Cat Noir was worried.
Not about the akuma- or rather, not about the akumatized “victim”. Really, given what had happened earlier, he should’ve expected Lila to be akumatized again. And the warning call from Chloe had given him time for “Adrien” to hide before HeartThief got to the fashion house.
Looking through the skylight, Cat Noir observed the new villain. HeartThief seemed to be taking the energies of anyone she touched, and putting them in a little bag at her waist. She didn’t look that different from her real self, other than the brilliant purple eyes and hair, so it was easy for her to fool people into letting her get close. After the contact, though, the people she touched were completely uncaring of anything happening to them or around them- in fact, they only did mechanically whatever HeartThief told them to do. Cat Noir was just glad she hadn’t told anyone to hurt themselves.
Cat Noir was more worried about Ladybug. Something about her wasn’t quite…right…today. And he knew from experience, that defeating an akumatized Lila would take more effort than the average akuma.
Arriving a few minutes after HeartThief, Ladybug joined Cat Noir on the roof of the Agreste fashion house, but she didn’t jump right into the fight. Her movements were slower than normal- almost deliberate, though if he didn’t know his lady so well, he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell. Although Cat Noir wanted to ask what was wrong, it was pretty clear she was trying to act perfectly normal. He had filled Ladybug in on what he had observed through the skylight, and she didn’t say anything for a second.
Finally, she spoke. “The akuma is in the bag, Cat Noir.” She paused for a moment. “We have to do this quickly.” Another pause. “And you can’t use Cataclysm.”
Her statement shocked him. “Why not? If the akuma is in the bag-“
Ladybug interrupted him. “You just can’t.” She paused again. “There’s a reason.” She hadn’t even really looked at Cat Noir yet, and her eyes were focused only on the villain below, who was searching the entire building and demanding that the people she had affected find Adrien.
Ladybug triggered her Lucky Charm, and a small packet fell into her hand. Cat Noir peered at it over her shoulder. It looked like the portable sewing kits some tailors used.
“A sewing kit? For real?” he asked. She didn’t say anything.
Cat Noir couldn’t see what use the sewing kit was going to be, but apparently Ladybug did. She turned to Cat Noir, and the look on her face made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She was absolutely expressionless- if he hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the HeartThief had gotten to her somehow.
“Can you distract HeartThief?”
“Of course, milady!”
“Without getting touched?”
Cat Noir forced a grin. Maybe he could defuse some of her tension with a joke. “It wouldn’t matter if she did. HeartThief can’t steal what you already have!” He picked up her hand and dropped a kiss on her knuckles.
Cat Noir had hoped for a reaction to this, to counter the weird feeling in his gut. A sigh, a sarcastic comment- he would have settled for an eyeroll. Any kind of normal reaction out of Ladybug.
But she didn’t react at all, except to remove her hand from his. She barely even blinked. “We need to draw her outside.”
Cat Noir dropped the smile. Her behavior was so off, he couldn’t let it go at that. “Ladybug, are you-“
Ladybug interrupted him again. “I’m fine.” She paused, then said with a small, tight smile, “But we need to hurry.”
It was clear Ladybug didn’t intend to tell him anything else right now. But Cat Noir was going to get her to talk before her miraculous ran out.
The fight wasn’t much of one, to Cat Noir’s surprise. Although HeartThief had probably expected Ladybug to ambush her the second she chased Cat Noir out of the building, she didn’t expect the thin tape measure stretched out at ankle height across the door. Tripping and falling on her face, HeartThief didn’t have time to recover before Ladybug had come up next to her, cut the bag from her hip with the seam ripper and was tearing it in two. A black and purple butterfly fluttered out, and HeartThief became Lila again.
Ladybug caught the akuma in her yoyo, and tossed the sewing kit in the air. “Miraculous Ladybug!”
Cat Noir could see the news anchor, Nadja Chamack, and her camera crew had just arrived and was filming the scene. How they knew to come here, Cat Noir had no idea, but most citizens knew to report any weirdness they saw, and HeartThief had been roof-hopping through the city until she arrived here. The television crew was next to the tree near the door of the Agreste fashion house. From the angle, though, Cat Noir was sure Lila hadn’t seen them, although Ladybug probably could.
The magic ladybugs swirled, and through the doors Cat Noir could hear people returning to normal, asking each other what happened. Then his cat hearing caught something else- he noticed Ladybug’s breathing, which was short and shallow. Before he could follow up on it, the ladybugs swirled one last time, restoring the torn bag into a girl’s purse.
