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Breathless Garden

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Lonesome Briar's breathless screams and hacking coughs were unnerving to Ladybug, dodging the thorny vines that lashed out at her, heart thundering in her ears. She'd already caught one across her cheek earlier on, just beneath the protective curve of her mask, but she hadn't realized she was bleeding until she'd felt it drip from her chin.

"Chat!" A sharp note of anxiety had crept into her voice as she snatched her bandalore back to her hand, only to release it again and send it spinning. The battle had lasted over an hour already, and she'd lost sight of the wild streak of gold and black in her haste to lead the akuma away from crowds. The vines weren't their primary weapon, though they used them when she and Chat were out of reach, retracting beneath the victim's loose garb when not in use. Mostly they seemed to be used to bind people, even if she hadn't gotten close enough to see what happened when she was within the villain's reach. The hooded coat they wore was bursting at the cuffs and collar with deep red blossoms, their face half obscured by the petals as they ducked their chin. Watching them warily as her ears strained for her partner's voice, Ladybug finally noticed how the victim had to strain to catch their breath, wheezing softly as more flowers budded around their face.

"At your service, my Lady!" Metal-toed boots touched down on the roof at her side as the anticipated reply finally came. Chat Noir slid across the roof tiles before he braced himself with his hands to bring himself to a proper stop. Relief flooded her as she leaned towards him, his tail whipping with the same sort of nervous energy that thrummed through her and made her grip her bandalore’s string tighter as she spun it at her side. Brows pinched, his ears flicked towards their opponent, and the thoughtful sound he made sounded more like a growl than anything else. "I still can't find where the akuma is hiding in that tangle of weeds. Have you had any luck?"

The concerned glance he cast her way made her stomach twist uncomfortably, and she had to look away, worry creasing her forehead as she took in the sad sight below her. Lonesome Briar staggered, wracked with another fit of dry, labored coughing and leaving a path of petals behind them. She could barely make out the victim's face through the encroaching flowers, though she could easily see bluish shadows around their mouth and a thick sheen of sweat on the rare patches of exposed skin. They sounded like they needed to be in the hospital, not out screaming at people for their Miraculouses.

"No, minou. I haven't been able to think of anything." Crouching beside her partner, she snapped her yo-yo back into her hand, making herself a smaller target as she watched Briar waver on their feet. "Did...did you hear what they were saying earlier? I only heard them shouting at you for your Miraculous." She'd been out shopping with Alya, laughing about the latest stories of Nino's attempts to surprise Alya with romantic gestures. Her best friend had been in the middle of a vivid tale involving multi-tiered pillow forts when her phone had let out the siren for an akuma alert, and Marinette hardly had enough time to tell her to be careful before Alya had taken off at a dead run.

Marinette had been halfway across Paris from the first outbreaks, arriving just in time to see people watching in horror as others began to cough. The coughing fits didn't seem too bad so she'd hardly thought anything of it at the time, and Lonesome Briar had only begun to actively attack once Chat Noir and Ladybug had arrived. It was probably a reaction to the pollen Briar was letting off from the thick clusters of blossoms that clogged their outfit, which was why she and Chat had kept to the rooftops. Briar was slow outside of combat, prone to stumbling and sighing, as if each step took considerable effort and all they wanted to do was collapse in a heap. As it was, Ladybug found herself wanting to take the villain to a clinic rather than fight them, but she knew for a fact that the best way to help would be to find their akuma and cleanse the dark energies within it.

"Something about love..." Chat's scowl deepened as he muttered quietly, eyes trained on their opponent as one hand drifted to his chin. Claws tapped his jaw as he wracked his memory, tip of his tail lashing as his expression grew more pinched. While he thought, his voice went soft, mulling over the breathy shouts and threats that Briar had spewed at him before his Lady's arrival. "What was it, again? 'Nothing's more painful than a love not shared or returned, and if I have to suffer, then so do you.' Or something like that, at the very least. Half the time I could barely make out what they were saying because it's so hard to understand them around a mouthful of petals."

"Well, it certainly explains the 'Lonesome' part of their name, but not the flowers." Ladybug sighed, gesturing at the fallen petals and dropped flowers that had been knocked free during the fight. She’d been so busy scanning the street and the hunched figure in the road that she hardly noticed when Chat’s body stiffened beside her. It wasn't until his hand had gripped her shoulder that she stopped to look at him again.

"Chat?" Her voice softened, a flicker of worry making it waver in spite of herself. Chat didn't look at her, staring at the stumbling figure below them with an alarming intensity, his pupils narrowed to slits.

"My Lady, I think I might know what their power actually does, but we'll still need to find the akuma. If I'm right," his words trailed off for a moment, and he wet his lips, ears folding flat to his scalp as an anxious rumble rose in him. "If I'm right, we'll need to keep clear of the pollen."

"Okay?" Watching him for a moment, she turned back to Lonesome Briar. "I'd planned on doing that in the first place, but why? What did you think of?" She really hoped he was on to something, as off the wall as his flirty and lighthearted personality could be at times, she knew he had an unbelievably sharp mind under all the fluff and jokes. Rather, he'd need one to make half the puns he did on the fly, mastering wordplay and improvisation didn't usually come so easily that someone could snap off a witty retort in the heat of battle just to keep his partner's spirits up or distract their opponents.

"Now, this is probably going to sound ridiculous, but hear me out." He murmured, keeping an eye on the victim that wandered listlessly while he continued. "So there's stories about this disease, right? It's all from comics and online short stories and things like that." His words were coming out in a rush, as if he was worried she'd tell him it was ridiculous, but she only frowned harder, glancing between him and the victim.

"Well, wouldn't be the first time something fictional's been made real because of Papillon." Ladybug mumbled halfheartedly, she knew she didn't sound convinced yet, but she motioned for him to continue, noting the way he watched her face. Whatever this was, it was making him nervous, and that wasn't reassuring at all. Without even thinking, her hand settled on his shoulder blade, his warmth reaching her even through both of their suits, and she took comfort in it and his solid presence. As if sensing her worry, his tail curled around her in response, though Chat himself was still focused on explaining.

"It's most definitely not a good thing, my Lady. If Lonesome Briar's been coughing up petals and whole flowers this entire time like I think they have, then all those people that started coughing after the attacks are going to be in a lot of trouble if we don't stop Briar. It takes root in the lungs, where they start with small coughs that have them spitting up flower petals." Chat had to pause as Ladybug flinched, her look of alarm was enough to have him reach for her. The weight of his hand on her upper arm and the gentle squeeze and smile it came with were enough to settle her for the moment. She bowed her head as she tried to wrap her mind around this new information, taking a deep breath to settle herself she nodded, he continued. "The sick person ends up coughing up whole flowers in the end, and it can kill people if it gets too bad." With that, he went quiet again, ears twitching as he seemed torn about something, fidgeting with his free hand.

"There's more, isn't there?" Ladybug wasn't sure she wanted to hear it, not from the pained look that was tugging at the corners of his mouth and baring his fangs in distaste.

"Yeah." He was quiet, the nervous energy that edged his voice fading to a simmer. "Did you notice how only a few people caught it, my Lady?" She nodded, and the look in his eyes when he finally met her gaze again twisted her gut.

"The only way to catch the disease is if you have an unrequited love." It was as if he'd dropped a stone straight into her stomach from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the cold weight of it making her sag beneath the strain. "And the only way to cure it, is to get that person to love you back." Surely the haunted look in his eyes wasn't really there. Maybe she was seeing things. But there was no mistaking dread crawled up her spine with icy fingers, slithering around her throat to steal the air right from her lungs as she turned to stare down at Lonesome Briar with open horror.

"Then-then we'd better, ah, we'd better be careful. S-so we can keep it from happening to anyone else!" The last words came out in a shrill rush, her smile too tight and showing too many teeth as alarm screamed through her and made her heart beat heavily against her chest.

"Y-yeah." It was good that he was looking down at Lonesome Briar, Ladybug couldn't imagine trying to explain to him why she was suddenly in the deep grip of panic.

"But, you know, it could be something else entirely, right?" She grasped onto that hope like a drowning girl, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "You said it yourself that you weren't entirely sure that's what their power is, so maybe we'll get lucky."

He met her gaze with a soft huff, a lopsided smile spreading across his face even if it didn't have his usual playful energy. "Here's hoping!"

Seeing his smile made hers soften from a manic grimace, growing more natural as it took the edge off the clamoring anxiety that had begun to sink its hooks into her chest. With him, the fights were always so much easier, and her mind wandered for a moment only to be startled back to the present when his thumb brushed her cheek. Blinking owlishly, Ladybug took in his worried frown and then pulled back enough to see the dark sheen of fresh blood smeared on his glove. Surprise flickered in her eyes, she’d almost forgotten she’d been cut.

"My Lady, I know red is your color, but there are limits." His quiet words earned him a huff, as well as her playfully shoving him and getting a quiet laugh for her efforts.

"Come on, kitty, we've got a rose bush to prune." Her chuckles were still nervous, but she slipped her bandalore into her hand, the subtle whirring as she spun it helping calm her.

"After you, Ladybug!" He was on his feet in one smooth motion, though he met her gaze one last time. "Remember, try to avoid the pollen. Hopefully that's the only way it spreads." She gave him one sharp nod, then leaped off the edge of the roof, her bandalore's wire singing as it arced from her hand, and the color of the sky and ground blurred together for a moment as she sailed towards her target feet first.

For a moment she'd forgotten that Lonesome Briar wasn't nearly as slow as they looked when they felt threatened.

A wail echoed up the walls of the buildings around them as she found her ankles ensnared in vines and flowers, ripping her free of her tether line and flinging her straight at Chat. They met with a bone-jarring thud as she knocked him out of the air, his baton clattering across the asphalt while they tumbled to the ground in a heap of limbs. Somehow Chat had managed to wrap his arms around her, tucking both their heads down to keep them safe as they tumbled across the cobblestones. With no time for thanks as Briar charged them, Chat sprung to his feet while Ladybug's eyes darted across what was visible of the actual victim. If they were turned because of an unrequited crush, then...then what? All she could see were vines and flowers that crowded what little bare skin was visible, her bandalore shielding her from more battering strikes as the force of its spin left a pink glow in its wake. It wasn't enough, but it gave her more time to think as she wove around Chat and his claws. Together they carved a path through Briar's walls of vines to get him safely to his baton.

The more they danced just out of Briar's reach, the more energy Lonesome Briar had to put into their attacks, and Ladybug could have cheered when she saw that Briar was slowing. There was only so much this villain could do before their energy faded, she noticed, as the greyish tinge to their skin and the sweat on their face only grew worse with every strike. Soon they were grunting with effort, audibly wheezing, and she rushed forward just as Briar staggered, fully intending to stun them to give her and Chat time to find where the akuma was hidden. It was only too late when she heard Chat's desperate shout, his words sounding distant with her focus entirely on the way Briar's shoulders trembled from concerted effort.

"Ladybug, NO!" Claws reached for her, but closed on air as he tried to pull her back in time, and Lonesome Briar let out the most horrific barking cough she'd ever heard in her life. As if they were desperately trying to breathe, to force something unforgivingly sharp from their lungs.

Petals exploded in her face, vibrant red and wet, the weight of flowers striking her head and shoulders almost unnoticed as she belatedly threw a hand up to shield her eyes. For a moment she had a perfect view of Lonesome Briar's face, their eyes red and wet with unshed tears and mouth glistening from coughing, sweat-soaked and puffy-eyed from tears and a desperate need to breathe. The empty, desolate expression of someone drowning in their own feelings, cut off from everyone. What was worse was the flicker of recognition, their gaze sharpening and brows furrowing as they gripped her by the shoulders, petals fluttering from their lips as they held her in that fathomless despair.

"You." Their words rasped around the petals, a tiny bud pushing past their teeth and blooming right before her eyes. "You understand, don't you? I can tell." A heartbroken laugh wheezed out of them, and Ladybug felt numb as she was tugged from their grip. Lonesome Briar only stood there and laughed their wheezing, desperate laugh. Tears welling up in their eyes and bubbling through the mirthless and hollow laughter, petals spewing from them in gusts until the laughter became coughs, and Ladybug felt a sympathetic itch behind her sternum as Chat dragged her away.

The last she saw of Lonesome Briar that day was their body sinking to the ground, wracked with sobs and coughs, surrounded by an ocean of wet, red petals.

The rooftops whipped past them as Chat clutched her close, her mind still reeling from the look in Briar's eyes. She couldn't think, couldn't bring herself to grab her yo-yo and help, only stare blankly as Chat set her down on a distant roof, away from the villain before gripping her face in his hands.

"What were you thinking?" He sounded furious, and she swallowed around the itch in her throat, tearing her gaze away from the skyline to meet his eyes. There was a wetness at the corners of his eyes, weighing down his pale eyelashes, and Ladybug found that her words failed her. Mouth opening and closing, all she could do was shrug and shake her head when her voice failed her. Chat's shoulders sagged as he pulled her close to tuck her head against him and stroke her hair. "Ladybug, I told you not to get close." His voice was strained with worry, and even the feel of his claws combing through her hair didn't help the heavy feeling in her chest. After a moment, she felt his cheek against the top of her head and he let out a sigh, an unhappy grumble rolling out of him from somewhere deep in his chest.

"I'm sorry." Her voice sounded so small and distant, her lower lip caught in her teeth as she chewed at it before she continued. "I just...I thought I could maybe knock them out so we could search them for their akuma." A faint rasping crept into her voice as the itch in her chest grew, and clearing her throat didn't seem to help. Swallowing thickly, her arms felt sluggish as she wrapped them around Chat in return, soaking up his warmth like a sponge.

"Out of all your grand schemes, I'm afraid that might have been one of your worst, my Llady." His hand continued to stroke her hair as he shook his head. "Although not nearly as bad as you leaping into a tyrannosaurus’ mouth, and I only forgive you for that because that plan actually worked."

"Chat, that was one time." At least when she was groaning in exasperation she didn't feel the weird crawling sensation, even if the relief was very brief.

"Once was enough to shave off a life or two out of my nine." Chat let out a weak, mirthless chuckle even as he hugged her tighter. "I'm the one that's supposed to throw myself face-first into danger, not you." It was meant to be lighthearted and teasing, but from the way his hands tensed around her, she couldn't help but feel it was more truth than not. Another painful itch, tickling along her rib cage from the inside, and she struggled to keep it in. After worrying him so much already, the last thing she wanted to do was upset him even more.

Even if the persistence of the itch that was creeping up her throat was alarming. Had he heard what Lonesome Briar said to her? The itch in her chest had to be a coincidence, right? Yet, even as she considered it, Ladybug had a sinking suspicion that it was exactly what she hoped it wouldn't be.

Chapter Text

Morning came with painful inevitability, the cruel alarm yanking her from the sweet dark embrace of unconsciousness into fitful waking. All she wanted to do was sleep more, her muscles tired from being tossed around all afternoon the day before, but responsibilities and school life called whether she wanted to deal with them or not. So Marinette slapped blindly at her phone until the shrill beeping stopped, only to find herself exhausted in a way that couldn’t be pinned on sleep deprivation or battle fatigue. Her chest ached, sternum sore and throat raw like she caught a cold, even though it was out of season. Swallowing hurt, but the nagging worry was pushed to the back of her mind as she forced herself out of bed and down the ladder from her bunk. Bleary-eyed, she dragged herself through her morning routine, stumbling down the stairs only half awake before grabbing breakfast. Slumped as she was at the kitchen counter with her head propped up on a hand, it took her a moment to realize the way her mother hovered, hands braced on the counter and her face tense with concern. Then she heard the news as faint background chatter from the living room.

“--still loose in the city, last sighted near the Arc de Triomphe. The Mayor put out a warning that all citizens residing in the arrondissements the villain has been sighted over the past twelve hours should stay indoors. Health professionals have advised everyone within city limits to practice good hygiene to prevent infection. For anyone experiencing symptoms of the illness related to this attack, please seek medical attention immediately. We go live to Nadja with the list of--”

Guilt squeezed her lungs as she watched the news feed, knowing that if only she and Chat had been faster, this akuma might already be gone. The last time they’d lost track of one and it escaped into the city had been Stoneheart, and that was not an experience she and Chat wanted to repeat. Still, even as she went over the fight in her head, she couldn’t think of anything they could have done differently, aside from her failed charge at the end. There had been no signs of what the cursed item might have been, which meant they’d have to incapacitate Lonesome Briar and search them for one. Maybe they had pockets or a bag or something hidden inside their coat. The possibilities were far too many, and the longer it took for them to sort it out, the more danger Paris was in.

Lost in her thoughts, Marinette flinched as she felt a warm hand cover her own. Tearing her attention away from the television, she met her mother’s worried gaze, a reassuring smile trying to mask Sabine’s own fears.

“Maman?” Marinette’s voice sounded small, whispery soft as her hand turned under her mother’s to squeeze her fingers. She didn’t know if she was trying to reassure her or gain her own comfort, her heart still thudding painfully heavy in her battered ribs.

