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

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

            “On your left!”

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

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

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

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

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

            But he would not be given that chance again.

            Not if Ladybug had anything to say about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            A butterfly without wings.

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

            “NO!”

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

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

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

            CRUNCH.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Gabriel Agreste…

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

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

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

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

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

            Hawk Moth’s Miraculous…

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

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

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

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

            Gabriel Agreste—Hawk Moth—was dead.

            And it was all her fault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Adrien…”

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

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

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

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

            The very thought sent a ripple of fear through her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            If Adrien hated Ladybug, he would hate her.

            And if he hated her…

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

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

            Judging her.

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

            “Hawk Moth’s Miraculous—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Ladybug had failed. She had failed.

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

            And the worst part?

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

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

            “Marinette?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Alya frowned at this.

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

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

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

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

            Nino gave a shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Marinette felt her face drain of blood.

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

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

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

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

            Adrien.

            Marinette felt tears well up in her eyes once again.

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

            Adrien was suffering because of her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘I need to see him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            But it was Adrien.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            A corner of Adrien’s mouth quirked up.

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

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

            “Where are you going?”

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

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

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

            “Oh…”

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

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

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

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

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

            But…

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

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

            Mari. A nickname.

            And she had been a good friend to him.

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

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

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

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

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

            But Ladybug had killed his father.

            And Marinette was Ladybug.

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

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

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

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

            She didn’t deserve to look at him.

            “Well…bye, Marinette.”

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

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

            Adrien was gone. Mr. Agreste was dead.

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

            Her fault.

 


 

            Chat Noir was nowhere to be found.

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

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

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

            …Which he had promised to deliver to Master Fu.

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

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

            Final.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Surprising herself, it was a lot.

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

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

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

            “Really? You have his Miraculous?”

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

            “He does?”

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

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

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

            Now Marinette was really worried.

            Only this time, her worry transformed immediately into irritation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Master Fu hummed some more.

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

            Marinette blushed.

            “H-how—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “But Paris needs you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            She didn’t deserve to be Ladybug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Tikki?”

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

            “Marinette?”

            Marinette sucked in a deep breath.

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

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

            “Marinette.”

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

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

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

            “Thank you, Tikki.”

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

            “Ladybug! Ladybug!”

            “Ladybug, over here!”

            “Ladybug, look this way!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Ladybug frowned.

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

            “Ladybug, Alya Cesaire, from Ladyblog?”

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

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

            Ladybug scowled at the reminder.

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

            And so life in Paris went on.

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

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

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

            Tikki giggled at that, hardly concerned, it seemed.

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

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

            And in relative ignorance of the storm heading her way.

Chapter Text

           “Marinette…Marinette…? MARINETTE!”

            Marinette jumped with a squawk, somehow getting tangled in her sheets in just the right way before she wobbled and fell off her bed. She groaned, peeling back the corner of the sheet covering her face and frowned up at a pair of big, indigo eyes.

            “What is it, Tikki?” She grumbled, rubbing at her face and yawning. This better be good, if it was so important to rouse her from the lovely little place that was Dream Land…

            With a tiny grunt of effort, Tikki lifted Marinette’s phone up for her to see.

            “You slept through your alarm again! You’re going to be late!”

            Marinette blinked at the time. 8:50.

            She had class at 9.

            The unholy screech she let loose could probably be heard from two blocks away.

            Scrambling out of her cotton prison, Marinette ran for the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

            “Why didn’t you wake me earlier, Tikki?!”

            She heard her kwami sigh from behind the door as she sped through her morning routine, washing her face and brushing her teeth at top speed.

            “Twenty-one years old and you’re still like this…” The kwami hastily zoomed out of the way of the door as Marinette blew past, throwing her closet open. “The only thing you’ve seemed to have outgrown is your pigtails!”

            Marinette stuck her tongue out at Tikki, which only proved her right, Marinette supposed, but she couldn’t focus on being mature right now—she was going to be late!

            After throwing on some clothes that managed to make her look presentable, Marinette took one look at her hair, deemed it hopeless, and tied it back in a bun, strands of raven locks framing her face. She snatched up her bag and raced down the steps, calling back a farewell to her kwami as she left.

            “See you later, Tikki!”

            “Bye, Marinette!”

            Tikki rarely ever traveled with her everywhere she went anymore—there was no need, and with how busy Marinette was, rushing to and from places, she barely had time to feed herself, let alone Tikki. It was at first with a heavy heart that Marinette chose to leave Tikki behind most days, leaving her with a box of cookies and different ways for the kwami to entertain herself. It was hard at first, and though Marinette missed the little voice in her ear when she was having hurried, solitary lunches at a café somewhere, they both agreed that it was for the best. Besides, Marinette made it up to the kwami by taking her out to see the city on days when she wasn’t so hellishly busy, and there was always Ladybug time when Marinette could manage it. So, while the thought made her clench with guilt at first, now Marinette was just used to the situation. She was busy, so it couldn’t be helped.

            Outside of her apartment, Marinette locked up, let out a measured breath, and then took off running for campus.

            It was both blessing and curse that International Fashion Academy—IFA Paris—allowed its upperclassmen to live off campus if they so chose. The blessing was that Marinette could be as loud as she wanted in her own apartment—which wasn’t actually too loud, by herself—without campus security being called in for a noise complaint.

            The curse?

            She was often stuck doing this every morning: ducking and dodging around people with rushed apologies as she ran for campus, the sunlight glittering off the Quai de la Marne nearly blinding her.

            ‘Why don’t I think to set up five-minute alarms?’ Marinette berated herself as she dashed onto campus, heading for the correct building by skirting past a couple girls holding coffee cups, their shrieks of indignation falling on deaf ears. ‘No, one-minute alarms. That way I’d be so annoyed that I’d get up out of irritation more than anything…but that doesn’t help if I’m sleeping through my alarm anyway, does it? Ugggh, why did I think a Masters degree in Fashion Business was a good idea?! I should’ve just stuck with my Fashion Studio short course—then I’d be done already!

            Marinette sighed as she slipped through the doors of her class building, the smell of academia heavy in the air. Oh the ways she suffered for her craft…

            Being Ladybug during what little free time she had nowadays certainly had its perks—where years ago, a ten-minute mad dash to campus would’ve winded her, now, Marinette was perfectly composed as she strode into class, the only thing winded possibly her hair. She smoothed it down as she took her seat, pleased to find that she had arrived with just one minute to spare. A personal best, in her book.

            “All right, all right, settle down,” called the professor as the morning chatter quieted. On the course description, her name was Mademoiselle Trace—Miss Trace, as her home country of America would call her—but she preferred them to call her Desiree, which made the whole dispute a moot point. Though she was fluent in French, Desiree preferred to speak exclusively in English, which made Marinette fervently grateful for the English courses she had to take in lycee and in her first two years of university. In fact, the only time Desiree ever spoke in French—

            “All right, my brilliant students, listen up: J’ai une announce a faire.”

            —Is when she had something important to say.

            The abrupt switch to their native language had every head swiveling in Desiree’s direction. Pleased with the attention, Desiree continued.

            “As you all know well and good, graduation is just a few short months away—”

            Seven months, three days, fourteen hours, seventeen minutes, six seconds.

            But Marinette wasn’t counting or anything.

            “—So as your final project, we’re having a competition. A Project Runway, of sorts.” Desiree chuckled at the groan her students issued over her mention of the dreadful American fashion reality show she’d once made them watch. Tim Gunn’s favorite phrase, “Make it work,” was often uttered in the class from then on when someone didn’t know the answer to a question or was last-minute cramming for an exam. Though sounding playful, it was a phrase meant to shame.

            “Anyway,” Desiree continued, becoming business-like with just a snap of her fingers, “for the rest of this semester, this class will focus on one thing, and one thing only: creating your very own spring fashion line.”

            The air grew heavy with anticipation, hanging on Desiree’s every word. She smirked at this.

            “You all have spent years developing your own unique designs, and I’ve seen a lot of amazing work.” Here, she winked at Marinette, who blushed and tried not to be too pleased with herself. It was a losing battle. “I have every confidence that each and every one of you has what it takes to rise to the top.” Desiree straightened up from where she leaned against her desk, her sudden stern look further driving home just how serious this was. “That being said, this will be a competition. Therefore, there will only be one winner. The winner of this competition will not only have their designs modeled in this spring’s Paris Fashion Week—”

            A collective gasp sounded through the room, but Desiree lifted a hand, her smirk more pronounced than ever.

            “Hang on, darlings, I’m not done. Not only will the chosen fashion line be modeled in this spring’s Paris Fashion Week, but said winning designer will also have a guaranteed career with the best on-the-rise fashion company…”

            Desiree paused once again, and Marinette thought she might burst from anticipation.

            ‘Spit it out already!’ Her mind cried out, desperate for release.

            But Desiree was sadistic: she dragged out the anticipation for as long as possible, until someone in the back burst out, “For the love of god, Desiree, tell us already!”

            Desiree’s face split into a grin.

            “All right, all right, since you’re all so desperate to know…” She cleared her throat, and then, confusing all her students, called to the direction of her office. “You can come out now!”

            Heads swiveled in the direction of Desiree’s office, the door coming open with a soft click. Everyone stared as he emerged, slow, sinuous, cat-walk steps carrying him to the front of the room, where he stopped, a hand propped up on his cocked hip.

            Posing.

            Marinette stared, feeling her eyes go wide in her face. She took in the clothes—designer, of course, and form-fitting—the hair—longer than she had ever seen it, but still blonde and still perfectly coiffed, gelled and combed down in the back—the tan—Italy had done very complimentary things to his skin—and finally, the eyes…

            Green eyes that surveyed the room coolly, as if he was king and was well-aware of it.

            Desiree’s voice came dimly through the roaring in Marinette’s ears:

            “Presenting CEO of Agreste Fashion and world-famous supermodel, Adrien Agreste!”

            Marinette nearly fell out of her seat. She managed to straighten herself in time, but the squeak of surprise did not go unnoticed.

            “Something wrong, sweetheart?” Desiree asked as Marinette ducked her head, feeling her face go completely red for the first time in years.

            “N-no,” she muttered, daring to chance a glance up. Adrien—freaking Adrien Agreste—was looking at her, too, and she about died when she noticed the slight lift of one of his golden brows. As if he found her ridiculous.

            Marinette wanted to take out her stash of fabric scraps she carried with her everywhere in case she or someone else was in need of a quick patch job, tie them together in a noose, and hang herself from the Eiffel Tower.

            ‘Maybe being a mite overdramatic there, Marinette. You’re not fourteen anymore, remember? You’re a grown-ass woman, so act like it!

            It was funny how, even as they pursued different career choices at different universities, Alya’s voice still managed to enter Marinette’s brain to make her get herself together.

            Clearing her throat, Marinette waved a hand.

            “Please, continue,” she said to Desiree, successfully suppressing the note of desperation in her voice. Desiree still gave her an odd look, but shrugged in the end and did as Marinette asked.

            “Mr. Agreste has graciously agreed to this little project of mine,” she said with a casual wave to Adrien, as if he wasn’t standing there looking unfairly like an Adonis statue come to life. “He tells me that his company is currently in the market for talented designers, so I hope you all will make me proud.”

            “I look forward to working with you all,” Adrien spoke for the first time since entering the room, the deep rumble of his voice—so different from the teenaged tenor she remembered all too clearly—doing strange and devastating things to her. She tried to discreetly pinch her cheeks to remind herself not to dissolve into a hot mess because oh my god Marinette you haven’t seen him in years pull yourself together.

            “Here is the criteria sheet for the competition,” Desiree announced, pulling Marinette back out of her own head as she passed out packets of paper containing all the information. “The deadline is two months before graduation and one week before Fashion Week, so you have about four months to put together some truly fantastic pieces. Don’t worry, the minimum requirement is five outfits—but if you want to do more, I won’t stop you, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt your chances. It is also my understanding that Agreste Fashion will be checking in bi-weekly on your progress…is that still correct?”

            Desiree looked inquiringly at Adrien, who nodded.

            “Yes—I will clear time in my schedule to personally meet with each of you and discuss your designs for the next few months. Since models from Agreste Fashion will be modeling your designs, we have to be sure that we can coordinate every last detail until the winner is determined.”

            Adrien smiled, a sight that normally would’ve reduced Marinette to ash…but there was something strange. Though the smile was perfect, as was everything about Adrien Agreste…it didn’t reach his eyes. It was artificial, a carefully crafted smile to please the audience.

            It was his model smile.

            “My assistant will send you my schedule, Desiree. Please have your students sign up for the designated time slots, and don’t hesitate to call if there are conflicts.”

            Adrien laid a hand on Desiree’s shoulder, and she smiled at him.

            “Of course, Mr. Agreste.” Was Marinette imagining the flirtation in her teacher’s voice? She fervently hoped so.

            There was a shrill ring through the room, and Marinette was glad to know that she wasn’t the only one who jumped. Adrien’s angel features were marred by the frown that puckered his brow, his lips twisting as he retrieved his ringing phone from his pocket. Marinette inwardly groaned—even pouting, he still looked amazing. It really wasn’t fair.

            “I’m afraid that’s all the time I have to spare today,” he said to the room at large, his model’s smile now apologetic. “CEO/supermodel, and all that.”

            “Of course. Thank you for coming,” Desiree said, speaking for the class as she walked Adrien to the door. “We’ll be in touch.”

            “Good luck,” Adrien called to the room, lifting a hand in farewell. Some students called back to him, but his phone was already up to his ear, the heel of his expensive shoes out the door—

            He was gone.

            The room abruptly burst into excited chatter.

            “Adrien freaking Agreste, are you kidding me?!”

            “Desiree, how could you spring something like that on us with no warning?!”

            “Yeah, rude!”

            “I about had a heart attack!”

            “Adrien freaking Agreste!

            Marinette sympathized—they had no idea—but her attention was currently elsewhere.

            Namely, on the piece of cloth that had fluttered to the floor after Adrien’s departure. As Desiree attempted to quell the rebellion, all amusement and smugness on her face, Marinette got up, carefully approaching the cloth as if it would harm her.

            It was a monogrammed handkerchief. The initials “A.A.” were embroidered on one side in velvety green.

            The same green as Adrien’s eyes.

            “He dropped his handkerchief,” she reported to no one in particular, still staring at the scrap of fabric.

            The room behind her went silent for one precious second.

            And then it exploded in sound.

            “I’ll take it to him!”

            “No, I will, I’m fastest, I was the anchor on my lycee track team!”

            “Let me smell it, just a quick whiff!”

            “Give it to me, Marinette!

            “HEY!” Desiree called, the loudest voice of all, and the class stopped mobbing Marinette, who had to crouch within the group, defending her find, nowhere near tall enough to stretch above the crowd. With a look that was half-exasperated, half-amused, Desiree waved her hand, and the students blocking Marinette moved obediently to the side, revealing her. She straightened with a sigh of relief.

            “Finders keepers,” Desiree said, employing that strange, American rule she’d repeated once or twice. But then she winked at Marinette. “Mari-doll, be a dear and deliver Mr. Agreste’s handkerchief back to him, would you? And you better hurry—he’s a busy man.”

            Marinette could have run over and kissed Desiree.

            But she didn’t, content to grab her bag and go, smiling guiltily at the covetous looks her classmates threw her way.

            Marinette dashed out of the building, feeling her bun wobble on her head as she turned this way and that. She had no idea which direction Adrien had disappeared to, but she was certain she would spot him immediately—he was tall, blonde, and gorgeous, after all. Not exactly hard to miss.

            And spot him she did: he was down the street, phone still to his ear as he was climbing into a nondescript car.

            “ADRIEN!” Marinette called out before she could stop herself, “WAIT!”

            He paused, blinking green eyes as she sped towards him, hoping very much that she didn’t look like a rabid fangirl about to attack him. Although the run this morning hadn’t knocked the breath out of her, she found herself strangely gasping for air after this short sprint, and she cursed her nerves to the very deepest pits of hell, certain they were the cause.

            As she leaned over to breathe, free hand on her knees, she lifted the handkerchief for him to see.

            “You…you dropped…this…” she puffed, forcing herself to straighten up after a moment, to meet his eyes. God, he was so much taller than her, now. What was he, six-two? Three? She was so flustered that her designer’s eye couldn’t tell.

            He blinked at her again, looking mildly surprised.

            “Oh,” he said, patting his pocket, as if to confirm what his eyes were seeing. “I guess I did.” He accepted the handkerchief, smiling a little. “Thank you.”

            Oh god. Why did her knees have to turn to jelly?! Why?!

            ‘Say something!’ Alya’s voice prodded Marinette again, and Marinette took a deep breath. She could do this. She wasn’t fourteen anymore. She could talk to Adrien Agreste.

            CEO of a big fashion company/freaking supermodel Adrien Agreste who she hadn’t seen in seven years after his move to Milan after the death and reveal of his supervillain father.

            Yeah, she could totally do this.

            “Um…”

            ‘Off to a good start,’ Alya’s voice groaned in her head, prompting Marinette to sigh and straighten her shoulders.

            “I…I don’t know if you remember me,” she began, her grip on the bag slung across her body tightening. “But, we used to—”

            “Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” Adrien suddenly said, her name rolling effortlessly off his tongue. Marinette seized up, feeling herself blush as she blinked at him.

            He…remembered her?!

            “I thought you looked familiar,” Adrien said, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. His rugged, handsome jaw…focus, Marinette. “I suppose I just didn’t recognize you without the pigtails.”

            His eyes trailed up and down her form, and Marinette resolved then and there to get up two hours early to plan the day’s outfits from now on.

            After a moment, he smiled again. It still didn’t reach his eyes.

            “You grew up well,” he complimented.

            Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god she was going to die, she was so going to die

            “You too,” Marinette answered as naturally as she could…which was, surprisingly, pretty natural. Miraculously, she managed to smile at him. “Italy seemed to agree with you.”

            “I guess so,” Adrien chuckled, his arm resting on top of the car door as he smiled down at her. She couldn’t help but notice how the fabric of his shirt bulged at his bicep.

            ‘Pure thoughts, Marinette, pure thoughts…

            “So,” she said, searching for some topic that would keep the conversation going, to prove to him—and herself—that she wasn’t some flustered teenage girl too shy to talk to her crush. Not that she had a crush on him still, of course, but…damn, those broad shoulders…

            “…So?” Adrien prompted when she didn’t say anything for a moment. Marinette felt her face heat up, and she internally cursed herself to the pit with her nerves.

            “So…you’re back in Paris!” Duh. Marinette could kick herself. “We should get together some time!” She blurted out to save herself, only to blush once again as the implication of her words hit her. “Y-y’know, hang out! Get the old gang back together, you, me, Alya, Nino—”

            “Ah…” Adrien’s gaze shifted away; he suddenly looked guarded. “…Nino and I fell out of touch a few years ago.”

            “Oh…” Admittedly, Marinette hadn’t expected that; Nino and Adrien’s friendship had seemed so solid that she’d just assumed that it would carry on into the present, like her friendship with Alya had. But there was something to be said about the distance between the two boys, and the changes they had both gone through as the years passed. Given the circumstances, even the strongest of friendships could fade over time. She supposed she shouldn’t be too surprised.

            “Well,” she scrambled, hastily putting on a smile, “if you ever want to get reacquainted, let me know! He and Alya are still going strong, so, you know, I’ve got an in.”

            This made the corners of Adrien’s lips quirk up.

            “You still see a lot of Alya then?”

            “When I can,” Marinette sighed, slumping a bit. “Between her internship with Paris Today, my internship at Tres Bien Boutique, and all our university work, it’s hard to see each other sometimes. But we manage.”

            “Ladyblog still going strong?” Adrien asked, an idle question as he glanced at his phone. Marinette felt abruptly bad for keeping him.

            “Uh, not exactly…” She gave a shrug when Adrien’s gaze returned to her. “Not much to report on, now that Ladybug’s not around much anymore.”

            Adrien raised an eyebrow at that.

            “Really?” He asked, leaning his weight on the top of the car door as he peered down at her. “Is Paris’ superhero retired?”

            “Not exactly,” Marinette replied, frowning. “We still see her around from time to time…but I guess there’s not much for her to do now, since—”

            ‘Foot approaching mouth, foot approaching mouth!’ Alya’s voice screamed in her head, and Marinette snapped her mouth shut, but too late—Adrien’s gaze suddenly went dull, and he looked away from her.

            Fuck. How could she have forgotten?

            “Adrien…I’m sorry,” she apologized, keeping the fervor out of her voice; he didn’t need to know just how truly sorry she was, even if she might want to make it clear how she hadn’t stopped thinking about Hawk Moth either, even seven years later.

            Adrien gave a shrug that looked like it was meant to be casual…but the stiff set of his shoulders said otherwise.

            “Don’t be. It makes sense: if there are no akuma terrorizing the city, why should Ladybug show up? She probably has better things to do.”

            Marinette tried not to bristle at the insinuation. Nothing was more important to her than keeping Paris safe…but how could she vehemently deny him without appearing suspicious?

            Especially when Ladybug was responsible for his father’s death?

            “Maybe,” she settled, just as Adrien’s phone beeped. His eyes were drawn to it once again, and Marinette took that as her cue. “In any case, I’m sorry for keeping you. I’ll…see you around…?”

            Adrien glanced up at her, smiling a small smile.

            “Naturally, since we’ll be working very closely for the next few months,” he reminded her. Though the words were no doubt innocent, they made Marinette flush, and she hated herself for the knee-jerk reaction. “As I recall, you were a brilliant designer when we attended Dupont.”

            At this, Marinette felt her eyebrow quirk.

            “‘Were’?” She quoted, working to sound offended as she cocked a hip, imitating his pose from before. “That talent didn’t disappear over the years, buddy. If anything, I’m thriving.”

            Oh god, listen to her bragging to a fucking CEO/supermodel. He was going to laugh at her, she knew it.

            But Adrien didn’t laugh.

            Instead, he smiled.

            And this smile managed to warm the coolness of his eyes, if only just a little.

            “Yeah?” He chuckled, finally getting into the car idling behind him. “Then I eagerly await seeing how your talent has thrived, Miss Dupain-Cheng.”

            Marinette could only stare as he pulled away with a parting flick of his fingers.

            The October morning was rather brisk, but with how hot Marinette was feeling, it might as well have been mid-July.

 


 

            “Girl,” the voice on the other line drawled, suggesting that Alya had big, big news. “You will never guess who’s back in the country.”

            Marinette briefly contemplated playing dumb and allowing Alya to have her fun…but the temptation to one-up her was just too strong to resist. This made her a bad friend, she supposed, but…

            “You wouldn’t happen to be talking about Adrien Agreste, would you?” Marinette replied idly, smiling to herself when Alya huffed.

            “Well, shit. And here I was, all ready to make you beg. Should’ve known you’d be on top of anything Adrien Agreste…save for the man himself, of course.”

            “Oh, please,” Marinette huffed at her phone where it lay on her desk as she jiggled her mouse to bring her computer monitor out of sleep mode. Adrien Agreste’s face flashed at her from her computer background—it was the photo from one of his more recent cologne ads. She quickly pulled up an internet browser at random to hide his face from view. “I’m so over him.”

            “Uh-huh.” The voice on the other line remained unconvinced. “So tell me, my love-struck friend: how did you possibly find out Adrien Agreste had returned to Paris before I called to give you the scoop? As I understand it, most of Paris is still in the dark.”

            Marinette could practically see Alya pouting, and she giggled a little guiltily.

            “He was in my design class this morning.”

            “You’re shitting me.”

            “Nope. Shit you not, I’m afraid,” Marinette answered, clicking on an e-mail from her boss in a tired sort of fashion. Tikki sat next to her, scrolling through the iPad Marinette had given her a few Christmases ago, playing some kind of cat game. Marinette smiled at the adorable sight before she skimmed her e-mail. Symone wanted her to run a few errands before she came into work this afternoon. Of course.

            “Well, what was he doing there?! C’mon, girl, gimme the details!”

            “Mmm, I don’t know,” Marinette decided to tease her friend, leaning back in her swivel chair, hands resting behind her head. “Since his whole company is involved, I’m not sure I’m at liberty to divulge the details until a press release is issued.”

            “Marinette. You’re my best friend and I love you, but I will hurt you the next time I see you. Don’t test me, girl.”

            Her tone of voice had gotten scary. Marinette promptly decided that that was enough teasing for the day.

            “All right, all right—so my senior class is doing this Project Runway thing—”

            “That stupid American show with the blonde ditzy model, and the guy whose droning voice makes me want to blow my own brains out?”

            “Exactly that one…but, like, take all of that crap out of it, and you have my senior project. I basically have to create five ensembles in time for Paris Fashion Week in the spring, and if they’re good enough, I’ll win the competition and have a guaranteed job at Agreste Fashion as soon as I graduate. Oh, and did I mention that Adrien Agreste will be having bi-weekly meetings with my senior class to check in on our progress?”

            Alya, who had listened intently this whole time, now sucked in a breath.

            “Girl, you better get that.

            Marinette snorted as she typed a few assurances to Symone that the errands would be run before Marinette got into work. As if she had a choice in the matter.

            “I’m not getting anything, Alya. I’m too busy for boys right now.”

            “Uh-huh,” said Alya again, sounding just as convinced as she had previously. “Let’s just pretend for a second that I buy that load of horse crap and move on to the more pressing issue: how are you gonna sleep this semester?”

            Marinette sighed.

            “I was actually trying not to focus on that part…” But between her classes, bi-weekly meetings at Agreste Fashion, her internship, and her senior project, the concept of sleep was beginning to look more and more like just that—a concept. Looked like Ladybug would have to disappear off the map for a long while…

            …And speaking of Ladybug…

            “Adrien asked how the Ladyblog was going, by the way,” Marinette brought up, working to make herself sound casual. The resulting sputter made her smirk, imagining Alya gaping at her, blinking her wide hazel eyes.

            “You—you talked to him??”

            “Well, yes, if moving our lips and words coming out is what you mean by ‘talking’.”

            “You really talked to him? Or did you just, y’know, do your ‘Marinette’ thing and stutter at him?”

            Marinette scowled.

            “You know, my inner voice sounded a little too much like you when I was talking to him, and I do not appreciate it one bit, missy.”

            “You’re welcome,” Alya replied. “Oh, hang on, Marinette, that’s the boy. I just told him his long lost best friend’s back in town…hmm…” Marinette heard computer keys tapping in the background. “Doesn’t look like he’s happy about it.”

            “Yeah, Adrien said they lost touch,” Marinette reported, once again smug at the noises of disbelief Alya made.

            “I can’t believe you were able to hold a conversation with him long enough to actually know this stuff.”

            “Why wouldn’t I? I’m not fourteen anymore, you know.”

            “Yeah, but Adrien’s not only CEO of his own company that he had to build from the ground up after the shit show that was his father’s identity being revealed, but he’s also, like, the hottest supermodel working in the industry right now. I’ll say this for him, kid aged up well.”

            “He really did,” Marinette remarked, unable to help reliving the glory that was Adrien Agreste, up close and personal.

            “Now now, Marinette,” Alya tutted playfully, “I thought you were over him? Pick your jaw up off the floor, I can hear you drooling.”

            Tikki muffled her giggling from where she sat, and Marinette blushed, regretting her decision to put Alya on speaker phone.

            “I am not drooling,” she protested, self-consciously rubbing at her jaw.

            “Yeah, yeah. Well, color me impressed, girl—you managed to hold an actual, honest-to-god conversation with Adrien Agreste, even though he’s, like, twice as intimidating now. Congratulations.”

            The applause from the other end of the phone sounded a tad mocking, but Marinette let it slide, knowing that Alya meant well.

            “Gee, thanks. Now if you don’t mind, I want to be able to eat before I have to run and do some errands for Symone.”

            Alya groaned.

            “You’re always doing errands for Symone. Doesn’t that woman know how to do anything for herself? She runs you ragged, and for what? You don’t even get to design anything while you’re there! Remind me, what’s the point of this internship?”

            “I have to pay my dues,” Marinette repeated for what felt like the twelve-hundredth time. It wouldn’t be so bad if she herself was not so frustrated by the insane amount of nothing she was doing at this place. But Symone was brilliant, talented, and best of all, she could give Marinette a stellar recommendation for any boutique Marinette chose after this…so long as Marinette did exactly as she was asked. And if Symone wanted coffee and fabrics, then Marinette would get her coffee and fabrics, with pleasure. And just a hint of brown-nosing.

            “I know dues, girl. I paid them my first month of getting my internship before I started doing real investigative journalism. This is, what, your second year? Symone’s using you for all the wrong reasons, if you ask me.”

            “Alya—”

            “I’m serious,” Alya fussed, and Marinette could just picture her trademark business scowl, intimidated even though they were just talking on the phone. “Why don’t you say anything? Show her some more of your designs, show her that you’re not just there to be her do-girl, that you’re serious!”

            “I’ve tried,” Marinette insisted with a huff, spinning idly in her computer chair. “But anything I show her, she just brushes off. Symone’s only interested in her visions for her boutique, trust me.”

            Marinette sympathized with the frustrated sound that issued from her phone.

            “And there’s no way I can convince you to quit?”

            “Nope,” Marinette replied, her own brand of stubbornness stomping forward. “Tres Bien Boutique is the boutique right now. This is my foot in the door, my stepping stone to achieving my dreams. I might be just getting coffee, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m there to play ball whenever I need to. And who knows? Maybe once I graduate, Symone will offer me an actual job.”

            “If you consider working full-time for that harpy I will smother you myself,” Alya threatened, and Marinette laughed, though she wasn’t sure whether or not Alya was completely kidding. “You need to stop acting like you need this internship, especially with this awesome senior project you’re gonna throw yourself into. Who needs Symone when you have Adrien Agreste in your pocket?”

            “I do not have Adrien in my pocket,” Marinette sighed, rubbing the side of her temple. She could feel a headache coming on with all this talk of Adrien. “He didn’t even remember who I was at first.”

            “Really? Ouch.”

            “It’s whatever. Seven years and no contact…shouldn’t have expected anything more.”

            “Yeah, but now that you’ve reconnected, this could be your chance, to…you know…”

            “I am not pursuing Adrien,” Marinette growled, her tone closing the subject. “It’s been seven years. I’ve moved on.”

            “Fine, fine,” Alya replied airily. “But some sex wouldn’t exactly hurt you, girl.”

            “Alya…”

            “I’m just saying, it would get rid of your tension a lot better than all those baths you take. You know I’m right!” She called over Marinette’s insistence that she had to go now, and that she would talk to her later. Marinette hung up, heaving another sigh. Leave it to Alya to make her realize that not everything in her world was as she wanted it to be.

            “I need new friends,” Marinette reflected to Tikki, who glanced up from her game, blinking those big indigo eyes of hers.

            “What did I do?” She asked, and Marinette snorted, rubbing the kwami in between her antennae.

            “Well, I didn’t exactly hear you defending me there,” she teased, and Tikki stuck her tongue out at her.

            “If Alya heard my voice, she’d have a lot more questions for you, Marinette,” she pointed out, and Marinette had to admit that she was right.

            Seven years later, and Alya still had yet to figure out Marinette’s biggest secret.

            And Marinette intended to keep it that way.

            Gulping down the rest of her lunch and giving Tikki a quick pat to the head before she left, Marinette once again dashed out of her apartment, this time grabbing her car. She made a mental check list of all her tasks before she arrived at work:

            Picking up a box of pastries from Symone’s favorite bakery?

            Check.

            Stopping by their fabric supplier for more silk and lace?

            Check.

            Destroying the hopes and dreams of hopeful suitors by turning them away at the door Marinette had to struggle through just to get into work?

            Ugh. Check.

            Marinette swallowed her sighs, put on her big girl face, and stepped into the office with her usual chipper, “Good afternoon, everyone!”

            But it wasn’t a good afternoon.

            It was utter bedlam.

            Everywhere Marinette’s eyes turned, chaos. Her normally pleasant and mild-mannered coworkers were shouting at people on phones, shouting at each other, madly dashing around the place and slipping on cut-outs of satin and cotton. A younger intern in the corner seemed to be having an utter break-down, gripping at his hair and muttering under his breath, wide eyes staring into space. Marinette was almost certain there was an akuma to blame here, but before she could get too worked up, her eyes found Symone, and she made a beeline for the woman.

            “Symone,” she spoke, hoisting the boxes under her arm higher for a better grip. “What’s going on?”

            “What’s going on? What’s going on?

            Marinette stumbled back a step as Symone’s eyes flashed to her, her normal composure nowhere to be found in this moment. Her normally sleek chignon bun was unraveling, her jacket was rumpled, and her dark eyes popped, making her look half-crazed.

            “We’re ruined! That’s what’s going on!!”

            Marinette could only stare, utterly confused by this declaration. What did Symone mean, they were ruined?

            “But—” she began, only to have Symone bear down on her, her tall form twice as intimidating in her towering temper.

            “I just came back from a meeting with Agreste Fashion,” she informed Marinette, stressing the name of Adrien’s company for effect. “I was there, ready to meet with Mr. Agreste to discuss the winter line he was considering making global, which would have set us up for life, when who should walk out of his office?!”

            “Uh…w-who?” Marinette asked, since Symone seemed like she was waiting for her to.

            Symone drew herself up to her fullest height, dark eyes continuing to pop madly.

            “CHLOE BOURGEOIS!!!” She screamed at the top of her lungs, making Marinette jump violently, scrambling to keep her hold on the box of pastries. “The self-entitled, spoiled brat of the former mayor! You would think his being voted out of office YEARS AGO would’ve humbled the little monster, but nooo, she’s still as STUCK UP AS EVER, what with her so-called “career” as a reality show princess. But all of that, I could forgive. I could forgive the conniving, self-obsessed little bitch who acts like she needs constant attention just to survive, but the one thing I can’t forgive? The ONE THING I can’t forgive is her STEALING FROM ME!!!”

            Despite the hysterical screaming, Marinette quickly put two and two together.

            “You mean she stole—”

            “My designs!” Symone screamed, and Marinette backed away slowly. “My designs, all my hard work, out the window, all because she dared to present them first!” And now Symone turned on the rest of the office, her fingers flexing, as if she was ready to claw someone’s eyes out. “Who was it? Which one of you sold me out to Chloe Bourgeois?!

            Of their own accord, Marinette’s gaze flickered to a familiar red-head, who had her head bowed. When Sabrina first came to work for Tres Bien Boutique, Marinette was surprised—against all odds, she and Chloe were still friends, and she rather thought that Sabrina would be sticking close to Chloe as always. But then she reasoned that maybe Sabrina had her own goals and aspirations in life outside of Chloe, and had decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.

            …But looking at that guilty, shifting look now, Marinette suddenly suspected a much darker motive of the red-head…

            A deft pair of hands suddenly plucked the boxes from Marinette’s grasp. She looked up, startled, as a tall man with sleek blonde hair and icy blue eyes carried the boxes over to a nearby surface. Face impassive, he plucked a pastry from the top box, and, as Symone was ranting and raving, shoved it into her mouth. Symone sputtered and choked, pulling the pastry out of her mouth and chewing, humming in apparent approval at the taste. While she was distracted, the man guided her over to a nearby chair, his long fingers working quickly at her shoulders. Immediately, Symone melted, her satisfied hum reverberating throughout the room, making everyone else just a tad uncomfortable. But the man didn’t stop the shoulder massage until Symone had finished her pastry, offering her the box as she reached for another one.

            “All right…” she said after a moment as she chewed, rapidly gaining back her usual composure. “I can fix this…let Chloe Bourgeois have those old designs, I can come up with something much better. Something way more worthy of Agreste Fashion. To be honest, I was withholding my artistic genius just a bit, not eager to give away the whole farm just yet…but if she wants to play it that way, fine…”

            Symone stood up, pushing the last bit of pastry into her mouth as she sternly surveyed the room.

            “I will be in my office for the remainder of the day. No one is to bother me. Scrap whatever you’re working on; we’re starting from scratch. And until I find the little mole in our organization, none of you are to enter my office for any reason. Except for you,” she said to the man with the pastry box, her personal assistant. “I shall need you on hand, so don’t go anywhere.”

            “Yes, Symone,” he said quietly. With a satisfied nod and the box of pastries, Symone disappeared into her office, the slam of the door definite.

            As one, the office breathed a sigh, equal parts relieved and exhausted.

            “Felix,” Marinette addressed the tall blonde with a smile, “you’re amazing.

            Felix regarded this praise with a shrug.

            “I do what I have to.” His eyes flickered away from Marinette, focusing on Sabrina. “I saw you glance towards her. You suspect her.”

            Marinette bit her lip. Man, he was sharp. Then again, that was one of the many reasons he was Symone’s assistant.

            “It could be nothing,” she prefaced, not eager to stir the pot in case she was wrong. “It’s just…I know for a fact that she and Chloe Bourgeois are friends. It could be that she accidentally let Chloe see what she was working on, and Chloe acted from there…” Marinette frowned, lowering her voice enough that Felix had to lean over to hear her. “Or it could be that Chloe purposefully planted her here. I don’t really know, either way, but if Chloe had a prior run-in with Symone—”

            “I see,” Felix said quietly, straightening up, his gaze now focused on Sabrina. “I will investigate. Thank you, Marinette.”

            “Uh, sure?” Marinette watched as Felix went on about his usual business, though his measured gaze carefully watched Sabrina’s every move. He was an odd one, Felix—he didn’t say much, and he never smiled…but no one could say that he wasn’t good at his job.

            “And where is the fabric I ordered?” Called Symone’s voice from the office. “Marinette? Where are you?!”

            Marinette sighed. And so another afternoon of work began.

 


 

            With the exhausting day she’d had, it was sweet, sweet relief for Marinette to become Ladybug. Sure, she could be doing more constructive things, such as working on her senior project, but she had four months, what was the rush? Besides, she’d wait for creativity to inspire her, rather than sit at her desk staring at her sketchbook for hours, as if hoping the clothes would design themselves.

            This was much easier—swinging through the streets of Paris, guided by moonlight, letting her yo-yo and her own power propel her through the skies. Seven years later, the feeling was still exhilarating, and Ladybug allowed herself a grin of satisfaction. No one was around to watch, so why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? She swooped over the city, landing on rooftops to briefly scan the area before continuing on her way, making a neat little circle with pockets of inner circles, about five…kind of like the ladybug pattern of her earrings. Ladybug grinned to herself as she perched on the Eiffel Tower, enjoying the breeze and the view. Though the October chill persisted, she could barely feel it through her suit, and it felt good against her flushed skin.

            This was nice.

            Ladybug took a deep breath. She would enjoy this while it lasted—once she went back to being Marinette, there was a lot to do, so she would linger for a while tonight, taking advantage of the transformation for as long as she could. Then she’d swing back home, de-transform, bathe, crawl into bed, and hopefully get a good night’s—

            A distant scream caught Ladybug’s attention, her head snapping down to the noise. Narrowing her eyes, she could just make out a dim flash of light in the distance, the cacophony of screams growing louder, along with a strange sound…cackling?

            Something was going on down there. Something big.

            Something evil.

            Oh boy. What a great ending to a stressful day.

            Her heart pounding hard for the first time in ages, Ladybug swung her way towards the chaos and destruction, her frown becoming more and more pronounced the closer she got.

            It had been quiet for seven years. What in the world was going on tonight that had disturbed that peace?

            Ladybug got her answer as soon as she landed in the street where all the ruckus was happening.

            A figure danced through the street, its multi-colored outfit drawing Ladybug’s eyes immediately, the multitude of fabrics and patterns sewn together offensive to the seamstress within her. As she watched, the figure cackled, turning an oversized and very sharp needle onto a nearby couple with the misfortune of being out in the street, tonight of all nights. Ladybug shouted as the needle made its way towards them, but it passed right through them harmlessly.

            Or so Ladybug thought, until the couple was abruptly flattened out, like they were nothing more than paper, or cloth, weaving together in ways that looked excruciating. Laughing through the victim’s screams, the figure sent them skywards with a flick of her needle, where they were stitched—stitched—into a giant cloth slowly looming over the streets of Paris.

            This strange-looking figure was making a quilt out of people.

            Ladybug didn’t need the blanks filled in for her.

            “Stop there, akuma!” She called, pointing a finger at the villain, who jumped and turned, cocking its head to the side, as if Ladybug couldn’t possibly be referring to it.

            “Excuse me?” The akuma questioned, one hand on its multi-colored hip, the other balancing the large needle it held. “I am Patchwork, thank you very much! And I have no business with you, Ladybug—I seek Chloe Bourgeois only, and those who get in my way will be dealt with!” She flashed the oversized needle at Ladybug, as if that should intimidate her.

            But no, Ladybug was not intimidated. Seven years later, it was the same old song and dance—Chloe’s attitude and lack of care for others had caused yet another person to be akumatized. Really, she ought to have been shipped out of Paris a long time ago just on principle.

            “No business with me? Really?” Ladybug called as Patchwork turned her back on her. “You’re not even interested in, say…my Miraculous?”

            Patchwork paused, which confirmed Ladybug’s fears:

            Somehow, some way, there was another Hawk Moth on the loose.

            And that did not bode well for any of them.

            “…Change of plans, Ladybug,” said the akuma, turning slowly to face her. With a manic grin, she flashed the needle at Ladybug again. “Give up your Miraculous, or you’ll be the next addition to my quilt!”

            “You want my Miraculous?” Ladybug wondered sweetly, daring to wink at Patchwork as she sent her yo-yo out to wrap around a nearby lamp post. “Come and get it.”

            With a vicious snarl, Patchwork started forward, her needle slicing at Ladybug—or it would’ve, if Ladybug had still been standing where Patchwork had swung. As it happened, she was currently whirling into the sky, touching down on a nearby rooftop and sprinting across—away from other people that might be out tonight, she hoped. The furious snarling behind her let her know that Patchwork was hot on her trail, and that she was not happy. Good.

            “Come on, Patchwork! Is this the best you can do?” The smarty-pants Ladybug taunted, throwing another wink over her shoulder as she jumped and swung from rooftop to rooftop.

            “You think you’re sooo great, don’t you?! Well then—take this!

            Ladybug looked back just in time, and squawked, swinging hastily out of the way as the oversized needle flew at her. It passed by her by mere inches, and before she could make a grab for it, certain that the akuma was trapped inside it, Patchwork reeled it back; apparently the end was attached to some kind of thread.

            Great—the enemy had her own type of yo-yo, this one a lot deadlier than Ladybug’s. Fantastic.

            To add salt to the wound, her Miraculous gave its first beep. She was running out of time.

            “You can’t run forever, Ladybug!” Patchwork called after her, and Ladybug grit her teeth at the reminder. “If you surrender now, I’ll grant you a merciful end…unlike that spoiled princess, Chloe Bourgeois!”

            Oh, this Ladybug had to hear.

            “What’s your problem with Chloe?” She called, pausing just on the top of a lamp post, her yo-yo swinging as she idled, trying to make up her mind on whether or not to use her Lucky Charm just yet. If she could think fast, it would definitely help, but if she was thwarted, it would be a waste of her charm and her Miraculous would wear out faster! What should she do?

            ‘If only Chat Noir were here…

            Ladybug was promptly surprised by the stray thought; she hadn’t thought about Chat Noir in years. Where was this sudden desire to see him coming from?

            Ladybug shook her head. She didn’t need him. She would get out of this situation on her own.

            “Urgh, Chloe Bourgeois! That sneaky little theif!” Patchwork suddenly raged, pulling Ladybug out of her own head. She blinked as Patchwork stomped a high-heeled foot. “All my hard work, and she just swoops in and takes it! My boutique…it’s everything to me! If I lose it because of someone like her…what will become of me?”

            Boutique?

            “Symone??” Ladybug questioned, gawking as she tried to find the poised, usually way more stylish woman in that amalgamation of colors. Patchwork’s attention snapped back to her, and she growled in frustration.

            “Symone is not here!” She denied, as all akumas did when Ladybug dared to refer to them by their civilian names. “I am Patchwork! And you, Ladybug, have just the pattern I need to add to my perfect quilt!”

            Ladybug was too slow. With renewed vigor, Patchwork sent the oversized needle flying towards her once again, and though she fell back to avoid it, she forgot that her yo-yo currently wasn’t hooked to anything. Panic surged through her as the concrete came too close for her liking, and she squeezed her eyes shut and sent her yo-yo out again in a last-ditch effort, praying with all her might that her luck would hold—

            She landed in something much softer than concrete, yet, solid at the same time…very solid…

            There was the sound of a clucked tongue above her.

            “My my, let’s not be hasty—I don’t think polka dots are in season right meow…no offense, My Lady.”

            Ladybug’s eyes flew open, staring at the underside of a very cut jawline. She flipped automatically out of the grasp, just in time to spot Patchwork growling in frustration once again.

            “I don’t have time to play games with you two! I must find Chloe Bourgeois and slash her to ribbons!”

            Before Ladybug could stop her, Patchwork deployed what looked to be a hang-glider of her own (hideous) creation, and she took to the skies.

            Despite Ladybug’s every instinct to go after her, something held her in place—the presence beside her. Slowly, Ladybug turned…

            Bright green eyes focused on her through the eye holes of a black mask, catlike and glittering in the dark.

            “Ciao, Ladybug,” Chat Noir greeted her with the usual roguish grin…a grin she hadn’t seen in seven years. “It’s nice to see—oof!”

            Before she could stop herself, Ladybug had lashed out and punched the unreliable black cat right across his stupid jaw. He stumbled back a step, rubbing at the place where she’d punched him, looking bemused.

            “Me-ouch. Still as fierce as you are beautiful, I see.”

            Ladybug did not so much as crack a smile.

            “Where the hell have you been?!” She demanded of him, and Chat Noir blinked his green eyes.

            “Such language, My Lady!”

            “Don’t you ‘My Lady’ me, you damn stray!” Ladybug shouted, stomping her foot at him. “It’s been seven years, Chat Noir! Seven years that I’ve heard nothing from you! And all of a sudden you show up as if nothing even happened?! I have a good mind to—”

            “Shh,” Chat Noir suddenly shushed her, raising a clawed finger to her lips. Ladybug fell silent, but only because of his audacity. He had no right to be shushing her when she wanted to blow up at him!

            “I promise there will be time to berate me later, My Lady. In fact, I look forward to it.” He gave a mischievous wink, and Ladybug rolled her eyes through sheer force of habit. “But don’t you think we should be hunting down the akuma before your Miraculous runs out?”

            For the second time, her Miraculous beeped. Ladybug snarled and cursed under her breath.

            “Fine,” she relented, turning to chase Patchwork, who was still just visible on the skyline. “But this doesn’t mean you’re off the hook yet, Chat Noir!”

            “You’re beautiful when you’re angry,” he teased, and Ladybug let out a snort of disgust. He hadn’t changed at all!

            ‘Well,’ her mind spoke quietly as she launched herself into the sky with her yo-yo, Chat Noir following close behind. ‘That’s not entirely true…

            Of their own accord, Ladybug’s eyes found Chat Noir as he streaked alongside her in the darkness.

            He had changed—his messy blond hair had grown out of control, and so it appeared as if he chose to tie it back, ending in a small ponytail at the nape of his neck. And his cat suit was more form-fitting than ever, clinging to every line of hard muscle he had apparently gained. The front of his suit was unzipped, showing off the top of his pectorals…his well-defined pectorals that Ladybug had felt when he had caught her…along with those biceps that flexed and bulged under that black leather…

            Chat Noir caught her looking. She regretted her wandering eyes immediately when he grinned at her.

            “See something you like?” He asked with a wink. Ladybug scoffed while cataloguing just how mature his voice sounded now…even with the childish nonsense he was spouting.

            “You wish. All I see is a new punching bag that I intend to break in later.”

            “Ooh. Can’t wait to get your paws on me, My Lady?”

            ‘This pun-loving bastard…

            Ladybug decided to stick with her first assessment: he really hadn’t changed at all.

            But even Chat Noir could wait: though it had been seven short years since they had seen this kind of trouble, right now, Paris was in danger, and it was Ladybug’s job to save it.

            Her former MIA partner could be dealt with later. And he would be, no matter how handsome he’d turned out to be.

Chapter Text

“CHLOE BOURGEOIS!! WHEREVER YOU’VE HOLED YOURSELF IN, YOU CAN’T HIDE ALL NIGHT!!! I’LL FIND YOU AND TURN YOU INTO MY MOST MASTERFUL CREATION!!! AHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!”

“These akuma sure like to hear themselves talk,” Chat Noir grunted from somewhere to Ladybug’s right. She rolled her eyes.

“Look who’s talking,” she shot back at him, and she felt rather than saw his grin aimed at her.

“CHLOE BOURGEOIS!!! COME OUT!!!” Patchwork demanded yet again as she soared through the streets in her monstrous hang-glider. “I’LL TURN THE WHOLE CITY INTO MY QUILT LOOKING FOR YOU IF I HAVE TO!!! NOT THAT YOU CARE ABOUT ANYONE ELSE, YOU SELFISH BRAT!!!

“Someone’s angry,” Chat Noir commented once again as he and Ladybug paused on a nearby rooftop, Chat crouching, Ladybug swinging her yo-yo.

“Chloe stole her designs for a winter fashion line she’s been putting together since August,” Ladybug reported with a rather weary sigh. “It devastated her.”

I thought things were fine when I left…something must have changed…

Chat Noir scoffed.

“All this fuss over clothes?”

“It’s not just clothes,” Ladybug protested, her inner seamstress offended. “It’s her livelihood.

She should’ve expected for Chat to not understand, but she was still irked at the way he shrugged.

“Still seems like she’s overreacting.” His eyes found hers, glittering mischievously. “Purr-sonally, I purr-fer nudity.”

Ladybug hated that the comment managed to make her blush. Stupid stray.

“Using the same cat pun twice in one sentence,” she sighed loftily, making her scorn obvious in hopes to distract from her embarrassment. “You’re getting sloppy, Kitty.”

The familiar nickname slipped out by accident, and she didn’t like the way it made Chat Noir smirk at her.

“Yeah?” He asked, straightening up simply to tower over her as he leaned forward, grinning like he was going to…well, eat her. “Purr-haps you could show me how it’s done later.”

Ladybug nudged him back with a push to his chest, valiantly ignoring the way his muscles flexed under her touch.

“Quit flirting, we have work to do!” And she was off again, the trailing snicker behind her making her face no doubt as red as her mask.

Patchwork’s destination became clear in a matter of moments: The Grand Paris Hotel loomed in the distance, gleaming in the dark of the city. Practically a beacon. Ladybug sighed as Patchwork finally touched down in front of the hotel, brandishing her needle threateningly.

“CHLOE BOURGEOIS!! IF YOU WON’T COME OUT, I WILL COME IN, AND I WILL TURN EVERY SINGLE PERSON THAT HAS TRIED TO HIDE YOU FROM ME INTO THE LOWLIEST TEXTILES!! GET OUT HERE, YOU BITCH!!!”

“Symone, stop!” Ladybug called, dropping down into the street, Chat Noir just behind her. “You don’t have to do this! What about the new line you were going to design? Didn’t you say it would be better than whatever Chloe Bourgeois stole?”

“IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CLOTHES!!!” Patchwork screamed, stamping her high-heeled foot so hard that it cracked the street. “It’s the principle! That spoiled little bitch thinks she can just walk all over whoever she wants just because of who her father was! Well, I’m not going to stand for it any longer! And you will not stand in my way!!!”

While Ladybug felt for Symone—really, she did—her sympathies vanished as soon as the oversized needle she was wielding was sent her way at an alarming speed. She ducked and rolled, thankful that Patchwork’s throws took time, enough time for her to come up with a plan—

“Chat—” She said as she turned to her former partner, intending to use their fall-back strategy: Chat as the distraction, Ladybug as the plan-maker.

Chat Noir, however, was one step ahead of her for once.

Somehow, (cat-like reflexes, perhaps?) he had grabbed the needle before Patchwork could reel it back in, and with a flash of his claws, the needle broke free of Patchwork’s thread.

“I’m assuming this is what you want?” He asked, tossing the needle to Ladybug, who stumbled a bit as she caught it, surprised by his swiftness.

“Uh, yeah! I hope so, anyway…”

Ignoring Patchwork’s roaring protests, Ladybug brought the needle high into the air before she slammed it over her knee.

But nothing happened.

Not only did the needle not break, but a sudden throbbing lanced through Ladybug’s knee. She hissed in pain, staring down at the overlarge, still unbroken needle.

“What the hell…?” Akuma source or not, nothing she’d taken from the enemy had refused to break before. What was going on??

“Ladybug?” Chat Noir called, and Ladybug looked up, finding him using his baton to spar with Patchwork, who was now infuriated beyond belief. “Anytime you’re ready…”

“I—I’m trying!” She protested, attempting to bend the needle now, but the metal would not yield. “It—won’t—break!”

Chat spared her a glance before ducking a blow from Patchwork.

“Wrong item?”

“This has to be it!” Ladybug protested, now attempting to break the needle against the ground, and failing. “Everything else on her is just cloth!”

Chat gave a shrug, swiping his leg under Patchwork and tripping her up.

“All right, then—Plan B.”

This made Ladybug pause—Chat Noir, coming up with a plan on his own? This was new; usually she was the thinker out of the two of them.

She was about to ask what he was scheming, but just as she opened her mouth, her voice died as she saw Chat Noir’s hand close around Patchwork’s throat. The akumatized seamstress gave a choking cry, her nails clawing at his hand, but Chat Noir’s fingers merely flexed, claws digging into her skin, drawing blood—

Ladybug felt herself go cold.

What the hell was he doing?!

“Chat! Stop!” She called, racing towards them. Chat Noir glanced over his shoulder as she approached, looking quite unconcerned.

“What’s the problem? I’m just getting rid of the akuma,” he explained to her calmly as his grip on Patchwork’s throat tightened. Her face was beginning to turn blue.

“Let her GO!!” Ladybug shouted, dropping the needle and giving Chat’s arm a fierce yank. She wasn’t wrong about the hard muscle; it was like gripping a rock. A rock that refused to yield under her grip, just like the needle.

Chat was giving her a curious look, his eyes glittering strangely.

“Why are you so upset? It’s just an akuma. Either way, we win, right?”

Ladybug gaped at him. She could not believe she was hearing this.

“I don’t want to win this way!!” She protested, pulling at Chat’s fingers now. “There’s a person in there, Chat! Don’t you care what happens to her?!

“Why would I? I don’t know her.”

“That doesn’t stop her from being a person!!”

Chat’s pupils narrowed.

“Didn’t stop you from doing what had to be done with Hawk Moth,” he said quietly.

He might as well have slapped her with a barbed glove. But though the physical injury didn’t exist, the sting was still there, tearing at Ladybug as she stared at Chat Noir. There was another choking gasp from Patchwork, her eyes rolling into the back of her head. He let go.

Ladybug rushed to seize Patchwork’s wrist, fingers desperately searching for the pulse point…

She found it. It was faint, but it was there.

Ladybug slowly rose to her feet. She couldn’t look at Chat Noir, even though she felt his gaze on her. It was a cold, compassionless gaze. The gaze of a stranger.

Moving to the side, she snatched up the stubborn needle before returning, moving to stand over Patchwork’s unconscious frame. Chat crouched before her, his expression unreadable.

Though tensions were high between them, Ladybug knew this wasn’t over. She still had to purify the akuma. To do that, she needed to break the needle.

And to break the needle…

She held out the weapon to Chat Noir, hating that she had to ask him for anything at this point. But if she couldn’t do it herself…

“Break it.”

It was an order, not a suggestion.

Chat dared to give her a patronizing look.

“If you can’t break it, what makes you think I can?”

Gritting her teeth, Ladybug shoved the handle of the needle into his chest.

Break it.” Her tone made it clear that she would not be asking twice.

“…”

Chat stared up at her, and she stared down at him. Though she could hardly stand to look at him right now, she refused to be the one to break gazes first. And perhaps somewhere, in their silent stand-off, that was made clear, for Chat shrugged after a tense minute that seemed to last ages.

“As you wish, My Lady.”

Ladybug watched numbly as Chat Noir used his Cataclysm power to slice clean through the needle. The fluttering akuma finally came into view—

A terrible scream ripped through the air. Ladybug clapped her hands over her ears, horrified when she realized the scream was coming from the akuma—it flapped haphazardly, as if blind, confused. And the way it screamed was so agonizing, like it was in pain so unbearable that it had to scream, despite having no discernable mouth—

A clawed hand reached out, snatching the akuma from the air. The screaming was muffled, but only just, which allowed Ladybug to think again.

“Stop it!!” She shrieked when it looked as if Chat Noir intended to crush the butterfly. He looked up at her with a flat gaze.

“Then do something about it already,” he prompted her, holding the screaming akuma by one frantically flapping wing. Ladybug pushed through all the unnerving events of the night, successfully capturing the akuma in her compact and purifying it. She winced when the white butterfly emerged, but it fluttered away harmlessly, to disappear into the night. Ladybug tossed her yo-yo into the air, calling out the magic chant that would right the world once again:

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

The magical ladybug swarm exploded, scattering throughout the night, reappearing people, fixing all the damage Patchwork had caused in her wrath. And Patchwork herself de-akumatized, revealing Symone once again.

But she didn’t move from the street.

Heart in her throat, Ladybug crouched over her again, shaking her shoulder.

“Symone? Symone, can you hear me? Wake up!”

To her everlasting relief, Symone’s eyelids began to flutter. She slowly opened them, blinking in surprise once she spotted the hero before her.

“L-Ladybug?” She questioned, sitting up with a speed that surprised Ladybug. “Wh-what are you doing here? What am I doing here? What time is it?”

Her eyes found her watch, and she gave a dramatic gasp.

“Never mind, I don’t have the time for this! I have to get back to my desk! I was in the middle of a brain wave; I just got the greatest idea for a new line that’ll knock Adrien Agreste’s pretty little head off! Excuse me!”

Standing up and brushing herself off briskly, Symone set off at a trot, surprisingly able in her six-inch heels. Ladybug let her go, unable to think of anything to say to call her back.

There were bruises on Symone’s neck.

Reaching over without looking, Ladybug snatched the leather tail of a certain cat that was attempting to make his getaway.

“Where do you think you’re going?” She asked, cutting her eyes to him. He turned, blinking his green eyes like he had no idea why she was upset. Like he was innocent.

“…Oh, sorry.” He lifted a fist. “Mission accomplished…?”

Ladybug stared at him coldly. If he thought he could just give her a fist bump and the whole thing would be over and done with, he had another thing coming.

“We need to talk,” she told him, her tone brooking no argument. Chat tilted his head at her, his face impassive.

“Right now?” He gave a nod to her. “You sure you have the time?”

Her Miraculous’ beeping grew more insistent. She had a minute, tops, before her transformation wore off. The knowledge made her growl in her throat.

“This is important,” she insisted, despite knowing that stubbornness drove her at this point. Her problems increased when cars and people started heading their way, the flash of cameras obvious even in the distance. Reporters.

Chat Noir gave a shrug.

“Hey, if you’re ready for all of Paris to finally know who you really are, be my guest.”

The beeping in her ear grew faster, coinciding with her heartbeat. Ladybug let out a huff of frustration, and she sent her yo-yo out to a nearby high fixture.

“Fine. But this isn’t over, Chat Noir,” she told him with a fierce look. “The next time we meet, you have a lot of explaining to do.”

“Here they come,” Chat Noir prompted as the reporters closed in, questions already on their lips.

“Ladybug, what happened?!”

“Chat Noir?! Have you returned to fight crime?!”

“Was there an akuma here just now?!”

“Is there a new Hawk Moth terrorizing the city?!”

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” Ladybug regretfully informed the reporters, yanking on her yo-yo string to zoom off, above their heads. “I’ll answer your questions another time!”

“Well, I’ve got time to kill,” Chat Noir announced, his roguish grin making an instant comeback as he smiled for the cameras. “I don’t mind answering in My Lady’s stead, just this once. That is, if you’ll have me.” He winked at the female reporters, who all burst into flustered giggling. Something turned over in Ladybug’s stomach, and she felt like she might be sick, but she made herself leave the scene only because she had nothing on her to feed to Tikki right away.

But boy did she have a big ass-whooping stored up for Chat Noir the next time they saw each other.

 


 

Marinette stood out on her balcony, the night air doing its best to permeate the blanket around her shoulders. It wasn’t getting far, but it hardly mattered—Marinette was already shivering. The view here was nowhere near as spectacular as it was from the balcony of her room at her parents’, but even that was of no consequence when Marinette could see nothing anyway.

“I don’t understand, Tikki,” she admitted quietly to the kwami, who sat next to her on the balcony railing, munching on a much-needed cookie. “What’s happened to Chat Noir? How could he have grown so…so callous?

It was not right, in any sense of the word. The Chat Noir she had once known was annoying, sure, but he was caring, and kind, eager to sacrifice in order to protect others. As much as she was loathe to admit it, he was very much the cute kitten when he wanted to be.

This Chat Noir was completely different. If the Chat Noir from her past was a kitten, the present Chat Noir was a panther, armed with muscle, sharp teeth and claws, and a predator’s attitude.

And the worst part?

He seemed to have gotten the idea of keeping Paris safe by killing bad guys…from Ladybug.

From her.

The memory of his eyes still burned into her, dark pupils narrowed, green glittering in the dark.

“Didn’t stop you from doing what had to be done with Hawk Moth.”

Marinette shivered again, drawing the blanket tighter around her, despite knowing that it wasn’t the weather causing the chill within her.

“How could he throw that back in my face?” She asked of the air, as if the stars held the answer. “He said he didn’t blame me…but he does, doesn’t he? He blames me for Hawk Moth’s death. He…he thinks I did it on purpose.

“But you didn’t, Marinette!” Tikki protested, her tiny features warped in concern.

Marinette sighed, rubbing her kwami’s head with a fingertip in reassurance.

I know that, and so do you. The only one that doesn’t seem to get it…” she frowned in the distance, “is Chat. Seriously, where the hell does he get off, trying to murder someone after being MIA for seven years? And why is the Butterfly Miraculous being used for evil once again, when he was supposed to deliver it to Master Fu?! Ugh, if my Miraculous wasn’t about to wear off—”

“You can’t turn on each other,” Tikki chided, swallowing the last bit of her cookie before rising into the air. “I know Chat Noir is…different, and maybe a little scary. But no matter how much time has passed, you’re still partners.”

“I don’t know about that, Tikki,” Marinette huffed, her eyes turning skyward. What a beautiful night…hard to believe an akuma had surfaced again merely hours ago. “If it were still the same Chat from seven years ago, then maybe, but Chat as he is now—”

“You have to talk to him, Marinette,” Tikki insisted, apparently refusing to hear any argument on the subject. “I don’t know what’s happened to make Chat Noir the way he is now, but I know he’ll listen to you if you just talk to him. He still cares about you, after all.”

“Hmm,” Marinette hummed dubiously. Once again, she had to check her previous assertion that Chat Noir hadn’t changed—the very opposite, in fact. He had changed too much. She squirmed at the thought of him giving an interview to the reporters of Paris, which would no doubt be broadcasting on all networks tomorrow morning. The thought of it gave her a headache, prompting Marinette to go to bed.

She didn’t have time to stress over this. Tomorrow marked the beginning of her senior project, and work for the new winter line at Tres Bien Boutique. And her knee had bruised from where she’d tried to break that needle, something that still perturbed her.

If she was going to stand a chance tomorrow, she needed all the sleep she could get.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t be much.

 


 

To say that Alya was mad that she had missed the first big Ladybug scoop in seven years would be akin to saying that puppies were kind of cute.

Alya. Was. Livid.

“I cannot believe this!” She exclaimed for the fourth time, once again drawing stares from the other patrons of the gelato shop. Marinette shushed her again, cringing in apology at the curious glances.

“Alya, shhh. It’s not a big deal—”

“It’s a very big deal!” Alya protested, slamming her fists into the table. Strands of red hair were escaping from the ponytail at the back of her head, and the blouse and vest she had buttoned up over her chest were straining against her ample breasts as she heaved in displeasure. Marinette could practically see smoke unfurling from Alya’s nostrils. “The first big scoop in years, and where was I?! At Nino’s, thirty kilometers away! This is all your fault!” She threw at said boyfriend, who paused in his approach of the table, hands heavy with frozen treats. His well-trimmed scruff did little to hide the trepidation in his expression.

“Uh, sorry,” he apologized, though he clearly had no idea what they were talking about. He extended the ice cream Alya had specifically ordered. “Peace offering?”

Alya huffed, but she accepted the frozen treat with relatively good grace.

“You’re lucky I like you,” she told him pointedly. Marinette grinned as Nino passed her milkshake across the table before he wrapped a tentative arm around his girlfriend’s shoulders. As hot-tempered as Alya was, Nino was mellow enough to balance her out. She supposed that was why they worked so well together.

“Don’t I know it. So, what’s new, Marinette?”

Marinette shrugged, sipping at her straw.

“Same old thing: work, work, work.” She stifled a yawn. “It doesn’t help that my mom has called me every day since the akuma attack on Wednesday to check up on me.”

“Well yeah, it happened pretty close to where you live, didn’t it?” Alya mentioned, her temper giving way to concern as she eyed Marinette up and down. “You sure you didn’t get caught in that mess? You’ve been walking a little funny today…”

Marinette inwardly cursed the slow-healing bruise on her leg as she hastily laughed Alya off.

“Oh, that. I, uh, tripped while I was bringing in some fabric for Symone. Landed badly on my knee.”

“What am I going to do with you, girl?” sighed Alya, shaking her head. “You’re still so klutzy that it makes me worry about leaving you alone for more than ten seconds at a time.”

Marinette’s brow puckered, her lower lip jutting out in a pout.

“I get along just fine without you, thank you very much,” she protested, prompting Alya’s grin of apology.

“Relax, babe,” Nino added, giving Alya’s shoulder a squeeze. “‘Nette’s a big girl now. Look how successful she’s becoming: working at a high-end fashion boutique, on the edge of getting her master’s in…uh…what’re you studying again?”

“Fashion business,” Marinette reminded him with a smile.

“Though I bet it’s hard to focus with Madamoiselle Trace around,” Alya teased with a wink. “Oh man, for an American, she’s gorgeous, y’know? I might do something about it, if I wasn’t already tied down…”

“…And if you weren’t straight?” Nino added, giving his girlfriend a strange look, which intensified when she shrugged.

“I don’t like labels.” Before Nino could ask whether or not she was kidding, Alya leaned forward, focusing on Marinette, the manic gleam in her eyes returning. “Speaking of, how’s your senior project going? Had any meetings with the prodigal Mr. Agreste yet?”

Nino nearly choked on the banana split he had just taken a bite out of.

“Wh-what?” He sputtered as Alya thumped him hard on the back, shaking her head.

“Ah, right, that,” Marinette mumbled, shooting Alya a frown. It was one thing to tease her about this when it was just the two of them, but in front of Nino… “Basically, my senior project is a competition: I have to create my own line of spring fashion in tandem with Agreste Fashion, to be submitted before Fashion Week in the spring. If I win, my designs will be modeled by Agreste Fashion models, and I'll have a guaranteed career at the company.”

Nino mulled that over for a moment before he frowned.

“That sounds like a whole lot of work you’re doing for free,” he pointed out. Marinette shrugged.

“Technically it’s not free—it’s my final grade. And if it leads to a job at one of the best fashion companies in France, then it’s worth it.”

“That, and you get to spend a whole lot of up-close and personal time with one Mr. Adrien Agreste,” Alya said slyly. Marinette did her best to roll her eyes so hard that it would distract from the blush she could feel heating her face.

“Oh yes, and I’m so excited to do that, since it’s been, what, seven years since we last spoke to each other? I’m sure we have so much to catch up on. Not.”

Nino picked at his banana split for a moment, frowning.

“…How is he?” He ventured tentatively, looking guarded, as if he’d rather not let his girlfriend and her best friend know just how concerned he might be.

Marinette matched his frown.

“I’m…not sure,” she hedged, worrying her lip with her teeth. “I only talked to him for a few minutes, and, ugh, I managed to mention the whole thing with his father being Hawk Moth…”

“Ooh,” Alya hissed, wincing in sympathy. “How’d he take that?”

“About as well as expected.” Marinette sighed. “Desiree tells me I’m meeting with him first thing on Monday morning, so I hope I didn’t shove my foot too far in my mouth.”

“On Monday?!” Alya directed her spoon at Marinette like a sword. “You didn’t mention that earlier! Withholding information from me, are you?”

“I didn’t have a chance to bring it up,” sighed Marinette, whacking the spoon away from her. “And besides, it’s not a big deal.”

Alya’s smirk grew devious.

“Oh really? You’re meeting him alone, aren’t you?”

“Yeah—”

“And you’re going to be showing him what you’re working on for your senior project?”

“Kind of the point of the meeting—”

“So let’s cut to the chase, then! What kind of underwear are you gonna be wearing?”

“Alya!” Marinette protested, feeling her face heat up as Nino pointedly looked away from them, whistling under his breath as if to block out the conversation. “For the last time, I am not interested in pursuing anything but a career with Adrien Agreste!!”

Alya gave her a long, measured look. Marinette sat up straighter, as if that would help make her more convincing. After a few seconds of charged silence, Alya sighed.

“All right,” she conceded, leaning back. Marinette stared at her.

“All…right…?” She couldn’t believe her eyes: Alya Cesaire, giving up a lead?

When Alya shrugged, Marinette suddenly worried for her best friend’s health.

“Believe or not, Dupain-Cheng, I know when to take a hint. And you seem pretty determined for nothing to happen.” Alya gave a dramatic sigh, and suddenly, Marinette was suspicious. “I just thought, y’know, that this could finally be your chance. You’d been pining away for this boy since I can remember, and you were devastated when he left. And now, here you are, in all your twenty-one year old grown woman glory, with an in to the pretty supermodel himself…I just thought you’d like to take advantage is all. But if you’re really not interested—”

“Don’t you try your journalistic double-talk on me,” Marinette warned her friend, scowling now. “I won’t fall for it.”

“Don’t listen to her, ‘Nette,” Nino surprised Marinette by speaking…and what’s more, by taking her side over Alya’s. “I know it might be tempting, since you, er, had a pretty huge crush on him back when we all were in Dupont, but…”

Nino frowned. There was something hidden in his usually bright eyes…something painful.

With a sigh, he shook his head, as if to rid himself of irksome flies.

“…But he’s different now. That whole fiasco with his dad…it broke something inside him. I didn’t lose contact with him because we were too far apart or anything like that—he shut me out.”

Nino reached across the table, patting Marinette’s arm.

“You don’t deserve that kind of treatment, Marinette. You’re still so sweet after all these years…” Nino’s eyes were uncharacteristically serious as he gazed at her, dire warnings in his stare. “Don’t get wrapped up with Adrien. You deserve better.”

Marinette blinked, equal parts touched and embarrassed that this conversation was even happening. Didn’t she say at least a dozen times already that nothing was going to happen between her and Adrien? So what about her childhood crush? It didn’t mean anything now, damn it. She was a grown ass woman, for god’s sake!

But the sincerity in Nino’s expression could not be ignored, and she gave him a quiet nod.

“Okay. Thanks, Nino.”

Alya gave a sigh.

“Well, I hate to say it, but when the boy’s right, he’s right.” She punched his arm. “You didn’t tell me about Adrien shutting you out, though. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have told Marinette to go for it.”

Nino rubbed the spot where she punched him, the action automatic as his gaze drifted far away.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” he admitted quietly. Marinette watched as her best friend’s gaze softened, her hand going to Nino’s chin and guiding his gaze to her.

“I know it’s painful,” she assured him with a comforting smile. “But honestly, if he’s gonna act like that, you’re better off. And you’ve got me!” She gave him a playful wink. “That’s enough for now, right?”

Nino smiled, the gesture lighting up his whole face.

“More than enough for forever,” he corrected, moving in to kiss Alya’s cheek, their glasses bumping together.

“Get a room,” Marinette teased.

Alya gave her a sly look.

“This is a room. You and a bunch of other people just happen to be in it.”

“Oh boy. I’m leaving now before I get caught up in your indecent exposure charge,” Marinette giggled, getting up from the table and shelling out some cash for her milkshake. “Anyway, I’ve got work to do if I’m going to be ready for my meeting Monday. I’ll see you lovebirds later, when you’re not being so cute.”

“Then you’ll never see us again,” Nino called after her as she walked away, and Marinette rolled her eyes with a laugh. Though her romantic life was pretty much D.O.A. at the moment, seeing the way Nino and Alya looked at each other helped her keep faith.

One day, that would be her.

For now, however, she had career goals to chase.

 


 

This was such a stupid idea.

Why had she let that comment get to her?

Marinette squirmed in the lobby of Agreste Fashion, her sketchbook and garment bag sitting beside her on the sleek couch. Her bra was pinching her, and Marinette cursed herself again for thinking that lingerie wasn’t actually such a bad choice to wear under her business blouse and skirt.

She was going to kill Alya the next time she got her hands on her.

Agreste Fashion was absolutely no joke: a large, imposing building on the outside became a sleek and well-oiled machine on the inside, the walls stainless steel, the floor black marble. Marinette tried to shift as little as possible, despite how her underwear pinched, already feeling out of place as gorgeous supermodels and people in suits barking orders came and went, barely sparing her glances, as if she was just a part of the upholstery. She would take more offense at this…if her skirt wasn’t the same shade of gray as the couch she was currently perched on. She withheld a sigh. Just twenty minutes of Adrien’s time, and then she could get out of here…and hopefully drown her nerves in either ice cream or booze…whatever she got her hands on first.

The dark-haired secretary hung up the phone she was speaking into, throwing a glance Marinette’s way.

“Mr. Agreste will see you now,” she announced. She gestured a manicured hand towards the elevator at the end of the hallway—the elevator no one else had approached since Marinette had entered the building half an hour ago, choosing instead to filter through the three elevators on the other side of the lobby. She gulped, and then nodded, trying to smile at the secretary as she passed. The secretary’s smirk told her she hadn’t quite succeeded.

The elevator took only a moment to reach her, and as Marinette stepped inside, hoisting her garment bag higher into her grip, she noted that there was only one button within: for the twentieth floor. Swallowing again, Marinette reached out and pressed it.

The doors of the elevator slid shut immediately, and she only just felt herself ascending, the speed of the elevator deceiving her senses. Within a few short moments, it slowed to a stop, the ding announcing that her destination had been reached. Marinette took a deep breath as the doors slid open—

Her eyes immediately snapped to Adrien, who stood across the room from her at one of the large windows. Though the view of Paris below was fantastic, his eyes were on the sky, closing briefly to lift a water bottle to his lips. Marinette felt her legs lock up, staring at his profile, at the way his throat moved as he swallowed, the cloth towel draped around the back of his neck, sweat glistening on his bare torso—

He was shirtless.

Adrien Agreste…was shirtless.

Why was he shirtless was he trying to kill her?!

Marinette’s involuntary squeak managed to pull Adrien’s attention out of whatever cloud he had his head lodged in. He turned to face her, a smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

Lord have mercy.

“Miss Dupain-Cheng,” he greeted, moving away from the window. “Come in.”

“O-okay…”

As Marinette forced her legs to unlock, she managed to stumble out of the elevator before the doors could close on her. She straightened up, trying to make her desperate need for air natural-looking, breathing slowly through her nose as she took in the office as an excuse not to look at Adrien.

The entire back wall was made of glass, and as her first glance had told her, the view was truly spectacular. On the left side of the office sat bookcases and bookcases and even more bookcases, somehow impossibly filled to bursting point, though Marinette was almost certain that so many books could not be in existence. To the right was a mini-kitchen area, along with a door that was open, revealing a bathroom. The middle of the office had a sunken-in floor, with more sleek furniture, a ring of couches alternating between black and white, and a large coffee table centered within. Marinette took note of the heavily-laden tray upon it, sporting a delicate, silver coffee pot and an assortment of sweets. Near the windows sat a large desk, the initials “A. A.” carved into the front in gold. Three computer monitors sat upon the desk, nearly blocking the view of a tall, comfy-looking leather chair. Being the CEO of a major fashion company clearly had its perks.

Marinette wanted to compliment Adrien’s office, and was in the process of unsticking her tongue when a sudden movement caught the corner of her eye. She glanced over, frowning at the bookcase. What was that? A bug?

“Excuse my appearance,” Adrien suddenly spoke, and Marinette’s attention snapped back to him, both relieved and disappointed that he was currently buttoning up a white shirt over those toned abdominal muscles. She swallowed once again. “I got back from the gym a little later than I was expecting.”

“Oh, uh, yes! Er, I mean, no…”

Pull yourself together, Marinette Dupain-Cheng! He’s just a person, so talk to him like one!’ Alya’s voice ordered sternly in Marinette’s mind, and she took another steadying breath.

“It’s fine,” she said, moving a little further into the office now. “I got here a bit too early.”

“Yeah?” A secret smile tugged at the corner of Adrien’s lips as he ran a hand through his blonde hair, pushing it back from his face. “As I recall, you used to be frequently tardy to class back in Dupont. Glad to see that’s changed.”

His teasing made Marinette indignant.

“A lot of things have changed, I think you’ll find, Mr. Agreste,” she told him with a slight lift of her eyebrow. “I’m not quite the teenage girl you remember anymore.”

Adrien paused at this. Marinette did not miss the quick sweep of his eyes over her frame again, and she worked hard not to flush under his gaze, maintaining eye contact when he lifted his back to hers.

“…I suppose not,” was all he said in reply. Turning from her, he gestured to the sitting area. “Please, have a seat. I just need a second. Help yourself to whatever you like.”

Including you?'

The flirtatious suggestion that floated through Marinette’s mind surprised her; she mentally smacked herself and obediently sat down, taking a cookie before that stray thought could accidentally escape her mouth. She clearly had spent too much time with Alya over the weekend.

As she munched, the movement from the bookcase happened again. Marinette turned and stared, eyes narrowing. What was that?

“Something wrong?”

She squeaked in surprise, jolting when she realized Adrien had moved closer, standing just a meter from her. Why hadn’t she heard him approach?

“Oh, nothing,” Marinette said, hastily finishing her cookie. It was really good…maybe she could sneak a couple back home to Tikki. “I just think there’s a bug or something flitting around your bookcase. That’s twice that I thought I saw something move…though it could be just my imagination…”

Marinette trailed off, watching as Adrien frowned at the bookcase. God, why did he have to be so devastating up close? If she didn’t manage to lose her head during this meeting, it would be a miracle.

“Hmm. I’ll have to check that out later, then.”

He folded his long frame, sitting down on the couch next to the one she occupied, a gap between the two couches, prompting Marinette to turn and face him. She hoped she didn’t look too eager, but she hoped she didn’t look too nervous either, a prick of annoyance flashing through her as Adrien draped himself across the couch with casual elegance. Posing.

