She had barely made it to the rooftops before a hole opened up in the sky.
“Bunnix?” she managed, gaping, as the older version of Alix emerged from the portal. “What are—”
“No time!” she said, somewhat paradoxically, ushering Ladybug into the portal. “Come with me, quick! You have to fix this!”
“Fix wh—whoa!” said Ladybug, stumbling into the burrow. She listened to Alix with half an ear, mostly absorbed in the windows through time. “Wow!”
“Focus!” said Alix, snapping in front of her eyes. She produced a bowl from somewhere, using it as a makeshift blindfold. “You can’t look at any of this. You could mess up the timeline.”
“Right,” she said sheepishly. “What am I fixing?”
Alix led her, still blindfolded, through one of the windows. She kept her eyes closed, determined not to see something she wasn’t supposed to, until Alix gently removed the bowl from her head, and revealed—
The whole world was green. They were in an area she barely recognized as Montparnasse, skyscrapers held together by twisting trees like banyan vines made of steel and glass. The air was muggy and hot around her, uncomfortable even in her suit, and below them…
Below them, Paris was gone.
“What happened?” she gasped. Alix shook her head, grim, and pointed down, to the forest below. She could just make out the outline of the Seine through the canopy.
“I have to go,” said Alix, waving her suddenly-incorporeal hand through her face as explanation and stepping back towards her burrow. “Please, Minibug, fix this.”
The burrow closed, replaced by miles of green.
For a jungle, it was deathly silent. She wrapped her yoyo around a branch, rappelling down the side of the building and contemplating the uneasy stillness. She hadn’t been to many jungles, true, but—there should be noise, right? Bird calls, the drone of insects, leaves rustling as wildlife stampeded through. But all she could hear was the creaking of wood and her own feet tapping off the side of cracked windows.
Whatever Alix wanted her to find, it was down there somewhere.
She slowed her descent as she breeched the canopy, landing on one of the highest branches that could support her weight to scout out what she was dealing with. Hopefully Alix would be back with Chat Noir soon; whatever this was about, it wouldn’t be easy.
Huge furrows and craters lined the forest floor, like an animal had been digging in a frenzy only to become distracted and begin again. Some of the shorter trees had been ripped up, and a few larger ones had strange pockmarks at their bases.
She slid the rest of the way to the ground, carefully inspecting the bole of an especially huge tree, holding her fist out to compare heights.
Someone had punched a tree the size of a building into woodchips.
She looked up sharply at the sound of shifting dirt, dropping into a crouch on instinct alone.
Slowly, as slowly as she dared, she crept across the uneven ground, careful not to disturb what few leaves remained. The dirt was strangely bare of them, as if the leaves hadn’t had a chance to fall beyond whatever fresh ones had been knocked loose by a superpowered blow.
Someone was digging.
Frantically, but methodically, dirt was being hurled backwards out of a gaping hole in the earth. Ladybug inched nearer, craning her neck to see who—or what—was creating this strange, pocketed landscape.
It was a human, or least shaped like one. Dressed mostly in black, with black hair falling in a curtain in front of their face and no shovel in sight, whomever it was seemed to be digging by hand. Was it an akuma? Could they be reasoned with? What were they looking for?
Ladybug grimaced. If it was an akuma, she’d never find out what to break just watching them dig. From the way Alix had been acting, there probably wasn’t time to wait on Chat.
“Excuse me,” she called. The figure went rigid, hands curled into a loose approximation of claws as loam slid between its frozen fingers to the ground. “Who are you?”
The figure turned slowly, wiping their hair out of their face, and—
That was… her?
She had the same domino mask, though it too was stained black, and her hair was loose, but that was definitely her. There was a strange, sharp red hourglass splayed across her torso, partially obscured by mud.
“Ladybug,” she said, strangely emotionless. “I thought you might come. I am Black Widow.”
“But I—you—what happened?” Ladybug stammered, eyes skating over her, struggling to understand.
Black Widow laughed, high and cold. “What do you think happened? You ruined everything, and now you’re going to make it worse.”
Ladybug flinched back. “What?”