“Marinette, I know we’ve talked to you about your attendance at school, but...You don’t have to go today if you don’t want to.” Her mother’s voice was gentle, and Marinette wanted to cry. She’d dropped her transformation and staggered into the house late the previous evening, well past dinnertime, with a bleeding face and gasping for air like she’d run ten kilometers nonstop through a dense - for lack of a better term - briar patch. Blaming the akuma had made the most sense at the time, as she had been too exhausted to come up with a better excuse. They’d fussed and Sabine had helped her into the bath like she was a child, but when she’d been too weak to get herself out of the tub afterwards, she’d been glad for the help. The hot water had done wonders for her sore lungs, but had turned her tired muscles into limp noodles.

Needless to say, she’d scared her parents half to death.

“I should be okay, maman. If anything happens I’ll come straight home, I promise.” Marinette smiled, trying to offer her mother a brave face, though Sabine still seemed uneasy. “And I’ll come right back home for lunch too, I’m sure if I ask Alya she’d be happy to walk with me.” It seemed like a better bet, and the thought that Marinette would not be by herself during an attack did the trick.

“All right, but you two girls had better come straight here for lunch. No chasing any of the monsters out there. I’ve seen enough of Alya’s videos to know she isn’t always the most cautious.” With a sigh, Sabine reached up to brush her thumb across Marinette’s bandaged cheek. “Please be safe, Marinette.”

“I will, maman.” Sliding off her stool, she pressed a quick kiss to her mother’s cheek and cleared off her dirty dishes. With a last hug goodbye to both her parents (her papa held her particularly tight that morning, unwilling to let her go), she scooped up her bags and made for the door. She had to find more information on the akuma to help Chat Noir, and out of anyone she knew, Alya would be the one who was most up to date on the new villain. If there was anyone in the city whose brain could pick for information, it was always the Ladyblogger herself.

“Girl, are you sure you’re okay? You’re not looking too good.” Alya watched her with a critical eye, taking in Marinette’s battered appearance and the way she seemed to be short of breath. It wasn’t a pretty sight, requiring a lot of creative use of accessories to hide the worst of it that wasn’t masked by her regular school clothes. If she’d trusted herself with makeup or had any other product than her basic mascara and eyeliner, she’d have tried concealing the bruises instead. But she didn’t, and so she hadn’t. After a bit of thinking she realized she’d likely have been too tired to make that attempt anyways. It was probably a miracle the accessories didn’t look like she’d let Manon drape them all over her.

“Y-yeah, of course! I’m just a little tired.” There were only so many times she could use the ‘I tripped and fell down the stairs. Twice! Ha ha, clumsy me’ or a similar excuse before it started sounding suspicious to her own ears. Nevermind how suspicious Alya was to begin with, and Marinette found herself trying not to wither beneath her bestie’s piercing glare. “A-also maman said you could come over for lunch so we don’t have to walk by ourselves.” At least the promise of homemade food seemed to throw Alya off her trail, a warm smile lighting up her face.

“Of course!” The smile shifted into a sly smirk as her glasses glinted in the morning sun. “Someone’s gotta make sure you don’t get mangled by akumas after all, right?” When Marinette sputtered indignantly, Alya just began to laugh, breaking up the gloomy mood that had settled over the young designer ever since she’d woken up that morning.

“I’m kidding, Marinette! You have gotta learn to chill.” Alya was still chuckling as she slung an arm around Marinette’s shoulders, hugging her close as they mounted the stairs to school. Everything was going fine, she was even early that day. Tired and wheezing quietly from the walk alone, Marinette slumped into her seat, pillowing her chin on her arms as she did her best not to fall asleep where she sat. Feeling tired just from a short walk across the street and up a couple stairs was irritating, but she could manage. It was just a little cough!

She was going to be fine.

Except the door swung open, and in walked Nino and Adrien.

There came a sharp pinch in her chest at the sound of his voice, Marinette wheezing at the sudden discomfort, and Alya was looking at her in alarm as Marinette buried her face into the crook of her elbow to stifle the beginnings of a cough with tears pricking her eyes. The boys were talking quietly, and something Nino said made Adrien laugh, soft and nervous and so sweet that the feeling in her chest transformed into something more akin to shards of glass. Alya fumbled with a bottle of water, trying to get her to drink. Marinette felt her face go flushed and her eyes watered as she tried her best to get the coughing under control.

“Woah, Marinette, you doing okay?” Nino’s eyes were wide with alarm as the chatter in the class died down, Adrien’s expression bordering on horrified as Marinette struggled for air. No, no, no! She didn’t want him looking at her when she was like this, her eyes stinging even more in embarrassment.

“I’m--!” Turning away from them so they couldn’t see, she felt Alya’s hand on her back, rubbing circles as the horrible dry coughs started to finally die. When she was finally able to sit up, her breath rattled in her tight chest, sweat dripping into her eyes as she rubbed the tears away. With a mumbled thanks, she took Alya’s water bottle with a trembling hand, bringing it to her lips for a small sip. It helped a little, but not much. Her throat felt atrocious.

“I’m okay, it’s just... just a cough.” Slumping back in her seat, she let her head rest against the back of her seat, not wanting to see the terrified looks on her friends’ faces.

“Girl, that doesn’t sound like just a cough to me.” Incredulous as always, Alya was still gently rubbing her shoulder. The worst part of it was Marinette could feel Alya’s pointed stare, her quiet words heavy and pressing against her like a physical touch. Swallowing around a rising lump in her throat, she wondered if she should just admit to a half truth, that she’d been caught by the akuma. But there lay the downside: how much more would they worry if she told them even that much?

“Marinette?” Her name sent another painful tickle down her throat when he said it, Adrien’s voice quiet and his words tentative. When he was met with silence, she felt a hesitant touch across her knuckles, only for her hand to be covered by his and gently squeezed. His hand was warm and comforting, callused fingers wrapping around her own, and she wanted to enjoy the feeling if her body hadn’t decided to ruin the moment. The longer he held her hand, the faster the tickling crawled up the inside of her chest, scratching across the roof of her mouth, and she squeezed her eyes shut tighter. “Hey, it’s okay. If you need help, you know you can come to us, right?”

Why did he have to sound like that when he said it?

He was watching her, and she couldn’t fight the horrid feeling working up the inside of her chest. Why did it have to happen when he was talking to her? Why was there always something that made it impossible for her to not look like a complete idiot when he was talking to her? Adrien was so patient, and sweet, and caring, it was actually physically hurting her instead of making her heart flutter rapidly and twisting her tongue. Marinette couldn’t hold it in anymore, nodding as she clamped her other hand to her mouth as another cough wracked her frame. The quiet worry in Adrien’s voice had squeezed her heart and made her cheeks flush, but a chill went through her when she realized it was triggering the awful sensation in her chest. Was this going to happen whenever she was near him now? Did this mean she couldn’t even talk to him anymore? Dread left cold sweat dripping down the back of her neck, and when she pulled her hand away, she swallowed down a lump in her throat and gave him a shaky smile. She could try to be normal, just for a little while.

“Th-thanks, Adrien.” If she couldn’t meet his gaze before, she certainly couldn’t now, glancing down at her hands with a shy smile on her face as heat spread across her cheeks. Only for a flicker of fear to chill her as she caught sight of something in her hand. Her gaze snapped up, hurriedly clenching her fist to hide the fact that there was a small, wet, pink petal stuck to her palm. Oh no.

Oh no, Chat was going to be so mad.

“Marinette?” Alya’s concern only grew, Nino and Adrien watched as her face shifted from her usual shy blush to paler than fresh snow with a sickly flush making her eyes look wild and glassy. “Marinette, you’re freaking me out here, girl. Hey.” Marinette did her best to resist, to pull her hand out of Alya’s pincer-like grip, but she was tired and growing more exhausted with every coughing fit, and Alya refused to give up, yanking Marinette’s trembling fist to her chest and pulling her fingers open.

“Oh my God! Marinette, tell me this isn’t what I think it is.” Alya blanched, looking down at Marinette’s palm that was flecked with spit and a very obvious flower petal. Nino and Adrien looked between the girls with worried frowns, the angle hiding the evidence in Marinette’s palm from them. “ didn’t get hit by Lonesome Briar, did you?” Her voice was low, but it was as if the entire class suddenly went deathly quiet, honing in on the villain’s name as everyone twisted to look. Marinette couldn’t meet her gaze, leaning away from Alya and Adrien, trying to pull her hands close, to hide the evidence and pretend everything was going to be okay.

“Marinette, no. You did, didn’t you?” Alya was horrified, her grip going slack. Marinette clutched both her hands to her chest, regretting pulling away from Adrien but she couldn’t bear to see the look on his face. “Oh, Marinette, you should have said something.” Even the touch of Alya’s hand on her back made her flinch, embarrassed tears stinging her eyes. She could feel everyone watching her now, as if their stares were piercing her skin. All she could think of was how badly she wanted the ground to open up beneath her and let her escape. Hands shaking, she glanced down at the pink petal, betrayal twisting in her gut like a poisoned dagger. One mistake. It had only taken one mistake, and now her own feelings and body were ruining everything for her.

Well, if the secret was out, might as well make the best of it. The situation was so far out of her control at this point, all she could do was laugh. It was weak, desperate, nothing like her usual giggle, and yet she tried to put on a reassuring smile for her friends as she sagged into her seat in defeat. No sense trying to hide the sickness for what it was, Nino and Adrien weren’t dumb.

“Ah ha, you got me!” Marinette’s smile slipped, her lashes wet as she let her head hang. “ was after we got separated. I was trying to get back home when Lonesome Briar caught me.” A visible shudder ran through her, and she peeled the petal from her skin with a wince. What was she supposed to do with it now? She wanted it gone, somewhere she didn’t have to look at it. In the end, it sat on her desk, the four of them eying it warily.

Absorbed with her discomfort, Marinette didn’t see the way Adrien was watching her, a scowl setting on his face before clearing the moment Alya and Nino looked at him. They both looked haunted, watching him like they expected something from him, but for the life of him he couldn’t say what it was. They both looked like they knew something he didn’t, and they glanced to one another, and he could tell they were having a million conversations at once just with a look. A sneaking suspicion began to flicker in the back of his mind, but he shoved it aside for the moment in favor of the immediate problem in front of him.

Marinette missed all of her friends’ silent exchanges while forcing herself to breathe slowly, as deeply as she could. Staying calm would help, because the coughs made her scared and that made the coughing worse every time so far.

“So, what are you going to do? You should really go to the hospital.” Alya tore away from the silent talk with Nino, shooting a final stare at Adrien before she focused her complete attention on Marinette. Marinette could only shrug in response, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

“I...I don’t know, Alya. I haven’t even been able to tell my parents yet, I didn’t want to worry anybody.” With a sigh, she drooped even further in her seat, scrubbing her eyes with the back of her hand. “I don’t even really know what’s happening to me now. I thought it was just a cough.” At least, until the petal thing happened. The silence was unnerving, the rest of the class still in a hush as they looked nervously between themselves. When the silence was finally broken, Marinette was surprised.

Adrien had never looked at her like that before. She’d never seen him look at anyone that way before.

“I think I know what it is. In fact, I’m almost sure of it now.” He looked like he was almost furious, and it made her shrink in her seat, letting Alya pull her flush against her side. Why was she suddenly thinking of Chat Noir and the look on his face when he’d been yelling at her last night? Alarm kept her from noticing the itch in her chest as she watched Adrien sort out his thoughts before he continued. Leaning on her desk, he pinned her with his gaze, his mouth drawn into a tight line.

“Marinette, how much do you know about Japanese comics?” Any other time, she’d have loved to hear him ask that, but his serious tone was chilling, and the crawling pain in her chest refused to leave.

“N-not much, w-well, I mean, a bit, but…but, why?” Stumbling and tripping over her words, they tumbled out of her in a quiet sigh, her voice growing more raspy the longer he looked at her. For a moment, Adrien closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, as if whatever he was going to say was something he didn’t want to. Like it was going to hurt. When he looked at her again, the fierce Chat-like scowl was gone, softened into a tender worry that he usually saved for his closest friends.

“What do you know about the Hanahaki Disease?”

It was as if someone had grabbed the floor and flipped it, sending her tumbling into a deep, icy ocean. Chat Noir had been right, and he was going to be so upset with her when she saw him next. Today just couldn’t get any worse, could it?

“Alya, I can’t do this.” Marinette was choking, her heart fluttering almost as much as her hands were. She couldn’t sit still, she couldn’t think, everything was making her head spin and she wasn’t entirely certain it could be blamed on her perpetual breathlessness. Everything was too much and all at once, the overstimulation shattering her thoughts into a thousand fragments. She’d been left squirming and wheezing under Adrien’s undivided attention, and by the end of class she’d let out an explosive exhale that had sent out a small cloud of petals much to Alya and Nino’s alarm. Which had caught Adrien’s attention, and he’d whipped around in his seat so fast she’d nearly vaulted the desk behind her to get away from him. Ivan had given her weird looks, and Marinette couldn’t blame him after that stunt. Instead, she was left to stew in her petal heap, sweeping them off her desk and onto the floor to give her more room to work until the bell rang. She couldn’t take the looks Adrien was giving her now that he knew she’d come down with the akuma’s illness, it felt like someone was clutching her heart and squeezing it until she couldn’t breathe.

“Marinette, babe, you know I love you.” Alya had to reach out and physically take Marinette by the shoulders to keep her still. Her bestie was precious and had a horrible case of the flutters on a good day, her flapping hands one of her regular quirks, but when Marinette was stressed her inability to stay put for longer than a hummingbird’s heartbeat drove Alya crazy trying to keep up with her. Honestly it was dizzying, and very frustrating. But with the way Marinette kept gasping out more petals, Alya really couldn’t blame her for being terrified after how the last week had gone for her. For Marinette, the last week had been nothing short of catastrophically disastrous, and Marinette’s nerves were far from made of steel on this subject to begin with. Now it was a minefield of eggshells and shattered glass, and she could see Marinette’s impending meltdown on the horizon and closing fast. Taking a deep breath, Alya plunged on. As Marinette’s best friend, it was up to her to give it to the girl straight, even if what Alya said wasn’t what Marinette wanted to hear. Now was not the time to sugarcoat the inevitable.

They were running out of time for that, if how quickly the disease was speeding up the longer Marinette let herself mentally run in circles was a good indicator. Or spent any amount of time breathing the same air as Adrien for that matter, which didn’t bode well at all for her.

But.” Alya glared at Marinette, the girl going still with a doe-in-the-headlights look that was all too familiar. “If you don’t get your act together and say something to him it is literally going to kill you and I can’t let you do that to yourself.” The steely tone she’d used had softened at the end, and she gently pulled Marinette into a hug, smoothing a hand over Marinette’s frazzled hair. It was obvious that Marinette hadn’t been fully coherent when she’d put up her pigtails that morning, as one of them was already looking droopy. The soft hiccuping that followed after a moment was expected, and Alya just held her tighter, petting her hair as Marinette’s nerves caught up with her.

“I know, girl. I know, it’s going to be okay.” She shushed her gently, letting Marinette decompress from the last day’s worth of anxiety.

“I didn’t want to tell him like this.” She was shaking in Alya’s arms, choking out the words. “I didn’t want it to be like this at all.” Disappointment and betrayal dripped from her words, and Alya rocked her gently, glad that they’d found a dark corner away from the usual crowds so Marinette could break down in relative privacy. It was hard not to let Marinette’s sobs get to her, seeing her best friend fall to pieces over something that should have been normal. Had been normal. Yeah, Marinette was almost stalker-ish with her hyperfocus on Adrien, and Alya had teased her for being a creep when she’d memorized Adrien’s schedule down to the minute details. And a full pull-down schedule wtf girl. But between the mess with Jagged Stone and now this, it felt like Marinette was purposefully being punished for having a crush like any other teenage girl.

“Why couldn’t it just be easy?” Marinette wasn’t quite yelling, but a note of hysteria had crept into her voice, and Alya weathered the thumps of Mari’s fists beating against her chest. She’d forgive her, Marinette was allowed to vent however she needed right now, even if it did leave Alya with a set of bruises. When had her tiny friend gotten so strong? Something she could heckle her over when this whole Lonesome Briar mess was behind them and let them look back on the mess with amusement instead of the nauseating anxiety it filled them with now.

“I’m so stupid.” The choked wail made Alya scowl, and her arms tightened defensively around Marinette.

“No. You stop that right now.” She glared down her nose at the other girl, Marinette startled into silence aside from shuddering breaths. Alya’s expression softened at the wet-eyed puppy face, lifting a hand to wipe the tears from Marinette’s flushed cheeks, though she drew the line at wiping Marinette’s nose for her. She loved the girl, but not that much. “You’re not stupid, Marinette. Just because you were waiting to tell him until you were comfortable enough to say it isn’t stupid. Telling someone you like them is scary, girl! It takes a lot of guts, and while I know you’ve got enough of that to give Ladybug a run for her money, it’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Relief filled her when Marinette returned the soft smile Alya gave her. Good, that was an improvement, at least. It was a definite start if nothing else, which was more than she had a moment ago. There was still hope for the klutzy goofball in her arms.

Thank goodness.

