There’s no time for words. There’s only Hawkmoth, step after deliberate step, approaching a motionless Chat Noir. There’s only Ladybug, her struggle against the akuma holding her faltering as she watches Hawkmoth nudge her partner’s shoulder with an unfeeling boot. There’s only blood, coursing from somewhere under Chat’s matted blonde hair, forming ugly rivulets on the asphalt under his head.
Maybe Ladybug’s screams have been drowned out by the furious pounding of her heart in her ears, but maybe she’s just stopped screaming.
Hawkmoth kneels down. His tight, cold smile looms over the unconscious hero, and it’s so wrong, it’s so awful that Ladybug wishes she had Chat’s Cataclysm. She’d wipe that smile off of Hawkmoth’s face - and everything else off of it, too.
There’s no time for words. With unusual tenderness, Hawkmoth lifts Chat’s hand and pulls off the black ring that serves as his Miraculous.
Chat unfurls in strobing green, and this time, Ladybug does scream. The mask and ears are gone, but it doesn’t matter, because still, all she can see of him is blond and blood. But Hawkmoth sees the face of Chat Noir uncovered, and his face falls flat.
He takes one unsteady step back.
“No-” Ladybug hears him breathe.
“This can’t be-”
Hawkmoth nearly trips over his next retreating step. He catches himself, turns, and flees.
Her vision is flooded with hundreds of white butterflies. The akuma holding her collapses. It and all of the other akuma Hawkmoth had created to bully them into submission sink back into their normal, human forms. It’s sheer force of will that keeps Ladybug’s knees from buckling under the weight of the suddenly inert Parisian. She casts off the grown man with the ease of a child throwing off a blanket and does not bother to check if he is okay.
The adrenaline rocketing through every cell in her body makes Chat Noir feather-light in her arms. With his head tucked near to her chest, she can feel every faint breath. Ladybug sends a wordless thanks up to Heaven, or the Universe, or the Miraculous, or whatever it might be that is keeping him alive. She can ignore the way her suit darkens with his blood, can almost pretend that he’s sleeping as she races to the hospital.
He’s beautiful without the mask, but then again, she always knew he would be.
The photographer would go on to win a handful of prestigious international competitions. ‘It was a miracle,’ she’d say later, ‘That I was there at the hospital and had my camera just at the right time.’
It first pops up on Instagram, then the website for Le Monde, and it’s on the news by evening. The headline reads: “CHAT NOIR UNMASKED, INJURED”
In the photo, Ladybug looks straight ahead to a point just beyond the camera. She’s flanked by masses of people on both sides, held back by a few desperate looking doctors. In her arms she carries boy, limp, face pressed to her chest but visible. Her lips are drawn tight and serious.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” the subheading reads, “Chat Noir is revealed to be well-known model Adrien Agreste.”
It’s not obvious in the next morning’s grainy reprint of the picture, but those who pull it up on in high-quality on their computer screens or cellphones know all too well about the tears that streak Ladybug’s cheeks.
The dark head doesn’t lift, even as he tries to push the cup under her nose.
“How is he?”
Her hollow voice makes him shiver.
“I’ll tell you once you drink the water.”
That gets her attention.
The crimson of her suit clashes with the mellow beige and blues of the surgery waiting rooms. In all of his years at the Assistance Publique, he’s never had to treat a superhero. He shifts uncomfortably in the flat-cushioned seat and waves the water cup in her face again.
“You’re risking dehydration,” he says, “Trust me. I’m a medical professional.”
“You’re a nurse,” Ladybug spits. He rolls his eyes at that - hero of Paris in his presence or no, some things never change.
“Yes, a medical professional. Now, I can update you on M. Agreste’s condition as soon as you hydrate.”
Behind the mask, all he reads is spite. She snatches the styrofoam cup from his, chugs it in two gulps, and crushes the cup. He nods and smiles benignly.
“M. Agreste’s injury was traumatic, but not life-threatening. He’s suffering from a pretty nasty concussion - we’re monitoring the swelling for the next 72 hours just in case. We have him under some extreme anesthesia right now, but we’ll start lessening the dosages over the next few hours as we continue to assess his condition.”
