofty air, “luck comes to those who are prepared enough to make a space for it to happen, and I am prepared enough, trust me.”

“No, I don’t care if you’re supposed to see your daughter at school today,” someone shouts just outside the classroom.  Marinette’s attention snaps to the man, collecting details—tall, almost six feet, hair slicked back and silver-grey, face and body developing the classic pear shape that comes with too much rich food and too little exercise, complexion pallid.  Chloe’s father, the mayor, in profile as he strides up and down the hallway outside of their class, shouting angrily into his cell.

“And it’s not like anyone’s going to try to kill me for following up on a lead,” Alya continues.

“No—I said I don’t care,” the mayor says.  “You still have leads to follow, informants and whatnot to question, don’t you?  What?  I don’t care if the gendarmes aren’t being cooperative!  What am I paying you for?  Go talk to that Bruel boy again, apply pressure, whatever, just get it done!  I need leads here, progress, anything, and if you want to keep your position you’ll damn well give me one instead of swanning around going to school events!”

“I, uh,” Marinette says, wrenching her attention back to Alya.  “Look, are you sure about that?  Papillon isn’t exactly afraid of hurting people to get what he wants.”

“The man’s a coward,” Alya says, her upper lip pulling back in a contemptuous sneer.  “He hides behind proxies and meat-puppets the vulnerable into doing his dirty work.  He’s not going to kill me, not a chance.”

“Unless he sends one of his meat puppets to do his dirty work,” Marinette says.  “Or sends one of those black butterfly things to possess you and then tells you to, I don’t know, jump off of the Eiffel Tower or makes you do something that gets you put under house arrest like he did with Ivan.”

Alya pauses to think about this, and Marinette hears further shouting from the mayor outside.

“Of course it’s important, you moron!  Even if there haven’t been any deaths recently, he’s still got a few thousand to answer for, and he could still cause thousands more!  Need I remind you that the election is going to be soon, and if you don’t deliver anything I’m going to lose, and I doubt that the next mayor is going to be someone who’ll want to keep someone as incompetent as you in your position!  Get me results!”

“Fair,” Alya admits.  “I hadn’t considered that.  But how’s he going to know that I’m investigating?”

“Oh, who cares,” the mayor says.  “Just stay out of the gendarmes’ way—who cares about what they’re doing?  Just stay out of their way and let them do their job and you do yours.  No!  Stay out of their way, that’s an order, Roger!”  He ends the call and stuffs it furiously into a pocket, then straightens the lines of his suit, composing himself.

Marinette gives a helpless little shrug.  “Same way he finds out about anything, I guess,” she says.  “Maybe he can see what the butterflies see or something, or maybe he just watches the news.”

“Daddy!” someone shrills from off to the side as the door opens and Andre Bourgeois, mayor of Paris, walks into their class.

Alya and Marinette ignore it.  Adrien, his head pillowed on his arms just in front of Marinette, fails to stir from his nap.  Nino reaches down to his phone and turns up the volume on his music.

“I’m not going to be able to stop you, am I,” Marinette says quietly to Alya as someone behind her rushes down the steps to greet the mayor, jabbering happily about something unimportant.

“No,” Alya says.

“Alya, why,” Marinette groans.  “This is dangerous business.”

“Because no one else is,” Alya says.  She looks down at her hands, folded on her desk before her.  “Marinette, look, I can’t just stand by and not do anything.  No one else seems to be able to do anything.  Maybe I can.”

“Alya,” Marinette says, “there are people working right now all over the country—all over the world, they’ve got international teams coming in to investigate this—who’ve got years of experience with this, and they have a lot more information to draw on.  Do you really think exposing yourself to this kind of danger is really necessary?”

“Yes,” Alya says bluntly.

“I’m not saying that you can’t help,” Marinette says, “but I mean, how much do you think you can contribute to that?”

Alya heaves a sigh and pinches the bridge of her nose.  “I’ll help as much as I can.  Look, Mari, are you going to help me or not on this?”

Marinette looks at Alya’s expression and sighs.  “Yes.  I’ll go with you.  I’m assuming we’re going after class?”

“Yeah.”  Alya’s expression thaws a little.  “We can take the metro.  It’ll take maybe half an hour?”

“Okay,” Marinette says.  “Do you mind if we take a few minutes to stop by my place so I can tell my parent’s what’s going on?”

“Fine.”  Alya smirks.  “Provided you pay me in croissants.”

“Croissant,” Marinette says.  “One.”

“Two croissants,” Alya says.

“One pain au chocolat,” Marinette says.

“Done.”  Alya reaches over and shakes Marinette’s hand with mock seriousness, then returns her attention to her phone.


 

“Wow, those guys suck,” Alya says in between pants.  She and Marinette sprint down the steps and dive into the subway a half-second before the doors slide shut.

Marinette tugs her jacket from in between the doors, straightens it, and adjusts her stunner holster so that it sits more comfortably on her hip before she takes a seat.  Alya collapses next to her.

“Like seriously,” Alya says, breathing hard, “it’s not like you’re going to use all that stuff to murder someone.”  She pauses, then looks curiously at Marinette.

“Yes,” Marinette says, rolling her eyes as Alya opens her mouth to ask.  “I could, in theory, kill someone.  So could an eight-year-old with a brick, it doesn’t take years of martial arts to accomplish that.”

“So,” Alya says after a few seconds.  She grabs a supporting bar as the train jerks forwards.  “Years of martial arts?”

“Eight,” Marinette says, “this December.  I started when I was six, it’s no big deal.”

“Six?”  Alya frowns.  “That’s really young, isn’t it?”

Marinette leans over, reaches down, and readjusts her baton until it sits more comfortably against her calf.  “Well, not according to my master.  I don’t go in as often as I used to, but there are still a lot of younger kids at the dojo and a lot of them stay on.”

“Six is young to be learning self-defense,” Alya muses after a minute.  “But hey, the dojo must be doing good business, what with the whole ‘supervillains wreaking havoc left and right in the city’ going on.”

“For a lot of the young kids, it’s just to give them an outlet for their aggression or to learn discipline or whatever,” Marinette says.  “But yeah, there were a lot of people who signed up for self-defense stuff after the first attacks, not like it’d actually help them.”

Alya turns and looks at Marinette, brows knit together in mild confusion.  “Uh,” she says.

Marinette rolls her eyes at Alya as the metro jerks and sways.  “Come on, Alya.  It’s not like knowing how to throw a punch or how to kick properly is going to slow down someone who can throw around lightning bolts, or keep you from getting crushed beneath a bus when someone with super strength throws one at you.”

“What do you carry around all that stuff for then?”

“It gives Mama a sense of security,” Marinette says.

Alya waits a moment for the rest of the sentence.  The train slows to a stop and the doors open and shut, admitting another few people before they speed off again, heading westward.

“And?” she says when Marinette fails to say anything.

Marinette makes a helpless little gesture with a hand.  “And what?” she says.  “Alya, I’m probably more physically capable than most people, and I know some fancy-looking martial arts.  That’s it.  I’m not some kind of superhero who magically doesn’t die when she gets shot.  I’m just me.”

Everyone in the car—everyone, Marinette, Alya, the gaggle of university students giggling and snorting quietly about something at the other end, the old man sitting across from them, leaning on a wooden cane carved out of a single piece of gnarled wood, and a dozen others—jumps as their phones go off, filling the train with an endless howl of beeps and buzzes and snatches of pop music and electronic tones that dwindles by degrees as the alarms finish and shut down.

The next few seconds is filled with the sound of rustling, as people dig phones from pockets and purses in the vain hope that the notification on their screens will not be what they all know it is.

“Oh no,” Alya breathes.

Marinette doesn’t feel the need to elaborate; they can all read what it says, right there on their phones.

The police checkpoint at the metro entrance near Notre Dame had been attacked.  No word on casualties, Marinette notes in some distant, analytical part of her mind, which wasn’t too unexpected, it was a developing situation and it’d just happened some thirty seconds ago.

Still, none of the other supervillains had hit the gendarmes directly.  This was—dangerous.  An escalation, a thrown gauntlet, an open declaration of war, however you wanted to put it.

It wasn’t going to end well for anyone.

The train brakes suddenly, throwing Marinette against Alya before she can brace herself.  Alya swears under her breath as she grabs for an upright bar to keep herself from toppling over onto the seat next to her, echoed by the university students and a man at the end of the train, who goes sprawling on the floor, his phone clattering underneath a seat.

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” a professionally bland and measured voice says over the intercoms a second later.  “Due to a situation developing near Notre Dame we’ll be standing here for a few minutes.  We’ll update you with more information as we receive it, and we hope you’ll be patient with us.”

A massed muttering and rustling breaks out in the car as the intercom clicks off and everyone onboard starts checking Twitter and news sites, reflexively refreshing their phones every few seconds.

“Well,” Marinette says, looking around the car.  “Looks like our plans for the rest of today have been derailed.”

She looks back to see Alya with an urgent expression.

“Mari,” Alya says, grabbing her by the arm.  “We have to go.”

“Go where?” Marinette says.  “The train’s stopped, we’re not going anywhere.”

Alya points with her free hand.  “They have those ‘pull in case of emergency’ things in front of the door for a reason,” she says.  “Come on, Mari, when else are we going to have this chance?”

Marinette stares at Alya for a second, trying to force some measure of understanding between them.  “A chance for what?” she asks.

“Oh, come on,” Alya says.  “The attack is going on less than a kilometer from where we are, I just checked.  We could be there in five minutes if we hurry.”

“Wait, you want to go towards the active battle between the supervillain and the guys with submachine guns and assault rifles.  What is this chance you’re talking about?  The chance to get ourselves killed in the crossfire?”

“It’s a chance to get some up-close footage,” Alya says, “obviously.  Come on, it might be useful.”

“Not if we’re dead, from getting in between—“

“Okay, fine,” Alya snaps, “whatever, stay if you want but I’m going.”

She gets up and marches over to the door, her lips pressed into a thin line, and with brusque motions reaches up and pulls the emergency release valve and forces open the doors.  Then, before anyone can react, she hops out and starts jogging swiftly back the way they came.

Marinette stares at the open door.

Okay, so Alya was definitely being unreasonable.  She was not only dragging herself into an insanely dangerous situation, she was attempting to drag her into the same mess, and even if she survived the gendarmes would definitely have some very pointed things to say about two teenagers running into the middle of their gunfight.

“Oh, hell,” Marinette mutters.  “Alya!  Alya, wait up!”

She clambers out of the car, carefully stepping over the third rail, and sprints after her friend.

A few minutes later, in a dark, hidden corner of the tunnel, actinic corpse-light blooms like lightning over the horizon.

Chapter Text

The light is blinding even through the light cloud cover as Marinette and Alya emerge, panting and sweating, from the deserted metro station onto the street.

They’re almost immediately forced to drop flat to the concrete as a nearby gun rattles with an ear-bursting chut-chut-chut-chut, each shot a loud yet curiously dull impact against the senses, sending bullets whistling overhead.  A number of rifles join in a breath later, individual snapping pops drowned out by sheer walls of noise like canned thunder as shotguns roar out, again and again and again, the sheer weight of sound almost enough to kill in its own right, the full ballistic fury of a thousand years of murderous invention enough to cow gods.

It doesn’t work.

The sharp, stabbing pain in Marinette’s elbows and ears fades to a distant throb, buried under the weight of adrenaline and animal terror as she looks up and sees the supervillain walk through that vicious, hissing hail of lead without slowing his unhurried pace.

He’s almost as wide across at the shoulders as he is tall, and he stands head and shoulders taller Marinette herself, encased head to toe in gleaming white armor, a black mail-like mesh just visible at the joints as he marches forwards.  Neither seems to be damaged in the slightest as bullets ricochet off, or disintegrate into hissing sprays of shrapnel, or simply smack into the armor and drop to the ground, smashed flat.

A ricochet smacks into the concrete near Marinette’s face, and she hisses and jerks her head to one side as a spray of concrete shards slashes at her face, shutting off the right side of the world as tears fill that eye.  Another hits Alya, grazing her shoulder and drawing a gasp of pain from her.

“Okay,” Marinette yells at Alya over the din as the other girl ducks her head down below street level and fishes her phone from her pocket.  “We’re here, we’re close, now can you please get your footage so we can go already?”

“We’re not dead yet, stop complaining,” Alya says crossly.  She gets her phone free and opens up the camera, pointing it at the villain as he advances into the vicious, murderous hail, a hand held up before his face as though the bullets and heavy solid slug rounds are no more than a stiff breeze.

“We’re going to be!”

Marinette distantly hears barked orders over the echoes of gunfire, commands to fall back and reload, for suppressing fire and maneuver.

To no avail.  Marinette lifts her head, her hands clapped over her ears in a vain attempt to dull the noise, to see the villain lift his arm, pointing it straight forwards the fleeing gendarmes.  A section of the oversized bracer on his arm pops up to reveal a snub-barreled gun.

“Flight cannot save you from the Paladin,” he says.  He aims and shoots.

A brilliant flare of energy, so bright that it leaves spots on Marinette’s vision, lances out and touches one of the retreating gendarmes.  A thudding concussion, a bass drum to the firecracker pops of the gendarmes’ gunfire, slaps Marinette in the chest as the gendarme is blown a good ten meters away, and lands convulsing in pain.

More concussions follow as Paladin sweeps his arm left and right, firing at the now actively fleeing gendarmes, silencing their guns one by one.

“Alya we need to get out of here right now this is not a place we are supposed to be in,” Marinette hisses.

“Are you kidding me?” Alya says.  “This is the best footage I’ve ever gotten, and he’s only going after the cops, we’re fine.”

“We’re not fine,” Marinette says.

Something clicks and rotates inside the bracer, and the barrel throws off a gleaming silver bolt this time, spinning like a set of bolas, end-over-end.  It strikes the first gendarme as he gets to his feet and knocks him back down again, his hands bound behind his back at the wrists—handcuffs, Marinette realizes with a giggle of what is probably incipient hysteria.  She is in the middle of a battle between the cops and a supervillain who calls himself, of all ridiculous things, “The Paladin”, and he has a gun that shoots handcuffs.  The only thing that would make this more Saturday-morning cartoony would be if an actual costumed superhero decided to show up.

No one shows up.

Paladin continues firing, aiming carefully as the remaining gendarmes disappear around a corner, some of them still firing their useless rifles at him, some dragging a few of their cuffed comrades along with them.  Then he walks to where they’d made their stand, shouldering the cars they’d parked into a makeshift barricade aside with a screech of tires on asphalt and a groan of strained metal, and picks up the man he’d cuffed first.

“I place you under arrest,” he booms.  “Your crimes: the unjust persecution of the innocent and guiltless.  Your sentence—“

“—is commuted,” Chat Noir roars.

He stands with a foot on the parapet of a nearby roof and his staff in his hand, the end planted beside him.  His expression is a mask of ice and thunder, like the sound of thick winter ice cracking under a heavy blow, written in the lines and creases of his face.

Paladin tosses the gendarme in his fist aside as he turns to face Chat.  The world is abruptly silent, no gunfire, no great concussive blasts from Paladin’s weaponry, just the ringing in Marinette’s ears as the echoes of battle fade away.  Faint light gathers around Paladin’s face—no, just the shine off of his armor, his gleaming helmet caught in a sunbeam—as he turns to face Chat Noir, the black-suited, cat-eared superhero that the news had immediately given the moniker of the “Protector of Paris”.

Hah.  The Protector of Paris.  That title was far too big for Chat Noir, and far too unsuited for a man who had named himself after the very symbol of bad luck, and seemed to carry with him in a halo everywhere he went.

Chat Noir leaps down from the rooftop, holding his staff casually in one hand, and lands lightly in a crouch.  He rises, the movement long and sinuous, standing loosely.

“Chat Noir,” Paladin says, the faint glow still around his face.  “Your crimes: vigilantism and assault.  However, I am willing to be lenient.  Give me your Miraculous—“ Marinette sees Chat’s hand tighten on his staff “—and I will be willing to charge you only with assault.”

“You realize, Paladin,” Chat Noir says in response, his tone no warmer than his expression, “that you’re working for a mass murderer.  Do you even realize how many people he’s hurt?  How many families he’s broken?"

“And how many have they?” Paladin says, a hint of raw, flickering anger working its way into his voice.  He gestures to the groaning, weakly twitching gendarme at his feet.  “How many people have they hurt, and abused, and made fearful for their lives, and how many of them have walked away unpunished?”

“So you’ll let a man who’s actually and purposefully set out to kill people walk in exchange for punishing the excesses of a few lawmen,” Chat says.

“Don’t be naïve,” Paladin says with contempt as the light around his face flares brighter.  “And there will be time enough for him later, after I have finished my work here.”

Paladin extends his hand, palm up.  “Give me your Miraculous, Chat Noir, and I’ll commute your sentence.  This is your last warning.”

Chat Noir responds by attacking.

He blinks across the intervening space, moving so quickly that the dust rises in his wake, slashing at Paladin’s head with his staff.

Paladin simply raises his hand and catches the staff.  Then he pulls his other hand back, balls it into a fist, and punches Chat.

Chat goes cartwheeling backwards in an uncontrolled tumble.  He hits the front hood of one of the abandoned police cars, flips head over heels backwards over it, and keeps going before he smashes into—and through—the side of a lorry the next street over.

Paladin tosses the staff aside and it clatters to the asphalt, shrinking down until it’s no longer than Marinette’s own holstered baton.

Then he starts walking forwards with the same, unhurried pace that he’d had when he’d advanced on the gendarmes and their short-lived barricade, towards where Chat is getting to his feet.

“Oh, shit,” Alya says.

Marinette echoes the sentiment, if not the language.  She gets up as soon as Paladin has advanced past their hiding spot and makes to move forwards before Alya grabs her by the arm.

“Mari, where are you going?” Alya says.

“I need to get Chat’s staff to him,” Marinette replies, trying to tug her arm free.

“Are you insane?” Alya responds.  “Get back down here.”

“Oh, come on,” Marinette says, straining to step forwards—Alya’s grip is surprisingly strong.  “It’s not like you weren’t doing the exact same thing.”

“I wasn’t planning on putting myself right in between a homicidal supervillain and the guy he’s trying to kill,” Alya says.  “Get down, Mari.”

Marinette grabs Alya’s hand and manages to pry her friend’s fingers off.  Then she bolts.

She tries to run as quietly as she can, running only on the balls of her feet, but each impact sounds as loud as the gendarmes’ now-silenced gunfire as she races to grab the staff.

“Mari!”

Paladin whirls in response to Alya’s cry, arm cannon extended, but he doesn’t shoot, or misses, or something, Marinette doesn’t fuss about it.  She just runs like her life depends on it, trying to keep as many cars between her and Paladin as she possibly can, ducking and weaving and fighting down the nausea, a combination of utter terror and utter exhaustion—man, if she survives this she really needs to work out more.

Somehow she makes it to where Paladin had thrown Chat’s baton, and pauses for a moment to catch her breath.  She goes into a coughing fit as she tries to gulp down air.  Then she picks the simple, silver baton, as thick as her two thumbs put together.

The baton tingles in her grip as she hobbles to the nearest cover between her and Paladin and chances a glance back at Chat.

Well, he’s on his feet, at least, which is a good sign, and even if he’s a little wobbly he’s at least moving freely and without apparent pain.  And she can’t see any blood, although since he looks to be about the size of a grain of rice at this distance it’s not like she would be able to tell even if he was bleeding.

Unfortunately he’s moving because Paladin is shooting at him with those silvery bola blasts again, and is only just keeping ahead of them.  And—she winces as he tries to jump behind a car, catches his foot on the roof, and lands flat across on his face, only barely managing to roll out of the way of Paladin’s next shot—he doesn’t look as though he’ll be able to keep it up for much longer.

Okay, so with him in his current state it’s probably one in two odds that he’d be able to catch the baton if she lobbed it at him, which was just not good enough.

She glances at the piles of stunned, mostly unconscious gendarmes around her.

Okay, so time for a distraction.

“Mari, what the hell are you doing?” Alya calls.  Marinette glances over; Alya is moving in a duck-waddle half-crouch towards her, her phone still in her hand.

“As much as I can,” Marinette replies.  “Stay down.”

She sets off at a run again, this time making a beeline for Paladin, the baton clutched in one hand.

“Hey fuckface!” she screams when she gets in range.

Paladin doesn’t turn away.

Okay, so plan B.

She pulls her baton from its holster, extends it with a flick of her wrist, and hurls it at Paladin’s head.  It hits with a hollow clonk and bounces off.

Paladin moves this time, and as he turns his attention away from Chat, Marinette hurls his baton to him.

Paladin blasts her a second later as she’s trying to dive out of the way.

Being hit by one of those silver blasts, Marinette decides, sucks.  Her ankles are instantly latched together; her wrists slam together with enough force to rattle her bones.  A second later, her balance taken, she hits the ground hard, chin-first, her teeth clacking together.  She tastes blood.  A flare of pain burns through her chin and her mouth and her knees.

Paladin whirls back to Chat, but the second that Marinette had bought him is fatal; Chat lunges in with his staff outstretched.  And it is a lunge, from what little Marinette can see, back leg outstretched for balance, his weight leaned forward into the strike, staff outstretched.  It would’ve been perfect, she thinks through the pain and impact-induced wooziness, if he’d done it a little bit earlier.

The end of the staff smashes into the one place on Paladin that isn’t armored, his mouth and chin, rocking his head back and drawing a grunt of pain from the man.  Chat follows it up with a vicious slash at the same spot.

And then Chat seems to go insane.

Marinette strains to watch as Chat drops his staff and leaps at Paladin, claws extended, and fastens his hands around Paladin’s throat.  A brief scuffle ensues as the larger man grabs at Chat, but the superhero seems to simply writhe away from his attempts, moving more like a snake than his namesake, until he finally kicks away, turning a neat backflip in the air before landing in a skid, one hand clenched in a tight fist.

Marinette watches with zero comprehension of following events.

Chat’s lips move as he mutters something under his breath, and his fist suddenly erupts into a howling maelstrom of glowing black motes.  At the same time, Paladin’s armor abruptly dulls, losing its almost luminescent shine.  Then it turns grey, then black.  Then, as Chat stands, the armor begins to crumble away, like ash crumbling from a log in a blazing fire.

A redheaded man drops from the armor to his hands and knees, gasping for breath.  At the same time, the bonds around her wrists and ankles vanish, and Marinette slowly gets to her feet, wincing at her scrapes as she does.

Alya runs up to her, helping her up with a hand under one arm.

“Mari,” she says.  “You’re alright.  You’re insane, Mari, I can’t believe you’re alright.”

Around them, the gendarmes groan and roll themselves to hands and knees.  One of them, who’d been hit in the belly by one of Paladin’s concussive blasts, staggers to a nearby storm drain and pukes into it.

“Ow,” Marinette mumbles.  She spits; there’s blood, which might account for why her tongue hurts so much and why it feels thick in her mouth.

Chat Noir walks up to them, his fist still blazing with that odd, cold, black-glowing fire.  Alya glances up at him, then down at Mari, then tentatively points her camera at the superhero, swallowing nervously.

“Uh, Monsieur Noir?” Alya says.  She takes a step forwards.  “Monsieur Noir, if I could have a moment of your time.”

“That was brave of you,” Chat Noir says, addressing Marinette.

Marinette mumbles something incomprehensible, probably something along the lines of “no problem.”

“Never do it again,” he continues.  He shoots a glance towards Alya.  “Either of you.”

Marinette dimly notes someone’s confused shouting as the gendarmes slap cuffs—the regular kind, not the magical kind—around a man’s wrists and drag him off.

“Okay, but do you just have a minute and he’s gone,” Alya says as Chat bunches himself up and leaps away.  “Damn it.”

She sighs, shuts off her phone, and slips it into her pocket, then gets Marinette’s arm around her shoulders and helps her to the sidewalk.  The both of them collapse onto the curb, shaking with adrenaline and the aftereffects of suddenly absent terror.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a total wash,” Alya says.  She pulls out her phone again and opens the video, allowing herself a small smile of satisfaction as she peruses her film.

“You got your footage?” Marinette asks.  She spits again; less blood, though the taste of it is still in her mouth.

“Yup,” Alya says, popping the p.

“So we don’t need to go through this insanity again?” Marinette says.

Alya shrugs.  “We’ll see.”

Marinette groans and lets herself flop backwards onto the warm concrete.  “Alya, we nearly died.”

“We were fine.”  Alya prods the bullet graze on her shoulder, wincing a little.  “Within reason.”

“Mesdemoiselles, a moment of your time.”

They look up into the smile of one of the gendarmes.

“Hello there,” he says.

“Hi,” Alya says.

“Could I trouble you both for your identification?” the gendarme says, his smile positively radiant.  “I’m Officer Thomas,” he adds after a second.

Alya puts her phone aside, produces her wallet, pulls out her school ID, and hands it to the gendarme; Marinette mirrors her.

Officer Thomas looks at their IDs and then hands both back, still smiling.  “Well, that looks to be in order,” he says.

Another man dressed in identical tactical gear comes up to Officer Thomas and speaks quietly into his ear, and the warmth slowly drains out of his expression, replaced by something cold and remote.

“Who’re you?” Alya asks suspiciously.

Officer Thomas and the man share a look.  Then the man turns to face Alya and Marinette.

“I am Lieutenant Jensen,” the man says.  His expression is flat and shark-like and, Marinette thinks, quietly afraid.  “Your IDs are in order, but we want to bring you in and ask you some questions.  It’s strictly routine, you know, but we need to be thorough.  It won’t take long.”

Four hours later, Tom and Sabine burst in through the front doors of the police station.  The officer at the front desk nearly draws on them, but manages to arrest the movement; he instead merely rests his hand on the butt of his revolver and pops the restraining strap out of the way.

“How can I help you?” he says as Tom and Sabine approach his desk.

“Our daughter,” Tom says.  “You have her here.”

Tom gets a politely blank stare from the officer.

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” Sabine says.  “We’re her parents, she called us, said that you had her here.”

“Can I see some identification, please?” the officer says blandly.

He takes their driver’s licenses, examines them, examines Tom and Sabine, examines the licenses again, and then finally hands the licenses back.

“Wait here, please,” he says.

It takes a further agonizing ten minutes before the officer comes back with Marinette, who breaks into a run and tackles her parents in a hug as soon as she sees them.

“Mari,” Sabine breathes, “are you alright?”  She pushes Marinette back out to arms-length, inspecting her.  “Oh no, what happened to your chin?  Does it hurt?”  Her eyes flicker to the officer as he settles back into his seat.  “Did they?”

“No, Mama,” Marinette says.  “I got it in the attack, during that fight with the supervillain.”

Sabine’s expression becomes hard and angry for a second.

“Sorry, Mama.”

“Well, at least you’re safe now,” Tom says, laying a hand on Sabine’s shoulder.

“Do you know if they let Alya go yet?” Marinette asks.  “They put us in different rooms and I don’t know what happened to her.”

Sabine’s gaze flicks up to the officer.  He says nothing.

“Dear,” she says, addressing Tom.  “We can stay a little longer, can’t we?”

“I’ll call her mother,” Tom says.

Sabine and Marinette settle into a pair of seats nearby while Tom goes out to make a call.

“Why did it take you so long to contact us?” Sabine says quietly to Marinette.  She lays out her hand, palm up, and Marinette reaches over and grasps it tightly.  “The attack was over hours ago.  What happened?”

“They brought us here,” Marinette says, her voice quiet and much calmer than how she feels.  “They put us in those interrogation rooms, and they wouldn’t let me call anyone.  They said that they just needed to ask me some questions and then they’d let me call you, but they just kept asking me the same questions over and over.”

She begins to tremble.

“Tell us the rest when we get home, dear,” Sabine says.  She squeezes Marinette’s hand gently as Tom comes back in.

“They’ll be here in twenty minutes,” he tells them.

“We can stay until then,” Sabine says, a little louder than is absolutely necessary.  “It’s not as though we’ve anything urgent to attend to.”

The officer shifts his weight on his seat.

Twenty-five minutes later, Alya’s mother, Marlena, comes in through the door.  After a brief argument with the officer, he disappears into the back of the station and returns with a fuming Alya walking before him.

“They took my phone!” she rages as soon as she’s released.  She storms over to where Marinette is sitting and points a finger, quivering with rage, back at the officer.  “Those spineless sons of bitches took my phone!  What the fuck!  They have no right—“

“Alya Cesaire,” Marlena hisses.  “Watch your language.”

Alya notices her mother for the first time and shuts up, turning brick red with pent-up frustration.

What do you think you were doing,” Marlena continues in the same quiet, furious tone.  “Deliberately running into the middle of a warzone, mouthing off to the authorities, you’re lucky that the only thing you lost was your phone.  You could’ve lost your life, Alya.”

“No I wouldn’t have,” Alya says sulkily.  “The worst they said might happen was that I would get house arrest.”

“House arrest?” Marlena says incredulously.  “What did you do, Alya, we raised you better than that!”

“I just filmed them fighting that Paladin guy,” Alya protests.  “I didn’t even say anything bad about them.”

What?

“Okay so maybe I did say some things about them when they took my phone,” Alya concedes, “but they had no right—“

“Right or not,” Marlena says, “what you did was reckless and irresponsible, from start to finish.  You put yourself in danger, you put your friend in danger, you probably have yourself on a government watch list by now—I, I just don’t know where to start with you.  We’ll discuss your punishment when we get back home.”

She turns to Tom.  “Thank you for calling me,” she says.  “Alya, come with me.”

“See you at school,” Alya mutters to Marinette as she trots after her mother.  Tom, Sabine, and Marinette depart soon after, followed the entire time by the calm, steady gaze of the officer.

Their trip home is without incident.  Marinette half expects some night-based supervillain to pop out of an alley and devour them in shadow, leaving nothing, not even bones, behind, or to be suddenly surrounded by men in black tactical gear with three or four guns apiece and a pressing need to discuss recent events with them.

Tom heads immediately to bed when they get back as Sabine and Marinette settle on their living room couch.

“Okay,” Sabine says.  “Now, tell me what you can.”

Marinette does her best.  She tells her about Alya’s plans, and hearing about the attack, and how Alya had bailed from the metro and gotten her involved in the fight; about when Chat had been disarmed and almost on the verge of defeat when she’d decided to move.

“Well,” Sabine says after Marinette has finished.  “That was incredibly stupid of you.”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says..

“I get that you needed to follow Alya,” Sabine continues, “but actually running into a fight that even the gendarmerie decided that they had no part in?  How could you possibly think that was a good idea, Marinette?”

“He was disarmed and losing,” Marinette protests.  “He needed his weapon.”

“He started trying to strangle, uh—“ Sabine pauses.

“Paladin,” Marinette supplies.

“—Paladin right after that,” Sabine says.  “So apparently not.  But regardless, you shouldn’t be running into these kinds of fights.  I know that you feel the need to help, and I’m proud of you for it.”

