He's never gotten this far before.
It's never been easy to get very far like this at all- his cat form is small, closer to a kitten than a full-grown cat, and whoever had laid the curse in the first place left him front declawed. He's always been almost more annoyed about that than he is about the curse's very existence. It's a lot more difficult to be a cat with only half his claws.
None of that is what really prevents him from running farther.
He doesn't actually mind the curse itself as much as anyone else might expect him to, so much as he minds his father's reactions to it. If he really found it as upsetting as everyone seems to think he should, he wouldn't keep sneaking out the way he does; the curse activates as soon as he steps off his family's property and doesn't release his cat form until a member of his family (so his father) cancels it. At some point he'd decided that whatever moments of freedom he could snatch were worth being a cat for them.
But the leash spell his father doesn't think he knows about- that, he does mind.
And this strange balcony on the other side of the river is as far as he's gotten without it activating.
He's considering that now, carefully hidden between two potted plants. He suspects the spell is on him all the time, even when he's not transformed, but as far as he can tell the tracking component has to be activated manually. If they don't know yet that he isn't in his room, they won't have activated it.
For so long he didn't know how they always found him. He knew there was a different smell to the magic around him when he changed, but he's cursed, he always stinks of magic. The leash spells are designed for wayward pets, he hadn't thought to look for them for- months, probably. Even transformed, he's still technically human. When he did finally check for them he hadn't been expecting to actually find any. He might be a cat more often than he'd like but he isn't a pet.
(Even if he feels like it sometimes).
He takes a step further onto the balcony, testing and cautious. He feels the arcane leash tug at his neck and stops, hesitant to push it farther; he doesn't know what happens if he fights the spell outright. At the very least it's likely to bring his father down on him like a ton of bricks.
But now he's sure. This is farther than he could go last time. Maybe he can't break the spell, but it looks like he can at least try to wear it down. It won't do more than buy him time today but maybe eventually he can wear all the way through.
He takes another slow step. The spell tugs again, but not strongly, so he takes another.
And another, but that one feels like he's pushing it; he turns sideways instead, intending to stalk along the edges of his range as long as he can, before someone comes after him.
(They always come after him).
He takes a few more steps, wobbly with the effort of brushing up against the limits of such a tightly-cast spell. For all his other failings his father is an unfortunately competent spellcaster.
Five minutes later he finds himself pitching forwards, tail over paws, as the spell abruptly snaps.
He doesn't know what happens. One minute he's struggling against the spell's restraints, the next he's tripping on his own momentum as the leash is suddenly gone, as he tastes freedom for the first time in- in ever, probably.
Adrien doesn't stop long enough to think about where he's going or why. He just bolts.
"Are you sure it's all right for me to be here?" Alya asks worriedly, drawing up their knees where they’re sitting on the chaise lounge and keeping well away from Marinette's work area.
"I'm sure," Marinette assures them, rearranging a candle and sitting back on her heels to observe her working circle. "This is the last spell Tikki wants me to master, and she said the only one who could interfere with it is Plagg. He's not here right now so we should be fine."
Alya wrinkles their nose. "Why Plagg?"
Marinette hesitates. What Plagg is really isn't anyone's business but his own, but it does feel strange that she and Nino know and Alya doesn't. "I'll... ask if I can tell you later. It's not mine to tell." She doesn't think that Plagg will care, but it's still better to ask. He'll be back tonight, anyway.
"Okay, I can accept that," Alya says grudgingly, leaning forwards and propping their head on one hand. "So can you tell me what exactly it is you're doing here? This is Tikki's Master spell, right?"
Marinette beams. "Yes! If I can prove to her that I can cast it correctly, I move up to Master status."
Alya snorts. "Witch ranks."
"Oh, like Illusionists don't have ranks," Marinette teases them.
"Sensibly numbered ones, yes," Alya says dryly. Alya's actually the third ranked Illusionist in the city. They're only ranked lower than their own teacher and someone who goes by Lila that no one seems to have ever actually met, although with an Illusionist that can be difficult to determine. Even Alya will occasionally change their appearance on a whim. Alya's also earned the right to be a little flippant about ranks. "So what does this spell of yours do?"
"Technically it's still Tikki's spell, I'm just casting it," Marinette corrects, lighting the candles with a wave of both hands. "She calls it Miracle, it's supposed to spread good luck and healing. Tikki's version is really strong, though; I don't have to match hers, just cast correctly. I don't have her range but it should boost the luck of anyone in the arrondissement. Her version can also break certain spells if they were cast with ill-intent, but I don't think I have that kind of power."
