“Take it off.”
Alya planted her hands on her hips. “Take. It. Off.”
Ladybug crossed her arms tighter. “No.”
Upon their arrival at the apothecary, the Candlewick family had been in an uproar until Alethea called the masses to order and instigated a mass exodus down into the greenhouse so the Miraculous and their friends could have privacy. It was one of the few small blessings Ladybug could be thankful for in a day where everything that could go wrong found ways to go horribly wrong, her current predicament included.
Chat Noir had lost his transformation in the alley outside of the Wellesley. Ladybug had tried everything to pry Nino and Alya away in time, but had been stonewalled at every turn. As heartening as it was to have friends who were so powerfully dedicated, it was also a pain in the ass when trying to maintain a secret identity.
Chat had unhelpfully been silent right up until the second his mask was pulled back and he was standing in a grim alley as Adrien once more. Nino’s surprise had been convincing enough for the first few numbing seconds, but Alya had given it away with her inability to fake a good lie. They knew. And Adrien wouldn’t look her in the eye.
Not one of them said a word to each other until they made it to Camden and slunk through the doors of the Candlewick Apothecary.
Within the span of a few spare minutes, the numbness of shock had given way to fresh incredulity. Despite their dire circumstances, there was enough room left in Ladybug’s injured heart to suffer the sting of betrayal. The insult of it! Despite the fact that she had only ever made Chat promise not to tell her who he truly was, she had never imagined he would go behind her back and tell their best friends before her! The audacity!
Now Ladybug found herself in a standoff with her best friend, each of them standing on either side of the living room. The only thing between them was a pitiful coffee table.
Nino had sidelined himself with Adrien on the couch, eyes bouncing back and forth between the girls. “Alya, maybe you should-”
“No! She’s standing right there, Nino! Adrien changed in front of us. She can, too.”
Nino pinched the bridge of his nose. “Adrien didn’t have a choice. Now is not the time to be forcing the issue.”
“But we already know! There’s no point in hiding it anymore!” She threw her arms up. “You’re just being stubborn, Ladybug! You’re just so- urgh! You’re so stubborn! What’s the harm if we already know?”
Ladybug bristled, all but digging her heels in. “Neither of you should know anything.”
“Well too bad! We know everything. Now take off the stupid costume!”
“I know it’s you under there. Whatever magic you have going on, I can almost see through it!” She squinted, face screwing up into a sour scowl. “It’s giving me a migraine looking at you.”
It’s alright to take off the spots, Marinette. The damage has already been done. Tikki did not sound nearly as upset as Ladybug felt. She sounded quiet. There was a dissonance about her presence that Ladybug felt acute in the back of her mind, setting her further on edge.
In the corner where she thought she would have had unwavering support, Adrien still wouldn’t look her in the eye. His face had reverted back to the ashen grey it had been the night before when he had been under the influence of Prince Ophelia. Nino was steadily feeding him cheese he’d pulled out of the witches’ fridge to lesser effect than food should have had on post-Miraculous exhaustion. His head stayed listlessly propped on Nino’s shoulder.
The biggest part of Ladybug wanted to go to him. She wanted to fold him up, put him in her lap and wrap herself around him. She wanted to make good on her promise to protect him. But there was a screaming irrational part of her that was small but so very loud, stupidly mad that he had told everyone else before her. She was ridiculously mad at herself that she had lost all control of the situation. She was senselessly mad that she had let herself slink off with her tail between her legs instead of doing the right thing to stick around in the aftermath of the hotel.
The only thing she had control of now was her identity, and she’d be damned to let that go just yet.
“I’m going to go change in the bathroom.” She turned on her heel.
“We’re not done here!”
Footsteps ricocheted over the coffee tabletop. It was by reflex alone that Ladybug raised her arms and caught the flying body coming at her from behind. She easily hoisted her best friend up on straight arms. Alya’s head hung down directly in front of her, shock written across her face as her glasses slid off the tip of her nose.
