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If We Ever Meet Again

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“So, Ladybug, it’s great to have you here. Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview.”

    “Of course, Nadja. I understand the people of Paris have… a lot of questions.”

    “Right, absolutely-- and the thing I think that’s the biggest on everyone’s mind is: Where is Chat Noir?”

    Silence on the set. The cameraman clears his throat.

    “Ladybug, is there any truth to… the rumors? People are saying he disappeared with Hawk Moth. There was some showdown nobody saw. Is that true?”

    “What? Of course not-- ah, n-no. Chat’s fine. He’s just… uhm… well-- the important thing is that he’ll be back. Everyone has things they need to take care of. Chat Noir’s just taking a little break now that things aren’t so intense. He’ll be back soon.”

    “But you’re not denying that you fought Hawk Moth? Has he been defeated?”

    “No.” Silence, static in the background. “I don’t know what happened to Hawk Moth. I don’t know why the akuma attacks have stopped.”

    “You-- you don’t know? So you think he could just be biding his time? Planning something bigger?”

    “No! I don’t think that’s it at all. Actually… well, I’d like to think he’s given up. Maybe he’s finally realized how pointless and awful this has all been for everyone. Maybe he’s seen the error of his ways.”

    “Don’t you think that’s a bit overly optimistic, Ladybug?”

    “No, I don’t. I think everyone deserves a second chance.”

    “So, you’re not looking for Hawk Moth?”

    “No. I’m not.”

    “Is that where Chat Noir’s gone? Did you two have a fight? Can you tell us--”

    “Mrs. Chamack. My partner and I are not fighting--not that it’s anyone’s business--and we are in agreement about this situation. Like I said, Chat will-- Chat will be back soon. As for everything else, I think we should just be glad that Hawk Moth has stopped akumatizing people. Paris is safe again. I don’t think anything else really matters, do you?”

    “Well, that’s a nice way of looking at it, Ladybug, but what if--”

    “Thank you for inviting me tonight, Mrs. Chamack, but I have to go. Excuse me.”

    “Ah-- wait, Ladybug--!”

    Static.

Chapter Text

    There’s something about airplanes Adrien Agreste has never quite liked. Maybe it’s the stillness, the silence -- maybe it’s the way too many people packed into too little space produces a mess of scents and sounds that assault his senses.

    The services are nice, of course. The flight attendants, the air conditioning, the cozy blankets and sweeping cloud vistas. The drinks, too. But it lacks… a feeling.

    There should be a feeling to flying. A rush. Blood racing, heart pounding, stomach flipping as wind rips past his face -- that’s flying. Trusting Plagg to make sure he always lands on his feet, staff always extending just where he needs it to go, the next rooftop a target he knows by heart.

    Flying should feel like freedom. This just feels like… waiting around for hours in a fancy hotel. A small, sardine-tin fancy hotel. First class status notwithstanding.

    And it really just reminds him of something he used to have and doesn’t anymore.

    Adrien sighs and dumps his chin into one hand, peering out the window at the view below. There’s the other thing about airplanes -- it’s either not much of a view or too much of one.

    This one… the Eiffel Tower sparkles under the midday sun, a triumphant symbol forever marking the city spread out far below. Most people’s eyes wouldn’t see much more than a dark blurr from this height, maybe the occasional color shift, but Adrien’s eyesight is… enhanced. Even now.

    He almost wishes it wasn’t as he finds himself scanning the distant city, searching the skyview for familiar places.

    He wonders if they’d still be familiar, actually….

    “What are you thinking, Adrien?”

    The cool, calm voice from across the aisle doesn’t cause him to turn his head. He just shifts a bit in his seat to get a better view of Paris.

    “It’s been ten years since we were this close.”

    Nathalie makes a thoughtful sound and he hears the ice cubes in her glass clink together as she lifts it to drink. Then she says, “You were thinking about her?”

    He almost laughs. “A little. Mostly I was thinking…” About things he shouldn’t think about. He switches subjects, subtly, with the skill of long practice. “Why’s it been so long since we’ve been home, Nathalie?”

    He looks across at her, seated in a cushy chair with her designer-clad legs crossed neatly at the knee, glass of sherry in one hand. She arches a dark brow at him.

    “You could’ve gone back anytime, Adrien.”

    This, he knows, is true. He just waves her off with a wry grin, not sure himself why he’s so melancholy all of a sudden. It’s been an age since he’s thought of Paris or the things he left behind there.

    Oh, at first it was hard… so many things were hard. But when Gabriel Agreste finally pulled the stick out of his arse and decided to accept the inevitable--when they, as a family, finally embraced and moved past Mother’s death--they didn’t do it halfway.

    From New York and LA to Milan and Abidjan, Adrien has studied in every major fashion capital of the world. He tutored under a business professor from Harvard, has biked across half of Asia, spent a summer working with famous dyers in Argentina… it’s been amazing. He doesn’t regret any of it.

    But he does, sometimes, when he’s working past midnight and stops to rub his wrists, stare at the empty space on his right hand and regret what he left behind.

    That this is the closest to home he’s been in ten years says a lot about how busy he’s been, making a name for himself in his father’s company and building a reputation of his own. It says a lot about how Father felt about Paris, though, too -- how they both felt, for awhile.

    After spending so long cooped up in that mansion, keeping secrets and unable to let the past go… and especially after what it turned him into, Father had no desire to set foot in Paris ever again, and Adrien didn’t blame him.

    But Adrien is off to this show on his own. Maybe he’ll schedule a layover in Paris on the flight back. Just to visit old haunts, see old friends… Nino would have a field day if Adrien showed up out of the blue, and that alone would be worth it. He smirks to himself, imagining showing up on Nino’s doorstep unannounced.

    The smirk quickly fades into a wry grimace as his fantasy morphs into the likely reality of Alya answering the door and chewing him out for not calling first. That or, maybe worse, demanding that interview he’s been promising and putting off for the better part of six months.

    Nino’s girlfriend can be… intense. Becoming an ace reporter didn’t check the enthusiasm she carried around in high school. Adrien flashes to a rather disturbing image of Alya tying him to a chair and demanding he answer her questions--mostly harmless questions, sure, but still--and decides to abandon that line of thought.

    He’d definitely call first.

    Adrien finds himself smiling as he peers out the window at the clear blue sky, Paris now hidden again beneath a sea of clouds.

    “We’ll be over London in another hour,” Nathalie says, pulling out her phone as it dings. A faint, small smile--nearly invisible--pulls at her mouth. “Your father says to tell you good luck.”

    Adrien arches a brow at that -- he’s not surprised that Father is texting Nathalie, but he is surprised that either of them are bothering with the old ‘luck’ adage.

“Right,” he says, smirking at her as he leans back in his chair, resting an ankle over one knee. “Don’t need it. But thanks.”

“Arrogance will lead to humiliation if you’re not careful,” Duusu tells him, shimmying out of her usual place burrowed into Nathalie’s hair long enough to flit over to the fruit tray a flight attendant left. She picks over the offerings with practiced care while Adrien pulls out his tablet.

“I’m not arrogant, Duusu,” he tells her, powering the device on, “I’m confident.”

    Mostly. He’s not quite as confident as he’d like to be, really. The little blue kwami munches on a grape and gives him a look that says she doesn’t quite believe him, but she doesn’t argue the point.

Opening the recents tab, Adrien scrolls through his notes on tonight’s fashion gala  -- the names and pictures of designers who will be there, the businesspeople he’ll need to be sure to meet, and a couple of reports on the general state of the industry in London. This gala--with half of its proceeds apparently going to charity--is a big event for him. If he can win some of those wealthy patrons over with some typical Agreste charm, he might just manage to start a charity program of his own.

Getting Father’s blessing was difficult, but it was nothing compared to convincing the company’s board, and their agreement will hinge on what comes of tonight.

    It’s been awhile since Adrien was… nervous about this sort of thing. But after so long focusing on his civilian life, aspects of his former alter ego have started to bleed in. He’s tired of making money just to put into making more money -- he wants to do something useful with his life. Wants to make a difference.

    After three years of planning and a year of fighting for the results of those plans, he might finally be able to do more than put a little money into other people’s charities here and there.

    Honestly, he’s… excited. And in the wake of that feeling, his melancholy drifts away, left behind somewhere in the clouds beyond the English Channel. He has more important things to do than think about the past.

Chapter Text

    It’s not the thrill of taking down bank robbers or the satisfaction of using a Lucky Charm to repair damage dealt to her city, but a fashion show still fills Marinette with a sense of focus and determination usually lacking in her civilian life.

    Something about the rush and chaos backstage, everyone giving their best to make beauty out of madness… the energy of it all is intoxicating. She stands in the center of a whirlwind while people talk at her from various angles, two pins stuck in her mouth and one hand holding together the ripped edge of a gown. The model caught it on her heel and that really should have been accounted for, but there’s nothing to be done about it now except patch it. She slips the pins neatly into place and responds to Giselle’s pattering questions in the same breath, sliding smoothly to her feet. The model--Aileen--breathes out her thanks and rushes off to finish her makeup.

    Giselle frowns at Marinette, bun askew, hands clutching her tablet, dark eyes slightly panicked. “Everything is going wrong tonight, Mari. How are you so calm? I wish I had your poise…”

    Marinette chuckles, pushing away the little voice in the back of her mind that whispers about heroes needing to be calm under pressure. “It’s just practice, Giselle. And pragmatism. If everything has already gone wrong, then that just means it’s time for something to go right. Now, have the models for Aishlynn’s line come through already? Good. Let’s....”

    And so it descends into focus and chaos, a tornado of activity that leaves her exhilarated and breathless both at once while models in perfect clothes sweep past the trellis onto the stage, strutting to the music. Somewhere between the latest Cher line and a beautiful set by a newer designer from Barcelona, Marinette finds herself standing in a moment of quiet, watching the models.

    Giselle, efficient and sweet if a bit green--being one of the newer interns--offers her a cup of coffee. Marinette grins her thanks and takes a deep drink, nearly scalding her tongue in the process.

    “Uhm, are you--” She turns at the voice behind her and smiles at a young woman she’s seen before -- another newer designer, one here to watch rather than show any pieces. “You are!” The woman steps closer with a huge grin. “You’re Mademoiselle Marinette Dupain-Cheng! I didn’t know you were showing at this gala! This is amazing-- I seriously, er, that is… you’re my idol, Mms. Dupain-Cheng.”

    Marinette laughs a little, cursing her smarting tongue and pushing away the awkwardness of being… fawned over. She’ll never be fully comfortable with it, but after all these years of dealing with the public as her alter ego, it’s at least… familiar. She smiles at the designer.

    “Uhm, no, actually, I’m standing in for a friend. The wardrobe coordinator couldn’t make it and asked me to take over tonight. Kind of last minute.” She waves off her own words and the girl’s wide-eyed expression with another smile. “You’re Rene Girard, right? You had a great showcase at the Paris Opera House last month.”

    Rene’s eyes widen further at this, but it doesn’t take much to draw the girl into a friendly conversation about those pieces--which were really quite good--and Marinette is glad to have the attention off herself. They part ways with warm smiles when Giselle calls Marinette over to help with another emergency -- this one of a higher caliber than usual.

    “Monsieur Rhode seems to have had an allergic reaction to his dinner,” Giselle hisses, tapping furiously on her tablet as Marinette surveys the beet-red model who really doesn’t look good. “I’m trying to find a stand-in, but it’s tight, and the other male models would have to change at lightning speed or--”

    “Did you tell Corrinne?” Marinette asks, hands on her hips as she mentally races through a list of all the models present. It’s true, the other male models would be tight, since most of them are part of a set going out in sync… and they’ll need to make as few alterations as possible… she quells the rising panic; she just needs a plan.

    She’s good at plans.

    “Yes, she said she had an idea, but that was five minutes ago and we only have ten until--”

    “Ah, Mademoiselle Andre?” Something about that voice--deep and resonant and slightly familiar--catches Marinette’s attention, but she only half notices as she bites her lip, thinking hard. “I understand you need a stand-in model? I might be able to help with that.”

    Marinette turns to survey the owner of that voice, drawn from her thoughts.

    Golden hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck, crisp, perfect designer suit in a handsome charcoal, eyes as green as summer grass--

    As if she wouldn’t know that face anywhere, plastered all over magazines or not. He looks… older in person, though. Taller. Broader. No softness to that jawline or those aquiline bones.

    Just pure, hard beauty.

    Well.

    “Oh-” Giselle stammers, standing quickly. “You’re-- did Corrinne-- that is, of course, Monsieur Agreste. We’d be grateful for that-- right Mari? Marinette?”

    “Er--”

Chapter Text

    Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Adrien didn’t see her name on the guest list, and for a moment--until the dark-haired woman said her name--he didn’t recognize her.

    He’d heard she’d become a famous designer--actually, he’s seen a lot of her work, and it’s fantastic--but in the back of his mind he still remembered her as the shy, sweet-but-awkward girl who didn’t really seem to like him in high school.

    The grown-up woman standing in front of him looks nothing like he remembers. No pigtails, no shyness. Just casual confidence--and a bit of surprise--as she blinks at him for a long, silent moment. Then she snaps her fingers and whirls toward the unfortunate model leaning against the makeup table, barely missing more than a beat.

    “Of course, yes-- just like Corrinne. Adrien, you can stand here, please.” She’s all professionalism as she directs him toward a curtain and starts pulling together the other model’s outfit. “Measurements?” she asks, eying him critically as he slips out of his suit jacket.

    Adrien rattles them off, not sure if he’s amused or confused by her apparent lack of… recognition. But no, she called him by name, though her only reaction to seeing him seems to be professional detachment. Prudent, under the time-crunched circumstances.

    He finds himself glad to see her, anyway. And a bit curious as to why she’s here. He knows her name wasn’t on the list he received.

    “Hmm…” Marinette’s teeth sink into her bottom lip slightly as she pulls a needle from the bag at her side and starts altering the garment with a quick, practiced hand. “Not too many changes… Giselle, can you switch runners five and seven, give me a bit more time?”

    “Of course!” The dark-haired woman rushes off, disappearing into the familiar chaos. Adrien looks around for a moment as Marinette bends over her work, taking in the almost nostalgic feeling. It’s been awhile since he participated in an actual runway show, and it certainly wasn’t his plan for tonight, but Corrinne Amad-Lisette is an old acquaintance and promised a good rapport with the people he’s here to see if he delivered.

    And it’s not as if he’s a stranger to this.

    So, after a moment, he steps behind the mostly useless screen and strips, dutifully pulling on the clothes Marinette tosses over to him with a swiftness that’s never been quite forgotten.

    He’s a little shorter and a good deal broader than the other model, so he’s surprised to find that the clothes slide on easily, Marinette’s hasty alterations holding true.

    “How do they fit?” she asks, hovering on the other side of the screen. Adrien adjusts the cuffs and the fall of the jacket and steps out, twirling for her with practiced ease.

    “Great,” he says, grinning down at her. He doesn’t remember her being this much shorter than him in high school. “You’re amazing, Marinette.”

    “Uh--” she blinks at him and then laughs, pink tinting her cheeks. With her dark blue hair curling over her forehead, a length of measuring tape secured around her neck, and dressed only in sturdy work clothes…. he shouldn’t find the image as cute as he does. Huh. “Thanks-- ah, that’s your cue!” She practically shoves his shoulders as she herds him toward the line of male models--all dressed similarly to him but differently enough to be individually interesting--getting ready to head onto the catwalk. “Good luck!”

    Again with the luck thing. Adrien just tosses another grin over his shoulder at her and gets into line. State of his luck notwithstanding, catwalking is something he can do.

    And if it gets him a step closer to those wealthy patrons outside, all the better.

Chapter Text

    Adrien Agreste. After all these years.

    Wow.

    Marinette almost laughs at herself once the rush is over, once the models have finished stowing away their pieces and joined the guests mingling at the party. Part of the cleanup crew tonight, she works alongside Giselle to make sure everything gets sent back where it needs to go.

    It’s nowhere near as attention-grabbing as the chaos of a show, and with her usual post-chaos exhaustion seeping in, she can almost convince herself it wasn’t real.

    But it was.

    Her fifteen-year-old self would not have been able to handle that. At this thought, she does actually laugh at herself, just a little chuckle under her breath while she tosses trash into a bin.

    She always figured she might run into him again at some point; they work in the same circles, after all. But backstage at a random gala in London -- no, not what she was expecting.

    Not that she was really expecting anything. She gave up on her idolization of Adrien Agreste a long time ago. Grown-up Marinette realizes that putting someone on a pedestal like that… it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t love , either.

    No, she knows what love feels like. But she’s not thinking about that, or the ache in her chest that accompanies the thought, even after all these years. Though it only plagues her rarely, these days.

    She actually went on a few dates this last summer. None of them really led to anything… but she tried. Alya cheered.

    Marinette’s lips twist wryly as she scoops up a bundle of garment bags to haul into the wardrobe closet. She didn’t come tonight expecting an event that would lead her to ruminating on her love life, of all things.

    Really, she’s far too busy for a boyfriend, anyway. That, and… trust isn’t an easy thing, either. Being Ladybug takes first place -- protecting people takes first place. Not just citizens, but herself and her friends. It isn’t that the guys she’s dated were all bad. Most of them were pretty nice, really.

    But… trusting them, that’s the problem. Letting down her barriers. Being able to breathe.

    Maybe she’s destined to be alone. One of those famous gossip-magazine designers: many lovers, zero loves.

    She snorts to herself, amused at the depressing turn of her thoughts. Amazing how she hasn’t seen Adrien in ten years, and all it takes is one look at him for her to start thinking about crushes again.

    In her own defense--mainly because she can almost hear Tikki scolding her in the back of her mind, and Tikki isn’t even here --Adrien Agreste is really… hot.

    There’s not another word for it. Watching him walk down that catwalk tonight… yeah, there’s a reason he was voted Europe’s Most Eligible Bachelor last year.

    At twenty-six, set to take over the Gabriel brand any time now, and still widely considered one of the most famous models in the fashion industry--without even including his business dealings--he’s rich and handsome and of course, everyone wants a piece of him.

    That, actually, hasn’t changed much since high school. Except now he’s a grown up kind of handsome. And now she’s not a crazed fan. Well, she hopes she was never a crazed fan...   

    Mari, you had a calendar with his entire life mapped out on it in your bedroom.

    The voice in her head sounds a lot like Tikki’s, and Marinette gives the wall a chagrined look. Okay, she was a hormonal teenager. So was everyone.

    Why is she still thinking about it?

    Oh, right, because… that grin. For a heartbeat, just a moment as he pranced toward the lineup in a dark leather suit, when Adrien tossed a rakish grin over his shoulder at her… she saw a flash of a different set of green eyes, a wilder mop of golden hair, and a grin much like that one. Decidedly… Chat-like.

    But she hasn’t seen her partner in years, either, ever since he gave her his Miraculous and then disappeared. The old ache hovers just behind her breastbone, beneath the spot where that ring hangs from its chain around her neck.

    It’s not that she blames Chat Noir. He told her he was leaving -- had meant to leave for a long while, actually. And with Hawk Moth gone, he didn’t have a reason to stay.

    But giving up his Miraculous, leaving her behind… it gutted her for years after, every time she thought about it. Every time she realized how much those words hurt. Every time she realized how much she missed him.

And now, for some reason, the feeling settles in again, stronger than it’s been in years. Honestly, that’s probably why she always fails in the relationship department.

    None of the guys she’s dated have ever managed to make her forget those slitted kitty eyes and that rakish grin.

    She didn’t know she loved him until it was too late. Alya thinks that’s the real reason she’s never moved on; she hasn’t been able to forgive herself for letting him go. Pushing him away.

    Marinette sighs to herself; these are not the thoughts she wants to be dwelling on after a night like this. It’s been great! Things went off mostly without a hitch, and the snags they hit--even the loss of a model--were dealt with quickly and efficiently. And she reconnected--sort of--with an old friend. An old crush .

    So, no more moping.

    Shaking her head at herself and her strange post-show mood swings, Marinette hurries out of the closet to finish helping take everything down. After this, she thinks, a hot bath and a nice strawberry daiquiri… mm.

    Lost in the bliss of that future, she almost trips over the pile of discarded fabric someone’s left at the corner -- probably for her to pick up. Stumbling through it, she catches herself on the wall just as someone calls her name.

    “Oh-- are you all right? Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

    Marinette glances up to find the young designer from earlier, Rene. “No, you didn’t,” she says, giving the girl a self-depreciating grin. “I tripped. I’m a bit of a klutz.”

    Rene laughs. “Oh. Well, I’m glad I found you. They’re serving hors d’oeuvres and toasting the designers, and I wondered if you wanted to join the party…? Seems kind of a shame for you to be back here.”

    All alone, she doesn't have to add.

    Marinette looks down at herself and her smudged, worn work clothes, then at the pile of fabrics. She honestly wouldn’t mind the company--she could use some space to get out of her head--but… “Uh… I’m not really dressed for the occasion. And I’ve got some work to finish up. But thanks for thinking of me, Rene.”

    “But that’s the best part!” Rene grins, face lighting up as she reaches for Marinette’s arm. “I can help with your work, and-- I have a spare dress.”

Chapter Text

    Adrien doesn’t know why he was so nervous. For all Duusu’s talk of overconfidence, winning over the patrons was easy. Most of them were excited about the prospect, even. There were a couple of exceptions, of course, but he is an Agreste. He didn’t spend most of his youth as a model and not learn how to be charming.

    With the show itself over and the gala in full swing, champagne and hors d’oeuvres flowing freely, everyone is in a good mood, Adrien most of all. He’ll meet with his new benefactors officially tomorrow and start setting things up for the new program. For tonight… he can relax.

    Sipping from a glass of champagne, he watches the crowd as an orchestra starts up and a few people begin to dance, laughing amongst themselves. He scans the minglers, wondering if he ought to find himself a partner--dancing sounds like an enjoyable way to finish off the evening--but his gaze snags on one woman in particular before he gets very far.

    When he saw her an hour ago, she was wearing old work clothes and a sewing kit. Now… wow.

    Adrien doesn’t know how he missed the fact that Marinette was beautiful when they were in high school.

    Well, he does, but his age-old crush on Ladybug is immaterial now.

    Marinette’s short hair has been swept away from her face with a pair of silver combs, and she’s wearing an evening dress that’s shaped something like a sari. The fabric, he thinks, is silk -- pale pink and decorated with tiny red and silver flowers, flowing around her willowy form and leaving her arms mostly bare.

    Adrien finds himself moving through the crowd toward her before he’s really thought about it, and then she’s blinking up at him as he offers her a hastily-snatched glass of champagne.

    “You look beautiful, Marinette.” He smiles down at her, noting the young woman beside her as well -- someone he doesn’t recognize.

    “Uhm-- thank you.” Marinette laughs as she takes the glass from him. “Isn’t this dress amazing? Rene designed and made it herself.” She gestures at the other girl and Adrien nods in approval.

    “Excellent work.” He offers a hand. “I’m Adrien.”

    “Oh, er, yes…” The girl blushes as she shakes his hand vigorously. “I know who you are, Monsieur Agreste.”

    Adrien smiles easily at her, but his gaze strays back to Marinette. “You know, I meant to say something earlier, but with all that chaos…” When he got off the catwalk, she was busy with another set of models, and he didn’t want to get in the way. Now, though… he arches a brow at her. “I don’t remember seeing your name on the guest list, and I don’t think it’s because I missed it.”

    Marinette chuckles, waving a hand. “I’m actually here as a stand-in for the wardrobe coordinator. Rene here convinced me to join the party anyway.” She winks. “I don’t have an invitation. Don’t tell.”

    Adrien laughs, pleasantly surprised by her teasing. “You, breaking the rules? I wouldn’t believe it even if there was proof.”

    Another light laugh, and she gestures with her glass. “What brings you here tonight? Aside from the obvious -- I don’t remember seeing your name on the list of models for this evening.”

    “Ah, no, that was Corrinne’s idea. I’m here on business, as usual.”

    He only vaguely notices when the younger designer--Rene--excuses herself, grinning faintly. Marinette waves absently as she falls into step beside Adrien, drifting around the edge of the room.

    “Yes, I’ve heard rumors that you might be taking over your father’s company soon.” Something unreadable flashes through her bright blue eyes as she looks up at him, something almost… knowing. Pleased. It’s gone before he’s sure it was there, though. “Congratulations.”

    Adrien shrugs. “Well, I for one don’t think my father is going to step down anytime soon, actually.” He smirks down at her. “But thanks for the vote of confidence.”

    “Oh, really?” Her eyes sparkle in the fairy lights strung along the ceiling and tables. “So what business are you working on, then?” She pauses and bites her lip. “Uhm, sorry, that’s probably prying, isn’t it?”

    “Not at all. I’m actually trying to start up a charity program of my own, so I had some people to see here tonight. What about you?” He arches a brow and gestures with his half-empty glass of champagne. “Does the famous Marinette Dupain-Cheng usually work in the wardrobe department?”

    She laughs, flushing slightly as she waves a hand. “No, not usually. Standing in for a friend.”

    “You’re living here in London now?”

    “No, no. I’m here visiting some friends this weekend, that’s all.”

    Huh. Adrien can’t say he’s surprised by her willingness to step up and work even on her vacation. He remembers her as being one of the kindest people in their grade.

    “So, you’re still in Paris, then?” he asks, somewhat absently as his wandering gaze catches something else, a dark spot on her right hand…

    “Yeah, I am. A friend and I have actually opened a boutique together-- uhm… Adrien?”

    He blinks, realizing suddenly that he’s picked up her hand to study that mark more closely. A mark that is undeniably a tattoo, small enough to fit between the bones of her fingers, just beneath her ring and pinky knuckles. It could be mistaken for a beauty mark, but he doesn’t remember her having one, and… it’s green around the edges.

    A black pawprint, green around the edges, just like…

    “Sorry,” he says, releasing her hand a bit sheepishly. She watches him with dark brows raised high, so he ventures, “You’re a Chat Noir fan, huh?”

    “Oh,” she says, seeming to realize that’s what he was looking at. She peers down at the tiny tattoo as well with a small, distant smile. “Yeah, I am.”

    Adrien doesn’t know why that makes his heart flutter. Doesn’t know why it matters. But he finds himself asking, “You know, I heard… well, obviously it’s been an age since I’ve been to Paris, and I don’t really keep up with the Ladyblog like I used to, but I heard Chat Noir… disappeared?”

    Disappeared. Was murdered. Went rogue. Fell in with Hawk Moth and was defeated by Ladybug. One theory goes so far as to suggest that he and Hawk Moth ran off together. He once ended up--accidentally--on a fanfiction site that had him and Hawk Moth as a couple.

    The images haunted him for months. Seriously, seriously gross.

    The rumors have gone in circles for years on end, but no one knows what happened to Chat Noir. No one, except Adrien himself. And Ladybug, who for some reason has never told anyone that he left her his Miraculous.

    Or given it to someone new.

    At least, he doesn’t think she has. It’s been a few years since he checked last… he doesn’t want to know. If there’s a new black cat running around, feeding Plagg cheese… he doesn’t want to know.

    He gave her his Miraculous so she could do that, so she wouldn’t be alone to defend the city in case something drastic happened. So she’d still have her partner, even if it wouldn’t be him. He couldn’t… he couldn’t leave her alone.

    But it killed him. Still kills him, sometimes. And he doesn’t know why he asked, because if Marinette says something about the new Chat, he’ll--

    “Well, yeah, he did,” she says, and Adrien is pulled out of his own teeming thoughts by the… sadness on her face. She lifts her hand and grips something hidden under her dress, shifting a chain around her neck. “But that doesn’t mean he’ll never come back. And besides,” she shrugs, smiling up at him though her eyes say her mind is elsewhere, “the fact that he’s gone doesn’t make him less worthy of being remembered.”

    She fingers that tattoo, and there’s a lump in Adrien’s throat the size of the Eiffel Tower.

    “You uh… you knew him, right?” he asks. Though why, really, he doesn’t know. This is the kind of melancholy he usually avoids miring himself in.

    “I did,” Marinette says, with a small, sweet smile. He’s almost surprised by the certainty in her tone, and a heartbeat later her eyes widen and she stammers, “Well, that is, as well as anyone could know a superhero, of course… I didn’t really know him, you know… but uh, he saved me a few times…”

    Adrien distinctly remembers spending a few nights on her balcony, too, after Ladybug made it clear she didn’t feel the same way about him. Marinette was always willing to listen and even gave him cookies.

    He wonders why he’s never tried to reach out to her all these years, why he let their friendship fade. Well, probably because she never seemed to like him much as Adrien.

    His mouth twists wryly, but all he says is, “He’s lucky to have a friend in someone as amazing as you, Marinette.”

    She blinks at him for a moment before a smile spreads across her face. Adrien gets the distinct feeling that she’s hiding something behind it. Her eyes still seem sad around the edges.

    “Thanks, Adrien. Uhm… hey, do you want to dance? This is a party, after all.”

    Adrien grins, glad to shift the topic away from melancholy. “I would love to.” He offers her his arm, and she picks up the hem of her dress, and they laugh together as they sweep onto the floor.

Chapter Text

    “You look lovely, Marinette.” Tikki beams at her from the vanity mirror, blue eyes bright. Marinette sighs because she knows that look.

    “It’s not a date, Tikki.”

    Her kwami only giggles. “You’ve been saying that all morning.”

    Marinette sighs again. “It’s just lunch! To catch up. As friends.”

    But honestly, as she takes in the pretty, floral dress she decided--for some unknown, ridiculous reason--to wear… she doesn’t know who she’s trying to convince.

    Last night was… really, really great. Just… talking to Adrien. Dancing, laughing, trading stories from the last ten years. He’s been to so many places, done so many amazing things… time flew by so fast that they were two of the last to leave the gala. And when he suggested they catch lunch today since her flight doesn’t leave until this evening… she just said yes.

    But there was no implication that it was going to be a date. She doesn’t want it to be date! She used to have a crush on him. As in, she doesn’t anymore.

    He is really hot though.

    Ugh. She. Is so. Shallow.

Marinette drops her face into one hand, earning another giggle from Tikki. The little kwami floats up and places one soft paw gently against Marinette’s cheek.

    “Is it so bad if it’s a date? I thought you were trying to get out more. That’s what you told Alya.”

    “I am… but… Adrien…” Doesn’t live in Paris anymore. Last she heard, he’d taken up residence in Barcelona, and that was just down the grapevine from Chloe, who doesn’t talk to him that much anymore either.

    Besides that....  well.

    Well, they were friends. And what’s so bad about catching up with an old friend? It’s not a date, just a friendly lunch.

    “Adrien…?” Tikki prompts, and Marinette gives her a wry smile, prodding the kwami’s forehead with one finger.

    “Adrien is a super famous, rich fashion icon who probably has a girlfriend and who I’m probably only going to see rarely if ever again. I’m not fifteen anymore, and I don’t need to drool over Adrien Agreste. I can get a date if I want a date, Tikki.”

    “Let me guess, you don’t want one.” The dry tone and expression make it clear enough that Tikki doesn’t believe this familiar spiel.

    Marinette just rolls her eyes and spins on one heel, grabbing her purse to throw over her shoulder. She clicks it open and drops a couple cookies inside, amused when Tikki dutifully follows them -- though not without one last knowing look which Marinette ignores.

    Out of the guest room and down the stairs, she hears music blaring from Juleka’s studio and pops her head inside. Juleka and Luka are involved in a rather intense guitar battle, but Rose notices her and waves for her to come in. Marinette shakes her head with a grin and points to her watch and the door, earning a nod.

    At least they won’t worry, Marinette thinks wryly as she pulls the door shut. She did come to London this weekend to visit them -- and also because Luka invited her to their concert on Friday. Rose mentioned yesterday that they could spend her last day in the city exploring, but… due to the events of last night, Marinette has only been awake for an hour.

    And it seems that none of her friends mind, so. She smiles to herself as she heads out into the streets, aiming for the nearest metro station. Spring in London is beautiful, if still a bit chilly -- everything is green and blooming, and she enjoys studying the architecture and people she passes.

    And the flowers.

    A few design ideas flit through the back of her mind, and she lets them flow freely, thinking. She’s been turning over ideas for a fall line for this year, but so far nothing has really jumped at her. Maybe relaxing and spending a nice afternoon chatting with an old friend will help her smooth out the chaos in her head.

    So far, this vacation has definitely helped with that. Even if she has been worried about leaving Paris with everything that’s been going on the last few months. She sighs, her mood darkening as she considers that; she saw on her newsfeed when she woke up that there was another attack back home last night. Rayée and Rena Rouge cleaned things up nicely, and all four terrorists are behind bars now, but… without a Lucky Charm, the damage they did to a few buildings near the riverfront remains.

    So of course, the chatrooms are full of questions about Ladybug’s whereabouts, even though this is hardly the first time the other heroes have handled an issue on their own. Ever since the Mehyr showed up in Paris, things have been tense. Marinette agreed to come to London for the weekend mainly because things had been quiet for a bit and… she needed a break. Desperately.

    She pulls out her phone as she descends into the underground, checking to see if Alya has responded to her text yet.

    M.D-C 11:23 am: Hey, I saw about the attack. everything ok?

    A.C 12:06 pm: sorry girl, yeah it’s fine. Chloe sprung to keep things quiet and clean up the damage, no big deal. enjoy your vacay <3 <3 <3

    A lump forms in Marinette’s throat as she scrolls past the message; there was one already in her inbox this morning from Lysse -- no mention of the attack but a basic admonition to have fun. She knows they can handle it -- they’re just as capable as Ladybug if not more so. It’s just… she doesn’t like being away from her city when her friends are putting themselves in danger.

    And since they still don’t know what the Mehyr want, why they’re attacking Paris… she’s glad she’ll be heading back tonight. She needs to be home.

    M.D-C 12:24 pm: thanks Alya. i’ll be back tonight, love you <3

    A.C 12:25 pm: haha of course you will girl and we’ll figure this out. love you too. Nino says hey :*

    M.D-C 12:26 pm: hey back :) <3 see you guys soon

    Marinette slides her phone back into her purse with a small smile, careful to avoid hitting Tikki with it of course. The metro ride is uneventful, aside from a news report on the vid-screen about the recent attack in Paris. Marinette puts in her headphones and tunes it out, deciding to take Alya’s advice and relax.

    She’ll be home tonight. She can stress then. When it will be productive.

    If Tikki could read her mind, she’s sure her longtime friend would be proud.

    With her purse in her lap, she feels her phone when it buzzes again, but this time it’s not a text from Alya. Despite her admonitions, her heart jumps in her chest.

    A.A 12:40 pm: one attachment

      Marinette blinks at the picture of an empty chair in front of a pretty wrought iron table and a view of the Thames. Then, at Adrien’s message.

     hmm, you know, my table seems to be missing something important…

    She bites her lip to keep from grinning.

    M.D-C 12:41 pm: shh, I’m only running a little laate! be there soon, sorry >//<

    Oops, typo.

    A.A 12:42 pm: so long as I’m not being stood up ;)

    M.D-C 12:43 pm: I would never! xD sorry, really. i’m on the metro now

    A.A 12:43 pm: i’ll hold you to that ;)

    Marinette tries to contain her giggle as the train slows to a stop and she shoves her phone back into her purse, standing with a few other passengers. Her dress swirls around her calves and her heart flutters with excitement, and-- oh mon dieu, it’s not a date! Really, she’s twenty-five years old. It shouldn’t be this difficult to control her own hormones.

    But she’s still smirking as she hops out of the train and walks briskly to the stairs, heading up to street level again.

    And, despite herself, she’s not worrying about the Mehyr or her friends or her nonexistent fall line.

    It’s a nice feeling.

Chapter Text

    “Sir, would you like to go ahead and order?” The waitress is giving him an uncomfortably sympathetic look, but Adrien just turns up the charm and gives her a polite smile.

    “No, I’m still waiting on--” he sees a flash of movement from the restaurant’s patio door and then, there she is. He grins. “--my friend.”

    The waitress turns to follow his gaze, but Adrien is too busy watching Marinette bustle between tables to note her reaction. She looks… beautiful.

    His eye for fashion picks up on the fact that she’s wearing one of her own creations, from a summer line she put out a couple years ago, but his focus is on her smile and the slight flush in her cheeks as she sinks into the chair across from him.

    “Hi, sorry…” she brushes a strand of short hair behind one ear and her bright blue eyes scan the view across the railing, widening. “Wow, this is a nice view…”

    Adrien gives her a wry smirk. “Should I leave you two alone…?”

    “Uhm-- no,” she looks back at him and laughs, shaking her head. “Mm, have you ordered yet…?”

    The waitress clears her throat, still standing beside Adrien’s chair. Adrien just gestures at her in answer.

    “What would you like to drink, miss?”

    “Lemon water’s fine, thanks,” she says, smiling as she settles comfortably into the chair. Adrien didn’t really think she’d stand him up, but… well, last night was the longest, friendliest conversation they’ve ever had. At least, when he wasn’t wearing the mask of Chat Noir.

    She really did seem to like him.

    The waitress nods and slips away, while Marinette scoops up the menu and peruses it with a focused gaze, lips pursing cutely.

    Hmm.

    “You look like you slept better than I did,” Adrien observes, smiling as she startles slightly and blinks at him.

    “Mm? Oh, well, I actually only woke up like an hour ago, so…” she laughs a little, biting her lip. “Lazy vacation time, you know.”

    “Says the woman who accepted a job on her vacation,” Adrien teases, picking up his own glass of water.

    Marinette smiles. “How did your meeting go this morning?”

    “Great! We’re all set to get started next month, we just have to hammer out the details and actually, you know, do it.” He grins, considering that -- now that things have been set in motion, he couldn’t be more excited. He already had a long conversation with Father this morning about a possible venue for the first show he wants to host under this program.

    Marinette smiles again, genuine pleasure lighting up her face -- so obviously happy for him, in a way that he doesn’t see often.

    “I’m really glad I ran into you again, Marinette,” he says, resting his elbows on the table as he leans toward her.

    “Me too,” she says, grinning at him over the menu. Then she goes back to looking at it, and he decides to let her pick because, honestly, he’s hungry too.

    The waitress comes back a few minutes later, takes their orders and their menus, and leaves them to enjoy the view. Adrien studies Marinette while she watches the water, seemingly fascinated by something out there. It isn’t a tense or awkward silence; instead it’s… nice.

    But he finds himself breaking it anyway.

    “Hey, you said last night you were visiting some friends here in the city. I didn’t get a chance to ask; anyone I know?”

    She glances back at him and grins. “Oh, yeah. Rose and Juleka, actually. They moved here a couple years ago since Rose’s firm wanted her to switch over. Did Nino tell you she’s a lawyer now?”

    Adrien leans back in his chair, smiling delightedly. “No, he didn’t mention it. I’m… not the best at keeping up with people, you may have noticed. But that’s great.”

    Marinette laughs. “I think we all have that problem from time to time. Besides, you’ve been busy.” A teasing light enters her eyes. “If I believe half of what you mentioned last night, you’ve been all over the world in the last decade.”

    Adrien laughs. “Oh, trust me, it’s all true,” he says, surprised by the way he has to cut his sentence off at the end; he wanted to call her something there, but he’s not sure if she’ll remember the way Chat used to call her ‘princess’, and he doesn’t want to risk it. He’ll have to think of a new nickname for her… hmm.

    “Well, by all means, regale me with more tales of your exploits, oh honest one,” she says, wiggling her fingers at him imperiously. Adrien laughs again and launches into a story about the summer he spent in Argentina, knowing she’ll appreciate the different dyes and fabrics they use there.

    He doesn’t know how much time goes by, barely marks it; he only notices when their food comes, and then their plates are taken away and their drinks are refilled. At some point they get a new waiter, and he brings them tea and scones and delicious biscuits.

    The conversation drifts easily, punctuated by teasing and jokes, stories of old friends and new ones, and eventually Adrien sits back and pats his stomach, satisfied from having eaten one too many scones, and grins at her.

    “This is really nice, Mari. Seriously. I’m glad you agreed to come today.”

    She tilts her head at him, swirling her spoon in her tea as she adds a bit of sugar. “You thought I wouldn’t?”

    “Well,” he shrugs, “to be honest, I always kind of thought you didn’t like me much in high school. You never-- why are you laughing?”

    And she is, one hand hiding her face as she doubles over, muttering incoherently between giggles.

    “S-sorry… oh god… no no…” she sits up, attempting to get her mirth under control, while Adrien simply stares at her, mystified. “Uhm… wow.” Marinette giggles again and waves a hand. “Seriously, Adrien, to be honest? I had the hugest crush on you when we were kids. I couldn’t even speak to you in complete sentences because I was so embarrassed. It was… awful.” She shakes her head, chuckling again. “I’m so sorry.”

    Adrien just blinks at her for a moment as his viewpoint of the world shifts. Who knew, this amazing girl… he can’t help but laugh. He was such an idiot. “That… actually explains so much. Wow.”

    She offers her teacup in a silent salute, and he clinks his against it with a grin. “So, you had a crush on me, huh?” he wiggles a brow at her, amused when she coughs, startled. “Does that mean you don’t anymore?”

    “Uh, n-no…” She waves a hand, but her face is… very red. Very, very red. “I mean, I hadn’t even seen you in like ten years until yesterday, pssh…”

    Adrien chuckles, resting his chin atop his hands as he peers at her over the flowers in the center of the table. “Too bad. And here I was hoping this was a date.”

    Marinette just squeaks at him. Adrien bursts into laughter, nearly doubling over himself this time as his sides explode. She’s just… so… cute

    When he finally sits up, managing to breathe, Marinette gives him a very dry, unamused look and… flicks water into his face. Adrien rocks backward and almost hisses--almost--at the sudden, chilly splattering. Then they both burst out laughing.

    “God--”

    “Seriously--”

    “You’re awful--”

    “Pssh-haha--”

    Needless to say, they get many strange looks from fellow diners. And it’s a long while before either of them manages to speak coherently again.

    But it’s… nice. To laugh so much, so freely. To let loose all the tension and melancholy and stress.

    And though neither of them brings it up again, Adrien decides that he will think of it as a date. And that he’s not going to lose touch with this woman a second time, no matter where either of them is in the world.

    An hour later, they finally part ways, Adrien to his hotel and Marinette to say goodbye to her friends before she has to head for the airport. But, even separate, it’s a long, long while before either of them stop smiling.

Chapter Text

    It’s raining, and it’s dark, and still Ladybug sits on a railing high above Paris, staring out at nothing.

    She can’t stop seeing their faces.

    They stopped a serial kidnapper tonight, left him for the police mere hours ago. It was a victory, a happy one, but the faces of those parents when she gave them their little boy… hours later and she still can’t forget.

    They got there in time. They saved that kid. But she still feels… unbearably sad.

    Maybe it’s because there were two kids before this one that they didn’t find. Or because she’s been thinking a lot about family and what it means these last few months.

    Ever since Adrien left -- since his father packed them up and moved them out of Paris for good.

    And there’s another image she can’t forget, a similar one: Gabriel Agreste, kneeling on the floor in his mansion, utter devastation on his face as he stared at his son.

   And the hollowness that came over Adrien then, the sorrow… he hadn’t known until then that his mother was dead, not missing.

    He’s been gone for three months--gone from school, gone from the magazines, gone from the quiet, dark mansion--but she’ll never forget what happened that night, as long as she lives.

    Family, it’s a strange thing. Gabriel Agreste became Hawk Moth, twisted everything he believed in, all for the chance of bringing his wife back to life. All because he loved her. In the end, his love for her--his obsession--caused him to hurt and push away his own son.

    She hopes, wherever they are now, they’re somehow mending that relationship. Fixing things between them -- talking about it. All of it.

    She can’t imagine what her Papa would’ve done, in that situation. What she would have done. That family tonight…

    For months she’s been struggling, as the questions fly through the city, through the news -- where is Hawk Moth? Where are the akumas?

    Ladybug has been struggling to figure out what she believes. About villains. About heroes. About families.

    Tonight… tonight, she was the kind of hero she wants to be. She saved a little boy and got him back safely to his parents.

    But she still feels sad.

    “You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?”

    Ladybug isn’t surprised that she didn’t hear Chat coming. She isn’t surprised that he found her, either, even on this miserable, dark night at a time when they should both be warm and asleep in bed.

    Her partner settles beside her, legs dangling off the edge, a quiet presence. Always there.

    “Hey, kitty,” she says, still staring out into the rain.

    Chat nudges her shoulder lightly with his. “I dropped by their house again, just to check. They were making dinner together. Laughing. I think they’re all going to be okay, M’lady.”

    Something warm spreads in her chest, to know he did that -- to know he was just as worried as she’s been.

    “Thanks, Chat.”

    But something in his voice catches her, too, and she turns to look at him. “Are you all right? You seemed… distant earlier.”

    He seems distant now, even sitting so close. He’s been distant, ever since Zephyr found Hawk Moth. Her presence is something Ladybug still hasn’t gotten used to, despite Tikki’s obvious respect and admiration for the solemere.

    A guardian of the kwamis, who existed long before the Miraculous were forged… it almost seems impossible. That much history. To be that old.

    Ladybug shakes off the thoughts as Chat Noir tips his head back to the rainy sky, letting droplets run down his face.

    He looks… so sad.

    It strikes her then, suddenly, what it is -- what has been bothering her about him lately. He’s unbearably sad.

    “What’s wrong, kitty?” she asks, and almost lifts a hand to touch his hair or one of his leathery ears. She doesn’t, though.

    Chat sighs. Folds his hands across his thighs. “M’lady… I know you don’t like to talk about our personal lives, and I get it. I do. But there’s something… I have to leave, Ladybug.”

    She can only stare at him. “What?”

    He turns his head toward her but his eyes, such a vivid green, remain on his lap. “My family actually left Paris around a year ago. My dad got this new job offer, and I convinced them to let me stay behind because of school… but it was really because of this. And now that Hawk Moth is gone… I miss them.”

    His throat bobs, and Ladybug--Marinette--can still only stare at him, all the breath knocked out of her completely.