“Now,” she held up a finger after pushing her glasses into place. “That doesn’t mean you’re getting out of telling him. You have a deadline, girl! And as your BFF it is my personal job to make sure you don’t blow it. It’s scary, I know, but let’s put a positive spin on it. Take that fear and use it!” She clenched her hand into a fist, grinning fiercely and seeing light spark back into Marinette’s eyes. Alya could have cried from relief at the sight as color seemed to return to her best friend’s face and the girl straightened up.

“You’re Marinette Dupain-Cheng, and you’re one of the bravest people I know. Now, you’re going to go and get that sunshine boy, and he’s not going to have a single clue as to what hit him!” Alya grinned fiercely, and was rewarded with a tired chuckle for her efforts. It had definitely been worth letting Marinette beat her up a bit, now all she had to do was make sure the girl actually followed through. Which meant the hard part was still ahead of them, but she’d deal with that when they got there.

“Now, I think you said something about your parents offering us lunch.” Untangling herself from Marinette, she kept an arm slung around the other girl’s shoulders as she gently steered her towards the front doors of the school, giving Marinette time to fish a tissue out of her bag to wipe her face.

It was during lunch with Alya that Marinette blew her cover in front of her parents. Sabine was helping prep for the afternoon rush, and the girls were sitting at the counter talking. Marinette’s voice had gone wispy after the morning’s talks and close encounters with Adrien, and every crack in her words and ragged throat-clearing had Sabine glancing at her from the corner of her eye or over her shoulder at the pair. Eventually she settled for reaching for the kettle, casually listening to the girls go on about little things as she worked. She noticed that they avoided serious things, skirting around the talk of the akuma, but most noticeably, they completely ignored their usual subject. Not once, in the entire time since the girls had stepped in the door, had Sabine heard them mention Adrien, not even in passing. Usually he was a highlight of their talks, Marinette waxing almost poetic with girlish joy over him, and Alya’s supportive schemes to help her work up the courage to talk to him. They were quite the pair, and Sabine was grateful they kept their hijinks lighthearted, because they would otherwise be quite formidable if they decided to start trouble together. Yet there was something about the way her daughter never spoke of the boy that had Sabine wondering what could have inspired the change. Her husband stepping through the kitchen doorway put that thought on hold for the moment as she smiled up at him.

“How are my lovely ladies this afternoon?” Tom grinned as he stepped into the kitchen, pausing to kiss his wife’s cheek as she brewed tea, then turning to give the girls a hug earning him a plaintive cry of ‘papa!’ from his daughter that ended with Marinette dissolving into breathless giggles.

“Doing great, Mon. Dupain.” Alya grinned up at him. “Thanks for lunch, it was delicious as always.”

“Any time!” Tom laughed, almost visibly radiating warmth and cheer. It was really no wonder where Marinette got that from. “We’re always glad to have you, Alya. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?” Clapping a hand across Marinette’s back, no one was prepared for what happened next.

Marinette’s cough was explosive, petals bursting from her mouth to cover the kitchen counter and half the floor beyond, leaving the whole family staring in stunned silence as the fluttering cloud spread out in a grim testament to her sickness. Too startled to cry, Marinette stared wide-eyed at the pink petals, lifting shaking hands to cover her mouth as the horror set in.

“Tom, go get the broom.” Sabine didn’t even tear her gaze away from the petals, taking in the way Alya immediately moved to rub Marinette’s back while their daughter seemed to cave in on herself. Well then... Sabine couldn’t say she was entirely surprised, after she’d spent a sleepless night with her husband going over the possibilities of what would happen to Marinette after she’d stumbled in the door saying she’d been attacked. With a bit of effort, Sabine turned away from the girls, pouring a cup of ginger tea and stirring in more honey than was likely necessary in the case of a normal cold. Setting it down in front of Marinette, she made sure her daughter looked her in the eye.

“Drink it all, it should help. Your father and I will clean up, and you are going to rest when you get home from school this afternoon. But if you feel worse before school ends, one of us can come get you.” The quiet nod in answer was good enough, and Sabine and Tom scoured the counter and floors, disposing of the petals in the outside bins just in case. Sabine had spent enough time listening to the news that she didn’t want to leave anything to chance, and offered Alya a cup of her own ginger tea just in case. With both the girls taken care of, Sabine watched them return to school, the easy chatter now hushed as if the joy had been sapped from the pair.

She and Tom were going to have a very long talk before their daughter got home from school.

Chapter Text

“Do you think she’ll be okay? Marinette was looking pretty bad by the last bell.” Nino shrugged his backpack higher on his shoulders as he walked with Adrien to the curb. Her condition was obviously gnawing at Nino, and he wasn’t the only one worried. Alya had rushed Marinette out the door the instant class was over, and Adrien couldn’t help but overhear her telling Marinette not to look their way and just focus on breathing. After the show with Jagged Stone last week, he’d finally begun to realize exactly why Marinette seemed so uncomfortable around him all the time, and the way her coughing got worse only when he talked to her today was far more proof than he’d ever wanted. Guilt settled like a boulder in his stomach, his shoulders tensing at the thought. He felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner, but how was he going to be able to help her when he was in love with Ladybug?

He’d have to find Lonesome Briar before Marinette got any worse. He might not be able to help her break the akuma’s affliction by returning her feelings, but he could at least do that much and save her and all the other victims.

“I don’t know, Nino. I hope so.” With a half-hearted wave goodbye, Adrien paused with a hand resting on the limo door, chewing at the inside of his cheek as he stared at the bakery’s sign in the distance.

Hang in there, Marinette.

Tearing his gaze away from her family’s shop, he settled into the limo and tried not to slam the door behind him. He had to meet up with Ladybug as soon as possible, the thought turning his stomach as he twisted the ring on his finger. After all, while she was one of his closest friends, Marinette wasn’t the only one suffering. She was just the one that made it sting the most.

It had been almost impossible to escape Nathalie when he’d returned home. Homework was almost as difficult to sit through when everything in him screamed to bolt out the nearest window and across the rooftops. Yet somehow he’d managed, proving to his father’s assistant that he was perfectly capable of behaving himself and completing the work in record time. The need to escape the house and go patrolling was like an itch just under his skin, making his spine crawl and his scowl deepen as he took the stairs to his room two at a time, rushing through the door and pulling out the wheel of camembert he’d smuggled into his satchel as he’d slipped through the kitchen.

“Kid, you’re not going to be much help to Ladybug if you can’t keep your cool.” Plagg snipped, his ears twitching as he snatched a wedge of cheese from Adrien before his chosen could finish opening the container.

“I know that. It’s just...with Marinette catching the disease too, we’ve got to hurry.” Adrien sighed in irritation, worrying his lower lip even as he caught sight of Plagg’s expression out of the corner of his eye. The kwami had a knowing, secretive sort of look on his smug face, even more intense than usual. “It’s not funny, Plagg!”

“I never said it was.” The kwami sniffed, nibbling away at the wedge as if he had all the time in the world. Adrien was not at all happy about his nonchalant response, crossing his arms as he watched the tiny sprite eat. Plagg was nothing if not sarcastic and cryptic, which was an infuriating combination at times. Especially when Adrien was feeling impatient.

“Is there something you know about this akuma that I don’t?”

“Nope!” The kwami sounded entirely too cheerful about it, the remains of the wedge of cheese disappearing into his gaping maw in a quick toss. Even as he glared at him, Adrien couldn’t shake the feeling that Plagg was hiding something, and that feeling bothered him more than he’d like to admit.

“We don’t have time for this,” Adrien shook his head to clear it, pushing away from his desk and crossing to his open window. “It’s time to go prune some flowers. Plagg, transform me!

There was an immense satisfaction in the way his claws sank into the gaps between bricks when he vaulted up the sides of buildings. His whole body tensing in preparation before a jump, and the thrill that always came when a leap sent him soaring across a gap between buildings that would’ve been too wide to jump without his powers. Tucking tight, he tumbled across the roof tiles before he sprang forward, using his momentum to bound from one gap between chimney stacks to another. There was no obvious trail of petals to follow today, but he’d kept a close eye on the live updates via the Ladyblog and the news feeds that streamed akuma activity. Lonesome Briar had gone dormant at night, and he had a strong suspicion it might have had something to do with the villain’s plant affinity, but he couldn’t be entirely sure. Not that he was complaining, though he had to admit it was irritating when the villains were active during the school day and he couldn’t pull away to take care of it. As much as he was confident in his skills, he had a feeling this was going to be one of those fights where he’d need Ladybug by his side, and possibly Rena Rouge as well, if the previous day’s battle was anything to go by. If the two of them had been struggling so much the night before, it couldn’t hurt to have another set of paws to help out.

The memory of Ladybug caught by Lonesome Briar turned his stomach as he jumped another gap, an angry growl escaping through his clenched teeth. The villain’s words to her had left a sick feeling in his stomach, as had the look on her face when he’d finally pulled her free and carried her to safety. He’d known she had someone she liked, but she was Ladybug. Perfect, headstrong, confident, and more wonderful than any girl in the entirety of France. The thought that there was someone she was so in love with that the akuma had seen her as a perfect target upset him more than he had wanted to admit. Who could possibly turn down his Lady’s affections and leave her so vulnerable?

Maybe he’d misheard. It might be nothing. Maybe she was fine. His thoughts ran away with him as he perched on the tip of his staff, pupils narrowed to slits as he scanned the streets for signs of the akuma. Ears straining, they twitched forward, angling to pick up the sounds of the city around him but nothing seemed out of place. No screams, no shouts for help, nor any cries for him or his partner. So focused on catching anything out of place, he perked up instantly at the tell-tale zipping sound of a bandalore wire.

“Good afternoon, my Lady!” He grinned, his most charming expression snapping into place before he even turned toward her, his heart already beginning to flutter in excitement before he saw her touch down. “Always a pleasure to see you drop in.” Chat was off the pole in an instant, all liquid grace as he dropped beside her and took her hand, bringing it to his lips to kiss her knuckles. He never wanted to admit how often he practiced hopping off his baton to make sure he didn’t land in a tangled heap while she was looking. After all, he had to impress her if no one else.

Yet she didn’t chide him for being a flirt, and his gaze flicked to her face in immediate worry. Ladybug rarely missed a chance to heckle him for his romantic advances.

“Good to see you too, minou.” Her smile wavered, it wasn’t the strong quirk of her lips or a witty comeback. She looked exhausted, and he could hear the way she struggled to breathe.

“Ladybug…?” The uncomfortable way his stomach sank made him pause, her hand still held lightly in his grip. She hadn’t even bothered to pull away. Normally she’d have pushed him off by now, his tail twitching anxiously at the realization.

“Any luck trying to find our wandering Briar?” She kept her tone of voice light, avoiding his gaze as she studied the city around them. Without another thought, his fingers laced with hers, his thumb brushing across her knuckles as he listened again. He thought he might be dreaming when he felt her squeeze his hand gently, though he wasn’t certain if it was to reassure him or comfort herself. Glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, he studied her profile, taking in how she left her mouth open a little to breathe more easily. Her chest rose and fell with difficulty, and it sounded like every inhale was becoming a struggle. It made him feel sick just thinking about it, and he tore his gaze away, taking solace in the horizon.

“Not yet, Buginette.” His thumb caressed her knuckles once more, his ears flattening to his hair before they flicked forward again. “So, how was your day?” He kept his tone nonchalant, almost playful as he shot her a smile, the tip of his tail flicking cheerfully.

“It was okay. I embarrassed myself at school in front of everyone.” Her gaze fell, one toe scuffing the rooftop tiles beneath them. For a moment they were quiet, then she made a face, lifting her hand to her mouth as she began to cough. Chat barely had time to react before she’d pulled away, turning her back to him as her shoulders shook, his hands moving to rub her back until the spasms subsided. For a moment Ladybug seemed to wait as if expecting more coughs, then cautiously checked her hands before letting them fall. Rubbing them on her hips, she straightened and tried to give him one of her usual smiles, though he noticed how it didn’t touch her watering eyes.

“Come on, Chaton. We’ve got a rose to find in a bed of thorns.” Her voice sounded rough around the edges, and all he could do was nod dumbly as she stepped towards the edge of the roof. Rising up on her toes like a gymnast readying herself for a vault, Ladybug gave a little hop and a running start before she was gone, throwing out an arm to let her bandalore arc outward and pull her with it. There was always something about the way she swung through the sky that made him want to pause, and today was no different. For a moment the sunlight caught her hair just so, making it glow and bringing out the flush in her cheeks that her mask partially disguised. For one brief instant, he could imagine it was just her joy in that moment of flight that made her shine, and not the fact that Lonesome Briar’s sickness was festering in her lungs.

His hand clenched so tightly around his baton that his fingers felt stiff. He was going to find that akuma and shred it with his own claws if it was the last thing he did. With darkened thoughts in his head and a growl rising in his throat, he raced towards the ledge to leap into the void after her, baton singing over his head as he spun it.

He’d never forgive himself if he failed to save his Lady.

When the pair of heroes found Briar again, the villain’s breath rattled in their chest as they stood ankle deep in the fountain of Luxembourg Gardens. Their eyes were closed and their hood was down and arms raised, exposing their wild red hair and all their flowers to the afternoon sunlight. For a moment they seemed to be sleeping, then came the wheeze. A cloud of red petals filled the air, new blossoms crowding their face as they hunched forward, one hand dipping into the folds of their hoodie. With shaking fingers, they pulled a slip of what seemed to be paper from a hidden pocket, cradling it protectively in both hands as they stared down at it. Chat’s nose wrinkled as he watched them, the way one hand lovingly stroked the page before he shifted to get a better view of the paper Briar held.

It was a photograph of a group of people, but with only two figures fully in focus. The taller of the two seemed nervous, offering the camera a faint smile, while the other figure grinned easily. He barely had enough time to make out that much before Lonesome Briar shuddered, letting out a choked sob that turned into another coughing fit. Petals spilled into the water around their feet, one hand flying up to grip their face as the light of Papillon’s magic flickered brightly across their temples. It seemed someone was unhappy that Lonesome Briar hadn’t finished their mission already, if Chat Noir could judge from the tone of voice Briar answered their remote master with.

“I-I know! I’m sorry, I’m so-sorry!” Briar sobbed weakly, coughing and trembling as they staggered, falling to one knee with a splash. “I’m’s…yes, Papillon.” For a moment they knelt in the water, trembling uncontrollably as the mark of Papillon blazed bright across their face, and then it was gone, leaving the villain gasping roughly and staring into the water as they gathered their nerve. Chat watched with a frown, sensing the way Ladybug leaned into him, and he didn’t look before he leaned close enough to rub his cheek against her to comfort her.

He hadn’t expected her to cough, or the sudden burst of delicate pink petals that followed it.

Everything happened at once after that. Ladybug clapped a hand over her mouth, tears of discomfort sparkling on her lashes as she stared at their target. His own startled shout slipped out before he could stop himself. And Lonesome Briar, whirling in place with a speed Chat didn’t realize they had, flung out an arm to ensnare them in their vines. Grabbing Ladybug, Chat sprang away barely in time, his chest tightening as he heard her coughing more from where she was half-draped over his shoulder. He could hear the stones of the monument they’d been resting on a moment ago crack beneath the strength of the monstrous rose vines that struck it. Chancing a glance over his shoulder, he could barely make out the villain staggering through the water towards them through the pink petals that fluttered in their wake.

Oh, my Lady… His heart cracked at the sight of those petals, his hold on her tightening as they ran. At least they had a clue as to the villain’s akuma, though he knew they desperately needed to regroup before attempting another attack. Ladybug was trembling in his grip from the force of her coughing, their element of surprise lost as soon as they’d had it, but at least Lonesome Briar was left far behind them as they fled across the greens. Chat took to the rooftops again the moment Ladybug stopped leaving a clear trail for Briar to follow.

When they finally had a moment to stop and breathe, he set her down gently on a rooftop, crouching next to her and waiting for her to catch her breath. Delicately combing her bangs away from her face with his claws, he took in her sickly pallor with a sinking heart. Ladybug looked positively awful. Obviously miserable and in pain, her chest shuddered with her inhales, and he couldn’t help stroking her cheek with the back of his knuckles. The small gesture was enough for her eyes to fall shut, leaning into his hand with a tiny whine of discomfort. It took everything in him not to pull her into his arms and hold her tight like it would chase away the disease festering in her lungs. Seeing her brought so low was heartbreaking, and he struggled internally for a moment before biting back his own pride.

“My Lady?” He waited for a response, his ears flicking forward when a faint spark lit her eye and she lifted her head to meet his gaze. “ do know what will fix this, don’t you?” He wanted to plead with her, beg her to do whatever it took to stave off the spread of her sickness, but there was something so defeated in her eyes that it nearly brought him to tears just looking at her.

“Ladybug, that boy you like.” His voice was gentle, almost cajoling, and when she tried to look away he took her by the chin and carefully tipped her head until she met his gaze again. “You need to tell him how you feel. Please.” He was nearly begging, his thumbs brushing across her soft-looking cheeks as he lifted his other hand to hold her face in both hands like she was the most precious thing in the world. Though he would argue that she was, and his heart ached to see her eyes begin to water.

