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Week One

What was he doing here again?

As many times as he asked himself this question, the answer kept eluding him.

Adrien sighed. He felt foolish—after Ivan was nice enough not to charge him after the first session, where they indeed talked about nothing in particular—here he sat, not saying one word, wasting Ivan’s time and his own money.

And it wasn’t like he didn’t want to talk. After all, reflecting on his actions last week, Adrien had to admit that Marinette had a point—the way he’d dealt with his anger after Nino had accused him of becoming his father was nowhere near healthy.

In fact, since that night, a video of his…“antics”…had surfaced on the internet, effectively damaging the reputation he was working so hard to protect. His lawyers were working on it, they assured him, but for every video they managed to get taken down, three more popped up in its place, a stubborn Hydra of media. Though Adrien had already settled out of court with the victim of his spleen, he was still embarrassed; bad publicity could ruin him, if he wasn’t careful.

This sobering event made Adrien realize that, even if he didn’t want to, he had to admit that he could use someone’s help to work out this ball of rage that had festered within him for so long.

But whenever he thought about addressing the issues that were truly bothering him, his tongue curled in on itself, and he couldn’t get the words out, no matter how hard he tried.

So he just sat, staring at his folded hands, hating himself and his weakness.

The best (or worst) part was that Ivan did not push him.

After about twenty minutes of silence, he just asked if Adrien wanted to listen to some music.

“What’re you in the mood for?” Ivan asked, after Adrien had nodded his agreement, once he’d gotten over his shock. Adrien frowned.

“I don’t know…”

“Something peaceful? Or something energizing, maybe?”

Adrien raised an eyebrow.

“Do you only have playlists based on description words?”

“Yep,” Ivan affirmed, turning his computer monitor around for Adrien to see. Indeed, he had playlists that were labeled with description words and names of emotions alone, rather than any kind of genre or favorites. Intrigued, Adrien, with Ivan’s permission, scrolled through the playlists until he became overwhelmed with just how many there were, and settled for the playlist labeled “Tranquil”.

Soft piano music filled the room, thanks to speakers hooked up in all the corners, and Adrien resumed his seat in the armchair, sitting back and closing his eyes, letting the music wash over him. Of their own accord, his fingers began to play along to the melody in the air, and he breathed deeply. Okay, he had to admit it—while it might be unorthodox…this was nice.

“Uh,” Ivan said after a moment, and Adrien tensed, reluctantly opening his eyes to find Ivan looking sheepish. “Sorry for asking—and you can say no, since this is your time—but I was wondering…would it be okay if I worked on something right now? I’ve been struggling a bit, and this music is really inspiring…but I’m here for you first and foremost, and if you’d rather I didn’t—”

“Go ahead,” Adrien allowed, intrigued by the relief that washed over Ivan’s face.

“Thanks. Just let me know when you want me to stop,” he said, drawing out a leather-bound journal from his desk. He raised a pen to his chin, frowning thoughtfully at the ceiling for a moment. And then, once the tip of the pen touched down upon the paper, he began to write so feverishly that it was like he was possessed, his eyes zooming across the paper, ink smudging his fingers as he crossed out certain lines and revised.

Adrien leaned forward, his curiosity getting the better of him.

“What’re you writing?”

Ivan looked up, his face suddenly red.

“Ah…my wedding vows,” he admitted in a small voice. Adrien blinked at him.

“You’re getting married?”

“Urm, yeah. To Mylene.” Ivan poked his two pointer fingers together, looking very shy. “We announced our engagement last summer. The wedding’ll take place this spring.”

Adrien felt his mouth come open.

That…damn it, he had to say it—

“That’s adorable,” he enthused, grinning so wide that it seemed to startle Ivan. But he smiled in return, his face growing redder.

“Th-thanks…” He cleared his throat, tapping his pen against his journal. “We agreed to write our own vows last month. But the problem is…I’m always unsatisfied with what I write.” Ivan frowned down at his journal. “Nothing seems like it’s good enough. We’ve been together a long time…and I’m not really sure how to put so much love in just a few lines of vows…”

Oh no, they were so cute. Adrien felt his inner romantic, all but forgotten, stir at the sight before him. Ivan was struggling, wondering which way was the best way to express his heartfelt adoration for his fiancée—how could Adrien just sit there and watch?

“Simple is usually better,” he advised, interlocking his fingers under his chin as he smiled at Ivan. “Of course, you know your relationship better than I do. What makes Mylene’s heart stir?”

“The little things,” Ivan answered immediately, and a small smile lit up his features as his fingertips brushed against a photo frame on his desk; Adrien was willing to bet Mylene’s picture was in there. “She likes it when I bring home flowers for no reason at all, or when I fold the laundry after it’s done when she falls asleep on the couch, waiting for the dryer to finish.”

Adrien could see, in his mind’s eye, this warm little home Ivan and Mylene had created together: Ivan’s “just because” flowers sitting on the dining table that was big enough for just the two of them, Mylene napping on the couch because it was a lazy Sunday and she was entitled to rest, Ivan sitting near her and folding the laundry with care, maybe glancing every now and then at her sleeping face and smiling…

It was so cute Adrien felt he might develop diabetes from such sweetness.