Ladybug bent her an incredulous look. “I have super-strength. What did you think was going to happen?”
“I thought we were best friends!” Alya’s hands shot out, forming white-knuckle fists over Ladybug’s ears.
“Oh my god, let go!” Loathe to throw a civilian to the floor, Ladybug was forced to buck like a bronco. Her ears rang with a sudden feedback of magic. Even with super strength, she was no match for Alya’s howling tenacity. They swung around the living room together, Ladybug slapping fitfully and Alya kicking out uselessly. The coffee table went end over end; a bookshelf got hip-checked, losing the contents of its shelves.
“Oh, come one! You’re seriously fighting about this?” Nino exclaimed, to which neither combatant paid him any mind.
“Get off of me, Alya!” Ladybug shrieked.
“Get your stupid costume off first!” Alya managed to swing one of her legs up and over Ladybug’s shoulder to hook her knee under the hero’s arm, twisting valiantly until she belly-flopped on top Ladybug’s head. Her fingers stayed clenched around Ladybug’s ears, crushing them without making a move to yank her earrings out. Closer than any akuma had ever gotten to stealing the Miraculous out of her ears. “If I were Lady Wifi right now, you’d be screwed!”
“If you were Lady Wifi right now, I’d still be able to kick your ass!” With just a little extra super-strength - not a lot, just enough to prove her point without causing injury - Ladybug pried Alya off her head and threw her down on the nearest over-stuffed couch. In a fit of immaturity that she never would have dared show in public while wearing her spots, she grabbed the nearest pillow to shove over Alya's face. “Lucky Charm this!”
A muffled shriek carried through the cotton. Alya kicked and flailed to no avail, more for show than any true attempt at escape. Ladybug wasn't even pressing all that hard. Alya could have escaped at any time, she could have rolled to the side and flopped straight off the side of the couch, but she never did. The point of the fight had never been to win or lose. It had just been.... between them. That's all. Seconds later, the fight drained out of her not that there had been much to begin with. Bravado, the whole stinking lot of it.
Ladybug pulled the pillow back.
Alya lay splayed across the cushions, face still flushed, her shirt rucked up. She squinted, focusing on the red-and-black shape of Ladybug sitting over her, soft around the edges without her glasses. “Would it really be that bad to take your costume off? You’re my best friend.”
“You’re mine, too. Alya, I…” Her final excuse melted to nothing. Every excuse she had ever hung her identity on sounded hollow. They sounded stupid. There was so much riding on them now, more than just the usual wayward Parisian caught up with Papillion’s plans. This was literal life and death, and suddenly everything else was small by comparison.
The pillow fell away with a soft whump. She slumped forward, arms falling around Alya’s neck.
"Come here," Alya murmured as strong arms wrapped around Ladybug's back, warm even through her armour. "It's alright." The shape of her lips brushed against Ladybug's hair; the sound of her voice brought comfort. "It's alright. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
The last of her tension drained away, hiding her face in Alya’s neck. This was the closest she had ever allowed herself to be to a civilian while still wearing the Ladybug guise. Of all the people she had saved from danger, caught from staggering heights and swept out from danger, of all the hugs she had given to traumatized Parisians, she had never once let any one of those civilians offer comfort to her. She was their hero. She couldn't afford that sort of weakness when so many looked up to her.
But Alya's arms were solid and warm, and no one was around to see. Ladybug let herself fall, taking comfort where she had never let herself before. “I always wanted to tell you.”
Alya sank deeper into the cushions with a sigh. “I know, girl. You had your reasons.”
“I didn’t want to kick your ass, either. Even if you were Lady Wifi.”
“I know that, too.” A gentle kiss was planted on the crown of Ladybug’s head. “We were both upset. We said things we didn’t mean.”
Ladybug hid her face deeper and whined, long and low, a deeply unprofessional noise she never would have made in costume where the public could hear her.
Alya patted her back soothingly. “It’s okay. Let it out. You’ve had a bad day.”
Nino glanced down at Adrien still on his shoulder. “I will never understand girls.”
