Adrien stared silently at Ladybug. He'd been crying again and judging by her puffy, red eyes she had too. Nooroo floated at a distance after introducing himself; the Gorilla hovering by the doorway.
"Thank you," Adrien signed at him, speaking aloud for Ladybug's benefit. "Why don't you check on the others?"
The Gorilla grunted and signed a question at him: Are you sure?
Adrien offered his bodyguard a small, grateful smile. "This conversation is long overdue."
The Gorilla studied Adrien with his usual stoic demeanor. His eyes softened in understanding as he signed: I'll leave you to it then. Giving Ladybug a last warning glance he left, closing the door behind him.
". . . So," Ladybug began awkwardly. "I . . . didn't realize he was mute."
Adrien had rarely seen her so nervous, so unsure . . . While she wore the mask, that is. "Gabriel . . . discouraged him from using sign language."
The disgust on Ladybug's face vividly expressed her thoughts on denying a man his voice. Then the uncertainty was back. "I don't think he likes me much."
"He's just being protective . . ." Adrien rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how to go about this.
Nooroo glanced between them. His empathetic abilities meant he could feel everything they did.
Adrien looked at the deactivated Miraculous laying on a nearby table. It could help him in this instance, but that would be cheating. And he wasn't in any state to use it, so he focused on the hero before him. "Do you-"
"I'm sorry!" Ladybug exclaimed. "I'm sorry I wasn't there for you! I'm sorry you had to go through this alone! I- I should have helped you! I should have insisted! I . . . I'm sorry, Chat."
". . . Adrien?"
". . . Marinette . . ."
"Are you alright?"
". . . No, but that can wait."
"Adrien, talk to me. Tell me what's wrong."
". . . I-I-I know who Papillon is."
"What!? How do know that!? Are you sure? I mean . . . Who is he?"
". . . Gabriel Agreste."
"What? But . . . He was akumatized!"
"A r-ruse. To throw off suspicion."
"It could be something else! It could be-"
"Marinette. I've seen him detransform. He should have erased the video."
"Adrien . . . You're father . . ."
". . . Ladybug sh-should get everyone ready."
"The reserve heroes. Sh-she needs to get them. All of them. He's planning something b-big and . . . and . . ."
". . . Why did you call me Adrien?"
"I . . . I trust you. Always have. I need you to trust me. Like you used to."
"I don't understand."
"Ladybug's team will deal with the akumatized villain. Let me deal with Gabriel."
"Wouldn't it be better to attack before Papillon makes his move? Catch him by surprise?"
"The manor's a fortress. The security system could easily keep a handful of heroes preoccupied while he escapes. Even with reduced staff that's still a dozen people that could get caught in the crossfire . . . Th-then there's Nathalie . . ."
"Nathalie . . . is Mayura?"
"Y-yes . . ."
". . ."
". . . He won't suspect me. Nine months he's known who I was and done nothing . . . It has to be me. And it has to be when he can't . . . Use me . . . Please."
"I . . . I trust you, Adrien."
"Tha- Thank you. Marinette . . . Now. I know who he's going to target . . ."
"Marinette . . ." Adrien breathed. He had expected this, had thought about it constantly. Despite months of anticipation he still felt unprepared. Anxiety and guilt squeezed his heart.
But Ladybug was far less prepared. Marinette's eyes watered as her emotions overwhelmed her. She couldn't look him in the eye.
Marinette understands. The feeling of failure that comes when you can't protect someone you love. She feels it, too.
It would be so easy to blame her the way she blamed herself. To blame everyone else, too. If she hadn't lied about her feelings. If Tom Dupain hadn't overreacted. If Sabin Cheng had toned down her husband's antics. If Wang Fu hadn't lost the Butterfly.
If, if, IF!
And where would it end?
". . . I don't blame you." Adrien told her honestly. "I've never blamed you. And you shouldn't either. You were there for me. You tried every day to help me, even when you didn't understand, even when I pushed you away."
Ladybug shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. " I was there for Adrien, I wasn't there for Chat Noir! And I should have been! I should have been better!"
