Chapter 1: Sneaking Out on Opening Night
Excitement raced through Paris as news spread quickly.
It'd had been a year since its last appearance. People hadn't stopped talking about the amazing show and its eventual return to the city.
The time had come for the reappearance of Le Merveilleux Cirque de Mme Bustier. People from fifty kilometers and more would be journeying to Paris in the coming days to catch one of the ten shows being presented on the outskirts of the major city.
Among those protesting the circus's appearance was none other than Gabriel Agreste, much to his son's chagrin.
Adrien could already hear his father on the phone, voicing his disapproval. The man never had any fun in younger man's opinion, not since his mother had disappeared when he'd been a small child.
Wishing to have some freedom, he had every intention of seeing that show, especially with the rumors of the Lovely Ladybugs performing. He'd seen bits of their act in photos of the city's main newspaper, the images blurred even as they showcased the ladies' stunts on the trapeze and other aerial equipment the circus had.
He just needed some way of getting to the city's outskirts without his father knowing of his absence from their mansion.
That's where his friend, Nino, would come in and assist.
Adrien smiled at the thought of their intricate plan to get him safely out of his room, past the guards, and across town.
He waited until after dinner to fake a headache, excusing himself to his room.
"Take some aspirin, son," his father called after him.
"Yes, Father," he mumbled, taking to stumbling a bit. He had to make it look good or his father would grow suspicious. He couldn't take that chance, not when the time grew ever closer to his destiny. "Good night."
The trip upstairs took less time as he took the steps two at a time, slipping into his room and hurrying toward his window above the small garden his father's chef used for herbs and other assorted goods. He hadn't been paying attention lately to the chattering woman as she talked about that beloved garden. He'd just ensure that they didn't trample it on their way out that evening.
Hurrying toward his closet, he pulled out the clothes he'd pulled aside earlier in the day. He'd had to reach deep into his large closet to find old clothing that his father wouldn't question any potential holes or rips from their evening escapade. The tan slacks and white shirt would have to do, he supposed as he quickly shed out of his finer clothing and replaced them with the others.
He'd barely finished buttoning up his shirt when the soft pining of rocks against his window drew his attention.
Shoving open one large window, he peeked down and spotted his disguised friend, a smile growing as he tossed down the sheet rope he'd made a week ago. He'd used old sheets, something he'd found in the servants' quarters of the mansion and spent a fair amount ripping, knotting, and stringing until he had the right length.
"It's about time, Nino," he called down, his voice low yet still carrying down to the man below.
"Hey, it's not like I could just hop the fence. I'm not a cat like you are," Nino shot back, his golden gaze almost visible in the dimming light behind his glasses.
He wasn't wrong, Adrien thought, as he recalled the number of times his mother and some servants had remarked how like a cat he could be. He sometimes wondered why he had such an affinity with the animal, but he had more pressing issues at that moment to consider than that wayward thought. He shoved it aside as he lifted his leg over the window's frame and grabbed onto the homemade rope.
Taking a deep breath, he shimmied down until his feet hit the end, dropping the last few feet and landing on his feet and hands.
"Wow, you really are cat-like," Nino said, a toothy grin meeting Adrien as he straightened next to his friend.
Smirking, Adrien gestured for Nino to follow, having procured them a ride a few blocks over. "We need to hurry or she'll leave us behind. She wasn't all that pleased with this idea in the first place."
"Well, I'll say. Can you imagine the mayor's debutante daughter near a circus of all places, Adrien? How did you manage to convince her anyway?"
The smirk grew as Adrien said over his shoulder, "I promised her a kiss from you, my dear Nino."
The other guy sputtered, freezing in his spot as he glared at the blond ahead of him. "You didn't?"
Chuckling, Adrien shook his head. "No, I didn't. Now, let's go. We're going to miss the best part if we don't hurry."
"Whatever you say," Nino muttered, following despite the need for revenge against his blond friend.
They made their way through the alleyways, staying near the shadows so no one would notice them, coming out near the carriage awaiting them with another blonde waiting impatiently nearby.
When she caught sight of them, she scowled. "It's about time. I hope you know how much you owe me, Adrikins."
"I do, Chloe. Thank you for doing this." He pressed a quick kiss to her temple, jumping into the carriage with Nino close behind him.
She entered last, eyeing the street for any signs of trouble before commanding her drive to carry them to the circus.
"I don't know what you see in these Ladybugs. They aren't anything special as far as I can see. Anyone can do what they do." She huffed, her arms crossing over her chest at the dreamy look Adrien wore as they drew nearer to the big spectacle.
"I sincerely doubt that, Chloe. Not many are willing to risk injury for such dangerous stunts," Nino pointed out, his gaze also focused on his friend though a smile teased at the corners of his mouth.
Boy, Adrien had it bad.
The carriage was soon forced to slow as the gathering crowds for the circus overflowed the streets, taking them far longer than Adrien would've liked to reach their destination.
Nino had to calm him down a few times, pressing a firm hand on Adrien's jangling leg lest he bounce them all with the violence of his impatience. His friend merely chuckled at his enthusiasm.
Chloe didn't share in that amusement, Adrien soon saw. Her lips grew thinner with each passing second they drew closer to the circus, eventually pulling to a stop near the main gates.
Twenty minutes later, they entered the great tent, their eyes adjusting to the brightness of the lanterns and twinkling lights swinging from the massive tent's poles.
Adrien hadn't ever seen anything like what he found inside, large animals from other continents were herded to their appropriate areas after being shown. Jugglers and other performers pranced around the inner ring, spinning in slow circles so all could witness their prowess and technique. The Tallest Man and the Bearded Lady had taken center stage with a few other key performers, all equivalent to that American man's circus though on a far grander scale with its French flourish.
It seemed like an eternity passed before Adrien caught a glimpse of the performance he'd been dying to see.
When the Lovely Ladybugs finally appeared above them, swinging back and forth on the trapeze, he felt his whole being freeze, his breath stuck in his throat. One of the Ladybugs had caught his attention. Her shiny pigtails tied with red ribbons and her blue eyes shining behind her spotted mask held him spellbound a moment before she swung into another stunt.
His heart threatened to stop beating as her fingers slipped through her partners, and she plummeted to the floor below.
A collective gasp rent the air as Adrien felt his world come crashing down.
He hadn't known he was moving until Nino's hand grabbed his shoulder, halting him at the outer ring on the ground floor.
"Ladybug," he whispered, the word ripping from him.
She had to be okay.
Glowing green eyes.
That'd been the last thing she'd seen before she'd plunged toward the ground, her eyes shutting tight as she braced for the impact coming.
She'd never thought it possible someone's eyes could glow, but that man's had. They'd glowed up at her and captured her attention when she should've been focused on her cousin and trapeze partner.
Moaning a bit as she fought her way back to consciousness, she heard a collective gasping of breaths, her eyes fluttered open and found several standing over her, too close for her comfort.
"Oh, Marinette, you're all right," Bridgette exclaimed as she moved to hug her cousin. "Thank goodness, you're all right."
"Bridge, I can't breathe." She coughed as Bridgette hurried to let go though the older brunette didn't move too far from Marinette's side. "I'm sore, but I'm fine. So, do we know who that guy was?"
The few standing around her glanced at each other before turning to stare at her, confusion written across their faces.
"What guy?" Bridgette asked.
"The one in the stands with the glowing eyes. He had blond hair, I think, and green eyes that glowed." Her hands moved with her words, further describing the guy in question and all she recalled about him.
"Honey, we didn't see anything like that," Bridgette started, her eyes warm with concern. "Are you sure that's what you saw?"
"I'm not crazy," Marinette huffed, moving to sit up and groaning in pain as a sharpness shot from her knee upward. A glance down at her leg had her frowning as she took in the soft cast encasing her knee. "Is it broken?"
Mme Bustier stepped forward, a soft smile of assurance, and leaned over Marinette. She placed her hand on the younger woman's shoulder as she said, "No, dear, it's merely bruised. You'll need to rest for a few days, but you should be able to perform by the next weekend. You're definitely one of the luckiest Ladybugs I've ever seen."
"What about our donors, Mme? I'm so sorry. I hadn't meant to mess anything up." She continued to move forward, taking care with her knee as she worked to stand and prove she could go back out there. "You were counting on me tonight, and I let you down."
"You did no such thing, Marinette," Mme Bustier, Bridgette, and a few others rushed to say. Their voices stacked on top of each other as they spoke, smiles spreading through the room as Marinette fought a soft giggle at their unanticipated gesture.
Taking the initiative as their ringleader, Mme Bustier shooed everyone out of the small trailer before turning back to the young trapeze artist. In a soft voice, she settled next to Marinette as she said, "Look, you didn't screw up, Marinette. In fact, we gained two donors tonight that I never believed would happen."
Marinette couldn't understand the words, her gaze widening as she met her employer's steady one. "How is that possible? The show was a disaster because I got distracted."
"You're worrying too much, honey," Mme Bustier pushed some of Marinette's stray locks behind her ear and booped her nose. "Now, they've been dying to meet you. Are you up to meeting them? If you're not, I can send them away."
The desire to say no proved quite appealing and strong as she wanted to wallow in her failure for at least a couple hours before facing the outside world again. She'd never been that great at handling failure, especially when she'd spent far too many hours practicing to fail during a huge opening as the one they've held in Paris for the past few years. She'd wanted to show their viewers what she's learned by her cousin's side, more than capable of taking over as the new Ladybug when Bridgette retired at the end of the current season.
However, knowing that donors didn't always come so willingly to something as frivolous and extravagant as the circus, she couldn't allow Mme Bustier to feel let down by one of her rising stars. She knew how much they could use more donors, especially with the growing number of protesters outside their giant tent. She couldn't afford to lose the only place where she truly felt like she belonged after losing her parents a couple years ago.
Pasting on her best performance smile, she met the older woman's gaze and nodded. "I'll see them. Give me five minutes?"
"Take your time, dear. I'll keep them entertained until you're ready."
With that, the circus's owner walked out of her small traveling trailer, leaving Marinette with a few minutes to prepare herself for the inevitable meeting of two donors that could make or break her career.
"I can do this," she whispered aloud, moving toward her small trunk of clothing, biting back a moan as she knocked her knee into her vanity. "I can do this. I can do this."
She pulled out the sparkling leotards she'd recently finished for her acts, knowing she needed something a little more presentable. She pushed aside a few of her more comfy clothes, ones she preferred to lounge in whenever they traveled, and kept digging until she found a dress she hadn't worn in almost a year. It wasn't anything fancy, but it was presentable and would help make a good impression on the donors.
She took a moment to shake the wrinkles from its folds and dragged it over her shoulders, having shed her robe. To her relief, she'd been left in her undergarments after being pulled from the performance tent.
She spun as best she could to check for any potentially embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions before turning back to her vanity. She dared a peek at herself for the first time since coming awake in her trailer.
"Oh, no," she breathed, noting the makeup she wore had been heavily damaged from her fall and subsequent move to her trailer, dark streaks of mascara creating identical trails over her cheeks and the glitter she wore had disappeared on one side. "Oh, this won't work."
Probably lost it when I hit the ground, she thought as she grabbed up a couple moist makeup wipes and began repairing the damage as best she could. She almost sighed in relief as her skin came out relatively clear under the makeup. A few scratches but nothing that wouldn't heal in a few days' time.
As her freckles came into view again, she smiled, almost missing her normal face under the makeup she wore as part of her routine. She didn't normally mind it, but something had changed that night. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she couldn't shake the idea that something big was waiting for her around the corner. It frightened her a bit though an excitement nestled right beside that fear, hyping her up to the potential of what was coming.
It took her another few minutes to finishing cleaning up, straightening her dress a bit more and reapplying the smallest amount of mascara and gloss to her lips. She ran a brush through her hair, having pulled the ruined ribbons from her hair and allowing her tresses to fall freely around her shoulders.
One last glance, she turned to her trailer's door and pulled it open.
As she moved toward the stairs and wondered how she'd manage them, she smiled as a hand came out to assist her, raising her eyes to meet her benefactor. She gasped as she took in the green gaze glowing up at her, surrounded by a wild mop of blond locks.
Update 6/10/19: This story will be completed and is on my list to finish. Right now, I'm working on a schedule to make this happen for all my WIPs. I will update everyone in the near future the progress being made for this story and other WIPs here on AO3.