"Ohh." Alya's eyes light up. "So I'm about to get a luck boost, huh? Think it'll bring Nino back sooner?"
"Alya, he comes back in a week," Marinette says, laughing. "He's not even far from here, you can literally get on a train to where he's staying."
"Yeah but he's working," Alya says, whining playfully. "He won't have time for me."
"Well if you'll let me cast, you can see if he does come back early," Marinette says, and Alya stops talking, hugging their knees and watching intently. "I can tell you that's part of why Plagg can't be here, though. He's- what he is tends to siphon luck."
Alya blinks. "And he wanted Tikki for a witch? When luck's like, her whole thing?"
Marinette shrugs. "I guess it's different if he's acting as your familiar? I know they make each other stronger somehow." She turns her attention back towards her circle. After a moment of thoughtful hesitation, she does palm the last piece of the spell into the center of the circle after all, out of Alya's sight.
Some witches are flashy. When she'd first apprenticed to Tikki, Marinette had kind of expected that she would be, too; like Marinette, Tikki's actual domains are luck and creation, some of the most difficult to practice.
But the circles Tikki prefers and passed down to her student tend towards the simple. Marinette has a different element represented in each quarter- incense for the wind, a shallow dish of rainwater for water, a candle for the flame, another shallow dish of dirt for earth. Marinette's opted to place extra candles between the quarters and in the center, but that's not strictly required. She just thought that with the difference between her abilities and Tikki's it couldn't hurt.
Marinette takes a deep breath and starts to chant, quietly. The words matter less than the personal meaning they hold for her does, which was probably the part of Tikki's teaching that took longest for Marinette to accept. It wasn't really until the older witch suggested trying song lyrics that it had clicked for her.
It's more singing than chanting, understandably, but Marinette loses herself in enthusiasm quickly. "I remember the fight and I forget the pain, got my hand in your pocket and my key in your chain, am I the king of nothing at all? And you're the queen of nothing at all-"
She hears Alya snort and start giggling, but it's been a long time since Marinette cared whether her castings sounded silly to anyone else. She's not sure if it's the spell itself or just the working of it but she can feel her spirits lifting already.
"Cross my heart and hope to die, taking this one step at a time, I got your back if you got mine, one foot in front of the other," Marinette continues singing, giddy with the rising spellwork, and she finds herself laughing when all the candles blow out at once in a sudden impossible gust of wind.
"It worked, I take it?" Alya asks with some amusement.
"It felt like it," Marinette confirms, flopping over backwards, carefully away from her spell components. "Now we wait and see if there are any observable effects."
"Well." Alya smooths down their pants and hops up off the chaise lounge. "While we're waiting on that, do you want to go get dinner?"
"I mean, it can take days, Alya. But yeah, as soon as we have everything put away, let's go out to celebrate," Marinette says, grinning. "It really felt like it worked."
He's not very good at being a cat.
He knows it was stupid to expect he would be. He's not really a cat at all and he's only spent stolen snatches of time in this form before, but somehow he'd thought it would be easier. He'd thought that he'd pick it up as he went along, maybe.
That absolutely does not happen.
He's a terrible hunter. He trips over his own paws and he keeps trying to use claws he doesn't have (he hates that he's front declawed. At least he has back claws, but he's not any good with them). The one time he does manage to catch a scrawny, sickly-looking rat he has to abandon it when an older, battle-scarred tom challenges him for it.
His third night of freedom it starts to rain. He finds a box in an alley and slinks into it, desperate for some level of protection from the storm, and unhappily considers his options.
He could go back. He'd be in more trouble than he's ever been in his life, and they'll likely move him to one of the totally indoor rooms and bar him from the gardens entirely, but he could go back and be warm and safe and fed and- trapped. He could be trapped.
The last time Nathalie caught him anywhere near this far out she let him wake up in his cat carrier. She said she hoped it would make an impression on him. His father hadn't had time in his schedule to cancel the curse for hours, and his carrier's not large, it's really only meant for transport. (It's really only meant for an actual cat but that's not a fight he can win).
He's not going back. He's not letting them catch him again.
He is wet and cold and miserable, though, and he rests his head on his paws with a sigh. He can sleep here, it's no worse than anywhere else right now, and maybe in the morning he can find a cat colony that's a little more welcoming.
Or he can look for a witch that can break his curse altogether.
