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A Fevered Dream

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Marinette woke up with a headache and a bit of a stiff neck, but considering that yesterday’s akuma had erupted in the girl’s showers at school, and that Ladybug had therefore been ricocheted off the hard tiled walls a lot during the fight, this wasn’t completely unexpected. Miraculous ladybugs could fix a lot, but Marinette had long since discovered that she still had to deal with a certain amount of muscle strain after a hard battle. She’d never come out and asked Chat Noir if it was the same for him, but she assumed it was. So she just took an OTC painkiller and got up for school an hour earlier than her normal time, knowing she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep because of the headache.

 

Tikki hovered around her as she got dressed, acting like she was worried about something.

 

“Tikki,” Marinette whined as Tikki interposed herself between her face and the make-up mirror for the third time. “What is going on with you?”

 

“I… I don’t know, Marinette,” she said. “I just… feel like something’s wrong but I don’t know what it is.”

 

Marinette sighed and briefly cupped the small kwami to her cheek. “I’m fine. There haven’t been any akuma alerts- yet- and I might actually make it to school on time today, if I can finish my make-up!” She chuckled, then winced as her headache increased with the motion. 

 

She clenched her eyes shut and breathed, consciously trying to relax. The pain ebbed, though not completely, and she was able to finish her make-up. Her mom looked her over with concern when she came down to grab a pastry for her breakfast. 

 

“Are you feeling alright? You look pale, honey.” She came over and, in typical mom fashion, felt her forehead.

 

“I’m okay,” Marinette said. “Just a little stiff this morning, and I have a headache. I think I slept wrong.”

 

Her mom laughed. “Sweetie, you’re too young to wake up stiff! And you don’t feel hot, so I guess you’re right. But if you start feeling bad, I want you to come home, alright? There’s no sense being in school if you can’t concentrate.”

 

“I’ll be fine, mom,” Marinette said. “I don’t want to miss school.” 

 

She missed enough school already thanks to Hawkmoth, though thankfully, at least when the akuma was IN her school, no one faulted her for missing class. It was only when she had to leave school entirely that her absences were noticed.

 

She walked to school, relishing the serenity of not needing to rush. The cool air smelled of spring, and the birds were chirping in the trees of the Place de Voges park. She met Alya on the front steps for once, and they walked in together.

 

“Hey girl! And to what do I owe the pleasure of your timely arrival this morning?”

 

Marinette laughed. “A headache woke me up early!”

 

“Ooo, ouch. Sorry.”

 

“No need. At least I didn’t have to rush, right?”

 

Alya smirked at her. “Yeah, but it’s not the best way to wake up in the morning.”

In the classroom, Marinette sank into her seat beside Alya and put her backpack down by her feet with a sigh of relief, already missing the spring air. It seemed a shame to be cooped up in a classroom on such a nice day.

 

“You ok?” Alya asked, getting her tablet and notebooks out. 

 

“Yeah. My headache is coming back, though.” Marinette started taking her own things out and arranging them. She decided to try a little sketching before class started. She had some designs that were almost right she knew she could work on without feeling cheated if she had to stop working when class started.

 

“I’ve got some painkillers if you need them.”

 

“Thanks, but I already took some earlier. If it gets worse, I’ll go to the nurse, but… I don’t want to miss class again.”

 

“I hear you there. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have a seatmate at all.”

 

Marinette cringed at that. It was true, though. Unfortunately. “I do try, you know,” she commented. It’s not my fault Hawkmoth doesn’t respect other people’s schedules, she thought, but obviously didn’t say.

 

“Oh girl, I know. And it’s not like you’re not doing ok- although with as much class as you miss I’m kinda surprised your grades are as good as they are. Maybe you’re just a good test taker?”

 

“Didn’t you know?” Marinette smirked, waving a hand at her open sketchbook. “I’m self-motivated! I don’t let myself sketch or design or sew until all my homework is done!”

 

Nino walked in then, trailed by Adrien, and Marinette felt the familiar flush in her cheeks as they exchanged greetings.

 

“Whoa! Did the world end?” Nino asked, dramatically. “Marinette’s here before we are!”

 

“Hey, just because I don’t like getting up early doesn’t mean I can’t!” Marinette defended herself, keeping her eyes off of Adrien so she wouldn’t get her words mixed up again.

 

“What are you working on?” Adrien asked, leaning over her sketch book and getting much too close for Marinette's heartrate.

 

“O-oh, um, j-just some summer dresses,” Marinette stammered. “They’re n-not quite right yet.”

 

“Oh yeah?,” he leaned even closer, causing Marinette to spontaneously stop breathing. He pointed to one that Marinette had designed with Alya in mind, and smiled. “I bet that one’s for Alya, isn’t it?”

 

“Uh-huh,” she practically squeaked. The dress had an A line skirt with a sweetheart bodice in a pale orange with embroidered orange blossom detailing.

 

“Is there one you planned for yourself?” he asked softly, meeting her eyes.

 

Marinette took a breath and flipped over a few pages, showing him an ombre dress in blue tones that currently had skylarks as a theme. She liked the asymmetrical hem and the loosely wrapped bodice, but...

 

His mouth dropped open. “Wow. That’s perfect for you Marinette!”

 

“I don’t know,” she said, on firm ground when she talked about her designs and therefore conquering her stutter. “I’m not sure about the skylarks.”

 

“Hm,” he said, considering the page with a contemplative frown. “What about bluebells?”

 

“Oh!” Marinette said, immediately picturing the change. “That might work. Thanks!”

 

“I like helping you,” he said with a smile, and then took his seat, unknowingly leaving her quietly hyperventilating from the success of their brief conversation. Nino, who was kneeling on his side of the bench so he could talk to Alya without craning his head, gave her a thumb’s up, and Alya went one better by clasping her hands and shaking them in the air in the classic “winner” pose. Marinette rolled her eyes at them, but couldn’t keep the sappy smile off her face. A few more of those kinds of conversations with Adrien, and she might even feel up to confessing to him!


By the time class started, Marinette regained her normal calm, although the headache she’d woken up with was increasing in intensity again. But she decided that if it got no worse than it was, she’d be just fine. Miss Bustier’s class was actually pretty interesting for once, so she had no problems concentrating. If only someone hadn’t forgotten to turn off the heat to the room, though, she thought at the end of the lesson. It had gotten noticeably warmer in the room by the end of the period, and Marinette ended up taking off her jacket. 

 

“I wish they’d turn the heat off,” she mentioned to Alya in passing as they gathered their things. “I mean, it’s the tail end of April! It’s not like we’re going to get a freak snow-storm.”

 

Alya raised an eyebrow at her, but didn’t comment. Their next class was warm too, enough that Marinette felt grateful her typical pigtailed hairstyle kept the hair off the back of her neck.

 

“Aren’t you hot?” she whispered to Alya half-way through. This time Alya frowned at her, shaking her head, but since the teacher asked a question just then, she couldn’t answer back. Marinette went back to taking notes, occasionally fanning herself with a loose piece of paper. By the end of that class, her headache was getting worse again, and the muscles at the base of her neck were getting stiff again.

 

“Hey, are you ok?” Alya asked, some concern in her voice as they gathered their things to move to the next classroom before lunch.

 

“Well, my headache is a little worse, and I’m hot, but that’s it,” Marinette said, squinting against the light coming in from the windows. “Why?”

 

“Your cheeks are really red.”

 

“Well, I’m hot, so I guess that’s… normal?”

 

“I don’t know,” Alya said, “It’s really not that warm in here, Mari, and you look like you just finished playing basketball or something.”  

 

Marinette just shrugged, not wanting to make a big deal of it. She was enjoying a rare day free from akumas, and didn’t want to worry about it. But the air outside the classroom was a relief even though the sun seemed especially bright, and Marinette sighed, closing her eyes to savor it. She did feel overheated. 

 

Alya’s hand on her forehead startled her badly enough that she dropped the notebook she was carrying. 

 

“Alya!” she protested, bending to retrieve it.

 

But Alya was looking worried. “I think you have a fever, Marinette. You should go to the nurse, because you’re really hot.”

 

Marinette rolled her eyes. “Thanks Alya, but I don't think the nurse is into girls,” she joked. “I’m fine. Really.”

 

“No, you’re not,” Alya insisted.

 

“What’s wrong with Marinette?” Adrien asked from behind them. Marinette squeaked and jumped a little, face flushing even more.

 

Nothing!” she insisted, turning to face him. “I’m fine.”

 

“She’s running a fever, and refuses to go to the nurse,” Alya said flatly. “Please help me convince her to go?”

 

Without warning, Adrien placed the back of his own hand first on her cheek, and then on her forehead, frowning a little as he studied her face. Marinette stopped breathing again.

 

“You do feel warm, Marinette,” Adrien said, taking his hand away. “You should probably go. After all, the nurse can give you acetaminophen to bring the fever down, and then you won’t have to go home, right?”

 

“U-um, ok,” Marinette said meekly, finally inhaling and trying to wrap her mind around the fact that Adrien had just touched her face of his own free will. And was showing concern for her. Calm down, she thought, he’d do that for any of his friends… right? It was normal to be concerned when your friends weren’t feeling well. She knew that, she did it herself all the time. Granted, she didn’t usually touch them, just made sure to encourage them to take what rest they needed. But Alya did the same thing, she reminded herself. It’s perfectly normal!

 

“Do you want me to go with you?” Adrien asked, tilting his head a little and smiling. 

 

“No!” Marinette squawked. She cleared her throat and tried again, trying not to notice the ever-so-slightly disappointed look he gave her. “No, it’s ok! I can go by myself. Thanks, though!”

 

Ducking her head to avoid looking at either of them, she turned and walked down the corridor toward the stairs that led to the ground floor where the nurse’s office was. She knew her face was flaming with more than just fever.

 

Alya caught up with her just outside the nurse’s office. “Well, if I’d known all it would take was Mr. Perfect telling you, I’d have asked him last class period!” she remarked, nudging Marinette’s elbow.

 

“Don’t call him that,” Marinette said. Everything was starting to feel a little hazy, and she was finally convinced visiting the nurse was a good idea. She wanted to lie down and close her eyes for a while, and waiting for the acetaminophen to start working would allow her to do that.

 

The nurse took her temperature and gave her two pills to swallow, as well as asking her if anything else was wrong.

 

Marinette thought about mentioning her stiff neck and headache, but decided those were probably the result of the akuma attack yesterday and not worth mentioning, since she’d have to come up for an explanation. She couldn’t very well say she’d been fighting the akuma herself, after all, and no one else had ever complained about muscle pain after her miraculous ladybug cure had swept through and fixed any damages. So she just swallowed the medicine and lay down on the cot. The nurse arranged a small desk fan so it could blow on her face, helping to cool her, and Marinette closed her eyes, sure she’d be ready to return to class in a little while.

Chapter Text

When Marinette woke up, everything felt… strange. It was too hot, and… had there been an akuma attack? Because everything looked destroyed. The nurse’s office had half the walls missing and the sky was a hazy orange color. No one was around. She sat up slowly, head reeling. She must have been knocked out in the first attack.

 

She looked down, somewhat surprised to see she’d transformed into Ladybug at some point. She didn’t remember that… 

 

She got up, feeling pain and stiffness around her neck- but why?- and stumbled over to the door. Suddenly, a figure rose up before her blocking the way. It seemed to shimmer and said… something… whatever it said wasn’t clear, but it looked enough like an akuma that Ladybug attacked as a reflex with two well-aimed kicks, first to the torso, then the head. The akuma seemingly wasn’t very robust, because it crumpled before her. Ladybug searched for the object, but couldn’t find anything with the tell-tale purplish hue that meant it housed an evil butterfly.

 

She wandered out into the school’s courtyard, looking around at all the destruction. Papers skidded across the pavement with every errant breeze, the only sound in a deafening silence. The school seemed to be entirely deserted. Well, at least everyone got out , she thought. Now, if I can only find that partner of mine…

 

----

 

Adrien, Nino, and Alya were just getting back from lunch when they saw Marinette standing listlessly in the middle of the courtyard, looking around in a vague way that set off alarm bells in Adrien’s mind. Alya hurried over to her. “Hey, girl, what’s up? Are you feeling better? You missed lunch…”

 

Marinette blinked at her. “Rena? What are you doing here? I don’t remember giving you your miraculous.”

 

Alya gasped, and Adrien stopped short before hurrying over himself. “What’s she talking about?” he asked, in a low voice. He took a moment to really look at Marinette, noting the half-lidded eyes, flushed skin that wasn’t just contained to her face anymore, and the way she couldn’t seem to focus. And she was swaying on her feet. He put a hand on her shoulder to keep her steady, feeling the heat radiating off her skin through her t-shirt.

 

“Marinette? It’s me, Alya. Come on, focus girl! You can do it.”

 

“Where’s Chat Noir?” Marinette asked. “He should be here somewhere… I fought the akuma, but I couldn’t find the object.” She seemed to notice Adrien’s hand on her shoulder because she looked at it, following his arm to his shoulder and finally to his face. Then she smiled and said. “Oh. There you are, Chat.”

 

It was Adrien’s turn to gasp, mind racing. How did she…? How could she…? She raised her own hand to take his off her shoulder and started trying to pull him away in the direction of the nurse’s office. “Come on,” she mumbled. “We gotta… find the akumatized object. S-so I can feel better.”

 

Adrien looked to Alya for help, only to see her standing like a statue with both hands over her mouth. “Call the SAMU!,” he said, before putting an arm around Marinette’s shoulders and letting her lean on him as they walked toward the nurse’s office. It was where she needed to be, anyway. What had happened to the nurse? Why had she let Marinette leave when she was so obviously ill?

 

“Come on, Marinette,” he murmured, “You really shouldn’t be out here.”

 

“N-no,” she said, trying to frown, but only managing a pout. “You… you don’t know me. ‘M… Ladybug right now. Don’t use my name, you shouldn’t know that, Chat. Bad kitty… trying to find out...” She reeled to the side, and he had to pull her back before she stumbled and fell. Every word she spoke sent a stab of panic through him. Especially when she called him Chat. He desperately wanted to deny what was beginning to come all too clear. He wasn’t supposed to find out like this.

 

“Marinette,” he tried again, trying to get through to her. “It’s me, Adrien. Remember me? I sit in front of you in class? We’re friends, right?”

 

She giggled. “Silly kitty. You can’t… can’t be Adrien !” She started snorting with laughter, but stopped, wincing as she touched her neck. “Ow.”

 

Adrien looked up, hoping the nurse’s office was close. It was. But the nurse was laying in the doorway, and from the looks of it had been knocked out cold. Well, crap.

 

He glanced around. Students continued to trickle back in from their lunch breaks, mostly ignoring them, but Alya was on the phone, and Nino had followed them.

 

“Nino!” he called, jerking his head at him. “Come here and help! The nurse…”

 

Nino rushed over and spotted the nurse on the floor. “Whoa.” He looked at Marinette and then to Adrien. “Did she do that?” he asked.

 

Adrien shrugged. “How should I know? But we can’t just leave the poor woman there. Help me get Marinette down on the ground and then we can move her together, ok?”

 

Between them, they lowered Marinette to the ground beside the open door. “Hey, Carapace,” she whispered, causing Nino to stiffen. “You here, too?” 

 

Adrien gritted his teeth and tried to ignore how much he wasn’t supposed to be hearing right now.

 

“Um,” Nino said, throwing Adrien a quick nervous glance. “Yeah?”

 

“Good. You and Rena… cute couple. Should be together.” Marinette’s eyes sagged shut and she slumped against the wall. Adrien and Nino straightened, not looking at each other.

 

“Um, dude…? About that…”

 

“She’s delirious, Nino. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” Adrien stated, not wanting to get into anything, yet knowing he was just putting off the inevitable. A sudden thought made him add, “Playing along is probably the best way to handle her right now. Good job.”

 

“Dude, are you… ok?”

 

Adrien opened his eyes to see Nino looking at him with worry. He rubbed a hand over his face and said. “No, Nino, I’m not ok. Marinette is obviously very sick, and I’m worried about her, alright? Now come help me with the nurse.” He knew he should soften the remark with his patented ‘everything’s fine in my world’ smile, but he just… couldn’t.

 

Between the two of them, they hoisted the nurse’s dead weight onto one of the two cots she had set up in the back of the office for students who needed them. When they got back outside, Alya was crouched beside Marinette, having pulled her limp form to rest on her shoulders.

 

She looked up, worry on her face. “The ambulance should be here soon. I told them… I told them my friend had a high fever and was hallucinating.”

 

“I’ll go tell Mr. Damocles,” Nino said, and took off. 

 

“Have you called her parents?” Adrien asked, sitting down on Marinette’s other side. 

 

Alya shook her head, then rested her cheek on Marinette’s hair. Adrien felt a stab of jealousy, wishing he could take Alya’s place. It was his job to protect her, after all. He was her partner… right?

 

“I don’t have their number, but they should know,” Adrien said. “Can you call them?”

 

Alya nodded, taking her phone out again. Marinette stirred, mumbling something Adrien couldn’t make out. 

 

“Hello, Mr. Dupain? It’s Alya. Listen, Marinette is really sick. An ambulance is coming to pick her up, but you should know too. … A really high fever. And… and she’s delirious, seeing things. … Right. You’re welcome. See you soon.” She hung up and looked at her phone a moment. “They’re on their way now.”

 

“If she wakes up again… we should probably just play along with whatever she says, ok?” Adrien said, settling back against the bricks and looking up at the sky. 

 

“...ok.”

 

All they could do now was wait.

 

----

 

Marinette woke again, still hot, still confused, but comforted by the fact that Rena Rouge and Chat Noir were both right there with her. Only, when she looked down this time, she wasn’t transformed anymore. Panicked, she sat up, head whirling. No one was supposed to see her like this, not during an akuma fight, and especially not Chat Noir!

 

“Tikki! Spots-” 

 

A hand over her mouth cut off the transformation phrase before she could finish it. She painfully turned her head to see Chat Noir with the most heartbreakingly worried expression on his face, hand still clamped over her mouth.

 

“It’s ok, milady,” he said gently. “It’s an illusion. Don’t worry, alright?”

 

“An illusion?” she asked, unsure. She looked down at the bare skin of her hands and arms. “It looks so real. It feels real.” She blinked at Chat Noir, suddenly suspicious. “If it’s an illusion, what do I look like? To you, I mean.”

 

His worried expression relaxed into a smile, but not one of his trademark Chat grins. It reminded Marinette more of the way Adrien Agreste could smile sometimes. “A very pretty girl, milady,” he said, and then winked, reminding her that this was Chat she was talking to.

 

Still unsure, Marinette slowly turned to look at Rena. She surprised Rena wiping her eyes. “What about you, Rena? What do I look like?”

 

“Like…” Rena’s voice wobbled a bit. “Like an ordinary girl, Ladybug. It must be random, because... I don’t recognize you.”

 

“Oh. Good. Well, we still have an akuma to catch.” She started to get up. There were sirens in the distance. “I have to… fix…” She couldn’t seem to find her balance. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked, a bit of panic bleeding through.

 

“You got hit several times, Ladybug,” Rena replied, taking one of her arms. Chat Noir took the other. “Come on, we’ll help you.”

 

They got her upright, but once there her head swam so badly, and she couldn’t catch her breath. She started weeping, ashamed at her weakness. She was Ladybug, she shouldn’t need help. She should be strong so she could fight, and repair all the damage. And there was so much damage, she thought, looking around the gutted school again.

 

“It’s ok, LB,” Chat’s voice murmured in her ear as she felt herself picked up in strong arms. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

 

Marinette closed her eyes, surrendering to the implied protection of his hold on her. “Listen, LB,” he started talking again as he walked. “The akuma was a nurse here at the school. She’s gone on to the hospital, so…” he paused and she heard a sniff from Rena as his voice wavered with the next sentence. “So, we’re going to send you ahead, ok?” 

 

She felt herself laid down on something blessedly cool. She was so hot, and her neck and shoulders ached, her head throbbed, and she was thirsty. Something… something was happening to her, movement all around, but… she opened her eyes again, trying to find Chat Noir.

 

She saw him off to the side, standing with Rena Rouge and Carapace while almost formless shapes moved around her doing… things. She wasn’t sure what. Chat Noir smiled at her and Rena and Carapace waved. She thought she heard someone say, “We’re right behind you,” before slipping back into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Adrien stood with Alya and Nino, watching the paramedics load Marinette into the back of the ambulance, and answering questions as best they could. He couldn’t take his eyes off the scared faces of her parents. Nor could he erase the feeling of holding her in his arms, how hot she’d been, or the way she’d snuggled up to his chest instantly, as if there was no one she trusted more. He’d felt like he was betraying her trust when he put her down on the stretcher, but… what choice did he have?

 

“When did you first notice something was wrong with your friend?”

 

Not soon enough.

 

“Um, it was after our first period, around 9 am?”

 

“And when did she have her first delirious episode?”

 

“I don’t know… I took her to the nurse’s office just after 10 am, and when we came back from lunch just now, she was standing in the courtyard and… and she was confused.”

 

“What form did her delirium take?”

 

“She… she thinks she’s Ladybug, fighting an akuma,” Alya said, quietly.

 

Adrien switched his attention to the woman taking their answers, looking for… what? Surprise? Speculation? An avid curiosity denoting nothing good for his… for Marinette?

 

But the woman just nodded and noted it down. 

 

“Isn’t that… kind of extreme? To think she’s Ladybug, I mean.” Adrien asked.

 

The woman shook her head. “No. It happens more often than you think. Most people in Paris these days look up to Ladybug and Chat Noir- they always save the day, you see, and when people lose their grasp of reality, their minds often go to places that make them feel more in control. After all, if they are actually Ladybug, or more rarely Chat Noir, everything’s going to turn out fine, right? Or at least, that’s how the internal logic goes. Or so I’m told. Don’t quote me on that,” she added, with a sharp glance at Alya. A fan of the LadyBlog, then.

 

They all nodded at that, signs of relief evident in the slight relaxing of postures and facial expressions. It was possible that their friend wasn’t actually Ladybug at all, that her reactions to them were based on nothing more than remembered trivia and facts about Ladybug’s past adventures.

 

Except… except Adrien knew better. The way Marinette had talked to him- recognized him as Chat, even though he wasn’t transformed- was unmistakable. Quintessential Ladybug. Sure, the take-charge attitude and scolding were less decisive, but then she’d been dealing with a raging fever. And there was the inescapable fact that she knew the name of Ladybug’s kwami. As far as Adrien knew, only he, Ladybug, Master Fu, and the other kwamis knew the name of the ladybug kwami. No one but Ladybug herself would have come up with that name in that moment when she’d tried to transform out of panic.

 

No, Marinette was definitely Ladybug.

 

The paramedic who had been asking them questions called ahead to the hospital, and then went off to the nurse’s office to check on the nurse. Apparently, she’d come to just a few minutes after Adrien and Alya helped Marinette to the stretcher.

 

That left Adrien, Nino, and Alya alone on the front steps of the school. Curiously, none of them made eye contact, or tried to start a conversation. They just stood there, each lost in their own thoughts until Mr. Damocles came up to commend them on the way they handled the situation.

 

A few minutes after that the warning bell for their next classes rang, and they turned to go back inside.

 

Even as he went through the motions of retrieving his book bag and the materials for the next class, Adrien wondered at himself. His lady, his bugaboo, his miraculous Ladybug was, at the very least, seriously ill, and on her way to the hospital… and he was just going to go back to class as if nothing were wrong.

 

He rejoined Nino and Alya for the walk to class, but instead of the normal banter between them, they stayed silent. It was surreal, how normal and yet not right things were. It wasn’t until they reached the classroom that Adrien managed to snap out of whatever it was he was in the grip of.

 

When he walked through the door, the first things he heard were out of Lila’s mouth. And, given that Lila was vicious little snake, they were lies of the uncomplimentary-yet-just-barely-plausible-if-you-ignored-all-previous-data variety. About Marinette.

 

Adrien discovered that was something he just wouldn’t stand for anymore.

 

“... I just hope she’s going to be okay. I mean, I know how much pressure she’s under to be happy and cheerful all the time, and I certainly don’t blame her for looking for help in that department, but honestly, it looks like she’s not being careful anymore. Drugs are dangerous if you abuse them, you know?”

 

“Max,” Adrien said loudly, marching up to the class math nerd. “Can I ask Markov for some calculations, please?”

 

Markov, Max’s robotic friend, zipped out of his usual resting place in Max’s bookbag and said, “I would love to be of service, Adrien. How can I help?”

 

“What is the probability that Marinette Dupain-Cheng, of all people, would abuse drugs?”

 

That effectively caught the attention of the rest of the class, most of whom had been clustered around Lila, as per usual when she was spouting some off-the-wall theory or half-baked tale.

 

Markov answered immediately. “Less than 0.01 percent. This is based on all data I’ve been able to collect on her temperament, personality, spoken words, and the physical actions I have observed from her in the 351 days I have known her.”

 

“Fascinating.” Adrien shot a venomous glance at Lila. “And what is the probability that someone in this class might make up vicious rumors about her?”

 

Again, Markov answered immediately. “Currently, that statistic sits at 97 percent, depending on the time of day and the weather.”

 

“Perfect. Given this data, do you think it would be reasonable to assume that anything negative said about Marinette Dupain-Cheng in this class could, and should, be taken with a whole freaking bag of salt?

 

“I do not understand that metaphor, so I am unable to give you a definitive answer. Could you explain?”

 

“When someone says “take it with a grain of salt,” Markov, it means that they don’t trust whatever was said implicitly. It means,” he glared around at all his classmates, “that people should check the source before believing something. So when I say that negative things said about Marinette in this class should be taken with a bag of salt, obviously I mean that the source is so prone to lying that almost nothing they say is actually true.”

 

Gasps all around him and a hand on his shoulder pulled Adrien out of his concentrated rage. He glanced back to see Nino nod at him in support. For a moment he was ashamed at his outburst, but then he clenched his fists and refused to back off. Lila was trying to make everyone believe that Marinette had been hospitalized for a drug overdose instead of the very serious illness she actually had, for crying out loud! It was beyond time for everyone to wake up.

 

Markov flicked his digital ‘eyes’ between Adrien and Lila and then said, “Thank you for explaining and adding to my database of idioms, Adrien. I take your meaning. And I concur.” 

 

Another round of gasps. 

 

“Markov!” Max exclaimed, horrified by his electronic best friends’ seeming attack on Lila.

 

“I’m sorry, Max, but it has been obvious to me for some time that Lila’s stories are factually inconsistent with reality.”

 

Lila started crying, but instead of leaping to her defense, the rest of their classmates were starting to look uncomfortable. It might have actually gone somewhere if Mrs. Mendelieve hadn’t chosen that moment to walk in, calling the class to order and starting roll-call.

 

“I understand Ms. Dupain-Cheng won’t be joining us this afternoon?” she said, off-handedly.

 

“No, Mrs. Mendelieve,” Alya said quietly. “She’s been taken to hospital.”

 

“Yes, so I heard. I understand you, Mr. Lahiffe, and Mr. Agreste assisted in that.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“I know you must be concerned for her, as we all are, but try to pay attention in my class today,” she said, voice hard. Then, unexpectedly, she looked up and met each of their eyes. “Marinette will need someone to borrow notes from, after all.” And then she actually smiled.

 

“Uh, o-of course, ma’am.” Alya said, just as surprised as Adrien. Mrs. Mendelieve was not known for her kindness and sympathy, after all.

 

After that, class went pretty smoothly. Adrien tried his best to pay attention, but it was material he’d already mastered. He liked physics, so he tended to read and work ahead, knowing it was only a matter of time before an akuma would keep him up all night, or actually take place during his favorite class. If he worked ahead, he wouldn’t fall behind. 

 

But his thoughts were irrevocably centered on Marinette today. The more he thought about it, the more things fell into place. All the bits and pieces and whys and wherefores that had always puzzled him about her were making more sense. Why she’d started treating Chloe more kindly. Why she’d mistrusted Lila from the beginning, even before he had. Why she was able to take charge in a crisis- at least until she could find an excuse to run off. To be fair, he hadn’t witnessed that himself a lot, seeing as how he usually tried to sneak off himself at the earliest opportunity, but he usually heard about it later. Why Marinette was so comfortable around Chat Noir, and also why she’d never treated Chat with anything less- or more- than plain friendliness.

 

Why he’d always been so drawn to her. He’d tried to convince himself she was just a friend, and in the beginning, when he’d just been getting used to actually having friends, that had worked. He hadn’t known the difference between what he felt for Nino or Alya, and what he felt for Marinette. But in his heart, he’d always known Marinette was special to him, in a way no other friend could be. Why hadn’t he let himself act on that? Why hadn’t he recognized that what he felt for Marinette was exactly what he felt for Ladybug, only muted?

 

He wanted to bang his head on his desk for his stupidity. How could he have not seen it? He’d even recognized that she was ‘an everyday Ladybug!’ A whole year ago! 

 

He pulled himself out of his abstraction long enough to answer a question, then dove right back in. This has to be weighing on Nino and Alya’s minds, too, he thought. And wasn’t that a whole other kettle of fish! Nino and Alya were just as much secret superheroes as he and Marinette were. And none of them had known. 

 

Well, obviously Marinette had known, at least about Nino and Alya, but… she didn’t know about him. Marinette didn’t know that Adrien was Chat Noir. And yet… she’d recognized him. Or was that just the effect of the fever? The paramedic had said people tended to imagine things that made them feel stronger, more in control. Adrien was Marinette’s friend, he was blond, and she trusted him, so… maybe her mind just thrust him into his actual role as a matter of course, instead of subconscious recognition.

 

The thought made him sad all over again. It’d been the hardest thing he’d ever done, making her think he was Chat Noir, preventing her from transforming in front of a whole schoolyard, the only thing that had made it bearable was the knowledge that he was actually helping her, and that, at some level, his lady knew who he was under the mask.

 

He resolved to test that theory at the earliest opportunity.

 

At the end of class, he, Nino, and Alya once again walked to the next one silently. But this time, he stopped them both before they entered the classroom. “Aren’t we going to talk about this?” he asked quietly, once they weren’t surrounded by a crowd. “About what happened?”

 

Nino and Alya looked at each other. Alya took a step back, breathing heavily and just shook her head. Nino gave him a half-smile and said, “Sorry bro. Can’t.” He rubbed the back of his neck, a move Adrien knew all too well. “At least, not yet. Let’s wait and see how Marinette does, ok? You know… what she remembers.”

 

Adrien closed his eyes, nodding. He wanted to yell, scream, plead with them… but he understood. Ladybug had required their silence and they wouldn’t break their promise to her.

 

“I’m going to the hospital right after school,” Alya said, half turned away from them, arms crossed over her chest.

 

“I’m coming with you, babe,” was Nino’s instant response. They both looked at him. He shifted his feet.

 

“I don’t know if I can go or not. I’ll have to ask.”

 

He saw a flash of something in Alya’s eyes before she turned away and walked into the classroom. He had a suspicion it might have been disappointment. Nino followed her, as he always did, and Adrien stood there alone. He pulled his phone out to text Nathalie.

 

Adrien: My friend Marinette had to go to the hospital today. I want to go and see her before coming home. I just want to know she’s ok.

 

He had a fair idea of what his father’s reaction would be to him wanting to visit a friend in a hospital. He just hoped he was wrong. A few seconds later his phone buzzed, and he knew he hadn’t been wrong. 

 

Nathalie: Your father doesn’t think that’s a good idea. 

 

Throwing my phone across the courtyard won’t fix anything, he told himself. Well, Chat Noir would just have to do a round of hospital visits, now wouldn’t he? Unfortunately, he couldn’t do that today- he hadn’t called ahead, and it could look particular if he showed up out of the blue.

 

He managed to get through the rest of the day without betraying much of his anger and anxiety. Halfway through his last class, his phone buzzed again. He looked down and read the message.

 

Nathalie: Come home immediately after school. Your extracurriculars have been cancelled. Your father has arranged for your pediatrician to make a house call.

 

Unbelievable. Marinette was the one who was sick, she was the one who needed a doctor! Adrien felt perfectly fine. On the spur of the moment, and not letting himself consider whether he would regret this, he texted back.

 

Adrien: I’ll only cooperate if father bothers to find out what kind of care Marinette is receiving. I mean it, Nathalie. I’m worried about her.

 

It took Nathalie a few minutes to respond, and when she did, it wasn’t exactly encouraging.

 

Nathalie: Noted.

 

Adrien sighed. He had a feeling his defiance in this would come back to bite him, but at the moment he cared more about making sure Marinette was going to be ok than anything that might happen to him. If all else failed, he still had Chat Noir to fall back on. Chat Noir, who didn’t have the complications of a controlling father. Chat Noir, who was welcomed everywhere he went. Chat Noir, who had the power to do anything he wished, after all. Chat Noir, who finally knew who his Lady was.

Chapter Text

Ladybug stumbled, almost fell, and dropped to her knees, feeling her stomach revolt. She tried to hurl but nothing came out. How long had she been making her way through the ruins of Paris? Hours? Days? Weeks?

 

She had no clear idea. Nothing she tried made any difference whatsoever. She caught occasional glimpses of moving shapes, but nothing concrete. Whenever she reached out for one there was nothing to touch. Hawkmoth had taken all the stops out with this one. Forget invisible. Forget intangible. Try combining the two, and add an inability to even tell what was an akuma and what wasn’t. That’s what she was facing, and she was facing it alone. 

 

She was making her way to the hospital. Chat had said that’s where the akuma went… but everything looked different in ruins. Streets and subways were blocked. Buildings and landmarks destroyed. Why had he left her alone? They were supposed to be partners. It wasn’t fair for him to leave her alone. If Chat had been here, he would have told her bad jokes, or made stupid inuendos about being the last people alive on earth, and she would’ve been able to fight past the pain and the fatigue, to find the akuma and get the job done.

 

It was so hot, and the air felt pressurized, weighing down on her. She took a deep breath, gathered herself, and stumbled on. She had a job to do. Paris was counting on her.

 

----

 

Inside the ambulance, the paramedics were working on their patient. She was a young teenage girl, presenting with probable meningitis symptoms- sudden onset of high fever, stiff neck, light sensitivity, and delirium. The absence of a rash was considered a positive. They started an IV, and placed cool packs around her head after verifying her body temp.

 

She had been quiet, slipping in and out of consciousness, but she suddenly tried to roll over on her side, heaving. One of the paramedics saw what was happening and pushed a vomit bag over her face just in time, removing the oxygen mask to avoid contamination. The girl’s mother sat in the corner near the door, trying to stay out of the way, but clearly concerned about her daughter’s state. There hadn’t been room for her husband- he was simply too big to ride with them, since they needed some room to move around. 

 

Fortunately the drive to the hospital was relatively short, made shorter by the use of sirens and lights. With meningitis, every second could count.

 

----

 

There was something stuck in her hand. Marinette couldn’t tell what it was, but it was there. Her transformation had dropped again, without her knowledge. Or maybe it was just another illusion. She wasn’t sure if Chat had been telling the truth earlier. It seemed unlikely, but then… he didn’t usually lie to her. And what would be the point of revealing her identity anyway? There wasn’t anyone around to see.

 

She brushed at her hand, trying to dislodge whatever it was. It dragged on her- not much, but enough to be uncomfortable and annoying. She tried shaking it off, but something stopped her. Some force held her arms down, wouldn’t let her reach over to her hand. 

 

She started hyperventilating in panic and all of a sudden the scene changed . Instead of the ruins of Paris, she saw the inside of an ambulance, people in uniforms bending over her, a bag of clear liquid swaying overhead, and a glimpse of Sabine Cheng’s frightened face.

 

“Maman,” she whimpered. “What’s going on…”

 

One of the uniforms was talking to her. “Do you know where you are? Can you tell me your name?”

 

She tried to focus, but the lights were so bright… she closed her eyes. It was cooler in the ambulance than the ruins of Paris. “M-Marinette,” she whispered. “I’m… Marinette.”

 

“Ok, stay with us, Marinette. You’re doing fine.”

 

The voices were fading, the lights were going out… the heat and pressure returned, and Ladybug struggled on through the ruins, not even sure if what she’d seen was real, or some kind of mirage.

 

----

 

Sabine watched one of the paramedics take a syringe and squeeze it's contents into the port of the IV. 

 

"What's that?" She asked anxiously.

 

"It's a sedative. Marinette was trying to pull the IV out earlier. Based on that... it's going to be easier on everyone if she's sedated for the lumbar puncture." He looked up then and smiled kindly. "We're nearly at the hospital and the doctors have been alerted. They'll do everything possible for your daughter."

 

----

 

Marinette wondered where all her supposed luck had gone. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she crouched on the ground in the middle of a random street, fighting against the pain of a sharp cramp in her lower back. 

 

"Chaaaat…!" She called between sobs. "Chaaat! Chat Noir where are you?" 

 

The cramp eased off, leaving a lingering soreness and sensitivity. She took several deep breaths, trying to force the tears back down. A sudden thought struck her. She reached up to feel her earlobes. Her earrings were still in place, and she wasn't transformed… so where was Tikki?

 

----

 

Sabine held Marinette's hand as the physician's assistant performed the lumbar puncture, watching the tears leak out of her daughter's eyes. Sedated or not, she was clearly in pain. It broke Sabine's heart, but the procedure was necessary to find out what the doctors were dealing with.

 

She'd heard the word 'meningitis' thrown around, but though she knew it was a serious illness, she wasn't sure what exactly it was.

 

After the lumbar puncture, several nurses shooed her away to the waiting room while they prepared Marinette for her hospital stay. Once they had her changed and settled into a room, they let Sabine rejoin her. Tom arrived shortly after that, and Sabine filled him in on the little she knew.

 

A quick google search of the word meningitis had them both clutching each other with terror.

 

----

 

By the time Alya and Nino made it to the hospital, the doctors had determined the type of meningitis afflicting Marinette and started treatment. 

 

Sabine and Tom greeted them with tears and hugs.

 

"I don't even want to think about what would have happened if Marinette didn't have you two," Tom said, nearly crushing each of them in gratitude.

 

"But what's wrong with her? Is she going to be ok?" Alya asked anxiously, completely forgetting to remind them that Adrien Agreste had had a huge role in getting Marinette the help she needed.

 

"She has bacterial meningitis," Sabine said, "It's serious, but the doctors say it's not as bad as it could be. She should recover."

 

"Should?" Nino asked in a hollow tone.

 

Sabine shared a worried look with Tom before replying. "She might have some side effects. Loss of memory, problems concentrating… maybe even partial hearing loss, depending on how much swelling there is."

 

Alya and Nino shared a look. "Can we see her?" Alya asked.

 

Sabine shook her head. "Not yet. She could be contagious, and you've already been exposed. In fact I need to call the school to let them know… they'll want to send letters home to parents. Every student should get vaccinated, just in case. Including you two! In fact, I'll just give your parents a quick call, and they can come down and get you yours before you leave."

 

Sabine walked away to make her phone calls and Alya and Nino sank down into two chairs next to Tom. He was staring off into space, and neither of them wanted to disturb him.

 

They held hands, wordlessly giving and receiving comfort. After a while Nino leaned over and quietly said, "I'm going to call Adrien. I said I'd let him know."

 

"He should be here," Alya grumped, but quietly. Tom and Sabine were in consultation with one of the doctors at the moment, and she didn't want to interrupt them.

 

"That's not fair, Alya. You know what his old man's like." He glanced off to the side, nervously. "Besides, I wouldn't be surprised if he showed up, you know… later ."

 

Alya hit him with her elbow, but honestly there wasn't anything revealing about what Nino had said. Still. 

 

It was driving her crazy, knowing and yet not being able to say anything about it. But she’d promised. She’d promised Ladybug, only she hadn’t known she was promising her best friend at the same time. And now it was her best friend, not Ladybug (at the moment) who was lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. And her partner , who should have been the first one to her side, was nowhere to be seen.

 

Nino had a point, though. Chat Noir didn’t have the luxury of understanding parents. Adrien didn’t have the luxury of understanding parents. She slumped forward, resting head on hands, and elbows on knees. Later on, she’d have to take some time to find a relatively deserted part of the city so she could indulge in a primal scream, just to relieve her feelings.

 

A soft, nearly hysterical giggle escaped as she thought about whether she could convince either of her full-time superhero friends to help her out with that.

 

----

 

Adrien paced around his bedroom, repeating I can’t just transform and go right now, silently to himself. He was waiting on the doctor, and he couldn’t leave until after the doctor left. For that matter, he couldn’t leave until after nightfall. He glanced at his phone- still two hours until sunset.

 

“Plagg,” he said, in desperation. “Is… is there anything Tikki can do?”

 

Plagg whizzed out from his hiding spot and floated in front of him. He stared at him with solemn green eyes, all trace of mischief gone for the moment. He sighed. “It depends on how bad it is, kid. But… if she’s with her, she might be able to do something. Not much. But something. It would be easier if she was transformed, but… this isn’t a physical injury. Tikki would be able to do a lot more for a physical injury, but this? This is inside her, somewhere Tikki can’t go.”

 

Adrien ran shaky hands through his hair. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t be losing his lady right after finally finding her.

 

“Fine. Is there anything I can do? Can I… I don’t know, cataclysm something to make her better?”

 

“My powers aren’t that subtle, Adrien.” He was silent a moment, then said. “I’m sorry, kid. I know how hard this is.”

 

Adrien took a shaky breath. “What.. what’s happened in the past? If… If a Chat Noir lost their Ladybug. How did they handle it?”

 

Plagg considered this for a moment. “Typically, they don’t. It’s usually the other way around.”

 

Adrien stared at him, wide-eyed. 

 

“What can I say, kid, it’s the nature of the job. My powers and the suit can stand up to a lot of things, but sometimes… sometimes it’s just not enough. And if the Ladybug of the time can’t use her miraculous to fix everything soon enough, well. But there have been a few times. Maybe two.” Plagg floated over to the window and Adrien followed, looking out at the bright spring sky full of puffy white clouds.

 

“One of those times, the Chat Noir and Ladybug of the time were already married when they were chosen. When she died, my chosen just… stopped.” He sighed. “I tried everything, but… it’s hard enough to lose one half of a married relationship. Add to that the breaking of a miraculous bond and well… he didn’t last very long.”

 

Adrien eyed his kwami, distracted from his own tension by Plagg’s uncharacteristic introspection. He bit his lip, wondering if he should try to offer some kind of comfort. But then Plagg went on.

 

“The second one, if you can believe it, was worse.” 

 

Adrien could have sworn he saw actual tears in the kwami’s eyes.

 

“That time, neither of them knew the other in their civilian lives, and they were fighting on opposite sides of a nasty civil war when they weren’t transformed.” Plagg stayed silent for long enough Adrien thought he’d said all he meant to. But then he continued. “He used cataclysm on her. While she wasn’t transformed, of course. I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. The other side had stormed his position, killing a lot of innocents, and he was so angry. I knew she was only trying to help, but he saw her bending over one of the kids, and… I guess he assumed she was ensuring the kid was dead. And then she was dead, just like that. Only, it wasn’t immediate. She had enough time to tell him who she was.”

 

Plagg fell silent after that, and they stood at the window together, staring out at nothing.

 

The rattle of the doorknob, sometime later, was all the warning they had. Plagg zipped into his usual shirt pocket and Adrien turned away from the window.

 

Nathalie came into the room, followed by Dr. Nez. Dr. Nez had been Adrien’s pediatrician since he was born, and was generally a kind-hearted, comforting presence.

 

Adrien nodded to them both, but fixed his attention on Nathalie. “Well?” he asked, crossing his arms.

 

Nathalie sighed. “As far as I know, Ms. Dupain-Cheng is receiving the best of care. I really can’t tell you much more, there are medical information laws in force. But, from what I’ve been able to gather, she’s responding to the treatment. Your friend should pull through.”

 

Adrien felt a wave of relief crash over him. Rubbing his face, he walked over to his bed and sat on the edge to submit to his doctor’s examination. It didn’t take long, and he answered the questions Dr. Nez asked as briefly as possible. 

 

“Well, everything seems to be fine with you,” Dr. Nez said, patting his arm. “But, because your friend does appear to have meningitis and because you were in close proximity to her before she went to the hospital, I’m going to go ahead and give you the vaccine. It’s just a precaution at this point, but your father and I agree on this- better safe than sorry.”

 

Adrien submitted to the shot without complaint. The last thing Paris needed was both Ladybug and Chat Noir out of commission.

 

It wasn’t long after Dr. Nez finally left that Adrien got the call from Nino. Nino couldn’t tell him much, but he was thankful for the call anyway. He told Nino about his own doctor’s visit and asked him to tell the Dupain-Chengs that he would visit when he could, and that he was thinking about them.

 

By the time dinner was over he was so full of nervous energy that he took to climbing his walls untransformed- which was significantly harder- just to have something to concentrate on. It wasn’t something he did a lot, anymore. Running the roofs as Chat Noir usually fed his need for acrobatics nowadays. But since that wasn’t an option, he was challenging himself by only using his left hand, keeping his right tucked into his waistband behind his back. So when a small red kwami suddenly popped up in his face, he nearly lost complete hold of the wall. Shakily, he made his way back down and went to sit on the couch.

 

“What are you doing here, Tikki? Why did you leave her?” he asked, furious with the small godlet.

 

“Because I can’t hide anywhere near her right now. The doctors and nurses are in and out constantly, her parents are right there , one or both of them, and they keep moving things around! I need you to get me something I can hide in, and then take it to her room.”

 

Adrien breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment he thought the worst might have happened, and she’d come to tell him Marinette was about to die. “You scared me to death,” he murmured, hiding his face in his hands. A tiny touch on his cheek made him look at her.

 

“I’m sorry, Adrien. I didn’t mean to scare you. But I do need your help.” She paused. “You were planning to visit her tonight, right?”

 

“Of course!”

 

“Good. I know exactly how you can get in. But Chat Noir shouldn’t be seen in the hallways, so we’ll have to find you some kind of disguise so you can detransform long enough to make it to her room.”

 

Adrien raised an eyebrow at that, then marched over to his closet. He threw the doors open and gestured. “I don’t know how much use these will be, since they’re all high fashion clothes, but… take your pick.”

 

----

 

Adrien managed it. It was a close call a few times, but he did it- he made it to Marinette's (thankfully private) hospital room without being recognized or caught, despite the late hour and his own obvious youth.

 

While carrying a pot of geraniums.

 

Once he was outside her room, he sent Plagg in to scout it out. It would have been Tikki, except Plagg could blend into shadows more easily. Plagg zipped back out and let him know that Sabine was asleep in the chair by the bed and Tom wasn't in the room at all.

 

Adrien tried not to make his sigh of relief obvious. Tom, while demonstrably a wonderful father, baker, and all around human being, still intimidated him.

 

Adrien snuck through the door and into the bathroom. He mostly closed the door and transformed, knowing if a nurse came in and saw Chat Noir there, there would be less trouble than if she saw Adrien Agreste there. Not least of which was that she couldn't call Chat Noir's parents.

 

Then he took a deep breath and, clasping the pot of geraniums to his chest, ventured out into the room.

 

He saw Marinette first, laying too straight, and looking entirely too vulnerable in the hospital bed. The hospital gown she wore, and the fact her hair was loose made her look much more a child than an almost 15 year old. The thin blankets were pulled up to her armpits, but her arms lay straight at her sides. Various cords and tubes were connected to her, though not as many as he'd feared. No oxygen mask, for one. He absently placed the geraniums on the rolling table as he approached the bed.

A quick glance told him Sabine was asleep in a chair next to the window, exactly as Plagg had said.

He took her right hand in his, wondering if he dared to lean over and kiss… her cheek, her forehead? Her face looked a little scrunched, as if she wasn't quite happy, but couldn't remember why. Her skin was still flushed, but not nearly as badly as earlier that day, mainly just in the cheeks.

 

Chat Noir got the little rolling stool meant for the doctors and nurses to use and sat down by the bed so he could hold her hand, but be closer to her level. He wanted her to hear him, but he didn’t want to talk too loudly and wake her mother up.

 

"I'm so sorry I couldn’t come earlier,” he murmured, stroking her arm with his left hand. “I couldn’t get away. I brought you some flowers,” he said. “They’ll make a good hiding place for Tikki. I’ll come every night until… until I can come as myself. Please… stay strong. Fight this.” He raised her hand to his lips. “Come back. Come back to... everyone who loves you.”

 

One of his cat ears twitched toward the door, and he turned his head to see Tom Dupain standing there holding two cups of coffee and a stunned expression. He didn’t say anything, though, just stood there. Chat Noir held his gaze levelly, as if daring him to challenge his right to be in the room.

 

Finally, Tom sighed and continued into the room, past the end of the bed, to set one of the coffee cups down by his wife. He touched her shoulder and she stirred, raising her own hand to cover his and looking up at him with a tired smile. Tom returned it and Chat Noir felt a stab of… jealousy? Envy? It was hard to tell for certain. Marinette’s parents had always impressed him as wonderful people, and he wished his own family were like them. 

 

Tom didn’t say anything, but jerked his head over Chat’s way, and Sabine met his gaze, expression morphing from surprise to gentle sympathy.

 

“Hello, dear,” Sabine said. “It’s good of you to come.”

 

Chat shrugged, turning his attention back to Marinette. “I would have come as myself earlier, except… well, I couldn’t.”

 

Marinette chose that moment to moan, and whisper something, stirring slightly and squeezing his hand. She frowned a little more, head turning on the pillow as if searching for something. Chat immediately stood up and leaned over her, soothing her brow with a gentle hand while holding the other.

 

“Chaaat…” she murmured.

 

“I’m here,” he said, touching his forehead to hers. He shut his eyes on tears he wouldn’t let himself shed. “I’m here, Marinette.”

 

“Don’t… leave me.”

 

“I won’t. Never again.” Despite his resolve, a lump grew in his throat, and he had to gulp it down. “I know how strong you are. You can beat this. Keep fighting, Princess. Come back to… us.”

 

He became aware of a large hand on his back, but it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that Marinette knew he was there. Marinette relaxed again, some of the tension draining out of her face, and her breathing evened out. Her grip on his hand slackened again as she fell into deeper sleep.

 

Chat took a shaky breath and straightened up. Tom’s hand remained on his back, but it felt supportive rather than threatening. He quickly wiped his eyes and looked across the bed at Sabine, who stood on the other side holding Marinette’s left hand. She took a damp cloth and gently wiped her daughter’s brow with it.

 

“I think you helped her, just now,” she said softly. “She’s been calling for you every so often.” She paused. “I didn’t know you two were so close.”

 

Chat debated what to tell them. He’d never fully agreed with Ladybug’s insistence on strict secrecy, at least not between the two of them, but he’d gone along with it knowing he couldn’t push for too much too fast. Obviously her parents had no idea she was one half of Paris’ superhero team, and he couldn’t do that to her- reveal her identity to them, just because he felt it was right that they should know. If the worst happened, if he lost her, well… then he would. But until that happened, it wasn’t his right.

 

“We got closer after The Incident,” he said, finally. “I… I visit her sometimes, when I need to talk. No one else really comes close to understanding.” If only he’d known before just how much she understood. “And… I know her behind the mask, too. We’re not as close in real life yet, but I’ve been trying to get there for a while now.”

 

Tom patted his shoulder before removing his hand. “I see you’ve stopped lying to yourself, son.”

 

“Tom.” Sabine reproved, but gently. “He wasn’t lying before, I would have known. He wasn’t in love with her then . But anyone who loved Ladybug would have to be a blind idiot not to see the same qualities in our Marinette.”

 

Chat Noir thought about telling them how true that was, but decided it would be too big of a clue. So he simply agreed with her. She was right, after all. “Yup,” he said, with a weak grin. “A blind idiot.” Then the grin faded.

 

“So,” he asked. “How is she really?”

 

Tom sighed and walked back over to the chairs to sit down. Sabine joined him, but Chat remained by Marinette’s side, though he sank back down onto the stool.

 

“It’s like with any other infection,” Tom said. “Antibiotics help, but in the end, it’s just got to run it’s course. The doctors did another CT scan this evening, and they said the swelling is down, so… that’s a positive.”

 

“How long will it take her to get better?” he asked, and despite his feelings for her, there was also an element of professional need to know to it. Chat Noir would have to tackle any akumas in that time by himself, and… to be honest, he wasn’t quite sure he was up to it. He knew he could wield her miraculous if it came to that, but… he’d really rather not. The two times he’d tried using other miraculouses so far had not been his finest hours. Especially not with the snake. And he had a feeling he’d only done as well as he had against Reflekdoll because Ladybug had been right there with him, giving him tips. Besides, if he was going to be Mr. Bug again, who would be the black cat? 

 

He couldn’t really see himself giving anyone else either of their miraculouses, but the possibility had to be considered. He made a mental note to ask for his substitute Chinese tutor for this week’s lesson.

 

“The doctors say it all depends on how well she responds to the treatment, but… between one and two weeks, is usual.”

 

Chat Noir nodded, thinking it through. Then he remembered the geraniums. He motioned to the flower pot, and said, “I brought her something. They… might help. It’s not much, but… it’s something.” He said it vaguely, hoping they would pick up on his hints that the flowers were special and shouldn’t be thrown out.

 

“Thank you, dear,” Sabine said again, eyes glistening. She wiped them, and then said, “I know you promised not to leave her, but… it’s almost time for the nurses to come check on her again, and… well, you should probably get home and get some rest, now that you know she’s doing as well as can be expected.”

 

Chat Noir closed his eyes, slumping down a bit. He didn’t want to leave, but… she was right. So, with a sigh, he rose again, kissed Marinette’s hand and squeezed it before letting go. Then, whether it was wise or not, he swiftly bent over and kissed her forehead. “I’ll be back tomorrow night,” he whispered in her ear. “Keep fighting.”

 

He was about to duck into the bathroom when he remembered her parents were still there and very much awake. He hesitated before saying, “I’m sure you’ll figure me out eventually, because I intend to visit a lot once I’m allowed, but… I can’t walk through the halls this way, and…”

 

Tom interrupted him. “It’s alright, son. We won’t look.”

 

Chat Noir nodded his thanks, ducked into the bathroom, detransformed, and then peeked around the door. Tom and Sabine were studiously looking at the city lights outside the window. He sent Plagg to check the hallway, and once the coast was clear, he left the same way he’d come.

Chapter Text

Marinette- Ladybug- wasn't sure what was going on. She still wandered the ruins of Paris, but sometimes… sometimes she was somewhere else. Somewhere she was almost sure was a hospital.

 

The ruins felt so real, but… hadn't Chat Noir told her they were sending her to the hospital? And he, Rena, and Carapace had all looked so concerned…

 

… could it be that the ruins were nothing more than illusion? Or… a fever dream?

 

It was hard to think, what with the heat and pressure, but it wasn't quite so hot anymore. And the pressure wasn't as unbearable either. She began looking around at her surroundings as she walked and climbed over rubble. And she began to notice that, while the scenery changed, she never really got anywhere.

 

She remembered trying to get to the hospital for some reason… but later there hadn't been a real reason to keep going. She just did.

 

Abruptly, she sat down on a broken block of stone and took a break. And then she decided that she would stay there unless and until something happened to make her move. Paris was deserted, after all. There wasn't anything for her to fight, and she was beginning to suspect that she would never meet up with her teammates here.

 

After a while she became aware of voices, which was a first. They sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite make them out.

 

And then came a voice she knew better than her own. Chat's voice. She stood up and screamed his name at the uncaring sky. Wherever she was, she had to break through and make him hear her.

 

To her surprise, it worked. Chat’s voice got stronger, as if he were closer somehow. She looked around wildly, trying to find him. But he wasn’t there. Just his voice.

 

She concentrated, trying to make the sounds fit into words she knew the meaning of. Slowly, ever so slowly, it started to make sense. It wasn’t like full sentences, but some words came clear and she could guess the meaning of the rest.

 

“I’m here. Keep fighting. Come back.”

 

After that… nothing. Disappointed, she sat back down on her broken pillar, hugging her legs and resting her cheek on her knees. 

 

----

 

The morning brought good news. Marinette’s fever had spiked during the night again, but it hadn’t gone as high as the last time, and her blood draws continued to show improvement. The antibiotics were working. Her morning CT scan showed a gradual but steady decrease in swelling around her brain and spinal cord. The doctors were cautiously optimistic. It was still too soon to count it a complete victory, but given her progress, she had a very good chance of recovering without lingering problems.

 

----

 

Marinette/Ladybug was getting very tired of the ruined Parisian landscape. She wanted to return to the hospital setting she could only catch glimpses of, which she was beginning to believe was her actual reality. And if it was her actual reality, then no matter how bad it must be to have landed her in the hospital, she wanted to return to it. This half-world of nothing could sink back into the ether of which it was made for all she cared. As long as it didn’t take her with it, anyway. She had a lot more living to do.

 

----

 

All morning, Adrien felt like someone was staring at the back of his head. But since Marinette wasn’t there, he had no idea who it could be. He kept trying to subtly turn his head to see who might be watching him, but he never caught anyone but Alya, who he often surprised with a contemplative frown on her face. But somehow, he didn’t think the person staring at him so intently was her.

 

He did bring it up at lunch, though.

 

“Like what you see?” he joked, with a decidedly Chat-like grin. “Maybe I better tell Nino to watch out.”