“Do you always sit that way?” She asked, unable to help herself. Adrien gave her a curious look.

“What way?”

That way.” She gestured towards his arms, positioned over the top of the white couch, one long leg crossed over the other. He looked downright tempting, and it really wasn’t fair. “Is that what happens after years of modeling? You just forget how to sit like a normal person?”

Adrien’s brow puckered at this, glancing away from her.

“It’s comfortable,” he admitted after a moment. Appearing self-conscious, however, he removed his arms from the top of the couch and sat forward, turning to her, hands folded in between his legs. Better, Marinette decided.

“…Well,” Adrien began when Marinette said nothing, “you know why you’re here. Could you show me what you have planned so far?”

“Of course,” Marinette agreed, growing more comfortable as she reached past her garment bag for her sketchbook. Talking about fashion—now this, she could do. This was her element. When it came to her designs, Marinette was queen.

“I’ve been playing with some Italian themes,” she said, flipping through the appropriate pages of her sketchbook before turning it around for Adrien to see. “Namely, the—”

Carnevale di Venezia,” Adrien interrupted, and Marinette was pleased to see his eyes light up with interest. “Yes, I know it well. Attended a few of them, even. It’s a much anticipated event in the spring for Italy.”

“Exactly,” Marinette enthused with a bob of her head, tucking a stray raven lock behind her ear. “I find the Carnival of Venice fascinating, so for my spring line, I intend to create fashions that take inspiration from the carnival, but also make them casual enough to wear without all the fuss of elaborate gowns and costumes.”

“But you’re choosing to keep the masks,” Adrien noted, and Marinette grinned.

“Of course. It can’t be inspired by the Carnevale di Venezia without the masks. That’s what the carnival’s famous for in the first place.” She flipped a page, showing a detailed sketch of a mask she’d been designing. “The emphasis should be on the mask. It is not a mere accessory, but rather, it makes the whole outfit. If the mask isn’t perfect, the rest of the outfit might as well not exist, right?”

“Interesting,” Adrien muttered, green eyes thankfully too intent on Marinette’s sketchbook to notice the way she thrilled at his praise. His eyes found hers a moment later, however, and she worked to keep herself composed. “So. What’s in the garment bag?”

Marinette smiled.

“Funny you should mention that…” She closed her sketchbook and placed it on the coffee table before she got up, moving over to the garment bag and carefully unzipping the creation within. “This was my first idea, and I couldn’t wait to make it, so I spent a good portion of Saturday night on it. It’s not final, but this is the basic idea, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring it in and show you…”

Inwardly, Marinette had to admit that she wasn’t quite satisfied with this design yet—it screamed “Phantom of the Opera” to her more than “Carnival of Venice”, but so excited was she to bring in something tangible for Adrien to see that she just shrugged and went with it. It had, after all, been designed with him in mind…though she would never admit it to his face.

The shirt was simple—cotton, with an open v-neck that would dip just past Adrien’s collar bones if he chose to wear it. She got a little more creative with the pants: black velvet with gold, swirling trim up the sides, a design echoed in the mask that hung from the top of the hanger, though the gold only appeared when the light hit the black feathers attached to the mask just right. A simple black cape draped over the shirt, taking up the back half of the hanger, though Marinette pinched a corner of it and held it out so that it could be seen for what it was.

Well, maybe Marinette was a little proud of it as is—the theme was a fallen angel, something she felt fit Adrien perfectly.

Her smile, however, began to fade as Adrien simply stared at the outfit, his expression suggesting that he was less than impressed.

“I-I know it’s a little simple—” Marinette began, feeling herself blush, but Adrien cut her off.

“It’s not simple.” He stood up, towering over her, his frown disappointed. “It’s boring.”

Marinette felt her lips part in shock. Boring? Okay, so it wasn’t her best work, sure, she had already said it wasn’t a final design. But boring?

“B-boring?” She stuttered as Adrien moved closer, critical eyes on the outfit she had pricked her fingers for, over and over, in her haste to have it ready by today…something she had been so excited to show him…

“Yes, boring.” He gestured to the outfit with a wave of his hand. “You said the mask should be emphasized, otherwise the outfit might as well not exist, right? But not even the mask is anything to look at. It looks like a cheap Halloween costume more than anything that should represent Carnivale di Venezia. Looking at this, I wouldn’t have even known this was Carnivale-inspired if you hadn’t told me.”

The cold, precise words were razor-sharp, cutting through Marinette, wounding her pride. She clutched the outfit to herself protectively, as if the words would start shredding through it as well.

“It’s still a work in progress,” she protested, hurt bleeding into her tone. “I-I just started it Saturday night—”

“Then why bring it in?” Adrien questioned with a lift of a pale eyebrow. “Why show me something so mediocre? If you were trying to impress me, this was not the way to do it.”

“Mediocre?!” Marinette protested, positively gaping at him now, shocked. Was Adrien Agreste actually saying such terrible things to her?!

Adrien, for his part, merely sighed and shook his head.

“I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that I’m not thrilled,” he told her, not looking sorry in the slightest. “But I honestly expected better from you, Miss Dupain-Cheng. I mean, you once made a derby hat out of feathers that managed to impress even my father. And trust me, that was no easy feat.” His eyes hardened briefly. “Your idea is great, I’ll give you that, but if you want to make it work, you’re going to have to try a little harder—no, a lot harder. Because this just won’t cut it.”

Make it work.

The simple phrase, probably so innocent to Adrien’s ears, caused something to snap within Marinette’s brain.

“What is your problem?!” She demanded of him, tossing her outfit to the side in a fit of pique. “Why are you being so…so mean?

Adrien raised an eyebrow. “Mean?”

“Yes, mean!” Marinette asserted, pointing a finger at him. “I already said it was a work in progress, didn’t I? You don’t have to tear it down like that! The Adrien I knew never would’ve…would’ve…”

Marinette felt her voice trail off.

Because Adrien Agreste, love of her adolescent life, was glaring at her.

If looks could kill…

“The Adrien you knew,” he quoted her quietly, folding his hands behind his back. “I see. Tell me, Miss Dupain-Cheng: who was this boy you thought you knew?”

“I-I didn’t think I knew him, I did!” Marinette protested, standing her ground though she was inwardly quailing at the look Adrien was giving her. “H-he was a sweet person, and cool, considerate…he never would have spoken to me the way you just did!”

Like she was nothing more than the dirt on the underside of his shoe…which was amazingly what Marinette felt like right now.

Adrien just shook his head.

“Miss Dupain-Cheng,” he said, referring to her once again by her last names with a tight smile that didn’t reach his eyes, “the boy you knew…was a lie.”

“He was not!” Marinette protested with a stomp of her foot, hating that she could feel tears beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes. “He was Adrien Agreste, fifteen year old fashion model, a kind person, love of my—”

Marinette abruptly cut herself off, slapping a horrified hand over her mouth. Oh god, what did she just say?!

Adrien’s face grew impassive. Whether or not he caught the last thing that had flown out of her mouth in the heat of the moment, he didn’t show it. He just glanced away from her, gaze moving to the sky outside his windows once again.

“…I’m sorry to have misled you,” he said quietly. He might’ve sounded sincere this time…if his voice wasn’t devoid of emotion. “Back then…I was only what my father wanted me to be. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.” Marinette stared at him, feeling her vision cloud, nearly missing the way his eyes tightened. “That Adrien Agreste doesn’t exist, Miss Dupain-Cheng. You’d be better off forgetting him.”

“He was real,” Marinette protested once again, her stubbornness pushing the words out of her mouth, even if all she wanted to do was run away sobbing at this point. But something kept her rooted to the spot, desperately searching Adrien’s face, searching for the sweet, shy boy who had meant more to her than she ever dared to admit, sometimes even to herself.

But he was nowhere to be found. Before her was a man, a stranger, who thought her designs mediocre, and her, probably pathetic.

Marinette wanted to die, but like an idiot, she persisted anyway.

“That Adrien Agreste couldn’t have been fake. I…I would’ve known if he was…”

That statement brought Adrien’s gaze back to her. His eyes were dull.

“Really?” He asked quietly, green eyes focused completely on her. “You have enough confidence to claim that, despite the fact that you hardly ever spoke to me when we were in school together? Despite the fact that it’s been seven years since we last saw each other?”

Marinette opened her mouth to argue—really, what else could she do at this point?—only to snap it shut once again at the look that transformed Adrien’s face. His lips quirked, curving automatically, as if he couldn’t help the reaction, due to years and years of being told to smile for the camera. But his eyes—those beautiful green eyes Marinette had loved—tightened in pain. His smile spoke volumes of pure, unfiltered loneliness.

It was a smile that broke Marinette’s heart.

“Really, Marinette…can you really say that you ever knew me at all?”

In his voice, there was a hint of a new emotion: desperation.

Somewhere, deep down within him, Adrien was calling out for her, asking her—begging her—to prove him wrong. To prove that she did indeed know a part of him, at least just a tiny bit. That she hadn’t been one of the many stupid girls to fall for his fabricated, pretty face, that she knew some core part of him, some piece that was important, that made him who he truly was, anything.

He waited, watching her, his eyes searching, beseeching…

Marinette lowered her gaze.

She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t claim that she knew him anymore.

Because it wasn’t true.

She really hadn’t known Adrien at all.

The hot, sick flash of shame that crawled through her, burning through her skin, was enough to attest to that cold, hard fact.

The silence thickened, tension in the air palpable. Marinette knew that she should probably say something, but her mind was blank. All she could process was the intense shock that pounded through her at the realization that came seven years too late.

A sudden beep cut through the silence of the room, followed by the cool voice of the secretary from downstairs.

“Mr. Agreste, your next appointment is here to see you.”

Marinette kept her eyes carefully averted as Adrien moved away from her, his steps silent as he approached his desk. There was another beep, and his carefully composed voice answered:

“Thank you, Sylvia. Inform them that I’m just wrapping up my last meeting, and I’ll be with them in a few minutes.”

Marinette saw her escape and took it. Shoving her shameful work in progress back into the garment bag, she yanked the zipper shut, snatched her sketchbook from the coffee table, and swiftly made her escape, willing her knees not to give in under her as she fled to the elevator. She pressed the button, and to her relief, the doors opened immediately—

“Miss Dupain-Cheng.”

Marinette froze. She was starting to really hate the sound of her last names coming from him.

Reluctantly, she turned back around to face him. He wasn’t looking at her—he was back at the window, eyes on the sky, hands clasped behind his back.

“I will see you in two weeks. I hope you’ll have something a little more impressive to show me, the next time we meet.”

Marinette said nothing. Her chest heaving with the effort of restraining herself from throwing anything, she simply stepped into the elevator, staring at Adrien’s back until the elevator doors obscured him, and she was descending.

Adrien waited, listening for the sound of the elevator to leave. And then he turned around, scowling at the bookcase.

“Plagg, get out here.”

The black, cat-like kwami zoomed into view, looking very lazy as he floated through the air on his back, arms crossed behind his head.

“Wow, that was a teensy bit harsh, wouldn’t you say?” He commented idly, floating near Adrien’s cheek and peeking at him with a green eye. “Why so cold, Adrien? I thought this was your chance to start over.”

“It is,” Adrien insisted, turning his gaze back to the scenery. He saw none of it, as if the entire city of Paris was determined to evade his gaze. So he focused on the sky instead—at least then he had an excuse to look at nothing.

“By alienating former friends?”

“By destroying the image that was Adrien Agreste for so long,” Adrien asserted, momentarily distracted by his own scowl in the reflection of his window. He hastily smoothed out his brow—no wrinkles in this face allowed.

“You probably made her cry, you know.”

He did. He regretted it. Despite the fact that they really hadn’t known each other well, after their first misunderstanding, Marinette had been nothing but kind to him in the past…even if she often stumbled and tripped over her own tongue when speaking to him. Those brief bouts of sass he’d witnessed in her from afar—usually when she was goading Chloe—had clearly multiplied in occasion, if their last two conversations was proof of anything…he had a funny feeling Alya was to blame for that.

“You heard what she said, didn’t you? About you being the love of her youth?”

Adrien felt his face heat up despite himself.

“She didn’t say that.”

“She didn’t finish, yes, but I’m certain that’s where that sentence was going.”

Adrien firmly shook his head.

“I doubt it. There’s no way she could’ve been in love with someone like me. In Dupont, even if Chloe always teased her, she was surrounded by so much light and warmth—both from her classmates and her parents. Everyone loved her. What would she have wanted from someone like me?”

Plagg sighed.

“Twenty-two years old and you’re still like this,” he complained loftily. “No wonder you can’t keep a girlfriend.”

Adrien scowled at this.

“I’m not interested in just any woman,” he said quietly, bringing his right hand up to his face. The silver ring nestled on his fourth finger glistened in the sunlight, and he closed his hand into a fist.

“Yes, yes, I know, Ladybug, you want Ladybug, I knooow.” Plagg sighed, flipping over in the air and landing on Adrien’s shoulder. “You’re going to let that woman ruin you if you keep obsessing over her, you know.”

“I am not obsessed.”

Plagg gave him a flat look.

“You’ve been keeping tabs on her for eight years, Adrien. You are the very definition of ‘obsessed’.”

Now Adrien seized Plagg by his tail, scowling at the upside-down kwami as he hung limply from Adrien’s grasp.

“Enough,” he chided, “I only called you out here to warn you to behave yourself. Marinette saw you moving around, so knock it off.”

“Ohhh, Marinette now, is she? I thought she was only ‘Miss Dupain-Cheng’. Do you have something against using her first name?”

“I was trying to be professional.”

“Or you were trying to be distant. Either way, mission accomplished.” Plagg gave a sarcastic round of applause, and Adrien dropped him with a huff just as the intercom on his desk beeped again.

“Mr. Agreste, should I send your next appointment up now?”

Adrien stifled his sigh, made the “I’m-watching-you” sign with his fingers at Plagg (who rolled his green eyes), and pressed a button to answer his secretary.

“Yes, Sylvia, send them up.”

No more thoughts about Ladybug for now. Adrien had work to do.

Chapter Text

“Marinette, please, tell me what’s wrong. I’m really worried.”

Marinette shook her head, where it was buried in her pillow. Though Tikki had been trying to coax her for half an hour now, she refused to look at her kwami. She didn’t deserve her concern.

She was so embarrassed. To be told, to her face, by the former love of her life that she hadn’t known anything about him was, to put it lightly, shattering. Even now, a part of her still wanted to deny it, wanted to deny that she had been completely ignorant for so long, that the Adrien that had her smitten had existed in some way. But her more rational mind laughed at her. Her, know Adrien Agreste? Having all his photos up on her bedroom walls didn’t mean that Marinette knew him. Attending the same school at him, sitting just behind him in the same class, did not mean that Marinette knew him. The few opportunities she snatched to be alone with him did not mean that Marinette knew him.

And the fact that it had taken so long for that truth to be brought to her attention made her want to crawl under her covers and never face the light of day again.

“Marinette—” Tikki tried again, but was interrupted by the abrupt sound of a news cast beginning, cutting through the mindless sitcom Marinette had turned on to drown out the sound of her sniffling. Marinette made herself sit up, rubbing the moisture from her face and blinking her eyes, trying to rid herself of the blurriness so she could focus.

“Good evening, Paris. With the apparent resurrection of the supervillain known as Hawk Moth, there has been a resurgence of akuma terrorizing the city once again. We take you live to the Pont des Arts, where an akumatized victim, going by the alias ‘Seductra’ has been rampaging.”

The camera view switched, showing an akuma in a tight red corset dress, black knee-high boots and long black gloves striding across the lock-laden bridge, her luxurious dark brown hair falling in soft curls to her shoulders, a black mask with white film hiding her eyes from view. There was a dark rose pinned to one side of her hair, tucked just above her ear, her fingertips brushing it as she flipped her hair at a nearby man. His jaw slackened, eyes glazing over. Ignoring the cries of the woman he was with, he slumped like a zombie towards the akuma.

A love-sick zombie.

“Seductra, a few questions!” The familiar voice of Nadja Chamack called, rushing just ahead of the camera as she approached the akuma. Were she in a better mood, Marinette would have huffed under her breath. Why did reporters insist on putting themselves in danger, all for a news cast? It made no sense to her, and added grievances to her job…especially when Alya was involved.

“Seductra, can you tell us what caused this sudden surge of…mind-controlling powers?” Nadja asked urgently, daring to shove her microphone in the akuma’s face. She didn’t seem to mind, however, and seized the microphone on her own, clearing her throat daintily.

“I, Seductra, am on a mission—I seek Adrien Agreste. He has spurned my advances for too long, and now, he will pay. I will make every single man in Paris my slave and part of my personal army, and if Adrien Agreste does not show himself within the hour, I will hunt him down myself. So come out, Adrien. I’m waiting for you~”

She blew a kiss to the camera, and quite abruptly, it fell to the ground—it was probably safe to assume that the cameraman had joined the ranks of Seductra’s mindless army.

“Oh no!” Tikki zoomed into the air, giving Marinette an anxious look. “Marinette, I know you’re not feeling well right now, but—”

“It’s okay, Tikki,” Marinette said, wiping her face free of excess moisture before she got to her feet, determination hardening her features. “There’s no use crying over problems I can’t solve, but this is something I can do.”

Tikki breathed a sigh of relief, and Marinette smiled.

“Tikki, transform me!” She cried, and Tikki obligingly zoomed into her earrings. With a blur of red sparkles, Marinette became Ladybug, and she leapt out into the Parisian night, letting her yo-yo fly.

The Seine came into view soon enough, and the scene on the Pont des Arts was enough to make Ladybug pause on a nearby rooftop, gaping. There had to be about fifty men in Seductra’s army already, and they all trailed after her confident strut, like love-sick puppies.

“Her powers only seem to work on men,” Ladybug murmured to herself, straightening up as she gripped her chin in thought. “And she wants Adrien, huh…”

Well, this had to be the first time in history that Adrien Agreste had caused an akuma…but with his brand-new attitude, Ladybug didn’t find that as surprising as she might have, once.

Ladybug leapt to the adjacent rooftop, studying the akuma now. Her posture was perfect, and she walked like she was on a cat walk, suggesting that she might be a model in her civilian life. That might explain the connection between her and Adrien…but then again, Ladybug couldn’t be certain of anything, at this point. For all she knew, Chloe Bourgeois could be under that mask.

“I bet the akuma is in that rose in her hair,” she muttered to herself, zeroing in on the dark rose nestled in Seductra’s dark locks. “If I play this right, it should be pretty easy to capture it…as long as a certain cat jerk doesn’t show up—”

“Are my ears burning?”

“Is your head on fire?” Ladybug shot back, sending a dry look to the dark shadow that just appeared beside her. Chat Noir slid a grin her way, and while that might’ve made her just roll her eyes once upon a time, now, it made Ladybug’s lips harden into a line. That’s right—she had to talk to this jerk, too. Ugh, too many jerks today, she was going to have a headache later.

“So, that’s the akuma, huh?” Chat Noir leaned over, the muscles in his shoulders working, as if he was preparing to pounce.

“Do you see anyone else leading the love zombies?” Ladybug reached out and seized Chat’s tail once again. “And you’re not going down there.”

Chat looked up, blinking in surprise.

How could he look so shocked?

“Why not?”

Oh, I don’t know…because you might try to throttle the akumatized victim…?

“She’s making the men of the city her slaves,” she pointed out, waving at Seductra, who had just winked at a passing man. Instantly, he dropped what he was holding and joined the ranks of her mindless followers. “And we’ve had too many close calls with you being under the influence of an akuma for you to go anywhere near her.”

Chat’s eyes glittered strangely behind his mask.

“Are you benching me, My Lady?”

The nickname made Ladybug scowl. She couldn’t believe he was trying to be so informal with her after what he almost did last week…but she had a stash of cookies on her civilian form should Tikki’s transformation run out, so scolding him could wait until later; she wasn’t about to let him get away tonight.

“No,” she eventually answered his question, pulling out her yo-yo computer to quickly punch in letters. “I’m sending you in the opposite direction. Seductra’s after Adrien Agreste—something about him rebuffing her advances or something.”

“Really.” Chat sounded thoughtful for a moment, but Ladybug didn’t look at him, focusing instead on her screen as it pinpointed Adrien’s residence. She was a little surprised when it pulled up a place on the opposite side of the city from where he once lived as a boy…but perhaps there were too many unhappy memories for him to return to his childhood home. She hit the send button, satisfied when Chat’s baton beeped.

“I’ve sent you the address. Make sure he’s safe—you’re going to be the last resort if I can’t stop Seductra here.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to just take care of her now?” He stood up, rolling his neck. “If, by some miracle, she gets by you, and I’m the last defense, all she has to do is use her powers on me, and then I’ll hand Adrien Agreste right to her.”

Ladybug frowned. He had a point. She hated that.

“She won’t get by me,” she replied stubbornly, casting her yo-yo out, prepared to intercept Seductra and her army of love-sick men. As she tensed, prepared to fly, a clawed hand gripped her shoulder. Ladybug startled, jumping away from Chat. He blinked, apparently surprised at her reaction. But when she frowned at him, he gave a shrug.

“I can help,” he insisted, looking so sincere that Ladybug almost hesitated. But all she had to do was glance down at his hands—the way his claws flexed, as if itching to get around someone’s throat—and her resolve solidified. He would not be getting anywhere near this akuma. Not if Ladybug had anything to say about it.

“Help by keeping Adrien Agreste safe,” she told him sternly. And then she was off, swinging through the street, coming to a landing a few meters from the akuma. Seductra paused, and so did her hoard, giving Ladybug just enough time to straighten up and smirk at her. A quick glance to the rooftop she had just jumped from told her that Chat Noir was no longer there. She hoped he had taken her orders seriously, because she really was not in the mood to deal with this strange new callous attitude he had towards the bad guys.

“My goodness, all this fuss over one man?” Ladybug asked, whirling her yo-yo beside her. “You’ve got it bad, Seductra.”

Seductra’s scarlet lips pursed.

“Don’t get in my way, Ladybug,” she threatened her. Something about her cool voice tickled the back of Ladybug’s mind, and she squinted, as if she could see right through that mask… “I’ve wanted this for years. I will not let you stop me.”

“What’s so great about Adrien Agreste?” Ladybug dared to question, a hand on her cocked hip as she gave Seductra a flat look. “Sure, he’s a pretty face, but have you talked to him lately? Guy didn’t turn out so nice, in the end.”

“You know nothing about Adrien Agreste, Ladybug.” There was a steel note in the akuma’s tone now. “I have watched him for so long, helped him grow into the success he is becoming. He may not have wanted me when I was simply working for him, but now that I am powerful, he will see the error of his ways. I will make him see the error of his ways.”

Well, that was threatening. A few years ago, Ladybug would have bristled at the thought of anyone trying to force Adrien into a romance he might not want. But she was older now, wiser. And while the thought of this akuma wanting to force anyone into a relationship upset her, Ladybug was able to think through it to try and pinpoint said akuma’s identity.

She said she worked for him…but that could be anyone, from models to employees to—

“Mr. Agreste will see you now.”

That cool, collected voice…

“Sylvia,” Ladybug accused, and Seductra flinched. “So you’re in love with your boss…I sympathize. But even you must see he’s not all that great, don’t you? Why go through all the trouble if he treats you so terribly?”

“You don’t know anything!” The composed mask was slipping, and Seductra now bared her teeth. “I will have him, and you will not stop me!” She pointed a directing finger at Ladybug, turning to her love-sick army. “Attack!”

Annnd here we go.’ Ladybug sighed inwardly as the men who knew not what they did lunged at her, their war chant “For Seductraaaaa!!!” tearing through the streets of Paris. Ladybug’s mind went into auto-pilot as her body did most of the work, ducking and dodging and punching and swiping, using the bigger opponents’ weight against them, causing them to run into or fall over or crush the others. It was a good workout, Ladybug had to admit, feeling the uncomfortable tension of the day leaving her as she fought, but this was not her goal. As she wrapped one man up in her yo-yo and sent him whirling into oncoming zombie traffic, Ladybug glanced around, gritting her teeth when she saw Seductra fleeing the scene. She was getting away!

“Sorry, boys, but I don’t have any more time to play. Gotta go!” With a salute, Ladybug took off from the scene, her yo-yo flinging her skyward. She kept her eyes on Seductra, who was quite fast, despite how high her heeled boots were, waiting for just the right moment to drop down on her—

A flash of black flew past, and suddenly, there was Chat Noir, sliding down his staff and cutting Seductra off.

Ladybug growled under her breath.

“Well hello, Beautiful,” she could hear him purring from below, and her stomach turned as he dared to step closer to the akuma. “Lovely evening, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh, what a pretty kitty,” Seductra hummed, and Ladybug cursed Chat Noir to the deepest pit in existence as she swung down into the alley. “You’ll be purr-fect for my collection.”

“Hey lady, you may be gorgeous, but cat puns are my thing,” Chat Noir said, looking almost indignant…like his old self. The contrast made Ladybug’s heart constrict, and she touched down behind Seductra just in time for the akuma to blow a kiss Chat Noir’s way. Growling under her breath at the situation, Ladybug sent her yo-yo out, wrapping around one of Chat’s ankles. She gave an almighty tug, and with a small yelp, he went down, sliding past Seductra with a cheeky salute.

“What did I say?” She told him, scowling as he jumped back to his feet after she relinquished her yo-yo. Chat gave her a shrug.

“Adrien Agreste is safe, don’t worry.” He leapt out of the way as Seductra blew another kiss his way. “Don’t you have bigger things to worry about at the moment anyway? Perhaps, the akuma trying to enslave all the men of Paris?”

“Don’t you tell me how to do my job!” She called after him as he jumped around on all fours, making it very hard for Seductra to catch him.

“Then do it,” he reasoned simply, landing for a second in front of Ladybug, his eyes glinting. “Or I’ll do it for you.”

Was that a threat?

Ladybug upped Chat Noir’s future ass-kicking from “big” to “huge fucking ass-kicking”.

While Seductra was distracted trying to cast her womanly wiles on Chat, Ladybug used her Lucky Charm. A silk, polka-dotted sash popped out, and Ladybug sighed to herself. These things could never be straightforward, could they?

No matter: her eyes spotted a nearby dumpster, the top closed—she could use that as a springboard—Chat’s baton, which he was using to swing around, avoiding the charms sent his way, and Seductra herself. Thinking through quickly, Ladybug ran up the left wall of the alley, towards the dumpster. She gave one strong hop, and flung herself towards Chat’s extended pole, pushing off on his shoulders, simultaneously sending him down the pole to avoid Seductra’s blown kiss, and sending Ladybug forward, directly at the akuma. She gave a yelp, her arms going up to protect herself—perfect.

Casting out her yo-yo, Ladybug swung around Seductra, using the silk sash to wrap around her so tightly from head to toe that just a tiny wiggle of struggle caused her to fall over, unable to move. Dropping down to the ground again, Ladybug swiped the rose from Seductra’s hair and tossed it to the ground. She brought her leg up high to stomp down on it, but then paused.

Would this akumatized item be impossible for her to break as well? She didn’t see how it could be, it was just a flower. But what if…

Her knee pulsed unpleasantly, as if to remind her of her last failure. Her teeth clenching together, Ladybug slowly lowered her leg, choosing instead to pick up the rose and toss it Chat’s way.

“Destroy it,” she ordered simply. Much like last time, Chat gave her a long look before he ultimately shrugged and did as she commanded.

“Cataclysm!”

Within seconds, the rose was ripped to shreds, and the akuma popped out. Ladybug braced herself, dreading the inexplicable screaming…but there was nothing. It merely flapped away, desperate to escape. But Ladybug wasn’t having it, and one purification ritual later, it was a harmless little butterfly once more, flitting away into the night.

Unraveling the silk sash from Seductra—who was de-akumatizing—Ladybug tossed it into the air.

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

And just like that, the spell was broken. In the distance, Ladybug could hear confused grumblings from the men who had been enslaved, all wondering what had happened and how they got there. Ladybug ignored them, certain they would find their own ways home, and went over to Sylvia, who was stirring feebly.

“It’s okay,” she promised when Sylvia woke with a start. “You’re going to be fine.”

“Oh, Ladybug! Thank goodness…thank you.” It was the least composed Ladybug had ever seen her, and yet she didn’t judge, merely helping her to her feet.

“Can I help you get home?”

Sylvia was flushed, closing her eyes as she breathed in and out slowly.

“Thank you, but…I think I’ll head home on my own. I’m…a little embarrassed.”

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Ladybug insisted, but her eyes found Chat as he stood a ways away, his staff resting across his shoulders, wrists draped over the staff as well. “It wasn’t intentional, so it’s not your fault. You’re not the bad guy.”

Chat’s eyes glittered, inscrutable.

“Thank you, Ladybug,” Sylvia thanked again, carefully shifting her hair to one side. “But I’m fine, I promise.”

“Then a word of advice,” Ladybug said, laying a hand on Sylvia’s shoulder and fixing her with a serious stare. “Any guy that doesn’t give you the time of day isn’t worth your time, either. You could do better. A lot better.”

Sylvia flushed deeper and lowered her head, but she gave the tiniest of nods before she walked away, arms crossed around her.

“A lot better, huh?” Ladybug hated herself for jumping at the sudden voice at her ear. “Sounds like you’re not too fond of Adrien Agreste.”

“Speaking of him,” she began, turning to glare at Chat, “didn’t I send you to protect him?”

“Yeah.” Chat shrugged carelessly. “And I just checked in because he’s a grown man who can look after himself.”

“You should’ve stayed put.”

“I could’ve. But then I remembered that you’re not the boss of me.”

Ladybug scowled. Boy, he was just refusing to be a team player, wasn’t he?

“We need to talk,” she stated once again, though admittedly, her thoughts were more on punching Chat Noir than talking to him.

In response, his Miraculous chirped.

“Whoops. Looks like I’m almost out of time.” He made to jump away, but Ladybug seized the back of his collar this time, making him yelp as she tugged, his bell jingling with the motion.

“We are not done here, Chat Noir.”

Chat turned, giving her an exasperated look.

“I realize that, My Lady,” he told her in a tone she took to be condescending, “but I’m about to lose my transformation.”

“So?” Chat’s eyes widened at the question, but Ladybug continued, “You’ve been amiable to the idea of revealing our identities to each other before. Or did that change too, while you were gone?”

Chat turned slowly to face her, Ladybug’s grip shifting to his arm. His eyes were suddenly narrowed, focused on her, a starving cat spying a fat bird.

“Does that mean I get to find out who you are, then?”

Ladybug scowled. “Absolutely not.”

“I’m not showing you mine unless I get to see yours,” Chat countered with a stubborn look of his own, arms folded across his chest. Ladybug wanted to point out that she wasn’t the one in the hot seat at the moment, but his Miraculous beeped again, and she huffed. Now was not the time to argue—there would be plenty time for that after he refueled his kwami.

“Meet me at the Eiffel Tower in ten minutes,” she told him sternly, finally letting go of his arm, as if further contact would harm her. “I’m going to go check on Adrien, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Didn’t I say he’s fine?” Chat sighed, ruffling the back of his blonde hair, jostling his ponytail. “Why are you so obsessed with him?”

“I’m doing my job,” Ladybug growled, hating that her face felt warm at the insinuation. “I’m serious, Chat, you better show up. Don’t make me hunt you down.”

Chat’s eyes glittered, and he smirked at the challenge.

“I think you’ll discover that I’m a bit harder to sniff out than you believe,” he teased. “After all, I did disappear for seven years. What stopped you from finding me then?”

“I didn’t have the time to be hunting for strays,” Ladybug shot back, setting her yo-yo loose. She pointed a stern finger at him. “Ten minutes, Chat Noir.”

“I may be pretty, but I’m not dumb, My Lady. I heard you the first time.”

Scowling, Ladybug left first, letting her yo-yo send her high into the air in a vain hope to leave her irritation behind on the ground. What the hell was his problem?! Honestly, the sooner she got this sorted out, the better.

Her Miraculous beeped its first warning of the night—Tikki was getting tired. Ladybug sighed and swung her way through Paris. If she remembered correctly, Adrien now lived on the west side of the city…

She found the address soon enough, pausing on the rooftop behind the building.

It lacked the extravagance of his previous residence, perhaps by choice, but it was still elegant—everything was just a more reasonable size. The gate out front was not giant, but modest, and there were no walls surrounding the house, just fences. He even had a little garden out front, which was nice.

Ladybug forced herself to focus, swinging around the house. A back window was lit up, and so she carefully approached, leaping onto the balcony.

It was Adrien’s room. It was smaller than the one from his youth, more functional: a large, king-sized bed sat off to the side, outfitted in dark sheets, and there was a sitting area facing the T.V. on the opposite wall. Instead of the rock-climbing wall and the arcade games, there was merely a desk on which his computer monitors sat—three just like his office. On the far wall, next to the door that must enter into the hallway, sat a large painting Ladybug had only seen once, when she had met Gabriel Agreste for the first time. Adrien’s mother looked down on the room, her kind, benevolent features somewhat distorted by the odd art style of patterns of the painting, as if the artist hadn’t wanted anyone to look at her too closely. Despite its strangeness, it was still unbearably beautiful, and it was here that Ladybug found Adrien, standing in front of it. Swallowing her nerves, Ladybug crept forward, tapping at the glass.

Adrien turned, his green eyes widening at the sight of her. Ladybug made herself stand straight, reminding herself that she was not Marinette right now, that she could do this…that she could not avoid seeing Adrien as Ladybug forever…

Adrien opened his door, stepping out onto the balcony. He was dressed casually in a white tank top and black sweat pants, as if he had been getting ready for bed, but his tank top stuck to him, clinging to the planes of his body and leaving little to the imagination.

If Ladybug hadn’t already seen him shirtless, she would’ve ogled him right then and there. She also knew now that his pretty face was disguising razor sharp teeth, and so she held herself in check with ease, waiting until he approached her.

“Ladybug,” he greeted, somewhat breathless. Ladybug made herself breathe evenly, nodding towards Adrien.

“You’re okay. That’s good.”

Adrien tilted his head to the side, frowning slightly at her.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“There was an akuma attack earlier,” Ladybug explained, leaning against the balcony railing behind her, her arms crossed. “The victim was your secretary. Sylvia, right?”

His frown grew more pronounced.

“Yes…is she all right?”

“She is…but it seems she was akumatized because of…her feelings for you. She said something about you ‘spurning her advances’…”

Adrien sighed, rubbing his temple and glancing away awkwardly.

“She thought a bouquet of roses that arrived for her today was from me. They weren’t, so naturally, I told her the truth...but she didn’t take it well, admittedly.” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “I’ll talk to her. Thank you.”

Ladybug nodded. There was an awkward moment, in which they just stared at each other. She felt she had to say more—that Adrien was owed more from her, despite her personal feelings towards him at the moment—but how in the world did she begin?

Her Miraculous gave another beep, and Ladybug sighed. As much as she hated leaving things unresolved, she had to meet Chat in a few minutes, and she needed time for Tikki to rest before she did that. Sadly, it appeared that this conversation would have to wait for another time.

“Well…glad to see that you’re okay,” she said with another nod, still feeling awkward as she stepped away, hopping onto the balcony railing. “Sorry to interrupt your night—”

“Ladybug.”

A hand slipped around her wrist as she raised her yo-yo, and she glanced over sharply, surprised at the sudden gesture. Adrien seemed surprised as well; he blinked, and then hastily let go, rubbing the back of his neck as he glanced away from her. A warm blush spread through his face, and Ladybug stared, like…

Like she was looking at fifteen year old Adrien Agreste.

The one that twenty-two year old Adrien Agreste said never existed.

So how do you explain this?’ She wanted to ask him, frowning to herself. If that boy she had been in love with wasn’t real in the first place, then what was she supposed to make of such a display?

After a moment, Adrien cleared his throat and seemed to regain his nerve.

“Ladybug, I…would like to talk to you.” He glanced up at her, green eyes uncertain, guarded. “If you have the time.”

She wanted to have the time. She really did. But…

Beep beep!

Ladybug put a hand to her earring and sighed.

“I would like to talk to you, too, Adrien,” she admitted, giving him a helpless look. “But I’m afraid I can’t stay. Maybe next time?”

She raised her yo-yo again, but this only made Adrien take her wrist once more. She paused, staring at him as he gazed up at her, that strange desperation she had seen earlier that day coming into his eyes once more and closing up her throat.

“When?” He asked, his fingers flexing over her wrist. As if he was afraid that if he let go, he would never see her again.

Which made Ladybug stop and think: would she ever bother to see him again as Ladybug?

The tightness of his eyes, despite Ladybug’s reservations, made the decision for her.

“How about Friday? I’ll stop by again, around this time. Sound good?”

The tension left his expression, and he let out a quiet sigh, letting his fingers slide away from her wrist.

“Yes. I’ll, uh, see you then.”

Ladybug nodded, giving a tentative smile. A corner of his mouth quirked up, which was enough, and she was flying again.

A block away from the Eiffel Tower, Ladybug made herself stop. Her transformation was about to break, and she didn’t want to be out in the open when it happened, so she dropped down into one of the many convenient alleyways in Paris, catching Tikki as her transformation dispelled.

“Here you go, Tikki,” Marinette crooned, handing the kwami a well-earned cookie. “I promise, we’re almost done.”

“What are you going to say to Chat Noir?” Tikki asked through a mouthful of chocolate. Marinette frowned, glancing around her, paranoid of the shadows.

“I don’t know yet…but I do want answers. None of this is making any sense: why is there another Hawk Moth on the loose? What does he want? And why didn’t Chat deliver the Miraculous to Master Fu like he was supposed to? And where does he get off trying to kill the victims of the akuma attacks? There’s so much going on that I don’t understand.”

Marinette shook her head, her loose hair brushing her shoulders. She had long since stopped wearing pigtails herself; they automatically appeared when she transformed into Ladybug now, as if it was Tikki’s preferred hairstyle on her. She was still dressed in her pajamas, and she shivered in the chilly air, which prompted Tikki to eat faster. The sooner they could get this over with, the better.

Once Tikki had swallowed the rest of her cookie in one big gulp, she helped Marinette transform once again, and Ladybug zipped up to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, where she sat down, folded her arms, and waited.

She counted twenty seconds in her head before she could just make out the sound of muted footsteps behind her.

“Ten minutes,” Chat Noir quoted at her. He sat down a certain distance from her, as if he knew space was required for this conversation. Ladybug was both thankful and bothered by the necessity. She merely watched for a moment as Chat let one leg swing from where they sat, his other leg bent, his arm resting over his knee. His cat eyes flicked around the city, looking anywhere but at her. After a tense minute, he finally spoke. “You wanted to talk?”

“Yes,” Ladybug confirmed, getting to her feet. Chat eyed her from the corner of his eyes, but she ignored the look, leaning against one of the tower’s beams, her mouth thinning into a hard line once more. “Let’s start with these akuma attacks that have been happening. Why is there another Hawk Moth on the loose when I gave the Butterfly Miraculous to you to take care of?”

“Ah…” Chat rubbed the back of his head, grinning sheepishly, causing Ladybug to scowl. How dare he try and look cute right now. “Well, uh, honestly, Ladybug, the truth is…I kind of, er…lost the Butterfly Miraculous.”

Years ago, while Ladybug would have been annoyed, she would have accepted this, trusting that Chat hadn’t been careless on purpose—bad things just tended to happen to him, after all.

…Now, however…

“That’s convenient,” she said dryly, and Chat’s gaze turned to focus on her.

“You don’t believe me?” His tone was insulted, but his eyes were guarded.

“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Ladybug insisted, stepping towards him with a frown. “How did you lose the Butterfly Miraculous?”

Chat huffed.

“I’m…not sure,” he admitted, glancing away as Ladybug’s gaze narrowed. “I was gonna take it to Master Fu the day after…after what happened to Hawk Moth…”

Ladybug stiffened at the mention, but she didn’t say anything, merely nodding her head, silently urging him to continue.

“I was busy that day with—some stuff—but I managed to stop by for a minute. I stopped by Master Fu’s, but when I got there, he wasn’t home. I didn’t think it was safe to just leave the Butterfly Miraculous out in the open, but as I was trying to find a hiding place, something…jumped out at me.”

Ladybug’s frown deepened.

“What do you mean, ‘something’?”

“I mean like some thing. I couldn’t tell what it was, not even with my night vision. And it was too fast for me to look at it, let alone catch it—before I knew it, it swiped the Butterfly Miraculous and darted away out an open window before I even knew what happened.”

Chat growled under his breath, his claws flexing; the memory was still frustrating, it appeared. Ladybug inspected him, staring hard, as if she could penetrate the secrets hidden beneath that mask. How sad it was that this day had arrived, the day she found that she just couldn’t trust Chat’s word for what it was. He had been her partner once upon a time…but now, he was suspicious. Mysterious.

A stranger.

“You didn’t chase after it?” Ladybug wanted to verify. Chat Noir frowned up at her.

“How would I have? It disappeared before I could even get to the window it got out of. I looked all around the massage parlor, but it was just…gone.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this?”

“I was kind of on a time crunch, Ladybug.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I had other things to do,” he said evasively, not looking at her. This brought back Ladybug’s scowl, and she moved closer to him, her arms tightly crossed.

“Okay then, next question: where have you been the last seven years?”

Chat’s gaze cut to her again, his expression guarded.

“I can’t tell you that, Ladybug.”

Ladybug’s eyes narrowed.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s none of your business.”

“Chat!” Ladybug burst out in frustration, stomping her foot. “What is wrong with you?!”

Quite unruffled by her attitude, Chat leaned back to gaze up at her, his form-fitting outfit paying his body so many compliments that Ladybug had to work to ignore them. It didn’t matter how attractive he’d gotten, damn it. This was wrong, he was wrong. And Ladybug needed to know why.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Chat contradicted her nonetheless, staring up at her with an inscrutable expression once again. “I’ve just grown up, Ladybug. And I know enough about how I work to know that I don’t always have to take orders from you. Your way of stopping the akumas isn’t the only way.”

“So murder is the correct answer now?” She questioned, hands on her hips as she stared down at him, eyes desperately searching for any sign of her former partner…but his expression still gave nothing away. “Have you even considered the fact that the akuma could just fly away after you kill an innocent victim, thereby not solving the problem at all, but creating an entirely new one?! These people don’t choose to become akuma! Heroes don’t murder victims, Chat Noir, no matter what!”

His pupils contracted at her.

“Hawk Moth,” he said simply. The reminder was designed to hurt her, and while Ladybug felt the sharp sting, she did not let it control her. She had made peace with what she had done, and she would not allow Chat Noir to disturb that peace.

“Stop throwing that in my face,” she ordered him, her voice low and furious. “That was a mistake. You know it was.”

“But are you really sorry he’s dead?”

“Of course I am!” Ladybug burst out, the passion of her cry apparently startling Chat. “Do you really think there’s ever a day when I don’t regret that he’s dead?! Hell, I’d rather it be him we’re fighting right now than some unknown copycat!” She lowered her voice and her fist, which had clenched unconsciously in front of her, tearing her gaze away from Chat. “He might have been a villain…but he was still a person, under the mask. Just like you…and just like me.”

“We’re nothing like Hawk Moth,” Chat spat with an amount of venom that surprised Ladybug. “We don’t turn people into monsters.”

“No,” Ladybug agreed, turning her eyes onto Chat Noir. “But we don’t kill them for becoming monsters, either.”

For the first time, there was a spark of something in Chat’s eyes that made Ladybug lean forward, hope surging in her chest. It was uncertainty, and he seemed to have noticed that she had noticed, for he looked away from her again. But Ladybug pressed her perceived advantage; she knelt down, hesitating for a moment…before she laid a hand on his shoulder.

He was warm beneath her touch.

“Costumes don’t make us heroes, Chat. Our compassion—even for our enemy—does.”

Chat returned his gaze to her, seeming to measure her with his eyes for one long moment. Ladybug kept his gaze, willing him to believe in the wise words of their master, hoping with all her might that he could be convinced—

Chat sighed in defeat. Ladybug’s heart leapt as he got up, shaking off her hand.

“Well, My Lady…I’m sad to say it, but I feel that we’ve come to an impasse.”

Her heart immediately dropped to the pit of her stomach. Slowly, she stood up, staring at Chat Noir’s profile. He had changed, certainly, but it wasn’t the physical changes she was seeing in him now, but the ones within. He’d become feral.

“…Meaning?” She dared to ask after a moment. Chat shrugged, turning his back on her as he strode away.

“Meaning that you can keep doing things your way…and I’ll do things my way.”

She waited until he’d reached the end of the beam they were standing on, peering down, as if he was pondering if he would still land on all fours from such a height. The urge to push him was irrational, and she stifled it immediately.

“You do realize this means I’ll have to stop you,” Ladybug said to his back, and that cold fact hardened the already freezing air between them. Chat straightened up again, turning to her. His smirk was almost familiar. Almost.

“You can certainly try.” His smirk became a savage grin. “In fact, I look forward to it, My Lady.”

Ladybug’s fists tightened at her sides.

“I am not yours,” she spat at him.

But this only made him chuckle.

“Hah. I know that.” Though he grinned as wide as he could, Ladybug still spotted it—the hint of pain in his gaze, as if he, too, could feel the crevice cracking open between them, vast, deep, and most importantly, impassable.

Irreparable.

“After all,” he continued quietly, turning to fully face her, that painful grin still in place, striking an unexpected chord within her, “you were never mine to begin with.”

The bow he gave her was ironic, the salute even more so as he fell back, off the tower.

Despite the situation, Ladybug’s heart still leapt into her throat, and she rushed forward, intending to send out her yo-yo to save him—

The flash of his staff in the distance drew her eyes. It was descending, shrinking just enough for him to jump to a nearby roof, using it as a propeller for leverage. As Ladybug watched, Chat Noir streaked off into the distance, becoming one with the night.

And Ladybug stood for a long moment at the top of the Eiffel Tower, the way she had for seven long years:

Alone.

 


 

“You’re quiet today.”

Marinette gave a start. It was one of those rare days when she didn’t have a million and one tasks to run for Symone, and so she just sat at her desk, idly doodling in her sketchbook. She was supposed to be working on designs for her Carnivale line, but since her heart wasn’t really in it, it was slow-going. In fact, all she had managed to do was create a mask that was too eerily similar to Chat Noir’s.

Breathing a sigh, Marinette closed her sketchbook, finally glancing up to Felix. His face was as imperturbable as ever, but a pale eyebrow was slightly lifted. As if he found her ridiculous.

Marinette was beginning to hate that look on blonde men.

“I’m just tired,” she told him, which was true—she hadn’t slept at all the night before, too shell-shocked to shut her eyes. While it was true that, in the seven years of his absence, she had convinced herself that she didn’t need Chat Noir, the blatancy with which he’d ended their partnership the night before just illustrated how much Marinette had been counting on him to inexplicably return one of these days…and how devastating it felt to have her wish come true in all the wrong ways. She sighed again, though she repressed the forlorn sound of it, aware that she had company. Felix merely looked down at her for one more moment before setting down what he was holding—a yellow envelope.

“Symone has requested you deliver these mock-ups to Adrien Agreste…” He paused when Marinette groaned, slumping in her seat.

“Do I have to?” That was another person she was not eager to see right now, the promise of Friday burning uncomfortably in the back of her mind. She never should have agreed. After all, what else could he want to see her for, if not to demand answers about the night his father died? True, he was owed the answers, but it didn’t mean that Marinette—Ladybug—was excited to give them. She just had to go check on him, despite knowing that the akuma had never made it to him…Miss Marinette Dupain-Cheng, everyone, a bona-fide glutton for punishment.

Felix lifted both his eyebrows this time.

“Do you have a problem with Mr. Agreste?”

“To put it in so many words,” Marinette grumbled. She sighed, her gaze briefly going to the ceiling before settling on Felix with a cringe. “I don’t have a choice, do I…?”

“Afraid not,” Felix replied, stoic as ever.

Marinette sighed one more time before deciding to pull on her big girl pants. She got to her feet, slinging her bag over her shoulder and tucking the yellow envelope inside.

“Fine, I’ll go deliver it to his office.”

“Symone specifically requested the envelope be delivered to his home address,” Felix corrected, and Marinette groaned.

“Super. All right, then I’m leaving—”

“Marinette,” Felix’s voice called her back, prompting Marinette to pause and look at him. There was something in his eyes that suggested she was behaving strangely. She frowned, but just as she opened her mouth to ask, he spoke. “I haven’t given you Mr. Agreste’s address yet.”

…Shit, he was right.

Amateur move. Way to go, Marinette.

“Oh, right, ha ha,” she laughed it off, forcing an awkward grin. “I would’ve had to just come right back in after getting in my car, heh heh…”

Felix did not join in her laughter—Marinette was certain that he didn’t even know how to laugh. He merely recited the address she already knew, and then nodded when she bade him farewell, something like speculation in his gaze. It made Marinette uncomfortable, and her departure from the boutique was all the more swift because of it.

During the twenty minute drive, Marinette scowled to herself.

The last thing she wanted to do today was see Adrien Agreste after he had basically humiliated her the day before. In fact, there was a lot she had to say to him about that…or she would, if the memory of his desperate smile wasn’t so clear in her mind’s eye. She huffed, slowing to a stop at the traffic light and hitting her head against her steering wheel. Why did this have to happen to her? Her childhood crush calling her mediocre, her former partner turning to the dark side…why did her life seem to be unraveling so rapidly all of a sudden? Was the Hawk Moth copycat purposefully spreading discord in her life as punishment for her causing the death of their predecessor? Honestly, Marinette wouldn’t be surprised at this point.

There was a honk behind her, and she jumped, realizing that the light had turned green, and that she was holding up traffic. Cringing in apology in her rearview mirror, she pushed the gas pedal and drove off, mentally scolding herself for daring to be distracted while driving. A distracted Marinette while she was walking was dangerous enough as is—she didn’t need to cause a traffic accident while wallowing in her angst.

All too soon, she reached the residence of Adrien Agreste for the second time in forty-eight hours. Marinette let herself sigh one final time, and then sucked in a calming breath. She could do this…this wasn’t about her…this was just an errand for Symone. Besides, it was likely that she wouldn’t even have to see Adrien—he probably wasn’t home, but even if he was, a butler or maid or something would probably come to the door and deliver the envelope for her. That thought was more comforting, and it strengthened Marinette’s resolve.

She could do this. She would not let Adrien Agreste get to her again. She refused.

Getting out of the car, her spine straight, Marinette walked across the street, bag slung over her shoulder. She paused at the gate, wondering if she needed to buzz in or something, but there was no fancy technology nearby signaling such. In fact, there was just a handle on the gate. Marinette tried it, and it swung open easily. She took another breath. One hurdle down…

She passed through the garden, resisting the urge to stop and admire the flowers—Adrien must have one hell of a gardener. The sunset blazed at her back as she stepped up the stairs, pausing at the door. One more breath…in…out…

Marinette reached out a pale finger and pressed the doorbell. She could hear the chime echo from outside, and she waited, sternly telling herself not to fidget. In no time at all, the door began to open from the inside, and Marinette put on a smile, expecting to greet a butler—

Green eyes met hers, carefully styled blond hair above a tanned face, and below…

Marinette took one look and strangled the groan rising in her throat. He was only wearing the sweatpants she had seen him in last night, when she had come to check on him as Ladybug.

Why did Adrien Agreste insist on being half-naked around her?!

For his part, Adrien merely blinked at her, surprise etched into his features. His, dumb, stupid, carved, devastatingly handsome features—

That’s mature. You gonna pull his hair and call him names next?

If Alya’s voice kept popping into Marinette’s brain whenever she had to deal with Adrien, she was gonna—

“Miss Dupain-Cheng,” Adrien greeted, seeming to gather himself together. “This is a surprise. I don’t…remember giving you my home address.”

She didn’t appreciate the implication that she was stalking him, and let the scowl on her face say as much. Nose in the air, she retrieved the envelope from her bag and held it out.

“I’m here on business,” she told him dryly. “I’m interning at Tres Bien Boutique, and Symone asked me to deliver these to you. She was the one who gave me your address.”

“Ah.” Reaching out, Adrien took the envelope, the tips of his fingers brushing Marinette’s. She snatched her hand back too quickly, cursed herself, and tried to look unaffected as Adrien seemed to weigh the envelope within his grasp. “These are the mock-ups for her new winter line, I’m assuming.”

Marinette nodded, noting that Adrien sighed a little, as if he was being put out. She hardly sympathized—if Chloe hadn’t claimed Symone’s work as her own in the first place, then she wouldn’t be designing a whole new line. Really, Adrien should know better by now when it came to Chloe…but birds of a feather, Marinette supposed.

He set the envelope down on a table just inside the door before turning to look back at her, eyebrow quirked.

“…Is there something else?” He asked, bringing attention to the fact that Marinette was just standing there. She startled at the realization, and she hated, hated, hated the blush that filled her face.

“No,” she said hastily, stepping back from him. “That’s it.”

She turned away, intending to leave. No reason for her to stick around—her job was done.

“…All right, then. Until next time, Miss Dupain-Cheng.”

Marinette paused.

And then, with speed and force that was very un-Marinette-like, she whirled her palm into the door, halting it before it could close. Adrien’s face appeared around the door again, surprise flitting across his features once more.

“…You know what? That’s not all,” Marinette insisted, feeling her eyes burning as she held the door open, boring holes into Adrien. “As a matter of fact, there’s more.”

What are you doing?’ Alya’s voice questioned, but she banished it to the back of her mind, her free hand balling into a fist. She wasn’t about to just walk away now—that would be like admitting defeat, like when she’d run from Adrien’s office yesterday.

And if there was anything Marinette hated, it was admitting defeat to a battle she could easily win, if only she tried.

Adrien stared at her a moment. He opened the door a little wider, so that her hand fell away from it, and propped himself against it, an arm resting on the corner of the door over his head, his free hand resting on his hip. Posing.

Marinette’s lips pursed, and before she could overthink it, she rushed into speech.

“You were unnecessarily rude to me yesterday,” she prefaced, scowling when Adrien sighed.

“That wasn’t rudeness, Miss Dupain-Cheng. It was constructive criticism, and if you want to survive in this business—”

“Shut up,” she snapped, and Adrien’s mouth shut, his eyebrows flying up. “Don’t you dare preach to me. I know what constructive criticism is, and that wasn’t it. If you truly meant to be constructive, you would have suggested changes I could’ve made to my design to make it more interesting. That would have been helpful. But you didn’t do that. You just demeaned and belittled me.” Marinette narrowed her eyes at him. “You were callous.”

Adrien stared at her for an immeasurable moment. Marinette stared back, refusing to be the one to look away first…which was why she noticed immediately as his lip pulled down into a frown, damn near a pout. He glanced away from her, proving her the victor of the staring contest, a hand reaching up to rub the back of his neck. He looked…tense. Uncomfortable.

Uncertain.

“…Well…” he began quietly, “perhaps I could’ve…been more gentle, in my delivery…”

“Wow, what a stunning apology,” Marinette drawled sarcastically. Adrien’s brow furrowed, and she noticed the slight hunch that suddenly bowed his back. Like he had been caught doing something wrong.

Though she didn’t want it to, the gesture softened her, and she let out a sigh.

“…But, not everything you said yesterday was unfair,” she made herself admit, her turn to look away now. “You were right: I don’t know you. I didn’t even know you in Dupont, really. I was just some stupid teenage girl…” She forced herself to meet his gaze, despite the blush thrumming under her skin. “…With a stupid, teenage crush on a boy I idolized. A boy I put on a pedestal, based on his surface alone.”

Adrien stared at her. It was hard to tell, what with the setting sun glowing in his face, but Marinette rather thought that he might be blushing…but no, that was impossible. Adrien Agreste wouldn’t blush over something so simple…

But then again, how would she know? That was part of the whole, original problem, wasn’t it?

“I can’t fix my mistakes from the past,” Marinette readily admitted. Talented though she might be, time-travel was not one of her powers. Standing her ground, she continued, “What I can do is be better in the present. So…this is me, tearing down that old pedestal. This is me, wanting to start over.”

She managed a small smile.

“I’m still irked with you, but…still, because we’re going to be working closely together for the next seven months…I think it’d be better for us to start from scratch, person to person.”

Holding a breath, she lifted a hand for him to shake.

“Can we do that?” Marinette asked, voice quiet, eyes intent on him. “Start over?”

Adrien’s eyes glowed in the fading light of the sun as he leaned against his door, the light setting off the honey tints of his hair. He looked even more like an angel fallen to earth like this…but Marinette firmly smacked the idea from her mind. This was part of the problem—she shouldn’t look at Adrien like he was a god to be worshipped. He might be good-looking, but if anything was proven to her yesterday, it was that he was just as human as the rest of them, despite what his modeling might suggest.

Adrien Agreste, CEO and international supermodel…was human.

And it was high time Marinette realized that.

Adrien appeared to consider her, his pose unintentionally seductive. But Marinette held herself in check, refusing to break his gaze, not even as she saw his lips part, as if he was about to speak—

“Adrihoneeeey, where did you go??”

Marinette froze.

That voice—

“Adrien, what is it? Has the sushi been delivered yet or—oh.”

Marinette tore her gaze from Adrien, spotting the other blonde rich kid from her class at Francois Dupont just a ways away. Her long hair was down her back, and she was wearing a shirt that was clearly too big for her—Adrien’s shirt. Her make-up was flawless as always, and her baby blue eyes blinked as she paused, spotting Marinette. She eyed Marinette up and down, a crease forming in between her brows.

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” she drawled, disdain creeping into her tone.

That’s it—no more blondes were allowed to use her full name. It was now an official rule.

“Chloe Bourgeois,” she replied, not bothering to hide her lack of enthusiasm.

Well well…despite the years, it seemed that Adrien and Chloe had only grown closer. Much closer.

And yet, it was amazing just how much that didn’t bother Marinette. Really, a part of her, still stinging from yesterday, was convinced that they deserved each other.

Chloe’s lip twisted, as if it were an insult for Marinette to even speak her name.

“What is she doing here?” She asked of Adrien, the old tactic of pretending Marinette wasn’t there coming into effect. Marinette scoffed and rolled her eyes, so not in the mood for the childish antics. Even if Chloe couldn’t claim the same, Marinette, at least, had grown up.

“Nothing. I was just leaving.” Turning on her heel, Marinette marched down the stairs, quite happy to get away from the two blonde, rich people in that house. She had better things to do than to be talked down to, anyway. And Adrien had never answered her question, so she was going to assume that he just wasn’t interested—

“See you later, Miss Dupain-Cheng.”

Ugh.

“Stop that,” she turned with a snap, glaring at him. Chloe made an offended sound, as if Marinette was being abominably rude, and Adrien had his lips pressed together.

But…he didn’t look annoyed, like Chloe did. No, there was something else in his expression…something almost like…

“Stop what?” He dared to ask, and Marinette spotted it: that twitch at the corner of his lips. He was trying very, very hard not to smile.

Was he…playing with her, right now?

The thought only annoyed Marinette further.

“You know what, don’t play dumb. Stop calling me by my last names all the time.”

She turned to fully face him, hands on her hips, feet planted in the middle of his walkway.

“If you’re trying to be professional, fine, but leave it in the office. Outside of those industry walls, it’s Marinette, damn it.”

Chloe gave another sputter, as if actually shocked by Marinette’s audacity. But Marinette couldn’t care less, her eyes fixed on Adrien, and Adrien alone.

After a moment, he smiled.

And, though it might’ve just been the glow from the setting sun, his eyes appeared to warm, too.

“Then I’ll see you later…Marinette,” he bade her farewell. There was just a hint of irony in his tone, and Marinette took it as a challenge, cocking her hip and flipping her hair in an exaggerated Chloe impression.

“Mr. Agreste,” she returned, spinning around and strutting out of his garden, missing the brief grin that flashed across Adrien’s face.

Adrien waited until she got in her car and pulled away before he closed the door, turning to contend with Chloe’s pout.

“Why was she here?” She whined, immediately clinging to Adrien’s arm. He gave a sigh and dislodged her, picking up the envelope he’d previously set down.

“For business,” he told her, moving past Chloe to head further into the house, feeling her trail behind him. “She’s in the senior class of a fashion collaboration my company is doing with IFA.”

“Hmph. Is she still pursuing her doomed career in fashion? She’d be better off in her parent’s bakery, learning how to make wedding cakes for women who actually have love lives—”

“Chloe,” Adrien cut her off, turning abruptly to face her. “What’re you doing in my shirt?”

She paused, blinking her blue eyes at him before she laughed in what she evidently thought was a charming manner.

“Oh, well, you know, I was looking for you in your room, and I missed you when I couldn’t find you. So I kind of just pulled your shirt on as, uh, a comfort, you know? Doesn’t it look good on me?” She struck a pose, one hand behind her head, one leg lifting up, fluttering her eyelashes at him.

Adrien did not so much as blink.

“The guest room you’re staying in is full of your spare clothes for a reason,” he reminded her, folding his arms as Chloe pouted at his lack of response. “And when are you going home anyway?”

“Never!” Chloe protested, her features warping in fury. “Daddy’s being completely unreasonable!!”

“Just because he won’t buy you a new Mercedes?”

“It’s not the Mercedes, it’s the attitude! He’s supposed to be my father, the man who takes care of me! Well, until I get married, that is…” She looked to Adrien again for a response, pouting once more when she didn’t get it.

“I think he takes care of you just fine. The reason he won’t buy you a new Mercedes is because you just wrecked the new one he bought you last week.” Adrien arched an eyebrow at the pouting girl before him. “Maybe you should be more careful with your toys.”

Chloe gave him a disgusted look and turned her back on him.

“Ugh! If you’re going to sit here and lecture me, maybe I will go home.”

If she was hoping that would be some kind of devastating threat, she was about to be sorely disappointed.

“Make sure you go home in your own clothes, then,” Adrien said. With another disgusted huff, Chloe flounced away, stomping up the stairs and slamming the door to the guest bedroom. Hardly ruffled by her theatrics—because those days were long over—Adrien headed to his study, moving to the desk to drop the envelope Marinette had delivered, resolving to look at whatever Symone had sent him later, since he didn’t quite feel like working this evening. The best thing about being a CEO—he got to set his own hours.

Slumping down on the leather couch he had been occupying to avoid Chloe before the doorbell rang, Adrien focused on the window on the opposite wall, watching the color fade from the sky, giving way to night.

As they inevitably did, his thoughts strayed to Ladybug.

She was not happy with him—with Chat Noir—right now. Adrien supposed he couldn’t blame her: he had basically told her, to her face, to fuck off, and that he was going to be doing things his way from now on. And while a part of him was upset that he had to go against her, Adrien would not be deterred. He had already decided on his path—the hard part was over. Now, he just had to see it through. And he would. He refused to be deterred.

As he sat there, pondering—brooding—over Ladybug, Marinette suddenly invaded his mind. The way her blue eyes burned as she glared at him, stern and unyielding, was a look he had never seen on her before. At least, not aimed at him. And he didn’t hate it—rather, it sort of reminded him of Ladybug when she was facing down an enemy.

And Marinette had basically confirmed what Plagg had said—she had had a crush on him when they were in school together.

Explained her awkward shyness around him, he supposed, now that he thought about it. He had just always assumed that she was intimidated by him, possibly because of who his father was…but that wasn’t the kind of intimidation that was going on there, was it?

She had certainly grown out of it, in any case, even daring to tell him to shut up so she could scold him properly. No one talked like that to Adrien anymore: it was always “Yes, Mr. Agreste” or “Of course, Mr. Agreste,” or even “Right away, Mr. Agreste.” He rarely ever heard the word “no” anymore, so it was quite a shock for him, hearing someone tell him to shut his mouth. Especially someone whose fashion career might fall into his hands.

But career or not, one thing was clear: Miss Dupain-Cheng was clearly not a woman to be trifled with.

“It’s Marinette, damn it.”

Adrien chuckled under his breath. Very well—Marinette was clearly not a woman to be trifled with.

The sky outside his window was losing the last of its fiery red color, which made Adrien’s thoughts return to Ladybug, wondering where she was, and what she was doing now…if she was thinking about Friday as much as he was.

Of course she’s not,’ Adrien’s thoughts chided him as he sighed, laying his head on the armrest of his couch. ‘She’s a superhero, way out of your league. What would she want with you?

Adrien closed his eyes with a sigh. As Chat Noir, there could be no question that he had ruined his chances with Ladybug—not that he really had a chance with her to begin with.

But as Adrien…

As Adrien, he was still quite unworthy, he had to admit. But maybe…maybe she’d be able to talk with him, as Adrien. After all, she said that she regretted his father’s death—she didn’t want to kill him. Though he already knew this, somewhere deep down, to hear her say it was blessed relief. And now, he just had to wait until Friday, and hopefully, all his questions would be answered…

He felt his face split into a wide grin.

Friday couldn’t come fast enough.

Chapter Text

There was another thing Marinette wished she could have outgrown, aside from her pigtails—her damn near-crippling klutziness. Becoming Ladybug might have increased her luck, but it could only do so much for Marinette’s coordination, as proven when she tried to quietly slip into her track pants and ended up tripping on the hems and falling with a loud crash, which roused her sleeping kwami—something Marinette had been trying to avoid.

“Mm…Marinette?” Tikki inquired, rubbing sleep from her indigo eyes. “What are you doing? It’s six in the morning.”

“Sorry, Tikki,” Marinette apologized with a cringe. She carefully wiggled into her track pants this time, with more success. “I was just gonna go for a run.”

“Really?” Marinette would be more insulted by Tikki’s incredulous tone if her overwhelming track record of not being a morning person didn’t speak so loudly against her. “But…didn’t you go to bed late last night?”

Marinette cringed. Indeed, she went to bed at three last night—in a fit of pique, in fact, after her creativity refused to flow properly and give her some good ideas for her spring line. As a result, the floor around her workspace was littered with crumpled up sheets of paper…and Marinette was more than willing to let the failed creations take responsibility for her stumbling this morning.

“Yes,” she admitted with a sigh to Tikki, her body’s groan of exhaustion echoing the truth of her kwami’s words. “But I can’t afford to sleep in anymore. I need to get back in shape.”

Tikki’s eyes widened in realization.

“Oh…is this about yesterday?”

Yesterday. Marinette growled at the reminder—not only had she had to fight a tree-themed akuma, whose roots threatened to tear up the city and imprison her within the earth, but she had also had to contend with Chat Noir and his new attitude of “kill the enemy to stop the akuma”. It had honestly been a nightmare, and, were it not for quick thinking on Ladybug’s part—a Lucky Charm gardening hoe that ended up clinching the battle, and a well-placed foot that had caused Chat to trip and use his Cataclysm on the possessed item by accident—either the akuma or Chat Noir would have succeeded…which meant they all would have lost much more than they could afford. The fact that she had only bested the both of them by the skin of her teeth bothered Marinette, and so she resolved that it was time to dust off and lace up her running shoes. This could not happen a second time.

“Paris is depending on me, Tikki,” Marinette said, slipping on her track jacket next before she tied her hair up into a ponytail. “I can’t afford to fail, so if it means running on three hours of sleep today, then so be it. I have to do this.”

Tikki smiled a little, zipping over next to Marinette.

“I’m glad to see you’re taking your responsibility so seriously…but I’m worried about you, too. Are you sure this is okay?”

“I’ve had worse,” Marinette reminded her kwami with a grin. “Remember that time I stayed up all night studying for a final all jazzed up on energy drinks?”

Tikki’s eyes widened at the reminder.

“Oh, that was scary. I was sure you were going to start bouncing off the walls!”

“Which is why you banned me from the stuff indefinitely,” Marinette teased, and Tikki gave a giggle. “I may need one later, though…”

“Well, all right, if it’ll help. But one only!” Said Tikki sternly as she followed Marinette down the stairs of her townhouse apartment. It was a modest place, this space Marinette had made for herself—mismatched furniture littered her living room, a combination of bargain hunting and assistance from Alya and Nino. Marinette’s favorite piece of furniture in the room was the lamp that sat in the corner, the shade a hot pink with fur trim that sparkled when the bulb within was turned on. The only luxury items in the room were a sleek gaming system hooked up to a sizable TV, for when Marinette was feeling a MechaStrike itch that just had to be scratched. (When she could find the time to scratch it, anyway.)

Passing by the living room, Marinette headed for the kitchen, cringing at the week-old shopping list on the front of her fridge. She really had to make the time to go grocery shopping.

“I was thinking,” Tikki said as Marinette fished out her water bottle and began filling it with ice, “it would be a good idea for us to visit Master Fu soon.”

“Yeah,” Marinette agreed with a nod, turning on her faucet to fill the rest of her water bottle. “I was gonna go see him while on my run.”

“Without me?!” Tikki protested, flying into Marinette’s face with a big pout. Marinette cringed while simultaneously trying not to laugh at how cute her kwami was.

“Er, well, I didn’t want to wake you if you were sleeping…but, since you’re already up—”

“I’m going,” Tikki insisted, quite fiercely. Marinette sighed but shrugged, unzipping the breast pocket of her track suit and allowing Tikki to nestle in. After making sure she had her keys, Marinette left her apartment, carefully locking up after herself as always.

There was a fine mist in the air—the morning fog of fall settling in. It looked like it would lift soon, so Marinette didn’t bother herself about it, concerning herself instead with a couple warm-up stretches before she took off, relishing in the warmth that shot through and loosened the muscles of her legs as she ran. To be honest, she would rather be flying, but that would be just a tad distracting, even if most of Paris was still asleep at this hour. Besides, it probably wasn’t advisable with all this fog around.

Slipping a hand into her pocket, Marinette retrieved her phone and earbuds, selecting her favorite Jagged Stone CD and putting it on loop as she ran. The sound of the guitar being shredded by her favorite artist electrified Marinette, pushing her to run faster, a grin on her face. Despite her lack of sleep, this run was energizing, and she commended herself for being responsible enough to make this decision on her own. Hmm…maybe she could squeeze in a visit to her parents’ bakery on the way back from Master Fu’s before she had to go back home and get ready for class.

As Marinette rounded the corner, nodding her head to the beat of her music, she didn’t notice the figure crossing the street towards her at a worrisome rate until it was too late, and they collided. With an ungraceful yelp and fall, Marinette was on the ground, her backside slammed into the concrete under her.

“Owww,” she groaned, tugging out an earbud and wincing. “What the hell?”

“Oh, sorry,” apologized a harried-sounding voice, and a tall figure leaned through the fog towards her. “I didn’t mean to—”

Marinette froze, her mouth coming open with a pop.

Green eyes blinked at her, seemingly as astonished as she was.

You have got to be kidding me.

It was enough that she was dreading seeing this guy as Ladybug later tonight; did she really have to run into him first thing in the morning, too?

Marinette inwardly groaned, straightening up as Adrien Agreste sat back, still blinking at her.

“Marinette,” he named her at last, and Marinette felt herself inexplicably flush.

What’re you blushing for? You’re the one that told him to call you by your first name! Get it together, girl!

Shut up, Alya,’ Marinette thought at the voice, sighing in defeat.

“Mr. Agreste,” she replied to him coolly, much like she did on Tuesday after she had left his place of residence. She got to her feet, brushing herself off and discreetly patting her breast pocket, just to make sure that Tikki was still there. The telltale lump assured her, and she was able to switch her focus to the too-tall model unfolding himself in front of her. She scowled as soon as his height cleared hers; did he have to be so tall? Unfairness upon unfairness upon total bullshit.

“What’re you doing here?” Marinette asked, working to seem like the answer didn’t really matter to her as she removed her remaining earbud. “Don’t you live on the other side of town?”

To this, Adrien merely shrugged.

“I like jogging on this side of town,” he answered, the corners of his mouth twitching suspiciously. “And I see I’m not alone.”

“But unlike you, I actually live nearby,” Marinette told him, without really knowing why. Why should he care where she lived?

Adrien tilted his head to the side. His hair was carefully swept to the side, as always, but Marinette could tell some of it was pulled back into…was that a bun at the back of his head?

Oh no, THAT’S CUTE,’ Marinette thought without really meaning to. She inwardly chided herself, nearly missing the bane of her existence’s next words.

“Still living with your parents, then?”

It was an honestly curious question…but Marinette bristled at the nonexistent insinuation anyway.

“Just because I live nearby doesn’t mean I’m still living with my parents,” she sniffed, and Adrien quirked a brow, his lips beginning to curve upwards.

“I was just asking. I like your parents,” he said, causing Marinette to blink at him. What did he mean, he liked her parents? He had met them once, seven years ago. How could he possibly claim to still like them after all this time?

The doubt must’ve been obvious on her face; Adrien grinned a little, like he wasn’t able to help it anymore.

“You don’t believe me?”

“It’s just funny how you claim to like them after only meeting them one time, years ago,” Marinette pointed out, folding her arms. “You didn’t even recognize me at first when you saw me again.”

“Like I said, lack of pigtails,” Adrien defended himself with a shrug. “I figured it out a minute later, though. No reason to be bent out of shape about it, right?”

He was mocking her, Marinette knew it. Nose in the air, she stomped past him, praying with all her might that he would go on with his jog and leave her alone—

No such luck. He immediately fell into step beside her.

“Wow, you’re not happy to see me.” He sounded indecently amused by that. “Are you still upset about Monday?”

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Marinette shot back, sticking one earbud back into her ear as she picked up the pace, hoping he would take the hint and disappear. In response, Adrien lengthened his stride. “You were very rude to me. Why wouldn’t I still be mad?”

“What about the offer to start over?” Adrien reminded her, and Marinette cursed under her breath. “Is that still valid?”

“I don’t know. You didn’t say anything when I offered it.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a chance, Mari.”

Oh, so she was Mari now, was she?

Marinette scowled, skidding to a stop about a block from Master Fu’s place. She turned to frown up at the model beside her, who was in a track suit, just like hers, though his was dark green and black to her pink and black. He gazed down at her, no longer smiling…but his expression was more open than Marinette had ever seen it. It confused her, and so she glanced down, scowling at the tiny little nudge in her mind that prompted her just to forgive him already.

Come on, look at him. How could you stay mad at that face?

That was her lingering attraction to his looks talking, and she stubbornly ignored it, turning her face back up to scowl at him.

“Just because I might want to start over doesn’t mean I can’t still be mad,” she told him sternly. Adrien glanced away, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Yeah…I get that,” he assured her. He stuck both his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunching, as if he was trying to make himself seem smaller. “…And, in the spirit of starting over…I am sorry about the way I spoke to you. I thought about it all week, and…you’re right. It was uncalled for.”

A tiny smile curved his lips now, giving him the look of the shy boy Marinette had once fallen hard and fast for. “Forgiven?”

Fourteen year old Marinette would have squealed and melted into a puddle right then and there, all negative thoughts revolving around Adrien Agreste disappearing on the spot.

Twenty one year old Marinette, however, had a lot more grit than that, and a hit to her pride that had yet to be truly recovered. So while she took note of the puppy eyes and filed the danger they posed away for later, she stood her ground.

I’ll decide when I forgive you for being a jerk, thank you,” she told him firmly, and turned on her heel, continuing on her jog. To her mixed frustration and bemusement, Adrien continued to follow her.

“Yikes. Marinette Dupain-Cheng knows how to hold a grudge. Noted,” he said, amusement clear in his voice. Marinette refused to look at him, focusing on Master Fu’s massage parlor. It wasn’t open yet, but that hardly mattered—Master Fu would want to see her, no matter what time it was. But Marinette couldn’t just enter with Adrien tailing her—it would raise too many questions that she just wasn’t willing to answer. And so, with a stab of annoyance, she ran past Master Fu’s and continued down the street, improvising her plan: she’d stop by her parents’ bakery and see them, maybe grab a bite to eat, and then she’d double back to Master Fu’s before heading home. Her newly acquired shadow will hopefully have fucked off by then, if she was lucky…

Marinette was pulled out of her thoughts by the sound of Adrien softly singing to himself. With a jolt, she realized that he was singing along to the song she was listening to; her free earbud must be louder than she thought.

“…You still listen to Jagged Stone, hm?” She noted, pausing her music. Adrien’s singing died away with it, and he gave her an amused look.

“Of course. As do you,” he pointed out. “Other artists can come and go as they please, but give me ten more years of Jagged Stone and I’ll be happy.”

“They didn’t have good music in Milan?” Marinette asked, honestly curious. Adrien lifted and dropped a shoulder.

“Eh, it was all right. Lots of stuff you could dance to, but if you want to rock out? Jagged Stone’s the only answer.”

Marinette hummed noncommittedly. From her peripheral vision, she sized Adrien up, taking note of the easy breaths that passed through him; talking while jogging didn’t seem to wind him at all, which made sense, considering how obvious it was that he was in good shape—no, Marinette, bad, focus. His hair pulled back into a bun was indeed adorable, now that she was looking at his profile…but something about it reminded her of someone else—

Adrien glanced over and caught her staring. The corner of his mouth twitched again.

“Yes?” He asked, and Marinette tore her gaze from him, fresh irritation flashing through her, which explained the heat she could feel in her face. Yup, definitely due to irritation. Absolutely.

“Just wondering how long you plan on following me,” she grumbled.

“I always jog this way,” Adrien answered, and his lips twitched again at the snort of disbelief Marinette made. “It’s true. I like the smell of your parents’ bakery. It’s calming.”

Marinette quirked a brow at him as they drew closer to Boulangerie Patisserie. She supposed she knew what he meant about the smell—she could already catch whiffs of baking bread, and that was soothing to her in a different way: it was home. But as for why he should find it calming, Marinette had no idea.

“You just run by my parents’ bakery without buying anything?” She felt like teasingly scolding him. Adrien’s brow puckered at this.

“Well, it’s not like I wouldn’t like to…” He shifted a glance over to her, and Marinette was surprised to find that he actually looked guilty. She was about to tell him that she was just pulling his leg when he continued, “It’s just…bread’s not something I’m supposed to have…an excess of.”

Oh, right. Model.

Marinette frowned, slowing as they approached the front door of the bakery. She had never really thought about it before, but now that she was looking at him, Adrien was pretty slim, despite the muscle mass he’d seemed to accumulate over the years. No doubt he had to be on a strict diet to keep his trim, model figure intact…but jeez, a life without bread? How sad.

Abruptly feeling sorry for him, Marinette stopped, her hand touching the handle of the bakery.

“Come on. Let’s stop for a croissant. I don’t know about you, but I skipped breakfast, and I’m starving.”

Adrien stopped too, glancing to and away from the bakery quickly, like he was peering at something he really shouldn’t be looking at. His model smile suddenly appeared, making Marinette raise her eyebrows.

