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From the Ashes

Chapter Text

 

Butterflies were fragile.

Those who wielded their power were never meant to be fighters.

Of all the kwami, Nooroo was the gentlest. More than that, he was utterly selfless. The little god sought only to bring joy to those around him, empowering his companions to live up to their potential, even at the expense of his own. His wielders were never blessed with the fantastic power he so freely bestowed upon others.

That was why, when the Akuma broke the leash binding her to his will and she turned to hunt him down, Hawkmoth had no choice but to flee from her wrath. Even in his transformed state, he was little more than an ordinary human. No match at all for his own creation.

Having been driven from his hidden sanctuary, he soon found himself cornered atop a roof in full view of a mob of spectators, facing down his archenemies, Ladybug and Chat Noir.

The young heroes’ expressions were grim, their eyes shining with determination, eager to take the chance provided by the rogue Akuma. To finally defeat the supervillain who had been terrorizing the city of Paris for almost two years. They’d talked of this often, preparing for this final showdown, and they’d always been certain that defeating Hawkmoth would be hard – harder than anything they’d faced before. And so, when the villain transformed his cane into a blade to launch a desperate attack on Ladybug, Chat Noir held nothing back in defense of his Lady.

But butterflies were fragile.

They were not meant to withstand the fury of Destruction.

The staff connected in a clean hit. Hawkmoth’s rib cage shattered.

And it was Gabriel Agreste who fell dead to the ground.

 

✧✦✧

 

“I didn’t mean to.”

Chat’s words were barely above a whisper, so unlike his usual bravado. Ladybug raised her head from the knees she’d tucked close to her chest, and spotted him above her. Just like his voice, his body language was all wrong. His shoulders were hunched, his claws digging into the support beam he perched on, and his brilliant green eyes didn’t meet her gaze.

She wasn't surprised that he’d sought solace here, too. As cliché as it was, the Eiffel tower was considered the heart of Paris for a reason, and nowhere did she feel more connected to the city she was sworn to protect than here, at its peak. This was their spot. It was here that they’d truly become the heroes and partners they were today.

“I know you didn’t, Chaton.” She bottled up her helpless grief and anger because she knew she shouldn’t blame him and that the words she was speaking were the truth. “It was an accident. It wasn’t your fault.”

It wasn’t Chat’s fault. It wasn’t her fault. She had to believe that, because if she didn’t believe that then that meant that Adrien was an orphan because of her and he would never, ever forgive her.

Adrien.

He wasn’t picking up his phone or answering her texts. But then, she was just Marinette, and they weren’t that close, and he probably had all the press of Paris hounding him. But he wasn’t answering Nino either, and if he wasn’t answering his best friend that meant Adrien was going through this all alone and he was in pain and it was all her fault.

“It wasn’t our fault,” she repeated, louder and more forceful.

“Then whose was it?” Chat’s voice was still so small, and it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Her kitten was playful and flamboyant, and he never let anything shake his confidence. No matter how dire the situation or how grave the danger, she could count on her partner to lighten the mood with a silly pun and a wide grin.

“It was an accident. No one’s fault.” But even as she said them, the words burned her throat like a lie. Hawkmoth. Gabriel Agreste. Her idol. Her enemy. He’d chosen this path for reasons he’d taken to his grave. It was he who’d set these events in motion. “No one but Hawkmoth’s.”

Chat’s ears flattened against his messy blond hair and he blinked rapidly. The metal screeched under his claws as they dug in deeper and he leaned forward, crouching even further to put himself at eye level. His lips moved soundlessly as his gaze met hers for the briefest second, and then he withdrew, seeming to reconsider what he was about to say.

“Hawkmoth’s gone,” he said at last. His voice was still shaking, but there was something else there, now, like he’d snatched onto that thought like a lifeline. “So there’s… there’s no more danger, right? We won.” He swallowed heavily. “Nobody can invade our minds anymore and steal our secrets when we’re vulnerable. We’re safe.”

“Chat…” she said, slowly shaking her head at the direction his reasoning was headed, and his words grew frantic, tumbling all over each other as he rushed to convince her.

“We don’t have to hide from each other anymore. Right? It’s over, and we can – we can be honest and you don’t have to if you’re not ready, but I really want to – I really need to...” He took a deep, gulping breath, “I need to talk to you, my Lady. Please. I’ve waited so long and I’ve been patient but I really… need to show you who I am.”

“Hawkmoth’s not the only threat we’ll ever face.” She made her voice soft and gentle and soothing. Chat was upset, and she didn’t want this to sting more than it had to. But with her nerves as frayed as they were, she couldn’t help the small undercurrent of annoyance as he again forced her into the position of having to reject him. She was so, so tired of having to be the responsible one.

“Please.” He leaned forward, only inches from her face now. His eyes were shining, the cat-like pupils dilated so wide they looked almost human. “Please, I need… I need someone to talk to. As me. Real me.”

Never having seen such raw emotion in her partner before, her resistance faltered.

He raised his hand, his claw gently tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. The touch lingered, and it burned. Something unspoken passed between them and he shuddered, exhaling a shuddering breath.

“Ladybug,” he whispered, “My Lady. I need you.”

And then his lips were on hers. It was clumsy and desperate and tasted like salt and despite all of that, for one blissful moment, it was the best feeling in the entire world.

Adrien.

“No!” Marinette's traitorous body thrummed with pleasure and she recoiled, remembering the boy she was supposed to be loyal to, the boy who was alone in the world because of her, because of them. Unthinking, she scrambled back, pushing Chat away from her, and it was only his catlike reflex that saved him from tumbling off the narrow ledge.

Regaining his balance on the railing, he drew himself to his full height, towering over her. His chest rising and falling with uneven breaths, he balled his claws into fists, and then seemed to will himself to release. He stared at her, his jaw working.

“Chat," she said frantically. "I’m so, so sorry, I wasn’t thinking–”

And Chat Noir smiled.

It wasn’t the broad grin she knew so well, it was something new, and it just… didn’t fit his face. At all. There wasn’t anything wrong with the smile, really, it wasn’t mocking or cold. It was quite a nice smile, all things considered, the kind one might use to pose for a picture. But something about it just made her skin crawl. Maybe because it had so suddenly wiped away and hidden the anguish that had been plainly written on his face.

“It’s alright, my Lady. I shouldn’t have tried that. You’ve made your feelings quite clear.”

“O… okay.” She paused, unnerved by the sudden change in demeanor. “What do you need to talk about?”

“Civilian troubles,” he said, that pleasant smile still firmly etched on his features. “I really can’t talk about it without revealing myself.” For a moment, the smile waned, and he shrugged, as if it did not matter at all. “Your choice.”

She hesitated for a long moment. “I don’t think… that’d be wise. We can’t afford to make rash decisions like this, Chaton, we have to consider our security in the long-term. Even more so now that Hawkmoth is,” her breath hitched, “defeated. We don’t know what we’ll face in the future and…” She trailed off when he nodded and kept smiling and didn’t argue at all. The whole sales pitch on Why We Need Our Secret Identities seemed kind of redundant and beside the point. It wasn’t like he didn’t know all these arguments; they’d talked about it many times before.

So Ladybug shook her head and reached for his hand, squeezing his fingers. “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, Chat, I know you’re strong enough to handle it. You’re my partner and I believe in you.”

He didn’t squeeze back.

But he did raise his hand, bringing her fingers to his lips to press a gentle kiss to her knuckles.

He flashed her that enigmatic new smile, and then he was gone.

 

✧✦✧

 

The days passed in a daze, an endless string of adults sitting him down for Very Serious Conversations About His Future.

Nathalie was uncharacteristically gentle when she told Adrien that the sizable inheritance he’d always taken for granted had been frozen by federal agencies. Even though Gabriel Agreste had made most of his fortune through building a fashion empire, having been revealed a supervillain had prompted the French authorities to scrutinize his business dealings for signs of criminal activity. Sales had cratered in the wake of the scandal, sponsors and partners cut ties, and the brand struggled with the loss of its creative visionary. An army of lawyers had descended upon the firm like locusts, seeking to reimburse the city of Paris and its citizens for all the damage Hawkmoth had caused over the years.

Legal battles of this magnitude took years to resolve. And, even with Nathalie’s most optimistic estimates, it was quite likely that if anything was left for Adrien to claim one day, it would be only a small fraction of what he’d grown up with.

Thankfully, the small but respectable fund Adrien had earned for his own modelling career was deemed outside the scope of the investigation into his father’s activities. Nathalie assured him it was enough to last him a few years into adulthood, to university and maybe beyond.

Sixteen was young for emancipation, but it was his best option, seeing as he had no close relatives who could take him in. She promised she would handle the paperwork for him, it would all be arranged, he had to worry about nothing. If he signed the dotted line here, please, she would act as his temporary guardian.

The words washed over him without sinking in. What the hell was 'escrow' anyway? Adrien made vague noises of agreement whenever a lull in the conversation coincided with their eyes on him, and that seemed satisfactory.

It was only when the words private school fell that he jerked awake.

“No! My friends, in school, they’re here, I want to stay!”

Nathalie and the man who Adrien knew he’d been introduced to but couldn’t remember – a lawyer, maybe? – exchanged a long glance, and then sighed in unison. “Adrien. You can’t stay in Paris,” Nathalie said in a clipped voice, as if they’d already been over this point. But surely Adrien would remember agreeing to that.

“My friends–“

“Your friends can stay in contact through the internet.” She adjusted her glasses. “I know you think you know how to handle fame, but your experience is with being a model, Adrien. Interesting to only a few select demographics of professionals, fashionistas and teenage girls. This… what we’re dealing with now is different. You’re not famous anymore, you’re infamous. In all of Paris, and likely all of France. If you stay here, neither you nor any of your friends will have a moment’s peace.”

“But–“

“It’s not forever,” she said, her voice warming a few degrees as she gazed down at him. “Only until the scandal dies down and the press moves on to something else. I’m sure by the time you’re ready to enroll in university, Paris will welcome you back.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nathalie’s warnings proved prescient when Adrien tried to meet his friends to say goodbye in person, only for them to be surrounded by a mob of overeager paparazzi. He could barely hear Nino’s voice over the roar of too many vultures crowding into a too-small bakery.

When Alya was shoved into the counter by a stray elbow, it was Marinette – shy, gentle Marinette – who roared back like a fierce lioness. The hum of conversation quieted down after that, and they were given some space.

Adrien’s eyes lingered on Marinette as he awkwardly said his goodbyes. He wanted to say that he was sorry for not being braver, for not pushing himself to get out of his comfort zone, and that he’d squandered the chance to get to know them – her – as well as he’d wanted. That he would treasure their time together for always. That they were the first ones to show him what it was like to laugh so hard that his stomach hurt and tears stung his eyes.

That he was so afraid of being alone now.

But he couldn’t risk embarrassing himself by projectile vomiting those feelings now when strangers’ eyes were crawling all over him, so his farewell speech ended up the blandest speech that ever blanded. I really had fun with you guys. I hope you’ll write. I’m gonna miss you.

Nino pulled him into a hug, and didn’t let go for what felt like ages. Burying his face in his best friend’s shoulder and trying to keep it together, he caught a glimpse of Alya whispering fiercely into Marinette’s ear behind Nino’s back. The black-haired girl shook her head, staring at the floor. Her response seemed to exasperate Alya, who cast her a scathing look, but then she reached into Marinette’s backpack to pull out a book.

Nino disentangled himself – no, wait, I wasn’t ready – when Alya cleared her throat and thrust the book toward Adrien.

“It’s from all of us,” she said, as he opened the gift to its first page. He swallowed heavily as he spotted Max’s neat and tidy script, telling him the name of his Steam account so they could have that Ultimate Mecha Strike rematch online. Nathaniel’s looping signature was accompanied by a little sketch of his stylized alter ego waving goodbye. Ivan and Mylène had opted for joint well-wishes, evidently in an effort to save space because every last inch of the page was filled up and it really was from everyone, and they cared about him, and don’t cry, don’t cry, THERE’S CAMERAS, DON’T DO IT.

He quickly flipped through the rest of the scrapbook, filled with candid shots of him and the others at various school events. It all culminated in that class photo which had taken so much effort - and the defeat of an Akuma - to get everyone into frame.

“Thank you,” he said hoarsely. They must have put this together on such short notice, and yet, looking at the immaculate collages, one would never suspect that it was a rush job.

“Thank Marinette, she’s the one who stayed up all night,” Alya said and then not-so-subtly pushed the girl in question toward Adrien, who caught her by the upper arm before she fell. She blinked up at him, froze, and then made a distressed sound so high-pitched that it could only be described as meep.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice barely carrying over the bustle of activity humming all around them.

Adrien laughed softly. “For giving me the best gift of my life?”

“N-no! I mean, the – the best, really? – no, that is to say – YOUR FATHER!”

And just like that, the fuzzy warmth growing inside him was doused with ice water. Reality re-asserted itself and That Thing he’d done such a stellar job of not ever, ever thinking about burst to the forefront of his mind. Marinette inhaled sharply and slapped a hand over her mouth. A hush fell over the crowd as everyone turned to stare.

But then, they’d already been staring at him anyway. Everyone was staring at him. The son of Hawkmoth.

The ice spread from his chest and Adrien smiled for the cameras.

He made his smile gentle and a little wistful, to show Marinette he did not begrudge her the faux pas. She was already so anxious and prone to stumbling over her words in everyday interactions, it was no surprise that she’d fumbled her condolences. He refused to make her feel worse for meaning well.

“It’s alright, Marinette,” he murmured.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again, and the shame and guilt would not leave her eyes.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien left Paris.

 

✧✦✧

 

It was after several weeks of patrolling on her own, waiting, hoping and just plain living in denial that Ladybug was finally forced to confront the possibility that Char Noir had chosen to retire.

Her kitten had come to give her a kiss goodbye, and she had pushed him away.

Chapter Text

Nino: wanna talk about it dude?

Adrien’s thumb hovered over his smartphone’s keyboard as Nino’s question swirled around in his head. Did he want to talk about it? What was there to say? The words he was allowed to say would paint a picture of his grief so distorted by what he would have to leave out that it would bear no resemblance to what was churning in his head.

It’d be a lie.

And he didn’t want to lie to Nino. Not about this.

As he wracked his brain for what to say, three blinking little dots announced that Nino had grown impatient with his silence, and a string of messages followed.

Nino: u don’t have to

Nino: but its supposed to be good for you. gets the poison out of ur head

Nino: and i no i probably dont have any good advice but I AM good at listening

Adrien’s mind fixated on the word poison, instantly knowing which thought it was that felt like it was eating him alive. He typed it out and hit send before he could change his mind.

Adrien: It was my fault.

Nino’s reply was almost instant.

Nino: NO IT WASNT

Adrien exhaled and closed his eyes. His phone vibrated as more of Nino’s replies came in, but a cursory glance told Adrien all he needed to know – they were talking past each other, Nino assuring him that there was no way he could have prevented that final fight from happening or even known that his dad moonlighted as a supervillain.

So instead of arguing, Adrien cut the conversation short.

Adrien: Thanks, Nino.

Nino: anytime man

Plagg shifted in his hair, having clearly read along. The kwami didn’t talk much these days because he was, in his own words, “absolutely awful at this kind of shit”, but he did curl up with Adrien every spare moment they had alone. And purred. The purr got louder now, like the rumble of a car engine, as it always did whenever Adrien teared up.

“It really wasn’t your fault, Adrien. The butterfly should have known better than to try to fight us hand-to-hand.”

“And maybe you should have warned me that Hawkmoth would be physically weak.”

As soon as the petulant words left his lips, the truth of them struck him in the gut. The rumbling near his ear stopped abruptly.

“Plagg,” he said slowly. “Why didn’t you warn me?”

“Oh, would you look at my wrist, I believe it’s time for some cam-“

Adrien snatched the little kwami out of the air as he tried to flee.

“Plagg. Answer me.”

“Come on, Adrien, there’s cheese to be savored instead of dwelling–“

“ANSWER ME!”

Plagg’s ears drooped at Adrien’s roar, his pupils narrowed to slits so thin they were barely visible. Then he sighed and grew serious. “None of my wielders have ever been exactly alike. They all put a unique spin on my power, sometimes in ways that surprise even me. Hawkmoth was no ordinary butterfly and just because Nooroo’s masters have tended to be poor warriors, that didn’t mean this one couldn’t have hurt us.”

“You… you still could have said something…”

“It’s better to overestimate an enemy than to underestimate him.”

“You think it’s better that I killed my father?” Adrien's breath hitched, and his vision blurred. Until now he hadn’t said the words, had never spoken the truth out loud, and now he’d given it form and it was real, all of this was real...

“Better than the other way around,” Plagg said with a huff.

The ring slid off with surprising ease.

“…what are you doing?”

Most of Adrien's belongings were still scattered in the boxes lining the walls, but this had been the very first thing he’d checked on, to make sure it had survived the journey. While he’d successfully pleaded for private accommodations instead of being made to sleep in the dormitories, he’d taken no chances and made sure to hide his most precious possession as soon as he’d arrived.

He loosened the screws on the vent near his bed, pulling out an intricately decorated box hidden behind it.

“Adrien!” A small black blur flitted in front of him. “Come on, don’t do this, you love being Chat Noir, I’ve never had a kitten who loves it as much as you do, think about what you’re about to–“

Plagg’s pleading was cut short when the box closed shut with a barely audible click, his Miraculous safely tucked inside.

And just like that, the little black god Adrien loved and hated was gone.

He knew Plagg would be mad at him once he was let back out, but that was a problem for Future Adrien. Or maybe not. Maybe the box would vanish as suddenly and mysteriously as it had one day appeared. Maybe it would reappear in some other kid’s room and then there would be a new Chat Noir.

Adrien clutched the jewelry box to his chest. No. He was Chat Noir. He just… he needed a break.

After gently placing his sealed Miraculous in its hiding place, Adrien curled up on the bed.

…the room was awfully quiet without the constant hum of Plagg’s purr.

His phone buzzed.

Nino: so hows the new school?

 

✧✦✧

 

The new school was okay.

Which was to say, it wasn’t unbearable. The small private school in Switzerland was, in some ways, the perfect environment for him, as it had a proud multi-generational history of educating the children of Europe’s elite so that they might one day join their parents’ ranks. Surrounded by the children of politicians, celebrities and the remnants of nobility, Adrien was just one among many with rich and morally questionable parents. Nobody was awestruck by his presence, and nobody gave him a hard time for his background.

In fact, beyond a short-lived bustle of interest around The New Kid, they didn’t pay much attention at all. They were nice – most of them, anyway, although there was a rather unfortunate number of people who reminded him of Chloe – but nobody seemed interested in drawing him into their insular social circle.

The worst part was that it was an international school, so they spoke English, both in class and amongst each other. Adrien was fluent – his father had insisted on it – but the words didn’t come as easily to him as they did in his native French. Worse yet, idioms and slang often flew over his head – as did wordplay in general.

Adrien couldn’t make puns.

He'd tried. Once.

Helena was a kind, if slightly awkward British girl and his default partner whenever there was a group assignment. They’d both realized early into their acquaintance that neither would leave the other to do all the work. A mutual understanding to team up whenever possible to avoid others leeching off their good grades was born.

Slanting a glance at her Hello Kitty T-Shirt, he pointed to the chemistry problem they were working on. “I don’t get it. It’s im-paw-sible!”

She stared at him, unblinking. The moment of awkward silence was only broken when sudden understanding dawned in her eyes. “Oh! You mean – it’s pronounced im-pos-sible.”

“I… I know that…“

“Oh God. That was rude, wasn’t it? I’m so sorry, I’m – anyway, your English is quite good! Don’t worry about it.” She patted his arm reassuringly. “And really, lots of girls love a French accent.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Some of his old classmates made an effort to keep in touch. Nino, of course, texted him every day, but he also got support from some unexpected corners. Rose sent him wholesome memes every few days and Juleka surprised him by writing a very long, personal message about struggling with her mental health, appending a few links to essays on how to cope with grief.

Marinette, who’d barely strung two sentences together whenever he’d tried talking to her, turned out to be an eloquent writer. She took it upon herself to keep him informed of what was happening in his absence, periodically reporting on his former classmates’ shenanigans and revealing a wit he quite enjoyed.

Marinette: Today Alix and Kim managed to get themselves suspended for two days because they raced each other around the courtyard. Alix’s skates kicked up mud that landed on Chloe’s skirt. When confronted with evidence of her heinous crime, Alix was found guilty of responding with the wisdom of Ludacris: Move, bitch, get out the way

Adrien: Did Kim get suspended as her co-conspirator?

Marinette: He dared to laugh like a hyena

He glossed over her tentative questions about how he was doing and what he was up to. I’m fine, not much, thanks, because what else could he say? Their conversations always ended up trailing off past the pleasantries. At least up until she sent him the next status report. Which he eagerly devoured.

It was with some disappointment that, a few weeks in, Adrien noticed that Alya barely wrote him – unusual for the chatty, boisterous girl. Of course, he’d primarily gotten to know her as Nino’s girlfriend, so maybe he’d misread how close they really were.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien didn’t understand money.

Oh sure, he understood the whole concept of it. In an abstract sort of way. He knew money was used to buy goods and services, that people had different amounts of it based on their profession, and that the amount he’d grown up with bordered on the obscene.

But he didn’t understand what made something expensive, or what made a thing worth the price. Was ten Euro too much for a coffee? He couldn’t tell.

His little nest egg was vanishing at an alarming rate, although Adrien could not quite tell how and why. Sure, he ate at restaurants every day, but that was only because no one had ever taught him how to cook. What else was he supposed to do? And okay, he'd splurged on buying Nino first class tickets to come visit. But how could he give his best friend anything but the very best when he was burdening Nino with the inconvenience of travelling this far only to keep him company? And maybe Adrien could have been a little better about his impulse purchases. But the huge solo apartment he paid premium for had seemed so big and empty, it had started reminding him of that suffocating hellhole of a mansion. So he had set out to fill every last corner of it, filled it with furniture and books and games and instruments and just about anything he could use to distract himself from this gaping void threatening to consume him.

But it wasn’t like he’d been all that excessive, had he?

His new home wasn’t nearly as stuffed full and cramped and cozy as what he remembered from Nino’s place which had been a real home with a real family. That had seemed like a good benchmark to Adrien, but apparently it hadn’t been.

 

✧✦✧

 

As much as Adrien missed his old classmates, he had to hand it to his new ones – they threw the best parties. Which was to be expected, considering they spared no expense, and half of them had been raised in the entertainment industry. And he never lacked in invitations. People liked him, especially the girls, even if they weren’t particularly interested in him as anything more than an acquaintance.

It almost became a ritual for Adrien to stumble back home from one of those parties, throw himself onto his bed – which by then had usually developed an annoying habit of spinning – and succumb to the temptation of opening the Ladyblog.

Sightings of her had dropped substantially now that the Akuma threat was gone, but every now and then she was still spotted on patrol, reminding the people of Paris that they had a guardian.

Then Adrien would check behind the vent.

Without fail, the box was there waiting for him, and without fail, he would reverently run his fingers along the lid and put it back.

It wasn’t that Adrien was shirking his responsibility. He would not hesitate to return to his duty if he was ever truly needed. But the power of Destruction was not meant to be used to fight common criminals. It was far too great for that.

 

✧✦✧

 

Time eroded all things.

The steady flow of messages from old friends became a trickle. One day, Marinette’s status report mentioned in passing that Nino and Alya had gotten into a fight over which university to enroll in and stopped speaking to each other for five days. She worked it in so casually and without elaboration that it was obvious she’d assumed he already knew.

Adrien hadn’t known. He vaguely remembered Nino having been slightly less cheerful that week, but otherwise they'd bantered away as usual, excited for the upcoming train wreck that was that year’s Eurovision contest. Wasn’t a serious fight with his girlfriend something one would consult a best friend about? And shouldn’t Adrien have noticed something was up with his best friend if he fancied himself deserving of the title?

When Marinette’s next update made a reference to Nino applying to film school, Adrien, recovering from a vicious hangover, snapped that he didn’t want to hear it. And he didn’t, not from her, he wanted Nino to tell him when and how his passion had switched from music to film.

Marinette did exactly as he asked, and stopped sending updates.

By the time he noticed that she had, graduation loomed so close that there would have been no point in begging her for more. The class was about to go their separate ways, anyway.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino: so have u started applying yet? deadlines getting pretty close, u no

Adrien: I’m probably going to take a gap year.

Nino: WHAT WHY

Nino: what happened to us becoming college roomies????

 

✧✦✧

 

By the time Adrien graduated, he’d become acquainted with credit card debt, and decided he didn’t care for the experience. In fact, this whole debt business lead him down the rabbit hole of reading up on overdraft fees and ended with him developing a new hobby of ranting online about the exploitation of the poor.

Nathalie turned pale when he sheepishly approached her for advice and showed her the state of his accounts. Then, with that almost superhuman efficiency of hers, she devised a game plan of how to dig him out of this hole, and a few days after that, presented him with a thick, color-coded binder filled with financial advice that she ordered him to study.

Which Adrien did, and not just because her obvious disappointment in him cut like a knife.

While he was not exactly thrilled that his enrollment in university had been put off for now, it was easy – even comfortable – to fall back into the world of fashion and to follow the shooting schedules Nathalie arranged for him. Her calling in a few favors from his father’s old business connections had him sliding back into the complex web of word-of-mouth and reciprocity as if he’d never left it, and soon enough he was once again one of the most in-demand models in the industry.

He tried not to think too hard about the fact that he was being hired for his notoriety. That his decorative purpose was to lend an air of danger and intrigue to whatever the son of a supervillain was advertising. In a way, he almost took a perverse pleasure in leaning into it.

When designers dressed him in black and photographers demanded that he smirk instead of smile, Adrien took his father’s meticulously crafted image of pure, innocent, perfect Adrien Agreste and shattered it into a thousand pieces.

Chapter Text

Marinette unwrapped the cloth slowly and solemnly, until the butterfly pin taken from Gabriel Agreste – Gabriel Agreste’s body – lay revealed.

“Ah,” Master Fu said, and tapped on the purple jewel. “It’s been a long time, my friend.”

The Miraculous glowed, its incandescent shine forming a solid mass that twisted and pulsed until its shape began to resemble something very much like Tikki – big head, small body, and adorably oversized eyes.

Eyes that, as soon as Nooroo had fully materialized, burst into tears. The butterfly kwami quickly found itself at the center of a group hug, both Tikki and Wayzz nuzzling up to him in comfort and speaking soft words in a language Marinette had never heard before.

Master Fu watched the little gods without saying a word, so Marinette followed his lead.

After a while, the sobs subsided into sniffles, and the purple kwami appeared to collect himself. Floating first toward Master Fu, it performed a formal bow mid-air.

“Guardian. Thank you for not abandoning me.”

The old man inclined his head. “I only wish I had found you sooner.”

Nooroo waved the words away, then turned his attention toward Marinette. For a moment, its wings faltered, then it bowed again, deeper this time. “Lady Luck. Thank you as well. Words cannot convey how much it pains me that my powers were used to hurt you and yours.”

“Ah – it’s, don’t worry about it, it was nothing.”

“No,” the kwami said, “It was everything.” Then it gracefully pirouetted on the spot, taking in its surroundings. “Where is the Black Cat? I wish to thank him as well. He has sacrificed much for me.”

Casting a significant glance at Marinette, Master Fu shook his head. “Chat Noir is not here, Nooroo. But I will convey your gratitude.” The kwami nodded, appearing satisfied. “Now I know you must wish to rest, but I ask for your strength a moment longer.”

“As you command, Guardian.”

“What can you tell me of Duusu’s whereabouts?”

The butterfly wings fluttered in agitation. “I have not seen the peacock in many years. We were… wielded, together, for a time.” The kwami made a keening sound of distress. “But that was long ago. I thought… I’d hoped that you had already freed her.”

Master Fu nodded and sighed, but did not look surprised by Nooroo’s words.

“Thank you. Is there anything else of interest you could tell me?”

“Yes! Guardian, he had the Book! He tried to make me translate it…” He raised his tiny chin with defiance. “But I resisted.”

The old man’s eyes shone with sudden interest. “Where did he keep it?”

“That, I do not know. My movement in his lair was… limited.”

Just as Marinette wondered what kind of force it took to restrict a being that could phase through walls from going wherever it pleased, Master Fu nodded and picked up the amethyst pin. “Thank you, Nooroo. You have been very helpful. Rest easy now. I vow your next partner will be worthy of you.”

As he placed the pin in the intricate jewelry box, Nooroo bowed once more before dissolving into bright white sparkles.

Silence settled over them as Master Fu appeared lost in thought, and Marinette quietly digested all the bits of information that had been revealed to her. After a while she cleared her throat.

“What book was he talking about?”

Startled, as if he’d forgotten she was even there, the old man looked up, then hummed. “A very old book, a very powerful one. It was stolen from me – from my order – many years ago, along with the butterfly and peacock. It holds secrets about the Miraculous and their use, secrets that should never have gotten into the wrong hands.”

“Then… it’s probably in Gabriel Agreste’s house? Should I go search?” Her stomach clenched at the thought of having to rifle through a dead man’s things. Of having to violate Adrien’s privacy, after all he’d been through.

Not to mention that getting into the Agreste mansion would be far from easy. The police had sealed it off as part of an ongoing crime scene investigation, and it had attracted a gigantic mob of spectators hanging around at all hours of the day. From what she’d heard, even Adrien wasn’t allowed inside, temporarily staying at the Bourgeoise’s Hotel until a more permanent arrangement could be found. Rather than crowing about that, Chloe had been unusually subdued when she’d told the class of his whereabouts.

“That will not be necessary for now, Ladybug.” Master Fu leaned forward and poured himself another cup of tea. “I think you’ve done enough to fix an old man’s mistakes. I will handle this. You, too, should rest.”

“If… if you say so.” She paused. “Is he going to be alright?”

“In time. Nooroo will need much care to recover from this ordeal.” Master Fu sighed. “Even when bonded against their will, the death of a partner is always traumatic to kwami.”

Her stomach clenched at the reminder. She swallowed heavily, and finally asked the question that had been burning in her gut.

“Do you know where Chat Noir is?” He had seemed so distraught that night, and she hadn’t seen him since. Marinette had gone over their last conversation again and again in her head, trying to pinpoint the moment it had gone so disastrously wrong and what she should have said differently.

Taking a long sip from his tea, Master Fu did not answer straight away. “Yes.”

“Then where…”

“It’s not an easy thing. To take a life. Even on accident, it weighs heavy on the soul. Your partner is – not well, but unharmed. Give him time to recover.”

“So… you’re saying I should leave him alone?” That did not sit right with her. He was her partner.

Master Fu’s eyes twinkled, not quite with amusement, but something like it. “Ah, this is why I chose you, Marinette.” He shook his head. “No, I am not saying you should not reach out to him. Quite the opposite. But cats lick their wounds in private and still show up in time for dinner.”

“He’ll come back?” It had been days, now. She didn’t know how much more patient she could be.

“Cats always land on their feet.”

“Chat’s not a cat,” she said mulishly. “He’s a boy.” A boy she had pushed away in the worst way possible.

Master Fu hummed, considering her words. “You know… it’s not an easy thing, finding the right wielder for the Cat Miraculous. The Ladybug Miraculous, well, the requirements for that are pretty straightforward.” He smiled at her. “Which isn’t to say that finding a person worthy of it is easy either. But I always know what to look for: a pure soul, a kind soul, a soul who takes joy in giving and creating. It’s a harmonious combination. The kind of person who can wield the Ladybug Miraculous to its full potential will, by their very nature, never abuse the power they’ve been given.

“Plagg, however…” He sighed, and Marinette startled at hearing the name of her partner’s kwami for the first time. “The power of destruction has been abused many times, and it has made its kwami bitter and difficult to work with.

“Destruction is change. And change is neither good nor bad, it just is. Finding a soul who can truly embody destruction without craving rebellion for rebellion’s sake, who can discern between the part of the world that is precious and needs to be protected, and the part that ought to be torn down, that is the challenge.

“And, not to brag, I have chosen very well this time. Have faith in your partner. He will not abandon you. Give him space to heal and be prepared to support him when he is ready to return.”

He took another sip of his tea, his shrewd gaze examining her.

“I see you’re still worried. Rest assured, should intervention be truly needed, Plagg will alert me.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette did have faith, in both Fu's reassurance and her partner. The passing weeks worried her, but she persevered. When weeks turned into months, a whisper of doubt started creeping in. But it was the years that truly got to her, eroding not just her conviction, but also her memory.

She could pinpoint the exact moment it had happened. The moment she realized Chat Noir was slipping away from her for good. She’d been looking at some fabrics, wanting to pick out a pattern for her newest creation, and her gaze had fallen on a roll of cloth featuring playful kittens drawn by someone who’d evidently never seen a cat before.

“What a catastrophe,” she’d muttered.

It had started as a game of sorts, a little trick she played on herself to keep her partner in her thoughts, to pretend he still had her back. Like he was just there over her shoulder, commenting on her life. And, because he was Chat, it was only natural that his commentary would come in the form of gratuitous amounts of stupid puns. Puns that, to Marinette’s horror, had somehow started seeping into her own vocabulary.

Except, in that moment, she hadn’t heard the faint echo of his voice.

In fact, she hadn’t been able to recall the sound of his voice at all.

A panicked binge of old Chat Noir footage on the Ladyblog had fixed that, but Marinette had still run to Master Fu’s shop because she was done, absolutely done waiting for Chat. She would make Fu tell her where he was, and then drag her kitty home by his tail.

But the shop had been closed.

And it had never opened again.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette hit Send while chewing on her bottom lip. She always fussed too much over the messages she sent to Adrien, writing and re-writing the sentences until she was sure they were good enough. It was a strange little dynamic they had going on, more of a pen pal thing than a real conversation, but she liked it.

She was just never quite sure whether Adrien did. His texts were as formal and polite as her carefully scripted tales.

But he kept writing back, so he had to like it on some level… right?

Her phone buzzed and she snatched it up, wondering if today was the day she would earn a coveted emoji in response. Adrien was sparse with those, but she gathered that he reserved them for the tales that interested him most because they were usually followed by a flurry of questions.

Adrien: i dont really care about any of this marinette

Oh.

Okay.

She supposed it was kind of… silly. To keep telling him about people he hadn’t seen or spoken to in years. It had started by necessity, because she’d wanted to keep in touch, wanted to know that he was okay after what she and Chat had done, and she didn’t know what to even talk about. So, she’d just started… recapping.

When Adrien sent her another message several hours later, it all clicked together, and she realized what an idiot she’d been.

Adrien: I’m sorry for my last message, Marinette, I wasn’t feeling well and in a bad mood because of it.

She’d seen this before, dozens of times. Chloe hanging all over ‘Adrikins’, getting into his personal space while he looked pained. Yet he had never raised his voice at her.

Adrien was far too polite and restrained to tell people who annoyed him to leave him alone.

Marinette: It’s alright, we all have bad days sometimes :) Hope you feel better soon

Unlike Chloe, Marinette could take a hint.

 

✧✦✧

 

Vaulting herself into the air, Ladybug closed her eyes, her grin widening as she savored the wind rushing through her hair and the twin pulls of her momentum battling against gravity. It was in that moment, when her jump reached the peak of its arc, that Marinette felt like she could fly.

The moment passed, and she started falling. With practiced ease, she flung her yoyo to its next anchor point and transitioned into another sweep.

It had been a while since Ladybug had allowed herself to have some fun. With no true villains to fight and no partner to banter with, her weekly patrols were dull affairs, more about letting herself be seen than accomplishing much of anything. Sure, she stopped the occasional mugging or assault, but intimidating low-life criminals wasn’t really what the power of creation was for, was it?

As she neared the next peak, she cried out, “Lucky charm!”

It was a whim born out of curiosity, just to see what her long unused power would create when there was no villain to use it on.

But no polka-dotted item fell into her hands. Instead, she instantly felt a disturbance in her trajectory and twisted around, trying to figure out what she’d conjured.

And then Ladybug was flying.

Marinette craned her neck, trying to get a good look at her back, and gasped. Ladybug wings. Except – she squinted – no, not quite, it was a cape in the shape of ladybug wings, catching the wind like a glider.

“Woah,” she whispered.

She landed on a roof – harder than she meant to. This gliding thing – I can glide! – would take a while to get the hang of. She twirled, trying to get a good look at her costume from every angle, fully aware she looked like a dog chasing its own tail. Not only had the cape appeared, her entire costume had changed, the solid red now broken by sleek sections of black winding around her arms, hips and feet. Giddy, she kept inspecting herself until finally the last beep of her Miraculous announced that her time had run out.

“Marinette!” Tikki squealed when the transformation became undone and she was released from her Miraculous. “How wonderful!”

“Tikki, what just happened?”

Her kwami nuzzled her cheek. “Your power is growing stronger, Marinette. I’ve been waiting for this.”

“So… that costume is here to stay?”

“Oh yes! Our bond deepens with time, and it is through our bond that more of my gift will become accessible to you.” She bounced in excitement. “Although the starting point is always the same, no two Ladybugs are alike in how they develop my power. I can’t wait to see where you will take it, Marinette!”

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug fell from the sky.

Her cape was burning, uselessly flapping in the rushing wind.

The creature bellowed, hurting her ears, and another column of fire lashed her way.

She’d never signed up to fight a freaking dragon. She strongly felt that the possibility should have been mentioned to her ahead of time. Coughing up black soot, she hoarsely cried, “Lucky charm!”

Every time she used the spell, she silently prayed that it would gift her something that would be useful at first glance.

A bazooka would be nice.

So naturally, it gave her a whistle.

A whistle.

“I hate you,” she said to no one in particular, because she was plummeting to her death and her yoyo’s string had burned up and there was a giant fire-breathing monster and all she had was a whistle. Maybe she was saying it to Tikki, for pulling this bullshit now of all times. Maybe to Master Fu, for dragging her into this.

Or maybe she was saying it to Chat Noir, for not being there to catch her.

Something slammed into her from the side, and for a moment she flailed, thinking it was the dragon’s claws swiping at her. But no, those were hands grabbing her, arms safely wrapping around her waist, a warm body leaning into her. Catching her.

Her eyes burned, and it wasn’t from the smoke.

Chat.

He twisted their bodies around so that she was facing up, his body shielding her from the ground. Concrete shattered where they landed, and they skidded a few more meters before coming to a halt.

Hysterical laughter filled the air. It wasn’t hers. It wasn’t Chat Noir’s either.

She jumped to her feet, warily narrowing her eyes at the newcomer.

Warm brown skin. Hair hidden beneath a green cowl. Awestruck eyes blinking up at her from behind golden goggles, his nervous laughter slowly trailing off. On his back was the shield of a turtle. That had to be what had absorbed the impact of their fall.

“Uh, hi, Ladybug.” He gave her a shaky smile, drunk on danger and fear and adrenaline. “I think I’m your new partner.”

Chapter Text

Plagg slept.

Although it was not quite sleep, this place between dreaming and waking, drifting in the void from which he’d been born. Waiting for someone to pick up the ring he was bound to and call him back into existence. He didn’t mind this state of being, not really. He loved naps. It was one of his favorite pastimes. Although the best sort of naps undoubtedly involved lazily curling up in the sun, with warmth on his fur, naps were naps, and he wasn’t picky.

But he couldn’t enjoy this one. Worry pricked the back of his mind, telling him that he shouldn’t be here. The memory of Adrien looking at him with shock, then anger, only to settle on a terrible stillness haunted him.

And then he’d sealed Plagg away! And although Plagg was plotting the various ways he would give the boy endless shit for that, it had also become clear that this entire situation had escalated beyond what he could handle.

Plagg trailed destruction in his wake. It was Tikki who knew how to build something worthwhile out of the ruins he left behind.

So, as much as it pained him, he would have to call the Guardian.

He and the Guardian had an arrangement. The old man chose, and Plagg judged. Let Tikki and her Ladybug obediently follow the lesson plan like the perfect little pair they inevitably were, but Plagg knew his charges required a different touch. Sure, they were usually clever enough to know when to stifle themselves, to sit still and shut up and devote themselves to understanding the power offered to them. A devious cat knew better than to bite the hand that fed it.

It just made them that much more effective monsters when they were grown.

So Plagg let his partners run wild, to see what they would do when given absolute freedom. Nothing revealed character quite as well as that. They were so much easier to put down before they’d learned the full use of their power if it turned out the Guardian had chosen poorly.

This Ladybug and Chat Noir had not questioned why they were encouraged to grow close and yet hide from each other. They had believed the vague warnings about the danger of being unmasked, and never pried deeper to realize that it was the first line of defense against each other.

Not that Ladybugs ever turned on their partners.

But by now, Plagg was certain that Adrien would not either. No, a kid whose idea of rebellion was sneaking out of the house to go to school and who used the freedom given by a mask only to be as ridiculous as humanly possible would not abuse the power he’d been gifted. The Guardian had chosen well. Very well, indeed.

Plagg hadn’t liked one of his partners as much as this one in many generations. A gentle heart – he so rarely got one of those, Tikki hoarded them all – with a mischievous streak a mile wide.

Which made it all the more distressing that the kid appeared to be headed for a mental breakdown. So as soon as Adrien calmed down and let him out, he would call the Guardian and tell him the precaution was hurting more than it was helping so his partner could go cry on his Lady’s shoulder.

So Plagg slept, drifting in a space where time had no meaning, waiting and calculating how many wheels of camembert he could extort from Adrien’s guilt over this incident. Until, at last, he felt the pull of the Miraculous drawing him back into corporeal existence, warm skin pressing up against the inside of his ring, and he welcomed it.

“Finally!” he snapped as soon as his tongue formed, blinking against the blinding light of the human world. “This was not cool, Adrien, not cool, you owe me so much cheese for… this…”

Familiar green eyes were looking at him, but the face, the face, it was all angular and hard and was that stubble? His kitten didn’t have whiskers!

“Hello, Plagg.” The voice was deep and pleasant and wrong, all wrong, that was not his partner’s voice. Plagg floated back, away, but the man – and it was a man, not a boy – still filled his field of vision because he was so big and Adrien, his Adrien, was supposed to be a skinny twig and all of this was completely wrong!

“You’re old,” Plagg whispered, horrified.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino wasn’t having the best day.

Sure, a fire breathing monster appearing in the city he lived in would ruin anyone’s day, but that was really more of a secondary concern.

“Alya,” he said, trying to make his voice as calm and authoritative as possible. And while sounding chill had always come easily, it was the authoritative bit that eluded him. It was no secret who was in unofficial charge in this relationship, and Nino was fine with that, had accepted it as the price of being with the sheer force of will that was his girlfriend. Alya decided on some hare-brained scheme and he went with the flow. But there were times he regretted letting this dynamic become so entrenched. “Alya. Do not go near that thing.”

“But it’s a dragon, Nino!”

It wasn’t, not really. It didn’t even have wings. Just a very big lizard that was, for some reason, on fire. But Nino didn’t want to get sidetracked arguing species classification, so he let that slide.

“I know.”

“A dragon, Nino! The people deserve an up-close look!”

“And I deserve a girlfriend who’s not a pile of ash.”

“Nino, I’ll be careful.” No. No, she wouldn’t be, because she never was, because recklessly throwing herself into danger in the pursuit of great footage was what Alya Césaire had done since she'd been fifteen years old. And Nino had been fine with that then, had admired her courage, had even helped her, because he’d been too young and dumb to truly know loss and fear.

Then Alya gasped, shouting so loud with excitement that he had to move the phone away from his ear. “Ladybug! Ladybug is fighting it!"

That was when Nino knew he’d lost. Because she was definitely not leaving now, not when there was footage of Ladybug fighting a Not-Dragon to be had.

And that really sucked, because now Nino would have to go and try to rescue her, drag her from the danger zone kicking and screaming, and they would probably both die in horrible fiery agony.

“Please don’t,” he tried one last time.

“Sorry, Nino – pffft – the connection – shhhhhh crk crk – breaking – “

“Alya, I can tell you’re just blowing air into your phone.”

There was a brief pause on her end as the ‘static’ abruptly vanished.

“Okayloveyoubyyyyye!”

Alya, no!”

Alya, yes!”

She hung up.

Nino stared at the phone in his hand, trying to make peace with his imminent demise at the ripe old age of twenty-two. He sighed, shoulders drooping, and reached for his coat. Sure, he would be toasty warm soon enough, so maybe the coat was redundant, but the chill of a Paris winter, even a fading one, was no joke.

Something clattered to the floor, having been hidden beneath the fabric. He paused, frowned at the little box, and then bent to pick it up. How absurd to care about keeping the apartment neat now of all times but the task distracted him from the voice screaming in his head about the unfairness of having to die so young.

He grew still as his fingers touched the box, his frown deepening as his attention fully turned. The box was… warm, and wood wasn’t generally heat conductive, was it? The red pattern painted on its lid looked intricate and fascinating, and he tried to remember if he’d seen it lying around before. Did this belong to Alya?

And then, because he had a general feeling that he should, he opened it.

He only got a brief look at what looked to be an emerald bracelet before he was distracted by light gathering in front of him, swirling and sparkling, until it became a little green being of some sort.

“Um,” said Nino.

Huge – adorably huge – eyes blinked at him, and then the little being that kinda-sorta looked like a turtle if he squinted a bit, bowed to him. “Nino Lahiffe,” it said, and maybe it would have sounded grand and pompous, if it hadn’t been delivered by a voice that had overdosed on helium. “You have been chosen. From this day forward, the eternal battle against Evil is your battle, and the gift of the Miraculous yours to bestow.”

“…alright,” Nino said, because the little creature was looking at him expectantly.

It nodded and proceeded with what was clearly a practiced speech. “It is a heavy burden to bear, and not one bequeathed lightly, but the need is dire and you have been judged worthy. You will stand apart from your fellow men, with all the good and bad that entails. Your task will be to observe and protect, to watch while they live and wither–“

The creature looked quite affronted when Nino laid a finger on its lips.

“That’s, uh, that’s cool and all, like, seriously, I’m sure it’s a good speech, inspiring, really, the kind that needs its own epic background music, but I’m in a hurry here, so could you give me the cliff notes version?”

“The… cliff notes version.”

“Yeah.”

The little antenna on top its head twitched in what might have been irritation, but all it said was, “Yes, Master.” It took a deep breath to collect itself. “I am Wayzz. I’m a kwami, the physical embodiment of Wisdom. I’ve chosen you to wield my Miraculous because Ladybug needs your help–“

Ladybug. Miraculous. The pieces clicked together in Nino’s head.

Superhero. The little creature – kwami? – was offering him the chance to be a superhero.

He shoved the bracelet onto his arm. “How do I use this!?”

“The transformation is triggered by the key phrase ‘Wayzz, Shield Up’ and–“

“Wayzz, Shield Up!”

“Wait, I’m not done expl–“

What he wasn’t done explaining Nino didn’t get to find out, because the kwami was sucked into the bracelet which suddenly grew warm, glowing so brightly Nino had to close his eyes. Something started wrapping around him, moving from his chest to his limbs, and it felt only natural to move along with it, stretching his arms wide as plates shifted into place.

“Woah,” he whispered as the light faded and he looked down at himself. He was clad in green leather. He blinked when he realized he could see the fine texture of the fabric and he instinctively reached for his glasses. Goggles. Prescription goggles, apparently. Nino’s eyesight had been deteriorating for a while and he wore glasses that were, at this point, two years out of date. While he’d been saving up for new ones, he’d been stuck in a world growing ever fuzzier.

But now… glorious high definition!

For a moment, he was torn between dashing out the door and seeking the next mirror. Concern for Alya won out over vanity. He jogged to the door, and felt a weight on his back as he did so. Turning his head, he looked – a shield!

Just as he wondered if it came off, it did just that – first rotating, seemingly to detach itself, and then moving smoothly to hover over his right forearm.

Nino squealed. He was a superhero and he had a shield he could control with his mind.

As he ran out the door, the shield answered a question he’d just been vaguely forming – whether he, too, had a way to move quickly through the city as Ladybug and Chat Noir did. The shield swooped under his feet. He almost lost his footing, and by the time he regained his balance, the shield had taken him out the open window in the hallway.

The shield was a hoverboard.

“I love you so much,” he whispered.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Right, yeah, I’m not going to make it to Milan by tomorrow, something came up. Can you reschedule– I don’t know, tell them I’m sick. Anyway… clear my entire schedule for the next few weeks. Yes, plural. Okay. Thank you, Nathalie. Say hi to Princess for me.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino should have known.

He had certainly noticed Wayzz’ resemblance to a turtle, as well as the general turtleness of his costume – from color scheme to his shield being shaped like a shell. It made sense, considering that the other Miraculous users he knew of were also animal-themed. And while a turtle might not have been his first choice – he’d probably have gone for something badass like an eagle – it certainly beat having to run around in black leather and cat ears.

But he really should have expected this.

Turtles were slow.

And so was his hoverboard. Which he still loved, just a little less now that making his way to the rising pillars of smoke across the city was taking forever. Well, not forever. He was still getting there sooner than without the costume. But it was nothing compared to the speed which he’d seen Ladybug pick up once she got into full swing.

It did give him time to consider his codename, though.

He rejected all turtle-themed names right away, since there was no way to have them sound cool. So, seeing as his primary weapon appeared to be his shield, he was pondering names related to that.

Bouclier Vert? No, didn’t roll off the tongue.

Captain France? No. Just no.

Carapace.

“Hell yeah,” he muttered, just as the Not-Dragon roared and came into view. He swallowed heavily as he took in the scale of destruction. The creature had appeared at the edges of the city and it had slowly but steadily made its way to the shore of the Seine, cutting a straight path. Buildings standing in its way had been smashed or burned down as it climbed over them.

Thankfully, it was also quite slow, so much so that people in its path had enough time to run and evacuate – and it had been utterly uninterested in chasing after them. Looking at it now, it struck Nino that it looked to be in pain. It was dragging its belly along the ground, crawling more than walking, absolutely single-minded in its charge forward.

Well, not quite.

It swatted at something near its head, and then let loose a breath of flame.

And then Ladybug was falling, and she was still so far away, and he wouldn’t get there in time

That was how Nino discovered his shield had a turbo drive.

Nino rammed into Ladybug’s side, wrapping his arms around her to cushion the impact. The soles of his boots, which had somehow locked on to the shield to keep him on, now detached themselves from it again and then they were both falling.

Nino was really starting to dislike his shield’s will of its own. Right up until it swung to his back, and he understood instinctively what he had to do. He twisted himself around so that his body would cushion Ladybug’s, and then they hit the ground.

Nino laughed.

Because if he hadn’t, he might have just let out a scream of terror instead.

Ladybug was staring at him, because of course she was staring at the laughing lunatic, and this was no way to make a good first impression, so he tried to compose himself.

“Uh, hi, Ladybug.” He smiled what he hoped was a winning smile. “I think I’m your new partner.”

But before she could answer, his gaze drifted past her, drawn by the flash of a picture being taken and a familiar shape of luscious red hair. His eyes widened when he saw Alya cowering in an alley formed by two buildings, one of which was on fire, evidently trying to get closer to them.

Alya, no!

 

✧✦✧

 

The glamor that protected a Miraculous wielder’s identity was powerful. Nothing had driven the sheer scale of it home as when Ladybug had stood in her parents’ bakery, and her own mother had not recognized her.

While to herself, Ladybug looked like, well, Marinette, just plain Marinette wearing a domino mask, over time she had learned that this was not so for others. While most people agreed that Ladybug did indeed have blue eyes, the confusion already started at the color of her hair. Many vicious online flame wars had been fought over whether it was black or blue.

The disguise the Miraculous transformation offered did not stop at a mere costume. Instead, the magic hid facial features so that only a passing resemblance to the real person remained, misdirected the watchful eye of observers and turned their thoughts elsewhere when they were about to put together a clue with another. Excuses were readily accepted, evidence dismissed as mere coincidence.

There was a reason that, while shaping up to be a very capable investigative journalist, Alya had never managed to figure out that Ladybug had been standing next to her all along in the form of her best friend.

But there were limits.

Recognition resonating so strongly that the glamor could not bend reality enough to dismiss it, causing it to shatter in the attempt.

And as the new hero let out a cry that Marinette had heard many times before in exactly this mix of horror and admiration, she could pinpoint the precise moment the glamor broke.

A stranger’s face transformed itself into that of a man she had known for years without his face changing at all.

Then she watched him run toward his girlfriend, recklessly throwing himself into danger to save her from herself, as Nino Lahiffe had done since he'd been fifteen years old.

Chapter Text

The logistics of getting to a city under attack by a flaming Godzilla knockoff proved to be much more challenging than anticipated.

“I’m sorry, sir, all flights to Paris are being routed to neighboring airports, not even private planes are permitted to come near the city’s airspace. Only the milita–“

Adrien hissed.

For some godforsaken reason, baring his teeth and letting loose a venomous sound had seemed like an appropriate thing to do. He hadn’t even questioned it.

The overworked help desk lady stared at him, soundlessly moving her lips as if struck speechless. And who wouldn’t be speechless when confronted with a madman who’d decided to hiss instead of showing his irritation like a normal human being?

His sensitive hearing picked up on a faint snicker emanating somewhere from the vicinity of his jacket’s right pocket. He narrowed his eyes, only to soften his gaze immediately when the poor woman he’d hissed at grew even more alarmed, thinking herself the target of his ire.

Adrien took a deep, calming breath, and then slowly and deliberately curved his lips into The Smile that earned his keep.

The woman – Anna, a glance at her nametag told him – froze. A small whimper escaped.

“Anna,” he murmured, “I’m so sorry. My nerves are shot to hell and back, but that doesn’t mean you should have to put up with my bad behavior.” He sighed, running his hand through his messy blond hair. Her gaze followed the movement, and she swallowed heavily. “It’s just... there’s someone I care about. In Paris. And I have to make sure she’s safe.” He trailed off, his voice having gotten so low Anna would have had to lean in to catch the tail end of what he was saying. Which she had, her eyes wide and her lips slightly parted.

His partner’s voice rang out in his head, clear and bright.

Gotcha.

“I’m sorry to have bothered you. Thank you for trying.”

“Wait!” she cried out as he turned to take a step back from the help desk. “I’m… I’m sure we can arrange something.”

The brightness of Adrien’s answering smile could have rivaled the sun.

He walked away from the help desk with a ticket to a plane taking off in half an hour, and the assurance that the fastest available rental car would be waiting for him in Tillè.

“She’s lucky,” Anna called after him and he stilled. “The girl you’re doing this for.”

“The luckiest,” he said, and managed to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

 

✧✦✧

 

Alya was having the best day ever.

Sure, a fire breathing monster appearing in the city they lived in might have ruined most people’s day, but Alya wasn’t most people. To her, this was an opportunity. A chance to finally see her favorite heroine in action again – and give an eager audience waiting online front row seats.

And unlike what her beautiful, annoying sweetheart of a boyfriend thought, Alya was not heedless of the danger. It was precisely because it was dangerous that she had to do this. She had never found the right words to make Nino understand this because Nino had the uncanny ability to be chill about almost anything. He didn’t worry about potential danger, only imminent danger, when to Alya those two were one and the same.

When they’d been applying to university, Alya hadn’t been able to go a day without dreading the looming rejection, vividly imagining endless scenarios of how not getting into her university of choice would send her life spiraling into grinding poverty until she died, friendless and alone, in the gutter. Nino had filled out his application to a highly competitive film school in one afternoon, sent it on its way, and then forgotten about its existence until the acceptance letter had fluttered in.

So he didn’t get it.

He didn’t get why she needed to take action, why she couldn’t sit still in an apartment halfway across the city while Paris burned and the fire closed in. Why meeting the danger on her terms was infinitely preferable to that.

More than that, Alya knew, she knew she wasn’t the only person like that. She knew that there were people out there refreshing the Ladyblog by the second to get an update because that was their way of staying in control of the situation.

It was for them that Alya ran into danger.

For her selfless sacrifice, Alya was richly rewarded, for she was the very first one to witness a new superhero entering the battle. The first one to take pictures of him. The only one to capture his dramatic rescue of Ladybug.

And then Alya just about died of giddiness when he spotted her, closed the distance between them and swooped her into his arms to carry her out of danger.

Best. Day. Ever.

“Stay here,” he growled, jumping off his hoverboard – he had a hoverboard, how cool was that – to set her down on a roof a few buildings away, out of the path of the dragon-thing.

“Okay,” she said happily, and he did a double-take, seeming taken aback by her response. Then he narrowed his eyes.

“…you’re going to follow me back, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah, absolutely.”

She raised her camera to take a picture, a nice close-up of his irritated expression. His face was handsome in a bland sort of way.

“But,” she said in a sing-song voice, “I guess I could be persuaded to stay.”

“How.”

“An interview. Your first, exclusive interview, with none other than the Ladyblog.”

He gazed at her for a long moment, seeming to search for something in her expression. “…yeah, I guess I can do that.”

She grinned, and he frowned at her. But then the creature roared and his attention was drawn back to the battle. “Stay,” he said again, as if he didn’t quite believe she’d keep up her end of the bargain, but there was no way she’d throw such a scoop away.

“What’s your name?” she called after him when his hoverboard swept back to his feet, seemingly on its own.

He raised his chin, puffing out his chest a bit, and his voice was suddenly an octave deeper than it had been before.

“I am Carapace.”

 

✧✦✧

 

It was her earrings’ beep that brought Marinette’s focus back to the situation at hand, reminding her that her time was running out. She’d been too stunned to do anything but stare as Nino hurried to Alya to get her out of danger.

A new partner. And it was Nino.

For a moment, her heart ached, because that meant this was it, Chat wasn’t coming back, because why else would Fu give her a new partner? But Nino didn’t deserve that, he didn’t deserve to be a consolation prize, he deserved her full happiness and gratitude that she was no longer alone in this fight.

And he’d been there to catch her.

A slow grin spread on Ladybug’s face as she turned to face the monster. She blew the whistle her Lucky Charm had conjured.

No sound came out. Well, of course not, that would be too straightforward, can’t have th–

The creature howled, no, shrieked, and started thrashing, suddenly hurtling itself forward, away from her. The earth shook as it trampled over another building.

“You’ve made it mad!”

Nino reappeared by her side, gaping as the monster started gaining momentum, barreling toward the river.

“Undo it! Undo it!”

“I, uh, I don’t think I can.”

Nino started forward, but when she couldn’t keep up with his – floating shield? – he slowed. “Where’s your yo-yo?”

“It burned,” she said, bitterly aware that she was useless now. She’d tried attacking the thing with a kick on its snout and even through her almost indestructible suit, blisters had formed. Her hair had singed just from being up close. She wouldn’t get her long-range weapon back until her next transformation, and there wasn’t time for taking a break. Especially now that her Lucky Charm had given the goddamn thing a speed boost.

“Shit,” he muttered, his gaze flicking to her ruined cape, seeming to realize that taking her into the sky and letting her glide was also out. So he held out his hand, shuffling a little to make room on his shield.

But she shook her head, because that wouldn’t really get them anywhere either, they had to have a plan. “What’s your power?” she asked. “Do you still have its charge?”

“My… power?” he repeated blandly, and then he gestured to his shield. “Well, I have this…?”

“No, I mean like my Lucky Charm.” Or Chat’s Cataclysm. “The one you can only use once per battle.”

He chuckled somewhat nervously. “Well, you see, the thing is…” That was when Marinette realized what had happened.

“…you didn’t listen to the speech.”

“I didn’t listen to the speech, yes.”

Chat hadn’t either. Was she forever doomed to be the responsible one? Stop comparing, Marinette.

“Alright, let’s just–“ Ladybug was almost grateful when the monster screeched again and saved her from having to finish that sentence. It slammed into the Seine, its gargantuan body causing a small tidal wave that nearly knocked over the boats anchored not far away.

Then it grew still, smoke billowing as its flames sizzled in the water, hissing and sputtering until they started to die down. Then it made a sound, almost a wail, keening and low and relieved.

“Was it… just trying to get to water?” Nino whispered.

They watched in silence as the flames died down and the creature stopped moving.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel as the Jaguar took a smooth turn onto the highway, only fifty-odd kilometers separating him from her now. And also the giant monster, but that was, quite honestly, an afterthought. Even if he was out of practice, there was no doubt in his mind that the two of them would win the day.

They always did.

While Adrien sped past a seemingly endless traffic jam on the opposite lane, his lane was almost clear. People were eager to flee the danger, not run toward it. Surprisingly, he still overtook a fair number of cars headed the same way he was, catching glimpses of worried, yet determined faces in his rearview mirror.

As reckless as they were to endanger themselves like this, for a moment he allowed himself to admire these people’s courage. He knew what drove them, or at least something like it. Having powers meant he could never be truly as brave-slash-foolish as them, but he’d once felt that burning certainty that nothing in the world mattered as much as saving that one person, not even his own life.

And a darker voice, the bitter one in the back of his head he tried to ignore most days, added, I wonder what it’s like to have someone who gives that much of a shit about you.

“So, Plagg,” he said, both to finally address the elephant in the room and to distract himself from the direction his thoughts were taking, “Care to tell me why I suddenly feel the urge to hiss at people?”

The kwami hadn’t spoken since he’d gotten a good look at him. Adrien understood why that had to have been a shock.

No longer the lanky teenager he’d been when Plagg had last seen him, Adrien had continued having growth spurts all throughout his late teens until meeting someone who was taller than him became a rare occurrence. His shoulders had broadened to match, although his build was still on the slim and athletic side.

He’d given Plagg a short explanation of the situation in Paris while picking up his duffel bag, filled with essentials and clothes to last him a couple days. The kwami had floated around in a daze, unresponsive, until Adrien had plucked him out of the air and put him in his pocket to head to the Barcelona airport. Callous? Yes, but there’d been no time.

Now, however, the kwami had somewhat recovered his bearings and, perched atop the dashboard, was glaring daggers at Adrien.

“How should I know?”

“Plagg. I have never hissed at anyone in my life before today.”

“So?”

“So cats hiss. And you’re a cat.”

“I’m a kwami.”

Plagg appeared to be determined to stonewall. Not that Adrien could blame him.

“I know you’re mad at me.”

Plagg hissed. Adrien sighed.

“I never meant to keep you sealed away for so long.” Even to his own ears, the excuse sounded feeble. He’d never meant a lot of things. “There was just never… Chat Noir wasn’t needed, Plagg.”

Plagg didn’t even dignify that with a response.

Clearly, Adrien would have to resort to his secret weapon.

Bribes.

Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he reached to dig around in his duffel bag for what he’d delayed his valiant cavalry charge for. Finding quality cheese at an airport was impossible, but thankfully they were in France, and a quick run to the nearest supermarket had proven fruitful. Plagg’s eyes widened as he took in the Brie Adrien waved at him. Then he stiffened and turned his nose away.

“You can’t resist forever.”

“Yes, I can.”

He sighed and laid the cheese next to Plagg anyway.

“Just tell me why I hissed. Please.”

“Because we were meant to grow up together!” Plagg burst into an agitated flurry of movement, flitting all over the car interior. “You can’t just give a human all the power at once! You make them grow into it, organically, and you just… you skipped it!” He sniffed, and his hyperactivity ended as abruptly as it began when he threw himself on the Brie and took a gigantic bite out of it.

“Okay,” Adrien said softly. “I’m sorry, Plagg.”

A few moments passed with only the sounds of Plagg’s comfort eating and a faint melody playing on the radio Adrien had turned down to its lowest setting.

“I still don’t see how that–“

I decide how much of my power I share and how deep our connection bleeds into you.” Stuffing the last piece of the cheese into his mouth, the kwami grinned, fixing a malevolent look on him. “I hope you like the idea of chasing laser pointers, Adrien. Because you will.”

Adrien opened his mouth to reply when the faint pop song was interrupted by a cut to a news broadcast. Delegating the laser pointer problem to Future Adrien, he reached to turn the volume up.

“…defeated the creature!”

Oh.

She’d done it on her own.

Chat Noir wasn’t needed after all.

He exhaled and shook the maudlin thought away. Hours had passed since the monster’s sudden appearance, so clearly she had struggled to win. Adrien should have been there. He listened intently as the reporter described the extent of the damage – a fiery trail of destruction cut through five neighborhoods – until the reporter gasped and excitedly babbled about how the city had started to knit itself together. It was always a sight to behold when Ladybug’s creation magic washed away the havoc their battles wrought.

Well done, my Lady.

His lips thinned, and he slowed to the speed limit he’d been ignoring. No point in hurrying now.

“Now all of Paris’ speculation turns to Ladybug’s partner,” the reporter said, and Adrien groaned. The theories of where Chat Noir had gone were endless, ranging from reasonable to tinfoil hat. Sometimes Adrien sat down with a glass of wine and amused himself by scrolling through the more crackpot theories – but he really wasn’t in the mood to listen to speculation on why Chat Noir had failed to make an appearance at the first true threat Paris had faced since Hawkmoth. He moved to turn the radio off, yet before his hand reached the touchscreen, the reporter went on to add, “for who is this mysterious new superhero?”

What.

Plagg laughed derisively. “Serves you right!”

“Like our dynamic duo before him, our new hero appears to be following an animal motif – that of a turtle – and we have reports from other stations that he calls himself Carapace, although this is yet to be confirmed.”

Adrien slammed on the brakes. If the highway toward Paris hadn't been as abandoned as it was, he would have surely caused a pile-up. But his hands were shaking.

“We can only assume that this is Ladybug’s new partner, meant to take the place of Chat Noir who hasn’t been sighted since the defeat of Hawkmoth at his hands. And, if I may offer a personal opinion, it looks like Paris’ new guardians are off to a strong start as far as their teamwork goes. The tide of the battle turned as soon as Carapace arrived on the scene…“

Replaced.

Chat Noir had been replaced.

The snarl that tore from Adrien’s throat did not sound human.

Chapter Text

“Uh, Ladybug, ma’am, you’re beeping.”

Startled out of her reverie, Ladybug turned away from the solemn sight of the creature’s body wreathed in smoke as it slowly cooled to stone.

Ma’am?”

Nino gave her a helpless look. “Well, I don’t know what the level of formality is here. Uh, was it ‘my Lady’?”

No,” she said, with more force than she intended, and softened her voice. “Just Ladybug is fine.”

That silly wordplay didn’t belong to him. Only Chat had ever managed to make it sound sincere and respectful, and even then it had still sounded corny as hell. But Chat had been the master of corny sincerity, getting away with all kinds of ridiculousness without ever showing a hint of embarrassment, and somehow that combination had just worked.

“It’s blocking the Seine,” Nino murmured, with another glance at the river. “Shouldn’t we try cleaning that up?”

She nodded, even though it felt wrong to talk that way about the remains of what had clearly been a creature in pain, and threw her conjured whistle into the air.

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

It burst into sparks, sending out a wave of her Creation Magic, swarms of ladybugs spreading over Paris to repair the damage the fiery rampage had caused. Curiously, no swarm fluttered to the creature, leaving what increasingly looked like an enormous statue rising out of the water.

Ladybug pursed her lips, regarding it thoughtfully. If it hadn’t been cleansed, then… it hadn’t been evil at all, had it? A pang of regret gnawed at her gut. She shouldn’t have gone on the offensive, should have tried to figure out what it even was or what it wanted. But then, it hadn’t shown the kind of sentience necessary for communication. It had just mindlessly pursued water without paying attention to its surroundings beyond smashing the obstacles in its way.

And by attacking she had made herself an obstacle.

Her Miraculous beeped again, more urgently this time. She turned to Nino, pointing to the shield still hovering at his feet.

“Do me a favor and take me to a roof overlooking an alley I can disappear into? My timer is about to run out.”

“You have a timer?” he asked curiously, wrapping his gloved fingers around hers. When he pulled her up, she cautiously found her footing on the shield. She was about to protest as he kept holding her hand when they suddenly accelerated. Ladybug almost lost her balance, and only his grip kept her steady.

“Thanks,” she said with a small laugh, glancing down to see how he was keeping himself so still as the wind whipped past them.

His boots were melded with the shield, keeping him upright and balanced.

“Yeah, after using my Lucky Charm, I have five minutes before – poof.”

“You turn back.”

“Exactly.”

“Cool.” He paused, and self-consciously scratched the scruff on his chin. “So, on the topic of turning back…”

She raised an eyebrow.

“…how do I turn back?”

She laughed softly under her breath. “Did you just grab the Miraculous and transform as soon as you could?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled sheepishly. “In my defense, I had to hurry. And I arrived here just in the nick of time, so really, you should be thanking me for not letting him finish the speech.”

“Very good point. Thank you, ah…”

He puffed out his chest. “Carapace.”

Ladybug bit her lips to keep from grinning. Nino had given his codename some thought. And had evidently practiced how to say it with a certain flair. “Carapace. That was a very timely arrival, I appreciate it. To answer your question, you transformed with a phrase, right?”

He nodded. “Shield up.

“Right. Well, the de-transformation spell is the opposite of that. Mine is Spots on, and to undo it, I say Spots…” She trailed off, because she couldn’t very well say it out loud.

Her mind seized on that idea.

…or could she?

Spots off,” he guessed.

She nodded as her Miraculous gave her the last warning beep and they touched down on a roof.

Half a minute left. Could she really do this? It was against the rules.

…but the rules had cost her one partner already.

Plus, this was Nino. She’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more loyal or trustworthy than him. And he was wearing the Turtle Miraculous, so didn’t that make him kind of like Master Fu? Master Fu had known her identity, had blessed her with Tikki. So… maybe it would be okay.

No. Ladybug knew she was rationalizing selfishness.

But… didn’t she deserve to be a little selfish? Just this once?

“So I know you’ve got to go now, but before you do, could we agree to meet somewhere? Patrol or whatever.” Nino smiled at her. “This superhero thing is probably going to take me a while to figure out and it’d be cool if you could give me some pointers or something.”

“Alright." Marinette nodded slowly. "Let’s meet tomorrow. I’ll stop by your apartment.”

Nino's eyebrows shot up. “How would you know where–“

“Lesson number one. Protect your secret identity at all costs, Nino.” His eyes grew round and alarmed. “Even from Alya. Especially from Alya. It’s going to suck, because you will have to lie to her all the time. And I’m about to be a huge hypocrite because I really don’t want to lie to you twice over. Once was hard enough.”

Marinette peered down into the alley a few stories below, gauging the distance.

Sorry, Tikki. I’m going to have to ask forgiveness rather than permission on this one.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino thought he’d been handling the weirdest day of his life quite well.

He hadn’t panicked when faced with both his and his girlfriend’s looming Death By Immolation. Having a talking magical creature pop into existence in front of him had made him achieve a level of Zen he’d never thought was possible. He’d accepted becoming a superhero without blinking an eye, going with the flow of whatever the world had decided to throw at him on this day.

But it was when Ladybug stepped on the edge of a roof, grinning and beckoning him closer, that his Chill started to unravel under the weight of it all. Ladybug’s earrings beeped once more, and then she was enveloped in a bright white light.

Suddenly there was Marinette, standing where Ladybug had stood.

Marinette.

Marinette who, with a grin, spread her arms wide and allowed herself to fall backwards. He ran after her in a panic, trying in vain to catch her and reached the edge just in time to see her land safely on one knee in the alley below.

She straightened up, dusted herself off, and looked up.

What.

His girlfriend's best friend gave him a little wave accompanied by a shy smile, then jogged out of the alley.

He waved back.

When she was out of sight, Nino sat down, drew his knees to his chest, and considered his life choices.

Because, apparently, he’d spent a considerable amount of his life stalking Marinette. He had accompanied Alya on those late-night outings where she lay in wait for Ladybug to swing by. Alya had spent hours painstakingly mapping out her patrol routes to be able to do that. When Ladybug’s costume had changed, she’d dragged Nino on stake-outs every night for weeks because she wanted to get clear footage of Ladybug training her gliding.

Nino had enjoyed those nights. The stars had been out, he’d brought snacks and wine, and it had almost been romantic.

Except they’d been stalking Marinette.

Marinette, wearing nothing but a domino mask to disguise her face. Not even a modification of her hairstyle. When Marinette had exchanged her girlish pigtails in favor of wearing her hair down, so had Ladybug. At the exact same time. Somehow, with hours and hours poured into reconnaissance and research, they had completely and utterly failed to see it.

Nino raised his knuckles to his mouth, bit down to muffle the sound, and screamed.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien stalked into Le Grand Paris in a foul mood.

His lips thinned when he saw its owner and the former mayor of Paris deep in conversation with one of his guests in the lobby.

“Adrien!”

A familiar cry greeted him as soon as he passed the threshold. He made an effort to curve the corners of his lips up. Considering the height of her heels, Chloe was able to gather a truly impressive amount of speed as she sprinted toward him. He opened his arms and let her run into them.

Adrien closed his arms around his oldest friend in the world.

“Chloe,” he said. “You look stunning. Have you joined my industry yet?”

She tittered, batting huge eyelashes at him, and then launched into a torrent of words. He let the tidal wave wash over him as she happily babbled about how excited she was to see him back in Paris, about what she’d been up to, about the new Mercedes her daddy had bought her and more.

“…such good timing, there’s a party tonight where everyone who’s anyone is going to be at, and you really can’t miss this, Adrien!”

“Tonight?” he asked, bemused, and laid a hand on her platinum blond hair. He did not dare ruffle it – he’d never hear the end of it if he messed up her coiffure. Across the lobby, he saw Chloe’s father narrow his eyes at him. “Didn’t half of Paris just burn to the ground?”

She scoffed. “Oh please, it was no more than a tenth.”

“Well, that changes things.” He grinned when she lightly punched his arm.

“It’s a celebration of the monster’s defeat, duh.”

“Ah, the “Thank God we’re all alive”-party? Not to be confused with the “Day-ending-in-Y”-party?”

“Exactly!” She beamed at him. “You should come. I can introduce you to some people.”

Which was to say, she wanted to show him off, and Adrien was not in the mood to put on a show. Not tonight. He wanted to fall into his bed. A bed, anyway. Maybe acquire a tub of ice cream. And yet, when she stared up at him with big hopeful eyes, he found it hard to deny her. Especially since he was here to hit her up for favors.

He knew Chloe wasn’t what one might call a good person. She was self-absorbed, spoiled and had a mean streak, although the latter had softened with age and maturity. She never wrote him, only remembering his existence when he appeared in her vicinity. Then she invariably homed in on him like some sort of heat-seeking missile. Sometimes he wondered if she even had a grasp on object permanence.

And yet…

He and Chloe had a symbiotic sort of relationship. She used him, he used her, and neither of them really minded.

Over Chloe’s shoulder he met the gaze of her father. The older man was staring at him with poorly concealed disdain, like Adrien was something distasteful Chloe had dragged in. Which, Adrien supposed, was exactly what he was.

He tightened his hold on Chloe’s waist and saw Mr. Bourgeois stiffen.

I’m sorry, is Hawkmoth’s son defiling your daughter with his touch?

The first time Adrien had seen the Look he’d since grown very familiar with, he had been unprepared for it. He’d been even more unprepared to see it on the face of a man he’d known since Adrien had been a small child being escorted to playdates with Chloe.

He hadn’t known where else to go. His mansion had been surrounded by police officers. Nino’s place had been out of the question since it was way too cramped, too small for even Nino’s family, let alone another person on top of that, and he hadn’t known anyone else well enough to dare asking to stay the night.

All but one. A girl whose father owned a hotel and who was his oldest friend.

So he’d gone to Chloe, who had assured him that of course he could stay, of course he could have a room for as long as he needed, of course security would keep the paparazzi away – until her father had told her that this wouldn’t be appropriate, that he couldn’t be seen giving shelter to the son of the man who’d terrorized his city for years. That the voters wouldn’t approve, and that he’d be thrown out of office.

The way he’d looked at Adrien, it had made him want to run and hide, to turn into Chat Noir and never be Adrien Agreste again.

“I – I’ll go, sorry to have bothered you.”

Chloe’s fingers wrapped around his arm, her vice-like grip not letting him go, ignoring his very clear signals that he wanted her to let go, the way she always did. He could pull harder, shake her off, but that would hurt her and he didn’t want to hurt any more people.

“Adrien stays, daddy.” Her voice was like steel.

“Now, darling, what did I tell you about people below our station–“

“Adrien. Stays.”

And when the man made the mistake of attempting to push back against his daughter’s will once more, Chloe Bourgeoise unleashed the biggest temper tantrum the world had ever seen.

“Sure, Chloe,” he said so loud he knew his voice would carry, and turned to link their elbows. “Going to a party with you sounds absolutely delightful.”

“Chloe, how do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Not care what people think of you? I mean, some people really hate you – no offense.”

“None taken.”

“This is exactly what I mean! You… you never let it get to you.”

She laughed, trilling and haughty. “The first step is to realize that by failing to recognize excellence when they see it, these people have already proven that their taste is utter trash. Thus, they are garbage people with garbage opinions you can safely ignore. Or mock.”