    Leave-- he would… leave?

    But…

    “You… why didn’t you tell me, Chaton?” she whispers, caught by the pain twisting his face -- the face that’s usually full of laughter, so rarely serious that it’s almost irritating at times.

    He laughs, and she cringes at the lack of humor in it. “You didn’t want to know. And you didn’t ask.”

    A denial forms on the tip of her tongue, but Marinette knows he’s right. A secret, it must always be a secret. The situation with Gabriel Agreste just proved her caution warranted, because he was so close to her, all that time…

    So she doesn’t say anything for a long, quiet moment.

    “Where… where are you going?”

    Her voice is so, so small. She doesn’t even know why, doesn’t know why her chest is cracking, heaving-- leaving.

    “Far,” Chat says, fingers clenched in his lap. “For a long time.” He sighs, and drags a hand through his messy hair. And then he looks at her while she tries to find something positive to say, and adds, “I don’t have any reason to stay here, Ladybug.”

    And that bleakness on his face… Marinette’s heart is breaking.

    Breaking, at that look, at those words.

    But no, of course, with Hawk Moth gone… she’s not his family. She’s not… she’s just…

    The girl who’s never loved him back.

    But her heart still cracks and cleaves and shatters, and tears still gather in her eyes and heat her face, and she knows that it’s selfish but she still opens her mouth to ask him to stay anyway.

    “Please, Chat…” she whispers, shaking her head, just once. “I… I can’t do this without you.”

    He just smiles at her, so sadly. “Of course you can. Close your eyes, M’lady.”

    “W-what?”

    And then his face is coming closer, and she can’t breathe for the cracking inside her, and then his lips touch her forehead, so softly…

    Marinette tries to contain her tears, tries to think of something to say, as she closes her eyes and leans against him. Into him.

    Don’t leave me, she thinks, but the words won’t come out. Stay for me.

    Selfish. She’s selfish.

    His family is out there, and of course tonight made him think of them, of missing them -- of course he wants to go to them. Wherever they are.

    But… to do this alone…

    “Hawk Moth is gone,” Chat says, and he takes her hands, folding them between his. “Thank you, Ladybug. For everything.”

    He lets go, and she reaches for him, eyes flying open as she feels his warmth moving away. But he’s already disappeared into the darkness of the pouring rain, nothing but a shadow that quickly fades from view.

    Marinette moves to stand, to go after him, to-- to say goodbye-- but something clinks and falls from her hand and she stops, looks down. Sees a green light glowing against the metal of the Eiffel Tower.

    When she picks up the ring, when she knows it for what it is, understands what he’s done--

    She tries to go after him, but he's gone. Down streets, through alleys, over familiar rooftops-- gone. He could be anywhere. He could be anyone. Because she didn't want to know.

   Marinette sinks to her knees in the dark and sobs.

    She curls around her fist, clenched around Chat’s Miraculous, and sobs until there is nothing left in her.

    Breaking, breaking, breaking, in a way she can’t so much as begin to fix.

    It’s a long, long while before she moves again.

Chapter Text

    “Seriously? What is it with these guys?” Rayée crouches beside Ladybug on a slanted rooftop, mouth pursed into a thin line. “They could at least show some consistency, really.”

Ladybug has to agree with the sentiment -- it’s becoming impossible to predict what these terrorists are going to do next. Last month it was those offices down by the riverfront, and now it’s a diamond store.

    “Or take the weekend off, like normal people,” Queen Bee grumbles from Ladybug's other side. “What do they even want with jewelry?”

    “Maybe they like shiny things,” Rayée suggests sarcastically. “What do we do, Bug?”

    Ladybug holds up a finger, thinking even as she watches the three terrorists moving around behind the glass window of the shop across the street. It’s the middle of the day, but the store owners are out for lunch, so thankfully there aren’t any civilians in danger. It was only the silent alarm that tipped off the police, and the scanner alert went straight through to Marinette’s phone.

    Through the glass, she sees two men setting something up behind the counter, and from past experience with these people she knows it’s likely a bomb. More chaos. Then there’s the woman who’s shoving thousands of euros’ worth of jewelry into a backpack.

    Ladybug doesn’t recall the Mehyr ever stealing anything before. A small smirk curls her mouth as she stands, one hand dropping to her yoyo. “Maybe they’re low on funds for all those bomb supplies.”

    Queen Bee snorts. “Pretty ridiculous if they’re planning to hawk all that.”

    “Let’s make sure they don’t get the chance,” Ladybug counters. “Rayée, go around through the back and make sure there aren’t any more. Bee, we’ll take the front -- focus on stopping those guys with the bomb.”

    “Got it.” Rayée rises lithely from her crouch, the deep, rippling fuschia of her costume making her look like another shadow on the rooftop. She drops over the far side without another word, and Ladybug nods once to Queen Bee.

    With twin smirks, the girls send out their lines and zip across the street. Ladybug doesn’t bother to spare the wide, embossed windows; she just plants her feet and slams through the glass, landing neatly inside the shop. An alarm blares into the air and the woman by the display whirls, already lifting a gun.

    “It’s them!” she shouts over her shoulder, dark hair and a scowl on her face as she squeezes the trigger.

    Ladybug dodges nimbly, taking the attention and swinging out her yoyo to knock the gun from the woman’s hand. Out the corner of her eye she sees Bee crawling along the ceiling, preparing to drop down on the two men behind the counter.

    “Sorry, but this stuff doesn’t belong to you guys,” Ladybug says, yoyo snapping back to her hand as she lunges forward. The woman swipes at her with a stun gun and Ladybug swivels around her, then slams a fist into the side of her head. The terrorist goes down just as gunfire erupts from behind the counter and the back of the shop -- so there were more.

    “Venom!” Bee shouts, and then there’s a grunt and more shouting, and Ladybug leaps over the counter to join the fray. One of them took a hit from Bee’s stinger and is frozen with one hand on the bomb’s trigger, while Bee is driving the second man away from their weapon with a series of kicks and punches. Ladybug, unseen behind him, swipes a foot at his knees and he goes down just in time for his face to acquaint itself with Bee’s fist.

    “Hah.” Queen Bee tosses her long, loose hair over one shoulder and grins.

    But Ladybug still hears gunfire in the back. “It’s not over,” she tells her partner, hopping back over the counter.

    “Still, these guys are pretty weak compared to--” Bee is forced to eat her words as Rayée comes flying through the closed door to the back of the shop, shattering wood and more glass as she tumbles to a stop. Electricity flickers over her suit from the hit she took -- great, one of the Mehyr’s shockwave weapons.

    No wonder they need extra funds.

    Queen Bee’s Miraculous beeps in warning, but she turns to face the two guys coming out of the back anyway. One of them’s big and burly and has a set of brass knuckles on his hands that flicker with electricity. The other has a semi-automatic pointed right at them.

    Trite.

    “Lucky Charm! ” Ladybug hurls her yoyo into the air, and it comes back down just in time for her to use the red-and-black spotted riot shield to protect Rayée and Bee from a spray of bullets. Honestly, this particular charm is growing a little too familiar.

    “Rayée, a little help!” she calls, even as she advances with her shield. Shockwave guy slams his electric weapons into it, rattling her bones. Ladybug huffs at the pressure and plants her feet, shoving back against him so he stumbles into his friend’s way.

    Behind her, she hears Rayée’s voice as the tiger calls for her Chevalier, and bright fuschia light flashes through the room.

    Then Ladybug's shield is knocked aside and she’s too busy fighting the burly guy to pay attention to anything else. He swipes those nasty shockwave fists at her head and she dodges back, then slams a fist of her own into his solar plexus. The man grunts and falls back, and then Tigre is there -- so fast he’s just a fuschia blur, a flash of claws and a manic grin.

    And then it’s over, the two remaining terrorists having joined their friends on the floor. Tigre brushes off his hands, still grinning in a way that shows off his fangs.

    “Seriously,” Rayée moans, holding her side as she limps toward her summoned knight, “you’ve got to teach me to fight like that.”

    Tigre arches a brow, a strange look for him since his face is rather animalistic. He even has whiskers and a tiger's nose. “I have tried, kotenka,” he says, clearly amused with his partner. At least someone is amused.

    The beeping of three Miraculous echoes then, followed by sirens in the distance, and Ladybug picks up her riot shield. “That’s our cue,” she tells her friends. She hurls the shield into the air with a cry of “Miraculous Ladybug!” and watches as swirls of red repair the damage they dealt to the shop.

    Tikki is specific enough in her repairs that the terrorists remain unconscious. Ladybug takes a moment to tie them up anyway, aided by Tigre and Rayée. Chloe waits for them in an alley across the street, having already dropped her transformation to give Pollen a cookie. Safely out of view of anyone passing by, the four of them exhange solemn looks.

    “Is it just me, or are these attacks getting weirder and weirder?” Rayée asks, folding her arms across her chest even as her bracelet beeps again.

    “The last shockwave weapon they had was bigger than that,” Ladybug agrees, tapping her fingers restlessly. “They’re upgrading their tech from somewhere.” Making it easier to carry around and use.

    She doesn’t like it.

    “Perhaps what they needed the diamonds for?” Tigre stands beside Rayée, his rounded, fuzzy ears twitching back toward the street as if taking in sounds the rest of them can’t hear.

    “Maybe. They’re up to something,” Ladybug says, sighing as she considers this newest development. The Mehyr have been a pain for months now, but so far it’s been more of this -- random attacks every few weeks, the purpose of which only seems to be causing chaos and wreaking havoc.

    It’s frustrating.

    “Maybe the police will turn up something this time,” Rayée says, sighing as well. She puts a hand on Ladybug’s shoulder as both their Miraculous beep again, this time much more urgently. “We’ll find something, Bug, don’t stress.” She glances at Chloe, who is busy splitting that cookie with her kwami. “We still on for the spa tomorrow?”

    Yes, the day-spa they keep threatening to drag Marinette off to. She can’t help but smile wryly as Chloe dusts off her hands, just as stern and commanding as always when she says, “Of course. And you’d better be there, Bug. No skipping out.”

    Ladybug lifts her hands. “I will, I--” This time Tikki’s warning is incessant, and she laughs, waving her friends off. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    With that she hurls out her yoyo and takes off, zipping back toward her apartment. She was working on some design ideas when she got that alert, and despite the lingering frustration of dealing with the Mehyr, the image she was sketching out is still prevalent in her head.

    She needs to get that onto paper.

    She can’t control the terrorists, but she can control whether or not she has a stellar fall line to put out this year.

    Marinette detransforms as she lands on her apartment’s balcony, already digging in her purse for a macaroon to give to Tikki. Her kwami perches on her shoulder and munches as Marinette sinks into her desk chair, eying the papers strewn over its surface.

    She’s not sure yet what this dress is going to be, but she was inspired yesterday by one of her maman's old cheongsams. Maybe it will be something.

    But she doesn’t pick up her pencil. She just sits and stares at the pages, her mind still trying to work through this new complication with the Mehyr.

    “Don’t worry so much, Marinette,” Tikki pipes up, cuddling into Marinette’s face. Marinette lifts a hand to cradle the kwami, smiling fondly.

    “I can’t help it, Tikki. I don’t like that we haven’t been able to find where these terrorists are hiding or figure out what they want.”

    “Yes, but if you spend all your time worrying about it, you’ll never get anything done. Focus on one moment at a time, Marinette. It will all work out.”

    “I know, Tikki.” Marinette smiles down at her ever-optimistic kwami, wishing it were really that simple.

    Then again, maybe it will be, if she just lets herself get lost in her new design-- hm?

    Her phone buzzes, and Marinette scoops it up, swiping open the lock screen. A smile instantly curls her mouth when she sees the message.

    A.A 12:37 pm: Hey, what are you up to?

    In the month since she and Adrien ran into each other in London, they’ve kept in touch, and thinking about something that’s so far removed from her Ladybug problems instantly relaxes something in her chest. Adrien is not frustrating, or complicated, or stressful.

    He’s wonderful and fun and the perfect distraction from the awful day she's had. So Marinette leans back comfortably in her chair and types out a message of her own.

    M.D-C 12:38 pm: nothing much. You on lunch? Skype?

    Adrien responds a moment later by calling her, the little blue Skype icon lighting up her phone. With a grin, Marinette shoos Tikki to a safer spot and hits the accept button.

   “Hey.” His voice is warm over the phone, and Marinette feels her worries dissipate. She’ll deal with the Mehyr later, once the police have questioned them. It’s nothing to worry about now.

    “Hey back,” she says, swiveling a little in her chair, not noticing the grin on her face or the way Tikki smiles.

    “So, I actually had an ulterior motive for texting you…” Adrien says, and Marinette arches a brow.

    “What, other than wanting to talk to me? How could you?”

    Adrien chuckles. “I know, sorry. But I was wondering if you could help me with something? I’m trying to come up with a design for my charity’s logo, and I’m not having any luck…”

    Well, she knows how that feels. “Well, I have been told I’m lucky,” Marinette quips, amused at her own joke. She grins when he laughs again.

    “Hold on, I’ll send you what I’m thinking, and you can help me fix it,” he says, and Marinette decides to hop from her chair to her couch in the living room while he does that. She makes herself comfortable between some fluffy pillows and puts Adrien on speaker, and doesn’t even mind that she’s probably not going to finish her sketch today.

Chapter Text

    “In other news, Adrien Agreste’s new charity program for children in need is off to a great start, with its opening backed by several prestigious companies…”

    The reporter drones on, repeating a story Marinette has heard three or four times already today. She dumps a pile of fabrics onto the long wooden work table at the back of her space, then stretches her arms over her head, glad to take a break for a moment. With Lysse uptown at a new gallery, she hauled her latest shipment of materials up to her studio all by herself, and the sunlight coming in through the high, wide windows has left her uncomfortably warm.

    She takes a moment to go open one of those windows, letting in a summer breeze that smells of brine off the Seine.

    “Marinette!” Tikki flits toward her, a half-eaten cookie clutched in her paws. “Your phone is buzzing again. I think it’s Adrien.”

    Marinette grins at her kwami’s good-natured teasing even as she grabs her phone, swiping open the lock screen to see her last text.

M.D-C 9:38 am: Hey, I heard about the opening! Congratulations, Adrien! :)

A.A 2:47 pm: Thanks Mari! Couldn’t have pulled it off without those amazing designs you came up with for the logo, though ;)

Marinette smirks at the message, shaking her head. This boy. As if they didn't spend an entire month throwing ideas around together. Her fingers fly over the keys.

M.D-C 2:50 pm: nonsense, we designed it together *rolls eyes* you’d have done fine without me. What are you up to now?

    She sets her phone on the windowsill and leans against it, feeling the warm summer breeze sift through her hair. Now that she’s got everything up here, maybe she’ll take a break… go for a short patrol… the Mehyr have been quiet ever since their failed diamond heist, so she doubts she’ll find anything. Maybe she’ll take a nap on the Eiffel Tower or something… mmm…

   Her phone buzzes, sooner than expected. Sometimes it takes Adrien awhile to respond, since he’s so busy. She flips open the page with an expectant smile.

    A.A 2:52 pm: lol I’m taking a break, grabbing lunch. flight leaves for Barcelona tonight but the afternoon is mine heh

    Marinette giggles, imagining his triumphant smirk at this assertion.

    M.D-C 2:53 pm: wow, you actually know what taking a break is like o.0 ;P what are you going to do with so much free time, Agreste?

    The reply this time is almost instantaneous. Marinette doesn’t notice the grin on her face or the fond, knowing way Tikki watches her as her fingers fly.

    A.A 2:54 pm: not sure, have any suggestions Dupain-Cheng? ;)

    M.D-C 2:55 pm: hmm, what do rich playboys do with free time usually…

    A.A 2:56 pm: I’m wounded! playboy? *hand over heart* i’m innocent

    M.D-C 2:57 pm: sure :P that’s not what the magazines say

    No reply is instantly forthcoming, and Marinette’s teasing grin fades as she considers her words, wondering if she somehow hurt his feelings. She didn’t mean to imply he’s actually a playboy…

    “Mari? You up there?”

    She starts, pausing before she can type an apologetic message. “Lysse? Yeah.” She slides her phone into her pocket and heads for the stairs, curious. She didn’t think Lysse would be back for a while yet…

    She stops at the top of the stairs, blinking as she takes in the sight of her university roomie-turned-partner-turned-colleague hauling a huge square frame through the wide open doors of their boutique.

    “Lysse, what are you--”

    “Little help!” The frame starts to tilt backward and Marinette leaps into motion, racing down the stairs just in time to grab one corner before the whole thing falls on top of her friend.

    “How did you get this thing in here--” she grunts, trying to maneuver it away from the tables and clothing dummies to the left.

    “Long… story…” Lysse huffs. “Let’s… put it… by the stairs…”

    “Marinette, watch out!” Tikki exclaims, and she feels the little kwami’s paws pressing at her ankle, doubtless keeping her from stepping on something.

    “Thanks, Tikki.”

    “Hey, Roaar, can you… get the… thing…” Lysse grits out, while Tikki continues to guide them both backward. A few minutes later they’ve got the frame settled against the wall by the stairs and both girls stand in front of it, wiping off sweat.

    “What is this?” Tikki asks, paws on her hips as she hovers over Marinette’s shoulder.

    Lysse laughs. “It’s amazing, it’s a renaissance frame! Real period engravings and everything! Just wait until I paint our MerveilleuX logo in it, Mari, it’s going to look amazing.”

    Marinette eyes her excited friend with some bemusement, because… “Where are we going to hang it? It’s huge, and really heavy…”

    “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Mari,” Roaar says, and Marinette turns to see the little magenta kwami drop a bin onto the floor with a clatter. “There’s plenty of space.”

    “Easy for you to say,” she says dryly. Roaar shrugs and flops onto the top of Lysse’s head, just a few inches from her caramel ponytail.

    “We’ll figure it out,” Lysse says, reaching up to rub the tiger kwami’s head. The beads dangling off her bracelet catch the light as she does, shimmering crystals of every color. Roaar only succeeds in pretending not to purr for about three seconds, making Tikki giggle and Marinette smile.

   “All right, well, I can’t wait to see it,” she says, somewhat uncertain still but willing to trust the details to them. She imagines it will look amazing, if they can get it to work.“How was the gallery? Aren’t you back a little early?”

    “Mm, well, it was nice but Andre was there, and you know I can’t stand him.” Lysse wrinkles her nose while Marinette hides her smile. “I bugged out a little early ‘cause I’d heard there was an art fair a few blocks over, and that’s where I found this.”

    She gestures proudly at her acquisition and Marinette can only shake her head.

    “How about you? Any new ideas for the fall design you were talking about?”

    “Ah… no, not really.” Marinette shrugs and plops into a velvet-dusted chair. She had a few, but… “My new shipment came in and I’ve been organizing.”

    And texting Adrien, but she’s not going to say that. She doesn’t know why, but she hasn’t really… told Lysse about him.

    Well, probably because Lysse would tell Alya and Chloe, and they would end up trying to meddle, and… and it’s been kind of nice just being friends with him. Actually getting to know him.

    He’s a lot… funnier than she remembers from when they were kids.

    Of course, thinking that just reminds her of her ill-advised text, and she drags out her phone to send that apology while Lysse digs out a stick of celery for Roaar.

    But Adrien has already responded.

    A.A 3:09 pm: don’t believe everything you read, Marinette ;)

A.A 3:14 pm: what are you doing tonight? looks like I might end up with a couple hours of layover in Paris… ?

    Marinette blinks at her phone and doesn’t notice the smile that tugs at her mouth.

    M.D-C 3:22 pm: sorry, I’m free so far as I know. Airport cafe?

    She smiles and taps her fingers against her pink phone case while she waits, and completely misses the knowing look Lysse gives her from across the room.

    A.A 3:24 pm: sounds great :) i’ll let you know when we’re about to land

    M.D-C 3:25 pm: great :) see you soon :)

    “And whooo are you texting, Mms. Dupain-Cheng?” Lysse asks, sliding over with a singsongy voice.

    Marinette quickly exits her messages and gives Lysse an innocent look. “Uhm, no one.”

    “Right.” Lysse smirks. “Well, I for one have a date tonight, so try to stay out of trouble.”

    “Date?” Marinette asks, sticking her phone under one thigh just in case Lysse pulls an Alya and tries to snatch it. “With who? I thought you and Benedict called it off.”

    “Uhm, yeah, no actually… well....” Marinette arches a brow at her usually affluent friend’s nervousness. “It’s uh… Andre, actually. More of a business thing! Not really a date, just uh, called it that…”

    Marinette smirks, unsurprised. Those two have been dancing around each other for months. “Riiiight. I was wondering when this was going to happen.”

    “It’s not--” But Lysse has no real defense, so she just glowers instead. “Oh, shove off, bug. Go back to texting your boyfriend.”

    “Wha- I don’t-- he’s not--”

    But Lysse has already flounced up the stairs, cackling.

    Marinette flops back against the cushion with a sigh, irritated by the heat in her face. “He’s not,” she mumbles.

    Tikki sits on her shoulder and pats her cheek lightly with one paw. “Oh, Marinette.”

    Marinette just sighs again.

    And then gets up to take the metro back to her apartment, because she needs to change. She’s not going to meet Adrien in stained work clothes.

    Actually, what is she going to wear…

Chapter Text

    Paris.

    Even from inside the airport, it was… familiar. Out here, in the air, walking the streets… this was probably a bad idea.

    But Marinette, ever observant, noticed Adrien's strange melancholy and suggested they take a walk, since he still has a couple of hours until his flight leaves. And Adrien agreed, despite his own sense of trepidation.

    Paris hasn’t changed much. At least, not from down here. He wonders if the view from above would be different, if they climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower…

    That, he knows, is where it hurts. It’s not the city, it’s not that this will always be the place that feels most like home, it’s… Plagg.

    Being here makes him miss Plagg so much. He wonders, as he and Marinette stroll along, if he’ll spot Ladybug somewhere tonight. Or, worse, whoever it is that’s wearing his Miraculous nowadays.

    He still hasn’t been able to bring himself to check. Usually, he doesn’t even think about it.

    Being here, though, the loss is choking him. How can it have been ten years and still feel this strong? It’s not even Ladybug he’s missing so much, it’s… himself.

    Being Chat Noir. Being that free.

    Not that he’s caged anymore, because he’s not. At all. But… he misses that part of himself. And he misses his kwami. Misses being part of something bigger and better than his small, human existence.

    He sighs to himself, watching lights sparkle off a fountain, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his slacks. Marinette is quiet beside him. Though they chatted easily in the cafe, there was something… off. He knows he’s the problem, his awful mood, and realizes he should probably apologize and try to make conversation.

    But he doesn’t find the words.

    And he invited her out tonight for a reason, too -- an important reason. That, he needs to at least get off his chest. He was burning with excitement earlier at the prospect of asking her, and now…

    He almost sighs again.

    Marinette pulls a little ahead of him and stops, leaning against the railing of a small bridge. She doesn’t say anything, or pry, and that almost makes him feel worse.

    With a little huff, Adrien rests his elbows on the railing beside her, watching the stars in the mostly clear summer night sky.

    And he finds himself explaining.

    “It’s just…”

    Or trying to, anyway.

    “It’s been ten years,” Marinette supplies, looking up at him with a small smile. “And you didn’t realize how much you missed it.”

    And now there’s a lump in his throat. Adrien tries to clear it, nodding once. “That’s… part of it, yeah.”

    It’s true. In so many ways. But she has no way of knowing just what, or how much, he’s missing.

    “You… can talk to me, you know. You don’t have to.” Marinette smiles up at him, sweet and so genuinely caring… just like she's always been. “But you can.”

    “I know.” Adrien smiles back at her, relaxing a bit for the first time since the plane set down in the city where he loved and lost so much. He searches his mind for a way to explain, but doesn’t find anything. “I just… I… left a lot behind, here.”

    Marinette looks at him quietly, and he’d almost swear there’s something like understanding in her eyes, in the soft lines of her beautiful face.

    She is. So, so beautiful.

    “Things you… can’t get back?” Marinette asks, tilting her head at him.

    Adrien sighs, glancing away. “Impossible to get back,” he says quietly. Not just Plagg--because he gave up his Miraculous, and even though he and Plagg talked about it, he knows the kwami was mad--but also… the person he was. The kid who needed Chat Noir to be free. The kid who still believed his mother might come home someday.

    It’s not that he really regrets leaving that person behind. But he regrets… he regrets leaving without an explanation. He regrets the way he left things with Plagg, and with Ladybug. He regrets the fact that he let so many of his friendships go. Aside from Nino, he didn’t really keep up with any of the friends he made in high school. Even Chloe… they reached a point somewhere along the way where they just message each other on holidays and special occasions.

    His life is so much better now than it was then, but sometimes… he feels like he doesn’t have any roots.

    Sentimentality, really. He’s always going to be an idiot, apparently. Adrien almost laughs at himself.

    “I’m sorry,” Marinette says, drawing him out of his wandering thoughts. She leans her head against his shoulder, heavy and warm, and for a moment, that warmth seeps into him, filling him up, sweeping the melancholy away.

    Adrien smiles down at her, somewhat sadly. “I’m sorry I left you behind, Marinette.” That's something he's grown more and more sure of these past couple months, as this girl has inserted herself back into his life -- he wasted so much time.

    He's not going to waste any more.

    Mari lifts her head, blinking up at him. “You didn’t! At least,” she pauses, waves a hand, “it never felt that way. We didn’t really know each other before. But I’m glad we’ve gotten to know each other now. Some things, you can get back.”

    Adrien smiles again. “Thanks.”

    Mari makes a little humming sound and rests her head on his shoulder again. And they stand that way for a long while, watching the stars twinkle in the sky, listening to the occasional bursts of chatter from other people in the area.

    And eventually Adrien asks the question he came here to ask in the first place.

    “So, I know you’re busy with your boutique and everything, Mari, but I actually came here with… a proposition, for you.”

    “Hmm?” She tilts her head up, blinking at him curiously. “Okay?”

    Adrien smiles at the hint of wariness. “Father and I are planning a major event in Barcelona this fall, for my new program. We’re going to invite designers from all over the world to showcase pieces for… probably a week or so, those details haven’t been finalized. But I would love for you to participate -- actually, I’d like for you to design a centerpiece line.”

    Marinette stares up at him, blinking, and Adrien continues. “I know it’s going to be a lot of work, but I want this to be perfect, and I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job than you. Also, it’ll be great advertisement for your boutique, and I know you also like helping people, so it being for the charity…”

    He trails off, watching her as her expression slowly morphs into understanding and… a bit of hysteria.

    “M-me? Adrien, that’s… that’s amazing but… are you sure? I mean, I’m not--”

    “Don’t even say you’re not that good,” he interrupts, frowning sternly at her. “I know you have the vision and the talent to do this, and my father thinks so to, so that’s not the question. The question is, will you do it?”

    “I… this…” She works her mouth around for a moment more, and Adrien can practically see the whirlwind of thoughts rushing through her head, but finally she just makes a weak squeaking sound and throws her arms around him. “Oh, how could I possibly say no? Adrien-- thank you!”

    He can only laugh--admittedly very relieved that she said yes--as he hugs her back.

    “You’re going to be amazing,” he says warmly, resting his chin atop her head. He can’t say he’s surprised by how comfortable it feels to hold her.

    But, eventually, she pulls away, and they continue down the street beneath the stars, heading back to the airport. He explains what they have so far in terms of details for the event, which isn’t much.

    “And the designs… do you have any particular themes in mind, or…?”

    Adrien hums a little. “No. We want this to be a free-for-all, to really show off the various styles and talents from around the world. So, just… whatever inspires you, Mari. Go for it.”

    She grins up at him, though there’s a hint of trepidation in her eyes as she realizes just how much work this is going to be. He pats her shoulder reassuringly.

    “I have faith in you.”

    She laughs a little. “Thanks…” Then she mutters under her breath, “What inspires me…” Lost in thought, she reaches up and tugs on the chain around her neck, fiddling with it. He’s noticed her doing that before, almost as if it brings her… comfort.

    Curious, Adrien prods her hand, causing her to jump. “What is that necklace you’re always fiddling with?” he asks, half teasingly as he lifts his brows.

    He doesn’t expect her to blush and hastily tuck the hidden charm back beneath her shirt, where he can’t see it. He doesn’t expect the flicker of sadness that crosses her face, either.

    “Oh-- it’s noth--...”

    “Nothing?” Adrien supplies, arching a brow.

    Marinette bites her lip, looking down. “It’s not nothing. It’s just… very special to me.”

    “Do you… mind if I ask why?”

    She studies him from the corner of her eye for a moment, then straightens her shoulders, smiling a little wryly. “I’ve… left some things behind, too,” she says, shrugging. There’s a heaviness to her eyes, though… and he recognizes the feeling.

    “Someone broke your heart,” he says, quietly, sadly.

    Marinette looks away. “I think… I broke his first.” She sighs heavily. “I… I was a stupid kid. I didn’t realize… he was already gone by the time I understood how much he meant to me. How much I loved him. And I can’t get that back.” Her expression firms, and she grips the charm beneath her shirt again, eyes filling with familiar determination. Something in that look, in the way her spine straightens…

    She shakes her head. “But I can give this back to him, someday, when I find him again.”

    Adrien studies her, more curious about that necklace now than he was before. “It’s… something of his?”

    “Something important, yeah,” Marinette says, and he gets the distinct feeling from her tone that she won’t say any more about it.

    So he just smiles and grips her shoulder again. “I hope you find him, then. I… know a little something about heartbreak. It’s not easy to move on.”

    “No,” she agrees, dropping her hand. After a moment of quiet, she glances at him again. “Who broke your heart?”

    Adrien shrugs, and now it’s his turn to look away. Even though that hurt has long since faded, it’s still not something he can explain. To anyone who doesn’t know he was Chat Noir, his feelings for Ladybug will seem impossible and childish. They can’t know that he actually did know that amazing girl, even if he didn’t know who she was beneath the mask.

    “She’s not… one of the things I left behind,” he says, trying to find a way to explain without sounding crazy. “I actually think getting some distance from her was good for me, in a way. She’d made it clear she was never going to feel the same way about me, and… well, I needed to move on. So that’s good. Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”

    “I’m sorry,” Marinette says, reaching out to grip his arm sympathetically. Without thinking, Adrien scoops up her hand and plants a kiss on it--almost directly on her paw print tattoo--before grinning at her.

    “Thank you, Mari-sweet. But I don’t feel heartbroken anymore, so don’t worry.”

    She blinks at him, cheeks flushing in a way that he really likes. Her eyes flick from their entwined hands to his face and back again and she bites her lip.

    “That… that’s good.”

    He wonders, then, why she still looks a little sad. All the same, he holds her hand all the way back to the airport, and when they part ways at the gate, she’s smiling again.

    Adrien counts that as a victory.

Chapter Text

    Ladybug hates Hawk Moth.

    She’s never hated anyone, has always thought it was wrong to hate, but she… she hates Hawk Moth.

    The akuma is a child. Again. Yet again Hawk Moth has shown how little he cares about people, has shown that there’s not a scrap of good in him, no conscience at all.

    Adults and teenagers are one thing.

    But children?

    There’s something horrific about it that Ladybug can’t wrap her head around. That she’ll never be able to wrap her head around.

    Even as she dodges the wall of slime shot at her by Hawk Moth’s latest victim -- a four year old boy. Denied something or other by his mother, throwing a fit.

    Now turned into Playmate, a rampaging toddler with a temper, using bursts of slime to turn Parisians into friends or puddles.

    It seems he’s deemed Ladybug unfit for friendship. Just like Chat Noir, who took a blast meant for her -- jumped in front of it like an idiot, like the shield he for some reason thinks he is.

    She internalizes her panic, pushes away the fear of that -- of seeing him melt before her eyes, turned into a puddle of steaming goo. Slime.

    She tries to comfort herself with the thought that he’ll be making endless slime references after this. That he’ll joke about being turned into a video game monster.

    She tries to bring up his voice in her mind, punning about that, and tries to imagine rolling her eyes at him for it.

    But panic still claws at her chest.

    She unleashes it on the akuma -- her fear, her rage. She attacks again and again, even knowing Playmate is just a kid; her yoyo is everywhere, but it keeps sliding off his slimey exterior.

    Useless.

    Ladybug forces herself to focus, to step back, to think. To take a moment, on a nearby rooftop as Playmate continues his rampage, to call for her Lucky Charm.

    When it lands in her waiting hands, she blinks at it. Looks around. Darts after Playmate, searching for the way she can use it -- of all things, a ball of slime ?

    Kids’ slime, the kind they play with, nothing like the strange greenish stuff Playmate is throwing around.

    But she doesn’t see what she’s supposed to do with it. How it could be useful.

    So she tucks it into her belt, leaving it for now, and starts looking for something else. She’s almost positive the akuma is in Playmate’s bracelet, so she has to get it, has to get past the slime…

    Ladybug darts in, scooping up a couple who were about to be friendzoned, hauling them out of the way. Playmate wails, once again focused on her.

    Good. Better her than anyone else.

    And, as she sets the couple on a nearby rooftop, she sees what she needs. Finally.

    Ladybug moves, yoyo flying as she sets her trap -- a little of this, a little of that, and-- there.

    She drops to the street in front of Playmate, yoyo spinning to ward off a burst of slime. “Hey, Playmate!” she shouts, backing down the street, heading toward the nearby park. “Wanna play tag? Catch me if you can!”

    The akuma screams and starts after her, far faster and more coordinated than any four-year-old should be. Unnatural. Unfair, that’s what akumas are.

    Ladybug pushes the thought away as she charges through the streets, just fast enough to keep ahead of the akuma but slow enough so he won’t lose her -- but he’s faster than she anticipated and she has to speed up as he lunges, fingers swiping for her, moving through thin air.

    So close, so close, so close--

    Ladybug ducks and whirls, leaping into the air as she lunges over the railing. Playmate follows, arms spread -- only to crash into the net she’s placed and fall, right down into a pit of sand.

    A playground.

    He wails, writhing as he tries to get up, but the sand mixes into his slime and weighs him down, makes his body heavy and unwieldy. Ladybug leans down and snatches his bracelet, snapping it. She breathes a sigh of relief when a dark butterfly bursts out of it and Playmate goes still on the ground.

    She tries not to think as she flings out her yoyo, capturing the akuma and setting it free. Then she picks up the ball of slime from her belt--strange that she didn’t need it, though it did help her remember the composition of slime--and hurls it into the air, calling out for her Miraculous Ladybug.

    But nothing happens.

    No ladybugs spread out to cleanse the city, to bring her Chat Noir back, to fix what the akuma did.

    There’s… nothing.

    Just distant screaming.

    What? What? No-- no, why isn’t it working--

    Wake up.”

    “What?” She whirls, searching for the source of that calm, distant voice. Something about the tone, or maybe the voice itself, makes her skin tingle.

    “Wake up, Ladybug.”

    “I’m--”

    She gasps as the sky bursts into flame. Gold and red and orange, brilliant and brighter than any fire she’s ever seen, it spreads in a rush until the playground is consumed, until the city is swallowed, until Ladybug--

    It occurs to her, in that sea of flame that doesn’t burn, that she should be afraid.

    But she isn’t.

    The world burns away to nothing, and Ladybug opens her eyes, gasping at the blue sky, heaving in heavy breaths as she rolls over and retches.

    Slime coats her fingers, her hair, the ground.

    Right. She got hit.

    She got… hit.

    That was… not real?

    She lifts her eyes to find a pair of boots a few feet away. Not Chat’s boots. Follows them up a pair of black-clad legs, a red sash dangling from a trim waist, red lining the forearms of black gloves, a line of golden, flame-like spikes protruding just beneath her elbows. Slim, tight-fitting--the designer in her notes its elegance and functionality--with a high collar slightly open at the throat. The woman doesn’t have a mask over her dark eyes; no, it’s a shadow. Like dark smoke.

    Ladybug stares up at the woman, confused. Is this an akuma? They were fighting Playmate…

    The woman smiles, dark hair tied back in a mass of braids shifting over one shoulder as she offers a hand. “Welcome back, Ladybug. I’ve purified the akuma, but my godsfire can’t restore the city or those who were affected by its power.” She’d swear the woman lifts a brow. “If you’d be so kind?”

    “Who… who are you?” Ladybug asks, even as she sits up, then stands, head spinning. She-- she got hit. That wasn’t real.

    Somehow, getting hit must have knocked her out or--

    Chat. Chaton--

    “Later,” the woman says.

    Yes. Chaton got hit as well. Chaton-- mon dieu. They lost this one. Lost.

    Swallowing past the panic and bile in her throat, Ladybug throws her yoyo into the sky. “Miraculous Ladybug!”

    Relief fills her as the ladybugs spread out, restoring her city -- and her friend.

    Real.

    Beside her, the woman watches the miraculous mass with a small, secret smile before she turns to Ladybug.

    “I am Phoenixia,” she says, inclining her head once. “I wield the Dragon Miraculous.”

    Ladybug can only gape.

    The… dragon? But that’s one of the missing Miraculous… well, according to Master Fu, it’s not missing so much as… was never there, even before the Guardians were lost.

    And now… this?

    She’s vaguely aware of Chat Noir returning, and relief swells in her at that, too -- so much so when she hears his voice that for a moment she turns to him, to throw her arms around him.

    When she turns back from the stunned cat, Phoenixia is gone.

Chapter Text

    Three days since Playmate. Marinette couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus on school. A nightmare chased her from her bed tonight, out into Paris’ streets.

    She doesn’t usually patrol this late, and things have been quiet, anyway, but…

    She needed the fresh air.

    There’s been no sign of the strange woman who called herself Phoenixia, and no one else seems to have seen her. According to everyone, it was just another day in Paris -- Ladybug and Chat Noir saved the day.

    But Ladybug knows better.

    They lost that one.

    She sees now why her Lucky Charm sometimes sends her to Fu, sends her in search of another ally -- sees, more clearly than ever, that she and Chat aren’t invincible. The akumas are dangerous.

    Hawk Moth has to be found, has to be stopped. This has been going on for two years too long -- and what, really, have they been doing to try and find Hawk Moth? Aside from the one time the kwamis tried to use their connection to Nooroo to find the villain, they haven’t even been looking.

    Not really.

    Ladybug is tired of it. Tired of waiting for the next attack. She wants to find Hawk Moth and be done with all of this.

    With such frustrated, spinning thoughts in her head, she leans into a cool breeze off the Seine and doesn’t notice when a dark figure drops out of the sky behind her.

    Doesn’t notice anything until a voice, low and sultry and female, pierces the air.

    “So much stress isn’t good for you, you know. You should try meditating.”

    Ladybug whirls, hand on her yoyo, but it takes a moment for her eyes to pierce the darkness. And then Phoenixia steps into the moonlight, boots silent on the rooftop of a quiet office building. For a moment, Ladybug notices the things she missed before -- the gold streaks in the woman’s hair, the tail--edged in black and gold spines--that hovers behind her, the… are her ears pointed?

    And there are horns protruding from her hair, two of them -- sharp and tall and curved slightly backward, slim enough that Ladybug took them for shadows at first.

    She has to admit, if that’s a Miraculous suit… it’s very cool.

    Ladybug opens her mouth, not sure what she’ll say aside from demanding proof that the woman is actually a Miraculous holder -- but she doesn’t get a chance.

    She feels a familiar rush, a soothing tingle, and then her transformation drops and Tikki is floating in the air before her -- and she hasn’t used her Lucky Charm, so it wasn’t running out--

    “Zephyr!” Tikki cries, and Marinette can only stare as her kwami zooms across the rooftop to cuddle against Phoenixia’s face.

    With a laugh, the other woman lifts her hands to hold Tikki, and red light shimmers over her as her transformation drops.

    Well-- she’s definitely a Miraculous holder. A small red kwami floats in the air beside her head, yellow eyes bright with happiness as it joins the cuddle. It has horns, too. And a tail.

    The dragon.

    But Tikki…

    Tikki dropped Marinette’s transformation. In front of a stranger.

    She doesn’t know if she’s angry or scared or some combination of both.

    She opens her mouth again, and isn’t sure what she’s going to say. “You--”

    “We should talk,” Phoenixia interrupts, dark eyes lifting to Marinette’s. She’s smiling, a small, calm thing that doesn’t fade when she seems to note Marinette’s distress. “It’s all right, Marinette. I already knew who you were.”

    Marinette can only gape at her. “Wha- who-... who are you?”

    “Marinette,” Tikki says, floating away from Phoenixia’s face to smile at her proudly. “I’m sorry I’ve never mentioned this before, but… it’s been a very long time since we’ve been reunited. It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce Zephyr Castellan, the Guardian of the kwamis.”

    “And also the wielder of the Dragon Miraculous,” Phoenixia--Zephyr--adds, smiling again.

    “I’m Longg,” the dragon kwami pipes up, waving a paw. Marinette vaguely notes that the voice marks him as male.

    “I-it’s… nice to meet you,” she stutters, staring at them both, at Tikki most of all. “I… I thought Master Fu was the Guardian of the kwamis?”

    Tikki shakes her head, floating closer to put a paw against Marinette’s cheek. Instinctively, she cups a hand around the kwami.

    “No, Master Fu is the Guardian of the Miraculous. Zephyr is… different.”

    “I watched over the kwamis long before the Miraculous were formed and the Order of the Guardians was created,” Zephyr says -- as calmly as if they’re talking about the weather.

    As if she’s not a woman who looks like she’s twenty or thirty claiming to be hundreds--thousands?--of years old.

    Marinette can only stare. “This… you…” She sinks abruptly onto the rooftop. “I’m going to need more of an explanation than that.”

    Because it’s one thing for Tikki to be thousands of years old, and it’s one thing for Master Fu to be nearly two hundred thanks to Wayzz, but… this? And maybe Tikki trusts this person, but... how is Marinette supposed to react to this?

     It's insane.

    Zephyr only smiles again and comes to sit beside her, both kwamis hovering between them, apparently very happy to see each other. Of course they are. 

    “I’m here to help you, Marinette,” Zephyr says, and for the first time there’s something solemn in her face. “Nooroo is an old friend. I want to help you save him.”

Chapter Text

    Another month passes in a blur. Marinette is so busy trying and then scrapping designs that she barely notices anything else, save the rare moments when a news update mentions how quiet things have been and she pauses to wonder.

    The Mehyr, she’s sure, are up to something. They’ve never gone this long without attacking, and she really doesn’t like their silence.

    All the same, she’s often too preoccupied to worry about it. She talks to Adrien near-constantly, through texts or on Skype when he’s free. At first, it’s all to help with her design troubles -- they talk about fabrics and styles and throw ideas back and forth. Inevitably, though, their conversations shift to chatter, random questions and interesting tidbits from their daily lives that are fun to share. Adrien has an endless supply of stories from his years of traveling, and Marinette never tires of hearing them. He, in turn, asks about her time in university and her rise to fame in the fashion industry, so she regales him with some of her most ridiculous exploits, and eventually the talk of work is forgotten in favor of light teasing and ridiculous jokes.

    Adrien, it turns out, is a complete dork. He has horrid taste in music and grins far too smugly when he uses stupid puns. If Marinette had known that about him in high school, she imagines things might have gone very differently.

   Despite herself, she often finds her mind wandering in that direction. Wondering what might have been.

    Pointless, of course, but… she can’t help it. Talking to him makes the time fly by, and before she knows it she has a solid idea for her fall line and a plethora of sketches to go through, even if none of them feel quite right.

    Marinette is in the midst of perusing those very sketches, trying to figure out what’s missing, when her phone buzzes with an alert. Her pulse jumps, thinking it might be the Mehyr -- but it’s just her newsfeed, informing her that there’s a new article up on a local news site. Not one of Alya’s, but Marinette taps on it anyway, since its headline mentions the terrorists.

    It’s just another theory piece, though, questioning why it’s been nearly two months since the Mehyr have done anything. Marinette frowns and stares out the wide glass windows of her workspace, watching the late morning sunlight shine on her city.

    This whole thing is...  bothersome.

    And she’s not getting anywhere with these designs. With a sigh, she pushes away from her desk and meanders downstairs into the boutique, stretching as she goes. The place is empty this early on a Tuesday, and Lysse is kicked back at the register with her feet up on the counter, flipping through her phone.

    Marinette appreciates her friend’s hefty motorcycle boots even as she frowns at them being on the expensive wood.

    “How’s it going up there?” Lysse asks, tilting her head to peer at Marinette around the register.

    "I don't know, Lysse." Marinette sighs, then shrugs and lifts her phone, her mind still on the article. "Did you see this?"

    Lysse nods and her mouth twists wryly as she studies Marinette's screen. “You think it’s too much to hope they gave up and went home? Maybe they needed those diamonds to fund their messes,” she says hopefully.

    Marinette would love to think so, but she has a bad feeling in her stomach, and she doesn’t think it’s going to be that easy. “It’s probably too much to hope,” she says, leaning against the counter. Lysse notices her eying her boots and grins before dropping her feet to the floor.

    “Killjoy. How’s the line coming?”

    “It’s… missing something. I don’t know.” Marinette taps her fingers on the counter restlessly. She already had this conversation with Adrien this morning, and it didn’t get her anywhere either. She doesn't know what's wrong with it, it's just... not right. 

     Lysse eyes her sympathetically. “You’ve seemed really stressed about it,” she observes, leaning forward to plant her elbows on the counter. “You know it’s okay if you don’t put out a fall line this year, right? You can just do spring next year.”

    Marinette shakes her head. “I didn’t do spring this year--” for various reasons, not the least of which was the arrival of the Mehyr in Paris, “--and I want to do something.” She needs to do something, before she falls behind in the industry. Though that's hardly the best--or real--motivation. She doesn’t say, of course, that she has to do this -- not just for MerveilleuX but for Adrien.

    At this point, she has no idea how to tell her friends that. Oh, yeah, by the way, Adrien Agreste randomly asked me to do a centerpiece for his new charity show this fall… how did that happen, you ask? Well, we ran into each other and I didn’t tell you...