Update 8/14/2019: I’m taking off the rest of this week to play catch up and relax before my schedule changes again with school and kiddos. We’ll be seeing updates once again starting next week. To see what’s coming, check out this post here.
Chapter 3: The Soulmate Curse
Oh, my goodness, an update is actually happening. It's only been a year plus, too.
I know I've been terrible about working on old WIPs, but I'm going to be spending the majority of the next few months getting them done, starting with this one. So expect almost daily (and possibly twice daily) updates until this story is complete.
Adrien's brows rose at her accusatory tone. "Excuse me?"
"Have your eyes always glowed like that?" She asked, ignoring his question. "It's very distracting. They glow so bright I could pick you out of the crowd despite the distance. I've frankly never seen anything like it."
More than a little confused, he nearly fumbled his proprietary attempts to assist her from the travel wagon. Her face twisted into a grimace when she'd put weight on her knee, propelling her toward the hard ground below. Quick action on his part, he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her upright against him. Her length pressed rather intimately against his, which both became acutely aware about the same time.
She shoved away from him first, leaning against the wagon for support.
"Let me get you a chair," he said, needing something to occupy his wayward thoughts than the image of her against him. His gaze searched the grounds and sighed with relief when Mme Bustier appeared with one. He mumbled his thanks before turning back to the young woman who'd captured his attention over a year before. "Here you go."
"Thank you." She sank into the chair, a soft sound escaping her. Her hands smoothed down the folds of her dress as they lapsed into silence. She didn't allow the silence to last long. "You didn't answer my question about your eyes, monsieur."
He sank onto the steps of her wagon as he shook his head. "I've heard I'm quite cat-like with some serious reflexes, but I've never heard anything about glowing eyes. I haven't witnessed them, either, when I look in the mirror. Are you sure they glowed? It could've been a trick of the lighting."
She glared at him.
The hardness of her look had him thankful she didn't have daggers with her or she might be tossing them at him.
"I know what I saw. I'm not silly or crazy." She huffed and turned her head to glance around the staging area. "Our lights are yellow. This was bright green, almost cat-like in the way it reflected."
He didn't know what to say. She sounded quite certain in what she saw, but it sounded near impossible to be true. Ignoring the niggling sensation in the back of his mind, he tried to make sense of what she could've seen, but nothing fit.
It didn't stop the guilt that ate slowly at his gut. If what she said was true, then he owed the circus more donation than he'd originally proposed. The thought he might've seriously harmed the woman beside him hurt more than he cared to admit. Despite this short acquaintance and her accusations, he caught sight of an intelligence behind her eyes and a pride in her bearing that drew him to her, more than photos of her had ever done before.
She pushed herself up and instantly regretted it, sinking back into the chair. A frustrated noise escaped as she met his gaze again. "Look, I know what I saw. If you want to think I'm silly or whatever, then I can't convince you otherwise. If that means you no longer want to donate to the circus, then I guess I understand. Though, I'll admit it'll be disappointing. Everyone here works so hard and they deserve all the recognition they can get with our donors."
Deciding to take the risk, he moved closer, stopping when she scooted further into her chair. His hand came up in an effort to assuage her fear about his intentions. In a soft voice, he said, "I don't think you're silly or crazy. I believe you even if I can't explain it myself. I promise I do, and I'm not rescinding my funding. I'm going to double it. If I was the reason for your fall, then it's the least I can do."
Her mouth dropped open as she stared at him. It was clear he'd caught her off-guard with his agreement and proposal of more funds for the circus.
Doing his best not to smile, he risked leaning toward her. His smile appeared when she didn't shrink away this time.
She shook her head as if to clear it. "You're really going to double it? Then, I thank you, monsieur. I promise you won't regret your investment."
He chuckled. "Then, you're very welcome, but please call me--"
"Adrien," a masculine voice Adrien knew all too well called from across the staging area.
Groaning, he pushed away from the wagon and met his brother's disapproval and determined stride, meeting several feet from where he wanted to be with intriguing Ladybug.
"Look, Felix, I promise I'm not staying much longer. Don't tell Father. He won't understand or approve." He raised his hands in the hopes of stalling his brother's progress.
Felix stopped within inches of him and glanced between Adrien and Ladybug. He didn't speak for several moments as his mind worked to figure out their relationship, not unsurprising to Adrien. Felix wasn't one to dive into meeting new people or even going outside his own rules and regulations, whether or not they coincided with their father's.
"Father need not know anything," Felix began, raising his own hand to stop Adrien from speaking, "but we have bigger problems than him. Is it true she saw your eyes glow?"
Confused, Adrien nodded. "Yeah, that's what she said."
"Did you touch her in any way? If so, how long ago did you touch her?" Felix continued on without further comment.
Growing annoyed by yet another accusatory tone, Adrien mumbled, "I only held her hand to assist her from her wagon. I'm not some animal if that's what you think."
"Answer the second question, Adrien. How long?" Felix's voice grew insistent as his body tensed with anticipation. Not that anybody but Adrien would notice, Felix's gaze began roaming the area, searching for something that Adrien couldn't quite figure out.
He shook his head. "I don't know. Couldn't have been more than ten minutes ago."
"Good." Felix grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the animal cages. "Then, we still have a bit of time left, but we have to go now."
His brother's grasp pulled him forward, almost upending him into the dirt. It didn't stop Felix from tugging him past several wagons, broken down equipment from the show, and further until they neared the animal cages Adrien had spied earlier.
"Felix, what are you doing? Time left? What are you talking about?" He tried to pry his brother's hand from his arm, but Felix held fast, his grip too firm for Adrien to break. "Come on, she's going to think I deliberately ditched her when I might've possibly mended some fences between us."
"You can see her again tomorrow." Felix's words came out clipped and a bit annoyed. "Right now, we need to get somewhere secluded. Our lives could depend upon it."
Adrien went on alert at those ominous words. Digging his shoes' heels into the giving dirt, he finally succeeded in slowing them down. When Felix glanced back with greater annoyance, Adrien took the lead. "I'm not going anywhere until you explain what you mean. What do you mean our lives could depend on it? What's going on? I have the right to know if we're in danger."
Felix's free hand came up with two fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. His eyes snapped shut and squeezed tight as though he needed a moment to contain himself before thoroughly losing it.
That worried Adrien even more. He knew without a doubt Felix rarely got to this point, so it had to be bad.
Felix didn't dare mince his words when he finally said, "Father placed a curse on us when we were young. In less than a few minutes, you'll shift into some creature he deigned for you. Knowing Father, he picked the craziest animal he could imagine at the moment he cursed you."
"Wait, wait, wait. What?"
Chapter 4: Seeing Is Believing
I forgot to note this in the last chapter, but new inspiration has helped this story come back to life. You can find that inspiration by checking out the comic, A Good Day to Be a Dog. While it won't follow the story exactly, it does have a few elements from the story.
She couldn't believe she'd done it. She shouldn't have done it, she silently reprimanded herself. Whatever had possessed her to grab a nearby broom and use it as a crutch, she'd never know. Not only that, but she'd had the audacity to follow the two men despite knowing only one for a total of minutes.
Something about their interaction had set off her internal alarm. Could they be planning something nefarious for the circus? If they were, she had every intention of stopping it.
In her haste, she didn't see a dip in the ground and twisted her foot and injured knee. She muttered a curse and hissed as the pain shot through her. Taking a cautious glance around, she noted the two hadn't noticed her tailing them and other circus members had continued on their business. They knew her too well, she mused, knowing she'd come back and probably no worse for wear as her clumsiness was legendary among the crew and performers.
As the men neared the animal cages, she hobbled behind a sizable, tarp-covered stack within hearing distance.
"Father placed a curse on us when we were young. In less than a few minutes, you'll shift into some creature he deigned for you," the stiffer, arrogant one said.
"Cursed? Shift?" she mumbled, her confusion mirroring that of the one with glowing green eyes. His name was Adrien, right? That's what the other one had called him before. Adrien fits him, so Adrien he'll be until I learn otherwise. If I learn otherwise.
"Look, I don't know why Father did it, but he cursed us with this ridiculous spell. Once we meet and touch our soulmate in some way, we shift into some creature. I heard yours saw your eyes glow. If that's the case, then she's your soulmate. Only your soulmate can see the creature lurking within that Father put there." A tiredness leaked into the man's voice.
She almost sympathized with him, but she couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. Adrien had thought her crazy for saying his eyes glowed. Surely, he'd think this guy was certifiable. She certainly hadn't implied that he had some animal curse lurking within him.
Peeking over the edge of the stack, she gasped.
Before Adrien could offer up some type of rebuttal, he doubled over and dropped to the ground. His body began convulsing and twisting, his bones popping and breaking. She could hear them from where she hid. When he finally laid still, he was no longer human. She couldn't quite make out what he was instead, not until he began moving a few minutes later.
"Leave it to Father to make you a cat," the other man said, gazing down at his transformed brother.
He spoke true, she found, as she gazed at the beautiful black panther standing opposite the man. She frowned as that same man sank to his knees beside Adrien. His transformation wasn't as painful to watch as Adrien's, she noted, though she could still make out the faint pops and breaks. Unlike Adrien, he didn't fight them, almost as though he'd had plenty of practice. In a few moments, a beautiful blue peacock stood in his place.
Staring at the peacock, she experienced deja vu at his appearance. She felt certain she'd seen it before, seen him before.
"Oh, no, I was afraid of this," Bridgette muttered next to Marinette. "We better hide them quick before the crew catches them."
Remembering her knee at the last second, Marinette performed a careful spin, turning to stare at her cousin incredulously. "You know about this? How do you know about this?"
A sad smile slid over Bridgette's features. "Don't you recognize the peacock? He's part of our second nightly performance. Has been for the last few weeks. If you'll help me, I can tell you his story later. It's a rather sad case as he's in denial of who his soulmate is."
"Is it you, Bridge?" Marinette couldn't help herself. She'd overheard the peacock claim herself as Adrien's, so it wouldn't be such a stretch if her cousin was the peacock's, right? Bridgette knew his secret, too, making it even more plausible in Marinette's mind.
Bridgette laughed, the sound lilting and a bit hysterical. "Good grief, no. It's someone closer to the family, but I bet I know who the panther belongs to."
The knowing look her cousin shot at her had Marinette's skin flaming bright and hot.
"I don't know what you mean. We don't even know each other. How can we possibly know if we're compatible, soulmates or not?" She crossed her arms over her chest and huffed at her cousin's teasing tone. It all seemed so absurd. Soulmates and curses that make people shift into animals. Whoever had heard of such a thing?
"Alright, I'll leave you alone about this for now, but we should get them back to our wagons quick. The crew can't see them shift, or they'll face bigger problems than what they already have. Though, it's crossed my mind they'd make a great act for the circus. I wonder what Mme Bustier would think." Bridgette tapped her chin as she appeared to think about such a possibility.
Horrified, Marinette reached for her cousin's arm. "You can't be serious?"
"Of course, I'm not. Surely, you know me better than that, Mari." Bridgette looked affronted at such a thought, making Marinette instantly contrite.
Shaking her head, she hugged Bridgette. "Of course, I don't. You're right. We should probably hurry, but how are we supposed to hide them in our wagons? There aren't exactly made for something like this."
"Oh, don't worry. If your panther is anything like the peacock, he'll be a gentle cat and respect your belongings. At least, he should. Cats aren't always as dignified as birds." The smile returned to Bridgette's features as she spoke.
Their hug loosened though Bridgette wrapped an arm around Marinette's waist to support her. Together, they moved from the shadows of the large stack and made their way near the two shifters.
To her surprise, the peacock didn't hesitate in sauntering toward them. He took his place beside Bridgette and turned back to the panther with a look that stole her breath. If she didn't know any better, she'd say they were communicating to one another. It didn't seem possible, but then, neither did them shifting into animals.
After a bit of time passed, the panther took a few cautious steps toward her. His green eyes reminded her of the guy he'd been minutes before, which helped in easing her concerns somewhat. If the man still existed, then the panther wouldn't make a snack of her, right?
"Hi," she said in a low voice, her gaze never leaving his. "I guess you'll be staying with me for a bit."
He took another step toward her, stopping short of reaching her side.