Adrien smiled his most beautiful smile, savoring the rage that crossed the old man’s face. He made it a point to pay a visit to Le Grand Paris at least once whenever he came to town. Chloe so loved to be seen with him, and he so loved getting free room and board.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Tikki, I’m so, so sorry,” Marinette said as she slammed the door to the university’s empty atelier shut behind her. She huffed, out of breath from sprinting back to campus in the hopes of getting at least a little more work done this evening. She’d been forced to abandon her project when the creature had appeared. The deadline loomed, and she still didn’t have a design she was truly happy with.

Her kwami, nestled in her purse, did not respond, nor did she peek out.

“Tikki?”

“It’s alright, Marinette.” The kwami’s voice was muffled and sounded mildly resigned. “If you can trust your identity to anyone, it’s the Guardian. I’m just wondering why Wayzz has a new Master.”

Huh.

After all those warnings Tikki had given her to not ever reveal her identity to Chat Noir, “no matter how charming and friendly he might appear to be”, this was a rather underwhelming rebuke.

 

✧✦✧

 

“How the fuck did you allow this to happen?”

“All the vitals were normal, sir, we didn’t think–“

“Yes,” he said disdainfully, and the woman cowered, making herself small. Trying to hide from his wrath behind her glasses. “You very clearly did not think if you allowed a breach of this magnitude to happen.”

He turned toward the tank, gazing at the small creature floating within. It pulsed with power, flames licking its tiny body before being snuffed out by the tank’s lack of oxygen. Suddenly, as if sensing his scrutiny, it raised its oversized head to stare at him with empty eyes.

“…get this damn thing out of Paris.”

“Sir, no! None of our other facilities are as well-equipped as this one to contain it!”

“Yes, I saw how well you could contain it.” He sneered. “We are lucky your carelessness didn’t end up burning the city to the ground.”

Chapter Text

Nino was woken by the sound of someone hammering on his front door. Moaning softly, he opened his eyes just the tiniest fraction, ready to squeeze them shut again in defense against the blinding sunlight.

But there wasn’t any.

Nino blinked, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. Hm. So he hadn’t overslept.

Something stirred beside him and he froze.

Someone’s on my pillow.

Even though he had the nagging sense that there really shouldn’t be, his tired brain gave an expansive shrug. Alya, it declared, satisfied to have found the right answer, and went back to sleep mode.

But Alya had said he shouldn’t wait up tonight. Because… because…

Because there was a new superhero and Alya had happily chained herself to her office desk to research him. She’d voluntarily remain there forever if it meant uncovering new material for her Ladyblog. Her little hobby project was probably getting the most traffic it had in years.

He’d felt horrible guilt when he’d seen her texts, gushing over the exclusive interview she’d scored with the new hero. An exclusive interview with her boyfriend. But Ladybug – who was Marinette, how could she be Marinette? – had warned him, told him that it was of imperative importance to never reveal his secret identi–

Nino shot up from bed, twisting around to stare at the small turtle-esque creature resting on his pillow. It blinked up at him with big, adorable eyes, and then floated up, crossing its tiny legs as it did so.

“Good morning, Master.”

“…not a dream?”

“Not a dream,” the kwami – Wayzz, his name is Wayzz – confirmed.

“Woah.”

“Yes, Master.”

“…could you please stop calling me that? Nino is fine.”

“If you wish, Nino.”

The kwami hadn’t said much since Nino had de-transformed after correctly guessing “Shield Down” to be the trigger phrase. He’d only congratulated him on a successful first mission, and indicated he would explain everything once Ladybug – Marinette! – was there. Then he’d floated off to meditate, and that had been that.

He jumped as the pounding at his apartment door sounded again, this time accompanied by a faint, muffled whine of “Come onnnn.” Glancing at the clock, he cursed under his breath.

What kind of asshole was knocking on his door at four thirty in the goddamn morning?

Nino crossed the small, cluttered space to get to the front door of his apartment and ripped it open, not even caring that he was only wearing his boxer briefs. Whoever was disturbing his sleep had to pay, and if it turned out to be robbers or something equally shady, well – he had superpowers now.

It was Adrien.

Nino blinked rapidly, trying to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him in the dark. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, after all. But no, that blurry golden crown of hair looked distinctly like the wild mane Adrien wore these days, and if his squinting hadn’t revealed the bright green eyes he knew so well, the voice would certainly have given it away.

“Nino!”

World-renowned supermodel Adrien Agreste took one step forward, swayed dangerously, and, seeming confused by the sudden lack of door to lean on, fell forward. Nino caught him, bracing himself for the weight of a fully-grown man – but Adrien was light as a feather. Nino blinked, confused, and out of the corner of his eyes saw a green blur flit out of sight.

Ah. Enhanced strength. He made a mental note of it as he was enveloped by a hug. Burying his face in between his neck and shoulder, Adrien leaned close and – inhaled?

“Nino. You smell nice.”

“Wish I could say the same about you, dude,” Nino muttered under his breath, and wrapped an arm around the waist of one of his oldest friends. Said friend was clearly drunk off his ass, reeking of hard liquor. Adrien didn’t put up any resistance to being guided over the threshold and toward the couch in the living room. Instead he seemed more interested in taking in his surroundings.

“You redecorated!” It sounded like an accusation.

“Well, Alya moved in.” Over a year ago. “Can’t exactly subject her to the horror that is a bachelor pad.”

“It was nice before,” Adrien slurred, and Nino was half-tempted to ask how sure he was of that, considering he’d visited it only once during Paris fashion week. But then his friend gracelessly plopped himself on the couch. When he grinned that dopey grin of his, it was hard to hold even a single unkind thought about him. “But this is nice, too. Alya has good taste. When’s the wedding?”

Nino laughed at the brazen question. “Still a long way off.”

“Nooo.” Adrien’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows furrowed. “No, you need to lock that down.”

Nino chuckled, but Adrien’s frown deepened.

“No, you do. She could leave. That would be bad.”

He peered down at Adrien’s earnest face and decided to humor his strange mood. “If Alya wanted to leave, there’s not a force in the ‘verse that would hold her. And that includes wedding vows.”

While Adrien’s addled brain was busy processing that line of reasoning, Nino took the opportunity to sit down next to Adrien and wrangle off his leather boots. Their old couch was worn, but Alya prided herself in keeping it in pristine condition. She’d be spitting mad if, say, a muddy boot print were to defile it.

“So what brings you back to Paris, Adrien?” Specifically, to his door. At four thirty. In the morning. Damn, but Adrien could test his patience like no other. Well, other than Alya, anyway.

He didn’t answer right away, staring at the ceiling. “I’m done running.”

“Huh?”

“I’m moving back to Paris.”

“Huh.”

Nino supposed he should feel something at the news. It was what he’d wished Adrien had done after they’d graduated high school, and in all the years since. But now Nino was about to graduate with a degree in film studies and a major in sound design. Even if Adrien got his shit together now and decided to go to university, their lives had drifted out of sync.

It wasn’t that Adrien had become a bad person or anything. He was, in many ways, still the same kind dork he’d been when they’d met. It was just that they had so little in common these days that Nino found it hard to hold a conversation. Oh really, Adrien, London is too cold and damp this time of year for you? How awful. Well, Alya and I just high-fived each other because we figured out a rotation of spices that makes it bearable to eat ramen five nights in a row.

“You don’t sound happy.” An undercurrent of worry laced Adrien’s voice.

Nino smiled reassuringly. “Of course I’m happy. This is amazing news, dude!” The tension in Adrien’s shoulders released – and then he started curling up. In Nino’s lap. Making a sort of rumbling sound. What the fuck.

“Boundaries, bro,” he said, and pushed him away with a laugh. The deep rumble dissolved into something that sounded suspiciously like mewling and Nino was left to wonder just how high his friend really was. Even blackout drunk Adrien did not act like this. For a moment Nino fought the temptation to grab his smartphone, but films and photos taken of Adrien, even private ones, had a nasty habit of somehow ending up on the internet and amassing far too many clicks. Best to let embarrassing moments pass undocumented.

I’m giving up comedy gold for you, Adrien. You owe me.

“But I’m still wondering, what brought you here? At this time of night?”

“Ah. Well. Funny story.” He trailed off. After about half a minute, Nino realized that Adrien wasn’t pausing for dramatic effect – his gaze had become transfixed on the string of the table lamp. It was swaying slightly in the breeze rolling in through the window.

Nino snapped his fingers, and Adrien jerked awake.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and then added under his breath, “Fucking Plagg.”

Nino didn’t know what plagg was, but then who could keep up with all the designer drugs the idle rich were finding new and creative ways to snort these days?

Something in his chest twisted at the thought that Adrien had joined their ranks.

“I was here this afternoon,” Adrien murmured. His gaze skittered to the string again, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “But you weren’t here. So I went… Chloe invited me. Networking type thing. Secured two gigs. In Paris, I mean. Only going to take jobs in Paris now.”

“Mhm. Where’s the funny part of the story, Adrien?”

“There isn’t one. Unless the joke is me.”

And that was why, no matter how big the distance between them grew, Nino never turned Adrien away whenever he randomly decided to drop into his life.

Adrien was far from being his closest friend. But Nino was Adrien’s, and that was a sad indictment of the dude’s support system – a support system he seemed to desperately need. So Nino refused to abandon him, even though he had yet to find that magic combination of words that showed any sign of stopping let alone reversing Adrien’s painfully slow descent into being a hot mess.

“Must have been some networking event for you to be this hammered. You do that often?” His tone was one of idle curiosity, as if he wasn’t prying.

“No.” Adrien fidgeted uncomfortably, seeming to have enough self-awareness left to pick up on the underlying question. “I had a rough day, okay?” He paused. “There’s this girl.”

“Isn’t there always?” But that wasn’t true. Adrien was remarkably tight-lipped about his love life. Nino had always assumed it was because it wasn’t in his nature to brag.

“We met at work. And I fell in love. Like ‘planning the names of our future children’ level of love.” Nino’s eyebrow arched, intrigued by a story he had never heard before. “…but she didn’t want me. Doesn’t. And now she has someone new. In my place. Doing what we used to do.”

Nino made a sympathetic noise.

“I really want to punch him.”

And Nino couldn’t help but laugh at the unexpected swerve.

“I mean it.”

“I know, dude.”

“Is it crazy? To hate a man I’ve never met over a woman who never promised me a damn thing?”

The green eyes were beseeching him, and Nino slowly shook his head. “Nah, man. It’s human. Stupid and irrational. But human.”

“…I have to work with them.” Adrien’s voice was an anguished whisper. “I don’t know how to work with them. I probably am going to punch him as soon as I see him. I won’t even think, it’ll be just like, Hm, yes, this seems like a fine place for my fist.”

“Punching people is bad, Adrien.”

Adrien’s lips twitched, like there was a joke Nino was not in on. “Wanna hear a secret?” He emphasized the word, probably trying to sound mysterious and failing miserably.

“Sure.”

“I’ve solved a lot of my problems by punching them. I’m really good at punching things. Super good.” Adrien cackled like he’d just told the funniest punchline in the world and for one moment, Nino wondered if he’d been wrong to dismiss that story about Adrien getting into a bar fight in Prague as mere tabloid gossip. But no, the idea of Adrien getting into any kind of brawl was just… too absurd. He was a supermodel, for God’s sake, he couldn’t afford to damage his face.

“Who knew the fashion industry was so violent?” Nino tapped a finger against his scruffy chin, miming a thinking pose. “Was Zoolander a documentary after all?”

Adrien groaned. “Don’t you dare.”

“But Adrien–“

“No. Don’t throw away six months of peace for this, Nino, I’m warning you.”

“Adrien–“

“This joke is so old, it’s not even–”

“But why male models, Adrien?”

Adrien punched him. Lightly, in the shoulder, and Nino fell back laughing. When Adrien took the opportunity to attempt to curl up on top of him, Nino pushed his unusually handsy friend off. “Alright, dude. Sleep and sober up, and we’ll talk about this in the morning, alright?”

“Okay. Thanks, man.” As Nino got up from the couch, Adrien blinked at him slowly and sleepily. “You’re the best.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“Nino!”

Marinette let herself in with Alya’s spare key, a bounce in her step as she called for her new partner. Partner. They had so many things to discuss still, and despite the threat they were facing being unknown and sort of ominously looming, she could barely contain her excitement to finally have a partner again.

Yes, she missed Chat Noir. But he was gone, not coming back, and she had shed enough tears for him.

Fate had given her a great gift in making her new partner someone she already knew and trusted, and she was determined to treasure it. Comparison is the thief of joy, Marinette.

“I brought sustenance!” Triumphantly holding the haul from her parents’ bakery above her head, she burst into the living room.

Green eyes blinked at her in a confused daze. And Marinette’s heart stopped.

Adrien Agreste was lying on Nino’s couch, looking like he’d just been startled awake.

Except lying was an utterly inadequate word for whatever it was that he was doing. He was… he was… Adrien Agreste was lounging. Posing. Elegantly draping himself over the furniture like he’d arrived in Alya and Nino’s dingy apartment with the express purpose of classing the place up.

“Ngah,” said Marinette.

She abruptly realized that the billboard she walked past every day on her way to the university campus hadn’t done him justice because it had done nothing, absolutely nothing, to capture the allure of his movements as he slowly sat up.

It was just so unfair.

Unfair that Adrien Agreste, innocent teen heartthrob, should grow up into a man this devastatingly handsome. Unfair that his every gesture was graceful and somehow managed to convey pure sin. Unfair that all of him seemed expertly honed to make her feel like she was an insecure fifteen-year-old again.

His eyes lit up with recognition.

“Hello,” he said, and his voice, dear God, his voice, “Marinette.” He wasn’t saying her name so much as purring it, with a deep, smoky rumble that did not belong in decent company.

“Ahdrnggg,” she said.

Marinette wanted to scream.

Because she was not that insecure fifteen-year-old anymore. She was a mature, self-confident young woman who’d long since gotten over him and learned how healthy communication in a relationship was supposed to work. She was an adult, for God’s sake. She paid taxes and everything.

And it would just be so freaking unfair if it turned out that puberty never ended.

Adrien tilted his head, no doubt wondering if she’d hit her head and whether he should call an ambulance to check for brain damage.

But then he smiled.

There was warmth in it, real warmth, the corners of his eyes crinkling with affection. “I’m sorry.” he said, with a gentle sincerity so at odds with his appearance and yet so, so right for the boy in her memories, “I’ve been out of the country for so long my French is pretty rusty. I didn’t quite catch that.”

Her alleged good luck was a filthy lie.

Because that was it.

It was in that moment, when Adrien Agreste revealed that he was just as kind as she remembered him, that Marinette Dupain-Cheng, Certified Tax-Paying Adult, fell hopelessly in love with her Lycée crush a second time.

Chapter Text

Okay.

Deep breath.

You can do this.

“Hello, Adrien.”

Yes! Okay, keep that momentum going…

“Sorry, you caught me by surprise for a minute there.”

Self-deprecating laugh. Make it charming. For the love of God, don’t snort.

“It’s good to see you again.”

Smile.

Marinette’s mind filled with visions of her standing atop a podium, basking in thunderous applause and graciously accepting a trophy with the inscription “Talked to Adrien Agreste with actual real-life words arranged in grammatically correct sentences”.

‘Miss Dupain-Cheng’, an imaginary reporter asked her, ‘What’s it like to achieve a life-long dream at last?’

Well, first, I’d like to thank my mom, dad, and my kwami Tikki…

Oh.

Adrien’s lips were moving. (Such nice lips.)

Oh no.

He expected her to keep going. Right. Of course he did. Because they were normal adults, having the kind of respectable conversation normal adults had when they unexpectedly ran into an old school friend. Oh God, this was going to be exhausting.

“…to see you, too.” Adrien’s low voice slowly came back into focus. “I’m sorry for startling you, I just kind of spontaneously got here a few hours ago. Are you here to see Nino?”

She nodded, not quite trusting her own voice. “Yeah, I…” She held up the box of pastries by way of explanation. “Breakfast.”

And at that, Adrien tipped his head back, taking in a deep breath. “Ah,” he murmured, his eyelids fluttering. And then he made a deep, guttural sound that quickly turned into an awkward cough. “Smells good. From your parents’ bakery?”

She nodded, not quite sure what to make of his reaction. Except... “You remembered,” she said softly. He blinked at her in confusion. “That my parents have a bakery, I mean.”

Her clarification seemed to only confuse him more and she panicked for a moment, reviewing what she’d said. But no, she had used completely normal words to construct a completely normal sentence. High-five, adult self. High-five.

“Of course I remember,” Adrien said with a frown. “How could I forget you, Marinette?”

He was trying to kill her.

That was the only explanation. Adrien Agreste was trying to kill her. Because looking at her like that while dropping ridiculously smooth lines was the stuff of her teenage dreams and there was just no way these things happened in real life, so Adrien had to be actively trying to give her a heart attack.

As soon as she accepted that premise, a strange calm washed over her. Her heartbeat slowed its panicked beat. Because Marinette was nothing if not a fighter and she refused, absolutely refused to die like this. Bring it, Agreste.

“Seriously, I remember every time you brought bakery samples to class.” He sighed wistfully. “Those days were the stuff of legends. Great battles were fought.”

“Battles?” she repeated, suddenly paranoid that he’d seen the silly direction of her thoughts.

“Yes. Me versus my mortal enemies.” He closed his eyes and, in a grave and ominous voice, whispered, “Carbs.”

Marinette couldn’t help it. She laughed.

“Mock not my pain, Marinette!” Adrien cried, and she laughed harder, at both his dramatics and her own overwrought reaction to this absolute dork. “My willpower – shattered! Meal plans – ruined! Protein goals – not reached!”

When her laughing fit subsided, his voice dropped back to its normal cadence. “So you see, your parents’ bakery almost cost me my modeling career. Of course I remember it.”

“You poor thing.”

They shared a smile, and Marinette wondered if he’d been trying to set her at ease on purpose. If so, she was clearly not the only one who had grown up. As much as she’d admired Adrien when they were young, even she had to admit the boy had at times been awful at reading a room.

For a moment, she allowed herself to take a closer look at him. Which wasn’t easy because his sheer prettiness got in the way, leading her thoughts astray into daydreams. Focus.

There were dark shadows under his eyes, marring his perfect complexion. His clothes – which her designer eyes instantly pegged as casual evening wear – were wrinkled and looked like they’d been slept in. He was smiling, but there was a tense set to his jaw, and it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Adrien was unhappy.

Maybe she could do something about that. Maybe she should do something about that.

“You know, I would like to say I’d never have aided the enemy if I’d known,” she said and slowly, oh-so-tantalizingly opened the box filled with macarons. “But that would be a lie. For you see, I’ve been a double agent all along.”

He gasped theatrically. “Marinette, no!”

“I’m sorry, Adrien. I’m a trai-torte.”

She’d never been able to shake that Chat-induced invasion of puns into her vocabulary. Maybe she’d even grown fond of them, a little. Timing, Marinette, timing.  She mentally slapped herself for that line. All those years of wanting to talk to Adrien and now that she was really doing it, oh my God, what was coming out of her mouth? Idiotic puns.

I blame you, Chat.

But then Adrien laughed. Truly laughed, wild and uninhibited and real, his shoulders shaking. It was the most beautiful sound in the world.

All is forgiven, kitty.

“That was terrible,” he said as his laughter subsided.

“I know. I think I hurt my soul with that one.” She sat down next to him. Adrien tensed before drawing back one of his long legs to make room for her. She took out one of the macarons and his gaze followed the movement. “I have a theory.”

“Oh?”

“Wanna know what it is?”

“Mhm,” he said, leaning forward with half-lidded eyes.

“I believe this is your very convoluted way of asking to be fed.” She held out the small pastry and his gaze fixed on it.

“You’re not wrong,” he murmured. His lips closed around the macaron.

Marinette’s brain short-circuited.

Frozen to the spot, she watched Adrien Agreste eat right out of her hand.

Help.

His tongue darted out, lapping at the frosting coating her fingertips.

He’s trying to kill me.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino wasn’t sure what he had expected to see when he followed the sound of voices and laughter coming from his living room.

He just knew that Adrien licking Marinette’s finger wasn’t it.

Nino closed his eyes and took a long sip from the coffee he’d taken a small detour to the kitchen for. Coffee he needed because some asshole had disrupted his sleep.

The poor girl was going to die.

He cleared his throat and Marinette shrieked. Adrien flinched, though that was too mild a word for it. No, he jumped away from her with remarkable dexterity to clutch his ears. Like a startled cat.

Cat. The word tripped something in his brain, like he was on the verge of realizing something, something about last night, and he frowned and – what was he thinking about again? Ah yeah, why Adrien was clutching his head in agony.

“Hangover getting to you?” Nino asked casually, as if he hadn’t just seen what he’d seen, and handed him the second coffee mug he had so graciously prepared. Although really, he should be dumping it over Adrien’s messy hair – but that would stain the couch. What kind of move was this, to wake Nino up at four fucking thirty in the morning to tell him a sob story about a girl he was in love with only to turn around and start seducing Nino’s friends in his living room.

While Nino had never doubted that Adrien had a healthy love life he kept hidden somewhere, he’d always rolled his eyes at the breathless reports of all the conquests and scandals and orgies the supermodel was supposedly involved in. But coming across this scene and considering the speed at which Adrien must have made his move, well, Nino was this close to believing that the secret baby momma in Milan was real.

But who even knew when it came to Adrien goddamn Agreste. Nino certainly didn’t.

“Thank you,” Adrien whispered as he accepted the coffee, and avoided his gaze. Guilt. Over his behavior or just over getting caught?

Nino turned away from what was once his best friend and instead concerned himself with Marinette who was also Ladybug. He still hadn’t managed to wrap his mind around that one. There was very little trace of the cool and collected heroine to be found in Marinette’s current state. Red-faced and seeming close to hyperventilating, her gaze kept darting between him and Adrien.

“Hey Marinette, why don’t you go on ahead to the kitchen, so we can talk about the Thing over breakfast.”

She nodded, a little too rigorously, grateful for the way out. “O-okay.” She turned to Adrien as if to say something, but the words seemed to get stuck in her throat because all that came out was a sad, little ack. So she waved, and then high-tailed out of the room.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Nino said, “Dude, what the actual fuck.”

He had the gall to shrug sheepishly while taking a deep sip from the mug, grimacing at the taste. Oh, had Nino forgotten to offer him the cream he loved so much? Too bad. “I’d say I can explain, but it’d be a lie.”

“What the hell did you take last night, man?”

Nino glared at Adrien’s softly mumbled nothing.

“Well, you had better have taken something because temporary insanity is the only defense you could plead that’d keep me from kicking you out. You can sober up somewhere else.”

Adrien opened his mouth, then closed it again. Then he sighed and got up from the couch. “I’m sorry, Nino.” He peered at the door Marinette had disappeared through, brows creased in a slight frown. “Is she going to be okay? She seemed…”

“She’ll be fine, but let’s get one thing straight – Marinette is not to be your rebound, okay?”

A glint entered Adrien’s eyes, one Nino did not like at all, and he squared his jaw in defiance. “Why not?”

“Why n– because she deserves better than that, man!”

Adrien grew very still. “Are your friends too good for the likes of me, Nino?”

“You’re playing,” he snapped. “And Marinette is the kind of girl who gets invested, man.” God only knew how many nights he’d spent on running to the store after Luka broke up with her to keep up the supply of ice cream and tissues. Besides, Marinette had been head over heels in love with Adrien all throughout Lycée so there really was no way she wasn’t already invested.

Adrien gave him a long, searching look. “You’ve been reading too many tabloids,” he said softly.

And because Nino couldn’t really deny that, he marched to the apartment door and held it open. But Adrien didn’t move from his spot, frowning.

“Marinette was my friend, too, you know. I like her.” Under his breath he added, “I’ve always liked her.”

“You don’t know her.” And he didn’t, not really, because Marinette had been too shy and self-conscious around her crush to ever show him more than glimpses of her real personality. Nino paused at the thought. Up until yesterday he hadn’t known Marinette, either, had he? None of them did.

A mutinous expression crossed Adrien’s features before he smoothed them out into that perfect Agreste smile. “But I’d like to. And I’m moving back to Paris so it’s not like I’m going to disappear on her.”

Nino didn’t have the energy to argue this point now, not when running so low on sleep and with Ladybug waiting in the next room for him to talk about them being superheroes which was considerably more interesting than this drama. So he just nodded at the door. Adrien’s shoulders sagged, and he walked past him with a resigned sigh.

Putting one foot on the threshold to keep the door from closing, he said, “Look, I’m sorry, this was not how I wanted this to go. I shouldn’t have dropped in without calling, certainly not in that state…”

“And at four thirty. In the morning.”

“Or that. But it was all kind of–” He vaguely waved his hand as he appeared to be searching for words, and then he sighed again. “Let’s just say I had no plans to move back two days ago. Things happened that kind of forced my hand. So can we forget about this, and meet for lunch or something and just… start over?” That wounded puppy dog look had to be calculated, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t effective, dammit.

“…yeah, okay. Lunch or something.”

He could do lunch. It was the starting over bit he had his doubts about.

“Welcome back to Paris, Adrien,” Nino said, and shut the door.

Chapter Text

When Nino came into the kitchen, Marinette was staring at her hand in a way that could only be described as dreamy. Then she sighed. Wistfully.

Wonderful.

Yeah, Marinette was the kind of girl who got invested. Absurdly so, and at lightning speed. This was going to end in tears.

“He’s drunk.”

Marinette startled awake, glancing up at him with guilt in her eyes. “Pardon?”

“Adrien. That nap he took on my couch was way too short to sober him up.” He sat down across from her, reaching for a slice of wheat bread. “I’m sorry he made you uncomfortable. Adrien gets handsy when he’s drunk.” Not really, alcohol had never lead to that before, but he had been very touchy-feely last night.

“Oh, he didn’t…I mean…” Her blush returned in full force, and she stared at her hands, folded in her lap. Then, she asked softly, “How has he been? I haven’t talked to him in so long…”

“He’s…” Well, he couldn’t say fine, because that would be a blatant lie. “Busy,” was the word he settled on.

Marinette nodded and said nothing, still staring at her hands. Or rather, hand. Singular.

“Look, Marinette. I know I have no business butting in and you’re an adult capable of making your own decisions and everything…”

He trailed off, and she smiled. “But? It feels like there’s a ‘but’ lurking in there somewhere.”

“But,” Nino said with a nod of acknowledgement. “Look, I don’t like talking shit behind people’s backs, but here we go. He’s my friend, I care for the guy, but I don’t think Adrien would be good for you. He’s… I’ve known him for eight years and in that time, he has never introduced me to a single girlfriend, and I’m his closest friend. And it’s not exactly lack of opportunity, so I’m pretty sure he’s allergic to commitment. Whatever mental image you have of him…” He grimaced. “It’s likely wrong. Adrien hasn’t been the same since his dad died.”

She grew very still then, and suddenly it hit him.

He was talking to Ladybug.

Ladybug, who had been there when Adrien’s father had died. No. When Adrien’s father had been killed.

“I know,” Marinette whispered. “I tried to set it right, but I failed. It was an accident. And I couldn’t – Chat was so upset with me…”

Upset at her? Nino frowned. “So, what happened to him anyway?” He and Alya had a long-running bet on this. While Alya had committed herself to the “Chat Noir was recruited by the government as an assassin to escape prosecution”-theory, Nino had stuck to the far more likely and down-to-earth “Retirement out of guilt”-option.

“Good question,” Marinette muttered.

“You don’t know?”

She shook her head, and smiled. It was a little crooked. “Chat and I kept our identities secret even from each other. He didn’t tell me where he was going, and I have no way of tracking him down.” She paused, and then shifted in her seat, looking around. “Although someone did.”

“Indeed,” said Wayzz, and Marinette lit up. The purse she’d slung around the back of her chair moved, and a red blur shot out of it – directly at Wayzz.

“Wayzz!” A small being that looked remarkably like his kwami, except red and spotted and somehow even more adorable, wrapped its tiny arms around his new partner. “It’s good to see you! I haven’t heard from you in so long!”

Nino slanted a glance at Marinette who watched the hug with a small smile on her face.

“My Master and I–“ Wayzz paused, patting Ladybug’s kwami on the big black spot on its head. “My former Master and I have had our hands full with an important mission.”

Marinette opened her mouth, as did Nino, questions on their lips, but before they could make a sound, the red kwami let out a soft croon and hugged Wayzz tighter.

“I’m so sorry, Wayzz.”

“All is well,” the green kwami said stiffly. “We have known this was coming for quite some time.” But he still snuggled against what Nino was growing increasingly convinced was a girl kwami. Its – her voice was even higher pitched than Wayzz’s.

Then the red kwami disentangled herself to flutter in front of Nino.

And bowed.

“Guardian,” she said formally. “I look forward to our new partnership. May your sight be true.”

“Um.” Marinette, help. But when he met his friend’s gaze, she gave him a small shrug, looking as mystified as he felt. Alright, roll with it. “Thanks. You, too.”

Ladybug’s kwami giggled, a sweet, clear sound like the chime of a bell. “Wayzz, I like this one. Forgive me if I seem forward with you, Nino.” She floated to Marinette, landing atop her head and curling up in her hair. “I know you’ve just met me, but I’ve known you for years. I’m Tikki.”

“Hello, Tikki. It’s nice to meet you, too.” So Marinette had carried her kwami around in her purse all these years? His eyes widened when he realized that this meant that some of his less dignified teenage antics had been witnessed by a powerful magical being. Great.

Marinette was gazing at Wayzz, nibbling on her lower lip. “What mission were you talking about, Wayzz? Why did you and Master Fu leave for so long? Where is he?”

“Who’s Master Fu?” Nino asked.

Tikki grew still, as did Wayzz. Then he sighed. “The former wielder of the Turtle Miraculous. He was one in a long line of Guardians, trained for this task since childhood amongst many, selected above the others for excelling. He was a fine Guardian, exemplifying the virtues we are supposed to embody, and he Chose well.”

He quelled Nino’s questioning look with a warning one of his own, seeming to not want what was gearing up to be A Speech interrupted again. So Nino didn’t, even though he clearly hadn’t been trained since childhood for this, nor did he knew what that Choosing thing – he could hear the Ominous Capital Letters Of Significance – was about.

“But – his life was defined by an event that happened in his youth, when he and I had been joined for less than a year. Under his watchful gaze, our sanctuary, where we trained and chose new Miraculous wielders, was attacked. Our temple destroyed, our numbers cut down, and our line of succession broken. Even worse, we lost two Miraculouses – the butterfly, Nooroo, and the peacock, Duusu. Worst of all…” He closed his eyes. “We lost our wisdom. A book in which all secret knowledge on the power gathered over many generations was written down. Us kwami are forbidden to read it, for we live forever, and can be forced into servitude against our will. So to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, the secrets of the Miraculouses’ full power lived and died with our wielders – and only those who had proven themselves virtuous and worthy.”

Tikki floated out of Marinette’s hair to hover behind Wayzz, gently patting his back.

“My Master–“ A quick glance at Nino, and he corrected himself. “All his long life, my former Master tried to set right what had once gone wrong. And, with the help of Ladybug and Chat Noir, we were finally able to return Nooroo, the butterfly, to safety.”

“Hawkmoth,” Nino said softly.

“Yes. Hawkmoth. Nooroo was much abused in the time he was lost and still has not recovered from it.” His antenna twitched. “My Master was old. Older than he looked, for turtles are long-lived, but all the same, no human escapes the long sleep.” The kwami’s shoulders drooped. “But my Master had finally recovered one of the three lost ones, and seeing Nooroo’s scars, he grew determined to find the other two, to see his life’s work finished. That is why…”

He floated toward Nino, an apologetic expression on his face.

“He neglected his other duties. I kept telling him he should be preparing his successor, and he did select several prospective candidates, of which you were one, Nino. But we had such a promising lead on the whereabouts of the book that he kept putting off the Choosing. Until…” Wayzz sighed, and Tikki crooned again, nuzzling his cheek with hers.

“He’s really gone?” Marinette whispered, cheeks pale.

“Yes. But his passing was peaceful, and his single-minded pursuit did leave us with a great gift.” Wayzz raised his hand, and Nino’s Miraculous glowed.

In a burst of green sparkles, an ancient tome appeared on the kitchen table.

 

✧✦✧

 

Brie de Meaux.”

A barely perceptible twitch.

Livarot.”

He placed it at the far end of the table, as this particular brand of cheese had a certain aroma that far surpassed even that of Plagg’s usual fare. A high-pitched keen escaped the kwami before he managed to compose himself and return to stony silence.

“And of course, Camembert de Normandie.”

Plagg lost it, snatching the wheel straight out of his hand.

“Fine! Fine. What do you want, you emotional terrorist?”

Adrien narrowed his eyes. “You know what I want.”

He’d goddamn scented Nino. And purred. And tried to cuddle. He was grateful the alcohol dulled the memories, but the embarrassment burned all the same. Still, it was Nino, and Nino, thanks to many years of moonlighting as a DJ, was very que sera about the antics of drunk idiots.

It was his behavior toward Marinette he remembered in humiliating detail. He had just gotten her to relax, had her shake that self-consciousness that hid the wit he’d first glimpsed in her texts. She’d talked to him. She’d made a pun!

And he had licked her.

She’s never going to talk to me again.

That thought bothered him. Marinette’s efforts to stay in touch with him had been second only to Nino’s, and he appreciated that to this day, even if their acquaintance had dwindled to wishing each other happy birthday once a year. The odd pang of what could have been when he saw those empty phrases had never been enough to move him to action, to try and reconnect, but now…

Well, she’d made a pun.

No, more than that, they’d clicked, falling into banter that flowed as easily as it was enjoyable. It had been cut short by his impulsiveness, but now that he’d had a small taste of what talking to Marinette was like, he wanted more.

Even if Nino disapproved. Which… really. He’d looked at Adrien like he was twirling a mustache and announcing his fiendish plans to ravish the girl.

“No can do.” Breaking the cheese wheel in half, Plagg set to devouring it.

“You said–“

“I know what I said. We release powers to our wielders bit by bit, and we can choose to set the pace of that progress. But you!” He leveled an accusing cheese-smeared paw at Adrien. “You locked me up!”

“I’m sorry, Plagg,” Adrien said softly. The kwami’s tail bristled with fury, but then he went on as if he hadn’t heard.

“I was dormant, but dormant is not severed. Our bond was still in place. And it kept growing the way it was supposed to, at the pace I’d decided on. Power once released can’t be taken away, not without taking it all away.” His ears flattened, and suddenly all anger left his little body. “We were… such a good match. I wanted you to reach our full potential quickly.”

“Plagg…” Adrien reached out, curling his hands around the tiny black ball of fur. And, to his surprise, Plagg let him, allowing himself to settle down in Adrien’s cupped hands. Using his pinky, Adrien found the spot Plagg would vehemently deny was his favorite, and scratched.

“You would be used to it.” The kwami leaned into the touch. “If it had grown with you instead of hitting you all at once, you’d be able to control it.”

“Ah.” He kept scratching as he thought about this. “So I’m just… going to have to learn to deal?” It was one thing to embarrass himself in front of a stranger, but there were only so many times he could act like a freaking cat in front of people who knew him before someone started piecing puzzle pieces together. No matter how strong the glamor surrounding Chat Noir, there were some things that just couldn’t be ignored. “Nothing I can do to make it stop?”

“There is one thing.” The kwami suddenly flew out of his cupped hands to float at Adrien’s eye level, a challenge blazing in his eyes. “It’s very simple, you see? All you have to do is take off the ring. When the powers and the bond are dormant, so are the instincts.”

Ah.

He self-consciously twisted the silver ring around his finger, his gaze falling to it. Even though his hands were now much bigger than they had been when he’d first been gifted with his Miraculous, its form molded itself to him perfectly. It felt… right. The weight of it, the shape of it. Adrien was complete.

He hadn’t even realized that he’d been feeling incomplete this entire time.

He’d taken off the ring when he’d been drowning in grief, and the pain of it had barely registered. When his grief had ebbed, he had figured the faint background noise of loss was just part of his new normal going forward.

“Alright,” he said. “Guess I’m going to get used to it.”

Plagg raised his chin with a dismissive hmpf as he floated back Adrien’s palms for more pats. “Good luck with that, old man.”

Chapter Text

Footage of the fight was sparse. Unsurprisingly, it was the Ladyblog that proved to be Adrien’s best resource. Alya, in all her careless glory, had gotten closer than any of the other journalists who’d had the good sense to fear for their own safety and to protect their equipment from overheating.

Still, Adrien couldn’t complain because her high definition close ups had allowed him to study the monster, pausing and rewinding whenever he spotted something interesting. For one, although at first glance it looked like a lizard, the creature hadn’t been scaled – what had looked like scales had been dried magma plates, which, on zooming in and slowing down, he’d caught shifting and moving, revealing red-hot lava beneath.

Unfortunately, she had failed to capture the creature’s defeat and demise, having been removed from the battlefield by ‘Carapace’.

He stifled the rising hiss. Closing the video now focused entirely on the new hero, he instead searched for aerial footage timestamped around when the enemy went down. Trying to ignore the chatter of the helicopter pilot, he instead focused on the grainy picture. A small figure that had to be Ladybug was left standing alone as a green-clad figure hurried away. She turned toward the monster and–

Adrien yowled and yanked the earbuds out. An answering roar could be heard from the creature before he managed to hit the pause button on his laptop.

What kind of hellish noise was that?

Plagg seemed to concur because the kwami was startled out of his sleep, his fur standing on end. Adrien preemptively slid another slice of cheese toward him before he gained enough of his bearings to start retaliating for having his nap interrupted.

At the rate Adrien was bribing him, Plagg was going to become one chubby cat. But that was a price Adrien was willing to pay.

Plagg regarded his peace offering with suspicion.

“Trying to buy my affections, huh?”

“Yes. Is it working?”

“No.”

But he ate the cheese anyway, and settled back down to resume his nap.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Woah,” Marinette murmured as she came across a page with a beautiful drawing of one of her predecessors. The woman in the picture wore an outfit that bore a strong resemblance to Ladybug’s costume – those spots were hard to miss – but it was cut like a traditional Chinese garment. She was poised to strike, arm and leg extended, grace and danger all at once. “How many Ladybugs have there been?”

“Countless,” Tikki said, hovering beside her ear and pointedly not looking at the pages. “Whenever a threat against humanity arises, a Ladybug is called to serve as the shield. So it has been since the days the first Miraculous was forged.”

“Chat Noir, too?”

“Yes. We and the Black Cat are but halves of a whole. He is the sword.” She gestured vaguely in the direction of the tome, still refusing to look. “Somewhere in those pages you should find old incarnations of him as well.”

Marinette did just that, only half-listening to the conversation between Wayzz and Nino beside her as she quickly but carefully flipped the brittle pages. In the many years that had passed since she’d last seen her first partner, she had almost managed to put him out of her mind, he so rarely crossed her thoughts these days. Only when she made a particularly egregious pun, now, really. But having Nino here – having another Miraculous user by her side, facing a powerful threat… well, it was hard not to think about him.

“…a great responsibility,” Wayzz said.

“But I can’t read it!” Nino objected.

“And I don’t expect you to. Deciphering and recovering what’s been lost is the task of a lifetime.”

Marinette could not help the small sound of delight when she spotted green cat eyes staring at her from the pages. This one was a drawing of a black-haired beauty, her smile wide and mischievous as she stalked toward the reader, twirling a spear. She was wearing a toga of sorts, accessorized with black feathers, and on her head sat an ancient Inca crown. With cat ears.

Stifling a giggle at the curious mix of ancient history and kitty costume, she flipped the page. Marinette’s smile died.

This Black Cat did not look mischievous at all.

Lazily leaning back on a throne of skulls, his claws curled around a rotting head, his fine medieval coat stained with rusted red. She blinked rapidly, and for just a moment she saw the unreadable letters shift and rearrange themselves.

all hail Lord Plague, herald of Pestilence

Marinette slammed the book shut, and suddenly found herself scrutinized by three set of eyes.

“…cool book,” she said.

“Please refrain from damaging the ancient, priceless tome,” Wayzz said with a sigh.

Nino frowned at her, but said nothing, then launched into his next volley of questions to his kwami about his superhero alter ego.

“Marinette?” Tikki said, so softly only she could hear. “What is it?”

“There was a picture of a Black Cat, but he didn’t… Tikki, he looked…” Her whisper trailed off into silence.

Tikki’s expression filled with sorrow. “There have been instances of Black Cats abusing the power they were given.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s in Destruction’s nature to be destructive. Not every Cat succeeds in balancing on the razor’s edge.”

“Why is this the first I’m hearing of this?” she half-whispered, half-hissed.

“It’s not, Marinette.”

Marinette fell silent and turned away, half-heartedly focusing back on the conversation beside her.

“Okay, so what’s my ultimate power?”

“Ultimate power?” Wayzz repeated, appearing bewildered.

“Yeah, the one Marinette said I could use once per battle?”

“Ah. Yes, once per transformation, indeed.” A short pause and a decisive nod. “The words are “Jade Sight”. Use it only in your moment of greatest despair, when the battle seems all but lost. Use it too soon, when matters are not yet dire, and you will waste it. It cannot win the battle for you, it can only ever prevent you from losing.”

Nino was nodding eagerly, but his eyebrows drew together the longer Wayzz’s cryptic warning kept going. “Okay, but what does it do?”

“Well.” The little kwami’s antenna twitched. “I would have told you. But you interrupted my speech.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then Nino barked out a laugh. “You do have sass hiding somewhere after all, Wayzz!”

The small creature merely shrugged. “It’s not like it was a speech spanning untold generations of Guardians, each honoring the sacred moment they received it through festivals and prayers. It’s not like I have recited it in a hundred different languages.”

“Wayzz–“

“And it’s certainly not like it far surpassed the cliff notes version.”

“Wayzz, would you like to retroactively give the speech now?”

“…yes.”

Nino grinned, torn between sheepish and amused, and held up a finger. “One moment, then.” He scrambled to his feet and hurried out of the kitchen, returning moments later with his laptop. He opened it and scrolled through his – extensive – song collection. Wayzz gave him a baffled look.

Eventually, Nino looked up, and nodded gravely.

“As I said, it was an epic speech. Deserving of epic background music.”

He hit play, and the haunting sound of drums echoed through the tinny speakers, seamlessly transitioning into a full-blown orchestra. Marinette laughed softly, and immediately stifled it, trying to look as solemn as the occasion demanded.

“Proceed.”

Eyeing the laptop with suspicion, but not to be deterred from reestablishing tradition, Wayzz cleared his throat.

“Nino Lahiffe. You have been Chosen. From this day forward, the eternal battle against Evil…”

 

✧✦✧

 

Paris had a new tourist attraction.

Alya made her way through the crowd, employing a multi-pronged strategy of sneaking, muttered pardons and, if nothing else worked, a firm elbow shove. Finally, she came as close to the Seine’s shore as she was likely to get, gazing down at the great stone beast rising out of the water.

It looked almost peaceful. Now that it wasn’t on fire.

A few tourists had snuck past the police tape to take selfies in front of it, only to run like hell when they were spotted and chased off, laughing all the way. Adjusting the lens of her camera, Alya took it all in, slowly making her way along the promenade to document it from every angle. She took pictures of the gathered crowd, too, to comb through later to see if anyone struck her as suspicious.

After all, it was not unusual for suspects to return to the scene of their crime. And somehow, with the way the creature had died, she did not think it had decided to appear in and rampage through Paris on its own.

As the sun set and the crowd started dispersing, Alya showed no sign of slowing down. Ideally, she’d have liked to start investigating where the creature had appeared, not where it had died, but she only had a limited window of time to preserve this evidence for eternity. Already a demolition crew had moved in to tear the statue down, trying to clear the Seine for boats and ships once more. The creature’s long tail had been half-dismantled, but it was slow going and the full removal would likely take them weeks.

She would go stake out its place of origin later tonight.

Her phone vibrated, and she flinched guiltily.

She was busy with an important investigation that couldn’t wait. And she definitely wasn’t avoiding her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, who had begged her not to run into danger, and whom she had completely ignored.

The worst part of it was that he probably wouldn’t even raise his voice at her. He’d just give her that look, the one of immeasurable disappointment and hurt. But damn it, she was a woman on a mission. This was her calling!

She snuck a peek at her phone.

Nino: babe what do u want for dinner

Nino: cuz i’m in the mood for gyros. u in?

Nino was a master in the art of the subtle guilt trip.

Nino: babe?

Alya: I’ll bring some <3

She had to face him eventually, so might as well come bearing food to appease him.

“Pardon,” she murmured as she pushed her way past a tall blond man who did not appear to be part of a group, as most people were. He was staring at the creature with pursed lips and a thoughtful expression on his handsome face.

“Alya?”

She froze, blinking at the man who was gazing at her with equal surprise. Then his lips curved into a smile, and that she recognized.

“Adrien!”

“I should have known you’d be here,” he said, nodding to her camera. “Research for the Ladyblog?”

She nodded happily, returning his smile. “Let’s just say the Ladyblog’s traffic has exploded over the last two days, and my readers are hungry for more.”

“How gracious of you to provide it,” he said, amusement tinging his deep voice.

“When did you get back to Paris? Nino didn’t tell me you were coming!” And Nino always announced Adrien’s upcoming visits. First with giddy happiness, and eventually with a muted sort of excitement, his enthusiasm having dimmed in recent years when Adrien had flaked one too many times. But he always got his hopes up all over again.

“Ah, yeah.” Adrien awkwardly shifted his weight. “I let him know. It was kind of a spontaneous decision, I just arrived yesterday.”

Alya’s analytical brain seized that information and fed it through her existing knowledge base, as it so routinely did.

It generated a highly unwelcome conclusion she immediately shook off.

“That’s great,” she chirped, and stuffed her camera into her backpack. “We should definitely catch up soon. For now, speaking of Nino, I’ve kept him waiting long enough and really should be headed home.”

As she hurried away from Adrien, he bemusedly raised his open palm in a small wave.

Alya tried very hard to convince herself that it was sheer coincidence that a monster had attacked Paris on the very same day Hawkmoth’s son had come back to town.

 

✧✦✧

 

“She’s headed over.” Nino beamed at Marinette. “Are you going to stay for dinner with us?”

“Nah,” Marinette said, stretching her arms and yawning. “I’d rather not suspiciously not-explain what we’ve been up to all day.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Alright, let’s get our stories straight. I came over with breakfast looking for Alya, but she wasn’t there, so I hung out with you for a while.”

Nino blinked at the ease with which the lie came to her lips.

“You have a lot of practice with this, huh?”

Her expression became somber. “I do. It’s amazing how good of a liar this job makes of you. It’s why…” She looked down at her hands. “When Luka and I broke up… he caught me in a lie, and then he really started looking for them. We didn’t last long after that.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. I guess what I’m trying to say is…”

“I’m fucked?” There was no way he could keep this from Alya for any length of time.

She smiled sympathetically. “Well, I’ve managed to keep it up for years. What works for me is this – Alya is clever, and she wants to feel clever. Never try to straight-up deny something she knows. Misdirect her toward another conclusion so she can feel like she solved the mystery, and she’ll move on to the next one.”

“I can’t believe you’re giving me tips on how to lie to my girlfriend.”

She shrugged and stood up. “Welcome to the superhero lifestyle, Nino.”

 

✧✦✧

 

With the preliminary research concluded, for just a moment, Adrien was tempted to wait for a Grand Entrance.

He’d wait for the next monster to appear, until Ladybug was cornered and in danger. He’d jump in and save her in the most badass of ways, preferably while upstaging Carapace somehow. Then he’d strike a dramatic pose and say something suave and cool. She’d fall in love with him, finally, and they’d live happily ever after.

He laughed softly at his own immaturity. Childish daydreams he’d left behind. How pathetic that some part of him still wanted her.

This was duty, nothing more. He would be professional. Which meant consulting and exchanging intel with her now, not waiting until the heat of battle.

“Plagg.”

He gently scratched his kwami behind his ear and he stirred from his nap.

“What.” The kwami’s voice was flat as he watched him through narrow eyes.

“With our connection being… stronger now, what can I expect when I transform?”

The kwami didn’t answer for a long moment. “More,” he said eventually.

“More what?”

“More everything. Faster, stronger, everything you were before but more.”

Adrien pursed his lips. That… seemed kind of underwhelming. The way Plagg had hyped it up, he’d have thought – he wasn’t sure what he’d thought. That he’d unlocked some grand ultimate power now, he supposed.

Seeming to pick up on his disappointment, Plagg snorted derisively. “Actual new skills require skill, Adrien. And skill is acquired by learning and practice, not by sitting on your ass for six years.”

“I didn’t–“ He shook his head and stood up. “Alright, thank you. Ready?”

“As if you ever cared if I was ready to transform,” Plagg muttered under his breath. “All those camemberts you made me leave behind…”

“True.” Adrien grinned at the grumpy kwami. “So let’s make this just like old times. Plagg, claws out!

When Adrien had put the ring back on, it had felt like his senses had come alive. He’d heard every soft whisper, had started reacting to the slightest movement in his field of vision, drowning in stimulus he didn’t know how to process.

That was only a pale shadow of the symphony of noise and scent that hit him as familiar magic washed over him. But instead of being overwhelmed by it, he welcomed the sensation, accepted it as part of his nature as he bounded toward the hotel room’s balcony. It felt only natural to jump on the railing and crouch down to all fours, his claws easily finding purchase. He stretched his back, loosening limbs that had been inflexible and boring for far too long.

Damn. He’d almost forgotten how good this felt.

His ears twitched, and his tail swished. They were a costume, made of leather, and yet responded to his will like extensions of himself.

The city of Paris lay sprawled at his feet, glittering like a jewel in the night.

Chat Noir grinned at his domain.

Chapter Text

Marinette stirred, mumbling into her pillow as she blindly slapped her nightstand in search of her ringing phone.

“What,” she said flatly, her eyes still squeezed shut. She felt like she had just fallen asleep, like it was way too early for anyone to be calling her. The room was dark, no sunlight assaulting her eyelids, but that didn’t necessarily mean she hadn’t overslept – winter nights were long.

“Girl!” Alya’s voice was an excited squeal several decibels too loud. “Girl! This is going to be the Ladyblog’s best week ever!”

“Wha…?” She cracked open one eye, casting a glance at the clock on the wall. Barely after midnight. “Alya, I need sleep, tell me in the morning.”

“This can’t wait! Look at what one of my readers sent me! This is a bombshell!”

Marinette, knowing that the fastest way to get rid of Alya was to humor her in whatever she wanted, opened the file she’d been sent with a resigned sigh.

Her breath left her.

It was a photo of a blurry silhouette jumping across a narrow alley between rooftops on all fours. The claws, the ears, the belt – she would recognize it anywhere, even if, on closer inspection, the form of him was not quite right.

“When was this taken?” Marinette whispered.

“That’s why I’m calling you now – that was taken two minutes ago! Can you believe it?” She squealed again. “I’ll be the first one to report on Chat Noir’s return!”

Marinette did not hear beyond that, the phone slipping from her fingers, the unbearably loud drum of her heartbeat in her ears.

 

✧✦✧

 

While the Ladyblog was indeed the very first to report a Chat Noir sighting, Alya’s advantage lasted no more than ten minutes. The speculation in her comment section had barely gotten started – a measly hundred comments in what promised to be a viral post – when someone linked to the live feed of Paris’ news broadcast.

 

✧✦✧

 

Chat Noir ran, and it was glorious.

He didn’t have to spare a thought to where to put his feet, instinctively landing on surfaces capable of supporting his weight. His claws easily sunk into window sills and brick, allowing him to run along walls without slowing his momentum. Never tiring, his body moved in perfect, graceful synchronicity. No matter how hard he pushed himself, how hard he pumped his legs and how far he jumped, no exhaustion made him slow down.

The buildings were shooting past him in a blur and he wasn’t even out of breath.

He landed atop of an antique lamppost with a soft unf, surveying the promenade running along the river’s shore below. More lampposts lined the path and he made a game of using them as his stepping stones, pretending the floor was lava just because he could, and ignored the excited gasps from the pedestrians beneath.

With one final jump, clearing what had to be at least a hundred meters at once, he landed atop the stone creature’s head in full view of the gathered crowd. With a flick of his claw, he signaled the few tourists who’d dared cross the police line to scram, then stood still, giving his audience time to get out the smartphones and cameras.

He needed to draw her attention.

And the city of Paris needed to clear the remains of the creature from the river. The removal of the debris would cost the city untold sums, so this seemed like the best solution for everyone involved.

Raising his arm above his head, he shouted, “Cataclysm!”

As the stone crumbled beneath him, he jumped, crouching low on the fence he landed on. He flashed a bright grin at the startled crowd gaping at him. Then, with two more jumps, he was on the nearest roof.

Yes, this would draw Ladybug out. He felt a growl rising his throat and was surprised by the intensity of his fury – but then, Chat Noir had always felt everything more keenly than Adrien.

He’d planned on de-transforming and feeding Plagg after using his Cataclysm. Since all he had to do now was wait, he could afford the small break.

But his ring never gave him the warning beep.

 

✧✦✧

 

She knew where to find him.

It felt right that they would meet here, where it had all started and all ended. At least, that was what Ladybug thought, but when she glided onto their little spot atop the Eiffel tower, it was empty.

Her shoulders sagged with disappointment, but then she steeled herself again. She would search the entire city of Paris if that was what it took, now that there was a chance she would actually find him. Finally, her opportunity to set right what once went wrong.

“You got here fast.”

The voice was deep, pleasant and behind her. She whirled around.

A man stood hidden in the shadow of the pillar he was leaning against, arms crossed. The pose looked rigid and so un-Chat she couldn’t be sure it was him, especially since he was not built like her scrawny kitten. She took a step forward, hesitant, letting her eyes roam over him. Black leather, check, ears, check, and… movement caught her eye. There was his belt, swaying in the breeze. No, not swaying, it was lashing, whipping back and forth in stark contrast to the man’s utter stillness.

“Chaton,” she whispered.

He pushed himself off the wall, taking a step toward her. “My Lady.” The endearment… did not sound like one. His delivery was completely flat. Yet when he stepped out of the shadow and she met the gaze of familiar green eyes, pupils narrowed into slits, Ladybug utterly lost it all the same.

Slamming into him, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and buried her face in his chest. His chest! Her minou had been only a few inches taller than she, but now the top of her head was tickling his chin. He was still so very stiff, but when she whispered “I missed you”, he softened. Hesitantly putting an arm around her in return, he kept his embrace loose, while Ladybug could not help but cling like a vine. When she squeezed him, there was a rumble in his chest, vibrating against her ear.

She hadn’t known Chat Noir could purr!

It only lasted a moment before he hid it behind an awkward cough, patting her hair and applying gentle pressure to pry her off. She reluctantly let him, taking a step back to get another good look at him.

Time had been kind to Chat Noir. The leather was hugging all sorts of muscles that had definitely not been there before, but the costume he wore was almost identical to the one of their youth. With one exception.

She flicked his collar. “Where’s your bell, kitty?”

He shrugged, then nodded to her cape. “Figured it was time for an upgrade.”

More like a downgrade. On an already outrageous costume, that had always been the silliest design element, but Ladybug had liked it. It was just so perfectly Chat that his neck looked empty without it. “But it made you look like such a re-bell.”

Nothing. Not even a little twitch of his lips. Just a tightening of his jaw, and a flat look.

“Chat Noir,” she said softly. “Where have you been?”

“Around.”

“Around,” she repeated. What kind of answer was that?

A flick of his tail, and his voice grew gruff. “I was not in Paris when the attack happened and didn’t make it back in time to help. You have my apologies for that.”

“For that?”

“Yes.”

“Well, how about not being there for six years, Chat Noir, do I get an apology for that?”

He gave a bored look. “Were ordinary human criminals too much for you to handle alone?”

She sputtered. “That’s not– that’s not the issue, Chat! You can’t just disappear without a word and expect me to–“

“I was moving.”

“…what?”

“That night, when I wanted to talk to you about civilian problems. I knew I was going to have to move away from Paris.” He shrugged again and examined his claws. “Minors don’t get a lot of say in where they live.”

“That… that’s it?”

All the horror scenarios she’d painted in her head of what Chat could possibly be going through that kept him from coming back. He’d given hints here and there that his home life had not been a happy one. That he’d been lonely. She’d had nightmares of her kitten, crying, consumed with guilt over Hawkmoth’s death and calling out for her. He’d just been worried about moving?

“You could have told me that,” she said, growing heated. He should have told her that.

Chat had hinted that to give away what troubled him would have been giving away his secret identity, and yeah, maybe it would have narrowed down the list of suspects by reducing it to teenage boys who’d moved away from Paris during a certain time frame. But that was hardly an obvious reveal! She wouldn’t have pried.

“I don’t know if you noticed this, Ladybug,” Chat drawled. “But I was a very melodramatic teenager.”

Ladybug opened her mouth and closed it, not sure how to respond. Yes, Chat Noir had been prone to grandiose hyperbole – no matter what he’d said, her eyes were not really the color of “a beautiful ocean of infinite depth and secrets” – but that night had been different.

“My Lady.” Chat’s voice was barely above a whisper, cradling Hawkmoth in his arms. When he looked up, his inhuman eyes were shining, and he held Gabriel Agreste’s broken body out toward her. “F-fix him. Please.”

He expected her to knit the bones and sinews back together, the way she could mend the destruction of the city after their battles.

But even her Lucky Charm had its limits, and her Chaton had sobbed when she'd discovered them.

“Chat, I was worried. You left me to worry about what happened to you for six years. Six years!”

He tilted his head, a peculiar gleam in his inhuman eyes. “My Lady. I had no idea you cared.”

“Of course I cared,” she snapped. “You are my partner!”

His expression went blank – and then he smiled. It was that awful, unnatural, way too pleasant smile he’d shown her on that night, too. “And you are mine. That’s why I’m here, reporting for duty.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“Stupid.”

Plagg’s paw swiped at Adrien’s cheek, but all the man did was grunt. He turned over, burrowing deeper into the pillow, his breaths slow and even. So Plagg hit him again, with his tail this time. Mostly because his charge deserved it and he’d been itching to do it since he’d been released from his seal.

“Idiot.”

In his sleep, Adrien’s features had softened. He looked almost boyish. So Plagg smacked him again for reminding him of what he’d managed to destroy this time.

Because it was Plagg’s fault. He was the one who always spit and hissed whenever the Guardian tried to interfere with his independence. He was the one who’d insisted again and again that his charges were not to be touched without his permission. He was the one who’d forged the rules that kept the Black Cats apart from the others, because betrayal hurt and he did not want his Tikki to suffer it as he did.

The Guardian would be making new rules over this incident.

Plagg hated rules. Well, that was not quite true. He quite liked rules, because nothing gave him more pleasure than smashing one, and he especially liked rules that he’d made. It was other people’s rules he knew he had to follow that he hated.

This one would probably be something extra tedious like making him do periodic check-ins. Because Plagg getting sealed away and not being able to call for help while his wielder goes rogue was now a distinct possibility that had to be accounted for.

But then, that made no sense.

The little black kwami paused, hovering motionless over Adrien’s sleeping form.

When his wielders went rogue, it was because of Plagg’s power. That was the pattern. They got a taste of Destruction and it made them feel mighty, so they destroyed, again, and again, until they were empty shells with empty eyes who wielded Plagg like a weapon.

But Adrien had set his power aside. Sealed Destruction away and not touched it again until duty forced him to.

It had also given him full access to Plagg’s essence, making him more powerful than the other rogues before him had been. Oh, he hadn’t learned to control it yet – and Plagg certainly wasn’t about to help him figure it out – but it was only a matter of time until he started to draw on Destruction as he pleased.

If this was a long-term plan executed with great patience, then Plagg would have no choice but to deeply respect such deviousness.

Yet Adrien just did not have that kind of low cunning.

Plagg knew he should be calling the Guardian. But the Guardian was new, had replaced the old man Plagg had spent so much time bending to his will, and they had not yet come to a similar arrangement.

Guardians always had such a stick up their ass when it came to the rules, especially when fresh out of training. Only age and experience ever made them mellow.

Bitterness and pain had been left to rot in his kitten’s heart for years. Chat Noir was free to express what Adrien would not, and there had been barely leashed anger and resentment seeping from his every pore. Directed at what was supposed to be his other half, his Lady.

Leaving full access to Plagg’s power in the hands of someone as volatile as Adrien would be wildly irresponsible – especially since Tikki had evidently been more conservative with the power she’d shared. Rogue Black Cats, crippled by Plagg shutting down growth of the bond, were always put down by a stronger Ladybug – but now she was weaker, and the focus of Adrien’s fury. There was no way a fledgling Guardian would take the risk.

If Plagg called for help, the Guardian would come and confiscate Adrien’s Miraculous for abandoning his Ladybug and for being unfit to work with her.

And then Plagg would be gifted a new kitten.

“I hate you,” he hissed.

This was his first gentle heart in generations and he’d messed it up.

“You and your stupid, angular face.”

There was still so much of Adrien left. He’d seen it, had watched him with his old friends and felt his joy as he ran through the night. It was strained, but it was there, and could grow strong again if nurtured.

Plagg was shit at nurturing. That was Tikki’s domain.

“You had better not make me regret this,” he muttered, and nestled into Adrien’s golden hair.

Chapter Text

Marinette didn’t want to wake up.

Drawing her blanket over her head as the alarm went off next to it, she tried very hard to keep reality from intruding on her dream state. One where Chat Noir was still the fun and energetic boy of her memories and not the cold, unfriendly man she’d met last night.

He’d been so distant, rebuffing her every attempt at camaraderie, entirely focused on interrogating her about the fiery creature and how she and Carapace had defeated it. After a few cursory questions about the new addition to their team, he’d wished her a good night and promised her he’d be there the next time Paris was under attack, should this be more than a one-off occurrence.

And that had been that.

Of all the hundreds of ways she’d pictured her reunion with Chat, this had not been one of them. Sometimes there had been tears and laughter and hugs, sometimes there had been anger and accusations, but never had she imagined this… this nothing.

He hadn’t even made a single pun.

“What the hell happened to you, chaton?” she murmured, low under her breath. His cat ears twitched, giving away that he had heard her, and he turned to look back at her over his shoulder.

“I grew up.”

If this was what a grown up Chat Noir looked like, she wanted no part of it.

“Tikki,” she whispered. “What do you think happened to him?”

Her kwami hummed, looking troubled as well. “Taking a life can change people forever, Marinette.”

Master Fu had told her something similar once. Anger surged within her at the man – why hadn’t he let her seek Chat out when she’d wanted to? Maybe she could have prevented this! But the fury dissipated as quickly as it came, and her eyes grew wet when she realized she would never get to ask him that because the kind old man was gone, gone forever, and had taken his reasons to the grave.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien woke up feeling amazing.

He purred as he stretched, sitting back on his haunches and pushing down his spine as far as it would go while lifting his face to greet the warm sun. His claws – his fingers dug into the mattress, kneading and savoring the texture. Restless energy had him practically jumping out of bed when he normally needed at least thirty minutes and two snooze alarms to face the day.

His enthusiasm roused Plagg, who’d been napping on his pillow, and Adrien didn’t think twice before rubbing his cheek against the kwami’s in apology.

“Ack! Gross!”

Adrien laughed, evading the swipe of tiny claws by jumping backward, and ducked into the luxurious hotel bathroom. He inspected himself in the mirror, running a thumb over the golden stubble dusting his jaw – hadn’t he shaved yesterday? It shouldn’t be so far along. Deciding that his facial hair hadn’t yet reached the critical unkempt stage, he let it be for now and hopped in the shower. Adrien Agreste, the brand, had made an art of looking sinfully disheveled anyway.

As the warm water hit his skin, the sensation sizzled in a way he couldn’t remember experiencing in a long time. Adrien decided he’d made a great choice in putting the ring back on. This, this was what he’d been missing.

He’d missed being Chat Noir. The boundless freedom, the energy, the enhanced senses. All of it. Putting up with those silly instincts was more than worth it.

Last night couldn’t have gone better.

There had been that rather undignified impulse when he’d first caught sight of Ladybug and been hit with her scent, but he had recovered well. Yes, for a moment he’d wanted to drop to his knees, rub himself up against her and purr up a storm, but the insanity had passed as quickly as it came. He’d been calm and professional, firmly drawing new boundaries in their relationship.

No longer would he be begging her for scraps of her affection.

They were partners. Not friends, certainly not lovers, just glorified colleagues. Two random people fate had decided to pair up in the fight against Evil.

Well, three people now.

“So how’s our new partner?”

“Our partner?” she asked, seeming in a daze. “Oh. Carapace. Yes, he’s… nice. Inexperienced, but a good team player. He’ll make a great Guardian.”

He tilted his head. “Guardian?”

“Yes, like Master Fu.”

“Who?”

His expression soured when he remembered that particular exchange. He’d clearly been kept out of the loop of something, and Ladybug had refused to elaborate. Very well, let her have her secrets, he wasn’t going to chase after them.

“Plagg, who’s Master Fu?” he called out from the shower to the living room while massaging shampoo into his hair.

“None of your business!” the kwami yelled back.

“You’re always so helpful!”

“I aim to please!”

Ah well. No matter. While he’d declined to join Ladybug and Carapace – he flexed his fingers, briefly curling them into the shape of claws – on their next patrol, he’d meet the new guy soon enough.

And would hopefully resist punching him in the face.

Until then…

Adrien reviewed his mental checklist of what his next steps would be. His To-Do-List was woefully empty, thanks to deciding to throw his old life into the wind in favor of returning to Paris.

#1. Repair friendship with Plagg.

More bribes would be needed for this one.

#2. Find an apartment.

Simple enough. Then he’d figure out the logistics of transporting the bulk of his belongings from London to Paris. He should probably give Nathalie a call so she could come bring him Princess.

#3. Find some work.

He’d ask Chloe. For all her flaws, she really did know where the best parties in Paris were held, and nothing greased palms and secured him gigs as efficiently as that.

#4. Schedule lunch or something with Nino.

Easy, provided Nino had forgiven him for his drunken escapades. Which he would. Probably. Nino was easy-going, he’d never started a fight with Adrien before, and Adrien had in some ways been a rather poor friend over the years. So this would be fine.

#5. No more alcohol.

He glanced down at his ring, twisting it around his finger. If he wished to master it, he couldn’t afford to indulge in substances that lowered his inhibitions. Resisting his instincts was hard enough already, and That Incident at Nino’s had proven that the two just didn’t mix.

Which brought him to one more priority, perhaps the most urgent one.

#6. Find and apologize to Marinette.

 

✧✦✧

 

Alya woke up in a terrible mood.

Well, that was not quite true. She woke up warm and safely wrapped in her boyfriend’s strong arms, and for that one moment, all was right with the world. But then she spotted the smartphone next to her pillow, and her mood instantly soured.

Alya had missed it. She’d missed Chat Noir’s grand and theatrical return, had failed to capture footage of him dissolving the remains of the dragon and clearing the Seine to the cheers of the gathered crowd. Swiping to open her Ladyblog, she pursed her lips and stared at the compilation blogpost she’d had to fall back on, gathering up all the external links to news reports who’d not failed to be there.

Still, there were several thousand comments and rising, so it was not a total loss. She listlessly scrolled through the thread, evaluating her viewers’ overall consensus of these latest developments.

Opinion on Chat Noir had been mixed after Hawkmoth’s death, but over the years, perhaps because absence made the heart grow fonder, most people had come to view him with nostalgic affection. It helped that Ladybug, whenever questioned on her former partner’s actions, would always emphasize that the villain’s death had been an unintended accident, and one in self-defense besides. An attempt to bring criminal charges against Chat Noir had been quickly abandoned after the people of Paris had angrily risen in protest.

A Parisian protest was nothing to sneeze at. The French prided themselves on having perfected the art of strategic strikes and civil disobedience.

So it was no surprise that the reception in her comment section had, at first, been cautiously optimistic, only to quickly snowball into a celebration of his return. And then it got… weird.

TrueShipsNeverSink: After all this time… once thought lost to the depths of the ocean… the SS LadyNoir sets sail once more! #toldyouso

PolkaSpots: I always knew he’d come back to his Lady

LadyBlanc: Oh shut it, I remember you from another thread. Don’t try to act like you stayed true! It is only we faithful few who never lost hope, so don’t you go hopping on this bandwagon now

Mirage-oulous: Guys, what’s the consensus on the new ship name? Chatapace?

PolkaSpots: Obviously it’s Tortoiseshell Cat, Tortie for short. Keep up, would you?

TrueShipsNeverSink: Though this could be the start of a beautiful new OT3. What shall we call it?

LadyBlanc: how about the TRAITORSHIP!!!

Catnipped: Guys, would you stop getting sidetracked by stupid shit and focus on what really matters: I can’t be the only who thinks chat looks like sex on legs now, right? I mean, HOT DAMN

Alya sighed and closed the page.

Nino made a sleepy sound, and then pressed a gentle kiss to her back, hooking one leg over her hip to grind against her.

She pushed him off and he let her go, rolling over to bury himself deeper into the blankets. “Morning,” he said, voice muffled against the pillow, and she reached to ruffle his dark hair.

“Good morning.”

He cracked open one eye, and fixed his golden gaze on her. “What’s got you in a bad mood?”

“Oh, you know, nothing.” She pursed her lips, pouting. “Just the biggest blunder of my Ladyblog career.”

He laughed softly, reaching to hold her hand and squeezing it. “You still have that exclusive interview, right? The one with the new hero?”

Damn her boyfriend and his Chill. He never let her just rage at the world for a while. “If he shows up, anyway,” she muttered darkly. So far he’d made no efforts to contact her and follow up on his promise. If he failed to deliver, she would write the most scathing article!

Well, no, she wouldn’t. She wasn’t about to sabotage a hero’s reputation just because she was salty.

But, oh, she’d be salty, alright. Alya could hold a grudge for a long time.

“I’m sure he will,” Nino said and, with effort, rolled out of bed and headed to the door. “Ladybug would probably kick his ass if he didn’t.”

“True.” Ladybug always kept her promises to Alya.

When she moved to follow, he vaguely gestured at her to stay. “I’ll make breakfast, babe, you can lie back down.”

What had she done to deserve this sweet man? She grinned at him. “Have I mentioned that you’re the best?”

He glanced back at her with amusement in his tired smile. “You could stand to mention it a little more. And also listen to me when I tell you not to run into fire. Because fire is bad, Alya.”

“Mmm, I’m going to have to see some sources backing you up on that point to believe it.”

She giggled as he rolled his eyes at her and left the room to head to the kitchen, then snuggled back into the blankets. Okay, so maybe this day was not entirely lost.

Deciding to make the best of a bad situation, she pulled her laptop onto the bed and opened up the Ladyblog, scrolling through her private messages. Sometimes her readers sent her useful clips and info, and scanning through them now, she did spot a few messages that had attached amateur footage of Chat Noir’s Cataclysm, so that was something. She refreshed, and blinked at a new message in her inbox. She didn’t recognize the username, so it wasn’t one of her regulars.

JadeShield: name a time and place for that interview I owe you ;)

Alya sat up, her mind fully awake now. Pulling up her site statistics to check the user’s IP address, she then traced it back, revealing that the network this message had been sent from was in –

Her own home.

A grin spread across Alya’s face.

Well played, turtle boy.

Of course he was too clever not to cover his tracks. And now the game was on.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette rubbed her eyes before pulling the latest batch of pastries out of the oven. Her mother had taken one look at her bloodshot eyes and miserable expression, and graciously taken over the counter this morning to spare her daughter customer service. She was in no state to be dealing with people, and she enjoyed working with her dad behind the scenes anyway.

Since Alya had moved out of their shared apartment, Marinette had decided to move back with her parents for the last stretch of university, not wanting to deal with finding another roommate she’d have to hide Tikki from.

The empty nest had hit her parents hard, and they had been overjoyed to take her back in, had refused all of Marinette’s attempts to pay them rent. So she’d settled on working part-time at the bakery to feel like less of a mooch, although her parents would have been aghast to hear her refer to herself as such. They loved to dote on her.

“Would you take these out front, Marinette?”

“Will do,” she said, trading the tray of fresh croissants for a kiss on her dad’s cheek.

As she made her way to the counter, Marinette froze on the threshold that lead to the front section. Her mother was beaming at her, interrupting her conversation with a young man to turn to her.

“Sweetie, look, one of your old classmates!”

Adrien’s eyes lit up at the sight of her. “Hello, Marinette.”

Maybe if she’d seen him before last night, she’d have freaked out. But her heart was occupied with other matters, so it didn’t have the energy to somersault into apoplectic spasms at the mere sight of him. It just gave a sad little lurch and she managed to not drop the tray. Mumbling a greeting, she restocked the croissants.

“Marinette?”

She glanced up. Adrien was looking at her with concern creasing his brows.

“Are you alright?”

“Uh, yeah, fine, just…” She made a gesture so vague even she didn’t know what it was supposed to express.

“Right. Well, I wasn’t sure you’d be here, so please don’t take this as stalking. I’m here for the pastries. Not that I’m not glad to see you as well, I was hoping to run into you. Christ, this is coming out bad. Look, I wanted to apologize. For, y’know.” He paused, glancing at her mother who immediately had the good sense to pretend to be busy and move out of earshot.

Marinette blinked at the unexpected swell of words. “Oh!” At the memory, her hand started tingling. “It’s – it’s fine, don’t worry about it. Nino said you were, uh…”

“Drunk. Really, really drunk.” He nodded, a faint hint of color on his cheeks. Had she ever seen Adrien smile this nervously before? “It smelled good and my brain just short-circuited, I don’t know. I told you. Your parents’ baked goods are my weakness.”

Marinette smiled, feeling a strange light-headedness. Or maybe it was the foreign sensation of having her wits about her. Apparently, her heart being all out of fucks to give lead to her being a normal human being around Adrien Agreste. How novel.

“Consider yourself forgiven. God knows I’ve done some stupidly impulsive things, and I wasn’t even drunk for them.” His answering smile was so bright it should have surely sent her into palpitations. Instead, in the spirit of reconciliation and pretending The Lick never happened, she gestured to the magnificent display behind the counter. “Feel free to pick something. On the house.”

“Marinette, no.” His smile waned, his expression growing mournful. “I can’t in good faith accept that. You can’t offer me free stuff, free food least of all. I’m like a stray, I’ll come back for more.”

“Well,” she said, and picked up the empty tray. “Maybe that’s exactly what I’m aiming for.”

She headed into the back room before her newly functional mind could desert her again, privately high-fiving herself for the smooth line.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien came back the next morning.

Chapter Text

Adrien smiled.

It was starting to hurt his face.

Giving up alcohol had sounded easy on paper, but he hadn’t realized just how much he relied on it to get through these events. When he’d turned down the glass of champagne and noticed the questioning glances – for who wanted to spend the evening with some boring teetotaler? – he’d blithely claimed to be on a cut. This had earned him knowing looks and relaxed smiles.

Nobody batted an eye at a model on a diet.

Unfortunately, declaring himself such appeared to have attracted every other dieter in the vicinity and now Adrien was trapped in some hellish conversation about toxins and cleanses and fucking CrossFit.

“I binged on pasta the other day, if you can believe it!”

Shocked gasps and titters all around. “Oh, Victoria, you are so wicked!”

Kill me.

“Well, we all need a cheat day sometimes, don’t you agree, Adrien?”

His smile stretched to its very edges. “I ate cake for breakfast today.”

They gaped at his outrageous gluttony, and for a moment he was pleased, but then the conversation turned to the utter unfairness that was the male metabolism. When the only other male model in attendance spoke up to say that his body was a temple and would not be defiled by the evils of sugar, Adrien’s gaze slid longingly to the open bar.

 

✧✦✧

 

“…and then I just mostly turn south at the 19th Arrondissement, and that pretty much completes the round of the inner city.”

Carapace nodded as if he wasn’t already intimately familiar with Ladybug’s patrol route. “Should we split up and cover it faster?”

Ladybug pursed her lips, shifting her weight, and it was still so very disconcerting to be able to see Marinette behind the mask so clearly. Even the way she let one hand rest on her hip – it was such Marinette body language. “Well, I mean, we could, but…”

He arched an eyebrow but then remembered the goggles were a little too good at covering up his facial expressions. “But?”

“Patrolling is pretty boring, to be honest. It’s more fun with two people. Technically it takes longer, but…”

“But the time passes faster,” he finished the thought for her when she trailed off, and she nodded. There was a tense set to her shoulders, and she crossed her arms as if to warm herself up. Yet they were both protected from the evening’s cold air thanks to their costumes keeping their temperature stable.

“So…” He cleared his throat because it was about time they talked about the elephant in the room. “I take it you missed having a partner?”

Ladybug nodded curtly.

Ah, this was going to be one of those conversations.

“Heard through the grapevine that you and Chat Noir had a meeting atop the Eiffel tower.”

She snorted. “Alya.”

“Guilty. So, how was it?”

“It was…” She sighed. “Weird. Exhausting. I don’t know. He didn’t seem happy to see me.”

Nino hummed. “Did he come back for the Not-Dragon?”

“Yeah. He saw a news broadcast on it, and apparently wasn’t in Paris at the time.” She kicked a loose pebble and it shot across the street they were overlooking. “He said he’s going to be there if there’s another attack like it.”