Sabine reaches over and gently puts her hand onto Marinette’s knee.

“But it was still stupid,” she says gently.

“And dumb, and reckless, I get it, Mama,” Marinette says.

Sabine studies her daughter for a minute.

“I wonder if you do,” Sabine says.  “Go to bed, get some rest.”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

She climbs up the staircase, opens her trapdoor, and climbs into her room, then changes into her pajamas and brushes her teeth.  She climbs up to her bed, crawls beneath her covers, and closes her eyes.

She can’t sleep.  Over and over the image of Chat Noir standing before her, his clenched fist ablaze with dark light, his expression tired, strained, unyielding plays in her mind’s eye.

Something there had been important.  For the life of her she doesn’t know what it is, but something there had been important.  She needs to remember what it is.

She falls asleep to those thoughts.

Chapter Text

Paris is haunted.

A night-clad figure flits from shadow to shadow, rooftop to rooftop, moving swiftly and silently, with all the grace and power of a jungle panther.  A few casual observers who catch sight of the figure, a patch of black against a screen of grey and dull amber, feel the hairs on the back of their necks and arms crawl and the blood in their veins burn with the sudden desire to hide away in some secure corner of their homes.

Whatever the figure is, it is dangerous: an apex predator given free rein.  To run is futile; to hide and avoid notice is sensible.

The figure leaps onto the Eiffel Tower, covering tens of meters in a single, casual bound, and clambers upwards over the spider’s-web lacework of iron until it reaches the observatory platform atop the spire.  There it rests, leaning on the railing, looking out upon the city.

“Oh, screw this,” Chat says.  He steps back from the railing and lets himself flop spread-eagled onto his back.  “Plagg, claws in.”

Light stabs outwards from the tip of the Tower for a moment.  A—a thing, their head too bulbous, their limbs too spindly and reduced, their eyes too old to belong to anything of flesh and blood—spirals outwards from Adrien and hits the floor in a face-down skid.

“Oh, spare me the dramatics, Plagg,” Adrien says.  He fishes in a pocket for a second then tosses a cheese wedge in Plagg’s general direction.  It vanishes in a blur of black at the top of its arc, and then Plagg is back on the floor, face-up, chewing noisily.

He’s a superhero, Adrien reflects as Plagg finishes eating.  He’s aware of all the attendant responsibilities, he’d read more than enough comics.

It would’ve been nice if any of them had mentioned how much some of those sucked.  Nightly patrol, for one.  There wasn’t enough coffee in all of France to make up for being up until three in the morning four nights out of seven.  It would definitely help if he ever had something significant to show for all those nights of effort; the problem was that all he’d done was stop a few petty crimes and maybe half a dozen murders—all of which was well and good.

But it wasn’t stopping Papillon.

“Plagg,” Adrien says.

“What?”

“What happens if I can’t stop him?” Adrien says.  “Can’t beat Papillon, I mean.”

“Then you lose,” Plagg says.  “Simple as that.  And then there’s only one person in Paris with a Miraculous.”

“And what happens then?”

“That’s anybody’s guess,” Plagg says.  “You people always want to do something stupid when you get ahold of power.”

“Present company excepted?” Adrien says.

“No,” Plagg says.

“Oh, come on,” Adrien says.  “What have I done that’s so bad?”

“You haven’t found anyone to wield Tikki’s Miraculous, for one,” Plagg says.

The line of Adrien’s jaw sets.

“I keep telling you,” Plagg continues, “that there is only so long that you can keep misusing Cataclysm like you’ve been doing.  Eventually you’re going to run both of us down and we’ll be useless for anything but standing in the way and getting killed.”

“I’m not doing it, Plagg,” Adrien says.

“You have to,” Plagg insists.  “Chat Noir was never intended to work alone.”

“I won’t,” Adrien snaps.  “My job isn’t to paint a target on someone’s back when they never should’ve been involved in the first place.”

“No,” Plagg responds, their tone level.  “Your job is to stop Papillon.  A job that you, right now, are failing at.  A job that you can’t handle alone.”  Plagg flies over to Adrien and hovers, staring steadily down at him.  “I keep trying to tell you, I am not meant to destroy the akuma like this.  Every time you use me to destroy an akuma I have to fight directly against someone’s will, and that is draining, Adrien.  It is draining me, I’ve told you this.”

Adrien sits up and glares at Plagg, but no response comes to him.

“Look,” he says, after a minute.  “You told me what happened to the last few people who had these.  I’m not making anyone else a target, and that’s final, Plagg.”

A commotion below draws their attention and attracts them both to the railing—two men, both bulky, one with an arm outstretched, the other speaking quickly and loudly, confronting a third, backing away slowly with uncertain steps.  All three of them a little way off, where one of the boulevards opens up onto the plaza surrounding the Tower.

“Can you hear what they’re saying,” Adrien says, cupping a hand around his ear and leaning over.  Plagg’s own ears twitch and swivel.

“Cops,” Plagg says.  “They want him to get down on the ground, they’re calling in their position.”

“All right,” Adrien says.

“Adrien, this isn’t your job,” Plagg says.

“They might need help,” Adrien says, rubbing thoughtfully at the face of his ring.  “Plagg, claws out.”

Plagg heaves a long-suffering sigh as unseen force snatches at them and drags them into the ring, and the night is illuminated by a brief and furious flash of silent lightning.  The two men below look upwards; one draws his pistol.  The third glances, but quickly returns his gaze to the two men facing him.

The two policemen gape as Chat Noir plummets out of the darkness and lands before them in a crouch, his staff already in his hand, his eyes glowing with the fey light of reflected streetlamps.

“Officers,” Chat says, nodding to them.  They don’t take their hands off of their weapons, although the one who’d drawn his pistol does return it to his holster.  They return his nod, warily.

“Sir,” Chat says, nodding to the third man.

He keeps his hands up and his gaze firmly fixed on the two policemen, but gives Chat a quick glance and a nod all the same.

“So what’s going on here?” Chat says.

“Routine stop,” the policeman who’d drawn his pistol says.  “Step aside.”

Chat acquiesces, taking a step back as the two proceed towards the man.  One of the policemen keeps a few steps back, the heel of his palm still on the butt of his pistol, as his partner orders the man to drop the plastic grocery bag he’s clutching and then to drop to his knees.

“Hey, whoa,” Chat says as the handcuffs come out and the man’s hands are wrenched behind him.  “What are you doing?”

“Back up,” one of the policemen snaps.

Chat glances at the man as the handcuffs ratchet shut around his wrists and the plastic bag is kicked aside, at his swarthy complexion and the gleam of his eyes and teeth, pinpoints of terrified yellow.

“Hey now,” Chat says, stepping forwards.  The pistols clear their holsters.  Chat hides most of the flinch.  “Hey now, let’s all just calm down here.  Is all of this really necessary?  It’s just a routine stop you said—“ he glances at the badge of the officer closer to him “—Officer Laurent, do you really need to be so, so—“

“I said back up,” the other policeman, not-Officer Laurent, Officer Mar-something, the rest of his badge obscured by his arm, says.  He gets up from where he’s securing the man’s wrists.

Officer Laurent raises a hand in an arresting gesture.  His partner stops, mid-rise.

For the first time Chat becomes aware of people around them, maybe a dozen faces, mostly young, mostly pale, some with uncertain terror, all of them at the periphery of current events.  One or two walk away as his green-eyed, luminescent gaze passes over them.

“Look,” Chat says.  He holds up his staff and touches it with his will, letting it contract back to its baton form before he clips it to the small of his back.  “None of us here want any trouble.  We all just want to be back home in our beds, as soon as possible and with as few bruises as possible, all right?”

He nods towards the man still kneeling on the ground, his hands still secured behind his back.  “So let’s just all calm down.  It’s not entirely necessary to arrest him just for walking this late, right?”

Chat sees Officer Laurent’s eyes narrow slightly as the older man considers him, then the small crowd around him.

“What’s your name?” he says, turning to address the man.

“Abdul,” the man says, after a couple false, stammering starts.  “Abdul Amidane, I live just a couple blocks from here, please, I was just—“

“Shut up,” Officer Laurent says.  “You have ID?”

“Yes, yes,” Abdul says.

“Where?”

“Back pocket,” Abdul says.  “My right back pocket.”

Officer Marchand pulls a wallet from Abdul’s pocket, flips it open, studies something within for a second, then tosses it to the ground beside the plastic bag.

“What are you doing out here this late at night, Abdul?” Officer Laurent says.

Abdul jerks his head, his eyes wide, towards the plastic bag.  “My,” he says, “my wife, she’s pregnant, she’s been having cravings.  She wanted pickles, I just went out to go buy some.”

Chat glances towards the bag and sniffs the air.  The liquid leaking from the bag carries the sour tang of pickle juice.  He walks over and nudges the bag with his foot,  hearing the clink of glass on glass.

“All right,” he says, turning to Officer Laurent.  “You heard his story, he wasn’t up to any mischief.  You can let him go now, right?”

Officer Marchand glances at Officer Laurent, and receives a nod.  Reluctantly, he kneels, produces a ring of keys, and uncuffs Abdul, helping him to his feet.

“We’re sorry about this, sir,” Officer Laurent says.  “If you want to file a complaint—“

“No, no,” Abdul says as he scrabbles sideways and picks up his wallet.  “No, it’s fine, I’ll just go now.”

“How about I walk you to the store?” Chat offers.

“No, no,” Abdul says.  He gives him then the policemen a last, fleeting, rabbit-like look, then hurries off into the night.

“Chat Noir,” Officer Laurent says.  His first two fingers tap the brim of his cap in a half-salute before he turns and with a gesture to his partner, continues on his way.  By degrees the small crowd disperses, leaving Chat alone in the weight of the night, below the looming bulk of the Eiffel Tower.

After a while, he turns towards home.


 

Marinette dreams of when things had been normal.  When the most that she’d needed to worry about had been the usual stuff about grades and how her latest project was proceeding and Chloe, although over the years she’d gone from something that would make her cry herself to sleep, barricade herself in her room, and refuse to go to school to background noise.  Incredibly annoying background noise, albeit.

And then, in the space of twenty-four hours, everything had gone insane.

She’d thought that it was some kind of commercial at first, or an art piece, or something, like that big yellow dragon they paraded through Nantes but with a giant walking pile of boulders with glowing green eyes instead.

And then Ivan had overturned the first car.

Things had gone downhill rather quickly from there.  The police—briefly she wonders whether Sabrina’s Papa had lost his position over the Paladin thing—had swarmed him, but nothing had seemed to stop him, not even ramming him with police cars barreling full tilt down the street.  He’d walked through everything that the authorities could muster, and then he’d walked through a skyscraper and brought it down.  They were still pulling bodies out of the rubble, but at this point it was somewhat unlikely that the death toll would be revised downwards.

Two thousand, six hundred and two dead.  There’d been one cop killed, one injured who’d later died in hospital, two thousand two hundred three that had still been in the building when Ivan had brought it down, and another three hundred ninety-seven who’d been in nearby buildings that had been hit by debris.  There were almost a thousand more injured who were still in hospital.

Ivan had then kidnapped Chloe and pulled a King Kong, climbing up the Eiffel Tower with her clenched in one massive fist.

Then he’d thrown her at the ground, and Chat Noir had saved her.

Overnight Chat Noir had become an instant celebrity, and a target of suspicion and fear, and the subject of admiration and imitation—he was a polarizing figure, and the fact that he’d just appeared out of thin air and disappeared just as suddenly hadn’t done much to calm the situation.  To say that speculation abounded would’ve been an understatement.

The one thing that no one could deny or speculate about was that he’d solved the problem.  Ivan—Stoneheart, as the media had started calling him—had torn through everything that the cops could throw at him like it was soaked toilet paper and Chat, one man in a cartoonish-looking BDSM-slash-furry outfit with a shiny metal stick, had stopped him cold.

That alone probably qualified him for a medal or something.

There was a terrified flurry of theories on every major media channel, local, domestic, and foreign, for three or four days following the attack, while people did their best to mourn quietly.  Rampant speculation about exactly how Ivan had become an unstoppable nightmare took up most of that time, their conclusions ranging from the politely but frustratingly direct “we have no damn idea how” to the outright racist and xenophobic to the probably insane—Ivan was probably not an advance scout of a race of reptilian infiltrators seeking to destroy or subjugate mankind, for example.  There was some airtime dedicated to the discussion of who exactly Chat Noir was and whether he should really be considered a vigilante, and at least one or two discussions devoted to whether he should work openly with the police in the event of another such attack.  There’d been a televised memorial service that Sunday at Notre Dame.  Various nations had offered the support of their intelligence organizations, various world monuments had been lit up in the tricolore, statements of solidarity had been made by various and sundry dignitaries.

It was hard to tell through the shock, but things had seemed to be recovering.

And then the second attack had happened, three weeks to the day after the first.

There hadn’t been any fatalities, fortunately; but then again there hadn’t needed to be.  Every bit of healing that Paris had managed in that time was undone in an instant.  People had been settling back into their old routines before the attack; afterwards they cowered again, hardly daring to venture outside except when it was necessary.

The day after, word came from on high to escalate.  The police were ordered to step aside and to allow the gendarmerie to take over.  Patrols were stepped up, there were ever-louder assurances that “these investigations took time but they were close to finding the person or persons behind these attacks”, and Paris and the world settled in with bated breath to await the worst.

The worst came another two weeks later.

It wasn’t the attack that was bad—one fatality due to friendly fire, several wounded—but what followed.

The man behind the attacks had spoken to Paris, out of a cloud of butterflies, their wings black and shot through with jagged lines of glowing, venomous purple.  He’d claimed that he’d been wrongfully deprived of the—he’d called them Miraculous, what kind of absurd name was that?—by Chat Noir, and that he’d already attempted to negotiate their return.  When Chat had refused, he’d seen no choice but to resort to force, and now to coercion.

Most dangerous of all, he’d offered peace.  Take down Chat Noir, return the Miraculous to him, and the attacks would stop.  There would be peace again.

The official line was that the man who would quickly become known as Papillon was that there would be no negotiation with terrorists, and no peace on his terms, and that Paris and France and the world would stand against him.

Unofficially, active suspicion had birthed active hostility, and there’d been mutterings that they should apprehend Chat if the government and the agents of the government wouldn’t, that they should take the task upon themselves and bring some measure of peace and calm to their world again.

There’d been protests, some flaring into actual violence, small skirmishes between the riot police and some of the protestors, and of course good old-fashioned citizen-on-citizen assault and battery, much of it on the borders of the 19th arrondissement.  Things hadn’t been go-to-the-barricades bad, but it’d still taken a week for the worst of it to die down.

After a few months of constant, low-level violence, the terror had congealed into something dark and viscous, permeating Paris from its catacombs to the top of its tallest spire.  People went out late and came back early, and when they go out did they scurried, looking around with quick darting glances, like mice freed from a cage and placed under spotlights.  People kept their gazes down and their interactions minimal.  The violence had mostly stopped, at least, although it was more accurate to say that it was biding its time, in the same way that a boiler under pressure did, erupting occasionally in little bursts of steam.  The pressure was still building, though.

Marinette wakes with a start, covered in a cold sweat, blinking at her ceiling and at the little slice of sky she can see through her skylight.

Still dark.

She raises herself up on her elbows, checks the time, and then collapses back, groaning.  She stares up a while more, trying to will herself to sleep again; it doesn’t work.

Sighing, she rolls out of bed and makes her way down to the kitchen.  She pours herself a mug of hot water from the water heater and sets it aside as she digs through the cabinets for the pomegranate fruit tea blend she’d always relied on in times like these; especially in times like these.  She’d need to buy another tin soon—

Her thoughts falter as she remembers the talk she’d eavesdropped on in the morning.  Then she fixes herself a weaker cup of tea than she’d usually prefer.

She climbs back up to her room, carefully holding the mug of pomegranate-scented water in her hands, and lowers herself into the seat at her desk.  A breeze wafts in from her window, cracked open just a hair to admit the fresh air.

A car drives by, going several kilometers an hour faster than the speed limit, and swerves around a corner as Marinette takes a sip.  A bird, ignorant of the hour, chirrups a brief snippet of birdsong, and then falls silent.

Marinette sits and sips until her mug grows lukewarm and then cold, as the day brightens towards dawn.

Then she sets her mug aside, walks to her lounge, and passes out.

She wakes up with a sore back.

Chapter Text

One morning, about a week and a half after the Paladin incident, Marinette wakes up to several dozen messages on her phone, all from an unknown number.

“wtf”, she types, as soon as she regains enough mental function to operate the touchscreen keyboard properly.  “who is this”

“alya,” comes the immediate reply.  “borrowing etta’s phone”

“okay,” Marinette replies.  “so u ru messaging me at 6 and y ru messaging me from ur sister’s phone”

“b/c mines still in lockup and im still grounded anyways”

“lockup?”

“the cops still have it and they refuse to give it back”

“if youd just given them the password maybe they wouldn’t be hassling u over it”

“if id given them the password they would’ve deleted my video,” Alya replies tartly.  “anyways not important”

“so why are u messaging me then”

“remember when we were going to go talk to those guys who knew smething abt that old man they found in the river”

“yes
we nearly died”

“we’re alive stop complaining
anyways
they just got back to me and”

“I’m going back to bed, Alya”

“NO WAIT HOLD ON”

Marinette, despite herself, waits.

“so I didn’t get a name but ive got some solid leads on a neighborhood
want to come?
planning on going before lunch”

Marinette tries not to feel too relieved as she explains, “sorry Alya, I can’t, need to babysit Manon all day”

Which was true.  Mostly.  Madame Chamack could keep Manon with her in the office until two and then she needed someone to take care of her daughter while she worked, and that was usually Marinette.  Usually.

A pause.

“oh all right
tell Manon hi for me?”

“will do
bye Alya”

Marinette sets her phone to silent, fluffs her pillow, and goes back to sleep.

Sabine wakes her at eleven a few hours later, gives her a quick lunch, and sends her on her way.


The building in which Nadja works is typical of most buildings downtown: a looming glass spire tipped with a lacework steel needle and a smaller forest of antennae surrounding it.  Marinette ignores the view, which always made her feel shorter than necessary, and walks in through the busy front entrance.

Security is somewhat antsier than usual, which was no surprise; everyone started to get a little nervous about a week after an attack, knowing that another might be imminent.  Even after she takes off her defensive equipment they still insist on running her through the metal detector twice and giving her a pat-down, and she can feel the heat of their suspicious gazes on her back as she walks to the elevators, hits the button to go up, and even as she rides up to Nadja’s office.

As the elevator doors slide open Nadja is there, holding Manon’s hand.

“Oh, there you are,” Nadja says as Marinette steps out into the lobby area.  She gives Marinette a brief hug with her free arm, then hands Manon over to Marinette.  “Did you have lunch yet?  I’ve left a few euros on my desk if you need to buy something on your way back.  I’ll be by to pick her up around seven today, is that all right?  Please tell your mother I said hi, will you?”

Marinette tries to process the flood of words while Manon tugs at her hand with cries of “up!  Up!”, asking to be carried.

“Uh,” she says, “of course, Madame Chamack.”

Nadja flashes her a quick smile and then hurries off as someone calls for her.

“Marinette?” Manon asks as soon as Nadja has vanished around a corner.  She tugs insistently at the corner of Marinette’s jacket.  “Marinette?”

Marinette returns her attention to Manon and looks down.  “Yes, what is it?”

“Can we get ice cream?” Manon pleads.  She attempts a wide-, teary-eyed pout with a side of cherubic innocence and gets most of the way there.

Marinette reaches for her wallet to check whether she has enough money before she remembers the money that was in Nadja’s office.

“Come on,” she sighs, holding out a hand to Manon, who takes it obediently.

The office space is the same labyrinth of cubicles it always is, and after five minutes of fruitless wandering Marinette gives up and asks one of Nadja’s coworkers for directions.

After another ten minutes Marinette pokes her head into what is this time the correct cubicle.  Still, she double-checks the name pinned to the wall just outside—yup, unless there was some other Nadja Chamack here—before she enters.

Her desk is a cluttered mess of wires and papers, her keyboard half-buried under a pile of scribbled notes.  Marinette scans her gaze over the desk and finds six five-euro notes folded in half, pinned beneath the mouse.  Marinette reaches over and picks them up, sliding them into her pocket.

All the lights flicker once and then go out.

Marinette waits for them to come back on and tries not to whimper in terror with Manon.

After ten seconds, still nothing.

Then Marinette notices something that sends a chill down her spine.

The office space is on the edge of the building, and so one of the walls is a mass of windows.  Usually the blinds are drawn over them to block out the sun, but today they are half-open, admitting a long sliver of light that slices its way across the floor and angles up across the cubicle walls.

The light is slowly dimming.

“Manon,” Marinette says.  “Stay here, I’ll be right back.”

Marinette walks over to the closest window as a confused hubbub comes up from everyone in the room, pulls up the blind, looks outside, and tries not to let herself panic.

The previously clear sky is slowly being covered by a wash of clouds as wide as the horizon, all of them thunder-grey and menacing.  As they draw nearer, the occasional lightning bolt flickers between them, illuminating them for eyeblinks with an eerie, sepulchral glow. “This wasn’t in the forecast,” Marinette mumbles.  “This definitely wasn’t in the forecast.”

The entry door slams open and a sudden arctic gale howls through the office, scattering papers, throwing loose items left and right, and toppling cubicle walls.

“I do hope that all of you have made alternate plans for today,” someone trills.  “Because I am afraid that the weather’s taken a turn for the worse.”

Every head turns towards the woman standing in the entrance.  Her hair, done up in a pair of pigtails, is a blazing white, struck through with jagged streaks of black—no, it’s just the darkness, Marinette sees as she shifts into a sunbeam, just before the clouds roll over it and swallow the light, her hair is streaked through with a sickly-looking purple, not black.  Her striped dress, a simple one-piece that hugs her chest and flares out at hip level, is possessed of the same colors.  Her parasol, folded at her side, is black, or of a shade of purple dark enough to be indistinguishable, in the deep shadow.  On her face is a black domino mask and a smirk, insane in its intensity.

“Oh, fuck me,” she hears someone whisper.

“In our updated forecast,” the supervillain says, again in her cheerful, maddened, musical voice.  “Dropping temperatures, an increased chance of high winds, and—“ she raises the parasol with a flourish, pointing it right at someone off to the side “—lightning.”

A wall of sound slaps into Marinette and rattles the windows, and another set of cubicle walls collapses as someone is thrown into it.

The screaming starts right about then, as does the rush towards the exits.

Marinette whirls back towards Nadja’s office, but Manon is nowhere to be seen—there’s just a pile of bodies and legs and arms swarming by as people scramble over each other and barge into each other and scramble and scream.  Marinette joins in.

“Manon!” she screams.  She barges past a pair of men in suits and dives in between a woman in heels and a cubicle wall.  “Manon!  Manon, where are you!”

She thinks she hears a high-pitched cry in response, but there’s just too much noise, too much chaos—and another thunderclap hammers into her, the sound throwing her sideways and to her knees, her ears ringing.  She blinks away the dizziness and gets a knee in her side that drops her flat to the floor, something cracking audibly in her chest, every breath a sudden screaming pain, a knife just below her ribs, and all through it the screams and the thunder and the endless endless noise.

Manon, she thinks through the mind-fuzzing pain.  She needs to get Manon.  Manon.

She forces herself up to hands and knees again, then works her way onto her feet, using the half-fallen cubicle wall as support.  It’s easier now that the crowd is thinning.

She has to get to Manon.

The noise begins to die down as Marinette reaches Nadja’s cubicle and looks inside.

The mess is more so now, the monitor knocked onto its side, the keyboard dangling from its cord, the papers covering the floor.  Manon is huddled in a corner under the desk, her terror beyond the ability of screams to express.  She’s just whimpering now, her hands pressed over her ears so hard that the skin of her palms is bloodless and white, her eyes squeezed shut and tears flowing freely down her cheeks.  Marinette reaches out to her.

“Manon,” she says.  Then more urgently, “Manon!  Come on!”

Manon just keeps whimpering.  Marinette crawls forwards and grabs Manon by an arm, the contact drawing a raw shriek from the girl.

“Manon, it’s me,” Marinette says as the girl claws at her hand, trying to pry it off.  Marinette draws Manon to her and holds her tight against her chest, making gentle “shhing” sounds, rocking her gently.

“Shh, it’s Marinette, shh, don’t worry, Manon, it’s me,” Marinette coos, cradling the terrified girl as the screams die away.  “Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s me, it’s Marinette.”

And then, a sound that invokes more terror than everything else had before.

Footsteps.  Not the rapid thudthudthud of running, the steady, light tread of someone who knows exactly where they’re going and knows that they have nothing to fear.

Fuck.  Marinette quickly rolls up her pant leg and reaches for her baton.

The supervillain appears in the door to Nadja’s cubicle, smiling her crazed little smile.

“Is anyone still there~?” she sings.  “Don’t be shy now, come out.”

That would probably be the worst idea in the world, or at least second only to bending the knee and swearing fealty to Chloe right there and then, Marinette thinks.  She scoots a little further back under the desk instead, clapping her hand over Manon’s mouth and nose to muffle the little girl’s whimpering.

“Anyone there~”

The supervillain pauses in her tread and cocks her head to a side, listening.  Marinette stops breathing, the air frozen in her lungs by sheer terror; so does Manon.

“Oh well,” the supervillain says, shrugging.  She turns on a heel and marches briskly back towards the door, humming to herself, swinging her parasol as though she’s on a lovely walk out in a park on a fine spring morning.

Marinette waits for a minute, then two, counting the seconds by the beats of her hammering heart and the periodic stabs of pain in her side.

Nothing.

She lets herself breathe a sigh of relief and releases Manon.

“Are you all right, Manon?” she asks, keeping her voice down at a bare whisper.

She gets a teary nod in response.

“Okay,” she says.  “I need you to keep quiet and follow me, okay?  Give me a nod if you understand, Manon.”

Manon nods again.

“Be sure to step only where I step, okay, Manon?”

Another nod.

“Hold onto my hand.”

Marinette’s fingers are crushed by Manon’s tiny grip as she leads them out of the half-smashed cubicle.  She sticks her head out, trying to breathe as quietly as possible, looking left and right before padding quickly out into the corridor, keeping her head down as low as she can.  An involuntary whimper bursts from Manon.

The two of them stumble from shadow to shadow, doing their best to avoid the scattered drifts of papers and other debris that had been left when everyone had fled.  Manon’s shoes occasionally tap against an abandoned stapler, or crinkle the corner of some abandoned documents.  Each time, Marinette has to fight to keep from breaking into a run in the sure knowledge that she is now just moments away from having a lightning bolt crash into her back and seeing the world go black.

They somehow make it to the doors without being killed, and slip through into the main hall without being noticed.

Marinette pauses in the alcove just outside the doors and listens.

The halls aren’t carpeted and padded like the cubicles were but are hard-faced, the walls and floor a gleaming, sterile white.  In theory it should make it easier to hear anyone walking in the halls, which it does, there’s someone walking through it right now, humming a little tune to themselves, their pace unhurried.  It’s just that the sound also echoes and re-echoes off of the walls and floor, making it impossible to judge direction and nearly impossible to judge distance.

So they were going to need to make a run for it, then.  Make a run for it, down a long straight shooting gallery of a hallway, while a homicidal supervillain shoots flipping lightning bolts at them, probably while dragging or carrying Manon, while she was still out of shape.

This was going to be perfectly doable.  Power of faith and all that.

She considers poking her head out into the corridor for a moment and dismisses the option—too risky, too much of a possibility that she’d be seen.

So they’d need to run, and go in blind.

She calculates distances and speeds, and ignores the little screaming voice in her head that keeps going on about how long the odds would be even if she didn’t need to worry about Manon.

Maybe a hundred long strides, thirty seconds of running, down the hall and then a left to the elevators.  Those wouldn’t be working, of course, the power outage, but the stairs, she’d seen them right next to the elevators, and she could get down those just fine.  Manon wouldn’t be able to get down them as quickly, but she could carry her.  And then they’d need to get down to the ground floor.  They were on the thirtieth right now, so it’d be a long run, but they could make it.  They could.Marinette looks back at Manon and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Manon?” Marinette says, keeping her voice as quiet and as calm as she can.

“Yes, Marinette?”

“When I say so, I need you to run, okay?” Marinette says.  “I need you to run as fast as you can, and I don’t want you to stop until you’re on the ground floor, okay?  Don’t stop for anything.”

Manon nods.

Marinette doesn’t want to run.  She wants to stay right where she is and curl up into a ball until her ears stop hurting and her heart stops pounding.

But there’ll be time for that after she gets Manon out.

And then there’s no time at all.  As the footsteps grow louder and sharper Marinette shouts “run!” and bursts from her cover, dragging Manon behind her.  She hangs a sharp right into the hall, abruptly screams in shock and no small amount of terror—she’s right there she’s right there—and hastily brakes.  She loses control and goes into a slide, but dodges the lightning bolt that the villain sends searing in her direction, her hair crackling with static as the venomous purple bolt flares down the corridor and detonates against a section of wall.  Her ears ring with the high whine of tinnitus, sudden stabbing pains like icepicks in her ears adding to the mix of novel agonies.

“Run!” Marinette screams, as her sneakers squeak and scrabble against the linoleum.  “Run, run, run!

She shoves at Manon and forces the terrified girl into motion as she fumbles at her ankle.  “Get to the stairs!  Run, damn it!”

The supervillain takes a two-handed swing down at her with the parasol as Manon finally takes flight, but Marinette manages to get her arms in the way in time—still, the blow carries too much strength behind it, and Marinette is flung into the wall.  There’s a crack, and her vision goes white.

Something in her has enough presence of mind to duck below the next swing even through the blinding pain, and something in her lets her grab the villain’s arm at the wrist and above the elbow before she can hit Marinette again with the parasol.  She can feel the superhuman strength there, the dark power, impossible to overcome or resist.

So Marinette doesn’t bother.  She pivots at the hips with a fresh flare of pain from her side, and with all the wiry strength of her legs and back and shoulders slams her opponent face-first into the wall with the trapped arm as a lever, physically lifting her slight form from the floor.

The villain screams in rage and heaves with the trapped arm, and the strength there is inexorable, forcing Marinette to let go before she gets thrown into the ceiling.  But it forces the villain to spend a second turning to face Marinette as the girl dances frantically to the side, stuffing a hand into one of her pockets.

Marinette ducks under another swing of the parasol that would’ve broken bones had it connected and curses as she finds nothing in her pocket.  She pats herself down as she hops back another step, leaning back from another wild swing, then shoves her hand into her jacket pocket, scrabbling to free the thing she’d felt there from the enclosing fabric.

Her hand comes out clenched around her can of pepper spray, and the villain has half a second to widen her eyes in horror before Marinette flicks the safety off, aims in her general direction, and depresses the firing button, delivering a spray of vicious-smelling chemicals right into her face at point-blank range.

