"Did you see the new theory on the Ladyblog?"
"The one about Panthera?"
"Yeah! Think it's true?"
"Dunno man. Why would Ladybug switch partners all of a sudden?"
"Well, duh! 'Cause-"
The voices faded as Adrien's fencing teammates passed him on their way to the lockers. Knuckles white as he strangled the strap of his gym bag. Heart beating in his throat.
I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
Inhaling deeply through his nose, Adrien let his breath out slowly; grip relaxing.
He wasn't subscribed to the Ladyblog anymore. At first he just ignored it but after Panthera's appearance Alya had something concrete to speculate on. Her enthusiasm practically radiated through the screen, forming a pit in Adrien's stomach. It was too much.
Trying to shove such thoughts out of his head he hurried after his teammates.
Adrien landed on his back for the third time in a row. Despite having the wind knocked out of him, he barely registered it. His movements were sloppy, his mind unfocused and instead of the competitive drive that usually fueled his training Adrien felt... nothing. Not for fencing, at least.
"Way too predictable." Kagami tested her saber before stepping back to her side of the fencing strip.
Slowly, Adrien stood up again, setting his stance. He lunged, she evaded. Again she won and they started over. Never once did he score a hit throughout the entire practice.
As everyone else filed out of the locker room Adrien sat, shoulders slumped as he stared at nothing through his fencing mask.
"What's going on, Adrien?" Kagami stood in front of him, already changed. "I usually enjoy defeating you but it's no fun if you make it that easy."
I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
"Do you ever get the feeling that you're stuck, Kagami?" Father. "That... no matter what you do," Nathalie, "it's the same old story over and over again?" The Guardian. "That things will never, ever change?"
Surprise flickered in Kagami's eyes as Adrien removed his fencing mask. He stared at the floor, not expecting an answer, but still she took a seat beside him. Closing her eyes, Kagami took a moment to order her thoughts.
"Adrien. The biggest mistake a fencer can make isn't choosing the wrong technique, it's choosing the wrong target." Gently, she lifted his face to look him in the eye. "Change targets," she smiled softly.
Something sparked in Adrien's eyes and a small smile answered Kagami's. All this time Adrien had wasted energy on people who always wanted more. Trying his best to please them and still they found him lacking. Now, here was Kagami, who'd rejected the concept of second chances, giving him another. In spite of his abysmal performance in her greatest passion she didn't leave him.
Before he knew it Adrien's arms wrapped around her in a grateful embrace. Kagami stiffed at the sudden contact, arms tense and outstretched. Although Adrien's expression was obscured by his hair Kagami thought she knew what it was.
Slowly, awkwardly, she let her hands fall, relaxing her shoulders. Pink dusting her cheeks as Kagami returned his embrace. It was... nice.
Adrien grinned as he took the stairs in front of school two at a time. After going home yesterday, he thought about what Kagami said. Glancing around the courtyard Adrien spotted Alya and Nino sitting next to each other, Marinette walking up beside them.
If he was going to change targets then who better to ask for help than his friends?
"Dude!" Nino launched himself at Adrien and hugged him tight, causing them to stumble.
A grin spread across Adrien's face. "What? We just saw each other yesterday."
Releasing his hold to fix his cap, Nino muttered. "Well, it feels longer."
"You know I'd be the first one to call my boyfriend dramatic but he's got a point." Alya shrugged with her arms as Marinette nodded.
Smile slipping just a little Adrien pushed the guilt away. "I wanted your help with something."
"Anything bro, you name it!" Nino placed his hands on Adrien's shoulders, getting his full attention.
"You know I see Kagami a lot, right?"
Nino's brow furrowed as he thought. "The scary girl that beats you up all the time?"
Adrien chuckled. "She's not scary. Kagami just has trouble talking to people. So I thought, maybe we could invite her somewhere to meet everyone!"
"Uhhhh..." Nino's eyes flicked to something behind Adrien.
But when Adrien turned around it was just Alya cleaning her glasses.
"I mean, sure dude. If you think that's a good idea?"
"Really!?" Adrien beamed. "What do you think we should do?"
"The Ice Queen?" Marinette whispered.
"Huh?" Adrien turned around at the sound of her voice.
