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It started out okay.

Better than okay. It started out great. It started out amazing, because here he was, and there she was, and here, finally, was proof that he was worth something. Something beyond Chat Noir’s power and fame, something besides Adrien’s handsome face. Something below the surface. Here, at last, was absolute, solid, concrete proof that Adrien Agreste was worthy.

Adrien wasn’t just happy, he was practically giddy. Finally, after years and years of living in isolation and rejection, wondering how good am I, really, what am I worth besides my father’s fame and fortune? Here was irrefutable proof that he was something, and he would always be something.

It was not only solid proof, it was proof in the form of Ladybug, the one person whose approval he sought time and time again, his best friend, who he had spent night after sleepless night wondering if he was good enough for. Ladybug, looking at him with soft eyes and a small smile and a bit of a blush on her cheeks, watching him with what could only be considered admiration.

It started out okay. She explained the rules. Adrien’s ears were ringing as he heard the snake click into place, and all he could hear was worthy.

Gratitude was radiating through his every muscle, swirling and mixing with adrenaline, making his heart beat fiercely in his chest as the two of them crouched behind a car. He was made of gold, every inch of him. Worthy and powerful and loved after all.

So the first time Ladybug got hit, he wasn’t nearly as worried as he should have been.

Plagg berated him, but he was there for a reason. Ladybug chose him for a reason. He would do this. He could.

He had to.

Second chance.

Trial 2. He’d seen a rose bouquet lying in the street and been unable to resist giving her one, but it was all right. He could go back. Third chance.

Trial 3. She’d curled up against him, behind the car, and he could feel her heartbeat through her skin. She trusted him. She believed in him.

Fourth chance.

It was only by the twentieth trial that Plagg’s warnings began to seep in.

He had to be more careful. He needed to stop being so happy and focus. He was there for a reason, and Ladybug never made mistakes.

50. He heard the trumpet blasting, knew exactly what it meant. But his voice met the open air too late for her.

82. She rounded the corner and he heard it, milliseconds before he saw the gold sand, and then she was no more. His happiness was fading fast.

But no. Ladybug never makes mistakes.

At least, not ones this big, anyway.

Eighty-third chance.

174. The time blended by, the same clip of the same video on loop over and over again. The twiddling of the trumpet, the little near-silent puff of the gold sand, the shiny metallic bring of the sticker appearing.

598. He’d thought it was the trumpet that would be the first thing to drive him insane, but it was that little bring of Ladybug’s proud portrait appearing on Desperada’s back. It was almost like a medal honoring Desperada’s kills--no, not almost. That was exactly what it was. A sick, twisted monument to her success.

732. They’d tried everything. Adrien was running out of options.

1,025. Everything was starting to feel like a horror movie. The same five minutes again and again. Ladybug dying thousands of different ways.

1,101. He’d said it out loud, clawed his heart out of his chest and handed it to her while they were running. He’d seen her eyes turn from confused to shocked. But it didn’t matter. He knew, even before it happened, that she would be gone before she could say anything--he knew that she would reach for him and never get there, knew that she would leave him, kneeling, his heart in his hands, swiping at the golden nothings she became.

1,428. One thousand, four hundred and twenty-ninth chance.

1,765. Not even he knew how he was keeping count--he had no paper, no writing utensil. If he tried to carve tally marks upon the sewer walls, each one would be erased when he returned. It just seemed like something he had to know, information he simply had to keep in his brain.

2,080. Two thousand and eighty-first chance.

2,449. He was far past second chances. Far past third chances.

2,804. But Ladybug never made mistakes.

3,233. The numbers ticked up. Counting, at this point, was almost second nature. It wasn’t something he could do so much as something he had to do.

3,487. Almost like talking, almost like breathing.

3,992. Desperada’s eyes looked like a demon’s, with the whites indigo and the irises copper. She looked like something he might see in his nightmares.

4,238. But she was something he saw in his nightmares, wasn’t she? This was a nightmare. He had to be dreaming.

4,677. Or he was going insane.

5,336. Five thousand, three hundred and thirty-seventh chance.

5,899. And the lines from her mouth to the black music note stains on her cheeks, her chalk-white skin beneath the dark velvet suit, the gold pattern of bones on her collar. The woman looked like a walking skeleton.

6,351. Like Death personified.

6,777. If Death was a person, what would they look like?

6,939. Now Adrien knew.

7,447. This time, he didn’t even bother leaving the sewers. He just looked Ladybug in her kind, strong bluebell eyes and threw his arms around her, knowing what was coming, knowing he had only seconds. She didn’t even have time to hug him back.

8,370. Eight thousand, three hundred and seventy-first chance.

8,995. A part of him couldn’t help noticing Ladybug’s little gasp every time she was hit.

9,244. It was barely a sharp intake of breath, and then suddenly she had no lungs, so she could not breathe.

9,639. It was ironic that she turned to sand as she gasped.

