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These akuma and their themes were getting more and more ridiculous by the day.

It was like Hawk Moth’s successor wasn’t even trying.

“Seriously?!” Ladybug called out in frustration, dodging what looked like a painful assortment of nuts, bolts and cogs. “Why a typewriter?! Who even uses those anymore?!”

“Show some respect!” The akuma known as Typeface scolded as he typed out magic words that came to life, stretching to impossible sizes to crush—literally, the word “CRUSH” was actually being used—Ladybug. She grit her teeth and continued to dodge as Typeface sent out synonyms to join “CRUSH”—“SMASH”, “FLATTEN”, and her least favorite, “SQUISH”, to name a few. “The typewriter was here long before your newfangled computer-type things, and it’ll be here long after I’ve destroyed them all, too! Hahahahaha!”

“Seems we’re dealing with a senior citizen,” called a voice from above, and Ladybug groaned as she avoided another maiming word. It really did no good to just hope that he wouldn’t show up, did it?

Ducking under a bench for momentary cover, she glowered up at the silhouette of a rogue cat-man perched on top of a nearby streetlight. He met her gaze, flashing sharp teeth as he grinned.

“He’s got one foot in the grave already,” he reasoned, rolling his shoulders and raising a clawed hand. “Surely you won’t protest if I take care of this myself—”

“NO!” Ladybug shrieked, darting out from under the bench just before it exploded upon making contact with the word “BOOM”. “Don’t you touch him!”

“Me-wow, you’re stubborn,” Chat Noir sighed, hopping rapidly across streetlights as Ladybug followed him, doing her best to avoid more attacks from Typeface. “So what you’re saying is, you want to be squashed like a bug?”

Growling under her breath, Ladybug hooked her yo-yo across Chat Noir’s frame and yanked him down to ground level, sparing not a care for the pained yowl that escaped him once he hit the ground. She ducked into a nearby alley, tugging him along behind her by his ankles.

Look,” she began heatedly, dropping his ankles and standing over him, speaking through her gritted teeth, “I don’t know how long this new attitude of yours is going to last, but I’m getting really sick of it!”

Chat Noir gave her a dry look, and then maneuvered so fast that it took Ladybug by surprise—with a swipe of his legs, she was suddenly falling, and then he was hovering over her, weight settled against her, his clawed hands on either side of her head. He leaned over her, his expression the most serious she had ever seen it. Without meaning to, Ladybug gulped.

“You seem to think this is just some rebellious phase I’m going through,” he noted, cat’s gaze shrewd. “What, you think I’m just raging against the system? Irritating Mommy with misbehavior?”

“If I actually believed you’d become a monster in your own way, I would cry,” Ladybug replied, angry at him, at her vulnerability when it came to him, at this whole situation, really. “No matter what you say, I refuse to believe this is really you, Chat Noir.”

Chat Noir’s pupils narrowed.

“Have you ever seen a ‘victim’ just before they’re akumatized?” He questioned Ladybug. Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “I have. They willingly accept Hawk Moth’s help. How does that make them innocent?”

Ladybug felt a chill run down her spine, Alya’s voice haunting her from far away…

“…You wouldn’t know this, since you’ve never been akumatized yourself, Marinette…but when the akuma possesses you, and you hear Hawk Moth’s voice in your head…he actually gives you a choice: power, in return for a favor—the Miraculous of Paris’ superheroes. I think…I think any of us are free to say no, if our will is strong enough. But the temptation… It’s hard to resist. Very hard.”

Ladybug shook her head fiercely. Too many voices in her head—she needed to focus!

“Hawk Moth specializes in manipulating negative feelings! The victims aren’t to blame—they’re not thinking straight when they’re possessed!” She insisted stubbornly, struggling under him, but he pinned her wrists down, his gaze heating.

“You sure about that?” He challenged her, “you sure they just don’t want a little bit of power in accepting Hawk Moth’s help? Enough power to destroy me, you…everything?”

Ladybug grit her teeth, struggling against him harder than ever, her legs beginning to slip under him.

“Even so, how are you, as you are now, different from them?” She spat at him with no small amount of venom. The accusation seemed to take Chat Noir by surprise; he blinked, staring down at her. Ladybug took full advantage of his distraction: wedging one of her feet in between their bodies, she kicked hard, launching Chat Noir off her, and back out into the street where Typeface lay in wait. Despite herself, Ladybug cringed when the word “PUNCH” slammed into Chat Noir’s face, knocking him back head over heels until he flopped down onto his front.

“OW! You did that on purpose!” He accused Ladybug as he pushed himself to sit up, clutching at his nose, which now appeared to be bleeding. As much as part of her might have wanted to apologize and claim it was an accident, Ladybug ignored him, for now he was Typeface’s new target, and now it was he who had to focus on dodging while Ladybug summoned her Lucky Charm.

Out of her capricious charm popped a roll of spotted typing paper.

“Seriously?” She grumbled, frantically glancing around, wondering how on earth she was supposed to use this, other than giving Typeface more fuel. All she could spot was the typewriter the akuma was using to cause trouble, and the roll she held in her hands. Deciding to wing it, Ladybug ran at the akuma, sliding to avoid the harming words he was typing out at rapid speed—so rapid, in fact, that before he knew it, his typewriter gave a “ker-chunk!” of protest; it was out of paper.

As he growled over the indecency of it all, Ladybug tossed the spotted typing paper at him.

“Catch!”

“Oh…thank you, young lady,” the akuma said, abruptly docile as he smiled at her and set down his typewriter, focusing on changing the roll. “Kids nowadays need to learn how to respect their elders…but you seem to have a good head on your shoulders. Parents must’ve raised you right…it’s hard to find quality parenting nowadays…see, back in my day—”

As he rambled and fiddled with his typewriter, setting the used up roll aside, Ladybug took note of the color of the roll—it was black.

Ladybug blinked in surprise. She would have bet her whole last paycheck that the typewriter itself was the possessed item…but then she remembered that without paper to type words on, the typewriter itself was quite useless. Before Typeface could realize what was happening, Ladybug snatched up the discarded roll and, forgetting in the heat of the moment that she should be wary about breaking the possessed items on her own, snapped the roll over her knee.

To her astonishment, it went quietly, and no screaming akuma popped out—it was just a regular one, which enabled her to easily catch and purify it. Tossing the spotted typing paper into the sky, Ladybug called on her restorative powers, and Paris was put back together once more.

The man under Typeface’s mask was indeed an elderly gentleman, and he blinked in surprise once he took note of his surroundings.

“What? But…this isn’t the library…” he grumbled, startling when Ladybug approached him. “Where am I? What happened?”

“You were akumatized, sir,” Ladybug said gently, patting his back. “But everything’s all right now.”

The old man’s face went pale.

“You mean…I was made into one of those…those things?!” The old man stumbled to his feet in horror, startling Ladybug. “No! It can’t be true! I can’t have been made into a monster! You have the wrong man, I tell you!”

“Sir—” Ladybug began, unnerved by such behavior. Never had she encountered a victim that denied being a victim in the first place…

The telltale flashes of cameras and hurried footsteps let her know that reporters were on the way, and the old man she was trying to comfort somehow turned even paler.

“I can’t let them see me!” He whispered, horrified. He stumbled back a few steps, his knees seeming like they were threatening to lock up on him. “If I’m caught here, I’ll be ruined!”

“Wha—sir, you won’t be—”

“Ladybug! Ladybug! Is this the man who was terrorizing Paris tonight?” Called a reporter that was first on the scene. Ladybug whirled, but it was too late—she and the most recent akumatized victim were surrounded by reporters and flashing cameras.

“Terrorizing?” Ladybug quoted with a frown, “that’s sort of a strong—”

“Ladybug, how long are you going to let these thugs have the run of Paris before something is done about it?” Another reporter demanded, pushing a microphone into her face.

“Now wait just one minute—” Ladybug protested, beginning to get irritated now.

“Ladybug, this akuma problem is getting worse! You’re supposed to be Paris’ protector! How could you leave the city in such constant danger?”

“I can’t make the akuma stop!” Ladybug burst out, losing her temper at the ridiculous attitude she was suddenly facing. “That’s Hawk Moth’s doing!”

