The sky was still dark, when Adrien woke up before his alarm. He felt relaxed and energized at the same time. This was it! The beginning of a new Adrien. He would be the friend Marinette needed him to be.
Rolling out of bed, Adrien fell to the floor and started his morning routine of pushups, sit-ups and squats. Push-ups first.
Lila was changing her tactics, covering her tracks. Instead of outlandish lies and playing the victim, she was playing the master manipulator. And she already had Marinette on the defensive.
…twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven,… Adrien could feel his shoulder muscles start to warm up.
Lila might have reached to high, though. A sugar daddy? Marinette? Was she forgetting that some of her classmates had been friends with Marinette since grade school? Adrien smiled when he remember Nino doubting the rumor. Plus, there must be an easy way to fact check. How many sugar daddy sites could there be? Maybe he could ask Max, or Alya to look for him. You know, out of concern for their friend.
Adrien flipped over and started his sit-ups.
Marinette needed to know she wasn’t in this alone anymore. Together, they could watch Lila more closely, share notes, discuss strategies. And if she needed to vent, he could be there to listen.
Adrien paused at the top of his sit-up and hugged his knees. If she needed to cry, he could be there too, as Adrien. He inhaled deeply. He could be the friend she needed all along. While getting her ungrounded was a good first step, he needed to do more. Even if his classmates didn’t believe the sugar daddy story, they still saw the mark on Marinette’s neck. Naturally, there would be rumors and speculation.
Adrien started his sit-ups again …thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three,..
Thankfully, he knew Marinette would never out Chat Noir. Still… It might be fun. Adrien smiled imagining his classmates reactions. Rose would be all for it. Alya would demand an interview for the Ladyblog. The guys would give her a round fist bumps. Hmm,.. maybe its not a bad idea.
Adrien finished his set and lay on his back. No, he sighed. If word ever got back to Hawkmoth that Marinette was connected to Chat, it would be dangerous for her and her family. He couldn’t do that to her, to them. Adrien sighed as he remembered Sabine’s warm arms holding him. He wasn’t expecting that. Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure what he was expecting. Sure as hell wasn’t a hug though.
Maybe he could convince Marinette to tell everyone it was him. Adrien. He blushed at the thought. Why not? Her parents already thought that. He’d have to think of a way to explain how he got out of his house. But that didn’t seem to hard. Though, Kagami wouldn’t like it. She had been waiting patiently for him to get his act together. So, he would have to explain himself carefully.
He groaned. How could he explain it to her? He could barely explain it too himself. The truth was just far too messy. Was there an explanation that even made sense? Even now? Much less once you removed Lila, his love for Ladybug, and a trouble-making kwami?
He smiled over at Plagg sleeping on his pillow. While he would never go so far as to thank his tiny friend, maybe this was the push he needed. The catalyst to push him into action. Starting today, he was a brand new Adrien!
Adrien stood up and stretched, then he began his squats. Things will get better, Marinette. You’ll see. We’re a team now. We can do it. You and me against the world!
Adrien was tapping his foot nervously as he sat alone in Ms. Bustier’s classroom. Should he have waited for Marinette in front of the school? Maybe he should have picked her up from her house? No. Probably best to avoid Tom and Sabine for awhile. He didn’t want to to come on to strong either. Marinette was skittish on the best of days, and Adrien didn’t want to overwhelm her. Maybe he should have texted her? Did she have her phone back by now? Had Sabine told her what he did? Adrien looked over at the clock, then double checked his phone for the time.
“Relax, Adrien, you just saw her yesterday.” Came a tiny voice from his bag. “I still don’t see why we had to get here early. It’s not like Marinette is ever early.”
“I couldn’t relax at home.” He answered. While true, the nervous energy he felt at home paled to what he felt now.
One by one, his classmates walked into the room. Adrien greeted them cheerfully. He put in his headphones and pretended to listen to music, even closing his eyes and tapping an imaginary beat. First step in Operation Stop Lila: Assess the Damage. Adrien was listening to their conversations, straining his ears for any talk of sugar daddies, Lila, or Marinette. To his classmates’ credit, they seemed to be more concerned with their own lives than spreading gossip.
Adrien leaned back against his seat. Still, who knows how long they stayed in the courtyard after Lila pulled off Marinette’s scarf. Or what they texted each other later that night.
At 5 minutes till, Nino and Alya walked into class. And then,.. Marinette. Dear Sweet Marinette. Rather than a scarf, Marinette wore a high collared Mandarin blouse. The shinny fabric was a teal blue that practically matched her eyes. She looks really pretty. Marinette should wear blue more often
“Good morning, Marinette!” Adrien called out excitedly, far louder than he meant too.