“I’m scared, Chat.” Her words so soft from her coughing fits that he almost couldn’t make them out over the sounds of the city around them. “What...what if he says no?” Normally he would have laughed, scoffing at the idea that anyone would be ridiculous enough not to be madly in love with his partner, but the fear that didn’t belong in her eyes and the very tone of her voice was like an iron clamp around his heart.

What if he did say no? Whoever he was. The idea was like ice, piercing him and making him forget how to breathe for a moment. The worst case scenario playing out in gruesome detail and making him sweat beneath the suit. He didn’t want to think about it.

“Ladybug, what if he doesn’t, and you let this go too far because you’re too afraid of failure?” He spoke softly, still running his thumbs across her delicate freckles to soothe the edge to his words. “Promise me you’ll try? Please.” He held her gaze until she tried to look away, the tears that spilled over the edges of her mask like a knife in his heart, and he swept them away with a brush of his thumb.

“I promise.” She choked the words out, and he leaned forward to press their foreheads together, not even noticing the way his own breath shuddered when he inhaled.

“Then I’ll hold you to it, my Lady.”

He carried her back as close to where she asked him to set her down as he could, noticing how pale she was in the setting sun. Chat didn’t want to let her go, it was so hard to pull away, his hands sliding down her arms and it took everything in him to let her fingers slip from his grasp. He pressed parting kisses to her knuckles, and made sure to hold her gaze as he watched her.

“Remember your promise.” He squeezed her fingers, waiting for her shakey nod before he stepped away, already reaching for his baton. He had to go or he’d never be able to leave her side, and he knew it. With a final parting glance over his shoulder, he turned and launched himself off the edge. It was all he could do to ignore the way his eyes stung as the end of his baton struck the sidewalk far below, and he pushed himself out into the sky.

It was near impossible to sleep that night, the horrible sounds of both Ladybug’s and Marinette’s coughing echoing in his head as he stared up at his ceiling, and the promise he had Ladybug make. With a low growl, Adrien turned over in the bed, burying his face in his pillow and forcing down the urge to snarl in frustration.

I’m such an idiot!

Chapter Text

It was getting harder for Marinette to wake up in the morning. Her throat felt like someone had scoured it with sandpaper, and every time she swallowed it was as if she’d tried to swallow shards of glass. Her chest ached all the time, like she had a very bad cold, and as she lay there in bed it was like she had a stone weighing her down. She’d never felt so heavy, or her limbs so ungainly. All she wanted to do was sleep, but she had to get up, she had to get to school and somehow see if there was a way to beat Lonesome Briar.

She also had to tell Adrien how she felt, whether she liked it or not. The promise she’d made to Chat Noir hung over her, looming and more terrifying than the awful crawling sensation in her lungs. Just thinking about Adrien and Chat made her cough so hard she saw stars burst in front of her eyes. The hand that automatically flew up caught the multitude of petals that fell out of her mouth and wanting to scream at the sight of them. They were wet and repulsive, and she found no comfort in their delicate smell or their softness. Whatever she was coughing up was the prettiest shade of pink, but she hated it more and more every time she was forced to cough. In the end, she nearly fell down the stairs of her loft, dumping the petals into her waste bin, only to grip its edges and let out a hacking cough a split second later until her lungs felt clearer. By the time she was done, she had to scrub her mouth with the back of her hand and wait for the spots to fade from her vision.

There was more than just petals in her waste bin, and she wanted to cry when she caught sight of a delicate pink blossom that was half-opened. When her mother pushed open the trap door and came in with a steaming cup of ginger-honey tea, Marinette couldn’t bear to let her see in her bin. And yet, she didn’t stop her mother from pulling it out of her hands or gathering her into her arms so Marinette could cry into the front of her mother’s favorite cheongsam. Sabine didn’t say anything, she simply kissed the top of Marinette’s head and held her tight, stroking her daughter’s hair until the tears ran dry and Marinette’s sobs faded to faint hiccups.

“Drink your tea and try to eat, at least something soft, it’ll help.” Sabine’s voice was quiet but firm, and all Marinette could do was nod dumbly before sipping her tea. Tikki watched everything from her favorite hiding place, flitting to Marinette’s side once Sabine had closed the trap door behind her.

“Tikki, what do I do?” Marinette choked, unshed tears making her voice sound thick, but she could hardly recognize herself. All the coughing had nearly ruined her voice, and it felt like there was something in her mouth jabbing at her cheeks and the soft parts of the roof of her mouth. Tikki watched her chosen with wide eyes, worry written on every bit of her face.

“Marinette, I think Chat Noir’s right.” Her tiny mouth twitched unhappily, and she flitted close to nuzzle against Marinette’s tear-stained cheek. “You really need to talk to Adrien.” As much as she didn’t want to, Marinette sagged in her seat when she knew she was outnumbered. They were right, and she was running out of time.

The worst part of getting ready for school that day had been when she went to brush her teeth and discovered the source of the uncomfortable poking sensation in her mouth that had been bothering her all morning. There was a branch growing out of the back of her throat, and she nearly panicked.

Well, not exactly a full branch, but a bit of angling of a few mirrors and strategic use of her cellphone’s flashlight had her staring at what looked like a thin, green growth that had pushed its way up out of the depths of her throat, scratching along the back of her tongue, and was currently sporting a small flower bud just behind her teeth. Somehow she managed not to scream.

Unfortunately, her immediate response to finding it was to give it a good yank, but pulling on it almost made her shriek in pain, feeling an answering tug in her lungs that made fresh tears of pain spill down her face. Right, no pulling on the vines. Chat was going to be so upset with her, her shaking hands covering her face as her tears tried to start fresh. As if summoned just by thinking of her partner, her mouth felt strange, a floral taste spreading across her tongue and filling her nose, and when she looked in the mirror again, she discovered that the bud had opened into a small flower that was rapidly growing in size as it pushed past her lips.

Brow tensing, she bit down as hard as she could, and stared as the flower dropped into the sink. Gripping the edge of the basin until her arms shook, her tongue explored the severed edge of the growth in her mouth. It still jabbed painfully at the roof of her mouth, but at least biting the flower off hadn’t hurt. It was something, at least. With a twist of disgust in her stomach, Marinette scooped the flower into the trash and scrubbed her hands under hot water until her skin went red and raw. She had to finish getting ready for school.

Marinette felt like she was floating somewhere far away, following after an empty shell that managed to weave between people and somehow navigate the stairs to class. Spots danced at the edge of her vision, and one of the few ways to keep herself focused on the moment was chewing at the growths that pushed their way into her mouth from her throat. Every time she caught a glance of Adrien she could feel her chest ache, her lungs itching, and new buds trying desperately to push past her teeth. She wanted to scream, to cry, anything but feel the sharp claws of the flowers creeping up the back of her throat so they could fill her mouth with their fragrance. Marinette didn’t think she’d ever be able to stand a floral perfume ever again.

Alya did her best to keep her distracted, squeezing her hand when she noticed Marinette beginning to tremble, murmuring a constant stream of distractions to keep her from focusing on the boy in front of her. It didn’t help. She had to sit with a book propped up in front of her and a hand curled to hide her mouth as she chewed off more and more, listening the sound of the buds as they fell to her desk but unable to bring herself to look at them. Marinette kept her backpack open and swept the petals and flowers into it to hide them, a sick feeling twisting her stomach as sweat dripped from her forehead. It wasn’t until lunch when Alya dragged Marinette out of the classroom before Adrien could see the state she was in, and if Marinette had been feeling any better she’d have thanked Alya a dozen times over.

“Girl, if you are looking for a moment, now would be a perfect time!” Alya hissed, turning Marinette’s pack over to shake the flowers and petals out into the waste bin. “You’re out of extra chances at this point, just go. I’ll come with you, but you have got to stop stalling.” Alya sounded like she was torn between frustration and despair, and with a ragged sigh, Marinette realized she was right. If she was already struggling with growing blossoms, then by what Adrien and Chat had said, she was definitely almost out of time. The thought of them had her sputtering, and she hastily grabbed the edges of the waste bin and coughed up more petals into it. Taking as deep a breath as she could, Marinette counted to ten to calm her nerves, then washed her hands, using a wet paper towel to wipe the cold sweat off her face and hopefully help with how red and puffy her eyes were.

“You’re right, Alya. Here goes nothing.” Marinette gave her a fluttery smile, nerves making it fragile looking, and Alya gave her shoulder a quick squeeze.

“Go get him, girl! I’ll be right behind you.”

“I don’t think I can do this, Alya.” Marinette could feel the panic rising, petals trailing behind them as she kept getting startled with small coughs now that Adrien was in sight, but Alya was having none of it. Her hands were planted firmly on Marinette’s back, pushing her down the hall towards the bench where Nino was keeping Adrien distracted. There’d been a flurry of texting back and forth between Alya and her boyfriend since Marinette had first staggered into the bathroom, and now she found herself almost stumbling down the hall as Alya gave her another push.

“Oh no, I’m not letting you escape this time, girl.” The gentle teasing tone that Alya always used was gone, replaced by a grim determination. All Marinette saw when she glanced over her shoulder was a menacing gleam across Alya’s glasses, and she swallowed around the rising mass of petals that tried to choke her.

“But, Alya!” She whined. Try as she might to dig in her heels, her ballet flats offered no traction and Alya only pushed harder.

“No buts, I’m not writing you a eulogy just because you picked the wrong time to be stubborn!” Her hissed reply was so vehement that Marinette could only whimper, doomed to her fate as another series of smaller coughs bubbled out of her and left a pink cloud in their wake. “Now, get over there and tell him!” It was the only warning Alya gave her before her final shove, Marinette’s feet tangled with one another and sent her sprawling. Before she even got her hands up to brace herself, Adrien caught her easily, steadying her and sending her into another coughing fit that she tried to hide behind her hands. It didn’t help much, the petals spilling between her fingers as an embarrassed flush spread across her cheeks and down her neck.

“Easy there, Marinette.” For a moment, it looked like he was going to grip her shoulder once she was steady again, his hand hovering awkwardly before he pulled it back with a lopsided smile. “You doing okay?”

“Y-yeah, I’m. I’m fine, just.” The coughing was getting worse, and she could feel something trying to push its way up her throat, making her stomach churn uncomfortably. “I just, I just wanted to gawk at you-TALK. Talk to you, y-you know, like. Like a normal person. Friendly stuff! L-like normal!” Her voice was shrill and reedy from breathlessness, and an edge of panic was creeping into it as she found it harder to breathe. Marinette didn’t even want to think of how she looked, knowing her eyes were still red-rimmed and puffy from tears and coughing, and sweat was beginning to drip into her eyes. Pausing to catch her breath let her nerves get the better of her, and she couldn’t help but notice the way Adrien watched her. His eyebrows were furrowing and his eyes were searching her face, the smile he wore looked like it was tacked on instead of the easy grin he’d shown her only two days ago. He looked less pleased to see her and more freaked out, and it was only making her more anxious the longer she stared up at him.

What was she doing? This was going horribly!

“I...I…” Her hands gripped each other so tightly her knuckles ached when she wrung them, fear making her queasy and forced her to fight for more air around whatever was in the back of her throat, and she was swallowing down the choking floral taste with a growing sense of desperation. Squeezing her eyes shut, she wanted to scream. This was terrible, she was doing this all wrong! No, she had to try. She’d promised Alya and she’d promised Chat, she had to keep it together long enough to at least make the horrible stomach-lurching sensation worth it.

“I love you!” It wasn’t so hard but when the words came out in a breathless shout she barely kept herself from fainting. With her eyes squeezed shut, she had time to steady herself, to breathe around the flowers in her mouth, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. With a growing sense of dread, she opened her eyes, staring at their shoes and hoping that it was just her being nervous. Maybe she was overthinking things? She did that all the time, so it was entirely possible that everything was fine and--

She worked up the courage to look up, catching sight of Alya and Nino’s tense expressions and feeling a prickling sensation at the back of her throat, sweat dripping into her eyes when she bit the bullet and met Adrien’s gaze.

It was like the bottom had dropped out of her stomach. She’d never seen him look so upset. Not angry, whatever it was, he wasn’t angry. But he wasn’t overjoyed, either. Like disbelief and something sad and regret and a dozen other things all rolled into one and he looked so sad. Even though he opened his mouth to say something all Marinette could hear was a great roaring white noise and the horrible rattle in her chest that nearly drowned him out.

“Marinette, I...I don’t know what to say, I’m--”

She couldn’t hold back the rising lump in her chest anymore. The cough was explosive, stars burst in her vision as she doubled over, trying to stifle the tide that was pouring out of her mouth with every wracking cough. There were petals everywhere, heavy lumps hitting her teeth and tumbling out of her hands as it never seemed to stop. She couldn’t breathe around it, trying to suck in air only to lose it again in an instant, her sides and stomach burning in pain and her throat on fire. She didn’t even notice when she’d started to heave, and it was only Alya’s hand gripping her arm like a vice and yanking her to the bathroom that barely spared Adrien’s shoes from the splash of petals and fist-sized blossoms and what little she’d managed to eat at all that day. The next twenty minutes were spent with her gripping the edges of a waste bin, too embarrassed to let even Alya see the way her face was streaked with tears and spit, the taste of bile almost overwhelming the taste of the flowers in her mouth.

At least Alya stayed with her, even if Marinette wanted to die of shame. Alya simply stood by and rubbed her back, offering her water to rinse her mouth and take tiny sips between spasms. The whole bathroom stank of her flowers now, her own sobs and coughs deafening in the empty room.

“Let it all out, girlfriend.” Alya’s hand was a comforting warmth against her back, and Marinette tried to smile, hiccuping and wheezing as it felt like she’d been wrung out in a clothes press. “You’re doing great. I’m so proud of you.”

“It didn’t work though.” Marinette sniffed, feeling more miserable than ever as her tears dripped from her chin. There was a moment of silence, broken only by Alya turning on the water and soaking a paper towel, wringing it out before she handed it to Marinette so the smaller girl could wipe off her face.

“Maybe not, but you tried, and that’s what matters most.” Alya offered her an encouraging smile, squeezing Marinette’s shoulder and managing to draw out the faintest grin in response. “That’s my girl.”

The moment lasted for only a heartbeat before Marinette couldn’t hold it in anymore, fresh tears streamed down her face as something new and awful seemed to creep its way up her throat, and she was too blinded by tears to see the growing alarm on Alya’s face. She did know when the new blossoms pushed past her lips, but now she didn’t even have the energy to bite them off.

She was so, so tired, and all she could think of was how disappointed Chat Noir was going to be, and cried harder as the scent of her flowers filled the air of the bathroom.

“Adrien, dude, that was harsh.” Nino cringed, looking at the mess in front of him and the way Alya was dragging Marinette away before the other girl was even more sick in the middle of the courtyard. He couldn’t help but feel a sharp twist in his gut out of sympathy. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that he’d had a crush on Marinette himself, and it felt uncomfortable in more ways than one to see her crash and burn so badly. What Adrien had said hadn’t exactly been a rejection, but it had been enough of one that Marinette’s condition was obviously spiralling out of control, leaving Nino tasting regret and disappointment. He and Alya had been so sure this would work, Adrien and Marinette had finally started to really warm up to each other (or rather Adrien was, Marinette was chilling out enough to speak to him without Nino wanting to die of second-hand embarrassment just watching her). Fidgeting with his cap, he swept the flowers and petals out of the way with his foot so he could step closer to his best bro. There was something about those flowers that made him uneasy, and it wasn’t just because there was a scary large amount for having been packed into Marinette’s lungs just a bit ago.

How could she even breathe around all this junk?

“Hey, man. Talk to me, will you?” He clapped a hand on Adrien’s shoulder, only to yank it away in alarm. The dude was covered in petals, and Nino hadn’t realized how wet they were. I guess it makes sense, they came out of her lungs right? Shuddering at the thought, he took a deep breath and started dusting Adrien off, since his bud still seemed too stunned to pull his eyes away from where Alya and Marinette had disappeared through the locker room door.

“I...I couldn’t lie to her, Nino.” Adrien finally came back from wherever his head had wandered off to, and Nino was surprised to see that his buddy seemed on the verge of tears, and not the silent, easily hidden kind. Not that Nino would judge, seeing Marinette come to pieces like that after doing her best to put herself out there after months of stressing was a lot to take in. Nevermind if he’d been on the receiving end, or even taking in the fact that if Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t do something, she’d likely…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nino was not about to start thinking about that.

“Hey man, you know I don’t judge, but uh.” Nino glanced to the locker room doors again, swallowing hard. “You might wanna hide from Alya for a while, you know? I don’t think she’s gonna be too chill about this.” He winced as Adrien nodded, watching him pluck a few petals that Nino had missed off his t-shirt.

“I already have someone I love.” His words were so quiet, Nino almost didn’t hear him. Eyebrows arching, he leaned back and studied Adrien long and hard. This was new, he didn’t think he’d heard Adrien talk about anyone else aside from their conversations that had mostly revolved around ‘why does Marinette freak out whenever I’m around’ or normal stuff. Then he remembered, and if he hadn’t used his hands to wipe Marinette’s gut-flowers off Adrien, Nino would’ve scrubbed his face with his hands in disbelief. Luckily he stopped himself, and felt the sharp need for a very hot shower. This whole akuma thing was so gross this time around.