“And why is it we’re dealing with another Hawk Moth in the first place, Ladybug?” Nadja Chamack asked, and Ladybug inwardly resolved to never babysit Manon again…or she wouldn’t, if Manon wasn’t too old to be babysat anymore. “We thought you took care of the villain known as Hawk Moth seven years ago. Was it possible you made a mistake?”

“There was no mistake,” Ladybug insisted, ignoring the beeping of her Miraculous for the time being. “The Butterfly Miraculous was stolen once again, that’s all.”

“Why was it stolen? How could you be so careless?”

Okay, this was just bullshit. Why was she the only one in the hot seat?

“Ask him,” she growled, jabbing a thumb up above her, where she had felt the shadow of Chat Noir settle over her just a minute ago. The reporters and cameras looked up to the careless looking cat-man perched on top of the streetlight, who let one leg dangle from where he was sitting, resting his chin in his palm, and his elbow on his bent knee. His bloody nose had cleared up, since the damage had been caused by the akuma, and then undone by her restorative powers. Ladybug wished it would have stuck around, just to take his smug attitude down a peg or two.

“It’s true,” he allowed with a shrug. “Someone got the jump on me and snatched the pretty little Butterfly Miraculous right from under my nose. But you shouldn’t be so worried—we’re doing everything we can to take care of the problem.”

“You mean Ladybug’s doing all she can,” piped up a familiar voice, and a rush of warmth rushed through Ladybug at the sight of Alya Cesaire, who had barged her way to the front of the reporter queue and was scowling up at Chat Noir, her phone’s camera trained on him. “All you’ve been doing is trying to hurt innocent folks!”

Chat Noir’s eyes glittered dangerously.

“‘Innocent’, huh? It figures you would take that viewpoint…Lady Wi-Fi.”

Alya’s mouth opened in outrage, and Ladybug had a good mind to send her yo-yo into Chat Noir’s face to re-break his nose, but there was another beep from both of their Miraculous, and Chat Noir got to his feet.

“Well, hate to run, but this cat’s got a hot date with a nap that cannot be missed. A beientot,” he bade, giving a salute before he jumped to the next streetlight, and the next, taking off into the night. Ladybug, for her part, ushered the elderly gentleman who had been hiding behind her into her grip, sending out her yo-yo to the nearest rooftop. The reporters shot more insulting questions at her back, but Ladybug ignored them, swinging away to drop the poor old man off at his home before she raced back to her own place, reaching her balcony just as her transformation broke.

“What the hell?!” Marinette protested, angrily throwing her balcony doors open and depositing a tired Tikki onto the pillow Marinette had made especially for her a few years ago. “The nerve of those reporters! Especially Ms. Chamack! What the hell is wrong with everybody?! Don’t they realize that blaming the victim won’t get us anywhere?! Where is this sudden attitude coming from?!

“Chat Noir,” Marinette answered herself, punching a fist into her free hand. “He’s the cause of all this sudden fear. We never had this problem seven years ago—everyone seemed to understand then, but now—”

“People are scared because it’s human nature, Marinette,” Tikki quietly reminded her Chosen, and Marinette gave a guilty jolt, hastening over to the cookie stash in her room for Tikki. She handed the kwami an opened pack, and Tikki gratefully bit into a cookie before continuing. “We haven’t had this kind of trouble in seven years. Everything was peaceful, and so people grew complacent. Having their lives suddenly disrupted again like this, after seven years of peace, couldn’t have been easy.”

“Well, maybe,” Marinette relented unwillingly, still frowning as she crossed her arms and resumed her pacing. “But that still doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior. Did you see that man tonight? He was terrified of being found out as the latest akuma. I…I’ve never seen that before. And I’ve certainly never been accused of not doing my job before. If anything, I should be the one complaining about being dragged back to duty like this!”

Frustrated, Marinette aimed a kick at her sewing mannequin, but rather than making her feel better, it just sent a sharp pain through her pinky toe. Hissing and growling in frustration, Marinette made herself sit down, rubbing at her abused toe with a grimace.

“I hate this. Those accusations were so ridiculous…but I still feel like a failure.”

“You’re not the first Ladybug to deal with this kind of controversy, Marinette,” Tikki assured her, munching on her cookie. “Plenty of Ladybugs before you have had to deal with the public working against them. Jeanne d’Arc, for example, was sentenced by the people she had worked so hard to protect to be burned at the stake.”

Marinette grimaced at the reminder.

“Yeah, well, I’m more than glad witch burnings are out of style now.” She huffed, lowering her foot to the floor and folding her hands in her lap, her lower lip jutting out in a pout. “…You know what’s really pathetic, though? I could deal with all of it—the stupid questions, the ignorant fear of akuma victims—none of that would bother me as much as it does, if only…”

No, she couldn’t say it. She felt ashamed just thinking it. Even if she was certain Tikki would understand, to say it out loud…

Marinette glanced over at her kwami, who was indeed regarding her with knowing indigo eyes.

“If only Chat Noir was still on your side,” she finished for her Chosen with a nod. “I understand, Marinette.”

Marinette let out a breath.

“It’s pathetic, right? To miss him, even though he’s this way now?”

“It’s not,” Tikki disagreed. “You’re meant to be partners, you and Chat Noir. To miss him is natural.”

Letting out a sigh, Marinette flopped back on her bed, staring up at her ceiling in dejection. This sucked—she didn’t want to miss the damn stray. He was cruel and thoughtless now, eager to slash through the problem of akuma attacks rather than solve the actual issue of possession. And now, his attitude was taking hold of Paris, making the citizens panic, apparently eager to use the victims as scapegoats instead of blame the actual villain…the villain they still knew nothing about, because he was still shrouded in shadow, apparently quite content to let chaos reign instead of making his intentions clear…and what did he want, anyway? Why was he doing this? Was he interested in the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous at all? Or—and Marinette hesitated to ponder this, because it made her spine shiver—was he just happy making their lives difficult for the hell of it?

Marinette turned to the side, peering curiously at her kwami.

“Hey, Tikki? Remember when you told me that you and Chat Noir’s kwami are…connected?”

“Because we’re two halves of the same whole,” Tikki added, nodding as she reached for another cookie.

“Right. Is that…still true? Even though Chat Noir’s…different, can you still sense his kwami?”

“I can,” said Tikki, “just because Chat Noir’s different, it doesn’t mean that my connection with Plagg has been diminished. We’ve been connected since we first came to be—no matter who Ladybug and Chat Noir are, that will never stop being true.”

“Right,” Marinette said again, though she didn’t quite comprehend such an ancient connection. Her brow puckering, she added, “so, since you two are still connected…is there a way you could get a message to him? To get him to tell his Chosen to knock it off?”

Tikki gave Marinette an amused look.

“That isn’t quite how it works, Marinette. Just as I can sense him, he can sense me, and that helps guide Ladybug and Chat Noir together when it’s necessary, nothing more.” She chewed on her new cookie thoughtfully. “Besides, kwami can only influence their Chosen to a certain degree—if it were possible for Plagg to tell his Chosen what to do, then poor Nooroo wouldn’t be at the hands of someone who would use his powers for evil once again.”

“Oh, right.” Marinette huffed, feeling pity well within her for the kwami of the Butterfly Miraculous, the kwami she had never gotten to meet before Chat Noir swiped said Miraculous and proceeded to disappear from her life for seven long years…

Poor Nooroo. The abused kwami deserved a lot better.

And Marinette was going to make it up to him if it was the last thing she ever did.

Sitting back up, Marinette eyed the time. A quarter to midnight. Damn it.

“I’d better get ready for bed,” she sighed, dragging her suddenly tired form off the bed to trail to the bathroom. “I have a meeting with Desiree in the morning to discuss the progress of my spring line.”

“Well, at least it means you don’t have to get up as early for class,” Tikki called after Marinette, ever the optimist. And Marinette smiled at that.

Even when she was at her lowest, she could always count on Tikki to be by her side. Really, Marinette couldn’t have asked for a more supportive fairy in her endeavor to keep Paris safe from supervillains.

