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            Her breath was ragged, muscles straining, crying out for relief. Even with her transformation still holding, she was feeling the heat.

            But Ladybug would not falter. She could not afford to. Not when they were so close, when they finally had Hawk Moth right where they wanted him…

            “On your left!”

            The warning came just in time for Ladybug to arc out of the way, her body twisting away from the attack sent towards her. She breathed a tiny sigh of relief, landing briefly on a rooftop before she sent her trusty yo-yo out once more, glancing over to the black shape that paused beside her.

            “Thanks, Chat,” she praised her partner, privately amused as his ears perked up, green eyes sparkling. So quick to let such minor thanks get to his head…

            “Of course, My Lady,” he replied in his typical fashion, a smirk twisting his lips, causing Ladybug to roll her eyes. Neither of them could be distracted for long tonight, however—focusing again in the distance, they could just make out the dark figure fleeing from them amongst a cloud of butterflies, butterflies he regularly sent towards them in a swarm in an attempt to throw them off. But Ladybug and Chat Noir would not be deterred.

            They were so close to ending this reign of terror in Paris, once and for all.

            With a quick nod to each other, the crime-fighting duo took to the skies once again, Ladybug soaring around with the help of her yo-yo, and Chat Noir clattering from roof to roof on all fours, both their sights set on the retreating figure that was Hawk Moth as he fled. Ladybug still had no idea why he had chosen to reveal himself to them tonight, in person—perhaps he was tired of his champions failing him all the time, and had come to do the job that ought to have been done himself ages ago. Perhaps whatever he needed their Miraculous for simply couldn’t wait any longer. Whatever his reason, their fight had been long and arduous, but once it became clear that he could not best the both of them, he was now attempting to retreat, and no doubt resume his evil schemes at first chance.

            But he would not be given that chance again.

            Not if Ladybug had anything to say about it.

            “You can’t fly forever, Hawk Moth!” She called at the villain’s back as she and Chat Noir swooped closer and closer to their enemy, despite wave after wave of butterflies that he shot at them. For some reason, it didn’t strike him to akumatize any of the late-night citizens watching their high-speed chase—perhaps he needed time he didn’t have to do that? Ladybug wouldn’t complain; they had already had enough trouble with Hawk Moth’s akumas before tonight. Enough was enough.

            As they pursued him across the rooftops, Ladybug kept her eyes open, intending to spy any opportunity to slow him up. And the opportunity presented itself in the twin chimneys just a little ways away, a perfect distance from each other to suit Ladybug’s needs.

            “Keep on him!” She instructed Chat Noir as she swung away, “I have a plan!”

            “Right!” Chat Noir poured on the speed, cat eyes narrowed on Hawk Moth’s back. Ladybug trusted he would make just enough trouble to make Hawk Moth feel the heat, evidenced by the butterflies Hawk Moth sent at him. She only had a little time to pull this off—Hawk Moth would notice too soon that she was no longer with Chat, and she couldn’t let him catch on before she executed her plan.

            As tempting as it was to use her Lucky Charm for her purposes, Ladybug couldn’t run the risk of something crazy popping out, and so she deferred to her ever-reliable yo-yo, touching down behind the nearest chimney. So focused on her task was she, whirling the yo-yo to the opposite chimney and pulling the string taut, that Ladybug, in her haste, missed a crucial, life-altering detail.

            She only took notice of it as Hawk Moth, apparently eager to shake his pursuer, fell right into her trap.

            Ladybug gasped as he tripped, tall form flailing, toppling over the edge of the roof, yet he still managed to be graceful, like a butterfly—

            A butterfly without wings.

            As he tripped, Hawk Moth lost his grip on his cane, and therefore seemed unable to call his butterflies to his aid. And so he fell, head-first, plummeting to the streets of Paris.

            “NO!”

            Ladybug wrenched her yo-yo away from the chimney, speeding to the edge of the roof. A frantic kind of energy lanced through her as she sent it out, desperate to catch Hawk Moth before he could fall further than was allowed—it couldn’t happen. Ladybug wanted him to pay for his crimes against Paris, of course, but to pay this way—

            “Hawk Moth!” She shouted desperately as the villain whirled in mid-air, turning to face her, his dark eyes wide with fear, “Grab my yo-yo!”

            Needing no other invitation, Hawk Moth reached out, scrabbling for the yo-yo. His fingers grazed the disk—

            CRUNCH.

            Ladybug stood at the edge of the roof, in shock.

            No…it couldn’t have happened. It could not have happened…

            Chat Noir was there and gone; he spared her a glance as he passed, but Ladybug wouldn’t meet it, afraid she would see the terrible accusation in his eyes, the accusation she could feel burning within her, clawing up her throat, searing her skin—

            A crowd was beginning to form, the hushed murmur making everything worse. In a haze, Ladybug jumped down to the street, numb with shock.

            Hawk Moth was barely stirring. It was with dim hope that Ladybug prayed that his suit absorbed most of the shock, that he would survive the fall—

            As if Fate was eager to snuff out the thin ray of hope, with a flash, Hawk Moth’s transformation began to come undone, slowly and slowly, the power leaving him until all that remained—

            Ladybug’s gasp was lost in a sea of surprised exclamation.

            “Gabriel Agreste!” Someone whispered nearby, shock rippling through the crowd, echoing through Ladybug, clawing under her skin.

            Gabriel Agreste…

            Ladybug sank to her knees next to the fallen fashion icon, her breath hitching in her chest.

            “I didn’t mean to,” she managed to splutter, wide blue eyes staring, unable to tear her gaze away from her crime. “I—I’m sorry. I never meant—”

            “It…is fine…” Gabriel Agreste managed to choke out. Ladybug jumped as he offered his hand to her, something clenched within it. “I…have failed…thus…I am…unworthy…”

            “Someone call an ambulance!” Someone in the crowd shouted, and the noise level increased, but Ladybug was still able to hear the whimpered words of Gabriel Agreste, his every breath seeming a struggle.

