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A Werecat in London

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Summer was upon the streets of Paris, and a dark cloud had settled over the Dupain-Cheng home.

Marinette groaned long and loud, banging her head against her desktop. Amidst the sounds of her skull impacting the wood, she whined, “He’s gone!”

Comfortably reclined in the chaise, Alya glanced up bemusedly from her phone. “It’s not the end of the world, Mari. You knew Adrien was leaving for London the day school got out.”

That was hardly any time for a decent goodbye! All Marinette had managed was an awkward wave and a weirdly stilted ‘have a nice trip’ before Adrien had climbed into the back of his car and drove away. All things considered, yesterday hadn’t been her most embarrassing day, but it had been terribly frustrating. Made even worse by the fact that Alya was choosing to have no mercy today.

“This this you consoling me? Because it doesn’t sound like you consoling me,” Marinette grumbled rottenly.

Alya rolled her eyes. “Girl, I always got your back. You know that. But I am your best friend and I reserve the right to be unhelpful when it suits me.”

“You’re terrible!” Marinette exclaimed, laughing.

“And you’re not?” Alya countered impishly. A moment later, she fell into her role as the consoling best friend, her expression turning sympathetic. “He’s only going to be gone for a month, Mari. That’s not that long. Thirty days, tops.” She quirked an eyebrow. “It’s not as if you were going to confess to him this month.”

“I could have,” Marinette sighed, shoving away from the desk, her room becoming a spinning blur until her seat settled again. Wheeling herself over to Alya, she drew her legs up to hug her shins, setting her chin upon her kneecaps. “You never know, this month could have been my month.”

“As opposed to every other month that’s come and gone since you’ve met him?” Quite a few months, if anyone was counting. Marinette was not counting. Alya was the perfect mix of sympathies and teasing when she said, “You’ve only just graduated to full sentences around him.”

With a low-grade blush, Marinette turned her nose up. “It’s a big step for me.”

Alya nodded sagely. “Not that I am not wildly proud of you, girl, because I am. You’ve been crushing on him long enough that you deserve to be able to hold a decent conversation with him, but I think we’re still at the baby-steps stage.”

Baby-steps or not, Marinette could not help but mourn for what could have been. All the possible ‘What If…” scenarios running through her head. She could have run into him on the street and struck up a decent conversation that somehow slid into her confessing to him. Or Adrien could one day walk into the bakery, take a bite of one of her father’s scrumptious pastries, and declare his undying love… for her, not the pastries. The possibility existed that an akuma could attack, and she would need to dramatically sweep Adrien off his feet to whisk him to safety, and she, as Ladybug, declares herself to him.

The more she fantasized, the more wild the scenarios became.

“This could have been my month,” Marinette insisted stubbornly. “Now we’ll never know, because he’s gone.”

“You still have a chance-,” Alya cut off at the sound of an incoming text. “Do you mind? I have to take this.”

“Go ahead, I know it’s important.”

Shooting Marinette an apologetic look, Alya diverted her attention to her phone. Her eyes skimmed rapidly over the text. A smile bloomed, her fingers tapping out a response. Almost instantly, she received an answer that garnered a laugh, prompting her to reply.

Marinette bit her lip, trying to hold back her laughter as she watched Alya rapidly text through a conversation. She had no doubt the one taking up her best friend’s attention was Nino, Alya’s boyfriend of two… no, Marinette thought about it for a moment, nearly three years by now. Alya’s boyfriend, and co-conspirator on many occasions.

Marinette did not begrudge her best friend the texting, knowing that the pair were going to be apart for as long as Adrien was going to be out of the country. Nino, the lucky sod, had been invited to be part of Adrien’s entourage. He had, of course, agreed, given that poor Adrien would not have had a buffer between himself and his father otherwise. Someone had to be there to make sure Adrien didn’t lose his mind while his father ran roughshod over him.

Nino was nothing if not a loyal, and if in the process of protecting his best friend he happened to score a free first-class seat on a train to London, get to stay in a five star hotel while in the city, and eat world class food every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then so be it. He was willing to suffer in luxury for a month in the name of friendship.

“That’s settled then!” Alya suddenly announced, waving her phone triumphantly.

Marinette raised her brows. “What’s settled?”

“Nino just gave me a heads up on what hotel they’re staying in.” Alya bit her lip, practically vibrating in her seat with more energy than what Marinette would deem absolutely necessary for useless hotel information. This wasn’t the normal kind of gossipy energy thrumming through her friend. It wasn’t even the early stages of boyfriend-deprivation antsy energy. This was almost Ladybug-related level excitement, which immediately put Marinette’s suspicions on high alert.

Eyes narrowed, she asked, “What aren’t you telling me?”

Turning coy, Alya leaned back and waved her phone airily. “You remember when I mentioned my mom was having renovations done to one of the hotels she owns?”

“Yeah.”

“Did I mention that hotel is in London? And that my mom said we could both stay there this summer if we wanted to- ack!” Alya was cut off by the force of a small body launching itself into her midsection. The force of Marinette’s tackle took them both over the side of the chaise amid a pair of excited squeals shared between the girls. They crashed landed on the floor, but felt nothing. Their arms and legs were a sudden tangle of excited hugs, more on Marinette’s part than Alya’s. The squealing was mostly her, as well.

She was the majority of the excitement in their two-person dogpile.