“But no patrol?”

“No. No patrol.” She scowled. “Apparently it’s beneath him to fight common criminals with me. Us.”

Something clicked. “Well… consider what happened the last time he fought someone who had normal human strength. I mean, that was the issue, right? Chat Noir was too strong and Hawkmoth was…” He formed a crk noise in the back of his throat to imitate the sound of something breaking. When Ladybug’s eyes grew wide, he kicked himself for his thoughtlessness. That’s Adrien’s dad you’re talking about, man, and she watched him die.

“That’s true,” she whispered. “I never thought of it like that. Do you think that’s why he…?”

“I mean… It’s possible. I don’t know the guy.” He knew of him, certainly, because what citizen of Paris didn’t? He’d even been kind of a fan of Chat Noir back in the day when he and Ladybug had been battling Akumas. He used to have a long-running debate with Adrien about which of the two was better, and it had reignited after every battle the duo had fought with Hawkmoth’s minions.

“Aw, come on, didn’t you see that freakin’ cool twirl attack he did with his staff? That was so awesome! Ladybug just has a lame yo-yo.”

“Pft, that ‘lame’ yo-yo saved Chat Noir from falling into the vat of toxic goo. He’d be toast without her, man.”

“Huh? That wasn’t in the Ladyblog footage…?”

“Yeah, well, I know what I saw.” A faint blush crept up Adrien’s pale skin and he sighed, stars in his eyes. “She’s so amazing.”

Adrien had always sung Ladybug’s praises so high that Nino had felt no choice but to dig in his heels on Chat Noir’s side, if only to play devil’s advocate.

Huh. Adrien had been singing Marinette’s praises. He almost laughed when he remembered the severity of her crush on the teen model, and all the while she had been his celebrity crush. Nino almost wanted to point it out to her, except…

Everything had changed when Gabriel Agreste had died.

He’d never heard Adrien talk of the superheroes since, and Nino hadn’t pried. His own fascination with Chat Noir had cooled considerably. After all, the hero’s careless actions had cost him his best friend.

Still, if Chat Noir had disappeared out of remorse, had learned from his mistake and done everything to avoid repeating it, he could see himself working with the man.

Ladybug appeared to still be mulling his theory over, shifting her weight around as she pondered it. “That does sound like something Chat would think. He was always so enthusiastic about being a hero, it never made sense to me that he’d just quit. But if he now considers fighting normal criminals outside the scope of his duty, then...” Her tentatively hopeful voice trailed off. Then she sighed, shaking her head. “Alright, enough moping about Chat Noir. I’m here with you, and your first patrol is going to be fun!”

She said it with such determination on her pixie face that he dared not disagree.

 

✧✦✧

 

Having a partner on patrol again was wonderful.

She’d always gotten along well with Nino - although, to be honest, they’d rarely had occasions where it was just the two of them. Alya had been their point of contact, and they’d always hung out as a threesome. Or sometimes a foursome whenever Alya had strong-armed Marinette into bringing her boyfriends and turned their casual meetings into double dates.

But even without Alya there as their social glue, their banter was easy and relaxed as she showed him Paris from a new vantage point, high up between the city’s gorgeous architecture.

It was a peaceful evening, and they spotted nothing that would require their attention.

So, naturally, she challenged him to a race.

And emerged as the clear victor in less than a minute.

“Your shield is so slow!”

“It has a turbo drive,” he yelled, and even over the distance she could hear the defensiveness. “It would leave you in the dust!”

“Well, why don’t you activate it then?”

Unintelligible mumbling was his only response, and when she looked back at him over her shoulder, he was pouting.

Ladybug laughed.

“Well at least I have vertical lift-off!” With that, Carapace angled his shield straight up, shooting into the sky.

“Not fair!” She slung her yo-yo, the string snugly wrapping itself around his shield, and found herself being pulled into the sky after him. She laughed at the wind whipping in her face.

Carapace glanced over his shoulder, and then he started doing stunts, flips and loops, all in an effort to shake her off. It only made her laugh harder, and she saw him grin as well. The buildings below grew smaller and smaller, the air colder and colder, and when her breath started fogging, she let go.

She fell, closing her eyes to savor the adrenaline, before spreading her cape and catching herself.

Ladybug was flying over the most beautiful city in the world, so far above the windows and streetlights had been reduced to sparkling stars in the night. She felt the rush of wind briefly disturb the current she was using to glide as Nino swooped down to hover beside her.

“So,” she said, and grinned at him. “Pretty good first patrol?”

Nino merely nodded, silent awe in his eyes.

 

✧✦✧

 

He was late.

And maybe Alya would have been mad if she hadn’t spotted the two heroes on patrol as they raced past the roof she was camping out on, only to witness them ascending into the sky. Alas, she’d been several blocks away, and even with her camera’s closest zoom, her footage did not manage to capture their expressions. But everything in their body language made it clear they were playing, and it was sweet to watch.

“Good for you, Ladybug,” she murmured. Even though not much had happened in the way of heroics in the last few years, Ladybug still consented to the occasional interview when Alya managed to catch her. One topic she consistently refused to discuss was that of her partner, so it wasn’t hard to put together that there were some unresolved feelings there.

So, even though it was quite rude of him to be late, she wasn’t all that upset Carapace was making her wait for his interrogation.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Hello fellow Ladybloggers! Tonight I have a very special treat for you guys. I know what’s been on your mind – other than Chat Noir’s surprisingly magnificent butt, that is, and yes, I read your comments, and you are all sinners. No, tonight I am going to be answering that question on everyone’s lips – just who is Paris’ newest superhero? Let’s find out. Joining me tonight is none other than the man, the legend, the turtle himself – Carapace!”

The man waved nervously at the camera, his lopsided smile revealing perfectly straight white teeth. His eyes were hidden behind goggles, and Adrien wanted to claw them out.

No. Bad impulse. Ignore.

Why was he torturing himself by watching this?

It wasn’t like he cared that they looked playful and happy and intimate in that stupid grainy footage of them flying above Paris. He was just researching, that was all. Because that level of familiarity was not normal with someone Ladybug had met no more than a week ago. Ladybug was an aloof woman, at least at first.

So maybe the other hero had been active before the fiery beast appeared, and that had just been his public debut. Maybe she’d been training the other Miraculous wielder in secret for weeks. Months. And if that was the case, he really needed to know that to get a better idea of what he could expect from Carapace in battle against… whatever it was they might face.

Adrien really didn’t want to think about them having formed an instant connection.

Not that he cared. He was over her. He didn’t want her, she was bad for his mental health, they were partners, colleagues, and he’d made his peace with that.

But it had taken months until she had started being so playful with him.

And that did sting. A little. He had been madly in love with her once, after all, and she hadn’t wanted him. Of course it stung, who wouldn’t be stung in his position? Yes, he’d been an awkward home-schooled kid who maybe hadn’t had the best social skills, but still…

What does he have that I don’t?

So Adrien found himself begrudgingly watching this stupid asshole’s interview at eleven in the morning, barely even tasting the delicious croissant in front of him.

“Tell us about your powers.”

“Well, my shield is pretty much my primary weapon and–“ Alya cooed when it moved from his back to his arm seemingly of its own free will. “–I can control it with just a thought.”

“Are you saying that when you’re flying around on it, you’re controlling it manually? Like, thinking “Shield, turn 30 degrees to the left”?”

He laughed and shook his head. “I think I’d crash five meters into my flight if it was that complicated. No, it’s a lot more… instinctual than that.”

“Oooh,” Alya said. “Tell me all about that instinct of yours. Are you a man of passion over reason?”

Was even Alya flirting with this guy? Gross. And also really not-cool to Nino. He should check up on his friend, but he'd had been dodging Adrien’s invitations so far, claiming to be busy.

“More coffee, Adrien?”

He startled in his seat, then pulled the earbuds out, his lips instantly curving into a friendly smile. He even meant it, at least a little. Marinette had an uncanny ability to make him relax, the tension in his shoulders already starting to dissipate. When she smiled shyly in return, the subtle freckles crinkling, he sat up a little straighter.

It was her scent.

Her scent could drive a man wild.

That, and she’d grown beautiful in the years he hadn’t seen her. Marinette had always been pretty, of course, in a girl-next-door sort of way. But there was a certain maturity to her now that he appreciated. Her lips were fuller, luscious and inviting, and her long black hair framed her delicate face in a way that really brought out the contrast with her pale blue eyes. Even when she seemed to struggle to speak to him, there was a quiet confidence in her posture that hadn’t been there before – and she kept speaking when she fumbled over her words.

She’d become brave. Still a little anxious and nervous, but brave enough to persevere.

“Yes, thank you, Marinette.”

True to his word, he’d come back for more free food. Adrien loved free stuff, had loved it ever since he’d discovered how this whole managing money thing worked. It was like seeing a High Score go up – every free treat he could get was one that effectively raised his account balance.

Marinette glided back behind the counter – such grace in her movements – and he watched her go. So far, their conversations had been basic, just pleasantries, but he wanted more than that.

Adrien wanted to get to know her. Truly know what made that fascinating mind of hers tick. He’d missed his chance back in Lycée, but he wasn’t about to do that again.

Still, he had decided to take it slow. He’d already spooked her once and he wanted to show her that he was a (somewhat) well-adjusted human being who didn’t just go around licking women at random.

So Adrien came into the bakery in the morning, hung out for an hour or two with his laptop or a book – he suddenly had so much free time to fill, it was weird – and basked in her presence while getting her used to his. He knew better than to try and engage her in a real conversation and stuck to brief, pleasant exchanges.

Adrien hated nothing more than when photographers took his posing for them as a license to flirt, so he wasn’t about to bother Marinette at work either. She was in customer service mode, and he’d be distracting her from her duties.

But one of these days he’d hopefully catch her at the tail end of her shift.

One of his biggest regrets in life was falling in love as Chat Noir while viewing his existence as Adrien as a chore to endure. Chat Noir was a part of him, an essential part he’d denied for too long, but this was his real life, and it was here he should have been building lasting connections all along instead of chasing after a girl in a mask she was never going to take off.

With that thought firmly in mind, he closed the Ladyblog and browsed a news site instead. His brows furrowed when he saw a report about a pile-up blocking the A1 out of Paris in both directions because a truck had suddenly caught fire and flipped over. Consequently, the roads in and out of the city were congested with a traffic jam from hell.

No wonder Nathalie was late.

Chapter Text

“And here you had me worried the apocalypse was about to begin.”

Nathalie ever so subtly angled her glasses, casting him that frosty look Adrien had grown intimately familiar with back when he was a teenager. The one that said I’m not being paid enough to deal with this kid.

“Mr. Agreste,” she said, “It’s good to see you again. I apologize for delaying you in your undoubtedly busy schedule.”

He took the subtle dig at his sudden decision to cancel all his international gigs in stride.

“Well, it’s not like you have the power to clear traffic jams. Unless you’ve been holding out on me, in which case, please share.” He tsked. “Still, a whole thirty-two minutes late. If there’s anything I can do to help you cope with this horrible trauma, please let me know.”

“I shall endure, Mr. Agreste.”

He grinned at her and he could have sworn he saw a twinkle in her eyes. But maybe that was just his imagination. One day he would prove to the world that Nathalie Sancoeur was capable of laughter.

“Seriously though, I do appreciate you driving out here all this way.” Even though he did pay her a handsome salary so he could bother her at all hours, a drive all the way from London to Paris and back would cost her an entire day, and Adrien aimed to be one of her less annoying clients. With mixed success.

“It’s no trouble. Now about that Armani job, I know you said to cancel it, but I’ve spoken to my contacts and they’ve expressed an interest in moving the shoot to Paris to accommodate you. A few others…”

She trailed off when he raised his hand. “Don’t hit me with the business talk straight away, Nathalie. You know you need to woo me first. Take me to dinner, maybe some flowers…”

There was that look again. Then she sighed. “She’s in the back seat.”

Adrien grinned and made a beeline to the car door, yanking it open.

Big baby blue eyes blinked up at him.

“Hello Princess,” he said, just barely keeping the purr out of his voice. “Did you miss me?”

 

✧✦✧

 

“What. Is. That.”

Pure horror filled Plagg’s voice as he stared at the newest addition to their household.

“This is Her Majesty Queen Cleocatra the Clawsome.” Adrien sat the carrier down, gingerly sliding open the release hatches of the door. “Informally known as Princess to her loyal subjects.”

A delicate pink nose peeked out, whiskers twitching, and then the fluffy white cat retreated into her hiding place. Adrien gently reached inside, his hand hovering under her chin so she could recognize his scent.

He’d found her in Istanbul, one of his favorite cities. Sadly, it was not exactly a fashion hub, so his work rarely took him there. But when it did, he loved taking a stroll through the streets, taking in the people and the architecture and the air smelling of delicious street food.

What he enjoyed most were the cats. Stray cats everywhere. They were so friendly and trusting, well-cared for by the locals who treated them with great reverence as communal pets.

On one of his excursions, Adrien had followed a barely audible, high-pitched cry and it had led him to a small, abandoned kitten he’d rushed to the nearest vet. After language barriers and a slow recovery had been overcome, he’d grown too attached to be willing to leave her. Plus, pets were great for mental health, everyone knew that, and he’d figured he could use some of that.

Customs and importing a cat across EU borders had taken forever to sort out, but Nathalie had handled it with her usual scary competence.

“…you know, Adrien. I’ve been very forgiving of you so far. Willing to put your cruel and vicious abandonment of me aside and work together again for the greater good.”

Plagg raised his tiny black paw. It was shaking.

“But I shall not forget this betrayal.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“Babe, are you ready?”

“Yes, yes, in a minute,” Alya muttered, scrolling through the comments of her latest entry –outlining several theories of how Carapace’s bond with his shield worked. And as interesting as that topic was to Nino, far more than his girlfriend suspected, Marinette was waiting for them, her shift having ended almost five minutes ago.

He wrapped his arms around her from behind, ever so subtly tugging her out of her chair. “Should I be worried about your obsession with this guy?”

She snorted, and he grinned, knowing full well that he didn’t. Their interview had gone well, in the sense that he’d managed to not give himself away, although at the very end he’d slipped up.

“Thanks for the interview, I really appreciate you keeping your word.”

“No problem, babe.”

Instantly, her warm demeanor chilled several degrees. “Careful, turtle boy. My boyfriend is way cooler than you.”

Ah, sweet loyalty. He nuzzled her neck, and then, in a swift maneuver he had perfected over the years, he yanked her out of the chair and threw her over his shoulder.

Nooo, I was in the middle of a really good comment about partially bonded telekinesis!”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien looked up from his laptop just in time to see Marinette walk out of the back room, and blinked when he noticed the change in attire. She’d taken off her apron and undone the bun she’d been wearing, one hand now self-consciously running through her long straight hair to smooth it. Her eyes darted around the room as if searching, and then settled on him.

He raised his cappuccino in greeting, and smiled, ever so subtly gesturing for her to join him now that her shift was over. No pressure, make it casual.

Marinette headed over to him, and he somehow restrained himself from fist pumping the air.

“Still here? That makes what, two hours every day for a week?” she said, amusement in her voice.

“It’s cozy. And I did warn you that I’m a stray, and strays loiter. It’s your fault for feeding me.”

“Yeah, I have a feeling your mooching might yet drive us into bankruptcy.”

He sat up straight, alarmed. “I can pay! You don’t have to keep to giving me free–“

She burst out laughing. “Adrien, relax. You know we donate our left-overs at the end of the day, right? We can afford to spare one for you.”

“Oh. Oh yeah, I knew that.” He smiled, but it was strained, embarrassment burning in his gut at the reminder of his ignorance. Adrien still had very little sense of how much money normal people had at their disposal. Mostly hanging out in the wealthy circles of the haute couture didn’t help matters. He just kept an eye on his own nest egg to make sure it kept growing at a steady rate. Cancelling all his upcoming jobs had slowed that growth down far beyond comfort.

Marinette gave him a long, searching look, then smiled back. “Besides, you’re hardly the only stray I’m feeding. Nino and Alya mooch all day long. And I like giving small gifts to my friends.”

He took a long sip from his drink, the question nonchalant. “Is that what we are?”

“I don’t know, Adrien, you tell me.” A faint blush colored her cheeks, but she met his gaze with determination. A challenge. Oh yes, Marinette had definitely grown bolder.

“I’d like to be,” he said, making his voice just a touch huskier.

She squirmed in her seat and God, the way she bit her lip was just so cute. Hey, try nibbling on my lip like that. He shushed that part of his brain. Slow. He was going to take this slow because Marinette was a delicate, anxious girl, even if she was a brave one, and he didn’t want to frighten her off with his intensity.

Or his purrs, for that matter. He could feel one building in his chest, and shut it down as best as he could.

Ugh, it was like trying to suppress a sneeze. It itched.

“I’d like that, too,” she whispered. “Adrien, can I… can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

She took a deep breath. “How – how did we lose touch? I thought – well, to be honest, I thought you didn’t like me all that much.”

He choked on his cappuccino. “What!?

Marinette gaped at his reaction. “I mean, you – you told me my stories were boring you. And, and our conversations were always so awkward and stilted and I am such a weirdo around you–” She abruptly cut herself off.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

Adrien composed himself as best as he could. Getting this answer right was important to mending what he’d evidently broken. “I was in a really bad place when I told you off like that, and I’ve regretted it ever since. I… you know, the new school was fine, I had people I hung out with, but it wasn’t… it wasn’t on the same level of comradery our class in Paris had. And there I was, feeling lonely, and I devoured every single one of those updates you sent me, I really looked forward to them, until that last one – it kind of really hit me that I was missing out, you know? You said something about Nino that I didn’t know because he hadn’t told me.”

Marinette was nodding, eyes wide, and he took another sip, awkwardly fiddling with the cup as he set it down.

“I shouldn’t have snapped at you. You didn’t deserve that. And I should have done more to make it up to you after all that effort you poured into those stories. I’m sorry.”

“I-it’s fine, Adrien! I shouldn’t have been so quick to assume the worst!” Her words tumbled all over each other, the end of one tripping over the beginning of the next, rushing out of her in one breath.

He shook his head, smiling ruefully. “You know, you’re not the only person I lost touch with over the years. I think it’s safe to say the common denominator here is me.” He ran his fingers through his hair, huffing out a breath. “But I’d really like to change that. So, Marinette. Forgive me, and let’s start over?”

She nodded eagerly, so much so that it sent her black hair bouncing. “Yes! Hi! I’m Marinette!”

He laughed softly. “Hello, Marinette. My name is Adrien. You know, you remind me of a sweet girl I knew back in school. She made me this amazing scrapbook that I still have and cherish deeply.”

Marinette beamed at him and he mentally high-fived himself.

It was true, her scrapbook was one of his most cherished possessions, and probably the best gift he’d gotten since his mother’s death. No, no probably around it. There had been exactly one other gift that had made him feel as cared for as that book, and he’d burned that fucking lie of a scarf when he’d learned of his father’s true nature.

“So, sweet Marinette, are you doing anything this…” He trailed off when the doorbell behind him chimed, and her gaze moved away from his to whoever had just entered the bakery. He twisted his torso to see what had caught her attention.

It was Nino, with Alya on his arm. The red-headed girl waved at Marinette with a broad grin on her face, only to freeze when she saw Adrien. One eyebrow rose.

Nino had spotted him as well. His eyes narrowed as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’

Adrien smiled brightly at his friend.

Just twirling my mustache and seducing innocent maidens, Nino, don’t mind me.

He turned back to Marinette and very deliberately placed his hand atop of hers.

 

✧✦✧

 

Somehow, somewhere, Adrien Agreste had learned moves.

Which was, in Marinette’s opinion, an extremely unfair thing to do. Like strapping a death ray to a tank and then filling it with ninjas, it was such ridiculous overkill as to tilt the battlefield completely in his favor when it had already been leaning that way to begin with.

How was she supposed to resist this? Not like she even wanted to resist this, but how was she supposed to form coherent thoughts when he was looking at her like that?

His touch lingered on the tip of her finger, the one he’d licked. The brush of their hands was featherlight, and yet she was on fire from it. Slowly, Adrien stroked his finger up, up, over the insides of her knuckles and then to her palm, drawing slow, sensuous circles where her hand met her wrist.

“Adrien,” she whispered, and it sounded needy and breathless and completely ridiculous because what he was doing barely even qualified as holding hands. Yet somehow, he made it seem so lewd, his intense gaze not moving from hers.

If he ever kissed her, she would die. Just, expire right there, on the spot, with a smile on her face.

“Marinette,” he answered, and his voice wasn’t like hers at all. It was smooth, calm and a little amused. Laughing at her overreaction? But no, the way he smiled and looked at her, that was affection, she was sure of it. Adrien wouldn’t mock her, he liked her, and he wasn’t mean-spirited.

But he wasn’t affected by their touch. Not like she was. He was gazing at her with a small, playful smile, appearing to delight in her reaction, but showed none of his own. While her breaths were becoming increasingly shallow, his were slow and even.

And that, too, was unfair.

She wanted Adrien to feel the heat.

The universe seemed determined to answer her prayers, because that was when glass shattered and the street in front of her parents’ bakery went up in flames.

Chapter Text

Nino frowned slightly as they neared Marinette’s home, something making the hair on his nape stand on end. He glanced around, but saw nothing. Just an Ominous Sense of Doom out of nowhere.

“Babe?” Alya murmured, touching his arm, so in sync with him she immediately felt the disturbance in his Chill.

But he couldn’t tell what was causing it, so there was no sense in worrying her.

He cast his gaze around, looking for – there. Blue eyes met his, and they were filled with guilt, like he’d caught her doing something she shouldn’t be doing. Why…?

Green eyes narrowing at him answered the question.

Well. This was happening, he supposed. Nothing he could do about it now, what with them being two consenting adults. Other than stock up on ice cream, anyway. For some godforsaken reason, Marinette was a real fan of mint ice cream. For getting over Adrien, she’d probably need at least a gallon. He absently added it to his shopping list, while another part of his mind was still trying to figure out what was causing the Doom feeling.

He needn’t have wasted the brain power.

The windows chose that precise moment to explode, and he yanked Alya close, turning to shield her from the raining glass with his body. Heat scalded his back, hot air rushing in through the broken store front.

Shit, fire again?

The stunned customers slowly came to their senses, the first low wail heralding what could quickly spiral into panic, when a calm, authoritative voice rose above the others.

“Everyone stay calm. This bakery has a backdoor we can escape through. Madame Cheng?”

Nino’s head snapped up and he stared at Adrien, his hot mess of a friend, who had evidently thrown himself across the table to shield Marinette much like Nino had shielded Alya.

Marinette’s mother stirred from her daze, and then her gaze snapped into sharp focus. Her daughter got her spine of steel from somewhere, after all.

“Yes, everyone, please follow me!”

His girlfriend chose that moment to start squirming and to try to wiggle herself free, but he only gripped her harder. He was not letting her run off now.

Adrien effortlessly hoisted Marinette up into his arms while the other customers were swarming to the door, and she looked at him with stars in her eyes – mixed with annoyance.

“I can walk, Adrien, put me down.”

“No.” He tightened his hold instead.

But Marinette pointed her finger at an elderly man who’d been sitting closer to the window than they. Adrien cursed under his breath and set her back down immediately – but still taking the time to do it gently – and then rushed to the man’s side to help hoist him up in a fireman’s carry. The elder man’s right leg had been cut by the rain of shards, and was staining his pants leg with red.

Adrien’s eyes briefly met Nino’s, and he jerked his chin toward the back door, seeming exasperated that Nino was still inside.

It had been a long time since he’d seen this side of his friend. So long, in fact, that he had started to doubt its existence, like all those times he had seen the model act exactly like this in the face of an Akuma attack at school had just been very vivid fragments of his imagination. Calm, collected, competent, he assumed control and prioritized getting all his classmates to safety right away.

Hi, Adrien. It’s good to see you again.

Then they were running, although Alya kept putting up resistance, trying to go back, but he didn’t let her. Until they were out in the streets, breathing clean air, the flames behind them. Turning, Nino could see the smoke rising from the other side of the buildings.

He should probably pay attention to that, but his gaze just kept getting drawn back to Adrien. He’d set down the elder man, was talking to him in a quiet voice. The man found his footing, now hobbling, and smiled a teary thanks.

Where have you been hiding all these years?

Alya used his momentary distraction to finally tear out of his hold. She ran, back in the direction of screams and smoke.

“Alya, no!”

Adrien’s head snapped up, and then he, too, was running, dashing after his girlfriend to catch up with her.

Right. That was also an aspect of Adrien he’d almost forgotten – he liked to run into danger as much as Alya, albeit for different reasons. After making sure Nino was safe, he had never actually stayed in the little hiding hole he’d found for them, preferring to run back out and look for more classmates to usher to safety.

Why don’t you ever stick around?

Goddammit.

Now he, too, would have to run after them, and he was gearing up to do so when he felt a tug on his sleeve.

Marinette was staring at him, then nodded to point out a nearby alley as people continued running past them.

Right.

He’d almost forgotten that, too.

He was a superhero now.

 

✧✦✧

 

Alya ran toward the heat, pushing her way past people fleeing in the opposite direction, fishing her smartphone from her pocket in a practiced, fluid motion to turn on the camera.

The lack of screams told her where to go, because that was where everyone had already fled from. She ducked through an empty alley, turned the corner and–

It wasn’t as big as the dragon. Not even close. In fact, it would stand shoulder to shoulder with the average-sized dog.

But unlike the dragon, this fiery beast took notice of her presence, swiveling its snout toward her, malice glittering in its beady eyes. Its long tail lashed out, almost like a whip, streaking fire in its wake, and then it was advancing toward her, unhinging its jaw to open it wide. The back of its throat was rapidly changing colors, going from red to white and glowing–

The fireball would have hit her right in the chest if a thrown baton hadn’t intercepted its path. It exploded mere meters in front of her, and then Alya cried out in pain as something slammed into her side, not so gently knocking her off-balance.

She was thrown over a shoulder, and then within a few leaps that had the wind swallowing her scream, she found herself hundreds of meters away from the smoke columns.

“Stay safe,” Chat Noir growled at her. It was a true growl, an inhuman undercurrent to the ostensibly caring words, and then, with a leap, he was gone.

 

✧✦✧

 

Where are they?

Ladybug swung around the corner and let her yo-yo snap off its anchor, spreading her cape to transition into a glide.

But there was no sign of Adrien or Alya.

Instead, she spotted a brightly glowing creature made of magma and fire. This one was much smaller, but also much, much more aggressive than the last one. She watched it spew fireballs, one after the other, obliterating store fronts and scorching walls, in all directions.

It screeched, and then broke into a run, toward where she could see a few stragglers. People who hadn’t yet cleared the area because they were either injured or slowed down by disability.

Shit shit shit.

Drawing on years of experience, she pushed the fear away. It was not helpful, would only make her weaker. She would save them, and she would fix this.

Her analytical eye assessed the situation.

Ladybug wanted to throw her yoyo, wrap it around the creature’s legs to bring it down, but the last time her weapon had gotten close to the flames, the near-indestructible string had burned up. Still, she had to try–

A staff slammed into the side of the beast, and it went flying, crashing into a building lining the street. Brick shattered, and Chat Noir landed where it had stood, his staff retracting to its smallest size as he casually twirled it.

Well, good to know that at least his weapon was of use. That was when he raised his gaze, cat eyes staring at her – no, at her glider. She snapped it shut and landed a few feet away from him in a crouch.

She felt Nino – Carapace – touch down beside her a few seconds later, and Chat’s eyes narrowed at the newcomer.

“Carapace,” he said, voice like ice. “I presume.”

“Chat Noir. Nice to finally meet you.” Nino’s voice was friendly, if a little guarded. “Hey, I’d love to do proper introductions, but we were following a girl running into danger here, red hair–“

“Ladyblog girl,” Chat said. “Yes. I caught her and dragged her to safety. I’m sure she’s running back here as we speak, so we better wrap this up quick.”

And Adrien?

“Thanks, man, that’s really coo–“

“There was a man behind her,” Ladybug cut in. “Blond, tall.” Lovely. Brave. Stupid.

“Caught him, too,” Chat said.

“Well, aren’t you efficient today, Chaton” she said, meaning to thank him but on the way between her brain and her mouth, the words became bitter. But it stung, how could he be here, after six years, and sound bored, like this was all routine when even she felt the strain of keeping calm. And she’d been doing this longer than he now!

“I try.” No change in his expression or tone.

The creature roared and thrashed, trying to free itself from beneath the debris. The building Chat had thrown it into trembled, flames engulfing it from below. A frightened cry pierced the air.

Ah God, there’s still someone in there!

Chat sprung into action right away. His claws dug into the brick facade as he scaled the wall until he paused to perch on a windowsill. Cat ears rotated, trying to triangulate the source of the cry.

Carapace was not far behind, directing his shield toward the creature just as it broke through the rubble. The disc flew past it in an arc, doubled back and then rammed the beast’s head from behind. It was sent skidding out of the building, back into the street.

Ladybug flicked her wrist and sent her yo-yo flying, wrapping it around their enemies’ four legs to bind it.

The string burned and turned to ash.

Shit.

Alright, she was not out of moves yet.

“Lucky Charm!”

Tikki had chosen to be merciful this day. What fell into her hands was useful at first glance. She aimed the red-and-black water gun and sprayed the creature with it.

It howled in pain, dropping down to writhe on the ground as if trying to rub the water sizzling its flame skin off. Out of the corner of her eyes, Ladybug saw Chat hop out of the window, carrying a child – maybe ten years old – in his arms. He leapt to the roof on the other side of the street, to set him down there.

No, go further, he’s too young to know to stay away from the edge, he’s going to want to watch!

Chat dropped down beside her a few seconds later – how had he gotten so fast? – and watched while she kept the beast incapacitated.

“So what’s the plan, Ladybug?” Carapace called as he jogged over, his shield having returned to his side.

“Um.”

The awkward silence was mercifully brief, cut short by Chat saying, “Cleanse it.”

“It’s not an Akuma! And even if it could be cleansed like one, I can’t exactly fit it inside my yo-yo, can I?”

His tail twitched, and he frowned at her. Then his gaze fell to her yo-yo with its torn string.

“So you’re useless.”

He said it so matter-of-factly, like he was commenting on the weather, and her breath caught. Never, ever had her kitty spoken to her like that…

As if to prove him right, her supply of water ran low, and the creature stirred beneath the ebbing stream. It wouldn’t be held in check for much longer.

“Hey,” Carapace snapped, her friend instantly coming to her defense. “I don’t see you coming up with anything better.”

“Easy. Cataclysm.”

This, too, Chat said casually as he stood up and his right hand shrouded itself in dripping shadows. He didn’t do the pose, but Chat loved to pose–

He crossed the distance between himself and the creature in the blink of an eye.

His black claws slashed. Decay and rot set in.

The creature shrieked in agony, then trailed off into pitiful moans until there was nothing at all left.

Chat Noir met her gaze and arched an eyebrow, as if daring her to say something.

“Rabid animals are best put down.”

Chapter Text

“What the hell, Chat?”

“Time to fix the city back up, Ladybug,” he said as his gaze wandered back to the burning building. He really shouldn’t have thrown the thing in there, made a mental note not to do it the next time they faced another creature like it. And they likely would, because once was an anomaly, but twice was the beginning of a pattern.

The flames were already licking at the building’s neighbors, the older streets of Paris stacked so closely together that fire was not easily contained. His gaze sought the kid he’d pulled out, now crouching on the fire escape above, watching them with wide, frightened eyes.

Affirming to him that he had made the right decision. There was no time to waste.

Ladybug was suddenly in his face, jabbing a finger into his chest. He frowned down at her, at the fury in her face. “That was a living being! A thinking, sentient being! And you killed it!”

“You killed the last one, too.”

“It ran into water!”

“Yes,” he drawled. “Spurred on by you and your whistle. Do you think you’re better than me just because you didn’t swing the killing blow?”

She drew back as if he had slapped her, and he felt a vicious thrill at the sight. He smiled.

Next to them, having watched the scene in silence, Carapace spoke up.

“Jade Sight.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“When you need to set right what once went wrong, say these words…”

The world unwove itself around him, sparks of green blotting his vision as all sound ceased, only the steady beat of his heart reaching his ears. The beat of the drum pulsed, accelerated, grew faster until Nino was close to throwing up–

He blinked, dazed, against the sunlight. No, not sun, it was flickering. Fire.

His bracelet gave a faint beep, signaling his timer had begun counting down.

“So you’re useless,” Chat Noir said coldly.

He’d heard this before, hadn’t he? And he was supposed to say something here, but his tongue, it wouldn’t move, heavy as lead, so all that filled the silence was Ladybug’s enraged sputtering.

“I am not!”

“Sure looks like it, bugaboo.” He’d heard this silly nickname before, had seen it in old footage Alya loved to shove in his face, but there was no affection in it. It wasn’t quite mocking, but so close to it that even Carapace, who didn’t understand their dynamic all that well, heard the backhanded slap. “But you’re lucky, as always. I can handle it. Cataclysm.”

That woke Nino from his stupor as he remembered his purpose, and what he was trying to prevent.

Just as Chat Noir lunged for the creature, Carapace’s shield struck him from the side. Chat Noir, taken completely unaware, was sent flying, crashing against a wall. His charged hand must have touched down where he landed, for brick began to rot and crumble, his Cataclysm used up.

The cat was back on his feet in an instant, and the moment after that he was suddenly on top of Carapace, clawed fingers closing around his neck as they both crashed to the ground.

Chat Noir hissed, his jaw extending further than a human jaw had any right to extend, giving Carapace a good view of incisors that were just a little too sharp.

“And here I was holding myself back in the spirit of teamwork,” he whispered, eyes gleaming with barely suppressed rage. “But if you want to fight, newbie, I’m more than willing.”

“What the hell, both of you!”

“He was…” Carapace could barely breathe out the words, Chat’s grip so tight. “…about to kill it.”

“What?”

“That’s the idea, yes. You got a better one?” Chat Noir stared him down in defiance, but, seeming to remember himself, loosened the hold on Carapace’s windpipe.

Ladybug’s water supply must have run out for good, because the creature shrieked, back on its feet. A fireball burst out of its maw, aimed at their tangled bodies. His shield swept in to catch the blast just in time. It exploded mere feet from them. The scorching shockwave prompted Chat Noir to leap away, dragging along Carapace by the collar of his hood.

“I will punch you after this,” the cat muttered, roughly pushing Carapace to his feet while he remained crouched on all fours.

Massaging his bruised throat, Carapace croaked out, “We need to figure out what it is. What it wants. Where it’s coming from.”

“The fire is spreading,” Chat bit out. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but modern fire safety protocols weren’t a thing when a lot of these buildings were built! Look how close they all are! This is not the fucking time to play detective!”

As if to emphasize his point, another volley of fire raced down the street. They dodged to the side, Chat Noir to one, Ladybug and Carapace to the other.

“But it’s in pain,” Ladybug said beside him. “The last one died in agony. I don’t think it meant any harm.”

Carapace grimaced as hateful eyes swiveled back and forth, the creature seeming undecided who to focus its assault on first. “This one does, I’m pretty sure.”

Ladybug made an unhappy noise but nodded while Carapace’s gaze was drawn back to the man in black leather.

Cataclysm.” Nino blinked, unsure if he’d just heard right over the distance. Chat Noir stared at his right hand in disappointment, then fluidly changed his stance to two legs, twirling his staff.

Had he… had he just tried to use his power twice? Why would he bother? Even Nino knew of the limitation, and Chat Noir had years of experience on him.

“You have five seconds to give me another plan,” Chat Noir yelled, and the noise seemed to be the deciding factor in the creature picking its target. A fireball crashed into Chat Noir’s staff mid-swing and was deflected, hitting the ground near the creature’s feet.

That enraged it further, and it charged at Chat Noir.

“Ladybug? Plan?”

“I–“ She looked up at Carapace with wide blue eyes, her mind evidently as blank as his. They knew they had to find out more, but the creature was not interested in communication.

Could they find a way to contain it? With what? What could hold these flames for any length of time? Did it even understand human speech?

“Time’s up,” Chat Noir said as he landed beside them, having just evaded another attack and crouching low to the floor. He shot Carapace a look of pure contempt. “And now it’s going to be the hard way.”

“Chat, just wait–“

The staff came crashing down on the creature’s head, so much force behind the blow that the concrete beneath shattered. It howled in agony, and Chat hit it again, and again, his assault unrelenting.

The flames flared so bright they were blinding.

Then silence descended.

Laying in a crater, splattered with red, was the broken body of a small rat.

“Rabid animals are best put down,” Chat said quietly.

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug stared at her partner, not sure who she was even looking at.

Maybe the Black Cat Miraculous had changed hands? Been given a new wielder that just happened to be blond and green-eyed as well? The glamor would obscure any true differences in their faces. But… no, he referenced things only her Chaton could know.

Besides, Ladybug could feel it was him. Felt in her bones, in the way her body hummed when he was near. Partner.

“Any day now, Ladybug,” he said, jerking his chin toward her conjured water gun. “It’s not like the fire is spreading.”

She glared, her lips pressing together in defiance, but Ladybug was good at setting her feelings aside when duty called, and that was what she did now with the petulant streak that was urging her to deny him on account of being a fucking dick.

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

Creation washed over the city, dousing flames, clearing smoke and restoring the facades of the neighborhood Marinette was so intimately familiar with.

Dusting himself of, Chat strolled over to their new partner. Nino was gazing around in wonder, still not used to witnessing her gift up close.

Chat Noir punched him so hard that Carapace almost lost his balance.

“Chaton, what the hell!” Ladybug closed the distance between them, her hand on Nino’s shoulder to help steady him while her friend clutched his face.

Baring his teeth at both of them, Chat hissed, and then her long-lost partner turned around to scale the side of a building with a few practiced leaps.

He left without a look back.

“So,” Nino said casually, wiping blood from his nose. “Has that guy always been psychotic?”

 

✧✦✧

 

Chat Noir ran.

There was no joy in it, not like last time, just a frantic attempt to burn out this restless energy that was clawing at his gut and to drown out the voice in his head, urging him to go back and smash Carapace’s face into the pavement properly instead of settling for that little tap.

The asshole had attacked him – for no reason! Just a simple “Chat, wait, I have another plan” would have sufficed, but no, let’s just throw fucking shields at people and make them waste their Cataclysm.

And then he didn’t even have the decency to actually have a better plan! Other than standing around with a thumb up their collective ass while the neighborhood burned. As far as plans went, that was entirely suboptimal.

For what? To save a rat.

It’s just a stupid fucking rat.

Not that he’d been able to tell, the fire magic having twisted and enlarged its body, obscuring the animal’s true form until death. It could have been anything four-legged, really.

But it was just a rat.

It could have been a cat.

It could have been Princess.

He skidded to a halt, claws raking along the tiles of a roof as he struggled to slow his momentum, breathing heavily.

But it wasn’t.

God, and the way they‘d looked at him. It wasn’t like he enjoyed clubbing a small, presumably innocent animal to death, but someone had made him waste his Cataclysm. Even in his new and improved state he couldn’t generate a second one so close to the first, was limited to once per transformation even as his transformation now appeared indefinite.

They’d killed that lizard, they had no right to look at him like that!

He should go check on his Princess.

Changing course, he made his way to the hotel, hopping from roof to roof, until he landed on his balcony. He slid open the door with more force than necessary, leaving subtle claw indents, and called for his pet.

He spotted her straight away, hiding beneath the table – she was still skittish in the new environment, it would take her a week or two until she started treating it as her new kingdom – and he shut the door behind himself, crouching low to the floor to put himself at eye level.

She hissed at him.

Right. The glamor extended to animals as well, huh?

“It’s just me, your Highness,” he murmured, inching forward and extending one arm so she could get used to his altered scent. “Just me.” But she only hissed once more, huddling closer to the table leg. He sighed.

Adrien was tired of being on the receiving end of that look.

It was just that this time maybe he deserved it. The battle had started off well, he’d been calm, in control, professional, but at some point that had stopped being true.

Being near her just got under his skin so much.

“Claws off,” he murmured. Princess’s eyes grew wild and alarmed as green light enveloped him, revealing his other half.

“What were you thinking, you stupid idiot!?”

Adrien closed his eyes. Not the first lecture he’d gotten from Plagg since the kwami had been unsealed – in fact, there appeared to be a new one almost every day, detailing Adrien’s many failures and general stupidity, intercepted with digs at his age – and so far Adrien had borne them all as graciously as he could.

“Not now, Plagg. I’m not in the mood.”

“Yeah, well, fuck your mood! How dare you!” His tail smacked Adrien’s cheek and he barely felt the sting. “How dare you attempt to touch the Intruder while wearing me!”

Adrien cracked open one eye. Had he heard that right?

“You know, Adrien, here I am, trying to rebuild our relationship, almost letting myself believe that you are worthy of my trust in you, but then you do things like this!”

A white paw swiped at the kwami. Princess seemed to have calmed down enough to become curious about what the little black ball darting around in front of her was.

“See? See this, Adrien? It’s trying to murder the competition. This is what you’ve brought into our home!” He wailed, and flew out of reach to the kitchen. “Where’s my camembert?”

Adrien pushed himself to his feet, Princess coming out of hiding to rub up against his leg. He picked her up and held her close to his chest as he followed Plagg to the kitchen.

“Aren’t you… mad?”

“I am furious, Adrien, are you even listening?”

“No, not about Princess. I mean, what about just now? The battle?”

“Huh? Wha –?” The little black being hovered motionless, and suddenly grimaced. “Oh yeah.” Then he floated back to Adrien, a look of utter disgust on his face as he brought down his tiny paw on Adrien’s forehead.

And patted him.

“Good – good job, buddy. I’m…” Plagg retched. “I’m proud of you.”

What is happening.

“Is – is it working?”

“Is what working?” Adrien was so confused by this conversation.

“The positive reinforcement. It’s supposed to do something, right?”

 

✧✦✧

 

“You’re not – you don’t think I did anything wrong?”

Plagg grimaced again and looked to the sky – or rather, the ceiling – asking Tikki for strength.

“You did what the Black Cat is supposed to do. I’m p-prou–“

“Please don’t say it. You’re creeping me out.”

Plagg exhaled in relief. Why was nurturing so hard? How did Tikki make it look so effortless?

Adrien was still looking at him with suspicion.

They didn’t seem to think what I did was right,” he said, and Plagg rolled his eyes.

“Well yeah, but that’s because they have their nature and you have ours.” He held up a paw. “The Guardian has his eyes on the future and the past, but his kind tends to forget the present. They’ll spend ages trying to figure out the most optimal approach, and by the time they’re done, the world has fallen apart around them. They’re turtles, they’re slow. Sometimes they need a swift kick in the ass to get moving.”

Plagg smiled slyly. “That’s what we’re here for.” Then he closed his eyes and pictured his love. The vastness of Creation, somehow folded in on itself and sealed in that little red body.

“Now Tikki, Tikki is much better, much more laid back than Wayzz. She appreciates us in a way he doesn’t. She understands why we do what we do, but it’s in her nature to want to protect everything at all costs. To create, to preserve, to salvage that which can’t be salvaged.

“We are Destruction. We ensure Creation does not run herself ragged by throwing herself into a lost cause. We make the hard choices, and spare her the pain. We do not hesitate to destroy something that can’t be saved before it corrupts the rest of her domain.”

“So I was… I was right?” Adrien whispered. Why. Why me. I’m bad at this, go get validation from your Lady instead of antagonizing her.

So Plagg shrugged. “You followed our nature. I think you were right, but then I also think I was right to value your potential well-being over that of Hawkmoth’s.”

Adrien hissed in a sharp breath at the reminder of what had caused him to seal Plagg away.

Plagg smiled, showing teeth. “I regret nothing. If you placed me in the same situation now with all the information I had then, I’d still do the same. Because you deserve to live more than he did. Making these calls is my purpose.” He shrugged. “Make of that what you will.”

“I can’t believe you’re making me doubt myself more than they did.” Adrien narrowed his eyes. “Are you trying to use reverse psychology on me?”

“Whatever, Adrien. Make the hard calls or don’t make them, just stop whining about it afterward. You can’t look back forever.”

Adrien frowned, but said nothing, absently burying his fingers in the white fur of The Intruder. Ugh. Plagg phased through the cabinets until he found the one where Adrien had stashed the cheese.

There was a long silence, then a thunk. It sounded like Adrien had leaned against the cabinets and let himself slide to the ground. Plagg phased back out, munching on his precious nourishment and – yes, Adrien was sitting on the floor, back against the cabinets, and petting the vile Trespasser in his lap.

“Plagg,” he said softly. “Why did I get so angry?”

“Destruction.” The kwami shrugged. “You have too much access to its power for your level of control. Do try to be nicer to your teammates next time, we need those.”

You’re telling me to be nicer to people? You?”

“Hey, between the two of us, you’re supposed to be the nice one. I’m allowed to be mean, I’ve earned that right over millennia of dealing with humanity’s bullshit.”

The phone rang, and Adrien heaved himself up to go get it. The Invader whined in protest at being pushed out of the spot it had conquered, making Plagg grin.

“Mr. Agreste, this is the reception desk calling. We have a man down here named Nino Lahiffe who is asking for your room number. Do you wish for us to let him come up?”

Chapter Text

Adrien opened the door to his opulent hotel suite with a broad smile.

“Nino! What are you doing here?”

I’m going to kill him.

“Looking for you, asshole,” Nino said flatly, and Adrien’s brow furrowed as if he didn’t know what could have possibly soured his mood. “Hey, remember how the last time I saw you, you were running straight into fire?”

Adrien’s eyes widened. “Oh! Um…”

“You know what the best part of that was? When we couldn’t find you after.”

Adrien’s smile was slowly dripping off his face.

“And then we figured – he’s probably going to send us a message to let us know he’s fine.”

Long pause.

“So, hey, Adrien, so stoked to see you standing here, not being a burned crisp, in your hotel room, with access to electronics.”

“I’m so sorry, I completely forgot, I–”

“Marinette is currently freaking the fuck out. Go text her.”

Adrien cringed, and Nino pushed past him into his temporary apartment, not able to hold back the rant that had been building since he’d been hit by a huge wave of relief in the lobby, only to realize this guy’s nerve. “Why are you never where you’re supposed to be, Adrien? Why can’t you fucking communicate like a normal fucking human being? Why does it never cross your mind that other people worry about you and you should give them regular updates about your whereabouts? Why are you not texting her yet!?”

“I – I don’t have her current number…” Adrien was looking at him like a deer who’d recently been run over by a train.

Nino pinched the bridge of his nose, taking deep, calming breaths – catching his breath, really, since he’d been doing a fair bit of running – and held out his open palm.

After a moment’s hesitation, Adrien dropped his phone into it, and Nino punched in Marinette’s number from memory. “There. Go tell her you were busy saving puppies and kittens from the flames, and then your phone died. God, why do I have to constantly teach you how to adult, I swear…”

“I really was saving people,” Adrien muttered as he took his phone back and looked down at it. “Why are you coaching me on what to say to Marinette? I thought you didn’t want me to…”

“Well, it’s clearly happening,” Nino snapped. “Whether I think it’s a good idea is irrelevant. Believe it or not, Adrien, I don’t do what I do with the express purpose of bothering you, I’m trying to protect my friends from hurt. Sabotaging you now would do nothing but hurt, so I might as well make sure you don’t fuck this up too badly.”

“I wasn’t going to fuck this up,” Adrien said with a stubborn set to his jaw.

“U-huh. Dude, do you know what the most important part of a healthy relationship is? The glue that holds it all together?”

Adrien said nothing.

Communication. Remind me what you just failed to do?” What you constantly fail to do?

“…communicate.” Adrien’s voice had the reluctant twinge of petulance, but at least his thumb was on his smartphone’s screen now as he started to compose a message.

Nino looked for the kitchen, seeking a glass of water, and easily found it. While all the rooms in Le Grand Paris had individually customized décor, giving each room a unique look, the underlying layout was always the same. Adrien had stayed in this hotel many times before, which was why Nino had known to look for him here first. He was pretty sure the only reason Adrien was still in contact with Chloe Bourgeoise – ugh – was so she could hook him up with these rooms free of charge.

Those two had a rather mercenary arrangement with each other, and it was one in a long line of questionable decisions that hinted that Adrien was growing into a person Nino would not have chosen to befriend, had they met as adults.

He leaned over the sink to splash some ice water on his face, washing away the last of the black grime. It soothed his stinging eye socket.

By the time he came back, Adrien appeared to be done writing his message, and was fidgeting uncomfortably on the spot. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking clearly after – the adrenaline, you know? I – that really was out of line.” He paused, and then added quietly, “Thanks for looking for me.”

Nino dropped onto one of the chairs in the living room, sinking into ludicrously comfy cushions. “You know, Adrien, your general social obliviousness was kind of endearing and forgivable when you were fresh out of being homeschooled, but you are twenty-two years old. The excuse only flies for so long.”

His friend sat down across from Nino, looking miserable. “I know.”

“So you say.”

“…Nino, why is there a bruise on your face?”

Irritation flared anew. “Some asshole punched me.”

Adrien sat up straight. “What? Why?” Then his eyes narrowed, his voice taking on an edge. “Where can I find them?”

At that, Nino couldn’t help but laugh, the mental image of the supermodel taking on Chat Noir to defend Nino’s honor just too comical. Tension broken, he waved him off. “Just the panic of a crowd, man. People push and elbows get shoved everywhere.”

Adrien frowned, then got up to walk to a minifridge, fishing out a cold beer. Nino gratefully accepted it and held the cold metal to his face. Ah, bliss.

“Shouldn’t the bruise have vanished after Ladybug did her thing?”

“Ah.” Nino shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, it happened after. Panic doesn’t settle down right away.” Amazing how easily the lies had started flowing from his tongue. The trick, Nino found, was to avoid I statements and just state some general truths in a misleading order.

Adrien’s eyebrows creased in what might have been suspicion or just plain worry. He was only distracted out of his reverie when a white fluffball assaulted him from behind, and he absently pulled Princess into his lap.

“Are you okay, Nino? You seem…” He trailed off, and it was clear he was not just referring to the bruise.

Nino was okay. But he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t strained, as evidenced by his unusually short temper. Between his final film project, his new alter ego, giant animals on fire and Adrien suddenly deciding to waltz back into Paris, it had been a rather trying week.

“Just a little stressed.”

Adrien nodded. “Anything in particular bothering you?”

Nino leaned back and regarded the blond man sitting in front of him. There was a curious mix of resignation and hope in Adrien’s body language.

Talking to Adrien was hard these days, but it had once been the easiest thing in the world. How was Nino supposed to talk about his ultimately trivial problems to a man who was slowly dying of crippling depression?

Sure, Adrien, your supervillain dad was murdered and you’re refusing to go to the therapist you so clearly need, but my girlfriend and I had a minor fight and now I’m sad.

Except.

He’d somehow lost sight of one thing about Adrien. A reminder of which had rather forcefully punched him in the gut today as he watched the model skillfully usher people to safety without losing his cool.

Adrien loved helping people.

And that left Nino in the rather awkward position of feeling like utter shit for not making the time to meet and catch up now that he was finally back in Paris. Yeah, he was stretched thin, but not that thin.

“Other than watching people I care about run into fire like reckless idiots?”

Adrien looked properly chastised, but Nino did not miss his slight preen at being referred to this way.

“Well, I was just trying to catch Alya.”

“Lies,” Nino said, and popped open the cold beer he’d been using as a makeshift cold compress. “You’d have gone back even if she wasn’t there.” He took a long sip, and then figured, eh, what the hell. “So you know how I’m working on this short film for Cannes? Well, the cast is breathing down my neck and I’ve been basically locked in a sound mixing booth for six hours a day for the last week straight…”

And I utterly failed at my new job today.

 

✧✦✧

 

“It’s a good lesson to learn early.”

Nino drew the hoodie of his jacket deeper over his face as he made his way back home from Adrien’s hotel, protecting himself against the evening chill – and hiding Wayzz. The kwami was nestled in the back of his neck, talking softly, and Nino tried to move his lips as little as possible as he answered.

“What, failure?”

“Yes.” The kwami hummed. “Jade Sight is not a panacea. Even knowing what is about to happen will not necessarily help you stop it. Sometimes it will just force you to watch the same horror being played out with minor differences.” He paused. “When our temple was attacked – my old Master was forced to fail twice also, and the stakes were much higher. It was his first experience with failure – he’d always been such an excellent student… It left deep scars in him, scars that did not fade all his life. So perhaps it is for the best that you learned this today.”

“Well, good to know you approve of my sucking,” Nino muttered.

“You did well. You are showing promising mastery over your shield.” The praise appeared genuine, true approval in his voice. “It was a fine idea to check on your friend. A very fine idea. A Guardian must always care for those under his protection.”

“Hm.” After he’d calmed down and vented his recent frustration, he and Adrien had settled into a comfortable conversation, talking about everything and nothing. Adrien had been as distracted as Nino – the attack had him shook, evidently – but he’d made an effort to listen and banter.

Pleasant. It had just been pleasant, nothing special, but it reminded Nino of better times. The two of them talking each other down after an Akuma attack until they were laughing about the stupidest shit.

“As Guardian, the Black Cat is under your protection, too, Nino. One of the six Miraculous that are yours to keep safe. Seven if we count our own.”

He groaned at the reminder.

“What’s wrong with the guy? I mean, we’re supposed to be a team and he was all up in our face. He was taunting Marinette. He punched me, Wayzz.”

And his first instinct still appeared to be to straight up kill the enemy.

“He’s volatile,” Wayzz agreed. “The Black Cat has been left alone too long. And given too much power, it appears…” He trailed off, and then a sly note entered his voice. “That’s why your first task as a Guardian will be to bring him back into the fold.”

Great.

He’d always dreamed of being a superpowered psychopath’s babysitter.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien: Hey Marinette, it’s Adrien, I’m so sorry it took me this long to message you, but my battery died. I just wanted to let you know I’m okay and ask if you are, too?

Marinette: Adrien! Yes, I’m fine! :D Did Nino give you my number? I’m so glad you’re okay, I was worried!

Adrien: Yeah, he did. Sorry again for the delay. Hope I didn’t freak you out too badly, I have a bad tendency to run off without thinking.

Marinette: It’s no problem! Honestly, I’m glad you thought of contacting me at all :)

Marinette: Besides, I’m used to these stunts from Alya. It’s a hard life as the Ladyblogger’s best friend. Woe.

Adrien: Ha! I’ll try not to add to your hardship. When does your shift end tomorrow?

Marinette: I won’t have a shift tomorrow :/

Adrien: Aw :( But seeing you there is my favorite part of the day.

An emoticon.

Adrien had used an emoticon.

Don’t. Panic.

Did he mean it? Maybe… God, how ridiculous was she, to get so invested in a guy texting her a frowny face. Certified Adult, remember, Marinette? Act like it.

But to be an adult was to sit down with her designs and figure out what was wrong with them. She’d done that already, and her head submitted a formal complaint in the form of a tension headache as soon as she so much as thought about doing it again.

Not to mention that whole Chat Noir situation she was doing a stellar job of repressing.

So Marinette would indulge her teenage crush fantasy for a moment.

Because she likely wasn’t going to be at the bakery for a while if this final showcase kept sucking up her time. Her parents had made it clear that her part-time work with them should never interfere with her degree.

Marinette: You flatterer

Adrien: I’m being honest.

Adrien: I liked talking to you today, Marinette.

Marinette: I like talking to me, too ;)

She stared at what she’d written. This, this was why she used to spend hours proofreading the stories she sent him – because Adrien’s power to fry her brain was apparently a ranged weapon.

Marinette: I’m a very skilled ventriloquist, you know

Adrien: I knew you were a woman of many talents.

Adrien: Just please keep any creepy puppets you may have away from me.

She briefly searched the internet for the creepiest picture of lifeless dolls staring at the camera she could find, and sent it.

Marinette: You don’t want to meet my friends? But Adrien, they want to meet you! :D

Adrien: Oh God

Adrien: Tell me you just got that off google

Marinette: I just googled that, yeah

Adrien: Don’t scare me like this, Marinette. I don’t want to pursue a cute girl only to end up dismembered in a bathtub somewhere.

Marinette: Adrien, that’s nonsense

Marinette: Obviously there’d be no dismemberment involved, you’d just be made to play with us. Forever. And ever

Adrien: Starting to reconsider my recent life choices.

Marinette stifled a laugh, then bit her lip. Had he meant it…?

Marinette: So, “pursue a cute girl”, huh?

Adrien: I’ve been found out.

Adrien: I was homeschooled, so I’m not entirely clear on this. But I believe proper protocol now requires me to say…

Adrien: Whatcha up to, girl?

Marinette: Procrastinating by talking to a cute boy :)

Adrien: I am very cute, yes, thank you for noticing.

Adrien: What are you procrastinating?

Everything.

Chat Noir’s face flashed through her mind, taunting her for being useless. And she had been, hadn’t she? Yeah, she’d repaired the damage of the battle afterward, but during the fight, she’d barely been able to do anything.

And if they were to face more of those fire beasts, then her yo-yo would just keep on being useless.

Marinette: Fixing my designs for a project at university

Marinette: It’s going to count for a lot of my final grade and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with them

Adrien: I could come take a look?

Adrien: I may or may not know a bit about fashion.

Chapter Text

Marinette sauntered into her atelier dressed for battle.

Adrien was already there, flicking through pages of her designs with a thoughtful frown on his face. There was a calculating gleam in his eyes, and she had no doubt the professional supermodel was turning his clever mind toward evaluating her work. Did it fall short?

No. Confidence, Marinette. She had to believe that he was awed by her designs, just like she would make him be awed by her.

Because last night, tossing and turning in her bed, she had decided on her course of action.

She was going to seduce Adrien Agreste.

Make him want her as much as she wanted him. Wrest the control over this connection between them away from him until his distant, amused smile vanished. She wanted to see him flushed, and panting, and needing her. She, Marinette Dupain-Cheng, Femme Fatale Extraordinaire, would make this happen.

For that purpose, she had assembled her Armor – jeans that hugged her curves, high-heeled winter boots and a loose top that accentuated the swell of her breasts, hidden beneath a form-fitting and elegant coat.

She didn’t care if this wasn’t serious for him, as Nino had warned her. She didn’t need him to love her forever after this.

Though it would be nice if he did.

Marinette was Ladybug, and Ladybug had been punched, stabbed, thrown through walls, almost set on fire and shot out of the sky. And all of it had hurt.

If Adrien decided to leave her after he’d had his fun, that would hurt also.

But Ladybug always got back up again, dusted herself off, and kept fighting. That was what Marinette would do. She would have an adventure with the man she’d once dreamed of, and she would survive the outcome, no matter what. It would probably be for the best if it didn’t last, considering her history with his father. If nothing else, she’d have a great story to tell afterward.

Okay, maybe that time I had an affair with a supermodel wasn’t exactly a tale for the grandkids, but still.

It’d be fun.

With strange fire beasts and a changed Chat Noir breathing down her neck, Marinette needed some fun right about now. She didn’t know what had made Adrien start noticing her after all this time, but she was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.

Adrien looked up, seeming to have heard her footfalls, and smiled. It reached his eyes. “Marinette.”

She did not answer right away, merely closing the distance between them with a confident strut, exaggerating the sway of her hips. As she did so, she opened the top buttons of her coat, drawing it back over her shoulders to reveal her cleavage.

“Adrien,” she said, trying to make her voice throaty and inviting. It came out rather frog-like, so she abandoned that strategy immediately. “I’m glad you could make it. I hope my directions weren’t too confusing?”

“I got lost in the building for a bit, but I found my way here eventually.” His gaze remained firmly on her face, still smiling happily and obliviously.

“I hope I’m not grabbing your attention away from anything important?”

“I’m always happy to help a friend.”

The thing about seduction was – Marinette had never done it before. Luka had fallen in love with her after a long period of friendship, asked her out, and the whole thing had seamlessly transitioned into a relationship. Same with Nathanial. She’d never had to work at it, not really.

Really, her only experience with seduction had been Chat Noir’s clumsy attempts at it.

Maybe that was why, in that moment, A Horrible Thing happened. Because, as she desperately tried to think of her next move, utterly lost now that her Armor had failed to elicit a reaction, her mind went to that laugh, that one real, genuine, unrestrained laugh she’d so far managed to coax out of Adrien.

Which she’d done with a pun.

And maybe that was why her increasingly nervous brain linked pun to seduction to the ever-present memory of Chat in happier times and Marinette opened her mouth only to find herself saying, “I know we’re going to be busy today but do you think you could make room for me on your to-do-list?”

Adrien froze.

Abort! Abort!

But to Marinette’s horror, her mouth was still moving, like some twisted nightmare version of the stammering of her youth. The words just kept flowing, heedless of her wishes, except this time they were coherent and Adrien could understand what her brain malfunction was saying.

“Is it hot in here or is it just you?”

That would have been the perfect moment to take the rest of the coat off, pretend this never happened and transition back into her carefully planned Seduction Script. But instead, another awful line she’d first heard from Chat Noir joined its brethren.

“If you were words on a page, you’d be what they call the fine print.”

Adrien was staring at her like a deer caught in headlights, silently mouthing her words back at her as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

Oh god, I’m so sorry, please, I’m just going to – okay, thanks, I’m going now–

That was when Adrien grabbed her by her shoulders, yanked her close, and kissed her.

Contrary to expectations, Marinette did not, in fact, die.

Instead, she was reborn, her body awakening for him as heat exploded in her belly and her inhibition burned away. Every cell in her body cried out Yes, this is him, this is the One, yes, and then there really was no need to be coy with her other half.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Stop holding back,” Marinette demanded against his lips, fierce and beautiful, and he whimpered, because she had noticed and how could he not? He had to hold back. Adrien dropped his head, burying himself in the space between her collarbone and neck. He was dizzy with her scent, drowning in it, his tongue darting out to taste it. She hissed in a sharp breath and he just kept going, more, more, more, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he was doing it wrong.

A lick to a woman’s neck was a slow, sensuous act, meant to drive her wild with anticipation. Adrien had previously deployed the maneuver with great success. So naturally, now, when it really fucking mattered, what Adrien was doing the exact opposite of that. He was lapping, grooming, like the stupid overgrown cat he was, and he really should stop, but she tasted so good.

Pick-up lines. She’d hit him with pick-up lines.

This was just so unfair. How was he supposed to resist this?

When she started squirming away, he thrust his hips against her, a savage sound in his throat. She grew still just as ecstasy speared his body.

“A-Adrien?”

Drawing on a supply of willpower he didn’t know he had, Adrien stopped, tongue lolling.

“Um.” Marinette seemed at a loss for words, but clearly felt like she should say something. He could practically hear the gears turning in her head as she tried to figure out how to ask him – nicely, without hurting his feelings – what on earth had made him think this would be a good idea.

Oh God. How to explain.

“I, um.” He had nothing. His mind was blank, utterly blank, save for the observation that Marinette’s scent was dope and a polite suggestion that he should roll around in it. “It… it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Adrien,” she whispered, her cheeks so red he could barely make out the freckles anymore. “Have you not… have you not done this before?”

Ah, so this could get worse.

“I’m a model, Marinette.” Even to his own ears the denial came too fast, too strong.

Her eyes widened. “Adrien, please tell me you’ve done this before.”

“I’m not a virgin,” he snapped, and he hated, hated how she relaxed at that.

No, of course he wasn’t a virgin. Girls had been throwing themselves at him since the moment he hit puberty and curiosity had eventually led him to taking one of his fellow models up on the offer, a gorgeous black-haired woman with blue eyes like the sea.

And it had been horrible.

It had started so well. They’d been kissing, exploring, and Adrien had reveled in the feel of her. In the heat of the moment he’d pressed her against the wall. That had seemed to excite her, really excite her, but that had also been the moment when everything had gone to absolute shit. Suddenly she’d had him in her grip, and she’d been growling in his ear to take her, and everything had moved so fast. He’d tried slowing down, to explore her body with gentle kisses, but she’d sighed with impatience, clearly wanting something from him that he hadn’t known how to give.

He’d figured it out eventually, long after she’d left him in that bed feeling like a failure. She’d come to him because he was Adrien Agreste, Son of Hawkmoth, who was supposed to be just the right combination of sexy and dangerous to be fun to play with.

He’d learned how to play along with the fantasy. He’d learned how to take a woman hard, and fast, and how to stoke her pleasure while appearing indifferent to it.

But he didn’t want to do that with Marinette. He wanted… he wanted to kiss and cuddle and discover her, to play with her and delight in her reactions to him. He wanted to be able say all that sappy shit in his head out loud without getting shushed. He wanted to “make love” and nobody had ever fucking let him.

So no, he wasn’t completely inexperienced, but he still had no idea what he was doing.

He took a step back from her, releasing his hold, because his limbs were thrumming with nervous energy that felt way too close to a building Cataclysm, and he really shouldn’t be touching anything in this state, least of all a living being.

“I'm sorry,” Marinette murmured, one hand hanging in the air between them as if unsure whether to reach for him. “I didn't mean to upset you.”

He flashed his most brilliant smile and said, “It’s fine,” because Marinette was sweet and hadn’t meant to hurt him. Really, it was the fault of his stupid instincts for acting up at the worst possible moment.

But she just kept looking at him with sad eyes and somehow that made it increasingly difficult to maintain his smile. Which shouldn’t be possible, because he could hold a perfect smile for hours before his face even started to hurt.

“It would be okay, you know.”

He blinked, so caught in his own thoughts that he’d completely lost the thread of the conversation. “What would be okay?”

“If you hadn’t done this before. I mean - I’d just like to know if that’s the case, though, so I can, y’know…” She shrugged and smiled self-consciously, seeming to want him to infer the rest, but he didn’t know.

“So you can what?” Look at him in disappointment? Pretend to enjoy it? Leave?

“I don’t know, be more considerate, I guess?” She bit her bottom lip. “Let you set the pace? I just want you to be comfortable, Adrien.”

I could love this girl.

He didn’t. But he might. Finally put Ladybug behind him for good and commit to this amazing, adorable woman.

In that moment, he saw, with perfect clarity, what a future of loving Marinette Dupain-Cheng would look like. Adrien would wake up with his arms wrapped around her, and she’d feed him pastries for breakfast. He’d strut around the apartment modeling her designs so she could perfect them, and he’d proudly introduce this brilliant girl to every contact in the industry he had. They would make each other laugh with stupid puns. And he could watch over her as Chat Noir, visit her the way he had when they were children and make her comfortable with his alter ego until one day he could do away with all the lies…

And Adrien wanted.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted anything, not really. His dreams had burned to ash once and nothing had ever taken their place. He’d just been doing his best to place one foot in front of the other without falling over since, not caring to look where the road lead.

A small sound of surprise escaped her as his hands settled on her hips and drew her closer.

Touching his forehead to hers, his mouth hovered a breath’s width away from her lips. “Marinette,” he whispered, and she was so close he could feel her shiver. “You’re right. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not… I haven’t had a lot of real relationships in my life. I’ll probably mess this up. A lot. But I want to make this work. I want you.”

Apparently, that had been the right thing to say, because Marinette whimpered, a soft, needy sound, and then licked her lips. The tip of it just barely grazed him, and there was an answering groan from the depths of his throat.

“You know, Adrien,” she said, her eyes half-lidded and filled with want of her own. “I think I must have made a fool out of myself in front of you a hundred times. And you never thought less of me for it. It’s only fair that it’s my turn now to watch you lose your mind every once in a while, and I won’t think less of you for it either.”

Chapter Text

Nino had warned her that drunk Adrien was rather handsy.

Marinette wondered if he knew that sober Adrien was, too.

As much as she’d have loved to keep making out with him – forever, preferably, because this man knew what he was doing with that mouth – her deadline loomed ever closer, only a few weeks away now. So she had reluctantly put a stop to their fun in order to get some professional feedback.

Adrien had only pouted a little before seamlessly transitioning into work mode and turning his attention back to her designs. Yet now that this line had been crossed, this invisible wall between them shattered, he kept touching her.

Not to tease her. At least, she didn’t think so. The touches were small, gentle things, a brush here, his hand resting on her shoulder there, and he just leaned in so much. Adrien’s natural, most comfortable state in the absence of propriety appeared to be one where personal space didn’t exist.

She’d never have suspected that aloof and refined Adrien Agreste craved human touch.

Not that she minded. It was adorable.

But then everything Adrien did was adorable in her eyes. Like finding out that he was really into licking her. His way of going about it was a bit weird, but she could think of worse fates than having every inch of her body explored by Adrien’s tongue.

Even knowing that he was more shy and inexperienced than he let on only added to his appeal. He got nervous and messed up just like she did! Adrien Agreste is not perfection incarnate after all. Just a human like me. Amazing.

If only the insights she was gathering about him would make this less daunting, but they apparently hadn’t sunk in yet.

Her face heated and she bit her lip, gathering her courage. It was ridiculous for this to even require courage considering that not ten minutes ago she had been shoving her tongue into this man’s mouth, much to their mutual delight. But her heart was a fickle thing and still chose to drum against her chest until it hurt when she dared to sit down next to him.

They were so close that their hips and thighs touched.

Adrien absently slung an arm around her waist, half-pulling her on his lap, without once taking his eyes off her designs. He leaned his head against her shoulder.

Squee.

“These are really good, Marinette,” he said.

“Do… do you really think so?” Her answer was breathless, and not just because of the praise. “It feels like there’s something missing, and I can’t put my finger on what it is.” And this project had to be perfect. It was her final showcase, and every year, a select few students were chosen to be featured at Paris fashion week. She intended to be among them. This was going to be her debut in a highly competitive industry, so the stakes were high.

Her assignment was to design four outfits around a theme of her choice and to then create glamor shots of a model wearing them, to demonstrate not just her mastery over the clothing itself but also its presentation.

She’d chosen the theme of the four seasons, one ensemble for each. Perhaps it wasn’t the most creative theme she could have come up with but it allowed her to showcase her entire range, with a wide variety of colors, moods and fabrics.

“There is.”

She grew still. “Oh.” It was silly to be hurt that Adrien agreed with her assessment that her work was lacking. But damn it, she had wanted to impress him.

His lips brushed her earlobe. “Marinette. Your designs are very good, but what’s holding you back is that you’re afraid of people not liking them.”

“Of course I want people to like them! My future hinges on this project!”

“No. It doesn’t. It’s one opportunity in a long string of opportunities to come. Your life won’t be over if a judge doesn’t like this. And you’re letting that hypothetical unimpressed judge hold you back.”

“How so?”

“You need to be okay with people not liking your work, Marinette.”

She frowned at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” If people didn’t like her creation, then that meant it had failed. And nothing about that was okay!

He huffed, his lips twitching, and then he said, “Indulge me in a tangent?”

“…consider yourself indulged.”

“Alright. So you know André? He owns this amazing ice cream stand.”

She nodded, a faint heat prickling her cheeks as she remembered the time she got the poor guy Akumatized. “Yeah. For couples, right?”

“Mhm. I visited him once when I was sixteen to find out who my one true love was.” She could hear the roll in his eyes, and couldn’t help but wonder if there had been a particular girl he’d had in mind. “Anyway, he served me this creation of his, along with a prediction – and, you know, it tasted great. So when I saw him a couple of months later, I approached him again, but this time I chose my own flavors because he’d already done his prophecy bit and I wanted to try what else he had. And there was this… this monstrous creation. It was blue and had cookie bits in it and it looked so ridiculous I had to have it – and it was amazing. So sweet it melted in my mouth. I have vivid dreams of that ice cream when I’m on a cut, you know.”

He grinned. “So, when I visited Paris again after years of being away, I dragged Nino all over the place to find André again. Which I did, and I ordered that blue stuff, and it was heaven.”

“You know, Adrien, I’m starting to suspect you have a sweet tooth.”

He gasped. “How did you know?!”

She giggled, and he continued with his story.

“Naturally, Nino wanted to know what the fuss was about and demanded a taste. I think he said something like ‘this better be good’, which was fair, considering I’d just spent half a day dragging him around.”

“…and?” Marinette prompted at his dramatic silence.

“And he gagged. Said it tasted like diabetes.” He snorted. “Now, Nino being a heretic aside, there’s a moral in this story, and it’s this: I didn’t obsess over André’s vanilla ice cream – which is excellent, by the way – because I can find excellent vanilla ice cream just about everywhere. But that very specific taste that resonated with me? It was on my mind for years. More importantly, Nino hated it. Nobody’s ever gagged on vanilla. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“Not even a little bit.”

“There are some things that are nearly universally appealing.” He held up her four seasons design. “This? This is universally appealing. Elegant and beautiful. Everyone will like it, but nobody will ever dream about it at night because it’s so common.”

“So you’re saying my work is mediocre?”

He winced, and shook his head. “No, Marinette, your work is beautiful. Too beautiful. I mean, look at all this symmetry. It’s like you’re trying to avoid any element that might be disliked by the jury, but all you’re doing is scrubbing away every sign of your individual touch.

“The things that resonate with us are deeply personal and highly variable, and that is what makes them unique, gives them that gut punch. The very thing that will make someone fall in love with your work will utterly repel someone else.”

He opened her portfolio and pointed to a sketch she’d done just for fun. “This? When I see this, I think ‘This is Marinette’. It’s so… fun. Whimsical. I feel like grinning just from looking at it. And I bet someone – maybe your teachers, maybe your classmates – at one point told you…” He paused, and suddenly his voice grew flat. “This is childish. How frivolous. Tone down the accessories.”

Marinette winced at the harsh words, an echo of similar ones in her ears and turned to look at her hands in her lap. Adrien’s hold on her tightened.

“Marinette, you need to be able to hear this. Look at me.”

She forced her gaze up.

“I don’t like it,” he said, his eyes cold. “This design is awful. Ribbons? Are you twelve?”

She knew, she knew he didn’t mean what he was saying, but she couldn’t help the sting that pricked her eyes, blinking rapidly to ward it off. Even Adrien had seen it right away, seen exactly what her teachers in her awful first year of university had seen, merciless critique tearing apart all of her work while she found herself surrounded by peers bursting with talent and skill surpassing her own. Only stubborness had kept her going, and even then she might have given up then and there if it hadn't been for Alya's relentless support. Everytime Marinette had come home in despair after designs she'd poured her heart and soul into having been poorly received, her roommate had been there, welcoming her with warm tea and a shoulder to cry on.

“Okay, now, indulge me again.” His lips brushed hers in sweet comfort. “Please imagine these words being said by Chloe Bourgeoise.” Somehow, without changing his naturally deep pitch at all, Adrien still managed a perfect imitation of her lycée nemesis’ voice. “Ugh, this is terrible. My daddy would just die of shame if the daughter of the mayor would let herself be seen wearing something this childish. Ribbons? Are you twelve?”

Marinette laughed softly. “You sound ridiculous.”

His voice switched back to its normal cadence. “I know. But are you inclined to actually give a damn about what I’m saying or are you thinking ‘Well, who cares what Chloe thinks?’. I watched you and her fight, you know. You never let what she was saying get to you because you knew that, ultimately, her opinion was not worth much. You’re not designing for everyone, you’re designing for a select few people who share your tastes and who’d be thrilled to find something special that speaks only to them.”

He flipped the pages back to her current project. “So do you really want to water down your vision?”

“I see what you’re saying, but…” She shifted her weight, fidgeting. “Being able to listen to feedback is important.”

“It is,” he agreed with a nod. “But not so much that you lose yourself. Not every piece of criticism needs to be listened to. You are not a beginner, Marinette, and you don’t make beginner mistakes. You are at a level of skill where you can say ‘You know what? I am aware of the rules and am choosing to disregard them. I like it better this way.’ In the end, you are accountable only to yourself, and not everyone is going to like you, not because you’re objectively wrong, but because they view the world through different eyes.”

He shrugged. “I know I’m repeating myself, because it’s important to understand this if you want to survive this industry: People will hate your work. People might even hate you. Figure out who and what matters to you, and then focus only on that. The rest is noise.”

Marinette took a moment to digest this as they fell into companionable silence, Adrien nuzzling her shoulder and – sniffing her hair?

Ridiculous man.

Ridiculous, wonderful man.

“So what matters to you, Adrien Agreste?” she murmured.

“You,” he answered without hesitation.

Ridiculously smooth man. Did he practice those lines? She stifled a giggle as she imagined Adrien reciting pick-up lines at the mirror. Are you a camera? Because every time I look at you, I smile.

No, brain, don’t go back there.

As if Adrien Agreste, supermodel, had any need for pick-up lines.

“And…?”

He frowned slightly, then gestured vaguely. “Nino. My… work. A good friend at work. You know, the usual.” He paused. “My cat.”

“You have a cat?”

His eyes lit up. It was that mad gleam some pet owners had that signaled that the question he’d heard was not ‘You have a cat?’ but ‘Can you show me approximately twenty thousand pictures of your fur baby?’

Which was exactly what Adrien started to do, sliding his smartphone out of his pocket and shoving glamor shots of a fluffy white cat into her face. Then he launched into a passionate speech about his Princess’s habits (knocking over unattended glasses), probable breed (Turkish Angora), and overall cuteness level (very high).