“That’s okay. I’ll eat when I get back. I really shouldn’t…” He paused as Marinette opened the door a crack, and the smell of fresh bread swirled around them. The smell seemed to stun him; he blinked a couple times, breathing deeply. It looked like he was having a hard time not openly salivating; Marinette bit her lip to keep from giggling.

“One croissant won’t hurt you,” she pointed out, a smile curving her lips as she rested against the door frame, keeping the door propped open with the toe of her tennis shoe. Adrien inhaled some more, his eyes closing momentarily. He opened them again a moment later, sending her a frown.

“Ah…I get it. You’re trying to ruin me, aren’t you?” He gave her a tight smile. “Revenge for my being rude to you on Monday?”

Marinette scoffed and rolled her eyes.

“No one’s trying to fatten you up, Mr. Model,” she chided him, nudging the door open wider so that the bell tinkled. “Like I said, one croissant won’t kill you…but if you’d rather do without…”

She let the door fall slowly closed behind her, a challenging look in her eyes as she kept Adrien’s gaze. To her great amusement, he looked extremely conflicted, as if she was offering him forbidden fruit that he knew he wasn’t allowed to touch. But just as the door was about to shut all the way, his hand caught the knob, and he ducked in after her, shoulders hunching again, like he was skulking. Marinette didn’t bother to stifle her giggling this time around.

“Excuse me, we’re not quite open yet—oh, Marinette!”

Marinette turned with a smile to the short woman that had just emerged from behind the counter, wiping her hands on her baker’s apron. Her dark hair held a gray streak or two, but her gray eyes were still kind, and it was with much warmth that she embraced her daughter.

“Hi, Mama,” Marinette greeted, smiling down at her mother, whom she only dwarfed by a couple centimeters.

“This is a surprise,” Sabine remarked, looking quite pleased. “Tom, look who’s here! It’s Marinette and—oh!”

Oh, right. Marinette glanced over her shoulder, spotting Adrien still hovering by the door, hands buried in his pockets. When he noticed both women looking at him, he smiled his model smile and raised a hand to wave. He looked natural enough, Marinette supposed…but there was something awkward about the set of his shoulders that she just barely noticed.

“Good morning, Mrs. Cheng,” he greeted politely enough.

“Sabine, honey, please,” Sabine corrected him, waving him forward. Adrien obliged, sliding a sideways glance Marinette’s way that she didn’t quite understand. “I told Tom that was you running by our bakery in the mornings, but he didn’t believe me. Said you would be working out indoors in a gym somewhere rather than be out and about where you might be mobbed by fans. Just goes to show,” she said, turning to wink at Marinette, “Mama knows best.”

“I suppose I owe you that thirty euro after all, then,” said Tom’s voice before the man himself appeared, as large as ever, his kind face slightly obscured by his mutton chops and bushy mustache. He was carrying a tray of freshly baked bread, and he eased around the counter with it, smiling at Marinette and Adrien. “Good morning, kids.”

“Morning, Papa,” Marinette chirped, accepting the kiss Tom pressed to her cheek after he set the bread tray upon its proper rack to cool.

“What’re you two up to so early?” Sabine wondered, smiling at the pair of them. “It’s rare to see you at this time at all, Marinette.”

Adrien coughed slightly, the back of his hand resting against his mouth. But Marinette wasn’t fooled; she knew he was laughing, and she scowled at him for it.

“I decided a jog would be good for me this morning,” she stated with as much grace as she could, her nose in the air. “And then Adrien ran into me. Literally.”

“It was an accident, and I apologized,” Adrien returned calmly. “No need to hold a grudge.”

Marinette made a face at him before turning to her parents, who shared a knowing look that made her frown in confusion.

“Anyway, we’re just here for a couple croissants. Do you have any of the chocolate-filled kind left?”

“Of course,” Tom huffed, blustering in a teasing fashion as he picked up a paper bag and a pair of tongs. “What kind of bakery do you think we’re running here?”

“The best kind,” Marinette returned, grabbing another pair of tongs and dropping things into the bag her father already held. Behind her, she heard her mother strike up a conversation with Adrien.

“It’s nice to see you again, honey. Are you going to be settling down in Paris?”

“That’s the plan for now,” Adrien replied, and Marinette could practically see his professional face in place. “We’ll see how business goes, but for right now, Paris is where I’ll be.”

“That’s good.” Sabine’s voice warmed. “I’m so happy to see how well you’re doing. We were worried for a while, you know. I think Marinette cried for a week after you left—”

“Mama!” Marinette protested, her face turning crimson as she turned to gape at her mother in shock. Sabine touched her lips with a hand, looking as if she was trying to hide a smile.

“Oh. Sorry, sweetie,” she apologized, but the damage was already done, if the twitching lips on Adrien was any indication. Abruptly, Marinette was regretting her decision to bring him into the bakery.

“Here,” she huffed, pushing the bag of pastries onto Adrien. The sooner they left, the better.

“Oh. Thanks.” He shifted the bag into one arm, reaching into his pocket and drawing out something black and leather—his wallet. At the sight of it, however, Sabine shook her head.

“No, honey, go ahead and take the bag. On the house,” she insisted, Tom moving to her side and nodding his agreement. Marinette watched as Adrien blinked, staring at her parents. It was clear that he had trouble with the concept of “free”.

“But—” he began, lifting his wallet, but Sabine gripped his forearm and firmly lowered his hand.

“No charge. You look like you don’t eat nearly enough.”

“Besides, half of that is Marinette’s,” Tom said knowingly, “and we’d feel terrible charging you for her share. She’s a bottomless pit.

“Papa!” Marinette protested, her annoyance growing when her parents tittered at her outrage. But it was the soft snort from Adrien that was the final straw, and Marinette turned an about-face, stomping towards the door. “Okay, we’re leaving, right now.”

“I’d actually like to stay and chat with your parents more—” Adrien said, sounding like he was trying not to laugh again.

“They’re very busy,” Marinette snarled, coming back for Adrien and pushing against his back. He seemed startled by her strength, and his surprise allowed him to be shunted from the shop.

“Er, bye, Mr. Dupain! Bye, Sabine!”

“Tom’s fine, son,” Tom called after them with an amused look.

“Come by anytime!” Sabine invited, waving merrily. It wasn’t until they were a block away that Marinette stopped pushing Adrien, and she slumped forward, though this exhaustion was mental rather than physical. Adrien’s soft laughter made her glance up, scowling at him. His face was deceptively straight as he met her eyes…but mischief was alight in his gaze. Before Marinette could decide just how thoroughly she wanted to curse him out, he lifted the pastry bag like a peace offering.

“Shall we?”

Her stomach rumbled in reaction, and Adrien snickered, muffling the sound with a hand as Marinette glared at him, red-faced. She snatched the bag from him and walked resolutely to the nearest bench, her morning already off to a terrible start. And it wasn’t even seven yet. Ugh.

“Nice to see that your parents haven’t changed much,” Adrien said as he sat down on the bench next to her, a careful distance away, something that Marinette appreciated. She deliberated a moment, and then allowed the pastry bag to settle in between them, swiping the first pastry she could and taking a bite. It was still warm, and the taste of chocolate and butter was heavenly.

“I guess,” she mumbled through her mouthful, watching Adrien delicately pick through the bag for his promised croissant. “Still as invasive as ever…but they’re good people.”

Adrien took a bite out of his own croissant, chewing for just a second before he released a noise so satisfied that it brought a blush to Marinette’s face.

“Your father’s baking is still amazing,” he moaned, taking another bite and producing the same result. Marinette giggled, unable to help herself.

“Okay, calm down there,” she urged him with a slight shake of her head. “It’s food, not sex.”

“You’re right—it’s better than sex,” Adrien practically purred, and Marinette’s eyebrows shot up into her hairline.

“You must’ve had some pretty disappointing partners if you believe that,” she commented idly. Adrien glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but said nothing else, continuing to eat his croissant. The slight suggestion in his expression left Marinette a little warmer than she liked, and she cast around for a subject change.

“You’re a bit different outside of your office, huh?” She couldn’t help but remark. It was hard to miss, after all: after being subjected to his all-business tone on more than one occasion, to see this side of Adrien—more human than she had ever seen him—Marinette had to admit that the change sort of gave her whiplash.

Adrien had finished his croissant and was rooting around in the bag for another one, briefly glancing up at the observation.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Marinette persisted, looking amused as Adrien stared down at his second croissant, a battle of wills seemingly raging in his mind. “That when you’re not all business, you’re actually…more relaxed. More free with yourself, I guess.”

Adrien paused, his gaze cutting to her once more. The air changed, and suddenly, Marinette felt as if she had said the wrong thing. The feeling grew stronger when, after a stiff minute, Adrien slowly replaced the chocolate-filled croissant in the bag.

“Hmm,” he hummed, but that was all. Marinette watched as his posture visibly straightened, an ankle crossed over his knee, his arms draped over the back of the bench. Posing again. She wanted to roll her eyes.

“…That’s not a bad thing, you know,” she remarked, just a hint of dryness in her tone. Adrien’s gaze was far away; as she watched, it tightened.

“It’s not a good thing, either,” he muttered quietly; he seemed to be talking to himself. Marinette frowned now, pulling the chocolate croissant he had replaced back out of the bag and offering it to him again.

“Why not?” She asked, genuinely curious. What was so wrong with him cutting loose every now and then?

Adrien glanced down at the croissant, and then turned his head away, as if avoiding temptation.

“I should be more careful,” he said in that same quiet tone, making Marinette wonder if he was even really talking to her, despite answering her question. “I’m running a company I had to start from scratch. I have an image to uphold.”

He sounded so stiff when saying it that Marinette’s frown grew more pronounced.

“Haven’t you had enough of ‘image’?” She questioned him, irritated when he wouldn’t look at her. “Weren’t you the one who told me your father expected you to act a certain way all the time just because of who he was? Aren’t you sick of the pretense?”

Adrien closed his eyes and let out a short huff. Marinette wondered if she was irritating him. If she was…she was supremely unconcerned about it.

“It’s different,” he said shortly.

“How?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

Finally, Adrien looked at her. His frown was one of annoyance.

“You’re stubborn.”

“You’re evasive,” Marinette shot back. They had a stare-down for a few precious seconds before Adrien looked away first. The way his lips were set suggested that he would be saying no more on the subject. Marinette huffed and got to her feet.

“You know what? Fine. Don’t tell me.” She picked up the bag of pastries, dropping the chocolate croissant she still held into his lap. “But just so you know, my offer to start over depends on you. If you’re not willing to be yourself, even when you’re not working, I don’t see how you expect to make any real friends.”

Adrien flinched, as if Marinette had slapped him. She sighed at the look.

“Just think about it,” she told him in a much softer tone, offering a small smile when he dared to look up at her. “I’ll see you around, Adrien.”

Adrien said nothing. Rather than wait for a response, Marinette nodded her head to him, resuming her jog in the opposite direction, carefully clutching the pastry bag to her. The bulge in her breast pocket wiggled impatiently, and Marinette patted it, mentally promising that she would feed Tikki once they reached Master Fu’s. At the corner, just before she turned, she allowed herself a tiny peek over her shoulder.

Adrien was still sitting on the bench. She watched as he lifted the croissant she’d left for him up to his face. One more second of seeming deliberation, and he took a bite, appearing to chew thoughtfully. Marinette smiled a small smile before she turned, sprinting to Master Fu’s.

 


 

Though her parents were definitely aging visibly, Master Fu gave no sign of being any different than when Marinette had first met him; despite the fact that he was now pushing a hundred and ninety-three, he appeared as if he could just as easily be Marinette’s uncle.

After serving them tea and accepting a couple pastries from Marinette, he listened quietly as she recounted her recent Ladybug experiences, merely stroking his beard and staring thoughtfully into space. She hoped that whatever he was thinking would help lead her to a solution she had yet to come to herself.

“…and I still have no idea what this new Hawk Moth copycat wants,” Marinette was saying after she’d finished her second cup of tea. She allowed Master Fu to pour her a third one as she continued, “It could be that he’s still after the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous, but since his akumas have kind of just wreaked havoc on Paris with nothing but their own goals in mind, I can’t be sure. But that makes him even more dangerous, I think, and with Chat Noir becoming…well, villain doesn’t quite fit…an anti-hero? Well, anyway, he’s basically turned his back on me and has got it in his head that killing the akumatized victims is the right way to cure them, and I don’t know what to do or if I can make him change his mind, this whole thing is just one big mess and—”

Master Fu raised his hand, and Marinette gratefully fell silent, eager for someone else to agonize over this problem now, because she was fresh out of ideas and being spread way too thin for her liking. Master Fu stroked his beard a minute more before his gaze focused on Marinette, and she leaned forward, waiting with baited breath.

“I am afraid,” Master Fu began, looking more troubled than Marinette had ever seen him, “that there is not much you can do about either situation, Ladybug.”

Marinette felt herself deflate.

“There’s…nothing I can do?” She protested weakly, staring hopelessly at Master Fu. He bowed his head, and Marinette felt crushing finality weigh her down.

“Until we know the motives of this new Hawk Moth, we cannot begin to guess at their intentions,” Master Fu stated, “so making preemptive moves on an unknown enemy would be quite foolish.”

“And Chat Noir?”

Here Master Fu paused, stroking his beard once more.

“It seems…he is at a crossroads,” he said mysteriously, and Marinette worked to suppress a groan. “Blinded by his own goals, he seeks his own solution, one that does not depend on you.”

Marinette scowled at this.

“But why? Nothing was wrong with our partnership in the past!”

“As far as you know, Marinette,” Tikki piped up from where she and Wayzz were sharing a pastry, her pixie features anxious. “But we don’t really know what Chat Noir went through in the seven years that he was absent. Something about him must have changed.”

Marinette growled under her breath. She realized that he was different now—much too different—but she was still unable to comprehend just what could cause someone to change so drastically. What in the world happened to Chat Noir in the seven years that he was out of her sight?

“Incidentally,” Master Fu spoke, fixing Marinette with a searching gaze, “his loss of the Butterfly Miraculous is very concerning.”

“Do you think he was lying?” Marinette forced herself to ask. More news of Chat Noir’s treachery would not please her, but even so, she had to know…

Master Fu shook his head, and relief washed over Marinette.

“No, I do not think he was lying. As a matter of fact, on the day in question, when I returned here, I felt traces of dark magic around the place. I did not know what it meant—the traces were too faint for me to make much of them—but hearing his side of the story, I can only assume that whatever dark force invaded here was searching for the Miraculous that I guard.”

His eyes found the old-looking gramophone in the room. Marinette glanced over as well, remembering dimly the first look she had gotten at the well-hidden Miraculous that Master Fu guarded, even to this day. When she last saw the box, only two Miraculous remained nestled inside—a bee comb, whose kwami she had never met, and a fox tail, its image eerily similar to the one Lila tried to pass off as an actual Miraculous, once upon a time. The other slots were empty: the slot for the Butterfly Miraculous, the slot for the Turtle Miraculous, still owned by Master Fu, and an empty slot for some kind of bird Miraculous that Marinette had never seen. And in the center of a yin-yang symbol were the empty slots for the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous; two halves of the same whole. Or, that was how it was supposed to work, anyway…

Marinette sighed. Though she and Tikki worked better together than ever, she had to admit that she still did not quite comprehend the ancient magic that bound the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous together. All she could register, really, was a deep ache within her at the loss of Chat Noir as her partner…but whether it was due to the Miraculous or her own personal feelings of betrayal, Marinette could not be sure.

“So,” she began, hands gripping her tea cup tightly as she stared at Master Fu, “if we can’t do anything about Hawk Moth or Chat Noir right now…what can we do?”

She knew the answer before it even left Master Fu’s mouth.

“We wait,” he stated, and Marinette couldn’t help the sigh that deflated her.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” she said grimly. Her eyes found her watch, and with a yelp, she surged to her feet. “I’d better get back home or I’ll be late for class.”

“And I have a client coming in a few minutes. Best get set up.” With a grunt, Master Fu was on his feet, taking Marinette’s tea cup from her. “Well, thank you for the update, Ladybug. Should you need me again, you know where to find me.”

“Of course.” Marinette bowed to Master Fu, beckoned to Tikki, and was nearly out the door before a sudden thought struck her, and she hastened back in. “Oh! Uh, there’s, um, something else, actually…”

Master Fu looked at her inquiringly, and Marinette felt red coat her cheeks. She took a deep breath in an attempt to alleviate some of the tension.

“Tonight,” she began, fiddling with the zipper of her track suit, “I, uh, sort of told…Adrien Agreste…that I’d meet with him. As Ladybug.” Marinette bit her lip, peering up at Master Fu. “Do you…think I should?”

Master Fu’s eyes were bright with interest, the stroking of his beard resuming.

“What you do in your personal time is not up to me, Ladybug,” he remarked, wise eyes dancing with laughter. Marinette felt her face explode with heat.

“N-no, no, it’s nothing like that!” Marinette hurried to protest, dimly aware that she was only making it worse, if the look on Master Fu’s face was any indication. She ceased her flailing and cleared her throat, trying for a modicum of dignity she did not currently possess. “I just mean…I think he wants to question me. About…Hawk Moth.”

“I see.” Master Fu appeared to inspect her for a moment. “And…you don’t know what to tell him?”

Marinette frowned, worrying her bottom lip again with her teeth.

“It’s not that…more like…I’m afraid he’s going to…well, blame me, I guess. Not that he doesn’t have the right to, it’s just…” She lowered her gaze to her socked feet, having taken off her tennis shoes when she came in. “…I don’t want him to hate me,” she admitted in a small voice.

And this was Ladybug talking, not Marinette—personal feelings aside, Ladybug didn’t want to do her duty, knowing that one of her citizens harbored a grudge against her for murdering his father. While it was true that she was responsible, to actually hear Adrien Agreste say the words “I hate you” would be more devastating now than they would’ve been when she had a crush on him. And with Chat Noir running wild with his insane ideas of right and wrong and justice, Ladybug had to be embodiment of goodness now more than ever.

But how could she possibly keep that image under the accusing stare of Adrien Agreste?

Master Fu was silent, simply watching her. After a moment, a finger twirled through his beard once more.

“I am sure you are tired of old sage advice at this point,” he stated rather shrewdly, and Marinette grinned guiltily. “I have advised you for years, Ladybug. I have watched you grow into the amazing young woman I see before me, and I must say that I trust your judgement completely. So, rather than filling your ears with sentiments like “just be yourself” or “follow your heart”…I will say nothing. You are more than capable of handling this on your own, Ladybug. And so you shall.”

Something warm thrummed inside Marinette. Though a part of her floundered, almost feeling like she was being thrown to the sharks, a larger part of her recognized that this was not Master Fu abandoning her. Rather, it was much like a mother bird pushing her babies out of the nest, with the implicit trust that instincts would take over, and they would spread their wings and take flight for the first time.

Rather than allow her to stay cooped up in the nest, Master Fu was encouraging her to fly on her own. Because he believed, completely and unconditionally, that she possessed the power to do so.

Marinette smiled wide, and Master Fu returned the gesture; though it was a smaller smile, the warmth was the same.

“Thank you, Master Fu,” she said, bidding him goodbye once more before exiting the massage parlor, nodding to the client that moved past her to enter.

Master Fu was right—she was tired of sage advice. And while he couldn’t give her all the answers she sought today, he had done her one better and gave her courage.

Whatever happened tonight, Ladybug would deal with it.

Because she was Ladybug—she could do anything. So Marinette would let Ladybug deal with it when the time came.

For now, Marinette just had to worry about being Marinette for the day.

 


 

Green eyes searched the star-strewn sky, intent on the velvety blackness of night. He searched for a hint of spots, a flash of red, a pair of fierce blue eyes that lit his very soul on fire—

But there was nothing.

No red.

No spots.

No Ladybug.

Adrien sighed heavily. She wasn’t coming, was she? He was trying to stay optimistic, really, but the later the night wore on, the more convinced he was becoming that she wouldn’t show up.

Plagg certainly didn’t help matters.

“It’s an hour later than what you agreed,” bragged the cat kwami, his green eyes glittering maliciously as he floated up to Adrien’s face. “Looks like you’ve been stood up, Lover Boy.”

Adrien’s shoulders stiffened stubbornly under the dress shirt he had carefully selected for tonight.

“She could still be coming. Maybe she had something else to deal with.”

“Or maybe she changed her mind,” Plagg suggested. Adrien turned to glare at his kwami.

“Do you have to antagonize me when I’m nothing but a ball of nerves right now? Besides, I thought I told you to hide. If Ladybug sees you—”

“I’m hungry,” Plagg interrupted, matching Adrien’s look of disdain perfectly. “How can you expect me to behave when my stomach’s rumbling so noisily? At this rate, Ladybug—if she ever shows up—will discover me just by the sound of my poor, starving belly.”

Adrien huffed, clutching the bridge of his nose. There was just no winning with Plagg, was there? Curse his rotten luck…

“Fine,” he bit out, walking stiffly past the tiny table he had set up with food, wine, and candlelight. Looking at it embarrassed him, and so he averted his eyes as he headed back inside, Plagg floating after him. Really, what was he expecting? That Ladybug would show up and agree to this impromptu date? She didn’t know him from Adam.

And, at the rate the night was going, she wouldn’t even be showing up anyway.

Adrien sighed as he dug into his camembert reserves for Plagg. It had been a stupid idea, foolish to even consider trying to woo Ladybug as Adrien Agreste. She was a superhero, a goddess, even. Why on earth would she ever agree to be with him?

Then why did she agree to see me?’ Persisted an unbelievably stubborn and hopeful part of Adrien. He merely rolled his eyes at himself a second later. She probably agreed because she thought he wanted to talk about his dad. Talk about a mood killer. Adrien already knew she regretted what happened to his father; she had confided as much to Chat Noir. But then, seeing as how she didn’t know he was Chat Noir, it would be a bit suspicious if he didn’t ask some things about his father, wouldn’t it?

Moot point,’ Adrien reminded himself bitterly, leaving his glutton kwami to pig out in the kitchen. ‘No use in even worrying about this if she’s not gonna show—

Adrien stepped back into his room and nearly choked in surprise.

A striking figure in red and black stood poised on the railing of his balcony, blue eyes wide as she took in the date setting. Nearly tripping over himself in his haste, Adrien rushed to the door across the room from him and flung it open.

“Ladybug!” He sputtered breathlessly, her name inspiring a million tendrils of longing to unfurl within Adrien; they ached to wrap Ladybug in his embrace, to whisper a thousand words of devotion as he drew her in and never let her go—

Cool it. You’ll only scare her,’ the side of him linked to Chat Noir said, urging him to keep his head. He cleared his throat and straightened up, though it became harder for him not to lose his nerve the moment her eyes met his.

Her hair was longer than he had ever seen it, branching out in the two pigtails she wore, the tips of her hair brushing her shoulders. She had grown taller as well, her suit more form-fitting than ever, hugging every curve she possessed, drawing his gaze to the swoop of her hips, the swell of her chest, before he sternly wrenched his eyes to her face. Despite other changes, her blue eyes burned with the same fire as before, and it momentarily left Adrien speechless as he stared at her. Tentatively, while he could only gawk, she smiled.

“Hello, Adrien. Sorry I’m late.” She carefully jumped down onto the balcony itself, her gaze flickering to the date table. “…Am I interrupting?”

“No!” Adrien said too loudly, hating himself as his voice threatened to break. He scraped around for the confidence he had to drag himself through fire and brimstone for, gritting his teeth and hating the way he was outside his suit. He wasn’t fifteen anymore, damn it. Why did she still manage to make him falter just from a glance? Clearing his throat and straightening his spine, he tried again. “I…I just set this out in case you might be hungry. Crime-fighting must be draining, after all.”

Ladybug blinked her blue eyes at him, tilting her head to the side. The moonlight reflected off her raven locks, her hair nearly blending in with the night. Even just standing there, she was a vision…and Adrien was struck once again by how thoroughly fucked he was.

“Oh. That’s sweet of you,” she smiled, and Adrien felt his heart begin to beat violently against his ribcage, as if it longed to break free and physically place itself in her hands, just to illustrate how very much he was hers.

Get a grip,’ Chat Noir’s voice reminded him lazily. ‘She’s just a person, just like everyone else.

No,’ Adrien thought back stubbornly, bidding his alter ego be quiet. Though he felt foolish, he didn’t think his worship was uncalled for. After all, Ladybug was much more than human. Always had been.

“Would you like to sit down?” Adrien invited, only blushing a little as he gestured towards the obviously romantic set-up. Ladybug eyed the table, pursing her lips.

“Actually…while this looks nice…I’d just rather make this quick.”

“Oh.”

Well, now he felt stupid. He gave a shrug, as if it didn’t really bother him whether or not she agreed to have dinner with him, and hastened to blow out the candles he’d lit. An awkward silence followed.

“So…” Ladybug began, shifting her weight from foot to foot, looking at anything but him. “You wanted to talk?”

“Yes,” Adrien decided, squaring his shoulders. Okay, he could do this…the dinner had been a little much, but he could probably still pull this off…

Ladybug’s gaze flashed to him. Her blue eyes tightened under her mask.

“Adrien,” she began before he could think of anything else to say, and the brittleness of her voice hurt him, “I’m so sorry. Your father…I never meant—”

“It’s okay,” Adrien said hurriedly, raising his hands. “I know it was an accident. I, uh, saw the press conference you gave after…after it happened.”

Ladybug clutched at her elbows, closing her eyes with a heavy sigh.

“It couldn’t have been easy, having to hear from the police what happened…who your father turned out to be.” Her eyes peeked open, glancing at him from under her lashes. “I should’ve been the one to tell you. I’m so sorry.”

Suddenly, Adrien was fifteen years old again, scaling the wall outside his bedroom. He’d managed to slip into his room, de-transform, and vault into his bed just as Nathalie came in, flanked by two police officers. Her expression, usually so composed, had been nothing but a mask of shock; she had only stood there, tight-lipped as the police had explained to Adrien why his father would not be coming home, and he had had to pretend that it was all news to him, that he hadn’t seen the costume ripped from his father’s broken body, like he hadn’t been there to hear his final, empty words, like he hadn’t seen the life vanish from him the minute Gabriel Agreste had tried to reach for him—

Adrien shook off the bad memories, swallowing against the lump in his throat. It was over. Seven years had passed. He had moved on.

“It’s okay,” he made himself choke out, forcing his voice to be as normal as he could manage. “It was better this way. I’m glad you weren’t the one that had to tell me.”

Because to look at her face then as he was looking at it now…if she had made that face at him in the past, when the wound was still so fresh, Adrien was certain he would have broken down right then and there.

Ladybug lifted her chin then, her gaze stiff, as if she was resigning herself for the worst.

“You’re…angry with me, aren’t you?”

Angry. Ha. That was a good one. As complicated as his feelings were towards the spotted superhero as of late, ‘angry’ was not one of them.

“I’m not angry,” he assured her. Ladybug stared at him, her gaze searching his face.

“Not even a little bit?” She wanted to check. She was so adorable that Adrien had to smile.

“Not even a tiny bit,” he said, taking a step towards her, and then another, until he was suddenly there, right in front of her. “I could never be angry with you, Ladybug.”

She blinked up at him; it was clear that she did not comprehend.

“But…I was responsible for your father’s death,” she pointed out, as if he needed a reminder. “I…I killed him, Adrien.”

“It was an accident. You said so yourself.”

“That doesn’t change what happened,” Ladybug asserted with a shake of her head, and it hurt Adrien to see that something like this, someone like his father, was still hurting her. “He was still your father.”

Adrien felt his expression twist as he briefly succumbed to the darkness within himself.

“He hadn’t been my father for a long time before I found out he was Hawk Moth,” Adrien growled. He barely registered the widening of Ladybug’s eyes, but it was enough for him to clear his throat and remind himself not to lose it. “Let’s not talk about him anymore, all right?” He requested in a much more civil tone. Ladybug blinked, inspecting him for a long moment.

“…All right,” she agreed in the end, taking a step back. “If you’re sure. I don’t want to end this conversation without you gaining some type of closure—”

“Already done,” Adrien insisted, “I saw a therapist about it years ago. I’m good.”

Ladybug gave a quiet nod, taking another step back.

“Okay. Well…I’m glad we talked, then.”

Adrien paused, stunned as she hopped up onto the balcony railing again, as if she meant to leave. She couldn’t go now—she had just gotten here!

“Wait!” He bade her, rushing forward, even as she straightened up, hand idling on the yo-yo hanging from her hip. She peered down at him curiously, apparently confused by his sudden anxious tone.

“What is it?” She glanced around, as if she expected to see an akuma, but there was no demon possession going around here, save for the (whatever he told Plagg to the contrary) obsession blazing within Adrien, filling nearly every night he lay awake in his bed with thoughts of her, and her alone. He swallowed, reminding himself that he could do this. He was a grown man, and she was…miraculous…but he could still do this.

Or he could try, anyway. And he had to try, or he was quite certain that he would finally take a nose dive off the deep end, as he had been threatening to do for so long when it came to all thoughts Ladybug.

“Ladybug, I…I don’t want you to go,” he admitted, a hand outstretched, as if he meant to touch her…but then he thought better of it and dropped the hand to his side, though his anxious gaze never left her face. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for so long…”

Ladybug peered down at him, tilting her head to the side.

“…We did talk,” she pointed out, slowly crouching down so that she was eye level with Adrien. His heart thudded and stuttered in his chest at her closeness, and he swallowed.

“Yes, but not about anything I wanted to talk about,” he persisted, daring to step closer, so that they were mere centimeters away. “There’s something you should know. Something I’ve been dying to say since I was fifteen, and I first saw you…”

Ladybug said nothing, merely gazing at him curiously, perfection even in the swoop of her eyelashes as they brushed against her spotted mask when she blinked. She was everything he wanted, and everything he didn’t deserve, but if he didn’t try, if he didn’t say something now, after nearly eight years of dreaming and wishing and pining and worshipping—

“I…I think you’re amazing, Ladybug. You’re so brave and heroic, and you never hesitate to save Paris, despite the fact that it can’t be easy, doing what you do. I just admire you so much…so much, that I…I…”

Just say it!’ His mind cried out, years and years of pent-up feelings nearly bursting from him, ‘Spit it out or forever hold your peace, because you’ll probably never get this chance again!

Adrien squared his shoulders, swallowed against his sudden sandpaper tongue, and met Ladybug’s gaze head-on.

“…I love you, Ladybug.”

There. It was out. He’d said it.

Years of hopeless pining like a lovesick kitten, all condensed in four simple, terrifying words.

And, as the look on Ladybug’s face changed drastically, Adrien was abruptly aware that he was not alone in his fear.

Ladybug nearly rocketed to her full height, and Adrien lunged forward as she wobbled, but she skipped out of the way, out of the helping hand he stretched towards her. Her mouth had come open, plump lips framing a horrified, yet silent ‘o’. Her bluebell eyes were wide in her face, her chest abruptly heaving, as if he was transforming into an akuma right before her eyes.

Hell, maybe he was, with how terrible he was suddenly feeling.

“Ladybug—” He called weakly, a hand outstretched, desperate.

Ladybug ripped her gaze from his, turning her back on him.

He felt his heart shatter, caving in on itself, the damage unmanageable, irreparable.

“I have to go,” she said, her voice suddenly hollow. With a flash of her yo-yo, she was gone. And Adrien was left in the aftermath, staring after her, the ache within him growing by the minute suggesting that it would have been better if he had just kept his feelings to himself.

Well, what did you expect?’ Chat Noir muttered in his mind, though Adrien could feel that even he was downed by this turn of events, ears and tail drooping. ‘Like you said, she’s Ladybug. And you’re just Adrien Agreste. What the hell could she ever want with someone like you?

It was true. Adrien had known it all along. But his attempts to dissuade himself from his set course of action were feeble, overwhelmed by the need to be with her, in any way he could, in whatever form she was willing to accept of him.

But that had been foolish.

Ladybug didn’t want Adrien Agreste. She didn’t know him. Her abrupt departure had made that perfectly clear. Even in the past, when she and Chat Noir were still partners, her dismissal of his feelings had been gentle, playful…its very own brand of cruelty. But that was just their dynamic—she ran and he gave chase, a friendly game of Cat and…Bug, he supposed. And it had been enough, Chat reasoning to himself that she could do much better than some mangy stray.

But to just outright leave after Adrien Agreste dared to lay himself bare before her…

Did that mean that Ladybug, had he not been behaving so deplorable towards her as of late, would prefer Chat Noir more? She had never outright left him standing somewhere after speaking words of adoration towards her.

Did that mean that Ladybug preferred Chat Noir to him?

It doesn’t mean anything,’ Chat chided him within his own mind. ‘She never knew how serious I was about her. I never did what you just did, never outright confessed to her. Besides, she knew me: we were partners. It’s different.

It was different. Chat Noir had been Ladybug’s partner. Their trust in each other had been implicit, so naturally, she would tolerate him more…

Until, almost in a blind jealous rage, Adrien destroyed Chat Noir’s image before his Lady’s very eyes.

Oh, is that what this edgy anti-hero thing we’ve got going on is about now? Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve been confused ever since we returned.

Adrien fiercely shook his head. Bad enough that he was personifying his own alter ego in his mind; he didn’t need to be questioning his motives again on top of everything else.

He had fucked up. He had fucked up bad. He should have waited until Ladybug got to know him, the real him, not the face he put up for the public, not the mask he wore during battle—

But even if she had gotten to know him…it wouldn’t have made one damn difference, would it? She would still be Ladybug.

And he would still be just Adrien.

Feeling the tension of the evening drain away from him, leaving just the shell of a man behind, Adrien covered the tray of food on the table he had set up—it would go in the trash, uneaten, because he no longer possessed anything remotely resembling an appetite anymore.

Adrien eyed the bottle of wine, already uncorked, waiting by two flute glasses. Wasted.

He snatched up the bottle and took a swig, feeling the fruity taste of alcohol numb his senses the longer he drank. When the bottle was empty, he was tempted to let it smash onto the balcony, to hell with it, to hell with this night, and to hell with him.

But something stopped him—a tiny cat’s paw resting on his ring as he clutched the neck of the bottle.

“Don’t lose yourself to darkness because of a woman,” Plagg scolded him, though his tone lacked the usual derision he held for humans and their emotions. “And yes, Ladybug is just that—a woman. It’s time you stop treating her like she’s the sun and stars, Adrien. Because she’s just a person. Just like you.”

A person? What person? He didn’t know what Plagg was talking about.

Adrien did not feel remotely like a person anymore.

Years of yearning, of dreaming…shattered the moment Ladybug looked at him with such horror in her eyes that he felt that he would be sick.

She would have no more to do with him. That much was certain.

He had ruined everything just as easily as if he had used his Cataclysm powers on the thread that tied him and Ladybug together. Both as Adrien, and as Chat Noir, he had lost her.

Well. That’ll make going against her a little easier, won’t it?

Adrien’s head spun uncomfortably. He slumped to the floor of his balcony, his loose hand letting the empty wine bottle roll away from him. His eyes felt hot and itchy, so he closed them, feeling something wet roll down his face.

All he could taste was wine, salt, and bitter defeat.

Chapter Text

Holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit holy shit—

“Hellooo?” Alya trilled, yanking Marinette forcefully out of the inner mantra she’d been chanting in her head all weekend. Marinette glanced up, finding her best friend frowning as she eyed her. “You listening to me, Marinette?”

“Of course,” Marinette replied automatically, taking stock of the situation: let’s see, Alya’s phone was out, so it was a safe bet that she was talking about something to do with the Ladyblog. Marinette only had to give her about a minute’s worth of attention before she could sink back into the horrified divine cursing coursing through her brain.

Friday night had been a disaster. Ladybug had gone in there, fearing the worst. Instead, she got way more than she bargained for.

“…I love you, Ladybug.”

Marinette screamed inwardly, and the mantra increased in pitch and frequency.

Adrien Agreste had confessed to being in love with Ladybug.

He had been in love with Ladybug for eight years.

And she was Ladybug!!!

Holy SHIT!!!

“I know!” Alya suddenly chimed in, and Marinette froze, fearing that her best friend could suddenly read minds. But Marinette must have said the words out loud by accident, for Alya was still focused on her phone, scrolling through something. “Can you believe it? The big battle with Viner was epic, and I got a front row seat! Check it out!”

Oblivious to Marinette’s preoccupation, Alya shoved her phone under her best friend’s nose, playing the video of the fight between Ladybug, Chat Noir, and the plant-based akuma. Marinette held in her sigh, watching as Ladybug—herself—plowed into Chat Noir when he got too close to the akumatized victim, fearing what he would do with those claws of his if she let him get out of hand. God, what a nightmare she found herself in nowadays…

“I didn’t realize you were there,” Marinette mumbled as Alya removed the phone from her face. She gave Marinette a curious look, and Marinette cursed under her breath, realizing her slip. “I mean, I thought you were working on a big editorial piece this week. Could you really afford to go running after Ladybug Thursday night?”

Alya snorted.

“Oh come on—you think some stupid editorial is more important to me than the Ladyblog? Now that traffic is picking up again, there’s no way I’m missing any of her fights ever again!”

“I hope your boss was understanding…”

“What Eric doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Alya sniffed. “Besides, I got his precious editorial done as soon as I got back from filming Ladybug take down the Viner, so it’s a non-issue.”

“Really? And did you end up sleeping at all that night?”

“Skipped class for some extra z’s,” Alya said casually, and Marinette shook her head. Her best friend was incorrigible.

“Just be careful,” Marinette requested, sipping at her malt shake as Alya gave attention to her neglected sherbet. “Things are a lot more dangerous now, with this new Hawk Moth turning people into akuma left and right.”

“And with Chat Noir and his new…attitude…” Alya scrunched up her nose, glancing up from her phone to peer worriedly at her best friend. “I really don’t get him. Why turn to the dark side? He’s been MIA for seven years, comes back a Greek god—”

“Alya—”

“I’m just saying. Just because he’s super-hot now doesn’t excuse his behavior, though.” Alya frowned down at her phone, where the video was paused on the moment Chat Noir tripped over Ladybug’s foot, his Cataclysm-ridden claws heading straight for the spade the Viner was using as his weapon. “Not even Batman tries to murder his villains. What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

“Too much catnip?” Marinette offered, smiling weakly at the pathetic joke. It was the only way she could keep her sanity in this moment, however—there was too much going on in her mind for her to be able to focus on Chat Noir for very long, despite the threat he posed to all of Paris now.

“This is serious,” Alya scolded her, finally setting her phone down, her fingers twirling over the spoon in her sherbet. She fixed Marinette with a studious frown, appearing to chew on her tongue. That told Marinette that her best friend was holding some detail back that she wasn’t sure whether she should share or not. And since Alya nearly always said what was on her mind most of the time, the fact that she was actually considering not telling Marinette something made Marinette worry about how bad it could be.

She wasn’t sure she wanted to chance it.

“Your sherbet’s melting,” she reported, nodding to the barely touched ice cream in front of Alya. Her best friend glanced down at it, witnessed that it was indeed melting sadly, and then pushed it to the side, folding her arms under her chest as she leaned on the table.

“I’ve had to block some people from commenting on the Ladyblog,” she said, her voice low and fervent. Anxious, Marinette leaned in, too, as if they were having a forbidden discussion.

“Why?”

“Well, some of them…not a lot, just, a few more than there should be, like, at all…some of them think that…Chat Noir has the right idea, wanting to—to get rid of the akumatized victims.”

Marinette felt her blood run cold.

“WHAT?!” She yelped, much too loud to be allowed. Francoise, the owner of the gelato shop, cleared his throat and gave them raised eyebrows, prompting Marinette to cringe in apology.

“I know,” Alya assured her, though at a much more reasonable volume. Her brows were furrowed, hazel eyes intense. “It shocked me, too. I never had this problem with the Ladyblog when it first started out…but now that Chat Noir’s gone rogue…I dunno. Seems like every dickhead with a stupid opinion is coming out of the woodwork, saying that we should be cheering Chat Noir on, not vilifying him.” She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow. “Can you imagine if this attitude was popular when I became Lady Wi-Fi? I would’ve been…y’know…”

Alya lifted a finger and drew it across her throat in a significant manner, making a cleaving sound with her teeth. The blasé manner in which she referenced the possibility of her own death made Marinette’s heart creep into her throat, pounding violently against her esophagus.

“Th-the victims don’t choose to be akumatized,” Marinette stuttered, this news making her nervous enough for old habits to die hard. “Hawk Moth takes advantage of their weakened state. It’s not their fault.”

Alya glanced away for a moment.

“…Actually…”

Her eyes returned to Marinette, tightening at the edges. She looked more uncomfortable than Marinette had ever seen her, and it worried her.

“…You wouldn’t know this, since you’ve never been akumatized yourself, Marinette…” Marinette held her breath, waiting for the swift appraisal in Alya’s gaze, suspicion sparking in the hazel eyes framed by her glasses. But Alya only continued to look discomfited. “…But when the akuma possesses you, and you hear Hawk Moth’s voice in your head…he actually gives you a choice.” Alya twisted her lips. “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.”

Marinette stared at Alya, feeling the straw from her malt shake fall out of her open mouth.

“You told me you didn’t remember anything,” she said softly, afraid that her tone would be accusing if she dared to raise her voice. Alya shook her head.

“I don’t, really. Everything about that day is still hazy.” There was a deadened look in her eyes, something haunted that Marinette only caught flashes of from time to time. “But I do dream about it. Even now, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, reaching for my phone, as if I’m about to fling a stop or pause button at someone. Like Lady Wi-Fi is never really gone…just lurking beneath the surface. Waiting for me to let my guard down.”

Alya smiled, the weakness of it bringing concern rushing to the forefront of Marinette’s mind.

“I refuse to sleep over at Nino’s for a whole week when that happens. I don’t wanna wake up one morning just to find that I accidentally—”

“Stop,” Marinette commanded, her voice soft, but firm, as she laid a hand over Alya’s. “You would never hurt Nino.”

“Sure, Alya wouldn’t. But Lady Wi-Fi?” Alya gave a mild shrug, and said no more on the subject. But the uncharacteristic seriousness of her best friend worried Marinette, who promptly decided that a distraction was in order.

“Here, I need your help with something.” She reached over, tugging her sketchbook from her bag. “Do you know anything about the Carnival of Venice?”

“That festival with masks? Not really. Why?” Alya asked curiously as Marinette set her sketchbook on the table, feverishly rifling through the used pages.

“It’s my theme for my spring fashion line,” Marinette explained as she flipped pages, “but I’m stuck. It’s been frustrating me all week, and even though I have until next week before I have to see Adrien again, I don’t want a repeat of last time.”

But, then again, Marinette had a whole slew of separate problems concerning Adrien that she would have to actually deal with in due time, didn’t she? After all, screaming unintelligibly into her pillow all weekend did not a solution make.

“Oh, yeah.” Alya scowled at the reminder. “By the way, that offer to break his kneecaps still stands.”

“Thank you,” Marinette laughed. “But it won’t be necessary. I just need a spark—something that’ll get the ball rolling, you know? Like, what do you think of—hold on, I’m trying to find it—”

“Wait,” Alya stopped her, hand lying flat on a page Marinette was about to skip past. “What’s that?”

Marinette paused, and then flushed when she realized that Alya had spotted her sketch of Chat Noir’s mask. She cursed herself inwardly for not tearing out that page and tossing it when she had the chance.

“Nothing,” Marinette insisted with a sigh, trying to get under Alya’s hand to turn the page. “I was just doodling aimlessly one day—”

“Hold on,” Alya pressed her, swatting her hand away. A manic gleam was alight in her eyes—a gleam Marinette had learned to associate with the fervor the Ladyblog usually inspired in Alya. Immediately, she was on guard. “This…this could work.”

“What?” Asked Marinette, confused on what Alya was seeing that she clearly couldn’t. In response, Alya tapped the page where Chat Noir’s cat eyes peered up at them nonchalantly.

“The Carnival of Venice is all about masks, right? Well, why not take that, but add a Parisian twist by making it about Paris’ own unique superhero?”

Marinette blinked at that, startled.

“A…a fashion line featuring Ladybug?”

“Yes!” Alya cried, nodding her head excitedly. “I mean, there’s all sorts of Ladybug merchandise out there, but a fashion line featuring her? Yet to be done.” Alya grinned, pointing her sherbet-slick spoon at Marinette. “Until now, that is.”

Marinette stared at her best friend, struck once again by the raw genius that was Alya Cesaire. It was so obvious—why hadn’t she thought of it herself?

“But I have to make five ensembles…I don’t think I could stretch Ladybug’s design that far…”

“Then think of other superheroes,” Alya allowed, giving a shrug. She frowned down at the page with Chat Noir’s mask. “Although, I might forego Chat Noir being included in this. Until he gets his act together, he hasn’t done anything to deserve a Marinette Dupain-Cheng original creation.”

Marinette giggled. The salt was strong in Alya, and she loved her best friend for it.

“That’s actually a really good idea,” Marinette praised with a grin. “Thank you, Alya!”

Alya waved her hand through the air, as if to brush off the thanks.

“Happy to be your inspiration, girl, but the real challenge is up to you…” Alya’s eyes glinted deviously, and her voice dropped several octaves, “…to make it work.

Marinette’s mouth popped open in outrage.

“How dare you,” she growled, getting up with a huff. “I’m taking my thanks back as well as rescinding our friendship.”

“Noooo, Marinette don’t leaaave meeee,” Alya cried dramatically, throwing her arms around Marinette’s hips as she tried to make her escape. “Who will I watch bad movies with to laugh about afterwards? Who will help me take suggestive slumber party pics for Nino when we’re having a girl’s night and I want to tease him? Don’t go, Marinette, my love!”

“Oh my god, let go,” Marinette huffed, though she, too, was laughing along with Alya. The shadows in her best friend’s eyes had fled for the moment, leaving only the fire and slight spark of insanity usually present. Even as Marinette fought to free herself from Alya’s grasp and Francoise clucked his tongue at their antics, the important thing was that Alya was back to herself, thoughts of Lady Wi-Fi lurking beneath the surface forgotten.

For now.

 


 

Swept away by that tease of a muse Marinette called “inspiration”, she was able to push all other thoughts and problems out of her mind, throwing her all into stitching her own twist into the design of Ladybug’s costume, paying particular attention to the mask, because while it suited Marinette’s purposes of hiding her identity just fine, it was a little plain to be considered a Carnivale mask. So absorbed was she in her work as she sat at her desk at Tres Bien Boutique that it was a moment before she realized that Symone was hovering over her, nostrils flaring dangerously.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” She boomed imperiously after a moment, causing Marinette to jump and squawk, nearly falling out of her swivel chair at the sudden shock.

“Sy-Symone!”

Where is the coffee I asked for an hour ago? If you have time to doodle, I assume you have time to get coffee, at least.”

“I—” Marinette blinked. “Wait…didn’t you send Felix out for coffee an hour ago?”

“Well, why isn’t he back with it?!” Symone demanded of Marinette. She swallowed her irritation at Symone’s unreasonable demand, reminding herself that she needed this internship if she wanted her dream to succeed…she just had to suck it up for now…

“I don’t know,” she intoned, “where did you send him?”

Symone waved a careless hand.

“Just to this café around the corner from some dinky massage parlor or something,” she said, turning her back and walking away. “They have the best macchiatos, but I don’t remember their service being this slow. Go fetch him, will you? He’s taking forever.

Why don’t you just call him?’ Marinette’s thoughts growled, but she forced herself to behave, standing stiffly and stowing her sketchbook in the top drawer of her desk. She had to tell herself that Symone was just being more unreasonable than usual because she was under a lot of stress after deciding to create an all-new winter line on such short notice…this wasn’t about Marinette…her boss did not have a vendetta against her…

Once outside, Marinette allowed herself to huff as she headed to her car. It didn’t help that Symone was sending her out just to recover her assistant when she could simply call him and ask where he was—she acted like even that was beneath her. And she didn’t give Marinette much to work with, either: would it have killed her to remember the name of the café she was so desperate for caffeine from?

A dinky massage parlor…

Come to think of it, there was a café right around the corner from Master Fu’s, wasn’t there?

Marinette sighed. It was a lead, at least. Her instincts would no doubt be more helpful than Symone was, and so she started her car and shifted it into drive, pulling away from the boutique to head uptown. Hopefully she’d find Felix so she could get Symone off her back, though there was a very good chance that they would just pass each other and that Marinette was just wasting time…

Happy thoughts,’ she reminded herself with a deep breath, turning on the radio to drown out all other negativity. She couldn’t afford to lose herself in her own mind right now—she had lost enough sleep over the weekend, thinking about The Thing that happened Friday night. And while a part of her was still freaking out about it in the back of her mind, she just couldn’t focus on it at the moment; she was far too busy to worry about anything else right now.

That was her story, and Marinette was sticking to it.

As Marinette stopped at the traffic light, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel, she glanced over to Master Fu’s massage parlor out of habit. The lights were off, but that wasn’t so strange—he was usually out and about during this time of day. Dimly, she wondered if she should get his permission before using Ladybug’s image in her design. True, she was Ladybug, but still, perhaps Master Fu wouldn’t be too pleased about her parading around Miraculous clothes of her own design, Ladybug or not—

As Marinette pondered, the door to Master Fu’s massage parlor moved slightly, creeping open a crack. She blinked, watching the door. But no one came out. It was as if it was moved merely by the wind.

…Master Fu would never leave his door open like that…

A sense of dread settled in the pit of Marinette’s stomach. She turned on her signal light and pulled over, parking against the curb. Her steps were cautious as she approached the massage parlor, glancing around. She didn’t like that she could be seen, in broad daylight, heading into a place that was obviously closed, but what choice did she have? If it was just paranoia that drove her steps, then she would be embarrassed about it later…but if something had happened…

Wishing fervently that she had brought Tikki to work with her today, Marinette slipped into the massage parlor.

The hallway was dark. Her sense of foreboding growing, Marinette carefully tiptoed down the hall, approaching the door that led to Master Fu’s massage room. This, too, had been left open. And that was very concerning.

Biting her lip, Marinette eased the door open farther, peering into the darkness.

“Hello?” She called softly, hating the way her voice trembled. “Master Fu? Are you here?”

A drawn-out groan answered her. Heart in her throat, Marinette slammed her hand on the light switch by the wall. The room was suddenly flooded with light, and Marinette only had a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness before she found Master Fu’s crumpled form on the floor, looking impossibly small and helpless.

“Master Fu!!!”

Marinette dropped to her knees, her hands fluttering anxiously over the fallen master, unsure of how to help, and terrified to do more harm in haste.

“Master Fu, what happened? Can you hear me? Master Fu, please, say something!”

Master Fu mumbled, his eyes shut tight, teeth grit in pain.

“…yz…” he muttered, and Marinette had to lean over to hear him, tears pricking her eyes.

“What?”

“…Wayzz…where is…”

Marinette’s eyes found Master Fu’s right wrist…and felt something inside her turn hollow.

Master Fu’s Miraculous was missing.

“Oh my god,” Marinette gasped, blinking back tears as she tried to think straight. She couldn’t believe this—how could this happen? Master Fu was always so solid, dependable—no matter how many changes life had thrown at her, just like her parents, he had always been there.

Who the hell dared do to this to him?!

“Marinette?”

Marinette whirled around, automatically spreading her arms, as if to defend Master Fu from more harm. A tall figure was approaching from the hallway, coming into view as he stood in the doorway.

Felix stared at her, his slightly raised eyebrows raising even higher as he spotted the collapsed figure behind her. The grip on coffee holder he was clutching tightened.

“What happened?” He demanded, his voice sharper than Marinette had ever heard it. She blinked, some of her dry heaving beginning to ease.

“I-I don’t know,” she stammered, gesturing helplessly to Master Fu. “When I came in, I found him like this…”

Master Fu gave another groan, and Felix’s lips stiffened. He carefully set the coffee aside and approached, measured steps carrying him swiftly into the room. Marinette tensed—she was very protective—but Felix merely sank to his knees like her, peering down at Master Fu.

“Is he bleeding?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call an ambulance,” Felix directed, stretching a long-fingered hand towards Master Fu. Marinette nearly smacked his hand away, but he only brushed his fingertips across Master Fu’s forehead.

“Clammy,” he muttered, drawing his hand back to grip his chin as he stared with a kind of painful intensity at the fallen master. “Could be going into shock…” Abruptly, his cool blue gaze switched to her. “The ambulance, Marinette.”

“Oh! R-right…” As Marinette fumbled with her phone, she sent a curious glance Felix’s way. “How did you know I was in here?”

“I saw you walk in,” Felix muttered, his eyes now back on Master Fu. “I knew you were meant to be working instead of getting a massage, and so I wondered what you were up to.”

And so he’d followed her? Marinette wondered in the back of her mind whether or not he would have turned her in to Symone if she was indeed skipping work, but it became a non-issue as soon as dispatch answered. Marinette quickly rattled off the address of the massage parlor and begged them to hurry before she hung up, curling up at Master Fu’s side, clutching her knees to her chest. A couple times, she felt Felix looking at her, but he said nothing, so neither did she, the both of them just waiting for the ambulance to come.

When it finally arrived, Marinette nearly wept with relief. She claimed herself as Master Fu’s niece, and was therefore granted the privilege of riding in the ambulance with him. Felix declined heading to the hospital, but he did promise to let Symone know where she was going. Marinette gave him a tight smile while inwardly reflecting that if Symone didn’t call her screaming about unprofessionalism within five minutes, it would be a miracle.

In the ambulance, the EMTs threw around a lot of medical jargon that Marinette didn’t understand. She did hear them remark that, at his age, Master Fu was incredibly healthy, and that it was miraculous that whatever happened to him hadn’t killed him.

Marinette said nothing. She just stared at his empty wrist, her lips pressed together tightly to keep from throwing up what little she ate for lunch.

The waiting room was torture. Marinette couldn’t sit still, so she settled for pacing around the room when she really wanted to transform, hunt down whatever scum had done this to her master, and beat them to a bloody pulp. Rarely did she ever feel this kind of anger, but to attack someone so helpless

Not helpless,’ Marinette chided herself as she paced, her teeth pressed into her lower lip anxiously. ‘Master Fu was a Miraculous holder. He could’ve defended himself…

Unless whoever had robbed him had gotten the drop on him.

Marinette paused, a realization so startling causing her to freeze in place: whoever had attacked Master Fu must have known about his Miraculous. She hadn’t been fussed about much else in the room, but now that she thought about it, nothing else had been disturbed. And if only Master Fu’s bracelet had been taken, then it was unbelievably clear who the culprit was.

Somehow, some way, Hawk Moth had discovered the guardian of the Miraculous.

And he had struck hard and fast, leaving Marinette behind, blinking in the aftermath.

“Excuse me? You’re Mr. Fu’s niece?”

“Yes,” Marinette answered immediately, shaking off the horror of her realization to whirl and give the nurse her full attention. “Is he all right?”

“He’s fine. He suffered some bruising to the temple, and one of his ribs was cracked, but it looks like he’s going to pull through. He was very lucky that you found him when you did.”

Marinette had to work to suppress her derisive snort.

Lucky. Ha.

If luck was any sort of factor here, then Marinette should have arrived before the attack took place.

“Can I see him?” Marinette requested through the restriction in her throat. The nurse nodded and graciously led Marinette to the correct room, where Master Fu was resting. There was a bandage wrapped around his head. His eyes were closed, but almost as if he sensed Marinette enter the room, they opened as soon as she stepped inside. He smiled a painful looking smile.

“Well if it isn’t my favorite niece,” he greeted, and Marinette felt some of the tension leave her shoulders. If he was feeling up to joking with her, then he couldn’t be that badly hurt. Thank goodness.

The second nurse in the room checking Master Fu’s vitals smiled.

“Isn’t that lovely? It’s good to see the youth still caring for their elders.”

Marinette smiled as naturally as she could, drawing forward and resting her hands on Master Fu’s folded ones.

“How’re you feeling?”

“As healthy as an ox.” He winked at Marinette. “Seems like I’ll have to be kept overnight, however.”

“Hospital policy,” said the first nurse, her tone all business, though she was smiling. Waving to the second nurse, she added, “We’ll give you two some privacy.”

The click of the door was loud in the silence of the room. Marinette waited a few seconds before she drew up a chair, perching on the edge as she peered down at Master Fu, anxiousness making her jittery; her leg bounced in a hyperactive fashion.

“Master Fu,” she whispered, leery of the walls having ears, “what happened to you?”

Master Fu grunted and pushed himself to sit up. Marinette protested—the man had a broken rib, for god’s sake!—but he waved off her concerns, pulling himself into a semi-sitting position, assisted by the pillows that propped him up from behind. He reached for his beard, frowning thoughtfully as he twirled it around a finger.

“I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment. “One minute, I was having tea with Wayzz when I heard someone come in. The next minute…” He frowned, looking troubled. “Whoever it was struck me from behind. I never saw them.”

His eyes suddenly found his empty wrist. Sighing heavily, he closed his free hand around it, as if it was a phantom limb he could still feel.

“Wayzz tried to warn me—he must have seen who it was. That might have been why the assault turned to thievery as well.”

Marinette laid her hands upon his once again, searching to comfort him, even if she didn’t have the words.

“You don’t think it was…you know…” She lowered her voice until it was inaudible, mouthing the words rather than speak them aloud. “Hawk Moth?”

Master Fu shook his head sadly.

“I am afraid there’s no way of knowing.”

Her hands tightened convulsively around his, fear beginning to take hold.

“What do we do?”

“‘We’ can’t do anything,” Master Fu replied with another shake of his head. “As it is, I am confined to this bed until further notice, and even when they release me, I still have a healing rib to contend with. I am not as young as I once was, and now, without Wayzz, I am afraid I will be feeling my age very, very soon.” He fixed Marinette with a serious stare. “There is, however, something you can do for me, Ladybug.”

“Anything,” Marinette promised. Master Fu nodded at this with a smile.

“Though I am told I may be being released tomorrow, I have no way of knowing whether or not that will be true. That means that the Miraculous—the only two Miraculous in my protection now—are in danger. Until I am well enough to once again become the guardian, you, Ladybug, must safeguard the Miraculous chest.”

Marinette felt her eyes go wide in her face.

“M-me?! But Master Fu—”

“I trust you completely,” Master Fu reminded her, giving her hands a reassuring squeeze. “You must do this, Ladybug.”

A thousand waves of doubt coursed through Marinette, her teeth worrying her lip. Could she really do this? Only a guardian was fit to protect the Miraculous—but Master Fu was currently in no condition, as he already said. He was just requesting that she protect two more Miraculous in addition to her own…but even so, the thought of such a task was still daunting. What if she screwed up? What if she accidentally misplaced the Bee Miraculous? Or the Fox Miraculous? What if she broke one, or both? What if she—

Master Fu grunted, wincing as his side seemed to give a painful lurch. Marinette stared at him, at her master and her guide, dependable, infallible…lying in a hospital bed, injured in the course of his duty, his Miraculous missing.

He had almost had to sacrifice everything, and in his time of need, he was turning to her.

That was way more important than any self-doubting thought Marinette could come up with.

Nodding and lifting her chin, Marinette agreed.

“Of course, Master Fu. You can count on me.”

“As I knew I could,” he answered, looking satisfied with her answer. “Now, listen closely Ladybug—commit these words to memory, for I will not repeat them a second time, in case we run the risk of being overheard…”

As quietly as he could, Master Fu relayed to Ladybug just how to retrieve the Miraculous chest from his massage parlor. She listened intently, engraving every word into her brain, and nodding when Master Fu asked if she understood.

“Yes. If you want me to, I’ll go right now and retrieve it.”

“Please do. Don’t worry yourself about me: I won’t be going many places for a while,” Master Fu remarked, putting on a brave grimace. Marinette smiled weakly, and then took leave of her injured master, closing the door quietly behind her.

Marinette’s mind was buzzing as she took a taxi back to Master Fu’s massage parlor, having left her car there after being driven in the ambulance to the hospital. She threw a bunch of money into the front seat without even really looking at it, encouraging the driver to keep the change when he sputtered at what was clearly an extravagant tip. She waited until he drove off before she breathed deeply, entering the massage parlor for the second time. A small shoot of hope began to well within her as she stepped inside—perhaps Wayzz wasn’t far. If the attacker wasn’t Hawk Moth 2.0, then maybe she would find the bracelet on the floor of the parlor somewhere, initially hidden out of sight in her concern for Master Fu himself—

Marinette turned the light switch on for the second time that day, and received another shock to her system.

The room had been ransacked. Tatami had been torn through, the massage mat slashed, the table was flipped over, shelves upended, contents of bottles spilled across the floor, Master Fu’s favorite tea pot smashed to pieces. Marinette stared at the horror surrounding her, her heart pounding so hard that she was certain it would burst free from her body at any minute.

Who had done this?! Whoever it was, they had had a downright tantrum, tearing the place apart, obviously looking for something, treating Master Fu’s possessions with as little care as possible. To add insult to injury, Marinette thought she could make out claw marks gouging through the underside of the table.

Fear eroded away, replaced by rage. If who she thought was responsible for this mess had indeed caused it, she was going to fucking end him.

Taking shaky breaths to steady herself, Marinette carefully made her way through the room, approaching the old gramophone that sat in the corner, miraculously untouched. Marinette followed Master Fu’s instructions to the letter, pressing her thumbs to the dragons’ eyes and pressing the second button of the top row, the second button of the bottom row, and the fourth button of the top row, in that order, in the panel that appeared. She held her breath as the gramophone whirred and opened, revealing the prize.

Rising from the base was an ancient box that pulsed with power, power that warmed Marinette’s fingertips the moment she touched it. She took a deep breath, arguing with herself. As tempted as she was to peek and check to make sure the Fox and Bee Miraculous were still where they were supposed to be, something about the room being disturbed chilled her spine, as if she was being watched. Glancing around at nonexistent shadows, Marinette shoved the chest into her bag and fled from the room, eager to leave the creeping feeling of eyes on her far behind.

The decision to leave the chest in her room was ultimately vetoed; it felt unsafe to just leave it unguarded, and Tikki would have about a million questions that Marinette just did not have the time to answer right now, if the missed calls and texts from Symone were any indication. Sighing under her breath, Marinette drove back to Tres Bien Boutique to finish up the last half hour of work, despite knowing that she would just be sitting there, clutching her bag for dear life to assure that no one and nothing would be able to get to the Miraculous chest that was now under her protection—

Once Marinette entered the boutique’s back room, it was clear that something else was going on: there was a buzz of activity, and whereas the afternoon had been fairly busy, now people were flapping around, demanding questions of the locations of certain fabrics flying around and how there was a shortage of thimbles, where the hell were the extra thimbles?! Marinette stared, stunned and blinking, until Symone’s voice rang out.

“Ah, Marinette, there you are!”

Marinette turned as the tall woman walked purposefully towards her, something suspiciously familiar tucked under her arm…

“Is that my sketchbook?” Marinette questioned, blinking in surprise. Symone nodded, a smile on her face as she brought said sketchbook forward.

“Why, yes it is. See, I was looking through it, wondering what was so important for you to design while my coffee order was waiting—”

“You looked through it?” Marinette protested, her eyes widening. Symone raised a heavily penciled eyebrow.

“Is that a problem?”

Of course it’s a problem!’ Marinette wanted to burst out, ‘It’s a BIG problem!’ No one had blatantly invaded her privacy like this since she had moved out of her parents’ house. Who the hell did Symone think she was, just rifling through her sketchbook like it was no big deal?!

Marinette pressed her lips together, warring with herself. If she didn’t step lightly, there was a good chance that Symone would be showing her the door faster than she could apologize for her heated words. But if she didn’t say something, then Symone would actually think that her behavior was acceptable. She leaned one way, than another, facilitating between the rock and the hard place, thinking—

Symone’s patience was the exact length of a goldfish’s memory: she casually opened Marinette’s sketchbook, continuing on as Marinette gawked at her.

“In any case, these designs you have, inspired by Ladybug? They have potential.” Symone gave a decisive nod, her fingers sliding through the sketchbook in wanton disrespect…or that’s how it felt to Marinette, anyway. “I probably could come up with something better, if given the time…but these will do.”

She snapped the sketchbook shut, smiling down at Marinette.

“So your designs will be the feature of my new winter line.”

Marinette stared at Symone.

How long had she dreamed of such an honor? For a year and a half, at least, before she had made herself face the fact that Symone would only be focused on what she wanted for her boutique. So to have the dream that eluded her abruptly handed to her after everything she’d had to deal with today?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t as satisfying as Marinette had envisioned.

“Symone,” she began, following after the seamstress as she began to walk away, pawing through more of Marinette’s designs, “while I’m honored, really, I am…I don’t think you can use those.”

Symone paused, and the employees nearest them fell silent.

“Oh?” Symone did not turn to Marinette, but kept her back resolutely towards her, manicured nails clutching her precious sketchbook. “And why not?”

“Well, first of all, I’m designing them for a spring fashion line, not a winter one—”

“So we’ll just lengthen them,” Symone replied with a shrug, and Marinette bit her tongue to keep herself from growling in impatience.

“And second of all,” she continued in a voice of determined calm, “those designs are meant for a senior project I’m doing at IFA.”

“A school project?” Symone snorted, turning to shoot Marinette a condescending look. “That’s no problem. You simply need to turn the sketches in, correct? I’ll simply make copies and you can have the originals back, no problem.”

“You can’t make my designs your winter line, Symone,” Marinette finally said. The whole back room went quiet at these words this time.

Slowly, Symone revolved on her heel, looking down her nose at Marinette, her carved features sphinxlike.

“This is a very excellent opportunity I am offering you, Marinette.” She spoke distinctly, her tone clipped. Marinette felt the incoming sense of doom, but she pushed herself to stand her ground. Symone had no business going through her sketchbook in the first place, boss or not. She couldn’t have the designs Marinette had worked so hard to create. No way.

“Were you planning on giving me credit?” She asked, fearing she already knew the answer. The worst was confirmed a second later when Symone waved an unconcerned hand.

“You would’ve been given credit as my employee,” she stated simply, free hand moving to her hip while she retained her vice grip on Marinette’s sketchbook. “That’s enough.”

“Symone, how is what you’re doing better than what Chloe did to you?” Marinette dared to question, ignoring the gasps around the room. She didn’t care if this was a faux pas, Symone could not have her hard work without giving credit where it was due!

Symone stared down at her for one long moment. Marinette stared back, ignoring the trembling of her legs, the eyes on her, everything but Symone as she inspected her. The room seemed to hold its breath, waiting tensely for the explosion.

And then, quite suddenly…Symone smiled.

Marinette’s dread increased by a hundred.

“The difference is that I’m asking,” Symone stated after a moment, leaning over to meet Marinette’s gaze on her level. “I think your designs have potential, and with a few tweaks, I could turn them into something spectacular. So I’m asking to use them. You’re free to say no, Marinette.”

“I am?” Marinette asked warily.

“Of course,” Symone simpered, straightening up to her full height once more. “You’re free to do whatever you want. You’re free to refuse my generosity, and keep these rather lackluster designs to yourself. You’re free to spit in my face, after everything I’ve done for you. You’re even free to take your sketchbook, walk out the way you came in, and never come back again.”

Symone held out Marinette’s sketchbook, delicately resting it in the palms of her hands. Her dark eyes glittered as she inspected Marinette, waiting.

“So what will it be, Marinette?”

Marinette didn’t need the subtext interpreted for her—if she refused Symone now, she was as good as fired.

And half of her was fine with that.

Half of her wanted to snatch her sketchbook and tell Symone off for rifling through things that didn’t belong to her. Half of her wanted to expound upon just how much talent Symone had wasted all this time in keeping Marinette as her coffee-fetcher, and now it was too late to try and use that talent, especially when all she wanted to do was exploit it without giving Marinette any of the credit for her designs. Marinette wanted to give a mock bow, state just how much she wouldn’t miss this place, and stomp through the door with her head held high.

But the other half of her stared into Symone’s eyes, seeing the future she had slaved away for so close, so very close. The other half realized that, if Symone decided to take her designs public, that it would be like opening the entire world of Paris fashion up to her, a precious pearl nestled safely in its safeguard clam, hers for the taking. Even if Symone decided to take the credit for such designs, it would still be Marinette’s clothes that people would be wearing, Marinette’s designs that would be ranted and raved about (if they liked her stuff, of course). And Symone would have Marinette to thank for all the success, and if Marinette ever decided that she was being unappreciated, it would be Symone who would have to beg and grovel and plead for her to stay, if she wanted to continue to have such success.

Really, other than the small price of her dignity…what did Marinette have to lose?

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Swallowing her pride was difficult—very difficult. Even so, she still managed it, giving Symone an amiable look once she opened her eyes again.

“Fine,” she allowed. The room sighed as one, and Symone’s self-satisfied smile brightened.

“Wonderful.” She turned away again, continuing to flip through Marinette’s sketchbook. “You can have this back when I finish making copies.”

“Fine.”

“And I’ll need you to refine some of the sketchier drafts so that we can get working immediately.”

“Fine.”

“Lovely,” Symone said, strutting away to her office. Marinette sighed and trudged her way to her desk, lowering her bag into her lap as she sat down. She could feel the Miraculous chest outlined in the fabric, and she sighed again. Just when had her life gotten so complicated?

A shadow fell over her desk. Marinette looked up to find Felix there, watching her. A pale eyebrow was raised.

Marinette frowned at his expression.

“What? You think I should’ve just quit instead?”

“I am surprised at how easily you gave in is all.” Felix replied. Marinette said nothing, unsure if anyone else was aware of it—the secret to her designs. Even if Symone was raring to take all the credit, all one had to do was just look a little closer to note who the true designer was…

But Marinette was keeping that under her hat; if she breathed a word to anyone, Symone would know, and would probably demand that she change her designs to erase her signature. So she wasn’t going to show anyone that she wasn’t as concerned as she should be, least of all Symone’s personal assistant.

Felix peered at her, as if he suspected her of holding something back. Marinette dropped her gaze from his.

“…How is your uncle?” He asked, surprising Marinette. She had momentarily forgotten that he had been there when she discovered Master Fu.

“Oh, right…he’s fine.” She sighed, rubbing her temples as she felt a migraine coming on. “The doctors are keeping him overnight, but he’ll be home tomorrow.” She hoped.

“Do you know what happened to him?”

Marinette opened her mouth, poised to explain…but then she stopped, peering curiously up at Felix.

Master Fu’s massage parlor had been fine as she left in the ambulance with the assaulted Master Fu. Felix had decided to remain behind to tell Symone why Marinette would not be returning as soon as she should. Presumably, he went back in to get Symone’s coffee…

And then what? Someone else just happened along to wreck the place as soon as he left?

As a matter of fact, it was awfully suspicious for him to have followed her into the massage parlor in the first place. What if…what if he had been there before her?

What if the reason he had come in was because he had already been in the parlor when Marinette made her presence known, and decided that he wouldn’t be able to escape without her noticing?

What if Felix was responsible for this whole mess in the first place?

What if Felix, silent, dour Felix was actually…

Felix met her searching stare with another quirked brow.

“Yes?” He asked curtly, as if she was being rude. Marinette blinked, turning her head from him, though she continued to watch him from her peripheral vision.

“Nothing,” she said quietly. “My uncle said he just took a bad tumble. That was all.”

“Hmm.” Felix stood there, watching Marinette for a moment, a corner of his mouth tilted down. “Then ask him to be more careful in the future. You’re under enough stress, I think, without having to worry about ill relatives.”

“I’m fine,” Marinette persisted, stubborn.

Higher the brow went, but Felix merely gave a short shrug.

“If you say so.”

He left it at that, turning away and heading towards Symone’s office. Marinette watched him go, eyes unable to waver from his tall back.

She had always thought Felix odd, standoffish. It was always just assumed that that was just his way.

But with everything that had happened today…could there be something more sinister to him, lurking beneath the surface?

Marinette’s fingers flexed over the Miraculous chest, still hidden in her bag.

She hoped she was wrong. Her fashion career was precarious enough at the moment—she didn’t want a colleague to be dragged into her superhero drama as well. Rather than blurring the line between her personal and superhero life, it would shatter the barrier between the two spheres completely.

And Marinette didn’t think anyone would be able to handle those consequences.

Chapter Text

The following week was a true testament to how much indignity Marinette could stand.

When Symone demanded that her rougher sketches be more detailed by Monday, she did it.

When Symone asked for a whole new design that was Ladybug-themed on Wednesday because the first one “didn’t say Tres Bien to her”, Marinette redesigned a new outfit to be submitted for approval.

And when Symone still had the audacity to send Marinette out for coffee on Friday, on top of everything else she was doing…Marinette got her coffee. And she resisted the urge to spit in it so valiantly that she felt she rather deserved an Olympic medal for it.

The half of her that had wanted to quit since last week shook its head at her, disgusted with her. Running around like someone’s lackey, doing work that wasn’t being appreciated at all, because Symone never said thank you or congratulated her for her hard work; she just demanded “More! More!” like an ungrateful, spoiled child who had all the toys in the world and yet still had the nerve to act like she was being cheated.

Alya certainly didn’t help matters.

“She’s WHAT?!” Her friend exploded on the phone when Marinette had to explain why she wouldn’t be making their weekly gelato meet-up. “Nuh-uh, no way, this is crossing the line, Marinette!!”

“I’m so close, Alya,” Marinette pleaded, clutching the phone to her, because she needed some sort of validation, some assurance that she wasn’t crazy for pursuing this. “This could make me. Symone could put me on the map!”

“Seriously, Marinette? You wanna get recognition this way?? I thought you were better than this! You should be blazing your own trail, not riding on the coat tails of someone else’s success—success that you’re killing yourself for! This is absolutely not okay, and I’m coming over right now to kick your ass, and then I’m gonna gut that bitch you call a boss!”

“Alya, please,” Marinette begged, biting her lip. “I really need your support on this. It’s been so hard…but if I do this right, I could be set for the rest of my life! Please, Alya, tell me that you understand.”

There was a long, drawn-out sigh from the other end.

“…I don’t,” Alya replied, and Marinette felt her heart sink. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand. I still love you, girl, but if you want me to actually approve of what you’re doing…I just can’t do it. I believe in you too much to lie and say that I support you selling your soul like this.”

“Alya—”

“I gotta go,” Alya said tersely. “Good luck with Symone’s new winter line.”

The line went dead, and a big, fat lump wedged itself in Marinette’s throat.

Not even her best friend would support her madness. There was clearly something wrong here.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” Marinette asked dully of Tikki, who sat next to her on the desk, her indigo eyes wide and concerned.

“I think you should do what you want to do, Marinette,” Tikki replied, as was her way. She reached out, a tiny hand resting on Marinette’s. “Is this really what you want?”

Marinette closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.

Did she like Symone bleeding her dry for every scrap of talent she possessed? No.

Did she like being treated like a work horse, spending hours upon hours each night working for a thankless harpy? Hell no.

Did she like the thought of someone else trying to take all the credit for the work she was nearly killing herself over nowadays? Abso-fucking-lutely not.

But did she like the thought of an uncertain future compared to the indignities she was forcing herself to bear?

Marinette sighed from her core, and then moved back to her new sketchbook, the one she carefully kept hidden from Symone at all times.

Lack of faith in herself wasn’t the thing holding her back.

It was her fear of the unknown, of failure, that kept her under Symone’s grip, pushing her nose to the grindstone until it was red and raw.

She would rather be worked to death than attempt to venture out on her own at this point. How sad.

The weekend passed by in a nondescript blur, Marinette fervently thankful for the inactivity of Hawk Moth 2.0 when she was barely getting enough sleep as it was. All too soon, Monday dawned, and she rose with a groan, resigned to her fate.

Another stone of anxiety dropped into her chest this morning: it had been two weeks.

She was due for a meeting with Adrien Agreste today.

For a few agonizing minutes, Marinette let herself tense up over that, her wide eyes on her toes as she drew her knees up to her chest, curling herself tightly into a ball, as if she wished to physically represent how wound up she was on the inside. The reasonable part of her tried to talk her down: she had absolutely nothing to worry about. Adrien didn’t know she was Ladybug. When she walked in, he wouldn’t see a red suit and black spots. He would see Marinette. Marinette Dupain-Cheng, there on business of all things fashion. She could do this. She could do this…

With a deep breath, Marinette slipped out of bed and headed for her bathroom to wash up and get ready. She put on a little more make-up than she usually would, desperate to hide the circles under her eyes, and chose the most professional outfit she owned—a white button-down blouse, a black pencil skirt with a matching blazer, nude pantyhose, and shoes that were cute, but still no-nonsense. Sweeping her hair carefully into a bun at the back of her head, she took one look at herself in the mirror and deemed herself ready. Her life may not be as together as she wanted it to be, but at lease she looked like it was.

“Tikki,” Marinette called to the kwami, and Tikki swooped obligingly into the pocket of Marinette’s blazer; they had already agreed that she should start accompanying Marinette everywhere again, just in case of akuma attack, because the sudden silence from Hawk Moth 2.0 was making them both tense.

Her new, undefiled sketchbook in hand, Marinette left her apartment, got in her car, and headed straight for Agreste Fashions, nodding to anyone she passed while entering the lobby, as if she belonged there.

Sylvia was sitting behind her usual large desk, looking as beautiful as ever…if not a little subdued. Marinette felt a ping of sympathy, and she drew forward, placing a carefully wrapped truffle on Sylvia’s desk to announce her presence. The secretary looked up, her dark eyes confused.

“What’s this?”

“Chocolate.” Marinette smiled. “My mom sent me a bit too much, and I’m in a generous mood.” She wished she could do more, honestly…but since Marinette wasn’t supposed to know anything about what Sylvia had had to go through a couple weeks ago, chocolate was the best she could do without coming across as a total creep.

Sylvia picked up the truffle to inspect it, the gold foil flashing in the light. She pursed her lips, then raised her gaze to Marinette, speculating.

“…You’re here to see Mr. Agreste, aren’t you?” She questioned, jolting Marinette back to the low-level hum of panic rioting in the back of her mind.

Be cool,’ Alya’s voice cautioned her, and she took a deep breath.

“Oh, right, heh. Could you let him know I’m here?”

“Of course. Please, have a seat.”

Marinette thanked Sylvia and resumed her position from a couple weeks back, perching nervously on the sleek couch a couple meters away. At least she didn’t match the furniture this time.

After a couple more minutes, Sylvia directed Marinette to the solitary elevator that waited down the hall, to the left of them. She gave Sylvia a nod and a smile, and with her sketchbook clutched protectively to her, she rode the elevator all the way up to the twentieth floor, praying that Adrien had thought to put on a shirt before meeting her this time around.