 

Alya rolled her eyes. “In your dreams, Agreste. Foxes and Cats might meet on the family tree, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go for one. Now turtles , on the other hand, are highly misunderstood creatures, completely worthy of my regard. Right, babe?”

 

Nino grinned like a fool when she slid her arm around his waist and gave him a peck on the cheek. Adrien grinned at them both, sighing with relief. It wasn’t exactly talking about it, but it was open acknowledgment at the very least.

 

“If you’re planning to go visit Marinette today you, uh, might find something new in her room,” he said, changing the subject. 

 

“Told you,” Nino said, nudging Alya with his elbow.

 

“What? I just sent her some flowers,” Adrien said, though he was sure he was blushing a little. “Ok, so I may have had them… delivered. But still. Just flowers.”

 

Alya narrowed her eyes. “Yeah… about that. Listen,” she began, then seemed to reconsider what she was going to say. She sighed. “Adrien, we all know you’ve been carrying a torch for Ladybug since she first appeared.”

 

Adrien nodded, suddenly serious. 

 

“It’s just… you know, despite Marinette’s courage when it comes to… other things… she’s not very courageous when it’s a matter of the heart. I feel like, as her best friend, I should tell you that-,” she stopped, reconsidering her words. “No, I should flat out warn you that playing around with her heart won’t be good for your continued existence.”

 

“Alya-,” Nino started, but his girlfriend cut him off.

 

“No, let me talk to him. This is serious. And he has to know what he’s up against.”

 

Adrien’s mouth went dry. What on earth was Alya talking about? Then he remembered all the times Ladybug had told Chat Noir that she was in love with someone else. Was… was he about to find out who? He immediately started sweating.

 

Alya turned back to him. “Look, Marinette’s had a crush on you for two years now. And when I say crush, I mean that sometimes it was kinda scary how hung up on you she was, alright?”

 

Adrien blinked. That was the absolute last thing he’d expected to hear. But before he could really process what he’d heard and start grinning like a fool himself, she went on.

 

“But here’s the thing- if you’re only interested in her now that you know she’s Ladybug, you just don’t even need to try. Because Marinette’s better than that. I mean, I’ve been a fan of Ladybug from the beginning, and don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that she’s Marinette. But it’s because now I know more about my friend Marinette, not because Marinette somehow has more value now that I know she’s also my superhero idol.” Alya frowned at him. “Do you understand the difference here?”

 

Adrien pursed his lips. “Yeah… yeah I think I do. But you really don’t need to worry about that, ok?” He moved the food on his plate around, trying to decide what and how he should say this. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but… I know I always said she was just a friend. But the thing is, she was never just a friend. It took me a long time to figure out the difference- how I felt about you and Nino, and how I felt about Marinette. She’s always been… more. Special. I just… for the longest time I thought she was afraid of me.”

 

Nino nodded, “Yeah, that’s true. And you have to admit, she kinda made it seem that way, Alya. I mean, if you hadn’t clued me in, I would’ve thought she didn’t like Adrien, too. But actually,” he took a large bite of his sandwich, “about two months ago, Adrien asked me for help with Marinette. I told him to go to you, since you were her best friend, but he thought you would be too pushy.”

 

Adrien blushed, saying, “Yeah, ok, enough Nino, she’s got the point.”

 

Alya, meanwhile, was staring at him in frank astonishment. “Really? Two months ago? And what exactly has this plan been, because honestly I haven’t seen much improvement.”

 

“Oh dude, there’s been tons of improvement!” Nino said, pumping his fist in the air. “Haven’t you noticed how Marinette hardly ever stumbles over her words anymore, and how she can actually look him in the eye now?”

 

“Yes, and I’ve also seen her start hyperventilating about it whenever the moment is over.”

 

“Well, I mean, that’s just classic Marinette right there. At least she can hold a conversation with him now, right dudes?” Nino grinned wickedly. “Did you know Mr. Dorkasaurus over there even came up with a code name for the plan?”

 

Alya grinned like the vixen she sometimes was. “No! Do tell!”

 

Adrien groaned and buried his face in his hands. “Come on, Nino, leave me some dignity!”

 

But Nino, apparently, had no pity. “Yeah, he called it ‘Operation: Stop Scaring Mari,’” and then he burst out laughing. Alya joined him, and after a while even Adrien had to chuckle weakly at himself.

 

Once she quit laughing, Alya pressed for more details. “So tell me about this plan. What was your strategy, exactly?”

 

Adrien blushed again, but said, “Well… you know when you’re trying to make friends with, like, a cat or a dog, but it’s scared of you? You’re supposed to keep your voice low and move slowly, and give it treats, but back off so it doesn’t feel threatened. And then over time, you know, it starts to trust you, and...” He glanced up to see Alya staring at him with her mouth hanging open. His face burned, but he continued, “So I thought… maybe the same thing would work with Marinette?”

 

“O.M.G.” Alya put one hand over her heart. “I don’t know whether to slap you or hug you, you adorable dork. Marinette is not… some random puppy!”

 

“I know that!” Adrien burst out. “But… I didn’t know what else to do! I really wanted to get closer to her, but every time I tried to ask her out, she literally ran away from me! So… I figured if I backed off a bit, you know, just kind of ramped up our interactions gradually… maybe she’d give me a chance. So I’ve been trying that, and it seemed to be working. Maybe not as fast as I’d hoped, but…” Abruptly his embarrassment faded, as he remembered all the game-changers from yesterday. “And now… well, now I guess I have my work cut out for me.” He stared at the suddenly unappetizing food on his tray. “Ladybug’s never had feelings for Chat.”

 

“Um, that’s all you know,” Alya said, crossing her arms. “If I’ve heard one rant about how people don’t appreciate Chat Noir enough, I’ve heard them all. It got to the point where I started teasing her about her ‘celebrity crush,’ and I swear, she got just as red in the face over that as she ever has about you.” She took a deliberate bite of her salad. “I think you have a pretty fair shot. But!” she added, stabbing her fork in his direction for added emphasis. “You need to make it absolutely clear to her that you like her - as in Marinette- and not just Ladybug. Because if she starts thinking that you only like her because she’s Ladybug, you’re not going to like the results. My girl will break both of your hearts, and do it smiling if she thinks you’re only interested in her superhero side.”

 

Adrien sat and digested that for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure what to feel. Elated that she’d already been in love with him? Sad that he would have to prove his love to her with this kind of handicap? But it made sense. She’d never responded to his overtures as Chat, and she’d never wanted to share her secret identity. There had to be a reason beyond the secrecy imposed on them by their kwamis and Master Fu. 

 

“She doesn’t think she’s good enough, does she,” he said quietly. It boggled his mind how someone so… so sure and confident could be this dense when it came to her own worth. But then, he'd been pretty dense himself when it came to her, so...

 

Alya just nodded. “I know it’s stupid, but… you can’t argue with something like this. Not verbally, anyway,” she added, throwing him a lidded look. What was he supposed to do with that?!

 

He glanced at Nino, curious how this conversation was affecting him. After all, they’d gone from not talking about it, ever yesterday to totally talking about it today. But Nino was his usual easy-going self, scrolling on his phone and humming to himself.

 

“What’s got you so preoccupied?” Adrien asked, changing the subject.

 

“I’m makin’ a new playlist,” Nino said, with a smirk.

 

“Oh?” Alya asked, playfully. “What for?”

 

“Their first date,” he said, grinning evilly. Then he started listing off all the sappiest, most disgustingly cute love songs in the history of modern music.

 

Adrien buried his suddenly flaming face in his hands again and gave up on the idea of food.

Chapter Text

The lunchtime conversation had completely distracted Adrien from the fact that he’d felt eyes on him all morning. But the pattern continued after lunch as well. It got so bad that he started hunching over his desk, glancing nervously from side to side every ten minutes or so. Whoever it was apparently never caught the attention of the teacher, because no one got called out either for staring off into space, or for not paying attention.

 

By the time the last bell rang, he was sprinting for the locker room, eager to get away from whoever was watching him. He quickly grabbed what he needed, keeping an eye out for Lila, since she’d tried to ambush him twice today already, and then headed out to the waiting car. He didn’t have a photoshoot this afternoon, but he did have a chinese lesson, and decided to text Master Fu in the car on the way back to his house.

 

He should have done it earlier- yesterday, in fact- but he’d been so worried and distracted, and then after his visit to the hospital, he’d been too worn out to do anything but fall into bed. So he took the time given him, and hoped Master Fu could somehow convince his regular tutor to skip today’s lesson.

 

He was relieved when he saw the old man in the hawaiian shirt come through his bedroom door. He’d been half afraid it was too short notice, but it seemed the old man had numerous connections.

 

“Hello again, Adrien. It’s been a while since we last talked. Shall we get started?” Master Fu said, for the benefit of Nathalie’s retreating back. For a few minutes they talked in Cantonese about the weather, movies they’d seen, and whether or not the traffic situation would ever improve. But finally Master Fu gave him the signal he’d been waiting for.

 

“What was so urgent you needed to see me, Adrien?” Master Fu asked, not reverting to French.

 

Adrien followed his lead. He was supposed to be practicing Chinese, after all. “Marinette’s in the hospital,” he said bluntly. “She has meningitis, and she accidentally revealed herself to me when she was delirious with a high fever.”

 

Master Fu’s eyes widened, but otherwise he didn’t react. “Hm, this… could be tricky. Is… is she expected to survive?”

 

Adrien was a little taken aback. “Uh, I went to see her as Chat Noir last night, and her parents told me that the doctors are hopeful she’ll make a full recovery. But it’s going to be at least two weeks and maybe more before she’ll be ready to be Ladybug again.” He paused. “I got some flowers, and took them to her room for Tikki to hide in.”

 

Master Fu nodded. “That was a good idea. And I’m relieved she will survive. Aside from being the best Ladybug in recent history, she’s a very special girl.” Master Fu seemingly got lost in thought for a moment. “I assume you are worried about akumas?” he finally asked.

 

“A little,” Adrien replied, shifting uncomfortably. “It’s not that I don’t care about her! In fact… I’ve kind of been trying to get her to date me… but,” he bit his lip. “I can’t ignore the fact that she’s out of commission right now. And I can’t purify akumas.”

 

Master Fu pursed his lips. “And what do you propose to do about that?”

 

Adrien’s eyebrows rose. He’d expected Fu to give him instructions, not to ask what he himself had planned.

 

“I, uh, well, I thought maybe I could wield the Ladybug earrings if it came down to it. It’s not that I want to stop being Chat Noir, because I don’t, but at least I have one battle as Mr. Bug under my belt, and that’s better than choosing someone at random, who would have to learn everything from scratch.”

 

Master Fu nodded. “I see. Have you considered there are other experienced miraculous holders you might call on?”

 

“Well… not really,” Adrien said. Thinking about it, he didn’t think Nino would make a very good Mr. Bug at all, but Alya might be a good choice for Ladybug… and he thought Chloe might well jump at the chance. She was still holding out for a reprise of her role as Queen Bee, but she’d always idolized Ladybug. 

 

“I can see how that might be a better fit. Someone who already knows about the miraculous and kwamis and the responsibility… and someone who also wouldn’t want to keep being Ladybug,” he mused. There was no way he was going to just outright replace Marinette. He knew Tikki would do her duty, just as she had with him, but she had a special bond with Marinette, just as he had with Plagg. Neither of the kwamis would be happy to be passed on to new owners permanently unless there was no other choice.

 

“Out of curiosity,” Master Fu said, “have you discovered the identities of your other teammates, as well?”

 

Adrien flushed a bit. “Well… it seems Ladybug chooses her friends most often, people she knows and can trust. And she wasn’t… herself. So yes, I know the identities of four of the holders now, although I personally don’t feel Luka would be a good fit for either Ladybug or Chat Noir. He’s fantastic as Viperion, but… I just can’t see him as anything else.”

 

“I agree. Mr. Couffaine has a natural affinity for the snake miraculous… as you have not ,” Master Fu finished with an amused glint in his eye. Adrien flushed again. “I think that was the only time Ladybug disappointed me with her choice. And you as well. You could have told her then who you were, and it would have made complete sense- she could not have gotten legitimately angry with you, and you would not have made a fool of yourself with Sass.”

 

Adrien hung his head, but Master Fu didn’t seem inclined to let him wallow. “But you are both still very young, and it will be a lesson for you that you won’t soon forget. Now. Who would you choose to hold the Ladybug or black cat miraculous if Hawkmoth decides to complicate our lives further?”

 

“You’d really let me decide?” he asked, still not quite believing it.

 

“You are Ladybug’s partner. Failing her, it should be your choice who you fight with.”

 

Adrien took his time. He didn’t want to get this wrong. He carefully considered the merits of both Alya and Chloe. Given no other considerations, he’d probably go with Alya. She was brave and smart, and eager to be a useful superhero, and he was good friends with her. But… she was also more than a bit reckless, more like himself if he admitted it, and probably would make a better black cat than a Ladybug. 

 

Chloe, as Queen Bee, had already demonstrated leadership potential- she had the authority down, and her spinning top weapon was close enough to Ladybug’s yo-yo that she wouldn’t have much of a learning curve. But he wondered if she had enough imagination to use Lucky Charm effectively. Then again, she would probably be better at that than Alya. True, Alya used imagination with Mirage as Rena Rouge, but… in their past battles, Ladybug had always guided her on what to create.

 

“I think,” he said slowly, “That if I choose to wield the Ladybug miraculous myself, then I would pick Alya for Chat Noir. And if I stayed Chat Noir, I would go with Chloe Bourgeois for the Ladybug earrings.”

 

Master Fu raised an eyebrow at that. “I would be interested in your reasoning. I have never been very comfortable with Chloe Bourgeois as a holder of any miraculous.”

 

“Chloe’s always been good at telling people what to do, and while she might not be as creative as Marinette, I think she would make a better Ladybug than Alya would. Alya, I think, would make a better Chat Noir if it came to that, because, like me, she’s a little reckless and jumps into things before thinking them through. I’d never team the two of them up together, though! Either way, I’d still be one half of the team.”

 

Master Fu nodded. “Sound reasoning. Do you think Chloe would be inclined to give the miraculous back, though? Hasn’t she always wanted to be Ladybug herself?”

 

“I think, at first, yes,” Adrien said, after thinking about it. “But now I think she’s realized she’s not really cut out for that role on a permanent basis. She’d be thrilled to get the Bee miraculous back permanently, but I don’t think she wants to be Ladybug anymore.”

 

Master Fu thought about what Adrien had said. “Alright. I almost hate to say it, but you should go ahead and take the Ladybug earrings so you have them on you if you need them. Rushing into the hospital as Chat Noir to retrieve them during an akuma attack would call too much attention to Marinette.”

 

Adrien’s face fell. He hated the idea of just taking the earrings without Marinette’s consent. It was too much like something Hawkmoth would do. But Master Fu was right. He couldn’t wait until the last moment, like Ladybug did sometimes. Her safety and identity were at stake if he tried.

 

“What about Tikki?” he asked. “Will she be able to stay with Marinette? Plagg said there might be something she could do on her own to help her heal.”

 

Master Fu shook his head. “It’s unlikely. If Marinette were transformed, she might be able to do something, but as it is, Tikki must stay with the earrings. Remember, if-”

 

“If the kwami is too far away from the miraculous, it can’t be used. I know.” He turned away. “It just feels like a betrayal.”

 

Master Fu patted his shoulder. “It’s never easy to make this kind of decision. Unfortunately, it’s one I have had to make too many times to count.”

 

Adrien’s phone buzzed with a notification. He picked it up just to check- sometimes Nino or Alya would text him jokes to cheer him up when he was being forced to stay home, but he usually never checked during lesson times because he was too busy. He figured Master Fu wouldn’t mind, though. This conversation about the miraculouses had definitely stretched his grasp of vocabulary and grammar. He figured he’d done a good day’s work.

 

But the text was from an unknown number. It was short enough to read without expanding his notifications list. 

 

[unknown] Is Ladybug ok?

 

Adrien gasped. Wordlessly, he showed the text to Master Fu, who frowned.

 

Adrien thought for a moment, before tapping out a reply, showing it to his mentor for approval before sending it.

 

[Adrien] How should I know? Who is this? Is there something new on the LadyBlog?

 

The reply came too quickly for comfort.

 

[unknown] An interested party. I just want to make sure Paris will still be protected.

 

[Adrien] I don’t know why you think I would know, but I have faith in our heroes.  

 

[unknown] Usually I do too, which is why I’ve never told either of you I know your secret identities. But this situation is serious, and I’d like to know for sure.

 

[Adrien] I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Leaving aside that it’s ridiculous, I’d never have time to be a superhero. If you know me, as you claim, you would know that.

 

[Adrien] I’m sure if anything IS wrong with Ladybug, she and Chat Noir will figure it out.

 

There was a short pause.

 

[unknown] It’s really alright Adrien, I’ve kept your secret this long, and I have no intention of revealing your identity. I simply wish to know that we won’t be without Ladybug for two weeks while Marinette recovers.

 

Adrien felt sweat spring up on his forehead. 

 

[Adrien] For someone claiming to have Ladybug and Chat Noir’s best interests at heart, you throw names around pretty casually. Don’t you know what would happen to me and to Marinette if anyone found this conversation? Everyone would think we really were superheroes. We could get hurt because of this, and it would just cause more trouble for Ladybug and Chat Noir when they have to clean up the mess.

 

[unknown] This conversation is secure, and off the record. You won’t be able to find it in your message history when it’s over. I have no intention of allowing anyone else to read this. Please answer my question.

 

[Adrien] If you truly have faith in Ladybug and Chat Noir, you should know that they would never leave Paris unprotected. I’m sure they have a plan in place if one of them gets hurt, or can’t be part of the team for a while.

 

Adrien bit his lips, wondering if this mysterious person who knew entirely too much would let it rest at that. Two full minutes passed before he got another reply.

 

[unknown] Thank you. That’s what I wanted to know. Goodbye.

 

Right after that, Adrien’s phone spontaneously re-started itself, and when Adrien checked his messages after it finished booting, there was no trace of the disturbing conversation.

 

He and Master Fu exchanged looks.

 

“I don’t like this,” Master Fu admitted.

 

You don’t like this? This person has my personal number! I don’t just go around giving that out to random strangers. Plus, whoever it is has obviously figured us out, and…” Adrien stopped himself before he could work himself into a panic.

 

Master Fu patted his shoulder. “Our hour is about up anyway. Good work, today! You improved your chinese while also coming up with a workable plan. As for this mystery person…” he stood up, leaning on his cane for once, “at least they are a person of their word. Of course, there is no telling whether they kept a copy of the conversation for themselves, but hopefully that is not the case.”

 

“Do you think I should have just ignored it? Not answered the text at all?” Adrien asked.

 

“I don’t think that would have worked in this case. Whoever this is knows enough about technology to hack your phone from a distance. I don’t think they would have settled for being ignored.”

 

“... I think I’ll change my number anyway.”

 

“I doubt it would make much difference, but I’m not going to stop you either.”

 

----

 

Later that night Chat Noir snuck back into Marinette’s hospital room. The room was darkened this time, but that was all to the good. As much as he appreciated the Dupain-Chengs, he didn’t want to have to explain why he was stealing their daughter’s earrings.

 

He spied the hulking form of Tom Dupain curled up on a reclined lounging chair, but Sabine Cheng was nowhere to be seen. He crept toward the bed, leaning over and studying his lady. It was hard to tell with night sight, but he thought she looked a little better. 

 

Before taking the earrings, he took up the pot of geraniums and retreated to the bathroom with it. He shut the door and whispered, “Tikki? Are you here?”

 

“I’m here, Adrien. What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. At least… here,” he said, reaching into one of his zippered pockets and pulling out a couple of cookies. “I brought you these. I didn’t know if you could find food for yourself or not.”

 

Tikki gave a happy giggle. “Thank you, Adrien! That’s so thoughtful! Marinette isn’t eating right now, so the only food in the room is for her parents, and it’s hard to steal some that without being caught.” She started munching on a cookie and it was all he could do not to squee. She was so cute! But a moment later, he remembered why he’d come.

 

“Listen… I’m sorry,” he said. “But I have to take the earrings.”

 

Tikki stopped munching. She looked like she was considering his words. “It’s in case of an akuma, isn’t it?” She looked sad, but started eating the cookie again. “Do you know… who?”

 

“Who will be the temporary Ladybug?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Well, after thinking about it long and hard, and consulting the guardian, I think… if it’s ok with you, I think Chloe would do a good job.”

 

“You’d give me to Chloe?!”

 

Adrien shushed her. Her high pitched voice might not be very loud, but it carried.

 

“Only for the fight! I’m sorry, but… I just didn’t do a great job as Mr. Bug, and Alya is too much like me. I’m afraid either of us would just make a bigger mess. And right now, we need to be able to defeat an akuma as quickly as possible, so no one has a chance to notice a difference in Ladybug, right?”

 

“Well, I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. But the appearance of the newest Ladybug won’t be a problem,” Tikki said confidently. “Normally, what a Ladybug looks like is part my magic- that’s the red and black spots, and the yo-yo- and partly taken from their subconscious. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I can make anyone look like Marinette’s Ladybug if I need to. It’ll take a little more energy, is all.” She sighed. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. I should have expected it. And you’re probably right. Chloe would make a better choice than Alya. Not that I don’t love Alya, but she is a little too impulsive to make a good Ladybug. Maybe I can help Chloe along her new path to self-improvement, too!”

 

Good humor restored, she flew up and nuzzled his cheek before starting on the second cookie. “Thank you for telling me!”

 

“Of course! Why wouldn’t I?”

 

Tikki smiled. “See, this is why you and Marinette are such good miraculous owners. There are plenty of people who would have just taken the earrings, and never mind my feelings on the matter.”

 

“That’s awful! Why would they do that? You and Plagg might not be human, but you have feelings! Not to mention you’re literally the source of our powers.”

 

“Yes, but… we’re slaves to the miraculous now. It’s the price we paid to be able to interact with humans, and… maybe you should ask Plagg about some of his previous owners sometime. I feel so bad for him sometimes! It’s so unfair for him to get the sad, the lonely, and the angry all the time. They don’t always treat him very well.” She gave him an adorable smile before gulping down the rest of the cookie in one huge bite. “I’m glad he got you this time around!”

 

Adrien resolved to be more patient with his irascible and lazy kwami. 

 

“Are you ready?” he asked, wanting to give her as much time as possible, but knowing he was on a schedule. He also wanted at least a little time to hold Marinette’s hand and whisper encouragement to her.

 

Tikki nodded. “I am. And Adrien?” 

 

“Yes?”

 

“Things will be fine between you two. You’ll see.”

 

Adrien smiled. “I know. Thank you, Tikki.”

 

She giggled and then flew back into the flowers. He took the pot back out and placed it where it had been. Then he snuck to the bed and leaned over, finding Marinette’s hand with his own. She was sleeping, and though there wasn’t a smile on her face, she wasn’t frowning like last night, either. He smoothed her bangs back and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead.

 

“I’m here, milady,” he whispered in her ear. “I hate to do it, but I have to take your earrings. Don’t worry, it won’t be for long. You’ll have them back as soon as you get a clean bill of health, so… keep fighting, alright?” He closed his eyes and touched his forehead to hers, staying that way for a long moment. It was so hard to be so close and yet have so little time. He squeezed her hand once more, then carefully removed her miraculous earrings. He held them in the palm of one gloved hand, marvelling at the idea of so much power contained within such tiny little things. His own ring at least had some heft to it, but these… they weighed almost nothing.

 

He put them into the little black box he’d gotten from Master Fu. He’d noticed Tikki zipping back into the earrings right before he closed the lid, and, on the spur of the moment, he held the box close to his mouth and whispered, “Not long, Tikki. Not for long,” before putting it in one of his suit pockets for safety. Then he leaned over and kissed his lady again, on the cheek this time. She turned her head toward him in her sleep and it was all he could do not to press a second kiss on her lips. Instead, he nuzzled her ear, purring softly. He’d heard cat purrs could ease pain and speed healing. He wasn’t sure his would work, especially not for as little time as he had, but… maybe it would help.

 

Before he left, he replaced her earrings with a pair of obsidian studs that mimicked her miraculous earrings closely enough no one but she would be able to tell the difference. And hopefully, he’d be able to give the originals back before she noticed anything at all.

Chapter Text

Marinette was in a kind of purgatory of a half-life. She wasn’t trapped and alone in the ruins of Paris anymore, but she wasn’t fully in the (she was now confident) real world of the hospital room she occupied either. She drifted somewhere between them, and she couldn’t quite make the jump to either space. She could hear scraps of conversation, and sometimes she could even make herself heard- she could tell by the sudden silences and the suddenly closer voices that, despite all her efforts, suddenly fizzled in her ears, obscuring the meaning of the words she heard.

 

She knew people were coming to see her, people she knew as well as strangers who were probably doctors and nurses. She knew her parents were her most constant companions. And she knew when Chat came, late at night, holding her hand and whispering in her ear. She couldn’t tell what he said, though, and that was the most frustrating thing of all. More than anything she wanted to let him know she knew he was there. Because she was almost certain she knew something about him now that she hadn’t known before. And it was driving her crazy not to be able to tell him.

 

----

 

Hawkmoth granted Adrien one more day before unleashing another akuma.

 

Her name was Carribea and her apparent intent was to turn Paris into a tropical paradise. Chat Noir watched from a nearby roof as another city street was swamped by a wave of sand, the buildings that lined it swamped by vine thickets and groves of palm trees. He cursed mentally, trying to decide if he needed Rena and Carapace to distract her before leaving to find Chloe.

 

He watched the wave of sand approach a couple of civilians, wondering what it would do to them. To his surprise, the only effect it had on them was to transform their clothing into something beach appropriate. He smirked. At least this akuma didn’t have it out for innocents.

 

And with that, he was off- back to school, which had still been in session when the alert came through. The akuma hadn’t been anywhere near the school itself, so there wouldn’t have been an evacuation.

 

He sent Chloe a text from his baton.

 

Make an excuse to get out of class and meet me in your locker room- Chat Noir

 

He decided on the sneaky approach, vaulting in through a conveniently open window. Chloe was sitting on one of the middle benches, inspecting her manicure.

 

“Hello, Chloe!” he greeted her with a small bow. Have to keep up appearances , he thought. “How meow-velous to see you.”

 

“I assume you’re here to give me my miraculous?” she replied, calm and composed.

 

“Not… exactly,” Chat Noir said, pulling the small box out of his suit pocket. “I’m here to give you a miraculous, but Chloe,” he said, voice and face suddenly stern and serious. “Not a word. To anyone.”

 

She pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow, but took the box. When she opened it, a blinding pink flash zipped around her and finally coalesced into the form of a small red kwami with black dots on her forehead and cheeks.

 

“W-what?” she gasped.

 

“Hello, I’m Tikki! I’m the Ladybug kwami,” Tikki said, and Chat was glad to see she was at least smiling. “You’re Chloe, right?”

 

Chloe looked stunned. And then, abruptly her face scrunched into the look of fury he knew so well. “NO! Absolutely NOT!” 

 

She rounded on him. “How dare you!”

 

Chat Noir put his hands up placatingly as she advanced on him, followed by a perplexed Tikki.

 

“I’m not Ladybug! I refuse to be! No one is Ladybug except Ladybug herself, now what have you done with her?!”

 

Chat Noir was not expecting this kind of reaction. “I haven’t done anything with her, I swear! Believe me…” He stopped and kind of slumped in on himself, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ladybug is… she’s sick. She can’t fight today. Maybe not for a while. But I… Paris needs a Ladybug. The Ladybug is the only one that can purify the akumas. So…” He held out his arms in a half-shrug.

 

Chloe had stopped, arms crossed over her chest, and was regarding him suspiciously. “She’s sick.”

 

“We’re only human, Chloe,” Chat said, sadly. “You know that. It was bound to happen sooner or later.”

 

Tikki took that opportunity to zip around in front of her and take control of the conversation. 

 

“It’s true, Chloe. My chosen is very sick. Chat Noir is only doing this because he has to. I’m only doing this because I have to. This is only temporary, and there is no greater gift or action you could take for Ladybug than to take up her mantle right now.” She paused, offering a warm smile. “I know you miss Pollen, and I promise, I’ll put in a good word for you to the Guardian. But right now, I need you to help me help Paris. Deal?”

 

Chloe bit her lip, looking down at the earrings in the box. “It just… feels so wrong.”

 

“How do you think I feel?” Chat said. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t be giving you the earrings at all, because there wouldn’t be a reason to.”

 

“Why me?” Chloe asked in a small voice. “I mean… I’m not much like the real Ladybug at all.”

 

Chat smiled at that. Not his usual smirk, just a smile. He held up his hand, ticking off fingers. “You’re good at telling people what to do, you have experience as a miraculous user, and your spinning top weapon is close enough to Ladybug’s yo-yo that you shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting. Finally, and most importantly, you really admire Ladybug, and you’d never want to take her place permanently.”

 

“Well… that’s true,” Chloe mused. She looked up at him. “And you’re sure about this? About having me for a partner?”

 

Chat heaved a sigh. “Yes, Chloe. I mean, I’m not thrilled obviously, but better you than some untried civilian, right?”

 

“Hmph. Fine.” She plucked the earring out of the box and put them in, but Chat noticed that her hands trembled a little. She took a deep breath and looked at the kwami floating near her. “Well, Tikki?”

 

“Just say, ‘Spots on.’”

 

“Tikki… Spots on.”

 

Chat watched as the glaring pink light swept over Chloe, amazed and a little apprehensive. Tikki had said she could mimic Marinette’s look, but he wondered just how much she could do. After all, Chloe was taller than Marinette and her overall figure was different as well. But when the light faded, it was like he was looking at his Lady again. His mouth curled up at the corner. “Thanks, Tikki,” he whispered.

 

“What was that, cat-boy?” 

 

Aaaand there was Chloe’s attitude coming out of Ladybug’s mouth, ruining the effect. Chat sighed and shook his head with a little chuckle.

 

“Well, as much as you look like my Lady right now, at least I won’t have any problems remembering you’re not ,” he murmured.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Don’t worry about it. Now come on. We’ve got a city to save.”

 

With a final challenging glance over his shoulder, he leapt through the window again, followed closely by the familiar sound of Ladybug’s yo-yo being deployed.

 

----

 

Carribea was going to be a tough target- not least because she appeared to be composed of a jumble of beach umbrellas, seashells, plastic shovels and buckets, and floaties of various sizes.

 

“Geez, you’d think Hawkmoth could come up with something better than that ,” Chloe snarked as they landed on another roof, pacing the supervillain as she made her way through the city toward the Eiffel Tower.

 

“It’s going to be pretty hard to find the akumatized object, that’s for sure,” Chat replied.

 

“What, no pun?”

 

“I’m not feeling it today,” Chat admitted. He was far too focused on the fight, and getting it over with as fast as possible. Suddenly he appreciated Ladybug’s position a lot more, and resolved to pay better attention in future fights and not distract her too much. 

 

“Well, thank God for that,” Chloe said. “I don’t know how Ladybug puts up with you sometimes.”

 

Then she started glaring at him. “Well? What are you waiting for? Get her attention, you stupid cat! Distract her so I can find the akuma.”

 

“Oh, right!” Chat said, and leaped into action. He bounded across the roofs, paralleling Carribea’s progress.

 

“Hey Carribea! Why not go south for the winter?” He called, wincing at himself. Usually he enjoyed this kind of thing, taunting the villain and letting them get close, but not too close. He was really off his game today, though.

 

Carribea turned to him, launching a fusillade of beach umbrellas with wickedly sharp ferrules at him. He bounded, bounced, and vaulted over all of them.

 

“That was the plan!” she roared at him. “But I’ll show him. He won’t let me go to the Carribean, I’ll bring the Carribean to him!”

 

Her next attack involved buckets of sand, and this one caused him more grief than the umbrellas had. He tried to hit the buckets aside with his baton, but the sand made them heavier than he expected. He merely deflected them, getting hit in the arms, shoulders, and one even bounced off his foot. He ducked the next one, but as it flew over his head it poured sand all over him, getting it in his eyes.

 

He quickly ducked behind a nearby chimney wall, frantically brushing at his face and hair, and tearing up despite himself. A few more minutes and he blinked the rest of it out.

 

“Oh come on, Chat Noir!” Carribea called, mockingly. “Why not have some fun in the sun for once? Don’t all cats like to sunbathe? Give me your miraculous and I’ll save a spot for you on the new beaches of Paris!”

 

“Sorry, Carribea,” he called out cheerfully, jumping back out into the open. He whirled his staff into a circular shield, deflecting a barrage of colorful floaties. “This kitty only basks in the light of his Lady!”

 

Carribea scoffed and started scooping some sand up from the growing beach near her feet. She manipulated and molded it until it looked like a trident. With a snap of her fingers, the sand it was made of condensed and solidified until the trident was as hard and sharp as chiseled rock. She threw it at Chat Noir, who, in an amazing feat of dexterity and timing, backflipped over the weapon as it passed, grabbing it out of the air. He turned and hefted it, intending to throw it back.

 

“There!” he suddenly heard, and whipped his head to the side.

 

Ladybug was on a roof two houses down from him, pointing to something small and rectangular, stained a dark purple, that was nestled between two seashells near Carribea’s waistline. Chat Noir nodded, shouting, “Got it!” 

 

He aimed his stolen weapon and let it fly, putting all his enhanced strength behind it. The trident pierced whatever it was, and the akuma flew free. In a moment, Ladybug had captured it and set it free again, cleansed from Hawkmoth’s taint. Then she flung her yo-yo in the air, calling the miraculous ladybugs to clean up the mess.

 

Chat Noir bounded over to Ladybug and offered his fist. “Pound it?”

 

Ladybug raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “Really?”

 

“Oh come on,” he wheedled. “You know you want to…”

 

“Ugh, fine,” she scoffed, looking away, but bumping her fist to his. “Pound it, you stupid cat.”

 

----

 

Back in the locker room of Francoise Dupont, Chloe said, “Spots off,” and watched Tikki swirl out of her earring. She offered the kwami a piece of honeycomb.

 

“Thank you, Chloe,” Tikki said, accepting the food and taking several huge bites.

 

“Yes, thank you, Chloe,” Chat Noir said, leaning against the wall under the windows with one foot braced against it.

 

“Whatever,” Chloe grumped. “Let’s just… not make this a habit, ok?”

 

Chat Noir smirked at her. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

Once Tikki had eaten all the honeycomb, Chloe took out the earrings and put them back in the miraculous box. Tikki disappeared, and she handed the box to Chat Noir, who zipped it carefully into his pocket.

 

He turned to leave, but stopped when Chloe said something else.

 

“Tell Ladybug…”

 

She paused, when he looked back over his shoulder at her. She looked… worried. 

 

“Tell Ladybug I hope she feels better soon.”

 

Chat Noir nodded. “I will. And… thanks again, Chloe.”

 

And with that, he vaulted back through the window, but instead of continuing across the city, he used his claws to climb up to the roof of the school, making his way over to the other side of the building and into the alley.

 

He looked around to make sure no one was in view, then whispered, “Claws in.” 

 

He fed Plagg, then made his way back into the school, hoping that his entrance from the front would make everyone think he’d just been at another photo shoot. As annoying as it was to be constantly called away for them, they did make a good excuse.

 

“Well, that went better than I expected,” Plagg commented from his shirt pocket.

 

“Yeah, it did,” Adrien said softly. “I don’t feel like doing it again anytime soon, though.”

 

“Yeah, me neither,” Plagg agreed. 

 

Then Adrien walked into the last class of the day, handing a forged note to the teacher to explain his absence. Chloe was sitting in her usual spot by Sabrina, and didn’t look up. Nino and Alya, however, both gave him knowing glances, and he was fairly sure Alya would be interrogating him later. For now, he gave his attention to French history.

Chapter Text

True to her implied threat, Alya insisted on facetiming Adrien as soon as he got home. It was a rare afternoon when he didn’t have any extra lessons or photoshoots, and he’d hoped to convince his father to let him go visit Marinette, but Gabriel Agreste was still stubbornly refusing to, saying she could still be contagious. Adrien was fairly sure he was overreacting, but calling him on it wasn’t going to make him change his mind, and would probably be bad for his chances of ever getting to visit her in the hospital as himself.

 

So he was actually happy to have Alya take his mind off the fact that he would rather be sitting by Marinette’s side.

 

“Ok, so we both know that my bestie is in no condition to go swinging around Paris,” Alya said as soon as he accepted the call. “So who the heck was that? ” She angled her phone so he could see her computer screen, which was displaying the LadyBlog home page, where a user submitted video of Chat Noir and Ladybug fighting Carribea was the top post.

 

Adrien sighed. “I talked with the Guardian, and… well, long story short, I had to take Marinette’s earrings.”

 

Alya practically exploded. “ WHAT?! You- just- I can’t- how could-!”

 

“I KNOW!” Adrien shouted, abruptly silencing Alya. “ Believe me, I know! But what else were we going to do, Alya? None of us can purify akumas, the last time I checked! God, I hate myself for doing that her- I just know this is somehow going to reinforce that belief she has that she’s not good enough… but Paris needs a Ladybug and right now, she can’t be it.”

 

He sat down on the edge of his bed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I talked to Tikki- she said she could fiddle with the transformation to make it look like Marinette is still our Ladybug. That way, no one will wonder that Ladybug suddenly has a very different look.”

 

Alya glared at him, crossing her arms. “Fine,” she said, grudgingly. “So… who’d you give the earrings to today?”

 

“You know I can’t tell you that,” Adrien replied, evenly. “But it’s someone I trust.” Even if I don’t trust her as much as the rest of my friends anymore , he thought.

 

“And you didn’t think of me?” she challenged.

 

“Of course I thought of you,” Adrien replied. “But honestly, I think you’d make a better Chat Noir than a Ladybug.”

 

“A better…? Oh. Oh!” Alya said, face turning thoughtful. Then she frowned. “I’m not so sure about that. But maybe… hm. I guess that was you as Mr. Bug… why not go for that option, then?”

 

“Because the only reason we succeeded at all that day, was because my lady was right there with me giving me tips and pointers. I just don’t make a good Mr. Bug- my inclination is to jump straight in and play distraction. Ladybug has to stay back and analyse, and do it with a limited amount of time, especially after calling for Lucky Charm. I’m not very good at that. Sure, it’s an option if we have no other choice, but right now I do have other choices.”

 

“Good point,” Alya conceded. She sighed. “Alright. I’ll forgive you for not giving me the earrings. But whoever this is isn’t going to want to stay Ladybug… right? I mean… she gave the earrings back after the fight?”

 

“Of course! And no, she won’t want to stay Ladybug. In fact, she told me not to make choosing her a habit.”

 

“Oh! Ok. I guess… it’s not too bad, then. I’m still mad at you for doing that to Marinette, though,” she warned.

 

Adrien grinned at her. “You’d be a bad best friend if you weren’t. If it makes you feel better, I’m still mad at myself, too. But,” his grin faded. “I don’t have a choice here. Like it or not, my duty to Paris comes before my preferences in a partner.”

 

“Ugh,” Alya said, rolling her eyes. “Why’d you have to go and bring stuff like duty and honor into it?” She sighed again. “And I guess I can see that once Marinette is back in business, she’ll understand and forgive us both.”

 

“And the sooner the better,” Adrien said, fervently.

 

“Amen to that,” Alya said. “Well, Nino and I are heading back to the hospital…” She trailed off, raising an eyebrow at him.

He rolled his eyes. “My father says the risk of me getting it is still too high.” He shrugged. “I’m working on him. Hopefully, he’ll let me go by the end of the week.”

 

Alya nodded. “I have to admit, you’re not missing much. I mean, her parents are sweet and all, and I think it helps them to see us come visit her, too, but… she just lays there.” Her face fell. “I can’t stand to see her looking so… small, you know?”

 

Adrien nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.”

 

“Oh that’s right.” Alya brightened again. “I’m glad you at least get to go see her as Chat Noir.”

 

A corner of his mouth pulled up. “Yeah. I’m just glad I started visiting her as Chat months ago. It gives me a reason to go now.”

 

“Wait, what?”

 

He smirked. “Bye, Alya!”

 

----

 

In his lair, Hawkmoth contemplated the emotions emanating so strongly from one disgruntled machinist. 

 

“Poor misunderstood man. Your employer won’t recognize your need to be with your family? Why not go to him, my little akuma, and evilize him!”

 

Somewhere in the warehouse district, Robert Wellingham became Pyro, an akuma that could melt metals at a touch, flinging the molten stuff, or refreezing it to trap people and objects.

 

----

 

Chat Noir landed on the pool deck of the Grande Paris Hotel, interrupting Chloe’s sunbathing.

 

She removed her sunglasses and squinted at him.

 

“Seriously? It’s been less than four hours!”

 

Chat smirked and shrugged. “You can take it up with Hawkmoth, but there’s a waiting list. I’m pretty sure LB and I have priority.” 

 

He held out the little black box and Chloe looked at it with a frown, but took it. A few moments later, and he and the Ladybug-stand-in were on their way to the fight.

 

----

 

“Lucky Charm!”

 

A red and black spotted styrofoam box fell out of the air, landing in ‘Ladybug’s’ hands.

 

“What the heck?” she screeched.

 

“Look inside,” Chat yelled, dodging another volley of molten projectiles. This akuma was a nasty one to fight. His hands and feet were already burned, and he’d almost been blinded twice, narrowly dodging projectiles aimed toward his face. The suit protected against a lot of damage, but extremes of temperature seemed to be one of its weaknesses. Now, he jumped in front of Chloe, whirling his staff in the classic shield.

 

“It’s dry ice!” she yelled, even though he was close enough she didn’t need to.

 

“Great! Any ideas?”

 

The silence behind him let him know she was looking around, trying to use the lucky vision to formulate a plan.

 

“I think we’re supposed to put it on his hands,” she said, remembering that he was standing right there.

 

“Where’s the akuma?” Chat asked.

 

“I’m pretty sure it’s in his helmet,” she replied.

 

Pyro was wearing a welder’s helmet, so that made sense. Chat looked around for possibilities. Dry ice wasn’t going to be easy to handle. There was an American style fast food restaurant nearby- evacuated of course, and sporting several singed holes in the walls and windows.

 

He grabbed Chloe and vaulted them over before Pyro could change his targeting. He crashed through the largest window and made straight for the drink machines. Americans always thought more was better, so he grabbed two of the largest styrofoam cups he could find, shaking some dry ice into each one. 

 

He had no idea if his plan would work at all, but he had to try.

 

“Stay here,” he said to Chloe, “and wait for my signal, alright?”

 

‘Ladybug’ nodded. She looked frightened- Queen Bee had never had to face anything so violent or potentially painful as Pyro before.

 

Chat gathered his supplies and tried to sneak out through a side door into the alleyway.

 

Pyro had walked up the street away from them- apparently more intent on causing as much damage as possible than in getting their miraculouses. He was currently melting his way through a row of cars, lobbing molten balls of metal around willy-nilly.

 

Chat snuck up on him, and at the last second extended his staff, shoving Pyro forcefully into the car he was currently destroying. He used a plastic trash bag to tie his arms together before pulling them out of the car and slipping the styrofoam cups over his hands. Then he grabbed the helmet and took off back toward the restaurant.

 

A few moments later, and a stream of miraculous ladybugs washed over him and down the streets of Paris, restoring all the damage.

 

Chloe held out her fist, but Chat Noir shook his head. “We have a few minutes, let’s go talk to the guy, hey?”

 

“Why?” Chloe scoffed. “He’s been de-akumatized already. He should be grateful!”

 

“Maybe so, but he was also pretty upset before, which is why he got akumatized in the first place. Come on, Chloe… tap that vein of nice-ness that lurks somewhere deep inside you,” he coaxed. “Make the real Ladybug proud?”

 

Chloe pursed her lips, folding her arms over her chest in a pose very unlike any his lady had ever taken. “Yeah, I’m not sure I can live up to her expectations here.”

 

“You won’t know until you try.” He held out his hand, willing her to dig a little deeper, make that first step to becoming a less shallow person.

 

“Just go without me.”

 

Chat Noir let his hand drop. “Right. I’ll meet you in the alley in two minutes, then.”

 

Chloe looked away.

 

----

 

“Master Fu, what about when Marinette wakes up?” Adrien said in careful chinese. “She’ll notice her earrings have been replaced, and I don’t want her to stress out about it, but I also don’t want her to know that I know who Ladybug is, yet. Or, for that matter, that I’m Chat Noir.”

 

Master Fu stroked his goatee. “I could write her a letter, and you could leave it in her room. I would explain it- make it seem as if I had been the one to retrieve the earrings. It seems unnecessarily complicated, though. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

 

Adrien sighed. “I have it on good authority that if Marinette thinks I only love her because she’s Ladybug, that she’ll never agree to date me. And I know that probably seems selfish and immature, but… I love her. And I know she loves me, too, and it just seems stupid to make it harder for myself to convince her that I really do love all of her, not just the superhero side.”

 

Master Fu smiled, and nodded. “Alright. If you have a pen and paper, I can do that right now, passing it off as a written assignment for you to complete on your own.”

 

“Thank you, Master,” Adrien said, bowing politely.

 

----

 

This time it was Alya who alerted them. She and Nino had gone to one of Anansi’s tournaments, and… it hadn’t gone well for her. Alya called Adrien while Anansi was still berating the referee for what she claimed was a series of bad calls.

 

“You’d better get Ladybug and make your way here,” she said, just as a commotion started in the background. “Aaand, you might want to enlist Rena Rouge and Carapace for this one, too.”

 

“Got it,” Adrien said, and hung up setting his phone to his practicing playlist. He recorded a new one every week, since it had to seem like he was improving and working on different pieces, yet still making some mistakes.

 

He took a moment to sigh before summoning Plagg. This was the third akuma since Marinette got sick. How many more would there be before she was well enough to be Ladybug again?

 

Chloe… Chloe might have been a mistake. Sure, she had experience, but she just didn’t seem to have the heart for a true Ladybug. He had been disappointed when she refused to talk to the victim after Pyro. He knew she’d been scared of him, but he was the one who’d gotten burned after all.

 

But Anansi was probably making a mess of things at the moment, so he had no more time to reflect. Chloe would just have to suck it up one more time.

 

“Plagg, claws out!”

 

----

 

By the time they got to the gym where the tournament was held, the place was covered in webs. Chat remembered how sticky those webs had been, and he took a moment to look for and recognize the lumpy shapes within the web that meant people had been trapped there.

 

If he’d been Mr. Bug, he would have tried his lucky charm right off the bat, hoping for some kind of solvent that would let them dissolve the webs. But he wasn’t. And Chloe wasn’t going to take his advice, either.

 

“And I thought I told you not to make this a habit,” she said. “Three times in three days is just… too much! Isn’t-”

 

Chat Noir cut her off mid-sentence with a hiss. He glared at her, silently reminding her that they were in the public eye now, and so she’d better act like the real Ladybug.

 

She shut her mouth and glared right back. But she also pointed to a grocery delivery truck that had boxes of vegetable oil stacked on the sidewalk, waiting to be carried inside. Chat saw what she was going for and went to retrieve several liters worth.

 

They oiled themselves up, taking the bottles along with them, then making their way through the webs. The oil kept them from being caught, and they soon made it to the center, where Anansi relaxed in a huge web strung over the illuminated boxing ring.

 

Chat spotted Rena Rouge and Carapace, both stuck on opposite sides of the large gym. Pointing Ladybug toward Carapace, he started toward Rena, knowing that they needed all four members to make an effective attack.

 

Anansi didn’t even care- she just watched as Chat and Ladybug rescued their fellow superheros and only came down from her place of reclining when, after an extended huddle, all four stepped forward, ready to fight.

 

----

 

Chloe handed over the black box without looking at him. Truthfully, Chat Noir could barely stand to look at her. She’d been next to no help in the battle against Anansi, preferring to let Chat and Rena do the bulk of the planning, and hiding behind Carapace for most of it. True, she’d located and cleansed the akuma, but…

 

“I don’t think this is working out,” Chat said, as neutrally as he could.

 

Chloe hunched her shoulders and crossed her arms defensively. “I told you not to make it a habit,” she said.

 

“I can’t exactly control when Hawkmoth is going to send out akumas,” he growled back. “That’s the whole point of this! Paris needs a ladybug, and right now…”

 

“Yeah, yeah, Ladybug herself can’t do it. I know. I understand, I do! But,” She suddenly looked very vulnerable. “I’m just not cut out to be her, you know? I thought… but I think we both know the truth.”

 

Chat’s anger and frustration faded. “It’s no shame to admit when you can’t do something, especially after giving it a shot, Chloe,” he said, more gently. “Thank you for trying. I’ll find someone else, and… I’ll talk to the guardian about you again. Ok?”

 

Chloe nodded, not looking at him. Chat left her there, returning home to wonder what on earth he was going to do now.

Chapter Text

Marinette didn’t know how much time had passed, exactly, when she finally felt solid in her own body again. The feeling came on her gradually, like slowly waking up. She relished the feel of the loosely woven hospital blanket under her fingers, the cool smoothness of some kind of cord against her right arm. The curious blend of disinfectant and medicine in the air, combined with, of all things, pizza. The way the light shone through her closed eyelids. The beeps of the monitors beside her bed. Quiet voices talking to each other. She knew those voices.

 

Her parents were sitting on the left side of her bed. They were talking about the bakery, and whether they should hire more help temporarily. From the other side of the bed came the voices of her three best friends, talking about… science.

 

They’re doing homework , she thought. She opened her eyes for the first time she could remember since going to the nurse’s office however long ago it was.

 

Nino and Alya were sitting together on a short couch at the foot of her bed under a tv mounted to the wall. Alya sat sideways, resting her back against Nino’s side as she quizzed him on flashcards of the periodic table of elements.

 

A soft murmur from her right, made her turn her head that way. Adrien was sitting beside her bed, reading from a textbook, his left hand lying on the bed itself, fingers intertwined with hers. Huh, she thought. Why didn’t I notice that before?

 

She was too happy to question why he was holding her hand, or even why he was there. She was just so happy to see all the people she loved most. She slowly turned her head to the left to see her parents, Tom sitting in the chair with a laptop on his lap, Sabine standing beside him with a hand on his shoulder, and both of them absorbed in the finances they were discussing.

 

She smiled and sighed, closing her eyes again for just a moment. She didn’t want to interrupt anything. She was just happy they were all here with her, and she was finally back with them. Unconsciously, her fingers tightened around Adrien’s. 

 

He broke off in mid-sentence. “Marinette?” he said, and she could hear the hope in his voice.

 

There was no way she’d ever be able to deny him anything, so she turned her head back to him and opened her eyes. Her eyelids were still heavy, so she only got them half-open, but it was enough to see his beautiful green eyes staring at her with such joy in them that it took her breath away.

 

“Marinette! You’re awake!”

 

Then they were all clustered around the bed, her mom reaching for her with gentle hands, her friends smiling at her. Happy tears started leaking from her eyes. It was just too much.

 

“Oh, honey,” her mom cooed. “Don’t cry, sweetie. We’re just so happy to see you awake.”

 

“I’m not...,” Marinette croaked, then tried to clear her throat. It was so dry… her mom picked up a plastic cup with a straw from the bedside table and held it so she could drink. It was just ice water, but it felt heavenly as it went down. After a few more sips, Marinette felt like she could talk. Sabine wiped the tears away, too.

 

“I’m so happy to see you all,” Marinette whispered. “I was alone. And now I’m not.” Her eyes fluttered closed again. “I’m not going back to sleep… I’m just… tired.”

 

She felt Adrien start to pull his hand away and tightened her grip. “Please stay,” she said softly.

 

“As long as I can,” she heard him say. She pulled his hand up so she could rub her cheek against it, not worrying about what he would think of that, just enjoying the contact.

 

“Honey, the doctor will want to see you now that you’re awake. Maybe your friends could come back another time?”

 

“But…”

 

“It’s ok, Marinette,” Adrien said, and his voice was much closer than before. “We’ll be back soon.” 

 

She forced her eyes to open again, only to see his shining back at her from less than a foot away. His other hand touched her cheek and he kissed her forehead. Too happy to question it, she reluctantly let him pull away, and then Nino and Alya were taking turns grasping her hand and telling her how happy they were to see her better.

 

They left her alone with her parents, but it wasn’t long before a doctor and two nurses came in. The doctor asked her parents some questions while the nurses took some readings and checked her over. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, the nurses cheerfully commenting on her improved state.

 

Then the doctor turned her attention to her.

 

“Well, I’m certainly glad to see you feeling so much better, young lady.” She said with a smile. “You’ll have to thank your friends for that- they called an ambulance for you, you know.”

 

“What… what happened?” Marinette asked. She still didn’t know what had been wrong with her.

 

“You had a case of meningitis. It’s a swelling of the membranes around your spinal cord and brain that happens when you get a certain type of infection. It’s very serious and can even be fatal. If it had been even a few more hours before you got medical attention, you might not have survived.”

 

Marinette wasn’t sure what to make of that. She was still wrapping her mind around the fact that she was back where she was supposed to be.

 

“But, fortunately, that’s not what happened in your case. At this point, I can say that I’m confident you’ll make a full recovery, but you’ll be weak and tired for a while, and you may have trouble remembering things as your brain recovers. You’ll need a little bit of physical therapy, too, after lying in a hospital bed for so long. We’ll want to keep you here for at least two more days, and preferably three to four, just to make sure you won’t have a relapse.”

 

“How long has it been?” Marinette asked, fear beginning to grow in the pit of her stomach. Had there been akumas? Was Paris waiting on Ladybug to fix damages she’d had no way of preventing?

 

“You’ve been here for five days, but that’s actually a great recovery time for this disease. It usually takes the patients who pull through another two to three days to come back to full consciousness. You must have a very strong immune system.”

 

Five days. Five days

 

Sometimes Hawkmoth put out two akumas in a single day. Once he had akumatized poor Mr. Ramier twenty-four times in a week

 

What had she missed?

 

She wanted to ask for answers, beg for information, but she knew that was the wrong move. She couldn’t seem to be too upset.

 

“Ok,” she finally managed to say. Everyone seemed to take her hesitation as a natural consequence of her weakened state. “Can my friends come back in?”

 

The doctor pursed her lips. “I’m not sure that’s wise. You’re still very weak.”

 

“Please,” she asked, hating the wobble in her voice and the way her chin quivered. “I want to see them. It’ll make me feel better to see them.”

 

Her mom smoothed her hair and Marinette leaned into the touch, relishing the contact. “It’s getting late in the day, sweetie,” Sabine said, gently. “Even though I’m sure they want to talk to you, it would be better to wait until tomorrow, when you’re a little stronger. Now that you’re awake, you can eat something, and,” she stopped when she noticed Marinette was crying again. “Oh honey,” she leaned over the bed and hugged her as best she could.

 

“I missed them, maman,” Marinette whispered, helpless to stop crying. “I missed you all.”

 

“Well, like your mother said,” the doctor interjected, not unkindly, “you’ll be able to enjoy their company for longer tomorrow if you eat something and rest this evening. I’ll come by tomorrow to check on you.”

 

Marinette could tell by the sounds of footsteps and the closing door that the doctor and nurses had left. So she just gave herself up to crying, resting in her parents supporting arms.

 

----

 

Later that night, Marinette lay alone in her room. She’d convinced her parents to go home after they had dinner with her, telling them that they both needed a good night’s rest, and that she would be fine. Besides, she had a feeling Chat Noir would visit her, and she had some questions for him.

 

Dinner had given her back some of the energy she’d lost to the fever, and though she was still tired, and could definitely sleep, she tried to stay awake. She didn’t want to miss Chat’s visit, after all. She flipped through the tv stations, resisting the urge to finger her earrings.

 

Not long after her parents had left, she’d tried calling for Tikki. She was sure the little kwami would have been nearby, but she didn’t come. No matter how long Marinette waited, or how insistently she called, Tikki didn’t appear. So, after a while, Marinette removed her earrings, to check for damage. She knew the miraculouses could be damaged. Maybe something had happened to her earrings before she’d been taken to the hospital?

 

But as soon as she took out one of the studs, she knew they weren’t hers. Someone had switched out her earrings.

 

For a moment, she’d just stared at the black stud in horror. A dozen worst-case scenarios sped through her mind, until she brought them crashing to a halt by sheer force of will. Of course Hawkmoth hadn’t taken her earrings. The news had reported on the most recent akuma battle- that had taken place the day before- and that wouldn’t have been the case if Hawkmoth had gotten her earrings. She knew that, because Ladybug had shown up to the fight. Right beside Chat Noir.

 

That meant… that meant that it must have been Fu. He had taken her earrings because Paris needed her, and she wasn’t up to it. Guilt started eating at her again, but she tried to push it aside. 

 

It wasn’t her fault she was sick! She didn’t ask to get sick, she definitely wasn’t faking it… she was only human! Fu knew that, he wouldn’t blame her. 

 

But… did Chat Noir know? There had been some pictures, and the Ladybug in the fight looked like Marinette. Why did she look like Marinette when she was transformed? Could he even tell the difference? A wave of crushing self-doubt and a completely unreasonable sense of loss washed over her.