Ladybug nods along with a blank, angry look that tells him she hasn’t absorbed a word. “Can I see him?”
“We’re preparing him to be moved to a private room where we can keep an eye on his condition. I’ll take you there now, if you’d like. Typically visiting after hours is restricted to next of kin…”
He glances at her. Ladybug is already tensing. Her fists are clenched at her sides, shoulders starting to square off. This is not a fight that he, or anyone else at the hospital, wants to fight - even if they could.
“The doctors and hospital management have decided to make an exception for the Heroes of Paris.”
Ladybug isn’t sure if the exhaustion is hers or Tikki’s: her kwami had fallen silent hours ago, her pleas for Marinette to take a break falling on deaf ears. She blinks the bleary film from her heavy eyes and fixes her stare back on the waiting room clock. The surgery waiting room is becoming a familiar fixture in her life. After all, this is the third time in twenty-four hours that the doctors have stopped her at the door to the surgery room, insisting her presence would be more hindrance than help. Her head hits the wall behind her with a dull thud. The pain barely registers. More important is the wall itself, separating her from the OR and from him. It’s the farthest she’s let them take him from her. Adrien.
That nurse has come to pester her a few times already. Even though she’s looking straight at the clock, she’s not quite sure what time it is, really, or how long exactly she’s been in the hospital. She’s sure, though, that nurse has been on the clock well past a normal shift. He keeps plying her with water, but at least he brings direct information - unlike the rest of the staff, who seem so stiff and high-strung to even look her in the eye. Ladybug can’t imagine why. She’s only threatened them once. Maybe twice.
The doors from surgery open and she’s on her feet in a heartbeat. It’s a surgeon, another one who can’t look her in the eye. His mouth starts moving. The words don’t make sense, no matter how hard she tries, because her brain refuses to process anything that isn’t “He’s awake” and “He wants to see you.”
“-uncertain as to when M. Agreste will regain consciousness.”
Ladybug hadn’t realized her hands had clenched into fists until the moment they go slack. In fact, everything goes slack: her hands, her jaw, the muscles of her legs.
Linoleum hurts on impact.
She’d probably be stiff, if everything didn’t feel so numb. Tikki’s started back up again, warning of their weariness, reminding Ladybug of the bruises on her knees and elbows. Remind her that a body eventually needs to sleep, recover.
That’s the thing, though. There’s no recovering from this.
Every time the door swings open to admit a doctor with a clipboard or a nurse with an armload of equipment, there’s the swell of voices and an eruption of flashes. They haven’t managed to ward off the paparazzi yet. A few hours ago, that nurse mentioned that at least some of the reporters would probably leave if she went over and threatened them. But that would mean leaving Adrien’s side, would mean losing her grip on his cool, clammy hand. It’s not an option for Ladybug.
“Never,” she murmurs, to him, to herself.
That nurse lets Alya in. Ladybug doesn’t know where he gets off, constantly being on shift, constantly hounding her with water and crumbly muffins from the hospital caf. Not like she eats them.
Alya’s voice is raw, and when Ladybug looks up and meets her best friend’s eyes, she knows. Alya shuffles over and unslings a familiar-looking pink backpack from her shoulder.
“Your parents are worried,” Alya continues. Without asking for permission, Alya sits in the one other chair in the room and unzips the backpack. Out comes a stack of neatly folded clothes, a small bag of toiletries, a smushed container of croissants, and a phone charger.
“They called me once you didn’t come home from school. It didn’t take long to put everything else together. They’ve tried to come up and get you, but of course, security is awful, and when they saw the crowd of reporters, they realized it’d be as good as outing you then and there.”
Alya sets everything on the small table between them. Her eyes are the hazy red of too many tears. She takes a shaky breath.
“I wish you’d told me, but I understand now. The dangers. Knowing would have put any of us at risk.”