“But,” Ivan began, and Adrien brought himself back to witness the slight frown on Ivan’s face, making him look scarier than he actually was. “Wedding vows…they’re a little different, aren’t they? It’s part of this whole big deal, where we stand up and declare our love for one another in front of all our friends and family…I can’t help but think that they have to be perfect…I don’t want to disappoint her…”

The crestfallen look that briefly crossed Ivan’s face hit Adrien harder than expected. Reacting on instinct alone, he got up and rounded the desk, patting Ivan’s shoulder.

“I don’t think you could ever disappoint Mylene,” Adrien said honestly, smiling a little when Ivan glanced up at him. “And it’s true, weddings are made into a huge deal…but after all the flowers wilt and the nice clothes are put away…you have marriage to look forward to. And I think that should be your end game. The wedding is just one day. Your marriage is the rest of your lives. Prioritize, Ivan.”

“Hmm…” After a moment, Ivan smiled. “That makes a lot of sense. Thanks, Adrien.”

“Of course. What are friends for?” Adrien dared to say, and was rewarded with the affirming nod Ivan gave him.

“That’s true.” His expression crumpled. “Although, now I feel bad…these sessions are supposed to be about helping you…”

Ah. Right.

Adrien’s shoulders slumped, and he slunk back to his armchair, folding in on himself.

“I don’t mind,” he said truthfully. “Helping you out makes me feel like this isn’t such a waste of time…”

Belatedly, he realized that his words were unintentionally cutting, and he winced at the implication that Ivan was to blame for time being wasted in this office.

But Ivan only shrugged, hardly ruffled.

“Well, if you don’t mind,” he said, smiling a little. “Er…can I keep going?”

“Sure.” Adrien nodded, and Ivan’s smile widened before he turned his attention back to his journal. And for the rest of the hour, Adrien fluctuated between watching him write, helping out with a suggested synonym or two, and losing himself in the peaceful music that surrounded him.

In the waiting room, the secretary asked him if he would like to make another appointment with Dr. Bruel.

No, thanks. I don’t think this is for me after all.

The words were on the tip of his tongue…but then Adrien remembered the thoughtful frown Ivan wore as he concentrated, pen scrawling across pages and pages—he was up to five by the time the hour was up, something that impressed Adrien. It would be a shame for him to become discouraged while writing his vows again…

“…Okay,” he ended up saying instead, and the secretary penciled him in for next Wednesday at nine in the morning. A bit bewildered at himself, Adrien shrugged into his coat, tying his scarf securely around his throat. What was he doing? It really was a waste if he wasn’t even going to try to work on his issues, wasn’t it? What was the point of keeping up pretenses when he was just gonna sit there and listen to music for an hour?

Marinette suddenly flashed through his mind. Adrien paused just outside the office, frowning as he imagined her patient smile and expectant blue eyes, eyes that believed in him, that somehow believed he could be better than even he believed of himself…

Adrien’s shoulders slumped, and he sighed.

He would try again.

He had promised her he would, hadn’t he?

 


 

Week Two

Today’s playlist was labeled “Lighthearted”.

Whimsical music flowed through the room, and Adrien smiled, reclining sideways in his armchair as he was caught in between the desire to lounge and the fierce refusal to actually stretch out on the ‘shrink couch’. One of his fingers twirled through the air at the music, and he snickered to himself, remembering his run this morning with Marinette. She was probably annoyed with him right now, but it had been so very, very worth it—

“What’s funny?”

Adrien glanced up, finding that Ivan had paused his writing in the armchair next to him to give him a curious look.

Grinning, Adrien decided to oblige him.

“Found out something funny about Marinette today,” he said, sitting up. “We go running in the mornings sometimes. Today was a little warmer than usual, so I dragged her out of bed, and we stopped by her parents’ bakery for breakfast.”

“Lucky,” Ivan sighed, resting his head in a hand. “Their croissants are the best.”

“Definitely,” Adrien agreed. He pulled his legs up onto the chair cushion now, folding them and leaning forward with a mischievous grin. “So I’m talking with Sabine—her mom—and she’s telling me stories about how Mari was as a kid. Apparently, her first word was “bun”, and Tom was super proud.”

Ivan chuckled.

“That’s cute.”

“It’s bun-believable,” Adrien punned automatically. Ivan snorted.

“Bet Marinette didn’t like that joke.”

“I just thought of it,” Adrien admitted, expression souring immediately. “Damn it. I missed such a good opportunity.”

“Maybe you can tell her next time you see her.”

“Aw, but it’s too late, now! It won’t have the same effect!” Adrien tugged his phone out of his pocket and stared down at it, the urge to text Marinette the bun pun burning so fiercely that it was a physical struggle for him to keep his fingers still. Even if he did text her, there was no guarantee that she would respond, and he wanted to see her face when he made such a joke. Ugh, he just had to think of it hours later…he was losing his touch.

