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Breaking the Bargain

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“Ladybug! Ladybug is here!”

Marinette smiled as the people of the encampment crowded around her, but it felt hollow to her. The city was overrun and there was nothing she could do about it, yet she still brought hope to the survivors who managed to gather in small encampments like this. A hero, still, and a courier, because she would do everything in her power to make up for her inability to rid the city of the threat this time.

She pulled the bag off her shoulders, and began distributing letters to their intended recipients. She watched as worried faces turned to relief and joy at receiving word from the loved ones they’d been separated from. She watched, heartbroken, the grief on others’ faces as she turned up empty-handed. Every day, more and more encampments disappeared. She could help defend them, but only if she was there, and she could not be everywhere all the time.

This was the encampment she most feared to lose, however, and it brought her immeasurable relief every time she was able to look into her parents’ eyes and know that they were safe.

She wished she could give them the same and allow them to look into their daughter’s eyes instead of a hero’s. It wasn’t like her secret identity mattered any more – but she knew that they would want her to stay with them, and she couldn’t. Not as long as the continued safety of her friends hung over her head. So, she had to settle for exchanging letters.

She smiled, and waved goodbye as she left them all with their letters, and a few supplies. Most of the supplies she had to keep for her own “encampment”, if she could even call it that. There weren’t many people holed up in that damned house, despite all her efforts.

Her yo-yo buzzed, and she nearly tumbled. Steadying herself in a secure position on the rooftops, she brought it close with shaking hands as her heart and breath quickened.

She had not heard from Chat Noir once since the zombie epidemic began. After a few weeks, she had assumed the worst. Did she dare to hope…?

It was not Chat Noir. Of course it wasn’t. But the voice she heard on the other end was a welcome one all the same.

“I’ll be right there, Master,” she said, and zipped off towards the place Fu had just directed her towards.

“It’s good to see you, Marinette,” he said as she arrived. He was alone, except for Wayzz, but he had picked a good location – it was doubtful that anyone could reach it without superpowers, let alone zombies.

“It’s good to see you too,” she said. “I was worried. If you could call, why didn’t you do so before?”

“Transforming is not as easy on me as it once was,” Fu said. “But I apologize. I should have tried to contact you sooner, I know. I have been studying the text, looking for answers to properly deal with this threat.”

“And?” Marinette asked eagerly, hope sparking in her chest. She hated feeling helpless against this threat, if she could save the city again… “Have you found anything?”

Fu nodded, but sighed.

“I have…but I’m afraid that it may not be of much use to us. You see, Marinette, each Miraculous has its’ strengths. Threats it is particularly suited to containing and eliminating. And for these zombies…it is the Butterfly that we need. You see the problem, I’m sure.”

The situation was almost laughable. Of course it would be one of the Miraculouses that was in the hands of the enemy, who would certainly not be inclined to help out. But at least there was a way, and that was enough to give Marinette hope.

“Well, Master,” she said, curling her lips into a small, humorless smile, “I have good news and bad news on that front. I know who Papillon is. In fact, I’ve been staying in his house.”

.

.

.

When the trouble began, Marinette had been with her friends. A double date, Alya had called it, except that Marinette and Adrien weren’t dating yet. Adrien’s bodyguard was driving all of them around, which turned out to be fortunate, in the end. If they hadn’t been in the car at the time, Alya likely would’ve gone out filming, thinking that it was only another Akuma attack. And Marinette shuddered to think what could’ve become of her best friend had that happened.

Instead, the bodyguard had quickly brought them to Adrien’s house, sacrificing himself to let Adrien and his friends get inside safely. They had all protested as the security system activated. Marinette believed it to be an Akuma attack, and needed to get away to perform her duties. Alya wanted to get back out there and stream the events. Adrien wanted to see if there were others who needed help. Nino protested the least, but even he voiced some objection to being trapped in the Agreste mansion.

But Nathalie had shut them all down.

“That’s not an Akuma,” she had said tensely. At the time, Marinette had wondered how Nathalie had been so certain. Of course, she later came to find out that Nathalie knew because she was working for Papillon, but at the time, all Marinette knew was the chilling certainty in the woman’s tone that gave them all pause.