“Morning, Adrien,” she said with a polite smile before sitting down and taking out her phone.
Crap. He was so excited to see her, he forgot to work on anything to say.
“Good morning to you too, Dude.” Greeted Nino as he sat down. “Too much coffee this morning?”
“Something like that,” Adrien slouched in his seat. Stupid Stupid.
“Hey, girl. You got your phone back! You ungrounded then?” He heard Alya ask Marinette behind him. Adrien began pretend tapping his fingers in rhythm. He really wanted to hear this conversation. Adrien’s leg twitched nervously.
“Yeah, Mom gave it too me last night.” Even with his back to them, Adrien could tell by her voice that she was smiling.
“Sooooo,” Alya scooted in closer. “who is your mystery man?” She teased.
“No one.” Marinette replied flatly.
“Come on!” Alya complained. “It can’t be any worse than what people are saying around the school!”
Adrien cringed. Maybe he gave his classmates too much credit. Or Lila could have already talked to other classes.
“People are…?” Marinette groaned, then took a deep breath. “Its private.”
“Really Marinette! After all the listening I did with” Alya lowered her voice, “you know who, and all the sudden your holding out on me.”
“I’m not holding out!” Marinette defended. “Its just really complicated.” Her voice sounded strained.
Adrien, couldn’t see them, but he could feel Alya’s glare. Even when it wasn’t on him.
“Ugh. Fine! Be that way.” Alya reached forward and tapped Adrien’s shoulder. He jumped, startled. “Adrien, would you mind letting me partner with Nino today? I want to sit next to someone who talks to me.”
“Sure, Alya.” Adrien grabbed his bag and headed toward Alya’s seat. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise? He would have all class to talk to Marinette.
“Hey.” Adrien greeted.
“Hey.” She didn’t look up. Marinette just stared at the desk in front of her.
You can do it Agreste. “I see you got your phone back.” Adrien gave her his brightest smile, but she didn’t look at him.
“Yeah,…” She stated softly. Were those tears in her eyes? Having Alya leave like that must have really bothered her.
“I hate to see you and Alya fight, I’m sure she’ll come around.” Adrien offered, voice full of hope.
“She has ever other time...” Marinette slumped forward, resting her chin on her forearms, “but I think she’s wearing down.”
“I’d help anyway I could.” Adrien offered.
“Um,.. Sure.” She said, still gazing ahead.
“You look very pretty today. Blue is a good color on you.”
He wasn’t sure she heard him, after several awkward moments Marinette uttered a quiet “thank you,” almost automatically.
Adrien wiped his sweaty palms on his pant leg. Okay, here goes,...
“Marinette? I... um, never got a chance to apologize. For Lila.”
Marinette stiffened, sitting up.
“I didn’t think she’d… I never thought she’d,..."
“Don’t.” Marinette quickly replied. She took a shaky breathe and gazed up to the ceiling. “Adrien. I can’t do this now.”
“But, If you let me...”
“Please,..” Marinette interrupted. She turned towards him, eyes wet and red, “I can’t,” she whispered before looking away.
“It’s just,... You’re a kind person, Marinette. I hate to see bad things happen to you.”
Marinette inhaled deeply, then seemed to stop breathing entirely.
“So, umm. If you ever need to talk. About anything. I’m,... I’m a good listener.” Damn! He was losing her.
“Or we could do lunch sometime?” Adrien knew he was reaching here. “Or play some Mecha Strike Three? Max just told me that he thinks the final version of,..”
“Look,” Marinette stated firmly, wiping her eyes before any tears fell. “I appreciate what you are trying to do.”
Really? Because at this point, I have no idea what I’m trying to do.
“You don’t need to feel bad for yesterday, okay?” She sniffled and wiped her nose on her forearm. “I walked into Lila trap, she got me good. End of story.”
Marinette took a deep breath, and closed her eyes.
“It’s nobody’s fault but Lila’s “
“I,... I just want to help.” Adrien knew he sounded pathetic.
She paused for another moment before she spoke again. “Thank you, Adrien, you are very sweet.” Marinette’s eyes met his for the briefest of moments, “...but I don’t think you can help.”
A wave of icy shock descended on Adrien. It never occurred to him that she might reject his offer of help. She thinks you’re useless, remember? Coward! Adrien found himself staring up at the lights, desperately willing himself not to cry.