“So you see a lot of Marinette these days, hmm?” Ivan asked, setting his pen down. Adrien tilted his head slightly.

“Well, kind of. The morning runs aside, my company’s working with her university on a fashion project, so she has to meet with me twice a month to discuss her progress.” Adrien warmed in delight at the thought of their most recent meeting. “She’s making a Chat Noir-inspired costume that’s so badass. I’m excited to see it finished.”

“Chat Noir fan?”

Yes, what was so wrong with that? Adrien was about to confirm that…but there was a slight crease between Ivan’s brows that made him pause. What was with that look…?

“You’re…not?” He guessed. Ivan gave a heavy sigh.

“I mean…I used to like the guy. How could you not? He was a hero.” Ivan’s gaze dropped to his journal. “But now…he scares me.”

Adrien stared.

“He scares you?” The incredulous note in his tone was no doubt unappreciated, but Ivan merely shrugged, glancing up at Adrien again.

“Well, yeah. His attitude towards akuma victims and his influence are scary.” Ivan’s frown deepened. “I don’t know what happened to change him…but the guy saved my life, once. I thought he was the coolest guy ever.

“But now, how do I know that he wouldn’t rip right through me if he saw me on the street? Or…” Ivan’s hand closed into a fist, and he suddenly looked just as threatening as his size would suggest. “Or what if Mylene ran into him in a dark alleyway? What if, instead of us, he only saw the akuma we once were?”

Adrien was very aware of the way his heart beat in his chest, pounding out a war cry.

I would never do that!’ Half of him wanted to cry.

Once an akuma, always an akuma,’ the darker half of him hissed.

The confliction threatened to rip him in two.

How could he insist that no such thing would happen when, a couple days ago, he had fought his hardest against Ladybug to end an akuma’s rage on his terms?

How could he assert that Ivan and Mylene were a different case, when he was so ready to condemn people like Alya and Nino?

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

Adrien shivered. Marinette, though she was unaware of it, had embedded a seed of doubt so far within him that, despite his best efforts to claw it out, it had stubbornly lodged itself in a crevice within him, making it unreachable.

And it was taking root.

Ivan’s fear only added salt to the wound, nutrients feeding the accursed seed.

Adrien’s distress must have shown on his face, for Ivan changed the subject.

“I’m kinda surprised you and Marinette have gotten so close,” he admitted, jarring Adrien out of his thoughts with Marinette’s name. “Back in Dupont, she kinda just froze up around you…”

“Oh…yeah…”

Adrien rubbed the back of his neck. He knew now why that was, of course—Marinette had had a huge, debilitating crush on him that prevented her from being herself around him. But Ivan didn’t seem to know that, and Adrien was just a tad uncomfortable about divulging such information. It really wasn’t his secret to tell, was it?

Just as he resolved not to say anything, Ivan took the matter out of his hands.

“It’s nice to see how friendly you guys are now. I was worried her past crush on you would get in the way, but—”

“What?” Adrien sputtered, blinking. Ivan stared…and then his face turned completely red.

“Oh…sorry,” he apologized, looking highly embarrassed. “That, uh, wasn’t supposed to—I mean, I thought you knew—”

“I do!” Adrien rushed to assure him, raising his hands in a placating manner. “But, uh, she only told me recently…how did you find out?”

Ivan blinked at him.

“I’ve known for years,” he admitted, and Adrien gaped.

“You—you have?!”

“Well, yeah. I mean, everyone knew, back in Dupont…she wasn’t really hiding it, you know?”

Wait.

Wait wait wait, hold on.

So…everyone else knew that Marinette had been crushing on him?

Everyone else knew…except for him?

“How come nobody told me?!” Adrien demanded to know, feeling his face light up like a traffic light. Ivan blinked at him, clearly startled.

“We thought you knew! Didn’t you ever wonder why she acted so different around you?”

“I—”

Oh god. This was so embarrassing. Had he really been the only oblivious one??

“That’s why Chloe bullied her so much,” Ivan added. “She was already jealous of Marinette, I think…but her being close to you was kinda the final straw.”

“Oh my god,” Adrien groaned, letting his face fall in his hands. That whole time, he had been afraid that she was intimidated by him, or even disliked him, but sitting here now, with the honest truth staring in him the face…

He felt like a goddamned idiot.

Ivan patted him carefully on the shoulder.

“Well…don’t feel too bad,” he tried to reason. “It was a long time ago, and it’s over now. Nothing to worry about, right?”

Adrien guessed not.

Except…

If he hadn’t been quite so oblivious—and if he hadn’t been quite so smitten with a superhero at that time—how might this thing with Marinette have played out…?

It doesn’t matter now,’ he rebuked himself, shaking his head. ‘Like Ivan said, it was a long time ago. She’s your friend now. Whatever might have happened back then doesn’t matter anymore.

The hour finished without any more uncomfortable revelations, and Adrien went to work with a little more on his mind than usual.

The next morning, Marinette unexpectedly joined him on his jog.

She kept asking him why his face was so flushed. He lied and said it was because of the wind.