A familiar girl’s purse. Pink, round, with black floral embroidery and a red-and-brass clasp, it looked an awful lot like-
Ladybug picked up the purse slowly, and approached Lila. “This is not yours,” she stated in a flat tone.
Lila put on a bright, confused smile. “What do you mean? Of course it’s mine; my friend Marinette gave it to me for my birthday.”
Cat Noir had heard some whoppers out of Lila, both as himself and as Adrien, but this one was unbelievable to anyone who knew both girls. He shook his head slightly; what was Lila thinking?
Ladybug was not put off. “You are not Marinette’s friend.” She lifted the purse up. “I’m giving this back to her.”
A panicked look shot across Lila’s face for a split second, and she grabbed Ladybug’s arm. “You can’t right now, she’s…out of town. A family emergency. She won’t be back for a few weeks.”
Another lie, Cat Noir knew. Marinette had been in school that morning, and he had planned to talk with her later as Adrien. He narrowed his eyes in speculation; something was very wrong here…
And Ladybug seemed to know it, too. Shrugging Lila’s hand off, she spoke slowly, but with disgust in every word. “Every time we’ve met, you’ve lied to me. You’ve lied to others about me. I can’t believe you now.” She walked away from Lila, towards Cat Noir. “Let’s go.” Her earrings beeped a warning; she slung her yo-yo into the sky and swung up to the rooftop.
Out of the corner of his eye, Cat Noir saw Nadja approaching Lila from behind. It was a good thing no one else could see the anger and-fear? on Lila’s face before she cleared her expression. Cat Noir extended his staff, pole-vaulting to the roof; he was determined to get some kind of answer out of Ladybug before she had to leave.
Cat Noir landed on the rooftop of the fashion house, expecting Ladybug to have kept going. Instead, he found her in the shadow of an electrical shed. She was bent over, hands on her knees and head hanging a little.
“Ladybug?” Her breath was coming faster and even shallower than before.
“Are we watched?” She took a couple of breaths. “Any cameras?”
“No. Ladybug, what’s wrong?” His heart clenched.
She reached out to brace against the wall, but was more than an arm’s length from it. Cat Noir caught her as she started to fall. He lowered her to the gravelly rooftop, leaning her up against the shed wall.
Ladybug winced in pain. “Cat Noir…I need you to…do something…for me…” She paused to catch her breath. “I was hurt…before the akuma attack…the miraculous helped…but I need…a doctor…”
Cat Noir was horrified; what could have happened to her? “I can get you to the hospital, but how will we explain-“
Her hand on his arm stopped him. ”No, this is…more important…I need you to…take my miraculous…back to Master Fu…He needs to…find another Ladybug…”
Cat Noir shook his head- this couldn’t be happening. “No- you’re not-“ She couldn’t be- his mind wouldn’t complete the thought.
But Ladybug seemed to know what he was thinking anyway. She gave him a pained, short smile. ”I’ll be okay, Cat…just not for awhile…Hawkmoth won’t wait…Paris needs a Ladybug…” Her eyes were glazing over a little, and her earrings beeped again. ”Tikki will explain…everything…promise me…please, kitty…”
Cat Noir flinched and his insides twisted. She was fading, right in front of him, and she was more concerned about Paris than herself. He couldn’t say no- not for her or for Paris. “All right, I will. After you go to the hospital!”
Her smile was weak, but there. “Deal…sorry to have to…show you…who I am…this way…”
“Don’t worry about it.” Cat Noir picked up the purse where Ladybug had dropped it, and put it in her lap. “And don’t worry about this, either. I’ll take care of everything.”
“Not worried…about that…” Her smile got a little wider, and her eyes closed. She whispered, “Spots off.”
A pink surge of energy raced around Ladybug, and Cat Noir stared in disbelief and shock. Disbelief because…it was Marinette in front of him. Ladybug- is Marinette? Now some things about her words to Lila made a whole lot more- and less- sense.
The shock was for the clear damage she’d taken. Her mask had covered a livid bruise across the bridge of her nose and under one eye; there was another spectacular example across her collarbone and extending under her jacket, and her forearms and shins had other bruises. From her breathing, Cat Noir was willing to bet she had at least one more bad one across the ribs. Her eyes were open again, but not really focusing on him or anything else, which told him she might have a head injury too. “Marinette?”
