Something was off, she could see it. Adrien hadn't come to school for nearly a month, barely contacting Nino let alone anyone else. When he had come back his ever-present smile was nowhere to be seen. He still made an effort to appear normal for his friends but the cracks in his armor were showing.
It wasn't until fencing practice that she realized how serious the problem was. While she won about half of their matches he always made her work for it. The last time she'd beaten him this easily was-
His foil fell to the floor. He stood shaking in front of her, his breaths coming in ragged gasps.
"Agreste!" D'Argentcourt barked out, clearly displeased with his performance.
Adrien bolted for the locker room, ignoring his teacher's calls. Kagami raced after him.
The door slammed open as Adrien ripped off his mask and gloves. She saw him sag against the wall gasping for air.
Kagami knelt beside him as she grabbed his shoulder, "Adrien."
He flinched, ". . . Can't . . . breathe."
"Focus on me, drown everything else out." Kagami sounded much calmer than she felt considering she had no idea what she was doing. "Copy me. Listen to my rhythm." She felt him trembling as she slowly started inhaling and exhaling.
In . . . out.
In . . .
Eventually Adrien's breathing evened out and she removed her hand. He was crying. She hadn't noticed when he started. "Adrien. What happened?"
". . . I . . . I lost." His voice broke. "I lost P-" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "I can't win."
Kagami felt a great empathy for him in that moment even as his meaning was lost on her "We all lose sometimes." No matter what her mother said.
"I lose all the time!" He looked up at her with red-rimmed, watery eyes. "Even when it matters most! She was counting on me! She was c-count-ing o-on m-m-me. And I let her down. I l-let them all down . . ." Adrien hung his head and wrapped his arms around his legs as the sobs he'd been holding back racked his body.
Such raw emotion left Kagami at a loss, so she simply pulled him into a hug. She felt every cry, every breath. A fencing teammate may have opened the door and seen them on the floor, she couldn't be sure. It didn't matter as long as everyone stayed away until Adrien got it together.
Once he'd quieted down Adrien sat up, wiping at his moist face, "I'm sorry . . . I- I shouldn't . . ." He didn't finish the thought.
"Don't apologize, you have nothing to be sorry for. I'm here, I'll listen."
Adrien looked at her in surprise . . . and gratitude. "Thank you. Kagami." He took a steadying breath and started out slowly, tentatively, "In . . . In the last akuma attack . . . I . . . I died."
Kagami felt her insides go cold.
"Only my therapist knows . . . Though she might have told Father by now. It- it made me see things . . . clearly. Everything was put in perspective. Everything I . . ."
His voice broke again and he fell silent for a moment before picking up on a different track.
"I have a partner. Had a partner. A coworker of sorts. She . . . She was amazing. Is amazing. We would be up against the wall and she'd find a way to turn the tables. To win. It didn't matter what the odds were, I always knew she could pull it off . . . Even when I wasn't there to help her. A-and last time, last time it was just me. It was just me and I failed."
Adrien inhaled deeply before continuing in a halting, shaky voice. Kagami felt her chest constrict and could only imagine how he was faring.
"She had to come and fix everything . . . Like she always does. Our . . . supervisor, he had to make a decisión . . . He chose to pair her with someone else . . . I thought I was helping! I thought we were chosen because we complimented each other's strengths! B-but I was wrong. I was just holding her back! I was a terrible partner!"
Adrien practically screamed the last part as a horrified realization filled his gaze. Kagami feared he'd trigger another panic attack but he merely layed down, flat on the floor, and stared emptily at the cieling.
"I was a terrible partner," he whispered hollowly.
She didn't know what to do. She didn't know what to say. But Kagami made Adrien a promise then that she'd do everything in her power to help.
The first akumatized victim since Weredad appeared a few days later. For a moment he forgot himself and called for Plagg.
. . . Oh.
He wiped at the tears and wrestled his emotions into some semblance of control.
Nadja Chamak was on the scene. She was saying something about mind control powers.
He shivered and-
There was a blur of red and black on the screen.
Ladybug . . . And his replacement.
They moved expertly in tandem; hardly any mistakes at all. Adrien realized that the new Black Cat must've been training rigorously with his La- With Ladybug. The superheroine called on her Lucky Charm and in less than five minutes it was over. Both heroes having avoided the mind control beams.
Resentment overwhelmed him and then guilt added it's weight. He shouldn't be feeling like this. He shouldn't be wishing mind control onto someone else. He should be happy Ladybug doesn't have to fight her brainwashed partn-
The new Black Cat turned toward the camera and Adrien dropped the remote. His hair dye was a shade or two greener than usual, his mask covered a bit more of his face than Chat Noir's, and his eyes had vertical pupils but it was definitely him.
It was Luka.
The heroes fist bumped and Adrien felt a knife slide into his heart. She was smiling at him. Ladybug was smiling at Luka -no, Panthera, he introduced himself as- like nothing was wrong. As though Chat Noir was-
Adrien shoved the ungracious thought away, knowing Ladybug would never allow herself to be seen as weak. She would never show Paris any cracks in her armor.
"Tell us, Ladybug. What happened to Chat Noir?"
"He, uh, retired! Yeah! His circumstances changed and he had to, um, leave Paris!"
"How does he feel about being replaced by your newest recruit?"
"I, er- He understands that the safety of Paris is our top priority."
"And you? How do you feel about partnering with someone so much more experienced?"
"Ladybug has been very helpful in teaching me about my powers. I'm honored to have been chosen as successor to Chat Noir and hope t-to do justice to his mantle."
"Do you think any complications will arise from this change in dynamic?"
"I'm sure there'll be obstacles we can't see yet but we'll overcome them together. Paris can rest assured that Panthera and I will protect them!"
"Does this mean the other heroes will be around on a more permanent basis?"
"Uh, that'll depend on how things progress from here. Now, we have to get going. Bug out!"
"You heard it here first, folks! Paris has a new cat themed hero stepping in to fill the shoes of Chat Noir! Will he be up to the task? How will the other heroes react t-"
Turning off the TV he curled up into a ball and focused on breathing evenly. Taking the knowledge of Panthera's identity and compartmentalizing it, separating his friend from the black-clad hero. Adrien tried to avoid thinking about how easy it was to recognize him or why.
He tried to avoid thinking at all.