She stretched her hand out, curious if he'd allow her to touch him, but she stopped short. With a bit of imagination, she could almost believe that his fur was as soft as it looked, her fingertips grazing the outermost tips between his ears. It wasn't like her to be so curious, but something about this whole situation begged for her to react with that particular trait. How often did one experience such amazing events as these anyway?
In her musings, she didn't notice him creeping closer until his head butted against her hand.
She started to pull her hand back, but he swiped at her arm, catching her with his paw. The understated strength he held in that paw wasn't lost on her. To her great surprise, he didn't use it to yank her toward him. Instead, he gave her hand a soft tug until it bumped into the side of his face.
"You don't mind?" she asked.
He rubbed his fur along her hand, making her realize he didn't.
Unable to stop herself, she gave him a few good pets and even a scratch or two around his ears.
"Alright, you two," Bridgette said with her sternest tone, "we need to go now. You two can continue whatever you're doing right now back in the wagon."
Marinette stammered, heat renewing its warmth along her cheeks and the tips of her ears, "O-okay, but you don't have to broadcast it like that."
"Yeah, I'm sure it's exactly what I'm thinking, but hey, whatever makes you happy."
"Would you stop?"
This was going to be a long evening, Marinette thought, motioning for Adrien to follow her back before they were noticed. A long evening, indeed.
Chapter 5: The Next Morning
Popping and breaking woke him from a sound sleep in the early morning hours.
He bit his lip and pressed his face into the plush rug on the floor, hoping he didn't wake her as his transformation swept through him.
His luck didn't hold.
A soft hand ran up and down his back while she whispered softer words of sympathy and maybe a word or two of prayer for him. It soothed the pain that radiated through his morphing body.
"I'm sorry," she said after he stretched the entire length of her floor in his human form. "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be going through this. I would understand if you resented me for this. I mean, you came to see the circus, and I just had to see your eyes glow like they did."
Pushing himself from the floor, he pulled her close, his hands cupping her cheeks. He knew they weren't close enough for such familiarity, but then, they also were. The night before had proven that with all the pets and scratches she'd given him. There'd been moments he could've sworn she forgot his human self remained trapped within the animal one. It hadn't bothered him though. In fact, he rather enjoyed seeing her so carefree and trusting with him, a much better response than what he'd initially gotten from her.
He fought his desire to press a kiss to her forehead and settled for resting his forehead against hers.
"This," he gestured at himself, "is not your fault, my lady. It's my father's, and I intend to get answers with my brother later today."
"Do you know how to fix this? Is there a way to fix it?"
A sigh escaped him. "I don't know. Neither does Felix. Only my father knows for sure. We aim to find out though."
"I'll help any way I can. You don't deserve this. No one does."
Before he could say something he might later regret like a love confession, he sank backward and settled for simply gazing at her with his growing admiration. She'd taken him in and treated him with respect despite his predicament, seeing to his comfort and his needs as the night crept on.
Her gaze dropped for a moment before she averted it, pink staining her cheeks. Her hand came up to cover her eyes for further protection as she mumbled between her splayed fingers, "We should get you some clothing. You can't exactly confront your father naked."
He glanced downward and caught sight of what she meant. Thinking fast, he yanked the nearest item he could find and draped it over his lap. Flaming heat sparked to life and worked to match the blush that bloomed across her cheeks.
Embarrassed, he did his best to recover, saying, "Probably for the best, yes. Thank you."
A knock on her wagon's door sounded.
Before either could answer, the door swung open and revealed an amused Bridgette and disapproving Felix.
"We need a moment," Marinette said, making a shooing motion at them. "He wasn't quite prepared for the shift back. Not like if someone had warned him before last night this would happen."
Felix's brows rose at her reprimand, clearly surprised someone would dare speak to him in such a tone.
In Adrien's mind, no one had in a long time, not since their mother. Their father typically kept his distance from Felix, preferring to spend his time harping on Adrien himself and the future his father envisioned for him.
True to Felix's nature, he rebounded quickly, producing a spare clothing set from his satchel. "I figured he might need them. I always carry a spare. It's best to be prepared for all eventualities."
"Thanks, Fe. I'll be right out."
Felix nodded, handing the set of clothing to Marinette.
She tossed the set to him, her eyes not quite meeting his, before shutting the door to give him some privacy. As for herself, she sank into her vanity chair and kept her gaze firmly on the vanity's top. Her hands fidgeted and played with the various vials and pots she kept there.
Ready to clothed once more, he quickly donned the set Felix had loaned him, noting the longer lengths of both sleeves and legs. He sincerely hoped he didn't damage either before they got home and he could change.
"Thank you," he said softly after he was assured of his decency. "You didn't have to take me in last night, but you did. I won't forget your kindness."
She smiled, her gaze meeting his in her mirror. "You're welcome, Adrien."
"I should probably go, but um, can I take you out to dinner tonight?" His hand crept up to his nape and rubbed at the longer locks there. He'd need a haircut soon, but he didn't dwell on that as her face showed her surprise at his question. No one in history could be any cuter than she was at that moment.
"You want to take me out to dinner?" She blinked at him, almost unsure if she'd heard him correctly or not.
He smiled. "Yes, I do. If you're not comfortable going out, then maybe I can bring something here to you. How is your knee doing this morning? I meant to ask earlier, but um, we got a little sidetracked with my being naked and all."
Her pretty blush returned, blooming full and bright along her cheeks and down her neck.
Enjoying himself a bit too much, he couldn't help himself in asking, "It doesn't hurt at all? Not even the tiniest bit?"
"Ma-maybe the ti-tiniest bit." She shrugged her shoulders.
Deciding to grant her mercy, he ceased his teasing. "So, would you do me the honor of dining with me tonight, my lady?"
"I'd love to."
His smile grew into his best megawatt grin, delight and anticipation of their evening coursing through his veins. Stepping toward her, he bent low and lifted one of her hands in his. With a brush of his lips across her knuckles, he whispered, "Until tonight."
A spark entered her gaze when he met it, mischievous and quite daring.
"You think yourself so charming, don't you? It takes more than a few sweet words, a pretty face, and a bit of charm to win me over." She slid her hand from his, her gaze daring him to try and debunk her statement.
Instead, he bowed lower. "I have no doubt, my lady."
"Adrien, you can flirt with your soulmate later. We should get going before we're caught, and a scandal is created. You know how Father is." Felix's shout filtered through the door.
Dropping his head, he forced out a breath. He refused to lose the happiness he'd gotten by her acceptance of his dinner invitation. Giving her one final glance, he said in a low tone, "I'll see you tonight."
She gave him a tiny wave. "Tonight."
The desire to change his mind and stay with her proved quite strong, but he fought the urge. If things progressed between them well, he might eventually earn the right to remain at her side. Oh, that would be something, he thought with a smile.
Pushing through the door, he shut it with a click and faced Felix and Bridgette. While Bridgette wore a knowing smile, Felix's features twisted into the perpetual frown that had become his trademark among their family and friends.
"Shall we meet with Father about this new predicament we're both in?" he asked, taking on a seriousness he rarely liked donning. Necessity dictated it as he caught the deepening of Felix's frown. "What's wrong, Fe?"
"I'm not sure if we should confront him until we have a better understanding of the curse."
Exasperated by this twist, Adrien asked, "Then, what do you propose we do?"
"We should go to another familiar with the curse itself." Felix paused as though hesitating to name this other entity before pushing him to do exactly that. "Our mother."
Chapter 6: A Day Out with Bridgette
The door to her wagon opened, giving her a clear view of Bridgette in the frame. The knowing smirk and delighted curiosity in her cousin's eyes alerted her to the oncoming trouble.
"I'm in too good a mood for you to ruin it," Marinette said, the warning clear in her tone. Her smile softened the words and gave her a glow she wasn't aware of having. "He's a lot nicer than I'd thought he'd be."
"He's not bad on the eyes, either. At least from what I could see." The sparkle in Bridgette's gleaming eyes grew brighter. "You two sure looked cozy this morning. I thought you said it was too soon for either of you to know if you were compatible. Did you find out differently? I wouldn't be one bit surprised if you did. It's obvious he's fond of you."
Bridgette leaned over Marinette's shoulder and scooped up one of the many jars from the vanity. Dabbing her finger into the mixture, she pressed it into the skin around her eyes, unmindful of the makeup remnants from the night before.
"So, tell me, dear Mari, are you fond of him, too?"
The glow surrounding her brightened considerably as her mind wandered back over the evening she'd shared with Adrien in both forms. Sure, she hadn't had the smoothest interactions with him when he'd been human, but he'd been exactly as Bridgette had promised he'd be as a panther. Warmth suffused her cheeks when she recalled almost asking him to join her in bed as though he were an actual cat, not a human trapped inside one.
Bridgette chuckled. "You are, aren't you? I knew it."
"All I know is he's not exactly as terrible as I thought he might be." She paused, knowing her cousin could feel the suspense building between Marinette's thoughts. "Plus, he asked me to join him for dinner this evening, and I accepted."
Enthusiastic arms wrapped around her, squeezing the breath from her lungs.
"Oh, I knew it. I so knew it. Oh, Mari, I'm so happy for you. You, above anyone else we know, deserves to find someone who makes you happy. If my suspicions are correct, then I have a feeling he could make you very happy, helping you make all your dreams come true." She winked.
Marinette shook her head. "No, I can make my own dreams come true. I am making them come true. I don't need Adrien or anyone else to make them happen."
Bridgette quirked a brow at her in the mirror, pausing in her perusal of the other jars and bottles on the vanity.
"But," Marinette smiled, meeting her cousin's reflected gaze, "it would be nice to have someone to share in the success of seeing my dreams come true."
"He could be that for you, too," Bridgette whispered, a wistful smile crossing her lips in lieu of her earlier smirk. Setting down the bottle she'd been swirling in her fingers, she sank on top of Marinette's bed, her gaze traveling toward the travel trunk at the end. "So, do you have any idea what you're wearing tonight for dinner with your soulmate?"
Marinette's earlier glow faded. In its place was a pale version of her usual vibrancy.
"Don't freak out. We have several hours to get you ready and find your perfect ensemble. Mme Bustier knows you need a few nights to recoup so she's giving me the same time off." With a renewed purpose, Bridgette pushed to her feet and unlatched the trunk, pulling out several dresses and other articles of clothing. "Now, did he say what type of dinner you'd be having?"
"I'm not entirely sure. He mentioned a couple of options, but we didn't really decide on one or the other."
Inching her chair backward, Marinette swiveled to watch Bridgette destroy the orderliness of her traveling wagon. By the time her cousin finished, not a centimeter of surface remained in sight, buried beneath one garment or another. If she hadn't put a stop to it, she felt sure her accessories and underthings might've joined the fray.
With a huff, Bridgette surveyed each piece within Marinette's limited wardrobe, saying, "We need to go shopping. Nothing here says simple yet elegant for a dinner with my soulmate. Good thing, we're in Paris. We're in the midst of high fashion, so we're sure to find something that'll catch his eye and never have him stray."
"Bridge, no. There's enough here. I'm sure we can figure out something within this mess you created of my clothes." She picked up and dropped several back into her trunk, unmindful of future wrinkles in the hopes of regaining some walking room. "Besides, Adrien doesn't seem the type to care about what I wear. He seems to like me for me, which is nice for once."
"Come on, Mari," Bridgette's voice took on a whining quality while her gaze turned pleading, "how long has it been since we pampered ourselves and gotten something new? If it'll make you feel better, we can donate something or remake one of your older outfits to make room for some new clothes. Please? Pretty please? Let's indulge in one afternoon of shopping and pampering. Please?"
Hands shot out, matching the pleading tone and look.
Marinette sighed, knowing she couldn't say no. Worse, she knew her cousin had figured this out and often used it to her advantage. This left Marinette with little recourse as she accepted her weakness and its proclivity to ensnare her in Bridgette's plans and schemes.
"One dress, Bridge. That's all I can afford right now. Promise?" Marinette said, trying for a stern tone and falling far short based on her cousin's pleased expression.
Something told Marinette that Bridgette's promise wouldn't stick.
Without further recourse or stalling methods, she grabbed up her purse and hobbled after her cousin.
Minutes later, they were settled in the circus's sole carriage with Ivan at the reins. His size worked well as security for the performers, but his gentleness was his real asset. The animals trusted him implicitly, more so than their handlers. They sought his company whenever they needed medical attention and on nights when city sounds made them uneasy.