She ignored him for a second, slowly raising her hands to her ears and speaking to her kwami- Tikki? “Tikki, go with… Cat Noir please…tell Master Fu…what happened…” She got her earrings loose, wrapped them in a handkerchief she pulled from her purse, and handed them to Cat Noir. “Keep those safe…”
Cat Noir didn’t think his front pocket was the safest place for anything that needed to be hidden- the suit was too tight for that. However, the one in the back was under his staff and could keep the small package hidden, so he put it there. Marinette was handing her kwami a cookie from the purse with a shaky hand. He cleared his throat. “Marinette?”
Marinette didn’t respond, so Cat Noir took her face in his hands, forcing her to look at him. “You still need to get to the hospital. St. Jeanne’s isn’t far from here; can you hold on until we get there?”
She blinked at him dazedly. “I can try…”
Tikki flew up and hid in his hair behind his right ear. Cat Noir picked Marinette up off the rooftop, her arms around his neck. She winced at every step as he bounded away over the rooftops.
Marinette lost her battle to stay conscious about halfway to the hospital. Cat Noir felt her grip slacken, then her arms fell limply down and her head lolled. Cat Noir stopped and set her down across his lap, calling her name; she didn’t react at all. On the one hand, her passing out scared him even more than he already was; on the other, at least now she wouldn’t be jolted with pain every time they landed. Cat Noir wondered how on earth was he going to explain this to the doctors without giving away Marinette’s superhero identity.
“Tell the truth,” squeaked a voice in his right ear.
Cat Noir jumped, startled. He’d forgotten that Tikki was there; he turned red as he realized he’d spoken his question out loud. “What do you mean?”
“Tell the doctors the truth- just not all of it.” Tikki flew out of hiding, and gave Cat Noir a serious look. “You found Marinette outside her school. Ladybug had to detransform, so you brought her in. And you don’t know what happened to her.”
Tikki was right- that was the truth. And every second he delayed was time Marinette needed to heal. Cat Noir readjusted his hold on her, supporting her head and tucking her arms in before standing up. He took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Tikki hid again, and said, “Lucky your hair’s so thick, Adrien.”
Cat Noir was so shocked he almost missed a step. “What- how do you-“
Tikki sighed. “You and Ladybug may have closed your eyes during the Dark Owl incident, but Plagg and I didn’t. We’ve known ever since.” She paused, then said quietly, “Not that we’d ever tell even if we could.”
Cat Noir’s mind whirled with the new information, but he shook his head to clear it. There were more important things to do first.
The emergency room doctor and nurses went straight to work on Marinette. An orderly started cutting her jacket off while a nurse waved a vial under her nose. Marinette came awake abruptly, tried to sit up, and fell back, gasping in pain.
“What’s her name?” the doctor asked Cat Noir, who was hovering in a corner out of the way.
“Marinette. Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”
The doctor turned back to her. “Marinette. Can you hear me? Can you tell me what happened?”
Marinette looked dazed. “What happened?” She blinked under the lights and closed her eyes. “Can’t…”
The doctor looked at Cat Noir, who shrugged. He knew the less he said, the better, but if Marinette really couldn’t remember how she got hurt…he didn’t want to think about what that could mean.
The doctor changed his questions. “Marinette.” She opened her eyes again. “Can you tell me what hurts?”
“My head…my side…all over…” She closed her eyes again.
The orderly had finished with Marinette’s jacket and was starting on the rest of her clothes. Cat Noir figured he should leave the room before the orderly got any further- if Marinette found out later, he wanted to honestly say he’d left before he saw too much.
A nurse followed Cat Noir into the waiting room, carrying Marinette’s purse and shoes. “Cat Noir- how are you doing?”
He hadn’t realized that anyone could tell how upset he was. He leaned against a wall, slumping a little. “I’m all right; it’s just-“ He didn’t want the nurse to guess that Marinette was Ladybug; he sighed, closing his eyes for a moment and choosing his words with care. “This is different from an akuma attack, you know? I can’t -” He found he couldn’t continue.
The nurse patted his arm. “Can’t just make everything okay for them, right?” Cat Noir nodded, relieved that the nurse had found a reason so he didn’t have to. She sighed, too. “We face that all the time here. Not everyone that comes through those doors is someone we can help.” She brightened. “But most are, with a little time and care. You did a good thing, bringing Miss Dupain-Cheng in.”
Cat Noir smiled a little. “You people are the real heroes.” He pushed away from the wall.
The nurse smiled too, then grew serious. “Can you tell us anything more about what happened?”
“No.” Cat Noir was distracted by a news report on the waiting room television about the akuma attack- Lila had been interviewed, and appeared to be relishing the attention. Nadja must have asked about the things Ladybug had said, because Lila was talking about Ladybug taking the purse.