Marinette holds the button down for a good five or six seconds while she backs away, her face tucked into the elbow of her jacket, her eyes streaming with tears, her nose suddenly running, her throat burning—she’d been too close, damn it.  The villain flails and screams and finally manages to get the parasol opened and between Marinette and herself.

By then, Marinette is running.

Manon is only halfway down the hall by the time Marinette catches up with her; she gets scooped up and slung over a shoulder as the supervillain picks herself up off of the floor with an arctic-gale howl of rage.

“Marinette, look out!” Manon screams, her voice curiously muffled in Marinette’s still-ringing ears.  Marinette doesn’t bother to look back, she just dives to the side just as a lightning bolt appears where her head would’ve been, so close that the following thunder picks her and Manon up and throws them aside.  Marinette’s shoulder hits a wall—her vision goes white again with pain, but her legs somehow keep her upright, keep her moving, staggering drunkenly down the hallway.

A second and third lightning bolt split the air as Marinette makes it to the elevators; one zips past the fleeing pair and slams obliquely into one of the elevator doors, tearing a half-meter molten gash into its surface and spraying hot metal fragments every which way.

Marinette screeches to a halt in front of the door to the stairwell and kicks it open.

“No!” she hears as she starts sprinting down the stairs, taking them as quickly as she dares.  “You’re not getting away from me!”

Marinette passes the floor sign for the 29th floor and pushes her luck.  She goes a little faster, though her lungs feel about ready to give out and her legs are already starting to wobble with fatigue.  Her luck wavers a few times as she nearly slips, and does slip once between the 24th and 23th floors, sending her and Manon sliding down half a flight of stairs on her back , but it holds.

There’s a sudden, enormous crash, loud even through Marinette’s deafened ears.  A sudden downward blast of wind follows.  Marinette stops, panting, on the landing for the 20th floor, and looks up.

She has just enough warning to get out of the way as the door from the 30th floor, now a crumpled, half-folded mess of metal, falls past them.  It hits the railing for the landing a floor down, then continues accelerating down.  She watches it fall down out of sight.  Soon after there’s another couple of loud crashes, each time accompanied by the screeching of twisting metal, before the door hits the ground at subbasement level and stops.

Marinette looks back up.

The villain is there, her eyes wide and furious and still streaming with tears as she leans over the railing.

“You’re dead!” she howls, before pointing her parasol down at them.  Marinette quickly ducks back under what little cover the staircase provides; the lightning bolt misses, though the thunder is enough to set her ears to ringing again.  She pivots on the ball of her foot and starts towards the stairs—

The stairs aren’t there.  There’s just a gaping mess of metal and a two-meter gap between one ragged, half-slagged edge and the other, and a leg-breaking plummet to the next spiral of the stairs between.

Shit.  This villain was planning on trapping them here so that she could pick them off at her leisure.

Marinette considers jumping the gap for a desperate couple of heartbeats, throwing Manon over the gap for another couple of heartbeats more, and dismisses both options.  Her legs are too weak and wobbly to allow the first to be possible, and she can’t assume that the villain wouldn’t go after Manon and then finish her off.

Only one choice, then.  She turns and runs into the 20th floor.

She drops Manon as soon as she steps inside and falls, panting, to a knee, the demands on her body finally overwhelming the wall of sheer adrenaline and terror she’d been hiding behind.  Right, they have some time now.  She can use that time, use it constructively, like figuring out how the hell she’s going to get her and Manon away from this madwoman alive and in one piece.

The emergency stairs.  There’s got to be emergency stairs somewhere, unless the stairs that they’d just fled were the emergency stairs.  Find those and they’re free.

“Come on,” she says as she unsteadily tries to rise.  Manon scoots up close and gets her tiny shoulders beneath one of Marinette’s arms, pushing upwards with all her miniscule might, and with her help Marinette manages to get to her feet.

“Right,” Marinette mutters to herself.  “We need to find a map.”

“What?” Manon asks.

“Keep an eye out for a map,” Marinette says, more clearly.  “A map of this floor, something we can use to find a way out.”

Manon nods, a little frantically.  The two of them look around and pick a likely direction, start moving that way; the hairs on the back of Marinette’s neck start to prickle.

Behind them, the door is torn from its hinges and smashes into and through the wall, crushing the pipes concealed within into a twisted mess.  Water gushes into the hall as Marinette turns.

Oh, she thinks dimly.  Oh, fantastic.

The villain can fucking fly.

She grabs Manon’s hand as the parasol comes up and turns to run—at least, she tries.  After a handful of steps her legs melt out from under her and she collapses to the floor as Manon races past her.  She manages to raise herself to elbows and knees, but it feels as though she’s trying to lift the sky on her back.  She can’t stand.  There’s no strength left in her for that.

Manon notices the sudden absence of her companion and scurries back to Marinette’s side as the villain floats towards them, her pigtails undone, her hair crackling with sharp pops of static as it stands on end, her parasol held in both hands like a headsman’s axe.   She tugs desperately at Marinette’s jacket.

“I was considering letting you live,” the villain says as she touches down, her voice a howling gale, her visage a mask of ice, glowing with some cold inner fire.  “But now?  I think I’ll take my time about this.”

Manon rushes the villain, fists flailing, but is blown away, literally blown away, by a rushing tide of freezing wind that the villain summons up with a contemptuous flick of her wrist.  She hits a wall and sticks there as ice forms over her legs, her arms, her chest, creeping upwards and stopping at her neck, binding her to the wall.  She struggles against it, to no avail.

Marinette pushes herself up to a sitting position as the villain brings her parasol to rest negligently on one of her shoulders.  “That does for her,” she says, a cruel smile twisting up the corners of her mouth.

She pivots on a heel and looks down at Marinette with that same self-satisfied expression.  “And now for the other little nuisance,” she says.

“I don’t think so,” someone says, the voice deep and laden with an ugly growl—Chat’s voice.

The villain unleashes another gale down the hall; Marinette only just manages to roll out of the way in time.  The sudden vacuum makes her ears pop and makes it hard to breathe.She hears the clang of metal striking something hard and the bright tinkling of shattering ice but doesn’t bother turning around to gawp at the unfolding battle, she forces herself to her feet, using the wall as support, and hobbles towards Manon.

“Get out of here!” Chat shouts at her above the din.  “Hurry!”

She was trying, damn it.

It takes her an eternity to reach Manon, and several seconds more for her to roll up her pants leg and pull her baton out of its holster.

“Stay calm, okay?” she says as she takes aim.  “Stay calm and don’t move, Manon, I’ll get you out of here.”

Her first swing flakes off only a few chips of ice.  She scowls and takes hold of the baton with both hands, but falls against the wall when she shifts her weight onto her still-wobbly legs.

She strikes nonetheless, and chips away marginally more ice, but her hands are shaking so much that it’s almost impossible for her to hit the same spot twice.  She grits her teeth and and keeps going.  Even if she can’t concentrate on one spot, she can make some progress.

She risks a look back at where Chat is fighting and doesn’t like how things look.

Chat is pinned where he stands, his staff clenched in a fist, his arm up to shield his vision from the miniature blizzard being thrown in his face.  He doesn’t flinch as the hail of finger-sized icicles peppers him, all of them shattering or bouncing off the sleek lines of his suit, but neither can he move forwards.

Where’s the lightning, Marinette wonders as her baton thwacks off of the ice encasing Manon again.  The villain could be throwing lightning down the hall like a demented machine-gunner, and even if Chat wasn’t hurt by the lightning itself, the constant flashing and booming would absolutely distract and stun him.

She’s playing with him, Marinette realizes a heartbeat later.  She’s got him on the ropes and she’s not even trying to put him down.  At any moment that parasol pointed at him could start spewing shock and awe and that would be that.  It’s—hah—cat and mouse.

She and Manon are screwed.

Chat proves all three of them wrong a second later.

He snarls a word that is swallowed by the wind and his hand seems to catch fire, a bright black nimbus flaring into existence, insubstantial flame licking up past his wrist and bathing his forearm in glowing black motes.  The icicles that pass into that nimbus no longer bounce and shatter but simply stop existing, vanishing as the eerie light from that power touches them.

With another snarl, this one wordless, Chat brings his hand and the fire it carries down onto the floor.  Which was nicely dramatic and everything, but she could hardly see how it was going to really do anything—

The floor shatters.  A crevasse suddenly appears beneath the villain’s feet and, yelping in surprise, she falls in up to her waist.

The moment of surprise passes, but Chat is moving even as the villain starts to rise.  For a second Marinette thinks he’s going for a repeat of the lunge he’d used to throw Paladin off balance before the lunge turns into a diving roll up and over the villain, as a lightning bolt sizzles down the hall where he’d been, blasting a hole several meters across in the wall.

Chat whirls on the ball of his foot as he rises from his roll and brings his staff scything around in a strike that connects with the side of the villain’s neck with a sickening crack of impact.

Holy shit.

Had Chat just killed someone?

A detonation of thunder and ice proves Marinette wrong, and the villain rises into the middle of the hallway with a scream of rage.

“Oh,” Chat says, the expletive unspoken.  “She can fly.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Marinette grumbles.

Chat starts sprinting down the hall as the lightning bolts sail down after him; it’s a miracle that none of them strike Marinette or Manon, although one does come close enough to spray them both with incinerated drywall and bits of hot metal.  Marinette’s already-abused ears no longer hear the individual claps of thunder, but only register the unrelenting concussive pressure of each strike.

Chat skids to a halt beside Marinette a second later, his shoulder crunching into the wall before he can stop himself.  He shouts something at Marinette, who flips him off and gestures to her ears.  He blinks at her in bewilderment before another bolt earths itself on his staff, making the muscles in his arm spasm briefly and painfully.

He grimaces and gently shoves Marinette to the side as he clips his staff to the small of his back.  Then he raises his hand, rams it straight through the wall by Manon’s head, and pulls the entire section of wall, Manon, ice, and all, out, tucking her beneath an arm.

“Move!” he screams into Marinette’s face, and pushes her into motion.  This mostly consists of her taking a couple stumbling steps and then falling heavily to the floor.

Chat curses, grabs Marinette by an arm, and slings her over one of his shoulders, then sprints down the hallway as the villain comes after them.  He takes a couple turns down the endless halls, kicks a door open with a screech of shearing metal, and darts inside.  He makes another couple random turnings before he stops in a secluded, hidden corner and sets Marinette and Manon down.

“Are you two all right?” he asks, keeping his voice low.  Marinette can only barely make the words out through her thunder-deafened ears, but nods.  Manon follows her lead.

“Good,” Chat says.  He turns to Manon and begins to carve away the ice and drywall around Manon, his claws shearing through both easily.  “Do you think you guys can get out of here if I distract her?”

“What?”

“Do you think you guys can get out of here by yourselves,” Chat repeats, a little more loudly.  The cat ears atop his head twitch and swivel.  How in the hell did they do that, Marinette wonders.

“No,” she says.  “Manon maybe, but not me.  I think I pissed her off.  She wants me personally.”

Chat pauses as he frees Manon’s arm and looks at Marinette’s shaking hands.

“All right,” he says.  “We need to get you two out of here, then.”

“How?” Marinette says.  “She’s between us and the stairs.”

“You and, uh, Manon hide,” he says.  He carves the ice free from Manon’s torso and legs.  “I’ll hit her and distract her long enough for you two to get clear.”

Something beeps.  Marinette checks her phone—still on vibrate.  Chat curses under his breath.

“That’s not going to work,” Marinette says.  “I can barely stand, let alone walk.”

“How long do you need to recover?”  He pulls Manon free, and the girl immediately sinks into his chest, sobbing mutely with relief.

“I don’t know,” Marinette says.  “Ten minutes?  Fifteen?”

“You have four minutes at most,” Chat says.

“That’s not how it works,” Marinette retorts.  “In two minutes maybe I can stand without falling over, in four minutes I can hobble but that’s it.”

Chat’s expression becomes set and stony.  “It’s how it’s going to work,” he says, a sudden hint of anger in his voice.  “You’ve got three and a half minutes now and that’s it.  After then she’s going to be coming after you.”

“Why can’t you give me more than—what do you mean three and a half minutes, it was four a second ago.”

“Time is running out, Marinette,” Chat snaps.  “Do you get that?  You’ve got maybe three minutes left to get out of here before she hunts you down and kills you, do you understand me?”

“No!” Marinette fires back.  “No, I don’t understand.  Please explain why we’re suddenly on a three-minute timer.”

Chat doesn’t respond, and he’s not looking at Marinette.

“She’s behind me,” Marinette says, feeling her bowels twist with sudden terror, “isn’t she.”

Chat doesn’t respond.  The beep is loud in that silence.

In one fluid movement he dives forwards and tackles Marinette to the floor, jerking as the lightning bolt strikes him in the back, but then he’s up and running with Manon and Marinette both tucked to his chest in a princess carry.

“What did you do to her?” he shouts as he skids around a corner, thunderclaps pursuing.

“Pepper-sprayed her,” she says.

There’s a moment with no response as Chat kicks off of a wall and takes a couple random turnings.  “And that worked?

“Briefly.  She should’ve been down until she could wash her eyes out.”

“They’re basically invulnerable,” Chat says.  He ducks as they speed across an open intersection of corridors; a lightning bolt cracks above their heads, making them all flinch.  “I’m surprised it even slowed her down.”

“She seemed pretty slowed-down when I threw her into the wall,” Marinette says.

More silence, save for the screamed imprecations following them.

“Yeah, we need to get you out of here,” Chat says.

“What?”

“I said we need to get you out of here before she kills you,” he says, a little louder.  “Why can’t you just have the good sense to run for your life for once?”

“Hey, it wasn’t like I had much choice in the matter—“

A freezing gale intercepts them and throws them against a wall.  Chat takes the brunt of the impact on his shoulder, grunting a little in pain.  Something beeps.

Chat spits out a low curse as he looks down at his hand, then up at the villain, silhouetted against the big picture windows gracing one wall of the office space.

“That’s it,” the villain hisses in a voice that sounds like snow sliding over snow as the avalanche starts on its way to obliterate the peaceful mountain hamlet below.  “Now you die.”

She levels the parasol at them.

Marinette shuts her eyes and curls tight around Manon.  Maybe she’d just shoot once and leave them for dead and then Manon would be okay.

Damn it, she didn’t want to die like this.  She hadn’t released her first clothing line.  She’d never kissed anyone.  Never even told Adrien how she felt.

And her parents, they’d be devastated, Alya too.  And she’d never get to say goodbye to them, or see their faces again, or eat her Mama’s cooking, or share her Papa’s macarons with Alya again.

Beside her, Manon trembles, and Chat squeezes them, perhaps for one last bit of reassurance before the end.

There’s a whiplashing jolt of acceleration and Chat moves, moves as though the physical limitations of mere matter could not constrain him, moves faster than the lightning, moves them past the villain as she turns, too slowly, to follow them, moves them—

Right towards the big windows.

Better to die of a nice long fall than to be electrocuted and-slash-or tortured to death, huh?

With his last step Chat launches himself into the air with a half-turn, twisting so that he takes the full force of the impact against the glass.  It shatters, and the three of them tumble into the free air.

The view from up here is lovely, Marinette notes.

Chat shifts his grip on them as gravity takes hold, crushing Marinette and Manon both to his chest with one arm as he reaches back and plucks his staff free.

“Hold on!” he shouts as they plummet groundwards, a communal cry of horror and shock coming up from the crowd just outside the police cordon below.  Marinette immediately wraps one arm around his neck and tightens her grip around Manon’s chest.

His staff shoots out to its usual two-meter length—and then keeps extending, its end rocketing towards the ground.  There’s a dull thunk as it strikes the asphalt below, the impact resonating through all three of them.

Well and good, but the three of them were still falling, and the ground was coming up awfully quickly.

Chat’s grip tightens on the staff, his claws producing what would’ve been an ear-splitting, kreeeing screech had Marinette not been half-deaf.  He swings his legs up when that fails to slow them much and clamps both boots onto his staff, trying not to pin the two girls between himself and the staff.

The ground stops approaching so rapidly, but they’re still accelerating, and the ground is still only a few seconds away.  Chat suddenly shifts his weight to the right, then just as rapidly throws it back then to the left.

He’s aiming for the rooftops, Marinette realizes.  They’re in the heart of the commercial district here, and the landscape is all broad flat and most importantly high rooftops, not the beautifully steepled roofs found elsewhere in the city.  They could land there, and hopefully they’d still be slow enough that they’d come away with no worse than a few scrapes.  They might survive this.

“Hold on!” Chat shouts again as they close in on his selected target, a building with a rooftop mostly free of anything that they might break their legs or skulls on.  Marinette only realizes that he means for her to jump separately and hold on to Manon when he loosens his grip on them and continues, “Tuck and roll!”

She knows that, thanks.

“Now!” Chat yells.  He lets go, and Marinette finds herself again in freefall, plummeting towards the roof, but thankfully not towards the ground.

She tucks Manon’s head as close as she can to herself, grinds her teeth together at the stab of pain in her feet and ankles as she hits, and rolls over her right shoulder.  She keeps rolling—Chat’s dash through the window had given them a lot of forward momentum, and his efforts hadn’t done much to burn much of that off—the world becoming a turned-on tumble dryer, and stops with a clang of metal as she smacks into a big boxy, white-painted metal thing, back-first.  Pain radiates through her side, making it hard to breathe, but at least breathing is still possible.

They’re alive.  Everything pales beside that.

She watches, upside-down, as Chat rises from the neat crouch he’d landed in and rushes over to them.

“All right, time to go,” he says, picking them both up again.

They flee the scene as they hear a scream of rage from the building behind them and the whupwhupwhup of approaching news copters.

They race away for a good while before he leaps into an abandoned building still under reconstruction and drops them both.  Marinette collapses to a sit again.

“Look that way,” he orders, pointing to a corner of the room.  “Now!”

Marinette turns in the indicated direction and makes sure that Manon is facing away as well.

The quiet, insistent beeping that Marinette had been hearing had been hearing for the past few seconds becomes a louder insistent beeping.  Then the room flares with actinic corpse-light, and the beeping stops.

Chat Noir lets out a heavy sigh.

“Okay,” he says.  “This is going to sound really weird to you.  But would either of you happen to have a bit of Camembert on you?”

Marinette stares at the wall in bemusement.  After a while she manages to break out with a “N-No.”

Another sigh.  “Yeah, I thought so.”  She hears the rustling of cloth as he pats himself down.  Presumably for Camembert.  “Are you two all right?”

Marinette looks down at Manon, who looks up and nods, damply.  “Yeah,” she says.  “I’m going to be limping for the next week, but I think we’re both fine.  Nothing that won’t heal.”

“Good.  I’m glad.”

“You saved our lives,” Marinette says.  “Thank you for that.”

There’s an acute and embarrassed silence.

“Why?” Marinette asks a moment later.

“Why did I save you?” Chat says.

“No,” Marinette says, “why Camembert?  Why were you asking if I had any?”

“Oh,” he says.  She can feel the smile in his words.  “It’s hero fuel.  Didn’t you know that?”

“No,” she says.  “Obviously not.”

The floor is quiet for a minute except for a loud gulp and some quiet chewing noises.

“Do you think you two can get out all right, or do you need me to help?” Chat says.

Marinette looks down at her legs.  Her foot twitches on command.

“I think we can manage,” she says.  She cranes her neck around.  “Is there a staircase or anything around here?”

“Don’t look,” Chat says, his voice suddenly cracking out.  Marinette snaps her gaze back to the corner.

Chat takes a deep breath, and then exhales shakily.  “I’m sorry.  Please don’t look.”

He mutters something under his breath, and another flare of the same witch-light fills the room, leaving afterimages across Marinette’s sight.  She hears him stand and take a few steps.

“There’s a hole here,” he says.  “I think they took out the stairs.”

‘Do you see anything else?” Marinette says, continuing to stare fixedly at the wall.

“Huh?  Oh, you can look now,” Chat says.  “But I’m not seeing anything.”

Marinette lets go of Manon and pushes herself to her feet.  She nearly falls sideways when one of her ankles gives, but straightens herself.

“Come on, Manon,” she says.  “Come on, get up.”

She takes the little girl’s hand and helps her to her feet, then turns to face Chat.

“Right, let’s just head out this window,” Chat says.  He claws away the tarp covering an empty rectangle in the wall and sticks his head out, looking down.  He pulls his head back in and extends his staff.  “There’s some debris in the alley but you should be fine.”

Marinette goes first, sliding down the staff fireman-style.  Chat goes second, cradling Manon in an arm, riding his staff down as it shrinks down to its normal size.

“I’ll walk you guys back,” Chat offers as he lets Manon down.

“That’s fine,” Marinette says.  She takes Manon’s hand and nods towards the street.  “Look, you have a bad guy to stop, we’ll be fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Marinette says.

Chat glances back at them one last time before he leaps to the nearest rooftop and races away.

Marinette gets to her knees and gently wipes away some of the tears still trailing down Manon’s cheeks.

“Hey,” she says.  “Hey, Manon.  Look at me.”

Manon blinks away a few last tears and looks at Marinette.

“You’re okay,” Marinette says.  “You’re okay, all right?  We’re both okay.”

Manon nods hesitantly.

“You were very brave back there,” Marinette says.

“I was?” Manon quavers.

“You were,” Marinette says.

“Do you think Mama’s okay?” Manon says.

The gentle, reassuring smile Marinette has on her face freezes.  Shit, she’d been so caught up in getting Manon out that she’d completely forgotten about Madame Chamack.

“I’m sure your Mama’s fine,” Marinette says, keeping most of the tremble out of her voice.  “Let’s go and look for her, okay?”

She’d kept her eyes closed through most of their escape, but she remembers enough to know the rough direction they’d fled in.  She leads them out of the alley, orients herself, and sets off at a quick walk.

It takes them almost half an hour to get back, and by then it’s all over.  There are about a hundred news cameras focused on the front entrance as a heavily, heavily armed squad of gendarmes escorts a tiny, lost- and scared-looking Asian girl—Marinette squints and just barely recognizes her as that girl they’d brought on to do the weather a couple months back—out.  Chat follows, a step and a half back, his staff at the small of his back, his fist clenched around something, his expression grim.

A storm of cries rises up from the reporters when they catch sight of her, and they surge forward like jackals spotting weakened prey.  Chat immediately pulls his staff out and walks between them and the girl, shielding her from their attention; a pair of gendarmes split off from the girl’s escort and stand on either side of him, shouting and waving them away.

“Mama!” Manon cries.  “Mama!”

Marinette looks down as Manon tugs insistently at Marinette’s hand, struggling to pull away.

“Mama’s over there!” Manon says.  She points to a cluster of ambulances on the sidewalk.  Nadja is pacing back and forth on the curb, her phone to her ear, running her hand through her hair.

Marinette lets Manon go and the girl sprints towards Nadja, shouting “Mama!” the entire way.  Marinette follows, more slowly.

She checks her phone as it buzzes and, yup, the call and fourteen others are from Nadja.  Another half-dozen are from her Mama.  She taps out a quick, reassuring text to the latter and slides her phone back into her pocket.

Nadja’s head jerks up and around as soon as she hears Manon’s cry, and she rushes to her daughter and catches her up in an enormous hug.

“Manon!” Nadja says.  “Oh, I’m so glad you’re okay.  I’m so glad.”

She freezes, then pulls back, holding Manon out at arms-length.  “Wait, where’s Marinette?”

“I’m here, Madame Chamack,” Marinette says.  She gets a bone-crushing hug from Nadja as well.  “You’re fine?”

“Yes,” Nadja says.  “We were in the studio, got to the stairs just after the—“ she stops, shooting a glance back towards the ambulances “—just after it started.”

Marinette looks back towards the long line of ambulances parked next to the building.  “How many?” she asks quietly.

“A few,” Nadja says.  “The paramedics won’t give any of us straight answers.”

“I’m sorry,” Marinette says, feeling how inadequate the words are.

“It’s unnecessary to apologize,” Nadja says, accepting this.

Marinette feels the phone in her pocket vibrate again.  She pulls it out and checks.

“I’m sorry, Madame,” Marinette says, “but it’s my Mama.  I’d better answer.”

“Go ahead,” Nadja says.  “And feel free to go home as soon as you need to.  Don’t worry about Manon.”  She looks back at the building.  “I don’t think anyone will be working for the rest of the day.”

“Thank you, Madame,” Marinette says.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket and answers it.

“Mari!” Sabine says, loud enough to hurt.  “Mari, are you there?”

“Yes, Mama—“

Marinette reassures her mother that yes, she is alive, yes, she still has all her extremities, and yes, they’re all attached to her.  Solidly attached.  Yes, she’s fine.  Yes, she’s going to head home right now.  No, Manon is not going to be with her.  No, Manon is not dead, or in hospital.  Manon is safe and with Nadja, who is also not dead or in hospital.  Yes.  Yes, she’s going home right now as soon as she hangs up.  Yes, Mama.

“I love you too, Mama,” Marinette says, and hangs up.

She becomes aware of an argument off to the side.

“I’m telling you that I need to talk to her, right now,” Chat says, his patience clearly fraying at multiple points.

“We can’t do that, kid,” a man says.

“And I’m telling you that I need to,” Chat says.  “She may have information that I need.”

“And I’m telling you,” the same man says, each word deliberate.  “I can’t do that.  Orders.”

“I just need to talk to her for two minutes,” Chat says.  “What harm could there be in that?”

“You’re not a cop,” the man says.  “You’re not in my chain of command.  You’re not her legal counsel.  You’re not talking to her.”

Chat lets out a frustrated hiss.

“Look,” he says after a second.  “I’m not going to, to hurt her or whatever you think I’m going to do, I just need to ask her a few things.  Look, you can stay with me if you want, I just need to talk to her.”

There’s a pause in the conversation.  Marinette edges closer.

“Why do you want to talk to her so badly,” the man says.

“Because she’s the only one you guys haven’t immediately whisked off to whatever government black site you’re holding them at,” Chat says.

“That isn’t what’s happening,” the man says.  His tone remains polite.

“Look, just please let me talk to her,” Chat says.  “I’m trying to put an end to all of this, and she might know something that helps me do that.”

Marinette sticks her head around a car to see Chat and the gendarme.  The gendarme is a youngish man, probably in his early twenties, his expression blank, but his finger is tapping against the butt of his rifle where it sits, slung at his side.  Chat’s back is to her.  Both of them stand next to a big armored police van, idling next to the sidewalk.

“Please just help me,” Chat says.

The gendarme tilts his head and blinks once.

“Oh, all right,” he says.  “I will be in the van with you.  I will be timing you.  You will have the two minutes you asked for and the second it’s up you leave.”

“Understood, sir,” Chat says.

The gendarme nods, turns, and opens up the van.  Chat walks in, and Marinette catches a snippet of “Hi there, I’m your friendly neighborhood Chat Noir,” right before the gendarme marches in behind him and shuts the doors.

Marinette turns and heads back to where Nadja and Manon are still holding one another and sitting on the sidewalk.

“Hey, Madame Chamack,” she says.  “I’m going to go back home now.”

Nadja gives her a weak smile.  “Travel safely,” she says.  “I’ll see you next week.”

“Hopefully,” she adds after a second.


 

Adrien collapses backwards into his bed and enjoys the luxury of being able to just stay there and not have to run around putting out fires.  Plagg spirals down out of the air and plops himself down on Adrien’s chest.

“That,” Plagg says, “was the worst.”

“Agreed,” Adrien says.

“Lucky that girl was there to save you again,” Plagg says.

“Again?” Adrien says.  “Oh, right, Paladin.”

“She’d be a good candidate,” Plagg says casually.

“No,” Adrien says firmly.  “I told you, we’re getting close, I can feel it.  Like, the girl we spoke with today, Mireille.  She said that she was furious about getting fired because she, uh.”  He gestures with a hand.  “She said that they just walked up to her and said that she was bringing down their ratings and that she was being replaced because of that.  She said it made her angry, especially since they made some comment about how, uh, ‘they were looking for someone who looked better on camera and who would appeal to a wider audience’.”

“And?” Plagg says.  Several light objects are tossed up into the air as they fly over to a corner of the room and burrow into a pile of junk, eventually coming out with a small tin.  They pop the lid of the tin off and consume the contents in one big gulp.

“And that was the same thing that happened to Ivan,” Adrien says.  “And one of the others.  They felt angry and humiliated, then they just blacked out and woke up in a different place with no memory of the intervening time.”

“So what?”

“It’s a pattern,” Adrien says.  “Once is a coincidence, twice is suspicious, three times is deliberate.  Papillon must be able to transform people if they’re feeling strong negative emotions.”

“Oh,” Plagg says.  “That.  Yeah, that tends to happen.”

“And so far the majority of people he’s been transformed have been teenagers,” Adrien continues, “and wait what now?”

He lifts his head to stare in astonishment at Plagg.

“What?” Plagg says.

“You said tends to happen,” Adrien says.  “This has happened before?”

“Yes,” Plagg says.  “Several times.  You people always think that you can use the Miraculous for your own purposes.  And since you people also like avoiding consequences, that particular Miraculous is misused a lot.”

“So you knew all this time that Papillon was turning people by taking advantage of their feelings and you didn’t tell me that?”

“You didn’t ask,” Plagg says.  “And it doesn’t get you any closer to figuring out who and where Papillon is.”

Adrien lets his head flop back onto his bed.  Well, he couldn’t really argue with that.

“Well, the interview still wasn’t useless,” Adrien says.  “A lot of the people have been connected to the school or people in it.  Either they actually were in the school or they knew or were related to someone there.  Maybe Papillon is someone at the school.”

“Maybe it’s the night janitor,” Plagg says.

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“Because that’s not how it works.”

“Okay, fine,” Adrien says.  “So how does it work?”

“Whoever wields Nuuru can feel other people’s emotions,” Plagg states.

“Nuuru is the kwami who powers Papillon’s Miraculous, right?”  Adrien says.

“Right,” Plagg says, then continues, “it’s how they find people to transform.  They find it easier to sense the emotions of the other wielders of the Miraculous, though, and those people closely connected to them.  Friends, family, close associates.”

“Which explains Ivan and Sabrina’s father,” Adrien says.  “Maybe today too.  I didn’t know Mireille very well, but we still knew each other.  What about the others, though?”

“Maybe Papillon knows someone who knows them,” Plagg says.  “I don’t know.”

“Why does Papillon’s Miraculous work like that?” Adrien asks.

“I have no idea,” Plagg says.  “It does.  That’s how the powers of the Miraculous work.”

After a pause they continue, “Like yours is supposed—“

“No, Plagg.”

“Adrien,” Plagg says, their voice turning grim.  “You aren’t supposed to use Cataclysm like this.  It is an emergency measure, emphasis on emergency.  It is not meant to be used like this several times in a row.”

“It’s worked so far,” Adrien says.