Adrien closed his eyes, going limp like he meant to go to sleep.
It took several minutes of being comforted before Ladybug could bring her face up again. “I didn’t want it to be like this,” she said, peering down at her hands folded in her lap. It was the last of her protests, half-hearted as it was. There wasn’t any point in waiting any longer. Best to just rip the Band-Aid off.
Any second now.
Just do it.
She took a breath and closed her eyes. “Spots off.”
Tikki’s magic passed over her with a comforting rush, the same magic that she had been surrounded by since the first day she put the spots on. She felt her kwami move aside, slipping into her shadow to let the moment happen without her. This was between Marinette and Alya.
“Oh.” Alya shifted next to her. “Oh.”
Marinette glanced up, watching as the veil fell away once and for all. Alya’s face played out like an open book, years’ worth of Ladybug encounters suddenly rewriting themselves. Marinette Dupain-Cheng was Ladybug. Ladybug was Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Surprise and joy flittered across Alya’s eyes. Awe followed.
Eventually, the parade settled and her eyes found their way to Marinette’s face. “You really did all that.”
“All this time, it was you.” Wonder bled away into something warmer, a new emotion lighting Alya’s already warm eyes. Marinette’s heart fluttered, her heartbeat dancing on the back of her tongue. Alya’s chin wavered, eyes glittering wetly at the corners. Her arms came around Marinette, able to crush her close now that the invulnerability of Ladybug wasn’t looming between them. “I am so proud of you.”
Marinette hugged her back. “You’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“You were mad five minutes ago.”
“That wasn’t mad. That was…” She didn’t have a proper answer, so she waved it off. “That was us being stupid.” The way her eyes traced around Marinette’s cheekbones said she was taking Ladybug’s mask on and off in her mind, now able to see the person underneath. “Maybe I was mad last night for, like, five minutes when I figured it out. But that was it. You’re still Marinette. You’re still my best friend.” Her hands shaped Marinette’s shoulders, squeezing tight. “I still love you, girl.”
Relief bubbled up, blurring her vision into watercolours. Her chin wavered, shoulders sagging under her own weight.
“Oh, Mari, don’t cry! Come here, I’ve got you.” And then Alya was hugging her again, and Marinette tucker her cheek on Alya’s shoulder and let the full wave of relief ride over her. She had built the secret of her identity on a pillar so high she hadn’t been able to see the ground anymore. A precarious pillar that swayed every time the wind blew, threatening to crumble any time the idea of Marinette and Ladybug got too close. She had put so much on the idea of keeping her two selves separate, and now…
“Hug her extra for me, babe. I can’t move with Adrien on me.”
“Extra hugs coming up.” Alya’s arms cinched tighter, rocking Marinette gently. “Ladybug, well, you told me once a long time ago that you kept your identity a secret to protect the ones you love. How can I be mad at you for that? I would have done the same thing.”
Marinette dashed the corners of her eyes, ducking her head.
“You can be so stubborn sometimes.”
A wet laugh bubbled up. “Look who’s talking.”
“Have we made up now?” Nino asked, eyebrows arched high from his spot across from them. “Mari, it’s cool that you’re Ladybug. I respect that as much as I respect Adrien being Chat Noir, but maybe we could catch up on that fact a little later?” He tipped his head pointedly toward the body he was currently propping up. Adrien lurched forward from the small movement, caught with an arm around his chest before he could face plant against the floor. “Yeah, he’s not doing so hot.”
Marinette breathed a curse, vaulting the short distance to dig herself into the couch next to Adrien, hauling his heavy body up and back into her lap. “Tikki!”
Tikki was there before her name was finished being called, brushing a small hand against Adrien’s cheek. A brief burst of tingling magic passed over Marinette’s skin. “He’s alright, just exhausted.”
Marinette dragged him up to place him more securely against her chest. “He ate that thing.”