"Ice rink! Yeah, that's what I said, we should all go to the ice rink!" Marinette glanced nervously between Nino and Alya. Giving Adrien finger guns. "No better place to break the ice than the ice rink! Right!?"
"The ice rink." Adrien tapped his chin in thought. "Sounds fun! You think everyone else will be up for it?"
"Yeah, sure Adrien!" Alya smiled, glancing pointedly at Nino.
"That's great! I can't wait to go to the ice rink together!" Waving, Adrien practically sprinted to tell his classmates.
The voice silent for the first time in weeks.
"What just happened?" Alya glanced between Nino and Marinette.
"I think my bro just got our help on a friend date?"
Marinette groaned. "I can't believe I called her that to Adrien's face, er, back! What if he heard me?"
"Maybe Kagami isn't as uncool as you think she is, dudette. I mean, Adrien thinks she's totally legit." Nino removed his cap to scratch the top of his head.
"Yeah but he's also friends with Chloe," Alya pointed out. "... Actually, she's been less unbearable lately."
Nino gestured in a 'There see!' fashion.
Sighing, Alya leaned her head back on the bench. "You totally ignored my signals, by the way."
"Dude, Adrien wants to hang out!" Nino exclaimed. "You know I can't say no to that!"
Pulling her boyfriend back onto the bench with her, Alya wrapped an arm around Nino's shoulders. "Yeah, I know."
And she did. Nino spent more time than anyone with Adrien. Whenever Adrien couldn't make it, which recently was all the time, Nino talked to her about it.
Turning to look at Marinette, who was glancing at her purse, Alya asked. "You gonna be okay, girl?"
Marinette jumped but quickly recovered. "Oh! Uh, yeah. Adrien's only inviting her as friends, right? And everyone else is going to be there, too. So, it's not like they'll be alone together. Everything's fine!"
Everything was not fine. Marinette looked out at the Seine while Luka's melody filled the air. She didn't understand why she came here; the memory of Panthera was still fresh. Which made her think of Chat N- Which made her even more miserable.
"Do you feel kinda like this?" Luka continued the melancholy tune he played for her.
Yes, Marinette did feel that way. Adrien was so happy at the idea of introducing Kagami to their friends. Of spending more time with her. Even if it was only as friends, Adrien never invited anyone anywhere besides Nino.
Walking up beside her Luka switched into something more upbeat. "Personally, I think a girl like you deserves to feel more like this."
Sitting down, Marinette enjoyed the simple melody.
"And whoever made you feel this way is nothing but a-" Luka riffed on his guitar.
Giggling, Marinette covered her mouth. "Thanks Luka... Say, are you free tomorrow?"
"First one to skate around the rink wins!"
Alix and Kim took off at top speed.
"Your friends have a healthy competitive spirit, Adrien." Kagami's eyes followed the two racers as they sped up. Almost crashing into the skating instructor as they circled around him.
"Could do with a little less competitive spirit, if you know what I mean?" Nino interjected.
"If they require structure perhaps I could invite them to join the fencing team," Kagami suggested. "I find fencing serves as a great outlet for excess energy."
"Wouldn't hurt to give it another shot," Alya thought aloud. "D'Argencourt has tried to get those two interested without much luck, though."
"I am certain Adrien and I can be more persuasive."
Blinking, Adrien pointed at himself. "Me?"
"Would you not like to have more friends on the team?"
Surprise morphing into excitement Adrien nodded enthusiastically. Hurrying over with Kagami to where Kim was telling a smug Alix how he'll beat her next time.
"I have to admit," Alya leaned recklessly onto Nino's shoulder. "Sunshine is really earning back his nickname."
Nodding, Nino adjusted their course so they wouldn't bump into Ivan and Mylene. "I haven't seen my bro this thrilled in... Heck, I don't even know."
"She really makes him that happy, huh?"
Alya turned to see Marinette behind them, gazing dejectedly after Adrien. Luka resolutely by her side. Alya skated closer to comfort her best friend and-
"Hey, there! Name's Philippe! Would any of you be interested in professional skating lessons?"