“Back up,” she said with a laugh, and he froze. “Your cat’s name is Princess?”

“Uh… yeah? Well, kind of. Her real name’s Cleocatra, though, the nickname just stuck.”

Cleocatra.

She’d never stood a chance against this dork.

“Why?” he asked, eyeing her with trepidation because evidently her approval of his cat and her names was very important to him.

She shook her head and laughed. “I’m sorry, this is… just silly. I have some associations with that name.”

“Oh?” He peered at her. “Are you going to elaborate or just going to drop that in the room all mysterious-like?”

Marinette giggled. “Well, you know, I once met Chat Noir…”

He grew rigid. And she could have slapped herself. Because how could she forget?

“I’m sorry! You – you probably really don’t want to hear about him.”

An arched eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Oh God, he was going to make her say it. “With, with your father and all. Please forget I said anything.”

“No,” he said softly. “I want to hear this.”

“Um. Well. Really not much to tell. I met him and he protected me from an Akuma and called me Princess.”

“He did?” Adrien tilted his head, and then, for some reason, blushed. “I see.” He coughed into his hand. “So what did you think of him?”

Marinette squirmed so uncomfortably at this line of questioning that he immediately took pity on her.

“I don’t hold a grudge. You know. You can talk about him, if you’d like. My father was not a good man, and it was an accident, so…” He trailed off, and shrugged. “I’m curious.”

She added that little tidbit of information to the mental image she was painting of this older Adrien. Marinette really liked the shape it was taking. If he didn’t blame Chat Noir, then he likely didn’t have a problem with her polka-dotted other half, either. Always good information to have, that her prospective lover didn’t hate her.

“Um. Okay.” She smiled hesitantly. “He was kind of ridiculous, really. Flexing and posing and just firing off stupid line after stupid line, but he protected me well. And then, I met him again on a balcony, and… well, he was just nice, you know? He didn’t have to take the time to cheer me up. I was just some stranger he’d met once.”

“Fond memories?” Adrien’s blush had grown a deeper shade of red, and she wasn’t sure what to make of that – maybe the topic made him uncomfortable after all – but he was grinning ear to ear.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Adrien pressed his lips to her neck, teeth gently nipping at her, and she squirmed, heat rising once again, tempered by faint melancholy.

Marinette's memories of Chat Noir were fond indeed. He'd been her best friend once. If only the man could match what she remembered of the boy.

Chapter Text

A date.

Marinette had a date.

With Adrien. In five days.

Her body was alive, humming with the memory of his touch, like a blazing echo on her skin where he had left his mark. She smiled, and gazed at her designs.

Then she threw them away.

Adrien was right, these were not right at all. Too elegant, too formal, too cold. Not her. They did not reflect this joy inside her.

The deadline loomed, and Marinette was starting over from scratch, starting all the way back with her theme. That had been her first mistake, trying to show off her range, like wading around in the shallow end of the pool instead of diving deep into the ocean.

But there was no panic, no doubt at all whether she would make it in time. She would. She was inspired. All she needed was a new theme, and the rest would flow from there.

Marinette knelt down, digging around in the drawers of her childhood room to unearth an old shame. Her Adrien Agreste folder, the one she’d rather obsessively collected as a tween, all his old shoots and posters and cut-outs of his media appearances.

She stared at the boy she’d once fancied herself in love with.

It looks nothing like him.

Yes, he’d been younger, of course, hadn’t yet grown into his frame, but this blandly smiling angel instantly struck her as not quite right. Adrien was way more interesting than this.

She got back to her feet and walked back to her desk, absently moving a potted plant to make a little room. She laid down the opened folder next to her tablet, which showed one of Adrien’s more recent advertisements.

But this isn’t you either.

He was staring back at her with a smirk, his half-lidded eyes promising all manner of sin if she dared follow his lead. Dressed all in black, he was casually leaning back, his shirt left open to reveal his toned bare chest.

Around his neck dangled a pendant in the form of a green butterfly.

Why would you go along with this, Adrien?

It was one thing to not concern himself with hatred, another entirely to invite it like this.

Was this what Nino had been trying to warn her about?

Have I ever known you at all?

But Marinette wanted to. She wanted to peel back every layer he had until she knew him as well as she knew herself. And she would start by trying to puzzle this out.

Setting down her pen to paper, she tried to imagine an outfit that would capture all facets of this kind, playful, cynical man.

 

✧✦✧

 

Few understood the connection Tikki shared with Plagg.

She’d tried to explain it to Wayzz many times, but the wise kwami was always left vaguely disturbed that Tikki let Plagg undo so much of her hard work. And that she was happy about it.

Oh yes, of course, in the moment, when she brought Destruction her newest creation for him to examine, there was always that sting of disappointment when he turned his nose up at it. Plagg was not easy to please, and he could find fault in almost anything. If her creation particularly offended him, she might even come across it later, smashed to bits.

Destruction loved to smash things.

But oh, he drove her to new heights. Unburdened her from her mistakes until she could soar freely, create something even better. Without Plagg, she would still be in her garden, content that her plants were bearing fruit and flowering, and striving for no more.

She’d cried the first time she’d found one trampled, crushed under the paw of the great black beast that had wandered in. He’d looked down on her in puzzlement.

“It’s ugly, why do you cry for it?”

“Because it was mine!”

The cat had taken care to step lightly after that.

And when she got it right… the way Plagg’s face lit up with wonder was a sight to behold, and it made her heart sing. That was when Tikki always knew she had created something truly special.

Plagg’s face had been alight when she had shown him the first Miraculous she had forged, connecting them to an unknown world.

“Would you like to go on an adventure with me?”

Of course he did. Plagg followed her everywhere. Even now that he had somewhat soured on this most recent expedition of theirs, he was still here because Tikki adored humans and their endless inventions and innovations.

Destruction fueled Creation – without it, she was stagnant.

So Tikki smiled indulgently at Marinette as she finally escaped this creative slump she’d been in, scribbling rough sketches, writing down key phrases and designing prototypes until deep into the night.

She would leave her partner to her happiness for now.

But Tikki was deeply worried, not just about the flame creatures that had suddenly started appearing, but about her other half. Him and his charge, who had been infused with far too much of Plagg’s destructive energy, and had not seemed entirely in control of it.

Why so premature, Plagg? Where have you been? Your kitten is ill-prepared.

But as she watched Marinette pour creativity on the page, she realized that her Ladybug was not. She was ready to embody more of Tikki’s essence, and would need it in the battles to come.

So Tikki reached for that bond that bound them together, and gently plucked at its strings.

 

✧✦✧

 

Observation had led Adrien to believe that there were two types of beautiful women in the world.

The first was beautiful like lightning. Accompanied by thunder, she illuminated the sky with her presence. Heads turned and jaws slackened in her wake. He was quite familiar with women like this, worked with them every day, and after a while, once the initial stunned shock of seeing them up close had worn off, they just became normal people.

Ladybug had been like this, lighting up his world and then leaving him bereft in darkness.

Then there was the subtler type, beautiful like a meadow. She caught the eye, but rarely inspired awe, unless a man chose to return to her, again and again, to rest in her presence, breathe in her fresh scent, and savor the quiet sanctuary she provided. Until one day he woke up to find she had become his favorite place in the world, more beautiful than all others.

Marinette had gotten awfully pretty in the last few years. It disconcerted him, because he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly about her appearance had changed that made her so alluring now. Consulting some old class photos had shocked him – she’d been pretty then, too.

He could kick himself for not returning sooner when this had been in Paris awaiting him all this time. Ah well. Spilled milk, et cetera. He’d get it right from now on.

“So what do you want this time?”

Adrien froze in the middle of setting down the package that had been delivered for him at the reception. “Pardon?”

“There’s cheese in there.”

“Just stocking up,” he said innocently, and cat eyes narrowed at him in suspicion.

“Cut the bullshit, Adrien.”

Damn it. Caught.

He cleared his throat and pulled out the casu marzu, which was quite possibly the vilest cheese known to humankind, and set it on the kitchen counter. Plagg’s eyes went wide with wonder.

“This,” Adrien said, tapping one finger atop the tightly sealed abomination. The one Nathalie had somehow procured – likely on the black market because it was an illegal health hazard. How she had gotten it so fast and from where, Adrien had no idea. He’d expressed no more than idle curiosity, saying that he would like to have one – and she’d actually gone and gotten it for him, delivered to his door no questions asked, along with a bill that made his stomach turn. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but still…

My precious nest egg, part of him whined. It had taken a substantial beating in the last two weeks.

“This is not a bribe.”

Another suspicious glare, but Plagg floated closer.

“You’re right. I want a favor. But this is a gift, Plagg, not a bribe.”

“Back to buying my affections, huh?”

“Never hurts to make sure you’re in a good mood.” Or what passed for it in the grumpy kwami. His voice softened. “But you can say no, and you’ll still have this. I promise.”

“Alright.” Plagg plopped himself down atop his new treasure. “Let’s hear it then.”

Adrien fidgeted. “I asked Marinette out on a date.”

“I heard.”

“I… really want this to go well.”

“Exchange bodily fluids, got it.”

“Plagg,” he hissed, and the kwami cackled.

Well, crude as he was, he wasn’t that far off, because there was the crux of the issue.

“…I’m not going to be able to control myself – when we get to the point of intimacy, I mean. I was already so damn close to losing it, and that was –“ wonderful, mind-blowing, perfect “ – just making out.”

“Hm.” Plagg started slowly unwrapping his gift and oh dear God, the stench. “Sucks to be you.”

“…I want your permission to take the ring off.”

Plagg froze.

Adrien quickly added the rest of his explanation, jamming as much of it as he could into one breath. “It will just be for dates with Marinette, and I’ll keep it on me – in my pocket or something – I’ll put it back on right after, I promise, but Plagg, I’m supposed to keep my identity secret and, and, I just won’t be able to if I don’t do this.”

The kwami said nothing for a long time. Then he scoffed. “What are you asking me for? Just take the damn thing off if it’s getting in the way.”

“Plagg.” Adrien tried to make his voice as sincere as possible, to show his neglected kwami that he meant this. “I am never taking this ring off without your permission ever again.”

“…and what if I say no, huh? What are you going to do then?”

“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.” Tell her he wanted to wait for marriage or something. She was half-convinced he was a virgin anyway, so he could probably make her believe that.

It would just suck so much. He’d woken up moaning her name today, and he wasn’t exactly looking forward to celibacy with temptation right in front of him.

Plagg was staring at him.

“…you really mean that, huh?”

“I do.”

“Okay.” Pause. “Put it on a necklace – a sturdy one – and make sure it doesn’t touch your skin, or you’ll still get some transference.”

The kwami yelped when Adrien caught him in his hand to bring him up to his cheek, rubbing it against Plagg’s and purring.

“Learn to control yourself, idiot!”

The kwami phased out of his hands and darted back to his revolting cheese.

He’d have to give Nathalie a raise for this, there was no way around it. Crazy efficient woman, savior of his love life.

But first he had a date to plan. And it had to be perfect.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette finally laid down the pencil, staring at her newest idea.

It was rough and would require polish, but – yes. She could develop this further. Even this simple sketch spoke to her in a way the near-finished design she’d had before never had. She leaned back and stretched, wincing as her body protested the movement. A quick glance at the clock left her startled – she’d been hunching over her desk for hours. It wasn’t even worth going to sleep at this point.

Not that she wanted to sleep. She felt amazing, awake and alert, like she couldn’t wait to tackle and solve more of life’s problems. Strange, since the winter months often left her a little on the lethargic side.

There was one problem she’d been trying so hard to avoid thinking of.

Chat Noir.

But now, in a burst of inspiration and epiphany, she finally put her finger on what his issue was, why he’d been so hostile even as he ostensibly tried to work together. And he’d told her so, hadn’t he, right at the beginning?

“Reporting for duty.”

Chat Noir bristled against things he had to do, had always spoken dreamily of how his costume freed him from daily drudgery and the crushing weight of responsibility.

And now he viewed Ladybug as a chore he had to endure.

Carapace, too, apparently.

Her Chaton had become a misanthrope.

“Taking a life can change people forever, Marinette.”

Marinette hadn’t given Hawkmoth much thought in recent years, but in this moment her hatred for the man was ignited anew, for choosing the path he did, for abandoning his son to chase power, for forcing their hand. For ruining her kitty, robbing him of all his playful joie de vivre.

It was still buried inside there, somewhere, surely? She just had to coax it out.

Pondering her options, she hummed a tone-deaf tune as she grabbed the watering can, deciding to get the daily care of her little garden out of the way early as well. It had started so small, with a little vase of flowers here, a potted plant there, and over the years had somehow escalated to encroach on every last window sill and clear surface in the apartment she’d shared with Alya.

Then Marinette had been forced to fit her entire collection into her cramped childhood bedroom when Alya had moved in with Nino. Now her overcrowded room was more of a maze filled with too many pots she’d developed a routine of artfully dodging.

At least Tikki seemed to like it, often slept among the green leaves.

Marinette perked up when she noticed the zinnias that had been wilting recently seemed to have recovered.

Although. How strange.

It was too early for them to be in bloom.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nathalie Sancoeur: Was the package to your satisfaction, Mr. Agreste?

Adrien: Yes! Thank you so much, Nathalie, you are a life saver.

Nathalie Sancoeur: I’m glad you approve, sir. The Armani shoot has been successfully moved to Paris, and I’ve taken the liberty of adding it to your schedule. It’s in three days. You will need to check the reception for a package tomorrow again – a gift to bring to the crew. They were rather put out to have to accommodate you like this on short notice.

Adrien: What would I do without you?

Nathalie Sancoeur: Indeed. That is why I’ve also decided to return to Paris.

Adrien frowned as she sent him her new address – how had she already secured herself a lease while his apartment hunt was only getting started and he was forced to live in housing provided by Chloe’s good graces? Well, stupid question, really. It was Nathalie.

Adrien: You don’t have to move. London isn’t so far away, you can still be my agent from there. We’ve already been working together long-distance on international shoots, we’d just be taking it full-time.

Nathalie Sancoeur: Mr. Agreste, I’d be a poor agent indeed if I didn’t know how to prioritize my most successful client.

He shifted uncomfortably, frowning at their exchange. Adrien was not the only one who had gotten significant blowback from his father’s deeds. It had taken him a while to discover, but Nathalie, as amazingly competent and efficient as she was, had trouble holding down steady employment – in France, at least.

She’d built herself a new professional clientele in London, where people were not as reluctant to hire Hawkmoth’s former assistant.

And she’s throwing it away just like that?

Chapter Text

“Tikki, spots on!”

The light of her transformation enveloped her like a warm blanket, cozy and familiar. Ladybug twirled on the spot as her costume took form around her, and she could not help the delighted smile.

So far, Marinette had gotten all her daily chores out of the way, scrubbed her bathroom, sketched some more and she still had an hour to go before she had to head out for class. This amazing energy flowing through her veins showed no sign of ebbing, so now she settled on her bed and pondered her biggest problem of all.

Her trusty yo-yo, her longtime companion, seemed ill-equipped to handle this newest threat. She placed it on her lap, examined it from all sides and then, drawing on her memory of capturing an Akuma, she flipped it open. Bright white light swirled at the center of it.

She’d once asked Tikki how, exactly, the inside of her yo-yo cleansed Hawkmoth’s victims.

“Our power recognizes corruption, Marinette. Things born of hatred and ugly emotion that seek to destroy our domain. We cannot heal the source of it, but we can sever its reach – cut the strings, weed it out before it spreads.”

Whatever these fire creatures were, Ladybug recognized one thing about them – they were suffering. They did not choose this fate. So surely this meant that they should be within reach of her powers? Should she not be able to save them from whatever had them in their grasp?

But unlike those delicate butterflies that had once caused such trouble, these creatures were simply too big to fit inside of her yo-yo. And so far, their power did not seem centered on a talisman or something like it that she might fit in.

Well.

Her yo-yo was merely a manifestation of her power. There was no reason for all the power of Creation to be limited by something as insignificant as size. If the form did not fit the function, then she would simply have to alter it.

That was what designers did.

 

✧✦✧

 

“So. Tell me about the Black Cat, Wayzz.”

“What would you like to know?”

“I don’t know. What’s there to tell?” Nino drummed his fingertips and gazed at the strange container divided seven ways. In its center were a red and a black square, both empty – meant to hold the twin Miraculouses of Creation and Destruction, one of which was currently wielded by Marinette. “Why does he need to be brought back into the fold in the first place?”

His kwami hummed. “Hawkmoth’s death hit him hard. The task of the Black Cat is a difficult one, for they must carefully navigate a fine and treacherous line. Historically speaking, Destruction has a tendency toward… instability. There is no one foolproof disposition that always results in a heroic Black Cat. We’ve identified certain virtues that carry a high success rate, yes, but every new wielder is a throw of the dice. So we leave it to Plagg to make the final call.”

Nino frowned, something stirring in his memory. “Plagg?”

“Chat Noir’s kwami.”

“Hm.” Where had he heard that before? He could have sworn… “What makes the Black cat unstable?”

“His very nature. He is not the only one. In fact, he is our most reliable predator, both because of Plagg’s good judgement and because Ladybug helps tame him more often than not. The other two heavy hitters under our protection give us similar trouble.” He floated to the elaborate jewelry box, hovering over an orange pendant. “The Fox forever wishes to deceive and plays his pranks without regard to the rest of us. And the Peacock, well…” He sighed. “We rely on Nooroo to rein her in.”

Nino frowned. “Peacocks are hardly predators.”

“True. They are not hunters like the Fox and the Cat, but they devour the flesh of any small animal they come across, should the opportunity arise.” He landed on the empty spot meant to hold the peacock’s brooch. “Duusu embodies Justice, and like Justice, she can be unyielding and brutal in her quest to set right what she perceives to be wrong. She’s flashy and vain, seeking to make an example of those she judges. She’s a strong believer in setting highly visible precedents. To quote her – ‘What is the point of casting a judgement if no one’s there to witness it?’ Only when softened by Nooroo’s Generosity does she ever exhibit mercy.”

“So there’s more pairs than just Ladybug and Chat Noir?”

Wayzz hummed. “No. Not quite. We have counterparts, complimentary natures… the Fox and I, for example.” He grimaced. “Deception forever obscures the truth while Wisdom seeks to reveal it. We drive each other mad. Only Creation and Destruction love each other deeply despite their vast differences.”

Nino froze. “Marinette loves Chat Noir?”

“No. Tikki loves Plagg, and vice versa. How their wielders feel about each other is not a foregone conclusion.” His eyes filled with sorrow. “There have been lifetimes where the Ladybug was slain by her counterpart.”

“What?”

“That is why we have forged a set of rules. Guidelines we live by – flexible and open to our discretion, broken when needed – and Axioms with which we have chained ourselves, punishing every misstep. Remember them well, Nino, for every single one of them was written in someone’s blood.”

Wayzz floated to the book. “Axiom, the first. No kwami can read even a single page of this. Attempting to do so results in unimaginable pain.” He paused. “It’s mostly for Trixx, who kept trying, thinking one day he’d figure out how to get away with it. Can you guess why we limit ourselves like this?”

“You said it’s because kwami and their power can fall into the wrong hands.”

“Precisely. Not just our power, but also our knowledge. So we limit what we can be made to say, should we be captured. Which leads to the second Axiom. I know who holds the Black Cat Miraculous. After all, I watched Master Fu Choose him. But I cannot tell you, or anyone. No kwami can reveal the identity of a Miraculous wielder other than their own. They can alert others to the one who holds them captive, but never betray those who would rescue them.”

Wayzz sighed deeply.

“This Axiom is particularly important for me. Without it, I could give away the name and location of all Miraculous wielders should I ever be captured. So do not ask me to tell you who Chat Noir is, or to even give you as much as a single clue – because if I attempt to violate this Axiom, the knowledge will be wiped from my mind before it can leave my lips.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien bit into his croissant as he lightly jogged down the avenue. Maybe it was just his imagination, but it did not taste as good as the one Marinette had given him for free. Which was, of course, definitely his imagination because it was from the very same bakery. She just wasn’t there this morning, much to his disappointment, but she’d warned him that she didn’t have a shift today.

Still, he’d wanted his morning snack, and to scout out the scene of the attack.

He wasn’t the only one.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said, and Alya jumped, startled.

She whirled around to stare at him with wide eyes. “Adrien,” she whispered. “What are you doing here?”

He arched an eyebrow and held up his croissant in its paper bag, featuring the logo of the Dupain-Cheng bakery.

“Oh, right. Right.” She relaxed a fraction, but there was something in her gaze he found disconcerting. “Hi.”

“Hi,” he said, bemused. He remembered Alya well – energetic, loud, reckless, but he’d never seen this nervous jitteriness before. Was it new? “What are you doing here? Research for your Ladyblog?”

“Got it in one.” She cast him a sly look. “You never know when the culprit might return to the scene of their crime.”

“Discover anything of interest?” While he’d be doing his own sweep of the area – who knew, maybe his enhanced senses would pick up something that was hidden from ordinary humans – he’d be foolish to ignore the source of information right in front of him. They might never have been close, but he deeply respected Alya’s capacity for research.

“No. But maybe you could help me out.”

“Oh?”

“You were there, right? Eyewitness accounts are valuable. Mind if I pick your brain?”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Ah, I really didn’t see much of anything. You know. Fire, smoke. Tends to obscure things.”

“True. But there’s something I’ve been wondering.”

“Oh?” He uncomfortably shifted his weight again, and bit into his croissant to seem nonchalant. It tasted like sawdust.

“Yeah. You were right behind me. Running in pursuit, Nino said?” She paused, and peered at him with curious eyes. “How’d you even survive? That thing was about to fry me when Chat Noir pulled me out. And he set me down several blocks over, so you had to have been alone with that walking flamethrower for at least half a minute, even if he got back to you as fast as possible afterward.”

“Ah. Well. You know.” His lips curved into his most charming smile. “I dodged?”

She gave him a long, searching look. “Why’d you go to your hotel after? Nino and Marinette were so worried.”

“Well, you know, the adrenaline…”

He was spared from further interrogation when the ground shook, and a shockwave nearly burst his sensitive ear drums. Pillars of smoke started rising only a few streets over.

Shit, one part of him thought.

Oh, thank God, said the other.

Quietly thanking what was likely another fire beast for its convenient timing, he started running to go put it down.

 

✧✦✧

 

What convenient timing, Alya thought, and narrowed her eyes.

 

✧✦✧

 

I hate birds.

Chat Noir hissed as the creature evaded his staff yet again, the flap of its wings sending another wave of fire toward the ground, leaving him scrambling to save the civilians beneath. It was so damn fast, leading him on a chase across the rooftops of Paris, crossing so many neighborhoods the people couldn’t evacuate effectively. Even with his superior speed he could barely keep up. He was faster, but it was flying in a straight line while he had to constantly zigzag to drag people to safety.

There was probably a pigeon under there. Good. Chat Noir would enjoy ripping it to pieces. Goddamn sky rats with their goddamn feathers, he’d always hated them.

One hit. He just needed one hit. One swipe of his Cataclysm.

A voice rang out, crying for help, and he cursed under his breath as he was forced to interrupt his hunt once more. Just leave them, an insidious voice in his head whispered. You’re just endangering more people by dragging this out. Leave this one and kill the firebird before it reaches the next street.

No. Killing animals was one thing, letting people die by negligence another. His claws touched down, shingles shattering at the force of impact, and he wrapped his arms around the woman trapped in a ring of fire.

“Thank you thank you oh God thank you–“

He was barely listening, gaze firmly fixed on his prey as he set her down where the fire hadn’t reached yet. He bounded forward, scaling the walls to build momentum for a jump and–

A shield rammed into the bird from below and it screeched, losing altitude before it caught itself. My chance!

Cataclysm!” He leapt, putting all his strength into his thighs as he pushed himself forward. His trajectory was perfect, he would swipe the damn thing, and if Carapace was here, Ladybug was hopefully not too far behind. She’d use her creation magic to put an end to the danger for good.

A string wrapped itself around his boot. What–? He barely had time to react before he felt himself get pulled back down. No!

He cursed as he crashed back down onto a roof, baring his fangs at Ladybug as she casually retracted her yo-yo’s and whirled it, fixing him with a pensive gaze.

At least he’d had the presence of mind to make sure his charged hand didn’t touch anything during his rough landing, his Cataclysm still crackling around his claws. But still, how dare she!

“This is not the time,” he snarled.

“Yes,” she said. “Patrol would have been the time to discuss our tactics. But you weren’t there.”

She turned her gaze toward the bird. Carapace’s shield was swirling around it, blocking whatever direction it tried to escape to, effectively leaving it to flutter in place.

“And now what?” he taunted her, unable to keep from giving voice to his frustration. “While you’re stalling, the fire is spreading. It’s just an animal! Some stupid pigeon! You can’t save everyone and everything, Ladybug!”

She met his gaze, her pale blue eyes aglow with a magic he had never seen before.

Watch me.”

Ladybug threw her yo-yo into the air, the halves separating from each other as the string unraveled. The bright white light he’d only ever caught glimpses of when she captured an Akuma began flowing, a trickle at first, but soon gushing. It swirled, curling like tendrils, shaping itself into the form of delicate insect wings, the tips of which the yo-yo’s string bound itself to.

She caught the bow, its wingspan almost as big as she. A knowing smile curled up the corner of her lips as her body flowed into an archer’s stance.

Lucky Charm.”

A polka-dotted arrow appeared in her hand, bright magic gathering around it when she laid it against the string and pulled back.

Ladybug took aim at the trapped firebird.

Don’t.

She let loose the arrow blazing with the white light of Creation’s power, and it struck true.

Don’t look.

“Gotcha.”

Please no. I don’t want this.

Chat Noir, Stone Cold Professional, felt like he was fifteen years old again, staring with wide eyes at a Goddess in red and black.

Look away.

 

✧✦✧

 

As a dazed pigeon fluttered away, Ladybug glided down to the street below to pick up the fallen arrow. She glanced at Carapace, standing on a nearby roof, still breathing heavily from their detour to drag Alya to safety. He gave her a wide grin and a thumbs-up.

Then she turned to look where Chat Noir stood, still on the ledge of the opposite roof, gazing down at her with a blank expression on his face. She smiled up at him.

See? I can save anyone.

As her bow drew into itself to become a yo-yo once more, she threw the conjured arrow into the air.

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

Creation magic washed over the city and one of her partners turned away, the silver tip of his black belt slipping from sight.

You’re next, Chaton.

Chapter Text

Adrien took one last look at himself in the bathroom mirror, briefly smirking at his reflection while making his eyes do The Thing. He privately called it the ‘come hither and let me corrupt you’-look. It was his most requested expression at photo shoots.

Hm. Probably not right for Marinette.

His thumb absently brushed his stubble, and he bit back a curse at the coarse texture. It would scrape her soft skin. Concern over Marinette’s comfort won out over his vanity, and the sinfully disheveled look was traded for a clean-shaven one.

Okay.

He was ready.

This was going to be perfect.

Adrien was still mentally going over his plans when the elevator dinged. Should he have chosen a less upscale place? He wanted to spoil Marinette, because she deserved it, but maybe she’d be more at ease with something more casual.

Everything is perfect, he reassured himself as he stepped foot into the lobby. And if it isn’t, it’s too late to change now, so just stop thinking about this.

He was choosing her. Her because she returned his affections. Her above all others, because she made him laugh in a way he hadn’t laughed in years. This evening would be great. They would make each other laugh, and it would be great.

A traitorous part of his mind spoke up in a whisper. But what about my other half?

Shut up.

Shut up shut up shut up.

He would not go back to that. He would never be that pathetic boy again. Marinette liked him, and he liked her, why was he thinking about what he couldn’t have?

Just because she’d managed to conjure a bow and some wings. Big deal.

“Adrien.”

His steps briefly faltered as it took his overactive brain a moment to calm enough to assign the familiar voice a name. He blinked down at the woman in front of him in confusion.

“Alya…?” What was she doing here?

He craned his neck, glancing around for an explanation of what would have brought her here – fiery attack he had somehow missed entirely in his excitement? – but there was nothing. Alya was staring at him with a determined expression on her face.

“Got a moment for me?”

“Uh, sure.”

She smiled and drew him into a corner, a pillar keeping them from view from the rest of the grand room.

“So. My best friend, huh.”

Ah shit.

He was in for another speech, wasn’t he?

“I’m here to wish you good luck. And to tell you not to mess this up, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this from your boyfriend, Alya.”

She cast him a long, searching look. “Alright, then I’ll stick to the basics. Marinette had a huge crush on you back in lycée, you know.” He froze. That… explained some things. “And I got to witness her crazy attachment to you up close. It’s why she could never string together two words around you. So, I mean it when I say – don’t play. If this is not serious, you walk away now.”

He knew his reputation wasn’t the best, but the assumption still stung. “I’m serious,” he said flatly, even as his recent disloyal thoughts taunted him. He was selfish to pursue this, and he knew it.

“Good. I sincerely wish you two crazy kids a great first date.”

Alya suddenly hugged him tight.

And whispered in his ear.

If you just lied to me, I will personally strangle you with your own viscera.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Alya definitely didn’t suspect Adrien of anything just because he was the son of Hawkmoth. That would have been cruel, and unfair, and honestly, she liked him far too much to do that to him. She remembered him as a sweet, kind boy who was nothing like his cold and haughty father. And while he and Alya had never been particularly close, her boyfriend loved the guy, and so did her best friend.

But the queasy feeling in her gut remained. She couldn’t figure out how to dismiss that suspicious timing of his, not just in his return but also the way he vanished as soon as trouble started. It had been the same back in school.

When Hawkmoth had still been active, a lot of his activity had been centered around their school. It had never made sense to Alya, even less so when Gabriel Agreste’s identity had been revealed. Why would he put his son in such danger and target so many of his classmates, herself included? But if someone had been helping him choose victims…?

Then, of course, there was the mystery of the empty safe.

The public didn’t know about it, but Alya – through sleuthing and a small bribe here and there – had found out about it back in the wake of Hawkmoth’s defeat. A safe had been found in the Agreste mansion, behind the painting of his late wife. But it had been empty. It didn’t seem like the kind of hiding place that should have been empty, like maybe someone had cleaned it out in a haste.

Who’d had access to and knowledge of notoriously private Gabriel Agreste’s safe and had cared enough to protect the villain’s secrets even in death…?

Sixteen years old was young. A malleable mind was an easy target for manipulation by a trusted father figure. Death would not necessarily have made him abandon those convictions, might even have strengthened the resolve to carry out Hawkmoth’s unknown mission.

For years now, Alya had watched her boyfriend mourn a boy who was growing ever more distant and unlike his younger self. Gabriel Agreste had isolated himself from old friends, too, all of them aghast at what had become of what they’d described as once having been a caring and devoted family man.

Her mind was like a steel trap – once it had latched onto a mystery, it didn’t like to let go. It wasn’t like she enjoyed the direction all the clues were taking her.

But Alya wasn’t breaking into Adrien’s hotel room with the key card she’d just stolen off him to prove him guilty of anything.

No, she was breaking into his hotel room to prove his innocence. To put those damn voices inside her head to rest for good. Really, she was doing him a favor. As soon as someone else drew the same somewhat obvious conclusions and went to accuse him in public, she’d be ready with evidence of her own.

Adrien Agreste was a good man. She truly believed that. But her best friend was currently texting her a storm, trying not to panic about her date with him. Alya had to pretend there was a work-related reason she couldn’t be there to calm Marinette’s overactive nerves.

Marinette: alya

Marinette: ALYA

Marinette: hes probably taking me somewhere rly fancy

Marinette: and im underdressed

Marinette: and everyone is going to stare at the sad underdressed girl sullying the supermodel

Balancing her phone in one hand while she absently started rifling through Adrien’s things, Alya texted back.

Alya: You look stunning. Gorgeous. A goddess. Adrien will fall at your feet in awe ;)

He better be. Her best friend was all that, and more.

Marinette: oh no

Marinette: hes probably trying to keep this casual

Marinette: what if im overdressed?????

“Jesus, girl, would you chill,” Alya muttered under her breath, knowing full well her friend would not, in fact, ever chill.

Alya: Then you’ll be the best dressed girl in town with the handsomest date. They’ll envy you.

This was why Alya had to rifle through Adrien’s things. Because she could not, in good conscience, let her best friend get all overly attached to what might be a secret supervillain. So here she was, violating his privacy in search of that smoking gun of virtue.

Sorry, Adrien. Sisters over misters.

He didn’t appear to have all that many possessions, evidently keeping the bulk of them back in his old residence in London, so this wouldn’t take her long. She ran her fingers over the soft fabric of the respectable stack of designer clothes, just to make sure nothing was hiding under the folds, and then eyed his laptop.

Password-protected. Of course. She’d examine that last.

There was a noise behind her and she froze. No. She’d made sure to watch him leave, he couldn’t be here, he was supposed to be on his way to the date of a lifetime and maybe even stay away the entire night. Alya ever-so-slowly turned her head to look over her shoulder.

Big blue eyes were staring at her.

…did the hotel even allow pets?

“Shhh,” Alya whispered.

The cat flopped onto its back, exposing its fluffy white belly.

Paying the toll, Alya gave it a quick scratch – so soft! – and moved to the desk littered with papers. She quickly found what looked to be Adrien’s To-Do-List.

No alcohol! was underlined three times, each line progressively thicker than the last. The exclamation mark had to have been added after the list had been initially written with a pen of a different color.

Her lips twitched when she spotted Apologize to Marinette crossed off. From there, other Marinette-related activities branched off. Hold successful conversation, Meet to help with project and the last one, PLAN DATE, was punctuated with a little heart.

Cute. Maybe these two dorks would be good together. Provided Adrien wasn’t involved in a plot to set Paris on fire, anyway. Her eyes scanned the rest of the to-do-list, just in case he had written down something like rent supervillain lair.

Plagg - buy more cheese!!!!

She tilted her head at the cryptic note, only the first word of which appeared to have been written by Adrien – the other half had been scribbled in a messy, barely legible scrawl.

Nothing else caught her eye, except for the very last entry, the model’s neat handwriting suddenly wide and looping, but still recognizable as his own.

Resist

How ominous.

Alya set the list aside and picked up some other loose papers strewn all over the desk. Leafing through them, it became clear that they were just the product of Adrien’s apartment hunt. Though… how strange, those addresses were not in the ritzy neighborhoods she’d imagined he’d be aiming for. Instead, some were even in her own price range, which was to say, on a shoestring budget.

Supervillain lair?

Or maybe Adrien was just poorer than he let on.

She frowned. Certainly she had followed the slow implosion of the Gabriel brand over the years, all the seized assets, the endless, drawn-out court battles, the uncovered tax evasion – and really, why wouldn’t a supervillain CEO tweak his finances to his benefit when he had already crossed so many other lines? Like lying to the government was just the kind of evil he wouldn’t dare stoop to?

Had it eaten up all of Adrien’s inheritance? The lawyer costs alone…

The supermodel had never let anything of the sort show, living large and hopping from city to city, all over Europe and beyond, partying hard with others of his kind – the young, rich and beautiful.

Or maybe not his kind after all. Still, two out of three wasn’t so bad.

But if he had money problems, surely he would have told Nino? And Nino would have told her? Besides, he was living in Le Grand Paris which was one of the most expensive hotels in the city.

Hm. Hotel. Didn’t hotels have safes? That was probably where the juicy stuff would be. She checked the closet and – bingo. Adrien hadn’t even bothered to lock it! His carelessness was her victory.

But the only thing inside was his passport. Damn.

She examined it anyway, flipping through the multitude of visas and approval stamps, signs of just how frequently he’d traveled internationally for work. Stuck between the last page and the cover, she found the ticket stub of what had to have been his most recent flight.

Her eyes widened.

She had studied the lizard creature’s sudden appearance and demise often enough to instantly recognize that the time Adrien boarded the plane in Barcelona was over an hour after it had begun its rampage in Paris. It wasn’t absolute proof, but it was enough for Alya.

Briefly hugging the passport to her chest, she then snapped a picture of the exonerating plane ticket.

That was when she heard a thunk coming from the balcony and froze. Just the cat again, but a panicked look revealed that the white kitty was lounging on its back near her. Then there was the sound of footsteps, and the cat rolled over to walk toward the balcony, floofy tail held high in anticipation.

Alya dove behind the desk.

The balcony door slid open, and Chat Noir strolled in.

She grew still, not daring to breathe, and watched him open his arms toward the white cat – which immediately launched itself at him, butting its head against his cheek.

“Hello Princess,” Chat Noir purred, literally purred, and the cat answered in kind. “Recognized your loyal subject this time, hm?” Then he set his pet down, gently, and bounded deeper into the room on all fours, scanning it with perked ears, the end of his belt-tail twitching.

“There you are.”

His gaze had fixed on the table, on a bouquet of blue hydrangea.

Chat Noir grinned at it, but suddenly grew still. He tipped his head back, a thoughtful expression on his face, and it took Alya a moment to realize his nose was flaring. Was he – was he scenting…?

The thought had barely penetrated her shocked mind when his head whipped around and suddenly he was in front of her, having covered the distance in a single leap. Green cat eyes first narrowed, then widened.

She pointed a shaking finger at him.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

And Alya squealed.

Chat Noir.

Adrien is Chat Noir.

My best friend is going on a date with Chat Noir.

Her squee reached a pitch so high it was beyond the frequency of humans hearing – but evidently not beyond Adrien’s because he winced and closed the distance between them, trying to shush her.

But Alya would not be shushed because everything, absolutely everything began falling into place.

“You came back. Oh my God, of course you came, for the monster, and so fast, wow, I mean, the sheer logistics of it…” She ignored the claw he was laying on her mouth, her mind running at a thousand miles a minute. “And it was you! You ran after me! Though really, Adrien, you could have been gentler, I had a huge bruise on my side before Ladybug fixed it – God, your face!” Said face was glaring down at her in a mix of confusion and frustration. “Why is it suddenly your face? I didn’t see it before. Is it magic, that I couldn’t see it before…? I mean, the eyes, okay, they’re a little freaky, but other than that – Is this why I can’t figure out Ladybug?”

“Enough,” he bit out. “Alya, enough.”

She smiled at him, bright and happy, because she had finally found one of them and because it was Adrien. Yes, her gut feeling had been correct, Adrien was a good person, no matter what the evidence pointed to. Go and bang this guy, Marinette. Go forth with my blessings.

“What are you doing here?”

She froze.

“I, um. I had a hunch.”

“That I was Chat Noir?”

No, that wasn’t it, and judging by the expression on his face, he knew it, too. The possibility hadn’t even crossed her mind, and why hadn’t it? It was so, so obvious, everything made sense now.

When she said nothing, merely stared at him, he laughed. It was not a kind sound, not one she had ever heard from Adrien. There was a rough edge, a growl running alongside it.

“Here to investigate Hawkmoth’s son? To see if he’s worthy of dating your best friend?”

“That’s not…” She trailed off because they both knew her protests were feeble, and his pupils had narrowed to slits, waves of tense fury rolling off his body. But mostly she fell silent because one more puzzle piece slid into place.

Adrien Agreste was Hawkmoth’s son.

Chat Noir had killed Gabriel Agreste.

“Oh God, Adrien,” Alya whispered. “Your dad–“

“Don’t.” His voice was a snarl. “You have no – you had no right!” He took a deep breath, then seemed to compose himself, drawing all that restless energy inside. “I know we’ve never been particularly close, Alya. But this is low. Even for you.”

Despite her suspicions, Alya had never, not for one moment, been afraid of Adrien Agreste.

But the way Adrien – Chat Noir – was staring at her now, she found herself backing up, her hip hitting the table she’d been trying to hide behind.

“Give me back my keycard.” His voice was deceptively calm, but his body was vibrating.

She reached into her pocket and held it out to him. His claws plucked it from her hand.

“Get. Out.”

“Adrien,” she whispered.

“Get out. And tell no one what you saw.”

“I won’t.”

“Good. Because, Alya?” His crazed eyes met hers. “If I find even a hint of this on the Ladyblog, I will show you just how much of my father’s son I really am.”

Alya ran.

Ran to the elevator, to the lobby, out into the streets and did not stop until she had put a safe distance between herself and Adrien Agreste, all while more puzzle pieces were falling into place.

Sixteen-year-old Adrien ushering her to safety during an Akuma attack.

His empty smile as they all came to tell him goodbye.

Her boyfriend raging at his phone, a text open on the screen.

“You are not fine, why do you keep telling me you are fine!?”

Chapter Text

Adrien met her in front of her parents’ bakery, bearing a bouquet of blue hydrangea he’d offered her with a smile.

“I tried, but they are no match for your beauty. Especially not tonight.

The line was smooth and sweet, and she’d stammered a compliment in return. He had traded his scruff for a clean shave which, combined with his formal black suit, made him look as angelic as she’d once remembered him. Only his ruffled hair still hinted at his playful side.

He’d taken her to a restaurant in the heart of the city, the kind that had a line in front. He’d strolled past it with her on his arm – Marinette had felt all eyes on them – and been let inside the luxurious interior immediately, seated at a table in a secluded corner.

There were candles. There were the soft sounds of a harp being plucked, an elegant woman seated in the center of the room to provide entertainment. The menu was written in fine calligraphy, and there were no prices to be found because this was not the kind of place where the clientele worried about something as gauche as money.

In short, Adrien was putting on a dizzying show to impress her.

So why was he miserable?

“So, if it’s not too much to ask – I suppose I was just so inspired by our conversation, and I guess I, uh, accidentally ended up designing with you in mind.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Marinette.” He smiled brightly and took a sip from his wineglass. He was halfway through his second one, while she was still trying to savor her first. “It would be an honor to model for you. And I want to see what you’ve come up with. Do you need to take my measurements?”

“Um, well, I googled them, so… I mean, unless they’re out of date?”

“No, I try to maintain my physique. I’ll send you the most recent ones just in case, but my measurements haven’t changed in, oh, almost two years now.”

“Right.” She nodded. “I’ve got to say, I’m kind of baffled you manage that. With your sweet tooth and all the pastries I’ve been feeding you…”

“I lead an active lifestyle.” Bland smile. “I pretty much hit the gym daily.”

God, why were they having the most boring conversation on earth? Where had their easy banter gone? His playful wit? Was he bored? He was bored. She was boring him.

He was polite about it because, no matter how much he might have changed, Adrien Agreste had good manners. He asked her about herself, inserted questions at the appropriate intervals, paid compliments to her outfit because he could see how much effort she’d put in.

And he smiled. Non-stop.

But it didn’t reach his eyes.

Their conversation had stalled. Again.

Marinette bit her lip, hands balling into fists under the table. She’d disappointed him somehow. Maybe he’d taken one look at her tonight and whatever rosy glasses he’d been wearing had fallen right off. Her? Really?

Nino’s warning came to mind. Had he grown tired of the game? Short attention span used up?

Stop.

She took a deep, calming breath.

You’re doing it again, self. Stop it.

Adrien didn’t deserve such unkind thoughts about the nature of his character. He didn’t deserve to have her assume the absolute worst just because she was insecure. Again.

So Marinette made a decision.

“Adrien, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why aren’t you enjoying our date?”

She cringed a little at her blunt phrasing, but raised her chin high. There. She’d acknowledged it out loud. Asked him. Like an adult.

Was it hot in here? It was hot in here. But really, what did she have to worry about? Adrien wouldn’t be cruel when he explained why this wasn’t working out for him. It was better than this excruciating uncertainty.

His smile slipped ever so slightly. “What? I’m fine, I’m enjoying this.”

“No, you’re not.”

A hint of irritation. “I think I know how I’m feeling better than you, Marinette.”

“Yeah, well, you want to know how I’m feeling?”

He frowned at her.

“I’m a mess, Adrien. Like. You can’t even imagine. I have a voice in my head that freaks out real easy, and right now it’s at Defcon Nobody Will Ever Love Me. Because you are not enjoying yourself and your smiles are all fake. So please don’t lie to me and just put me out of this misery so I can go home.” And cry into my pillow.

Oh.” His shoulders sagged, and he was quiet for a long moment. The smile slowly faded until he looked… lost. “You know, I thought I was doing well. Well enough, anyway.” He peered at her. “How can you tell they’re fake? They usually work great.”

“Yeah, well, maybe if I didn’t have anything to compare them to. But I know what a real grin from you looks like now.”

He nodded, and listlessly stabbed his filet mignon with his fork.

“It’s not you, you haven’t done anything wrong. I do enjoy your company, Marinette.”

It’s not you, it’s me?” She could not help the disbelieving note in her voice.

“Don’t ask me not to lie and then mock me for telling the truth,” he snarled, and she jumped in her seat. He covered his eyes with one hand and leaned back. “Sorry. Sorry. That was uncalled for. I had a bad day.”

“Okay,” she whispered. She hesitated, and then reached a hand across the table to gently touch his. “Do you… do you want to talk about it?”

“No. I really don’t.” But he didn’t withdraw his hand. Instead, he put away the cutlery, and then entwined his fingers with hers. He stared at them for a long while, neither of them saying anything. His hand was so much bigger that it sheltered her dainty one. The sight of it pleased her. “You are lucky, Marinette. Do you know that? So lucky to have people who care to defend you.”

She said nothing, merely stroked her thumb along his bare ring finger. His words were halting, uncertain, as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this.

“And it’s not like I don’t get it. I do. I look at you and all I want to do is to wrap you in bubble wrap and keep you safe and never let you out of my sight again. I get it. But goddammit, do I wish that–“ He abruptly cut himself off.

“Is this about Nino?” she asked hesitantly. She’d heard them, after all, that first day. Not all of it, since it had been muffled by the walls, but Nino had been telling Adrien not to touch her.

“No. Yes. Kind of.” He blew out a small puff of air. “It never seems to occur to anyone that I have a heart, too. Why is the default assumption that your heart needs protection from Big Bad Me and not the other way around? Maybe I need to be protected from you. Maybe you’ll be the one to break my heart.”

“I won’t.”

“Well yeah, but hypothetically speaking…” He trailed off, and sighed. “Sorry. This is dumb.”

“No, it's not,” she whispered.

He just gave her a pained smile. “Nino is wrong, you know. I don’t know what exactly he’s told you, but he’s under the impression that I’m… I don’t know. Not faithful? But I am, Marinette. I really, really am. In fact, I get attached ridiculously easily, and once I do, I can’t let go.”

“Me too.” She swallowed heavily. “I once fell in love with a boy because he gave me an umbrella when it was raining.”

A brief burst of laughter tore from his throat before he stifled it. “I’m sorry, that – I shouldn’t laugh.” He smiled, and it wasn’t fake. “I’ve been in love with the same girl since I was fifteen years old. And she has never so much as given me a hint that she wants me back. Shit, I didn’t see her for years and still every woman I met I compared to her.”

“Oh.” She squirmed uncomfortably. “Did you – did you compare…?”

“You? Yes. I did.” He leaned forward. “And you’re the first one who for a moment made me forget she existed.”

Her breath left her, and she stared at him. He winced, belatedly seeming to realize what he’d just said.

“That sounds bad, I know. You’re not a rebound, Marinette, that’s not – the point I’m making is, when I commit, I really commit. This is not a game for me. I really, really like you.”

“So…” She bit her bottom lip. “What you’re saying is that you want us to be overly attached together?”

"Yes." A slow grin lit up his face. “Yes, that is exactly what I want.”

“So.” Marinette paused. “When are we moving in together?”

“Well, you know, you can’t rush these things. I was thinking at least a month of dating. For propriety’s sake, you know?”

She nodded, fighting a smile to keep herself pokerfaced. “One mustn’t forget propriety.”

“Indeed, one mustn’t.” His eyes were alive again, and warmth pooled in her belly at the sight. “So, I have to ask, because I can’t not – Marinette. That boy with the umbrella. Was that me?”

Ah, he’d noticed that. It pleased her that he remembered, that this ridiculous beginning of her infatuation wasn’t some forgettable throw-away moment to him. “It was. Sorry I never gave it back, by the way. It went into my shrine of you.”

“Your shrine?” He laughed like she was joking. Little did he know.

“Oh yes. My Adrien Agreste shrine. I’ve burned most of the evidence by now, but my secret shame haunts my memories.”

“Okay, I have to hear more about this. Tell me everything.”

“No way. You’ll have to tell me a secret shame of yours for every single one I share.” She grinned triumphantly. “And it’s your turn. Let’s see how well you can compete with me, Monsieur Gets-Overly-Attached. Allegedly.”

He arched an eyebrow. “I do believe I’m being challenged.”

“You believe correctly.”

“Very well. I’d known her for two months when I started planning how many children we were going to have. Sebastian is such a nice name for a boy, don’t you think?”

“I collected posters of you.”

“I had a doll of her.” His eyes widened with slight panic. “I mean, an action figure.”

She huffed. What kind of celebrity had he been crushing on that they made action figures of her? Probably someone he met in the high and mighty circles his modeling gave him access to. Alright, time to bring out the big guns. “I filled an entire spiral notebook trying to find the prettiest way to sign Marinette Dupain-Cheng-Agreste.”

“Good lord, that’s a lot of hyphens.”

“I know,” she said mournfully.

He tapped his chin. “Hm. We could side-step that issue by switching it up. Adrien Dupain-Cheng.”

She blinked. “But…”

He shrugged and flashed her a brilliant smile. There was an edge to it. “It’s not like I’m particularly attached to my family name considering who I inherited it from.”

She sensed the rapid shift in his mood approaching, and parried. “Yeah, but you’d lose the kick-ass alliteration.”

He tilted his head. “Hm. True.”

“Also, we’d just be leaving this hyphen problem to the next generation. Poor little Sebastian Dupain-Cheng is going to suffer from the hyphen curse.”

“You make good points. But then, I don’t mind leaving problems for someone other than Present Me to solve. You should see Future Adrien’s To-Do-List.”

She leaned forward, whispering as if proposing a conspiracy. “You know what we could do?”

The amusement was back in his voice as he leaned forward in turn. “What?”

“We could create our own last name. One just for us.”

Something passed over his expression. But it was gone as quickly as it came, his faint smile firmly back in place before she could blink and examine it further. He leaned back and seemed to ponder that suggestion.

“Marinette.” His voice was as serious as his expression, and she sat up straight, suddenly realizing what she’d done.

She’d just been joking with Adrien about marriage. On their first date. She’d told the potential commitment-phobe that she’d built him a shrine. He was going to run screaming, and she couldn’t even blame him.

What was it about him that drove her this insane? That made the part of her brain in charge of normal conversation shut down? To first strike her as good as mute, and now led her to horrifically overshare?

There had to be a happy medium somewhere. She knew there was, because she managed it with other people just fine. But never with him!

He leaned forward, his gaze intense. “Marinette. How open are you to making our new last name a pun?”

 

✧✦✧

 

Their easy camaraderie returned. There were the still the occasional flashes of his melancholy, but a well-timed joke on her part brought him back to the present. Their banter was flowing so freely and easily she barely noticed the time passing. Neither, apparently, did Adrien, because at one point he suddenly blinked at her in a daze.

“You know, I booked a romantic carriage ride along the Seine. With horses and everything.”

“Oh, when do we need to leave?”

“About an hour ago.”

They laughed, and he promised her they’d get to it on their second date. He hadn’t asked her for one yet, but of course there was going to be one, it was a foregone conclusion. They just fit, and he felt it, too.

“You know, Marinette,” he whispered in her ear as he led her out of the restaurant the Maître had subtly kicked them out of because the hour was getting too late. “I think your brand of crazy matches my brand of crazy.”

“Words every girl longs to hear,” she said breathlessly.

His palm gently pressed down on the small of her back as they linked their elbows and walked through the night in companionable silence.

“I suppose I should be taking you home now,” he murmured. “I’ve kind of messed up our schedule so I have no more tricks up my sleeve.”

“I enjoyed it.” She tightened her hold on the flowers he’d brought her. Not the standard roses, but flowers he’d taken great care to select just for her, matching her eyes. She inhaled deeply, and her Ladybug half sighed in satisfaction. Oh yes, these were going to become the centerpiece of her little garden.

“I did, too,” he said, voice growing husky.

“But you’re not taking me home.”

“Oh?”

“No.” She smiled brightly, and leaned against him. “I’m taking you home.”

“Is that so?” he asked, bemused by this turn of events.

Marinette patted his arm. “A pretty boy like you, walking the streets of Paris alone at night? It’s not safe. Don’t worry, I’m here.”

He grinned, eyes sparkling with glee. “Ah, will you be my protector, Marinette?”

“Yes, I will.” As she cozied up to him, she could feel muscles shifting beneath his finely tailored suit. Adrien was lean, yet there was strength hidden there, while Marinette took more after her dainty mother than her burly father. The way he was laughing under his breath, she could tell that he thought this was part of the joke, that she couldn’t really defend him better than he could defend himself, but that he appreciated her valiant offer.

Yet Marinette was no ordinary girl.

“I’ll defend you like you deserve, Adrien.”

Watch me.

 

✧✦✧

 

How?

How could he do this to her?

Marinette twisted around, kicking at her blanket, uselessly trying to find a comfortable position. But there was none, because her skin was tingling, slicked with sweat, and the room was entirely too hot for comfort. Even with her windows wide open and the chill of a Paris night creeping in, there was no relief.

There was need curling in her belly. Need left entirely unfulfilled because Adrien Agreste was an evil, wicked man who had given her a chaste kiss goodbye. The bastard. How dare he leave her in this state!

Her hand had long since wandered lower, but it was a poor substitute to what she really craved. Her gaze kept wandering, too – to the phone on her nightstand. Don’t, Marinette. Nothing good ever came from texting a man in the dead of night after having indulged in some wine.

But he’d liked it, hadn’t he?

He’d liked her honesty. This exciting game of being playfully straightforward, dancing on the thin line between joke and intimacy. So her free hand crept forward until her shaking fingers were on the touch screen.

Marinette: Why am I not in your bed right now?

Three little dots instantly gave away that she was not the only one lying awake.

Adrien: Because if one of us doesn’t slow down, we’re going to be married with children next year.

Marinette: I fail to see the problem?

Adrien: I want to savor you

Adrien: All of this

Adrien: Don’t you like the thrill of the hunt?

Adrien: I do

Adrien: It’s no fun when the prey isn’t at least pretending to run

Was he chastising her for coming on too strong? Bullshit! He’d been as eager as she, and she would not be shamed for wanting him! She was no one’s prey!

But before her outrage could build, he sent her a picture that took her breath away.

It was a close-up of his chiseled chest. He was shirtless, one hand peeling back his briefs to expose just a little more of that tantalizing trail of golden hair starting just beneath his belly button. Only the lower half of his jaw was visible, revealing a playful grin.

Adrien: Catch me if you can.

Chapter Text

Marinette: My stray didn’t stop by to pick up his treat. Why is that?

Adrien: Hm. Perhaps you won’t catch him so easily now.

Marinette: :(

Marinette: But I like it when he comes for a visit

Adrien: Then I suppose you’ll need a better treat to lure him.

 

✧✦✧

 

A wolf-whistle interrupted Nino’s concentration and he squeezed his eyes shut.

Readjusting his headphones, he played the clip back again, trying to pinpoint the exact moment he had to place the sound effect of two wine glasses clinking. Few paid attention to such minor audio cues, yet when the sounds were off by even a fraction off a second compared to what was on screen, the audience took notice. His work was only noticed when it was done badly.

Which made it a painstaking labor of love, requiring his full attention.

Too bad his headphones weren’t completely soundproof. So he was forced to listen to the antics and chatter of the nearby cast as they watched over his shoulder, no matter how many times he pointed out that he needed peace and quiet.

“Sasha, don’t! Now he’s looking this way.”

“Good,” he heard one of the girls – Sasha, probably – say with a giggle. “Hello, handsome stranger.”

“Sunglasses in winter? How pretentious can you get?” Jean, the leading man, sounded somewhat put out at having to share the spotlight.

“Oh wow. Guys, I think that might be Adrien Agreste.”

Nino froze.

“No way.”

“Yes way! I’d recognize that jawline anywhere!”

Cooing erupted from the female half of the crew. Nino glanced over his shoulder to see most of them crowding around the window while the men rolled their eyes. Except for two of them, who were also trying to ogle.

Multiple sighs of disappointment rose, presumably because Adrien had disappeared from view.

Nino hit pause and started saving his progress, since he was about to get a visitor.

“I can’t believe you’re lusting after the son of Hawkmoth,” one of the men scoffed. “Erika, have you forgotten about your sister getting Akumatized?”

“So?” Erika’s voice was defensive. “Hardly his fault.”

“Oh, would you relax,” Sasha said. “He doesn’t have to be nice to be nice to look at. In fact, he doesn’t even have to talk.”

“Probably better that he doesn’t,” Jean added with a laugh. “Who wants to hear his vapid thoughts?”

“Hey,” Nino cut in, frowning at the group who looked up in collective surprise to hear him speak. He mostly kept quiet at work, after all. “You don’t know the guy, why are you talking such shit?”

“Easy, man.” Jean raised his palms in a placating gesture. “You’ve got to admit, though, for him to be a male model of all things is pretty funny. Imagine, your dad is a badass supervillain, and you choose to become professional decoration.”

Sexy decoration,” Sasha said.

“Hawkmoth wasn’t badass, he literally got crushed in his first real fight. And just because his son is pretty doesn’t mean he’s vapid.”

“Sure, Erika. And you’re defending him because you’re that stimulated by his vast intellect.”

Jean suddenly paled, staring at the door.

“No, no,” Adrien purred. “Please, continue. I’ve always dreamed of the moment random strangers would enlighten me about my life choices.”

Awkward silence descended.

“You know what I like about this campus?” Adrien added thoughtfully. “Amazing acoustics.”

Nino swiveled around in his chair. “Hello, Adrien.”

Adrien took off the sunglasses he wore to poorly disguise himself, his cold gaze sliding away from the group and warming several degrees. “Nino, my knight in shining armor. I heard your valiant defense of my honor. I was so touched. I might cry later. This is why you’re my favorite.”

“Thanks,” Nino said dryly, feeling everyone’s gaze on him. He didn’t exactly advertise his connection to his famous friend since it only drew attention from the wrong sort of crowd. Especially at a film school, where people were forever looking for an ‘in’ and someone famous to sell their script to. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know. Figured I’d scout the physics faculty.”

This was a university for the High Arts, the science department was bare bones at best. “I don’t think we even have a physics faculty.”

“Is that so?” Adrien took a long sip of his coffee. “You know, this is why I should have gone to the Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good. Alas, it was only the best tutors and private school for me. Woe. Woe is me and my feeble mind.”

“Look, man,” Jean dared to say, and Adrien’s icy gaze returned to him. “I’m really sorry about what you just heard, okay? We were just shooting the shit, didn’t mean to insult your intelligence.”

“In-teh-li-gence,” Adrien said, drawing out the mispronunciation. “I’m sorry, that’s too many syllables for me. You know, this isn’t woke at all. You’re supposed to keep your language accessible to us cognitively impaired folks. Don’t you care about being woke, man?”

Nino sighed. “Just give him your lunch money now, Jean.”

What?”

“Adrien is a bully who’s trying to guilt trip free food out of you. In a minute he’s going to offer to forgive and forget. Dangle the chance to get to know the real Adrien Agreste in front of you - if you invite him to lunch to kiss and make up. You can just skip the steps in between.”

The corners of Adrien’s lips twitched. “Free food is indeed a valid currency in the market of my forgiveness. I’ll also take cash, bitcoin or your firstborn.”

Nino straightened when he noticed the hard edge to Adrien’s smile. Leaning into his reputation and in the process thoroughly mocking people who would misjudge him on sight was his usual method of dealing with them. But by now he really should have extended a sincere olive branch to release the group from having to squirm in shame.

“It’s the only way I cope with this cruel world, filled with such vile bigotry toward us poor, unfortunate souls whose brains have rotted from an overdose of ravishing beauty.”

What’s got you in such a terrible mood?

“Alright,” Nino said, closing his laptop and gathering up his belongings. “Let’s get you fed, Adrien. It’s on me.”

“No.” Eyes narrowed. “I can definitely get them to do it.”

“They’ll pay me back later,” Nino said, and dragged his old friend out by the elbow.

“This isn’t over!” Adrien yelled over his shoulder as he was pulled over the classroom door’s threshold. “You have made a powerful enemy today!”

He burst into laughter as soon as they were out of sight, cheerfully asking, “Since when are you friends with dicks?”

“Since lycée, Adrien.” This earned him a light punch in the shoulder. “And those people aren’t my friends, they’re the cast loitering around while I’m trying to finish post-production.”

“How’s that going?”

“Poorly. As I said, they loiter, and I can’t concentrate. We’re not the only ones trying to wrap up our projects, so the sound booths are constantly occupied and there’s lines we need to redub.”

Adrien narrowed his eyes. “Well, just remember. I have villainous connections. Highly trained assassins at my beck and call could solve these problems for you.”

Nino’s lip twitched as he peered at his friend. Adrien had made an art out of mocking the hand life had dealt him, making the jokes about his character before someone else could make them, thus robbing them of their power over him. Even Nino could lightly tease him, though he rarely did, because Adrien trusted him to be in on the joke and not take it too far.

With strangers? Adrien retaliated with a swift, cutting wit.

Evidently today was one of those days when it was getting to him more than usual.

“You okay, man?”

“Yeah, fine.” Another long sip of his coffee. “How’s Alya?”

“Hm? Oh, she's good. She’s been keeping herself busy with her Ladyblog the last few days.” Of course, he’d barely seen her, between the film, making time for Wayzz’ lessons on the responsibilities of the Guardian and setting up a consistent patrol schedule with Marinette.

“Is that so?” Adrien said, and it would have sounded casual but there was something there Nino couldn’t put his finger on. “Has she uncovered any secret identities yet?”

“I think you’d have heard her screams of excitement all over Paris if that ever happened. So what brings you here?”

Adrien shrugged. “Wanted to see you. With so few gigs coming up, I have too much time on my hands, so I figured I’d check out the campus I realized I never really got to see before you graduate.”

“How maudlin.”

“I’m in a maudlin mood, yeah. So give me the grand tour.”

Nino suddenly had a vision of a cat knocking over a glass of water while holding eye contact.

Pay attention to me.

Huh, the mental image of Adrien as a spoiled cat was so fitting, he almost laughed. Or… was it all that funny, really? There was a slight hitch in his step, and Nino lost his train of thought.

Yeah, Adrien was obsessed with cats. One cat in particular. His Princess. Nino’s phone was filled with hundreds of pictures of that white fluff from every conceivable angle, and he suspected the ones Adrien passed along to him were just a fraction of the sheer volume he was really taking.

That cat could have been doing anything, and Adrien would think it was the most amazing feat in the world.

Here’s Princess on her back, isn’t she adorable. Here she is with a dead mouse she brought me, she’s such a skilled hunter. Here she is covered in the blood of her enemies, isn’t she just darling?

But that cat was probably the best thing that happened to Adrien’s mental health in recent years, so Nino was quite fond of it.

“So how was the date with Marinette?”

Adrien’s eyes lit up and he launched into a detailed explanation of all the ways Marinette was smart and amazing and witty. Nino’s eyebrow arched. Huh.

That tone of besotted awe sounded suspiciously like the way Adrien raved about Princess.

Maybe Nino had bought all that mint ice cream for nothing.

The thought pleased him.

 

✧✦✧

 

When they returned from lunch, Adrien let himself fall down beside Nino’s seat, fixing a glare at the group.

“Scram, or I’m starting the most uncomfortable conversation of your lives.”

And then Nino finally had blissful silence.

Amazing how quiet Adrien could be when he wanted to. While he looked like he was casually lounging, he held himself completely still, his gaze fixed on the door. Lying in wait, ready to pounce on anything that dared coming through.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette: Adrien.

Marinette: Come get your treat ;)

Adrien: Isn’t it rather late in the day for that?

Marinette: I made it myself. Only for you. Special custom order

Adrien: Hm. This feels like a trap.

Marinette: That’s because it is!

Marinette: Will you risk it? Can the prey escape the hunter’s clutches?

Marinette: Let’s find out how daring my stray is <3

Adrien chuckled softly as he read the text exchange again, even as something inside him warmed and grew heated at her words.

My stray. With a heart.

Well. He could hardly turn down something she had made only for him. Plus, she’d issued a challenge that he could not let go unanswered. He was Chat Noir, after all, and he’d fearlessly faced down Akumas and fire beasts.

So here he was, strolling into the bakery shortly before closing time and hiding his building anticipation behind an aura of supreme indifference.

“Good evening, Madame Cheng,” he said politely.

“Oh, Adrien! Marinette mentioned you might be stopping by, she’s in the back.”

“Thanks, I’ll take a look.”

He walked through the door, glancing around, until his gaze landed on Marinette’s bright face.

“You came,” she said, delight in her eyes. “Follow me.”

Bemused – and giving a small wave to her equally bemused father – Adrien let Marinette lead him into a small, private room where they apparently kept their supplies. Hopping up on a table, she triumphantly picked up a small white cake box, and flipped it open with a smile.

A mini muffin. A blue mini muffin with what looked to be cookie bits in it.

“Do you know how hard it is to find André to ask him about what flavors he uses?”

Adrien drew closer, barely suppressing laughter.

“I bow before your ingenuity.”

“You should.” She bit her bottom lip, and then gingerly took the tiny pastry from the box, setting the container aside. Then she held his treat out to him.

He reached for it, and she shook her head.

“No. No hands allowed.”

Adrien froze. Then his lips curved into a slow smile, a quick glance at her determined face confirming that she wanted what he thought.

Leaning forward, he licked, and caught a taste of her, too.

Bliss.

Pure bliss.

Adrien wasn’t sure why he was drawing out their game like this. He’d planned their date with the full intention of going as far as she was willing to let him – before Alya had ruined his mood, anyway. Even now, when he heard her breaths go shallow, he fought the impulse to push for more.

She’d enjoy it, he knew she would. And so would he.

But Marinette was so fun. Her reactions were never quite what he expected them to be. He wanted to see what she would do. Adrien wanted to know what being chased by this amazing girl would feel like, and what she’d come up with.

He wanted to know what mutual chasing felt like at all.

Adrien barely tasted the muffin as he swallowed the miniature pastry in two bites, though he had no doubt it was delicious. A much better taste was overshadowing it. He pressed his lips to her knuckles, inhaling, and then pressed another kiss above that. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he kissed his way past her wrist.

Did she just moan? Or was that him?

He half-opened his eyes to gaze up at her through his eyelashes, marveled at her cute little nose – pink with a blush now – and admired the curve of her lips – slightly parted as her breaths became short. Adrien closed more of the distance between them, letting his tongue dart out to worship the inside of her elbow. Every inch of Marinette’s skin deserved devotion.

Then he smiled his brightest smile.

And took a step back.

His heart pounding in his chest, he made an effort to keep his voice smooth and level.

“Thanks for the treat, Marinette.”

The sheer disbelief that crossed her face made him want to laugh out loud.

He winked at her as he turned to leave. “I’m looking forward to the next one.”

Catch me.

But she didn’t, didn’t reach for him, didn’t grab him, didn’t try to drag him back into the room to have her wicked way with him.

She did call his name, desperate and needy and outraged and it almost made him turn back. He blew her a kiss as he escaped from the trap that had almost snapped shut.

Hopefully next time.

Chapter Text

Alya was not afraid.

Calmly knocking on the door, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

She wasn’t.

It’d be silly to be afraid. It was just Adrien. Adrien, who was a superhero. A good guy. Yes, he was angry with her, but there really was no reason at all for this dread to be writhing around in her stomach. Completely inappropriate. He would never hurt her.

No matter how scary his eyes had looked that night.

She’d faced worse, hadn’t she? Fires and monsters and Akumas.

So she waited, undaunted and unafraid.

Okay, maybe she was a little afraid. But that was her thing. She ran toward the things she feared, not away, because that way she could master them. Then they had no hold over her, no power.

The door opened and cold green eyes stared down at her.

“What do you want?” His voice was flat and hostile.

Alya smiled, and pushed past him to enter his suite. “Good day to you, too, Adrien.”

The door closed behind her and now she was trapped with him.

This was fine. Everything was fine.

“I’m here because I have something you need to see.” She whirled around to face him and thrust her overflowing folder toward him. 

“I don’t care, Alya. Go away.”

She frowned and decided to stick to her script, pressing her folder to his chest while he made no move to take it. “I’ve been doing research on these fire beasts and while I haven’t yet found solid leads about where they come from, I think I’ve found some patterns in their behavior that you should really–“

“Alya. I. Don’t. Care. I don’t want to talk to you, I don’t want to be near you, I want you to go away.”

“Look, Adrien, I’m sorry. I am. I know I hurt you. But the evidence I was looking at was pretty damning and can you honestly say you wouldn’t have done the same in my position?”

He scowled.

“It’s not like this was all in my head. I followed real leads to a real secret, even if it wasn’t the one I was suspecting.” She softened her voice. “I didn’t want it to be true, Adrien. Please believe that.”

Alya forced herself to meet his angry gaze, holding firm.

“I’m glad you’re Chat Noir. For so many reasons but most of all because I think highly of you and wanted you to be a good person.” And you’re even better than I thought.

“I’m not, Alya,” he said slowly. “I’m really not. A good person wouldn’t want to wring your neck right about now.”

She swallowed heavily, and laughed it off. “Well, I’m good at infuriating people. Sometimes I even manage to make Nino angry. And that man has the patience of a saint, you know.”

At the mention of his close friend, Adrien’s expression softened. He exhaled, closing his eyes. “Alright. What do you have?”

Her eyes lit up, and she grabbed his hand to drag him to the nearby table. She slammed down her folder and started taking out key photographs and documents she’d been able to collect so far.

“It’s about patterns, right? Recognizing common traits and behaviors – and more importantly, when there is a break in those patterns. The four fire beasts we’ve seen so far–“

“Three,” he corrected, and she shook her head, grinning triumphantly.

“No, Adrien. Four.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien flipped through the grainy photographs of a dash cam, trying to make out a shape in the brightly glowing blur fleeing the scene of the car accident. The accident that wasn’t an accident at all.

“It might have possessed an insect,” Alya said, babbling excitedly. “It would explain the small-ish size. But overall, its behavior fits with the first creature’s. There was no overt hostility toward humans, just an urgency to get somewhere.”

That somewhere appeared to be back to Paris.

“The last two were definitely hostile,” he murmured and kept flipping through the evidence Alya had collected, impressed despite not wanting to be. She’d been thorough, combining her own scouting of the crime scenes with eye witness reports and recorded footage she’d been able to collect.

“Yes. They suddenly changed their pattern. And such a drastic change usually signals something significant.” She tapped the photograph of the enormous creature’s stone corpse. “The key is to figure out what happened between the second and the third, I think.”

“The second was taken outside of Paris,” he said, thinking out loud. “Inside that truck, against its will, perhaps? By whom?”

She beamed at him. “That’s the question, isn’t it? I’ve run the license plate and it lead me nowhere.”

Adrien nodded, and closed the folder. “Yes. Thank you, Alya, I’ll put this to good use.”

She grinned widely, quivering with nervous energy. Or was it anticipation? “Cool. Just tell me what you want me to look at, and I’ll see what I can dig up.”

He tilted his head. “Alya,” he said slowly. “We are not working together.”

The redhead grew still. “Why not? I can be helpful.”

“Because.” I don’t particularly like you.

“That’s not an answer. Seriously, Adrien, I can help you! You and Ladybug and Carapace!” A nervous smile flitted across her face. “I can be useful, Chat Noir.”

“Oh.” His voice was soft as realization set in. “Is that what this has been about?” All those times he’d pulled her out of harm’s way, wondering what motivated her to be so reckless. “Did you think that if only you managed to figure out one of our identities, you’d prove yourself worthy and we’d… what? Make you part of the team?”

“…you don’t have to say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“You know exactly what I mean. What’s wrong with wanting to help?”

“Is that what you were doing? I was under the impression you were making a sport out of being the obnoxious damsel in distress.”

“Fuck you, Adrien,” she whispered.

“Feisty. But then, you’ve always excelled at that. If only you could back up that attitude with your actions.”

“Well, we can’t all be blessed with superpowers. Some of us have to make do with what we have!”

“I am not blessed with anything, Alya. My life is fucked. Go home and thank your lucky stars for all you have. Stop giving Nino borderline heart attacks.” Adrien grabbed her upper arm and started dragging her to the door while she squirmed.

“Adrien, stop!” She strained against his grip, then gasped in pain when he tightened it. He glanced back over his shoulder just in time to see her eyes watering before she blinked rapidly to clear them, trading pain for determination.

Fuck.

He hadn’t meant to hurt her.

Liar, whispered a voice in his head.

Adrien let go, and she jumped back to put some distance between them, rubbing her arm.

“I’m sorry, Alya.” What was he doing, mocking her dream like that? It wasn’t like he didn’t know the pain of chasing after Ladybug in the hopes of something she wouldn’t ever give. He’d probably been equally obnoxious in his reckless pursuit.

Alya drew back her shoulders, steeling her spine, and somehow managed to look regal instead of like someone who’d just been dragged halfway across a room. Fearless. “Lucky for you, I’m willing to forgive, Adrien. All you have to do is let me help you.”

Had he been that desperate?

Yeah, probably.

God, it hurt to look at.

He sighed. “Alya. I can’t give you what you want. I’m just me, and our superhero team barely deserves to be called that. I’m not friends with these people, I can’t be your stepping stone to Ladybug or whatever it is you want.”

“That’s fine. I’m perfectly happy being your sidekick, Chat Noir. Well. Actually, scratch that, I want a cooler title than that. But!” Her eyes gleamed as she pulled out her phone. “I’ve brought something that might sweeten the pot for you.”

 

✧✦✧

 

She dangled her bribe in front of Adrien and watched his eyes lock onto it. Here, kitty.

“Do you know what’s in here? Intel. Intel that I think might be of relevant to your interests. Years’ and years’ worth of conversations. With Marinette.” She added a dramatic pause as she slowly waved her phone around, and his gaze followed. “The kind of conversations you only have with your closest, bestest girlfriend. Deep, dark secrets not meant for the eyes of Man.”

Adrien grew so still she couldn’t help but wonder if he was readying himself to pounce.

“It’s also password-protected.”

The way his lips drew back to reveal teeth in a silent snarl confirmed that, yes, he absolutely had been tempted to snatch it out of her hand.

“As I said. This is not meant for your manly eyes.” She snickered. “I keep my girl’s secrets. Sacred sisterhood, you know. The unbreakable bonds of BFF-ness. But. I might be persuaded to divulge some non-classified yet critical information.”

“Such as?”

“Such as what happened with her ex-boyfriends.”

He scoffed. “I don’t care about that.”

Alya filed away the information that Adrien Agreste was the jealous type in the new mental folder she’d created for him. She’d discarded the old one since it had been so woefully incomplete and wrong that she needed to start from scratch. Throw out everything she thought she knew about him and reexamine all her preconceptions.

“Ah, but you should. Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, Adrien. Are you sure you don’t want to know why those relationships fell apart?”

He grew still once more.

“All those things that drove Marinette up a wall but which she never spoke up about, she vented to me. She’s so sweet, you know. If you ever get her a gift she absolutely loathes, she will smile and thank you. I could help you avoid that.

“Marinette can be really bad at advocating for herself. When you hurt her or someone she cares about, yes, her spine is made of the shiniest titanium. But when it comes to letting people she likes know they put effort into something that wasn’t to her taste… she’s forever making excuses for them. It’s the thought that counts.”

Luka had been particularly hellish in that regard, with all his public displays of affection. He’d written Marinette songs he performed in front of crowds who sighed at the sweet romance of it all. The first time he’d done it, Marinette had been sighing right along with them. By the tenth she’d been dying inside at being made a spectacle of, yet had applauded afterward.

Her best friend was a private person. She liked to keep her intimate relationships, well, intimate.

That wasn’t why the relationship had fallen apart in the end, though. Luka had somehow gotten the absurd idea that Marinette had cheated. The break-up had been his doing. Then he’d written a song about two-faced liars that had gone viral and made him semi-famous. Last she heard, he was angling for being the opening act to Jagged Stone’s comeback tour.

But Adrien didn’t need to know that. Let him think these small issues were more critical than they were, and Marinette would be in a happier, more fulfilled relationship for it. Alya’s plan was brilliant, win-win all around.

“I could teach you how to be better than them.”

It looked like he had taken her bait. She could see the struggle playing out behind those green eyes as he tried to appear nonchalant, as if he wasn’t dying of curiosity. “How many has she had, anyway?”

“Boyfriends?”

He nodded.

“Two.” Nathaniel – a rather short-lived relationship that ended when Marinette had realized how much he’d put her on a pedestal she failed to live up to – and then Luka. Plus that one one-time drunken mistake Alya had sworn never to speak of again. So she wouldn’t, and the official count was two.

He visibly relaxed, and Alya couldn’t help the flare of irritation. “Would it have mattered if it had been more?”

“No.” He shifted his weight, briefly averting his gaze in discomfort. “But I’m not good at sharing, so this is easier.”

Alya rolled her eyes. “They’re in the past, you’re not being made to share. Marinette commits with her whole heart.”