 

She knew it was unreasonable, but she was exhausted and her body was still fighting off the effects of the infection. She fell asleep to nightmarish dreams wherein first Adrien rejected her, saying that while she was an ‘everyday Ladybug,’ she just wasn’t good enough to be the real thing, and then flowing seamlessly into a sequence where Marinette as Ladybug showed up to a fight, only to find Chat Noir fighting beside another Ladybug- who looked exactly like her - and who ignored her entirely until the fight ended and they both noticed her presence. And then Chat acted confused and distrustful, wrapping an arm around his fake Ladybug and telling her she couldn’t be real, because his Ladybug loved him and always had.

 

And Marinette cried, realizing that it was true, it had always been true, and now it was too late to tell him.

 

----

 

A gentle hand and the scent of leather pulled Marinette out of fitful slumber. She sniffed as she woke up, noticing that her cheeks were wet. But Chat Noir was here now, and she was glad. She lifted her own hand to place it over his where he cupped her cheek and turned her head to smile at him.

 

The room was dim, but a floor lamp had been left on in the corner, so she had no difficulty seeing him. He was sitting beside her bed, and had lowered the bed rail so he could lean on the mattress. There was such a tender expression on his masked face that she almost couldn’t breathe for a moment. They’d been friends yes, but… when had this happened? If she’d been transformed and he were looking at Ladybug instead of just Marinette, she would have called it love in his eyes.

 

“Bad dreams, Princess?” he asked, when he saw she was awake.

 

“Yeah,” she replied, sniffing once more. “But,” her chin trembled, despite her best efforts, “just dreams.

 

Chat reached over to the bedside table for a tissue and handed it to her. She blew her nose, flushing with embarrassment, but thankful anyway. He sighed deeply, smiling at her. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you feeling better,” he said, “Want to talk about it?”

 

Marinette shook her head. “I’m always overthinking things,” she said. “Dreaming up worst case scenarios.”

 

Something flickered in the back of his eyes, almost as if he knew something about what she was alluding to. But that was silly. She looked down at the bed, where his hand lay very close to hers.

 

“So, what brings you by, Chat Noir?” she said, forcing a smile. 

 

He picked up her hand and kissed it. “Can’t a handsome stray come to visit his favorite person when she’s sick? I hear that the purring of a cat is very therapeutic.”

 

Marinette smiled sadly. “Silly kitty. I’m not your favorite person. That’s Ladybug.”

 

His eyes softened. “Maybe she was, but not anymore. Now it’s you.”

 

Marinette shook her head slowly. “You’ll always have a thing for her. First love is hard to overcome.”

 

He didn’t reply, merely smiling at her enigmatically. It wasn’t very much like his trademark Chat Noir grins, but it was a very knowing kind of smile.

 

“Chat?” Marinette asked, her responding smile fading. “H-how many akumas have there been since… since I’ve been sick?”

 

How many times have you fought without me?

 

“Please, Chat,” she begged, when she saw the guarded look on his face. “I need to know.”

 

He sighed, smirking at her. “My inquisitive Princess. Why worry about it? You’ve been very sick, and you need peace and quiet to get better. Besides,” he gestured to himself, “as you can see, everything is fine. Just like me,” he added, wagging his eyebrows suggestively.

 

Marinette couldn’t keep herself from giggling at him. It must have encouraged him, because before she knew it he was climbing onto the bed and wrapping his arms around her to pull her close. Her cheeks burned, but she soon realized he was only putting into practice what he’d referred to earlier. She felt his purr start up, as she was almost forced to use his chest for a pillow. He nuzzled her hair, and she had the sudden horrendous realization that she hadn’t washed her hair in a week. But the soothing rumble of his chest made her relax and start drifting off to sleep again.

 

Marinette fought the wave of sleep, though, determined to get her answers. She waited until the rumble had tapered off- she had a feeling Chat was nearing sleep, too- before trying again.

 

“How many akumas, Chat?” she asked softly, hoping he was too far gone to really think about his answer.

 

“Hm?... oh… three, mi-” He jerked, stopping himself. She both heard and felt him sigh. “That’s not fair, Marinette. You shouldn’t be worrying about this right now. You need to rest so you can get well.”

 

Marinette froze, trying to keep from hyperventilating. There had been three akuma attacks! And Ladybug had been lying insensible in a hospital, unable to help! But, no… she remembered, suddenly. Ladybug had shown up to the fights. And perversely, that just made it worse. She started gasping in spite of herself.

 

Chat sat up instantly, slipping his arms under her and pulling her up until she was cradled in his lap. He held her close, whispering in her ear.

 

“No, no, no Princess. No, it’s okay. It’s okay. Shhhh… breathe, Princess. Breathe with me, come on,” he said, urging her to calm down. Marinette focused on the puff of air from his lips, trying to match it, though she was still shaking from reaction.

 

In. Out. In. Out. 

 

After a dozen or so breaths, she felt better. After all, even if she wasn’t Ladybug anymore, even if she was never Ladybug again- though that thought hit her with an almost physical ache- Chat Noir, her partner, her dear kitty, was still here with her. And she suddenly knew that he would never abandon her- whatever happened, they would remain friends. With a last shudder, she relaxed, letting her head drop onto his shoulder and finally returning his embrace. A few tears leaked out, but she wasn’t about to start crying again.

 

She realized then that he was purring again, and decided to enjoy it, letting her mind drift a bit. 

 

After a while, she pulled slightly away, and he let her go immediately. She sank back onto her pillow, looking up at him. She studied his face, even as he studied hers. He looked concerned, and much more serious than she was used to seeing him.

 

“You weren’t surprised,” she said, finally.

 

His eyebrows rose. “Surprised, Princess?”

 

“You were expecting me to react that way once I knew there had been akuma attacks while I was unconscious.” She paused. “Chat do… do you know who Ladybug is?”

 

His flirty grin resurfaced then, as he leaned over her almost, but not quite, pinning her to the bed. “Why Princess, are you saying you’re Ladybug? Because I would be just fine with that.” 

 

His eyes locked onto hers, and if she hadn’t been exhausted from a week of illness and a panic attack, she probably would have blushed. As it was, she merely said, “Just answer the question, Kitty.”

 

He sighed and rolled away from her, one arm behind his head. “You know I can’t answer that, Marinette. Any answer I gave you would be information Hawkmoth could use against me, or Ladybug. You know that.” He rolled back onto his side, brushing some loose hair away from her face. “Anyone can be akumatized, Princess, and you’re more vulnerable right now than you normally are. I won’t risk that.”

 

Marinette sighed. “Fine. But once I’m all well, we’re going to have a talk, Chat Noir.”

 

He chuckled. “I look forward to it. But I’ve taken up enough of your time tonight. You need sleep, Princess.”

 

Chat Noir rolled off the bed, but paused before leaving, looking down at her. There was that look in his eyes again, the one that almost convinced Marinette that he was in love with her. But that was silly. Chat Noir had loved Ladybug for as long as Ladybug had existed. Marinette was just a friend. Especially since he’d fought several battles with Ladybug while she’d been unconscious that week.

 

He raised her hand to his mouth again, lips soft and tender against her fingers. “Sleep, Princess. I’ll see you again soon.”

 

Then he was gone. Marinette wanted to stay awake to memorize what he’d said, how he looked when he said it, and to think and wonder about where her miraculous had gone, but… before she knew it, sunlight was streaming in through her windows, and she was waking up to the sounds of a hospital ward in the daytime.

 

And that was when her brain finally remembered that, while he had reacted somewhat positively to the notion that she was Ladybug, he had never once mentioned the other Ladybug. The one he’d fought with. The one that should have convinced anyone that Marinette Dupain-Cheng wasn’t, and couldn’t be, the one and only Ladybug. And that could only mean one thing.


Chat Noir knew .

Chapter Text

You’d think a shocking revelation like that would turn the world upside down. But the melancholy truth is that it very rarely does. Life has a tendency to go on and, no matter how earth-shattering, the little relationship dramas so common to young people don’t usually have the power to sway much of anything outside the very small circles in which they occur.

 

That said, we’re talking about Ladybug and Chat Noir here, two superheroes on the brink of adulthood, still trying to figure out this whole ‘life’ thing. I think it’s pretty safe to say that their drama can and does affect a disproportionate amount of people. 

 

----

 

Marinette had assumed that her day would be long and boring, now that she wasn’t unconscious. The nurses, however, seemed to have a different idea.

 

There was a schedule on the wall of her room that listed the names of the different nurses who would be working with her during the day. There was also an old-fashioned analogue clock above the schedule. So, at precisely 8:45, “Clothilde” pushed her door open and presented her with a stack of clean clothes from home and her phone.

 

“Good morning, Miss Marinette,” she said with a cheerful smile. “I checked on you at the beginning of my shift this morning, but you were so soundly asleep, nothing could have woken you.” She placed the clothes on the foot of the bed while Marinette sat up, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

 

“Good morning,” she said back. 

 

“Now, since you didn’t have any fever last night,” Clothilde went on, pulling the thin curtains open, “the doctors left a note saying we were to get you up and moving today. No sense in letting your muscles get any weaker just sitting in bed.”

 

“Um, ok,” Marinette said, still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that her partner in crime-fighting knew her civilian identity. Thankfully, she wasn’t given much opportunity to obsess over it.

 

Another nurse stopped by the room to drop off some medications that Marinette could take by mouth now that she was awake. When she asked, she was told they were more antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. She had to take them for another two weeks just to make sure the illness wouldn’t come back.

 

After downing the pills, Clothilde helped her get out of bed and to the bathroom. That left Marinette’s legs shaky enough that she almost put off getting an actual shower. She felt gross, but if she couldn’t even walk to the toilet…

 

“Do you want me to help you shower, or do you think you can manage with a bath chair?” Clothilde asked. “We have courtesy soaps and things, so don’t worry about that.”

 

Marinette felt a wave of relief at the mention of a bath chair. She felt weak enough without wanting to ask for help with something as intimate as showering.

 

“I think I can manage with the chair, thanks,” she said, with an apologetic smile. She wasn’t sure if Clothilde would be relieved or offended at not being asked for more help.

 

But the nurse just smiled and said, “I thought so. From everything your friends and parents have shared with us, you seem like such an independent young woman. I bet it’s hard to have to rely on help right now, isn’t it?”

 

Marinette nodded shyly. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it…”

 

“Oh, honey, don’t worry about that! It’s my job to help you when you need it, but also to push you to do as much as you can on your own. After all, the rest of my job is to get you out of here as soon as possible!” She laughed as she said the last part, making it clear it wasn’t meant cynically.

 

Marinette smiled a bit more confidently. “I guess it’s my job to do my best then, right?” She glanced at the stack of clothes at the foot of the bed. “Um, I don’t think I can both walk to the bathroom and carry those…”

 

“Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you in the shower first, and then I’ll leave a towel and your clothes on another dry chair in the bathroom for you once you’ve got the shower curtain closed.”

 

It only took a few minutes for Clothilde and another nurse to bring two chairs in and then Marinette was left alone in the bathroom. It was an interesting experience, trying to shower by herself after almost a full week of debilitating fever and unconsciousness. Her every movement felt like she was trying to do it underwater- she rolled her eyes as she thought of the terrible pun Chat Noir would no doubt make if she ever shared her thoughts on it with him- and by the time she was dried off and dressed, she felt like she needed another nap.

 

But Clothilde had a breakfast tray waiting for her when she finally came out of the bathroom, holding onto the helpful rails on the walls in case her legs gave out. She made it to the bed and gratefully sank down on it, sure she was too tired to eat. Fortunately, her belly growled loudly at the scent of the food, so she made the effort.

 

And she did feel better after eating- not quite so shaky. Better enough that Clothilde convinced her to walk up and down the corridor outside her room before taking a nap. She only managed to get to the end of the hall and back before needing to rest. Dismayed despite herself, she crept back into bed and fell asleep immediately.

 

When Marinette woke up from her nap, her mom was sitting beside the bed reading.

 

“Hey, maman,” Marinette said softly, blinking sleepily.

 

“Marinette, you’re awake! How nice. The nurses said they wore you out this morning.”

 

Marinette chuckled a little. “I’m a lot weaker than I’m used to being. Just taking a shower and walking up and down the hall was enough to do me in.”

 

“Well, don’t worry dear. You’re young, you’ll bounce back faster than you think.”

 

Twice as fast if I had my miraculous back… Marinette thought, the smile sliding off her face. That brought back everything from yesterday, things she wasn’t sure she was ready to deal with. Chat Noir knew she was Ladybug… only, she wasn’t Ladybug, not anymore. Her right hand reached up to absently twist the fake stud in her ear. The other slipped beneath her pillow, and as it did, it came into contact with something smooth with hard edges. Frowning, she sat up and pulled it out. It was an envelope with her name on it, in writing she only recognized because of one awful night when she really had lost her miraculous, though thankfully only temporarily.

 

Fu had sent her a letter and, in quintessential Fu fashion, hadn’t sent it by ordinary means. She frowned at it a moment before putting it aside to read later. That wasn’t something she should be reading in front of her too-curious mother, whether she was still Ladybug or not.

 

It was after lunchtime, but the new nurse, Felice- Clothilde’s shift had ended while Marinette slept- brought her some food when Sabine went to ask. Marinette ate with a good appetite, finishing her meal with a tart apple. She’d just set the tray aside when there was a knock on her mostly closed door.

 

Ms. Bustier opened the door at Marinette’s invitation, and to her surprise, her entire class crowded into the room. Deeply touched, and laughing delightedly at the surprise, Marinette used the bed controls to raise the head of the bed so she could sit up and talk to everyone, clearing space at the foot of the bed so some of her classmates could sit there. Now that there was no danger of infection, she exchanged air kisses with just about everyone, although Lila seemed to be missing, and Chloe hung back, both of which occurrences she was thankful for. Still, Chloe didn’t have the discontented sneer that was her habitual expression. She almost looked… relieved? And to Marinette’s blushing surprise, Adrien actually kissed her cheek, instead of the air beside it, leaning in for a quick hug as well.

 

Marinette shot an ecstatic but inquisitive look over to Alya, who just grinned at her. Well! Still blushing, Marinette started asking what all she had missed, setting off a round of excited gossiping amongst her classmates.

 

Nathaniel and Marc had finished another of their Ladybug comics and were getting ready to print it. Juleka had finally had some head-shots taken, to send out to various modeling agencies. Alix and Kim had actually competed together in a low-stakes tournament, and thrashed the competition. And Ivan and Rose had collaborated on a new song for Kitty Section, and they were going to debut it at Marinette’s coming home party.

 

“My what?” Marinette asked.

 

“Your going home party,” Mylene said, giggling shyly. “We can’t let our everyday Ladybug go home alone, now can we?”

 

“But I don’t even know when that is! I could barely walk down the hall and back this morning.”

 

“That’s why we’ll all be there to help you, dudette. We can be your everyday superheroes!” Nino said, striking a heroic pose that got everyone laughing.

 

The class didn’t stay long- they only had the length of a normal class period after all, and most of that was eaten up by travel times- but Marinette felt so much better just having seen them all again. As they were filing out, though, Marinette motioned to Alya, who stayed behind.

 

“Where’s Lila?” Marinette asked, not sure if she really wanted to know the answer. No doubt the pest had come up with some ridiculous story to avoid having to visit Marinette in the hospital, where she most definitely wouldn’t have been the center of attention.

 

Alya grimaced. “She… well, she transferred classes.”

 

Marinette’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?”

 

“Yeah… see, the day you um, collapsed… she kind of implied that it was due to drug abuse.”

 

“WHAT?!” Marinette’s shriek was almost overpowered by the surprisingly low growl issuing from Sabine Cheng.

 

Alya held up her hands placatingly. “No one believed her, Marinette,” she said quickly. “In fact, after Adrien and Markov teamed up to discredit her… well, she lost a lot of respect in our class. So… she transferred. I’m not even sure she’s going to stay in our school actually. Everyone in our class is kind of taking it as a personal mission to make sure no one else falls for her stories.”

 

Marinette could only sit there, mouth hanging open and rapidly blinking her eyes. “I… I can’t believe that…” Could it really be that easy? Just… get sick for a week and then the bane of her school existence gets handed her rear and packs up and leaves of her own free will? “Wow.”

 

“Listen, I gotta go,” Alya said, squeezing her hand quickly. “But Nino, Adrien, and I will be back after school, ok? I’ll fill you in then.”

 

“... ok,” Marinette said, still dazed. Alya flashed her one more grin, then left almost as quickly as if she were chasing an akuma. Considering the rest of the class was long gone, she probably didn’t want them to leave without her.

 

“Well,” Sabine said, a hint of anger still audible in her tone. “I must say that makes me feel so much better. You’ve had to deal with that liar for too long, Marinette. I’m glad someone finally stepped up and stopped her.”

 

“Me, too, Maman,” Marinette said quietly, smiling and bemused. Adrien and Markov had teamed up against Lila. Adrien , who had recommended the high road, had finally had enough and had taken a stand. Markov who was a robot (though having human enough emotions to get akumatized)- and thus would still be considered to be impartial- had seen through Lila’s lies and had probably made that information infallibly logical. Marinette sank back against the raised bed, fantasizing about how the confrontation must have gone down. She had no way of knowing how it actually happened, of course. Unless Alya had gotten it on film…. Actually, that was something Alya definitely would have done. Marinette made a mental note to ask her, later.

 

----

 

Four days earlier

 

Adrien was hurrying into the next class when Max pulled him aside.

 

“Adrien… listen, I talked to Markov last night, and… and actually listened to him.”

 

Adrien blinked, not quite sure where this was going. “... Ok?” he offered hesitantly.

 

“So. I wanted to apologize.” Max looked supremely uncomfortable. “And I plan to apologize to Marinette as well, as soon as I get the chance.”

 

A lightbulb went off in Adrien’s head. “Ah,” he said, “This is about yesterday and… Lila.”

 

Max nodded, hanging his head. “I… I didn’t believe Marinette would do drugs, obviously, but… but I did believe Lila about a lot of other things. Things I should have seen through immediately. And,” he took a sharp, almost painful breath. “And I wouldn’t have said anything to Lila about her lie that day, either. Not like you did. I mean, I think everyone knows that Marinette wouldn’t do that, but… but sometimes things need to be said. At least, that’s what my mom told me when I talked to her about it.” He shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “So. I’m sorry. I let you both down.”

 

Adrien nodded. Max had let them both down. But now he was apologizing, making up for it… and Adrien himself wasn’t really much better. It had taken him far too long to come to the same conclusion. So, he lightly punched Max in the arm, and when Max looked up, he smiled at him.

 

“Thanks,” he said. “I’m glad you talked to me. But you know, you’re not the only one. I mean,” he looked down and rubbed the back of his neck. “I haven’t been the best example of standing up for Marinette myself. I might not even have done so yesterday, except…” he trailed off, thinking of that awful, awful scene in the courtyard. “I just couldn’t take anymore. There was Marinette, fighting for her life , and Lila just had to…” Even now he felt the rage boiling up again. There was no excuse for what Lila had tried to do.

 

“How is Marinette?” Max asked, anxious. “I haven’t heard anything.”

 

Adrien closed his eyes, thinking of how Marinette had looked so small in the hospital bed. “She’s… she’s going to be alright. But it’s going to take a while.”

 

Max let out a breath at almost the same time Adrien did. “Good. Markov and I were worried.”

 

“You know,” Adrien said, a sneaky grin spreading over his face, “I was just thinking about how I… we… could make it up to Marinette. If Markov was that effective at convincing you to see through Lila…”

 

Markov pushed the flap of Max’s book bag back so he could fly up to their eye-level.

 

“Do you wish to propose an alliance?” he asked. “Because I am more than willing to do so.”

 

Adrien’s smile became that much more conniving.

 

----

 

Later that day

 

Adrien was in the process of putting what he wouldn’t need in his locker after classes were over for the day. He took his time, trying to seem tired and stressed, both of which happened to be true, though the stress actually made him want to move a little faster than normal. Still, he forced himself to slow down, letting the locker room empty around him. Sure enough, when he finally closed the locker door, Lila was leaning against the lockers next to him, a perfect expression of innocent distress on her lying face.

 

“Adrien, I’m so glad I caught you! I… wanted to explain...” she began, as Adrien’s gut tightened in response to her presence. He knew this was necessary, but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.

 

He kept his expression closed, but slightly inquisitive. He didn’t want to put her on guard by appearing too eager. After what some- Lila- might have termed his ‘attack’ on her two days ago, she had to know she didn’t stand very high in his esteem.

 

“I’m not really interested in anything you have to say, Lila,” he said, turning away. But then he paused. “Unless it happens to be an apology about Marinette, by any chance.” There, that should give her enough of an opening… he was showing he was willing to forgive her if she only played her cards right. Come on… he thought, take the bait...

 

“Oh. Well… actually yes-” Adrien could practically hear her gritted teeth and wiped the smirk off his face as he turned back to her. “It was going to be an apology,” she finished, and Adrien was surprised to see that, though he could literally hear the grating tone in her voice, there was no sign of her frustration on her face.

 

“You see… I’ve seen Marinette taking some pills a few times, and it was always when I was just coming out of the bathroom, or when I walked into the locker room and it was just her and me. But, you’re right,” she added hastily, seeing his expression darken. “I’m sure that they were just harmless vitamins, or… or maybe OTC meds for a headache or something. I’m sure Marinette would never take like, real drugs, of course not!” 

 

She smiled brightly, but only for a moment, her expression falling into a pout that she probably thought was adorable, but which only caused Adrien’s stomach to roil. “But I couldn’t just keep silent on the subject, not when Marinette was so out of it, and stumbling around the courtyard… I mean, I know now that she was terribly sick, but… if she had been taking drugs, then it was best for someone to speak up, you know? Because the doctors needed the most complete information to help her properly, don’t you think?”

 

Adrien felt his own jaw muscles tighten with rage he absolutely couldn’t let himself express at the moment. So… she wanted to double down on her lie, did she? And nevermind that if Lila had truly been concerned about that, she should have informed Marinette’s parents, the nurse, the principal, Ms. Bustier, or the paramedics who had come to help Marinette, instead of waiting to say anything until the ambulance had gone, and no one with any influence would have been able to alert the doctors in a timely manner. Very well.

 

“You make a good point, Lila,” Adrien said, feeling like he was going to throw up shortly, but forcing an encouraging smile onto his unwilling lips. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. Of course, now I can see that you just had Marinette’s best interests at heart.” He paused, then again had to force himself to go on. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to bait her, he just hated that he had to pretend to feel bad about it. He let his expression slide into an embarrassed frown.

 

“You know… I feel bad about what I said that day. I mean, now that I know what you were thinking, it’s obvious you weren’t trying to make Marinette look bad. Would you let me make it up to you? You’ve done so many interesting things… I think everyone would enjoy a little powerpoint video about your exploits. In the courtyard, tomorrow at lunch? I mean, just to show that I was totally out of line, calling you a liar and all. Would that be ok?”

 

Lila’s expression didn’t change so much as relax . “Oh, you don’t have to do anything like that, Adrien,” she purred, stroking his arm. “But if you really want to…”

 

“My pleasure,” he assured her, and this time his smile was real, despite the sick feeling in his stomach. “I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch, then!”

 

Lila sauntered away, glancing back at him over her shoulder just before leaving the locker room in what was clearly supposed to be a sultry, seductive manner. Adrien managed to choke down his bile, and sat down on the benches to regain his equilibrium.

 

“That girl is pure evil,” Plagg said, escaping from inside his shirt and hovering in front of him. “You sure we don’t want to just… cataclysm her or something?”

 

“I’m pretty sure I should say no… but I’m actually considering it.” Adrien said. His stomach was slowly settling, but he still felt dirty. The whole exchange had been deceptive and nasty, like picking up a glass of water, only to discover it was full of… something else. Slime mold, maybe. 

 

He waited a few more minutes until he no longer felt the least bit queasy, then sent a text to four different numbers.

 

[avengingagreste] It’s on.

Chapter Text

Later that evening

 

Adrien sat at his computer, selecting the pictures that Alya and Markov had forwarded him, and texting with both at the same time. 

 

“Hey.”

 

Adrien didn’t look up, figuring Plagg just wanted more cheese as usual.

 

“Hey, kid. … Adrien.

 

Adrien sighed and looked up. “What is it this time, Plagg.”

 

“Listen, I’m not usually the voice of reason when it comes to revenge, but… you want to take a minute and think about this?”

 

Adrien frowned. “I thought you were on board with taking down Lila.”

 

“Oh yeah, definitely! I don’t want you to stop, but… you really need to think it through. You need to look at all the possibilities and the angles… decide which way the tree you’re chopping is probably going to fall, so it doesn’t, you know, demolish something you wanted to keep.”

 

Adrien narrowed his eyes. “I”m not worried about Lila turning into an akuma, Plagg. If it comes to that, I’ll give the earrings to Alya and Chat Noir and Ladybug will take care of it. Like we always do.” But it gave him a pang to think of fighting with Alya instead of Marinette.

 

“Sure, sure… but it might take a few minutes. And who are going to be Lila’s first targets?”

 

“Well, I assume me…”

 

“Right… which means…”

 

Adrien frowned again. “If she goes after me first, I might not get away to transform, and I probably won’t be able to give Alya the earrings, either. Hm. I’d better give them to her before it goes down. That way, if she goes after me first, Alya can still transform and distract Lila so I can get away, too.”

 

“That’s a step in the right direction. But what if she doesn’t go after you first?”

 

“Well, I mean… I’ll be right there , Plagg. Why wouldn’t she go for me first?”

 

“Because she’s evil, and she might want to hurt you first.”

 

Adrien rubbed his head, getting frustrated. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“Think it through, kid. Why are you doing this in the first place?”

 

“Because she went after Marinette. Again.

 

“Right.”

 

“So, you’re saying, if Lila gets akumatized again she might go after Marinette first?”

 

Plagg nodded. “And usually that wouldn’t matter, because Marinette is Ladybug. Except…”

 

“Except she isn’t right now. And in fact, she’s incapable of fighting back at all.” Adrien suddenly felt lightheaded. “Not to mention everyone else in the hospital… oh, god.” He ran his hands through his hair, looking up at his kwami. “What am I supposed to do here, Plagg? I can’t just let it stand! She has to be stopped.”

 

“You got that right!”

 

“So?”

 

Plagg shrugged. “I can’t help you there, kid. I know destruction, and I know how liars and manipulators think- I’ve had plenty of holders through the centuries who were one or the other, or both. Normally, I probably wouldn’t even say anything, except I like Pigtails, and Tikki would be mad at me if I let her get hurt without even trying to rein you in.”

 

Adrien sat up. “Tikki! I could ask her!

 

Plagg smirked and floated off, satisfied he’d done what he could to help his chosen avoid stupid mistakes this time. He rewarded himself with some nicely aged camembert he’d hidden in the top of Adrien’s closet, among the rarely worn hats.

 

Adrien got out the box with the ladybug earrings and opened it, squinting against the bright pink flash.

 

“Adrien! What’s wrong? Is Ladybug needed?” Tikki looked all around, trying to find a source of conflict.

 

“Oh, um, no. Maybe? I’m not…,” he took a deep breath and tried again. “I need some advice.”

 

“Oh! Ok, I’m good at that! What’s going on?”

 

“Ok, so…”

 

Adrien explained the whole plan to expose Lila as the liar she was, and Plagg’s concerns about how that might backfire on him, but especially on Marinette, who wasn’t in any condition to defend herself. 

 

“And it’s not like I can be there for her, either, not before Lila could get to the hospital.” Adrien sighed. “I need Ladybug- Marinette- to plan this. I bet she could find the perfect solution.” He snorted. “Or at least call for her Lucky Charm to fix it, right?”

 

Tikki’s eyes widened. “Adrien! That’s it! You need a Lucky Charm!”

 

Adrien opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. “How would that even work?” he asked. “Wouldn’t either me or Alya have to already be transformed? Not to mention, I have it on good authority that Lucky Charm doesn’t just give you what you ask for!”

 

“No, no, Adrien, that’s not what I meant. But… what do you know about Lila? That’s true, I mean.”

 

Adrien raised his eyebrows and sat back in his desk chair, thinking. “She’s Italian, her mother’s some kind of diplomat or representative- she works at the embassy, at least, unless that’s something else Lila lied about. Um… she’s better at physics than I am.” He swung the chair side to side, considering. “That’s about it. Well, she’s really good at lying. Or at least, getting people to believe her lies- some of them are so thin they’d collapse if anyone breathed on them. The problem is people don’t breathe on them, so she never gets caught.”

 

Tikki smiled at him. “And there you go! Lila is good at lying, and people want to believe her.”

 

Adrien stared at her, confused. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m doing this.”

 

“No, Adrien, you’re not making the connection. Isn’t there something you humans do for entertainment? That requires lying?”

 

He scratched the back of his head, trying to figure out where Tikki was going with this. “I don’t know… sure?”

 

Tikki rolled her eyes, then floated up to his library and pulled something out of the shelves. When she floated back down, she was holding some DVD cases.

 

And that’s when it finally dawned on him.

 

“Oh. Oh!” He pointed at Tikki excitedly. “Lila is good at lying! Actors lie all the time, and people like them for it!” Then his expression fell again. “But… um. How…?”

 

“You need to distract Lila from her anger, and also present her with an excuse, an outlet for her lies, if you will. Doesn’t your school have a drama club?”

 

“I don’t know, actually. But I bet Alya does!”

 

Adrien grabbed his phone and started texting, as Tikki floated away, humming contentedly as she joined Plagg.

 

----

The next day

 

“So… everyone did their part, right? We’re good to go?”

 

Adrien looked around at the small group, seeing nods from Alya, Nino, and Max, and a brief loss of altitude from Markov, which counted as a nod. Adrien’s smile became just a touch self-satisfied.

 

The plan wasn’t fool-proof, but it was as close to it as they could come in the short amount of time that they had. Adrien and Markov had reworked the entire thing after Tikki’s revelation, and now hopefully there wouldn’t be an akuma-Lila at all. Alya had been really annoyed- Adrien already knew she could be downright vindictive at times- but Nino had seemed okay with the new, mellower tone of the production they were going to put on.

 

The morning both dragged and flew as Adrien waited for their lunch period. He’d already gotten permission to eat at the school that day, telling his father he had something special planned for Lila. He knew that Lila had his father’s ear somehow, of course, so he figured keeping his plan vague was the best way to both ensure that she knew he was planning something, and that she would assume his plans for her would be a good thing. He hadn’t missed that subtle head nod from Nathalie the day of the photoshoot from hell (as he now thought of it, looking back), and she wouldn’t have done that if Gabriel hadn’t given Lila his blessing. Hopefully, acting would soon have Lila ditching modeling, and he wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore.

 

In the five minutes between the end of one class and the beginning of another, Adrien sprinted to the caretaker’s office to make sure Mylene’s dad was still going to do his part. Reassured on this head, he sprinted back to his class, making it in the door just as the bell rang. 

 

He gave a thumbs up to Alya and Nino, and received one back from Alya, who had spent the time texting the head of the drama department and making sure he would be there, too. Adrien also made sure to smile specifically at Lila, whose returning smile was nothing short of smug. She obviously thought she’d won him over, now that Marinette was out of the way.

 

Adrien’s smile turned smug as well, as he exchanged side-glances with Nino. At the end of the class, as everyone was just getting up and gathering their things, Adrien leaped to his feet and stood in the front.

 

“Hey, can I have everyone’s attention for a second?” he called out loudly. 

 

The rustlings and murmurs stopped as everyone turned to look at him, some with raised eyebrows.

 

“I just wanted to apologize to everyone for what I said a couple of days ago. I… well, I was upset about Marinette, and it didn’t occur to me, given what was said, that Lila could have had Marinette’s best interests in mind. So… if everyone would join me and Markov in the courtyard,” He grinned in genuine amusement. “We’ve prepared a little something by way of further apology.”

 

He held back a snicker at the self-satisfied expression on Lila’s face. The fact that everything he’d just said was absolutely true was just the icing on the cake. 

 

The expressions on everyone’s faces as they filed past him were almost too much for his self-control. Rose looked constipated, as she tried to reconcile her excitement with a certain amount of trepidation. Just behind her, Juleka actually took the time to hold her hair out of her face so she could attempt to freeze him with a raised eyebrow. Neither of the two girls had been quite so hung up on Lila the last couple of days, and Adrien felt just a little guilty that here he was making them think he’d switched his tune again.

 

Behind them, Mylene and Ivan looked worried, though Adrien couldn’t tell what exactly they were worried about. Although from the way Ivan was keeping his attention focused on his girlfriend, his worries probably had more to do with his Mylene than with Lila.

 

Kim and Alix passed him, fixing him with narrowed eyes and whispering fiercely back and forth. He assumed they were placing bets on what he had planned, and put in his own mental wagers on the outcome of this. If Lila didn’t spontaneously combust he would owe Plagg two wheels of camembert for every half-hour he spent transformed for two days.

 

Chloe and Sabrina actually stopped in front of him. 

 

“Please tell me you’re not doing what I think you’re doing?” Chloe complained.

 

Adrien raised his eyebrows in his best picture-purr-fect innocent look, and leaned forward a bit, “Since I don’t know what you think I’m doing, I can’t answer that, now can I?”

 

Sabrina hurried to come to their rescue. “She means that we hope you aren’t going to make up with Lila.”

 

Adrien frowned at them both. “Never. Do you know what she had the nerve to…” he broke off, looking away. Then he looked directly back at Chloe. “I don’t like being treated like a possession. Even you never did that. And after all the lies she’s told, and especially the malicious ones about Marinette… no. But,” he admitted, “this isn’t going to be exactly a take-down, either. I still don’t want Lila akumatized over this. But it IS going to expose her for the liar she is, once and for all.”

 

Chloe examined her manicure. “Well, good. Lila doesn’t deserve any second chances.”

 

And with that, the two of them flounced past him. Well, Chloe flounced, Sabrina just hurried after her, carrying both of their bags and books. Adrien shook his head. Chloe might be doing better, thanks to her determination to be granted the Bee miraculous again, but she still had a long way to go. With that thought, Adrien decided he’d better get to the courtyard himself before Lila became suspicious.

 

Mr. Haprele had attached a projector screen to the railing of the walkway on the second level during the last class period, and now Markov hovered in front of a digital projector, already jacked in and ready to hit ‘play’ as soon as Adrien showed up.

 

Adrien hurried into position, noting that Alya and Nino were playing their parts very well. Alya had latched onto Lila’s arm in much the same way Lila had of attaching herself to Adrien, and was just about jumping up and down with excitement. That her excitement was due to her anticipation of Lila’s coming downfall was beside the point- from the innocently saintful look on Lila’s face, she hadn’t caught on. Nino, similarly, was on Lila’s other side, cheerfully vacuous expression on his face, but ready to grab Lila in case she somehow escaped the grasp of his enthusiastic girlfriend before the presentation was over.

 

Adrien skidded to a stop in front of the projector, and bowed to the assembled students- most of whom weren’t even in their class, but who had stopped because they saw something interesting going on. “Hello again, all! Like I said earlier, this video is meant to be a sort of apology to someone in our class who, I think, deserves it. I didn’t realize that all this time she had a goal in mind. I hope you all enjoy it.”

 

He nodded to Markov and went to stand just behind Nino and Lila. He’d debated that position, since he’d really like to have seen her face as she realized what was happening, but after considering it, he wanted to make sure she couldn’t melt back into the crowd either. If she was going to insist on lying to people, then he would make sure she got the credit for it that she deserved.

 

The video opened with a few flattering images of Lila, including one that included Adrien, from that photoshoot where he’d been forced to pose with her. A soft instrumental melody played in the background, and he nudged Nino just enough so he could give him a thumbs up on his selection.

 

The picture montage included some of Lila’s photoshopped images of her standing with various celebrities, and concluded with an updated class picture taken after her supposed trip to Achoo. What followed after this had been hotly debated between the four of them over facetime yesterday, especially after Tikki had taken a hand in the plot.

 

Alya had been all for a brute force, head on, no-hold-barred refutation of every lie they had had documented proof of. And, to Adrien’s surprise, there was a surprising amount of documented proof. Apparently, Max made a habit of bringing Markov to school with him, though after that first time, Markov usually stayed in Max’s bookbag. It reminded Adrien of Plagg, actually… but being in Max’s bookbag only slightly hindered Markov’s ability to record audio. And since Max had been one of those hanging on Lila’s every word and always ready to render her his services, Markov had had plenty of opportunity. It seemed it had started as a way for Markov to convince Max not to believe her anymore.

 

Anyway, the point was, Markov had undeniable audio of Lila repeatedly lying to her classmates, sometimes even getting her own stories mixed up herself. So, Alya had been for the brute-strength approach. Just annihilate her right off the bat.

 

Nino had wanted a slightly more subtle approach. Basically the same thing as Alya, but not quite so in-your-face about it.

 

Max had been the most hesitant about the whole thing, and the most willing to switch directions when Adrien proposed it. He agreed that something needed to be done about Lila, but he’d only recently come to that conclusion for himself, and he hadn’t had time to get to the point where he stopped being embarrassed by his own behavior and started being angry with her for manipulating him. So, he’d wanted to print out flyers or post something anonymously on the school blog and let people draw their own conclusions.

 

It had been Markov’s idea to let Lila’s lies shoot themselves down. He’d wanted to compile the audio and carefully select the most damning bits. Then he would locate and download anything on the internet that would refute such lies. Then, he would have made a presentation where Lila’s voice would play over text that directly refuted her story, or play the Lila audio before playing a video clip that refuted her.

 

Adrien had initially thought Markov’s approach the best. But since talking to Tikki, he’d come up with a different plan entirely. They were going to frame Lila’s lies as one huge art-piece . Basically, present a story where Lila, wanting to be an actress, came up with the notion of lying as much as possible to prove to the head of the drama department that she had what it took to join them. Kind of like Kagami’s overly dramatic challenge when she tried to join the D’Argencourt fencing team, except executed over months.  

 

Whether it would work or not was something he was very nervous about. Doing it the other way was at least guarranteed to result in people not trusting Lila anymore. Doing it this way might make it seem that he either approved of Lila’s lies, or that he admired her for the way she pulled them off. But it was a way that might distract her from the fact that she’d been caught, and would present her with a way to save face. Both of which might be enough to prevent her turning into an akuma and rage-killing a lot of people. Adrien hadn’t forgotten the way Lila- not even akumatized herself that time- had arranged for Oni-Chan to almost succeed in outright killing Ladybug. 

 

As the presentation went on, Adrien shook his head, marvelling at his friends. Somewhat surprisingly, after the change was agreed on Nino had come out in front, advising Markov on what to put where, how to pair things up and what kind of framing devices to use to create the overall impression that Lila had been performing an art-piece. And his best friend had out-done himself.

 

From behind Lila there wasn’t much he could see of her reaction, though she clenched her hands into fists pretty early on. She also stiffened her back, and if Alya’s gyrations were any indicator, she had tried to pull her arm free multiple times by the end of the video.

 

That was Adrien’s cue to step back in. He almost leaped out in front, and called up the head of the Drama department.

 

“I think we can all agree that, while Lila’s obvious talent has certainly made fools of most of us, it really is something that should be productively channeled. Give it up for Lila Rossi, the newest member of the drama club! She pulled the wool right over our eyes, but I predict that 10 years from now, we’ll all look back and say, ‘I knew her when,’ am I right?”

 

He held up his arms as if calling for cheers. It was a bit awkward, he wasn’t really used to being in a spotlight and doing anything except standing as directed . He got a few cheers, the loudest being from Alya and Nino- bless them- and noticed the look of absolute rage Lila took time to send him before plastering a sweet, self-deprecating smile on her face and walking up to join him.

 

“I confess…” Lila said, voice as smooth as ever, though she spoke through gritted teeth. “That I’ve been caught out!” She tittered a laugh. “When I first got here, I knew it would be tough getting into the drama club, so I just decided to prove to them that they needed me! So sorry if I made anyone feel bad- it was just an ongoing project, and I never meant to hurt anyone.”

 

Then the head of the drama department said a few words, and the small crowd dispersed. Lila had given every indication that she wanted to pull Adrien aside to scream at him- although she phrased it as ‘thanking him for his support,’- but fortunately, the head of the drama department pulled her away instead, saying he needed her to fill out some paperwork and get to know the other students in the club because they had a production coming up that he thought she would be perfect for.

 

Adrien sighed in relief and put an arm around both Alya’s and Nino’s shoulders so he could sag against them. The three of them waited there for a while, but after fifteen minutes it didn’t look like any black butterflies would be appearing there at school. At least not until much later.

 

“Do you want the earrings back,” Alya asked softly, as they made their way back to the classroom to hastily eat their packed lunches. There was only about fifteen minutes of their lunch hour left at that point.

 

“No, keep them for now. You should even go ahead and wear them, just in case,” Adrien said. Nino and Alya had been given their usual miraculouses, of course, just as added protection, but Adrien still wasn’t comfortable asking a random civilian to transform into Ladybug. No wonder Marinette had chosen her closest friends when the time came. Some of it was necessity, particularly with Nino, but clearly she wasn’t willing to give miraculouses out to people she didn’t know and trust. Adrien couldn’t fault her for that at all.

 

“But what are people going to say if they notice?” Alya asked.

 

“Just tell them that you’re taking care of Marinette’s earrings for her,” he said, inhaling the meager amount of food his personal chef thought sufficient for a mid-day meal for a model. Thankfully, Nino and Alya, now that they knew about his superhero identity, had started bringing extras whenever they had packed lunches.

 

The tension continued to drain out of them as the lunch hour drew to a close and still there was no akuma alert. Adrien started to feel shaky with reaction, though. He ended up with his head pillowed on his arms as he tried to take in the fact that it had worked.

 

“I wonder how Marinette’s going to feel about this…” he mused, hardly loud enough to be heard. He was on the fence about it. On the one hand, Marinette as Ladybug probably wouldn’t have approved of anyone facing the kind of take-down they’d originally planned. After all, that kind of thing was bordering on cruel, and could definitely, from an outsider’s perspective, come across as bullying of the worst kind. On the other hand, though… this didn’t exactly stop Lila from lying, it just exposed her as a liar. And Adrien himself had come across as condoning it.

 

Well, whatever happened, he would just have to make sure that Marinette heard it first from him, so he could explain himself and his reasons.

Chapter Text

“... so that’s how it happened,” Adrien finished, looking anxiously at Marinette. “It wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but I was worried in case she came after you if she got akumatized and… and then what if Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t get here in time?” A brief shudder ran through him, and Marinette reached over and squeezed his hand reflexively. He squeezed right back, sandwiching her hand between his. Marinette found herself a little short of breath and definitely warm in the face. "Anyway, by the time lunch was over, she'd already arranged to switch classes, to 'accommodate her new educational focus.'" Adrien finished with a roll of his eyes.

 

“Well, I'm glad,” she heard herself saying, even though she didn’t quite know what to think. "That means, whatever happens, none of our class has to deal with her much anymore.”

 

Alya decided to add something. “I, uh, I did sort of email everyone the original presentation- the one that was going to be a straight-up take-down. And by everyone, I mean I also sent it to Mr. Damocles, Ms. Bustier, and the head of the drama department.” 

 

When both Marinette and Adrien looked at her with raised eyebrows, she crossed her arms over her chest and said, “Well, they needed to know! And I included a little paragraph about our reasoning for not going ahead with that version.” At that Alya actually slumped down a little, and looked aside. “I got a few replies… nothing from the teachers, but… after everyone had a chance to really process what Lila had been doing, they kinda got on to me for not going ahead with the original. I think they felt a little cheated? Some of them said that we should have had more faith in Ladybug and Chat Noir.”

 

Marinette bit her lip and gently drew her hand away from Adrien, suddenly aware he hadn’t let go of it. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate his sudden attentions, but it was a little bewildering. Where had it come from? She eyed him out of the corner of her eye and saw he was blushing, too.

 

She managed to catch Alya’s eye, and tried to send her a silent message. But instead of shooing the boys out so Marinette could grill her about Adrien, Alya smiled at her. It wasn’t the kind of smile that was usually to be seen on Alya’s face. This wasn’t predatory, or conniving, or sympathetic. This was… gentle satisfaction. Marinette blinked. Alya winked back.

 

“Hey Nino, why don’t we check out the gift shop?” Alya said, standing up and grabbing Nino’s hand to pull him up, too. “Can we get you anything, Marinette?” she asked, as Nino grinned first at her and then at Adrien. Marinette groaned, burying her face in her hands, and sinking down on the bed, which was half-raised. Alya was abandoning her- leaving her alone with Adrien again. The last time that had happened, it had not gone well!

 

She didn’t even have her parents there to prevent a totally awkward interlude where no doubt both of them would sit there in embarrassed silence, trying and failing to make conversation. Tom had called Sabine just before her friends had shown up to the hospital after school let out, saying there was some kind of emergency, and of course her mom had left to help deal with it.

 

Marinette tried to pull herself together. The last time this had happened, Adrien had ended up thinking she hated him. She couldn’t let that happen again! She took a deep breath, gathered all her courage, and sat back up. She could do this! She could… 

 

Adrien was looking at her uncertainly, just as red in the face as she probably was, and biting his lower lip. Oh no, he looked so uncomfortable! And adorable... She should say something, anything, to put him at ease…

 

“So…” she said, smiling with what she hoped was encouragement. “Thank you.”

 

He blinked. “Thank you? For what?”

 

Marinette looked down, blushing harder than ever. “For what you did. About Lila. I mean, after what you said earlier, about taking the high road…”

 

“Marinette, I’m so sorry about that,” Adrien interrupted. He grabbed her hand again, staring at her earnestly. “I had no idea what I was talking about, it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever said, I swear!”

 

“Uh…”

 

He took a breath. “I didn’t know Lila very well then. But I know her now, and how she operates, and she’s just… evil. It’s not even that she doesn’t realize what she’s doing, or that she somehow fell into doing the wrong thing, or that she’s spoiled. She actively chooses to hurt and manipulate the people around her. I’m so sorry that you and everyone else had to put up with her lies, especially you since she was always attacking you in some way or another, and… I should have said so, or done something earlier.”

 

Marinette zeroed in on one point. “You think she’s evil, too?”

 

“Oh yeah. She’s like… Hawkmoth. Only she doesn’t need a miraculous to get people to do what she wants.” 

 

Marinette shivered, noticing that Adrien also shuddered at the thought. 

 

“You know, she actually threatened me once, right after she came back.” Marinette cringed inwardly as soon as she said it. She hadn’t meant for that to slip out.

 

Adrien’s expression hardened. “She…! Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell Alya?”

 

Marinette shook her head, sighing. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Besides, I didn’t get akumatized after all, so, it was fine, really.”

 

“Marinette! It wasn’t fine! Being threatened by anyone is never fine!” He paused, and narrowed his eyes at her. “Wait… are you saying you nearly did get akumatized? Like, there was an actual butterfly after you?!”

 

“Um… yeah?” Marinette faltered, shrinking back and trying to find some way to explain how she’d avoided that without admitting Tikki had talked her through it. But to her surprise Adrien didn’t ask about how she avoided it. Instead, she watched his face go pale and then suddenly he was hugging her, half lifting her off the mattress. Hesitantly, she hugged him back, shocked all over again by the fact that he was trembling.

 

“Marinette,” he mumbled into her shoulder. “If anything like that ever happens again, please please call me. I’ll drop everything, I swear. But please just… you don’t have to go through that alone.”

 

A part of her mind, the part that was responsible for turning her into a babbling idiot around Adrien Agreste, was practically vibrating with emotional overload, but it wasn’t the part that was in control. Fortunately.

 

“Um, Adrien?” Marinette asked, pulling away a little. He let her go and sat down on the edge of the bed, still looking at her with such concern that Marinette knew she wouldn’t ask her question if she didn’t break eye-contact. She needed to know the answer for her own sanity, but it was so very tempting to throw caution to the wind and simply enjoy the fact that Adrien Agreste had finally realized that she existed.

 

So she closed her eyes and concentrated, not on the fact that he was sitting so close and paying her special attention, but on the fact that she needed to know why.

 

“I… it’s not that I don’t like…” She took a breath and tried again. “I mean, w-why are you suddenly like this?”

 

Adrien pulled back like she’d punched him, and she opened her eyes again. “What do you mean?” he asked, although by the steadily rising flush, Marinette thought he knew exactly what she meant.

 

It was an effort to keep herself from stuttering, as her own blush bloomed on her cheeks again. “H-holding my hand, k-kissing my cheek. I mean… you’ve n-never acted like this before. Not with me o-or anyone else as far as I know, and… and it’s… I’m confused?” She brought her hands up to her cheeks in an effort to cool them. “I mean, I kinda thought you were in love with someone,” she said, quietly.

 

Adrien’s blush was bordering on painful from the looks of it, which made Marinette both feel guilty, and just a bit relieved. She could fluster him just as much as he could fluster her, and that gave her the boost of confidence she needed to not instantly walk back her question. He cleared his throat and looked down at his hands. For a moment he didn’t say anything, and when he finally spoke, his voice was quiet.

 

“I, uh… I was. In some ways, I guess I still am? In love with someone, I mean.” He looked up at her, and it was all Marinette could do to meet his gaze and still breathe. He cleared his throat again and looked away. “Um, it’s hard to explain right now because there’s so much you don’t know yet, but… um, it was s-someone I work with. Only, s-she didn’t feel the same way about me.” He sucked in air like it was the last breath he’d ever take and looked at her again, expression sheepish. “This is really hard! I’m sorry, I’m… trying.”

 

Marinette offered him a sympathetic smile. “Believe me, I know exactly how hard it can be.”

 

Adrien stared at her, one hand coming up to clutch his shirt in the vicinity of his heart. “God, you’re amazing,” he said, then mumbled something like, “I guess you would know, wouldn’t you,” which Marinette devoutly hoped she’d misheard. He blew out a breath and turned slightly away from her. 

 

“Anyway, this girl… she just kind of blew me away the first time I met her. She was- is - amazing! I was completely dazzled by her for the longest time. But you know,” he said, turning back to her, “I met her only a day before I met you, Marinette. And… well, lately I’ve been thinking that if I’d met you first… she wouldn’t have had a chance with me.”

 

Marinette’s brain stopped.  

 

Adrien didn’t notice.

 

“I can’t believe it took me so long to realize how special you are, how you’ve always been more than a friend. I’m so sorry that I didn’t let myself see it because of her . So much time wasted.” Adrien laughed bitterly at himself. The sound shot through Marinette like a bolt of lightning, restarting her heart and lungs. She gasped, and Adrien finally looked back up and saw the trouble she was in.

 

“Marinette! Oh god, I’m sorry!” Adrien said, suddenly frantic. He leaned toward her, gripping her shoulders, eyes roaming all over her face. Marinette struggled to focus on him, as her body fitfully remembered how to function. “That was too much, I shouldn’t have… I’m so sorry!” He pulled her into a hug, clutching her to him as if he was afraid she would vanish. “You’re still weak, I should’ve given you more time to recover before… Please don’t fall into another coma!”

 

Marinette couldn’t help but laugh at that, though it sounded hysterical to her ears. She realized she was holding him just as tightly as he was holding her. Her laughter changed to sobs in the blink of an eye, but for once she didn’t fight it. This moment was too important. Adrien liked her. 

 

Adrien liked her. 

 

Adrien... liked her.  

 

Adrien Agreste liked her.

 

And… her mind almost stopped again as everything suddenly fell into place. All the bits and pieces, things she’d noted without really noticing, and most importantly, the revelations of her fevered dream… Her sobs quieted and her tears stopped, but she clung to Adrien just the same, letting the knowledge wash over her like a wave, using him as an anchor so she didn’t get swept away.

 

Adrien Agreste was Chat Noir.

 

----

 

In a perfect universe, Marinette and Adrien would have had the time to talk, to sort through tangled emotions and misunderstandings, until they were both on the same page again. In a perfect world, no one would have interrupted or interfered or come bustling in with evening medications.

 

This was not a perfect universe, or a perfect world.

 

Francine the evening nurse shoved the door open with a very perfunctory knock, little plastic cup of pills in her hand, and stopped short at seeing the two teenagers clinging together as if both their lives depended on it. She put her free hand on her hip and pursed her lips.

 

“Now what do we have here?” she said loudly, tone censorious. “Visiting hours have been over for a while, young man.”

 

They released each other, reluctantly to her eye, and the boy turned to face her. She raised her eyebrows at his handsome face, but didn’t mention it. It was none of her business who came to visit her patient. Unless of course, that visitor had been making her patient cry- as he evidently had been.

 

“Now, I can’t have you coming in here and upsetting my patient,” she said firmly. “She’s been very ill, and she needs all her strength to continue getting better. She doesn’t need to be wasting energy crying over some boy. You get along, now.”

 

The young man blushed, and her patient instantly came to his defense. 

 

“It’s ok, um... Francine,” she said quietly, with a quick look at the whiteboard. She wiped the tears away and said, “It’s the good kind of crying.” And then she smiled, and Francine knew she was telling the truth because there was no hidden pain behind it. She raised her eyebrow and ‘mhmmed’, and continued to make shooing motions toward the door.

 

The boy nodded and briefly turned back to her patient, taking and squeezing her hand. “We’ll talk about this later?” he asked, and she nodded. 

 

“I’ll call you?” she asked, equally hesitant, and he said, “Yeah…”

 

They exchanged smiles and then the boy left, walking backwards through the door so he didn’t have to take his eyes off her until the very last second, with a stupid smile on his face. Francine’s eyebrow rose of its own accord again, but she didn’t comment, merely handing her patient the medicine cup and refilling her water bottle for her. After she’d seen the medicine taken, she checked the chart and made a few notations before moving off on the rest of her rounds.

 

It was none of her business… but it sure was cute.

 

----

 

Marinette sank back down on the bed after Francine left, exhausted again. She’d put in an order for supper, but she wasn’t sure she’d even be hungry by the time it got there. Her first impulse was to call Alya and gush about what Adrien had said to her… but she wasn’t sure she had the energy for it, and that conversation was something she wanted to be rested for anyway. She knew Alya would be happy for her, but Alya’s enthusiasm was just as exhausting in its own way as a bout of crying could be.

 

Instead she opted for texting her, telling her that the talk with Adrien had gone ‘pretty well.’ After that, she texted her parents that she was going to take another nap and not to worry, and then turned her phone on silent and closed her eyes.

 

But sleep wouldn’t come. Try as she might, Marinette couldn’t get over the fact that Chat Noir was Adrien Agreste behind the mask. Despite her certainty, the two boys were so different in the ways they behaved that it didn’t surprise her she hadn’t seen it before. It was only lately- the last few months anyway- that Adrien had started opening up a little around her. He’d also started paying her more attention, singling her out in little ways, deliberately starting conversations or asking her opinion when the four of them were hanging out together. And she’d noticed that he had a certain soft smile that only appeared when he looked at her . The thought made her grin and hug herself, internally squealing. He liked her! He really liked her!

 

But… Adrien was Chat Noir. 

 

Chat Noir had been visiting Marinette’s balcony retreat with increasing frequency for the last half-year- ever since Glaciator, in fact. Just coming over to chat, or to hang out. Marinette hadn’t known what to do about it- she hadn’t wanted to encourage him, because she knew his feelings for Ladybug and she was too in love with Adrien to string him along, even though Chat didn’t know she was Ladybug. But he was also her partner, and she wanted to be there for him in whatever ways she could, so she hadn’t told him not to come anymore. She’d kept things between them at the friend level, though.

 

Now… now she was sure Chat Noir knew she had been Ladybug, and… and Adrien was Chat Noir. Just how long had he known, exactly? And- the smile slipped off her face like it’d been greased- and had he only started pursuing Marinette because he found out she was Ladybug?

 

Desperately, she remembered Adrien’s declaration earlier. He’d said that he’d been dazzled (by Ladybug, she inferred), and that he now thought that if he’d met her- Marinette- first, he wouldn’t have been. She rolled her eyes at the thought. As if she, regular clumsy old Marinette Dupain-Cheng could really compete with Ladybug. She heard an echo of Tikki’s voice, insisting that since Marinette was Ladybug, that there was every reason for Adrien to feel that way.

 

It was suddenly very important that Marinette discover when, exactly, Adrien/Chat Noir had discovered she was Ladybug. Her future happiness depended on it. With the resolution to find out as soon as possible, Marinette finally fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Adrien sat in Ms. Bustier’s class, nervously bouncing his leg and obsessively checking his phone. It was on silent so he wouldn’t know if a new text came through without checking it. 

 

He’d sent a good morning text to Marinette right after getting up, but she hadn’t replied, and it’d been three hours already. Was she ok? Was something wrong? She said she’d call him, but… ever since he’d left the hospital yesterday she hadn’t spoken to anyone that he knew of, not even her parents, according to Alya, who had only gotten a brief text from her. And he hadn’t been able to visit her as Chat last night either- there’d been another akuma, and he and Alya had been stumped on where the butterfly was hiding for way too long. By the time the fight was over, he’d had to decide whether he wanted to visit her- which he did- or whether he wanted to sleep at all that night- which he really needed to. Sleep had won out.

 

He glanced at his phone again, noting that it was barely a half hour through the first period. Wanting to let out a loud groan, he contented himself with a small sigh instead. This day was going to last forever. Nino nudged him and, when he looked over, gave him a sympathetic grin. But turning his head also gave Adrien a peripheral view of Alya, who suddenly jerked in surprise. She squinted down at her phone, then slid it slowly off the desk into her lap and started typing furiously.