He sits up again at that thought, suddenly excited. He's never thought of finding a witch before. He couldn't have, he's only ever out of the house in this form, and then never long enough to meet anyone even if he could talk to them.
But he has all the time in the world now. He can start looking for someone sympathetic. He can figure out how to communicate.
Plan made, he settles back into the box for the night.
He barely manages any sleep at all before being rudely awakened.
There's a much, much larger cat looming over him, looking down with considering green eyes, and Adrien backs up before he can help it, bumping into the back of the box and hissing. The other cat is just as midnight black as he is, outlined in a flash of lightning that makes Adrien cower in spite of himself.
"Huh," the other cat says, and Adrien freezes up, because other cats don't usually talk to him. "So it's like that, huh? I should take you home," he glances at Adrien's neck in a way that suggests he can see the remnants of the leash spell, which, as far as Adrien knows, is not a thing that cats can do, and then huffs and hunches forward. "But I think I have a better idea."
He shouldn't have crawled into the box for the night; it only means he has nowhere to retreat to when the older tom lunges for him.
The bigger cat doesn't actually attack him, though. Instead he grabs Adrien by the scruff and takes off.
It's not comfortable. Adrien's not a large cat, and the stranger is, and on top of that being scruffed is never comfortable. Being carried by the scruff is even worse, and he doesn't want to say anything, because if there's any chance at all that he can still pass for a normal cat he's going to take it.
The other cat likes to jump and run and Adrien is jostled every time, twisting around and mewling piteously as he becomes more and more afraid that the strange cat is just going to drop him somewhere.
He jumps them all the way up to a balcony, one that Adrien recognises with a start as the one he'd still been near three nights ago when the leash spell snapped, and then the bigger cat starts scratching at the window. (He has all his claws. Adrien's jealous).
The girl that opens it looks his age. She looks like she's only just woken up, even though she answers the scratching within minutes; she's wearing a ratty t-shirt and pajama pants. Yawning, she says, "Plagg? It's late, why are you- oh."
The older cat- Plagg, apparently- jumps to the ground and finally, finally sets Adrien down, only to trap him between his front paws immediately when Adrien tries to run.
"Plagg," the girl says, distressed, as she kneels down closer to them. "This is a little different than bringing me birds, you know. This little guy probably has a home somewhere- huh." She must see something, because she looks at Adrien and blinks. "That's- I know you can see that, Plagg. If I can see it you probably noticed a while ago." She hesitates. "And- you brought him here. Tikki's still out of town?"
Adrien can't turn around to see the other cat, Plagg won't let him, but he's pretty sure Plagg nods. He is definitely not a normal cat.
(Like he's one to talk).
"All right," the girl says slowly. "I'll- Nino's not back yet, I'll call Alya. Stay there."
Adrien does not want to stay there. Adrien does not seem to have a choice, because even though Plagg's set him down he's still standing half over Adrien, like he's guarding him.
The girl's not gone long, anyway, only long enough to fetch something- it takes Adrien longer than he'd like to recognise a cell phone. He hasn't seen one in years. The girl dials, then glances over at Adrien and Plagg strangely and starts to adjust the volume on the phone.
When the voice that answers is clearly audible, Adrien's shocked to realise she seems to have done it so that they can hear both sides of the conversation, too.
"Alya speaking," a drowsy voice comes through.
"Alya? It's Marinette." She pauses, staring at both cats again with a troubled expression. "Listen, is there any chance Nino actually is going to be back early?"
On the other end of the phone, Alya yawns. "He's your brother, shouldn't you be keeping track of him?"
"Alya, come on," Marinette says. "Papa and Maman are still out of town. I know he always goes to your place first, he is really bad at hiding it."
"Yeah, actually, he should be in tomorrow," Alya admits. "First bit of that luck I was promised that I've actually had, but hey, it's Nino, seems worth it. Why, everything okay?"
"I'm- not sure." Marinette shifts her weight, seems to realise something, and sits down on the floor again. Adrien appreciates that; the way Plagg is looming over him is bad enough. Plagg is huge. "There's a cat here with a snapped leash spell."
Adrien stiffens and tries to back up. He can't, he runs into Plagg immediately and the bigger cat still doesn't seem willing to let him go anywhere, but he tries as he feels his tail bush out and his back arch.
Marinette's eyes darken.
"So bring him home, then," Alya's saying, exasperated. "At, you know, a normal, sane time in the morning. Even if you can't trace a broken spell, Plagg or Tikki should be able to, right?"