“It is going to stop working soon,” Plagg says.  “You need to find—“

“Whatever,” Adrien says.  “Just—please grab the remote and turn on the news.”

Plagg huffs and zips over to where Adrien had thrown the TV remote last night.  They stamp on the power button, then zip away to a small alcove on the second floor.

Adrien lies on his bed and lets the noise wash over him.

The specifics of what the anchors are saying don’t really matter at this point.  Their litanies merely underscore the nightmarish statistics, fresh in his mind.

Racially linked violence, from common assault to vandalism, is almost doubled from last month.  The number of riots, doubled, many of them around the periphery of the 19th arrondissement, and Adrien is sure that the 13th arrondissement and Belleville are going to be included in that terrible count next month, thanks to coverage of Mireille and the havoc she’d wreaked as the supervillain dubbed Climatika.  Complaints of police overreach—searches, stops, harassment—increased by just under a third.

Things hadn’t been exactly peachy before all of this had started, but the endless attacks and even more endless calls for patience as the authorities investigated had let things fester.  It’d provided people with excuses.

Adrien can see where the excuses are leading them.  Straight to nights of broken glass and days of unbroken terror.

He’d thought that things would get better once Papillon revealed himself.  A common enemy, a face to the threat—wasn’t that the kind of thing that brought people together?  But instead people had just used it to point fingers and indulge their worst instincts or to advance their horrible agendas.

His memory brings up a piece he’d read over breakfast a few weeks back.  The columnist had stated that the recent attacks had smashed the climate of political correctness to shreds, and allowed the open discussion of the real problem without people being shouted down.

The common denominator, the columnist had written, had been that the villains hadn’t been French.

She’d used different language, of course, but that’d been the effect, behind all the weasel words and attempts to pretty up the nightmare she was promoting.  They hadn’t been French.  And so they’d allowed themselves to be subverted by a madman, as though singing the Marseillaise every thirty minutes would’ve been enough to stop magic powerful enough to turn a fourteen-year-old kid into an unstoppable juggernaut.

He hadn’t noticed so much of that after Sabrina’s father had been turned into Paladin, but the sentiment was still there, still bubbling away in the background.

Obviously.  The villains weren’t French.

It was one short step from thinking of that as the problem to the edge of the cliff.

Adrien closes his eyes and tries to rest.

 

Chapter Text

Alya bursts into the Dupain-Cheng’s boulangerie at eight the next morning and dodges around a woman with silvering hair, who gives her a frightened look before she scurries off.  She pans her gaze around, ignoring the roomful of stares directed at her, before then rushing behind the cash registers.

“Mari!”

“Alya, I’m fine,” Marinette says, trying to keep her feet with the sudden addition of fifty kilos of schoolgirl around her neck and a sudden twinge from her side.  “What’s this about?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about yesterday?” Alya says.

“Yesterday?”  The events of the last twenty-four hours flash before Marinette’s eyes.  “Oh, that.”

“You’re okay?  You’re okay, right?” Alya says.

“I’m fine,” Marinette repeats.  “I can barely move and my legs and arms feel as though they’re on fire, but I’m fine.”

She gently pries Alya off of her.  “How did you find out?  I never told you I was at the building yesterday.”

“I saw you on the news,” Alya says.  “There was a shot of you and Manon on the news this morning.”

“Well, we’re both fine,” Marinette says.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m sorry,” someone says.  Marinette and Alya turn to face her across the counter.

“I’m sorry to bother you but are you the cashier?” the woman says.  “Can you just ring me up?”

Marinette rings the woman up and turns back to Alya as the woman retreats, clutching her receipt, credit card, and bag of baguettes.

“Look, one of the cashiers said that he couldn’t be in until nine and I said I’d fill in,” Marinette says.  “And this early on a Sunday I know you haven’t had breakfast yet.  Do you mind just going upstairs until he gets here?”

Alya hesitates.

“Papa made extra croissants this morning,” Marinette says.

“Damn it,” Alya mutters.  “Fine, I’ll see you in an hour.”

The cashier comes in sixty-two minutes later and Marinette limps her way upstairs.  Alya is sitting at the dining table across from Sabine.  Marinette takes a seat between them.

“All right,” Alya says through a mouthful of croissant.  “What happened?”

“Manon and I got trapped in the office,” Marinette says.  “Then the supervillain—“

“Climatika,” Alya says.

“That’s still a stupid name,” Marinette says.  “Then she caught us in the hallway and I pepper-sprayed her and we ran.  Chat Noir saved us.  Also someone kneed me in the side and it still hurts to breathe.”

“What?” Alya and Sabine say in chorus.

“You broke a rib and you didn’t tell me?” Sabine says.

“Oh no, are you okay?” Alya says.  “I didn’t hurt you when I hugged you earlier, did I?”

“I don’t think I broke anything, Mama, and no, you were fine,” Marinette says.

“We’re still going to the doctor to get you X-rayed,” Sabine says.  Her phone rings, and she picks it up and leaves for the living room.  “Hello?”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Alya says.  “I mean, I sprained one of my fingers once and that was horrible, I can’t imagine what a broken rib feels like?”

“I did not break a rib,” Marinette says.  “I broke a rib once and this doesn’t hurt that much.”

“Uh,” Alya says after a couple seconds.  “How exactly did you do that?”

“Guy with a bo staff hit me in the side last year when we were sparring,” Marinette says.  “He gave me a hairline fracture in two ribs.”

“That sounds painful,” Alya says.

“It was,” Marinette says.

“And you’re sure—“

“I’m okay, Alya,” Marinette says.

“Well, if you’re sure about that,” Alya says.  “Back up.  You pepper-sprayed Climatika?”

“Yeah.”

“And you got saved by Chat Noir.”

“Yup.”  Marinette frowns.  “Actually, something was weird about that.”

“What?” Alya says.

“He took us to an abandoned building and then there was a big flash of light and he asked for camembert,” Marinette says.  “He said it was ‘hero fuel’ or something.”

“Huh.”  Alya mirrors Marinette’s expression.  “Maybe he was just hungry?”

“For camembert specifically?”

“Trademark favorite food?” Alya says.

“Maybe,” Marinette says.  “Also, I don’t think that he’s much older than we are.”

Alya gives her a look.

“Look, I don’t have anything solid, it’s just a feeling,” Marinette says.  “Just something in the way he was talking or something, but really, I think he’s a teenager.”

“Look, why would a teenager be doing what he does?” Alya says after a couple seconds.

“He’s forced to?”

“Who’s forcing him?”

Marinette shrugs.

“Mari,” Sabine calls from the living room.  Marinette turns around in her seat.

“Nadja needs you on short notice,” she says.  “She says that she needs to come in to cover someone’s shift, there was an anchor who was injured yesterday and is still in hospital.  You’re fine with that?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

Sabine turns back to her phone and speaks quietly into it before she turns back to Marinette.

“She’ll be by in fifteen minutes to drop Manon off, and she’ll pick her up at half past noon.  You can do that, right?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

“Is it alright if I stay?” Alya asks Marinette.

“Sure,” Marinette says.  “Mama, is it fine if Alya stays?”

“Yes,” Sabine says.  “Mari, I need to go meet with some new clients in a few minutes, please help out your father if he asks.”

“Who?” Marinette asks.

“The German couple who opened up that bookstore four blocks down,” Sabine says.

“Oh, okay,” Marinette says.  “Good luck, Mama.”

“Thank you, honey.”

“Is Manon okay?” Alya says as Sabine hangs up and goes downstairs.  “I mean, being caught in the middle of something like that can’t be anything less than traumatizing for her.”

“She was still crying when I left,” Marinette says.  “Honestly I don’t know if she’s going to be okay, but it’s only been a day.  We’ll see, I guess.”

“I feel so sorry for that kid,” Alya says.  “Do you think there’s anything we can do to help her?”

“Distract her?” Marinette says.  “Look, I don’t know, I’m not a therapist.”

Alya shrugs.  “I guess that’s as good a suggestion as anything.”

Marinette and Alya are there to meet Nadja when she shows up with Manon clinging to her leg.

“I am so sorry about this,” Nadja says.  “They only told us a couple hours ago.”

“It’s fine,” Marinette says.  She fumbles in her pocket.  “I actually wanted to see you, I took the money from your desk yesterday and I kinda forgot to get it back to you in all the, you know.”

“It’s fine,” Nadja says, “keep it.  Look, I’m sorry to cut this short, but I really need to get back to the station.”

Nadja kneels down so that she’s face to face with Manon, gently peeling her daughter free from her leg.

“Manon,” she says.  “Mama needs to go to work now, but she’ll be back to pick you up for lunch and we’ll spend the rest of the day together, okay?”

“I don’t want you to go, Mama,” Manon says.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Nadja says.  “But it’s only for a little time, okay?  Mama will be back.  I’ll be back soon, okay?”

“Promise, Mama?” Manon says.

“Promise,” Nadja says.

Manon lets go of her mother and transfers her grip to Marinette and Alya, who each take one of her hands.  Her eyes track her mother as she leaves.

“So,” Marinette says.  “Do you want to go inside, or do you want to go to the park?”

Manon looks up at her, then Alya, and finally mumbles, “Park.”

“All right,” Marinette says.  “Just give me a moment to tell my parents where we’re going.”

“Okay,” Manon says.

She taps out a quick text and slips her phone back into her pocket before she takes Manon’s hand again.

“Do you want to stop to get something to eat on the way?” Alya says.  “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“Not hungry,” Manon says.

“Do you want ice cream?” Marinette says.

That perks Manon up a little.  After a moment of contemplation she looks up at Marinette and answers, “Yes.”

“Ice cream at nine in the morning?” Alya says with a small smile.  “For shame.”

“Oh hush,” Marinette says.  “There’s a place a few blocks away.  Do you know what you want, Manon?”

“Rainbow sherbet,” Manon replies instantly.


 

Adrien blinks awake, his hand already searching automatically for the alarm clock as it beeps insistently at him.  He finds it a second later, misses the snooze button several times, and manages to swat it off of his nightstand instead.  It dangles from its power cord, still beeping at him.

He wonders for a second if Nathalie or his father would get annoyed with him if he used the “whoops I accidentally dropped my alarm clock out of the window” excuse again.

After a few minutes he works up the strength to drag himself out from under the covers.

“Plagg,” he mutters, scrubbing at his eyes with the heel of a hand as he sits up.  “Come on, wake up.”

Plagg emits a snore too loud to be anything but contrived.

Oh, whatever.  Adrien checks his hand and the large, silvery ring thereon, then stands and staggers his way to the bathroom.  He runs the tap on cold until the sink is nearly full, then takes a breath and sticks his head in.  While the sudden shock doesn’t wake him all the way up, it gets him most of the way, enough for him to remember that he hadn’t showered last night.  He turns the water up to a couple degrees shy of blistering, strips down, and steps in.  He closes his eyes and sits cross-legged under the spray.

Everything aches.  When he’d first started out as Chat Noir that hadn’t been an issue.  He’d been able to run around all day and night and wake up if not fresh as a daisy then at least not stiff and useless, the normal effects of fatigue and exertion erased by the mantle he bore, the screen of power that had protected him through every trial.  Now all he wants is to lie down under the scalding water and go back to sleep.

He scrubs himself clean and hauls himself out of the shower nonetheless, making his way downstairs dressed in one of his tailored button-ups, jeans, and a windbreaker.  He scoops Plagg from their resting place and drops them into a pocket on the way, to a loud complaint from the kwami that he ignores.

Church bells start tolling the hour as Adrien seats himself at the long dining table and starts on his breakfast.  On cue, Nathalie appears at his elbow, sliding a tablet onto the table beside him.  Adrien scrolls down the screen with a pinkie as he chews.

“Your appointment for your physical is this afternoon at three,” Nathalie reminds him.  “We expect you back by five, and you have piano this evening from six to seven-thirty.  Today is the cook’s day off, so you’ll need to make your own arrangements for lunch and dinner, and you have a photoshoot tomorrow morning.”

“All right,” Adrien says, spraying crumbs.  “Nothing this morning?”

“No,” Nathalie says.  “Your driver will call you at two to pick you up, but until then you have nothing scheduled.”

“All right,” Adrien repeats.  “Thanks, Nathalie.”

Adrien finishes his croissant and reaches for another as Nathalie collects the tablet, turns on a heel, and walks briskly back towards Gabriel’s office.

So he has five hours to kill, not counting lunchtime.  Normally he’d read or catch up on the latest anime or just indulge in the luxury of being able to go back to sleep until past noon.  The last option sounds especially attractive right now.

On the other hand, he shouldn’t have left Marinette and that girl to fend for themselves like that, and he hadn’t checked up on them afterwards.  They’d both been caught up in a nightmare of an attack, and that kind of thing wasn’t the kind of thing people shook off with a good night’s rest and a trip to the spa, even when you had the benefit of magically-granted invulnerability.  He could attest to that.

He’d been meaning to talk to Marinette anyways.  She’d showed up at two fights that she should never have been close to.  She’d gotten some scrapes in the first and was nearly killed in the second.  He needs to keep her away from her third.Maybe her presence hadn’t been deliberate.  Maybe it was just a particularly unfortunate streak of bad luck, or maybe it was, like Plagg wouldn’t shut up about, some cosmic opportunity throwing itself at him.  Either way, he needs to find out.

Adrien finishes his breakfast and stands with a wince, feeling every creak and groan in his aching body.

Well, time to figure out where she is, then.


 

The ice cream shop isn’t exactly bustling when Marinette, Alya, and Manon step in.  There’s a university-age couple in the corner, chatting over a sundae, a toddler with smears of chocolate over half of his face being cleaned up by an exhausted-looking man, and a teenager sitting in the corner, sipping on a milkshake and texting someone.  As small as the shop is—a box maybe twenty paces long and eight across—it fails to feel crowded.  The jingling of the bells tied to the front door echoes off of the clean white walls.

“I’ll be with you in just a second,” the woman sitting behind the cash register says cheerily as she hears them enter.  She hops off of her stool and brushes out the wrinkles in her apron as Marinette and Alya, with Manon between them, walk up to the display case.  Manon puts both her hands on the case and leans up on tiptoe, staring down at the rows of frozen treats arrayed before her.

“Well, aren’t you just adorable,” the woman says to Manon.  “So what do you want?  Do you want to sample anything first?”

“Rainbow sherbet!” Manon says.

“Uh, two scoops, in a cup please,” Marinette says.

“Anything for the two of you?” the woman asks.  She grabs a scoop from its water trough and a cup and opens the display case.

Marinette looks to Alya, who shrugs and says, “Scoop of chocolate in a waffle cone, please?  Bill us separately.”

“No, let me pay,” Marinette says.

“I brought my wallet,” Alya says, “it’s fine.”

“Let me treat you,” Marinette insists.  “Come on, Alya.”

“It’s fine,” Alya says.

“How about I finish serving this little angel first and then you two can figure out who pays,” the woman says.  “Where are you all from?”

“What?” Marinette says, after a second.

“I said, where are you all from,” the woman repeats.  “I mean, we don’t usually see people like you in this part of the city.”

Marinette glances sideways at Alya, whose face is already noticeably darkening with her building ire.

“I live close by, actually,” Marinette says.  “Just a few blocks from here.”

“Oh, no,” the woman says.  She packs more sherbet into the scoop.  “I mean, where are you really from?”

“Here,” Marinette says.  “I was born here.  I’ve lived here all my life.”

The woman’s smile becomes something frozen as she plops the first scoop into the cup.  “Oh,” she says.  She looks down at Manon.  “Well, what about you, sweetie?”

“She’s from here too,” Marinette says.

“I’m from Martinique,” Alya says, biting off every word.

“Where’s that?” the woman asks.

“Caribbean,” Alya says.

“Oh,” the woman says.  “Well, you speak very good French for a foreigner.”

She plops the second scoop of sherbet into the cup and slides it on top of the display case.  “Did you two still want to pay separately, or did you just want one bill?”

“We’ll just pay for this,” Alya says.  “I don’t want anything.”

“Oh,” the woman says.  “Well, that’ll be three euro then.  You’ll be paying with cash or credit?”

Marinette pulls out her wallet, fishes out three one-euro bills, and slides them onto the counter next to the register while Alya grabs the cup of sherbet and hands it to Manon.  Then Alya seizes Marinette by an elbow and Manon by her free hand, and drags them both out of the shop.

“I can’t believe,” Alya snarls as the door swings shut behind them, “the fucking nerve of that woman.”

“Alya—“ Marinette says, pulling her arm free.

“Where the fuck does she get off,” Alya says, “asking me stuff like that?”

“Alya, come on,” Marinette says.  “Calm down.  She didn’t mean anything by it.”

Alya stops walking and turns on Marinette.  “What do you know about it?” she spits.

Marinette blinks at her friend in shock.  “Alya—“ she begins, but her friend barrels on, the weight of her rage the roar of the avalanche thundering down the mountain.

“Do you know how often I get stopped in the street and asked where I’m from?” Alya says.  “Do you know how often people ask me if I can speak French, like the fact that I’m a half-black brown girl suddenly means that I need to be treated like some damn child?  Do you know how often I need to explain to people that I and my parents and every other person born on Martinique are citizens of this country, that we’re not some invading barbarian horde here to loot and pillage to our hearts’ content?”

Marinette tries to say something but is swept along as Alya continues.

“Tell me,” Alya says.  “How often does your mother get stopped in the street when she’s just minding her own business, or your father gets refused service?  How many times have you had to worry about your little sisters being bullied and coming home crying because some ignorant scum is calling them terrorists?”

“Alya, I’m sorry,” Marinette says.

It stops Alya in her tracks, and Marinette rushes more words into that void as quickly as she can.

“I get that I haven’t had it as bad as you have,” she says.  “And you have every right to not be calm about this, and I’m sorry for not acknowledging that.”

Marinette gets a prolonged glare from Alya, but she’s lost her steam.  She opens her mouth and shuts it again a few times, trying to recover, but can’t.  Eventually she just throws her hands up and mutters, “Yeah, okay.  Apology accepted.”

She breathes out deeply through her nose and looks at Marinette.  “I’m sorry too,” she says.  “I shouldn’t have blown up at you like that, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

The two of them look down as they hear a quiet sniffling—Manon, her eyes wide and teary and frightened, her sherbet forgotten, the cup half-crushed between her hands.

“Oh no,” Alya says, quietly.

Marinette draws Manon aside, out of the way of the few pedestrians on the sidewalk, and kneels so that she’s at eye level.

“Hey there,” she says, wiping Manon’s cheeks dry with her sleeve.  “Hey there, are you okay?  Don’t cry.”

Alya gets down next to Manon and manages a half-smile.  “See?  We’re not fighting anymore, Manon.  We’re fine.  We’re all fine.”

Manon’s tears reduce by degrees over the next minute, until her eyes are merely reddened.

“Are you okay now?” Marinette says, soothingly.

Manon, after a second, nods.

“All right,” Marinette says.  “Do you still want to go to the park?”

“Yes,” Manon says.

“All right,” Marinette repeats.  “Then let’s go.  Finish your ice cream before it melts, okay?”

“Okay,” Manon says.

Marinette squeezes Manon’s shoulder once before she rises and shepherds the girl away.

“Maybe blowing my top in public like that wasn’t the best idea,” Alya says, her voice only just loud enough for Marinette to hear.

“You’d had a lot built up that you needed to vent,” Marinette says.  “Do you feel better now?”

“Not really,” Alya says.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Marinette says.

Alya gives her a sidelong look, then sighs.  “Oh, fine,” she mutters.  “Might as well.”

She sticks her hands into her pockets and keeps her gaze fixed on Manon as the girl sticks a spoonful of frozen, artificially colored sugar water in her mouth.

“You know,” Alya says.  “I don’t get it.  I really don’t.  I’ve seen Mama and Papa deal with so much worse than anything I’ve ever had happen to me.  I mean, at least I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from, or ever had a slur thrown at me.  But Mama and Papa have, but just seem to soak it all up.  Like none of it matters to them.”

“So you’re frustrated that you can’t just ignore all of it like your parents can?” Marinette asks.

Alya tilts her head to one side as she considers this.

“I’m angry that people can just say stuff like that and never really consider how much they might be hurting someone,” Alya says after a while.

“Why’d you bring up your parents, then?” Marinette says.

“Because—I really just don’t get it,” Alya says.  “I don’t get why they just lie down and let people walk all over them like that, I don’t get why they don’t get angry about it, I don’t get how that bullcrap doesn’t get under their skin!”

Her hands ball into fists in her pockets.  “I mean, we’re as French as the next family.  We pay our taxes, we vote, we do everything we’re supposed to as good citizens—“ her mouth twists into a sneer “—of the Republic.  I mean—I guess—it’s just—”

“It’s never going to be enough, is it?” Marinette says as her heart twists itself into a knot.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Alya says.  “It’s never going to be enough.”  She snorts.  “Even if my sisters and I sign up for the Legion, get shot at for the good for France, it’s never going to be enough to make us French.  Unquestionably French.”

She’s quiet for the next half-block.

“I guess that’s why I’m so bothered by it,” she says.  “I don’t get why they aren’t.”


It takes Adrien a couple minutes to find the Tom & Sabine Boulangerie Patisserie on Google Maps, after he’s first tried every combination of “Dupain” and “Cheng” and “Dupain-Cheng”, and another five for him to walk to the boulangerie.  There’s a cheery electronic jingle as the door swings shut after him.

Tom glances up from where he’s bagging someone’s purchase—a rainbow assortment of macarons, arranged neatly in double rows in their box—and then returns to his task.  “Welcome!” he booms.  “If you need any help I’ll be with you just in a moment.”

Adrien looks around him and then awkwardly shuffles into the line which snakes from the counter and along one wall.  For a given value of snake, anyways.  There’s only three people in it, Adrien included.

Tom finishes with his customers in short order and turns to Adrien.

“What can I help you with?” Tom says.

“Sorry,” Adrien says, looking up at Tom, “but I’m not actually here for anything.  You’re Monsieur Dupain, right?  Marinette’s father?”

Tom’s smile shrinks a degree or two.  “I am.  You would be?”

“I’m Adrien, one of Marinette’s classmates?”

Tom looks him up and down.  “Ah.  You’d be Adrien Agreste.”  Tom extends his hand over the counter.  “Pleasure to meet you.”

To Adrien’s expression he says, “Marinette talks about you all the time.”

“Oh,” Adrien says.  He gingerly reaches over and lets his hand be engulfed by Tom’s.  “She does?”

Tom shakes once and withdraws his hand back across the counter.  “I think that it is safe to say that she does,” he says.  “So, what do you need then?”

“I was just looking for Marinette,” Adrien says, running through the speech he’d mentally prepared on his way over.  “I heard that she was involved in what happened yesterday and I just wanted to make sure that she was okay.”

The mention of yesterday’s attack takes the smile off of Tom’s face.

“Oh,” he says.  “That.”

“She is fine, right?” Adrien says.  Something gnaws at him—they’d been perfectly fine when he’d left them.  Had something happened afterwards?

“She’s fine,” Tom says.  “Out at the moment, she said she was going to the park with Alya and Manon—uh, Manon’s a girl that Marinette sometimes babysits.”

“Oh, okay, thank you,” Adrien says.  “Do you know how long ago they left?”

“A few minutes,” Tom says.  “They did say that they were going to stop for ice cream first, so they might not be there yet.”

“All right,” Adrien says.  “Thank you.”

He pauses as a weight shifts in his pocket.  “Do you have anything with cheese?  Camembert in particular?”

So this  is looking to be a long day of catch-up, Adrien thinks as he departs the boulangerie with a pair of cheese danishes rustling in their waxed paper bag.  He can feel it in his luck: he’s going to be just one step behind the entire day.

“Come on, you glutton,” Adrien mutters, lightly tapping the pocket in which Plagg is resting.  He brings the bag of pastries close to the mouth of his pocket.  “Here, take one.”

He feels Plagg shift position and stick their nose up.  They sniff.

“Not camembert,” Plagg says.

“Do you want one or not?” Adrien says.

Plagg grumbles something in a language foreign to Adrien before the weight in the bag lessens, accompanied by a noise like the offspring of a food processor and a vacuum.

Adrien takes the other danish as he makes his way towards the park.

His luck, as is turns out, isn’t so bad.  Marinette and Alya are sitting on a bench near the park’s entrance, with a small girl, brown-haired and pig-tailed, between them.  Marinette almost leaps off of her seat when she catches sight of him.

“Hey, Marinette,” Adrien says, holding up both hands and smiling in what he hopes is a nonthreatening manner.  “How are you?”

Marinette just stares wide-eyed at him for a second before Alya nudges her sharply in the side with an elbow.  “Fine!” she squeaks.  “I’m fine!”

Alya rolls her eyes and takes Manon’s hand.  “Let’s go play on the swings.  Does that sound like fun?”

Adrien and Marinette watch Alya go, Adrien in confusion, Marinette with a pleading look on her face.

“Uh,” Adrien says after they’ve gone.  He gestures to the bench.  “So, do you mind if I sit next to you?”

Marinette shakes her head and scooches over to give him room, nearly propelling herself off of the bench entirely.  Adrien decides to sit in the middle, keeping a respectful distance between them.  The last thing he wants right now is to startle her, or terrify her any more than he’s apparently already done.

Just to be sure, he reaches up and checks that Plagg hadn’t transformed him while he wasn’t paying attention.

“Is your eye okay?” Marinette blurts out.

Okay, so perhaps the movement wasn’t as natural as he’d intended.  Adrien stops trying to check for his mask and smiles at her.  Marinette fidgets a little.

“Only it’s a little red and you were scratching at it and I thought maybe you might need eyedrops or something,” Marinette says.

“Thank you,” Adrien says.  “But my eyes are fine.”

He coughs and changes the subject as gracefully as he can.  “I wanted to talk to you, actually,” he says.  “I heard that you were caught up in yesterday’s attack.”

The look of rabbit-eyed semi-panic on Marinette’s face shifts downwards into something darker.  “Oh.  Yeah.”

“You’re all right?” Adrien says.

“Some bruises,” Marinette says.  “And I got a knee in the side when everyone was trying to get out of the building and it still aches.  Hurts to walk, but that’s mostly just because I haven’t done a lot of running in a while.”

“Do you mind telling me what happened?” Adrien says.

Marinette recounts everything: where she and Manon had been when Climatika had made her appearance, their abruptly-stopped flight from the offices and the brief but vicious fight that had followed—“Oh, crap,” Marinette says suddenly, frowning.  “I need to buy another can of pepper spray.  And I left my baton back there too.”—the almost-miraculous arrival of Chat Noir just in time to save them both, and everything that had followed.

“That was incredibly brave of you,” Adrien says.

Marinette practically glows.  She looks down at her feet, grinding her heels in the dirt.  “It wasn’t like I had much of a choice,” she says.  “I mean, it was either get out or get killed, and there’s a lot of things people would rather do than get killed.”

“But you took Manon with you,” Adrien points out.  “And you threw yourself in harm’s way to keep her safe.  Repeatedly.  Most people would just run for it, leave everyone else behind.  What you did wasn’t survival, it was pure courage.”

Marinette goes incandescent.

“I heard that you were there when the gendarmes were fighting Paladin too,” Adrien says.  “How’d that happen?”

“Oh, Alya said that there were some people that she wanted to interview,” Marinette says.  “And then when we heard about the attack she wanted to go and film that, and then we just sort of ended up in the middle of that.”

“Okay,” Adrien says.  “But I heard that you actually attacked Paladin.  Why did you do that?”

Marinette looks up at Adrien and after a few seconds’ thought, shrugs.

“Chat didn’t have his weapon,” she says.  “And that was the only thing I could think of to get it to him, distract the bad guy and hope for the best.”

“Okay,” Adrien says, feeling his heart sink a little.  He’d been hoping that all she had was a case of slightly overzealous self-preservation: get the hell out of the way and take who and what you can with you.  The more she talked, though, the more and more insistent the “or die trying” was starting to append itself to the end of that description.  A hero complex, in other words.

He ventures a little further.  “But he’s a superhero,” he says.  “You know, super strength, invulnerability, that sort of thing?”  He leaves the “and you’re not” unspoken.  “And he’s been in worse situations and come out on top.”

Marinette blinks at him.  “Yeah,” she says slowly.  “But it would’ve taken him longer, and maybe more people would’ve been hurt.  What I did helped to end the fight, and I don’t regret that I got a little scraped up because of it.”

“You only got scraped up because Paladin wasn’t shooting to kill,” Adrien points out.  “You nearly died when you went up against one that was.”

Marinette opens her mouth to reply, and then shuts it again.  Her lips press together into a thin line.

“I know that, Adrien,” she says.  She looks up at Alya and Manon, now clambering up one of the playgrounds which dot the park.  A woman, her hair done up in a ponytail, her gaze fixed straight ahead, jogs past.  “But I can do something.  I can help, at least a little.”

“And that’s worth getting killed over?” Adrien says.

Marinette doesn’t answer him.  She stares past him at the playground.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Adrien says.  “I didn’t mean to be harsh.”

“You weren’t,” Marinette says quickly.  “I was just thinking.”

Adrien doesn’t pry.

“Hey,” Adrien says after a silent minute.  “You got rescued by Chat Noir, though, that must’ve been exciting.”

Marinette frowns.

“There was something weird about Chat, actually,” she says.  “Do you mind if I talk about it with you?”

Adrien tries not to make any sudden movements.  “Uh,” he says.  “Sure.”

“I know this is going to sound crazy,” Marinette says, “but I think he’s a lot younger than everyone seems to think he is.”

“On what grounds?”

“I didn’t really get a chance to notice until we were up right up close to him,” Marinette says.  “But he doesn’t really have adult proportions.”

“Uh,” Adrien says.

“I mean that—like, children have certain body proportions, and adults have different proportions, and teenagers are weird and gangly and in between them,” Marinette says.  She leans in slightly and drops her voice until it’s only a few decibels above a whisper.

“Adrien, he’s gangly.  He’s a teenager.”

Adrien shrugs.  “There’s a lot of gangly adults.”

“Yeah, but they’re not teen-gangly,” Marinette says.  “And he didn’t sound like an adult, his voice wasn’t deep enough.”

“Some grown men have high-pitched voices,” Adrien says.

“Look,” Marinette says, “he’s young, a lot younger than everyone seems to assume he is, I know he is.”

“Okay,” Adrien says.  There’s a note of gentle, completely sincere acceptance in his voice that broadcasts his disbelief more thoroughly than the most violent and public denunciation.

Marinette decides not push the issue further.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Adrien says.  “And I’m sorry if I’m being dismissive.”

“No,” Marinette says.  “I get it, it sounds crazy.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Adrien says.

Marinette gives him a skeptical look.

“No, really,” Adrien says.  “I mean, all your evidence is good, I’m not questioning any of that.  There’s just too many other things that it could be.  It doesn’t make sense to jump to conclusions now.”

Marinette gives him a sigh.  “Yeah,” she says.  “You’re right.  Silly of me.”