She climbed out of the hole she’d been digging, stomping over to Ladybug, who scrambled to her feet. “You. Ruined. Everything. If you had just—just listened to Chat, or Tikki, or your heart, we wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be—this.”
“Black Widow, what happened?” she asked desperately. “Where did the trees come from? How did you get akumatized?”
“I protected him,” she bit out. “He’s saved me so many times, and what did I ever—I never—”
Unexpectedly, she swiped at the air, and Ladybug had to dive to avoid being wrapped in the string of Black Widow’s yoyo.
“Get out of here!” she screamed at Ladybug, stamping her foot. “You can’t fix this! You can’t fix me!”
“Let me help you,” Ladybug pleaded. “I don’t—I don’t understand. Who did you protect?”
“Chat,” said Black Widow, mood shifting abruptly. She shrank in on herself, tears filling her eyes. “He was… I was trying to protect him.”
“I was trying to protect him. I can fix this myself. Get out of here, Ladybug.” Her mouth twisted unpleasantly around the name, like it had a bad taste. “I don’t want to look at the face of the one who killed him.”
“Killed—?” Ladybug started, breaking off when Black Widow unleashed another blow from her yoyo. She tumbled out of the way, barely safe, and had just rolled back to her feet when she was slammed against a tree trunk by a giant… chess piece?
“What?” she wheezed, wriggling free of the knight’s lance. “I thought your theme was spiders. What’s up with that?”
“I don’t need a theme,” said Black Widow. “I have all the powers of creation. Did you think only destruction could end the world? Everything exists in a delicate balance, and I,” she stepped forward, yoyo scything menacingly through the air, “upset it.”
“You can’t,” said Ladybug, glaring at her as she got back on her feet. “I’m you—you’ll die.”
“You’re not me,” said Black Widow curtly. “You’re an ignorant little bug that’s gotten herself wrapped in a spider’s web. You don’t even know who you’re in love with.”
“Yes I do!” Ladybug protested instantly. Not this again. She loved Adrien! Not Chat!
“You don’t know what it—what it feels like,” said Black Widow, arms wrapping around the hourglass on her stomach as if it were an open wound. “To be in love. To see his—his own father—”
“What are you talking about?” asked Ladybug, taking another step towards her, reaching automatically to comfort someone in pain. Black Widow didn’t look at her, eyes welling with tears again.
“I admired him. I thought—you think—he’s—he doesn’t deserve it,” she bit out as the tears began to overflow. Vines curled from the ground where they fell, and Ladybug took a step back. “His own son—and he knew—”
“Black Widow,” Ladybug said slowly, “Listen to me. You need to calm down. If you let me cleanse the akuma, we can fix all of this. We can—we can bring him back. We’ve done it before, right?”
“Not when it’s my fault,” moaned Black Widow, curling in on herself further. “Go away. I’m going to fix this myself, and if you try to stop me, I’ll—I’ll kill you.”
Ladybug blanched. “But I’m you,” she stressed again.
“If you die, then none of it will ever happen,” said Black Widow, finally looking up at her. “And—and if you cleanse the akuma, none of it will ever happen. So it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m going to fix it.”
She didn’t get more than a word out before the yoyo sliced towards her again, this time scattering a spray of blades that she only just managed to avoid. Tendrils of something red and threatening writhed from the ground like maggots, growing swiftly into pillars and vines that all seemed trained on her.
“Time out!” called Ladybug, running full tilt from the storm enveloping the trees behind her. “Time out time out time out!”
She tripped on something and went down hard, only to look up and find herself in the burrow, Alix and a confused-looking Chat Noir frowning down at her.
“My lady?” asked Chat, moving immediately to help her up.
“I should have figured,” said Alix, grimacing. “It’s always like this with you two. Do you know where the akuma is?”
“I—I think it’s in her yoyo,” said Ladybug, accepting her partner’s hand. “Chat, listen—how much did Bunnix tell you?”
“Purractically nothing,” he said, with an exaggerated shrug. She didn’t have it in her to pull her hand free just yet. “Just that you needed my help. That was enough for me!”