 

Adrien’s eyes widened, and he quickly turned back to the front. Not for the first time was he glad that school was basically one big, mostly fun, review for him, due to all his private tutors when he was growing up. He still had to pay some attention in class, but he almost never had problems with the material that was covered, and more often than not, he could sleep through it and still make excellent grades.

 

He sent a quick text of his own to Alya.

 

[Adrien] Did you just get a text from Marinette?!

 

Adrien looked quickly back up at the board, just in time to avoid the raised eyebrow Ms. Bustier was throwing in his general direction. It landed on Alya instead.

 

“Alya, now is not the time. If I see you texting in my class again, I’m going to have to confiscate your phone.”

 

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, Ms. Bustier.”

 

Adrien bit his lip, frustrated that he wouldn’t be getting any answers soon. He glanced back down at his phone, and then did a double-take. He had one new message. He swiped his finger over it without really looking, and answered the question Ms. Bustier put to him absentmindedly, but correctly.

 

He glanced at the message and rolled his eyes when he saw what Alya had sneakily changed her name to. Or maybe it had been Nino, although why either of them would want to put that as Alya’s contact name on his phone, he had no idea.

 

[Nino’s bae] M doesn’t remember yesterday. Woke up and didn’t know why she’s in hospital. Docs doing tests. Call at lunch.

 

Adrien could tell by the sudden lightheadedness that he’d gone pale. He swallowed and took several deep breaths. The dizziness passed, and he sat up a little straighter. What did it mean that Marinette couldn’t remember? Was it a side effect of her illness? Was it something else? But as concerned as he was for her, he couldn’t help feeling just a little cheated. Their talk had appeared to go so well… he’d finally been getting somewhere with her, letting her know how he felt. And judging from her reaction, she hadn’t been about to reject him when that nurse walked in and chased him out. He’d really been hoping they could move forward with their relationship when she was fully recovered. Now he was back to square one.

 

Well. If he’d done it once, he could do it again. The one thing he was sure of was that he was not going to let her slip through his fingers. At least he knew she definitely liked him. The only question was, would she keep liking him once she knew he was also her partner?

 

----

 

Marinette had to stop herself from apologizing to the nurse. Again. If only she could stop herself from prodding at the curious blankness in her mind. Try as she might, she could not remember anything from the past couple of days. The last clear memory was talking to Alya before school… but according to everyone she’d spoken to today, that had been more than a week ago. There were some hazy fragments floating around that didn’t seem to make any sense- her wandering around the ruins of Paris as Ladybug, flashes of Chat Noir’s burning green gaze, but that was it.

 

Apparently she’d been very sick with an infection and high fever. She’d been fever free and conscious the last day and a half, but she couldn’t remember that either. She’d been perfectly lucid, and it was disturbing that she couldn’t remember any of it.

 

Both her parents were in her room when the nurses brought her back from the latest CT scan. They’d put her in a wheelchair, just to be safe, but Marinette felt steady enough on her feet to stand up and walk over to them for a hug. Her legs were shaky and she felt weak, but according to her main nurse this morning- Clothilde- that was an improvement over yesterday.

 

“Maman, Papa! I’m so glad to see you!” Marinette hugged them, and they sandwiched her between them. She felt tears spring to her eyes, much as she tried to hold them back.

 

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. The nurses called us as soon as you woke up this morning. I’m so sorry we weren’t here!” Tom said, stepping back. Sabine planted a kiss on her cheek before releasing her too. Marinette climbed wearily back into bed, relieved that she’d at least woken up in her own clothes instead of a hospital gown. It was one of the reasons she believed she’d been awake and lucid before now- surely they wouldn’t have dressed her like a doll, right? That was why hospital gowns existed, after all. They were for patients who couldn’t get dressed on their own.

 

“It’s all so confusing…” Marinette trailed off. “Did I… say anything?”

 

“Like what?” Sabine asked, as she and Tom took seats in the reclining chairs by the window.

 

Marinette tried to come up with a way to ask whether she’d revealed her secret identity while she was sick... without actually revealing her secret identity now.

 

“Well, they say I was delirious…” she began, playing with her fingers. “I mean, I’d like to know if I said anything too weird, you know?”

 

Sabine and Tom raised their eyebrows at each other. “Not that we know of, sweetie.”

 

“You did call out for Chat Noir pretty frequently, though,” Sabine said, looking the picture of innocence.

 

“That’s true,” Tom said, a slow grin spreading all over his face. Marinette felt the heat rise in her cheeks and cursed the fact that she couldn’t explain that away without revealing herself. 

 

“We didn’t see him every night, but I caught him that first night you were so sick. He came to visit you while I was getting coffee for your mom and me, and when I walked back in- shocked to see a superhero here- he gave me this look , as if he was daring me to try and throw him out.” He snorted, a definite twinkle in his eye. “As though I would have. You’d been calling for him, and I wasn’t about to do anything that might harm your chances of survival.” An echo of fear crossed both of their faces. “It did help, his visit… you slept easier after he left.”

 

“But you really should have told us about his previous late night visits, dear,” Sabine reproved gently. “It’s not that we disapprove, but you have a hard enough time getting up in the morning. While we wouldn’t try to prevent you from seeing him, we would have asked you to keep it to one night a week so you could both get a decent night’s rest. If he’s much older than you are, I’d be surprised.”

 

Marinette choked, her blush redoubling. Just what did her parents think they were doing?! “He just wanted to talk, maman! He… he doesn’t have a lot of people in his life who he can talk to.”

 

Tom chuckled. “We know that. You’d be blushing a lot harder if it had gone further. And he would have looked guiltier the night we caught him visiting you here. I’m pretty sure he came every night after that, too, but we didn’t catch him again.” His eyes softened. “I think Chat Noir cares a lot about you, Marinette.”

 

Marinette waved her arms defensively. “I-it’s nothing like that! He’s… and I’m… anyway, I-I was just trying to be his friend,” she ended, giving up.

 

“And whoever said friends can’t be concerned for each other?” Sabine asked, with a raised eyebrow. “All I’m saying is that the two of you maybe need to have a conversation and see if there aren’t feelings developing between you.”

 

This time Marinette hid behind her hands while her parents laughed at her embarrassment. That was not a conversation she wanted to have with Chat. It was bad enough that he was in love with the Ladybug side of her. If he was falling in love with Marinette as well… 

 

She took a deep breath and shoved it into a back corner of her brain. “So,” she said, sitting up and changing the subject. “Tell me about yesterday? I don’t remember what happened, but… apparently quite a lot did,” she admitted, remembering that odd text from Adrien she’d received before the nurses had realized she had no memory and taken her away for testing that required she leave her phone behind.

 

Then they told her essentially what the nurses had said, that she’d been awake and lucid, she’d showered by herself and done some light exercise, slept a lot… And her entire class had come to visit her in the afternoon, and then when school was over for the day, Alya, Nino, and Adrien had come by again. 

 

Sabine couldn’t tell her what they talked about though, since she’d had to leave before they’d even gotten to her room. She’d met them at the elevators on her way out, which is why she knew they’d come to visit. So… that was maddening.

 

Marinette looked at the message on her phone again. Apparently she and Adrien had talked. And he wanted to talk more. But what about? And had it just been the two of them, or had Alya and Nino been part of the conversation? 

 

She’d sent a slightly confused and spastic text to Alya earlier, before the nurses had taken her away, and now that she looked at her messages again, she’d gotten several from her.

 

[Alya] Oh no! 

[Alya] Adrien’s gonna freak.

[Alya] I bet you’re freaking, too.

[Alya] Calm down, it’s a good thing!

[Alya] Anyway, you seemed happy after you two talked yesterday.

[Alya] Call you @ lunch for further deets!

[Alya] Gotta go, Bustier’s gonna take my phone!

 

She looked at the time, and saw that it was only a half hour before the school lunch hour. And just then a nurse came by to escort them to the hospital cafeteria. At least she wouldn’t have to wait long.

 

----

 

Marinette got through half of her lunch before her phone rang with a video call request. She dropped her spoon in her bowl of soup which splattered her shirt, and what was worse was that the spoon didn’t even stay in the bowl. Instead it bounced out and somehow landed at the perfect angle on the edge of a butter knife to send the knife flying end over end… resulting in the cool smack of a pat of butter to her forehead, and a near miss from the knife (dull though it was, it would at least have left a red mark) to her cheek.

 

Marinette sighed while her parents burst out laughing, and took a napkin to carefully wipe the butter off her face. Then she wetted a napkin from her water glass and blotted the spots of soup on her shirt. Thankfully, it was a broth-based chicken soup, so while there might be grease to deal with later, the spots weren’t so glaring as to call attention to her clumsiness. Then she picked up her phone.

 

By that time the call had gone to voicemail and she had to wait a few minutes just to be sure she wouldn’t intercept a busy signal while her friends left her a message. Finally, she allowed herself to return the call, hoping they were still around, and hadn’t gotten involved with something else.

 

“Hey girl!”

 

Alya’s cheerful face looked up at her from the screen, and Marinette found herself grinning back. Her smile widened as Nino and Adrien both crowded into the camera as well, Adrien even taking the opportunity to throw up bunny ears behind Nino’s head, which earned him a glare and a cuff to the back of his head. Marinette giggled.

 

The picture wobbled as Alya turned her phone so the wider angle of the camera let all of them comfortably fit in the picture. They were outside, and Marinette recognized the trees from the Place de Voges park near both her parents’ bakery and the school.

 

“Hey, guys! How are you? It’s so great to see you,” she said.

 

A round of overlapping ‘Hey’ and ‘good’ came through. They were all sitting there, outside and together, and Marinette felt tears try to well up as she thought of how much she wanted to be there .

 

“So girl, tell us what’s up with this memory loss?” 

 

Alya’s expression wasn’t the only one to go from cheerful to concerned in about five seconds flat. Marinette didn’t blame them. She was concerned, too.

 

“It’s apparently a pretty common side effect of meningitis,” she told them. “The doctors said that it’s caused by damage to the brain because of the swelling, but it can show up pretty much whenever it wants to. It’s kind of scary, actually, because even though I know I was awake and conscious and moving around yesterday, I don’t remember any of it. And so now I’m wondering if I’ll wake up tomorrow and not have any memory of today, too, you know?” She bit her lip, eyes glancing toward Adrien. There was sadness as well as concern in his eyes.

 

“S-so,” she said just a little shakily, “I was wondering if I could get someone to maybe record my conversations with people.” She blushed suddenly, thinking of how awkward that would be- trying to talk to Adrien, while Alya was right there filming it with her phone. “Or, actually, maybe it would be better if anything important was discussed through email, or texts? That way there’s a physical record, you know? And then, even if I forget,” she took a breath, “at least I won’t feel guilty about not having a clue, right?”

 

That sparked a round of sympathetic utterances, each of them trying to outdo the others in assuring her that absolutely nothing was her fault, and they just hoped she was recovering well, otherwise.

 

“I’m apparently a lot stronger today… I walked all the way to the cafeteria for lunch!” she panned her phone so they could see her surroundings. “It took a lot out of me, though, and I’ll probably need a nap when I get back to my room. But the doctor said that if I keep improving the way I am, I can probably go home in another two to three days.” That brought the cheerful expressions back to their faces, which made Marinette feel better. “The doctor would probably let me go home tomorrow, actually, except there are so many stairs in our house that it’s not practical until I have more stamina. I mean, I couldn’t even climb up to my bed right now, so…” She trailed off, wanting to change the subject.

 

“So, what’s going on with you? Any big news?”

 

The three of them looked at each other, and then, surprisingly, Alya passed the phone over to Adrien.

 

“Hey, Marinette,” he said with a soft smile. “There’s actually some pretty big news, and it was kinda my doing? So I wanted to be the one to tell you.”

 

Marinette’s eyebrows rose. “Ok, shoot!”

 

“Lila’s gone. She transferred to a different class.”

 

Marinette’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “What, really? How did that happen?” she nearly screeched. “Not that I’m not happy about it, but… wow! Please email me about this, ‘cause this is something I do not want to forget!” She knew she was grinning like a maniac, but this was seriously the best news she’d had in a while. Maybe they’d told her about it yesterday, but she didn’t remember yesterday, so…

 

Adrien chuckled. “Ok, I will, bug-” he nearly choked and had to clear his throat for a few minutes, blushing furiously. “ But ,” he continued, “be prepared for a novel length email on that.”

 

He went through the highlights of it, how Markov had finally convinced Max, and how the three of them had teamed up together, eventually including Alya and Nino as well. Adrien apologized profusely for backing off on the straight-up takedown plan, but Marinette assured him she didn’t care about that. 

 

“You were right to think about akumas,” she said. “If Lila had come after me, a lot of other innocent people would have been hurt, too. And well… what if Ladybug hadn’t shown up at all? We don’t know who she is behind the mask, so it’s entirely possible she could have been caught unable to transform. I know it’s happened before,” she continued, then paled as she realized she probably shouldn’t have said that last part. After all, how would she know? But then she remembered that there had been times that Chat Noir hadn’t shown up to a fight, or shown up extremely late, citing civilian difficulties when she’d questioned him later. It hadn’t been much of a problem for her- yet- but she knew it could be in the future. Even more so as she got older and had even more responsibilities. 

 

“Anyway, there wouldn’t have been a miraculous ladybug cure if that had happened,” she finished.

 

All three of them looked slightly uncomfortable with that, but Alya at least tried to blow it off. “Oh come on, Ladybug would never that happen! Sometimes the battles take hours, and sometimes they both have to run off to do… whatever, recharge or something, and then come back. But the point is, they always win in the end.”

 

Nino and Adrien nodded along to that. Then Nino spoke up. “So, like, I’ve got a new playlist for you,” he said, with a grin that looked a little too smug for her comfort, especially since Adrien reached behind Alya to snatch his cap off and smack him with it. Nino just laughed and shielded himself while Alya rolled her eyes at their antics. She’d gotten her phone back from Adrien after he finished telling her about Lila.

 

“Will you let me do it?” Adrien hissed at his best friend. Nino laughed harder, managing to choke out, “Let me know when you want to listen to it, ok?”

 

“Um… ok?” Marinette said. She glanced up at her parents, wondering if she should go somewhere else to finish the video chat, but they appeared to be involved with their own food.

 

Adrien stole the phone again and, breathing a bit heavily, said, “So… that’s something I’ll email you about, ok?” He gave her a crooked grin, but there was something about his expression that alerted all her instincts. Marinette blushed, remembering that she and he had apparently talked about something important yesterday.

 

“Yeah…” she said. “I… well, apparently we talked?” She shook her head, shrugging. “I’m sorry. I wish I could remember, because,” she blushed harder. “Apparently it was a good talk?”

 

Adrien’s expression softened. “Yeah, it was. And don’t feel too bad- we kind of got interrupted there at the end, so I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to anyway.” His face was red again, and he looked off to the side, not looking at her. There was a moment of tension and then he shifted his gaze to the phone again, smiling. “So. Is it okay if we come visit you again this afternoon? I mean, since you don’t remember yesterday, clearly we need to come cheer you up.”

 

“O-oh… sure!” Marinette said, swallowing and smiling back at him. “That would be great. And tell everyone else I said ‘hi,’ alright? I know lunch is almost over for you, and you need to get back.”

 

“Sure.” Adrien paused, smiling that special, soft smile at her. “Hey, get better, ok? We miss you. Everyone does, I mean, not just me.” Then he blushed again and quickly handed the phone back to Alya.

 

Marinette almost didn’t catch what Alya said to her after that. It wasn’t really important, just encouragement and well wishes anyway. Alya ended the call with a wink and reminder to check her email later on, and Marinette hung up, dazed and not sure what to think.

 

There had been an awful lot of blushing on Adrien’s part. What was that about? She started coming up with reasons why it couldn’t possibly mean that he finally loved her, too, but fortunately, the nurse came before she could get too deep into catastrophizing, and the walk back to her own room took all her concentration.

 

She really did feel stronger, especially after a good meal, but there was no denying that the exercise had depleted her current resources, so she sent her parents off, saying she was just going to be sleeping and there was no point in them hanging around while she slept. She resolutely refused to wonder if she would wake up with no memory again, and was asleep shortly after climbing back into bed.

 

----

 

Her dreams were disjointed and frightening. Ladybug was roaming around the ruins of Paris, completely alone. And somehow, Marinette was watching her stumble through the wreckage, calling out for Chat Noir, Rena Rouge, Carapace, and even Queen Bee. None of the heroes showed up, and Marinette felt a chill as she realized that Ladybug was truly alone .

 

----

 

Marinette woke up later with a gasp, a pounding heart, a pounding headache. She pushed the call button for the nurse, and asked for headache medication when Felice came to check on her. Felice frowned and took her temperature, feeling her neck as well and asking if she felt stiff, before finally nodding to herself and going to get the medicine.

 

Marinette lay back and closed her eyes against the throbbing. She reached up to her earrings, wondering if she dared call Tikki out into the open. She hadn’t seen her kwami friend in more than a week, and she wanted to talk to her again. She must have been just as worried about her as her parents and friends. But Felice would be back soon. Maybe after her headache subsided a little. She would have some time before her friends arrived, after all.

 

But after the headache eased, and she called quietly for her kwami, nothing happened. Frowning, she tried again. And then she got up out of bed and searched her room for any nook or cranny the little kwami could have squeezed herself into. Nothing. 

 

The pot of red geraniums on the windowsill caught her eye, now a bit on the wilted side. Marinette took her own hospital-provided water cup and gave the flowers a drink, using it as an excuse to search the flowers for a hidden godling, in case anyone came in while her back was turned toward the door. And a good thing, too, since that was when her friends decided to show up.

 

They seemed ecstatic to see her up and out of bed, each giving her hugs and cheek kisses. Adrien seemed to linger a bit in their hug, and she could have sworn he almost kissed her on the cheek… but maybe it was her overactive imagination again.

 

They didn’t stay too long, since Adrien had provided transportation, and he needed to get back to his house soon. Frankly, Marinette was astonished his father had let him come visit her at the hospital twice in such a short period of time, so she didn’t feel too bad when they left sooner than she would have liked. 

 

She noticed something, though, when Alya hugged her goodbye. Alya was wearing a new pair of earrings. Earrings that, while different from hers, looked eerily similar. They looked to be dark amber half-spheres, with gold backing. And they were studs. 

 

Her mind whirled. She hadn’t had time today to look up akuma attacks, but… she was Ladybug. And she’d been so sick. Was it reaching to think that Fu might have taken her miraculous and given it to someone else? Marinette squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, before forcing a smile to her face, and doing her best to act normally as her friends left.

 

Once they were gone, she went back over to the small table that had a pull-out drawer. In her search for Tikki, she’d found a letter, unaddressed except for her name… and the symbol of the guardians. She took it over to her bed and opened it, trying not to let her hands shake.

 

The contents calmed her fears. Fu had taken the earrings, but only temporarily. Paris needed a Ladybug, and until she was capable again, they must go to someone else. But it was only temporary, he made sure to assure her, and when she was strong enough again, she could have them back. If she still wanted them.

 

It was something to think about.

 

----

 

Marinette jerked awake when the mattress shifted beneath her. For a moment she didn’t know where she was- and that terrified her - but then memory came rushing back, and she slumped back onto the bed, hardly aware she’d sat up at all. Groaning, she threw an arm over her eyes and tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but a low chuckle stopped her.

 

Freezing, Marinette peeked under her arm, then relaxed as she saw the familiar shape of Chat Noir, nothing but a blackness in the meager light from the windows. It felt like the middle of the night, that curiously heavy lightness that made everything seem like a dream, even when you were wide awake.

 

“Don’t worry, it’s just me,” he said. “Did I startle you, princess? I’m sorry.”

 

“Chat Noir,” Marinette replied, letting some exasperation creep into her tone. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Oh, didn’t your parents tell you?” He chuckled again. “Apparently, I’m in love with you now.”

 

She could literally hear the smirk. Instead of responding, she scooted herself up into a sitting position and lightly smacked his arm. “Turn on a light, would you? I don’t like talking to dark shapes. It’s creepy.”

 

The mattress shifted again and the dark patch moved away before being banished entirely in the light of a single small lamp. Chat Noir smirked at her and bowed ironically, before sauntering back to his perch on her bed.

 

“So what brings you here?” she asked again, rubbing her eyes. It had taken her forever to get to sleep, and she was tired.

 

Instead of replying, he unzipped one of his suit pockets and pulled out a very familiar hexagonal box. Marinette gasped as he reached over and placed it in her hands.

 

“I thought you might want to see her,” he said, quietly. “I know I’d miss Plagg if I got sick enough I had to give up my miraculous for a while. He can be annoying, but… he’s my friend.”

 

“Ch-chat…” Marinette stuttered. “I-I…” She squeezed the box, her deep desire to see Tikki again warring with the by-now-ingrained impulse to deny being Ladybug.

 

Chat sighed and leaned over to gently touch her cheek with a claw-tipped hand. “It’s ok, Marinette,” he said, all trace of mischief and joking gone. “It was an accident, but… you revealed yourself to me last week when you were so sick. I know it’s not what you wanted, and I certainly never thought to find out that way but it’s done, and,” he paused, eyes unwontedly serious, “I’m not sorry.” 

 

His thumb lightly caressed her cheek, and two tears rolled down before Marinette even knew she was crying.

 

“Oh, bugaboo…” he murmured, scooting closer to pull her into a hug. She let him, clutching the small box and shaking as she sobbed quietly into his shoulder. She cried herself out before pulling away, amazed to feel like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She’d carried her identity as Ladybug solo for so long that it felt strange but also right , so incredibly right , to share that with her long-time partner.

 

He handed her a tissue box, and she blew her nose, snorting a little as she saw the mess of snot she’d left on his shoulder. She took another tissue and wiped it off, smiling an apology.

 

“Better?” he asked, with a returning smile, not one of his Chat grins. His hand sought out hers and she squeezed it.

 

“Yeah. Thank you,” Marinette said, though just the sight of the box in her other hand called up another urge to burst out crying. Instead, she took a deep breath and opened the box, squinting against the brilliant pink light.

 

“Marinette!” Tikki’s joyful voice piped the moment she manifested. As quickly as she’d appeared, Tikki zoomed over to cuddle Marinette’s cheek. “I’m so happy to see you again! I’ve missed you.”

 

“I’ve missed you, too, Tikki,” Marinette whispered, blinking to hold back the tears.

Chapter Text

After a few minutes of snuggling Tikki, the little godlet found a perch on her shoulder and Marinette turned her attention back to Chat Noir. He was looking fondly at them both, and Marinette knew it was time to have that conversation with him. Much as she appreciated her partner, she was still in love with Adrien.

 

“Chat,” she began, but had to stop and giggle at him. With her first word, he’d flipped himself around to face her fully, crossing his legs on top of the bed and planting both elbows on his knees so he could lean his head on his fists. Over all, he looked like a cross between an expectant child and a kitten ready to play.

 

“Yes, Purrincess?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows. Marinette laughed again.

 

“You’re such a dork,” she said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. There was a flash of something in his eyes, but then he leaned into her touch, for all the world as if he were a real cat asking for ear skritches.

 

“Seriously, though,” Marinette continued after a minute. “How are you doing? I mean, you had to be pretty surprised… about me, I mean. Maybe even disappointed?”

 

“Surprised? Hm,” Chat said, pulling away. He narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips in an overdramatic thinking pose. “I suppose I was at first. But then, things just started making more and more sense.” He winked at her. “And I definitely wasn’t disappointed. After all, I was drawn to you as a civilian, too, you know?” 

 

He leaned in, smirking at her. Marinette’s heartrate picked up a little, but she pushed a finger into his nose, just like she had always done as Ladybug. “Cut it out, Chat,” she laughed.

 

He backed off, his smirk changing to something softer. “I really do like Marinette, too, you know. Why do you think I’ve been coming to see you so often? Although, I must admit to feeling just a little betrayed…” he trailed off, a wounded expression replacing the smile. “I mean, after all, there I was, just a humble alley cat, looking for someone to share my heartbreak with. And all the time I was pouring my shattered little heart out to the very object of my affections.” This time he leaned back on his arms, losing the pout. “Who, it turns out, did absolutely nothing to discourage me! I wonder why?” He tapped a finger on his chin, looking at her speculatively.

 

Marinette sighed, pulling her legs up to her chest so she could wrap her arms around them. “I’m sorry, Chat,” she said. “But I know you don’t have a lot of people you can talk to, and… and how could I tell you to go away- to stop talking to Marinette about your crush on Ladybug, or anything else- without hurting you more? You needed an outlet, and… and Marinette could be that. Ladybug… Ladybug had to stay professional. Not get mixed up in emotion.” She looked away, suddenly ashamed of that reasoning. Looking back now, of course she could see how he would feel betrayed. It must feel like she’d been laughing at him, not even behind his back but to his face, only he hadn’t known it.

 

Chat bumped her knee. “Come on, admit it,” he teased. “You liked seeing that side of me.”

 

Marinette looked back up at him, a surprised smile curving her lips. “You’re not mad at me?”

 

“How could I be mad?” he asked, tilting his head. “I guessed it was something like that as soon as I started really thinking about it. It’s pretty simple- my lady was looking out for me. Which means,” he said, drawing out the word, and leaning forward again, “that she cares about me,” he finished in a low voice that sent shivers down Marinette’s spine, hard though she tried to suppress them. 

 

“I’ve never denied that, kitty,” she said, though her tone was a bit breathless. His smile widened slightly, and he leaned back again, giving her space. Then his expression grew serious again.

 

“How would you feel about knowing who I am?” he asked softly. “I mean, now that I know who you are, it only seems fair,” he said, rolling right over the objection she’d been about to make. “Especially since you already know me behind the mask.”

 

Marinette gasped. “Chat, that’s… you shouldn’t be telling me that!” Her mind was already working to find the connection, hard as she tried to just turn that part of her brain off .

 

Tikki rose up to hover in front of her face. “Marinette, you do know that Fu won’t be angry with you if Chat reveals himself, right? It’s always been a possibility that the two of you would have to reveal yourselves, and Fu knows that. He’s even counted on it. In fact, there’s been at least one occasion when he’s been angry with Chat Noir for not revealing himself!”

 

Marinette blinked. “What? When?”

 

Chat chuckled ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck in an oddly familiar gesture . “It’s something I don’t want to relive if you don’t mind, Princess.”

 

Marinette stared at him, sternly telling herself to stop analyzing , and then looked back at Tikki. “So… you think I should let him?”

 

“It’s up to you, but… at this point, yes. It will make everything much easier between you two if both of you know.”

 

Marinette suddenly frowned. “But… I woke up this morning and I couldn’t remember anything from the last two days! What if he reveals himself and I wake up in the morning and I can’t remember again? Don’t you think we should wait until my brain gets itself sorted out?” She gestured to Chat Noir, “I mean, it’s not like he can write it down for me, even if I agreed! That’s not the kind of thing that should ever be in writing, no matter how crazy it might seem to anyone else reading it!” She shot a look at her partner, saying, “No offense, but if it were obvious, I think I would have picked up on it by now, which means you act very differently in your civilian life. You’d have to, wouldn’t you?” She continued in a softer voice, brain working despite her attempts to cut off that particular train of thought. She gave her head a sharp shake.

 

“No. Not right now, at least,” she said, clarifying when she saw his expression drop. She reached for his hand. “I just don’t want you to have to go through this more than once, kitty,” she said kindly. “Let my brain heal, and then…” she sighed, closing her eyes and wondering just what she was letting herself in for. “And then you can show me who you are.”

 

His fierce hug took her by surprise. “Thank you Marinette,” he whispered, squeezing her tightly, despite the barrier of her folded legs between them. Then he released her and gave her a brilliant smile. “Now,” he said, energetically. “You should put those earrings on for a while! I have a theory that having your miraculous back is going to make a world of difference in how long it takes you to get better!”

 

Marinette snorted at his enthusiasm, even as she replaced her fake studs with the real ones. “Just how long have I been without them, kitty?”

 

To her surprise, since she hadn’t expected him to know when Fu had taken her earrings, he frowned in what almost looked like pain. “Um… six days now? I think that’s right.” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face and looking tired all of a sudden. “I’m sorry, Marinette. I never wanted to do it, but… Paris needs Ladybug.”

 

Marinette paused in the act of fastening the second earring on. “Oh. You took them? I thought it was Master Fu,” she asked softly. He nodded, not looking at her. “Oh, Chat, I can’t even imagine.” She put a hand on his knee. “How many akumas have you faced?”

 

“Four.”

 

“Oh.” She bit her lip. She desperately wanted to know who’d taken her place, but she really shouldn’t ask… And then the earrings Alya had been wearing flashed into her mind. “You chose Alya, didn’t you.”

 

He shot her a surprised look, before blinking and looking away. “Why would I pick Alya? She runs the LadyBlog, it… it wouldn’t make sense to pick her.”

 

Marinette smiled. “You’re not very good at lying when someone catches you by surprise, kitty,” she chided. “I saw the new earrings she was wearing earlier when she came to visit.”

 

She couldn’t really tell with the light behind him, but his suddenly nervous movements suggested that he was blushing.

 

“Psh, like you could… I mean, the magic is supposed to hide them, right? So… they couldn’t be the same ones!”

 

“It might hide them from someone who wasn’t actively looking,” Marinette said. “But it just so happens that when she showed up with some other friends from school to visit, that I had just been searching high and low for my kwami.” She smiled at Tikki and patted her head, briefly gathering her to her cheek for another little cuddle for good measure.

 

“As it happens, I think Alya’s a good choice,” she said, putting Tikki back on her shoulder.

 

“Because you chose her for Rena Rouge?” Chat asked. Marinette snapped her head around to stare at him. He smirked, but his eyes were kind. “Yeah, you gave away a little bit more than your own identity that day, bugaboo.”

 

Marinette paled, staring at him in shock.

 

“I also know that Nino Lahiffe is Carapace,” he continued. “Good choice, I think. Those two make a good team.” He looked up at her with a small smile. “They kind of remind me of another good team, actually.”

 

Marinette sank her head into her hands. “Who else knows?” she asked, breathing hard and trying not to panic. “I mean, what did I say? Did anyone else believe me?”

 

“Hey, hey,” Chat soothed, gently grasping her wrists and tugging her hands down. “Everyone but us thought you were just delirious from the fever. No one who hadn’t personally worked with Ladybug would have made the connection.”

 

“Chat. What did I say?” she asked again, desperate to know.

 

He sighed, closing his eyes, but he didn’t release her hands. “You thought you were fighting an akuma, my lady. And when…” he stopped, taking a breath. “You realize, this is a big clue to who I am?”

 

Marinette nodded. It was worth it. He nodded too, and went on.

 

“You recognized us. You recognized us, but our superhero sides. No one else could, or would, have done that. And then… right before the ambulance came, you tried to transform. I stopped you but… that was the final piece to the puzzle. No one else would have known the name of Ladybug’s kwami but Ladybug herself. Or me, or Fu, I guess, but…” he shrugged and opened his eyes, soft and vulnerable. “You really scared us, Marinette. I didn’t know if… if you were going to make it.” 

 

He sniffed and grabbed a tissue to wipe his eyes, uttering a half-laugh. It was Marinette’s turn to reach out and pull him into a hug. “I’m so sorry, Chat,” she whispered. “I’m ok, I’m here.”

 

After that they talked about inconsequential things, gradually finding a new balance in their relationship, until Marinette ended up cuddled up to a reclining Chat as he dragged his claws gently through her hair, trying not to fall asleep. Eventually she lost the battle, and when she woke up in the morning, there was no sign of Chat Noir, and her earrings had been replaced again.

 

But she remembered. She remembered the previous day, and the midnight visit, and also that her intended conversation with Chat Noir had gotten completely derailed. But more importantly, her sleeping mind had come up with an answer for the riddle of just who, in her civilian life, could also stand in for Chat Noir. She wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to do with that information.

 

----

 

Lila had a list. A very special, very secret list, which existence she wasn’t going to divulge to anyone. It was a list of people who had wronged her, people who had it coming to them. On days when her schemes didn’t go exactly right, or when she’d been inexplicably thwarted on something she’d set out to gain, thinking about her list had the ability to put a smile back on her face. It reminded her that, though setbacks were inevitable, she would eventually triumph. After all, she hadn’t failed yet, had she?

 

Looking back, it had been a mistake to try and paint Marinette as a drug-addict, Lila could admit that. The circumstances had seemed so perfect, though. A lot of people had seen Marinette roaming the courtyard, completely out of it… she’d even heard that Marinette had attacked the school nurse in her delirium, and that the poor woman had been sent home for a few days to recover. And after all, everyone knew drug addicts could be violent. A few words in the right ears, and people should have jumped to the obvious conclusion.

 

But then Adrien had derailed that plan almost as soon as she’d begun it. And instead of backing off when Lila had “explained” her comments, he’d effectively hamstrung her whole campaign with his little “presentation.” Lila rolled her eyes, watching the students mingle during classes, and trying to pick out the ones from her previous class in the throng. She was on the balcony of the school- a great place to people watch- with a carefully pleasant expression on her face.

 

Oh, it was infuriating! How dare he be clever enough to frame her take-down as a bid for a spot in the drama club! She gritted her teeth, covering it with a smile and a wave at one of her new classmates- she didn’t remember his name, but he usually played a supporting role, so that wasn’t important. Adrien’s subtlety made it impossible for her to claim that he or anyone else in her former class had been bullying her, which also made it difficult for her to ‘become akumatized’ and blame it on them. 

 

Because she did blame them. Every last one of them. Adrien and Marinette in particular were at the top of her list, but the others all had their own slots. Adrien because he dared, not only to judge her for her behavior, but also because he refused to acknowledge her superiority over that worm, Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Seriously, what did that girl have that everyone was so devoted to her? Nothing, that’s what. Obviously fake cheerfulness, a few cookies that she hadn’t even baked herself, the kind of nosiness Lila absolutely loathed (she framed it as an insistence to be in everyone’s business), and somehow she had the whole group eating right out of her hand. 

 

And the third reason was, of course, the ultimate sin- exposing her lies. Marinette had been her first target. She’d had no subtlety whatsoever and had gone straight after her lies from the first. But Adrien had been sneakier, letting Lila think that she’d won him over, or at least wasn’t going to challenge her like Marinette had, and then coming in out of nowhere for the kill. Honestly, if he hadn’t targeted her , Lila would have admired how he’d done it. But now he had to go, just as a matter of personal pride. So he held the number one slot.

 

Then there was Marinette, sitting at number two, precisely for the reasons she’d already gone over. Third… third was Max, and through him, Markov. Lila hadn’t known about Max’s habit of bringing his toy robot to school, nor had she considered that someone might be recording her without her knowledge. It was a weakness she had since taken care of. Now, she had a pocket-sized device that interfered with recording devices, and she took great care to use it whenever she said something she didn’t want recorded. It wasn’t precisely legal, especially on school grounds, but Lila had never let a little thing like mere rule-breaking stop her. Besides, she had diplomatic immunity through her mother.

 

Fourth and fifth were Alya and Nino. Alya had actually had the temerity to take down Lila’s interviews from the LadyBlog and apologize for posting them in the first place! And Nino was, in order of importance, Adrien’s best friend, Marinette’s childhood friend, and Alya’s boyfriend. He had to go, if only because doing so would hurt the rest even more. Lila almost found it in herself to pity him, but… he’d made his decisions, and now he would have to live with them.

 

Lila abandoned her spot at the railing when the warning bell rang, heading to her next class with all the others. Sadly, her revenge would have to wait. Being in the drama club was new and exciting- a whole new group of people to wrap around her fingers!- but it was a surprising amount of work. Of course the club leader had given her the leading female role in their next production, but memorizing lines wasn’t something she could pawn off on someone else, and Lila wasn’t about to throw away this shining opportunity for praise and admiration. There were only two weeks until the first performance, so all her free time was currently spent memorizing her lines and deciding what expressions to use with them. Fortunately, she could still use her various chronic ailments to get out of the other kinds of work involved with a theater production, like making sets and costumes, but unfortunately she was still expected to be there when everyone else was working those things.

 

So her revenge necessarily had to wait, but Lila had decided to look on the bright side. Now she had time to plan. And since she wasn’t around those traitors in her last class anymore- she’d actually overheard Kim and Alix teaming up to discredit her with one of her new friends in the lunchroom yesterday- they wouldn’t know what hit them. The thought gave extra sincerity to her bright and cheerful smile as she took her place in the front row of her new classroom, next to the best looking boy there.

Chapter Text

Dear Marinette,

You asked me to email you about important things between us, in case you don’t remember talking to me again. So… here it is.

 

I think you’re amazing. I’m literally in awe every time I think of how much you do for everyone else, and yet you still have time to do the things you love, like designing, and you’re so good at that I wouldn’t be surprised if you start your own label before you finish school. I know my father was happy with your work, and even though you turned down Chloe’s mom, it’s still impressive she offered you a position in the first place! And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you know Jagged Stone personally and even designed for him! 

 

And on top of all that you still manage to be kind, even when people don’t really deserve it. You look for the best in people, even when it’s buried really deep down and most people can’t see it. But you don’t let anyone push you around, either, which is the most inspiring thing ever!

 

I’m not trying to say I think you’re perfect, because I know you’re not. You make mistakes, and you lose your temper, and… well, you’re human. I know that. I’m not trying to put you on a pedestal, or make you think you have to live up to unrealistic expectations. I just want you to know I think you’re amazing.

 

I’ve wanted to tell you this for a while, but you’ve been so nervous around me for so long that first I wanted to make sure you felt more comfortable with me. You can ask Nino about that, if you have any doubts, he’s been in on my plan for the past two months. Anyway, here it is:

 

I am in love with you.

 

I know that may come as a shock, since I remember telling you that I was in love with someone else a while ago. I won’t deny that I was in love with someone else, then. But I finally came to accept that she wasn’t going to love me back. Once I accepted that, I finally began to notice you. I’ve always considered you a special friend, even though we never hung out much without Nino or Alya. I regret that, but I thought it was for the best, since you seemed to get nervous around me, and I… I really felt bad that it seemed to only happen around me. 

 

Nino and Alya have both told me that I’m an idiot about that, because I should have realized that your behavior meant that you liked me. Once again, I have to ask your forgiveness for that. Unfortunately, the way I was raised didn’t teach me very many social cues. I’ve been cursing my father for this ever since I started school, honestly. (That’s not to say that homeschooling in general means kids grow up without social interactions, because I’ve done some research on that, and most of the time that’s not true. It just means that the way my parents did it kept me too sheltered. I’m sorry if I’ve ever said or done something to make you think I didn’t really care about you because of this. I’m working on it.)

 

Anyway, once the other girl got out of my head, I began to see how differently I felt about you, as opposed to Nino or Alya, both of whom I consider close friends. You know my only friend was Chloe before coming to school, so that may give you an idea of why I remained confused about you for so long. I was attracted to you from the beginning, but I thought that it was just because you are such an awesome girl, and allowed me to be your friend when we didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. And while Chloe has always been very physical about her affections toward me, you’ve tended to be the opposite. So I thought that all you felt for me was friendship, and I didn’t want to risk that, despite- not denying, but maybe not admitting?- that what I feel for you is much stronger than mere friendship. 

 

Anyway… that’s what you and I talked about the other day that you can’t remember, except I didn’t actually get this far then. Basically what happened was that when our class all came to visit you, I was maybe a lot more physically affectionate with you than I’ve ever been before, and you asked me about it later when Alya, Nino, and I came back after school. It wasn’t anything extreme, but I did kiss your cheek and give you a hug. And later I held your hand. I hope I wasn’t misinterpreting your reactions, but it didn’t seem to me that you were unhappy about it, just confused. 

 

I really, really hope that you’re not unhappy about it now, too. Because what I’d really like is to ask you to be my girlfriend, and all that comes with that. I’d really like to be able to hold your hand and take you on dates, and… and kiss you. I’d really like to kiss you. Like, a lot. (I’m pretty sure there’s a picture of me next to the entry for “crimson” in the dictionary right now, but… I want you to know, because that’s the only way I’ll have even a chance of kissing you.)

 

I know that dating me means that you’d be in a spotlight, just because of who my father is. There’s not much I can do about that, but I can promise you that you’d never face anything alone, because I’d be right there with you.

 

I don’t know if you return my feelings yet. I hope you do. But if you don’t, I understand, and I won’t press you or do anything to make you uncomfortable. But… maybe you could think about it? If you don’t return my feelings right now, maybe I could change your mind. Unless there’s someone else. I’ve been an idiot about you long enough to know there might be by now.

 

I really hope there isn’t.

 

Don’t feel like you have to respond to this immediately. Honestly, I’m a little scared to hear back from you because… well. As long as you haven’t replied yet, I still have a chance, right? I wish I could have told you all this in person, but I understand why you want it in writing. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to say all this in person anyway. I just hope you don’t hate me after reading this.

 

Love, (it’s both awesome and so scary to write that and mean it)

Adrien Agreste

 

----

 

Marinette tried to concentrate on her physical therapy- which today consisted of walking up and down steps, in an effort to get her ready to go home- but snippets of Adrien’s email kept flitting through her head, distracting her. Fortunately, going up and down little step-platforms didn’t exactly require much concentration, and her usual clumsiness wasn’t in evidence today. Unfortunately, it left her mind free to think. She knew she was blushing hotly every once in a while with no outward reason for it, and she wondered if the nurse supervising her just didn’t notice, or was too tactful to say anything. Either way, he kept his comments to constructive advice and encouragement.

 

Honestly, she thought. It’s really not fair that he can fluster me without even being here.

 

The email had started out well, and rapidly progressed into the realms of her wildest fantasies. And it sounded sincere. If she had been reading it as simply an email from Adrien to Marinette, she would have had no hesitation in melting into a little puddle of ecstasy. 

 

The problem was that she wasn’t just Marinette, she was also Ladybug, and… she was fairly sure now that Chat Noir was Adrien Agreste under the mask. And viewed in that light, the email became a little suspect. Chat Noir had never hidden his feelings for Ladybug, he’d always pushed for a more romantic relationship between them, and even though they had become friends as Marinette and Chat Noir, she couldn’t help suspecting that he was only declaring Adrien’s love for Marinette because he now knew Marinette was also Ladybug. It wasn’t something she wanted to think about, but she couldn’t stop herself, either.

 

She desperately wanted to believe that Adrien had started noticing her before she revealed herself so accidentally, but… she just couldn’t. I mean, sure, Adrien had been talking to her more in the last few months- so much so that she had actually started being a little more comfortable with talking to him. She didn’t stutter or stammer so much anymore, and she no longer felt so compelled to run away before she embarrassed herself further in front of him. But they still weren’t at a place where she could have honestly called herself a good friend of his. Marinette knew he thought of her that way- it had been distressing how often he’d said it in the past year- but she also knew her own heart and mind, and wouldn’t have claimed that for herself.

 

However, she recognized that was more due to her tendency to catastrophize than it was due to him. Adrien didn’t have all that much free time because of all the things his father made him do, and she didn’t take full advantage of the time he did have because she was too scared around him. It was getting better, but it would take more time before she could trust herself not to slide into a daydream around Adrien.

 

Of course, now everything had changed. Chat Noir knew her secret identity, and she was more and more convinced of his. And, contrary to all her previous expectations, and the warnings of her mentor, her kwami, and her own sense of responsibility... the world hadn’t ended with that revelation. At least, not yet.

 

There was still time, though, and if Marinette made the wrong move here, it might end up being sooner rather than later. At least for her little corner of it.

 

But he loves me, she thought, feeling the heat rise to her face again as she navigated the little three-step platform for what felt like the hundredth time. He loves me.

 

She knew Chat Noir’s feelings for Ladybug were real- had known since Glaciator. That had been the beginning of Marinette’s friendship with Chat Noir, too. She’d found herself intrigued by the softer side of him, and she hadn’t considered telling him to stop his visits beyond a vague sense that she probably should. And now, she couldn’t even imagine a life without Chat Noir in it. Nor could she imagine one where she wasn’t in love with Adrien. And since the two of them were the same person after all… did it really matter when exactly he started loving her?

 

What if she turned it around? Did she love Chat Noir? She considered that carefully as she completed another set of steps. The nurse then guided her to a stair-step machine, and set it at the lowest resistance. Apparently he was satisfied her legs wouldn’t simply give out on her, and she was ready for more.

 

The stair-stepper was much harder than the platforms had been. There was no break between climbing, giving her legs a tiny rest of a step or two between climbing up or down. It still wasn’t exactly taxing, though. Marinette was starting to feel confident she would be returning to her own home soon.

 

I don’t think that I’m in love with Chat Noir, Marinette mused as she continued the exercise. The nurse had set a timer on the machine, not wanting her to overdo it. But I’m definitely attracted to him. Thinking back, she thought that had been the case, if not from the very beginning, then at least pretty soon after they’d first met. Sure, his puns were cheesy and often poorly timed, and she really didn’t like the way he tried to use every single bit of downtime in a battle to romance her, but… he was loyal and dedicated and competent (mostly), and darn it, she would be less than human if she failed to respond to his evident admiration and faithfulness. At least a little.

 

And now that he’d turned out to be Adrien, well… she’d be lying to herself if she said that didn’t make Chat Noir much more attractive. So could she really blame Adrien if he was suddenly more attracted to her as Marinette than he had been before? She thought about that a little more and decided… no. She could not blame him for that.

 

And he’d said she could check with Nino if she had doubts… maybe she would do just that. She smiled for the rest of her physical therapy session.

 

----

 

Alya was just heading out the door to the next class with Nino, when Ms. Bustier called out to her.

 

“Alya, would you stay for a moment? I need to talk to you about something, and Mr. Damocles told me to send you on to him when I was done.”

 

Alya froze, wondering what she could have done to merit a private conversation with both her homeroom teacher and the principal. She grabbed Nino’s hand, but he and Adrien both reluctantly pulled away, giving her encouraging pats on the shoulder.

 

Normally, Alya wouldn’t have worried too much. She had a tendency to charge headfirst into every situation, but… she had sent out those emails. Was this about that? Was the school going to investigate Lila’s lies? Or was she in trouble for spreading slander? As a budding journalist, Alya knew a charge of slander was a very serious thing, and she’d done her best to back up every evidence with multiple reputable sources, but…

 

Ms. Bustier came around the front of her desk to perch on the edge of it, and gestured to Alya to take a seat too.

 

“Don’t worry, you’ll be excused from your next class period, Alya,” she said with her usual gentle smile. Then she looked down and took a breath. “I do need to talk to you about your email, though.”

 

Alya nodded, a ready explanation on the tip of her tongue. But when she opened her mouth, Ms. Bustier held up her hand. “Please let me speak, Alya. I know you want to be a journalist, and that spreading truth is very important to you. But you really should have come to me, or gone directly to Principal Damocles, instead of sending out that email.”

 

Alya frowned. “Why? People should know about a liar like Lila.”

 

“I agree. But now the school is in a very awkward position. Even with all the evidence you presented- very professionally, in my opinion- in your email, it’s still currently your word against hers. It’s also complicated by the fact that you didn’t stick to informing authority figures, but also sent it to as many classmates- and other students- as you had email addresses for. That could be interpreted as a smear campaign, and worse, outright bullying. As well, there is Mr. Agreste’s ‘tribute video,’” Ms Bustier grimaced, “which paints the whole situation in a very different light, and was very publicly presented. Anyone walking through the courtyard would have seen it. Lila could claim that she really did intend her lies to be a performance-piece dedicated to winning her a spot in the drama club. Convincingly too, since she is now a member of it, and, as far as I have heard, hasn’t told a single lie about her past or her supposed connections, since she became a member a week ago.”

 

Alya raised her eyebrows at that. “Really?”

 

Ms. Bustier nodded. “Accusations of lies on this scale are taken very seriously, Alya. All the staff have been keeping a close watch on her. There is an investigation going- there are some things she lied about that can’t simply be waved away with a protestation of ‘art’ or freedom of speech, after all. I’m sure you understand I can’t go into that further with you. But you also need to understand that sometimes it’s better to let the authorities handle something quietly, rather than getting the credit for breaking a story. This is something every reporter has to think about, because justice is not served if the guilty end up free due to interference.”

 

Alya slumped in her seat a little. “I… didn’t think of it that way. I thought sending you the documentation would be enough.”

 

“It might still be,” Ms. Bustier said. “As I said, there is still an investigation ongoing. But…”

 

Alya nodded. “I understand, Ms. Bustier. I’m sorry for messing everything up.”

 

Ms. Bustier smiled. “You didn’t. At most you muddied the waters a little. You made a mistake but fortunately for you, this issue will not decide the fates of nations. Another time, though, it might,” she continued, turning serious again.

 

Alya nodded. “I’ll remember Ms. Bustier.”

 

“Good. Now,” she said, standing up and gesturing to the door. “I think Mr. Damocles is waiting for you.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“And why don’t you give the whole class an update on Marinette tomorrow morning?” Ms. Bustier said, walking with her out the door. “I’m sure everyone wants to know how she’s doing.”

 

“Of course!” Alya said, grinning. They parted ways, Alya heading toward the principal’s office, and Ms. Bustier toward the teacher’s lounge.

 

----

 

Mr. Damocles had pretty much the same speech to give to Alya, although he also introduced her to the school board’s representative, who was heading the investigation. 

 

Throughout the day, Alya’s classmates were called away from classes one by one. Most of them were back fairly quickly, but Max missed almost two whole class periods before rejoining them for the last period of the day. Alya assumed it had something to do with Markov, and his treasure-trove of recordings. She reminded herself to review the laws concerning recording people without their consent, and whether those recordings would be admissible in a court of law.

 

----

 

Lila wasn’t really surprised to be called to the principal’s office. She’d been expecting something like that ever since she’d found out Alya had mass emailed everyone the blogger knew at Francois Dupont. It had been a few days before she found out about it, and it had merely fueled Lila’s desire to get revenge on the class that had rejected her so thoroughly, but she’d recognized that it would have consequences. Unpleasant ones, even.

 

However, it also offered an opportunity. If she manipulated this situation just right… it might be the lever she needed to move her own little corner of the world.

Chapter Text

Lila only paid cursory attention during the interview in Mr. Damocles’ office. Of course, she put on the persona of poor, persecuted Lila for his and the interviewer’s benefit, but she could tell the interviewer, one Ms. Baccaro, wasn’t really falling for it. Pity. If it had only been Mr. Damocles, she could have wrapped him around her finger in no time.

 

It was somewhat unfortunate that her mother had actually been called in for this meeting. Her mother was usually quite busy with embassy work, and she’d never managed to make it to any parent-teacher meetings, or other scheduled school events before. Lila could tell she was both annoyed to be there, and alarmed that her presence was actually required. No doubt hearing that her perfect little angel was in potentially a lot of trouble at school was adding to that sense of unease.

 

Lila ‘cried’ harder as her mother turned a worried and almost accusing gaze on her, uttering her usual line about how everyone had turned against her for no reason, and it must all be Marinette’s fault, because that girl had never liked her even though she tried making friends…

 

The interviewer cut her short, saying that Lila was free to continue attending classes while the investigation was underway, and that the school board would block any attempt to enroll Lila into another school before the investigation was finished. So if Ms. Rossi wanted to pull her daughter out, she would need to make arrangements to homeschool her. Lila peeked through her fingers to see what her mother’s reaction would be to that.

 

Apparently, it was more annoyance. Par for the course, then.

 

“I don’t understand why this is such a big problem. It’s a few white lies! Honestly, has everyone forgotten what it’s like to be young and the new person at school? I can’t believe you interrupted a very busy day to bring me all the way down here to listen to this!”

 

“It’s more than just a few white lies, Ms. Rossi, whatever you may choose to believe. We have documented proof that your daughter was in fact truant for a significant time period with no reasonable excuse offered except that she was ‘travelling.’” Ms. Baccaro replied crisply. “Your own embassy records show that neither of you have left the country in two years, yet your daughter apparently convinced you that the akuma activity from Hawk Moth had caused the school to be closed during that time. I find it disturbing that you apparently made no efforts to confirm or deny this with the administration.”

 

Ms. Rossi flushed. Lila shrank in on herself a little more, knowing her pose would invite all those present to pity her.

 

“I usually don’t find it necessary to question my daughter’s word, Ms. Baccaro,” she said in icy tones. 

 

“Well, given all this new information, perhaps you should start questioning your daughter’s word,” Ms. Baccaro said. “Because if my investigation goes the way all the evidence is pointing, expulsion will probably be the best case scenario.”

 

With that, Mr. Damocles interceded and ended the interview. Lila was half-expecting her mother to take an actual interest in her life for once and press her about the lies she’d been telling, but beyond telling Lila to be on her best behavior for the duration of the investigation, she said nothing. It was both infuriating and predictable. 

 

Lila had already started planning how she would arrange a situation in which she could legitimately be akumatized again, and now given the threat of expulsion… she could really work with that. So she went back to class, humming to herself. However the investigation turned out, this school was now a lost cause for her. So she might as well go out with a bang.

 

It gave her immense joy to smile sweetly at Alya as she passed her on the second level on the way back to her class.  The look of suspicion Alya threw back at her was priceless.

 

----

 

“Hey bro, how’s it shakin’?” Nino said, slipping up on Adrien at the lunch table. The teachers had been absolute beasts about classroom participation and involvement today, so there hadn’t been opportunity to talk during class.

 

“Hey, Nino,” Adrien replied, looking up from his lunch tray. It was one of the days he was allowed to eat at school, and though the food looked unappetizing, he knew it tasted fine, and was much more filling than the small portions he usually got at home. Nino sat down beside him and without a word put his dinner roll on Adrien’s tray.

 

Now that the secret was out, he and Alya had both been shoving food at him, a fact of which Adrien was extremely grateful for and also embarrassed by. They already knew he was restricted to a model’s diet most of the time, and while he would have been able to survive on that under most circumstances, being a nearly full-time superhero was not one of them. His nutritionist had been going slowly crazy over him for months now, but it wasn’t like he could tell the poor man he was expending several thousand more calories per day fighting magically enhanced villains.

 

“So, are we up for UMS tonight? I figure we have to train pretty hard so we can actually challenge Marinette when she gets to go home and needs people to come by and keep her entertained.”

 

Adrien felt the corners of his mouth turn up. “You know I love you Nino, but if you think we are even close to being in her league, you’re crazy,” he said, without rancour. 

 

“I did say we’d have to train hard,” Nino grumbled. “But seriously dude, we haven’t hung out- just us bros- since Marinette got sick.”

 

Adrien nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, Nino, it’s just-”

 

“-been one thing after another, I know dude. I’m not mad. I just think you need a break, yeah? Let Alya go visit her tonight.” Nino paused to look around, totally not calling attention to his suddenly sneaky behavior, and whispered the rest, “She’s already got the earrings, you know? If an akuma comes up, she’ll be able to get them back and jet, no prob.” In a normal tone of voice, he continued. “And I bet Marinette’s ready for some girl-time, too, right?”

 

Adrien considered it. A bro night with Nino did sound good… he’d been under so much stress, trying to think like Ladybug while still being Chat Noir, dealing with Marinette being sick and Ladybug replacements, and trying to figure out how to handle the fact that Marinette was his Ladybug... it was a lot. More than normal, and a lot more than a normal teenager, even one with his schedule, would normally be required to take without a lot of help. And Nino was offering to help.

 

He pulled up the schedule Nathalie had forwarded to his phone and checked it. “I have an hour-long piano lesson after school today, but if I do well, I can probably get permission to come over after that.”

 

Nino’s eyebrows made a break for the stratosphere. “Did… did your dad get replaced by some kind of ‘good parenting’ akuma?”

 

Adrien snorted at that, getting an unfortunate amount of orange juice up his nose in the process. He spent the next few minutes chuckling and turning several napkins into soggy orange messes. When he’d cleaned his mess, he said, still laughing, “No, I don’t think so. Honestly, I was just as surprised as you are, but after he finally let me go see Marinette last week- you know, as myself- he had dinner with me that night and told me he was impressed by my concern for my friend, and that I handled it very maturely. So he said I could have more freedom in my activities, as long as my grades didn’t fall and my performance in my extracurriculars didn’t suffer.”

 

“Wow.” Nino seemed at a total loss. Then a huge smile spread all over his face. “Dude! I feel like I should send him a gift basket or something. That’s awesome!”

 

“Yeah, well don’t get too excited. All it really means is that he won’t forbid me to go out when I have free time. He isn’t actually taking anything off my schedule, and I don’t think I want to find out what will happen the first time he tries to get me to go to a last minute photo-shoot and I refuse because I have plans with you guys.” Despite his pessimism, Adrien did smile back. “But yeah. Right now it’s enough that he’s letting up on my chain even a little.” 

 

Nino patted him on the shoulder and they ate in silence for a few minutes. Truth be told, there was another reason Adrien was ready to take Nino up on his offer. He hadn’t heard from Marinette since the day before. He’d sent her the email, as requested, and since then… he tried not to think about it too much because every time he did he felt like he was going to throw up.

 

What if she rejected him? What if she just wanted to stay friends? What if… there was someone else? He couldn’t help recalling that Luka had been showing a lot of interest in Marinette… and unlike him, Marinette didn’t seem to have any trouble acting normally around Luka.