“You are the absolute best friend ever! I mean it! I love you! Thank you!” Marinette shrieked, locking her arms so tight she worried she might be cutting off air. No matter that she might be killing her best friend, she couldn’t let go. She couldn’t seem to stop squealing, and she might have been crying a little bit as well.

Luckily, Alya was laughing, hugging her back. “I figured I would surprise you with the news.” She pulled Marinette up, her animated face sparking with conspiratorial fervor. “Think about it. A whole month in London, Adrien all to yourself, no Chloé to get in your way. Nino and I can be your backup if you want, or we can disappear real quick if you happen to want some alone time with tall, blond, and handsome…” She shamelessly bobbed her eyebrows like a cheap villain from a bad B-movie.

Visions of spending ‘alone time’ with Adrien quickly overloaded Marinette’s brain. Walking arm in arm with him along the Thames. Riding the London Eye together. Confessing her undying love for him in a moment of weakness while they were alone together in the mist-strewn streets of the city at night…

The trap door swung open and Sabine popped her head in, unsurprised to find that it was her daughter who was making all the racket. Marinette had managed to trap herself in her own wild fantasies, her arms vice-locked around Alya as she squealed. Her face was spotted pink, a mad grin stretching from ear to ear. Sabine switched her knowing gaze to Alya. “I take it you told her?”

Alya offered a smart thumbs up. “Just broke the news to her now.”

Sabine clapped her hands excitedly. “Wonderful! You two are going to have so much fun!” She turned to her daughter, eyebrows arched. “Marinette, you might want to calm down long enough to start packing. Alya mentioned that your train leaves tonight.”

 

As far as luncheons went, this was not the worst one Adrien had ever attended. One major point in this luncheon’s favour was his current company, who was just as thoroughly bored at the moment as he was.

“Man, I thought there was going to be models,” Nino grumbled, picking at the assortment of foods he had swiped from the buffet. Adrien tried desperately to suppress the laugh threatening to spill out, watching Nino prowl around like some poor, trapped animal. If he wasn’t picking at the food or yanking at his collar, Nino was attached to his phone. He had been texting a mile a minute since the moment they had landed in London the night before, with Alya no doubt being the recipient of the vast majority of his texts.

Given Nino’s care never to let Adrien see what he was texting, Adrien either suspected he was sending something inappropriate to his girlfriend, or he and Alya were plotting something. Having learned over the years that the two of them together were a devious force to be reckoned with, Adrien wasn’t sure which of his suspicions was worse - sexting at a high class event, or plotting mayhem at a high class event.

At least either one was bound to be interesting.

Feeling bad for having trapped his friend at a stuffy event for at least another hour, Adrien playfully pointed out, “If you’re looking for models, you’re in luck.” He pointed to himself. “I’m a model.”

Nino gave him a dirty look. “You know what I meant.”

“I know what you meant, and you have a girlfriend,” Adrien replied, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yeah, so?”

Adrien’s eyebrow went even higher, eyes narrowing for a moment.

Nino faltered, a blush flagging his cheeks. “I’d never cheat on her, man. She’d absolutely kill me.” He ducked his head, lowering his voice. “If Alya were here, she’d blow all these skinny chicks out of the water.” He got that sappy look on his face guys wore when they were absolutely head over heels for someone they loved.

Adrien knew the look well. He wore it whenever thinking of Ladybug.

To Nino, he said, “You are dating a very nice young woman, hence why you shouldn’t be looking around for models.”

“Fine bro, you can be the only model in my life. I’m cool with that.” With a roll of his eyes, Nino turned his attentions back to whittling away at his heaping lunch plate.

Snorting, Adrien cast his attentions toward taking stock of the swanky hotel dinner hall that had been hired to host the luncheon. He recognized many of the faces as men and women from several extremely wealthy families, some of whom were titans in the fashion industry, others being business moguls, and a few had significant political connections. Many were English, though Adrien didn’t hold that against them.

So long as he smiled pretty and managed to make small talk with anyone who happened to come by, his father would be satisfied. There was to be no social black mark on the Agreste family name during this business trip, or else Nino was gone and Adrien could kiss his few hard-fought freedoms goodbye.

Movement in his periphery snapped Adrien from his thoughts, catching the eye of a teen making his way through the crowd. Adrien noted the cut and quality of the boy’s clothes, concluding that he must belong to yet another influential family. Curious, Adrien watched the stranger go through the motions of weaving around adults, popping up onto his toes to see over the crowd. Having failed to find what he was looking for, he fell back on his heels and shoved his hands through his hair.

“Dude,” Nino whispered, leaning over Adrien’s shoulder to get a look at who had caught his attention. “Nice dreads. You know him?”

“No.” A tingle at the base of his spine told Adrien he didn’t want to know him.

As if overhearing them, the teen swung around; Adrien cursed his luck for getting caught staring. That split second of regret was immediately overrode when something instinctual clicked on in the back of his mind. For no other reason than because they made eye-contact, tension shot through the length of Adrien’s body. He could feel his hackles rising, a powerful sense to be on his guard suddenly ringing loudly in his head. Had he been sitting there as Chat Noir, he might have hissed. He definitely would have been flexing his claws, reaching for his baton.

Instead, Adrien forced himself to unclench his fingers from his chair, inclining his head politely to the boy. Unfortunately, the other teen seemed to take that as an invitation, though he approached warily. Dark brown eyes flicked Nino only the most cursory of appraising glances before his attention was back to Adrien.