That gentleness extended to the performers, especially the Lucky Ladybugs and the Magnificent Mime's daughter, Mylene. Seeing him interact with the shy girl always brought a smile to Marinette's lips and a scheming plot to finally get them together. Such a plot included the day's excursion into Paris's premier shopping district with Mylene in tow.
Ivan, to his credit, kept his mind on the horses and keeping his passengers safe. However, his gaze skittered to the petite woman beside him as she worked to keep a proprietary distance between them. Each bump in the road made that impossible, but that didn't stop either of them from trying to ignore the obvious attraction between them.
Marinette opened her mouth to encourage them through small talk, but she never managed to say a word.
Bridgette had gripped her hand hard, nails digging into Marinette's wrist.
"What's the matter?" she whispered beneath her breath.
Bridgette didn't answer. Her gaze had become focused on an over-sized advertisement that took up an entire storefront window.
Following her cousin's gaze, Marinette gasped.
Painted with startling clarity across the elongated roll of paper were the faces of Adrien and Felix. Below them, their emblazoned names nearly sent Marinette's heart into a tizzy. Not only were they Agrestes, but they were the direct heirs to Gabriel Agreste and fashion models for their father's clothing line.
Bridgette finally found her voice to mutter, "Did you know?"
"No, no idea." Her heart plummeted. How could she be so lucky when she's discovered her soulmate was the son of their circus company's greatest enemy? "He never said a word."
"You don't think ..." Bridgette let the words trail off, almost unsure she should say them aloud.
Marinette caught on. "I don't know, but I aim to find out."
Chapter 7: Mama Agreste
"Fe, what are you talking about? Our mother? She abandoned us years ago. Father said so. Why are we going to search for someone who obviously doesn't want us in her life?"
Adrien had ranted at his brother for what seemed like hours but had been at most fifteen minutes. Never once did he witness Felix's reaction shift from his usual stoic expression, one that Adrien had come to equate to their father's and hated with every fiber within him.
When he'd run out of words to say, Felix turned toward him and yanked him into a nearby alleyway, devoid of all life save those of the rodents and insects.
"Look, our father tells you what he wants to believe is the truth, not what is real. Wake up, Adrien. Our father isn't the man you think he is or even was when we'd been little."
His brother shoved him against the wall before twisting away in disgust. His hands ran through his hair similar to the actions Adrien took when frustrated. When he finally met Adrien's gaze again, he sighed, exhausted with whatever fight he'd been having internally.
"You were young when she left. I'm almost sure you don't remember her reasons for leaving, but I do. She came to me before she fled the house, asking me to watch over you and keep you safe. I did the best I could, Adrien, but I need you to grow up now and help me here."
The tight grip Felix typically held over his anger and frustration broke. In its place, sadness and exhaustion remained, tiny cracks showing through into Felix's well-guarded soul. Not that he'd ever admit to having one if anyone asked, but the sight was enough to pull Adrien's angry words back, leaving them unspoken.
Felix's gaze dropped to their dirt-smudged shoes for a moment, his voice devoid of emotion, save the tiredness lingering within him. "Look, she doesn't live far from here. Will you come? Give her a chance to tell her side. She may surprise you with all she's been through."
"She's been in Paris all this time?" Adrien asked, working to keep his anger alive at her presumption and abandonment of them, of him. "Why not try and see us if she's been so close?"
"Come and learn for yourself." Felix nodded down the street. "What do you have to lose, Adrien? You think you're the only one who's suffered throughout these years? She has the answers we need, not Father. This curse is his doing. Why would you trust him to give us what we need to break it?"
It hit him harder than any punch to the middle might've. He had to resist the urge to rub his middle as though he'd been hit. The betrayal tasted bitter as he said, "You've seen her. You've actually talked to her already."
"Yes, I have." Felix didn't appear the least bit remorseful, but he continued, "When I found my soulmate, I knew I had to find her. Things weren't adding up if Father had been solely responsible for the curse."
"Then, you should have all the answers we need," Adrien spat out, his anger rising with this new information. "Why do I need to see her if you already know. Just tell me what we need to do, then we can go our separate ways. I have no interest in meeting someone who turned her back on us."
"Because she refused."
Felix sank against the opposite wall, unmindful of his clothing and the dinginess covering the wall's aged bricks. His hands ran through his hair again before settling over his eyes, rubbing at the tiredness lurking within him.
Seeing the defeat in his brother's shoulders, Adrien let his anger go, setting it aside for the moment. Whatever his brother had gone through mattered more to him than the betrayal and anger he felt at learning his mother had been nearby and hadn't bothered to reach out to him.
He took a cautious step forward and dropped into a crouch across from Felix.
"Why would she do that? If she has the answers as you think, surely, she wouldn't hold them back just to spite us after all these years." Adrien stretched his arm to rest his hand on Felix's shoulder, hoping to comfort his brother as best he could. "Did she say why she wouldn't tell you?"
"Yeah, she wants to tell us together. She refused because she wanted to see you, too." Felix's gaze met Adrien's as he spoke the words. "So, will you come and see her? You don't have to say anything if you don't want, but it might do us both some good. Maybe it'll help me be less like Father in your eyes and in others."
"Fe, you're nothing like Father. You might appear cold and distant, but you're not. You should know you're not."
His brother's shoulders shrugged beneath his hand, his gaze dropping back to his shoes. What pride Felix wore like an invisible cloak to protect himself had crumpled during their time in the alleyway.
Knowing he'd need to take care with his next words, Adrien risked his precarious position by asking, "Who's your soulmate? You never mentioned a name before. Do they think you're like Father?"
"My soulmate is none of your concern."
The shroud which had lifted long enough to see Felix's vulnerability dropped back into place.
Sensing the need to back off, Adrien pushed him back to his feet and held out his hand to Felix.
"Come on. Let's go and see our mother. Get the answers we need."
While Felix ignored his outstretched hand, there was a noticeable shift in his mood, a lightening that aided in assuaging Adrien's guilt in bringing up Felix's soulmate and the potential rift it could've caused between them.
"So, what can you tell me about her?" A shared glance had him adding, "Our mother? What is she like?"
Felix didn't answer right away.
The two continued their walk up the street, a few blocks from the circus's site at the city's edge.
While their home was situated in the heart of the richest arrondissement within Paris, the area they now strolled reminded Adrien of days gone by and a dismal look into the dregs of Paris's downtrodden. Chipped and/or broken window panes littered his view along with under-clothed children running through the streets despite the early morning hour. The buildings had seen better days, holding a regal bearing despite their neglect.
"She's like we remember as children, but she's also a whole new person. She's beautiful and has a hint of her old kindness and gentleness, but she's grown a bit harder from her years away. She's less trusting than she used to be, I believe. Whether that's from life or because of Father, I can't say for sure."
Adrien allowed the words to sink, absorbing them as though they might buoy him when the time came. The thought of seeing his mother again filled him more emotions than he cared to name or dissect.
He kept reminding himself all he wanted was the answers to their curse and its disappearance from their lives. He didn't care what his mother had done in the years she'd been gone or if she'd thought of him and Felix over those years. Such thoughts proved useless and screamed how little he'd grown over the years without her. He wouldn't be that little boy yearning for his mother's return or her comforting hugs on those dark, rainy nights.
Felix's hand on his shoulder pulled him from the thoughts swirling in his mind.
With a nod at the remarkably newer building within the decrepit neighborhood, Felix said in a low tone, "We're here."
Adrien's throat grew drier than any desert he'd read about it through his tutored years. The door standing only ten steps above the street and their position at the curb loomed over them. Beyond that door stood his mother, her life without them, and the answers he wanted most to learn.
"You want to knock, or shall I?" Felix asked, his voice only slightly louder than it'd been before.
Neither had the chance to do anything as the door swung open, revealing a woman Adrien would've recognized despite any number of passing years.
She offered a hesitant smile. "Come in. I've been expecting you."
Chapter 8: Dress Shopping
Bridgette's eyes burned into the side of Marinette's face. They watched her closely.
"Spit it out."
"I know that look, Mari. You're thinking about doing something, aren't you?" Bridgette shifted in her seat and grabbed hold of Marinette's hand. "Please, tell me I'm wrong. I know how rash you can be at times, but now is not that time. You can't possibly go marching into enemy territory to seek him out and demand answers. You know what kind of trouble that would bring to us all?"
Yanking her hand back, Marinette breathed, her anger rising and falling with each breath she took.
"I'm not going to do anything rash. I'm not a hot-headed teenager anymore, Bridge. I have grown up these last few years if you haven't noticed." Turning toward her cousin, she allowed Bridgette to take her hand again. "Look, I know I have a past tendency to jump in without thinking about the consequences, but I have changed. All I want is answers, but I can wait until Adrien's on our grounds to get them."
Bridgette opened and closed her mouth as her mind worked to comprehend and process all Marinette had said and hadn't said. It didn't help the two were close enough to be sisters, but they spent far too much time together, learning each other's tells, mannerisms, and everything between.
"So," her cousin drew out the word, "what is your plan then?"
This made Marinette smile. "Why, I'm going to seduce him into telling me the truth this evening at dinner."
"Excuse me? Seduce? What would your mama and papa say if they heard you?" Bridgette's face had gone quite pale in her shock, but she rebounded quickly enough. "You can't possibly mean what I think you do."
"Of course not, but that doesn't mean he has to know that." Her smile widened. "Let's find the perfect dress. I'm really going to need it for tonight if I want my answers."
Ivan pulled the horses to a stop, maneuvering the wagon and team into a space near the general store. After he helped them down, he saw them to one of the nearby dress shops before heading back for items the circus needed. He'd made them promise to stay close by or at the wagon if he took longer than expected in the general store.
Marinette covered her mouth, hoping he didn't notice the soft giggles working to float out. His eyes hadn't left Mylene the entire time he spoke to them, so enraptured with her that he nearly fell backward as he said his farewells to them. To his credit, he rebounded fast and hurried to his duties, never suspecting he might be waiting on them far longer than they would on him.
Entering the dress shop, the air around them changed, becoming almost electric with the stares and glares of disgust coming from the other patrons in the store. Those same patrons moved further into the store and aisles, creating greater distance between themselves and the three circus performers.
They'd been recognized, Marinette thought with a sadness reaching deep within her. While they were a pleasant evening's spectacle for the gentler citizens of Paris, they weren't worth the time of day to socialize with or worthy of their respect.
"Buck up, Mari. You know we're just as good as they are," Bridgette whispered close to her ear. "Mylene, wouldn't this look wonderful on you? Oh, and look at this one. Mari, it would be perfect for this evening with Adrien. What do you think?"
Marinette sent up a silent prayer of gratitude for Bridgette and her stalwart confidence among these gentle ladies. Doing her best to focus on the dresses Bridgette had pointed out, she couldn't help but agree. The rosy pink color would suit her complexion well, and the cut would be sure to catch Adrien's eye.
A commotion at the store's rear pulled her attention from the dress. The other female patrons had congregated near the register and the woman working behind the counter. Loud voices, full of derision, rose to an unbearable level before the woman whistled, tossing her blonde ponytail behind her in the process.
"Hey, the ladies stay. Like it or don't, they're welcome guests in my store," she declared, winking one of her pale blue eyes in their direction before returning her attention to the rowdy patrons. "Now, are we through here or do I need to do some cleaning up on my sales floor?"
The other ladies grumbled but went back to their shopping, ensuring they remained well away from Marinette and her small group once more.
The blonde woman approached them after a moment with a welcoming smile.
"I apologize. Some people don't have class around here." She tossed her ponytail aside and nodded toward the dress Marinette had been admiring before the commotion. "That would look lovely. I know it'll definitely turn a man's eye, especially one that's had a long-time crush on you. Adrien would be a fool if he didn't notice you in that."
Marinette looked over the woman in front of her. "You know Adrien?"
"For far too many years," she said, her smile growing fond. "He's a good one. I wouldn't risk my father's reputation in getting him to your circus if he wasn't."
Glancing at Bridgette and Mylene, she turned back to the blonde and asked, "What about his father? Is he one of the good ones?"