            “Take it…” He pushed the thing into Ladybug’s hands, and she cupped her fingers around it, glancing down at a small pendant winged with gossamer fabric.

            Hawk Moth’s Miraculous…

            Mr. Agreste coughed, and Ladybug was dealt another blow as she bore witness to the blood coating his lip from such an action. The crowd continued to shift around them, and the distant call of a siren could be heard.

            “My son…” He rasped, eyes fixed on a point over Ladybug’s shoulder. “My son…I am…so sorry…I only…wanted…what…was best…”

            His hand lifted again, as if to reach out for someone, but suddenly, the light within his eyes vanished, and his hand dropped back to the ground. He did not move again.

            Ladybug did not know how long she knelt there, staring down at the still form of Gabriel Agreste. She was barely aware when the police and the EMTs arrived, ushering the crowd back as they lifted the body into the ambulance. There were news reporters everywhere, cameras and microphones shoved in her face, but she could feel nothing, nothing.

            Gabriel Agreste—Hawk Moth—was dead.

            And it was all her fault.

            There was a dim pressure on her arm. In a trance, Ladybug looked over, spotting the back of Chat Noir as he led her away. The reporters attempted to follow, of course, so Chat poured on the speed. Ladybug followed him, her instincts taking over, and together, they fled to where no reporter, no matter how determined, could follow.

            The heroes only paused when they were so high up that the world below seemed ages away. They stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, as if their vigilance meant something.

            As if Ladybug hadn’t just shredded their world apart with a single, stupid mistake.

            Chat Noir stood sentinel beside her, for once, silent.

            And Ladybug looked down at the city she loved, thinking of its citizens, its people…how there was one less among them…and what that meant now.

            Her hand closed tightly around the Miraculous in her hand. The kwami did not appear—whether by choice or by inability, Ladybug didn’t know or care. She would honestly prefer not to meet the fairy whose master she just killed…but its disapproval was the last thing on her mind.

            “Adrien…”

            The name slipped from her finally, as it had been buzzing around in her mind for the last…how long had it been? She had no way of knowing. Time had lost meaning, now.

            Chat’s head snapped towards her, his ears forward as he stared at her.

            “What?” He sounded off, his voice too throaty. He was probably struggling with what happened about as much as she was. Ladybug tried to take some comfort from that.

            “Adrien Agreste,” she said, her heart pounding in her throat. “I…h-he doesn’t know. What happened. I…I have to tell him.”

            The very thought sent a ripple of fear through her.

            To tell Adrien—Adrien Agreste, the boy she loved—that she was responsible for his father’s death…what would he say?

            Ladybug swallowed. Although she was afraid, it wasn’t right to leave things like this. She had to tell Adrien what happened to his father…what she did. She had to—

            Just as she turned to leave, her arm was seized.

            “Ladybug.” The voice behind her was flat, emotionless. “Don’t.”

            “What do you mean, ‘don’t’?” She asked him, turning towards Chat, finally meeting his eyes for the first time since…since it happened. Chat’s eyes usually glittered brighter than usual during the night—it was his domain, after all. Tonight, however, there was no spark, no impishness, nothing. His eyes were flat, just like his voice, and it scared Ladybug.

            “Let the police handle it,” he advised her. Appalled, Ladybug pulled her arm free of his grip.

            “The police? I can’t do that! Adrien, he—”

            “Ladybug, think,” Chat suddenly snarled at her, seizing her shoulders and making her stay put. There was something burning in his eyes now, and Ladybug flinched, avoiding his gaze, unwilling to see the disappointment there, to witness his lost faith in her with her own two eyes— “If you stroll in there tonight and just…just tell him that his father’s dead…what would he think of you?”

            And that was it: Chat Noir said the very thing that Ladybug feared, and it made her throat close up.

            There was no doubt about it, how Adrien would react if Ladybug dared to tell him how his father died—he would hate her.

            ‘He would hate Ladybug,’ her thoughts corrected, but it wasn’t much help—she was Ladybug, so in the end, it amounted to the same thing.

            If Adrien hated Ladybug, he would hate her.

            And if he hated her…

            Her shoulders slumped in defeat. As if he felt the fight leave her, Chat Noir’s hands slid away from her shoulders. Ladybug was a little surprised—she sort of expected him to try and cheer her up some way, possibly hug her, or assure her that what happened wasn’t her fault.

            He didn’t. He just stood there, staring at her.

            Judging her.

            Ladybug took a shuddering breath, her hands closing around her elbows, as if it would help her sudden, staggering helplessness. The Miraculous she held dug into her elbow, bringing it to her attention once again.

            “Hawk Moth’s Miraculous—”

            Chat Noir reached out, taking it into his clawed grasp.

            “I’ll take it to Master Fu,” he said, and Ladybug jolted with the knowledge that Chat knew the old master, too. But of course, he must—Master Fu was the guardian of the Miraculous, the one who gave her and Chat Noir these powers in the first place.

            The powers that Ladybug had grievously and foolishly misused in her desperation to beat Hawk Moth, once and for all…

            “Chat,” she said quietly as the leather-clad superhero made his way to the edge of the tower, withdrawing his extending staff. He paused, sparing her a glance over his shoulder, a glance that spoke volumes of what Ladybug must have done to their partnership as well, with such a terrible mistake. Swallowing against the lump in her throat, Ladybug forced the words out of her mouth that would not make the situation better, but would, perhaps, lessen her grief a little more— “Chat, I’m—”

            “I don’t blame you, Ladybug,” Chat cut her off, turning to face away as he said it. His ears were pressed against his shaggy blonde hair. “We all make the decisions we have to. You made yours…and so did Hawk Moth.”

