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Forget Me Not

Chapter Text

For Adrien, the sparkle of intrigue the city of Paris provided as it lit up in defiance of the dying summer light had never gone away, and never would. Maybe, being a young man so desperately in love, he was biased. But he really did agree with whoever had named Paris the most romantic city in the world.

“You are incorrigible,” Ladybug laughed as he appeared beside her on the lofty roof of the Gate sure Nord train station where she sat in wait. But despite her show of disapproval, he saw enchantment in her eyes as she accepted the small pot of flowers he had brought for her. “What’s the occasion?”

Adrien bowed to the waist before rising again. “Does man really need an occasion to buy a woman flowers?”

“Yes,” she scoffed.

The flowers tickled her face as she inhaled their scent deeply. The petals were the same violet-blue as the current sky where the sunset was fading, so that the whole world around them highlighted the range of fractured blues in Ladybug’s eyes. It was as if the universe had set the stage for this. His love for her was so intense it was a magnetic force, and it struck to him in that moment that even if he was never to be with her in the way he wanted, in all his life he would never love another as much as he loved her.

“You got me. There’s an occasion,” Adrien relented when her skepticism finally overpowered his playful flirting. “We've both just graduated lycée. I'd say that's occasion enough, wouldn't you?”

“A week and a half ago,” Ladybug sassed, though it was obvious she was the tiniest bit pleased by the attention. “You're late, Monsieur.”

“Well, if I'm being honest, the flowers are less for graduation and more for the future. Do you know what kind of flowers those are?” She had mentioned a love of gardening before (which was why he bought her a potted plant and not a cut bouquet ) so he was banking on her knowledge of flowers for the full impact of his gift.

She pulled them away from her face to observe them again, and he could tell when she recognized them because she turned to him with hesitance. “Forget-me-nots?”

He flushed, but persisted. “I… don't know what your plans are, for university or for your career. I know I can't expect this hero thing to last our whole lives, and I can't expect you to stay here in Paris your whole life either. I don't know,” he said hopefully, watching as the train directly below them began to move, departing from the station with steadily increasing speed. With graduation behind them now, the whole world seemed unset and uncertain, and the fact that he didn’t know her life plans was terrifying to him. “Maybe by the time our jobs as Lady and Chat are done we’ll have learned each other's identities. But if… if we never do, or if one of us has to go far away, or if something ever happens to me…”

“Chat Noir,” Ladybug whispered, and he looked up into the eyes that filled his every waking daydream when her hand came to rest firmly on his shoulder. “Listen to me. I can't believe I even have to say this. No matter what happens or what the future has in store for us, I will never, ever forget you. How could I?”

The train whistled below them, echoing for miles around. He’d never been as close to confessing the true depth of his feelings for her as he was in that moment.

But even though he couldn't find the words, she seemed to read them on his face anyway. Her whole demeanor softened and the kind smile she gave him sent his heart into mad flight.

“Here,” she said, her voice all light and loving. “This one is for you, from me.” Plucking a single flower from the center of the plant, she tore the bottom half of the stem off and then brushed back part of his flyaway mess of hair to tuck the flower behind his ear. The gobsmacked look on his face brought a giggle bursting from her lips. “I don't want you forgetting me either.”

It was all he could do to keep from melting into a puddle. "Not a chance , little bug.”  

“I can't exactly take these on patrol,” she mused. “I think I'm going to take them home and plant them in my garden.” The mental image of her planting his flowers in her personal garden thrilled him. “Shall we meet up tomorrow night instead? Now that it's summer I think we should really put a lot of effort into finding Hawkmoth’s hideout. I think we're a lot closer than we were last summer. So I was thinking four nights a week until we start school again in the fall. Is that okay?”

“I would spend every night with you,” he whispered, “forever, if I had it my way…”

Instead of her usual scoff and retort at his unabashed affections, like he was expecting, she paused with one hand almost to the yo-yo on her hip. “Oh, minou,” she said softly. So softly that he wondered if he wasn't meant to hear it. After a brief internal struggle of emotion that he watched with quiet interest, she tugged him down with one hand and planted a kiss on his cheek. Then she was gone, zipping away over the tops of the passenger trains into the gathering night.

Adrien stayed there a long while after, pressing his hand to his cheek in an attempt to bottle the happiness and warmth she had left there in a safe memory, for a day in the future where he might need it. After all, the road ahead was unclear. It was certainly possible that a life with her was never to be his. It was possible that their roads would diverge someday, leading them to two different corners of the world, and that there might come a day that mark their last conversation, her last laugh, his last kiss on the hand. But despite all these scary and real and tangible possibilities, Adrien had to hope for a future where he didn't have to wonder or wait or hope. For a future with her.

Because the only thing he knew with an ice cold certainty was that he wouldn't survive any future without her.

.

.

Two and a half years later…

.

.

It’s over.

A shiver passed through Marinette’s whole body as her heart came to terms with reality of it. It's really over.

Slowly, painstakingly, she pushed herself up onto her knees from the place where she had slumped when Hawkmoth threw her to the ground after ripping her miraculous from her ears. In the segmented light of a colossal stained glass window, eerie and gray at this late, late hour, the man who used to be Chat stood over the man who used to be Hawkmoth. The charred remains of their three miraculi still trickled from his clenched fist onto their defeated enemy’s chest; the leftover electric sparks of his final cataclysm still lingered on the ground around him. The sparks fizzled, green and white, until finally fading away. The room was now blacker than ever. Their kwamis were goneㅡbanished to some ethereal dimension until the stones could be remade. Ladybug, Chat Noir, and Hawkmoth were gone. It was all over.

Though every muscle in her body screamed for respite, Marinette struggled to her feet. “Chat,” she called out. It was a cold shock to her system to see him standing there sans uniform right in front of her, and it helped get her moving when she felt on the verge of unconsciousness. Now in nothing but a green dress shirt and slacks, he stood facing away from her, unmoving over their fallen enemy. Still staring down at him. Frozen in place.

“Chat Noir!” she tried again. Something was wrong with him, but she didn't know what and that scared her. They won. Why wasn't he jumping for joy?

Cautiously, and limping a little, Marinette approached. The heels of her old pink flats echoed in the empty vaulted room all the way into the rafters. She swore she could see Chat’s cat ears twitching toward the sound. But it was nothing more than memory. There were no cat ears. Not anymore.

All the while, the man who used to be Hawkmoth remained motionless on the floor below Chat. So silent was he that at first she thought Chat must have knocked him out cold. But when she edged around her frozen partner she saw that the man was wide awake, staring upward in abject horror as Chat Noir fixed him with a steady, unwavering gaze.

“Forgive me,” the man whispered. The light of the window glinted off a tear in the corner of his eye. “Forgive me…”

Startled to life by the unexpected plea, Chat Noir stepped backward and almost bumped directly into Marinette where she was approaching. “Minou?” she whispered one last time, and touched his shoulder. He flinched away violently.

“Goodbye,” Chat choked out. Without ever turning to see his lady’s naked face he took off toward the door and vanished from the observatory.

So it went that he vanished from her world too, that night, for it was the last time they were to meet.

At 2:14am on a cold January morning, the police received a phone call from a payphone from someone who claimed to be Ladybug, to notify them that the hideout of the villain who had terrorized Paris for five long years had at last been discovered. The media landslide that followed the next morningㅡwhen police released a statement alleging that Hawkmoth was none other than the famed fashion mogul Gabriel Agresteㅡwould hang like a shadow over Paris for years to come. There was indignation at first. The public didn’t think it could possibly be true. But it was less than a day later when the man confessed to all his crimes, and in the eyes of the public, the case was open and shut.

(The court case itself would take many more years to play out.)

For Marinette Dupain-Cheng, it was like living on past the end of the world.

She hadn’t taken a proper look at the man before running out after her fleeing partner, and in all honesty she hadn’t expected the man to even still be there when the police arrived at the scene. So when she heard of his capture on the news the next morning, she went into shock. She was still reeling over Chat’s abrupt departure from her life and hadn’t yet come to terms with the fact that her double life as Ladybug was officially over. That her partnership with Chat Noir was over. When she woke that first morning with less than two hours of sleep under her belt, she was already teetering at the edge of a breakdown. So for the newscaster to announce that Hawkmoth was none other than her biggest role model was to send her over a mental cliffside.

Her parents scarcely had time to ask if she was feeling alright before she lurched toward the kitchen sink to vomit.

Still, even with her life spiraling to pieces around her, the very next thought that struck her as soon as she’d finished coughing up bile was a single word, surging into her already broken heart like the last leaf falling from an autumn tree. Adrien .

Oh, Adrien.

Her concern for him was not unfounded. Suffice it to say that Adrien Agreste did not take the news well. Over the next few weeks his four closest friends offered what consolation they could for the tragic situation, but were met only with stony silence and a glazed-over expression. He wanted to be left alone. So they reluctantly did as he asked, and hoped for his sake that the stages of grief progressed quickly.

Marinette threw herself headlong into her studies to fill all those hours in the week that used to be filled with Ladybugging. She stayed up late into the night working on odd projects and listening to music so loud she couldn’t hope to hear herself think, in a vain attempt to quiet the glaring void in her heart left behind by Tikki and Chat Noir, two of her dearest companions. Alya became her lifeline. They did everything together. They studied together, they met up on the university campus between classes to share lunch, they moved in together and painted their apartment green, per Marinette’s request. She uprooted all the flowers from her childhood garden and replanted them in the pots hung from the railing on her new balcony, taking extra care with the flowers the Chat had once given her, now blooming with three times as many flowers as it had back then.

Alone at night she could still hear his voice, surfacing from the infinite pockets of memory that grew louder in the silence. When she lay in bed begging for sleep to relieve her from the heartache, she would remember how at this hour a few months ago they’d have been meeting up for their regular patrol.

‘Lovely evening,’ he’d say, ‘though not so lovely as you, my lady.’

My lady . That was one of his favorites. It was one of hers too, though she realized now she had never told him. There were too many things she had never told him. Now she would never get the chance because she didn’t know who he was. With the stones currently dispatched they couldn’t meet as Ladybug and Chat Noir. At least, not for a very long timeㅡmore likely forever, since they didn’t know how to recreate the stones. So without ever having revealed themselves, they were lost to each other. The only place she saw him now was in dreams, so she lost him again every time she woke. She could almost feel his presence there beside her as she tossed restlessly in her bed between the real world and that of dreams. Goodbye , he’d say, and then he’d been gone. Twisted up in her bedsheets, she’d jolt awake, rasping for air and unable to get any to stick in her lungs.

So absorbed was she in coaxing her own sorrow into a fortified box deep within her mind, during this painful transition back to regular civilian life, that she missed all the warning signs.

.

.

“Guys,” Nino said, “something’s wrong with Adrien.”

Marinette put a bookmark in her copy of Chinese Fashion through the 17th century and Alya set down her phone. They gave each other a wary, knowing glance before turning to Nino, who was sitting opposite them in the grass. He’d been fidgeting ever since he joined them, on the verge of saying something important. This was apparently it.

“Of course something’s wrong,” Marinette mumbled, playing with her bookmark. “It’s only been six months, Nino, it’s going to take some time.”

Nino shook his head. “No, I mean, like… dudes, I think he’s getting worse. I thought it would get better with time, but it’s not. He stopped answering my texts last week. And earlier this morning I went to the College of Physics guidance counselor to see if I could get them to reach out to him, but they said he’s stopped showing up for his classes altogether.”