She didn’t look entirely convinced.

 


 

Week Three

He was a half hour late. The secretary clucked his tongue at him as Adrien burst into Ivan’s office, not quite out of breath, but breathing a little harder than usual.

“Oh, Adrien, hey,” Ivan greeted, blinking in surprise. “I thought you got busy with something at work and forgot.”

“No,” Adrien huffed automatically; although that would have been the perfect excuse, lying to Ivan without reason just seemed unnecessary. “I was held up because an akuma attacked.”

“Oh.” Ivan frowned. “Are you all right?”

“I’m good.” Grinning tightly, Adrien added, “It’d take a lot more than an akuma to take me down.”

That brag was a little too Chat-ish, but other than a thoughtful frown, Ivan didn’t pursue it.

“Well, we have about a half hour left in our session, if there’s anything you wanna talk about.”

Adrien was about to just request a playlist for the day, but his jittery high from becoming Chat Noir had not yet faded, and he found, quite suddenly, that there was something he did want to discuss.

“How do you know when you’re over someone?”

He half-expected Ivan to gape at him.

Ivan did no such thing.

Instead, he set down his pen and closed his journal, frowning thoughtfully.

“Hmm. That’s a good question,” he admitted. Adrien felt his shoulders slump.

“Sorry. You probably don’t—I mean, you and Mylene have been solid for so long—”

“That doesn’t mean we didn’t hit rough patches,” Ivan corrected Adrien gently, gesturing for him to have a seat. Adrien paused…and then went to his usual armchair, eyes intent on Ivan as the therapist folded his hands over his journal. “There were a couple times where we almost broke up over all the usual stuff that messes couples up—lack of communication, mostly. And in those times, the only thing that made us realize we needed to work to fix it was the fact that we knew we weren’t over each other.”

Adrien shrugged, feeling his expression crumple into helplessness.

“But how do you know?”

Ivan gave a massive shrug.

“How did I personally know that I wasn’t over Mylene? It was the little stuff—I missed the way she cuddled up to me when we watched scary movies together. I missed the smell of her shampoo in my bed. You know,” he said, a blush filling his face, “stuff like that.” Clearing his throat, Ivan pointed out, “But it’s different for everyone.”

Adrien frowned, crossing an ankle over his knee.

“…Can you not be over someone even if you’re doing everything you can to actively go against them?” He questioned quietly.

“Hmm. Well, that depends: are you actively against them because of them? Or because of you?

Adrien frowned.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you going against them because of something you believe in? Or is it just because it’s them that you’re going against them?” Ivan paused. “Does that make sense?”

Kind of. Adrien bobbed his head and fell silent for a moment, considering, searching his own stunted, repressed feelings for an answer.

As usual, seeing Ladybug today was a punch straight to the gut, though Chat Noir worked to never let her see so. Their dynamic was radically different now, rival heroes battling to save Paris the way they each believed was the right way. Ladybug was still as fierce as ever, and she didn’t bother to pull her punches when it came to him anymore. And Chat Noir knew that he didn’t owe her anything anymore, now that their partnership was dissolved.

…But…

“…Both?” Adrien answered, scowling down at his hands for a moment. “I mean…I don’t think I’m wrong. The whole reason I started this—what I’m doing—is because I honestly believe in what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m wrong…”

Or, he was trying not to believe he was wrong, anyway. But that was a much larger can of worms that didn’t need rattling, and so Adrien moved on.

“But, at the same time…seeing her fight so hard against me…I can’t help but give it everything I’ve got, too. And it’s not that I want to be her enemy…but I just…I know I can’t half-ass this, you know? She’s really strong, and if she senses even the slightest bit of weakness from me, it’s all over. I don’t want that to happen—I don’t want to lose—but it’s like, I know she’d expect nothing but my best from me, anyway, so…I don’t know. Am I trying to make her proud, in my own twisted way? I…I’m not sure.”

The way he felt about Ladybug was complicated. She was Chat Noir’s enemy. She had rejected Adrien Agreste. She had killed Adrien Agreste’s father.

And yet he still found himself so hung up on her that to watch her walk away from him after a battle had ended, not saying one word to him, was physical pain.

Why couldn’t he just be free of her like she was clearly free of him?

How long would she keep him on this chafing leash?

Just how hard was he supposed to fight before he could finally break away from her completely?

Ivan watched him quietly, not saying a word. Dimly, Adrien wondered how much of what he said made no sense, due to lack of context. All was silent for a long moment.

Finally, Ivan leaned back in his chair, folding his hands over his stomach as he gazed at the ceiling in thought.

“If you are trying to make her proud,” he spoke into the silence, shattering it, “it must mean that you’re still there for her in some way. You might be over her…but then again, you might not be.”

Adrien growled in frustration.

“Which is it?”

Ivan glanced back down to him.

“Only you know the answer to that,” he said. Adrien huffed, running a frustrated hand through his hair.

“That’s helpful,” he grumbled, realizing a second later that he was being rude. He cringed, but Ivan smiled and lifted a shoulder.