He was sitting at his desk when the elevator doors slid open. He was staring at something on his computer screens, but his gaze lifted as Marinette carefully entered his office.

“Miss Dupain-Cheng,” he greeted, and Marinette suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Professionalism, right. “Come in.”

“Good morning, Mr. Agreste,” she replied loftily, making her way to the sitting area and having herself a seat without him asking. From her peripheral vision, she thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch.

“Be right with you,” he said, fiddling around on his computer with something. Marinette waited, helping herself to some coffee and slipping a cookie into her pocket for Tikki. She hoped the kwami had enough sense not to munch on it while Marinette was still in Adrien’s office. She was just adding sugar to her coffee when Adrien finally stood up, dressed well in dark slacks and a dark blue button-up. The sleeves were pushed up, revealing his forearms, and a couple of the top buttons were undone. Marinette nearly pouted. Must be nice to be the CEO of your own company, able to dress however you want with no one saying anything…

“How are you?” Adrien unexpectedly asked as he stepped down into the sitting area, perching on the couch next to Marinette’s claimed couch. She raised a dark eyebrow at him.

“Fine,” she replied, wondering why he was asking, “why?”

Adrien’s eyes roved over her face. Marinette took note of the dark bruises that shadowed his golden lashes.

“You look tired,” he noted. Marinette nodded towards him.

“Back at you.” She hesitated a moment. “Been having trouble sleeping?”

Adrien gave her his model smile. It looked like more of a strain to put it there than normal.

“No more than usual,” he replied, and left it at that.

“If you say so,” Marinette answered, her tone doubtful. Honestly, she’d be suspicious even if she didn’t already know better.

Adrien briefly grimaced before smoothing his face out into the appropriate expression.

“So,” he began delicately, his green gaze flicking around her, “no garment bag today?”

Marinette’s eyelids lowered dangerously.

“I haven’t had the time to sew,” she said stiffly; the reminder of the last time she was here still rankled. To his credit, Adrien did look appropriately apologetic.

“Right.” He cleared his throat. “So. New sketchbook, huh?”

Marinette huffed, releasing her death grip on her current sketchbook and lowering it into her lap.

“Yes. The other one was…compromised.” Without elaborating further, she opened up the sketchbook, flipping past a couple pages before she found what she wanted. “So this is all in the development process. But here’s what I have so far.”

Marinette figured this was a safe choice, as she handed her sketchbook off to Adrien. She was purposefully avoiding anything Ladybug-themed today, afraid it would trigger some unpleasant reactions within the man who was clearly struggling to keep himself together in front of her…

Nevertheless, Adrien stiffened as he inspected her sketch. Marinette bit her lip. What now?

“…This is…” he began quietly, only to trail off, unable to finish. Marinette felt dread settle over her once again, and she didn’t appreciate it one bit.

“Chat Noir,” she finished for him, a hint of challenge in her tone. She hadn’t meant to make a Chat Noir inspired outfit, but that one had been rattling around insistently in her brain for the last week or so, refusing to be ignored until she gave up and finally sketched it out. And, to her extreme annoyance, it ended up turning out good. Damn stray.

“Since the Carnivale de Venezia already involves masks…I thought it would be cool to play around with a French superhero theme in my spring line. …Is there a problem?”

Adrien relaxed immediately, his eyes flicking back up to hers.

“No. Actually, this is a very inspired idea…” Adrien suddenly closed her sketchbook, frowning. “Though, I have to tell you, this is the second time today I’ve come across such a theme.”

Marinette felt the blood drain from her face.

“…Really,” she managed to get out, struggling to look only mildly interested, while her insides were roiling. She wasn’t even finished with all the sketches Symone had demanded she make—if she had already sent her work to Adrien—

The tall supermodel/CEO got to his feet, setting her sketchbook carefully onto the coffee table before he moved back to his desk, plucking sheets of paper from it.

“I found this in my printer this morning,” he said, approaching Marinette and showing her what he held. “Faxed straight from Tres Bien Boutique.”

Marinette stared at the familiar sketches, her Ladybug-themed outfits splashed across every page. So much for wanting to spare Adrien unnecessary anguish…

“Symone was impatient,” she noted stiffly, unable to say anything else, for fear she might swear or burst into angry tears.

“It’s safe to say that it was probably a mistake to give her my fax number,” Adrien agreed. He sat back down, gaze turning brooding as he inspected the sketches. Marinette watched him, the darkness in his eyes simmering just beneath the surface. He wasn’t okay, was he? She had broken his heart as Ladybug, and now he was dealing with the aftermath.

Ladybug shouldn’t have left him like that. Adrien did nothing but bare his soul to her, something that could not have been easy to do…

And like a coward, Ladybug had ran away.

No—Marinette had ran away. Because it was Marinette who had been left reeling by that unexpected confession, Marinette who had panicked, fled, and spent the night just staring blankly at the wall, unable to understand anything anymore.

The whole time she had been smitten with Adrien, always watching him, wishing for him…he had been wishing for her, too.

But it was the wrong her.

And that…well, Marinette didn’t really know how to feel about that. Was she upset? Not really. Embarrassed? A little. But the main emotion she registered, after she had gotten over her shock, was pity.

What was it like, to be in love with someone so far away from you for eight years? How did someone just get over that? How did they get back to ‘normal’ after spending so long dreaming of someone they would never have?

Marinette sort of understood—whatever she told Alya otherwise, part of her had still nursed a soft spot for Adrien Agreste before he’d come back and altered her perception of him forever. And she was still dealing with that too, even though it had only been a crush on the idea of a boy she’d known.

How was Adrien coping with the fact that Ladybug did not love him?

Marinette wished she could offer soothing words of sympathy without sounding like she knew too much…but it was impossible, because she did know too much. Adrien wouldn’t understand, and there was no way she could tell him she was Ladybug. That would just make the situation worse.

Though she wished there was more she could do, Marinette was forced to admit it to herself: all she could do was hope that he would be able to find the strength to move on from Ladybug. Just as she had, finally, moved on from him.

Marinette became aware that she was staring when Adrien’s gaze suddenly met hers. She hastily dropped her eyes to her coffee cup. A long pause ensued.

“Why are you letting Symone take credit for your designs, Marinette?”

Marinette jolted, blinking wide eyes at Adrien. He stared back at her, his face still all-business…but his eyes were intent, searching hers, as if he could lift the truth straight from her mind.

“You…know they’re mine?” She questioned in surprise.

At this, Adrien gave a most unprofessional snort.

“You’re kidding, right?” He teased her, smirking a little as he tilted the top sketch he held on its head. “I know your signature by now.”

Sure enough, he pointed unerringly to the trim at the bottom of the dress, which looked, at first glance, like a random loopy design. But to a trained eye, Marinette’s name in delicate cursive was displayed, clear as day.

Marinette was so astonished that Adrien had picked up on her signature all on his own that she could do nothing but gape at him. He straightened the sketches again, laying them down on the coffee table as well before he gave her his full attention, raising golden eyebrows.

“So?”

Marinette sighed. She didn’t feel like she owed Adrien any explanation—this was her decision, and hers alone—but the fact that he knew immediately that she had done the sketches disarmed her, and her defenses were down. She pressed her lips together, her nose wrinkling briefly before she decided to give in.

“Symone found my sketchbook while I was…out running an errand for her.”

Marinette swallowed at the memory of that day. Master Fu had been released from the hospital at last, but he was recovering with some relatives for the time being, and since his usual place of residence had yet to be repaired, she hadn’t seen him since. The Miraculous chest was safe—she had specially crafted a box to hold it, much like the one that locked her diary away from the world—but the sooner she could return it to the rightful guardian, the better she would feel.

Shaking herself from the memories and fears, Marinette continued.

“She saw what I was working on and basically gave me an ultimatum—I either had to make her new winter line for her…or quit.”

Adrien said nothing. He merely watched her. In his gaze, Marinette sensed judgement, and though she knew it would do no good, her temper flared.

“What?” She demanded, eyes flashing at him. “Did you expect me to just give up on my dreams just because someone else wants to use my work?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Adrien said, his eyebrows slightly raised.

“You were thinking things,” Marinette accused. His lips twitched.

“I’m always thinking. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was anything about you.”

Marinette gave him a look so dry that Adrien’s professional mask broke, and he snickered at her.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he requested, hiding his grin behind the back of his hand, his eyes warming. “Honestly, Mari, I’m not judging you. I think it’s admirable of you, working so hard for your dreams.”

“But?” Marinette prompted, refusing to be softened by his laughter…even if it did make him look adorable…

Adrien sobered himself for the serious conversation about to take place.

“But you seem exhausted,” he said. “And I was just wondering whether or not you’d feel like it’s worth it, in the end.”

“Of course it will be,” Marinette replied stubbornly, her lower lip jutting out. “Symone can try and claim credit all she wants—it’s still my name on the clothes. If anything, I’m using her—her boutique is the epitome of haute couture right now. As long as I go along with her and do what she says, my success is as good as guaranteed.”

“…Are you sure about that?” Adrien asked, his tone suggesting that he was trying to be as delicate as possible. Marinette frowned at this.

“What?” She asked. Adrien gave a slight shrug, his jaw tensing.

“Well—you know what, never mind. It’s not really—”

What?” Marinette insisted. Adrien pursed his lips.

“You’re not going to like hearing it.”

Marinette lifted her chin.

“Tell me anyway,” she said, eyes locked on him. “There’s a difference between being brutal and being honest, Adrien. And the biggest difference of all is that I actually respect people who give me the latter.”

Adrien said nothing for a moment. His eyes were intent on her face, searching for something. Marinette gazed back at him, obstinate, waiting.

Finally, his lips parted.

“If you go along with Symone now,” he said, his low voice firm, “you’re never going to escape her. Even if it is your name on the clothes…they’re always going to be associated with Symone. You’ll never be known for your own brand—it’ll always be Tres Bien Boutique that people talk about. Even if you start your own line, your style will be seen as a copy of Symone’s, because she started displaying such fashion first.”

Adrien frowned.

“This could make you, Marinette…but in the end, it’ll ruin you, too.”

Marinette stared at Adrien, her lips slightly parted in surprise.

How did she not even think of that before now? How could she have been so blind?

To give Symone her designs might as well be giving her Marinette’s talent as well; she might as well be an employee of Tres Bien Boutique for the rest of her life.

Because Adrien was right—it would only be Symone’s boutique that people talked about, long after Marinette herself was gone from it.

She had handed Symone her future on a silver platter, wrapped in a neat little blood, sweat, and tearstained bow.

Marinette came back to herself when Adrien rested something across her limp hands—her sketchbook.

“I like the Chat Noir design,” he told her, a corner of his mouth quirking. “You really have something here. I’d like to see more of it.” His face grew serious. “But not if it’s going to show up in Symone’s boutique in the near future. I’ll accept Marinette Dupain-Cheng originals only.”

Funny how a Chat Noir design Marinette almost hadn’t made ended up gaining her Adrien Agreste’s approval. Wasn’t life just ridiculous?

Marinette gave Adrien a trembling smile. He returned it, his eyes warming.

“Mr. Agreste,” chirped his intercom, drawing attention from the both of them, “your next appointment is here to see you.”

“That’s my cue,” Marinette sighed, clutching her sketchbook as she got to her feet. “Thank you for your input, Mr. Agreste.”

Adrien gave a soft snort.

“My pleasure, Miss Dupain-Cheng.” He gave a mock bow that bordered on ridiculous, and Marinette rolled her eyes. Turning on her heel, she marched out of the seating area, heading for the elevator. On her way, she passed a coat rack, on which hung a trendy black trench coat…and an eggshell blue scarf…

Marinette paused, staring at the scarf.

He still had it? After all this time?

“Yes?” Adrien’s voice sounded from behind her. Marinette quickly glanced back, finding him next to his desk, a hand idle on his intercom. Ready to move on to the next appointment.

“Nothing,” Marinette replied idly. Reaching out, she ran a familiar hand down the scarf, nearly scoffing at the silly girl from the past who had hoped with all her might that Adrien Agreste would finally notice her after accepting this carefully crafted gift, with love in every stitch…

Marinette’s fingertips traced over the particular stitching she could feel just at the end of one of the edges of the scarf, outlining her own name. Smiling a little to herself, Marinette let the scarf go, turning once more to Adrien with a nod.

“Mr. Agreste.”

“Miss Dupain-Cheng,” he returned once more, and she pretended not to see the curious look he gave her as she walked away, a secret smile playing across her face.

Let him realize on his own, if he was clever enough to find her signature in her sketches. Now that Marinette knew what a sharp eye he possessed, she was leaving it up to him.

If he hadn’t figured out the secret of the scarf by now, she certainly wasn’t going to tell him.

 


 

A shadow fell over her desk. Marinette felt her jaw tighten automatically, glancing up to find Felix standing there. Of course.

“What now?” She snapped at him, in no mood to pretend to be polite, though she knew perfectly well her ire was misplaced. Felix raised a pale eyebrow, but did not comment on her attitude.

“Symone wants to see you,” he replied.

“So what else is new?” Marinette huffed, getting up from her desk and trudging along behind Felix to Symone’s office. It was a cozy little office, usually, with soft seating and lights. Today, however, it was an explosion of paper, copies of Marinette’s sketches deformed with writing, cut-outs and edits. There was a whiteboard behind Symone’s desk, where the originals of Marinette’s hard work hung, next to more writing and cross-outs and arrows drawn on the board. Her savaged sketchbook was propped up against the whiteboard, mocking her. Symone sat behind her desk, her ankles crossed on a corner without sketches obscuring it, pushing the end of a pastry into her mouth. Seeing her looking so relaxed after Marinette had been tearing her hair out for the past week left Marinette grinding her teeth against the abuse she wanted to hurl at her boss.

“Ah, Marinette,” she said as Felix moved to stand by the open door, out of the way. “Good that you’re here—I just realized you have one more change to make before we start really producing anything.”

‘We’. Ha.

“Yes?” Marinette asked in the most polite voice she could muster. Consequently, the word was pushed through her teeth, so it didn’t come across as polite at all, but Symone didn’t seem to register or care.

“It’s these designs on the clothes,” Symone continued, reaching for another pastry as she waved at the board behind her, at the hung sketches. “The ones I’ve circled. I’ll need you to remove them.”

Marinette stared blankly at the whiteboard.

The designs Symone wanted removed were the designs in which Marinette’s signature was buried, claiming the clothes as her creation.

Her worst nightmare had come to fruition: Symone wanted Marinette’s claim on her own work to vanish.

Marinette swallowed, her tongue suddenly dry, her eyes too wet. But most alarming of all was the swelling indignation she could feel rising in her chest, clawing to be free, as if she would breathe fire at any moment.

She didn’t bother to ask why—Symone didn’t give a reason, but Marinette was sure that she had discovered the secret, somehow. The fact that she was asking her—actually fucking asking her—to get rid of her own signature on her own work was truly the final straw, the one straw too many, that snapped the camel clean in half.

“No.” Marinette answered. Symone paused, a mini blueberry muffin halfway to her mouth. She set it down carefully in her usual box of pastries and turned, giving Marinette an appraising look.

“I beg your pardon?” She asked, her tone indicating that, clearly, she must have heard wrong—if Marinette wanted to keep her job, then certainly the answer she meant was ‘yes’.

“I don’t think you misheard me, Symone,” Marinette said, impressively calm, though the rage was still building, the dam holding it back creaking with the strain. “In fact, I’m pretty sure you just heard me tell you ‘no’.”

The chatter outside Symone’s office began to die down; everyone was clearly listening in. Idly, Marinette wondered if Felix had left the door open behind them on purpose.

Symone stood up, towering over Marinette.

“Marinette,” she said slowly, smiling the smile that suggested she had poison fangs hidden just behind her lips, “I thought we had come to an agreement about this.”

“I changed my mind,” Marinette replied, refusing to be intimidated. “I won’t remove those designs, because these clothes are mine. I’ve been running myself ragged for this impromptu winter line you wanted done after stealing my work. Yes,” she raised her voice as Symone opened her mouth to retort, “no matter what you say, you’re stealing. Especially in trying to erase my mark from designs I made.”

“What does it matter, whose name is on the clothes?” Symone huffed, fluttering a hand, as if the issue truly was of little importance. Marinette raised her eyebrows.

“You clearly thought it mattered enough to try and get me to take my signature off them,” she reminded Symone coldly. It was dead silent in the outer office now, something Symone seemed to register. Unappreciative of being shown up in her own office, in front of her employees, she swelled to her full height, dark eyes flashing at Marinette.

“I already told you that this is a once in a lifetime chance for you,” she hissed; she clearly believed Marinette was being ungrateful. “Your designs were merely passable before my changes.”

“Oh yeah? Then why are you working so hard to take all of the credit?” Marinette demanded, her hands on her hips as she glared up at Symone. “Do you honestly think I’m that stupid?”

“You’re certainly not being smart, with the way you’re behaving,” Symone shot back coldly, folding her arms. Marinette noticed how her nails pierced the fabric of her shirt; she was losing her composure. “I think someone needs to be reminded of where they stand.”

“I know where I stand just fine, thank you very much,” Marinette snapped, rounding Symone’s desk to go toe to toe with her, jabbing a finger at the whiteboard. “These are my designs, designs you had no right trying to pilfer in the first place. The only reason I went along with it in the first place was because I thought that as long as people knew that I actually designed the clothes, then things would turn out fine, but you know what? I don’t want all the hard work I put in for these clothes tainted by your boutique. So I’m taking them back.”

“If you touch those sketches—!”

Symone wasn’t given the chance to finish as Marinette ripped her original sketches down from the whiteboard, snatched her sketchbook up, and stomped out of the office. Wide eyes watched her as she marched back to her desk, the telltale rapid click of heels behind her suggesting that Symone was less than happy with her right now.

“That’s it!” She shrieked as Marinette took one look at her desk, realized there was nothing worth salvaging from it, and turned away immediately, heading for the door. “You take one step out that door with those designs, Marinette Dupain-Cheng, and you’re fired!!!”

Marinette paused, turning slowly to look at Symone. She was breathing heavily, her bun coming undone…looking very much like she did the day Chloe Bourgeois had gotten the drop on her and stolen her designs. Marinette would have thought that Symone would refrain from repeating such a heinous crime, after knowing how it felt…needless to say, she was disappointed in the woman she had once admired. All she saw now was an angry harpy, an akuma surely on the horizon, searching her out to take advantage of her rage once again…

But that was Ladybug’s problem.

For now, Marinette just deadpanned Symone a look.

“So put my final check in the mail, Patchwork,” she shot at her, vindictive pleasure surging through her at the look on Symone’s face, like she had been slapped.

Smirking to herself, Marinette clutched her reclaimed sketchbook to her, pushing the door open and running through the boutique, a wide grin on her face as she headed for the sunlight she could see just outside the front door…

Suddenly, she was out. The air was fresh, if not a little chilly, and the sun shined merrily, warming her skin.

The taste of freedom was sweet indeed.

 


 

Marinette’s head was throbbing.

She knew it was a mistake to tell Alya immediately after she quit her job, because then her best friend had insisted on an impromptu “MARINETTE QUIT, BITCHES!” celebration, which consisted of her ordering her, Marinette and Nino shots until they all felt sick and had to call a cab to get them home safely.

Marinette had almost said “fuck it” and gone back to bed when her alarm rang this morning, but then she remembered she had to contend with both a rogue cat and an akuma the next time Hawk Moth 2.0 reared his ugly head. She coaxed herself out of bed with a groan, ushered an equally-sleepy Tikki into the breast pocket of her track suit, grabbed her water bottle and her keys, and she was out jogging.

Thanks to her hangover, it took her a minute to spot the tall figure approaching through the fog, and she nearly ran headfirst into Adrien Agreste once again.

“Agh!” She yelped once she finally spotted him, skidding to a stop and scowling at him. He smirked at her in return. “Stop that!”

“Hello to you, too,” he greeted, indecently cheerful, in Marinette’s opinion. She grunted, jogging past him when the crosswalk flashed green; he kept pace with her easily. Despite this being only the second time she had run into him while on her run, the silence between them was peaceful, easy. It would surprise Marinette more if she wasn’t so distracted by the construction work wreaking havoc in her head.

“Heard you quit yesterday,” Adrien said, apropos of nothing. Marinette frowned.

“I didn’t realize you and Symone kept such regular contact with each other,” she huffed.

“I didn’t say anything about Symone.”

“How else would you know? How many people at Tres Bien are you in contact with?”

Adrien deigned not to answer this question.

“You look like hell,” he said idly.

“Fuck off,” Marinette grumbled, and Adrien snickered.

“Such language, Mari. I’m tempted to tell Sabine on you.”

“Oh, is that why you’re here? You want to see my mom again?”

“I wouldn’t mind it,” Adrien answered, sounding completely honest. Marinette glanced over to find a wicked smirk spreading across his face. She frowned at the sight, mostly because it was annoying…but partially because, with his hair tied back into that bun, Adrien reminded her eerily of someone else… “I also wouldn’t mind hearing more embarrassing stories about little Mari.”

Marinette scowled.

“You are hereby banned from my parents’ bakery,” she announced, pushing herself to go faster, annoyed at Adrien’s laughter, mostly because it was loud and made her head throb more violently. Inwardly, she believed Adrien could probably use a laugh every now and then…though she didn’t appreciate it when they were at her expense.

“That’s cruel, Mari. How am I to live without your father’s amazing chocolate-filled croissants?”

“If you eat too many, you’ll get fat. Then you’ll be stuck in the unemployment line right along with me, Mr. Model.”

“Add Symone, and it’ll be a regular party,” Adrien joked. Marinette blinked, startled, skidding to an abrupt stop as she stared at him.

“What did you say?”

Adrien turned back to her, his eyebrows raised.

“What, about Symone?” He shrugged. “It’s not really important. I’ve just decided not to do business with her. Seems like an unnecessary risk, if she’s going to make a habit of exploiting her employees.” A corner of Adrien’s mouth twisted down into a frown. “That, and I really can’t afford to have her blowing up my fax machine every five minutes.”

A bit astonished, Marinette slowly shook her head. But even that was too much for her poor, throbbing temples, and so she stopped quickly.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she said to him, resuming her jog, though at a much slower pace. Adrien just shrugged again, slipping his hands into his pockets as he merely walked beside her.

“It’s not a big deal. Besides, she was still trying to use your designs.” He scowled. “She even went so far as to mark out your signature from them.”

Marinette snorted, though nothing about the situation was funny.

“Yeah. She lost her shit when I refused to do it myself. Guess she decided to carry on without me.” Marinette rolled her eyes. “I still don’t know how she figured out how to find my signature, but—”

“Oh…” Marinette glanced up to catch Adrien cringing, rubbing the back of his neck. “If she didn’t know before…then it was my fault. I e-mailed her yesterday morning before you arrived, asking why she was trying to take credit for your designs when she didn’t even mention that they were yours. She tried playing dumb, and so I sent her an e-mail with your signatures circled in each picture. She didn’t really have much to say after that.”

“Oh…” Well, that was one mystery solved. Briefly, she wondered if she should be annoyed…but then decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. Especially not with Adrien looking so guilty.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not a problem. If anything, you helped give me the courage to leave a bad situation.” Marinette smiled up at him. “Thanks for your honesty, by the way.”

Adrien paused, merely staring at her. Her smile faded.

“What?”

“Ah…nothing.” He turned away from her, rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. “You just…you kind of remind me of someone.”

The words sounded more ominous than they should.

Marinette decided not to pursue the subject.

At the crosswalk just before Boulangerie Patisserie, Marinette’s and Adrien’s heads swiveled automatically, glancing at the deserted school of Francois Dupont. No one would be there that early, not even the teachers…but seeing it desolate like that brought about a nostalgic ache to Marinette.

Something about the school seemed to jog something in Adrien as well.

“Oh, right.” After a start, he dug into his pocket, retrieving a slim box and handing it to her. “This is for you.”

Marinette blinked at the box, taken aback.

“What’s this for?”

Adrien merely shrugged.

“Just thought it was something you could use,” he said mysteriously.

Curiosity piqued, Marinette accepted the box. Despite herself, her excitement grew as she slipped the top of the box off, revealing…

“A pen?” The disappointment was obvious in her tone. She immediately felt bad, because it was a pretty nice pen: fountain-type, in her favorite shade of pink. In black letters on the cap, words were scrawled: PROPERTY OF MARINETTE DUPAIN-CHENG.

Marinette blinked, squinting at the pen. Her name was written in her own handwriting.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Adrien asked, looking amused as Marinette looked up at him in awe. “I put out the poor man I commissioned this pen from, wanting a custom color and custom writing and making it a rush job, but I wanted to get it to you as soon as I could.”

“Well…thank you,” she said, still startled by the unexpected gift. She carefully replaced the top of the box, trying to regain herself. “Something I needed, huh?”

“Yeah. It’ll be handy for when you sign your name on things other than clothes.”

Adrien tugged at something at his throat. Marinette could just make out a blue knot tied closed under his track jacket. She glanced up to his face…and his eyes were knowing.

“Like a card, maybe,” he suggested with the most delicate inflection in his tone, raising an eyebrow. The crosswalk light they waited at turned green, and Adrien jogged ahead of her, leaving Marinette staring after him for a moment. Stunned, she glanced down at the box, where her brand new, custom-made pen was now resting.

Did Adrien Agreste rush the making of this pen…just to chide her for never admitting that she had made the scarf he still wore to this day? Of all the cheeky things to do—

“Oh, hello again, Adrien!” Marinette abruptly heard her mother call as the door to the bakery opened. “It’s nice to see you!”

“Hey, Sabine,” Marinette heard Adrien greet, as if he and her mother were old friends already. He glanced over at her as he headed in, trouble promised in his expression. “So, I was wondering: what other stories do you have about Mari? Was she a mischievous kid?”

Did he just

Sabine laughed, the sound carrying all the way out to a suddenly beet red Marinette.

“Oh, are you kidding? Pull up a chair, this could take a while.”

Snapping back to herself, Marinette tore across the street, cursing fluently under her breath.

“MAMA! NO!”

Damn that devil wearing an angel’s face! Damn him straight back to the pit where he was spawned!

Marinette was going to get him back for this if it was the last thing she would ever do.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

A week blurred by, with a new routine for Marinette set in place: get up early, go jogging (while being accompanied more often than not by a certain model), stop by her parents’ bakery for breakfast, shake said model to go home and shower, go to class, come back home, sketch out new designs while starting to sew previously created ones, and save Paris from akuma attacks, all while keeping a rogue cat man and the ignorant masses of his followers calling for the slaughter of akuma victims at bay. It was a shock to Marinette’s system when she awoke one Friday morning to find snow falling from the sky.

Ugh. Winter was coming.

Groaning, Marinette buried herself back into the blankets. She didn’t like being cold before she became Ladybug, but ever since receiving the Ladybug Miraculous, winters had sucked for her; she became so sluggish, and she only wanted to sleep all the time. Like a beetle wanting to hibernate for the winter.

This she blamed on Tikki, who yawned widely beside her, just as content to lay in bed as she was, instead of reminding Marinette that she had adult stuff to do.

Marinette grumbled and reset her alarm to wake her before class.

Fuck running in this weather. Even if she tried, there was a good chance she would just turn around and go back, burrowing into her blankets so far that it would take some effort to extract her.

The day passed in a haze, and before she knew it, Marinette was back in her room, dozing at her work desk. She had four out of the five spring ensembles required for her senior project sketched out, and was reasonably pleased with her work so far. It was only the peacock design that was still giving her trouble, and she couldn’t quite focus, the chill she was forced to bear all day catching up to her, though her room was nice and warm…very cozy…

Marinette jolted awake when her phone began to ring shrilly. A piece of sketch paper was stuck to the side of her face, and Marinette pulled it away, smacking her lips and making a face at the drool that had pooled on one of her sketches. Great, now she would have to redo it…

Yawning, she silenced her phone at last, lifting it to her ear without checking the caller ID, because she already knew who it was.

“Mmnello?”

“Ah-ha! Napping when you should be heading over to Francoise’s, huh? Do I have to come over there and get you, Marinette?”

“Nooo,” Marinette yawned, rubbing at her face with the heel of her palm. “I’m up, I’m up.”

“Good, then hurry up and get your butt over here!” Alya demanded. “Nino has some big thing to tell us, but he’s not spilling until you get here!”

“My lips are sealed!” Nino called in the background, followed by a grunt. Marinette was willing to bet that he had been elbowed in the gut by Alya.

“So hurry up and get here, girl, or I may have to resort to torturing Nino to get this information out of him!”

Nino gave a theatrical gulp. “Hurry, Marinette! My life is at stake!”

“Oh my god, you two are ridiculous,” Marinette laughed, pushing herself to her feet. “I’m coming, I’m coming. Don’t do anything drastic, Alya.”

“No promises!” Alya called before hanging up. Giggling to herself, Marinette headed to her bathroom to wash up real fast before she dared to venture out again.

The snow was melting as it made contact with the ground, but that didn’t seem to deter the sky—it kept sending the white fluff down to the earth, determined to cover it, though the ground was too warm for the snow to stick. Marinette frowned around the muffler wrapped securely around the lower half of her face, a sleeping Tikki nestled safe and warm within a hidden pocket of the muffler. Marinette would be more disgruntled that it was cold enough to snow, were it not for how pretty it looked. It was truly a catch-22: she hated the weather that caused it, but she wanted to see it, because it was aesthetically pleasing. She just couldn’t win.

Sighing, she got into her car, cranking the heater up as high as it would go, letting the car idle until it was warm enough for her to focus on driving. Any other time, she would just walk to Francoise’s gelato shop—it wasn’t that far away from where she lived—but in this weather, it was out of the question. In fact, gelato itself would be out of the question, were it not for Marinette’s sweet tooth. Hmm…maybe Francoise already had his specialty brownie and ice cream combination ready to sell…

Marinette parked a block from the gelato shop, bundling herself as much as she could in the warmth of her hat, gloves, coat, and muffler before she reluctantly left her heated car, stepping out into the soft chill of snow swirling around her. She was momentarily distracted, watching the flurries dance their way to earth, as if it was a lazy race none of them were in any hurry to complete, just enjoying the descent. She smiled and lifted a hand, wanting to catch a couple and see them melt in the palm of her glove—

Her phone began to ring again, muffled by her coat pocket. Rolling her eyes and smiling, Marinette answered just as she was crossing the street, the gelato shop in view.

“Hello?”

“Girl, where are you? Nino’s been teasing about this big news for the last ten minutes, and I’m honestly considering shanking him with a whittled-down spoon.”

“I’m being threatened, Marinette!” Nino called in the background, and Marinette smirked as she approached the window of Francoise’s, spying the two dorks she called best friends across the room, cuddled up as close as ever, no such nonsense about threats present. “Hurry up and mediate like you usually do!”

“Do I have to hurry? It doesn’t really seem like you two need it,” she commented idly, watching as their heads snapped up and spied her through the window. She gave a mocking wave, and Alya’s answering grin was cheeky, Nino’s sheepish.

“What’re you doing standing out in the cold?” Alya challenged, raising a beckoning finger. “I know you hate it out there, so come inside already!”

“I would’ve been inside already, were it not for your impatient phone call,” Marinette teased, sticking out her tongue at Alya simply because she could—her best friend couldn’t reach her out here, unless she decided to don her jacket and give chase.

“Oh, now you’re just being a little sh—whoa,” Alya breathed, her eyes widening as she stared at Marinette. Marinette blinked at the blank look on her best friend’s face, worry beginning to swell within her.

“Alya?” She asked, wondering what was so shocking that Alya had stopped talking.

In response, Alya merely pointed to something over Marinette’s shoulder.

Marinette turned—and nearly suffered through a fatal heart attack.

“Hi,” Adrien greeted, hiding his smirk behind the back of his hand as Marinette fell back against the front window, closing her eyes and attempting to reason her heart back into its normal slow and steady rhythm.

“What the hell, Adrien?!” She spat as soon as she was able, opening her eyes to glare at him. Hastily, she hung up the call with Alya and dropped her phone back into her pocket. “What’re you doing sneaking up on me like that?!”

“Not my fault you didn’t hear me coming,” Adrien replied with a mild shrug…but his eyes were wicked. Marinette scowled at him, annoyed to find how handsome he looked in his black trench coat, that eggshell blue scarf tied securely at the base of his throat. She felt herself flush and hated it—now that Adrien knew the scarf had been a gift from her, it felt like he was wearing it to intentionally embarrass her, and she didn’t appreciate it one bit.

“Where’s your hat?” She asked to distract herself, frowning at his bare, blonde head. “Aren’t your ears cold?”

Adrien brushed his fingertips through the careful swoop of hair that rested against his forehead. Snow was melting in it, dissolving whatever gel he used, and Marinette smirked at the thought of how messy his hair might look in about twenty minutes of exposure to snow.

“Not especially,” he replied with a mild shrug. “Winter doesn’t bother me too much…” He eyed her up and down, his lips twitching. “…Not like it seems to bother you, anyway. Guess that explains why I didn’t see you on my run this morning.”

Was he judging her? Marinette couldn’t be sure. Just to be safe, she frowned at him, lower lip jutting out in a pout.

“I don’t understand how you can run so early in the morning when it’s this cold out,” she said, shaking her head at the madness that was Adrien Agreste. She shivered, as if to protest such lunacy. Adrien’s smile faded.

“Why are you standing out here in the cold, anyway?” He glanced up into the window, inspecting the shop behind Marinette. She didn’t have to look to know when Adrien spotted Nino—his posture became suddenly stiff, eyes widening by a margin. He quickly looked away, back down at Marinette. “Ah. Meeting friends, huh?”

“Yeah…” Marinette trailed off, peering up at Adrien curiously. He had the strangest look on his face; his eyes were tight, jaw locked, looking awfully skittish all of a sudden. He appeared to realize it, however, and dropped his gaze away from her. This made Marinette ache and frown all at the same time.

“Do you want to join us?” She offered unexpectedly, taking both Adrien and herself by surprise. The model blinked at her, as if she had suddenly used a dialect of Chinese he wasn’t familiar with, which was impossible. Clearing his throat, he gave her an awkward smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“I don’t, uh, think I’ll be very welcome.”

Marinette shrugged.

“You’ll never know unless you try, right?” She asked, turning to head into the shop. Adrien gave her pause when he put his hand on her shoulder.

“Marinette, really,” he began, looking more uncomfortable than Marinette had ever seen him. “I’d rather you didn’t, I—”

“Hey.”

Adrien and Marinette jumped, turning and finding Nino suddenly there. His hands were buried in his heavy duty dark green coat, golden eyes focused and frowning at Adrien. Alya lurked behind him, looking worried.

“Is he bothering you, ‘Nette?” Nino asked, though his eyes didn’t leave Adrien. Marinette felt his hand slide from her shoulder.

“I’m fine, Nino,” she assured him, splaying her hands in a peace-making gesture. “Everything’s fine. Adrien and I were just…catching up.”

She glanced over at Adrien, but he had become rigid again, eyes dull as he regarded Nino. She shifted, stepping on his foot, drawing his eyes to her.

“Say something,” she mouthed to him, gesturing to Nino with a glance. Adrien’s jaw locked…and then unhinged.

“Nino,” he greeted, and there was a definite coolness to his voice that Marinette had never heard him use with Nino before. Nino seemed to register the tone, and his normally friendly golden eyes narrowed.

“Why are you bothering Marinette?” He demanded to know suddenly. Alya cringed, and Marinette bit her lip.

“I just said—”

“I’m not bothering her,” Adrien interrupted Marinette’s defense of him, frowning. “We were just having a conversation. No need to come out here and snap at me like you’re her guard dog.”

“Adrien!” Marinette sputtered, but Nino sneered, hackles rising.

“So what if I’m protective? I’m her friend. And if I feel like my friend is hanging around guys she shouldn’t be hanging around with, I’m gonna say something about it.”

“Marinette isn’t your responsibility. She’s a grown woman. Friend or not, you don’t really have a say in who she hangs around with.”

“How would you know, considering you don’t have any friends for a basis?”

“Nino!” Alya yelped, stunned. But the men had only eyes for each other, their stances steadily becoming more and more aggressive as they hurled abuse at each other.

“The fact that you assume I don’t have friends just because we stopped talking only tells me that you’ve gotten so full of yourself that it’s unreal.”

“And the fact that you’re so arrogant to think that I’d even want to be friends with you anymore shows me that you just grew up to become your father!

The world was suddenly immobile. Marinette didn’t need the sudden quiet and stillness, or the look that froze on Adrien’s face, to know that Nino had crossed a line.

He seemed to realize it, too—he flinched as the words seemed to register in his mind, looking contrite. But that was quickly replaced by alarm when Adrien suddenly lunged forward. Marinette reacted instinctively, stepping into Adrien and blocking him with her shoulder. He was tall, but she was strong, and for a moment, the two opposing forces struggled, Marinette grunting with the effort, Adrien snarling in rage.

“Adrien, stop!” Marinette commanded, pushing her hands against his abdomen and making him rock back on his heels. The terrifying snarling from his throat abruptly stopped, and he wheeled on his heel, stalking off in the other direction. With a disappointed glance at Nino, Marinette followed, waiting until she got close enough to grab the back of his coat.

“Adrien, wai—”

Leave me alone,” Adrien hissed, wheeling on Marinette and baring his teeth at her. Marinette retreated a hasty step back, staring at his eyes. She couldn’t be seeing them correctly, but…they looked narrow, like—

He blinked, and they were abruptly normal again. The motion seemed to take all the fight out of him; his shoulders slumped in defeat and he turned away from her.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, and Marinette’s heart gave a painful throb at the strain in his voice. “Please, just…just leave me alone, Marinette.”

“…All right,” she reluctantly conceded. She reached out once more, however, laying a hand on his arm. Adrien twitched at the contact. “But…if you need someone to talk to, I’m here, okay?”

As a matter of fact…

Marinette fished out her phone from her pocket, biting her lip. Adrien might not be in the mood to indulge her…but she really wouldn’t know until she tried, would she?

“Want to exchange numbers?” She offered, hesitating a little. “I mean, if you don’t want to, that’s fine…but I figured it might be smarter, since we sometimes meet up for morning runs and stuff…that way, if I end up deciding not to leave my bed, I can just text you and say it’s too cold, or, you know, whatever.”

Adrien stood still for a very long moment. Marinette let her hand slide away from him, about to let it drop, but then he moved, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out his phone, unlocked the screen, and handed it to her without looking at her. Her heart beating a little more slowly now, Marinette placed her unlocked phone in his awaiting palm, and they spent a couple silent minutes inputting their information into each other’s phones.

Adrien’s contacts were divided into two sections: “Work” and “Friends”. Marinette had a debate with herself over which list she should add her contact information to—while this wasn’t an exchange for work purposes, she wasn’t so arrogant as to add her information to the “Friends” list. But the “Work” list was really full…and only Chloe’s number was on the “Friends” list, which was really, really sad…but Marinette didn’t really want to be on the same list as Chloe Bourgeois…

Sighing to herself, she just added her info to the “Work” list to be done with it, handing Adrien his phone back just as he slipped hers back into her palm.

“Thanks,” Marinette breathed, sliding her phone back into her pocket and smiling tentatively at Adrien’s profile. His eyes were far away, staring through the snow at something she couldn’t see… “Um…you can feel free to text me for things other than jogging, okay? Like I said…if you need someone, I’m here.”

Adrien bobbed his blonde head, not looking at her for a moment…but then he glanced at her from his peripheral vision, an almost-smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

“…Thank you, Mari,” he mumbled, barely audible above the whistle of the wind. Marinette shivered, folding her arms around herself.

“No problem,” she replied with a smile. Adrien sobered, and he glanced away from her.

“You’d better head back inside. It’s cold out here.” Raising a hand in farewell, he crossed the street, walking tall, his hands in his pockets. Such a confident stride…Marinette wondered if it was just habit for him to just walk around like he owned the world by now.

Shaking her head, she turned on her heel, returning to the gelato shop and ducking into the gracious warmth with a sigh of relief.

Nino and Alya were at the table she’d seen them occupying earlier. Nino was slumped over the table, his arms folded under him, and Alya had an arm around his shoulders, muttering to him. They both looked up as Marinette approached, and Nino cringed when she put her hands on her hips and scowled at him.

“I know, I fucked up,” he sighed, running a hand over his face and temporarily dislodging his glasses. “I shouldn't have said the thing about his dad.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Marinette agreed, removing her gloves, muffler, and hat. “He was really upset.”

“I’ll say,” Alya chimed in, raising her eyebrows. “Did you see his eyes? Scariest thing I’ve ever seen—I swear, his pupils narrowed into, like, slits. Like a…a snake’s. It was freaky.”

So Alya had seen that, too? Marinette checked her earlier assumption that she had imagined the look…though ‘snake’ wasn’t the animal she immediately thought of when it came to Adrien’s narrowed pupils…but perhaps ‘snake’ made more sense.

“I was just mad,” Nino defended himself, his forehead flopping down onto his crossed arms. “Haven’t seen the dude in years, and that’s how he greets me?”

“He was probably feeling awkward,” Alya reasoned wisely.

“You didn’t really help when you accused him of bothering me,” Marinette pointed out as she sat down across from her friends, a frown on her face. Nino gave a sigh that sounded like it was pulled from some deep part of him.

“Well, from where I was sitting…” He trailed off, propping his head up with a hand. “Nah, you know what? I’m not even gonna try and make an excuse. I wanted a reason to fight him, basically. When he saw me sitting in here, he just…looked away. Like I was nothing.

Alya squeezed his shoulder.

“You don’t need him, baby.”

“Yeah, I know.” Nino huffed again, eyes speculative as he took in Marinette. In much the same tone he used the last time he asked the question, he inquired, “…How is he?”

“Like I said: upset.” Marinette sighed and dropped her frown, settling into an anxious sadness now. “That last comment was too much, Nino. I know things between you and Adrien ended badly, but I really think you should apologize.”

“Yeah,” Nino agreed with another sigh and a bob of his head. “I really want to, now…” He cringed. “Think I can get a word in edgewise the next time I see him before he manages to take my head off?”

“Oh, yeah, he looked ready to kill you.” Abruptly, Alya’s shrewd gaze was focused on Marinette. “I’m kind of surprised you were able to keep him at bay, girl. You must be stronger than you look…”

Uh-oh.

“I just planted my feet really well, I think,” she said with a shrug, and then swiftly changed the subject. “So, are you ever going to tell us this big news, Nino, or does Alya have to stab you with a makeshift shank after all?”

She felt bad throwing Nino to the wolves, but her sympathy was being tempered by her annoyance with him at the moment, so her guilt when Alya immediately rounded on him was minimal.

“Oh, right! What is it? Spit it out already!”

“Okay, okay!” Nino cleared his throat, straightened his glasses, and beamed at them. “Guess whose sick beats just landed him a contract with Bob Ross Records?”

“You’re kidding!” Alya yelped, and then threw her arms around her boyfriend. “Nino, that’s great!

“Congratulations!” said Marinette, beaming at the embarrassed look that crossed Nino’s face as Alya planted a bunch of kisses to his cheek in celebration. “Tell us how it happened!”

“Okay, so I’m mixin’ like usual at Blaze, right?” Nino said, pantomiming said mixing skills in front of him, as if he was currently working at Blaze, the club where he was employed as DJ. “It was standard stuff, but the crowd was bumping, so that’s all that matters. After one of my sets, though, this suit comes up to me, hands me his business card, and talks about how he’d like to hear some more of my stuff. So I send him a CD with my best mixes, and he goes nuts. Last week, I get a call: guess who wants to hire my awesome talent as their next big name? I just went in to sign the contract this morning.”

“And you waited this long to tell me?!” Alya complained, pouting in a mock offended manner. “This is high priority stuff, mister!”

“Really? Even more important than the Ladyblog?”

“Whoa, let’s not get crazy here…”

Marinette giggled, shaking her head at their banter.

“I’m really happy for you, Nino.”

“Thanks,” Nino replied, rubbing the back of his head and grinning. “Oh, and guess what? I’m allowed to hire someone to design my first CD.” He pointed a finger gun at Marinette and winked. “Want some extra cash in your pocket?”

Marinette’s eyes lit up, but she worked to play it cool.

“That depends: how much are we talking?”

Nino tapped his chin in thought.

“I’m thinking about two-fifty euro as the commission charge, and another two-fifty when you’re finished?” He offered.

Marinette felt her jaw drop.

Holy shit…that kind of cash could have her set for a while…but…

“Will the record company be okay with you spending that kind of cash?”

“Yeah, I’m all for feeding our poor Marinette, but don’t write checks you can’t cash, Nino.”

“It’s fine, the company’s giving me a stipend,” Nino said with a wave of his hand. “And I want a quality cover, so I’ve gotta pay the quality price, right?” Marinette flushed at the compliment, and Nino grinned at her. “Whaddya say, ‘Nette? Can I count on you?”

“I think so,” Marinette agreed, grinning a little. “But I’m pretty busy at the moment, Nino—”

“No rush,” Nino assured her with a shrug of his shoulders. “The CD’s not meant to come out until after Christmas, anyway. I just wanted to put this on your radar, get my bid in for a Marinette Dupain-Cheng original cover before you become too famous and forget us little people.”

“I think you’re the one on the fast track to fame, here,” Alya teased, tapping her spoon against the empty ice cream dish in front of her, the contents long since consumed. “A toast, then! To Nino!”

“To me! But, uh, maybe we should have something to toast?”

“Mm, good point. All right, get me and Marinette a couple brownie sundaes, then.”

Nino pouted.

“Why do I have to pay?”

“Because you’re the big shot with the fancy record deal,” Alya teased with a wicked gleam in her eye as she reached across the table, slinging an arm around Marinette’s shoulders. “And me and Mari are poor, me being a journalist intern, Mari being wisely unemployed instead of working for a thieving harpy. Look at us, all pathetic and shit.”

“I’m feeling especially woe-be-gone, because I haven’t had anything sweet in the last twenty-four hours,” Marinette chimed in.  “Pleaaaaase?” She and Alya pleaded together, making their eyes wide and cute. Nino pretended to stagger, raising his hands and groaning in protest.

“Agggh, the cuteness! Can’t resist…! Ugh, all right, fiiine. But just because I’d feel bad about letting you two starve.”

Grabbing his wallet, Nino made his way up to the counter, making sure his walk was as dramatically sluggish as possible, as if Marinette and Alya were already bleeding him dry. Marinette and Alya giggled at his antics.

“Honestly, it’s a good thing I love that boy, or I’d start to wonder why I put up with him.” Alya shook her head good-naturedly. As she looked at Marinette, however, her smile began to fade.

“What did Adrien say to you after you chased after him?” She asked in a low voice. Marinette suddenly understood that Alya had sent Nino to get them more ice cream just so she could have a moment alone with Marinette.

“Not much. Like I said, he was really upset. He wanted to be left alone, so I let him be.”

Marinette chose not to divulge that she had exchanged numbers with him. Alya may be her best friend, but Marinette didn’t like to think what she might do with such information.

Alya frowned, tucking loose hair behind her ears.

“You know, I don’t think he’s over it. What happened with his dad, I mean.”

Marinette frowned at that. “I don’t know…it might have just been the moment. Nino really got under his skin. And I’m pretty sure he saw a therapist when he was younger about all this stuff.”

“Well, only the man himself knows that for sure.” Alya folded her hands under her chin, regarding Marinette in quiet concern. “Just…be careful around him, okay? He looked like he was ready to tear Nino’s throat out…and I shudder to think what he might do with a little thing like you.”

Marinette was about to point out that Alya had seen with her own eyes that Marinette was not quite that vulnerable…but then she thought better of it when she remembered the whole other can of worms the words could force open.

“I promise to be careful,” she said to put Alya’s mind at ease. Her promise was rewarded with an approving nod from her best friend.

“Good. But if you do manage to get in trouble with him…” Alya’s grin abruptly turned dangerous. “I’ve got good friends at the police department that would be willing to make some evidence “disappear”, if you know what I’m sayin’.”

“What’re you two talking about?” Nino asked, giving the girls strange looks as he set down warm brownie sundaes before them. Marinette immediately dug into hers, savoring the taste of melting chocolate and vanilla ice cream while mumbling her thanks to Nino.

“Oh, y’know—murder. The usual,” Alya said with a wink. Nino paused, and then carefully resumed his seat next to his girlfriend.

“I don’t wanna know,” he prefaced, and Marinette and Alya grinned at each other.

 


 

It so figured that the one night Marinette was able to go to bed at a reasonable hour would be the night that her phone rang shrilly at half past midnight, demanding her attention.

If this was Alya calling her over something asinine, Marinette was going to kill her.

Groaning, Marinette kept her face buried in her pillow as she slapped at her nightstand, locating her phone after the fourth slap. She dragged it off the nightstand, turning to peer at it with a bleary eye.

Adrien’s name was flashing across the screen.

Frowning in confusion, Marinette sat up, clearing her throat before she hit the answer button.

“H-hello?”

“Yo,” said an unfamiliar voice from the other line, “this, uh, Marinette Dupain-Cheng?”

A thief?’ Marinette wondered, her brow furrowing in the dark.

“Who wants to know?” She wanted to check. The voice on the other end of the line chuckled.

“Whoa, all right girl, damn. No need to get sassy. I’m just calling to ask you to pick up your friend. Dude’s messed up bad.”

A chill ghosted down Marinette’s spine, and she was gripping the phone hard, all sleepiness vanishing on the spot.

“What do you mean, ‘messed up’?”

“I mean he’s fucked up,” said the voice with a sigh. “Everyone was just trying to have a good time, but outta nowhere, he and this big asshole get into an argument at the bar, and suddenly, I’m having to pull him off of the big guy. Your friend got away with a black eye and a busted lip at most, I think, but the other guy…” The voice on the phone let out a low whistle. “Anyway, I’d call him a cab, but he’s refusing to tell anyone where he lives. I managed to get his phone, though, and you and one other chick were in his “Friends” contact list. But she didn’t pick up, so I guess he’s your responsibility now.”

Marinette stared at her pink, flower-patterned blanket for a moment.

She could have sworn she added her contact information to his “Work” contact list…

“I’ll be right there,” she said with a sigh, kicking off the blanket and searching for the sweater and jeans she had discarded earlier. “Can you give me the address?”

Twenty minutes later, Marinette was pulling into the parking lot of a seedy-looking bar. Just the sight of it made her wish she had brought Tikki along; she didn’t feel very safe being just Marinette here. But as she got out of the car, she spotted Adrien slumped on the curb nearby, an unfamiliar man sitting next to him. He glanced up as Marinette approached and got to his feet with a grunt of effort.

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng?”

“That’s me,” Marinette confirmed, glancing down at Adrien, who was refusing to look at her. The man in front of her shrugged.

“Figured it wasn’t safe to let him sit out here on his own. He looks, uh, a little too ritzy for this part of town, y’know?”

Marinette nodded, appreciating this. Adrien had just been in a fight; he didn’t need to add “getting mugged” to his already crappy night.

“Have the police been called?”

“Uh-uh. Shit like this happens all the time here: if you don’t wanna get wrecked, you gotta get good.”

“Is there a tab I need to settle?”

“Nah. Apparently dude’s got a card on record. It’ll just be automatically charged.” He cupped a hand around his mouth, lowering his voice. “Watch it—guy’s got some major rage issues to work out.”

“I can hear you,” Adrien finally spoke with an annoyed glance at the strange man. He gave a shrug.

“Whatever, man, I don’t know your life. I can only call it like I see it.” With another shrug and a nod to Marinette, the man disappeared back inside the bar. Marinette gave a sigh, peering down at the mess that was Adrien Agreste. At this angle, she couldn’t really see the damage, and so she crouched down, peering into his face. Adrien looked away from her, but Marinette could see the swelling of his eye and lip. Both looked pretty bad, but the man had glossed over them, stating that the other guy had been in worse shape. Marinette resisted the urge to cluck her tongue in disapproval. How on earth had Adrien Agreste managed to find himself in a fight?

“Can you stand?” She asked after a quiet moment. Adrien glanced over at her with his good eye.

“…You didn’t have to come,” he grumbled. Marinette had to restrain herself from giving him a dry look. ‘You’re welcome,’ she wanted to say…but now was probably not the time to antagonize him.

“I know,” she said instead, hands on her knees as she peered at him, worry beginning to take precedence. “Can you stand, Adrien?”

Adrien huffed, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

“…Yeah,” he affirmed after a moment, and Marinette watched him stretch to his full height—well, nearly his full height. His shoulders were rounded, making him appear hunched and shorter than he actually was, and he swayed, but only a little. Marinette resolved to watch for ginger movements; it could mean bruises to his abdomen, or worse, broken ribs. Again, how did this happen? She had no earthly clue.

“Did you drive here?” Marinette asked, standing up as well. Adrien shook his head. Well, at least she didn’t have to worry about leaving his car here, then…

“Come on,” she urged him, ducking under one of his arms to support him when he leaned a little too far to one side. “I’ll drive you home.”

“You don’t have to,” Adrien grumbled, and Marinette sighed.

“I know,” she repeated, nearly half-dragging him to her car, opening the passenger door for him. “Get in the car, Adrien.”

Adrien grumbled something unintelligible under his breath, but did as he was asked, sliding carefully into the passenger seat. Marinette shut the door on him and crossed over to the driver’s side, strapping herself in and coercing him to do the same.

“Let me know if you’re gonna throw up,” she told him, and a second later, they were pulling away from the sketchy-looking bar and heading uptown.

It was a quiet ride. Adrien seemed to have nothing to say, and Marinette didn’t bother filling the space with meaningless conversation. Concern and exasperation were twisting together within her, filling her with a strange, erratic tension. Questions chased each other in her mind, each one latching onto the tail of the preceding one, writhing in circles, an ouroboros of queries:

What was Adrien doing in such a seedy bar in the first place? Why would he go to such a place as opposed to the less rough-and-tumble bars uptown? Why had he gotten into a fight with someone bigger than him that could’ve pulverized him? How did he come out the victor of that fight when he clearly didn’t eat enough to pull off such a stunt? What in the world was going on in that head of his?

Marinette glanced over at him repeatedly from the corner of her eye as she drove, but Adrien just slumped against the seat, glassy eyes on the window.

When his home came into view, Marinette parked against the curb. She had just a second’s warning, as she rounded the front of her car, to see Adrien step out…and then pitch forward.

“Whoa!” She managed to catch him, hands supporting his waist as he wobbled. “Are you—”

Hrk—

Adrien’s face turned a sickly shade of green, and Marinette dived out of the way, her self-preservation skills kicking in hard. Adrien fell forward onto his hands and knees, vomit spraying the road underneath him. He heaved a second time, and more came up, as if he was determined to empty the complete contents of his stomach. Marinette cringed, a hand covering her mouth.

Ugh. If there were any lingering feelings within her over this mess of a human being, this sight ought to send them screaming for the hills.

“Oh, Adrien,” she sighed, taking his arm and helping him unsteadily to his feet once again. “Can you walk?”

Adrien nodded. Nevertheless, Marinette kept a careful grip on his arm as they headed up the walkway to his house, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the sour tang of vomit that now hovered over him.

Getting the door open was a bit of a struggle—Adrien seemed to have trouble getting his key into the lock, and so Marinette had to help him while supporting him, the whole process taking a lot longer than it should have. When they did finally stumble through the threshold, Adrien looked ready to pass out, and so Marinette steered him to the nearest bathroom she could find, which was about halfway down the hall into the foyer.

Adrien’s home was beautifully decorated, retaining much of the beauty of his childhood home…but there was something about the air that was a little colder than the Agreste Mansion. Marinette didn’t have time to ponder on it, however—she carefully lowered Adrien onto the floor of the bathroom, resting his back against the tub. She grabbed a hand towel from an awaiting rack and wet it with cold water, pressing it to his face to wipe the sweat and vomit from him.

“Are you gonna pass out?” She asked him, giving him an anxious look as she rinsed off the towel and pressed it to his neck next. Adrien shook his head, his nonverbal response concerning her. “Are you sure?”

“M’fine,” Adrien grumbled, reaching up to push damp hair out of his face. He glanced down at himself, making a face at the stained coat and shirt he wore. “I’m gonna go change—”

“I can get a new shirt for you,” Marinette insisted, firm hands holding his shoulders down. “Where’s your bedroom?”

Adrien shut his eyes, frowning.

“Upstairs,” he said after a moment. “First door on the right.”

“Got it.”

Well, if he’s coherent enough to give directions, I guess it won’t be too bad to leave him alone for a few seconds…’ Marinette reasoned with herself as she left the bathroom, still marveling at the fact that she was on drunk babysitting duty for Adrien Agreste. She still hurried as she climbed the stairs two at a time, heading into his bedroom. She had never been in here before…but the memory of the last time she had seen it had Marinette searching for the closet quickly, spying two large doors to the left of her that looked promising. She opened them up to find…another bathroom. Great.

There were cabinets in this bathroom, though. Marinette moved forward, ignoring the large and gorgeous tub sunken in the middle of the bathroom, opening the cabinets at random until she found what she was looking for—a drawer full of T-shirts that would work just fine. She selected a black one and shut the drawer, inwardly reflecting on how ironic it was for Adrien to have all these shirts, and yet she’d seen him shirtless twice now. It was ridiculous.

“Adrien,” she called as she jumped the last few stairs, heading back to the bathroom she’d left him in. Her fingertips slid over the knob as she called, “I have another shirt for—”

She opened the door a crack—only to have the sound of the shower starting greeting her. With a yelp, Marinette slammed it shut again, gawking at the door. What was he doing?!

“Adrien?! I really don’t think it’s a good idea for you to shower when you can’t even stand up by yourself!” She called over the sound of running water, her teeth worrying her lip as she stared at the door. What if something happened? What if he slipped and hit his head, knocking him unconscious, and his body blocked the drain, which made the water from the shower fill the tub, and he drowned while she was standing just outside the door?!

“I’m fine, Marinette,” Adrien’s voice answered, a bite of impatience in his tone. “I’ll be quick. I just don’t want to smell like puke for the rest of the night.”

“But—”

“Just leave the shirt on the counter,” Adrien commanded, and Marinette frowned. She still thought this was a bad idea…but as long as she stayed nearby, she’d hear if any commotion went down, right? Taking a deep breath, she took hold of the doorknob once again. Okay…she could do this…

“All right. I’m coming in.”

Marinette carefully eased the door open, squinting her eyes shut to prevent her from seeing anything she shouldn’t see. The curtain was drawn around the tub, hiding Adrien from view, and she breathed a little easier, setting the neatly folded shirt down onto the counter for him. She made a face at the clothes strewn about on the floor, biting her lip again.

“Uh…do you want me to do something with your clothes on the floor?”

There was a sigh, and the curtain twitched.

“I’ll take care of it, Mari. You don’t have to pick up after me.”

That was true—she wasn’t the maid. Just a concerned…friend? Could she call him that yet? Sure, she had said as much to Chat Noir when talking about Adrien, but that was so the stupid stray would get off her back. As things stood now, could she really consider Adrien Agreste a friend…?

“I’m gonna get some ice ready for your eye,” Marinette announced, backing out of the bathroom now. There was another sigh from behind the curtain.

“Marinette—”

“Meet me in the living room when you’re done,” Marinette talked over his complaint, shutting the door so he couldn’t say any more on the subject…not where she could hear, anyway. A part of her panicked at leaving him to his own devices, but he said he’d be quick—if he wasn’t done in ten minutes, she’d just go get him.

Trying to assure herself with that thought, Marinette set about exploring the rest of his home.

The living room was sumptuously decorated in plush, dark furniture, the thick carpet shaded in ochre. Large, golden, luxurious curtains framed even larger windows, which had a gorgeous view of the garden out front. It looked as if the living room had been decorated with an Egyptian prince in mind. Idly, Marinette wondered if Adrien had selected everything himself before she remembered her current mission was ice. Shaking her head at herself, she moved on through the living room, in the direction she hoped was the kitchen.

Nope. Dining room. But she was getting closer.

Marinette eyed the dark dining room for a moment, the large table surrounded by six hard-backed chairs catching her attention. It was a bit too big for someone who lived here alone, wasn’t it…?

Maybe he has a lot of dinner parties here with a bunch of important work people,’ Marinette reasoned, shrugging and heading on to—ah-ha, the kitchen at last. It was as industrial as she was expecting, everything done in stainless steel and dark granite. Marinette glanced at the high-tech appliances with a raised eyebrow. Surely Adrien wasn’t that accomplished of a chef? Maybe he had someone come during the day and make meals for him…when he wasn’t running around being Mr. Model/CEO of his own company, anyway…

Marinette moved over to the refrigerator—holy crap, it was so much bigger than her, was having such a large fridge even necessary?—and pulled open the freezer. To her surprise, there were a stack of ice packs just inside a shelf on the door. Huh. And here she was, certain that she’d have to MacGyver one out of whatever materials she could find…

“Marinette?”

Marinette jumped at the voice that called out to her. Wow, he had been quick.

“Coming!” She answered, hastily grabbing one of the ice packs, finding it already full and ready to go. How convenient.

Rushing out of the kitchen and through the dining room, Marinette reentered the living room and found Adrien perched on the end of one of the lounge couches. He was dressed in the T-shirt Marinette had retrieved for him, and the jeans he’d been wearing earlier; they were miraculously vomit-free. A towel was slung around his neck, and though his hair dripped onto it, it was still styled perfectly. That kind of annoyed Marinette, but she kept the urge to ruffle his hair out of spite at bay.

The living room was dark; Adrien probably left it so because the light would irritate his eyes. He simply stared at the floor as she approached, using the light from the hall as a guide, ice pack in hand.

“Here,” she said, reaching out automatically to lift his chin. He didn’t resist her touch, and she cringed at the sight of his eye, which was beginning to turn purple.

“Oh, Adrien,” she sighed again, pressing the ice pack as gently as she could to his swollen eye. Adrien winced, but made no noise of complaint. His lip looked like it needed attention, too. She really should’ve grabbed two ice packs instead of one. “What happened to you?”

Adrien managed a shrug, his good eye glancing away from her.

“It’s not a big deal. Things just got a little out of hand. Guess I drank too much to realize what I was doing.”

Marinette frowned.

“You seem perfectly coherent right now.”

Adrien shrugged again.

“Got most of the alcohol out of my system at this point, I think. The shower helped.”

Marinette sighed and shook her head.

“Never would’ve taken you for a fighter,” she admitted, disapproval coloring her tone. “The guy who called me to come pick you up said he had to pull you off some guy.”

“I was drunk,” Adrien reminded her, not meeting her eyes. Marinette felt her brows furrow deeper.

“Somehow, I don’t think that’s the only thing going on here,” she said. She removed the ice pack from Adrien’s face for a moment, just to peer into his eyes, though his bruised one was swelling shut. “What happened earlier really upset you, didn’t it? With Nino.”

Adrien flinched at the name, and looked away from her.

“I’m over it.”

“Really? Starting fights in shady bars is what you call ‘over it’?”

“Butt out, Marinette,” Adrien grumbled, pulling his chin out of her grasp with a scowl. “You’re not my mother.”

“No, but I am worried.”

“Why should you be?”

“Because the way you dealt with your anger tonight wasn’t healthy!” Marinette huffed, resting her free hand on her hip. “You can’t just go starting fights with strangers—you’ll get yourself killed!”

“I doubt it,” Adrien replied in what was unmistakably an obstinate tone. Marinette had to restrain herself from hitting him over the head in frustration.

“Adrien,” she began lowly, waiting until he looked at her. “I think you need help.”

Adrien scowled, his eyes tightening.

“I’m f—” He broke off in a hiss when Marinette pressed the ice pack to his swollen eye once again. She raised an eyebrow.

“Really? Because that’s not the case from where I’m standing.”

Adrien said nothing. Marinette let him be for a moment, marshalling her thoughts. She didn’t want to set him off further…but this had to be addressed, didn’t it? She couldn’t very well just stand by and let him punch his feelings out on other people, could she?

“…You’re not your father, Adrien.”

He hunched, as if he wished to make himself smaller again.

“I know.” The words were halfway between a growl of frustration and a sigh of defeat. Marinette cautiously proceeded.

“…But you seem to worry about becoming him,” she said gently, her free hand lifting Adrien’s chin when he lowered it, to keep the ice pack in its proper place. “I can’t say I know how…complicated…your relationship with him was…but I thought you already saw someone about this?”

If this was just a slip, Marinette wasn’t judging him. Getting over who his father was and what he had done…it couldn’t be easy. But it felt like it went so much deeper than that, so deep that Marinette was worried about Adrien’s well-being. How okay could he be if he was starting bar brawls with random strangers?

Adrien gave a grunt as Marinette shifted the ice pack on his face.

“Who said I already saw someone about it?” He mumbled, seemingly to himself.

Marinette opened her mouth to retort—and then shut it just as quickly. Because he raised a very good point—who said he had actually gotten help for this years ago? That’s what he told Ladybug, sure…but as much as Marinette didn’t want to consider it, he could have been lying. Either way, she couldn’t call him on it, since it was information she wasn’t supposed to have.

Marinette moved the ice pack again to pierce him with a serious look.

“I think it’s time you went to see somebody, then.” She said. “You’re clearly not dealing with it on your own very well.”

Adrien frowned.

“It’s not a big deal,” he tried to insist again, despite Marinette rolling her eyes. “As soon as the swelling goes down, make up will cover the rest of the bruising. It’s not like I have to stop working or anything—”

“I’m not talking about your job, Mr. Model,” Marinette huffed at him, “I don’t care about that. What I do care about is the fact that you got hurt in a fight that shouldn’t have even happened. Did that guy you beat up even provoke you at all?”

Adrien’s brow puckered at that, lips pursing in thought.

“He…may have looked at me funny.”

“He may have?”

“It’s kind of blurry now, honestly.”

Marinette stared at Adrien for so long that he had to be the one to glance away first, his expression warping into sheepishness.

“…I suppose I could’ve left it alone,” he admitted after a quiet moment. Annoyed, Marinette shook her head at him.

“Adrien, this is not okay. Seriously, I’m worried about you.”

Adrien stared up at her as she shifted the ice pack briefly to rest where his lip was swelling. Though his left eye was nothing but a puffy slit now, he still managed to pin her with a gaze so intense that she could almost feel its weight settle onto her shoulders. After a moment, his lips parted.

“Why…?”

The question was honestly curious…with a little bit of wonder mixed in. Marinette stared down at him, blinking perplexed eyes. ‘Why?’ Did he really have to ask?

Apparently so—the incomprehension in his expression made it clear that he could not fathom her reasons for caring. And that reaction caused a small fissure to crack its way through Marinette’s heart. Suddenly she had her answer on the 'friends or not' debate.

She did hit him this time: the palm of her free hand smacked into the crown of his head lightly. Despite the love tap, he still winced. Marinette smiled apologetically.

“Because we’re friends, you dork,” she told him, the words confident and strong. “That’s enough of a reason, isn’t it?”

The look of wonder, just a spark before in Adrien’s eyes, evolved into something much stronger: an explosion of awe. Adrien’s mouth actually popped open, his face turning rosy. It was as if Marinette had just given him the moon on a string, and he was rendered speechless in gratitude.

Marinette hated herself for blushing, and in her annoyance, she poked one of his blushing cheeks to get rid of that not adorable at all look on his face.

“What? This really isn’t a surprise to you, is it? Why else would I put up with you?” She teased him.

Slowly, a corner of Adrien’s mouth quirked up.

“…Does this mean I’m forgiven for being rude to you during our first fashion meeting?” He wanted to check. Abruptly, Marinette was struck with the realization that her anger at him was still bothering him. Wow, he really had taken her seriously, hadn’t he…?

“I think so,” Marinette allowed, rewarded briefly with a grin that flashed across Adrien’s face before she held up a finger. “On one condition.”

“Uh-oh,” Adrien mumbled, his grin fading. “It’s not a lifetime of servitude, is it?”

“You wish you were so lucky,” Marinette couldn’t help but tease him. But soon, her smirk disappeared as well. “Ultimately, this is your decision, Adrien. And I have no right to police you or tell you what to do. But what I do want is for you at least try therapy. I want you to have a safe space, and have someone to talk to about your problems.”

Adrien nearly pouted.

“Why can’t I just talk to you?” He asked. Marinette smiled a little at that.

“While I appreciate the faith you’re putting in me…I think this goes beyond my pay grade,” she stated. “I’m only a fashion designer, after all.”

“You’re a great fashion designer,” Adrien corrected her, and Marinette’s smile returned.

“Well, thank you. But don’t change the subject: I think it would help for you to see a therapist. And I know a good one…if you’re willing to at least give it a shot.”

She shrugged, the movement at odds with the concentrated way she watched his face, taking in every little change in his expression.

“Will you give it a chance? In the name of our friendship?”

Adrien regarded her steadily, blinking slowly.

“…This is blackmail, isn’t it?”

Marinette smiled in a guilty fashion.

“Think of it more like a strong suggestion,” she encouraged. Adrien chuckled, and Marinette waited, holding her breath.

“…Okay,” Adrien said after a long silence. As relief washed through Marinette, he smiled. “I only have to agree to try, right?”

“That’s all I want,” Marinette assured him with a nod. “If it’s not for you, I’ll leave it alone.” Her brow furrowed. “But I’d really feel better if you talked to someone, instead of carrying all your problems on your own.”

“Keep in mind that I have to pay this person to listen to me complain,” Adrien reminded her, taking the ice pack from her and holding it to his own eye now. Marinette shrugged with a smile.

“While the money does help, I doubt he’d mind listening to you complain even off the clock.”

Adrien began to frown.

“And who is this therapist you’re so gung-ho about?”

Marinette gave a mysterious smile.

“If I can manage to get you an appointment this week, you’ll find out,” she promised.

 


 

“You didn’t say it’d be today.

“He was available faster than I was expecting.”

“But did you have to make it for today?

Marinette turned, hands on her hips as she frowned up at him. Adrien eyed her expression through his sunglasses warily, wondering if she was about to snap at him. He really didn’t need to be fussed at today—his head was pounding, his swollen eye ached, and Marinette’s fireball energy wasn’t going to help matters much.

Almost as if she knew he was suffering, she huffed, her expression softening.

“You said you’d give this a chance,” she reminded him. Adrien frowned from behind his sunglasses.

“And I’m still willing. Just not when I’m hungover,” he grumbled.

“You’ll live,” Marinette insisted, taking hold of his wrist and dragging him into the building. “Come on.”

Adrien sighed, staring at the back of Marinette’s pink snow hat as she marched ahead of him. She was rather pushy when she wanted to be, hmm? Of course, he’d learned that the hard way several times over already, but it still managed to astound him, sometimes. She was nothing like the girl he’d known back at Dupont, save for her seemingly limitless kindness. That Marinette had been shy and soft-spoken around him, nothing like the spitfire that marched him into the building now, approaching the secretary in the lobby immediately, all confidence in her strut.

Adrien had to admit that, for reasons he didn’t quite comprehend, he was a little fonder of this Marinette.

“Hi, we’re here to see Dr. Bruel? Dupain-Cheng, nine o’ clock appointment.”

The secretary asked them to wait on the couch. As they sat, Adrien frowned, trying to stir his sluggish brain into action. Bruel…he knew that name…

His mind was refusing to cooperate, sadly. But when he asked Marinette, all she did was smile that mysterious little smile from the night before. It kind of felt like Adrien was being set up…but for what, he didn’t know. He opened his mouth to ask again, considering walking out if Marinette didn’t give him a proper answer, when the secretary announced that Dr. Bruel was free to see them now.

Again, Marinette took him by the wrist, leading him to the door where Dr. Bruel’s office sat behind. She paused, her hand on the door handle, blue eyes peering up at him in inquiry. Adrien took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and gave a nod. She smiled encouragingly at him, and then pushed the door open.

The office was pleasantly warm, not stifling like most buildings this time of year. It was the standard psychiatrists’ room, Adrien thought: plaques and diplomas on the wall, a couple of comfortable-looking armchairs, and of course, the obligatory chaise longue. What Adrien didn’t expect was the large figure that got to his feet from behind his large desk, smiling in welcome, the smile just a touch shy. He was dressed professionally in a white button-down shirt and black slacks, his hair combed back and completely dark…save for one small streak of blonde Adrien could just make out.

Adrien could only gape, but Marinette released his wrist and threw her arms around the figure.

“Hi, Ivan! Long time no see!”

He patted Marinette’s back fondly.

“Yeah, no kidding. How’re you, Marinette?”

“I’m good,” Marinette allowed, pulling back to stare up at Ivan, who dwarfed her by an amount so large it was almost comical. “Work is work, school is school, you know? Not that you have to worry about school anymore, Mr. Early Graduate Valedictorian.”

Ivan laughed a little, his cheeks heating.

“It sounds a little embarrassing when you say it like that,” he said. Glancing up, he seemed to take note of Adrien. “But you’re not here for a social call, right?”

“True.” Marinette turned back around, heading back to Adrien and resting a hand on his bicep. “Recognize this guy?”

“Of course.” Ivan approached, his size intimidating to all who didn’t know him. For his part, Adrien was merely bemused as Ivan extended one of his large hands. “Nice to see you again, Adrien.”

“Uh, same,” Adrien replied, shaking hands. “Though I, uh, didn’t realize it was you I’d be seeing…”

He slanted a glance Marinette’s way from behind his sunglasses, and she just smiled again.

“Yeah, I get that a lot. A lot of people from my past are surprised when I tell them I’m a shrink now.”

Adrien’s eyebrows quirked.

“You call yourself a ‘shrink’?”

“Why not?” Ivan allowed with a small smile. “It’s just a word. Nothing to get upset over.”

Huh. Adrien remembered all too clearly a time where Ivan had been vulnerable enough to let such taunting words get under his skin, the words so effective that he had turned to stone and terrorized a bewildered Paris for the first time…

But Adrien didn’t see Stoneheart now.

He saw Ivan Bruel, a former classmate-turned-therapist. Someone who, apparently, wanted to help him.

He wasn’t yet sure how to feel about all this.

Marinette didn’t seem to care about his uneasiness, however; after a second, she ducked around the two men, heading for the door.

“Well, I’m only in the way here. I’ll let you two get reacquainted and…talk.”

Adrien’s eyes widened behind his sunglasses, gaping at her.

She was just leaving him here??

“Marinette—” He began, but Marinette was already in the waiting room, closing the door behind her. She popped her head back in to give him another encouraging smile.

“You’ll be fine,” she promised him. “I’ll see you later!”

And before he could think of anything to say to call her back, Marinette left, the door shutting behind her with a final-sounding ‘click!’

Silence filled the room. Adrien didn’t know what to do with himself, so he merely stood there, arms hanging awkwardly at his sides, feeling very much like a cat trapped in a cage.

He wasn’t sure whether or not Ivan picked up on his tension, but he moved away either way, settling himself into one of the armchairs away from his desk.

“Do you want to sit down?” He offered, waving to the armchair next to him rather than the chaise. A small part of Adrien appreciated that; he was already uncertain about this idea, and lying down on a couch wouldn’t help matters.

Adrien folded himself into the armchair opposite Ivan, taking in the large man before him. Silence settled between them once again.

“…So…is this the part where I spill my guts or something…?” Adrien asked, falling back on humor to mask his discomfort. Ivan smiled a little.

“You can take your time. Marinette booked you for an hour,” he said.

Adrien grimaced.

“And how much am I paying for this hour?”

“Well, Marinette told me you were a little unsure about this,” Ivan said, nodding thoughtfully. “I don’t really feel good about charging you for something you’re not committed to, yet…so today, it’s free.”

Adrien felt his eyebrows creep into his hairline.

“Is that okay?”

“Sure,” Ivan allowed, folding his hands in his lap. “Consider it a favor for an old friend.”

There that word was again. ‘Friend’.

And just like the night before, Adrien felt himself flush at the label.

Clearing his throat, he moved on in an attempt to distract himself.

“Marinette asked me to come here as a favor to her,” he prefaced. Ivan laughed.

“I’m not surprised. She’s really driven when she sets her mind to something.”

“Yeah,” Adrien agreed, sighing and rubbing the back of his neck. “She’s something else…”

“Do you want to talk about Marinette today?” Ivan asked, surprising Adrien.

What? Why would he want to talk about Marinette?

“Nothing really much to say,” Adrien said, frowning at the way Ivan was looking at him—expectantly, like he had already made up his mind on what Adrien felt, when he himself didn’t even know. Frowning now, Adrien added, “I’m not really sure if I wanna talk about anything at all.”

“That’s fine,” Ivan said, and Adrien stared at him. “We can talk about nothing, too.”

“We can?”

“Sure,” Ivan answered again, smiling. “Whatever you want, whenever you’re ready.”

Honestly, Adrien didn’t think he was ‘ready’ for anything, in regards to what therapy involved.

But…he wouldn’t know until he tried, would he?

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Week Five

What was he doing here?

Again and again, Adrien mentally chanted the answer to himself.

You’re here for ice cream, that’s all. There’s no pressure—you don’t need to join them. You weren’t invited.

Even so, he couldn’t help but overhear them, zeroing in on their conversation, for they were easily the loudest table in the place.

“I’m getting worried,” Nino was sighing as Adrien busied himself with scanning the menu, wondering what he could convincingly be in the mood for, though his stomach was in knots. “Her grandmother hasn’t heard from her, either.”

“Who?” Marinette asked. Adrien sternly kept his gaze forward, away from her.

“Are you talking about your neighbor?” Alya asked as the person behind Adrien gave a little cough; he was holding up the line. Adrien stepped out of the way, allowing the man to cut him with the excuse that he didn’t yet know what he wanted, but really, he just wanted to remain close enough to eavesdrop.

“Yeah.” Nino sighed again, and Adrien felt himself automatically frown in response. He worked to straighten out his expression, hearing his former best friend continue. “There’s this kid that lives next door to me, ‘Nette: a ten year old girl named Kira. She’s had a rough life—her dad’s a bastard of a drunk, and he used to beat her and her mom when she was younger.”

“Oh my god,” Marinette whimpered, and Adrien had to restrain himself from marching himself over there to comfort her; her voice sounded far too worried to be allowed.

“Didn’t they put the bastard in jail?” Alya wanted to confirm, her voice aggressive.

“Yeah, but Kira’s mom died from the injuries. Now Kira lives with her grandma, and they’re real sweet to me. But apparently Kira’s dad got out of jail just last week, and he’s been coming around asking about her. Yuri keeps threatening to call the police, but really, she’s afraid to do anything that’ll make him mad—she doesn’t want him suing her for custody of Kira.”

“He can’t do that, can he? He’s an unfit parent!”