    Of course, Lysse probably wouldn’t care. She wasn’t in high school with them and was therefore never privy to Marinette’s ridiculous crush. She’s never even met Adrien.

    Still. Alya would tease her endlessly.

    And she would deserve it.

    “Well, don’t stress so much,” Lysse says, giving Marinette a bright smile. “Whatever you come up with will be amazing, as always.”

    Ah, the optimism. She sounds like Tikki. Marinette gives her longtime friend a wry, grateful smile. “Thanks, Lysse. You mind if I come down here to work for awhile? I could use the company.”

   "Why are you even asking?" Lysse grins and shoos her off. "Go get your stuff. I'm bored to tears down here."

    "It's true," Roaar pipes up, floating out from beneath the counter with a celery stick in his paws. "She's been humming Fifth Night for hours. My ears are dying."

    Marinette laughs, both at the kwami's good-natured complaint--she totally gets it, since Lysse can't sing to save her life--and at Lysse's subsequent frowning. Feeling a bit lighter, Marinette heads back upstairs to get her sketchbook. She spends the next hour sitting behind the register with Lysse, chatting about random things--such as how her friend's new relationship is going, since she’s now been on four ‘not-dates’ with Andre--and pretending to work on her line. Tikki and Roaar chase each other around the empty store, filling the air with tinkling laughter, and Marinette can think of few better ways to spend a work day.

    Until another alert pops up on her phone, and this time, it isn’t a news article.

    Mehyr attack at Hôtel D'abeille, hostages taken

    It’s a text from Alya, and a moment later an alert comes through from the police scanners, saying much the same thing. Lysse’s phone buzzes, too, and the girls share a grim look.

    “Time for lunch, I think,” Marinette says, standing.

    “Agreed.”

    Lysse flips the sign on the door to closed, and Marinette turns off the lights. A moment later, Ladybug and Rayée are zipping through the sky, headed for trouble.

Chapter Text

    Click click. Click click. Click click click.

    The young Parisian man taps away at his keyboard, brows furrowed at the screen in front of him. After a moment, he finds what he’s looking for and turns his attention back to the line stretching out from his glassed-in booth. Khalid watches light eyes crinkle in a smile and thinks the kid is entirely too friendly for his job. His nametag, embroidered into a simple airport uniform, reads ‘Jacques’.

    “Right, your passports please,” Jacques says, tapping a finger at the small hole in the glass above his counter. Beside Khalid, Artois slides their documents over.

    “How long are you in Paris for?” Jacques asks, looking over their papers with a practiced eye.

    “Just a few weeks, perhaps a month,” Artois says easily, giving the kid a smooth smile. For a guy who’s nearly a century old, the mage can be charming. It helps he doesn’t look his age.

    “Business or pleasure?” Jacques asks, smiling as he slides their passports back through the opening.

    “Oh, definitely pleasure,” Artois says, grinning easily. Jacques chuckles and Khalid holds in a smirk; the old man probably does think of this sort of thing as ‘pleasure’.

    For Khalid, it’s purely business. But he doesn’t say that, content with letting the mage do the talking here. He looks around the wide open room with its many booths and bottlenecked security doorways, the occasional officer checking to make sure things are going smoothly. Chattering families, texting businessmen, and bored transit employees mill through the space, each lost in a little world of their own. Khalid is momentarily distracted by a pair of long, shapely legs sticking out of a tiny little pencil skirt -- a flight attendant, maybe, or just a businesswoman passing through.

    Red’s a good color on her. Khalid catches her gaze just as she passes through a different checkpoint and smirks at the way her eyes widen slightly.

    Then Jacques is motioning them through, wishing them happy travels, and handing Artois a sight-seeing pamphlet.

    Beyond the gate, the airport spreads out into a wide hall lined with shops and restaurants, broken up by signs in French and English explaining the way to various points of interest. Artois takes them toward the exit, Khalid at an easy step by his side. They have no bags to claim, as they’re both carrying their only luggage.

    “You know, you can be disarming when you want to be,” Khalid murmurs, the Arabic words spoken just under his breath. As expected, Artois hears him and turns a small, smirk-like expression his way.

    “And you can be charmingly quiet when you choose to be.”

    Khalid snorts at the thinly veiled insult and hefts his travel pack, slinging it neatly over one shoulder. “I thought you liked chatter, sayidi,” he drawls, his voice still a low rumble between them. As he speaks, he keeps an eye on their surroundings, mindful that airports are busy places. No one pays them any mind, though. They pass a group of businessmen and a smattering of grinning tourists seated in a cafe; if any of them notice the two travelers walking by, it’s only the college-age girl who stares at Khalid with a familiar lusty expression.

    Khalid smirks.

    “There is a difference between chatter and intelligent conversation, Al Fakir,” Artois says, his usually calm voice tinged with a hint of dry rancor. Khalid smirks at that, too, as they turn down a wider, less shop-strewn hall. Across the way is a bank of televisions, broadcasting a live news feed in both French and English.

    The word ‘Mehyr’ catches Khalid’s attention, and he slows his steps, vaguely curious.

    “-hostages, but they have yet to make any demands. Ladybug, Queen Bee, Carapace, and Rayée are on the case, so we expect to see results soon.” The screen shows an image of police barriers set up outside a large Parisian hotel -- Hôtel D'abeille, it’s called. A middle-aged female reporter stands some distance from the mess, concern pinching her brows together. “There’s been no word as of yet what the terrorists are trying to accomplish here, but Paris’ heroes are working with the police force to ensure--

    The reporter prattles on and the camera pans to show a young woman clad in red and black swinging toward the building on some kind of rope. Ladybug. Hmm. Khalid turns his attention away from the broadcast, having heard all he needs. Artois is waiting for him a few steps ahead, tapping something into his phone’s keyboard. The mage starts moving again as soon as Khalid reaches him, sliding the device back into his pocket.

    Khalid arches a brow and keeps his voice especially quiet, devoid of too much emotion save vague curiosity and his usual amusement. “Hostages in a hotel?”

    “Are you asking a question, Al Fakir?”

    Khalid smirks. “Just wondering if there’s a reason for that.” He may not have been following the Mehyr’s activity for long, but something so drastic seems out of character. He assumes it has something to do with their arrival today and doesn’t really need to ask. All the same, he’s curious as to what the mage’s answer will be -- if he’ll answer at all.

    So far their working relationship has consisted of Khalid’s latest boss seeming exasperated by his newest employee’s smart mouth and constant amusement.

    Artois is silent for a moment as they pass another cafe. Then he says, “I don’t see why you need to know our plans.”

    Khalid shrugs, halfway agreeing with that. He’s not here to care about their goals, after all. And his true question has been answered -- the mage is not keen on sharing his intentions. That’s just fine with Khalid.

    Artois makes a small sound, somewhere between thoughtful and amused. Khalid glances at the mage to see his mouth curving slightly. “You are good at your job, aren’t you, Al Fakir.”

    It isn’t a question, and if it were it’d be a stupid one. Khalid just smirks. Something about that must please the mage, because Artois turns a speculative gaze his way.

    “I was curious to see how the heroes would react to such a situation,” he says, tilting his head. Khalid stifles his surprise, keeping a passive look on his face. “Also, it’s providing a rather pertinent distraction, no?” Artois gestures subtly between them, and Khalid smirks again, taking the point and the information in silence. With something so big happening elsewhere, no one relevant is around to notice their arrival. With rumors that Zephyr Castellan is in the city, Khalid can see why Artois is being cautious.

    They reach the airport doors then, wide glass fixtures that slide open upon their approach, and the subject is dropped. Outside, Khalid is instantly wrapped in the smell of cheap cigarette smoke and flowers, two scents that don’t go well together. He resists the urge to wrinkle his nose as Artois hails a taxi.

    Overhead, above the sweeping rooftops, the Parisian sky is a bright, clear blue, spotted with only a few clouds. The afternoon air is warm and a breeze brushes Khalid’s hair back from his face, catching him -- that scent isn’t unpleasant at all.

    He studies the area, somewhat curious despite himself. He’s never actually been to this part of Europe before. The thought strikes a fancy in his head as Artois climbs into the arriving taxi, pushing his briefcase ahead of him. They’re just going to the hotel, with nothing to do until this evening, and the mage’s ‘distraction’ should provide plenty of cover… Khalid won’t be needed for a few hours.

    He leans down into the car’s open doorway and plucks the sight-seeing pamphlet from Artois’ front pocket, earning a deadpan stare.

    He smirks. “What? You said we’re here for pleasure.”

    Artois snorts and settles himself in the seat, apathetic and clearly not going to argue. A typical reaction from him. “Just make sure you’re on time for the meeting tonight.”

    Khalid grins, resting an arm atop the taxi’s roof. “You stick to your end of this bargain, sayidi, and I’ll be early,” he promises, not bothering to keep the suggestion out of his tone. Artois just snorts again and taps on the roof of the cab, urging the driver into motion. Khalid slams the door as they take off, leaving him standing alone on the street.

    He flips through the pamphlet as he turns to walk down the sidewalk, heading into that breeze so he can enjoy its feel on his skin. He doesn’t care much for museums and he can’t say he’s overjoyed at all the garden prospects, but a few of the attractions do look interesting.

    “I’ve never been to Paris.” The high-pitched, resonant voice seeps out of Khalid’s shirt pocket, and he glances down to see Kaadri’s horned head showing above the lining. Her mahogany skin swirls with painted shadows that dance excitedly, showing her enthusiasm. “I’ve heard they have quite the red light district here,” the kwami continues, glancing up at Khalid with a lascivious grin.

    Khalid snorts, though he’s heard the same himself and is far from opposed to the idea of heading in that direction. That was partially his plan, anyway. Knowing where that particular spot is will come in handy later. Before he can say that, though, something else catches his attention -- a sense that also grabs Kaadri’s gaze. They glance up at the same moment, into the bright afternoon sun, in time to see a yellow blur whizz past.

    Khalid turns to follow it and realizes it’s not a blur but a young woman -- another Miraculous holder, clearly. Long blonde hair and delicious curves tucked into skin-tight yellow and black.

   So that’s the Bee. She and her comrades are finished at that hotel already? Interesting.

   Slowly, a smirk tugs at Khalid’s mouth, and he tucks the pamphlet into his pocket without looking at it again.

  “Decided where we’re going?” Kaadri asks, grinning again.

    Khalid’s smirk grows into something wicked as he starts down the street. “Hunting, khalila." He glances down at her. "And maybe Pigalle after that.”

Chapter Text

    Those bastards.

    Chloe is seething, still surging with energy after this morning’s… debacle. And it had to be today of all days that they decided to pull something, at one of her hotels no less--

    Ugh.

    Chloe reminds herself to breathe, reminds herself of where she is and what she’s doing and why she can’t afford to lose control of her temper. She was already late arriving thanks to the situation at Hôtel D'abeille. Not that that seems to matter to anyone.

    Ignoring her mounting frustration, Chloe focuses on the careful, methodical strokes of brush on nail as she re-applies her red polish, ensuring that each half-moon shaped target looks utterly perfect.

    It’s not as if she has anything else to do, sitting here waiting. Chloe has never mastered this particular passtime, despite people throughout her life telling her it’s useful. Patience, in her opinion, is for people who can’t buy faster speeds.

    All the money in her bank account isn’t going to make this go any faster, though. She holds in a sigh and moves on to her other hand, taking more time than she needs to to get each stroke perfect. When she’s finished, she carefully caps the bottle and drops it into her purse, glancing at the clock on the far wall as she does so -- ugh, it hasn’t even been twenty minutes.

    This is ridiculous. Why is she even here?

    Frowning, Chloe waves her hands to dry the polish, letting her gaze drift around the room. It’s a typical office waiting room, with plush chairs and tables covered in magazines and a bored receptionist who’s been entirely unhelpful ever since Chloe walked in.

    Some people give her a bit of extra respect and oomph for being the daughter of the former mayor, or even for being one of the city’s superheroes -- she’s never really bothered to keep that a secret, after all.

    Then there are the people like this woman, who seem to think it’s acceptable to treat Chloe as if she’s normal.

    Chloe focuses on her breathing and tries to think of something else. Getting upset is not going to help -- whether it’s Marinette or Zephyr talking in her head doesn’t particularly matter.

    It’s just… today of all days...

    Chloe catches her thoughts drifting in a direction she doesn’t like and tries her best to realign them. What were the Mehyr even doing taking hostages at her hotel? It doesn’t make sense.

    Chloe wants answers, but aside from the police report on whatever questions they’ll ask the terrorists they’ve arrested… there’s nowhere to get them.

    Unless…

    It’s possible Zephyr may know something. She’s good at… gathering information. The idea ruminates in the back of Chloe’s mind, turning itself over and over. Even if Zephyr doesn’t know anything useful, it would be nice to spend the afternoon down there.

    Hmm.

    With her nails mostly dry, Chloe tugs out her phone and checks her messages--there are none--and then her newsfeed. It’s crowded with various reporters and bloggers rehashing the events of an hour ago. Boring and frustrating. She’ll definitely visit Zephyr this afternoon.

    Just as she’s about ready to start annoying someone--anyone--with messages in order to have something to do, the door next to the receptionist’s desk pops open and a small, balding man pokes his head out.

    “Mms. Bourgeois? You can come in now.”

    Chloe snorts. “It’s about time.”

    The man makes no comment as he lets her past him, clearly used to being insulted. Most people in these sorts of places are, Chloe’s found.

    She steps into the space beyond, which is nothing at all like an office; across the massive room, cameramen and equipment people are packing things up, while overhead lights flicker into existence to brighten the previously dim areas. In the center of the mess of cameras sits a plush cream couch on a frankly over-the-top shag rug. Its off-white color clashes with the yellow of Nadja Chamack’s shoes.

    Chloe strides forward, ignoring all the unimportant people along with her own thoughts. Her black heels click smartly on the concrete floors, and she focuses on the sound of that -- click, clack, click, clack.

    “Chloe, how wonderful of you to finally show up.” The woman beside Nadja stands, dusting off perfectly manicured hands and giving Chloe a familiar disappointed look.

    As if Chloe chose to wait outside for so long, as if this wasn’t orchestrated. As if she wasn’t clearly busy with something important this morning.

    Chloe simply arches a practiced brow. “Mother. You wanted to see me?”

    More like demanded. And since the madame is only going to be in Paris for the three hours of her interview, clearly a visit had to be squeezed in right at the end.

    As if Chloe has nothing better to do, and as if her mother couldn’t have stopped by the hotel or at least extended her visit by a small margin.

    But no, why would she do that? Chloe has never been that important to her mother -- not when she was a child and certainly not now that she’s refused to take part in her mother’s business. It took many years for Chloe to recognize it, because she was a filthy child, but really -- why did she spend so long trying to impress this woman? Trying to be like her?

    There’s nothing about Audrey Bourgeois that is worthy of imitation. Absolutely nothing. Not even that admittedly delightful Antoine perfume.

    All right, so Chloe might like to get her hands on some of that.

    “Yes, Chloe, we should talk.” Her mother brushes invisible lint from her perfectly tailored jacket as she strides off the rug, her attention far above everyone else gathered around them. “We never talk anymore.”

    Chloe holds in her scoff. Barely.

    As if the fact that they’ve never talked doesn’t have anything to do with that. Honestly. This is ridiculous -- why did she even agree to come? Did she really think her mother might have something worthwhile to say?

    Or is she still such a child that she’s unable to tell her mother no?

    Again, Chloe directs her own mind away from the thoughts she dislikes, focusing on the external instead. Not quite meditation, but at least she’s not acting like the woman in front of her.

    “What did you want to talk about, mother?” she asks, keeping pace with Audrey as the madame walks down a side hall, doubtless one that will lead to her chopper on the roof. This brief walk will be all the time they’ll have.

    Chloe shouldn’t have come. Marinette would have told her not to. Which is why Marinette doesn’t know Chloe is here.

    “Oh, everything, darling. How is that lovely little project of yours coming? Have you failed miserably yet?”

    Despite being in an interview all morning, her mother has likely heard what happened at one of Chloe’s ‘projects’. The dig is doubtless intentional. Chloe’s teeth grind together -- a habit likely picked up from Alya and one she should cease immediately, mon dieu.

    She takes a steadying breath. “No, mother, sorry to disappoint you.”

    The madame clicks her tongue. “Oh well, no matter. Did I tell you? I--” With that, she launches into a description of her latest acquisition, managing to add in how well she’s doing in the fashion industry while insulting her competition in a way that’s entirely dismissive.

    Chloe tunes her out, wondering to herself why she ever thought that was a useful skill. It just sounds… stuffy.

    By the time Audrey makes it onto her chopper, Chloe is ready to throw something off the roof. She hasn’t spoken more than ten words. And two of them weren’t even ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’.

    The helicopter rises out of view, though the sound of it lingers for some time. Chloe stands there, debating making the pointless walk back down through the halls, hating that she even came.

    Why did she come? It’s been three years since she last saw her mother, and that meeting didn’t go any better than this one. Why did she think this would be different?

    Why did she think her mother would care?

    “Are you all right, my queen?” Pollen’s voice comes from the pocket of Chloe’s jacket, and she sighs, glancing down to see the little yellow kwami sticking her antennae out of the hiding spot.

    “It’s just… ridiculous,” she says, but the words hold little bite and more… she doesn’t know what. She sighs.

    Pollen’s little paw gently pats her chest from inside the pocket. “You will be alright, my queen. She isn’t worthy of you.”

    Chloe smiles. “Of course she’s not.”

    Though many would say it’s the other way around. Chloe tosses her hair, ignoring that thought. The wind teases her, and she turns her face to it, deciding she won’t walk back down. Suiting up and taking a run sounds like the perfect way to forget this day ever happened. Until, of course, she has to go home this evening and deal with all the paperwork from this morning’s mess.

    “All right, Pollen, bug on!”

    Pollen giggles as she’s pulled into the comb in Chloe’s hair, and then it’s just a rush -- a rush of energy, a rush of power, a rush of adrenaline.

    Chloe loves this feeling. Loves it.

    She tosses her loose hair over one shoulder and unclasps her top, sending it spinning. In no time she’s flying down the building and onto the lower rooftops of Paris, speeding so fast everything else is a blur.

    Queen Bee flashes through the streets, waving at people she passes. She could head straight home to Le Grand Paris or even shortcut directly to Zephyr’s place, but… she’d rather take some time and fly. Maybe this will release some of the tension coiling in her shoulders.

    So she takes a path by the river, leaping and spinning and setting her top on route after route, pulling her along, until the morning’s irritations are just vague moments in the back of her mind.

    Unimportant.

    When Chloe finally stops, she can’t quite say why she does. She’s not in a particularly pretty neighborhood--or even in a neighborhood she really wants to be in--and she’s not tired or ready to go home.

    Something just… tugs at her.

    She stands on a slanted rooftop, head cocked, trying to figure out what’s making her instincts scream at her.

    Is she forgetting something? Somewhere she needs to be? That’s almost what it feels like, an uncomfortable pressure in her chest and stomach, telling her--

    Behind!

    She whirls on instinct, but doesn’t catch more than a glimpse of something dark before it slams into her, hard. Then she’s falling, over the edge, and then--

    Boom!

    Fire.

    Heat.

    Hitting the ground, rolling, ears ringing, limbs aching-- the building is on fire. The one she was on. It’s on… fire.

    Why is it on fire?

    Chloe tries to stagger to her feet, hears the sirens in the distance, feels her body try to figure itself out again. What--

    Is this the Mehyr? Twice in one day? How…

    “Well that was bloody stupid.”

    Chloe jerks around, still not solid on her feet, to see… a figure, behind her. She doesn’t know if her vision is blurry or he is, but she can’t quite make him out.

    “W--”

    “You sense a mass of building energy and decide to just stand there on top of it? Allah, girl, you’re lucky I didn’t feel like picking bee guts out of my fur.”

    The voice is deep, resonant, masculine. Bee guts? Energy? Fur?

    Slowly, Chloe’s vision clears, Pollen working overtime to heal and help her from within the suit. She staggers a few more feet from the burning building--a warehouse? A boathouse? She doesn’t know--and leans against a light pole.

    They’re right next to the Seine, and the firelight flickers over it, oddly pretty.

    Such a ridiculous thing to notice.

    Slowly, Chloe turns her head toward the male, wondering if he’s even still standing there. He is, and she notes that he’s…

    Mon dieu, how big is he? Easily twice the height of a normal person, for sure… merde. His utterly massive arms are folded over his chest, and she gets the impression he’s waiting for something. Expecting… what? A thank you? As if. What is even going on?

    Chloe straightens, tossing her hair, trying to get a better look at him. As if noticing her attention, some of the shadows around him seem to… fade. She blinks, thinking she’s hallucinating -- maybe she hit her head.

    And then she sees the fur he was talking about. On his legs, which bend the wrong way at the knee and which… end in hooves. And then her gaze drifts up his bare torso to a face shadowed in darkness, and horns curving over his long, dark hair. Like he’s some kind of… satyr.

    And he’s smirking like one, too.

    What the--

    “What, nothing to say, sweetheart?”

    Something about the way he talks sets Chloe on edge -- as if she wasn’t on edge before. And she is not his sweetheart.

    Straightening, Queen Bee tosses her hair over one shoulder and gives the stranger her haughtiest stare. “And why should I have anything to say to you? I don’t even know who you are.”

    The satyr--he almost looks like an akuma, which is impossible, but maybe he’s another Miraculous holder like Zephyr or Varity--just smirks again.

    “Oh, you’ll see,” he drawls.

    And then he attacks her.

Chapter Text

    Queen Bee is losing.

    Losing badly, and not liking it one bit. Who does this bastard think he is? First he saves her, then attacks her-- of all the random--

    She lunges forward again, darting around his massive frame, sending out kicks and punches that he either dances around or deflects. He has to tire at some point, something has to get through -- she sees an opening and twists toward it, bringing her leg up in a high kick to disable his shoulder.

    He catches her ankle.

    Then smirks at her, lips curving in the shadows covering his face. “Martial arts, huh?” He chuckles, like he thinks it’s funny. “You’re not too bad at this, sweetheart.”

    Chloe growls in frustration, twisting again to yank her ankle away. She drops to the ground and tries to sweep him off his weird, backward feet, but he hops back, nimble as a goat.

    “Who are you?” she demands, lunging to her feet again, spinning her top -- if she can just get him distracted, maybe she can use her ace and paralyze him, no problem. But she’ll have to distract him for her hit to land, and she’ll only have one shot… “Are you working with the Mehyr? Did you set this fire?”

    The man laughs again, still dancing around her, the flames billowing out of the building behind him not scattering his shadows at all.

    “You ask a lot of questions, jamila,” he rumbles, catching the fist she’s trying to hit him with and smacking her with an open palm. The blow sends her reeling into the wall of the next building over, despite the protection of her suit.

    Mon dieu, what is this guy?

    Chloe straightens before he can come at her again, twisting back into her defensive stance. “What do you even want?” she asks, not caring that she’s proving him right. “You save me and then attack me?”

    “Seemed prudent,” he drawls, coming in close again. “I don’t like questions.” Far off, sirens sound, and Bee’s top vibrates with a call from Ladybug.

    They’re coming.

    She either has to take him down, or stall him long enough for her friends to get here. She can do that.

    She will take him down. Then they’ll figure out who--and what--he is.

    “You’ll regret it,” Queen Bee tells him, then spins to launch another kick at his chest. He goes to dodge and she turns the feint into the leap it was, landing on both feet and flipping back to hit him with both open hands, shoving him back a few steps. When he’s off-balance, she calls for her Venom and holds up her stinger, preparing the strike--

    Then he surges forward, using those powerful legs as an advantage. One moment she almost has him, and the next he’s got her pressed against the wall, one massive fist pinning her wrist.

    She squirms, a flash of panic making its way through the tempo of the fight. He’s still close enough, though, so she can still--

    But before she can lift her stinger to slam it into his chest, he’s knocked the spinning top right out of her hand and pinned her other wrist.

    Chloe squirms and kicks, but he evades her feet easily, holding her so high up that she can’t even touch the ground.

    “Let me go!” she seethes, writhing in his grip. “Do you know who I am? You’re going to be sorry-- mmph--”

    He’s-- he’s--

    Kissing her.

    His mouth, pressed against hers, his hands still pinning her, and Chloe’s bravado vanishes like mist as panic slams into her.

    He’s not-- he’s not going to--

    Why would he--

    No, Ladybug will be here soon--

    Who is this guy?!

    She tries to thrash, tries to yank her face away, but he still manages to sweep his tongue through her mouth once before she almost bites down on his lip.

    He pulls away, making a thoughtful sound, and Chloe tries not to start crying or screaming as she again fails to pull herself free from his grip. She has to get away, she has to-- Ladybug will-- This can’t happen-- Mari --

    “What do you know. You can shut up.”

    What?

    She doesn’t know what she’s expecting--or, rather, she does and doesn’t want to think about it--but the man doesn’t… do anything else. He just stands there, studying her with eyes she can barely see behind the shadows, seemingly amused.

    “Well,” he continues, smirking at her. “At least you taste sweet. Bit of a stretch to call you honey, though.”

    What the--

    Then he laughs. And before Chloe can so much as come up with a suitable retort, he’s spun her around and-- and--

    Tied her up. With her own weapon.

    Chloe yanks at the thread of her spinning top, hearing her comb beep once in warning since she’s already tried to use her Venom.

    “What are you-- I swear-- I am going to destroy you! I’m going to erase you, you bastard--”

    “Shaitan.”

    “What?”

    The satyr chuckles, a deep, resonant sound. “I thought you wanted to know who I was, sweetheart.”

     Chloe cannot wrap her head around this. What is he, insane?

    “Oh and, no, I didn’t set this little fire.” He hums, an amused sound. “Think it was a gas leak or something. You have very bad luck, jamila.”

    What. On. Earth.

    He saves her. He attacks her. He kisses her. Now he’s cracking jokes?!

   “It’s been a pleasure,” he drawls, and then he brushes a thumb across her lower lip. Chloe immediately goes to bite him, earning another laugh as he retreats.

    “You’re going to pay for--” she begins, only to realize that he’s-- he’s walking away. Leaving her hanging from the building, tied at the hands and feet with her own bleeding weapon, as if he thinks he’s just… just... that much better than her.

     Who does he think he is?

    “Get back here! You can’t leave me like this! Hey! Shaitan! Hey!

    But he’s already disappearing around the corner, leaving the burning building and the tied up hero to the police.

    The police. And Ladybug.

    No. No no no.

    They cannot see her like this. The humiliation -- no. Not. Possible. Not after this morning. No.

    “Pollen, bug off!”

    The transformation zips off her, sucking up the top, and Chloe hits the ground hard enough to bruise her perfect butt just as much she’s already bruised her ego.

    That bastard. He is going to pay. Seething, Chloe stalks off into an alley, thoughts consumed with fury.

    By the time Ladybug and the police arrive on the scene, there’s nothing--save perhaps the fire--to prove that anyone else was ever there.

Chapter Text

    The Mehyr have never taken hostages before, and the entire situation leaves a bad taste in Ladybug’s mouth. They’re up to something, and she doesn’t like it.

    But they have no leads. The terrorists have been captured and turned over to the police for questioning, and the hostages have been returned to their families, and… that’s it. She was hoping there might have been some connection to the fire down by the river, but… nothing. The fire brigade seems to think it was a completely mundane gas explosion, and there was nothing for Ladybug to do there but stand around and watch them put out the fire.

    So she took off, back onto the rooftops, her mind whirling back to this morning’s disaster and the strangeness of it all. Ladybug would feel a lot better if she could figure out what it is these people want, but as is… all she can do is dislike the sense that’s lurking in Paris’ air these days.

    Well, that’s almost all she can do.

    She detransforms in a familiar alley just south of the Seine, still in the clothes she wore to work this morning. Adjusting her bag’s strap on her shoulder, Marinette walks out of the alley onto a moderately quiet street, smiling at a young mother coming out of the grocery store across the way. A moment later and she’s taking a set of stairs down into a basement building, and the usual doorman--Claude--holds the doors for her. Marinette smiles at him, too.

    Zephyr’s pub is quiet this time of day -- too early in the afternoon for the dinner drinkers and too late for the people who might have passed through for lunch. Half the time Zeph doesn’t even open the place until five or six in the evening, though today seems to be one of the general exceptions. A couple of regulars sit near the back wall, and one of the bartenders is wiping down tables.

    Marinette makes a beeline for the bar itself, veering around the plush armchairs and wide dining tables packed into the cozy space. The bar, a confection of dark wood and sparkling glass, stretches along the back half of the room. Zephyr is standing at the sink, wiping down glasses and setting them out in preparation for more guests. She doesn’t look up when Marinette sinks onto a stool at the counter, just keeps sweeping her white cloth over the glass in her hand.

    Marinette soaks in the quiet for a moment, enjoying it. After the chaos of the fight this morning, it’s nice. The room smells like cinnamon and wood and liquor, and the lighting is low enough to be comfortable. Zephyr certainly knows how to set a mood.

    “You look like you need a drink.”

    Marinette looks up to find the solemere watching her, dark eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. Her shoulder-length hair is tied back in is usual mass of braids, though a few slim strands have fallen loose to lay across her forehead.

    Marinette considers those calm words, and the calm eyes, and the calm air, and nods once. “Mon dieu, yes.”

    Between her not-quite-right designs, this morning’s debacle, and then the fire scare, she could definitely use something alcoholic. Even if that’s not why she came.

    Zephyr chuckles and sets down her glass, turning to the wall of bottles behind her. She doesn’t ask what Marinette wants, just sets about mixing something. A television above the bar switches from a commercial to a news replay, recounting this morning’s events at a volume almost too low to make out.

    Marinette sighs.

    “You handled that well,” Zephyr says, her voice quiet so the men in the corner won’t hear. She sets a fruity-smelling martini in front of Marinette without preamble.

    “Thanks,” Mari says, sighing again. It only reminds her of the reason she came here, though -- the only productive thing she can think to do, at this point. She twirls the stem of the glass and looks up at the solemere inquiringly. “I don’t suppose you know anything about these terrorists that might help us find them?”

    It’s a long shot, since Zeph doesn’t usually involve herself in their battles. She so rarely goes out that it’s reached a point where different media sites debate the very existence of Paris’ elusive seventh hero. Still, if anyone could find out such secretive information, it’d be her.

    Marinette waits, but Zephyr just watches her with that dark, calm gaze, back to wiping down another glass. Her prolonged silence makes Marinette think she might, in fact, know something useful. It’s not an immediate refusal, after all. A spark of hope lights in her chest.

    “Please, Zeph, if you can help…” Marinette trails off, biting her lip, tapping a finger on the bar. A decade she’s known the solemere and the woman is still impossible to read.

    After a moment, though, Zephyr shrugs her narrow shoulders and sets down the glass, silver rings on her fingers flashing. “That’s a complicated answer, Marinette.”

    “Why?” She doesn’t see how it could be complicated. They’re terrorists.

    Zephyr smiles faintly. “You are aware that I am… rather old.” Her smile turns to a slight grin, and Marinette can’t help but snort at the understatement. If Tikki is to be believed, Zephyr and her boyfriend are older than anyone else in the world, far surpassing Master Fu’s extended age. By hundreds if not thousands of years. Hopefully just hundreds.

    Marinette doesn’t actually know, exactly.

    But it’s probably thousands.

    “Long ago, Jaek and I fought a group called the Mehyr,” Zephyr says simply. “Very long ago. But I don’t think this group stems from them; I’ve been watching carefully and I’ve seen no signs of similarity.”

    Marinette stares at her, uncomprehending. “So… what does that have to do with anything?”

    Zephyr shrugs. “If they were the same, a lot. The Mehyr we fought were mages, people who’d learned to control nature’s energy in a way humans aren’t normally capable of. They wanted the power of the kwamis for themselves and throughout history we often had to protect the four Miracle Boxes from them. But their order hasn’t been heard from in centuries, and these terrorists of yours don’t have any extra energy, that I’ve noticed. They’re all human. So my information is limited to the rumors I’ve heard, and I don’t know much. Keeping track of human activity is not… my strongest suit.”

    Marinette has to snort at that, too. Not because Zeph doesn’t include herself in the definition of ‘human’, but because she pretends she keeps track at all.

    If it doesn’t have to do with the kwamis, the Miracle Boxes, or her boyfriend, Zephyr’s attention is… difficult to keep, at best.

    That’s probably why she spends all her time in a bar, drinking liquor.

    Marinette tries to feel bad about the thought, but can’t quite bring herself to do it.

    “Well, if you hear anything… we really just need to find them. If we can do that, we can put a stop to all this nonsense.”

    Zephyr nods once, likely all the agreement Marinette is going to get. With a wry smile, she turns to her martini, sipping it to find that it’s some mixture of strawberry and mango and really quite delicious.

    The alcohol warms her, though it’s too early in the day for it, and Marinette feels better having talked to Zephyr. At least she’s confirmed that there’s nothing supernatural to worry about with these people. That’s comforting. Somewhat.

    Marinette sips her drink and pulls her sketchbook out of her bag, determined to focus on something else until she can look at the situation with the Mehyr objectively. She flips open to the last design she was working on and sighs.

    It’s pretty, and it has everything she’s going for, but… there’s still something missing.

    She taps her pencil against the page but can’t come up with any lines, any way to fix it. She doesn’t know what she needs, but inspiration… is definitely not flowing. And she only has a month left to figure it out and complete all the outfits.

    After a long moment, she sighs and drops her head to the counter. Maybe she just needs a nap. Lysse can man the boutique for the rest of the afternoon… Marinette will just stay here in this cozy spot and doze.

    That will make her feel better.

    And then she’ll have a crick in her neck.

    Sighing again, Marinette is about to drag herself up and try to do something productive--like messaging Adrien to see what he’s up to--when she hears heels clacking on the wood floor behind her.

    “You look pathetic, Marinette.”

    Chloe. Marinette turns just as the yellow-and-white clad business tycoon sits on the stool beside her, dropping a designer purse to the counter. The latest from Antoine.

    “Thanks,” Marinette says dryly.

    Chloe just shrugs, her attention on the solemere at the other end of the bar. “You came to talk to Zephyr?”

    Marinette nods, realizing that must also be the reason Chloe is here. They often think alike, which Marinette has always found ironic. Despite their many years of dislike for one another, somewhere along the line… Chloe became one of Marinette’s closest friends. Without the drama and the pretenses between them, they’re actually very similar.

    Much to Marinette’s chagrin.

    Chloe gives her a look that’s caught somewhere between stern and fond, tossing the loose mass of her blonde hair over one shoulder. Though, there’s something else in it… something frustrated and vaguely distant. She’s probably stressing because it was her hotel that was attacked this morning. Chloe doesn’t take well to things like that.

    Marinette wishes she had answers for her friend, but… she doesn’t. So she just repeats what Zephyr told her, and the pair sit in silence for a moment, Marinette sipping her martini and Chloe staring into the mirror behind the shelves, where reflected bottles of liquor distort her face.

    “So, nothing,” she says after a moment. Her tone is matter-of-fact, but her lips are pursed, belying her anxiety. She arrived at the scene this morning even earlier than Marinette did, though she didn’t respond to Ladybug’s message an hour ago when that fire started down by the Seine. She was probably out for a run, trying to blow off steam, and didn’t want to be bothered.

    Marinette can’t blame her.

    After a moment of silence, Marinette nods once in agreement with Chloe’s assessment. They have nothing new. “At least we know what we’re dealing with,” she says, trying to borrow some of Lysse and Tikki’s optimism.

    “Chaos-loving idiots,” Chloe agrees, rancor making its way into her voice. Marinette can’t help but concur, so she lifts her drink in silent salute.

    Chloe sighs and looks down at the open sketchbook, apparently deciding to change the subject. She seems off, edgy, twitchy even. Definitely stressing. “That’s your fall line?”

    Marinette considers calling her out, but she knows Chloe doesn’t like to talk about her feelings. So, after a moment, she lets her switch topics. Even if that topic isn’t one Marinette wants to discuss.

    “Yes... no. Sort of. It’s not… finished.” Marinette sighs. “I’m having no luck with inspiration. In either of my lives.”

    Chloe laughs a little, amused by that apparently, and seems to relax slightly. Good. “Here, let me see.” Marinette doesn’t stop the blonde as she starts paging through the discarded ideas, and after a moment, Chloe pushes it back toward her with a thoughtful frown.

    “I see what you mean.”

    Conclusively confirming their incompleteness. Marinette gives her friend a dry look. “Thanks, Chlo.”

    Chloe shrugs. “The truth is the truth, Mari. What are you going to do about it?”

    “Do you always have to be so pushy?” Marinette asks, but she’s smiling, something about Chloe’s usual bluntness having lightened the mood. For all that she’s a successful businesswoman now, Chloe has never really mastered… tact.

    And most of the time, she’s right anyway. Which can be irritating.

    “I’m not pushy,” Chloe denies, scoffing at the idea. “I’m assertive.”

    Marinette can’t help but grin. “Sure. And vain, and arrogant, and controlling--”

    She cuts herself off at Chloe’s unamused look, chuckling. The laughter feels nice, and she taps her pencil again, flipping the sketchbook over to a fresh page as a vague idea begins to form.

    “Do you want to patrol tonight?” she asks absently, drawing out a few lines.

    Chloe swivels slightly on her chair. “I can’t. Dinner with Daddy.”

    She doesn’t sound thrilled about the idea, and Marinette shoots her friend a concerned look which is subsequently ignored. Chloe and her father have been drifting apart for a while now, though Chloe doesn’t really talk about the reason behind it.

    Marinette would be more worried, but with everything else… Chloe doesn’t need Marinette stressing for her. So when the blonde chooses not to answer the silent inquiry, Marinette goes back to her sketch. Chloe orders a vodka martini, and they sit together that way, enjoying the quiet company and Zephyr’s occasional humming.

    It’s peaceful. Relaxing. When Marinette’s phone beeps in her pocket, she pulls it out on instinct, smiling when she sees it’s from Adrien.

    A.A 3:48 pm: hey, saw about the attack at the hotel. Crazy. that’s pretty close to your boutique right? are you okay?

    Marinette puts down her pencil to tap out a response, oddly touched by his concern.

    M.D-C 3:49 pm: it’s a couple blocks over, we’re fine. got asked some questions by the police but nothing major. Thx for checking :)

    She puts her phone down, still smiling, only noticing once she has that Chloe is eying her over her drink.

    “What?” She has no idea why she feels self-conscious.

    “A.A.?” Chloe asks, arching a brow. “Who is that?”

    “No one.” Marinette’s phone buzzes with a response and she resists the urge to check it, insanely glad she didn’t save his name in her contacts.

    Chloe doesn’t look like she believes her, but the news catches both their attention as Zephyr suddenly turns it up. Nadja Chamack is on screen, standing in front of the Ladybug and Chat Noir monument.

    That statue always gives Marinette a little hitch in her chest. There’s a newer statue close by that was added a couple years ago, depicting the new heroes, but they’ve never removed Chaton’s image. As if Paris is still waiting for him to come back, too, despite all the rumors and theories surrounding his disappearance.

    “Police Chief Leblanc requests Ladybug’s presence at the gathering press conference,” Nadja is saying, “to discuss this morning’s attack and the city’s reaction to it. Mayor Cortland will also be present, according to reports, and--

    “There’s my cue,” Marinette says dryly, staring up at the screen. She can’t say she’s excited about another press conference, but at least it’s getting her out of Chloe’s questioning.

    Of all their friends, Chloe would probably understand the most about Adrien, but… Marinette still hasn’t figured out how to tell them. She doesn’t want it to seem like she was hiding it on purpose.

    Even though she kind of was.

    And she’s going to have to tell them at some point soon. She can’t just high tail it off to Barcelona come this fall without an explanation.

    Sighing, Marinette gathers her things and strides out of the pub, ignoring Chloe’s narrow-eyed look as she goes.

    Time for Ladybug to deal with the public.

   

Chapter Text

    Nothing. The police got nothing out of the seven terrorists they arrested this morning, and Marinette is beyond frustrated.

    It’s always the same with the people they capture. None of them are the guy in charge. None of them even know who the guy in charge is. The few times they’ve gotten any kind of location out of them, the place is empty when they arrive to check it out.

    There’s a base somewhere in this city, someplace these people are coming from, and it’s driving Marinette crazy that they can’t find it. It’s almost as if these terrorists have had their minds wiped, like the old akuma victims. How else could they know so little?

    Maybe Zephyr is wrong and one of them is a ‘mage’ or something. Then again, that would mean they’re after the Zào Huài Miracle Box, and they’ve given zero indication of that.

    Not that they’ve given any indication of wanting anything. Except chaos.

    Marinette is in a rare foul mood as she storms into Zephyr’s pub that evening, Ladybug’s ire still riding her strong. She slips between tables and couches crowded with the night’s drinkers and revelers, none of whom pay her much mind. Her friends are already here, waiting for her at a table near the far right corner of the cozy space. Marinette takes in their questioning gazes and hates to disappoint them.

    “Nothing,” she says anyway, sinking into an empty chair between Chloe and Lysse. Alya, across the table, sighs and drops her chin into one hand, clearly just as frustrated as Marinette. At least she’s not alone.

    “This is turning into a serious pain,” Chloe grumbles, tapping one manicured nail against her martini glass. Two in one day. Now Marinette is sure the heiress is stressing.

Then again, Marinette could use another drink herself. Nino’s already nursing a beer, clearly in agreement.

    It’s been a day.

    Between the mess this morning and the press conference this afternoon, Marinette was already worn out. Then Chief Leblanc wanted her to question the prisoners, too, and that was just… exhausting.

    “At least they don’t attack very often,” Lysse points out, gesturing with black-painted nails. She must have done that this afternoon. Marinette smiles slightly in the face of her friend’s unfailing optimism, knowing that if Tikki could talk right now she would be saying the same thing.

    “Still, this is all crazy,” Nino drawls, gesturing with his beer as he leans back comfortably in his chair. He’s got one arm slung over the back of Alya’s chair, absently playing with her hair as if he’s trying to calm her down.

    Good luck with that. Alya looks even more frustrated than Marinette feels, probably because she thinks she should have been able to figure all this out by now with her ace reporting skills. Marinette knows the feeling.

    “I just don’t get why they’re doing this,” Alya groans, leaning back into Nino’s hand. “It doesn’t make sense.”

    “I for one think they have some kind of agenda,” Nino says, dutifully rubbing his girlfriend’s head and neck.

    Marinette is somewhat jealous. She could go for a neck rub right about now. For some reason, the thought sends an image of Adrien flashing through her mind, all bright eyes and slicked back hair, a grin lighting up his face--

     Yeah, banishing that picture. Now. Ahem. Marinette refocuses on the conversation.

    “--their attacks seem totally random,” Lysse is saying, waving a braceletted hand. “They usually just blow something or other up once every few weeks, or steal something random… now this hostage thing? They didn’t even take anything from the hotel. They’re probably just trying to cause chaos and rile everyone up, like that anarchist group from a couple years ago--”

    “Yeah, but the anarchists made it pretty clear what they were doing, dude. These guys are a total mystery. It doesn’t make sense.”

    “None of that really matters,” Chloe says archly. “Who cares if it’s random or not? We’ll stop them and it will be over.”

    Marinette’s not sure who Chloe is trying to convince with the sharp words, but she appreciate the idea. If only it was that simple.

    “It’d be easier to stop them if we knew what they wanted,” Alya points out, glancing over to give Chloe a dry look.

    “That’s true,” Marinette agrees. The former mayor’s daughter only takes a drink of her martini, but Marinette can tell she’s still frustrated, too. If anything, she seems even more on edge now than she was a few hours ago. Marinette can see why; the whole situation is just… odd. And it’s confounding that the Mehyr didn’t even take anything from Chloe’s hotel -- they just rounded up the people and then sat there, waiting for Ladybug and the others to show up.

    Like they didn’t want anything out of it other than a fight. A fight they lost.

    Marinette sighs and rubs her temples, wishing she could go back to this morning when her biggest worry was the issue of her designs. Now there’s this again.

    “Chloe’s right, Mari. We will get these guys,” Nino says, obviously noting her frustration. “No worries.”

    Lysse nods her agreement, caramel-colored hair sliding over her shoulders as she leans her head on Marinette’s shoulder comfortingly. “We just have to keep looking,” she says. “They can’t hide from us forever.”

    “It’s just frustrating that they’re managing to hide at all,” Alya mutters.

    “It’s all frustrating,” Marinette agrees. But she takes in Lysse’s comfort, and Alya’s solidarity. She notes Nino’s chill contemplation and Chloe’s attempted bravado. And because she’s not alone, the whole mess of it doesn’t seem nearly as daunting.

    So she blows out a breath and straightens her shoulders, giving her friends a smile. “That aside, it’s nice to get together like this. No way am I letting the bad guys ruin our night.”

    In all her years as Ladybug, that’s one thing Marinette has learned and learned well. She can’t let the villains interfere with her civilian life -- her real life. So she lifts a hand and calls over to the bar, “Jaek! A round over here, please!” Zephyr’s boyfriend glances up at her and flashes a smooth grin, all white teeth against dark skin, and a moment later he’s headed for their table.

    “That’s what I’m talking about,” Alya crows, rubbing her hands together. “Booze will solve our problems.”

    Nino laughs, shaking his head at his girlfriend even as he lifts his beer in salute. Marinette can’t help but grin, glad to see Alya shoving off some of that frustration.

    They won’t be able to help anyone if they get mired down in their own emotions.

    So she takes a mug from the tray Jaek plops onto their table and lifts it in salute to her friends. “To not stressing,” she says, and they laugh as they clink their mugs and bottles with hers.

    “Just don’t go too crazy,” Jaek says, his slightly accented voice a lyrical rumble in the air as he winks at them. “That’s Zeph’s special brew.”

    “Ooh.” Lysse perks up, selecting one of the mugs herself. Marinette has never asked what, exactly, this ‘special brew’ is -- all she knows is it’s strong and slightly spicy and very easy to get lost in.