            The words didn’t make her feel any better. Ladybug stepped forward, poised to say more, to attempt to make Chat understand just how much she did not want this to happen, but he was already gone, vaulting from the tower and disappearing into the night. Ladybug watched him go, her throat constricted, the sound of her beeping Miraculous eventually spurring her into movement. She headed for home, fighting her tears the whole way until she was able to drop into her skylight, shake off the transformation, and then curl into a ball on her bed, her shuddering breaths painful.

            Ladybug had failed. She had failed.

            Her job was to protect the city, but that didn’t make it okay to murder the villains, even if it was an accident.

            And the worst part?

            A tiny, tiny part of her was relieved—relieved that there would be no more Hawk Moth to terrorize the city and interrupt her normal, everyday life.

            No more Hawk Moth…which meant there was no more need for Ladybug.

            “Marinette?”

            Marinette burrowed her face into her pillow. She did not want to see Tikki, did not want to see those big, indigo eyes judging her as well. Chat Noir was obviously disappointed in her, and that was bad in its own way, but Tikki being disappointed in her? How could Marinette live with herself?

            “It’s okay, Marinette,” the kwami tried anyway, despite Marinette’s refusal to look at her. “I don’t blame you. You only did what you thought was right.”

            “Tikki,” Marinette sobbed, unable to stop the tears now. “I didn’t mean to kill him.”

            “You didn’t, Marinette, you didn’t. It was an accident.”

            “An accident that killed someone!” Marinette cried, crossing her arms over her head, as if it could shield her from the wave of guilt roaring over her head, threatening to pull her under so deep that she would never be able to surface for air again. “I—I was so desperate to finally catch him that I didn’t think, Tikki, I didn’t realize that I was standing on the edge of a roof until it was too late, and now he’s—he’s…”

            Marinette sobbed, the scene replaying over and over in her mind: Hawk Moth’s eyes contracting with fear, his fingers scraping her yo-yo as she tried to rectify her mistake, the sound his body made when it hit the concrete—

            “I killed him, Tikki,” she moaned, soaking her pillow with her tears. “He’s never going to come back…and now Adrien has no one…because of me.

            Nothing Tikki said made any difference—Marinette was inconsolable, crying until there was no moisture left in her body to exhaust, and she dry-heaved, but her stomach was too knotted for her to even vomit.

            Despite the events of the night before, the sun rose dutifully as always, though Marinette felt it was out of spite today, forcing her to face the day before she was ready. Her unusual quiet might have alerted her parents to the fact that something was wrong, but they were both glued to the news broadcast, the announcement flashing all over Paris:

            “GABRIEL AGRESTE, FASHION ICON, SECRET VILLAIN HAWK MOTH, DEAD. LADYBUG AND CHAT NOIR VICTORIOUS.”

            Marinette hated it. Not only did she not want Ladybug’s name to be stained with such a crime, but to drag Chat Noir into it, when he hadn’t even done anything wrong—it sickened her. She wished she could talk to him, to see how he was faring with this whole fiasco, but all too soon, it was time for her to leave for school.

            Francoise Dupont was abuzz, students talking in excited whispers as they passed through the school. Marinette passed through them, letting her best friend Alya chat at her rather than talking to her—she had apparently been there last night, and had filmed the whole, devastating moment.

            “It was…” She paused for a moment, the tip of her tongue tracing the roof of her mouth. Ultimately, she shook her head, as if words would not do her thoughts justice. “Really, all I can say is that Ladybug did her job, one way or another.”

            “Then you approve?” Marinette asked before she could stop herself as they trudged to homeroom. “Of what she did?”

            Alya frowned at this.

            “Well…I wish there was a different way,” she admitted, looking uncomfortable for a moment. “And I really wish the bad guy hadn’t been Adrien’s father…but, y’know. Life can’t always turn out the way you want it to. At least our classmates won’t suddenly turn into monsters anymore just because they have a bad day, right? It’s hard enough, dealing with teenage hormones without that getting in the way.”

            Leave it to Alya to focus on the positives, Marinette supposed. She was feeling marginally better at this point, but then they entered homeroom, and she found Adrien’s chair unoccupied. That sent her mood plummeting straight into the pit once again.

            “Hey,” Nino greeted them, looking how Marinette felt on the inside.

            “Hey,” Alya returned, laying a hand on Nino’s shoulder and giving it a squeeze. “How’re you holding up, champ?”

            Nino gave a shrug.

            “I’m fine. It’s not me I’m worried about, anyway.” He cast a sideways glance at the bench beside him, as if staring long and hard enough would make Adrien pop into existence. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts or calls.”

            “He just needs some time,” Alya claimed wisely. “I don’t blame him for wanting to stay home—did you see the flock of reporters swarming the school outside? Yeesh.

            “His house can’t be much better.” Nino tapped the desk with his fingers, an agitated rhythm flowing through the beat. “Man, this sucks. I don’t wanna be here—I don’t even think I could focus. I want to check up on him.”

            “We’ll go after school,” Alya assured him with another squeeze to his shoulder. Nino sighed, but one of his hands reached up, squeezing Alya’s hand in return.

            Miss Bustier walked in at that moment, and the chatter died down relatively quickly. She paused, setting her belongings on the desk, her gaze going briefly to Adrien’s empty seat before she addressed the class.

            “I know many of you are…concerned…about what happened last night,” she said delicately, brushing that stray strand of red hair that always came loose from her bun out of her face. “Many of us are shocked, I’m sure, about what happened.”

            “I don’t believe a word of it!” Came an outburst from the front row. Marinette’s gaze shifted, feeling only a mild spark of irritation as Chloe Bourgeois slammed her hands on the desk in front of her, baby blue eyes livid. “There is absolutely no way Adrien’s father was responsible! I smell a cover-up!”

            “The Ladyblog has the reveal recorded,” Kim pointed out with a shrug of his shoulders.

            “True, it does,” Alya agreed, and Marinette detected just a hint of pride in her best friend’s voice. “But even if it weren’t, why would Ladybug lie about something so important?”