The rage in Marinette’s voice was all holy justice, and Adrien felt it echo within him. She was right—a man like that wasn’t fit to raise his daughter.

“I know that, but since Kira never testified against him, the courts believe the abuse just happened to her mom.”

“That’s bullshit! Was the judge blind?! I’m sure she must’ve had bruises still! And he still killed her mom!” Alya snapped.

“Apparently he’s reformed.” Nino’s tone spoke volumes about how he doubted such a claim. “He got out early on good behavior, supposedly. And Yuri’s afraid that the courts will give him the benefit of the doubt if he chooses to sue for custody. And now Kira’s gone missing.”

“Shouldn’t we do something?” Marinette asked, eager to help, as always. “Call the school, see if they know anything?”

“Yuri tried that. The most they could tell her was that Kira went home on her own.”

“Let’s go look for her,” Marinette insisted anyway, and Adrien heard a chair scrape back. “We’ll help, Nino. Just tell us what she looks like, and we’ll comb the city for her.”

“Damn straight,” Alya agreed, and there was the second sound of a chair scraping across linoleum. “You’ve got a selfie with her, right, Nino?”

“Yeah, hang on a second—”

“Excuse me? Sir?”

Adrien was jolted back to his immediate surroundings, blinking stupidly at the woman behind the counter, giving him an odd look.

“Uh…wh-what’ll you have?” She asked, abruptly becoming shy the moment he made eye contact with her. Adrien realized that he still had nothing to order, and his mouth hung open for a moment as he tried to think fast.

“Uh—”

His answer was deemed irrelevant a moment later—a sudden yell outside had the entire gelato shop jumping in surprise, heads swiveling towards the door. A couple was racing past outside, terror in their eyes as they glanced back at whatever was chasing them. One of the men stumbled, falling to the ground. He shouted for his companion to keep going, their arms outstretched towards each other, when curious purple and yellow sparkles suddenly appeared, blown in the fallen man’s direction. There was a sudden ‘zap!’ when the glitter made contact, and a flash of light blinded the area. The man was nowhere in sight when the light faded—in his place was what appeared to be a tiny phone charm in the shape of a shooting star, a string attached to the end of it. The other man let out a strangled yell and kept running just as a small figure touched down on the sidewalk, retrieving the charm.

The girl was dressed like a fairy princess crossed with a knick-knack shop: her dress was dark purple and frilly, the yellow pattern at the bottom making it appear like a flower blooming around her legs, which were covered in candy-striped tights, swirls of purple and yellow all the way down to candy red shoes. The waist of her dress was covered in cute little ornaments, with a small stuffed bear, a tiny pink cupcake, a large but fake diamond, a black clover pendant, a plush cat’s face, and countless others, giving her the appearance of a portable curio stand. A pink ribbon tied closed at the base of her throat, and her cobalt blue hair was accented with multi-colored hair clips in the shapes of rectangles, hearts, and stars, the star clips matching the star earrings that dangled from her ears and the giant star tattoo that was plastered over her left eye. Said eyes were blood red and pulsed with power, and after she attached the shooting star charm to her dress, those eyes cut to the side, focusing on the gelato patrons. As Adrien watched, a wide smile split her features.

“Oooh, goodie!” She cheered as she kicked the door open, reaching into a small purple bag at her side and withdrawing a handful of purple and yellow glitter, her smile manic. “More cute charms for Trinket!”

Akuma.

The panic was instantaneous—several of the patrons threw their tables up in defense or even by accident, scurrying for cover or escape from the shop. This didn’t deter the akuma—Trinket—who giggled and was indiscriminate with her glitter, blowing it in every direction, apparently determined to make her collection huge. Adrien found himself crouched down behind the ice cream counter with the woman from earlier, who was whimpering in panic.

“Get everyone you can out the back way,” Adrien urged her. “Hurry!”

She gave a shaky nod and scurried away; he could hear her whispering frantically to whomever was hiding just around the corner, but he focused on slinking out from behind the counter.

Trinket’s back was to him, busy retrieving the people she had just turned into charms and attaching them to her dress. Clenching his teeth, Adrien slipped out the open door and into the next alley over.

“Plagg, we have to do something!” Adrien urged his kwami, poking the cat-like fairy out of his pocket. Plagg gave a theatrical yawn, peering at Adrien with a flat gaze.

“What, are you gonna try and claw your way through this one, too? This is clearly a child throwing a tantrum. Just let Ladybug deal with it.”

Adrien had been meeting this attitude from Plagg a lot recently—it was clear the kwami did not approve of Adrien’s way of doing things. Normally, it wouldn’t have bothered Adrien, because he had been so convinced that his way was just as justified as Ladybug’s way.

Lately, however…

“I can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Adrien protested, clenching his right hand into a fist. “Just get in the ring!”

“Say the magic words…”

“Plagg, transform me!”

As his reluctant kwami zoomed into his ring, Adrien was filled, as always, with the heady sense of purpose and freedom that came from being Chat Noir. Ears on, claws out, bell jangling, he jumped back out onto the sidewalk, grabbing his baton to defend himself as he raced to the door of the gelato shop—

But Trinket was nowhere to be seen. Chat grit his teeth, wondering if she had snuck out the back while he wasn’t looking, but a shriek from down the street told him that she hadn’t gotten very far. He raced forward, extending his baton and propelling himself up onto the nearest roof, using the high vantage point to inspect the situation.

His gaze zeroed in on Trinket immediately as she tossed glitter at a screaming woman who cowered under the attack, only to turn into a lollipop-shaped charm a moment later, ripe for collection. Chat raced forward, jumping down into the street, intending to stop this reign of knick-knack based terror early—but because he had been so focused on the akuma, he was too late to stop when another force entirely yanked him backwards, his feet flying out from under him, leaving him to belly flop painfully on the ground. Before he could even attempt to get up, something strong slammed into his head, making him yelp and keeping him down.

“Don’t you go near her,” a furious voice above him commanded, and Chat could just barely turn his head to spot his assailant…though he didn’t need three guesses as to who it could be…

“You’re a little rougher than usual today, My Lady,” he drawled, the nickname all but ironic at this point. “Could it be you know this victim?”

“I don’t have to know her to know that it’s wrong to hurt a child.

“Is that what you see?” He asked just to antagonize her. It worked; Ladybug’s gaze tightened, and her foot shoved his head further down, grinding his face into the asphalt.

“You’re sitting this fight out, Chat Noir,” she growled at him, and abruptly, they were moving, her dragging him behind her. Chat dug in his claws, but it was no use; if Ladybug wanted him out of the way, then she was going to get him out of the way.

Which was why he found himself tied to the base of a streetlight a moment later, Ladybug’s trusty yo-yo locked securely around him. He gave her a dry look as she plucked at the wire, testing the binding.

“You’re gonna have a hell of a time facing off against the akuma without your yo-yo,” he pointed out. In fact, he didn’t like this one bit—it was one thing to keep him out of the way, but doing so by rendering herself defenseless? Bad move, very bad move.

Ladybug seemed unconcerned, scowling down at him once she was satisfied he wasn’t able to move.

“Mind your own business,” she told him roughly, her hands on her hips as she leaned down to his eye level, blue eyes blazing. “You just sit here and don’t move.

“But what if I get hungry or need to use the litter box?” He asked sarcastically.

“Too bad,” Ladybug retorted. “Don’t move until I get back.”

“You can’t just keep me tied up here, you know.”

“I’ll untie you when the akuma needs to be purified. Until then, stay put.”

“Or what?”

Ladybug’s eyes narrowed into near slits.

“I hope for your sake that you don’t find out,” she growled at him. Chat Noir stared at her impassively, all the while inwardly trying to repress the unreasonable flash of arousal he could feel pooling within him. Why did he seem to have such a fatal attraction to women who could kick his ass? This masochistic tendency was troubling, to say the least.

And off she went, racing after the akuma who seemed intent on making every citizen of Paris a personal accessory. Growling under his breath, Chat Noir wiggled against the restraint of her yo-yo. He didn’t care what she said; she wasn’t going to keep him out of the fight like this. Besides, what the hell could she do to him when he had her yo-yo?

That wasn’t an empty threat, though…’ His thoughts warned him. Well…he’d cross that bridge when he got to it.

But damn this was hard to get out of. How did Animan achieve it so easily? Oh right, shapeshifting. Well, that wasn’t an option for Chat, and he was just beginning to wonder if using his Cataclysm would be enough to break through the wire of Ladybug’s magic yo-yo—

There was a sudden tugging at his back. Chat held perfectly still; though he was curious to know who was assisting him, he didn’t want to meet their eyes and make them change their mind…though, it had to be one of his ‘supporters’, right? Who else would be freeing him when Ladybug had been so intent on restraining him…?

Finally, the wire of the yo-yo fell away, and Chat Noir jumped to his feet, flexing his arms. Ah, sweet freedom.

“Than—” He began, whirling to give a charming smile to his rescuer…only to freeze in place, his mouth hanging open in shock.

Nino stood before him, the wire of Ladybug’s yo-yo clutched loosely in his hands. He was breathing hard and scowling, as if he had run a race to get here, and found that what was waiting for him at the end of the finish line had not been worth all the effort.

Chat Noir paused, scratching the back of his head. How…exactly was he supposed to react, here…?

“Uh…thanks?”

Nino’s eyes tightened behind his glasses, clearly not appreciating the sentiment.

“Look, I’m only untying you because I know Ladybug needs this,” he stated point-blank, lifting the yo-yo. “I don’t like you, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t trust you as far as I could throw you.”

Chat’s face grew impassive. He was used to his treatment; for every supporter he gained, there were three more Ladybug supporters, booing and hissing at him as he went by. To find that Nino was one of them was no surprise.

“Well, thanks anyway,” he said dryly, turning to go—but Nino seized his arm.

“Hold up, Whiskers, I’m not done.”

‘Whiskers’? Chat twitched in irritation; he didn’t even have whiskers!

“What?” He spat, tugging his arm from Nino’s grip. This didn’t seem to bother Nino; he merely folded his arms, staring hard at Chat Noir. As if he could see just who was under that mask and was unimpressed.

Chat swallowed.

“I care about that girl,” Nino stated, baldly and without preamble. “The akumatized girl. She’s like a little sister to me. If I could, I’d be the one running after her to stop her. But I don’t have the super-powered jewelry, so I can’t do anything.” That fact clearly frustrated him, if the way his scowl deepened was any indication. Huffing, he yanked the yo-yo wire taut, and it snapped back into place. He tossed it at Chat, who almost fumbled the catch, he was so surprised. “The only thing I can do is make sure that yo-yo gets back to Ladybug so she can help.”

Chat Noir stared down at the yo-yo, and then raised his gaze to Nino, blinking in a bewildered fashion. Didn’t he just say he didn’t trust him as far as he could throw him…?

“So what’re you giving it to me for?” He dared to ask. Nino frowned.

“Because I don’t have much of a choice,” he said point-blank. “I’m not as fast as you are, and I’d probably just get in the way. At least you have the suit if you end up getting in the crossfire.”

Ahhh, so he was the sacrifice. Nice, Nino.

“So you don’t trust me…but you’re giving me Ladybug’s only weapon…”

“Didn’t I just say I don’t have a choice?” Nino huffed, rubbing his shoulder, as if there was a knot there that needed working out. “Just take the damn yo-yo back to Ladybug, all right? And don’t even think about trying anything—I’ve got a grandma that’s into voodoo, and she loves to hex the shit out of people.”

Chat had to work not to laugh—the threat was familiar, and it brought about a wave of nostalgia he wasn’t anticipating, so he had to move fast to keep himself under control.

“Noted.” Tucking Ladybug’s yo-yo in the back of his belt, behind his baton, Chat turned to go…but was halted once again by the strong grip that held him by his arm. “Look, do you want me to go to the rescue or not?”

“Just one more thing…” Chat was forced to lean back as Nino stepped forward, invading his space. His gold eyes were burning, fierce behind his glasses. “I don’t care what kind of magical powers you’ve got: if you hurt that girl…I’ll never forgive you.

A chill ran down Chat Noir’s spine.

Nino meant it: he wouldn’t forgive Chat if he hurt the akuma…which meant that there was a good chance Trinket was actually Kira.

This put Chat in a rather awkward position: if he dared to end this on his terms…Nino would hate him forever.

He doesn’t know you’re also Adrien Agreste,’ a voice in his head tried to reason, but it was stifled immediately by a hideous fear: even if Nino didn’t know now, who was to say he would never find out?

Could Adrien, in good conscience, attempt to be his friend again, knowing he had hurt one of the people Nino cared about…?

Chat pulled his arm out of Nino’s grasp once more, and Nino backed off, the fire in his eyes still burning, daring Chat to test him. He could think of nothing else to say to his former best friend, and so he merely left, racing across the streets and rooftops to find the action again…though it felt like Nino’s eyes followed him the whole way.

It didn’t take long to find them, and Chat found that he was completely correct in the assertion that Ladybug would struggle without her yo-yo: she couldn’t fly out of the way like she usually did, so the grounded Ladybug had to duck and dodge and roll all over the street, somehow avoiding the glitter Trinket was tossing out left and right, which looked like it was a difficult feat, ‘cause that shit got everywhere. And apparently, her magic pixie dust could transform objects into charms, too—every hiding place Ladybug dared to duck behind became some kind of bric-a-brac a second later, leaving her just another second to dive for cover once more.

Chat clucked his tongue. Ladybug couldn’t dance forever—all it took was one little slip—

Thinking the word was magic: Ladybug slipped on one of the charms Trinket had yet to collect, and down she went, cringing as she landed. Chat tensed, his muscles bulging in anticipation as the akuma skipped her way closer to Ladybug, a wide, eager grin on her face at the thought of adding such a famous hero to her collection. As she reached for her purse of glitter, Chat prepared himself to pounce. As much as he was interested in what kind of charm Ladybug would be turned into—probably a ladybug—only she could reverse the chaos that was an akuma attack, so—

Before Chat could move, however, something sliced through the air, too fast for him to get a clear view of it. All he registered was blue before his nose began to itch, and his eyes squeezed shut as a forceful sneeze exploded out of him, the momentum rocking him forward and off the roof. He yelped and groaned as he hit the pavement below, grimacing. That was gonna be sore in the morning…

“Ooh! A kitty!

Shit.

Chat scrambled into a backflip, landing crouched on his feet. A quick glance told him that Ladybug was still safe; her wide blue eyes were focused on something blue and huge she held, hints of red and black at the very tips. Chat had to dart his gaze away to focus on the akuma again…but…was that what he thought it was…?

“Trinket always wanted a kitty,” the akuma sang, digging into her apparently bottomless purse of glitter. “You’ll go right next to Mommy’s charm.”

‘Mommy’s charm’, huh? Chat was willing to bet his non-existent whiskers that that charm was the one pinned right over Trinket’s heart—a four-leaf clover pendant that was black instead of green.

Thinking fast, Chat lunged forward, swiping for the charm. But Trinket was fast, too; she jumped back farther than was meant to be possible for any kid, her mouth open, incensed.

“What’re you doing?!” She shouted, stomping her foot in aggravation. “You can’t have Trinket’s charm, it’s MINE!!! Mommy gave it to me!!!”

“Just let me see it for a second!” Chat Noir growled, chasing after the akuma, who clearly did not like this game of Tag.

“Stop it! Leave me alone!!” She shrieked, apparently forgetting all about her magic glitter as Chat pursued her.

“Chat, stop it!!!” He could hear Ladybug calling behind him, but he was faster than both of them; with a short burst of speed, he caught up, snatching Trinket’s arm and tearing her purse full of glitter from her so she wouldn’t get any ideas.

“Gotcha! Now just give me the—”

No one was prepared for Trinket’s reaction, least of all Chat: as he gripped her arm, she suddenly cowered, her eyes going wide in her face. She slumped in Chat’s grip, raising a hand and turning her face away, screaming at the top of her lungs:

“NOOOOO!!!! PLEASE, DADDY, STOP!!! PLEASE!!!”

Shocked, Chat dropped her arm, taking a hasty step back, but Trinket only threw her arms over her head, turning into a quivering ball on the ground.

“I’ll be good! I promise, I’ll be good!! Please, stop!!!” She sobbed as Chat could only look on in horror, not knowing what to do. “Mommy! Baa-chan! Nino!! Help me!!!

Chat backed up until his back hit something; he didn’t care to look at what it was. All he could focus on was the sobbing, screaming akuma—child—in the middle of the street, terrified that he was her father come to brutalize her.

He didn’t dare approach her. Not even when he could spy the possessed item—it was right there, right there—but he couldn’t go near her. Not like this.

Chat registered the pair of eyes on him, but he couldn’t meet them. His gaze would not be pulled from the child.

Slowly, so very slowly, a woman in red with black spots blocked the child from his view, carefully crouching down near the child, but not too close, as if she were afraid of frightening her.

“…Kira?” She asked softly after a moment, and the child flinched. “Kira, I’m Ladybug.”

The child sniffled.

“I know,” she whimpered, still cowering in her tight ball. “The Butterfly told me about you.”

“Then you know I’m here to help. That I catch bad guys.” Ladybug paused for a delicate moment. “Your dad’s a bad guy, isn’t he, Kira?”

Trinket quivered, sniffling louder.

“He doesn’t stop,” she cried, her voice wrenching something apart in Chat Noir. “Why doesn’t he stop?! I said I’d be good…and he always gives me presents to say he’s sorry…but he still hurts me!! He took Mommy away from me!!” The child gripped at her hair, rocking back and forward. “He calls me a thing. He says that I deserve to be punished, but I didn’t do anything! I’m a good girl! I was only doing what The Butterfly said!! They said that if I made enough charms that Daddy wouldn’t hurt me anymore!!”

“The Butterfly is a liar, Kira,” Ladybug said gently; Chat was probably the only one to pick up on the steel in her tone. “Whatever they said to you wasn’t true. But I can help you. I’m going to make sure your dad never hurts you again. Can you trust me, Kira?”

The child sniffled, lifting her head a little. Her eyes were swimming with tears, and she stared up at Ladybug, who smiled. There was such sadness in her smile that Chat had to physically restrain himself from moving to her, holding her, and promising her that everything would be all right, just as she was promising Trinket.

After a long, long moment…Trinket nodded.

“O…okay…”

“Thank you, Kira. You’re being very brave,” Ladybug praised her with another smile. She lifted a hand, as if she meant to pat Trinket’s head, but the child’s flinch stopped her, and she slowly lowered her hand back onto her knee. “I just need to borrow your mommy’s charm for a second.”

Trinket raised her hands, clutching protectively at the charm.

“B-but—”

“I’m sorry to ask, Kira,” Ladybug apologized; indeed, she looked like she was hating this. “But I need it. I promise to give it back, good as new, if you let me borrow it for a minute. Can you do that for me?”

With trembling, hesitant hands, Trinket removed the dark clover pendant, and placed it in Ladybug’s awaiting palm.

“Thank you, Kira,” Ladybug said softly, briefly squeezing Trinket’s hand before she stood up. “I’ll be right back with it. I’m going to make everything better, I promise. Can you stay here for a second?”

Trinket nodded, clutching her knees to her chest, tears streaming down her face. Ladybug hesitated, looking like she’d rather not leave her…but then she glanced down at the pendant in her palm, and her resolve seemed to strengthen. Chat was only dimly aware of the fact that she was moving closer to him, not registering her approach until she was right in front of him. His wild gaze switched to her, at her strong stance before him, her gaze as steady as ever.

She had handled the akuma way more effectively than he ever could.

And she did it all without having to be aggressive at all.

In his mind, Chat Noir felt himself finally surrender.

His way…wasn’t the right way.

He was wrong. All wrong.

It took him a moment to catch that Ladybug was speaking to him, the words refusing to register, her hand held out for something. Chat recoiled from it, as if touching such pure goodness might burn him.

“What?” He rasped, just catching the surprise that flitted across Ladybug’s face before it smoothed over, her poker face sliding back into place.

“You have my yo-yo,” she reminded him, her hand stretching out. “Give it.”

Oh. Right.

Numbly, Chat Noir reached behind him, pulling the yo-yo out from his belt and surrendering it to its rightful owner. She peered up at him, something speculative in her gaze. Chat looked away from her, feeling his cat ears flatten against his head. Why was she looking at him like that? Why didn’t she just end this so he could get out of here already? In fact, what was he still doing here?

As if she sensed his desire to escape, Ladybug gripped his arm.

“Still got a Cataclysm in you?”

Chat’s gaze snapped to her, her hand splayed, offering the pendant to him. He tried to take a step back, but whatever was already blocking his back had no give. He was cornered.

“You break it,” he insisted, looking away from her again, his hand tightening into a fist. He would not touch the thing that carried so many of Kira’s memories of her mother. Even if Ladybug could restore it, to break it in the first place, with his own two hands—

“I don’t think I can,” Ladybug admitted, bringing Chat’s attention to her once again. She frowned now, staring up at him. “I think…it has to be you.”

Chat stared at her. She was making no sense.

“Why me?”

“Because you hurt her,” Ladybug reasoned. But it still made no sense to him; wasn’t that all the more reason why he shouldn’t break it?

“Look,” she said after an impatient huff when he failed to comprehend; he watched her drop the pendant to the ground and stomp on it. She winced, moving her foot…but the pendant remained stubbornly intact. Pristine, even.

It was just like Patchwork’s needle—for some reason she seemed to detect, Ladybug couldn’t break it on her own.

And since she couldn’t break the possessed item on her own…

Chat raised his right hand, staring down at it. So much destruction…all in the palm of his hand. It was usually a blessing…today, it was a curse. Or maybe it had always been a curse, and Chat had always been too carried away with the idea of being a superhero to notice.

He closed his eyes, letting out a sigh. He had to do this. If he didn’t help now, Trinket—Kira. What would happen to Kira…?

Chat opened his eyes, scowling down at the pendant. He knelt down, flexing his clawed hand, muttering for his power’s aide before smashing his palm onto the pendant. It shattered immediately.

A terrible scream ripped through the air.

Chat clapped his hands to his ears, terrified for a second that Trinket had started screaming again for some reason, but she was too busy de-akumatizing. The screaming was, once again, inexplicably coming from the akuma that escaped the pendant, as if it was being tortured beyond imagination, beyond pain itself. Chat stared, horrified. Why did it scream?!

Ladybug’s yo-yo snatched it out of the air a moment later, and in a heartbeat, it was purified. Chat watched the harmless butterfly flit away into the sky for a moment before his gaze dropped to Ladybug. She was staring at him, the winter sunset glinting around her hair, almost like a halo. Her eyes were calm, watching him, like she expected him to make some connection she had already reached—

And then, as his gaze touched upon the butterfly flying away, he abruptly understood:

The akumas never screamed...unless he had directly harmed one of the victims.

The akumas screamed because he hurt them.

The weight of such a realization fell upon his shoulders, and he hunched them, wanting to be smaller, to disappear from sight. He stared down at his clawed hands, horrified. Was this going to be his legacy from now on? Being so horrible that even akumas screamed because of him?!

Ladybug seemed not to care for his plight. She just did her job, calling for her restorative powers to fix the world again. Chat watched numbly as people and objects reappeared, everything put back to the way it was, as if nothing had ever happened.

But Ladybug’s restorative powers couldn’t fix the writhing shame inside him. No, that would stay with Chat until he found a way to deal with it properly.

“…Huh…what? Wh-where am I? Baa-chan? Baa-chan, where are you?!”

Chat glanced at the de-akumatized child, only to immediately wish he hadn’t—the star tattoo that had been over her left eye had hid a black eye, and Kira sniffled, curled up with her knees clutched to her chest. The sleeve of her sweater had ridden up, and there were dark bruises on the exposed flesh of her right arm, in the shape of large fingers. Chat went cold, because he couldn’t be sure if they had already been there…or if he had caused them.

Ladybug left him to the chaos suddenly swirling within him, moving back to Kira.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now.”

“Ladybug!” Kira squeaked, and Chat ached at the sudden adoration that filled the child’s expression. But Ladybug just smiled.

“That’s right, I’m Ladybug. I’m gonna take you to your grandma, okay?”

Kira agreed eagerly, and Chat looked away, turning around. He was no longer needed here, and besides, his Miraculous was beeping. It was time to go.

He was about to do just that when a flash of blue caught his eye once again. Chat’s head snapped towards it…but it was just the blue thing Ladybug was holding earlier. Curiosity directing him for the moment, Chat Noir made his way over, leaning over to inspect the large blue thing, though his nose registered what it was way before his eyes did:

It was a large blue feather, circles of red and black fanning the edges. Chat picked it up, noting how huge it was…much too big for a regular bird to have dropped it…

“ACHOO!”

Okay, it was a mistake to pick it up. Chat sniffled, squinting through suddenly watery eyes at the feather. Where had it come from?

“Oh, right. I forgot you’re allergic to feathers.”

The voice startled him; he hadn’t realized Ladybug had gotten so close to him again. She gazed speculatively at the feather he held before her gaze switched to him, something like amusement dancing in her eyes.

“Nice to know some things don’t change,” she noted, keeping a gentle grip on Kira’s hand. When Chat glanced down at her, she hid shyly into Ladybug’s side.

For the sake of his sinuses, Chat handed the feather off to Ladybug. If he still knew her, even after all the shit he’d put her through, he knew she’d want to keep it, because whoever had helped her avoid becoming a lucky charm in the literal sense had left this behind, and it probably warranted investigation. An investigation she would embark on her own, no doubt.

Turning, Chat Noir finally decided to make a break for it, especially because his Miraculous was beginning to throw a fit. That, and his sensitive hearing just managed to pick up the telltale sounds of protesters in the distance, their chants of “NO MORE AKUMA” filling the streets. With a sick swoop of his stomach, Chat remembered that he was responsible for that. Despicable.

 As he fled, he could only gain a few steps before Ladybug’s voice halted him in his tracks.

“Chat…thank you.”

He stiffened.

No. He shouldn’t be thanked. He didn’t want to be thanked. After everything he’d done—after everything he’d put her through—

How could she stand there and thank him?!

It was too much. In light of what happened today—hurting Kira, making her relive trauma from an abusive parent, realizing he was the reason for the goddamned akumas to scream—Chat Noir had had enough. He was done being Chat Noir for today.

Vaulting quickly over rooftops, Chat fled as far as he could, as far as the end of his transformation would take him. It lasted just up until he reached the Jardin du Luxembourg, and Chat de-transformed behind a large tree, catching Plagg before the exhausted kwami fell to the ground.

“You slave driver!” Plagg accused, flopping in Adrien’s grasp. “This is ridiculous! I can’t even remember the last time I ate! This is abuse!!”

Abuse.

Adrien’s mind flashed back to Kira, at the terrified way she quailed from him, convinced he was going to harm her, just like her father had harmed her.

Adrien knew a thing or two about abuse. He was never struck physically by a parent, of course, but the neglect was abundant. He had only just started talking about this stuff with Ivan, had only just begun to work through his issues between himself and Gabriel Agreste. He had talked about the emotional distance, the overbearing isolation, the fact that he’d been treated more like a company asset than an actual person…two hours’ worth of anger and resentment and loss and loneliness, and still, it was only scratching the surface…and it wasn’t enough.

Where did Adrien turn when he needed someone to talk to, but he hadn’t made an appointment to do so?

His mind immediately jumped to Marinette, but he shut that thought down; he couldn’t drop this on her, and besides, she was probably out helping Nino look for Kira right now, who was in safe hands with Ladybug…no, Adrien would not interrupt that.

But then, if not her…who?

His feet seemed to know the answer—before Adrien knew it, he was running, his heart pounding in his chest, threatening to burst. He needed to be free of the burden that was this crushing guilt, his constricted heart feeling like it would collapse from such weight. He couldn’t breathe with it pressing upon him, tearing at him from the inside out, like he was purposefully inhaling water instead of air, determined to suffocate himself in the most painful way possible—

Adrien burst through the door of the building where Ivan’s therapy practice was housed before he even registered where he was, approaching the startled secretary.

“Is Ivan free right now?” He hardly recognized his own voice, it was so hoarse with emotion. The secretary gaped at him, uncomfortable.

“Uh…well, yeah, he is, but you don’t have an appoi—hey! You can’t just barge right in, it’s rude!!!” The secretary called after him as Adrien made a bee line directly for the doors of Ivan’s office. He ignored him, wrenching the door open and slamming it shut before the secretary could follow and give him hell.

Ivan was at his desk; he jolted upright, blinking in a startled fashion.

“Oh, Adrien,” he greeted as Adrien paced forward. “Jeez, you almost gave me a heart attack…what’s wrong?” He asked, immediately registering the distress on Adrien’s face. Adrien huffed, dragging rough hands through his hair.

“I have to tell you something,” he said in a rush, his jittery state making it impossible to stay still; he tapped his foot against the floor, rubbing the back of his head, but even that was not enough, and so he began to pace like a restless panther trapped in a cage that was far too small to be comfortable. “I’ve never told anyone before, and it’s not something I should go shouting about, but you’re my therapist and my friend, and I have to tell someone or I’m gonna go fucking crazy, so here it is.” Adrien stopped, his feet planted in front of Ivan’s desk, his eyes zeroing in on Ivan.

“I’m Chat Noir.”

Honestly…he didn’t know how Ivan would react to this news, whether he’d be cool...or come out of a bag on Adrien. So he just waited, on needles and pins, for the other shoe to drop.

After Ivan seemed to finish gawking at him, all he did was blink.

“Oh,” he said.

And that was it. No shouting. No accusing him of lying. No having him committed to a sanitarium.

Just 'oh'.

“That’s all?” Adrien pressed, put on edge by such a…tame reaction. “Just ‘oh’? You believe me, just like that? You don’t want me to prove it or anything?”

“I am not transforming you again just for you to prove a point!” Grouched Plagg from one of Adrien’s pockets. Adrien ignored him, focused on Ivan, who frowned at the disembodied voice for a moment before coming to focus on Adrien once more.

“No, I believe you,” he assured Adrien calmly, much to the model’s surprise. “Honestly, it explains a few things…and in any case, that’d be an awfully big lie to tell for someone who’s not a pathological liar.” Ivan smiled slightly. “Besides, I usually know when you’re lying—you have a tell.”

Adrien blinked at this, momentarily sidetracked.

“I do?”

“Yeah.” Ivan’s smile grew more amused. “But I’m not telling you what it is, or you’ll just work to correct it and develop a whole new tell for me to figure out.”

Adrien frowned. Damn it.

“…While I appreciate the faith you’ve put in me so far, Adrien,” Ivan began, and Adrien made himself focus on the conversation at hand, “I don’t think you burst in here just to tell me you’re an infamous superhero.”

Infamous. That’s right. Chat Noir was infamous now.

He was infamous.

With a sigh that threatened to take his soul with it, Adrien gave up and flopped down on the chaise longue, staring up at the ceiling. He heard Ivan get up from his desk, moving to the armchair nearest him. He knew without looking that the gentle giant had his hands folded loosely in his lap, knew that he had Ivan’s complete attention, despite the fact that it was not his appointment time, that he had all but kicked the door in, and he, as Chat Noir, might be very unwelcome. Ivan could’ve had other plans—he could be planning to meet with Mylene for dinner soon. It was abominably rude for Adrien to come here unannounced, and it bordered on taking advantage.

In fact, he had half a mind to march himself out right now, and still pay extra for the inconvenience, when a light pat to his shoulder stayed him.

“Go ahead, Adrien,” Ivan urged quietly. “I’m listening.”

That was all the invitation Adrien needed. He sucked in a deep breath, pushed his nerves aside, and closed his eyes.

“I hated Hawk Moth. I hated everything he stood for. I’m supposedly the embodiment of chaos, but he—”

“Excuse me, I am the embodiment of chaos!” Plagg protested, zooming out into the open now; he apparently seemed to think there was no point in hiding, now that Adrien had spilled his most carefully guarded secret to Ivan. Nevertheless, Ivan stared, but Plagg didn’t seem to care as he floated smugly in the air, regarding Adrien with a lazy green eye. “Repeat after me: Plagg, god of chaos and destruction, Adrien: human disaster vessel. Get it right.”

“Uhhhhh,” Ivan said, his eyes still wide and staring at Plagg. Adrien huffed.

“Ivan, Plagg. Plagg, Ivan.”

“Charmed,” Plagg said carelessly, floating up to Ivan’s eye level. “Got any cheese around here, big guy?”

“Uhhhhh,” Ivan repeated, and Adrien was briefly amused to see the utterly perplexed look on Ivan’s face. Psychology degree aside, he had never come across something like Plagg before, so Adrien was at least satisfied with this form of shock on him.

“I’ll explain later,” Adrien assured him, digging into one of his coat pockets for the camembert he was forced to carry everywhere. Once Plagg was placated, Adrien shut his eyes once more.

“Like I said, I hated Hawk Moth for the trouble he caused everyone. …But at the same time, I was thankful to him. If it weren’t for him…I never would have met her. Ladybug.”

Ladybug, the girl who had rocked his world and set the bar impossibly high for other women for the rest of Adrien’s life when he was just fifteen years old.

Ladybug, the woman who always stood up for what was right, even if she was forced to battle her former partner to uphold her values.

Ladybug...the woman who, despite all the bitterness and betrayal between them...could still find it in herself to thank her enemy for his help.

The reverence with which Adrien spoke her name must have tipped Ivan off.

“You love her, huh?”

Adrien exhaled shortly through his nose.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, resting his forearm across his forehead, his other palm flat against his stomach. “I used to think so…but the situation’s seriously fucked up right now.” Adrien sighed again, opening his eyes a crack. “That, and she’s already rejected me. I didn’t mind it so much as Chat Noir, because we were just joking around…but as Adrien…”

Ivan shifted in his seat.

“So Ladybug knows your real identity?”

“No,” Adrien admitted; the subject was still a sore spot for him. “We agreed when we were younger not to tell each other. Well…I should say that she wasn’t ready, rather. I wanted to know…but I wasn’t about to push her into something she didn’t want to do.”

It was quiet for a moment in the office, the setting sun winking through the window, giving a final parting wave before it settled in early for the night. As the amount of light in the room began to change, Ivan spoke.

“Why do you think it hurt more to have Ladybug reject you as Adrien rather than as Chat Noir?”

Adrien snorted. That was the shrink-iest question he had ever heard. Ivan didn’t ask a lot of them…or maybe he did, and just usually didn’t make it so obvious. Adrien didn’t know. He was new to this.

Because he was on Ivan’s time now instead of his own, Adrien made himself think about the question before he endeavored to answer it as fully as he could.

“Because Chat Noir has a cool suit that lets him bounce back from most anything,” Adrien said, staring up at the ceiling now. A frown creased his brow. “Adrien doesn’t. Adrien is soft and squishy, and more fragile than he’d care to admit.”

“Not to mention he gets carried away with all his ideas of what justice is supposed to look like,” Plagg called from the end of the chaise. Adrien had to master the impulse to kick him. Besides, he wasn’t wrong.

“Anyway, I’ve always been a little bit grateful for Hawk Moth’s existence because of Ladybug,” he admitted, shamed-faced. “Without a villain, there’s no need for superheroes. So though he kept akumatizing people left and right, a tiny part of me was grateful…because it meant that I’d get to see My Lady again.”

Realizing who he was talking to, Adrien turned, cringing at Ivan.

“Sorry.”

Ivan shrugged. His face, for once, was unreadable.

“It’s how you feel,” he said simply. Such a noncommittal response concerned Adrien, but since Ivan said nothing more, Adrien re-focused on exorcising this poisonous ball of darkness he had been carrying around for so long.

“Finding out Hawk Moth was…my father…was…” Adrien swallowed, his eyes far away, on a broken man that used to stand over him, ten feet tall, cold, unreachable. “He died right in front of me, spouting some bullshit about how he only did what he thought was best.” Exasperated, Adrien threw up his hands. “How was terrorizing Paris best?! What the fuck was he talking about?! I still don’t understand what he meant!” Adrien grit his teeth, forcing himself to calm down, laying his hands down on his stomach and folding them to discourage himself from throwing something.

“In any case…somehow, in the end, he’d figured out I was Chat Noir. He was looking right at me, while I was Chat Noir, when he spoke his last words. I don't know how he figured it out...but he did. And Ladybug wanted to tell me—me, Adrien—right away after Hawk Moth…Father…after he died. But I—as Chat Noir—convinced her not to, because if she had to tell me, without my mask, that she was the reason my father was dead…I don’t know how I would’ve reacted. And…I’m a little scared to admit that…I might have been more relieved than upset.”

“Mhm,” Ivan hummed when he paused, just to let Adrien know that he was still listening, and that he could keep going. So Adrien did.

“After that…well, you know what happened. I moved to Milan, and no one heard from me for seven years. My aunt and uncle…they were nice people. On the surface.”

In his mind’s eye, Adrien scowled at the image of his new foster parents, their smiles aimed at him always a little too wide to be believable…but he didn’t understand what that meant until much, much later…

“They treated me well, I guess. I never wanted for anything, and they were always around when I needed a parental figure for school or other things…but their kindness wasn’t real. I overheard them talking one night, just after my eighteenth birthday—they threw this awesome party, invited all my friends from school, got me a ton of cool presents…I was so happy that night.”

Now, the memory made him ache, remembering the naïve boy who had just reached manhood, and yet still managed to be so incredibly child-like that it was unreal. He had no one to blame but himself for what happened next…

“I was sneaking downstairs for a snack one night when I heard them arguing. My uncle was upset about all the money they’d spent on the party—it was apparently more expensive than they had agreed to in the first place. My aunt talked him down. It wasn’t that much, she said. They could afford it, after all—my mom’s family was from old money. Besides, she wanted to keep me happy. She said my uncle should drop that attitude and focus on doing whatever I wanted…because she didn’t want the family to be turned into monsters just because I was upset.”

There was a small intake of breath next to him. Adrien ignored it, staring blankly up at the ceiling.

“That’s when I figured it out: they didn’t actually care about me. I was just a relative that was dropped on them, with a fucked up past and nowhere else to go. They didn’t really get how the Miraculous worked—they seemed to think that it was a hereditary trait, or maybe witchcraft, that made my father Hawk Moth. And now that he was gone…they were sure the ‘gift’ had been passed to me. And who wouldn’t want it, right? Being able to get whatever you wanted by threatening all who opposed you with monstrous transformations that had you destroying anything and anyone you loved? My aunt was right to be afraid: what if I turned on her family next, just because I didn’t get a specific toy I wanted, or was fed the wrong kind of salad at dinner? What if—”

“You’re not your father, Adrien.”

It was the third time those words had to be spoken to him. Adrien closed his eyes.

“I know,” he muttered. “I’m still trying to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.”

Ivan seemed to have nothing to say to that. As the seconds ticked by, Adrien went over, in his mind’s eye, what happened next, a black and white reel playing in his mind:

He had rushed back upstairs after overhearing that argument, his happiness from the best birthday party he had ever received vanishing completely. What was the point in being happy in a lie? Didn’t this mean they had never cared at all? That he was just an obligation rather than a person?

Well…if they were so worried that he’d throw a fit one day and turn them all into monsters…what was the point in staying?

And so he had begun to pack, grabbing whatever his hands found first, because his mind was still reeling, trying to process through the shock of how his own flesh and blood had betrayed him once again, how he really was the tragic teen that no one understood, how he had nothing…nothing…

But then his door had opened…and then…

“My cousin caught me before I could run away,” Adrien reflected out loud, irony in his tone. “Any other time, he would’ve just ignored me—he was three years older than me, and had ignored me since I moved in, so I didn’t really bother myself with him much. But…for some reason that night…he was there. I don’t know if he was just walking by and heard me shuffling around or what—he liked to skulk through the house, I think, when he wasn’t in the library or in his room reading…but he kind of just stared at me for a second. And then he told me to stop crying. I didn’t even know I was doing it until he said something, and it was super-embarrassing. He made me sit down on my bed…and then he scolded me. He told me it was absolutely foolish for me to go out at this time of night, that I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and that it would only stress everyone out needlessly if I ran off on my own.

“I didn’t take being treated like a stupid kid too well, no matter how accurate it might’ve been at the moment, and so I shouted back, saying that I wasn’t going to stick around if people were just gonna walk on eggshells around me because they were scared of me. He looked at me for a long time—I think he always knew how his parents felt about me, and I didn’t realize until a lot later that his brush-offs with me were his quiet protests of the preferential treatment they were showing me for all the wrong reasons. Finally, he took my bag, and dumped everything I'd tossed into it on the floor. And then he told me point-blank that running away wasn’t going to solve anything, and that I’d be stupid to try. And then, as he left, he looked at me one more time…”

And Adrien saw, in his mind, that cool blue gaze surveying him, finding him foolish.

“…And he said… ‘If you don’t want to be mistaken for a demon…then show them what real demons look like.’”

And then he had left, leaving Adrien to stew in his anger, the injustice of the situation squirming under his skin, making him pace restlessly, helplessly, until finally…

“That’s when you got the idea to start hunting akumas.”

Ivan’s voice was quiet. Adrien didn’t dare look over at him as he nodded.

“The Butterfly Miraculous had been stolen from me before I left. I knew it was only a matter of time before a new Hawk Moth rose to power. And I wanted to be there when it happened.

“So I prepared—I studied my ass off, aced all my tests and papers, graduated from Scuola media superiore at the top of my class, and then again in university with my Master’s degree in Business. In a little under a year, and though I don’t like it, mostly thanks to my father’s former influence in the fashion industry, I managed to build my own company from the ground up, all by my twenty-second birthday. I decided it was time to move back to Paris, and once the locations for my house and office were ready, I bought my plane ticket…and just when I had managed to get settled, that night, an akuma attacked the city for the first time in seven years.”

“That timing was uncanny,” Ivan had to admit. Adrien glanced over, frowning.

“Yeah, it was. Had me paranoid for a bit, like the new Hawk Moth knew I was back in town…but I don’t know how he could have known, unless he knew who I was…”

Which was impossible—just because Gabriel Agreste had figured out his son’s secret didn’t mean anyone else in Paris knew…Adrien doubted Gabriel would have confided in anyone else about something like this…

“And so the hunt began. I did everything I could to pursue what I thought was true justice…because there had to be something innately dark in these akumatized victims, right? After all, there was never more than one akuma attack at a time, and it was unlikely that everyone else was just having a really good day, save for this one person who’d been slighted in some way. There had to be something about these specific victims, other than their anger or their despair, that drew Hawk Moth to them. At least, that’s what I told myself, over and over and over again…”

Adrien’s mind went to Kira, to the bruise over her left eye, to the finger marks on her arm. His fist tightened reflexively, burning with guilt.

“…But that’s not true. Hawk Moth doesn’t cause the negative feelings in akuma victims. We do. …I do.”

Adrien could feel both Plagg and Ivan staring at him now. He kept his gaze carefully averted to the ceiling.

“Humanity is responsible for humanity. And to blame the akuma victims for becoming victims…it’s like blaming them for feeling, just like Ladybug said.” Adrien’s eyes tightened. “I knew what it was like to be blamed for my feelings, to be called irrational, overemotional. Having someone cut you down that way—it hurts. Like what you feel doesn’t even matter because it’s inconveniencing someone else. My father made me feel that way all the time when I was upset with him for missing something we’d had planned in favor of work, for restricting me to the house, isolating me from the world…but how was I any better, when I hunted akumatized victims for being taken advantage of by a supervillain? Didn’t I just become my father after all, with such an attitude?”

Adrien raised his hand, his silver ring glinting on his finger.

“I may have been chosen for this life, but I chose it, too,” he mumbled. “I might’ve been able to say no, to quit…but I needed this. Chat Noir was the only way I was able to feel free…and if I think about it, it’s not that different from when the akumatized victims accept Hawk Moth’s help. We all want to be free of something once in a while, don’t we? Don’t we all feel trapped every now and again? Even lost…or helpless? If I dare to judge akumatized victims for what I believed was weakness of spirit…then what about me?”

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

Adrien closed his hand, letting it fall back onto his stomach.

Marinette was right, and so was Ladybug. His way was not the way.

It was cruel. It was wrong.

He was wrong.

“I was wrong,” Adrien made himself say the words out loud, feeling years and years of pent up tension leaving him at the admission, leaving him…lighter. Liberated. He turned to look at Ivan…at the very first akumatized victim he had ever saved, the knowledge of his guilt burning within him.

“I was wrong…and I’m sorry.”

Time stood still for one long moment.

And then Ivan slowly smiled the widest smile Adrien had seen on him to date.

“They say that the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem,” Ivan said. He reached over and patted Adrien’s shoulder. “You’re a bit farther than I was expecting, so I’m glad.”

“It’s about time,” Plagg drawled, zooming into the air to hover over Adrien. His tone was exasperated…but his expression was pleased. “I’ve been wondering whether or not you were ever gonna show up again, you stubborn child.” He settled onto Adrien’s shoulder, the tops of his ears brushing the underside of Adrien’s jaw. “Welcome back, Adrien.”

Adrien couldn’t help himself—he laughed, tears pricking his eyes. It felt good to laugh like this again. Usually he only laughed this way with Marinette anymore, so to do it without having to rely on her presence felt really, really good.

“Thanks,” he said to Plagg, scratching the kwami between his ears, rewarded with a purr a moment later. He sat up carefully and turned to Ivan with a wry grin. “Does this mean I’m cured, Doc?”

Ivan laughed.

“It doesn’t quite work that way…but your breakthrough is encouraging.”

“So…about the whole ‘me being Chat Noir’ thing—”

“Your secret is safe,” Ivan assured him with a nod of his head. “There’s a thing called doctor-patient confidentiality, so I couldn’t tell anyone even if I wanted to.”

“…I was just gonna say that I was sorry for making you doubt me,” Adrien finished his thought, smiling a little. “But I’m glad you’re willing to keep my secret.”

“Oh…no problem.” Ivan blushed, smiling a shy smile. “Now I can go back to thinking that you’re super awesome.”

Adrien blushed too, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Ahaha…maybe not yet…” A frown creased his brow. “There’s a lot I have to make up for, first.”

“One step at a time, Adrien,” Ivan reminded him. “And, as always, if you need to talk, you know where to find me. Just, uh…try not to take my door off its hinges in the near future, okay?”

Adrien grinned sheepishly.

“I’ll be better. I promise.”

 


 

Adrien didn’t know how he knew they’d be there today. Maybe it was just a lucky guess.

He snorted, his hand closing around the charm in his pocket, the one he’d stumbled upon as he was going through his old belongings last night, sorting through things to purge from his past, if he wanted to move forward the right way. It took him a moment to remember what this strange charm was when it fell out of a box of stuff Adrien hadn't touched in ages. The longer he stared at it, the more he began to remember—there was a video game tournament…quiche…and Marinette…

Adrien had almost sent her a picture, wanting to gloat about what he’d just discovered, after he got over the realization that he’d unconsciously kept it all these years…but he changed his mind at the last minute, cancelling the text. He wanted to see Marinette’s face once she saw the charm, wanting to see if she’d recognize it faster than he did. And so Adrien had thrown on his coat and left the house, with no direction other than a gut feeling that she and her friends might want to finish the ice cream social that had been interrupted during yesterday’s akuma attack…

And just like yesterday, he found them easily within the gelato shop. But there was a new addition today, one he hadn’t noticed until he’d already entered the shop and began to head their way, intending to march himself over there and start a conversation, no matter what it took:

Kira was among them, laughing brightly at some story Alya was telling her. She wore a pink eye patch over her left eye, bedazzled with rhinestones and other sparkly items, hiding her bruise from view.

Adrien halted in his tracks, legs locking in place.

The abrupt movement alerted Nino from his peripheral vision, and he glanced over. Their eyes met.

“…Be right back,” he said to the table after a moment, getting up and approaching Adrien, who merely stood there in the middle of the gelato shop, unsure of what to do. He could only watch as Nino drew nearer, planting his feet in front of Adrien, his golden eyes blazing. The silence was thick with tension and uncertainty.

Finally, after an excruciating moment, Nino spoke.

“Hey,” he greeted casually. Adrien blinked.

“Hey,” he returned carefully. Nino tilted his head to the side, inspecting him.

“Still stupid?” He asked.

Adrien smiled weakly.

“I think I’m getting smarter,” he admitted. Nino appeared to chew that over…and then he nodded.

“Cool.” He clapped a hand briefly to Adrien’s shoulder. “Have a seat.”

Adrien shot a grateful smile his way, and Nino smiled a bit in return. As they approached the table, Adrien noticed Marinette’s eyes go wide and sparkly, the way they usually did when she was excited about something. She was adorable.

Alya, however, was nothing but shrewdness and suspicion when Adrien carefully sat down across the table from her.

“Well, if it isn't Mr. Adrien Agreste, supermodel and CEO of Agreste Fashion,” she drawled, looking down her nose at him. “What’re you doing slumming it with us little people? Are you even allowed to have ice cream on your model diet?”

Adrien glanced at Nino, who shrugged at him, which Adrien took to mean that he was on his own when it came to Alya.

“Uh…what my dietician doesn’t know won’t hurt me?” He offered with a slight shrug of his shoulders. Alya had yet to be convinced, it appeared…but thankfully, Nino decided to step in after all.

“Must be awfully boring, going to all those fashion events with nothing but twiggy models and fashion designers to talk to—no offense, ‘Nette.”

“None taken,” Marinette said graciously, her hands on her cheeks as she sipped at her malt shake.

“Anyway, looks like Mr. Agreste here decided he’d rather hang out with a cooler crowd.” Nino nodded importantly. “Guy’s wising up.”

Adrien smiled tentatively, and Alya gave a huff.

“Fine. He can stay…for now. But I’m reserving judgment, you hear that? I’m watching you, buddy,” Alya assured him, pointing a threatening spoon at him. Adrien gulped theatrically, and Marinette snorted behind her hand.

“Alya, finish your story!” Kira suddenly piped up, tugging on Alya’s sleeve. The suspicion melted from Alya’s face as she turned to face Kira.

“Whoops, sorry, kid. Now, where was I…oh yeah! So the Unicorn Squad and I decide to storm the castle, ‘cause this witch ain’t got nothin’ on us, right? So…”

As Alya spun this bizarre tale of castles and unicorns and witches and magic, Adrien watched as Kira became enraptured, gasping at all the right parts, booing when the bad guys seemed to get the upper hand, and cheering when the good guys became victorious. It was so easy for Alya, Nino, and Marinette to make her laugh…Adrien was glad.

That is, until they put him on the spot.

“This is a cheering up party for Kira,” Marinette mumbled to him when he froze after Alya demanded he tell a story next. “She’s…been through a lot.”

Yes, Adrien knew—more than Marinette knew that he knew, in fact. But what was he supposed to say? It wasn’t like he was a very good storyteller or anything…

As he tried to think of something, shoving his hands into his pockets so no one would see him sweat—maybe he should take his coat off—his hand brushed against something hard, and he abruptly remembered the charm in his pocket…the charm a fourteen year old girl had once given him when she wanted to encourage him…

Adrien took a deep breath. As much as he didn’t want to let go of this charm…maybe there was someone else who could use it more than he could. He just hoped it would be acceptable…

“So, uh…Kira? You like charms?”

Kira’s dark brown eye lit up at the word.

“Yeah! I collect them! But this one’s my favorite!” She gestured to the four-leaf clover pendant pinned to the front of her shirt. Right over her heart. “My mommy gave it to me. She’s…not here anymore.” Kira frowned at that before brightening a moment after. “But that’s okay! As long as I wear this pendant, I know she’s watching over me. It’s my good luck charm!”

“That’s good,” Adrien enthused with a soft smile. Digging into his pocket, he fished out the long-forgotten charm, holding it out for Kira to see. “I have a good luck charm, too.”

“Oooh,” Kira cooed, staring down at the charm in awe. “It’s really pretty!!”

“It is.” Without meaning to, his gaze slid to Marinette. “A good friend gave it to me a long time ago.”

Marinette’s eyes widened when she spotted the charm. Her face filled with red, and she ducked her gaze away from him, brow furrowing, annoyed at her embarrassment. Adrien had to work not to grin.

“I’ve kept it for a while, and I like to think it’s helped me through a lot, even if I didn’t know it.” Adrien hesitated for the space of a heartbeat, before extending his hand further to Kira. “But…I think it might help you more, now. If you want it, I mean.”

Kira’s gaze shot to his face in surprise.

“…Huh? But…but it’s your lucky charm! Your friend gave it to you!”

“I know,” Adrien assured the child, “but I don’t think she’d mind if I gave it to you. You can never be too lucky, right?”

“Really?!”

“Sure.”

Excited, Kira reached out a hand, intending to take the charm—but then she flinched, her hand drawing back suddenly, staring at it. Adrien’s smile faltered. Was she all right…?

“…No,” Kira said after a moment, staring at the charm with a perturbed look on her face. “No, I don’t want it.” Abruptly, her gaze shot to his face, looking apologetic. “Oh…I don’t mean that I don’t like it or anything! It really is pretty! But…”

As her brow puckered, suddenly, Adrien understood: Kira admitted that her father used to give her presents after he abused her. Maybe she was wary of new presents now…afraid that they came with a heavy price.

Carefully, he closed his hand around the charm, drawing it back.

“It’s okay,” he promised, smiling when Kira peered up at him. “You don’t have to take it if you don’t want it.”

Slowly, Kira nodded.

“You should keep it,” she decided, her cheerful demeanor returning, bit by bit. “It’d make your friend happy to know you still have it, I think.”

Adrien smiled at the child.

“You think so?”

“Uh-huh. You should show her sometime!”

“I should,” Adrien agreed quietly, pocketing the charm again, slyly glancing Marinette’s way once more, who refused to look at him, her face burning. He chuckled under his breath as Nino reclaimed Kira’s attention with a new story about kids with elemental powers that had to save the world from an evil conqueror who could command fire at will.

“Well well…Shy Marinette. It’s been a while,” he muttered from the side of his mouth. Marinette scowled at the table.

“I’ll sic Alya on you,” she threatened, and Adrien chuckled again.

Ladybug was right: it was nice to know that some things didn’t change.

 


 

“Did you have fun today, Kira?”

“Yeah!” Kira grinned up at Nino. “I really like your girlfriends. They’re a lot of fun!”

“Whoa, there, Short Stuff: only Alya is my girlfriend. Marinette’s just a friend.”

“Oh.” Kira was quiet for a moment as they climbed the stairs of their apartment building, up to the second floor where they lived next to each other. “Is she dating that blonde boy?”

“No,” Nino replied, though he did blink in surprise at the observation. “Why, what’ve you heard?”

Kira merely shrugged as they made their way down the hall.

“It just looked like they like each other,” she reasoned simply. Nino frowned at that. Huh. Well, sure, they liked each other—Marinette was the one to reach out to Adrien first, since she had to work closely with the dude for a good part of the year. Still, they did seem like they were getting closer…a lot closer than Nino would’ve thought, originally. Huh…was there something going on with them?

I’ll ask Alya later,’ Nino resolved; if anyone would know what was going on, it’d be his reporter girlfriend.

“Here we are: home sweet home,” Nino announced as they approached 2D, a.k.a. Yuri and Kira’s apartment. “Got your key?”

“Yep,” Kira affirmed, holding up said key for Nino to see.

“Good. Go on inside, then.” Nino grinned down at the girl as she stuck the key in the door, twisting until the deadbolt unlocked. “And let me know if you need anything, all right? I’m just next door.”

Kira peered up at him with her good eye. No matter how pretty he’d helped her make the eye patch, Nino still ached at the necessity of it. At least the scumbag bastard was back in prison now, after Kira had bravely agreed to go to the police…but only if Ladybug could come with her. And Ladybug had obliged, though she had to leave soon after…but not before making sure Kira knew that Ladybug was proud of her. It was something that warmed Nino’s heart all the way down to the bottom; at least one of their superheroes still had her head on straight.

“Don’t worry, Nino,” Kira said, reaching up and patting his hand in a placating manner, as if she could sense his concern for her. “I’ll be fine. I have my lucky charm.” She gestured to her pendant with a smile. “And one day, I’m gonna use this charm to fight bad guys like Ladybug!”

Ah, the spotted hero of Paris had gained another fan. It was well-deserved, of course…but Nino couldn’t help but be a little envious of the hero worship that had entered Kira’s expression at the thought of Ladybug.

“I’ll be rooting for you, kid,” Nino assured her with a thumbs up. “Say hi to your grandma for me.”

“I will!” Kira chirped, grinning toothily at Nino before she slipped inside her apartment and shut the door. Nino was only satisfied when he heard the deadbolt slide home once again, and he let out a sigh. Interesting day: Adrien Agreste might not have devolved into a terrible human being after all…and he and Marinette might be a thing.

The most important thing, however, was that Kira was smiling again.

Nino had his door halfway unlocked before he remembered that he hadn’t grabbed his mail yet. Cursing mildly under his breath, he pounded his way back down the stairs to the lobby, where the stainless steel mailboxes awaited, mounted into the wall. Nino rolled out the combination that would unlock the box labeled "LAHIFFE, N.", and cringed at the abundance of post that awaited him. That’s what he got for only checking once a month around bill time, he supposed…

With a resigned sigh, he headed back upstairs and into his apartment, flopping down onto his couch and facing the coffee table so he could begin The Sorting.

“Okay, lessee…junk, bill, subscription to a magazine I don’t care about, junk, bill, junk…hm?”

From under a flyer for a new type of metabolism pill rested a black box, unmarked. As Nino lifted it to eye level, he frowned, unable to remember ordering anything that required a package recently.

“What’s this…?”

Chapter Text

“Ouch!”

Marinette winced as she managed to prick her own finger with her sewing needle for the fourth time in twenty minutes. She really should slow down, or she was going to slowly bleed to death before the day was out. But she was so close! Just a few more stitches…and…

“Done!” Marinette announced proudly, sticking her needle into its pin cushion and taking a step back to admire her work.

Working with leather was a little harder than Marinette had anticipated, but even so, she was pleased with her creation: artful tears ran up and down the sleeves of the jacket, giving it the appearance of being shallowly clawed, as if a tiny cat with abnormally sharp claws had taken to climbing the sleeves for fun. Marinette circled her sewing mannequin to nod her approval of the design on the back of the jacket—shallow tears here, too, but dominating the back was a criss-cross of wider tears, bringing into view a large, green paw print, obscured slightly by the remaining strips of leather crossing it, but still distinguishable as a paw print all the same.

As Marinette nodded, satisfied, Tikki zoomed forward to rest on her shoulder.

“Wooow…at first I was scared when you brought out the saw…but this is wonderful, Marinette!”

“Thanks,” Marinette said, grinning. “But you haven’t seen anything yet…”

She moved over to her light switch, cutting it off. Her curtains were already drawn over her balcony doors, blocking out any light…which meant that the only light available was from the green paw print on the jacket, incandescent in the darkness, almost…pulsing, as if it were alive. Tikki gasped, and Marinette giggled.

“Cool, huh? Luminescent paint,” she explained, cutting the lights back on. “Took ages to get off my hands, but I think it was worth it. Hmm…” She hummed, circling around to the front of the jacket again and tilting her head. “I think I’ll add another paw print just above the pocket here on the front…maybe not one that glows, but definitely a green one…”

“Chat Noir would love this,” Tikki commented, and Marinette’s smile faded, replaced with a frown.

Speaking of the rogue cat…she hadn’t seen him at all, despite there being a couple more akuma attacks since the last time she’d encountered him. Ladybug had to admit that it was a little easier to do her job without him mucking things up, and his protesters were a little less rowdy with their leader nowhere in sight…but the déjà vu really wasn’t appreciated. He hadn’t disappeared off the map again, had he? Not when she felt like she was finally getting through to him…?

Marinette let out a sigh. That stupid stray was going to be the death of her if she kept fretting over him like this.

Besides, he wasn’t the only mystery that required her attention at the moment…

Marinette turned her gaze to her work desk, where her sketchbook lay open to Chat Noir’s intended design, his unfinished mask lying beside it. Above both those items, resting casually on the desk, was a large blue feather with black and red rings at the edges. Marinette moved over to the desk, picking it up again to examine it. It was truly an exquisite feather—she was almost dying to incorporate it into one of her designs—but it was evidence as well. There was an unknown ally working behind the scenes, and they had left behind this feather as proof. Ladybug might have been finished had it not been for this mysterious ally…but for whatever reason, they were choosing to stay hidden in the shadows, out of sight. Why?

“Tikki,” Marinette said, twisting the feather in her fingers, “this is a peacock feather, isn’t it?”

“It looks like it,” Tikki agreed, floating up to get a closer look at the feather.

“Then, does that mean…that the Peacock Miraculous holder…is helping me?”

Tikki sighed.

“I’ve said it already, Marinette—I have no way of knowing that.”

“Yeah, but this is pretty big evidence, isn’t it?” Ladybug noted, running her fingers through the soft down of the feather. “I’d be a key chain hanging off Trinket’s dress right now if it weren’t for this.”

“That’s true…” Tikki sighed again, sinking back down onto Marinette’s shoulder. “I really want to talk to Master Fu about this.”

“Me, too…” Marinette eyed her phone, where it lay on her bed nearby. “…I don’t feel comfortable calling him while he’s recovering, though. Let’s save it for an emergency.”

“Good idea,” Tikki agreed. “I suppose it can wait—we’re doing fine on our own for right now.”

“Yeah…”

Still…

Marinette threw a quick glance to the box under her bed with a frown. Having the responsibility of the Guardian of the Miraculous was beginning to wear on her…but she couldn’t very well just dump the chest on Master Fu the minute he got back anyway, because his Miraculous was still missing. Did this mean that Marinette would have to take over for him…?

“The Butterfly…” Tikki suddenly said, and Marinette tore her gaze away from the box.

“Where?”

“No, I’m talking about the name of the new Hawk Moth,” Tikki explained, zooming into the air to meet Marinette’s gaze head on. “Trinket mentioned it, remember?”

Oh, right. Marinette had almost forgotten; since so much had happened during that battle, such a tiny detail threatened to slip right from her memory.

“The Butterfly,” Marinette repeated, frowning. “It’s not as intimidating as Hawk Moth…but at least we have a name now, right?”

A tiny frown crossed Tikki’s features.

“Yes…but we still don’t know what this new enemy wants.” She descended, resting in Marinette’s free hand as she returned the peacock feather to her desk. “Have you noticed? None of the akuma have demanded your Miraculous after Patchwork. They all just rampage around Paris until you stop them. That doesn’t make it very clear what The Butterfly is after…”

That was true, and it was troubling: from the beginning, Hawk Moth made it clear that his goal was the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous, though what he intended to do with them died with him, and remained a mystery to this day. But The Butterfly—if that was indeed the chosen name of their new nemesis, and not just a name Trinket used to describe them—had not bothered to make contact with them at all. They just kept throwing new akuma at them every other day, with no established goal other than to cause trouble, it seemed.

Then, if they were not after Ladybug’s and Chat Noir’s Miraculous…what were they after?

Her phone buzzed on her bed, distracting Marinette. She dropped Tikki off on her usual pillow before flopping down on the bed. She could afford to sit down and check her messages for a bit; now was as good a time as any to take a break from her work.

Adrien’s name glowed across her screen, and Marinette snorted. What did this nerd want?

Adrien: Hey, I know we have a meeting tomorrow…

Adrien: …But am I going to see you beforehand for our morning jog?

Marinette: Ugggh, do you know how cold it is? It’s the middle of December!

Adrien: Fine, then no Christmas present for you. :P

Marinette rolled her eyes.

Marinette: Again, not necessary for you to give me gifts while we’re out running.

Adrien: I know, but it’s like, a thing now.

Marinette: It is most definitely not a thing.

Adrien: It’s totally a thing.

Adrien: It’s such a thing now that you can’t stop its thingness.

Adrien: People look at the thing while it goes by and whisper to each other, ‘Hey, check out that thing over there.’

Adrien: It’s a thing. Deal with it.

Marinette: Why are you such a dork, and how did I get stuck with you?

Adrien: Birds of a feather?

Marinette was going to kick him tomorrow morning.

Marinette: Ffffffiiiiiiiiiine. I’ll freeze my ass off tomorrow just so you can give me my gift…though I don’t understand why you can’t just give it to me when I’m coming to your office tomorrow anyway.

Adrien: I never mix business with pleasure.

…Was he flirting with her?

Marinette shook her head. No way, he was just being…well, Adrien. Adrien Agreste, it turned out, was a huge dork. Marinette was still trying to get over the (false) disappointment.

Marinette: It better be good, Mr. Agreste.

Adrien: It is, Miss Dupain-Cheng. :)

Adrien: So…

Adrien: While we’re on the subject of tomorrow’s meeting…

Marinette: I’m not showing you until it’s finished.

Adrien: Aw come on!

Marinette: Nope.

Adrien: Pleaaaaaaase? *Sad puppy eyes*

Marinette: You’re supposed to use them in person. They’re ineffective in a text.

In response, Adrien sent her an emoji of a black kitten with big, pink, sad eyes. Marinette bit her lip to keep from giggling.

Marinette: That’s a cat.

This didn’t seem to bother Adrien; he just bombarded her with several more cat emojis. Marinette was beginning to suspect that he had installed a shitload of cat emojis to his phone just to annoy her…or maybe because he just liked them that much. Marinette wasn’t sure which one was more disturbing.

Marinette: I’m turning off my phone.

Adrien: Ahhh, nooo!

Adrien: I’ll stop, I’ll stop!

Adrien: See?

Adrien: Stopping.

Adrien: No cats here.

Adrien: These aren’t the cats you’re looking for.

Adrien: Move along.

Marinette: Nerd.

Adrien: Yep. :) So I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning?

Marinette: I hate that you’re a morning person.

Adrien: I know. :D See you tomorrow!

Marinette: You’re buying me breakfast for this.

Adrien: I think that can be arranged. :)

It better—the promise of bread and chocolate made the prospect of getting up earlier than she had intended more bearable, especially if Adrien was going to be paying for it. Her parents, if they had their way, would’ve kept giving him food for free, except that Adrien put his foot down one morning, reminded them that they had a business to run, and that he could more than afford to pay for the pastries they kept pushing onto him. And so they compromised—Adrien paid half price for every pastry, and Sabine made him promise to come around for dinner some time when he wasn’t so busy.

Marinette smirked at the thought, knowing her mother would do her damnedest to feed Adrien up while he was under her roof since he was “so terribly thin, does he actually eat? Do they let him eat, Marinette? I ought to have a talk with his dietician; the boy’s too lean for his age! Let Adrien eat!”

Marinette was looking forward to seeing how much food Adrien could get down before he had to admit defeat under her mother’s doting; she bet he had nothing on how much Marinette herself could put away.

Laughing to herself, she got up and stretched for a moment, smiling happily at her finished Chat Noir jacket before she returned to her work table to finish up the mask. The main pieces were about done, so Marinette supposed it wouldn’t do any harm to bring them in to show Adrien tomorrow…but she wasn’t about to tell him that. Better to see him sweat, since she knew how eager he was to see the finished product. And she hadn’t quite forgotten how he’d reacted the first time she brought in anything to show him…

Marinette frowned, the perfectionist within her swelling with determination that bordered a little on indignation. If she was going to bring in anything, she was going to make sure that they were finished to her complete satisfaction. Because if Marinette was proud of it beyond a shadow of a doubt, then Adrien wouldn’t have anything to criticize about it.

And she dared him to try.

 


 

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Adrien greeted her as she met up with him on his usual corner, bright and cheery, as if it was nothing for him to get up at five a.m. to go for a six a.m. morning run.

Marinette hated him and his stupid, casual grace, looking perfect even in a track suit. Ugh, he made her sick.

She grumbled something that might’ve been a morning greeting, though there was certainly nothing good about it, continuing to jog in place since she was unwilling to stand still in the cold, god, it was freezing. Adrien chuckled.

“Little chilly?” He teased. Marinette glared at him, and he held his hands up in surrender. “Whoa, okay, no jokes right now. Sorry.”

“What’s in the bag?” Marinette bothered to ask, noticing the wicker handle that hung from one of Adrien’s thumbs, attached to a large black bag. Gold letters were stamped across the front, but before Marinette could get a closer look at the word, Adrien dropped his arms and hid the bag behind him.

“Your Christmas present,” he said simply with a shrug. But his eyes were mischievous. “Should you choose to accept it, anyway.”

Marinette raised an eyebrow.

“Do I need a grappling gun?” She quipped sarcastically. Adrien laughed and shook his head.

“Nah. But you will need this.”

From out of his pocket he withdrew an envelope with a fancy seal on the back. He handed it over to Marinette, who blinked up at him.

“What’s this?”

“Open it and see,” Adrien invited. Marinette gave him a look.

“It wouldn’t actually kill you to be straightforward for once, would it?”

“It would be terminal,” Adrien contradicted her with a serious look…though the corners of his mouth twitched. “Are you gonna open it or what?”

Again, how did she get herself stuck with this dork?

With a longsuffering sigh, Marinette slit the envelope open, pulling out a tiny, well-decorated card…with her name on it. Curious, she opened the card, reading the scrawling cursive out loud,

Mademoiselle Marinette Dupain-Cheng, it is our great pleasure to invite you to the Sainte de-Coquille Winter Ball—what?! THE Sainte de-Coquilles?! Are you serious?!”

“I take it you’ve heard of them,” Adrien teased as Marinette gaped up at him.

“Heard of—it’s a fashion designer’s dream to be invited to one of their events!! People murder for these invites!! How—how did you get me one?!” Marinette sputtered, unable to comprehend.

Adrien merely shrugged.

“I have to show my face since I’m the CEO of Agreste Fashion. And I’m allowed to bring a plus one, sooo…” Adrien rocked back on his heels, smiling down at her. “You free this Saturday?”

This Saturday was Christmas Eve.

Marinette was going to scream.

Hell yes she was free this Saturday! Hell, she’d clear an entire month of her schedule for one of these events! It was last minute, sure, but Marinette was certain she’d be able to scrape together something to make herself look presentable…she must have some outfit from the past that she could fix up really fast to be good enough for a Sainte de-Coquille event…or maybe she’d just use the rest of her rent money to spring for something. Who needed to eat when she was going to the Sainte de-Coquille Winter Ball?!

She was about to jump up and down and make an utter fool of herself…when a sudden thought struck her, and she paused in the middle of raising her arms, the scream building within her dying away.

Wait. If she was Adrien’s plus one, then…

“…What about Chloe?”

The question made Adrien blink.

“Chloe? What about her?” He asked, causing Marinette to frown. Was she missing something here?

“You’re not taking her?” She fished. Adrien only stared down at her, perplexed.

“Do you…not want to go?”

“I’d love to,” Marinette rushed to assure him, a part of her screaming at her to drop it, drop it now, if he wasn’t taking Chloe then good for her, shut up! But something about this didn’t feel right…and she had to know… “But doesn’t it look bad if you show up with a friend rather than your girlfriend?”

Adrien sputtered.

“Girl—what?”

Marinette’s brow furrowed further.

“You are dating Chloe, aren’t you?”

“No!” Adrien exclaimed, flushing pink. “Da—god, I grew up with Chloe, she’s like a sister to me! Why would you think we’re dating?!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Marinette drawled, raising her eyebrows now, “maybe because the last time I saw her, she was wearing your shirt?”

Adrien clearly needed a minute to pinpoint when that moment was. Marinette waited, running a finger longingly over the lace trim of the invitation, looking up only at the soft exhalation that was Adrien’s realization.

“Ohhh.” He shook his head. “She was wearing it just to wear it, Mari. I swear,” he insisted when Marinette leveled a flat look at him. “There’s nothing going on between me and Chloe, romantically.”

Marinette took in Adrien’s expression, the wide innocence of his eyes, the openness of his expression. He wasn’t lying—there was nothing between him and Chloe. Dimly, she wondered if Chloe herself was aware of that. She was betting on not…or very strong denial, in any case. But that was Chloe’s problem.

But, then again…

“She won’t be happy if she finds out you’re taking me to the Sainte de-Coquille Winter Ball instead of her, though.”

“Chloe hates the Sainte de-Coquilles,” Adrien informed Marinette with a sigh. “Something about the eldest son and an offense about comparing her hair to straw…it’s this whole thing, so I doubt she’ll want to go.”

“She might change her mind once she finds out you’re taking me,” Marinette pointed out, and Adrien frowned.

“Hmm…you might be right,” he mumbled, looking troubled. Marinette, though it killed her inside, decided to give him an out.

“You can invite her instead, if you want. If you think it’s easier just to avoid the trouble—”

“No,” Adrien said, the firmness of his tone surprising Marinette. Sure, Adrien had had his moments in the past when he was tired of Chloe’s bullshit and let her know it, but he generally just did whatever it took to appease her. That appeared not to be the case anymore, however…he had changed for the better somewhat too, Marinette supposed.

“Are you sure?” She asked, biting her lip. But Adrien nodded.

“Positive. Besides, it’s too late to change the name on the invite.” He tapped the invitation in Marinette’s hands, making his pout exaggerated as he asked, “You’re not gonna make me go alone, are you…?”

Marinette frowned at him. She was experiencing such a weird bout of déjà vu right now…

And for some reason, it just felt natural to poke Adrien’s nose when he leaned too far over her, trying to use the force of his puppy eyes to win her over.

“All right, I’ll go,” she agreed, smirking at the way Adrien wrinkled and rubbed at his nose, giving her an odd look. She stuck her tongue out at him and, realizing they had just been standing there for the past ten minutes, decided to begin her jog. “You’re gonna have to give me a couple days to figure out something to wear, though.”

“Ah. Well, since you’ve accepted the invitation…that leads us to your Christmas present.” Falling into step beside her, Adrien revealed the mysterious black bag once again. Marinette stared at him.

“You do not have a dress in there for me.”

“I do.” Adrien winked. “In your favorite color, no less.”

Marinette’s jaw dropped.

“Noooo no no no no no,” she protested immediately, jogging faster, as if she could outpace the problem. But Adrien merely lengthened his stride, and Marinette cursed. Damn him and his long model legs…

“What’s the problem? Saves you the stress of having to find something last minute, right?”

“A dress is way more expensive than a pen or a pin,” Marinette explained with a huff, keeping her gaze determinedly forward, avoiding the temptation that was the black bag in Adrien’s grip. “That’s one gift I definitely can’t accept, jogging or otherwise.”

“Oh come on, it’s Christmas. I’m allowed to splurge on my friends,” Adrien said. “Especially because I know you like the brand…”

Marinette couldn’t help herself; she glanced over just as Adrien raised the bag again, finally able to read the name on the bag: Chanel.

Her legs locked into place, halting her so suddenly that she stumbled and would have fallen, were it not for the sudden grip on her arm, steadying her.

“Whoa, you okay?”

There was laughter in Adrien’s voice, and Marinette straightened her snow hat, scowling up at him.

“I can’t accept this dress,” She insisted, though her eyes strayed longingly to the bag, wondering what it looked like. “Besides, isn’t it a conflict of interest for you to be purchasing expensive dresses from your competitors?”  

She saw Adrien purse his twitching lips, threatening a smile.

“I’m feeling generous. And are you sure you can’t accept it? Not even a dress that you’ll look amazing in, turning heads as you walk into the hottest party for couture, on the arm of a devastatingly handsome model?”

Marinette raised her eyebrows slightly at the last comment; someone certainly thought a lot of himself, didn’t he…?

“It probably won’t fit,” she reasoned out loud, both to him and herself. “It’d cost a lot to have it tailored…and I don’t know if I’m good enough to tailor a Chanel dress on my own…”

Adrien raised an eyebrow, his expression suggesting that he couldn’t believe Marinette would think him so naïve.

“It’ll fit,” he assured her with a nod, “trust me.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Well…” Adrien rubbed the back of his neck, glancing away from her, his face pinking slightly. “Alya has your measurements…”

Marinette felt her eyes bug out.

“You went to Alya?

“She seemed like a safe bet. I owe her a favor now, though…and I gotta tell you, Mari, I’m a little bit scared.”

“You should be,” said Marinette, working a thick edge of menace into her tone. For something to do, she resumed her jog, shaking her head for a straight minute. “So, wait…the Winter Ball is this Saturday…but before even inviting me, you somehow had the foresight to get me a dress and even ask Alya for my exact measurements? Just how long have you been planning this?”

Adrien smiled.

“I’m a man of strict schedules.” He lifted the bag with a wink. “And I’m always prepared.”

Marinette snorted despite the awe she could still feel rippling through her.

“What’re you, a Boy Scout?”

“I might be.” He jiggled the bag delicately, letting it hang from his index finger. “So?”

Marinette paused again, though she had a red crosswalk light as an excuse this time. She turned to Adrien, gaze switching between the bag and his expectant, even eager face. He had clearly put a lot of thought into this, determined to impress…and it was Christmas…

Just don’t ask about the price tag!’ Her mind insisted, and she sighed, defeated.

“All right,” she relented, making sure to make her expression as put-out as possible as she reached up for the bag. “I’ll take the—”

Adrien moved the bag out of reach. Marinette blinked up at him, taking in the suddenly speculative look on his face. Her brows furrowed.

“What?”

“…This suddenly feels too easy,” he remarked, tilting his head to the side, wickedness beginning to gleam in the green depths of his eyes. “A gentleman invites a lady to a ball, and she responds by making a big fuss about it, from the invitation itself to the dress…only to change her mind a moment later, willing to accept. I can’t help but feel like I should make this more difficult for you.”

The flat look returned to Marinette’s face.

“That wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of you,” she pointed out dryly. Adrien flashed a grin that was…rather wild…on him.

“Maybe not, but I never said I was a gentleman all the time.”

Marinette made a swipe for the bag, but Adrien only hoisted it higher, his grin widening.

“Adrien,” she growled in frustration, but he wagged a finger at her, clucking his tongue.

“Now now, you were so eager to make this difficult for me…

The crosswalk turned green, and Adrien dashed across, faster than Marinette was used to. She gaped at him as he grinned at her from across the street, dangling the bag like a carrot in front of a donkey.

“You want the dress? Come and get it,” he challenged before he turned on his heel and flew down the street. Marinette wasted a few precious seconds gawking after him, unwilling to believe that had really just happened. The shock wore off rather quickly, however, and she scowled.

That little shit! The very second she decided she could live with such an expensive gift, just this once, he decided to pull the rug out from under her! Ooh, when Marinette caught him, she was gonna kick his ass!

“Adrien!” She snarled, kicking it into high gear as she raced across the street, determined not to lose sight of his stupid blonde hair. “Get back here!”