 

“Hey Nino,” Adrien said suddenly, inspired to ask about something that had been bothering him. “Why didn’t you ever tell me Marinette had a crush on me?”

 

Nino stopped in the middle of chewing something with a slightly panicked look before hastily swallowing the mouthful. He cleared his throat and said, “Oh, um, well… it wasn’t my secret to tell, you know?”

 

Adrien raised his eyebrow skeptically. “Really?”

 

“I swear, dude. Alya made me promise I wouldn’t tell you. Technically, I shouldn’t even have known about it, since Marinette made Alya promise not to tell anyone else.”

 

“But why?” Adrien asked, frustration coloring his tone. “It’s not like I never noticed how awesome Marinette is. We could have had this all worked out between us long before now.”

 

“Bro, if you’re asking me how or why a girl does anything when it comes to guys…” he trailed off and raised both hands in surrender. “But I gotta ask… if you noticed Marinette before now… why didn’t you ever do anything before you know, two months ago?”

 

Adrien rubbed the back of his neck. “Well… I mean, she confused me. I was pretty hung up on Ladybug, so maybe that played a part. But even so… remember that episode of the show with Jagged Stone that they filmed in her parents bakery?”

 

Nino frowned, then his face cleared as he obviously remembered. “Oh yeah, the one where there was that big blow-up in Marinette’s room?” He chuckled. “Man, I thought for sure Marinette was going to melt down, and Alya was alternately cracking up and wondering if she should go down there and beat someone up. Personally, I thought it was a stunt. You know, they do stage upsets like that in reality TV shows, just to get people to tune in and boost the ratings.”

 

Adrien grimaced. “No, I’m pretty sure this one really was an accident. Considering how much of a secret Marinette kept her crush on me, I can’t see her agreeing to that.”

 

Oddly enough, he hadn’t been bothered seeing his modeling pictures all over her walls like that. It had actually encouraged him to think he had a shot at finally getting closer to her.

 

“Anyway,” he continued, “I asked her about the pictures the next day, and she told me that she had my pictures on her walls because she liked my dad’s designs. I mean, what am I supposed to think when she says stuff like that whenever I asked about something that could mean she was into me? I can’t just ignore it, but… I don’t know,” he finished with a defeated sigh. “I don’t get why she was so scared of me for so long. I’m just… me.”

 

“Well, at least now you two are getting somewhere, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Adrien said, a smile spreading over his face again. “I hope so. And we are definitely on for UMS tonight!”

 

“Awesome.” 

 

The bumped fists and finished their lunch. Adrien noticed Lila watching him as they left the lunchroom, but ignored her. She was surrounded by a new coterie of followers, these made up of a core of the drama club students, and kids from other classes on the fringes. Adrien couldn’t help but wonder if he’d actually done her a favor by implying she’d been trying to get the drama club’s attention with her lies. Maybe acting gave her the outlet she needed? He’d noticed she hadn’t been spreading rumors or lies about herself, either. He’d made sure to keep an ear out for anything concerning her, but there was nothing. He rather doubted that she’d actually turned a corner, but… he could hope. 

 

----

 

Marinette had planned to reply to Adrien’s email that evening before bed. She’d decided to keep it short and sweet. To encourage him without promising anything. Frankly, she wasn’t so sure of the stability of her own brain at the moment to promise anything, much as she really wanted to. And she wanted to be fair to him. He obviously loved both sides of her, but she was still having trouble seeing Chat Noir as anything other than an admittedly handsome flirt.

 

She lay in bed after a grueling day of ‘climbing stairs,’ modified yoga, and eating huge meals. The nurses all laughed at how much food she could put away, but considering that Marinette’s previously well-fitting, tailor made clothing had hung on her frame a few days ago, they didn’t make any comments. Her phone was in her hand, but she just couldn’t get her brain to function long enough to put a few sentences together. Still, she had to send him something. If it had been her, waiting for a reply to that kind of email all day long would have been pure torture.

 

She had to make the effort.

 

Dear Adrien,

Thank you for being so honest with me. Believe me, I know how hard that can be. I lo-

 

Marinette stopped typing, breathing hard all of a sudden. Could she do this? Could she be brave enough to put it in writing when she couldn’t even say it? She closed her eyes and tried to think what Tikki would say if she were here.

 

Probably something along the lines of ‘You can do it, Marinette! You’re ladybug, and you can be brave enough to tell him you love him. After all, you already know he won’t reject you, right?’

 

Marinette took a shaky breath and told herself it was true. With determination, she opened her eyes and continued typing.

 

I love you, too.

 

She stopped and stared at the words for a minute or two, shivering involuntarily. She’d never said them out loud. She couldn’t say them to him . But… he had said them to her. In an email, true, but… he had said them. And it wasn’t like it wasn’t true. She did love him. So why was she still so afraid? Could it be… because if she said those words, things would change? The future she had daydreamed seemed ridiculous looking back. Of course, it was going to be much more complicated than simply getting married and having three kids and a hamster. There was so much life hiding behind those simple concepts. Was she up to sharing Adrien’s life? 

 

As his girlfriend, there would be a spotlight on her. She’d already kind of experienced that due to the miscommunication that had everyone calling her Adrien’s girlfriend when she had merely been trying to help him get to the movies. It had died down fairly quickly, but there were still people who posted those pictures on online boards and fan sites, wondering what had happened to her, and whether Adrien was seeing someone else.

 

Of course, she wouldn’t be alone. Adrien would help her, she knew that. He was too kind to do otherwise. And… and if she wanted a relationship with him, she had to be brave. Brave enough to stand up tall under the scrutiny of some of the most vicious gossips in the world- girls her own age. Brave enough to stand up for him to his father, if necessary. And brave enough to act confident even when she didn’t feel confident.

 

Now that she thought of it, it would kind of be a little like being Ladybug in the public eye. She couldn’t show weakness- at least not to anyone but Chat Noir or Master Fu. But Adrien was Chat Noir, and Chat had never been anything but supportive and encouraging when she needed a boost. She knew Adrien would do the same for her as Marinette. He had faith in her.

 

The warmth of that thought drove away her fear. 

 

I love you, too.

 

Somehow the words didn’t seem so scary anymore. She smiled, and signed the email with a simple:

 

Love, Marinette

 

Then she sent the email before she could psych herself out of it again, and turned on a mindless TV show to lull her to sleep.

 

----

 

A soft touch on Marinette’s shoulder brought her out of a fitful sleep. She couldn’t remember what she’d been dreaming about, just that it wasn’t… comfortable. She turned over, expecting to see Chat sitting on the edge of her bed again, but this time… this time it was Ladybug.

 

Marinette sat straight up and stared. It was Ladybug. Ladybug was sitting on the edge of her bed. And… and it was her .

 

“Wh-what?” She managed before speech failed her completely.

 

Ladybug laughed and whispered, “Spots off.”

 

Tikki zoomed out of the earrings, and Marinette squinted against the bright pink light. Then the shape of Ladybug shifted, becoming that of Alya. Marinette gaped, as her best friend rose and turned on the small lamp by the bedside.

 

H-how? ” Marinette choked. “Y-you… you looked like me!”

 

Tikki giggled. “It’s really not that hard, Marinette. It just takes a little more of my energy to sustain the illusion- I can tack it onto the glamour that makes it difficult for anyone to guess your identity, and it keeps people from realizing that the original Ladybug isn’t currently up to her duties.”

 

Alya smiled at her, rubbing her eyes and yawning. “Chat told me to come see you, so you could have the benefits of the earrings tonight. He said I should do it so in case there’s another akuma…”

 

Marinette slumped back down, nodding. She was disappointed, but it made sense. “Yeah, that’s… that makes sense.”

 

Alya took out the studs, and as she handed them to Tikki, they changed from dull red amber in gold settings to bright red polka-dotted studs in silver. Tikki flew them the short distance to Marinette’s open hand. 

 

Marinette looked at them a moment, then put them in her own ears. She’d stopped wearing the fake ones. Then she reached a hand out to Alya.

 

“How does it feel?” she asked quietly.

 

Alya smiled at her, clasping her hand. “It’s… it’s hard,” she said, nodding to herself. “Chat’s right- I think I would make a better black cat than… and it took a while to get the hang of the yo-yo.”

 

Marinette squeezed her hand, grinning. “You know, the first time I tried the yo-yo, I ended up falling out of the sky directly onto Chat Noir?” She giggled at what had become a fond memory, given everything that had happened since. “I even almost said my real name introducing myself after we got untangled!”

 

Alya laughed quietly. “Seriously, girl? I can almost see it!” She squeezed Marinette’s hand back. “I didn’t know it was going to be so hard. I mean, all that pressure… I know Chat’s there to back me up, and we work ok as a team, but… it’s really up to me to cleanse the akuma and repair everything.” She looked up at Marinette, meeting her eyes squarely. “I didn’t realize before. I’m sorry. I treated what you and he did together as… well, as less serious than it actually is. I mean, this isn’t a comic book. Even though the miraculous ladybugs fix everything in the end, it’s not… I mean, there are so many places a plan can go wrong… you know I had to detransform three times in my first akuma fight? I couldn’t make the lucky charm work.” Alya looked down.

 

“Hey,” Marinette said, patting her arm comfortingly. “You did it in the end. That’s what counts.”

 

“I’m not as good at it as you.”

 

Marinette chuckled. “I wasn’t either, at first. I made a lot of mistakes- especially forgetting to capture Stoneheart’s akuma that first time! Remember that? And you and Chat both had to practically push me into fighting the akuma in the first place.”

 

Tikki chimed in, too. “You do the job, Alya. You can’t say you’re unworthy if you get the job done, right?”

 

“You know,” Marinette said, slowly, realizing that she finally had the opportunity to tell her best friend something she thought she’d never be able to. “I almost gave up being Ladybug after I failed with Stoneheart the first time. In fact, I was going to pass the earrings on to someone else.”

 

Alya’s head snapped up. “Seriously? Who?” she asked, obviously cataloguing everyone they knew and trying to decide who Marinette had chosen in her own place.

 

Marinette chuckled again. “Don’t you remember me chasing after you with your bookbag the next day? After Ivan got akumatized again? You left it behind, and well… there was something important in it.”

 

Alya frowned, her mouth falling open as if she wanted to ask what Marinette meant. Then her expression morphed into one of disbelief. “ ME?! You were going to give Tikki to me? Why me?”

 

“Because even though I’d only known you for one day, you seemed like such a fierce and determined girl, someone who would have no problems playing the superhero, or believing in herself.” Marinette’s eyes dropped. “Not like me, anyway.”

 

“Hey,” Alya said, returning the gesture of patting Marinette’s arm. “You do a great job. Much better than I could do.”

 

Marinette looked up with a disbelieving look. “If you’d been doing it all this time like I have, you’d be better than I could ever be, Alya.”

 

Alya shook her head. “Not a chance. I’d be better than I am, sure, but not as good as you.”

 

Marinette scoffed at that.

 

“I’m serious. Your mind works in a really odd way, and after trying to literally be you, I think that’s why your lucky charms work so well.”

 

“Pfft. My lucky charms are crazy! They almost always catch me off guard and I have to spend time figuring them out. Time that could be used fighting the akuma!”

 

“But it’s because they’re so unpredictable that they work so well. Neither the akuma, nor Hawk Moth can anticipate what you’re going to do with them, so they’re behind, even though they can sometimes see you setting everything up. It just doesn’t occur to them to defend against something like what you come up with.”

 

Marinette felt her eyebrows rising. “I… never thought of it that way. I always just assumed I wasn’t very good at calling for a lucky charm. Especially after fighting Reflekta and her sentimonster. I mean, Mister Bug simply asked for a big mirror and that’s exactly what he got!”

 

“But even then the mirror wasn’t what it seemed to be, was it? You guys eventually used it as a screwdriver instead, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Marinette said, a smirk playing over her lips. Chat as Mister Bug had been so certain he knew exactly what to do… seeing him at a loss when reflecting the robot’s beam back at it had absolutely no effect had been almost worth the extra time spent with a strange miraculous. But she’d still been jealous that Mister Bug had gotten exactly what he asked for instead of having to try and figure out a weird and seemingly completely random object to fit into a Rube-Goldberg plan of attack.

 

“Well,” Marinette said after a moment in which Alya yawned twice. “At least you know how to impersonate me pretty well, I’d think.”

 

“Oh yeah, it turns out running the LadyBlog has it’s uses…”

 

Marinette chuckled. “So… how long did it take you to decide not to out me when you figured it out?”

 

She’d been expecting some form of gushing, fan-girly psuedo-angsty answer, but what she got was very far from it.

 

Alya leaned over and hugged her so fiercely Marinette yelped in pain.

 

“Alya… seriously, I can’t breathe!” she choked.

 

Alya backed off on the squeezing, but didn’t let her go. “You scared me to death, Mari. I… I didn’t even think about what I was hearing until Ad-,” she stopped, and there was a moment of silence before she continued. “Until someone else suddenly took charge and told me and Nino what to do. I just… couldn’t wrap my mind around it, and if… if someone else hadn’t known what to do, it might have been too late for you by the time we got you help, and…”

 

Marinette alternated patting her back and rubbing it soothingly. Tears pricked at her eyes, but she held them back. “Hey, it’s ok. I’m ok,” she said softly. “And thanks. I always knew I could count on you.”

 

Alya shuddered. “But you couldn’t. Not with Lila. God, I’m so sorry about that, Mari. I was such an idiot, and I should’ve listened to you instead of just assuming …”

 

“You fixed it. She’s gone and she can’t hurt me, or any of our friends anymore.”

 

“Yeah, but she’s not really gone -gone, is she? She can still make trouble for you if she tries hard enough.”

 

“Hey, I’m up for it. I can handle it as long as my friends don’t desert me.”

 

Alya finally pulled away, wiping at her face. “It doesn’t make it right.”

 

Marinette smiled softly. “It’s in the past. I didn’t like it when you just dismissed what I had to say, but…” she shrugged. “We’re best friends. When it really counted, you had my back. Why should I give Lila the satisfaction of breaking us up for a reason that no longer exists? Was I hurt? Yeah. I was. Especially the changing seats thing. But Alya, if I hang on to this, Lila wins. And I just… can’t let her do that.”

 

Alya snorted at that. “Our friendship saved by your competitive streak, yeah? I like it!”

 

Marinette grinned at her. “So how long are you staying? You look pretty tired.”

 

“I am pretty tired. Now I know why you and- and Chat Noir- look so exhausted half the time. Fighting akumas is no joke, and that on top of all the schoolwork… and you usually help in the bakery part-time and do all your designing… girl, I don’t know how you do it sometimes.”

 

Marinette shrugged.

 

“But to answer your question, I don’t know. Several hours at least.” Alya yawned again.

 

“I can’t do much for you Marinette, now that you’re not wearing the earrings all the hours of the day anymore, but I can at least keep you from losing your memories again," Tikki said. "But it does take several hours worth of exposure, so…”

 

Marinette slid over on the bed to make room for Alya. “I guess I get a different cuddle buddy tonight, then.”

 

Alya slumped over into the space without questioning it. But just as Marinette was getting comfortable and sleepy again, Alya asked her a question.

 

“So… did you get an email from Adrien yet?”

 

Marinette was immediately wide awake again. “Y-yes.”

 

Alya tensed expectantly and looked over her shoulder at Marinette. “... And?”

 

Marinette squeaked and pulled the covers up over her head.

 

“Maaaarriiiii…. Come on, you can’t leave me hanging like this! What did the boy have to say?!” Bouncing and jostling of the bed indicated deliberate motion on Alya’s part.

 

Marinette pulled the covers down just enough so she could peek at her BFF. Alya had turned over so they were facing each other instead of spooning.

 

“... he wants to kiss me!” Marinette said in a voice so high and breathy that it was nearly a whisper. “Alya… he wants me to be his girlfriend and to take me out on dates, and… and he wants to kiss me!!”

Chapter Text

Alya’s grin turned manic as her best friend and idol muffled her excited shrieking with the hospital pillow. She was so happy for Marinette, she’d been wanting this, waiting for this for so long. Aside from LadyNoir, Adrienette had been her most longstanding ship, and it was finally about to set sail. Hopefully followed very quickly by LadyNoir, but she wasn’t sure about that.

 

Alya didn’t know if Adrien had told her yet. And she couldn’t, not in good conscience. From the beginning, Ladybug had been absolutely adamant about keeping identities secret, even from other miraculous holders. There had to be a reason for that, and without knowing more, Alya didn’t feel comfortable revealing Chat’s identity to her best friend, even though it would simplify things a lot. 

 

Well, maybe. After all, Ladybug had never encouraged Chat Noir’s affections, had she? And now, knowing that Ladybug was Marinette, Alya understood that. She was too hung up on Adrien to ever consider the affections of her partner as an option. But surely, if she knew…? But then, what if Marinette got it in her head that Adrien was only pursuing her now because he knew she was Ladybug? Ugh, it was all so complicated.

 

Marinette finally came up for air, face flushed and eyes bright with excitement.

 

“Can you believe it, Alya? He… he loves me,” she said softly, an expression of soft awe replacing the excitement. “I… I still can’t really believe it.”

 

“I’m so happy for you, girl,” Alya said, rubbing her friend’s arm comfortingly. “And if I were you, I would believe it. Apparently, he’s been trying to win you over for a while now. He and Nino cooked up this hair-brained scheme to get you to be more comfortable around him, just so he could finally ask you out without causing you to faint from shock.”

 

Marinette looked up at that. “Really? That… that wasn’t just something he said?”

 

Alya’s eyebrow cocked up. “He told you that in the email?”

 

“Y-yeah… but I wasn’t sure. I mean, yes he’s been talking to me more, but… just as a friend.”

 

“Marinette,” Alya said sternly. “You are not going to talk yourself into disbelieving the heartfelt confessions of a boy you’ve been in love with for two years now! I’m not going to let you!” She let her gaze soften as Marinette curled herself up into a smaller ball, still hugging her pillow. “And yes, he has been different.” Alya rolled her eyes as she remembered that ridiculous plan of his- or rather, how he’d described it to her. She had to chuckle. “Apparently, he read somewhere that when you are trying to tame a wild animal, you have to be gentle and persistent and not force anything. So he’s been talking to you more, trying to make you more comfortable around him, but not trying to push anything.”

 

Marinette frowned in adorable confusion. “What?”

 

Alya laughed again. “Marinette, he’s been treating you like a little lost puppy! Coaxing you to come closer, and closer, offering little treats… god, he’s such a sappy dork. I’m just glad Nino was there to tone it down, or I’m sure he would have gone overboard and messed the whole thing up by now.”

 

Marinette blushed hotly, and Alya could tell she was recalling instances in the past few months between her and Adrien, him invading her personal space just a little more than usual, letting his hand linger on her shoulder or arm if he had reason to touch her, going out of his way to talk to her, offering his help with the least little thing… with a whimpered groan, Marinette buried her face in her pillow again.

 

“I’m so blind, Alya!”

 

“Then the two of you are a matched pair,” Alya retorted, snorting her amusement.

 

----

 

Adrien was winning the Ultimate Mecha Strike match between him and Nino when he heard his phone ding with a message. He kept his focus though, determined not to lose concentration and thus the match. Nino had gotten a lot better- he must have been practicing. Although neither of them were up to Marinette’s usual standard, he thought they were both getting closer.

 

“Yes!” he shouted, spontaneously springing up and throwing his hands in the air. On the TV screen, the game announced the victory of Player 2 over Player 1. Nino groaned, but offered a reluctant fist-bump. Only after that token did Adrien dig for his phone in the couch cushions. 

 

He glanced at it, hoping it wasn’t a message from Nathalie telling him to come home. He’d only been at Nino’s for… he checked the time, and realized he’d been there a lot longer than he’d thought. It was probably time for him to head home, anyway. If he didn’t want Father to shorten his leash again, he had to do the responsible thing and not stay out too late.

 

But the message wasn’t from Nathalie. It was from Marinette. 

 

“You ok, Bro? It’s not your dad, is it? Do you have to leave?”

 

Adrien turned to face Nino, just then realizing he’d been staring at his phone and the unopened message for too long.

 

“N-no, it’s… not from my father,” he said, dropping back down onto the couch. “I mean, I should probably head home anyway… don’t want him to think I’m not mature enough to hang out with my friends when I want to.”

 

“So…?” Nino pressed, leaning forward and grabbing a crisp from the bag on the coffee table. 

 

“It’s from Marinette.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

There were several moments of silence.

 

“You gonna read it?”

 

Adrien blinked and sighed. “I… guess I should.”

 

“Hey,” Nino placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You’re Chat Noir, dude. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. And she’s been crushing on the other half of you for a long time. It’s going to be good news, my man.”

 

“Yeah, but I…” Adrien trailed off. “I haven’t told her about being Chat Noir yet. But I did give her a pretty big clue last night. She’s so smart, I bet she’s figured it out by now… what if she…”

 

“Hold on. Why haven’t you told her? I mean, you already know she’s Ladybug, and I’m assuming she knows you know, so… why wait?”

 

“She wanted me to. She said she doesn’t want me to have to go through a reveal with her more than once, and she doesn’t trust her brain not to lose memory again just yet.”

 

“Huh. I guess that makes sense.”

 

Adrien grabbed a handful of crisps himself, just to have something to do. He didn’t really like crisps. If he was going to have fried potatoes, he preferred chips. But he wasn’t going to complain, either. Food was food.

 

He chewed the mouthful, then glanced at his phone again, expanding the notification into preview mode. It looked… promising. Dear Adrien, Thank you for…

 

He took a deep breath and opened the message. He read it. Then he read it again. It was short, but no words penned by mankind had ever had such power to move him. Before he knew it, he was crying, one hand over his mouth to stifle a sob of pure happiness.

 

“Dude! She didn’t reject you…?!”

 

Adrien laughed and wiped at his eyes. “No, Nino. She didn’t reject me. She loves me, too.”

 

He looked up to see the concern on his best friend’s face morph into a wide grin. “Yes! Awesome, dude! I knew it!”

Adrien got up, half-formed plans of transforming and going to see his lady already solidifying in his mind. How could he stay away after receiving a message like that?

 

“Um, Adrien… where are you going?”

 

“I’ve got to see her, Nino!” He had to let her know how much her note meant to him. 

 

“No, no you don’t. Alya’s going to visit her tonight, remember?”

 

“But…”

 

“No buts, dude.” 

 

Adrien glared at him, and Nino raised his hands defensively. “Listen, I know you want to rush off and see her. I get it. Do you think I wasn’t over the moon when Alya and I got together? I’m happy for you, really! But you needed a break, and that’s what this is supposed to be, right?”

 

Reluctantly, Adrien nodded. 

 

“Look, let’s play one more round, and then you head home. But you have to promise me to stay there, dude! Otherwise I’m going to go over there as Carapace and use Shell-ter to make sure you stay there! You need a full night of sleep for once! Can you honestly tell me you’ve had more than maybe three or four hours a night this week?”

 

“Um…” Adrien grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck.

 

“That’s what I thought. Promise?”

 

“Yeah. Ok, I promise,” Adrien said. Though every bit of him ached to hold Marinette, he knew Nino was right. Just the fact he’d broken down in tears over Marinette’s sweet message told him he was still on the edge. A good night’s sleep would let him regain control over his emotions so he didn’t come on too strong for her. He had to remember she was still recovering. She needed time to process things, to heal. He had to give her that time, or he might lose her. As much as he wanted to jump into a relationship, he knew he couldn’t do that right now. He had to take it slow. He took a deep breath and sat back down on the couch, picking up his controller.

 

“Ok,” he said. “I’m ready.”

 

----

 

Lila made sure there wasn’t anyone else in the costume closet before closing the door behind her. The ‘closet’ was actually an old dressing room in the backstage area of the small auditorium in Francois Dupont High School. For whatever reason, it wasn’t used as a dressing room anymore, and was instead the place where all the costumes were stored.

 

As the leading female role, Lila had her own tailored costumes here of course. But since it was so uncertain whether she would be still be attending the school soon, Lila had also gotten an understudy- a little thing that did have at least a little talent, so Lila didn’t feel too insulted to have the girl in a position to take over from her. Of course, her akumatization plan called for the girl to take Lila’s place anyway, so it was a moot point.

 

It was a shame, though. Lila had actually found herself enjoying being part of the play. She had so much practice assuming a role, especially in front of an audience she thought of as always judging, that acting came quite naturally to her. She knew instinctively when to exaggerate an expression and what was too much. Oh, she wasn’t perfect, and the director still had to give her cues, or modify her approach to the character, but… acting fit her. It was easy. And she found she enjoyed it. Playing a part when her reputation wasn’t on the line was… freeing.

 

Lila let the resentment and fury simmer in the back of her mind as she methodically destroyed the beautiful costumes she would have been appearing in with a pair of scissors she had stolen from Ms. Bustier’s desk. It wasn’t even that she was angry about needing to forgo her leading role now. She simply had a plan, and she was going to see it through. No matter what.

 

Tonight would start the ball rolling. Lila sighed, regarding the shreds that were all that was left of the previously beautiful costumes. It was just too bad Dupain-Cheng was still in the hospital. If she’d been well enough to attend school, Lila could easily have pinned this on her. After all, everyone knew the class pet didn’t like Lila, and the girl was well-known for sewing so it wouldn’t have been a stretch to assume that she’d help with the theater costumes. And if she helped with them, she would have known which ones were Lila’s. And If she knew which ones were Lila’s, she would have known which ones to sabotage. 

 

Ah well. Someone else would just have to take the blame. Maybe Alya. She still carried a grudge, and it wouldn’t be too far out of character for her to try and ruin Lila’s chances with the play. This close to their first performance there was no way replacement costumes could be ready in time. Now Lila had a visible, viable excuse to be angry and get upset. She wouldn’t let it go too far- she’d make a show of trying to control herself. After all, it wouldn’t do for people to suspect she would go to such lengths just to gain the power of an akuma. Lila smiled to herself, even as she fed her lurking anger with the thought that if it hadn’t been for Marinette and Adrien , none of this would have been necessary.

Chapter Text

Adrien walked into the dining room for breakfast and stopped short. Gabriel Agreste was sitting at the head of the table, a forkful of eggs halfway between his plate and his mouth, staring at something on the tablet which Nathalie held up for him to see. 

 

Taking a deep breath, Adrien said, “Good morning, Father. Good morning Nathalie,” and walked calmly to his own usual chair at the foot of the table, where a plate of food was already waiting for him. Neither of the two adults in the room paid him any heed, so he began eating with quick, neat bites, as he’d been rigorously taught.

 

Once he was done, he looked up and decided to risk it. After all, since his father was there… and since he’d said Adrien was maturing enough to be able to make some decisions on his own…

 

“Father, I wanted to let you know that I will be skipping my morning classes today.”

 

Gabriel’s head turned slightly in his direction, eyes still fixed on the tablet screen. “Oh? Are you sure that is wise?”

 

“Yes, Father. All of the morning classes today are the ones that are typically just a review for me anyway. And there’s something important I need to take care of.”

 

“Setting priorities is an important life skill. Tell me, what is it that is important enough to risk your education?”

 

Adrien took another calming breath. This was going surprisingly well… “I was going to offer the car to Marinette and her parents to use, since she is coming home from the hospital today. And since it is our car, I decided I should go along as well, to be a good host.”

 

Gabriel’s eyes finally tracked from the tablet screen to his son’s face. Adrien couldn’t tell if his father even actually saw him, though, since his expression didn’t change in the slightest.

 

“I see. This is the young lady who was so ill that she needed to be hospitalized? The one that you were so concerned with that you refused medical treatment until you knew she was well taken care of?”

 

“Yes, father. She’s also a talented designer- she won one of your contests- and one of my closest friends.”

 

“Hm. This… care… seems a little excessive for a mere friend.”

 

Adrien felt a flush rising, but he answered calmly enough. “As it happens, I’d like to change our relationship, but of course, I have to talk to her about it first. But I would do the same for my other close friends, if they needed it.”

 

Gabriel stared at him a moment longer, then looked back to the tablet screen, swiping across it before taking another bite. Adrien held his breath, but his father finished chewing and merely said, “Be sure you keep up with all of your assignments, Adrien. You’ve been doing well with the recent freedom I’ve allowed, but that can always be revoked if you become foolish.”

 

“Yes, Father.” 

 

Adrien trembled with relief. He thought about adding a ‘thank you’ to that, but figured that would seem too childish. Lately, he’d been trying to act more responsible, more like someone who could make decisions and follow through. Thanking his father for not countering his plans this morning would give the impression that Gabriel was still mostly in charge of Adrien’s life. Which he was, of course, but Adrien had been trying to overcome that impression. He was mostly still choosing to do what he was told, but he was also pushing back a bit by telling his father what he intended to do instead of asking permission. Astonishingly, it seemed to be working. His father was treating him more like an employee- someone who needed a bit of oversight, but could be trusted to get things done- rather than as a child who needed everything done for him.

 

It was a little depressing to think that he had a better relationship with his father now that Gabriel wasn’t treating him as his son anymore, but… it was definitely better than what it had been before. Adrien pushed such thoughts out of his head for the moment, thinking instead of the victory he’d just won.

 

They finished the meal in silence, though towards the end, Gabriel made a motion so unexpected that it caught Adrien’s attention. He reached up and rubbed at his chest, wincing slightly.

 

“Father? Is everything alright?” Adrien ventured. After Nathalie’s dizzy spells, he was a little on edge when it came to the health of people around him.

 

“Nothing to worry about, Adrien,” Gabriel said smoothly, though he continued to rub small circles. “Just heartburn. Excuse me.” He stood abruptly, and walked out of the dining room toward his office without another word. Nathalie looked after him a moment with slightly narrowed eyes, but then she turned to Adrien.

 

“Is there anything you need me to rearrange for you today, Adrien?” she asked, in that professional tone of voice she’d adopted ever since Adrien had started telling her to do things instead of asking. It smarted a little, since he missed the more personable tone she had sometimes used in talking to him before the change. But he couldn’t deny it did make his life a little easier. 

 

“No, thank you, Nathalie. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

 

“Very well, just be aware that I will not be able to cancel anything at the last minute. You do have obligations, still.”

 

“Of course. Excuse me, Nathalie, it’s almost time for me to leave.”

 

On his way back to his room to grab his book bag (he was going to the afternoon classes, after all), he called Marinette.

 

“H-hi, Adrien,” Marinette said, and Adrien smiled at the shyness of her tone. He closed his eyes, picturing her face on the other end.

 

“Hey,” he said, softly. “Listen, I had an idea. I know you’re going home today, and the metro’s not the best option, and taxis are awfully expensive and not much better in terms of germs, so… what about using my regular car and driver? It’d be much more comfortable for you and your parents, and… and I’d like to do something for you.”

 

“Adrien, no… that’s really not necessary…!”

 

“Please?” he asked, shamelessly banking on Marinette’s famed inability to say no. “I was going to skip morning classes to come and pick you up.” He blushed and added, “And your parents, of course, I know they’ll be there too- they wouldn’t… they’re not…” he trailed off. Marinette knew about his distant relationship with his father, but he still felt awkward mentioning it.

 

“Um… it’s not that I don’t want to say yes, it’s just I don’t know what my parents already had planned.”

 

“Call them. Tell them I’d be more than happy to help out.”

 

“W-well…”

 

Adrien waited, picturing the blush on her face, and the way she’d no doubt be smiling, and he just couldn’t wait to see her again. The welcome-home party was planned for tomorrow, since it was Saturday and everyone was free. Even he was free, after he told Nathalie that he needed that block of time open and she rearranged some things for him. Honestly, he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t tried a more direct approach when it came to his activities before. 

 

“... I’ll call them. But Adrien, I… I don’t want you to…”

 

“Don’t worry, Marinette. I’m not trying to push anything right now,” Adrien said, soothingly. “This is something I’d also do for Nino, or Chloe. Even Alya. I care about you, just like I care about them. You deserve to come home from the hospital without worrying about train times and things like that.”

 

“Right. Okay! Well… I guess I’ll see you soon, then!” she said, a little breathlessly. “And… thank you.”

 

“You’re welcome,” he said. “See you soon.” And smiled as he ended the call.

 

----

 

The streets seem to be more congested than usual , Adrien thought, staring out the window and frowning a little. Usually, he wouldn’t worry about something like that, except that at this time of day traffic should flow pretty easily through the streets. And in Paris these days, if there was an accident blocking the streets, it was just as likely to be from an akuma attack than a more normal vehicular accident. He looked down at his phone. No akuma alert… He sat back to wait.

 

Suddenly, the windshield and drivers side window shattered and something long, thin, and sinuous snaked through. Gorilla gasped and clutched at his neck.

 

That was all the warning Adrien got, but it was all he needed. In a flash he’d opened his door and leaped away from the car as fast as his unnaturally enhanced reflexes- even out of the suit- allowed. A quick duck into an alleyway and a transformation later, and Chat Noir vaulted up to the roofs to survey the situation. He hated to leave Gorilla behind like that, but the man had already been compromised. He told himself the ladybug cure would fix him just like it always had to keep the guilt at bay, and then opened his baton to call Alya.

 

The situation wasn’t good. Cars were stopped in the middle of the street, and random citizens lay on stretchers here and there, strapped down, with dark red tubes attached to their arms, the tubes all stretching out and away from them. Some of them screamed. Some only groaned. All of them seemed to be growing weaker.

 

Chat Noir followed the tubes back to their source, anxiety growing as he recognized he was heading toward the hospital. Where Marinette was. 

 

He ran faster.

 

----

 

The area immediately around the hospital was eerily silent. There were still random people on stretchers, but though they had the tubes attached to them, they were quiet. And pale. Too pale.

 

Chat Noir ran into the lobby, only to see it crowded with people on stretchers. Most of them were quiet, some were still moaning.

 

“Hello! Can anyone tell me where the akuma went?” he called, loudly. The tubes snaked away further into the hospital building. Even the people behind the service desks were bound to stretchers.

 

“Ch- Cha- t…” a weak voice came from the right, behind a makeshift blockade of lobby chairs and end tables.

 

Chat leaped easily over the blockade only to see seven people bound to stretchers like everyone else. Three of them he recognized- Marinette and her parents. He forced his way to her side and grabbed her arm, the one with the tube attached to it, placing the other on her cheek.

 

“Marinette!”

 

Her eyes fluttered open, but she was pale, so pale…

 

“Blood Drive,” she whispered. “Her name’s Blood Drive. I don’t know… where the akuma is. Maybe… in the tank.”

 

“I’ll get you out of this, Marinette,” he promised, bending to place his forehead on hers. He closed a fist around the tube in her arm. The end of it had what looked like metal clamps, digging into the skin. He yanked on it, trying to pull it out of her. 

 

Marinettte screamed, bucking against the restraints and Chat saw the needle in her arm dig deeper, sucking the blood out faster. The tube distended into a little bubble shape that flowed down the line and away from them. Chat watched in horror as another distended bubble followed the first, then another, and another. Marinette whimpered.

 

“I’m sorry!” He backed away, eyes wide with shock. He briefly thought about trying to cataclysm the tube, but it was attached to her, and he didn’t know if he could control it well enough to make sure his power wouldn’t hurt her as well.

 

“...’s okay…” Marinette whispered, head lolling back, eyes closing. “She got us… last. Distracted…” she fell silent, and Chat realized she’d passed out. Chat Noir looked around the lobby, the full horror of what he was witnessing hitting him. The akuma was draining the blood out of everyone she came across.

 

He stood there a full minute before snapping back into focus. Frantically ignoring the fact that he’d just watched the love of his life pass out from blood loss, he turned to one of the other victims, fingers reaching for a pulse. 

 

There. Whoever it was- he couldn’t look at, much less go near, the Dupain-Chengs, not without losing his ability to function- had a pulse, slow… but there. Even as he watched, the needle in the person’s arm retracted the clamps and pulled itself out. It rose up in the air like a cobra, clamps fanning out behind the needle head, turning this way and that as if seeking another target. 

 

Chat reached for his baton just as the thing seemed to zero in on him, darting forward. Chat spun his baton into a shield, knocking it away. But others were now detaching themselves and coming after him.

 

He changed tactics, extending the baton to staff length, using it to guide all the needle-tubes together and tangling them around the staff. Then, using his foot, he slid them off the pole and kept them down and away from his vulnerable neck by stepping on them. The needle heads clacked together, trying and failing to penetrate the magical leather of his suit. Chat resolved to offer Plagg more cheese than usual after this fight.

 

He reached out to the nearest victim and felt for the pulse again. It was still there, and he nearly collapsed with relief. At least the akuma wasn’t draining them dry. 

 

He pondered which direction to go, whether to follow the disturbing tubing back into the hospital, or to venture back out and try to keep the nasty things from endangering anyone else.

 

A voice from the hallway made him duck behind the feeble blockade. 

 

“More… I need more… O negative, O positive, AB negative...” 

 

Chat took the risk of bobbing his head up for a quick look.

 

The akuma was one of the ones that floated, dressed in a shiny white nun’s habit with a bright red cross across her chest. The costume rose up to cover most of her head, forming a sort of cowl without the traditional nun’s headdress. She carried a clipboard that she marked on as she went, muttering to herself about blood types. There was a tank- or a series of tanks- on her back. Out of the bottom of each section came dozens of needle tubes. She must have finished up everyone else in the hospital, because she was floating toward the lobby doors, and a good three quarters of the tubes were pinkish-clear, their needle heads impersonating snakes as they sought more prey.

 

Chat shuddered, choking down bile. Despite himself his eyes flicked back towards the limp bodies still bound to the conjured stretchers, briefly alighting on the form of Marinette before he tore them away again. He was going to have nightmares about this one. For more than just one reason.

 

The akuma floated out the lobby doors, the tubes following behind her. Chat felt a tugging from the mass at his feet- the needle-tubes were trying to retract back to their wielder, since they couldn’t get to him. Cautiously he lifted his foot, cautiously spinning his baton between himself and the needles. But they’d apparently given up on him, and slowly slithered away through the lobby doors and out of sight.

 

Chat opened his baton and called Alya again.

 

----

 

Alya had just settled into her desk in the science lab when Tikki flicked the back of her ear. They had decided that having her hide in Alya’s hair was the best method for now, and had established a pattern of ear-flicks to indicate certain situations. This time the flick meant that Chat Noir, or rather a transformed Adrien, was trying to contact her with his baton phone.

 

Without hesitation Alya jumped back up and casually squeezed Nino’s shoulder twice on her way out the classroom door, counting herself lucky that class hadn’t already started and she could make her escape without calling undue attention to herself. This way, she could claim she had a sudden need for the bathroom. The double shoulder squeeze would alert Nino that she was on miraculous business, and he would have his phone out in case she texted him for help. Chat had given them both the fox and turtle miraculouses to keep while Marinette was out of commission. Rena Rouge hadn’t been needed since Chloe refused to be Ladybug anymore, which was fortunate, since Alya wasn’t sure if she could be both at the same time, or if someone else would have to be recruited to play the part of Rena. She was not going to give Trixx to Chloe, no matter how much Adrien defended her, but that left them with very few alternatives beyond recruiting an entirely new player.

 

Alya headed to the bathroom, and waited impatiently for it to clear out from the between-class traffic of girls touching up their makeup and gossiping while doing their business. When everything was quiet, and Tikki had made sure the bathroom was clear, she transformed and immediately opened up her yo-yo to the phone mode.

 

There was a voicemail from Chat Noir:

 

“There’s an akuma near the hospital, looks like it’s targeting ordinary citizens. Some kind of needle-tube thing. I don’t like the look of it. Get over here as soon as you can, but stick to the rooftops- the streets won’t be safe.”

 

Alya took a deep breath. Okay. Okay, I can do this, she thought, leaping up and levering herself through the narrow window opening. It was almost too narrow for her to fit through, though Marinette wouldn’t have had much trouble. Alya was both taller and curvier than her best friend, though, and the illusion that made her resemble Marinette didn’t do anything to change her actual physical shape.

 

She ran over the rooftops towards the hospital, praying that Chat had played it safe and she wouldn’t end up fighting this battle alone.

 

----

 

Alya crouched on one of the roofs across the street from the hospital. Chat had been right, the streets weren’t safe at all. A two block radius out from the hospital was crowded with unconscious people either slumped in their seats in cars, or else bound to stretchers. Whatever had left them that way was nowhere in sight, but Alya wasn’t going to tempt fate by jumping down to check on them.

 

Movement down below caught her attention. The lobby doors opened and the akuma floated through, a vision in pure white nun’s attire, but with a huge sectioned tank fixed to her back. A large red cross on her chest made a mockery of her intended function. As she floated down the street, Alya saw dark red liquid sloshing around in the different sections of the tank, and swallowed. She had a feeling she knew what the liquid was… but she really didn’t want to confirm that. She noted the writhing tubes extending from the bottom of the tank sections and shivered. 

 

Her yo-yo buzzed, and she opened it to a call from Chat.

 

“Ladybug, good. Listen… the akuma. I know what she’s after, and we cannot let ourselves get hit. If we get hit, we’ll soon be too weak to fight effectively, and that’s if getting hit doesn’t immediately get us bound to a stretcher as well. I’m not sure how that works, because thankfully I haven’t seen it in action yet.”

 

“Is…,” Alya swallowed, “Is it what I think it is?”

 

“It’s blood, Alya. She’s draining blood from people.” Alya picked up a sigh from his end. “At least she’s leaving them alive, but they’re all unconscious by the time the needles detach, so…”

 

“So it’d be child’s play for her to get our miraculouses if we get hit. Got it.”

 

“I’m thinking we’re going to need Carapace for this one. Maybe… maybe even Queen Bee, although I’m not sure how much her paralyzing attack would affect those needle-tubes.”

 

“Right. I’ll let Carapace know. I’m on a roof across the street from the hospital. The akuma just floated by me, but she didn’t look up, and none of those tubes look like they’re going to head my way any time soon. Any idea where the butterfly is? I don’t think we should engage before we’re sure- there’s too much risk getting hit with this one. I can’t tell how many of those needle-tubes there are, but there’s a lot of them.”

 

“I agree. The akuma might be in the tank. At least…” he hesitated. “M-Marinette s-said…” he audibly huffed and Alya felt her heart sink. Marinette had been targeted then. Alya allowed herself a few seconds to absorb that, then forced herself to focus on what Chat was saying. “She said it might be in the tank. But I saw the akuma carrying a clipboard, and as she floated by me I saw her ticking things off on it. I think we should target both, to cover our bases.”

 

“Sounds like a plan. Let me text Carapace and you meet me up here so we can talk in person.”

 

“Right.” 

 

He hung up. It said something for his mental state that he didn’t waste time on ending the conversation politely. Not that Alya blamed him. If Nino had been one of those down below… she resolutely shoved that thought to the back of her mind. Nino wouldn’t be one of those affected by this particular akuma, because he’d be right beside her fighting it.

 

She texted him from her yo-yo and got an almost instant reply in the form of a video call.

 

“Already on my way, babe.”

 

Alya could see blue skies and slowly changing scenery of roofs as Carapace leaped his way towards her. 

 

“That’s fast…”

 

“Someone finally sent out an akuma alert, and since the hospital isn’t that far from here, Mr. Damocles decided to send everyone home, especially once photos started leaking. And honestly? It looked like I would be needed.”

 

“Good call there. Too bad this one won’t be covered by the LadyBlog… although I’m not sure I want first-hand footage of this scene on film. It’s going to be branded into my brain as it is.”

 

Carapace gave her a sympathetic half-smile and said. “Be there soon. Stay safe, and keep Chat from doing anything stupid.”

 

Chat thumped to the roof beside her as Alya hung up. He didn’t really look at her or acknowledge her presence, just went over to the low edge to see if he could catch sight of the akuma.

 

“We should really by trailing it,” he said.

 

Alya stood up and walked over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He tried not to flinch, but Alya felt the small jerk anyway and removed her hand.

 

“I’m sorry,” Alya said quietly. “Are you okay? Are you good to fight? You can sit this one out if it’s too hard.”

 

He glanced at her, then screwed his eyes shut and turned away again. “I… I’m not sure. I’m sorry, but I can’t… I can’t look at you right now.” He heaved a breath. “I think I can do my job, but I’m not going to be able to… be the partner you should have. Stick with Carapace- he can protect you better than I can at the moment anyway. Shellter is a better protection than a spinning baton or yo-yo against this, and of us all, you are the one that has to stay unaffected.”

 

“Got it.” Alya took a few steps in the direction the akuma had floated, then looked back at Chat to see if he followed. “Come on, Chat Noir. Carapace can catch up, but we need to find the akuma and make a plan.”

 

Chat’s expression was blank and he wouldn’t meet her eyes. It was the worst thing Alya had ever seen. Chat Noir was normally so carefree, so exuberant and full of flirty mannerisms, that seeing the absolute focus on his face was jarring. And wrong. So very, very wrong. But for all that, he gathered himself and quickly strode past her in the direction the akuma had gone.

Chapter Text

Chat, Ladybug, and Carapace crouched on the roof watching Blood Drive victimize another street of innocent bystanders.

“Those needles are quick, aren’t they?” Carapace commented.

“And snake-like,” Ladybug added. “Hey… is there such a thing as a mongoose miraculous? ‘Cause that might come in handy right about now.”

Chat narrowed his eyes. He knew Master Fu was training both him and Marinette when it came to the miracle box, but Marinette was getting a lot more information than he was. Fu clearly had something more planned for her than for him, but he couldn’t find it in himself to blame him. And his schedule was already so packed that he wouldn’t have been able to put in the time anyway. Later, maybe. After Hawk Moth was defeated.

“I don’t think so…” he said, “But there might be something else that could help…”

He stood and pulled out his baton. “I’m going to get some more help. Don’t attack her without me! I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

He knew how it was supposed to go. Ladybug used her lucky charm, which prompted her to go get another miraculous from Master Fu, which led to an additional superhero to their team for the fight. But the original Ladybug was out of commission, and Alya wasn’t supposed to know about Master Fu, so it was up to him. For once.

The trip didn’t take long, not running over the roofs, although he did take time to double back and go a roundabout way so as not to lead any potential followers or paparazzi straight to the Guardian. He wondered how Marinette usually handled it. Regardless, he could only take so many precautions before it became ridiculous and took too long. This akuma- while not causing much in the way of physical damage- needed to be stopped before she inflicted long-standing phobias on half the population of Paris.

Chat detransformed in an alleyway close to the massage parlor and did his best to change his look by taking off the white button-up he usually wore over a t-shirt and tying it around his waist. There wasn’t much else he could do, though he found himself wishing for a hat of some kind. Maybe he could start carrying around a beanie or something- something that could be shoved in a pocket until it was needed. He’d have to ask Marinette for ideas along that line.

Master Fu wasn’t with a client, which was fortunate since he couldn’t afford to wait around.

“What can I do for you, Adrien?”

“I think we need Viperion for this fight, Sifu.”

“Ah.”

Without another word, Master Fu flipped a decorative plate on the side of an old gramophone down, revealing two rows of non-descript brass buttons, flanked by carved dragon heads. He entered a sequence, too fast for Adrien to catch, and the dragon’s eyes glowed red. Then the top of the gramophone opened, revealing the miracle box inside.

Master Fu lifted it out and put it carefully on the mat before indicating Adrien should sit down beside him.

“This is a big responsibility, Chat Noir,” he said. “Normally I would only entrust Ladybug with something like this, but…”

“But.” Adrien nodded, agreeing with him.

“Are you sure of your choice?”

“Not entirely… it’s more of a hunch. The akuma has needle-headed tubes that act and react much like snakes, and so I thought… the miraculous of the snake has a lyre weapon. Even if the power of Second Chance isn’t needed, Viperion could use the lyre to mesmerize the needles and keep them from attacking us.”

Master Fu nodded. “A good idea, and not illogical. If nothing else, the power of Second Chance could avert disaster. Very well.”

Fu removed the snake’s bracelet and placed it in one of the hexagonal boxes before handing it to Adrien. “Make sure to get the miraculous back once the fight is over.”

Adrien nodded. “I will.”

And with that he left, having already wasted enough time. Does Marinette feel the same pressure when she does this? he wondered. I still have to find Luka and explain what we need. At least he’s fought with us before, so he’s not a total newbie. And he learns fast.

Chat Noir bounded over the rooftops towards the Seine, hoping Anarka hadn’t moved the boat to the other end of the city on a whim.

----

Giving Luka the miraculous had been a bit difficult. Chat had ended up hanging from the side of the ship and peering into portholes trying to locate him. Once he had, he’d had to nearly cataclysm the porthole to get the guy’s attention, since he’d been deep into some kind of composition and had tuned everything else out. Looking at the shattered porthole, Chat wondered if he shouldn’t have just asked Anarka to get Luka for him after all. But he figured that would have been tossing a few too many breadcrumbs her way.

Once Luka knew what was needed, he was more than willing to help, and Chat left him to make his own way to the battle, knowing he didn’t have to worry about Luka transforming before he’d come up with some excuse and left the houseboat as himself.

He was pleased to see, however, that Viperion was only about two minutes behind him as he rejoined the others.

Ladybug and Carapace had not been idle. They’d evacuated most of the people in and around the streets to rooftops, so at least there were fewer people bound to stretchers cluttering their battlefield. However, the akuma appeared to have taken to entering buildings to find her victims since the easy ones on the streets were denied her.

At least, that’s what Chat assumed, given that she came out of a small apartment building a few minutes after he and Viperion got there and the tanks on her back were now more than half full.

“Hey guys,” Viperion greeted them, as Ladybug and Carapace turned to face them, although he did do a double take when he glanced at Ladybug directly. He didn’t say anything, but he pursed his lips and gave Chat a look he couldn’t quite interpret.

The roof of the building they were on was thankfully free of civilians, so Chat felt perfectly comfortable coming up with a battleplan there.

“I brought Viperion because I thought his lyre might have some effect over the needles. If he can keep them distracted, maybe interfere with the akuma’s control over them, then Carapace can hold Shellter in reserve. And of course, the power of Second Chance can save all our butts if things go wrong.”

Ladybug and Carapace nodded. Viperion raised an eyebrow but again, didn’t comment beyond saying, “I’ve listened to a few snake-charming songs, but I don’t know how well a lyre would work with them. A flute or recorder would be better. I’d have suggested Rena Rouge,” he added, side-eyeing Ladybug. “But I don’t know if she can even play her flute without using her power of illusions. I’ll give it a shot, though.”

Chat shook his head. “Rena can’t use her flute as a flute without activating the illusion, and while that might be useful here- giving Blood Drive some fake targets to pursue- she’s not available right now.”

Viperion stared at him for a moment before nodding. “Alright. Well… what’s the rest of the plan?” He looked to Ladybug, who took a deep breath.

“Carapace and I have been watching her. She’s not actively malicious, like a lot of other akumas have been. She just wants to collect blood from people, and since her needle-things do that for her, she doesn’t have to get physical with anyone. That said, she still has the enhanced strength of any akuma. Case in point,” she said, pointing to the street where Blood Drive shoved two cars away from each other where they were blocking her path. She floated, sure, but apparently couldn’t float up and over things. Chat kept that in mind- if they could block her in… he focused back in on what Ladybug was saying.

“So we thought that we could try cutting the tubes. The only problem is getting close enough to do that without… you know. I don’t want to waste time slashing them one at a time- that would leave too many free to maneuver against us.”

Chat found himself nodding along. The real Ladybug and he didn’t usually take the time to talk a plan out like this. They communicated so well through body language and a few shouted phrases that they typically leapt straight into the fight without needing to coordinate very much. But this… this was useful. There had been times when one of them did the unexpected, or when what they did had unexpected consequences. There was definitely something to be said for running a plan past the people participating in it before jumping straight into it.

Of course, it meant the akuma was free to rampage for a lot longer than usual. That was never a good idea. Any akuma attack left people with scarred hearts or minds, or both, whether it caused a lot of physical damage or not. The psychiatric and therapeutic trades had grown exponentially within Paris since Hawkmoth had surfaced. Miraculous Ladybugs could cure physical damage and even bring people back to life, but it didn’t erase people memories as a general rule.

“What if you use your yo-yo to lasso a bunch of them together, and then I or Carapace can run in and sever them all at once?” he suggested. “I know they can extend and contract, so we should be able to pull them far enough out to make hits from the rest unlikely.”

They talked a little bit more about what they should do and when, but in the end they decided to go with that plan. Ladybug would lasso a lot of needle-tubes together and either he or Carapace would run in to de-head them. Viperion would meanwhile be trying to mesmerize the rest. Once all the tubes had been de-needled, Carapace and Chat would tackle the akuma herself and destroy both the tank and the clipboard, then work their way out from there if neither of those two yielded a butterfly.

“Second Chance… active,” Viperion said, sliding the snake-head on the bracelet all the way back. Chat shivered involuntarily, and he barely stopped his own hands mimicking the motion. He’d done that way too many times as Aspic. He shoved the thoughts to the back of his mind and hurled himself down to the street, followed first by Carapace, then Ladybug.

The familiar zing of the yo-yo went to work, corraling about a dozen of the needle tubes currently seeking new victims. Chat was closer, so he rushed in and slashed at the tubing with his claws. The tubes resisted- magic, of course- but eventually parted. Their needle heads fell to the ground, writhing. Chat leapt away, only to see Ladybug kneeling on the ground with a hand to her neck. A tube already filling with her blood trailed away from her hand…

“Second Chance!”

Chat leapt down to the street, followed by Carapace and then Ladybug. The familiar zing of her yo-yo was a mere counterpoint to the poignant melody flowing out onto the street. It was simple, but arresting nonetheless. Chat found himself slowing, following the melody with his mind, the urgency of the situation fading… a sharp prick on his neck was barely noticed…

“Second Chance!”

Chat leapt down to the street, followed by Carapace and then Ladybug. The familiar zing of her yo-yo was a mere counterpoint to the stirring melody flowing out onto the street. The tempo was energizing and he found himself able to anticipate the strikes of the needles and fend them off while Ladybug lassoed them and Carapace smashed them with the edge of his shield.

“Don’t cut the tubes!” Carapace called to him, just as Chat was about to sever one with his claws. “Crush the needle instead!”

“Got it!” Chat called back, using his baton to do just that. For a while he was busy, but then he danced away from the next attack only to find that it wasn’t coming. Blood Drive was tangled in Ladybug’s yo-yo, which was somehow protruding through Carapace’s force-field. Chat blinked. He hadn’t even heard the command, he’d been so focused on the fight. Then he realized that the music which had given him that focus was missing. He blinked twice and went back into action, snatching the clipboard from Blood Drive’s hand while she screamed at him about how the blood was needed. He quickly broke it over his knee, crushing the pen she’d used for good measure, then whipping out his baton as he somersaulted over her and smashed the tank on her back.

The purple butterfly finally made an appearance and Carapace let his force-field drop so Ladybug could capture and purify the akuma. At some point she must have used her Lucky Charm, because she threw a large mallet up into the air, calling for the miraculous ladybugs.

The streets were cleared, people released from stretchers, their blood supplies restored. The young woman fell to her knees in the street as Hawkmoth’s evil magic bubbled off her skin. Chat, as the only one who hadn’t used his power, approached her and knelt, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“It’s alright, miss. It’s over. You’re free.”

She looked up at him, eyes bleak. “But the children… there’s just not enough blood for all the surgeries they need.”

Chat felt his trademark grin soften into an understanding smile. As horrifying as her akuma powers were, here was a citizen who was desperate to help others for once, instead of focusing on her own wrongs.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Ladybug and I will both endorse a city-wide blood drive- this one completely voluntary. I bet we can get a lot more people to come out than a regular campaign could. Would that help?”

Her eyes closed on tears and she put her own hand over his, squeezing it. “So much. That would help so, so much. Thank you, Chat Noir.”

“Good. Now, I have to run- are you going to be okay to get back home? I don’t think you should go back to work today.”

“Yes… I’ll be fine. Thank you.”

Chat nodded once more before standing and vaulting up to the roofs again. Ladybug and Carapace were both gone, but Viperion was still there, snake miraculous beeping. Without saying anything Chat motioned for him to follow and headed back toward the river.

He chose an alleyway close to where Luka had met him- one with an odd jut in the side of a building that offered the ideal place to detransform. Viperion landed beside him just as his transformation failed. He smiled gently at Sass and offered him a small vial of some kind of liquid, which Sass greedily slurped down. Then Luka took off the bracelet and handed it back to Chat.

“Thanks, Luka,” Chat said, restoring the bracelet to the small black miraculous box. “Out of curiosity… how many times did we fail this time?”

“Only two.”

Chat nodded, heaving a sigh. “Good. Well…” he saluted and was about to head off, when Luka put a hand on his shoulder.

“I trust you Chat Noir. But… I hope Ladybug is okay.”

Chat froze. “What do you mean? We just fought an akuma with her. She’s fine.”

“That wasn’t the real Ladybug, though. I mean, she did fine, but… her heartsong isn’t right.”
Chat’s shoulder’s dropped. “I… I can’t tell you anything, you know. But… yes, Ladybug is alright. She’ll be back soon.”

Luka squeezed his shoulder and Chat looked back to see him smiling in relief. “I believe you. Your heartsong is full of hope and wonder. See you around, then… and thanks for calling on me!”

Chat stared after him, long after Luka had turned the corner and disappeared from sight. Then he shook his head and remembered he was supposed to be somewhere at that very moment- namely, in the back of his car, getting driven to the hospital by Gorilla.