            “There must have been some mistake!” Chloe persisted stubbornly. “Uncle Gabriel was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time! Or, he could’ve been blackmailed into being there, dressed as Hawk Moth, and Ladybug mistook him for the real thing!”

            “Ladybug would never make a mistake like that!” Alya argued, getting heated now as she leaned across the desk to glare at Chloe. “She’s a superhero!”

            “She’s been fooled before! And besides, did she have to push him off the roof?! Why wasn’t capturing him good enough?!”

            Marinette felt her face drain of blood.

            “She didn’t push him! He fell!”

            “She was still involved,” Sabrina pointed out, though she looked slightly uncomfortable doing so. “She tripped him.”

            “It was an accident!” Alya persisted, slamming her fist into the desk.

            “Oh really?” Chloe sneered, pointing a perfectly manicured nail towards the empty seat besides Nino. “Try telling that to Adrien!”

            Adrien.

            Marinette felt tears well up in her eyes once again.

            Adrien wasn’t here. Adrien had lost his father because of her.

            Adrien was suffering because of her.

            “That’s enough,” Miss Bustier called, sternly cutting through the impromptu class debate. Silence fell, silence that felt stifling to Marinette. “What’s done is done. Despite our…personal feelings about the matter, nothing can be done to change it. Class will continue as usual today, and despite last night’s events, I expect you all to give your full attention to your studies—”

            “Miss Bustier,” Marinette interrupted, her voice small, yet still, somehow, carrying. “I don’t feel very well. May I please be excused?”

            Miss Bustier looked Marinette up and down, appearing to appraise her. It was true that Marinette was infamous for wild excuses as for why she was often tardy—or often missing—class: a bear took off with her purse, she thought she left the oven on, there was a stray kitten she had to rescue from a tree, things of that nature. She offered up no excuse this time, and Miss Bustier must have registered the paleness of her face and the moisture in her eyes, for her green eyes softened.

            “All right, Marinette,” she allowed with a decisive nod, “have your parents call the school when you return, and I will excuse you for the day.”

            Marinette nodded, picking up her school bag and moving stiffly to the door, feeling the eyes of her classmates trail behind her.

            Marinette didn’t feel any better as she stood on the steps of her school. Chloe’s words, though Marinette had trained herself not to react to them as the year wore on, cut deep this time. She didn’t know what Adrien was told by the police, but surely he knew at this point, didn’t he? That she was responsible for his misery? That she had killed…

            ‘I need to see him.

            That singular thought was what pushed Marinette off school grounds, not towards home, but towards the mansion she knew Adrien resided in. He had to be home…if he agreed to see her, then Marinette would…what? Apologize? For what? She was Marinette right now, not Ladybug. And though that could change with a simple transformation, Tikki tucked safely away in her purse as usual…did she dare to show her face to Adrien? Especially with the mask on?

            Swallowing, Marinette made her way to Adrien’s place of residence on foot. If he didn’t agree to see Marinette…well, as Ladybug, she would figure it out from there. She just had to see him—

            A large crowd of reporters blocked the entrance of the mansion from view. Cameras were held at the ready, reporters speaking urgently into their microphones, looking serious. But that wasn’t what caught Marinette’s attention.

            A large truck idled in front of the Agreste Mansion, and, as Marinette watched, boxes were being removed from the mansion…boxes labeled things like ‘clothes’ and ‘dishwear’.

            The lump that had been lodged in her throat since last night grew impossibly larger.

            Suddenly, the flock of reporters grew excited, cameras flashing brightly, calling out, “Mr. Agreste! Mr. Agreste!”

            Marinette’s eyes snapped to the entrance of the mansion, somehow expecting, by some miracle, to see Gabriel Agreste standing there, sternly surveying the crowd.

            But it was Adrien.

            Marinette surged forward, elbowing her way through the crowd to the front, but was promptly pulled up short by the ring of bodyguards that surrounded the entrance of the mansion, preventing the reporters from edging any closer. Marinette peeked under the nearest bodyguard’s arm, watching with her heart thumping wildly as Adrien descended the steps, a stern-looking woman at his side—Nathalie, Marinette was sure her name was. They were both dressed head to toe in black, as if wishing to be discreet, but from the look on Adrien’s face, it appeared to be more than just the desire for privacy that drove his wardrobe choice. Her heart constricted, watching as Nathalie muttered something to Adrien, her hand on his shoulder. He nodded once, and they headed for the limo parked outside the gate. As he turned towards it, Marinette spotted the duffel bag on his shoulder…the very full, very permanent-looking duffel bag…

            “Adrien!” She was suddenly crying out, disregarding the bodyguard, who attempted to push her back. “Adrien! Adrien!!”

            Somehow, amidst all the people crying for his attention, Adrien heard her. He glanced up, locking gazes with her, his usually bright green eyes dull.

            The sight hurt Marinette far worse than she was expecting it to.

            He said something to Nathalie, who frowned, but nonetheless nodded. Approaching swiftly, she tapped the bodyguard blocking Marinette on the shoulder.

            “Adrien would like to see this young lady,” she said briskly. The bodyguard frowned just like her, but he ultimately shifted to the side, allowing just enough room for Marinette to slide through. Shooting Nathalie a grateful look, she moved forward, her shyness returning as she approached Adrien.

            “Uhm, h-hi, Adrien,” she stammered, wanting sorely to kick herself…or disappear into the earth. One of the two.

            A corner of Adrien’s mouth quirked up.

            “Hi, Marinette,” he greeted, and Marinette hated herself for the thrill that still shot through her from him speaking her name.

            ‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she told herself sternly, looking up at him as he paused next to the limo, hand resting on the door. She meant to ask him how he was—though she could guess, what with the circles that lined his eyes—but what came out instead was:

            “Where are you going?”

            “Ah…” Adrien glanced away from her. “Milan.”

            “Mi—” Marinette hastily corrected her squawk of surprise, abruptly wary of the crowd of reporters snapping pictures of and filming them, desperate to catch every word. “Milan?” She repeated in a much quieter voice.