Only his laugh answered her, whipping by her, the wind carrying it away. Marinette growled and poured on the speed, determined to catch the slippery model. She thought she had him, when he rounded a corner too sharply and ran the risk of running into a trash can—she smirked at the thought of Adrien sprawled out on the sidewalk, hopefully not too hurt, but certainly dazed enough to make him think twice about pulling such a stunt ever again—

Her smirk dropped when Adrien simply vaulted over the trash can, landing lightly on his feet before continuing to sprint. Again, she gawked. Holy hell, he was in good shape…

Marinette did the same without thinking twice about it, smirking at the brief bewildered glance Adrien sent back at her before he faced forward again, running faster. If he expected such a little thing to trip her up, he was clearly underestimating her.

As they neared Boulangerie Patisserie, Marinette realized that she could use the area to her advantage. She’d been swinging through here as Ladybug for years—she knew all the back alleys like the back of her hand, and she knew which loop-around would help her pull ahead with little effort on her part. Grinning, she veered off down a side street. She didn’t slow up for a second, though there was more debris back here than there would be on the sidewalk, but years of ducking and dodging akuma attacks made this a breeze. She swerved, the main street coming back into view just after she leapt over an empty crate. Adrien was just reaching her, glancing back—he had slowed down because he couldn’t see her anymore behind him, and he thought he had lost her. His guard was completely down.

Perfect.

Not slowing her momentum, Marinette jumped onto a nearby streetlight, using the pole to swing her way around in front of Adrien. He turned a second too late, spotting her just as Marinette was diving onto him. She had a split-second to watch his eyes go wide in his face before they were colliding, and then collapsing. Adrien took the worst of the fall, his back and his head hitting the concrete with a dull thud as Marinette landed on him, thighs clamped down on his abdomen, the rocky fall barely winding her. She cringed, glancing down at Adrien, wondering if she had accidentally concussed him—

“…Pfft! Ha ha ha ha!”

Marinette blinked, registering the laughter issuing from Adrien with some surprise. He had a hand clapped over the left side of his face, his right eye squeezed shut, grinning hugely as he laughed. It was…cute.

Marinette frowned in concern.

“Did I knock something loose in there?” She asked, daring to delicately touch the side of Adrien’s temple, as if she could assess the damage just from there.

“Ahaha! Ha ha…no. I’m fine,” Adrien assured her, looking up at her with his uncovered eye, still grinning. “You just surprised me, dropping out of nowhere. For a second, I mistook you for Ladybug.”

Marinette kept her expression neutral through sheer force of will.

“I think you hit your head too hard,” she teased him lightly, hoping such a response would be enough to dispel any suspicions he had on the subject. “Are you sure you’re not bleeding or something?”

“I’ve had worse,” Adrien assured her, sitting up a little. She tilted her head at him.

“When? Did a light fixture fall on your head during one of your photo shoots?”

Adrien’s look turned dry.

“If that ever happened, I wouldn’t live to tell you about it,” he assured her. “Besides, I was talking about fencing.”

Oh.

“You still fence?”

“Nah. No more time. But I still manage to stay in shape in other ways…”

There was a glimmer of a secret in his eyes. It made Marinette curious…but she had other pressing matters to attend to.

“Well, since you’re feeling fine…I believe I won the challenge, Mr. Agreste.”

Adrien laughed, raising the black Chanel bag, which had miraculously remained unruffled.

“I guess so. All right, all right—the princess can go to the ball,” he teased, handing the bag over, which Marinette accepted with a smug nod.

“That’s what I thought,” she answered, and Adrien grinned.

There was the sudden sound of a tinkling bell, and they both looked up.

Sabine stood in the doorway of the bakery, looking very amused about something.

“Well, good morning, kids,” she greeted them, leaning against the doorframe for a moment, folding her arms. “Am I…interrupting something?”

It took Marinette far too long to understand what her mother was implying. Once she glanced down, however, she registered too late that she was sitting in Adrien’s lap, practically straddling him, after tackling him to the ground.

All because she couldn’t stand to lose.

Her face turning bright red, Marinette scrambled off of him immediately, jumping to her feet.

“Nope!” She squeaked, her voice too high to be considered natural. In her haste to make sure everything looked perfectly normal, she yanked Adrien to his feet as well, ignoring his look of surprise aimed at her and laughing with a light, airy voice that did not fit her at all. “Morning, Mama!”

“Morning, Sabine,” Adrien greeted as well, and though he was also blushing, it was a significantly less amount than Marinette. “We’re here for breakfast.”

“Are you sure?” Sabine asked, touching her lips delicately, though Marinette could still see the smile breaking through. “You two looked rather busy—”

“Mama,” Marinette cut in as she and Adrien blushed darker, “we’re hungry.”

“I’ll bet,” Sabine replied, turning and leading them into the bakery. Not daring to look up at him, Marinette followed her mother, cursing the woman’s timing and her own obliviousness.

“Morning, kids,” Tom grunted from behind the counter, hauling what looked like heavy trays into the back room with the ovens. From there, he called, “Any luck on the job front yet, Marinette?”

“No,” Marinette sighed. Though she was loathe to talk about her failure in this department, anything that distracted her mother from what she thought she saw outside would do. “It just takes me mentioning my name, and then, before I know it, I’m being shown the door for every boutique I’ve visited so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if Symone is blackballing me…”

“That’s terrible,” Sabine said, her kind features crumpling with worry. “The nerve of that woman…”

“Well, if you need some extra cash, Marinette, you know we could always use an extra pair of hands here,” Tom said as he reentered the room, laden down with freshly baked bread.

Marinette sighed again. Great—going back to her lycee job of baking bread with her father. Not that she didn’t love her parents, but from going to having her foot firmly jammed in the door of the fashion world to returning to the hot ovens of her parents’ bakery…it wasn’t encouraging.

But though her pride put up a very good fight, in the end, her common sense—and her bank account—won out, and she sighed once more, this time in defeat.

“I may have to take you up on that, Papa,” she replied regretfully, though she tried for a smile. “I’ll send you my resume later.”

“I’ll only accept applicants who love bread more than life itself,” Tom replied with a serious tone, though he was grinning as he moved past them to stock a nearby shelf. “You’re free to apply too, Adrien, if you ever get bored of your modeling.”

“…I’m sorry, what?” Adrien asked; Marinette looked over to find him blinking stupidly, pulled out of his trance that the scent of fresh bread had pulled him into. Marinette muffled a giggle behind her hand.

“Well, I hope you kids don’t mind, but I thought we could sit down and eat breakfast today,” Sabine announced, ushering them past the counter and into the house. It hadn’t changed much since Marinette moved out—perhaps only the pictures on the bookshelf showed just how much time had passed, with her lycee graduation photo with Alya, a photo snapped of her mid-celebration when she had gotten the acceptance letter from IFA, things of that nature. As she set down her jogging bag and the Chanel bag, Marinette caught Adrien staring at the photos, and she shooed him away to the table, where a mountain of food awaited them. Awesome.

“Eat up, honey,” Sabine encouraged Adrien, taking an empty plate and filling it for him. “I swear you look thinner every time I see you…are you sure you’re getting enough to eat?”

“He’s a model, Mama,” Marinette reminded her mother for the dozenth time, pulling a plate towards her without hesitation and grabbing whatever was closest so she could dig in immediately. “They keep him on a very strict diet.”

“More like they’re starving him.” Sabine sniffed in disapproval, placing a loaded plate of food in front of Adrien. “Now eat up, young man—I want to see a clean plate before you leave.”

As Sabine whisked off to the fridge for orange juice, Adrien gave Marinette a martyr’s grimace. She giggled, her cheeks bulging dangerously with her mouth full of food.

“Just eat,” she encouraged him, once she had swallowed. “Mama’s an excellent cook.”

“I’d never turn my nose up at free food…” Adrien picked up his fork, looking strangely guilty. “I just feel bad for cheating on my carefully constructed diet.”

“Oh it’s fine,” Sabine said, setting down glasses of orange juice for Marinette and Adrien. “You’ll be able to work it off in no time, I’m sure, what with all the running around you do.”

“We only jog for about an hour every morning, Mama.”

Sabine smiled, something mysterious about the gesture.

“Of course,” she answered, and then left it at that. Marinette gave her a curious look, but Sabine promptly distracted her by pointing out that her food was getting cold. To avoid such a tragedy, Marinette ate more, contributing to the conversation Sabine struck up with Adrien about his company when her mouth was clear.

To her great surprise, Adrien beat out her record of triple helpings at breakfast with two more plates.

Marinette was furious.

 


 

“Is that it?”

“Yes…now, it’s not the whole outfit yet, just the main pieces—”

“Marinette—”

“—So before you get all critical, just remember that this isn’t the whole thing—”

“Mari—”

“Let me finish. This isn’t the whole thing, but since you were so eager to see progress, I’ve brought in what I did finish. You know what the end result is supposed to look like, so I want feedback on what can be improved on these two pieces only. Think you can manage that, Mr. Agreste?”

“Yes, okay, fine,” Adrien answered in a rush, nearly bouncing in his seat in anticipation. Marinette bit her lip to keep from grinning. “Can you show me now? Please?”

Those puppy eyes are dangerous,’ Marinette noted to herself once more, shying away from Adrien’s gaze. It was annoying that a grown man could still manage to be so cute.

“All right, all right,” she relented, amused at the grin Adrien tried to stifle, without much success. Shaking her head, Marinette carefully undid the zipper of her garment bag, very aware of the way her heart pounded in her throat. It was fine…she could do this…

Jacket first…

Moving the mask further into the bag, Marinette carefully tugged the leather jacket free, holding it up for Adrien to see, carefully turning it front to back. Her teeth moved to worry her bottom lip despite herself as Adrien stared at the jacket.

“Well?”

Slowly, Adrien stood up, staring down at the jacket. Marinette felt her heart pound harder as he moved forward, a hand raised, yet he did not touch the jacket. Rather, he just held his hand up to the paw on the back, as if he was matching the print. The silence in the office stretched for an uncomfortable amount of time, until—

“This is so damn awesome,” he breathed, and a miracle grin lit up his features, like…well, like a kid on Christmas. Marinette let out the breath she’d been holding in a whoosh, allowing herself to smile.

“You like it?”

“It’s so much cooler in person!” Adrien enthused as Marinette obligingly spun the jacket around once more for him to see. He reached out, tapping the mini bell she had attached to the zipper, grinning wide at the jingling sound. “Does the paw print really glow in the dark like you planned?”

“Yep,” Marinette answered, bragging just a little now. But she couldn’t help it—seeing Adrien so pleased with something she designed was a major ego boost. Her friendship with the CEO aside, Marinette was feeling really good about her chances of winning this challenge now.

“So cool,” Adrien sighed again, and Marinette allowed herself to giggle now.

“I take it you’re a Chat Noir fan?”

The smile faded from Adrien’s face, drawing Marinette’s curiosity.

“I mean…he’s okay,” he replied, frowning a bit. “He was better, in the past…but I’m more of a Ladybug man myself, anyway.”

Marinette felt her face turn red, and she cursed herself for it. He…wasn’t still in love with Ladybug, was he?

It’s hard to make eight years of feelings just disappear,’ Marinette reminded herself, glancing away from Adrien. Poor guy…Marinette wished there was something more she could do for him to help him gain closure…

“Speaking of Ladybug…”

Marinette snapped to attention, her wide eyes on Adrien’s face.

“Y-yeah?” She questioned in a voice a bit too squeaky to sound natural.

Calm down,’ she scolded herself, forcing a deep breath to keep her from freaking out, ‘he has no idea who you are…

And he wouldn’t ever find out, if Marinette had anything to say about it…

“I noticed you haven’t designed anything for her, yet,” Adrien continued, and the tension left Marinette’s shoulders. “The bee and fox outfits are cool…but aren’t you going to make something for her, too? I don’t think she’d be happy to find out she’d been snubbed for a Marinette Dupain-Cheng design.”

Marinette snorted at that. As if Ladybug would care about something so silly.

“I want to,” she admitted to Adrien, laying the Chat Noir jacket carefully within the garment bag once again. “Just…being forced to design all those Ladybug outfits for Symone left a sour taste in my mouth.”

“Ah,” Adrien sighed, nodding in understand as he moved back to his usual couch, sitting down. “Understandable. So you’re not going to design one?”

“I never said that,” Marinette chided him with a shake of her head, shifting her garment bag so that the jacket rested comfortably inside. “I’m gonna save her for last.”

“Oh, that’s good. For a second, I was worried you wouldn’t make anything for her after Symone—”

“Symone didn’t break me,” Marinette interjected huffily, her hands on her hips as she glared down at her garment bag at the thought of Symone. “I just need some time, but I will make something for Ladybug.”

“That’s good.” There was a smile in Adrien’s voice; Marinette glanced over to find said smile on his face as well, eyes warming. “After all, what’s Chat Noir without Ladybug?”

“You have that backwards,” Marinette said automatically, the words thoughtless. It was only when Adrien proceeded to stare at her that she realized what she said. She cleared her throat and tore her gaze from him, rooting around in her garment bag for Chat Noir’s mask now.

“…Are you a Chat Noir fan, Mari?”

Marinette frowned, feeling herself flush for no good reason.

“Well, like you said, he was better in the past,” she huffed, frowning at the thought of the rogue cat. “I really hate the turn he’s taken, especially because it feels so sudden…but…”

But that look on his face the moment Trinket started screaming…the moment he realized the extent of the harm he caused the akuma victims…that wide-eyed, horrified look on a face she used to know well, transformed by time, hardened by unknown experiences…

Marinette picked up the mask she’d designed, a thoughtful finger tracing the cat ears at the top of the mask.

“…But I still believe in him,” she said softly. “There has to be good still in him. He just needs to realize it, first.”

Realizing that she’d been babbling, Marinette turned to show her next piece to Adrien—and was promptly surprised by the blush that filled his features, his gaze torn from her, focused on the wall of glass across the room. He was rubbing the back of his neck, looking embarrassed and uncomfortable. Marinette blinked, startled. Was he all right?

“Adrien?”

He snapped to attention, suddenly sitting straighter, as if he was about to be reprimanded for being caught slouching. Marinette frowned now.

“Are you ok—”

“I’m fine,” he insisted a little too quickly. Marinette stared as he coughed, rubbing the back of his neck again. “Just, ah, my stomach’s acting up a bit. Think I might’ve overdid it at breakfast.”

“Oh? Couldn’t take the heat after all, huh?” Marinette couldn’t help but tease, still stinging from her most recent loss. Adrien grimaced at her.

“Maybe not.” He cleared his throat. “So, is that the mask?”

Changing the subject, hm? Marinette let it go this one time—he looked like he was suffering enough on his own.

“Yeah, here it is.”

Marinette felt a bit guilty—she had done a lot more work on the jacket than she had on the mask, but it was a smaller project, so she supposed nothing could be done about that. Still, she was proud of it: the edges were rough and sharp-looking, matching the scheme of the jacket without being uncomfortable to wear, thanks to the mesh she added underneath to protect the skin from the sharp edges of the mask. It was black, of course, with two small, pointed cat ears added at the top, the insides painted green to go along with the color scheme. She had managed to carve a cat’s nose at the tip of the bridge of the mask, to hang over the tip of the model’s nose, and surrounding the bridge of the mask—Marinette’s favorite part—were thin, clear, plastic strips that stuck out at strategic points of the mask, creating whiskers. Marinette giggled to herself as she turned the mask around for Adrien to see.

“What do you think? Enough like a cat to be passable?”

Marinette paused when Adrien frowned. Uh-oh.

“What?” She asked warily when Adrien pursed his lips. It took him a moment to open his mouth and articulate what was bothering him, but once he did…

“…It has whiskers.”

Marinette arched a brow.

“So?”

“Chat Noir doesn’t have whiskers,” Adrien pointed out. Marinette rolled her eyes.

“I know he doesn’t actually have whiskers.” No one knew that better than her, actually…but Adrien didn’t need to know that. “This outfit is loosely based on his costume, remember? So I took some artistic liberties.”

“Yeah, but…whiskers?” Adrien practically pouted, and Marinette worked hard to keep her temper in check. Okay…she could handle constructive criticism…she could do this…

“What exactly about the whiskers is bad?” She asked in a professional voice, tilting her head at him. “Does it not fit with the scheme? Is it a bit too cute to be allowed? Do they look bad?”

Adrien frowned, gripping his chin as he inspected the mask. After a moment, his face noticeably fell.

“…No,” he admitted, sounding irritated. “It…pulls the mask together well, actually. And they’re not too flashy, so it’s not like they draw focus immediately, just when you’re looking closely…it’s a good addition.”

“So what’s the problem?” Marinette pressed, scenting victory just within her grasp. Adrien did pout this time, and Marinette was torn between the desire to laugh and pinch his cheek and the desire to bop him on the head and remind him that he was a grown man, for god’s sake.

“Chat Noir doesn’t have whiskers,” he repeated stubbornly, and Marinette let herself sigh.

“Well, good thing we’re not making Chat Noir wear this, isn’t it?”

Adrien pursed his lips.

“I suppose…” Giving himself a slight shake, he tore his gaze from the mask, choosing to focus on Marinette instead. “Won’t the sharp edges hurt anyone who puts the mask on?”

“Oh, no, I took care of it,” Marinette promised, flipping the mask around so Adrien could see the mesh underneath. “This’ll protect the face of anyone who has to wear the mask.”

“Really?” There was a note of doubt in Adrien’s voice, and Marinette frowned.

“What, you don’t trust me?” She stepped forward, raising the mask. “Here, why don’t you try it on and see for yours—”

Adrien caught her wrists before she could press the mask to his face, his eyes suddenly wide.

“Oh, that’s okay,” he said in a rush, laughing a laugh so strained it caused Marinette to raise an eyebrow. “I trust you, Mari, I promise. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“Okay…?” Frowning a little at his odd behavior, Marinette looked pointedly down at his hands, and he dropped them, muttering an apology for grabbing her so suddenly. She gave a shrug, turning to replace the mask within her garment bag before she sat down, facing him, hands folded in her lap. “So? Am I on the right track?”

“Definitely,” Adrien enthused with a more natural smile. “The jacket is amazing, and the mask…fits, despite my, er, reservations.”

“Your unreasonable reservations,” Marinette commented with a dry look that had Adrien grimacing in apology. “Seriously, you’re a stickler for the details, aren’t you?”

“Sorry,” Adrien apologized with a slight shake of his head. “Forget I said anything. The whiskers are fine.”

“I thought so,” Marinette replied, and Adrien chuckled a little. “I plan on starting on the boots next. They’ll fit more closely with Chat Noir’s design, with the cat toes and the design on the bottom.”

“Right…” Adrien raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be very familiar with the design of his costume.”

Marinette held her head up high, nose in the air.

“I’m a designer. It’s my job to pay attention to the little details,” she sniffed. Adrien brushed his mouth with the back of his hand, and Marinette frowned. What was he smirking about?

“If you say so,” was all he said. Marinette opened her mouth, prepared to call him on whatever it was that was making him look at her like that—

“Mr. Agreste,” Sylvia’s voice called through the intercom, and Marinette regretfully snapped her mouth shut, “your next appointment is here to see you.”

“Time’s up,” Adrien announced needlessly, getting to his feet, waiting for Marinette to do the same so he could walk her to the hall, hands clasped behind his back as she hoisted her garment bag over her shoulder. “I’m glad you brought in what you have so far. Now I’m really pumped for you to finish.”

“Don’t rush me,” she teased him, smiling a little as she folded her garment bag carefully over her arm. “I’ll finish it when I finish it.”

“No pressure,” Adrien assured her, raising his hands in a placating manner. “Just letting you know, I’m excited.” He grinned. “I’m sure a lot of men in Paris would love to have a badass Chat Noir jacket of their own, myself included.”

“Well, maybe that dream isn’t that far off,” Marinette said, smiling. “We’ll find out come March, won’t we?”

The intercom beeped once again, their banter interrupted.

“Mr. Agreste? Should I send up your next appointment?”

“Someone’s impatient today,” Adrien muttered, raising a brow at his desk. Marinette snickered.

“We are just standing around chatting at this point,” she reminded him with a shrug. “You’d better answer that…and I’d better go.”

“See you tomorrow morning?” Adrien wanted to check, and Marinette made a face as she shrugged into her coat and muffler.

“Don’t count on it,” she told him dryly, and Adrien chuckled.

“Then I’ll most definitely see you Saturday.”

“Right, about Saturday—where are we meeting?”

“I’ll come pick you up,” Adrien assured her with a smile. “Can’t have a princess walking to the ball, can we?”

Marinette blinked up at him. That was twice he’d called her a princess today…and it made her feel strange, reminding her uncomfortably of a certain rogue cat that would not be named…

“Okay…what time are you picking me up, then?”

“How’s six?”

“That works. I’ll send you my address later.”

“I already—” Adrien began, and then abruptly stopped, his face growing pale. Marinette blinked up at him, alarmed at his change in expression.

“You already what?” She asked, tilting her head to the side. Adrien coughed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I already…have my tie picked out,” he finished. “You know. Pink. We’ll match.”

“Oh.” Marinette searched his face. It didn’t seem like he was lying…but still, it felt like that wasn’t what he was about to say…or maybe she was just being paranoid?

His intercom beeped for the third time.

“Mr. Agreste? Are you there?”

“It’s like she thinks you’re holding me hostage or something,” Adrien mumbled, huffing as he approached his desk. As he finally answered Sylvia, Marinette turned away, fishing her gloves out of her pocket with a twist of her lips. Perhaps Sylvia was worried they were up to something else entirely, up here in Adrien’s office…but that was ridiculous. Marinette wasn’t that kind of girl, after all.

Then again, Sylvia had no way of knowing that…so it was time to go. She was holding up Adrien’s appointments by standing around chatting about nothing.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Agreste,” Marinette called over her shoulder, pressing the elevator button, the doors sliding open immediately to admit her. As she stepped in, turning to push the button for the ground floor, she caught the tail end of Adrien’s smirk.

“My pleasure, Miss Dupain-Cheng,” he replied, sinking into a bow. Marinette rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help the answering smirk that strayed across her face just as the elevator doors slid shut, and she descended.

Well, that had gone better than she had expected…Adrien absolutely loved the jacket, which was more than encouraging.

…In fact…

Hmm. Marinette had been planning on making her Christmas gifts this year, being so strapped for cash at the moment. She hadn’t figured out what she would make Adrien yet—perhaps a hat, despite what he said about the cold not bothering him anyway—but maybe he’d like a jacket a little bit more…?

After Marinette was gone, Adrien straightened up, a sigh of relief escaping him. Well, that had been needlessly stressful…

“Smooth,” called a little voice from one of his desk drawers. Adrien frowned, spotting tiny green eyes peering up at him from a crack in the almost-closed drawer. “What was that—about three close calls? You’re getting sloppy, Adrien. There’s already one person out there who knows your secret—do you really wanna risk it and make it two?”

“Shut up, Plagg,” Adrien grumbled, completely shutting the drawer now. Not that it would stop Plagg if he really wanted out—

Sure enough, the kwami merely phased through the drawer door, floating up next to Adrien and regarding him with a dry look.

“Look, just because Ivan was understanding doesn’t mean Marinette will be,” he reminded Adrien. “You’re not supposed to just tell people anyway—anyone you tell is in terrible danger because of you, remember?”

“I’ll be more careful,” Adrien promised with a sigh, rubbing the back of his neck. “They were accidents, I swear. It’s just…easy…to talk to Marinette.”

Dangerously easy. Plagg was right—those calls were way too close, and Adrien had to do better.

Plagg let out a huff, sinking down onto the desk.

“You really need to get a grip,” he griped, “telling your therapist, I suppose I could let slide, but bringing your girlfriend into this—”

“Whoa,” protested Adrien, holding up a hand to halt his kwami, his face growing hot. “Why is everyone assuming I’m dating my friends today?”

Plagg merely stared at him for a moment before giving a hearty sigh.

“You know what? Never mind. I give up. You’re hopeless.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Plagg!” Adrien called, but the kwami ignored him, disappearing into his designated drawer once again, no doubt to nap or plow through the stash of camembert hidden there. Adrien had half a mind to yank the drawer open and demand to know what Plagg was talking about, but his elevator chimed, and his next appointment rushed in, forcing Adrien to give a smile and drop the issue.

For now.

 


 

“No Nino today?”

“No,” Alya grumped, scowling down at her sherbet. “He’s been stupidly busy lately. He says it’s because of the record company, organizing appearances and promos for him, but I have yet to be invited to any such event.” Alya huffed, stabbing at her ice cream with unnecessary vigor. “I’m kicking his ass for neglecting me as soon as he has a free moment.”

Marinette reached across the table, patting her friend consolingly on the arm.

“Come on, Alya, be fair: Nino never complains when you’re busy with work, right?”

“…I guess not…” Alya admitted begrudgingly. Marinette smiled.

“I’m sure things’ll die down once he gets everything straightened out,” she assured her best friend. Alya gave a resigned sigh, but she looked placated by the end.

“Yeah…let’s stop talking about the boy for a second to focus on another one.”

Uh-oh. Marinette dreaded this moment…but as soon as the suspicious gleam entered Alya’s hazel eyes, she knew she was done for. She should’ve just stayed home today…

So, Miss Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” Alya began, pointing her spoon at Marinette like a microphone…or a shiv, depending on one’s point of view. “What’s this I hear about you going on a date with Monsieur CEO/Supermodel Adrien Agreste tomorrow night?”

“It’s not a date,” Marinette answered with a roll of her eyes; she had been repeating this fact too much to her mother lately, whom she had had to tell to explain her absence from their Christmas Eve tradition of baking holiday cookies for Santa…a tradition that still held to this day, despite Marinette knowing better by now. “It’s two friends, going to a party. And by the way, I don’t much appreciate you giving Adrien my measurements without asking me first.”

“He and Nino ambushed me,” Alya admitted, scowling at the memory. “They were on about doing something special for you for Christmas, and how Adrien wanted to get you something really spectacular to thank you for being such a wonderful friend…that guy’s sweet talk is dangerous, girl. I’m a little worried for you.”

Marinette smothered a smile, sympathizing with Alya completely.

“I can handle him,” she assured her friend with a wave of her hand. “And apparently, Adrien Agreste now owes you a favor.”

“Oh yes,” Alya affirmed, her grin growing wicked. “And that is not a position he wants to be in…but I’ll let him sweat for a while before I actually cash in.”

“You already have a favor in mind?”

“Oh yeah.”

“What?”

Alya set down her spoon, folding her arms under her as she leaned forward, fixing Marinette with a serious stare.

“I’m gonna tell him not to go breaking your heart again.”

Marinette blinked, startled speechless by the unexpected response; it was a moment before she could say anything.

“Wha…Alya, don’t be silly,” Marinette protested with a shake of her head. “We’re not even in a position for Adrien to break my heart. We’re just friends.”

A small, sad, knowing smile crossed Alya’s features.

“Mari, I’ve known you for forever at this point,” she said, as if Marinette needed reminding. “I’ve celebrated all your triumphs with you, and I’ve suffered with you through every heartbreak and disappointment you’ve ever had to go through. Don’t you think I know better by now?”

“If you know so much, you should be able to tell that I’m not kidding,” Marinette pointed out with a slight lift of her brows. “Adrien and I are just friends, Alya, nothing more.”

“Yeah…but I have a feeling it won’t stay that way for long,” Alya said, her tone dire.

Marinette frowned at this. For god’s sake, couldn’t she be good friends with a boy without it being misconstrued as romantic? Okay, yeah, sure, she had feelings for Adrien when they were younger, but that was different—she had just been a stupid kid back then, crushing on a model she was too awkward to ever properly speak with. She had grown up since then, and so had he…very well, in fact…and he was a little more playful and open with every passing day that she knew him, and despite what he said about fifteen year old Adrien being a lie, there was still that same quiet kindness about him as there was back then…it had just taken Marinette a while to find it, behind the iron, Gabriel Agreste mask he’d clumsily crafted in an attempt to hide his true nature—

“You’re crazy,” Marinette insisted, shaking her head at her best friend. “I promise, there’s nothing going on between me and Adrien Agreste, nor will there be in the future, ever.”

Alya raised her eyebrows, her hazel gaze glinting mischievously behind her glasses.

“You seem confident.”

“That’s because I am.”

“Confident enough to make a bet?”

Marinette leveled a flat look at her best friend.

“Seriously, Alya?”

“Hey, you said yourself that nothing’s going on,” Alya pointed out, taking a bite of her sherbet to hide her smile…and not quite succeeding. “Since you’re so sure, what’ve you got to lose?”

Marinette raised a dark brow. A part of her couldn’t help but think that this was a trap of some kind…but the competitive streak in her had already sensed the challenge, and was now rising to the occasion, overriding all other reasoning in Marinette’s brain.

“All right,” she allowed, smirking a little. “I could use the extra cash in my pocket—not that working at my parents’ bakery isn’t helping me out…”

“Oh, right, how’s that going?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Marinette chided Alya, her smirk growing. “You wanted to make this bet, so let’s make it: name your price, Cesaire.”

Alya grinned.

“All right: if you win, I’ll give you anything you want, with only the exception of eternal servitude.”

Marinette’s eyes flew up to join her hairline.

“Speaking of confident…”

“But if I win,” Alya went on, as if Marinette hadn’t spoken, pointing her spoon at Marinette once again, “you have to send me a text that reads, and I quote: “Alya, you are the all-knowing queen of my life, and I am in serious trouble. I need your guidance.””

“What, that’s all?” Marinette said dryly.

“That’s all,” Alya replied quite seriously, nodding. “Because I’m gonna need to know so I can prepare the ass-whoopin’ of Adrien Agreste.”

Marinette had no idea whether or not Alya was serious. She decided not to ask.

“Okay…so, what’s the time limit on this bet?”

Alya shrugged as she ate her sherbet.

“‘Till the end of next month.”

Marinette nearly choked on her shake.

“T-that’s it?” She coughed and sputtered, clearing her throat with the help of a few well-placed thumps on her back, courtesy of Alya. “You’re just ready to lose, huh?”

“Don’t be so cocky.” Alya finished her sherbet, leaning her chin on the back of her hand as she surveyed Marinette from over the rim of her glasses, that knowing little smile back in place.

“After all…it’s only a matter of time.”

The double meaning in Alya’s words was promptly and studiously ignored.

Chapter Text

Marinette gave a yawn, shivering in the chilly wind. Stupid winter. Why couldn’t it just be spring already?

She clutched the bag of warm pastries closer to her chest, taking comfort from the smell of freshly baked goods. While a part of her was not thrilled to be working at the bakery again, Marinette couldn’t turn down the cash, and she had to admit that it was nice to be able to spend so much time with her parents again, after working at Symone’s boutique had limited her visits to once a month, if she was lucky.

Of course, things were a little more complicated, now that her mother kept hinting at how very lovely it would be to have Adrien join them for Christmas…but Marinette digressed.

She sighed, passing by the Seine and smiling at all the Christmas decorations as she walked. It certainly was festive, wasn’t it? Despite her intense dislike of the cold, Marinette couldn’t not love the feeling Christmas inspired in her, all the joy, the love, the giving spirit, the cheer…it was just a lovely time of year.

It’s lovelier with someone to share it with. And think of poor Adrien, all alone in that big house of his…” Sabine’s voice butted into her mind once again, and Marinette rolled her eyes with a sigh. First her mother, then Alya…was it too much to ask to just let her lack of love life be? It wasn’t like she was looking to be with anyone right now anyway, so what was the big fuss about—?

A sudden roar of rushing water startled Marinette out of her thoughts. She jumped, head snapping towards the Seine, where a large wave was rising inexplicably out of the water—a wave that should not be possible—

At the very top of the wave was an aquatic-looking figure: thick ropes of seashells hung around its neck, its skin rough and covered with dark blue scales, three rounded antennas sprouting at the top of its head, giving it the appearance of a cartoonish sea monkey advertisement. It held a sharp-looking trident in its right webbed hand, the three prongs sharpened to a painful-looking point. It had a distinctly masculine shape, and when it spoke, it was in the deep rumble of a male voice:

“PARIS LAND-DWELLERS! NO MORE SHALL YOU DIRTY THE WATERS OF THE SEINE! THIS RIVER NOW BELONGS TO POSEIDON, AND ALL WHO DARE TO SPEW THEIR FILTH HERE WILL FEEL MY WRATH!!!”

Marinette yelped and dived out of the way just as the Seine flooded, splashing water onto the bridges and soaking the transfixed citizens in sludge from the river, said sludge hardening and trapping them in place. Laughing heartily, the akuma sunk back into the Seine, the tip of his trident the only tell-tale sign that he was moving upriver. Marinette ducked into a nearby alley, cursing under her breath. Seriously, an akuma? So close to Christmas?

She looked sadly down at her bag of pastries before dropping them to the ground. As much as she wanted to be able to take them home—hell, as much as she would have liked to have had a peaceful night—the akuma couldn’t wait. And she wasn’t about to let Paris suffer just for her comfort.

“Ladybug time?” Piped up Tikki, popping up from out of Marinette’s muffler.

Marinette sighed, and then nodded.

“Ladybug time. Tikki, transform me!”

One magic transformation scene later, Ladybug was out swinging through the streets, answering cries of her name with an assuring nod and wave. No need to panic, after all…she had this under control…

Swinging to the Pont-Neuf, Ladybug perched herself on the bridge, scanning the water for any sign of the akuma calling himself Poseidon.

The water was still. Too still. As if it were waiting for her to make the first move.

Ladybug scowled. She didn’t want to have to go in there—she couldn’t really fly if she was underwater. And Chat would’ve hated the idea even more…if he were around…

Focus,’ Ladybug reminded herself with a shake of her head. Now was not the time to be worrying about her wayward ex-partner. She had to problem solve her way out of this and get the akuma to show himself…but how…?

He was yelling something about filth, earlier…and dirtying waters…

Was this particular akuma upset about the pollution of the Seine?

Glancing around, Ladybug spotted something that would suit her purposes: an empty plastic bottle. Trash, as it were.

Using her yo-yo, Ladybug snagged the bottle, holding it high over her head and staring into the murky depths below. There was no way she’d even think about doing this under normal circumstances—littering was wrong—but desperate times…

Inwardly arguing with her conscience, insisting that it would draw the akuma out that much faster, Ladybug took a deep breath, and then dropped the bottle into the Seine. It smacked into the surface of the water with a ‘plop!’

Nothing happened.

Just as Ladybug was about to growl in frustration, however, a sudden roaring ripped through the air—another large wave rose from the Seine, manifesting in the shape of a hand.

Ladybug gawked at the sheer power of this akuma, remembering too late that she shouldn’t be standing still—

The aquatic hand seized her. Ladybug yelped and squirmed, but it was like struggling within the grip of a titan—there was no give, and Ladybug could only hold her breath as she was sucked underneath the surface of the Seine.

But even here, the strong grip of the aquatic hand did not relinquish her. Panicking now, Ladybug struggled, fighting with all she had, even trying to use her Lucky Charm, but her yo-yo was smashed against her hip, out of her reach with her arms pinned to her sides. The more she fought, the quicker she lost strength, and her vision was getting blurry…everything was going dark…she was floating, floating away…

It was fucking freezing, suddenly.

Ladybug gasped, rolling over and coughing up a lot of foul-smelling river water. There was a firm pat to her back, helping her expel the disgusting water, and Ladybug felt her heart leap. It was about damn time the stupid stray showed himself again—

“Holy shit,” said a distinctly different voice, making Ladybug freeze up in alarm. “You okay, LB? I thought for a second I wasn’t gonna make it, and, well, having you drown on my first night out would’ve been a big stain on my budding superhero career—”

Ladybug whipped around, wrenching away from the stranger, eyes wide and taking in…taking in…

Green. Lots and lots of varying shades of green: green boots, green gloves, green bodysuit, green hood, green mask, green-rimmed goggles.

And brown, olive, and gold.

Ladybug blinked.

“Who—who the hell are you?” She sputtered, gagging around the taste of Seine in her mouth.

The olive-skinned man in green blinked gold eyes from behind his goggles.

“Oh, I’m, uh…” He paused, rubbing the back of his hood. “You know what, I don’t have a name yet…can you give me a day or two to think about it and I’ll get back to you?”

Ladybug stared. A new Miraculous holder? But, as far as she knew, she had the only two remaining Miraculous, save for the mysterious Peacock Miraculous…so who—?

Her eyes immediately dropped from the mystery hero’s face, searching his person for some sign of a Miraculous—

And she found it there on his left arm: a jade bracelet hooked securely around his wrist.

Master Fu’s bracelet.

Abruptly, Ladybug forgot that she was cold—her rage was enough to warm her into a frenzy.

“THIEF!” She spat at the stranger, ignoring the bewildered look that crossed his features as she snatched at his arm. “You stole this Miraculous!!!”

“What?! No, I didn’t!!” The green stranger protested, clutching his wrist protectively to his chest as Ladybug made a swipe for the bracelet. “It was given to me! I was Chosen, just like you!!”

“Bullshit!!” Ladybug snarled, leaning forward to fight with the stranger, hands scrabbling at him as he did his best to dodge around her, the two of them eventually climbing to their feet, Ladybug quickly advancing on him as the stranger quickly backed away, detaching a heavy-looking green shield from his back, a hexagon of gold in the center, and holding it between him and Ladybug. “That bracelet was stolen from my mentor!!”

“You mean Master Fu?” Asked the stranger, and Ladybug stopped, brought up short by this stranger’s knowledge of Master Fu. “The Guardian of the Miraculous, right? I met him! He said it’s cool! Dude’s pretty chill, for an old guy…”

Ladybug paused, scowling at the stranger.

“…You know Master Fu?”

“Yeah! He’s been training me for the past week! I didn’t steal anything, LB, I swear!”

Hold on: if that was true, then what the hell was going on here? Master Fu’s Miraculous was stolen by an unknown enemy…and yet this green stranger was telling her that he’d been training with Master Fu with his stolen Miraculous? What did he take her for, a chump?

And yet…

A war was waging fiercely within Ladybug: half of her insisting that this stranger was a liar, and to snatch the Miraculous he stole and shove him into the Seine. The other half held her impulsive rage back, insisting that there had to be more to the story here…after all, if the guy was all bad, he wouldn’t have saved her from drowning, would he?

There was a distant scream and the sound of rushing water, and Ladybug cursed. She didn’t have time for this.

“I have an akuma to take care of,” She said shortly, sending out her yo-yo to the nearest roof, about to let herself fly.

“Whoa, wait up, LB!” The stranger in green called, moving closer to her, sliding the straps of his shield back on so that it rested against his back. “I can help!”

Ladybug appraised him with swift eyes. Despite her reservations toward him, she had to admit that he seemed capable—and the turtle theme of his suit would no doubt be helpful against a water-based akuma. And Chat, sadly, was still nowhere in sight…

“Come on,” the green stranger pressed when he seemed to realize that Ladybug was hesitating. “Have I done anything to prove that you can’t trust me?”

Not necessarily, though his thieving was still in question. And Ladybug was wary of new superheroes that came out of nowhere automatically, thanks to her run-in with Volpina…

Thinking quickly, Ladybug retracted her yo-yo, staring at the green, turtle-themed hero. He straightened under her gaze, as if that would be enough to prove himself…and Ladybug huffed.

“Fine. While we’re looking for the akuma, you can explain to me exactly how it is you got hold of the Turtle Miraculous, and exactly when you met Master Fu, and exactly when he became “cool” with this.”

“Then I’ll tell you exactly what happened,” said the green stranger, and Ladybug scowled; being a smartass was not going to get him on her good side. He seemed to realize it, too, for he laughed nervously and suggested they start looking for the akuma as he explained.

“Fine. See if you can keep up, Shell Boy,” Ladybug taunted, taking off immediately, following the swelling of unnatural waves from the Seine.

“Shell Boy?” Questioned the green stranger as he kept pace beside her, frowning at the given nickname. “Nah, if anything, it’d be Shell Man. And that’s a little too kiddish, anyway. I was thinking something more like Michael-Angelo, or Donatello. That way, when we’re fighting akuma, my war cry could be, “Cowabunga, bitches!” Oh man, that’d be so awesome…”

Oh great. Another nerd. As if Ladybug didn’t have to put up with one of those alrea—

…Oh. Right…

Well, since this was his first night out, she supposed she wouldn’t spoil it for the rookie…provided he was as innocent as he claimed…

“Worry about your super name later and start talking about how you became super in the first place,” Ladybug reminded him, sliding a scowl his way. Shell Boy grimaced and finally obliged.

As they searched for Poseidon, Shell Boy spun a tale that Ladybug was very familiar with—he came home one day last week, found a mysterious black box buried within his mail, opened it up, and suddenly, a green talking turtle fairy was calling him ‘Master’.

Naturally, he freaked out.

“I thought I was going crazy,” he admitted sheepishly as Ladybug scanned the waters for any movement before moving on. “I’ve never done drugs before, but I swear that’s what it felt like. Little green dude, talking to me, calling me ‘Master’ and saying I’m Chosen to be a superhero? Shit was like straight out of a comic book. It was nuts.”

Ladybug slid a frown Shell Boy’s way. She was getting the weirdest feeling from him…like he was familiar. But she’d surely recognize the guy if she knew him, right? After all, what were the odds of her running into someone she knew in real life in costume as well? There were thousands of people in Paris; it was more statistically sound that she didn’t know this guy at all…right?

Then what about all the akuma when you first became Ladybug?’ Reasoned a voice in her head, and Ladybug’s frown deepened. True…the akuma did have an odd way of creeping up around her, transforming people she cared about into temporary menaces…

“What’s the name of your kwami?” Ladybug asked, deciding to quiz him to see if he was on the up and up.

Shell Boy grinned.

“Little dude’s name is Wayzz,” he reported, briefly cradling his bracelet. “He’s super chill, too. We’ve been bonding for the past week.”

“So you were Chosen last week?”

“Yeah. After Wayzz did his spiel—half of which I didn’t hear ‘cause I was freaking out too much to calm down—I found a note in the box.”

“A note?” Well, that was more than Ladybug had ever gotten.

“Yeah.” Shell Boy nodded, frowning thoughtfully. Ladybug stared at him, the crease of his brow so very familiar…and those gold eyes, magnified by the goggles he wore… “There wasn’t much to read, though: all it said was, ‘If you have questions, call Master Fu.’ And then there was a number, and that was it. No signature, nothing.”

Ladybug frowned.

“So then, how do you know you were actually speaking to Master Fu?” She asked, her head beginning to spin from this unexpected development. Shell Boy literally popped out from nowhere, saved her life, and then claimed he was the new Turtle Miraculous holder, with Master Fu’s apparent blessing leading him. But he didn’t know Master Fu like Ladybug did…how could she be sure that he had met the real thing?

Maybe…was it possible that this guy was just a victim? That he had been shoved into the Miraculous world by the real thief of Master Fu’s Miraculous? If that were the case…what would Ladybug do? Could she, in good conscience, take the Turtle Miraculous from the poor, scammed bastard, stating that it needed to be returned to its rightful owner, when this guy was already so convinced that he had been Chosen?

And what’s more, was Wayzz a willing participant in all of this? Or was he being bullied to comply, just like the Butterfly Miraculous kwami, Nooroo? Just what was going on here?

“Dude invited me out to meet him,” Shell Boy announced, breaking into Ladybug’s troubled thoughts. “He was all chill, with that ‘wise master’ trope going on. Gave me some tea, and answered most of my questions…for the most part. I dunno, a lot of what he said still doesn’t make sense to me…”

Well, that sounded like Master Fu…but even so…

“Describe him,” Ladybug insisted, stopping again to scan the Seine for any signs of disturbance. Shell Boy paused beside her, glancing up to the sky and gripping his chin in thought.

“Hmm, lessee…short dude, salt and pepper hair, tiny little beard he likes to stroke when he’s being extra-wise, awesome red Hawaiian print shirt.” He glanced over at Ladybug, smiling a little. “Do I pass, LB?”

Ladybug frowned. Okay…there was a good chance that it was indeed Master Fu that Shell Boy was talking about…but if that was so…what did this mean…?

“Why didn’t he tell me?” She burst out loud, stamping her foot in frustration. “I’m Ladybug! I need to know these things, damn it! I’m sick of surprises!”

“Uh, well,” Shell Boy spoke up, looking nervous at her sudden display of temper, “to be fair…Master Fu didn’t know who I was until I called him.”

Ladybug rounded on him.

“What?! But you just said—”

“I know, but it turns out, he wasn’t the one who personally Chose me. It was someone else acting on his orders. Some dude he calls Pavone.”

“Pavone…?” Ladybug scowled into the water, thinking hard. “That sounds Italian…”

“Italian for what?”

Before Ladybug could think of the answer, Shell Boy accidentally kicked a pebble into the Seine when he scuffed his boot against the pavement. The water suddenly began to churn next to them, and Ladybug jumped back, holding out an arm to shove the rookie back as well, not eager to take a second dip in the filthy water of the Seine. She glared as Poseidon emerged from the depths, pointing his sharp trident at them.

“INTRUDERS!” The akuma howled, his scaly face contorted with fury. “WHAT BUSINESS DO YOU HAVE WITH THE MIGHTY POSEIDON? SPEAK, OR I SHALL DROWN YOU IN THE FILTH THAT POLLUTES THIS RIVER THANKS TO YOUR HANDS!”

“Dude, you are mega-cranky,” Shell Boy remarked idly. “Did you skip dinner or something?”

“I AM CRANKY, TURTLE BOY, BECAUSE MY BEAUTIFUL SEINE CONTINUES TO SUFFER BY THE HANDS OF LAND-DWELLERS THAT DON’T APPRECIATE ITS BEAUTY!!” Poseidon roared. “I SHOULD THINK THAT YOU OF ALL CREATURES SHOULD UNDERSTAND!!!”

“I’m more of a land turtle, man,” Shell Boy quipped with a shrug, enraging Poseidon and bringing a begrudging smirk to Ladybug’s lips.

“FINE!!! THEN YOU SHALL SUFFER LIKE THE REST OF THEM!!!”

Poseidon spread his arms wide, and a disgusting amount of sludge suddenly rose from underneath him, rearing up, a cobra poised to strike, before, with the direction of his trident, he sent it directly at them at an alarming speed. Ladybug cringed, raising her arms in measly defense—she didn’t want to run the risk of using her yo-yo to deflect the sludge, only to have it gunked up and useless—

“LB, over here!”

A hand yanked her down to the ground, and she yelped, her eyes flying open just as something large and green was thrust in between her and the incoming foulness. She stared as the shield in front of her expanded to twice the size it had been while it was hanging on Shell Boy’s back, completely protecting them from the deluge of filth spewing at them. Shell Boy grit his teeth—it looked to be a bit of a struggle, keeping the shield steady with the pressure of the garbage spray being pressed upon it, not to mention that it growing twice as big could not be easy on Shell Boy’s arm—but eventually, the torrent of trash halted. Ladybug relaxed, her shoulders slumping…only to have them seize up once again once a loud ‘CLANG’ reverberated through the air. Shell Boy’s eyes widened behind his goggles, staring at Ladybug in just as much surprise as she was aiming at him. Together, they carefully peeked over the edge of the shield…

Apparently, Poseidon had believed his trident would be enough to pierce the protection of Shell Boy’s shield. He was so very wrong—not only had the trident failed to pierce the hard casing of the shield…but the prongs had broken, shattering, it seemed, upon impact. Poseidon now stared at his shattered weapon, nothing but shock registering on his face. Shell Boy stared at him a moment…and then glanced over at Ladybug…who merely shrugged. Well…might as well take advantage of the situation, right?

Since she hadn’t spotted an akuma flitting around when Poseidon’s trident broke, it could only mean that the shell necklace he wore housed the akuma. Ladybug carefully reached over, snatching the necklace from the frozen akumatized victim. He did not so much as react as she started breaking shell by shell, searching for the akuma. As she worked, she heard the sound of metal withdrawing, and glanced over to find Shell Boy retracting his shield, sliding it back onto his back. His held was tilted, inspecting the akumatized victim…

Finally, he knelt down to look into Poseidon’s face.

“Hey, uh, dude? You okay?”

“…My trident has failed me,” Poseidon muttered. “My birthright…without my trident, I’m no king of the sea.”

“Well, the Seine can’t really be considered the sea either, man,” Shell Boy pointed out, not unkindly. “And you gotta admit…this isn’t exactly the way to go about shaming people into cleaning up the river.”

“How, then?” Poseidon grumbled, gripping his broken trident harder than ever. “I’ve already tried everything—protests, rallies, scheduled events…my voice is never heard. I just thought, if I became king of the sea, no one would be able to ignore me…but what is a king of the sea without his trident…? Just an angry man shouting from the water.”

Poseidon sighed, his head bowed.

“It’s hopeless. The Seine will remain polluted forever. This is not something even The Butterfly can fix.”

Ladybug’s head snapped up again, her hand on the last shell. There it was again: ‘The Butterfly’. But who…?

“Who is The Butterfly?” She asked, wanting answers to this riddle. But Poseidon shook his head sadly.

“I don’t know. And it matters not. I have failed. My beloved Seine…I have failed her.”

“Hey,” Shell Boy said softly, daring to pat the akumatized victim’s shoulder. “Just because you couldn’t bully people into cleaning up the Seine doesn’t mean action still can’t be taken.”

Poseidon snorted.

“I alone have screamed the loudest and fought the hardest. And even that wasn’t enough. What action will be taken after I’m gone?”

Shell Boy frowned. He glanced briefly at Ladybug, who just looked at him. Rare were the times when she could just sit down and talk about whatever it was these akumatized victims got bent out of shape about, without them fighting tooth and nail for their cause. The shattering of his trident seemed to really demoralize Poseidon, however…and she was just as at a loss for how to handle it as Shell Boy was, still clutching the last shell to her.

After a moment, a determined look crossed Shell Boy's features, and he clapped Poseidon on the shoulder.

“We’ll help,” he volunteered them both. He seemed to realize it, for he cringed and backtracked. “Uh…I mean, LB can do what she wants, but, I don’t mind helping. How about that? A superhero spokesperson for the Seine?”

Poseidon lifted his head, blinking owlishly at Shell Boy.

“You…would do that…?”

“Of course,” Shell Boy gave an easy-going smile that was…oddly familiar… “That’s what heroes do, right? We make the world a better place. And I may be a land turtle…but taking care of our water environment is important, too, right?”

Poseidon stared at Shell Boy some more. Ladybug watched as his lips began to curve upwards, threatening a smile—

He gave a sudden, shuddering gasp. Abruptly, his transformation broke, and he became a regular man—a man who apparently couldn’t swim. Ladybug lunged forward, trying to grab at one of his thrashing limbs, but it was like something sucked him under—his head disappeared underneath the surface of the Seine. Ladybug nearly dove in after him, but something dark flitting by caught her attention—the akuma. It must have broken free of its possessed object without her notice! But she didn’t even break the remaining shell she was holding…what was going on?!

“Capture the akuma!” Shell Boy shouted at her. Ladybug felt a faint sting of annoyance of being told what to do by a rookie, but it was overridden almost immediately by panic.

“What about—”

“I’m on it, just get the akuma!” And, without hesitation, Shell Boy dove into the Seine. Her heart pounding in her throat, Ladybug captured and purified the akuma, the action taking little time because she had done it so many times before, which left her to fight to keep her composure as she waited at the edge of the Seine, wondering if she shouldn’t have attached her yo-yo to Shell Boy’s shield so she could reel him back in—

The surface of the Seine churned, and Shell Boy’s head broke the surface, letting out a puff of air, as if he had only gone under for a moment. The limp body under his arm made Ladybug’s panic meter ratchet up to eleven, and she sent out her yo-yo to him.

“Catch, Shell!”

Shell Boy grabbed the yo-yo, holding firmly as Ladybug helped reel him in. Once he was close enough, she helped haul him and the akumatized victim out of the Seine, the both of them hovering over said victim.

“Is he breathing?” Ladybug asked, and Shell Boy lowered his ear to the victim’s mouth. Something in his expression tightened, and he glanced up at Ladybug.

“No.” His tone was dark.

“CPR,” Ladybug announced, but even as she moved forward, Shell Boy was already on it—he lowered his mouth to the victim's, blowing in two puffs of air before locking his fingers together and starting chest compressions. Ladybug jittered, anxious, wishing there was something else that could be done—when on the tenth compression, the victim jerked, coughing up river water. Ladybug helped Shell Boy turn the victim onto his side, and he retched up a good part of the Seine before his breathing returned, ragged though it was. Ladybug helped him as he struggled to sit up, pushing sopping dark hair out of his face and blinking dark blue eyes.

“W-what…? What happened? Where—Ladybug?!”

“You’re all right,” Ladybug assured him, squeezing his shoulder. “Everything’s all right.”

The man grew paler the longer he looked at her.

“I…I was akumatized, wasn’t I? But I…I’m against them! Why would I be—”

“Hawk Moth—The Butterfly—whoever they are,” Ladybug huffed, “they don’t care about your alignment, whether you’re for protecting akumatized victims, or against protecting them. The only thing they seem to want…is to spread chaos.”

Her eyes burned into the man, the man who was apparently a Chat Noir supporter.

“Do you understand now? Do you think any of this—you becoming akumatized and terrorizing the city—do you think this was a choice? Do you want your protester buddies to see you like this? Are you prepared for them to turn their back on you? Prepared for them to attack you, even, for something you had no control over?”

The man’s lips were white, and Shell Boy nudged Ladybug.

“Harsh, LB,” he muttered.

“Well, it’s true,” Ladybug defended herself, getting to her feet and frowning down at the man. “People who think like him need to learn—no one is safe with a supervillain like The Butterfly on the loose, so the last thing we should be doing is turning on each other.”

The man lowered his gaze, apparently unable to look at Ladybug. Shame rolled off him in waves, something she took satisfaction from. Tossing her yo-yo into the air, Ladybug called on her restorative powers to return Paris to its normal state before hooking an arm under the victim’s to help him to his feet.

“Come on,” she said in a much softer tone. “Let’s get you home—”

“Ladybug! Ladybug, wait up!”

“Oh boy,” Ladybug muttered as Alya came tearing up the street, her phone at the ready, as always. She drew up short, however, once she noticed the figure in green.

“Who’s this?” She wanted to know, aiming her phone's camera at Shell Boy. “A new superhero? What’s your name? Are you Ladybug’s new partner? What happened to Chat Noir? Is he gone for good?”

“Uhhhh,” Shell Boy stammered, regarding Alya with wide eyes. Ladybug sighed. Once again, she did not have time for this.

“How fast can you run?” She asked Shell Boy in an undertone as she slipped the victim’s arm across her shoulders, holding him securely as she sent out her yo-yo. Shell Boy blinked at her.

“Er, not very…” He gestured to his shield. “But I can fly.”

A turtle that could fly? Huh. That was pretty miraculous, in Ladybug’s book.

“Then do that,” she muttered to him, yanking on her yo-yo, the wire sending her skyward. Alya yelped, and Ladybug glanced back to see that Shell Boy had hopped onto his shield, which hovered, rather than flew, but it was good enough to speed him away from Alya, despite her attempts to chase after him.

“Wait! I never got your name! What’s your Miraculous? Who are you???”

“Just consider me the Guardian of the Seine! Don’t pollute!” Shell Boy called back to her with a salute, and Ladybug was forcibly reminded of Chat Noir and his flirting. She sighed before remembering she was currently responsible for a civilian, who was clinging to her for dear life, plainly terrified of heights.

“Where do you live?” She asked the man, and he fearfully whispered his address. Within a few minutes, Ladybug and Shell Boy were able to see him home safely, and Ladybug was satisfied to see his family hug him, grateful for his return. The way he looked back at her as he was ushered inside by his family made her hope that he, at least, had changed his mind about akumatized victims and whether or not they should be persecuted…

“So,” Said a sudden voice next to her, and Ladybug jumped; she had almost forgotten Shell Boy was there. “How’d I do for my first night out, LB?”

Ladybug gave him an appraising look.

“Not bad. For a rookie,” she acknowledged, turning to him with a smirk. “We still need something to call you, though…unless you decided to rip off the name of a ninja turtle after all?”

“I was thinking about that, actually…” Shell Boy smiled. “And I like Shell.”

Ladybug peered curiously at him.

“That’s it? Just…Shell? Not even Shell Man?”

“Nah. Shell’s cool.”

“How about Shelly?” Ladybug suggested innocently, only to have Shell Boy scowl at her.

“That’s a girl’s name.” He thought about it a little longer, idly fingering his bracelet for a moment…and then he snapped, pointing a finger gun at her. “Emerald Shell.”

“That’s jade,” Ladybug pointed out, tapping his bracelet. Shell shrugged.

“So what? Besides you and me, who’s gonna know the difference?” Shell struck a heroic pose, grinning cheekily. “The adventures of Ladybug, Chat Noir, and Emerald Shell. I like it.”

Chat Noir, huh…

Ladybug frowned as her Miraculous gave a beep.

“We should have a quick talk,” she said, searching out a suitable space. There was a high rooftop nearby that they could park themselves for a moment without drawing too much attention. It wasn’t the Eiffel Tower, but it would have to do. Besides, Ladybug would feel funny bringing Emerald Shell there…that was her and Chat Noir’s spot.

...Well, it used to be, anyway...

“Come on,” she said to Shell, swinging her way over to the rooftop, unable to help her glance back to make sure that he was following. And follow he did, all the way up to the roof. Ladybug sat down, inspecting the Seine from their vantage point. It really was a lovely river…that man had every right to be upset about its pollution. They should really do something…

Well, Shell had gotten the ball rolling, hadn’t he, with his announcement to Alya? No doubt that broadcast would be uploaded to the Ladyblog before the night was up.

“Nice night,” said Shell as he hopped off his shield/hover board, taking in the scenery around them. He sat down beside Ladybug with a grunt. “Can’t believe it’s almost Christmas, I’ve been so busy lately. Was kind of surprised to see an akuma pop up so close to the holidays, too—”

“I want you to know,” Ladybug began, cutting across his chatter, “that I’ll be getting in touch with Master Fu to verify everything you told me. If I find out you’ve been lying to me this whole time, I will hunt you down, Shell.”

Shell raised his hands in surrender.

“Damn, LB, you’re scary,” he commented. “You’re almost as bad as my girlfriend.”

Ladybug frowned.

“I have to be careful,” she said, turning her gaze from him, onto the Seine once again. She was no longer soaked, thanks to her restorative powers, but it would be a miracle if Tikki didn’t get sick from their impromptu mid-winter river dip. “I’ve already gone through too much when it comes to other superheroes.”

“Oh…yeah, I guess so, huh…” Shell rubbed the back of his head, ruffling the green hood he wore. “What is the deal with Chat Noir, anyway? He’s a bad guy now, right?”

“No,” Ladybug said forcefully, and hating herself for the immediate defense of her ex-partner. “He’s not…right, right now. But he’s not a bad guy. He’s just…” She closed her eyes. “I don’t know. Just let me worry about him, all right?”

“If you say so,” Shell replied. Ladybug only let the quiet last up until her second beep from her Miraculous.

“This Pavone you mentioned earlier…have you met him?”

“Nah. Dude’s way private. I’ve only gotten, like, text messages from him. Which is weird, 'cause I never even gave him my number...but Master Fu said the number was legit when I showed him, so..." Shell shrugged. "Usually they're just reminders for me to lay low—I wasn’t supposed to reveal myself until it was absolutely necessary.” Shell grinned. “Kinda like an ace in the hole, or something. But Pavone said you needed help tonight, so…here I am.”

The grin faded, replaced by confusion.

“I’ve never seen an akuma just go back to normal like that before, though…what happened?”

Ladybug gave a shrug, though her frown was anything but easy-going.

“Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never seen that happen before. The only thing I can guess is that The Butterfly or whoever dispelled the transformation because Poseidon wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing…whatever that was…”

“Can The Butterfly dude do that?”

“I don’t know. It’s only a guess.”

Ladybug’s gaze went to the horizon once again, frowning in the distance. What the hell had happened with the akumatized victim tonight? Was it indeed The Butterfly’s doing? Or…was it possible that Shell’s offer to help Poseidon—causing the erasure of negative feelings within the victim—was enough to expel the akuma on its own?

And what about this ‘Pavone’? Was he an ally? It would seem so, if he was actually working with Master Fu like Shell claimed…but who was Pavone? And more importantly, who was The Butterfly? Who were all these people working behind the scenes, and why was Ladybug only finding out about them just now? What the hell was going on??

“Uh…LB?” Shell asked, intruding upon her thoughts once again. “Can you…keep a secret?”

Ladybug turned to give him a dry look.

“Well, I should hope so,” she said flatly, and Shell laughed in a nervous sort of way.

“Right, right. Well, uh, I just want some advice.” He fiddled with his bracelet, abruptly nervous. “That reporter girl from before…the truth is…she’s my girlfriend.”

Girlfriend…?

Shell was dating Alya?

No, that was impossible, Alya was with…with…

Ladybug froze. One more time, her mind cataloged the familiar things: the speech pattern, the characteristic gestures...those gold eyes that seemed so much wiser than the last time she'd seen them...

Well, damn. So much for statistics…

“……I see,” she made herself say through sheer force of will, though inside, her mind was rioting.

Nino?! Shell is NINO?! Are you kidding me, Master Fu?! What the hell?!?

“You know, N—Shell, you shouldn’t go shouting about that. Admitting that to anyone could put Alya in danger,” Ladybug warned him severely. Shell ducked his head, nodding.

“I know, I know, just…I need some advice. You know how she is…” Ladybug froze again—holy shit, had she given herself away as well?! “…She’s your biggest fan,” Shell ended up finishing, and Ladybug breathed easier again. “She tries to follow you everywhere.”

“Yes, I know.” Ladybug frowned, her Miraculous beeping once again. She didn’t have much time left here… “What do you need advice about?”

“Well, basically…I’m afraid I’m gonna fuck up somehow and she’s gonna find out who I am.” Shell gave a long, loud sigh. “And I don’t want her to be in that kind of position. It’s bad enough that she flings herself into danger at the first whiff of a story, taking off years of my life, by the way, but if she found out she was dating an actual superhero? A superhero that knows Ladybug, of all things?” Shell shook his head. “She will lose her mind.

Ladybug could see, in her mind’s eye, the feverish gleam in Alya’s gaze if she ever found out she had an in to Ladybug herself through Nino. Truly, she would stop at nothing until she managed to unmask Paris’ superhero—it was her biggest dream in life. And Ladybug would know, since said dream had been confessed to her over a late night in a bar, when exams were killing them both last year.

“Then just be careful, Shell,” she cautioned the man—her best friend’s boyfriend!!!—sitting beside her. “Make sure she never finds out.”

“But how? I hate having to lie to her—I’ve been training this whole time with Master Fu, but I’ve been saying I’ve been working, so I’ve barely seen her at all this week…what if she pops by unannounced—she has a key to my place—and Wayzz is just chilling on the coffee table or something? Or what if I’m in the middle of transforming, and she walks in? Or—”

“Shelly,” Ladybug interrupted him, smothering a giggle at the scowl he threw her for the girlish nickname. “You’re overthinking, panicking about things that have, maybe, a fifty percent chance of happening.”

“More like eighty percent.” Shell huffed, his head in his hands. “You don’t know Alya like I know her.”

Ladybug almost made a bet with him…but then changed her mind at the last minute. Best not to tease him just now.

“I know it’s tough,” she assured him, resting a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Believe me, I know—I’ve been doing this for years. You’ve just got to find the balance between your personal life, and your superhero one. It’s tough to maintain at first…and I can’t promise you won’t be under some strain because of it, and I’m sorry for that. But this Pavone—” Whoever he was... “—must have seen something in you that made him Choose you. So it’ll be hard…but you’ll manage. You’re part of the team now.”

Shell blinked at her.

“The team, huh? Not a minute ago, you were at my throat about lies I haven’t told.” He gave her a searching glance. “You know, you kind of remind me of a friend of mine…spitfire, just like you. I wouldn’t wanna piss her off any more than I’d wanna piss off Alya.”

Ladybug smiled.

“She sounds like an awesome friend,” she said, getting to her feet. “Well, time’s about up for me. I better head home before my transformation breaks. You too. Make sure no one follows you, all right? Especially not certain reporter girls.”

Shell sighed, tugging off his shield to use it as a hover board once again.

“I’ll do my best…god, I hope my best is good enough…”

“You’ll be fine,” Ladybug assured him with another pat to his shoulder and a wink. “I’ll be in touch.”

With those parting words, she swung away, her mind buzzing, as if there were ladybugs trapped in her skull as well.

 


 

“…caught on film, the new superhero, who has yet to be named, only calling himself ‘the Guardian of the Seine’, parted with a PSA about anti-pollution. Alya Cesaire, amateur reporter and moderator of the Ladyblog—”

“‘Amateur’? Alya’s not going to like that!” Tikki exclaimed around a mouthful of cookie. Marinette giggled, hugging one of her pillows to her as they watched the late night news broadcast.

“Yeah, well, Alya’s not gonna be happy about a lot of stuff for a while.” Marinette shook her head, staring at the video still of Emerald Shell saluting. “I still can’t believe that it’s Nino! Nino! If I had to choose someone from my friend group to bring into the chaos that is my superhero life…I would’ve chosen Alya. She handles chaos like it’s nothing.”

Tikki giggled.

“Still…it’s not a bad thing that it’s Nino, right? Now you have another friendly face to watch your back!”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s a comfort…considering Chat Noir seems like he’s MIA again.” Marinette huffed, clutching her pillow tighter. “Stupid, unreliable stray. First he disappears on me for seven years, then he comes back all wild, like he’d spent those years living in a jungle, and just when I think there’s hope for him after all—”

“Marinette,” Tikki cut through her Chosen’s ranting, a tiny hand touching Marinette’s knee as she turned towards her balcony doors. “Do you hear that?”

Marinette paused, frowning in confusion. Did she hear what?

She was just about to ask when, suddenly, she did hear it: a soft, plinking sound. Like a tapping at her doors.

Marinette stared at the curtains pulled shut over her balcony doors.

That wasn’t what she thought it was, was it…?

Cautiously, because she wasn’t sure what to expect and wanted to be ready, Marinette edged her way over to the balcony doors, slipping a hand in between the curtains to peek out into the night.

Just as she peeked, a pebble came at her face. She yelped, but it plunked harmlessly against the glass, followed by another a second later…and then another…

Who the hell was throwing rocks at her window like she was in some teenage romance movie?

Perplexed, Marinette unlocked the doors, waiting until another rock flew before she dared to open them.

“Hold your fire, I’m coming out!” She called to whoever was down there tossing the rocks.

“Ah, the princess is in her tower after all,” answered a drawling voice, and Marinette felt her heart leap into her throat. She rushed forward to the balcony railing, finally spying the current bane of her existence down in the garden below. His cat eyes gleamed in the moonlight, and he sunk into a ridiculous bow once she laid eyes on him.

“C-Chat Noir?” Marinette stuttered, blinking down at the stray. “What’re you—”

“Hold on, I’ve been practicing this bit for ages,” he forestalled her, clearing his throat. “Give me a minute…ahem. ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!’”

Marinette deadpanned him a look.

“No?” Chat questioned, pouting a tad. “No dark raven locks for me to climb up to visit you in your tower?”

“You know, that’s how she got pregnant,” Marinette quipped with a raise of her eyebrows. Chat grinned wildly.

“Not in the Disney version. Besides, I assure you that my intentions are pure, Princess,” he called up to her.

“Uh-huh,” Marinette drawled, parking her chin in a hand as she leaned an elbow on her balcony railing. “And what kind of cat with ‘pure intentions’ would be out skulking around a lady’s bedroom at night?”

“The kind of cat that knocks first instead of just inviting himself in?” He suggested. Marinette pursed her lips. Well…she supposed he did have a point…and it wasn’t like she couldn’t just toss him if he tried anything…

“…All right,” she allowed, straightening. “Come on up.”

His grin flashing once again, Chat Noir extended his staff, striking a pose before he slid off and perched himself on the railing of Marinette’s balcony. Glancing around, he abruptly pouted.

“You know…I really should’ve gone with the balcony dialogue from Romeo and Juliet instead,” he said, frowning his displeasure. “It would’ve been more fitting.”

Marinette put all the implications of such a dialogue to the side, fixing Chat with a searching stare.

“Where have you been?” She demanded point blank, drawing Chat’s eyes to her. “Ladybug’s been having to deal with akuma attacks all on her own, you know.”

“Ah…” Chat glanced away, rubbing the back of his head. “Well…yeah. I’m, uh…taking a break from crime fighting, for right now.”

This made Marinette scowl.

“Nice of you to tell m—her,” she corrected herself at the last minute, inwardly cringing. He didn’t hear that, right…?

Luckily for her, Chat was too busy looking guilty to notice her slip…or so she thought, at least, until he turned his attention back to her, a curious gleam in his eyes.

“How did you know that I haven’t told her?”

Think fast, think fast!

You just told me,” she replied, smirking in a superior fashion when Chat cringed, his shoulders hunching. “Bad Chat. You’re lucky I don’t have a spray bottle in my hand right now.”

Chat gave a soft hiss, and Marinette, despite her annoyance with him, giggled. A moment later, however, she sobered.

“So why are you coming to see me when you should be telling Ladybug what’s up?”

Chat gave a shrug, not quite meeting her eyes.

“I wanted to see you,” he said simply. Marinette blinked at him.

“O…kay…?” She tilted her head at him. “About what, exactly?”

Chat smiled a smile that was smaller than usual. It was…soft, on him. Charming.

Marinette felt rather warm all of a sudden.

“Nothing in purrticular,” he punned, and Marinette had to resist the urge to slam her face into her palm. This punny cat bastard…

“So! I hear tell through the grapevine that you’re still a Chat fan,” Chat Noir drawled as Marinette leaned her crossed arms on her balcony railing, gazing up at the moon. Though warmth was just a few steps away in her room, it was chilly out here, and she shivered. From the corner of her eye, she saw Chat’s ears droop slightly.

“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to,” Marinette said loftily, sliding him a glance. “After all, I can’t be a fan of a hero who leaves his partner in the lurch.”

Chat glanced away from her, looking ashamed. Good.

“I don’t think she really needs me, Princess,” he said, letting a leg dangle as he crossed his ankle over his knee, clawed hands resting on the railing. “She’s been handling things just fine on her own.”

Marinette scowled at him.

“If it weren’t for that turtle-themed hero tonight, she would have drowned,” she snapped at him, unconcerned for the widening of his eyes as surprise crossed his features. “She could’ve died, Chat! You think just because she can do it by herself that she wants to? Open your eyes, you damn—”

‘—Stray!’ Marinette finished in her head, abruptly aware of the fact that she was letting her anger carry her away. She huffed instead of finishing her sentence out loud, crossing her arms and looking resolutely away from Chat, as if she needed to express, through both words and actions, that she was most unhappy with him right now. The silence of the night settled in, and Marinette closed her eyes, focused on getting her breathing under control. The chilly night helped her cool down fast, and she let out a sigh, gazing up into the beautiful night sky, where the moon shone brightly, stealing the show from the stars. Was that selfish of the moon, to shine as brightly as she could while obscuring those who shared the night with her? Or would it be more selfish to keep her glow to herself, hidden away from the world?

But maybe it was a moot point, Marinette supposed: the light was borrowed, anyway. Without the generosity of the sun…where would the moon be?

“…She doesn’t have to do it alone anymore,” came Chat’s soft voice after a moment. Marinette glanced over, finding his gaze focused on the television in her room, where the newscast was still showing images of Emerald Shell. “Seems like another Miraculous holder has sprung into action. As long as there’s someone there to watch her back when she jumps into danger…she’ll be fine, right?”

That was so not the point. Marinette huffed again, her arms tightly crossed as she turned to glare fully at Chat Noir.

“And what about you?”

Chat lifted and dropped a shoulder, his gaze still on the T.V.

“Like I said, as long as she has someone, she’ll be fine without me. And I suppose I’ll…retire again.” Chat slid a smile Marinette’s way that didn’t reach his eyes. It was strange on him, he who was usually so free with his feelings… “After all, what’s Chat Noir without Ladybug?”

Déjà vu.

“You have that backwards,” Marinette said firmly, though her voice was soft. Chat’s smile became a bit more genuine.

“You think so?”

“I do,” Marinette insisted, turning to rest her back against her balcony railing. “Ladybug is amazing, don’t get me wrong. But she’s also impulsive—she rushes into decisions without thinking them through first, and her feelings get in the way on occasion. She needs a partner to keep her in check, and watch her back when she inevitably gets herself into trouble…”

Marinette looked up, meeting Chat Noir’s eyes with a serious look.

“…Without Chat Noir, Ladybug is unbalanced.”

Chat stared at her for a long moment. Marinette held his gaze, watching his pupils—they were being weird, growing larger for no reason at all. Marinette, having spent zero time around actual cats, was flummoxed. What was with his eyes?

Finally, Chat looked away first, letting out a laugh.

“I can’t decide if you’re underestimating Ladybug…or overestimating me,” he said, chuckling under his breath. Marinette rolled her eyes with a shrug.

“Neither. I’m right,” she insisted, bumping his shoulder with hers before she moved away from the railing, turning to stand in front of him. “And since you have so much free time to come visit me in the dead of night—and I’m not encouraging this behavior, by the way—you certainly have enough time to let Ladybug know that you’re taking a break. She deserves to know, even if you’re not partners anymore.”

“I suppose…” With a sigh, Chat stood up, drawing himself up to his full height as he stood on her balcony railing. He was much too tall, Marinette noted, and she scowled up at him as he dared to give her a cheeky grin. “Well, I suppose I should leave now, too. God knows what your neighbors would think if they saw me slinking away into the night at a later hour…”

“Oh, just go,” Marinette huffed, resisting the urge to just shove him off the railing herself. He called upon the powers of his baton once again, extending it so that it reached the ground before he climbed onto it, still grinning at Marinette.

“See you again, Princess,” he bade. Marinette moved forward, still scowling at him.

“You’d better not make a habit of this,” she warned him, reaching out to poke his nose. He wrinkled and rubbed at it, giving her an odd look. “I’m not that kind of girl, Chat.”

“But of course, Princess. I’ll never be anything but a perfect gentleman towards you. Cat’s honor,” he promised, lifting the clawed hand with his ring on it in a salute. Marinette rolled her eyes again…but she smiled.

“Good night, Chat,” she bade him. He paused for a second…and then reached out to her, a question in his eyes. Recognizing it, Marinette let her hand slip into his, and she caught his grin before he pressed a kiss to her knuckles.

“Good night, Princess,” he returned, giving a wink before he descended down to the ground. Marinette watched as he bounded into the darkness, and then stood staring at the spot where he’d disappeared for a while before she remembered she was cold, and hurried back inside.

Tikki popped out from her hiding place as Marinette shut and locked the doors, drawing the curtains closed.

“A hero hiatus, huh?” She questioned, and Marinette huffed as she flopped down on her bed. “Good thing he came to visit you, or else we might not have known otherwise.”

“Stupid, lazy cat,” Marinette grumbled, staring down at the hand that Chat had kissed. He was complicating so many things in Marinette’s life…why couldn’t working with him be easy, like it used to be?

Her phone gave a sudden chime. Marinette glanced over, grabbing the device and spotting Alya’s name.

“Probably texting to brag about her footage,” Marinette reasoned out loud, unlocking her phone and opening the text.

Alya’s text, however, turned out to have nothing to do with her new scoop whatsoever.

Alya: Hey, girl! So since your “not” boyfriend is picking you up for your “not” date tomorrow at six, I thought I’d swing by around four, help you primp and get ready? It may not be a date, but I will not rest until you look absolutely fabulous. What do you say?

Marinette gave a sigh. Looked like her day tomorrow was going to be a little bit busier than she’d originally planned…

Oh well. Such was life when you led two of them at the same time.

Marinette: Sure, sounds great~ Thanks in advance; best friend ever. :)

Alya: Damn right. I’ll be seeing you off as well, of course…making sure Mr. Agreste knows that I know all the vital points of a person’s veins, including the knowledge of which particular veins would be the most painful to bleed out from…

Marinette: Alya…

Alya: I’m just saying! ;D I’ll try and rope Nino into a ‘father with a shotgun’ shtick…assuming he doesn’t have to WORK tomorrow…

Oh, right.

Marinette pursed her lips, glancing over at her drawing tablet. There was a thing she was thinking about doing to let Nino know he wasn’t alone in this…but she still wasn’t sure how wise it was to reveal herself, despite knowing that Emerald Shell was a friend in more ways than one. But wasn’t it unfair, to hold all the cards and leave Nino in the dark?

“What do you think, Tikki?” Marinette asked, crossing her legs as she glanced down at her kwami. “Should I reveal myself to Nino?”

Tikki stared up at her for a moment, her big, indigo eyes thoughtful.

“Normally, I’d advise you to ask Master Fu, first,” she admitted, and then her tiny features slipped into a pout. “But since it seems like we’ve been left out of several loops lately—”

“We can make this decision on our own,” Marinette finished for her kwami, nodding her head determinedly. “All right, then it’s settled. Scooch over a second, I need my drawing tablet…”

 


 

“Oh! Marinette, hi!”

Marinette glanced up, grinning automatically at the sight of Kira as she came bounding forward, bundled up in preparation for the cold outside, sparkly pink eyepatch still in place.

“Hi, Kira,” she greeted, gently rubbing the child’s back as Kira flung her arms around Marinette’s legs. “Going out?”

“Yeah! Shopping with Baa-chan,” Kira announced, gesturing to the elderly woman behind her, who smiled and nodded at Marinette. “We’re gonna go get groceries!”

“Sounds like fun,” Marinette enthused, sidestepping around the neighbors. “Don’t let me hold you up—I’ve got to see Nino about something.”

“Oh, okay.”

Marinette became confused as Kira moved to the door with her, and then amused when the child pounded on said door with her small, energetic fists.

“NINOOOO!!! YOUR FRIEND IS HERE TO SEE YOU!!!”

There was the sound of something clattering inside, and a startled yelp.

“Jeez, kid, all right! No need to shout it to the world…”

Marinette giggled, and Kira gave her a toothy smile before leaving with her grandmother for the grocery store. Marinette waited patiently outside the door, hearing a lot of shuffling happening within Nino’s apartment. What was he doing?

“Nino?” She called, and Nino gave another yelp. “Everything okay in there?”

“Fine!” He called back, his voice a little too high to be his natural pitch. “J-just a sec, ‘Nette! …Ouch! Damn it…”

Marinette raised an eyebrow.

“Is this a bad time?”

“No, no! Just give me…one sec…aha!”

There was the sudden sound of something sliding open, then closed, and then a rattling just beyond the door. Finally, Nino was revealed, looking harried underneath that too-bright smile he wore, his hair disheveled, face unshaven. He looked a hot mess.