He rushed back to where he vaguely remembered ditching the car, and detransformed in an alley. He cautiously poked his head out, trying to find his car in the steady stream of passing traffic.

Gorilla had pulled to the side of the road and put his flashers on. Adrien hurried over, just as Gorilla was getting out of the car to look for him. The man’s face brightened when he saw Adrien running toward him. Without really thinking about it, Adrien gave him a hug before backing off.

“Sorry,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I guess I’m just glad to see that you’re alright.”

The Gorilla looked surprised, but a pleased grunt escaped him, and he smiled as he held the back door open for Adrien to get in. It wasn’t that much farther to the hospital, and Adrien used the time to text Nathalie about his morning adventures as an akuma victim yet again. After responding to her worried reply that he was fine, as usual, the car stopped in front of the hospital.

Adrien got out and went inside while the Gorilla put his flashers on again. After all, the Dupain-Chengs should be just inside the doors waiting, right? Despite his faith in the ladybug cure, Adrien wiped suddenly sweaty hands on his jeans as he walked through the automatic lobby doors.

But the scene inside was reassuringly normal. Well… it being a hospital, there were nurses going around to every ordinary person, making sure they were alright after the akuma had attacked them, but everyone seemed to be back to normal even so. Adrien glanced around for Marinette and her parents, finding them seated in some chairs over to the right of the doors.

He went over, reminding himself not to tackle Marinette in a desperate hug. He was an ordinary boy who had also been caught up in the attack, and couldn’t have known that Marinette was also affected. There was no reason for him to go overboard in his greeting, no matter how much he needed to reassure himself that she was fine.

Fortunately for him, Marinette seemed to sense that he needed that reassurance, because as soon as he went over and said “Hi,” she pulled him into a firm hug. He allowed himself to relax into it, resting his head on hers.

“I’m okay,” she whispered.

“I’m glad,” he murmured back. “I’m okay, too.”

“Alright you two,” Tom Dupain said, grin evident in his tone of voice. “You can canoodle in the car.”

Marinette immediately let go of him, and Adrien let her pull away, noting the intense blush that rose (reassuringly) to her face. His own was heating up as well, but he politely greeted Tom and Sabine anyway, and led them out to his car.

The drive to the bakery was uneventful, though he and Marinette fought constant blushes as Tom and Sabine teased them mercilessly. Adrien insisted on carrying Marinette’s bag up the stairs himself, just so he could make sure Marinette could make it on her own. She was a little breathless by the time they reached the apartment, but it was encouraging. By that time it was time for lunch, and they invited him to stay.

Reluctantly, he had to tell them he couldn’t since he had something scheduled over his lunch-break that day. But he gave Marinette another hug and squeezed her hand before he left, promising himself that he would visit as Chat Noir that evening.

Chapter Text

When Adrien got back from the fitting he had scheduled during the school’s lunch-break, Alya and Nino were waiting for him by his locker, uncharacteristically subdued.

 

“Hey guys,” he greeted them. “Nino, did you get notes for me this morning?”

 

Nino frowned at him slightly, but nodded. Alya didn’t even look up, just hugged herself a little tighter.

 

“Guys?” Adrien asked, pausing in the act of pulling a book out to put in his bag.

 

“Adrien…” Alya started, before tapering off. “I… I need to ask you something.”

 

“O--kay? What is it?”

 

She closed her eyes and pushed her glasses up, frowning. “Does it bother you?”

 

“Um…” Adrien wasn’t quite sure what she was referring to. So much had already happened this morning…

 

“The-,” she huffed a breath, and shot him a glance. “When I run after the akumas for the LadyBlog. Does it bother you?”

 

“Alya, don’t avoid the issue,” Nino chided gently.

 

“It’s related ,” Alya insisted, still tense.

 

Adrien shut his mouth and took a moment to consider what she was asking. 

 

“A little, I guess? I mean, it’s not exactly safe, Alya. And whether there’s a miraculous ladybug cure or not, it doesn’t fix everything, and it doesn’t erase memories. Well, unless memories are the things the akuma targets, anyway,” he said sourly, remembering Oblivio. Which, now that he came to think of it, was kind of Alya’s fault. Her’s and Nino’s anyway. “And it can be distracting, knowing you’re on the edge of a fight.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, I’m concerned about any citizen on the edge of a battle, but somehow it’s worse when I know them personally?”

 

Alya nodded. “Ok. That’s fair. So… what about afterwards? I mean,” she said, starting to talk with her hands the way she usually did- a sure sign she was starting to relax. “I’ve kind of been obsessed with reliving the battles right? Showing the footage and making comments and just…” she looked at him again, worry in her expression. “Does that bother you?”

 

Adrien pursed his lips. “Maybe at first it did. And to be honest, it’d just be weird now , when you know. But… I don’t necessarily think you should stop.”

 

Alya and Nino both straightened up as Adrien finished loading and unloading books and closed his locker. When he turned to face them again, they both looked surprised.

 

“Come on, guys,” he said, willing them to understand. “It’s your thing , Alya. You run the LadyBlog. If you stopped ‘obsessing,’” he made the air quotes, “and doing replays, not only would it look odd, but people would begin to wonder why, and at least some of them would put two and two together and come up with four. And if we’re going to avoid being retired , we need to be prepared to put up with uncomfortable things to preserve our image.” And identities , was the unspoken add-on to that thought. “Besides,” he continued with a growing grin. “I think we could have a lot of fun with it, don’t you?” Adrien winked at them both and saw their responding grins as they followed his thought in the obvious directions.

 

“Have all the Agrestes possessed such devious minds?” Alya asked, as they headed towards their first class of the afternoon.

 

“I don’t know,” Adrien said, truthfully. “But I’ve had the benefit of an official image consultant since I was five. Trust me, I have lots of ideas on how to spin things. I still don’t always know what will work, though- I’m still kind of sheltered.”

 

Alya’s grin was positively wolfish. “Got ya covered there, partner. I look forward to working with you,” she said, as they entered the classroom. 

 

Nino pulled him aside and whispered, “Dude, you were supposed to discourage her . She can’t exactly run the LadyBlog if she’s a superhero herself, you know? And between you and me, I know which one she would prefer doing! And it’s a lot safer than running after akumas without magic jewelry!”

 

Adrien squeezed Nino’s shoulder comfortingly, but couldn’t say much since the teacher pushed past them at that moment, signaling the need to get to their seats. Once there, though, he opened up his notebook and wrote, If she quits cold turkey people will talk. This way we can ease her out of it and it’ll look like a natural loss of interest. If she starts other blogs too, that will also help. He pushed the notebook over a bit so Nino could see, glancing at him out of the corner of his eye while his best friend read it.

 

Like what? Nino wrote.

 

Adrien shrugged for answer. And then they both had to pay attention, since the teacher decided to inflict a pop quiz on the entire class.

 

----

 

Lila maintained her cheerful-yet-humble persona with a bit more effort than normal, wondering when the sabotage would be discovered. Dress rehearsal was a little less than a week away, and with the weekend starting tomorrow, it was unlikely that it would be discovered before the next Monday. The drama club would be finishing up with the sets and props that weekend, but the costumes had all been finished and wouldn’t be checked on unless someone had a reason to go into that particular space between then and now. 

 

She was actually hoping it would be discovered today so she would have a reason to attract a butterfly. She’d heard through the grapevine that Adrien had escorted Marinette home from the hospital this morning, and… well, it would be so satisfying if she could send her back. Or even ruin the party she was sure her former classmates had planned for her for the weekend. Really, her former class had been made up of such saps… no other classes at Francois Dupont were nearly that sentimental about each other. On the contrary, they displayed proper amounts of self-interest.

 

Ah well… if she had to wait for her retribution, so be it. But it would be nice if she could get there soon.

 

----

 

Adrien, unfortunately, had back to back fencing and photoshoots that evening after school, but he texted Marinette as soon as he arrived home from the latter.

 

[Adrien] Is it okay if I come see you tonight? *winking cat emoji*

 

Marinette’s reply was almost instantaneous.

 

[Marinette] Yes of course!

[Marinette] I want to see you

[Marinette] Not that I didn’t see you earlier…

[Marinette] But we didn’t get much time to talk

[Marinette] Unless you don’t want to talk?

[Marinette] I MEAN TALKING IS FINE *blushing emoji*

[Marinette] If I CAN talk around you…

[Marinette] Which I don’t promise

[Marinette] Ugh. Yes, please come over. *three blushing emojis*

 

Adrien laughed at the rapid fire replies, able to picture exactly how Marinette’s face would change expression with each reply until she was tomato-red and trying to hide behind her hands in embarrassment.

 

[Adrien] LOL

[Adrien] Ok, princess

[Adrien] I still have to eat dinner- it’s expected- but I’ll be over as soon as I can 

[Adrien] We can talk… 

[Adrien] Or whatever… *winky cat face*

 

Adrien grinned wider when it took several minutes for Marinette to reply. Even though he didn’t really intend to kiss her that night, he enjoyed teasing her. It was a little bit of Chat Noir peeking through Adrien’s solid “gentleman” facade. Not that he wasn’t really a gentleman, he’d never do anything to upset a lady, much less his Lady. But… it was fun to see the blush rise and know it was his doing. After five minutes he finally got a reply that made him grin even more.

 

[Marinette] … okay

 

He headed to the dining room for dinner chuckling to himself, leaving Plagg to wolf down three entire wheels of camembert- a just reward for all his hard work that morning, as well as a not so subtle bribe for a further transformation that evening.

 

----

 

Chat Noir landed gracefully on the railing of Marinette’s balcony, only to see her already curled up in her deck chair, wrapped in an afghan and sketching with a charcoal pencil. He could tell it was charcoal because she had smudges on her nose and cheek that just begged to be rubbed away. He briefly noticed and dismissed the evidence of snacks to come on the small table at her side- a plate of pastries, as well as a teapot on a warmer and two mugs- before focusing his whole attention on her again. She’d unplugged the string of lights she had up here, leaving the scene bathed in moonlight.

 

She looked up at him, a shy smile on her face. “Hey, kitty.”

 

Chat smiled at her, suddenly feeling shy himself. He was suddenly unsure of how to act around her now. He thought she’d figured him out by now- her greeting seemed to indicate that- but he wasn’t quite sure, and without asking he would never know until she called Chat Noir Adrien, or vice versa. So did he approach her as Chat Noir, with all the usual bravado and flirting, or as Adrien, more reserved, but sweet and considerate?

 

“Hey, princess.”

 

To his surprise a sly smirk crossed her lips. “Would you please stop calling me that?” she asked, a hint of irritation in her tone, which was wholly contradicted by her expression. She almost looked… smug. He wracked his brain for an explanation and couldn’t come up with anything. Anything at all.

 

“Of course... Marinette?”

 

She scoffed, but still smiled. “You make it so difficult sometimes,” she pouted.

 

Chat’s eyes narrowed. Something about that rang bells in his mind… it was almost like she was… quoting. He felt his cat ears come up as he came upon a possible answer. Testing the waters, he cocked his head to the side and said, “I do, I really do. You could be a little nicer, though. Come on, admit it- sometimes you think I’m alright.”

 

Marinette’s smirk widened and she carefully put down the sketchbook and unwrapped the afghan, getting up. “Occasionally, maybe… when you’re not acting like a scoundrel.”

 

Chat’s heart leapt, and a gleeful grin appeared on his face. He stepped down from the railing and advanced on her slowly. “Scoundrel?” he said, “ Scoundrel? I like the sound of that…” He stopped right in front of her, bending slightly to smirk at her. She smirked right back, and for a moment he was at a loss, heart pounding and not quite sure how to proceed despite her subtle encouragement. His eyes lingered on the charcoal smudge on her cheek and before he knew what he was doing, he was wiping it lightly away with his thumb.

 

“Stop that,” Marinette whispered, and his heart leapt again as he realized she’d planned this. He knew how this scene ended and… his breath came faster.

 

“Stop what?” he replied, thumb still caressing her cheek. Marinette shivered, but not from cold. No, not from cold. She wanted what was coming.

 

“Stop that,” she said again, swallowing. “My face is dirty.”

 

“My face is dirty, too,” Chat replied, although it wasn’t. “What are you afraid of?” he murmured. Her gaze softened as she looked into his eyes and he realized… she was afraid, a little. He was too. They both wanted this, but he’d known it was going to be awkward, and she… she had planned this, this little back and forth, a script they both knew by heart, to smooth the experience for them both.

 

“Afraid?” Marinette said, following the script, and her shivering intensified. 

 

“You’re trembling,” he said, moving closer and gently wrapping an arm around her waist. His right hand stayed on her cheek, gently caressing, even as her own hands rose to rest on his chest.

 

“I’m not trembling,” she breathed, eyes flicking between his lips and his eyes.

 

“You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There are no scoundrels in your life,” he quoted, relishing the fact that she wanted him to kiss her, drawing it out a little longer.

 

“I happen to like nice men,” she said, voice a little firmer, eyes glowing with amusement and anticipation.

 

“Claws in,” he whispered, waiting for the detransformation to finish before asking, “How nice?”

 

“Very ni-”

 

His lips cut her off before she could finish. It would have been a perfect moment… except that it was cut short by a certain incorrigible kwami demanding smelly cheese.

 

----

 

It hadn’t been a perfect kiss. No first kiss ever is, really. But it didn’t stay the first kiss for long, as Adrien hurled a chunk of camembert off the balcony to get rid of the pest. They both adjusted their angles and positions, and there was plenty of desire on both parts. Neither of them pushed boundaries, though. No, they gently explored what kissing was, and in the process discovered what it could be, with more practice. Practice they both agreed they were willing to commit to.

Chapter Text

A little while later, when Adrien was sitting in her deck chair with Marinette comfortably nestled in his lap, Marinette sighed into the curve of his neck, sending shivers up Adrien’s spine. He hugged her a little tighter and pressed a kiss to her forehead.

 

“I like kissing you,” Marinette murmured, pressing her face a little further into his chest. His incredibly warm and comfortable chest.

 

“Mmmm… I like you kissing me, too,” Adrien said, and darn it if she couldn’t hear the smirk in his voice. But it wasn’t worth pulling back to smack him, so she just pressed herself a little closer.

 

“If I’d known sharing our identities would lead to this, I would have done it a lot sooner,” Marinette said, not sure if she should open that can of worms just yet, but feeling like it needed to be said.

 

“I did tell you that you wouldn’t be able to resist my charms outside the mask,” Adrien replied. Marinette grumbled.

 

“Are you trying to make me mad at you right now?”

 

He chuckled- a low, delicious sound when heard more through his chest than his throat. “No, Princess, I’m not trying to make you mad. I’m just so happy that Chat Noir is coming through pretty strongly right now.”

 

“Hm…” Marinette sighed. “That’s one of the things we need to talk about, actually.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“The nicknames.”

 

He was silent a moment. “You don’t like them?”

 

“It’s not that… but you need to compartmentalize them now. You can’t call Ladybug anything that references Marinette, and you definitely can’t call Marinette anything Ladybug-ish. So no Bugginettes, no Princess, definitely no My Lady’s. Ok?”

 

He made a mew of disappointment. “But what can I call you then? Marinette-you, I mean.”

 

“I don’t know… can’t you come up with anything that isn’t related to the fact I’m a superhero?”

 

“Hm… what about Everyday Ladybug? I called you that at the picnic, and... wow- the irony of that just  hit me again, howcouldIbesoBLIND. ... Anyway, no one seemed to bat an eye at that.”

 

“Eh, a little too close to the truth, don’t you think?”

 

“Ok.” He sighed, relaxing his hold on her a little and letting his head fall back. He stayed quiet and after a while Marinette whispered, “Adrien? Did you fall asleep?”

 

“No,” he said, but his voice had a lazy, sleepy quality to it that was incredibly attractive. “I’ve been trying to come up with nicknames that express how amazing you are. But… everytime I think I’m getting somewhere, it goes weird.”

 

“Weird?”

 

“Yeah,” he sighed, shifting slightly and adjusting his hold on her. “Like… your bluebell eyes turn into actual bluebells, which is… slightly concerning, actually. And then your hair turns to moonlight silk and wraps me up in a little coccoon…” Adrien’s voice trailed off in a soft sigh.

 

Marinette giggled. “I think it’s probably time for you to go home, kitty.” She winced as she realized she’d have to find new nicknames for her golden boy, too.

 

He didn’t respond.

 

Marinette giggled again and tried to pull away. He wrapped his arms tighter around her, but she’d gained enough distance to see his eyes were closed and his head lolled gently against the chairback. She tried poking him, but he just flailed one hand and mumbled something about Plagg. 

 

Feeling daring, Marinette placed a gentle kiss at the base of his throat. “Adrien,” she murmured. His breath hitched a bit, but otherwise he didn’t respond. She kissed his neck again, a bit higher. This time he tensed and held her tighter. Encouraged, she kissed him again, higher still. He gasped, and it sent a delicious thrill through Marinette. She kept kissing him until he suddenly moaned and sat up, pulling her to him. And then his mouth was on hers and it wasn’t gentle like before. It was hot and needy, and even though it was still awkward, it did something to Marinette as well, until she was returning his kisses with interest. He switched to kissing her neck, working his way down to her collarbones and Marinette couldn’t help but gasp, tangling her fingers in his hair.

 

That was when he stopped. Breathing heavily, he shifted his hold until he could rest his forehead against hers.

 

“M-Marinette…” he whispered. “That… when we get married, can we do that again?”

 

Breathless herself, Marinette simply nodded, before giggling. “Don’t you think we could do it again before then? That’s at least, oh, five years away?”

 

He let out a shaky chuckle. “Well… the thing is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop next time.”

 

“Mmmm… interesting,” Marinette mused, feeling oddly pleased with her power over him. “But I think I cheated this time… you were asleep, Adrien, and not exactly in control.”

 

He let out a long breath. “Well, if that’s how you intend to wake me up, I’ll have to fall asleep with you more often.”

 

Marinette smiled before kissing his cheek softly. “It’s late…”

 

“And you need to sleep, too,” he finished, finally opening his eyes.

 

Marinette stood up so he could lever himself out of the chair. Then he pulled her close, one hand on her waist and the other cupping her cheek. “Marinette,” he said, “I love you. I’ve loved you from the first day we met, even though I didn’t know it was you. And I’ve learned to love you slowly over time, too. I love all of you, and… please make me the happiest guy in Paris? Be my girlfriend?”

 

Marinette smiled up at him. “I love you, Adrien. I love the sweet, gentle boy I fell hopelessly in love with, and I love the silly, flirty cat who always has my back. I’ve been a fool too long- of course I’ll be your girlfriend, but only if you’ll be my boyfriend and make me the happiest girl in Paris.”

 

She could barely see him smile before he placed a lingering, gentle kiss on her lips. “I think I can agree to that.”

 

He pulled reluctantly away, and was about to climb up on the railing before Marinette stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Um, Adrien? Don’t you think you should transform first?”

 

Marinette had to stifle giggles as he cursed softly to himself. Then he called for his transformation and blew her a kiss before leaping away into the night. Marinette watched until he was out of sight before finally climbing down into her room and rolling herself into her covers to sleep. She dreamed of showers of sun-dappled flower petals that turned to kisses on her cheeks.

 

-----

 

The party next day was a huge success. The Dupain-Cheng’s apartment was small, but the whole class managed to crowd in anyway, although Kitty Section was reduced to blasting their new song through the TV speakers instead of performing it live. No one minded. 

 

Alya took the opportunity to leave a certain box on Marinette’s bed as well. She wanted her friend to have Tikki back, whether more akumas were going to show up or not. If an akuma showed, and Marinette still didn’t feel up to fighting, she could always come for the earrings before joining Chat Noir. But Marinette needed her best friend back- something Alya discovered Tikki had become. She wasn’t jealous- she’d been reveling in having Trixx full-time, honestly, and kwamis were so different from humans that it was impossible to be jealous of them.

 

Everyone wanted to know when Marinette was going to come back to school.

 

“This next week,” she said. “But Maman and Papa don’t think I should go until at least Wednesday.” She glanced around, trying to gauge her classmates reactions to that, but she needn’t have worried. There were smiles all around. All of them came up to her at one point or another to apologize for not believing her about Lila and her lies.

 

Marinette learned that Lila was going to be starring in the upcoming play the drama club had been rehearsing.

 

“It’s opening Thursday night. We were all going to go… sure, she’s a liar, but that’s no reason not to support the rest of the club, right?”

 

Marinette didn’t know how she should feel about going to see a play starring Lila. On one hand, Lila Rossi. In a lead role that couldn’t be ignored. On the other, everyone else would have worked hard on this, and if Marinette hadn’t been hospital bound, she probably would have offered to help with the costumes. As it was, she gave a non-committal answer, simply saying that she’d see how she felt when the time came.

 

----

 

The costume sabotage was discovered Monday afternoon after classes had ended, when the club member in charge of costumes wanted to check and see how something fit one of the other cast members. 

 

Lila was helping the lighting technician at that point, offering useless and sometimes completely ignorant advice on how to get the best mix to create a certain mood, though she left out the usual boasts of how she knew so-and-so who had done the lighting for a Broadway show. When anguished screams broke out, she suppressed a smirk and followed the others to find out what was going on.

 

Somewhat to her surprise, she didn’t need to fake her reaction to the tattered remnants of her once-beautiful costumes. The damaged looked much worse in the daylight, and tears sprang to her eyes as she lamented not ever being able to wear them. But however unexpectedly genuine her own reaction, it was nothing to the guilt and fear the costume director felt at that moment, and so it wasn’t Lila Rossi who became akumatized into the Costumier. In fact, when she saw the little purple butterfly, she ran in the other direction, just like everyone else.

 

It was no part of her plan to be akumatized before all her victims were in reach. And she’d ensured that they would be. She’d been extra sweet to them all, apologizing for pulling the wool over their eyes so thoroughly, and playing on their misguided loyalty to their schoolmates to get them to agree to attend the opening night of the play.

 

“Please come! It would mean so much to them all, and they’ve been so kind to me. You know hardly anyone comes to see these high school plays except for parents and sibs, so I know it would just make their whole night, and really set a good tone for the rest of the peformances!”

 

And they’d agreed. Reluctantly, on the parts of some, and with relief on others. Lila briefly wondered if it would be worth it to abandon her plan when she saw how easily she could still influence even classmates who knew she was a liar. But then she caught sight of Ms. Baccaro coming out of the science lab, and her resolve hardened. With her truancy issues, it was highly unlikely that she’d be allowed to stay at Francois Dupont, and why bother when she would get no benefit from their renewed regard?

 

So she set the other part of her plan in motion, constructing her own subtle emotional stage even as a real one was trimmed and set. And on Thursday night she looked out from behind the stage curtain and smiled to see her former classmates sitting in the seats she’d reserved for them, noting even Marinette’s conflicted face among them. She melted back into the chaos backstage, making sure to look listless and sad so anyone noticing her would get the right impression.

 

Both of her stages were set. Now to raise the curtain.

Chapter Text

Lila had done her work well. Her understudy, Aurilie Beauchamp, was competent enough, but she lacked that spark, that sizzle, that made everyone stop and pay attention whenever Lila was onstage. Lila made sure to spend time with her privately, reassuring her that it would be fine, and no one would even notice the difference on the surface, while also planting several subtle barbs as to the probable success of the play now that Lila wouldn’t be performing. Well, maybe not so subtle- Aurilie was another teenage girl, after all, and sometimes they could be a bit dense. When she hadn’t reacted to Lila’s more subtle undermining, Lila had had to come out and say that it was a shame she didn’t have the presence that Lila herself possessed in spades.

 

As for the rest of the crew, Lila had been very vocal in her support of Aurilie, mentioning that she’d spent extra time with her to make sure she knew all the cues and staging perfectly. Of course, that was a lie, since Lila had done nothing of the sort. In fact, she’d purposely taught Aurilie cues that were slightly wrong, and staging that was off just enough to make Aurilie self-conscious and her cast mates irritated with her. It was a simple matter of misdirection and “reminding” Aurilie that the director had changed this or that from a previous rehearsal.

 

Not to mention that she’d done a little sabotage to Aurilie’s costumes, too. Much more subtle than the ruining of her own, she had loosened and weakened seams here and there. There was a particular scene where her co-star was supposed to pull the girl back by the sleeve of her costume. Well… it was definitely going to be a spectacle now, Lila thought as she took a seat backstage to watch the action unfold.

 

----

 

Marinette sat next to Adrien and fidgeted. She reached up and twisted the miraculous earrings, trying not to seem nervous. Adrien caught her hand and kissed it, giving her a reassuring smile.

 

“You ok?”

 

“No,” Marinette admitted. “I don’t know why… well that’s wrong, I know why, but something is going to go very wrong tonight. I just… I can’t see Lila sitting back and just watching while everyone else has a successful performance. She had to have some reason for inviting us all to come watch…” she looked down at her lap. “It feels like I’m sitting in a car on top of the railroad tracks and there’s a train coming, but I’m not doing anything about it.”

 

“Hey,” Adrien said, wrapping his arm around her and giving her a squeeze. “I know the feeling. But we can’t exactly transform and take Lila out of the situation before it blows up. And it makes it all the more important that we’re here close-by, where we can contain the situation immediately.”

 

Marinette squirmed. “But… why would she sabotage her own costumes? Everyone says she’s been really good in rehearsals and she was looking forward to performing!”

 

“So you’re not buying the story of a vengeful former classmate?” Adrien asked dryly.

 

Marinette snorted. “Not a chance. She did it herself, I just can’t figure out why . You would think that a girl so focused on remaining in the spotlight wouldn’t give up the opportunity to actually be in a spotlight.”

 

She felt Adrien shrug, and took the opportunity to press a little closer into his side. Luckily, they weren’t in a regular auditorium where the seats would have permanent armrests between them. Instead, a stage had been constructed in the open courtyard and there were rows and rows of armless chairs that had been brought in for the occasion. So it was actually possible to snuggle close without getting bruised ribs in the process. And even with her jitters, Marinette felt so much better when she was physically close to Adrien.

 

In a lot of ways, she still hadn’t quite wrapped her mind around the fact that her kitty and her crush were one and the same, and that both had somehow morphed into her boyfriend. Her boyfriend. The words still caused a tingle to shoot up her spine, and she had to smile. The lights went down then and the curtain rose on the first act. 

 

It was a pretty good play… or would have been if the mistakes weren’t quite so obvious. The leading lady and the leading man had no on-stage chemistry, and since Marinette was sitting so close, it was easy to see the carefully masked irritation on his face when his cast mate fumbled a line or didn’t stand in quite the right place. He was constantly cueing her and subtly trying to get her to hit the right spot, and everytime he did, she wilted a little further. By the end of the first act, she was acting mechanically, injecting no emotion at all into her performance, and as the curtain came down, Marinette caught the exasperated expression on her co-star’s face.

 

“Poor girl,” Marinette said quietly. It was obvious what had happened, of course. Lila, denied the spotlight herself, had made sure the other girl wouldn’t be getting good reviews.

 

Adrien squeezed her shoulder. “It’s not quite a cat -astrophic purr- formance, BB. Just not a purr -ticularly good one. Maybe the second half will be alright, and we won’t need to worry?”

 

Marinette rolled her eyes. Now that she was back in school and had resumed her Ladybug responsibilities, Adrien had started up with the puns again. And she wasn’t quite sure how she felt about the new nickname. BB- for Blue eyes, Black hair. It felt... forced. My Lady, Bugaboo, and even Princess all had a history to them that made them natural- but only coming from Chat Noir. And maybe that was the problem. Adrien had never given Marinette a nickname before, certainly not one tied to any notable event. Maybe something would happen to them as a couple soon, and that would give rise to a nickname that felt natural.

 

----

 

Backstage, Lila looked on in sympathy as Aurilie was quietly but fiercely lambasted by both her co-star and the play director. She looked up at the sky, expecting the flap of purple wings any second as Aurilie tried and failed to keep her composure. But nothing came, and Aurilie pulled herself together in time for the beginning of the second act. But honestly, this was why Lila went to all the trouble of sabotaging her costumes, too. That scene happened fairly quickly in the second act, and with the groundwork done on Aurilie’s emotional state, surely a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ would push her over the edge. Lila got up and found an unobtrusive position near the women’s dressing rooms. She was sure Aurilie would run straight there after the disaster, and Lila needed to be ready.”

 

----

 

Marinette watched in horror as the male lead grasped his co-star’s sleeve and pulled. It was obvious that it was supposed to be a gentle pull, scripted and meant to be full of tender emotion… but she could literally hear the distinctive sound of fabric tearing apart. The sleeve came off, and the weakened seam on the side of the dress parted, and the young lady was left standing center stage in nothing but a bra and short slip. For a moment she stood frozen, eyes wide with shock, unknowingly matching the expression on her co-star’s face for the first time that evening. Then, even as his expression morphed through horror and chagrin, she bolted .

 

Some quick-thinking stage-hand brought the curtain down swiftly and the audience descended into shocked and sympathetic whispers.

 

Marinette shared a look with Adrien before both of them gathered their things and began to make a quiet exit. If that didn’t result in an akuma, Marinette was going to buy out a flower shop and send it to that poor girl as acknowledgment of her vast mental and emotional fortitude. Right after she bought out a prank store and used every last item on Lila Rossi somehow.

 

----

 

Lila smiled as the purple butterfly came into view. Aurilie had run past everyone, tears streaming down her face and shut herself into the women’s dressing room, just as Lila had predicted. There was no doubt who the akuma was coming for. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for Hawkmoth, Lila wasn’t going to let it pass her by. She reached out and caged it with her fingers before bringing it to rest on the pendant of a long necklace.

 

She felt Hawkmoth’s awareness… and surprise. But since she didn’t want to be overheard, she ducked into the unused dressing room.

 

“Leading Lady-” the voice in her head began, before Lila cut it off.

 

“Shut up, Hawkmoth, everyone knows what you want. Well, I can get it for you. All you have to do is maybe change the powers you’re willing to grant me a little.”

 

There was a pause. A long pause. Lila wasn’t too proud to admit that she was beginning to sweat before Hawkmoth finally replied.

 

“... I’m listening…”

Chapter Text

Adrien and Marinette had managed to get halfway across the empty courtyard to the locker room, both intending to transform there, when they suddenly felt pressure from all sides that prevented further movement. For lack of a better analogy, it was like trying to walk on the bottom of a pool filled with jello. Fortunately, it didn’t affect their ability to breathe at all, just large movements.

 

“I am The Mary Sue!” a loud voice proclaimed from the direction of the stage. “All shall bow down and worship me, for I am Special, Unique, and Worthy of Adoration!”

 

Adrien couldn’t suppress a sudden snort. If the pressure had let him, he would have collapsed laughing. Giggles from beside him told him Marinette wasn’t fairing much better. He wished he could turn his head to see her expression.

 

“Really, Hawkmoth?” he murmured through an irrepressible grin. “She’s not going to thank you for that.

 

Another snorting giggle from Marinette had him trying to force his head around just so he could see her face. He was sure it was adorable.

 

“All joking aside, kitty,” Marinette said, laughter still coloring her tone, “we are a bit stuck. Ladybug and Chat Noir can’t show up to fight if they can’t get away to transform.”

 

“Yeah, but maybe we can use the time to brainstorm ideas on how to stop her? Like, maybe we could sic Max and his statistics on her. Or defeat her pretensions with pure logic?”

 

“Unlikely. Akumas are magic and regularly defy reality… unfortunately,” Marinette’s tone turned serious. “Honestly, now that I think about it… this akuma could be the worst we’ve ever faced.”

 

Adrien frowned, trying to work out where his lady was coming from. And then it hit him. “Oh. OH. ” The realization wiped away any inclination to joke. “ Crap.

 

“Exactly.”

 

“It’s so nice of you all to come just to see little old me,” the akuma’s voice echoed again through the courtyard. “But… where are Adrien and Marinette?” A moment’s pause, and then, “Tsk, tsk. It’s not nice to sneak away from a party without thanking the hostess…”

 

The pressure around Adrien shifted, shoving at his arms and legs- his whole body, in fact- until he’d been turned around by the outside force. He tried resisting, he really did, but the magic- it had to be magic- just shoved harder, and he was going to be covered in bruises if he didn’t stop trying to resist.

 

“Stop fighting it, Adrien,” Marinette hissed. “We’re not getting away anytime soon, so there’s no point in exhausting ourselves now.”

 

He could see her now, at least the back of her, as they both began being walked back to the similarly frozen crowd still in the seats. And they were definitely being walked, the pressures shifting around them to force their legs and feet forward. Adrien was off balance until he got the bright idea to relax into the solidified air and let it support him while also doing all the work. After that, it went smoothly. Soon they’d been walked all the way back to the seats, but instead of having them take their seats again, the akuma brought them up the side stairs onto the stage itself. Adrien gulped, but tried to keep his expression neutral. This could not be good.

 

He finally got a glimpse of the akuma itself, and if he hadn’t been thoroughly freaked out about her possible power set by now he would have burst out laughing again.

 

It was clearly an akumatized Lila, but she had unicorn hair, pupil-less eyes that glinted like a field of stars, and was wearing Hawkmoth’s version of a magical girl costume. The fairy wings on the back are a nice touch, he thought.

 

“Now that our star players are back with us, I do need to do something for my benefactor… so, everyone, remove all your jewelry, and then we can get back to the main attraction- me!” Lila flashed a blinding smile at everyone, and if Adrien hadn’t been terrified before, he was now.

 

That smile seemed to be a different kind of power than the physical pressure which had brought him and Marinette back. Without even realizing it, Adrien took off the kwagatama on the long cord around his neck, then his watch, and was reaching for Plagg’s ring before could stop himself. Once again he tried to resist, glancing down to see Plagg staring up at him from inside his shirt, frantically shaking his little head… but once again he was powerless to resist. His fingers wouldn’t obey him at all, and the ring dropped to the stage floor with a metallic ping.

 

Breathing hard, he glanced over to Marinette who was slowly, ever so slowly, removing her earrings, a blank expression on her face. On the stage in front of her lay her own kwagatama- red, to his black- and the bracelet she’d been wearing. The earrings dropped from her fingers… and didn’t hit the stage. A red blur, so fast Adrien almost wasn’t sure he’d seen it at all, swooped across the stage and caught the earrings before they hit the floor, carrying them off. He dropped his gaze to the floor at his own feet- all the control he currently had over his actions- and the ring had disappeared. And Plagg wasn’t looking up at him anymore- he was gone.

 

Adrien breathed a little easier then, even though the fact that he and Marinette were now basically defenseless wasn’t an improvement to the situation. But at least Hawkmoth wouldn’t be getting their miraculouses along with a load of other jewelry before the night was over.

 

Lila floated up, striking a pose- somehow she’d grown more attractive- and said, in a voice ringing with musical overtones, “There. Now that that’s done, I want to share the story of my life with you all. I’m sure you’ll all be very impressed, it’s quite the history!”

 

Adrien found himself talking before he was aware. “Yes, Lila, why don’t you tell us? You’ve done so many amazing things! I can’t believe that I, Adrien Agreste, actually got to model with you once! It’s an experience I’ll never forget!” Adrien could have gagged at the tone of happy enthusiasm he heard coming out of his own mouth.

 

The crowd, meanwhile, voiced their own enthusiasm, and Lila launched into a tale that was so ridiculous Adrien couldn’t help wondering where Lila came up with it all.

 

Oddly enough, Marinette hadn’t said anything yet. She remained silent, face blank, until Lila got to the part where she claimed to be descended from superheroes.

 

“That’s a lie!” Marinette shouted, pointing dramatically. 

 

“Why, Marinette,” Lila cooed sweetly. “Don’t you believe me? I can prove it, you know.” And with that, her whole outfit changed until she was floating before them as Volpina once more. Adrien tried to figure out if it was illusion, another one of her powers, or if Hawkmoth had actually turned her into Volpina again. But there hadn’t been the purple-black roil of magic, so that argued for one of the first two options. Neither of them were good options, though.

 

Marinette’s face contorted into a scowl that the real Marinette likely wouldn’t ever have worn. “I don’t want to believe you! I’m jealous of all the attention you’re getting because you are the new girl and your life has been so amazing, whereas I am nothing special, and I’ll never get the attention of the guy I like! After all, how could he look at me when you’re around?”

 

Adrien would have goggled at her if he’d been allowed to. Then it hit him- she was being controlled, too. For a moment, when she’d accused Lila of lying, he’d hoped she’d managed to break free of whatever this was. But clearly she hadn’t… and that scared him. Adrien knew Lila hated Marinette. Why was she forcing them through this… charade?

 

To his endless frustration, he felt his face crumple into a disapproving frown, and heard angry muttering from the crowd down below. 

 

“You shouldn’t be jealous of Mary Sue, Marinette,” he heard himself say. “After all, no one could possibly be as cool as she is. I’m so glad she picked me.” And he turned a beaming face toward Lila, as his body moved forward, meeting Lila as she came down to rest on the stage itself. “Ladybug doesn’t hold a candle to you, Mary Sue, and for sure Marinette never could,” his voice said, soft and low.

 

Internally, he was trying not to gag. UGH. Plagg was right- we should have cataclysmed that girl when we had the chance!

 

“That’s right!” Someone shouted from the audience, and Adrien winced internally when he recognized Alya’s voice. “I can’t believe you, Marinette! How could you hold on to that ridiculous crush of yours when Adrien is clearly happier with Mary Sue? She’s done so many cool and amazing things- she’s even Ladybug’s best friend! How could you ever compare to that?”

 

“Yeah dudette, just give up already. My man’s gonna be the happiest boy on the block with Mary Sue on his arm. In fact, I don’t think I want to be friends with someone who could be so jealous, even though we’ve known each other since we started school.”

 

More voices joined the verbal onslaught, each deriding Marinette for ever thinking she was good enough for Adrien, and admonishing her for her jealousy of Lila. And all the while Adrien stood there, gazing worshipfully- he was sure that was the expression on his face, just by the way it felt - at Lila and clasping her hand tightly in his own. He was going to scrub himself down with acid when this was all over...

 

Meanwhile, Lila’s face filled with self-satisfaction as she watched it all play out, her own sick fantasy brought to life. Adrien knew she was acting out what she’d threatened Marinette with months ago- that she’d take away all her friends and be left all alone, and that he himself would soon be hers.

 

It made him sick, but his body wasn’t allowed to purge itself, so instead his throat burned with bile he continually had to swallow back down. He couldn’t even imagine what all this was doing to Marinette. Hopefully it wasn’t hitting her too hard. She had to know it was all forced… right? That he would never do something like this to her? That none of her friends would?

 

But they had, hadn’t they? And he had, when he didn’t support her enough against Lila in the first place. He’d chosen Lila over Marinette when he told her to take the high road, and he still hadn’t quite forgiven himself for that. This had to be bringing all that back to the surface of her mind, even if she had made a good start on forgiving everyone.

 

Finally, finally, the last censorious shout died down, and he was allowed to turn and face his girlfriend. Marinette’s face was blank, but her eyes gleamed. Adrien wasn’t sure if it was tears or rage he saw in her eyes, but either way, his heart ached for her. More than anything he wanted to rush to her side and tell her it was nothing but more of Lila’s lies, that he would never, ever, do or say anything like that.

 

“Well, Marinette?” Lila asked, still sweetly. “I’m willing to forgive you for your jealousy if you admit that you were wrong about me lying.”

 

For a moment Marinette’s eyes closed, and Adrien could see the strain then. Her mouth opened and worked a couple of times before anything came out. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lila’s smile tighten and the hand he wasn’t holding clenched into a fist. He would have smirked if he could- Marinette was fighting hard, and Lila was clearly trying to overpower Marinette’s formidable will.

 

“I-I… w- wasn - was… w-w-w-w-wrong,” Marinette said through clenched teeth. Her eyes flew open again. Her chest heaved with effort, and Adrien silently willed her some of his own useless strength. 

 

N-n … I’m p-... pathetic. An-and n- no - not w-worthy. M-mary S-s-sue should di- ... I s-should p-... p-p-put… m-myself…” Marinette’s gasping breaths echoed in the eerie silence that had fallen over the courtyard. Adrien prayed- something he’d never done before, never having felt the need. She was fighting so hard…

 

Lila forced some more words out of her unwilling mouth. “O-out of… m-m… n- no! ... m-my mis-... misery!”

 

“Oh no!” Lila said with false sympathy. “I couldn’t ask you to do that, not for me!”

 

But approving shouts came from the audience and Adrien found his head nodding, smile never wavering on his face. Horrified, he threw his will into the fight again, trying to wrest control away from Lila. He fought to open his mouth, to deny everything, to shout encouragement, something… but it was useless. The pressure returned, holding him in place, and this time it entered his mouth, stilled his tongue, and paralyzed his vocal chords as well.

 

“Well…” Lila’s voice sounded unsure, “If you all insist, I won’t stop her. If that’s what she truly wants, who am I to stand in her way?”

 

Marinette’s arm jerked up and something appeared in her hand, something that glinted under the stage lights. Another wave of horror swept over Adrien as he recognized that it was a knife- and she was holding it with the blade facing her .

 

Marinette stood there for what seemed like forever as her arm shook and wavered, making jerky motions toward herself. Finally, Lila growled softly, and Marinette’s arm jerked again, this time successfully. Her own hand buried the knife in her stomach, up to the hilt. Then her hand jerked again, apparently twisting the knife, dragging it sideways, leaving a rapidly spreading red stain behind. The blood stain grew, dripping down her shirt, staining her skirt, while Marinette swayed on her feet, face once again blank… and growing pale.

 

Adrien couldn’t think, couldn’t fight… he would have fallen, except the pressure kept him all unwillingly on his feet, smile firmly fixed in place. He couldn’t lose her now, he couldn’t… not after everything they’d already been through…! He grew lightheaded, breathing shallowly, heart frantically pounding in his chest.

 

Marinette sagged and slumped face down on the stage, the pool of blood spreading out around her body. Then she went completely limp and Adrien nearly passed out himself, screaming internally but still unable to break free. He hardly realized it when his body began moving again, escorting Lila off the stage and down into the audience.

 

When he finally came back to himself he realized the pressure on him had gone. Without thinking, he moved his head, looking for Marinette- but the stage curtain had come down, shielding her from anyone’s gaze. 

 

Adrien found he couldn’t feel anything, anything at all. Shock, he realized, yet the knowledge did nothing. He stopped fighting- what was the point?- and stopped paying attention, either. Lila would do what she wanted. Tikki and Plagg would find someone else to stand in for Ladybug and Chat Noir, there was nothing more he could do. Dimly, he realized he was holding something and looked down to see… another knife. 

 

Oh.

 

She was going to kill him, too.

 

That was alright. Then he would be with Marinette again, his Lady, his wonderful Princess.

 

He didn’t fight the compulsion to plunge it into his belly. He wasn’t even surprised he couldn’t feel the penetration as the blood welled up around the wound, soaking his shirt and dripping, dripping… just like Marinette. His knees sagged and he fell on his face, and that he felt- the rough concrete of the courtyard left him with scratches over his nose, cheek, and chin.

 

The knife handle dug uncomfortably into his stomach. He closed his eyes and listened, while the voices drew back from him. He couldn’t even imagine how Nino and Alya, Ivan and Mylene, Alix and Kim, Nathaniel and Sabrina, and Chloe, felt inside, having been forced to watch the outright murder of their classmates and friends by a psychopath.

 

The pressure around him eased as the noise level grew quieter. Lila was leading everyone away. Idly, Adrien wondered what she had planned for the rest of them. He supposed he never would know. He closed his eyes, waiting for the tunnel and the white light at the end of it. But everything just stayed dark. 

 

With Lila’s departure, he found he could move again, and unconsciously shifted so the handle of the knife wouldn’t poke so into his belly. And that’s when it hit him. The only pain he felt in his stomach came from the knife handle . Slowly, cautiously, Adrien tried sitting up. It worked. He tried dropping the knife handle. It clattered to the floor of the courtyard, somewhat muffled by the puddle of blood. Adrien felt at his shirt- no rips, no tears. He lifted it up, and while his skin was smeared with red liquid, there was no wound.

 

Fake. It was fake!

 

His first impulse was to shout with incredulous joy, but he all he got out was a kind of whuffing laugh before he remembered that he shouldn’t draw attention to himself. Quickly, he picked himself up and ran to the stage, vaulting onto it and bursting through the curtain.

 

He nearly ran Marinette down, since she was standing by the edge of the curtain, cautiously peeking out to see if it was safe. Heedless, he grabbed her in the tightest hug he thought she could bear, burying his face in her neck, stifling relieved sobs.

 

“Hey kitty, silly kitty,” Marinette murmurred in his ear. “I’m okay, I’m alright. And thank god, so are you. Of course, it wasn’t as bad for me, since I already knew the knives were stage props. Really well made ones, too,” she mused, as she stroked his hair in an effort to calm him down.

 

All Adrien could do was to clutch her tightly, rocking back and forth, hands roaming up and down her back as if to reassure himself that she was real, she was solid, she was there . Alive. So alive. After what felt like an eternity, he pulled back just enough to give her one hard, desperate kiss before pulling away.

 

“My lady?” he asked.

 

“Yes, kitty?”

 

“I think I don’t like Mary Sue. I think she needs to be stopped before she traumatizes anyone else. What do you think?”

 

Marinette’s soft smile grew into a wicked smirk. “Let’s get her.”

 

Plagg and Tikki appeared over her shoulder, miraculous jewels in hand. Adrien grinned at them both, holding out his hand. Plagg dropped the ring into it and, as Adrien slipped the comforting, cool metal over his finger, he said, “ Please tell me we can cataclysm her this time?”

 

Adrien raised his eyebrow at Marinette, who pretended to consider for a moment. He didn’t have any real expectation of her agreeing to it, but he couldn’t help hoping she would.

 

“I know I should say no…”

 

“Miraculous ladybugs would fix any damage,” Tikki piped up.

 

“Tikki!”

 

“Thanks, sugarcube!”

 

“Plagg!”

 

“I’m just saying …”

 

They both called for their transformations, ending any further input from the kwamis.

Chapter Text

Ladybug and Chat Noir perched on the roof of their school building trying to pinpoint where Lila had taken the rest of their class. Ladybug had told him that Lila seemed fixated on their class to the exclusion of practically anything except perhaps Ladybug and Chat Noir. 

 

“We need to figure out what her range is on her coercion and compulsion powers,” Ladybug said. “We can’t fight her safely until we know that, because we’ll have to stay out of range.”

 

“Which makes it difficult to get close enough to grab her akumatized object,” Chat Noir agreed. 

 

“I think I have a way around that, as long as we can distract her at the right moment.”

 

Chat Noir raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

 

“Remember that trip to London on the StarTrain?”

 

“Yes…” Chat Noir responded. It was a little weird, talking about their civilian lives this way. He was still so conditioned to keep every identifying detail a secret, and here his Lady had just casually referred to an ill-fated trip during which they’d actually napped together. Not that he minded- in fact, he hadn’t minded at the time, not at all, even though he hadn’t known Marinette was Ladybug then. It was one thing to talk about these things while they were Adrien and Marinette, but somehow it was different when they were transformed. 

 

“The horse miraculous grants the power of wormhole travel. If we can distract her, keep her attention on us, then someone with the horse miraculous could use the wormhole to simply reach out and grab the akumatized object from a safe distance.”

 

“That’s only if her powers don’t extend through the wormhole, milady,” Chat objected. He’d gotten a lot of practice at strategic and tactical thinking since Marinette first got sick.

 

“We’ll have to hope that they don’t, or that her focus on us will keep her powers from affecting whoever we give the miraculous to.” Ladybug grimaced.

 

“Who do you have in mind? Max is… not available right now.”

 

“I know… I was actually thinking about Ms. Mendeleiev,” Ladybug said, slowly. She looked at him. “What do you think? Can you think of anyone else better suited?”

 

Chat thought for a moment. Ms. Mendeleiev had been akumatized earlier that year over her failure to prove- on a less than scientific game show- that kwamis existed and liked to eat cheese. Both he and Marinette had almost been exposed that day… until Marinette had used the fox miraculous to fool everyone into thinking that she couldn’t possibly be Ladybug. Still, that day had definitely made an impression on Chat, and he counted that among the many other reasons for him to have started pursuing Marinette. Plagg had warned him to forget, not to pry, but… it wasn’t like he could have turned his brain completely off. 

 

“Well, she did try to expose us…” he objected.

 

“So did Alya, but I still gave her Trixx,” Ladybug countered. “Akumatized people always try to expose us, that’s why Hawk Moth gives them powers in the first place. And she hasn’t breathed a word about it since. Maybe if we allow her to help like this, she’ll be less inclined to try and prove the existence of kwamis? And she’s got the necessary science background to make the wormhole appear in the right spot at the right time.”

 

“... true…” Chat couldn’t help but agree, but, “I just wish there were someone else. I’m not sure how I feel about trusting a teacher with a miraculous.”

 

“Well, it’s not like I’m suggesting Mr. Damocles,” Ladybug said, sounding a little exasperated. “And he came closer to actually getting our miraculous than anyone but Troublemaker! Maybe having an actual adult on the team, even as a reserve, would be a good thing. They wouldn’t be limited to a one-time use of their powers, and they wouldn’t have to run off and recharge afterwards.” Ladybug paused. “If she has any problems following our orders, I won’t give it to her again, but… I think she’s our best shot right now.”

 

“Alright,” Chat agreed reluctantly. “But I think we ought to call in Viperion again as well. Second Chance would be very useful in this fight if things go wrong. Oh! And I discovered that the lyre can direct our focus in the battles!”

 

Ladybug blinked. “Really?”

 

“Yeah- somehow, when he plays it, his intent helps us to concentrate, focus or lose focus, that kind of thing.”

 

“Hm… I’m not sure how useful that actually is,” Ladybug began.

 

“You didn’t fight Blood Drive,” Chat said, shortly. “It was very helpful.”

 

Ladybug’s mouth quirked up on the side. “If you say so.” Then the half-smile died and her face turned steely. “Before we go any further. Do you think we need to involve the police? I know it’s not usual against an akuma, and we’ve always been against pressing charges…”

 

“But this isn’t the first time Lila has been malicious, either as herself, or as an akuma. Whatever she claims once we purify the akuma, she clearly wants to cause as much pain and devastation as she can.”

 

“And this akuma wasn’t even meant for her!” Ladybug exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. “And it’s not the first time that’s happened, either!”

 

“It’s not?” Chat asked, confused. “I mean, I know this one was meant for that other actress, but-”

 

“Chameleon,” Ladybug said shortly.

 

“But… how do you know?” Chat remembered that he’d talked to Lila right before she’d become akumatized that day, and while she’d seemed annoyed at him for urging her to stop lying, she hadn’t seemed upset enough to become akumatized over it.

 

“Because that one was meant for me,” Ladybug said quietly.

 

That was the time…?” Chat’s eyes widened.

 

“Yes.”

 

“But I thought-”

“I fought it off with Tikki’s help, but I didn’t purify it because I wasn’t exactly transformed at the time. It fluttered away, and even though I went after it, Lila must have seen it first.”

 

“Well. I’d say that changes things. If we could prove that Lila was working with Hawk Moth willingly, that she intercepted this akuma, then… maybe it would be enough of a difference that people wouldn’t start looking for reasons to further victimize the other akuma victims.” He frowned. “I’m still worried about that precedent, though.”

 

“Lila isn’t going to stop until someone stops her, kitty,” Ladybug said sadly. “She just doesn’t care that she’s hurting people. In fact, I think she likes that.”

 

“Well… either way, maybe we should decide that after we stop her?”

 

Ladybug nodded. “I’ll go get the miraculous we need. Follow her at a safe distance, kitty- I don’t want you affected again- but see if she abandons anyone else after torturing them. If Max is free, we won’t have to use Ms. Mendeleiev.”

 

“Got it. Be safe, milady,” Chat said, giving her a swift, hard hug. 

 

“You too, kitty. I’m depending on you not to get yourself caught- even if you see something else you don’t like. Got it?”

 

Chat gave her his best grin. “As always, your wish is my command.”

 

——

 

Marinette stepped into the massage parlor feeling unaccountably nervous. It was her first time back here as Ladybug, first time getting a different miraculous to help, and she hadn’t seen Fu since before she’d gotten sick. The most contact she’d had from him was that letter.

 

“Ah, Marinette. I’m always glad to see you, and looking so well.” Master Fu came out into the hall to greet her. She wasn’t surprised- it was later at night, and while the lights in the front room were still on, his “Open” sign had been switched off.

 

“Hello, Master,” she said, smiling nervously. “I’m afraid I’m not here for a friendly chat, though.”

 

Fu’s smile dropped. “Another akuma?”

 

Marinette nodded. “And this time I’ll be asking for the horse and the snake.”

 

“Hm. You already have a plan then.”

 

“She’s… going to be tough to get close to. I think the horse miraculous is the best bet we have there, and if we get it wrong, the snake can save us.”

 

“That could be so indeed. Very well.” He beckoned her in with a wave of his hand. “I’ve learned not to underestimate you since Kwamibuster,” he said, even as he walked to the fake gramophone where the miraculous box was hidden. “I will trust your decision.”

 

He carefully lifted the box and placed it gently in the center of the massage mat on the floor. “And may I say that I am both relieved and pleased to see you have recovered enough to take up your duties once more?”

 

“Thank you, Master,” Marinette said, with a small bow. “I’m very glad to be back. I felt so conflicted watching someone else do my job.”

 

Master Fu looked at her sharply. “Do not feel guilt over something beyond your own control, Marinette. That way leads only to trouble.” He smiled suddenly. “Besides, I think your little hiatus has been very good for Chat Noir. He has matured much in the short time you were unavailable.”

 

Marinette took the two small miraculous boxes that Fu held out and transferred the dark glasses and the bracelet into them. “You know, I’ve noticed that, too? I’m sorry for the way it came about, but… I think our partnership is actually stronger because of it.”

 

“Very likely. There is nothing like knowing the fate of the world- or at least Paris- rests on one’s shoulders to inject a little seriousness into one’s worldview.”

 

Marinette smiled faintly as she tucked the two boxes into her purse. She made a mental note to sew herself a slightly larger purse when she saw how little room Tikki had left in there. Not that it would matter much, since she would transform back into Ladybug very soon.

 

“I don’t think it’s that, actually,” she said, rising to her feet. “It’s more that he’s willing to help me plan, and put his own ideas forward, instead of expecting me to do all the planning. It’s a huge help, honestly.”

 

“Good. Well- I have every confidence the battle will go in your favor, Ladybug,” Master Fu said, with a little bow. 

 

Marinette bowed back and left, transforming in the nearest alleyway and taking to the roofs. She went to the Seine first, since she knew approximately where to find Luka. She would have to look up where Ms. Mendeleiev lived, and hope she was home, and that might be harder. She’d rather have one extra hero on his way to help Chat before tackling that problem. Plus, she should really check in with him before going to Ms. Mendeleiev anyway, in case Max had been freed.

 

——

 

Luka had been very surprised, but delighted to see her. Fortunately, Ladybug hadn’t needed to actually come aboard the boat and risk encountering his family. He’d been on his way back home when she spotted him, guitar slung over his shoulder, and she wondered if he had merely been practicing, or coming back from a gig.

 

Then it was time to tackle finding Ms. Mendeleiev. She called Chat Noir first, though.

“Bugaboo,” he greeted her, but his tone was grim. “How soon can you get back? Mary Sue is just… nasty.”

 

“I’m sorry it’s taking so long, kitty,” she replied, guilt surging painfully through her chest. “Viperion is on his way. Any chance we could give the horse miraculous to Max?”

 

“I’m afraid not, milady,” Chat said. “Li… Mary Sue seems to be keeping him close for some reason. Maybe because of Markov?”

 

“Ok. I’ll be as fast as I can. I’ll convince her to use the special power at once, just to get us back there. It’ll be practice for her, since we can’t afford to get this wrong.”

 

“Great idea, milad-” he hissed suddenly. 

 

“Kitty?”

 

He cleared his throat, and when he spoke his voice sounded rough. “Just get back as fast as you can. And… maybe go ahead and alert the police. At least get them to send a unit of trauma experts. I can guarrantee we will need them when this is over.”

 

Ladybug closed her eyes for a pained second. “I’ll do that. Keep yourself safe, kitty. I know it’s tough, but keep telling yourself you can’t help anyone if you get caught yourself.”

 

“No promises,” he growled, and ended the call before she could respond to that.

 

“Ok, Ladybug,” she murmured to herself. “If I were a high school science teacher, where would I live…?”

 

——

 

Sarah Mendeleiev was grading papers on her coffee table in front of the TV when there was a knock on… her window? Her tenth floor window. She narrowed her eyes and grabbed a walking stick from the umbrella stand by her front door before approaching the window.

 

But before she could even open it, an upside down figure in red and black spots swung in front of the window, giving the pane of glass three swift taps before swinging back up.

 

Sarah Mendeleiev froze for just a moment before darting forward to unlatch and open the window. Ladybug somersaulted in once Sarah had backed away.

 

“Madam Mendeleiev, good evening.”

 

“Ladybug! … what brings you here?”

 

“You once fought against Chat Noir and me when you tried to steal our kwamis for Hawk Moth.”

 

Sarah stiffened. “I remember.”