    “Sit, sit, J,” Lysse tells Jaek, kicking out another empty chair.

    “I’m working, kotenka ,” he protests, but his dark eyes are gleaming at her fondly and he sits in the chair even as he speaks.

    “Work later,” Lysse says, grinning. “Tell Zeph she should hire more help.”

    “You’re volunteering to work?” Jaek asks, prodding his partner with one finger in a spot Marinette knows is ticklish. Lysse squirms away and snarks something back at him, and Marinette can’t help her amusement. It’s always odd to see them like this, when Jaek is present without having been summoned by the power of the Tiger Miraculous. He looks human--though from what Marinette understands, he still isn’t--and he’s not as broad and intimidating in this form.

    It’s odd to think that if it weren’t for Lysse, he’d be trapped in limbo within the Tiger Miraculous, unable to interact with the human world or the kwamis’ realm. He acts so… normal.

    Then again, none of them are really normal. Marinette forgot what that word meant a long, long time ago.

    She sips from her mug slowly, enjoying the burn of Zephyr’s brew and the way it spools warmly through her veins. It doesn’t take Alya long to challenge Nino to a drinking game that has him grinning broadly at her, one which Jaek and Lysse quickly join in on. Zephyr wanders over from the bar to lean on Jaek’s shoulders, smirking at them all, while the patrons around them murmur and laugh amongst themselves, oblivious.

    Even if some of them recognize Chloe as being Queen Bee, the Parisians got used to her years ago. Even the press rarely bother her anymore -- though that might have something to do with the many times Chloe got their peers fired for hounding her.

    The people of Paris have no idea that the young adults laughing at this table are anything more than what they seem to be -- a group of friends, out having fun after a day’s work.

    Which, she supposes, they are.

    Marinette listens to Chloe adamantly refuse involvement in Alya’s game, starting off a round of good-natured bickering that leads to laughter, and she’s full of an overwhelming sensation, warming her chest. It takes her a moment to realize it’s gratitude.

    She’s so grateful to these people, so happy to have them in her life, pushing aside worries, risking their lives to fight beside her and still able to laugh about it all when it’s over.

    Suddenly, Marinette knows exactly what her fall line is missing, as if it’s been obvious the whole time and she just couldn’t see it.

    Withdrawing a bit from the increasing rowdiness of her friends, Marinette pulls out her sketchbook and begins and draw.

Chapter Text

    This is probably a bad idea. It’s probably as good as a target painted on her forehead and really, really dumb.

    In the end, it’s likely going to fall apart and be complete trite.

    But looking at it now, in the moonlight filtering through a slightly cloudy night… it just feels right. It fits.

    Adrien told Marinette to use what inspires her, and of all the things that she could list in that category… her friends are right at the top. Looking at her altered sketches, it’s almost as if she knew that weeks ago and just couldn’t put it into words, because each of the ideas she’s already had work as perfect mediums for the subtle additions of Paris’ heroes.

    It feels right.

    Marinette flips through them, smiling, adding a few lines here, smoothing a few there, her eyesight enhanced just enough thanks to her suit that the darkness doesn’t bother her with the moon nearly full. She couldn’t sleep when she got back to her apartment, too keyed up by her idea and the alcohol still buzzing in her veins.

    So she came out here, to her favorite spot in the city, where she can look out over it all and breathe.

    She should be sleeping, she knows. If Tikki were present instead of inside her earings currently, she’d be urging Marinette to go home and crawl into bed.

    But Ladybug sits on the highest platform of the Eiffel Tower instead, flipping through her sketchbook, thrilled at the storm of ideas dancing around in her head. Once she’s happy with her alterations, she turns to a new page and begins to draw, lips pursed and gaze focused. The final piece has to tie it all together, has to make it-- perfect.

    Doing this, she can forget about the Mehyr, about the police, about the boutique -- it’s just her, and the quiet night, and the pull of pencil on paper.

    Until, that is, the familiar sound of a zipline echoes in the still air.

    Ladybug doesn’t look up, determined to finish the outline of the skirt on her piece before she’s interrupted. That doesn’t stop Queen Bee from landing softly on the platform behind her. Ladybug expects her to sit down, but she doesn’t, and that’s what catches her attention.

    Bee must still be stressing about this morning. She seemed to relax a little at the pub, but she was clearly not entirely herself.

    Marinette knows better than to think Chloe will talk about it, but she still hopes. A little.

    “So, how long have you been seeing Adrien?”

    Ladybug chokes on nothing and nearly drops her pencil, forcing her to fumble for it before it ends up falling from the Eiffel Tower. Then she half turns, sketchbook left in her lap, face flaming, to stare at the woman behind her.

    Queen Bee is casually examining her gloved nails, her suit a riot of charcoal and gold in the dark. But those ice blue eyes flick to Marinette a heartbeat later, calm and full of knowing.

    Of course. Of course she figured it out.

    Ladybug considers denying it, but really -- what’s the point? She has to tell all of them sooner or later.

    “Uhm… we’re not… it’s not…” She sighs and flips her sketchbook closed, half glowering at Chloe for putting her on the spot. She’s not seeing Adrien. It’s not like that. “We’re just friends,” she says finally, waving a black-gloved hand of her own. “I’m helping him with a showcase he’s doing next month, that’s all.”

    “Uh huh.” Queen Bee smirks as she sinks onto the floor with Ladybug, legs folded neatly beneath her and gaze entirely too amused. “So why have you been keeping it a secret, then?”

    “I haven’t been!”

    The denial hangs in the air for a moment before Marinette sighs heavily and grumbles unintelligibly under her breath. Why does Chloe have to be so… Chloe? This entire situation reminds her far too much of seven years ago, when Chloe confronted her about being Ladybug.

    Marinette denied it, of course, but it didn’t do any good. Once Chloe knows something… she knows.

    “I just… didn’t know how to say anything?” she tries after a moment, then laughs at herself for how idiotic that sounds. “I don’t know, Chlo. It was kind of a thing that just… happened.”

    Chloe snorts, and Marinette fully expects some kind of snarky response or even a fully-deserved jibe, but… Bee is silent. Ladybug glances over to see her staring out over the city, an oddly contemplative look on her face.

    She’s definitely worked up about something, and it’s certainly not this Adrien thing. Marinette is beginning to wonder if it’s even really the hotel thing.

    “Chloe…” she begins, then bites her lip and holds up a hand. “I’m not being sappy or anything, but… are you okay? You don’t seem like yourself.”

    Chloe starts and turns an offended look on Marinette, the edges of her mask pinching together. “I’m fine,” she snaps -- clearly, obviously, painfully not fine.

    Ladybug puts a hand on her friend’s shoulder and is only mildly surprised when it isn’t shrugged off immediately. “You don’t have to talk about it,” she says kindly. “It’s just… you know I’m here for you. Okay?”

    Bee snorts again, clearly about to make some derisive comment or other about how mushy that is. But then… she doesn’t.

    Her shoulders slump. And she lets Marinette’s hand remain where it is, while quiet stretches between them for several minutes. The city around them is beginning to wake up, with sunrise only a couple hours off. Distantly, Ladybug hears people calling to each other, cars whizzing over streets -- snippets of sound here and there, carried by the breeze and pulled away just as quickly as they’re heard.

    Finally, Chloe sighs, and Ladybug sees that she’s picking at her spinning top, turning the string over and over her fingers.

    “I saw my mother today,” she says quietly. There’s something in those words that doesn’t sound quite right, but Marinette can’t pinpoint what it is -- and she’s too busy being surprised to really try.

    “What? Why?” She blinks at Chloe, who sits up and tosses her hair, scowling.

    “I don’t know, okay? I just-- she wanted to see me, she was here for an interview and I… I went, okay? But it was… God, she’ll never change. And everything--” She cuts herself off, clearly upset, and Ladybug feels her heart twinge with sympathy.

    She tried, once, to help those two get along better, but… it was to Chloe’s detriment. And once Chloe herself realized that…

    Marinette reaches out and wraps an arm around Queen Bee’s shoulders. It’s a light touch, not really a hug, because Chloe would never accept that.

    “I’m sorry, Chlo,” she says quietly.

    For a moment, Bee is stiff, silent. Then she sighs again and actually leans into Ladybug’s side, the breeze brushing through her hair and sending it shifting along Marinette’s cheek.

    “I don’t want to be like her,” Chloe says, equally quietly. “I just don’t understand why she--”

    Again, she cuts herself off, as if irritated by her own emotions.

    “You’re not,” Marinette says, resting her cheek atop Chloe’s head. “You’re not anything like her, Chlo. You’re brave, and smart, and you have something she never will: the capacity to be kind. You’ve saved this city alongside me hundreds of times, and I couldn’t have done it without you. If she can’t see how amazing you are, then her opinion doesn’t matter.” Her words are quiet, but firm, and they swell in her chest because she means them.

    She and Chloe may have had their differences over the years, but that’s one thing she’s always believed -- Chloe has the ability to be a better person. To be better than the way she was raised and the people who made her the person she used to be. And Chloe’s proven it, time and time again, with her loyalty and bravery and refusal to repeat her own past mistakes.

    That’s not to say she’s perfect, but none of them are. None of them.

    After a long moment, Chloe pulls away, letting out a deep sigh. “Okay, okay,” she says, sniffing. “That’s enough.”

    Marinette has to laugh, and after a moment, Chloe joins in with a wry chuckle, and they sit there staring out over the city in quiet solidarity as the sky begins to lighten in the east.

    “So, seriously,” Chloe says finally, turning a smirk on Marinette again. “Adrien. Talk.”

    Marinette just flops onto her back and groans.

Chapter Text

    Ladybug has forgotten how to breathe.

    She’s standing in the shadow of a large, stately doorway, watching a scene unfold that might have once made an appearance in one of her nightmares.

    When Zephyr sent her a message this morning saying she may have found Hawk Moth, Marinette was overjoyed. Finally, they could end this.

    But she didn’t expect Zephyr’s message to lead her here. Didn’t expect to walk in and find everything already in pieces.

    To find Gabriel Agreste kneeling before Phoenixia, a gaping hole filling up half the room and Adrien-- Adrien...

    “You’re lying, Gabriel snarls, turning to glare at Phoenixia. Ladybug sees the little purple kwami in Phoenixia’s hand and almost can’t believe it. “You’re lying. She would come back to me. The power of creation and destruction can do anything! My Emilie--”

    But that’s… Adrien’s mother’s name...

    Oh.

    Oh.

    “I’m not,” Phoenixia says quietly. “She might have come back, but she wouldn’t be the woman you know. And do you really think, even if she were, that she would want to be here, in this house? I may not have been here long, but I can already tell it’s a cold, dead place, full of nothing but regret and silence. That’s the life you’ve given your son-- why don’t you take a look at that. At what you’ve done to him. Then tell me your wife would be glad to come back to this.”

    His wife… the wish… oh.

    Ladybug can only stand there, caught between the impossibility of what’s so obvious now and the look on Adrien’s face as he stares at his father like the whole world has come apart. She aches to see him hurting like that.

    But what-- what is she supposed to do?

    She wishes, more than ever, that she could talk to Tikki while transformed.

    She really, really needs to talk to Tikki.

    Or Chat. Where is Chat? He should be here, she sent him a message… maybe his humor could… could take that look off Adrien’s face.

    “Father…” Adrien speaks, his voice almost numb. And then it breaks when he asks, “What happened to mom?”

    Something in Gabriel’s face begins to… crumple.

    “I don’t… my son… I was just trying to save her…”

    “What happened?” This time the question is nearly a shout, and it makes Ladybug jump.

    “I… she… I failed her.”

    The way Gabriel says it… Ladybug hates Hawk Moth. Realizing he must be him, knowing what he’s done, it should be impossible to feel sympathy for him.

    But looking at him now, staring at his son… all she sees is a broken man. With a broken life. Who has lost more than she could ever imagine losing.

    And she is sorry.

    Unimaginably sad.

    “I failed her,” Gabriel says again, fists clenched on the ground. “I just wanted to fix it… to keep my promise…” He looks up at Phoenixia. “It’s not too late. I can still--”

    “Why don’t you focus on what you already have?” Phoenixia suggests quietly. “Before you lose that, too.” There’s no mistaking the look she turns on Adrien, what she means by that.

    “It really… wouldn’t work?” Adrien’s voice is small, smaller than Ladybug has ever heard it or ever wants to hear it again. Her heart is breaking in her chest.

    “It really wouldn’t,” Phoenixia says simply.

    Adrien spends a moment looking at her, then at the purple kwami--Nooroo--and then at his father.

    Ladybug feels like she should be doing something, but she doesn’t know what to do. Doesn’t know how to intrude on this moment that isn’t hers and shouldn’t even be happening.

    Adrien…

    Finally, Adrien stands. Walks to his father. Gabriel stands as well, his usually pristine clothes smudged with dust from whatever caused the floor to collapse.

    “You did all that… to save mom?” Adrien asks, so quietly.

    “I promised her,” Gabriel says, and Ladybug thinks that’s the closest she’s ever heard his voice come to breaking. “I can’t give up. I couldn’t forgive myself if--”

    “She wouldn’t want that!” Adrien’s fists are clenched, his spine ramrod straight. “She would hate what you’ve been doing, Father! You have to-- you have to stop. Please. I don’t want to keep... to keep fighting you. I love you.”

    Gabriel’s face crumples. Ladybug feels as if she should leave, but… she can’t. Not without the Butterfly Miraculous.

    So she turns her face away instead, wiping away the tears that come to her eyes, as Adrien hugs his father.

    “You have to give me your Miraculous, Father,” Adrien says quietly. “I’ll take it to Ladybug. Where it belongs.”

    Gabriel huffs a sound that’s almost a laugh, while Ladybug looks back at them, silently confused as to how Adrien plans on doing that. “How the tables have turned.”

    “Please, Father,” Adrien pleads. “We can-- we can work this out. No one has to know. Right?” He turns to Phoenixia, who’s been watching it all with an unreadable look on her face.

    “That’s right,” she says quietly. “Though I’ll be taking the Peafowl Miraculous, as well.”

    The Peafowl? Hawk Moth has that one, too? How--

    “No.”

    Ladybug blinks, searching the room for the source of the small but firm voice. Then she stares, because Nathalie is standing on the far side of the room, and Ladybug hadn’t even seen her. How long has she been there?

    But… that wasn’t Nathalie’s voice… oh.

    Oh.

    A small, royal blue kwami flits away from Nathalie, toward the others, while Adrien gapes at the scene. He’s probably so confused…

    Then again, so is Ladybug.

    “Duusu,” Phoenixia greets, inclining her head as the blue kwami stops near Gabriel’s face. She regards him with bright red eyes, and he stares back at her, silent.

    The peafowl kwami--Duusu--turns to look at Phoenixia. “Zephyr. I… I want to stay with Gabriel and Nathalie.”

    For a moment, there’s silence, as Ladybug tries to figure out why on earth the peafowl is here--and, even more confusing, why she wants to stay--and the others stare at each other.

    “Duusu--” Gabriel rasps, as if this is the most shocking thing he’s heard yet. “You were-- sick-- the Miraculous was damaged…” He turns his head to look at Nathalie, and Ladybug’s mind races as she attempts--and fails--to connect all these random dots.

    “Zephyr fixed me,” Duusu says simply, smiling. “That’s what she does.”

    “Yes, I had a… rather long chat with Nathalie,” Phoenixia says, giving the other woman a small smile across the space. Nathalie, as usual, has her arms clasped behind her back, expression stoic.

    “I don’t… how did this happen?” Adrien asks, staring at the blue kwami and then at Phoenixia. “Who are you?”

    “Zephyr is the solemere,” Duusu says, as if that makes any sense. Is that the name for the Guardian of the kwamis? It must be. “And as for me,” Duusu flits closer to Adrien, “I used to be bound to your mother. It’s my fault she died.” Tears well in Duusu’s eyes and drip down to the floor; Ladybug doesn’t think she’s ever seen a kwami cry before. “I tried to bring her back, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

    Adrien just stares.

    “She refused immortality,” Phoenixia murmurs quietly. Ladybug struggles to understand what’s going on -- immortality? What does it have to do with the wish and Adrien’s mom coming back?

    She really needs to talk to Tikki.

    “So you see,” Duusu continues, flitting up to look at Phoenixia again, “I want to stay with them. It’s my fault, after all.”

    Phoneixia tilts her head. “You needn’t ask my permission, Duusu. Your life is your own. I won’t take you anywhere you don’t wish to go.”

    Duusu smiles, and though Ladybug doesn’t understand what’s going on, something tells her this is the moment she needs to act.

    So she steps into the room, reminding herself that she’s brave, that Tikki believes in her, that Adrien is hurting and she has a job to do. She’s Ladybug.

    “Ladybug,” Phoenixia greets. “You got my message.”

    Ladybug swallows her nerves and her confusion and her sympathy as she walks up to them, skirting the hole in the floor that seems to open into… some kind of underground room. With lots of butterflies in it. Hawk Moth’s lair? This whole time, it was right there?

    She pushes the thought away, reminding herself to focus.

    “Yes.” She looks at Gabriel Agreste, standing next to his son, looking at her. She can’t glance at Adrien, can’t see the broken look on his face or she might lose her nerve. “Please, I’ll take the Butterfly Miraculous now,” she says, holding out a hand.

    That’s all she has to do. All she can do, here. End Hawk Moth’s reign of terror. End this pain. And then the rest… the rest, they’ll have to work out. All the things she doesn’t understand, might never understand… this is their personal business now.

    As Adrien said… no one else has to know.

    No one else will ever know.

    For a long moment, there’s silence. Waiting. And then, with a sound caught somewhere between a scoff and a sorrowful sigh, Gabriel Agreste removes a purple pin from beneath his tie.

    The purple kwami vanishes and the pin becomes a brooch in the shape of a butterfly, which Gabriel sets in Ladybug’s hand.

    “I’ll make sure it’s safe,” she says, not sure why she does. Not sure if she should say anything at all.

    It’s all so… surreal.

    It’s over.

    But this… so much pain… this was not what she was expecting. None of this was… she doesn’t even…

    No. She can… she can process later. Right now she has to get this Miraculous to Master Fu. Then she can… mon dieu.

    “Thank you, Ladybug,” Adrien breathes, and she can’t look at him or else she’ll start crying again, because he deserves so much better than this--

    Ladybug just nods, and lifts a hand. She glances at Phoenixia, who gives her a reassuring smile.

    And then she slings out her yoyo and leaves them all behind, unanswered questions still burning sad little holes in the back of her mind.

Chapter Text

    “This fall’s Gabriel launch is set to be part of a week-long lineup of shows and galas in the beautiful city of Barcelona, hosted by none other than Gabriel and Adrien Agreste themselves. Obviously, the entire fashion world is excited, but I don’t think anyone is as hyped as the designers who’ve flown in from all around the world…”

    The talk show hosts chatter to each other excitedly, their voices monotone over the radio and eventually cut off altogether as the limo stops in front of the historic Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site. A red carpet has been rolled up the middle of those majestic, palatial steps, and groups of photographers line both sides as they wait for the latest designers to show up.

    “Are you ready?” Father asks, as their bodyguard comes around to open the limo door.

    Adrien grins. “Excited. You?”

    Father’s mouth pulls into a little smile as the door opens. “Ready,” he says, and when he steps out that genuine smile has been replaced with his usual cool facade.

    But it was there long enough--and is now familiar enough--for Adrien to feel a surge of warmth. He follows his father out of the car and onto the carpet, where the flashing lights nearly blind him and reporters fire questions at them in three different languages.

    The Agrestes stride up the carpet side by side, Nathalie right behind them feilding those questions. Inside the gorgeous, ancient building, frescoes and stained glass windows peer down at them along with the gathered crowd. Father is almost instantly pulled into a circle of old acquaintances, and Adrien leaves him to it with only a flash of sympathy.

    He stops and chats with people he knows and people he doesn’t as he makes his way up the stairs toward the designated auditorium, but he’s scanning for someone in particular. A flash of dark hair and bluebell eyes…

    Though he’s ecstatic about how well all of this has gone off, most especially the fact that over half the proceeds from this week will go to his charity program, tonight’s greatest pleasure will be the final showcase, the one he weedled for the most.

    Marinette Dupain-Cheng’s fall line, set to kickstart it all.

    He knows she’s here, probably in the back with her wardrobe crew and models making sure everything is ready, even though it will be a few hours yet before it’s her turn. He looks for her amongst the crowd anyway, half hoping she’s wandered out for a drink or that her ever-competent assistant has sent her out to mingle.

    But time and conversations slide by, and he doesn’t see her. Though he occasionally checks his phone, he doesn’t hear from her, either.

    So, checking his disappointment, he settles into his front-row seat to watch the opening announcements. And though it’d be better with Marinette sitting in her front-row seat beside him--he made sure of that--he still enjoys the hush that falls over the crowd as the first show begins, his father and Nathalie seated to his right.

    One seat down to the left, he catches movement, and is half surprised to see… Chloe. She doesn’t look all that different from when they were kids -- still beautiful, still elegant. It’s been an age since he’s actually seen her.

    He recalls Marinette mentioning her once or twice, though… apparently they’re pretty good friends now. The thought makes him glad, though it comes with a twinge of guilt for his own role in drifting apart from his childhood friend.

    They still send cards and messages on holidays, but it’s been so long he almost didn’t recognize her. Especially with her hair down, in a dress that low-cut.

    When the first show is over and everyone is applauding, Adrien leans over Marinette’s empty seat and smiles.

    “Hey, Chloe.”

    She turns her head, ice-blue eyes blinking at him once before her brows lift. “Adrien, hi.” She smiles. An… actual smile. “I don’t suppose Marinette has texted you?”

    “Huh? Um,” he checks his phone, “no. Why?”

    “She’s probably backstage stressing,” Chloe mutters, sighing heavily. “What am I going to do with that woman…”

    Adrien lifts his brows, pleasantly surprised by the fondness in his old friend’s tone. “I figured as much too. Do you think we should drag her out here?”

    “I’ve been texting her for twenty minutes,” Chloe says dryly. “And nothing. Really, she--”

    “Sorry!” The breathless word is the only warning Adrien has to sit back and avoid getting squished as Marinette tumbles into her chair, earning startled sounds and stares from people behind them. She gives Chloe a sheepish look. “Sorry.”

    Chloe regards her with something bordering dull amusement. “Tell me you weren’t altering things.”

    “I… wasn’t altering things.”

    “Even I can tell that’s a lie,” Adrien interjects, smirking at the two of them. Marinette squeaks and turns to him, as if surprised to see him sitting in the spot she knew was his. He arches a brow at her, noticing that her hair’s gotten a bit longer since the last time he saw her. It curls halfway down her neck now and almost falls into her eyes. He ignores a sudden urge to touch it and instead says, “Nice of you to join us, Dupain-Cheng.”

    She rolls her eyes. “Not now, Agreste.” And promptly turns back to Chloe, ignoring his teasing. Adrien continues to smirk as he settles back in his chair, half listening to Chloe tell Marinette that everything is going to be great and she should stop worrying.

    Hearing her--admittedly harsh--attempt at comfort makes him smile. “She’s right, Mari,” he says, patting Marinette’s shoulder. “This is going to be amazing.”

    Marinette slumps between them, rustling the fabric of her deeply crimson dress. Adrien can’t help but note that she looks fantastic in red.

    Especially with a bit of red on her cheeks, as well, and that dark lipstick…

    Beside him, Nathalie clears her throat, and Adrien makes a point of focusing on the next designer’s show.

    And the one after that. And the one after that.

    Intermissions are punctuated by critiques of the lines and models, and the occasional bout of teasing banter. They drink the champagne that’s passed out and chat amongst themselves, and Adrien is fairly sure that between him, Chloe, and his father’s occasional commentary, they manage to take Marinette’s mind off her anxiety.

    Until, that is, the strobe lights flicker with the MerveilleuX logo and it’s her turn.

    But--at least from what they can see--nothing goes wrong. The models strut onto the catwalk, the lighting and effects technicians are amazing, the music is breathtaking, and the vision… it shines. Caught somewhere between chic and retro, with a design reminiscent of both 12th century France and something distinctly Chinese, Marinette’s L’histoire line is every bit as marvelous as he knew it would be.

    Though he and his father have already seen the main pieces in her showcase, some of them are still new, and the finale… she changed her final piece. After weeks of working on it, throwing ideas around; after periods of trying to convince herself and then him that she couldn’t do something this grand, couldn't be the centerpiece of tonight’s opening show… she’s outdone herself.

    Though there were bits of Paris’ heroes in the other pieces--fox ears and a tail on one suit, a stunning green piece done up in a tortoise-shell pattern with Asian roots, and a dress that flowed like honey with sharp, elegant points that made Chloe preen--they wouldn't be obvious to anyone not intimately familiar with the Miraculous. Only on close inspection and when all the pieces are taken as a whole is it clear that there are nods to the recent history of Paris itself in this line-up.

    But the final centerpiece…

    Brilliant crimson, emerald green, ageless black; some strange cohesion of Asian and French cultures that has the bubbles of a Cataclysm--green instead of black--sweeping up the charcoal dress from hem to waist, curling around Ladybug’s spots. Simply cut, loose but streamlined, elegant and wild…

    The dress itself may be the Yin and Yang, and Adrien wonders if anyone else feels it the way he does, like a punch to the gut that leaves him breathless.

    He doesn’t take his eyes off the piece until the model has disappeared behind the screen and the spectators are applauding. And then he looks at Marinette, wearing a somewhat befuddled look of both pride and… and sorrow.

    “That was… amazing,” Adrien says, leaning over to speak into her ear. “Thank you.”

    She turns her face to him, confusion flickering there for a moment before she brushes it off and smiles, seemingly shocked that everything went off so well.

    “Thank you, Adrien,” she says, gripping his arm.

    And he wants to clarify that he was thanking her for so much more than just being here, but… he can’t. Because the empty space on his right hand aches.

    And because he doesn’t have any way to explain it to her, the way her vision of Ladybug and Chat Noir--the way she’s never forgotten him or given up on him, the way she gave him a place with Ladybug even now--makes him feel.

    And since he can’t explain it, he just squeezes her arm in return, and hopes his smile conveys at least a fraction of his heart.

Chapter Text

       They debated endlessly--once Marinette finally told her friends about Adrien’s show--trying to decide whether or not she should leave Paris for a week. A whole week, with the threat of the Mehyr still hanging over them…

    But in the month since the hotel situation, they haven’t heard so much as a peep from the terrorists. Nothing. Aside from a random incident with a mugger during one of Alya’s patrols, the city has been quiet. Safe.

    Marinette admits that it’s been nice. Being able to focus on work, being able to breathe… well, her fall line certainly benefited from it. Especially once the inspiration started flowing freely.

    Now, standing in the beautiful Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site in Barcelona, Marinette can’t say she regrets coming. At all.

    Despite last minute jitters about her line and the final piece she only settled on two days ago, she’s… breathless.

    For all that she’s gathered a bit of fame in the fashion world, this has been her biggest showcase yet -- and it being for Adrien’s charity just makes it better. Over the last few weeks, he’s been a constant encouragement, endlessly excited about her designs and constantly there to listen to her rant, despite the huge workload he himself has been carrying.   

    And all of it, all the stress and the chatter and the crumpled up designs and the pricked fingers, for this moment. Sitting here, in this surreal spot, listening to the crowd applaud her work…

    She’s utterly breathless with it. Tears prick her eyes -- the way the models moved was perfect, brilliant, more than she could have hoped for. And the last one…

    She doesn’t know what made her change it at the last minute. It just… though the piece she’d chosen before was beautiful, it didn’t… do it for her. She wanted this line to embody her history, the richness and fullness of it -- not just her French and Chinese histories, but her Miraculous history, as well.

    And the other piece… it just didn’t feel right. Didn’t fit. Didn’t make her want to cry.

    The other night, while packing for her trip and still halfway trying to convince herself she shouldn’t go, she got an alert from the Ladyblog -- the police arrested a vandal who was spray painting designs on a bridge.

    Nothing major, nothing worthy of the Ladyblog, until she saw the pictures.

    Ladybug -- and Chat Noir. As they were, once. The old suit. The child’s body. A throwback to another age, a lifetime ago, before Varity, before the crew, before the Mehyr.

    All these years, and the people of Paris haven’t forgotten Chat Noir. Marinette spent almost an hour staring at that picture. The hope in it. The history -- the puns and banter and childish idiocies. The partnership. The trust.

    And the sorrow. The loss. The ache and the weight around her neck.

    And Marinette just knew that her line wasn’t going to be complete without some part of him. Without some part of that history -- her history.

    Ladybug and Chat Noir.

    So she worked for hours. She worked all night before her flight. She worked in the hotel. She was still working today, while the other designers showed their pieces, and barely had it finished in time.

    But it was flawless.

    Oh, the design could use a few tweaks. It’s not very practical at all.

    But… the feeling…

    She turns her head and finds Adrien looking down at her, and the look on his face… it’s as if he feels it too. The nostalgia. The love and loss.

    Thank you, he said. For what, she doesn’t know.

    But she smiles up at him and the pride, the joy on his face, and can’t think of a time she’s ever been happier.

    Even if it takes months to catch the Mehyr, she has this. She has… life.

    It’s something she took for granted as a kid, living between akuma attacks. She never gave up on moving forward. The attacks were just interruptions.

    And maybe that was why it took Zephyr for them to find Hawk Moth, but… she can’t live her life waiting for the next attack, the next bad thing.

    As she’s always telling her friends, she has to cherish the good moments. Like she did--like they did--back then.

    So Marinette applauds along with the crowd. And when they move into another massive room for refreshments and a dance, she lets Adrien whirl her across the floor, both of them laughing as if they haven’t got a care in the world.

Chapter Text

    The week flies by, far faster than Adrien expected it to. Oh, there are a few glitches. And nothing--in his mind at least--ever really lives up to Marinette’s showcase.

    But altogether, by the time the final gala has ended at nearly four in the morning, it’s been a success.

    Even if he and Marinette have both had a bit too much champagne.

    “Seriously, Sailor Moon? I can’t believe you still watch Sailor Moon, Adrien.” She laughs at him, cheeks pleasantly pink as they wander through the streets.

    Adrien’s driver offered to take her back to her hotel, but Marinette--dressed in the gorgeous turtle dress from her showcase, and looking absolutely stunning--refused in favor of a walk through the cool, clear September night.

    Adrien frowns down at her now as they stop on a rise, peering down a hill into the heart of the beautiful, ancient city. “Sailor Moon is amazing,” he tells her, sniffing haughtily.

    Marinette snorts. “But DBZ is so much better.”

    “You, Mademoiselle Dupain-Cheng, have no heart.”

    She rolls her eyes at him. “Let me guess, you also still watch Ouran and random shoujos?”

    “Shoujos are food for the soul,” he says, smirking. Actually, he doesn’t have as much time as he’d like anymore to binge anime, but he remembers many a lonely night when it was his best friend.

    And Ouran is great. Tamaki is great. No matter what anyone says.

    Adrien is aware that he’s a dork. It’s part of his Agreste charm. So he just continues to smirk at Marinette as she giggle-snorts herself into a realm of cuteness that is really too much to handle fairly.

    “You… are such… a dork, Adrien,” she says, waving a braceleted hand wildly.

    Adrien makes a show of catching said hand and clutching it to his chest. Then he winks at her. “But I’m a sexy, charming dork, right Mari-sweet?”

    For a moment, he sees another typical sharp retort flare in her eyes. Then her gaze drops slightly and her lips spread into a wide grin.

    “Yes,” she says smartly. “You are.”

    Then she sashays away, strolling down the street as if she owns it and the city besides. It takes a moment for Adrien, trying to contain his blush, to catch up.

    Because… god.

    She’s beautiful. And funny. And sweet. And unbearably sassy.

    And he’s wanted to kiss her for so long… but they’re rarely in the same city, let alone the same room, and he’s made a point of keeping his distance.

    But now, here, in the city he’s made his home, on a night like this, with her dressed like that… god he wants to kiss her so badly. Wants to do more than kiss her.

    He doesn’t know what it is, really. Doesn’t know why he can’t stop thinking about her, no matter how far away from her he is.

    But… oh god he’s crushing so hard. Ironic, considering she had a crush on him way back in high school.

    He knows if he made the mistake of mentioning this to Nino, he’d never live it down. Which is perhaps why he hasn’t; why he hasn’t even mentioned Marinette to his best friend all these months.

    Because for now, it’s… simple. Secret. Just between them.

    And Chloé, apparently.

    The thought is amusing enough to cool Adrien down a bit, and he walks mostly normally as he follows Marinette down the streets, wandering aimlessly.

    “You and Chloé seem pretty close,” he says, breaking the comfortable silence.

    Marinette smiles. “Yeah. She’s… matured a lot. Well, honestly, we all have. Guess that just happens when you grow up, huh?”

    “I guess,” Adrien agrees, grinning at her. Though, personally, he’s not at all sure how mature he is. Business and fashion tycoon he may be, but adult… he’s still getting there.

    So he slings an arm around Mari’s shoulders and says, “You know, the best thing about this city is the nighttime.”

    “Oh?” She turns her head, lifts her brows at him. “Why’s that?”

    Adrien grins. “I’ll show you. If you’re not scared, Dupain-Cheng.”

    Marinette scoffs at him, a wild, competitive grin flitting over her face. “Me? Never, Agreste.”

Chapter Text

    Marinette doesn’t know what she expected when she came to Barcelona, but this last week has been… amazing. Purely amazing.

    And most of that, Marinette can admit, has had little to do with the fashion shows and the beauty of Barcelona and everything to do with the man walking by her side through the darkened streets at five-thirty in the morning. It helps that she hasn’t heard any bad reports from her friends back home, but honestly… she hasn’t even thought about it much. All those troubles seem very far away when she’s with Adrien.

    Barcelona is beautiful at night, just as he said. Adrien has swept her from one end of the city to the other--via streets, late-running trolleys, and even a stolen moped he’s sworn to return at some point--showing her all his favorite places. He didn’t have a chance to do that this week, though he promised her a tour -- a nighttime tour wasn’t mentioned, but Marinette isn’t complaining.

    She only wishes she could see it from above, the way she sees Paris. Somewhere along the way, she contemplated what would happen if she suddenly transformed into Ladybug and suggested they take their tour to the rooftops.

    She knows better, of course. She’s revealed herself to her friends -- her fellow heroes. Never to a civilian; not even her parents know. It’s just not safe for them.

    Besides, it’d probably be so much of a shock that it would ruin their evening, and she couldn’t bear to do that.

    So they walk, and ride the moped, and buy an early breakfast from a six-am bakery. And when icing from his pastry finds its way onto Adrien’s face, Marinette reaches up and brushes it away as casually as if this happens all the time.

    Because that’s how it feels, being with him. Natural. Fun. Simple.

    Adrien freezes, staring down at her, and the red in his cheeks makes her grin. The long night, the breathless week, makes her bold. So she licks the icing off her thumb, still watching him.

    She doesn’t know what she’s expecting. Nothing, really.

    But nothing isn’t what she gets, as Adrien’s eyes darken, that blush spreads into something else, and the look on his face… Marinette’s heart skips a beat, along with her breathing.

    Predatory is the only word she has for it. Thrilling.

    “I was going to eat that icing,” he says -- no, purrs, his voice a deep rumble that makes her spine tingle. “You’ll have to pay, Marinette.”

    “Oh? And how am I supposed to do that, hmm?” she asks, breathless, half surprised to find herself formulating words.

    Adrien smirks, something wild and sharp she’s never seen before. Beautiful. Mon Dieu, he is so, so hot…

    Adrien captures her chin between his fingers. “Give it back,” he says, and kisses her.

    Marinette is instantly lost to the soft pressure, to the realization, to the rightness of it. There’s no strangeness to it, no suddenness, when his tongue traces her lips and she opens for him with a moan. Her fingers tangle in his hair, and his hands are on her waist, and he tastes like peppermint and sweets, and-- mon dieu.

    She has no words. She has nothing but sensation, but the feel of him, the need to be closer to him. As if sensing this, his hands slide to her hips, closing the distance, and she loops her arms around his neck, closer-- mm.

    The initial heat slows as Adrien’s hands slide up her back slowly, as he gentles his kiss; it becomes something of an exploration between them, each moving, grasping, tasting, reaching.

    Only when neither of them have any breath left do they break apart, and then only for Adrien to drag his mouth along her cheek, her neck, her shoulder… until they’re both standing there, her back somehow wedged against the wall of a building, early morning light splitting the space between them as they gasp for air.

    Adrien nips her lip, kisses her again -- lightly, playfully. Marinette responds in kind, following him as he backs away.

    And… wow.

    That’s all she can think, as he grins and tucks her into his side and steps out onto the street again, hair disheveled, suit jacket askew.

    Wow.

    “We should get you back to your hotel,” Adrien says, his voice still rough and warm.

    Marinette, still deeply flushed, leans into him and nods. “Right…”

    Adrien just chuckles and tugs her back toward his stolen moped.

Chapter Text

   The hotel has a breakfast bar, and Marinette has never been so grateful for a bracing morning cocktail in her life.

    Well, mid-morning. Near afternoon. Actually… she peers at the clock above the wall of bottles and realizes that it is, in fact, already afternoon.

    She’s sure she only slept because of the champagne, and even with that, she didn’t sleep well. Her mind keeps spinning in circles.

    I kissed Adrien.

    Adrien kissed me.

    The refrain is on continuous loop in her brain, punctuated by deviances into trains of thought such as what does this mean or I want to do it again.

    And she does. She does very, very much want to do it again, and she doesn’t know what that says about her. Or anything.

    It’s not like they’re dating. Or have even talked about dating, aside from that one time way back in London months ago, and she’s sure--almost sure--he was joking.

    And, sure, maybe she wouldn’t mind dating him, but--

    Mon dieu.

    Marinette is in so much trouble. With a sigh somewhere between giddy and despondent, she picks up her mai tai again.

    “You, my friend, are a mess.” Chloé sinks onto the barstool beside Marinette, perfectly primped and gorgeous as always. Marinette lazily notes that her friend is wearing a new perfume.

    It’s nice.

    She just grunts in response to Chloé’s question, resulting in a smirk.

    “How late were you out last night, Dupain-Cheng?” An elegant, arched brow, somehow teasing and mocking at the same time. Very Chloé.

    Marinette feels her face heat up at the memory of last night. Or rather, this morning.

    Both of Chloé’s brows raise. “That late?”

    “No,” Marinette squeaks, waving both hands crazily. “It’s not what you’re thinking, I swear. Nothing happened. It was just--”

    “Just…?”

    Chloé continues smirking as she takes a sip of the bloody mary she must have ordered before sitting down.

    Marinette groans. “Just a kiss…” she mumbles, and slumps onto the bar. “I don’t know what to do, Chlo.”

    “Because it’s Adrien, or because you’re still pining after the cat?”

    Chloé’s matter of fact--and not entirely off-the-mark--question makes Marinette sit up straight again.

    She opens her mouth, but… if she answers too hastily, Chloé will mock her further. So she stops and actually thinks about it.

    “It’s… a little bit of the last thing,” she says, hand lifting to the chain around her neck. “But mostly, it’s… what do I do now, Chlo? We live in different countries… and then there’s the other stuff that always gets in the way… how is this going to work?”

    This is what it always comes down to, with guys. Not that she usually feels this torn up about it, of course, but the situation is the same. She can’t tell him she’s Ladybug. She can’t talk to him about that side of her life, an entire half of herself…

    That matters. It matters a lot.

    Normally the decision is easy. The few relationships Marinette has attempted over the years have all ended quickly, thanks to this very issue.

    It doesn’t seem so simple when she thinks about the way Adrien’s mouth felt on hers, though. Or the way he smiles… the way he talks to her, how easy it is to lose time when she’s with him, how much fun -- ugh. She looks at Chloé again, finding her friend watching her. She’s sipping her bloody mary as if she expects Marinette to continue. So, thinking as she speaks, she does.

    “There’s all of… that. It should be simple. But… it is Adrien. I really like him. I’ve always really liked him, except now… it’s real, not just some crush. And… I don’t want to lose it or mess it up.”

    “Did you tell him that?”

    “...no.”

    “Then I don’t know what you’re complaining about. It’s not going anywhere if you don’t take your foot off the breaks, Mari.” Chloé rolls her eyes, voice laced with her typical sarcasm, but… she’s absolutely right. Really, how she manages to do that…

    “We’ve got enough to stress about,” Chloé adds, swivelling on her stool to face Marinette fully. There’s a hard sort of truth to those words, a sharpness to her friend’s ice-blue eyes that drains most of Marinette’s giddiness. “You don’t need to add stress in your love life. Let the other stuff work its own way out for once.”

    Chloé arches a brow, the statement more a question than a suggestion -- a choice.

    Marinette can either take the leap and talk to Adrien like a functioning adult… or she can let it go, pretend nothing happened, and go home. Focus on her designs and the Mehyr and protecting Paris.

    Let the bad guys dictate how she spends her time. Let the rest of life pass her by.

    Something twists in Marinette’s chest.

    She’s so sick of letting this part of life pass her by just because she has another job, another responsibility aside from her civilian life.

    She’s almost surprised to find that it isn’t much of a choice at all, when she takes a moment to consider it.

    Chloé smirks, somewhat smugly, and slides off her stool, as if she read something in Marinette’s face alone.

    Marinette finds herself smiling as she calls after her friend. “Thanks, Chlo.”

    Chloé just waves two fingers over her shoulder in a casual brush off and disappears down the stairs to the lobby.

    Really, Marinette doesn’t know what she ever did to get blessed with such great friends, but… she’s grateful. So, so grateful.

    And she’s not going to take them--or this chance--for granted.

    Not ever again.

    Because, God help her… she wants to go for it.

Chapter Text

    It was meant to be a short nap, just a few minutes with his eyes closed before he’d get up and take care of things.

    But after getting almost no sleep and then being in meetings all day… when Adrien opens his eyes from his quick power nap, he finds that the sun is much lower in the sky than it was when he closed his eyes.

    A glance at the clock above the fireplace tells him it’s almost seven -- four hours. He slept for four hours.

    Great. He meant to text Marinette! He can’t remember if she said her plane leaves tonight or tomorrow… crap.

    Adrien is just lunging for his phone when he hears a knock on his apartment door--light but firm--and realizes that the sound is what woke him in the first place.

    Who…?

    “Coming,” he half-grumbles, half-yells, rubbing sleep out of his eyes as he strides for the door. He’s got it half open when he realizes that his shirt is rumpled and unbuttoned and his hair… has seen better days.

    Oops.

    But it doesn’t really bother him until he sees that it’s not some delivery person standing in the stairwell.

    He takes in the slightly curly hair, the hint of pink on her cheeks, the pretty, swirly yellow sundress. The bags in her arms, smelling of groceries.

    “Ah… Mari,” he says, blinking.

    “Sorry… I thought about calling first but I figured a surprise would be… more fun?” She bites her lip, peering at him uncertainly. Then her gaze drops, and Adrien tries not to preen as her face turns crimson, her eyes stuck somewhere around his abdomen. “Uhm.”

    Adrien leans against the doorjamb and smirks. “I love surprises, Princess,” he drawls.

    Her eyes shoot back to his face and he realizes too late that he used his old pet name for her -- crap.

    Bad to worse. And he’s been trying so hard to not do that.

    But she blinks it off, either not noticing or not making the connection. Well, it has been ten years.

    “Good,” she says, her smile returning with an impish twist. “Because I’ve brought a surprise dinner. Tell me you haven’t already eaten?”

    Adrien steps out of the way, swinging the door wide for her. “A chance at your home cooking? I may as well have never eaten in my life.”

    She laughs and sidles past him, pausing to take in his apartment; not overly big, though it isn’t small. Adrien surveys it as well, making sure he hasn’t left any dirty socks--or worse, underwear--lying around.

    Thankfully his father commanded cleanliness into him, and everything looks fairly neat and put together. Whew.

    Well, aside from this morning's dishes, undone in the sink. And that mess of clutter over there on his desk…

    Marinette doesn’t seem to notice those things, though, as she walks past the living room to the open kitchen and drops her bags onto the black marble countertop.

    “Your place is very cozy,” she says, smiling at him. Adrien takes in the pale gray walls and the dark furniture, accented by many, many fluffy and colorful pillows, and is glad that she likes it.

    Unbearably, inconceivably glad.

    He just grins as he kicks the door shut and moves into the main room, remembering to button his shirt on the way.

    “Thanks.” He pauses on the other side of the island, watching as she unloads things from her grocery bags. Vegetables, pork, some delicious-smelling spices-- ooh, sesame. He loves sesame. “I don’t know what you’re making, but I’m excited.”

    Mari laughs, nudging his hand away as he reaches for the pouch of sesame seeds. “It’s a surprise, si--”

    She pauses, glancing down, and Adrien peers over the counter to find his usually unfriendly cat rubbing against Marinette’s ankles.

    He almost feels territorial.

    But Mari grins in delight and leans down to pet the encroaching furball.

    “Oh, you have a cat! She’s beautiful.”

    “Not to mention a huge suck-up, apparently,” Adrien says, though he can’t help but grin. Mari likes cats.

    That makes him strangely happy.

    Dei, the shameless feline, continues contentedly rubbing herself against Mari’s hands, despite Adrien’s stern look.

    “What’s her name?” Mari asks, crooning at the fat, dark brown fluffer.

    “Amedei,” Adrien says, somewhat mollified when Mari looks up at him, momentarily taking her attention away from his cat.

    God, he’s so pathetic. Jealous of his own pet.

    Marinette lifts her brows. “Like the chocolate?”

    “Ah-- yeah.” He doesn’t know why he’s so pleased that she knows the brand name. “It was my mom’s favorite kind.”

    Something quiet and sad flashes through Mari’s eyes, and she gives him a soft smile. “That’s really sweet, Adrien.”

    “Thanks.” He rubs the back of his head for a moment, further ruffling his messy hair. “So, what can I do to help with this dinner endeavour?”