“Dude, if you’re talking about your fanboy crush on Ladybug, I think you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.” Sighing to himself, Nino wiped his palms off on his trousers, it’d have to do until they made it to the washroom. “She’s like, legit the least available girl in Paris, my man. How would you even fess up to her that you like her? You’ve got some seriously high standards.”

No wonder Marinette had been so nervous. With competition like Ladybug, she hadn’t stood a snowball’s chance in summer, which was a comparison that left Nino feeling particularly uncomfortable. Poor Marinette, she deserved at least some kind of fighting chance, but the blossoms that littered the ground around their feet left a lump in his stomach as the reality of the situation began to sink in.

Whatever fighting chance she’d needed, the time for it was obviously long gone.

With an unhappy twist at the corners of his mouth, Nino put his hand on Adrien’s shoulder and nudged him towards the nearest bathroom doors.

“Alright Romeo, let’s get you cleaned up. I feel all kinds of nasty with Marinette’s petal slime on my hands.” He sighed, guilt creeping into his voice and the set of his shoulders. “Just, don’t tell her I called it that.”

A glance at Adrien’s vacant expression told him that it was highly likely that his friend hadn’t heard a word he’d said. Maybe it was better that way.

Adrien felt numb when he washed his hands, having spent far too long staring dumbly at his reflection before he’d noticed the petals clinging to his hair and cheeks. Nino hadn’t seen all of them, so he inspected himself for more. Shaking off his clothes, he raked his fingers through his bangs and wiped his face, glancing down the inside of his shirt just in case. The petals were persistent, he had to admit. Just like the guilt that had settled into his stomach and left him cold at the fingertips. Why couldn’t he just tell Marinette how he felt? After the broadcast last week and seeing his photos in her room, he’d teased her afterwards about lying that she hadn’t really liked him. He’d felt warm all over with the realization that she’d had a crush on him, enough that he’d slipped so easily into his casual flirtation that he always saved for when he wore the mask. Her smile and laugh that day had felt amazing, but all he could think of when she’d stood there sweating and stuttering was how he just couldn’t bring himself to lie.

Marinette deserved so much more than lies. He had wanted to see where the flirts and teasing led them, wanted to ease into something that maybe one day would be more than just friendship, but right now, in that moment, he couldn’t tell her that he loved her back. Not today. It broke his heart to see her crumble when he couldn’t even get the words out right, almost feeling nauseous at the memory of her doubling over with the force of her coughs.

She deserved so much better.

The heels of his palms dug painfully into his eye sockets, a growl of frustration ripping out of him between clenched teeth. He should have known, he hadn’t wanted to see it coming but there it was, and if he wasn’t careful he’d lose one of his best friends because he didn’t have the heart to return her feelings yet. And to make matters worse, he couldn’t seem to catch the akuma either. What kind of superhero was he, then? A bad one. Dragging his hands down his face, he ignored the way his chest felt tight, pushing past the faint itching sensation as he washed his face again.

If he couldn’t return Marinette’s feelings, he’d just have to focus on what he could do. Find Lonesome Briar and take out their akuma. Simple, easy. Save for the fact that Ladybug was suffering just like Marinette was, and that thought made his chest seize up as the tickle in his chest became a painful itch. Wheezing to clear his throat, Adrien rubbed his knuckles across his sternum as he thought of how his Lady had looked the day before; her cheeks flushed and misty-eyed from illness, and it was like someone had twisted a knife in his gut. He had to do something. If he let down both his favorite ladies he would never forgive himself for it.

Focused on that, he didn’t even think about it when he coughed into his fist, the deep itch settling firmly into his chest and staying there.

Marinette couldn’t bring herself to look in her mirror anymore. One glance had been all it took to see the strange dark markings creeping up her throat to know it was bad. Really bad. Full flowers were dropping from her at an alarming rate now, and every exhale left a trail of petals in her wake. Her parents weren’t even letting her walk through the shop, worried she might spread it to the other customers. Honestly, she didn’t blame them, sprawling across her chaise and fighting to breathe around the buds crowding her mouth. If she were her parents, she wouldn’t want someone this far along with the sickness anywhere near the pastry displays. No one knew how the sickness spread aside from Lonesome Briar’s attacks themselves, but it was still gross considering the petals were coming from her mouth. It was a health hazard no matter how you looked at it. She couldn’t even bring herself to feel sad anymore, it was hard enough trying to fight for air, she couldn’t be bothered to waste her energy on tears. The only thing she wished she could do was wipe the look on Adrien’s face out of her memory. That look he’d given her was haunting her, and every time she thought about it she felt another flower bud bloom behind her teeth. It was too much. Everything was too much, and she swatted her blossoms away from her face, watching the massive flowers tumble to the floor in a shower of delicate pink.

Alya had looked them up for her to see what sort of flower she was growing, but Marinette didn’t really care anymore. Pushing herself upright, she forced herself to cross her room to the steaming pot of tea her mother had left her. The scent of ginger cut through the overwhelming smell of flowers, and she cradled the mug of honey and tea in her hands like it was a precious jewel, knowing she needed to gather her strength.

She had to find Lonesome Briar today, or it would be too late, she could feel it just from the tightness in her chest alone. That, and she had to find Chat Noir. Telling him goodbye would be the least she could do if they couldn’t get Briar’s akuma away from them in time. Hardly a comforting thought, but it was enough to firm her resolve, though she didn’t see the anxious look that Tikki gave her as the kwami watched a tear drip from her chosen’s chin to land in her cup of ginger tea.

Why did their chosen always seem to make things so much harder for themselves?

Chapter Text

“Hey babe, you doing okay?” Nino watched Alya make her way up the stairs, already lifting his arm for her to slide in at his side. Alya’s mouth was set in a grim line and she shook her head, not wanting to speak, instead curling against him and hugging him close. With a soft sigh, Nino held her tight, letting his cheek rest on her thick hair while his thumb rubbed circles on her shoulder. Adrien tried not to look at them, his stomach still twisting in the memory of Alya having to forcibly drag Marinette away because she couldn’t walk on her own.

“Any word on how Marinette’s doing?” Nino’s voice was so quiet no one but the three of them would hear, and Adrien caught the look Alya shot in his direction before her gaze dropped again. It wasn’t betrayal, but it was something very close, and it felt like she’d caught him right in the gut with a knife.

“Her parents kept her home, they wanted to spend more time with her until the akuma’s defeated.” Alya was unnaturally quiet, and Adrien looked away as she scrubbed her eyes under her glasses. The unspoken if it’s defeated wasn’t needed, he couldn’t even imagine how it had felt for Alya when she’d had to nearly carry Marinette back to the bakery. Yet the thought that Marinette might not make it made his stomach sour, and his chest ached. Ached enough that he found himself desperately clearing his throat, excusing himself to go get some water before class.

By the time he got to the bathroom, he was fighting for air around the ache in his chest, and a sheen of sweat made his bangs stick to his forehead. With a deep inhale, he splashed some cold water on his face, rubbing his eyes to get the terrified look on Marinette’s face out of his mind. Why had it hurt so much to tell her the truth? He felt miserable, more miserable than the night Glaciator attacked, and he could have sworn that was one of the worst nights of his life. Worse than when he’d almost given up his ring before Master Fu contacted him and explained why he’d been left in the dark when Master Fu regularly spoke with Ladybug.

He felt sick to his stomach and his skin crawled, matched by the burning in the back of his throat. Swallowing it down, he ran cold water over the insides of his wrists and wiped a wet towel across his neck before making his way to class. Alya wasn’t looking at him, Nino was unnaturally quiet, and the empty seat behind his made him slow to a stop. Why did telling the truth feel like he’d done something wrong this time? Pain lanced through his chest as he sat, and he had just enough time to cover his mouth when he started to cough, his eyes watering.

Nino began giving his back a series of sharp pats until the coughing stopped, and Adrien could feel his friend staring at him as he let his hand fall. Trying to smile in thanks, he got a good look at Nino just in time to see his best friend’s face go pale.

“Nino?” He whispered, trying not to draw the teacher’s attention, but all Nino did was point a finger at Adrien’s hand, looking more anxious by the moment. Puzzled, Adrien lifted it to see what had freaked him out, only for a wave of cold to surge through him as he caught sight of three tiny blue petals flecking his palm.

Oh no.

Whatever happened the rest of the school day, Adrien couldn’t say exactly. It passed him by in a haze, his whole body feeling numb save for the burning pain that had sunk into his ribcage and grew there. They were running out of time.

“Man, when you said you liked Ladybug instead of Marinette, I thought it was just the usual celebrity crush.” Nino whispered, rubbing his thumbs over the shoulder straps of his backpack. “This is way more serious than that though, isn’t it? I don’t want to say it, ‘cause it’s some seriously bad vibes, but how are you gonna even tell her you like her? She’s Ladybug, Adrien. She doesn’t just drop out of the sky and give random dudes dates, right? Even if she has saved your hide a few times. If you don’t find her and tell her you’re toast!” Just like Marinette went unsaid. It wasn’t even implied, really. Yet Adrien couldn’t help but think of it anyway, of how Alya had cradled Marinette’s head close to her shoulder, shielding the other girl’s eyes with a hand to keep her from looking at Adrien in an attempt to avoid Marinette spitting more flowers when she’d escorted her home at lunchtime.

Don’t look at him, girlfriend. Just keep walking, it’s all right. Just keep your eyes on the sidewalk and we’ll be home soon…

He coughed into his elbow, letting out a hiss of discomfort as Alya’s words still stung him just from thinking about them. The fact that even looking at him had seemed to trigger Marinette’s hanahaki symptoms was alarming, and he wondered if she’d had to take down all his photos just to be safe in her own room. The guilt in his stomach knotted itself tighter, and he rubbed his knuckles over his sternum, scowling at nothing.

“I’ll figure something out, Nino. Let’s just go get something to drink before my ride gets here, all right?” Knowing he shouldn’t snap at his best friend made the fact that he did so much worse, pausing to let out a ragged sigh before his fingers found the door handle. He’d wanted to stop by the bakery to see Marinette, but couldn’t bring himself to go into the shop even if it was to apologize. He didn’t think he could look any of the family in the eyes right now, but he also couldn’t bring himself to go straight home, even though his father would have a fit if he knew Adrien was out longer than absolutely necessary during an akuma attack. He wanted something comforting, and if it meant blowing his restricted diet on something that would taste delicious and soothe his aching chest, then so be it. Perhaps it was lucky that there was a café within two blocks of the school that could potentially offer the cure to what ailed him.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t luck, but the universe laughing at him. The irony of a flower-themed café being the next closest place with pastries, and distinctive and very artsy cups with bottoms shaped like roses, was not lost on him at all. That was more like his luck.

He almost didn’t see the other man on his way into the Rosé Café, having turned to Nino to ask him what he’d wanted to eat. At the last second, Nino yanked him to the side, saving both himself and the other patron from ending up with coffee spilled down their shirts.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to--!” Adrien sputtered, an embarrassed flush tinting his cheeks, but the short man just chuckled, waving him off. His grin was lopsided, and his expression was easy going. Honestly, considering his hair that hadn’t been shaved off was a blazing shade of magenta and pulled back in a messy bun, Adrien had no idea how he hadn’t noticed him. With his eyebrow piercing and stocky appearance, he looked like he’d rolled out of bed and got ready for a Jagged Stone concert in the dark.

“Don’t worry about it, kid. You two stay safe.” He saluted them with his coffee and stepped outside, the warm expression on his face instantly slipping as he went back to staring at the akuma warning on his phone. Adrien couldn’t help but notice how tense he looked, but thought nothing more of it as he turned to glance over the menu while the stranger headed off down the street.

Adrien wasn’t sure what was worse: being lectured for not being home on time when an akuma was loose, or being lectured on the fact that he’d used up so much of his allotted daily calories on a sugary drink and empty carbs. Adrien weathered the lectures with a carefully-crafted blank expression, making the appropriate noises when necessary. A few months ago he wouldn’t have been so blasé about being dragged into an office and told what he was doing wrong with his time, but he’d long since thrown out the dietary restrictions he was on when his weekly workout regimine more than doubled as Chat Noir. Yes, he agreed, going out with friends when an akuma was loose was a terrible idea in general, but one specialty drink and a sweet pastry were not going to make him bloat two sizes. In fact, at this point he was fairly certain his occasional splurges were one of the few things keeping a healthy body fat on him. All the while he tried to keep his breathing regular, subtle, all his focus on hiding the way his chest rattled.

It didn’t last, no matter how long he kept his breathing regular. One question was enough to disrupt his concentration and he answered Nathalie with an explosive cough that had him immediately sent to his room when he couldn’t hide all the petals that burst out like confetti around his fist. His father demanded to know when he’d been touched by the akuma, and went deadly quiet when Adrien admitted that he’d never come in contact with it, only with another victim. It technically wasn’t lying, after all, Chat Noir was the one that had fought Lonesome Briar, but never close enough to be touched by their flowers, only Ladybug had. Which was a thought that unnerved him. Had he been infected by her, or had his infection come from Marinette? Those were the only two possibilities he had, as everyone else at school seemed to be fine. Either way he hadn’t progressed nearly as fast as either of them, and he couldn’t figure out why.

He was fairly certain he’d be banished to his room until the akuma was taken care of no matter what he said at that point, and so he found his father’s orders to stay in his room and rest to be no surprise at all. At least it gave him a perfectly good reason to be antisocial. So he nodded, made some excuse about being exhausted from the pain in his chest, and claimed he was going to rest until the symptoms improved. A perfect cover, he thought, making sure to take his time on the stairs so he played up the part of being too lethargic to want to be bothered by anyone knocking on his door. Adrien only felt a touch guilty when Nathalie wished him a very early good night. But only a little. After all, his Lady needed his help, and flowers or no flowers, he was not going to let her down when Paris still needed saving.

The rooftops were a blur beneath his claws and feet, bounding from one building to another as his heart beat painfully against his ribs. The itch in his chest lingered, easily ignored as he focused on racing towards the newly-established quarantine line. Ladybug had called shortly after the announcement, her voice barely louder than a whisper as she’d told him she’d be late. When he touched down, he could feel the tension in his limbs as he crouched on the edge of the rooftop, eyes narrowing to pierce the shadows under the trees of the park across the street.

He didn’t want to think of how tired she’d sounded, his tail lashing when he did, the metal tip striking the tiles behind him. The thought that today might be her last chance to defeat Lonesome Briar sent an icy chill through his veins, its fingers wrapping around his heart and squeezing tightly. Distracted and lost in his own thoughts, the sound of her bandalore went unnoticed, her unsteady footfalls softer than the ragged breaths she took. At one shuddering inhale, his ears flicked up and a smile spread across his face as he turned to face her, only for it to die before it had fully settled across his face.

“My Lady…” Alarm flooded him as she sank onto the roof tiles, hidden from view of the street by the chimney stack she slumped against. He was already rising to move to her side as she let out another shuddering exhale, petals tumbling from her lips in a pink swirl as the faint breeze caught them. With trembling hands he reached for her, skirting the massive blossoms that had flourished around her parted lips to cradle her pale face. Her mouth was greying, a sheen of sweat on her fever-flushed cheeks, and yet somehow she still managed to offer him a weak smile. Swallowing around a thick lump in his throat, it took everything Chat Noir had not to cry at the sight. Dark markings like veins had crawled up her throat and along her jaw, and he watched in horror as flower buds pushed past the edge of her suit’s collar, spreading open to blossom just beneath her chin and along the edge of her jaw.

“I’m sorry Chaton.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, and she was too tired to fight them. “Today just...didn’t work out. I should have listened to you sooner.” She wheezed, her eyes falling shut as her smile wavered, teeth catching on the fresh green sprouts that gently pushed past them.

“Ladybug, what happened?” His words sounded faded and far away, like someone else was asking them in another room. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to see his Lady like this, defeat written on her face clear as day.

“It was a disaster.” The sound she made might have been a barking laugh, wheezing out of her in another spill of petals, her voice so soft and raspy he had to lean close to understand her. “Chat, I’m not really the same, outside of the mask. I’m nervous and clumsy, and around the boy I like I can hardly string a full sentence together.” She worked to swallow, struggling with her words as fresh tears caught on her eyelashes, but she pushed on anyway.

“I messed up.” The words were so soft he almost didn’t hear them, his own chest tightening in sympathy as his itch grew when she coughed. He almost spoke before she continued, determined to finish what she needed to say before her flowers choked her. “I’ve been hiding how bad it’s gotten. I’d make myself cough out as much as I could before I’d come on patrol or go to class, and I started biting off the blossoms once they grew in. I didn’t want to make anyone worry, but I was so scared.” Every word was a struggle, broken wheezes and coughs interspersed with her quiet admissions.

“And after everything, it didn’t even matter, you know?” She laughed, breathless and humorless, her head knocking against the bricks behind her as she let her head fall back. “All he did was apologize, and I nearly threw up on his shoes. How awful is that? Pretty sure it ranks in the top ten worst confessions.” Ladybug stopped to catch her breath, tears spilling down her cheeks as she struggled to breathe, not noticing the way Chat froze in horrified silence.