"That's just it, though. Plagg brought him here," Marinette says. "I know Plagg can see broken spells, but he brought him here, and Alya, this cat just reacted when I mentioned the spell, and not in a good way. I think we need Nino. You know, specifically."
"Okay," Alya says after a pause. "Okay, yeah. We'll both be over as soon as we can tomorrow. Sound good?"
"Yeah. Thanks, Alya. You're the best," Marinette says, slumping with what looks like relief. "See you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, girl. Try to get some sleep." Alya hangs up, and Marinette does the same a moment later.
Then she goes back to studying Adrien.
Adrien doesn't like that. He tries to back away again, and this time Plagg lets him, but when he tries to jump for the window Plagg swats him back down.
"Plagg," Marinette says hastily, reaching for Adrien herself, but then seeming to think better of it. "That wasn't nice."
Plagg meows smugly, then swats Adrien again just when he's righted himself.
This time he goes tumbling into Marinette's leg. She stays very still, one hand extended as though to offer help, but not actually touching him. When Adrien does get himself reoriented he decides to stay closer to her- Plagg clearly isn't about to let him leave the way he came, and Marinette doesn't keep swatting him.
Why couldn't his cat self be larger?
"Hey, kitty," Marinette says softly, her hand hovering just above his back, but making no move towards him. "Is it alright if I pet you, or is that too much?"
Adrien shrinks back and she lets her hand drop.
"Okay, too much, then," she says. "I'm sure you heard me but I'm Marinette, and the older gentleman who brought you here is Plagg."
Plagg scoffs. "Flatterer."
"Would you mind staying the night, kitty?" Marinette asks politely, then frowns. "I don't think I should just keep calling you kitty, it doesn't feel right. But I don't know your name." She considers it, then asks thoughtfully, "Is it all right if I just call you Chat Noir for now?"
Slowly, Adrien nods.
Marinette startles backwards.
Over by the window, Plagg breaks into cackling laughter. "She still thought you were a cat, kid!"
"I am a-" Adrien flinches.
Plagg snickers. "Sure, sure. But that's not all you are, is it?" He settles down in front of the window and starts washing a front paw. "Calm down, kid, you're a lot safer here than you were out on the street like that."
"You won't let me leave!" Adrien snaps, nettled. He feels trapped and he hates it.
"Kid." Plagg sets his paw back down deliberately and turns to look directly into Adrien's eyes. "Broken spells can be tracked. Especially leashes, they're practically designed for it. You don't look willing to go back to whoever leashed you in the first place and this kid is a witch of creation. She can take that spell off entirely."
Adrien stares at him.
Plagg doesn't have eyebrows, but Adrien gets the sense that he's raising one anyway.
Then Adrien whips around to put his front paws on Marinette's knee, meowing frantically. "Take it off, take it off please, it's been three days, they're looking by now-” They can't find him. They can't find him, not now, not when he's never been loose this long before or gotten this far. Forget the carrier, forget an indoor room, by now Nathalie's probably made good on her old threat to buy an actual cage. They can't find him.
"Kid," Plagg sighs, then jumps down from the windowsill and strolls over. "She can't understand you."
"But-" Adrien tries, helplessly. "But she was talking to me like-"
"Yeah, creation witches are like that." With no warning, Plagg reaches over and puts one paw on the back of Adrien's neck, pressing down with enough force that Adrien squeaks.
"Oh," Marinette says gently. "You want it off?"
"Ye-es," Adrien cries, struggling out from under Plagg enough to nod vigorously.
Marinette laughs, but not unkindly. "Come here, then, Chat Noir, and let me take a better look at it. Normally I'd ask a couple more times if you were sure, but that sounded like pretty enthusiastic consent to me. Wouldn't you say, Plagg?"
Plagg is irritatingly good at making a meow sound smug.
Adrien doesn't care, scrambling away from him and right into Marinette's lap, suddenly not shy at all if it means she can get rid of any spell remnants still on him. He didn't even know it was possible to track broken spells or he would have still been running.
"Whoa, all right, kitty," she says, laughing again. "I have to touch you for this, do I have your permission?"
He headbutts her hand in answer.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," she says, and starts petting him carefully.
He wasn't- he wasn't actually prepared for that.
He doesn't get a lot of physical contact, not really. His father and his staff aren't big on it, and when he's let out to model it's either in the mansion or the gardens by necessity, meaning that no one wants to risk looking like they're even thinking of putting their hands on him when his father is right there.
He didn't know what he was missing.
He's never known that he could purr.