“Sorry. I may be your therapist, but I can’t tell you how to feel, Adrien.”

While that was true, a part of Adrien wished it weren’t so. It would be so much easier for someone else to run his emotions while he went through life, blissfully unaware of such difficulty…

…But then again, life with his father hadn’t satisfied him either, had it?

“We’ve got about ten minutes left,” Ivan pointed out, jolting Adrien with the surprise. Was time almost up already? “Anything else you wanna get off your chest? I’m all ears.”

Adrien gave a sigh.

“I think that’s probably enough for today,” he grumbled. He had shared a little more than he meant to, than he was used to…but it didn’t feel bad, or invasive. Ivan was patient, and he never pushed or prodded for details. He was perfectly willing to listen when Adrien wanted to talk, and completely fine with sitting quietly and scribbling in his journal while Adrien listened to music. Ivan didn’t make the hour in his office feel like therapy. Rather, he made it feel like Adrien was just choosing to spend an hour with a friend, shooting the breeze and chilling out for a while, before Adrien had to return to his normal, hectic life.

It was a safe haven. And Ivan, his therapist, had made it so.

Adrien was going to have to buy Marinette something pretty for insisting he try this.

“Okay,” Ivan allowed—again, not pushing, which Adrien was grateful for. He opened his journal again, blushing a little. “Er…then, if it’s okay with you…can I read you my latest draft? I think this one might be it…but I wouldn’t mind a friend’s opinion.”

Adrien grinned a grin he was sure probably looked stupid on him.

He couldn’t find it in himself to care.

 


 

Week Four

Adrien waited on his usual corner, hands buried in his pockets as he jogged in place. Marinette had said that she’d meet him this morning—after much grumbling and cursing—but she was later than usual. Adrien threw a glance to his watch, frowning a little. Had she changed her mind?

He was just about to call her when he spotted a figure approaching through the fog.

“About time!” He called just to nettle her, before he realized that the figure coming closer was too tall to be her…much too tall…

Adrien froze as Nino broke through the morning mist, his face ruddy from the cold…or was he embarrassed to see Adrien?

What the hell was he doing here, anyway?

The two just stood there, staring at each other, the tension between them several shades of awkward. Adrien tried to find something to say, but it was like someone had jammed a pole into the gears of his mind—they grinded to a halt, and his brain was officially useless in finding a solution to this problem.

After a moment, Nino released a sigh, rubbing the back of his head and glancing away as he burst into speech without preamble.

“Look, du—Adrien,” he hastily corrected himself, and Adrien raised an eyebrow, “I’m sorry for what I said about you becoming your dad. It wasn’t true. I was just…I was pissed, you know? The way you just…looked away as soon as you saw me at Francoise’s…like I was trash. What was up with that?”

Nino looked up, pinning Adrien with a hard stare, hurt and anger battling in his gaze.

“You haven’t talked to me for years, man. Every time I tried to reach out to you, you either straight up ignored me or told me to quit bothering you. And all this time I felt bad, wondering what I did wrong to make you hate me…but I’m stumped, Adrien. Honestly, I have no freaking clue.”

Nino threw out a hand, disturbing the fog around him.

“Would it kill you to tell me just when we stopped being friends? And why?”

Adrien stared at the man before him, just able to see the boy he once knew in the set of his jaw, the earnestness of his gaze. Once upon a time, Adrien believed that the two would be inseparable, for Nino was his very first friend at Dupont, and it had been him who encouraged Adrien to clear the air with Marinette by just…being himself. Wise words, coming from a boy the same age as him. But Nino was different now, and so was he, and maybe there was nothing either of them could do about such a situation.

Not to mention he was once an akuma,’ the darker side of Adrien reminded him none too gently.

Yes…that was right. Nino had been akumatized, too. He had let his anger and rage get out of control, making himself an easy target for Hawk Moth…

…All because he was upset that his best friend had never had a real birthday party.

The shock of the reminder rocked Adrien in place, widening his eyes.

There were plenty of victims that were always made into akuma due to perceived injustices done unto them. A lot of them were caused by Chloe Bourgeois just being herself, even.

But now that he thought about it…Adrien had never heard of someone being akumatized for the sake of someone else.

Except for Nino.

And now, Adrien was responsible for the wounded look in Nino’s eyes…the same look his father had once been responsible for, when he kicked Nino out of the house and labeled him a “bad influence”.

Was Nino wrong, in his assertion that Adrien had grown up to become his father?

Adrien was starting to think not.

And that terrified him.

“I was stupid,” Adrien blurted out when he could no longer take the tension in the air between him and a man he had once called ‘friend’. “It wasn’t your fault, Nino—it was never your fault. After leaving, there was so much I had to cope with, so much about my father that I never wanted to realize…but I had to just deal with it. My aunt and uncle, they never liked him, so I couldn’t bring him up with them, and the fact that he was fucking Hawk Moth all that time, I…I didn’t even know how to process that. How do you just accept that your father was a villain that terrorized a whole city?!”