    Marinette giggles as she stands, earning a displeased mew from Dei. She clicks her tongue at the cat and goes to wash her hands in the sink. He rather likes how quickly she’s made herself at home in his apartment.

    Actually… “Hey, how did you know where I live, anyway?” he asks, giving her a curious look.

    “Chloé got the address for me,” she says, grinning over her shoulder.

    “Resourceful.”

    “Yes.” She smirks. “Now, let’s see… you can chop these green onions?”

    “I would love to.”

    Adrien produces an apron and ties it on, glad she brought one for herself since he doesn’t have a spare. He doesn’t know where she found the thing, but he likes the way the sharp crimson blends with the sunset yellow of her dress and compliments her tanned skin.

    And he’s staring.

    Chopping. Onions. Now.

    With a mental facepalm, Adrien takes up a place across the island from Marinette, absently answering her random questions about the location of this or that tool and utensil. They settle into an easy rhythm, as if they’ve done this before -- as if teamwork comes naturally to them. She asks about his day and he rants a bit about his meetings; she laughs him off when he apologizes for it, and it’s not so different from when they’re texting each other or chatting via Skype.

    And it’s… nice.

    He could get used to this. Having her in his kitchen. Petting his cat.

    Well, maybe not so much the second one, unless she also pets him

    Adrien has to excuse himself for a moment after that thought, taking a quick bathroom break during which he splashes cold water on his face and reminds himself that Mari is a nice girl. And he shouldn’t have such filthy thoughts about her. Ever.

    But god.

    He remembers the way it felt to kiss her yesterday--this morning?--and the urge to do so again is… nearly overwhelming.

    What are you, a hormonal teenager? Get it together. After a thorough mental scolding, he returns to the kitchen to find Marinette humming to herself as she scrapes chopped vegetables into a bubbling pot that smells delicious.

    “You’re a wonder, Mari,” he murmurs, moving behind her to return to his place across the counter. She tosses a grin at him.

    “You’re not so bad yourself, Agreste.”

    “Well, yes, my chopping skills are second to none,” he agrees, winking at her. She snorts and goes back to seasoning her pot.

    “I think… we need mood music,” Adrien proclaims, moving into the living room. He clicks the stereo on and switches it from a news channel to its CD setting, then peruses his shelves. “What do you think, Mari?”

    “Hmm… got any of Jagged’s albums?”

    He does, in fact, have all of Jagged Stone’s albums. Including his favorite, the one Marinette herself signed for him years ago after she helped Jagged design the album cover.

    “I do,” he says, tossing her an amused look. “But that is not mood music, Mari-sweet.”

    She rolls her eyes at him with a glint of mischief. “Ke$ha then.”

    Adrien almost chokes. “God no.”

    Marinette laughs, the sound better than any music. Seriously, he’s so far gone…

    “I don’t know, Adrien, what mood are you going for here, hmm?” Her tone is teasing and she waggles her brows at him, almost… challengingly.

    With a wicked grin, Adrien picks a CD from his collection and pops it into the player, not even sure himself what the devil he’s doing. But the look on her face when Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” starts playing is… utterly priceless.

    Adrien bursts out laughing.

    Marinette throws a spoon at him, which he deftly catches, and he decides to leave the track on. Not just because it’s a great album, but because… he really likes that look on her face. Red is a great color on her.

    “You’re awful,” she tells him, but she doesn’t take her eyes off him as he prowls back into the kitchen. Adrien just smirks.

    “You asked for it, Princess.”

    Crap.

    Marinette tilts her head at him, something like recognition flashing in her eyes.

    “What?” he asks -- nonchalance. Nonchalance is good.

    She shakes her head. “Nothing. It’s just… I used to have a friend who called me that sometimes. It’s funny, that’s all.”

    “Really?” Adrien feigns interest and ignorance, leaning against the counter -- even as his heart pounds in his chest. That tattoo on her hand tells him well enough that she, at least, has never forgotten Chat Noir.

    “Yeah-- he, uh, had a thing for weird nicknames,” Mari says, grinning to herself. And the fondness still there, mixed with sadness… he thinks again of the way she added him to her final piece in the showcase and feels a surge of warmth and gratitude.

    “You think ‘princess’ is a weird nickname, huh?” he asks, popping a piece of cut cucumber into his mouth. She eyes him sternly, silently telling him no. He smirks. She rolls her eyes again.

    “A little bit, maybe,” she says, shaking her head at him. “I… kind of like it, though.”

    Adrien grins at her. “Good to know. Princess.”

    Now he just has to remember not to purr it at her. And no cat puns. God, that would give it away for sure, even if he’s thought of a few great ones lately. It’s not as if she doesn’t already know he likes to pun…

    But he’s refrained from cat puns. And should continue to do so.

    Even if it doesn’t matter anymore, since he doesn’t have his Miraculous… Ladybug was right, all those years ago, about keeping their identities secret. He learned that the hard way the day he found out his father was Hawk Moth.

    So he smirks at Marinette as she grins back at him, and doesn’t say anything more about it.

Chapter Text

    Marinette doesn’t know what she’s doing. Her plane leaves tomorrow, and she came here to talk to Adrien about… that kiss, and everything, but… she still hasn’t brought it up. All through dinner, and the desert he insisted on making--it was really good, actually, and that coming from a baker’s daughter--it’s been easy banter, drifting conversations, quick laughter.

    Her old mantra crept up a few times today, while she was debating this -- I don’t have time for a boyfriend. Ladybug will keep us distant. He lives in another country!

    But here she is, anyway. Despite knowing all that. Being with Adrien is just… easy. Fun.

    She enjoys spending time with him. So why not be here? Why not, on her last night in this city, take a risk? Go for it?

    It’s what Ladybug would do.

    And she is, after all, Ladybug. She’s on vacation, she’s not worrying about the Mehyr or all those issues -- she came here to let loose and prove that she’s not letting the bad guys determine the way she lives her life.

    So she doesn’t know what’s holding her back. Why she can’t seem to say anything.

    “Hey-- you want some more tea?” Adrien breaks off a story he was telling about the week he spent in Madagascar, gesturing at her empty cup.

    Marinette grins at him. “Sure. Monsieur Domestic.”

    He grins. “Hey, I’m a model. We’re supposed to be charming hosts.”

    She chuckles, leaning back against the couch as he takes her cup and stands. “I thought you gave up modeling?”

    “Well, mostly,” he agrees, waving a hand. “But it’s kind of hard to lose the lifestyle.”

    “Says the model who made creme brulee and then put away half of it,” she teases.

    “Exactly.” Adrien just winks at her before turning to the stove, and Marinette, grinning, takes the opportunity to ask where the bathroom is. “Ah, down the hall, on the left,” he says, waving in that general direction.

    Marinette wanders down the short hall that opens off the living room, gaze drifting over the pictures on the walls; for all that he’s a model, there are precious few pictures of Adrien himself. Instead there are vistas, temples, ruins and monuments; sights she’s always wanted to see in person but has never been able to.

    Then there are the people, most she doesn’t recognize, all looking happy. There are even pictures of his father and Nathalie, and pictures of his mother. Pictures of life.

    Marinette gets a little lost in those moments and turns right instead of left at the first set of doors, wandering into a weight room. She perks up at the sight, recognizing most of the high-tech equipment; she has a smaller, less expensive version in her own apartment back home. After studying the room for a moment, noting which machines are the most well-used--and fully aware that she’s snooping--Marinette turns back and finally finds the bathroom.

    She smiles when she finds that it’s a cozy space decorated in soft whites and teals. Adrien has an eye for color. Then again, of course he would. He’s an Agreste.

    She makes quick use of the facilities, feeling a bit awkward about being in Adrien’s apartment for the first time tonight. There’s something about using someone else’s toilet… and toilet paper… and hand soap…

    It’s just awkward.

    And also strangely--probably disgustingly--thrilling.

    Mon dieu, she’s in so much trouble. And she really needs to decide what she’s going to do about it.

    Marinette stands before the long, spotless mirror, staring at her own reflection. She removed her apron, but even with it on she managed to get a smudge of sauce on the sleeve of her dress -- typical. She studies her own face, her own eyes, the light, almost nonexistent makeup she applied hours ago.

    Not much more she can do, really. Or should do. Marinette has never believed in making herself out to be anything more than what she is. Though she did buy this dress new this afternoon.

    Her gaze lands on a glint of silver at her throat, and she reaches up, pulling the chain so that Chat’s Miraculous falls into her palm, glowing softly green.

    And she knows, suddenly, why she hasn’t been able to say anything to Adrien, as Chloé’s question rings in her ears.

    “Is it because it’s Adrien, or because you’re still pining after the cat?”

    She’s not pining after Chat, not anymore. Though she spent years hoping he’d return… at this point, she knows it’s unlikely.

    Besides, how long is she going to hold onto this heartache? Let it keep her from finding happiness? She wants to… to find something with Adrien. More than she’s ever wanted to have something with any of the other guys she’s dated… she wants something with Adrien, even with the Ladybug thing hanging over her head.

    And she doesn’t think that makes her a bad person. To let go.

    Chat, after all, has already let go of her. Wherever he is.

    Marinette cups the Black Cat Miraculous in her palm for a long moment, staring down at it. If she’s going to do this, go forward with Adrien--with her life, Mehyr or no Mehyr--she has to start by letting go of her own pain.

    So, with a swift movement, Marinette removes the chain from around her neck. Not because she’s letting go of Chat, or because she’ll ever give it to anyone else--no, it still belongs to him, whenever he wants it again--but because… she’s letting go of the heartbreak. Letting go of the loss. If she’s entering a new stage in her life--a new relationship--then this seems like a fitting marker for it.

    She smiles down at the necklace in her palm, then closes her fist around it. Smiles at the tattoo on her hand. She’s surprised, almost, by how… light she feels.

    So, with another smile and warmth in her chest, Marinette turns and heads back to the living room. Adrien, she sees, is still standing at the counter -- and is he…?

    She smirks when she realizes that he’s eating one of the remaining creme brulees. Sneaky model.

    Marinette drops Chat’s ring into her purse--otherwise empty, since she didn’t bring Tikki tonight--and heads for the kitchen, leaving it behind.

Chapter Text

    Marinette stretches in a patch of early morning sun, utterly lazy and content. Seriously, a skylight right above the bed, what an excellent idea…

    She yawns, fingers stretching, and is faintly surprised when she meets no resistance sliding across the silken-smooth sheets. Shouldn’t there be…

    She opens her eyes, somewhat blearily, to peer at the queen-size bed. The otherwise empty queen-size bed.

    Huh. She’d have sworn… Marinette’s face heats as memories of last night pour in.

    Dinner. Desert. Chatting. Laughing. The ill-timed joke that led to biscuit-throwing and then tea spilling all over Adrien’s head and shoulders…

    The look on his face, as he headed for the shower, when he turned back and suggested she join him.

    And… everything after that… after she said yes.

    Oh mon dieu. Mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu.

    Marinette buries her face in Adrien’s soft pillows, noticing that they smell like his slightly spicy aftershave--or cologne, or whatever it is he wears that smells so good--and tries not to scream.

    Last night was… wow.

    She’s probably wearing the stupidest grin ever and she couldn’t possibly care less.

    But… where is he…?

    Marinette frowns at this question, posed a second time, and sits up. Cool air rushes over her, prickling her skin, causing her to gather the warm sheet and take it with her when she climbs out of bed.

    “Adrien?” she calls, looking around. She didn’t get a good glimpse of his room last night, but looking at it now… she smiles, peering at the space. His space.

    It’s simple, modern, done in gray and green. Aside from an old picture of him and his parents across from the bed--awkward--there’s little decoration. A desk with three computer screens on it sits next to the closet door and the window, and a fuzzy green rug rests along the foot of the bed.

    It’s nice. Very… male. But nice.

    Marinette smiles as she pads out of the bedroom and down the hall, past the weight room and bathroom. But Adrien isn’t in either of those places, and he’s not in the main room, either.

    Marinette frowns as she steps into the kitchen, the tiles cool against her bare feet. Then she spots the tray on the counter and moves toward it; that wasn’t there last night. A sticky note is pinned to the surface.

      Early meeting, sorry :( would have loved to have stayed in bed with you ;) on the bright side, here’s breakfast. Text me your flight plan when you wake up? I want to see you before you leave.

                           -Adrien

     Marinette grins, blushing at the images that creep in at his mention of staying in bed. Too bad.

    After a moment, she sets the note aside and lifts the tray’s lid curiously, finding a small stack of pancakes, some bacon, and scrambled eggs and sausages. Yumm.

    Marinette picks up a fork and settles comfortably onto a barstool. The only thing that would make this better--aside from Adrien still being here--would be having Tikki here.

    Oh no, Tikki. She wasn’t supposed to stay out all night… Tikki is alone in the hotel room, probably worried sick.

    Marinette gobbles down breakfast as quick as she can and then hurries into her clothes; she spares enough thought to make the bed and wash the dishes, but she’s antsy and rushed through the process.

    Only once she’s exited the apartment does she realize… she doesn’t have a key. And can’t lock it.

    And she doesn’t have Tikki, so she can’t lock it from inside and then slip out a window.

    Well, she supposes she still could, but it’d be an awkward endeavour that would likely take far too long. Adrien’s apartment is on the fifth floor of his building.

    Marinette hums over it for a moment, debating; she even spends a few minutes hunting around the door for a spare key. When she doesn’t find anything, she settles for hoping Barcelona is a relatively safe city and Adrien’s neighbors are nice people.

    Because she really needs to get back to Tikki.

    She calls for a taxi and turns on her phone, sending off a quick text to Adrien while she waits for it to arrive downstairs.

     M.D-C 9:12 am: couldn’t find a spare key, so your door’s unlocked… sorry xD thanks for breakfast <3 my flight leaves at six so just let me know when you’re out of meetings :)

    Only after she’s sent it does she second guess the heart emoji, but… oh well. The taxi arrives and Marinette hops in, too worried about Tikki to stress overmuch.

    Besides, after last night… well, there’d better be a few heart emojis.

     As Marinette settles in the taxi, her phone buzzes in her hand, loading up any emails and messages she missed while it was off.

    Marinette stares.

    Seventeen missed calls?

    She flips through them quickly, finding six from Chloé and the rest from Alya and Lysse. No messages or voicemails, though. And her battery is about to die.

    Marinette is still frowning, her mind trying to conjure all the worst-case scenarios, as she pays the driver and walks into her hotel. Obviously something has happened at home, but… what?

    Lost in increasingly worried thoughts, Marinette slams open the door to her hotel room, immediately looking for Tikki and answers.

   “Tikki, what’s going--” she starts-- only to stop and blink at the sight of Chloé, shooting upright from the bed, looking more rumpled than Marinette has ever seen her.

    “Where have you been?” Marinette opens her mouth, but doesn’t get a chance to speak. “Nevermind-- we don’t have time.” Chloé waves her phone, wiping weariness from eyes that tell Marinette she hasn’t gotten nearly enough sleep. “I’ve been trying to call you. Alya called me last night; she tried to call you but your phone was off.” A hard look. “There’s been another attack. A big one. We have to get back to Paris now.”

Chapter Text

    “I’m so sorry, but something’s come up, and I have to go home early-- I can’t really explain. I’m really sorry. But I’ll call you, okay? Or you can call me, or… yeah. Okay. Bye.”

    Adrien frowns as he tosses his keys onto the table by the door--unnecessary, since it wasn’t locked, but he had them out anyway--and lowers the phone from his ear. He’s listened to Mari’s message twice now, but he still can’t place what feels… off about it. Distant.

    He doesn’t think it’s something to do with work, so he can only hope that everything is okay back in Paris -- that her friends are all alright. What if someone got into an accident? There was some crazy stuff on the news a couple months ago about terrorists in the city…

    Adrien debates checking the news now, but he knows it won’t tell him nearly enough. Instead he shoots off a quick text to Marinette, letting her know it’s fine and asking if everything is okay.

    That should do it.

    He stuffs his phone into the pocket of his slacks as he walks into the main room of his apartment, and smiles when he notices the full dish drainer -- of course Mari did the dishes before she left. He shakes his head, something warm swelling in his chest.

    She probably also made the bed, nutcase that she is. Adrien slips off his shoes and pads across the shag rug in the living room, but stops when he notices the tea tray still on the coffee table and the biscuit crumbs in the rug.

    That… did not get cleaned up last night.

    Adrien smirks at the memory -- the satisfied expression is one he’s been wearing off and on all day today. It seems Mari either forgot about this particular mess or wanted to leave it for him as a reminder.

    Adrien doesn’t particularly care which it is. He tosses his suit jacket onto the couch and crouches down, picking up bits and pieces of crumbled biscuit. He distinctly remembers smushing that bit himself… when they ended up on the couch, after the shower, before the bed… mm.

    Adrien contentedly replays the memories in his head, mouth going a little dry. God, it’s too bad she had to go back to Paris early… he scoops up crumbs and absently works through his schedule, wondering when he’ll be able to make time to drop by and see her.

    Soon. He’ll definitely make it soon. Especially if something is wrong.

    Adrien leans over to peer beneath the couch, and is surprised when something glints back at him; something… a familiar shade of green. He reaches under and pulls it out, but it sits in his palm for a good ten seconds before he really comprehends what he’s seeing.

    It can’t possibly be… can’t be… his Miraculous? That’s… impossible...

    But Adrien would know that ring anywhere. It sat on his hand for almost three years.

    And dangling from it, from his fingers… a delicate sterling silver chain. Adrien recognizes that, too, though his mind rebels.

    It can’t be.

    It can’t.

    Jolted into motion, he stands and hauls out his phone, scrolling quickly to one of the selfies he and Mari took last week during the showcase. And it can’t be, but there, around her neck… a delicate silver chain. One he’s seen her toy with often enough to recognize.

    One she wasn’t wearing last night; he noticed, because she said it was important to someone she loved, and she’d taken it off --

    The memory shoots through him, lightning fast. Like fire.

    “Someone broke your heart,” he said.

    And Marinette looked away. “I think… I broke his first. I was a stupid kid. I didn’t realize… he was already gone by the time I understood how much he meant to me. How much I loved him. And I can’t get that back.”

And she held onto that charm beneath her shirt again, that necklace, and he remembers thinking that something in that look, in the way her spine straightened, was familiar…

“I can give this back to him,” she said, “someday, when I find him again.”

    It couldn’t be.

    It can’t be.

    Adrien doesn’t feel his phone slip from his fingers, doesn't notice when it hits the marble table and shatters. He just stares at the necklace, the ring, and…

    It can’t be.

    But god, it makes so much sense.

    Marinette… sweet, kind, determined, sassy Marinette…

    Adrien’s heart is pounding in his chest, and he can’t think through the white noise in his head, and he can’t do anything-- anything, except shakily slip the ring off that chain, and slide it onto his finger.

    Where it fits perfectly, feels so natural, as if it never went anywhere at all.

    And when the green light flares, and a small, dark shape forms… Adrien is crying. He doesn’t know it, doesn’t care, but he’s crying.

    The black cat kwami blinks large green eyes at him, expression frozen, mouth half open in a signature yawn.

    Then the little face crumples. And Plagg whispers, “Kid?”

Chapter Text

    Adrien almost can’t believe it.

    He’s watching people wandering the halls of his house, dressed in the height of couture and waving glittering glasses of champagne, and he still can’t believe it.

    After years of not being seen in public, his father is actually hosting a party.

    True, it’s for Kagami’s mother, and they do seem to have some kind of business arrangement, but Adrien still… can’t believe it.

    There are people. In his house.

    He’s honestly… overjoyed. And a bit overwhelmed, as he greets guest after guest with a smile on his face. He dances with Kagami, who looks radiant in a traditional Japanese kimono, and then hovers by the buffet table because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself.

    The entire evening is… surreal. To the point that Adrien simply exists in a happy bubble that no amount of posturing can pop. The only thing that would make it better is if his friends could have been here, but his father wasn’t feeling that generous. Adrien gets the feeling that Father didn’t want to host this party, but one of Madame Tsurugi’s friends wanted to view Gabriel Agreste’s personal collection. And Father couldn’t--or simply didn’t--say no.

    Adrien sneaks a few chocolates from the buffet, careful to keep the trick out of Nathalie’s view. He’s feeling so happy he even stuffs a couple pieces of cheese into his tux pocket for Plagg.

    And then-- then everything falls apart.

    It starts with something crashing on the other side of the house, garnering confusion and worry from some of the guests. Nathalie is quick to assure them it’s probably nothing.

    Then she’s proven wrong, when the double doors to the dining room slam open and-- and a woman hurtles through them, tumbling head over heels until she skids to a stop on the marble floor.

    Adrien’s first thought is that she’s an akuma, with the costume and the horns and the shadow over her eyes.

    But then Hawk Moth lunges into the room, swinging a cane that he uses like a rapier to attack the woman.

    Hawk Moth.

    In his house.

    People are screaming. Running. Yelling about akumas and Hawk Moth and someone get Ladybug--

    Adrien’s never seen a party clear out so fast, but he’s too stunned to move, watching Hawk Moth battle the stranger in the middle of his dining room.

    For a moment, he’s sure it’s a dream.

    Then Plagg is hissing at him, and the woman slams Hawk Moth into a stand holding an antique vase that shatters--millions wasted--as it hits the ground.

    And Adrien ducks behind the buffet table, heart pounding, head swimming, staring wide-eyed at his kwami, who looks… excited?

    Plagg is never excited about a fight.

    “That’s Zephyr,” Plagg hisses, ears twitching as he presses his paws together. “She’s here--”

    Adrien has no idea who Zephyr is, or why Plagg seems so happy about that, and he doesn’t have time to question it as something else crashes and he hears Hawk Moth’s distinctive voice yelling something unintelligible.

    He needs to get out there.

    So he throws out his fist, despite his confusion and the insanity of this. If his lady finds out he had an opportunity to catch Hawk Moth and hid behind a table instead... “Plagg, claws out!”

    Chat Noir circles the table and leaps into the fray from a spot he hopes isn’t too conspicuous, though it doesn’t seem that either Hawk Moth or the woman--Zephyr?--notice.

    “Well, looks like this party’s been crashed,” Chat comments, looking for a way he can leap in and help Zephyr before Hawk Moth manages to find someone he can akumatize to come help him.

    It seems, though, that Zephyr doesn’t need much help. She has Hawk Moth on the offensive, swinging a rapier of her own--an actual one--with the skill of an expert duelist. Chat jumps in anyway, the moment he sees an opening. While Hawk Moth is stumbling back to avoid one of Zephyr’s strikes, Chat swings his baton into the gap, forcing the villain to fight on two fronts.

    “Wanna play doubles, Hawk Moth?” he quips, twirling his baton like it’s his fencing foil as he attacks again. “I can duo this all day!”

    Sliding into position beside him, Zephyr snorts.

    Okay, so that wasn’t his best pun. Still. Chat would take a moment to chat with her--heh--and figure out who she is, but it’s taking all his concentration to keep up with Hawk Moth’s defensive attack.

    Whoever he is under that mask, he’s an expert fencer. But so is Chat -- and, apparently, Zephyr. Hawk Moth can do nothing but retreat down the length of the room, clearly growing desperate as he fends them off.

    But there’s nowhere for him to go, and now it’s time to end this! Chat spots an opening and takes it, yelling for his Cataclysm even as he ducks under and behind Hawk Moth’s next swing. Zephyr catches the blow before the villain can bring it back, and then Chat’s hand touches the floor. Hawk Moth staggers back that step, forced into it by his own footwork, and the floor crumbles beneath him.

    Chat expects a hole down to the foundation, maybe a few feet for the villain to fall.

    He doesn’t expect a cavern to open up beneath his home, the floor crumbling away too fast to stop until there’s a massive hole in the dining room, revealing…

    Zephyr catches Hawk Moth before he can fall to his death, which is surely what a fall like that would be.

    But Chat’s gaze isn’t on them. It isn’t even on the hundreds of butterflies flitting through the massive room under his house, or the glimpse of a wide, circular window he’s never seen before. It’s on the glass coffin just below them, perfectly clear to his enhanced vision, and… and the woman inside it.

    Chat can only stare, leaning over that hole, uncomprehending even as several impossible things click in his brain.

    Ladybug suspected-- years ago, she thought--

    But that’s…

    His mother.

Chapter Text

    “What have you done-- no-- let me go! If the glass breaks I’ll lose her again--”

    Chat Noir stumbles back from the hole his Cataclysm caused in the ground, turning to stare at the scene playing out beside him. Zephyr has Hawk Moth pinned down, his cane lying several feet away. The villain is struggling maddly, trying to reach the hole.

    And Chat doesn’t have to wonder why. He looks back down and sees that-- that coffin so clearly, and the spot where some of the falling marble struck it, cracking the glass.

    His mother.

    In a glass coffin.

    Under his house.

    And Hawk Moth…

    Adrien can’t make sense of it. He can’t make sense of anything, doesn't want to make sense of it--

    No. Mother… Mother left. She left, she didn’t-- die…

    No.

    “You really think she’d want that?” The voice is unfamiliar. Chat turns back to find Zephyr still pinning Hawk Moth--his father--to the ground. “Do you even know what you’re trying to do to her?”

    Hawk Moth struggles, his face contorted in rage. “Let go of me, you-- who do you think you are? I--”

    He’s panicking. Adrien can see it, doesn’t believe it. Hawk Moth is clearly panicked as he tries to escape Zephyr’s hold. Tries to…

    Adrien just sits and stares. He doesn’t notice when his Miraculous beeps. Doesn’t care.

    His mother.

    His father.

    “Father…” His voice is weak, but it catches their attention. Hawk Moth stops struggling as his grey eyes shift to Chat Noir. “Father-- how could you-- what happened to mom?

    Chat is crying. Tears slipping over the edges of his mask, blurring his vision. And then his transformation drops and Plagg collapses into his lap, and Adrien is staring at Hawk Moth who is staring back at him.

    Wordlessly stunned.

    “What happened to my mother?” Adrien demands, fists clenching, shoulders shaking. “What did you do?”

    “No--” Hawk Moth protests, shaking his head, eyes wide. “No, I, Adrien-- you can’t be Chat Noir… you… I was just trying to protect you. To make you happy. To bring her back!”

    The wish. The wish that can be made with the Black Cat and Ladybug Miraculous -- all this time, that’s what he’s… what he… and all those people he’s hurt, the innocents he’s turned into victims for his akumas--

    For this?

    Adrien can only stare.

    “Why don’t you take a look at what you’ve already done?” Zephyr’s voice is quiet, and she stands, releasing Hawk Moth from her hold. He barely moves, just shifts enough to push himself onto his arms, still staring at Adrien.

    Adrien just stares back.

    The world is ending.

    “Do you really think she’d have wanted this? For you to abandon your son, turn your Miraculous--something she loved--into a tool for causing pain, just to bring her back? Do you even know what that life would be like for her, Gabriel?”

    “Be quiet,” Hawk Moth hisses, whirling on Zephyr as if he’s suddenly realized she’s the outlet for his rage. “You have no idea what you’re talking about--”

    “Immortality, Gabriel.” Zephyr crouches before him and opens one gloved hand, and suddenly Hawk Moth’s transformation drops away in a flash of purple light. A small, lavender kwami floats there for a moment, clearly stunned.

    Adrien knew, but seeing it… seeing it… his father.

    “Zephyr?” The kwami’s voice is small, its paws covering its mouth.

    Zephyr smiles and cups the little creature in her palm. “Hello, Nooroo.”

    Adrien has no idea what’s going on. He has… no… idea.

    But he can’t just… sit here.

    Slowly, he rises to his feet. Stumbles a few steps and falls to his knees again, closer to his father. The motion draws Gabriel’s eyes and he stares at Adrien again, gaze growing shadowed. Sad, even.

    Adrien’s never seen his father look like this.

    “Your wish may be pure, but that won’t stop the price you’d have to pay for it,” Zephyr says, still speaking quietly somewhere above them. “And you wouldn’t have been able to bring her back the way she was. There is only one sort of resurrection the Miraculous can provide once a person has been bound to a kwami. If Duusu didn’t try, it’s because Emilie didn’t want it, Gabriel.”

    “What are you talking about?” Father spits, whirling back on Zephyr. “How dare you speak as if you know her--”

    “I know all those whose hearts are bound to the kwamis of the Zào Huài,” Zephyr says calmly. Adrien only vaguely recognizes the words as being some dialect of Chinese, though he can’t quite make out what they mean. “How do you think I found you?”

    Father grits his teeth, and still, Adrien can’t find words. His head is full of that image downstairs, of his mother

    And did Zephyr say her Miraculous? Who is Duusu? What--

    Adrien half believes he’s dreaming. This is a nightmare, and he’s going to wake up soon.

    Please.

    “The only path for Emilie now is immortality,” Zephyr says quietly. “Is that truly a fate you’d wish for her? To watch her loved ones--you, your son, any future children you may have and then grandchildren and great-grandchildren--grow old and die while she stays forever young? To be eternally alone in her singular, unchanging existence? Can you even imagine what that is like, Gabriel Agreste?”

    There’s something in Zephyr’s voice, in the way she speaks and the way Nooroo sinks into her hand, that… it’s like rage, but isn’t. Like pain, but isn’t that either.

    It’s personal, whatever it is.

    As if she felt every word she just said.

    Something about it aches in Adrien’s heart. His father… mother…

    He wants to speak but doesn’t know how. Wants to stop this, wants it to keep going, wants to fall into that hole and bury himself in his mother’s arms.

    Plagg places a comforting paw on Adrien’s chest, and Adrien cups the little kwami with one hand, half surprised no jokes or snarky comments are being made.

    But Plagg’s eyes are uncharacteristically serious. And sad.

    And then his ears twitch, and suddenly he flits into Adrien’s pocket, and Adrien is left to watch his father falling apart on his own as Gabriel clenches his fists and draws himself up, glaring at Zephyr with more emotion than Adrien has seen on his face in years.

    “You’re lying.”

Chapter Text

    The flight that left Barcelona for Paris at 9:40 am was full, but Chloé pulled some strings and got them on anyway.

    It was the longest two hours of Marinette’s life. She spent most of it trying--and failing--to contact Alya. The rest of the time she was watching news feeds and updates, scrolling through blog after blog. Reports are jumbled, and the information lodges in Marinette’s head like the catchy refrain to a bad song.

    By the time she and Chloé step onto the streets of Paris and transform… she doesn’t know why they rushed.

    It’s over.

    And she’s too late to help.

    She should never have left. She doesn’t want to have the thought, because the past week was amazing, but… this…

    Ladybug and Queen Bee stand on the Eiffel Tower, looking out over Paris. Smoke drifts through the air in the occasional spot, but otherwise everything looks… normal. The early fall air is crisp, the sky is slightly clouded.

    It looks fine. But it isn’t fine. It isn’t fine at all. According to the current reports, there was over three million in property damage when the Mehyr blew up six different buildings in different districts of the city all at once, sometime early this morning. Thankfully all the buildings were abandoned--massacres have never been these terrorists’ style, for which Ladybug is eternally grateful--but there were still people in the vicinities who were injured.

    And there’s nothing Ladybug can do about it. She wasn’t here, wasn’t involved, so her Miraculous cure can’t touch that damage.

    It hurts in her chest and reminds her far too much of the disaster from six years ago, when Varity showed up with the Earth Miraculous, wanting a challenge from Paris’ heroes. Ladybug failed her city back then, too -- but that day, people actually died.

    So this could be worse. She knows it could be so, so much worse, and she’s glad it isn’t, but…

    The fact that it happened at all sits so heavily on her chest and in her bones that she wants to scream.

    She clenches her fists, and beside her, Queen Bee is silent, as if she knows there’s nothing she can say that will make this right. Ladybug watches tendrils of smoke dissipate into the blue sky and just… just--

    The sound of thumping on the Tower’s metal sides catches her attention. And then Rena Rouge alights on their platform, landing in a crouch before sliding easily to her feet, all red hair and glowing orange in the early morning light. She’s followed shortly by Rayée and Tigre, who’s carrying Carapace on his back. Jaek must have joined them himself, without Rayée needing to summon him, since her paw-print bracelet isn’t blinking.

    Her friends.

    Her team.

    They all look worn out, likely from helping put out the fires. Have any of them slept since that first alarm went off?

    Ladybug just stares at them, with no idea what to say. She should have been here. This-- this is her fault--

    Suddenly, Rena Rouge lunges forward and hurls her black-tipped arms around Ladybug. “This was not your fault, girl, you hear me?” she says, the words spoken into Ladybug’s shoulder. “No way. Don’t even start down that road, or I’ll have to start blackmailing you.”

    Ladybug can’t help but snort at that. “I should have--”

    “Nuh uh. I will pull out embarrassing photos, girl.” Rena pulls back to stare at her with utter seriousness, and Ladybug believes her.

    Somehow, the enforced absolvement releases a bit of her tension.

    “She’s right, Bug,” Rayée says, arms folded over her chest in a pose that mimics her Chevalier’s. Tigre, though, is leaning against one of the Tower’s rails, his very real tiger-striped tail swishing back and forth in agitation.

    Slowly, Ladybug lets out a breath, and Rena takes a step back to give her room. Looking around at her friends, Ladybug nods once.

    “All right. What do we know?”

    Because it wasn’t just the fires, oh, no. According to the news reports Marinette read on the plane, that was the just the start. While the police and the heroes were busy putting out those fires and making sure the civilians were safe, the Mehyr were busy breaking into an unknown number of places around the city. The count Marinette saw twenty minutes ago said at least twenty different places, all different -- everything from office buildings to a power plant and even a couple of small-time research facilities she’d never heard of before.

    It was all just a distraction.

    “Not much, yet,” Carapace says, pulling up a police report on his bracer’s screen. “We’re still not totally sure what all they took, since… well, the police are keeping it quiet, but it seems like the guys who broke in were different from the usual.”

    “As in, invisible different,” Rena interjects, hands on her hips. “It’s crazy. We have full camera surveillance -- the feeds weren’t tampered with at all. But no alarms were triggered, and on screen it’s just one second something’s there, the next -- gone. The police are asking everyone who thinks they were affected to take careful inventories.”

    Ladybug stares at them. “Invisible.”

    Her friends nod back at her, seeming as stunned as she is. It’s hardly the weirdest thing they’ve ever faced, but… well, it is, actually, the weirdest thing they’ve come across in years.

    “And there’s no information? At all?” Her frustration threatens to boil over, and Ladybug begins pacing the length of the Tower.

    “Not much, anyway.” This from Rayée, who watches their fearless leader with a concerned expression twisting her mouth. “The only odd thing is a few of the reports from near places we know were broken into say eyewitnesses spotted a guy with horns and really hairy legs. We chalked that up to nonsense at first, but…”

    “But at least five different people saw the same thing near places that were stolen from,” Rena agrees. “We’re thinking maybe it’s some kind of--”

    “Did you say horns?” Queen Bee’s voice is downright strident as she stares at Rena and Rayée.

    “Yeah, totally crazy, right?” Rayée runs her fingers through her caramel hair, streaked with magenta when she’s in this form. “We think maybe he’s a new Miraculous holder from another Box, like Varity was, or… something. He seems to be working with the Mehyr.”

    Queen Bee has visibly paled, and Ladybug seconds the sentiment. The last time a holder from another Box came to Paris… people died.

    And, helping the Mehyr? Why? What were they even stealing?

    Ladybug has to wonder if maybe there was some credence to Zephyr’s suggestion about ‘mages’ after all… but they didn’t get anywhere near Master Fu or the Miracle Box, so it doesn’t make sense.

   All this time they’ve just been arbitrarily attacking, and now this?

   Ladybug’s mind whirls in endless circles, and she has to pull it back for fear of going crazy herself.

   “Okay,” she breathes, still pacing. “Okay. Do we have a list of what they stole? Do we know… anything?

    Carapace sighs, rubbing his head over his green hood. “Well, we’re not sure. On the one hand, some of the stuff makes it seem like they’re building something -- some kind of… energy enhancer? Dude, I don’t know, I’m not good at the science stuff.”

    “The police consultant compared it to something like an EMP,” Rena says. “But… not. A lot of the things they know for sure were taken would fit to make that, but then… a lot of them are just random. So we have no idea.”

   “And we’re still getting reports of more things that have gone missing, so we may know more later,” Rayée adds, shrugging helplessly.

   Ladybug looks at them all, clearly worn out and just as frustrated as she is, if not more so. She turns to look back out over her city, at that ominous smoke and the strange normalcy of everything else.

   “None of the terrorists were captured?” she asks, knowing she’s grasping at the last straw. The news reports were unclear on that bit, so maybe there’s a lead there--

   “No,” Rena says, sighing heavily. “They were all gone by the time we got there.”

    Of course.

    Of course.

    Marinette never should have left.

    Now… now there’s nothing she can do. Except wait.

Chapter Text

    It takes awhile for everything to settle in Adrien’s head.

    First there’s Plagg. The simple fact that the cat kwami is back in his life has Adrien speechless for a good while. Then there’s Plagg’s lecture, as said cat kwami finally gets ten years of pent up anger off his tiny chest.

   Then there’s the joy, as it all finally begins to set in and Adrien gets it.

   Plagg is back.

   And Marinette…

   Marinette is Ladybug. Has always been Ladybug. Will always be Ladybug.

   This takes a bit longer to compute, though it actually makes far more sense than he’s really willing to analyze.

   At first, he wonders how his ring ended up under the couch. Wonders if maybe she left it there on purpose -- if she figured it out somehow. All his uses of that old nickname, or maybe something just clicked, and she left it for him to find because she didn’t know how to explain.

   Adrien dismisses this idea fairly quickly, though. That doesn’t seem like Marinette’s style, and it definitely isn’t Ladybug’s. She’d never be so careless as to leave a Miraculous lying around.

   So… essentially, she lost it.

   Ten years of keeping it safe, and she loses it. In his apartment.

   God, the irony.

   After hours of turning it all over in his head--in his apartment, on the plane, while he took a calming shower in his hotel room--the only thing Adrien can truly conclude is that he really is the world’s biggest, most oblivious idiot. Because seriously -- how could he not have known?

    It was so obvious.

    They’re so much alike. They talk alike. They look alike. They have the same sense of humor and the same sass and the same indomitable determination.

    He should have known.

    And even if there’s some kind of magic at play to keep it secret, as he’s always suspected--after all, his face was literally everywhere when they were kids, there’s no way someone shouldn’t have put together that Adrien Agreste the model was Chat Noir the hero--he still should have noticed the similarities.

    But he didn’t. Instead, he’s such an idiot that he fell in love with the same woman twice.

    Maybe that means it’s fate or something.

    God.

    Adrien groans and flops onto the couch, rubbing his face with both hands. The first thing he did--once Plagg was finished yelling and Adrien was finished accepting reality--was buy a plane ticket and fly to Paris, but now that he’s here… he doesn’t know what to do.

    His phone is broken, so he can’t call Mari up and talk to her, which is what he really wants to do -- though he has no idea what he’d say. He had half a mind, when he got off the plane, to march right over to her apartment -- only to realize that he doesn’t actually know where her apartment is. And he doesn’t think marching into her boutique is going to…

    Besides, what would he say?

    Adrien has no idea how to handle this situation. Everything was going so well. This last week, last night, everything-- and now…

   Marinette is Ladybug. Ladybug is Marinette. And always has been.

    And he’s in love with her.

    That little fact seemed simple this morning, when he left her sleeping peacefully in his bed. God, just the memory of that… Adrien has to turn his mind away from those memories or risk having to head back to the shower, this time for a cold one.

    It’s not that being in love with her isn’t simple anymore. That’s not going to change. Clearly, since he fell out of love with one side of her only to fall for the other ten years later.

    He’s screwed. Officially.

    That’s not even the problem.

    The problem… is he’s Chat Noir. And even if she did, once, maybe feel something for him--she said, after all, that she did and just didn’t realize it--the fact remains that she never wanted to know his identity.

    After he practically abandoned her, he doubts that’s changed.

    So what is he supposed to do? Just outright go to her and tell her he knows and it’s him? Then what? He doesn’t want to… force that on her.

    Besides that, he understands why she was always so adamant about keeping it secret, probably better than anyone. His father was Hawk Moth, after all.

    Something she’s aware of, he realizes suddenly. He’s always known that Ladybug knew, and chose not to say anything. Now, it hits him that Ladybug is Marinette.

    Marinette knew.

    Ladybug sat next to his father during his showcase and… laughed. Smiled. Talked to him completely normally like she didn’t know anything at all.

    Ladybug listened to Adrien talk about mending his relationship with his father, and… knew. Mari knew the whole time exactly what had happened and why.

    Adrien has no idea how he feels about that.

    He’s always been grateful to Ladybug for not outing his father. The fact that she kept it a secret allowed them to start over, to fix themselves and their lives. He thought at the time that it was just her usual kindness, but now he wonders if it had more to do with the fact that they were friends.

    And she had a crush on him.

    Well, it was probably also her usual implacable kindness.

   “Kid, you’re stressing too much,” Plagg drawls, floating up to him. He swallows a slice of the camembert Adrien picked up for him on the way to the hotel--he really didn’t miss that smell--and licks his lips satisfactorily. “It’s not that big a deal.”

    “How is it not a big deal, Plagg?” Adrien asks, running his fingers through his hair. If she doesn’t want to know, if he messes this up -- if he loses her again--

    “If you want my opinion, Adrien,” Plagg says, cuddling another piece of stinky cheese, “you’re worrying too much. Just relax.”

    Yes. Relax. Because it’s that simple.

    Adrien sighs and pokes his old friend in the side. “Well, if you want my opinion, Plagg, you’re going to make yourself sick eating that much cheese. Slow down, will you?”

    “Hey, lay off,” Plagg snarks, flitting back toward the television stand where the wheel is. “I spent ten years stuck in that ring, okay? I’m hungry.”

    He doesn’t, thankfully, add and it’s your fault. Though it is.

    “How can you be hungry?” Adrien asks dryly. “You weren’t even doing anything.”

    “I was too!” Plagg protests, turning an offended gaze Adrien’s way. “It’s not easy being part of a Miraculous, you know. Your lady couldn’t even be bothered to put me back in the Miracle Box, so I was all alone. It was terrible, Adrien. Your mortal brain can’t even comprehend it.”

    Adrien gives his melodramatic kwami an amused look, causing Plagg to sniff haughtily and return to his wheel of camembert. Some things, at least, never change.

    The feeling swelling in Adrien’s chest is definitely happiness. Despite everything… Plagg is back.

    And if Mari is his lady, and his lady is Mari, then…

    Well, he couldn’t be happier.

    It’s just a matter of… doing something about it. He couldn’t bear to lose her, not after everything. He spent ten years finding new ways to get over her only to fall in love all over again the moment they met up in London. And he didn’t even know it.

    If things were simple, he could just walk up to her and tell her everything. And it would all work out.

    But things aren’t that simple. He spent half the plane ride using his seat’s monitor to check the latest news feeds in Paris, and the other half using it to log onto the Ladyblog for the first time in… many years.

    He’s missed a lot. A lot.

    It isn’t just Ladybug anymore. Now it seems Rena Rouge and Carapace are heroes full time, along with Chloé and a couple new ones Adrien never met. They’re a team, and they’ve fought countless villains together, including some really bad ones -- and he’s… not part of it.

    He wasn’t there.

    He can’t just waltz up as Chat Noir and expect everything to be the same.

    Nor can he just tell Mari who he is -- he doubts her policy on identities has changed. And even if she’s meant to find him all these years… a part of her had to have known it was impossible. She was holding onto his Miraculous with nothing more than hope.

    It’s probably only her insane luck that led them to this.

    Adrien’s luck has always been… bad. And if he does something stupid, if he messes up what they’ve built over the last few months… the thought of it is enough to make his chest hurt.

    He doesn’t know what to do.

    He wishes he could just talk to her, but--

    “Kid. Seriously.” Adrien looks up from his position on the couch to find Plagg floating over him, frowning. “Oh look, he’s alive. Adrien, I’m out of cheese.”

    Adrien blinks up at his kwami for a long, silent moment.

    “I bought you three wheels, Plagg. Three wheels.

    “Yeah, they were delicious, but they’re gone now. I need more. More, Adrien. Stop stressing about your love life and get me some cheese!”

    For a heartbeat, Adrien just looks at Plagg, who’s looking back at him with a muelish expression. Then he bursts out laughing, because of all the backwards ways to get him to stop stressing --

    “Aww, Plagg, you do care,” he croons, reaching out to swipe the kwami and cuddle him into his chest.

    Plagg immediately begins squirming and protesting, though Adrien notes that he doesn’t try to phase away. “Let me go, you barbarian, hey--”

    Adrien laughs again, tickling Plagg’s side with one finger, which results in more adorable protesting as the kwami pretends to try to escape.

    “This is kwami abuse, Adrien!” Plagg cries, eyes slitted and ears laid back as he circles Adrien’s head. Adrien keeps grabbing him and cuddling him every time he gets away, until Plagg finally gives in and allows himself to be held.

   Adrien grins in victory. “I love you too, Plagg.”

    Plagg makes a growling sound in the back of his throat as Adrien rubs his soft little head with one finger. “I liked you better when you were a baby human,” he grumbles. “You were nicer.”

    Adrien just laughs again and finally releases his kwami, who floats a foot away and shakes himself thoroughly. Adrien grins and stands, stretching to his full height. His spine clicks and he rolls his shoulders, enjoying the pleasant sensation.

    “Come on, Plagg,” he says, earning a suspicious look from his kwami. “If we’re going to get you some more cheese,” he grins wickedly at Plagg’s hopeful face, “we might as well go for a run. Plagg--”

    “Hey, wait, Adrien--”

    “Claws out!”

Chapter Text

    Marinette goes home. What else, after all, can she do? After spending most of the day patrolling, helping firemen clean up the messes and poring over every police report that comes her way, there’s nothing left for Ladybug to do.

    The fires have been put out. The abandoned buildings are slated to be torn down, their lots to be put up for sale. No one was killed and the few fire-related injuries weren’t severe. The Mehyr made off with thousands of euros’ worth of stolen goods, but what they’re doing with those things is anyone’s guess.