“I’d go with preemptive,” Adrien says.  His warm smile cools a little as he nods towards Manon.  “How’s she doing, by the way?”

“That would definitely be preemptive,” Marinette says.  “I don’t know.  She’s a lot less hyperactive and chipper than she usually is, but it’s only been a day.  Maybe she’ll turn out alright in the end.”

“One hopes,” Adrien says.                                                                                                     

Not much else transpires after.  Marinette and Adrien sit there until the growing silence demands that Adrien leave, with awkward goodbyes and glances exchanged between them.

“So,” Alya says to Marinette as the two of them escort Manon back.  “It looked like you two were getting pretty intense back there.  What were you guys talking about?”

“He just wanted to make sure that I was okay,” Marinette says.  “You know, after the whole thing with Paladin and Climatika.  Stop giving me that look, we didn’t talk about anything else.”

“I’m giving you that look because you didn’t talk about anything else,” Alya says.  “Mari, he was concerned about you, that was a golden opportunity right there, you couldn’t have tried playing up your broken ribs—“

“They are not broken, Alya,” Marinette says.

“—fine, your non-broken ribs, get him to extend a little sympathy, get him to be so impressed with your courage and bravery and level-headedness, you could’ve had him in the bag by now.”

“Alya, I am not going to make use of my part in a major tragedy to try to get Adrien to like me,” Marinette says.

“All right, if you say so,” Alya says.  “I’m just saying that sometimes you need to seize the moment, y’know?  Use what you have when you have it.”

Marinette gives Alya a look freighted with layers of disapproval and a smidge of annoyance.  “Why are you so fixated on this?  I like Adrien and I want to be together with him yeah, but it’s not exactly at the top of my list of priorities right now.”

Alya shrugs and her smile dims a little.  “The way I see it, bad things are already happening, and it isn’t as though there’s anything any of us can do to stop it.  Might as well try to make a little good when and where we can.”

“And so you ship us?” Marinette says, her tone as dry as she can possibly manage.

“I totally ship you two,” Alya says.  Her smile returns in a flash of gleaming teeth.  “You two would make the absolute cutest pair.  Criminals would give up their evil ways and do charity work for the rest of their lives and Chloe might actually not be a bitch for two seconds if they saw the two of you as a couple, that’s how cute you’d be.”

“Ha ha,” Marinette says.

“I’m serious,” Alya says, nudging her friend in the side with an elbow.  “Do you want me to go on?  You two would be so adorable that you’d have little flocks of tweeting birds and other assorted small woodland creatures following you around, like an actual Disney movie.  You’d run around and flowers would spontaneously grow in your footsteps, and the two of you would go around everywhere and you’d be holding hands and skipping everywhere you’d go.  That’s how disgustingly cute and adorable you two would be.”

“A Disney movie,” Marinette says.  “Really, that’s the best you can come up with?”

“On short notice,” Alya says.  “I can do you a fully animated TV show if you give me like, a month.  Month and a half at the outside.”

“Oh really,” Marinette says.  She wears a grin now too, the mirror of Alya’s.  “All about how I seduce Adrien with my feminine good looks and Mama’s excellent cooking and then rise to prominence as the world’s best fashion designer.”“I’d watch that,” Alya says.

“You’d be writing it,” Marinette says.

“Doesn’t mean I need to watch it,” Alya says.  “If they screw up the casting, if the director is incompetent, if they screw up the music direction, if they decide to throw in a completely useless love triangle, that sort of thing.  Just because I’m doing the writing for it doesn’t mean that there are things in there out of my creative control.”

“You’d still watch it though,” Marinette says, “for me?”

“Mm,” Alya says, “hard maybe.”

“Can I be in it too?” Manon chimes in.

“You will be,” Alya says.  “You’re the princess who gets saved in episode ten.”

“Do I get a crown?”

“A big one with diamonds,” Alya says.

Adrien watches them go from half a block away.

“Well,” Plagg says.  “That went spectacularly.”

“What are you talking about,” Adrien replies, “that was a train wreck—oh, you were being sarcastic.”

“Yes,” Plagg says.

Adrien utters a few choice, cheese-related insults under his breath, picks a direction at random, and stalks off.

The whole situation with Marinette is going to be a stone around his neck, he’s sure.  Sure, she wasn’t actively going out and trying to get killed, but there was a hero complex at play there—and, Adrien adds, for the benefit of the little sardonic Plagg-like voice in his head, he is aware of the irony there, but he at least has the tools to properly face off against these things.  She most emphatically doesn’t.

For a second, Adrien considers giving in to Plagg’s incessant demands.  She lacks the tools?  Then give them to her!  Give her a Miraculous, so that she may at least defend herself.

But how much would that help?  Having the Miraculous hadn’t kept their last guardian from being defeated by Papillon.

So, the little Plagg-voice asks.  What makes you any more capable of standing against Papillon alone?  Strength in numbers is the only way to fight him.

I know.

You fail, and it all fails.

I know.

If you fail but she has a Miraculous as well, then there is at least still hope.

I know!

Adrien stops dead in the middle of the sidewalk and shuts his eyes tightly.  A university student following behind bounces off of his right side, stares at him for a second, then walks off with a muttered “jackass”.

“Adrien,” he hears Plagg say.

“Yeah?” he says.

“You’ve been standing here for five minutes.  People are giving you weird looks.”

“Let them,” Adrien says, just loud enough for Plagg to hear.  He moves on anyways.

How he wishes, oh how he wishes that this need not have happened in his time.

But that wasn’t up to him, was it.  And all he could decide now was what to do with the time that had been given to him.

He’d decided to fight.  And he wasn’t going to back down now.

Chapter Text

“You have several hairline fractures,” the physician tells Marinette.

Marinette looks on glumly as Dr. Michel, a portly man with a violently ginger beard that looks as though it might’ve migrated there from his scalp, leaving behind a few—a very few—familial relations, slaps several sheets of X-ray film onto a lit screen.  He points with a pen to three very faint lines across her lower ribs, on her left side.

“They aren’t bad,” he continues, “although they must still hurt quite a lot.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Marinette says.  Sabine, behind her, directs a brief glare at her.

“Do you know how long ago this happened?” Dr. Michel asks.

“About a week,” Marinette says.  “Someone kneed me in the side.”

“All right,” Dr. Michel says.  He slips the pen back into a pocket of his pristine white coat, adjusts its hang, and sits down onto a chair.  It creaks as he settles his weight more firmly onto it.  “Well, I’m afraid that I can’t do much.  Your ribs aren’t displaced, which is very good.  What is your pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

“About a two, a three?” Marinette says.

“And when you move, when you’re active?” he asks.  He spins around in his chair and presses a badge to the computer on the nearby desk.  Something beeps and the screen lights up; Dr. Michel taps out a quick note.

“Uh, a three?” Marinette says.  She feels her mother’s glare at the back of her head again.  “Maybe a four, if I’m running?”

“Okay,” Dr. Michel says.  He spins around and faces her.  “Can you please breathe as deeply as you can without pain?”

Marinette straightens and takes a breath.  Something stabs through her side after four or five seconds, and she cuts herself short.

“All right, thank you, that was good,” Dr. Michel says.  “I see that you’ve had to handle this issue before, so you’ve probably had this little speech before, but it’s always good to have a reminder.”

He leans forwards and adopts a paternal, confidential air.  “There’s nothing much I can do.  I can prescribe you some pain medication to help you manage what pain you have, but I’m afraid that you have another five weeks of healing to go.  I’ll schedule you for another appointment to check on that.  You’re breathing nice and deeply as it is, so I don’t think we need for you to meet with one of our physical therapists.  I want you to avoid heavy exercise in the meantime.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Marinette says.

“All right,” Dr. Michel says.  He sits back and goes back to typing on the computer, then turns back and smiles at them.  “I’d like you to meet with one of the ladies at the front desk to schedule your next appointment.”

“Thank you very much,” Sabine says, taking this as their cue to leave.  She comes and stands by Marinette’s injured side as she hops down from the bed and proceeds out of the examination room.

Sabine is quiet for most of the way out, speaking only when she needs to, to the secretaries and the nurses when making the appointment.

She explodes when they make it out of the hospital’s front lobby, but quietly.

“I told you to tell me if you were hurt,” Sabine says.

“I did, Mama,” Marinette says.

“You have three.  Broken.  Ribs,” Sabine hisses.

“Barely,” Marinette says.  “They’re not even fully broken like they were the last time.  It doesn’t hurt that much, honest.”

“Those pills you’re holding don’t say that,” Sabine says.

“It doesn’t,” Marinette says.  “Really—it doesn’t hurt that much.”

Sabine is quiet for a few seconds, then breathes out in a long, controlled sigh.

“Well, you hid it well enough for a day,” Sabine says.  “But I still want you to keep those painkillers and your prescription on you at all times, okay?  And you heard what the doctor said, no heavy exercise, so no more running after homicidal supervillains with Alya.”

“That was one time, Mama,” Marinette protests.

“True, but if she offers again then don’t accept,” Sabine says.  “Alya’s a big girl and sensible enough aside from that slight obsession of hers.  She can take care of herself.  Understand?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

“Good.  Now let’s go home.”

“There’s a couple packages on the kitchen table,” Tom calls to Sabine and Marinette as they return through the bakery’s back door.  He finishes loading a couple loaves of bread into the roaring heat of the oven, dusts himself off, and comes over to them, leaning down and kissing Sabine on the forehead.  “I think they’re for you, Mari.  Oh, and Alya came by, she’s waiting upstairs with uh—“ he snaps his fingers and looks skywards for a moment “—small girl, rainbow hair, Mylene, that was it.”

“Remember,” Sabine says.  “No.  Running.”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

Marinette pokes her head into the living room.  Alya and Mylene are waiting on the couch, each with a small porcelain cup of steaming tea in their hands and a basket on the coffee table next to the teapot.

“Hey guys,” Marinette says.  Alya turns and brightens immediately.

“Mari!” Alya says.  “You didn’t answer when I texted you.”

“I was at the doctor’s, I’m sorry,” Marinette says.  “What’s all this about?”

She gets two sets of bemused stares.

“Uh, you didn’t get the email?” Alya says.  “We sent it around on Monday.”

“What email—oh.”  Marinette hides the wince.  Oh, that.  Right.  “Ivan’s care package?”

“Yeah,” Mylene says.

“l’m sorry, it totally slipped my mind,” Marinette says.  “Ivan likes cookies, right?  Oatmeal?”

“Oatmeal raisin,” Mylene says.

“Right, can you give me thirty minutes?” Marinette says.  “I’ll have a batch whipped up by then.”

Mylene looks at the time, then at Alya, who shrugs and rises.

“We might be pushing it, but sure,” Alya says.

“Can we help?” Mylene says.

Many hands make swift work, and after thirty minutes they’re gently pulling cookies off of the cooling rack and placing them in a Tupperware container.  Alya sneaks a couple and Mylene makes another one disappear.  Marinette catches the edge of Sabine’s smile as she finishes washing out the work bowl of the stand mixer and turns just as Mylene reaches for a second.

“You guys know that if you want any cookies we can just make some more after we get back from Ivan’s place, right?” Marinette says.

“They’re not all fitting in there anyways,” Alya says as nonchalantly as one can when spraying crumbs.  “Might as well have them while they’re nice and warm.”

“These are really good,” Mylene says.  “Can you give me the recipe?”

“Yeah, sure,” Marinette says.  “Shoot me a text or email or something, remind me?

She turns to Alya.  “We’re still on time, right?”

“Should be,” Alya says.  She fishes her cellphone out of her back pocket and clicks it on.  “Yeah, it’s ten till noon, we’re good to go.  Just need to leave in the next few minutes to make our train.”

“Call me when you get there, okay?” Sabine calls from the other room.

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.  She nods to the others.  “So, shall we?”

“Oh, don’t forget your things,” Sabine says.

“What things, Mama?” Marinette says.

“On the kitchen table,” Sabine says.  “You lost your baton and spray, right, those are the replacements I ordered.”

“Spray?” Alya says.

“Baton?” Mylene says.

Marinette rolls her eyes at both of them and pulls out a paring knife.  She turns to the boxes that she’d pushed off to one side and slices through the tape before she pulls first one box, then the other open.

“Ugh,” she says.  “I hate clamshell packaging.”  She turns and slides the knife back into its rack.  Then she pulls a pair of gardening shears with big, finger-length blades from a drawer and proceeds to hack an opening through the packaging, large enough to pull out first an innocuous little pink cylinder on a keychain, then a matte-black baton the length of her forearm in a nylon sheath.  She straps one to her leg and slides the other into her pocket.

“Oh, great,” Alya says as they start towards the front door.  “We’re definitely going to be late now.”

“Why do you have those?” Mylene says.

“What, the pepper spray?” Marinette says.  “You don’t?”

“What?” Mylene says.  They clatter down the stairs, single-file.  Marinette opens the door for Alya and Mylene, following in their wake.  “I mean, yes, I do.  But I don’t have a police baton, why do you have a police baton?”

Alya gives a perfunctory glance to both ends of the street before she proceeds across.  She calls over her shoulder, “Marinette knows kung fu.”

“I know wushu!” Marinette corrects from across the street.  The policemen standing watch at the local entrance to the Metro turn towards her at her shout, then turn their attention back to the crowd.

“Isn’t kung fu just an Anglicization of wushu?” Alya says.

“No,” Marinette says.  “Kung fu is an Anglicization of gong fu.”  She waits on the sidewalk with Mylene for the crosswalk sign to start blinking with its white walking man in profile, then proceeds across the street.  “Wushu is the sport and exhibition form of gong fu.”

“Close enough,” Alya says.  “Either way, you can do backflips.”

“Okay, okay,” Mylene says.  “But that still doesn’t answer why you have a police baton.”

“I can’t do backflips and it’s just so that I can defend myself,” Marinette says.

“IDs please, Mesdemoiselles,” a police officer says as they approach the Metro entrance.

“And here we go again,” Alya says.  “Please don’t get us arrested this time.”

“What do you mean this time?” Marinette says.  “We didn’t get arrested the last time.  And besides you were the one who decided to pick a fight with the police.”

“Oh, thank you for that,” Alya says as she produces her school ID and shows the police officer.  Marinette and Mylene do the same beside her.  “Thank you for reminding me about that.  I genuinely needed to hear that right now.”

“Ma’am, please step this way.  And your friends too.”


 

“We’re going to be late, Ivan,” Mylene says.  “Yeah, about thirty minutes, sorry.  The police stopped us, they got in a huff about Alya and Marinette.  They said that something happened with Alya before and Marinette has a lot of weapons.  Like.  A lot of weapons—“

“I have three, and it’s all self-defense stuff,” Marinette says.  “Three.”

“—but we’re on our way now.  Yeah, we’ll be there in a few.  Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing you.  I’ll see you soon.”

“You and Ivan are?” Marinette says, as Mylene hangs up.

“He messaged me,” Mylene says.  She tucks her phone back into a pocket and fusses with the basket.  Things crinkle inside as they shift and settle.  “You know.  After the whole, uh, thing with the police and after he was released and everything.”

“And?”

“It was weird, knowing that he went and you know,” Mylene says, “brought down a skyscraper.  Overturned a few police cars.”

“Killed thousands,” Alya says.

“He can’t remember any of it,” Mylene snaps.  “It’s just like the others, he was just—I don’t know—used, or something, like the others.  There’s nothing that really—ties them to all of this.”

“Other than you know, being found there after Chat Noir beat them,” Alya says.  “On camera and everything.”

“Then why haven’t the police arrested anyone yet?” Mylene says.  “Yeah, they’ve taken them into custody, but no one’s ever been charged with anything official, no one’s been convicted or anything.”

“Ivan’s on house arrest.”

“Protective custody,” Mylene insists.  “And he’s devastated by everything that’s happened, he really is, he’s so confused.”

“Can you two please stop?” Marinette says.  “People are staring.  And besides, what are you doing, Alya?  I know you agree with Mylene about this.”

“I do,” Alya says.  “But I mean, come on, even if he was used, he was still there, it was on camera and everything.  We can’t deny that Ivan was there, we can’t deny that Sabrina’s Dad Roger was there, and we can’t deny that Mireille was there shooting up that TV station.”

“They were still innocent,” Mylene says.

Alya sighs.  “They were still there,” she says.  “They were being used, I get that, but they were there, Mylene, however you want to try and spin it.”

“Stop,” Marinette says.  “Seriously, can you guys please just knock it off?  You both agree on the broad strokes, there’s no need to get in a fight over the details.”

Alya and Mylene subside.  Alya turns halfway in her seat and studies the subway tunnel as they zip through, her chin propped up on her hand.  Mylene fidgets with her basket again.

“So what’s up with you and Ivan?” Marinette asks.  “You two together?”

Mylene sighs.  “Not really,” she says.  “I mean, like I was saying, it’s weird, the whole situation with us.  I know he likes me and all, I know what that weird screaming thing was all about—you know, the day it all started.  But it’s not like we can go on dates or anything, with him stuck inside his home all day.”

“So you do like him,” Alya says, a wide, toothy grin flashing across her face.

Mylene flushes cherry-red and looks down at her feet.  “He’s sweet.”

“You told him yet?” Alya says.

“Yeah,” Mylene says.  “We’re still trying to work things out, though.  It’s all really weird.”

Alya snorts and elbows Marinette gently in the side.  “You’re doing better than her in any case.  Mind giving her some tips on how to land Adrien?”

Mylene blinks in bemusement at Marinette.  “You and Adrien?”

“I do not need help getting Adrien to like me,” Marinette says.

“Well, I don’t know if I can be much help,” Mylene says.  “I mean, Ivan was the one who confessed to me first.  Maybe if you told him—”

“I do not,” Marinette repeats,” need.  Help.  Thank you for your offer, though.”

She leans back in her seat and huffs a breath up at her bangs.  “Besides, with my luck I’d probably, I dunno, give him the impression that I was a stalker or something and then he’d probably turn into an unstoppable killing machine with a vengeance against all short, cute, half-Chinese schoolgirls and then Chat Noir would need to put him down and they’d throw me into a jail cell and melt the key down and leave me to rot for the rest of my life.”

Alya pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs while Mylene looks on, bewildered.

“Mari,” Alya says.  “I love you, but you have got to stop spiraling like that.”

“Wait,” Mylene says.  “Why would he think you were stalking him?”

“Marinette has a big calendar hanging—“

“She doesn’t need to know about that,” Marinette says.  “Oh look, we’re here, let’s go now.”

“The problem’s not going to go away if you don’t address it~” Alya singsongs as they leave the subway.  “Mylene, which way do we go once we get out of the station?”

“Uh, head out the north entrance and then make a left,” Mylene says.  “His building is five minutes’ walk straight down that road.”

“How about we just let you take the lead?” Marinette says.

As Mylene guides them to Ivan’s home, something at the back of Marinette’s mind starts ringing alarm bells.  She glances around them as Mylene speaks to a doorman and gets them buzzed through into the lobby of a neat, brick-and-mortar, three-story building, trying to keep the movement smooth and casual instead of jerky and terrified.  She’s just looking around, getting the lay of a new and unfamiliar place.  She’s not trying to look in every direction in once like a one-eyed rabbit.

There’s only a couple people in the lobby besides them and the doorman.  Only one of them meets Marinette’s eyes as she scans the room, and he holds eye contact for just a second too long before he looks away.

“This way,” Mylene says, starting towards a staircase.  “He’s up on the first floor.”

“That guy’s following us,” Marinette says, keeping her voice low.  “Short brown hair, cleft chin—don’t look, guys—jeans, heavy black boots.”

Alya frowns at her, but keeps her eyes forward and her voice low.  “You’re sure?”

“I recognize him,” Marinette says.  “He was across the street from us when we were a block away.”

“Again, I ask: you’re sure?” Alya says.  “He could just be going home.”

“He’s loitering in the lobby.”

Alya gives a worried look to Mylene.

“Well, what can we do?” Alya says.  “I mean, aside from trying to make sure that no one stabs us in the back.”

“It might be a police officer,” Mylene ventures.  “There’s always a lot of them around, or at least there were the last couple times I visited.”

“I guess that’s plausible,” Alya says, frowning.  She pushes open the door on the first landing and lets Mylene and Marinette out onto the first floor.  “If they still suspect that Ivan’s connected to or involved with Papillon in some way then they’d want to keep an eye on his comings and goings.”

“Why wouldn’t they just put a GPS tracker on him then?” Marinette says.

“He has one,” Mylene says.  “On his ankle.  Keep to the left, his home is this way.”

“Maybe they’re just trying to cover all their bases then,” Alya says.  “You can hack those things, can’t you?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Marinette says.  Her eyebrows knit as another thought occurs to her.  “Or they want to keep an eye on whoever’s coming to visit him.”

“Shit,” Alya says after a second.  “Well, visiting a friend isn’t illegal as far as I know.”

“You want to test that?” Marinette says.  “Someone’s coming up behind us.”

Marinette looks over her shoulder as the door they’d entered through creaks open and the man that had been tailing them sticks his head into the corridor.  He looks one way, then the other, then steps into the hall.

“Mesdemoiselles,” he calls after them.  “Mesdemoiselles, if you could please stop where you are.  I am with the police.  Please stop.”

Two of them stop.  Alya keeps moving, taking one more step forwards before making an about-face, her expression blank and neutral, the tilt of her head annoyed and a touch defiant.

“Thank you,” the man says.  He pulls a badge from his pocket and shows it to them as he walks up to them.  “Please just set down that basket and your purses and stand against the wall.”

Alya, Marinette, and Mylene step off to the side, leaving behind their purses and the basket.  Alya slouches against the wall as the man stops before them; Mylene contrives to fade into the wallpaper.  Marinette tries to stand so that her clothes don’t hang too obviously over her gear—the last thing she needs today is another pat-down.

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” the officer says as he tucks his badge back into his pocket.  “I just need to ask you a few questions and then you can be on your way.”

“All right,” Marinette says.  “Ask away.”

She gets a brief shine of teeth between pulled-back lips from the officer.  “All right,” he says.  “Thank you for your cooperation.  Now, can any of you please tell me where you’re heading?”

“Just to visit a friend of ours,” Mylene says.  “We wanted to bring him a little care package, you know, a card, some snacks, just so that he knows that we’re thinking of him.”

“And that’s the basket there?” the officer says.

Mylene nods, keeping her gaze on the floor.

“And you two?” the officer says, turning to Alya and Marinette.

“We’re with her,” Alya says.  “Is there anything wrong about that?”

The same shine flashes out at Alya.  “And what’s the name of that friend of yours, and where do they live?”

“Ivan Bruel,” Mylene answers, with some reluctance.  “Just down at the end of this hall.”

“I see,” the officer says.  “Show me your IDs.”

The three of them produce their school IDs for the second time that day, and each get a polite nod from the officer as he looks at them in turn.

“Mylene Haprele,” he says when he gets to the diminutive girl.  He leans over and squints at her, studying her as though she were positioned beneath a magnifying glass.  “Now, that’s a familiar name.”

“It is?”  Mylene looks up, but keeps her gaze centered on his nose, not quite making eye contact.

“Yes,” he says.  “It is.  People who willingly associate with mass murderers tend to get remembered, and not in a good way.”

Marinette slaps a restraining hand onto Alya’s shoulder and winces.  She’d forgotten herself.  No sudden moves around cops, Mari, never make sudden moves around cops.

She’s fortunate.  The policeman’s attention is fully focused on Mylene, who’s suddenly tense and coiled: a cornered rabbit facing down a wolf.

“What did you just call—“ Alya begins, before Marinette slaps her other hand over her mouth.  They receive a slightly annoyed look from the policeman before he turns back to Mylene.

“I’m going to need to take a look at that,” he says, pointing to the basket.  “Hand it over.”

“It’s just—it’s just some cookies and things,” Mylene says.

“Because I’m going to take the word of a girl who willingly associates with a known mass murderer at face value,” the officer says.  “Hand it over.  Now.”

Alya manages to pry Marinette’s hand away from her mouth and turns on her friend, hissing, “What the fuck, let me go!”

Marinette does, but only so that she can sidestep between Mylene and the policeman, her hands up and out in as nonthreatening a gesture as she can manage.

“Hey!” she says.  “Hey, let’s not let things go farther than they need to.”  She nudges the basket towards him with a foot.  “Go ahead, look for yourself.”

He eyes her, then puffs out a breath through his nostrils and takes a knee, rummaging through the contents of the basket with a hand, resting the other on his thigh near his waist.  The Tupperware of cookies is opened, inspected, and then dropped carelessly off to the side, spilling its contents across the floor.  A pair of DVDs are treated in similar rough fashion.  A stuffed bear gets a derisory snort before it gets thrown to the side as well.  He rifles through a pile of miscellaneous candies and other snacks before he casually scatters them with a flick of his wrist.

“All right, take your junk and go,” he says, rising.  He takes one last look at the three of them, turns on a heel, and walks off down the hallway.

Alya lets out a guttural snarl as the police officer turns and clomps down the stairs; Mari lets out a shuddering breath of relief.

“What the fuck,” Alya spits at the world in general, before she turns on Marinette and spits “what the fuck” at her friend in particular.

“Hey,” Marinette says.  “You were the one talking about how you didn’t want us to get arrested again.”

She takes a few steps back and leans heavily against the wall.  “Look,” she says.  “What he did was shitty, I get it.  It’s not worth assaulting him over.”

Alya blinks once, slowly, and takes a breath, hissing it out slowly through her teeth.  “I wouldn’t have touched him.”

“Do you think that would’ve mattered to him?” Marinette says.  “Mylene, are you all right?”

“Mylene?” Alya says after a moment.

They both look at their friend.

Mylene is on her knees, quietly cleaning up the mess on the floor.  She picks up the DVDs and makes sure their cases are fastened shut; picks up the teddy bear and dusts it off; places the snacks back into the basket.  She collects the cookies and rearranges them so that they’re again sitting in neat stacks, then snaps the lid shut.

“Has this happened before?” Marinette asks.

“A couple times,” Mylene says.  “He’s guilty in their eyes.  Anyone who hangs out with him willingly isn’t much better.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Alya says, her voice soft.

“What would it have changed?” Mylene says.  She takes another deep, shaky breath.  “It wouldn’t have stopped them from thinking that I’m a part of some big terrorist cell with him.  It wouldn’t have stopped me from being scared shitless.”

She carefully places the Tupperware back into the basket.  Her fist shoots out and smashes into the wall beside her, denting the drywall.

“I’m so sick and tired,” she says, her voice trembling, “of being scared.”

Alya and Marinette look at one another uncertainly.

“And don’t you two say anything,” Mylene says, turning on them.  “I know what you think of me.  Scared little Mylene cowering in the corner anytime something as threatening as an ant comes along.”

“Mylene,” Alya says.  “That’s not—“

“Don’t lie to me,” Mylene says.  “I know that’s what you all think of me.”  Her expression twists into a mocking sneer.  “Poor meek little Mylene, always jumping at shadows.  Well I’m sick of always being the one who rolls over for everyone.  I’m so sick of it I could just explode.”

It’s about then that Marinette notices the butterfly.  It floats in through a window like a scrap of burned paper, streaming a trail of poisonous-looking black motes behind it.

“Mylene,” Alya says.  “That’s not what we think of you, honest.”

Mylene barks out a bitter laugh.  “Really?  After how I heroically stood up to that policeman?  You really think that.”  She stands, her hands balling into fists.  “Stop pitying me and just admit how pathetic you think I am, save us all some trouble.”

“I don’t pity—“

“Stop lying to me!”

The butterfly lands on Mylene’s headband, flaps its wings once—and sinks through, dissolving into a mist that dissipates almost immediately.  The pink plastic turns an ugly shade of purple, then seems to melt, flowing over her hair and down her scalp, covering her eyes as they glow—literally glow, lighting up her whole face—with a fell light, streaming down over her shoulders and torso, encasing her wholly in a pustule the color of a bruise.

“What the fuck,” Alya says, taking a step back.  “Mylene?  Are you okay?  What the fuck just happened, Mari, is Mylene okay?”

“How should I know?” Marinette says.

The pustule explodes outwards a moment later, embedding fragments in the walls or doors or sending them careening down the hall.  Marinette hits the ground, her hands shielding her face and head as a flaming streak burns across her scalp; Alya flattens herself desperately against a wall.

Something stands where Mylene had been a moment before, throws its head back, and roars, the noise causing the doors to rattle and the windows to crack.

The thing straightens and sniffs at the air as Alya and Marinette finally get a good look at it.

It stands no taller than Mylene had, but its form is entirely smooth and hairless, its face flat and featureless save for the eyes and mouth.  In place of Mylene’s dreadlocks it has a bundle of tentacles, which wave behind its head like seaweed in an ocean current.  Its mouth is filled with needle teeth, like those of an angler fish; a tail like a lion’s trails out after it.  It’d almost look like a doll crafted of pink and purple clay had it not been for those vicious teeth.  The only thing left that gives any indication that their friend had once stood there is a pink plastic hairband, nearly flush against the thing’s smooth, hairless skull.

“What the fuck happened to Mylene?” Alya says.

The noise causes the thing to whip its head around.  Its gaze bores into Alya, who trips over her own feet as she scrambles back and falls over, landing on her back next to Marinette.

The thing sniffs and drops to all fours, padding towards the two with its head tilted in idle examination.

“Oh, fuck me,” Alya says.

Marinette echoes the sentiment, if not the phrasing, with a quiet, terrified whimper.

The thing increases its pace to a lope.

It hops over them and continues down the hallway, still sniffing.  The two girls turn to watch as along the hall, doors open and the building’s inhabitants do the same, expressing dismay and shock as they lay eyes on the carnage that Mylene’s transformation had done.

“Did we just—I think we just saw someone get transformed into a supervillain,” Alya says.

Marinette feels something warm trickle down her head.  She reaches up and touches it gingerly, then looks at her finger.

Blood.  A lot, but scalp wounds were bleeders.  It wasn’t anything to worry about.

“Yeah,” Marinette says.  “I think we did.”

So that was how it happened.  Someone just got wound up and up until they cracked, and then an innocent little butterfly just fluttered down and turned you into something like that.

Marinette shudders.  At least Sabrina’s father and Mireille had just gotten fancy costumes.  They hadn’t been turned into something that looked like it could’ve come out of a horror movie.

“Why’d she just ignore us, though?” Alya says.  “I mean, all of the other supervillains were interested in causing as much havoc as they could.”

“She’s going after the cop,” Marinette says.  She gets to her feet and starts down the hallway.

“You’re sure about that?” Alya says.

“Uh,” Ivan says.  “Marinette, Alya, is that you?  What happened?”

They turn to see Ivan standing at the end of the hall, his expression confused and a touch worried.

“Mylene just got turned into a supervillain,” Alya says.

“What?”  His expression is now one of a man who’s just had a battering ram driven into his groin.  “How did that happen?”