“And,...” Marinette fumbled with her hands, “You probably shouldn’t be seen talking with me right now.”
Fencing practice ran late and it was already dark when Adrien arrived home. He felt empty. Dejected. After their initial conversation, he didn’t speak to Marinette anymore. Then again, she barely spoke today,... to anybody. And people seem to be avoiding her too. Although people stared and whispered, no one approached Marinette.
It tore at his very soul and made him feel sick to see his friend so isolated and lonely. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! He was supposed to be there for her. Today was going to be the start of a brand new Adrien.
Adrien cringed at the memory of his earlier enthusiasm. With his head hung low, he walked through the entrance and into the foyer of the mansion.
Natalie met him at the bottom of the stairs. When he approached, she held out a folder. “Adrien, here is your revised training schedule, as well as a detailed fluid restriction protocol for Sunday mornings’s photoshoot.”
Adrien growled, this again? “Is he home?” He asked, not caring if sounded annoyed.
Nathalie nodded. Adrien grabbed the folder and headed into his fathers study. He swung open the doors without knocking.
“Father! I can’t go on water restriction! I have a fencing tournament Saturday, the team is counting on me.” Adrien yelled across the room at his father. Gabriel was standing at his tablet, fingers moving across the screen. He briefly glanced at Adrien before speaking.
“Since the point of the protocol is reducing fluid in the skin to reveal muscle tone, I see no problem. It may enhance the desired effect.” Gabriel responded drying, not looking up from his screen.
“I get weak and dizzy. I’ll barely be able to hold my saber.” Adrien complained, glaring at his father.
“I’m sure you’ll manage.”
“Why do I have to go on protocol anyways?” Adrien demanded. “It’s November, we should have months before we start swimwear.”
“The esthetic Vincent is going for is sensual in concept. You won’t be shirtless but several shots will require an unbuttoned shirt. Your abdominals will be heavily featured.”
“When you say ‘sensual’?” Adrien filled with dread. “The shoot isn’t with Lila, is it?”
“Miss Rossi will be there, yes, as she is becoming the female face of our brand. It that a problem?”
“Yes!” Adrien answered forcefully. Okay, this was it! It was time his father knew. If Lila wasn’t keeping her end of the bargain, then he was done being her friend. He’d make her regret going after Marinette again. Adrien took a deep breath.
“Father, Lila lies, manipulates, and hurts people.” He told his father.
“And?” Gabriel asked, disinterested.
“She’s a terrible person!” Adrien yelled. Finally, he was able to say it.
Gabriel finally looked up from his design tablet, and frown at his son. “Adrien, you are idealistic, just like your mother. But unlike Emilee, you are also naive.” Gabriel turned back to the glowing screen in front of him. “Ms. Rossi has a certain intelligence that will benefit her greatly in life. Her talents will help her succeed in her goals, whatever they may be.”
“Father, if you only knew what she is...” Adrien pleaded.
“She is a driven, self-motivated and very resourceful. She will no doubt go far.”
“She hurts my friends!”
“That is not my problem. Nor is it yours. Perhaps you need stronger friends.” Gabriel paused for a moment to draw something on his tablet. “The weak-willed always suffer from the ambitions of the strong.”
Adrien stared at his father in disbelief. Marinette was not weak-willed! She was one of strongest girls he knew, next to this lady. And she was suffering, silently, for something that was Adrien’s fault.
“I hope this won’t be a problem on Sunday.” Gabriel added.
Suddenly, Adrien couldn’t breathe. He watched his father tap away at the screen. Pure, red-hot anger courses through his veins. He balled his hands in fists.
“I don’t want her to touch me.” Adrien growled though clenched teeth.
“Speak up if you want me to hear you.” Gabriel chided.
“I said, I don’t want Lila to touch me!” Adrien felt himself tremble as he glared at his father.
Gabriel looked up to meet his eyes. “You don’t have a choice. Its your job.”
After a few seconds of eye contact, Gabriel looked back to his tablet. “Now, if you’re finished with this tantrum, I believe you have piano to practice.”
Adrien spent the next few hours pounding his fingers against the piano. He bitterly thanked Chopin for composing the glorious clusterfuck that is Revolutionary Etude. Adrien played until the pads of his fingers hurt. The tendons in his hands ached and protested as he pounded the song’s greedy octaves, scales, and crescendos. His back and forearms were binding up, but Adrien welcomed the pain. No, not welcomed, he craved it. He needed it. He desperately needed to feel something other than overwhelming guilt, disgust and despair that consumed him.