“And the worst part is, I know I deserved it.” Her laugh became a sob, tears pouring down her face as more blossoms pushed their way free of the edge of her suit. “You’ve been nothing but nice to me, and I’ve been awful to you for it. I can’t even love you back because I met some boy at school, and I’ve pushed you around and said horrible things to you.” She hiccuped, more petals falling from her lips. “I fell in love with him because he’s kind, and sweet, and I just wanted him to be happy. He’s finally starting to get comfortable enough around us that he’s starting to show us his real smile, and do you know what happened?” Ladybug laughed, and he could tell it was mocking herself.

“All I could think of was how much he looked like you.” Sniffing and choking, Ladybug hung her head, and he wanted to reach for her. To smooth her bangs back from her face and hold her close. He didn’t want to feel the pang of regret in his stomach, or the twist of recognition that had gripped him as she talked. He wanted her to stop, to blot out everything she said. This wasn’t how he wanted to find out. “I don’t know how much TV you watch, Chat, but I’m sure you saw the mess last week with Jagged Stone before we fought Troublemaker. I’d told my whole school to watch the show because I was so excited, but after what happened I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t want you to see any of it either, it’s why I tried to rush you out of my room because I couldn’t stand anyone else knowing about it. I was so desperate to hide it because I just wasn’t ready to say anything, but of course he saw. He even cornered me afterwards by the lockers and I was so scared that he’d think I was a creep that I lied and said I had those photos because I love fashion design so much.” The blossoms around her mouth had grown so dense, some of them started to drop from their stems, tumbling into her lap as she stared at her hands, blinking dully.

“I’d never seen him smile like that before, I didn’t know what to do. He looked so much like you for a moment, I panicked. How bad is that, thinking of you when talking to my crush? Especially after I’ve pushed you around and tried to chase you off just because I fell for him first.” Taking a deep breath that rattled horribly, Ladybug closed her eyes, and Chat was grateful. It gave him a moment to gather his own nerves. She didn’t open her eyes as she continued, her voice barely a whisper. “If it hadn’t been for that day in the rain...I probably would have fallen for you instead, Chat. I’m sorry. This is such a mess, and you deserved better.”

That day in the rain, she’d been so angry with him, he hadn’t known what to do. He hadn’t realized how horrible Chloe had been to everyone else, especially Marinette in particular. Now that she said it, he remembered how her expression had changed, how wide her eyes had gone when he’d apologized. The flush that painted her face as his umbrella had snapped shut on her.

How she could never talk to him properly after that. The way she’d dissolved into stutters and would stumble whenever she was near him. How could he be so stupid? The tightness in his chest was almost unbearable, the itching painful until he coughed, and then it was as if something had snapped free inside of him. The awful pain that had been building since that afternoon in the school’s courtyard was gone, and he stared at the faint blue petals in his hand as they dissolved in a shimmer of white light.

Just like when she cleansed an akuma.

He stared as the motes of glowing dust caught on the wind, then looked at the shuddering, broken girl in front of him. All this time she’d been just within his reach, and when she’d finally begun to reach for him, he’d crushed her without a second thought. Swallowing hard, he scowled, a distressed sound working its way past his clenched teeth before he reached out to pull her close, ignoring the thick blossoms as he buried his face in her hair. She smelled like fresh pastries, some sweet and delicate shampoo, and an overwhelming scent of flowers that tried to mask the sugary sweetness of the bakery. He barely felt her trembling hands wrap around his waist, too busy trying not to scream in frustration as his eyes burned with unshed tears.

“My Lady, I’m so sorry.” If she twitched at his words, he didn’t notice, rocking where he sat as he rubbed his cheek against her ink-black hair, purring in distress. “I didn’t know, I would have told you how much you meant to me if I’d known.” He’d have scooped her into his arms and shouted so loud the whole of Paris would have heard him. He’d have waltzed her out the gate before carrying her off to defeat Lonesome Briar with his bare hands.

“Marinette, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to let you down because I loved Ladybug.” He held her so tightly his arms ached, and he didn’t even realize he might be crushing her. “I just didn’t realize she was sitting right behind me in class this whole time. Please forgive me, I’m sorry. I do love you, I do.” Of course his princess had been his Lady, it all made so much sense that it made his heart ache now that he knew. He should have known by the spark in her eyes whenever she rose to defend someone, or stepped up to assert herself when things went wrong. The way she’d square her shoulders and take charge when Chloe was trying to cause more problems in class. He should have recognized the anxious flutter in her fingers when she was overthinking a problem, or the excited cheers when things went well. He’d spent so much time watching her, but convinced himself that she couldn’t possibly be right under his nose to begin with, so he hadn’t seen her.

Plagg had been right the whole time, people are blind. That thought stilled his hands as he smoothed her hair, realization twisting in his stomach. Their kwamis had known. Ever since Dark Owl, their kwamis had known exactly who their partners were, but because Ladybug had insisted that their civilian identities remain a secret, to which he’d agreed to wait until after Papillon was defeated to tell each other, they’d stayed mostly silent since the topic was first breached. No wonder Plagg had been making stupid smug faces at him since Ladybug had gotten sick. He’d probably been laughing at him or disappointed with him for not realizing sooner how Ladybug and Marinette had mysteriously gotten so sick so quickly, how their flowers matched, and how they’d always grown so much worse whenever they were near him. How the bandaged cut on Marinette’s cheek mysteriously matched the one on Ladybug’s. He couldn’t believe how incredibly blind he was this whole time.

She’d said she loved him. Both parts of him, even if she hadn’t known that it was two halves of a whole.

Lifting her face to look at her, she looked stunned and her bloodshot eyes were glassy, and all he could do was offer her a wobbly smile as he brushed her bangs out of her face. Leaning in, he pressed a tender kiss to her forehead, then pressed their foreheads together, a gentle purr rising in his chest.

“It’s all right now, my Lady. I won’t let you down again.” The tips of their noses brushing, he couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face. She’d struggled for so long, and grown so many flowers, and still she held on even though the pain must have been unbearable. His Lady was amazing, his heart felt like it would burst. “I love you too, Marinette. Please tell me you’ll forgive me for earlier?” His voice had gone quiet, his smile grown bashful as he struggled to hold her gaze. For a moment she looked confused, then everything seemed to sink in at once, and she was shaking in his arms. Tears and laughter spilled out of her, desperate and relieved all at once, and the flowers fell away in handfuls. They tumbled from her lips and filled her lap, caught briefly on her collar before even those fell. Ducking her head, she coughed to clear her throat and lungs, then she sucked in air like a drowning girl breaking free of the water. It was like watching her come back to life.

Her eyes shone, color flushing back to her cheeks in a rush, the awful dark marks of the roots beneath her skin disappearing, and they both watched on in shock as the blossoms in her lap dissolved into a shining, glittering cloud. With teary laughs, they tossed handfuls of it into the air, watching as the breeze caught the petal’s ashes and scattered them across Paris. As it went he wrapped his arms around her as he fell back onto the roof, pulling her tight against him as relief washed through them both. For a long time they simply lay there, hugging each other like they never wanted to let go as Marinette’s brush with death left them both shaking like leaves in a gale. It had been way too close a call, but she was safe now. Both of his favorite ladies in all of Paris were safe. All because they’d been the same wonderful, amazing, loving girl the whole time. Closing his eyes against the painfully bright afternoon sun, Chat Noir let his head rest against the tiles beneath them, the memory of that pale dust shimmering against the blue sky branded across the back of his eyelids. Ladybug’s head rested against his shoulder, her bangs tickled his cheek, and he felt her shoulder’s warmth through his glove as he held her close. He’d almost lost her, but he let the breeze carry that thought away with the remains of her flowers.

After all, he’d gained so much more, and his Lady, his princess was safe. He let his claws trail through one of her pigtails as relief flooded through him, the fear from the past few days finally gone. They’d get up and go searching for Lonesome Briar. Later. But for now? For now he wanted to rest, let his trembling nerves recover knowing that his Lady was safe.

“I really am sorry about last week.” Her voice sounded so small, but at least it didn’t sound raspy anymore. Marinette was grateful for that as well as how the pain in her chest was gone, even if her face was scorched with her own embarrassment beneath her mask. “I...I really wasn’t expecting anyone to see those pictures, I thought I was going to die.” Even the memory was enough for her to groan miserably, hiding her face in his chest as she hugged him tighter. Everything was still a jumble, and it was probably shock that was keeping her from panicking, but his gentle rumbling purr was helping, strangely enough. All she wanted to do was stay close and feel the way her whole body relaxed at the sound. He let out a small chuckle of his own, and a glance at his face was enough to see that he had his usual sheepish smile on. The one he used as Adrien, not Chat.

This was so weird.

“Yeah, I might have gone a little overboard with the locker thing too, so.” His heartbeat seemed louder beneath her head, and she had to stifle a giggle. At least she wasn’t the only one embarrassed.

“But I’m going to be so mad at Papillon when this is all over. No, scratch that, I’m mad now.” Exhaling with an irritated huff, she almost didn’t notice how he was toying with her pigtails and tousling her bangs until he was tugging at her ribbons. “Chat, I’m serious!”

“I know, I won’t argue with you. I didn’t want to find out this way either, my Lady.” He looked a little hurt, but he bent to rub his cheek against the top of her head. “But now that I know, I want to make the most of it. Papillon will get his sooner or later, we’ll make sure of that.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Marinette sighed, slumping against him once more. If it hadn’t been for how he kept tugging at her hair ribbons, she would have panicked at how she was actually cuddling with Adrien Agreste in a leather cat suit, but the irritation at his playful tugs was squashing that before it could even start. “Chat, knock it off!” With a huff she tried to swat his claws away, but he just made a face and batted at her hands until she was making strangled sounds of frustration.


“Mmmm?” His ears flicked upward and his tail twitched, and she found he had abandoned swatting at her hair and hands for squishing her cheeks. Glaring at him as best she could, she found it was a losing battle trying to keep a straight face.

“You’re the worst, I take back everything I said about having a crush on you. I was trying to be serious, and you’re pulling on my hair!”

“No, my Lady, anything but that!” He whined, though his expression did sober quickly as he flopped back against the roof tiles. “I’m sorry, Buginette, it’s just that this is a lot to take in. I really am listening. I thought I’d lost you and now I feel like I’m dreaming, and nothing is quite real yet. It’s like a nightmare and my favorite dream got mashed together somehow and supplanted real life. Not to mention we should probably go find that akuma and finish this, because what if there were other people as bad off as you? My heart still hasn’t recovered from almost losing you on top of everything, I don’t know if I can stand up yet.”

“Yeah.” She sighed, giving his bell a gentle flick. “Talk about a bad day, right?”

“Not all bad.” His voice was quiet as his hands tightened around her, and she nodded as his purr seemed to liquefy her limbs.

“Mmmm, maybe. Still going for top ten worst confessions.”

“You confessing while dying because of an akuma’s poison after your first attempt failed, while I was watching my crush die because I was a moron and rejected her in the first place? Oh definitely.” He snorted, and she could barely bring herself to protest when he tousled her bangs. “I liked my original plan better; romantic candlelight date on a rooftop in the moonlight. Definitely one of my best ideas.”

“I liked it better too, Chat.” She sighed, rubbing her cheek against his chest. “I waited for you all afternoon that day just to get ice cream with you, only to miss out on a great evening instead. I think that would’ve been a much better night. I got your rose after spending time with you, though. So at least your perfect date idea wasn’t a total waste.” Her voice dropped to barely a whisper at the end, but she felt Chat shift beneath her. She didn’t see the stunned look on his face or the way his ears perked, though his tail flicked across the rooftop and his purr deepened.

“You wanted to get Andre’s ice cream with me? Wait. Is that how he was akumatized?” He sounded stunned, and she hid her face so he couldn’t see how dark she was blushing. It didn’t hide how red her ears were.

“Y-yeah, it wasn’t my best moment.” She cleared her throat, determined not to look at him.

“How about….how about after this?” His brows arched, and his fingers combed through one of her pigtails as his mind raced faster than his pounding heart. “Bug, do you want to go get ice cream after we win this fight? Just you and me?”

Marinette froze, her eyes wide. She was pretty sure her heart had stopped. “Like,” she licked her lips, her voice quiet so as not to break whatever spell she was under now, as she had to be dreaming. “You mean like a date?”

“Y-yeah. Do you want to?” She actually heard him swallow, felt him tugging on her hair as one of his claws tangled in it. Marinette couldn’t get her voice to work, so she just nodded, hiding her face against his chest as his purr stuttered until it was so loud she was certain anyone on the sidewalk below could hear it.

“Marinette? Sweetie, are you sleeping?” Sabine opened the trap door with practiced ease, stepping into her daughter’s room with a fresh pot of ginger tea. It only took a moment for her worried expression to shift to a resigned scowl, sighing heavily at the open skylight. No familiar face peeked down at her through it. “Marinette?” Setting the pot on her daughter’s desk, Sabine climbed the loft ladder to make absolutely sure, while hoping that her gut feeling was wrong.

Her gut feeling was rarely wrong.

The balcony was empty, Marinette’s bed was cold, as was was the pillow stuffed under the blankets. Yet the tea she’d brought after Marinette got home was at least mostly empty. Still, Sabine couldn’t help but worry, especially with what state Alya had dragged Marinette home in.

“Tom?” Sabine called, taking the fresh pot of tea with her as she went back out the trapdoor and closing it behind her. “Marinette’s missing again.

What!” Her husband, bless him, was already halfway up the stairs, but Sabine held up a hand to stymie his bullrush towards their daughter’s room. Sabine planted a finger in her husband’s broad chest, then offered him the teapot.

“Honey, you’re going to keep an eye on the news, I’ll go take care of the shop. If you see anything, come get me. Got it?” Her tone was firm and allowed for no arguments, even if she did cup her husband’s cheek and press a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth when he visibly sagged with worry.

“She’ll be fine, dear. You’ll see.” Smiling up at her husband, she stroked his cheek with her thumb before continuing downstairs to the bakery. “We didn’t raise a quitter, after all.”

Chapter Text

Two days earlier...

A tall figure hovered outside of the Rosé Café, fidgeting nervously with their sleeves. They struggled to decide between pulling them down to cover their hands and slip their thumbs through the thumb holes on the cuffs, or if they should simply shove the cuffs up to their elbows. They’d been fussing with their outfit all day, their apartment looking like a whirlwind blew through as they’d dumped half their wardrobe out in their bedroom to make a decent outfit. Honestly it had been a waste of time, as the end result was hardly any different from what they usually wore. Form disguising top, slim fitted trousers, and comfortable but at least somewhat trendy boots. Accessories were minimal, because with hair as flaming red as theirs it was difficult to find anything to pair with it. That and they hated attracting attention.

Except today was the one day they wanted to be noticed, at least by one very specific person. Taking a moment to steady their nerves, they took a few deep breaths, blowing it out slowly and making their overly long bangs flutter about their face. Peeking in the windows, it was hard to miss who they were looking for. Vibrant pink hair that paired so well with his darker complexion, it was tied back in his usual messy bun, his undercut cropped so close it was barely a dark fuzz. Their pulse raced as the anxiety crept up their spine again, leaving them chewing at their fingernails in a habit he had been trying for ages to break them of. Maybe he was right, they should start painting their nails, maybe if they asked him he’d help them, but that would require talking to him, and if things didn’t go well today then…


The anxiety gripped them before they could even finish that thought. What were they doing? They couldn’t just walk in there and tell him. They’d already had so many people push them away. So many disappointments. Just because of who they were over what they were born as. They didn’t want him to think of them like…

Like they were a freak.

Oh God, I can’t do this. Tears stung their eyes as their chest closed up, hand fumbling in a pocket as they turned around and started walking quickly back the way they came. Gripping their inhaler tight, they stopped to use it, but it didn’t help enough. It was too hard to breathe, sweat dripping in their eyes as they picked up speed, trying desperately to put as much distance between themself and the café as humanly possible. I can’t do this, I can’t do this! Their temples throbbed with pain they practically ran, stumbling and tripping over their own feet until they found themselves sinking onto the steps of the Palais de Chaillot. With a coughing sob, they buried their face in their hands and rocked, trying to will away the anxiety attack with everything they had.

How could they possibly explain to him without him hating them too? They were going to be sick. Their skin felt clammy all over and their clothes too tight and everything felt wrong, and they just wanted everything to be easy. They wanted to hear his laugh and be pulled into one of his unbelievably warm hugs and told they were being ridiculous because they were worrying over nothing as usual. Letting their imagination get the best of them. To feel his rough fingers grip theirs as he reassured them that everything was going to be okay. Trembling fingers slipped into the pocket of their hoodie, pulling out the photo from the last Jagged Stone concert they’d gone to. Armand had managed to get them amazing seats, they still weren’t entirely sure how he’d managed to pull it off. They brushed their fingers over his face in the picture as tears spilled down their cheeks. He’d taken the photo but even with the selfie stick he’d admitted to borrowing from his roommate, they’d still had to bend awkwardly to fit in the frame, but they hadn’t minded. He’d laughed so loud that night, tipsy and high on the music and the crush of bodies all around them.

