Summer was upon the streets of Paris, and a dark cloud had settled over the Dupain-Cheng home.
Marinette groaned long and loud, banging her head against her desktop. Amidst the sounds of her skull impacting the wood, she whined, “He’s gone!”
Comfortably reclined in the chaise, Alya glanced up bemusedly from her phone. “It’s not the end of the world, Mari. You knew Adrien was leaving for London the day school got out.”
That was hardly any time for a decent goodbye! All Marinette had managed was an awkward wave and a weirdly stilted ‘have a nice trip’ before Adrien had climbed into the back of his car and drove away. All things considered, yesterday hadn’t been her most embarrassing day, but it had been terribly frustrating. Made even worse by the fact that Alya was choosing to have no mercy today.
“This this you consoling me? Because it doesn’t sound like you consoling me,” Marinette grumbled rottenly.
Alya rolled her eyes. “Girl, I always got your back. You know that. But I am your best friend and I reserve the right to be unhelpful when it suits me.”
“You’re terrible!” Marinette exclaimed, laughing.
“And you’re not?” Alya countered impishly. A moment later, she fell into her role as the consoling best friend, her expression turning sympathetic. “He’s only going to be gone for a month, Mari. That’s not that long. Thirty days, tops.” She quirked an eyebrow. “It’s not as if you were going to confess to him this month.”
“I could have,” Marinette sighed, shoving away from the desk, her room becoming a spinning blur until her seat settled again. Wheeling herself over to Alya, she drew her legs up to hug her shins, setting her chin upon her kneecaps. “You never know, this month could have been my month.”
“As opposed to every other month that’s come and gone since you’ve met him?” Quite a few months, if anyone was counting. Marinette was not counting. Alya was the perfect mix of sympathies and teasing when she said, “You’ve only just graduated to full sentences around him.”
With a low-grade blush, Marinette turned her nose up. “It’s a big step for me.”
Alya nodded sagely. “Not that I am not wildly proud of you, girl, because I am. You’ve been crushing on him long enough that you deserve to be able to hold a decent conversation with him, but I think we’re still at the baby-steps stage.”
Baby-steps or not, Marinette could not help but mourn for what could have been. All the possible ‘What If…” scenarios running through her head. She could have run into him on the street and struck up a decent conversation that somehow slid into her confessing to him. Or Adrien could one day walk into the bakery, take a bite of one of her father’s scrumptious pastries, and declare his undying love… for her, not the pastries. The possibility existed that an akuma could attack, and she would need to dramatically sweep Adrien off his feet to whisk him to safety, and she, as Ladybug, declares herself to him.
The more she fantasized, the more wild the scenarios became.
“This could have been my month,” Marinette insisted stubbornly. “Now we’ll never know, because he’s gone.”
“You still have a chance-,” Alya cut off at the sound of an incoming text. “Do you mind? I have to take this.”
“Go ahead, I know it’s important.”
Shooting Marinette an apologetic look, Alya diverted her attention to her phone. Her eyes skimmed rapidly over the text. A smile bloomed, her fingers tapping out a response. Almost instantly, she received an answer that garnered a laugh, prompting her to reply.
Marinette bit her lip, trying to hold back her laughter as she watched Alya rapidly text through a conversation. She had no doubt the one taking up her best friend’s attention was Nino, Alya’s boyfriend of two… no, Marinette thought about it for a moment, nearly three years by now. Alya’s boyfriend, and co-conspirator on many occasions.
Marinette did not begrudge her best friend the texting, knowing that the pair were going to be apart for as long as Adrien was going to be out of the country. Nino, the lucky sod, had been invited to be part of Adrien’s entourage. He had, of course, agreed, given that poor Adrien would not have had a buffer between himself and his father otherwise. Someone had to be there to make sure Adrien didn’t lose his mind while his father ran roughshod over him.
Nino was nothing if not a loyal, and if in the process of protecting his best friend he happened to score a free first-class seat on a train to London, get to stay in a five star hotel while in the city, and eat world class food every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then so be it. He was willing to suffer in luxury for a month in the name of friendship.
“That’s settled then!” Alya suddenly announced, waving her phone triumphantly.
Marinette raised her brows. “What’s settled?”