The tears had stopped an hour ago, but Adrien suspected that was due to dehydration more than anything. Just getting started on that protocol early, Dad.
Plagg watched him with sympathetic eyes from the top of the piano. Normally, the little god watched TV or browsed the internet while Adrien practiced. But now, he wasn’t leaving his side. They hadn’t talked since Adrien confronted his father, and for that, Adrien was grateful.
Adrien would look up occasionally, half expecting to see a little black butterfly. But one never came. It surprised him actually, given the intensity of misery he was feeling at the moment. No, he sighed. Hawkmoth could probably tell I’d be useless. He wasn’t even worth akumatizing. Adrien wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved by the thought.
“Adrien?" He looked up to see his kwami offering a glass of water. “If you feel up for it, its time for patrol.”
Several minutes later, Chat landed on the roof of the night’s meetup location. The Arc de Triomphe was a good central location, they used it often. Tonight, Ladybug had arrived first. Chat saw her nervously pacing and twisting her hands. Once she saw him, Ladybug waved and smiled brightly. When he walked closer her face fell immediately, “Chat, what’s wrong?”
Ladybug moved to look at him closely. “Hey, Are you okay?” She asked, her voice full of concern.
“Not really” he responded dryly.
“Wanna talk about?”
“We can’t know anything about each other, right?” Chat practically spat.
Ladybug stepped backwards at the unexpected venom in his voice. “Chat, I’m worried. You’re obviously upset. I just want to help.” Ladybug walked over and sat on the edge of the roof, overlooking the city. She patted the empty spot beside her. Chat reluctantly headed over and took a seat.
“Don’t use names or specifics.” Ladybug explained. Chat remained silent, staring off into the night sky. “You know,…” Ladybug nudged him,“people say cats are good listeners, but have they ever tried talking to a ladybug?” She teased playfully, trying to lighten the mood.
What could he say? It’s not like many teenagers had to deal with his types of problems. My father says I have to let a beautiful girl touch me, even when it revolts me to my core. I’m only allowed a half liter of water 48 hours before a freezing cold photoshoot. Oh, and my friend is hurting, it’s my fault, and she doesn’t want my help.
Chat sighed. Talking about Lila and the photoshoot were right out. He couldn’t bare the thought his lady knowing about Lila’s touches anyway. He didn’t want her to be disappointed in him, the way Marinette was. The thought sickened him. And how to explain the situation that night at Marinette’s? What would his lady think of him compromising his identity like that? But still, Ladybug could tell he was upset, he had to tell her something.
“Give me a moment,” Chat took a deep breath. He was carefully choosing his words, trying to be as vague as possible. Here goes nothing…
“I’m not the friend I thought I was.” He admitted sadly. “I’ve made poor choices and my actions have hurt” Chat thought for a moment. “are still hurting someone. There is absolutely nothing I can do to make it right”
“Oh,” Ladybug responded, thoughtfully. Chat watched her purse her lips together. He could tell she was thinking carefully about what to say next.
“And your friend, does she...?” Ladybug finally spoke.
“She?” Chat interrupted. “I never said.”
“I kind assumed.” Ladybug gave him a wink and playfully bumped his shoulder. Great. She thinks I need love advice.
“It’s not like that! We’re just friends, good friends, kinda, I dunno. It’s complicated.” Chat sighed. “She loved me once. She’s so sweet, and honest, and good. And she’s clever and resourceful.”
Chat half smiled. “She reminds me a bit if you in fact.” That seemed to make Ladybug uncomfortable.
He cleared his throat. “But, she needed me to be there for her, and I wasn’t. And, now I can’t,... I can’t fix it!” How could he explain?
Chat held up his right hand and gazed at his ring. “I don’t need a super power, I destroy everything I touch anyway.”
“Hey,” Ladybug tried to get him to look at her. “I’m sure it’s not so bad. Have you talked to your friend?” She asked.
“She doesn’t want to talk to me.” Chat muttered.
“How do you know?”
“Come on, Chat.” Ladybug urged sweetly. “You need to stop torturing yourself, you’re a good person. I’m sure whatever happened, your friend had a part in it too.”
“What?” Chat starred back at her wide-eyed.
“You said you made some poor choices, but your friend probably made some as well. Complex situations are seldom one-sided.” Ladybug explained. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Chat could just stare at her dumbly, mouth open.
“You are good, and brave, and kind.” Ladybug continued. “Whatever you think you did, it can’t be that bad. Maybe your friend should have behaved differently? You shouldn’t bare all the blame, here. It probably wasn’t even your fault.”