Adrien nodded, but said nothing.

“So?” she prompted him. “Do we have a deal?”

“What exactly are you picturing when you say sidekick?”

Yeah, she’d definitely need a better title than that. “I’ll be the Oracle to your Batman.”

The corner of his lips twitched. Fellow superhero nerd identified. Still, it’d probably be best to clarify expectations.

“That means I’ll do my research and follow up on any leads you bring me. In turn, when there’s something I tell you to check out, you check it out. Together we’ll get to the bottom of what’s causing this much faster.”

Adrien crossed his arms. “I suppose that could be… useful.” His eyes grew distant before he focused them back on her. “You didn’t say anything to Nino.”

“Nope. And not to Marinette either.” She tapped her thumb against her phone. “I protect my girl’s secrets, and I’ll protect yours.”

“You say, as you offer me hers.”

Alya huffed. “You know what has the highest chance of screwing up almost anything?” Including my investigation into you? “The unknown unknowns. The known unknowns can be accounted for, but it’s the things you don’t even think to look at that will ruin your day.

“And that is what I’m offering you. None of this is secret, these are the things Marinette would tell you herself if you ever thought to ask. But you likely won’t. Which I know because a secret insider named Nino let it slip that you are terrible at relationships and communication.” Her gaze softened and she fidgeted. “Which… makes a whole lot of sense to me now. Adrien, I want to help you, okay?”

Green eyes stared her down, like she was an insect he was mentally dissecting. What an unfortunate moment for her brain to pull up memories of Adrien excelling in all their science classes, including biology. He had been one of the few who’d been able to stomach the live demonstration of what the internal anatomy of a mouse looked like. Had been exceedingly enthusiastic and curious about it, even.

“Don’t expect me to introduce you to Ladybug. I know you’ve been chasing her for ages,” he said.

“That’s fine.” And it was. Getting to know Ladybug was a distant dream and, really, it was for the best to never get too close to her idol. That way she could remain an ideal to aspire to.

Adrien gave a curt nod. “Alright. Okay. I’m still not happy with what you did but... okay. Don’t breathe a word to either Marinette or Nino and we have a deal.”

Alya refrained from squealing and settled for a dignified smile, raising her chin. “Deal!” She’d get to work with a superhero. With Chat Noir! Who was Adrien! So many questions she had for him, but for now she would stifle them. He was still sullen over what he clearly saw as betrayal. But Alya could be patient.

Well, not that patient.

Patient enough. He’d come to trust in and rely on her in time.

An ominous cackle rang out. Alya frowned, looking around for its source. It was coming from Adrien’s direction, but that wasn’t his voice, nor had his lips moved.

You just got played,” a sing-song voice declared, a small black something darting from Adrien’s pocket to hover in front of his face.

“Shut up, Plagg.”

What. Is. That.

The tiny black creature turned its attention to Alya, floating closer. It was… it looked like a cat, pitch black with bright green eyes.

And it was utterly and completely adorable.

She poked, and it slapped her finger away.

“No touching!”

Chapter Text

Nino grimaced in pain, his shield barely absorbing the impact of the blow. His boots dug into the ground as he was pushed back, but he managed to stand strong. Scalding heat washed over him, the beast far too close for comfort now.

Damn it, Ladybug, where are you?

He’d been doing his best keeping this fire creature in check by himself. It helped that it was slow, but it was tall as a bull and could throw its body around like one. That hadn’t been a problem when he’d been able to taunt it with his shield at a distance, keeping it from running into residential areas, but then it had figured out that he was in control of it.

So now it was ignoring his shield, and kept charging straight at him. Unlike his two partners, Carapace was not acrobatic, could not easily evade and jump like they did all day long. He was a shield wall in every sense of the word.

More than animal cunning shone in those hateful, red-hot eyes as they pushed against each other, locked in a battle of strength. It was getting harder to breathe, the very air burning his nostrils, but he couldn’t move. If he weakened his footing for even one moment, the creature would topple him over.

It roared when something slammed into it, and skidded toward the empty train tracks.

Chat Noir touched down beside him with his usual grace, retracting his staff.

“Don’t you dare kill it,” Carapace bit out.

Pinning him with those creepy cat eyes, Chat tilted his head. “Wasn’t going to,” he drawled.

“What, really?”

“I presume Ladybug is on her way?”

“She should be.” He’d sent her an alert almost ten minutes ago.

“Then we just keep it in check until she can cleanse it. Dodge.”

The bull slammed down where they stood, Carapace barely getting out of the way in time while Chat was already casually twirling his staff at his new position ten meters away, as if he’d been there all along.

“You’re being surprisingly reasonable tonight.”

“I’m always reasonable,” Chat Noir said and Carapace snorted. “You’re just finally offering me an alternative tactic instead of just yelling what I shouldn’t do.”

His staff struck the beast in the back, successfully drawing its attention away from Carapace, and Chat started leading it on a merry chase.

As he touched down after a dodge, he turned to look at Carapace with narrowed eyes. “Did you think I was killing animals for shits and giggles?”

Well...

“Sorry, I think we must have started off on the wrong foot,” Carapace said, deciding to extend an olive branch. He was supposed to work with this guy, after all, and ‘bring him back into the fold’.

Chat Noir slammed his staff into the beast once more, sending it flying. It howled as its limbs flailed, and it crashed down. “No, no. You’ve got me figured out. Right now I’m just in a good mood because I’m fresh from my bath in the blood of the innocents. This beautiful skin doesn’t moisturize itself, you know.”

“Lucky Charm!”

Carapace swiveled his head toward the faint cry, catching sight of Ladybug gliding not far above. She’d already extended her yo-yo into her bow, and was now taking aim with her glowing arrow.

“Chat, keep it pinned,” she yelled.

Chat gave a sharp nod, even though Carapace thought he spotted an irritated tail twitch, and drove the tip of his lengthened staff between the beast’s charging limbs, knocking it over once more.

Ladybug struck.

“Yay team,” Chat Noir said with all the enthusiasm of a dead possum as she landed beside them, and the flames died down to reveal a poodle. Ladybug cooed and instantly scooped the trembling animal into her arms. “Stuff’s still on fire, Ladybug, the cuddling must wait.”

She pursed his lips as she looked at him, but did bend down to pick up her arrow, carefully draping the poodle over one shoulder to free a hand.

“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat, Chaton, everything’s fine. Carapace, well done on containing it alone for so long. Sorry I didn’t manage to get here sooner.”

The damage had been minimal since the creature had appeared in an industrial district at the far edges of the city.

“Couldn’t have done it without Chat Noir,” Carapace said with a strained smile, trying to keep this olive branch thing going.

Chat merely shot him a contemptuous look. “Indeed.” Prick. “Seriously, Ladybug, clean up already, I have some information to share.”

That got her attention. Throwing the arrow in the air, she called out the words that made it burst into a swarm of sparkling magic. Chat Noir wasted no time in launching into a terse explanation of a beast outside of Paris that they had missed, and outlined the general differences in behavior with the flame creatures that had come after.

“You know,” Nino said. “We really should settle on what to call them.”

That is what you’re taking from this conversation?” Chat asked.

“Well, without a consistent naming convention talking about them is more difficult, which gets in the way of communicating effectively,” he said. “How about flamelings?”

“You are just overflowing with creativity, I see.”

“Hey,” Ladybug said in a warning tone. “Let’s not get into a heated debate over this.”

Chat Noir stared at her.

“What’s the matter, Chaton? Don’t you lava wordplay?”

“Quit it.”

“Quit what?” She smiled brightly. “Can’t handle how lit my puns are?”

“Alright, that’s it, since neither one of you is taking this seriously, I’m out.”

Ladybug’s smile abruptly faded. “No, kitty, wait–“

“Sorry.” Chat’s eyes briefly met Carapace’s. “I’ve got an important dinner I can’t miss. The virgin sacrifice just doesn’t taste as succulent when you allow it to grow cold.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“You know, you almost had me worried you wouldn’t show.”

Adrien blinked in confusion as Marinette lead him to her atelier. “Of course I’m here, I promised you.”

She glanced up, her finger lightly grazing his arm. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“I am weak and malnourished in the mornings, and your treats are too tempting. That would be too easy.”

“Hm.”

He frowned down at her, not sure what to make of her response. She’d been playing along before, hadn’t she? Why so subdued now? He slowed his steps. “Marinette?”

“Let’s talk after, Adrien.” She smiled up at him and tugged at his elbow. “We only have an hour for the fitting.”

“Right.”

He let her lead him to her newest designs, created and put together in an astonishingly short time span. She burst into a flurry of activity, and he watched as she prepared two expertly tailored suits for him, one black, one white. He knew he should be looking at them, comment on their cut and compliment her skill, but he was busy battling the sinking suspicion that he’d done something wrong. Upset her somehow.

Did she not like the hunt?

Adrien had responded to her advances, even though he ended up pulling away in the end. He knew from experience that a one-sided chase was not a very fun experience, so he’d made sure to shower her in affection, rewarding her whenever she reached for him. Hadn’t they both enjoyed this dance…?

Gentle fingers touched his chest, and she had a question in her eyes. Right, he should have already started undressing. But…

“Marinette, did I upset you?”

She blinked and smiled again. “Adrien, we’ll have time to talk after.”

So that was a yes. How was he supposed to plaster on a smile with this unresolved? He brushed his thumb along her jawline and her breath hitched. “I don’t think I’ll be able to concentrate with this weighing on my mind.”

Marinette gave him a long, searching look. “You do this professionally, Adrien, don’t tell me you can’t put aside your feelings for a job.”

He blinked. Yes, of course he could, but…

But what?

Talk to me now or I’ll sabotage your extremely important final project?

He plucked at his facial muscles. “Of course. After it is.”

Marinette’s eyes widened in alarm. “Ah, God. I’m sorry. Please don’t do that, it creeps me out when you do that.”

“Smile?”

“Smile like that. I don’t…” Her shoulders slumped. “I don’t want to make you look like that, I wanted this to be authentic.”

“Authenticity and my job are diametrically opposed, Marinette.”

“That’s what I wanted to show you, that’s why I–“ She trailed off and gestured to the two suits. He arched an eyebrow. Black and white was hardly a new theme for him. If he was honest with himself, he was even a little disappointed. He thought that after their discussion and her talk of a complete redesign, she’d go for color and daring and fun, but those suits looked like more of the same. Beautiful, graceful, he had no doubt they’d look good on him, but still…

How boring.

He stifled the unkind thought, recognized it as being born out of irritation. His first instinct when confronted with problems was always defiance. Offense is the strongest defense, whispered Destruction. He’d cultivated that habit, had drawn strength from it, because it allowed him to laugh in the face of people who would hurt him.

Now Marinette’s hurt was hurting him – but antagonizing her was entirely the wrong response if he wanted to mend this, he knew that.

“Adrien,” she said softly, her fingers digging into his shirt. “I don’t understand you.” She looked so lost, like she was confessing a great failure.

“I don’t understand you either,” he said. “That’s what discovering each other all about, isn’t it?”

She gazed at him with searching eyes, then nodded, biting her lower lip. “You should – you should undress. Get dressed, I mean.” Her voice grew husky and she dropped her gaze. “And we can talk while you do that, and then during the fitting. If – if that’s okay?”

Ah, but it felt good when she reached for him. He made a pleased noise in the back of his throat and gently enveloped her hand in his, pulling it to the hem of his shirt. She swallowed heavily.

“What did I do, Marinette?” he murmured. “Are you not enjoying this?”

“I am. But I don’t know if you are. That’s the problem. I can never figure out what you’re thinking.”

His eyebrows went up, and he laid a hand in the small of her back, drawing her closer. “I always enjoy you, Marinette.”

“Then why the games? I just – I don’t get it.” Her breath hitched. “You make me feel like I want this way more than you do. Is that what you’re enjoying? That imbalance? Like did you hear me talk about my stupid shrine and think ‘Hm, what else can I get her to do’?”

No. Fuck. He shook his head.

“I’ve never been chased before. I just… I got caught up.”

She cast him the most disbelieving look.

He winced. “Okay. Yes. I’ve been chased before. But not like that, not like you, not like – they were chasing my brand, okay?” He barked out a laugh as he put his stupidity into words. “I’m sorry. I just hit peak first world problems, didn’t I? Poor supermodel, girls are hitting on him for his looks and not his personality.”

She made a small noise, and Adrien pulled her closer. Burying his face in her black hair, he pressed gentle kisses to her scalp. “Never doubt that I want you, Marinette. I can’t… I’m sorry I’m bad at describing this thing I feel for you. Your crazy fits my crazy. Which is to say, you get my crazy, I feel like you see me. Like maybe you won’t run from me if you ever do learn to understand me.”

“I’d never run from you, Adrien.”

“Promises,” he murmured against her skin. “Those are easy. That’s why I want you to…” He trailed off, cutting off the direction of those thoughts.

“Catch you?”

“Yes.” He hissed in a sharp breath as her fingertips ghosted over his back. Catch me. Keep me. Love me. People valued the things they worked hard for more than the ones they were freely given.

He couldn’t tell her about this idiotic idea swirling around in the back of his mind. The one that was probably a lie they told hormonal teenagers so they’d keep their hands off each other.

But it was supposed to be better, wasn’t it? Waiting until love. Unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust and bonding. That was what he wanted, what held him back. The idea of taking Marinette, sweet, wonderful Marinette, who would be amazing – and heightening the experience.

Impatience would spoil his appetite.

And he was a hair’s breadth away from being in love.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Adrien.”

He made a noise of acknowledgement, low and masculine, deep within his throat. His hand on her back was like a brand, burning her skin, keeping her close to him.

“I don’t like having to prove myself to you.”

He grew very still.

Where was this coming from? She was starting to see more of the full picture of him, understood what drove him to act like this, and this would be the point where she’d normally go, well, it’s the thought that counts.

But there was something about Adrien that made her lose control of her tongue. He made her want to shout her feelings, every single thought she’d ever had. Why?

Your brand of crazy matches mine.

Adrien didn’t judge her. He was so kind he never judged her.

“I mean, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating that I built you a shrine. How much more devotion do you need? You’re just getting greedy at this point.”

He huffed a laugh, his breath hot against her skin.

“But I guess that’s what I get for feeding a stray.”

Adrien’s touch was changing, his embrace almost reverent now as he dropped his head and rested it between her neck and shoulder. More licks? More licks, please. “I warned you”, he said, and she felt his lips move. “Strays always come back for more.”

Marinette did, too. She was growing addicted to him. No, she was addicted. Marinette had a Problem she’d never been able to quit, and his name was Adrien Agreste.

“I really like you, Adrien. You know what I thought five seconds after catching sight of you on Nino’s couch? That I was madly in love all over again. And I know that’s insane. I know that’s my stupid attachment to you being stupid. But damn, Adrien, what about my behavior has led you to believe that I would ever run away from you? That I wouldn’t treasure you if given the chance?”

He didn’t answer right away, his hand moving from her back to the side of her hip. “There’s things about me you don’t know,” he said so softly she barely heard him. “Terrible things.”

Marinette drew back to be able to meet his gaze. She couldn’t read his expression because he was hiding it again.

“I have secrets, too. Everyone has things they’re not proud of, things they hide,” she said slowly, but when his smile widened and his eyes grew dim, she switched her line of reasoning at once. Diminishing whatever was bothering him by attempting to compare it with her own set of secrets was not a good idea. Especially since these secrets were something she couldn’t share. “Anyway, I’m getting pretty good at being able to tell when you are lying your ass off, Adrien. You know when you have never given me lying vibes?”

Her lips brushed his, her eyelids fluttering.

“When you’re kind. When you’re gentle. When I watched you save people from danger. You are a good person, Adrien Agreste, and I don’t think there is a secret terrible enough for me to change my mind on that.”

Chapter Text

“Alright, I think I got it,” Marinette said, voice muffled by the pins she was holding between her teeth.

Adrien gazed at himself in the mirror as she pinned the fabric at his narrow waist, molding the suit to his body. His unkind thoughts earlier notwithstanding, his professional eye could not help but admire the regal cut that emphasized his athletic build. Every inch of skin save for his face was covered in black fabric, an asymmetric coat draped over his shoulders.

While it was black – which was the base theme most designers chose for him these days – it was also modest, in stark contrast to the white suit she’d had him try on first. That one’s dress shirt had been made of material so sheer and fine he’d been able to see every ridge of muscle beneath.

“What’s the new theme’s name?” he asked, although he had a good idea of what she was going for at this point.

“Duality.”

So he was to play innocence in black and corruption in white. Adrien smiled at his reflection. He did so enjoy subverting people’s expectations. And yet…

“Weren’t there supposed to be four outfits?”

“I already hired a female model for my four seasons theme.” She smiled sheepishly. “So now it’s going to be two male and two female designs. Plus, her dresses allowed me to repurpose some of the winter and autumn fabric rolls I’ve already bought.”

Ah, so that was where all the color went. Male and female, innocence and sin, elegance and whimsy. He imagined the female model was where all of Marinette’s playfulness would be expressed while he was left to model the somber and sinful designs. Ribbons went a lot better with dresses than with suits, after all.

Too bad. He’d been looking forward to getting to break the mold for a change. But then, Marinette had told him she’d been designing with him in mind. It was the hallmark of a good artist to adjust to the material they had to work with instead of inserting their signature where it didn’t belong.

“It looks great, Marinette,” he said, and meant it.

She beamed at his reflection and kissed his cheek. His eyelids fluttered at the casual intimacy. He wasn’t sure where they stood now, but at least she didn’t seem mad at him anymore.

“Now it’s just missing its accessories.”

He blinked. “What accessories?”

Marinette smiled mischievously, walking in front of him while trailing her fingertips over his shoulder to his chest and then coming to rest at his collarbone. He had noticed that the design seemed somewhat bare, but had figured she was going for simplicity. Was she going to add a tie?

“You’ll see,” she said coyly. “Accessories draw the eye, so they need to be more detailed. I wanted to make sure the cut fit before I added them.”

Then her arms wrapped around his waist and she leaned into him in a hug, closing her eyes.

“Thank you for this, Adrien.”

He wrapped his arms around her in return, careful not to disturb the pins she’d stuck in the fabric to mark needed alterations.

“I won’t make you chase anymore,” he murmured.

“I’ll chase. Just stop running for the sake of it.”

“That I can do.” He smiled softly. “In fact, there’s something I’d like to invite you to.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“So I heard you put me out of a job?”

Adrien frowned as he paused, the ink seeping into the map. “Pardon?”

“You talked Marinette out of using me as her photographer.” Alya pursed her lips, and he rolled his eyes. The pen started moving again as he tried to estimate where, exactly, the newest flame beast’s rampage had begun and ended.

“You’re a reporter. Your strength is capturing action, not glamor shots. Marinette’s portfolio will be stronger for using a professional.” A professional he would enjoy introducing her to. Hopefully the upcoming gala would be less tedious with her at his side.

“Hm. Fair point.” Alya shrugged and bent over the map of Paris, bright red marking all the spots the Flamelings had appeared. Green marked their journey and black where they had met their demise.

“Alright, let’s take the Not-Dragon out of the equation, because we know that one’s an anomaly in both size and behavior,” she murmured. “The recent three… there’s gaps between their disappearance and reappearance, but they’re on the same trajectory.” She traced the curved path that led from close to the center of the city to its outskirts. “Back to where the Not-Dragon first appeared.”

Alya beamed at him, eyes sparkling with glee at having solved a puzzle. She’d shown up at his hotel room, demanding to be told everything about the most recent battle she’d missed.

“Interesting,” he murmured and leaned back. “I’ll keep an eye on the area, then. Anything of interest there?”

“It’s industrial. Warehouses, old run-down factories, that sort of thing.” Alya paused. “It’s suspiciously empty if you catch my drift. But it was sealed off for a week after the first fire creature rose from there, and whatever evidence might have been there must have been moved. But I’ll keep looking.”

“You’re thorough,” he said, quietly impressed.

“See? Told you we’d make a great team! I’ve decided to call myself the Mastermind of this operation, by the way. No sidekicks here.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine, whatever. But we’re not calling them Flamelings.”

“Why not? I polled the audience and the Ladyblog has spoken!”

It was likely that Carapace had gotten the idea from there, but still, the petulant streak within him didn’t want to give that damn turtle so much as a centimeter. “Flamimals,” he muttered, knowing full well that this was one of his weakest puns.

Alya scoffed and he glared at her.

“Alright. Good brainstorming session, please take all this–“ Adrien gestured to the contents of her investigative folder spread all over his dining table. “-with you. I don’t need the hotel staff finding it while cleaning and asking themselves why the son of Hawkmoth is concerning himself with the flamimals.”

“You’re kicking me out already?”

“Yes. This is a strictly professional relationship, Alya.”

“I’m your girlfriend’s best friend and your best friend’s girlfriend!”

“Yes. We know each other by proxy, but come on. Alya. You and I have never been friends.”

She huffed. “Yes, we were!”

“Really?” His voice was silk over steel. “Is that why you were so prolific in writing me after I left Paris?”

Alya grew quiet, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “You didn’t write me much either,” she pointed out.

“I was busy grieving. Shockingly, coming to terms with being an orphan and having killed someone does not lead to becoming a social butterfly.”

She swallowed heavily at the reminder and looked away. Alya had tried asking him about that, but he had shut the topic down, making it clear that it was off-limits for her. And yet, he couldn’t help the taunt now.

“I’m not trying to make excuses. That was not cool of me. But I was investigating Hawkmoth’s death,” she said. “I mean, how could I not? The Ladyblog was my life, and that was – that was the culmination of it all, wasn’t it? No more Akumas. Only the question of why remained. What had driven Hawkmoth to terrorize the city?” A question that, to this day, even Adrien did not have the answer to. “I’m good at solving mysteries so I… I couldn’t not look into this one.”

Alya blinked rapidly and met his gaze.

“So how was I supposed to talk to you? I tried, Adrien, I really did. But Hawkmoth, Ladybug and Chat Noir were ninety percent of what I talked about in those months. As Nino and Marinette can attest, I was obsessed. I mean, I liveblogged Hawkmoth’s death. I’m straightforward, Adrien, not insensitive – I knew you wouldn’t have wanted to hear about any of that. And then there was just…” She made a frustrated noise. “I didn’t know what else to talk about.”

“…I see.”

“I realize you’ve suffered, Adrien. There’s probably no one who’s suffered more at Hawkmoth’s hand than you, I get that now. But you don’t know what it’s like to be Akumatized. I needed to know what I’d suffered for. All the Akuma victims. We deserved answers.”

“Did you ever find them?”

She shook her head, red curls bouncing. Then she glanced up, something like hope glimmering in her eyes. “Do you know wh–“

“My father–“ He sneered the word. “–never told me a damn thing. He just gave me orders about how I was to live my life.”

Awkward silence descended, broken only when Princess jumped on Alya’s back to demand attention. She laughed, the tension falling from her at once, and started cuddling with his pet while Adrien watched with pursed lips.

How did she do that?

He had always envied Alya’s ability to just shake negative emotion off like they’d never been there at all. She looked forward, never back. Always in motion, focused on her goals, eyes shining with determination. An unstoppable force of will that never grew discouraged for long when faced with setbacks.

Share your secrets, evil wench.

“Adrien,” she said suddenly, putting her chin on Princess’s head as she drew the cat close to her chest. “Once I’ve locked onto a mystery, I’m really bad at letting it go. For example. I think Nino’s cheating on me.”

What?”

“Top three symptoms your partner’s having an affair. Nino’s recently started displaying all of them.” She held up her fist, curling up a finger with each point she made. “One, they alter their routine and suddenly have way less free time for suspiciously vague reasons. Two, you catch them in lies about their whereabouts. Three.” She paused. “They start putting extra effort into their appearance. I’m pretty sure he’s started working out. I mean, Nino’s kind of always been soft around the belly area, but now there’s suddenly these new muscles from nowhere…”

Adrien gaped at her in disbelief. Yeah, okay, so maybe he and his friend weren’t as close as they used to be, but there was no way, absolutely no fucking way, this was true. “…Alya, that’s dumb. Nino would never cheat on you. It’s Nino.”

She nodded happily. “Oh, I know that. Nino doesn’t have a disloyal bone in his body. He’s probably planning some sort of secret surprise for me, and doing a bad job keeping it on the down low.” She grew quiet for a long moment, fingers digging into fluffy white fur. “But my mind went there. Is still going there, really. It’s the curse of pattern recognition.”

Alya looked at him, growing somber.

“I know you’re still mad at me for ever suspecting you at all, Adrien. And I am sorry to have hurt your feelings. But, please understand that my mind is capable of accusing even the sweetest man on earth of being a villain. It’s really nothing personal.”

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

She laughed. “Yes, exactly.”

Princess started purring and he shot her a dirty look. Traitor. Although… he probably was just being petulant. Alya was right, the evidence against him had been damning, and he couldn’t blame her for protecting Marinette.

Alya would not have been his first choice, had he been allowed to reveal his secret to someone. But it had happened, and he should probably be making an effort to salvage this as best as he could instead of stewing in anger.

Nino loved her for a reason and, ice cream notwithstanding, Nino had good taste. An eye for people’s true character. And now Adrien could talk to her. Really talk to her. It was worth giving a shot, wasn’t it?

Yes, he could… squint. A little. Until Alya’s better qualities came into focus. Because right now all he could see was everything that annoyed him about her, from her irresponsibility to her pushiness.

He sighed and tried to make his smile as authentic as possible. “So where’s my promised share of Marinette secrets?”

“No secrets,” Alya said with a sly look. “Intel. I don’t go around sharing secrets. Because I am one hundred percent trustworthy.” Subtle. Real subtle, Alya.

“Fine. I want my intel on Marinette.”

“Use more emojis.”

He blinked. “What?”

“So I know I said I wasn’t trying to make excuses about why I didn’t keep in contact, but…” She took a deep breath, and steepled her fingers in front of her chest, locking her elbows around Princess. “Boy. Did nobody ever teach you texting etiquette?”

“Um.” There was an etiquette?

“Do you know what you sound like? When you’re texting?”

“Normal…?”

“No.” Her voice suddenly lost all inflection, her eyes growing cold. “Wow. I’m so excited. Can’t wait. I am a real human being and not a robot. Beep boop.” Her voice perked back up. “You text like you’re writing a formal essay, Adrien, and whoever you’re talking to doesn’t have body language cues to pick up on your mood. So. More emojis. Trust me on this. For every emoji you have ever sent Marinette, I have an excited text from her, swooning that she got an emotional reaction out of you.”

He blinked owlishly. “I… guess I can do that? What else?”

“Nope! One piece of advice per team up.” God, she looked so smug. Damn her. He wanted more than this.

“Well, let’s see if there’s not something else I can trade.”

“Oh? What will you bargain with?”

“I’ll answer one of those invasive questions I know you’re dying to ask. Although I reserve the right to pass to the next one as often as I want.”

“Deal!” Her eyes sparkled. “What kind of relationship do you have with Ladybug?”

“Pass.”

“But–“

“Hard pass.”

“Fine.” She huffed, and then considered it for a long moment. “Do you know what was in the safe?”

He frowned. “What safe?”

“Gabriel Agreste’s safe.”

Adrien stared at her. “I don’t know anything about a safe. Explain?”

“Oh.” Her brows furrowed. “The police found it in your dad’s mansion, behind a painting. I figured they’d have at least interrogated you about that.”

“I was kept out of the investigation,” he said slowly. “I was a minor, they only interviewed me once.”

He barely even remembered what they’d asked about and what his answers had been. Almost everything from those days close to his father’s death was a blur. Although he did remember having trouble coming up with an alibi of where he’d been when his father had died.

Nathalie had ended up stepping in when he’d just stared, struck mute by the question. Her cutting words had been so sharp as she reminded the interrogating officer that he was talking to an orphan in shock that the aggressive man had backed off.

“What did he keep in there?”

“Well, that’s the thing. Nobody knows. It was empty.” She paused, seeming disappointed that he didn’t know more. “It always struck me as super weird, you know? It was so well-hidden, why would he have moved whatever it was hiding? The battle happened pretty spontaneously, he’d have no warning that someone might come looking soon.” She trailed off, shooting him a guilty look. “It’s part of what made me suspect you, to be honest.”

“How so?” His voice was faint, barely audible over the blood rushing in his ears. Adrien was skilled in deductive reasoning as well. Already the familiar sensation of betrayal had awoken, writhing in his chest.

“Well, someone could have cleared it out after his death before the police got to it. But who would have opportunity and motive?”

His son. But Adrien had never been privy to his father’s secrets.

One person had been, though. The one who had coordinated Gabriel Agreste’s days and devoted her professional life to serving his every whim. She’d been aware of some of his firm’s shadier activities, had testified as much in the trial following his death. It was what had made finding employment so difficult for her.

Adrien had always thought of Nathalie as a kindred soul. Somebody innocent caught in his father’s web and tarnished in the eyes of the public for it. That had been a critical component in his decision to officially hire her as his agent – not just because she was efficient and scarily competent, but because they’d gone through this ordeal together.

And she’d decided to come back to Paris, recently, too. Had been on the road where the unknown Flameling had appeared and vanished.

“I can think of someone,” he said as ice and rage spread through his body.

 

✧✦✧

 

“You have a message.”

“Wha–?” Nino startled awake and reached to rub his eyes, pushing up his glasses to get to them. He blinked blearily while trying to get his bearings. Couch. TV softly playing in the background. Right. He’d fallen asleep waiting for Alya to get back from following up a lead for her Ladyblog.

Wayzz was hovering in front of him, a thoughtful expression on his face. “You have a message,” he repeated.

“Ladybug?” Was she calling for help with another Flameling?

“No. This is coming from the Black Cat.”

Huh. Really?

“Alright, let’s see what he wants.” He glanced around to make sure Alya had not come home yet and then called out, “Wayzz, Shield Up!

Magic flowed over him and he wasted no time unhooking his shield to activate the communicator within. As a flickering video started playing, he idly wondered whether Miraculous wielders had access to this sort of communication for generations or whether these suits were keeping up with the times and mimicking technology.

The image panned over what he quickly recognized as the famous landmark of the Eiffel tower, and then turned to face Chat Noir. “Carapace. I have a lead on what might be causing this. I’m going to head to interrogate them in an hour.”

He smiled. It was cold and predatory.

“Come play good cop, bad cop with me.”

Chapter Text

“So which one am I playing?”

Chat Noir looked over his shoulder and uncrossed his arms as Carapace landed beside him.

“Take a guess.”

“The rogue yet charming detective who doesn’t play by the rules?”

“No,” Chat said. “That’d be me. You’re the one with a stick up their ass about doing things by the book.”

“Lame. Do I at least get to threaten to take your badge away and bemoan that I’m getting too old for this shit?”

Chat had to fight to keep his lip from twitching. Damn it, he didn’t want to like this guy’s sense of humor. “If the situation calls for it.”

Golden eyes cast him a long, searching look. “So why me?”

“Hm?”

“Why’d you call me? No offense, but we haven’t really gotten along up to this point.”

Chat Noir shrugged, even though he knew exactly why. Ladybug brought out the absolute worst in him. Calling for her in his current mood would ignite the embers of rage smoldering inside him. But he knew he might genuinely need someone to hold him in check during the interrogation, so… “You’re better than the alternative.”

“You say the sweetest things, Chat Noir.”

“It’s the charming part of charming rogue.”

“Your charm has left much to be desired lately.”

“Your feedback is very valuable to me. I’ll pass it on to my PR department.”

“Oh, you have one of those?”

“Mhm. And a research division. Which has recently uncovered some clues that bring us to this suspect.” He curled his claws into a fist, and released again. “Nathalie Sancoeur.”

Carapace’s eyebrows drew together behind his goggles. “Adrien Agreste’s agent?”

Adrien blinked at the instant recognition he hadn’t expected. Let alone that Carapace would connect her to him and not his father. “Hawkmoth’s former assistant.”

The other hero shifted his weight uncomfortably. “Is that the only clue we’re following? Being connected to Hawkmoth?”

“No. Look, just trust me on this, alright? I have very good reason to suspect her of hiding things.”

Carapace was staring at him, his lips a thin line of disapproval. “Are we going to be investigating Adrien Agreste, too, then?”

“What’s your interest in Hawkmoth’s son?”

“You made him an orphan,” Carapace bit out, and there was an undercurrent of true anger there. “You’ve done enough to ruin that man’s life, leave him alone.”

Chat Noir raised an eyebrow. “How considerate of you.” And how strange. He almost – almost – felt his respect for this man rise. For him to outright refuse to condemn him for his father’s crimes, that was… well, it was a rare but always welcome experience for Adrien.

“If anyone’s going to investigate him, it will be Ladybug and me. You stay away.”

Well, better nip that in the bud. He didn’t want a repeat of Alya. Just the thought of Ladybug finding out that way made his skin crawl. She’d probably pity him, and that was the last thing he wanted. “Too late. Already looked into him.” When Carapace’s hands balled into fists, Chat raised his hands in a pacifying gesture. “Relax. He’s all clear. Completely innocent.”

The other hero looked like he’d bitten something sour. “Did you interrogate him, too?”

“Yes. As I said, dead end. No need to look further that way.”

“You should have told us.”

Irritation flared. Let it go, nothing to see here. “Well, I’m telling you now. Anyway, about Nathalie Sancoeur…”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nathalie Sancoeur was a rational woman.

The world unfolded itself in front of her as a series of facts, implications and possible paths. Her systematic mind assessed risks, benefits, and likelihood of catastrophic failure for each option available to her to find the most optimal one. Following this heuristic had led her to attend the best university in Europe, to graduate with flawless grades and to find success at a young age, being groomed to take over a mogul’s fashion empire.

She had prided herself on that.

But it was there, at the height of her success, that hubris had led her to indulge in an utterly irrational mistake. One that had shaped her life for years to come and toppled her from the mountain she’d climbed.

Although could she really call it one mistake when it had been a seemingly never-ending series of decisions to debase herself a little more each day, all in pursuit of something she’d never have?

And yet.

As irrational as it was, Nathalie was not certain she wouldn’t take the same path again if given the chance.

When she found yet another consequence of her mistake glaring at her with hateful green eyes, she did not panic. She had prepared herself for this eventuality, as she prepared for everything.

“Good evening, Chat Noir,” she said to the hero perching in the open window of her bedroom. Her gaze slid past him to the man hovering behind him outside, the new hero. “And… Carapace, was it?”

The black leather belt whipped back and forth, the way Princess’ tail did when she spotted her prey. Nathalie turned back to the living room. “You may as well come inside. I assume this is an interrogation?”

“You assume correctly.” Chat Noir’s voice was like silk, and she shivered.

It reminded her of Gabriel’s, when he was so angry he barely spoke above a whisper.

“Nathalie, what is this?”

“It’s for Adrien, sir. His birthday is coming up.”

“From you?”

“Well, yes, I assumed since I am his primary caretaker, I should–“

The concert ticket to Jagged Stone was ripped apart in agonizing slow motion. “You are not here to be his substitute mother. Do not think you can ever replace her, Nathalie. Not even for one moment. You are here to do your job.”

“…well, I do more than just my job for you, sir, so I assumed–”

“And that was your mistake. My son is not part of our arrangement. If I catch you crossing boundaries like this again, there will be consequences.”

No. Nobody could ever replace Emilie Agreste. That had been made abundantly clear no matter what the irrational part of her mind had hoped for. Gabriel’s heart had burned to ash, never to recover. It had taken her far too long to see that just because he let her touch him, teasing her with the occasional glimpses of its remnants, that did not mean there was room for her in its ruins.

Nathalie sat down, crossing her legs and primly adjusting her black skirt before doing the same to her glasses.

“So what can I do for you?”

The green-clad hero seemed somewhat confused, glancing at his partner in black. Chat Noir, however, only prowled closer – far too close for comfort as he leaned in.

“Gabriel Agreste’s safe. What was in it?”

Ah. That. Well, she supposed she could play coy and deny what she knew, but really, what would be the point? This man had murdered Gabriel, she had no doubt he had ways of making her talk, too. Nathalie decided to skip the unpleasantries and to just give him what he came for.

“Personal belongings not meant for the eyes of vultures.”

His eyes shone. “You took them.”

“I did,” she said with a nod. It had been in a moment of madness and grief that then necessitated an extensive coverup, what with her having removed evidence from a crime scene. But Nathalie was nothing if not efficient, and so no one had ever been the wiser. Until now.

“What did you do with the contents?”

“As I said, they were mostly things of sentimental value, and those are currently in storage at a Swiss bank vault. But I assume you’re looking for the peacock Miraculous and the book, yes?”

Chat Noir grew very still. “The what?”

“The book? You had the book? And the peacock?” Carapace asked. Confusion momentarily crossed Chat Noir’s face as he glanced at his partner, but then he focused back on Nathalie.

“Had, yes.” She adjusted her glasses again. A nervous tick of hers she’d never quite been able to master. “I sold them. On the black market.”

Chat Noir stared at her. “You. Sold a Miraculous.”

Nathalie nodded. “Yes.”

Why?

She shrugged. “I’ve never been one to seek power.”

Lie,” Chat Noir hissed, baring fangs. “Your heartbeat gives you away. It’s thundering. Why is that?”

Because you killed the man I devoted myself to.

Nathalie swallowed her fear and held her head high. “Correction. I do not seek the kind of power a Miraculous would have given me. At the time I had more need of money than a flashy costume. Money is power, too, and a more versatile one.”

His accusing gaze was pinning her in place. “Still lying.”

Only by omission. He had no right to know her heart. “It’s the truth.”

He reached out and placed on hand only inches beside her head. She could hear his claws digging into the leather of the chair, scraping and tearing. A warning.

“Chat, back off,” the man in green said. “She’s cooperating.”

“No. She’s a liar,” Chat Noir snarled. “You don’t live like a woman who got rich by selling a Miraculous, Nathalie Sancoeur.”

“It was not easy for me to find work after Hawkmoth. Money runs out.”

“Not if it’s well-managed.” His inhuman pupils were little more than slits. “And you strike me as the kind of woman who handles her finances very well.”

She squirmed uncomfortably. “This is private. It has absolutely no bearing on what you seek. I can give you everything I have on the two transactions, but I must warn you that great care was taken to preserve anonymity and you are quite unlikely to ever track down the buyers.”

“Where did the money go, Nathalie?”

“That’s not–“

A claw touched her throat and pressed down. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Tell me more lies,” Chat Noir whispered. “I dare you.”

“Chat, what the fuck–“ That was the other hero’s outraged voice and the pin-point pressure increased in response. A single warm drop cooled against the skin of her throat. He wouldn’t – would he? He might. Those green eyes were filled with fury. Was her secret worth the pain? It was hardly even a secret.

“Adrien. I spent it on Adrien.”

Chat Noir reared back, the claw jerking back with him.

“Adrien Agreste?” Carapace said in disbelief. “What would he need money for? He’s rich.”

“He is now.” Thanks to her Adrien’s hard work and dedication. He’d taken her lessons to heart, had turned his misfortune around once she’d explained the mechanics of personal finance to him. “But after the Gabriel brand was destroyed and the lawyers took what was left, he was in debt. His schooling was expensive and… he made some poor choices in his youth.”

Because Gabriel had never wanted Adrien to have real life skills, had only ever wanted to keep him sheltered in his gilded cage. She should have seen that, should have taken him aside when he was sixteen, but that was back when she’d still been convinced that she had no claim to the boy. That it was not her place, that it would be best to send Gabriel’s son away to safety and let him go.

But he’d come back to her, and she’d not had it in her heart to turn him away.

Adrien was the reason she could never quite bring herself to regret her irrational choices.

“How did you spend your money on him?” Chat Noir’s voice was suddenly very soft.

“First I paid for his private school. He needed a safe environment away from those who would attack him for his father. Then I had to supplement his income. His last name was toxic in the industry, and what few jobs I was able to get him might as well have paid nothing.” He’d needed the illusion of a steady revenue stream to learn how to manage it, and to pay off his debt on his own. Yes, she could have done that for him directly, but it wouldn’t have taught him responsibility, nor restored his confidence in his intelligence.

When her means had begun to run out, he’d noticed. The sweet boy had offered to hire her as soon as he caught wind of her need. She had not actually drawn a salary at first, instead slowly tapering off her support, and only started to take a cut of his earnings once they grew sustainable. She raised her chin, knowing that her eyes were shining with pride. “He made masterful use of the opportunities I gave him. Now he’s one of the most in-demand models in the world.”

Chat Noir averted his gaze, shoulders hunched, and turned away from her. Nathalie breathed a soft sigh of relief.

“I’m going to need the details on those anonymous transactions,” he said stiffly.

Nathalie nodded, standing up to walk to her computer, and was grateful that her legs refrained from shaking.

 

✧✦✧

 

“You fucking psychopath!”

Carapace slammed the damn cat against the wall of Nathalie’s apartment building.

“What’s wrong with you?” Nino hadn’t even been on the receiving end of it, but the waves of anger and hostility rolling off his so-called partner had shaken even Adrien’s unflappable agent.

Chat Noir said nothing, merely ducked out of his hold with speed and strength Carapace could not rival. Then he slipped away into the night.

There’d be no point in even attempting to give chase. Chat Noir was the fastest of the three, and Carapace the slowest. And even if he did catch him, then what? The more experienced hero would wipe the floor with Nino in a fight.

Carapace’s fist hit the wall in frustration, and brick crumbled, deep cracks fanning out from the impact. The thought of his depressed friend having been subjected to an interrogation like this by the man who’d murdered his dad...

Damn it, Adrien. Why do you never ask for help?

 

✧✦✧

 

He’d never questioned it.

Why had he never questioned it?

But it was one of the pillars of his world. Nathalie gets paid to put up with me.

The lesson had been driven home many times when she’d been newly hired and he’d kept trying to share his accomplishments with her, expecting praise or a hug or something. Only when he’d found his birthday card to her in the trash had he finally accepted it.

But why was he so stupid and had never thought to question why she’d stuck around after his father had stopped being able to sign her paychecks?

Adrien stared at his phone, unsure what to tell her, how to reach out. He couldn’t very well lead with ‘Hey, so, after brutally interrogating you, I’ve rethought our relationship…’

“Ugh, get away from me, you damn parasite,” Plagg hissed, and Princess meowed pitifully. “Stop trying to steal my body warmth and get your own!”

She crawled toward Adrien, cuddling up next to his thigh.

He opened his phone’s camera and took a picture. Then sent it to Nathalie.

Adrien: Hey, I think Princess misses you.

Adrien: You should come and visit her.

As always, his agent replied promptly, never taking more than ten minutes to respond to his queries.

Nathalie Sancoeur: I’ll set up a visitation schedule.

Chapter Text

Adrien had a bounce in his step as he walked into the bakery, a strange elation running through him ever since he’d woken up. He was sorry for scaring Nathalie, he really was, and knew he should have approached last night differently. But in his heart, Adrien knew there was a gap between the virtuous, kind person he’d like to be and the person he truly was. If his conscience worked as it should, he’d have been drowning his sorrow and regret in alcohol right about now.

Instead, he felt great, his guilt far outweighed by joy.

Because he had someone in his corner who’d been there all along, watching over him. There was comfort in that thought, soothing the bitter wrath that was so close to the surface these days. Nathalie cared, and for that he needed to give her a raise or a gift or something. Wasn’t her birthday coming up soon? He’d make it spectacular.

And, of course, he would have to ensure that she never, ever found out that he was Chat Noir. He would not lose her love after just having discovered it was there.

As he pondered what kind of gift an ice cold and practical woman like Nathalie might appreciate, he caught sight of Marinette behind the counter. Her blue eyes lit up with happiness when she spotted him, and he smiled.

She crooked her finger at him and he was helpless to resist, strolling up to her with faked nonchalance.

“Well, well,” Marinette said smugly. “Look who decided to show up after all.”

He should probably be acting contrite. “I have grown too weak to run away, starved of your delicious baked goods. Feed me.”

“Hm.” She tapped a finger on her chin. “And why should I be handing out my treats for free if you don’t appreciate them? No. I think I shall be demanding payment from now on.”

Adrien widened his eyes as far as they would go. Marinette made a little eep sound at the sight, but then scowled fiercely.

“Those puppy dog eyes won’t work on me, stray. I’m immune!”

“Are you really?” he asked, voice pitiful.

“Yes.” She raised her chin. “I demand a kiss in return.”

His eyelids dropped to half-mast at once, his gaze focusing on her lips, entranced by their lovely shape and color. “Just the once?” he murmured, tip of his tongue darting out as he absently traced the shape of his teeth and imagined nibbling on her.

“Every time.”

“And you call me greedy. But since I am starving, I suppose I have no choice but to sell this beautiful body of mine for pastries. Daily. Alas.”

“However shall you endure?”

“Well, I know this girl who always cheers me up when I’m near her.”

Marinette leaned forward, as did he, only inches apart from each other now. Her eyes were filled with playful glee and he had no doubt his were as well. “Tell me about her.”

“She works at a bakery. And she’s sweeter than everything they’re selling, because she’s such a cutie pie.”

Marinette’s hand shot out to grab him by his collar, pulling him close. Just as that delicious mouth met his, Nino’s voice rang out beside them. “You know you’re in public, right?”

They jumped apart with wide eyes and Nino smirked. Bastard.

“Seriously, what you’re doing there is a public health hazard. We’re all going to die of diabetes.”

Marinette stuck out her tongue and Adrien scowled, bracing himself for yet another warning. While Nino was smiling, there was concern in his eyes. And his gaze was directed at Adrien. I get it, I get it, no need to repeat it.

“How have you been, Adrien?”

“Fine. You?”

“Good.” He hummed thoughtfully, glancing at Marinette who, red-faced, was preparing two slices of cake, presumably one each for the two of them. “Hey, I was wondering – are you still up for that ‘lunch or something’?”

Adrien perked up. “Yes, of course.”

“Great. I’m kind of swamped the next two days, but – come meet me on campus the day after that, alright? It’ll be on me.” The corners of his eyes crinkled with laughter. “I won’t even demand a kiss for it. Alya gets jealous.”

His elation returning, Adrien nodded with a broad smile. “Sure!”

When was the last time Nino had invited him to anything? Adrien was the one who arranged their meetings, mostly by announcing his presence and demanding attention be paid to him. Granted, this was mostly because Adrien had set the schedule of when meetings were even possible. Nino could hardly invite him anywhere when he wasn’t even in the country.

Maybe it had just been inertia that had kept his friend from extending invitations up to this point. Like it hadn’t quite sunk in that Adrien was available now.

“Awesome. That said, I’m afraid I’m going to have to steal Marinette away from you.”

Marinette looked up, appearing surprised by this news. “Oh?”

Nino shot her a look, and something unspoken passed between them.

“Oh! Right! Yes, the thing, we need to do the – the thing.” She nodded vigorously.

Something tugged at Adrien’s mind, and he put the pieces together. “Are you two planning some secret surprise for Alya?” Because there really was just no way Nino was involved in anything shadier than that.

“Yes! Very secret! Nobody can know!” Marinette smiled, half apologetic, half relieved. “Sorry, Adrien.”

“That’s alright.” And it was, because today was a great day. “I’ll see you both soon, then.” He curved his lips into a smile that made Marinette blush, and then waved at Nino, collecting his hard-earned treat on his way out.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino’s gaze lingered on the door Adrien left through, a hint of worry crossing his features.

“So how has he been?”

Marinette huffed and rolled her eyes, signaling to her mother that she was taking an early break. Which her mother allowed with a nod and a smile, since Marinette worked on a mostly voluntary basis and there was a lull in the bakery’s activities – Adrien was quite deliberate in picking the timing of his visits to maximize the attention she could spare him.

“Don’t start this again, Nino. I fully realize I’m about to sound like he’s got me wrapped around my finger, but seriously – Adrien has boyfriend material written all over him. I don’t think he has the commitment issues you think he does.”

“Entirely possible,” Nino conceded at once, making her blink. He gestured for her to keep going up to her room and she realized she’d frozen to the spot in surprise.

“That… was an easier sales pitch than I expected.”

“I would like nothing better than for Adrien to be in a healthy, stable relationship. I’m not trying to discourage that.” Nino frowned as he followed her up the stairs. “If he’s truly willing to be serious with you, that means I was wrong, and I retract my previous misgivings.

“But you know what I know you can expect from Adrien in a relationship? Secrecy. Stonewalling. He’ll hint and give you a glimpse here and there, but he’ll tell you nothing of substance. And then you’re left picking up all the context clues, trying to assemble them into something coherent to figure out what’s going on his head. And sometimes you’ll get it wrong.”

“Oh,” she said.

Nino was quiet for a long moment. “I don’t know Adrien as well as I would like to. There’s a great person in there somewhere, I know that, but…” He sighed deeply. “Tell me if this sounds familiar. At some point, Adrien’s mood plummeted for no apparent reason, but he kept smiling the creepiest, emptiest smile on earth while making small talk and assuring you that he was fine.”

Marinette opened the door to her room and shut it behind her after Nino had entered. Her voice was soft as she recalled that first date’s disastrous beginning. “Yes.”

“You’re going to run into that a lot. At least this time I can tell you what likely caused it.” Nino turned to face her and there was rage blazing in his golden eye. A rare sight, he so seldom let anything get to him. “Chat Noir.”

Marinette blinked. “Chat?” What did he have to do with Adrien?

“Yes. Your Chaton–“ Nino sneered the nickname. “–decided to interrogate and threaten Adrien.”

“What? Why?!”

“Because he’s the son of Hawkmoth.” Nino exhaled and rubbed the bridge of his nose, pushing up his glasses. “And probably because his return to Paris was unfortunately timed.”

“He – he didn’t find anything, did he?”

Nino looked at her like she had lost her mind. “Of course not. It’s Adrien! The man doesn’t have a villainous bone in his body!”

“I know! I know that, I just–“ Marinette wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. She hadn’t suspected Adrien of anything, would never accuse him of being like his father. But she had noticed the timing and tried not to ever think about it. To have proof that it was just coincidence – well, it lifted a weight off her she hadn’t known she’d been carrying.

Nino waved her off. “Not the point. After Adrien, the fucking cat moved on to Adrien’s agent, and I got to see his interrogation technique up close.” He paused and breathed deeply, calming himself with visible effort. “Marinette, I’ve been deferring to you on this whole Chat Noir situation since you know him better and all. But that guy is seriously fucked in the head. Explain to me what you see in him.”

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “Hawkmoth’s death changed him. He didn’t used to be like this. He was…” She trailed off, trying to find the right words for him. “Playful. Kind. Quick to laugh and make jokes.”

“So why does he hate you?”

Marinette frowned. “I think he’s just misanthropic in general, now.”

But Nino shook his head. “No, Marinette, I don’t think he is. I think he has it out specifically for you. I’m a stranger he can barely stand, and he still chose to call my help over yours. Why?”

“I…” That couldn’t be true, could it? It was one thing for him to be angry at the world, another if his loathing was singularly focused on her. They were supposed to be two halves of a whole. As it often did these days, the memory of that night rose. “I guess I… I turned him down.” A lot.

Nino laughed, and it was an ugly sound. “Seriously? That’s it? Goddamn, what an asshole.”

“Chat’s not an asshole,” she muttered, feeling the irrational urge to protect him against the same thoughts she’d been having herself. “He’s hurt.”

“Yeah, hurt he didn’t get a girl he wanted. I mean. It fits. Chat Noir would certainly not be the first man to pretend to be nice to a girl’s face right up until she makes it clear he has no chance.”

“That is literally the worst interpretation possible! Nino, what the hell? You’re normally all about giving people second chances, why are you so dead set on disliking Chat?”

“He cost me my best friend, Marinette!”

She drew back, staring at Nino with wide eyes.

“Adrien’s never been the same since Chat Noir murdered his father,” Nino said bitterly. “And now this psychopath went and interrogated him. Adrien hides it well at first glance, but his mental health is utter shit, he can’t take this kind of pressure.”

Silence descended until Wayzz cleared his throat. He was frowning at his wielder as he floated between the two of them.

“Every Miraculous holder is Chosen for embodying virtue. The specific virtues they have may vary depending on the Miraculous they wield. But overall, to assume that any given Chosen One has been an–“ The kwami sighed heavily, imbuing the crude word with gravitas. “– an asshole all along is so reductive that it can only ever be wrong. Chat Noir should be met with compassion for what drove him to this, not hostility.”

Marinette raised her chin. “See? Wayzz agrees with me.”

Nino did not respond right away, gazing at his kwami with a pensive expression on his face. “Fair enough. Maybe he was a good person when he was younger. But Marinette… that doesn’t mean he is now. I’m worried. Did Tikki ever tell you why they encourage the Ladybug and the Black Cat to keep secret identities from each other even though they’re meant to be a pair?”

“I don’t think that’s particularly relevant in this–“

“Yes, Wayzz. It really is. Marinette needs to know about the possibility.”

Marinette’s gaze swiveled between her friend and her kwami, realization slowly dawning on her. She’d known before, of course, but this moment was the first time it truly hit her – Nino was Guardian now, which meant he’d likely be learning secrets about the Miraculouses that she did not and would not ever know.

“Tikki?” she asked faintly, and her trusted companion nuzzled up against her shoulder. Marinette straightened her spine, confident in her answer. “It’s for our safety. So we can’t give each other away when one of us is captured.”

But Nino shook his head, his eyes filled with pity.

“No. It’s to keep you safe from him. Previous incarnations of the Black Cat have betrayed their Ladybugs.”

“That’s not – we’re partners. My Chaton would never…”

“Wouldn’t he?” Nino’s voice was gentle, and that made it worse. “Do you know him well enough to stake your life on it?”

 

✧✦✧

 

Flames licked the walls, turning sterile white into black.

Where is it?

I know you have it.

But her throat could not form the words, the host entirely unsuited for that purpose. She felt its feeble mind clawing at her sanity, frantic and scared, but she paid it no heed. It had the warm flesh she needed to anchor her.

Where did everyone go?

She opened her maw, magma dripping from her fangs.

You cannot hide from me.

Chapter Text

“I’m here for my kiss.” His voice was husky, sending a pleasant shiver down Marinette’s spine.

“Don’t you mean your pastry?”

“No.” His fingertips were digging into the counter, his eyes darkening with hunger. So she was not the only one this game of theirs was getting to.

She handed him the chocolate croissant she’d prepared for him, her touch lingering.

Adrien growled. Growled. Marinette somehow prevented herself from swooning.

“Don’t worry, Adrien. I’ll put it on your tab, and you can pay your debt tonight.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Navigating the campus to find the building Nino had directed him to, Adrien spotted the guy who’d annoyed him last time he’d been here – Jean, was it? The man paled at the sight of him. Adrien offered him a friendly smile and a wave, his annoyance long-faded by now. Hardly the first to judge him for his father and occupation, and not the last. He couldn’t be angry at all the world forever.

Just a select few individuals in it.

Plus, it helped that he was going to get to spend time with his two favorite people in the world today. His mood couldn’t be better.

“Hi, Nino,” Adrien said as he excitedly bounded into the study room. His nostrils flared and his eyes widened.

Nino had bought him sushi. Adrien adored sushi.

Yet Nino hated it.

“Tenth time’s the charm?”

“I figured it was about time for my annual shot at this.”

“I salute your bravery. I’ll hold the eulogy at your funeral once the food poisoning gets to you. I’ll make it moving. People will weep.”

“Don’t even joke, Adrien. I’m going to eat raw fish here for you.”

“What’s the occasion?” he asked as he sat down and reached for the chopsticks.

Nino hummed, golden gaze thoughtful. “Your return to Paris. Which is as overdue as my celebration of it.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino peered at Adrien out of the corner of his eye as he shoveled more of that ungodly stuff into his mouth, brows creased in concentration as he watched the opening scenes of the film Nino had been working on. The few scenes that were truly finished, at any rate.

“I have no clue about cinematography, sorry,” he said. “Or sound design. But I liked it.”

“I wasn’t asking for a critical evaluation, no worries,” Nino said with a soft chuckle. “Honestly, if you’d told me that something needed to be changed, I’d probably have chucked this laptop out of the window.”

“That’s not very Chill of you, my friend.”

“My Chill has been suffering lately, it’s true.” He took a long sip from his bottle of water to wash out the taste of fish. “I can’t wait until this is done, honestly.”

“And then you’ll be a successful film school graduate.” Adrien beamed at him, seeming proud of Nino’s accomplishment.

“Yeah.” Another long sip.

“You know, it’s not my primary scene, but I do know some costumer designers who’ve worked on big budget Hollywood productions and so on. I could see about hooking you up if you’d like. Get you some invitations to a couple of parties and…” He waved his hand vaguely. “Networking. I’m good at it.”

Nino hummed. “Adrien. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure?”

“Do you enjoy those networking parties?”

“I mean, they’re okay. Free food, booze aplenty, good locations. Decent entertainment, mostly. Sure, the conversation usually isn’t all that mentally stimulating, but…” He shrugged. “Schmoozing is what you have to put up with if you want to land jobs.”

“That doesn’t sound like a yes to me, dude.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s more fun with a friend.” He perked up. “Are you going to start accepting my invitations now that I’ll be attending these things in Paris?”

Nino’s mind flashed back to the snapshots he’d been sent over the years, of fancy parties and celebrities, all captioned with some drunk variation on ‘its lit man u should b here’. Yes, Adrien liked drawing attention to himself, but Nino saw the depth of the mistake he’d made in assuming that his friend was showing off.

“Why did you choose to go back to modeling?”

Green eyes blinked owlishly at the sudden change in topic. “Ah. You know.” Adrien shrugged and smiled. “There’s a limited time window for a career like this. Aging isn’t kind to models, so…”

“Bullshit.” Nino had heard that canned response before. It was what Adrien had told him when he’d explained why he wouldn’t be returning to Paris for their first year of university together. Youth fades. “You hated modeling when we were in lycée. Why did you go back to it? Voluntarily?”

Being called on his bluff appeared to have flustered him because Adrien started running his hands through his messy hair. “Well, it’s what I’m good at.”

“You’re good at lots of things. Physics, for example. You were going to be a scientist, man. What happened?”

“Why are you asking me now, Nino?” Oh yes, Adrien was definitely flustered, his pale cheeks dusted with faint red. Embarrassed. Adrien was uncomfortable with this line of questioning and was attempting to deflect, the way he’d always done whenever Nino had probed him on this.

Because he hadn’t gone back to modeling voluntarily.

“You broke your promise, and I want to know why.”

Adrien stopped fidgeting, eyes wide. “Promise?”

Nino exhaled a gust of air. “We were going to be roommates at university, man. And now I’m about to graduate and it’s never going to happen. Why? I’ve been wondering this for years, and I want an answer.”

Adrien averted his gaze. “It’s just… circumstances. Stuff happened.”

“What stuff?”

He shrugged, tight-lipped as always. “I got some good offers I couldn’t turn down.”

Nino sighed softly. “Alright. You don’t want to tell me. Fine. But dude, do you realize that when you refuse to explain yourself, people won’t just let the topic go? Sure, they’ll stop bugging you about it, but they’ll fill in the blanks and try to make sense of your actions. And what they come up with might be even unkinder to you than the truth you’re trying to hide.”

He leaned back on the back legs of his chair, staring at the ceiling.

“Take me, for example. From my perspective, this whole thing looks like you ditched me to go party with supermodels in Milan.”

Adrien’s jaw dropped. “That’s not – I would never–!”

“How am I supposed to know? The Adrien I knew would never have broken his promise to me in the first place. Not without giving me a damn good reason. But you never did. And I waited years.”

“I was broke, okay?” Adrien hissed. “I needed the money.”

Nino closed his eyes and let his chair fall back on all fours with a thunk. “You should have told me that,” he said softly. “Damn it, Adrien. Don’t you think I get what it’s like to be broke? Doing what you have to do to get by?”

When he opened his eyes, Adrien was staring at him in anguish.

“How was I supposed to tell you, Nino? Man, when I was growing up – I had everything. And you had nothing. Yet I was still convinced that I was better than the Chloe Bourgeoises of this world. That I, at least, was aware of my good fortune, that I didn’t let it get to my head. That I could still relate to normal people.” He barked out a bitter laugh. “And yet, then it turned out – I’m just a spoiled little rich kid after all. While you and your family were struggling to put food on the table, I managed to squander a fucking fortune.”

“Oh no,” Nino said, deadpan. “Adrien Agreste is less than perfect and is a mere mortal like the rest of us. The horror. Instead of letting me find that out, you led me to believe you were fully embracing the vapid party lifestyle of the rich and famous. Clearly that was the better option here.”

Adrien was staring at him, and Nino couldn’t help but laugh at his indignant expression. Although really, there was nothing funny about Adrien’s deep-seated fear. How had he not seen it? It was so obvious in everything he did. From how he demanded Nino’s attention, only ever growing more persistent when ignored, to all the ways Adrien covered up any flaws by strategically flaunting his already exposed ones.

“For someone so smart, you can be so fucking dumb sometimes, dude. Is this what your obsession with mooching free food has been about all this time?” It had always struck him as such an odd habit for a rich man to develop.

“I’m not mooching,” Adrien said, pouting. “I’m charming. If people want to give me free food because I’m cute, that’s their business.” He grew quiet for a long moment. “The first year after graduation… I basically lived off the free catering at shoots. I didn’t know how to cook, and even if I had known, I was always traveling so I didn’t have consistent access to a kitchen and…” He shrugged. “I don’t know. It became a game of sorts, I guess. How long can I go without paying at overpriced restaurants?”

Nino nodded. “You’re okay now, right? Financially?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Career couldn’t be going better. Plus, the whole clusterfuck with my father’s business got resolved. I am now the proud owner of the majority share of a worthless, bankrupt company and a mansion I don’t want to step foot in.”

“Alright.” Nino lightly punched Adrien’s arm. “I hope you’re not being this secretive with Marinette. Your relationship will fall apart if you refuse to explain yourself to her.”

His best friend made a noncommittal sound, somewhere between agreement and pensiveness.

“I want you two to be happy. How about a double date next week? I’ve got to warn you, though, Alya’s much more protective of her than I am. Her interrogation is a gauntlet all of Marinette’s boyfriends must go through. Consider it the final boss level.”

Nino allowed himself a small smile.

“But as far as I’m concerned, you’ve already passed.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien watched her through heavy-lidded eyes. When she threw back her head and laughed, the ball room lit up, and not just in his imagination. Heads turned, gazes followed, lips curved into subconscious smiles to share the joy she was radiating.

Marinette was charismatic. Had always been, even back in school. It wasn’t the loud, attention-grabbing sort of charisma that had some people walking up to random strangers and crowning themselves their unofficial leader. It was subtler than that, yet also more potent in the long run. Even back in school, people had looked to Marinette in times of crisis. She had a way of earning people’s trust and respect.

Adrien turned down a champagne glass offered to him by one of the waiters milling around the room. There was nothing stopping him from indulging, the ring secured around a chain hidden under his dress shirt.

But he did not want the memory of this evening to grow fuzzy and distorted.

Instead of alcohol, Adrien drank in every detail. The way her sleek black dress hugged her curves, the shine of her earrings, the sway of the ribbons in her hair. Faint echoes of instinct made him want to paw at them, play and tug, until he’d pulled them out and all the black beauty of her hair went spilling over her shoulders…

“…just a student, though I’m hoping to have my designs featured at this year’s Fashion Week. Adrien was kind enough to model them for me.”

At the mention of his name, Adrien turned on his brightest smile. In Marinette’s presence, it almost felt real. She made even networking bearable.

“Marinette is a true artist,” he said huskily. “In five years, you’ll see her name everywhere. Just watch.”

She beamed at him, and then fell back into an animated discussion with her fellow designers while he allowed himself to fade into the background. Adrien was here to support her, ease her path into a competitive industry, yet he didn’t want to presume to speak for her or even overly tie her to his unsavory reputation.

All he wanted was his due. Or rather, hers. The payment he owed her.

 

✧✦✧

 

“–an internship! A paid internship!” Her blue eyes were shining as she somehow found the strength to do a twirl. In black, strappy heels. After standing around for hours. Adrien grinned, amused by her excitement and privately impressed by her pain tolerance.

“You can do better than that.”

Marinette stared at him like he’d gone crazy. “A paid internship, Adrien! Do you know how rare it is to not have to start out in indentured servitude nowadays?”

“And yet, you deserve better.”

“It’s one of the most prestigious boutiques in Par–“

“Marinette,” he interrupted her gently. “They’re snatching up talent before the talent realizes her true worth. Wait. Trust me. Play coy and they’ll start enticing you with better offers at the next party.”

She blinked at him, and then the faint pink flush from two glasses of champagne deepened.

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so. Trust me, Marinette.”

Marinette leaned into his side. “Pretty sure you’re biased, though.”

He laughed softly. “What, just because I’ve gotten so overly attached that I think you’re the sun and the stars and that you light up my world?”

She swallowed heavily, and he let his hand wander from chastely holding her waist to her hip. Adrien squeezed possessively, and she made a strangled sound that made his mind run wild with images of pushing her against the street’s brick wall. He shook his head to dislodge the thought.

“But I take my rose-colored glasses off when it comes to work, Marinette. I wouldn’t lie to you, not about this. When I’m evaluating the quality of your designs, I’m speaking as Adrien Agreste, experienced model, not Adrien, your…” He trailed off.

“My what…?” she whispered.

He let the question linger, answering only with a sly grin.

Marinette sighed and nuzzled closer as they walked the glittering streets of Paris. Or rather, as she escorted him to his hotel, a thought that still amused Adrien to no end. He’d already reserved and paid for a taxi that would see her safely home from there as well.

As his temporary abode came into view, she spoke up. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress lately. But there’s this stray that’s been coming to visit and whenever he does, I forget all about my worries. So…” Her gaze slid to the side, pinning him in place as his steps faltered. “My stray won’t be a stray for much longer. I’ve decided to keep him.”

Anticipation thrummed in his veins. “When your stray’s not a stray anymore, what will he be then?”

“Whatever he wants.”

He smiled, closing his eyes. “I think he’d like being your boyfriend.”

“I’d like that, too.” Her voice was soft, but then she laughed loudly, the sound filled with joy. “But first I’m going to have to catch him. He keeps evading me.”

“Sounds like a skillful escape artist. Sneaky. Smart. Devilishly handsome, too, I heard...”

She elbowed him in the side and he choked on his laughter.

A cool breeze made her shiver and she went back to snuggling up to him, seeming intent on stealing all his body warmth. Drawing her red scarf over her face, muffling her voice, she asked, “Damn, Adrien, how are you not freezing right now?”

While Adrien certainly preferred warm, cozy places, cold had never particularly bothered him. “I suppose I’m just that manly and tough?”

She snorted, then tried to salvage the undignified sound by turning it into a giggle. “There’s nothing manly about running around without a scarf, Adrien! All you’re doing is catching a cold.”

“A sacrifice I’m willing to make.” His lips twitched. “Okay, no, seriously… this is going to sound dumb, but I don’t like wearing scarves. Bad associations.”

“With scarves?”

He shrugged and smiled sheepishly. “I told you it’s dumb.”

Marinette peered at him with curiosity. “What, did a designer once put you in an outfit that cut off your air supply?”

“Yes. That day I vowed revenge against all scarfkind.”

She giggled again. So adorable. “Well. I guess it’s a good thing I never signed that gift after all. Wouldn’t have wanted to give you any post-traumatic flashbacks.”

“Hm?” What gift?

Her blush was deepening even as she grinned mischievously. “Okay, don’t laugh. This one’s another one of my tales of how I tried to catch your attention. And failed miserably. So, um, this was a couple of months after we met, but before Nino and Alya started dating so I was… well, we didn’t really talk to each other. I was mostly watching you from afar. And your birthday was coming up. You know, the one where Nino got…” She made a vague gesture.

Akumatized.

“I remember,” Adrien said softly.

Yes, he remembered it well – not just for his father deliberately pissing off and then targeting his best friend to use as a weapon, but also for proving why no one was a better friend than Nino. Of the countless innocent people turned into monsters by Hawkmoth exploiting their pain, Nino had been one of the few who’d not been nursing a grievance of his own. Instead, he’d been upset on Adrien’s behalf. Even in his villainous form, he – in a twisted way – had only sought to make his friends happy.

“Right. So. I made you a handmade gift. Spent ages agonizing over picking the right color, the right cut, everything. Then I delivered it to your house.”

“Why is this the first I’m hearing of this?” Adrien asked, bemused. A handmade gift from Marinette. He’d have treasured that, kept it safe forever, same as the scrapbook.

Marinette sighed deeply in exasperation. “I forgot to sign it.”

He laughed. “Seriously? You could have just told me who it was from the next day…” He trailed off because this wasn’t adding up. If she’d delivered it directly, he should have still gotten it, and wondered who it was from.

Adrien had only gotten three gifts that year. One from Nino, one from Chloe, and one from his father.

“Ah. Well. I actually saw you wearing it, but…” She blushed. “I guess there was some sort of miscommunication because you said it was from your dad. And you looked so happy I didn’t want to correct you, so…”

Time stood still, and Adrien stared, unseeing.

She fidgeted under his scrutiny, and then laughed awkwardly. “I guess that must have been before your great scarf trauma, huh?”

“Marinette, that is my great scarf trauma,” he said faintly. “I loved that stupid thing, I wore it everywhere. It was the most thoughtful gift my dad ever got me. Proof that he loved me.” His breaths were short, his heart pounding against his chest in a wild, unstable rhythm. “And I burned it. When I found out what he was, Marinette, I burned it, I burned your gift, I’m so sorry–“

She laid a finger on his lips, crooning gently. It soothed the sting in his eyes. “Adrien. It’s okay. I’ll make you a new one. A better one.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, because he’d destroyed something precious that would never exist again, even if something else took its place.

“Shhh.” Marinette pulled at the red cloth around her neck and suddenly he was enveloped by her scent. His eyelids fluttered and he inhaled deeply. It was just a pale imitation of the real deal, his senses reduced to that of an ordinary human, but he savored it all the same. Adrien missed her magnificent scent, but he couldn’t allow himself near it any longer. At this point, he’d grown so captivated by it – by her – that he would probably drop down to all fours and start purring as soon as he caught wind of it. If he didn’t start licking her first.

That’d be hard to explain.

Marinette adjusted the scarf she’d draped around him with a few more tugs. It was a woman’s scarf, delicate and bright red to complement her black dress and red ribbons. He didn’t care, he’d proudly wear it anywhere. He was a fashion icon, he could get away with it. Hell, he’d probably start a new trend.

“To tide you over,” she said softly. “Until I’ve made you a new one.”

Adrien buried his chin in the fabric and smiled in gratitude. Then he drew the soft cloth over his nose. God, it really did smell like her. Once he was alone and could put his ring back on, he’d roll around and bask in this with the full range of his senses.

Or do it now. Stop keeping secrets and show her what I really am.

He pushed the useless temptation away. Chat Noir was not fit for company these days. But maybe one day…

Would Marinette react with such easy acceptance when faced with what else he’d destroyed? Or would she be horrified and afraid, like Alya had been when realization had struck her? Unlike a handmade scarf, a human life was irreplaceable.

Marinette took his hand and he followed, walking through the night together. When they were almost up to the hotel’s entrance and Adrien quietly mourned that they were about to part, she whirled around to face him. Her eyes gleamed with determination.

Gentle pressure constricted around his throat, and it took Adrien a moment to realize she was tugging at his scarf.

“I caught my stray,” Marinette said, daring him to escape.

“Your boyfriend,” he corrected with a gentle smile.

He did not let go of her hand when they entered the lobby. By the time the elevator dinged to announce their arrival on his floor, Adrien was growling against her skin, his body pressed against hers, unwilling to let even an inch of space come between them.

 

Chapter Text

This was love.

This howling, snarling beast frantic to press her heated skin to his had to be love. Tenderness had given way to desperation and he tried to temper it, to return to that dreamy, floating headspace, the one where Marinette was all that was good and right and perfect. When he’d wanted nothing more than curl up in her arms and shelter this wonderful woman from the darkness of the world.

But there was no tenderness in him now, only lust and need.

Adrien pushed her on the bed, and god, the way she looked at him. She was gripped by the madness of desire as well, the blue in her eyes no longer like the bright open sky but like the deep ocean, pulling him under. He could drown in those eyes. Would drown, with a smile on his face.

Instinct lashed at him, and he shuddered. But he did not resist when it compelled him to roughly turn her over, shoving her on all fours so he could mount her. He was ripping her dress, her sleek and elegant dress, and he didn’t care. He’d buy her a new one. Ten new ones.

Fuck, he was hard, his cock straining against the confines of his slacks. They, too, were no match for his claws – hands – and he discarded them by the bedside while pressing his erection against her gorgeous ass. Why was he–? This wasn’t right, this wasn’t how this was supposed to go, not how he was supposed to be thinking about his love.

His mind shouldn’t be running wild, fantasizing about all the ways he could pin her down and rut and bite.

The ring.

It was touching his skin, and he quickly drew the chain over his head to get it off. He wanted to be Adrien for this, not Chat Noir. Marinette deserved all the tenderness his human heart was capable of, not this animal lust.

He took the moment of separation to catch his breath, prowling to the nightstand to safely lay down his most valuable possession, and then he grabbed one of the condoms he’d had the presence of mind to stock up on.

Interrupting this hallowed moment to fiddle with thin latex felt profoundly undignified.

But then Marinette made a sound, a mewl, so needy and demanding that he was helpless to resist. Adrien was back on her in seconds, and his hand reached down to find that wonderful little nub. He teased it beneath the red silk. Pretty red silk. Had she put it on for him? Had she planned for this? Conspired to drive him out of his mind with his favorite color?

She moaned his name, fervently, like a prayer. Had there ever been a more pleasing sound? He wanted more, a finger sinking into her while another kept playing with her clit. Marinette cried out at the feel of him inside of her. She was slick with want and heat. A finger was not enough.

“Touch yourself for me, sweet Marinette,” he rasped, and she did. One hand she had to keep on the bed for balance, but the other instantly went to her glorious breasts, squeezing, kneading, playing. So fucking hot. He started rocking against her, still separated by the thin cloth of her underwear, and yet he was already close.

How was he to last?

“I want you,” he whispered in her ear and she shuddered. “Say you want me, too.”

“I – I want you, Adrien.” The words were barely coherent, bit out in between panting breaths. “My stray.”

He lost himself. Yanking away the red lace, he drove into her. She cried out and it spurred him on as the world grew dim, narrowing as he thrust into her, until all he could hear was the sounds she made and all the he could feel was the wet heat squeezing his cock.

Nothing else mattered, nothing at all. Just her touch and her voice and their rhythm.

He spilled inside of her with a groan tearing from his throat, and then grew still, panting.

This was love. Making love.

It had to be.

And yet it felt just like fucking.

Marinette was bucking against him, restless and desperate, because she hadn’t come, because he hadn’t satisfied her yet. His fingers dropped back to her sex with practiced skill, even as his mind wandered.

Adrien had been lied to.

He didn’t know who had lied to him or even when he’d first heard the lie, but he just knew that someone, somewhere, at some point, must have filled his head with hope and romance and unrealistic expectations.

This was supposed to be special.

Marinette cried out, then, his fingers doing the job when his overeager thrusting hadn’t, and he pressed a kiss to the back of her neck, murmuring gentle encouragement to her.

It was special, of course. Better than all he’d had before. It was Marinette, after all, amazing, wonderful Marinette, with her equally sweet scent. But it wasn’t…

It wasn’t tender. Adrien had wanted to be tender, but he hadn’t managed it. How could he be filled with such base and crude desires for someone he cherished? Maybe if he’d resisted them, he would feel whole. That gaping emptiness inside of him filled with her. He was supposed to have explored new depths of intimacy, feel connected to another human being in a way he never had before.

But it was just sex.

Marinette was still Marinette, and he was still Adrien Agreste. Entirely separate human beings who didn’t yet know each other all that well. There was no magical moment that made them one and gave him peace.

Would he ever bridge that chasm between him and other people?

He rolled off her, breathing heavily. She crawled atop of him at once, snuggling close, skin to skin. “Adrien,” she whispered, her voice filled with awe and light and wonder.

Marinette looked at him and grew still.

Then she cracked up.

He frowned at her. “What?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She was wheezing, the words muffled as she pressed her lips against the skin of his collarbone. “You look so serious. Like I’m a math problem you can’t figure out.”

“I like math,” he said gruffly, but that just made her laugh again.

Then she peered at him with bright eyes, resting her chin on his chest. “Are you having fun?”

What kind of question was that? “I’m making love to the woman I adore.”

“Yes, but are you having fun?” Her eyes twinkled. “After you just shivered my timbers?”

He huffed and palmed her ass, drawing her hip closer to his rapidly recovering cock. She made a cooing sound – approval – but then shook her head. “Fun, Adrien. Laughter. Joy. That sort of thing. Because you look like you’re taking this entirely too seriously.”

“Our first time together is serious.”

“No. It’s joyful.” She smiled and kissed his jaw. “Relax, my stray.” His heart gave a thump at the endearment. She sat up, hair magnificently tousled and her back straight, utterly unashamed of her nakedness as she straddled him. “Now. Adrien. About this licking thing you like to do.”