So, Alya, Nino, Marinette, and Adrien were stuck waiting out the zombie apocalypse, sealed up in the Agreste mansion with only Adrien’s father and his personal assistant for company, the rest of the staff having fled to reach their own families.

It wasn’t too bad, at first. The mansion was probably one of the most secure places in the entire city, and there was a significant amount of food stored up. Being separated from her family was hard, and it was probably hard for Alya and Nino as well, and she was worried about how the city would fare without Ladybug, but things could’ve been so much worse.

Then, Marinette accidentally saw M. Agreste handing over the Peacock Miraculous to Nathalie, and all hell broke loose as Marinette put two and two together. Somewhere in the shouting match that ensued (which had luckily gone unheard by Marinette’s friends), her own secret came out, and eventually, a reluctant bargain was reached between them.

Well, she used the term loosely. It was closer to blackmail – he had threatened to kick Alya and Nino out if she didn’t agree to his terms. But even so, they’d reached an agreement – neither would try to take each others’ Miraculous, he wouldn’t akumatize anyone, and she would gather food and supplies for the household along with Nathalie.

Despite the agreement, the situation only deteriorated. Things grew increasingly tense among the small group. Marinette could barely remain civil towards M. Agreste, and he likewise towards her. What little restraint they showed was pretty much only because neither was keen on explaining to the others why they had, essentially overnight, suddenly started despising one another. Marinette didn’t get along much better with Nathalie, either. As far as Marinette was concerned, Nathalie was complicit in Papillon’s terrorism.

But it wasn’t just their secret identities that were causing things to break down. No, there was friction between Marinette and her friends, as well. The other three did not like being cooped up in the mansion, and the fact that Marinette was allowed – again, she used the term loosely – out became a growing problem between them. Adrien, in particular, was desperate to get out, repeatedly asking for permission to leave. His father constantly refused, much to Adrien’s frustration, and Marinette feared that Adrien was growing resentful of her.

Still, she was determined to be a steadfast friend to him all the same, being especially gentle and kind towards him. And when he decided he wanted to construct a shortwave radio to try to communicate with the outside world, she had gladly agreed to bring him the materials he needed. His smile was not as warm as it used to be, but he seemed grateful all the same, and Marinette was glad that despite everything, he was trying his best not to let the situation effect their friendship, either.

Alya and Nino, on the other hand, were not resentful, but wary. Nino, from what Marinette gathered, already disliked M. Agreste from a prior encounter. And Alya, as observant as she was, could tell that something weird was going on, and was frustrated that Marinette wouldn’t tell her what.

I don’t like it,” she had said. “Why is M. Agreste letting you go out? Nathalie, sure, she’s an adult. But you’re just as much of a child as the rest of us, so why is it okay for you to go out into danger while we can’t? I don’t like it, Marinette. I especially don’t like it because I can tell M. Agreste doesn’t like you very much…it’s almost like…” she had lowered her voice to barely more than a whisper, “…like he wants you to get hurt.”

She probably wasn’t wrong about that. But Marinette could hardly explain the situation to Alya. Not without her friend immediately wanting to charge in to fight M. Agreste herself. And that was not a situation Marinette wanted to find herself in, trying to fight a one-on-two battle (possibly one-on-three if he akumatized someone) on Papillon’s home turf, while trying to protect her friends at the same time.

Marinette’s continued refusal to explain anything was only making the tension worse. Alya was getting increasingly suspicious of the secret meetings Marinette had with M. Agreste, and Marinette worried that even Nathalie standing guard wasn’t going to be enough to stop her for much longer. Alya did not like it when people kept secrets from her, especially not when it was her best friend. Especially not when it was potentially putting her best friend in danger.

Marinette wished she could tell her everything. A pang of guilt struck her every time she was reminded of all the secrets that she kept, secrets which were meaningless now that Papillon himself knew who she was.

But right now, that didn’t matter. What mattered now was convincing him to use his powers for good, to create a champion that could cure the zombies, and allow her to cleanup and restore everything.

“Do you think he’ll listen?” Tikki asked.

“Probably not,” Marinette admitted. “But I have to try.”

She’d tried, before, to convince M. Agreste to take in more people to shelter in his large home, to little avail. Because apparently, “not trying to take her Miraculous” didn’t prevent him from trying to convince her to hand it over. First, he’d tried to persuade her by explaining his motivations, saying that he’d only wished to bring back his wife, even bringing up how much better it would be for Adrien.