    There are no leads.

    There is no new information.

    There is nothing.

    The frustration led Ladybug back to Zephyr’s pub just before sunset, even though she’d told her friends she was going home to sleep -- which was precisely what they were doing, since they all looked even more worn out than she felt.

    Ladybug needed answers, though, so she detransformed in that familiar alley and walked to Zephyr’s.

    Only to find it closed.

    For all Marinette knows, Zephyr could be in China. She could also be down the street getting her nails done, or lip-locked with Jaek in their apartment. Or house? Marinette doesn’t actually know where they live.

    Zephyr and Jaek are such… mysterious figures in her life. It’s weird to think of them living somewhere, getting up and making coffee, doing the dishes, sweeping the floors. It’s far easier to picture the two of them involved in some secret espionage in the Far East than it is to picture them being domestic.

    And of course, no matter what they’re doing, neither of them were at the pub when she needed them.

    So Marinette is home.

    She tried to sleep, and failed. Tried to eat, and barely made it through some thrown-together pasta before her appetite rebelled.

    She finds herself scrolling through her newsfeed on her phone, looking at all the reports from today’s disaster. It only makes her feel more useless.

    She doesn’t want to regret her trip to Barcelona, but she can’t help but feel that if she’d been here… well, at least the damage wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is.

    Not that her friends couldn’t handle it. She knows they did everything they could, and she’s certainly not better than them, it’s just… a feeling she can’t shake.

    She should have been here.

    “Marinette.”

    Marinette glances up from her phone to see Tikki floating in front of her, rubbing sleep from tired blue eyes.

    “Tikki. I’m sorry.” Marinette sits up, only realizing as she does that there’s a twinge in her back from how she’s been leaning over her dining table. “Did I wake you?” She yawns with the words, only now realizing how tired she is.

    Tikki sighs and cuddles close, putting a paw against Marinette’s cheek. “Marinette, it’s one o’clock in the morning. You need to sleep.”

    “I know, Tikki.” Marinette sighs and rubs her face, letting her phone fall to the wooden tabletop. “I just… can’t.”

    “It’s not your fault, you know,” Tikki says sternly, sounding so much like Alya that Marinette has to smile. Even if it’s a small, tired smile. “You couldn’t have done anything to prevent it even if you were here.”

    “I know, Tikki.” She does. She really does. She just…

    “I just feel like…”

    “Just because you’re Ladybug doesn’t mean you have to fix everything all the time,” Tikki lectures, eyes slitted with determination. “You’re only human, Marinette, you have to take vacations and have fun, too. And sleep! You--”

    “I know, Tikki.” Marinette cuddles the kwami in her palm, sighing again. “But these people are going to hurt my city, and I can’t do anything. I don’t even know why they’re doing this. What they want. It’s… it’s exhausting, Tikki.”

    Marinette rests her head on the table, and Tikki pats her forehead, offering support as she always does. Honestly, Marinette would have fallen apart a long time ago without her kwami.

    “It’s okay to not know things, Marinette,” Tikki says simply. Somehow the words loosen a bit of the tension in Marinette’s shoulders. Somehow Tikki always knows what to say.

    “Thanks, Tikki,” she says, turning her head to smile warmly at her old friend.

    Tikki smiles brightly in response and tugs on Marinette’s hair. “Okay, time for bed. You have to work tomorrow, you know. You’ve already gotten preorders for your fall line thanks to the showcase in Barcelona, and that’s going to be a lot of work!”

    Right, Barcelona, her fall line -- oh, that is going to be work. Marinette allows herself to be tugged out of the chair and toward the bathroom, her mind drifting lazily as she realizes suddenly just how exhausted she really is. Her eyes are burning and her limbs feel heavy when she moves them.

    And Adrien never responded to her messages… he was probably busy all day.

    The thought of him pushes out a little more of that tension as a smile finds its way to her face, memories from the past week replacing thoughts of today’s disaster.

    They didn’t really get a chance to talk about… anything, so she’s not sure what to do now. She’ll wait for him to respond to her text from this morning and then… well, they’ll figure it out. A long-distance relationship would be hard, but…

    But it’d be worth it.

    Besides, she might be able to convince him to come back to Paris. Maybe. It’s not as if she can leave.

    Especially after today.

    Marinette lets her mind drift tiredly through these and other semi-pleasant thoughts as she strips down to her underwear and goes to brush her teeth. Her movements are sluggish and more than once Tikki keeps her from tripping over herself, for which she’s eternally grateful.

    Mon dieu, she really should have gone to bed before now…

    Marinette is half-asleep at the sink, lazily brushing her teeth, when the sound of Tikki gasping in shock sends a jolt through her stomach and wakes her right back up.

    “Marinette!” Tikki is hovering near her face with a look of dire concern. “Where’s Plagg’s Miraculous?”

    For a moment, cold washes through Marinette’s veins as she realizes it isn’t in its spot around her neck. Then she remembers, and relaxes, waving a hand.

    “It’s fine Tikki, it’s in my purse.”

    Tikki stares at her. “No it isn’t, Marinette.”

    “Hmm? ‘course it is. I put it there last night.” Marinette mumbles the words around her toothbrush, then spits into the sink and rinses out her mouth while Tikki hovers, wringing her paws.

    “I didn’t see it, Marinette, and I spend most of my time in there!”

    “Okay, we’ll check,” Marinette says easily, wiping her mouth on a towel. She’s sure it’s just in one of the interior pockets and Tikki was distracted.

    They were both distracted all day today, right from the moment they left the hotel in Barcelona.

    Marinette finds her purse shoved under a chair in the kitchen and picks it up, then clicks it open and rummages through it. She dropped it in here, so maybe…

    But a moment’s glance turns into several minutes’ searching, which then devolves into frantically opening pockets and eventually dumping the entire contents of the purse onto the dining table.

    Lip gloss, wallet, ID card, spare buttons, her passport and the airline tickets from this morning. A few random odds and ends and a packet of Tic Tacs.

    No silver chain. No ring. No Miraculous.

    Marinette tries not to panic as her mind races and Tikki phases through the purse herself, also searching.

    Maybe she took it out at some point, maybe she-- no. No she didn’t.

    Okay.

    So… oh.

    The ring doesn’t get sucked into Marinette’s transformation. Which means… it might have fallen out of her purse when she transformed at the airport this morning.

    “Oh, oh no.” This is bad. This is so, so bad. Marinette is wide awake now. “Tikki, we have to go back to the airport. Maybe no one’s found it yet and we can--”

    “The airport? Why there, Marinette? Is that where you took it off?”

    “Wha-- no, it probably fell out when I transformed this morning, so we should--”

    Tikki blinks at her, still wringing her paws worriedly. “No, Marinette, it wasn’t in your purse this morning. I would have noticed.”

    Marinette stands there, staring at her kwami. If not there, then… where could she have lost it? She knows she had it in Adrien’s apartment, and she knows she put it in her purse, and she had her purse when she left there… the taxi, maybe? She was lost in a bit of a fog there, maybe she accidently dumped her purse and didn’t notice?

    Or… maybe when she was fishing for her passport in the airport in Barcelona, while everything was crazy and Chloé was trying to get them onto an earlier flight… maybe it fell out then?

    No, Tikki was with her then, she would have noticed…

    Marinette rubs her face, panic clawing at her chest. Everything else is bad enough, and now this--

    Tikki, noticing her chosen’s growing anxiety, places her paws comfortingly on Marinette’s cheek. “Let’s think this through, Marinette. When was the last time you saw it?”

    “Adrien’s apartment,” Marinette says distantly, still lost in circles. “I took it off and put it in my purse.”

    Why did she do that? Mon dieu, that was stupid--

    “And then what?” Tikki asks gently, still cuddling up to her chosen’s face.

    A face that quickly turns very, very red.

    “Oh.” Tikki giggles and Marinette glares at her, fighting the memories that rise all too easily in her head.

    Now is not the time for that.

    “I don’t… the next time I saw my purse was the next morning, when I grabbed it and headed out. I didn’t look inside. But I hadn’t touched it, so it had to have still been in there…”

    Unless… one of those memories surfaces, between the shower and the bed, when they were making out on the couch… she vaguely remembers kicking something on the floor while they were… maneuvering.

    Could she have knocked her purse over? Maybe it fell out?

    But then… that would mean… if Adrien finds the ring…

    No. No no no. Maybe it didn’t fall out there at all and she’s just being ridiculous. She doesn’t remember if her purse was open or not this morning… she was in a rush to get to Tikki. She just grabbed it and ran, like always.

    Maybe it was open and the ring slipped out at any point after that, when she was running downstairs, or when she was walking on the sidewalk, or in the taxi, or even at the hotel -- it could have been anywhere.

    Anywhere.

    Anywhere else  anyone else, because the thought of Adrien finding that ring-- no. It’s not like he doesn’t know about kwamis, of course -- she’s sure his father explained everything after that whole… thing in their house all those years ago. And the peafowl kawmi is still with them.

    But if he finds the ring, if he puts together that it’s the thing she’s been keeping -- what if he figures out she’s Ladybug?

    Worse, what if he puts it on? She can’t help the image that flashes through her head, Adrien in skintight black leather--

    Mon dieu. God help her. No. Oh, she’s going to have very vivid dreams about that image later.

    Groaning, Marinette tries to drag her head out of the gutter and focus. She rubs her face, then drops her arms to the table with a flop. No matter where she lost it, the fact remains that she did. And now it’s out there somewhere, for anyone to find--

    No. No no no.

    That belongs to Chat, blast it.

    “I have to find it, Tikki. I have to find it now.” Marinette whirls toward her kwami, eyes wild, all thoughts of going to sleep forgotten.

   “We don’t know where you lost it, Marinette,” Tikki points out reasonably. “That would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

    Yes. Yes it would. As futile as looking for Chat Noir’s alter ego would’ve been all those years ago. As futile as it was, the few times she tried, after he left.

    As if she thought he’d been lying about leaving Paris. As if he would ever have done that to her.

    She knows it will be pointless. But she also knows she won’t be able to sleep after this revelation. After another failure.

   What if someone finds it? She can’t--

   It doesn’t belong to anyone except Chat. Marinette may have finally decided to move on, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to give up on her convictions. Or her promise to find her real partner someday.

    She can’t sleep knowing it’s out there for anyone to put on and-- no.

   “I can’t just sit here, Tikki,” she says desperately. “And don’t even try telling me to sleep. Please.”

    For a long moment, Tikki only looks at her sadly, while Marinette tries to forestall her growing sense of panic. Then, finally, her kwami nods. “Okay, Marinette. Let’s go.”

    Marinette doesn’t wait for more. “Tikki, spots on!”

Chapter Text

    He’d forgotten what it was like.

    Oh, it featured in his dreams sometimes, this feeling, but… those moments never really did it justice.

    Adrien traveled the world for ten years, and everywhere he went he made it a point to do daring things--skydiving, bungee jumping, waterfall climbing, car racing, anything he could--but he never managed to match the adrenalin rush of leaping high over the streets of Paris with nothing but a pole between himself and the certain splat.

    It’s exhilarating. It’s breathtaking.

    It’s freedom.

    And god, he missed it.

    Chat Noir lets out a whoop as he sails over the streets, the cloud-shrouded moon his only witness. This late, everything is quiet. He picked up Plagg’s cheese an hour ago, but still hasn’t found it in himself to go back to his hotel.

    Why sleep, when he can do this instead? Chat leaps from rooftop to rooftop, practically running on all fours as the suit blends perfectly with his body and muscle memory comes back to him, guiding every pounce and landing so that it’s perfect. Purrfect.

    He laughs to himself, jumping into a flip and spin that lands him expertly atop a streetlamp, belt dangling behind him like the tail it’s meant to be. His suit, he’s noticed, is somewhat different than it used to be. More streamlined, at the very least.

    And his bell is gone, replaced by a simple silver zipper embossed with a paw print. Well, the bell was kind of childish.

    Chat grins again, surveying the street below, the quiet air, the early fall chill. Somehow all the nostalgia and melancholy that rode him the last time he set foot in Paris are nowhere to be found; instead, he’s filled with a wild sense of giddiness. He missed this.

    So he takes off again, leaping lightly from the lamp to the nearest gable and then onto another rooftop, lazily making his way toward the Eiffel Tower. Once he reaches it, it’s a race to the top, and then--

    Paris.

    All spread out below him, glimmering like its own personal starlight, all the lights that never, ever go out. A sea of people and history and-- no, no it hasn’t changed.

    This view… this view is still very much the same.

    And it fills him with the same feeling now that it did when he was a kid, an intense sort of pressure in his chest and a smile stretching his mouth.

    He loves Barcelona, with its gorgeous architecture, its historic culture, its rowdy nightlife -- there’s a reason he made it his home.

    But Paris… Paris holds a piece of his heart. And he didn’t really realize it was missing until this moment, hanging from the Eiffel Tower, staring out over every rooftop he knows so well.

    Maybe he’ll come back.

    Really, truly come back.

    He could get a flat here. Moving his business to Paris wouldn’t be hard at all… and even if Father and Nathalie remain in Barcelona, it’s not as if a two-hour plane ride is that far away.

    He could do it.

    Come home.

    If, that is, he manages to work things out with Marinette. Even if she wasn’t Ladybug, he realizes, this is something they’d have had to talk about. He’s not enamored of the idea of a long-distance relationship, and clearly there’s no way she would ever move away from here.

    It probably kills her, actually, to be away for even short periods of time. It’s probably killing her that she was gone when those terrorists attacked this morning. Yesterday morning? He’s not sure what time it is, actually.

    Sighing, Chat slides down the Tower, alighting softly on the ground beneath it. He needs to talk to Marinette.

    Even if he can’t think of a way to explain… he needs to talk to her. Needs to see her. Hold her.

    God he wants to hold her.

    He needs to figure out her address. Actually, what he needs is a new bleeding phone, since he’s the idiot who broke his this morning. Maybe he can hang out at MerveilleuX around opening time, in the hopes she’ll be working tomorrow…

   Either way, he needs to sleep before he can do anything. She’s probably home right now, doing just that. An image of her sleeping face flashes through his head, one of the many he catalogued when she spent the night at his apartment, and he grins.

   How can one woman be so simultaneously adorable and frustrating?

   Lost in the pleasant memories--which all take on a new, fascinating tint knowing that she’s Ladybug--Chat Noir heads back toward his hotel, leaping easily from rooftop to rooftop. He passes near the airport on his way, since he picked a hotel close by when he arrived, and something brings him to a screeching halt.

   It’s not quite the muted voice he hears in the distance, nor is it exactly a scent on the breeze that’s familiar. It’s just… something.

   Chat Noir turns, slinking toward where he heard that voice. It sounded like a cry, actually -- maybe a cry for help?

   Chat envisions everything from muggers to thieving terrorists as he prowls across that last rooftop, but what he finds in the alley below isn’t any of those things.

    It’s Ladybug.

    He crouches on the lip of the roof, hands hanging between his knees, and just… watches her. He saw her on the Ladyblog, of course, and knew, but…

    The moonlight isn’t very strong tonight, but Chat’s eyesight is enhanced, and he can make her out perfectly. Every familiar curve and line, tucked into skintight red and black. Her hair is short--of course it is, because Mari’s is--and swept back, like she’s been running her black-gloved fingers through it. Her suit, like his, is slightly different; now instead of being entirely spotted, parts of it over her sides and thighs are entirely black. The undersides of her arms are black as well, like a true ladybug’s wings, and the effect is…

    Well, if there was still anything about her that needed to be left to his imagination, there wouldn’t be now.

    Merde.

    Chat attempts--and mostly fails--to banish all filthy thoughts from his mind as he watches Ladybug pace in the alley below, looking frustrated and tired.

    “I can’t find it, Tikki,” she mumbles, running her fingers through her hair again. “What if it’s still in Barcelona? I can’t go back right now! Oh, what am I going to do…

    For a moment, Chat is confused. Then he realizes that her tired, out-loud rambling is probably meant for her kwami, currently inhabiting her MIraculous.

    And he realizes a moment later why she’s still up at this hour, looking half-dead and panicked.

    She’s realized that she lost his ring. And she has no idea where she lost it.

    She’s probably been freaking out all day, and this on top of the terrorists -- Chat knows it isn’t his fault, but he can’t help the spear of guilt and sympathy in his chest.

    She’ll exhaust herself at this rate. Not to mention stress herself right into a panic attack.

    He can’t have that.

    So he plants his staff on the rooftop, leaning against it casually as he peers down into the alley, and purrs, “Lost something, bugaboo?”

Chapter Text

    Ladybug is frozen, standing in an alley near the airport, exhausted out of her mind and seeing things.

    There’s a guy in a black leather catsuit perched on the rooftop above her, leaning on a staff with a softly-glowing green paw print imprinted on it. He has leather cat ears and a belt tail swishing like a real tail and a grin that’s instantly maddening as he peers down at her with bright, glowing green eyes.

    She’s hallucinating. That’s it, she’s stepped over the deep end and she’s lost it. Mon dieu, she really should have gone to sleep hours ago.

    Maybe she’s dreaming. Maybe she passed out from exhaustion and this is all just a dream.

    “What’s the matter,” he purrs, grin widening, “Chat got your tongue?”

    “Oh my god.” Ladybug groans and drops her head into one hand wearily. “My dreams are getting weirder and weirder. I seriously need medication.”

    Sleep aids, to be precise. She’s sure Chloé can get something for her…

    The guy laughs and then moves, in a blur of ink-black and sinewy muscle. And then he’s in the alley, standing in front of her, staff hooked over his shoulders the way he always used to do.

    It’s been an age since he showed up in her dreams, but even then, it was never… like this. She’s never dreamt up a grown up kitty before.

    Especially one this… mm… uhm… oh this is a result of her bad thoughts about Adrien earlier, isn’t it.

    It so is.

    Because mmm.

    He looks like Chaton, with the messy blond hair and the green eyes and the suit and that grin. But his hair is long like Adrien’s, tied at the bottom in a tail that falls over one shoulder. He’s tall -- really tall. Lean. And his suit is tighter than it was, clinging to muscles teenage Chat definitely did not have and grown-up Adrien definitely does.

    Many, many muscles.

    Some of which she can actually see, since his zipper is partially down, revealing part of his tanned chest.

    Wow, her dream self is good at this conjuring thing. Way too good.

    “Aww, you see me in your dreams, bugaboo?” Chat asks, still grinning at her. “I knew you couldn’t resist me.”

    Yeah, that’s a totally normal Chat thing to say. Except it’s coming at her in a deeper, older voice, and those muscles, and that face, and--

    Marinette wonders if this is going to devolve into a wet dream. She can’t say she’d mind…

    But, if this is a dream… shouldn’t she know what to say?

    She just stares at him, taking in the combat-style boots and the tight suit and the shaggy hair and that wicked mouth, unable to comprehend how this is the image her subconscious has come up with.

    He looks so real.

    “Speechless?” Chat queries, spinning his staff expertly through the air before tucking it into its slot behind his back. “That’s new, M’lady.”

    “...Chaton,” she says finally, blinking slowly at him.

    He grins and bows. “At your service, as always, bugaboo.”

    And that ridiculous nickname.

    Always with the ridiculous nicknames.

    Ladybug shakes her head, torn between amusement and wondering when this dream is going to get on with it already. Skip the boring stuff.

    “What are you doing here?” she asks, absently reaching forward to finger the silver zipper that’s replaced his bell.

    She kind of liked that bell…

    Chat steps closer, and her hand is flat against his chest, and now her suit is in the way. Shouldn’t she be able to wish it gone, since this is her dream?

    She concentrates for a moment, but it goes nowhere. Huh.

    Wait, what on Earth is she thinking? No! She’s with Adrien!

    At least, she thinks she is.

    “Well, I happened to be out prowling around,” Chat says, smirking at her, “and noticed a lovely lady all alone in a dark alley. I wouldn’t be much of a gentlecat if I’d just walked on by.”

    Ladybug can’t help but smile up at him, and something in his gaze sharpens a bit. He glances away, and it’s dark so she can’t be sure, but she thinks a hint of color stains his cheeks.

    “Ah-- also, I realized you’re probably really worried about my Miraculous,” he says, holding up his right hand so she can see the ring on his finger.

    Right, it’s missing… the worry slams back into her, which is strange, since this a dream and she really shouldn’t be so stressed out while she’s asleep.

    “I just wanted to reassure you, M’lady,” he says, smiling at her -- it’s such a soft smile, so strange… “You don’t need to worry. It’s safe.”

    Of course it is. This is her dream. Funny how her subconscious is trying to calm her down, too. Chloé and Alya would suggest spa treatment for this level of stress.

    Hmm.

    “And I think,” Chat adds, his tone dry, “that you need to go home, Ladybug. You look like you’re about to fall off your feet.”

    “I’m fine,” she murmurs, still somewhat distracted by her rambling thoughts and her hand on his chest and what is she thinking? This has got to be one of the strangest dreams she’s ever had. At least, that she can remember.

    Then again, she doesn’t remember ever having a dream this detailed before, either. She can feel his heart beating under her palm and hear his breathing in the quiet air. A few streets over a car whooshes down the street, and Ladybug stares up into Chat’s eyes and sees every facet therein.

    How did she not notice, when they were kids, how kind his eyes were? How they were full of adoration and light?

    “You don’t look fine,” he says dryly, amusement quirking his mouth again. “You look exhausted.”

    “That’s why I’m sleeping,” she tells him, equally dryly. “Silly kitty.”

    Chat blinks at her slowly, taking this in. Then his mouth curves again, into something decidedly wicked and amused, and-- wow.

    Okay. Her dream self? Is amazing at this.

    “What if you’re not sleeping?” he asks, tilting his head at her so his ponytail falls over his shoulder and his fluffy, messy bangs dance over his eyes. “What if this is real?”

    Ladybug laughs. “Of course it’s not real,” she scoffs, and something sad sharpens in her chest. “Chat’s not coming back.”

    For a moment, there’s silence, as Chat looks at her and she wonders why she has to feel sad when she’s sleeping, too.

    This really is the strangest dream.

    “I’m sorry,” Chat says finally, lifting a clawed hand to brush his knuckles over her cheek. There’s something in the gesture that makes her heart leap, something in the very real feel of his gloved fingers on her face…

    “I’m sorry I abandoned you, Ladybug,” Chat whispers. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”

    “It’s not your fault, Chaton,” she says automatically, lifting one hand to cup his fingers where they rest on her cheek.

    Isn’t it, though? His fault?

    It’s been so long she can’t remember and she doesn’t think it matters, anyway.

    This is the part of the dream where, normally, he’d fade away and she’d drift back into REM.

    But Chat stays where he is, completely solid, radiating warmth. The alley doesn’t change. She can even smell a hint of garbage in the air from the trash cans near its entrance, waiting to be cleaned out.

    The silence stretches while Chat looks at her, an unreadable expression on his face, and Ladybug feels a pit of dread begin to well in her stomach. This… it’s just a dream.

    A hallucination.

    That’s all.

    It… it can’t be… he can’t be…

    Chat’s fingers move on her face, and they feel so real, and--

    “Ow!” she yelps, as he pinches her cheek and pulls it slightly to the side. “Hey!” Ladybug knocks his hand away and rubs her sore cheek, scowling and glaring and--

    Why does it… dreams don’t hurt.

    Chat’s mouth pulls into a slow smirk as he leans close enough to share breath. “Still think you’re dreaming, bugaboo?”

Chapter Text

    Shock ices Ladybug’s veins, rooting her to the spot. It’s followed by dread, as thoughts race one after another through her addled mind -- this can’t be real.

    He can’t be--

    Okay. It’s real. She’s not dreaming. So...

    Someone found Chat’s ring.

    Chat found his ring?

    No, that’s impossible. Chat doesn’t live in Paris anymore, and she might not have even lost it here! It’s way too much of a coincidence if he was in Barcelona too, and just happened to find it wherever she lost it-- no.

    So maybe… maybe… maybe he’s some random citizen who found it. Maybe he’s a Chat Noir fan, like that guy who was spray painting under the bridge a couple weeks ago.

    Maybe he looks and sounds like Chat Noir because that’s what he thinks he’s supposed to look like. The suit does build around the person’s desires. And if whoever found it is an avid Ladyblogger, it’d be super easy for this fantasy to have built in his head. She’s met some people like that herself, actually -- and all the fanfiction on the net certainly speaks to how people can get into their personas. There’s even a movie based on them!

   This isn’t her Chat. That would be impossible. He’s just… a lookalike. Like Copycat, all those years ago. And it’s not as if he was the last akuma to take on the appearance of someone else.

   Actually, if the Mehyr really are mages like Zephyr suggested -- mages can do magic, right? Maybe this is their doing! Some kind of trick, or--

   “Wow.”

   Ladybug blinks at Chat--no, not Chat, the Chat-lookalike standing with her an alley at two o’clock in the morning--as he tilts his head at her.

   “I can practically hear all the theories you’re coming up with in that pretty head of yours,” he drawls, amusement curling through his voice again. “It’s really me, M’lady.”

   “That’s impossible,” Ladybug denies, slicing a hand through the air. She doesn’t know what’s going on, but--

   But if this guy really found Chat’s Miraculous and put it on, then… then she has to get it back.

   It doesn’t belong to him.

   “Listen, I don’t know if you’re a fan or a copycat or what,” she says, and ignores the way he snickers at her unintended pun, “but that ring doesn’t belong to you. Please, I need you to give it back. It’s my fault for losing it, so I’m sorry, but--”

   Chat--not-Chat--puts a finger over her lips, silencing her. Ladybug whacks his hand away and gives him an outraged look. “Don’t--”

   “It’s really me, Ladybug,” he says, and the sincerity in his voice, in his eyes -- it’s killing her. Killing her.

   How many times did she dream of this moment, when she was in high school and even university? How many times over the years did she imagine finding him again, somehow, and saying-- saying all the things she never got to say, all the things that weighed her down for so long?

   But this-- this isn’t it.

   It can’t be.

   There’s just… no way…

   “I don’t know what to say to convince you,” he says, rumpling a hand over his hair and then rubbing his neck. It’s such a familiar motion that her chest aches, but-- it can’t be--

   “So don’t try,” she tells him, holding out a hand. “Just… do the right thing, and give me that ring back. Please.”

   “Then you’ll know my secret identity,” he quips, and she’d swear he’s lifting a brow behind his mask. “I thought you were against that kind of thing, bugaboo--”

   “Stop,” she snaps, everything boiling over, mixing with her exhaustion until she sees red at the corners of her eyes. “Stop acting like him. You’re not him.”

   “I am,” he says, quietly, firmly, staring into her eyes, and…

   And she’s going to cry.

   She’s going to break down right here because this, on top of everything, is too much. Far, far too much.

   “Don’t make me take it from you,” she threatens, fingers curling into fists as she struggles to hold herself together. This isn’t his fault, he’s just a random citizen who doesn’t understand how horrible this is, and--

   He laughs. “I would love to see you try, M’lady, really.” He grins, and it’s such a Chat grin that she’s going to hit him. Smack it right off his face. He must notice her rising anger because he sighs and lifts a hand. “Look, let’s -- I really think you should go home and sleep before we have this conversation. But, okay. Do you remember when I left? I know you never told anyone why I did, because I watched all the news feeds for weeks, dreading the moment you might give my ring to someone new. Even though I left it with you so you could.” He gives her a somewhat exasperated look, and she can only stare at him, jaw clenched, fingers tight, not at all sure if she wants to let him continue.

   But he does anyway.

   “I told you when I gave you this,” he holds up his right fist, the ring glowing faintly green, “that my family had left Paris some time before and since Hawk Moth had been defeated, I needed to go find them.”

   Ladybug stares. Something in her has gone quiet, so quiet, because -- she’s never told anyone that.

   Anyone.

    “I told you they’d left a year before. That I missed them.” He persists, each word like a stone falling into the still lake that is her body, green eyes determined and focused. “It was raining. That was the night we finally caught that serial kidnapper. I’d gone to check on the kid and his family and then I found you sitting all alone in the rain, brooding when you should have been sleeping.”

    Ladybug can’t breathe.

    She can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe.

    How? How is this-- this can’t be--

    He is relentless in his decimation of her mind and heart. “I told you not to look for me, but you did anyway. I know, because I watched you while you ran through the dark, calling for me after I hid. You sounded so scared and heartbroken, and not revealing myself to you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But I didn’t, because--” he takes a breath, and she wishes she knew how to do that, knew how to breathe, as the memory replays itself in her mind, exactly as he’s describing it. “--because you didn’t want to know who I was. And I didn’t have a reason to stay.”

    The words are blades in her chest.

    The exact words he said to her then, but this time… different, somehow. Older. Wiser. A bit more regretful and a little less bitter.

    Ladybug’s hand is covering her mouth, and she doesn’t know she’s crying, and she whispers, “Chaton?”

    He smiles sadly at her. “It’s me, M’lady.”

    “How?” She’s still whispering. “I don’t understand -- how can you be here--”

    He looks slightly uncomfortable. “Well-- Plagg found me.” He shrugs. Rubs his head again.

    Plagg. His kwami. Ladybug shakes her head. “I don’t understand.”

    Chat shrugs again, and his shoulders are so much broader than she remembers -- grown. He’s grown up.

    Of course he is. She is too, well mostly anyway, and--

    It’s been ten years.

    Nearly eleven, actually.

    “I don’t know how it happened, myself,” Chat says, glancing at his feet before lifting his gaze to hers again. “Plagg showed up with the ring, and I realized it must’ve been lost somehow. So I came back to Paris. Just got off a plane a few hours ago.”

    Plagg. Of course. He must’ve realized… Tikki’s said that they can see the world outside their Miraculous if they choose, so long as they’re not within the Miracle Box. He probably realized she’d lost it and… went to find his former holder. Of course he knew Chat’s identity, and kwamis can travel fast -- it wouldn’t have been hard.

    Ladybug stares at him, assimilating this, trying to wrap her head around the idea that this is really him, he’s really here, and it’s-- real.

    And if it’s real, then this is… Chaton. Her partner. The boy--man, now--who was once her best friend.

    Who left her to handle the aftermath of Hawk Moth by herself.

    Who left her. And even though she knows why, understands it even--

    It’s that thought that lodges in her brain, as she thinks of all the times these past ten years she needed him. Wanted him by her side. Thought--and felt guilty for it--that no matter how amazing her friends were as heroes, they could never replace or even measure up to her true partner.

    “I…” Chat looks awkward as he studies her. “I figured… something must’ve happened. And you might need help?”

    His offer is tentative, unsure, unlike him.

    Help.

    All these years, and this is all it takes? She’d have dropped the bloody ring in the Seine half a decade ago if she’d known it would be this easy!

    Help?

    Help?

    Without thinking, without even being aware of what she’s doing before it’s done, Ladybug moves. Her palm connects with his cheek, slamming his head to the side, and the sound of the slap echoes off the alley walls for an interminable minute as they both stand there, frozen in tableau.

    Ladybug is furious. And she knows, in some small part of herself, that it isn’t fair. That she’s angry with far more than just him.

    But she still lowers her hand, and clenches her fists, and glowers at his stunned face. “Help? ” She hisses, her mind ratcheting through memories faster than she can keep up. “Where the devil have you been, Chat? Where the devil were you when I need you six years ago? Where were you when we almost died? Where were you -- you gave me your Miraculous so I could give it away? Like anyone else would have been able to replace you? Like I wanted another partner? What is wrong with you?” With each word, she grows angrier. Louder. More frustrated at the tears that gather in her eyes and slip over the edges of her mask.

   “You want to help me, Chat?” Ladybug inhales sharply, refusing to sob, absolutely refusing. She hurls out her yoyo, attaching it to a gable on the nearest roof, and wipes a hand over her eyes. “Go away.”

   Then she yanks on her yoyo, ignoring the look on his face, his open mouth, whatever he might say.

    She doesn’t care.

    She doesn’t want to hear it.

    And she’s already gone.

Chapter Text

   Adrien has stared at the hotel ceiling so long hat he’s now intimately familiar with its every dip and groove. He can’t sleep. Doesn’t feel like moving.

    Doesn’t have anything to do, since he Skyped Father and Nathalie from the hotel’s business center around six and they agreed to take care of his work in Barcelona for a bit.

    Adrien didn’t sleep at all. He picked at a biscuit but didn’t finish it.

    The only thing that keeps running through his head is -- she’s right.

    She’s right, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He was going to go see Mari this morning, but now… how is he supposed to face her?

    True, she has no idea that she was yelling at him, nor does she know that he knows who she is. That makes it even worse, though. How is he supposed to go to her and pretend he doesn’t know? Pretend everything is fine?

    He didn’t mean to lie. Well, technically, he didn’t lie expressly… just omitted the exact details of how Plagg and the ring found him. And the order in which that happened.

    She just looked so sad, and he didn’t know how to explain…

    And then… that.

    He figured, years ago, that she’d be upset. Angry. But she never seemed upset when she talked about Chat as Marinette, and…

    And it didn’t occur to him that she might still be angry, underneath it all.

    It should have, though. She’s right. He abandoned her.

    And if half of what he’s seen on the Ladyblog from six years ago is true… she really did need him. People died.

    She has every right to be angry with him.

    But it leaves him in a position he… doesn’t know how to get out of.

    He--

    “Soooo….” Adrien’s gaze shifts to the left to find Plagg hovering above him, a slice of camembert between his paws. The smell follows, and Adrien almost sighs. “Are we just gonna stay cooped up in here forever or what?” Plagg gulps the piece of cheese and licks his lips, staring down at Adrien blandly.

    “I don’t know what to do, Plagg,” Adrien says, and this time he does sigh.

    “Well if you ask me, she was kinda harsh there,” Plaag drawls, ears twitching as he rolls onto his back in midair. “You gonna give the ring back again?”

    His question sounds innocuous and apathetic, but he doesn’t look at Adrien when he asks and his body is very still.

    Adrien sits up and cups his kwami in one hand. The fact that Plagg doesn’t instantly zoom away says a lot. “Of course not,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m never doing that to you again, I promise.”

    Plagg huffs and settles in Adrien’s palm, leaning back on his tiny hands like he’s lounging. “So what are you gonna do, then? Your moping is ruining my appetite.”

    “I’m not moping--”

    “Maybe you should try eating some cheese. Way less complicated than girls--”

    “I don’t want your smelly cheese, Plagg.” Adrien gives his kwami a dry look, while Plagg scoffs like he’s offended on behalf of cheeses everywhere. “I just…”

    He just… what?

    What does he want?

    That’s an easy question with an easy answer that isn’t nearly as simple as it should be.

    He wants to see Mari.

    He wants to fix things with Ladybug.

    He wants to help with whatever mess is going on here.

    Adrien sighs again and flops back on the bed. Plagg zooms over so he’s hovering above Adrien’s face, camembert-breath and all.

    “I mean, at least do something, kid,” he sniffs, arms folded over his tiny chest. “You start acting too pathetic and it might rub off on me!”

    Adrien can’t help but chuckle, looking up at his old friend fondly. “I don’t think there’s any danger of that, Plagg.” The kwami starts to grin, and Adrien adds, “You’re pathetic all on your own.”

    “Hey!”

    Adrien laughs while Plagg zooms off in an offended huff, muttering about stupid kids ignoring good advice.

    But Adrien isn’t ignoring it.

    After another long moment of staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out how on Earth he’s going to fix this, he rolls to his feet.

    Nothing is going to get fixed if he lays here all day, and even if he doesn’t know what to do about Ladybug, he does need to talk to Mari.

    After all, he hasn’t been able to text or call her since she left. If nothing else, he needs to make sure she knows he’s not ignoring her.

    Like Chat did.

    Ugh.

   At least he's nearly positive Marinette isn't going to slap Adrien when she sees him next. So long as he can avoid that... 

    Adrien heads for the shower, rubbing his tired eyes as he goes. Plagg has found yet another piece of camembert to console himself with and he waves it as Adrien passes the TV stand.

    “She’s not right, you know,” the kwami says archly. “I mean, you could’ve come back sooner, that’d have been nice, but she didn’t have to yell at you like that or smack you. All the bad stuff wasn’t your fault.”

    Adrien stands in the bathroom doorway, looking at the tiny black god who isn’t looking back at him, and can’t help his smile.

    “Thanks, Plagg,” he says quietly.

    Then he goes to take a shower and wash the sleepless night out of his eyes.

Chapter Text

   Marinette slept only because she couldn’t stay awake any longer. Her body rebelled and sent her spiraling into a world of darkness, where her dreams--real, actual dreams--haunted her with images of Chat’s face.

    Halfway through the morning of the next day, still tired and feeling like complete crap, she sits at her kitchen table and drains her third cup of coffee and pretends that her reflection in the window beside her isn’t an absolute mess.

    “Girl. You look worse than I feel, and that’s saying something.” Alya dumps her purse by the couch and sinks unceremoniously into the chair across from Marinette’s, tossing the mass of her dark, curly hair over one shoulder as she does. She’s dressed in a tan business suit, but it’s too early for her lunch break... “Don’t give me that face; I’m the best reporter at that bloody news station, I can take a day off if I want to and they can screw themselves.”

   Marinette can’t help but smile slightly, though her mind is only half registering her best friend’s presence.

   She keeps thinking I messed up I messed up I messed up.

   She can’t believe how horribly everything went wrong, so quickly that she still has whiplash.

   First the Mehyr and the thefts. Then she lost Chat’s Miraculous. Then she found him again only to drive him away, and--

   And sure, she was angry. She went through a whole phase in university where she didn’t even wear his ring, where she couldn’t look at pictures of him without feeling betrayed because for all that was holy, why hadn’t he come back yet?

   But she got over it. She understood the whole thing with his family and she didn’t begrudge him it, even if she thought he was an idiot for giving her his ring.

   She got over it. She hasn’t felt angry about it in years. Just… sad.

   So why, why was her first reaction to yell at him?To hit him? She knows she hurt him. She’s still haunted by the look on his face.

   Mon dieu, his face. Her Chaton, all grown up, and she--

   She told him to go away.

   Marinette groans and drops her head to the table, completely unaware that Alya’s been talking to her for ten minutes.

   “Wow, girl.” Her best friend’s voice barely registers on Marinette’s plane of thought. “Okay, seriously, this is clearly more than just the stupid terrorists. What’s up? Are you going to talk to me or do I have to start making threats--”

   She’s cut off by the sound of heels clicking on the tile floor and the door shutting as another person just walks right into Marinette’s apartment as if she isn’t the one who owns the place.

   What, did she not lock it?

   No, Alya has a key and she probably didn’t lock it.

   Marinette looks up to see Alya raising dark brows at Chloé, who is sinking gracefully into the third of the four chairs stuffed around her little kitchen table.

   She’s wearing a business suit, too. What, did Marinette miss a bunch of their calls or something?

   “You look like death,” Chloé says, tapping perfectly manicured nails on the tabletop.

   Marinette groans again and drops her head back down. “Why does everyone keep saying that…”

   “Because it’s true.” Alya’s voice is entirely unsympathetic. “Come on, girl, what’s up? Something’s obviously going on. Does this have to do with Adrien?”

   Marinette sits straight up like she’s been shocked, quick as a whip to deny that. “What-- no-- no, Adrien’s great--fine--sexy--I mean--” Her face flames, as she remembers that she still hasn’t told them what happened in Barcelona.

   What happened in Barcelona.

   Mon dieu, she slept with Adrien.

   Alya’s brows are at her hairline. “Uh huh. Okay, spill.”

   And… that really does have nothing to do with it. Marinette sighs and rubs her face, then picks up her coffee again.

   “This doesn’t look like an Adrien issue,” Chloé says speculatively, and Marinette can feel them staring at her.

   “It’s not,” she agrees, frowning into her coffee as it all comes back again, filtering in around the momentary Adrien memories. She feels like crying, or screaming, or tearing out her hair. She wants to go back to bed and forget the world exists. “I… messed up, guys. I messed up so bad…”

   “O-okay…” Alya leans over and puts a hand on Marinette’s arm, clearly trying to offer support. Marinette tries not to feel unworthy of the love.

   “I was just so… so tired and… angry… and…” She doesn’t even know how to explain. Seconds turn to a minute and they’re looking at her like they’re waiting for her to tell them she’s grown a second head.

   It's Tikki who breaks the silence, as if she's realized Marinette can't do this one on her own. The little red kwami floats over to them and puts a paw on Marinette's cheek as she says, simply, “Chat Noir is back."

Chapter Text

Author here. Sorry but there won't be any updates today or tomorrow, maybe not Monday either. Just had a death in the family and I have to head to another city for the weekend. Just letting you guys know. Sorry.

Chapter Text

So, ... uhm, hi. Been a while.

Today, my best friend recieved a message on Wattpad.com from a user here on AO3. And it was the kindest, sweetest, most touching message I think I've ever received online. So to the writer of that message, thank you. So much. To everyone else... well, and to you, I'm so sorry!

It's been an insane few months. My cousin died, then my grandmother, and shortly after that a close friend's mother and just last month, a girl I went to school with. I've been to too many funerals lately. Not that you all need all these details, but I feel compelled to explain beyond a simple apology.

I wasn't close with my cousin, who died in June, but I am very close to to her little brother, who is like a brother to me as well. It's all been very hard on him, and after a few weeks of trying to help him and then everything else slamming me from one side and another, I just stopped writing. I stopped logging into AO3. I didn't see the beautiful comments you guys left me, and I'm sorry for that -- and so grateful to you for them now. I wish I'd seen them then; I could've used them.

To address concerns that have been presented, I'm alive xD And emotionally I'm okay. Depression is only as strong your willpower, or so I'm trying to convince myself. I've begun writing again the past couple months, but I've been working on my original stories and the ones I cowrite with my best friend. My urge to write or read fanfiction comes in sporadic waves, and since I haven't had it, I hadn't logged into this website or even thought about this story in awhile. Saying that, it feels horribly rude of me, and I'd like to apologize for that, too.

All of that said, I mostly just want to express my thanks to you all. This fandom has to be one of the nicest, most understanding fandoms I've ever been priveleged to be a part of, and I'm so glad I found this community. Thank you all so much! I realize you probably don't care much about the story at this point, but I would like to assure you anyway that it's not being abandoned. I am going to finish it, the next time a fanfic-writing mood hits me. It's just on hiatus for now.

Thank you all so much for your support and your kindness, and once again I apologize for causing anyone any worry.

--Kaeon

Chapter Text

  Adrien takes a taxi to MerveilleuX and drains a cup of coffee on the way. He takes a moment to stand outside the quaint two-story building, staring at the logo over the double doors. Then he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders--because for god’s sake, he’s Adrien Agreste, not some teenage idiot who’s going to let a few choice accusations turn him into a coward--and walks inside.

    He’s never actually been to Mari’s boutique before, and as he looks around, he thinks that’s a shame. It’s open and airy inside, with tall windows and skylights letting in plenty of sunshine. The second story only covers half the building in a mezzanine style, so the ceiling in the main room is high and gives the place a bright, cool feeling. The first thing Adrien spots is a line of mannequins already displaying some of Mari’s amazing fall line, and then a massive wood frame on the back wall that’s highlighting her brand logo. A few racks decorate the open space to his left, where items from previous lines are displayed and waiting to be bought.

    Adrien wanders past them to a wide desk near the base of a spiral staircase leading up to the mezzanine, but he doesn’t see Marinette -- or anyone else, for that matter. A computer sits on the desk, and there’s probably a cash register underneath, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s manning it.

    Maybe she’s upstairs?

    Adrien has barely had the thought when his sensitive hearing picks up light footsteps on the stairs, and he turns with a smile -- but it’s not Mari who steps onto the cool wood floors to grin at him.

    “Hi,” the stranger says, a hand on one hip as she looks at him inquiringly. Her hair is long and caramel-colored, tied up in a high ponytail save a few bangs around her light olive green eyes. The fashion tycoon in Adrien notes her somewhat punk style; multiple earrings in both ears, combat boots, tight Corrinne jeans and a silky Jagged Stone shirt. She seems out of place in a couture boutique, and he finds that oddly amusing. “Can I help you?”

    “Ah… I’m looking for Mms. Dupain-Cheng?” Adrien tries, tilting his head. This wouldn’t be Mari’s partner Lysse, would it? He’s never met her, but Marinette’s mentioned the woman a few times. Apparently Lysse is another designer who was Mari’s university roommate.

    “She’s not here,” the stranger says easily, waving a bracletted hand. “I’m Analysse Corvin, her partner.” Huh. So this is Lysse. She tilts her head at him, clearly amused by something. “Planning a surprise or something?”

    Ah. She knows who he is. Of course.

    Adrien grins faintly. “Maybe.” He allows his smile to fade as he words his next question carefully. It’s strange, knowing he saw her last night, knowing why she left, but being unable to give those things away. He hasn’t done this in… ages. “Is she okay? She left Barcelona pretty suddenly…”

    Lysse grins. “She’s fine. We just had a mini crisis here at the boutique and I may have overreacted… a bit.” She flicks her ponytail over one shoulder as she moves toward the desk, while Adrien contains a frown. He knows for a fact that Mari’s swift return had nothing to do with the boutique, so that’s a lie. Does Lysse know?

    They are partners, but still, he can’t imagine Ladybug telling anyone--

    “You couldn’t have texted her to ask that?” Lysse is looking at him with her brows raised as she rummages behind the desk.

    “Uh-- my phone broke.” Adrien shrugs sheepishly and gives her a slight smile, pushing his crazy thoughts away for later. “I dropped it on a marble table… and it didn’t survive.”

    “Ouch.” Lysse comes up with a notepad and a pen, clearly what she was hunting for, and begins writing something down. “So you flew all the way to Paris,” she glances up at him with a smirk, “just to say hi?”

    Adrien has no idea how much Marinette’s told her friends, but Lysse clearly knows something is up. He gives her a wry grin and shrugs.

    “What can I say?” he quips, sliding his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “She’s easy to miss.”

    “I knew it.” Lysse grins and tears the paper out of the notepad, brandishing it somewhat fiendishly. “I so called there was something going on between you two. Nino owes me money.