            “Yeah.” Adrien hoisted the duffel bag higher on his shoulder. “I have some family there, on my mom’s side. I’m going to go live with them for a while.”

            “Oh…”

            Marinette didn’t know what to say. She had been so focused on the tragedy that had occurred that she didn’t even think of how it would continue to affect Adrien. Why didn’t she realize that he wouldn’t be able to stay in Paris like this? Not with both of his parents…gone.

            The sadness must have shown on her face, for Adrien reached out, resting a hand on her shoulder.

            “Don’t look like that, Marinette,” he encouraged softly, still attempting a brave smile. “I’ll be all right. I just…need to get away for a while. Let things calm down.”

            “Right,” Marinette muttered. Her heart gave a painful squeeze as the warmth of Adrien’s hand left her shoulder.

            “I’ll keep in touch,” he promised. Marinette looked up at him then, into those bright green eyes she so admired—green eyes that held all the pain of the world currently sitting on Adrien’s shoulders. If what he needed was to get away, then Marinette couldn’t possibly begrudge his leaving. If it helped him to run from his father’s wrongdoings in Paris—from such an awful legacy—then Marinette only had to smile and wish him well.

            But…

            “I’ll miss you,” she mumbled, dropping her gaze immediately to her shoes, unable to face him as her face flooded with heat. Adrien laughed a little, the sound strained.

            “I’ll miss you, too. You were a good friend to me, Mari.”

            Mari. A nickname.

            And she had been a good friend to him.

            Marinette’s head snapped up once again, desperation driving her now. He said he’d keep in touch, but how could Marinette trust that he actually would? Wouldn’t he be busy settling into a new place, a new school, making new friends…maybe meeting a girl he liked…

            As soon as he was gone, wouldn’t he just forget all about someone like Marinette?

            “Adrien,” she began, her heart hammering in her throat, as if it yearned to be free of her body, “I…I…”

            ‘Just say it!’ Her mind screamed, but she choked on the words, as if her body was rebelling. Still, her mind persisted. ‘Say it already! He could be gone forever after this! Tell him how you feel!

            Marinette wished for Ladybug’s persona, for her strength. Ladybug would be able to tell him how she felt, that she had been head over heels in love with him ever since that fateful rainy day he held out his umbrella to an obstinate girl with the wrong impression of him. She would be able to tell him that she loved him…

            But Ladybug had killed his father.

            And Marinette was Ladybug.

            She couldn’t tell him. She didn’t deserve to let him know how she felt.

            Adrien gave her a curious look, but suddenly, Nathalie was there.

            “We must go, Adrien. Your flight leaves in an hour.”

            “Right…” Adrien pushed his duffel bag into the back of the car and climbed in after it, Nathalie getting into the car from the other side. Marinette stared at her own reflection in the car window as the door slammed shut, but the window whirred down, revealing Adrien’s face once again. That painful smile was still on his face, green eyes unbearably sad as he gazed at her.

            She didn’t deserve to look at him.

            “Well…bye, Marinette.”

            Marinette’s lip trembled. She raised a hand in half-hearted farewell, unable to say anything, for fear that she would burst into tears the minute she dared to open her mouth.

            With nothing left to say, the window whirred back into place, and Marinette was stuck with her face mirrored back at her for just a moment before the car pulled away, bodyguards forming a protective line to allow the car to speed away, news vans giving chase as soon as their equipment was packed up. A few lingered behind, daring to question Marinette, but she was so unresponsive that they quickly lost interest and packed up as well. Marinette cast one last look at the now empty Agreste mansion before slowly trudging home.

            Adrien was gone. Mr. Agreste was dead.

            And it was all—all of it, every single bit of it—Ladybug’s fault.

            Her fault.

 


 

            Chat Noir was nowhere to be found.

            Though Ladybug searched high and low for him three nights in a row, calling him on her communicator and visiting all their usual patrol haunts, she just couldn’t catch a glimpse of the leather-clad cat boy. And that made her very, very uneasy.

            ‘He said he didn’t blame me,’ Ladybug reminded herself as she swung through the city, attempting to work off the nervous energy that now possessed her body. ‘He said that we all had made our choices, that Hawk Moth basically brought this upon himself…

            But he could have been lying to make her feel better. He had barely looked at her as he said such words, disappearing into the night with Hawk Moth’s Miraculous…

            …Which he had promised to deliver to Master Fu.

            Ladybug paused, landing on a nearby lamppost as she thought. Master Fu must have seen Chat Noir, then. Maybe he would be able to tell her where he’d gotten himself to.

            Her next course of action assured, Ladybug made her way to the old master’s massage parlor, taking care to avoid the reporters out searching for her. Since Sunday night, they hounded the streets for her, wanting an official statement on what really happened during her last struggle with Hawk Moth. And since Ladybug had been reliving that night in her dreams a little too much lately, she wasn’t very keen on giving the reporters an official statement on anything. It felt too…

            Final.

            Sighing, she dropped down into a safe, dark alley before letting go of her transformation, allowing Tikki to swoop into her purse before she approached the massage parlor. Despite the late hour, the lights were on inside. Marinette knocked, and was invited to enter, surprised to find the door unlocked.

            “Master Fu?” Marinette called as she stepped carefully inside, self-conscious, despite being inside the massage parlor a couple times before. She found the old man off to the side, having tea with a green kwami, a small antenna on its head and a turtle shell attached to its back. Master Fu looked up, smiling at the sight of Marinette.

            “Ah, Ladybug,” he greeted, causing Marinette to blush; though Master Fu had given her the Ladybug Miraculous in the first place, it was still so strange having someone else know her secret identity.

            “I’m sorry to disturb you so late,” she apologized, bowing carefully. Master Fu waved off her concerns.