Alya almost crashed into the skating instructor as he materialized between her and Marinette. "Uh, not right now. Marinette?" Catching a glimpse of Marinette disappearing into the exit Alya hurried after her. Leaving Nino and Luka to fend off the pestering instructor.
Adrien stared after them.
"It's great that your friend Kim will be joining us isn't it. Adrien?"
"Huh? Oh, right!" Adrien was brought back to himself by Kagami. "But he only agreed 'cause Alix said he'd flunk out during tryouts."
"Regardless, he agreed. And I am curious about these 'challenges' as he calls them." Kagami took on a faraway look as she imagined what someone as impulsive as Kim might consider a challenge.
Adrien smirked. "I don't know whether to be proud or worried."
Returning his smug expression with one of her own, Kagami was glad she accepted Adrien's invitation to hang out with his classmates.
Then the screaming started.
Ice covered everything in seconds, from the windows to the ceiling. To Adrien's friends.
"Now all of Paris will be Frozer's own personal ice rink!" The villain crowed. His eyes scanned the people who remained unfrozen. "But first!"
Adrien felt someone shove him to the ground, the ice sapping his body heat even through his clothes. He looked up and saw Kagami inside a giant icicle. Arms outstretched to push him out of the way of the magic spikes that Frozer launched in all directions. Freezing everyone else before he skated away.
"NO!" Adrien's fist slammed into Kagami's icy prison. And kept striking. "No, no no no no no no!"
I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!
"Adrien? That you?" Luka coughed as the rapidly dropping temperature sapped the moisture from the air. "Whoa! Easy!" He lifted his hands in surrender as Adrien whirled around with fists raised.
"Luka..." Adrien came back to himself slowly. "How're you not frozen?"
Slowly grabbing Adrien's right hand Luka lifted it to eye level. "Same way you did, I guess." The knuckles were bloody. Not a lot but enough. "Hiding behind someone who was already frozen."
Adrien snatched his hand back. "I wasn't hiding!" he snapped.
"I know, sorry." Luka held his hands up placatingly. "I just meant..."
"I... I know." Adrien kept his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry."
"...We should look for help." Luka glanced at the windows opaque with ice. "There must be someone left who can get them out."
But Adrien was gazing at Kagami's frozen face. Even through the refraction he could see the determination in her eyes. "You go. I'll stay here and... do what I can."
Luka glanced at Adrien's split knuckles, wanting to at least bandage it. He got the feeling, though, that Adrien wouldn't let him. "Take care of that," he said, pointing. And dashed off.
I hate you.
Adrien tore one of his overshirt's sleeves off and fastened it into a makeshift bandage. He didn't know what good it would do. Only a dull pressure came from his hand. Not even noticing he was injured until Luka grabbed it.
I hate you.
Carefully, deliberately, Adrien sat on the ice. Cold shooting into his flesh like a thousand needles. Ignoring the numbness Adrien untied his skates and pulled them off his shoes.
I hate you.
Slowly, Adrien slid himself closer to Kagami. Heat being sapped from his body. Raising the skate overhead Adrien brought the blade down on the ice with an echoing CRACK!
I hate you!
I hate you!
I hate you!
I HATE YOU!
C R A C K!
Ladybug shot back towards the ice rink as fast as her yo-yo would go. The Black Cat Miraculous clutched tightly in hand.
Everything was frozen. In no time at all Paris, and every person in it, was covered in ice. And her prime candidate for Miraculous holders were all at ground zero.
Someone had to be there. They had to be!
There, right in front of her destination, was a familiar head of cyan hair.
Ladybug tensed as the memory of their battle with Captain Hardrock came rushing back. Shaking such unfair thoughts from her mind she swung down to him.
"Luka, were are the others?" Ladybug had made up her mind as she raced back. Alya was the only one who-
"They're all frozen!" Luka informed her, brow furrowed in concern.
A chill went up Ladybug's spine that had nothing to do with the cold. "Fr-frozen?"
"Please, Ladybug," Luka pleaded. "You have to help us get them out."
Alya was frozen? No, but Marinette needed her help! Zombizou had gone terribly and Ladybug needed a Black Cat anyway or everything would be off. That's why Chat Noir- A chill gripped her chest and Ladybug clenched her teeth. That's why Chat Noir was chosen in the first place. They weren't meant to work alone.