He sleepily blinked up at her, eyelids heavy.

“Do you take requests regarding location?”

When she shifted her weight and her scent suddenly hit him, he made a strangled noise. Slick, pink folds appeared right in front of his sensitive nose, filling his field of vision. His tongue darted out, waiting, not quite daring to steal a taste.

“Adrien?”

He eagerly lapped at the feast spread out before him.

 

✧✦✧

 

Her body was shaking, and so was his, for two entirely different reasons.

“Marinette,” he choked out. “Stop. Please. I’m trying–”

“–to make sweet, sweet love to me?” The way she waggled her eyebrows was the least sexy thing he had ever seen, and he choked on his laughter.

“Yes! You are ruining the mood, be quiet.”

“You say that as if there exists a mood that isn’t improved by adding puns to it.”

“I never thought I’d say this, but–“ He found his rhythm again and gently rocked his lips. Tender. Don’t laugh. Be tender. “– you found one. Now let me–“

“Hide the sausage?” She squealed when he drove into her in response, but then she just kept going, laughing so hard she made him lose the rhythm again. “Ravish me like I’m in need of horizontal refreshment?”

Marinette!

“What? Those weren’t puns. I’m starting to think you have a boner to pick with me.”

Adrien rolled off her, laughing hysterically.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien adored coaxing those cute little noises from her lips. Nothing pleased him more than the sight of Marinette on the verge of succumbing to pleasure. Quivering, her lips parted, cheeks flushed, calling out his name, he couldn’t help but draw the blissful moment out.

“You – you goddamn – you’re such a terrible tease, Adrien.” Her hand darted out, fingers curling around the nape of his neck, and she yanked him close to her breast. At once, his mouth closed around the irresistibly pink nipple she’d put right in front of him. Still he kept the play of his fingers light, swirling them in that steady rhythm she needed.

Only to withdraw just as she approached the verge, stoking her need higher.

Except this time, he must have taken it too far.

Marinette growled. When she spoke, it was in an angry, commanding tone he had never heard from her before. “Stop. Teasing.”

The words struck like lightning and he was helpless to do anything but exactly as she asked, trembling as he tried to control the involuntary jerk of his hips.

“Good boy,” she whispered after, and a deep moan rose from within. His reward was a gentle stroke of his hair, and he desperately leaned into the touch.

 

✧✦✧

 

Sleep was threatening to pull him under, but he persevered.

Marinette’s soft fingertips were tracing the edges of the muscles on his chest, and then dipped lower. Her eyes were shining with awe and admiration, and he, vain creature that he was, couldn’t help but flex. To her delight.

Adrien knew he was beautiful. Knew the effect his body had on people. It was how he made his living. He was used to being stared at, rarely let it bother him, sometimes even played with it. It meant nothing.

But Marinette’s gaze did something to him. Made him want to bare all of himself to please her. Never before had someone staring at him with such wonder made him feel like he was precious. Like his body was art. An art exhibit in a museum.

The alluring centerpiece to be scrutinized and studied and seen. Not decoration to advertise something else.

Her exploring fingers closed around his hard length, and his chest made a rumbling sound of approval.

 

✧✦✧

 

So maybe there was no heavenly choir harmonizing with their simultaneous orgasms. No romantic music drifting in from nowhere, no flowers, no soft mood lighting and no sacred ritual of worshipping her body.

But there was bliss and laughter and happiness and all the things that had been missing from his life for far too long.

Adrien sighed when Marinette nuzzled closer, gently brushing away wild strands of black hair to drink in more of that peacefully sleeping face.

Mine, whispered that possessive beast inside of him. Caught her, keep her.

Never be alone again.

This was love, he was certain of it.

Chapter Text

Alya stared at the map dotted with pins and crisscrossed with colorful lines.

“It’s probably going to hit the densely populated areas again soon.”

Adrien crossed his arms as he spoke and then gazed at her expectantly, as if there was anything she could do about that. But she had nothing new to offer him.

It had taken several Flamelings for the pattern to become apparent, but at this point, the systematic approach was undeniable – after the unpredictable first few appearances, they had settled on doing a thorough sweep of Paris. When one was cleansed, a few days later a new one rose near wherever its predecessor had been defeated, and continued on its path. The search was slowly but steadily taking it from the outskirts back to the heart of the city.

“It hasn’t yet found whatever it’s looking for.”

It being the singular intelligence behind the fire magic. The creatures were too well-coordinated for them to be acting independently or randomly.

“And you’ve found no leads on what it might be?” he pressed her.

She shook her head in misery.

“No. And the van’s license plate was fake, too.” Alya had been so excited when she’d struck gold while analyzing the security footage surrounding the drop-off point of the anonymous Miraculous sale. The suspicious armored van had been caught by multiple traffic cameras before she’d lost track of it around Paris’ outskirts.

She’d been pouring so much of her mental energy into this investigation that her performance at her Le Monde internship had started suffering, but there were dead ends everywhere.

Useless, whispered that poisonous voice in her head. He won’t work with you much longer if you can’t prove your worth.

Alya huffed, and pushed her insecurities away with practiced ease, a bright, optimistic smile on her lips. “We’ll figure it out soon, don’t worry.”

Adrien gazed at her for a long moment, then returned a thin smile. “Of course.” He was a hard man to read but Alya thought he might finally be warming up to her. For one, he had been getting a lot gentler when pulling her from dangerous situations, his warnings turning from harsh rebukes of her recklessness into playful teasing.

Well. Alya was a woman of action, which meant she didn’t sit around and hope that things would work out. “So I heard through the grapevine that you and I have a date you’ve offered to pay for, kitty-cat.”

Adrien rolled his eyes. “Double-date.”

“Don’t look so grumpy. It will be fun.”

“Just promise not to monopolize Marinette this time.”

“Sorry. Old habits die hard.” Alya waggled her eyebrows. “I’ll be sure to leave room for you, lover boy.” She wouldn’t. Marinette and Adrien had a rather nauseating habit of losing the thread of their conversation because they got caught up in staring into each other’s eyes. When that happened, they forgot the world around them.

This was not a good thing. When they forgot their audience, they started making out. And licking. Always with the licking. When she’d rather bluntly asked Adrien what the hell was up with that, he’d stammered something about cat instincts.

Ah, young love.

Her best friend was glowing, walking through life in a happy, dreamy daze, as was Adrien on his better days.

“Please do.” Today appeared to be one of those better days because he smiled, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “So. Alya. I haven’t opened your blog in quite some time now that I’ve got the primary source right here. But Nino was proudly showing me some of your work the other day, and I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a section on Chat Noir’s, and I quote, ‘magnificent ass’.”

Shit, he’d seen that. After Chat Noir’s return as an adult, her readers had started posting candid shots of him in various acrobatic poses, making a game of rating them. She’d eventually bundled this discussion onto one page just to clean up her comments. “Adrien, you are a male model running around in black leather and cat ears. I am but the supply to my readers’ demand.”

But he surprised her by laughing. “No, I approve. Quality journalism. The people have a right to know.” He stifled his chuckle. “Although, I think you might want to take it down. Nino seemed rather upset about you lusting after me.”

“Lust after you?” She scoffed. “As if. No offense, but Nino’s way cuter than you.” Especially in recent weeks. Alya should have been pleased, but it still unsettled her that she hadn’t yet seen him work out. Why was he doing it in secret? When was he doing it? Why was he lying about how he spent his days?

Plagg suddenly startled awake from his nap, which also woke his white fluffy pillow. “Ugh, emergency alert.” His voice was a nasally whine. “I was having a really good dream. There was camembert, Adrien!”

“Damn,” Alya murmured as Adrien sprang to his feet. “Good luck.”

Thanks. Plagg, claws out!”

As he bounded out of the hotel room to the balcony, she started gathering her supplies, not wanting to be around when Adrien came back. He was always in such a shitty mood after a battle.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Chat Noir, get down!

Carapace’s bracelet beeped and the man in black leather twisted mid-air, slowing the momentum of his leap, and crashed down on all fours, obediently pressing himself to the ground. But the narrow pupils of his eyes made it clear he was not happy with being interrupted, the glare he sent Carapace’s way filled with loathing.

Of course, that was the other hero’s default expression.

“What?” he snapped. “What’s the vision say this time?”

“There’s civilians trapped in a building to the south side. You’re the only one fast enough to get there before the flames do.”

“Understood.” Chat Noir gave a tight nod and then he was gone, little more than a blur as the Black Cat’s superior speed took him away from the battle.

And out of the way. That should buy them a few minutes.

Carapace’s shield dove down, hitting the Flameling to knock it away from Ladybug’s arrow. It was on the smaller side, but had the speed to compensate, trying to prevent her from picking up her limited ammunition after having evaded the first cleansing shot.

Ladybug swooped down, angling her glider to align with gravity, and successfully snatched the arrow from the ground. She flipped over, skidding to a halt with one knee lowered, drawing her bow string.

Chat Noir would have collided with her, had Carapace not just used Jade Sight to preempt it.

It wasn’t that Chat Noir was a bad fighter. Quite the opposite. Whenever he arrived on the scene first, he successfully kept the threat in check with ease. It was only when Ladybug got added to the mix that everything went to absolute shit.

They had no coordination between them, constantly getting into each other’s way and inadvertently sabotaging the other’s plans. As much as Carapace would have liked to blame this solely on the asshole cat, he couldn’t, because Ladybug was just as guilty of ignoring the man’s signals that he was about to do something. One would think the lesson would sink in after a while, but she was constantly surprised anew when he didn’t just follow her lead.

Of course, Chat Noir’s childish decision to develop a case of selective hearing didn’t help matters. He’d stopped responding to or acknowledging any sentence that addressed him with anything other than his codename. This went poorly when combined with Ladybug’s habit to yell for her Chaton when the stress of battle got particularly high.

Carapace’s shield rammed the Flameling in the back of the head, stunning it, and Ladybug let loose her blazing arrow.

“Gotcha,” she whispered, and Nino bent down to scoop up the dazed cat. Even better that he had sent Chat Noir away. The man got personally offended beyond measure when the Flamelings turned out to be cats.

God, he really hoped there were some civilians in that south building.

In the weeks he’d been working with the Black Cat and observing him, this was the one heroic quality Carapace had found in him. He always, without fail, prioritized the safety of the people they were meant to protect.

When he heard the soft scuffle of boots touching down behind him and the Ominous Sense of Doom descended, signaling danger, Carapace knew he’d been busted.

“The only one fast enough, huh?” Chat Noir’s voice was silk and sweetness and brimming with rage.

Thankfully, Ladybug chose that moment to throw her arrow into the air. It exploded into a swarm of ladybugs to heal the city.

Carapace turned around with a smile, holding the kitten a little higher – not that he was using it as a shield against Chat Noir or anything. “Great job, team!”

The black-clad hero closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath to calm himself. “Whatever, Blastoise.”

Carapace cocked his head. “Was that supposed to be an insult? ‘cause Blastoise is awesome, I’ll wear that nickname like a badge.”

“You and he certainly share a respectable stature. No wonder you have to send me running after civilians instead of doing it yourself.” Chat used his open palm to mime an arc in front of his belly.

Before Carapace had the presence of mind to respond to an insult so childish and basic he hadn’t heard it thrown at anyone since lycée, Ladybug cut in.

“Chaton, you’ve got to stop being so catty.”

Chat Noir burst out laughing.

Then he froze.

Ladybug wore the most shit-eating of grins.

“I heard that,” she said.

“You heard nothing.”

“Mhmmm.”

“How long–” Chat Noir’s voice broke, on the verge of laughter, and he coughed into his fist. “How long have you been holding on to that one?”

“A while. I decided to save it for when you hit a new level of dickishness. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be able to deploy it. You’re so,” she paused for dramatic effect, “purr-dictable.”

Carapace groaned, but Chat Noir bit his knuckles, evidently to keep from laughing out loud. His shoulders shook with the effort of it.

And then he and Ladybug shared a look, a look so heated and intimate that it gave Nino pause. Ladybug… Marinette should not be looking at Chat Noir like that. Marinette shouldn’t be looking at anyone but Adrien like that. Protective instincts surged to the surface. His best friend was finally getting his life together, the last thing he needed right now was to get caught in some shitty love triangle.

Nino cleared his throat and two sets of eyes swiveled around to him. Both shone with guilt, as if they’d just been caught doing something illicit.

Fuck. This was… so not good.

Still, their attention was now on him and he needed to say something. Anything. So, scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel, he taunted back, “Not all of us want to look like BDSM twinks, Chat Noir.”

The asshole tilted his head. Then, curling his lips into a shameless grin, he leaned against the wall behind him, bringing his arms above his head and arching his back in a pose that would not have been out of place on the cover of GQ.

“Green really isn’t your color, Carapace.”

Ladybug elbowed the stupid cat in his stupidly defined abs, and he choked. Casting both of them wounded looks, he took his leave, scaling up the side of the wall and vanishing.

“Did you see that? I made him laugh.” Marinette beamed at him. “Progress!”

“Calling me fat is progress?” Nino asked dryly. Okay, yeah, so he’d grown a little dough-y over the years thanks to a sedentary lifestyle, but since getting his Miraculous, his body had decided to start building muscle like he’d just hit puberty all over again. These skintight suits were unforgiving, that was all, he looked fine in his normal clothes.

Besides, there was nothing wrong with not being quite the skinny beanpole he'd been as a teenager. He'd certainly never complained about the glorious curves Alya had aquired as they'd grown, and she had never minded the changes in his body either.

Marinette patted him on his shoulder and his Chill vanquished the brief flare of insecurity.

“Progress,” she insisted.

 

✧✦✧

 

He hated her. So much.

Chat Noir ran through the night, desperate to shake off the memory of her deep blue eyes.

Adrien knew, at heart, that he was not that good of a person. He could list his many flaws if asked. Vindictive, oblivious, greedy and with a burning rage inside of him that could not possibly be healthy. His father’s son. A murderer.

He knew that, and because he knew that, he tried his best to overcome it. Tried to be kind and helpful, freely offering all he had to the people he cared about. Because he was Emilie’s son, too, and he clung to those better parts of himself.

Emilie Agreste had been gentle, mischievous and quick to laugh. Adrien remembered her warmth with fondness and even his father had worn a soft smile around her. It was when she’d passed that Adrien’s world had grown cold.

She’d been loving and devoted, and so, Adrien thought, was he.

But Ladybug had a way of stripping him of everything until only his worst qualities remained. Turned him into that pitiful, melodramatic boy trying to get her attention at any cost and now made bitter fury pour out of his mouth, all his restraint and kindness vanishing.

He’d just never expected her to be able to strip him of this.

It was supposed to be his greatest strength, and his greatest flaw. Adrien Agreste was loyal. Overly attached, even. Once he had chosen someone, he committed himself heart and soul. Distance, adversity or even getting nothing in return did not deter him from smothering his chosen person with his affection.

And yet.

He had expected it to fade, this old infatuation. The more he fell in love with Marinette, the more he got to uncover that brilliant mind, the more obvious it was that he’d made the right choice. And he had chosen her. Her above all others.

So why was Ladybug’s glorious scent growing more irresistible every time he saw her?

Between her and Marinette, it should be no contest at all, and yet–

If Ladybug ever turned around and started kissing him, would he have the strength to push her away? Would he stay faithful to the woman who had made him so deliriously happy? Or would his treacherous heart follow the woman who’d brought him nothing but misery?

That he wasn’t certain of the answers to these questions meant Adrien wasn’t as loyal as he’d thought. Nor was he as heroic, with the way he was failing to get along with his team – true heroes who wouldn’t ever consider killing a living being.

What was left at this point?

What was it that set him apart from his father?

Not his kindness, not his devotion, not his heroism.

He was even keeping up the Ladybug family tradition. Like his father had demanded her Miraculous, Adrien had demanded her affection, and both had grown to hate her when she’d dared to resist.

And he did hate her. So fucking much.

Her and the mirror she held up to his face.

 

Chapter Text

Adrien Agreste was a professional. An utter professional who had nearly a decade of modeling experience. His face was a blank canvas he could easily change to express whichever mood was demanded of him.

So why couldn’t he do it now?

“Stop,” he whispered through gritted teeth. But his girlfriend was evil and cruel and rather pointedly did not stop contorting her pretty face into grimaces. She was standing right behind the photographer, so Adrien couldn’t look away, his gaze continually drawn back to her antics.

Please try to look somber,” Nikolaj said for the fourth time, and Adrien tried, he really did, smoothing his expression.

“Yes, Adrien,” Marinette said, delight sparkling in her eyes. “I find your lack of professionalism… hiss-turbing.”

He cracked up, again, just as Nikolaj’s camera shuttered.

Really, it had all been over once Princess had given Marinette a clue that he loved cat puns. To combine it with a Star Wars reference?

Evil, wicked woman. You’ll pay for this.

Although what was she doing, ruining her own hard work?

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette stared down at her creation, fingertips reverently tracing the photograph of her laughing boyfriend.

Caught you.

He’d looked like sin on legs in the white outfit she’d designed, smirking at the camera, but this was the design Marinette had truly been looking for him to embody. Dressed in black from head to toe and his head thrown back in genuine laughter, this was Adrien Agreste.

And around his neck fluttered a delicate golden ribbon, contrasting the elegant design. Adrien’s face had lit up when he’d seen it, pleased that she’d added a ‘whimsical’ accessory.

“This is you,” he’d told her, pride making him puff his chest, and she’d wanted to respond, “No, this is you.” But she hadn’t. Because this was going to be a surprise.

He would first see it as an exhibit at Paris Fashion Week. Because Marinette had no doubt that she’d make it there. While she was, of course, utterly biased, she had confidence in what she’d come up with. Adrien in black and white, and her friend Bridgette as a chaste innocent in deep, seductive reds and then as a joyous ice queen, ribbons fluttering all around her to embody icicles and frost.

Marinette grinned widely when she imagined the look on Adrien’s face when he saw it, and affectionately looked at her photograph again.

Chat Noir grinned back.

She blinked rapidly, and then it was just Adrien again. That–

Marinette lifted her hand, touching the golden ribbon.

It had to be a coincidence, right? She’d been thinking about Adrien when she’d designed this, trying to express what she saw as his real self. The one so unlike his brand. Her mind had been utterly consumed by him, this wonderful man she was lucky to call her own.

So it had to be sheer coincidence that she’d dressed him in black and placed the ribbon right where Chat Noir’s bell used to be.

Marinette had not been thinking about her Chaton. No. Not at all. It wasn’t like that between the two of them, no matter what Nino kept insinuating.

“I’m just saying, Marinette, I saw what I saw. And I’m not trying to accuse you of anything, but I would be doing Adrien a disservice if I said nothing, so – what’s going on between you and Chat Noir? Why do you keep giving this asshole so many chances?”

“He was my best friend, Nino. You should understand, Adrien wasn’t on his best behavior for a while, too, right? Chat’s lost his way and I’m just trying to get my friend back.”

“The way you look at him is not friendship, Marinette.”

Nino had let the topic go in the end, telling her that he trusted her, but still – he seemed convinced that she was infatuated with Chat Noir. And she supposed her lenience might look like that to outside observers.

Chat Noir was Destruction to her Creation. Adrien was the love of her life. There was no overlap between what she felt for those two men, and she would never abandon one for the other. At least, that was what she’d been telling herself.

But Marinette had dressed Adrien in Chat Noir’s theme and thought he’d never looked better.

She shook her head. This was ridiculous! Black was hardly an uncommon design choice, and she’d picked the color of the ribbon to match Adrien’s hair, not the gold of a bell.

Coincidence. That was all.

She loved Adrien, not Chat Noir.

It’d be ridiculous to fall in love with her wayward partner now of all times. He’d become so malicious and derisive she found it hard to even like him. Ladybug steeled herself for every battle so she could meet him with a smile, a joke and an invitation. The door is open, kitty. Come back to me, and you’ll be welcome.

No, if she could ever have fallen for him it would have been with his old self, and even then, she’d chosen Adrien over him.

Her boyfriend had been just a distant crush back then. She would never betray him now.

 

✧✦✧

 

“To Nino!”

“To the end of this horrible nightmare,” the man of the hour said, and wine glasses clinked against each other. “You know, by the end of it, I was dreaming of just permanently lowering the volume on Jean’s mouth. Just… blissful silence. Forever.”

Adrien grinned at him. “As I keep telling you, man. Assassins. One phone call away.”

Marinette elbowed him in the side as Alya broke into laughter.

“My, my. How morally dubious of you, Agreste.”

He arched an eyebrow. “You know me. I’m bad to the bone.” When the redhead smirked and Marinette squirmed uncomfortably, he decided to dial it back a little. Alya loved dropping these inside jokes, and he couldn’t help but play along. But Marinette always grew so uncomfortable, reminded of his heritage, he’d resolved to try harder not to lean in so much. With mixed success.

He squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back.

Adrien knew what it was like to not be included in jokes flying over his head. It what had made these double dates so uncomfortable at first. Marinette, Nino and Alya were a tight-knit group, forged together by many years of friendship – and Adrien was an outsider looking in. When they talked amongst themselves about people he had never met, his smile grew so wide it hurt.

Six years.

He’d missed out on six years, and it showed.

But they always made an effort to pull him back in. He was slowly starting to understand the incidents they kept referencing. Adrien was determined not to let it get to him because they’d create new stories to tell, new inside jokes, and he’d be part of them.

“So, chances the final product will be featured at Cannes?” Alya asked, kissing her boyfriend on the cheek.

“To put it in Max terms – I give it a probability of zero point zero percent,” Nino said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I mean, I did what I could to salvage it, and – well, this train wreck now has great acoustics. You can hear the awful dialogue in glorious stereo and with appropriate musical cues.”

“So what you’re saying is that there’s going to be an Oscar nomination?” Adrien said, grinning.

“Oh definitely, I’m expecting a phone call from the academy any day n–“

Screams erupted, and Adrien’s head snapped up. The upscale restaurant erupted into chaos as one set of heavy curtains to the far side of the hall caught fire. Shit. Adrien’s gaze met Alya’s and unspoken communication passed between them.

Distract them.

He sprang to his feet, as did she.

“Alya, don’t!” Nino cried, and ran after his girlfriend who was headed for the fire escape. Marinette was staring at him but Adrien mouthed ‘Go’ at her, and then she, too, was scrambling to follow Nino.

He ran in the opposite direction to find a quiet place to transform, cursing the unexpected interruption of their celebration. It wasn’t supposed to happen here, they weren’t anywhere near where the last one had been cleansed. The Flamelings had changed their pattern once again.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Alya, hold still,” Nino barked as they made their way up the fire escape.

“Put me down!” He’d slung her over his shoulder and she was uselessly kicking her legs, glaring at her boyfriend while he held her with ease.

Careful with that super strength there, Nino.

He’d give himself away at this rate. Marinette was running in front, pushing open doors, unsure how they were to transform out of sight from Alya while also keeping her from danger. Damn it, they hadn’t thought this through.

And they’d lost Adrien at some point. He had probably gotten distracted by his savior complex, and now Ladybug would have to hunt him down. She pushed open a door, cool spring air greeting them as they made it to the roof. Marinette immediately scanned the skyline for rising pillars of smoke.

Damn. That thing must have already been on a rampage for a while, with none of the three heroes having intercepted it.

Although one appeared to have already been on his way.

Chat Noir landed on the roof beside them, having just scaled the southern wall. Crouching on all fours, he tilted his head to look up at the group of three – and grinned.

Marinette’s heart skipped a beat.

It was a true grin, so wide and spirited, straight out of her memories. Not even a hint of malice or sarcasm. He drew himself up to stand on two legs and sauntered to Nino. Or rather, to Alya.

“Ladyblog girl about to run into danger again, huh?” His voice was playful and familiar – way too familiar for strangers. He held out his arms. “Give her to me and I’ll set her down a couple of roofs away. Since she apparently never managed to figure out that fire is bad.”

Alya grinned back, even as she clung closer to her boyfriend. “Nino, no! Strangers in black leather can’t be trusted!”

“You wound me. I can provide scientific articles that conclusively prove that excessive heat has adverse effects on longevity, Alya.”

Alya. He knew her by name.

Nino frowned at Chat Noir in suspicion, and the hero seemed to pick up on his hesitance. “Don’t worry, man, I’ll keep her safe. I’m a purr-fessional who’s done this many times before.”

But of course, why had she never even considered this? Chat Noir had saved her inquisitive friend from dangerous Akuma as often as Ladybug had. Why shouldn’t they have built a friendship of their own?

Nino appeared to have reached the same conclusion because he gently unhooked Alya – who was putting up no more than a token resistance, seeming resigned to her fate of getting dragged off the battlefield – and Chat Noir gingerly wrapped his arms around her.

Green cat eyes turned to Marinette and lit up with recognition. No, more than that. Affection.

“Stay safe, Princess,” he said huskily with a nod to the nearby fire escape. “You need to get off this roof.”

"I-" Marinette blinked, realizing he was waiting for a response. "I will. Promise."

His answering smile was filled with warmth. Then, with a leap, he was gone.

“Did you see that?” Marinette whispered while her heart sang. Chaton. Her kitten, her partner, that had been him. Not an angry, sullen man, but the boy of her memories, all grown up…

“I did.” Nino’s eyes were narrowed. “Was that bastard flirting with Alya?”

 

✧✦✧

 

“So I saw you carrying that girl from the Ladyblog.”

Chat Noir angled his head to peer at Carapace out of the corner of his eye while still keeping the Flameling in his field of vision. It opened its beak, screeching an eagle’s cry that made his sensitive ears lay flat on his head to escape the pain.

“Yeah? She’s forever running into danger. Dumbass has no survival instincts.”

Carapace’s eyes flashed with anger at the insult he couldn’t know was affectionate teasing. Interesting.

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Carapace muttered under his breath. His shield darted forward in a sudden acceleration, slamming the firebird so hard it was sent tumbling down into the streets below.

Chat Noir felt his lips curving into a wild grin when he realized what this line of questioning and the man’s abrupt ferocity were about.

My, my. How the turntables.

“Her and I get along great, you know,” he drawled while landing on the edge of a rooftop and leaning on his baton. “She has a section on her blog devoted entirely to my butt.”

One of Carapace’s eyebrows twitched.

“Mine is a life of hardship, you know? Objectified at every turn by pretty redheads.”

Carapace raised his chin. “She doesn’t want you.”

“You sure about that?” Chat smirked. “Let’s find out which one of us she prefers. It’s not going to be you, partner.”

But Carapace merely laughed. “You are so hopelessly outclassed, you don’t even know.”

Chat narrowed his eyes. “The only one outclassed here is you, turtle boy. She doesn’t like you, do you know that? Pro-tip, free of charge – don’t call random women babe. It’s condescending as fuck.”

Carapace looked stricken and Chat grinned triumphantly, twirling his staff to smash it against the bird’s wing, bringing their foe down for good.

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug could not forget what she’d seen and was still mulling it over in her mind when the group of four found each other again afterward, each of them breathless.

She leaned into Adrien’s side. “Alya, I had no idea you and Chat Noir were friends.”

The redhead coyly played with her locks, twining one around her finger. Nino’s gaze followed the movement with narrowed eyes. “Yeah, you know, it just kind of happened. He saves me on a regular basis, and I ended up giving him some research I’ve been doing for my Ladyblog.”

“You didn’t tell me about that,” Nino said, trying for a light-hearted tone and utterly failing. “Should I be worried?”

Alya snorted and wrapped an arm around her boyfriend’s waist, pressing a kiss on his cheek. “Not at all. I have zero interest in him, and vice versa.”

“And Carapace? He saves you a lot, too, right?”

Alya rolled her eyes. “I admit, he keeps hitting on me. But rest assured, the only thing I feel for him is annoyance.”

Nino looked like he’d just bitten something sour, while next to Marinette, a tremor of silent laughter went through Adrien’s body. She barely noticed, thoughts entirely consumed by her kitten.

 

✧✦✧

 

“We have to tell him.”

“I don’t think–“

“No, Nino, you don’t get it. That was him! How he used to be! You saw the difference, didn’t you?”

“I saw Chat Noir flirting with pretty girls who haven’t turned him down yet,” he said with a sigh. “He’s still a dick.”

Marinette huffed. “That’s not what he was doing. Alya’s radar for fuckboys is impeccable, and she likes him.”

Nino scowled at the reminder.

Staring down at her hands, Marinette’s thoughts churned. “I thought he’d just... become mean and misanthropic in general, but that’s not it at all, is it? It’s me. Ladybug. He dislikes me and that’s why we can’t get along as a team.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m pretty sure he dislikes me, too.”

“It all comes back to that night,” Marinette said softly. “And as long as that’s not resolved, we’re stuck. He’s stonewalling us.” She paused and raised her gaze to Nino’s, determination meeting doubt. “And there’s only one way we can set this right and start fresh.”

Her friend frowned and then turned to his kwami. “Wayzz, what do you think?”

“You know the Axiom won’t let me–“

“I’m not asking for hints about him, just a general assessment of how you think he’ll react.”

The green kwami was quiet for a long moment. “I honestly cannot say.” He raised his paw to preemptively cut off Nino’s objection. “It’s possible he’ll be overjoyed, and the rift mended. Or…” Wayzz grimaced, the way he always did when he appeared to skirt too close to violating the Axiom. “You could lose all progress with him. He could end up avoiding you more than before.”

“So it’s a major risk,” Nino said, concerned golden eyes darting back to Marinette.

“Well, you know what’s also a risk, Nino? We could defeat this fire thing tomorrow and then Chat Noir will vanish again. For years, with no way for us to find him. Six years have made him this bitter, how hostile do you think he will he be after ten? Twenty?”

Wayzz nodded in approval. “It’s risky, but you are likely as ready as you’ll ever be. Waiting for improvement can be a grave mistake, as well. Time is no guarantee for growth, it can cause decay just as well.” He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. “I fear we’ve already made that mistake with the Black Cat.”

Tikki stirred atop of Marinette’s head. “If reconciliation was impossible, surely Plagg would have called for extraction by now? He wouldn’t want to live a lifetime apart. There has to be a good chance this will go well.”

“Then it’s decided.” Ladybug raised her chin. “I failed my partner once, and I won’t do it again. It all started that night. The way forward is to set right what went wrong. To give him what he’s wanted all along as a sign of trust and good faith.

“I’m going to tell Chat Noir who I am.”

 

Chapter Text

“Where are you going?”

Nino froze in the hallway. Alya was home early, Adrien having abruptly cancelled on her due to Carapace and Ladybug calling for a meeting. She had shrugged and looked forward to a cozy movie night with her boyfriend.

Who was leaving just as she was arriving.

“Alya! You said you wouldn’t be home until–“

“Yeah, no research tonight, a lead turned out to be kind of worthless. So where are you going?”

“Just, uh, had an offer to DJ at a rave and figured I’d scout out the location.”

She perked up. “It’s been ages since we’ve had a real party. I’ll come with!”

“Ah, it’s – it’s just scouting, Alya, there’s no party tonight. I’m just going to look at, y’know, the acoustics and the equipment and whatnot. Pretty boring.”

“I’ve done that with you before. I’ll just sit down with my laptop in a quiet corner and then we can go get some nice takeout on the way back.”

Nino’s eyes were wide. He shook his head, his smile strained. “Sorry, the dude who extended the offer – kind of a shy type, y’know, gets awkward around strangers. Beautiful women especially. Having you drop in unannounced and with no prep time would probably give him heart palpitations.” He kissed her forehead and jogged past her. “I’ll be back before midnight!”

Alya stared after him long after he’d turned the corner and slipped out of her sight.

 

✧✦✧

 

“What’s the situation?”

Chat’s voice was flat, almost bored, although he stood at attention. They wouldn’t call him here without an important reason. Perhaps they’d finally found a lead on what kind of enemy they were truly facing.

Carapace and Ladybug exchanged a knowing look, and it made him want to roll his eyes, this coordination of theirs. Clearly, he was only catching the tail end of this meeting, and the two had already consulted each other without him.

That was fine. Just fine. Let them socialize, he was just here to do his job.

Ladybug cleared her throat. “Chat Noir,” she said, and already it had a practiced note to it, like she was about to launch into a prepared speech. Wonderful. “I know we’ve had some difficulties with the quality of our teamwork lately, and we’ve called you here in an effort to straighten them out. You and I used to be a wonderful team, and I truly believe we can be again, but only if we can learn to trust each other once more.”

She paused, apparently waiting for a reaction from him. He did not give her one, so she continued, undeterred.

“For this reason, I have decided that it’s time to reveal my secret identity to you. Our secret identities.”

Wait.

What?

His ears perked up.

“I’m sorry, I think I’m hallucinating. Repeat that for me?”

She smiled and – was Ladybug bouncing? She was. Lightly balanced on the balls of her feet, she vibrated with excitement. “You don’t have to reciprocate if you don’t want to. We are trusting you with this knowledge because we truly believe it’s safe with you, and because we think it will be good for all of us to get to know each other a little outside of the costume. But we don’t want to pressure you, so you can decide for yourself when or even if you’ll do us the same courtesy.”

That-

She...

Really?

“My Lady,” he whispered, awed at this gift, this wonderful gift she was offering him, the one he’d been longing for since they’d met. She wanted to trust him? With this? Had he… had he been wrong? Maybe he was more to her than he’d assumed all this time.

Pain and guilt twisted in his chest. Was it really a good idea to allow himself to grow closer to Ladybug, even as a friend, when his loyalty was already in question? He wanted to be devoted to Marinette, not torn in two directions.

Wait.

Why did she keep saying we?

His eyes darted to Carapace. Carapace who did not look the least bit surprised by her words, and, in fact, looked rather unenthusiastic about this entire endeavor.

Why?

Why was Ladybug talking to the two of them like only Chat would learn a secret?

“You… know.”

Carapace and Ladybug frowned at him in unison, identical puzzled expressions on their faces. Because they were so damn in sync. So familiar with each other, so close. Because they knew.

“You know each other.” His voice didn’t sound right to his ears, there was something off, like his teeth were too big for his jaw and it came out distorted. His gaze fixed on Ladybug, and ignored the other one, because if he didn’t, he’d lunge. “You… you told him first.”

“Chat.” She sighed. In exasperation, like he was a child she had to put up with. Because that was what he’d always been to her – someone to put up with.

“When?”

More frowns, so he forced his racing thoughts into a sentence.

“When did you tell him?”

“When we met,” Carapace said flatly.

Rage like he had never known erupted inside of him.

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug was going to punch him. He'd promised her that she'd do the talking. She knew Chat better than Nino did, and she understood why this would be a sore spot for him. This was a delicate subject matter requiring a delicate touch, so this was no time for their stupid sniping. She hastened to add, “There’s a reason for that, we–“

The ground shook, and the words died in her throat.

Black lightning raced up and down Chat Noir’s body, violently crackling and lashing. The concrete beneath his boots cracked, then splintered. His fists kept opening and closing, oozing with the telltale signs of a Cataclysm she hadn’t heard him summon.

“When. You. Met.” Something was wrong with his voice. That was not Chat Noir’s smooth baritone. It was rough and grating, a growl running concurrent with the words. His eyes were wide and wild, the pupils narrowed into slits so thin they were nearly invisible, leaving only glowing green. “Two years. My Lady. I fought by your side. And I begged.”

Carapace cursed under his breath, raising his shield, but Ladybug signaled him to cut it out.

“Chat, listen–“

You didn’t. Why should I?” His breaths were panting, uneven, and the lightning was starting to take form, claws and tail and ears, the shadow of a great feline beast flickering over his body. “I begged you. I cried. I needed you and – two years! Two years of throwing myself in danger for you! Two years of shielding your life with my body! I killed him FOR YOU!

The last was a roar that barely sounded human. He doubled over, claws sinking into the ground as he crouched on all fours, unwilling or unable to keep himself upright.

“Him. And not me,” he hissed. “When you just met…?”

Swallowing her horror, she edged closer even as Carapace was giving her warning looks not to. But Chat backed away from her, his teeth bared. They were too big, too sharp.

“I want to make right what I did wrong, Chat,” she whispered. “That’s why I want to tell you.”

He went still, only his tail whipping back and forth. And it was a tail, a real tail, the shadows solidifying around his belt. The words seemed to come to him with great effort, like his throat was no longer meant for human speech.

“I needed you – then. Don’t need. Your pity. Now.”

Chat Noir turned away and ran.

Neither she nor Carapace could keep up with his speed, could only follow the small craters of impact where his four limbs had touched down between leaps.

 

✧✦✧

 

Power gushed through his veins, the ground shaking where he landed. The sound of crushed concrete pleased him. His claw swiped along the ground, tearing it open, and he laughed, though his throat wouldn’t make the noise.

That was good. It felt right. Cats were meant to be silent predators, stalking, hiding, then ambush. But what was to be his prey?

He landed on the edge of a roof and laid himself flat on the ground, peering over the ledge. Humans were milling below and – no. He shook his head, trying to dislodge the thoughts that were not his. He protected humans. Yes. Never hunt.

Except once.

He’d hunted that one down for years and years. Yet victory had tasted like ash in the end. For one moment he’d felt nothing but joy, filled with the ecstasy of a successful ambush, of having protected her. Then the body had fallen to the ground and the butterfly had flown away.

He snarled without sound at the hated memory, and his power rose, and he needed, needed, needed to do something with it.

Like tear apart the world.

No. Too much. Protect.

But he needed to destroy something, so he turned on the spot, once, twice, looking like a kitten chasing his own tail. But he was searching – there.

The distance closed in the blink of an eye and he was in an abandoned building. Windows shattered, floors rotted, walls stained with ugly markings. Heaven. Decay was his domain, and he was meant to tear it all down to make room for something better.

So he did.

He threw himself into a wall, and it came crashing down. Again. And again. Until he felt the ground beneath him sway, unstable. For a moment, he paused, panting – did he really…?

Yes, he’d done this before, hadn’t he?

He’d cleared the river, and the people had cheered. Nobody wanted this ruin, nobody needed it. Maybe it had been beautiful once, a home filled with love and laughter. But now it was just empty and ugly.

Like him.

His breath caught, and his eyes stung, and he wouldn’t, he refused, he had humiliated himself enough by crying over her, he was done. Why could she still make him feel like this? So low and worthless? Why couldn’t he be calm and professional and normal? He didn’t want this hold she had over his heart, would claw it out if he could.

Should he try?

He set his palm over his chest, the tip of his claws digging in.

But no, he couldn’t. There was someone else in there, too, someone much better. Someone precious. He still needed this stupid, useless organ of his.

The thought of blue eyes and dark hair calmed him at once, the power ebbing.

He needed… yes. She made him feel better. This recent bright spot in his life. All thanks to her. He would go to her now and then he’d feel better and think better. Something was wrong with his thoughts. He didn’t know what, but he knew they were not as they should be.

Hadn’t been for years, though.

Unease pricked the back of his mind. Worry. There was a reason he couldn’t go to her now. Shouldn’t. He looked down at himself. He was human, wasn’t he? But his arms, they were so long, all wrong in proportion, to better match his legs so he could run comfortably on all four as he was meant to.

And his face…

His jaw hurt, fangs too big to close it.

Would she even recognize him? How much of his appeal was in his pretty face? Women loved his face, and he knew that she did, too, because what else was there to love?

Maybe that had been the problem all along. His Lady had never seen his face. Maybe if he’d ever removed the mask, just done it and ripped it off even as she protested, she’d have fallen in love. Maybe that was why he couldn’t let her go, because she was the only woman who’d ever seen him for what he was without his good looks blinding her.

And she had pushed him away in disgust.

Who could blame her? Who wouldn’t be disgusted by this? A man who raged against the world because a woman did not want him.

So pathetic.

He hadn’t even needed her love. Yes, he’d craved it, but it would have been fine – okay, not fine, but it would have been good enough – if he’d never gotten it.

No, what made him choke on rage and bitterness until he barely recognized this ugly thing she made of him was that he’d thought they were friends, that he could turn to her with his grief and she would comfort him.

But his personal issues were his alone to deal with, and their partnership began and ended with the masks. She had never been interested in knowing who lay beneath, was only offering it now because he was disrupting their teamwork and she thought this would fix it. He meant nothing to her beyond the power he wielded, was just one of many for her to safeguard.

Would he be turned away again if he came to his bright spot with the other half of his life? With this?

He paced anxiously, his tail lashing.

Surely not.

He had to know.

The winding path to her home flew past him, ingrained in his memory. He could always find his way to her. But he’d avoided her balcony since his return.

He froze before he could take his next leap. That was it. The reason he couldn’t go see her. Wrong name. Not the man but the cat. He’d give his secret away.

His secret. Secrets were important to keep. This one most of all. It had cost him everything, but it was too precious to give away. It was his strength, this secret knowledge, ensured hateful stares never touched him. I am not who you think I am. I have you all fooled.

But he was growing so tired of fooling her. What he wouldn’t give for her to pet him. She stroked his hair sometimes and he liked it, but it wasn’t quite what he wanted and he didn’t know how to ask without giving himself away.

He pawed at the ground in frustration, claws peeling away at the roof. Yes. More of this. He’d calm himself that way, would leave her in peace. The cat had nothing to offer her.

His thoughts turned back to prey. A hunt would be more fun than vanquishing a crumbling building. Victory was sweeter when it was hard-won.

But he was so close to her already, why turn back now?

Indecision kept him in place until his ears perked up. Voices. Voices disguised by magic. Voices he hated. Not far now. Maybe there was his sweet victory. He grinned at the thought of doubling back and stalking them as they sought to stalk him.

He’d bury his fangs in the male’s throat first.

She’d never forgive me.

He shook the thought away. She’d never find out, just like she didn’t know what he’d done to his own father. He’d keep it that way, let her think him kind and innocent. How he adored the way she looked at him, like he was worthy of her affection.

But if she finds out…

Did he really want to add to all his sins? They were repulsive enough already.

Wouldn’t it be better to strive to be that kind man she thought him? He was good at pretending. Always had been. Sometimes the pretense needed to be kept up even when nobody but him was looking, or it would start ringing false.

A hunt would be a step too far. Once indulged, he’d crave it again. He knew that. How did he know that?

Their voices were close now. Seek battle or shelter?

He landed on the balcony in silence and shivered.

For just a moment, he was sixteen again, jumping down here because he’d sensed someone kindred. Nursing his own pain of rejection, he had comforted her over hers, not knowing that he’d also been the one to inflict it. God, he’d been so stupid. He’d had this treasure sitting in front of him – behind him – all along and he hadn’t cared to look.

The metal of the railing bent under his claws, and he whipped back his hand before he could damage it further. Nothing in this place could be so much as scratched, so he had to control himself. All of this was hers, and that made it precious.

Slowly, gently, he crawled to the latch – unlocked, why would she leave it unlocked, he needed to have a talk to her about the dangers of leaving this unlocked, wasn’t she normally so anxious? No, she was brave. But she was so small, so delicate, how would she defend herself against an intruder? Just the thought of her in danger made his powers surge. No, no, control, calm, don’t destroy anything

He breathed deeply, and her scent, Marinette’s wonderful scent enveloped him like a thick warm blanket.

Adrien loved her scent.

He wanted to roll around in it.

So he did. He dropped to the middle of her room and purred as he lazily writhed on his back. Each breath he took syphoned away this black rage that had taken him as he took in her room through half-lidded eyes.

Everything was green. Full of life.

Wall to wall, every spare inch of space was covered with flower pots, a small jungle growing within the confines of her tiny room. No, not a jungle.

Adrien smiled, and his jaw felt almost human again.

My meadow.

 

✧✦✧

 

“I can’t believe we lost him,” Carapace spat. “You should have let me use Jade Sight, now it’s too late.”

“The second go around you wouldn’t have let me tell him, and we would have fought about it in front of him, and it would have added to… all this. He could have exploded even worse.”

He didn’t deny that he would have tried to stop her instead of just not antagonizing Chat. “How could that conversation possibly have led to a worse outcome than this?”

Biting back a cutting retort, Ladybug said nothing, crouching over the last crater they’d found, not too far from her home. She knew exactly how it could have been worse.

Chat Noir had looked at her like he’d have liked nothing more than to tear her to pieces. She was convinced that only his self-control had saved her from that fate, that he had chosen to run and hide instead of giving into that horrible rage he’d been hiding this entire time. She’d sensed it, of course, simmering beneath the surface, but all things considered, he had done a remarkable job of staying cold in her presence while that had been clawing at his insides.

Did he really hate her so much?

Chaton, what did I do to you?

“De-transform,” she said softly. “We need to talk to our kwamis.”

They dropped into a shadowed alley, away from prying eyes. Not that there were all that many, this time of night.

As their transformations dissolved and both their kwamis returned to their separate existence, silence descended, their disappointment like a crushing weight on her shoulders. Tikki flew to Marinette's side, nuzzling against her cheek in silent comfort. When it became evident that nobody was willing to speak first, Nino turned to her.

“Marinette, what happened between you two? He said something about begging and killing for you…?”

“In our fight against Hawkmoth,” she said slowly. “Chat was defending me from an attack when he struck the final blow. Afterward, he was distraught and asked me to let him reveal his identity, now that Hawkmoth was gone. I said no, he tried to kiss me, and I pushed him away. And he left.”

“Okay.” Nino exhaled, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “So he’s turning into a monster because he went too far playing white knight in shining armor and the girl he did it for rejected him.”

“Don’t say it like that,” she snapped.

“Well, it’s the truth, isn’t it? That’s why he couldn’t stand me from the very beginning, because he’s a jealous psy–“

“Nino Lahiffe,” Wayzz said quietly, and all gazes snapped to him. “Do you know why you were Chosen above all others? I had many other prospective candidates to pick from, after all. But I Chose you to be my wielder. Do you want to know why?”

Nino frowned and, when it became clear Wayzz expected a response, he nodded.

“Because I thought you the best equipped to reach the Black Cat. Even though his kwami hadn’t called for help, I worried.”

Cold green eyes blazed with such fury that Marinette nearly shrunk back, even though it wasn’t directed at her.

“And you are failing.”

Nino’s lips parted in silent protest.

“Chat Noir is getting close to his breaking point. If he cannot be reined in, then I fear he will be lost to us forever. And then it will fall to you both to wrest his Miraculous from him.” His antenna twitched. “With the unknown enemy we are facing in addition to that, I do not like your odds.”

“And whose fault is that?” Marinette's voice rose in frustration. “I wanted to go to him years ago and your Master wouldn’t let me! Wouldn’t tell me who he was, even though he knew and was free to say so!”

Wayzz’s eyes glittered. “My old Master was wise. He had faith in the choice he had made.”

“Yeah, and we can see how well that worked out,” Nino muttered.

For a moment, Wayzz grew utterly still. “I would see you do better, Nino,” he said softly. “In fact, that is exactly what you will do. Choose a new Miraculous wielder, for we need the reinforcements. Then we will see how well your judgement holds up against Master Fu’s.”

He raised his hand, the jade Miraculous glowed, and three small black boxes appeared above Nino, who barely caught them in time.

“Before the sun rises again, you will give me a name, a reason, and which Miraculous of these three you would bestow upon them. And Nino?”

Wayzz’ eyes were cold, and his tone made it clear that there would be consequences if this task was failed.

“Choose wisely.”

 

Chapter Text

“Where were you?”

Nino rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses, trying to focus his fuzzy gaze on his girlfriend’s scowling face.

“Alya, this is a really bad time–“

You think so? It’s one thirty in the morning, and you told me you’d be back no later than midnight. Where. Were. You.”

“Look, something came up.”

“Well, what was it? And what kept you from shooting me a quick text about it? Nino, I was worried.”

His mind was blank. He had no lie at hand, had not prepared one, his thoughts occupied with other matters. So he chose the only move available to him – deflection. “Well, now you know how it feels.”

When Alya’s face grew enraged, he knew he’d said the wrong thing. He wanted to take the words and stuff them back in his mouth, because he couldn’t do anything right tonight, but it was too late. She turned on her heels and strode to their bedroom.

He followed, because what choice did he have?

She grabbed a backpack and started yanking clothes out of her closet at random, stuffing them inside. Alarm bells started ringing in his head. No. Air raid sirens.

“Babe…?”

“Don’t. Don’t you dare ‘babe’ me right now. Do you think I’m stupid?!” She whirled around, red curls whipping, and stared at him with accusing eyes. “Do you think I don’t recognize the signs? The lies, the change in habits, the unexplained absences? Did you think I wouldn’t notice the change in physique? What, she’s good enough to work out for but I’m not? God, you’re such a cliché. And so am I, to have closed my eyes and pretended not to see your affair.”

“I’m not – I’m not having a fucking affair, Alya!”

Her voice grew perfectly level. “Is that so? Well, then you should be able to tell me where you were just now, and what you were doing.”

He stammered, and she looked at him in contempt.

Within five minutes his girlfriend had left the apartment, and Nino wanted nothing more than to chase after her. But he couldn’t, because Wayzz was wordlessly staring at him, and he had a duty to fulfill before sunrise.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette snuck in through the backdoor of her parents’ bakery. She was used to sneaking in, had gotten good at identifying the spots she couldn’t step on because they creaked. Exhausted to the very core of her being, she silently made her way up to her room in the attic.

The memory of the horrifying black vapor crawling up her partner kept playing in her mind. She shouldn’t have taken Nino, should have talked to Chat Noir alone. But would he have come if only Ladybug had called?

She just wanted to lie down in her bed. Forget the world. Slip into oblivion for a little bit and dream of Chat Noir when he’d been a carefree, ridiculous boy instead of whatever it was he’d become.

“Ma…ri…nette.”

She froze.

Green eyes were glowing in the darkness, the syllables of her name painstakingly pieced together by a throat that wasn’t very good at making human sounds. The shadow of a beast obscured the human form beneath, a black churning haze winding around his body.

He’d found her.

Ladybug wasn’t in costume, her strength only a fraction of what it should be, and Tikki as exhausted as she was. He had found her and she didn’t stand a chance.

Chat Noir lunged.

And she fought.

She kicked and bit and hit him with all her considerable strength, which was enough to knock ordinary men on their ass, but Chat Noir was no ordinary man. He had her pinned, and she writhed against his hold. His mouth descended on her neck, those fangs about to tear her apart–

He licked her.

“Don’t fear.” More licks, gentle, slow, grooming. “Won’t hurt. Just me.”

“Chat,” she whispered, and he purred, his big body collapsing, rubbing up against her. A normal woman might have been crushed under his weight, but to her it felt pleasant. Like a very heavy blanket pressing down on her.

Chat Noir squeezed her close and his nose buried in her neck, breathing deeply.

“Marinette,” he said again, and his voice was almost human. “You smell like my meadow.”

“Thanks…?” How had he found her? Had he followed her scent? But the glamor was supposed to confound all senses. But then, he’d clearly unlocked some new powers that were potentially stronger than her glamor.

“I love you,” he whispered, and her heart constricted. “I love you so much, Marinette. You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”

How? How did any of this make sense? An hour or two ago – she couldn’t even keep track anymore, she was so tired – he’d glared at her with hatred in eyes.

“Chaton…” she said, but he snarled, and she flinched.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Why not?”

“Only she calls me that.”

“Who?”

“Ladybug,” he hissed, and a shudder went through his body, his speech deteriorating. “Not important. You are important. Ma-ri-nette. My Marinette.” He kept murmuring her name, and the bestial edge to his voice ebbed.

She didn’t understand what was happening. Didn’t he know…?

Okay. Think this through.

He kept calling her Marinette, not Ladybug. So, maybe he hadn’t discovered her secret. Maybe he was here for her alter ego. In which case – did Marinette know Chat’s real identity?

“Who are you?” she whispered, and he stilled.

Then his weight was suddenly off her, and she was left feeling almost bereft. She sat up, and Chat Noir was looking at her, crouched low, balanced on the tip of his toes. His face – what she could see of it beneath the coiling black aura – was… better, but still not entirely human. His lips were slightly parted, revealing canines that were far too big.

“You don’t recognize me.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, because he sounded hurt and she didn’t know what else to say.

He laughed. It was bitter, the sound grating. “I know. Not very handsome like this, am I? Do I disgust you, Marinette?”

“No.” Her answer was honest. He frightened and saddened her, but never had she ever been disgusted by her partner.

“I had an awful day,” he said. “Can I hug you? I want…”

She wrapped her arms around him.

“Sweet Marinette,” he whispered. “You deserve someone so much better. But I’m greedy and selfish, so I’ll take you all for myself. They’ll have to pry you from my claws.”

She should know this man. He was so familiar with her, she had to know him. While her brain tried to make the pieces fit together, Chat Noir’s claws were gently running through her hair.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t recognize you.” His glamor was monstrously powerful, maybe because right now he was, too. Her head was spinning with the effort to push against it, but it was like trying to wade through muck. But it was there, deep in her gut, so close, I know this man, but the problem was that she did know him. As Chat Noir. And her kitty, her Chaton, was all she could see.

“Let’s start over,” he murmured. “Hello, Marinette. My name is Adrien.”

No.

No no no no.

Had she said that out loud? She must have because Chat Noir squirmed out of her embrace, his head hung low. “I’m sorry.”

Marinette just stared at his face. His face. That was Adrien’s face, even if it looked a little alien with his teeth way too big.

“I scared you. I’m sorry. I’ll go.” He shuddered, turning his head away. “Ah… or… can I stay? You don’t have to touch. Or look. I’ll pick a corner. Can’t be alone right now. Your room is calming.”

She took his hand. He returned her gentle squeeze, let her pull him to his feet as she stood up. He stumbled, not seeming able to balance on two legs, so she let go and he dropped down. Her fingertips brushed his hair, and she beckoned him to follow.

Which he did, keeping a respectful distance, seeming careful to not knock over any of her flower pots. When she sat down on her bed, he gave her a searching look.

“Adrien, come to me.”

His face lit up and he eagerly jumped up to join her. Somehow the way he moved looked graceful, even though it was on all fours. But Chat Noir had always been graceful. By all rights, his body language should have looked ridiculous.

Adrien also had an otherworldly grace. Even when he was a hungover mess, he still managed to be elegant. It had to be bleeding over from his other half.

Or maybe those were just her rose colored glasses playing tricks on her.

Of course it was him. Who else could it have ever been?

Kind, gentle Adrien who loved stupid puns and bad pick-up lines.

He pressed his forehead against her shoulder. His tail twitched happily, and then he curled up beside her, seeming content just to be close.

Ridiculous Adrien, a man who really enjoyed licking her, and had no sense of personal space.

You’re just an overgrown cat, aren’t you?

A purr answered her as she ran her fingers through his unruly blond hair, scratching him behind his twitching ears.

He was asleep within minutes.

Overly attached Adrien, who had once been madly in love with a girl who didn’t love him back.

That mystery woman’s loss had been Marinette’s gain, even though she’d never understood it. What kind of fool would throw a treasure like Adrien away?

Me. I did that. I’m the one who broke Chat Noir’s heart.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Ugh.”

Reality came back into existence shard by shard, sharp edges grinding against him. Or maybe that was him, being torn from his ring and reassembled in painful slow motion. Never again.

“Damn you, Adrien,” Plagg whispered. He wanted to scream it, let loose this rage – or was it still Adrien’s rage? – but even that seemed beyond him now. He was so tired. Adrien had drained him of everything, reaching so deep into his essence that Plagg had not been able to tell where his thoughts ended, and Adrien’s began.

“Leave me out of your abandonment issues.”

Plagg flopped over on the pillow, getting a full view of Adrien’s face burrowed in Marinette’s hair, both asleep. Finally. He peered at the girl, a faint echo of Adrien’s feelings for her running through him, and he shuddered.

He’d always considered her more of a game. Something shiny that made Adrien happy, to tide him over until he finally came to his senses and returned to his Ladybug. But that feeling…

That was what Plagg felt for Tikki.

Which meant this was going to be one of those lifetimes where the Black Cat did not choose his other half. Well. Of course. Adrien just couldn’t make anything easy on him, could he? Stupid kitten.

He supposed he could work with that. The partners were not always lovers, after all, even if love was always there in some form. Sometimes they were more like siblings, or, when there was a great age gap, parent and child. But the same age range and with physical attraction in the mix? Rarely did they resist that.

Still, Marinette had calmed Adrien’s rage, which made her useful. For that brief yet eternal hour when Destruction had threatened to consume Adrien, Plagg – the small, self-aware part of him that had still existed then – had known fear. But then his kitten had turned it around and chosen to resist. To seek out help. Relief.

So everything would be fine, and now Marinette could take over this burdensome nurturing. Plagg was officially delegating, and returning to his roots – sassing and eating cheese.

It would suck, though. Not getting to live in the same household as Tikki for as long as Adrien lived.

“Plagg.”

He froze. Turned around with effort.

And there she was. His love, Creation, in all her splendid glory.

…which meant he’d been surrounded by idiots.

“These two are so dumb.”

“I know,” Tikki said mournfully.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien woke.

He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, only that he was surrounded by warmth and his favorite scent and a body pressed against his. Inhaling deeply, he savored her, and then his mouth was on her skin.

She stirred from her sleep with a soft moan, and he drew her hips to his. Mine.

“Marinette,” he whispered. “Do you still love me?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever loved you more.”

He made a guttural sound because how could she say that? “I’m not a good person.” His claws were shredding her clothes, tearing apart delicate silk. He’d buy her new ones. “I’m my father’s son.”

“Not true.”

If he didn’t bury himself inside her right this second, he would die.

But when he tried, she gently pushed against his shoulders. He drew back, wide-eyed. Well. Of course not, how could she want him after what she’d just seen?

“Chat,” she whispered, her fingertips brushing his jaw to nudge him to face her again. “Adrien. We haven’t yet – Are you sure you want this?”

He growled. “Do you?”

“Always.”

“After everything?”

Always.” She swallowed heavily. “But you’re not thinking clearly.”

“Clear enough to want you. Say you want me, too.”

“I want you, too,” she whispered, her arms wrapping around his waist.

“You didn’t see my rage.” His hips fit perfectly with hers.

“But I see you now, Chat Noir.” She cried out, back arching. Yes. More of this.

“Do you? I’m–“

She bit his lips to shut him up. He snarled, the sharp stab of pain spurring him on further.

“You’re a hero.” Her fingers were digging into his backside, forcing him closer. His Marinette was strong. So magnificent. Chasing her was the best decision he’d ever made.

“Not quite human,” he whispered. “Something’s wrong with–“

“I like cats,” she said, managing to sound coy and sweet while he pawed at her like the beast he was. “My boyfriend has one and it’s so sweet. It makes me want one of my own.”

A strangled noise escaped his throat as he lost himself inside of her.

Marinette kept whispering sweet nothings in his ear, that she loved him, adored him, that this changed nothing and everything.

 

✧✦✧

 

The first time, Marinette had woken just in time to see a black kwami hovering near, so exhausted he’d needed Tikki to hold him up in the air. Her kwami had given her a significant look that Marinette had interpreted as ‘I’ll handle this’, and they had floated off in the direction of the kitchen, presumably to build Chat Noir’s kwami’s strength back up.

Before she’d had time to ponder this further, Adrien had pulled her to him, urgently whispering in her ear.

And fallen asleep again afterward.

Only to wake up in a similarly desperate state a little while later, always reaching for her like a drowning man grasped for a lifeline.

By now, the sun was filtering in through the window. This time Adrien was gentle, trailing soft kisses along her belly as he moaned the same questions he returned to every time. Her answers stayed the same.

You’re not like your father.

I don’t think less of you for being Chat Noir.

Adrien, I still love you.

He trembled at the last one, he always did, and his groans took on a desperate edge, his hips bucking against her.

Tears pricked her eyes. She hid them by burying her face in his hair. He needed this. It was so horribly obvious that he needed someone to tell him these things, so Marinette did.

It was just…

She was certain that when he found out who she was, he would never look at her again.

So Marinette said nothing of her secret, told him how much she loved him, and meant every word.

Because the day Adrien found out she was Ladybug was the day she would shatter his heart, and she wasn’t sure the world was going to survive it.

 

✧✦✧

 

It had to be Alya.

She was daring and fearless, able to stare down evil and laugh at it. More than that, she was smart and resourceful, and he had the feeling she would be a great tactician and detective. Officially adding her capacity for research to the team might help them finally track down this fiery source of trouble, which so far, they’d done a pretty shit job of.

So it had to be Alya.

Except it couldn’t be Alya.

Because no matter how many of his girlfriend’s virtues he could list, he knew, in his heart, he wanted to pick her because he wanted to stop lying to her. Take her into the team just so she’d stop thinking he was cheating, mend this rift in their relationship before it grew worse.

Picking Alya would be a fundamentally selfish decision, and he was on thin ice. Wayzz had made it clear he had to choose wisely, and somehow Nino didn’t think that him choosing his girlfriend for convenience’s sake would count as that.

Not to mention that, no matter how much he loved her and admired her, he saw qualities in her that disqualified her from consideration. For one, she was far more temperamental and opinionated than he was. He had bristled at Chat Noir’s treatment of Ladybug, but Alya would have gone nuclear on the guy if he so much as hinted at mistreating her best friend. Adding her to the conflict with Chat Noir would be tossing gasoline onto smoldering embers. Violently unstable embers.

And while she was brave, the way she ran headlong into danger to chase a story bordered on reckless.

So it couldn’t be Alya.

Because someone else was far better suited.

Someone kind, someone selfless, who ran into danger to get everyone to safety and had done that even when they were still children. Who would smoothly fit into the team, or at least with him and Marinette.

Now he just needed to pick the right Miraculous.

The butterfly was out, for obvious reasons.

So that left him with the choice between the bee and the fox, and that really was no contest at all. Foxes were mischievous yet determined hunters. Wayzz had said that the kwami embodying them had a strong preference for beautiful and clever wielders, turning them into illusionists.

The Fox was the counterpart to the Turtle, Deception’s lies endlessly frustrating Wisdom.

Everything just fit. All of it.

“Wayzz,” he said, and the kwami opened his eyes, returning from his deep meditation. “I’ve Chosen.”

There was one obstacle, and that was, once again, Chat Noir, and how well their new teammate would be able to handle working so close to him.

“I’m going to give the Fox Miraculous to Adrien Agreste.”

Marinette, who had asked for her own reasons, had already determined that Adrien held no grudge against the heroes’ role in his father’s death. But even if there was residual anger, Adrien was good at keeping up appearances and staying professional when his job called for it. He’d be firm in protecting Marinette from Chat’s obsession but not as rabidly overprotective as Alya.

And then Adrien would finally step out of his father’s shadow. He’d get the chance to live up to his full potential. There was no doubt in Nino’s mind that his friend was heroic at heart.

As he nervously laid out all the reasons his best friend would make a great hero, how well he fit the Fox Miraculous, and why any flaws in him were minor obstacles, Wayzz scrutinized Nino with no change in expression. When Nino fell silent because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, the kwami slowly unfurled his legs from their resting position.

And smiled.

“What a great choice you’ve made, Nino. I think it might even rival Master Fu’s wisdom.”

 

Chapter Text

Soft fingers brushed through his hair, a familiar voice murmuring to him. He heard nothing of what it said, drifting on the edge of consciousness, but he smiled all the same for he loved its sound.

Then it grew quiet, and he was displeased.

Adrien woke to the sun warming his face, surrounded by the most wonderful scent in the world. He inhaled deeply, turning to writhe in it, but his body was reluctant to move, both exhausted and utterly sated.

Ah, yes. He was bad at turning down freely offered treats. Not the first time he’d overindulged, but certainly the best. Marinette had welcomed him inside of her as much as he’d wanted.

Adrien wanted a lot.

“Marinette,” he murmured, because he sensed her near but not near enough. Warm skin should be touching him, but there was none. So he propped himself up on his arms, his every muscle screaming in protest, and swung his lower half around to gingerly set one foot in front of the bed. Then the other. He heaved himself up.

Standing on two legs should not be this hard.

Though he didn’t think he’d be any good on all fours either. His limbs were back to the way they should be, his hips aligned for this movement, and yet his muscle memory was failing him. He frowned and stared down at his feet, wiggling his toes. Then he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other without falling over.

It was far from his usual elegance, would have gotten him laughed off the catwalk he routinely dominated – heh, cat walk – but it got him where he wanted. Which was to the door of Marinette’s room, leading to the rest of the bakery. She was there, he could tell, she had to be there.

Adrien paused.

He was forgetting something, something important, though he couldn’t puzzle out what it was. Something human, definitely. So… it would probably be best if he didn’t leave the room for now. Until he remembered how to be Adrien Agreste again.

A whine rose to the back of his throat. He wanted to see her now. But… her parents were probably down there. And it was important that they liked him and didn’t start thinking of him as some weirdo who couldn’t even figure out how to human. Those were his future in-laws, he had to impress them.

So he turned away from the door with great reluctance and prowled back into the center of her cramped room. He brightened when he spotted a familiar bouquet, and dropped down to all fours to examine the small flower pot in front of him. Were those his hydrangea? The ones he’d given her on their first date?

He hoped those were his. Because it meant she’d kept them all this time and cared for them to keep them blooming. He smiled at the thought, absently scratching his stubble. Stubble that was starting to feel more like a beard. He needed a shave. Though he probably shouldn’t be handling sharp objects right now.

Marinette could give him a shave. He perked up as he imagined the intimacy of the act, how gentle she’d be, and how her hand would run over his jaw to make sure she hadn’t missed a spot. Then maybe she’d give him a scratch under his chin, too. Yes. Wonderful idea, he should propose it to her straight away.

But where was she?

For that matter, where was Plagg? They were separated now, he should be here.

“Plagg?” His throat hurt, but that was his voice, his true voice. “Where are you?”

“Ugh.” His kwami’s noise of grumpy disgust was unmistakable, and Adrien pounced toward it, dispensing with the whole two-legs-thing he was supposed to be doing. Plagg was napping on Marinette’s night stand, one eye cracked open to glare at him. “Last night was not cool, Adrien. Do you have any idea how exhausted I am?”

“Sorry,” he whispered, and yes, he did have an idea. There was a bone-deep tiredness inside of him, like he’d been drained of everything he was.

Plagg’s tail lashed. “Adrien,” he said, his voice much more somber than Adrien could remember ever hearing it. “You came really close to something that could not have been undone. Seriously, don’t do it again.”

Adrien frowned. “Could I have gotten stuck like that forever?”

“Your body? No. That was just my true form overlaid over yours.” Plagg sighed and closed his eyes. “But your mind, yes. You don’t come back from becoming a predator.”

“Oh.” Adrien shifted uncomfortably, looking down at himself. He immediately rearranged his limbs, crossing his legs into a lotus seat instead of staying in the cat-like crouch he’d been in. He was… the way he was thinking wasn’t normal, was it? Not like he used to think.

“Plagg,” he whispered, eyes wide. “What if I’m already a predator?”

Plagg let out a tired laugh. “Well, there’s an easy way to test that.” He gestured to the table in the corner. “Marinette left you something.”

Adrien didn’t cross the distance as fast as he wanted to, because he made himself do it on two legs. There was a note, and he snatched it up. It took a moment for the symbols to become words.

Adrien, I’m sorry, so sorry, I had to go to class, I can’t miss this one. I love you. I love you. I’ll be back soon, and I left you food. Please stay in the room. Or go home if you’re feeling better. Just let me know where you are.

PS: I collected your clothes, they’re mostly unharmed. There was a small rip in your jeans that I mended. They’re on the chair, along with your phone.

He smiled at the note. So sweet, so thoughtful, so Marinette. Who loved him. Loved him still, even though he was fucked in the head. Adrien opened the bag she’d left beside the note, fishing out a pastry, and happily bit into it. Had Marinette made it herself? He hoped so.

“There you go,” Plagg said dryly. “Not a predator.”

He frowned at the kwami, his mouth too full to ask the question he wanted to.

“What you’re experiencing is just aftershock. It will wear off. Although some long-term mental shifts are inevitable for my wielders. Humans and cats are both mammals, there’s a lot of mental friction. More than with, say, birds or insects.” He sighed. “But if you were truly a predator, you wouldn’t be eating that sugary abomination. Nothing less than blood and flesh would satisfy you.” He paused. “Or cheese.”

Adrien nodded. He had ramped up his meat consumption since returning to Paris. He had even joked about it with Marinette on one of their dates when he’d noticed she kept picking the vegetarian options while he kept devouring steaks. But his love for protein was still a long way away from being able to compete with his sweet tooth.

Relieved, he licked the frosting from his fingers, savoring the sugar high. For a moment he was tempted to keep going, clean the back of his hand, too, but – that was wrong. Think human thoughts.

He’d never struggled with being human before putting on that ring! This was all Plagg’s fault! The kwami had really no business looking this amused. Adrien suppressed a hiss and looked around for the chair Marinette’s note had spoken of.

Clothes. That was what he’d been forgetting. He’d feel much more human once he was dressed, yes. Trade fur for fabric. Not that he’d ever gone so far as to grow fur but… metaphorically speaking.

Could he grow fur? Did he want to know? He assigned Future Adrien to deal with these questions and put them out of his mind.

He slid into his clothes like a second skin and sighed in relief. Yes. Much better already.

Adrien picked up his phone, glancing at the alert. Stupid cryptic symbols kept slipping out of his mind, but he was able to decipher them because nothing escaped him for long.

Nino: Hey man, could you come over this evening?

Nino: I have something important I need to talk to you about

Nino: REALLY important

Hm.

His gaze slid to the clock. Four in the afternoon. He’d slept the day away, and evening was approaching fast.

He didn’t want to turn his best friend down. Nino never failed to help Adrien, but he rarely ever asked him for anything in return. So if Nino said this was important, then Adrien had to be there. Their friendship still seemed fragile, like one misstep could undo their recent progress. Adrien couldn’t afford to miss opportunities like this.

Adrien: bee tehre at 7

He squinted. That wasn’t right.

Adrien: Be their at 7

Much better. He hit Send.

Surely three hours were enough to remember how to be human?

He would take the ring off, just in case. That always made it easier.

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette ran up the stairs, throwing open the door to her room.

Her empty room.

Swallowing her worry, she glanced around for clues where Chat might have gone. He’d found her provisions, his clothes, and – she snatched up the letter she’d left him.

And squinted at the utterly unintelligible scrawl he’d written below it.

Marinette was able to make out ‘love’, ‘meddow’, ‘best freind’ and ‘imPURRtant’ (next to a winking cat face he had clearly spent a lot of time detailing) before she gave up and reached for her phone.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien was not surprised when it turned out Marinette had not been able to decipher the delirious scribbles he’d left behind for her.

Marinette: where did you go???

Adrien: Nino’s asked me to come over for something important.

His thumb danced easily on the touch screen as he composed the answering message. Three hours was not quite enough to feel fully human again, but it went a long way toward restoring muscle memory.

Marinette: okay

Marinette: don’t scare me like this

Adrien: I’m sorry you had to see that last night.

Adrien: I’ll explain everything soon, I promise.

How? How was he going to explain this?

My Not-Ex likes another guy better than she ever liked me and that upset me.

In a life that consisted of a series of lows, that had to be the lowest one yet. He had dealt with so much shit, yet something that petty sent him tumbling over the edge?

And then he’d dragged his ridiculous issues to Marinette’s doorstep, expecting her to do something to make him feel better. Amazingly, she had done just that, working that soothing magic of hers. But Adrien had scared her, he remembered that much.

Marinette: not what I meant

Marinette: I’m glad you came to me, Chat Noir

He squeezed his eyes shut, blinking before reading it again to make sure he was doing it right.

Marinette: I love you so much

He should be reassuring her, considering the way he’d ambushed her. He should be on his knees groveling for forgiveness. For one thing, he was pretty sure he’d bitten her more than once in his frenzy. Not gentle love nibbles, but sinking teeth into her neck with the intent of holding her in place. It had made sense at the time, the reasoning sound, because as long as he kept doing that, she couldn’t leave.

Adrien: I love you, too.

Marinette: are you feeling better?

Adrien: Yes. Back to normal.

Adrien: Thanks to you.

Adrien: I’ll make this up to you, I promise.

Adrien: I don’t remember everything I did last night.

Adrien: But you won’t have to put up with it again.

Adrien: I’m still the same guy, okay?

Marinette: I know

Marinette: your wild side doesn’t scare me, kitty

Marinette: looked a bit scary at first

Marinette: but cuddling cleared that right up

Marinette: you were sweet :)

Maybe she really would accept all of him. And then Chat Noir could finally get someone who’d scratch him behind his ears while he purred as much as he liked. Adrien had a strong hunch that it would be the most amazing feeling. It just hadn’t felt right to ask Alya, it was way too intimate for that.

Adrien: I don’t know what I did to deserve you.

He didn’t. Adrien absolutely did not deserve this woman.

Her reaction made it clear that she was wildly out of his league. While he struggled to stay loyal, she was utterly devoted to the point of letting a beast scare her and paw at her without complaint. Then reassured it afterward that she still loved it.

And this beast was selfish enough to take it.

Marinette didn’t answer as promptly as she did before, though the three dots gave away that she was composing a message. When she finally answered, it was short, as if she’d erased what she’d written.

Marinette: I’m the lucky one here, not you

Adrien: I should argue with that, but your delusion works out in my favor, so I won’t.

Adrien: I’ve got to put the phone away now.

Adrien: But I’ll come back soon, and we’ll talk, okay?

Marinette: ok

Marinette: I love you, my stray.

Marinette: …

Marinette: so many hints

Marinette: I’m sorry for being stupid.

Adrien: Don’t insult the woman I love.

Adrien: I have magic that prevents people from getting hints.

Adrien: As I said, I’ll explain.

Adrien sent one last heart emoji before sliding the phone into his pocket. Then he raised his hand to knock on his best friend’s door.

Nino opened it at once.

Hello, human friend. It is I, Adrien Agreste, also a fellow human who is definitely not a cat in a human skin suit.

“Hi, Nino,” he said instead, like a sane person.

“Hey, Adrien.” Nino was smiling at him, too, and it seemed equally strained. “Come on in, man. Glad you could make it.”

“Sure thing, anytime. You did say it was important.” He felt himself relax as he stepped over the threshold, nerves dissipating. It was Nino, and Nino would take any residual weirdness in stride. “You even used all caps. I could hardly ignore the all caps, could I?”

“See, this is why you’re my first choice. Alya has no problem with ignoring my all caps.”

Adrien tilted his head. First choice for what? But his heightened senses caught something in Nino’s voice, a hitch that wasn’t normally there. So instead, he asked, “Everything okay, man?”

“Yeah, fine, fine.” He frowned as he closed the door. “No, you know what, not fine. Alya and I had a fight. It’s going to be okay though. I’ll make it okay.”

Yes! This was it! Nino was coming to Adrien for help! He tried not let his burst of glee show, keeping his expression somber. “What happened, man?”

“She caught me in a lie, and…” He sighed. “Assumed the worst.”

Adrien nodded sympathetically. “She does have a tendency to jump to conclusions.”

“The thing is, she’s not… wrong. Per se. I have been keeping a secret.” Nino cast him a sidelong glance. “That’s actually the reason why I invited you here. I have something to tell you. And an offer that goes along with it.”

Adrien arched an eyebrow and Nino gestured for him to follow into the living room. “Well, I’m intrigued,” he said when it was clear that Nino intended to make this reveal dramatic. “Masterful use of suspense. Film school paid off. We’re missing a soundtrack though.”

Nino laughed under his breath, and Adrien patted himself on the back for being a good friend, being able to cheer him up at a time like this. “That can be arranged, you know.”

“No, don’t draw this out. I’ve been wondering what this is about for hours now.” Well, mostly. When he’d been able to think clearly. Still, walking the streets of Paris – on two legs – and spending the time people-watching had mostly returned his thought patterns to normal. At least, he thought so. It was difficult to judge since cat thoughts had a rather unfair habit of disguising themselves as sane ones.

But he was here, clothed, on two legs, and with a reasonable grasp on his vocabulary. It couldn’t be that bad.

As long as no one busted out a laser pointer, he’d be fine.

Plus, he had already deduced a reasonable explanation that had him vibrating with excitement. Logic was beyond cats, but not beyond him.

Nino’s keeping a secret from Alya.

He called me first choice.

Adrien tried not to grin.

Don’t get your hopes up. It might not mean Best Man.

Groomsman would be perfectly adequate. Wonderful, even. Probably more than he’d have gotten this time last year.

But Adrien really wanted it to be Best Man.

“So you seem to be in a good mood,” Nino commented as they sat down at the main table.

Play it cool. “I had a good night.” He could not help the affectionate smile that played at the corners of his lips. “Well, actually it started as an awful night, but Marinette…” He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Not the time.”

Nino arched an eyebrow. “She spent the night with you?”

“Well, more the other way around, but yeah. Why?”

“Nothing, just surprised. She didn’t have that great of an evening either.” Adrien frowned, but Nino shrugged and smiled. “I’m glad you were able to cheer each other up.”

Was she cheered up? Or had Adrien added to her problems? He shifted his weight, trying to resist going over his somewhat hazy memories of the night with a fine-toothed comb to figure out how she felt. That could wait, he was here for Nino.

“Enough about me, back to you. And your secret.” Adrien infused the word with as much ominousness as he could muster. Nino rolled his eyes, smile widening into a grin.