Her brown eyes wander to Adrien. His chest rises and falls peacefully, but otherwise, he does not stir. Ladybug stares at him, too, unable to look back at her friend, not yet. Alya was right, that had been Ladybug’s rationale from the beginning. Knowing the truth was a weak flank left exposed, a hazard Ladybug had tried to avoid. The people she cared about didn’t deserve to be put in danger’s way.
But that didn’t stop him. Didn’t stop Chat - Adrien - from throwing himself in front of the akuma’s devastating, inhuman punch, didn’t stop Chat from hitting brick hard enough to buckle the building that stopped his unexpected flight.
“I’m sorry,” Alya breathes, “This can’t be easy, especially now that you know it’s him. Changes things, now that you know Chat was Adrien the whole time, huh?”
Ladybug shakes her head hard enough to send a sharp pain shooting from temple to temple.
“It changes nothing,” she says. Alya looks startled at the steel in her voice. “Chat is my partner, my friend, my-”
Reaching out, Ladybug wraps his hand in hers. She absently sweeps her thumb along the finger where his Miraculous used to sit.
“It changes nothing,” she repeats, “And I’m not leaving until he wakes up.”
“You were always too good for me,” Ladybug says.
At least two suns have risen since she first brought him here; the third sun to set on this claustrophobic hospital room finds Ladybug’s vision swimming anytime she moves too quickly. So she doesn’t move, not much - only to check the pulse fluttering in his wrist, or to sweep small chips of ice across his chapped lips and watch them trickle down his tongue. His Adam’s Apple bobs, swallowing in reflex, but his eyes remain shut. He looks like he could be sleeping.
“You were always love, and life, and a smile just for me, and I was just- just an idiot.”
She’s so tired. It seems senseless, but the thought that if Ladybug closes her eyes, Adrien, Chat, will slip away, drives her to endless cups of coffee and a relentless need to stay awake. She won’t lose him - not again, not anymore.
“What are you going to think, when you find out that I was head-over-heels for Adrien Agreste? You’ll probably laugh at me. I’ll deserve it, too.”
Her head feels heavy. She scoots her chair back so that she can lay her head on the edge of his bed without letting go of his hand. It only takes a few minutes for her neck to twinge in pain.
“Chat, I need you,” Ladybug whispers, “Adrien, please wake up. I-”
There’s no one to hear her. She wishes there were, she wishes with every ounce of emotion she hasn’t already dredged up, that there were one person next to her, awake, to hear the words that come next.
“I can’t do this without you.”
There’s no one to hear her, which mean there’s no one to stop her from giving in and climbing up into the hospital bed. She picks her way around his unmoving frame, careful not to bend or tug on one of the seemingly hundreds of wires connecting Adrien to a pile of buzzing machines and, ostensibly, life.
He’s warm. She tucks herself against Adrien’s side, just as she’d dreamed of doing for all those years before. Loosely, gently, Ladybug lays one arm across his chest. The awful stagnant stench of sanitized hospital gowns and medical tubing and day’s old sweat still don’t fully mask a rich sweetness that is distinctly Chat. She buries her face in his shoulder, sucks in a hard breath, and cries.
One of the doctors edges the door open the next morning, accompanied by the ever-present fanfare of the press. She freezes in shock, clipboard hitting the floor with a clatter.
“It’s her!” a cameraman, squeezing up behind the doctor, gasps.
The words ripple down the hallway with a physical force: Her-? Who? Who is it? Ladybug? It’s Ladybug? What-?
The doctor recovers a second after the crowd starts to press into the private hospital room. She flings her arms out, trying to block them off, but it’s useless. Two camera people trip or slip past her before security can wrangle the writhing mass of media.
Curled against the prone form of a very recognizable Adrien Agreste is a small girl a wrinkled blouse and trousers. Her hair is split into dark, messy pigtails. She doesn’t stir as the cameras flash one thousand furious shots before being bodily removed by hospital security.
It doesn’t take long for her face to be put to a name, and it takes even less time for the news to hit every major outlet.