    Adrien snorts, caught between laughter and surprise. “Wait, what? Why?”

    “Oh, we’ve had a bet running ever since Alya figured out you two met up in London ages ago,” Lysse says airily. “Alya pulled cash from both of us when it took Mari longer than we thought it would to tell us about it, but I am so earning money from this. Nino keeps insisting you’d tell him if there was anything going on.”

    Adrien assimilates this information somewhat slowly, unsure if he’s amused or wary. Or maybe guilty, if he’s costing Nino money -- oops.

    Crap. Now he feels like a bad friend.

    “Yeah… guess I should have done that, huh?” he tries, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. Nino is going to kill him.

    And then Alya is going to kill him again, for good measure.

    This is going to be… fun.

    Adrien grins as Lysse hands him the paper, though it takes him a moment to realize she’s written an address on it.

    “Mari’s apartment,” the designer explains, smirking again. “I suggest roses.”

    Adrien laughs. “Why do you assume I’ve done something requiring flowers?”

    Lysse lifts a caramel brow, though her gaze shifts past him to the door as the bell chimes. “Just trust me. She could use some cheer in her life right now.”

    And then she’s striding toward the pair of young women who are browsing Mari’s L'Histoire line, clearly ready to make a sale. Adrien considers her words, the conversation from last night ricocheting through his head.

    It feels a bit… weird, to think about cheering her up when he’s the one she’s angry with. Not that she knows that. Which is what makes it weird, and somewhat misleading.

    But he’s not going to figure out how to fix what he’s broken by not talking to her.

    So he tucks the paper Lysse gave him into his shirt pocket and heads out of the boutique, careful to duck his head as he passes the shoppers so they won’t recognize him. His taxi is still idling out front, and Adrien is listing the address of an old favorite flower shop before he’s even fully in the car.

Chapter Text


For a heartbeat, there’s silence.

Then-- “What? Merde, girl, no way--” Alya looks excited and stunned and entirely too happy when Marinette is not happy at all.

Chloé doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction, save the way she studies Marinette with her usual cold-but-fond stare.

“How did you find him?” Alya crows. “Who is he? When did he come back to Paris? What--”

Marinette just drops her head onto her arms again, plagued by last night’s outburst. Maybe she has a right to be a little upset, but… she so overreacted.

    Nearly eleven years and he’s finally back and she’s supposed to be happy, but all she feels is miserable. 

    On the one hand, she sort of meant what she said, and she can’t shake that heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

    On the other, she shouldn’t have yelled at him, and the idea that she made him think she doesn’t want him here, that she might have sent him packing back to wherever he’s been the last decade except now with his ring, has her feeling like the world’s lowest, grossest scum.

    Of course she wants him here.

    She meant it when she said that ring belongs to him, when she said she didn’t want any partner aside from him.

    She still feels a little guilty about that, because sitting in front of her are two of her amazing friends who are perfectly awesome heroes, too, and she shouldn’t feel like she needs that stupid, mangy cat in her life, but--

    He’s her partner.

    And he’s here.

    Or he was. He’s probably gone by now.

    Mon dieu, she’s so stupid.

    “--Marinette, hello, Earth to Mari--” 

    Marinette blinks, looking up to find Alya poking her arm and frowning heavily.

    “Okay… clearly it didn’t go well?” Alya’s face is scrunched in concern. Chloé has appropriated Marinette’s coffee.

    Great.

    “No,” Tikki confirms, floating down to sit on Marinette’s head and cuddle her. “It didn’t go well at all.”

    “I messed up,” Marinette says again, and now she’s crying. 

    “How about you start at the beginning, girl,” Alya prods, rubbing Marinette’s arm sympathetically.

    “Well, Marinette took off the necklace--” Tikki starts, still cuddling into her hair comfortingly.

    Marinette interrupts her. “I lost it.”

    “What?” Alya stares. Chloé blinks.

    “I lost Chat’s ring,” Marinette clarifies. She sniffs and wipes her eyes, glad the seriousness has taken away the tears. “I was looking for it last night when I… well, he showed up. Apparently his kwami realized I’d lost the ring and took it to him.”

    For a moment, there’s silence.

    Then, “Well that sounds utterly ridiculous,” Chloé says. “Not to mention convenient. Are you sure it was really him?”

    Marinette sighs. “That’s what I thought at first too. But it’s definitely him, he-- he said things… only Chat would know.”

    “Still, his kwami?” Alya frowns, tapping her fingers against her cheek. “Seems… too easy?”

    “How else would he have gotten it back right after I lost it, Alya?” Marinette waves a hand, already past that. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He’s gone.”

    “Gone?” Chloé frowns. “What, he showed up just to leave again?”

    “No, I-- I messed up.” Marinette sighs again, and takes her coffee back from Chloé, and uses its provided fortitude to explain her less-than-stellar reaction to her former best friend’s random arrival in her life.

    Her hot, grown up, very adult former best friend. Who apparently still likes stupid puns and still-- still cares enough about her opinion to have had a stunned, utterly hurt look on his face when she slapped him.

    Oh, god, she slapped him.

    When Marinette is finished recounting the sorry tale, there’s quiet for a long moment.

    Then Alya gets up and comes around the table to sit in the chair beside Marinette, from which position she wraps both arms around Marinette’s hunched-over form and hugs her. Tightly.

    Marinette allows herself to lean into Alya’s embrace, even though she feels like the dirt under Hitler’s toenails.

    “Impressive,” Chloé says, nodding a few times. “I think I’d have punched him instead of slapping him, but good job.”

    “Good-- no, Chloé, this is a disaster.” Marinette throws up a hand. “He’s probably halfway to Timbucktoo with the Miraculous! And I-- I think I really hurt him.”

    “He abandoned us first,” Chloé says, waving that off.

    “He didn’t abandon us,” Marinette disagrees, though she remembers suddenly that he said much the same thing, when she was still in the middle of thinking it was a dream.

    He even apologized for it.

    Oh, mon dieu, she is such a horrible person.

    “Well, I’ve certainly never heard an explanation for why he left,” Chloé dismisses, her tone far too acerbic for Marinette’s liking. She realizes, through a bit of a fog, that Chloé is in a terrible mood.

    And despite her perfectly put-together, pampered appearance… Marinette doesn’t think Chloé got any more sleep than she did.

    She sighs and runs her fingers through her short hair, shoving strands out of her face. It’s getting a little longer than she likes it, but she doesn’t know when she’ll find time to get her maman to cut it again.

    She hasn’t even been to the bakery in nearly two weeks, which is odd for her since she normally goes there for dinner every Friday night. Things have just been… crazy.

    “I hate to say it, but the bee with an itch has a point,” Alya says after a moment. The comment earns a snort from Marinette and a scathing glance from said bee.

    “His family moved,” Marinette says, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “They’d left awhile before actually and he stayed behind because of Hawk Moth. It was perfectly understandable.”

    They stare at her. “Wait-- you’ve known this the whole time?” Alya’s brows hit her hairline again. “All these years I’ve been posting theories to my blog and you’ve known?”

    Marinette blinks. “Of course I knew.”

    Alya throws up her hands and laughs. “Girl. I don’t know how you manage to create these situations. Seriously. Why were you so mad?”

    “I--” Marinette starts, but then stops. She stares into her empty coffee cup as if it holds all the answers in the universe. “I don’t know. I was tired, I… it was a shock?”

    It’s more than that, she knows. So much more. Alya never really knew Chat, and they’ve never really talked about it because so much time passed between Chat leaving and Marinette telling them she’s Ladybug, so it’s…

    She always expected him to come back.    For years, every time she walked into Master Fu’s massage parlor, she half expected him to smile and tell her Chat had visited, asking about his Miraculous. Wanting it back.

    She fantasized about it, dreamt about it, read fanfictions about it.

    And eventually she accepted, in the back of her mind, that he wasn’t going to come back. Ever.

    That he didn’t care.

    That he never really loved her, and he didn’t feel… what she spent all those years feeling.

    She hung onto his ring anyway, because at that point she couldn’t let it go. Even though she knew it wasn’t fair to Plagg or to her team, some part of her still insisted that she couldn’t let anyone but the real Chat have it.

    Some part of her hoped that if enough time passed, if Paris needed him badly enough, he’d realize that she wasn’t giving it away and would come back for it. 

    And now… here he is. Back again. And he was just punning around like there’d been no time in there at all, like--

    Like he’d never left her.

    And then he offered to help, and she-- she lost it.

    She just… lost it.

    All those times she really needed him, all those times she would’ve given anything to have him back, and he shows up… the day after she finally decides to let it go.

    And it’s not just that, it’s not just Adrien -- taking off that ring meant something. Losing it was a panic deeper than anything she’s ever known, far worse than the time she lost the Bee Miraculous.

    And then bam. There he was. Like it was nothing. Like he could’ve come back anytime and he just -- didn’t want to.

    And now, thinking about it, Marinette feels herself getting angry all over again. Except it’s not so much anger as it is sadness, and not so much blame as it is hurt.

    Because if it was so easy for him to come back… why is he only here now?

    Burrowed in her own spiraling thoughts, Marinette leans into Alya and takes in Tikki’s warmth and doesn’t notice her three friends sharing concerned glances over her head. She doesn’t hear her phone buzzing, doesn’t know it’s a text from Lysse.

    She does, however, hear the knock on her apartment door, and she rouses enough to think that’s strange because anyone who’d visit wouldn’t bother to knock when the door is unlocked. Actually, half the time her friends use the balcony entrance.

    Chloé’s heels click on the tile as she goes to peer out the peephole, and Marinette sits up. She wipes her face and tries to shove all her feelings back into their box in the back of her mind, while Alya rubs her back soothingly.

    And Chloé turns away from the door to lift a perfect brow at them as she says, “Adrien’s here.”

Chapter Text

     Adrien’s been debating the flowers since the moment he paid for them. He’s been debating even coming here, but somehow he’s managed not to chicken out.

    He regrets not chickening out the moment Mari opens the door and looks at him. Her hair is a frizzy halo around her face. She has deep bags beneath her eyes and her skin is wan and puffy, like she’s been crying. She’s wearing old pajamas and her feet are bare and she’s beautiful and clearly very, very upset.

    And it’s his fault.

    For a heartbeat, he’s sure she knows that, too, because she just stands there and looks at him like she’s seeing things, her expression kind of frozen.

    God, she knows. She knows, she’s remembered where she lost his ring and he’s screwed, she’s going to hate him--

    Then, suddenly, she blows out a breath and her face kind of melts and she throws her arms around him, burying herself in his chest.

    Momentarily stunned, it takes Adrien a second to hug her back as she leans against him, her weight oddly warm and comforting.

    She doesn’t hate him.

    Thank god.

    And he should say something. Just in case… he’s wrong.

    “Uhm, Mari…” he tries, staring down at the top of her head. “What’s wrong?”

    She groans into his chest. “Everything. Everything is wrong, Adrien. I’m so glad you’re here.”

    It takes Adrien’s beleaguered mind a moment to assimilate this and reach its ultimate conclusion. She doesn’t know?

    He’s not sure whether or not he’s relieved.

    After a long moment, Marinette pulls back, startling as if realizing that she’s just been hanging on him in the hallway. She blinks wide blue eyes up at him, her face flushing slightly, and bites her lip.

    “Uhm, I mean-- not everything, I’m just--”

    Adrien tries not to smile as she fumbles for an excuse, clearly not sure how to explain why she feels everything is wrong when she can’t tell him about the things that are actually wrong. He offers her the flowers--a pair of red roses--and a sheepish look.

    “--oh, for me?” Mari takes them, smiling awkwardly, and backs into her apartment. “Thank you. I’m sorry, I’m just… feeling… a little hormonal.”

    She sighs and holds the door for him, while Adrien tries to figure out how he’s supposed to react to that excuse. Is she actually… well, she wasn’t a couple days ago, anyway…

    Adrien coughs to cover his embarrassed train of thought and offers her a slight grin as she closes the door. “So I should’ve brought chocolates instead of flowers?”

    Marinette laughs, and the sound relaxes the tight knot of tension coiled up in his chest. “Well, maybe you could’ve brought Amedei,” she quips, smiling at him.

    Adrien snorts. “And let my cat hog all your attention? I think not, Mari-sweet.”

    “Wow.” 

    Adrien blinks, his gaze finally leaving Marinette to survey the rest of the apartment -- and the two other occupants thereof, standing near a small table next to the kitchen window. Alya. Oh great.

    “So.” Alya has her hands on her hips and is studying Adrien and Mari with a sly smile on her face, and Adrien is reminded of the conversation he had with Lysse half an hour ago. “How long has this been going on, hmm?”

    “Uhm--” Mari is turning red again, and Adrien thinks it’s safe to assume they don’t know what happened in Barcelona. With everything else Mari has going on, he’s not surprised she forgot to tell them. “Well, it’s… uh, a fairly recent… thing…” She looks over at Adrien helplessly and he can’t help but chuckle.

    “Let’s just say it’s not official yet,” he tells Alya. Then he winks at Mari, who turns red again for an entirely different reason, resulting in a smug grin gracing his face.

    Yes, this… he can do this. Everything is going to be fine.

    “Yet?” Alya echoes, arching a brow in his direction with a face that says what are you doing to my best girl I will kill you. “Wh--”

    “Alya,” Mari hisses, scooting over to grab her best friend’s arm and tug at her. “Leave it, okay? Mon dieu.”

    “So, you don’t want to mention the elephant in the room?” This from Chloé, who’s smirking a bit sadistically. That’s never a good sign. “Why were you out so late the other night, Marinette?”

    Meowch.

    Adrien winces as Mari glares at Chloé and Alya’s eyes narrow suspiciously.

    “I was… busy. Anyway, thanks, but you guys should probably go, I have things to do--” She starts herding her friends toward the door, looking like she’s really not going to take any more crap, and Adrien can’t help his amusement.

    “Nuh uh, girl, I want details--” Alya plants her feet, as if she’s going to refuse to move, but Chloé just smirks as she strides toward the door.

    “Bye Adrikins,” she says, eyeing him as she passes by. And there’s something in that look, in the name she hasn’t called him in years… something unpleasant shoots down Adrien’s spine. Why is her gaze so… knowing?  

    What does she know?

    He’s reminded of a time when they were kids, back when he was still homeschooled and she was his only friend. One of the maids had given him chocolate, which he wasn’t supposed to have before dinner, and he’d been so careful to wash all the evidence from his face and his hands. He even buried the wrapper in his trash bin so it couldn’t be seen.

    But Chloé took one look at him and sniffed and said, “You’ve been eating sweets! Where’s mine? I want some too!”

    To this day he doesn’t know how she did it. Maybe it was something on his face, or maybe she just learned early how to tell when someone was lying. Her dad is a politician, and her mom… well, there’s not much to be said for Audrey Bourgeois, except that it’d take an exceptional amount of observational skill to pick up on any kind of affection from that woman.

    Chloé’s got her issues, but she’s smart.

    And that look has Adrien second guessing everything.

    He’s reminded of Lysse’s lie from earlier and his suspicions that she might know Ladybug’s identity. If Lysse knows… is it possible Mari’s told them all? They’re her closest friends, and none of them are stupid -- all the disappearances over the years had to have added up at some point.

    But if that’s true, then…

    Maybe he could tell her. Maybe…

    Then he remembers the way she looked at him last night and promptly throws that idea right out the proverbial window.

    Adrien is so lost in this devolving train of thought that he misses the rest of their conversation, and doesn’t notice they’ve left until Marinette is standing in front of him, peering at him with a measure of concern. And they’re alone again.

    Well, except for Plagg, but-- no, actually, Plagg is no longer in Adrien’s pocket. He’s probably gone off and found someplace to hide where he can avoid all the ‘mushy gross stuff’ that’s bound to ensue here. He hopes.

    “...Adrien?” Did she say something?

    Adrien shakes himself, giving Mari a sheepish smile. “Sorry. I was just… lost in thought.”

    Mari sighs. “Yeah, I know that feeling.” She pats his arm and goes to the kitchen counter, where she fills a cup with coffee. Adrien studies her for a moment, feeling guilty again. To take his mind off it, he surveys her apartment, taking in the light, airy decor and pictures on her walls. Her friends, her family, various moments from the last ten years.

    Adrien drifts toward them, drawn in by the smiling faces and a flash of curiosity. She’s told him a lot about the last decade, but seeing it… the way she’s aged, the picture of her graduation day, images of her and her parents and grandparents at a beach somewhere on vacation, one picture of Alya and Nino shoving cake in each other’s faces that makes him want to laugh--

    “You want some coffee, Monsieur Snoopy?” Mari asks dryly from behind him, and Adrien turns to find her offering him a cup.

    “Ah-- sorry.” He grins. “You’re just so cute, I had to explore.”

    Mari snorts, but pink tinges her cheeks again and he’s caught, staring at her. Even clearly exhausted and upset, she’s… beautiful.

    She catches him staring and flushes more deeply, biting her lip as he takes the coffee. “Uhm-- yeah, you know, I’m a mess, I should probably go clean up--”

    “You look beautiful,” Adrien tells her, reaching out to brush a few strands of deep blue hair off her forehead. She stares up at him, and he knows, somewhere in the deepest part of himself, that he can’t bear to lose her again.

    He spent ten years trying to forget those eyes only to move on with a woman who had them too -- because they’re the same.

    It’s so obvious now that he thinks about it, and he can’t imagine how he managed to be so blind for so long.

    “Uhm.” Mari bites her lip again and Adrien grins, moving his thumb down her cheek to tug at that lip. She’s too adorable for words. And he really, really likes that red on her face. “We should-- uh… probably… talk?” she tries, shoving strands of hair behind one ear. 

    Yes. They should. About so many things. Adrien ignores the stab of guilt in his chest and nods once. “Yeah. Ah-- sorry, if you tried to call me, or anything. I kind of broke my phone yesterday.”

    Mari blinks before her face breaks out into a smile. “So that’s why you just showed up randomly.” She shakes her head and moves into the living space, sinking onto the plush cream-colored couch. “How’d you manage that?”

    Adrien sits beside her and puts his cup on the coffee table, waving a hand. “I dropped it. Shattered the screen. It’s not a big deal, just pretty inconvenient. Especially since I wanted to call you.”

    Mari glances away, absently running her fingers through her hair like she’s trying to comb it out. “Yeah, sorry about leaving so suddenly… something came up at the boutique and it was kind of an emergency.”

    The lie smacks of Lysse’s, and Adrien tries not to feel jealous of the implication. They run a business together, so it makes sense if Lysse knows -- otherwise how would Marinette explain having to run out on her job all the time?

    Still.

    She was always so adamant about keeping it secret… not that she herself kept to that much, since she always knew Rena Rouge and Carapace’s identities. And Chloé’s, but everyone knew that. Knows that.

    Adrien dags his mind away from the pointless thoughts.

    “It’s fine. Lysse mentioned something about it.”

    “You talked to Lysse?”

    “Well, I didn’t know where you lived,” Adrien says, grinning. “I stopped by MerveilleuX this morning.”

    “Oh.” Mari seems to consider that for a moment as she settles back against the couch cushions. “Well,” she sighs, “I’m never going to hear the end of this.”

    Adrien can’t help but laugh, thinking of what Lysse told him about the bets they all have going. She’s probably right, and he’s probably never going to live it down, either, if Nino’s really losing money because of it. Honestly, their friends... Still. Adrien smirks at Mari, who looks rather glum, and nudges her side lightly. “What, are you ashamed of me, Mari-sweet?”

    She blushes and shoves at his shoulder, snorting. “Why yes, so much so that I can’t even talk about you, it’s horrible really--”

    “I’m terribly offended.” Adrien leans a little closer, smirking. “We both know I’m good enough to share details about.”

    Marinette coughs, her face going red again, and god -- yes. That look on her face, forever and ever.

    “Wow, and modest too,” she quips, grinning at him.

    “Modesty is for people who need it,” Adrien quips back, rubbing his cheek against hers lightly. She laughs and squirms away, but she seems so much more relaxed than she was before, and something about that further soothes his own tension.

    They’ll figure this out. Somehow.

    “Maybe you do need it, Agreste,” Mari says, pushing him back a little with one hand. “Arrogance is not an attractive quality, you know.”

    “Says who?” He smirks again and lifts a brow. “You seem to find me plenty attractive, Mari-sweet.”

    God, he wanted so badly to make that one into a cat pun.

    Marinette sniffs mock haughtily. “That’s your face, not your personality, Agreste.”

    Meowch.

    Adrien laughs. “I thought it was my body--”

    And now she’s laughing, too. “You’re impossible--”

    “Of course, M- Marinette.” Oops.

    She eyes him, mirth still spilling from her gaze like light. “Did you just stutter?

    “No.”

    He didn’t, really. Just almost called her M’lady, which would not have been intelligent at all. It’s just so easy to talk to her like this, to be himself...

    She clearly doesn’t believe him. “You did. Do I make you nervous, Agreste?”

    “No.” He grins and leans closer again. “Why, do I make you nervous, Mari-sweet?”

    She snorts. “Not anymore.” Then she blushes again, and Adrien is still grinning, and she rolls her eyes. “I mean, we’re not kids anymore, is all--”

    “Mhm.” Adrien kisses her. He can’t help it. She’s just so cute. For a moment, she’s still, and then she melts into him, her fingers winding their way into his hair in a way that makes him want to purr. Her mouth is warm and soft and when she opens for him, he finds that she tastes like coffee. And he could spend forever here, like this.

    Adrien cups her head in one hand and draws at her tongue with his own, earning a low moan that slips from her to him and back again. She starts to slide, and he catches her, lowering them both onto the couch so she’s on her back beneath him, and his free hand slides down to her hip as he settles himself so he’s not crushing her. It’s simple, all breath and taste and feel, as her tongue tangles with his and her fingers slide from his hair to his neck and shoulders, and he missed the way she tastes--

    Mari pulls back a bit, breathing heavily, her hands slipping back into his hair. Adrien takes the opportunity to kiss a path along her jaw, down into her neck, where her pulse beats a staccato rhythm against his lips. He presses his tongue to that vein at the base of her throat and she arches her neck, murmuring his name. Adrien chuckles, sucking at another spot of sweet, smooth skin.

    She drives him insane. Completely insane.

    “Adrien--” She’s breathless, half laughing, as she tugs at his hair. “We should-- mm--really talk--”

    They should.

    Still.

    Adrien chuckles into her neck again, perfectly content to remain where he is, leaving a mark on her skin with his tongue and teeth. “Later.”

    For a moment, it seems she’ll let him get away with that, as she continues making pleased sounds and giving him plenty of room to kiss her neck.

    Then she makes a muffled groaning sound, which is not nearly so pleased, and pushes at his shoulders.

    Adrien sighs mournfully as he lifts his head, giving her a pouty look.

    God, she’s so beautiful, all flushed like that with her hair a halo ‘round her face, eyes sparkling as she looks up at him…

    “We should talk,” she repeats, giving him an amused, slightly reproachful look.

    He redoubles his pouting efforts, earning a giggle.

    “I just… want to make sure we’re on the same… page?” she tries, biting her lip as she runs her fingers through his hair again, as if that isn’t going to distract him into thinking about taking off her clothes instead of talking.

    She does, he admits, have a point. Though, at the moment, Adrien’s brain is a bit muddled and he’s not sure if she’s talking about the relationship thing or the yelling-at-him-for-leaving thing.

    “I mean, we live in different countries, and--” Her expression grows more flustered at his silence as she tries to explain, and he realizes she’s talking about the relationship thing. “--I’m not sure what you’re thinking, and--”

    “I love you.” 

    She stares at him.

    He stares at her.

    He didn’t mean to just blurt it out like that, obviously, he meant for it to be… more romantic than this…

    Ugh.

    Adrien sits up and rubs the back of his head, blushing as he tries to work his way out of that confession. “I mean-- I…” He looks back at her to see her still staring at him. Wide eyes, pink face, hair askew. Screw it. Adrien shrugs and drops his hand, giving her a small smile. “I would never have slept with you if I wasn’t serious, Mari. I… I’ve been thinking about coming back to Paris, full time. It wouldn’t be hard, and--”

    “You what?”

    Adrien can’t help but chuckle, somewhat awkwardly, at her shock.

    He cups her face in one hand, brushing a thumb over her cheek. “I love you. I know it’s kind of… sudden. And we haven’t really talked about… any of it.” He waves a hand somewhat sheepishly. “But I’ve been falling for you for… ever. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since London, and I… I want to be with you. I don’t want to keep my distance anymore.”

  And it’s probably totally unfair that he’s saying all this when she has no idea who he is, which is why he didn’t mean to spill it, but he just…

  How can he not?

  She’s amazing and wonderful and beautiful and he-- he loves her.

  She has to know that.

  Marinette sits and stares at him for a bit longer, while Adrien decides to stop babbling because he’d rather not look like an idiot. He should probably say something else, though, because she looks like she’s stunned, and he didn’t think it would be that surprising -- it’s not like this is recent. He knew he was in love with her even before he figured out she was Ladybug.

  He was going to talk to her about it after work the other day, but then he got home and she was gone, and then he found his ring, and it’s all been…

  A lot.

  “Uhm, Mari--” he starts, not sure what he’s going to say. But then she cuts him off, when she grabs his shirt collar and hauls him back down on top of her, crashing her lips into his.

  Adrien laughs into the kiss, which probably turns it entirely sloppy, but he doesn’t really care.

Chapter Text

    He loves her.

    He-- and he just blurted it out, too. Mon dieu, he’s such a dork.

    Marinette stares up at her ceiling somewhat giddily, watching afternoon sunlight shift over the walls as she runs her fingers through Adrien’s hair. It’s soft--really, really soft--and loose around his face, which should make him look girly but doesn’t.

    At all.

    He’s still stretched out on top of her, his weight settled mostly between her legs so he’s not crushing her, and she’s half convinced that he’s falling asleep. They’d probably both be napping in her bed right now except she got a phone call an hour ago that interrupted their heavy make-out session.

    One of her clients, confirming the details of the commission he’d hired her for. Marinette spent half an hour taking care of that while Adrien raided her kitchen for food, and now they’re just cuddling on the couch, and it’s… nice. There are probably things Marinette--or at least Ladybug--should be doing, but… she doesn’t have to be anywhere.

    And it’s nice to just lie here, enjoying Adrien’s company, focusing on something that has nothing to do with all the problems in her life.

    Though, there is still one thing… she meant to ask earlier, except he distracted her with that utterly adorkable confession--how she didn’t see that coming, she has no idea, and her chest is still all warm and fluffy--and then they were kissing, and then there was the phone call…

    Marinette’s fingers go still in Adrien’s hair, earning a small sound of protest that tells her he’s awake. She grins.

    “So… we’re… dating now, right?” she asks, biting her lip as she glances down at his golden head, resting on her chest. He shifts so she can see his bright green eyes, shining with what she’s sure is a grin.

    “Just try to say otherwise, Mari-sweet,” he tells her, moving up her body slightly to nip at her chin. She can’t help the flush that creeps across her face, accompanied by a smile.

    How did she ever get this lucky? Even with everything else… none of it even matters right now, when she’s with him.

    Well, it matters, but it doesn’t feel nearly as stressful, at least.

    “I would never,” Marinette says, running her hands through Adrien’s hair again as her thoughts drift. He makes a contented sound and lifts himself to kiss her, something far slower and sweeter than before. She sinks into the feeling and decides that she’ll happily stay here for the rest of the day.

    Adrien’s kisses turn to soft little nips and pecks that he moves across her jaw, down into her neck, and the faint stubble on his chin tickles her as she stretches languidly beneath him, fully enjoying the onslaught.

    He really is very good at that, and-- mm--

    “You know, Mari-sweet,” he rumbles into her shoulder, having tugged her shirt down a bit, “you could probably use a shower.”

    Marinette goes still, and then she stares at him, torn between offense and incredulous laughter. “Did you just-- did you just tell me I smell?”

    Adrien snorts into her neck. “No, that is not at all what I said, Marinette. Read the context.”

    Marinette’s mouth goes dry at the way he says that last word, right at her ear, his breath brushing over her skin and something so suggestive in his tone… ah.

    She giggles a little, shoving playfully at his shoulder. “Rogue.”

    He sits up a bit and smirks at her, and for a second there’s something… something in that expression…

    “You adore me,” he says smugly, rolling off her and the couch so he’s standing on his feet, towering over her. He offers her a hand, eyes glinting mischievously. “Come on, then.”

    Marinette has absolutely no reason to protest--nor does she want to--but she teases him anyway as she takes his hand and lets him pull her to her feet. “It’s the middle of the day, Monsieur Agreste,” she says, feigning a scandalized tone.

    He continues to smirk as he tugs her toward the bathroom. “I had no idea you were so proper, Mari-sweet.” He glances over his shoulder and grins wickedly and mon dieu-- “We’ll have to do something about that.”

    She is in so, so much trouble. And she has no desire to get herself out of it.

    Marinette laces her fingers with his, grinning back at him as he pulls her into the hallway. Something metallic and warm catches her attention, and she glances at his hand to see a familiar silver ring. For a moment, she’s not sure where she knows it from, and then she remembers that it’s the same one he used to wear in high school.

    In fact, he never took it off, even for photoshoots. She always thought it was a gift from his mother or something, though she realizes now that he hasn’t been wearing it lately. In fact, she hasn’t seen him wearing any kind of jewelry at all these last few months.

    She fingers the ring and Adrien stops in her bathroom doorway, looking back at her.

    “You’re wearing your ring again,” she says, glancing up at him. For a moment, his face is very still, something surprised and wary in his expression. “I mean-- I haven’t seen you wearing it since high school,” she clarifies, waving her free hand.

    “Oh. Uh… yeah.” He looks away, seeming a bit uncomfortable. “I guess uh… I was feeling kind of nostalgic?”

    Marinette smiles at him again. “It’s a nice ring.” Though she’s always thought it a bit simple, since it’s just unadorned silver. 

    He laughs wryly, as if he finds that comment funny. “Thanks. Anyway… where were we?” And he’s grinning again, and tugging her into the bathroom, and Marinette forgets whatever question she was going to ask as he looks at her with those eyes that promise absolutely everything.

    She kicks the door shut behind them and pushes him up against the sink, earning another laugh.

    She notes, though, that he doesn’t take the ring off. Not when they shed their clothes and take a very, very dirty shower. Not when they end up in her bed.

    And not a couple hours later, when he leaves to go find a hotel room because he insists he doesn’t want to impose. If she didn’t have Tikki to worry about, she’d insist he impose, but…

    As it is, she’s not the only one who lives here.

    So she lets him go. And then spends the next hour dancing around her apartment, grinning to herself, entirely too happy to be touched by the myriad problems she’ll have to worry about later.

Chapter Text

    In the month or so that’s passed since that fire by the Seine, Chloé Bourgeois managed to convince herself that she was imagining things.

    She was stressed about her hotel. Angry about her mother. Frustrated by their inability to catch the Mehyr. There was no proof that she’d actually met a new Miraculous holder; the entire scene was somewhat hazy in her mind, anyway.

    It was just stress. That’s what she told herself.

    But she still spent nearly two straight weeks ditching work and sleep to go on late night solo patrols, hunting the mysterious bastard. She wasn’t sure if she wanted a rematch or an explanation or both, but she wasn’t going to let him get away with what he’d done to her.

    She found nothing, though, and received nothing for her troubles but exhaustion and ugly bags under her perfect eyes.

    So she stopped searching and started making excuses, and it was all working out magically until two days ago. When police reports started suggesting that there was a strange man with horns lurking around the city, working with the Mehyr.

    Chloé spent most of yesterday focusing on all the paperwork that’d covered her desk while she was in Barcelona, but the entire mess bothered her so much that she actually went to talk to Marinette about it -- only to discover Alya comforting a whacked-out bug who’d just discovered her partner was back.

    And then Adrien showed up, with such convenient timing, and for a little while Chloé was comfortably distracted by that entire mess. 

    There’s no proof, of course, and no real reason for the suspicion. It just seems oddly coincidental to her that Adrien happened to show up in Paris the same day as Chat Noir. She probably wouldn’t have even had the thought were it not for the look on his face when she peered out Mari’s peephole yesterday -- guilt.

    Guilt, and worry, and a little bit of fear. None of which made any sense in the context he provided -- things were clearly going well with him and Mari. There was no reason for him to show up with flowers and a kicked-puppy look on his face.

    Then there was the ring. Chloé may not have kept in touch with him that well over the years, but there was a time she knew him very well, and it always irked her in high school that his only personal style choice was such a boring piece of silver that didn’t seem to have any kind of sentimental or monetary value. When it suddenly stopped showing up in pictures after he and his father moved away…

    Well, that whole mess was suspicious in and of itself, and Chloé spent a good few months trying to wheedle answers out of him -- only to hit wall after wall of depression and angst.

    Those suspicions never fully formed into anything, especially as they drifted father and farther apart, but they’ve always lurked somewhere in the back of Chloé’s mind. The things that struck her as odd about Marinette back then--the things that eventually led her to a connection she was quite angry about for awhile--also bothered her about her childhood friend.

    The disappearances. The random excuses. The crazy explanations for why he’d missed this or that important event which just happened to coincide with an akuma attack.

    Chloé was suspicious of Adrien Agreste long before she was suspicious of Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Then he disappeared, shortly after Chat Noir, with nearly as little explanation.

    And now he’s back, shortly after Chat Noir, wearing that ring. Shortly after Marinette lost it somewhere. Chloé didn’t miss Tikki’s almost explanation -- while Mari insisted it was an accident and brushed over it, Tikki said she’d ‘taken it off’.

    Chloé can only think of one reason Mari might’ve done that, and it has a great deal to do with a certain blond former-model in whose apartment she most likely spent their last night in Barcelona.

   All of it, compounded by the flowers and Adrien’s guilty expression, has been raising red flags in Chloé’s head since yesterday. And she keeps thinking about it, because it’s a nice distraction from the thing her mind keeps trying to wander back to no matter how religiously she drags it away.

   Alya and Nino are working overtime trying to learn something--anything--about the Mehyr’s latest attack. Nino’s been holed up in their apartment going over pages and pages of data on the items that were stolen, while Alya’s break at Mari’s yesterday was the only time she stopped hunting for patterns through old records at her job and asking her myriad contacts to keep an eye out for the terrorists. 

    And all the while, Chloé’s been sitting on a piece of information she should have told them over a month ago.

    It’s not as if she has proof. She doesn’t know for sure that Shaitan is the new holder who’s working with the Mehyr. It could be someone else. Merde, without the goat legs, even Phoenixia fits that description. Save for being male, of course.

    Chloé tells herself these things, but she still feels something squeezing her chest -- something that reminds her a little too much of guilt.

    If she’d told them about Shaitan a month ago, could this have been avoided?

    Logically, the answer is no. Chloé spent weeks hunting him and found nothing. There’s no reason to assume her friends would have found anything she missed.

    On the other hand, they’re going to be upset about it anyway. Even if she doesn’t have much more information than his name--and the fact that he’s Arabic, which she discovered when she looked up those words he kept using--it’s still… something she didn’t tell them.

    The guilt only layers itself over her residual anger, back in full force now that she knows it was all real. Knows he’s still in her city, still causing havoc -- and working with the Mehyr.

    Until that little reveal, Chloé wouldn’t have gone so far as to call the man she met a villain. He was arrogant and rude, and the memory of him attacking and defeating her still leaves her livid, but he didn’t seem…

    Ugh. She doesn’t know.

    He saved her life. Then attacked her, beat her, kissed her, and left her tied up next to a burning building.

    It was maddening and confusing, but he didn’t feel… evil.

    Not that Chloé’s the best judge of that. She’s always been more of an antihero herself, far removed from Ladybug’s goody-two-shoes ways and the rest of the team’s righteous prattling. Chloé believes in doing the right thing, but she also believes in getting things done -- even if that results in a little collateral damage.

    It’s the one thing she and Marinette have never managed to agree on. If it weren’t for Pollen’s insistence on having Chloé as her holder, that disagreement--and some of Chloé’s subsequent actions over the years--probably would have gotten her removed from the team a long time ago.

    Pollen, though, also understands the fact that sometimes the end justifies the means. Even if no one else agrees.

    And Chloé doesn’t know why this is what’s going through her head at six in the evening, while she’s sitting in her office, tapping a pen against her desk and not doing paperwork.

    Seriously, why does she have an assistant if he can’t do this stuff for her? 

    Chloé sighs and drops the pen, lifting a hand to rub the bridge of her nose delicately. One of her hotels was destroyed in the Mehyr’s distraction attack--probably a deliberate slur against her, since she’s the only hero whose identity they know--and she’s had to deal with not only the legal and financial ramifications but the press as well. They want to know what Queen Bee is planning to do about all of this.

    One of the nosier reporters from this morning’s press conference even went so far as to suggest that she hasn’t been doing everything in her power to deal with these terrorists. What business did she have high-tailing it off to Barcelona in the middle of a crisis?

    The idiot clearly forgot that there wasn’t a crisis before she left. He even had the gall to suggest that Chloé was in league with the Mehyr so she could get the insurance money off that hotel!

    Chloé promptly had him thrown out, though that didn’t do much for quieting those accusations. It’s all boiling over in her head to add up to -- trite. A whole lot of trite.

    Sometimes she regrets her decision to go into the business world instead of following in her father’s footsteps. The world of politics is full of snakes and backstabbers, but at least no one would outright accuse a mayoral candidate of being on a terrorist’s payroll.

    Chloé flicks her hair over one shoulder irritatedly, the mounting frustration making it nearly impossible to return to work. Between the Shaitan mess, the Adrien mess, and her own job…

    She needs a vacation. The trip to Barcelona was supposed to facilitate that, but while the few days she spent at spas across the city helped… the trip’s ending kind of ruined it.

    Chloé half wants to dump all her problems out a window and declare them ridiculous, but she knows from experience that that won’t solve anything.

    So she picks up her pen again. Tries to concentrate on the paperwork. Filling out an insurance claim for a situation like this requires far too much of the stuff, in Chloé’s opinion.

    But she’s not going to let that loss drain her bank account. 

    So she skims page after page, signing here and marking with x’s there, using the focus to distract herself from her own mind. She’s nearly finished when a knock on her office door makes her lift a manicured brow at it.

    “Yes?”

    “Mms. Bourgeois.” Her assistant stands in the doorway, dark suit and neatly-trimmed hair, face expressionless. “Your limo driver wants to know what time you’d like to leave for the party this evening.”

    Oh. Right. Her father’s charity auction slash political bash.

    Chloé almost groans at the mere thought; when she promised she’d attend, she didn’t expect to be mired in this much work at the time. She considers telling them all she’s too busy, but… if she doesn’t go, Daddy will make a big deal of it. It will get around.

    And people will start whispering that the pressure is getting to her, or something.

    So Chloé sighs sharply through her nose and glances at the clock; nearly seven. The party starts at eight.

    And Marinette did promise, weeks ago, to attend with her… dragging her out of that apartment might prove entertaining.

    Whether Mari has started to figure out what’s going on with Adrien or not, she’s doubtless still stressing about the Mehyr. Chloé can’t do much for her--isn’t entirely sure, even after all these years, why she feels the need to do anything at all--but she can drag the bug to a party.

    Plus, if Mari’s there, it won’t be so awful for Chloé.

    So she tells her assistant to have her driver pick them up at Marinette’s at eight. And then she picks up her phone to call the bug, a smirk already tugging at her mouth as she imagines the protests about to come her way.

    This will be a perfect distraction.

Chapter Text

    The thing about lying, Adrien’s realizing, is that once you start… you can’t stop.

    It started with the lie he told her over a decade ago -- though in his defense, he had to tell that one. He couldn’t very well have come out and said Yeah turns out my dad’s Hawk Moth and my mom is dead so staying in Paris is too painful for us now, we’re leaving. Nor could he think of any way to be vague about it when she’d been there, and seen it, and -- and his father and Nathalie had already left, per his request, just so he could make sure he and Adrien didn’t vanish at the same time. He even stayed in a hotel by himself for three months. Just to make sure Ladybug wouldn’t accidentally put together his identity.

    All because he knew she didn’t want to know.

    Which is what led to his lie of omission the other night, about how he got his ring back. The same reason, all over again.

    And then yesterday, when she noticed it on his hand -- he lied again. He’s still not sure why she didn’t recognize it--though it probably has something to do with the fact that she hasn’t recognized him either, thanks to all the Miraculous magic around them both--but when she didn’t… he lied. Even if it was in a backwards way, it was a lie, and every time he sees her, he’s compounding the lies, because he knows and she doesn’t.

    And he doesn’t know what to do about it now. He spent the day with her again today, and it was… god, it was amazing. He hung out at her boutique and chatted with Lysse while Mari worked on her commissions -- though she didn’t get much done. And then they went to lunch, and the movies, and it was just… so easy.

    So much fun.

    He could happily fill his life with days like that. Except for the moments he’d be looking at her, so carefree, and guilt would slam into his chest so hard--

    He wants to tell her. Desperately.

    But he can’t. He knows she doesn’t want to know. She never wanted to know who Chat was, and that, clearly, hasn’t changed. Whether or not he ever gets to tell her… well, nothing is going to happen if he can’t work things out with Ladybug.

    He needs to have a conversation with her, as Chat, so they can… work things out. Plagg may have a point about it not being entirely Adrien’s fault, but it’s true he wasn’t here when she needed him. He can at least apologize for that, try to work it out…

    None of which he’s currently doing, of course.

    No, at the moment… he’s still lying.

    It’s his own fault, really. Marinette felt guilty for cutting their day short when she fell asleep at the movies earlier--clearly she stayed out way too late patrolling last night--so she invited him to a charity auction at Le Grand Paris. She looked so hopeful that he couldn’t refuse.

    So here he is, wearing a four-piece suit from his father’s latest line and mingling with some of Paris’ wealthiest citizens in one of the hotel’s many ballrooms. He sips champagne and makes small talk with people he hasn’t seen in years and wonders why he’s here instead of doing something useful.

    He’s barely had the thought when he glances up to see a pair of young women enter the room and the question is answered for him.

    Mari, wearing a floor length sheath dress made up entirely of deep crimson, tight at the throat and waist. Sleeveless, so her lightly freckled arms are bare. Her short hair is slicked back and her lipstick is red and -- oh. That’s why he’s here.

    Adrien coughs to cover the fact that he has no idea what the guy he’s been talking to is saying, and then quickly excuses himself.

    He needs to get over there, to his girlfriend, who looks stunning and is clearly in need of a bodyguard.

    He’s covered the space between them by the time she’s moved away from the door, never once having taken his eyes off her. She glances up and blinks once at him, mouth curving into a smile.

    “Adrien,” she says, reaching for him. He takes her hands in his. “You made it.”

    She still looks tired, he notes, but not as tired as she was earlier. 

    “I said I would, Mari-sweet,” he agrees, tugging her close so he can kiss her cheek. It takes effort to stop there when he’d like to follow the line of her jaw to her mouth instead.

    She must note his distraction, because she pulls away first with a slight, mischievous grin. “Come on then,” she says lightly, tucking her arm into his. “Dance with me? Someone--” she looks over her shoulder at the woman she came in with, who he realizes belatedly is Chloé, “--thinks I need to relax. Or something.”

    “You do,” Chloé says dryly. 

    “I concur with the lady’s assessment,” Adrien drawls, even though he knows one of the things causing her stress is his own alter ego. Adrien winks at Chloé and tugs Mari toward the dance floor, where a few other couples are spinning gently to a pretty violin cover of some pop song while they wait for the auction to begin.

    “I’m so sorry about earlier,” Mari says, leaning into him as they start to twirl across the floor. Her dress fans around them in the most distracting way, and Adrien is torn between his lingering guilt and an intense desire to be alone with his beautiful girlfriend -- as opposed to here, in a crowded room, where kissing her senseless would likely be frowned upon. As would sliding the hem of that dress up over one of those smooth, lithely muscled legs...

    “It’s fine,” Adrien dismisses, somewhat distantly as he tries to get a handle on his thoughts. “I’m sure you’ve had a lot of work with all the orders coming in for your fall line.”

    It’s true, too. He finally picked up a new phone this morning, and the first thing he found when he checked his emails was a report from Nathalie on how well the designers from their showcase are doing. Marinette is doing very well. Or will be, once she picks up all those orders -- if she has time, what with everything else.

    Marinette gives him a grateful look and he smiles, turning his mind away from that train of thought. There are things he needs to work out with her, as Ladybug, but he can’t do it here, or now, or like this.

    So he’ll worry about it later.

    Adrien focuses on swinging his gorgeous girlfriend across the dancefloor, perfectly content to make everyone else in the room green with envy.

    “Did you sleep well?” he asks, head dipped toward her shoulder, mouth close to her ear as they spin.

    She tips a bit closer, hands on his shoulders, and he feels her breath on his neck. “I did, surprisingly.” She pauses for a moment, then asks, “How’d your father take the news that you’re staying here for a bit? Did you get a chance to talk to him?”

    Adrien considers that question, recognizing it now for what it is -- she’s not just asking about his family. She’s asking about Hawk Moth.

    Because she knows.

    She doesn’t sound worried, though. And he remembers the way she chatted easily with his father at the gala in Barcelona; she clearly isn’t holding a grudge. So he smiles again and nuzzles her hair, probably far too close for public dancing and entirely unbothered.

    “Not badly. I suggested moving my part of the business back here, and he’s not exactly overjoyed, but… I know he just wants me to be happy.”

    “I’m glad,” Marinette says quietly, her fingers curling against his shoulders. And he’d swear there’s something else she wants to say, but she doesn’t say it, so he simply holds her as they sway, their feet moving in a lazy rhythm that can’t really be called dancing. 

    He wonders what she makes of it, wishes he could ask her -- wonders if she wants to ask him, about his mother, about Duusu, about what happened. He should probably tell her all of that, anyway, as if he doesn’t know she already knows…

    It’s probably bothering her that she can’t talk to him about it. That she has to pretend she doesn’t know why he stayed away for ten years.