            “Do not fret, you are not disturbing me. I was simply having a tea break with my good friend Wayzz before my next client.” He gestured to the green kwami sitting upon the table, holding its own, smaller cup of tea. “You remember Wayzz, of course.”

            “Of course.” Marinette waved to Wayzz, who smiled at her, before releasing Tikki from her bag, remembering that it was safe to do so in Master Fu’s presence. Tikki nuzzled into Master Fu’s cheek for a moment before she joined Wayzz on the table.

            “You look troubled, Ladybug,” Master Fu noted as Marinette took a seat on the cushion he offered her. “Would you like some tea?”

            “Thank you, but I don’t think tea can help me,” Marinette answered honestly. Master Fu chuckled, pouring tea from a tea pot that looked like it came straight from ancient China.

            “You’d be surprised at the good a simple cup of tea can do,” he told her, handing the cup over to her. And, Marinette had to admit, whether by truth or by placebo, the warm liquid did help ease the ball of anxiety in her chest a little. “Now, what can I do for you?”

            Marinette stared down into her tea cup, focusing on the murky depths of the tea as she spoke.

            “You…you know what’s happened, don’t you?” She glanced up anxiously at Master Fu. “About…about Hawk Moth. Who he was.” Her head hung again. “What I did.”

            “Mm, yes. I, too, watch the news,” Master Fu said gently. When Marinette dared to peek up at him again, he was looking away, out into space, stroking his beard. “I was very surprised to find that Gabriel Agreste was the perpetrator this whole time. I cannot begin to guess at his motivations…” He turned to Marinette, pinning her with his dark gaze. “Did he say anything to you? Before he…perished?”

            Marinette felt herself go white once more. As much as she didn’t want to relive that night…Master Fu deserved answers. So she took a deep breath, summoning all the grit she could muster as Marinette Dupain-Cheng.

            Surprising herself, it was a lot.

            “He didn’t say much…just about how he failed, and it made him unworthy? And then…” Marinette’s fists tightened in her lap. “He was talking about Adrien…about he was sorry, and how he only wanted what was best for him…”

            “Hmm,” Master Fu hummed, stroking his beard once again. He was quiet for a long time afterwards.

            “That’s when he gave me his Miraculous,” Marinette recalled. This caught Master Fu’s attention quite abruptly.

            “Really? You have his Miraculous?”

            “We don’t,” Tikki piped up from the table, from where she was munching on some sort of biscuit that Master Fu had a plate of to go along with the tea. “Chat Noir has it.”

            “He does?”

            “He was supposed to give it to you,” Marinette said, searching the old master’s face anxiously. “You mean he…didn’t?”

            Master Fu shook his head, looking troubled for the first time since Marinette had known him.

            “No. Sadly, I haven’t seen whisker nor tail of Chat Noir in a while.”

            Now Marinette was really worried.

            Only this time, her worry transformed immediately into irritation.

            “Where is he?!” She huffed, slamming her empty hand onto her thigh in irritation. “I haven’t seen him all week! He didn’t even give you the Butterfly Miraculous like he was supposed to! What is he doing?

            “Perhaps Chat Noir has his own business to attend to for now,” said Master Fu mysteriously. That didn’t make Marinette feel any better about the situation, and her pout only grew more pronounced. Before she could rage any more, however, Master Fu derailed her. “But back to Gabriel Agreste…what is to become of his son?”

            If possible, Marinette’s spirits managed to sink even lower.

            “Adrien moved to Milan on Monday,” she reported, her voice hollow. “No one’s heard from him since.”

            And though the whole class felt his loss, it affected Nino most obviously, his enthusiasm for anything seemingly vanishing; he only stared at the walls now, and ate lunch by himself, subdued. Chloe was as nasty as ever, but it seemed to be only out of habit now more than anything, and Marinette…

            Well, Marinette was coping. It helped that no one else knew just how much she felt for Adrien besides Alya, who was tactful enough not to bring him up. Once or twice, she thought about messaging him on Facebook…but then ultimately shut the idea down.

            She was responsible for his father’s death. She had no right to speak to him.

            Master Fu hummed some more.

            “I see.” He stroked his beard again, surveying Marinette. “Well, I hope the young man will be able to turn his life around in a new place.” He gave Marinette a knowing look. “But that is not all you came to see me about, Ladybug.”

            Marinette blushed.

            “H-how—”

            “When you have lived as long as I have,” Master Fu said genially as he refilled his tea cup, “you find that people become more and more easy to read...as long as you know what to look for.” He refilled Marinette’s cup, as well as cups for the kwamis, and simply waited, observing her with keen interest.

            It was those eyes that seemed to know all, so wise in age, yet somehow, so youthfully energetic, that spurred Marinette into speech.

            “I think it’s time I return my Miraculous to you.”

            She regretted the words as soon as she said them—Tikki choked on the biscuit she was eating, and Wayzz had to thump her hard on the back to clear her mouth.

            “Marinette!” She protested, zooming into the air to hover inches from Marinette’s face. “What are you saying?! You can’t just stop being Ladybug!”

            “Why not?” Marinette challenged, growing stubborn, though it was hard to look at Tikki. “Hawk Moth’s…he’s gone. There’s no more need for a superhero if there’s no supervillain, right?”

            “What about other kinds of bad guys? Are you willing to just let them have the city?!”

            “The police can handle regular bad guys. They’re on the same level.”

            “But Paris needs you!”

            “Paris doesn’t need a hero that murders villains!” Marinette shouted, startling Tikki out of the air. The kwami fluttered to the floor, looking up at Marinette with her big, sad, indigo eyes.

            “Marinette…” But it didn’t seem like Tikki had anything to say to her. Marinette watched, with no small amount of guilt, as her kwami—her friend—buzzed sadly back to the table, sitting with her back to Marinette, Wayzz patting her back again, this time in comfort.

            Master Fu said nothing during that whole exchange, watching Marinette again, as if he was watching an interesting T.V. program. Marinette averted her gaze from him.