“Nino just gave me a heads up on what hotel they’re staying in.” Alya bit her lip, practically vibrating in her seat with more energy than what Marinette would deem absolutely necessary for useless hotel information. This wasn’t the normal kind of gossipy energy thrumming through her friend. It wasn’t even the early stages of boyfriend-deprivation antsy energy. This was almost Ladybug-related level excitement, which immediately put Marinette’s suspicions on high alert.
Eyes narrowed, she asked, “What aren’t you telling me?”
Turning coy, Alya leaned back and waved her phone airily. “You remember when I mentioned my mom was having renovations done to one of the hotels she owns?”
“Did I mention that hotel is in London? And that my mom said we could both stay there this summer if we wanted to- ack!” Alya was cut off by the force of a small body launching itself into her midsection. The force of Marinette’s tackle took them both over the side of the chaise amid a pair of excited squeals shared between the girls. They crashed landed on the floor, but felt nothing. Their arms and legs were a sudden tangle of excited hugs, more on Marinette’s part than Alya’s. The squealing was mostly her, as well.
She was the majority of the excitement in their two-person dogpile.
“You are the absolute best friend ever! I mean it! I love you! Thank you!” Marinette shrieked, locking her arms so tight she worried she might be cutting off air. No matter that she might be killing her best friend, she couldn’t let go. She couldn’t seem to stop squealing, and she might have been crying a little bit as well.
Luckily, Alya was laughing, hugging her back. “I figured I would surprise you with the news.” She pulled Marinette up, her animated face sparking with conspiratorial fervor. “Think about it. A whole month in London, Adrien all to yourself, no Chloé to get in your way. Nino and I can be your backup if you want, or we can disappear real quick if you happen to want some alone time with tall, blond, and handsome…” She shamelessly bobbed her eyebrows like a cheap villain from a bad B-movie.
Visions of spending ‘alone time’ with Adrien quickly overloaded Marinette’s brain. Walking arm in arm with him along the Thames. Riding the London Eye together. Confessing her undying love for him in a moment of weakness while they were alone together in the mist-strewn streets of the city at night…
The trap door swung open and Sabine popped her head in, unsurprised to find that it was her daughter who was making all the racket. Marinette had managed to trap herself in her own wild fantasies, her arms vice-locked around Alya as she squealed. Her face was spotted pink, a mad grin stretching from ear to ear. Sabine switched her knowing gaze to Alya. “I take it you told her?”
Alya offered a smart thumbs up. “Just broke the news to her now.”
Sabine clapped her hands excitedly. “Wonderful! You two are going to have so much fun!” She turned to her daughter, eyebrows arched. “Marinette, you might want to calm down long enough to start packing. Alya mentioned that your train leaves tonight.”
As far as luncheons went, this was not the worst one Adrien had ever attended. One major point in this luncheon’s favour was his current company, who was just as thoroughly bored at the moment as he was.
“Man, I thought there was going to be models,” Nino grumbled, picking at the assortment of foods he had swiped from the buffet. Adrien tried desperately to suppress the laugh threatening to spill out, watching Nino prowl around like some poor, trapped animal. If he wasn’t picking at the food or yanking at his collar, Nino was attached to his phone. He had been texting a mile a minute since the moment they had landed in London the night before, with Alya no doubt being the recipient of the vast majority of his texts.
Given Nino’s care never to let Adrien see what he was texting, Adrien either suspected he was sending something inappropriate to his girlfriend, or he and Alya were plotting something. Having learned over the years that the two of them together were a devious force to be reckoned with, Adrien wasn’t sure which of his suspicions was worse - sexting at a high class event, or plotting mayhem at a high class event.
At least either one was bound to be interesting.
Feeling bad for having trapped his friend at a stuffy event for at least another hour, Adrien playfully pointed out, “If you’re looking for models, you’re in luck.” He pointed to himself. “I’m a model.”
Nino gave him a dirty look. “You know what I meant.”
“I know what you meant, and you have a girlfriend,” Adrien replied, cocking an eyebrow.
Adrien’s eyebrow went even higher, eyes narrowing for a moment.
Nino faltered, a blush flagging his cheeks. “I’d never cheat on her, man. She’d absolutely kill me.” He ducked his head, lowering his voice. “If Alya were here, she’d blow all these skinny chicks out of the water.” He got that sappy look on his face guys wore when they were absolutely head over heels for someone they loved.