"He likes to think so, but he should've been tossed into the asylum years ago if you ask me. He's what high society calls eccentric. I call it crazy, but what can I say? My father can only do so much to keep Adrien's in check most of the time." The woman stepped forward and held out her hand. "I'm Chloe. It's nice to finally meet you, Ladybug. Adrien truly hasn't stopped talking about you since you first appeared on the scene a couple years ago."
"Wait, he what now?" she asked, nearly dropping the dress she'd picked up as Chloe talked.
Chloe laughed. "Don't tell me you didn't notice. He's more smitten than I've seen a kitten to its mama when it comes to you. Though, I'm sure he'd rather you didn't know that. It's utterly ridiculous he thinks he could hide from anyone. You were all he talked about when his father wasn't around to hear it."
"So, he's not like his father at all then? He wouldn't act as a spy for his father to hurt the circus?" Bridgette dared to ask, her voice dropping low so the prim and proper ladies shopping wouldn't overhear them from the other side of the store. She glared at them for good measure before returning her gaze to the store's proprietress.
"Heavens, no. He'd do anything to keep the circus going if that would make this Ladybug here happy," Chloe said, motioning toward Marinette. "I can't say I blame him. Would love to find someone I could be so in love with. Well, if you need me, ladies, I'll be behind the counter. I'll give you a good discount, too, should you find anything you like."
When Chloe had returned to her post at the register, Bridgette turned toward Marinette and smiled.
"So, maybe we're jumping to conclusions before we truly know. Do you think her recommendation of him can suffice until you talk tonight?"
"I believe so," Marinette murmured, "but I'm still getting this dress. I'll take all the incentive and help I can get for our little talk."
She winked at her cousin and took off for the fitting area near the back to try it on.
Inside the small curtained space, she let out a sigh before sending up a prayer for strength. She'd need all she could get plus maybe a little bit of luck.
Chapter 9: Adrien's Mind is Reeling
A sacrifice? Our soulmate must make a sacrifice? What kind of sacrifice? Why couldn't Mother have chosen a true love's kiss as they do in the fairy tales? Wouldn't that have made more sense?
The questions swirled and weighed his mind down. They slowed his steps back to the circus's temporary grounds and Marinette's wagon. While they'd gotten some answers, it'd produced more questions. His mother had remained cryptic, which only served to frustrate him more.
"Try not to dwell," Felix said as they neared the grounds. "Enjoy your dinner with Marinette. I'm sure we'll figure this out. Mother wouldn't have made such stipulations if it weren't necessary."
"You don't think our soulmates are meant to sacrifice themselves, do you?" The idea horrified him, his hands tightening into fists at his sides. A cold sweat beaded along his skin as he shut down the images before his mind could conjure them.
Felix shook his head. "I doubt it, but I'm sure she'd like Father to believe it. Our soulmates are the last people he'd want paired with his sons and heirs. Think of how his reputation would be affected. A circus performer and a musician. Not quite the high society mates he'd want."
"Wait, your soulmate is a musician? Do I know them?" Adrien grabbed hold of Felix's arm and stalled both their progress. "Come on, Fe, you have to tell me who it is. It's not fair you know mine, and I have yet to learn yours."
Felix refused to look at him. Instead, his brother took in the grounds and all the goings-on of the crew. Handlers took animals in and out cages to train and work with them prior to the night's first performance. Other performers warmed up near their wagons, chatting with each other and occasionally laughing at one joke or another that was shared.
"It's your friend," his brother finally whispered. "It's Nino."
Knowing his reaction mattered, Adrien did his best to school his features into one that didn't resemble the surprise coursing through him. While he had many questions, he focused on the delight that this news brought, realizing it could mean his best friend would be joining his family one day soon.
He dared a glance at Felix's expression and caught the pained one hiding behind the stoicism that was so typically Felix. It hit Adrien a moment later that something didn't quite feel right. His delight seemed far greater than that of his brother's at having discovered such information.
"Does Nino know he's your soulmate?"
Felix shook his head. "I thought it better he didn't. I've been avoiding the mansion ever since my first shift after he accidentally brushed against me in the hall. Father would never approve such a match. Besides, it's not as if Nino and I are close since he's your friend and I'm, well, me."
"You care about him."
"Then, we're going to fix this for you, too. You deserve to be happy with the one meant for you. If that's Nino, then I'm happy for you, Fe. You're my brother, and I want you to be happy, too." He released Felix's arm, realizing he'd been gripping it tight after the bombshell Felix had delivered. "You should talk to Nino. Figure things out between you."
"I'll consider it." He nodded toward one particular wagon, a small smile forming. "Go on. You shouldn't keep your date waiting. I think I'll see what Bridgette is up to. Be sure you're both inside before you shift again. We can't be too cautious right now."
"I understand. We'll be careful."
He wanted to say something more, but Felix had already begun walking away.
Resigned to trying again later, his mind soon returned to the evening awaiting him. Excitement coursed through him at the thought of spending more time in Marinette's company and learning all he could about her. He wanted to know everything and wanted to share all she desired to know in return.
Making his way toward her wagon, he smiled at those he passed by, waving at a few and bowing to Mme Bustier.
He sidestepped where the animals had been crossing, not liking the idea of ruining her wagon with messy shoes. The thought produced a cringe, one he knew well from his years of manner training with his mother as a young boy. That training had continued after her disappearance with one of the household staff, which he refused to let lapse when he'd found the woman meant for him.
Afternoon sun beamed down, highlighting and enhancing the brimming excitement around the various wagons. Snippets of excited chatter for the new lineup that evening had many performers practicing with greater enthusiasm. Some would be making their debuts that evening, ranging from animal riders to tumblers and acrobats.
Adrien smiled as the excitement and activity enveloped him, but his eyes never strayed from the wagon that belonged to Marinette.
His smile grew wider when the door opened and she emerged in a pink dress. Wild imaginings crept into his mind, including some he thought best to leave alone until they'd been properly acquainted and prepared for such a step in the future.
When she caught sight of him and smiled so sweetly, he feared his heart might pound right out of his chest. His palms had grown a bit damp as sudden nerves assailed him, followed closely by a thrilling sensation at being in her presence again. If his blood pressure could be any judge, he knew she was going to be one woman he'd never want to forget, his heart already longing to claim her and keep her by his side.
"Hello, stranger," she called out to him, lifting her hand in a small wave.
It beckoned him closer.
He didn't dare ignore its call, striding the last several meters to her side. Resting one foot on the bottom step, he offered her a smile in return. "Hello, yourself. You look absolutely beautiful. That dress was made for you."
Her smile shifted into something he couldn't quite put his finger on. It put him on edge, waiting for whatever had caused such a shift to be revealed.
"That's what your friend, Chloe, said. She was the one who sold me this dress today." She took a step backward, creating space he didn't want but accepted with reluctance. "She couldn't stop saying the nicest things about you while we shopped. She's a good friend, isn't she?"
He nodded. "She is."
"She must know almost everything about you, then?"
He didn't like where this was going, but he nodded again.
"So, she would know why you decided to keep your last name a secret from me. She would know why you didn't tell me who your father was or what you might be doing here. She would know if you were trying to undermine or sabotage the circus by getting close to one of its performers."
Each accusation hit him like a punch to the stomach, hard and without mercy.
He didn't answer as he worked to figure out how to breathe. Her accusations hurt more than he cared to admit. She didn't know him beyond the previous night, but he'd thought they'd made some progress in her growing closer to him. How wrong he'd been, he realized.
Using caution, he placed his other foot on the bottom step, leaning closer to her. One hand stretched out and clasped hers, not enough to frighten her but enough to hope she might stay and listen. His heart wouldn't be able to handle her slamming the door in his face and calling off the evening he had planned for them.
"Come to dinner. I'll answer all your questions. I won't keep any secrets on my honor."
She debated her answer, her gaze bouncing between him and her hand in his. Her eyes had changed to a deeper blue, he realized, as she nibbled her bottom lip.
She nodded. "Let me grab my purse, and we'll go."
"You won't regret trusting me."
Chapter 10: Dinner Date
"Where exactly are you taking me?" she asked after they'd been walking for several minutes.
She worked to hide the slight twinges of pain her knee shot up her leg every few steps. It was temporary, she kept reminding herself in silence, as they continued toward the destination he had in mind for their dinner.
Pasting on her best smile, she tried her best to appear nonchalant and carefree when he glanced at her. His frown spoke volumes on how poorly she'd conveyed both. She tried not to cringe as he slowed them to a stop on the small walk, dropping to his knees in front of her.
"Please, get up. You'll ruin your pants." She kept her voice low so others wouldn't overhear her. "I'm fine as long as we're close by. I can make it without too much pain."
"So, you have been hurting this entire time? I should've realized you wouldn't have healed enough for this outing. Please accept my apologies."
"It's not your fault. I should've said something before I agreed to come with you." She shifted her leg back when his hand would've made contact with her knee. It wasn't proper, she knew, and she already had enough marks against her when it came to Paris's high society. To have one of their own touching her with such familiarity on a public street was sure to tank her reputation further in their eyes. "I heal quickly. It's part of the luck Bridgette and I share. You don't have to worry about me."
"I'm making you uncomfortable," he said in a low tone, his voice losing a bit of his enthusiasm as their eyes met. "I'm not doing well here, am I, in making a good impression? How can I make this better?"
She stared at him. "You're not like most people from your class, are you? You actually care about someone, no matter their status in life?"
The look of confusion that streaked across his face endeared him to her more than anything else he could've done or said. The thought he might be an aberration in her world where class lines weren't crossed without nefarious reasons hadn't occurred to him. To say her heart melted a bit would be an understatement. She refused to call it love, but she would admit to a strong feeling of liking him.
Deciding a truce would be the best step, she stretched out her hand to him, helping him to his feet when he took it.
"I promise my knee will be fine," she began walking down the street to prove it, "but thank you for caring enough to check on me."
"It's the least I can do after I made a mess of things." He grew silent as he matched her steps, his hand resting against her back to support her should she need it. "You asked about my father earlier. I want to assure you I'm nothing like him. Neither is Felix. We don't have any animosity against your circus or anyone associated with it. I meant what I said when I promised to double my donation. Your circus is amazing. You are amazing. I want to see it succeed and run for as many years as it can."
"Chloe said something similar to me earlier when we asked her. I apologize for doubting you, but it was quite the shock to see yours and your brother's faces posted in a shop window." She continued to explain the extra shock of discovering his last name along with the implications of his keeping it secret.
Rather than dwell too long, however, she decided to come back to something else she'd learned about him while shopping. "I also might've learned that you've had a crush on me for a while now. Is that true?"
His cheeks burned bright despite the shade covering them along their walk.
She smiled, secretly pleased to learn that tidbit had been true.
"Chloe wasn't supposed to mention that to anyone," he muttered, doing his best to not meet her gaze, "but yes, I've been attracted to you for a while. You were the reason I wanted to sneak away to the circus in the first place."
This time, her cheeks grew warm by the affection and admiration she heard in his voice.
"What about me caught your attention? Surely, there are plenty of women from your social class who are far more beautiful and talented in more ladylike pursuits, including your friend, Chloe." Her curiosity burned hot, strumming through her veins as she awaited his answer.
"None of them could ever compare to you," he whispered. "For my father's sake, I tried to forget you. I'd never met you and would never get the chance with my father's strict views and standards, but I couldn't in the end. You were the one I measured every woman my father wanted me to meet, and none of them measured up to what I'd heard from others and the photos I'd seen."
Chattering birds were a welcome distraction as she fought to stem the flustered fluttering in her middle. Marinette watched the nest the mama bird had made while she tried to feed her squawking chicks. The patience shown by the mama bird amazed her as she fought back the laughter and the tiny bit of longing she'd long denied herself at such a domestic thought.
"They look happy, don't they? Despite their protestations of waiting for food, I should add," he whispered close to her ear. "Makes me wish I could experience such happiness with someone, or maybe had a little of that happiness when I'd been younger. I'm not sure I'm destined for such a scene."
His desire mirroring her own surprised her, bringing her gaze back to his. The sadness and longing lurking in his eyes drew her in far more than his flattering words. There was a hope hiding behind those emotions, a hope that maybe he might gain his chance if he could find someone who shared that hope.
She wanted him to have that hope come true. She realized after a moment that she also wanted to be the one that shared it with him.
Not ready to admit such a thing aloud, she almost sighed aloud when he announced their arrival at their destination.
Glancing upward, her breath caught.
"How did you know?"