“Well, you know about those—” Alya begins, only to be cut off by a curt gesture from Marinette.

“No time,” Marinette says.  “We have to follow her and warn people, get them clear.  Ivan, stay put.”

“But—”

“He’s in enough trouble as it is, Alya” Marinette says.  “If they find Ivan involved in another incident they’ll crucify him.”

“I’m coming with you,” Ivan says.  He finishes tying up his shoe and stands.  “You can try to stop me if you want.”

Alya sees Marinette’s hand twitch towards her belt; she steps quickly between them.

“Fine,” Marinette growls.  “On your own head be it.”

She turns and begins to move down the hall at a fast trot, Alya scurrying and Ivan striding behind her.  They hear a tremendous crash as they start to clatter down the stairs and Marinette speeds up her pace, leaping down the last flight of stairs and rushing to the door.

“I think she just took out the entire front of the building,” Marinette reports.  “Alya, call the cops.”

“I think they already know about it,” Alya says, as the sound of messy destruction is joined by firecracker pops and cracks.  “That’s gunfire, isn’t it?”

Several high-velocity somethings hit the wall between them and the front lobby.

“Yeah,” Marinette says.  She looks back up the stairwell.  “Ivan, can we get to the roof from here?”

“The door at the top,” Ivan says, “the lock is usually broken.”

“Good,” Marinette says.  “Alya, I want you to get up there, keep us updated on what’s going on.  Ivan, is there a back way out of your building?”

“Wait, why are you sidelining me?” Alya says.

“That thing that Mylene got turned into is going to be moving fast,” Marinette says.  “We need someone with a good view and a good signal, that’s you.  Keep us updated.”

“Mari—”

Marinette ignores her.  “Ivan, come on, we need a way out of this place that doesn’t end with us being filled with bullets.  Alya, there’s no time, get up there and call one of us once you’re in position.  Ivan, let’s move.”

Marinette leaves a gaping Alya behind as she follows in Ivan’s wake.  He leads her back up to the first floor, then down the long, shrapnel-studded L of the hallway and towards a second stairwell in the back of the building that deposits them next to the dumpsters.

Marinette’s phone rings as she and Ivan make for a nearby alley and as the sounds of screams and gunshots die down.  She checks it, then looks up at the roof before answering.

“Alya, you’re in position?”

“Yeah, I’m on the roof,” Alya says grumpily.  “Where are you two?”

“Heading towards the front,” Marinette says.

“All right,” Alya says.  “Mylene’s heading north, just follow the trail of broken things.”  Marinette hears something rustle through her phone.  “Looks like she’s chewing on someone in a uniform.”

Chewing,” Marinette manages after a second.  She looks up at Ivan, then switches on her speakerphone.  “You’re sure about that, she’s chewing on someone?”

“On someone’s arm,” Alya says.  “No, wait, now she’s thrown him into a wall.  There’s some kind of purplish spit covering his arm, like, some kind of glue, he’s trying to pull away and he can’t.”

Alya’s voice tightens with sudden tension.  “She’s moving again, due north, but you need to get to the guy she was chewing on, now.”

Marinette breaks into a trot.  “Why?”

“She just covered him head-to-toe in that spit, and I don’t think he can breathe.”

“Oh, crap.”  Marinette clutches her phone in a fist and breaks into a sprint down the alley towards the main road.  “Which way?” she shouts as she nears the exit.

“Hang a left,” Alya responds.  “He’s just past the red car halfway up on the curb.”

“I see him,” Marinette says.  She tosses her phone over her shoulder; Ivan makes a dive for it, catches it, and just keeps from skinning his elbows when he trips on his own feet.

“Damn it,” Marinette swears.  She tries to dig her fingers into the purple-grey, rubber-like substance covering the now-weakly struggling man.  Her fingernails indent the substance, but do no more, sliding off without leaving a mark.

“Ivan,” she calls.  “Get me something sharp, a broken shard of glass, a nail, anything.”

“Guys, I’m heading down,” Alya says, though her message goes unheeded, her friends too busy to respond.  She hangs up and makes for the fire escape while below her Ivan scoops up a handful of particularly large glass shards and brings them to Marinette.

“Start trying to cut around his nose and mouth,” Marinette orders as she takes a shard.  “Don’t worry about cutting him, we need to get this stuff off.”

“I can see that,” Ivan says.  He starts sawing away at the gelatinous goop covering the man’s chin while Marinette digs away at one cheek, trying to give her fingernails someplace they might gain purchase.

Marinette curses as the shard slips in her hand and gouges a wide but shallow cut along her palm, along the base of her thumb.  She looks around for something to wrap the glass in as blood wells up and begins dripping to the concrete and finds nothing.

Still, there wasn’t any time to mope about it.  The man had just stopped breathing.  She looks down, grits her teeth against the pain spiking up from her hand, and tears the bottom few centimeters of cloth from her T-shirt, using the material to wrap the base of the shard.

“Ivan, I’ve got something here,” Marinette says.  “Come on, help me widen this cut.”

Ivan starts widening the shallow cut so that it extends up past the man’s cheekbone as Marinette cuts down towards his chin.

“Okay, Ivan, can you get a grip on that?” Marinette says.  Ivan tries; his blunt fingernails dig into the shallow trench and catch.  “All right, you pull, I’ll cut.”

Ivan sets his feet, checks his grip, and pulls, muscle straining against the supernaturally tough material.  The cut widens, but doesn’t yield.

Alya runs up, panting, as Marinette continues to work on making the cut deeper.

“See if you can find a knife anywhere,” Marinette orders without looking around.  “There’s a bunch of unconscious undercover cops around, there’s got to be something.”

“How do you know—”

“Go!” Marinette snaps.  “All right, Ivan, one, two, three, pull.”

Alya stares at her friend for a moment before she dashes to the nearest likely-looking candidate and pats him down, finding a badge, but no knife.  She checks his partner next to him and again finds only a badge, though his pistol is clutched in a hand.

“Check their boots!” Marinette calls.

Alya checks their boots, and finds a short leaf-bladed knife in a boot sheath.  She rushes over and is about to hand the knife over to Marinette when she notices the blood.

“Mari, move,” Alya says.  “Don’t argue, I’m not the one bleeding.”

Marinette gets gently shoved aside as Alya takes her place and starts slicing.  Ivan grunts and pulls again.

The material tears just slightly, revealing a swath of skin.

“Okay, Alya,” Marinette orders, “you take the bottom half, Ivan, grab the upper half.  One, two, three, pull!”

They pull on cue, and the flap tears a little more, revealing more skin, and the barest edge of the man’s lips.

“One more go,” Marinette says.  “One, two, three, pull!”

The flap tears free of the man’s mouth, and he gasps, air flooding into his oxygen-starved lungs.  Ivan and Alya step away and sit next to Marinette, the adrenaline finally making itself felt.

“Do you think he’s going to be all right?” Ivan says.  He looks down at his big, trembling hands and folds them in his lap.

“I don’t know,” Marinette says.  “He was out for maybe a minute without air?  Is that enough to cause brain damage?”

Alya checks.  “Google says maybe,” she says.  “Minute is the cutoff point after which there’s brain damage.”

“He’ll probably be okay then,” Marinette says.

“Good,” Ivan says.

“Mari, give me your hand, let me bandage that,” Alya says.  Marinette wordlessly gives her hand over as Alya picks up the glass shard Marinette had been using as a knife and unravels the strip of T-shirt from it.  Working carefully, she lays the cloth down along the length of the cut, then wraps it around Marinette’s hand several times, securing the free ends with a tight knot.

“Thanks,” Marinette says.  She rises and heads off towards the end of the boulevard.  “Come on, we need to head her off.”

“What makes you think that we can do that?” Alya says as she and Ivan follow her.

Marinette gestures at the man they’d saved.  “Four bodies—I’m assuming that all of them are cops—but he’s the only one who nearly dies.  I’d bet good money that he’s the one who harassed Mylene back at the apartment.”

“Maybe he was the only one who tried shooting at her,” Ivan suggests.

“I thought that too,” Marinette says.  “But look at all the bullet casings.  This wasn’t just one person opening fire.  But anyways, if Mylene stuck just that guy to the wall, that means—”

“She still recognizes people,” Ivan says.

“So maybe she’ll recognize us and stop,” Alya says.  “Makes sense.  She did jump over us in the hallway instead of trying to eat us or gluing us to the nearest surface.”

“So you’re betting our lives on a hunch,” Ivan says.

“A good guess,” Marinette says.  “And you were the one who wanted to come.”

“I guess so,” Ivan says, sighing.  “Let’s go find her, then.  Maybe we’ll have a better plan than just hoping for the best when we get there.”

“We do,” Marinette says.  “We stall her and wait for Chat Noir to show up and save the day.”

“That still doesn’t sound fantastic,” Alya says.

“Well, tell me when you think of something better,” Marinette says.

They lapse into silence as they approach the end of the boulevard and look both ways down the street.  Cars and the occasional bus roll leisurely by, uninterrupted by hordes of screaming pedestrians fleeing from an unstoppable monstrosity outside of mortal knowledge and sanity.

“The hell?” Marinette says.  “Why isn’t she out here wreaking havoc?”

“She came this way,” Alya says, looking back the way they’d come.  “I’m sure of it, she came this way down the street.”

“Okay,” Ivan says.  “Where is she then?”

“Let’s go back and retrace our steps,” Marinette says.  “Maybe she ducked into an alley or something.”

“Do we have time for that?” Alya says.  “The police are going to be here soon and they’ll detain us for questioning.”

Marinette grimaces.  “I’d forgotten about that.  Let’s get out of here, then.  Act inconspicuous, Ivan, Alya, we don’t need to get stopped.”

“Excuse me?” Alya says, but follows without much additional fuss.  Ivan just hunches up his shoulders and tries not to loom so much as they leave the immediate area.

Marinette tries to think inconspicuously.

Mylene had vanished, and she hadn’t raised a fuss in doing so.  Normally a large pink-and-purple thing running around would cause at least someone to stop and stare.  Several someones if they’d run out into the middle of traffic.

So had she turned invisible?  Could she do that, now that she’d been transformed?

Maybe.  But that wasn’t helpful, it just underlined a situation they already knew was desperate.

The question wasn’t how Mylene had escaped now.  They couldn’t follow her; they didn’t know where she’d disappeared to, what paths she was treading now, where she was heading.  There were just too many variables to even begin to try to catch up to her.

So they can’t follow her and hope to catch up.  They can’t try to cut her off on her way to wherever she’s going, because they don’t know where and by what route.

“But maybe we do,” Marinette muses aloud.

“What was that?” Alya says.

“I was just thinking,” Marinette says.  “Look, we need to figure out where Mylene is going to be heading, and try to beat her to her destination.”

“That assumes she has a destination,” Alya says.

“It’s a useful assumption,” Marinette says.  A police car wails past, lights flashing.  “Besides, if we assume that she’s just going to be popping up randomly, we’ll be stuck playing whack-a-mole, and we’ll lose, badly.”

“So do we know where she’s going?” Ivan says.  He gets a shrug from Alya and Marinette both.

“Well, maybe it’ll help if we try to get in her head,” Marinette says.  “Like, where would you go if you were Mylene?”

Alya chews thoughtfully on her lower lip.  “Well,” she says after a minute, “I’d find a quiet place to hide until all the noise died down.”

“Where would you go after that, though?” Marinette says.  She and Alya turn to Ivan, who shrugs.

“She usually goes and hugs her favorite teddy bear until she feels better,” Ivan says.  “When she’s upset.”

“Aw,” Alya coos.  “You two have pet names.  That’s so cute.”

Ivan looks at Alya, blinking.  “What?”

“Oh, you meant an actual teddy bear,” Alya says.  “Never mind.”

Marinette shakes her head as she chews over the idea.

“That doesn’t sound like Mylene,” she says.

“What do you mean?” Alya says.  “That’s absolutely what Mylene would do.”

“Would Mylene also assault several police officers and attempt to murder at least one?” Marinette says.  “She’s not our Mylene right now.”

“Then what’s the point of all this hypothesizing?” Alya says.  “Much as I hate to say it, whack-a-mole seems to be our best option right now.  I say we go to one of our places, we wait for the authorities to issue a warning about places not to go on account of Mylene wreaking havoc around the place and we rush in and try to nab her then.”

“Past all the cops,” Marinette says, “and all the soldiers.  With all the guns.”

“Well, unless you know where she’s going to be, Mari, what other choice do we have?”

Marinette lets a frustrated breath hiss out from between her teeth as she glances over Alya and Ivan.  “Well, do you two have any special insights into supervillain psychology that might help us here?”

Ivan flinches.

“Everyone I’ve been able to get in touch with has been really tight-lipped about their experience,” Alya says.  “All I’ve been able to get out of them is that they blacked out and woke up horribly confused about what was going on before they were swarmed by cops.”

Alya and Marinette studiously keep from looking at Ivan.

“All I remember was that I was angry,” Ivan says after a few minutes’ silence.  “Really, really angry.  I was just so furious and so embarrassed, I wanted to punch something.  And then I woke up.  That’s it.”

Alya sighs.  “So more or less the same thing that everyone else experienced,” she says.  “All right.”

“Wait,” Marinette says.  Her mind buzzes as it tries to make connections, to finish a puzzle missing too many pieces.  “Wait a minute, that’s it.”

“Uh,” Alya says.  “What is?”

“The cop,” Marinette says.  “Mylene went after the cop because he targeted her, made her angry.  She’s going after people who’ve humiliated her.”

The three of them round a corner as more police cars wail past, lights flashing.

“That might be it,” Alya says, her tone contemplative.  “If she recognizes people she doesn’t want to eat, she’d logically also be able to recognize people she does want to eat.”

“Chloe,” Ivan says.

“Do either of you know where she is?” Marinette asks.

“No,” Alya says.

“Me neither,” Marinette says.  “But Adrien might.  Alya, do you still have his number?  I deleted it after the, uh.  The Incident.”

“What incident?” Ivan says, looking between them.

“Do we have to save Chloe?” Alya asks.  “If Mylene really is going after her, I mean.  Can’t we just let her get eaten first?”

“Alya, come on,” Marinette says.

Alya rolls her eyes at her, fishes her phone out, unlocks it, and hands it over.  Marinette opens up the contacts list and calls Adrien.

He answers after the second ring.  “Hello?” he says, voice groggy.  “Alya?  What’s up?”

“It’s Marinette,” Marinette says.  “There’s been another supervillain attack, we think Chloe might be the next target.  Do you know where she is?”

“What?” Adrien says, his voice considerably sharper.  “Where are you guys?”

“No time,” Marinette says.  “Where’s Chloe?”

“I don’t know,” he says.  “Give me a minute and I’ll call you back.”

“All right,” Marinette says.  She hangs up and taps the phone in her palm as they walk, chewing the inside of her cheek.

“That’s not going to help us,” she says after a few seconds of contemplation.

“What?” Ivan says.

“Can I have my phone back now?” Alya says.

“Adrien said he’ll call back in a minute,” Marinette says.  “I mean that knowing where Chloe is now isn’t going to help us, because she’s going to bug out and run someplace safe.”

“Because she has a sane reaction to being attacked by a bloodthirsty many-toothed monster,” Alya says.

“So that’s going to be one of two places,” Marinette continues.  “The hotel, or the mayoral mansion.”

“Or a safehouse that the mayor’s set up elsewhere,” Alya says.

“Okay, one of two places that we know about,” Marinette amends.  “My point is, we have to get there before the cops show up and lock the place down.”

“Why?” Alya says.

“Cops aren’t going to let anyone in or out,” Ivan says, to a bemused look from Alya.

“Oh,” Alya says.  “That’s not what I was asking about, Ivan, I was asking why we need to risk life and limb to save Chloe of all people.  I mean, she’s been a royal bitch to all of us at some point, the thought of her getting some karmic justice sounds appealing to me.”

Marinette looks at Alya in shock, then to Ivan, who shrugs.

“I’m not overly fond of her,” Ivan says.

“You guys can’t be serious,” Marinette says, stopping and turning to face them.  “I mean, I get it, she’s Chloe, but that doesn’t mean we should just let her die.  I mean, she would’ve killed that cop back there, what do you think she’ll do to Chloe?”

“Maybe she’ll just chew on her?  A bit?” Alya suggests.

“Or maybe she’ll tear her limb from limb, or let her suffocate like she did to that cop,” Marinette counters.

Ivan’s mouth twists as he tries to come up with a reply; after a second he throws up his hands in acquiescence and looks away.  Alya lasts a second longer.

“Damn it,” she breathes.  “All right.”

Alya’s phone, in Marinette’s pocket, buzzes and sings a cheery tune.  Marinette picks it up and answers.  “Hello?  Adrien, you know where she is?”

“No,” Adrien says.  “When I told her she flipped out and just started shouting at her driver.”

“Okay, so where’s she going?” Marinette asks.

“The hotel,” Adrien says.  “Look, it’s probably safest if you stay away from—”

“Thanks,” Marinette says, and hangs up, tossing the phone back to Alya.  “She’s heading for the hotel, come on.”

She works her way up to a quick trot, just below the point where the pain stabbing into her side would make it hard to breathe, and leads the way down the sidewalk.

“Didn’t your mom,” Alya says between pants, “say something about no heavy physical activity?”

“I’m fine,” Marinette manages.  “Now hurry up.”

There’s only a few police cars parked in front of the hotel when the three of them arrive, and the few police officers around are hardly enough to establish anything more than a colander of a cordon.  They sneak in through the back as the kitchen staff are abandoning ship; Marinette catches a glimpse of Alya’s mother in the rush of the crowd.

Marinette slumps against a counter as soon as they make it inside, her breath hissing out between her teeth, her hand balled into a tight fist.  Alya’s back hits a wall as she slides to the flood.  Ivan takes a knee, wiping a fine sheen of sweat from his brow.

“Okay,” Alya says.  “Now what?”

“Penthouse,” Marinette says.  “She’ll be there, come on.”

“If she’s even here yet,” Alya says.  She struggles upright as Ivan helps Marinette straighten up.

“There was a limo in the front,” Ivan says.  “Do either of you know where the elevators are?”

“No elevators,” Marinette says.  “I think that they’re still evacuating the building, they’ll be packed.”

“And the stairs won’t be?” Alya says.

Marinette opens her mouth, then shuts it.  “All right,” she concedes.  “Let’s wait until the building’s clear and then head up.”

“By which point the police will be securing the building,” Alya says.  “And we’ll be caught and thrown out of the building, at best.”

“Not being helpful~” Marinette says.  “Look, it’ll take time for them to do that, we can move in then.”

“Assuming that we don’t get caught first,” Alya says.

“Oh, stop being so pessimistic,” Marinette says.

They settle down to wait in a dark corner of the kitchen as the building thunders around them, cocooned in the relative quiet of the kitchen.  After a while the collective roar of hundreds of panicked people, fleeing like sheep from the wolf, dies down to a bare mutter.

“All right,” Marinette says.  “Let’s go.”

She pauses mid-step as they prepare to exit the kitchen.  Alya, following close behind, only just keeps from running into her.

“What is it?” Alya says, her voice low.  She rests her hands on Marinette’s back and peers over her shoulder.

Marinette shakes her head and pushes on, leading them into the hotel’s ground-floor restaurant, now deserted and a mess of overturned tables and chairs, spilled food and drink staining the carpet, shards of glass and porcelain glittering under the lights.

“Nothing,” she says.  “I just thought I heard something, or felt something, or—something.  I don’t know.”

She shakes her head again and refocuses as they leave the restaurant and enter a concrete-walled back hall, lit by a row of naked fluorescent bulbs.  “Right, do either of you know where the stairs are?”

“Go past the service elevator then make a left,” Alya says.

“Why aren’t we using the elevators again?” Ivan says.

“They’re loud and noisy and tell everyone in the building where we are and where we’re going,” Marinette says.  “We need to be quiet.”

“It would be faster,” Ivan says.  “We need to get there fast, don’t we?”

Marinette looks back at Alya, who shrugs and gives a quick “worth-a-shot” bob of her head.

“All right,” Marinette says.

All the lights go out, all at once.

The three of them stare at each other in the horror that had always come with darkness and the night, before humanity’s supremacy over the world had become absolute, the horror that came with teeth and shining eyes and the warmth of spilt blood.

“Oh, fuck,” Alya hisses.

“She’s here,” Ivan says.

“Move, now!” Marinette roars.

They turn and sprint for the stairs, lit only by the witch-light of exit signs.  Marinette kicks the door open and leads the charge up the first couple of flights before Ivan’s longer stride overtakes her.  By the third floor her side is burning, sheets of agonizing flame pouring over her chest and searing through her lungs, but she keeps on grimly.  By the fifth floor Alya has passed her by, and by the time Ivan and Alya have reached the top she’s a full four flights behind them.

“Door’s locked,” Alya reports as Marinette gasps her way up to the top step, clutching at her side.  “Ivan, kick it down.”

Ivan motions Marinette and Alya to the side, then takes a couple steps back.  He takes a deep breath and then steps forward and stomps out, hitting the door squarely in the center with the heel of his foot.  It shudders and rattles in its frame, but holds.

“Kick it near the lock,” Marinette gasps out, leaning on the railing.  “Weakest point.”

Ivan looks at her, then at Alya, then stomps out with his foot again, aiming next to the handle on the ornate, brass-ornamented door.  The door shudders again with another crash of noise but holds.

“This isn’t working,” Alya says.  She steps up to the door and starts hammering on it with her fist.

“Chloe!” she shouts.  “Hey, Chloe, are you in there?  It’s Alya and Marinette and Ivan, we’re trying to save your stupid annoying ass here!”

“Try the PA,” Marinette says.  She points to a flat panel with a speaker and a few buttons beside the door.  “Maybe she can’t hear you.”

“Power’s out, remember?” Alya says.

Marinette winces.  Right.  The pain was radiating up into her neck now, and it was either that or the oxygen deprivation that was fuzzing the clarity of her thoughts.  Or both.

Ivan kicks the door again, and for a third time it clangs, but fails to yield.

“It’s useless,” he pants.  “I think it’s made of metal, we can’t get through that unless we have a crowbar or something.”

“So what, we just camp out here then?” Alya says.  She turns to Marinette.  “I mean, unless Adrien can get in touch with her and get her to let us—”

Alya’s voice trails off on “inside”.  Her eyes go deer-wide, and she freezes in place, her hand halfway to her pocket.  Marinette frowns at her friend, then turns to look in the direction of Alya’s gaze.

“What’s the mattoh shit.”

The instant Marinette sees the luminescent eyes, the gleam of red light off of a predator’s pointed, vicious smile, the dull suggestion of shadows outlining a vaguely gecko-like, horribly familiar form, she hits Alya around the waist in a tackle that brings them both to the floor, her vision whiting out for a moment on impact.  A glob of—something, deadening to the nose, acrid enough to leave a taste of acid in the back of the mouth—spins by overhead, splattering against the wall.  Its shine dulls as it gels and hardens.

“Oh, shit,” Ivan yells.  Marinette and Alya look up just in time to see Ivan, dangling by an ankle from Mylene’s prehensile tail, get thrown into a wall.

The thing that had been Mylene makes a harsh, hissing sound, laden with satisfaction, through its teeth.  Then it makes a gargling noise at the back of its throat, aims, and spits.

The globule spins through the air and impacts squarely against the door, the metal seeming to darken and flow away from the point of impact, vapor pouring off of it and choking the air.  After a few seconds there’s a hole through it an arm's-length across; the Mylene-thing scuttles through.

Marinette doesn’t bother wasting precious breath on expletives; she scrambles to her feet and makes a diving roll through the hole, a brief yell of pain hissing through her teeth as she lands.

“Hey, Mari,” Alya shouts after her, “open the door!”

Marinette stumbles, halfway through lunging into a sprint, and turns.  She reaches up, unbolts the door, and pulls it open.  Alya and Ivan hurry through into the penthouse.

“Chloe!” Marinette shouts.  “Chloe, where are you, you need to—”

Alya gives a swift gesture that silences Marinette by the simple expedient of physically obstructing her mouth.

The penthouse falls into silence.

“Where’s Mylene?” Ivan asks.

Unconsciously, the three of them each take one of the points of a triangle, facing outwards into the quiet.

“Is she hiding?” Alya says.  She glances at the long shadows cast by the assorted furnishings of the penthouse—lamps, couches, cabinets, a bookshelf or two—as though a simple glance might reveal the threat to them.

“Hiding where?” Marinette says.

“I don’t know, you tell me,” Alya snaps.

“Look, waiting around here is pointless,” Ivan says.  “Best we can do is just keep an eye out and try to not get ambushed.”

The three of them advance slowly, still holding the points of the triangle, still looking outwards, jumping at every creak of the floor, every whisper of noise.

“Okay,” Marinette says.

“Okay what?” Ivan says.

“Just trying to think aloud,” Marinette says.  “If I were Chloe, where would I put a panic room?”

“Wardrobe,” Alya and Ivan respond instantly.

“Is that really relevant, though?” Alya says.  “Her father would be the one to tell them where to put it.”

“And the man’s spineless when Chloe’s around,” Marinette says.  “Spend three seconds in a room with them and that’s obvious.”

Alya considers this.  “Where’s her room, then?”

“Probably down that hall,” Ivan says, pointing.  “I mean, it looks like this place is built in a big U shape and we just came down one leg of it, and it’s all windows on this side, so that must go deeper into the building.”

“I’ll go first,” Marinette says.  “Ivan, behind me, Alya, rearguard.”

They take up their positions as Marinette advances down the hall, treading lightly, moving slowly, keeping her back close to one wall.  She reaches out to the first door they come to and nudges it open with her fingers, peering into the deep shadows therein.

“Looks like a study,” she says.  “Not much disturbed.  I don’t think she’s in here.”

“Well, two more doors to go,” Ivan says, his gaze flickering back and forth between the room they’d left and the end of the hall.

Marinette nods, advances, and nudges open the second door.

“Bedroom,” she says, squinting.  “Not pink and frilly enough to be Chloe’s, though, I think.”

“How can you tell when it’s this dark?”  Alya says.

Marinette bobs her head in acknowledgement.  “We’ll check this second, then.  One of you keep an eye on that door.”

They proceed down to the final door.

It creaks as Marinette pushes it open.  “Alya,” Marinette commands.  “Flashlight.”

Alya fishes her phone out of her pocket and turns the flashlight on, panning it around the room.

“Someone came through here in a hurry,” she murmurs, the light pausing over a chair on its side, a lamp dangling from its cord, a mess of clothes and shelves strewn in a tangled mess on the floor.  “And it looks like someone’s hiding in their wardrobe, come on.”

Marinette and Alya hurry forwards into the wardrobe while Ivan remains in the room, gaze twitching from side to side.  Marinette kneels and begins carefully examining the walls, laid bare now that the shelves are gone, with Alya standing a little way back, keeping the light pointed in Marinette’s way.

“There should be a seam or something here,” Marinette says.  “Do you see anything, Alya?”

“No,” Alya says.

Marinette stands and starts pressing gently against the walls, first on her right, then her left, then at the wall at the back of the wardrobe.  The last gives a little under the pressure and she pushes harder, the entire wall swinging inwards.

A blur of gleaming silver comes swinging back at Marinette from the darkness, to a startled shriek from Alya.  Marinette moves on instinct, sidestepping the blow before seizing the staff in both hands and lunging forwards, driving the other end into the dark at chest height.  It strikes something yielding and elicits a grunt of pain as the breath is driven from her attacker.

Alya fumbles the light up, and the beam reveals—

“Alya?  Marinette?” Chat Noir says, shading his eyes from the light.

“Chat Noir?” Alya says.

“Is that Chloe curled up on the ground over there?” Marinette says.

“Yeah,” Chat says.  “Did she hurt either of you?”

“No,” Marinette says.  “Uh, she was the one who?”

“Yeah,” Chat says.  He leans down and picks Chloe up as she points an accusing finger at Marinette and wheezes something pertaining to legal threats and police action, too garbled to be comprehensible.

“She’s okay?”

Chloe shakes Chat off and advances on Marinette, still shrieking, still incomprehensible.

“She’s okay,” Marinette says.  “Look, we need to get you out of here now, Mylene’s in here.”

“You led her to us?” Chat says, frowning.

“No choice—“

Marinette notes the shock on Chat’s face and the sudden terror on Chloe’s before Ivan’s shout of “Guys!” fully registers in her ears.  She dives forwards and tackles both Chat and Chloe to the ground as a familiar blob of goop sails overhead and splatters against the back wall of the hidden room.

“Ivan, Alya, stall her!” Marinette shouts as she gets back to her feet.  “Chat, get Chloe out of here, we’ll hold Mylene off—no, no arguing, go!

Marinette rolls backwards onto her feet and raises the staff between her hands just in time to intercept Mylene’s lunge, the metal clanging furiously against the rows of snapping teeth as Mylene bites down.  Chat takes advantage of the moment’s distraction to grab the screaming Chloe around the waist and dive out of the room.

“Take her and go,” Chat commands, handing Chloe over to Alya.  He turns back to the fight just as Mylene chomps down firmly on the staff and wrenches her head sideways, sending Marinette into the wall.

For a second Marinette’s vision goes white with pain, and there’s no breath even to scream.

“Mari!” Chat shouts.  He makes a dive for the girl as she starts to fall, but gets swatted aside by a blow from Mylene’s tail.  Mylene spits the staff out at his head and gives a contemptuous flick of her tail.

“Run, you idiots!” Chat snarls as Mylene turns.  “Run!”

Ivan, Alya, and Chloe are jolted into motion by his shout; Alya grabs Chloe by the hand and bolts while Ivan stands between them, squaring his shoulders.

“Run, Ivan!” Marinette tries to shout, but—a flare of pain burns through her side, scorching away her thoughts.

“Hey,” Ivan says, moving slowly, his hands up, his posture as nonthreatening as he can possibly make it.  “Mylene, it’s me.  It’s Ivan.”

The mane of tentacles flares outwards as Mylene hisses at him, her tail lashing the air.

“Mylene,” Ivan repeats.  “Come on, you don’t need to do this.”  He extends his hand, palm-up.  “Come on.”

Mylene warbles at him and sniffs at Ivan’s hand, her tentacled mane waving restlessly as though caught in an ocean swell.

Marinette watches, wide-eyed.  He might actually pull this off, she thinks.

“What the hell is he doing?” Chat whispers to her.  He picks up his staff and stands, helping Marinette to her feet.  Marinette shushes him.

“Come on, Mylene,” Ivan says.  He takes a step forwards and cups Mylene’s monstrous, transformed face with one hand.  “Come back to me.”

Mylene warbles again as her mane settles.  She leans her head into Ivan’s touch.

With a suddenness that makes them jump she whirls, her tail lashing out and smashing Ivan into a wall.  Then she gargles and spits, pinning his chest and arms to the drywall with the same rubbery substance that she’d nearly suffocated the policeman with.