10,024. She was lost in a desert of golden sand,

10,772. he was drowning in time,

11,343. in the same five minutes over and over.

11,967. Eleven thousand, nine hundred and sixty-eighth chance.

12,243. One minute and two seconds.

12,562. Two minutes and nineteen seconds.

12,774. Forty-seven seconds.

12,996. Three minutes and twelve seconds.

13,282. Thirteen thousand, two hundred and eighty-third chance.

13,443. Adrien found a different thing to notice every time.

13,722. He kept his eyes on the blank space on Desparada’s guitar case that had held Ladybug fifty-three seconds before and would hold her again.

14,005. It was twisted, the way Ladybug smiled in ink on her sticker, with her

14,393. round pigtails and 

14,997. squared shoulders and 

15,590. lips turning upward and

15,822. eyebrows raised and

16,444. empty eyes that lived and died believing that

16,833. Adrien Agreste was worthy when in fact

17,229. he was not and

17,777. he never would be. He would try and

17,884. seventeen thousand, eight hundred and eighty-fifth chance

17,939. he would fail and she

18,003. would never know. It

18,449. split his heart in two every time she was taken 

18,767. so that by now every muscle tissue, every

18,903. blood vessel, every

19,200. hollow chamber was nothing but

19,545. sand. Split sand

19,722. nineteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-third chance

19,880. gold sand that took her away from him

20,147. no matter how hard he tried and now

20,333. he feared he truly was going insane because

20,562. did sane people fight against the makings of the universe

20,899. this way? did sane people see the same discarded bouquet and think two

21,003. did sane people check every possible place and still get caught unguarded

21,225. twenty-one thousand, two hundred and twenty-sixth chance

21,558. did sane people hear the awful deathly scrape of a manhole cover

21,846. and feel heaving in their chest, thinking what a

21,939. cruel artist reality is. Cruel in her deviousness, cruel in her

22,118. impersonation of fantasy, cruel in death, cruel

22,445. in life, until they were one and the same and pain was love and perhaps everything

22,668. was everything, perhaps there was no distinction between anything and

22,799. the lines we draw are human lines, between

23,103. sand and man, demon and nightmare and more second chances

23,444. between sticker and person, maybe they don’t matter

23,794. maybe they never did.

23,919. maybe the only thing that ever mattered was worthy and

24,154. maybe that was why he was doing this over and over, the sand and

24,399. the trumpets

24,500. twenty-four thousand, five hundred and first chance

24,668. maybe it was never for her, maybe it was for him.

24,894. the sun is scalding. the bouquet sits in the road

24,955. and he dares not touch it but it touches him, chews

25,003. and howls at his bones. the sky bleeds into the sewers and he forges on,

25,242. if only for fear of what will happen when he finally stops

25,601. his heart is sand so fine it has been torched into glass,

25,788. glass with which a new heart is being built, a stronger one, one

25,812. that will hold stars

25,899. he is a sunflower borne from the soil of blood

25,904. and his heart weeps for all of the bouquets left upon the street

25,908. for desert upon desert of gold glittering sand

25,910. his glass heart weeps for it has neither eyes nor ears and

25,911. will never know the sweet taste of forgiveness but only the feeling of fire.

25,912. twenty-five thousand, nine hundred and thirteenth chance.

25,913. 

It was Plagg that finally did it.

Truth be told, Adrien was ready to keep going for eternity--to get trapped in a time loop until he figured out a way to save her or died in the fiery embrace of the golden sand. But this time, instead of the awesome team, all right that had become habit, Plagg simply folded his arms, looked at him, and said, much softer than he normally spoke: “You look exhausted.”

It was the first time that he had said that, the first time anything other than awesome team, all right had come out of his mouth since this whole nightmare began.

You look exhausted.

Adrien was.

“I am,” he replied.

The snake’s head crept slowly toward its destination. Adrien and Plagg watched it.

“You know,” said Plagg, in the same soft unfamiliar voice, “you’ve got nothing to prove.”

“What?”

“You’ve got nothing to prove. Not to Ladybug, not to anyone. That’s all.”

Adrien looked at Plagg, and Plagg looked back, floating with his arms crossed and his eyes flat.

Adrien would cry later, have nightmares and wake up with cold toes in sweaty sheets, frantically flicking his wrist in search of a bracelet that was not there. He would see the face of Death branded into his eyelids, hear the horribly jaunty trill of the trumpet and always be too late, spit golden sand from his brain through his parched mouth as his tongue searched for water. He would cry remembering the discarded bouquet upon the asphalt, the bloody petals fresh and never falling, having seen the deadliest of things.

“I know,” he said.

He slid the snake’s head back for the last time. Plagg disappeared, and there was a sucking sound in his ears. There was only a split second where he was caught between the future and the present, and he did not cry as he closed his eyes, for there would be time later, plenty of nightmares to spare.