They were only feet away when the tension riding between them hit a fever pitch. Two predators sizing each other up.

Adrien couldn’t decide if it was the look of the stranger that was setting him on edge, the dogged smell of him, or just the vibe he sensed from the mere fact that the boy existed. Outwardly, there was nothing wrong about him that should be setting off such major alarm bells. He was moderately handsome, slightly taller than average height, and possessed of a build that was a tad stockier than Adrien’s own rangy figure. His lavender button down shirt stood out in sharp relief against his dark brown skin, a flash of gold in his hair revealing that he wore golden rings around a few of his long dreads. He was unassuming in every way, and yet somewhere in the back of Adrien’s mind was screaming to keep his guard up.

The sharp sting of miniature fangs sinking into his skin snapped Adrien out of the worst of his trance. He startled, jerking back in his seat, blinking to find clarity. He patted his hand above the breast pocket of the jacket he wore, grateful for Plagg’s good sense to snap him out of it before he’d committed a horrible faux pas. The kwami vibrated under his touch, equally as tense as Adrien had been.

When Adrien failed to show the slightest signs of engaging the stranger, Nino rushed in to fill the anxious silence. If he sensed the tension, he made no sign of it. In surprisingly good English, he said, “Hey, man, you trapped here, too?” He extended a hand between them.

Hesitating for a moment before tearing his eyes from Adrien, the teen shook Nino’s hand, his face shifting into something much more amiable. “I’m here until my parents say otherwise. You?”

“Mostly same, except we’re waiting on his father,” Nino replied, nodding to Adrien. “I’m Nino, this is Adrien.”

“John,” said the boy, turning to Adrien, offering his hand.

Adrien forced himself to take John’s hand, shaking it like a normal, civil person. And not tearing into him like a feral cat on a rampage.

“You’re French, aren’t you?” John wondered, his accent pegging him for someone who spoke native English though was not native to England. When he spoke again, surprisingly it was in French. “I wasn’t sure I was going to find any like-minded people around here.”

Adrien shot Nino a puzzled glance, completely thrown by the odd accent. It wasn’t bad French, per se, but it certainly was not Parisian French.

Seeing their bewilderment, John coughed into his fist. “Sorry, I speak Acadian French, and not that well apparently…”

“No, it’s fine,” Nino assured, continuing in their native tongue, waving to the chair next to him for John to take a seat. “Your French is fine, you just took us by surprise.” Quite bluntly, Nino came right out and said, “I didn’t expect you to be Canadian.”

"No one ever does," John laughed, continuing to stand, shoving his hands into his pockets. He cast a furtive glance around the room again, keeping a subtle eye on Adrien as if he didn’t dare look away for too long.

That was fine by Adrien. He was having a hard time forcing himself to blink in John’s presence. Every social nicety ever driven into himself since boyhood was jettisoned out a mental airlock in favour of an insistent sense of self-preservation. Had they been alone, he would have been sorely tempted to transform into Chat Noir.

Nino shot Adrien a ‘what the hell, man?’ look, clearly stunned that Monsieur Manners was daring to be blatantly rude. Stumbling for something to say before things fell into awkward territory, or worse, Nino asked, “Are you looking for someone?”

“You could say that,” John sighed. “I lost her not long after we got here.” His nostrils flared, his shoulders tensing up a moment later. “Never mind, I found her.”

Another wave of wariness crashed over Adrien’s skin, as abrasive as sand blasting against his nerves. His eyes jerked to the teenaged girl who materialized out of the crowd, noting that she was nowhere near dressed appropriately for the venue. Sporting windblown brown hair that hung in loose tangles down her back, she wore a long white tunic and a ratty black skirt that swept the floor. Adrien noticed, with a distinct amount of discomfort, that the girl wasn’t wearing any shoes.

Without turning to her, John grunted. “Sarah.”

Sarah flashed an insouciant grin, hazel eyes dancing. In English that marked her as a Londoner born and bred, she gaily exclaimed, “I have been making a killing in here, John! These people were in desperate need of my services! Palm readings, tarot, good luck charms-!”

John placed a hand over one of hers. “Not here, Sarah.”

“Oh?” Thus admonished, she blinked and turned on Adrien and Nino. Like John, she barely spared a glance for Nino, instead focusing in on Adrien with wide-eyed surprise that morphed quickly into delight. “Oh! Hello!” Obviously she shared none of the stiffness that was riding between the two males. Quite the opposite as she offered her hands to shake. “I didn’t expect to meet another one in here-.”

“Sarah!” John barked in warning, stopping Sarah on a guilty note. Sighing, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “They’re French.”

“Salut,” Nino laughed, giving her a cheeky salute.

Sarah’s face froze comically, the look of someone who had probably taken French since childhood and failed to remember even the basics. “Ah… Bon jour? Je suis, er, no… Je m’appelle…”

“Don’t worry, we speak English,” Nino assured.

“Oh, thank god!” Sarah breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. “I was afraid I was going to have to break out a translator spell- oof!” She glared over her shoulder, one foot rubbing the back of her leg as if she had been kicked. Blushing, she corrected herself stiltedly. “Break out a translator… spelling app on my phone.”

“You know, I got something like that on my phone, too,” Nino said, nodding agreeably. “I haven’t had to use it yet.”