“Well—you might not be crazy about how,” said Ladybug, frowning to herself as she looked him over. There. He wasn’t dead. Maybe—maybe in Black Widow’s timeline, but—her Chat was okay. He was here. He was okay. “It seems I’ve been akumatized.”
“What?” gasped Chat, drawing back to look her over, hands resting on her shoulders as if searching for a butterfly. “But, Ladybug—”
“In an alternate timeline,” she said wearily. “Or at least, it had better be alternate. I kind of destroyed Paris.”
“What? What could have—why would you—”
“Oh, and apparently you’re dead!” she added, laughing a little hysterically. His hands tightened around her biceps, and a complicated play of emotions washed over his face. “So that’s—that’s going to be upsetting, for everyone.”
“How can I help?” he asked. His expression wasn’t something she’d call serious (Chat was never ‘serious’) but it was definitely determined. She could always count on him.
As long as he was alive.
“I… am not sure,” she said carefully, pulling him a little closer in spite of herself, arms snaking around his waist. “She won’t listen to me. She keeps… changing moods, changing subjects, until I’m not sure who she’s talking about anymore. I think maybe seeing you will help keep her focused long enough to be predictable.”
“Well, she could freak out and kill you.” Yeah, she was definitely getting hysterical. She thunked her forehead against Chat’s chest. “Promise you won’t let her kill you while you’re trying to think of a pickup line, okay?”
Good old Chat. His puns always did get worse when he was nervous.
“Are you not coming with me?” he asked gently, no expectation. She shook her head.
“I’m going to wait here in case… in case. Is that okay, Al—Bunnix?”
Alix shrugged wordlessly, the picture of stress.
“Time for Plan C,” said Chat, squaring his shoulders and pulling away from her, moving towards the window she’d tumbled out of. “The C is for cat.”
“The C is for Can’t Believe It’s Come to This,” muttered Alix as he joined the timeline in a ripple of magic, rubbing her temples. “Ladybug, put the bowl back on. No spoilers.”
Chat wasn’t sure what he had expected when Ladybug said she ‘destroyed Paris’, but this—wasn’t it.
A forest sprawled in front of him, with trees so huge he didn’t understand how they could support their own weight. Green curled from every surface, except long furrows in the earth and a series of blades embedded in a tree trunk, in a shape that suspiciously mirrored Ladybug’s own stature.
Nothing for it, then: Time to turn on the charm.
“My lady!” he called, swallowing back his apprehension, ready to run at the slightest sound. And there it was—a faint rustling in the bushes.
The akuma that was once Ladybug didn’t look especially menacing, as akuma went. No fangs or extra limbs, no furious scowl. She looked nice—pretty, even. Her hair was down, and her eyes were still that beautiful sky blue, and they were wide with apparent shock as she stumbled blindly towards him.
“Chat?” she asked, barely above a whisper. He grinned at her, going for reassuring.
“Ladybug,” he said warmly, raising his arms to fend off the inevitable blow.
He was still too slow to dodge when she hurled herself into him, having been expecting a yoyo, or perhaps one of those large knives she could apparently make on command.
She wrapped her arms around him, squeezing so hard he was briefly worried she was trying to snap him in half, her face buried in his chest. She was mumbling something unintelligible into his sternum.
“I didn’t quite catch that,” he said gently, allowing his arms to settle around her shoulders. This… wasn’t so bad, actually. He could always use a hug. Maybe she actually could be reasoned with. Ladybug was always the more rational member of their partnership.
“I thought I’d never see you again,” she said more clearly, looking up at him, and oh. She was crying. “I thought—I thought I—”
“My lady, it’s alright,” he said, as soft as he could. He rubbed her shoulder blade with the side of his thumb, careful not to catch his claws in her loose hair. “I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere, not now and not ever.”
When she loosened her grip, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe an attack, but she didn’t seem—aggressive. Just desperately sad and remorseful of what she’d done, however accidentally.
He wasn’t expecting her to grab his face and pull him into a kiss.
He definitely wasn’t expecting to like it.