He smiled wide, his tone teasing as he said, "There are only so many with your last name, Marinette. I hope you don't mind if I made a reservation for two here."
"I don't mind, but I hope you understand you're in for a deeper interrogation than I would've given you. My parents can be quite nosy when they want to be, especially my father." She patted his chest on her way past him as he held the door for her.
"I'm sure I can handle it anything he wants to ask me."
He followed behind her into the warmly lit room.
Her parents soon joined them, taking them to the best seats in the house. While her mother set up their menus and made small talk, her father kept his distance, taking stock of the young man seated across from her.
Doing her best, she nodded at Adrien and made a behave gesture at her father.
Based on the look he shot back at her, she had the distinct impression he had no intention of heeding her warnings to play nice.
"Don't worry, Marinette," Adrien set his hand over hers, stilling the tapping she hadn't known she'd been doing, "I'm more than ready for whatever your father wants to know about me. Let him interrogate me. If it means being with you, then it'll be worth it."
She nodded. "I hope you're right."
Chapter 11: After-Dinner Surprise
Two hours later, they emerged from the small restaurant.
Adrien groaned, his hands patting his full stomach.
Marinette giggled beside him. "I told you they would do their best to get you to talk. Did they succeed in scaring you away?"
He didn't hesitate in saying, "Not even a little bit."
The pretty blush spreading across her cheeks sent warmth coursing through him, alleviating any discomfort he might've had from the meal he'd shared with her. She hadn't been wrong about her parents wanting to know everything about him, especially her father, but he'd weathered through the meal with a finesse he'd been surprised to possess.
Maybe all those stuffy parties his father had made him endure had paid off, after all, he thought with some amusement.
"I haven't had a meal that well-made in a long time," he said to break the silence between them.
She chuckled. "I'm sure that's not true. I'm sure you've tasted the finest foods Paris has to offer."
"Just because it has a fancy name and price," he tapped her nose with a finger, earning an eye roll for his efforts, "it doesn't mean the food is made well or with love. What I had tonight was both, and it's something that's been sorely lacking in my life for a long time."
"You and Felix haven't had it easy, have you? Even with all the money and status, you were both so lonely." Her cheeks tinted while her eyes grew wide in horror at what she'd said.
He softened his smile, doing his best to hide the sadness he hadn't been aware she'd seen in him.
"You are quite perceptive. I'll have to add that to my list of reasons to admire you even more."
"And you're more genuine than I thought you might be. That's a rarity in this world," she whispered with a smile returning to her lips. "You are full of surprises, Adrien, and I'm discovering I like surprises."
His heart wanted to burst at hearing her confession. While she hadn't admitted to loving him, he would take what he could get, especially when it held such promise that she might come to care for him one day.
"How is your knee? Do we need to stop and rest for a bit before I take you home?"
"That depends." She shot him an amused look. "Are you about to surprise me again?"
Chuckling, he did his best to still the faster pacing of his heartbeat. When he managed to bring himself back into control, he shrugged his shoulders though a smile remained. "Maybe."
"Then, I believe my knee can handle whatever you have prepared for us next." Her hand wrapped around his arm, bringing her a bit closer to his side.
So much for his heart rate and slowing its wild beating inside his chest, he thought. Feeling sure he should be concerned about how fast he'd fallen for this woman, he couldn't bring himself to care or will himself to slow down when she was near him.
Felix's warnings repeated themselves about taking care, but his brother's voice remained faint, overwhelmed by other thoughts and emotions surrounding the woman beside him. Their father wouldn't approve, he knew, but he couldn't help the hope that filled him all would work out for him and Marinette. The future they might possibly share together would be happy and everything he'd ever hoped to have with another person.
"Oh, it's wonderful," she said, a tiny gasp escaping with her words.
He smiled down at her. "I'm glad you like it. It's one of my favorite places in the city."
Nestled between two buildings, the small park had quickly become a gem within Paris's city limits in Adrien's eyes. Not many knew of its existence outside the residents of the neighboring buildings and a few other lucky passersby. It had several ornate benches situated within the park's maze, leading to a beautiful fountain meant for lovers.
"Up for a little adventure? I promise the view is worth it," he whispered close to her ear.
She nodded. "Lead the way."
Over the next several minutes, he changed up the rules and had her lead them through the maze, curious to see how long it'd take her. After several dead ends and turnarounds, she surprised him with her growing determination to beat the maze and find the treasure in its middle. When she asked him to lift her, he quickly complied, his admiration growing as she spotted the correct route.
Not a minute more passed when they emerged from the confusing walkways within the maze.
"Adrien, it's gorgeous."
Her gaze had locked onto the fountain and its delicate figurines at the top. The two indistinct figures intertwined around one another, their shape creating a heart between them.
"Oh," she gasped a moment later, her gaze drifting away from the fountain.
When he followed the direction her gaze had taken, his mouth dropped open in shock.
"Do you know who that is with Felix?"
He nodded. "It's Nino, my best friend and his soulmate. I, um, I didn't know they'd gotten so close."
Her hand came to rest on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
Unconsciously, he'd been moving closer to the couple locked in each other's arms. The kiss they shared bore a resemblance to desperation and unexpressed longing as though they'd denied something they'd known for far too long. It hit him hard he hadn't known either had feelings for the others until Felix had told him earlier that day. Nino had never spoken a word to him about his desires, especially where Felix had been concerned.
"Are you alright?" she asked, bringing him back to the present.
He shook his head, clearing it while his gaze remained locked on the couple across from them. In a shaky voice, he said, "I think so."
"Should we leave and give them some privacy?"
"Yeah, that would probably be best." He took her hand in his and led her back through the park's maze until they found a bench near the entrance. At her questioning look, he said, "You should rest your knee. We can sit here and remain safe from eavesdropping on my brother and Nino."
"It must be a shock, huh? Did you have any idea?" She sank onto the bench. Her delicate hand rubbing her knee as though it pained her despite her remaining adamant in enjoying herself that evening with him. The soft sounds coming from her slammed into him, reminding him he should take care with her.
When her gaze met his, it dared him to mention her knee or take on any guilt for her silence on the matter.
Deciding it best to change the subject, he returned to her earlier questions and answered them. "Not really. Felix mentioned Nino earlier today being his soulmate, but he hadn't intimated they had a relationship. I guess I've been a bit naive when it comes to believing Nino and him had little contact despite the years I've known Nino and him visiting our home. They were bound to develop some type of relationship, I guess."
She remained silent, taking in all he'd revealed without judgment.
After a few moments passed, she said in a low voice, "You're a good man, Adrien. I'm sure you want them to be happy, and based on what we saw, I think they can be. I mean, look at us. I wasn't sure I liked you at first, but I know I do now. Maybe it was the same for them."
Reaching for her hand, he brought it to his lips and brushed a kiss over her knuckles. "So you like me?"
She giggled. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"You wound me," he covered his chest with his free hand, "with your words, Marinette. I thought I had earned a bit more than an 'I guess' from you."
Her eyes rolled at his teasing, taking it all in stride.
"Maybe there's still hope I can change your mind, but for now, I better get you home. It's getting late, and I still need to find someplace safe before I shift again." He fought the shudder that went through him, disliking the thought of experiencing the painful transformation again.
"Good thing I have space in my wagon. No safer place for you than there for the time being." She pushed to her feet and held out her hand to him. "Shall we get going then?"
He nodded. "Let's go."
They'd barely taken two steps before shouts reverberated through the streets.
"Fire! Fire! The circus is on fire!"
Sirens could be heard in the distance as emergency coaches and wagons made their way toward the circus grounds.
Both raced down the street, hand in hand, uncaring about Marinette's mending knee or the jarring pain of their frenzied pace. All that mattered was learning the extent of the fire and the home she might've lost.
Chapter 12: An Enemy Schemes
Her knee throbbed, but she refused to slow her pace, doing her best to keep up with Adrien. Every few steps, she had to bite back a painful groan as her knee gave a twinge of discomfort at the endured abuse.
Her family, her friends, and her home mattered most. If they were safe, she would happily endure an injured knee and some extra pain for the rest of her life. Thoughts and memories flooded her vision, temporarily blinding her as they continued down the street toward the grounds.
"Marinette?" Adrien's voice filtered through the tunnel of her thoughts. He'd slowed his pace to match hers, his hand finding hers and gripping it tight. "I'm sure everything will be fine."
She forced herself to nod, to hope that his words would prove true.
Together, they continued their frenzied pace, coming within sight of the grounds.
A gasp escaped at the ring of fire surrounding her home and everything she held dear. The flames licked at the large tent and several stacks of equipment. More devoured their travel wagons and the cages where they kept the animals at night. Screams and shouts could be heard over the roar of the fire. Pleas for help and sirens overran the other sounds typically heard from the city.
Marinette took several running steps forward, intent on helping where she could. She had to ensure her friends were safe, Bridgette was safe, and all the animals she'd helped the handlers train over the years.
Strong hands grabbed her and hauled her backward.
"No, please, I have to help," she shouted above the din. "Please, Adrien, we can't leave them alone."
Laughter sounded in her ear, unfamiliar and frightening as she realized the person holding her back wasn't who she thought.
"Who are you? Let me go." She struggled against their hold, but they held fast, keeping her prisoner as her world crumbled before her eyes. "What do you want? Who are you? Where's Adrien? Adrien?"
Muffled screams behind her had her fighting the stranger's hold again.
"Please, don't hurt him. Whatever you want, just let us go."
Her pleading fell on deaf ears as the man yanked her backward, her heels digging into the ground in a futile effort to escape. Before she could think of another way out of their predicament, the unmistakable sound of scraping metal hinges sent a shiver down her spine. Her feet lifted several inches off the ground, and she was tossed unceremoniously into the jailer wagon.
Adrien soon followed, grunting as he landed against the metal siding.
She scooted toward him, stretching out her hand and checking him over as she'd done earlier that day.
"Do you know who they are?" she whispered.
Her fear grew exponentially when he shook his head.
"What do you think they want?"
Again, his head shook. "I'm not sure, but I have a feeling we'll soon find out."
His hand reached out for hers, which she took without question. He gave hers a hearty squeeze as he sat up and leaned closer to her. His forehead came to rest against hers in the dimly lit cage.
"We'll get out of this, Marinette. I promise we will. You'll see Bridgette and your friends again. I won't let anything happen to you."
She smiled at his protective streak, grateful he'd taken the optimistic road. It wouldn't do if he'd thought they were doomed before they even had a chance to try.
"I promise the same to you. You'll see Felix and your friends, too. We just need to figure out how to get out of this cage and bypass those goons. Think you're up for a challenge?"
The grin he shot her upon hearing his earlier words repeated to him helped solidify her resolve.
"I'm game if you are, love," he whispered.
Busy searching her dress's hidden pockets, she almost didn't make out the endearment he'd given her. When it sank in, her hands stilled so she could search his gaze in the growing darkness. Could he really love her so soon? Was it possible?
She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but the opportunity passed too soon.
Popping and breaking echoed within the confines of their cage, followed closely by low moans. Adrien curled into himself, letting her go. The shift didn't take as long as it had the night before, but it didn't keep her heart from wrenching within her chest at the painful sounds he made. Helpless, she sank back and watched as his body convulsed and writhed. Paws replaced fingers and hands. Fur covered his body where little hair had been before. His face bent and twisted into the one face she'd gotten to know the previous evening, a gracefulness within the feline features that wasn't lost from his human ones.
Soon, his panther form sat next to her, panting from the exertion of his transformation.
"Oh, Adrien, this isn't good," she whispered, "but it's not going to stop us. Maybe we can use this to our advantage."
Outlining her plan, she didn't waste any time alone while the wagon lumbered toward their unknown destination. Their cage might be small, but it had some strategic areas that might prove useful to their escape, pointing them out to Adrien.
As the wagon finally came to a stop, she heard their kidnappers grumble while descending from their positions at the reins. Inching her way closer to the doors, she glanced back to find Adrien hiding in his place within a dark corner near the back. His dark coat blended well with the dark interior, much to her delight and growing determination to make her plan succeed.
In their final seconds, she sent up a silent prayer for the luck she possessed as a Ladybug within Mme Bustier's circus. That luck would be beneficial for them, she knew, as their captors' voices drew nearer to her position.