Now if only Plagg and Nooroo could be given the same courtesy from their Chosen partners…

 


 

Desiree wasn’t hard to spot in the little café: she drew the eyes of everyone in the room effortlessly, auburn hair piled on top of her head and waving gently down to her shoulders, bronze skin complimented by the low lighting and November sunlight filtering in through the window she sat beside. She had the kind of figure that was constantly advertised by the fashion industry, a perfect hourglass, accentuated by the red blouse and skinny jeans Marinette could see she was wearing, calf-high black boots coming into view as she crossed her legs and waved Marinette over with a smile. Honestly, she was the kind of woman Marinette might be intimidated by, if she wasn’t so damn down-to-earth, thus making it difficult to hate her.

“Morning, babe,” Desiree greeted with a wink as Marinette sat down. “I’m glad to see you looking a little more rested than usual.”

Marinette cringed. “Have I been looking that bad?”

“No, Mari-doll, of course not. You never look anything short of flawless,” Desiree complimented, causing Marinette to flush. “I’ve just been noticing the sluggish way you’ve been walking around campus. Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Things are fine now, since I quit my internship.”

Desiree raised an arched eyebrow, her brown eyes widening.

“Oooh. And you were so excited when you started! What happened there?”

Marinette scowled, her lower lip jutting out.

“A shit storm, basically. My boss wanted to use the designs I’ve been working on for my spring line, and she made me do so much work that one day I just said enough was enough and quit. And honestly, I’ve been feeling so free ever since.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re happy, hun,” Desiree said, before her brow puckered a bit, wrinkling her otherwise statuesque beauty with concern. “But are you going to be okay financially?”

Ah. Honestly, Marinette was trying not to think about it. She had enough cash saved up to be set for a few months, but she couldn’t deny that her current lack of a steady income was…troubling. Frowning quietly to herself, Marinette simply managed a shrug.

“I’ll figure something out.” She always did, after all.

Desiree continued to look worried for one second more before her expression cleared, and she smiled.

“If you say so, sweetheart. But if you need someone to talk to, just let me know. I know I’m your teacher and all that, but I’m only a few years older than you. I might be able to understand your situation better than those other fuddy-duddy grown-ups you’re forced to learn from.” She gave another wink, and Marinette muffled her giggles.

“Uh…h-hello…” said a cautious voice, and Marinette and Desiree glanced over to find a waitress standing beside them. Her nametag labeled her as “Amanda”, her face was nearly as red as her hair, and she seemed to have a hard time looking at Desiree. “U-um…c-can I get you ladies anything…?”

“I’ll have a medium caffe latte,” Marinette said, glancing briefly at the menu and picking the first item that her eyes landed on; honestly, she had had enough of ordering coffee at this point, but it was a little more soothing, knowing that this coffee was for her instead of a domineering boss.

“Mmm, you have excellent taste, darling,” Desiree teased with another wink Marinette’s way. “I’ll have the same.”

Marinette couldn’t help but note the way Amanda’s face inexplicably fell as she collected their menus.

“I’ll…I’ll be right back with your order,” she promised, clutching the menus to her chest as she moved away. Marinette’s eyes trailed her curiously. Was she all right…?

Abruptly, something else captured Marinette’s attention: a pair of ice blue eyes aimed right at her.

Marinette felt her mouth pop open, blinking as Felix stared at her from across the room, a coffee container held in his hands. He looked like he had paused in the middle of leaving, choosing to stare at her. Something about his gaze made her uncomfortable, but she stared back, her frown challenging. What was he looking at?

Felix did nothing else to indicate that he knew her; he pulled his gaze from her and proceeded on his way, out into the frostiness of the November weather. Marinette scowled after him, irritated. What the hell was that? It so figured that she would see him in this café, didn’t it? It wasn’t the first time she had seen him randomly when she was out and about since quitting Tres Bien Boutiqueshe wondered if Symone was secretly keeping tabs on her, sending Felix to tail her just to rattle Marinette’s nerves, though it was more juvenile than anything.

…At least, she hoped that was it. The other option—the option she had been refusing to consider too deeply simply because she had no proof—worried her more than the thought of Symone and her childish antics. Marinette might be irked at such antics, but she would take Symone being irritating any day over the possibility of Felix having something to do with Master Fu’s attack…and secretly being Chat Noir…or Hawk Moth.

“Mari-doll? Yoo-hoo? Still with me, babe?”

Marinette turned back around, clearing her throat and her head of such thoughts. Now was not the time.

“Sorry,” she apologized to Desiree with a grimace. “What were you saying?”

Desiree raised a brow in curiosity, but after a moment, seemed to decide against pursuing the question in her eyes.

“I was asking if you wouldn’t mind showing me what you’re working on. Mr. Agreste tells me you have something absolutely fantastic cooking in that brilliantly creative mind of yours.”

Marinette flushed. She supposed she should be used to Desiree’s lavish compliments by now, but more often than not, she couldn’t help being embarrassed.

“Oh…well, they’re still just rough sketches…though I have more time to sew now, so hopefully I’ll be getting somewhere soon…”

Rooting through her bag and carefully avoiding the little pocket Tikki was tucked into, Marinette drew her sketchbook out, laying it on the tiny table between her and Desiree and flipping to the correct pages.

“I’ve been playing with a Carnivale de Venezia theme, but instead of just masks, I’ve been using—”

“Ooh! Ladybug and Chat Noir!” Desiree squealed, eyes lighting up as she spotted the hero-inspired designs. “Marinette, this is wonderful!

“I-it’s still a work in progress,” Marinette said modestly, only to have Desiree lay a finger across her lips.

“Shush, this is amazing work,” she chided playfully. “It’s not cocky taking pride in your work if it’s as marvelous as this, Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

Marinette was about to say something, her cheeks glowing red, but a sudden little squeak next to them had both Marinette and Desiree turning again, spotting Amanda just as her tray went slipping to the floor. Her reflexes reacting quickly, Marinette managed to catch the tray, but the coffee on it couldn’t be salvaged, and the two mugs crashed to the floor, ceramic, coffee and whipped cream splattering everywhere.

The café went silent for a brief moment before an angry huff sounded from behind the counter.

“Amanda!” Barked a man in a manager’s vest, scowling at the mortified girl. “Don’t just stand there! Clean it up!”

“I-I—” Amanda stammered, her hands clutching the air where the tray was supposed to be, wide, horrified eyes on the mess before her. Marinette frowned in concern, beginning to get up, but Desiree got there first.

“Sweetie, are you all right?” She asked, laying a delicate hand on Amanda’s shoulder.

This, however, seemed to be the wrong thing to do, for Amanda squeaked, her eyes growing even wider and her face growing even redder the moment she looked at Desiree.

“I-I-I have to go!!!”

In a panic, she rushed off, pushing past other waiters and waitresses to the back. Marinette thought she could make out a mortified sob before the door slammed shut behind Amanda, leaving a stunned silence in her wake. The manager huffed, moving from behind the counter with a mop, a broom, and a bucket.

“I’m sorry, ladies,” he apologized gruffly as he began to clean up Amanda’s mess, a waiter coming forward to take the tray from Marinette. “We’ll get your new orders right away.”

“Oh dear,” Desiree sighed, laying a hand on her cheek and reluctantly resuming her seat. “She seemed like she was having a hard time…I didn’t mean to make her so uncomfortable…”

Marinette glanced between Desiree and the door behind the counter, the pieces slowly clicking together in her mind.

“Do you come here a lot, Desiree?” She wondered, drawing Desiree’s attention from her frowning reflections.

“Yes, actually. I see that girl almost three times a week…though, I have to admit, I’m afraid she isn’t very fond of me. When I come in, she does everything she can to avoid me…it’s a little disheartening really, considering she’s so beautiful and I’d like to get to know her better…”

Desiree sighed again, and Marinette bit her lip to keep from laughing. But seriously, did Desiree not realize the effect she had on Amanda? A woman so beautiful should not be so oblivious to how she stirred others…it was a little irritating, actually, since it reminded Marinette so much of a certain model that would not be named…

“Well, in any case,” Desiree began, shaking herself out of her thoughts, her eyes dropping back to Marinette’s sketchbook. “I’m very excited with the direction of your senior project. Are all five of your outfits going to be inspired by Ladybug and Chat Noir?”

“Well, I’d actually like to make other superhero-inspired designs,” Marinette corrected the assumption, her nose scrunching up as she frowned. “I’m just…having trouble gaining inspiration for other superheroes.”