Across thousands of Twitter feeds and millions of televisions flashes a single name: Marinette Dupain-Cheng.
Marinette recognizes a losing fight, so she sets out a cookie for Tikki and drags herself to the small shower of the bathroom attached to Adrien’s hospital room. It’s been over three days. Washing the grime from her body does little to alleviate the ache that starts in her chest and radiates out to every inch of her form, but at least she looks presentable for the first, and only, press conference she gives a few hours later.
One of the doctors, one of the many whose name Marinette has unintentionally never learned, walks in on Jerome, that nurse, teaching Marinette how to bathe Adrien. She props Adrien up by the bare shoulders as Jerome softly, demonstrates the proper way to sponge lightly around his IVs. Her hold is steady even with words like ‘groin’ and ‘catheter’, and even Jerome comments on her resolve. Marinette is unfazed when he pulls off the blanket covering Adrien’s lower half, but the doctor nearly has an aneurysm then and there. It is only out of - what was it, respect? deference? fear? - some sense of self-preservation that the doctor manages to drag Jerome out into the hallway before she rips into him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the doctor hisses.
Jerome shrugs. “She wanted to help, and asked how. She’s always refused to leave the room, regardless of the procedure we’re doing on him, so I figured that if she was going to hover, she could at least be useful.”
“It’s inappropriate for a young girl.”
“She’s the Hero of the City,” Jerome says.
“She’s a child!” the doctor shouts.
“We’re all grieving the loss of Chat Noir, but-”
Jerome’s glare is fierce enough to shut the doctor down.
“None of us know what has to be going through her head right now. Everything - her partner, her privacy, maybe even her power - has been taken from her in one go. The only thing you, or me, or anyone else can do now is to make sure that no one takes that boy away from her. I don’t care if it’s for one week, or one year, or the rest of our lives. Ladybug and Chat Noir saved my life once, and I know they had to have protected someone you’ve cared about before. We owe this to them. To her.”
Without another word, Jerome pushes past the doctor, enters the Agreste room, and slams the door behind him.
Her parents don’t say much. They come with food, and a change of clothes, and a kiss each for her forehead. If she’d been capable of looking away from Adrien long enough, she might have seen the look Tom and Sabine Dupain-Cheng exchange. But she doesn’t, because she can’t, and they walk out of the hospital hand-in-hand and understand.
“Special relativity, however, proclaims that the differences in observations between two such individuals are more subtle and profound. It makes the strange claim that observers in relative motion will have different perceptions of distance and of time. This means, as we shall see-”
The door clicks shut.
Marinette’s eyes flick up from the book she’d been reading out loud, annoyed. It was still another 23 minutes before someone came in and checked Adrien’s vitals, though Marinette had updated his vitals board just before she’d sat down to read to him.
Gabriel Agreste stares back at her.
It’s been well over a week, and this is the first time he’s shown his face, the first time he’s come to visit his own son. The tabloids had their field day over it a while back, but the hot pulse of the injustice only hits Marinette now. She stands, hands balled at her side.
He simply stares. His eyes take her in, slowly, like he’s never seen a human face before, like he vaguely recognizes what’s before him, but doesn’t know how to define it.
Marinette’s never seen him in person, but the Gabriel before her looks nothing like the man she’s seen on screen and page. Normally neat, well-coiffed hair falls lank around his cheeks, and sleeplessness bruises the skin around his eyes. His grey slacks are wrinkled beyond salvation, and he wears a stained dress shirt, sleeves rolled unevenly to the elbows.
He cuts her off with a shake of the head.
Each step he takes cracks loud enough to make her want to wince. Gabriel walks to the side of the bed opposite her and stops. His steely eyes seem muddled, clouded as they trace up his son’s listless shape.
And then he pulls something out of his pocket, bends over, and sets them on the bed between them. Marinette knows both.
“I’ll kill you.” It comes from her lungs as a whisper, but nonetheless echoes in the still of the room.