Rema and Armand! Rock and roll for life!

Armand’s handwriting had a surprisingly delicate curl to the letters, and their mouth twitched as they trailed a fingertip over the looping script. Heart aching at the thought they’d basically abandoned him at the café, they choked out a sob and buried their face in their hand, the other clenched tightly on the photo. They never saw the dark flutter of wings until it was too late. A thin outline of a butterfly blazed bright around their eyelids as the photograph was consumed in a boiling black and purple cloud of darkness.

Lonesome Briar, how tangled your emotions are. It's never easy to reveal your true self where love has blossomed. Perhaps I, Papillon, could help you dig to the root of the matter in showing others how truly difficult it is to have love go unreturned. In exchange, I only ask that you help me claim the Miraculous: Ladybug's earrings and Chat Noir's ring.

They could feel their heart begin to pound, chest aching, tears stinging their eyes more than before. It was so…so hard to resist. The velvet purr of his voice was full of empathy, like he understood, like he genuinely wanted to help.

With a deep, shuddering breath, they rose from the steps, looming to their full height as they clutched their treasured photo ever tighter.

“Of course, Papillon. All of Paris will know the thorns in my heart.”

In an instant, the burning sensation began deep within their chest, and they began to cough so hard they saw red mingling with a brief magical rush of black and purple. So much red, fluttering on the breeze and spilling down the steps of the Palais. With trembling fingers they reached up and pulled their hood into place, feeling something hard push its way past their teeth.

It was late afternoon by the time the pair of heroes were able to rise off the rooftops. For the longest time Adrien could barely stand from the lasting fear of having almost watched one of his best friends die, while Marinette kept dissolving into hysterical tears or frightened rambling. Their secrets were out, even if to only each other, but the fear of Papillon discovering it through one of them had been enough to send Marinette into a panic attack. If it hadn’t been for Adrien holding her close and talking her through it, she would have been left crippled on the rooftop until doomsday. Or until Lonesome Briar found her. Or Papillon himself came looking. So many terrible outcomes flashed through her head and left her anxious and sweating, but her partner was patient. He held her hand, rubbing her knuckles and talking her through it, anchoring her when she realized she’d almost died and made her anxieties worse.

But you didn’t die, Buginette. It’s all right now, you’re safe. Just breathe. It’ll be alright, my Lady. You’ll see.

He rubbed her back until she could breathe, kissing her knuckles until she could focus on his touch instead of the horrifying possibilities her overactive mind was more than happy to supply. When she was able to uncurl from where she was hunched over gripping her knees to her chest, he guided her into his lap and held her, purring up a storm that she could feel in her bones. Marinette clung to his shoulders, burying her face in his neck, listening to his quiet words of comfort as he purred for her. She’d forgotten how safe it felt when he held her, and knowing it was Adrien, sweet and charming and kind and everything Chat was but wrapped in a shyness that hid how bright he could shine until he took off his model’s mask and became Chat Noir was still throwing her for a loop.

But suddenly so much made sense.

Hugging him tighter, she rubbed her face against his shoulder, wrapped in his warmth and the scent of something uniquely Chat. His fresh shampoo and the leather-like suit, with a whiff of camembert and flowers. Marinette had a feeling she’d be avoiding flowers for a while, and she now suspected the camembert was what his kwami ate, but the rest was soothing and helped ease her out of the heart-pounding sweats that had gripped her.

“My Lady, are you feeling better now?” It was that soft smile that touched his eyes, his gaze fixed on her face, and she could feel his hand rubbing her back still. Not trusting her voice, she could only nod, a little sound of disappointment escaping her as he slid one of her hands from his shoulders to kiss her knuckles. “I’m glad, but as much as I want to do nothing more than sit here with you all day and night, Paris still needs us. Come on, Buginette, let’s get you on your feet so we can pull some weeds. Then I’ll treat you to ice cream and we can sit together as long as you’d like. This whole thing makes me think we need a pillow fort, what do you say? I’ve always wanted to build one with a friend.”

His smile was so hopeful, she could barely suppress a laugh, and this time it didn’t even have an edge of fear to it.

“Don’t you need to get home?” She chuckled, but Chat simply scoffed.

Adrien Agreste is at home in bed, suffering in silence from a terrible affliction. Chat Noir, however, is not.” Then his eyes sparkled with mischief, his grin splitting his face, and Ladybug laughed in delight at how his tail flicked to and fro. “So I think it’s entirely up to my Lady if she thinks we need pillow forts and ice cream.”

“I think we do!” Ladybug could hardly talk because of her giggles, Chat’s manic expression and the way he waggled his ears and eyebrows at her was too much for her emotional state. Everything she felt seemed stronger than normal after her panic attack, but Chat pulling her close for a final hug while rubbing his cheek against her face helped a lot. Even if she did end up shrieking with laughter and yelling at him when he started intentionally grinding his face into her hair with the intention of ruining her hairstyle. After days of not being able to breathe from the flowers in her lungs, she couldn’t help but be overjoyed with relief at how it felt to be breathless from laughter. It was, after all, a huge difference.

His limbs still felt wobbly when they took off across the quarantine line, but Ladybug was shooting him shy smiles and her eyes were sparkling again so all was right with the world. He could see the little pieces of Marinette that weren’t hidden by the mask now. Her freckles, the way she’d blush when she looked at him (though he was far more used to seeing it as Adrien than Chat, but it made his heart pound against his ribs in a way he could get used to), the giggles that slipped out when he’d make a face at her.

So many memories falling into place now that he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Ladybug was Marinette. So many little things she’d done either with the mask or without that made more sense. Things were so much better now, even if it meant they had to be more careful against Papillon. The wind whipped his hair out of his face as he sailed feet-first towards the trees, his baton collapsing quickly as the blue sky seemed so much bluer now. Everything seemed more vivid, his pulse racing with excitement as he let himself tumble through the air. Catching a branch, he let his momentum carry him forward, swinging upward and out to bound from one tree to the next. A flash of red caught his eye, his teeth bared in a grin as he took off after her, racing towards Lonesome Briar’s last known whereabouts.

Chat no longer feared the flowers, it was just another fight with a villain that had whip-like attacks, bolstering his confidence to a degree that had made his Lady scowl at him and boop his nose. His face warmed at the memory, but he pushed it down, even if he couldn’t control his smile.

His Lady had turned him down because she loved his civilian form this whole time.

If he didn’t somehow end up singing from the rooftops because of this new gem of knowledge, it would be a miracle. Knowing that his anxious friend Marinette was actually Ladybug and didn’t hate him because she had the world’s biggest crush on him and he knew it for a fact was almost enough to land him sprawling in the dirt because he nearly took a branch to the face while daydreaming. Pausing just long enough to shake himself, Chat took off again with renewed energy, chasing his Lady as she flew through the trees toward their wayward Briar.

All his overwhelming emotions were making him dizzy with giddiness, but he’d have to hold them for later. He could do this, he was a professional. A fourteen-year-old professional who had just had the best reveal of his life drop into his lap and he was going to take Ladybug on a date as soon as they beat this akuma. Well, best in that knowing Ladybug was actually his second-closest friend in his civilian life. The circumstances could certainly have been far better, he wasn’t about to let that bring him down. He had never had better motivation in his entire LIFE!

Ladybug had to grab him by his tail and yank him back so he wouldn’t bulldoze clean into the villain, pulling him close enough that he almost ended up smashed against her chest. His purr stuttered to life and his smirk was dopey, he knew, but he really couldn’t control his face and all he wanted was to beat Briar and get back to cuddling. He couldn’t tell if it was nerves from the day, his shock wearing off, or the fact that his hormones had finally decided to hit him between the eyes with the unforgiving force of a sledgehammer. Or maybe it was all three at once.

Easy, kitty.” Ladybug sounded exasperated, pushing his face back because he’d been leaning closer with every second they were standing almost on top of each other on the branch. “Focus!” She’d have snapped her fingers just in front of his nose if it wouldn’t attract Briar’s attention, he knew, but he could barely hold still.

“I’m pretty sure the akumatized item is a photo Briar keeps in their pocket.” Chat whispered, his ears flicking forward as Ladybug studied the villain, and she nodded, reaching up to run her fingers through his hair because she couldn’t flick his bell without losing their surprise element. She’d already blown their cover once by coughing, she didn’t want to make a habit of it. Chat was just happy the deep thrum of his purrs hadn’t tipped them off either.

“Clever kitty,” she smiled, and Chat felt his heart swell with the affectionate tone she used. “Maybe we can get Briar all wrapped up before we search their pockets.” The playful smirk she sent him was such a far cry from how she’d looked on the rooftop mere minutes ago that he couldn’t help the way his shoulders relaxed with relief. There’s my Buginette.

“An excellent idea, as always, my Lady. Shall we nip this in the bud, then?” He swept a hand towards the villain as if offering her a dance, and watched in delight as her eyes sparkled. Chat was well and truly done for, he was never going to get tired of that look on her face.

“Follow my lead, minou!” There was a giggle hidden in her voice, and his cheeks burned with the sound of his nickname tumbling from her lips just before she leapt into the fight, bandalore snapping out to tangle around Lonesome Briar’s legs. The villain let out a barking cough of surprise as they were snapped out of their daze, thorny vines erupted from a sleeve towards Ladybug. Chat dove down behind them, aiming a blow to their shoulder that never connected. Ladybug yelped as she was snatched from the air, Lonesome Briar spinning on their back foot to fling her into her partner. The pair were knocked from the air and sent rolling down the pavement.

Hacking coughs followed them as Briar began to pick up speed, stumbling through the park’s decorative shrubs and using their vines to help pull them over the fences blocking the park off from the sidewalk. Looming over the downed heroes, Briar wheezed, chest rising and falling with great effort, and their glassy eyes red-rimmed.

“M-miraculouses, I...I need them…” They sounded so tired, swallowing and choking, and then with a heave, Chat and Ladybug found themselves being buried in wet red roses and petals. Chat had barely enough time to throw an arm up to protect their faces, but it was still alarming feeling so many flowers pelt them all at once. When Lonesome Briar straightened to gasp for more air, Chat and Ladybug stared at the pile of petals around them before their expressions set in determination. Briar barely had a moment to realize the attack didn’t affect them at all before they took Ladybug’s bandalore to the chin, stumbling back to fall against the park fence. With a quick shuffle to get their feet under them in the mass of slippery petals, the heroes bounded away, taking up fighting stances across the street from Lonesome Briar’s slumped form.

“You know, that’s pretty old news by now!” Ladybug grinned, her bandalore spinning at her side and shimmering a glowing pink. Chat smirked at her side, casually leaning on his baton after he extended it to staff length.

“You could say it’s last week’s clippings at this point.” His tail flicked, proud of himself even if Lonesome Briar’s groan of discomfort was a lackluster response at best. Ah, well. Not everyone had good taste in humor. Soon the villain was dragging themselves to their feet, shaking off what must’ve been the start of a headache in a shower of petals.

“You...why aren’t you sick like me...?” Briar’s voice was almost lost, rough with tears and coughing, their bangs hanging in their face as they watched Ladybug and Chat with something akin to betrayal. The hero pair paused, eyebrows arching as they glanced at each other. Chat shrugged, and they turned back to Briar, Ladybug’s smile growing sympathetic as she watched Briar stumble towards them.

“We realized that sometimes it’s better to face your feelings than keep them bottled up. Holding things in isn’t always the best solution, and sometimes it’s better to take a chance before you miss out on what’s really important.” Ladybug’s words made Chat’s heart flutter again, his staff spinning in his grip before he dropped to a crouch, ready to strike if Briar attacked. But the villain clutched their face, fingers digging into their mask-like markings as they let out a choked sob.

You wouldn’t understand!” Their voice sounded raw and broken as they shouted, petals spraying from their lips as new blooms crowded so high around their face it was a miracle they could even see straight. With a choked groan, Lonesome Briar crouched down, sweat dripping from their face, then unleashed a tidal wave of flowers and vines at Chat and Ladybug, forcing the two to leap for higher ground and race off down the street.

“Looks like tying them up won’t work, my Lady!” Chat called across the rooftops, casting a quick glance over his shoulder at the villain that was struggling to chase them through the thorny overgrowth.

“Maybe not at the moment, but we’ve got more tricks up our sleeves than that!” Swinging to an open rooftop, Ladybug landed lightly, tossing her bandalore high into the air the moment it returned to her hand.

Lucky Charm!

A red and black spotted travel cup with an etched rose design on the side and a molded flower motif at the base landed in her hand, a fancier version of the sort of cups that cafés handed out to customers. She tipped it at every angle, taking in its unusual appearance. The flower designs had to mean something. Her nose wrinkled as she looked around, her pigtails flopping and the corners of her mouth tugging into a frown.

“Chat, I don’t….I don’t see anything to work with aside from Briar! What am I supposed to do, ask them on a coffee date?” Raking her fingers through her bangs, she started to chew her lower lip, Chat’s sudden snap of his fingers as her comments and design of the cup gave him a sudden idea, startling Ladybug out of her thoughts.

“I’ve got it! My Lady, follow me! I think I know where we need to be.” He didn’t give her time to argue before he was bounding away, keeping low enough to have Lonesome Briar hot on their heels. Chat Noir heard her yelp at being left behind with little warning, followed by the tell-tale zip of her bandalore wire and Lonesome Briar’s frustrated coughs. Good, it was a start. Now he just needed to hope that Ladybug’s seemingly endless good luck would stay on their side.

They were almost there when Lonesome Briar took a page from their books, latching their vines to opposing street lamps and slingshotting themself forward with a raspy shout, sending all three of them tumbling to the street when they crashed mid-air. Chat Noir tore himself loose from the thorny vines with his claws, scrambling free of their tightening grip as Briar dragged themself closer. A thick trail of rose petals littered the street behind them, their breathless shouts almost incomprehensible around their mouthful of blossoms. Ignoring them for the moment, Chat jumped across the tangle of vines to the spotted hand flailing from the depths of a heap of thorns. Plunging his hands into the rose vines, he was secretly grateful that he couldn’t feel more than a dull pressure from the thorns as he sank in his claws and ripped the mound open with a single heave. Ladybug’s head popped up, sporting only a few small nicks on her cheeks, and he held out a hand to her with an apologetic smile.

“A thousand pardons, my Lady. I was in a prickly situation of my own or I’d have pulled you out sooner.” The partially grumpy look in her eyes at his pun made him chuckle, his tail coiling and waving behind him. A sudden cough reminded him they weren’t alone, and he was quick to clear the street around their feet with a flick of his baton, spinning it in front of them to protect them from more of Briar’s attacks. The wheezing was growing louder, Briar struggling for air, only to cough so loud it was almost deafening. The wave of petals Briar spit out washed over them, parting around them and flung high into the air from the force of Chat’s baton spin. If it weren’t so disgusting knowing where they came from, Chat Noir might have considered the sight of the air full of rose petals to be rather pleasant.

“We’re almost to the shop, my Lady! We should fall back and see if anything else catches your eye along the way.” He shot her a rakish grin over her shoulder, and she nodded, turning to run only to draw up short, her eyes going wide as she took a look at the cup in her hand and back at Briar. Chat’s nose wrinkled for a moment, then glanced over his shoulder to see what stopped her in her tracks. His eyes widened in recognition, his ears and tail flicking upward in surprise.

It was the same guy he’d nearly bumped into earlier! The man was frozen in the doorway of the café, his phone on the akuma tracker once more, a strange look on his face as he stared behind them at the villain. Chat almost shouted at him to get back inside, but Ladybug’s voice drowned him out.

“Chat, look out!” Her bandalore shot out, whipping around him to slice through a wall of vines that threatened to sweep past his baton. Whirling in place, she used the recoil of her bandalore and sent it curving in the opposite direction, catching Lonesome Briar across the temple. The villain staggered back, hood falling away to reveal their rose-red hair as they let out a pained groan, covering their face with a hand as some of their rose blossoms tumbled away, knocked loose by Ladybug’s weapon.

Rema?!” The grungy café patron sounded incredulous, squinting at the villain’s face as his grip on his phone tightened, knuckles going white. The effect of that one word was immediate. Lonesome Briar’s face went even paler, and they let out a startled wheeze that sent flower petals spilling down their front.

“A-Armand….?” Lonesome Briar looked panicked, the name a desperate whisper as their face went visibly clammy and they seemed to desperately look for an escape route. “T..there’s...R-Rema doesn’t...doesn’t exist anymore, it’s--!”

Armand didn’t wait for the akuma to finish that sentence, already advancing with a fierce scowl on his face. Every stomp of his steel-toed boots on the cobblestones had Lonesome Briar backpedalling as fast as they could, but their long limbs worked against them. In a move that was all too reminiscent of Marinette, Lonesome Briar’s thorn-wrapped boots tangled in their own vines and they toppled to the ground in a fwump of flower petals and a plaintive whine of pain. A cough buried them in their own petals, and there was a mad scramble to get back to their feet as Armand closed in on them.

