Lonesome Briar's breathless screams and hacking coughs were unnerving to Ladybug, dodging the thorny vines that lashed out at her, heart thundering in her ears. She'd already caught one across her cheek earlier on, just beneath the protective curve of her mask, but she hadn't realized she was bleeding until she'd felt it drip from her chin.
"Chat!" A sharp note of anxiety had crept into her voice as she snatched her bandalore back to her hand, only to release it again and send it spinning. The battle had lasted over an hour already, and she'd lost sight of the wild streak of gold and black in her haste to lead the akuma away from crowds. The vines weren't their primary weapon, though they used them when she and Chat were out of reach, retracting beneath the victim's loose garb when not in use. Mostly they seemed to be used to bind people, even if she hadn't gotten close enough to see what happened when she was within the villain's reach. The hooded coat they wore was bursting at the cuffs and collar with deep red blossoms, their face half obscured by the petals as they ducked their chin. Watching them warily as her ears strained for her partner's voice, Ladybug finally noticed how the victim had to strain to catch their breath, wheezing softly as more flowers budded around their face.
"At your service, my Lady!" Metal-toed boots touched down on the roof at her side as the anticipated reply finally came. Chat Noir slid across the roof tiles before he braced himself with his hands to bring himself to a proper stop. Relief flooded her as she leaned towards him, his tail whipping with the same sort of nervous energy that thrummed through her and made her grip her bandalore’s string tighter as she spun it at her side. Brows pinched, his ears flicked towards their opponent, and the thoughtful sound he made sounded more like a growl than anything else. "I still can't find where the akuma is hiding in that tangle of weeds. Have you had any luck?"
The concerned glance he cast her way made her stomach twist uncomfortably, and she had to look away, worry creasing her forehead as she took in the sad sight below her. Lonesome Briar staggered, wracked with another fit of dry, labored coughing and leaving a path of petals behind them. She could barely make out the victim's face through the encroaching flowers, though she could easily see bluish shadows around their mouth and a thick sheen of sweat on the rare patches of exposed skin. They sounded like they needed to be in the hospital, not out screaming at people for their Miraculouses.
"No, minou. I haven't been able to think of anything." Crouching beside her partner, she snapped her yo-yo back into her hand, making herself a smaller target as she watched Briar waver on their feet. "Did...did you hear what they were saying earlier? I only heard them shouting at you for your Miraculous." She'd been out shopping with Alya, laughing about the latest stories of Nino's attempts to surprise Alya with romantic gestures. Her best friend had been in the middle of a vivid tale involving multi-tiered pillow forts when her phone had let out the siren for an akuma alert, and Marinette hardly had enough time to tell her to be careful before Alya had taken off at a dead run.
Marinette had been halfway across Paris from the first outbreaks, arriving just in time to see people watching in horror as others began to cough. The coughing fits didn't seem too bad so she'd hardly thought anything of it at the time, and Lonesome Briar had only begun to actively attack once Chat Noir and Ladybug had arrived. It was probably a reaction to the pollen Briar was letting off from the thick clusters of blossoms that clogged their outfit, which was why she and Chat had kept to the rooftops. Briar was slow outside of combat, prone to stumbling and sighing, as if each step took considerable effort and all they wanted to do was collapse in a heap. As it was, Ladybug found herself wanting to take the villain to a clinic rather than fight them, but she knew for a fact that the best way to help would be to find their akuma and cleanse the dark energies within it.
"Something about love..." Chat's scowl deepened as he muttered quietly, eyes trained on their opponent as one hand drifted to his chin. Claws tapped his jaw as he wracked his memory, tip of his tail lashing as his expression grew more pinched. While he thought, his voice went soft, mulling over the breathy shouts and threats that Briar had spewed at him before his Lady's arrival. "What was it, again? 'Nothing's more painful than a love not shared or returned, and if I have to suffer, then so do you.' Or something like that, at the very least. Half the time I could barely make out what they were saying because it's so hard to understand them around a mouthful of petals."
"Well, it certainly explains the 'Lonesome' part of their name, but not the flowers." Ladybug sighed, gesturing at the fallen petals and dropped flowers that had been knocked free during the fight. She’d been so busy scanning the street and the hunched figure in the road that she hardly noticed when Chat’s body stiffened beside her. It wasn't until his hand had gripped her shoulder that she stopped to look at him again.
"Chat?" Her voice softened, a flicker of worry making it waver in spite of herself. Chat didn't look at her, staring at the stumbling figure below them with an alarming intensity, his pupils narrowed to slits.
"My Lady, I think I might know what their power actually does, but we'll still need to find the akuma. If I'm right," his words trailed off for a moment, and he wet his lips, ears folding flat to his scalp as an anxious rumble rose in him. "If I'm right, we'll need to keep clear of the pollen."