"It's not regular ice." Ladybug's voice sounded far away even to her own ears. "The only way to free everyone is to defeat the akuma victim!"
"Then we're in good hands. You have a perfect track record, after all."
Ladybug stared at the untainted trust in his eyes... "I can't do it by myself!" She shook her head to clear it. "I need someone else!" Someone like Alya.
"Oh..." Luka frowned as he went over Ladybug's words.
She needed a temporary holder to give a Miraculous. And everyone else was frozen. Except Adrien, but Luka didn't want to decide for Ladybug. So he stood there in silent frustration at being useless. Not voicing the obvious solution. Possibly, it didn't even occur to him.
And it came to Ladybug only slightly faster.
Suddenly jerking into action Ladybug grabbed Luka's hand and placed the octagonal box in his palm. "You remember what to do, right?
Eyes widening, Luka gave a single nod as he opened it.
Ice Ladybug and Ice Panthera skated side-by-side across the frozen city. Every surface covered in a layer of ice.
"We need to set up a trap for whoever turned the city into a giant ice rink," Ladybug said as they leapt from one rooftop to another.
"It was Philippe, the skating instructor," Panthera informed her. "Where should we set the trap?"
Thinking for a moment, Ladybug pointed toward the Eiffel Tower. With a nod Panthera followed Ladybug's lead. As he shadowed her their hands grazed and she snatched it back instinctively. Panthera said nothing but it stuck like a thorn in Ladybug's mind.
Landing on the frozen surface of the Seine Ladybug scanned their surroundings. "What can I use for a trap?" she asked herself.
She needed to focus. Just push everything aside and beat the akuma villain. Like always. Like-
Panthera tackled her out of the way as Frozer's skate blade slammed into his left arm. He screamed as his arm was covered in ice.
"Panthera!" Ladybug launched her yo-yo at Frozer's face, forcing the supervillain to back away momentarily.
"Ladybug and Panthera! Your frozen statues will sparkle like trophies upon my kingdom of ice!"
Grabbing Panthera's uninjured hand Ladybug sped away from the villain. Frozer hot on their heels. With a rapid series of kicks he sent icicles sailing after the heroes, forcing them apart.
"I'm positive the akuma's in his skates!" Ladybug called out as Frozer jumped over a bridge and launched more icicles from midair. "He's too fast!"
Turning sharply around a barge stuck in the middle of the river to obscure Frozer's line of sight Ladybug pulled Panthera behind it. Frozer speeding past before realizing his quarry was gone.
"What's the plan Ladybug?"
They hid behind a van after putting a few streets between them and Frozer.
Plan, plan, Ladybug needed a plan! "Lucky Charm!" A bag of salt fell into her hands, some of the white grains falling out.
"Salt makes ice melt!" Ladybug exclaimed, an idea instantly forming in her mind's eye.
Panthera smiled tightly, clutching his frozen arm. "I knew you could figure it out."
"But first..." Ladybug grabbed a handful of salt and rubbed it on Panthera's arm.
"W-wait! Don't we need that?"
"Won't do us any good if you get frostbite halfway through your part of the plan." Any other protests Panthera had were silenced by the sigh of relief that escaped him as the ice melted. Taking his belt Ladybug fashioned it into a makeshift sling for his arm. "There."
"Thank you, Ladybug." Panthera's smile was a little less forced.
Ignoring the messy mix of emotions in her gut Ladybug smiled back. "Right. Here's what you need to do."
Ladybug posed on a bridge, just above the supervillain. "Waiting for you, Frozer!"
Grinning, Frozer jumped up after her. "Don't play with fire, Ladybug!"
Frozer was faster than her. So Ladybug goaded him into doing every trick she did, slowing him down just enough. Sliding under a bench limbo style, using an outcrop of ice as a ramp, jumping through a car's open doors.
"Ladybug," Panthera called from the communicator in her ear. "It's ready!"
Turning back towards the Seine, Ladybug called over her shoulder. "This next one is tricky!"
"Don't make me laugh!"
Ladybug slid along the ladder of the firetruck Panthera pushed into place. Twisting in midair to wrap her yo-yo on one of the rungs as she leapt off. Just in time for Frozer to fall into her trap.