“Well,” Sarah intoned brightly, “if you ever wanted a better one…”

A low, warning growl vibrated the air just under the din of noise in the dinner hall. Adrien’s hair stood on end, taking more effort than he cared to admit not to reply with an answering snarl. His fingers twitched with the need to call Plagg out and don his armour. On his finger, his ring was burning.

Before things took a turn for the worse, John reached out and took Sarah’s hand in his, drawing her away. He jerked his head in a stiff nod for Adrien and Nino, speaking through what sounded like a clenched jaw. “It was nice meeting both of you, but I think Sarah and I need to go. My- uh, parents are calling me over.”

“In a second,” Sarah insisted, swooping out of John’s vice grip to invade Adrien’s personal space. She smelled like potting soil and green things, and something else that rang familiar in the back of his mind though he couldn’t put a name to it. He nearly reeled away when he saw her reaching for his face. Locking his muscles, he watched her empty hand reach behind his ear and seemingly pull a small business card out of thin air. “If you ever happen to be in need of my services, give me a call.”

She barely had time to wink before John was dragging her through the crowd.

Nino leaned in to peer down at the white rectangle pinched between Adrien’s fingers. In plain black print, it read: Sarah Candlewick, Witch. And that was it.

“Weird,” Nino quipped, returning to his seat. “It doesn’t even have a number to contact her. You really think she was a witch?”

“I don’t know.” Adrien abruptly pushed himself away from the table, tucking the card into his pocket. “You think you’ll be okay here for a minute? I- er… have to use the washroom.”

“Yeah, go, I’ll be fine,” Nino said numbly, brow furrowed by Adrien’s off behaviour.

Unable to reassure his friend just yet, Adrien turned into the crowd and did his best to refuse eye-contact with anyone who tried to catch his attention. He broke out of the luncheon hall and immediately turned to his left, in the direction that his Chat Noir senses were tingling the strongest. Alarm bells were ringing in his head so loudly he could hardly hear himself think.

“Plagg,” Adrien hissed lowly, summoning the small creature from the depths of his jacket. “What were they?”

“Not our business, that’s what,” Plagg bit back, uncharacteristically terse. “Go back to the luncheon, Adrien. Leave them be.”

“I can’t.” His feet carried him without conscious thought, picking up speed down empty hallways. His blood was still pounding in his ears. He tried to caution himself, reasoning that he wasn’t on his home turf. He didn’t have Ladybug nearby for backup. But still he was racing headfirst in the direction that his sensed screamed the loudest. “They weren’t Miraculous holders. They weren’t akuma. What were they, Plagg? Don’t lie, I know you felt it, too.”

Plagg muttered something low and dirty, though his full answer was unnecessary the moment Adrien skidded past a nondescript exit propped open with a wet floor sign. Raised voices could be heard from the other side. Though he didn’t have enhanced senses in his current form, Adrien recognized the voices, and if he concentrated he could make out what they were saying. The crack between the doorframe and door offered the perfect vantage point through which to eavesdrop.

“You have to be more careful!” John exclaimed angrily, gravel crunching loudly as he paced. “If one of those people in there actually begins to take you seriously-!”

“Let them take me seriously!” Sarah yelled shrilly. “What does it matter if they believe what I am or not? This is who I am, John! That is what I am! I’m not ashamed of it! I don’t try to hide it!”

“Maybe you should!” John snarled, followed by a feminine gasp. Immediately after, his voice was quieter, sounding contrite. “You have to be careful. I can’t protect you if you’re going to throw yourself headfirst into danger without thinking. That guy in there? I don’t even know what he was.”

“He was powerful,” Sarah said.

“Exactly, and he was probably dangerous. And he was French! Which is why you should have stayed the hell away from him!”

“I’m not powerless!”

“But you are being stupid!”

Another outrage gasp echoed in the alley. “Do you even hear yourself right now?” Sarah snapped waspishly. “I can’t deal with you being so… so dog in the manger! Talk to me when you’re reasonable again-.”

“Sarah, don’t you walk away from me-!”

“Good thing I’m not walking!” A piercing whistle split the air. “Broom!”

Adrien watched in utter shock as a plain straw broom shot into the girl’s hand. She mounted, bolting into the sky. John swore after her, stalking off down the alley. For the longest time, Adrien stayed crouched where he was staring blankly at the now empty alley. His screaming instincts eventually quieted. Although his mind kept replaying what he had just seen, he still wasn’t sure if he had seen it correctly.

Plagg eventually came out of hiding, radiating annoyance. In the silence, he sneered, “You didn’t think you and Ladybug were the only magical beings in the world, did you?”

Adrien slid to the floor, shoving his back against the wall. He couldn’t bring himself to care that he was getting dust on his pressed trousers. Magic had been the foundation for a large chunk of his life for the better part of three years, and yet he could honestly say he had never given a thought to the fact that other magical beings might exist. Hell, he usually thought of himself as a superhero, a crime-fighter, before anything else. There was magic in his Miraculous, and that was about it.

Pushing to his feet, he numbly made his way back to the luncheon, where Nino had come back from the buffet with seconds. Adrien ghosted his way through the next hour, vaguely glad that he was in London right now rather than Paris.

At least if he was London, he didn’t need to worry about Papillon creating an akuma out of one very pissed off witch.