"Okay?" Watching him for a moment, she turned back to Lonesome Briar. "I'd planned on doing that in the first place, but why? What did you think of?" She really hoped he was on to something, as off the wall as his flirty and lighthearted personality could be at times, she knew he had an unbelievably sharp mind under all the fluff and jokes. Rather, he'd need one to make half the puns he did on the fly, mastering wordplay and improvisation didn't usually come so easily that someone could snap off a witty retort in the heat of battle just to keep his partner's spirits up or distract their opponents.
"Now, this is probably going to sound ridiculous, but hear me out." He murmured, keeping an eye on the victim that wandered listlessly while he continued. "So there's stories about this disease, right? It's all from comics and online short stories and things like that." His words were coming out in a rush, as if he was worried she'd tell him it was ridiculous, but she only frowned harder, glancing between him and the victim.
"Well, it...it wouldn't be the first time something fictional's been made real because of Papillon." Ladybug mumbled halfheartedly, she knew she didn't sound convinced yet, but she motioned for him to continue, noting the way he watched her face. Whatever this was, it was making him nervous, and that wasn't reassuring at all. Without even thinking, her hand settled on his shoulder blade, his warmth reaching her even through both of their suits, and she took comfort in it and his solid presence. As if sensing her worry, his tail curled around her in response, though Chat himself was still focused on explaining.
"It's most definitely not a good thing, my Lady. If Lonesome Briar's been coughing up petals and whole flowers this entire time like I think they have, then all those people that started coughing after the attacks are going to be in a lot of trouble if we don't stop Briar. It takes root in the lungs, where they start with small coughs that have them spitting up flower petals." Chat had to pause as Ladybug flinched, her look of alarm was enough to have him reach for her. The weight of his hand on her upper arm and the gentle squeeze and smile it came with were enough to settle her for the moment. She bowed her head as she tried to wrap her mind around this new information, taking a deep breath to settle herself she nodded, he continued. "The sick person ends up coughing up whole flowers in the end, and it can kill people if it gets too bad." With that, he went quiet again, ears twitching as he seemed torn about something, fidgeting with his free hand.
"There's more, isn't there?" Ladybug wasn't sure she wanted to hear it, not from the pained look that was tugging at the corners of his mouth and baring his fangs in distaste.
"Yeah." He was quiet, the nervous energy that edged his voice fading to a simmer. "Did you notice how only a few people caught it, my Lady?" She nodded, and the look in his eyes when he finally met her gaze again twisted her gut.
"The only way to catch the disease is if you have an unrequited love." It was as if he'd dropped a stone straight into her stomach from the top of the Eiffel Tower, the cold weight of it making her sag beneath the strain. "And the only way to cure it, is to get that person to love you back." Surely the haunted look in his eyes wasn't really there. Maybe she was seeing things. But there was no mistaking dread crawled up her spine with icy fingers, slithering around her throat to steal the air right from her lungs as she turned to stare down at Lonesome Briar with open horror.
"Then-then we'd better, ah, we'd better be careful. S-so we can keep it from happening to anyone else!" The last words came out in a shrill rush, her smile too tight and showing too many teeth as alarm screamed through her and made her heart beat heavily against her chest.
"Y-yeah." It was good that he was looking down at Lonesome Briar, Ladybug couldn't imagine trying to explain to him why she was suddenly in the deep grip of panic.
"But, you know, it could be something else entirely, right?" She grasped onto that hope like a drowning girl, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "You said it yourself that you weren't entirely sure that's what their power is, so maybe we'll get lucky."
He met her gaze with a soft huff, a lopsided smile spreading across his face even if it didn't have his usual playful energy. "Here's hoping!"
Seeing his smile made hers soften from a manic grimace, growing more natural as it took the edge off the clamoring anxiety that had begun to sink its hooks into her chest. With him, the fights were always so much easier, and her mind wandered for a moment only to be startled back to the present when his thumb brushed her cheek. Blinking owlishly, Ladybug took in his worried frown and then pulled back enough to see the dark sheen of fresh blood smeared on his glove. Surprise flickered in her eyes, she’d almost forgotten she’d been cut.
"My Lady, I know red is your color, but there are limits." His quiet words earned him a huff, as well as her playfully shoving him and getting a quiet laugh for her efforts.
"Come on, kitty, we've got a rose bush to prune." Her chuckles were still nervous, but she slipped her bandalore into her hand, the subtle whirring as she spun it helping calm her.
"After you, Ladybug!" He was on his feet in one smooth motion, though he met her gaze one last time. "Remember, try to avoid the pollen. Hopefully that's the only way it spreads." She gave him one sharp nod, then leaped off the edge of the roof, her bandalore's wire singing as it arced from her hand, and the color of the sky and ground blurred together for a moment as she sailed towards her target feet first.
For a moment she'd forgotten that Lonesome Briar wasn't nearly as slow as they looked when they felt threatened.