Alya blanched. “What? No way. Our Adrien, ditching classes?”

If anything, Nino’s expression darkened. “I haven’t even gotten to the worst of it yet.”

“What’s the worst part?” Marinette squeaked.

“They said he stopped showing up back in mid-February .”

But that was almost two months ago! If this was true, Adrien was doing far worse than any of them ever thought. Alya put a hand on Marinette’s arm; she must have noticed how close she was to tearing her book in half. They were too in-sync these days. “Am I right in understanding that Adrien has dropped out of college without telling anyone?” Alya said carefully.

Nino yanked his cap off and wiped a bit of midday sweat from his brow before replacing it once more. “Yeah. I think so, Al.”

“We have to do something.” Marinette worried at her lower lip. All of Adrien’s troubles were her fault. Maybe she wasn't the one who told his father to abuse a miraculous, but she had directly caused his arrest and therefore the weight of Adrien’s depression had hung squarely on her shoulders for these last six months. To say she felt responsible was a dramatic understatement.

“I’m skipping linguistics to go over to his hotel room,” Nino told them. “I’ll break down his stupid door if I have to. Dude’s starting to scare me.”

“Keep us updated?” Marinette requested. She wanted to break down his door herself, but knew from past experience that such abrasive intrusions only led to him withdrawing even further. It was best to let Nino do this part alone.

.

.

Knock knock.

“I know you’re in there.”

Knock. Knock. Knock.

“Come on bro, I’ve been trying to reach you since last week.”

Knock knock knock.

“We’re all worried about you. Chloe said she tried to bring over some comic books and you wouldn’t answer the door.”

Knock knock knock knock knock knock knock knockㅡ

“Are you even still in there? You dead? So help me god, Adrien, if you don’t answer the damn door I’m going to call the fire department toㅡ”

The door swung open. Adrien glared at him through puffy eyes in a faded Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt, and behind him Nino could see that all the blinds in the hotel room were cinched shut. “I’m not dead,” Adrien muttered. “Happy?”

“No.”

Nino shoved past him into the hotel room before Adrien could shut the door, and crossed his arms in dismay at the state Adrien had been living in. It wasn’t messy. He’d understand if it was messy. It was just… it was empty, to put it lightly. The day of Gabriel’s arrest, Adrien had refused to go home and instead rented out a hotel room. Nino thought it was understandable, at first. After all it must have been a rather rude shock to find out your only living relative was committing criminal acts in your very own house right under your nose. But it was six months later now and Adrien was still holed up in this tiny, empty hotel room. It was more than unhealthy. It was damaging his ability to recover from this nightmare.

“You need to get out of this hotel room,” Nino said. It was less a suggestion and more a direct order. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer this time.

Adrien flushed, lingering in the doorway with his hands shoved in his pockets. “I don’t stay in here twenty four seven. I go places.”

“Like school?”

Adrien caught his eye first and then his meaning. “Oh. You know about that?”

“This isn’t healthy bro. You should have… I don’t know, you should have told me it was this bad.”

“It’s not your problem to deal with.”

“Oh shut up. Listen, we are going to go do something fun right now.”

Adrien slumped into the sparkly clean recliner that sat next to the hotel tv. “I’m not really in the mood for one of your spontaneous trips, Nino.”

“You’ll like this one,” Nino grinned mischievously, “I promise. Plus, Marinette will be there.” He held up a hand when Adrien opened his mouth in embarrassed indignance. “Please, dude, I know she makes you feel better so don’t even try. Wash your face or whatever you need to do, ‘cause we’re leaving in about five minutes.” With that Nino started dialing Alya’s phone number and walked out of the hotel room, letting the door click shut behind him so Adrien couldn’t attempt to argue his way out of it.

.

.

Numbly, Adrien changed and washed his face.

When he finished and looked up, he almost didn’t recognize himself. The circles under his eyes were so bad his stylist would have had an aneurysm if he still had one. And his hair… He ran one hand through the flyaway untamed mess and almost laughed. If his father could only see him now. He was an utter mess. He looked more like Chat Noir than Adrien right now, and that was hilarious, all things considered.

For a split second he saw himself smile, but then it was gone.

It was hard to keep a smile on his face for more than a moment these days when he’d lost everything he had. The names flitted through his mind like they always did, without his permission, like a tongue over a missing tooth. Every second of every day like a cold, dead mantra.

Father. (Gabriel consistently tried to call his son from prison but Adrien had yet to answer. He just wasn’t ready yet.)

Plagg. (Plagg and Tikki had said the stones could be remade if destroyed, but it happened too early, too soon, before the kwamis were able to fully explain how. In all likelihood Adrien would never see his little black guardian again.)

Chat Noir. (His freedom. His expression. His life.)

Andㅡ (No. No no no, not again, he couldn’t think about this. Not with Nino here. He had to stop. He had to get ahold of himself.) For a moment he saw spots, but he realized it was because he had forgotten to breathe for the last minute or so.

Knock knock knock. Adrien jumped out of his skin. “You almost ready?” Nino called through the bathroom door.

“Yeah,” he called back. Adrien hastily dried his face and followed Nino out of the hotel room.

On the way to whatever activity Nino had planned, Adrien spaced out, allowing Nino to talk on and on about his latest musical endeavors to fill the silence in the backseat of the taxi. He let the city of Paris fade into a blur in the windows. It all felt so far away. So detached was he from his surroundings that he didn’t notice where the driver was taking them until the car came to an abrupt stop. When he saw the Agreste Mansion he almost threw up.

“Nino Lahiffe, you little shit!”

“Christ, Adrien, you can’t avoid this place forever!”

He strained against Nino’s relentless tugging, refusing to get out of the car. “I can and Iㅡ” grunt , “ㅡwill.”

“Dude! Will you just get out of the car?”

But even with all the months of apathy, Adrien was far too strong for Nino, and after one particularly sharp tug failed Nino went stumbling backwards onto the sidewalk. (After all, the only thing to do at the hotel he’d been living at besides watching tv was to utilize the gym.) Nino shot to his feet, ready to try again, but a soft knock on the window behind Adrien’s head interrupted the exchange. Adrien turned, only to see Marinette waiting there expectantly.

Sighing, he opened the door and climbed out. “Hi, Marinette. Alya. Chlo.” The other two were standing behind the car, looking at a very ruffled Nino with a degree of amusement. “I’ll have you three know that I was tricked into coming here.”

Alya and Chloe looked uncomfortable at that accusation, but Marinette gave him a shy grin, seeing the joke in the disaster like he always did. He loved that about her.

“About that,” Alya ventured with an edge to her voice. “Why are we here, Nino?”

“Jeez, you guys have no faith,” Nino grumbled. “We’re not here to force Adrien to move back in, okay? We’re just gonna do a little… stress relief.”

A wicked smile crossed Chloe’s face at Nino’s suspicious choice of words. “Ooo, I like where this is going already.”

But Adrien did not like where it was going. At least, not yet. As he followed them apprehensively up the steps to the house he grew up in, he tried not to look around too much. This place was full of bad memories, and the absolute last thing he needed was to relive any of them with his friends around to bear witness. The interior was eerily empty, like a haunted skeleton of what had once been his life.

“Hey Adrien?” He perked up when Marinette hung back to walk next to him as Nino led them through the labyrinth that was the abandoned Agreste Mansion. “It’s okay that you dropped out. Lots of people need time off of school after stuff like this. I just wish you’d told us, y’know?”

Adrien couldn’t look her in the eye. Truth was, he’d never made a conscious decision to drop out of school. It just… happened. “I’m sorry.” He was. He really, really, was.

A playful punch to his shoulder helped ground him when he felt the floor falling out from under him. “No need to be sorry,” she smiled. “Just don’t shut us out. We love you.”

Adrien smiled back. At least he hadn’t lost everyone, that day.

“Here we are!” Nino finally announced, and Adrien, who had been purposefully not focusing on where they were heading, frowned at the door that Nino had stopped in front of.

Of course Chloe was the one to smash the tense silence to pieces. “Gabriel’s office? Um... Why though.”

“Yes,” Adrien agreed, turning his frown on a very evasive Nino. “Why indeed?”

“Two words.” Nino threw open the door so hard it ricocheted off the door stop with a crack like lightning. “Stress. Relief.”

The other four filed in after their off-the-rails friend with an apprehensive air. “I don’t understand,” Alya said. “How can Gabriel’s office have anything to do with stress relief? Like, at all? This is the most stressful place I can think of.”

“Observe,” Nino proclaimed, and picked up a glass paperweight from Gabriel’s desk where it still held down whatever papers hadn’t been taken by detectives during the search months prior. Abruptly, he hurled it across the room, where it fractured into chunks and took out a huge chip from the bookshelf where it struck.

“Nino!” Marinette gasped, eyes flitting towards Adrien, who was absolutely flabbergasted by the turn of events. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting from Nino, but that wasn’t it.

“Come on,” Nino laughed, then shoved the globe off Gabriel’s desk too. “Try it. Does wonders for all that pent-up rage!”

A riotous crash came from behind Adrien then, and he turned to see Chloe standing over a fresh pile of upturned books where she had just shoved them from their shelf. “What?” she scoffed in Adrien’s general direction. “You’re not the only one with pent-up rage.”

Adrien couldn’t help it. He laughed.

It was the short-lived, raucous kind of laughterㅡnot unlike the kind he used to emit involuntarily after almost dying in battle. Everyone stared at him. From the shocked expressions on their faces he understood that he probably hadn’t laughed in their presence in months. “Alright,” he relented, and pulled the hanging artwork from its nail by the door. The glass in the frame shattered on impact with the ground, leaving Alya and Marinette to jump away from the scattering shards. “Huh.” He nudged the fractured frame with his converse. “That did feel pretty good, actually. I always hated that stupid painting.”

“Are we really doing this?” Alya wondered, her fingers ghosting on the artsy ceramic mannequin in the corner, like she was just dying to tip it over.

Adrien hesitated, glancing around his father’s office at all the framed awards on the walls. At the ashes leftover in the dark fireplace. The half-finished sketches left on his desktop. The pricy ornaments lacing the shelves in front of rare books. The vaulted ceiling where an iridescent crystal chandelier swayed in the air conditioning spilling from a lofty vent.

“Come on, man,” Nino nudged gently. “You’d burn this mansion down if you could. I know you would.”

“You’re right,” Adrien said. “Let’s trash this place.”

“Fuck yeah!” Alya crowed, and when she shoved over the ceramic mannequin all hell broke loose in the once-office of Gabriel Agreste.

Chloe set about ripping every single book from the shelves while Nino attacked the inner contents of Gabriel’s desk. Alya tore around from one corner of the room to the next, cackling with glee and unable to focus on any one thing, just tearing things off shelves and walls left and right, piling them in broken pieces on the floor. Adrien had to admit that he hadn’t felt so invested in anything since, well, since before. His adrenaline kicked in like an old familiar friend as he pulled every painting and award off the wall and tossed them one by one into a pile of glass and wood by the door. Only Marinette stood in the center of it all, awkward and uncertain as the office flew to pieces around her amidst cheers and jeers and laughter. Taking notice of her distress, Adrien went to her with a playful smile and pointed up at the chandelier casting flecks of distorted light all around the room.