Marinette had shut that down when she’d pointedly asked that if it was better for Adrien, why was he keeping it a secret from him? She’d also challenged why he hadn’t explained this in the first place, instead of relentlessly terrorizing the city on a daily basis. And she’d gotten him to fully give up on simple persuasion when she had point-blank informed him that she was well aware of the cost of using the combined power of the Miraculouses, and had no intention of allowing him to use it.

He’d gotten quite sour at that.

So, instead, he’d turned to withholding service, only willing to offer his help in exchange for her Miraculous. And, as she expected, that was exactly how he reacted to this new information. And even though she had expected it, Marinette was not pleased.

“You’re so selfish! Can’t you think of other people for once in your life?”

“I am perfectly willing to help, Miss Dupain-Cheng. But you know what my price is,” he said coldly.

“And I’ve already told you: Under. No. Circumstances.”

A pity, then. The Guardian will have to come up with some other solution.”

Pity? You don’t know the meaning of the word,” Tikki interjected, uncharacteristically harsh. But then again, she had good reason to dislike M. Agreste. He, meanwhile, ignored her, focusing only on Marinette, who narrowed her eyes.

How long do you think this can last? There aren’t unlimited supplies. Food spoils, and nothing is being brought into the city. We can’t survive for much longer. You can’t survive. But you could end this, easily. And then we can deal with the original issue.”

“It is your own stubbornness that is preventing things from being resolved,” he said. “I am being generous, only asking for one of the two Miraculouses I need. If you are so reluctant to part with yours, your partner’s is also acceptable.”

My stubbornness?” Marinette said, indignantly. “Because I refuse to hand over power to someone who can’t be trusted with it, who has already indicated that he doesn’t care about the costs? Because I refuse to surrender the only thing that defends the city against your whims? Don’t even try turning the blame around, that trick won’t work on me. And I’ve already told you, I don’t know who or where Chat Noir is or if he’s even alive, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you. Mine, his – both are completely out of the question.”

Then this conversation is over. You have nothing to negotiate with.”

I can’t believe you!” Marinette growled. “That I should have to negotiate to get someone with the ability to stop the zombie epidemic to do so. There isn’t even any risk for you! You don’t even have to go outside, you don’t lose anything by helping, and you would even benefit from it!”

“This conversation is over, Miss Dupain-Cheng,” M. Agreste said again.

Master, please, the girl has a point…” Nooroo cut in timidly.

Be quiet, Nooroo! You answer to me, and I don’t want to hear any sympathy for her. As long as she stands against me, I will not help her,” M. Agreste, anger clear in his voice. Marinette felt awful for the poor kwami, who shrank away from him, and she hated even more that she couldn’t do anything to help. Next to her, Tikki shook, furious at how Nooroo was treated.

You should just be grateful that I have the decency to not threaten to tell Adrien about your little ‘hobby’, Papillon,Marinette growled, and stomped away. It would’ve been an empty threat, anyway. Marinette knew that Adrien was too kind to be anything other than horrified by his father’s actions. Perhaps it was wrong, perhaps it was lying in a way, but like when she had said nothing about the scarf, she couldn’t bear to ruin what little happiness Adrien found in his only remaining family.

Tikki dove back into Marinette’s bag as Marinette storm ed out the atelier doors, past the impassive as ever Nathalie who had been standing guard, and back towards Adrien’s room, where she and her friends stayed most of the time.

Alya and Nino jumped as Marinette threw open the door to Adrien’s room and slammed it shut behind her. Adrien, too, looked up, startled.

“Arrrgghhh!” Marinette said, letting out her frustration. Alya immediately jumped up.

“What is it? What did he do?” she demanded, voice laced with suspicion and distrust for M. Agreste.

“Nothing,” Marinette said, and let out another wordless noise of frustration. “And that’s exactly the problem!”

“Marinette, please,” Alya said. “Tell us what’s going on. If he’s done anything to you…”

She didn’t answer, but quickly made up her resolve, and crossed the room purposefully and began throwing things into a bag.

“What are you doing?” the others asked in unison.

“Something I should’ve done from the start,” Marinette said grimly. She stood up straight, and turned to face them. “We’re leaving. Tonight. Pack your things.”