“Understandable, since Ladybug and Chat Noir are so popular here.” A new waiter cautiously approached around the wet floor, laying down fresh mugs of coffee for Marinette and Desiree, who each expressed their thanks before taking sips, Marinette moving her sketchbook carefully out of the way. Desiree gave a satisfied sigh, peering at Marinette over the rim of her mug, her eyes alight with excitement. “You know, the whole reason I came to Paris was to get an up close look at its heroes.”

Marinette raised her eyebrows in interest.

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“Oh yes—the fashion teaching gig was just a bonus,” Desiree teased with a wink. “I was in college when Ladybug and Chat Noir first surfaced, and let me tell you, I was inspired. It’s been my dream to come to France ever since, and, well…” She waved a hand elegantly, a content smile on her face. “It’s nice to live your dream, even if it becomes commonplace after a while.”

“Then it gives you the chance to find a new dream,” Marinette added, and Desiree’s smile widened.

“Exactly. So make sure you continue chasing yours as well, you hear me?” She tapped the tip of Marinette’s nose affectionately. “You’re one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught, and I look forward to seeing you shine so bright that you just accept your radiance as a fact of life.”

Marinette blushed again, but smiled, hiding it behind her sketchbook.

“Thanks, Desiree.”

“Anytime, hun. After teaching you for a couple years, I know you don’t give yourself enough credit. But I know you’ll be brilliant, if only you allow your wings to spread as far as they can go.” Desiree gave yet another wink. “And I hope to be nearby just to let you know that I told you so.”

 


 

Having her afternoons free was wonderful—for the first time in two years, Marinette felt like she could finally breathe easier, and today, she allowed herself to take her time with lunch, watching an episode or two of her favorite show in bed with Tikki before her responsibility reminded her that she should be using the time more constructively, and she sighed before sliding off her bed and heading to her work table. She was just about to get started on sewing the Chat Noir mask—for it was his mask that started this madness in the first place—when her phone suddenly vibrated across the room, the chime indicating that she had a call.

Marinette frowned as she got up, giving her phone a curious look. Alya had already called earlier to confirm their plans for their weekly gelato meeting tomorrow…who was this calling?

Marinette got her answer as soon as she came close enough to see the screen: ‘Master Fu’ was flashing across it, and she snatched the phone up a heartbeat later.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Marinette,” spoke the wizened voice on the other end of the line, and Marinette felt a pressure that had been building within her at her master’s silence ease away. But only just—the fact that he was referring to her as ‘Marinette’ meant that there were ears listening in, and he was going to be speaking very carefully with her. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she assured him, gripping her phone with tension so obvious that Tikki flew closer to listen in. “How’s your rib healing up?”

“Quite well. I’ll be fit again in no time,” he replied, and Marinette sighed in relief with the news. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to return to work for a couple more weeks, however…and since my parlor is in no way fit for use right now, I suppose that’s for the best.”

“I’m so sorry, Master Fu—I’ve wanted to go and clean it up, but I’ve been so busy—”

“Don’t worry about it; it’s not your responsibility. I just want to know whether or not you’re taking care of the…plants I’ve entrusted to you.”

Marinette’s eyes flicked over to the innocent, unassuming box she could just see the bottom of, concealed under her bed. Wedging her phone in between her ear and her shoulder, she moved to the bed, pulling out the box and drawing out the key she kept on a necklace and on her person as much as her Miraculous. With a delicate twist, she turned the key in the lock, and the box sprang open, revealing the Miraculous chest. Marinette allowed herself a deep breath before she reached forward, carefully opening the chest.

And there they were: the Fox Miraculous and the Bee Miraculous, nestled safely where they should be. Marinette took heart from that, and closed the chest again, immediately locking the box and pushing it back under the bed, out of sight.

“Everything’s fine,” she promised Master Fu, turning to sit on her bed. “I’ve been taking good care of them.”

“As I knew you would,” said Master Fu, satisfied. “Well, I have to go for now, but I just wanted to check in, let you know that I’m fine, and that it won’t be long before you see me again. Take care, Marinette.”

“You too,” Marinette replied fervently, and she hung up just as the line went dead. She sighed, but smiled as Tikki buzzed up next to her, pixie features anxious. “He’s fine. He says he’ll see me soon.”

“Oh, good,” Tikki answered, her tiny shoulders slumping with relief. “I’ve been worried.”

“Me, too.” Marinette tapped her heel against the box she could still just feel, lurking out of sight under her bed. “I’ll feel better when I’m not constantly waking up, afraid that Hawk Moth’ll be standing over my bed with the Miraculous chest in hand…”

She shuddered. That dream had been haunting her enough that sleeping straight through the night was proving difficult, as of late. In fact, a nap sounded good right about now…

You have work to do,’ Marinette’s responsible side reminded her once again, and Marinette sighed and went back to her work desk. It was true—these designs weren’t going to sew themselves, and she had to create three more off the top of her head, if she wanted to pass her senior project, let alone be considered any kind of competition for the position at Agreste Fashions…

But where was she going to come up with three more superhero-inspired outfits? There were only the two, Ladybug and Chat Noir, though Chat was stretching his superhero credibility at the moment…she could always make more designs inspired from them, she supposed, but really, she had had to shred the Ladybug winter designs she’d made for Symone, feeling like they were too tainted by that harpy’s boutique to use anymore. She just needed something fresh…a new idea that no one had seen yet…

Of their own accord, her eyes flickered back to the unassuming box underneath her bed, pondering the contents.

…Something no one had seen yet, huh…?

Feeling her inspiration beginning to flow, Marinette turned on her iPod, putting it on shuffle as she turned to a fresh page of her sketchbook, pulling her pencils and eraser towards her. Quickly, she sketched from memory the sight of the Fox Miraculous and the Bee Miraculous, as well as adding what she thought the Peacock Miraculous might look like, despite never seeing it. The Butterfly Miraculous she forewent—too many bad memories—and she had to stop sketching the Turtle Miraculous when she remembered that it, too, was currently missing. Though she felt bad, as if she was excluding Wayzz for reasons that weren’t his fault, Marinette scrubbed out the image of the Turtle Miraculous, leaving her with the Peacock, Bee, and Fox Miraculous.

The Fox Miraculous was easy enough to imagine in costume, no thanks to Volpina, but Marinette would ignore that unpleasant imagery and create a design of her own that would do the Fox Miraculous justice. And the Bee Miraculous was a gorgeous comb, something she could easily design something for, perhaps with a Chinese theme in mind. The Peacock Miraculous would be a little harder, since she had no idea what it was supposed to be—a necklace like the Fox Miraculous, perhaps? But she would worry about it another time.

Excitement filling her, Marinette set her pencil to the paper, ready to let the ideas flow—

“MARINETTE DUPAIN-CHENG!!! COME OUT HERE!!!” Roared a sudden voice outside her balcony doors, and Marinette lurched forward, accidentally snapping the tip off her pencil. She whirled around, eyes searching wildly for the sudden interruption.

There was a strangely dressed figure standing out on her balcony.

Scratch that—it was an akuma.

And the first reaction from Marinette was to sigh.

She so did not have the time for this.

Equal parts reluctant and exasperated, Marinette marched over to her balcony doors, throwing them open and folding her arms as she inspected the akuma in front of her.

“Well, I can’t really say I wasn’t expecting this sooner or later,” she admitted with a huff, squinting at the strange outfit the akuma donned: it looked like a strange mix of a chef’s outfit and a queen’s gown…if there was ever a queen’s crown in the shape of a tea cup. Perhaps in Wonderland? “Is that you under there, Symone? This is a better choice than your Patchwork outfit, at least—”

“Who’s Symone?” The akuma demanded, but then shook its head, red curls flailing through the air. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. I am Bari-Star, Marinette Dupain-Cheng, the queen of all things caffeinated and delicious!”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Marinette groaned. These stupid akuma names were going to be the death of her rather than the akuma themselves…

“SILENCE! You will speak only when spoken to!” Bari-Star commanded, aiming a scepter she held threateningly at Marinette, the top of it a coffee pot with coffee sloshing around inside. The heat radiating from the scepter was alarming, and Marinette felt herself take a step back, keeping a careful gaze on the weapon. It was likely the akuma was trapped in there…but as Marinette, there wasn’t much she could do…

…That’s right. She was Marinette right now. So, if this akuma wasn’t Symone…why was she here?