“You haven’t smashed anything yet,” he observed. “Care to help me with that one?” Marinette followed his gaze up to the chandelier, then almost laughed at his borderline manic grin. “Climb on,” he suggested, and knelt down so she could climb up onto his shoulders. They swayed for a moment as he stood and she swore out of surprise, which sent him back into a laughing fit. He could barely see anything through her panicked grip on his face. Everyone else took notice of them too then, and paused in their destructions to chant Mari’s name as she strove for the lowest-hanging crystal strings on the elaborate chandelier.

“It’s too high,” Marinette groaned. As she said that, Nino lit up with a plan and dragged the ornate guest chair from its place in front of Gabriel’s desk over to Adrien, who quickly caught on.

“Do you trust me?” he asked Marinette, who had been too focused on the out-of-reach chandelier to notice this development.

“Duh,” she scoffed. “Why? OH my god!” she gasped as he stepped up onto the chair in one swift motion. “Fuck me, oh my god, I’m gonna die! Put me down right now!”

“Don’t worry! We got you,” Alya called up to her. The other three stood around them to spot them in case Adrien should lose his balance. “Tear that bitch down, Mari!”

“If you let go I’m taking you down with me,” Marinette warned, but his grip on her legs was solid and she could reach the lowest tier of the chandelier now with ease, so she started pulling. Three impressive tugs later, the fixture that attached it to the ceiling started to give way. Flecks of paint and drywall littered down. “Stand clear!” she shouted, and everyone leapt out of the way just in time for it to come crashing down with a deafening icy splatter.

Cheers went up among the others, and Nino helped Mari down off Adrien’s shoulders, congratulating her on her fine, fine work. Adrien was on cloud nine, and couldn’t stop smiling as Chloe and Alya ripped the chandelier to shreds, with Chloe conspicuously pocketing a handful of crystals with a sly wink to Alya, who only rolled her eyes.

“I’d call Operation Stress Relief a rocking success,” Nino gloated as he set Marinette on her feet.

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Adrien laughed. “Good game, everyone.” With that he turned to fist bump his lady andㅡ

ㅡand stopped.

Damn. He’d done it again.

He was standing in his father’s destroyed office with his fist held out to Marinette, who was looking at him rather oddly. He’d forgotten. Where he was, what he was doing. He was about to retract his hand altogether when Marinette offered him an uncertain smile and met his fist with her own. “Yeah. Good game,” she said, sounding rather far away.

They both jumped when Alya appeared between them. “You know what goes great with wanton destruction?”

“Rice?” Nino butt in.

Alya shoved him away by the face. “Sleepovers!”

 

Chapter Text

Marinette watched Alya, Nino, and Chloe run around her kitchen and living room, gutting the fridge for snacks and drinks and heading off to build a veritable nest out of blankets and pillows. She hesitated in the doorway, looking back at Adrien in the hall of the apartment complex. "Gonna stand out here all night?" she joked.

He shoved his hands in his pockets, donning a rather defiant expression. "Maybe."

"Oh for the love of…" She grabbed him by the hand and dragged him inside.

In Adult Alya's world, 'sleepovers' consisted of cheap junk food, corner-store wine, canned beer, terrible movies, and so many blankets there was danger of suffocation. Marinette had been subjected to these adult sleepovers many times over the last few months, even though they lived together, when Alya was feeling particularly perceptive and Marinette was feeling particularly weak, and Alya glimpsed through the cracks in Mari's fortified facade of fine-ness. Of course, Alya didn't know what was wrong with her. Marinette never opened that pandora's box any further than 'I'm lonely.'

Tonight was about Adrien, though, and she was a little relieved to be out of the spotlight of Alya's attentions for once. Chloe and Nino were sent off to the store for alcoholic supplies while Alya goaded Adrien into picking out some movies. By eight o'clock they were tipsy, by ten they were drunk, and by midnight they were wasted. By two in the morning, Alya and Nino were passed out on the floor under a shared blanket, while Chloe was sprawled in an inelegant posture on the tilted back recliner and snoring. The credits to the latest movie were playing, and Marinette was starting to feel a lot less drunk than she wanted to be. She was tired, but nowhere near the realm of sleep.

The only other person still awake was Adrien, and that was terrifying. She hadn't been alone with him since before.

(Since before you destroyed his life, a small voice reminded her.)

Currently, she was sitting alone on the couch behind him. He sighed on the ground below her as the credits finished rolling and let his head droop to the side so it was resting on her knee. The little act surprised her. Adrien was usually pulling away from everyone. Before she could stop herself she reached forward and touched his hair with gentle fingers. She had done this for Chat Noir on occasion, on their most vulnerable nights. He always said it was relaxing. Chat must have been telling it true, because Adrien sighed and sank onto her even further, turning around to fold his arms on her lap and bury his face in his forearms. So she took that as a sign to continue, and ran her fingers lightly through his hair for almost twenty minutes before he noticed she was crying.

When she couldn't resist the need to sniff anymore he stiffened on her lap. He looked up with caution, then grew horrified when he saw, despite the darkness, that she was indeed crying.

"Mari?" he whispered. "What's the matter?"

She shook her head, hastily wiping at her tears. This was what she got for letting her mind wander to Chat in mixed company. But there was no swaying Adrien now that he had seen. He let the blanket slip from his lap and pulled Marinette to her feet. She was helpless to do anything but follow as he led her silently through the dark room, stepping deftly over Nino and Alya's prone bodies toward the balcony door. When he pulled her outside the cool night air gusted around them for a moment before settling down into a steady breeze.

She clicked the door shut behind her and wiped at her eyes again before meeting his gaze. He was looking at her expectantly. "It's nothing," she dismissed. "Please don't worry about it. I'm fine."

"It's not nothing," he pried gently. "Please, tell me."

Marinette wanted to deny him, but despite her recent pining over Chat, there was an unshakeable place in her heart carved out by Adrien. She couldn't do it. "Don't tell Alya," she whispered, unable to look at him. She moved to rest on the thin strip of wall between two of the three shuttered windows, looking out at the southern half of Paris, a city of lights and sounds that she was doomed to walk alone. Patiently, Adrien followed her, leaning on the wall beside her. "I… lost someone a couple months ago. He's not dead, he just, he went away. I didn't even get to say goodbye." She strained her eyes upward to try and stay the tears she could feel brimming there. "Some days are better than others. But sometimes there are little things that remind me of him, and for a second it's like he never left." Her voice broke, thinking of her fingers in Adrien's hair. Last year she would have given her left arm to be able to caress him like that. But now that it happened, all she'd been able to think of was her lost friend. Her black cat.

"You loved him," Adrien said incredulously.

She should have been surprised at his perceptivity. Maybe she should have denied it. But the way she described Chat, how could Adrien have come to any other conclusion? Maybe she just… wanted someone to know. Wanted to say it out loud, if only the once. "Yeah," she admitted. "I loved him. Never got to tell him, though. Life's funny, isn't it?"

Despite the cover overhead the wind whipped her hair about her face. Adrien's silence drew her attention, and when she looked over she saw that he was wearing the funniest expression on his face. Something between pity and compassion and sorrow and... "Marinette," he intoned. The moon carved silver canyons on his body. "Can I kiss you?"

Marinette's mouth fell open in surprise. "Adrien Agreste, you are drunk."

A Cheshire grin crossed his face and for a second he looked for all the world like Chat Noir. "I'm not that drunk anymore. Are you?" She shook her head. "So..." Marinette answered his question by leaning forward, letting her eyes drift shut as she saw him reciprocating. The weight of his hand on the back of her neck preceded his lips. Then they came together.

The kiss was hesitant and careful at first, like they both were afraid the other might shatter. But when he pulled back it was only to move away from the wall, to loom in front of her and obscure the city lights from view as he returned to kiss her for a second time, more insistently.

A fire lit up between them. They were the fuel, burning quickly into the dangerous redzone.

The shy kiss became something heady and lilting and cathartic, and while Adrien's hands roaming down her back toward her hips and hers clutched tightly in his hair, their gathering momentum carried them farther and farther downhill. Despite everything Marinette still loved him. So she lost herself in his arms; drowned in the heat of his breath and the warm woodsy scent that always clung to him. She knew he was kissing her for the same reason he drank a whole bottle of wine, and not because he loved her. But in the end, did it matter? She had ruined his life. He could have this small comfort from her in return if he wanted; this physical affection. As he paused to breathe he grazed her bottom lip with his teeth, after which she just couldn't hold in her whimper anymore. The sound made his dark eyes cloud over with an intent that set her heart racing.

When his hands moved from her hips down to her thighs, she let him lift her up, like some crude reenactment of their chandelier escapade. But this time instead of securing her on his shoulders he pressed her into the wall, leaving her with no real option except to wrap her legs around his waist. Delicious heat surged through her body at the intimacy of it, spiking when Adrien moved his mouth to her neck. When she freed the topmost button of his shirt so she could run her hands over his warm collarbone around to the back of his shoulders, he groaned and ground his hips into her.

It was one thing to taste his arousal; it was quite another to feel the weight of it pressing into her sensitive center. She whimpered again, which drew Adrien from her neck back to her mouth to survey the state of her disarray through hungry, half-lidded eyes.

The implication of that look sent a shiver up her entire body.

Taking notice of her goosebumps, Adrien trailed the back of one hand cautiously up her arm before curling a strand of her hair around his finger. "Please tell me you need this as much as I do."

Marinette swallowed, knowing quite well what he was asking of her. This was going somewhere fast. Feeling lightheaded and terrified and elated all at once, Mari nodded with an embarrassing amount enthusiasm and undid another of his shirt buttons. He shifted her into a slightly more comfortable position between himself and the apartment wall and rolled his hips slowly, purposefully, into hers.

When she swore he looked quite satisfied by the heinous words that tumbled out of her mouth. But she wasn't swearing about the contact. "Adrien," she whispered, "I don't…" She blushed but forced the words out of her mouth, before this went any further and she couldn't stop. "I don't have any protection."

For a moment he looked crestfallen, but then a ponderous look crossed his face. "No worries," he brightened, and pecked her on the cheek before gently letting her down onto her feet. "I'll be right back."

And he was gone through the door, back into the apartment. Marinette was left to stare out at the glowing city in wait. It was dangerous to be left alone with her thoughts here, though, because the city at night was a place for Ladybug, not Marinette. It was a place for Chat. She slumped onto the balcony ledge, toying with the highest blossom on her forget-me-nots where they swayed in the wind, and almost forgot what was happening until she heard the door creak open again. She peeked over her shoulder to find Adrien standing there with a little square of foil in hand.

Crossing the balcony to her, he grew pensive. "Hey, are you sure you want this?"

Marinette's fingers danced along the open collar of his shirt and she moved to his arm to tug him around the lantern-littered table to the cushioned patio bench. "I want this," she said, and pushed him down, climbing onto his lap as she went.

His question harkened of other unverbalized questions though, and she couldn't help reading them through the lines. His momentary absence had given them each a reprieve-a dip in momentum-a chance to think clearly about what they were about to do. Going through with it now meant they were making not a rash choice, but a premeditated choice.

So, then, if it was a mistake, it was an avoidable one. Which made it much worse.

But Marinette considered as his hands roamed up the front of her shirt that she could live a thousand lives and still make this mistake every time. With the risk of getting caught by their sleeping friends looming over their heads, things progressed at hyperspeed from there. Clothes littered the floor between the bench and the table, and Marinette helped guide him to the right place as he pulled her toward him. But he paused before entering her, and she could read plain as day the turmoil on his face because she felt it too, though maybe not for the same reasons.