Even now, with how angry Nino rightfully was with Adrien, his face still crumpled with concern, a hand reaching out, as if he meant to pat Adrien’s arm, before he dropped it a moment later. The clear worry in his gaze, even after all these years, managed to make Adrien feel even worse.

“Dude…” Nino began, but seemed unable to continue. It didn’t matter anyway, since Adrien would have just cut him off: now that the floodgates were open, he couldn’t stop himself.

“He hurt so many people, Nino. And you were one of them! He turned you into a monster!”

“Whoa,” Nino interrupted, holding up a hand, his frown growing more pronounced. “‘Monster’?”

Adrien paled.

“I…I just meant—”

“You said ‘monster,’” Nino cut across him, the pity in his gaze vanishing on the spot. “You think I’m a monster now?”

“I—”

“Is that why you stopped talking to me? Didn’t want to sully your new reputation by being on speaking terms with one of Hawk Moth’s former terrors?”

Adrien desperately wished for the right words to diffuse the situation, to make years of pain and anger and awkwardness disappear with some sort of magic phrase that would restore everything to the way it should be…

But he had no Lucky Charm to call to his aid. Magic couldn’t fix this.

His silence was taken in by Nino, who lifted his chin, his gaze going dark.

“…That’s fucked up, man,” was all he said.

Adrien couldn’t help but agree with him.

“I was stupid,” he repeated with a slow shake of his head. “Still am. Right now, I…”

Adrien sighed from his core, but made himself square up and meet Nino’s injured look.

“…I’m not okay, Nino.”

It was the first time he had ever spoken the words aloud. Shame filled him at the admission…shame and a pinprick of a strange, out-of-place emotion…relief?

Nino folded his arms, inspecting Adrien.

“…Look,” he began, lifting and dropping a shoulder, “I only tracked you down here ‘cause ‘Nette said she meets you here sometimes to go jogging, and I wanted to apologize for what I said to you the last time I saw you. It was over the line, and I’m sorry.” Nino frowned. “I’m not looking for anything more from you, Adrien.”

That was fair. Adrien expected it, even. There was no reason, then, for that old ache to flare up again, the ache he associated with the loss of his first real friend, the guy who managed to see the good in him and gave him a chance, despite his dubious friendship with the meanest girl in class.

Adrien nodded, trying not to look too subdued.

“I understand,” he had to admit.

“Good,” Nino said. Adrien expected him to leave, then, to turn his back and never glance over his shoulder, the way Adrien found himself doing more and more these days, the further he traveled down this path, wondering constantly if the road he hadn’t taken was the correct one after all…

Nino didn’t move. He just stared at Adrien, frowning thoughtfully.

Adrien could only stare back, having nothing to say…but he felt weighed down, as if some kind of silent judgment was being passed here, and he was on the edge of his seat, awaiting the verdict…

The sound of footsteps alerted them both to the presence of someone else, Nino turning around as yet another figure emerged through the lifting fog—Marinette, clad in her pink and black track suit, and a pink and white-knit muffler with a matching hat. She looked utterly miserable, yet somehow resigned…but when she spotted Nino and Adrien together, she stopped so suddenly that she flailed, falling into Nino, who staggered back against Adrien, who planted his feet, keeping the whole row from toppling over.

“Whoa,” Nino huffed, a smile in his voice now as he righted Marinette, whose face was now burning. “You okay, ‘Nette?”

“Yeah,” she huffed, sounding annoyed and embarrassed all at the same time. Adrien swallowed his chuckle, making sure his expression was quite straight as her gaze shot between him and Nino. “…Am I interrupting?”

“Nope.” Nino let his hands fall away from Marinette as he passed her. “We’re done here.”

“Nino—” Marinette called, looking as if she was about to meddle. She paused as Adrien slipped a hand onto her shoulder, giving it a squeeze. When she glanced up at him, he shook his head slightly with a helpless little smile. She bit her lip, her brow furrowing.

Nino only got a couple steps away before he paused, hands shoved into the pockets of his green coat. Adrien and Marinette watched him, Adrien holding his breath.

Finally, Nino whipped around, pinning Adrien with another stern stare.

“I don’t need stupid friends,” he said baldly. Adrien heard Marinette let out a tiny gasp beside him, but he squeezed her shoulder again, signaling that it was okay. Nino shouldn’t have stupid friends like him anyway.

“…But maybe,” Nino began after a moment’s pause, his expression changing, turning into something…a little warmer. More forgiving. “…Maybe if you stop being stupid…we can talk sometime.”

Adrien felt heat flood his face, his eyes widening in surprise. No way…

Even more surprising, Nino smiled.

“Let me know if that ever happens, will ya?”

Stunned, Adrien could only nod. Nino returned it, waved merrily to Marinette, and went on his way, disappearing from sight quickly, thanks to the fog. Adrien was still staring at the spot where Nino vanished when he felt Marinette peek up at him.

“…Should I ask?” She wanted to know. Adrien shrugged, but realized a second later that was an unclear action, and so he wrestled some words out of his mouth.