The grating sound of the lock had her readying for the next step in her plan. Tucking her legs under her, she pushed into a crouch and waited for the doors to creak open.
"This guy better have our money. I'm not working for free again, Gerard."
The man's face appeared in the open doorway a moment later.
When his eyes focused on the empty side, he shouted, "They've escaped."
Adrien sprang from his hiding spot, knocking the man backward on the ground. His loud growl kept the man still as she slipped out. Doing her best to remain hidden against the cage, she waited for the fallen man's partner to come around, tripping him before he could spy her.
"Let's go," she called out to Adrien, ready to make a run for it.
His frozen state halted her progress, glancing back to see him staring at the building beside them.
He didn't move or acknowledge her questioning plea.
The man beneath him used it to his advantage, knocking Adrien off of him while his partner caught up to her and captured her again. They soon had her tied up and seated on the graveled sidewalk near the building. Adrien joined her moments later, leashed by an animal keeper's pole and rope.
"What is this place?" she whispered under her breath.
"It's the Agreste mansion," a new voice informed her.
A large form dropped beside her, causing her to recoil as best she could with her restraints. When she glanced toward him, she gasped, recognizing him from earlier.
"Where is Felix?" Her gaze searched the area until she spotted the beautiful peacock and his less-than-pleased expression. Following his gaze, she caught sight of her greatest enemy standing at the gate. Her voice grew whisper-soft. "We're not getting out of this, are we?"
Nino shook his head. "I don't think so."
Two more jailer wagons pulled up, soon revealing their captives.
Marinette cried out, seeing her cousin being pulled from one while not recognizing the woman from the other.
"Good, you're all here," Gabriel said.
Chapter 13: Confrontation with Gabriel
He should've listened to Felix. They wouldn't have been in this mess if he'd simply listened and paid attention to their surroundings. Marinette wouldn't be in this mess if he'd paid attention. What kind of soulmate did that make him? He'd put the one person meant for him in danger, watching helplessly as the man grabbed her, yanked her to her feet and paraded her past his father.
Think, Adrien, think. You can do this. There's a way out of this. What had Mother said about the curse and its power to save them all upon being broken? A sacrifice must be made? Did it have to be his soulmate's or could it be his own?
His head hurt from the rapid-fire nature of his thoughts and the questions without answers.
You need to calm down, a voice whispered. You'll never get anywhere if you don't start paying attention.
Who else would it be? Calm your thoughts. They'll never help if you can't calm down.
How can you be so calm? Isn't it killing you seeing Nino like this? Oh, and don't think we're not talking after we get out of this. You owe me an explanation after what I saw in the park today.
I owe you nothing of the sort, but I might be willing to talk if we get out of this. Nino made me promise you and I talked about our relationship and what's transpired so far. I'm not sure why except to help ease the guilt he feels at lying to you about it.
Oh, so you don't have any guilt for keeping secrets from me.
No, not really. What I do with my soulmate is my business, just as it's yours with Marinette. Right now, we need to figure out what Father's angling after and how we can stop him. Nino and Marinette are counting on us.
Mother. I believe she's the key. Why else would Father have brought her here? She knows the loopholes within the curse. After all, she put them in there, didn't she?
Adrien glanced at the woman he'd once loved more than any other, a woman who had abandoned him and only resurfaced after they came into a time of need. He hated admitting Felix might be right where she was concerned, but his animosity had to be set aside if he wanted to help themselves and their soulmates out of this mess.
Their captors led them into the large gallery within the mansion, his father having taken his normal place at the top of the stairs.
"Forever the dramatic, Gabriel," Emilie said from her place between Bridgette and Marinette. "What do you want with our sons and these young people? If your problem is with me, then let them go. They don't need to be here."
"You made them part of the problem, my dear, when you changed the wish I'd made for our sons." Gabriel took a menacing step forward.
Seeing the malice directed at his mother, Adrien fought his captor's hold, swiping at the man in the hopes of intervening.
"A panther, Emilie, for Adrien? Couldn't think of something softer to better suit him?"
Adrien growled low, angry and a bit hurt at his father's low opinion of him.
"What you consider weakness is Adrien's greatest strength. He's always been more of a lion than the mere kitten you saw in his youngest days. From what I can see, I've chosen the well for him in both his animal form and his soulmate." His mother glanced between him and Marinette, a small smile forming in her fondness.
"So, this little performer," Gabriel spat the word, raising Adrien's hackles as he gazed upon Marinette, "is our son's soulmate. Not suitable at all. She'll never measure up to the Agreste name."
"There's more to her than meets the eye. She's quite clever, creative, and eloquent. I have no doubt she has the ability to far surpass the expectations and impossible standards of high society. All she needs is the chance to prove herself."
Adrien couldn't help the pride he felt at his mother's words, so close to his own thoughts where Marinette was concerned. Granted, he couldn't give two wits what his supposed class thought about her. All he cared about was how she felt about him and how she made him feel whenever he was in her company.
"Your thoughts about her are of no concern." Gabriel swiped at the air with his hand. "She'll have to go. Adrien deserves one of his own social standing and caliber. The same goes for Felix. They both have reputations they must maintain, and I refuse to have them tarnished by your substandard choices. Now, which one of these sad excuses is Felix's proposed soulmate?"
Seeing Felix's tail raise high had Adrien on standby, ready to attack as needed. He'd been watching his captor as Felix suggested and noted the man's mannerisms, including the few instances of inattention to his movements as his father continued his ranting about their futures and his mother's poor choices. All he needed was the right opening, and he could be free.
"If you want that information, then you'll have to figure it out yourself. I won't help you in destroying both our sons, Gabriel Agreste. It's bad enough you've learned so much about Adrien." Emilie took a step forward, unmindful of the ties holding her or her captor rushing forward to stop her advancement. "You've let the magic we discovered change you for the worst. What's more is how you don't see it yourself. You used to want the best for our sons, no matter what that best was. Now, all you care about are the inconsequential aspects of life like status and caliber. How could I lose the man I once loved more than anything?"
"You lost nothing, dear. You walked away and quite willingly." Gabriel turned his back from them, his anger and hurt radiating over them.
It surprised Adrien to see such an emotion coming from his father. Never had he seen anything but anger and disappointment. To know his father hurt at their mother's abandonment softened him the tiniest bit toward the man. Though, he admitted, not enough to stop whatever plan he could implement to save Marinette and the others.
As quickly as his father had turned away, he spun around, facing them again. The coldness within his gaze froze the blood coursing through Adrien's veins. The man had lost touch with whatever humanness he once held.
"How is the curse broken, Emilie? How do we reset this mess so I can fix it for our sons as it's supposed to be?"
"Their soulmates can't be changed, Gabriel. No matter how hard you try, they'll remain the same. No magic can undo that."
His father took several menacing steps down the stairs, coming halfway before stopping. "Emilie, I have no time for your games. The window is closing on fixing this. Tell me now, and I might spare their soulmates' lives."
"Then, let it close. I beg of you, Gabriel. Recall the man you once were. He was a good man. He cared about his family and his son's well-being and happiness. This isn't you. Be the man I fell in love with once more."
His mother cried out as her captor grabbed hold of her, shoving her down to her knees.
Unable to stand watching her become a victim to the man's cruelty, Adrien swiped at his own, catching the man unaware and sending him sprawling backward. Free of one obstacle, he sliced through the rope around his neck and jumped away from the pole that clattered beside him.
With both out of his way, he raced across the gallery, his aim for the man pinning his mother in a cowering position toward his father.
"Stop," his mother shouted, her gaze locking with his. "I've dealt with worse. I can handle this."
He halted, but his gaze bounced between the others, unsure what he should do.
His mother answered his unspoken question. "If you want the curse broken, then a sacrifice must be made. It has to be a significant sacrifice, or it won't work. It must also come from the soulmates and them alone. You can't do this for them, Adrien, as much as you might want to. It's the only way to fix all of this."
His handler had regained his footing and charged at him, but Adrien sidestepped the man, swiping at his feet and sending him back to the ground to slide several feet away.
Trust her, Adrien. If we're to see our ways out of this, we have to trust her and our soulmates. Can you trust Marinette to make the right sacrifice?
He spun to face his brother, catching sight of the proud image Felix presented as a peacock.
Of course, I trust Marinette. She'll figure it out. She's amazing, but can you trust Nino?
Felix bent his head in the affirmative, standing taller and his plumage spreading wide.
Taking a leap of faith, he met Marinette's gaze and found her lost in thought, the look growing all-too-familiar and comforting against the tiny seeds of doubt trying to plant themselves in his mind.
If anyone could figure her way through his mother's words, it was Marinette.
Chapter 14: The Soulmate Sacrifice
Marinette puzzled through all she'd learned, the pieces so close to fitting together. She merely needed to figure out how, and the curse could be broken. Adrien could be free. All she needed to know was the type of sacrifice being asked for. Her life to break the curse didn't feel right though she supposed she'd offer it if it meant Adrien never enduring the painful shift he suffered each morning and night.
"This is ridiculous, Emilie. They couldn't possibly have anything significant to offer in exchange for your silly stipulations." Gabriel stepped down a few more stairs, his imposing figure enough to scare them into taking a few steps back. "Just tell me which is Felix's soulmate, and I'll handle the matter without delay."
"You will not touch either soulmate." Emilie's voice carried a hint of warning.
Marinette glanced up to find Adrien prowling between her and his father, ready to protect her at all costs. It broke her heart to see a father and son so disconnected, especially with the special bond she shared with her parents.
Felix soon joined Adrien near her, his wide plumage doing its best to hide both Bridgette and Nino from their father. His quick protection of her cousin did wondrous things to her heart, warming toward him in a way she hadn't thought possible before. Maybe she'd misjudged Adrien's brother as much as she'd initially misjudged Adrien.
"The window will close in minutes. We have to act fast. Stop being so stubborn, all of you." Gabriel's commands sent shock waves through her, his chilling tone almost enough to make her curl into herself. "With them gone, you'll find new soulmates, more suitable ones for the future that I've built all these years for you all. Why can't you understand what I'm trying to do? It's not unreasonable. I'm sure you'll forget them in time. Their memory will fade from your minds."
Forget. Memory. The two words struck her hard. Somewhere within them, the answer lurked.
She knew it did as much as she knew her heart would forever belong to Adrien. She hadn't been able to admit it before because she'd believed it much too soon. She'd come to care for him, possibly even loved him. If only they'd had more time, maybe she could be surer of those feelings.
Time was against them, however.
They wouldn't have the days or weeks necessary for most couples to learn about each other, to fall in love. They wouldn't get the chance to share experiences or secrets from their pasts. They wouldn't have more than the memories they had, so few that Gabriel's estimation wasn't far from the mark. She'd be a memory, a faint one in Adrien's mind. She'd be lost to time, forgotten by the world and those few memories they'd been privileged to share.
It hit her then.
Her eyes widened with the realization of what she needed to do.
She turned to meet his mother's fond look, knowing her realization had been spot on. The knowledge settled in her stomach as heavy as a stone yet lighter than a feather. If it worked, then the sacrifice could bring them all the happiness they desired.
Seeking out Nino, she forced her voice to remain calm as she asked, "Can you trust me to follow my lead? I think I've figured out the sacrifice we must make."
One nod confirmed his willingness to try.
Not quite ready to take the necessary next step, she turned back to the front, her gaze momentarily locking onto Gabriel and giving him the best glare she could manage.
When he took a menacing step toward her, Adrien stepped between, his growl low yet unmistakable in his desire to keep her safe.
If she was proven right, he wouldn't have to choose between her and his family, something she'd never ask of anyone, especially the sweet man she'd gotten to know in the past day.
Dropping to her knees, she beckoned him toward her in a soft voice. Her head rested against his when he complied, her eyes closing to soak in these last few moments with him.
"I'll never forget you," she whispered into his ear, which twitched in brief surprise. "I hope I'll get to see you again one day, Adrien Agreste, because I think it'd be so easy to fall so hard for you."
His head rubbed against her, dropping to her shoulder and pushing her backward.
If she didn't know better, she'd think he might be trying to stop her, but that couldn't be. He had to be free of his curse. He deserved to be.
"My dear, are you ready?" his mother asked, her eyes brightening with a power that shouldn't be possible within another human. "Do you know what you'll be sacrificing for your soulmate?"
She nodded and pushed herself to her feet despite Adrien's efforts to keep her at his level.