She eased him in, and watched some of that tension fall away.

Gentle and considerate, he started slow, rocking her hips with his hands as she adjusted to his presence. But Marinette didn't want slow. She wanted desperate. She rocked back, meeting him at every crest of the wave, and his breaths turned to a long string of inaudible obscenities. At a particularly brave movement of hers, he surged to his feet, shoving aside the unlit paper lanterns to lower her onto the table, to hike her knees up under his arms, to cover her collarbone in kisses as he accelerated toward the point of no return.

But this was a mistake, because Marinette's head fell back as she tried to muffle her cry with the back of her hand and she saw the city again. The lights of Paris hung there upside-down in her field of vision, the cityscape trading places with the black night sky, and presently she felt that shift of gravity, the switch of the buildings and clouds. She might as well have been falling into the sky. Because she'd always imagined that if she and Adrien were ever to make love, it would be in soft candlelight, in a lush bed, with lilting music coming from a speaker somewhere in the next room. This, in this shadowed corner, naked skin softened around the edges by the light of the sprawling urban maze, this was how she'd imagined it with Chat.

If she and Chat Noir were to ever be together, it would have been in the light of the moon. It would have been rushed and secret and filled with passion. It would have been like this.

Adrien slowed when he saw the tear pricking the corner of her eye, and moved his thumb to wipe it away.

"Don't stop," she whispered, but her voice was strained and it cracked as she spoke.

He seemed to understand what she wanted, and he moved within her like a fading storm until she fell softly over the edge, kissing the rim of her jaw all the way. It was while she was recovering that he crossed his own limit and shuddered to a tentative stop.

"Marinette?" he wondered. Tenderly. Carefully. He reached up to touch her face but she ducked away and pushed him off of her.

"I'm sorry," she choked as she swiftly redressed. The tears that had been threatening to spill again finally came.

.

.

For over an hour Adrien lingered out on the balcony, feeling rather lost and dejected after Marinette's abrupt departure. He was so stupid. He never should have kissed her. What was he thinking, asking to kiss her after she'd just confessed to loving someone and losing them?

(He was thinking that they were in the exact same boat. For the very first time since that fateful night, it felt like someone understood what he was going through.)

Still. It didn't make what he'd done any less selfish. He wanted to throw himself off the balcony to atone for it.

When he finally went inside, it was to find that the other three were still (thankfully) fast asleep. However, there was a muffled roaring sound coming from the other side of the apartment. He followed it like breadcrumbs all the way to the bathroom and realized the sound was that of running water in the shower. Had she been in there all this time?

Not wanting to knock for fear of waking the others in the living room, he cracked the door. Strangely, it was dark inside. She hadn't turned on the bathroom light. "Mari?" he whispered. "Are you alright?" His stomach twisted into an even more painful knot when she didn't answer. He'd ruined their friendship forever, hadn't he? "You're scaring me a bit, here. I'm coming in, okay?" Still she didn't answer, so he eased his way into the bathroom.

When he finally saw her, his heart broke.

"Oh, Mari… Hey… Hey, it's okay." The glass shower door was left half open, and he could see her curled up on the floor of it, fully clothed and soaked to the bone under the torrent of water. He moved to turn the water off and almost burnt his hand when it passed through the stream. It was way too hot. How was she just sitting there? She didn't budge or show any sign or acknowledgement of his presence, not even when the water trickled to a stop above her. "Come on," he soothed, "up we go." He lifted her easily and she offered no resistance; rather, she went totally limp in his arms.

He didn't bother asking why she'd gotten in with her clothes on, or what was wrong, or if she hated him. Instead he helped her out of the dripping wet clothes. It shouldn't have been awkward, considering what they'd just done on the balcony, but for some reason it was. It felt more intimate, somehow. That was sex. This was helping a friend through a complete breakdown. When he wrapped a warm towel around her naked body she seemed to come to life a little bit, and held the towel closed when he picked her up again. But her eyes looked past him like he wasn't even there; blinking, unseeing.

When they got to her room he shut the door behind them with his foot, not bothering to turn on the light as he brought her to her bed.

He turned to go but she caught his hand.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, finally meeting his eyes for the first time since he'd found her. "Tonight was supposed to be about supporting you and I… I ended up using you as a crutch. I'm so sorry."

She seemed to have run out of tears, but the haunted expression on her face was one he had seen enough times in the mirror to recognize. "There's no need to apologize," he assured her softly, and laid down beside her to bring them to the same level. "We were using each other. It's no one's fault."

Marinette rolled onto her back then, staring up at her ceiling fan in disassociated sadness. "It was wrong," she said emptily.

"Maybe," Adrien agreed. "But we can still be friends, right?"

Marinette turned to him with an air of shock. "Of course!"

"We just… won't do it again," he reasoned. Or they both might lose their minds.

It was so dark he could barely see her. But he felt her wet hair tickle his shoulder as she inched closer to him on the bed. "Maybe one more time," she whispered, finding his hand in the dark with hers.

He gave in instantly when her lips found his too. After all, he'd never been able to say no to her.

.

.

When Marinette woke in the morning, Adrien was gone.

She looked over at the belt he had forgotten on her carpet; the sole evidence that she hadn't dreamt any of it. She rolled over and pulled her pillow over her head, ignoring Alya's happy knocking on her door. A nonsensical thought fired in her mind as she drifted back to sleep-one that didn't quite make sense in the waking world but connected just fine when her consciousness was halfway under.

This time he didn't even bother with goodbye.

.

.

"Marinette," Alya goaded. "Eat your damn food. You've been picking at it for an hour and you didn't eat anything else today. I'm about to spoon feed you."

Marinette grumbled but put the bite she'd been pushing around her bowl for ten minutes into her mouth, and turned her attention back to the textbook she was pretending to read. Alya knew she was pretending to read it because she'd been on the same page for almost forty-five minutes now and counting. Just then, Alya's phone buzzed on the table.

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:35pm

(hey uhhh alya?)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:35pm

(i need to tell you something… weird)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:36pm

(that i just realized like five seconds ago)

06 April 2021 6:36pm

(Whats up Nino?)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:36pm

(u know how i had trouble finding my wallet this morning? well i was looking for my debit card just now and i realized something was missing from it)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:37pm

(nothing like that. the thing thats missing is… well, 2 things.)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:37pm

(condoms, al.)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:37pm

(i definitely had three in there yesterday and now i have one)

06 April 2021 6:38pm

(What the fuck does that mean?)

[Nino ] 06 April 2021 6:39pm

i hear u asking but.. i think you know what it means babe. the only other guy there last night was adrien and im PRETTY sure he didn’t have sex w chloe…

06 April 2021 6:40pm

(Thanks . C all you later .)

"Marinette," she sang sweetly, and gently pried the book out of Marinette's hands. The girl had been acting strange all day and Alya was pretty damn sure she knew why, now. "Did you sleep with Adrien last night?"

Marinette went white. Her spoon dropped to the floor with a clatter, but Marinette didn't even budge. "How… How did you…?"

Busted. "Girl," she deadpanned, slamming her hands on the table and rising to her feet in triumph. This was the moment she'd been waiting for for like, six years! "Tell. Me. Everything!" But to her shock, Marinette was not sharing her enthusiasm-in fact, she looked like she was about to cry. "Oh fuck," Alya sighed. "What the fuck happened? Oh my god, did he…" She trailed off, unable to voice the wildly dangerous accusation.

"What? No!" Marinette blurted, nearly knocking her soup to the floor as well. "No, he didn't do anything wrong, Alya. It was me. It was my fault."

Alya lowered herself back into her seat dubiously. A year ago Marinette would have thrown a city-wide party if she'd managed to get into that boy's pants. Something was terribly wrong with her friend. She'd known it for awhile, but she'd sort of just assumed it was a new symptom of her eternal pining over Adrien. Now, she was sure it went much deeper than that.

"Sex isn't anyone's fault, Marinette," she soothed. "It's just something that happens, sometimes. Why are you so upset? Isn't this what you always wanted?"

Marinette screwed her face up, trying not to cry. In alarm, Alya went around the table to take the chair next to her instead and put her hand on her shoulder. Instead of soothing her, the kind gesture was enough to make Marinette collapse entirely. She fell onto Alya's shoulder, shaking with sobs that wracked her whole body.

"I thought it was," she gasped between sobs. "But now that I- now that he's gone, I-"

"Shh," Alya urged, petting Marinette's hair until she had quieted some. "Now that who's gone, Mar?" Adrien wasn't gone; she had to know that. She couldn't possibly be talking about Adrien, could she? Marinette whispered something into her shoulder that sounded oddly like 'stupid cat.' That couldn't have been right. "You have to speak up, honey, I can't hear you."

"Chat!" she yelled, then sat back in her chair with a surprised look on her face, as if she could possibly have been more surprised by that outburst than Alya. "Chat Noir," she said with finality, and squeezed her eyes shut. Alya stayed silent. As insane as this development was, she could sense they were at the crest of a breakthrough. "Now that he's gone I just want him back," she whispered. "Alya," she continued carefully, her breathing slowing to a healthy pace again. "Alya, I… Oh, fuck it. I was Ladybug, okay? I was Ladybug. I was Ladybug and Chat Noir loved me and I pushed him away because it wasn't safe for us to know each other's identities. But the night we defeated Hawkmoth he just… he ran. He left me, Alya, he left me."

With that she slid off her chair onto her knees, laying her head in Alya's lap.

"You probably think I'm crazy if you don't believe me, or hate me if you do believe me. I guess that's why I never told you."

Still spinning in the fresh weight of this revelation, Alya reeled in her inquisitive nature and her slight need for emotional vengeance, pushing it onto the back burner. She could handle all of that stuff later. "I believe you, cheri, and I do not hate you. I always wondered what happened to you two after Hawkmoth's disappearance..."

Mari sniffled. "Here I am," she offered sadly.

"So… you don't know who Chat Noir is?"

"No," she sighed. "I had a chance to learn it before he ran. But something was wrong with him. Something frightened him, I think, and before we saw each other's faces he was already gone. Now our powers are gone too and we have no way to contact each other, so I doubt I'll ever see him again."

Alya tapped her lip. "Haven't you ever thought of putting out an ad or something? 'I was Ladybug. Looking for Chat.'"

Marinette sat back on her heels and rolled her eyes. "Please," she mumbled. "After all those fakers came out after our disappearance, claiming to be Lady or Chat? He'd never believe me if I did. There were too many phonies."

"How do you know one of those self-proclaimed Chats wasn't the real Chat?"

Marinette hit her with a look so determined and lively and utterly Ladybug that Alya was ashamed for even asking. "Trust me," she said, "I would know."

"Damn," Alya breathed, now that she had finally seen it. "You really were Ladybug, weren't you?"

Marinette smiled sadly. "The one and only."

"And you're in love with Chat Noir."

"Too little, too late, maybe."

"Oh, Mari," she said, and took her best friend's face in her hands. "Hear me when I say this: it is never too late to love someone."

Chapter Text

[Nino] 7 April 2021 8:19pm

(hey dude answer ur phone i rly need to talk to you)

[Nino] 7 April 2021 8:45pm

(answerrrr youuur phoooone)

[Nino] 7 April 2021 10:02pm

(i KNOW you are ignoring me ughhh)

.