“I, uh…that was…” He shook his head, still not over his shock. It was almost too much to ask for Marinette to forgive him, but to have Nino willing to give him yet another chance after how horribly he’d been treated by Adrien before they just stopped talking altogether? Wasn’t this too much? Wasn’t this way more than he deserved?

Once an akuma, always an akuma.

As if the darkness inside himself sensed that he was wavering, his mind was suddenly bombarded with images: Stoneheart, roaring with rage above him before knocking him backwards; the Bubbler, trapping him in a bubble with Ladybug and sending them skyward until Chat Noir popped the bubble and sent Ladybug and him potentially hurtling to their deaths—

There was a soft, hesitant touch on his bare wrist.

“Adrien?”

Marinette’s voice jarred him, the images shifting: Ivan, apologizing for scaring Mylene and promising to sing quieter, her hugging him, him blushing; Nino promising to stay by his side, despite his father’s attitude towards him the day before, just pleased to see that Adrien was happy with the gift he believed was from his father at the time…

The darkness within him hissed, clawing at the pleasant images, wanting to destroy them, but it was too late—the seed of doubt that had lodged itself within Adrien was sprouting, producing a small, but healthy sprout, green leaves flourishing.

It was a weed that threatened to throttle everything Adrien had resolved to do, every plan he made for his return to Paris…and his return to crime-fighting.

And a part of Adrien that was growing stronger everyday was tempted to just let it.

Was he wrong after all? Was his own version of justice twisted, just like Ladybug kept asserting to his face every time he clashed with her? Was it wrong, wanting to protect Paris by killing akuma victims—people—out of the fear that they would forever be controlled by Hawk Moth, subject to his dark whims at a later date?

Was what Adrien was doing…wrong?

Was he wrong…?

“Adrien,” Marinette spoke again, sounding disturbed by his silence. He blinked, glancing down at her for a moment. Her dark brows were furrowed as she peered up at him, vivid blue eyes focused on him, darting around his face, searching for some signs of distress. He didn’t know if she was seeing them—he didn’t know what kind of face he was making right now. All he knew was that he didn’t like seeing Marinette so worried about him. He didn’t like it when she had been drunk babysitting him, and he liked it even less now, especially when her teeth moved to worry her bottom lip, the gesture familiar…

Adrien smiled to put her at ease…but it had the opposite effect; Marinette’s frown deepened, and she poked his cheek.

“Stop it,” she commanded, though her voice was soft. Adrien raised an eyebrow.

“Stop what?”

“Stop giving me your model smile,” she explained with a huff. “I can tell the difference between when you actually want to smile and when you’re smiling like a camera’s being aimed at you. Don’t smile if you don’t want to, Adrien. It’s just me out here.”

Adrien blinked, startled. His ‘model smile’, huh…he wasn’t even aware that there was a difference…but if it was actually bothering Marinette enough to say something about it…

“Sorry,” he said. Marinette shrugged it off, though she continued to look concerned as she jogged ahead at a slow pace, allowing Adrien to catch up way too easily.

“So…are you and Nino okay?”

“Not really.” Adrien paused, astonishment still coursing through him at the smile Nino had parted with. “…But I think we might be, in the future. As long as I get my shit together, that is.”

Marinette smiled a bit at that, and Adrien was relieved to see her brow smooth out. Someone so lovely shouldn’t be given cause to frown, anyway. Especially because of someone like him.

“Good luck with that, then,” she wished.

Luck. Ha. Luck wasn’t something that ever did Adrien any favors, like the embodiment of Luck itself was out to get him. Still…the sentiment was appreciated.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling a little. As they paused to wait for the crosswalk light, Adrien dug into his pocket, retrieving a box and placing it against Marinette’s cheek. “For you.”

Marinette blinked, clearly startled. She took the box, giving him a bemused look.

“Are you going to make a habit of giving me gifts while we’re out jogging?”

“Maybe,” Adrien teased, grinning now. “You gonna open it or what?”

“I feel like the suspense is getting to you more than it is to me,” Marinette observed. Adrien pretended to bounce eagerly in place, and she rolled her eyes and tugged the top off the box.

“Oh,” she breathed, and Adrien allowed himself to grin as she pulled out the black cat pin to inspect it, blinking wide blue eyes. Blue sapphires winked back at her from the cat, not quite the same shade, and nowhere near as beautiful…but close enough. “It’s really cute!”

“I’m glad you like it,” he admitted, relieved. He had almost bought her the one with emerald eyes instead of sapphires…but considering her current attitude towards Chat Noir, Adrien reasoned that it was probably better to play it safe.

As the crosswalk light turned green, Marinette nestled the pin safely back into its box, glancing up at Adrien with a frown.

“It wasn’t expensive, was it?” She asked, and Adrien was amused at how adorable she looked, worrying about such a small thing.

“Nope,” he said lightly, jogging forward before Marinette could ask exactly how much it was. She yelped behind him, and Adrien snickered. When she caught up with him, the box was out of sight, probably tucked into one of her pockets. That disappointed him a little. He wanted to see what it looked like on her…but maybe she was saving it for a special occasion rather than just pinning it to her track suit.