Pulling on her yo-yo, Ladybug sent Frozer into the air. The unexpected change of momentum catching him off guard.
And giving Panthera the opening he needed.
Next came the easy part.
Adrien's fingers were cold even through his gloves. His legs were worse. The skate he used to break the tiniest piece of ice from Kagami's prison lay discarded next to him.
I hate you.
He gave everything he had into breaking Kagami out and it wasn't enough. It was never enough!
Pressing his forehead against the fractured ice that encased Kagami, Adrien squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm sorry."
Warmth flowed around him as a bright light shone through his eyelids. The numbness vanishing as though it was never there. Stumbling at the sudden shift Adrien felt someone's arms hold him upright.
Kagami stared at him as the ladybugs flew back to wherever they came from. "Adrien? What-"
"Kagami!" Without thinking Adrien pulled her into a hug. "You're okay!"
That was the second time in as many days Adrien had hugged her. Kagami felt a rising heat bloom across her cheeks. Scanning the rink, she saw the rest of Adrien's classmates in similar displays of relief. Which alleviated her self-consciousness.
Trembling. Adrien was trembling, shoulders shaking as he held back tears. Adjusting her grip, Kagami held him closer. "It is alright, Adrien. It is over."
Adrien shook his head. "I couldn't..." he said under his breath. "I couldn't do anything!"
Memories flickered through Kagami's mind. The shame she felt after 'losing' to Adrien when they first met. Her Mother's unyielding stance on anything she deemed trivial. Moving to France and leaving her home behind. All brought out the same sense of hopelessness she heard in Adrien's voice.
She didn't let go until he stopped shaking.
"Put that there. And that there. Careful with that! This new indoor gym is a gift to my Chloe- Er, the people of Paris! Everything must be perfect!"
Mayor Andre directed the construction workers while Philippe sat dejectedly out of the way.
Marinette stared in much the same mood at Adrien and Kagami. Most of her friends had already left. Leaving just the three of them plus Luka.
"I think you were right, Kagami." Adrien smiled bittersweetly. "It's time I changed targets."
"I look forward to seeing it," Kagami replied. Leaning up, she kissed Adrien's cheek before entering her car.
Adrien stared after her, a hand pressed against the ghost of her kiss.
A twisting sensation in her stomach worsened Marinette's mood.
"Do you wanna take the subway together, Marinette?" Luka asked.
Marinette continued staring after Adrien as his car pulled up.
"Hmm?" Luka followed Marinette's line of sight to Adrien. He smiled knowingly. "You should probably go over and talk to him. Thanks for inviting me out today."
Blinking, Marinette realized what he was saying."Thanks for coming with me, Luka." She gave him a kiss on the cheek as apology. Then dashed after Adrien's car. "Adrien!"
I hate you.
Adrien rubbed the stretched skin where his Miraculous used to be. The band on his finger was barely paler than the rest of his hand. Soon it would vanish completely, the only proof he ever wielded a Miraculous.
I hate you.
Pain sparked across his other hand and Adrien winced at the phantom memory. Odd that his injury hurt more now than when he still had it. But even if he didn't remember the ache his body did.
I hate you.
What did stand out in Adrien's mind was the jolt that ran through his cold limbs as he brought the blade of his skate down onto the ice. The intensity of his desperation so strong he was choking on it.
I hate you!
Not that it amounted to anything.
"It is alright, Adrien. It is over."
Except... it was okay. Ladybug fixed it. And it was good that she did. He didn't... Adrien didn't need to fix it.
A jolt ran through his spine. Shocking the tears he'd held back in front of his friends out. Adrien completely and utterly failed. That hurt. So much he could barely stand it. But... it wasn't the end of the world.
Adrien failed and that... was okay.
Pulling his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, Adrien let his tears burn tracks down his face. Ambivalent emotions rolled like cresting waves. It wasn't a new idea exactly. But Adrien never thought of applying it to himself.
It was exhilarating. It was terrifying. Maybe... Maybe it was true. Maybe he could move on from people who demanded perfection. Maybe he didn't need to stay frozen in place.
Maybe it was okay for Adrien Agreste to not be perfect.