“Did I…do something to offend you?” Marinette asked, frowning as she tried to remember how she could’ve possibly pissed off whoever was under that ridiculous outfit enough to seek her out at her place of residence. Who was this, and where was this axe they were attempting to grind—or coffee beans, rather—against her coming from?

The akuma’s eyes narrowed.

“Of course you’ve offended me. Why else would I seek you out at such a dingy place of residence?” Huffed Bari-Star, and Marinette scowled. Okay, ouch—no reason to bash her townhouse, which was perfectly lovely, thank you very much. “But you may be spared my wrath, Marinette Dupain-Cheng, as long as you do one thing: stay away from Desiree.

Marinette blinked.

That…she hadn’t been expecting that. What did Desiree have to do with…

Marinette stared at the red curls the akuma sported, and her mouth fell open in surprise.

“Amanda?!” She sputtered, unable to help herself. She had seemed like such a meek girl! Never would Marinette have guessed that she would be akumatized…but then again, when it came to Hawk Moth, it didn’t matter how nice the person normally was, did it?

Bari-Star’s teeth grit together in rage, and she raised her scepter, the end of it tapered to a worryingly sharp end.

“I am Bari-Star, and you will stay away from Desiree even if I have to make you!

Marinette yelped, crossing her arms in front of her face and squeezing her eyes shut, for though she was usually Ladybug in these situations, right now, she didn’t have a red and black-spotted suit to protect her vulnerable skin against attacks this violent, didn’t even have her yo-yo to deflect it, or a baton like Chat Noir used—

There was a loud clanging noise, the kind that made Marinette’s ears ring. She opened her eyes, and found black leather in her face, as well as a ponytail keeping back very messy blonde hair…

Marinette couldn’t stifle a groan.

Oh no, not now.

One of Chat Noir’s ears twitched, as if he heard her, but he didn’t turn around to focus on her, bringing his staff to rest across his shoulders all casual-like.

“Now now, I doubt murder will make your problems go away just like that, akuma,” he said in a voice so reasonable and playful that Marinette was tempted to shove him over. He was one to talk, the mangy hypocrite! “And as much as I’m always up for a cat fight, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to step in now.”

“Get out of my way, cat!” Spat Bari-Star, and from around Chat Noir, Marinette could see the akuma raise her scepter again. “I’ve scratched you once already! If you don’t step aside, I’ll impale you next!”

“Ha, see, that’s where we run into a problem…” Marinette’s mouth opened in horror as Chat stored his baton behind him, raising and flexing a clawed hand. “My scratches will hurt much worse than yours.”

Bari-Star jabbed at Chat Noir just as his Cataclysm powers took effect; he sliced clean through her scepter, and it fell to pieces onto Marinette’s balcony before disintegrating. Marinette desperately searched, but no akuma popped out, and she grit her teeth as Bari-Star jumped back, standing on her balcony railing and cursing.

“Damn you, Chat Noir!” She hissed at him, turning her back to reveal what looked like a jetpack…fueled with coffee. Of course. “You can’t guard your precious girlfriend forever—I’ll be back, and you’ll be sorry!”

“I’m not his girlfriend!” Marinette couldn’t help but call after the akuma as it fled, irritated by the whole situation. She had enough sense to grab Chat by his belt as he leapt onto her balcony railing as well, apparently eager to give chase. “And where are you going?”

Chat finally turned to look at her, roguish grin in place.

“I’m doing what I have to do—going after the akuma.” He angled himself towards her, a green eye roving over her…something Marinette did not appreciate one bit. “I wish I could stay and chat, though. It’s been a while, Princess, but you’re as gorgeous as ever.”

Marinette knew that Chat would be expecting her to swoon, perhaps compliment him on how handsome he’d turned out, or some bullshit like that.

But Marinette couldn’t focus on anything but that nasty-looking gash in his right side that was bleeding freely. Bari-Star must have nicked him when he deflected the blow meant for Marinette. And, despite all her irritations with him as of late…Marinette could not let him rush away bleeding like that.

“Get down from there,” she commanded him with a frown, tugging on his belt tail. “You’re injured.”

“What, this?” Chat Noir glanced down at the wound, giving a shrug meant to be careless…except that Marinette saw him wince. “‘Tis but a flesh wound, Princess. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Now if you’ll excuse—ack!”

With a strength he didn’t know she possessed—as he shouldn’t—Marinette tugged him down from her balcony railing by his arm, ignoring his protests and muffled curses as she dragged him into her bedroom, quick eyes making sure Tikki was tucked safely away before entering her bathroom.

“Sit,” she commanded, shoving Chat Noir towards the edge of the tub as she turned to her bathroom cabinet, gathering the first aid kit she kept well-stocked because…well, because she was Marinette. As she rummaged around for the appropriate materials, slipping on elastic gloves, she saw Chat’s eyes flicking around nervously, like a cat being taken to the vet.

“Ah…Princess, I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” he began carefully, and as Marinette turned to him with an unpackaged, sterile needle, his pupils narrowed as he stared at the sharp object. “B-but I really should be after the akuma—”

“Ladybug can handle it, can’t she?” Marinette interrupted, while inwardly wincing. She really should be off and after the akuma…and she didn’t owe Chat anything…but… “This’ll only take a few minutes.”

Chat glanced down at his ring as it gave a beep.

“I don’t really have a few minutes,” he stated, still with that skittish look on his face, his eyes darting to the needle Marinette held every few seconds. She huffed at him, resting her free hand on her hip.

“Look, I’m trying to help you,” she reminded him with a scowl, “and this’ll go quicker if you stop being so damn jittery. But hey, if you wanna bleed out while chasing the akuma…”

Marinette waved her hand in invitation at her open bathroom door, her expression sarcastic.

“Be my guest,” she invited…though her tone made it sound more like a challenge.

Chat stared at her a moment, his gaze going occasionally to the door, as if he was trying to calculate his chances of being able to escape before she caught up to him.

She narrowed her eyes at him, silently daring him to go anywhere.

The threat must have registered, for Chat sat down with a sigh, pushing loose blonde hair out of his face.

“…All right, fine. You win this time, Princess,” he caved, and Marinette smirked.

“That’s what I thought,” she said softly to herself, turning to prep the needle for emergency stitching. The thread missed the eye of the needle, however, when a loud zipping sound suddenly echoed around the bathroom walls. Marinette glanced over—

“Wha—?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” She shrieked as the bell around Chat Noir’s neck was drawn south, the zipper of his costume apparently attached to it. Because of this, she saw a lot more of Chat Noir than she had ever wanted to see, and hastily threw up a hand between her eyes and his body…his incredibly cut body…

FOCUS,’ Marinette chided herself, turning away with her nose in the air to refocus on the needle, though she could definitely feel Chat staring at her.

“…I have to undo my costume so you can get to the injury, right?” He reasoned, though there was something teasing in his tone that Marinette didn’t like one bit. “…Did I startle you, Princess?”

“N-no,” Marinette stammered, and she hated herself for it. She huffed and took a deep breath to regain her composure, finally threading the needle properly. “I just…forgot.”

“There’s no shame in being overwhelmed,” Chat purred, and Marinette had to work very hard not to roll her eyes. “I do work out.”

“Please,” Marinette grumbled, rolling her eyes after all as she picked up a bottle of antiseptic and a couple cotton balls. “I’ve seen the upper body of a supermodel up close, so you’re gonna have to try a little harder.”

Why was she bragging about this? It sounded like a childish attempt to make him jealous or something. Ugh.

“Oh really?” Chat drawled as Marinette summoned all her courage and turned to face him. It wasn’t bad—he just had his right shoulder and most of his abdomen exposed, allowing her plenty of access…to his injury. And it looked pretty bad. Biting her lip, Marinette knelt down in front of him, pushing past thoughts of closeness as she cleaned the blood away first with a wad of toilet paper. He winced, and yet, still managed to tease her. “And is he as muscular as me, this supermodel you’re lusting after?”