Her friends made various noises of astonishment, but Marinette had made up her mind. As long as her friends were in M. Agreste’s home, she was at a disadvantage. She needed to remove that disadvantage. Her friends might be less safe on the outside, but on the other hand, now that she knew where Master Fu was, it would be a simple matter to distribute a few Miraculouses. Alya and Nino already had experience, after all.

And maybe Adrien being out in the zombie-infested environment would be the one thing that would be enough to convince M. Agreste to address the epidemic. If there was anything that Marinette could do to sway him, it was taking Adrien out into “danger” (not that she’d ever let him get hurt). Or rather, if she was being cynical, taking Adrien out of his control.

And if even that was not enough, at least then Marinette would finally be in the position to go on the offensive and relieve him of the Butterfly Miraculous, and then she and Master Fu could use it themselves to take care of the problem.

“But, the security system…we can’t get out without Father allowing it…”

“Don’t worry,” Marinette said. “I can get us out. But we need to leave.”

She knew none of them would argue with that, as desperate as they were to get out. And she was right, as they just looked at each other, shrugged, and did as she said.

She waited, of course, until she was sure that Nathalie and M. Agreste would be asleep. She could tell that her friends were burning with curiosity, but she wasn’t ready to answer their questions. Not yet. And she didn’t exactly want to explain to Adrien that his father was actually a supervillain.

The four of them crept silently towards the entrance of the house. It was locked down, of course, but fortunately, Marinette knew a way to get around the security system.

“Okay, Tikki,” she said softly. “Get us out of here.”

Tikki flew out of the bag, swiftly phasing into the control system to temporarily disable it.

Marinette’s friends gasped.

“But that’s…”

“Why do you have…”

“A kwami?!?”

“Not now!” Marinette hissed. “We’ve only got a minute before the system locks down again.” With that, she darted out into the night, careful to check for zombies. Fortunately, it seemed that none of them had gotten past the gates. Occasionally one or two did, but she and Nathalie dispatched them easily.

Her friends followed behind her, just in time for the house to be sealed up again. With luck, their departure wouldn’t be noticed until morning. She almost regretted that she wouldn’t be able to see the look on M. Agreste’s face when he realized she’d left and taken Adrien with her, and that it was too late to stop her. Ah well. She’d have to content herself with imagining it.

“Marinette, but, you…”

“This whole time…”

“You’re Ladybug?!?”

“Yes,” Marinette said, because there was no reason to keep that hidden any longer. “See? Tikki, transform me!”

Alya squealed, Adrien stared, and Nino whistled as her transformation took hold.

“Now, let’s get out of here,” Marinette said, launching her yo-yo to the nearest building aside from the mansion. “Grab onto me,” she directed her friends.

What followed was perhaps the most awkward group hug Marinette had ever experienced, but, once satisfied they all had a good hold on her, she carried them all up into the sky, swinging them far away, until they were overlooking the encampment where her parents were staying. Nora was there, too, which would be a comfort to Alya, she was sure. Unfortunately, she hadn’t managed to find any of Nino’s family, or the rest of Alya’s.

“Okay, so, I have a lot of questions,” Alya said, as they all detached themselves from Marinette. She smiled slightly, expecting as much. “So, you’re Ladybug.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been Ladybug this whole time.”

“Yes.”

“And somehow managed to keep this from me.”

“Yes.”

Alya paused, considering.

“M. Agreste knew, didn’t he? That’s why you were allowed out and we weren’t, wasn’t it?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Marinette admitted. “But it wasn’t so much ‘allowed’, as it was ‘had to’. He…said he’d make you, me, and Nino leave if I refused.”

Nino made a noise of indignation at that, but Adrien just sighed.

“I’m sorry about Father,” he said. “He can be…demanding.”

“It’s not your fault,” Marinette was quick to reassure him. “But, I decided enough was enough. He can’t kick us out if we’re not there.”

It wasn’t the full story, but it didn’t need to be.

“That’s it?” Alya asked. “Why now?”

“Well…” Marinette said hesitantly, then decided that a little bit of the truth wouldn’t hurt. “Today, I met up with, well, I guess you could call him my mentor.”

“Oooh, is he where you got the Miraculouses from?” Alya asked.

“Yeah.”