Chapter Text

Nino was already hours deep into sleep by the time Adrien gave up on trying to drift off. He was still too keyed up from the luncheon. One did not simply randomly witness a girl shoot off into the sky on a broomstick and not have some questions afterward. Adrien was in desperate need to run off the energy, and he had absolutely no intention of using the hotel’s 24hr gym.

So long as he was careful as Chat Noir, he saw no need to stay cooped up in the hotel all night.

Slithering from the mattress, he crept across the carpeted floor, glad that he had taken the bed closest to the balcony. Luckily, Nino stirred not an inch during Adrien’s short trek. The earbuds the boy wore in his sleep ensured that Nino stayed deaf to all other activities in the room.

So long as Adrien was back by morning, everything would be fine. They would wake up tomorrow morning, no one the wiser, and Adrien would be able to go out into the city with Nino to see The Important Thing that Nino insisted needed to be seen tomorrow. The Important Thing was so important, in fact, that Adrien had been forced to promise that nothing would stop them from seeing it.

It didn’t even matter what it was, Adrien was simply looking forward to hanging out with his friend for the morning and being out from under his father’s thumb.

For now, he needed a bit of night air.

“Plagg, claws out,” Adrien whispered, ignoring Plagg’s choice grumbling. Letting the transformation settle, Chat cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders, getting the kinks out. This wasn’t Adrien’s first time in London, but it was his first time as Chat, and the city called with new sights and sounds and smells he could only experience while dressed in leather. Grabbing his baton, he launched himself into the London skyline, watching as the city fell away below.

“Much better,” he sighed, hitting a rooftop hard. Bolting for the opposite ledge, he launched himself again, this time catching the side of a building, running across its darkened face with ease.

He outran his thoughts, leaving behind a thousand questions Plagg refused to answer. Outright refused to answer, lips sealed, stubbornly avoiding all means of interrogation. Not even a wheel of camembert was enough to coax a word from the creature, even when Adrien suspected the little goblin had more than enough answers. No one lived to be over 5000 years old and not know a thing or two about other members of a possible magical community on the planet.

Heads up, Plagg warned, prompting Chat Noir to catch up on the ledge of the nearest apartment. He could smell the old brick, and the River Thames. The city was lit up around him, so bright that the stars were drown out and only the full face of the moon could be seen.

…either he was seeing things, or something just flew across the moon.

A familiar shiver passed down his spine, alerting him to the impossible fact that he was seeing an akuma. In London.

He needn’t even guess who it was as the figure dove from the sky into the glare of the city lights: she had taken the fantastical form of a cartoonish witch, her skin dyed a horrendous green, her nose turned long and hooked. A ragged broom held her aloft, a black cape flapping behind her, the point of a large witch’s hat thrusting into the dark sky.

“Shit,” Chat muttered, reaching for his baton.

Battling normal humans possessed by akuma were bad enough, a witch possessed by an akuma sounded like a recipe for disaster. Bad enough that Chat was already high and dry without Ladybug. Best case scenario, he could catch the akuma, turn the witch back, and contain the tainted butterfly until he got back to Paris for Ladybug to purify it.

Failing at any kind of enthusiasm, he muttered, “My Lady, I hope you like the London souvenir I’m about to get you.”

The akuma skidded to a halt the moment her gaze landed on Chat’s form. “A black cat!” the witch cried, wrenching her broom into a kamikaze dive. “The perfect familiar for a witch!”

Chat vaulted away to avoid damage, giving the akuma a jaunty salute. “Sorry, mademoiselle, I’m a one-woman kind of cat.” He crouched on the ledge of a concrete retaining wall, flashing a very catlike grin. “I'm afraid no one could take me away from my Lady.”

His charm had about as much effect on the akuma as it did on Ladybug herself. Maybe a worse effect, since he could usually get a laugh or a blush out of Ladybug.

“So loyal!” cried the witch, pulling at her tangled hair. “Why couldn’t I have a loyal familiar? All I had was that damn dog, and he abandoned me!” From the tip of her broom, she shot several volleys of green light. “I’ll show him which witch is the Wicked Witch!”

Chat Noir evaded smoothly, jumping from one ledge to another. Green light sizzled by, heat radiating through his leather with each shot that got too close. At the apex of a vaulted high jump, he saw the fate of an unlucky bystander caught in the crossfire, now transformed into the perfect witch’s familiar – a black cat. "I can't fault you for your fine taste in feline companions."

The akuma paid him little mind, throwing volley after volley of curses from her broom. “I’ll show him what a proper familiar is supposed to be!” Her voice grew shriller as her outraged tirade continued. “Loyal! Protective! Loving! Everything that that stupid dog isn't!”

Chat dodged again, forced to make a leap of faith from one building to another to avoid being skewered by the witch’s broom. He glanced back, cocking a brow. “What’s that English phrase again? Isn’t a dog supposed to be man’s best friend?”

“Not my dog!” Wicked Witch shrieked, sufficiently riled to let loose a fresh volley.

It was exactly what Chat was banking on, winding up with his baton like a bat. When one green flare came within range, he swung hard and connected, letting the ball of flame ricochet straight back to the sender. She screamed, spiralling out into the dark sky to avoid being hit.

Yet again, Chat found himself missing his other half. A battle just wasn’t the same without a certain spotted partner watching his back. They had built a perfect synchronicity over the years, their movements timed without needing to look at the other. Chat knew when to dive into the melee, Ladybug knew when to break it up. Fighting akuma went much faster when you knew what your partner was going to do before they did it.