A presence behind her alerted her to the fact Nino had stepped forward, ready to follow her lead as she'd asked him.
A circle of bright green flames surrounded them.
The color brought a bittersweet feeling as it reminded her of Adrien's eyes, eyes she wished desperately for more time to memorize. They matched the same bright color that emitted from his mother as she wove magic around them, completing whatever part of the ritual she needed for them.
"Name your sacrifices, and the curse will be broken."
Taking a deep breath, Marinette spared a final glance in Adrien's direction, catching the wild expression he wore. His desperation could be felt as he sought a way back to her side, the place where he belonged.
Her voice didn't let her down, remaining strong, as she said, "I give up all my memories of our time together. As wonderful as they are, they aren't worth the pain I see Adrien go through each time he shifts. If he needs to forget me to be free, then I'm willing to do that for him."
Nino's voice sounded distant despite their proximity as he repeated her words as strong and sure as she had.
A heavy fog settled over her mind, obliterating her vision. It wiped away everything within her recent memory. From their time in the park's maze to the first sighting of his glowing eyes, Adrien disappeared from her mind. She cried out as the final memory evaporated, her mind unable to conjure it back through sheer force of will.
Her body slunk to the hard tiles beneath her feet, limp like overcooked pasta. Her eyelids slid closed as sleep worked to claim her, sweeping her away to a dream world she hadn't encountered in many years.
When the magic wore off, she woke to find herself nestled in bed within the safety of her travel wagon. The gentle swaying of her wagon told her they'd decided to move toward their next destination and would soon be arriving if she could judge by the window's open view of a sprawling city.
They'd come home, she realized, excitement fluttering within her stomach at the thought of seeing her parents again. It fluttered for another reason, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. The excitement remained as their train pulled to a stop and her wagon was unhitched from the flatcar.
Bridgette bounded through the door as soon as they'd reached the grounds they'd be using for the duration of the circus's stay. Her ready smile never failed to put one on Marinette's face as well.
"Can you believe it? We're home. Oh, it feels so good to be home." Her cousin shimmied in place, her happiness matching Marinette's. "Come on. They have the tent almost raised. I want to get some practice in before tonight's performance."
Marinette shoved aside her blankets but froze upon seeing the pretty pink dress she wore. She felt certain she hadn't seen it before, but it brought vague images to her mind, images that faded as quickly as they came. Something important happened to her in this dress, she could feel deep inside, but she couldn't recall what that important something was.
Not daring to dwell on the weird feeling settling over her, she hurried to change into her practice gear and rushed to meet Bridgette at the main tent.
Inside, the crew had begun setting up the stands for their spectators while other performers moved toward the center ring and their respective stations.
Marinette's gaze traveled over the stands, a feeling of deja vu settling over her.
Someone or something was missing, but she couldn't place what it was.
"Mari, are you okay?" Bridgette asked, her hand resting against Marinette's shoulder. "You looked a bit lost for a moment there."
Shaking herself, she shot her cousin a smile. "I'm fine. Let's start practicing. I want to perfect that new maneuver before our performance tonight. It's sure to be a crowd-pleaser."
Adrien's head ached as he woke in his bed while nausea clenched his stomach. One hand rested against each as he sent hopeful prayers both would ease.
He'd been having such a pleasant dream, too, he thought, his mood souring a bit at the pain he currently experienced. The raven hair and blue eyes of the woman had flitted through his dreams. She'd remained out of reach, too far to learn her name or see more of her clearly. However, he had the distinct impression he knew her or that he should know her.
The feeling kept tugging at him as he pushed aside his covers and moved into his bathroom, readying for the day and all it promised.
As he left his room minutes later, he ran into Felix, who carried one of the giant tomes from their library. He prepared to offer his brother a greeting, but his brother's preoccupation had him second-guessing that decision. Tight lines ringed Felix's mouth and eyes as though he hadn't slept all night.
"You alright? I've never seen you so disheveled."
Felix shook himself. His hand came to smooth the wrinkles on his shirt and down his slacks.
"I seem to have fallen asleep in the library but don't recall how I got there." He paused to gauge Adrien, taking his time before adding, "I had the strangest dream about someone. I couldn't make out who they were, but I knew they were important somehow. It seemed almost imperative I try and find them."
"You, too?" Adrien grabbed Felix's arm to support himself as shock rocked him hard. "Do you think something weird is going on? I had a similar dream, but it doesn't seem possible."
"I don't know, but I have an idea where we might find answers." Felix strode toward the stairs, his steps full of purpose and intent.
Adrien hurried to keep up with his brother, noting the rising tension as it returned to Felix's frame.
"Surely, you don't mean the library?"
Felix didn't look amused, but he answered the question with a calm that belied his agitation. "No, I mean our parents. For some unfathomable reason, I have the distinct impression they know what's going on."
Neither spoke again as they continued through the mansion until locating their parents in the dining hall.
Their mother was the first to spot them, her eyes lighting up and her smile widening. She clapped her hands and motioned them further into the room. Their place settings had been set, and a buffet laid out for their perusal and enjoyment.
"Ah, there are my sweetest boys. Come, come, sit and eat up. We have some big surprises for you two today."
Their father glanced up from his newspaper and nodded at each of them before dropping his gaze back to the printed pages he held.
Adrien caught a glimpse of the front page, noting with some surprise of the city's newest arrival. The circus had made its way back home with its usual pomp and flair, promising some of the best acts Parisians would ever see. The picture featured with the article contained two of its performers, the Lucky Ladybugs.
His heart pounded as one particular Ladybug stood out. Her image teased at his memory, tempting him to recall something he had no reason to remember.
"Oh, dear Adrien, did something catch your eye?" His mother's voice held a note of amusement as he met her gaze over the table's centerpiece. "Would you enjoy seeing the circus close up? I managed to get us two tickets for this evening's performance."
Excitement zipped through his blood, sending his heart into a frenzied state.
He nodded. "That would be wonderful, Mother. Thank you."
She beamed at him, then turned her attention to Felix and his sullen expression. She bit back a fit of laughter.
"Dear Felix, I know how you feel about such frivolous pursuits." Her hand slipped under her plate, producing two tickets a moment later. "So, I found something I knew you and your father would rather attend than the circus. It's a concert by a new musician. He's been the talk of the town the past few months, and I figured you might enjoy seeing him perform."
"Thank you, Mother," Felix murmured, his gaze focusing on the book he'd opened.
Their breakfast time passed with relative ease, each enjoying the prepared food and the company despite the lack of conversation. It suited both Adrien and Felix fine as their thoughts continued to revolve around the mysterious persons from their dreams.
When his parents decided to take their leave, Adrien watched them go. As soon as they'd left his sight, he returned his attention to his brother and found Felix watching them as closely as he'd been.
"Something isn't right. Why does everything feel so surreal?"
"I haven't the foggiest idea, but Mother has given us some clues. I think our answers lie within these events she has planned for us tonight. We'll attend and keep our eyes open for anything amiss, then we'll report back to each other after we both return. Maybe then, we'll understand what's going on."
"If you say so," Adrien said under his breath, doubting this plan but failing to come up with something better.
Over the next several hours, he paced through his room and throughout the halls of their large home, taking in pieces that he'd have sworn hadn't been there before. The niggling doubts about their situation had him on edge and almost tardy for his evening at the circus. It'd taken a reminder from his mother to get a move on, rushing into his room to change for the evening ahead with her.
Satisfied with his appearance some minutes later, he descended the stairs and met his mother at the front door, their coach waiting outside for their journey downtown.
"Have fun tonight, Felix. Be sure you take the opportunity after the concert to speak with the musician. I've heard he's quite charming and a delight to converse with," she called out as they stepped outside. "Gabriel, dear, I expect you to ensure he does exactly that. I'm counting on you to look out for our son this evening."
"Mother, we are grown men," Adrien gently reminded her, taking her hand and tucking it around his arm. "I'm sure Felix can handle himself as he often does in social situations."
"You're right, my dear." She gasped after glancing down at her small watch. "Oh, we must hurry or we'll miss the best performance of the evening. I've been dying to see the famous Lucky Ladybugs. Their reputation as the best acrobats has been considered legendary among our friends."
He doubted the validity of her words, having heard nothing of the sort from his group of friends.
However, his doubts soon vanished as they entered the main tent a half-hour later, his gaze traveling upward to spot the two Lucky Ladybugs. They'd begun their ascent toward the tent's massive top, taking hold of their swing bars. Within moments, they launched across the wide expanse of the circus's center ring. They swung and launched themselves across that expanse as though they had actual wings to carry them the gaping distances.
One Ladybug caught his eye. The same one from the newspaper, he realized, sinking into the space beside his mother.
"She's something, isn't she?" his mother asked in a low tone.
He nodded. "Yeah, she is."
"I'm glad you think so," she leaned closer so others wouldn't overhear, "because I decided you would be a wonderful new donor for the circus. I also had the liberty to ask Mme Bustier herself if she might grant you an audience with that Ladybug."
Protests clogged his throat at his mother's audacity. He couldn't recall a time when she'd played such a matchmaker. In fact, most of his memories seemed to revolve around his father fulfilling that role far more often than his mother. Most of his memories surrounding his mother remained quite hazy if he was being truthful.
Rather than dwell on the headache-inducing thoughts, he returned his focus on the Lucky Ladybugs and their routine.
His heart nearly stopped when he saw the latest stunt they performed and the near-miss of one Ladybug, her fingers glancing against her partners before her wild descent toward the floor.
Memories of another similar incident pushed toward restoration, sending shocking pains through his skull.
"No," he cried out, watching helplessly.
Her descent continued unchecked before a ring sailed through the tent's center. Her hand gripped it as she swung herself upward until she sat primly in the middle of it, her smile wide and proud at the completion of the maneuver. The ring lowered toward the ring below, her feet touching solid ground moments later.
"Look at that. She's amazing, isn't she?"
He smiled. "Yeah, she is."
As the first performance came to an end, his mother motioned toward the open flaps.
Together, they made their way to the personal wagons spread out behind the tent, seeking the one his mother had mentioned would be his Ladybug's.
He located it in the dim lighting and walked closer, finding said Ladybug sitting on the steps in a pretty pink dress.
As he drew closer, she happened to look up and locked her gaze with his. She pushed herself up and walked toward him, her hands fidgeting at her sides. She looked so familiar that his heart ached at the close proximity they shared.
"Hi, I'm Marinette. You must be our new donor. Mme Bustier said you couldn't wait to meet me." Her smile grew a bit wider as she continued, "Something about having a crush on me or something to that effect."
The words washed over him, sending his heart racing at their familiarity. His mind throbbed as images broke loose of a time he couldn't remember yet recalled with startling clarity. All of them revolved around the woman in front of him. The memories hit him like a full sack of gold bricks.
She was his soulmate, his heart whispered, and he couldn't let her go when he'd been given this second chance.
He smiled. "Yeah, something like that. Um, would you be offended if I asked you to dinner? I'd really like the opportunity to get to know you. This'll sound cliche, but I feel like I was meant to know you, like I've always known you."
Her eyes widened, but she returned his smile, stepping the tiniest bit closer.
"You know, I could say the same about you. I would love to have dinner with you. In fact, I know the perfect place if you don't mind a little adventure."
"I'm always up for an adventure," he said, holding out his hand to her.
He smiled when she took it without hesitation, leading the way.
Thank you all for sticking with me through this crazy tale of mine. It's probably one of the furthest out there I've ever written.
Special note from earlier chapter:
Gabriel mentions a window, which is the time he has left before the soulmates discover how to break Adrien's and Felix's curse. Once it's closed, he can't change the magic again to the way he'd wanted it before.
Memories and their retainment:
Emilie - used magic but didn't abuse it, allowing her to keep all her memories and play matchmaker for her sons
Gabriel - completely abused the magic he and Emilie discovered, thereby getting full reset to his memories
Adrien & Felix - as those cursed, memories are reset but left with breadcrumbs which means they'll regain them upon meeting soulmates again
Marinette & Nino - similar to Adrien and Felix in that there's a haziness and a feeling of not being quite right, but upon meeting their soulmates, that feeling fades and a sense of rightness sweeps over them
I hope you enjoyed the story. See you again soon with another older WIP, Double Dog Dare, which will gain new chapters starting Dec. 19, 2019.