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Master Fu smiled at the sight of him. He continued to smile until Adrien set the ring on the table and pushed it in his direction.

“I can’t keep it anymore,” Adrien said. The speech he had rehearsed on the way here died somewhere on his tongue, so he took a deep breath and managed only: “Thank you for trusting me with it.”

The old man regarded him carefully, making no move to reach for the discarded Miraculous.

“Has something happened?”

“You could say that,” Adrien said. “But I can’t tell you the details. It’s just—I’m not the right person for the job. I never have been.”

Despite his best efforts, his vision blurred and his eyes prickled with tears. He wiped them with the back of his hand but it was only making it worse.

“Tell Ladybug—” he hesitated. But, no, he didn’t know how to finish this sentence. Saying goodbye to Plagg had been hard enough.

He stood up. The ring was right there on the table, and the past months of his life with it. Ladybug would find someone worthy to succeed him, he was sure of it.

***

“You okay, man?” Nino asked.

“Hmm?”

Adrien had been twirling a pen between his fingers absent-mindedly. The general commotion told him that the class was most likely over; on the desk before him lay the completely blank notebook. He should have been taking notes—and there was homework, and—

“Hey,” Nino smiled. “That’s cool, I can send you my notes later. Lunch?”

“Lunch,” Adrien repeated, the word barely registering in his addled mind. “Yes. Lunch. We should go—”

Wailing of police sirens cut him off. His head shot up, towards the windows, trying to discern the source of the noise. But it was no use, everyone else was crowding in front of him, partway between scared and excited.

“Another akuma?”

“Yeah, look—it’s on Twitter—”

Damn, that’s ugly—”

He didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to hear, either. Luckily, he had had some practice in sneaking out of the room unnoticed during an attack. But where should he go? What if Ladybug needed him? She was out there, all alone – he realized that when he heard distant cheers. Master Fu must have warned her that Chat Noir wasn’t coming. Besides, three days had passed since then, they probably already found a replacement.

He paused, looked down, and realized where he was going.

The roof. No. He didn’t want to watch; but he needed to. It pulled at him, dragged him up the rickety stairs and through the trap door that really, honestly should have been fixed by now. What if she was having trouble? And what if she wasn’t? How would she work alongside her new partner? A jealous part of him didn’t want to be so easily replaced, but he had quit. He had no right to be angry.

Wherever the battle was, it couldn’t have been far. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he could see the tiny red figure leaping into the air, deflecting the villain’s attack with a few sure, practiced movements. She was a joy to watch; confident, courageous, caring.

They moved closer. It wasn’t just the akuma – a sentimonster came to its aid, a creature made of trees and plants that tore through the pavement with its fast-growing roots… Ladybug vanished between the buildings, the new Chat Noir nowhere in sight. Maybe she hadn’t found anyone yet?

He heard a loud crash from the building nearby. There, right there was Marinette’s parents’ bakery, and there was the akuma, on the opposite side of the street, climbing the balconies. Plants grew were it walked, trees shooting up from between the cobblestones, thick vines crushing cars and keeping the police from aiding Ladybug.

It really looked different, observed from outside.

And then, there she was – Ladybug, his Ladybug, whom he had abandoned; she wrestled with a vine but was too smart to get caught that easily. Her red costume stood out amidst the greenery that was drowning Paris. He could see her clearly, could almost imagine what it would be like to stand beside her once again.

A shadow unpeeled itself from a wall behind her. Adrien cried out a warning, but before she could react, Mayura was there, and she had taken hold of her.

Adrien had been completely numb these past few days. Now, however, he felt as if a veil had been lifted; at once he knew perfectly well that it was rage, terrible rage that left him shaking, unable to form words.

The edge of the roof was right there. There wasn’t much else he could do to help Ladybug, but he could do this, right?

“Hey!” he yelled. Then again, louder, until the hero and the villain took notice. “Finally.”

He jumped.

His mind was perfectly clear – anger did that – and for a moment it was as if he was flying, nothing but the rush of wind in his ears.

It didn’t last, of course. Gravity took hold and the ground rushed towards him. Funny how—

The sudden stop pushed all air out of his lungs. For a moment Adrien struggled to breathe. He was standing on solid, blissfully solid ground, not squashed into a pancake but all nice and whole, still in shock after what had just happened.

Someone was holding him. Her hands were on his shoulders, and she was saying something, voice pitched high in panic.

“Adrien, why have you—what—” She pulled him into a tight embrace. “Don’t ever do that again!”

Regardless of circumstances, the hug felt—nice. Safe. The last time he had felt like this was when his father had, inexplicably, decided to come to the fashion show.

“Get away from him!” Ladybug said.

Mayura pulled back. Her pink eyes were wide, and he thought she might have gone a shade paler, but it was impossible to say with the weird hue of her skin.

“It’s okay,” Adrien said dejectedly. “She won’t hurt me.”

Except she had, and she would, and he hated her, hated them both, her and his father, for everything they did to Paris, to Ladybug, to Adrien himself.

Oh, but he enjoyed the look on her face once she realized he knew who she was. He would remember that look no matter how all of this ended. Let her suffer too, she deserved it—and now she was compromised, now Ladybug had the upper hand, and she would win, like she always won.

Mayura stepped away from him. Then she turned and run, the sentimonster covering her escape.

***

Ladybug defeated another akuma. Chat Noir’s absence had been commented upon, but he had been absent before. The remaining classes of the day were uneventful, although Adrien hadn’t managed to take even a single coherent note. This might hurt his class performance, if anyone was left to care about this sort of thing.

But then classes were over. It was time to go home.

He had been wondering—but no, his bodyguard showed up alone to collect him. Maybe he was in on the whole thing, but Adrien doubted it. Still, he was reluctant to climb into his seat. It was just that he didn’t have anywhere else to go to. And a part of him was curious as to what they had to say.

Father was waiting in the foyer, Nathalie right behind him as always. The bodyguard left, confirming Adrien’s suspicions.

“So?” Adrien said into the cold, dead silence of the house. “What happens now?”

Looking at father was a bit like leaping from the edge of that rooftop, Adrien thought humourlessly. At least back then he only had the ground to fear.

“I can explain,” father said quietly.

He was standing straight, hands folded behind his back. The uncertainty was in his expression, in the tone of his voice; in contrast Nathalie was barely keeping herself still, her eyes red-rimmed and glassy.

“I’m not sure I care about your explanations,” Adrien said.

“Adrien—”

“What is it about, father?” he asked. “Money? Power? You cannot possibly want any more than you already have!”

But he knew. He had known all along, because father was standing by that portrait Adrien hated so much, with just him and his father and the grief still fresh on their faces. He knew.

He had done the right thing, giving up his Miraculous. Later, when father took him to see mother sleeping in the glass coffin, Adrien became sure of it. Because, if asked right then and there, he would have given it to him without question.