Alone, he had no one to bounce his puns off of. No one to coordinate attacks with. No lucky charm to undo whatever damage Wicked Witch was inflicting on the city.

“I can only do what I can do,” Chat lamented, his gaze landing on the akuma’s tightly clutched mount. The dark vibrations in the air were coming strongest from the warped piece of wood and straw. The akuma. He geared up to tackle Wicked Witch from her perch, prepared to snap the broom over his knee and get the fight over and done with.

Halfway across the rooftop, something large and dark barreled into his side with enough force to knock the air out of him. The power of his new attacker’s momentum was enough to send them both careening into the concrete retaining wall surrounding the roof. Chat lost his breath the moment his chest impacted the wall, and yet found enough air in his lungs to yowl when a second body crushed him from behind.

Hot breath fanned across the side of Chat’s face, a teeth-lined muzzle flashing in the corner of his eye. A guttural voice snarled in his ear, “Don’t you touch her!”

“It’s not her I’m going for!” Chat spat back, landing a vicious uppercut to the lower side of the beasts snout. He put enough strength behind the blow to stun his attacker, allowing him to slip through the massive arms pinning him. Nerve endings fired up, tension shooting through the length of his body, the whisper that he had heard as Adrien now became a roar - stay on guard!

Under the moonlight, to Chat’s utter horror, the being that rose up on two legs before him was massive. A thick coat of sable fur bristled from every inch of the being’s muscular frame, obsidian claws glinting from humanlike fingers and from the tips of wolven toes. Black-lined lips pulled back over a snarling muzzle, flashing ivory fangs nearly as long as Chat’s fingers.

“If you lay a hand on that witchling, I’ll rip you limb from limb,” the wolf grated, bracing to launch another bone-crushing attack.

“I already told you, it’s not the witch I want! It’s her broom!” Chat snarled back, ripping his eyes away to scan the night sky. He spat an exasperated curse, locating a single dark silhouette quickly zipping away. Flinging out his arms furiously, he rounded on his attacker. “Great, she got away!”

Shocked, the wolf whipped around, pointed ears flattening against his skull. “Damn.”

Chat slammed his hands down on his hips, his suspicions flaring nearly as hot as his inexplicable instant dislike for the wolf. “Are you supposed to be her minion?”

A low, unimpressed chuff rattled from a barrel chest. “That’s one way of putting it.”

Chat raised his brows skeptically.

Rarely did an akuma’s transformed victim have enough sense to hold a conversation. Most were mindless puppets until the magic wore off and turned them back to normal. They all carried with them a small piece of their master’s energy, something that allowed Ladybug and Chat Noir to usually identify the fakes from the original. The werewolf was clearly aware of his surroundings, lacked any dark sense of akuma magic, and strangely was not the least bit put out to find himself eight feet tall, sporting fur and a tail.

Eyes narrowed, Chat demanded, “What are you?”

“I thought that was fairly obvious.”

Heaving a disgusted noise, Chat turned his back on the creature. “I don’t have time for this. I’ve got an akuma to catch.”

Before he could vault away, a furry tank plowed into his back, planting him firmly in the rooftop gravel. “Touch her and you’re dead.”

Spitting a curse, Chat rammed his elbow back into his attacker’s throat, glad for the loud thump upon impact. The wolf howled. Chat snarled. They wrestled against each other, arms and elbows and claws flailing. The wolf wasn’t quick, but he was strong. Chat fought dirty, quick enough to avoid most strikes at close range, though paid dearly with the shots that landed.

Scarcely missing a blow to the head, the werewolf rolled to his feet and launched himself again. Chat narrowly avoided what would have been a stinging bite to the shoulder. In return, he raked his claws down the wolf’s face.

They rolled together, gravel biting into their backs.

Finally, Chat got the upper hand, coming down hard enough on the werewolf to take the massive creature to its back. To pin him, Chat rammed the end of his baton into the beast’s throat, holding it high and hard to the underside of the wolf’s snarling muzzle. Swiping his gloved hand beneath his nose to mop up a stream of blood, he bit out, “Be a good dog now, or else I’ll have to put you down.”

One second there was nothing but teeth and claws, and the next the wolf took a deep breath and stilled. His pupils blew wide. “You.”

Off-kilter from the sudden change, Chat retracted his baton and backed off.

Careful, Plagg warned tersely, digging mental claws into the back of Adrien’s mind.

Nose twitching, the werewolf slowly got to his feet. “You’re that guy I met today.”

Fists clenched around his baton, Chat said, “I think I’d remember meeting a werewolf.”

“I didn’t look like this earlier,” the wolf replied hoarsely, rubbing a spot on his flank where Adrien knew he had landed a particularly vicious kick. “You didn’t look like that when we met, either.”

Fear lanced so hard through Chat, his heart nearly stopped. In all his years as Chat Noir, no one had ever been able to see through the magic. It was a Miraculous wielder’s first line of defence when it came to keeping their identities secret. There had been a time when he had stared desperately at Ladybug’s face trying to keep it fixed in his mind, ingraining it to memory in hopes that someday he would find her match. As soon as she was gone from sight, the details blurred, and only the warmth of her presence remained.