Marinette looked down, and then bit back a snort: he was wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirt with matching pajama bottoms.

He wasn’t bothering to try and hide much, was he?

“Hi,” she greeted him with a grin. “Can I come in?”

“Oh, uh, sure,” Nino replied, glancing around her for some reason as he stepped back, allowing her entrance. “Sorry, my place is kind of a mess right now…uh, Alya’s not with you…?”

“No,” Marinette answered, quick eyes scanning the messy living room as she spoke. Hmm…no sign of Wayzz. Was all that clattering around Nino was doing an attempt to hide the kwami from prying eyes…? “It’s just me.” She turned on her heel to face Nino as he closed the door, returning his curious look with a quirked brow. “Is that okay?”

“Uh, I guess?” Nino leaned back against the door, giving Marinette a searching look. He clearly didn’t understand why she had come to see him without Alya in tow…Marinette bit her lip to keep from smirking at the shock he was about to receive. “So…what’s up?”

“I finished a mock-up for your CD,” Marinette announced proudly, and Nino straightened up in surprise.

“You-you did? Wow! Thanks, ‘Nette! But, I, uh…I didn’t give you anything to work with…”

“I know,” Marinette assured him, reaching into her bag for her creation, “but I just got hit with a jolt of inspiration last night, and I wanted to show you before I got busy today…”

With a smile, she whipped out the mock-up CD cover, smiling at the image of Emerald Shell, striking a heroic pose, his shield gleaming in the sunlight. It was probably one of her better CD creations, second place only to the one she’d designed for Jagged Stone…it was too bad this one would never see the light of day. Oh well.

“Here,” she said, presenting the CD case for Nino to take with a flourish. “What do you think?”

Nino took the case, got a good look at the cover…and froze. Marinette waited for him to thaw, pressing her lips together to keep from outright laughing, though she could practically see the gears in Nino’s mind whirring, trying to figure out whether he should panic or play it cool.

After a moment, he seemed to settle for a happy medium.

“This is…this is, uh…” Nino glanced up over his glasses at Marinette, searching her face. “T-this is that new…new superhero. That guy that showed up last night, uh…what’s his name…?”

“Emerald Shell,” Marinette supplied, allowing herself to smirk just a little as Nino visibly began to sweat. “Cool, huh?”

“Y-yeah, c-cool,” he stuttered, rubbing the back of his head and ruffling his dark hair. “B-but I don’t really know why…you chose him for my CD cover…heh heh…”

Oh, this was really too funny. Marinette felt a little bad for being so mean, though, so she decided to throw him a bone—

“Wait,” Nino began suddenly, holding a hand up and staring at Marinette. “…The guy just made his superhero debut last night, and no reporter knows his name, yet…” His golden eyes began to narrow behind his glasses. “…How do you know his name, Marinette…?”

Slowly, Marinette allowed herself to smile.

“Well, he told me,” she said casually, giving a wink. “I helped him out with it, actually—‘Shell Boy’ was apparently too juvenile for him…but the ‘shell’ part seemed to stick after a while.”

Nino stared, his mouth gaping open. He tried to close it a couple times, only for it to open again a moment later, lifting a trembling finger and pointing at her, apparently speechless.

“I thought you were a turtle, not a fish,” Marinette teased him, her grin widening.

“You’re…you’re…” Nino stammered, still staring at her as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. “You’re…you’re not. You can’t be…can you? Are you? Are you, Marinette?!”

“Am I what?” Marinette teased him, grinning wider than ever. Nino threw up his hands in frustration.

“You know what I mean! You, you’re…you’re—!!”

It was at that moment that Tikki chose to reveal herself: she popped out of Marinette’s muffler, smiling sweetly.

“Ladybug?” She suggested innocently.

“WAUGH!!” Nino screamed, jumping so violently that he rammed himself into the door behind him, immediately wincing and cursing vehemently. “Shit, ow, what the fuck, Marinette?!”

“Sorry!” Marinette apologized, moving closer as Nino rubbed the back of his head, drawing his hand forward to inspect the damage. No blood. That was good. “You okay? Need some ice?”

“I’ll live,” Nino grunted, still wincing and rubbing the back of his head. “That’ll probably be a lump within a couple hours, though…”

“I’m sorry, Nino,” Tikki apologized, flitting out of Marinette’s muffler to greet him properly. “I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”

Marinette wasn’t sure if Nino had taken in anything Tikki said—he was too busy staring down at her kwami in shock. Tikki, however, merely took it in stride. Not that Marinette was surprised—she had tried to trap the kwami in a glass the first time she met her…

“Nino, this is Tikki,” Marinette introduced them, smiling as Tikki flew back to her, snuggling against her cheek. “She’s my kwami.”

“…Yeah, I see that,” Nino finally replied, still wide-eyed and staring at Tikki for a moment, before his gaze abruptly switched to Marinette. “…So it’s true. You’re…you’re Ladybug.

Marinette smiled. Well, Nino wasn’t the first person she would have imagined discovering her secret—in fact, she had bet it all on Alya, and she now owed Tikki a large box of gourmet cookies—but a part of her had to admit that it felt good to be able to share this part of her life with someone else who was in the same position as her, a close friend, no less.

“I’m Ladybug,” she admitted, out of costume, for the very first time. Nino stared at her a moment longer…and then his breath left him in a whoosh, and he sank forward, his hands on his knees.

“I’m a superhero,” he muttered to himself, “and I’m friends with Ladybug. Alya is going to kill me.”

Marinette laughed out loud at this.

“Not if we don’t tell her,” she reminded him with a shake of her head. “I know such a task seems daunting—believe me, I know. But I’ve been doing it for years.”

“That’s right!” Nino abruptly realized, straightening up to resume his gawking at Marinette. “You’ve been doing this since you were fourteen! Oh god, Marinette, you gotta help me, I’m so afraid of screwing this up, and if Alya finds out on her own and finds out that I’ve been keeping such a big secret from her, she’s gonna—”

“Whoa,” Marinette said; it was her turn to hold up a hand, halting Nino’s babble. “First of all, Nino, you have to calm down. Like I told you last night, it’s all about being careful.”

“Oh my god, it was you snarling at me last night!” Nino yelped, his eyes growing impossibly wider. “Did you have to be all…” To illustrate his point, he warped his hands into claws and flexed them, baring his teeth. Marinette laughed, feeling just a shade guilty.

“Again, like I told you last night—I’ve had it rough with other superheroes before.”

“Oh, right.” Nino frowned. “Does this mean you know who Chat Noir is?”

“No.” Marinette frowned at the memory of the unreliable rogue cat. “You’re the one of the only two people who knows my secret identity, Nino, Master Fu being the other. And it has to stay that way, you understand? We can trust each other, but to tell other people—”

“I know, I know, bad idea, Wayzz told me,” Nino said, turning to the direction of his kitchen area. “You can come out now, dude!”

To Marinette’s immense relief, the green turtle kwami whizzed out of one of the kitchen drawers, smiling serenely at her.

“Hello again, Marinette,” he greeted, and Marinette sighed, reaching over to stroke his head.

“Wayzz, thank goodness, I’ve been so worried,” she sighed, letting him and Tikki rest in between her cupped hands. “Where have you been?

“Safe,” Wayzz replied in that cryptic way that reminded Marinette irresistibly of Master Fu. “No need to worry anymore—my new master has been taking very good care of me.”

Nino’s face grew ruddy, and he rubbed the back of his head.

“Told you, just ‘Nino’ is fine, dude,” he reminded the kwami. “I don’t know about this whole ‘Master’ business…”

“Apologies, Master,” Wayzz replied, and Nino sighed.

“We’re working on it,” he told Marinette sheepishly, and she grinned.

“All right, pull on a coat, we’ve got to go,” she announced, ushering both kwamis into her muffler. Nino blinked at her, nonplussed.

“Huh?”

“I’ve arranged a meeting with Master Fu,” Marinette informed him, making sure her snow hat was on straight. “I don’t want to be in the dark about anything anymore. I’m Ladybug, for god’s sake—a new superhero is something I should know about. So we’re gonna have a chat with him.”

“It’s Christmas Eve, ‘Nette,” Nino pointed out, moving to the side as Marinette shooed him away from the door, throwing it open. “Can’t we let the old man rest…?”

“All he’s been doing is resting,” Marinette asserted, turning to frown at Nino. “Too much has been happening for me to put off a visit with him any longer. We all have a lot to discuss, so let’s go.”

Nino took one look at the stubborn set of her jaw before he sighed.

“All right…but let me change out of my pjs first.”

“Hurry up,” Marinette said, and she waited out in the hall of the second floor of Nino’s apartment, tapping her foot impatiently until he reappeared, tying a black scarf closed around his neck and pulling an old baseball cap over his head.

“That can’t be warm.”

“No, but it’s comfortable. Makes me feel a bit more like myself,” Nino explained. As he locked up and they trooped down the staircase, he lowered his voice. “Running around in a turtle suit all night kind of threw me off-balance. It’s stupid, but wearing something that’s…well, me…makes me feel a little more grounded. Like I’m not going crazy or dreaming, you know?”

…Huh. Actually, that made a lot of sense. Back when Marinette first became Ladybug, she would spend an hour after every mission in front of the mirror, inspecting her face. Same bright blue eyes, same pointed nose, same pink lips, same freckles dusted across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.

It was still her…but it wasn’t her at the same time.

She was something else.

Something more.

And it took her a while to get used to that fact…so she knew exactly how Nino felt.

“I get it,” she assured him with a smile as they stepped out into the winter sunlight. “This superhero thing takes some getting used to.”

“No kidding.” Nino shook his head, following after Marinette as she set off at a brisk walk, her car parked a ways down the street. “Still can’t believe you’ve been doing this since you were fourteen…suddenly, all your random disappearances make a lot more sense.”

“So do yours,” Marinette replied with a grin. “Alya’s been irritated by your absence this week.”

“I know…” Nino huffed, rubbing the back of his head. “I hate having to lie to her.”

Marinette reached over, patting his arm.

“I know it’s hard. But it’s better than her knowing what’s happening. She may be pissed and in the dark…but at least she’s safe.”

“Relatively speaking,” Nino grumbled with a frown. “She’ll stop at nothing to be in the thick of things when Ladybug’s out and about…hey, you know, I can blame you for all this, now!”

“Look, no one’s more upset than I am when Alya’s in danger,” Marinette told Nino point blank, scowling up at him. “If I could, I’d tie her to a tree until the fight’s over, just so I know she’s safe.”

“You mean like how you tied up Chat Noir when you were fighting Trinket?”

“Well, maybe I wouldn’t use my yo-yo…that kind of put me in a tight spot afterwards—”

“Yeah, which was why I untied him and sent him after you. God, you’re worse than Alya, ‘Nette!”

Marinette skidded to a halt, her hands on her hips as she glared at Nino in shock and outrage.

“Wait a minute! You untied Chat Noir?!”

“I had to!” Nino protested, looking equal parts guilty and defiant, his hands clenching at his sides. “Kira was Trinket! There was nothing I could do for her, but I knew you could help her, but not without your yo-yo!”

Marinette scowled. As much as she wanted to be annoyed with Nino right now…if it weren’t for him, Marinette would have been transformed into an actual lucky charm…if it weren’t for him, Chat Noir, and one other person…another mystery…

“You know what, we don’t have time for this,” she huffed, turning and resuming her walk, pressing a button on her car keychain to unlock it; it chirped at her, lights flashing. “There’s a lot I have to ask Master Fu before Alya comes over to help me get ready for tonight, the first question being who the hell Pavone is supposed to be—”

“Oh, well I actually learned something on that front,” Nino suddenly announced, sliding into the passenger side of Marinette’s car. She blinked at him with wide eyes.

“You did?”

“Yeah. I was out shopping this morning with Adrien—he was looking for a corsage for you before I talked him out of it, reminding him that he wasn’t taking you to fucking prom.” Nino rolled his eyes. “Dude’s so cheesy. Why the hell did I decide to rekindle our friendship?”

Marinette carefully filed that information away for now so she could tease Adrien about it later that night.

“Go on,” she pressed Nino.

“Oh, right. Anyway, I remembered the name as we were leaving, and since Adrien lived in Italy for seven years, I figured he had to have picked up some Italian, right? So I asked him, and he told me.”

Marinette carefully backed into the road, easing into traffic. As she drove, she threw a brief glance Nino’s way.

“So? What does ‘Pavone’ mean?”

Abruptly, Marinette was struck with the oddest feeling that she already knew the answer…

Nino’s voice confirmed the sudden suspicion:

“According to Adrien, it means ‘peacock’.”

Peacock.

The mysterious ‘Pavone’, Master Fu’s supposed confidant and the person who Chose Nino, creating Emerald Shell…was named ‘Peacock’ in Italian.

The plot thickened.

Chapter Text

Nino gave a whistle as soon as he stepped out of Marinette’s car.

“Wow…this is different,” he remarked, glancing around at the sudden Chinese street signs. The air smelled of spice, and lots of people of Asian descent milled about, stopping at shop windows to inspect the wares or jabbering away to friends in rapid Cantonese.

“Is it?” Marinette questioned, giving him a curious look as she shut her car door. “Haven’t you been here training with Master Fu?”

“Nah, I always met him in busy cafes when I had questions, and then in abandoned parks late at night so he could teach me the ways of my Miraculous. I’ve never been around here before…yo, check it out, even that McDonald’s over there is Chinese!”

Marinette snorted as she locked her car.

“Well, this is Quartier Chinois. What were you expecting?”

“What’s that say?” Nino asked, pointing to a nearby shop with spices in the window, the name written in Vietnamese. Marinette frowned at him.

“Just because I’m part Chinese doesn’t mean I can read things here. You’d be better off asking Adrien.”

“Oh yeah. Why didn’t we bring him?”

Marinette raised her eyebrows at him, and Nino blinked.

“Oh, right.” He rubbed the back of his head as he followed Marinette into the street, side-stepping the Chinese-French citizens who eyed him as he passed by. “So, uh, where are we going?”

“We’re meeting Master Fu in a pho noodles bar for lunch.” Marinette glanced down at her phone, checking her GPS. “It’s about a five minute walk from here.”

“Mmm. That sounds good. Wayzz loves noodles.”

Ah, then perhaps that was why Master Fu had chosen this particular meeting place. Hmm…how did he feel about having his kwami passed on to someone else, after so many years spent together? Why had he suddenly allowed another to be Chosen in his place?

Patience,’ Marinette reminded herself. All of her questions would hopefully be answered soon enough…

They arrived at the pho place soon enough, and she and Nino ducked inside after letting an elderly couple through first. As Nino took in the Chinese-style décor, Marinette scanned the booths for Master Fu. He was nowhere in sight, however, and that made her frown. She was sure this was the correct restaurant, and she and Nino had arrived on time…was Master Fu just running late?

“Excuse me…you are Marinette?”

Marinette turned, finding a waiter at her side.

“Yes?” She confirmed cautiously. The waiter nodded.

“Mr. Fu is waiting. Please follow me.”

Nino glanced at her, and she gave a shrug before following at the waiter’s behest. He led her and Nino to the back of the restaurant and down a side hallway, where a set of private rooms were set aside for large parties. He motioned them to the farthest room down the hall, and bowed his exit after sliding the door open, revealing a large room with a lunch table already set up in the middle. Master Fu sat at the head of the table, seated on a cushion on the floor, calmly sipping tea.

“Yo, Master Fu!” Nino greeted without hesitation, stepping into the room after removing his shoes. Marinette paused at the door, however, staring at Master Fu.

He was different. There appeared to be more lines on his face than Marinette remembered, and more salt than pepper in his hair since the last time she saw him. It was like he aged about twenty years while she wasn’t looking, and the sudden change unnerved her. What happened to him?

“Ah, good afternoon, Nino,” Master Fu greeted, smiling serenely as Nino took a seat on his left. His dark eyes found Marinette next, who abruptly realized she was staring, and then hastened inside, kicking off her boots and sliding the door shut behind her. “Ladybug. I’m happy to see that you’re well.”

“You too,” she mumbled, not quite able to meet his gaze as she sank down onto the cushion on his right. There was an awkward pause.

“Tea?” Master Fu offered, and both Nino and Marinette accepted some. After a moment, Tikki and Wayzz escaped from Marinette’s muffler as she unwound it from her neck, shedding her coat as well, Nino doing the same.

“Hello, Master Fu,” Tikki greeted, her tone pleasant as always, though Marinette knew that he kwami was not exactly happy with the elder at the moment, either. Wayzz said nothing, merely nodding in the direction of his old master before he joined Nino’s side of the table, Nino plucking a bean sprout from his bowl of pho and offering it to the turtle kwami. Marinette watched Wayzz snack on the bean sprout, her gaze switching to Master Fu, who still watched the kwami fondly. It seemed a little awkward between them…or was Marinette just reading too much into it?

“Good afternoon, Tikki. I understand that you and Ladybug have a few questions for me.”

“Yes,” Marinette said firmly; after a sip of strong tea, she regained her nerve, and she set the cup down, ignoring the bowl of pho in front of her for now, though the smell was awfully tempting. “You’ve been keeping me in the dark about a few things, Master Fu.”

She glanced pointedly across the table at Nino, who had his mouth full of pho, and could not offer anything in anyone’s defense.

Not that he needed to; Master Fu turned to Marinette willingly enough, twisting a finger around his beard, which had grown a little longer and turned completely white, she couldn’t help but notice.

“There is a reason for that, Ladybug.”

“Explain then. Please,” she tacked on, after realizing her tone was a bit too rude to be allowed. Keeping things from her or not, Master Fu was still her mentor, and he ought to be treated with the same respect as always.

Master Fu did not seem ruffled by her attitude at all. He merely studied her, still stroking his beard.

“Despite Chat Noir’s wavering, you seemed to be handling things just fine on your own,” he explained. Unable to help it, Marinette scowled. How many times did she have to go through this? Just because she could deal with The Butterfly on her own didn’t mean that she wanted to! It was her job to seem unruffled as Ladybug, but didn’t Master Fu or Chat Noir know how to see through her appearances yet?

“However,” Master Fu continued, forestalling any complaining Marinette was about to engage in on the subject, “I knew that you would not remain complacent with the situation. And so, I enlisted an…acquaintance, of sorts, for help.”

“Pavone,” Marinette named the acquaintance, and Master Fu smiled.

“Well, it seems you are more informed on the subject than I thought.”

“He’s the Peacock Miraculous holder,” she added.

Master Fu nodded.

“That he is.”

“He helped me when I was fighting Trinket.”

From out of her bag, Marinette withdrew the peacock feather that had been left as the only evidence of Pavone’s involvement in her superhero life. She held it up, and Master Fu inspected it, still stroking his beard.

“Yes, that is one of Pavone’s feathers. Remarkable—he usually does not like to be seen. For the Peacock Miraculous holder…he is very reserved.”

Marinette lowered the feather, scowling.

“You never told me about him,” she accused Master Fu. “He’s been helping me all this time, but you never said anything. Why?”

Master Fu lowered his hand from his beard, folding his hands on the table in front of him as he regarded Marinette with his ancient eyes.

“It was not my place to reveal him to you, Ladybug,” he said simply. “Pavone chooses to work independently. And so he does.”

“But he’s a Miraculous holder too, isn’t he?” Nino joined the conversation after he swallowed an enormous mouthful of pho. “Why wouldn’t he join us?”

Master Fu only shrugged.

“It is his way,” he said mysteriously. Which only served to frustrate Marinette even more.

“Fine, so he likes to work alone, I get it. What I don’t get is how he got his hands on the Turtle Miraculous! We thought it was stolen! It was the only thing that was missing from your massage parlor after you were attacked!”

Nino choked on his tea.

“A-attacked?!” He squawked, straightening his glasses as they attempted to slip down his nose. “Master Fu, you were—”

“I am fine,” Master Fu assured the both of them, his tone firm. “And while I was indeed attacked…it turned out that Wayzz had not gotten far before you intervened, Ladybug.”

That revelation brought Marinette up short, putting her frustration on the backburner as her confusion grew.

“What? But I didn’t—”

“You were focused on me at the time, Ladybug,” Master Fu reminded her gently. “Therefore, there was no way you would have looked for Wayzz properly before you left with me in the ambulance. Wayzz, it transpired, had been hidden under my coffee table, out of sight.”

Marinette gaped at the old master.

Was he seriously telling her that, all this time she’d been worried about Wayzz, he was just out of sight under the table?!

“But when I came back to the massage parlor, it was nearly destroyed!”

“What the hell happened?” Nino asked, aghast.

“Something—someone—tore it apart looking for the remaining Miraculous,” Marinette quickly informed him, ignoring his gaping in favor of focusing on Master Fu once again. “There was no way Wayzz could’ve been hidden in that mess. Whatever tore the place apart would’ve found him, or I would have!”

“Ah,” said Master Fu, holding up a finger, “but Pavone managed to find him before you, Ladybug.”

Again, Marinette was forced to a halt in her thought process, staring at Master Fu.

But…that was impossible, wasn’t it? If Pavone had stopped by after she and Master Fu had headed off to the hospital, surely he would’ve run into whoever had destroyed Master Fu’s massage parlor looking for the Miraculous, right?

And speaking of who that particular villain was…

“Wayzz,” Marinette called, turning immediately to the turtle kwami, “did you see who attacked Master Fu in the first place?”

Wayzz lowered the scrap of lettuce Nino had just handed him, his tiny features warped into a thoughtful frown.

“It was not so much ‘who’ as it was ‘what’,” he answered. “It was some…thing. A shadow.”

Marinette blinked. A shadow?

“A shadow of what?”

“Nothing distinguishable. I only saw it knock out Mas—Fu, and then suddenly, everything went dark.” Wayzz frowned, as if the experience still disturbed him. “I only woke up again when Pavone found me.”

“Then you know who Pavone is?” Marinette questioned, leaning forward eagerly. But Wayzz merely regarded her in much the way Master Fu did whenever she asked a question he wasn’t about to answer.

“Unless he chooses to reveal himself to you, Marinette, his identity is his secret, and his alone,” he said decisively.

Frustrated beyond belief, Marinette glared up at Nino, who raised his hands and eyebrows.

“Don’t look at me. I never met the peacock dude, and Wayzz wouldn’t even tell me who you were. The turtle has spoken, ‘Nette.”

She huffed, folding her arms.

“So, to recap,” she growled, “everyone but me and Tikki knew that this Pavone is an ally, though he’s never introduced himself to me or Nino, and he was the one who Chose Nino after finding Wayzz on his own after the attack happened.” Marinette scowled, turning an aggrieved look on her master. “There’s a lot of shiftiness going on…how do we know this Pavone is actually helping us?”

Master Fu raised an eyebrow.

“Has he done anything to give you cause to doubt him?”

Marinette’s frown deepened, her lower lip jutting out in a pout.

“Well…no. But I still don’t like it! If he’s an ally, what’s he got to hide for? And why didn’t you tell me that there was going to be a new Turtle Miraculous holder?! I’m Ladybug! I need to know these things!”

“Marinette,” Tikki said softly, her tone a bit reproaching. Marinette glanced down at her for a moment before her eyes went back to Master Fu…to find his expression abruptly clouding. He gazed down at his wizened hands, shifting his thumbs a bit.

“…Letting go of Wayzz…was not an easy decision,” Master Fu said quietly. Marinette bit her lip, recognizing too late that she had crossed an invisible line, the point driven home when Wayzz bowed his head as well, setting his lettuce piece to the side, apparently hungry no longer. Nino’s gaze shifted between the kwami and the master, looking as uncomfortable as Marinette felt.

“We have been together many years,” Master Fu continued, “but perhaps it was too long. If anything, the attack upon me and my home made me see that I could not afford to hang onto Wayzz any longer. So when Pavone brought him back to me…it was with great sadness that I had to send him away again, to someone more able-bodied than I will ever be again. I originally asked Pavone to watch over him and to guide him, for I was unsure of whether or not I could bring myself to see Wayzz with a new master…but of course, my duty won out over my personal feelings, so soon enough, I was able to meet Nino, and teach him all I knew about the Turtle Miraculous.” Here, Master Fu smiled at Nino. “And he has exceeded every single one of my expectations so far. It is a good match, and I am grateful to Pavone for Choosing you, Nino.”

Nino’s face grew ruddy, and he chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head.

“Oh, uh, thanks, Master Fu,” he said sheepishly. “Oh, and, uh, I finally figured out a superhero name: Emerald Shell. Shell for short.”

“Emerald Shell,” Master Fu repeated, nodding his approval. “It is a good name.”

“It is,” Wayzz agreed, and for a moment, he and Master Fu were able to look at each other, the fondness between former master and kwami not forgotten in any sense of the word. This made Marinette look down at Tikki, who was looking up at her with her big, indigo eyes, and think: if the day approached where she became too old to be Ladybug anymore, and had to say goodbye to Tikki…what would she do? Could she swallow her feelings of loss and teach the new Ladybug everything she knew? Would she be able to face such a bittersweet moment…?

Sighing, Marinette felt the rest of her indignation leave her. She reached out and stroked her kwami between her antennae with the tip of her finger, smiling as Tikki closed her eyes and buzzed in appreciation. Maybe she did understand why Master Fu hadn’t rushed to tell her about Nino after all.

“I’m sorry, Master Fu,” she apologized, giving the old master a contrite look. “I didn’t mean to…well…”

She wasn’t really sure how to finish that sentence, but it was deemed unnecessary when Master Fu nodded with an understanding smile.

“Worry not, Ladybug. I am here to guide you, after all…though I will remind you that it is also fine for you to discover things on your own.”

“Right,” Marinette mumbled, grimacing. She really needed to learn to keep her temper when it counted. Clearing her throat, and finally picking up her chopsticks, Marinette ate some of her lunch before another concern made itself known to her, and she glanced up at Master Fu with another frown. “But, Master Fu…now that your Miraculous—I mean—the other Miraculous that I still have…does this mean I have to become the Guardian now…?”

“Certainly not,” Master Fu assured her, and Marinette felt the sudden tension leave her shoulders. She watched, curious now, as the old master turned to Nino. “Emerald Shell, from now on, the title of ‘Guardian of the Miraculous’ rests on your shoulders.”

Nino stared at the pair of them in blank confusion.

“…Okay, I have no idea what you two are talking about,” he confessed, golden gaze switching between them. “What do you mean, ‘other Miraculous’? I thought there were only five: ours, Chat Noir’s, Pavone’s, and The Butterfly’s. You’re telling me there’s more?”

“There are many more Miraculous in the world, Emerald Shell,” Master Fu informed him, though he managed to surprise Marinette with this information as well. “I was guardian of seven of them, however, and the remaining two have been in Ladybug’s possession ever since my attack. But since you are the new Turtle Miraculous holder, they are now your responsibility.”

Nino’s gaze managed to get wider.

“M-mine?!” He sputtered, panic clearly rising within him. “B-but…Marinette’s been doing this longer than I have, shouldn’t she—”

“I don’t mind at all,” Marinette made sure to clarify, just as Master Fu said,

“The Turtle Miraculous holder is always the Guardian of the Miraculous. That is how it is done.”

“Guys, I just became a superhero, like a week ago,” Nino reminded him, definitely panicking now. “You’re asking too much!”

“It’s not a big deal!” Marinette insisted, though a part of her felt guilty about shoving this responsibility onto Nino, when she herself had lost a fair amount of sleep over it. “All you have to do is guard the box that they’re stored in. Preferably in a safe or something.”

“But what if whatever attacked Master Fu comes after me next when it finds out I have the Miraculous?”

“Well, you’re a superhero for a reason, aren’t you?”

Nino scowled.

“Nice, ‘Nette,” he grumbled, and she sighed, realizing he had a point.

“I didn’t mean it like that. Do you really think I’d let anything happen to you?” Marinette reached across the table, patting his forearm. “We’re teammates now, Shelly. That means I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine, right?”

“I really wish you’d stop calling me Shelly,” Nino grumbled, but he smiled a little, his free hand reaching over to pat Marinette’s forearm as well. “…But I guess I do feel a little better, knowing Ladybug’s in my corner…but what if I screw up…?”

“I have complete faith in you,” Master Fu assured Nino in much the same way he had assured Marinette when she had been briefly forced to don the Guardian mantle. “Just as you have become an amazing Turtle Miraculous holder, you will also become a brilliant Guardian…perhaps even better than I ever was.”

“Those are some big shoes to fill, Master Fu,” Nino said, giving the old master a wry look, and Master Fu laughed. Marinette grinned, surging with affection for the both of them. Lately, things hadn’t been ideal for her as Ladybug—thrust back into duty without a moment’s notice, having her MIA partner turn his back on her, having Paris tear itself down the middle over what was the right and wrong way to deal with akuma…it had been a rough couple of months, to say the very least.

But having these people in her corner—an old master who long ago saw something in her she wasn’t even aware she had; a mystical fairy that gave her superpowers and tirelessly encouraged her to do the right thing and be the best person she could be; an old friend turned new teammate in just a night; and a mysterious ally who chose to stay hidden in the shadows for reasons all his own—made Marinette feel that maybe things were beginning to look up for Ladybug after all.

Now if only a certain cat would remove his head from his ass and return, too…then Marinette would be happy.

The rest of lunch passed by with only one more question that couldn’t be answered: why Poseidon had reverted to his civilian form so suddenly. Master Fu had no answer, and the only explanation he could think up was,

“Well, if The Butterfly can give these powers at will, then it makes just as much sense for them to be able to take them away at will as well, right?”

Marinette had already theorized this on her own, and decided to let the matter drop, finishing her pho and ushering Nino out of the restaurant with promises that they would see Master Fu again soon.

“He looks a little older than the last time I saw him,” Nino remarked, surprising Marinette as they walked back to her car. “I feel like his hair got whiter overnight.”

“You mean he didn’t always look like that when you met him?”

“Nah. But it’s weird, isn’t it? I know the dude’s, like, two-hundred, but he doesn’t look like it…or he didn’t when I started training with him, anyway…what’s up with that?”

They were in the car now, and it was Wayzz who answered the question.

“The Turtle Miraculous has the ability to slow the aging process. Now that a new Turtle Miraculous holder has been chosen, Mas—Fu will be aging a bit faster now.”

Nino took that in, silent as he gazed out the window as Marinette pulled out into traffic. After a moment, she caught the grin that began to spread across his face.

“So, I won’t age? I’ll be immortal, like a god?”

“No,” Wayzz replied patiently; Marinette got the feeling that he’d been dealing with these sort of questions too long for them to faze him anymore. “You will merely age at a slower rate than normal humans.”

“Good thing you didn’t become Miraculous while we were still attending Dupont, then,” Marinette spoke up, grinning herself. “You would’ve been juvenile forever.”

“Hey!”

They traded barbs back and forth for the remainder of the car ride. It wasn’t until they arrived back on Marinette’s street that Nino paused, frowning down at something in his hand.

“Alya tried calling me,” he reported to Marinette, cringing as he joined her on the sidewalk. “Five times.”

Marinette frowned. Uh-oh…how had he missed five calls from his girlfriend?

“Did you have your phone on silent?”

“Well, yeah. We were kind of having an important conversation…”

“Well why didn’t you switch the volume back on when we were done?”

“I forgot?”

Marinette sighed.

“You’d better call her back now, then, and hope she isn’t too pissed to—”

“Nino?”

Marinette and Nino both glanced up, freezing once they noticed the figure waiting on the steps of Marinette’s townhouse apartment.

It was Alya, looking cold and confused, her arms folded around her for warmth as she stood on the stairs, glancing between her best friend and her boyfriend, clearly trying to put two and two together.

Nino’s mouth was gaping open in horror, but Marinette recovered first, purposefully nudging Nino as she resumed walking forward.

“Hey Alya! You’re an hour early, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well, I thought we could give you a facial and paint your nails and stuff…the works.” Her eyes narrowing behind her glasses, she glanced between the pair of them once again. “What were you two doing out together…?”

“I finished Nino’s CD cover and went over to show him,” Marinette explained before Nino had a chance to flounder. Rare were the times when she wasn’t forced to outright lie to Alya, and Marinette was grateful for each and every one of these precious moments.

“Oh…yeah! It looks kickass,” Nino said with a nod. As they drew level with Alya, Marinette passing her to unlock her door, she heard Alya ask,

“Really? Can I see it?”

“Ah, sorry, babe: I left it back at my apartment.”

“Okay…so, you wanna explain to me why you’ve been ignoring my calls?”

“I had it on silent, babe. I’m sorry,” he apologized as Marinette unlocked her door, allowing the couple to pass her into the warmth inside. “‘Nette and I were having lunch in a place that was kind of sensitive about cell phone use.”

“It’s true,” Marinette piped up with a grim look. “But despite the needed distraction of cellular devices, we found things to talk about. Did you know Nino had to talk Adrien out of buying a corsage for me for tonight?”

That managed to capture Alya’s attention, the suspicion in her gaze draining, replaced by glee as she turned to her boyfriend.

“You did not.

“I so did,” Nino huffed and rolled his eyes. “He was being such a dork, freaking out about the color and the type of flower. I nearly had to smack some sense into him.”

As Alya snorted with laughter, Nino’s eyes met Marinette’s, and he mouthed “thank you” at her, which Marinette replied to with a smile.

“Oh, Nino, before you go, I wanted to give you that stuff for a certain someone’s birthday,” she fibbed, making an obvious gesture towards Alya. “Alya, can you wait here for a second?”

Alya’s suspicious look returned, but it was tinged with playfulness this time around.

“Fine, fine, be all secretive. But you know surprise parties don’t work on me.”

“We’ll see,” Marinette teased, waving Nino up the stairs after her and closing the door behind him.

“What was that about?” Nino asked, clearly not comprehending as Marinette moved to the box underneath her bed, lifting it with a grunt and carrying it over to him.

“This. The Miraculous chest is in this box,” she murmured to him, handing it off before removing her necklace with the key on it, stuffing it into his coat pocket. “Be very careful with them, understand? Hide them however you can. You can keep them in this box, or you can find another place for them, just as long as they’re safe, okay? They’re your responsibility now, Guardian.”

Nino groaned.

“Whether I like it or not, I guess.” He sighed, but his grip on the box tightened as he gave a solemn nod. “I’ll guard them with my life.”

“I hope it never has to come to that,” Marinette said gravely, moving around him to open her door and head back downstairs. Behind her, Nino sighed again.

“Me, too,” he confessed.

After minimal teasing about what could be in the box, Alya strictly ordered Nino to return to Marinette’s later that night, at five forty-five sharp.

“Prince Cheesy will be here at six, so I wanna make sure he knows what’ll happen if Marinette comes back in worse condition than when we sent her off,” Alya said darkly as she shooed Nino down Marinette’s front steps, ignoring the slight exasperated look Marinette gave her.

“You know, you’re not my mom, Alya,” she reminded her best friend, who rolled her eyes.

“I don’t have to be to be protective. You’re my Marinette, no matter whose vagina you came out of.”

“AND that’s my cue to leave,” Nino announced, looking uncomfortable now. He leaned over, pecking Alya’s lips before he jumped the last few steps, the box containing the Miraculous held under his arm. Marinette wanted to warn him again to be careful, but she couldn’t say much without seeming suspicious, so she settled for a mere warning look as Nino waved at the pair of them before he walked away, his gait strong, easing Marinette’s worries…

…That is, until Alya got her back inside and slammed the door shut, locking it in an ominous manner.

“And now…” she began, turning on Marinette with a wicked look that Marinette was far too familiar with, unfortunately, “it’s time to get to work.”

Marinette sighed. It was going to be a looong afternoon.

 


 

Adrien fidgeted, pacing at the bottom of the stairs of Marinette’s place. He knew he shouldn’t have gotten here so early—okay, he was only ten minutes early, but apparently, that ten minutes was still vital for Marinette’s preparation, if the way Alya had shoved him back was any indication.

“You said six, and it’s not six yet! So you have to wait!”

And, while thoroughly ignoring Nino’s protests to not make him wait out in the cold, Alya had slammed the door shut, and that was that.

Which left Adrien to, well…pace.

You could wait in the car where it’s warm,’ his mind reminded him, but the thought of sitting still, even in a warm place, made him even more restless, and so he prowled around out front instead, like some alley cat waiting for food.

He kept his gaze carefully away from Marinette’s balcony, because when he thought about how, just last night, he had been up there chatting with Marinette in a leather cat suit like it was nothing, his face heated up, and his pacing increased.

He really couldn’t justify the late night visit. It had come out of the blue, this restless desire to see her. Texting her hadn’t seemed like it would be enough, but it wasn’t like he could just pop over whenever he wanted…not as Adrien, anyway…

Plagg was less than pleased about this random desire.

“You can’t just turn into Chat Noir just to see your girlfriend! That’s abusing the power of the Miraculous, especially since you’re refusing to do your superhero duty right now! No, I don’t wanna do it, I want no part of this weird mating ritual you’re trying to initiate with your girlfriend!”

Three boxes of camembert had changed the kwami’s tune pretty quickly, but Adrien still felt bad. Plagg had a point, after all…it wasn’t like he could get away with this method of seeing Marinette whenever he wanted, when she herself had cautioned him not to make it a habit. And he still had no idea why the sudden need to see her had become so overpowering…

It’s probably because I hadn’t seen her since Monday,’ he reasoned to himself, nervously smoothing down his gelled hair—he had gone through a whole bottle trying to tame the blonde mess, and now he was seriously considering a haircut. ‘She kept refusing to jog with me all week, saying it was too cold, so tonight would’ve been the only other time I saw her this week…

And yet, the promise of Saturday still hadn’t been enough for him. Why?

As Adrien buttoned and unbuttoned one of his cufflinks as he paced, the sound of the door unlocking up the stairs made him stop, and he abruptly turned on his heel, facing the door as it creaked open.

Alya frowned down at him, her glasses flashing in the light of the streetlamps outside.

“Okay, we’re just about finished here…are you ready?”

“Uh…yes?” Adrien said, though it came out more like a question. What was Alya making this into a big deal for, anyway?

Her frown deepened at the confusion on Adrien’s face.

“I swear, Agreste, if your jaw doesn’t hit the ground as soon as you see her—”

“Alya,” Adrien heard Marinette sigh from somewhere inside, and Adrien stretched onto his toes, wanting to catch a glimpse of her…but Alya remained stubbornly in his way.

“…All right, fine,” she conceded after a minute. She disappeared, the door closing briefly in front of her once again, only to open a moment later, revealing…

…Oh, wow.

She was an absolutely lovely vision in pink: the dress was made of Organza fabric, sleeveless, with a sweetheart neckline and an empire waistline, fitting her lean frame perfectly, the bottom made entirely of ruffles that shifted as she walked. The soft pink made Adrien think immediately of her when he saw it in the Chanel window display, but seeing it on her…

He was not prepared. He could only gawk stupidly as she carefully made her way down the stairs in those pink heels he could just see under her dress, and only because she lifted the ruffled skirt a bit so she could walk. On her arms were long white gloves she must have bought somewhere, matching her white fluffy coat. When Adrien was finally able to drag his eyes away from her clothes, he took in her face, and her skin was glowing, her make-up done expertly, eyeliner and mascara emphasizing the shape of her eyes and how very blue they were, the curve of her lips defined by pink lipstick, her cheeks flushed…or was that rouge? It didn’t really matter, she was gorgeous either way, her dark hair done up into an elegant bun, with a chain of thin, glittering rhinestones criss-crossing her bun, and two spiral curls framing her face, her bangs swept to the side as always. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she let her skirt fall, smoothing it out with her gloved hands before she looked up at him. Her cheeks darkened a bit when she caught his gaze, but she smiled all the same, and Adrien felt his mouth go dry.

Nothing on earth could have prepared him for the way Marinette Dupain-Cheng looked tonight.

There was a snort next to him, and some sort of pressure under his chin—someone was closing his mouth for him.

“Mission accomplished,” Alya decided, her voice sounding gleeful, but Adrien couldn’t look over to make sure. He was still so enraptured by the beauty that was Marinette Dupain-Cheng, all dolled up for a night out.

A night out with him, no less…

“Dude, say something,” said Nino, and there was a nudge to Adrien’s ribs. “She’s gonna think you’re catatonic if you keep staring at her like that.”

That managed to rouse Adrien from the stupor Marinette had put him in, with absolutely no effort on her part. He managed to clear his throat, and had to drop his gaze to the ground so he could think straight.

“You look beautiful,” he offered shyly, because they had an audience. Marinette giggled, and his gaze immediately snapped to hers, unable to help it. She was smiling again—oh god, his heart, he was going to die—and gave him a playful shove to his chest, managing to make him stumble back a step.

“You clean up well, too, Mr. Model,” she teased him, and Adrien felt himself relax a little. That’s right, there was no need to be nervous…she was just his plus one to the ball. There was absolutely no reason for his face to be so hot, nor should he suddenly feel that his Armani suit was constricting his chest, making it hard to breathe…

“Uh,” he began, forcing himself into speech when he realized he was staring again; he cleared his throat and turned away from Marinette, opening the passenger side door of his car. “I was told by someone that it was gauche to get you a corsage…but I didn’t want to come empty-handed, so…”

“Oh,” Marinette sighed softly, her eyes widening with surprise as Adrien pulled out a bouquet of a dozen long-stemmed pink roses from his car. His face was now on fire, but he still managed to hand over the flowers with as much grace as he could. Marinette took them, staring down at the bouquet for a moment, saying nothing. This caused Adrien some distress—she wasn’t allergic to flowers, was she? Or maybe she didn’t like roses? He really should have checked with Alya first, shouldn’t he have? Oh god, what if she hated them and was just too nice to say anything?

As he began to sweat, it was with some surprise that he registered the blush that filled Marinette’s face, and her smile when she looked up at him again…god, she was radiant.

“That’s so sweet. Thank you,” she said, her smile widening. Adrien nearly choked on his own tongue.

“You’re welcome,” he mumbled, managing a smile of his own for a moment, while inside, his mind was panicking. What was happening to him???

“I’ll take those,” said Alya, and Adrien jolted; he had nearly forgotten that she and Nino were still there. He watched mutely as she took the roses from her best friend, shooting him a look that was rather smug, for some reason. “I’ll put them in water for you, Mari.”

“Thanks. You know where the vases are,” Marinette replied.

“Your purse, Miss Marinette,” Nino teased, handing over a tiny pink clutch bag to Marinette. As she thanked him, Adrien caught the questioning glance she gave Nino, who replied to it with a wink. Satisfied, Marinette smiled and turned away from him, leaving Adrien to glance between them curiously. What was that about…?

“So, Agreste—how late are you going to be keeping my Marinette out tonight?” Alya demanded to know, claiming his attention once again. Marinette gave a weary sigh.

“I told you, Alya, the ball lasts until midnight,” she reminded her friend. Alya’s gaze narrowed behind her glasses.

“And I’m supposed to believe that this swanky ball lasts for six hours?”

“It starts at eight thirty,” Adrien informed Marinette’s protective friend. “We’re leaving now because the Sainte de-Coquille chateau is on Montmartre.”

Nino gave a low whistle.

“That’s a drive.”

“Which means we have to leave now if we don’t want to be late,” Marinette said with a pointed look at Alya. Alya did not look like she gave any fucks about the schedule, however.

“Isn’t it fashionable to be late? Relax, girl, I only want a word with your date for a second—”

“It’s not a date,” Adrien and Marinette denied at the same time, their faces flushed.

“Uh-huh. You,” Alya said, grabbing Adrien’s upper arm, “come with me for a second.”

And, with a strength that was not so surprising, since it was Alya, she hauled Adrien up the stairs and out of earshot, thoroughly ignoring Marinette’s protests that they were going to be late and that this really wasn’t necessary. But she was detained by Nino—most likely on Alya’s orders—and so Adrien was cornered by her best friend, who rested her free hand on her hip, frowning up at him.

“You remember that favor you owe me?” She began without preamble, “I wanna cash it now.”

Adrien blinked.

“Oh…now? Uh, but I’m kind of busy tonight—”

“Shut up and listen, Agreste,” Alya growled at him, and Adrien closed his mouth, his eyebrows raising. Hmm…maybe the source of Marinette’s attitude was the woman standing right in front of him… “That beautiful girl down there? She means the world to me. And all I want is for her to be happy.”

Alya’s hazel eyes flashed behind her glasses, and her hair seemed to fluff out, like a storm was building within her, waiting to rain hellfire down on Adrien’s head. She reached up with her free hand, gripping the lapel of Adrien’s trench coat and yanking him down to her eye level.

“So I’m letting you know now: if you break her heart, I’m hunting you down. I don’t care how much you might say that you’re just friends and you didn’t realize you were hurting her feelings—I will hunt you down, and I will make your life so hellish that you will beg me to kill you.”

And, as if the threat wasn’t unnerving enough…Alya abruptly smiled so sweetly that Adrien nearly broke out in a cold sweat.

“Do we understand each other, Adrien?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied automatically, unable to help himself. Nino was right—Alya was scary when she was mad.

“Good.” Alya let go, smoothing out his lapel for him, her smile growing less dangerous. “Bring her home safe, young man. I don’t wanna have to come hunting for you in the middle of the night.”

“Oh come on,” Adrien huffed a little, growing indignant. “Mari’s my friend, too. Do you really think I’d be so irresponsible?” After all, wasn’t this a little much? For god’s sake, Alya was acting like he was going to eat Marinette as soon as she let them out of her sight. Best friend or not, this was a little overboard.

Alya inspected him for an inscrutable moment. Just for a second, there was a flash of something Adrien didn’t expect in her eyes: worry.

“I hope not,” was all she said in reply, before she waved him off, back down the stairs. “Come on, Nino, I gotta put these in water before we lock up and go back to your place.”

“Have fun, kids,” Nino teased them with a wink as he passed Adrien, obeying the summons of his girlfriend.

“Do not have sex in my apartment!” Marinette called after them, which prompted Alya to waggle her eyebrows at her best friend.

“I make no promises,” she teased, grabbing Nino by his wrist and dragging him back inside, slamming the door shut behind them. Marinette huffed as Adrien turned to her, amused at the deadpan look she wore.

“I’m gonna have to disinfect everything when I get home,” she grumbled, and Adrien laughed.

“Guess we should’ve made them leave first,” he teased, standing next to his passenger car door, a hand waiting for Marinette. “After you, your Highness.”

Marinette gave him a dry look as she took his hand, accepting his help as she climbed into the car.

“Still sticking with the princess theme?”

“How can I not, with you looking like that?” He teased, and was rewarded with the new blush that filled Marinette’s face. He made sure her dress wasn’t hanging out before he shut the door, rounding the car and climbing into the driver’s seat.

“What did Alya say to you?” Marinette asked as they pulled away from the curb. Adrien flushed and cleared his throat.

“Oh, nothing…something about having you home at a reasonable hour.”

“And?”

“And nothing. That was it.”

“Liar,” Marinette accused, and Adrien’s shoulders hunched. Damn, he forgot how well she could read him at this point…

“Okay, well, there was other stuff…but I kind of don’t want to rehash it, Mari.” He turned, giving her a grimace. “All I can say is I feel sorry for the man who decides he wants to marry you.”

Marinette laughed at that, grinning widely.

“I do, too,” she admitted, “he won’t have to worry about meeting my parents—it’s the other two he has to be afraid of.”

“Three,” Adrien corrected, glancing over in time to see Marinette raising her eyebrows.

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” He gave her a grin and a wink. “You don’t think I’ll be there intimidating the poor, unworthy bastard right along with Alya and Nino?”

Amusement glinted in Marinette’s gaze, and Adrien had to remind himself to watch the road.

“Well, for that to work, wouldn’t you actually have to be intimidating?” She teased him. Adrien made a show of clapping a hand to his chest, keeping the other firmly on the steering wheel.

Ow. Your words sting, Mari.” He shot a brief, exaggerated pout in her direction. “I could be intimidating if I wanted to.”

“Sure…but only in a ‘I’m Adrien Agreste and I will always be richer and more attractive than you’ sort of way.”

A stupid grin began to stretch its way across Adrien’s face.

“You think I’m attractive?” He asked, glancing over at Marinette, who rolled her eyes so hard she almost fell asleep.

“The whole world thinks you’re attractive. You wouldn’t be a supermodel if you weren’t.”

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Then most of the world must have the same eyesight, or else you would be out of work.”

“Touché.” Adrien allowed himself a chuckle before he changed the subject; he didn’t want to talk about work right now. “Are you excited about tonight?”

“Yes,” Marinette enthused, her eyes doing the thing where they got big and sparkly, and Adrien once again had to remind himself that he was driving and that it was dangerous to look at her for too long. “This could be my chance to network—I have some business cards in my purse, just in case anyone’s in the market for fresh blood.”

“I’ll be sure to slip in a good word or two for you as well,” Adrien promised.

“Thanks.” Marinette sighed, and Adrien glanced over, his brow crinkling in concern at the slight disappointment on her face. What was wrong? “I just wish I had known about the ball earlier—I could’ve made myself a dress so people could physically see what I can do.”

Ah. That…would’ve been great, actually. Adrien cringed.

“I’m sorry, Mari.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love this dress,” she assured him, smoothing her gloved hands over the skirt once again. “As a matter of fact, remind me when you drop me off tonight that I need to grab your Christmas present before you go home.”

That caught Adrien’s attention, his eyes wide as he turned to look at her.

“You got me something?”

Marinette smiled.

“I might have,” she teased. “Watch the road.”

Reluctantly, Adrien re-focused his gaze on the road.

“What did you get me?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Please?”

“Nope.”

“Not even a little hint?”

Marinette went quiet. Adrien risked a glance in her direction. Her expression was thoughtful.

“Hmm…okay, one hint: think black.”

Adrien blinked, his brow creasing.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Guess you’ll have to wait, then.”

“Mariiii,” he whined, and she laughed at him.

“You’re twenty-two, Mr. Agreste,” she reminded him, but Adrien pouted nonetheless.

“Meanie.”

“Baby.”

“I’ll turn this car around,” he threatened. He didn’t need Marinette’s flat look to know that she saw right through him.

“Sure you will.” She blinked, her eyes widening a little. “Oh, right, I almost forgot…” She suddenly cringed and let out a drawn out sigh. “…My mother wants to know if you’d like to join us for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”

There was a stoplight that turned red just as they pulled up to it. Adrien stopped the car, and then twisted in his seat to stare at Marinette.

“Me?” He questioned, as if she meant some other ‘you’. Marinette raised an eyebrow at him, a slight smile curving her lips.

“Yes, you. She thinks it’s only fair for you to join us, since you’re whisking me away to the party of a lifetime tonight. If you’re busy, though, that’s totally okay, since I told her you might be unavailable on such short notice—”

“I’d love to come to dinner tomorrow,” Adrien enthused, so surprised and so touched by such an invite that too much fervor was in his voice, his eyes probably too intense; he attributed those things to the reason Marinette blushed. He was probably making her uncomfortable, and so he worked to calm himself, clearing his throat. “I don’t have any other plans…I was going to just spend it at home, but if it’s really okay—”

“Yes, absolutely,” Marinette assured him, nodding a little too much—perhaps she was working to assure him? “We’re going to wear hideous Christmas sweaters and make cookies and watch Christmas movies. It’ll be fun.”

A slow, wide grin began to make its way across Adrien’s face. He had already resigned himself to the fate of a lonely Christmas—Chloe had been highly offended when she found out he was going to a party without her, and had insisted that she and her father spend the holidays in Fiji, far away from him. And it wasn’t like he wanted to spend Christmas with what little family he had left in Italy…so he had been depressed, but resigned, to his fate.

And then actual angel Marinette Dupain-Cheng asked him to spend Christmas with her warm and loving family instead.

There was absolutely nothing pretty enough Adrien could buy her to express his pleasure at such an invitation.

“The light’s green,” Marinette told him in a small voice, glancing away from him, her face red. Adrien tore his gaze from her and put his foot down a little too hard—the car jerked forward, and he apologized, flushing in embarrassment as he eased his foot off the gas pedal.

“I don’t have an ugly Christmas sweater,” Adrien said after a quiet moment fell between them, his eyes kept fixed on the road. “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine, my dad can probably lend you one. He likes to collect them.” The amusement in Marinette’s voice made Adrien smile, too.

“I don’t know how to make cookies.”

“We’ll teach you.”

Adrien smiled.

“Thank you, Marinette.”

“Thank my mom—she’s the one who reminded me to invite you.”

Yes, but even so, if Marinette didn’t want him to spend Christmas with her family, she wouldn’t have said anything. Adrien knew enough about her by now to know that was true, and the silly grin wouldn’t leave his face, no matter how much he tried to sober up; he was too excited.

His first, real Christmas. He couldn’t wait.

Chapter Text

“Adrien Agreste and Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” Adrien announced as soon as they arrived at the chateau, the front door guarded by a burly man checking off names. Marinette looked around her, taking in the cool air with a soft sigh. It would be gorgeous up here, if only it weren’t so damn cold.

“You may drop off your coats and other winter garments in the foyer. Enjoy the party,” said the man, opening the doors and allowing them entrance. Taking her hand once again, Adrien led her into the most gorgeous foyer Marinette had ever seen, done up in gold furnishings and white marble. Two staircases dominated both sides of the room, and Marinette, by the light of the chandelier, could make out a large painting: a fair, portly man with dark brown hair and eyes, and a kind smile that was a tad uncertain, stood short next to a tall and thin and gorgeous dark-skinned woman, her hair dark brown and curly, puffing out from her head and trailing to her shoulders, her eyes light brown, her face carved and regal-looking. She smiled more with her eyes rather than her lips, and her left hand was perched on the man’s shoulder, showing off the biggest diamond wedding ring Marinette had ever seen.

“Wow,” she breathed, hardly noticing when Adrien helped her out of her coat. He chuckled, following her gaze.

“That’s a portrait of Jacques Sainte de-Coquille, and his lovely wife Amara. She’s—”

“A super-famous supermodel, I know,” Marinette said, wide eyes still staring at the portrait, even as Adrien tucked her arm into his and led her forward through the foyer. “I just didn’t know she was married to Jacques Sainte de-Coquille!”

“Oh yes, they were married just last year; he financed most of her career. He chased her for years, at first—apparently she was a very hard woman to woo, too focused on her career for love. So he used his influence to gain her opportunities so she could make a name for herself. It wasn’t until she became the star of an international fashion show that she finally agreed to marry him.”

“But that happened a couple years ago.” Marinette remembered, because she had watched every video she could of the show obsessively for a week, having missed the actual event because Symone needed her fabrics sorted…but Marinette was over it. Mostly. “I thought Jacques had children our age!”

“He does, from his first marriage. When Amara continually rebuffed his advances, he tried to find love elsewhere, marrying a woman his parents chose for him. But she hadn’t really loved him, and so the marriage ended unhappily. He was divorced for five years before he decided to try and pursue Amara again. They’ve known each other for a long time…it’s a beautiful love story.”

Marinette raised an eyebrow as Adrien led her through the chateau, following the softly glowing candles that lit the way on the walls.

“I didn’t know you were such a sap, Mr. Agreste,” she teased with a smile. He glanced down at her with a smirk.

“Who doesn’t love a good love story?” He asked. “But they’re lovely people. Amara was the one who personally invited me, so I’ll be able to introduce you.” He winked. “Maybe you’ll inspire Mr. Sainte de-Coquille to invest in you, next.”

Marinette smiled.

“Well, not if he’s going to pursue me in exchange. I wouldn’t want to break up a perfectly good marriage.”

Adrien laughed at that as they rounded the corner, coming up on two large, oak doors that were thrown open, sounds of music and laughter floating through the hall to them.

“Amara was a special case, I think. Jacques told me the reason he fell in love with her in the first place was her passion for her work. He wanted to do whatever it took to see her dream become a reality, so he did whatever he had to do to help her make it.”

“That’s sweet, how dedicated he was to her, despite having his heart broken by her so many times.”

Adrien was staring ahead of them, and Marinette was looking up at him, so she noticed immediately when his gaze grew distant.

“Love is stubborn that way,” he remarked quietly. Marinette watched his face, her teeth moving to worry her lip. Where had his mind gone…?

“Speaking from experience?” She blurted out stupidly. As she cursed herself within her mind for speaking so thoughtlessly, Adrien’s gaze turned to her. A slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth…but his eyes were sad.

He looked so much like a kicked puppy that Marinette felt her heart threatening to tear clean in two.

She knew it—he was thinking about Ladybug. Ladybug made him look like that.

She made him look like that.

Did this mean he wasn’t over her after all…?

“Mr. Agreste!” Called a sudden voice, and Marinette jumped. She hadn’t realized they’d entered the ballroom already, but there they were, in a high-ceilinged room with glass creating most of the west and east walls of the room. A band was playing on the large stage at the north of the room, and a fantastic chandelier sparkled above, casting a bright glow that made everything shimmer—the dance floor, the decorations, the people in the room. It really was like Marinette had entered a fairytale world, the glamor almost too much for her to process all at once. She blinked, brought back to the moment when a camera was abruptly shoved in her face.

Madame Sainte de-Coquille has asked all her guests to pose for a picture,” said the man behind the camera, lifting it for emphasis. “Could I get one of you and your date?”

Marinette opened her mouth automatically to deny that there was any such thing as a date happening here, but Adrien interrupted.

“Sure,” he agreed, and Marinette blinked in surprise when he drew her close to his side, sliding an arm around her waist. “Anything for Amara.” He glanced down, smiling a little. “Smile, Mari.”

So distracted was she by him that the photographer had to call her to get her attention, and she flushed, straightening and forcing herself to smile as naturally as she could. He took a couple shots, thanked them, and stepped back to let them pass. As they descended the staircase down into the ballroom, Marinette groaned under her breath.

“I was making a stupid face, I know it,” she grumbled. Adrien chuckled softly.

“No face you make is stupid, Mari,” he assured her with a wink. Marinette smiled weakly, unable to tease him, now that she knew he was still in love with Ladybug. She had managed to push the issue to the side for so long, but here it was, a couple months later…and Adrien was still stuck on her. The wrong her.

And she had to spend the whole evening in his company, painfully aware of that fact.

Some concern must have shown up on her face, for Adrien’s amusement faded, and now he matched her concern with a look of his own.

“Mari? You okay?”

Huh…how was she supposed to answer that question without outright lying through her teeth?

Marinette stared up at him, taking him in. As much as he had complimented her tonight, Adrien more than cleaned up well: in his fitted, three-piece suit, and gelled and combed hair, his side-swept bangs a little more subdued than usual, he looked like a bona-fide movie star arriving on the red carpet for the premiere of his next of many blockbuster films. He was really too handsome to be allowed, and Marinette wished she had someone to complain to about it…but since neither of his parents were here to take responsibility…

“Oh, dear Adrien! You made it!”

Distracted, Adrien looked away from Marinette, grinning as a stunning, dark-skinned model made her way over in a sweeping white gown, her dark, curly hair piled high onto her head in a long ponytail, which she swept back from her shoulder as she leaned forward—she was a little taller than Adrien, holy crap—and kissed Adrien on both cheeks.

“Amara,” Adrien greeted, taking the model’s hands and squeezing them. “Always a pleasure.”

“You flatter me,” she replied, smiling warmly. “There are so many people I must have you meet. If you’ll come with me—”

“Ah…” Adrien’s gaze went to Marinette, which brought her to Amara’s attention. Under her scrutinizing gaze, Marinette abruptly felt inadequate. She hated it. “Amara, this is Marinette Dupain-Cheng, a friend of mine. She’s a fashion designer.”

“Nice to meet you,” Marinette mumbled, once again unable to smile naturally, so intimidated was she by Amara’s very presence.

Amara appraised her for a moment.

“A fashion designer, you say?”

“Budding fashion designer,” Marinette hastily corrected. “I, um, don’t have anything out yet…”

“Ah.” Nodding, Amara turned to her, resting a hand on her cheek and making Marinette blush. “I know it’s hard, dear. I struggled for years before I got anywhere. But don’t lose hope. As long as you keep working at it, someday you’ll be brilliant.”

“She’s already brilliant,” Adrien claimed, the pride in his voice causing Marinette to flush further. “She just needs her first big start…maybe you can convince your husband to take a look at some of her stuff?”

“I could certainly do that,” Amara mused, statuesque even while she was thoughtful. “Do you have anything for me to show him?”

Marinette gaped at her. What…just like that??

Adrien winked at her from behind Amara, and Marinette gave him a tremulous smile in return. Perhaps his influence with Amara was just strong enough to convince her to give a no-name like Marinette a chance…?

Fumbling for a moment with her purse, Marinette withdrew a business card, carefully avoiding the pocket Tikki was stowed away in. Her hand shook slightly as she handed the card over to Amara.

“Th-there’s a website on there with some of the pieces I’ve done, um, if you could…I mean, if you want to take a look…”

Amara glanced over the business card, reading the information before she glanced back up at Marinette, smiling with her eyes rather than her lips.

“Thank you. I’ll make sure Jacques gets it. For now, I’m afraid I have to steal your date away. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Oh…no,” Marinette replied, unsure of whether or not her refusal would go over well here, in Amara’s domain. “Go ahead. I’ll, um…just be around.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t hog him all night,” Amara assured her, her lips curving into a small smile now. “Please, enjoy the party. I will return him shortly.”

Adrien gave Marinette an apologetic smile as he was whisked away by Amara. Marinette returned it, waving a little until he disappeared into the crowd of glamor. The crowd in which she had no place. Sighing, Marinette scanned the room, wondering where the snack table was, since Adrien had assured her that heavy hors d’oeuvres would be served. She only took a couple steps around the edge of the dance floor before a familiar face distracted her—a red head in a green chiffon dress, looking about as nervous and out of place as Marinette felt.

“Hello,” she greeted, smiling as the woman blinked rapidly, taking her in with wide eyes. “It’s Amanda, isn’t it?”

“Oh…yes…” Amanda cleared her throat, not quite meeting Marinette’s gaze. “You’re Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

“That’s me,” Marinette confirmed, and Amanda blushed as red as her hair.

“Uh…Marinette…that whole thing with me being Bari-Star…I’m, uh—”

“No harm done,” Marinette assured her with a kind smile. She waited until Amanda hesitantly returned it before moving on. “So, what’re you doing here?”

“Oh, uh…I-I came with—”

“There you are, sweetie!” Called a familiar voice, and Marinette and Amanda turned as Desiree strutted forward, looking drop-dead gorgeous in a red taffeta dress that had a high slit up the right side of the skirt. She paused, her smile turning into an absolute grin of delight once she spotted Marinette.

“Oh! Mari-doll, you’re here, too! That’s fantastic!” She came forward, embracing Marinette before she stepped back to look at her. “I haven’t seen you since winter break started! What are you doing here?”

“I’m Adrien Agreste’s plus one,” Marinette informed her professor. Her eyes widened.

“Oooh. Nice catch, Marinette,” she teased with a grin, causing Marinette to flush.

“N-no, it’s not like that,” she rushed to correct, “we’re just friends, honestly, he just needed someone to go with so I…yeah.”

Desiree arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow, casually sliding an arm around Amanda’s waist, who flushed at the contact.

“I see.” Her tone implied she saw a lot more than there was to the situation, but before Marinette could try and convince her, she continued, “And where is your ‘friend’?”

“Uh, Madame Sainte de-Coquille borrowed him for some stuff,” Marinette replied with a shrug and a “what-can-you-do” grin. The grin left, however, when Desiree’s eyes widened again.

“Oh…really?” She raised her free hand to her cheek, looking concerned. “Oh dear, you may not see him for the rest of the night, then, Mari-doll.”

Marinette blinked in surprise at this.

“What do you mean?”

“Well…I shouldn’t gossip, actually,” Desiree muttered, looking troubled. “Forget I said anything—”

“You think the rumors are true that she’s cheating on her husband, then?” Amanda asked in a low whisper. Desiree and Marinette both stared at her, and she flushed under the attention. “I-I mean…that’s what you meant, isn’t it, Desiree? It’s not exactly a secret, right? Apparently, at every party the Sainte de-Coquilles have thrown lately, she’s been picking the most handsome and influential man and disappearing with him for hours at a time—”

“Mandy, please,” Desiree hushed her with a finger to her lips. “It’s not polite to spread such rumors. I’m sure Madame Sainte de-Coquille is perfectly happy with her husband, even if some jealous people swear up and down that she only married him for his money—”

Marinette paled now.

“What?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Marinette,” Desiree apologized, cringing. “They really are just rumors, I wouldn’t worry about them, honestly. I’m sorry I even brought it up.”

But now that she had…Marinette was beginning to wonder. According to Adrien, Amara had only agreed to marry her husband after she became internationally famous…was it because she had finally achieved her dream? Or was it because she realized that she could use her husband’s money and influence to be even bigger than she already was?

Was Amara secretly like Jacques’ first wife, marrying him only because it was convenient?

No.’ Her mind rejected the notion, remembering the kindness that Amara had just shown her, the encouragement she had given her…

But had that kindness actually been patronizing? Had that encouragement actually been mocking? Was Amara at all what she had appeared to be on the surface…?

Her face must have been very telling, for Desiree’s beautiful face crumpled.

“Please, Mari-doll, don’t look like that. They’re only rumors,” she assured her, her free hand touching Marinette’s cheek, in much the same way Amara had. “Come on. Let’s get you a drink.”

Unable to come up with any reason not to, Marinette allowed herself to be steered in the direction of the food table, where at the end sat flute glasses full of what looked like wine. As Desiree and Amanda chatted and flirted beside her, Marinette let her mind wander, her eyes on her feet…so when she ran straight into someone, she had no one to blame but herself, and cursed herself for her distraction.

“I’m sorr—”

Marinette’s tongue halted, nearly choking on the apology. She took hasty steps back, staring up at the assistant to the owner of Tres Bien Boutique, his pale hair slicked back, dressed in a dark blue tailored suit, an eyebrow raised. Felix.

Marinette swallowed. She hadn’t seen him up close in quite some time: just in the background sometimes, when she was paying attention. What the hell was he doing here?

“I am here representing Symone,” Felix replied, and Marinette suddenly realized that she had accidentally voiced the question. “She is hoping to gain new financial backers, since you seem to have stolen the one she was counting on the most.”

Marinette glared.

“I did not steal Adrien,” she growled, and Felix’s eyebrow climbed higher. “He just didn’t want to lower his standards to back someone who would steal someone else’s designs.”

“Hmm. You’re his plus one, aren’t you?”

Marinette’s eyes narrowed.

“How do you know that?” She demanded to know. Felix lifted and dropped a shoulder.

“You’re on the guest list,” he explained, but Marinette didn’t stop glaring at him, certain that there was no way he should know that. And to think, once upon a time, she admired him and his cool composure, composure that refused to shatter even under Symone’s worst tantrums.

Now, all she saw was a shifty character, skulking around in shadows, convinced he could not be seen…but Marinette was onto him. She still didn’t have any proof that he was anything more than what he was presenting himself to be, but when that day came—

“…Well,” he spoke when Marinette refused to say anything more, “this has been sufficiently awkward. As much fun as it is to have you glaring at me for no good reason, I’m afraid I have to return to work. Good night, Marinette.”

“Felix,” she returned tersely, still scowling as he turned on his heel, disappearing into the glamor crowd just as suddenly as he appeared. The tension did not leave her shoulders, however, and she turned to apologize to Desiree and Amanda for the distraction…only to find them nowhere in sight. She blinked, turning around fully and searching for them. Where had they disappeared to?

“Boo,” breathed a voice in her ear. Because she was already on high alert, she reacted automatically, whirling and grabbing the hand that touched her shoulder, twisting it and bringing her perceived assailant to his knees.

“Ow! Mercy, Mari!” Cried the assailant, and Marinette jolted when she realized it was Adrien.

“Shit,” she swore, letting go immediately and raising her hands, grimacing as Adrien pushed himself back to his feet, wincing as he massaged his wrist. “I’m so sorry, Adrien. I thought you were, uh, someone else.”

Adrien quirked a brow at her, still rubbing at his wrist.

“Who the hell put you on edge while I was gone?” His expression of concern warped into one of foreboding. “Do I need to kick someone’s ass? Do I need to call Alya to kick someone’s ass?”

Despite herself, Marinette giggled.

“No, don’t call Alya,” she warned Adrien, grinning. “She’ll shut this whole party down. And I doubt Amara would like that very much.” And speaking of Amara… “But that was quick…whatever she wanted you for didn’t take very long, huh?”

“Ah, nope.” Adrien slipped his hands into his pockets, a strange kind of tension beginning to roll off him, making Marinette raise her eyebrows. “She just had some, uh, news to tell me.”

“…Which was?” Marinette prompted when Adrien said nothing more, her curiosity getting the better of her. What could Amara have possibly told Adrien to make him look like that…?

Before Adrien could reply, however, the band on stage abruptly stopped playing, and the crowd began to applaud as a portly man made his way on stage. He smiled in a nervous sort of way, lowering the microphone stand down so that he could speak.

“Welcome, friends, to the annual Sainte de-Coquille Winter Ball,” he greeted warmly, and another round of applause was given. “Thank you so, so much for coming. My wife and I are very glad you could share Christmas Eve with us, and I know I speak for both of us when I say that we’re pleased with the turn-out this year.” Jacques glanced around, as if looking for someone, before he cleared his throat and continued. “So, please enjoy the party! The hors d’oeuvres table is fully stocked—I recommend the wine, since the grapes that made it were grown here!—and the band will be playing until midnight. And careful where you step—mistletoe is hanging from the ceiling, so if you happen to wander underneath one, you know the rules! Let’s enjoy the last hours of Christmas Eve together, everyone!”

The crowd applauded once more, and Jacques left the stage, allowing the band to resume their playing. Adrien smiled down at Marinette, offering his hand to her.

“May I have this dance, your Highness?” He teased with a wink.

Marinette gave him a look that was half-amused, half-pained.

“Well, I would…” she cringed, “but I’m afraid my feet aren’t really made for dancing.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I’m clumsy,” Marinette reminded him with a sigh. “It’s only thanks to a miracle that I haven’t tripped over this dress and fallen flat on my face yet.”

Adrien covered his mouth with the back of his hand, but Marinette could still see him smirking, and she scowled at him.

“It’s not funny,” she told him.

“Of course not,” Adrien agreed, abruptly sobering. “It’s absolutely tragic that you think being clumsy means you can’t dance.” He offered his hand to her again, smiling a heart-melting smile. “Do you really think I’d let you fall?”

Marinette pursed her lips. She could feel her resistance beginning to crumble…and it was all because of that stupid smile he was currently wearing. Damn it.

“You’ll be forced to amputate your toes because of me,” she warned him…but her hand was already moving, sliding into his grasp. Despite the gloves she wore, she could still feel the warmth of his hand. He closed his fingers around hers and grinned.

“I’ll take my chances,” he assured her. Helpless and hating it, Marinette allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor, flushing a little as he slid an arm around her waist, hand resting on the small of her back as he guided her hand to his shoulder before he gripped her free hand once again within his. “You know how to waltz, right?”

“Did you not just hear me say that I’m clumsy?”

Adrien laughed.

“It’s all right, I’ll teach you. Let’s start simple, with the closed change. I’ll lead, so first, I’ll step forward with my left foot…” He did so, and Marinette, reacting automatically because she didn’t want her toes stepped on, moved her right foot back. Adrien grinned. “Look at that, you’re already getting it.”

“I didn’t want my toes smashed,” Marinette explained, feeling like he was giving her too much credit.

“Don’t worry: I’ll avoid your toes if you avoid mine,” Adrien joked. “Okay, now, next, we step to the side. Or you do, anyway—I move in close like this to step to the side…”

As he moved into her space, Marinette couldn’t help but note how good he smelled. Whatever cologne he was wearing, it was a very good choice…

“Mari? Still with me?”

“Yes!” She yelped, flushing dark red. Adrien gave her a curious look, but when she avoided his gaze, he shrugged.

“All right…I need to you to step over to me, Mari.”

“Oh, right…” She stepped to the side, so she was directly in front of Adrien again, and he smiled.

“Good. Now I step back, and you, forward.” He stepped back, and Marinette followed. “And then you cross this time, to my front…” He stepped to the side, and Marinette carefully slid her foot forward so that she was standing in front of him once again. “And that’s the waltz. Only with more turning. Easy enough, right?”

“Seems like it.” Marinette pursed her lips, dubious. Yeah, it seemed easy enough…until she tried to do it a bit faster, which would no doubt result in her tripping on the hem of her skirt, pitching forward, taking Adrien down with her, causing them to bump into another couple, who would go sprawling into the hors d’oeuvres table, sending food and wine everywhere and thereby effectively ruining the night—

Adrien gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, and Marinette’s thoughts ceased their spiral into madness for a moment. When she looked up, he was smiling gently once again, and Marinette stubbornly ignored the uneven thumping of her heart in her chest.

“You’ll be fine,” he assured her. “We can start slow, and we’ll pick up the pace only when you’re ready. Okay?”

Marinette swallowed a little, but her desire to not fail at anything won out, and she nodded her agreement.

“Okay.” She tightened her grip on his shoulder, determination flooding her. “Let’s do this.”

Adrien laughed as he slowly started forward, waiting until Marinette matched his movement before he moved on to the next step.

“It’s just a dance, Mari. It’s not like we’re going to war.”

“Says the graceful model man,” Marinette grumbled, focusing on their feet as they moved. She heard Adrien snort, but was too busy making sure she didn’t stomp on his toes to look up and scowl at him as she wanted to.

“I’m only graceful when I’m still,” he assured her, slowly turning them as Marinette repeated the steps over and over, counting in her head. One, two, three, four…one, two, three, four… “When I’m moving, not so much.”

Marinette lost count as she snorted and rolled her eyes.

“Oh yeah, I’ve seen you on a catwalk. You’re a hot mess, Adrien Agreste,” she quipped sarcastically, looking up to deadpan him a look. Adrien, in response, grinned toothily at her.

“You think I’m hot?” He teased, and Marinette shook her head.

“Don’t start that again.”

“Aw come on, let me have the ego boosts when I can get them.”

“As if you need them, with the whole world clamoring for your autographs on pictures they have of you hung up in their room—”

“Speaking from experience?” Adrien asked lightly. Marinette, feeling her face and the back of her neck flush hot, did not answer him, choosing instead to count until she calmed down. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…

“You picked it up fast,” Adrien complimented her after a minute, smiling…or, at least, Marinette assumed he was smiling. Her eyes were closed, so she couldn’t really tell.

“It’s easier if I don’t think about it and just move,” she told him, keeping her eyes closed, even when Adrien chuckled.

“Think you’re ready for a little more?”

Marinette frowned, her eyes still firmly shut.

“I don’t know…”

“Okay. Just let me know.”

He left it at that, which gave Marinette the room to be a bit surer in her steps before she opened her eyes again, looking up at him. It embarrassed her to note that he had probably been watching her this whole time while her eyes were closed, and so she strove to distract him.

“Okay, what’s next?”

At this, Adrien smiled.

“Just follow me. Try not to think too hard about it…but if I’m going too fast, let me know, okay?”

Marinette raised a brow, deciding to tease him.

“What, you think I can’t keep up with you? This is cake now.”

Adrien smile evolved into a grin.

“Oh yeah?” He challenged. “Big talk from the woman who had to close her eyes and memorize the closed change first. Are you sure you don’t need a few more minutes?”

Marinette’s eyes narrowed.

“Try me,” she shot at him.

Adrien’s grin grew wicked.

“You asked for it,” he cautioned her. And then, before Marinette was ready, he turned them at a swifter pace, the steps a half beat faster. But Marinette, who was competitive beyond belief when she wanted to be, would not be bested, so for every step he made, she strove to match it, and found that it was actually much easier if she was focusing on keeping up with Adrien. Rather than letting him lead, she was dancing with him, like they were partners. So when Adrien spun her out, she obliged, twirling in his grasp before he brought her back in, turning her so that her back was pressed to him now, the dance still continuing, though now only his hands guided her. Marinette bit her lip and concentrated on not accidentally stepping on her dress, and soon enough, Adrien brought her back around to ground she was more familiar with, facing him again and giving him a superior look that made him snicker. The next moment, the world was suddenly bending backwards, and Marinette yelped as one of her feet left the ground, certain she had slipped and fallen after all…but Adrien had her by the waist, and was leaning with her…he was dipping her.

Marinette pouted at the smug look on his face.

“Warn me next time,” she growled at him as they straightened up. “I thought I was falling.”

“Oh, you were,” Adrien teased with a wink. “Falling for me, that is.”

Marinette stared at him.

That…was the cheesiest pick-up line it was ever her misfortune to hear. It would have made Chat Noir proud…in fact, it was definitely a line that would’ve gained the rogue cat’s approval, had he been around to hear it…

“Mari?” Adrien asked when Marinette didn’t say anything; his grin dropped, and a flush spread through his face. “I was kidding…I mean, I didn’t mean—”

“Pardon, but may I cut in?”

Amara was suddenly there, smiling with her eyes at the pair of them. Adrien’s hands slowly slid away from Marinette as Amara snaked an arm around Adrien’s.

“Adrien, dear, while your dancing skills are commendable, I’ve promised our friends an exclusive display of your piano skills. Won’t you oblige me?”

“Oh…sure, Amara,” Adrien agreed, causing Marinette to frown. Was he just incapable of saying ‘no’ to this woman? “Just one song, right?”

“Of course.” To Marinette’s surprise, Amara slipped an arm through hers as well, smiling down at her. “You’d like a front row seat, I’m sure, Marinette.”

“Uh, sure?” She replied, immediately checking her aggravation with Adrien; she wasn’t able to say ‘no’ to Amara any more than Adrien was able, it seemed.

Amara moved purposefully through the crowd, never having to excuse herself or ask people to move—the crowd parted automatically, and she was able to move through easily. Marinette was impressed by this woman whose presence was so strong that people just moved out of the way when they sensed her coming. It was a little intimidating…but mostly it was awe-inspiring.

“Come on up,” Amara invited, leading them to the stairs that would take them onto the stage. She went up first, and Marinette and Adrien followed, Adrien once again offering his hand in assistance as Marinette gathered a fistful of her skirt as she climbed the stairs that could become oh so treacherous the minute she stopped paying attention…

“Friends,” Amara spoke into the microphone, once she had silenced the band with a raised hand, “it is my very great pleasure to introduce to you Mr. Adrien Agreste, fashion supermodel and CEO of Agreste Fashion.” She led the applause for Adrien, who stepped to the center of the stage with Amara, smiling his model smile as he waved to the crowd. Marinette stood awkwardly near the curtain, unsure of what to do with herself. Amara hadn’t bothered to introduce her, and she wasn’t sure how to feel about that—while she’d rather not be introduced as the no-name fashion designer, it seemed a bit strange to just ignore her presence altogether too…

“Adrien has agreed to grace us with a song,” Amara announced to the crowd, and there was a ripple of excited mumbling at this. “He is gifted at the piano, though, of course, not without the proper muse…” And now Amara turned to Marinette. “Miss Dupain-Cheng, if you would?”