“I’ll kill you,” she says again. It doesn’t matter that she’s Marinette, not Ladybug, doesn’t matter that Tikki is curled up under the corner of Adrien’s pillow and that Marinette hasn’t eaten a proper meal in - days? A week? It makes no difference. She’ll tear Gabriel Agreste apart, limb by limb. She swings around the bed and slams her fist into his jaw.
Gabriel staggers back but says nothing, does nothing to defend himself.
“I’LL KILL YOU,” Marinette shrieks, and it’s not tears that blur her eyes but rage and confusion, and Gabriel doubles over when he takes a punch to the gut.
He retreats a few feet, just out of her reach. Straightening, Gabriel stares her down, but there’s no fight there. It gives her enough pause for him to speak.
“It’s over,” Gabriel says, “I’ve lost everything.”
It’s not sympathy that stirs in her chest, nor is it even like pity. It’s the knowledge that Gabriel Agreste does not deserve the death she desperately wishes she could give him.
He steps out of the room. She never sees him again.
It takes a few hours, but eventually Tikki is able to coax the black kitten kwami out of Adrien’s ring. Tikki calls him Plagg, and offers him a slice of cheese from Marinette’s abandoned sandwich. He shakes his head, sniffles piteously at the sight of Adrien, and curls up on the pillow next to his cheek.
Nothing Marinette or Tikki does draws the kwami supposedly hiding in Hawkmoth’s abandoned broach. After a day or so of trying, Tikki suggests softly, woefully, that maybe they should just leave her be.
Two weeks pass in a molasses blur.
A nurse only comes three times a day, the doctor once. In the morning and in the afternoon, a staff member wheels in a cart with a covered plate of freshly cooked food and wheels out a cart with an uncovered plate of mostly uneaten food. By now, they trust that Marinette will alert them of any changes.
Jerome finally gives her a pass to the physical rehabilitation gym a few floors up. Every time he comes in to check in on Adrien, he shoves her into the hallway.
“You should be taking better care of yourself. Imagine how disappointed he’ll be when he wakes up and finds out that neither of you can work up a good jog,” Jerome reasons.
Marinette’s lungs burn and her muscles ache. She’s not even running full speed and she’s winded, a long way from what she could do as Ladybug. But it clears her head and, for the first time in a while, makes her feel.
In most fairytales the prince breaks the spell by kissing the princess. Can anyone tell us why?
Because only love can conquer hate.
“Please wake up,” Marinette begs.
She leans over Adrien, runs a hand through the messy blond of his hair. It’s gotten longer, wilder.
“Adrien, don’t do this anymore.”
One hand cups his cheek. His pulse thrums in her hands, strong. But it means nothing. His eyes don’t open, his lips don’t quirk into that warm smile.
She presses her head to his chest and lets herself cry. It’s been a while. Shudders wrack her body, and each breath she drags in cramps in her ribs.
“I love you,” Marinette whispers wetly, “I’ve always loved you, and I’m an idiot, and I love you so please wake up.”
Her hands shift to his shoulders and her fingers dig in, hard. Like it might be enough to jolt him from sleep.
“Please, Chat. Please, Kitty, darling, love, Adrien - wake. up. I love you.”
Adrien’s lips are chapped. They are still. But they are warm and they fit perfectly under hers.
It feels like an eternity ago Marinette learned that magic was real. Every moment of her life since meeting Tikki was magic wrapped in miracle.
So she shouldn’t be surprised to wake to the squalling of machines and vital monitoring devices. The high-pitched racket yanks her from sleep with a cold lurch - Marinette jumps, top of her head hitting something hard with a sharp crack. Her pulse is irregular with surprise, and she feels a little dizzy as she tries to steady herself and avoid collapsing back on Adrien with her full weight.
“Ow…” she mumbles, untangling her hand from his to rub the crown of her head.
Her hand hits his chin. It moves above her. There’s a croaking sound that she does not make.
Slowly, Marinette pulls away. The sound comes again, stronger. She finds she can’t quite breathe right. The hand she’d just let go of twitches.
“Mah-” a breathy voice groans.
When Marinette looks up, she sees bright green.