    It’s almost ironic, since those are the very things she’s angry about not knowing in regards to Chat Noir. Adrien’s thoughts derail again, slightly, and he resists the urge to sigh into her sweet-smelling hair.

    He can’t do anything about it right at this moment. 

    But he will, he decides, talk to her about it. Ladybug. If he manages to work things out with her, if she wants him to stick around as Chat… he’ll ask her about revealing their identities. She never wanted to before, but… it’s something she needs to know.

    He doesn’t want to keep lying to her. He doesn’t want to feel guilty for holding her close like this.

    He shouldn’t feel guilty.

    So, his mind thus made up, Adrien pushes those thoughts away again and refocuses on her. The swish of her skirt against his legs. The faint click of her heels on the floor. The way her hair shifts against his cheek and the way she tips her head back, laughing, when he spins her out suddenly into a twirl and then dips her over one arm.

    Her eyes glow, and her smile is wide, and she’s the single most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

    And they do, yes, get several envious looks as the music comes to a close and everyone files toward the line of chairs set up before the former mayor’s podium. Just for that, Adrien shows off a bit during the auction, even if he doesn’t really need an antique sword or a Ming vase.

    Marinette gives him amused looks when he wins those bids, and he leans close to whisper in her ear, grinning. “What? It’s for charity.”

    She snorts, but doesn’t pull away. Adrien nuzzles her neck and smiles when she shivers.

    “I’ll just donate them to the Louvre and everyone will be happy,” he continues, pleased when she chuckles and leans against his shoulder.

    “I don’t know,” she muses, smirking faintly at him, “I think my maman might like that vase…”

    “Consider it done,” he pronounces, smirking back at her.

    She snorts and smacks his thigh. “Dork.”

    “What? I have to impress my girlfriend’s parents or they won’t give me pastries,” he points out, nuzzling her neck again.

    “Tch. Only in it for the food, I should have known.” She’s still smiling and he’s becoming increasingly distracted by the scent of her strawberry shampoo, or body wash, or whatever it is that’s making her smell so good.

    “I do call you my Mari-sweet,” he teases, and licks her neck, just because he can. She jerks a bit and pinches his thigh, which -- is that supposed to turn him off? Adrien nips her earlobe, heedless of the old woman in the row behind them who’s making a scandalized sound.

    Oops.

    “Adrien Agreste--” Mari hisses, but she’s blushing and amused and he could happily remain here, staring at that look on her face, for eternity.

    “I love you,” he whispers, full of a thousand true things. Even if he never gets to tell her the truth, or even if he does and she hates him for it -- he’ll always love her.

    He loved her once, when they were children and the feeling was new and clumsy and untried -- more admiration and trust than love. He fell for her for real when he met her again, back in London, when she was just Marinette -- amazing, kind, creative, sassy Marinette who took his world and turned it on its head. And he loves her now, every part of her. He’ll love her in every incarnation, with or without every mask -- always.

    She seems to sense the depth of the words, the way his entire soul has been thrown into them, because she turns her head and blinks up at him and swallows, once, at whatever she sees in his face.

    And her eyes are so soft, and her smile so sweet, and he can’t tell if she’s close to crying or close to laughing and it doesn’t really matter either way.

    “I--” she begins; and then the crowd erupts into applause as another item is sold, and her words are lost.

    Mari glances around like she’d forgotten where they were, and Adrien can only laugh helplessly at the chagrin on her face. She straightens in her own seat and tries to pretend she’s been prim and proper this whole time.

    Adrien slings an arm across the back of her chair and winks at the old woman behind them, earning an amused snort from her husband and a glare from her.

    And once it’s all said and done, the food eaten, the champagne drunk, the auction over and the last of the money spent, Adrien drags Mari to an empty hotel room and proceeds to remind her of what she very nearly said in the middle of that crowd.

    After, of course, he’s removed that dress. With his teeth.

Chapter Text

     Marinette doesn’t want to feel guilty.

    She’s not even sure, entirely, why she does. There’s no real reason for it. She’s used to lying, after all.

    She’s been lying about being Ladybug since she was fourteen -- to her friends, to her family, to her workmates… to everyone. The only person she ever felt even the slightest bit guilty about not telling was Alya. It certainly never bothered her with any of the guys she dated over the years.

    Few though they were.

    Then again, the whole ‘secret identity’ thing is most likely why those dates never went anywhere or felt very serious. Marinette never really… felt like giving any of them all of herself. And that, of course, is what’s required in a real relationship.

    That, of course, was the entire issue she had back in Barcelona, when she was sitting at the hotel drinking a cocktail and ranting to Chloé. She was afraid the Ladybug stuff would get in the way of a relationship with Adrien, and now…

    Now it seems to be happening.

    Today, when she fell asleep on their date. Tonight, when she’s going to have to leave him earlier than she’d like because if she doesn’t at least try to look for Chat, she’ll feel horrible. Or if she gets a call from Alya or Nino, saying they've found a lead.

    And right now, while she’s lying comfortably in his arms, tracing circles on his bare chest, feeling strangely, pointlessly guilty about all the things he doesn’t know.

    Part of it is actually the things she knows. Like the fact that his dad was Hawk Moth. And the fact that he actually knows about kwamis and what they can do, making him different from most civilians. 

    Marinette isn’t supposed to know those things, but she does. And she isn’t supposed to know how hard it really is for him to be back here. She isn’t supposed to know that the idea of moving back here is probably difficult for him, after he lost his mom and his dad did all those horrible things -- and she isn’t supposed to know that, despite all that, he’s chosen to stay with her anyway.

    And because she isn’t supposed to know that, she can’t express to him how touched she really is by it all. By the fact that he’s here.

    That, she supposes, is the true source of her issue. It’s not that she thinks he needs to know she’s Ladybug--because, as an unprotected civilian, it really isn’t safe for him to know--but that… there are things she knows, as Ladybug, that… he should know she knows.

    Marinette sighs softly into the dark, snuggling closer to him beneath the sheet he pulled over them a bit ago. He’s warm, and she’s far too comfortable for the idea of leaving to go patrol, and she can’t stop the stream of thoughts. The other thing circling in her head, of course, is Chat.

    For some reason he’s never far from her mind when she’s with Adrien -- probably because, in a way, Adrien reminds her of her partner. They have… similar dorky senses of humor. Actually, they’re very alike.

    It’s kind of amusing, when she thinks about it. They even like the same sorts of puns -- or they did, once. It’s been so long that, for all she knows, Chat’s tastes have changed.

    And she should be out looking for him. She needs to find him. She hurt him, and... the more time she wastes not doing it… he could be getting further and further away.

    “Hey.” Adrien’s voice, soft and low and warm at her ear. “What’s wrong, princess?”

    Princess. Another thing he and Chat have in common -- those ridiculous nicknames. With the cat on her mind, something snags, tangles, in her head. Makes her breath catch with something like recognition. Adrien goes strangely still.

    She can’t say what it is though, can’t grasp the idea at the back of her tongue -- the moment she tries to put words to the feeling, it’s gone. Swept away.

    “Nothing,” she tells her boyfriend, the strange feeling already fading from her mind. She curls into him further, an ache settling in her chest as the look on Chat’s face comes back to her -- that wasn’t nothing. Not at all.

    “I don’t think I believe you, Mari-sweet,” Adrien says, nuzzling her shoulder. His tone, in contrast to his easy affection, is oddly careful. He really is worried about her.

    Marinette huffs out a sigh, staring into the gloom of the darkened room, not sure what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t want to think about all the melancholy things right now; she should be enjoying this time with Adrien.

    Her boyfriend.

    The word alone is enough to make her smile, but the ache persists.

    “You know you can talk to me, right?” Adrien asks, almost too quietly. “About anything.”

    Marinette swallows, caught by the hesitation in his tone. 

    “I know,” she says, slinging an arm over his ribcage to hug him closer. “I know, really, I do.”

    “Okay.”

    And they’re quiet for a moment, just their breathing in the dark, while Marinette tries to figure out if it’s really okay to talk to him about this or not.

    She supposes it is. She supposes it might help to get it off her chest, to someone who isn’t going to be biased about it the way Alya and Chloé were.

    “I just…” But she trails off, not sure she wants to start down a path that might end with lies.

    “You just…?” Adrien strokes her hair, and she relaxes into the touch. 

    If nothing else, it might help her figure out what she wants to do now.

    “I just… do you remember… that guy I told you about? The one who--”

    “Broke your heart?” he questions, quietly, still against her again.

    Marinette sighs. “Yeah, that one. Well… he showed up, the other day.”

    Adrien’s quiet for a moment. Then, “He did?”

    Marinette can’t read his tone, but it doesn’t sound off-putting, so she nods against his shoulder and continues, choosing her words carefully as she goes.

    “It was… a surprise. I mean, I haven’t seen him in ten years, you know? And he just… popped up out of nowhere. Acting like he’d never been gone, like we were still best friends and nothing had happened, and… I mean, what’s with that?” She doesn’t mean to let out the frustration, but it finds its way into the words anyway, her fingers curling into a fist on Adrien’s warm back. He continues brushing his fingers soothingly through her hair, and she takes comfort in the gesture. “I just… he made it seem like it was so easy for him to come back,” she says, quietly again. “And he just… didn’t want to all these years, I guess. And that hurts, you know? I got… mad. I didn’t mean to, I just… snapped at him. I said some really horrible things,” and hit him , “that I didn’t mean -- well, I meant them, just not the way… they came out. And I’m afraid I drove him away again.”

    For a long moment, there’s silence around them, like a blanket of its own. Marinette whispers, “Sorry. It’s probably weird, to talk about--”

    “No.” Adrien’s arms tighten around her. “No, it’s -- I want to know what you’re thinking, Mari. What bothers you. What makes you happy. Even if it’s about… another guy.”

    “Oh.” She considers that for a moment. “Well… do you think I… I just… I’m sorry I’m so melancholy. I just don’t know what to do. I keep thinking about it. I shouldn’t have reacted how I did, you know? I mean, he doesn’t know I… cared about him like that. Or how much it hurt me when he couldn’t be bothered to come home. So I shouldn’t have… it was just a shock, you know? And now I don’t know what to do.”

    “...Talk to him?” Adrien suggests, his tone a bit odd around the edges in a way she can’t quite place. “Maybe he should know… those things. Or at least… maybe there are things you don’t know, either? Like, a reason he couldn't come back before now?”

    Marinette considers the sensible words, turning them over and over in her head. “I guess. But then -- why come back at all? Especially so… so suddenly?”

    True, she lost the ring. It wasn’t that sudden, really… he had to make sure she knew it was in good hands.

    Still, it felt sudden.

    And him punning around like he’d never left didn’t help. She blows out a breath, though again the feeling is less anger and more sorrow.

    “I… that’s a good point,” she says finally, snuggling further into her boyfriend and letting out a sigh. “I just… well, I don’t really have a way to contact him.”

    “Oh.”

    “Yeah.”

    Quiet reigns for another long moment, while Marinette contemplates her mistakes and Adrien lets her do it.

    “I missed him, you know?” she says quietly. “I waited for him to come back. Not that I’m -- I mean -- I’m really happy, with you,” she scrambles, realizing how that might sound. She sits up a bit, wanting to see the outline of his face in the gloom. “It’s not that I want a relationship with him or anything, in that way, I just--”

    “I get it,” Adrien says gently, reaching up to brush strands of hair out of her eyes. Marinette breathes out a little sigh of relief, smiling down at him.

    “Thank you,” she says quietly, as the heavy ache in her chest fades a bit. He’s right, after all. Chat might very well have a good reason. She needs to talk to him. He may not be listed in her yoyo’s contact list anymore, but… if he’s still here, she’ll find him.

    Master Fu or Zephyr might have some ideas for her. Zephyr, she’s sure, could actually find him. If nothing else the solemere could let him know she wants to meet.

    She needs to talk to him. Apologize. Find out… what he wants. If he’s going… if he’s going to stay this time.

    Because if he’s not, then… she needs to know that. She needs to know it so she can finally let it all go, all of it. And give that ring to someone new.

    And if he’s staying, then… then they’ll have a lot to work out. A lot to… figure out. Not to mention a city to save from a band of terrorists who may or may not be using some kind of magical power.

    “Mari,” Adrien says, and she realizes he’s looking at her strangely, green eyes glinting in the dark. “Mari, I-- there’s something…”

    She tilts her head, frowning, because that hesitation is back in his voice and she really doesn’t like it.

    “What’s wrong?” she asks, and he sits up, so they’re both seated semi-tangled together on the bed, close enough to share breath once again.

    “There’s something I need to tell you,” he says, somewhat uncertainty. “I… don’t think you’ll like it. But I need to--

    “--and that sweet little girl who’s been rockin’ the whole world, you know she’s gonna save it ‘cause she’s La-dy-bug--”

    They both leap about a foot in the air when the heavy guitar riffs and deep vocals of Jagged Stone’s ‘Ladybug’ blare into the room, screaming from Marinette’s phone.

    With a yelp, she scrambles for it, already knowing that that particular ringtone belongs to Alya. Alya who’s spent the entire day tracking down her various criminal contacts for leads and who might have something.

    “Sorry, hold that thought--” Marinette tells Adrien, even as she tumbles off the bed and finds her purse on the floor with her clothes. Tikki isn’t inside; she’s probably hiding out in the bathroom or something.

    Marientte swipes up the green button on the screen and holds the phone to her ear. “Alya?”

    “Girl, where are you? I’ve got something.”

    “Uh--” Marinette slides her gaze to Adrien, mindful of her audience. “Really? Are you sure?”

    Alya catches on quickly and lowers her voice. “Yeah. Apparently three warehouses in Mouchard’s territory were commandeered a few nights ago. Nino and I are checking out two of them; I’m sending you the address of the third. It’s closer to the hotel.”

    A lead.

    A real, solid lead that might end this.

    Marinette nods once. “I’ll be there.” Then she hangs up, tosses her phone back into her purse, and starts hauling on her clothes.

    Adrien sits on the bed and blinks at her. “Something… wrong?”

    “Uhm-- no.” She thinks fast, even as she curses the buttons on her dress -- a design she’ll have to rethink, definitely. “Alya needs me, just a girl thing, but… kind of an important girl thing, if you catch me? Sorry to run, but, you know, bestie and all…”

    It’s weak, and she knows it, but she’s in a hurry. Adrien just lifts a brow. “Okay, but before you do, there’s something I really need to tell you -- I’m--”

    Marinette cuts him off with a quick kiss, already focused on the chime she just heard from her purse -- the address. “Hold that thought, okay?” she suggests, tossing her deliciously rumpled boyfriend a smile. “I'll be back soon. I love you.”

    And then she’s out the door, knowing Tikki will meet her as soon as it’s safe, her mind already on a thousand other things.

    She doesn’t notice the stunned look on Adrien’s face, or the fact that Tikki doesn’t bother to hide as she zips across the room after her chosen, or the little black cat kwami who comes out of the bathroom with the red bug. She doesn’t hear Adrien’s muttered groan, or the words he finally grumbles under his breath--

    “--right here… M'lady.”

    --because she’s already gone.

*******

Okay guys, bear with me, but I need to RANT. I'm finally catching up on all the episodes in S3 I've missed since they're all out now, and I just finished Kwami Buster, and I"m like.... I'm so MAD.

Note that there are SPOILERS below if you haven't seen that episode, and if you don't want them, just scroll past this lovely bit of irritation.


Okay. Never before in THREE WHOLE SEASONS  has it been stated that Mari or Adrien would have to GIVE UP their Miraculous if either found out the other's ID. NEVER. It was always just 'oh no it's not safe' never 'there are serious consequences, wwe couldn't be LB and CN anymore'. And NOW after three whole seasons, they want to drop this trite on us? RIGHT when Adrien is FINALLY showing some iNTELLIGENCE?! 

No. No. No. No. I refuse. I dislike. I protest!

First of all, if it's the case that someone whose ID is known by anyone else (including, clearly, another hero who WOULD keep the secret) has to then STOP being a hero because their ID has been comprimised, then I'd just like to point out the last TWO WHOLE SEASONS to Mr. Astruc.

If this RIDICULOUS, PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN 'rule' is true, then literally NO ONE who's recieved a Miraculous from Ladybug should be allowed to use it. That means NONE of the 'new heroes' should have been allowed to use those Mircaculous because it was Ladybug, NOT Master Fu, who handed them out. LB knows the identities of ALL the holders EXCEPT Chat, which means that NOT ONE OF THEM IS QUALIFIED, according to this episode.
Also, Nino and Alya know each other's secret, and Adrien knows Luka's! That's even MORE people! One of whom Ladybug thinks is a civillian with NO incentive to keep their secrets (aside from her crush, which is clearly blinding her v.v). AND by this logic, then neither LB nor CN should have been allowed to meet Master Fu, and LB  DEFINITELY shouldn't have access to him at all times, for the same 'dangerous' reasons.

Even setting all of that evidence aside with the suggestion that, 'okay well LB and CN's identites are more important, everyone else is just part time so not that big a deal', I STILL don't understand why LB and CN would have to GIVE UP THEIR MIRACULOUS if they found out each other's IDs. Marinette, at the least (as was proven in this episode) is the greatest Ladybug in centuries. It would be STUPID to take her Miraculous and give it to someone less worthy JUST because she found out her partner's identity. I get the whole 'it's dangerous if we're akumatized' thing, but let's be honest, if one or the other of them was akumatized, it'd be super easy to spring a trap by pretending NOT to be akumatized. Mari, at least, would be smart enough to pull that off. 

The other big issue I have is that they're only JUST NOW mentioning this rule. Like, if the stakes were that high, why not mention them... idk, in EPISODE ONE? Or at least one of the many times LB has tried to explain it to CN? Huh? I'm a writer, not just of fanfiiction but of actual original books that I am trying to get published.  And as a writer, I'm kind of insulted by this complete disregard for not only PLOT but for CONTINUITY. At this point, it seems like the writers have hit  a wall trying to come up with ways to keep Mari and Adrien from having a reveal, so they're throwing out this rule totally last minute just to drag things out longer.

It smacks of the same issue I have with the writer's general disregard for things like character development and/or consequences. This entire show is built on the idea that there ARE no consequences. Oh,  Paris has been destroyed again? No biggie, Miraculous Ladybug can fix that. Oh, people were probably crushed and killed by those falling buildings? It's fine, Miraculous Ladybug will bring them back to life.

AND YET, this, the ONE THING the fans have been waiting for for THREE WHOLE SEASONS, suddenly has a consequence?! It smells like lazy writing to me. The writers just don't know what to do with their story after the reveal, it seems. Ugh, it really BOTHERS ME T-T

And I KNOW, I KNOW, you're thinking 'wow Kaeon, calm down, I know we all love it but it's a kid's show, it's not supposed to be super plot, character, or continuity driven' -- and on the one hand, you're right.

On the other hand, the writers and producers should have realized by now that the concept, story, and characters they have are awesome enough to have picked up a fanbase FAR beyond their intended audience of 'kids', and that should mean something, for cat's sake! Even if it doesn't, you can't tell a STORY without paying attention to good writing techniques, plot details, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, character development. Even if that story is for kids. Maybe ESPECIALLY then, because if kids' shows don't pay attention to those things, we'll end up with generation after generation of kids who have no sense of what a story is, who have no critical thinking skills, no empathy, no FEELING beyond 'oh that was funny' or 'oh that looked cool'.

Oh wait. We ARE seeing a generation like that, thanks to all the dumbed down cartoons kids' brains are being filled with. When I was a kid, cartoons were CLEVER. Adults could enjoy them too -- in fact, I still enjoy a lot of the cartoons I watched as a kid and I'm 23. Most of the cartoons my little niece watches are so dumb and OBVIOUS that it makes me want to cry in frustration. Kids are SMART, blast it. They need MENTAL STIMULATION. STOP TREATING OUR FUTURE CITIZENS LIKE IDIOTS.

Gah.

Okay, os that rant went... somewhere else completely xD sorry, totally off topic there. Anyway, ugh. I'm so annoyed. adkahgadhg;edhg

I love this show. I love its concept. I love its characters. But with every new episode I watch, even with all the cool and exciting things we're learning... I feel like the writers aren't doing their story or their characters justice. And it REALLY makes me sad, because there's so much potential... and I'm so tired of seeing such amazing ideas turned into shows that end with 'well it was fun but it didn't really go anywhere and the ending sucked'. That happens WAY too often. I don't want to see it happen to MLB :/

I know, I know, you're thinking 'that's why there's fanfiction, Kaeon!'. And you're right. We'll always have fanfiction. That's the main reason I write fanfiction. I don't write fics about movies, shows, or books I really enjoyed EVERY aspect of. I write fics about the ones I loved but felt deserved better than they got in cannon. Which is, honestly... kind of sad. :/

Ah well. Sorry for all that. Just needed to get it off my chest v.v

Kaeon out~

Chapter Text

    The warehouse is two blocks away from the Seine, just a short trip away from the hotel, and far too quiet.

    Marinette feels bad, on some level, about abandoning Adrien like that. It adds to her general feelings of guilt and prods at the back of her mind insistently, as if she really should have let him finish what he was saying. He looked worried, after all, and his words are sticking in her mind, but--

    Ladybug, unlike Marinette, doesn’t have time to worry about that. Adrien will still be there when Marinette gets back. 

    The Mehyr, on the other hand, will not be here for very long. If they’re even here now.

    Something about the quiet around the warehouse draws Ladybug’s attention. The rest of the street is quiet. The surrounding buildings are quiet. It is, after all, just past midnight.

    Still… this quiet is different.

    It sends a tingle down her spine and makes her cautious. She circles the building for a good ten minutes, watching the windows, watching the doors, searching for any sign of activity.

    There’s nothing.

    Nothing at all.

    But it doesn’t feel like nothing, and Alya’s information is almost always on point.

    So Ladybug waits, patiently perching on an adjacent rooftop to study the building’s layout. If she’s going to sneak in, she needs to be prepared. She can’t be caught unawares inside with no escape route in mind.

    So she maps the place, using her yoyo to pull up its blueprints, carefully studying it the way she’s learned is safest. Terrorists and murderers and thieves are entirely different from the akumas she grew up fighting. She can’t rush in headlong and she can’t be unprepared.

    These aren’t victims she’s dealing with. They’re bad guys.

    So Ladybug takes the time to come up with a plan. She takes the time to decide on several different escape routes, including one through the old sewer tunnel that runs beneath the warehouse. She also notes that those could be escapes for any terrorists inside, which is also good information to have. Her blood thrums with energy, all weariness forgotten in the face of possible action.

    Even if all she manages to do is capture a few more useless grunts, it will be something. A step forward.

    So Ladybug stands, yoyo in hand, fully prepared to swing off this roof and right through one of those lower level windows.

    She’s stopped, though, by a ripple down her spine and a feeling in the air and an instinct that tells her to turn around, now.

“Well, well, what do we have here?”

    And a voice, deep and threatening and amused, from directly behind her.

    “A lost little baq, out in the dark all by herself.”

Chapter Text

    Adrien didn’t mean to tell her. It wasn’t his plan to blurt it out without asking Ladybug first, wasn’t his plan to just… say it.

    But hearing her talk about him… understanding, suddenly, why she was so upset… he couldn’t stand the idea of hiding it from her. Of telling her later that it’s him only to have her realize, then, that he was the one she was talking about him to and he didn’t say anything…

    He doesn’t know if it was his bad luck or her good luck that made Alya call her before he could finish his sentence.

    He has a feeling that it’s a bit of both, and he’s left reeling not just from the entire mess but from her parting words, spoken so swiftly against his mouth that he’s not entirely sure they were real.

    I love you.

    His lips keep trying to curl into a smile and his mind keeps trying to wander away from the important thing, which is that he highly doubts Alya’s call had anything to do with ‘girl stuff’. Not when it was made at midnight and not when Mari looked so excited about it.

    That, of course, pretty much solidifies Adrien’s suspicion that they know Mari is Ladybug. Or, at least, that Lysse and Alya do. Chloé, also being a masked heroine, probably does as well. Her, Adrien could understand, but… Lysse and Alya are civilians. 

    Maybe they just… figured it out.

    Adrien dismisses that thought fairly quickly. He’s learned from experience that whatever magic keeps the masks on also hides the people underneath very well. Otherwise he’d have figured Mari out a long time ago, and she’d have known him the moment he showed up the other night with his ring back.

    So she told them.

    Again, he tries not to feel jealous. He focuses instead on the good ramifications -- if she’s okay with her friends knowing, then it’s possible, maybe even likely, that she’ll be okay with Chat knowing.

    Which means… he still has a chance. A chance to make all this work out.

    I love you.

    Her words echo in his head again and his mouth creeps back into a smile--verging on a grin--and he flops back to stare at the hotel ceiling, heart pounding in his chest.

    This… it might just… work out.

    “So…”

    Adrien blinks over at Plagg, who’s hovering somewhat disapprovingly. That’s unusual.

    “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for more work or anything, but… are you just gonna sit there, kid?”

    Adrien blinks again and sits up. “You think we should go after her?”

    “No, I think you didn’t bring enough cheese with you and we should go back to our hotel room,” the cat kwami disagrees, arms folded over his tiny chest.

    A denial if Adrien’s ever heard one.

    “Are you… worried about them?” Adrien’s brows furrow, though he half concurs with the assessment. Now that he thinks about it, if Ladybug is out right now chasing down a lead on the Mehyr, it’s possible she’ll end up in a fight. And she might need backup. 

    Plagg scoffs. “No, of course not.”

    Adrien gives him a dry look as he climbs off the bed, absently casting around for his slacks. Where did those get to…

    “You know I’m smarter than that, right Plagg?” he murmurs, leaning to look under the bed. Not there… he vaguely remembers kicking them… under the TV stand maybe…?

    He’s drawn from his search by Plagg’s uncharacteristic silence.

    “Plagg? You think something might be really wrong?” He frowns at his kwami, a bad feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. Plagg is staring out the window, ears laid flat on his little head.

    “I… I don’t know, Adrien.” Plagg swivels in midair to look at Adrien, serious for maybe the third time in all the years Adrien’s known him. “I’m sensing a really bad energy.”

    Adrien has no idea what that means, but his kwami’s worry is enough. If Plagg thinks it’s bad, then it’s probably horrible enough to level the whole city.

    Or at least badly hurt his lady and her kwami.

    Adrien abandons the search for his pants and throws out his right fist. It’s not like anyone will know he’s not wearing civilian clothes under the Miraculous suit. 

“Plagg, claws out!”

Chapter Text

    Ladybug whirls, yoyo already swinging. It doesn’t even occur to her that the speaker might be friendly -- she knows, somehow, that he isn’t.

    There was nothing but pure threat in those words.

    So Ladybug swivels, light on her feet, blood surging as she prepares to fight -- only to find the rooftop empty.

    Void.

    There’s no one there.

    Ladybug turns in a slow circle, every sense on high alert What was it Nino said? The thieves were invisible.

    “Who’s there?” she demands, eyes still roving over the empty space around her, searching for a loose pebble that moves on its own or a shadow that isn’t where it should be. “Come out and show yourself.”

    A low laugh, from the left -- close. Too close.

    Ladybug whirls only to find more emptiness.

    “So demanding. You bugs are all the same, I see.”

    What?

    “Who are you?” Ladybug tries, softening her tone, hoping against hope that she isn’t about to be shot between the shoulder blades by a terrorist. She keeps her feet moving, slowly rotating to make sure she’s not too easy a target. “What do you want?”

    The voice tsks, right at her ear. This time when Ladybug turns, she lashes out -- only to have her arm caught in an iron grip, held by a very large, very visible man.

    Large, she thinks, as her gaze travels higher and higher, is an understatement.

    The man is huge. Easily twice the height of the tallest person she knows. And massive. And are those… yes, those are horns protruding from just above his temples, curving wickedly over the crown of his head. Horns, like Zephyr has when she’s transformed… but not. These are much bigger and sharper looking. This must be the guy those witnesses saw near the theft sites.

   This… is bad.

    Despite herself, Marinette gulps as she takes him in, her arm still caught in his grip. His face is shrouded in shadow, though his eyes glow amber from the darkness. More shadows curl over his bare torso and around his legs… which end in hooves

    The man smiles, a flash of white. The darkness over his face isn’t a mask or a hood, but somewhere in between, hiding his features and accentuating them at the same time. She can’t put together a formulaic image of his face. It makes him even more unnerving.

    She doesn’t like that she finds him unnerving. She doesn’t like anything about this. If he’s here, then whoever is down in that warehouse… maybe it’s the people in charge. Maybe she’s finally onto something.  

    “Let go of me,” she says, firm and calm and steely. This is going to end, one way or another. And if this guy is working for the terrorists...

    “You didn’t say please,” the man points out, grinning again.

    Please? What even--

    “Please,” Ladybug grits out, this close to slamming her yoyo into his face before he has a chance to answer her questions. What sort of jerkwad--

    “That didn’t sound very sincere, baq,” he drawls, his voice a thick rumble in the air, as if it has its own physical presence. Beukah, he keeps calling her that. She doesn’t recognize his faint accent or the word, and that makes her uneasy, too.

    If this guy is another Miraculous holder, working for her enemies… she tries not to flash back to memories of six years ago. She needs to stay in the present.

    Without preamble, Ladybug plants her feet and yanks, hauling her arm out of his grasp. For a heartbeat, there’s nothing--no give at all--and then she’s free, skipping back across the rooftop and away from him.

    The delay was just long enough that she knows he let her go on purpose, and it’s somehow incredibly annoying.

    “Are you going to answer me?” she asks, reminding herself that she could still be wrong. Maybe he’s not a bad guy.

    Unlikely. But still.

    “Mmm…” The man smirks. “No.”

    Ladybug grits her teeth. “Then we’re going to have a problem.”

    “It seems we already have a problem, baq,” he muses, folding those massive arms across his chest. He tilts his head and a few strands of long, ink-dark hair fall over one shoulder, looking a little too much like a mane. Ladybug’s never seen such a realistic transformation before; not even Zephyr looks this… authentic. If he is a Miraculous holder… his power must be something else.

    That or he’s something else.

    She doesn’t like the implication or the way he’s looking at her. And what is he doing here? Is he guarding this warehouse? Is this where they’re building… whatever they stole those parts for?

    She feels like she’s right on the verge of answers, and if she can get this guy to spill anything...

    “I’d really prefer if we didn’t have a problem,” she tries, still swinging her yoyo even as she offers a hopeful smile. “We could just talk this out like normal people.”

    The man snorts, amusement curling over his face again. “I think we both know neither of us is normal, baq.

    Ladybug’s mind races as she tries to make sense of him and his goal. He hasn’t attacked her, for all his antics earlier, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do so.

    So what’s his game here? If he is guarding the warehouse, why not try to get rid of--

    Suddenly it smacks her in the face and she straightens, swiveling to look at the warehouse. The too quiet, too still, too shrouded warehouse that may or may not be full of people who can make themselves invisible.  

   “You’re stalling,” she murmurs, and then she’s gone, leaping off the roof.

    If he’s trying to distract her, it’s because something’s happening down there. It’s possible the Mehyr are escaping right now and she just can’t see them, and she’s not going to--

    A weight slams into her side before she touches down on the street, throwing her off course. Ladybug hits the nearest wall and yelps as her bones shudder, taking what impact Tikki couldn’t shield her from.

    Mon dieu.

    For a moment, she allows herself to lie on the ground, restructuring her understanding of limb placement and sensory input.

    Then there’s a clop, too close, and she’s up, swinging her yoyo, backing into an alley as the stranger advances on her with deliberate calm.

    “Who are you?” she asks again, eyes darting around as she searches for a way to get past him. She doesn’t have time to fight him, not if the Mehyr are in that warehouse! They could be escaping right now, and if she loses them--

    “Does it really matter?” he drawls, and she notices that his knees bend backward as he walks, like the back legs of a goat. Like he’s some kind of hybrid -- like a… what’s it called, that thing from Greek mythology.

    A satyr.

    If he’s using a Miraculous, then which one is it? That will tell her what she’s dealing with…

    Though Marinette has learned a lot about the other Miracle Boxes since Varity showed up, she clearly doesn't know enough, because she can’t think of any based on Geek mythology. The Zào Huài is pretty much based on the Chinese zodiac, and the Box Varity came from was entirely element based, but…

    Marinette doesn’t think there’s a Box in Greece, not that she knows where the others are anyway, and--

    And she doesn’t have time to consider it, as she’s reached the end of the alley and it’s time to step out onto the wrong street or stand and fight.

    She chooses fight.

    “Why don’t you make this easy on yourself,” she suggests, planting her feet, “and stand down?”

    The stranger grins, another flash of white in the general darkness of his face. The expression is clearly meant to unnerve, though she gets the impression that he really is amused.

    Great.

    “Now, where would be the fun in that, baq saghirat?”

    Fine. Nothing left to say, then.

    With a huff of breath, Ladybug is moving. Her yoyo spins and arcs toward him, aiming to latch around one of his backward legs so she can get him off his feet. He leaps nimbly upward and avoids the strike, coming down a few feet away like he really is part goat. Ladybug watches the way he moves, a plan already forming in her mind even as they circle each other in the narrow space.

    This needs to be quick, so--

    “'Iihsas.”

    For a heartbeat, it’s her plan and him standing there and the newest word she doesn’t recognize.

    Then it’s just the dark, like someone’s thrown a blanket over her head -- over the world. It’s so dark she can’t even see the darkness, let alone anything in it. 

    With a curse, Ladybug lunges toward the last place she saw him, but her hands slam into the brick wall instead of her opponent. And then they begin to tingle and go numb, a sensation that slowly creeps over her entire body as if the darkness is seeping in through her skin.

    Like a thousand tiny needles beneath her suit, pinpricks that leave emptiness behind -- a sense of panic wells in Ladybug’s chest, but when she puts her hands to her face she can’t feel anything. Gloves over skin over suit over hair over places she knows are there but there’s--

    There’s no feeling at all.

    Just nothing. Numbness. Falling. Isolation.

    She gasps out a scream despite herself, though she can barely hear it through ringing ears, and fumbles toward something, toward the place she thinks is the end of the alley, toward anything to get out of this, to get out of this, to get out of--

    To get… out… 

 

*****

A brief glossary of the Arabic terms Shaitan keeps using, since he's trite at explanations xDD

Baq -- bug

Saghirat -- little, small (specifically in reference to a female)

'iihsas -- feeling, sensation (sometimes in referance to emotion as well as physicality)

 

A couple terms from the previous chapters with him as well, since I didn't add a glossary there:

Khalila -- sweetheart

Sayidi -- sir (more or less a title of respect, implying the one being addressed is of a higher or more honored status than the one speaking)

Jamila -- beautiful (girl)

Any native Arabic speakers out there, please correct me if I'm wrong lol. I'm mostly using Google xD Khalid insists that he loves his native language and wants to use it in his speech \(*-*)/

Chapter Text

    Light. Night air chill on her skin and through her hair -- feeling.

    A voice, saying her name--no, Ladybug’s name--above her head. Sound.

    Slowly, she looks up, blinking in the sudden intense brightness that is the nearest streetlamp, to find Chat Noir crouched over her. His expression is panicked and his gloved fingers are on either side of Ladybug's face, cool and slick.

    For a heartbeat, Ladybug just stares at him, disoriented and panicked and confused.

    Chat. Chat is here. He hasn’t left yet, he’s still...

    The warehouse. The other holder.

    The Mehyr--

    Ladybug is up and moving on stiff legs before that thought has finished forming, whirling toward the alley, because she has to go after the terrorists before they escape. 

   But there’s no one, and nothing, there, save smoke rising into the sky and sirens wailing as the fire department heads their way. Because the warehouse is on fire.

    And the Mehyr are gone.

    Ladybug takes a stumbling step forward and her legs give out, still tingly and nearly numb. Strong hands catch her and lower her to the pavement, a warm body close to hers, cool green eyes peering at her with concern.

    “Ladybug -- M’lady,” he murmurs, his voice a gentle, familiar rumble of worry. Near panic. “What happened? Are you alright?”

    “I’m…” She trails off, stares at him, tries to gather herself and can’t quite do it. “The Mehyr are getting away…”

    “I don’t care about that,” Chat snaps, scowling at her. He shakes her, once, his hands firm on her shoulders. “What happened?”

    Ladybug lifts a hand to her head, feeling disoriented and a bit nauseous. The smoke from the fire isn’t helping, but she can feel Tikki’s power wrapped around her, helping slowly.

    “I’m not… sure.” She looks at the burning warehouse again and frustration slams through her, stronger than anything else. “Those bastards.” She surges to her feet again. “They’re getting away--”

    “Then we’ll go after them,” Chat promises, keeping her steady with one hand on her waist and the other around her shoulders. “After you’re steady on your feet.”

    Chat. Chat is here.

    This seeps in slowly, too, and Ladybug is still processing all of it together when the sound of footsteps echo down the alley and two figures drop into it with them.

    “LB, what--”

    “What on Earth?”

    Rena Rouge and Carapace, standing a couple feet away. Rena looks concerned, and Carapace is gaping at Chat -- Alya must not have told him yet.

    “The devil, LB?” Carapace strides forward with a scowl. “Who’s this guy? What--”

    “Woah, woah, woah.” Rena grabs Carapace’s belt and hauls him backward a step. “Clearly, that’s Chat Noir. Let’s focus on the important stuff here, okay?”

    “Chat Noir,” Carapace repeats, clearly disbelieving.

    “That’s me,” Chat himself says, somewhat dryly. “Nice to see you again.”

    Huh. No puns.

    “What happened?” Rena asks, and Ladybug draws herself away from her drifting thoughts, trying to focus. It’s like there’s still a numbness in her mind, twisting her around…

    “I’m… it was that guy,” she tries, waving a hand. “The other holder, the horned guy. I don’t… remember exactly… he… we were fighting, and... he said something…” She shakes her head, because that’s it. That’s all there is. “The next thing I knew it was really dark, and I couldn’t feel anything, and then…” She glances up at the very tall, very toned man in black leather holding her steady, “Chat.”

    His eyes are still vaguely panicked. “I didn’t see all that,” he says quietly. “I found you twitching on the ground. It was like… you couldn’t hear me.”

    “Hnn.” Rena frowns and studies the alley. “His power, maybe?” 

    “Maybe,” Ladybug agrees, though she’s not fond of the idea. A Miraculous power that… that did what, exactly? Made her black out? 

    No, it was more than that. Worse than that. She shudders at the mere memory and Chat tightens his grip on her, which only reminds her--painfully--that he’s still here and she has… she has so many things she needs to say to him.

    And she can’t because the Mehyr are getting away.

    “Rena,” she says, urgently, “did you see any of them? At the other warehouses, did you find anything?”

    Rena sighs. “Mine was empty, girl. But Carapace,” she eyes her boyfriend, “found something. Right?”

    Nino, for his part, is still staring at Chat with hard eyes. He slides that gaze from the cat to Ladybug and then to Rena Rouge before settling on the cat again.

    “Tell me you guys aren’t buying this,” he says, throwing out a hand. “Who the devil is this guy? I don’t remember anyone mentioning giving that Miraculous out again--”

    “Chill,” Rena soothes, putting a hand on his arm. “It’s complicated, but LB already filled me in. I was gonna tell you but we got… busy.” She shrugs, fox ears twitching, and Carapace studies her for a moment before looking back at Chat and Ladybug.

    “It’s really him,” Ladybug supplies, not sure why she does except Carapace doesn’t look… convinced.

    Why Nino should be so unsure about it is beyond her. He never knew Chat very well. 

    Then again, he was also all for the idea of her giving Chat’s ring to someone new a few years ago, and they argued over how adamantly she refused.

    He’s probably thinking of that right now.

    “So, you found him.” Carapace’s voice is deadpan, and his arms are folded over his chest.

    “My kwami found me,” Chat cuts in, stepping forward a bit, tail flicking against Ladybug’s leg. “He brought me my ring.”

    Carapace snorts. “What, seriously? And how’d he do that?”

    Marinette has had about enough of this conversation. The Mehyr are getting away.

    “Carapace,” she interrupts, before Chat can respond or Rena can do something other than sigh. “What did you find at the other warehouse?”

    Nino frowns for a moment, and he doesn’t take his eyes off Chat when he says, “The terrorists cleared out too fast for us to catch them. Seems like they’re using the old sewer tunnels that run along the Seine. I found some of their stuff, though; they’re definitely building some kind of EMP. I grabbed a couple things to analyze.”

    Well… that’s something. It’s not much. But it’s something.

    “What about when you got here?” Ladybug looks up at Chat, ignoring the way he and Carapace are staring each other down. “Did you see anyone before the fire started?”

    It’s probably a dumb question. If they’re using the sewers then--

    She suddenly remembers the tunnel that showed on her yoyo’s blueprint. If they went underground… the tunnels only go so far and she has a map.

    Without another word, Ladybug pushes away from Chat--promising herself silently that she’ll find and talk to him later--and heads for the nearest entrance.

    “LB--” Rena is right behind her. “Where are we going?”

    “Down the drain,” Ladybug quips mirthlessly, her mind slowly realigning itself. She is not letting them get away this time.

    She’s not.

    Rena flashes a grin as she follows her best friend. “Sounds like fun.”

    Ladybug pulls out her yoyo as they drop down into the nearest tunnel, pulling up her contact list. Rayée isn’t online, but she leaves a message.

    They’re going to need the tiger’s sense of smell.

Chapter Text

Chat watches Ladybug take off, a hint of amusement curling his mouth. She’s always rushing off at the drop of a hat, refusing to take even a moment’s rest when there’s something that needs to be done. He’s struck with a familiar feeling, one that crouched over his head often when they were kids -- the urge to follow her. To be by her side, no matter what.

Except this time, it’s a little more well founded. And a lot stronger.

Finding his girlfriend having some kind of seizure was not how he wanted to start this.

Chat moves to follow the girls, fully intending to search with them, but Carapace shoots out an arm, stopping him.

Chat allows himself to be stopped, eyeing the turtle from the corner of his eye. There’s a sense of general hostility coming from the other man that he doesn’t remember from when they were younger; the few times he worked with Carapace, the guy struck him as fairly chill and laid back. Good in a pinch and easy to work with.

“They could probably use our help,” Chat says, keeping his tone mild.

“You know, dude, your timing’s pretty convenient,” Carapace says, eyes narrowed behind his goggles, shadowed beneath his dark green hood.

Right. Chat expected this, but… 

“What exactly are you suggesting?” he asks, turning to face the turtle more fully. If they’re going to do this, they should do it, and get it out of the way.

Adrien isn’t planning to go anywhere anytime soon, so Ladybug’s team is going to have to get used to him. Even if it has been ten years.

“I know for a fact that the kwamis can’t handle their own Miraculous,” Carapace says. “LB doesn’t spend as much time with the Guardian as I do, so maybe she bought that -- but I’m not. Who are you?”

Oh.

Well. Trite.

Adrien didn’t know that for a fact, but it does sound plausible. He’s certainly never seen Plagg handle the ring.

And he’s planning to tell Mari the truth soon anyway, so…

He tilts his head. “I’m Chat Noir.”

Carapace snorts. “Yeah, you do a real good job of looking like the dude, I’ll give you that. But we both know you’re not him.

“So I’m… an illusion?” Chat suggests, amused despite himself. “Oh, or an akuma. Definitely that. In a second there’ll be a purple butterfly outlining my face.”

Carapace’s expression darkens, and Chat sighs, holding up his hands in surrender. “Look, I don’t want trouble, okay? I know you guys are a team now, and I’m not trying to mess with that. But I am Chat Noir, and this is my ring, and all I really want to do right now is help my partner before she gets hurt again.”

“Your partner?” Carapace barks out a laugh and throws up a hand. “Some partner, a dude who vanishes for ten-odd years and crops back up just at the right moment. How do we know you’re not working with the Mehyr, too? You could be some other holder from another Box.”

That’s… true, actually. Chat sighs. “I’m not a terrorist. And I’m not using some kind of power to trick you. This,” he gestures at himself, “is really me.”

When he expected resistance from his lady’s team, he wasn’t exactly expecting accusations. But he can’t deny that Carapace has a point, and he’d probably be suspicious in that position, too. If the turtle is just trying to protect his team, Chat can’t fault him for it.

That doesn’t mean they have time for this.

“Clearly you have LB convinced,” Carapace says, but the words still sound disbelieving.

“Look, I don’t know how to prove it to you,” Chat says, rubbing his head with one hand. He keeps glancing in the direction Mari and the fox disappeared, worry mounting in his chest. She wasn’t exactly stable on her own two feet yet… “But we can argue about it later, meowkay? M’lady needs help.”

With that, he starts to move again, and this time Carapace doesn’t stop him. He just follows.

“Don’t think I won’t be watching you,” the turtle threatens, his voice holding a dark edge that Adrien doesn’t have to decipher.

“Just make sure you keep an eye on my good side,” Chat tosses back, smirking over one shoulder. “This cat would hate to leave a bad impawssion.”

Behind him, Carapace snorts again. “The bad puns aren’t gonna convince anyone, dude.”

Chat shrugs. “I don’t have anything to purrove. M’lady knows it’s me.”

“Yeah, well, even if it is--” Carapace mutters, as Chat uses his baton to scan the area for Ladybug. He finds her underground, and heads for the nearest entrance, realizing she must be tracing the terrorists’ path through the sewers. Smart. 

“If it is, what?” Chat asks absently, dropping to pull up the manhole cover.

Carapace’s voice is grim and hard when he says, “If you’re the real dude, then you’re the arsehole who abandoned her to deal with the fallout of Hawk Moth’s defeat by herself.” Chat goes still. “Who couldn’t even be bothered to stick around long enough to field some questions. That was not cool, dude. So if you’re really that guy--”

Carapace steps forward, down onto the ladder, sliding past Chat.

“--you have no right to call her your partner anymore. Or to wear that ring.”

And then the green hood disappears into the dark hole, and Chat is left crouched above it, trying not to let those knife-sharp words pierce too deep.

Even though they already have.