“A reflex of Plagg’s, I’m afraid.” She pet his cheek. “Luckily, it was only a seed and it was already dead. His own strength should enough to deal with the little bit of demonic energy he took in, but he’s going to have to sleep it off.” She traded a weary half-smile. “He’s been through a lot in the last couple of days.”
“All of us have.” Marinette glanced up to find her friends’ eyes had focused on the tiny kwami floating before them. Alya had climbed up on the couch arm to crouch behind Nino’s shoulder, peering wide-eyed over his head. Nino looked as if he were doing his best to appear polite while outright goggling. Marinette glanced back at Tikki, reminded of the first time she had seen a kwami. They were a little disconcerting to meet when no one is expecting to see one. “Alya, Nino, this is Tikki. She’s the reason I can turn into Ladybug.”
Tikki was as gracious as ever, turning to offer a slight bow. “I’ve been watching you two for years. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“Oh my god.” Alya offered her hand to shake, making do with bobbing her finger against Tikki’s tiny paw. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
Nino was more nervous offering the same pleasantry, but did so with a gratifyingly steady hand. “You’re like Plagg, then.”
Tikki’s glow dimmed, her smile fading around the edges. “I am. Adrien explained the basics already?”
“Only the very basics.” Nino patted the boy on the knee without jostling him. Adrien showed no signs of waking up from the haven he had tucked himself into, pushing his face into Marinette’s belly, curling the rest of him as close as he could. Nino's gaze followed Marinette’s hand from where she stroked Adrien’s hair up to her face. His smile did not meet his eyes. “We only found out about him recently. He never meant to tell us, Mari.”
Marinette let her eyes fall closed, ducking her head deeper into her shoulders. “I should have known something must have happened. I didn’t think he would out himself just like that.” A fresh embarrassed flush crawled up her cheeks. “I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Alya slid across Nino’s lap to capture Marinette’s hand in hers. “It’s no wonder! Look at what you’ve been dealing with.” She squeezed. “But we’re all here now. We’re on the same page.”
“Yeah. Sure.” They didn’t know yet that he might die in a week.
She licked her lips to say something, and found that there was only silence on her tongue. They needed to know. They had every right as Adrien’s best friends and confidantes to know exactly what was happening. But her eyes bounced back and forth between their faces and the weight of their stares dragged down against bones that already felt too brittle. The strength she had been depending on for the last twenty-four hours had worn paper thin, leaving pieces of herself raw, exposed to the harsh realities she had been doing everything to shore herself up against.
She was Ladybug. She was supposed to save the day. Her friends depended on her. Paris depended on her. People everywhere depended on Ladybug to be the hero they saw her as – powerful, in control, undefeatable.
She didn’t feel like that anymore when she needed to feel like that the most because Adrien was depending on her.
Marinette turned her fingers in Alya’s grasp, tightening her grip until they were both shaking.
The silence was broken by the front door easing open to admit a parade of subdued witches, Sarah and John amongst them. Not another word was spoken as the space filled up and the air grew thin, and Marinette found herself dragging Adrien deeper into her lap to protect him from prying eyes. Alathea offered one of her daughters’ bedrooms to stash poor Adrien while he was sleeping off his latest demonic hangover. He was stripped of his socks and shoes and made comfortable beneath a duvet that smelled strongly of fresh cut grass. Frank was left at Adrien’s bedside to watch over him should he wake.
By the time Marinette returned with Nino from tucking Adrien in bed, two kettles had been set on the stove to boil. An array of mismatched teacups had been set out next to a plate of biscuits that no one in the room appeared to have a stomach for. The only entity who showed any interest in eating was Tikki, who tucked into a tray of proffered sugar cubes without her usual delight.
Tea, when it was served, tasted of little else but dread.
Marinette let herself be wedged between Alya and Nino, who had taken up protective sentry positions on either side and refused to be budged.
“This is certainly an unexpected development,” Alathea murmured over the rim of her tea cup. “Demons have always been a human affliction.” She deferred to Tikki. “Have you ever heard of anything like this?”
Tikki shook her head. “This is all disturbingly new.”