Marinette could feel her face grow hot. It was one thing to not introduce her at all, but to introduce her as Adrien’s muse?! Now she really couldn’t tell if Amara was being genuine…or just mocking her.

Until she figured it out, she did as Amara was gesturing to do, seating herself at the piano first, averting her eyes until Adrien sat down beside her, shielding her from the eyes of the crowd.

“Any requests?” Adrien asked, positioning his hands properly on the piano keys, giving her a smile. Marinette briefly got lost in it, pulling herself out with a small shake after a moment.

“I didn’t even know you played,” she admitted, to which Adrien shrugged.

“I don’t often. Just when I have the time…which is never…” Clearing his throat, Adrien smiled again. “Should I surprise you?”

“Sure,” Marinette encouraged. Still smiling, Adrien turned his attention to the keys, his hands tensing, poised for something to happen…

And then, faster than Marinette could blink, Adrien began to play.

It was like nothing Marinette had ever seen before—his hands flew over the keys, knowing when and where to strike, as if this was their true domain, where they thrived: creating music. Adrien played with vigor and without sheet music, playing a song Marinette had never heard before, the melody playful and wild, reminding her of sunshine, a breeze playing across wild grass, the smell of dew in the morning…it reminded her of freedom.

And the way Adrien grinned while he played—like the sun was in his smile—made Marinette realize that he loved this, that he loved playing the piano, that it broke his heart to leave one untouched for so long, just because of his demanding work schedule. He seemed so very happy to be given the chance to play again that Marinette couldn’t tear her eyes away from him, even if she tried, even if she wanted to. It was a moment before she realized that the song had drawn to a close, that he was finished, and that the crowd was applauding—she was still reeling from the shock, her mouth open in awe.

Was it really fair for him to be beautiful and talented all at the same time? Why was Fate so cruel?

“Isn’t he wonderful?” Amara asked the crowd, smiling as she moved to the piano, gesturing for Adrien to take a bow, which he did. “Thank you, dear, that was beautiful. I’m so happy you agreed to play for us.”

Amara gave a snap, and the band resumed its playing, and she descended the stairs with Adrien in tow, leaving Marinette to bring up the rear, carefully avoiding the bottom of her dress again. At the bottom of the stairs, Adrien was being mobbed by admirers, so rather than fight through them, Marinette decided to go around them. It was suddenly too stuffy in this room for her…she could do with some fresh air.

A door was slightly ajar on the east side of the room, and so Marinette made her way over, stepping out onto a grand balcony that overlooked dozens of buildings below, the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur right next door, the stars glittering in the velvety night sky. It would have been a stunning view…had Marinette not been immediately distracted by the short figure slumped on the bench in front of her, looking utterly defeated.

Marinette blinked in surprise, moving forward cautiously.

Monsieur Sainte de-Coquille?”

Jacques lifted his head, his sad eyes focusing on Marinette.

“Oh…good evening, mademoiselle,” he greeted her, trying for a smile that looked strained. He eyed her as she carefully sat beside him, wishing for her coat. “You’re clearly cold. What brings you out here?”

“I needed some air,” she said honestly, glancing over at the sad man beside her. “…And what about you, monsieur? This is your party, isn’t it?”

Jacques sighed.

“To tell you the truth, it is more my wife’s party than it is mine.” He shuffled his feet, twisting his wedding ring. “You saw her in there. She’s the best at networking, making the right connections and everything. I’m just…in the way.”

Marinette’s heart gave a painful squeeze. Clearly, this man was very much in love with his wife…but she had spent a good amount of the party schmoozing Adrien. That couldn’t be fun to watch; Marinette herself wasn’t exactly crazy about it, but it was different—while she and Adrien were just friends, that was someone’s wife who was dangling on his arm, introducing him to the other influential giants of the fashion industry…and who knew what else…

“I’m sure that’s not true,” she kindly disagreed with Jacques, carefully laying a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her with a slight smile.

“You are kind,” he noted, “but I know what is true. My wife is one of the most beautiful, sought-after supermodels of the world…and I…I am just a man whose only attractive quality is the riches he was born into.”

Monsieur,” Marinette protested, but Jacques got to his feet, turning to her with a heartbreakingly sad smile.

“It is fine. I know what I am…and I suppose I should have known that this would happen eventually. Serves me right for chasing dreams, I suppose.” He gave another sigh, turning his gaze skyward. “I think…I will go for a walk. Please, enjoy the rest of the party, mademoiselle.

Marinette frantically searched her brain for something, anything that would make Jacques stay so she could cheer him up…but there was nothing she could say. After all, she didn’t know him very well, and she knew Amara even less—there was nothing she could tell him that would sound convincing, considering she lacked the knowledge necessary to be convincing. She had no idea what their normal relationship was supposed to look like, so how could Marinette vouch for Amara when she herself was having doubts about the woman’s character and motives in marrying her husband? What could she do but watch Jacques trudge away, dragging his feet, looking like the shell of the man he had been in the portrait done of him and Amara in happier days?

Sighing herself, Marinette got up from the bench, folding her arms around herself as she stared out at the view, not taking in any of it. After all, what was all this without someone to share it with? That was all Jacques wanted, wasn’t it? Someone who he could share all this with, who loved him as fiercely as he seemed to love? Was that too much to ask?

Marinette distinctly heard the door behind her creak open again. She turned, finding Adrien approaching cautiously, as if he was afraid she’d bite him. When he met her eyes, he seemed to relax, closing the space between them effortlessly now.

“I wanted you to hear me coming so you wouldn’t attack me again,” he told her, smiling in a wry fashion. Marinette flushed.

“Sorry,” she apologized again, turning her gaze from him. Something weighty suddenly settled over her bare shoulders, warming them. She glanced down in surprise at the jacket that now hung around her, her gaze switching to Adrien, finding him just in his vest and a white dress shirt, his tie tucked into the black vest. He gave a little smile when she met his eyes.

“I know you hate to be cold,” he explained with a slight shrug. Warming at his kindness, Marinette drew the jacket closer around her, smiling when she realized it smelled like him.

“Thanks.”

Silence fell between them, each lost in their own thoughts for a while.

It was Marinette who spoke first.

“You really like to play the piano, huh?”

Adrien smiled at this, something about the gesture bittersweet.

“Yeah…it was something my mom and I liked to do together.”

His mother…

Marinette glanced over at him, worry creasing her brow. She didn’t want to bring him down tonight with thoughts of his mother…but she was just so very curious…

“…What happened to her?”

Adrien shrugged.

“Well, that’s the million euro question. No one knows. One day she just…disappeared. And she never came back.” Adrien took a deep breath, appearing to steady himself. “After that, my father hired some stuffy old lady who wasn’t any fun to continue teaching me piano. But it wasn’t the same. Nothing was ever the same…after she left…”

Adrien’s gaze was focused out into the distance, his expression suggesting that there were horrors out there, horrors that Marinette couldn’t even begin to fathom.

“…After learning that my father was…who he was…I started wondering…what if my mother didn’t just disappear…? What if he…did something to her…? What if—”

“You’ll drive yourself crazy with thoughts like that,” Marinette said softly, laying a hand on his forearm. Adrien gave a snort, giving her a wry look.

“Didn’t you hear? I’m already crazy—I have to see a therapist once a week for these exact issues.”

“Really? And how’s that working out for you?”

Adrien’s smile became genuine.

“Best decision I was ever strongly suggested into. Did I say thank you yet?”

“Not in so many words…but the cat pin was a clue.”

Still smiling, Adrien threw an arm around Marinette’s shoulders, giving her a squeeze.

“You do understand me, huh?” He sighed, letting his arm slide away from Marinette, leaning forward on the balcony railing on crossed arms. “Really, Mari: thank you. You’ve done so much for me already…and to think, I wouldn’t be where I am today if you hadn’t decided to give me another chance.” He glanced over at her, his expression quite serious now. “I’m grateful. Really. Thank you, Marinette.”

Marinette smiled, feeling herself warm.

“Don’t mention it,” she said, patting his back. “And thank you for inviting me here. It must be nice, to be able to party and network all in the same place.”

Adrien shrugged, his gaze distant again.

“Eh…I could live without the networking, honestly. But it seems like, when you’re in the fashion industry, you’re never not working. No party is ever just a party, no one hangs out just to hang out. There’s always an ulterior motive: this fashion designer wants me to wear his clothes for promotional reasons, this model wants to star in a shoot with me, this photographer wants me on the cover of this magazine. It’s exhausting, not being able to relax, always having to be on guard, to wonder who around you is actually here for you, and not what you can do for them.”

As Adrien sighed again, Marinette was struck with yet another revelation about him…this one more surprising than the last:

“You hate modeling,” she marveled out loud, staring at him with wide eyes. Adrien blinked, turning to give her a stunned look.

“Well…‘hate’ is a strong word…”

“You absolutely hate it,” Marinette insisted, now disgusted with herself. Of course he hated it—they kept him on a strict diet all the time, he had to pose for hours and hours, and it was his model persona that caused people to misunderstand him and believe that he was someone he was not all the time. How had she missed something so obvious until now??

Adrien frowned, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Well…I’m not crazy about it, I guess…and I could do without all the fashion shoots and stuff—”

“Then why do you do it?”

Adrien stared at her.

“…What?” He asked, looking startled. Marinette frowned, taking in his expression. What did he mean, ‘what’?

“Why do you do it?” she repeated herself, carefully watching his face. “It’s not like you need the money, right? And it’s not like your dad is forcing you to model for him anymore—there’s literally nothing stopping you from quitting since you hate it so much. So why don’t you?”

“…”

Marinette stared up at Adrien, refusing to drop his gaze, watching his expression as emotions shifted rapidly through it: shock, confusion, aggravation, shock again, confusion again. Finally, he fixed her with a look that was…empty.

As if everything that made Adrien Agreste had suddenly drained away, leaving only his shell behind.

“…It’s all I know,” he admitted after a moment. And Marinette, because she had pushed him to this conclusion, had to watch as his expression crumpled…and shattered. “I’ve always been a model—it’s part of who I am now. There’s…nothing I’m passionate about, not really. Modeling’s all I have…without it…”

His gaze lowered to the balcony, his shoulders hunched, as if he carried the weight of the world on them.

“…Without it…I don’t know who I am.”

The silence that fell after that was deafening…and it was shattered by words that were even more cutting:

“That’s stupid.”

Adrien’s gaze lifted, staring at Marinette. As she watched, he began to frown.

“What do you mean, it’s stupid?”

“I mean that being a model isn’t who you are, Adrien,” Marinette clarified her rude words with a scowl of her own. “It’s a job. A job you hate. Even if you quit, it wouldn’t change who you are. And who you are is a dork. A funny, sweet, caring dork.” As Adrien blinked at her, Marinette smiled. “Despite how you’re introduced to crowds, your job title changing doesn’t diminish you as a person. At the end of the day, whether it’s ‘supermodel’ or ‘comedian’…you’re still Adrien Agreste. And no job can change that.”

Slowly, a small smile graced Adrien’s features.

“How did you get so wise?” He teased her softly, taking her hands in his. Marinette smiled up at him.

“I’m an old soul,” she answered cheekily. “I’ve been around a lot longer than you’d think.”

“I believe it,” Adrien joked with a wink. “You’re totally the Mom Friend of the group.”

“Ha ha, don’t say that in front of Alya: she claimed that title years ago.”

“Shit. Don’t tell her I said that, then.”

“Well, I mean, it could so very easily slip out the next time I talk to her—”

“Come on, Mari, don’t be mean. I thought you liked me?”

“When did I say that?”

Adrien gave another exaggerated pout, and Marinette laughed. He was so cute…in a strictly platonic, friendly way…

“Seriously, though,” she said, wishing to return to the original point, “you shouldn’t force yourself to do something that makes you unhappy. You’ll only die a lot younger that way.” She squeezed his hands, giving him a gentle smile. “And I do kind of like having you around.”

Adrien’s cheeks warmed, and he matched her smile.

“But if I quit, you won’t be able to call me Mr. Model anymore,” he teased, causing Marinette to raise an eyebrow. Did he really like such a silly nickname that much?

“I can still call you Mr. Model,” she reasoned with a slight shrug. “You quitting modeling doesn’t stop you from being gorgeous.”

She realized her mistake immediately when a slow grin spread across Adrien’s face.

“…You think I’m gorgeous?” He teased softly, his eyes alight with something warm…something familiar…

And though Marinette wanted with all her might to roll her eyes—he was just being a little shit at this point—she didn’t. Instead, she let herself smile.

“I do,” she confirmed, her face warming at the admission.

It was nothing compared to the blush that filled Adrien’s face, though…

There was an explosion of sudden sound, screams ripping through the peace of the night. Marinette and Adrien jumped, unconsciously moving closer to each other, looking around for the source of the trouble…when an evil-sounding cackle sounded from somewhere within.

Marinette’s heart sank.

Really? Now?

Exchanging nervous glances, she and Adrien rushed back inside…to find that an uninvited guest seemed to decide to crash the party: chaos. Everywhere Marinette looked, people were fleeing, screaming, from rapid-fire gold bullets whizzing by, pelting guests. Marinette was horrified until Adrien yanked her out of the way of one, and it ricocheted off the glass door, shattering it before it lost its momentum and fell to the floor. Marinette crouched down, her eyes widening in surprise. Was that…a gold coin?

“HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Enjoying the party?! Too bad! ‘Cause Mr. Moneybags is here now, and this room isn’t extravagant enough!! So I’m gonna fill it up with so much gold that no one will be able to escape! An eternal party—fitting for all you ungrateful guests!!”

Marinette’s head snapped up, finding the source of the problem on top of the extravagant chandelier—a squat man in a white, glittering suit accented with gold, wearing the euro symbol as cufflinks, a ring, a tie clip, stunner shades, and a buckle on his white top hat. As her mouth gaped open in horror, he raised what appeared to be a high-tech machine gun loaded up with gold coins, and began to rapid fire said coins at the doors leading to the only exit from the ballroom…if no one wanted to jump from the balconies outside. The akumatized victim only laughed louder at the terrified screeching, wheeling around on the chandelier to get a perfect shot at all the guests that fled in every direction.

“No one leaves! Especially not you, Mr. Young-And-Handsome-CEO-Slash-Supermodel!” Mr. Moneybags commanded, aiming his gun right at Adrien next. Without pausing to think about it, Marinette tackled Adrien out of the way, and they landed behind the hors d’oeuvres table, the food items and glasses of wine on top of it promptly destroyed by the rapid fire from Mr. Moneybag’s money machine gun.

“Stay here,” Marinette ordered Adrien, gathering her skirt into her hands as she crouched, prepared to run. “I’m going for help.”

“Mari, no!” Adrien protested, but just as he tried to grab for her, she slipped through his fingers, grabbing a silver food tray that was now empty and holding it over her head as she ran, an impromptu shield from Mr. Moneybag’s bullets. She gritted her teeth as she felt the coins pelting the shield, but she didn’t stop running until she reached the side hallway where she knew the bathrooms to be and darted into the ladies’ room. Several women were cowering in the powder room, but Marinette sped past them, still using the shield to hide her face, into the actual bathroom. It was deserted in here, and so she quickly released Tikki from her purse.

“We have to help,” she told the kwami, who nodded gravely and obeyed the summons as Marinette called for her to transform her. The women outside would no doubt be surprised when Ladybug suddenly rushed past them, but hopefully none of them had gotten a good look at her.

And, if any of them had…hopefully they’d be too grateful to Ladybug for saving their lives to say anything more on the subject.

 


 

Of all the nights to leave Plagg at home!

Adrien was forcefully kicking himself as he hid under the food table, peeking out from under the tablecloth to assess the situation. Realistically, he was the only one who could help—this was an incredibly exclusive party, which meant that anyone that wasn’t a guest would have a very difficult time getting in. And even if Ladybug managed to get here, it might take her a while…

Adrien swore. Like it or not…he had to do something. It was irresponsible of him to just let the akumatized victim rampage, hero hiatus or not. As long as he had the power to do something—

Abruptly, his cover was flung out of the way. Adrien froze, his gaze on the chandelier…the chandelier that was now empty.

While he was having his moral dilemma, Mr. Moneybags had gotten the drop on him.

“There you are!”

Adrien tried to scrabble away, but his ankle was seized, and he was flung onto his back. He grunted in protest, wincing as he stared up at the angry akumatized victim, who grinned widely at him, gold teeth glinting at him.

“Now, hold still,” he ordered, pinning Adrien down with a foot to his abdomen, steadying his machine gun as he aimed right at Adrien’s face. “A few gold coins should disfigure that pretty little face of yours beyond recognition. And then we’ll see if Amara bothers to look twice at you!”

Amara…?

Jacques?” Adrien yelped, only to have the white heel of Mr. Moneybag’s boot dig into his stomach, making him cringe.

“That’s Mr. Moneybags to you,” growled the akumatized victim, fixing the scope on his machine gun as he aimed at Adrien. “Now, grin nice and wide for me, Pretty Boy, so I can get a decent shot at those teeth!”

As his finger inched towards the trigger, Adrien cringed away, gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut in anticipation of the pain...

There was a squawk, and a familiar sound…like rope tying around something…or…

Adrien chanced a peek.

Mr. Moneybags’ machine gun was aimed away, at something behind Adrien, and it looked like Mr. Moneybags was struggling to keep hold of it, for some reason.

And then Adrien saw the wire. He followed it, pressing the back of his head into the floor as he searched for the source, hardly daring to believe it—

But there she was, clad in her red suit with black spots, her dark hair tied back into two pigtails, a red and black mask across her face, her bluebell eyes blazing.

Ladybug.

“Let…go!” Mr. Moneybags was growling, yanking on his machine gun, where Adrien could now see her yo-yo hooked around it. But Ladybug refused to give, her grip tight on the end of her yo-yo wire as she jerked her head at Adrien.

“Run!” She mouthed to him.

Adrien looked down just in time to find Mr. Moneybags reaching for his trigger once again. Reacting quickly, he rolled out from under his foot, kicking the akuma in the chest with both his feet. Mr. Moneybags wheezed, stumbling back and tripping over the upturned hors d’oeuvres table as Adrien stumbled away, racing to Ladybug. She drew her yo-yo back in, turning to inspect him.

“You okay?” She asked him, her anxious gaze roaming his face.

And Adrien…could say nothing. Even after all this time, even after her rejection of him…Ladybug still managed to take his breath away. Especially tonight…was she wearing make-up…?

“Adrien?” She said urgently, and Adrien blinked himself out of his stupor, flushing red.

“Oh…I’m fine,” he finally answered her, to which Ladybug nodded, looking satisfied.

“Good.” As Mr. Moneybags groaned and growled as he pushed himself to his feet, Ladybug began to swing her yo-yo around at a rapid pace. “Hide,” she instructed Adrien, her eyes focused on the akuma.

Adrien felt a sudden moment of panic: Ladybug would be forced to take this akuma on by herself, wouldn’t she? Not that she wasn’t capable of doing so—she was Ladybug, after all—but now that Adrien was going to be forced to see it happen up close—

“Ladybug—” he began anxiously, searching for a way to express how truly sorry he was that she had to put up with such a mess on her own without sounding crazy, when she turned those eyes on him again, frowning anxiously.

“Adrien, hide,” she insisted again, shoving him back when Mr. Moneybag finally seemed to gather his bearings, his machine gun righted once again.

“You’d better get out of my way, Ladybug, or you’ll have to face the consequences!”

“Oh yeah?” Ladybug taunted, giving him a cocky smile. “Catch me if you can, then, Mr. Moneybags!”

And she took off, racing the gold coin bullets as she ducked and dodged and whirled around the room, the fine decorations pelted with gold in her wake as the akuma tried to shoot at her, gradually growing more and more frustrated when he continued to miss. And Adrien…Adrien could only stand there in awe, his nerves alive with tension, his heart beating faster with every gold coin that whizzed by Ladybug far too closely for his comfort—

It was when she attached herself to the chandelier, hanging upside-down from her yo-yo, that Mr. Moneybags seemed to have her cornered. He grinned his gold grin, aiming up at her as Adrien stood frozen, panicked, taking in the exhaustion and sweat that dripped from Ladybug from dodging for so long, without any resolution, for it appeared as if Mr. Moneybags’ ammo was endless.

“Nowhere to run now, Ladybug,” he cackled as Adrien made himself unfreeze and started forward, needing to do something, anything, to protect her—

“Jacques!” A new voice cried throughout the room. “What are you doing? Stop this madness!”

Mr. Moneybags was distracted, and so was Adrien, glancing towards the stage. He groaned under his breath when he saw Amara there, standing tall and proud at the very forefront of the stage, her wide eyes fixed on her akumatized husband. What was she doing?

“You stay out of this, Amara!” Mr. Moneybags shouted back at her, throwing her a betrayed look. “I don’t know why you complain—I’m only giving you what you want! Money and power!” He hoisted his machine gun higher, aiming right at Ladybug’s face. “And once I rid Paris of its so-called hero, there will be nothing else in my way! And that’s what you want, right? To be married to a rich and powerful man? Is that why you go off gallivanting with men half my age behind my back? Men like him?!” He jerked his head at Adrien, who had frozen again, eyes darting in between Ladybug and Amara. He didn’t want anything to happen to her…but Amara was a civilian…and considering her current condition…

Amara placed her hand to her chest, looking shocked and hurt, her wedding ring glittering in the light of the chandelier.

“Jacques—” She began, but Mr. Moneybags didn’t let her finish, raising his own hand, where his wedding ring glinted as well, though it was mostly obscured by the euro symbol attached to it, like some gaudy piece of jewelry.

“As soon as I’m done here, I’m taking this off!” He told her, and Adrien was surprised to find tears stinging the akuma’s eyes now. “I won’t wear it if it only means something to one of us!”

While he was distracted, Ladybug had righted her position, and was swinging back and forth, clearly planning something. When she swung back far enough to reach Adrien, he gave her a push, which seemed to startle her, if her brief glance in his direction was any indication. But with his help, she had picked up more speed, and it was on that swing that she straightened her legs and rammed them into Mr. Moneybags, throwing him back a distance before he fell to the floor, grunting in pain, yet still stubbornly clutching at his machine gun.

“Jacques!” Amara called, rushing across the stage, clearly wanting to go to him.

“Stay there, Amara!” Adrien called to her as Ladybug detached herself from the chandelier, “it’s not safe for you right now!”

“Neither is it for you!” Ladybug huffed at him, turning to scowl at him with her hands on her hips. “Didn’t I say to go hide?!”

“But I can help,” Adrien insisted, trying not to feel too hurt that she was trying to bench him yet again. After all, she didn’t know he was Chat Noir…and it wouldn’t help him even if she did.

Ladybug’s eyes blazed, not happy with him at all. But what else was new?

“Help by getting out of the way!” She insisted, turning her back on him to toss her yo-yo into the air. “Lucky Charm!”

A tiny spotted thing popped out, falling into Ladybug’s outstretched hand. Adrien watched as Ladybug stared blankly at it for a second.

Gum?” She questioned, huffing in annoyance. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this…?”

“Maybe blow a bubble big enough to gum up his gun?” Adrien suggested casually. Ladybug growled in frustration, whirling on him.

“Chat—!” She began, her tone heated…and then she froze, blinking at Adrien. He stood completely still, alarm bells going off in his head as he stared back at her. Holy shit…had that comment been too much? Had she figured it out?!

After a moment, Ladybug shook her head.

“I mean, Adrien,” she corrected herself, sighing as she ripped her gaze from him, looking disheartened, “I told you to go already. Let me handle this.”

Adrien could only watch, stumbling back as she pushed him back once more before she unwrapped the gum and popped it into her mouth, chewing quickly. So…was his identity safe after all? Did she simply…mistake him for Chat Noir? Because of the pun? Or…because she was wishing it was Chat Noir beside her instead of him…?

Don’t be stupid. She can’t stand me anymore, remember? I betrayed her. We betrayed her,’ whispered Chat Noir’s voice in his mind as the game of chase began again between Ladybug and Mr. Moneybags’ machine gun, Adrien ducking down beside the stage for cover, as well as to keep an eye on Amara, who still stood unwisely in plain view, watching the battle tensely. ‘There’s no way she misses me.

…But if she didn’t miss him…then why would she call for him like that…?

“Jacques, no!” Amara cried, and Adrien pulled himself out of his own head…only for his heart to nearly stop.

Somehow, some way…Mr. Moneybags had Ladybug pinned underneath him, knees pressed against her arms, her legs flailing under her, still chewing rapidly as she stared down the barrel of his machine gun.

She had been cornered.

As Adrien frantically searched for something to help her—anything—his eyes fell upon a food tray near him. Remembering how Marinette had used it as a shield when she fled—Marinette…he hoped she was okay—Adrien snatched up the tray, swallowing as he jumped up, aiming carefully, his heart pounding a violent tattoo against his Adam’s Apple. If he didn’t get this timing just right…if he was even a second off—

Please,’ Adrien found himself praying, and he clutched at the bracelet he wore underneath the cuff of his dress shirt, made of the lucky charm given to him a long time ago by a sweet baker’s daughter… ‘I know my luck usually sucks…but if I could just borrow some from you, Mari, even just a little…

“Say goodbye, Ladybug,” snarled Mr. Moneybags, cackling once again, pulling the trigger just as Adrien flung the silver tray their way, his heart blocking his throat, making it impossible to breathe—

It swung in between the machine gun and Ladybug just as the first gold coin came rocketing out of the gun. It ricocheted, zooming into Mr. Moneybags’ nose instead. As he howled and rubbed at the abused bridge of his nose, Ladybug managed to get an arm free, wrenching the silver tray out of the way as she blew a huge bubble that popped when it made contact with Mr. Moneybags’ machine gun. As he aimed at her and pulled the trigger once again, gold coins shot out…into the mess of gum that now covered the barrel of the machine gun, thereby rendering it ineffective.

“What the—?!” Mr. Moneybags growled, but Ladybug didn’t give him the chance to figure it out; she seized his left wrist, yanking off the euro ring before she shoved him off her and climbed to her feet, tossing the ring to the ground, where it cracked in two.

“You’ve caused enough trouble, akuma,” she accused the creature as it escaped from the broken object, opening her compact to reveal the healing chamber. Swinging her yo-yo around, Ladybug cried,

“I free you from evil!”

And, like it was nothing, she snatched the akuma out of the air, purifying it before approaching the shattered balcony doors and letting it fly free.

“Bye bye, pretty butterfly,” she called after it. Adrien watched, in awe once again, as she returned inside, snatching the gum wrapper from where she dropped it on the floor and tossing it into the air.

“Miraculous Ladybug!”

The magical ladybugs did their magic, healing the damage caused by the akumatized victim: the ballroom was soon spotless once again, the decorations pristine, the food returned to its original state, wine glasses un-shattered and refilled. It was like the incident never occurred…save for the fact that Jacques Sainte de-Coquille now kneeled upon the floor, shaking. Adrien watched as Ladybug carefully approached him, picking up his wedding ring.

“Pardon me, monsieur,” she said softly, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I believe this belongs to you.”

Jacques took one look at the ring…and promptly burst into tears.

“Jacques!”

Amara rushed forward now, and Ladybug hastily moved out of the way, dropping the ring beside Jacques as Amara dropped down beside her husband, her hands going to his shoulders. “Mon cheri, are you all right?!”

“Please, Amara,” he whimpered, refusing to look at her, still weeping. “D-don’t pretend you’re worried…I know you’ve grown tired of me…why do you still put on appearances…?”

“Appearances? Jacques, I love you,” Amara protested, her hands going to his face and lifting it so he was forced to look at her. “I don’t understand…what have I done to make you misunderstand me?”

“Y-you’re always sick at the sight of me, lately,” Jacques wept, his shaking frame tugging at Adrien’s heart, and he unconsciously moved closer, next to Ladybug, who watched the display with sad eyes. “A-and all the parties…you spend on the arm of another man…Amara, what else could I think…? I mean, look at me. Other than my riches, what else could I possibly offer someone like you…?”

Amara sighed softly, her thumbs brushing against Jacques’ cheeks to wipe his tears away.

Mon cheri, that’s just not true. While I will be forever grateful for you helping me to achieve my dream, your money wasn’t what made me finally agree to marry you. It was your heart, mon cheri, that made me love you. The way you stood beside me, through all my failures and my triumphs…the way you were always here for me, that you never gave up on me…that was what made me realize that I wanted to marry you.”

Unable to help himself, Adrien glanced over at Ladybug. She wasn’t looking at him, but her hands were pressed over her heart, her eyes misting over. She must find this pretty romantic…the dedication Amara showed to her husband…

Jacques, though he flushed red, still looked doubtful.

“But all the parties…the other men…”

Mon cheri, I am so sorry. But it isn’t what you think. I’ve only been so busy with other men at these parties because I’ve been working to end my modeling contracts. I’m retiring, Jacques.”

“It’s true,” Adrien chimed in, smiling a little when eyes swung to him. “She told me earlier tonight—we were supposed to be doing a car advertisement next month, but she cancelled it. That’s why she dragged me away: to tell me in private, so word wouldn’t get out so quickly.”

This news appeared to be most surprising to Jacques, who hiccupped in shock.

“R-retiring? But Amara…you love to model! It’s your dream!”

Amara smiled, her carved features softening at the gesture.

“I have a new dream,” she told him softly, a hand moving to her abdomen. “Mon cheri…we’re going to have a baby.”

Ladybug gave a tiny “oh!” in surprise, and Adrien was forced to suppress a grin he could feel spreading across his face. She was just too cute.

“A…a baby…” Jacques blinked, his heartbroken expression rapidly transforming into one of wonder. “Amara, you’re pregnant?!”

“Yes, Jacques. The reason I’ve been ill lately isn’t because of you, never. It was just morning sickness.”

“How—how long have you known?!”

“For two weeks.” Her smile became chagrined, but even with such a sad expression, she was still lovely. “Forgive me for hiding it, mon cheri. I just wanted to surprise you tonight. The news was meant to be your first Christmas gift…” She glanced over at the delicate watch hanging from her wrist and laughed. “Well, it’s a couple minutes early, but oh well. Merry Christmas, mon cheri.

“Oh, Amara…my dear, sweet Amara,” Jacques crooned, and as the two shared a passionate kiss, Adrien found himself reaching for Ladybug’s hand, his fingertips brushing hers. She started, eyes flashing to his red face. Quietly, she drew her hand away, and Adrien held in his sigh. Right. She had already rejected him, hadn’t she? It was over, wasn’t it…?

He was therefore very surprised when she jerked her head to the balcony, carefully sidestepping the happy couple kneeling on the floor and traipsing out into the winter night. Curious, and just a little bit anxious, Adrien followed her.

“I figured we should give them some privacy,” Ladybug told him as he joined her on the bench she sat upon, tilting her head at him. “By the way…that was a nice throw, with that tray.”

Adrien smiled, unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt to touch the bracelet he wore.

“I was just lucky,” he said, glancing up to look at Ladybug…to find her staring at his bracelet. For some reason, her cheeks were heating, causing Adrien to frown curiously. What was that look for…?

Soon enough, she seemed to realize she was staring, and tore her gaze hastily away from him, staring up into the night sky instead.

“…Adrien,” she addressed him, the uncomfortable edge to her tone putting him on high alert. “…I’m sorry. For running from you last time.”

“Oh.” Adrien gave a shrug, trying for a smile. “It’s okay, I understand. If I was in your position, confessed to by a stranger, I’d run, too. I’d run screaming, in fact, so, props to you for not doing the screaming bit.”

Ladybug laughed a little, but soon the amusement was gone from her expression, and she lowered her head.

“I just…panicked.” She gave a sigh. “And I guess I panicked because I just didn’t understand…” She glanced over at him, tilting her head once again. “How could you love me? You don’t even know who I am.”

Adrien opened his mouth to deny that…but then shut it again. It was true, after all—as Adrien, he didn’t know her. As Chat Noir…well, things had become hopelessly complicated on that front, but…

“Do I have to know who you are to think you’re amazing?” He countered, searching Ladybug’s expression, and catching the blush she wore before she glanced away from him. She was wearing make-up, wasn’t she? Her lashes were thicker than normal, her lips too pink…had she been at another affair before duty called her here?

…Had she been at this very party, hidden in plain sight…?

Her Miraculous gave a beep, and she sighed, getting to her feet.

“I should go,” she mumbled, turning her back on him again.

And, just like before, because he just couldn’t let her go when he was supposed to, Adrien grabbed her hand, despite knowing that he couldn’t keep her if she really was so determined to go. In fact, the only reason that she stayed was because she consented to pause, stilling under his touch. He let his hand slip away in case he was making her uncomfortable, scooting closer to her while he was still seated on the bench.

“Ladybug…I know this is asking a lot…but could I have an actual answer?” He beseeched her, wishing she would turn around and look at him, wishing that she would pierce him with those blazing blue eyes of hers, like the very first day he had met her… “I know it’s awkward…but I need the closure. So…please…?”

Ladybug’s shoulders rose and fell as she sighed…and finally, she turned to face him again. The usual fire in her eyes was dull, watching him cautiously.

“…Are you sure this is what you want?” She questioned him. Adrien swallowed. He already knew he wouldn’t like her answer. It was inevitable.

…But if he wanted to move on…

Adrien sighed himself, before squaring his shoulders.

“Yes. Please,” he requested once more. Ladybug searched his face for another minute, as if she was looking for misgivings…but when she didn’t find any, she merely nodded.

“All right.” Clearing her throat and folding her hands in front of her, Ladybug smiled softly, the gesture sending Adrien’s heart ricocheting around inside his ribcage, which was completely unfair. “Then I’m very sorry, Adrien…but I can’t return your feelings. You’re a wonderful man…but I just don’t see you that way. And I’m sorry.”

She really was—her expression was all contriteness, her eyes sad, her teeth nibbling her bottom lip in regret. Adrien took all this in…took her all in…and nodded with a sigh.

“I understand.” His gaze went briefly to the balcony floor before he glanced up again, his curiosity flaring. “Is there…someone else?” And then, before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “Is it Chat Noir?”

He hadn’t been expecting Ladybug’s reaction: instead of snorting and saying something derogatory about Chat Noir that would hurt him in his heart of hearts, her eyes merely widened, her face flooding red to match her suit. Her Miraculous beeped again, but she seemed not to notice, merely staring at Adrien, who stared at her in return, shocked. What was that look for?

“…Is it Chat Noir?” He questioned, gaping at her. Ladybug’s pigtails whipped her face with how fiercely she shook her head.

“No!” She protested, though her face grew redder. “I haven’t even seen Chat Noir lately! Why on earth would you think—where the hell did that question come from?!”

“Well, you called me his name,” Adrien reminded her…and then wished he hadn’t, because he should not be reminding her that she had mistaken him for Chat Noir! How stupid could he get?!

But Ladybug’s face only grew redder, and she grimaced.

“That was a mistake,” she mumbled, looking away from him again. “I’m used to him blurting out stupid suggestions in the middle of a fight.”

“Stupid?” Adrien quoted, frowning. “But it worked.

“I know. It was a good plan, the pun just caught me off-guard, and ugh…” Ladybug trailed off, rubbing her forehead as Adrien stared at her. Rare were the times he had ever seen her flustered, as both Adrien and Chat Noir. It was…interesting… “Just forget about it, okay?”

“Okay…” Adrien tilted his head now, inspecting Ladybug’s face as she turned to the side, as if to hide her embarrassment from him. “…So, you don’t miss him? At all…?”

Ladybug’s profile expression crumpled, her eyes tightening. After a moment, she glanced over at Adrien, and his heart gave a painful lurch at the anguish in her eyes.

“…Of course I miss him,” she admitted quietly, sighing before she turned to face forward again, folding her arms across her chest. “He might’ve been a ridiculous flirt and his puns might’ve gotten too silly on occasion…but he was still my partner.” She unraveled her arms, unhooking her yo-yo from her hip to stare down at it, as if it held all of the world’s answers. “Just because I can do this on my own doesn’t mean that I want to. Doesn’t mean that I should.

“You have that new superhero now to help you. The turtle one,” Adrien reminded her gently, and Ladybug smiled a little.

“While Shelly is cool…he’s no Chat Noir.”

Adrien felt blood rush to his face, and he was struck speechless.

Even after everything he’d already put her through…how could she possibly still want him back…?

A loud chime reverberated throughout the air, startling him. He glanced down at his watch, finding both hands at the twelve position.

“It’s midnight.”

“Yes,” Ladybug agreed, and as her Miraculous chirped once more in warning, she sighed. “I have to go.” She glanced over at him, frowning in concern. “Are you…okay?”

Adrien stood, able to smile more naturally at her now. It wasn’t the answer he wanted…but at least he knew for sure now, didn’t he?

“I’m fine.” He promised. Ladybug inspected him, giving a slow smile as she reached out and patted his shoulder. He hated the thrill that shot through him at her touch; hopefully that would fade with time.

“Be happy, Adrien,” she wished him, “you deserve it.”

But you make me happy.

He swallowed the words; they were unfair. Ladybug had been more than nice about this whole thing, and expecting anything more from her would just be selfish. It was time to let go now…time to say goodbye.

As Ladybug cast out her yo-yo, he called to her over the chiming of the Basilica of Sacre Coeur, and she paused once more for him. Mustering all his strength through his breaking heart, Adrien smiled.

“Merry Christmas, Ladybug.” He wished her.

Ladybug blinked at that, momentarily surprised…but then she smiled.

“Merry Christmas, Adrien,” she replied, and then she was off, swinging through the air and out of sight.

Adrien watched her go…and then he heaved a heavy sigh, turning and resting his forearms on the balcony railing.

He supposed it was fine for Jacques to wait as long as he had for Amara, for those two were made for each other, no matter what anyone else had to say about their relationship. It was his dedication to her that made Amara fall for him in the end…but Adrien supposed he just wasn’t meant to have that fate. He had already wasted eight years of his life waiting for Ladybug…and she had already rejected him twice now as Adrien, countless more times as Chat Noir. Choosing to pursue someone that wasn’t meant to be his in the first place was just bordering on masochism, and Adrien was trying to opt for sanity nowadays, so he’d have to push Ladybug from his mind from now on. A part of him would probably still always love her, of course…but he wouldn’t let it consume him anymore. It was time to move on.

Unconsciously, his hand went to the bracelet under his cuff, as if it would give him strength. Marinette had already helped him so much, so it seemed too much to ask her charm bracelet to absorb his unhappiness as well, but even so…

Wait.

Marinette.

Where was Marinette?!

Adrien’s eyes widened, and he whirled, heading back for the ballroom. Oh shit…was she okay?! He had no idea!! How could he have forgotten about her for so long?! He knew that Alya would kill him if anything happened to her, but Adrien couldn’t focus on the Cesaire threat; he had to find Mari!

And find her he did—he had only taken one step into the ballroom before she was bumping into him, yelping in surprise as she wobbled on her heels. Sucking in a breath, Adrien’s arms immediately went around her, holding her close until she could steady herself, wide eyes focused on the top of her head.

“Mari! Are you okay?!”

Marinette glanced up, appearing surprised by his tone. She looked fine—not even a hair was out of place, her make-up still perfect…she didn’t look ruffled at all. Whew.

“I’m fine,” she assured him, her hands patting his shoulders as they rested there. “I managed to hole myself up in the bathroom with a bunch of other women.” Abruptly, she cringed. “Sorry—I wasn’t trying to ditch you, I really was trying to go for help—”

“Don’t worry,” Adrien assured her with a smile, laughing with relief. Mari was here, and she was fine. Thank goodness. “Ladybug saved the day.”

“Did she?” Her eyes widened. “Oh…let’s not tell Alya, okay? She’ll be really upset that she missed it.”

Adrien laughed at that.

“My lips are sealed,” he assured Marinette. They glanced around as the band began to suddenly play again; it appeared as if the party had resumed while Adrien was outside sulking. In the center of the dance floor, Amara was wrapped around Jacques, both looking blissfully happy as they revolved slowly to the music, Jacques' wedding ring glinting on his finger, where it belonged. Adrien smiled, glad that everything had worked out, before he glanced back down at Marinette.

“Hey, it’s past midnight. Merry Christmas, Mari.”

Marinette smiled, looking radiant.

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she returned.

“Mistletoe,” sang a sudden voice near them. Both Marinette and Adrien jumped, turning to find Desiree dancing by, a flushing Amanda in her grasp. She removed a hand from her girlfriend briefly to point up, above Marinette and Adrien’s heads. “You’re standing right under it, kids. Did you really not notice?”

Adrien looked up. Sure enough, there was a cluster of green leaves and red berries hanging above his and Marinette’s heads. Adrien flushed—he had learned the implications of such a festive plant a long time ago, sadly at the hands of Chloe, who had dragged him under one any chance she got. But this year, it was Marinette standing here with him…

He glanced down, finding her already staring at him, her face as red as his felt. Desiree was merciless, laughing at the pair of them.

“You’ve gotta kiss,” she reminded them with a wink. “Go on, we’re all waiting.”

“Desiree,” Marinette groaned, and Desiree laughed again with a slight shrug.

“Sorry, Mari-doll, I don’t make the rules. I just follow them.” She gave a seductive smile. “Why do you think Amanda and I have been gone for a good part of the party? We happened to stumble under one while we were with you, and, well, one thing led to another…”

“Desiree!” Amanda protested now, her face a lovely red to offset the green of her dress. Desiree laughed again, pressing a kiss to her embarrassed girlfriend’s cheek.

“I’m teasing, sweetie,” she purred, and Amanda buried her face in Desiree’s shoulder. Grinning, Desiree winked at Adrien and Marinette again before she whisked Amanda away, further onto the dance floor.

Which left Adrien and Marinette in a rather awkward position.

Marinette cleared her throat, and Adrien glanced down at her, but she refused to look up at him, though he could still see that her cheeks were flaming.

“We…don’t have to kiss,” she assured him, glancing briefly up at him, and then away again. “It’s not like it’s an official rule or anything…”

She was so cute. The way she was so embarrassed over a simple kiss made Adrien want to tease her.

“But what if I want to kiss?” He asked her innocently, her head snapping up to stare at him, her jaw gaping open. He grinned at her. “It doesn’t have to be a kiss on the lips, after all, does it?”

“Oh…” Marinette relaxed, her shoulders slumping with relief. “I guess not.”

“Then let’s just do this.” Finally letting his hands slide away from her, Adrien gave a bow, taking one of Marinette’s hands and pressing a kiss to the back of her gloved hand. Marinette giggled as he straightened.

“Ever the gentleman,” she teased him with a grin. “All right, now that that’s out of the way—”

“Hold on,” he protested, a hand moving to her shoulder as she made to step away, letting himself pout. “What about me?”

Marinette blinked up at him, uncomprehending.

“Huh?”

“Well, it’s not fair that you get a kiss and I don’t,” he explained. Marinette deadpanned him a look.

“Are you serious?”

“Come on, it’s Christmas,” he fussed, lifting his hand, waving his fingers in Marinette’s face. “Fair is fair, right?”

Though he could tell that she was trying hard to be annoyed with him, a smile slipped through her exasperated expression.

“You’re not gonna let this go, are you?”

“Not until I get a kiss.”

With an exaggerated sigh, Marinette took his hand.

“Fine, you big baby.”

“Yaaaaay!” Posing dramatically, Adrien grinned down at Marinette. “I’m waiting, my handsome prince.”

Marinette quirked a brow.

“Handsome prince, huh…?”

Adrien just barely caught the mischief that crossed her features before she stepped forward, an arm slipping around his waist. He blinked down at her, wondering what she was doing—and then his whole balance was thrown off when she suddenly dipped him. Adrien’s eyes widened, and he nearly flailed, but Marinette didn’t drop him, her grip around him unyielding. Damn, she was strong…

“Wha—” he began to protest…only for words to suddenly flee him as Marinette leaned in. Her lips were soft as they pressed to his cheek for one brief, heart-stopping moment…

When she pulled back, she was grinning at him.

“Well? Good enough, my sweet princess?” She teased him.

Adrien couldn’t speak. He was too busy blushing from the roots of his hair all the way down to his neck, terribly hot in his suit once again, even though Marinette still wore his jacket. He could only stare blankly at her, his mind broken, like a crashed computer system…but this didn’t seem to perturb Marinette, who laughed openly at his expression, leaning back and letting him stand on his own again.

“Come on. We’d better get going if we don’t wanna get back too late. Alya’s expecting me to text her before morning, and if I don’t, it’ll just be bad news for you.” Marinette got a few steps away before she seemed to realize that Adrien was not following her, his feet still rooted to the floor. She turned around, giving him a questioning look.

“…Adrien? You okay?”

“Yeah,” he replied at last, forcing the word from his mouth. He cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, I’m fine…”

Smiling, a hint of smugness to it, Marinette held out a hand for him.

“Then let’s go,” she said.

“Okay,” Adrien replied automatically, powerless to do anything else but take her hand, and let her lead him across the room before she suddenly paused.

“Ah…do you mind if I stop by the bathroom real quick? It’s a long drive,” she said sheepishly. Adrien bobbed his head stupidly.

“Okay,” he said again. The whole time, he could do nothing but stare at her back as she headed for the side hallway, feeling like a child compared to her sure steps, her confident strut.

She was dangerous, that Marinette Dupain-Cheng.

He just couldn’t believe he didn’t realize it until just now.

 


 

Marinette overheard a conversation she wasn’t supposed to hear while on the way to the bathroom. She had only been focused on relieving her bladder, but the sound of a familiar voice had snatched her attention, and she stilled in the hall, listening intently…

“…don’t know what kind of stunt you were trying to pull tonight,” snapped a crisp, clear tone that was unmistakable. “Are you trying to piss me off?”

Marinette’s eyes went to the double doors on her left, tensing automatically.

Who was Felix arguing with so heatedly…?

Marinette could just make out the cadences of another voice…but it was too muffled for her to distinguish words or tone. Frowning, because she knew she shouldn’t, but also knew that she was going to anyway, she stepped closer to the doors, careful about making noise with her heels.

“Don’t play dumb,” Felix replied, sounding closer to the door than Marinette would have liked, and she took a step back, biting her lip. If he suddenly left and caught her out here… “I know what kind of threat you pose. So let me make myself quite plain, because I’m only going to say this once: if you continue to get in my way, you will not like the consequences. Let that be a warning the next time you think about…intervening. Good night.”

Rapid steps began to approach in her direction, and Marinette yelped, hurrying to the bathroom across the hall for cover. She just managed to close the door behind her when she heard the doors opposite open, sharp steps fading away into the distance. Marinette waited, holding her breath, before she dared to peek out again.

The room opposite was a drawing room of some kind. Marinette cautiously stepped forward, scanning the dark room. Though there was a desk, furniture, and bookcases that someone could easily hide behind…she didn’t see any movement at all after a minute or two.

Then did whoever Felix was arguing with leave already?

And what had that argument been about? What did he mean about stunts and threats and consequences and interventions? What the hell had that been about…?

As much as Marinette wanted to stand there and puzzle over this…her bladder was not going to wait, and so, with one last scan of the room, she returned to the bathroom. She didn’t have time for this, Adrien was waiting for her.

She would ponder such a mystery when she actually had the time for it: later.

 


 

“Are you sure you’re good to drive back home? It’s pretty late.”

Adrien smiled. Marinette was too sweet.

“I’m fine,” he promised. “I’m more of a nocturnal person, anyway.”

Marinette frowned at that.

“You can’t be both a nocturnal person and a morning person,” she protested as they stood on the stairs of her townhouse apartment. “That makes no sense. It defies all laws of sleep patterns.”

Adrien snorted.

“Just because you have to sleep ten hours a day to be well-rested doesn’t mean the rest of us do,” he teased with a grin, and Marinette pouted at him.

“Oh just go home already,” she said, swatting him so that he moved down a stair or two.

“Okay, okay, I’m going, jeez,” he chuckled, shoving his hands into his pockets. “What time should I show up for dinner tomorrow? Or later tonight, I should say.”

Marinette pursed her lips thoughtfully as she retrieved her key from her purse.

“Hmm…I think six is okay. I’ll ask my mom and text you if it’s actually later,” she assured him. “You’re sure you’re okay to drive?”

“I’m fine, Mari,” he said once again, grinning at her. “Just go inside and get some sleep, okay?”

“All right.” Smiling a little, Marinette added, “Good night, Adrien.”

“Good night, Mari.”

Adrien reached the bottom step before he abruptly recalled something important.

“Wait!” He called up to Marinette, who jumped and froze in her movement of closing her door, blinking wide eyes at him as he climbed the stairs two at a time. “You almost forgot my Christmas present!”

“Oh…” Marinette glanced away from him. “Uh…wouldn’t you rather wait until tomorrow evening…?”

“After you kept me waiting all night? I don’t think so,” Adrien joked, but his smile left at the awkward look on Marinette’s face. “…You okay, Mari?”

“Oh…yeah. Okay, um…come inside where it’s warm while you wait, then.”

Adrien stepped inside Marinette’s apartment, curious eyes going everywhere immediately as Marinette closed the door behind him.

“Wait here,” she asked of him, kicking off her heels and gathering them and her skirt up into her hands as she marched up the stairs to the door that must lead to the open space that was her huge bedroom/seamstress studio.

As he waited, Adrien distracted himself with looking at Marinette’s apartment. He had never been inside before—well, yes he had, but only as Chat Noir. But he had never been downstairs before, and so he took in the living room, with its mismatched furniture, large T.V. and gaming console, both items looking like they were gathering dust, and he got a glance into the kitchen, spying only a small table sitting off to the side with two chairs, two sliding doors at the back probably leading to a small yard behind the townhouse or something. He had half a mind to move forward into the kitchen to check it out more fully when the door upstairs opened, and Marinette was returning, a box in her hands.

“Okay, here it is,” she said, lifting the box before she carefully slid it into Adrien’s grasp. “Do you want to open it now, or—”

She trailed off in a snort as Adrien eagerly tore through the cheerful-looking wrapping paper, feeling only marginally bad about ruining such a nice wrapping job, too eager to get to his present. Once he finally reached the top of the box, he made himself pause, savoring the anticipation for just a moment longer…and then he flipped the top off the box unceremoniously.

Inside…was something black. And red. Black and red.

Curious, Adrien seized the thing, Marinette helping him by holding the bottom of the box as he pulled the thing out—

It was a jacket. The body was made out of what felt like wool, the sleeves leather. The body was completely red, save for the black spots that dotted it here and there, and the sleeves were completely black, aside from the cuffs, which were wool again, and red with black sporadic dots here, too. Turning it to the back, he received another surprise: in black cursive letters, the words “Ladybug Man” dominated the back of the jacket.

His mouth was open, he knew. He just didn’t care. All he could do for several minutes was gape anyway.

After a while, Marinette sighed.

“You know, your silence is kind of scary,” she noted softly. That jolted Adrien out of his head, and he hastily lowered the jacket so he could see her face…which was resigned, for some odd reason…

“Sorry,” he apologized, grinning an awkward grin. “I don’t mean anything by being quiet. It’s seriously awesome, Mari, thank you.”

Marinette peered up at him, her expression unchanging.

“But?” She prompted. And Adrien sobered, because he knew it would be useless to lie to Marinette—she knew him too well at this point.

Sighing, he stared down at the back of the jacket, blushing a little at the words “Ladybug Man”.

“It’s really nothing about the jacket. I love it.” He glanced up shyly. “Uh…the timing’s just a little bad.”

Marinette blinked at him.

“What do you mean?”

Oh, did he really want to get into all this right now? It was very late…

But Marinette was looking up at him with such concern in her expression that Adrien knew it wouldn’t be right to brush her off, and so he sighed again, smiling a little.

“Well…I’ve never told anyone this before, so please don’t laugh, okay?”

“I won’t,” Marinette assured him, her expression solemn. Adrien took courage from that, his smile widening by a margin.

“Okay…so, for a long time, I’ve been in love with this girl. This girl that was way out of my league from day one, but still a girl I couldn’t help but fall for.” Adrien’s grin grew lopsided as he lifted the jacket for emphasis. “Three guesses for who I’m talking about.”

Marinette’s eyes widened, her lips parting slightly in surprise.

“Oh,” was all she said, and left it at that. Adrien didn’t know if her lack of comment was good or bad…but he just pushed on, wanting to get it all out now that the ball was rolling.

“Yeah. So, while I knew there was no chance with her, I couldn’t help but hope…but she rejected me, once a couple months ago, and again tonight, when the akuma attacked.” Adrien shook his head with a tight grin. “Should’ve seen it coming…but it still hurt.”

Marinette bit her lip, and Adrien hated to see her looking so worried for him over something so silly. Really, he hated it when she was anything but smiling, because it hurt him to see her hurting…it hurt him a lot, actually…

“Don’t worry,” he rushed to assure her, widening his smile. “I’ll be okay. I’m…not, right now, I guess. But I will be. Promise.”

“Well…okay…” Marinette reached up, squeezing his shoulder. “But don’t rush the recovery, okay? You’re allowed to be sad about something like this. A broken heart isn’t an easy thing to fix, so you should take all the time you need to heal.”

Adrien’s smile grew more genuine now. What had he done to deserve a friend like Marinette? Absolutely nothing—she was a literal angel, and he could not be happier that she chose to let someone like him back into her life. Honestly, he was so lucky to have her…

Moving forward, he slipped his arms around her, hugging her tight for a brief moment. It appeared to startle her; she stiffened in his arms for a second…but then she thawed, letting her arms circle him as well. Nothing needed to be said—all the communication was in the hug, and when Adrien finally pulled away, Marinette was smiling, which made him smile bigger in return.

“It’s an awesome jacket,” he enthused again, smiling down at his very own Marinette Dupain-Cheng creation. “I’m gonna wear it all the time.”

“You don’t have to,” Marinette protested, looking startled as Adrien shed his trench coat, right then and there in favor of the Ladybug jacket. “If you don’t want to wear it—”

“Wow, look how great it fits!” Adrien enthused, turning on the spot to pose, glancing back at Marinette. “How does it look?”

Marinette couldn’t help but smile, gathering the wrapping paper and discarded box from the floor, crushing the trash together in her arms.

“You look great,” she complimented him, giggling when he grinned at her.

“And I see it fits me exactly. Where’d you get my measurements from, Miss Dupain-Cheng?”

“You’re a supermodel, Mr. Agreste—your measurements are public knowledge in this industry.”

“Oh, right.” Adrien frowned briefly at that, turning around to face Marinette. “Well…maybe that’ll change soon.”

Marinette’s answering smile was dazzling.

“Do whatever makes you happy,” she encouraged him. She stepped forward, pushing the trash into his arms. “Now do me a favor and toss that out on the way back to your car.”

“Trying to get rid of me already?”

“It is very late.”

“That it is.”

Adrien obligingly stepped back outside, pleased to find that his Ladybug jacket was warmer than his trench coat. Clearly, Marinette had designed it with winter in mind. Useful.

“Well, good night, Mari,” he bade her, turning to give her a parting wave and a smile. “I’ll see you in the evening.”

“Don’t forget to bring your appetite,” she reminded him, a challenge glinting in her eyes. “You definitely won’t be able to eat more than me at dinner.”

Adrien snorted. It was a strange thing to be competitive about…but it was fun, so he wouldn’t complain.

“Yeah, we’ll see,” he replied with a wink. “Night.”

“Good night, Adrien.”

As he reached the bottom of the stairs, Adrien tossed the discarded box and wrapping paper in Marinette’s trash can as she asked, feeling domestic as he did so, like a husband taking out the trash for his wife. Snorting at himself, Adrien moved to his car, tossing his trench coat unceremoniously into the passenger seat. He paused before getting in, however, wanting to admire his jacket in his side-view mirror. He turned, grinning at the words etched into the back. He had said he was a Ladybug man, hadn’t he…?

Despite the bittersweetness of the night, he couldn’t get over how awesome the jacket was, patting it down, admiring the hand stitching and care that came with having a Marinette Dupain-Cheng original…

Adrien blinked, his fingers brushing against a tag near the collar of his jacket. Drawing it back, he spotted words sewn into the tag. He leaned over, squinting, moving further into the beam of a streetlight to read the tag:

A Marinette Dupain-Cheng Original, made exclusively for Adrien Agreste.

Adrien felt himself warm, idle fingers touching the corner of the tag.

She…had bothered to sew his name into the jacket.

Made exclusively for him…meaning that she would never make another jacket like this again.

It was one of a kind, and it was Adrien’s, and Adrien’s alone.

Blood rushed to Adrien’s face. He glanced up at Marinette’s balcony, able to see light filtering through the curtains to her room. She must have hurried to make this, because he had mentioned just Monday that he was a Ladybug fan…did she push herself to finish it in time for Christmas for him? Why would she put herself through so much trouble just for him…?

“Because we’re friends, you dork.”

Adrien dropped his gaze, ruffling his hair, mussing it in his distraction. He stumbled off the sidewalk, blinking rapidly as he made his way into his car. And then he could only sit there and stare at the steering wheel for a moment, a revelation dawning on him so quickly that he was not prepared, only able to register shock—

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.

He couldn’t be sure, exactly...but the wild racing of his heart, the blush filling his face, the way his chest was constricting, as if it would burst from happiness—

Fuck,” Adrien muttered emphatically, slamming his forehead into the top of his steering wheel and letting out a low groan.

He couldn’t be exactly sure…but he was about ninety-five percent certain that he was in serious trouble now.

Chapter Text

The holidays seemed to pass by in a blur…and yet, at the same time, key moments seemed to stand still, holding Adrien in place for as long as he possibly dared to linger.

He knew what caused the difference, and it was beginning to concern him.

So on the first Wednesday after the holidays, he fled to Ivan’s office, shed his jacket and scarf at the coat rack, and then flopped down onto the shrink couch.

“Bad holiday?” Ivan asked, sounding concerned as Adrien groaned, his face pressed into the couch.

“He’s being a drama queen,” Plagg insisted, escaping from Adrien’s coat, showing the usual lack of care for being discreet, since the cat was already out of the bag as far as Ivan was concerned. “Where’s the cheese, Big Guy?”

Adrien glanced up, dim sparks of amusement and annoyance rolling through him at how damn near casual Ivan was about withdrawing a wheel of camembert from his desk, allowing the kwami to have at it. Glutton.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, cringing at the disgusting display of Plagg stuffing his face with the foul-smelling cheese. “I was already resigned to my fate of forever smelling like a cheese shop a long time ago, but to have you be roped in—”

“I don’t mind,” Ivan assured him, and Adrien noted with some surprise that his therapist actually meant it, watching Plagg with a mix of curiosity and amusement on his face. Huh. What a strange pair of friends they made.

Before long, Ivan’s gaze switched to Adrien.

“So, do you want to talk about it? Your holidays, I mean.”

Ugh. Where did he start?

The aftermath of the Winter Ball had already been confusing enough for him, but when he showed up at the Dupain-Cheng household for Christmas dinner, things got even more bewildering.

Tom and Sabine had been as nice and welcoming as always, of course: as soon as he arrived, Tom had swept him away to change, and Marinette had nearly laughed herself stupid at the sight of him drowning in one of Tom’s large and horrible Christmas sweaters. (The number on the Trouble Meter in his head had cautiously crawled up from ninety-five to ninety-six.)

Then, they had started on the cookies because Tom had wanted them to bake and be ready by the time they finished dinner. Adrien had had no clue what he was doing, and Marinette had hardly been helpful, teasing him and dotting his nose with cookie dough. He had smeared a finger full of dough on her cheek in retaliation, and it had almost become an incident, but Sabine had intervened, and she had put him and Marinette in separate corners to cool off for a while. (Trouble Meter: Ninety-six point five.)

And then dinner happened, with Adrien losing by half a plate to Marinette, but only because he wanted to eat more cookies than her…but his reasoning had fallen on deaf ears as Marinette gloated over her victory for twenty minutes straight. In retribution, he had asked Sabine to tell the “potty dance” story again, and Marinette had refused to speak to him until the cookies were finished, her face so red it put roses to shame. (Trouble Meter: Ninety-seven point five.)

Decorating the cookies had been…embarrassing. Adrien had had no clue over how to work the frosting devices, and he kept missing the cookie he was trying to decorate because he hadn’t been sure how tightly he should squeeze and for how long for what amount of frosting to come out. Marinette, who had apparently decided to take pity on him, had moved over to help him, her hands encircling his so she could show him the correct pressure and position to use on the pastry bag, standing on a stool behind him so she could supervise his work when he tried it on his own. He had been very aware of her presence as he frosted, her body heat like a physical touch, the nerves in his back tingling in a strange way that made him shiver. But it wasn’t until she had leaned forward and spoke into his ear—something about how good a job he was doing or something, he couldn’t remember—that Adrien remembered how very sensitive his ears were, and he jumped and got frosting everywhere, which took a while to clean up, with him red-faced and apologizing profusely to her parents every chance he got, though they had already assured him several times that it was no big deal. And Marinette, as they helped her parents clean, had regarded him with curious blue eyes, eyes he could not afford to meet if he wanted to keep the last of his sanity throughout the night. (Trouble Meter: Ninety-nine.)

But the final nail in Adrien’s future coffin had been hammered into place when they had sat down to watch Christmas movies together, Tom and Sabine on one part of the couch, him and Marinette on the other. Adrien wasn’t sure exactly when he had drifted off to sleep, but when he awoke, it was to find that Sabine and Tom had disappeared, and he and Marinette were swathed in a warm blanket, Marinette’s head resting on his shoulder as she dozed, looking so very peaceful and unguarded and beautiful… (Trouble Meter: He was fucked.)

It had been a struggle to get out of there and go home, because while Adrien had certainly been embarrassed by the circumstances, a part of him—a very large part of him, if he was being honest—hadn’t wanted to leave. It had felt so right being there, joking around with the Dupain-Chengs, eating heaps of Sabine’s cooking, enjoying Tom’s lame dad jokes while Marinette groaned, horsing around with Marinette herself…

It had felt like home.

And for Adrien, for whom the concept of ‘home’ had been shattered a long time ago, the thought of a new definition of the word was both incredibly tempting…and incredibly terrifying.

He had done his best to avoid Marinette for the rest of the holidays, turning down her and Nino’s invitations to Alya’s New Year’s Eve party, making up a work event he didn’t have in order to hide out in his house all evening. It was lonely, but at least he hadn’t felt wrong-footed all night, trying to act normal and not be so aware of Marinette when it seemed like that was quickly becoming impossible—

When he didn’t say anything for a while, Ivan switched tactics.

“Do you just wanna choose a playlist for today?” He asked, turning his computer monitor around. Adrien sighed. Was this backsliding? Maybe. But since his head was still spinning over this seemingly sudden development…

Adrien didn’t pay close enough attention to the playlists; he just chose one at random, turning away to head back to the chaise and sulk—

If there’s a price for rotten judgement

I guess I’ve already won that.

No man is worth the aggravation

That’s ancient history

Been there, done that!

Adrien paused as a four part chorus harmony began to play, frowning in concentration. This song…he knew this song…where was it from again…?

No chance, no way,

I won’t say it, no, no.

You swoon, you sigh

Why deny it, uh-oh~

It’s too cliché,

I won’t say I’m in loooove~

Adrien froze.

That’s right…he hadn’t watched it in ages, but he remembered: this song was from the Disney movie “Hercules”, and it was the big number with the love interest, Meg, who was fervently denying what the Muses and the audience could see quite plainly—

You keep on denying

Who you are and how you’re feeling

Baby, we’re not buying

Hun, we saw you hit the ceiling—

Before the chorus could insist that he face it like a grown-up, Adrien whirled around and hastily hit the skip button on the playlist, and a new song began to warble through the room—

Wise men say,

‘Only fools rush in’

But I can’t help

Falling in love with—

Cursing now, Adrien jammed his thumb into the skip button, but it slipped, accidentally moving the bar that indicated the length of the song at the top of the screen—

And IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII will always love—

“Gah!” Adrien yelped, and he hit the stop button at last. The music halted, and Adrien, breathing hard, got a good look at the playlist he had chosen without really thinking about it:

The title was “Love”.

Adrien groaned and sank down into the nearest armchair, defeated. To Ivan’s credit, he didn’t laugh at Adrien…but it took a suspiciously long amount of time for him to say something, and he had to start over a couple times, his voice warbling in a telling way as Plagg outright cackled at Adrien’s humiliation.

“Ahem…so, um…is there something on your mind of the…romantic nature, Adrien?”

Adrien let out another strangled sound, his hands over his face. What he wouldn’t give for a hole to just open up in the floor and swallow him up right now…

Careful what you wish for,’ Joked a playful voice in his mind, one that seemed to have taken residence in his head along with the snide voice of Chat Noir. ‘You know it’d suck if an akuma swooped in to make your hasty wish come true. Don’t lose it, dude.

Adrien forced himself to take a deep breath.

Nino, though he wasn’t here, was right—Adrien shouldn’t panic and lose his mind over this. He was a grown man for god’s sake. He could handle this…couldn’t he?

…Well…maybe not. But that was what Ivan was here for, wasn’t it?

Inhaling deeply once more, Adrien dropped his hands, giving Ivan a dejected look.

“I fucked up,” he said oh so eloquently, causing Ivan’s eyebrows to climb higher up his forehead before they met in the middle, crinkling in concern.

“What do you mean?” Ivan asked carefully.

With a grunt, Adrien got to his feet, much too restless to sit still for too long. As he paced, he felt Ivan’s eyes on him, though, as usual, the gentle giant did not push. He merely waited patiently as Adrien gathered his thoughts, pondering how best to approach this new and absurd and terrifying situation he had found himself in…

“So…there’s this…girl,” Adrien began, cringing at how lame he sounded. So much for being a grown man. “And, uh, things have gotten…complicated.”

“I see,” said Ivan, Adrien glancing over to find him getting up, rounding his desk in favor of one of the armchairs in the room. During one of their sessions, Adrien had learned that Ivan didn’t like having a desk between him and his clients when he was helping them work through something; too distant, he had said. The fact that he was moving now had Adrien wondering if he looked as desperate as he felt. “Can I hazard a guess and say that this girl is a certain red and black spotted superhero?”

Oh. Oh man, Adrien hadn’t even been thinking about her lately, so stressed was he about Marinette. Did that mean…he was getting over her…?

One problem at a time, man,’ Nino’s voice reminded him, and Adrien sighed heavily.

“Well…no,” Adrien replied slowly. He just caught the surprise that flashed across Ivan’s face, and sighed again. Might as well get all this out, now that he had already thoroughly embarrassed himself for the day… “It’s another girl, actually. Ladybug…I’m working to get over her.” Running a frustrated hand through his hair, Adrien grumbled, “But I don’t think this is the correct way to do that. God, I’m an idiot.”

“Hold on,” Ivan requested, frowning in confusion. “So, Ladybug isn’t the ‘complicated’ situation here?”

“No,” Adrien grumbled, moving over to the chaise and flopping face-first down onto it again. “It’s over with Ladybug. She gave me the closure I needed, so I’m trying to move on in a healthy way. But somehow, I fucked up and…god, she doesn’t deserve this! We just became friends again, she just started trusting me again, and all because I’m a sentimental asshole…Alya’s going to kill me!”

“…Oh,” Ivan spoke after a tense silence, in which Adrien had stiffened, realizing his mistake much too late; he had been so focused on not saying Marinette’s name that he hadn’t registered the threat of speaking the name of others involved… “I see.”

His tone implied that he indeed saw the whole situation for what it was. Adrien groaned, pressing his face further into the chaise, folding his arms over his head, as if it would be enough to make his humiliated desire to disappear from sight a reality.

“I’m an asshole,” Adrien repeated. The words were muffled, but they weren’t any less true because of it; they’d been ricocheting around in his brain since Christmas Day, reminding him relentlessly of the sins he was committing by daring to fall for Marinette. Marinette! His friend, Marinette, the one who re-introduced him to Ivan the Therapist, the one who got out of bed in the middle of the night to pick him up after a stupid, rage and alcohol-induced bar fight, Marinette, the woman who took no shit from him when he was being a dick, the woman who kissed his cheek under a mistletoe after midnight on Christmas, Mari. How could he do this? How could he manage to fuck up the one good thing in his life that had spawned many other good things: his and Nino’s restored friendship, his reform from his twisted view of justice, his reconsidering making a career out of a job he couldn’t stand…she was so wrapped up in so many things in his life, so intricately weaved in the chaos that came with Adrien Agreste…how dare he complicate the situation even further by developing feelings for her?!

“You’re an asshole because you like someone?” Ivan asked, framing the question so that it sounded ridiculous when spoken out loud. Adrien, however, knew the truth, knew that this could not possibly develop any further than it already had. He turned, peering up at Ivan with a bleary eye.

“It’s Marinette, Ivan,” he reminded his therapist with a cringe. “Marinette.

Ivan gave a frown.

“You’re clearly very distressed about this,” he commented. Adrien groaned again, rolling over to lie on his back.

“You think?” He quipped, turning to give Ivan a quirked brow, which caused the therapist to smile a little.

“I told you he’s being a drama queen,” Plagg chimed in, zooming over to rest on one of Ivan’s broad shoulders, a piece of camembert between his two little paws. “He’s been acting like a love-sick kitten around her for weeks, but did he listen to me when I called it? Nope. And now, here we are.” Plagg shook his head dismissively at Adrien, annoying him. “You brought this on yourself, Adrien. You should have just listened to me.”

“Shut up, Plagg,” Adrien hissed, and Plagg smirked at him.

“Talk me through this, Adrien, please,” Ivan requested, interrupting the banter between kwami and Chosen. “You’re viewing your developing feelings for Marinette as a bad thing. Why?”

‘Why’? Oh god. Again, where did he even begin?

“Because it’s Marinette!” Adrien burst out, huffing at the look of incomprehension in Ivan’s eyes. “She’s…wonderful. She’s smart and sassy and sweet and pretty and she smells nice—”

“See?” Interrupted Plagg with a roll of his eyes. “Love-sick kit—mmrph!”

Ivan, it transpired, learned fast: as soon as Plagg began to antagonize Adrien, the therapist promptly shoved the piece of camembert Plagg was holding into the kwami’s mouth. It wouldn’t keep him occupied for long, sadly, so, taking advantage of the momentary distraction, Ivan waved for Adrien to continue. Slightly amused at the absurdity of this situation, Adrien went on.

“The point is,” Adrien huffed, turning his eyes to the ceiling, “she’s everything any man could ever want. So…what would she want with someone like me?”

“Someone like you?” Ivan quoted, tilting his head to the side. Adrien snorted without amusement.

“You know…” he gestured to himself. “A mess.”

Ivan smiled.

“You’re not a mess, Adrien. You’re just…under construction.”

“Great, so I’m an inconvenient mess,” Adrien grumbled, causing Ivan to laugh.

“That’s not what I meant,” he assured his patient. “I only mean that you’re working on becoming better than you were before. That’s going to take some time and a lot of hard work. Cut yourself some more slack.”

“But that’s exactly my point, Doc: Mari deserves to be with someone who actually has his shit together. Someone who knows what he wants to do with his life, and…” Adrien snorted again, “…and who doesn’t come calling on her unexpectedly in a leather cat suit. God, I’m an idiot…how did I not see this coming…?”

“Because you don’t listen!” Plagg chimed in once again, only to have Ivan shush him.

“So…does Marinette know you’re Chat Noir?”

Adrien’s eyes widened at that.

“No! Oh god, no,” he denied, sitting up so abruptly that he nearly slid off the chaise in his haste to become upright. “If she knew it was me…if she ever found out I was Chat Noir…she would hate me.”

Ivan’s brows drew together once again.

“Is that true? ‘Hate’ is a strong word to use...especially because it’s Marinette we’re talking about, here.”

Adrien frowned. Well…he supposed that was true: Marinette didn’t seem to have a hateful bone in her body, even when it came to people who tried her daily, like Chloe back in school. Besides…hadn’t Marinette already admitted to him that she still believed in Chat Noir…?

That was before you told her we were turning tail and running from our responsibilities,’ Chat Noir reminded him snidely. ‘You really think she’d still hold admiration for a coward?

Dude, if you honestly think that, you don’t know ‘Nette nearly as well as you think you do,’ Nino’s voice cut in, ignoring the way Chat Noir hissed at him. Adrien groaned, rubbing his temples. Too many voices, not enough therapy time.

“I don’t know,” Adrien settled for, for the moment. “In any case, I don’t plan on telling her. About Chat…or about my feelings.”

Adrien clenched his fist, staring down at the charm bracelet that now always occupied his right wrist, as if it would be unbearable pain for him to remove it.

“She definitely deserves better,” he said softly. And, though the words caused him misery, he couldn’t fight them—they were true, after all.

“What makes you think she wouldn’t return your feelings?”

Adrien’s head snapped up, and he stared at Ivan in slack-jawed shock. In response, Ivan merely shrugged.

“She had a pretty huge crush on you when we all attended Dupont, remember?”

Oh boy, did he. That fact kept cropping up, unbidden, to Adrien’s thoughts as he lay awake at night, impossible scenarios and imaginings taking over his mind when he was nowhere near sleep, scenarios borne from the most desperate desires of his heart…

Adrien shut those imaginings down, as he always had to, and shook his head fiercely.

“She didn’t really know me back then,” he asserted, scowling at his lap. “She was in love with my image, not me.”

“I see. And how does she react around you now, knowing who you truly are?”

Adrien snorted. That was the uncomfortable bit about it: did anyone truly know him? He led a double-life, after all, and the only two beings to know about it were sitting in this room with him. How could he hope to have a normal relationship with anyone while keeping a secret of this caliber from them? When the random, half-explained disappearances and the mysterious injuries got to be too much…wouldn’t any woman simply leave him?

“She treats me about the same as she would treat any friend,” Adrien replied, smiling in response to the image of a smiling Marinette in his head, her blue eyes twinkling with kindness and mirth. God, she was beautiful…and he was in so much trouble. “Maybe she gives me a little more shit than she would Alya or Nino…but it’s only because I give it right back to her, I guess.”

That’s right—she wasn’t afraid to tell him exactly what she thought of him anymore. The change from teenage Marinette to adult Marinette had been jarring at first, but once Adrien grew used to it, he found himself adoring this new, confident Marinette…adoring her a little too much, in fact…

“Well, if you’re comfortable enough to be so candid with each other, doesn’t it stand to reason that talking about your feelings with Marinette would help you?”

Adrien turned a wide-eyed look onto Ivan.

“Do you want me to die?” He asked him, ignoring the way Ivan blinked in apparent confusion. “Is that what you want? Because lemme tell you: if I try pulling anything with Mari, Alya will kill me.”

“You’ve said that twice now…what makes you so sure this would be Alya’s response if you, uh, ‘tried anything’ with Marinette?”

Adrien gave Ivan a look so deadpan that it would’ve made Marinette proud.

“This is Alya.” When Ivan continued to look curious, Adrien added, “More importantly, this is Alya being protective over Marinette. Her best friend, Marinette.”

Adrien was satisfied when his therapist’s eyes rounded in understanding.

“Oh. Well, uh, that’s…” He coughed. “That’s a…rather difficult situation.”

“So you see my problem. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Heaving yet another sigh, Adrien flopped back down again, crossing his arms under his head as he started dismally at the ceiling.

“…I don’t know what to do here, Ivan,” he mumbled after a quiet moment. “It’s not like I can avoid Mari—not like I want to, either. But…I’m scared. For eight years, I was so hopelessly in love with Ladybug that it ruined all of the other relationships I’d tried to have with other women. And then, the minute I decide it’s time to move on…here I am again, just with a different woman. I feel like an addict that’s trying to recover by trading one addiction for another…and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want Mari to become a crutch for what I’m too weak to do.”

“Do you feel like you’re using her as a crutch?”

Adrien closed his eyes. He pictured Marinette, in all her loveliness: her dark hair, those cute little freckles that were sprinkled across her nose and cheeks…those blue, blue eyes that seemed to pierce through him and all his pretenses with just a glance…that smile that shaped her plump lips into something tempting, inviting…

His heart thumped unevenly, and he let out a breath.

“…No,” he answered after a moment, keeping his eyes firmly shut. “Whatever this is I’m feeling for her…it’s real. And it’s scary.”

“Why is it scary?”

“Because I don’t want to lose her.”

Slowly, Adrien opened his eyes, moving a hand to rest against his forehead, pushing his hair out of his face.

“…I guess that’s what it boils down to,” he muttered, resignation beginning to seep through him. “I…have feelings for Marinette. But I don’t want to lose her. I don’t dare to run the risk of a relationship if it means losing her as a friend. She means so much to me…I can’t lose her.”

Adrien made himself swallow. His poor, abused heart. How much more could it possibly take?

…But if it came down to breaking his own heart, or possibly breaking Marinette’s…well, the choice was clear, wasn’t it?

“…So you’d rather suffer in silence on this one?”

Adrien turned to look at Ivan. His therapist’s brow was furrowed, clearly concerned about this turn of events. Even Plagg didn’t seem to have anything smart to say; he merely watched his Chosen from the height of Ivan’s shoulder, his green eyes enigmatic.

Adrien forced himself to smile. It was an automatic gesture, and it was not genuine…but what else could he do?

“If it means I get to stay near her without hurting her…then yes,” Adrien answered. He sat up, feeling misery beginning to creep in at this decision…but he was firm on it. Marinette was too important for him to try and complicate a good thing. She wouldn’t be interested, he couldn’t be with her fully while keeping his superhero secret, and she deserved better anyway. Those were the three chains that bound Adrien to his misery, and though he shackled himself in resignation, it was also with the heartening knowledge that Marinette would never be forced to shed another tear over him.

With a sigh, he eyed his watch and stood up.

“Time’s up,” he announced for Ivan, beckoning to Plagg. “Sorry for whining so much today.”

Ivan snorted at that.

“It’s my job to listen to you complain about things,” he reminded Adrien, getting up with a smile as Plagg zoomed across the room to the coat rack, where Adrien’s jacket awaited. The smile faded after a moment, however, and he reached over, a large hand grasping Adrien’s shoulder. “…But are you going to be all right?”

Adrien chuckled weakly at the question.

“No. But that’s what I come visit you for, isn’t it?” Stepping out of Ivan’s grasp, Adrien went to the coat rack, pulling on his Ladybug jacket and his scarf…two things Marinette had made for him, three, if he counted the charm bracelet, though she hadn’t made it specifically for him. It was like he was trying to mark himself with all these gifts she’d given him, and the thought made him blush, tugging at