.

Alone in his empty hotel room the day after the sleepover, Adrien lay staring at the ceiling, ignoring his phone when it occasionally buzzed. Around midnight he finally rolled over and looked at the screen. There were six missed calls and three texts from Nino, three calls from Alya, and… he closed his eyes but he'd already seen.

One missed call from Marinette.

.

.

[Nino] 08 April 2021 11:22am

(ok fine. i will just text you then.)

[Nino] 08 April 2021 11:23am

(listen. i know about what happened between you and mar the other night. maybe you thought i wouldnt notice they were gone but i noticed)

[Nino] 08 April 2021 11:25am

(can we talk about this? im your friend dude i just wanna know whats going on. do you like her or not? maris been acting so weird since the sleepover. you better not be messing her around. ill fuckn fite u m8)

[Nino] 08 April 2021 11:58am

(that was a joke. im not gonna fight you. can we just talk about this like adults?)

.

.

Maybe he should have called her back after that. But the prospect of hearing her say aloud the things he feared was overwhelming. (I don't think we can continue be friends.) (I regret what happened.) Or worst of all, (Let's do it again.) After all, he had never been able to say no to her and he couldn't see himself starting now, with this. That's why he couldn't talk to her. That's why he couldn't see her. He just couldn't face her after what he'd done-after what he'd allowed himself to do. What he'd done was wrong. He was using her as a stand-in for the woman he loved. Of course, she'd been doing the same to him, but did that really make it okay?

Even if he liked her-even if he loved her-it wasn't enough to dispense his guilt. Marinette was an amazing person and she deserved far more than the shredded leftovers of his heart. She deserved the world.

So maybe he should have called her back. Maybe he should have called them all back. But he didn't.

.

.

[Nino] 10 April 2021 7:03pm

(ADRIEN GOD DAMN IVE BEEN TRYING TO CALL YOU FOR 3 DAYS)

.

.

"No, Alya, I have classes all day. So do you."

"Girl's Day overrides any and all curricular activities," Alya shot back, stealing Marinette's shoes as she tried to continue getting ready for the day.

"Please, Alya, please just let me go to class." The circles under Marinette's eyes hung like bruises, and her entire posture was off and wrong. "I can't do this right now. I can't."

"Marinette," Alya complained, and had to stand in front of the door to keep Marinette from leaving. The girl hadn't even remembered to grab her purse or her bookbag. "Do not fight me on this. We are staying home today and having the talk." With a load groan, Marinette shoved at Alya, but her best friend only collapsed, opting to sit in front of the door rather than move out of the way and let Mari leave. "Marinette Dupain-Cheng, it's been three days since you told me. I have been so understanding and patient in light of your missing minou-" ("Don't call him that," Mari grumbled, but Alya continued without acknowledging the interruption.) "-but I seriously cannot play this waiting game anymore. You were just gonna keep dodging my questions forever if I didn't corner you like this. I'm sorry. I am. I love you, you psycho, but I am gonna need some goddamn answers, okay?!"

With one more prolonged keening groan, Marinette slumped down onto the tile in front of Alya, at last relinquishing the shoes she hadn't even managed to get on her feet yet to Alya's outstretched hands. Once she had ahold of them, Alya threw them to the other side of the kitchen. Marinette didn't seem to care.

"I know," she sighed, "I'm sorry, Al. You've been really awesome about this. I always thought..." With a rueful smile and a playful flick on the knee, she laughed, "I always imagined you murdering me when you found out."

Alya flicked her back. "Believe me, Mar, I wanted to. But you were... you know, you were having a freakin' panic attack. I couldn't exactly strangle you when you were pouring your heart out."

"Yeah."

"Hey," Alya smiled, ruffling up Marinette's hair when it was clear she was descending back into that fortified mental igloo she'd been holed up in for the last three days. "Chin up, okay? I meant it when I said Girl's Day. We'll make a day of it. I already started building the blanket fort in the living room. We can order pizza and stuff. How does that sound?"

"I guess it will be nice to be able to talk about it all," Marinette relented. "For once."

"Exactly!" Alya crowed, and helped Marinette to her feet. "Now help me make a painfully sweet breakfast and then you can tell me everything you've ever wanted to but couldn't. Plus," she added as she set about cleaning off a frying pan, "you can gush to me about Chat Noir how you used to gush about Adrien. That'll be fun, right?" There was a long silence, so Alya shut off the tap, only to turn around and see Marinette sitting on the counter dejectedly. "Please don't look at me like that, Marinette, it's not like he's gone forever. We'll find him. I don't know how, yet, but we will find him. In the meantime, I'm sure it'll help if you just talked about it. You can't just keep this shit bottled up or you're going to break down again. So," she went on in a far more lighthearted tone once Marinette had finally breathed out the tension in her shoulders. "Which cheesy pickup line did you finally fall for?"

To her delight, Marinette giggled.

There, Alya thought to herself. Now that is a proper start.

.

.

[Nino] 14 April 2021 2:40am

(ok so alya wont tell me ANYTHING mari said but im 4000% sure that mari is not mad at you or anything and not expecting anything from you at all so i dont know WHY youre being so weird about this.

[Nino] 14 April 2021 4:04am

youre the only one being weird about this. i hope you know that)

[Nino] 14 April 2021 4:25am

(i rly wish you were here rihgt now so i could punch you)

[Nino] 14 April 2021 4:31am

(why are you being like this!)

[Nino] 14 April 2021 4:38am

(lets play a game. withdrawn, impossibke to get ahold of, keeps ppl at arms length, let one tragic event change his whole personality, standoffish, sullen, silent, and c old. am i describing yuo or your dad?)

[Nino] 14 April 2021 4:39am

times up, you lose. either would have been crrect cause the shoe fits you both now

.

.

[Nino] 20 April 2021 1:15pm

(hey adrien. im uh.. im sorry for drunk texting you the other day. i dont really even remember writing that stuff. im still mad that you're ignoring my calls but i shouldnt have said that thing about your dad, and i regret it. that was heinously uncool of me, drunk or not. im sorry.)

.

.

[Nino] 24 April 2021 3:23pm

(i don't know if you're ignoring us all because of the mari thing or because of something else. if it's something else, TALK TO ME. just let me be your friend. like old times. it doesnt have to be like this. but... listen, if it IS the mari thing, would you please just let it go? ffs no one is judging you for that, least of all marinette)

[Nino] 24 April 2021 3:26pm

(one night stands just… happen sometimes, dude. it was an eventful day and we all got a little wound up. its not the end of the world.)

.

.

[Nino] 26 April 2021 8:18pm

(we're all worried about you bro)

.

.

[Nino] 28 April 2021 7:53pm

(look, we dont even have to talk about the thing. can you just answer me at least so i know youre ok?)

.

.

[Nino] 31 April 2021 9:50am

(adrien god fucking dammit)

.

.

[Nino] 01 May 2021 4:32pm

(ngl im getting really pissed off now. why are you doing this? we are your friends. you cant just sit in that miserable hotel room moping around for the rest of your life. yeah things suck but you know what doesnt suck? having friends. but you dont want anything to do with us? thats cool. thats cool. i want you to know that i was SO excited when i first found out about you and mari. because you know what? YOU. NEED. HER. but if you cant see why then i cant fucking help you)

[Nino] 01 May 2021 4:35pm

(have fun being alone)

.

.

[Nino] 02 May 2021 1:16am

(hey im sorry)

[Nino] 02 May 2021 1:17am

(i didnt really mean any of that stuff I said yesterday. well i mean i did but… only bc i care, yknow?)

.

.

[Nino] 07 May 2021 7:48am

(can you please at least send me a one word response. just one word. anything. no one has heard from you in a month now. mari is a wreck and she thinks its all her fault. alya kinda hates you for that. even chloe kinda hates you and thats rly saying something. im starting to kinda hate you too bro.)

.

.

[Nino] 07 May 2021 11:01pm

(wow i thought THAT would get your attention)

.

.

[Nino] 12 May 2021 4:15pm

(alright listen up you stupid millionaire. i just found out from your hotel that youre not staying there anymore. so now, officially, none of us know if you are alive or dead. if you dont answer me with a new address within five minutes im calling the police and declaring you a missing person)

12 May 2021 4:19pm

(I’m alive.)

 

[Nino] 12 May 2021 4:19pm

(ADDRESS. ADRIEN. someone coulda stolen your phone. im gonna need visual confirmation after a MONTH of radio silence.)

[Nino] 12 May 2021 4:20pm

(address or 911.)

12 May 2021 4:23pm

(Gare De L'Est, 5 Rue du 8 Mai 1945, 75010 #204)

.

.

When Nino arrived at room 204 of the Gare De L'Est hotel, he barely had time to knock once before the door swung open, revealing an obviously sleep deprived Adrien. Nino gave him a quick once over, making sure he was alright. (He looked physically fine, save for the Mariana Trench circles under his eyes and the general dishevelment that was so completely at odds with the polished model he'd known in lycee.) Then, once he'd ascertained that Adrien was unharmed, Nino hauled back and punched him in the face.

Or at least, he tried to.

Too fast for him to change course, Adrien caught his arm and twisted it, shoving him up against the wall with his arm twisted behind his back, almost to the breaking point. "Get off me!" Nino snarled, glasses falling askew.

As quickly as he'd taken hold, Adrien let go. "You tried to punch me," he said, and his voice was strangely empty. Like he had absolutely no qualm with that concept at all.

"Yeah, well, you deserved it," Nino snapped, adjusting his glasses and hat and pointing an accusing finger at his friend. "What is wrong with you? And don't try to tell me this has anything to do with Gabriel because we both know damn well it doesn't."

Blank slate or not, the subtle shift in Adrien's stance was enough to tell Nino he'd struck a nerve.

"Got you," Nino deadpanned. "So what is it, then, huh? What else happened to you besides Gabriel's arrest?"

Nino said it with a degree of vitriol-after all, his best friend had ignored him for over a month. But when Adrien looked over to him, it was with such a soft, broken, watery expression that Nino felt all his anger being forced out, as if by a stray gust of wind. He'd suspected all along that there was more at play here than just father-son issues, but he had no idea it was this bad. How long had this other problem been eroding away at the guy without anyone noticing? A few weeks? A few months? Since the arrest? Since before?

"What is it, man?" Nino urged, with a great deal more patience this time around.

And Adrien collapsed. Or rather, he folded over into himself, sliding down the wall until he came to rest on the floor, bringing his knees up to his forehead and wrapping his arms around them. "I can't tell you," he said into his knees.

Sitting on the floor in front of him, Nino tried to get Adrien to lift his head, to no avail. "That isn't true. You can tell me anything."

Adrien only shook his head. "Not you. Not anyone. I can't…"

"Why can't you tell anyone?" The turn of this conversation was throwing Nino for a loop, but he couldn't stop now. After seven months of the same old shit, day after day, they were finally making progress-if only a little.

"She said…" He stopped and shook his head again.

"Who?" Nino pushed. "Mari?"

"No. No, not her."

"Then who?"

"I can't… I can't tell you. I'm sorry, Nino, I just can't."

.

.

"That's it. He just went on like that for thirty minutes, no matter what I said."

"You should have brought me, Nino, I told you to bring me. I could've cracked him."