“Papillion is still behind this, right?” Alya asked, eyes darting between Marinette and Tikki. “He’s the only one who could pull something like this.”
“Perhaps, but perhaps not. This is unknown territory we are treading into,” Tikki said. “The Butterfly Miraculous is a source of Inspiration. It inspires others to be better than what they are. Corrupted, it makes them worse. It shouldn’t have the power to defy natural order.”
Nino set his cup away. “And what about Nathalie? There’s been no sign of her or Gorilla. Neither of them are answering their phones.”
“The chances are very high right now that Adrien is right about her condition and she has been consumed. What connection she had to the stink spirit’s condition, I can’t say.”
“Can’t you scry for them?” Alya asked, looking to any witch who would meet her eye.
“We don’t have anything of theirs to scry with.” Alathea swirled her tea, watching as dark dregs whirled at the bottom of her cup. “If it is true that the woman has been consumed, we would be unable to find her anyways. There is very little we can do right now.”
Marinette shot to her feet.
Too many eyes shot her way.
“I should be out there. I should be doing something.”
“Doing what, Marinette?” Tikki wondered. “Without Chat Noir, we don’t have any backup. It’s safest if we wait.”
Waiting didn’t feel like the right thing to do. The thought of doing nothing curled low and heavy in her gut. Waiting was far too close to being useless, and Ladybug was not accustomed to being useless in any situation.
Tikki patted the space beside her. “Sit down, Marinette. This is only until we can figure something out.”
Alathea set her cup away, eyes averted from the tea leaves. “In the meantime, you are all tired. This is a safe place where you can rest for the night. You can wash up and we’ll find you some clean clothes to change into.”
Overruled, Marinette forced herself to go through the motions of washing up in the Candlewicks’ ancient washroom. Clothes had been supplied, unsurprisingly second-hand with signs of having been worn by far too many witches to have held up for so long. But it was all soft and clean, well-worn and well-loved, comfortable as she fit the long shirt over her head and stepped into the threadbare sleep pants.
Dinner passed as no more than a ghost on Marinette’s tongue.
Early in the evening, Sarah had tried to approach with something to say but the exchange had turned stilted almost instantly. There was just... nothing to say. No comfort to give. She wasn't at fault for anything happening, and yet Marinette wanted nothing more than to be left alone and not look at the reminder of how the whole mess started in the first place.
Sarah left with little more than a whisper of her bare feet against the floorboards. Soon she was swept away into the growing chaos below stairs as news of a possessed stink spirit started growing traction in the magical community. An impossible thing. A bad omen. One too many misfortunes in the city of London with the Miraculous of damned Bad Luck festering in the city to ever mistake any of it for coincidence. And now the magical folk of the city were stirring, wondering if they would be next. Every witch was forced into the apothecary to attempt to stem the influx of panic.
By the sounds coming through the floor, they weren’t having much luck.
An old grandfather clock breathing cobwebs in the corner struck midnight by the time Marinette was tucked into the corner of a bed, sagging with creaking springs toward the combined weight of Alya and Nino folded together on the other side. While there had been enough beds for each to have their own, Nino had not wanted to be alone and Alya had refused to be pried from Marinette’s side. The room was small, the ceiling harshly slanted; dried bundles of flowers hung from the exposed rafters, polished crystals and small charms laid scattered across the top of a chest of drawers alongside makeup and magazines.
Nino’s feet stuck out over the end of the bed.
Alya’s eyes glinted faintly in the low light filtering in through a single, narrow window. “So.”
Marinette shifted to lay nearly nose-to-nose with her, watching as sleep warred with curiosity in the eyes watching her. “So.”
Nino snuffled in his sleep, turning face down in his pillow. The mattress rocked. Marinette and Alya rocked with it. Once he settled and the springs stopped creaking, there was only silence and the permeating warmth of three bodies huddled together in one bed.