“What’s the occasion?” She wanted to know, and Adrien felt her curious eyes burning holes into the side of his head. He turned towards her, intending to explain the gift—that her support of him so far, though undeserved, was appreciated more than he could ever express in words…but abruptly, the need to tease her took precedence.

And so Adrien tossed her a wink, saying in a sly voice, “Just for being you.”

Marinette stared at him. Adrien slowed, abruptly afraid—had he acted too much like Chat Noir just now? Did she figure it out? Was she going to hit him?

He opened his mouth to explain that he was joking, hoping that would defuse the situation—but Marinette opened hers first, and quite suddenly, a peal of laughter issued from her, laughter so hearty that she clutched at her stomach and seemed to have trouble standing upright. Adrien flushed without knowing why, though part of him was sure that she was teasing him now.

“Oh my god,” Marinette breathed after a moment, wiping tears of mirth from the corners of her eyes as she grinned up at him. “Are you serious?”

“What?” Adrien questioned, unsure of whether or not he was supposed to act wounded right now. Sure, it wasn’t his best pick-up line, but even so, she wasn’t supposed to be laughing at him…even if her laughter sounded very nice…

Marinette muffled another giggle, shaking her head at him and continuing her jog, Adrien keeping pace with her.

“Look, if you’re trying to get a favor from me, Mr. Agreste, it’s gonna take a lot more than some pretty trinket and a cheesy pick-up line. Do better,” She scolded him playfully, punching his arm. Adrien pretended to stagger, rubbing the spot where she’d hit him.

Ow. Not only do your words hurt, but your punches do, too!”

“Suck it up, you big baby,” she teased him further, poking her tongue out. After a moment, however, her smile became genuine. “…But, whatever your reason…thank you. I love it.”

Adrien hastily looked away, his face burning. There it was again—that smile that, while it was just so Marinette, somehow made him think of another woman entirely when he saw it…a woman in red with black spots…

“No problem,” he muttered, smiling to just himself now. Marinette poked his cheek again, and he glanced down to find her grinning.

“Much better,” she praised him. Suddenly, she poured on the speed; Adrien had recently discovered that her competitive streak had grown stronger over the years, and she always kicked it into high gear without warning while they were on their morning runs. Normally, he would race her—he almost always won when they raced to her parents’ bakery, something that annoyed Marinette to no end—but today, he couldn’t make his legs move fast enough. He blamed it on the distraction that was her back, her dark hair fanning out from under her hat, legs that were deceptively powerful pushing her forward into a sprint that was not hindered by her shorter legs at all. She was a sight to behold, that much was for sure: so much positivity housed in one person…it was actually pretty incredible. Miraculous, even.

His smile widening, Adrien jogged at his own leisurely pace behind her. He was content to let her win this one, no matter how much she liked to gloat and rub it in his face. Adrien couldn’t bring himself to be sore about the loss. How could he?

After all, Adrien adored it when Marinette smiled.

 


 

Later that morning, Adrien made it a point to head right to the lounge couch when he entered Ivan’s office. He didn’t bother to lay down on it—that would be too much at once—but he did sit down, his hands folded in between his legs.

Ivan seemed to register how serious Adrien was: he closed his journal and moved away from his desk, tugging an armchair nearer to the lounge couch, sitting much like Adrien, his face open, curious. Adrien met his gaze, feeling the darkness within him writhe and twist. It was rebelling, reviled by this course of action, hissing and spitting insults at him from the back of his mind. In response, Adrien sought refuge within the light of the sapling that had sprouted within him, thriving even as the darkness hovered just beyond its boundaries, scheming, attempting to press in and throttle it at first chance. But Adrien was not worried. Though he thought at first he didn’t want it, now he knew: this seed, which he had labeled ‘doubt’, was not meant to harm him at all—Marinette would not gift him with something so negative, after all.

No, rather than doubt that had sprouted here, rather than doubt that had taken root and poisoned his schemes and ideals, rather than doubt that threatened to spoil everything…it was ‘trust’.

Marinette trusted him, trusted that he wanted to get better, that he wanted to be a better person. She did not coddle him, did not pat his head and tell him he was a good boy when he misbehaved, did not give him the toy after he threw a tantrum—she called him out on his bullshit, made him face it and own up to it, and then she offered to help him overcome it with a smile.

And her friendship—her unwavering, seemingly unshakeable trust in him—made Adrien realize that he not only wanted to be a better person, a better friend, for her…but also for himself.

Adrien owed it to himself to be a better person.

And to be a better person…he had to let go of everything that was holding him back, keeping him in the dark.

Everything.

He still wasn’t entirely convinced that his way of doing things was the wrong way—it was an eighty to twenty balance, maybe eighty-five to fifteen, in favor of Ladybug’s way…but he would tackle that later. Today, he was going to start on what he was convinced could change, one baby step at a time.

After a deep, steadying breath—because, for all his certainty, his hands were still shaking—Adrien spoke.

“I’m ready to talk about my father.”

Ivan nodded.

“I’m listening.”

And that was all Adrien needed.