Marinette and Chat take a couple steps back as Mylene turns to look at them, her eyes glowing in the low light.  Then she lets out a distorted warble of a hunting-cry, something like a bird-call crossed with an electronic squawk, and bounds into the room and out into the hallway, vanishing into the shadows.

“I’m fine,” Ivan shouts as Marinette and Chat unfreeze and start forwards.  “I’m fine, go, help Chloe!”

Chat nods to him and points to Marinette as he clips his staff to the small of his back.  “Get him loose, I’ll handle this!”  He drops to all fours and bounds out in pursuit.

“Oh, like hell,” Marinette mutters.  “Ivan, meet up with us if you can.”  She sprints after Chat.

She makes it to the stairwell in a few seconds and looks down.  She can hear the clatter of footsteps—Alya, Chloe, and Chat, probably—can vaguely see dark figures spiraling downwards.  Then a shriek—Alya.

Marinette starts running down the stairs, grinding her teeth against the pain that jolts up her side with every step.  After maybe a minute and a dozen flights of stairs she finds her friend, stuck with her cheek pressed up against the wall, encased as Ivan was in a cocoon of that rubbery material.

“Alya!” Marinette exclaims, as much in relief as to get her friend’s attention.  “What happened?”

“Mari?” Alya says.  Her one visible eye swivels and fixes on Marinette.  “Oh, you’re all right.  Mylene hit us, Chloe shoved me in the way, I got stuck, Chat picked Chloe up and ran for it.”

“Do you still have the knife you picked up from that cop back there?” Marinette asks.

“Back pocket,” Alya says, “can’t reach it, obviously.”  She glances back up the stairs, then at Marinette.

“Look,” she says.  “I’ll be fine until emergency services comes around and cuts me out.  Get out of here.”

“You’re sure?” Marinette says.

“Yes I’m sure,” Alya says, rolling her eyes.  “Go already.”

Marinette gives a reluctant nod and continues down the stairwell.

The sounds of battle become louder as she approaches the hall they’d come in by, the pain in her side growing sharper with every pulse.  Had hitting the wall broken something?  She’d done her best to shield her side, getting her arms in between it and the wall, letting her legs take some of the impact.  She hadn’t heard anything crack, and she wasn’t coughing up blood.

She can’t stop a scream as her foot slips on a step and sends her sliding down the next three or four.

But that doesn’t really matter, does it?

Marinette picks herself up, her face slick with sweat, her breathing short and labored, and continues down.

Chat flies past her and over the safety railing as she reaches the ground floor, only barely managing to latch onto the railing with his claws before he plummets into the basement.  Marinette hears the by-now familiar gargle-spit noise and lurches away from the open doorway.

She needn’t have bothered.  Instead of a solid glob flying through to paste Chat Noir, a wide net expands outwards, covering the whole doorway in a solid and impassable barrier.  They could get through, she knows, but it would delay them, perhaps long enough for Mylene to do whatever she wanted to Chloe.

‘Damn it,” Chat snarls.

“Do you have anything sharp?” Marinette says.  “We were able to cut through this stuff earlier.”

Chat looks at her, then flexes the fingers of his left hand and stows his staff.

“Stand back,” he orders as he steps up to the barrier.  He pokes at it with a claw a few times, then starts to slash in big, sweeping strokes, carving an X-shape into the material.  After a few strokes, he tests it again, takes a few steps back, then hurls himself into the barrier, smashing through into the room beyond.  Marinette follows on his heels.

She’s forced to duck and roll off to the side—fuck her, that hurt—as Mylene spits a barrage at them.  Chat grabs her and slings her across a shoulder as she starts to rise and rushes them behind a counter.

“Stay here,” he hisses.  “I’ll try to give you an opening so you can get out.”

He bounds over the counter before she can protest, baton in hand and immediately gets pasted to the wall.  He strains to pull free as Marinette watches in horror.

“Shit, she’s going after Chloe,” Chat says.  “Quick, take my staff.”

Marinette picks up the short metal rod and gestures to Chat with it.  “How do I make it, uh, do the thing?  Make it turn into a staff?”

“You just need it to and it’ll—look out!”

Marinette dives forwards—ow—at Chat’s warning, just barely avoiding a vicious head-height swipe from Mylene, and scrambles to her feet.  She doesn’t bother looking over her shoulder but keeps moving, ducking and dodging as globs of spit whizz past, splattering against—pots and pans.

They were in the kitchen, that was right.

She hops awkwardly and pulls a pan down, the hook from which it’d hung tinkling onto the ground, pivots on her foot as she comes down, and hurls it at Mylene.  It spins through the air, strikes the monstrous, transformed girl on the snout, and pinwheels away, clonking Chat in the head as it goes by on its way to the ground.

“Ow!” he says.  “Watch it!”

Marinette’s too busy ducking, using a range as shelter as Mylene recovers and spits another barrage at where Marinette had been a second ago.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Marinette calls as she crawls away, hoping very much that Mylene didn’t have some kind of super-hearing or echolocation or something.  She hears a low, warbling growl in response.

“She’s on the counters,” Chat calls.

Marinette reaches up and turns all the knobs on the range she can find to their furthest extent, then keeps crawling.  She’d seen them somewhere around here.

“How do I make this thing work, Chat?” she says.

“You just—need it to,” he responds.

“That is not helpful,” Marinette says.  “Need how?”

“It’s willpower controlled!”

“Oh, that’s much less cryptic, thank you.”

Marinette glances up.  There.  The knives, stuck to one of those magnetic strip things on the wall.

Mylene warbles again behind her.  Things clang and clatter and smash on the floor as she stalks along from counter to counter.

Marinette hears a low sniffing.  Shit, could Mylene smell where she was?

Something hisses, a hiss of water flash-boiling to steam—but no accompanying scream of pain from Mylene.  That’s right, these guys were basically invulnerable, damn it.

Marinette risks a glance over her shoulder, then reaches up and pulls a large serrated knife from the rack, shoving the baton through one of her belt loops.  She starts crawling back to where Chat had been, moving as quickly and as quietly as she can.

“Marinette, if you’re still here, get out,” Chat calls.  She pokes her head up above the counters, then drops back down and continues, moving now in a half-crouch.  “I’m serious.  I’ll be fine, just don’t try to do anything—heroic.”

His voice trails off as he catches sight of her hurrying towards him.  His eyes almost bulge out of their sockets.

“Shut up,” Marinette says.  She stands and starts sawing away at the gunk covering one of his arms.  “Not a word.”

“Are you insane?” Chat hisses.  “She’s going to oh fuck, she’s spotted you.”

The warbling hunting-cry echoes through the kitchen and Marinette leans her weight into the knife, sawing desperately.

“Down!” Chat orders.

Marinette drops to the floor, covering her head and neck with her hands as Chat tears his arm free, catching Mylene mid-leap by a pointed fang and holding her there, wiry muscles standing out as he strains against her strength.  The impact makes the whole room shudder.

“Get my other arm free, hurry!” he snaps.

Marinette gets to her feet and starts sawing at the material covering his other arm.  She cuts through it in a few seconds, aided by her terror, and Chat pulls free and grabs onto another fang as Mylene makes another lunge towards him.  She cuts him free, and he braces his boots against the wall as they come loose.

“All right, get ready,” Chat warns.

Marinette ducks down again, and a second later Chat twists at the hips, ceasing his resistance just as Mylene makes another lunge for his throat.  She rockets past him and slams face-first into the wall.

“Now we run,” Chat says as he hops down.  He gathers up Marinette in his arms as Mylene struggles to free her head and, with some protest, hurries out of the kitchen and out towards the back of the hotel.

“That’s not going to put her down,” Marinette says as Chat runs down the hall.

“I know,” he says.  “Listen, you were there when Mylene was transformed, weren’t you?  Did you see anything, a butterfly or something?”

“Uh,” Marinette says as Chat puts her down, “yeah, a black and purple one.  It flew into her headband.”

“Great, thanks,” Chat says.  “Get out of here.”

“Hey,” Marinette says as Chat starts running back up the stairs, “where are you going?”

“There’s a ballroom on the third floor,” Chat says.  “Get.  Out.  Now.”

Mylene bursts through the wall behind Marinette with a warbling scream of rage.  Marinette doesn’t bother looking behind her; she just sprints—agh—past Chat, taking the stairs two at a time.  After a moment he catches up, scoops her into his arms again, and bounds up the last few flights in a pair of long strides, pain arcing through Marinette’s side every time they land.  They sprint down the halls in the third floor and burst through a pair of double doors, skidding to a halt on a polished wooden floor—the ballroom, dimly lit by emergency lights and by a few shafts of sunlight that manage to get past the heavy curtains drawn over a wall of windows.

“Keep the curtains drawn,” Chat hisses as he puts Marinette down.  “I can see in this dark.  Go and hide.”

The doors they’d come through burst off of their hinges and spin across the floor, the metal fittings gouging long trenches into the floor as they come to a stop.

“Oh crap,” Marinette says in a small voice.

Chat snarls, the noise rumbling deep in his chest, and takes a few steps forwards, his left hand outstretched in a gesture of denial, his right reaching for his baton.  “Marinette,” he says as Mylene stalks into the room, her own growl reverberating, “first chance you get I need you to run for it, okay?”

Mylene spits and hits him dead-center in the chest, sending him flying back into a curtain.  His baton slips from his tenuous grip and clatters across the floor; Marinette dives for it and fumbles it to her chest.

Well, she reflects as she looks up to see Mylene charging her, mouth open, row upon row of needle teeth ready to chomp down on her and render her into something with the consistency of ground beef.  This was probably not going to turn out well.

In her hands, the baton suddenly snaps open to staff length, nearly hitting her on the chin as it extends.  She stares at it in shock for a rapid beat of her hammering heart before instinct born of long practice takes over—she dodges sideways with a quick one-two sidestep, twists at the hips, and brings the end of it whistling down with bone-cracking force into Mylene’s blunt snout.

Mylene stumbles as her balance is taken and goes headfirst into the floor.  She recovers within a second from the blow and turns and lunges, snapping, at Marinette’s legs in one smooth motion.

Marinette is ready.  She gets the staff in between the teeth and her fragile flesh and sidesteps again, using Mylene’s own momentum to bring her crashing to the floor.  In the brief moment that Mylene is stunned Marinette leaps up and straddles her hunched form, drawing Mylene’s head back into a painful arch with the staff as a makeshift bit.

Marinette can dimly hear Chat struggling to get free behind her.  “Marinette!” he screams.  “You need to get her headband off!  Get it off and break it!”

Which was all well and fine, but if she let go for long enough to grab it Mylene would get loose and tear her throat out.

Mylene solves that little dilemma for her when she suddenly bucks her head forwards.  Marinette gets catapulted across the ballroom floor and only just manages to hold onto the staff.  She hits the ground in an uncontrolled roll, her vision whiting out for a moment with the pain, her ears suddenly filled with a high-pitched ringing.

Get up, Dupain-Cheng, she tells herself.  Get up, people are in danger, Chat Noir is useless right now, you are the only person here standing between that thing and innocents.  Get up!

She finds herself on her feet, whirling the staff before her in a back-and-forth figure-eight motion quickly enough that nothing from the barrage that Mylene spits at her makes it through.

She drops the staff as Mylene pauses, drawing breath to unleash another hailstorm of immobilizing muck, and charges.

“What are you doing?”

She’s not sure if it’s Chat Noir screaming that or if it’s just the little bit of her inside her head that’s still operating on some frequency close to sanity.  Either way, she ignores it and tackles Mylene around the throat.

Mylene had weighed no more than Marinette herself did before she’d been transformed, and her monstrous form weighs hardly more.  Mass is mass, after all, even with freaky superpowers and super strength and magical invulnerability involved.

Mylene and Marinette go flying backwards, with Marinette on top.  She gets an elbow into Mylene’s throat as the smaller girl recovers, reaches up into her hairline, fastens her grip on where she thought the headband was, and rips it off.

Nothing happens, except that Mylene whips her tail around, wraps it around Marinette’s side with crushing strength—fuck, ow—and hurls her casually into the air.  Mylene spits a glob at Marinette as she reaches the top of her arc and starts to descend and pins her to the wall, about two meters up.

“Break it!” Chat shouts.  “You need to break the headband!”

Marinette blinks and looks at Chat, her vision hazy with pain and exhaustion, then at the pink headband in her right hand, then at Mylene, who’s stalking casually towards her.

“Break it!”

Her chest and legs are pinned, but she can still move her arms.  She grabs both ends of the headband and pulls with every last bit of strength left to her.

The plastic strains, but doesn’t break.

“Come on, Mari!”

Come on, Dupain-Cheng.  Come on.

She pulls again, and the plastic bends a little further, but still fails to snap.

Mylene scuttles up the wall, gecko-like, until her head is level with Marinette’s.  She opens her mouth wide.

“Mari!”

Marinette pulls one final time, and the plastic snaps.

Mylene blinks at her in shock and falls off of the wall as the goop pinning both Marinette and Chat to the wall and curtains dissolves into smoke.  Both of them fall to the floor.  After a second, Mylene’s own form dissolves into the same haze, the purple-pink monster dissolving away to reveal the familiar rainbow-haired girl, her expression lost, confused, and frightened.

“Ow,” Marinette says.  She gets up from her hands and knees and massages her wrists.  That landing had not been soft.

“What’s going on?” Mylene asks.  “Where is this?”

“You went a little, uh,” Marinette says, “nuts.  Supervillain nuts.”

Mylene looks around the ballroom, her eyes lingering on the broken doors and the long gouges in the floor.  “Oh,” she says.  “Did I hurt anyone?”

“No,” Marinette lies.

She turns as she hears a quiet noise to find Chat Noir standing behind her, his fist clenched around something, glowing with black motes.  He brings his hand up and opens it, palm up, and the motes slowly dissipate.  He sags as they do.

“Can you get us out of here?” Marinette asks Chat.

He looks at his hand, then at Mylene and Marinette in turn, and grunts an affirmative.  “Four and a half minutes, I can get you two out,” he says.

“We need to get Alya and Ivan out too,” Marinette says.  “Police aren’t going to be happy about either of them being here.”

Chat swears under his breath.  “You two wait here, don’t move.”

Two and a half hectic minutes later, Chat Noir is bounding off into the distance.  Behind him, Ivan is throwing up in an alleyway with Mylene running comforting circles into his back, although she looks fairly queasy herself.  Marinette is leaning against a wall, her eyes closed, her head throbbing; Alya is calling the four of them a taxi beside her.

“Hey, Mari,” Alya says after she finishes her call.  “You doing all right?”

“Hurts,” Marinette says, keeping her eyes closed.  “Everything.”

“You sure we shouldn’t get you to a hospital or something?” Alya says.  “I mean, you have those cracked ribs and plus all the stuff that happened today.  You’re sure you’re fine?”

“Not coughing up blood,” Marinette says.  “So, yeah.”

She opens her eyes as the taxi pulls up to the mouth of the alley.  Alya helps her to her feet.

“Let’s go,” she says.

Chapter Text

Marinette crawls into her night-darkened room, hooks a foot around her trapdoor, and pulls it closed with a dull thud.  Then she flops down on her floor, prone and spread-eagled, and considers whether it’d be worth the effort to groan feebly.

Today had been—her brain blanks, fumbles for a minute, and eventually gives up and settles for “not fun”.  The pitched adrenaline rush of being caught right in the middle of one of Papillon’s attacks, the mental effort needed to fight down the urge to get her fragile, squishy ass out of the immediate area so that she could herd her friends to safety, dealing with Chloe’s screaming panic, needing to run back to save Chat’s own invulnerable, superhuman ass, which really seemed like something that she should get a medal or something for—all of it had been nothing less than a chainsaw to the brainstem, and probably a good deal of her higher functions too, given how sluggishly the thoughts were coming.

After a few minutes she musters the mental strength to assemble a semi-coherent thought.

Bed.  Bed would be nice.   Nice soft bed.  Clean sheets, Mama always washes them on Saturdays.

She manages to move her eyes over to the ladder that leads to her loft bed, and with another effort manages to pan her eyes slowly up its length to her bed.

Or she could just crawl to her chaise lounge.  That would also work.  But it would probably require only marginally less effort than just getting up the ladder would take, and she’d wake up with a sore back.

Somehow she finds herself sinking into her wonderfully soft, clean mattress as her aching mind finally shuts down, descending into the black oblivion of dreamless, well-deserved sleep—

Her heart freezes, then restarts, hammering away at the adrenaline-fueled, million-beat-per-minute pace of those that are suddenly aware that something is about to kill them.

Someone had just landed on her terrace.

She backs away, scrabbling with hands and feet until her back hits the corner where the walls and the roof meet—as if that would do anything to stop one of these supervillains, one of them had taken out a fucking tank she was dead, she was fucking dead—as footsteps trace their way across her terrace with slow, heavy clomps.

Silence, for a second.  Marinette holds her breath.

Her would-be murderer knocks on her skylight with a sharp rap-rap-rap.  Then, when no response is forthcoming, they reach over, and with a quiet creak of hinges, open the skylight.

Marinette explodes out from her meagre hide, unrolling in one smooth motion and unleashing a wild, eyes-shut haymaker of an uppercut.  It connects painfully with something hard, and her murderer flies backwards, hitting the terrace with a thump.

Ow,” a familiar voice says a moment later, with feeling.

Marinette cracks an eye open.

The only thing she sees through the skylight is star-speckled night.

Moving cautiously, she rises, fastens her grip on the edge of her skylight, and pulls herself up, exposing only the top of her head and her eyes, ready to duck back down in an instant.

Chat blinks down at her through tears of sudden pain, his thumb and forefinger pinching his nose shut.  “Ow,” he repeats.

Marinette stares at him, a sudden cold chill searing her way through her exhaustion and her terror and the mind-numbing need to sleep, burning in her guts and making her limbs suddenly weak.

Chat is invulnerable.  Bullets glance off of him, blades fail to cut him, being buried under a thousand tons of rubble didn’t so much as slow him down, fire fails to touch him.  She saw him stop a runaway lorry once by standing in front of it when he first came out, and it was the lorry that came away the worse for it.  He’s invulnerable.

A thin trickle of blood trails down his upper lip and beads there, bright and gleaming in the moonlight.

“So,” Marinette says a few minutes later, after she’s helped Chat into her room.  “Uh.  Why—why are you, uh.  Here?”

Chat pulls the tissue away from his nose, examining the spreading red stain on it.

“Well,” he says, pressing the tissue back to his nose.  “I was going to check to make sure that you were alright after today.  But given that I think you broke something in my face just now, I don’t quite think that’s a problem.”

“Did I?” Marinette says.

Chat gently tweaks his nose.  “Nah,” he says after a second.  “Looks like its fine.  Where’s your trash bin?”

“Just, uh,” Marinette says.  “Just give it here.”

Chat looks at her askance from his seat on Marinette’s chaise lounge, but crumples up the tissue and hands it to her.  She kicks away from him and rolls to her desk and tosses away the tissue, holding it at arm’s-length the entire time.

“So did Chloe get out all right?” Marinette asks.

“Hm?  Yeah, she ran for it when you occupied her in the kitchen,” Chat says.  “Got out through the front of the building, it’s partly why it took so long for the police to go through the building.  She was a little freaked out, took them a little while to calm her down.”

“That does sound like Chloe,” Marinette says.

The look that Chat directs towards her is frank and a little disapproving.  “Most people are like that when they realize that they have an unstoppable, superhuman killing machine personally out for them,” he says mildly.

Marinette looks away from him, her cheeks flushing slightly.

“Anyways,” he continues, looking away from her, “I went back after I dropped you guys off and told them that Mylene escaped into the sewers.  That’ll probably keep them busy for the next day or so.  I’ll tell them that I defeated her tomorrow but that she got away in the dark before I could get a good look at her face, and hopefully that will be the end of it.”

He glances up at her and then bobs his head to one side in an idle gesture.  “Thought you’d want to know that, and I’d let Mylene know if I were you.  It’ll be good if she’s visible tomorrow.”

Marinette huffs out a sigh of relief.  “That’s good to know, and yeah, I’ll be sure to tell her.”

“Good,” Chat says, nodding.  “And now to the second thing I wanted to talk to you about.”

Marinette blinks at Chat and leans a little away from him.  “Go on,” she says cautiously.

Chat takes a deep breath, holds it for a couple of seconds, and lets it out.

“You’ve been involved in a lot of, shall we say incidents,” he says.  “You’ve survived them.”

“If you’re going to tell me to stay out of it then don’t bother,” Marinette says.  “If I can help I will.”

Chat stares at her, then blinks once, his eyes squeezing shut.  “Okay,” he says.  “Okay.  That’s another issue for another time.”

“As long as we’re clear about that,” Marinette says.

“We are,” he says, waving his hands at her.  “We are, we’re clear about that.”

There’s a quiet moment as Marinette waits for Chat to continue.

“I want you to train me,” he says.

Marinette blinks.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You survived three attacks,” he repeats, “and you don’t even have superpowers like I do.  You know the saying, once is chance, twice is suspicious.”

“Three times is enemy action, I’m familiar with that,” Marinette says.  “But that still doesn’t explain why you want me to—teach you.”

“You survived three times,” Chat repeats.

“Yes, I know—“

“That means that you’ve got more going for you than just dumb luck,” he continues relentlessly.  “You’ve got skill.  You can pass some of that on, you can teach that to me.”

He gestures towards his face.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’ve gotten weaker.”

“No, no,” Marinette says.  “I noticed.  The uh, bloody nose I gave you was a bit of a sign.  That you were getting less super, I mean.”

Chat smiles a wan smile, a flash of teeth showing.  “Getting less super.  That’s one way to put it, yes.”

“Why?” Marinette asks.

He glances askance at her, but after a moment’s hesitation explains.  “Every time I fight a supervillain, I need to—“

He stops and tries again.  “There’s a thing called an akuma.  It looks like a little black-and-purple butterfly, and—“

“They’re how Papillon turns people into supervillains,” Marinette says.

Chat blinks at her in surprise.  “Um,” he says.  “Yeah, you’ve seen one?”

“Today, actually,” Marinette says.  “One got into Mylene’s—uh, my friend Mylene’s headband—oh, that’s why you wanted me to get her headband off.”

“Yes,” Chat says.

“So you break whatever this akuma has gotten into and that releases them?” Marinette says.

“It releases the akuma and breaks the transformation of whoever Papillon has possessed,” Chat confirms.  “But there is more to it than that.”

“And it has something to do with why you’re getting weaker,” Marinette says.

“Yes,” Chat says.  “I need to capture and destroy the akuma each time, or it gets loose and, well.  Imagine a supervillain attack times about a hundred.  And each time I destroy one, I get weaker.”

He runs a hand through his hair and huffs out a frustrated sigh.  “It’s complicated and I don’t understand it myself, but apparently it’s different than when I use Cataclysm on an inanimate object, there’s forces actively opposing each other when I use it on an akuma and Plagg needs to fight someone else’s will directly.  The whole process is just draining on them.  Normally if you gave them enough time to recover they’d be fine and we’d be right back up to fighting strength, but—“ he cuts himself off and waves a hand “—not important.”

“You need time to recover and you aren’t getting any,” Marinette says.

“Yes, that’s the relevant point,” Chat says.  “So I need something to compensate for that.”

He directs a nod in her direction.  “That would be your skill at fighting.”

Marinette stares at him, feeling the weight settle on her shoulders.

“Do you really think I can help you?” Marinette says.  “I mean, most of what I know—it’s a sport martial art, not something you use in an actual fight.  It just looks cool.”

Chat shrugs.  “You acquitted yourself pretty well against Paladin.  And Climatika.  And Mylene.”

“But look, I’m not even a master, or even pretty skilled at this,” Marinette says.  “There’s got to be thousands of people who could teach you better than I could.”

“I haven’t seen any of them take down a supervillain,” Chat says.  “And I don’t trust them.”

“Okay,” Marinette says.  “But should you trust me?  I mean, lives are on the line here.”

“Yes,” Chat says.  “You’ve seen what can happen up close and personal.  You know what’s at stake here better than basically anyone else I know.”  He leans back and spreads his arms wide.  “I can’t think of anyone else I’d trust more.”

Marinette opens her mouth, then shuts it.

What can she say to that?  To that expression, solemn and tired and calm in spite of the obvious strain at the corners of his eyes, in the set of his shoulders.  To that level of utter and complete faith in her, that she’d be able to help him?

What should she say?

“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help you,” Marinette says.

Chat lets his hands fall back to his side and gives her a one-shouldered shrug before he stands and climbs up the ladder to her loft bed, hopping lightly through the skylight as Marinette rises and follows him.  He leans back down and offers his hand as she reaches the top.

“We’ll see,” he says.


 

“I really wasn’t expecting us to start tonight,” Marinette says as she paces back and forth next to one of the parapets on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, hugging her arms to herself against the cool night air.  “And I don’t exactly have a curriculum planned out here.”

“That’s fine,” Chat says.  “And I’m sorry, but every second counts here.”  He reaches back and plucks his staff from the small of his back, twirling it between his fingers.  “And I figured that we could just spar a little.  That would help you figure out what needs working on, right?”

Marinette gives him a flat look and gestures at him with her very empty hands.  “Right.  How am I going to spar without a weapon, Chat?”

He fumbles the staff, and it clatters to the stone floor, the noise almost obscene in the otherwise hushed cathedral.

“Oh,” he says.  He leans down to pick the staff up and fumbles it again.

“Right, uh,” he says, kicking the staff behind him with a heel.  “Maybe the next time we could do that then?  Maybe you could just show me some grappling techniques or some other hand-to-hand stuff for tonight.”

Marinette rolls her eyes at him.  She walks past and picks the discarded staff up.

“Or,” she says, fiddling with the short metal rod, “I can show you how to actually fight with this thing.”

Chat gives her a look as he takes the staff from her, extends it, and hands it back.

“Uh,” he says.  “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that it’s obvious that you know how to fight,” Marinette says.  She walks back to her original position, then hesitates and takes a few more steps back.  “You’ve probably used something like a foil or a saber once—am I right about that?”

“Yeah,” Chat responds.  “I fence.”

“Which is good in some ways,” Marinette says, “but using a staff is different from fighting with a sword.”

“Greater reach, I’d assume more of a defensive focus,” Chat says, nodding along.  “A bit hard to stab someone with a staff.”

“But there’s also a fighting system that goes along with the staff,” Marinette says, “at least the way I learned it.  And from what I’ve seen of your fights, you fight like a fencer.  Like a sport fencer, I mean.  You go in and come out on a line, you don’t really maneuver as much as you could.  I mean, I was there when you fought Paladin.  You basically just charged in and overpowered him.  I’m assuming that that tactic isn’t going to work as well anymore.”

“You’d be broadly correct, yes,” Chat replies.  “I mean, I’m still strong enough to overpower them, but I can’t take hits like I used to, so I don’t really get a second chance with any given fight.”

Marinette nods as she considers this.  “So you need to get in fast, hit them hard, and continue attacking until they’re down.”

“Basically,” Chat says.

“Well, maybe I can help you with the getting in,” Marinette says.  “You had a lot of trouble trying to get to Mylene the other day, right?”

It’s Chat’s turn to give her a flat, unamused look.  “You were there,” he says, both as a reminder of the obvious and a quiet accusation: “If I hadn’t been occupied with trying to keep you safe, things might not have gone so badly.”

Marinette ignores the little sting that comes at that comment and bites back the snide answer that rises in response.

“Look,” she says, “this isn’t something I can teach you overnight, but we can at least make a start.  Here, look.”

She hefts the staff in a hand, getting a feel for its weight, and then whirls it in a quick figure eight around her body with one hand.

“All right, so you see where I’m holding it?” she says.  “I’m holding it near its balance point, makes it easy to maneuver it—you, uh, probably know that from fencing, sorry.”

“Could you slow it down?” Chat says, and Marinette obliges.  “Okay.  I sense you’re going to be getting to a bigger point.”

“I am,” Marinette says.  She repeats the figure eight and then suddenly lets it slide along her hand until she’s gripping it an arm’s-length away from the end.  She whirls the staff around and brings it down before her in a chopping strike, stopping it a hair’s-breadth above the stone floor.

“The way I learned it,” Marinette says as she brings the staff back up, her breath a little hitched, “you can use all two-handed weapons like slightly larger one-handed weapons.  You control the striking power of the staff with one hand; you use your second hand to control the direction more finely.”

“Dominant hand for power,” Chat says, nodding.  “Makes sense.”

“Now, the second thing,” Marinette says.  “The way I learned the staff and spear, you want it to be constantly moving, and constantly striking.  Stand a little closer to me?  I need to demonstrate.”

“Just please don’t hit me,” Chat says.  He walks towards Marinette until he’s standing a couple meters away from her.  She nods and starts up her figure-eight rotation again.

This time, she strikes.  She moves forward in a quick, light-footed shuffle, lashing out with the staff with every rotation at his head and legs, forcing him to scramble backwards, his eyes wide with shock.  After a second he reaches up and grabs the staff in both hands, wincing at the impact; Marinette lets go as he attempts to wrench it from him and kicks his legs out from underneath him.  He lands in a heap, the breath whooshing out of him.

“Ow,” he says a second later, as Marinette takes the staff and helps him back to his feet.  “Okay, what was that supposed to demonstrate?”

“It was hard to keep track of where I was aiming, right?” Marinette says.  “You were on the defensive basically the entire time.”

“Yeah,” Chat says.  His ears perk up a second later.  “Oh,” he says.  “Movement.  You keep attacking, keep hitting them from different directions, make it difficult for them to anticipate where the next attack will be coming from.”

“Right,” Marinette says.

“I learned something similar,” Chat says.

“This should be a quick lesson, then,” Marinette says.  “Here, let me show you how to do that move I was doing.  Which one’s your dominant hand?”

She guides Chat’s hand onto the staff, and then, holding onto staff and arm, guides him through the movement.

“Sliding your hand to a different position without dropping it takes a little more practice,” she says.  “We’ll see if you get to that tonight.”

She steps back and lets Chat try the movement himself.  He moves through it slowly, increasing in speed as he becomes more sure with the move.

Marinette drops flat as the staff slips from his hand and spins off down the hall.  It clangs into a couple columns before it hits rattles to the floor.

“You tried to do that same trick that I did where I moved it into a strike, didn’t you?” Marinette says, her hands over her head and neck.

“Yup,” Chat says.

“Let’s save that for later,” she says, getting to her feet.  She picks up the staff and tosses it back to him.  “But you’re making good progress.”

They practice with the staff for the better part of an hour, until Marinette’s eyes start to droop shut.

“How about we stop here for tonight,” she says, yawning.  “We can pick it up again tomorrow night, I’ll be free after midnight.  Just keep practicing this and we’ll see what we can work on.”

“Thank you for doing this for me,” Chat says.

“Anything to help,” she says as Chat puts away the staff.  He picks her up carefully in his arms.

“Why are you doing this?” Marinette asks.