In the silence, there was the quiet, gleeful knowing that Alya was in on the secret. There were no longer any secrets at all between them. They were back to the way they had been when they had met that first time all those years ago. Except now it was better. They were closer. She had never realized how big a wall she had put between herself and Alya to hide Ladybug away until it was gone. The sheer amount of relief that filled the space that had once separated them could have filled oceans.
“You and Adrien, huh?”
Marinette turned her nose into her pillow.
Alya slid closer, slinging an arm over Marinette’s waist. “I saw the way you held him earlier.”
“I couldn’t let him go.” He’d been heavy, and solid, and real in her arms. She hadn’t given a damn to who had been watching or how she’d held him. Marinette had thought of nothing else but keeping him safe in her arms. She had needed to keep him close. Even now the urge was still there. She wanted to be at his side, curled up around him, counting each breath and heartbeat while he slept.
She felt none of the embarrassment she thought she would feel for such things.
Alya knew better than to tease. “So what’s going on between you? You’re so…” She bit her lip. “You’re so different from the last time I saw you together.”
“You mean yesterday?”
Alya’s face disappeared into the pillow. “Was it only yesterday? It feels like a week ago.”
Finally, Marinette licked her lips and murmured loud enough for only Alya and the night closing in around them to hear. “He’s not who I thought he was.” Alya scooted closer, dragging more blanket with her, making Marinette feel braver for her nearness. “I thought I loved him before. Turns out I didn’t know him at all. I liked the idea of him. But now…”
“Now I know I didn’t know him enough to love him. He was just so handsome and sweet and…”
“Yes.” Marinette sank into the gravity of the mattress, no more than a whisper escaping between them. “I thought he was perfect.”
Alya’s lips curled into a crooked smile. “Nobody’s perfect, Mari. Not Ladybug. Not Adrien Agreste.”
“I know. I know. I’ve been so stupid.” A small laugh sputtered between them. “He’s Chat Noir. That’s about as unperfect as you can get.” Calm settled once more. Her arm slipped beneath her pillow, curling under her head. “He was my partner this whole time. Sometimes he’s been closer to me than even you have. We’ve been fighting together, protecting each other for years. I’ve trusted him with my life.” A shaking breath sawed past her lips. “I can’t imagine ever being Ladybug again without him being Chat Noir.”
Soft fingertips crept out from under the blankets, tracing Marinette’s cheek to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear.
She leaned into the touch, the sting of tears welling behind her eyes. “I can see him now for who he really is now and I think he’s amazing.” Lonely tears dripped from her cheek, wetting her pillow. “Alya, I can’t lose him now.”
“You won’t, ma belle.” They rolled together into a tangled hug. “We’ll figure something out. Ladybug’s never lost a fight before and you’re not going to start now.”
Marinette choked on a stray laugh that faded to a sad note, a small sob that dissipated too quickly into the dark. “I think I love him.”
“I know.” A kiss brushed her forehead. “You’d be crazy not to, Marinette.”
They settled together, drifting off to the faint swish of the breeze passing through drying herb bundles and the occasional muffled noise of voices through the floor. Alya fell first, sinking away into sleep as her eyelids dragged heavy and her breathing evened out. Her arm stayed limp over Marinette’s waist. Nino snuffled once more in his sleep, throwing his leg over Alya and stretching as far as to include Marinette in his unusual embrace.
When the grandfather clock struck three, Marinette gave up on the idea of sleep.
She schlepped from the bed and shuffled out into the living area, finding it cast into all manner of shadow. There were no candles burning as there had been last night. The only magic she felt swirling in the air was old magic that had been soaked into the wood from centuries of witches running within the walls and the familiar turn in the air that said Chat Noir was somewhere near.
Tikki sat near an open window watching the dark sky stained in an orange haze from light pollution.
Marinette took up a silent place behind the kwami.
“The witching hour,” she announced without looking back, the city reflected in her luminous eyes. “It’s said witches and demons are most powerful at this time of night.”
Marinette looked back at her own reflection in the glass. “Are they?”