“I’m not lusting after him,” Marinette bit at him, sternly reminding herself that she was not allowed to pointlessly stab Chat Noir with the needle she held. She did, however, take some vindictive pleasure in the way he hissed when she dabbed the antiseptic onto his wound. “He’s a friend. And anyway, none of this is your business, so why don’t you be a good cat man and just sit quietly for a few minutes, hmm?”

“You’re awfully defensive for someone who brought it up in the first place, Prin—” His taunt was cut short as he hissed in pain when Marinette pushed the needle into his skin. She glanced up at him, the word ‘wuss’ on the tip of her tongue…but that wasn’t exactly fair, was it? She was causing more pain just to help him heal faster…

Shaking her head, Marinette reached carefully around him, grabbing hold of his belt tail.

“Here, bite down,” she instructed, shoving his own tail into his mouth before she continued her work, her hand steady, despite the fact that she was used to sewing clothes more than sewing skin…and there was a big difference between the two, skin being a little less cooperative when it was slick with sweat and blood…

After a moment—because a few minutes of silence was apparently too much to ask—Chat spat out his tail to speak.

“You’re different, Princess,” he remarked. It took Marinette a moment to respond, only because she couldn’t quite comprehend the comment.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re, er, sharper, I suppose. Like a kitten that’s grown into her claws. If I remember correctly, there was a time when you thought I was undeniably cool…but now you’re scolding me like you’re my mother.”

Marinette frowned, glancing up to meet his eyes.

“I did think you were cool,” she admitted, forcing the blush in her face down, because she was not fourteen anymore goddamn it. “But this was before you started thinking it was okay to go around murdering akumatized victims.”

Chat stared at her, realization dawning in his gaze, followed by an emotion that was almost too quick for Marinette to catch, for he looked away—but was that shame she detected…?

“I suppose it makes sense that you’d be against me, being as kind as you are,” Chat muttered, and Marinette stopped stitching to blink at him in surprise. His Miraculous beeped, however, and she forced herself to continue. “But you’ve gotta understand, Princess—there’s something dark hidden in all of the akuma you call ‘victims’. And that’s exactly what draws Hawk Moth to them.”

Everyone has darkness in them,” Marinette reminded him, frowning as she focused on patching him up. “Wherever light exists, there has to be darkness. It’s a fact of life, and it’s not their fault. Are you really willing to possibly assassinate half of Paris in this twisted quest for peace?”

“If that’s what it takes.”

The affirmation did nothing to restore Marinette’s faith in him. She yanked a little harder on the stitching then she meant to, and Chat hissed in protest, but she ignored him, carefully finishing the stitching before she reached for the antiseptic again to dab over it.

“…Seven years ago, my best friend was akumatized,” she reminded him, scowling both at the situation and the memory. “Hawk Moth took advantage of her when she was at her lowest point, and I knew that. Even afterwards, not once did I hold it against her. She’s such a spirited and compassionate person, always concerned with truth and justice…and if it weren’t for her, I honestly don’t think I’d be the person I am today.”

Marinette tossed bloody tissues, cotton balls, and her gloves into the trash, reaching into the first aid kit once more for a bandage with adhesive around the edges she could press around Chat Noir’s wound to keep it from bleeding any further. As she unwrapped the bandage and attached it to him, her eyes found his.

“Are you telling me someone like that deserves to die just because a supervillain used her for his own schemes, once upon a time?” She challenged him.

Chat glanced away from her, cat ears flattening against his head. This had to be the most uncomfortable she’d seen him in years.

“…Is she really so great, if she was willing to go along with the schemes of a supervillain?” He asked, the question stubborn…though it sounded like he was forcing it, like he didn’t appreciate his morals and beliefs being challenged this way. Quickly losing patience, Marinette got to her feet, standing over him with her hands on her hips.

“She was feeling trapped,” She snapped at him, rage bubbling beneath the surface, threatening to burst. “She was in a moment of weakness, with nothing and no one to turn to.” And Marinette really should have been there for her…but she had made peace with that guilt a long time ago, so she moved on. “And then someone came along and offered her power beyond her wildest dreams, the power to change her life. Are you really so arrogant that you can claim you wouldn’t jump at such at such a chance immediately?”

His Miraculous chirped once more, and Marinette glanced down, noting he was down to two paw pads. He didn’t really have the time to sit there and be lectured by her, but Marinette didn’t care; she seized his wrist, lifting the back of his own hand up to his face, her eyes burning into him.

“How can you sit there and judge anyone for wanting the power to change their life with this ring on your finger?”

Chat stared up at her, his eyes wide. Slowly, he detached her hand from his, gripping his wrist where she’d touched him, as if he was in pain and trying to rub it away. His gaze slanted away once more, but just for a moment, before those cat eyes were on her face again.

“…You’re very astute, Princess,” he admitted, sounding like he was annoyed by such a fact.

Marinette dared to hope that maybe some semblance of sense was beginning to sink in at last.

“I do what I can,” she replied simply as his Miraculous beeped in a distressed sort of fashion. “And you’d better go. Ladybug’s probably waiting for you.”

“Ha. I doubt that,” Chat sighed as he got to his feet, and Marinette stared at him. He sounded…regretful. As if it was hurting him to go against her—against Ladybug. Chat Noir sounded like he was genuinely regretting their distance.

Then why?’ Marinette wondered, staring at him in frustration as he slid his suit back into place, yanking the bell and zipper back up. ‘Why do this, Chat? What are you thinking?

She just didn’t understand, and so her lips parted, the question poised on her lips—

“Well, looks like my time here is up,” Chat said, glancing down at Marinette, a shade of his roguish grin showing up. “It was…interesting talking to you, Princess.”

Marinette swallowed the words in regret. She couldn’t say them. Not while she was still Marinette.

“Just be more careful,” she warned him, frowning as she folded her arms, watching him move around her to the bathroom door. “I may not agree with how you’re handling things…but I don’t want to see you hurt, either.”

Chat blinked at her, as if Marinette had surprised him with such words. After a stunned moment, he slowly turned from her…but not before Marinette caught a grin that was almost endearing—almost like his old self—spreading across his face.

“I’ll try and be more careful…though if injuries mean I get to see you a little more often, I wouldn’t mind it.” He turned to tilt a wink in her direction, and though Marinette sighed, she recognized that there was something sincerely lonely in his gaze. Despite more and more of Paris seemingly backing his efforts, Chat Noir seemed to feel like he was truly alone in his endeavors…especially because his Lady had turned her back on him just as effectively as he had turned his back on her.

Well that’s his fault,’ Marinette reminded herself, hating the pity that began to swell within her. ‘Don’t go feeling guilty just because he’s making sad cat eyes at you…

“Go,” she urged him when his Miraculous began to beep incessantly—he had a mere minute before his transformation broke—

Chat suddenly swooped down on her, catching one of her hands and placing a kiss to her knuckles. The move was so nostalgic that something wedged itself into Marinette’s throat, rendering her speechless as he called out a farewell before he disappeared over her balcony, vaulting away. And Marinette stared out after him, long after he had vanished. This was exactly why she was so annoyed—with his behavior and attitude as of late, she so desperately wanted to hate him so that it made it easier for her to fight him as well as the akuma. But seeing him like that—hurt, confused…lonely…how was Marinette supposed to feel?

How was Ladybug supposed to deal with him when he didn’t even seem like he wanted to be saved?

“Marinette!” Tikki interrupted Marinette’s thoughts; she gave a startled jump and shook her head, scattering thoughts of Chat Noir’s sad eyes from her mind. She couldn’t afford to focus on him any longer—he was probably off refueling his kwami, which meant the akuma was running amuck elsewhere, the citizens of Paris helpless. In this moment, Ladybug was needed more than Marinette was.

“Tikki, transform me!”

Ladybug flung herself off her balcony, sending out her yo-yo and swinging rapidly through the streets of Paris, keeping her eyes peeled and her ears sharp for—

“AIYEEEEE!!!”

—Trouble.

That was quick,’ Ladybug registered with relief, swinging down into the street where the akuma known as Bari-Star was intimidating some woman against a car…a beautiful woman that automatically drew eyes wherever she went…

“Ladybug!” Desiree cried in relief once she spotted the spotted superhero. Ladybug cringed as Bari-Star immediately rounded on her; she had been hoping for a sneak attack, but oh well…

“Back off, Ladybug!” Bari-Star snarled at her, standing almost protectively in front of Desiree. “I’ve finally found the woman of my dreams, and I’m not going to let you ruin this for me!”