            “All I’m saying,” she began in a would-be calm voice, “is that it seems, well, greedy, to keep my Miraculous when Paris is no longer in danger.” She traced a finger over the now familiar earrings, the thought of giving them up heartbreaking. A part of her didn’t want to give up being Ladybug—she loved being Ladybug, having the freedom and the power to make a difference in the world.

            But if all she was going to be remembered for from now on was murdering her enemies…

            If that was her legacy, then Marinette was no better than Hawk Moth.

            She didn’t deserve to be Ladybug.

            “…You are heavy with guilt,” Master Fu said after a moment, and Marinette forced herself to meet his eyes. His sad, ancient eyes. “I understand, Ladybug—being a superhero is not easy. There are times when you have to make impossible choices, choices that could eat at you for the rest of your life…if you let them.”

            Master Fu leaned forward, his wrinkled hands reaching forward. Marinette hesitated a second, and then set her tea cup to the side, allowing him to take her hands.

            “Such kind hands,” Master Fu remarked rather cryptically, turning Marinette’s hands over in his own gnarled fingers. “They bear labors of love—burns from the ovens of your parents’ bakery, needle pricks from gifts you’ve sewn for your friends. These are kind, gentle hands, who know what it is to hold a life in them.” He closed Marinette’s hands, eyes going to hers once again. “And these hands now know what it’s like to let a life slip through them.

            “You now know the full value of a life, Ladybug,” Master Fu continued, releasing Marinette’s hands. “Very few people do. It is both a great gift, and a terrible burden—much like being a superhero. And the two are not unrelated.”

            “What does that mean?” Marinette had to ask, confused on where this conversation was going.

            “It means, Ladybug, that because you know the full value of a life now, it makes you even more qualified to be the keeper of the Ladybug Miraculous,” Master Fu explained, much to Marinette’s astonishment. “You alone know what it means to value every human life, no matter how feeble or strong, no matter how pure or tainted. You are the kind of hero that can make the tough decisions—that will make the tough decisions—because you now know both sides of the same coin.” Master Fu smiled at Marinette’s perplexed look. “In short, it is your compassion for your enemy that makes you a hero. Not your Miraculous.”

            Honestly, it was the kind of mystical horse puckey Marinette expected old masters of any trade to spout, when giving their students advice. How many times had she heard advice of the same grain recited in old martial arts films she watched with her dad? Or in the video games she played? Never in her wildest dreams would Marinette believe she’d be hearing something like this in person.

            …But then again, she never dreamed of being a superhero until it happened, either.

            And yet, though she was tempted to brush it off as loony sage advice, the confidence with which Master Fu spoke kept her mulling over the words, like there was still some hidden meaning there that she had yet to discern.

            She had messed up, had taken a life—the life of her enemy. But because she now felt unworthy of the Miraculous she held…that made her even more worthy?

            Marinette honestly didn’t get it. But something in her told her not to disregard the words. After all, Master Fu had been doing this for way longer than she had. He knew what he was talking about.

            “Well…thank you, Master Fu,” she said to him, though she did give him a curious, searching glance as she got to her feet. “I will…consider what you said.”

            “I hope so, Ladybug,” he said, getting to his feet as well, with just a little bit more trouble than Marinette. “Should you need guidance from me again, I’m always here. Or should you just want a friendly chat and a cup of tea, I am here, too.” He smiled. “Don’t be self-conscious about dropping in either way.”

            “Thank you,” Marinette said again, returning his smile. As she turned, heading for the door, a thought struck her, and she glanced over her shoulder. “…Are you coming, Tikki?”

            It was up to her, really—Marinette realized she had hurt the kwami with her thoughtless words, and was planning in the back of her mind on how to make up for that, but if Tikki felt more comfortable staying with Master Fu for the night, Marinette wouldn’t begrudge her that, either.

            Only a second passed before Tikki floated off the table, however, taking her place in Marinette’s bag. Marinette smiled apologetically at the kwami before clasping her bag shut, giving a wave to Master Fu as she left his shop.

            He was right—that tea did make her feel better.

            Later, once her patrol was finished and she was getting ready for bed, Marinette let her thoughts wander back to Chat Noir. He said he would return the Butterfly Miraculous to Master Fu…but then he didn’t. Why not? Where was he? What was he doing now?

            Marinette had no way of knowing, and thus, she put the matter out of her mind. If he didn’t show up within the next couple of weeks, then she would worry. No use fretting over the alley cat if he didn’t want to be found.

            Sighing, Marinette took her hair down and crawled into bed, exhausted. Tikki joined her, as usual, but she was quiet as she settled into the pillow. Marinette’s guilt surged at that, and she scooted closer to the kwami.

            “Tikki?”

            She glanced over, indigo eyes shining in the moonlight from Marinette’s skylight.

            “Marinette?”

            Marinette sucked in a deep breath.

            “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the kwami, “about what I said before. It’s not like I was trying to shirk my duties, and it’s not like I don’t like having you around. You’re one of my best friends. I just…”

            Marinette closed her eyes, beginning to sink back into her self-loathing. Seriously, how could she still be worthy of her Miraculous when she had caused the death of another Miraculous user?

            “Marinette.”

            There was a soft touch on her nose. Marinette opened her eyes, finding the kwami hovering in front of her, a kind smile on her tiny face.

            “I understand,” Tikki assured her, her voice as soft as Marinette’s. “It won’t be easy, getting over what happened. But you will. And when Paris needs you again, you’ll be there, too. Because you’re Ladybug. And because I’ll always be here for you…as Ladybug, and as Marinette.”

            Tears stung Marinette’s eyes, but she smiled, rubbing her kwami’s head.

            “Thank you, Tikki.”

            As Tikki drifted off to sleep, Marinette stayed awake a little longer, staring up at her skylight. Master Fu’s words still haunted her, demanding her attention, chasing away her sleep. What did he mean? She still didn’t get it.