Chat had given up trying to see through her mask, respecting that Ladybug wanted to maintain their secrecy; it allowed him to come to terms with the magic that separated their civilian and superheroic lives. He could see the advantages of it now. If word got out that prodigy child Adrien Agreste was catting around in a leather cat suit night after night, fighting monsters and saving Paris, there was no way in hell he was going to see the light of day again. His father would lock him down tighter than the Crown Jewels. He would be under literal house arrest for the rest of his life.

If all it took was one bloody werewolf to screw his whole life over, Chat was not going to be a happy kitty.

Scenting his fear, the wolf raised his hands peacefully. “Don’t worry, your cloaking disguise is still working. It’s one of the most powerful ones I’ve ever encountered, actually.”

Chat stayed tense, choking back on a hiss. “If it’s so powerful, how can you see through it?”

“I can’t,” replied the wolf, pointing to his nose. “I can smell you. Not many folks go around smelling like moldy cheese. I can’t match your faces at all, but I know your scent.” His snout wrinkled. “You stink.”

Chat scrubbed an exasperated hand over his masked face. “I knew that stupid cheese was going to be my downfall someday.” Thanks, Plagg. The kwami was silent, though Adrien sensed a mere moment of embarrassment coming from the creature. Or perhaps it was only annoyance? It was hard to tell with him sometimes.

The wolf cocked his large head, appearing to frown. “You’re an awful long way from home, cat boy.”

“So superheroes can’t ever take a vacation?” Chat planted his hands on his hips. “All work and no play would be a catastrophe in my books.”

“You pun even in English. I always wondered if the news exaggerated about that.” Yellow eyes sized him up cagily. “At the luncheon, I would have pegged you for some sort of demon. Your magic is dark enough for it.”

Chat scowled, glaring. “I am not a demon.”

“No, you’re just the Miraculous wielder of Destruction. Just as bad, if you ask me.” At Chat’s gaping look, the wolf shrugged. “People talk, especially when you’ve been so public around Paris. People like me tend to know about the Miraculous.”

“And yet I don’t know anything about you,” Chat replied sourly, crossing his arms.

“John,” said the wolf. “It’s John, Adrien.” He nodded to the full moon above them. "I tend to look a little different when the sun goes down."

Stunned anew, Chat threw his arms up in the air. Not even a moment’s hesitation before he laid it all out there! The naked truth! The utter violation of being called by name while dressed as Chat Noir. Apparently England had no respect for secret identities. Everyone was just throwing them out there willy-nilly, whether people wanted to know them or not. Wasn’t there some sort of superhero code of conduct that prevented that kind of behaviour?

“I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Do what?”

“Out me!” Chat exclaimed. “You don’t just do that to a guy. People can hear you!” He glanced around, just in case there might be a camera rolling. Alya had been known to slip into some of the most obscure places for the perfect shot. Luckily, Paris’s number one Ladyblogger had been left at home. There were no other suspicious red recording lights glowing from within darkened corners.

John quirked a sable brow. “It’s just us up here, and it’s not as my identity is a secret.”

“Well, mine is!” But the damage had been done. No taking it back. There was only moving forward, and not the kind of forward that had him vaulting across the roof to scratch the mongrel’s face off. Chat took a deep breath in, held it, and let it out in order to force some semblance of normalcy upon himself. “I’m going to take a wild guess and say Wicked Witch is Sarah.”

John sighed, dropping his head. There wasn’t even a second of unease that his witch had been outed. What was wrong with these people? “I don’t know what happened. We fought, she flew off… Next thing I know, my contract with her is going haywire.”

“Contract?” Chat repeated, brow furrowing.

“I’m her familiar,” John explained plainly. “Her… partner.”

“That would explain the dog-related rage.” Chat scratched the back of his neck. “She’s turning people into black cats.”

“I noticed that.” John furrowed his paws through his thick fur, his tail twitching low in agitation. “This isn’t my Sarah. She wouldn’t do anything like this. She’s a good witch.”

“It’s the akuma,” Chat said, shaking his head.

“The what?”

“It’s the thing possessing Sarah,” Chat explained lowly, looking out into the night. “They’re little tainted butterflies that are controlled by someone called Papillon – I’m sure you’ve seen them if you’ve watched the news. Papillon seeks out people who are vulnerable and gives them power, in return for them hunting down the Miraculous.” He flashed his ring. “Papillon has only ever attacked Paris. I didn’t think he would ever wander so far out of his range, but maybe he sensed that my Miraculous was here.”

“So this only happened because of you.” Fangs flashed in the night, a warning growl rumbling.

Chat flexed his claws, steeling himself against the rising challenge. “I know how to get Sarah back.”

“Tell me how.”

“I think the akuma is in her broomstick. Break it, and you break the akuma’s hold over her. Whoa!” Chat shot out to grab John before the teen could disappear into the night, digging claws into the werewolf’s thick forearm to still him. “You can’t just run after her! The akuma has to be caught or purified, or worse things than just Wicked Witch will happen.”

“Then follow me and purify it, cat boy. I am not letting her suffer out there!”

“It’s not that simple.” Chat dropped John’s arm, stepping away. “You said it yourself – I wield destruction, not creation. I can’t purify anything, that’s Ladybug’s job. She’s the only one who can break the spell and undo all the damage that the akuma caused.”

John glowered darkly. “Then you better get her Lady-butt over here to fix my witch, or I swear you’ll be a chew toy before dawn.”