Adrien knew the look well. He wore it whenever thinking of Ladybug.
To Nino, he said, “You are dating a very nice young woman, hence why you shouldn’t be looking around for models.”
“Fine bro, you can be the only model in my life. I’m cool with that.” With a roll of his eyes, Nino turned his attentions back to whittling away at his heaping lunch plate.
Snorting, Adrien cast his attentions toward taking stock of the swanky hotel dinner hall that had been hired to host the luncheon. He recognized many of the faces as men and women from several extremely wealthy families, some of whom were titans in the fashion industry, others being business moguls, and a few had significant political connections. Many were English, though Adrien didn’t hold that against them.
So long as he smiled pretty and managed to make small talk with anyone who happened to come by, his father would be satisfied. There was to be no social black mark on the Agreste family name during this business trip, or else Nino was gone and Adrien could kiss his few hard-fought freedoms goodbye.
Movement in his periphery snapped Adrien from his thoughts, catching the eye of a teen making his way through the crowd. Adrien noted the cut and quality of the boy’s clothes, concluding that he must belong to yet another influential family. Curious, Adrien watched the stranger go through the motions of weaving around adults, popping up onto his toes to see over the crowd. Having failed to find what he was looking for, he fell back on his heels and shoved his hands through his hair.
“Dude,” Nino whispered, leaning over Adrien’s shoulder to get a look at who had caught his attention. “Nice dreads. You know him?”
“No.” A tingle at the base of his spine told Adrien he didn’t want to know him.
As if overhearing them, the teen swung around; Adrien cursed his luck for getting caught staring. That split second of regret was immediately overrode when something instinctual clicked on in the back of his mind. For no other reason than because they made eye-contact, tension shot through the length of Adrien’s body. He could feel his hackles rising, a powerful sense to be on his guard suddenly ringing loudly in his head. Had he been sitting there as Chat Noir, he might have hissed. He definitely would have been flexing his claws, reaching for his baton.
Instead, Adrien forced himself to unclench his fingers from his chair, inclining his head politely to the boy. Unfortunately, the other teen seemed to take that as an invitation, though he approached warily. Dark brown eyes flicked Nino only the most cursory of appraising glances before his attention was back to Adrien.
They were only feet away when the tension riding between them hit a fever pitch. Two predators sizing each other up.
Adrien couldn’t decide if it was the look of the stranger that was setting him on edge, the dogged smell of him, or just the vibe he sensed from the mere fact that the boy existed. Outwardly, there was nothing wrong about him that should be setting off such major alarm bells. He was moderately handsome, slightly taller than average height, and possessed of a build that was a tad stockier than Adrien’s own rangy figure. His lavender button down shirt stood out in sharp relief against his dark brown skin, a flash of gold in his hair revealing that he wore golden rings around a few of his long dreads. He was unassuming in every way, and yet somewhere in the back of Adrien’s mind was screaming to keep his guard up.
The sharp sting of miniature fangs sinking into his skin snapped Adrien out of the worst of his trance. He startled, jerking back in his seat, blinking to find clarity. He patted his hand above the breast pocket of the jacket he wore, grateful for Plagg’s good sense to snap him out of it before he’d committed a horrible faux pas. The kwami vibrated under his touch, equally as tense as Adrien had been.
When Adrien failed to show the slightest signs of engaging the stranger, Nino rushed in to fill the anxious silence. If he sensed the tension, he made no sign of it. In surprisingly good English, he said, “Hey, man, you trapped here, too?” He extended a hand between them.
Hesitating for a moment before tearing his eyes from Adrien, the teen shook Nino’s hand, his face shifting into something much more amiable. “I’m here until my parents say otherwise. You?”
“Mostly same, except we’re waiting on his father,” Nino replied, nodding to Adrien. “I’m Nino, this is Adrien.”
“John,” said the boy, turning to Adrien, offering his hand.
Adrien forced himself to take John’s hand, shaking it like a normal, civil person. And not tearing into him like a feral cat on a rampage.
“You’re French, aren’t you?” John wondered, his accent pegging him for someone who spoke native English though was not native to England. When he spoke again, surprisingly it was in French. “I wasn’t sure I was going to find any like-minded people around here.”