“Am I gonna get to be Rena Rouge again?!”

“Maybe,” Marinette said, holding her hands up in a placating gesture. “I’ll have to ask him if it’s okay, but I think it’s a good idea.”

“Wait,” Nino interrupted. “You’re Rena Rouge?”

“That makes a lot of sense, actually,” Adrien said, contemplatively.

“Yes, and I know full well that you were Carapace,” Alya said. “Oh, this is gonna be so cool!”

“…that also makes a lot of sense.”

“Though, hang on…” Alya said, turning to frown at Adrien. “I know how I knew, and I know how Nino knew, but how did you recognize Marinette’s kwami?”

Adrien was visibly taken aback for a moment, as though he hadn’t anticipated that anyone would’ve noticed that. He frowned, but seem to come to a decision quickly, his face settling into resignation as he lifted the corner of his jacket, revealing what was unmistakably a kwami of his own. Said kwami opened one eye blearily, examined the group, and promptly went back to sleep. Or appeared to, at least.

“How?” Nino demanded, while Alya squealed and bounced with delight.

And Marinette, poor Marinette…she felt everything crash down on her at once. The long days, the long months of everything that happened, all the frustration, all the grief, that had built up within her suddenly exploded as she realized that her missing partner was standing right in front of her, and had been there the entire time.

“I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD,” she all but shouted.

“I tried to get out, you know I asked and asked…”

“You could have called. You could’ve gone and slipped off somewhere in the house, the bathroom or something, and transformed in order to just call me, even once. You could’ve responded to just one of the dozens of messages I left. You could’ve given me just something so that I wouldn’t have thought that you’d died and that I was all on my own!”

Nino and Alya took several steps back. Adrien, to his credit, didn’t. Instead, he hung his head.

“I…didn’t think about that. I should’ve. I’m sorry.”

“You should be!” she said, before pulling him into a firm hug. His kwami – which had definitely been pretending to be asleep, grumbled and zipped out of the way. “You should be,” she repeated, more softly.

“Aww,” Alya cooed at them. Marinette couldn’t even bring herself to be annoyed.

“So, what, we get to be a team with you guys now?” Nino asked. “Fighting zombies and Papillon and the like?”

Marinette went rigid, as Nino’s simple statement reminded her of why they’d had to leave in the first place…and the full implications of Adrien being her partner hit her in full force.

Oh, God. How did she tell him?

She had to. He was her partner, this was his duty as much as hers. She had to tell him, he had to know, they had to take on Papillon together…

…but she’d never wanted Adrien to have to know that his father was Papillon. And him being Chat Noir only made that whole situation so much more painful…

“What’s wrong?” Adrien asked, pulling away from the hug that she’d frozen in and gazing at her with concern. She snapped back to reality, and forced a smile.

“Nothing! It’s just late. We can talk more about this tomorrow, right now, let’s get some sleep!”

How in the actual hell could she possibly tell him?

“Are you…sure?” he asked.

“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Alya asked, seeing through her tight smile as much as Adrien did.

“It’s…we’ll talk about it in the morning, okay?” Marinette said, dropping the smile. “There’s stuff, but…I’m not prepared to deal with it tonight.”

“Okay,” Alya said reluctantly.

Adrien and Nino gave their assent as well.

“Okay, good,” Marinette said, relieved to put off the inevitable for a little while. “Oh! One more thing…just a warning, if you see a Peacock Miraculous wielder, she’s not a friend.”

“Peacock?” the three of them asked, and Alya’s eyes glinted with the desire to ask more questions, but Marinette shut that down before it could start.

“In the morning,” she said, wearily. She directed them to find spaces in the encampment – they’d probably have to answer questions in the morning, but for now, sleep was needed – and went off to find herself a spot, alone. She detransformed and sank down to the floor, filled with exhaustion and anxiety.

“Oh, Tikki,” she said, cupping the kwami in her hands. “How am I going to tell him?”

For once, Tikki had nothing to say, and only looked at Marinette with sad eyes, pressing against her for what little comfort that could provide. Marinette closed her eyes, leaning against the wall.

She still had a long fight ahead of her. But hopefully, the worst had already passed, and with her cherished friends at her side, things could only get better.

She just wished she didn’t have to hurt her dear partner to accomplish that.