 

“Are you willing to help us instead tonight?” Ladybug opened her yo-yo ( how? Sarah’s scientific mind was already reeling with the insane number of physicals laws broken in the span of a second or two), and pulled a small black hexagonal box from it. Sarah closed her eyes and rubbed under the nose pads of her glasses, trying to rub away how unnatural and just plain wrong that was. Magic. Ugh.

 

“Ladybug, I… I suppose I’m honored that you would ask? But why choose me?”

 

“This miraculous works best with someone who already has a scientific mind. Tonight I need someone who can do rapid-fire calculations and come up with the right answers on the first try.”

 

“And… and will I keep this… miraculous?”

 

“No,” Ladybug said, not without regret. “With Hawk Moth so adamant about stealing miraculouses, it’s too dangerous to let you keep it. It’s safer for everyone if no one knows who could be called on to help at any given time. It’s also for your own protection. I know you work in a school, and could you really imagine trying to leave in the middle of a class in order to help me fight an akuma?”

 

“Well… no. No I don’t think my school would think very highly of that kind of behavior. I know I wouldn’t if it was some other teacher.” Sarah pondered for a moment. Here was a chance to learn more about these kwamis and their powers, even if only through practical application. Call it a ‘lab.’ She could further her own private research, and help Paris’ superheroes in the process.

 

“Very well, I accept, Ladybug. Now, what do I have to do?”

 

Ladybug smiled and handed over the box. “Just open the box.”

 

Sarah raised an eyebrow at the box, which, now that she was holding it, she could see that it was apparently very old, showing it’s wear. She opened the lid and immediately squinted against a bright light.

 

“I am Kaalki, kwami of the horse miraculous. Are you of royal birth?”

 

“I beg your pardon?” Sarah countered, not as phased as she felt like she should have been to find a cartoonish version of a horse floating in front of her face. “I am as plebeian as they come, and I resent any inference that I should have to apologize for that!”

 

“Kaalki!” Ladybug’s voice was stern. “You know very well that birth has nothing to do with the suitability of a bearer.”

 

Kaalki crossed her… it’s?... front hooves and nodded. “Very well. Put on the glasses and say “Kaalki, full gallop.”

 

“Before I do that,” Sarah said, tone frosty. “I’d like just a little more information. After all, there’s no need to jump in blindly. What exactly do you do for me?”

 

Kaalki floated backwards a little, as if surprised Sarah hadn’t immediately transformed yet. “My, it has been a while since I got a fully adult bearer… very well. I grant the power of teleportation, specifically, creating a wormhole in time and space to allow my bearer- or anyone, or anything, else- to literally step from one location to another without any noticeable lapse of time. To access this power, say the word “Voyage,” and clearly picture in your mind where the other end of the wormhole should appear. You may find a visual reference useful. Since you are fully adult, you can use your power more than once, although you may not open more than one wormhole at a time.

 

In addition to that, transforming will increase your strength considerably, even beyond that of many other miraculous powers, simply because I am a horse. The transformation will also partially shield you from physical stresses, such as blows, or falling from great heights. This extends even to the apparently unclothed portions of your anatomy, though those are necessarily harder to shield perfectly. Cuts and bruises may appear until Ladybug uses her cure to set things to rights.

 

You also have a weapon of sorts in the shape of a horseshoe. It acts much like a boomerang and will follow a specific trajectory if you concentrate hard enough when throwing it.”

 

Sarah inadvertently stepped back, a hand coming up to her chest. This was… more information than she had time to unpack at the moment, if Ladybug’s anxious expression was anything to go by. She nodded sharply. “Thank you for that brief but thorough explanation. Kaalki, full gallop!”

 

The sensation of transformation made Sarah’s mind buzz. It was so unlike anything she’d ever felt before, and that included Hawk Moth’s evil influence. That had felt more oily, whereas this… this felt like… like a spring thunderstorm washing over her body, all ionic energies and the faint taste of green, growing things in the back of her mouth.

 

When it was over, she looked down at herself. The suit was in shades of brown, ranging from khaki to chocolate, and consisted of riding boots, leather pants, and a snug-fitting riding jacket. She wore gloves, and a riding crop hung from a belt loop. A weight on her her back turned out to be her horseshoe shaped weapon. The glasses she had donned instead of her usual reading glasses had turned into brown-tinted sunglasses, and instead of a mask around her eyes, she found what appeared to be a bandana tied around the bottom half of her face.

 

“What can I call you?” Ladybug asked, jolting Sarah out of her analytical trance.

 

“Hm.” Sarah considered her options, while being aware that Ladybug probably had better places to be. “Call me Stalking Horse.”

 

Ladybug snorted, but recovered quickly. “Alright Stalking Horse. Can you take us to…” Ladybug opened her yo-yo again- this time, transformed herself, Sarah gave up the impossible task of discovering how she did that while still retaining a functional yo-yo- and looked at some kind of map displayed on the inside (for all the world as if the yo-yo was a smart-phone). “... the north-east corner of the roof of Francoise Dupont High School? Chat Noir and Viperion are waiting for us there.”

 

Stalking Horse smiled grimly. She’d never been on the roof, but a simple extrapolation of height and distance gave her an acceptable estimate of where that should be from the location of her own classroom.

 

“Voyage!” she shouted, and power coursed down her arm to swirl around her wrist before opening into a wormhole through which she could see a night-time view of the corner of a roof.

 

“After you, Ladybug,” Stalking Horse said politely, and then they both stepped through.

 

Chapter Text

Lila was having the time of her life. Her other akumatizations were nothing compared to this . Sure, she’d been able to fool people, but she’d never been able to control them before, except by the round-about way of deception and misdirection- or putting them to sleep while assuming their identities. And while that was all fun and games, this… this was true power . It didn’t matter that they fought her control. It didn’t matter that she could see the hate rolling off of them like a heat mirage. They had no power over their own actions- she had all the control. 

 

It was intoxicating.

 

All her life she’d been able to get her own way- mostly- by lying, by denouncing the good and the true, by framing others for her own misdeeds. But sometimes… sometimes she had had to concede defeat, even apologize on rare occasions. She had usually ended up respecting those opponents who could actually get the best of her, but she’d hated them as well. Respect didn’t have to be a positive emotion, after all.

 

Now, she could make anyone do whatever she wanted, and what she wanted to was to humiliate and hurt them. They thought they were so much better than her? They dared to cast her out? Who were they to judge? Hadn’t she tricked every last one of them, and played them for fools for the majority of the school year? Well, she would show them exactly what she thought of their pitiful lives. It was a bonus that she got to do so in front of an audience made up of all the other people who had come to see the play. No doubt some of those were related to her former classmates. And if not? It didn’t seem to matter. They were just as horrified by what she was doing to them as if they knew the kids personally.

 

And then, after she was well and truly done exacting her revenge- she grinned to herself- she would have the delicious pleasure of dominating their precious superheroes, making them do what she wanted them to do for once, before stripping them of their powers permanently.

 

After all, she was the one in control. All she had to do was to lure them in close enough for her power of coercion to work on them. And they had to come in close- close enough to snatch her akumatized necklace- it was their duty. So it was just a matter of time. And since she had the time…

 

“You know, Ivan, I’ve been thinking… and I really don’t think it’s right for you and Mylene to be dating.” She smiled at him, activating her compulsion power over him.

 

Ivan’s face, she’d often thought, was set in a natural sullen scowl, but under her power it morphed into a wide, empty grin that sent a shiver of delight down her spine.

 

“You know what, Mary Sue, you’re right,” he said, a bit tonelessly, but then she was having to exert quite a bit of power to make him say what she wanted him to. Nowhere near the effort it had taken to control Marinette, but then this was Ivan. Lila almost lost her own satisfied smirk thinking of how hard she’d had to work to get Marinette to do what she wanted her to. She’d had no idea the girl had so much mental stamina. But in the end, she too had fallen to Lila’s powers, and the memory of the horror, despair, and anguish that rolled off the crowd, and especially off Adrien, when she’d forced the girl to apparently stab herself, brought her smile fully back. That alone was worth more than anything else she’d had the pleasure of this evening.

 

“Of course I’m right,” she cooed at Ivan. “I’m always right. Isn’t that right?” she asked louder, prompting her audience.

 

“Yes, Mary Sue,” the crowd of students and spectators mumbled back at her. 

 

“Yes… you two are so unsuited for each other, but then… well, I’m having a hard time coming up with anyone who you would be suited for. After all, Ivan you’re not exactly a catch. You’re too big, your band is dumb, you have no talent for song-writing, or even playing those awful drums, and Mylene… well, she could do so much better. Or could she?” She turned her gaze on the petrified face of the girl in question. “She’s so… so…” Lila let her words trail off, artfully, watching the humiliation overcome the expression of fear Mylene had held until this moment.

 

“Well. There don’t seem to be any words to adequately describe how average you are, my dear. There just isn’t anything special about you, is there? I bet you could disappear and no one would even know you’d gone. Or miss you, for that matter. I mean, when have you ever contributed anything useful?” Lila toyed with the notion of sending the girl away, but… if she broke free of her coercion range, then she could potentially escape and warn people. So far, there had been no sign of Ladybug or Chat Noir, and though she did want to make them grovel at her feet, the more time she had to play with her audience the better.

 

It was just too bad Hawkmoth had refused to grant her the ability to actually kill anyone. She could control them up to a point, she could conjure items that were injurious if not handled correctly- like the hammer she’d had Max use on Markov (that infernal nuisance of a robot)- but she couldn’t force them to kill themselves or anyone else. But she could get close. And that gave her an idea.

 

“Ivan,” she said suddenly, grinning maliciously. “I’ve just thought of the perfect career path for you. You’ve been holding yourself back with the band and Mylene… yes. What you should do is to go for that really rough kind of pro-wrestling. What’s it called? MMA? That one. But first you need to toughen yourself up a bit, get used to hurting others. I know! You’ve got big beefy hands. I bet you could choke someone out fairly easily. Hm… but it’s got to be something that takes finesse. I mean, you want to leave bruises, maybe make them pass out, but naturally you’d have to practice that wouldn’t you?” 

 

Ivan trembled beneath her control, but she was having too much fun now. “T-that’s a g-great idea, Mary S-sue,” he choked out, his face growing red with the effort of resisting her. She smiled. He’d never struck her as particularly bright, but she had a feeling he knew where this was going. She put more words in his mouth, drawing out the suspense… and fear. “I don’t have anyone to practice on, though.”

 

Lila’s expression brightened as if she’d just thought of something. “I know! Mylene! You can actually be useful for once! Ivan here wants to practice how to choke someone. You can volunteer!”

 

Ivan’s face changed from red to green so quickly Lila wasn’t sure how he managed not to pass out. But she wasn’t going to let him lose control like that, that would ruin all her fun. She’d had the experience already with Adrien. Mylene meanwhile had turned chalk-white and was fighting her control with every breath. But she was nowhere near as formidable as Marinette had been and after no more than a moment she opened her mouth.

 

“Of course, Mary Sue. Thank you for finding a use for me. I feel so much better now.”

 

“Ivan?” Lila prompted sweetly.

 

Slowly Ivan turned to face his girlfriend. Slowly his hands came up and fastened themselves around her neck. Lila didn’t even let them close their eyes, forcing them to stare at each other as Ivan began to squeeze...

 

----

 

Chat Noir practically vibrated with the need to do something , his claws sunk deep into the stonework of the roof. They were well outside Lila’s coercion zone, and he wasn’t sure she even knew they were there, but his cat ears picked up every word that was said, and he could not bear it. These were his friends , his classmates… and Lila was being so very cruel to them. It took everything in him not to leap to their rescue. He knew why they had to wait, but his self-control eroded with each new travesty, and if Ladybug didn’t show up soon...

 

Beside him, Viperion put a calming hand on his shoulder and squeezed, letting him know he was there and reminding him that Lila’s time was coming whether she knew it or not.

 

----

 

Ladybug and Stalking Horse stepped through the wormhole onto the north-east corner of the roof of Francois Dupont High School, and looked around. Aside from air conditioning units and a lot of gravel, there wasn’t much to see. 

 

Ladybug looked around for Chat Noir and Viperion, finally spotting two crouching shapes against the dim illumination coming from the stage lights in the courtyard. She tapped Stalking Horse on the shoulder and they both walked over to the boys.

 

Ladybug could see Chat’s tension in his posture, the way he was crouched as if ready to pounce. Beside him, Viperion was more relaxed, though even he was more focused than she was used to seeing him as Luka. 

 

She squeezed Chat’s shoulder, leaving her hand there a bare moment longer than strictly necessary. Chat’s lips twitched into the faintest of smiles before it faded again. Ladybug sighed. Either he was still upset about earlier, or his transformation wasn’t affecting him as much as usual. Or Mary Sue was just that bad.

 

“What’s her damage?” Ladybug asked quietly. “Any evidence of powers we haven’t seen yet?”

 

Chat’s shoulders heaved with a giant sigh. “We already knew she could both coerce and compel her targets, and conjure physical objects, as well as changing her own appearance. Other than that, I haven’t seen her do anything that couldn’t be explained by those abilities.”

 

“Right. Ideas on where the akuma is hiding?”

 

Chat growled. “It’s got to be the necklace she’s wearing. It’s the only thing that stays consistent when she puts on a new face.”

 

“Sounds reasonable.” Ladybug turned to Stalking Horse. “This is Stalking Horse. Stalking Horse, this is Chat Noir and Viperion. I’m sure you know all about Chat Noir and his abilities, since we’re on the news fairly often, but Viperion holds the power of Second Chance. Once it’s active, he can reset time by five minutes as many times as necessary before the timer on his miraculous runs down. So we’ll have multiple chances to get this right. We won’t remember what happened before, but he will, so anything we do wrong, he can correct.”

 

“That’s… quite impressive, young man,” Stalking Horse said. “And a very big responsibility. What is your lyre for?”

 

Chat Noir turned away from the courtyard scene to reply. “His lyre can boost the team’s effectiveness, depending on how he uses it. He can help us focus during the fight so that we work more effectively, or if no one is fighting yet, he can try and lull the opponent, giving us a chance at a sneak attack.”

 

Stalking Horse narrowed her eyes at this, and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “So he’s the Bard, then.”

 

Viperion smirked at that, but didn’t reply. Ladybug squatted down beside Chat Noir to see what was currently going on. This was going to be difficult. She would have to be even more careful than normal how she talked about the situation with Chat, since neither Viperion, nor Stalking Horse knew their identities. She didn’t need to worry about Chat remembering that- he’d been the one still fighting while she was sick, he’d had practice.

 

Mary Sue had gathered everyone around her in the courtyard, a little distance away from the stage. It was difficult to tell from this distance, but it looked like she still had everyone singing her praises, even as she tormented them. 

 

A tall girl with a paper bag with holes for eyes had to be Juleka by the goth-style clothing she wore, and by her side was Rose, wearing a giant sandwich board that read “I’m too stupid for Prince Ali.” Max was standing beside Lila, in much the same position Adrien had occupied before Mary Sue had forced him to “commit suicide.” He was holding a net bag with what looked like random plastic pieces in it. Then suddenly Ladybug noticed that Markov wasn’t hovering beside him like he always did when they weren’t in an actual class. She caught site of Nathaniel off to the side, drawing in his sketchbook as if his life depended on it, only his hands were covered with boxing gloves, so presumably anything he was turning out was far from his usual clean, precise style. Mylene lay in a crumpled heap near Ivan’s feet, and Ladybug could see at a glance that Lila had done something particularly heinous to the couple. Thankfully- or perhaps not, given what Mary Sue had done to her and Adrien- she couldn’t spot Alya or Nino. 

 

Currently, Mary Sue was targeting Alix and Kim both. Alix’s signature roller blades now had cubes for wheels, and it was painful watching her try to skate at Mary Sue’s bidding. Meanwhile Kim struggled to lift what was obviously a down pillow. Mary Sue must have been using her coercion power to prevent him lifting it with ease.

 

“She’s using coercion on them right now, isn’t she?” Ladybug asked quietly.

 

Chat Noir nodded. “The only good thing about this is that she can’t seem to use more than one power actively at a time. But, whatever she’s done before seems to hold up through the changes. For example, no one’s been able to say a bad word about her since that first compulsion hit them, and they remain compelled to compliment her and insult her current targets. Also the things she conjures don’t disappear when she turns her attention away, nor do her transformations fall if she starts using a different power. The only thing that seems to be limited to her attention span is the coercion.”

 

“What do you mean by all these terms?” Stalking Horse suddenly spoke up. When Chat Noir turned to look up at her, she grimaced. “I’m a scientist by nature. I understand in general what you mean by these labels, but I’d like more of an explanation.”

 

Chat Noir just nodded. “Coercion- that means she can force people to move even if they are resisting. It’s a pressure, like the air around you has solidified and she can force you to move by moving the air around you. Compulsion seems to be activated by eye-contact and a smile,” he paused to think. “I think it works by shutting off your voluntary control. Any order she gives you while you are compelled, you follow it- you can’t resist, at least not effectively. I’ve seen people try to resist it and it’s… painful to watch. No matter how badly you can tell they don’t want to do or say what she wants them to, eventually they are forced to do it. Mostly no one holds out very long. The longest I’ve seen hold their own against her was Marinette, and even she…”

 

Viperion jolted a little at the mention of Marinette, and Ladybug eyed him, wondering if he was going to lose his focus. But he said nothing and relaxed after a moment.

 

Chat took a deep breath and went on. “Anyway, transformation is pretty self-explanatory- she can make herself look anyway she wants. So far, I’ve only seen her use it on herself and one other person,” his voice deepened to a growl with the last few words.

 

“The girl with the paper bag?” Ladybug asked quietly. She reached for his shoulder again, and he covered her hand with his and squeezed it, nodding.

 

“Then the last one, conjuring. Basically, she can make any object she wants appear. I’ve seen her do knives, tools, the sandwich board, the paper bag, and… well, I won’t mention the other one. Suffice it to say, it was nasty and uncalled for, just like everything else she’s done tonight.”

 

“How exactly does your cataclysm power work?” Stalking Horse asked abruptly. 

 

Chat nearly hissed at her. “I don’t think this is really the time-”

 

“Now that’s enough, young man! Ladybug here asked me for help , so I’m going to give it. She particularly mentioned that she wanted someone with a scientific brain, and that’s me. What I’m trying to figure out is if your cataclysm could work on compressed air or not, so just answer the question!”

 

Chat’s expression blanked at her unexpected outburst, but then he blinked and seemed to regain a measure of control over his emotions.

 

“Uh, from what I’ve been able to… find out, it’s basically a ridiculously overclocked combination of bad luck and entropy. Whatever could go wrong does go wrong, and does so at a rate so high it might as well be instantaneous. There’s also an element of magical power to it, but I honestly can’t tell you how it all factors together.”

 

“Hm,” Stalking Horse raised a hand to her chin, her eyes narrowed in thought. “Given that information, I think it’s possible that your cataclysm could work on compressed air, such as she uses to coerce people, but that it would be very, very dangerous for everyone involved. Court of last resort, I’d say.” She paused. “The very, very last,” she murmured and shuddered a little.

 

Chat’s eyes widened and he nodded. “I agree. I don’t think anything would be helped by causing a spontaneous combustion around all those people unable to move.”

 

“Absolutely not! Chat, I forbid you to try it, no matter what happens!” Ladybug blurted. “But it really shouldn’t be necessary anyway.” She caught each of their eyes for a moment. “The current plan is to distract her from a safe distance while Stalking Horse opens a wormhole and grabs the necklace. Honestly, I don’t think the distraction needs much planning. We need her attention fixed firmly on us so she doesn’t notice anything else, so we need to be visible instead of sneaky.”

 

“You can’t be part of that distraction, Milady,” Chat said instantly. “We need you to stick with Stalking Horse so you can capture and purify the akuma as soon as possible after we’ve got it.”

 

Ladybug smirked. “Actually, I can. Stalking Horse is an adult, which means she’s not limited to one use of her power before her transformation is threatened. She could grab the necklace from up here, then make another wormhole and toss it directly to me, wherever I happen to be. And I think the distraction would be more effective if she saw both of us, don’t you? After all, Lila doesn’t like Chat Noir, but she positively hates me.”

 

Chat nodded reluctantly. “I’d forgotten about that… hard to remember that when we’ve always had to plan around only using our powers once per fight. Alright, I agree. But we both stay at a safe distance, right?”

 

“Of course, kitty.”

 

“I’m ready when you are, Ladybug,” Viperion said, holding his hand ready over his miraculous. “I’ve seen more than enough. And… I think I might just be able to make her control waver enough that, even if she’s using compulsion or coercion when Stalking Horse teleports in, she won’t be caught like everyone else.”

 

“Good to know. Best to activate it here, I think. That way you can tell us what went wrong if you have to reset us.”

 

Viperion nodded. “Second Chance!”

 

Ladybug shared a glance and a nod with Chat before they leaped down into the courtyard.

 

----

 

Lila was preoccupied with managing the antics of Alix and Kim, but it didn’t take a lot for her to notice when Ladybug and Chat Noir finally showed up. Really, just the flash of red and black out of the corner of her eye made her drop the coercion on the two athletes and extend it toward the two superheroes.

 

“And who are you supposed to be? Sadie the Sadist?” Chat Noir called mockingly from just beyond the edge of Lila’s coercive influence. His tone was as cheerful as always, but even from here Lila could see his tail lashing and that his grin seemed fixed rather than natural.

 

“I’ll tell you if you come closer,” Lila promised. He stayed just out of range, though Lila tried and tried to extend it, even playing with the shape of the field, going for an oval rather than a circle. If she lost a few people on the edges now, it hardly mattered. She just needed the superheroes to come closer!

 

“Yeah, no,” Chat flatly refused, even while he and Ladybug moved in circling patterns, practically dancing around one another. “I’ve seen what you do to the people close to you, and well, let’s just say I’d like to avoid stabbing myself. Or being forced to choke my Lady. Or any of the other nasty things you’ve been inflicting on people tonight.”

 

“Honestly Lila, this is extreme, even for you,” Ladybug said just as flatly.

 

“‘ Even for me, ’” Lila quoted, taking a small step towards them and disguising it as a shift in stance. “Wow. I’m astounded at your faith in me, Ladybug! You must really think I’m evil, but all I did was something everyone- everyone- does! Everyone is soooo upset over a few lies. A few exaggerations! Come on, hasn’t anyone else ever bent the truth a little? I know you have, Ladybug- otherwise everyone would know your secret identity by now, wouldn’t they?”

 

“I lie to protect other people, Lila. You lie to hurt others and to make yourself look good. There’s a difference!” Ladybug spat back. “Besides, if you were really upset about people getting onto you for lying, your powers would probably be something along the lines of making the people around you lie, or forcing them to tell the truth about all the lies they’ve told before. Instead, here you are, with powers that are specifically designed to let you hurt and humiliate others.”

 

“They hurt and humiliated me!” Lila screamed back at her. 

 

“Really?” Chat Noir asked. “That’s not what I heard. I heard they threw you a party and made sure you got what you really wanted.”

 

Lila screamed her frustration, taking the opportunity to turn in a circle that got her just a little bit closer. “I couldn’t care less about joining the stupid drama club! That was just a cover for what they really did to me- exposing me as a liar in front of the whole school! And then they sent around an email detailing all the lies I told and disproving each and every one! I’m going to get expelled, and my mom’s going to have to pay a huge fine! How is that fair?”

 

“Sounds to me like you did a little bit more than ‘bend the truth,’ Lila,” Ladybug said. “And if you were hurting them with your lies, I’m not surprised they let everyone know.”

 

Lila scoffed, edging forward again. “I wasn’t hurting anyone! I just told people what they wanted to hear! And what they wanted to hear was that I had the most amazing life! That I knew people they admired and looked up to! That I could help them achieve their dreams!”

 

“Except you couldn’t really, could you? What would you have done the first time someone asked you to actually make good on one of those promises to help them?”

 

“Get off your high horse, Ladybug! Of course I couldn’t actually do anything for them, but it would never have been an issue! No one really expects to meet a celebrity, after all. I could have told them they were too busy, and they would have believed me!”

 

Lila clenched her fists, finally noticing that the heroes backed up whenever she took a step forward whether she was subtle about it or not. Without warning she sprinted forward, using her enhanced strength and speed to try and force them into the edges of her field. She heard a curse from behind her, and started to turn…

 

“Second Chance!”

 

----

 

Ladybug and Chat Noir shared a glance and a nod before-

 

Viperion grabbed Chat Noir’s arm, stopping them.

 

“You guys did a great job avoiding her field and distracting her before, but Stalking Horse, you need to make your move sooner. Lila darted forward just as you opened the wormhole, even though I’m pretty sure she had no idea what was coming. Honestly, I might have let it play out, but my time was about up, and what if it didn’t work out? This way you still have five minutes of play.”

 

Everyone nodded. 

 

“Thanks, Viperion,” Ladybug said. “Let’s do this!”

 

They leapt into the courtyard and began their back and forth with Lila. Viperion watched several people on the edges of the crowd suddenly stagger and break loose, stumbling away as fast as they could on unsteady legs. Unfortunately, everyone closer to the center was still caught, including his own sister. He took a breath and focused on the fight again, ready to call for his fail-safe once more.

 

Beside him, he heard Stalking Horse- whose heartsong sounded like a fugue- call out “Voyage!” He couldn’t help turning his head to watch as she stepped through a hole in space. Down in the courtyard, Lila suddenly had an arm in brown leather grab her shoulder just before she was going to dart forward, and another grab the necklace, snapping the string. Then, as quickly as she’d opened the portal, Stalking Horse opened another and flung the necklace through it, even as Lila lunged for it. A smaller portal opened above Ladybug’s head and the necklace fell through. Instead of catching it, Ladybug let it hit the ground, then shattered it with a swift yo-yo strike.

 

“NOO!” Lila screamed as the purple butterfly flew free and was captured. Everyone except the heroes in the courtyard slumped to the ground. Lila was once more engulfed as the roiling purple miasma that was Hawk Moth’s power bubbled off of her and dissipated. Ladybug released her cure and the miraculous ladybugs returned everything to normal. 

 

Viperion breathed a sigh of relief and was about to slip off to detransform when something completely unexpected happened.

 

From the stage came a wild and raucous laughter, pulling everyone’s attention to the closed curtains. They parted to reveal a different akuma, a girl whose costume looked like a stereotype of the starving artist trope, only with more neon.

 

“You said I couldn’t act, that I wasn’t conveying the story to the audience! Well, now I’m The Playwright, and I’ll tell any story I please! And my masterpiece will be a stirring rendition of how Ladybug and Chat Noir realized how futile their quest was and gave up their miraculous!”

Chapter Text

Ladybug just about gave herself whiplash turning so quickly toward the stage. But it wasn’t quick enough. The Playwright brandished a sheaf of papers and waved them dramatically over the stage. The scenery changed instantly.

 

The school around her was in ruins under an orange sky. Stray papers skidded in a cold wind across the cracked and broken cement of the courtyard. The second floor of the school was all but gone and the first floor wasn’t much better with holes blasted in the walls and stones and bits of debris clogging most of the classrooms and part of the courtyard. Ladybug turned slowly, chest heaving with barely contained panic.

 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. She knew this landscape. She’d been trapped here before. But it had been a dream! It had just been a dream, born of a fevered imagination yet… here she was, back again. Was this the future? Was she being shown a future where… where Hawk Moth wins? Where Team Miraculous prove themselves no match for a man and a woman with the power of the Butterfly and the Peacock? 

 

“Chat!” She called desperately. “Chat Noir!” A moment before they’d been side by side, they’d just finished defeating Lila for crying out loud! He had to be nearby… right?

 

Nothing but the wind answered her. She heaved a sob and collapsed, curling in on herself as if she could make it all go away by ignoring it. The events of the past few hours snowballed and slammed into her with all their emotional weight and she couldn’t stand against the onslaught. Not right now. Not alone.

 

A voice thundered through the air.

 

“This is Ladybug, the great heroine, the Savior of Paris. ” 

 

The voice mocked her, but Ladybug didn’t have the energy to deny the implied accusations. 

 

“Now she lays broken, deserted by her closest friends because of her own failures. Surely it would be kinder if she had died with the rest of them, but she is cursed to live on, alone and friendless in the ruined city she foolishly swore to protect with her very life. Yet when her life was asked of her… she ran. Now she must live with her guilt. But what a life. If only she could redeem herself somehow…”

 

The voice droned on, morose yet pitiless. Ladybug tried not to listen. Intellectually she knew it was part of the power of the akuma- to narrate what was going on in her story. Naturally, the akuma wanted her at her lowest emotional point, and unfortunately, the truth was that Ladybug was almost there already. If she listened to the voice it would be so easy to believe it, to give in, to give up the miraculous that had betrayed her, her partner, her teammates, the whole ci-

 

Ladybug stopped that train of thought and jerked upright with a sudden thought. Viperion was still active, but he hadn’t called for second chance yet, so… maybe he was waiting for direction- some clue to tell him what their steps should be on the next five minute cycle. Or maybe… maybe it was too late, they were out of time, and…

 

With an effort born of emotional exhaustion, Ladybug dragged her thoughts out of that spiral and cast her yo-yo to the sky. “Lucky Charm!”

 

Into her hand dropped a red and black polka-dotted earbug.

 

----

 

Viperion was already reaching for his bracelet when a hand clamped itself over his mouth, and another grabbed his miraculous-bearing wrist. Generally Viperion was a peace-loving soul, a go-with-the-flow kind of personality that applied to everything but his musical aspirations. But he hadn’t been raised by a woman who’d legally changed her name to Anarka for nothing. 

 

He bit the hand over his mouth, at the same time spreading his fingers wide and jerking his wrist free, thus preventing the bracelet being tugged off with the suddenness of his motion. He quickly dropped and rolled over the edge of the roof to get out of range of his attacker. It was a pity he didn’t know for sure since he hadn’t seen the person, but considering that akumas were involved he had to guess it was Mayura- Hawk Moth’s more visible partner in domestic terrorism.

 

This was bad. He couldn’t keep his mind on the fights he needed to change if he was being attacked himself. He braced himself for a landing that never came. Instead, he fell through a wormhole and found himself safely on the ground beside Stalking Horse.

 

“Mayura,” he said shortly, nodding his thanks for her timely help. He checked his bracelet and cursed. Less than a minute. He quickly scanned the courtyard, looking for clues. It was fortunate he’d made a practice of reading a room quickly, it let him pick up all the pertinent facts without wasting too much time.

 

Chat Noir and Ladybug remained close to each other, but they were both crouched on the ground and curled in on themselves, as if they were in great pain. Both of them cried out for the other, but neither acted like they could hear the other. Lila was edging toward both of them while the crowd milled aimlessly around her, each person seemingly blind to everyone else.

 

Suddenly Ladybug called for her Lucky Charm. Something small fell into her hand, and Viperion was too far away to see what it was. But she evidently knew, or guessed he could hear her, because she cried out, “Earbug!”

 

With seconds to spare, Viperion shouted, “Second Chance!” and slid the snake head back to it’s starting position.

 

----

 

Ladybug and Chat Noir shared a glance and a nod-

 

Viperion cried, “Stop!”

 

Everyone turned to him. He was shaking a little.

 

“Get your earbugs out.” While Ladybug and Chat Noir extracted theirs from their weapons without further explanation, Viperion unhitched his lyre and turned to Stalking Horse, speaking quickly. “Get your horseshoe. Hold it, and think very hard about needing an earbug- like a blue-tooth earpiece.”

 

Stalking Horse hesitated only a moment before reaching back for her own weapon. He couldn’t see much of her expression between the sun-glasses and the bandana, but a moment later a small square popped up out of one end of the horseshoe and she tugged it out, turning it a little before saying, “Ah!” and inserting it into her ear. Viperion did the same with his own earbug.

 

“The earbugs connect to all active miraculouses automatically,” Ladybug explained for her benefit. “We’ll be able to hear each other even if the akuma does something to cut us off. Anything else, Viperion?”

 

“Yeah. Move on this akuma as fast as you can- there’s going to be another one.”

 

Ladybug’s eyes widened. “What… how?

 

Viperion shook his head. “I don’t know. But almost as soon as your miraculous ladybugs vanished, another akuma appeared and she targeted both of you immediately. It… looked like you were both having a hard time. Also, keep an eye out for Mayura- she attacked me as soon as the other akuma appeared.”

 

Chat Noir cursed. He looked from Viperion to Stalking Horse and back. “Keep each other safe. If Hawk Moth gets his hands on either of your miraculouses, our job gets about a thousand times harder.”

 

Go ,” Viperion urged, glancing down at his bracelet. One minute elapsed. Four minutes to finish two akumas. He took a deep breath, and this time, when Ladybug and Chat Noir leaped down to the courtyard, he followed them.

 

----

 

Lila began her tirade again as soon as she saw Ladybug and Chat Noir, but this time Stalking Horse wasted no time, popping out of a wormhole directly behind the villain and seizing her necklace, then tossing it through another wormhole. Ladybug caught and broke it, then purified the akuma. But instead of calling for her miraculous cure, she and Chat Noir put their backs together and started circling, looking for the next threat.

 

Viperion edged around the crowd of suddenly freed civilians, his heart stuttering a little when he realized that without the cure Juleka was still stuck with a paper bag over her head, and the rest of her classmates were in similar situations. But he couldn’t focus on that right now. 

 

He made his way over to Stalking Horse, keying his earbug as he went. “Look to the stage- that’s where she appeared before. She called herself the Playwright, and threatened to enact a storyline where Ladybug and Chat Noir give up their miraculouses because they- you- realized how futile your quest was.”

 

And at that moment, the akuma did appear, saying almost word for word what Viperion had quoted to them. He saw Stalking Horse’s eyebrows rise at the accuracy of what he’d related, but kept his attention trained on the heroes.

 

The Playwright swept her papers across the courtyard and Ladybug and Chat Noir stiffened, then almost simultaneously cried out for each other and collapsed to the ground.

 

“Talk to us!” Viperion ordered. “What are you seeing? What are you feeling?”

 

“I-it’s… ruins. Paris is in ruins, and it’s all…” Ladybug’s breathless voice came through. He could hear the heartbreak in her tone.

 

“It’s not real,” he said firmly. “Chat Noir, can you hear me?”

 

“Y-yeah…” Chat’s voice wavered as well, but with fear instead of heartbreak. “I’m… I’m alone in a dark place, and… and no one’s going to come for me.”

 

“Actually, you’re sitting on the ground in the courtyard, and Ladybug is right behind you,” Viperion said, changing his tone to soothing. “I know you can’t see or feel her, but I swear I’m telling you the truth.”

 

Viperion caught sight of Lila sidling toward the duo, and pointed it out to his own partner. Stalking Horse nodded and quickly opened a portal that Lila couldn’t dodge in time. She closed it behind the girl, and Viperion took a brief moment to wonder where she’d sent her before focusing again.

 

“I’m pretty sure I know where the akuma is, Ladybug,” he said. “If we break it, do you think you and Chat will snap out of whatever this illusion is?”

 

“I… we should,” Ladybug said. Her voice was a bit stronger, but whatever was happening in that vision was clearly still affecting her. “Please hurry…”

 

Viperion nodded to himself. “Stalking Horse, get the papers from the akuma. As soon as you have them, rip them in half.”

 

He turned his attention to the crowd, confident Stalking Horse would be able to pull it off. Just in time, too, since Mayura decided to make her presence known by leaping down from the sky, landing right beside Ladybug and Chat Noir.

 

“Protect your miraculous!” Viperion shouted through the earbug.

 

Ladybug and Chat Noir both jerked in surprise, but did as they were told, Ladybug covering her ears, and Chat curling his ring hand into his chest and covering it with the other. Mayura went for Ladybug first, trying to pry her hands off her own head. It was a strange thing to watch. Mayura bodily picked Ladybug up by her arms, and actually succeeded in forcing them away from her ears, but everytime she tried to drop one arm so she could reach for an earring, Ladybug flailed her free arm and prevented the contact. It seemed she could feel what was going on around her even if she was essentially blind due to the vision imposed on her. And that gave him an idea.

 

“Chat,” he said quickly, glancing down at his bracelet. Two minutes left. “Get your baton, extend it to staff-length, and sweep it behind you as you turn to your right. Quick!”

 

Chat Noir did as he was told, the staff knocking Mayura off her feet and causing her to drop Ladybug entirely.

 

“Ladybug, roll to your right to get out of range.”

 

Viperion continued to call instructions to the two heroes. Mayura was fast, and no matter how quickly he called instructions to them, they kept getting caught up. Still, at least Mayura hadn’t managed to get either of their miraculouses yet. He glanced down. One minute. He could hardly believe so much had happened in less than a minute. He spared a glance toward the stage, where he saw Stalking Horse and the akuma playing tug-of-war with the sheaf of papers. He growled in frustration.

 

But Stalking Horse suddenly took the riding whip off her hip and struck the Playwright’s hand, forcing her to let go. She tore the sheets in two, and the akuma broke free and started flying away.

 

Viperion turned back to see Ladybug and Chat Noir stumble and stagger, shaking their heads as the spell released them. “Watch out!” he called, seeing Mayura about to take advantage of their disorientation.

 

Chat Noir cried, “Cataclysm!” and reached for Mayura even as one of the villainesses fingers finally found one of Ladybug’s earrings. Mayura flinched back, using her fan to knock Chat’s hand away, but apparently she wasn’t up for a fight against two superheroes who could actually see her, because she leaped back up onto the roof and away.

 

Ladybug wasted no more time, scanning the night sky for any sign of the akuma. Then she swung her yo-yo and caught it, purified it, and then, wearily, cast her yo-yo once more to release the miraculous ladybugs that would put everything back to rights.

 

Viperion wanted to stick around, but the snake eyes on his miraculous were flashing insistently. He ducked into an abandoned classroom just as his transformation released. Sass swayed where he floated in front of him, and Luka quickly dug out a vial of the blackberry cordial the little kwami liked. 

 

“You did very well,” Sass praised, between sips. 

 

Luka ran a hand through his hair and sighed. He knew he’d done well, but… it got harder every time he did it. Being the one responsible for saving everyone’s skin when things went wrong… it was a lot of pressure. It was a good thing he was usually perceptive.

 

“I wish I could have done more,” he finally said. “I mean, sure, I kept everything from going to pot, but… everyone was fighting but me.”

 

“You were fighting a different battle,” Sass said gently. 

 

“I guess.”

 

“I am ready now,” Sass said, tossing the empty vial in the trash can. “You should transform again and meet Ladybug so she can retrieve your miraculous and you can go home. You need rest,” Sass finished, not unkindly. Luka smiled at him. 

 

“I guess you’re right. Scales slither.”

 

Viperion was about to leave, when one of his lyre strings pinged of it’s own volition. He turned the weapon over, noticing that there was now a section of the frame that could flip up. He flipped it and read the message from Chat Noir, then quickly made his way to the roof, bypassing the milling people in the courtyard.

 

----

 

Ladybug wanted nothing more than to collapse where she stood, preferably into Chat Noir’s arms, and shut out the world for a while. But she had duties, responsibilities, and… and Marinette and Adrien had to turn up now that the fight was over, too. She frowned. 

 

She removed the earbug and put it back into her yo-yo, then turned to her partner.

 

“You used Cataclysm, you should go transform. I’ll stick around until the trauma unit arrives.”

 

It was hard to believe that the whole thing had taken less than five minutes, start to finish, although she knew Viperion had used his power at least once. She’d called the police just before she brought Stalking Horse to the party, so they should be arriving soon.

 

“What about…” Chat gestured to her, a clear indication he meant her civilian side. “And don’t we need to retrieve the miraculouses?”

 

Ladybug smiled wanly. “Let me worry about that.”

 

Chat stepped closer to her, putting his hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to do everything alone anymore,” he said gently. “I know who Viperion is, I’ll take him home, ok? You take care of Stalking Horse.” He smiled. “You were right, by the way. She did make a good hero.” He stepped back and extended his baton, vaulting up to the roof to feed Plagg and wait for Viperion.

 

Ladybug started toward the stage, where Stalking Horse was kneeling beside the little actress. But before she got very far, Stalking Horse stood back up and opened another wormhole. She stepped through it, and suddenly was standing right beside Ladybug. Her cheeks rose and Ladybug suspected she was smiling under her bandana.

 

“I suppose you’re going to want these back now,” she said, tapping her glasses.

 

Ladybug nodded. “Yes, but not immediately. You did a fantastic job tonight, and if you’re willing, I’d like to offer the Horse miraculous to you again, if it’s needed. So we should keep your identity a closely guarded secret.”

 

Stalking Horse nodded. “I... would like that. It’s different being on the other side of an akuma battle. I like being able to remember it.”

 

“Alright.” Ladybug heaved a sigh, and glanced around. She frowned. “Where’s Lila?” 

 

“Right now? Nowhere,” Stalking Horse said, her tone almost smug. “Viperion and I saw her trying to get close to you and Chat Noir when you were caught up in whatever that was, so I opened a wormhole and… just kept her there.”

 

Ladybug goggled at her. “You can do that?!”

 

“Apparently.” Stalking Horse shrugged. Then she opened another wormhole and Lila stumbled out, looking dazed. “Oh good, that worked,” the temporary hero mused.

 

Ladybug decided to pretend she hadn’t heard that remark, and turned to Lila. 

 

“You went too far this time, Lila,” she said seriously. “I’m afraid Chat Noir and I can no longer overlook your actions, either as an akuma, or as an ordinary citizen. I called the police and they will be here soon.”

Lila paled. She took a single step away from Ladybug, then turned and bolted for the doors of the school. Stalking Horse sighed, opened a wormhole and watched Lila run through it only to end up right beside Ladybug again. Ladybug had to suppress a smirk at her dumbfounded expression.

 

“Arg! Let me go, you stupid-”

 

“Language!” Stalking Horse chided in her harsh voice.

 

Ladybug privately wondered how many more times Lila would try to escape before realizing that as long as Stalking Horse was there, she would just end up right back where she started. Fortunately, she finally heard the sirens of the approaching police units. She hoped they’d listened to her and brought the trauma unit as well. Looking around the courtyard, she could see shaken faces everywhere. She didn’t feel too steady herself, for that matter. But she couldn’t collapse yet, she reminded herself. 

 

So she straightened her posture and raised her chin as the policemen began coming through into the courtyard.

 

----

 

It was when Ladybug was just handing Lila off to the officer in charge that someone tentatively tapped her on the shoulder.

 

“Um, Ladybug?” a hesitant female voice asked. Ladybug turned around to see someone she vaguely recognized. Someone else who went to Francois Dupont, but not someone in her class.

 

“Yes?” she asked, wondering what this girl wanted to tell her.

 

“I, uh… I have something you might want to see,” the girl said, holding out her phone.

 

----

 

Lila was already crying her crocodile tears for the officer’s benefit, claiming that she hadn’t known what she was doing, she didn’t even remember it, and why was Ladybug doing this to her, when she’d always said that akuma victims were inherently innocent of their actions?

 

“Officer Raincomprix!”

 

Lila peeked through her fingers to see Ladybug storming back up to them, one of the backstage hands trailing behind her.

 

“Officer, I think you need to see this,” Ladybug said, handing over a phone. 

 

Lila uncovered her face and narrowed her eyes before quickly adopting a crushed and vulnerable expression once more.

 

Sabrina’s father looked from her to Ladybug’s thunderous expression, then tapped the phone screen to play what was obviously a video. His eyes widened in surprise, and then he turned a scowl on her.

 

“Well, Ladybug, it looks like you were right to insist on police action in this case. Being infected by an akuma is not a crime. Intercepting one just might be. But we’ll let the courts hash that out.” He turned to the stage hand, whom Lila instantly moved to her number one slot on the List. “I’m afraid I have to take this into evidence for now. Once the video is downloaded and transferred, you can have it back. You or your parents can contact the police station to secure it’s release. ”

 

“Yes, sir, Officer,” the stage hand whispered, glancing nervously from him to Lila and back again.

 

“Thank you for coming forward with this,” Ladybug said gently, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder. Lila seethed, but internally. Ladybug wasn’t going to win this. She had diplomatic immunity, for goodness sake! She was going to go free, and as soon as she could she would attract another akuma and then

 

“I think that’s a good idea, Ladybug,” Officer Raincomprix said, in obvious reply to something Ladybug had said that Lila missed due to her plotting. “Holding her outside the city limits might be the safest choice.”

 

Lila growled.

 

----

 

Ladybug stowed the horse miraculous in her yo-yo, then made her way back to school as quickly as possible. Chat should have already returned- he’d sent her a quick text to her yo-yo letting her know where to meet Adrien. He’d concocted a story that had him and Marinette sneaking away to cower in a classroom together after Lila lost interest in them, and Ladybug felt nothing but thanks for the fact she didn’t have to come up with a story herself this time. They could be each other’s excuse and no one would question it.

 

Ladybug landed on the roof and quickly descended to the second story before detransforming. She slipped into the designated classroom and stopped just inside the door, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. 

 

“Adrien?” she called softly. 

 

“Over here,” he said, and she moved toward the sound of his voice. “Careful, I’m sitting on the floor. Don’t fall for me, now…” He tried to sound lighthearted, and Marinette knew it was for her, but she could hear the wobble in his voice.

 

Then she felt his hands reaching out for hers, guiding her down to the floor next to him. He wrapped both arms around her and buried his face her neck, just as he had after Lila’s attack on them. She could feel him trembling, and the neck of her blouse was getting warm and damp. Marinette wasn’t much better herself. Tears started rolling down her face as she returned his embrace fiercely.

 

“We should probably go out there,” she said after a moment. “The trauma unit might leave before they see us if we don’t, and…” her voice broke. “I think we really need it, kitty.”

 

“I-I know,” he whispered. “Just a minute, please. I just need to hold you for a minute.”

 

Marinette nodded into his shoulder and relaxed into his arms, letting the tears flow.

 

 

Chapter Text

When Adrien and Marinette finally made it down to the courtyard, the trauma team was in full swing. Now, an ordinary trauma team would consist of people who knew how to handle severe injuries, how to stabilize patients so they could get to a hospital without (hopefully) dying on the way. But in Paris, at least when it came to akumas, the Ladybug cure fixed any serious injuries as a matter of course, which meant that the only trauma that remained was purely mental and emotional. As such, there was a new trauma team created, consisting of therapists qualified to aid all age groups. They didn’t just respond to akuma attacks, but akuma attacks did take priority.

 

By now they had a handle on dealing with large crowds, since akumas usually caused havoc on a large scale. There was a procedure, and they followed it to the letter. In the event that people didn’t have the time for at least a fifteen minute evaluation, or the crowd was simply too big to effectively treat then and there, people were set up with later appointments, and sent on their way. While there were some industries in Paris that did require their workers to get back to work as soon as possible, by this time there was no administration or management team that wouldn’t excuse a worker who got caught up in an attack. They didn’t dare- not only was no one safe from an akuma, but anyone caught blaming a victim of an attack for their tardiness was quickly and quietly terminated. Did the system get some abuse? Of course it did- any system does. But most companies admitted the small amount of abuse was worth the greater morale of the rest of the company. 

 

Adrien and Marinette joined the line of people waiting to see a therapist. They received more than one relieved-yet-slightly-guilty look. 

 

There’d been a canopy set up that acted as a waiting room, next to several canvas partitions where the therapists could talk to people in semi-privacy. The people in the waiting area all had blankets around their shoulders and mostly clumped together in family and friend groups. Before the waiting area, you had to give your name, some contact information, and a brief summary about what you’d been through to one of the therapists acting like a clerk. It was while Adrien and Marinette were waiting in the line to give their names that Nathalie and the Gorilla showed up.

 

Now, normally Adrien would have sighed, given in to the inevitable, and gone home with them, forgoing the privilege of actually being able to talk about his feelings and experiences. But tonight had been… rough. More so than usual. 

 

Usually, while he might be hit by an akuma during an attack, his transformation as Chat Noir partially protected him from the effects, and also he usually didn’t remember what he’d done under the evil influence any more than the akuma victim remembered what it was they’d done. But with Lila… Lila’s control had been mainly physical. She’d wanted to hurt and humiliate, and what good was that unless the victim was aware of what was going on? So the miraculous ladybugs hadn’t wiped any memories this time, since the akuma hadn’t affected people’s memories in any way shape or form. They hadn’t become mindless drones to her bidding, they had only been denied agency in their actions.

 

So he clearly remembered saying awful things to and about Marinette, and the image of her being forced to stab herself- even if it wasn’t real- was seared into his mind’s eye. He could watch that scene play out any time he closed his eyes. And that was before that second akuma had thrown him directly into his worst nightmare- locked up alone, in a small dark place, with the knowledge that no one was coming for him.

 

So when Nathalie cleared her throat and said, “Your father is waiting for you Adrien,” instead of bowing to a will that had thus far always seemed to been greater than his own, Adrien replied, “Well, I’m waiting to see a therapist.”

 

Nathalie actually looked shocked. Gorilla raised his eyebrows, but also faintly smiled. 

 

Adrien sighed. “Nathalie, tonight has been… awful. Just awful. And I really need to talk about it, to get it out of my head. So unless father wants all of my photoshoots this week to be complete failures because I can’t smile with these thoughts in my head, he can wait a little longer.”

 

“Adrien, you know how your father feels about… this kind of thing.”

 

“Well maybe if he felt differently our family would still be whole, and my father would be a father to me instead of a boss ,” Adrien retorted, looking her full in the face. For a moment he thought he might have gone too far, but then he felt Marinette lean into his side and squeeze his hand, reminding him of her presence and support, and he stood his ground.

 

Nathalie’s mouth dropped open, and she took a step back. “I’ll… inform your father.”

 

She and the Gorilla backed off and stood on the sidelines. Adrien kept glancing at them, nervous now that he’d done something unforgivable in his father’s eyes, especially since Nathalie stayed on her phone the whole time. But Marinette kept whispering how she was so proud of him for standing up for himself, and Gorilla gave him a subtle thumbs up, and that got him through the wait. And then he was entering his name and contact information on a tablet handed to him by a man named Jean, and selecting the text option for how he would like to be contacted in the future.

 

He and Marinette finished almost at the same time- there were two people getting the names and details- and they got to huddle under the same blanket beside a space heater. They didn’t talk much, just held each other. The initial horror had long since passed, but the faces of their classmates kept bringing up new images and memories. No one really talked in the waiting area, and most avoided looking at the others, too embarrassed or horrified by what they’d done, or had done to them. He was glad to see that Mylene wasn’t shying away from Ivan, although Ivan seemed sunk into a guilt-ridden state that kept him avoiding her gaze. That… that had actually been worse than what Lila had done to him and Marinette. At least he hadn’t been forced to hurt his own girlfriend.

 

On an impulse, he leaned down to whisper in Marinette’s ear. “I’m going to go talk to Ivan for a second.”

 

“I’ll come with you,” she said immediately.

 

They walked over to the other couple. Mylene looked up at them with a wounded puppy look, but Ivan just sank his head in his hands, apparently trying to shut out the world. 

 

Adrien crouched beside Ivan, putting a tentative hand on his massive shoulder. “Ivan listen… it wasn’t your fault. I know that, Mylene knows that, Marinette and literally everyone else knows that . Lila made you do it- you didn’t want to, but you didn’t have a choice. I know you tried to fight it as hard as you could; so did I when it was me she was targeting. No one was strong enough to resist her, not even Marinette, and she came closer than anyone. Do you think I wanted to say the things she made me say? Do you think I wanted to stab myself? No. 

 

Everything Lila did, she did to hurt people, and I’m so, so sorry that she wanted to hurt you and Mylene. Neither of you deserved that.”

“Listen to him, Ivan,” Mylene pleaded. “And please look at me. I don’t even have to forgive you because there’s nothing to forgive! I know you didn’t want to. Do you think I wanted to agree with her that I’m,” she started tearing up, “that I’m useless and… and unloveable?”

 

Marinette wrapped her arms around Mylene. “That’s not true,” she said, quietly but fiercely. “It’s never been true, and it never will be true. We all love you Mylene, and you are far from useless. And the same goes for you, Ivan. Everyone knows you didn’t want to hurt Mylene, that you never would without your will being overridden. Do you think I wanted to stab myself ? I couldn’t fight it, either.”

 

Ivan’s shoulders shook. “I… Mylene, I can’t ,” he sobbed. “Everytime I look at you, I remember how it felt…” He fell silent, crying into his hands.

 

“Ivan Bruel,” one of the therapists called then, and Ivan lurched to his feet, dropping the blanket in a heap and practically running toward the waiting therapist.

 

Adrien and Marinette stayed with Mylene. Most of their other classmates had already been called, or had even finished their initial sessions. It didn’t take long for Mylene to be called, too, leaving them alone with each other again.

 

When it was Adrien’s turn, his nerves returned. After all, because of his father’s prejudice against mental health workers, he’d never seen any but a physical therapist when he’d injured himself somehow doing fencing or basketball.

 

The woman had a kind face- in fact she looked a lot like a grandmotherly figure in a movie or a play. Her name tag read “Anna,” and while she had the same kind of no-nonsense aura about her that Nathalie had, she also had smile lines around her eyes and mouth that Adrien was pretty sure Nathalie would never develop as long as she kept working for his father.

 

“Hello, Adrien. My name is Anna. I’m sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances, but I hope I can help you. Can you tell me about your experiences tonight, or should we make an appointment for a later date, and focus instead on how you can cope in the short term?”

 

“Um,” Adrien said, intelligently. He took a deep breath. “Well, unfortunately my father doesn’t believe in therapy, so this is probably the only chance I’ll get to talk about it.”

 

Anna nodded, making a little note on her tablet. “I’m sorry to hear that, but let’s use the time we have, then. What’s bothering you the most?”

 

This time the breath Adrien drew was shaky as he mentally went over everything that had happened. “It’s hard to choose. So much that went on was just… wrong. On so many levels. I guess…,” he trailed off, closing his eyes. Was it wrong that he felt the worst about seeing Marinette stab herself, when he’d also watched Lila subjecting his whole class to hurt and humiliation? But it was the truth, so… 

 

“I had to watch my girlfriend stab herself in the stomach. And I couldn’t do anything- I couldn’t stop her and I couldn’t stop the akuma, and worse, I actually had to stand there and smile while she did it. Like I was happy about it. Lila made me say awful things to Marinette, and compliment herself, and hold her hand, and just…” Adrien stopped, rubbing his hand on his leg as if he could wipe off the memory of that contact. “Everytime I close my eyes I can see the way Marinette’s arm shook when she tried to fight the compulsion…” He fell silent, eyes closing despite himself.

 

Anna sighed, making another note. “That’s actually come up a lot in the sessions tonight. I was hoping I’d have a chance to talk to her, or someone closer to her than a classmate. How long have you two been dating?”

 

“About a week, officially,” Adrien said, somewhat relieved to have a normal question to answer, even if it felt like a non-sequitur. “But we’ve been friends for two years now, and… and about three weeks ago, she got really sick and had to go to the hospital. I was so scared for her, and I guess it made me think about my feelings for her and realize just how much she means to me.” He bit his lip. “Now that we’re together, I don’t… I can’t lose her.” Despite every effort, tears came to his eyes again. What was worse was that he felt ashamed of the tears, even though he knew he had every right to be upset by these memories. 

 

Anna reached a hand across the small folding table, catching his attention. “It’s okay to cry, Adrien. It’s a perfectly normal response to seeing a horrible thing happen, and it’s a healthy release as well. Now. Was there anything else that was particularly upsetting?”

 

Adrien wondered just what he could say. He’d seen it all, but… Adrien had quite literally disappeared from everyone else’s view after Lila made him stab himself. How could he say anything without giving himself away?

 

“Um, Lila also made me stab myself. At the time I didn’t really care because I think I was in shock? Anyway, it ended up being a fake knife, like a stage prop, with a collapsing blade. When Lila moved away I could move again, and that’s when it hit me that if my knife was fake, maybe Marinette’s knife was fake too. So I got up and went to see, and… there she was.” Adrien wiped his tears away again. “I was so, so relieved. But of course neither of us wanted to go back out there, so we went to a classroom and hid. But… when Lila came closer again… I peeked out the classroom windows and,” he trailed off, thinking of just how horrible she’d been to her former classmates, people who had called her a friend . “She was just being so horrible. She, uh, she changed Juleka’s face to look like a pig and then made her wear a bag over her head. And… god… she made Ivan choke his girlfriend Mylene until she passed out.” Adrien closed his eyes, fighting off a dizzy spell. That could so easily have been him if Lila had thought of it a little earlier.

 

Anna sighed. “That’s quite a lot to deal with. I’m concerned that you won’t be able to seek out help with regular therapy. I’m also very concerned that, shock or not, you didn’t really care that someone was forcing you to, as you then believed, kill yourself. Do you have anyone at home you could talk to about this? I know you said your father doesn’t care for mental health professionals, but perhaps he could help you?”

 

Adrien shook his head. “We… he doesn’t have much time for me. I might see him at dinner once in a while, but mostly we communicate through Nathalie- his personal assistant.”

 

“And your mother?”

 

Adrien drew a sharp breath. “She’s… not around.”

 

“But would she talk to you if you called her?” Anna pressed gently.