Adrien shot Nino a puzzled glance, completely thrown by the odd accent. It wasn’t bad French, per se, but it certainly was not Parisian French.
Seeing their bewilderment, John coughed into his fist. “Sorry, I speak Acadian French, and not that well apparently…”
“No, it’s fine,” Nino assured, continuing in their native tongue, waving to the chair next to him for John to take a seat. “Your French is fine, you just took us by surprise.” Quite bluntly, Nino came right out and said, “I didn’t expect you to be Canadian.”
"No one ever does," John laughed, continuing to stand, shoving his hands into his pockets. He cast a furtive glance around the room again, keeping a subtle eye on Adrien as if he didn’t dare look away for too long.
That was fine by Adrien. He was having a hard time forcing himself to blink in John’s presence. Every social nicety ever driven into himself since boyhood was jettisoned out a mental airlock in favour of an insistent sense of self-preservation. Had they been alone, he would have been sorely tempted to transform into Chat Noir.
Nino shot Adrien a ‘what the hell, man?’ look, clearly stunned that Monsieur Manners was daring to be blatantly rude. Stumbling for something to say before things fell into awkward territory, or worse, Nino asked, “Are you looking for someone?”
“You could say that,” John sighed. “I lost her not long after we got here.” His nostrils flared, his shoulders tensing up a moment later. “Never mind, I found her.”
Another wave of wariness crashed over Adrien’s skin, as abrasive as sand blasting against his nerves. His eyes jerked to the teenaged girl who materialized out of the crowd, noting that she was nowhere near dressed appropriately for the venue. Sporting windblown brown hair that hung in loose tangles down her back, she wore a long white tunic and a ratty black skirt that swept the floor. Adrien noticed, with a distinct amount of discomfort, that the girl wasn’t wearing any shoes.
Without turning to her, John grunted. “Sarah.”
Sarah flashed an insouciant grin, hazel eyes dancing. In English that marked her as a Londoner born and bred, she gaily exclaimed, “I have been making a killing in here, John! These people were in desperate need of my services! Palm readings, tarot, good luck charms-!”
John placed a hand over one of hers. “Not here, Sarah.”
“Oh?” Thus admonished, she blinked and turned on Adrien and Nino. Like John, she barely spared a glance for Nino, instead focusing in on Adrien with wide-eyed surprise that morphed quickly into delight. “Oh! Hello!” Obviously she shared none of the stiffness that was riding between the two males. Quite the opposite as she offered her hands to shake. “I didn’t expect to meet another one in here-.”
“Sarah!” John barked in warning, stopping Sarah on a guilty note. Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “They’re French.”
“Salut,” Nino laughed, giving her a cheeky salute.
Sarah’s face froze comically, the look of someone who had probably taken French since childhood and failed to remember even the basics. “Ah… Bon jour? Je suis, er, no… Je m’appelle…”
“Don’t worry, we speak English,” Nino assured.
“Oh, thank god!” Sarah breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. “I was afraid I was going to have to break out a translator spell- oof!” She glared over her shoulder, one foot rubbing the back of her leg as if she had been kicked. Blushing, she corrected herself stiltedly. “Break out a translator… spelling app on my phone.”
“You know, I got something like that on my phone, too,” Nino said, nodding agreeably. “I haven’t had to use it yet.”
“Well,” Sarah intoned brightly, “if you ever wanted a better one…”
A low, warning growl vibrated the air just under the din of noise in the dinner hall. Adrien’s hair stood on end, taking more effort than he cared to admit not to reply with an answering snarl. His fingers twitched with the need to call Plagg out and don his armour. On his finger, his ring was burning.
Before things took a turn for the worse, John reached out and took Sarah’s hand in his, drawing her away. He jerked his head in a stiff nod for Adrien and Nino, speaking through what sounded like a clenched jaw. “It was nice meeting both of you, but I think Sarah and I need to go. My- uh, parents are calling me over.”
“In a second,” Sarah insisted, swooping out of John’s vice grip to invade Adrien’s personal space. She smelled like potting soil and green things, and something else that rang familiar in the back of his mind though he couldn’t put a name to it. He nearly reeled away when he saw her reaching for his face. Locking his muscles, he watched her empty hand reach behind his ear and seemingly pull a small business card out of thin air. “If you ever happen to be in need of my services, give me a call.”