“I don’t know why Ladybug didn’t believe me,” Lila was saying, with a slightly sad smile and wide eyes. “Marinette has been my friend since I came to school. It’s just so sad that she had a family emergency today, and had to leave school for a while.”
Cat Noir narrowed his eyes; the nurse looked from him to the television and back. “Do you think that girl knows something?” she asked Cat Noir.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he said grimly.
The nurse nodded. “I’ll make sure her injuries are documented- just in case.” She turned to a worker at the emergency room admittance desk and began to speak quietly to him.
Suddenly the purse rang, sounding like an old-fashioned phone. The nurse reached inside and pulled out Marinette’s cell phone, which had the name “Maman” under the alert. The nurse handed it to Cat Noir, who gave her a ‘what am I supposed to do with this?’ look. But he couldn’t just let it go to voicemail- Marinette’s parents needed to know where she was.
He tapped the accept. “Mrs. Dupain-Cheng?”
“Who is this, and how did you get my daughter’s phone?!?”
“It’s Cat Noir. Mrs. Dupain-Cheng- Marinette’s in the emergency room at St. Jeanne’s. You and your husband should come as soon as you can.”
He heard a gasp on the other end of the line. “Oh no- is she-“
“She’s injured; I don’t know how badly or what happened to her.”
Mrs. Dupain-Cheng sounded upset. “Nadja called because someone told her Marinette was out of town, but she knew Marinette was supposed to babysit her daughter tonight. I was trying to find out- what could have happened to her?”
Cat Noir had turned on the speakerphone as Marinette’s mom spoke, and now the nurse took over. “She doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger, but she is badly hurt. We need your permission to conduct some tests. Can you come as soon as possible?”
Cat Noir took this as his cue to leave. Marinette was in good hands, and much as he wanted to stay with his lady, he- or his other self- was already going to be missed. Besides, he had a promise to keep. He handed the phone to the nurse and left the emergency room. Vaulting to the rooftops, he headed back to the fashion house as fast as he could.
Tikki squeaked in his ear again. “I need to direct you to Master Fu’s place.”
“We can’t go there yet. I- Adrien- have to get back to the Agreste fashion house before people ask too many questions. We’ll go to Master Fu’s as soon as my schedule allows.”
Tikki made an unhappy noise. “I don’t like this- but you’re right. There’s no point in being careless.”
Back at the fashion house, Cat Noir snuck in through the ventilation hatch he had used to leave in the first place. He detransformed in the men’s room, gave Plagg a chunk of camembert, and had Plagg and Tikki both hide in his shirt. Adrien checked his jeans’ back pocket to make sure the handkerchief was still there, and then headed out.
As he exited the bathroom, Nathalie…well, didn’t pounce, but the next best thing for someone who rarely showed any feeling. “Adrien. Where have you been?”
Adrien gave her what he hoped was a sheepish grin and scratched the back of his head. “Right now, or most of the afternoon?”
Her look was forbidding. “Adrien…”
“I was hiding during the akuma attack, but I didn’t know when it was safe to come out, and then, well…” He shrugged and glanced toward the bathroom door.
Nathalie sighed. “We are out of time for the rest of your fittings for the Gala today; we will have to reschedule for tomorrow. You need to get back to school for your last class and fencing lessons.” She moved away.
Adrien took a deep breath. How could he concentrate on school now? He moved to follow, stopping by the fitting area to pick up his school bag.
In the car, Nathalie reminded him, “Remember to be sure to speak to Miss Dupain-Cheng. We really do need an answer as soon as possible.”
Adrien’s insides twisted, but he put on a smile. “As soon as I see her, Nathalie.”
Walking into the school, Adrien felt a jerk on his sleeve.
“Come over here, right now.” Alya pulled Adrien over to the corner of the courtyard, where Nino was waiting. Both of them had worried expressions.
“Dude, have you seen Marinette?” asked Nino.
Oh, boy . Adrien shook his head. “I haven’t been here, remember? I asked you to make sure she stayed for me to talk to this afternoon?”
Alya looked nervous. “Well…no one’s seen her since Lila was akumatized. Chloe said she left school to go home, but she’s not answering my texts and no one’s picking up at the bakery. I don’t know what to think anymore.”
Nino touched Alya’s shoulder. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Lila’s theory.”
“What else could it be? Marinette disappears all the time, and only when there are akuma attacks. It’s got to be true-but it can’t be-“
Adrien’s heart lurched. Had Alya- or Lila- guessed that Marinette was Ladybug? “What theory? What are you talking about?”