It broke Adrien to hear her thoughts mirror his own. After she had given everything, after he had given everything, they still felt the need to give more . . . That would not stand. Adrien strode forward and pulled her hands into his. Ladybug flinched at his touch but didn't pull away.
"You," his voice broke. "Were the best. You did the best you knew how." Ladybug's grip shifted and Adrien's watery eyes rose to meet her's. "Whatever debt you think you owe me or Paris or the Fates themselves, you've paid! You've paid in full! They asked the impossible. And you gave it to them! You gave them the impossible, Marinette! . . . They have no right, to ask perfection of you, too!"
Ladybug stared intently into his eyes, her own shining with the overflow of her emotions. ". . . Thank you." At his puzzled look she elaborated. "For believing in me. Even when I didn't."
"I . . . It's easier to see someone else's strengths than your own . . ." He looked away.
"Hey," Marinette said gently. "Look at me." Her gaze held such compassion that his breath caught. "You weren't just talking about me, were you?"
Adrien couldn't answer, his throat wouldn't respond, but she seemed to read the affirmation in his eyes anyway. Ladybug hesitated for a moment then wrapped her arms around him, holding Adrien close, her head against his chest. He started at the contact, face burning and heartbeat pounding.
"Thank you," she repeated. "Sometimes we need someone else to tell us what we should already know . . . To tell us that we are good for something. To tell us we did well. You did so well, Adrien! Bien joue, Chat Noir."
Adrien trembled as he slumped against her and felt Ladybug do the same. The knot in his chest finally loosening even as his tears flowed freely. He was so exhausted, so . . . relieved?
Pink light flowed across Marinette, releasing her kwami. "Nooroo!" The red being tackled her younger brother, sending them spinning. Small tears glistened in their trail, as the Ladybug kwami questioned Nooroo.
They turned their heads to witness the exchange without separating. Adrien smiled at the reunion, nearly two centuries overdue. Marinette smiled too, her tears now ones of joy. He gazed at the shine of triumph in her eyes as they shared in the kwamis' rejoicing.
Marinette caught him staring out of the corner of her eye and blushed, stepping out of his arms. "I wasn't supposed to say all of that. The first part I mean. You're going through a lot without having to deal with my mess. I'm supposed to be supporting you and-"
Adrien placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's our mess, Marinette. We support each other. I'm glad you told me . . . Thank you, for being honest with me. I- I'm sorry I didn't say anything."
"That . . . That wasn't you. That was the Guardians' rules. You were just following them."
"I told Kagami and Nino," Adrien admitted.
". . . Well, that explains so much! I'm glad you told them. I'm glad they were there for you."
"I should have been honest with you . . ."
"You weren't the only one who decided it was better for me not to know. Besides, Master Fu found out anyway."
Adrien's eyes widened in surprise.
"I'm not sure which kwami spilled, but about a month ago Master Fu told me Chat Noir knew I was Ladybug. In case you were . . . were . . ."
"Akumatized," he finished.
Marinette nodded. "By then I'd stopped trying to convince them to let me see you."
You wanted to see me?
Adrien dismissed the thought as quickly as it formed; Alya had said as much when she told him Marinette missed Chat Noir.
"If I'd been more determined . . . Maybe, we'd have found each other sooner . . ."
". . . I wasn't ready. I didn't want you to see me. Not yet." Adrien had thought about this constantly. It wasn't romantic the way he used to hope. It wasn't dramatic the way he thought it'd be. Knowing who was behind the mask was messy, awkward. But . . . "I don't mind this." This whole thing was imperfect and weird but it was their's. "And I doubt you lack determination in anything, Marinette."
Ladybug's eyes shone with the inner light that he'd always seen in her. She rewarded his verbal stumbling with a smile and he gave her one in return.
They stood beside each other, neither speaking. There was so much left unsaid, yet for the moment they could set that aside and simply be.
". . . Hello," said a small voice, startling Adrien out of his thoughts. "I'm Tikki."
". . . Oh . . . Hello." Adrien greeted.
"I wanted to thank you for bringing our brother back to us. You were very brave," Tikki stated earnestly.