“Amanda, this isn’t the way!” Ladybug protested, holding her hands up in an attempt to entreat the akuma. “If you just talked to Desiree, I’m sure she would’ve been willing to listen to your feelings!”

“Amanda?” Desiree parroted, wide eyes on Bari-Star’s back. “It’s…it’s you under there…?”

Bari-Star flushed as red as her hair, shrieking in indignation.

“MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!!!” She hurled at Ladybug before she turned around, scooping Desiree up into her arms and staring her coffee-fueled jetpack once again. “Desiree is mine!!”

“Ladybug, help!” Desiree cried as Bari-Star flew off with her, plainly terrified. Ladybug growled under her breath, tossing her yo-yo into the air.

“Lucky Charm!”

And today’s random item: a spotted serving tray, much like the one’s in the café Amanda worked in.

Ladybug huffed. She supposed it would be poetic justice…if she could figure out how to use it…

Sending out her yo-yo, she hooked one of Bari-Star’s ankles and ran around a nearby streetlight, pulling the string taut to keep the akuma from escaping, no matter how much juice she poured into her jetpack. Ladybug grit her teeth, one leg braced against the streetlight…which left her hands practically tied, unfortunately. How was she to stop Bari-Star if she one, didn’t know what the possessed item was, and two, couldn’t get close enough to figure it out?

Ladybug glared up at the pesky akuma, searching for some way to bring her down…when she was promptly distracted by Desiree, who was mouthing something to her while pointing at the strange, tea-cup crown sitting atop Bari-Star’s red curls.

“That!” Desiree was mouthing rapidly at her, jabbing a finger at the crown. “It’s that!”

Sure enough, when Ladybug laid eyes on the crown, it became spotted in red and black.

Abruptly, Ladybug understood, and she nodded her thanks to Desiree, cautioning her to watch out. Desiree responded by scrunching down in Bari-Star’s grip, something that distracted the akuma. With a measured breath and careful aim, Ladybug flung the circular serving tray towards Bari-Star’s crown. Her luck held, aim true—the tray knocked off the crown, sending it toppling to the ground.

Hastily, Ladybug adjusted her yo-yo as the crown smashed upon the ground, racing forward as Desiree and a de-akumatizing Amanda fell back to the earth. Amanda was caught by the yo-yo still attached to her ankle, but Ladybug just barely managed to catch Desiree, setting her down on the ground before she searched for the akuma, spotting it attempting to make a swift getaway high in the air. Cursing under her breath, she jumped over to Amanda, let her down as gently as she could while being speedy, and grappled her way to the nearest rooftop, letting her yo-yo fly and snagging the akuma at the last possible minute.

“Bye bye, pretty butterfly,” she bade the harmless butterfly that popped out of her compact, sighing in exhaustion as she jumped down, snagged the spotted serving tray and tossed it skyward, allowing her restorative powers to do their magic.

Before she could even seem to catch her breath, reporters were upon her.

“Ladybug, where have you been?! The akuma had been causing trouble for at least ten minutes before you arrived on the scene!”

“I—”

“Ladybug, how do you respond to comments that you’re past your prime, and simply not up to the task of keeping the akuma in line anymore?”

“That’s—”

“Ladybug, is it true that, in an attempt to recapture your fading popularity, you and Chat Noir simply made another Hawk Moth?”

“Wha—”

“Is that what caused the rift in your partnership?”

“Is Chat Noir doubling as Hawk Moth, Ladybug?”

“Ladybug, we want to know the truth!”

“The public has the right to know!”

“ENOUGH!” Ladybug burst out, and the reporters crowding her took a hasty step back. “Look, this has all been just a big—”

“Ladybug!!”

This voice, Ladybug let interrupt, for it was familiar and terrified. Snapping her head to the sound of the voice, Ladybug spotted Alya not too far away, her hazel eyes wide with fear behind her glasses as she pointed to the left.

“She’s going to jump!!!”

Ladybug spotted the problem a second before it was too late; reacting immediately, she sent her yo-yo out to wrap around Amanda once again, this time around her abdomen. Breaking through the reporters, she tugged on the string, dragging Amanda back off the top of the railing of the bridge, where she had been poised to dive into the Seine just a moment before.

“Amanda!!!” She cried, catching the woman just as she was about to slam into the concrete of the bridge. “What were you thinking?!

Her anger abruptly disappeared a moment later—tears were falling thick from Amanda’s eyes, and she pressed shaking hands to her face, as if the sight was shameful.

“I-I-I’m ruined,” she sobbed, and Ladybug felt her heart split painfully in two. “N-no one will want anything t-t-to do with me now…I-I’m a monster…I’m g-gonna get fired…my f-f-family’s gonna d-disown me…I h-have nothing now…”

“Amanda—” Ladybug began, about to assure her that none of what she just said could possibly be true…but then she heard it. Angry noises in the distance…growing steadily closer.

“No more akuma! No more akuma!”

It was a chant Ladybug had never heard before. Slowly standing up, she turned…and spotted the angry mob marching towards them. There were dozens of them, citizens old and young, men and women, all carrying picket signs, all looking furious, hate in their gazes.

Protesters.

“Ladybug!” Called the front-most protester, jabbing a thick finger in her direction. “Enough is enough! We’re sick of living in fear because of scum like that and their wild emotions turning them into menaces!”

“Chat Noir has the right idea!” Jeered a woman near the middle of the mob. “Get rid of ‘em! We don’t need monsters in our city!”

“Yeah!”

“No more akuma!”

“Do the right thing, Ladybug!”

The reporters descended upon the mob like ravenous wolves, desperate to get the scoop from this hate group that had seemingly formed overnight. And Ladybug could only stare, unable to comprehend.

The fact that people actually believed this was okay

A hand found her shoulder, and Ladybug jumped, finding Alya at her side.

“Hi,” she greeted, looking like Ladybug felt. “This is…disgusting, isn’t it?”

Ladybug could say nothing. There were no words.

After a moment, Alya spoke again.

“Listen, if you need someone to take her home…” She nodded towards Amanda, where she was curled up on the bridge, sobbing harder than ever. “I can do it. You can trust me.” Alya raised her hand in a scout’s honor, smiling gently. “I promise.”

Despite the situation, Ladybug managed a weak smile.

“I know,” she said, and then crouched over, gently helping the sobbing Amanda to her feet. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Alya slung one of Amanda’s arms around her shoulders and slowly led her away, whispering reassurances that Ladybug could just hear above the din of ignorance roaring behind her. The sight before her, of her best friend offering to help a complete stranger, made her sure, more than ever, of her defense of the akumatized victims, and that they were more than their trauma of becoming tools of evil.

It also instilled within her a rage so potent at the crowd behind her that for a moment, she thought her mask slipped down, for all she saw was red.

There was a megaphone left unguarded inside a nearby news van. Ladybug snatched it and climbed up on top of the news van, holding it high in the air as she pressed the testing button.

The noise the megaphone made was grating and unpleasant, though it was nowhere near as bad as the squawking of the angry mob and ignorant reporters below. Nevertheless, nearly all of them clapped hands over their ears, wincing at the sudden screeching. Ladybug waited until they all turned towards the source of the noise, making sure she had their attention before she moved the megaphone to her mouth to address them.

“Citizens of Paris,” she spoke to them, like a principal addressing troublemaking students, only worse. “Today, I am forced to say something I have never had the cause to say ever since becoming Paris’ hero: I’m disappointed in you.

“Just a minute ago, a woman’s life almost ended, because she was dreading this exact reaction from you,” Ladybug growled at them, pointing a finger at the bridge, where a heart-stopping minute before, Amanda had been poised to plunge into the murky depths below, rather than face what was coming. And, as Ladybug witnessed the madness before her very eyes, she found that a part of her sympathized with that moment of reckless desperation. Meeting as many eyes as she could, she continued, “Tell me, Paris—when did this behavior become acceptable? Standing here before you now, I’m ashamed to be a citizen of Paris myself—ashamed to be your hero! Who in their right mind would want to defend a city that’s so determined to destroy itself from the inside out? When did you lose your heart, Paris? How could you act so thoughtlessly? How could you have become so cruel?”