Nino shook his head in dismay where it lay on Alya's lap on her living room couch. "There was no cracking that guy, I'm telling you Alya. Mark my words, it's something really serious. And I'm sure now that it doesn't have anything to do with Marinette."

"I can't let this lie, Nino. I have to know who this other girl is," Alya said, flicking absently at the brim of Nino's hat. "Especially if she's the key to his depression. Chloe and I can kick her ass, maybe? I'm gonna text him again."

"No point," Nino sighed.

Alya tore his hat off and pressed a sloppy kiss to his forehead. "There's always a point, dummy."

When she texted Adrien she made it brief. Okay, not brief, but briefer than the twelve page essay she'd sent him two weeks ago about his behavior.

 

12 May 2021 5:14pm

(Adrien, Nino told me about your conversation. I know I can’t change your mind about what you think you have to do, but let me just say this. We’ve watched you crash and burn for the last seven months and I for one can’t take it anymore. You need help, Adrien. I say that from the bottom of my heart. You. Need. Help. Whatever secret you’re carrying is not more important than your life and your health, which you’re currently ruining past the point of no return. Please let us help you. Before it’s too late.)

.

.

There were two voices fighting for control of Adrien's actions as he got dressed the morning following Nino's ambush and Alya's subsequent text message. As he numbly ate half his breakfast. As he went down the the gym to ease his troubled mind, then changed directions and went back upstairs. As he stood in the window staring out at a city he barely felt present in. Two voices. One screaming tell someone and the other screaming don't.

The second one sounded a lot like a little bug he once knew, and had been winning for the last seven months.

But the scariest thing was that Alya was right, and her words struck him in a way that no one else's had. Everyone had done their best to help him, he knew, but no one had bothered to point out to him in plain French what was so painfully obvious now that it had been said.

You need help.

Now that the words were out there he couldn't unhear them.

Today was a Monday, and when the clock ticked past the 1:55 mark he knew he had a decision to make. At 2:00 his phone rang, just like it always did, at the exact same day and time every week. Except this time instead of letting it go to voicemail he answered it on the final ring. There was grainy, muffled silence on the other line. His heart leapt into his throat. He hadn't even wanted to answer; his hand had just gone ahead and done it without his permission. After a long empty moment, a soft, deep voice came through the other line.

"Adrien?"

At his name, Adrien yanked the phone away from his ear, nearly hanging up then and there. What was he doing? He didn't want to talk to his father. He wasn't ready. But try as he might, he couldn't muster the strength to hang up. When his father started speaking again, he reluctantly pulled the phone back to his face.

"Please," Gabriel pleaded, "don't hang up. There's so much to say and-"

"Stop." The sound of his own voice surprised him. He felt completely detached from the conversation. From his own actions. From his voice. "Don't. Just... stop. I'm not ready to talk to you about this yet." He squeezed his eyes shut, pressing the phone to his forehead as he psyched himself up for the question that had been killing him over the last few months. But he had to encode it, wary of the call being recorded and played back by prison guards. "I only answered because I need to know. Did you see anything that could help me find her?" he whispered.

His father didn't answer.

"If you ever loved me," Adrien continued in a dangerous calm through clenched teeth, "you will tell me. Did. You. See."

"No," his father answered with a bit of a sigh. "I'm sorry, Adrien. It was dark and my mind was elsewhere. I didn't see. And Adrien, whenever you are ready to talk, I will be waiting. You know I am not an evil man. I had my reasons. Everyone has reasons. You would sacrifice anything to find her again, wouldn't you?"

"Don't."

"Maybe you would make the same mistakes I did if you had access to the same tools now that I did then."

"No I wouldn't," he barked back, "because I'm nothing like you."

"Yes," Gabriel said after another long period of silence. All the manipulation was gone from his voice now, leaving only tiredness and sorrow. "Yes, I suppose you have always been more like your mother. Never have I been made more aware of that fact than on the night we last met, my son. I suppose it is only fitting that in pursuit of my lost wife I was to lose my son as well..."

"You haven't lost me," Adrien replied numbly. "I still love you. But I still hate Hawkmoth, so I'm sure you can see the problem here. Look, I'll… I'll talk to you some other time. I just can't do this with you until I've found her."

For the rest of the afternoon Adrien sat at the edge of his bed, trying to talk himself out of what he was about to do. But in the end he wasn't able to. If his father really hadn't seen Ladybug's face that night, then there was only one other person in all the world he could think of to turn to for help. So he finally gave in to the other voice; the voice that sounded a little more like Plagg than like her.

Tonight, he was going to tell someone the truth.

.

.

When her phone buzzed and the name Adrien appeared at the top of the screen, Alya almost dropped her phone into the running sink where she was doing dishes.

[Adrien] 12 May 2021 5:46pm

(You're right.)

[Adrien] 12 May 2021 5:46pm

(About what you said yesterday. I do need help.)

[Adrien] 12 May 2021 5:47pm

(You're completely absolutely right and I'm… weak, I guess. Can I come over and talk to you?)

[Adrien] 12 May 2021 5:47pm

(Alone, I mean. I love the others but I need to talk to you alone about this, Alya.)

12 May 2021 5:48pm

(Yes. 100% yes. Nino left and Mari’s at work so I’m home alone. Please come over.)

.

.

Alya answered the door in her pajamas, with a warm smile on her face and beckoned him inside. For the first time in months, anticipation swelled in his chest. If there was one person in the whole wide world who could help him right now, it was Alya Cesaire, journalist extraordinaire. Proprietor of the world-famous Ladyblog. She handed him a steaming cup of chamomile tea, which he accepted gratefully, happy she was even speaking to him after he'd ignored them all for the last month. He just couldn't face them after what he'd done-after what he'd allowed himself to do. Marinette was one of his dearest friends and she deserved better that what he'd given her.

"So," Alya sang, and it was almost as if he hadn't disappeared off the map for a month. She was surveying him over her own mug with that same level of suspicion and rapt intrigue that she always donned when she knew there was something juicy to uncover. Honestly, he'd always admired that about her, even when he was Chat and he was the one at risk of being exposed by her searchlight. He especially admired it now. Right now that insatiable curiosity was the thing driving him to spill his secret to her, in the hopes that she could help bring his life meaning again.

"Alya," he began slowly, and hesitantly took a seat opposite her at the kitchen table.

The words flickered by in his head; he'd practiced them a million times over, imagining the reveal with every one of his friends late at night ever since the beginning of lycee. But now that it was actually happening it all broke down. What was left was just a broken, "You have to help me." He tried to swallow but his throat was sandpaper. "Please, I… I can't live like this anymore. You're right. I need help. I need your help. I have to find her. I can't live without her, Alya, I tried and I tried and it's not worth it." He'd worked himself up into a panicked frenzy now and he didn't even notice when he knocked his tea over as he gesticulated. "I can't sleep, I can't eat, I can't even think about anything but her! I have to find her-"

"Adrien Agreste!"

Hearing his name as if from a great distance, he finally slowed down enough to realize that Alya had come over to his side of the table without him seeing, and had her hands wrapped around his wrists. She was trying to still him.

"Breathe. Focus on breathing."

Only then did he realize he was bordering on hyperventilation. So he relaxed, and allowed Alya to fuss about, cleaning up his spilt tea from the table and his shirt and pressing an ice pack to his hand. He didn't even remember burning it.

"I'm almost afraid to ask," Alya mumbled to herself. "But I will. Who is this girl who's so thoroughly ruined your life?"

Adrien shook his head. He'd finally calmed down enough to trust himself to speak again, so he did, knowing he was so far off the rails already that there was no going back from this place. "She didn't ruin my life," he sighed. "It was me. It was my own fault. I was just… so shocked, I… I just ran…"

He blinked out of his reverie and noticed that the most peculiar expression had come across Alya's face. Something like… tentative understanding. Was it possible he had already given her enough clues to guess? If so, there was no point dragging it out any longer.

"I'm talking about Ladybug," he breathed, and it was like an iron claw releasing his chest, finally, finally, saying it out loud. "Ladybug," he said again, just for the sake of it. "I was Chat Noir, Alya. I was Chat Noir and I haven't seen Ladybug since the night we caught my father and I'm dying without her." He didn't know what to make of the wary expression Alya was giving him now so he just pressed on. "If you even believe me, then you'll understand now why my father's arrest hit me so hard. Because I was the one who caught him. And when I saw who it was that I'd caught, I just… I just left, Alya." His voice broke. "I was so caught off guard that I didn't know what to do, or how to react, or what to say. So I ran. I was always afraid that she'd leave me, but in the end, I was the one who left her.

"I know you've probably been wondering why we disappeared after my dad's arrest. It's because we destroyed our powers in the process of destroying his. I have no way to contact Ladybug without them. The second I realized what I'd done I went back to find her, but it was too late. She was already gone. And now I don't know who she is or where she lives and I've regretted that moment every hour of every day since it happened. I love her. I know this is a lot to take in and a lot to ask but I don't know who else to turn to for help. Since you were her biggest fan, I thought maybe, just maybe, you could help me look for her."

After he'd finished, they stared at each other for a long while. For the life of him he couldn't read the odd expression on her face, and he had to wonder if she even believed him, "Alya?" he finally nudged. "I know this is a lot to soak in all at once… But you'll help me, right?" Because he didn't think he would live through the disappointment of her turning down his plea.

"Chat Noir," she finally uttered, leaning on her hand on the table with an air of finality. "Well. I'll be damned."

"You believe me?"

Alya toyed with the spoon in her own untouched tea, eyeing him as if she'd never really seen him before. "After that display," she said incredulously, "I'd be an idiot not to."

The taste of anticipation he'd felt when he arrived blossomed into full blown excitement. "So you'll help me?"

Alya sighed and rose from her chair, hitting him again with that odd expression. What was that? Pity? Anger? Awe? "Honey, I'll do more than help you find her. It's your lucky day. I already know where she is."

He was hearing things. Alya did not just say that. His mouth flapped open and shut, his palms coming to rest flat on the table as the whole apartment swayed around him.

"Now don't get all worked up again," she said coyly. "I've only known for a month, and only because she came to me for the exact same reason you did. She's been waiting for you for a long time. I don't know if it's really my place to tell you this, but… she's been a total wreck without you."

"You're messing with me," he realized. She had to be. That was the only explanation. She didn't believe he was Chat so she was just messing with him to get back at him for ignoring everyone for the last few weeks. That was it.

But as soon as he said that, her coy expression disappeared, replaced quickly by a softer, more gentle demeanor that he'd ever seen Alya wear around anyone besides Marinette. She knelt in front of him, placing one hand on his knee.

"I'm not messing with you, Adrien. As shocked as I am-and don't mistake my calmness for apathy because I am shocked as all fuck right now-but I believe you. You know why? Because only the real Chat Noir could have told me the exact same unpublished story that Ladybug did. More to the point, I really do know who Ladybug is. In fact, I'm going to call her right now and get her to come over."

"Really?" he breathed, and his terrified elation must have shown on his face because Alya stood and ruffled up his hair to relieve some of the tension, like he was just some kid, rather than one of the heroes she'd relentlessly pursued for years.

"Really. Hang tight, okay? I'm gonna step out of the flat for a second to call her."

.

.

Marinette was helping her father put the latest batch of muffins into the oven when Alya called. She tucked her phone between her shoulder and her cheek so she could keep rolling dough while she talked. "Hi Alya! What's up? Lost the remote again?"