“Maybe.” Tikki shrugged. “It’s always three o’clock somewhere.” She looked back. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Marinette let her presence speak for itself.
“I could help you, if you’d like.”
She propped her hip on the edge of the sill, chilled by the cold night air that came in with the draft. “Will you use some of your mysterious kwami powers on me?”
“Not quite.” Tikki cupped her hands before her face, glowing brighter for a moment as her belly jerked inward and a lump moved up her throat. Her mouth opened around the rounded sides of a polished stone that shone like a sunset in the dark, a slash down its middle peering out like an eye. Once in her arms, Tikki gave it a jaunty polish as if to wipe away saliva that wasn’t there.
“Tiger’s Eye,” Marinette observed, remembering from what felt like a lifetime ago when she had been crawling over a window sill and a soaking rat of a witch had floated outside in the rain offering a silly little rock. “You kept it this whole time?”
Tikki turned it over in her hands, nearly too large for her to handle though she kept it steady as if she were a creature much larger than she appeared to be. “Do you know what Tiger’s Eye can do?”
Marinette pursed her lips.
“It can help bring good fortune.” Her glow reflected off the stone. “It can give courage, when you let it. It can ignite passion.” Merriment danced in the small god’s eyes. “Lay it by your bedside at night and it can help to bring dreams to fruition.”
Tikki's eyes grew wide, reflecting light that shone nowhere in the room except from within her. Her smile curled from something soft to something that looked exactly as laughter sounded - free and fun and flirty, fleeting and yet lasting for the same forever that she herself had existed. In that moment, she looked like a god, and an imp, and a creature who was old and lucky and as terrible and wonderful as a force of nature. Not a single inch of her looked guilty.
Truth dawned with a disbelieving laugh; Marinette did not have the heart to be upset. Of all the naughty things her kwami had ever pulled-! “It was you this whole time!”
Tikki floated closer to be on level with Marinette, utterly shameless. “No, it was you. And him. I was only a catalyst. You had to want it first.”
Firelight and forests, the silken touch of moonlight at midnight and fur made of shadow. She should have known better. Dreams that vivid never happened without some sort of magical intervention. A shiver passed down her spine, a moment of longing for those wild delights that seemed so far away now.
Her forehead thumped against the window frame. “This whole time, Tikki?”
“Forgive an old god for her few delights.” She didn’t sound the least bit sorry. “You two deserved more than what you let yourselves have. It was harmless, and you enjoyed it.”
Marinette blushed from her toes upward, but failed to deny it.
Tikki held the stone out, her smile dying back. “Go to him tonight.”
“I can’t. He’s-”
“Waiting for you.” She pushed the stone into Marinette’s palm. “Have this one night. You need it, Marinette. Talk to him. Do whatever it is you need to do.”
Her fingers curled in over the polished surface, measuring its weight and unexpected warmth.
“Go on. You’re safe tonight. I’ll keep watch.”
Thus dismissed, Tikki turned back to the window, leaving Marinette to stare at her tiny back.
“You’re a terrible influence.” Nevertheless, she was turning for the dark hall with only the faint tinkle of kwami laughter to follow her. There was light in her steps again, and a stirring in her belly that was finally something other than dread. She found the right door in the middle of the corridor, where inside was a sleeping boy laying exactly as she had left him hours before.
Marinette inclined her head toward the plague spirit curled up at the foot of the bed. “We will no longer be needing your services tonight, Frank.”
She closed the door behind him as he left, then locked it for good measure.
Adrien did not stir when she approached the bed, nor did he show any signs of waking when she pulled back the covers. He wasn’t as warm as Alya and Nino’s body heat combined. His weight was great enough to make the mattress dip, letting her roll into his side and fit easily into the curve of his body.
There were dark circles around his eyes, a grey cast over his lips. Uncombed, unshaven, clothes a mess and beginning to turn ripe with the pungency of sweat, he was still the most beautiful boy she had ever seen.
She kissed his cheek as she slipped the Tiger’s Eye beneath their pillows. “See you soon.”