Ladybug, unfortunately, knew the cause. And, as if thinking of him had summoned the devil himself, Ladybug glanced up and found Chat Noir lurking in the shadows of the rooftop across the street, arms folded as he stared at her, green eyes glinting in the darkness. Ladybug swallowed, willing herself to keep her nerve. She couldn’t help but wonder, however, what Chat thought about all this. Did he see this madness for what it truly was? Or was he reveling in the chaos, of the destruction of Paris’ sanity?

Ladybug had no way of knowing. The leather-clad cat man that stared at her from across the street was a stranger, nothing more...

A stranger whose wound she had cleaned and stitched just twenty minutes ago.

A stranger whose eyes had been so incredibly sad at the mention of her.

A stranger who, maybe, didn’t have to be a stranger…as long as Ladybug made it clear that it wasn’t too late…that they could still fix this…

She swallowed and straightened her shoulders, raising her megaphone once again…but her eyes did not leave him.

“This madness has to end. The akumatized victims have no more control over their emotions than any other citizen of Paris. To blame them for being taken advantage of is to blame them for daring to be upset, which is ridiculous. No one can control their emotions like that. And before you say something ridiculous, like they had the darkness inside them all along or something, think: how would you feel if it was someone you loved? A relative you adore? Your best friend? …What if you’re next? Is this how you want to be saved? Coming back to yourself, confused, scared…surrounded by angry people who have no idea what they’re talking about?”

The crowd below her grumbled. Ladybug paid them no attention. At this moment, she had eyes for no one but Chat Noir.

“I’m trying,” she said, her voice lowering unconsciously as she held that green, glittering gaze across the street, the gaze that seemed to pierce through her, as if he could see every single bit of her, even under the mask. The thought made Ladybug shiver, but she made herself keep speaking. “I’m doing everything I can. But I’ll say it: I’m scared, too. Scared of what this new enemy means, of the damage he’s causing…and what we’ve become as a result. I’m scared, but I know that this is not right. Things shouldn’t be like this.”

Her Miraculous gave a beep. She ignored this, too, trusting that Tikki would be able to hold on for just a little longer…

“I’ll always be here to protect Paris…but just because I can do it alone doesn’t mean that I want to. The only way I can keep going…is to know that you’re on my side. I need your support. I…I need you.”

Suddenly, the streets of Paris were empty. In this moment, it was only Ladybug and Chat Noir, floating in a space that was both strange and familiar, a comforting warmth and an unpleasant chill battling against each other, warring for the right to reign. Ladybug stared at Chat Noir, at her former partner, searching for all the things that made him familiar, that made him her kitty. They were hardly distinguishable…but maybe they were still there. If only she could just reach out and pull them into view…

Ladybug’s grip tightened on the megaphone to keep from actually reaching out to him. Her teeth moved to worry her bottom lip, the uncharacteristic display of doubt slipping through as she watched him. Would he hear her? Would he realize that this separation—the destruction of their partnership—was hurting her just as much as it was hurting him?

Would her vulnerability be enough to bring him back to her?

“Please,” she said softly, feeling her chest constrict with emotion, “please don’t make me do this alone anymore. Come back.”

It was the longest moment of Ladybug’s life. Chat just stared at her, his arms unconsciously lowering to his sides. Ladybug counted the breaths between them, the beat of her racing pulse, the beeps her Miraculous gave, time ticking away rapidly, and yet standing so very, very still…

Chat Noir finally moved. He blinked at her once…and then he turned around, giving her his back.

Ladybug felt something inside her shatter as he vaulted away a moment later, jumping across rooftops before he disappeared like the rogue alley cat that he was. That he was choosing to be.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Ladybug closed her eyes. She couldn’t do this—she couldn’t break down now, in front of these people. She had dared to let her weakness show, and look what happened: Chat had disappeared, without so much as a backward glance, leaving her behind.

And that, apparently, was all there was to say on the matter: Chat Noir would not come back to her. He was choosing to do things his way after all, and doing so, he had turned his back on the sanctity of his duty, on his kwami, on the whole of Paris itself.

On Ladybug.

Anger would come, no doubt, and Ladybug wished for it desperately now…but all there was now was pain, the edge sharp, piercing her. She took another breath and looked down, at the cameras aimed at her, at the eyes upon her. She had no idea whether or not any of them registered that she had not been speaking to them a moment ago…but it surprised her to find that many of the gazes were shocked, as if Ladybug’s loss of composure had struck them harder than words ever could. A few remained obstinate—faces scowled at her from the hateful angry mob, refusing to be moved—but many of the reporters were now looking unsure, glancing furtively at one another…humbled.

Ladybug took fresh heart from that, and raised the megaphone once again.

“We can be better than this, Paris,” she assured them, her voice growing stronger with each word, “and we will be. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, and I’m going to stop this second Hawk Moth…but I can only do that if I know that Hawk Moth’s victims will not be harassed for something they had no control over. I don’t judge or blame any of the victims, and neither should you.” A pointed look at the protestors. “Please, let’s bring back the Paris that I love. The Paris that I’m proud to protect. Let’s be better together, Paris.”

Her Miraculous gave a third beep, and Ladybug lowered the microphone, signaling that she was done with her speech. She did not stick around to see how people would interpret it—whether or not the protestors would actually see sense thanks to her words. Ladybug was done being Ladybug for the moment, and so she merely sent out her yo-yo and swung away, taking the long way home to be alone with her thoughts for a while.

A couple blocks from her apartment, her transformation threatened to give out, and so Ladybug touched down into an alleyway and released it herself, catching Tikki in her hands.

“I’m proud of you, Marinette,” were the first words out of the kwami’s mouth, despite her exhaustion. Marinette gave a weak smile that flickered and died a second later.

“One of us has to be,” she said quietly, pressing her back against the brick behind her, closing her eyes with an exhausted sigh. “…He’s not going to stop, is he? Chat Noir. He…we can’t be partners anymore.”

“Marinette…”

The soft touch to her cheek did nothing to staunch the tears, and they came hard and fast, hitting Marinette so quickly that there was nothing she could do to stop them. Her knees protested under the weight of her grief, and she felt herself sliding to the ground, sobs ripping themselves from her throat, the aching loss tearing a hole right through her. Marinette pressed a hand over her eyes, humiliated by these tears, mortified that Tikki was forced to witness them, ashamed that they were even falling in the first place.

“S-stupid cat…” She wept, her frame curling in on itself, shaking. “Why is he like this?! What happened to him?!”

“Marinette, shh. It’ll be okay…”

“It won’t,” Marinette cried, burying her face in her arm now, making unattractive sniffling noises. “Y-you said it yourself, Tikki…Ladybug and C-Chat Noir are supposed to be partners. How can I do this without him?! I don’t want to be Ladybug without Chat Noir!!”

It was as those words were wrenched from her that Marinette was once again forced to face the fact that she had been counting on Chat Noir so much more than she had initially realized.

And his second—and final—rejection of her had broken her so much more effectively than any akuma attack ever could.

Something wet landed on Marinette’s free hand. Distracted, she glanced up, confused—it wasn’t supposed to rain today—and her heart nearly broke all over again: Tikki was in tears, too.

“I know, Marinette,” she whimpered, curling up in Marinette’s hand, clutching her Chosen’s thumb for comfort. “I know. It’s hard. It hurts. I know.”

And she did know—those big, sad indigo eyes said it all as they blinked through tears, peering up at Marinette in anguish, Marinette’s pain echoed back at her…though, coming from Tikki, the sadness felt like it went so much deeper. And that realization hurt Marinette, too.

“But you must persevere, Marinette. Paris needs Ladybug. And, no matter what, I’ll always be here for you.”

As Ladybug, and as Marinette.

She didn’t say the words this time…but it didn’t matter. Marinette knew them to be true, and that was all that mattered. Sniffling, she held her kwami close, taking refuge in the tears they shared, in their joint pain.

Tikki was right: whether they respected her decisions or not, whether they agreed with her beliefs or not…Paris needed Ladybug. She couldn’t afford to falter now, when her duty was harder than ever before.

And so Marinette would be Ladybug, despite her own wants, because that’s what Paris needed from her.

One half of a whole was not better than both…but it had to be better than none.

It had to be.