"Hey, Mar. Listen… Can you leave work early and come home?"

"Marinette, did you finish that dough yet?" Her father's voice echoed from the walk-in fridge where he'd gone to finish stocking the newly-delivered fresh ingredients. "I need you to grind the spices on the counter by the oven when you're done. I forgot to finish and the cookie dough is almost ready for them. Do you mind?"

"Yes papa! No problem!" She set the rolling pin down and wiped off her hands so she could grab her phone and hold it closer to her face. "Sorry Alya, we're kind of slammed. You know I have to treat this like a real job. Just because they're my parents doesn't mean I can skip out on work whenever I want. Why? Is something wrong?"

"Well…" Alya's voice dragged, and it was clear there was something she wanted to say. "Nothing's wrong, per say, but I need you to come home. Like, now. Like right now."

"Jeez, Alya, you're freaking me out a little. Will you just tell me what it is?"

"It's better if you come see for yourself. You know I wouldn't do this unless it was an absolute emergency. You can tell your parents I'm violently ill or something, I don't care, just come home, Marinette. Oh and… when you get here, DO NOT use your key. Repeat, do not use your key. Knock. I will answer the door."

On the subway, Marinette sat twiddling her thumbs together, trying not to look like she was on her way to identify a body. Her seat neighbor kept staring at her as her foot-tapping spiralled more and more out of control. By the time she got home she was in full-on crisis management mode. She almost forgot Alya's cryptic warning against using her key to the apartment, and withdrew it at the last second to knock. When she did, the door cracked open instantly.

But instead of letting her in, Alya squeezed out through the small crack into the hallway, shutting the door behind her.

"What the heck is going on?" Marinette hissed at her.

"Everything's fine," Alya said calmly, and her relaxed demeanor helped Marinette calm down a little bit. "But you might want to brace yourself for the news I'm about to lay on you. Marinette," she said carefully, "I found Chat Noir."

Marinette gaped at her.

"He came to me looking for help to find you. He's... how do I say this? He's a fucking disaster, Marinette. I wish he'd come to me months ago instead of waiting so long. Come to think of it, you two walking catastrophes should have come to me years ago."

"Wait," Marinette whispered. "Are you saying that Chat Noir is in our apartment as we speak?" Alya nodded excitedly. "But… b-but I… H-how do you know he's not one of the fakes?"

"Trust me on this," Alya swore. "This is the real deal. He told me the same story you did about defeating Hawkmoth. About how he ran afterward. About losing his powers and not being able to find you."

On the verge of tears (happy or sad or both, she had no idea) Marinette clutched her purse so tightly it was a wonder it wasn't crushed. If Tikki had been in there she would have suffocated. "Did he say why he did it?" she whispered, straining against the tears. "Why he ran from me?"

Alya's hands came to rest on her cheeks. "Oh, Marinette. He wasn't running from you that night. When you see him you'll understand. Now," she said perkily, switching gears like only Alya could. She patted Marinette's cheek once more and danced away. "I'm going to stay over at Nino's tonight to give you guys some time to talk and sort out this mess. There are condoms in the first drawer of my night stand-"

"Alya!"

"Do not look in the second drawer. I. Will. Know."

"Alya, for the love of-"

"And if it all works out," she interrupted yet again, "which it will, I'll consider letting him take over my half of the rent. Nino's been begging me to move in anyway," she teased. "The poor bastard hates living alone."

Marinette was so red she could feel the heat singing her cheeks. "Jeez, Al. You're really sure it's him, aren't you?"

For the briefest of moments, Alya paused her teasing to tap her fist playfully on Marinette's chin. "It's him. Now, go on. I think his heart might give out if we make him wait any longer."

"Thank you," Marinette blurted, and threw her arms around Alya before the girl could walk away. "I'm so glad I told you about… you know."

"Me too," Alya whispered into Marinette's hair. She gave her best friend one last squeeze before making her way to the stairs.

All that was left then was to push the door open and walk inside.

This is it, she thought. I thought I'd never see him again but I was wrong. He's right there, on the other side of this door.

The man who was Chat.

The man I love.

The door creaked open with all the squeaks and groans that came with a century old apartment building. She saw him almost right away, standing in the living room about twenty feet off with his back to her, facing one of the shuttered windows. Deja vu struck her so hard she felt dizzy and faint. This was how she'd seen him last, the moment his mask fell away and their enemy was struck down, except instead of turning toward her and learning who she was, he had left her forever. The door creaked to a close behind her, already forgotten. She swore she could see his cat ears perk toward the sound. But it was nothing more than memory. There were no cat ears. Not anymore.

.

.

Adrien was standing in tense silence when the door creaked open behind him.

Ladybug.

Every muscle in his body screamed out, telling him to turn, to shout to her, to do anything except stand there stock still. But his blood turned to ice and his heart stopped pumping. He couldn't move, even as he heard her crossing the room toward him, just as before in his father's observatory when he at last had his chance to learn who she was-when he ran instead.

.

.

"Minou?" she whispered, and touched his shoulder.

And this time, instead of running, he turned.


la fin


 

 

Chapter Text

By the time August came around, Adrien took the stairs everywhere, except when he was coming home. On his way home he hurried past the doorman with a polite wave en route to the elevator, too eager to bother with being healthy and too excited to accept that repeatedly jamming his thumb into the "4" button never made the trip upstairs any shorter. Today was no different.

"Hello Adrien," the doorman greeted, but Adrien had already zipped by. He turned around to wave back, jogging backwards into the waiting elevator where a woman and her son were holding the door for him.

"Hi George! Bye George!"

"Someone's birthday?" The mother inside the lift moved aside for him as he went to pick his floor, pulling her 3DS-captivated son out of the way as well.

Adrien shifted the grocery store 'Ladybug and Chat Noir' themed cake in his arms and beamed at the stranger. "Something like that."

When he pushed his front door open, it was to the earth-shattering sight of his one true love sitting in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded on all sides by piles of open books, deep in thought. But she wasn't so deep in thought that her head didn't immediately snap up at the sound of the door creaking open. Their hearts melted at the sight of each other. It had been four months now since they reunited, but the awe was as fresh every morning when they woke up as it had been that sacred night when they fell asleep in each other's arms for the second time.

.

.

"Ladybug?" he had whispered, and her name dripped like saffron and gold off his tongue. It was a beautiful truth but it hadn't been real until he said ituntil she heard it.

Only then was she there. Only then was he real. Torturous, blinding, perfect, and real.

The fire that erupted in her stomach when he said her name could have birthed a star. Her purse fell to the carpet with a dull thud and she threw herself into his arms in every conceivable way, material and emotional. Likewise he caught her like he should have way back in the observatory curling his arms around not only her body but also her soul, so that when he pulled her close and folded her into him it was as if to say: I am never letting go of you again.

.

.

"I'll come to you, don't get up," Adrien hummed, hanging his keys on the hook before zigzagging across the room to her through her veritable labyrinth of books. They'd become a somewhat permanent fixture over the last few months.

"What's that?" She picked up one of the smaller, less helpful texts and used it as a bookmark for the one she was currently perusing. Her question was answered when Adrien nudged aside a leaning tower of late library books and took a seat by her, plopping his cargo on top of her current object of study. "Oh," she sighed, a glimmer of sorrow shooting through her as she realized what the cake was and what it represented. But her spirits picked up when Adrien tugged her into a heartstopping 'hello' kiss. She sighed into it, throwing her arms around his neck, and before she knew it her tallest stack of books was falling over behind him.

She released him with a giggle and a "Whoops."

"I thought we should celebrate," he explained delicately, gesturing to the plastic-encased dessert. Honestly, he'd only stopped for coffee. The cake had happened on a whim. "I've done my mourning already, you know? Plagg always insisted on cake today. It was the only time he ever asked for it."

Marinette smiled at her cartoony likeness painted with frosting. Exactly four years ago today, she and Adrien had been gifted their miraculous stones. They'd been gifted Plagg, Tikki, and each other. "Tikki too," she smiled. "They sure were spoiled, weren't they?"

"Yeah," Adrien sighed. Yes he had his lady back, and yes the entire universe was brighter because of it, but even so, there were still two glaring black holes in his sky. He frowned at his own likeness on the cake; the gleaming green eyes and the lilting smile. One of those holes was beyond his control. The other… He took leave of Marinette for a minute to meander through the books to the kitchen for two forks, psyching himself up for what he was about to say to her. "So… listen," he said suddenly, handing her one. "I think maybe it's time I went and spoke with my father."

Marinette paused with her first bite halfway to her mouth (she'd dug Chat's frosting face straight out of the middle of the cake with a devious grin at his real life counterpart), then set it back down whence it came. "Yeah?"

He nodded once, queasily but with determination. "Yeah. I've put it off too long as it is, with the trial starting next week."

The tension in his shoulders and the set of his jaw worried her; his calm words were at complete odds with his body language. No matter how much time had passed, he had not healed from the damage done by and to his relationship with Gabriel. It was clear he wasn't going to ask her, so she brushed his hair lovingly away from his face and bit the bullet for him. "I'm going with you."

A crushing weight crumbled off his chest as he dragged his gaze upward. He hadn't admitted to himself how badly he wanted her to offer until she did, because he'd never have asked her for such a thing. Of course, he should have known she in turn would never let him go alone.

Because she loved him as intensely as he loved her.

.

.

"How can this be?" he had wondered aloud at some point during their frantic embrace, more at himself than at her. The musical sound of her voice could have been laughter or tears; he didn't know. Maybe both? "This is real…"

"It better be!" she scream-laughed, the words muffled in the fabric of his t-shirt, and he had to laugh too. At it all: the absurdity, the irony, the joke in the disaster. God, he loved her.

"Oh my god, you were talking about me," he realized with a start, suddenly recalling her confession on the night they made love. The thought was like a shot of firewhiskey on a sub-zero night. He pushed her to arm's length to stare into her eyes with more vulnerability than he'd let anyone see since before he lost her. "You were talking about me?" he repeated softly, and the haunted look on her face said things he'd only felt on his absolute darkest nights in her absence.

"Yes," she breathed, bringing one hand to his face and touching it as though he were nothing more than a ghost. "I've missed you so much, you silly cat. You have no idea."

Adrien let his inner Chat peak out, grinning at her ruefully as he brought her closer once more. "I'm pretty sure I do, little bug. I'm pretty sure I do."

.

.

"So, did you have any... luck?" he quipped automatically as he pushed the cake aside to glance at the book she'd been pouring over when he got home. With both of them starting school for the fall semester tomorrow, Marinette had been positively slaving away the last dregs of her summer in the temporary library-nest she'd made of their living room.

"Ha ha," Marinette quipped back with a lethal dose of sarcasm. Like she hadn't heard that one beforeㅡfrom him, every single day as he wondered after her progress.

After they'd reunited, her determination to figure out how to get her kwami back had quadrupled in fortitude. With Chat Noir there to cheer her on and help her, she felt she had a far greater chance than she'd ever had on her own. But after four long months they still had nothing to show for all her efforts. The books ranged from Greek myths all the way to Caribbean voodoo and from the unbelievably fake to the almost dangerously real. But no matter what they tried, no matter what crazy pseudo-magic mumbo jumbo spells they carried out, Plagg and Tikki were still gone. Half-burnt candles and odds and ends from hole-in-the-wall psychic shops littered their apartment, much to Nino and Alya's constant amusement, who were still in the stages of accepting the fact that their seemingly-gentle best friends had once been more.