“Fighting?”  He shrugs.  “Someone has to, and it’s not like the police have anything that can hurt them.”

“Even now?” she says.  “You could be killed.  And it’s not like you’re a cop or a soldier, where you sign up knowing that you could be hurt.”

He grimaces and looks away.  “That’s not entirely true.”

“And you can’t be much older than I am,” Marinette says.  “I know everyone thinks that you’re like, twenty or something but you’re a lot younger than that, aren’t you?”

The lack of response is answer enough.

“So it sounds to me that you’ve got every right to step back for a bit,” Marinette says.  “Why are you doing this, then?”

Chat leaps lightly to a roof and climbs to its apex.  “Well,” he says.  “If there was a choice between throwing yourself into mortal danger, knowing that you were the only person standing between a rampaging supervillain and the certain death or injury of lots of people, would you still choose to intervene?”

“Yeah,” Marinette says.

Chat shrugs again.  “There’s your answer.  I didn’t ask for this responsibility, but there’s not much I can do to change it.  So I need to fight.”

He drops lightly to the grounds around the cathedral with the aid of his staff and lets Marinette down.  The rest of the trip to her home is spent in silence.

“Thank you,” he says as he helps her back onto her terrace.  “Really, you’ve been a great help.”

“I’m just glad I could do something,” Marinette says.  “Take care of yourself, all right?”

“I will,” Chat says.  “See you tomorrow.”

“See you,” Marinette says.

She watches as he vaults off into the distance, until his dark-clad form vanishes into the night.

Then she climbs down into her room, locks her skylight, and collapses snoring onto her bed.

 

Chapter Text

Marinette tries not to listen in on her parents’ low, worried conversation as she rinses the dishes clean of the larger remnants of supper and stacks them neatly in the dishwasher.  Beside her, leftovers steam and cool in their sealed glass containers.

“It’s getting bad out there,” Tom rumbles over the rapid jabber of a news anchor, his low bass voice about as whisper-quiet as a foghorn.

“I can see that, Tom,” Sabine says.  “There’s no use worrying about what we can’t change.  Turn it off, you’ll just worry Mari.”

“Shouldn’t she know, at least?” Tom says.  “She’s a smart girl, Sabine, and we’re not going to be able to shelter her forever.  Wouldn’t it be better if she knows about it while we’re here to help her understand?”

“She’s thirteen, Tom,” Sabine says.

“Thirteen and a half,” Tom says.

“She should be worrying about school and boys and surviving that bully of hers, not worrying herself sick over riots,” Sabine says.

“She’s going to find out anyways,” Tom insists.  “There’s nothing we can do to prevent that unless we’re willing to make her a prisoner.”

Marinette finishes rinsing a plate and hears her mother sigh.

“Tomorrow, then, at least, Tom?” Sabine says.  “People are going to be hurt here, and it does no good to expose her to that.  Any more than she’s already been, I mean.”

Marinette rinses out a pot and slides it awkwardly into the dishwasher, then closes it, making sure to slide the lock home extra loudly.  The conversation in the living room trails off as she starts it and walks towards the stairs.

“I’m going to go to bed early, Mama,” Marinette says.

“All right,” Sabine says.  “Did you finish your homework?”

“Yes, Mama,” Marinette says.

“All right then,” Sabine says.  “Sleep well, Mari.”

“Night Mama, night Papa,” Marinette says.

“Night, sweetheart,” Tom says.

Marinette clambers up and lets the trapdoor thump shut behind her, then moves to her desk and wakes her computer up.  She makes sure that her earbuds are plugged securely into their port, then opens up her browser.

It’s not hard to find news about the riot when every news site worth the name has something related to it splayed at the top of their home page: Violence erupts after assault on immigrant girl, Rioting in the 18th Arrondissement, Immigrant girl attacks school; protests erupt.  All of them have accompanying images, equally lurid shots with riot police or riotous protestors in relief against the darkened streets, silent rows of streetlamps painting the scene with a brassy haze.

Marinette clicks on a link and regrets it a second later as a live broadcast plays—loudly, she’d forgotten to turn the volume down.

“—we have received reports that the girl was bullied prior to her transformation and subsequent rampage through the school,” a woman says into a microphone.  “Regardless of the facts behind this situation, there are people on both sides outraged about today’s events.   Behind me are people from her neighborhood—“ the camera pans briefly, capturing several dozen men and women, all furious, all shouting “—protesting her treatment by the authorities.  Behind me there,” she continues, pointing, “are the riot police, and behind them are a group of counter-protestors.  All in all this looks like an ugly situation, and it’s likely to get worse.  We’ll keep you updated as the night goes on.”

“Thank you, Francisca,” a news anchor, a woman in a teal dress, says as they cut away from the scene and fade into a studio.  Her male counterpart sits across from her at a long table.  “For those of you just joining us, these protests started after a Muslim girl from the neighborhood was apprehended earlier today by the superhero Chat Noir, amid accusations of racism and a deliberate failure on the part of police to prevent her assault and apprehend her attacker.  After Chat Noir stopped her rampage through a local school, which ended in three casualties and no fatalities, she was swiftly surrounded by an angry crowd of onlookers as police attempted to secure her.  We warn you, the following images may be disturbing: viewer discretion is advised.”

The studio cuts again to a shaky video, shot from a cellphone camera.  Indeed, the angry crowd and nascent mob is there, pushing forwards as a line of police, arms outstretched, try to push them back.  A din fills the air, dozens of voices overlapping, their anger building and feeding on each other, their hate almost palpable.

“Give her to us!” Marinette hears—reads off of the subtitles, rather, the words are too indistinct for her to make out.  “We’ll make a solution to this!  Give her to us!”

Marinette sees, through the bobbing heads and waving fists, a girl, hair spilling loose from a plain tan-colored headscarf, her expression confused and horrified and more than anything else filled with a terror too deep for words or tears.  Chat Noir stands beside her, his staff in his hands, his gaze flickering between potential threats.  His ears are flat against his head and his teeth are bared.

Then the horrible moment.  A brick flies in from off of the screen while Chat is looking the other way and strikes the girl on the head with a sickening crack.  Chat whirls as she topples to the ground like a statue and starts bleeding onto the ground.

The crowd should’ve gone silent, Marinette thinks.  They should’ve been just as shocked as she and Chat were at the sudden violence, spilling out onto the concrete with the girl’s blood, as Chat drops his staff and cradles the girl in his arms, as shocked as the few police officers who turn at the sound are.

Instead they surge forwards, the shouting increasing in volume and ferocity.  They may not have cast the first stone but they were more than happy to cast the second, and the third, and the rest of the cairn they wanted to raise over her.

The video cuts out and returns to the studio, the anchors grim-faced, their hands folded on the table before them.

“Our thoughts and our prayers are with all families affected by this recent violence,” the female anchor says.

“As you can see, there’s a lot of anger on both sides of the issue,” the woman’s male partner says.

Marinette closes the tab and tries to fight down the bile rising in the back of her throat.  Both sides, sure, whatever, but—a girl?  A schoolgirl who’d been no more than ten?

A poisonous mental image blooms in the back of her mind like ink in clear water.  Papillon comes out with his newest outlandishly dressed but hideously dangerous supervillain next week, and the week after, and the week after that, and the casualty list grows longer and longer.  Chat Noir remains obstinate, which drives—drives, Papillon insists, as though he had no other choice but to murder and terrorize in response to that perceived theft—Papillon to ever-greater heights of destruction.  The continued lack of a face or even a real name to the threat causes the fear and tension already rampant in the city to build and build without any real outlet, until people snap.

Of course, they would snap along the weakest point.

Marinette wants to punch something.  Sure, she’s been helping to train Chat, but how much good would that accomplish in the long run?  Fighting off the occasional supervillain wouldn’t stop people from being afraid of the next attack—it certainly wasn’t going to help Chat to uncover who Papillon was. 

She allows herself a brief, bitter smile at that.  Alya’s donkey-like one-woman investigation into whoever had murdered that old man was probably more useful here than she was right now.

She leaves her computer and picks up her knitting, trying to lose her train of thought in the pattern of purl and knit.


Chat Noir huddles in the lee of a rooftop air conditioning unit and wonders, as he often does on slow nights, why exactly his magical superhero-slash-BDSM outfit included a pair of fake clip-on cat ears and a tail.

The night vision and claws he could understand, those were useful things that had come in handy more than once.  The super strength and invulnerability—oh, how he missed the invulnerability—were standard superhero traits, and went without comment.

But cat ears?  It wasn’t as though his better-than-normal hearing was reliant on them, they were just little pin-on triangles of leather or cloth or whatever his suit was made of.  A tail, which was really just an overlong metal-tipped belt?  Ridiculous.  You couldn’t even use the excuse of it being there for balance, it was just a narrow strip of what was probably leather instead of something made of bone and muscle with actual mass.

You buffoon, you moron, a little voice bites in the back of his head.  If you hadn’t fucked up and failed to protect that little girl earlier you wouldn’t need to be here.  You know it and no amount of distracting yourself is going to change that—

He pushes the voice away with a mild effort of will, sighs, and looks up as he hears something, his ears twitching and triangulating on the noise.

Breaking glass, angry shouting—angry, rhythmic, shouting, either too distant or too distorted by echoes for him to make out distinct words.  His ears twitch busily as he triangulates on the source.

A second voice booms out, drowning out the aggregated anger of the crowd with just one word, repeated endlessly into the night.

“Disperse!” someone says into a megaphone.  Then a second later, “Disperse!  Disperse immediately!”

More angry shouting, coming from the other end of the street; his ears swivel the other direction and pick up on jeers and taunts and chants, just as unintelligible.  A second group, though he doesn’t know whether they’re protesters or counter-protesters, though it probably didn’t matter.  Two groups of people, neither likely to contain a high proportion of people in a thoughtful state of mind, heading right towards each other was probably not going to end well.

He glances one way, then the other.

One group was the group of protestors that’d been crystallizing all afternoon with the news of the assault on Gihad as its seed.  The other—he strains his hearing and picks up “end the threat” before anything clearer is swallowed by the noise—were probably not their reinforcements.  Counter-protestors?  The third were the police between them.

Eeenie meenie minee mo.  Group three didn’t like him, group two probably wouldn’t appreciate that despite all he did supervillains kept popping up.  That left group one, the protestors, as the only people who might be reasoned with.

He takes a couple long steps towards the lip of the roof and leaps outwards, snapping his staff out and descending it like a pole-vaulter in reverse into the middle of the street.

“It’s him!” someone in the crowd before him shouts.

He regrets this now.

“Whoa now,” he says, putting the staff away and his hands up.  He backs a couple steps away.  “Hey, none of us want this to turn ugly, all right?”

No one appears immediately hostile, so he continues, talking quickly and in as soothing a tone as he can manage.  “Look, what happened to that little girl is horrible and reprehensible and awful, but being out here tonight isn’t going to—“

“Go away!” someone yells.  Chat squints and tries to make out their face but fails to recognize it, or to make out any particular details aside from the glint of light off of white sclera and white teeth.  “Go away, white boy!  What do you know about us, about why we’re here tonight?  What gives you the right to preach to us about what we should and should not do, when you are ignorant of what we have suffered these months, the indignities we have borne?  Go away, and let us settle our problems ourselves!”

Behind him the man with the megaphone booms out again, “Disperse immediately!”  Chat glances behind him to see a solid anvil of riot police standing behind their shield wall.

The words only serve to prod the crowd in front of him into further anger, and they begin to advance again.

As Chat backs up from that sudden outburst a man in a white robe and wearing a white cap atop his shaved-bald, dark-skinned head pushes and elbows his way out and comes up next to Chat, raising his hands.  The crowd quiets.

“Brothers!” he says, and although his voice isn’t pitched loudly it carries, sweeping away the froth like a breeze sent against a squall.  “Sisters!  Please, listen!  Listen to this man!”

He gestures to Chat, and then to the line of riot police behind the two of them.

“There is no malice here,” he says.  “No evil but for that in the hearts of those who attacked our beloved Gihad, God be with her, and justice will be meted out to them in due time, God willing.  Why are you here, my brothers, my sisters?  Why?”

He pans his gaze from side to side, and everyone fails to meet it.

“It is not our place,” he continues, “to dispense justice, not the justice of the mob, of beasts in the wild.  That is not justice.  That is but vengeance.  Please, go home, to your beds.  Let there be peace here this night.”

“Why should we, imam?” someone at the back shouts.  Chat sees a young man, jabbing furiously towards them with a finger.  “They didn’t come here to make peace with us!  Neither did the cops!”

“They let her get hurt!” someone else calls.  “How is she the only one of all those possessed to be attacked afterwards?  How?”

“They tried to kill her!” yet another person chimes in, the froth building again.  “They want us dead, then let us return the favor!”

The robed man gestures again, but fails to have the same calming effect.  “These are still good people!” he argues.  “They are angry and frightened and they are merely lashing out because of it.  Do they deserve this?”

"Yes!" a second man shouts.  "They do! Ever since this all started they've treated all of us as though we've been criminals, as though we were the ones who destroyed that building and killed all of those people!  Why else are there more cops here, more soldiers than in anywhere else in the city?  Why else do I get stopped in the street every time I go to the store, when my white neighbors barely warrant a glance?  Why else, imam?"

"What is this if not injustice?" someone else shouts.

"Who else will see justice done?"

"Enough!" the robed man roars.  The crowd quiets again.

"Enough!" he repeats.  "This is not justice; this is fear, and hatred.  Does not God command us to not let the hatred of a people keep us from acting justly?  Enough of this."

The brick comes out of nowhere.  It strikes the imam square on the back of his head, and the man topples like a puppet with its strings cut, hitting the asphalt like an empty sack.

For a moment everything freezes, caught in that moment of sudden violence.

Then the crowd rushes forwards.  They don’t bother going around Chat and the fallen man but just plot the shortest line between themselves and their targets in front of them.

Chat scoops up the fallen man and leaps away before they get trampled to death, setting them down on a convenient rooftop.  From there he’s helpless to watch as the tide crashes into and over the line of riot police separating them and their opposite numbers, as the street devolves into one enormous melee, police wading in and cracking skulls with batons, counter-protestors joining in with whatever is to hand, the furious mob swarming over them both.

The guilt weighs on Chat as he watches the violence unfold into a conflagration beyond his ability to quench, and he does the only thing he can think to do in these circumstances.

He flees.


“I can’t do this,” Adrien says as soon as he releases the transformation, concealed by the privacy of his bedroom.  “I—fuck, I can’t do this anymore, Plagg.”

“I told you,” Plagg says, their voice quiet and sad.  “Chat Noir was never intended to work alone.”

Adrien looks to Plagg, expression beseeching.

“Plagg,” he says.  “What do I do?”

Plagg only looks towards a corner of the room.

Adrien stares in that direction as though it had transformed into a nest of vipers.  But eventually, moving slowly, he rises.  From under his bed he produces a screwdriver; from beside his desk he picks up a small messenger bag.  He walks over to the corner, which contains nothing but a metal grate set into the wall, kneels, and unscrews the four screws from each corner of the grate.  He pulls lightly and sets the grate off to the side, reaches into the ventilation shaft beyond, retrieves something, and stows it in the bag.  He slings the bag over his shoulder and nods to Plagg.

“Claws out,” he says.


Marinette jumps and nearly puts a knitting needle through her eye as a knocking comes at her skylight.

“Hang on, Chat,” she grumbles as he knocks again.  “I said hold on!”

She shoves the skylight open and climbs out onto the roof, leaving the portal open.  She crosses her arms across her chest and tucks her hands into her armpits against the cool night air as she directs a look at Chat.

“All right,” she says, noting Chat’s guarded stance and the strap of a bag slanting across his chest, the fingers of one hand tapping in a rippling rhythm across it.  “What’s up?  It’s late.”

Chat’s fingers still on the broad leather strap.  He inhales once through his nose, sharply, and then lets the breath out slowly.

“We need to talk,” he says.  “Not here, somewhere we won’t be seen.”

Marinette’s frown deepens as she studies him, but she nods.  “Our place at Notre Dame?”

Chat considers this, then nods back.  “That works.”

Marinette lets herself be picked up in a bridal carry, then braces as Chat leaps lightly down from the rooftop and away towards the cathedral.  The trip takes less than a minute, and they soon touch down on a convenient rooftop.  Marinette hops lightly across into one of the towers and helps Chat as he makes the same brief journey.  She steps back from him and folds her arms across her chest again.

“So what did you need to talk about?” she says.

Chat stares at her for a long while.  Just stares.  He doesn’t move, doesn’t shift or so much as twitch the most minute muscle of his face.  Marinette does, though.  Anyone would if they were the focus of that stare, almost glowing in the twilight of the tower interior.

“Come on, Chat, what is it?” Marinette says.

In answer, Chat reaches into the satchel at his side and pulls out a fist-sized box carved out of mahogany, intricate patterns on its octagonal lid painted in a deep red, rendered almost black in the night.  He looks down on it for a second before he breathes deeply and exhales, once, and hands it to Marinette with the air of an officer ordering a subordinate to charge a machine-gun nest.

“Open it,” he says, voice tired.

Marinette does, hesitantly.

A pair of earrings, red and polka-dotted with black spots, stare back at her from their bed of red velvet.

“What are these?” Marinette says, staring down into the opened box in her hands.

“A Miraculous,” Chat says.  “A magical stone of power, like mine.”

It takes Marinette a fraction of a second to put two and two together.  “You’re asking me to become a superhero.  Like—like you.”

“Yes.”

Marinette looks down at the two red-and-black polka-dotted earrings, then back up at Chat, solemn and tired and calm in spite of the obvious strain.  She searches for words but fails to find them.

“Please,” Chat says.  His voice cracks, ever so slightly, though his composure doesn’t.  “I don’t want to do this to you.  But I think that I need to.”

“Why?” Marinette asks.

“You know I’m getting weaker,” he says.  “The akuma, those black-and-purple butterflies that keep corrupting people, keep turning them into unstoppable monsters—” he gives an abbreviated shrug “—the best I can do is seal them away.”

“Or what?”

“Or they get loose and multiply.”

Marinette sees an army of rock monsters in her mind’s eye, smashing tanks flat, tearing police cars in half, reducing the city to rubble.  She swallows, and manages to mostly suppress the horrified shudder.

“But how can I help?” she asks.

“You’re better than me,” he says.  “Faster, smarter, stronger, a natural leader, a better fighter.”

“That’s true,” Marinette says with a thunderclap smile.  “You are terrible with a staff.”

An echo of her smile reflects in Chat’s expression for a moment.  “I don’t use staffs, I fence, remember?  Foil and a little saber.”

“Excuses,” Marinette says.

The moment of levity passes like a summer squall, and Marinette casts her gaze downwards again, down to the little box of miracles cupped in her hands.

“You really think I could help you?”

“You thought you could be my tutor, and that’s helping,” Chat says.  “And you’ve saved my skin more than once even without superpowers.”  He gestures at the box.  “Imagine what you could do with them.”

What exactly.  Marinette remembers the first time she’d actually gotten to see Chat fighting with the full force of his powers behind him, up close and personal.

Like watching—watching all the fury of a thunderstorm given flesh.

Now all that, all that coiled speed and power, backed up with her own merely mortal skills.

Marinette shudders again, but in terror of what she might become.

“You’re sure about this?” Marinette says.

Chat steps forwards and reaches out towards the box in her hands.  He plucks one of the earrings from its bed and weighs it in the hollow of his hand, as though it were all the Earth, or all the oceans of the world.

“Yes,” he says.

He reaches up and with the back of his free hand brushes aside her hair, hanging loose around her head.  The backs of his midnight-clad fingers feel chill against her cheek, and she shivers, making Chat still for a moment.

“Sorry,” Marinette says.  “Go ahead.”

She feels him find her piercings, moving slowly and carefully, and feels the cool metal post slide through, and the slight pressure of the backing as he fastens the first earring, then the second.

Then—

Years later she would give an interview to someone interested in compiling the history of the Protectors of Paris, and they would ask her what first receiving her powers had felt like.  She’d mostly just gestured helplessly for a few minutes while she tried to describe a feeling that by then had been as wholly a part of her as breathing or walking.  And then the words had come to her.

The power of the Miraculous was like being the storm.  Being the earthquake, the tide, the sun, the changing of the seasons.

Marinette opens her eyes with a gasp as raw power floods through her, and then abruptly screams and takes a few steps back, putting a few steps between her and the tiny red floating thing that is before her.

“Don’t worry, Mari,” Chat says, with faint amusement.  “They are a kwami.  An ageless, timeless, quantic god.  The being which powers the Miraculous.  Nothing to be afraid of.”

The red thing, which was apparently a kwami, whatever the fuck that meant, waves a pudgy, unjointed arm.  “Hello!”

“I have one too,” Chat says with a faint smile.  “Their name is Plagg.”  He indicates the red thing with a hand.  “They are Tikki.”

“Um,” Marinette says, pointing a nervous, trembling finger at the Tikki or whatever the heck it is, “okay.”

“They give you the superpowers associated with the Miraculous,” Chat says.  “All you have to do is say, uh—“ he looks to Tikki.

“Just shout ‘spots on!’ to transform,” Tikki says, “and ‘spots off!’ to remove your powers.”

Marinette swallows nervously.  “Oh, okay.”

She looks Chat up and down, then Tikki.  “You said powers.  So I’ll be able to destroy things with a touch?  Like how you can?”

The smile on Chat’s face fades and vanishes.  He clasps his hands behind his back and shifts his weight from foot to foot.

“Not precisely, no.”

Marinette blinks at him, then at the red thing—uh, Tikki.  “What do you mean by that?”

Chat’s tone becomes distant.  “The power assigned to the holder of the ring is that of destruction, of degradation: entropy in the palm of your hand.”

He gestures to Tikki, his expression blank.  “The power assigned to the wielder of the earrings is that of creation.  Of purification.  Of restoration.”

Marinette feels her heart grow cold, a sudden icy stone in her chest that hangs against her lungs, choking off her breath.

“By restoration,” she says, hoping against hope that it’s not true, that she’s just misinterpreting his cryptic words, that it’s not true, that he couldn’t have— “what do you mean?”

“I mean,” he says, “that all that the akuma have wrought, that I have done in service of defeating them—it is within your power to bring that back.  Everything.  Including all that they have destroyed.”

Her heart explodes in fury, in the utter rage of betrayal.

She’d trusted him.  She’d trusted him.  She’d trusted that he’d been doing everything he could to save Paris, that he’d been fighting in good faith to protect people.  And all this time he’d been fighting with a handicap.  A willing handicap.  He’d let all those people die, when in his hands he had something that could undo all of that in an instant.  All those people, all that grief, all that pain.  All sacrificed for what?

Chat sees the sudden fire in her eyes but doesn’t back down.  “I did what I thought was best, Mari,” he says.

Best?” she spits.  “What you thought was best?”

She throws her hand out at the city around them, gesturing to the gaps in the skyline.  “There are thousands of people dead and you could’ve brought them back with—with a wave of your hand and you thought that was best?

“Yes,” he says, “because—“

“Because what,” Marinette says.  “Because you thought you could play the hero?  That you could just show up and punch some bad guys and everyone would worship the ground you walked on?”

“Because the last one died!” Chat roars.

He continues into the ringing silence behind those words, speaking quickly, his expression hard.  “Tikki’s last Chosen was murdered.  As was the last Chat Noir.  As was the man meant to guard the Miraculous against those who would abuse them.  Papillon murdered them, murdered them all for their Miraculous, and it was only sheer luck that the last guardian of the Miraculous managed to get them away from Papillon and to me.”

He looks at her, then away.  “I couldn’t put that kind of a target on your back.  Not while I still thought that there was still a chance.”

“A chance for what?”

“A chance to finish things quickly,” he says.  “Before too many people were hurt.  Before I lost too much power.  And then I could put on the earrings and make everything better, and that would be that.”

In another time she might be sympathetic to his reasoning, to his fears, to the choices they had spawned.  But right now, there is no room for mercy in her, neither in her heart, nor in her countenance.

“I don’t care,” she says, “what you thought you had to do.  There are thousands of people dead right now because of your choices.”

The look she directs at him then is imperious and filled with contempt.

“Don’t bother,” she says, “coming by again.  Ever again.”

Then she turns on her heel, transforms, and leaps away, leaving Chat alone on Notre Dame as the night closes in around them both.

She doesn’t immediately go home.  Part of it is the unanticipated power of her jump, which sends her flying well over the river and well past her house.  Part of it is the anger still coursing through her veins.  It needs an outlet, and if it isn’t running away from Chat then it would probably be her punching him in the face.  Given his less-than-invulnerable status and her newly-acquired strength that was not likely to end well.

Part of it, though it seems almost traitorous given the responsibilities now weighing on her shoulders, is just the sheer joy of movement.  She zips from rooftop to rooftop in great bounding arcs, her muscles hardly straining as they propel her forwards at speeds meant more for cars than for slight little half-Asian girls on foot.

She soars, and for the first time in months feels free.  Free of guilt and fear and doubt, just free, with the wind in her hair and against her face.  Free.

She’d almost forgotten how good it felt.

Eventually she comes to a stop, sitting atop the Arc d’Triomphe.

What was the phrase to detransform again?  “Spots on” was the phrase to turn on her powers, so the opposite of that would be—ah, right.

“Spots off,” she murmurs into the night, and—nothing happens.

She frowns and focuses.  Okay, so maybe this worked like Chat’s weird “willpower-controlled” staff.

“Spots off,” she says again.

This time she feels it, the slow unraveling of power that signals the undoing of her transformation.  It spirals down her from head to toe, her thoughts losing the raw clarity that had seared through them earlier, her arms losing something of their strength and solidity, then her legs.  She suddenly feels the cold bite into her—she’d forgotten how cold it’d been when she came out with Chat this evening.

Tikki floats up beside Marinette; she flinches as the little bug-like thing appears in her peripheral vision.

“So,” Marinette says after a second.  “You’re Tikki?”

“I am,” Tikki says.

“And you’re really a god?” Marinette says.

“I am,” Tikki says, their oversized mouth curling into a slight smile.

Marinette looks at Tikki, then out to the city.  “You can really undo—all this?” she says quietly.

“Only those things that the akuma and their victims have done,” Tikki says.  “I don’t have the power to affect those things that your kind have done of their own free will, aside from what Chat has done.”

They pause, noting the slight hitch in Marinette’s breathing at the mention of Chat’s name.

“He did what he thought was best,” Tikki says quietly.

Marinette lets out a harsh, bitter laugh.  “And his best was to just sit by as people were hurt?  Were killed?  He could’ve done something about this and you’re the proof.  I don’t care what his reasons were.”

“Shouldn’t you care?” Tikki says.  “He’s a good person, and you know that.  He’s been forced into a role with far more responsibility than he should have had to handle, and you know that.”

Marinette curls tighter in on herself.

“He’s trying to do his best,” Tikki says.  “He wasn’t lying to you about what happened to the last people who’ve held your Miraculous, and their last guardian.  They were killed.  Do you think you could make the same choice that you despise him for, to give away something that you know has led to the deaths of the last several people meant to use them?”

“Yes,” Marinette says instantly.

Tikki’s tone is no less gentle.  “Really?  You could really hand out a death sentence like that, without looking back?”

“Yes,” Marinette says again.  “If people’s lives were on the line, if making that choice meant that I could save thousands of people?  I’d make that choice.”  After a moment she adds, “Or at least I’d give someone the chance to make that choice.”

“Which he did,” Tikki says.  “Eventually.  But tell me this: could you do the same thing if the only person you trusted to take on the task was your friend?  A member of your family?  Could you condemn them so easily?”

Marinette opens her mouth to respond with a defiant yes, but falters.

“No,” she admits.  “I don’t think I could.”

“I know what you’re trying to do here,” she adds after a long, silent minute.  “You’re trying to get me to forgive him.  Why?”

“Because he deserves it,” Tikki says.  “He’s not to blame for all these, just for panicking in a bad situation.  And because Chat Noir and Ladybug are meant to be partners.”

“You expect me to work with him?” Marinette says, a hint of bitterness in her tone.  “After what he’s done?”

“Yes,” Tikki says bluntly.  “You said that you wanted to help people, to save lives?  Working with him is the best way to do it.”

Marinette tries to find a way to argue against that and comes up blank.  “You’re not going to give up, are you,” she says, blowing out a breath.  “One way or another you’re going to make me do this.”

“No,” Tikki responds.  “It has to be your choice.”

“You said that you can undo all of this,” Marinette says.  “How?”

“Just transform and call out, ‘Miraculous Ladybug’,” Tikki says.  “There’s some other stuff too, but that’s most of it.”

Marinette stares at them.  “That is ridiculous,” she says after a moment, to a shrug from Tikki.

“It is what it is,” Tikki says.

Marinette sighs.  “At least no one will recognize me saying it.”

Ladybug stands up a minute later and plants a foot on the parapet, wobbling slightly as she finds her balance.

“All right,” she murmurs.  She focuses, bringing forth thoughts of restoration and healing and hope, like Tikki had said.

Then she breathes them all out with the words, “Miraculous Ladybug.”

The strength drains precipitously from her, driving her to a knee as the night comes alive with light.  A million little sparks suddenly burn pink and white across the city, turning it into a constellation, serene and implacable.

Then the lights wink out, leaving Ladybug gasping on her hands and knees.

Did it work?  Did it do anything?  She squints into the darkness, seemingly still peaceful, though dotted now with blue-black pinpricks where the sparks had seared their way into her vision.

“Did it work?” she says.

Tikki doesn’t respond—can’t respond, probably.

Eventually, the beeping of her earrings and the warning drain upon her already-taxed strength drive her back to her bed, where she lies awake for most of the night, until the sky turns the pale purple-blue of dawn.

Had she at least done something?


Ladybug finds Chat sitting on a tower the next evening at their spot at the cathedral, his legs dangling, his heels idly tapping against the stone.

“Ladybug,” he greets, without turning around.  “You’re all over the news today, or at least what you’ve done is all over the news.  Three thousand people returned from the grave and several billion in property damage reversed overnight is difficult to ignore, after all.  Good job.”

He sighs and tosses something he’d been fiddling with in his hand over the edge, then rises and faces her.  “Why are you here?” he says, his tone soft and sad, resigned.  Defeated, even.  “You made it pretty clear last night that you didn’t want anything to do with me, so why the change of heart?”

Ladybug swallows down her ire and fights to keep her voice level.

“I had a talk with Tikki,” she says.  “Look, I can’t forgive you right now.  Those deaths are still on your hands and I can’t forgive that, as much as I can accept that you thought you were doing the right thing.”

Chat doesn’t respond.  If he would just—look angry at her, or anything, anything except just beaten, like a scared child

“But this is bigger than us,” she continues, “and it’s bigger than my feelings about you.  We have a job to do.  Let’s do it.”

Chat nods, without quite meeting her eyes.

“All right then,” Ladybug says.  “Let’s go.”