His eyes closed almost automatically, leaning into her embrace. It shouldn’t feel good to kiss an akuma, right? They should have cold lips, or venomous spit, or something, but all he felt was warm and soft and she even smelled like Ladybug still. And she was cradling his jaw so gently, and it was everything he’d ever wanted, but—
But she needed his help.
Breaking away felt like coming up for air after being underwater. The humidity, which had been uncomfortable before, felt cold and bracing against his skin where he could feel a blush spreading over his cheeks. His eyelids were so heavy—and when he opened them and saw her face, it took everything he had not to just pull her into another kiss.
“Ladybug,” he managed, after he remembered how to speak. “We need to cleanse the akuma.”
Hurt flashed across her face, always so open, painting the tears still rolling down her cheeks in a different light. Chat ached to apologize, but—they needed to. They had to fix this. There would be time for kissing later.
“No,” she said, her hands trailing down his jaw, his neck, his shoulders, all the way down until their hands were joined. Chat shivered. “We need to fix this first.”
He cut himself off abruptly as she yanked on his ring, nearly getting it off his finger before he sprang back. Now it was his turn to be hurt.
“Ah,” he said, trying to smile the shock and betrayal away. “So it was just to distract me, huh? That’s fair. You always were great with plans.”
She wiped the tears off her face, but she still looked—broken. Like the world had ended.
Well. It sort of had.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said thickly. “I’ve been in love with you since practically the day we met.”
Chat blinked, stupidly.
“I’m from your future, remember?” she asked, laughing. She turned her face to the sky, as if she could keep the tears in her eyes with gravity alone. “We’re—we were dating.”
“Then—in the future, you—you love me back?” he heard himself ask, as though from far away.
“I told you,” she said, smiling at him, and he’d never seen a smile look so miserable before, “I already do. I’ve always loved you, Adrien.”
Chat stiffened, ears going flat against his head. He wanted to deny it, to protect his identity, but—
“Don’t you see?” she pleaded, stepping towards him. “If you cleanse the akuma, we’ll forget. I’ll forget who you are, all the time we spent together. I’ll forget about—about—”
She faltered, expression darkening as she seemed to be suddenly overcome with fury.
“I’ll forget about your father.”
“My father?” asked Chat. He’d been holding his breath. That probably wasn’t good for him. “Uh—what about my father?”
“Specifically? That I tried to kill him.”
“I mean, I guess technically I did kill him,” she said, perfectly casual under her scowl, as if she wasn’t pulling the world out from under him. “But that was—that was a mistake. If you want, we can bring him back too.”
“But why would you kill my father?” asked Chat. He felt a bit like he’d been clubbed over the head. “Why did—is that why you were akumatized? He made you angry…?”
Her scowl deepened, until her entire face was contorted with fury. “He made me a lot of things, yes, but—I wasn’t his target. I thought… I thought I could save you, for once.”
“You—Papillon was after me?” asked Chat, tail lashing. Ladybug had been right, she was so hard to keep up with when her mood changed. Whose target? His father’s, or Papillon’s?
“You were so scared, and he just—he just kept going,” she continued, ignoring him completely. “He kept trying to make you listen, and when you wouldn’t he tried to force you, and I couldn’t—I couldn’t just stand there and let him—”
“Ladybug,” he said, raising his hands pleadingly. “Slow down, who are you talking about? Papillon thought he could—”
“You’re always saving me,” she whispered, the fury abruptly melting off her face, and she just looked drained, now. “But I’m not Ladybug anymore, Chat. I’m Black Widow. It was my turn to save you.”
“Well, now it’s my turn again!” He stepped towards her, hands still raised, encouraged when she didn’t flinch away. “Please, my lady. You must be so tired. Let me help you.”
“You can’t,” she insisted. “Adrien, you can’t. You’ll be alone again—you’ll be stuck in that stupid house and—and—”
“And you’re alone right now,” he said, taking her hand in both of his. “Do you think I could leave you in this world to bear this weight alone? Come back with me. I found you once; I can do it again.”
“But everything—everything we had will be erased. I can’t let that happen, Chat. If you just give me your ring, I can fix it. I can put everything back how it was, and we’ll be together again, and I can tell you how sorry I am, and how much I love you—”
How could the sweetest words he’d ever heard hurt so much? He felt like he was being torn in two.