            Sure, Marinette was sorry that Hawk Moth was dead. It was an accident—she hadn’t meant for it to happen, despite what the majority of Paris’ citizens might believe. But at the same time, there was still that tiny, shameful part of her that whispered how relieved she was that the fight was finally over, that she could finally return to some semblance of normal…whatever that was. Wasn’t that the same as killing him on purpose, this tiny, relieved piece inside of her? Wasn’t it the same as wishing for Hawk Moth’s head on the chopping block?

            ‘No,’ Marinette stubbornly denied, rolling onto her side, hugging one of her pillows to her. No matter what had happened, no matter what Hawk Moth had thrown at her in his attempt to claim her Miraculous…Marinette would never wish for his death. Not even if he wasn’t Gabriel Agreste, Adrien’s father. Not even if he wasn’t sorry for all the pain and heartache he’d caused the citizens of Paris.

            Whatever his goal was…Hawk Moth was still human. And therefore, his life still had meaning. And anyone who couldn’t see that…just didn’t get it.

            In that final reasoning, Marinette had her answer. And she was able to drift off into a peaceful sleep for the first time in days.

 


 

            “Ladybug! Ladybug!”

            “Ladybug, over here!”

            “Ladybug, look this way!”

            The camera flashes and voices crying out for her, Ladybug was used to.

            What sucked was the aching emptiness by her side where Chat Noir used to be.

            Still, she tried not to focus on it, and instead raised her hands for silence. A hush fell over the crowd, though cameras still clicked away as she tapped at one of the microphones at the podium, testing it.

            “I thank Mayor Bourgeois for calling this press conference,” Ladybug said first and foremost with a nod the mayor, who looked rather proud of himself. She was a tad annoyed that Chloe had tagged along, of course, but that didn’t matter at the moment—she had more important matters to attend to. “I would like to start off by saying this: what happened to Hawk Moth was very much an accident. While it was my aim to catch him, and while I did set the trap that caused his death, it was not my intention to...kill him. And I will regret it for the rest of my life.”

            There was a momentary silence, a silence Ladybug used to marshal her courage.

            “With that said, I would like to make a promise today to the citizens of Paris,” Ladybug continued, her voice growing stronger with every word she uttered, her posture straight, sincere and determined. “From now on, in my endeavor to protect Paris, I will always make my decisions with the thought of every life involved. Hawk Moth might have caused the citizens pain, but he did not deserve to die for it, nor does any villain or any person who commits a crime. We don’t know what Hawk Moth’s ultimate goal was…and now we never will. Even so, I will not repeat my mistakes. This I promise you.” After a beat, Ladybug added, “I will take your questions now.”

            “Ladybug, Ladybug!” She pointed to a young man in a tweed jacket near the front. “International Tribune: now that Hawk Moth’s reign of terror is over, do you plan to retire?”

            “Of course not. I’ll always be Paris’ hero,” Ladybug assured the crowd, smiling a little at the relieved faces she saw there. “I’ll probably be a little less active now, however—I have confidence in our police force to handle anything non-supernatural thrown our way.”

            “Ladybug, Paris Today: how do you respond to the accusations that Hawk Moth’s secret identity as Gabriel Agreste is a government cover-up being used to avoid tax evasion law suits?”

            Ladybug frowned.

            “I believe you all witnessed the proof, one way or another, that Gabriel Agreste has passed,” she said rather harshly. “Half of Paris went to his funeral.” Although Adrien hadn’t returned for it, as far as anyone knew… “Anyone who tries to claim that Mr. Agreste’s death was a cover-up is doing a great disservice to his memory, supervillain or not. I’ll take one more question,” she added as her Miraculous gave a warning beep.

            “Ladybug, Alya Cesaire, from Ladyblog?”

            “Of course,” Ladybug invited, smiling at the thrilled look on Alya’s face.

            “Just a quick question: where’s Chat Noir? Usually, he’s glued to your side, but today…”

            Ladybug scowled at the reminder.

            “You know what, Miss Cesaire—may I call you Alya?” At Alya’s eager nod, Ladybug continued. “That’s a really good question, Alya. If you happen to catch that cat around, could you let him know I’m looking for him? Thanks.” With a smile and a salute, Ladybug was off, taking to the skies once more.

            And so life in Paris went on.

            Ladybug patrolled the area once a week, making sure no one was getting into too much mischief, but more often than not, she left crime to the police of Paris. She still searched for Chat Noir when she could, but when the mangy cat refused to appear for two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months…three months…Ladybug had to conclude that Chat Noir, whoever he was in his civilian life, had given up crime fighting. Marinette couldn’t find it in her heart to begrudge him that—who didn’t want a normal life, after all? But the least he could’ve done was let her know he was hanging up his cat suit for good. Was that so much to ask?

            Apparently so—as the years went by, with no sign of Chat Noir, Marinette could only conclude that he wanted nothing more to do with her. And so, once and for all, she put the thought of that messy blonde hair and those glittering green eyes, that cocky grin and that black cat suit—all thoughts of her former partner—out of her mind. If he was content to move on without her, then she wouldn’t sit around waiting for him.

            Marinette still did Ladybug things from time to time—she swung her way around Paris, making sure the night was safe, that all was well. But as time went on, she let herself be seen less and less, other things in her life taking precedence: lycee clubs, her fashion portfolio, hang outs with Alya, one or two dates with boys she liked well enough, and yet not enough for the relationships to last very long. It was only as she was preparing for college that Marinette expressed her regret to Tikki that the kwami didn’t have much to do anymore.

            Tikki giggled at that, hardly concerned, it seemed.

            “Don’t feel bad, Marinette. You’re not neglecting your duties. Thanks to you, Paris is safe. So go on, live your life. You deserve to, after working so hard.”

            And so, with Tikki’s blessing, Marinette did just that—she sewed, she laughed, she worked, she played, she lived her life in relative bliss.

            And in relative ignorance of the storm heading her way.