“I think you’re going to like this one, Adrien. It’s the kind of secret boyhood dreams are made of.”

Keeping his expression curious, Adrien grew more certain of his guess. Sure, not that many men would admit to dreaming about their marriage as children, but Adrien understood, though he knew better than to voice it in most male company.

“There’s hoverboards, man.”

What? Since when? If that was an option, Adrien was definitely adding them to his own wedding. Hopefully soon. Focus.

Nino reached into his pocket to pull out a small jewelry box. The ring. Called it!

But when he set it on the table, Adrien’s eyes widened at the intricate and familiar red pattern painted atop the otherwise plain black box.

“Adrien. How would you like to become a superhero?”

A glamor broke.

No.

Please, no.

Anyone but you.

 

Chapter Text

Adrien is Chat.

Chat is Adrien.

The two most important men in her life were one and the same. And she had failed him.

Marinette clutched the phone tighter and scrolled back up to their conversation. Had he fully recovered? He was coherent now, at least in writing. She’d tried speaking with him in the morning, but he’d been drifting in and out of consciousness, never able to keep track of the conversation for long. Distracted by her scent, by the ribbons in her hair, by anything at all that moved within his field of vision. And by his want for her.

“Just let him sleep it off,” the black kwami said, nuzzling against Tikki with a yawn. “He’s in no state to talk. The only thing he’ll remember is how you made him feel, not what exactly you said.”

“Damn you, Nino,” she muttered. “Why’d you have to call him away now of… all… times…”

Marinette straightened her back, an eerie calm washing over her as her anxiety’s latest growth spurt caused it to topple beneath its own weight. Tapping her phone screen, she pulled up other text messages she’d been ignoring – twenty-eight from Alya, she’d have to see what that was about – but it was Nino’s lone message that drew her eye.

Nino: wayzz approved of my choice. if all goes well, we'll have a new teammate by tonight

 

✧✦✧

 

“You’re Carapace.”

Chat Noir stared at the man he despised, and who was his closest friend.

Why you?

Why did it have to be you?

Adrien had punched him. He’d punched Nino. Oh God.

Chat had always known his dislike of the other hero was irrational. Known he was fighting some idiotic proxy war with Ladybug through him. But knowing that hadn’t stopped him from giving into his worst impulses, laughing as he taunted a man he could have been friends with, had they met under different circumstances.

And once the dislike had grown mutual, Adrien had leaned in. He always did that, why did he always have to do that? As soon as Carapace had started muttering the word psychopath under his breath, that should have been his signal to step back and show off his heroic side instead of proving him right.

His friendship with Nino had once been as solid as rock, but now it was a fragile thing. Yes, it was recovering, but for a long time it had been held together by the thin threads of nostalgia, wishful thinking and Nino’s good will. All the times Adrien had behaved like an ass that Nino had let go because he thought there was a better man buried underneath somewhere…

He hadn’t even known he was looking at a murderer.

And then there was last night.

Nino had seen him last night. What he really was under all this pretty façade.

Marinette didn’t push me away, so maybe…

No.

She hadn’t even seen him, had only caught the tail end of it, when he’d been peaceful and calm and in love instead of enraged. Carapace had witnessed his absolute rock bottom.

One wasn’t so bad, was it? One person who accepted and loved all of him. He could survive with one, especially if that one person was Marinette. One is a miracle. Two is being greedy.

But Adrien was a greedy, selfish man. He always wanted more, and his heart ached at the thought of what he was about to lose.

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his own idiocy. Of course Ladybug had chosen Nino over him. Who wouldn’t? He was the best friend a person could ask for, and she’d apparently managed to see that on his very first day. Which meant Ladybug was an excellent judge of character, so what did two years’ worth of refusing to get to know Adrien say about him?

Well, nothing he wasn’t already aware of, really.

He smiled politely when Nino grinned and launched into an explanation of kwami and Miraculouses and superheroes. The words washed over him, only half-sinking in. He knew most of it, but he hadn’t known about the Guardian, which was apparently what Nino was now – the avatar of Wisdom who chose who was worthy to receive a Miraculous.

Nino had the excuse of being blinded by childhood memories, but his predecessor must have been abysmal at his job, to have chosen Adrien.

“So which animal am I going to be?” he asked faintly and Plagg stirred in his pocket.

“A fox.” Nino smiled brightly. “It just… I think it fits, don’t you?”

“What does it represent?”

“Ah.” Nino grimaced. “Okay, this is going to sound worse than it is. Deception.”

Fitting indeed.

“But it’s my counterpart!” Nino added quickly. “Wisdom’s, I mean. These Miraculouses tend to come in pairs. Except for the bee, for some reason. It’s apparently its own hive and self-contained or something.”

“I see.” He ran a finger along the rim of the box, almost tempted to open it just to satisfy his curiosity. He’d never met a kwami other than Plagg. Were they all as grumpy and jaded? They had to be, constantly chained to humans and passed around for power.

But he was sworn to Destruction, and even just this idle curiosity tasted like betrayal.

Adrien slid the box back.

“I’m sorry, Nino. I can’t accept this.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino’s face fell.

Well, he’d expected this, had started formulating arguments to deal with resistance as soon as Adrien’s smile had turned bland. It was unfortunate that Marinette wasn’t here to help convince him, but Wayzz had made it clear that this was the Guardian’s duty alone.

For all the model’s swagger, Nino knew Adrien was insecure about being the son of a supervillain. How a cold, evil man like Gabriel Agreste had managed to produce a man as good and kind-hearted as Adrien, Nino would never know. The villain’s actions had certainly gotten close to ruining his son’s life multiple times over, and Nino wasn’t just referring to Hawkmoth. But Adrien was still standing, and all he had to do was realize his full potential. It was his refusal to do so that had infuriated Nino so much over the years.

“Of course you can, Adrien. I’ve put a lot of thought into this and I can think of no one better than you.”

“Then you’re not thinking very hard,” Adrien said with derision. Nino blinked. Alright, no problem. Adrien got confrontational when something hit him right into the insecurities. Nino was used to dealing with that, although Adrien rarely got outright hostile like this. His resistance was usually more playful, although no less unyielding for it.

“Dude. I’m the avatar of Wisdom. When I tell you that you’re worthy of this, that means you are worthy.”

Adrien blinked rapidly and said nothing.

“You’re compassionate. You’re brave. You’re smart. Your first impulse when there’s danger is to run and save people. You have literally every single quality I am looking for.”

Nino smiled.

“You are going to make a great hero. Trust me.”

“I won’t,” Adrien whispered. “Nino, trust me, I won’t. I’m a fucking failure. I – I’m trying, but I can’t ever seem to get my shit together.”

“Well, it’s easier to get your shit together when someone has your back.” He leaned forward. “Come on, dude. We’ll be a team. It will be great. I’ll have your back and you’ll have mine.”

Tense silence descended, Adrien balling his fists in his lap.

“Why now? Why the need for reinforcements? Have the flame beasts grown so strong?”

“Ah.” Nino grimaced. “No. I mean, yes, they’re a problem, but… here’s the thing. Chat Noir’s not been well and he’s stronger than both Ladybug and me.”

“Not been well?” Adrien echoed faintly.

“He had a mental breakdown last night.” Nino sighed. “Tensions in our team are high. Ladybug keeps trying, but he’s just not receptive to any olive branches. We might have to fight him if this escalates any further. So I’m evening our odds.”

“I see.” Adrien almost choked on the words, eyes shiny, and he suddenly stood up. Without another word, he stalked into the kitchen, and came back a few moments later with two shot glasses and a full bottle of vodka. How’d he known where they stashed the liquor?

“Adrien…?”

His friend slammed down the glasses and started pouring himself a shot. “Sorry,” he muttered. “But this is shaping up to be the kind of conversation I’ll need to be drunk for to endure.” Adrien swallowed the shot in one practiced gulp, and then poured himself another. “In fact, you’ll probably want to be drunk by the end of this, too.”

He filled the second glass he’d brought and pushed it toward Nino.

“I’m stealing this bottle by the way, I’ll get you back a better one. Or leave you cash, I don’t know, I can slide that under the door.”

“Why would you need to slide it under the door?”

“Because our friendship will end in about two minutes. Drink up, Nino.”

Adrien was looking at him with red-rimmed eyes, so Nino did as he was told. The liquid burned his throat as it slid down.

“Alright, Adrien. I had my shot, now would you please sit and calm down.”

“I am calm. Perfectly calm. I just know more than you do.” He barked out a laugh. “Deception. Yes, so fitting.”

“So why is our friendship ending tonight, Adrien?” Nino asked softly.

Adrien’s lips stretched wide into a grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “Because I’m much better at destroying than deceiving. You’re going to hate me. And I’ll deserve it.” He reached into his pocket and held up a ring. “Watch. I know this magic trick. I’ve known it since I was fifteen years old.”

He shakily pushed the ring on his finger.

“Plagg. Claws out.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Chat Noir was starting to think he’d broken his best friend.

Nino hadn’t said anything in what seemed like an eternity. He just kept silently staring at him. So Chat leaned back – elegantly, because he might as well look fantastic while being examined – and poured himself his next shot. Although he already had a rather pleasant buzz going on, Chat healed fast, so he had to continually keep himself topped off to maintain inebriation.

Maybe he should borrow a second bottle. Yeah. He’d do that. Whether he had to slide one or two pieces of paper under the door made no difference at this point.

He’d been so happy this morning. But when he tried to hold on to that feeling, that ironclad certainty of ‘Marinette still loves me’, it just kept slipping from his grasp. Marinette would start wondering why Nino and he had stopped talking. It might make her reevaluate things.

Maybe she was already reevaluating things and had only said all those sweet things to pacify him. He’d given her reason to fear him, after all. She’d tried to fight him off and instead of letting go, he’d held her down. He could tell himself it was because he’d been too powerful in that moment, barely even recognizing her blows for what they were.

But would that be a lie? He couldn’t remember. Maybe his broken brain had already gotten to work and crafted seductively false memories out of the haze. Memories that did not threaten his precariously balanced self-respect. The night had been warm and loving and filled with complete acceptance, but maybe she remembered something else entirely.

His lips thinned as bile rose, and he glanced at Nino – who was still infuriatingly silent.

“Alright,” Chat said. Loudly. “Good talk. I’ll see you… around. On patrol or whatever.”

Golden eyes blinked owlishly, regaining their focus. Chat stood up, intending to go to the kitchen to get himself that second bottle. He knew exactly where it stood, because his stupid brain remembered details like that.

“Sit. Down.”

Chat arched an eyebrow. “Sorry, our riveting conversation wasn’t keeping my attention. Cats, you know, we’re pretty deficient in that–“

“Adrien, sit the fuck down and do not dare run away from me,” Nino hissed. “You don’t get to set the timetable here. I’m allowed to take a goddamn minute to figure out how to react to my best friend running around as a leather-clad asshole!”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino shouldn’t have said that.

When Chat Noir – Adrien – just crumbled back into his seat, he knew he really shouldn’t have said that. His cat ears – Adrien’s cat ears, what the fuck – were laid low, pressing down against shaggy blond hair. The normally so confident man, both in costume and out, was cringing like he expected to be beaten, averting his gaze in shame.

Fuck, but this was why he needed time to think, to make the pieces fit together before he allowed himself to react in full. Because clearly he had utterly failed at seeing the full picture, and had made bad assumptions about both Adrien’s and Chat Noir’s character because of it.

No wonder Wayzz was mad at him. He’d told him, hadn’t he? Straight up told him that the primary reason he’d been made Guardian was because he had the best shot at reaching Chat Noir.

Wayzz had known. This entire time Wayzz had known. Had encouraged him to be more empathetic with Adrien and to mend their friendship.

Nino needed to see the full picture before he allowed himself to react, or else he’d mess it up again. But no matter how hard he tried, the pieces would not assemble themselves into a cohesive whole.

There was something he was missing. Yes, Nino had always known that his friend was on a downward spiral, but never had he acted as violently unstable as Chat Noir.

The superficial similarities were easy to reconcile, and already Nino could see the answers to questions he hadn’t thought to ask – like what caused Adrien’s sudden return to Paris and his relentless drive to save people without regard for his own safety. Chat Noir had claimed to have interrogated Adrien when, obviously, he couldn’t have. It had only been to throw Carapace off Adrien’s scent, to shut down that avenue of investigation before anyone had thought to look.

But that also meant it had been Adrien threatening a woman he’d grown up with. Brutally interrogating his agent who clearly cared for him.

That was the crux of it.

There was one word that applied to Chat Noir but which Nino would never, not ever, have thought to apply to kind and mischievous Adrien. And he just… he couldn’t make it fit. He didn’t know how to meld these two people into one person in his mind’s eye.

But his silence was leaving Adrien in agony, so he would just have to ask instead of trying to figure it out.

“Adrien, how did you become so ruthless?”

Slit pupils met his gaze for a moment and then skittered away. “Ah. That. Yes, well.” He paused, pondering the question. Then he shrugged and leaned back. As he spoke, Adrien drew his arrogance around himself like armor, raising his chin and daring Nino to respond. “You know, I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts. Sorting out what I’d done, the how and why of it. And why it didn’t make me a bad person. Why it had been a good thing, really. Best for everyone’s safety.”

Chat Noir smiled coldly.

“There’s really not a whole lot left you can’t justify once you’ve successfully convinced yourself that killing your own father was for the greater good.”

Nausea hit Nino in the gut like a fist.

There it was. The piece of the puzzle his mind had refused to think about.

Gabriel Agreste almost ruined his son. Nino had always known that. But there might be no ‘almost’ about it. Because all of it, all of it, suddenly made a sickening amount of sense. Chat Noir’s disappearance and erratic behavior, Adrien’s slow breakdown in the wake of his father’s death, and the way Nino’s words had never seemed to reach him.

How could they? His advice had always been tailored to a situation so entirely unlike the one Adrien truly found himself in.

“Adrien,” he whispered. “Fuck, Adrien. I’m so sorry.”

Chat Noir raised his shot glass in a salute, Adrien’s smile firmly glued back in place, and gulped it down. “So what do you think now, Nino?” He opened his arms wide, voice taunting as if welcoming his scrutiny. “Is the murderer good hero material?”

“You’re not–“

“Yes. I am. Psychotic is the word you used at some point, I think?”

Nino cringed. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Yes, you did. You meant it every time you said it. And why shouldn’t you? I certainly acted the part.” His gaze became distant. “I’ve been awful to you. From the beginning. So here it is, Nino – my secrets laid bare, just like you always wanted. This is who I really am. Is it everything you’ve hoped I’d be? Am I living up to all that potential you see in me?”

He moved to get up again.

“Adrien, stop.”

“I don’t think I will. See, I’m going on a magical journey of self-discovery – to learn how many bottles of vodka this enhanced body of mine can take before I start vomiting. ‘scuse me.”

“Adrien. Stay. Please. Don’t run away, not again. Let’s talk about this.”

The cat ears drooped and for a moment the façade wavered. “Why? What’s there to talk about? I know everything you’re about to say. Let’s just skip it and get to shaking hands goodbye. Politely agree to only see each other when we absolutely have to.” He paused, his gaze far away and his tail flicking. “I’ll be better in the field. From now on. Promise. I won’t pick fights.”

“Dude, just sit still for five fucking minutes and let me say my piece instead of putting words in my mouth. Don’t I deserve that much?”

Chat Noir stood frozen for a long moment. Then he slowly lowered himself back to his seat. “Okay. Five minutes. I can take five minutes.” He drew back his shoulders, awaiting his judgement.

No wonder he was angry, no wonder he was a hot mess, no wonder he couldn’t seem to pull himself out of this spiral of dysfunction. Though he’d been getting better, hadn’t he? At least on his civilian side. Adrien was trying and that was something.

There would be a conversation about Chat Noir’s shitty behavior. But not today. Because sitting across from him was Adrien, and after many years of aimless searching Nino had finally, finally found the wedge that had driven them apart.

And he’d be a fool to drive it in deeper.

Nino Lahiffe was not a fool. In fact, he had it on good authority that he was, on occasion, rather wise.

“You know, Adrien,” he said, and reached for the bottle to fill his shot glass. “I’m not sure on whose behalf I’m more offended. Mine, that you think so low of me and expect me to turn away from you over this, or my best friend’s. See, you’re talking some awful shit about him.” He grinned and gulped down his shot. “I think I might have to punch you on his behalf.”

“…really?”

“Yes. Really.”

"But..." He trailed off, all the defensive aggression in his posture seeping away until he simply looked lost. "I've been - I try to be better, but I just - I get carried away and I've been such an-"

"You fucked up," Nino said softly. "So did I. And it's okay."

"How? How is any of this okay?"

"I have never needed you to be perfect to consider you my friend, Adrien."

Chat Noir grew perfectly still, razor thin pupils dilating into enormous black circles as they swallowed the green surrounding them.

Then he lunged.

Nino was no match for that superhuman speed. He froze, his eyes barely even registering the movement before the impact hit him. Nino rallied, attempting to brace himself against-

Chat Noir's purr.

A fuzzy cheek rubbed along Nino’s shoulder.

His Chill wavered.

What the fuck, Adrien. What. The. Actual. Fuck.

“Adrien?”

“Mhm?”

“Could you, uh. Please turn back now? I’m all for hugs and whatnot, but all this black leather is making me think I’m a minute away from this turning into the kind of adult film I’d really rather not be part of.”

Adrien barked out a half-broken laugh that sounded suspiciously like a supressed sob. “Don’t kink-shame me, Nino.”

“Save the fursona for Marinette.” And there was a can of worms he was not about to open. No. Not tonight. One thing at a time.

“You’re such an asshole.”

“I’ve learned from the best.”

Chat Noir’s costume dissolved into green light, and then it was just Adrien who was hugging him close.

And he kept purring.

Memories from the last time he’d seen Adrien drunk like this rose to the surface, featuring details previously repressed by a powerful glamor. He’d – this entire time – all the weird quirks he’d been attributing to a drug problem–

“What?” Adrien said as he happily kept violating the very notion of personal space.

His kwami must have sensed Nino’s brain shutting down, for that was the moment a little green blur caught Adrien’s attention. His head swiveled, eyes locking onto the movement. Oh God, it really was so, so ridiculously obvious.

“Black Cat. I am pleased to finally meet you in person, and to see you so well-recovered from last night’s ordeal.” Wayzz bowed deeply. “I am Wayzz, the kwami of Wisdom, and Nino’s partner.”

“Hi Wayzz.” Adrien’s grin was giddy with excitement. “So cool. I’ve never met another kwami but mine before. I have to say, you seem much more polite than–“

Wayzz was tackled by a black blur, tiny limbs wrapping around his thin neck. Putting the green kwami in a headlock, Chat Noir’s kwami started dragging Wayzz into another room.

“Um,” said Nino.

“Kwami business. Don’t interfere, human,” the adorable furball of anger hissed.

“…should we interfere?” Nino asked as Wayzz’s response was muffled by a paw.

Adrien swayed slightly. “’s fine. Plagg’s way of showing affection is special.” He attempted to lay his head back on Nino’s shoulder. Nino’s wits, however, had been given the chance to regroup, so he began delicately prying his friend off.

Green eyes blinked in surprise at the resistance, but then Adrien grinned sheepishly. “Right, right. Human thoughts. I forgot.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Marinette: ARE YOU GIVING IT TO ADRIEN???

Marinette: please don't give it to adrien

Marinette: not now

Marinette: trust me on this

Marinette: need to explain in person

Nino scrolled through the increasingly frantic messages, the first of which was dated shortly after Adrien had already strolled through the door.

Nino: too late

Nino: but we’re okay

He laid the phone face-down when Adrien returned to the table before the blond could catch a glimpse of the exchange.

“So about Ladybug…” Nino said nonchalantly.

“No.” Adrien’s voice was like ice as he slammed down a fresh bottle. “I know she’s your friend, and no, I don’t want to know how that happened. I don’t want to know who she is. I’ll try to be nicer to her, but I… she’s not good for my mental health, man. I can’t be friends with her, ever.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not fair to Marinette.”

“…what does Marinette have to do with it?”

“What Ladybug and I have is… complicated. I…” Adrien poured another drink. “We’re two halves of a whole and maybe she doesn’t feel it, but I do. I always have, even now that I can’t fucking stand the sight of her. And that’s – I really can’t do that to Marinette, man. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Screaming internally, Nino snatched the offered drink and gulped it down. He would – he would unravel that when he wasn’t drunk. Yes. He’d already made the mistake of delivering delicate information thoughtlessly, and he would not repeat it.

Adrien didn’t see Nino’s expression, too busy pulling out his own phone as well.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien: Marinette?

Adrien: did you mean the stuff you said?

Marinette: Every word.

Adrien: i know i scared you but i won’t be mad or bother you again if you say no

Marinette: I want to see you again. Soon. Please.

Marinette: Don’t run away from me again, kitty.

Adrien: ok

Adrien: i won’t

 

 

✧✦✧

 

“You need to tell her,” Adrien said.

“I can’t, man, Wayzz is already disappointed in me. I think I’m on Guardian probation or something. I have to follow the rules.”

“That’s dumb. You’re dumb. The rules are dumb.” And they were. Following them had brought Adrien nothing but misery. God, he should have just gone to Nino six years ago instead of relying on Ladybug. All the pain he could have spared himself…

But now he and Nino were both superheroes. A team. A friend he could share all aspects of his life with. All Adrien had ever wanted.

And he had Marinette. Sweet, wonderful Marinette.

“But they’re the rules. And I’m the Guardian. We’re held to higher standards.” Nino’s voice was miserable. “I’ll just make something up and hope she buys it.”

“She won’t. Alya is too clever for that.” Adrien focused his gaze as best as he still could. “Listen. Nino. Don’t let this secret ruin your personal life. It’s not worth it.” He gestured wildly to himself. “I’m exhibit A, B, C and the entire alphabet, man. Do you want to end up like me?”

“I won’t.”

“Alya can keep a secret. Trust me on this.”

“But I can’t, dude. Wayzz will take my Miraculous if I mess up again, I have no wiggle room. The rules…” Nino trailed off, his head slumping on the table.

Yes, the rules.

Adrien grew still, the gears in his head turning.

Wasn’t Destruction all about strategic disobedience? Choosing the lesser evil? Chat Noir existed to make the hard choices. He had wiggle room. It was up to him to compromise his morals so he could spare the others from having to do the same.

Adrien grinned as a plan took shape in his drunken mind.

 

Chapter Text

As the Black Cat comforted his Guardian over the loss of his love while Nino slowly succumbed to the effects of too much liquor – Adrien had to have a much higher tolerance – the kwami of Wisdom breathed a sigh of relief.

Watching the drunk man frantically search the apartment, there was little doubt that Adrien was on the path to being returned to the fold. Last night had been precarious, but his wielder had chosen to work that brain of his, and then finally met the Black Cat with the compassion he deserved.

Adrien stumbled and then seamlessly transition back into his graceful gait, strutting like he had intended to do that.

“You really opened the floodgates on him, huh, Plagg?”

“My methods are my own. You can’t argue with the result.”

“Yes, I can. You had us all worried. Your kitten had a mental breakdown less than twenty-four hours ago.”

“Details.” Plagg waved a dismissive paw. After hitting Wayzz with a rant about his old Master’s incompetence which eventually culminated in crying about the horrors of having to be nurturing, he’d calmed down considerably. The cheese Wayzz had requested Nino buy for just this occasion had helped. It had grown moldy, but that only pleased Plagg more. The kwami of Destruction thrived on decay. “My kitten is amazing. You should never have doubted him.”

“Master Fu didn’t.”

“Hm.” Plagg said nothing for a long moment while Adrien pulled the blanket he’d found over the sleeping form of the Guardian, and awkwardly patted his black hair. “Okay, maybe you should have doubted him a little. He really could have used some intervention after, oh, I don’t know, he killed his dad! You’re the reason it ever got this bad!”

“Hindsight,” Wayzz said with a small shrug. They had thought it prudent to wait for Plagg’s signal, but stalling for years had clearly been the wrong choice. It was the bane of his existence, to grow wise just in time to understand the gravity of mistakes he could no longer undo.

But Choosing Nino had not been one of his mistakes. Yes, it had taken the oblivious man far too long to see what was right in front of his face. And yes, maybe there had been times Wayzz had wanted to scream at the top of his lungs when he ignored what the kwami had considered to be very unsubtle hints, skirting the line of the Axiom he was not allowed to cross.

But then, not everyone was as wise as he. And there were limits of what he could expect from a fledgling Guardian, especially one fighting against Chat Noir’s powerful glamor.

All that mattered was that, when it counted, Nino had Chosen wisely.

Wayzz was pleased with how well his new Guardian had reasoned. But really, it was no surprise that a wielder for the Black Cat could also embody his fellow predator, wasn’t it?

Floating off to rest and meditate, the kwami pondered the implications. Perhaps they’d have more success creating consistently stable results if they adjusted the Fox’s parameters to be more in line with Plagg’s instead of pairing Trixx with sly humans filled with low cunning.

Though, to be honest, as well-reasoned as Nino’s choice was and as much as Plagg could grate on his nerves at times, Wayzz was very glad that Adrien wielded the Black Cat, and that the Fox would remain dormant.

Wayzz was supposed to love all his charges equally, and he did. Some he just preferred to love at a safe distance. And sometimes that distance led all the way to another dimension.

Nothing good ever came out of waking Deception.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino was the kindest, most compassionate man Alya had ever known. Every day he awed her with his thoughtfulness, his patience, his support. His gentle encouragement had made Alya feel like she could take on the world, and the world would tremble before her.

There was no danger too great, no feat too daring, as long as she had Nino by her side.

Alya sniffled as she silently vowed to never give her heart to a man again. What was the point? If even the best specimen of them couldn’t keep it in their pants, then there was no hope for the rest.

She cradled Princess to her chest. It was ironic, perhaps, to seek refuge in the apartment of a man while growing increasingly convinced that they all sucked, but she didn’t really have any girlfriends whose places were big enough – all students on student budgets, living either in spaces so small they resembled broom closets or at their parents’.

Alya wouldn’t have minded sleeping in Marinette’s cramped room, but her best friend was proving less than supportive, taking Nino’s side and reflexively excusing his behavior. So Alya had stopped answering her messages for now. She was entitled to stew in her anger for a while without having to hear about how Nino was such a great guy who’d never cheat.

The hotel reception hadn’t even asked questions when she’d stormed in and demanded to be let in, Adrien having authorized her as a visitor ages ago. She’d sectioned off part of his suite for herself, and he would just have to deal with it. This was a man-free zone now. Her zone.

Princess purred, writhing against Alya’s chest, and she began to understand the appeal of embracing spinsterhood and becoming a crazy cat lady. They really were a balm for the soul.

“I’m going to get a cat,” she declared out loud. No, she’d get two. Ten. Go big or go home.

“Meow,” said Chat Noir, perching on the window sill.

Alya wiped her runny nose. “Hello, Adrien. I’ve conquered your hotel room for womankind. Please do not enter the man-free zone marked by the red line. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Naturally, he leapt over the red line at once and landed on the sofa’s arm.

“What did I just say?”

“Well, what did I just say?” he countered with a grin, his voice slurred. “Meow.”

Hm. She supposed she wouldn’t be restricting her collection to just girl cats. His logic was sound.

“I’ll allow it.”

He flashed a grin at her, then curled up on his belly, crossing his arms in front. How? How did he make that strange pose look like the most natural thing in the world? She frowned when she noticed something different about him.

“You’re drunk,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Touché.” The half-empty bottle of wine on the table spoke for itself.

But that wasn’t it, not what was niggling at her mind. Alya pondered this mystery until her eyes widened with sudden realization.

“What’s this?”

She reached out to tug at the thin golden ribbon tied in a bow around his neck, right where he’d once worn a bell.

“That’s Marinette’s.” He grinned widely, eyes gleaming. “She caught me and now I’m not a stray anymore.”

“Okay…?” Alya wasn’t sure what to make of that answer, but Adrien looked supremely satisfied with himself. Good for him.

“Heard you and Nino had a fight.”

She sniffed. “Do not remind me. He’s in the past. All men are.”

“Hm. So he and I just had a heart-to-heart…”

“Don’t.” She closed her eyes, letting just a hint of the pain gnawing at her gut slip into her voice. “Please don’t, Adrien. I don’t want to hear it. I know he’s your best friend and you’re going to tell me he’s a great guy who’d never do something like this, but he’s lying, okay? I caught him in a lie. Multiple times now.”

The black belt’s tip flicked back and forth as green eyes gazed at her thoughtfully. “He knows I’m Chat Noir.”

“That’s great.” Her voice was flat. Yes, it was great that Adrien had finally found the courage to be honest, but she really didn’t have the energy to feel much of anything right now, being rather preoccupied with this yawning pit of despair inside of her.

“He knows I’m a murderer,” Adrien murmured. “I thought our friendship would be over for good, if he ever found that out, but…” He trailed off. “Marinette knows, too.”

Something softened inside her as she took in the expression on his face. Men were trash, but Chat Noir was a cat, so hopefully he’d be good to her best friend. “You’re not a murderer, Adrien.”

He shrugged. “Debatable.”

“Not even a little bit. You’re a hero. I could have told you that nobody would turn away from you over this. Finding out you’re Chat Noir only ever made me respect you more.”

Pupils narrowed to slits as he gazed at her. “Liar.” Despite the rebuke, his voice was gentle. “You don’t have to pretend to make me feel better, Alya. I know what I am.”

She huffed. “Clearly you don’t.”

“Well, clearly you don’t know that I can smell fear when I’m transformed. And you reeked of it when you found out who I was.”

“Because you were deliberately scaring me!” She flicked one of his ears and he winced. “I came back, didn’t I? A first reaction is just that – the first. Instinctive, unthinking. That doesn’t make it true. It’s the reaction we consciously decide on which matters in the end. Don’t mistake shock for rejection, you dumb cat.”

He held himself utterly still for a moment. Then Adrien slowly nodded.

“You have a point. I’m… I’m happy, Alya. I can’t even describe how much. None of you turned away, and I’ve let secrets and lies ruin me for nothing.” His eyes narrowed as he sat up. “And I won’t let them ruin you and Nino. So. Indulge me for a moment?”

She blinked up at him. It was hard to resist his intense gaze.

“…alright.”

“Let’s play pattern recognition. You once falsely suspected me of something I didn’t do when you put the clues together wrong.”

She groaned. “This is different, Adrien.”

“No. It isn’t. It’s the same. Your pattern recognition is excellent – you’re not just imagining things that aren’t there. They are there. You’ve uncovered something real, something significant, it’s just your conclusion that’s faulty. Don’t stick with your gut reaction. What’s the hypothesis you’re not letting yourself consider?”

She shook her head. “I’ve tried, okay? I’ve – I’ve checked his bank accounts, there’s no ring, no proposal, no secret anything he’s planning that he can’t tell me.”

He snorted. “You know, one of these days you and I are going to have a conversation about privacy. But no. Keep thinking.”

Her eyebrows knit together as she tried, truly tried to think of an alternative explanation. But her mind was blank.

“Come on, Alya, you’re a clever woman. What are the clues?”

“He lies,” she said slowly. “He isn’t where he’s supposed to be. He…”

She trailed off.

“Yes?”

“He stopped,” she whispered. “He stopped running after me. And I know, I know it’s stupid to expect him to run into danger for me, I don’t even want him to, but Adrien, he just stopped. He’s always had my back! And now he – now he…”

Adrien hummed. “Did he really?” His tail flicked. “What else changed when Nino did? What new variable appeared on the other half of the equation?” He leaned forward, so close his nose was almost touching hers. “Who’s running after you these days, Alya?”

Green. A memory of green came to mind. Golden eyes gazing at her with affection through his goggles.

“I…”

“Alya, think. What are you forgetting? What aren’t you considering? What explanation will your mind not let you consider?”

She’d been avoiding him because Alya didn’t like how he made her feel. How her gaze wandered over him and the way his voice made her shiver, all of it compounded by his behavior. One time, when he’d carried her away from danger, he had definitely palmed her ass.

And he kept calling her babe.

Oh.

Oh.

“Carapace,” she whispered.

Chat Noir grinned in triumph.

I’m dating a superhero.

Squee.

Puzzle pieces slid into place just as her arms slid around Adrien’s back, drawing him into a hug as she fervently chanted, “Thank you, thank you, thank you…”

He nuzzled her cheek, and – was that a purr? Had she made Adrien purr?

“I’m always happy to help out a friend.”

She drew back and gazed at him with a teary smile.

“Oh, is that what we are?”

“Hm. Figured it was about time, y’know. What with all the double dates I’m sensing in our future.” He went back to lounging, as if he didn’t care at all.

“Best Man at my wedding.”

“Maid of Honor at mine.”

“Moving a bit fast there, aren’t you?”

“It’s what I do.” The corners of his lips curved up. “I always, always get invested way too fast.”

“Good thing Marinette does, too.”

He made a happy sound in the back of his throat. “Hey Alya? When do you think would be an appropriate time to start talking to her about stuff like how many children we want to have? Because I want three.”

Not two months into dating her, I can tell you that much.”

“Right, right. I knew that.” He suddenly sat up as if he’d just remembered something. “But we’re getting side-tracked.”

“Are we?”

“Yes. You know, I didn’t just come here to tell you that your boyfriend’s a superhero.”

“You didn’t?”

“No. Because that’s against the rules, and Nino, sadly, has to care about those.” He smirked. “But I am Destruction, you know. I’m supposed to tear down the rules. For their own good. You know who’s allowed to know all about Nino’s secret identity?”

He held out his hand, opening his claws to reveal a small black box.

“Other superheroes. And really, it’s about time some investigative talent got added to our team in an official capacity.”

Alya’s eyes widened when the implication sank in.

Her hand darted out to snatch the box, but Chat held it high above his head, laughing.

“Let’s sober up first, alright? We’ll open it in the morning and make a good first impression on your new partner.”

She made one more futile attempt to grab the Precious, but he only held it higher.

 

✧✦✧

 

Trixx opened his eyes to a new and old world. Sensation he had not known in so long flooded his senses, making him dizzy and filling him with anticipation. The Void was peaceful slumber, but this was beautiful chaos. How he’d missed it.

His gaze fell upon the face of a young woman with rich brown skin. Her red hair shone in the morning sun, almost matching his fur.

A new wielder. At last.

His new partner’s hazel eyes were wide and filled with wonder – as they should be when faced with a creature as magnificent as he.

How curious.

Those were honest eyes.

“Hello,” she whispered, a small hopeful smile on her lips. Cute. She was looking at him with the appropriate levels of awe, so Trixx decided to show her respect in return, sweeping into a formal bow.

“Wielder,” he greeted her with a sly grin. “You have the look of someone who already knows what I am.”

“You’re a kwami. You turn people into superheroes.” There was longing in that word, ambition left unfulfilled. Ah, but what was he to do with someone who wore her heart on her sleeve?

This one was a truth-seeker.

What was the Guardian doing, matching him with that?

Wayzz was forever putting off waking him, left Deception to his sleep until he ran out of options. Only one time in his long existence had Trixx been called without the other six having been activated first. And yet, he’d felt the bee’s and the butterfly’s presence within the Void when he’d left it.

Had he been called by mistake?

But he did not want to go back to sleep. And she wanted what he had to offer.

They’d make this work.

In a way, one needed an intimate understanding of the truth in order to obscure it. That was why, of all the kwami, his senses were keenest, so he knew what to hunt and hide from view. Perhaps she would show him new and creative ways to play with it that he had not yet considered.

Heavens, he hoped she wasn’t boring. Honesty didn’t have to be boring, did it?

“If it’s power you want, power I have,” he said. “But tell me first, because I must know…” He raised his paw, sending a silent plea to the Beyond that all was not yet lost. “Do you like pranks?”

There was a burst of laughter to his right, a male’s voice, and Trixx turned to look up.

A man was lounging nearby, perched on the sofa’s back. “Okay, I think I know why Nino tried matching me with that.”

His new wielder stuck out her tongue at him. “No take-backs!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. I’m a one-kwami-man. Also, Plagg would skin me alive.”

“I would,” a familiar voice said, peeking out between strands of messy blond hair.

“Destruction,” Trixx purred, and the cat kwami flashed a grin. “It’s been too long.”

“Indeed. Wayzz is lame to keep you locked up.”

This boded well. Trixx liked his fellow predator – Plagg understood not only the value of a good joke but had a talent for sniffing out wielders of quality. But what was this about having been Chosen for someone else?

“Am I to understand that I was meant for you first?” he asked the man.

“Yeah, but trust me, Alya is way cooler than me. The new Guardian is being dumb, so I had to step in.”

“Thief,” the redhead teased.

“I’m all about that thug life now, yeah.”

The woman – Alya? – laughed and shoved the man off the furniture.

He easily landed on his feet. “Betrayal! That’s the last time I’m doing something nice for you!”

Trixx let his gaze linger on the mischievous sparkle in her hazel eyes. So, his new wielder had been Chosen by the Black Cat – to taunt the Guardian?

His luxurious tail quivered in anticipation of the fun they were going to have.

Chapter Text

Nino: Adrien

Nino: where did u put the fox mir?

Nino: I cant find it and wayzz is looking at me all judging

Adrien: I have it.

Adrien: You gave it to me, remember?

Nino: ????

Nino: u already have 1 give it back

Nino: besides u turned it down

Adrien: Yeah, but you gave such a stirring speech.

Adrien: How could I turn it down after you waxed poetic about how much I deserve this, Nino?

Adrien: I’m going to taunt you with that forever btw

Adrien: Every time you say “No, don’t!” I’ll say “Trust me, I know what I’m doing, I’m a great hero.”

Nino: ADRIEN

Nino: I’M ON GUARDIAN PROBATION

Nino: DON’T DO THIS TO ME

Adrien: I’ve always wanted to try dual wielding.

Adrien: What happens when you put on two of these at once?

Adrien: Let’s find out.

Nino: I hate you!!!!!

Adrien: Lies.

Adrien: You love me. You said so. You were drunk, but I’m counting it.

Nino: Adrien, I’m serious. Please give it back. Wayzz is going to kill me.

Adrien: Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I’m a great hero.

Adrien: ;)

“Oh, you are so fucking annoying sometimes.”

Adrien, why? Why are you doing this to me? This isn’t a game.

Nino clutched the jade bracelet around his wrist. He didn’t want to have it taken away, he didn’t want to stop being a superhero. Taking a deep breath, he paused to think. He’d made the mistake of being too uncharitable of Chat Noir’s actions and motives before.

Was Adrien trying to protect him from having to suffer as he did? The secret of Chat Noir had taken a heavy toll on his friend, and even Nino was starting to feel the strain. He supposed if he stopped being Carapace, he could mend this rift with Alya. But – that really wasn’t Adrien’s choice to make.

And unlike Adrien, he wasn’t alone. He had two partners to help him through hardship.

For now, he had to keep Wayzz placated.

“Adrien has it,” he murmured to his kwami. “He was drunk when he took it.”

“Well, get it back.” Wayzz’s antenna twitched with irritation. “Our dormant Miraculouses need to be kept together and not spread thin. It’s too easy to lose sight of them. This one especially.”

“I will, I will.”

Someone started banging on his door, and he winced, his hangover amplifying the noise. He made his way to the front door, praying that it was Alya come to chew him out, so he could start working on convincing her that he was faithful. Ugh, he really should have thought of an excuse for his behavior by now.

He opened the door. On the other side stood Marinette, staring up at him with wild eyes.

“Is he still here?”

“Huh?”

“Adrien. Is. He. Still. Here.”

“No, he – he left last night, we–“

But you know?”

Nino hesitated and then nodded.

“Did you tell him about me?”

“No. It didn’t seem like my place.”

“Okay!” The word was a shrill screech rather than Marinette's normally pleasant voice. She pushed past him, pacing with restless energy, and gesticulated wildly. “This is a horrible disaster, but it’s okay! I’ve figured it out! I spent all day thinking about it, and I think I have the solution!”

“…solution?”

“I’ve figured it out!” She took some deep breaths, appearing to center herself. Then she smiled. It was manic. “Ladybug is going to retire and I’m going to dye my hair.”

What.

“Can you, uh. Walk me through the steps of your plan? I don’t think I’m following.”

She nodded. “Yes. Yes, of course. Well. Obviously I can’t ever, ever tell him I’m Ladybug. That would be bad. Another mental breakdown level bad.” Her crazed eyes fixed on his. “We can’t let Adrien have another breakdown, Nino. We must protect the kitty!”

“Right. Yes. Protect the kitty,” Nino said, fairly certain he was looking at another mental breakdown. Why were all his charges unhinged in some way? He didn’t sign up to be a group therapist, he’d just wanted to be a superhero and wield a cool shield-hoverboard.

“So what’s going to happen is this. Ladybug is going to retire. Tell him she quit because – reasons. I don’t know. And then! I’m going to dye my hair. Blond or red or something that looks completely different. And you’ll be like ‘Chat Noir, look at this new wielder of the Ladybug Miraculous I’ve chosen – and wow, it’s Marinette! Your girlfriend!’” She nodded again. “And then the glamor will do the rest and he will not ever find out that the new Ladybug is the same as the old Ladybug and we will live happily ever after.”

“Marinette.”

“I mean, yeah, it’s going to be a pain to have to hide roots for the rest of my life–“

“Marinette.”

“–but I think I can make this work.”

“Marinette.”

She blinked up at him.

“This is the dumbest plan I have ever heard. You have to tell him the truth.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

“Nino,” she whispered. “I can’t. He’ll hate me.”

“He won’t.” He gently touched her shoulder. “Any animosity he had for Carapace vanished instantly once he knew it was me. Marinette, he’s madly in love with you. Whatever happened between you two, he’ll forgive.”

“You don’t understand. He was madly in love with me before. That’s why he hates me so much now. You don’t understand what I did to him.”

Nino had wondered about the source of Adrien’s sheer hatred for Ladybug. Yes, grief made people irrational, made them look for someone to blame, but still… It was so unlike Adrien to cling to grudges. Once Adrien chose someone, he endlessly hounded them for attention, forgiving any slight at the first hint of affection. The man who could tolerate Chloe Bourgeoise and all her bullshit for no other reason than that he’d mentally designated her a friend should not be this vitriolic toward his other half. “Well, explain it to me.”

Marinette wrapped her arms around her slender body, shivering. “He killed him. He killed Hawkmoth. His father. To protect me.” Tears started rolling down her cheeks. “And when he came to me for comfort afterward, begging me to let him reveal himself so he could talk about some personal problem he was facing, I told him to handle it on his own. That’s why – that’s why he’s been wanting to keep it professional. Because I kept prioritizing duty above him as a person, even when it mattered most.”

Ah, fuck.

 

✧✦✧

 

The man called Adrien and Trixx’s new wielder Alya were howling with laughter as they bent over the strange little device that was transmitting messages between them and the Guardian. Marvelous thing, that. It hadn’t yet existed when Deception had last visited this world, and already he saw the countless opportunities for mischief with it.

“Oh, Adrien, I think you broke him,” Alya said, wiping a tear from her eye.

“Nah, Nino can take it. Besides, I thought you wanted him to squirm a little for making you this paranoid?”

“True, true. He certainly deserves it.” Her lips curved into a gentle smile. “I do love this liar, though. Let’s not be too harsh.”

Another curious change in this world. Guardians were meant to be celibate, were they not? Taken as children into the sanctuary, to train their body and mind with singular devotion to the cause. They took no spouses and sired no children they were doomed to outlive.

The blond man tapped his chin. “So what does happen when you dual wield Miraculouses?”

“Well, you’re certainly not going to find out,” Plagg grumbled, nestled in his hair. “I’ve put too much work into you for someone else to reap the benefits.”

“Aw, Plagg. You know I’m loyal.”

“More than you know,” the black kwami muttered in a voice so low Trixx was certain only his fine hearing had picked up on it. He was a hunter, after all, and even the Black Cat could not match the excellence of the Fox’s senses. Cats were ambush predators, forever lying in wait for something to come close enough for them to eviscerate. Trixx was the one who tracked and hunted his prey over long distances.

“Well,” said Trixx with a wink. “I’m open to experimenting.”

Destruction hissed. “You keep your hands off! We gave you the girl!”

“So you did.” Trixx smiled a brilliant smile at the redhaired beauty. Yes, she was a fine choice, his initial reservations unfounded. Not only did she match his elegance, already she’d proved to be in possession of great wit and a playful sense of humor.

And that was the best part of it all. She was the Guardian’s lover.

Trixx was going to get to torment Wayzz for years to come.

Life outside the Void is good, he thought, and buried himself in his new partner’s lovely locks.

“So how are we going to punish him for lying to you?” he whispered in her ear.

 

✧✦✧

 

Trixx, let’s pounce!”

Magic enveloped Alya’s body, real magic, magic that was now hers, and she could not help but twirl and dance with it. Her senses sharpened, the world snapping into focus even as her glasses vanished and a mask took their place.

She stretched her limbs, energy sizzling in her veins and a thousand whispers in her ears. All four of them. Two of them twitched, taking in her surroundings. Footsteps two floors above them, faint music – jazz – coming from a room somewhere to the right, the low hum of conversation she was sure she would be able to hear in full if only she could concentrate on it.

But there was so much! So much to discover, to hear, to scent!

Alya sneezed.

The whole room smelled wrong. Something was off, and she didn’t know what, all she knew was that it was–

Dangerous.

With eyes on her.

She jumped back, whirling to face her opponent, her body flowing like water into a battle stance. It wasn’t quite instinct, this instant knowledge of how to fight, more like the faint muscle memory of Foxes who had come before her.

Adrien was blinking at her with a dopey grin on his face.

“That twirl you did was cute. I’ve never seen someone else’s Miraculous transformation before, it’s so different from mine. And yes, I absolutely watched myself in the mirror. I recommend it.”

“You smell like cat,” she told him, and he raised his eyebrow as if to say, ‘no shit’.

Then he suddenly wrinkled his nose. “Ugh, yeah, what is that?”

“Another predator in your territory,” Plagg said, munching on his camembert. “Now you know what an Intruder feels like, Adrien.”

He hummed and frowned at Alya. “It’s going to go away, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ll get used to each other’s scent. It’ll start registering as ally.”

How freaky. Everything inside her was screaming not to turn her back to Adrien. But it was just Adrien, and she was Alya, a kickass superheroine who was stronger than some stupid animal instinct. She turned around to face the mirror and examined herself.

Good thing she could see Adrien in the mirror, too. Watching his reflection out of the corner of her eyes, he didn’t look like he was plotting her imminent murder behind her back. So that was a relief. Then he suddenly laughed.

“What?”

“You have nine tails!”

She looked at her backside, swishing the little cape in the shape of a white-tipped tail that hung off her waist. “That’s one, Adrien.” And what a cute tail it was. Alya had always been what one might call ‘thick’ but this took her superb butt’s appeal to new heights.

“Your hair.”

Alya blinked at the mirror. Her long flowing locks had rearranged themselves in a voluminous ponytail, separating into defined curls that ended in white tips. Fox tails. She ran her gloved fingers through her hair, but it just bounced back into the distinctive shapes. One, two…

“Eight,” she whispered. Adding her cape, Adrien was right. His reflection shot her a grin.

“Have you decided on a name?”

A codename of her own. She smiled at the mirror, and a Magical Girl smirked back. A superheroine. Everything she’d dreamed of since the first time she’d caught sight of Ladybug and realized that heroes were real.

She’d almost let go of her childish dream. Had tried to make herself content with being a sidekick. But this… this was what she’d been striving for all along.

“Rena. Rena Rouge.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Chat Noir was so close behind her his paws were almost batting at her coat tail. He was fast, so fast, but she was clever, far more devious than he. She ducked, pressing herself to the floor while he sailed above her in a failed lunge. Rena Rouge heard his low snarl and laughed, changing directions while his claws were still raking on the roof’s shingles to slow his momentum.

The fox dropped into a small, winding alley, melding with the shadows. The cat followed her down only a heartbeat later, crouching on all fours and scenting the air, the tip of his belt twitching.

Adrien’s look of utter confusion made her snort, the noise giving away her location.

She went tumbling down as he pinned her. “Tag,” he whispered, cat eyes gleaming with the same thrill of the hunt that was thundering in her veins. “You’re it.”

“Two out of three?”

He laughed low in his throat.

“I’m faster. Sorry. I’m max level while you’re still a little newbie stumbling around in her starting gear.”

She raised her chin. “And yet, this newbie is a better hunter than you. You’ll see.” Rena Rouge felt the truth of that statement in her bones, an absolute certainty that this was her strength, not his. Destruction is crude, whispered a voice in her head that sounded suspiciously like her mischievous kwami. Deception is subtle.

“By all means,” Chat Noir purred. “Prove it. We’re almost there.”

He scaled the wall, his claws digging into brick, while she cleared the height with one graceful leap. Unlike Adrien, Alya did not feel the urge to run around on all fours, although she couldn’t deny that something about her body language was… altered.

She wanted to sway and cock her hips, make her movements flow like that of a dance. It was only natural that everyone should witness her beauty and elegance. He made no secret out of being a beast, but she was a Goddess.

Her beast was hidden.

Rena Rouge followed Chat Noir as they jumped from rooftop to rooftop, leading her to the scene where the last Flameling had met its demise. The one that had altered the pattern.

She shuddered as she passed through something mid-leap, and almost lost her balance when landing on the next roof’s edge. Rena looked back over her shoulder and frowned. Chat skidded to a halt as well when he noticed she’d stopped.

“What?”

“Not sure.” She frowned. “Did the Flameling fly by here?”

“Possible. We’re pretty close to where it was defeated.”

Following a whim, she said, “Can you take me to where Ladybug shot her arrow?”

He frowned but didn’t comment. After two more leaps he touched down and gestured to the ledge. “Somewhere around here.”

Rena Rouge inched closer, holding out one gloved hand. She wasn’t sure what exactly she was trying to do, but her instincts told her this was the right move. Curiosity had always been her bane, and she wanted to see where following this compulsion would lead.

“Oh,” she whispered, a shiver of delight running down her spine.

There was something in the air. Warmth, love, home, comfort, safety. Creation, whispered the voice in her head.

At Chat Noir’s quizzical look, she explained, “I think I’m feeling residue from Ladybug’s magic.” Her eyes widened and she whirled to face him fully, grinning. “Use your power for me?”

He answered with a salute and a sardonic grin. "Cataclysm.”

Black lightning started oozing from his fingers just as a premonition of threat! passed over her.

Chat looked around, then picked up a pebble. Tossing it in the air, he swiped it with one of his claws.

She reached out, her hand hovering where the stone had crumbled into dust, and shivered. Decay, ruin, devastation. Chat’s power was dangerous, wild and untamed. But there was an undercurrent of protectiveness there that kept her from recoiling. Dark though it might be, Chat’s power belonged in this world, a natural part of the cycle of life and death.

“Very grimdark, Kitkat. Shall I find some gargoyles for you to brood atop of?”

He grinned lopsidedly. “Not my aesthetic. Also, don’t call me that.”

She stuck out her tongue and then started roaming around, looking for traces of fire magic. That had to have been what she’d jumped through, something vile and spine-chilling and just… wrong.

Broken.

Rena Rouge choked when she found it, her mouth tasting of ash. She pushed through the discomfort, trying to detangle the meaning of the trail her prey had left behind.

Unyielding. Judgement cast and executed. No mercy without Generosity.

The righteous flames of Justice.

Chapter Text

Carapace checked Alya’s phone again, following the string of alerts from the Ladyblog. That she had managed to leave the beloved connection to her work behind was a sign of just how deeply distressed Alya had to be. How much he’d hurt her.

I’ll fix this. I have to fix this.

Fuck, but why did he have so many things to fix?

For now, having more or less recovered from his hangover, he would start with the most urgent one – getting the Fox Miraculous back from Adrien to ensure Nino didn’t get his Miraculous taken away. Chat Noir had been spotted running across the rooftops of Paris, and Alya’s mailbox had flooded with pictures from her readers for the – ugh – Cat Boy In Tight Leather Appreciation Page. Though he supposed the page didn’t bother him as much as it used to.

Nino was used to turning a corner to unexpectedly find himself staring at his best friend’s bedroom eyes, posing in way too tight clothing on a billboard. He’d learned to tune it out, and this was just more of the same. Chat Noir hadn’t been flirting with Alya at all. In fact, in a way, hadn’t he even been defending Nino’s girlfriend from a supposed stranger’s advances?

Following the landmarks he could make out in the background of the photographs, Carapace hovered high above the city in search of movement, trying to retrace Adrien’s steps. Was he headed for the site of their last battle? Maybe he had decided to investigate. It was worth a shot.

He gave his shield a temporary speed boost – having finally, after all this time, figured out how – and flew closer to the rooftops, searching for any sign of Chat Noir.

There!

He landed beside the man with a thud, bending one knee to cushion his fall.

“Carapace!”

Adrien flashed him a wide grin, baring small fangs. Looking at his friend’s face when his eyes were all wrong was still a little unsettling, but Carapace tentatively returned his teammate’s smile.

Before remembering that he was mad at this guy.

“Give it back.”

Chat Noir cocked his head, looking so smug Carapace felt familiar dislike for the other hero rise within. Chat is Adrien. Adrien who is a good if slightly infuriating person and who just had a mental breakdown.

“I don’t have it.”

A very infuriating person. Stay calm. Gentle. He’s fragile.

“Then where is it?”

“I gave it to someone worthy.” Adrien beamed at him.

Don’t punch your best friend.

“That’s my job, not yours.”

Chat Noir tapped his fuzzy chin. Adrien kept his stubble meticulously groomed, but now he looked like he’d forgotten to shave in over a week. Another sign of his brittle mental state. “It is. And you Chose me, which means you entrusted me with the Fox Miraculous. So, by transitive property, I am worthy of entrusting someone else with it.”

“That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”

Green cat eyes sparkled with glee. “Aw geez. If only I’d been kept in the loop more, then maybe I would know the rules well enough to follow them.”

Nino pushed up his goggles to rub the bridge of his nose. “You’ve made your point. Now please, just… give it back.”

“I can’t. As I said. I gave it to someone else. You’ll have to ask her.” He jerked his chin, gazing over Carapace’s shoulder.

Nino turned around.

His throat and mouth conspired to make a choked sound utterly stripped of all dignity.

He was staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. She sauntered toward him, the sway in her curvy hips inviting his mind to draw vivid images of all manner of depravity. Captivating eyes were fixed on him, luscious lips curved into a knowing smile.

“Sorry, turtledove.” The Goddess swished her orange cape and winked, her sultry voice like music to his ears. “It’s mine now. Do you like my new look? It’s pretty foxy, if I do say so myself.”

Alya.

Think of Alya, and get your mind out of the gutter.

Scowling at the beautiful woman, he turned back to Adrien who was watching the two of them with barely concealed amusement. “Hilarious, Chat. You can’t just hand out a fucking Miraculous to some random model friend of yours! What were you thinking?”

Adrien and the woman shared a look, and then they both cracked up. As Nino’s scowl deepened, Adrien wiped at his eyes, being the first to compose himself while the woman just kept snickering.

“Well, here’s what I was thinking… when I chose a fellow supermodel.” His shoulders shook as he struggled to keep his laughter at bay. “You know that page of fan service the Ladyblog has of me? The ladies love it. Then I thought to myself…” He paused for dramatic effect. “But what about the men?”

The fox wielder shoved his ribs, laughing harder, while Chat fought to keep his expression sincere.

“Those poor straight men, you know. Won’t somebody think of the straight men? Such an underserved demographic. They need fanservice, too, don’t they? Who shall give the straight men their fanservice, Carapace? This is why I became a hero. To help out the underdogs of this world.”

“You fool,” the fox woman said, seeming to have finally overcome her laughing fit. “You might have been thinking about the straight men, but I’ve been a double agent for the non-heteronormative agenda all along!”

Chat Noir gasped.

“That’s right! I’m doing this for all the cute girls who like other cute girls. For it has recently come to my attention that men cannot be trusted.”

Black ears drooped.

“Not you. You’re a cat, you’re a spinster’s best friend.”

The ears perked back up again.

Nino stared at this exchange in bewilderment, not particularly shocked by what they were saying – Adrien was up to his usual hyperbolic antics – but how they were saying it. There was an easy rapport between the two of them, the kind that only came with friendship.

But Adrien didn’t have close friends other than Nino and Marinette. He had colleagues and friendly acquaintances, sure, but nobody Nino knew of that he was close enough to just hand a Miraculous to.

This had better not be Chloe Bourgeoise.

The mysterious woman sashayed up to Nino, eyes lit up in amusement. “I’m thinking about exploring cute girls. I’ve always had these fantasies, you know. But alas, I fell for this dumb boy when I was young.” She was so close that Carapace had to rock back on his heels to keep some distance between them, but she ignored his evasive body language to lay a finger on his chest. And stroked. “So what do you think, handsome? What are my chances of seducing Ladybug?”

Nino’s eyes darted to Adrien. “She – she has a boyfriend.” Adrien scowled, but a moment later his expression became blank.

“How unfortunate,” the new Miraculous wielder purred, leaning in closer still. Oh God. Her knee was touching his thigh, and if she came much closer, there’d be no hiding his physical reaction to her. “And how about you?”

“I have a girlfriend.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “Do you really?”

“Yes,” he said decisively, picked her up by her shoulders and deposited her a safe distance away. “And I love her and I would appreciate it if you respected my personal space.”

She blinked. Then she laughed again, but this time it was soft and affectionate.

“Nino,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Do you really think Adrien hands out superpowers to random women?”

“You know,” Adrien drawled behind her. “For someone so smart he can be really dumb.”

Before Nino could process their words further, warm lips met his.

Oh.

The kiss was gentle and sweet, a hint of passion teasing him, hidden beneath love and familiarity.

Oh.

“Alya,” he whispered and she grinned at him, rocking back on her heels as she demurely tugged at her Fox costume.

“Just so we’re clear, you’re still sleeping on the couch. A week, at least. For lying to me.” She paused and pondered this. “And another week on top of that for me having to get my superpowers from Adrien and not from you.”

“Aren’t you going to give him props for thinking you’re a model?” Adrien asked.

“True, true. Minus two days.”

Adrien shot Nino a satisfied smirk, seeming entirely too pleased with himself for what he’d arranged. “Am I the best friend or am I the best friend?”

Carapace gazed at Chat Noir for a long while. “Yes,” he said softly, and Adrien’s smirk widened into an excited grin.

 

✧✦✧

 

Alya couldn’t stop grinning, nor could she keep her eyes off her boyfriend. Her boyfriend in a superhero costume. It was so disconcerting to suddenly be able to see that the man she’d always considered blandly handsome had had her boyfriend’s prominent nose all along.

And the way he was looking at her… well. It made her want to play with her hair and bat her eyelashes at him, all so she could lure him into some dark alley and have her way with him.

But it would have to wait. She didn’t think Adrien would appreciate the show.

Green gloves brushed her hair in wonder, golden eyes hidden behind goggles darting back and forth between her and Chat. "I didn't know you two were so close."

"Funny story, that," Adrien drawled. "You weren't kidding when you said that Alya was the final boss fight I had to face to date Marinette. Except she was the first."

"...Alya, what did you do?"

"Nothing at all." She smiled winningly. "Just a little investigating. Speaking of..."

Rena Rouge would conclusively demonstrate why Nino had fucked up in not making her a superhero as soon as he had the chance. He might not be a cheater, but she was still mad – he’d had her dream in his hands and cruelly withheld it.

Her kwami’s voice in her head was a terrible influence, urging her to seek retribution.

She sauntered back to where she had picked up her target’s invisible footprints. “Call Ladybug,” she said, and her nose twitched when Adrien’s scent suddenly took on a sharp note. “I think I might be able to track the Flamelings to their source.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug wrinkled her nose as she dropped down into stale air. Faint voices were echoing up ahead, drifting in from a narrow passage flanked by white walls. She tried not to think about what might be hidden inside.

The catacombs of Paris had always creeped her out. They were a sprawling underground network of tombs, the winding maze running beneath the heart of the old city. Filled with ancient passages history had forgotten, nobody knew the full size of it, nor had anyone ever been able to map it out.

Parisians sometimes liked to throw illegal parties down here. Luka had invited her to one and she had declined, not particularly eager to dance among the bones. Or to be trapped in a crumbling labyrinth that scoffed at the very notion of safe escape routes. People got lost down here, never to be seen again.

Of course the Flameling Source had decided to hide down here. Of course. Couldn’t have picked one of Paris’ many pleasant parks, nope, had to be the spine-chilling catacombs with no fire escapes.

She followed the faint voices, glancing at her yo-yo displaying Carapace’s location to make sure she was going the right way. Turning a corner, she caught sight of a group of three, their silhouettes lit by a pale orb of magical light.

Cat ears twitched and swiveled toward her like radar discs. While the other two appeared absorbed in conversation, Chat Noir angled his head to look at her over his shoulder.

Adrien’s gaze was filled with disdain before he smoothed it into a neutral expression. Pain shot through her chest. Soon he’d be looking at Marinette that way, too.

“Ladybug,” he said with a respectful incline of his head. “Glad you could make it.”

Adrien was well-versed in being polite to people he couldn’t stand. He appeared to be back to trying to do just that, but that he hadn’t been able to keep it up for any length of time up until this point boded ill for her.

My kitten hates me.

Ladybug steeled her spine and squared her shoulders, walking up to the group. “Carapace said you had a lead on our villain…?” This was not the time for her personal drama. Nino had given her a deadline for telling Adrien, but not now. Not like this, not in front of an audience, not as Ladybug.

She had to tell him as Marinette, and hope that residual affection would keep him around long enough to give her time to make amends properly.

“Ladybug!” An unknown voice squealed in excitement and a woman dressed as a fox bounded up to her, a gleeful grin on her lips. Then her eyes suddenly grew wide with realization. Her demeanor shifted from overeager to calm as she gracefully brushed a strand of white-tipped red hair from her face. “I am Rena Rouge.” Her voice had dropped an octave. “Your new partner.”

Chat Noir coughed, and it sounded suspiciously like ‘fangirl’.

The fox heroine shot him a glare and he laughed under his breath. Affectionately. Adrien’s true laugh, not Chat’s taunting one.

Who is she?

Ladybug smiled, though it was strained. “I see the Guardian has Chosen.” And Wayzz appeared to have approved. “Welcome to the team, I’m sure you will be a great hero.”

Rena Rouge beamed, though for some reason Nino fidgeted guiltily. Then their new teammate launched into a torrent of words. “I don’t have a lot of practice with my new powers yet, but I’m pretty sure I have some sort of sixth sense. Not sure if that’s a Fox thing or a Me thing or a combination of the two, but –“ She waved her gloved hand. “– I’m picking up on magic in the air. The source of the fire magic is close, I can feel it, but…” She sighed in frustration. “The way these passages wind and twist, we could be twenty meters away and it could still take us an hour of walking to get to it.”

“Then we best get walking,” Chat said dryly.

“Agreed,” Carapace said, golden eyes darting between Chat and Ladybug. Worried.

Rena nodded and raised her hand, fox ears twitching as she locked on to whatever she was tracking. Then she hesitantly began walking deeper into the labyrinth, starting and stopping every so often in front of forking paths, leaving the other three heroes to trail closely behind.

Ladybug’s gaze kept getting drawn back to Adrien who was rather resolutely staring ahead. But by the way his ears twitched whenever she looked at him, he had to have noticed her scrutiny.

Eventually, Chat Noir sighed, and signaled her to fall back. They both slowed their steps to walk a little distance behind the other two.

“I wanted to apologize,” he said, voice low and tense. “For the way I freaked out. I have some… unresolved issues.”

Ladybug said nothing because what could she possibly say to that? His issues were like a yawning chasm between the two of them, a canyon so deep and wide she didn’t know if there was a way for them to ever be on the same side again.

“While I appreciate your offer, I don’t think it would be wise for me to take it.”

“Why not?” Did he really not want to know her anymore? At all?

“Because I’m trying to let go of the past, and that wouldn’t help.” He exhaled. “But I will improve our teamwork. You have my word.”

He said it the way someone might say ‘I will get that root canal done.’ Something unpleasant but necessary, that was what she was to him. Their teamwork didn’t use to require effort at all, their bodies and mind in complete harmony as they battled against Akumas.

Her teeth dug into her bottom lip. “I missed you, Chaton.”

Adrien stiffened at once, glaring at her. “Don’t–“

“Please let me say this. I know – I know you’re angry with me, and I know that you have reason to be.”

“No.” A soft laugh tinged with bitterness. “You never owed me a damn thing. It was my fault for expecting too much. It’s fine. Don’t concern yourself with this now.”

“But it is my concern. It has always been my concern. I failed you, Chaton. The reason I told Carapace as quickly as I did is that I didn’t want to repeat the mistake that cost me my first partner. You – I didn’t know what you meant to me until you were gone. I missed you. For six years, I missed you.”

“Please stop talking.” His hand was at his throat, claws protectively curled around a hint of gold. Ladybug blinked and looked closer.

A ribbon.

Ahead of them, Rena Rouge came to a sudden halt, fox ears vibrating. “Do you hear that?”

Chat Noir seemed grateful for the interruption, his black ears perking up at once as he cocked his head. He frowned. “Is that… crying?”

“I don’t hear anything,” Carapace said, and Ladybug nodded in agreement.

“Well, neither turtles nor bugs are known for their hearing,” Rena murmured. “Best be quiet from here on out, it’s up ahead.” She twirled her flute and the wisp light she’d been using to illuminate the dark passages was snuffed out.

They crept along the walls in silence until light started flickering ahead of them.

Even Ladybug heard it now. Keening sobs, high-pitched and heart wrenching.

Blue flames writhed around a small creature curled into a ball, its tears sparkling like embers in the darkness.

A kwami.

“Duusu?” Ladybug whispered, and the peacock’s head snapped up, glittering red eyes blind with rage.

Chapter Text

“Creation.”

The flames burned brighter, whirling around the kwami as she unfurled her ornate tail. “You lied to me, Creation.” There was something wrong with her voice. The catacomb’s narrow halls amplified echoes, but hers didn’t seem to be one voice at all. It was a chorus, distorted in pitch and wildly swinging in volume. “You told me this world would be beautiful!”

The blue fire flickered and died, only to spring into existence anew as even the kwami’s body wavered like a mirage. She didn’t seem quite real – more like a ghost than a corporeal being like Tikki or Wayzz.

Beside her, Ladybug felt Carapace grow rigid. When she glanced at him, his eyes were shining bright with green light. His Miraculous beeped, signaling his countdown had just begun. A vision of a potential future.

“Justice.” Carapace spoke calmly and gently, the way one would speak to a spooked animal. “Wayzz has been searching for you.”

“Guardian,” she hissed. “You! You let this happen! I trusted you to protect me in my sleep!”

“You were failed,” he agreed with a nod. “But not by me.”

The tail swished, almost uncertain, and red eyes narrowed. “…you’re new. Guardian. But you were new when I was taken. How long has it been?”

“Too long. But we’re here to save you.”

Save me?” She laughed, haughty and shrill. Her furious gaze turned to Chat Noir. “Destruction killed me!” A sparkling tear fell. “Why, Plagg? It hurt.”

“I didn’t know it was you,” Chat said softly, choosing to mirror Carapace’s appeasing tone and body language. “Your fire was about to hurt people.”

She sputtered in and out of existence. “Animal minds cannot contain me. They panic. They rebel.”

“So why did you keep doing it?” Ladybug asked. And how?

“Because they had bodies. Eyes to see. To search.” Duusu’s wail rose in pitch until it was a screech. “They took it from me!”

“Took what?” Carapace asked as he inched closer.

“My Miraculous! My anchor!” Her breath hitched. “They shattered it. Shattered me. Took pieces of me for themselves.” Tears started flowing once more, bright sparks floating away and burning out. “Soldiers. They wanted soldiers. Spread my power among many when I have already given so much.”

“Who?” Chat Noir asked.

They!” Her feathers vibrated. “Scholars! Soldiers!”

Carapace made a soft, comforting noise in the back of his throat as he held out his cupped hands. “Nooroo has been asking for you. Would you like to see him?”

The blue kwami grew still, eyes growing wide. “My butterfly? You s-saved him?”

“We did. He’s been worried about you, Duusu.”

Red eyes examined the peace offering. “I want my brooch.”

“We’ll get it for you.”

“Do you vow it?”

“If you vow not to possess any more animals.”

She wavered for a long moment. Then she sighed with relief. “The bargain is struck. Justice keeps her word. Be sure to keep yours, Guardian.”

The peacock kwami floated closer to settle in Nino’s palms and curled up, draping her long tail over her face as the blue flames were extinguished one by one, darkness falling over them.

After a long silence where everyone allowed themselves to breathe easy again, Rena Rouge twirled her flute to ignite a will o’ wisp.

She stared at the resting blue kwami in curiosity. She opened her mouth as if to start asking questions, but Carapace intercepted her.

“I’ll explain at home. Let’s get Duusu to safety first.”

Ladybug frowned. Both Adrien and Nino were acting quite familiar with this new heroine. Said heroine took the correction in stride, her gaze instead locking on Ladybug. She grinned and closed the distance between them, holding up a fist. “So how’d I do?”

Ladybug blinked at the outstretched hand, and the redhead wilted ever so slightly.

“Um. I thought this was a thing you did. You know, from old footage…” She trailed off.

“Ah.” Ladybug smiled indulgently and pressed the knuckles of her fist to Rena’s, even as her heart throbbed with pain at the memory. “Pound it. Good work on figuring this out.”

The fox heroine blinked rapidly and suddenly wrapped her arms around Ladybug. “You’re everything I’d ever dreamed you’d be,” she whispered. “Let’s be best friends.” Then she frowned and seemed to remember her decorum, jumping away and leaving Ladybug reeling from the whiplash. “Actually, I already have a best friend. She’s amazing, sorry, not giving her up for anything.”

“Won’t be as much of a conflict as you think, babe,” Carapace said under his breath.

Black cat ears perked up and Nino’s gaze darted to them in alarm.

Ladybug absently patted Rena Rouge’s shoulder as the woman kept talking. “I’m having a dumb fangirl moment. Ignore me, this is all just my brain freaking out and leaking out of my mouth. I promise I’m usually cooler than this. Though just to be clear, I’m still down for being super friends.”

Had Nino just called the new heroine babe?

 

✧✦✧

 

When Chat Noir failed to react, the glamor holding, Nino allowed himself to relax.

Marinette was right, Adrien was a ticking time bomb. That didn’t mean Nino would allow her to lie to him indefinitely, but the harsh truth had to be delivered gently and delicately. He had given her a deadline of one week to figure it out. If she hadn’t told him by then, Nino would do it himself.

But he’d really rather not.

There was going to be an explosion. He’d pick up the pieces after, of course, Nino always did, but he preferred to stay out of the initial blast radius if he could help it. And it was going to be worse if anyone other than Marinette told him the truth.

Carapace gently cradled the broken peacock to his chest, and kept one eye on Adrien.

When Chat Noir smiled vacantly, absently touching the ribbon at his collar, Carapace and Ladybug exchanged a worried glance. Adrien’s mental health was such a shit show, how was this ever going to be okay?

Just as his jade bracelet beeped again, warning him that they’d best hurry, his best friend’s smile grew creepy, almost predatory, and Nino suppressed a shiver at the sight.

 

✧✦✧

 

“You should not have let me sleep for so long, Wisdom.”

Wayzz floated backward, away from the cloying fur of a tail attempting to wrap itself around his waist. Trixx’s purple eyes were somber, but he was pretending. Deception was always pretending. His concern for Duusu was not real, he had merely spotted an opportunity to wield one of Wayzz’s failures against him.

“Plagg is not a tracker, not like me. Have you forgotten that, Wisdom? Did you convince yourself that all predators are so alike that you can always substitute one for the other? I should have been the first one you called when you lost our comrades.”

“You hate Justice.” And she hates you. “You cannot fool me into thinking you care.”

“Hate is such a strong word.” He smiled, baring teeth. “She’s just too inflexible for my taste. Constantly judging me for having a little fun. I do not enjoy the scent of burned fur.” He curled his fluffy tail into his lap, petting it protectively, no doubt reliving the memory of one of Duusu’s judgements. “But I would never wish for her to be hurt like this.”

Both their gazes swiveled to the blue kwami who was clutching Nooroo’s butterfly pin and softly weeping. She’d declined having him summoned, didn’t want him to see her in her current state – Vanity had always been the peacock’s downfall – but she appeared to be taking comfort in his dormant presence. No blue flames were dancing around her, so that was progress of sorts.

But her body kept flickering, fading in and out of existence. Her words were incoherent and Wayzz wasn’t sure she even heard half of what they were saying.

Wherever it was, her Miraculous had been severely damaged, her bond to this world frayed at the seams. Justice was neither quite in the human world nor in their home. Neither was she in the peaceful Void, the bridge between the two.

She was torn in half.

“Tikki will fix it,” Wayzz said with more confidence than he felt. “Creation forged her Miraculous and she can repair it.”

“It should never have come to this. Lost for almost two hundred years, really?” The fox ears drooped, purple eyes growing big and pitiful. “Is my presence so loathsome to you, Wayzz?”

“I do not Choose who gets called, the Guardian does.”

Trixx snorted, his sorrow vanishing in an instant. “Oh, like you aren’t whispering in your Guardians’ ears. What do you tell them about me?” He grinned. “Careful. Deception will devour you whole.”

“Well, am I wrong to tell them that?”

His eyes shone with glee and his voice turned into a silky purr. “Not at all. One day I will get my chance to devour you, Wisdom. It will be fun for everyone involved.”

“Except me.”

“Wayzz, I can make it hurt so good.” Trixx again attempted to wrap himself around the green kwami.

“Alright, back in the Void you go.”

“What?” His ears flattened. “I just helped you find Duusu! In less than a day! And the hunt isn’t even over!”

“I won’t deny your skillset has proven of great use today, but you won’t be able to track whoever did this. Duusu was bleeding magic for you to follow. Humans will offer you no such advantage.”

The fox tail whipped back and forth in irritation as Trixx crossed his arms. “You’re so ungrateful, Wisdom. Why can’t you ever appreciate me?”

“You live to antagonize me. That might have something to do with it.”

“It’s called affectionate teasing.” He huffed. “Not my fault you can’t keep up.”

That was the crux of it, wasn’t it?

Wayzz had thought that he’d finally found a reprieve when he’d gone to visit Tikki in her garden. As he did every few millennia, Wisdom had sought to marvel at her newest creations and to learn about them. But she’d been gone. The center of her meadow had been torn open by claw marks, the Void on the other side. A conduit leading to a new world to study and explore. Wayzz had been the first to join Tikki and Plagg on their adventure.

But Wisdom never got to escape Deception, not for long. Trixx always caught up and then his lies ran circles around the truth.

“I won’t go back,” Trixx said, raising his chin. “I refuse. It’s been too long, Wayzz, this is my due.”

“She’s not even the right type for you.”

The fox stroked his tail, grinning impishly. “You know, I thought that at first, too. But when she and I became one, we fused together without faultlines. Perhaps it’s time for me to explore a new type of wielder. Variety is the spice of life, after all.” His grin widened. When Trixx grinned like that, maniacal laughter was not far behind. “Besides, I had a talk with her. You know how convincing I can be. Try and take me away, and your Guardian will be back to being celibate.”

Wayzz shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”

“Remind you of what, Wayzz?” Trixx steepled his paws, a mad gleam in his eyes. “The fact that as we speak, your wielder and my wielder are making sweet, sweet love?”

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino exhaled a shaky breath, pressing his heated skin to Alya’s soft one. Heat vampire that she was, she nuzzled closer. Echoes of pleasure danced across his skin, the last few sparks sizzling out. Neither of them spoke until their breathing was slow and even once more.

“So,” he said. “When are you kicking me out to the couch?”

His girlfriend harrumphed, pressing herself close. “You’re warm. You may stay. But only as a heat blanket, I’m still mad.”

He let his fingers trail along her thigh. “I see I have more work to do. Happy to oblige.”

Alya giggled and stifled the sound against his skin. “I’m tired. No more.” Then she suddenly sat up, grinning as she leaned over him. The tips of her long curls tickled his jaw. “But there is something that may put me in a forgiving mood.”

Nino arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“All you have to do is answer a question. Well. A few questions.” Oh no. He was seconds away from an interrogation. His gaze darted around, looking for anything that might distract her, but her fingers closed around his chin and forced him to look at her.

Damn, she was strong now.

And she knew it. Leaning forward until their noses touched and he was helpless not to meet her determined gaze, she whispered, “Who. Is. Ladybug?”

Nino swallowed the lump in his throat. “What makes you think I know?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Trixx explained what a Guardian is, Nino. You know. It’s your job to know.”

“I didn’t choose her, she came before me. I didn’t know Adrien was Chat Noir either up until last night.”

“You’re hedging,” she said. “Nino, it’s a really bad idea for you to lie to me right now. Do you know or not?”

“…I do,” he admitted sheepishly. “But–”

“But what? We’re a team now, right? Adrien gave me that Miraculous and said fellow superheroes are allowed to know!”