 

Adrien tilted his head up to stare up at the sky, vainly hoping that would suppress the tears now streaming freely. “No, she’s… she just disappeared one day. She’s missing. Nobody’s been able to find her, or any clues about what happened.” He closed his eyes, and bit his lips, wondering how this had turned around on him so quickly. Weren’t they supposed to be talking about what had happened to Marinette and the others?

 

“Alright, what about a sister or brother, maybe a grandparent? An older friend? Anyone you can trust and talk to about things that bother you?”

 

Adrien shook his head wordlessly.

 

He heard Anna sigh. “What about your classmates, do you have any friends among them? Anyone you’d feel comfortable talking to?”

 

“I have three good friends, including my girlfriend, but the others I’m just friendly with. But I can’t really talk to Alya or Nino about this.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because… well, because it’s Marinette. Nino’s known her since they were in grade school, and Alya’s her best friend. And obviously I can’t talk to Marinette about how watching her stab herself made me feel. That would be… so insensitive.”

 

Anna grunted. “I see what you mean. I am concerned, though, because it seems you have a few more issues than just what happened tonight. And if you don’t have anyone to talk to...”

 

Adrien managed a jerky nod. “Most of the time I can deal with it,” he offered, hoping Anna would let it go.

 

“Adrien, these things pile up on top of each other, especially if you have no outlet to discuss them. And with Paris the way it is these days… If it were up to me, I’d have you in therapy at least twice a week until you and your therapist decide you could cut back some, just to avoid a situation where you yourself could be akumatized. However, you stated on the form that you would accept text communications. Would you be willing to commit to texting with someone at least once a week? It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.”

 

“I…” Adrien hesitated. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I do, but… I’m really busy. My father has me doing a lot of extracurricular activities, and I also work for his company a lot. Sometimes he pulls me out of school for that.” Not to mention the several times a week I have to skip out on stuff to go chasing akumas… which means I have to make those things up later, he thought, but didn’t say.

 

Anna sighed and frowned. “I’m beginning to think I need to involve child services here…”

 

“No!” Adrien said, sitting straight up. “Don’t do that- it’s fine, really! I-I’m used to it.”

 

Anna’s frown grew darker. “That response doesn’t give me any confidence in your future well-being Adrien.”

 

Adrien leaned forward and scrubbed his face with his hands, wiping the remnants of tears away. “Listen… I know he’s not the most supportive, but my father does care for me. He just… doesn’t know how to show it? And… and I’ll find the time to text with a therapist.”

 

“Every week?”

 

Adrien sighed. “Every week. It might not always be on the same day, or at the same time, though.”

 

“That’s ok. It’s one of the benefits of our texting offer.”

 

Anna tapped a few places on her tablet and what looked like a credit card receipt printed out beneath the table. Anna tore it off and handed it to him. There was a number and a name printed on it. Rupert Margulies.

 

“Rupert is an expert on family issues, especially estrangements. He’s also pretty good at tackling trauma that stems from abuse.” Adrien tensed at that, and Anna glanced at him sharply before adding, “I think you’ll agree that what happened tonight definitely counts as abuse. I’ve already forwarded him the notes from this short session, and you can text him anytime. Now,” Anna said, folding her hands on the table. “Do you think you’ll be able to sleep tonight, or would you like some OTC sleep aids?”

 

Adrien blinked. He’d never considered using a sleep aid, not even after that disaster with Aspic, even though he’d had nightmares for weeks. Even if he had thought of it, he wouldn’t have- akumas had popped up overnight before, and Chat Noir had to be available.

 

“Uh… I think I’ll be ok?” After all, if he did have trouble sleeping, he could always transform and go visit Marinette. The mere thought of cuddling Marinette all night long made him relax a bit, and he resolved then and there to go visit her after he went back to the mansion.

 

Anna narrowed her eyes and then nodded to herself. She reached into a small box by her side and pulled out a small bubble pack containing two pills.

 

“I’m going to give you these anyway. It’s just one dose, and the instructions and active ingredients are printed on the back, in case you’re allergic or react badly to anything. You can use them or not, your choice, but I can’t let you walk out of here without them. Even without the events of this evening, you look like you haven’t slept well in a long, long time.”

 

Adrien held out his hand a bit numbly. “I didn’t know therapists were so pushy,” he murmured to himself.

 

Anna chuckled. “Those of us on the trauma squad tend to be more proactive than our clinical counterparts. We see too many people who need help immediately to let a few scruples stand in the way of it. We don’t do anything that violates the code of ethics, but we do tend to push harder for concrete solutions to the problems of the people we see. You could say we are the emergency room doctor equivalent for therapists. We do everything necessary to keep people stable until they have the leisure to recover at a slower pace.”

 

Adrien nodded, thinking about that. It made a lot of sense. He shoved the pills into his pocket and held out his hand to Anna. “Well, thanks, anyway.”

 

“Do you feel any better at all?” she asked, shaking his hand.

 

Adrien tilted his head, considering it. “You know… I think I do.”

 

Anna smiled. “Good. Now go get to bed, young man. The fastest road to recovery begins with a good night’s sleep.”

 

----

 

Marinette fidgeted as she waited for Adrien to come out of his own session. Her’s had been… relatively painless, actually. Her therapist, a middle-aged woman named Lonna, was very sympathetic to her experiences- at least, the ones Marinette could talk about, not the ones Ladybug had experienced- and was very happy to learn that her parents were so supportive of her and that she felt she could tell them almost anything. She gently reminded Marinette that her friends had all been controlled against their will while at the same time validating her feelings of rejection and hurt because of the awful things they’d said to her. She also seemed impressed that Marinette had fought Lila’s control at all, and said that she had no doubt Marinette had the mental strength to heal quickly. “But let yourself lean on the strength of the people who care for you just now, ok? You can’t be the strong one all the time.”

 

And with that, she’d insisted Marinette take a single dose of sleep aid with her and gave her a credit card receipt paper with the name of a qualified therapist and a number if Marinette or her parents felt she needed more help in the future.

 

So now she waited, watching Nathalie grow visibly more impatient as she paced and occasionally talked on her phone. She and Adrien had been among the last people to be seen, and there were workers packing up the canopy, folding the tables and blankets, and generally putting the courtyard back into order. Most everyone else had already left.

 

Marinette’s phone chimed and she looked down to see a text from Alya. 

 

Alya.

 

Marinette had almost completely forgotten about her, since neither she nor Nino were in the crowd of people around Lila when she got back to the fight. And she hadn’t seen them among the people waiting to be seen by the therapists either.

 

Now she looked down to see she’d actually missed three texts from Alya, two of them coming in while she was Ladybug.

 

(7:48 pm)

[Aly’all CeStarin] Girl, please tell me you’re alright.

(8:20 pm)

[Aly’all CeStarin] Lila is gonna have me to answer to after tonight! Please tell me you’re alright!

(9:30 pm)

[Aly’all CeStarin] Seriously, please just let me know if you’re ok.

 

Sighing, Marinette typed her answer.

 

(10:01 pm)

[Maribuns] Hey Alya. Just got done talking to the trauma therapist. I’m okay, and so is Adrien.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] Girl! What happened?! I could have sworn you stabbed yourself. I was FREAKING OUT!!

 

[Maribuns] The knives were stage props. The blades go into the handle, and apparently there were some fake blood packs in there, too.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] !!!!!!! 

[Aly’all CeStarin] Im’ gonna kill her.

 

[Maribuns] No, Alya… Ladybug took care of that. There was a stage hand that caught Lila on camera intercepting the akuma that was meant for that poor girl Aurilie. The police said that they were going to hold Lila outside the city limits. Trust me, she is not going to get away with it this time.

[Maribuns] Anyway, what happened to you and Nino? We didn’t see you later on.

 

Even in a private text, Marinette wasn’t going to give any hints as to her identity as Ladybug, even though Alya already knew.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] Ugh. Can we not talk about that? It was… messy.

 

[Maribuns] … if you don’t want to talk about it right now, I get it. But… I do want to know eventually, even if only so I know the appropriate weight of sledgehammer to use on her.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] Now we’r eon the same page, furl!

[Aly’all CeStarin] *girl

[Aly’all CeStarin] but it’s more like the right dumpster size in my case.

 

[Maribuns] Ew

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] Exactly. 

[Aly’all CeStarin] … btw… you do know I didn’t want to say ANY of that crap she made me say, right? 

 

[Maribuns] Yeah I know. She’s just the worst.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] The absolute worst. I can’t believe I called her a friend.

[Aly’all CeStarin] How’s Adrien taking it? We were really worried about him.

 

[Maribuns] … honestly, I think he’ll be ok.

[Maribuns] He stood up to N when she wanted to make him go home without seeing the therapist

[Maribuns] that gives me hope tha

[Maribuns] t he’ll stand up to hsi dad, too.

 

[Aly’all CeStarin] *fist pump*

[Aly’all CeStarin] Yes! Go Sunshine!

 

Marinette looked up at a touch on her shoulder. Adrien was standing beside her smiling, even though he’d obviously been crying. Marinette put her phone away and hugged him, hard. It felt so good to feel his arms come up to hold her, too. They didn’t have a lot of time left, since Marinette heard Nathalie’s high heels clipping across the pavement.

 

“Alright Adrien, you’ve taken long enough. It’s time to go home.”

 

“Of course, Nathalie.” 

 

Adrien squeezed her one last time, before turning to follow Nathalie out to the car. The Gorilla trailed behind, but cast one speculative look at Marinette. She gave him a wan smile and a thumbs up, and he seemed satisfied with that. It was good to know Adrien’s bodyguard actually cared about him, even if he couldn’t do much. But it wasn’t the first time he’d done something that actually helped Adrien instead of sequestering him further from the lives of the people around him.

 

Marinette started walking home, wondering if Nathalie or Adrien might have offered her a ride since it was so late if it hadn’t been for the earlier defiance. But it wasn’t like her home was far away, just a step or two really. But to her surprise, she found her parents waiting outside the doors of the school.

 

“Maman, Papa! What are you doing here?”

 

“As if there could be an akuma at an event we know you are at without us worrying about you!” Sabine exclaimed.

 

“We came over as soon as word got out, but at first we couldn’t get in, and then the police kept us out. So we had to wait out here,” Tom explained.

 

“I was half expecting you to come out with Adrien, though. Is everything alright?” Sabine asked, concern wrinkling her youthful face.

 

“Yes,” Marinette started, then paused. “Well, actually… the first akuma tonight was Lila and… and she really had it out for our class. It’s been a bad night for both of us,” Marinette continued. She took a breath. “But Adrien actually got to talk to one of the first response therapists tonight, so I’m hoping that will help. We’re okay, though. Honestly, I probably would have come out with Adrien if he hadn’t irritated Nathalie by insisting on talking to the therapist before going home. He probably would have offered me a ride because it’s late, or even walked me home, but…” she shrugged. “I don’t think Nathalie would have allowed that tonight.”

 

Tom and Sabine frowned at each other. 

 

“Why would he have to defy Nathalie about talking to a therapist?” Tom asked, scratching his head.

 

Marinette pursed her lips. “Apparently Mr. Agreste doesn’t believe in therapists, unless they’re for something physical.”

 

Sabine scoffed. “Well that’s just ridiculous. As if your brain can’t become overtaxed just like any other muscle!”

 

Marinette smiled thinly. “I think it probably has more to do with Adrien’s image and him being the face of the company, actually.”

 

“All the more reason to make sure that boy’s thoughts stay healthy, if you ask me,” Tom muttered, scowling.

 

Sabine put a hand on his arm and reached another out to Marinette. “Well. It’s late, and you still need to be taking it easy, young lady. Let’s go home.”

 

The three started walking toward the bakery and were nearly there when Tom looked down at Marinette, who was walking between her parents, and said, “By the way, if Chat Noir wants, or maybe needs , to come over tonight, we want you to know it’s alright with us as long as you two sleep .”

 

“Papa!”

 

“Oh, it’s alright dear. He warned us we might figure out his identity sooner rather than later. But of course, we won’t say anything about that ,” Sabine said, with a wink.

 

Marinette groaned.

 

Chapter Text

When Adrien walked through the door of the mansion, his father was waiting at the top of the stairs leading to Adrien’s room and the rest of the house. Adrien restrained a sigh, which was better than what his normal reaction would have been- a cringe accompanied by immediate panic as he tried to figure out where he’d gone wrong. At least this time he knew exactly where he’d gone wrong, so his mind could focus on countering his father’s points, instead of vainly trying to predict what it was his father had found fault with.

 

“Adrien,” Gabriel said coldly. “I do not appreciate being kept waiting like this.”

 

“I know that feeling...,” Adrien muttered, before he had time to think.

 

Gabriel blinked twice, as if he couldn’t believe what Adrien had just said.

 

“I… beg your pardon?” Gabriel said, with that inflection that meant ‘explain yourself right now, young man.’

 

“You are always cancelling meals with me, which I almost never find out about until the meal is already well underway. Well, tonight I had an urgent need that could not be postponed.”

 

“Yes,” Gabriel mocked. “Being melodramatic in front of strangers is quite the pressing need. Not the best image for the face of Gabriel, however.”

 

“Father, what you call ‘being melodramatic,’ is more commonly known as ‘seeking help for issues you can’t ignore.’”

 

“Nonsen-”

 

“I had to watch Marinette kill herself!” Adrien shouted, surprising them both. “I had to stand there and watch, and Lila forced me to smile about it. ” Adrien realized he was shaking. “That’s not something I can just forget about, Father. It’s not something I can cover up with a fake smile and pretend I’m okay with. I’m not okay with it. At all.” He heaved a few breaths and then continued in a lower tone of voice, though no less intense. “Can you honestly stand there and tell me that if it had been you who had to watch Mom stab herself, that you could just walk away afterwards like nothing had happened?”

 

Gabriel remained silent, an arrested look on his face.

 

“I didn’t think so,” Adrien said, and walked across the foyer, up the stairs, and was about to pass his father without further acknowledgement, when Gabriel put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

 

“You’re right, Adrien,” Gabriel said, in a much softer tone of voice. “I would not be able to put it behind me if I had been forced to witness that. I’m sorry that you had to, young as your relationship with Miss Dupain-Cheng is.”

 

Adrien waited for some further comment, hoping that perhaps his father would finally realize there was some benefit in therapy. But that hope died stillborn with his father’s next words.

 

“I can only hope this endless stalemate between Hawk Moth, Ladybug, and Chat Noir can end soon, so that no one else need be bothered by the uncontrollable emotions of akumas.” He sighed. “I honestly think at this point it would be better if the young heroes would just give up. At least then Hawk Moth would disappear and leave us all alone, having gotten what he wanted.”

 

It was Adrien’s turn to blink at his father. “... Are you seriously suggesting that the saviors of Paris should bow to the wishes of a terrorist?

 

Gabriel sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly, which in and of itself was a mark of profound disturbance. “I’m just tired of the constant interruptions. Surely whatever he wants can’t be that bad.”

 

Adrien quite literally did not know how to respond to that. After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, almost hesitantly, “Father, Hawk Moth has destroyed Paris several times over through his akumas, and the only reason we are not living in ruins right now is because of Ladybug and her miraculous cure. Surely someone who is willing to do all of that can’t possibly have a good use for their miraculouses? I mean, he’d be the same person, just with more power. You can’t give bad people more power and expect them to use it wisely, or for the good of anyone but themselves.”

 

“I don’t know about that, son,” Gabriel said, actually smiling crookedly at Adrien. “If I were Hawk Moth I know exactly what I would do with that power, and while it’s true that it would be for my own benefit, it wouldn’t hurt anyone and I, personally, would have no problem returning the miraculouses once I’d gotten what I wanted.”

 

“And… if you were Hawk Moth, what would that be?” Adrien asked, staring at his father in fascinated horror.

 

“Your mother’s return, of course,” Gabriel said. Then he patted Adrien’s shoulder twice, and turned away, walking back down the steps and across to his office, followed closely by Nathalie.

 

---- 

 

Plagg zipped out of Adrien’s shirt the moment they were alone in his room.

 

“Plagg, tell me I wasn’t the only one weirded out by that conversation,” he pleaded.

 

Plagg shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell ya, kid,” he said. “Your dad’s never cared much about anyone else’s feelings. It kinda makes sense he wouldn’t hate Hawk Moth like everyone else does.”

 

“Yeah, but he’s not evil . And Hawk Moth is definitely evil.”

 

Plagg hovered in front of his face with narrowed eyes for a moment before sighing heavily.

 

“Okay, I’m about to do something you’re not used to, kid, so pay attention. I’m going to get philosophical on you.”

 

Adrien blinked at him.

 

“I’m the kwami of Destruction, and kid, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been accused of being evil just because of that. As a direct result of having to defend myself and my own existence over the centuries, I’ve figured out a lot about what evil is , and what it’s not . In my experience- and remember that I’m literally as old as the known universe- evil is intention that is linked to action . You can feel like killing someone, but if you don’t actually do it, you’re not evil. You can feel like torturing someone, or dream about ripping them to shreds, or fantasize about tearing them down in front of their friends and family, but if you don’t actually DO those things, it’s not evil. But then, if you feel like doing those things and you actually do them, you aren’t necessarily evil, either. It’s about why you feel like doing those things, and why you decide to act on those feelings.”

 

“Killing someone isn’t evil when you’re doing it to protect yourself or someone else who can’t protect themselves. Torturing someone isn’t evil when you’re doing it because you don’t have time to gain their trust and you need information because something is wrong somewhere and you have to fix it fast. Tearing someone down in front of their friends and family isn’t evil when they are doing something wrong, and their friends and family are enabling them instead of stepping in to correct the problem.”

 

“Killing, torture, and verbal smack-downs become evil when you’re doing it purely because you want to and you can. When it’s about control and power , instead of righting wrongs or protecting the innocent. Are you following me so far?”

 

Adrien nodded, blown away by the sheer volume of words Plagg had just spoken in one sitting. Usually it was like pulling teeth to get more than a few sentences out of him at a time. Plagg nodded back, and paused to inhale a piece of camembert. When he finished chewing, he continued.

 

“A lot of people, when faced with destruction, automatically categorize it as evil. ‘Oh, you’re unmaking this thing that has been made, how awful, the horror!’” Plagg placed a dramatic paw on his forehead, and Adrien bit back a smile, despite the heavy nature of what he was talking about. “But the thing is, destruction is just destruction. It’s not good or evil, it just IS. It’s a natural part of the life-cycle, in fact, and if it wasn’t there, the universe would have been overrun a long time ago. Death for example, while being destruction of life, isn’t an evil thing. People grow old, their bodies stop working the way they should, and they die, making room for the next generation to grow old and die. Likewise, destroying things isn’t necessarily evil. People build houses and buildings and statues in one year and tear them down in another to make room for new houses and buildings and statues and that isn’t evil.”

 

“They do the same thing with relationships. There’s a building period, a time when all parties are invested, and then the relationship starts to naturally break down as people grow and change and sometimes drift away, or die. That’s not evil, either.”

 

Plagg suddenly fixed him with a glowing green-eyed stare. “What IS evil, is when people cling to things that have lost their purpose, or no longer have a purpose, in defiance of the natural way of things. When people refuse to grow and change because they don’t like where life is taking them, that is evil. When people refuse to allow others to grow and change because they don’t like the loss of control, that is evil. And kid… your dad’s been refusing to grow and change for a long time now. Worse, he’s been refusing to let you grow and change. He’s clinging to a handfull of ashes and refusing to see them as such. Denial of reality quickly leads to insanity and evil deeds. I’ve seen it too many times to quibble on this. Your dad might not be Hawk Moth, but he IS evil. Maybe not wholly, maybe only in certain aspects of his life, but… there it is.”

 

Adrien collapsed on the side of his bed and blew out a breath. This was… so much to take in on top of an already emotional evening. It was true he didn’t have the best relationship with his father, he didn’t like how controlling he was, and he knew Plagg and several of his friends had bad opinions of Gabriel, but to hear Plagg actually call him evil … no, prove him evil, even if just the domestic kind...

 

“... kid?”

 

Adrien looked up to see Plagg hovering in front of him and realized he’d zoned out for who knew how long.

 

“Yeah, Plagg. I’m ok.”

 

“Are you, though? Tonight was…”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What about visiting your girlfriend? Weren’t you planning on that at some point? It’s late enough no one’s going to check on you more tonight. Just don’t forget the camembert.”

 

Adrien rubbed his face hard and nodded. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Thanks Plagg. Claws out.”

 

----

 

Marinette dragged herself up the steps to her loft, her mind in a fog of mental and physical exhaustion. As much as she wanted to stay awake for Adrien’s inevitable arrival, she just didn’t have the stamina at the moment. The therapy session had helped, at least enough to let her mind let go of the horror enough for her to sleep. She made sure the latch of the skylight was unlocked, then pushed a sticky note to the bottom of it. It read ‘come on in,’ and she wondered if she would even wake up if he did.

 

Then she crawled under the covers, bid Tikki a sleepy goodnight, and fell into dreams that were uneasy, but not bad enough to actually wake her back up.

 

Sometime later, she jolted awake from a dream where Chat Noir was lost in the darkness and she couldn’t find him anywhere... and realized there were arms encircling her and a warm body at her back.

 

“Shhh,” a sleepy voice soothed, and one of the hands awkwardly rubbed her arm. “ ‘s okay. ‘M here.”

 

“Adrien?” she whispered.

 

A breathy chuckle answered her. “Expecting someone else?”

 

Marinette settled back, pulling the arms around her just a little tighter. “No. Just checking to see if you were actually awake.”

 

“Don’t wanna be. Go back to sleep, m’lady. I’m here.” He kissed her hair, then buried his nose in it, if the sudden warm air on her scalp was any indication.

 

Marinette sighed in contentment and relaxed fully, dropping back into slumber that remained dreamless for the rest of the night.

 

----

 

When Marinette woke up the next morning Adrien was already awake, lying on his back with one arm under her neck, hand idly playing with her hair as he stared at the sky through the skylight. At least, that was what the brief crack of her eyelids showed her before they dropped back down to shield her eyes from the too-bright daylight.

 

Marinette scooted closer to lay her head on his chest to relish the sound of his steady heartbeat, noticing that it picked up a little when she repositioned herself.

 

“Mari?”

 

Marinette hummed in response and snuggled a little closer. His chest rose and fell in a delicious rhythm she was already addicted to. The sound of his breath and his heart mingled together, filling her head with the inescapable fact of his presence. 

 

He shifted down and turned on his side, thus depriving her of the wonderful sound of his life-force. She pouted and whined a complaint, but that quickly changed when he kissed her. For a moment she was lost again in the feel of his lips, his arms around her, the wonder of waking up in the same bed.

 

Then she remembered the existence of morning breath and almost jumped away from him.

 

“Oh no!” She blurted, raising a hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. I’m… going to go to the bathroom real quick.”

 

He chuckled as she scrambled across the bed- across him - to get to the steps down from the loft.

 

“I’ll be just a minute!” she called, rushing down the stairs to the bathroom. She didn’t bother trying to be quiet, since her parents were already down in the bakery at this hour. Five minutes later, having relieved her bladder and with minty-fresh breath, she scrambled up the stairs again.

 

“What time is it anyway?” Marinette asked, climbing back up to the loft.

 

“Um…” she heard Adrien shifting around, trying to find her alarm clock, so when her head poked up above the level of the bed, she was treated to the sight of his boxer-clad derriere as he poked through the contents of the shelf above her bed. She smirked and quickly climbed up on the bed so she could wrap her arms around him from behind. He jolted as her nose met his spine.

 

“Hey, that tickles!”

 

“Oh… does it?” Marinette smirked, rubbing her nose over the spot again. Adrien squirmed and laughed, then turned quickly in her arms and pushed her backwards on the bed, falling on top of her. Then his fingers were at her sides, and Marinette couldn’t help the laughter that sprang from her own throat.

 

“Stop, stop!” she gasped between laughs.

 

He did, rolling to one side, though his hands remained at her sides. “You started it,” he said, grinning at her.

 

“I did,” she replied with a last giggle. She rolled over to face him, smiling. “I like waking up with you,” she said, blushing a little. His eyes darkened for an instant before he placed a lingering kiss on her lips. His hands tightened, pulling her closer, and she deepened the kiss. He pulled away after a minute, gazing at her with a soft smile. 

 

“I like it, too,” he said quietly. 

 

They just looked at each other in silence for a few moments, cheeks flushing as they realized all the implications of spending the night together, even though they’d done nothing at all.

 

“Marinette…” Adrien started, propping his head up on his elbow. “I… I want everything with you… eventually. I just don’t think either of us are ready for that just yet.”

 

Marinette bit her lips, relieved that he’d apparently read her mind. “I want everything with you, too, Adrien. There’s never been anyone else, really. But you’re right,” she continued with a shy smile. “I’m not ready for that yet.”

 

“Let’s just enjoy what we have right now, huh?” he asked, with a smirk. He leaned in for more kisses, but unfortunately Tikki took that moment to remind them of the kwami’s presence.

 

“As adorable as you two are being, if you don’t get going, Adrien, you’re going to be in more trouble than it’s worth for a few more kisses.”

 

Adrien groaned, letting himself fall face first into the small section of mattress between them. He held up a thumbs up as a muffled, “Thanks, Tikki,” drifted up.

 

Plagg drifted up, holding a piece of cheese bread. “You know, I kinda like pig-tail’s parents knowing who you are, kid,” he said, taking another bite. “They leave snacks for me, now.”

 

“Oh, yes,” Marinette said, sitting up in tandem with Adrien. “We really should talk about that,” she continued, folding her arms and not quite glaring at him.

 

“Hey, I wasn’t going to hide the fact that I’m in love with you while you were so sick,” Adrien defended himself. “It’s not like I flat-out told them my identity. I just warned them that they might figure it out.”

 

“Well, now they have figured it out,” Marinette replied, “which means it’s only a matter of time before they figure me out, too.”

 

“If they haven’t already,” Plagg said, mouth full of cheese bread. “I mean, Tikki tells me that Tom makes fresh cookies every morning.”

 

“They’re bakers! Freshness is a selling-point!”

 

“But Marinette,” Tikki interjected. “Your dad is so good at shaping cookies, it’s really surprising how often he messes them up nowadays.”

 

Marinette opened her mouth to counter that but then shut it again, looking disgruntled. Adrien chuckled and gave her a quick kiss before saying, “Tikki’s right, ma belle. I should go.”

 

Marinette smiled. “I’ll see you at school?”

 

Adrien’s smile fell. “Yeah.”

 

“Okay, okay, enough mush! Let’s get you home already!” Plagg crowed.

 

Adrien shook his head, but the smile returned. “Plagg, claws out.”

 

Marinette shielded her eyes, and by the time she looked again, Chat’s foot was disappearing through the skylight. She craned to be able to see him leaping from her balcony railing, then turned her attention back to mundane matters.

 

“Okay, Tikki… how much time do I have to get ready?” Marinette asked, climbing back down from the loft.

 

 

Chapter Text

Adrien suppressed a shiver when Gorilla pulled up to the school building. His father had actually made an appearance at breakfast that morning, trying to make another case for pulling Adrien out of public school, based entirely on the akumas of the night before, of course.

 

Adrien had remained adamant that he got something out of public schooling that couldn’t be gotten elsewhere- namely, that he was learning social skills essential for his further involvement as the face of Gabriel. Even private school, he argued, wouldn’t give him the experience he needed in dealing with ‘the common folk,’ as he phrased it (distastefully) and that argument appeared to have weight with his father, as perpetually focused on the company as he always was.

 

Despite that, Adrien wasn’t eager to return to the site of so much emotional anguish. Really, the only reason he was coming to school at all was to deny his father the opportunity to pull him out, and because he knew Marinette was going to be there. As for the rest of his classmates, even Nino and Alya, he was nervous about seeing them again, having seen what he had last night. He had a feeling everyone was going to be feeling vulnerable today, and that would make for a lot of awkwardness.

 

Nino and Alya were already there, standing on the front steps, presumably waiting for him and Marinette to arrive. Adrien saw both of them shooting sidelong looks at the front doors as he approached, and knew the real reason they were both still outside the doors.

 

“Hey Nino, Alya,” he said, coming up to them. Nino offered a fist bump, but Alya didn’t scruple to give him a tight hug.

 

“I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said before releasing him. “At least, okay enough to come to school.”

 

Adrien gave her a strained grin, glancing up at the doors. “Honestly? I probably wouldn’t have come if Father hadn’t tried to convince me to drop school again over breakfast.”

 

“Seriously, dude?” Nino rolled his eyes. 

 

Adrien nodded. “I know. But hey, at least it’s an improvement over him outright threatening to pull me out, right?”

 

Alya gave him an encouraging grin. “You know we’re proud of you, right? You’ve been standing up for yourself a lot more lately, and I know it’s got to be hard for you to go against him.”

 

Adrien frowned. “It used to be, but it’s getting easier. It helps that so far there really hasn’t been any serious pushback from him. I just wonder if it’s going to last, or if he’s-”

 

“Hey guys!” Marinette called, trotting up the stairs two at a time to them. She wrapped Adrien in a tight hug, before hugging Alya and fist-bumping Nino. “So,” she said, pulling away a little. “How bad do you think today will be?”

 

----

 

Walking through the courtyard was the hardest part. It was where everything had happened last night after all. Adrien was heartened to see that the drama club students, supervised by Mr. Haprele, were pulling down the stage. Apparently there weren’t going to be any more performances of that particular play. In a way it was a shame that Lila had managed to ruin that as well, but… he tried to imagine himself as one of the actors, trying to perform again after the events of the previous evening. Yeah , he thought to himself, I don’t blame them at all.

 

When they got to the classroom, it was like the first few days of school all over again. Over the course of the year, everyone had gotten pretty close, and it wasn’t unusual to find people chatting and messing around before and between classes, but today people huddled in their seats, keeping to themselves. 

 

The four friends looked at each other and wordlessly went to their own seats, not disturbing the mood of the room.

 

It wasn’t long before Chloe waltzed in, Sabrina close behind. They hadn’t gone to the play last night, so they’d been spared the humiliation doled out by Lila, and since the akuma had been pretty self-contained and nothing had been posted to the LadyBlog, neither of them had any idea what had happened.

 

“Geez, what’s with everyone today?” Chloe pouted, after flouncing to her own seat. “It’s like someone died in here.” She turned in her seat to survey her classmates. Chloe was still spoiled and still acted like a brat most of the time, but she had been making some strides towards caring about her peers instead of just using them. So she actually noticed when literally everyone flinched at her comment. 

 

“Okay. What happened?” She demanded, getting to her feet and crossing her arms across her chest.

 

“Chloe, can I talk to you in the hall?” 

 

Surprisingly, it was Kim who spoke up. Chloe pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, but nodded. “Fine.”

 

They both left the room. Sabrina looked at the open door indecisively. “Should I… maybe follow them?”

 

Alya sighed and said, “The play didn’t go so well last night, and Lila was akumatized again. She took the opportunity to hurt and humiliate all of us. We’re not over it yet.”

 

Sabrina shrank down in her seat. “Oh,” she said in a small voice. “Is… is that why my dad was called into work last night? This morning he said something about being glad that Chloe was Chloe and not… not Lila.”

 

Kim and Chloe walked back in then, Kim looking flustered and Chloe looking uncharacteristically subdued. She hesitated at the steps between her seat and Adrien’s, then nodded sharply and looked up at everyone. 

 

“I could say that you all deserved it for even going to that stupid play when you knew Lila would be there, but…” she shrugged. “Honestly, knowing Lila it would have happened sooner or later. She’s obviously someone who can hold grudges. Anyway, it’s apparently been rough for you all, so… I’m not going to stir the pot. I’ll even keep my comments to myself for the rest of the week. No promises after that, though,” she added with a brief pout and glare.

 

Everyone stared at her wide-eyed with disbelief. Was this the same girl who earlier that year had routinely threatened to call her father if she didn’t get her way? The same one who had never even apologized for provoking so many akumas herself?

 

Adrien was moved to get up and hug her. “Thanks, Chloe. That’s going to help a lot.”

 

A chorus of thank yous followed his, but Chloe just rolled her eyes and sat down again. 

 

----

 

When Ms. Bustier entered the classroom, she was trailed by Ms. Baccaro, the school board investigator who most of the class had already talked to regarding one Ms. Lila Rossi. Everyone tensed up immediately.

 

“Class, I know you have all met Ms. Baccaro by now, and I’m sure you have many questions about what happened yesterday and what will happen to Lila going forward. As I’m legally obligated not to answer those questions, Ms. Baccaro will do so, if she can.”

 

“Good morning, students.” Ms. Baccaro had a no-nonsense look to her, one Adrien was intimately familiar with, since it was the twin of the one Nathalie utilized every day. Idly, he wondered if there was some kind of training facility where learning how to look absolutely intimidating without actually doing anything but standing there was the class du jour.

 

“I’m aware many of you were subjected to humiliating and hurtful treatment yesterday at the hands of an akumatized Lila Rossi. If this were a normal case, I can assure you Ms. Rossi would not only be immediately expelled, but incarcerated. Unfortunately, this is not a normal case. She was akumatized at the time of her actions, and the legal precedent has always been for leniency. However, evidence has come to light which suggests that her akumatization may have been sought out, rather than as a result of her own natural feelings. Thus, her case is in something of a legal limbo until the authorities can figure out the legalities. However, given the obvious rankor she holds for you all, she has been removed from school for the duration. The school board feels that having you all in close proximity would be harmful for all parties.

Ms. Baccaro clasped her hands behind her back. “I am aware that some of you have already begun the process of seeking a restraining order against her. That is a decision between your parents and yourselves, but I strongly suggest that you consider whether another akuma version of Ms. Rossi would be inclined to follow that order.”

 

Alya raised her hand. “Ms. Baccaro, isn’t it true that Lila is being held outside the city limits?”

 

Ms. Baccaro blinked at her. “I am not at liberty to divulge Ms. Rossi’s whereabouts, save that she is still in juvenile custody. There are considerations of her own safety, after all.”

 

Surprisingly, Mylene was the next to raise her hand. “Ms. Baccaro,” she said in her shy voice, “Is Lila going to be given counseling? Because,” she dropped her eyes to her desk when everyone turned to look at her in disbelief. “I think she really needs it,” she finished quietly.

 

Ms. Baccaro nodded at her, smiling slightly. “Again, that falls under the heading of information I am not allowed to divulge, since it regards her private medical information. But I can tell you that counselors are available to all juveniles held by the state.”

 

Mylene nodded. After a moment she got brave enough to look up and saw Marinette giving her a small smile and a nod. She sat a little straighter after that.

 

Adrien raised his hand. “You said there’s evidence that Lila somehow intercepted an akuma meant for someone else, or something? Can you tell us more about that?”

 

Ms. Baccaro’s eyes flashed to Alya before refocusing on Adrien. “That is information tied to an open investigation, and I can’t comment on it besides to say that such evidence currently exists. It’s validity ,” she said, “has yet to be determined by a court of law.”

 

Alix huffed and leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms and pouting. “If you ask me, Hawkbutt didn’t have much to do with what Lila did to us last night. That was pure spite, and what’s more, she had to have planned it. I mean, what kind of power-set was that, anyway? It was all over the place! But it was designed to make it really hard for Ladybug and Chat Noir to get close to her without being affected by her controlling powers somehow. Hawkbutt isn’t typically that random. Or that smart,” Alix finished with a scoff. Kim leaned forward and offered his fist. Alix bumped it.

 

Ms. Baccaro leveled a raised eyebrow stare at the two, but they seemed unfazed as they looked right back. “That is conjecture at this point. But rest assured that all angles and aspects of this case will be scrutinized before it ever sees a court of law. A case like this will set precedent, and given the delicacy of prosecuting someone for actions done under Hawk Moth’s influence, not to mention the person in question being a minor, calls for a kid-glove approach. After all, I doubt many of you would relish facing a court of law over your own actions as supervillains.”

 

That caused ninety percent of the class to pale and look down. After a moment, Marinette raised a tentative hand.

 

“If… if Lila is found guilty of actually helping Hawk Moth, what would happen to her?”

 

Ms. Baccaro pursed her lips a moment before answering.

 

“That is ultimately for a court to decide, but I imagine that extradition to her home country would be the least of it.”

 

“So she wouldn’t be allowed to stay? I mean, her mom works at the Italian Embassy. Doesn’t that mean she has diplomatic immunity?”

 

“Ambassadors and their staff have limited diplomatic immunity based on the treaties signed by their respective governments. But no government is required to allow the citizens of other countries to commit crimes within their borders with no penalty, no matter their relationship to their own country’s government. In this case, as I said, it’s likely that Ms. Rossi would be sent back to Italy and, possibly, banned from ever visiting France again.”

 

Marinette nodded, face thoughtful. No one else seemed to have any questions to ask, and after a few minutes of silence, Ms. Bustier stepped forward and thanked Ms. Baccaro for her visit. Once the school board investigator left, Ms. Bustier leaned against the front of her desk and folded her arms. 

 

“I imagine most of you don’t feel like doing much learning today. However, everyone handles trauma differently, and I’d like to go ahead with a lesson for those of you who feel like you need a distraction and a way to keep your minds busy. For the rest of you, Mr. Damocles has organized extra counselors to be available today. If you like, I will give you passes to go talk with one of them. There is even the option of having a group session, if some of you want to take advantage of that.”

 

She placed a small stack of passes on the edge of her desk and then went around to the other side to start up her computer. There was a muffled shuffle and murmur as the students almost silently conferred with each other and decided whether they would stay or go.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, Mylene and Juleka were the only two to gather their things and go up front to take a pass. Rose squirmed in her seat another moment or two before roughly slamming things into her bag and tearing out the door after Juleka. A moment later she ran back in long enough to grab a pass before running back out.

 

Adrien half turned in his seat to look questioningly at Marinette, but Marinette just smiled at him and held out a hand. When he took it, she squeezed it. “I’m okay. But if you want to go… if you want me to come with you…”

 

Adrien smiled back, expression softening as it always did when he looked at her. “I think I’m okay, too. As long as you are, anyway.”

 

Marinette frowned a little at that. “Adrien, if you need to talk to someone, go talk! Whether I’m okay or not has nothing to do with what’s going on inside your head.”

 

“I know. But honestly, right now I’m okay. Having that investigator come in really helped, which… kinda doesn’t make any sense? I mean, we didn’t really talk about what happened, just what’s going to happen to Lila. But… I don’t know, it feels like… like it’s over. It’s finally over.”

 

Marinette smiled again and squeezed his hand before pulling away. “Okay then.”

 

Ms. Bustier started the lesson then, and Adrien turned away to face their teacher.

 

----

 

Mr. Damocles held an assembly for the whole school right after lunch. It was somewhat reminiscent of the assembly held after Chloe pulled the fire alarm during Marinette’s father’s baking demonstration, except that Mr. Damocles had learned an awful lot about enacting and enforcing school policies since then, and wasn’t trying to find a scapegoat.

 

“I’m saddened to tell you all that one of our students was akumatized, again, last night. This student’s actions were such that they have been removed from school because of them, despite having acted under the influence of Hawk Moth. I, and the school board, stand by this decision, though we have not come to it lightly. 

 

Additionally, though not entirely because of this event, many of our current policies will be getting a review and possibly an overhaul. Your teachers will be handing out new guidelines and student handbooks by the end of the month, and, I cannot stress this enough, your parents will be absolutely required to read them and sign their names to prove that they have read the new policies. The new policies will go into effect next month, without exception. Nothing that has so far been brought to my attention should impact any student financially, so there will be very little wiggle room or cause for leniency, should a student attempt to bypass the new guidelines.

 

We are putting these into effect so quickly because it has become obvious that more needs to be done in our school in terms of preventing akumatizations of our students. Obviously there is nothing we can do about the rest of Paris, but we can at least make sure that conflicts that erupt here don’t escalate to the point where one of Hawk Moth’s butterflies is attracted.”

 

When Mr. Damocles paused, Alya raised her hand and waved it to get his attention.

 

“Mr. Damocles! Does this mean you’re going to start punishing students who do get akumatized?”

 

Mr. Damocles shook his head. “Not at all, Miss Cesaire. We are simply hoping to reduce the number of times the school must shut down because of an akuma. Additionally, there have been concerns raised over the psychological effect of our students feeling themselves to be in constant danger of attack, or of being manipulated into becoming supervillains. Ladybug may have a cure that can heal the damages of an akuma attack, but it has become obvious that this cure does not erase memories unless the akuma in question has some kind of memory-related power. Thus, the trauma of repeated attacks here can build up. We hope to level that out and prevent as many potential akumas as we can with the new policies. There is also the issue of missed school hours. Many classes here are behind in their coursework compared to your peers in other schools across Paris, and we feel this is likely because we must send you home for your own safety so often.”

 

When there were no further questions, Mr. Damocles dismissed them back to their classes, and everyone wandered away, most of the students who hadn’t known about or been involved with the events of last night questioning each other to see just what had prompted such a change within the school’s administration.

 

Ms. Bustier’s class gathered together for solidarity, and a surprising number of drama club students also joined them, despite not being in the same class. There was a brief moment of awkwardness between the two groups, but then one of the drama club students- most of them recognized him as the male lead in yesterday’s play- spoke up.

 

“You know, when Lila first joined us, I was sure that email had grossly exaggerated how much she lied. And she was a really good natural actress- we were all impressed,” he said, waving his hand toward his fellow club members, who nodded and murmured agreement. “But we kinda had some judging going on for you guys because she just… didn’t seem that bad. But after what she did last night? I feel like we should apologize for that judgement. She’s obviously much worse than even that email painted her. So… sorry. And I’m sorry you all had to put up with her for so long.”

 

Adrien stepped forward. “Well, if we’re apologizing, I need to make one, too. I… kinda foisted her off on you all.” He rubbed the back of his neck in chagrin. “I was just trying to keep her from getting akumatized right then because… well. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed the problem onto someone else. You all got hurt because of it.” He took a deep breath, hoping he could hold to this next promise. “Next time, I’ll tackle the problem instead of trying to ignore it, or making it someone else’s problem.”

 

“Hey man, we get it,” the other guy said, with a half smile. “At least we weren’t exposed as long as you guys were. Anyway, we’ve got to get back to class,”

 

“Wait,” Adrien said suddenly, holding out his hand. “I’d like to make it up to you- the whole drama club. Lila ruined her production last night, so much that you took down the stage, which I can only assume means you’re not going to perform that play at all anymore. That’s not fair. You worked hard on that, and… well, I might have an alternative if you want to hear it?”

 

The guy raised his eyebrows, shooting questioning looks at his fellow club members, most of whom shrugged their assent to at least listen to what Adrien had to say.

 

“Ok, let’s hear it,” he said.

 

“We don’t really have time right now, but maybe we could get together after school today?”

 

“Okay. My names Brandon,” the guy said, holding out his hand. “These guys are Lucia, Donovan, Gregory and Emile, Sasha, and Siobhan.”

 

“Adrien,” Adrien said, shaking his hand. “Let’s meet in the park.” He grinned. “I think you’ll really like what I have to say.”

 

----

 

Marinette bumped Adrien softly as they walked back to class. “What was all that about?” she asked.

 

Adrien grinned at her, a secretive look in his eye. “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

 

Marinette rolled her eyes. “A secret you’re going to share with the whole drama club?”

 

“Not just them. Most of our class, too.”

 

Her eyebrows rose. “But not me.”

 

“Nope,” he said, grinning wider at the frustration on her face. “Don’t worry, you’ll like it. But I’m not just doing it for you, I’m doing it for our whole class. We need something- something to pull us together again, to show us that we’ve still got each other’s backs.”

 

Marinette huffed. “You know Alya’s going to tell me anyway, right?”

 

Adrien hummed. “No… no I don’t think she will this time. She’ll be too excited to see your face at the big reveal.”

 

“Ugh. You’re impossible.” Marinette pulled her hand away, crossing her arms and pouting.

 

“But you love me,” Adrien sing-songed, catching her shoulders and ducking his head a little so he could grin cajolingly at her.

 

Marinette’s scowl reluctantly morphed into an answering grin. “Fine. Yes. I DO love you.” She narrowed her eyes at him and shook a finger in front of his nose. “But this better be worth it!”

 

He captured her finger and kissed it. “It will be, ma belle. It will be.”

 

Chapter Text

Marinette threw herself onto her chaise and groaned audibly. It was so unfair of Adrien to leave her out of whatever he had planned. It wasn’t like she couldn’t contribute, she was great at improvising, and whatever it was had to be pulled together at the last minute. But no. He’d made her promise- promise - that she would stay away from the park that afternoon. 

 

But it was making her crazy, not knowing! She thought about climbing up to the balcony so she could at least watch what was going on, but she wouldn’t be able to hear anything from so far away, and it would just make her even crazier if she could see but not hear. Her imagination was too good, and that combined with her tendency to catastrophize, would only lead to a bout of crying and a whole lot of misunderstanding and guilt.

 

She thought about doing homework, but she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on that until she was sure the meeting, whatever it was about, was over. So she trudged down the stairs to the bakery. At least helping out with the after-school rush would keep her busy enough she might forget she was being left out.

 

She felt Tikki patting her thigh awkwardly through her purse just before she entered the back half of the bakery and sighed. That last thought was unfair. Adrien wasn’t really leaving her out, even if that’s what it felt like. He was making a surprise, and apparently it was for her, but it was also something to help out their class, and the drama club. And since she felt a little guilty about the damage Lila had done in that group, even in the little time she’d been a part of it, she made a conscious decision to try and relax and enjoy that her partner and boyfriend really did have a heart of gold.

 

Even if it made her skin feel all itchy to know something was going on and not be a part of it.

 

----

 

No, Adrien,” Ivan’s voice quietly boomed through the locker rooms. “I can’t and I won’t. I won’t do that again. Ever.”

 

Marinette, paused outside the cracked locker room doors, couldn’t hear what Adrien said in return, but whatever it was had Ivan lowering his voice, too. She waited a few more moments, but nothing else came through clearly, so she sighed and opened the door, making sure to push it until the hinges squeaked a warning. She might want to find out what was going on, but she was past the stage of sneaking up on people unless there was an akuma involved. Honestly, hearing what Ivan had said was a fluke, and she’d stopped more out of reflex than anything else. Adrien wanted to keep this a secret from her, and she was going to let him, she reminded herself firmly.

 

The voices cut off and a moment later, while Marinette made no attempt to be quiet about changing out her books, Adrien came around the corner and leaned up against the locker next to hers. 

 

“Hey, McGuyver,” he said, grinning at her.

 

Marinette straightened up from putting the new books in her backpack with a confused look. “What did you call me?”

 

“McGuyver,” Adrien said, scooting a bit closer. “It’s a character from an old American tv show. He’s a spy and he usually saves the day with something ridiculous like a toothpick and chewing gum.” He winked at her. “Actually he DID shut down a leak in a nuclear reactor facility with actual chewing gum once. I think it was in the pilot episode.”

 

Marinette burst out laughing. “Maybe we should put a post on the LadyBlog. I have a feeling Ladybug and Chat Noir would love that! Her lucky charms are always so random...”

 

“Yeah, I bet they could use a good laugh once in a while,” Adrien said, pulling her close for a quick kiss. “So,” he said, pulling away, “How much did you overhear?”

 

“Me?” Marinette asked innocently. “Overhear what?”

 

He raised an eyebrow at her. She grinned back.

 

“Come on, Mari…” he coaxed.

 

“Relax, I’m being good,” she said, swinging her backpack up and onto her shoulders. “All I heard was Ivan refusing to do something. That’s it, I swear.”

 

He still looked sceptical. She sighed and stepped closer, wrapping her arms around him. “I know this is important to you, and even though it’s killing me , I really am trying to be good and not pry. Or spy.”

 

He sighed into her hair. “Thanks.”

 

----

 

Marinette was on the way to meet Nino and Alya in the lunchroom, Adrien having rushed off to consult with some unnamed person about The Plot (as she was beginning to call it, two days into not knowing ), when she walked past an empty classroom only to hear Alya’s voice.

 

Marinette froze, again out of reflex. A brief mental struggle ended with Marinette leaning up against the wall outside the cracked classroom door that had allowed her to hear Alya in the first place.

 

“I’m telling you, she’ll figure it out!”

 

“But it won’t be the same without the costumes! It’s really not a big deal, Alya, I’ve got plenty of-”

 

“No. If you want her to be surprised- and I think you do- then giving her a costume to wear is just going to end in disappointment.”

 

“Well,” the voice which was definitely Adrien’s temporized, “I don’t think I could be disappointed as long as she comes…”

 

“You know what I mean! She’s a designer! Clothes and costumes are her thing! Of course she would recognize it, and then she’d start putting all the dots together and before you know it, she’d be all smug and satisfied instead of surprised!”

 

Marinette jumped when an arm was suddenly thrown around her shoulders.

 

“Hey Marinette!” Nino said brightly, and far too loudly. “On your way to lunch? Alya and Adrien said they’d meet us there. Come keep me company! We can find a good table while we wait!”

 

The voices inside had cut off right after Nino started shouting in her ear. Marinette winced and cringed a little, remembering how she’d promised Adrien just a few days ago that she wasn’t going to pry. 

 

“U-um… yeah!” she said. “I was just looking for them! Good thing you caught me,” she finished lamely, allowing Nino to pull her away from the classroom.

 

Once they were a few steps away, Marinette glanced at her boyfriend’s best friend (and her best friend’s boyfriend, now that she thought about it, and wow, wasn’t that a thought?). He seemed his usual casual self, not throwing her any judgemental looks. 

 

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I… I know I’m not supposed to pry, but it’s been two days already Nino! When is this going to happen and put me out of my misery?” she wailed.

 

Nino chuckled and put his arm around her shoulder again. “Don’t worry, dudette, Adrien’s almost got it all worked out. The only reason it’s taken so long is… um,” he broke off, awkwardly pulling his arm back and rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, just… it’ll be soon, ok?” He flashed her an uncomfortable grin, and Marinette briefly thought about pressing for more details, but decided to take pity on him.

 

“Fine, fine,” she grumbled. “All of you are going to owe me, though,” she said as they walked into the cafeteria.

 

----

 

That night Marinette found a fancy envelope sitting on her desk in front of the computer. It was dark blue and had her name printed on it in scrolling silver. She dropped everything and practically pounced on it, Tikki zooming out of her bag and hovering expectantly over her shoulder.

 

“Well?” the kwami prompted. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

 

“I mean,” Marinette bit her lip. “I guess…?”

 

She sighed. “I know I’ve been going crazy not knowing what’s going on, and everything, but… well, it’s kinda been fun, too. Trying to guess and work it out with the little bits and pieces I’ve been given. Opening this is going to set the whole thing in reality. No more possibilities.” She frowned up at the kwami. “Does that make sense, or am I overthinking things again?”

 

Tikki smiled at her. “It just sounds like you, Marinette. Being able to see so many possibilities is what makes you a great Ladybug! But I think Adrien and your friends know you well enough that you don’t have to worry they put something together that won’t blow you away, or that you wouldn’t like.”

 

Marinette chewed her lips for a moment before flipping the envelope over and ripping it open without further ceremony. She read the invitation inside and began to grin. “And you’re right, Tikki! This is a great surprise! It’s going to be so fun!” 

 

She giggled and flung her arms out, dancing around the room in anticipation.

 

----

 

The gathering was being held in an outdoor park with a natural amphitheater and a small stone pavement at the bottom of the half bowl that could be used as a stage for concerts or special performances. It was going to be put to that use today in fact, and the grassy sides of the depression were already dotted with Parisians enjoying the sunny spring weather. There was a swath of grass cordoned off from the lip of the bowl to the bottom in the middle where no one was allowed to sit, though.

 

Marinette looked around for the rest of her classmates, quickly spotting most of the girl squad standing together at the top of the easy slope. The boys, except for Nathaniel, Max, and Kim, were there, too. Marinette quickly climbed to the top to join them. 

 

“Hey, guys! So, where are we sitting?”

 

Alya turned and smirked at her. “We,” she said, waving her hand to indicate the girls, “Are sitting right here at the top.”

 

“What? Why? Wouldn’t we be able to hear better if we were closer to the action?”

 

“Oh, trust me girl. We are going to be up front and center when it comes to the action.” Her smirk widened to a full out grin, and Marinette narrowed her eyes at her. But then she looked back at the empty swath of grass and decided the drama club was probably going to take advantage of the natural setting and use part of it as their stage. She could think of at least one scene where a long slope would come in handy.

 

So she just shrugged and let Alya tug her to a spot to one side of the cordoned off area. Curiously, instead of bunching up all together like they normally would, the girls spread out a little, creating some distance between them all. Marinette brushed it off as saving space for the boys. She certainly would rather cuddle with Adrien than Alya, much as she loved Alya.

 

But even as the actors came onstage to announce the performance- a selection of scenes from The Princess Bride- no boys appeared. Marinette leaned toward Alya to ask where they were, but she just got shushed for her efforts. Now, normally Marinette’s stubborn inability to let a mystery continue unsolved would force her to abandon the performance to go look for the boys. But since this was part of the surprise specially planned for her, she had to assume that the boys were absent for a reason. And that she might spoil any further surprises by going to look for them. Adrien’s conversation with Alya came to mind. If he’d been contemplating giving her a costume to wear…

 

She turned her attention back to the stage, where Aurilie, playing the part of Princess Buttercup to perfection (take that, Lila!), had just been kidnapped by the trio of villains hired by her sleazy fiance, Prince Humperdinck. To her surprise, she recognized Ivan playing the role of the gentle giant Fezzik. She hummed thoughtfully. 

 

After the very quotable conflict on the boat (“Fezzik! Are there rocks ahead?” the audience cried along with the actor playing Inigo), the actors jumped ahead to the fight on the Cliffs of Insanity. ‘Inigo’ must have been part of the fencing team, because he really gave ‘The Man in Black’ a run for his money before nobly accepting his defeat.

 

They jumped ahead again to the Battle of Wits (“For the Princess?... To the Death? ” the crowd once again shouted along). ‘The Man in Black’ poisoned the glasses and ‘Vizzini’ laughed himself to death, cheered on by the majority of the people watching. Marinette was wholly enthralled. She’d never experienced anything like this before, where the audience was encouraged to participate beyond clapping and cheering politely. She’d almost forgotten the absent boys until ‘The Man in Black’ flung ‘Princess Buttercup’ onto a rock to rest before they continued. Suddenly, there was a ‘Man in Black’ standing beside each of the girls sitting at the top of the amphitheater.

 

Startled, Marinette looked up to see very familiar green eyes staring at her through a black mask. Wisps of blonde hair peeking out from under the black headscarf the mask was attached to further confirmed that Adrien was standing beside her in costume. She blinked a few times before a smile grew on her face and she started shaking her head.

 

Then, just as Princess Buttercup pushed the Dread Pirate Roberts down the ‘cliff,’ ALL of the men in black on top of the amphitheater also tumbled down the slope, all of them crying out “AS... YOU... WISH!”

 

Marinette laughed aloud before throwing her dignity to the wind and standing up with the rest of the giggling girls. Together they shouted, “Oh my sweet Westley! What have I done?” Then they threw themselves after their respective boyfriends to the wild cheers of the audience, who hadn’t been expecting this either.

 

It wasn’t quite perfect. There were too many of them to avoid knocking into each other on the way down, and Mylene never actually did anything but run down the slope, but regardless, they ended up at the bottom being cradled by their now-unmasked boyfriends as the scene onstage continued to play out. Marinette couldn’t stop giggling, even when Adrien kissed her breathlessly. 

 

----

 

Later, with Gorilla giving them both a ride back to the bakery, where Adrien was going to stay for supper, Marinette leaned in and kissed his cheek.

 

“Thank you for this,” she said. “But what on earth gave you the idea?”

 

Adrien blushed and looked at his driver nervously. “Well,” he leaned in close enough to speak softly in her ear. “You did say Chat could reveal himself to you once your brain was better.”

 

He pulled back enough to see the surprise on her face and smiled. “This was what I came up with to do that. I just needed to tweak it a bit, and order more costumes when the cast expanded. I already had the permits for the park,” he explained. “I figured something like this would be subtle enough to be overlooked by most as silly cosplay, but pointed enough you wouldn’t be able to ignore the similarities. I know you figured it out yourself, but…” he shrugged. “Why let a clawsome plan go to waste when it could do so much good?”

 

Marinette snorted and rolled her eyes, but couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “Leave it to you to find some crazy, over-the-top way to do a reveal.” She laughed. “But it was so much fun. And Aurilie! She was amazing!”

 

She stroked his arm lovingly. “I love that you thought to include everyone. And I love that you thought of this in the first place. I… I love you. ” She said the last part softly, shyly dropping her gaze to their joined hands.

 

Adrien reached out and gently tilted her head back up to look at him. “And I love you,” he said, just as softly, but with so much meaning Marinette was amazed all over again at how lucky they both were. 

 

When they pulled up in front of the bakery there was, surprisingly, a crowd of reporters waiting for them. Apparently, Adrien Agreste’s relationship status was now public. Marinette felt herself wilting a little, but Adrien squeezed her hand and gave her a comforting smile.

 

“Together?” he asked, nodding to the shouting reporters almost swarming the car.

 

“Always,” she said, and squeezed his hand back before the Gorilla forced his way through the throng to open the door for them. They stepped out, hand in hand, and faced the cameras as if they were just one more akuma, finally partners in all things.

 

THE END