“Listen,” he said softly, clutching her hand tighter. “It’s like—it’s like a save file in a video game. Just because you erase it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You might not remember, but I will. I’ll remember everything you’ve told me, and I—I won’t be alone.” His voice cracked. “With your words to keep me safe? Never.”
“It’s not a save file,” she murmured, leaning her forehead against his chest, body swaying. “It’s my whole life, Chat. I’d be erased.”
“But if I give you the ring, what happens to me?”
She flinched against him, arms curling up between them. He dropped her hand to wrap his arms around her shoulders protectively.
“Right,” she said, as if just remembering. “It can only be one timeline. Only you or me.”
And if it were that easy, he would give himself up in a heartbeat. But all of Paris was at stake—all of the world, maybe. He didn’t have all of the information, but he had enough to know that he couldn’t throw his life away for once.
But how was he supposed to choose between everything he’d ever wanted and the whole world?
There was really only one way.
“It’s your decision, Ladybug. I trust you,” he murmured into her hair, holding her closer.
She took a deep, shuddering breath against him, then drew away, taking his hand.
The one with the ring.
Her face was running through expressions so quickly he couldn’t even begin to parse them, but a thread of agonizing guilt seemed to psuh through.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I trust you.”
“And it’ll get you killed if you aren’t careful.” She pressed her yoyo—sharper than her usual one, almost an hourglass itself—into his hand. “Alright, Chat Noir—go save me one more time. Just…”
She stared into his eyes for a long, searching moment, and he held his breath.
“Just remember that I love you, okay? Remember that you aren’t alone. You and I were made for each other.”
His throat suddenly too thick for words, he nodded.
“And tell Ladybug to beat up your dad, okay? He really, really deserves it.”
“I’m not going to do that, my lady,” he chuckled.
“I hope… I hope you find out differently, next time. What he’s like.” She turned her head away, expression shuttering off. “It’s selfish, but—I don’t think I should tell you. I don’t want to see that look on your face ever again.”
He crooked a finger under her chin, turning her face back towards his so she could see his smile.
“Thank you, Ladybug,” he said sincerely. “Thank you for saving me.”
“One yoyo, for the lucky lady in red,” said Chat’s voice.
Ladybug tore the bowl from her head, leaping to her feet. “Chat! Are you okay? Did she hurt you?”
“Only emotionally,” said Chat, with a big grin and a thumbs up. “Say, you never told me you were in love with me.”
“That’s because I’m not,” she groaned, taking the yoyo when he offered it. “Seriously, are you okay? You look…”
He looked like he’d been crying, but he didn’t have any noticeable bruising. Didn’t seem to be impaled on anything. No blood that she could see.
“Dashing? Debonair?” he asked, flexing, tail curling into a heart behind him.
“Better than I did, I guess,” she sighed. “Did you sneak up on her?”
“No. She gave it to me.”
“Oh my god,” muttered Alix, running a hand over her masked face. “You two are going to be the death of me.”
“She gave it to you?” Ladybug asked incredulously.
“It’s happened before! Nino’s little brother—” he started.
“She tried to turn me into an entomology project!”
“It must have been my irresistible charm and good looks,” said Chat, preening.
“I’m just glad you’re okay. I was really…” she trailed off, watching him pose theatrically. “I was really worried about you, Chat.”
He stopped, blinking in surprise, and gave her his softest, sincerest smile.
“Don’t worry, my lady,” he said. “I’m right here.”
“I guess I had better go take care of whatever started this in the first place before I cast the cure,” said Ladybug. She sighed to herself; she had a feeling she knew what that might be. “Are you going to be alright?”
“I am,” he said, nodding. She almost believed him, but the red rims of his eyes stood out against the green. As hard as it was for her to see that, it must have been even harder on him—he was in a future where he died, for crying out loud.
She threw her arms around him, just to feel the confirmation that he was there, and breathing. “Bien joue, Chaton,” she murmured into his chest.
He wrapped his arms around her, and she could hear the smile in his voice when he said, “Bien joue, my lady.”