Adrien rubbed the back of his neck. "You're welcome."
Nooroo floated in front of him and Marinette. "You have a complicated history. Both of you have much work to do. But you also have a strong bond. After everything you've gone through it still holds." He smiled at them. "I think-"
"Nooroo!" A black blur shot into Nooroo and wrapped his short arms around the other kwami.
"Plagg!" Tikki scolded. "We were in the middle of something! And where's your holder?"
"I don't get why we have to go through this circus anymore," Plagg the troublemaker replied. "It's not like Adrien doesn't know Luka is Panthera alread-"
"Plagg!" Tikki repeated.
"Wh-what!? Luka is Panthera!?" Marinette exclaimed.
"Oops," Plagg said in a decidedly unrepentant manner.
Nooroo smiled at his older brother's antics. "I missed you, too."
"Oh, my goodness! That makes so much sense!" Marinette went on to list all the similarities between her boyfriend and . . . her boyfriend. Tikki attempted to calm her charge.
"Plagg," Adrien greeted warmly.
"Adrien!" Plagg released Nooroo and hugged Adrien's chest. He smiled at the kwami.
"Wait. How did you know who Panthera was?" Marinette directed her question at Adrien.
"Oh! Well . . ."
"It's 'cause Luka is super obvious!" Plagg stated matter-of-factly.
Marinette raised a finger in protest, paused, then lowered it slowly. "Yeah, okay. The hair should've been a dead giveaway."
Adrien nodded. "It took me a bit longer to figure out Carapace and Rena Rouge."
"What!? You know them to!?"
". . . I thought you knew that already?"
"No! Do you know who everyone is?"
"Uh, if I say 'yes' will you keep freaking out?"
Marinette covered her face with her hands and groaned, muttering through them. "Three years keeping everyone's identities safe and I was completely unaware of a walking security breach! No offense."
Adrien waved this away as a smile crept it's way upwards. A laugh escaped his lips before he could stop it.
Marinette peeked past her fingers."What's so funny?"
"Nothing!" he denied, fighting off a smirk. "It's just . . . you're acting like yourself again."
"Gee, how flattering!" Marinette replied sarcastically.
This time Adrien didn't try to stop the laughter. "See?"
Marinette rolled her eyes but she returned his grin. "Looks like I'm not the only one."
Adrien's smile softened. She was right, he did feel more like himself.
" 'Bout time, too!" Plagg remarked, earning another reprimand from Tikki. "Aw, lighten up, Sugarcube!"
Marinette giggled at the nickname.
"Don't call me that!" Tikki demanded.
Kagami and Nino were miracle workers the past week. They had a lot of experience in . . . Well, in Adrien. But even they didn't know what to do all the time.
"Sugarcube?" Marinette asked in amusement.
"Marinette Dupain-Cheng, you will not repeat that to anyone outside of this room!"
The Gorilla had always protected him and Adrien had never been more grateful. Now that it was less physical and more legal . . . As his guardian. Adrien wasn't sure how he felt about that. There was gratitude, yes, but it came with a confusing mix centered around the word 'father'. And he had almost no time to sort through it all.
"Are they always like this?" Marinette asked Nooroo.
"More or less. I'm just glad they're not sinking cities again," the Butterfly replied, to Plagg's cackling and Tikki's indignation.
The whole class had come in small groups but he hadn't been able to see most of them. Adrien had to be careful about who he met and when, his emotions in flux as they were. But just knowing that they hadn't abandoned him despite his parentage was a soothing balm to his soul.
Marinette turned away from the kwamis, who were not acting their age, to look at him. Her brow furrowed in concern at his expression. Tentatively, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Adrien? Are you okay?"
Adrien smiled bittersweetly at the question. Both inadequate and common in these situations. He took in the care she had for him, written plainly on her face. Echoed in the features of the three kwamis. He was struck suddenly with the realization that these immortals cared for them, for him. No more than a blip in their eternal history and yet he mattered to them! He wiped at the tears that fell even as his smile widened.
Am I okay?
"No," Adrien admitted. "But I will be."