She barely had time to wink before John was dragging her through the crowd.
Nino leaned in to peer down at the white rectangle pinched between Adrien’s fingers. In plain black print, it read: Sarah Candlewick, Witch. And that was it.
“Weird,” Nino quipped, returning to his seat. “It doesn’t even have a number to contact her. You really think she was a witch?”
“I don’t know.” Adrien abruptly pushed himself away from the table, tucking the card into his pocket. “You think you’ll be okay here for a minute? I- er… have to use the washroom.”
“Yeah, go, I’ll be fine,” Nino said numbly, brow furrowed by Adrien’s off behaviour.
Unable to reassure his friend just yet, Adrien turned into the crowd and did his best to refuse eye-contact with anyone who tried to catch his attention. He broke out of the luncheon hall and immediately turned to his left, in the direction that his Chat Noir senses were tingling the strongest. Alarm bells were ringing in his head so loudly he could hardly hear himself think.
“Plagg,” Adrien hissed lowly, summoning the small creature from the depths of his jacket. “What were they?”
“Not our business, that’s what,” Plagg bit back, uncharacteristically terse. “Go back to the luncheon, Adrien. Leave them be.”
“I can’t.” His feet carried him without conscious thought, picking up speed down empty hallways. His blood was still pounding in his ears. He tried to caution himself, reasoning that he wasn’t on his home turf. He didn’t have Ladybug nearby for backup. But still he was racing headfirst in the direction that his sensed screamed the loudest. “They weren’t Miraculous holders. They weren’t akuma. What were they, Plagg? Don’t lie, I know you felt it, too.”
Plagg muttered something low and dirty, though his full answer was unnecessary the moment Adrien skidded past a nondescript exit propped open with a wet floor sign. Raised voices could be heard from the other side. Though he didn’t have enhanced senses in his current form, Adrien recognized the voices, and if he concentrated he could make out what they were saying. The crack between the doorframe and door offered the perfect vantage point through which to eavesdrop.
“You have to be more careful!” John exclaimed angrily, gravel crunching loudly as he paced. “If one of those people in there actually begins to take you seriously-!”
“Let them take me seriously!” Sarah yelled shrilly. “What does it matter if they believe what I am or not? This is who I am, John! That is what I am! I’m not ashamed of it! I don’t try to hide it!”
“Maybe you should!” John snarled, followed by a feminine gasp. Immediately after, his voice was quieter, sounding contrite. “You have to be careful. I can’t protect you if you’re going to throw yourself headfirst into danger without thinking. That guy in there? I don’t even know what he was.”
“He was powerful,” Sarah said.
“Exactly, and he was probably dangerous. And he was French! Which is why you should have stayed the hell away from him!”
“I’m not powerless!”
“But you are being stupid!”
Another outrage gasp echoed in the alley. “Do you even hear yourself right now?” Sarah snapped waspishly. “I can’t deal with you being so… so dog in the manger! Talk to me when you’re reasonable again-.”
“Sarah, don’t you walk away from me-!”
“Good thing I’m not walking!” A piercing whistle split the air. “Broom!”
Adrien watched in utter shock as a plain straw broom shot into the girl’s hand. She mounted, bolting into the sky. John swore after her, stalking off down the alley. For the longest time, Adrien stayed crouched where he was staring blankly at the now empty alley. His screaming instincts eventually quieted. Although his mind kept replaying what he had just seen, he still wasn’t sure if he had seen it correctly.
Plagg eventually came out of hiding, radiating annoyance. In the silence, he sneered, “You didn’t think you and Ladybug were the only magical beings in the world, did you?”
Adrien slid to the floor, shoving his back against the wall. He couldn’t bring himself to care that he was getting dust on his pressed trousers. Magic had been the foundation for a large chunk of his life for the better part of three years, and yet he could honestly say he had never given a thought to the fact that other magical beings might exist. Hell, he usually thought of himself as a superhero, a crime-fighter, before anything else. There was magic in his Miraculous, and that was about it.
Pushing to his feet, he numbly made his way back to the luncheon, where Nino had come back from the buffet with seconds. Adrien ghosted his way through the next hour, vaguely glad that he was in London right now rather than Paris.
At least if he was London, he didn’t need to worry about Papillon creating an akuma out of one very pissed off witch.