“I’ve been waiting for you for days! Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” Armand’s voice rose from an irritated growl to a shout, reaching down into the pile of petals to grab Lonesome Briar by the front of their hoodie and yank them out. “I’ve been calling you and leaving texts, and you haven’t responded to anything. And then. And then I find out there’s been an akuma loose ever since we were supposed to meet! Do you think I’m stupid?” He reached up to bring Briar’s face down closer to his, nearly smashing them together in the process, and the akuma visibly swallowed. They tried to look everywhere but at Armand’s face, shrinking into the rose blossoms clustered in their collar.

“N-no….?” Briar’s voice sounded small and breathless. Armand closed his eyes, sucking in air through his nose before he glared at the villain who was nearly folded in half as they hung from the smaller man’s grip. If the akuma hadn’t nearly killed people it would’ve been far more amusing to watch. Ladybug and Chat Noir glanced at each other before she discreetly waved Chat forward, knowing he was far more stealthy on his feet than she was.

“I had to call out of work because I couldn’t sleep. We’ve all been tearing the city apart looking for you, you overgrown beanstalk.” Armand pinned Briar with his glare, but there was something affectionate in his words, and his glare had lost some of its blistering heat. “I’ve been worried sick, looking everywhere for you. Come home, Rema. Please.”

He smiled, and Briar looked on the verge of tears, wheezing and coughing until entire rose buds fell from their collar and petals spilled over their lips. A burning outline of a butterfly lit up around their eyes moments too late, perhaps to warn his victim. Neither of them saw Chat Noir’s claws slip into the folds of Briar’s hoodie, snatching the photo from its hidden pocket and cleanly ripping it in half. The image became clear as the corruption rolled away hastily and the light vanished just as quickly.

It was a photo of Armand tugging Rema into a one-armed hug, a blush obvious on Rema’s face. Something Chat didn’t get a good look at was a line of neat, curly handwriting on the back, too distracted by the akuma trying to make its bid for freedom.

No one aside from Chat Noir heard Ladybug capture the akuma and cleanse it, immediately followed by the coffee cup flying into the air and transforming into a glittering pink swarm of healing ladybugs to fix the damage. However, Armand absolutely noticed immediately when Lonesome Briar disappeared from his grip and Rema was left in a confused tangle of limbs in the middle of the street. The dark greens and vivid reds of Lonesome Briar’s thorny costume swept away to leave a puzzled redhead in a loose, hooded olive tunic glancing around through a limp sweep of ginger bangs. Before Armand could swoop over, Chat rested a hand on his arm as Ladybug moved to kneel down next to the trembling victim.

“Hey, you doing okay?” Her voice was quiet, and she could tell Rema was on the verge of tears again. They were all long limbs and soft features, their willowy figure mostly hidden by the tunic, and their long hair styled to hide as much of their face as possible. Tugging at their sleeves, Rema looked down at their lap, sniffing as if struggling to keep their emotions under control.

“Yeah, I didn’t...I was scared to go on our coffee date thing.” Blunt-nailed fingers toyed with their bright ginger fringe, the nails worried to the quick as if bitten off. “I’m not...I’m not like everyone else, you know? If I told him, and he freaked out, I don’t think I could handle it.” Their voice was so quiet Ladybug could barely hear them, and she reached out to gently squeeze their shoulder. Her face betrayed nothing as her earrings beeped shrilly as the first spot disappeared.

“It’ll be okay. Everyone’s different, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re comfortable with telling him. But maybe he’ll love you for who you are no matter what since he did confront you as a highly dangerous supervillain. But if anything happens, you at least have Chat Noir and I in your corner, okay?” She smiled, trying to give them confidence with just a squeeze and a smile. Rema swallowed hard, their hands tangling in the asymmetrical hem of their soft green tunic before they closed their eyes and took a steadying breath. Getting their feet under them, they slowly climbed to their feet, dusting off their dark-dyed skinny jeans and picking at a loose thread on their sleeve cuff as they crossed to Armand, still struggling to look the smaller man in the eye. Chat gave Armand a hearty pat on the shoulder before slipping away to give the couple some privacy.

Ladybug watched them with a soft smile, hardly noticing as Chat oozed over until his arms entwined around her waist and she let out a soft sigh and shook her head. His chin settled on her shoulder as they watched the pair. Rema anxiously plucked at their clothes and ducked their head to hide behind their hair, while Armand’s scowl dissolved into something so soft it looked almost jarring paired with his rough punk appearance. Rema’s shoulders began to shake, and Ladybug had a flash of worry before Chat hugged her tighter to keep her from rushing forward.

“Aw, babe, hey! Don’t cry, come on…” Armand laughed affectionately, and if there were tears in his eyes too no one saw as he tugged Rema close, rubbing their back as he held them until the tears faded to exhausted sniffles. Their conversation was muffled, Rema bowing over Armand so their faces were closer, and at one point they shyly tugged their hood up, and dipped even lower. From the way their nervous fidgeting soon went still, Ladybug had a distinct feeling that Armand had just kissed Rema. Clearing her throat quietly, both she and Chat found something else to look at before her earrings let out a second beep. She was about to jump away when Armand led Rema over, their fingers interlaced and Rema hiding behind the collar of their tunic, their cheeks flushed brighter than their coppery red hair.

“Ladybug, before you go, Rema and I...well, thanks.” He glanced up at Rema who let out a nervous chuckle and waved shyly at Ladybug. Giving them the brightest smile she could muster now that her exhaustion was beginning to creep up on her, she nodded.

“Any time. If it wasn’t for Rema, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the person I care about most my true feelings either. Though I could have gone without the lungs full of flowers part.” She teased gently, unable to help the way her gaze slid to Chat, their eyes meeting as he returned her smile. Cheeks flushing bright and warmth flooding her to her fingers and toes, she stifled a quick giggle before giving Armand and Rema a wave and tugged her bandalore wire taut. “Take care of each other, okay?”

“Will do!” Armand grinned, giving Ladybug a lazy salute, squeezing Rema’s fingers gently. Rema could only stare after Ladybug, relief making them feel lighter and more comfortable in their skin than they had been in years. Chat bid the new couple a good evening, then left them to their happy moment, chasing after Ladybug as if his boots were on fire.

After all, he had a date to catch.

“I don’t know how we made it all the way across town without spilling it.” Marinette laughed, breathless from their dash and how they’d both nearly fallen down her loft stairs. Adrien helped her down, the pair of heroes having decided it was better if he carried the ice cream down the steps before she followed, and he set their treat well away from where it could possibly be knocked over. Hurrying to her closet, Marinette got out extra blankets and pillows, and after a few hurried shushings because she could hear her parents in the rooms below, they set about building their fort.

It was a simple affair, comparatively, mostly because the actual stash of clean blankets and pillows was downstairs. Still, they made a fort big enough for them both, stripping Marinette’s bed for a few last pieces before standing back to marvel at their handiwork. It was a little droopy in a couple places, but Marinette was fairly certain it would last the evening, and she’d managed to string her fairy lights through it so they’d have some light to see by when it got darker. Her long cat pillow was now prominently flopped near where their heads would go, and she’d found the fluffiest pillows she had and lined the fort with them. It was soft, pink, and smelled fantastic from what Adrien had discovered when she’d piled a ton of blankets into his arms, but he wasn’t going to say that out loud no matter how hard his heart thumped against his ribs.

Satisfied with their work, Marinette left her shoes under her desk and her jacket on her desk chair before curling up in the depths of the fort. With a grin, she patted the spot on the blanket next to her, and Adrien didn’t make her tell him twice. Taking care with the ice cream, he marvelled at the fort from the inside, surprised at how cozy it felt. This was nice.

“Marinette?” He didn’t trust his voice not to crack strangely, so he spoke softly, glancing at her through the fringe of his bangs as he took a spoonful of blueberry cheesecake near the bottom of the ice cream stack. He caught her just as she’d stuffed her spoon in her mouth, eyes wide and an embarrassed blush coloring her cheeks. It was a much better look than the feverish flush he’d seen her in that morning. “Thanks.” There was a lot of feeling put into that word, more than he had actual words for.

“For what?” She still sucked on the spoon and it made him chuckle, her eyes were so big when she looked at him like that.

“For...for everything, I guess?” He prodded the ice cream, his other hand raking through his hair before he stuffed the bite in his mouth, savoring the creamy sweetness as he gathered his thoughts. “For this, and the date. I know it was really fast after we found out our secrets, especially since you wanted to keep things secret as long as possible, but it really meant a lot to me.” He was poking at the ice cream more than he was eating it now, and her growing silence was worrying him. Chancing a look at her face, he was greeted with the sight of Marinette staring firmly at her knee, spoon clenched in her teeth as her face, ears, and what little he could see of her neck and shoulders burned a vibrant red. Oh. Oh. Now he felt embarrassed, his smile wobbly as he raked his fingers through the hair across the nape of his neck.

“It’s…” Marinette started, chewed on her spoon, and then her hands began to flap. “It’s fine, I’m still getting over how everything happened and I’m not sure how I feel that we both know, but I really wouldn’t want to change anything since I hate how I had to say it but I meant everything that I said and--!” It was like watching a dam burst, everything pouring out of her all at once and he had to carefully move the ice cream out of her way so she wouldn’t knock it over by accident. Through the constant stream of words with surprisingly few of her speech hiccups that normally happened when he wasn’t Chat Noir, he managed to parse out what she was saying.

She was still upset she’d been forced to confess before she was ready, but that didn’t mean that she was going back on what she’d said. She meant everything she’d said both as Marinette and Ladybug. She was upset that they’d both had to reveal themselves, and was still wrapping her head around the fact that Adrien was Chat, but she was so glad to find that they were the same person. She had apparently been starting to crush on Chat and was torn over it, but relieved now that she was just getting to know him better and loving the person she saw. All of which had him flushing furiously and stuffing ice cream into his mouth to cool his face, model diet or no model diet.

Marinette finally came to a stuttering stop when she got to the date. And how much she’d wanted to go on one with him since basically as long as she’d had a crush on him. Adrien was impressed by his own self control, as he neither shoved the whole ice cream in his mouth or smashed his face against hers in an overwhelming surge of emotions. Ladybug had wanted a date with him this whole time. Marinette had been struggling to work up the courage, and had been telling Chat no only because she’d been trying to catch his attention as Adrien. But he’d been too busy seeing spots the whole time. It was a mess.

“Princess.” It was amazing how her whole thought process visibly screeched to a halt when he said the word without the mask, and his heart raced as he couldn’t help but chuckle. “Here, take some ice cream before I eat it all.” He offered her the dish, and she had the cutest look of surprise on her face. He just had to resist squishing her cheeks again like he’d done on the rooftop earlier that afternoon. Luckily she remembered how to breathe and took the dish from him. While she started to eat, Adrien got comfortable, stretching out beside her so he was pressed against her leg. For a moment she froze again, but slowly began to relax as he reached across her thigh to scoop up more of their dessert.

This was nice. He propped his head up and watched her, sighing happily as she grew more and more comfortable with his presence. Marinette had been stiff-shouldered at first, but soon she was smiling down at him as he rambled about little things. School things, home things, whatever came to mind to fill the comfortable space between bites of their treat. He was in the middle of telling her about a particularly boring photoshoot when he felt something in his hair. It startled a purring chirp out of him that left both of them frozen.

“Did you just--?” A giggle was bubbling out of her and she pressed her lips together, desperately trying to squash it.

“I don’t know?” He felt his face go three different shades of pink before burying his face in the crook of his arm and groaning in embarrassment. “I thought purring as Chat was weird enough!” Yet as much as he moaned about it, Marinette just laughed and it was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard. Even if it was at his expense, but it was kinda funny in retrospect so he let it slide. Moreso when her fingers returned to his hair, and the tentative way she stroked it and brushed her fingertips across his scalp made him go tingly all over. Okay, it was weird, but a good weird. A good weird that had him tipping sideways until his head was resting on her knee and his eyes drooped closed as his purr started up again.

Okay, so apparently the purring was an all the time thing, he guessed. Weird, but he was okay with it if it was Marinette doing it to him. And really he didn’t want her to stop, having her fingers in his hair felt so nice that he started rubbing his cheek against her jeans before he could stop himself. Which earned him another giggle to his dismay, his ears pinking faster than her fingers could get him purring.

“Adrien Agreste, top teen model in all of Paris, purrs with hair petting.” Marinette giggled, tousling his carefully styled hair until he was groaning in defeat.

“When did you become mean?” He pouted, stealing the ice cream and taking a bite from the molded waffle cone cup instead of breaking it off like a civilized human being. The chocolate and sugary crisp was amazing, and he rolled away from Marinette when she tried to reach out and snap off a piece for herself. “No, cruel bullies don’t get any treats.”

“Aw, Adrien, come on!” She laughed, trying to reach but he had longer arms, so she resorted to retaliation sulking. “I didn’t mean it. Besides, the purring is cute.” The last few words were almost mumbled, but he was close enough to hear her just fine.

“Well, I guess you can have some since you called me cute.” He huffed, offering her the waffle cup so they could split it. By the time it was gone and they’d both licked the chocolate from their fingers, they’d sunk into the pillows, Marinette pulling the fluffiest blanket up until it was nearly to their chins. The desire to reach out and pull her close was so strong, he found himself squeezing one of the pillows. Squeeze, release, squeeze, release. It wasn’t until Marinette was watching him with her eyebrows creeping towards her hairline that he realized what he was actually doing.

Why was he kneading pillows? Why was this a thing now? He never noticed doing anything like this at home, so why now? Her soft laughter was sleepy, and she reached for his hand, gently squeezing his fingers. This was so much better when they didn’t have their magical costumes on. Her fingers were so delicate, and yeah he’d grabbed her hands dozens of times before but now there was something decidedly different about it. Now it was like his whole body focused on their fingers, her thumb brushing his knuckles. This time Adrien didn’t feel embarrassed when he felt himself purring.

“Awww, minou.” There was something different about how she said that, too. Her cheeks dusted with color as well as her blush, and she was scooting close enough so he could see it so much better. He thought his heart would stop when she was close enough for their lips to touch, knowing all it would take would be one of them to tip their head just so. “Somebody’s a happy kitty. I’m glad.”

Her nose brushed across his and he thought his heart would leap clean out of his chest. If he died tonight it would be fine. This was fine. He couldn’t quite form words but Marinette had pulled out her Ladybug confidence and had tugged him closer until their breath mingled and their foreheads rested against one another. For a while, they simply lay there, nervous and a little embarrassed but enjoying the warmth of being so close too much to want to push each other apart. That and after the last few days, he hadn’t realized how tired he was until he was wrapped in Marinette’s blankets and practically tucked against her side. When Marinette finally spoke, she sounded half asleep and it was wonderful.

“Thanks for everything, Chaton. I had a great time.” Warmth wriggled through him at the nickname, her tone so fond and her gaze tender, and Adrien was so glad he got to see this side of her. Comfortable and sweet and full of warmth and affectionate touches that he wanted to soak up all day. Was he going to get to see this side of her all the time, now? Oh man, he hoped so. He really, really, really hoped so…

“I did too, Princess. We should do it again sometime.” He beamed, exhausted but warm and wrapped in something that felt like love. He didn’t even bother resisting the urge to nuzzle her cheek, purring so hard all Marinette could do was let out a sleepy laugh as she sank into the pillows.

It didn’t take long at all for sleep to come for both of them. The sun was almost completely set, but Marinette and Adrien were lost in dreams, fingers still tangled together and their heads tucked close enough to rest against each other as Adrien purred long and deep and happily.

They were still like that when Sabine opened the trap door to check for Marinette again, hoping to draw her downstairs for dinner. Instead she was greeted with the sight of a hastily-made fort, and the pair inside with their fingers brushing and their noses almost close enough to touch with how their heads were tucked together on the pillows. They slept hard and deep, Adrien’s purr long since petered off, but it was obvious they were so worn down they wouldn’t wake easily, even with the prospect of a homecooked meal. With a small smile, Sabine shook her head and retreated down the stairs, taking care to gently shut the trap door behind her.

Tom stood waiting on the stair below, brows furrowed in barely-contained worry, but Sabine just smiled and patted his arm.

“They’re both fine, Tom. Out like a light, but they’ve had a rough couple of days. We can save them leftovers.” She gently rubbed his arm, noting the way he gazed up at the trap door above them with his brows still pinched with concern.

“I’ll call the house and let them know he’s safe, then.” Tom sighed, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the sleeping teens above them, but paused as Sabine trailed her fingers down to squeeze his hand.

“Try and get ahold of his assistant instead. You remember what Marinette said the last time his father got involved.” She smiled, even if there was a touch of worry in it. “But that’s a good idea, dear. After all that boy’s done to keep her safe, it’s the least we can do to help the heroes of Paris.” With a thoughtful hum, she left Tom to make the call to Mlle. Sancoeur, while she returned to the kitchen to make sure there’d be food for the pair when they finally woke up. He was such a nice boy, Sabine was so glad he was her daughter’s partner. Now they just had to wait for Marinette to officially introduce them to her new boyfriend, which if the cuddling was any indication, might be sooner than later. Sabine was perfectly fine with that.