“Not always.” Young Ladybugs and Black Cats were kept apart for a reason.

“Trixx said it’s the Guardian and the kwami who decide when a wielder has proven themselves trustworthy!” Her gaze turned wounded. “Trixx trusts me. Don’t you, Nino?”

“Now you’re hitting below the belt,” he said softly. “Ladybug has a lot on her plate right now, I don’t want to add to it.”

Alya reared back. “Like I’d be a burden?”

“No! It’s just–“ Nino exhaled sharply. He knew his girlfriend. Intimately. Most importantly, he knew how she acted when her temper flared. Finding out that her BFF had lied to her for close to a decade would upset her. Alya rarely let anything get to her, but when something cracked that armor, she lashed out and said things that she didn’t mean. Which was the last thing Marinette needed right now when she was about to face the same from Adrien.

Nino gazed at the woman he loved whose furious gaze hid deep hurt. There was no way she’d drop this line of questioning, was there? She’d find out one way or another. Soon.

It’s just what?”

“Complicated,” he said.

“You know, Adrien’s told me a little about what went down between you two. More secrets are the last thing this team needs at this point!” She jabbed her finger into his chest. “And I’m sick of you lying to me, Nino.”

“Alya, you will know, I promise. If I ask you to stop and ask no further, neither me nor her, could you do that? Just for a little while?”

Alya’s mutinous expression answered that question and he sighed.

Alright.

He couldn’t help Marinette with Adrien, but Nino could shield her from the heat of Alya’s initial explosion.

 

✧✦✧

 

“Alya? Alya!”

Marinette.

“Babe, snap out of it.”

How could it be Marinette?

“Please, you’re starting to worry me.”

All those years of chasing Ladybug and her best friend had been right there.

“Could you at least blink? Once?”

Sweet, clumsy, nervous Marinette who had never mastered the art of not freaking the fuck out was supposed to be cool as ice Ladybug. How? How?

Marinette was Alya’s best friend.

Alya was best friends with Ladybug.

She opened her mouth and a faint, high-pitched squeal escaped.

 

✧✦✧

 

I’m Ladybug. I’m so, so sorry.

You fool, you thought it was me, your girlfriend Marinette, but it has been I, Ladybug, all along!

Surprise! It’s-a me! Ladybug!

Marinette’s forehead hit the table with a thump. Her phone kept buzzing, but she ignored it.

“Tikki,” she whispered. “It’s hopeless.”

“No, it’s not, Marinette.” Her kwami gently stroked her hair. “Everything’s going to be alright.”

How?” She closed her eyes. “He hates me. Adrien hates me. We were in love and now he hates me.”

“He’s still in love.”

“Not for much longer.” She wiped at her eyes. “It was – Tikki, we are so good together. Everything I dreamed of. And we could have had that years ago if I hadn’t – hadn’t been so fucking stupid and now it’s ruined.”

“It’s not your fault, Marinette, he shouldn’t have–“

Who cares what he could have done differently!” Her fingers clenched into fists, fingernails digging into her palm until it hurt. “I left him alone and in pain. That’s on me! He never would have turned into – never become as twisted as he is without that.”

Tikki made a small sound of distress. “Marinette, I know it’s tempting, but you cannot blame yourself for failing to save someone. That way lies madness. His choices are his own.”

She sat up just to glare at her unhelpful kwami. “And my choices are mine. I had so many opportunities to prevent this.”

“So did he. Ask Wayzz about hindsight sometime. There is no point in dwelling on the past. Now you must move forward. Ruins are an opportunity to build something new.”

Marinette’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t. I can’t. He’ll freak out, worse than before.”

He’ll leave me.

She curled up in her chair, face buried in her knees, a never-ending chorus of ‘Adrien hates me’ playing on a loop, sometimes segueing into her brain’s greatest hits like ‘I will never find another man like him’ and ‘Embrace the crazy, get a black cat and pretend its Chat’.

A noise gave her pause. Marinette angled her head, frowning. There it was again. Almost like claws scraping at her door, except it was coming from–

Her head snapped up.

Chat Noir grinned at her through her skylight.

Chapter Text

Alya: MARINETTE

Alya: GIRL

Alya: YOU FUCKING PICK UP THIS PHONE RIGHT NOW

 

✧✦✧

 

“Your stray wants to come in,” Chat Noir said, voice husky. “May I?”

Marinette nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and he unlatched the lock, gracefully leaping down into her room. He remained crouched for only a moment before drawing himself up to two legs, sauntering up to her.

God, his body language. That was Chat-flirting-with-Ladybug body language, except now it carried a sharper edge. No longer a playful boy but an experienced man. Marinette swallowed heavily to hold back the whimper of want, her stare moving to the thin ribbon around his neck.

He followed her gaze, and grinned when he realized what she was scrutinizing. “I’m not much of a stray anymore, though, am I? Figured it was about time I made sure that people could see this cat is spoken for.”

She nodded again, the power of speech still beyond her grasp.

His gloved hands settled on her waist, drawing her close. “Marinette,” he said softly. “Are you alright?”

She nodded. Again.

“Okay. Would this be easier if I turned back?”

“Yes, please,” she whispered. It would probably be best if he had his next mental breakdown when he was not at full power.

Green light filled her room, burning away her Chaton until he was Adrien, gazing at her with concern in those achingly familiar eyes. Human eyes. He pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead.

“I’m sorry I freaked you out. I should have used the front door like a normal person.” His gaze was drawn to her collarbone and then he dipped his head, pressing a kiss to where her shoulder met her neck.

Where he’d bitten her. Hard.

It had hurt, except it hadn’t, the sting somehow enhancing the pleasure he’d gifted her, too.

Still, he appeared remorseful, pressing gentle, featherlight apologies to her smooth skin. Skin that had long since healed.

Marinette wrapped her arms around him to distract him before he thought to question this. Her body molded itself to his, just like it had done many times before. She’d often marveled at what a perfect fit they were, his shoulders at the perfect height for her to lean against.

The tension left his body.

His chest rumbled against her ear. What the–

Marinette’s head snapped up. “You can purr as Adrien?” Okay, yes, maybe there had still been some cat-like behavior the other night after he’d turned back, but she’d thought those had been residue or something.

Adrien laughed, a little self-consciously. “Um. Yes? I’ve been holding it back. With mixed results. I’ll stop if you want me to, I just have to take off my ring.”

“What? No! No stopping! What else?” She raised her hand, brushing his messy hair.

“Well, as we’ve established, I like licking stuff. And by stuff, I mean you.” His chest rumbled again, this time with laughter. “Your scent is amazing, Marine – ah!

More purrs erupted, his head dipping back as she scratched him behind his ear. He leaned into the touch, eagerly rubbing himself against her palm. “That,” he hissed, eyes closed in bliss. “Yes, that, please.”

Marinette couldn’t help it. She grinned and let her hand roam, first back to his nape and then looping around to tip up his chin. The noise he made when she gently scraped her nails along his stubble. He was freshly shaved, but she could still feel the little bumps everywhere.

She’d thought Adrien could not be any more adorable. That he’d hit peak charm in her eyes ages ago. She’d been wrong.

And a horrible, selfish, no-good thought wormed itself into her heart.

Nino had given her a week. A week to find the gentlest way to drop a nuke on her relationship.

She didn’t have to do it tonight.

Marinette could savor this, bask in his presence, take her time for a long and drawn out goodbye to the man she loved. It wouldn’t be fair to him, she knew that. This affection wasn’t meant for her, not for Ladybug, she’d be stealing it from the imaginary construct of ‘Marinette’ he had in his head.

“I love you so much,” she said.

One night. She was selfish enough to steal one night. One night to get to know Adrien as he really was. Fold the image she had of him together with that of Chat Noir and commit it to memory.

Content green eyes gazed at her from beneath heavy eyelashes.

“I love you, too, Marinette. More than you know.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“Good morning, Madame Cheng.”

“Oh hello, Alya.” Sabine smiled brightly. “Are you looking for Marinette? She’s still up in her room. You know how she oversleeps on weekends.”

Alya returned the smile as best as she could. “Thank you!”

She made her way up the stairs, a path she’d taken thousands of times to go visit her best friend. But it was different, all of it alien. Because who was her best friend, really?

Never in her life had Alya felt more stupid than when the implications of this revelation had sunk in. Adrien was one thing – she’d barely known him, only hung out with him in groups up until recently. Nino had become a superhero less than two months ago, and she’d caught on to the change almost immediately.

But Marinette?

Sweet, panic-prone Marinette?

Marinette, who’d cried on Alya’s shoulder so often they’d long since lost count?

All those deep, dark secrets they’d shared, intimate conversations reserved for the sacred bond of a best friend – all tainted now.

When Alya had confessed her longing to be a superhero, Marinette had said nothing. Nor when Alya had sung Ladybug’s praises, or when she’d presented her latest schemes to catch a glimpse of her heroine. Marinette had gone along with any investigation to unmask Ladybug, all the while subtly discouraging her until Alya had stopped asking her to come and taken Nino instead. Because he had been supportive of her dreams.

Marinette Dupain-Cheng, you are such a liar.

Alya hammered on her childhood friend’s door and didn’t let up.

Right up until Adrien opened the door and she hit him in the chest.

Drowsy green eyes peered down at her as he grunted, taking a step back. His blond hair was more disheveled than usual, designer clothes as wrinkled as if he’d slept in them. “Careful with that strength.”

“Hello Adrien,” she said, her gaze already moving beyond him to lock onto her target. “Please leave now.” Marinette was tugging at the hem of her pajama, blinking sleepily from her seat on the bed.

“And here I thought we’d shared a moment, Alya,” the man blocking her path said, quirking an eyebrow.

“We did. It was moving, I am very moved, and I will find some way to make it up to you. But this is very serious BFF business not meant for the eyes and ears of Man. Or cats, for that matter.”

“Message received.” Adrien took the dismissal in stride, his cheerful mood undiminished. He walked back into the room just long enough to take Marinette’s hand. Raising it to his lips, he pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I’ll see you soon.”

Marinette’s response was a mix between a sigh and a whimper. He grinned and waved at both of them as he sauntered out. Alya slammed the door shut behind him, turning to face her best friend, who'd grown rather pale.

“Did you just call Adrien a cat, Alya?”

“Yes, I did. Ladybug.”

Marinette squeaked, closing the distance between them in a mad dash to fervently whisper, “Not so loud, he has good hearing.”

Alya crossed her arms and glared. “It’s not him you should be concerned about. It’s me.”

Her best friend grew still. “Nino told you?”

“Sang like a bird.” Alya hooked her thumb under the necklace and pulled out the fox pendant hidden under her shirt. Bluebell eyes zeroed in on it and then lit up with realization.

“It was you!” Marinette had the audacity to laugh, happy and relieved. “Alya, this is wonderful, you were great, I–“

“Shut up,” Alya growled. “You don’t get to celebrate this when you had nothing to do with it. I got this from Adrien, Marinette! Explain to me why this guy who I’ve only really gotten to know a few weeks ago has done more to make my dreams come true than my best friend?”

“I–“ Marinette blinked, wide-eyed. “Alya, I don’t – I don’t have the power to make new superheroes. If I had...” She frowned. “Adrien doesn’t either, I’m not sure how–“

“He broke the rules. For me. Or maybe for Nino, but still! For his friends!” Alya’s eyes burned and she willed them to stop, raking her hand through her hair in frustration as she held back the angry rant swelling in her throat.

“I gave you interviews! I helped your Ladyblog whenever I could!” Marinette’s voice was defensive, but her shoulders were slumped in resignation, as if she was already on the verge of conceding. Don’t you dare!

“You knew I wanted more than interviews.”

“…yes.”

“Marinette, you didn’t need to give me superpowers. But damn you, you knew I wanted to make a difference. I would have settled for sidekick. Sidekick!”

We could have been great, Marinette. Oracle to your Batman.

“Alya, I couldn’t, I – I didn’t even tell Chat Noir and he’s–“ She abruptly cut herself off, wiping her nose with the sleeve of her pajama.

Marinette was sensitive. Had always been sensitive and ridiculous and felt emotions way too intensely. Looking at her now, Alya could practically see her heart breaking. How could she be like this in her private life and then be so calm and collected during battle?

“You lied to me. For eight years you lied to me and made me the biggest fool in the world. There I was, shouting to the world that I would figure out who Ladybug is and you were right there. Did you laugh at my antics?”

“No,” Marinette whispered. “Never.”

“And you know what the worst part is? I can’t even – I can’t even be properly mad at you because right now all I want to do is hug you. And tell you that you’re amazing and wonderful and just be in awe of all that you are. Because Ladybug inspired me, Marinette. And so did you. You were my idol, everything I ever wanted to be.”

She raked her fingers through her locks, felt Trixx nuzzle closer to hide amongst them as they shifted. Marinette was staring at her with watery eyes, an almost comical expression of uncertainty on her face.

“S…sorry?”

Alya exhaled, closing her eyes. She’d prepared a speech. A nice, long rant about all the ways she’d been wronged. A neatly formatted list of bullet points. But looking at Marinette’s guileless face, so close to tears, all of it just… evaporated. Why was it that the devil's advocate inside Alya's head that she'd been doing her best to tune out was better at making Marinette's case than Marinette was? Duty comes first. Superheroes keep secret identities. You kept Adrien's secret from her, too.

But then Marinette had always done this. Shouldered responsibility she shouldn't have to, apologized for things that weren't her fault, carried the weight of keeping her loved ones happy even when it hurt her.

Of course.

Of course you're Ladybug.

“I understand why you did it, Marinette. I do. Secret identity and all that, I get it, it’s a Thing. And we’re going to be okay." Alya took a deep, steadying breath. "I'm just being salty. Probably will be for a while. But we'll be okay.”

Then she yanked her best friend close, squeezing her close to her chest. Marinette wasted no time in clinging like a vine, shallow breaths breaking into sobs.

“There, there” Alya murmured, unhooking her shoulder bag. “Nino filled me in on the whole situation you’re in. Now let’s sit down and talk. I brought you a little something.”

Quietly thanking her overprepared saint of a boyfriend, she pulled out a tub of mint ice cream.

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien hummed a tuneless song to himself as he descended down the stairs, a soft smile playing on his lips. Such a sweet night he’d spent with her, curled up in her lap while she had been fascinated by his ability to purr.

As affectionate as she was, Marinette was a little nervous around him. His one attempt at initiating intimacy had been met with a confusing ramble about her long day, her tiredness, how this did not mean she wasn’t still attracted to him, that she just had a lot on her mind, but that she still loved him. The words kept flowing until she'd worked herself into an anxious frenzy and he'd gently interrupted her to say she did not need to justify her refusal. Adrien understood. In a way, they were getting to know each other all over again. He could be patient, rebuild their trust and catch her once more.

She'd asked him questions about his life as Chat Noir, and he’d told her what his costume meant to him. The freedom to be himself, the joy of leaping over the rooftops, the purpose that helping people gave his life. Sticking to lighter topics, he’d told her of some of the more ridiculous ways he'd had to sneak away during Akuma attacks.

Adrien had been careful to dance around the topic of Ladybug, and Marinette had not asked.

“Now when did you get up there?”

Adrien froze, staring wide-eyed at his future father-in-law.

Tom arched an amused eyebrow and shook his head. “You know humming is counterproductive to sneaking in and out of my daughter’s room undetected, yes?”

“Um.” Well, no choice but to lean in now. He flashed a grin. “Well, it’s your fault. You’ve raised a villain who utterly robs me of my wits when I’m around her.”

Tom laughed heartily and then bent over his oven to pull out the freshest batch of croissants. “I know the feeling. Sabine’s parents were very strict, you know. I had to sneak, too, and I was terrible at it because I was a lovestruck fool.”

Adrien bit down on his bottom lip to keep from laughing. Tom was a giant of a man, so for him to try to sneak in anywhere undetected – well, it was a hard thing to envision.

“So did you get caught?”

“Once, yes.” Tom’s expression sobered. “They were not happy with what we were doing, not at all. Her father especially.”

Adrien shifted uncomfortably. He and Marinette’s parents got along great, and he’d done his best to be unfailingly polite around them. Had he just jeopardized what he’d been trying to build?

But then Tom smiled at him. “Marinette has been very happy since you’ve come back to Paris. Happier than I’ve seen her in a long time.” He slid the croissant tray toward Adrien and turned back to the oven. “Do me a favor and take these to the store front?”

“Of course,” Adrien said softly. “Thank you.”

“–don’t get to celebrate this when you had nothing to do with it. I got this from–“

Using mittens, he carefully picked up the hot tray and started humming again to drown out the private conversation not meant for his sensitive hearing.

Chapter Text

“Hi, Duusu. Can I ask you a couple of questions?”

Red eyes pinned her in place before swiveling around to the kwami nestled in her hair. “What are you doing with this one, Fox?”

“My new wielder is magnificent. Show respect, or I show you what foxes do to birds.”

“Trixx,” Wayzz said, a warning note in his voice.

“What? I’m just offering a lesson. I thought you loved education, Wisdom.”

“She’s mine,” Duusu whispered. “That one. She casts judgements, like me. Pretty hair.” A wisp of flame appeared, licking at Alya’s locks. “Come. Open your mind to me and I’ll show you what I know. Where the evidence leads.”

An orange-white tail swiped at the flare, and it dissipated. “Mine,” the fox said, casually hissing at the blue kwami. “Get your own.”

“I’m trying.”

“Alright, how about nobody inappropriately touch my mind and we all communicate using our words.” Alya slammed down her overflowing Flameling folder. “And pictures. I even brought pictures.”

Duusu sighed. “It’s… difficult. For me to think clearly. I am damaged. But I will try.”

Alya slid a picture of the Not-Dragon next to the peacock kwami, tapping it with one finger. “Why was this one so different?”

A warbled hiss was her only response until Duusu appeared to collected herself. “That one’s not me. Made from me. That was when they broke me, tore away the chains that link me to my wielder through my brooch. They wanted to spread me among many.” Then her lips curved into a happy smile. “Animal experiments first. Then they wanted to add me to humans. But they underestimated my power. Unleashed, the little lizard they grafted me onto grew so big it destroyed their nest. Ugly, sterile, grey. But all looks pretty when the flames dance.”

Alya and Nino exchanged a glance while Duusu muttered to herself how beautiful flickering fire was.

“Did they try to move you after?” Alya asked, leafing through her notes until she found the stills from the dash cam. The glowing little dot fleeing the pile-up on the highway was about the right size for a kwami.

“Yes. Separated me from my brooch. I escaped, but… I need my anchor!”

“And we will get it back,” Nino said soothingly. “Just rest in the meantime.”

“Yes. Rest. No more questions. I’m tired.”

“Just one more,” Alya pressed. “During your last attack – you deviated from your path. Did you find something?”

The ornate tail rustled, quivering with anger. “Yes. Yes! One of them – I saw one of them! The man, he worked there, he was important. Always telling others what to do.”

Alya nodded, mentally examining which avenues of further research had just opened up to her. “Okay. I’m going to look for footage of the attack. If I show you pictures of the crowd, do you think you could recognize him?”

Red eyes narrowed. “Oh yes. I remember their faces. Justice will come for them all.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“She’s still there, man. Didn’t go anywhere in those five seconds since you last checked.”

Adrien jumped in his seat and turned back to face Nino, his lips curving into an eerie smile. His behavior was growing worrisome. For one, Adrien’s gaze snapped to Marinette whenever she so much as moved behind the counter. It could have been sweet, but it only made Nino squirm. Those looks were getting downright possessive.

What was Marinette thinking, leading Adrien on like this? The more attached she allowed him to grow, the worse the explosion would be. And Adrien was getting very attached now that he had no more secrets to hide, walking through life with a permanent smile glued to his face. After growing used to having to pry his friend’s thoughts out of him by force, it was almost unsettling how easily Adrien relinquished them now. All Nino had to do was ask, and Adrien gave straightforward answers, years of repression just pouring out of his mouth.

“So how’s Duusu?” Adrien asked, stirring his coffee. Though it could hardly be called that at this point. The abomination was more cream and sugar than anything else.

“She’s… not well,” Nino said.

“Still creepy as heck,” Alya said with a nod.

“Well, she’s broken. It’s not her fault. She needs to be taken care of.” And that was what his job as Guardian was all about, as Wayzz had repeatedly made clear. Yes, Duusu had lashed out in pain, but so had Adrien. Now there was nothing left to do but try to heal their wounds.

“Any leads on who did this?” Adrien asked, gaze drifting back to Marinette when she laughed in response to a customer.

“Well, she was able to point one guy out in a blurry photo, but…” Alya huffed in frustration. “Facial recognition software is giving me absolutely nothing.”

“So we’re all out of leads again?” Adrien asked absently.

Alya shook her head, red curls bouncing. “No, not quite. I want to scope out the industrial area where the Not-Dragon first appeared since Duusu indicates that this is where the main lab was. I was there way back when, but I didn’t have my enhanced senses yet. It was all just a concrete jungle filled with abandoned warehouses.”

“Are you going to need back-up?” Adrien turned to face them, eyebrows furrowing.

She nodded. “I think it’ll be best if all four of us go, just in case we stumble into some heavily armed government conspiracy.”

“Duusu wants to go, too,” Nino said softly.

“Yeah, how about no?” Alya snorted. “Seriously, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take that little pyromaniac anywhere.”

“That little pyromaniac is going to burn our apartment down at this rate. She’s recovered enough of her energy to get restless,” Nino said. “Wayzz says every moment so far away from her brooch is agony. The sooner we reunite them, the better.”

“Adrien, please talk some sense into this man.”

“Don’t ask me. I’m just here to smash things and look pretty.” He tilted his head, a pensive look on his face. “What does Ladybug think?”

“Ladybug sides with Nino,” Alya said without missing a beat. “She argues that bringing her there might spur Duusu’s memory and give us more leads to follow. But with the way she’s gushing magic, I think she’ll just confuse my senses and we’ll miss out on clues.”

Adrien drummed his fingers on the table as he considered the situation. “If we find anything and secure it, you can return to investigate it on your own afterward.”

Alya pursed her lips like she’d just bitten into something sour while Nino’s eyebrow shot up, his gaze darting to Marinette.

“Really? You’re siding with us?” The question slipped out without him quite meaning to. With Ladybug?

Adrien smiled happily. “Why wouldn’t I side with you, Nino? Seriously though, don’t let an unstable kwami go stir crazy in your apartment. Give her something to do.” He shrugged. “And keep an eye on her.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Ladybug’s glider snapped shut and she nimbly landed bent on one knee, feathering her fall with her hand.

“Creation.” Red eyes glittered in the darkness and the kwami rose from Carapace’s shoulder, trailing blue sparks behind her. Crossing the small distance between them seemed to be enough to tire her out, and she landed one Ladybug’s outstretched palm with a sigh of relief.

“Are you sure you’re up for this, Duusu?” Rena Rouge asked, one arm on her hip.

“Your concern is appreciated, Deception,” the peacock responded in a voice that made it clear the concern was not, in fact, appreciated. “But I can do this. I must. Although…” Her tail quivered, and a dark blue blush spread across her cheeks. “I would not say no if Creation lent me some strength for the journey.”

“I’m sorry,” Ladybug said softly. “I don’t know how I would do that.”

The kwami’s gaze grew thoughtful. “You are young. I did not see it before.” She attempted to pat one of Marinette’s gloved finger with her tiny paw, but accidentally phased through. Her hold on her corporeal form was poor. “Then it’s to be expected. Your full power will unfold itself in time. For now, merely being in your presence will strengthen me.” Duusu curled up to rest, watchful eyes on the group.

Ladybug nodded and looked to the other two. “Chat isn’t here yet?”

“No, but he should arrive any minute. I guess I can start looking around while we wait.” Fox ears twitched and swiveled as Rena tipped her head back and closed her eyes in concentration.

A soft sigh escaped Ladybug’s lips and she squared her shoulders, mentally preparing herself to face Adrien’s hostility. In a way, this would be good for her. The last few days with him had been so heavenly, even with guilt eating her insides, that she needed the reminder to snap her out of the little dream world she’d built with him. The one where she was just Marinette and nobody else.

Every time she built up her courage to say something, just one look at his smiling face led to it deserting her.

Marinette didn’t want to break his heart. So she procrastinated.

“You dread Destruction’s arrival,” Duusu murmured. “I’ve heard what Wisdom and Deception whisper amongst themselves. Are you out of balance with your other half?”

“It’s fine,” she said, smoothing the kwami’s ruffled feathers with gentle strokes. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Worry about what?” Chat Noir landed in a crouch beside Carapace, his boots barely making a sound. He drew himself up to his full height and offered his fist to Nino in greeting. Carapace bumped it, though his golden eyes were on Ladybug. She had no trouble reading his critical expression. Why haven’t you told him yet?

“About what’s down here,” Rena Rouge said. “It’s got to be underground.”

Chat Noir grinned at her best friend before his gaze moved to Ladybug.

“My Lady,” he said, voice cool as ice as a thin smile curved his lips.

Oh great. Adrien was in a playful mood. Marinette had seen him cut people down with his wit when he smiled like that. Though she supposed it was an improvement to outright hostility.

“Chaton,” she said, voice equally cool. Then she turned to Rena. “So, do you sense anything?”

“Maybe…” She made a noise of frustration. “There’s definitely something here, but – I think I’m getting interference.” She nodded to the kwami curled up in Ladybug’s cupped hands. “Do me a favor and move away a bit?”

“Sure thing,” Ladybug said. She jogged away from the group, grateful to put some distance between herself and Adrien.

She could feel his gaze on her back.

 

✧✦✧

 

Rena Rouge frowned, crouching low to the ground and pressing her hand to the concrete. She’d been here before, three times, knew the layout of all the warehouses and which firms used them as storage space - all of them turning out to be dummy corporations after some digging. The area had been sealed off for a week after the Not-Dragon had risen from here, all potential cameras with eyes on the event destroyed by the scalding heat. A likely story, but Alya hadn’t been able to find satellite images either.

Something about this whole area was suspicious as hell, and the peacock kwami had only confirmed it.

Emanating from below, there was magic that tasted like ash.

Duusu’s Miraculous might very well still be here.

They could either waste time searching for the entrance and likely walk right into security measures designed to keep them out, or…

“Chat,” she said. “Come here. I need your claws.”

“Say please, Rena,” he said, steel-toed boots at the edge of her vision. “Cats don’t always come when called.”

“And yet here you are.” She grinned as she raised herself up.

“I’m a very well-behaved cat. But I expect to be spoiled in exchange.”

“Your obsession with free food knows no bounds. I’ll get you lunch.” Alya smiled sweetly. “Tear a hole in the ground here for me, please?”

He arched an eyebrow, then nodded.

Cataclysm.” His claws dripping with black magic, he turned to survey the rest of their team. “Alright, everyone stand back and be prepared to fight as soon as we drop down.”

Carapace’s shield swooped to his feet and he stepped atop it. A little distance away, Ladybug transferred Duusu to her shoulder and spread her cape.

Chat Noir slammed down his blackened fist, then jumped back to evade the rapidly spreading rot. Rena Rouge danced nimbly around the crumbling ground until the decay slowed. Then she stood at the edge and peered down into darkness.

The hole had eaten through several layers of concrete, stone and metal. Alya’s scuffed her boots until she found a loose rock, and then kicked it down, ears perked. One second, two, three…

She let out a whistle. “At least fifty meters deep.”

“No lights,” Chat murmured. “Nobody home?”

“We can’t know that. I’m getting Doom vibes,” Carapace said.

Chat Noir peered at him. “But no vision coming on?”

“No?”

“Then you’re probably not about to hear my dying screams of agony.” He flashed a grin and jumped down.

“No, don’t–! Ugh.” Nino closed his eyes. “Why am I surrounded by reckless idiots?”

Alya blew him a kiss and, not to be outdone, jumped in as well.

The wind rushed through her ponytail and she touched down with grace, light as a feather. She blinked against the darkness, her vision adjusting with ease. They were in a hall lined with several levels of ugly metal railings, doors branching off in all directions. This had to be the central hub.

“It’s empty,” Chat Noir whispered beside her. Cats were nocturnal hunters as well, his night vision likely as good as hers. “I think. Do you see something I don’t?”

“No, you’re right,” she murmured. The scent of humans was old, overpowered by stale sterility and smoke. “Should I risk lighting my fox fire?”

“The others will need it.”

Rena Rouge twirled her flute, igniting a little wisp. She willed it to float upward, both to get a better look at the space they were in and to send the two heroes still upstairs a signal that it was safe to come down.

The walls were white and bare, yet – one half of the enormous room had been blackened by fire, the paths behind the doors collapsed under rubble. The faint scent of fire magic was emanating from there.

“So what are the odds that they evacuated this facility and left the Miraculous somewhere in the ruins?” Accidentally creating a gigantic beast laying waste to Paris was surely the kind of thing that would get some people fired, if not worse. Whatever kind of operation had been running here – had it been shut down after their fuck up?

Or maybe they’d moved to a more remote location. That would certainly explain why they’d tried and failed to transport Duusu. A Miraculous without its kwami was just a piece of jewelry, perhaps deemed not worth retrieving.

Chat Noir frowned. “This should have all been repaired when Ladybug used her magic after that lizard thing’s defeat.”

“Creation restored what the abomination they made from me destroyed.” Duusu’s voice was faint but sound carried far in this echoing hall. Ladybug was gliding in circles above them, scouting out the location, before she allowed herself to drop down and land beside them. “But I was bleeding fire when they tore me open. Creation’s magic did not touch that.”

Rena Rouge raised an eyebrow at the rubble. The scope of destruction was – well, it was disquieting, and part of the reason she really had not wanted to take the bird kwami with them. Yes, her sob story was sad, but she’d spent the last few weeks trying to set people on fire. Until her mind and body were healed, Duusu was best contained somewhere far away from civilization.

She’d counted on Adrien to have her back as far as pragmatism went, but no, he was far too eager to prove himself a team player.

“Well. I guess we better start digging.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Destruction clawed at the debris and Wisdom used his shield as a shovel, the two of them easily clearing a path as Deception instructed. The Fox wielder was unusual, more trustworthy than the others Trixx had possessed, but that was damning with faint praise. It did not take much to soar above a bar lying on the floor.

A lifetime ago, Justice would have liked her. Would have granted her the power to cleanse the world of corruption and evil, given her sight to see all of humanity’s sins with clear eyes.

No more.

Justice had come to this strange world to set it right. For millennia, she had made herself small, debased herself by taking this appealing form so that even smaller minds would not cower in fear when faced with her true glory. Terrible and beautiful, Justice was to be feared and worshipped. All should listen to her judgement, yet so few did.

Her Butterfly with his kind, generous heart had pleaded her for mercy. Always another day, another human to gift with her strength, another chance for this world that was rotten to its core.

Destruction cried out in triumph and held up her the revolting thing she had once willingly chained herself with. The last barrier between this pale shadow of existence and the true form that lay beneath. Creation had denied her the bridge to this world until she’d agreed to the arrangement.

A crack ran down the center of the brooch. Her chains were broken and once Duusu touched this connection to her home, she would be truly unleashed.

The Guardian grew rigid, his eyes aglow with a future.

Too slow, Wisdom. Always too slow. Too slow to keep me from being taken, too slow to rescue me, to slow to save yourself.

Gathering all the reserves of the strength she’d been conserving, she crossed the distance between Creation and Destruction in the blink of an eye, trailing behind her blue flames.

“Don’t let her touch it!”

The Guardian’s voice was drowned out by a shout of her own. For Justice had seen it, had observed them, knew where the weak spot in their team lay. All she had to do was split the crack wide open.

“Destruction! Creation’s true name is Marinette!”

Her limbs wrapped around her shattered Miraculous. The Black Cat let it drop as it grew scalding, jumping back with wide, panicked eyes.

The ceiling easily gave way when this dark prison grew too small to contain her. She lit up the night sky with flames, reborn from ruins. Justice had come to judge this world and now she would carry out the sentence.

A phoenix rose above Paris.

Chapter Text

Then

 

“Won’t be as much of a conflict as you think, babe.”

Deep in the catacombs of Paris, Chat Noir’s ears perked up, Nino’s words stirring uncomfortable recognition within. As much as he’d tried not to dwell on it, putting the question as far out of his mind as possible, part of him could not help but analyze the fact that Ladybug and Nino knew and trusted each other.

And Alya, too?

Out of the corner of his eyes, Ladybug’s face subtly shifted.

Oh.

It’s you.

Of course. It’s always been you.

How could it have ever been anyone but you?

Hysterical laughter clawed at his throat, and he pressed his lips together to keep it from escaping. He’d known he was overly attached. But to fall in love and then never let go of only one woman his entire life – no, to manage to fall in love with her twice – that took obsessive devotion beyond the pale.

No. This was loyalty. He was loyal. Had always been loyal, never straying, only ever wanting her. His heart was not a fickle beast after all, recognizing his other half even when all his senses had been telling him lies. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Ladybug’s mysterious, glorious scent turned into Marinette’s sweet and subtle one.

His fangs sharpened in his mouth, his jaw aching as he struggled to keep his mouth closed. The others were talking, but he paid them no heed, sinking deeper into the maelstrom of his racing thoughts.

How could she not have said anything when he’d crawled to her on all fours? Brought lower than ever. By her. As always. Nobody could grind his dignity under their heel as well as Ladybug. Familiar rage writhed in his gut at the reminder, his claws flexing with restless energy.

Taking a deep breath, he focused on Marinette’s scent, letting the serenity she gave him wash away the embers of his rage. It had burned itself out, only a shadow of what it had been before it had almost overtaken him.

Perhaps it would build again in time until it was as crushing and overwhelming as before. Maybe then he’d like nothing better than to lash out at her. Scream every unkind thought he’d ever had about her and punish her for all he’d been through.

Leave and never look back.

And then what?

Another lungful of her scent. Calm. He needed to be calm. Borrow some of Nino’s Chill so he could think.

Human thoughts. Don’t destroy what can’t be brought back. Play a round of pattern recognition.

He loved Marinette. And Marinette loved him. Didn’t she?

She’d seen him at his ugliest – fuck, Ladybug had seen him even lower than that, hadn’t she? – and she’d hugged him and petted him and whispered gentle, loving words. She could have fought him off, but she had let him inside of her, again and again, until this desperate fear of his had abated and he’d truly allowed himself to believe that she wasn’t going to run from him.

Because Marinette was warm and sweet and all that was good in this world. Willing to take something as twisted as him and scratch it behind its ears.

Which meant – Ladybug was warm and sweet. Somehow, somewhere, he had gotten it wrong, and had let it cloud his perception of reality. She wasn’t unfeeling or callous. Aloof, a little, but maybe she had been the true professional here all along, able to put Marinette’s overabundance of feelings aside to kick ass and take names.

A memory stirred, and an echo of old pain with it.

But there was no way, was there? No way at all that Ladybug had pushed him away as cruelly as he remembered it. It was Marinette’s nature to want to care for people. She wouldn’t have turned him away if she’d understood the depth of his pain.

“Whatever it is that’s troubling you, Chat, you can handle it on your own.”

Had she said it like that? It was how he remembered it, but memories had a curious way of twisting with the passage of time. Perhaps when she’d called him partner, she hadn’t meant to knock him back into his place, hadn’t chastised him for reaching for more than she was willing to give. Perhaps it had even been an endearment.

Fuck. She’d said it as an endearment, hadn’t she? All this time. Chaton, you’re my partner.

So that meant–

This.

All of this.

Six years of being alone and in pain and raging at her for leaving him to it.

It had to have been some stupid misunderstanding.

Yes, maybe Ladybug had reacted poorly, caught in a moment of weakness. Or maybe he had explained it poorly and should have stuck around to explain it better instead of running away in a fit of melodrama. Maybe it was just like when he’d snapped at Marinette all those years ago, when his careless words had led her to believe that he didn’t like her and didn’t care for her messages.

Did it really matter who’d messed up? Whose fault this was? It was the situation they were stuck with now. Ladybug had been willing to reveal herself when she hadn’t yet known who he was, but now she wasn’t reciprocating. Was Marinette scared of him?

Well, he had given her reason to be.

If he lashed out, she’d likely take it. Even if it was really his fault, not hers, she’d still take that pain on herself in an effort to fix it, to salvage what she could.

The mental image of Marinette on her knees, face streaked with tears, made bile rise in his throat. That wasn’t what he wanted, not at all. He never, ever wanted to be responsible for bringing her so low. He was supposed to keep her from that, wasn’t he? That was his purpose, to keep his Lady from ruining herself by trying to save a lost cause.

So.

He could choose to just… not. Do that. Any of it.

His fingers brushed his collarbone, twining around the golden ribbon that had appeared where his bell used to sit. The one that made him hers again.

Adrien rather liked his new ribbon. It was whimsical. Fun. Recent years had left him with a definite absence of fun in his life, and he was loath to give it up again now. For what? So he could go marinate in hurt feelings some more?

He loved her. And she loved him. They were Creation and Destruction, a fated pair meant to fight against evil side by side, as partners.

The rest is noise.

As Adrien smiled, his decision settled, he couldn’t help the thrill racing up his spine, a savage pride in his own hunting prowess. He’d set his sight on her long ago, and now–

I finally caught you, Buginette.

 

✧✦✧

 

“I love you so much,” she said, her voice soft. The fingertips trailing along his jaw stuttered to a halt, and she swallowed heavily, gaze filled with longing and trepidation.

“I love you, too, Marinette,” he said, gentle and soothing. “More than you know.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien swirled a small spoon in his coffee until the heavenly brew was more cream than black, basking in the scent and sound of his favorite place on earth. His gaze kept wandering behind the counter and, whenever it did, a smile tugged at his lips.

“She’s still there, man. Didn’t go anywhere in those five seconds you last checked.” Nino sounded almost amused. Would have sounded amused if it wasn’t for that ever-present undercurrent of concern.

They were treating him like he was made of glass. No, that wasn’t quite it – more like a bomb encased in glass. He understood why, of course. They were just trying to avoid him utterly losing it again. And maybe he deserved that.

But it stung that they had so little faith in him. He’d basked in their forgiveness and acceptance. How could he do any less than respond in kind? Adrien had promised to do better, and he would.

Although keeping a straight face was proving increasingly difficult.

For people who had successfully kept secrets for months and years, it was almost comical how often they let it slip that they were hiding something from him. All significant glances and abruptly cut-off sentences.

Just how strong were those glamors? Everyone on this team was terrible at subterfuge.

Except for Alya.

Alya was smiling and cracking jokes with him like nothing at all was bothering her. But even she could not resist not-so-subtly interrogating him about his thoughts on Ladybug. Adrien had rebuffed her inquiries, unwilling to let anyone meddle in what was between him and his Lady alone.

Three days. Three days he’d been waiting for Marinette to say something, but she just kept cuddling up to him while professing her love. Which was enjoyable enough on its own. Chin scratches were as amazing as he’d imagined. Second only to ear scratches. Chat Noir snuck into her room at night and they watched movies together while he purred in her lap.

It was all his teenage self had dared dream of when he’d fantasized about winning his Lady’s heart.

Minus the passionate love-making his hormones had painted in exquisite detail.

In this, Marinette was keeping her distance, and Adrien was growing restless, eager to talk about all that was still left unspoken. Maybe it was petty, but for all that he had decided to be forgiving, this was one burden he would not take from her. Marinette. It’s just me. Don’t be scared.

Trust me.

Adrien hadn’t quite decided how he wanted to react once they got around to telling him, but he was looking forward to proving his sanity and devotion. At this point he was favoring a suave ‘I know’.

He really hoped she would tell him soon.

Carrying a mic around so he could drop it at the right moment was getting rather cumbersome.

 

Now

 

The ceiling groaned as metal beams folded beneath the heat, molten steel burning through the floor as rubble crashing down all around them. Chat Noir squeezed his sensitive eyes shut to keep out the blinding light. Following their scent, he leapt to where he knew his teammates stood. His arms wrapped around his Lady, hoisting her over his shoulder. Only then did he cross the distance to the other two, his claws curling around their wrists.

All of this he did in the blink of an eye because he was fastest, faster than them all. He had to find a way to get them out before they were buried alive in lava and ash. But how?

Protect.

Instinct whispered in his ear, and he gave himself to it.

Clear a path.

He had wasted his Cataclysm to get them down here. Had chosen not to recharge because the Fox had chided him and reminded him that security cameras were likely watching. But he was capable of more than he knew, and he let Destruction guide him.

Sound ceased.

Cold enveloped them all.

And suddenly they were beneath a burning sky, heat scalding their skin.

“…the hell?” Alya’s voice was faint but unharmed and he let go, intent only on cushioning Ladybug from their fall. He grunted when his back hit the ground and they skidded to a halt. “How the fuck did we get here?”

“Adrien! Adrien, I’m sorry, I was going to tell you, I just didn’t know how and–“ A torrent of words burst from Marinette as she clung closer, apologies and explanations they had no time for. He propped himself up, cradled her face between his claws and pressed a kiss to her lips.

She froze.

“Later,” he growled. Fear tainted her scent. Fear of him. Fuck. He softened his voice as best as he could. “It’s okay. I’m okay. Just like old times now. What’s the plan, my Lady?”

Her eyes widened. “You’re not–?”

“I’m not going to freak out,” he said. “Give me a plan.”

She gazed at him, shock and disbelief written on her achingly familiar face.

“I trust you,” he whispered. “Trust me?”

Blue eyes widened, then narrowed. Ladybug nodded, decisively pushing herself back to her feet as determination took hold. Her head snapped up to look at the sky.

Duusu was enormous, her fiery wingspan easily a hundred meters wide. Her inferno burned so bright and hot that it was blue, only the very edges tipped with red. Yet as she turned toward the heart of the city, not a sound escaped her. She was not made of flesh or lava, only loosely connected flames in the shape of a bird. Silent and ethereal.

Carapace’s bracelet beeped, his countdown already started. Ladybug glanced at him. “You know how to activate your turbo drive?”

“Y-yeah? Listen, we can’t go near it, I tried, okay? Even at full boost, I'll burn before I get to it. Don’t stand directly underneath it, I saw, it melts–”

“Alright," she said soothingly. "You and Chat, use your speed to intercept her path and start the evacuation. Rena.” The blue gaze swiveled. “You’re an illusionist, right? Conjure a barrier to slow her down.”

“And then what?” Carapace’s voice was stoic, but the stench of his fear was overpowering. “How are we going to defeat that?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Ladybug said, inhaling a sharp, steadying breath. “I have to – we need to get the Miraculous back. It’s the source of her power, she’ll go back to her weakened form without it.”

“Wait,” Alya interjected, “Is no one going to talk about how we just fucking telep-“

Chat didn’t stick around to hear more of their strategizing. He had his task, was good at protecting civilians, and there was no time for bickering. The ground flew past him as he accelerated, running on all four. It was for the best, he had used his Cataclysm an hour ago, would only get in the way without detransforming to feed Plagg.

Although… he had done something back there. To get them above ground.

He slowed down just as Carapace streaked past him, his shield leaving behind a green trail.

The path ahead lit up with a barrier of light, lined with fountains of water spraying into the sky. Chat Noir skidded to a halt, unsure of what he was looking at, scenting the air. Fresh spring and rainy days.

Lies, instinct whispered. Deception.

Rena Rouge.

He turned to look at the sky. Justice was supposed to be able to sense the truth, but Duusu’s mind was not all there. Would she take the bait?

The phoenix slowed its flight, hovering in place, the beat of its wings scorching all that lay beneath. Warehouses crumbled, melting into the ground. Even with the distance he had put between them, the sweltering heat was near unbearable.

There was no evacuating anything from the path of a creature this mobile. Not when it spread its devastation so far and wide. It wasn’t even attacking at this point, merely flying above the industrial area to make its way to the city.

Duusu turned away from the barrier, soaring parallel to it. It drew her deeper into the unpopulated area, just as Rena must have intended. But this would buy them minutes at most – five, to be precise, when Deception’s illusion would fall apart, as would her transformation.

A flash of blinding white light streaked through the night. The cleansing arrow hit the phoenix rights in its heart – and sailed through.

Not an option either, then.

What was left?

Kill it.

Chat crouched low to the ground, and then broke into a sprint, trailing his prey as he analyzed it for weak points. What had his Lady been aiming for?

There was a pattern there, in the way the phoenix’s fiery tendrils were shifting. A vortex, centered around where its heart should be, glowing so bright it hurt to look at.

Duusu had to be in there.

How to get to her? Chat could leap high, but not that high. Even vaulting himself with his staff would not be far enough, and if it was, he would burn long before he could come close to touching her.

He gave more of himself to instinct, pushing aside the warning voice that told him to cleave to his human half. Destruction would know. Had pulled them all out of that hole somehow.

And he remembered it. That horrible, intoxicating power overflowing from his body, and what it was capable of. His jaw tightened as his fangs grew too big for his mouth. Black dripped from the tip of his claws, the footprints he left in his wake burning the ground like acid.

Chat Noir had the power to tear apart the world.

So there had to be a way for him to tear apart a firebird.

A kwami.

Broken and in pain.

Justice itself.

But what else could he do?

Get the Miraculous back.

That was his Lady’s plan. Should he follow it? He seized that thought, of presenting her with this gift. A token of their reconciliation. But how?

He had crossed the distance between the underground and the above, dragging his allies to safety. How had he done that? He needed to get close to Duusu, wrest the Miraculous from her grasp, he needed–

Chat Noir laughed when clarity hit him. So simple. So obvious.

He needed to tear apart the world.

Chat Noir leapt forward, soaring. His claws sliced through the air, catching on the very fabric of reality itself. He half-expected an unearthly shriek, but there was only silence as space was torn asunder, opening a path for him.

The Void greeted him on the other side, a bridge to the center of the inferno.

 

✧✦✧

 

Justice was untethered, her true power returned to her at last. No longer would she channel it through the meat of an unworthy conduit. She clutched the jewel she loved and hated as the beat of her fiery wings turned all to ash. Good. This was Just, as it should be. It was all of it beneath her.

Once she’d leveled a city, perhaps the creatures inhabiting this world would repent their wickedness. But she doubted it. They’d never learned any of the lessons she had taught over the millennia, her Sentences ignored and forgotten.

Justice would not stop with just this city. Her wrath was far too great to burn itself out on something so trifling. The others would not stop her, too small and weak and busy tearing each other to pieces over their lies. Maybe they would regroup eventually, or Creation would break her tethers to match Duusu’s strength. But by then half the world would be ash and Justice more than willing to leave it behind.

The cold Void opened, stars glittering before her eyes.

No!

She screeched, no sound escaping her wraithlike body. Justice would not go back, not ever! She would not be bound to sleep and serve again!

But her flames, her beautiful flames were drawn to the vacuum, snuffed out by an atmosphere that could not feed them. Combustion was energy changing form, and the Void was unforgiving and unchanging.

Claws closed around her pathetically tiny body. Duusu howled, her flames lashing at him, boiling blood and searing flesh.

You can’t take this from me, you won’t, Vengeance has come for y–

 

✧✦✧

 

“Ladybug, what–“

“Just give me a minute! I can figure this out!” She raked her fingers through her hair, staring wide-eyed at the scene of destruction unfolding before her. And she saw nothing. No way out, no item conveniently highlighted in her vision as the key to their salvation. Only fire.

Fire that was rapidly encroaching on their position.

Rena’s necklace beeped a second time, time running through their fingers like sand. Think!

A gaping black something suddenly appeared in the heart of the phoenix, reality ripping apart at the seams. The phoenix reared back, beating its colossal wings, its maw open in a silent scream.

She caught a glimpse of glittering stars and twirling galaxies on the other side. Then the seam closed, taking the flames with it.

Only for a new portal to open above their heads and spit out a body.

The man slammed down hard, no attempt made to feather his fall, limbs curled protectively around his chest.

Ladybug cried out. Black leather and the stench of seared flesh. She ran to drop to her knees by his side, trying to turn him to face her. Red skin sloughed off at her touch, and she snapped her hands back.

“My Lady.” Adrien’s voice was low and broken, straining against a blackened throat.

He heaved one hand away from his chest, unfurling his claws. The leather had burned away, as had the skin of his palm where the peacock Miraculous was touching it. She could see bone.

“Look… what the cat… dragged in.”

“Don’t you fucking dare make puns now,” she whispered. He laughed, or tried to anyway, his body shaking with nothing but a cough escaping him.

“You can… fix it.” He slid the brooch closer just as black leather began dissolving in green light.

No. No no no.

A memory stirred. Old scars ripped open by a faded glamor.

The transformation melted in slow motion, magical sparks eating away at the purple costume until only a white suit remained.

“My Lady.” Chat’s voice was barely above a whisper, cradling Hawkmoth in his arms. When he looked up, it was Adrien’s inhuman eyes shining with tears as he held out his father’s body toward her. So young. Just a child. “F-fix him. Please.”

Ladybug couldn’t save everyone. There were limits to her power. 

But she’d been younger then, hadn’t truly grown into her strength yet. Hadn’t yet realized that she was the designer and the world her fabric.

Alya’s horrified voice was faint, and Marinette tuned it out.

He was smiling at her, his handsome face barely recognizable. “Marinette.”

“Shhh,” she whispered. Tears fell as she smiled back. “Tell me later.”

Creation couldn’t save everyone. But what good was all her power if she couldn’t save her other half?

So she would.

There was no other path forward. She had failed him too many times, and she would not fail him now. Not again, never again.

The palms of her hands shone with bright light. She’d wasted her arrow, her Lucky Charm, but she didn’t need it. It was only a conduit. Form over function. Ladybug closed her eyes and focused her healing on him and the broken brooch.

She was Creation and reality would bend to her will.

“Miraculous Ladybug.”

Chapter Text

“I will not forget this, Creation. That world is unworthy. It should have burned.”

Duusu spread her wings, the flames passing over Tikki’s garden, leaving it untouched. Here, where all was made of its truest essence, Justice could not touch that which had committed no wrong.

“I’m sorry you did not enjoy the journey. I wish we had never lost you. That world is imperfect, but you are letting its darkness blind you to its potential.”

Justice screeched and said no more, turning away to soar into the ether.

A swarm of glowing white butterflies trailed behind the phoenix. Only one of them remained and Tikki raised her hand. Nooroo’s hive mind touched hers as the small shard of his body settled down.

Her rage will burn out. It always does.

“Maybe,” Creation murmured. Justice was prone to fits of righteous fury, rained down fire on those sentenced guilty, but in all the eons they had known each other, Tikki had never seen her attack her allies.

Give it a few centuries. The delicate butterfly wings quivered. I’ll help her recover.

“Will you return to us?”

The wings trembled once more. I know not. Your adventure has treated me ill as well, Creation.

“I’m sorry.” Flowers wilted all around them, luscious green rapidly shifting to its autumn cloak. “That world is a wellspring of innovation, I cannot help but want to see it improved. I know it’s imperfect, but it’s such fertile ground for me.”

We know. You warned us of the risks, and we chose them. All the same, perhaps it’s time for us to share our gifts elsewhere.

“Will you still come visit my garden?”

Of course. What would our long existence be without ever stopping to smell the flowers? All of us love to marvel at your wonders.

The last butterfly flew away to rejoin its brethren, leaving Tikki hovering uncertainly in the air, fairy wings fluttering. Was she hurting her friends by indulging in her selfish pursuit for inspiration?

Something tugged at her flowing red skirts, long petals winding around her delicate waist. She glanced down.

Plagg had caught one of her few black petals between his fangs and was gently pulling her down. She flew closer, pressing her forehead to his muzzle. When they were on earth in forms they had chosen to make equal, it was easy to forget how much bigger he was than her, his ears almost as large as she was tall. She was but an insect before his vast inky blackness. Galaxies sparked into existence long ago and devoured by the passage of time shone in his fur.

His glowing green eyes were almost closed, his expression filled with bliss.

“I’ve missed you, Plagg.” Such simple words encompassing so much more. Creation was not whole without him. “My love, I know you’ve also grown weary of humans. I fear I’ve been selfish to keep you among them just because I am enjoying myself. Do you want to return home? Find a new adventure?”

He swished his tail, oozing black vapor.

“I would never deprive of you of your fun, Tikki. As long as you are content, I will follow.” A rumble rose in his chest, reverberating all around them. “Besides. I like my current wielder. Just give me cheese, a battle, and more like him. You know I’m a creature of simple needs.”

He heaved himself up, lazily sauntering to the very edge of the meadow, to a shining message left behind for them to find.

“And look. More guests in our absence. Between Trixx and now them, this generation’s lifespan is shaping up to be fun.”

 

✧✦✧

 

All the color seeped away until both the pin and the brooch became dull and grey.

“So… they’re gone?”

“They’ve gone home, their connection to their Miraculous severed. It could be mended if Tikki willed it, but… yes. For now, they are gone.”

Nino’s shoulders slumped. Then he sighed, twisting the jade bracelet around his wrist. “So am I the worst Guardian you ever had, or…?”

Wayzz blinked at him in genuine puzzlement. Then his voice filled with sympathy and he floated closer, settling down on his head. “No, Master. Quite the opposite. You are one of my most promising partners.”

“But I lost two Miraculouses! Gone forever!”

“Not forever, only until Justice calms herself. Both Nooroo and Duusu were failed long ago, but not by you.”

“I should have seen, I shouldn’t have let her come–“

“Nino Lahiffe.” Amazing how that high-pitched voice could crack like thunder when it wanted to. “Your compassion is not weakness. I, too, did not recognize how far Justice had fallen. I Chose you to be my wielder, and you have mastered every test I have put before you. I do not expect perfection on first try. Or even on second. Only that you learn from your mistakes.”

His tiny paw gently patted Nino’s hair.

“For many centuries my Guardians have been handpicked out of a group of elite warriors trained from birth to wield me. You, on the other hand, were thrust into this dangerous situation unprepared. Yet I cannot say that any of my last dozen wielders would have acted any better than you did, had they been freshly bonded.”

Wayzz paused, and his voice grew softer. “If I allowed myself to ponder the paths forking before me, I would do so forever. But this world demands action, so I forged guidelines to make it easier for myself to act. I created my sanctuary to minimize friction with my Guardians, ensured that we would be of one mind. And as comfortable as that arrangement was, in hindsight…”

He trailed off.

“My growth has stagnated in recent generations. For too long I’ve kept myself distant from my charges. We are well-suited, Nino. I Chose you for a reason.”

The kwami rose again, floating over to the grand chest that contained all the Miraculous. He flitted around it and began pressing a complex pattern into the side until a secret compartment slid open.

“You are also not the first Guardian to oversee the parting of one of our own. Let me tell you of when Ambition decided to come to this world.”

Nestled in the small compartment was a grey crown in the form of a winding snake.

“We had our doubts about him from the beginning for he came without his balancing counterpart. Modesty is a timid soul, content to remain in the space she has carved out for herself, not interested in what lies beyond. Needless to say, the endeavor ended poorly, and my Guardian was forced to banish him, but not before he did tremendous damage. You, on the other hand, created a team that was able to stop Duusu’s rampage before it truly began.”

“I didn’t even pick any of–“

“You Chose Adrien,” Wayzz said decisively. “And Alya many years before. That others ended up giving them their Miraculouses does not diminish that. The right choice at the right time can have many cascading repercussions. I’m proud of you. Now, let’s lay these two to rest.”

Nino picked up the inactive Miraculouses and gently placed them next to the Snake. Just as he did, the other dual pair of jewelry glowed bright, Destruction and Creation returning from the other side.

“It’s done.” Plagg sounded bored, as if the whole thing was no more than an inconvenience. “Now take me back to Adrien. Has he woken up yet?”

“No, he’s still recovering.”

“Reckless kitten,” the black kwami grumbled and scooped up his ring. “What are you still standing around for? He needs my strength.”

“One moment,” Tikki said. Her voice was bright and happy, so entirely unsuited for the somber occasion. She raised up both her paws, holding two glowing orbs of lights. One was made of pure white, the other a swirling prism of all the colors of the rainbow. “There were visitors in my domain. They’ve been there on and off for the last century, expressing interest, but I did not wish to forge a new Miraculous as long as others were still unaccounted for.”

Nino blinked and frowned. “New Miraculous…?”

Tikki beamed at him. “Harmony and Chaos wish to join our adventure, Guardian.”

 

✧✦✧

 

“Hello, Ladybloggers!” The masked woman waved at the camera. “Now I know recent events have left Paris shaken – a supernova in the shape of a bird will spook just about anyone, after all – and you all have countless questions about what happened last night.

“You might also be wondering who I am.” She twirled her flute and swept into an elegant bow, her grin revealing small fangs. “I am Rena Rouge, the most recent addition to the superhero team guarding our fair city. If, a few days ago, some of you heard a faint high-pitched sound reverberating through Paris, don’t be alarmed. That was me and my excitement. Living the dream, dear viewers, facing fiery doom and all.

“Jokes aside, protecting the people of Paris is a responsibility I take quite seriously and so I’m here to update you all on the situation.

“You can all breathe easy. The reason the district remains destroyed is not, as some of you feared, because Ladybug was incapacitated. Quite the opposite. Through a selfless sacrifice, Chat Noir was able to defeat the source of the Flamelings. Ladybug prioritized her healing magic on saving him rather than some melted warehouses.”

She winked at the audience on the other side of the screen. “Shippers, do with that information what you will. He’s on the road to recovery, and Paris should be a lot less on fire from here on out.”

Her grin widened even as her eyes took on a predatory glint.

“And rest assured that those responsible cannot hide from us. Justice demands her due.”

 

✧✦✧

 

Adrien inhaled deeply, eyelids fluttering.

I know this scent.

Warm. Safe. Home.

His fingertips twitched, and he curled the claws on his right hand, expecting pain. But there was none. Another deep breath, so deep he dared move his chest. Soft fabric shifted, gently scraping against skin that was not burning.

He forced his heavy eyelids to lift, blinking against bright light.

My meadow.

Bluebell eyes were gazing down at him.

His lips curved into a smile. And she burst into tears.

“My Lady, no.” He swallowed heavily, tongue like cotton in his mouth. “No tears, please. I don’t like seeing you cry.”

She shoved his shoulder, crying harder. “Well, tough shit, Chaton! How dare you? You scared me!”

“Well, I told you. Just like old times.” Somehow, he found himself grinning. Or attempting to, anyway. “No matter what I get hit with, you always save me.”

“Did – did it ever occur to you that I didn’t want you to throw yourself in front of me all the time?” The tears were flowing freely at this point, even though her voice was building up to a furious rant. “That I hated seeing you sacrifice yourself? I never asked that of you!”

“What can I say?” He closed his eyes again. Keeping them open required too much effort. “I’m terrible at resisting my instincts.”

Marinette’s arms wrapped around him and she buried her face in his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry, Chaton, so sorry for everyth–“

“Shhh.” He found the strength to raise his hand and to bury his fingers in her soft hair. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not! You needed me and I–“

“It’s in the past. All of it.”

“It clearly isn’t! Adrien, you – how are you so serene about this!? You hate me!”

He winced, and a sharp throbbing pain lanced his temple at the sudden movement. “I don’t hate you. I was trying to keep my distance from you, and I – I’m bad at that and took it too far. Resisting you takes effort, and I don’t like the person it turns me into. I’m tired of hurting you. Of hurting myself. Loving you is easy. Like breathing.”

He’d promised himself he wouldn’t say it. No matter how brilliant his little pun-loving weeb heart thought it.

So, naturally, he couldn’t resist.

“I-it’s not like I like you or anything, Lady-baka.”

She shoved him and he laughed like a hyena until his chest hurt.

“Adrien, I’m serious! We wasted all this time because I was stubborn and self-absorbed and–“

“Stop insulting my Lady, Marinette.” His eyes cracked open. “Forgiveness is mine to give, isn’t it? Well, I give it. It’s now officially bestowed. No take-backs.”

Her longing gaze raked over him, searching. “Aren’t you angry at all?”

“Aren't you? I abandoned my duty for years and when I finally came back, I treated you like...” He trailed off with a soft sigh. “I won’t lie, Marinette, I wanted to hear the truth from you, not a crazed kwami. I wish you’d had faith in me – in us. But I also wish I hadn’t been such an angry ass that you grew afraid of me.”

“I wasn’t scared of you.” Marinette sniffled, wiping her sleeve over her face. “I was scared for you. Adrien, how could I – you were so happy! After all you’ve been through, I couldn’t stomach the thought of destroying your joy.”

“Oh.” A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “See? That’s why I don’t need or want any apologies from you. I hate to see you hurting, too. So if you’re that determined to make amends, I ask is that you stop crying.”

“But Adrien…”

“Marinette. Let’s stop making each other miserable, okay? We’ve wasted years. I’d rather not waste another minute.” He grinned up at her, blinking against the sting in his own eyes. “Can we start over?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I have some pretty fond memories of you, kitty. I wouldn’t want to give those up.”

“Ah. Good point. I have fond memories of you, too. Lots of them. It’s just…” Adrien chuckled hoarsely. “It’s all those years in-between I could do without.”

Her gentle fingers combed through his hair, and he leaned into the touch.

“But we have years, my Lady. We can make new memories. And maybe we’ll mess up again along the way, but that’s okay as long as we have each other’s back.”

“Do you think so?”

“We’ve always been unstoppable together, haven’t we?” His gaze sought hers. “Trust me.”

“Yes,” Marinette whispered. Then she suddenly laughed. “Alright. A fresh start. Hello, stranger. What are you doing in my bed?”

Adrien grinned. “I’m not quite sure. Someone must have picked me up and brought me home.”

“I did find an injured stray the other day. I had to nurse him back to health.” She brushed away a strand of his hair, fingernails stroking his jawline. A purr rumbled in his chest. “Lying in bed all day must be boring. Would you like to hear a story? It’s about a boy and a girl. And a cat.”

“Sounds intriguing.”

“It all started on a rainy day when a boy gave a girl an umbrella, and she fell deeply, madly in love with him. That same day, she put on a mask, and a cat fell in love with her. The cat tried to catch her, but she always evaded him, her heart belonging to that boy. Yet the cat was kind and playful, and even with all his failed advances, they became the best of friends.

“But one day, a horrible thing happened. The boy’s father died. The cat came to the girl for comfort, but she pushed him away, thinking only of that grieving boy. The boy left. And soon she realized that the cat wasn’t going to return to her either.”

“Ah.” Adrien swallowed the lump in his throat. “Is this going to be one of those dramatic irony type punchlines? Because I can see it, but you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t laugh.”

“No.” Fabric rustled and Marinette wrapped her arms around him, resting her head in the nook of his shoulder. “It’s going to be one of those tedious stories that teaches a lesson about not taking for granted what you have. See, while the girl missed the boy, he was in many ways a stranger to her, and life went on without him. But the cat… him she missed like an ache, like an empty space where he should be. He was in her thoughts all the time, and she even mimicked some of his quirks, just so she could feel like he was near.”

She paused.

“Then rocks fell, and everyone died. The end.”

Adrien burst out laughing. “What kind of shit ending is that?”

“Don’t be so judgmental, stranger. I don’t know how it ends, so I had to make something up.”

He huffed. “Rewrite it.”

“So demanding.” Her lips brushed against his skin, muffling her voice. “Why don’t you tell me the ending, if you think you can do it better?”

“Well, the cat came back. Obviously.”

“And what happened then?”

“A girl picked him up and put a ribbon on him and he remembered what happiness felt like.”

“And then?”

“It turned out to be the same girl as before. And the cat chose to be happy.”

“Is that something he has the ability to choose?” Marinette’s voice was so terribly small. “What if, deep down, he still resents her? Maybe in a year or two, he’ll be filled with rage again, unable to forget the pain she put him through.”

Adrien shrugged. “Then he’ll choose to work it out. He can afford a therapist. It’s a very rich cat, you see.”

She giggled, the sound mixed with a sniff. “Now you’re just pulling a Deus Ex Machina out of nowhere. Like a cat has enough sense to get a licensed professional.”

“You’re right. It strains suspension of disbelief. Obviously, he was cured by the power of love, and they’re going to live happily ever after.”

“How cliché. My rock ending is better. It has pathos.”

Adrien laughed softly, raising his hand to entwine it with hers.

“Call me a hopeless romantic, but I really want the cliché ending,” he said.

“Me, too,” she murmured against his skin, pressing another kiss to his jaw. “I was just trying to play it cool. Can’t let this handsome stranger lying in my bed know I did something as foolish as fall in love with him at first sight.”

Adrien stroked his thumb along her fingers, pressing his hand closer. Something was off, and he cracked open one eye to inspect it.

His palm was scarred, faded white welts right where he had clutched Justice’s Miraculous.

Well. One scar wasn’t so bad. It would only add to his Agreste brand. Heh, brand.

“Did it hurt?”

He blinked up at her. Well, yes. Duusu’s flames had been excruciating, but she didn’t need to know the details of that. “I feel fine now.” A soft brush of his fingertips along his cheek confirmed that his skin had knit together smoothly everywhere else.

Marinette shook her head, grin widening as she leaned down. “No, stranger, I mean…”

Her lips touched his ear, voice barely above a whisper.

“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”

Chapter Text

“-marvelous, simply marvelous!”

Adrien nodded and grinned, the expression almost genuine. While his praise was true, there was only so many times he could repeat it before falling into a routine. “Keep an eye on her, she’s a rising star.”

Madame Moyen’s eyes glittered, her lips curving into a sly, knowing grin. She was one of the Grand Dames of the fashion world, a kingmaker – the kind of woman who could make or break a reputation. “From what I hear, she has a muse, Monsieur Agreste.”

His eyes twinkled. “That may well be,” he said coyly. “A very handsome man, from what I hear.”

She tittered. “I heard he’s a dangerous one.”

“Oh?” He tilted his head. “I suppose so. But danger and beauty go hand in hand, don’t they?”

She tittered once more, her eyes shining with approval.

A gentle touch brushed his spine. “Madame Moyen,” Marinette said softly. “It’s such an honor to meet you.”

“Speak of the devil.”

“Devil?” His Lady smiled her most innocent smile. “I’m afraid you must have me confused with my muse. Whom I must steal away now.”

“Help, help, I’m being monopolized.”

“Oh, shush.”

Adrien let himself be led away, Madame Moyen’s soft laughter drowning out his sigh of relief.

“Part of me wants to unleash you on the rest of them to watch you work your networking magic,” Marinette said, “But mostly I want to take you home and spare you the pain. Are you okay? Your smile looked really strained there.”

He brushed his lips along her temple. “You’re worth it. And this is your official debut, so I’m willing to put in some extra effort.”

Marinette Dupain-Cheng’s designs had rocked Paris Fashion Week, as he’d known they would when he’d confidently strutted on that catwalk. Now it was time to capitalize, no matter how tedious the process.

While Adrien had been slowly detaching himself from the world of Haute Couture in preparation of his enrollment as a Physics freshman in the fall, this had only increased demand for his brand. And he was not above taking advantage in order to give Marinette a little boost.

“But you hate it,” she said, pursing her lips.

“It’s just another battle to be fought.” His fingers curled around hers and he raised her hand to his mouth. “Now go and kick their asses.”

“You make it sound like we’re in the middle of enemy territory.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “Aren’t we?”

“Dork.”

“Weep not for me, my love. Leave me behind and conquer.”

“The biggest dork.”

Adrien grinned widely.

Cat me some slack, would you? I have to get my entertainment from somewhere.”

She rolled her eyes and sauntered off to charm more prospective clients. His eyes scanned the crowd for his next target, briefly fixating on Nino who was in deep conversation with an American film director. Alya stood by her boyfriend’s side, one arm loosely linked with his. When her lips moved, the trio broke into laughter.

His schmoozing capabilities clearly not needed on that front, Adrien’s searching gaze moved on. It landed on Nathalie who was staring at a set of four large prints hanging on the wall. Her fingers were absently curling around a silver pendant, the one Adrien had gotten her for her birthday.

“Do you like them?” he asked, sauntering up to her side.

“Your girlfriend is very talented. I think I’ll snatch her up now that my best client is leaving the industry.”

“I’ll be happy to give you a most glowing reference.”

“Thank you, Mr. Agreste.” She fell silent, adjusted her glasses, and then cleared her throat. “It looks like you.”

Adrien smiled.

He had been through thousands of photoshoots, but he’d never truly recognized himself in the final products. The design in white was no exception in that regard. That was just him in some skimpy clothes, face contorted in his standard seductive smirk.

But that other one…

The photo showed him laughing, head thrown back in joy which exposed the golden ribbon tied around his neck, a stark contrast to the black of his suit.

“It does, doesn’t it?”

 

✧✦✧

 

His tail twitched as the predator laid in wait, patiently anticipating his chance. When the last human turned his back to the buffet, he struck. Dashing out from beneath the heavy cloth’s edge, he swiped at his prey, collected the supple flesh for him to devour, and disappeared back under the table.

Then, because he was a generous God, Deception shared his catch.

But Destruction was an ungrateful bastard and declined the offer by waving a cheese-smeared paw. Vile stuff, cheese. Trixx would never understand why Plagg had chosen to trade blood and meat for rotten milk. Once he and the black kwami had feasted on bone and sinew together. Ah well. More for Trixx.

The fox kwami happily bit into the mini-sausage.

“So I’ve been thinking,” he said. “About our wielders.”

“Ready to admit you got the consolation prize?”

It was a heated argument of theirs, born out of Plagg’s wielder rejecting Trixx to pass him on to a clearly superior partner. But because Plagg had been first pick, he labored under the delusion that his kitten was better than Trixx’s kit.

Deception snorted. “Far from it. Yet – I come bearing a proposition. My Alya has already agreed.” In fact, it had been her idea. Oh, how Trixx loved that mind of hers, even though he had to show her the path to possibilities her pure thoughts overlooked.

Black ears perked up. “Oh?”

“My wielder wishes to play a prank on the Guardian, and your wielder could be of assistance. We could settle this debate of ours.” The Fox grinned broadly. “Let’s trade.”

“Trade?”

“Yes. Don’t worry, it will only be for a day or two. My wielder thinks dressing in black leather and cat ears while flirting up a storm would be hysterical.” Trixx cackled. “If your wielder was willing to wear me while acting a little too familiar with the Guardian as well…”

Plagg, clever cat that he was, caught on immediately and laughed.

“I think Adrien could be convinced to assist in your endeavors.”

Trixx steepled his paws. “Excellent.”

“Do you ever get tired of needling Wisdom, Trixx?”

“No. Never.”

“I’m just saying. Appreciate what your counterpart has to offer, and you will be richly rewarded.”

“I do appreciate Wisdom. It’s he who does not see that we could be just like you and Tikki.” Trixx rolled his eyes. “He’s too slow.” But one day even his beloved would catch on to the meaning of the word foreplay. And with Alya has his wielder, Trixx had an entire human lifetime to make his case. Soon, he would be the favored predator while Plagg slept in the Void.

Trixx swallowed the maniacal laugh. The foolish Black Cat had no idea he was unwittingly aiding his own downfall.

“Just return Adrien in pristine condition, Trixx. No joy rides.”

“On my honor.”

They both laughed, knowing Trixx had none.

Plagg’s voice grew deadly serious. “I mean it, though. Every scratch I find on my kitten, I will return a thousand-fold.”

Trixx inclined his head. “I will respect your wishes, Destruction. But soon, once you’ve melded with her, you will be forced to concur that it is I who came out ahead in this round of Choosing.”

“You keep telling yourself that.” The black kwami licked the cheese off his paw. “Though I have to admit, I’m still baffled you think so highly of her.”

“We are not so incompatible as one might think. She’s decided to become a professional hunter.” His paws curled to mimic air quotes. “A ‘private detective’ on the trail of those who broke Justice. We should be matched against our obvious type more often. Such fun.”

Plagg grew still. Then he nodded gravely.

“Agreed. I think I’ve figured out why Tikki’s been having the time of her life.” He broke off another piece of camembert and stuffed it into his mouth. “She’s been hoarding all the likable wielders.”

He swallowed and licked his muzzle, voice thoughtful.

“Gentle hearts. Gentle hearts are the key.”

 

One Year Later

 

She aimed the yo-yo with practiced ease, the string catching on a chimney to propel Ladybug to new heights. A grin tugged at her lips as the wind rushed through her hair, but she did not allow herself to dwell, the string already seeking its next target.

Beneath her, a shadow was darting from roof to roof. He was impossibly fast, but power flowed through her tonight and she would not let him catch her. No, tonight was the night she would finally win a race against her partner.

Ladybug fell from the sky, letting gravity accelerate her momentum. Catching herself at the last possible moment, she swept into her next arc, so close to the ground her boot almost skimmed the pavement.

The wind carried his alarmed shout, and then he slammed into her from the side. Together, they tumbled onto a roof, his big body shielding hers from the impact. Above, a black portal sealed shut.

“You cheater!”

Low laughter reverberated in her ear as Chat Noir squeezed her closer. “My Buginette was about to go splat on the pavement.”

“I was not! You just didn’t want me to win.”

“You can’t prove that.”

“Cheater.”

“Rules were made to be broken.” Green eyes sparkled with mischief. “I did not choose the thug life, my Lady. It chose me.”

She wiggled out of his hold, getting up just so she could target him with her most scathing look. He did not appear contrite at all, his grin supremely smug. “That’s it. Next week I’m patrolling with Rena.”

Black ears drooped before instantly perking as his grin widened. “You won’t. I’m your favorite.”

Ladybug huffed, crossing her arms. “You can’t prove that.”

Oh no. He was doing the eye thing at her. It was so much more effective when he was transformed and could get his pupils to dilate for maximum cuteness. She whirled around, averting her gaze before he could break her will.

A moment later, his arms closed around her waist, tucking her against him. “My apologies, my Lady. I’m a bit high-strung tonight. Today’s a special day.”

“Oh?” She leaned into the embrace, and his lips brushed her nape.

“It’s our anniversary.”

Briefly, her eyes widened with panic. How could she forget their anni – wait. No, their anniversary had been a few weeks ago, and they’d gone to the same restaurant as their first date to celebrate it. She’d gifted him a green scarf, adding to his growing collection. “Are you sure your math’s not off, Chaton?”

“I’m absolutely paws-itive.” There was laughter in his voice. “You see, exactly a year ago to this day, I woke up in a stranger’s bed and fell madly in love.”

“You are such a hopeless romantic, kitty.”

“Guilty as charged.” His fingers curled around her wrist and suddenly he yanked her into a twirl. She yelped, but her enhanced body never lost its balance, fluidly adjusting to his movements. He dipped her down, his lips barely brushing hers, before she found herself in another whirl. The darkness of a portal enveloped her, swallowing his faint laughter.

And then they were dancing to the shine of flickering candlelight.

Ladybug’s gaze darted around to find some clue about their location. Her breath left her as she took in the familiar scene on a familiar roof, painstakingly decorated much the same as it had been that fateful night when she’d first realized the depth of her partner’s feelings for her.

She lost their rhythm and they stumbled to a halt. Chat Noir flashed her a shy grin, the pale skin beneath his mask darkening with a blush. Slowly, he lowered himself on one knee and raised a hand.

His claws unfurled to reveal a small velvet box.

 

✧✦✧

 

Nino yawned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he waited for the coffee to finish brewing. Late-night patrols were fun – well, what came after late-night patrols was fun, anyway, when both he and Alya were filled with restless energy. She’d developed a habit of pouncing to pin him to the wall, and he was more than happy to go with the flow.

But he definitely paid for the lack of sleep in the mornings. Nino yawned again just as the last drip hit the heavenly black brew, and he did not even wait for it to cool down before bringing the mug to his lips.

The first rays of the dawns were tentatively creeping in, not yet strong enough to overpower the incandescence of the two flowers planted in pots on the window sill.

Nino’s fingertips ghosted over white petals pulsing with an ethereal glow, the floret closed around a kwami growing within. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but he could have sworn it had moved. Was the flower grown from Harmony’s essence close to blooming?

“Nino!” The door slammed open and the whirlwind that was his girlfriend swept in, waving something in the air. “Look what came in the mail!”

She held out a small card and Nino plucked it from her hand, squinting at the elegantly looping script. Then he guffawed.

“I can’t believe Adrien wasted a small fortune on buying himself a title.”

“Never underestimate that dork’s commitment to a pun. It even outweighs his frugality.” Alya’s shoulders shook with laughter. “I think it’s cute.”

“It’s not very French. Clearly the man’s been out of the country for too long and forgotten what we think of Aristocracy.”

“Well, the name is French, at least.” She grinned at Nino. “So, what are the odds that I can convince you to change your last name to mine?”

“Slim to none.” Nino pressed a kiss to her temple. “And they’re both changing their names, not just Adrien.”

“Escaping the hyphen curse.” Alya ruefully shook her head. “I mean, I have to give them credit for sheer audacity. They’re taunting the universe. Practically inviting the glamor to fail.”

“It’s endured worse abuse than this. Besides, it’s a normal name, they could have made it much more obvious.” He’d half-expected one of Adrien’s atrocious cat puns. “And I’m pretty sure we’re the only ones who will be getting this version of the invitation.” Laughing softly, Nino’s gaze dipped back down to the beautifully inscribed calligraphy.

 

You are hereby invited

to celebrate the joyful union of

Lord and Lady Lenoir