A wail echoed up the walls of the buildings around them as she found her ankles ensnared in vines and flowers, ripping her free of her tether line and flinging her straight at Chat. They met with a bone-jarring thud as she knocked him out of the air, his baton clattering across the asphalt while they tumbled to the ground in a heap of limbs. Somehow Chat had managed to wrap his arms around her, tucking both their heads down to keep them safe as they tumbled across the cobblestones. With no time for thanks as Briar charged them, Chat sprung to his feet while Ladybug's eyes darted across what was visible of the actual victim. If they were turned because of an unrequited crush, then...then what? All she could see were vines and flowers that crowded what little bare skin was visible, her bandalore shielding her from more battering strikes as the force of its spin left a pink glow in its wake. It wasn't enough, but it gave her more time to think as she wove around Chat and his claws. Together they carved a path through Briar's walls of vines to get him safely to his baton.
The more they danced just out of Briar's reach, the more energy Lonesome Briar had to put into their attacks, and Ladybug could have cheered when she saw that Briar was slowing. There was only so much this villain could do before their energy faded, she noticed, as the greyish tinge to their skin and the sweat on their face only grew worse with every strike. Soon they were grunting with effort, audibly wheezing, and she rushed forward just as Briar staggered, fully intending to stun them to give her and Chat time to find where the akuma was hidden. It was only too late when she heard Chat's desperate shout, his words sounding distant with her focus entirely on the way Briar's shoulders trembled from concerted effort.
"Ladybug, NO!" Claws reached for her, but closed on air as he tried to pull her back in time, and Lonesome Briar let out the most horrific barking cough she'd ever heard in her life. As if they were desperately trying to breathe, to force something unforgivingly sharp from their lungs.
Petals exploded in her face, vibrant red and wet, the weight of flowers striking her head and shoulders almost unnoticed as she belatedly threw a hand up to shield her eyes. For a moment she had a perfect view of Lonesome Briar's face, their eyes red and wet with unshed tears and mouth glistening from coughing, sweat-soaked and puffy-eyed from tears and a desperate need to breathe. The empty, desolate expression of someone drowning in their own feelings, cut off from everyone. What was worse was the flicker of recognition, their gaze sharpening and brows furrowing as they gripped her by the shoulders, petals fluttering from their lips as they held her in that fathomless despair.
"You." Their words rasped around the petals, a tiny bud pushing past their teeth and blooming right before her eyes. "You understand, don't you? I can tell." A heartbroken laugh wheezed out of them, and Ladybug felt numb as she was tugged from their grip. Lonesome Briar only stood there and laughed their wheezing, desperate laugh. Tears welling up in their eyes and bubbling through the mirthless and hollow laughter, petals spewing from them in gusts until the laughter became coughs, and Ladybug felt a sympathetic itch behind her sternum as Chat dragged her away.
The last she saw of Lonesome Briar that day was their body sinking to the ground, wracked with sobs and coughs, surrounded by an ocean of wet, red petals.
The rooftops whipped past them as Chat clutched her close, her mind still reeling from the look in Briar's eyes. She couldn't think, couldn't bring herself to grab her yo-yo and help, only stare blankly as Chat set her down on a distant roof, away from the villain before gripping her face in his hands.
"What were you thinking?" He sounded furious, and she swallowed around the itch in her throat, tearing her gaze away from the skyline to meet his eyes. There was a wetness at the corners of his eyes, weighing down his pale eyelashes, and Ladybug found that her words failed her. Mouth opening and closing, all she could do was shrug and shake her head when her voice failed her. Chat's shoulders sagged as he pulled her close to tuck her head against him and stroke her hair. "Ladybug, I told you not to get close." His voice was strained with worry, and even the feel of his claws combing through her hair didn't help the heavy feeling in her chest. After a moment, she felt his cheek against the top of her head and he let out a sigh, an unhappy grumble rolling out of him from somewhere deep in his chest.
"I'm sorry." Her voice sounded so small and distant, her lower lip caught in her teeth as she chewed at it before she continued. "I just...I thought I could maybe knock them out so we could search them for their akuma." A faint rasping crept into her voice as the itch in her chest grew, and clearing her throat didn't seem to help. Swallowing thickly, her arms felt sluggish as she wrapped them around Chat in return, soaking up his warmth like a sponge.
"Out of all your grand schemes, I'm afraid that might have been one of your worst, my Llady." His hand continued to stroke her hair as he shook his head. "Although not nearly as bad as you leaping into a tyrannosaurus’ mouth, and I only forgive you for that because that plan actually worked."
"Chat, that was one time." At least when she was groaning in exasperation she didn't feel the weird crawling sensation, even if the relief was very brief.
"Once was enough to shave off a life or two out of my nine." Chat let out a weak, mirthless chuckle even as he hugged her tighter. "I'm the one that's supposed to throw myself face-first into danger, not you." It was meant to be lighthearted and teasing, but from the way his hands tensed around her, she couldn't help but feel it was more truth than not. Another painful itch, tickling along her rib cage from the inside, and she struggled to keep it in. After worrying him so much already, the last thing she wanted to do was upset him even more.
Even if the persistence of the itch that was creeping up her throat was alarming. Had he heard what Lonesome Briar said to her? The itch in her chest had to be a coincidence, right? Yet, even as she considered it, Ladybug had a sinking suspicion that it was exactly what she hoped it wouldn't be.