"Okay but in total seriousness, bug, you've been reading since sunup," Adrien laughed, poking affectionately at her angry, wrinkled nose. "You had to have found something new. Anything."

Marinette tapped her fingers on the leatherbound cover of the book she'd been reading since she woke up. Considering the anniversary that today represented, was it naive of her to believe that something truly magical was written in the stars? Four years ago today she'd been shown that magic was real. It seemed only right, and natural even, in a very laws-of-physics kind of way, that the universe would choose today to teach her that lesson once more, in the very same point on Earth's path around the sun. Of course, she had eagerly said as much to Adrien that very morning, the second his sleepy eyes had blinked open.

.

.

"Anything you say, lovebug," he'd purred, cinching his arms around her waist as she tried to rise for coffee.

That had driven her into a pout. "Adrien, I was being serious," she complained.

The smirk had vanished off his face like she'd slapped him, and he tucked her hair behind her ear, sitting up in bed to look down at her fondly. "I know that," he said softly. "I was being serious too." And she remembered, then, a reckless black cat who had thrown himself off buildings without anything more to go on than her word that she would catch him before he hit the ground. It was that sort of blind, unwavering trust which had led her to fall for him in the first place. He cocked his head at her innocently when the intensity of the love bubbling up in her chest boiled over into her demeanor, softening her pout, until he couldn't take it anymore. "What?" he laughed.

"Nothing," she replied, a little breathlessly. "I just love you, that's all."

It took them longer to get out of bed than usual.

.

.

"I actually did find something while you were out," Marinette said carefully. She'd been reluctant to get her hopes up, and therefore kept on reading after she'd stumbled across it. But in reality, she had only been filling time until Adrien came home. She was so desperate to try it that it must have showed on her face.

"What?" Adrien pressed. "What is it? Let's try it! Crap, you should've have called me, I was just at the store and I could have bought whatever suppliesㅡ"

"No, no," Marinette interrupted, "we don't need anything from the store this time. No candles or anything like that."

Adrien lifted the front cover of her book eyeing the intricate inked images painted all along the title page. "That's okay," he said, frowning at the ancient stylized image. Was that a cat? And… a bug? "Where'd you get this book?" he wondered.

"One of the ones I bought at that book festival last week," she explained. "That one reeally short guy with the accent, you remember him?"

"Yeah," Adrien said immediately. How could he not? The stranger had grabbed him by the arm as they walked past on their way out of the fair, and asked if they had found what they were looking for. Marinette had informed him that no one at the festival was selling the kind of books she was searching for, and he had replied with a strangely evocative smile. Because what you are seeking is not a book at all, he'd said. Come. I have a book for you.

"This one is simple, really," Marinette explained, flipping through the text to her bookmarked page. "The thing that struck me was the way it described the results. Usually the 'spells' are all, do these things to get your deepest wish. Say these things and you'll be granted what you desire. Blah blah. But this one…" She found the passage she was looking for and cleared her throat. "For when the gods have severed their earthly tethers."

Adrien raised his eyebrows so high they almost disappeared beneath his bangs. "That's interesting."

"Yeah. It says all a person has to do to 'restore the tether' is to 'redirect the god's cosmic energy through the metaphysical, like lightning through a rod, until he or she has returned to the physical plane.'"

"Aaand you lost me," Adrien sighed. "Next."

"Wait," Marinette grumbled at him, though she knew he was joking by the smirk on his face at her tone. "I know it's one of the weirder things I've read, but I dunno. I just have a good feeling about this one. Is that so crazy?"

"Marinette, everything we've ever done together would have been deemed insane by most people's standards." He leaned back on his hands, dislocating a couple more books from their piles. "It's never stopped us before. Why start now? What does this book say we need to do to 'restore the tether,' or whatever?"

"Simple, in theory. We supposedly need only one ingredient to make it work."

"And what's that?"

Marinette pointed to the middle of the page, where sat a stylized drawing of a person with a sun bursting out of their chest. "Something that makes your heart beat," she read.

He wilted. "That's… not very specific."

"Yeah," Marinette said slowly, and he had the distinct feeling she was working up to something. "I thought so too at first. I've spent most of the time since you left trying to figure out exactly what that meant. Something that makes your heart beat. But then, it hit me." She eyed him shyly, then turned the page to reveal a flower. Adrien blinked at it, not understanding right away. It was small and blue and fresh and alive, having clearly been picked under an hour ago. The name struck at him unbidden, from a dangerous place deep in his memory well. Forget-me-not. "For the longest time, these flowers were all I had left of you," she said carefully, watching his reaction.

"I see." Understanding washed over him. "I'll be right back," he said quickly, then hurried away to their bedroom to find an item of his own.

It had been less than a minute when he returned, and Marinette clutched her flower to her chest, waiting with bated breath to see what Adrien had chosen. To see what made his heart beat. It was with considerate surprise that she realized he'd chosen a flower as wellㅡexcept his was clearly far older. It was dead; shriveled and dried and sealed in a corked glass vial. When he nudged her book aside with his foot to take the seat directly in front of her, he held up the little vial with both hands, as though terrified that it would vanish should he let it out of his sight.

"What now?" he wondered.

"I don't know." Marinette scooted closer until their knees were touching. The air seemed thick around them, and her tongue was heavy in her mouth. "That's all it says."

"...Right." He glanced from the lush flower in her hands to the dead one in his, and carefully pulled his from its glass vial, letting the vial roll away on the cluttered carpet.

"What is that?" Marinette asked quietly.

He had to fight himself to look up into her eyes. She's here, he reminded himself. She's real. She's never leaving again. "The day I gave you those flowers," he explained, "you picked one of them and put it in my hair." With a sad smile, he waved the glass vial, showing her what had happened to the flower she'd given him more than three years ago. "And for the longest time," he said, mirroring her words, "this was all I had left of you too." It was almost funny, he realized, how wonderfully their choices fit their respective kwamis. Hers a very symbol of life itself, and his a symbol of death.

"Oh, Chat," she sighed, moisture brimming in her eyes.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing at all," she insisted, and it was true. "Sometimes it just… hits me, again, all at once, that you're real and you're here and you're him."

Adrien could swore he felt yet another layer of his heart heal as she spoke. "I know exactly what you mean," he purred, and pulled her into his lap, pseudo-magic 'spell' be damned. They could try again tomorrow. She went gladly, even though she was far too big too truly fit. It didn't matter. He made room for her. Soon they were a mess of folded legs and arms, and her hasty, haphazard bun spilled out of it's hairpins as he nuzzled his face into it. "I was so sure my life was over when I realized you were gone," he murmured. "But the whole time, you were there. I pictured you watering my flowers so many times," he sighed, "late at night, when I couldn't sleep. But I had actually watched you water them and I didn't even know it. Plagg would have burst a blood vessel at the irony…"

"Even now, after all this time, I can hardly wrap my head around it," she sighed back. "The fact that you never went away. I missed you so badly for so long that sometimes I still wake up thinking you're gone for good, before I remember. Before I see you there next to me."

The admission broke him a little, because he knew the exact feeling she was describing. It still happened to him too. He took her by the cheek with his free hand and waited for him to look her in the eyes before replying. "But I will always be there," he told her firmly.

A watery smile broke over her face like the morning sun. "I know," she replied, and pulled him down into a kiss so gentle and sweet it might have looked like their first to an unwitting third party.

With them, every kiss was like a first kiss, because they knew with the same certainty that they knew the sun rose in the east that there would always be more.

Flash.

They both pulled back at once, blinking in confusion at the light that had shone briefly through their closed eyelids. They looked at each other first, then down. When in their hands something absolutely incredible was happening. Their flowers had collapsed, shrinking into two ethereal orbs, Marinette's a ball of blinding light and Adrien's a dark, ominous black. They were both frozen as they watched the orbs flicker and gain another centimeter of mass. When the tension broke and they flipped out, it was as one.

"Tikki?!" Marinette shrieked, almost dropping hers, while Adrien cradled his orb and yelled out, "Plagg?!"

They scrambled apart from each other, knocking books this way and that in their haste to get to their feet, to get some sort of hold on the situation. The orbs of light (and darkness) followed after their respective charges almost lazily, like fireflies, not really touching their hands but trailing after them in a way that made it clear they were aware, on some level, of Adrien and Marinette.

"What do we do?" Marinette screamed, tearing at her hair with the hand that her light wasn't doing circles around. It left her hand to make a lap around her waist.

"I don't know!" Adrien screamed back. His own patch of darkness seemed to be doing its best to frighten him. It kept plunging through his hand and coming out the backside, then around again. "You're the one who found the book!"

"That means nothing!" Marinette shrieked, her heart stopping as her little light faltered before coming back half as strong.

Adrien had seen this, and his own heart stopped as well. "Stones," he panicked. "Stones!"

Marinette was busy cradling her light and whispering reassurances to it and therefore she almost didn't hear him. "What?"

"The books said something about the physical plane, right? Tethers and godsㅡit was talking about the stones!"

Marinette ran to him, antsy and wriggling in place as he tried to capture his unruly speck of darkness. "But we never figured out how to recreate them," she cried.

"I am fairly sure we are figuring it out now?"

"Oh!" Marinette gasped, so loudly that Adrien jumped, causing his little speck to bob in place, almost like it was laughing. "I know! I know!" She sprinted to the kitchen, slipping on a book on her way and catching herself at the last second on the countertop before diving around the corner to rummage noisily through the junk drawer. "Aha!" Adrien stared at the sparkly items in her hand, not understanding. "Chloe left these here months ago," Marinette explained, almost jittering in place from the excitement. "Crystals, from the chandelier in Gabriel's office. From the night we… you know!" she blushed furiously.

A slaphappy grin took him over. "Perfect!" he exclaimed, and slipped on the exact same book on his hurry over to her.

"Was that supposed to be a pun?"

"Princess," he purred, "it's whatever you want it to be."

"I swear to god I'll kill you, you mangy cat, I don't care how handsome you are."

With a cackling, carefree laugh he accepted one of the crystals she was holding, and together they waited with bated breath for the surreal apparitions to find their way into the semi-translucent gemstones. With another brief flash of light, it was over. The crystals went dark once more, and the air seemed to lift around them. The hum of kitchen appliances and the AC filtered back into their senses.

"Is that it?"

Marinette frowned at the seemingly-normal crystal in her hand, dismayed at the perceived anti-climax. For a moment, she'd truly believed she was about to see Tikki again. Perhaps it wasn't that simple after all.

"Maybe they just need a little more time to recover their physical forms," Adrien suggested. "Hang on, I'll be right back." After a minute of digging around Marinette's sewing room (the bedroom which used to be Alya's) he reemerged with some leather cord, and carefully threaded it through the little holes where a chain had attached the crystals to the chandelier in his father's office, once upon a time. Adrien bit his lip to stay his laughter. He was sure there was some sort of lesson in there, somewhere, but for the life of him he didn't know what it was.

Marinette let him tie her new necklace around her neck, and then did the same for him, lingering when she was done. "We've waited this long," she sighed. "I suppose we can wait a little longer."

As it turned out, they didn't have to wait long at all. Luckily, there was even a bit of cake still leftover to celebrate. Marinette was sure there was some sort of lesson in there, somewhere, but for the life of her she didn't know what it was.

And, for once, she was fine not knowing.