“Are you saying it’s her fault?”
“Um, well, Maybe?”
“No!” Suddenly, He was on his feet. Ladybug was beside him a moment later. Chat stared at her horrified. How dare she try to blame Marinette, she was the victim in this! What? Marinette should have acted differently? Maybe she shouldn’t have been so weak-willed? Adrien’s father’s words burned in his mind.
“Hey, Kitty, look at me. Please?” Ladybug hands were reaching for him, as if she was approaching a feral animal. “I know you, and you would never...”
Chat swatted her hands away. “You don’t know me!” He shouted, disgusted. Chat backed away from her slowly, staring at her as if he never seen her before.
“...and you don’t know her.” Chat’s voiced cracked.
Ladybug stood motionless, mouth agape, with a face of pure shock. She watched silently as Chat walked backwards to the edge of the roof.
“I don’t feel up for patrolling tonight.” Chat stepped off the edge, and took off into the night.
Adrien dropped his transformation and stood motionless in the middle of his cavernous bedroom. A strange calmness flowed through him. He wasn’t mad anymore. Even though, he knew he should be. The love of his life just implied Marinette deserved what has been happening to her. He should be angry. Furious. But he was just.... nothing.
“Adrien, Adrien? Are you okay? Adrien? You’re worrying me here.” Plagg was flying around, panicky.
Adrien stared at his friend with emotionless eyes.
“I’m fine.” He stated calmly.
“Wait right here,” Plagg instructed, “let me go talk to Tikki, there’s an easy way to fix this, if we just...”
“Nothing needs fixed, Plagg,” Adrien interrupted. “it’s okay.”
“Okay?” The tiny god threw up his hands in disbelief. “The black cat and ladybug miraculous need to be able to work together! If you can’t...”
“I can work with her.”
“I’m not mad.”
“I’m not anything anymore, just… just tired.” Adrien saw the confusion in Plagg’s eye, so he continued.
“Yes, after she said those thing about Marinette, I was angry. But now, I feel... nothing.”
Adrien looked around his dark room. The ambient light of the Paris sky was enough to illuminate it features. The rock wall, the basketball hoop, the foosball table. There were a lot of memories in that room. From playing the piano with his mother, to watching movies with Plagg, to the amazing, but ill-fated party his friends threw him. Every surface held a memory, held an emotion.
Or, they used to. But now, they held nothing. They were things. Just dead emotionless things.
Adrien walked over to his computer. He tapped the keyboard to wake it up. His three monitors displayed three identical images of his mother. He gazed into her still unmoving, frozen-in-time-forever, empty eyes. There was no sadness, no warmth, just... nothing.
Adrien sat down in his chair and began clicking through menus.
“Adrien?” Plagg asked, concerned. “it says all data will be lost. This action cannot be undone.”
“Yeah,” responded Adrien blandly.
Reaching into his pocket, Adrien pulled out his phone. He thumbed through the settings until he found what he was looking for. With one click of his finger, everything was restored to factory default. He tossed his phone on his desk.
Adrien walked to his closet as Plagg followed silently. He found a duffle bag that he used for fencing gear, and threw it on the ground. Adrien looked for anything and everything that wasn’t Gabriel brand. A few shirts, some jeans, a hoodie. Unfortunately, all of his socks and underwear bore his father’s designer logo, there was no way around that.
Adrien paused as he grabbed a handful of handkerchiefs from his drawer. There, under the neatly stacked handkerchiefs, lay two matching lucky charms. Well, not really matching, not anymore. Adrien had pieced together the bracelet Marinette had broken that night. Sadly, the cracked and scuffed charms he couldn’t fix. And even with a new string, the charm looked tattered. Broken.
Adrien grabbed them both and inspected them in his palm. He should feel something. Anything. These were important to him. But Adrien could only stare at them, unfeeling. Tonight, they were just stupid glass and ceramic beads.
Still, it was a piece of Marinette, he thought as he shoved them into his pocket. Adrien took a deep breath. Even if he couldn’t help her, he could at least not be around to hurt her anymore.
“Plagg?” He asked, zipping up the duffle bag. “Up for breaking into a safe?
“Oh!!” Plagg was suddenly in front of him “Diamonds, jewels, gold bars, stacks of cash!?” He responded excitedly.
“Just my passport and birth certificate,” Adrien stated coldly. “I don’t want his money.”
“Passport? Are we going somewhere?” Plagg asked grinning.
“Anywhere but here.”