“Not before I make you a scratching post,” Chat reposted, already flicking open his baton to the communicator. He’d have to have a damn lot more luck than what he was cursed with to have Ladybug pick up at random. She didn’t patrol every night, and even if she did, there was no way in hell she could purify an akuma all the way from Paris. The best he could do was alert her to the capture and contain situation, having her ready for the time he came home for her to purify it.

He was surprised as hell when, only a few seconds after ringing, Ladybug picked up the video call.

But the screen remained pitch black.

“Ladybug?”

“I’m here,” she said tiredly, followed by the sound of a stifled yawn. “You’re lucky Tikki sensed a disturbance in the force and got me to transform. Is everything all right? Are you hurt?” She paused, during which Chat could sense her mounting worry. “Are you being attacked right now? Do you need my help?”

Buoyed by the flutter of affection her concern for him sparked, Chat was quick to assure her. “I’m fine, Buginette, but I ran into a bit of trouble.” He shot a pointed glare over his shoulder. John glared back with a flash of teeth. Hunching his shoulders, he turned his back on the werewolf to keep the call private. “Why is your screen dark? Should I be worried about you?”

“I…er, I’m not in the safest of places at the moment.” Before Chat could panic, she elaborated with an embarrassed groan. “I’m not actually in danger - just hiding in a bathroom. My friend is asleep in the other room.”

A grin broke out across Chat Noir’s face. “You’re having a sleepover and you didn’t invite me?”

Ladybug’s laugh was music to his ears. “No stray cats allowed, kitty. Besides, I’m a little far from home for you to join us.”

“What a coincidence, I’m not exactly in Paris at the moment, either.” He shook his head. “This is actually just a courtesy call to let you know there’s an akuma loose in London. I’ve got backup - sort of,” he muttered lowly.

“I can hear you,” John snorted, crossing his arms. “And I understand what you’re saying.”

Chat rolled his eyes. Right. Bilingual werewolf, just his luck. “I wish it was you here, Ladybug, I really do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I can catch and contain the akuma until I get back-.”

“You’re in London.” Not even a question, just an oddly hollow statement.

“Yes?”

“London, England.”

“That would be the place.” He pulled back to stare at the screen, wondering if there actually was reason to be worried for her.

“Where?”

“Like I said, Lon-.”

“No, in the city!” Ladybug exclaimed. “Where in the city are you, Chat?”

Unsure, Chat looked out over the sea of skyscrapers. Then he glanced back at his company.

John jerked his chin to the west. “We’re near St. James’s Park. Buckingham Place is just over that way.”

“Did you get that?” Chat asked.

“St. James’s Park,” Ladybug repeated solemnly. “I can be there in ten minutes.”

Chapter Text

Stunned, and maybe a little horrified if she was being honest with herself, Ladybug quietly exited the bathroom and stared blankly into the semi-darkness for a full thirty seconds before coming to terms with the fact that Chat Noir was in London.

Chat, her partner, was in London.

She, Ladybug, was also in London.

Both of them were in London.

So who was protecting Paris????

Muttering a choice curse, she crept across the room to the window and prayed that no one was around to see her ungraceful wriggling over the sill. Her hips got stuck, prompting an indelicate expletive as she kicked wildly at empty air. Eventually she kicked free and ended up hanging from the ledge of the window, her nose just barely poking above the sill to make sure she had no Ladyblogging witness to her antics.

The luck of Ladybug was with her tonight, as Alya slept through the whole minute-long ordeal. Alya was normally a light sleeper, but the long train ride over really did it for her. She had barely made it into the hotel room before throwing her stuff on the floor and face-planting in the bed closest to the window.

Marinette let herself drop from the ledge, catching herself on the end of her yo-yo to swing away down the street. She was free until morning. Passing Big Ben on her way to St. James’s Park, Ladybug noted the time and groaned – after midnight, which meant she had barely been asleep for an hour before Tikki had harassed her out of bed.

This was not how her vacation was supposed to go. For one, Chat Noir was supposed to be back in Paris protecting the city so she could rest assured that nothing bad was going to happen in her absence. Two, she was supposed to be just Marinette for a month, just a normal girl with a normal life. And three, most importantly, she was supposed to be meeting up with Adrien tomorrow morning for a group hangout, not literally hanging from a yo-yo string in the middle of the night as she swung off to hunt down an akuma!

Goodbye to a good night’s sleep, hello to the walking dead when she got up tomorrow.

She made it to the park in good time, taking a long loop around until she spotted a familiar figure standing in the shadow of the trees. His green eyes glinted like jewels in the dark, his head slowly tracking her movements. She released her yo-yo and landed gracefully before him, letting her hand be taken up in his palm as he swept a gallant bow over it.

“Welcome to London, my Lady,” he purred, placing a kiss upon her knuckles. “Is this your first time in the city?”

“It’s not my first time here in general, but it is my first time in costume,” she replied, slipping her fingers through his warm grasp. “I would have preferred a daytime tour.”

“Some things can’t be helped,” Chat lamented, straightening from his bow. His face caught in the glow of the streetlamps...

“You’re hurt!” she exclaimed, reaching for him.

Her communicator had been too dark to make out much of his face when they had spoken; all she had been able to see was the gleam of his catlike eyes. She cupped his cheeks, guiding him down to investigate the extent of the damages. Her heart plummeted upon seeing blood smeared from his nose across his lips and down his chin. His face was flushed, his hair more tousled than usual; now that she was looking, she saw the flash of white skin where the leather of his suit had been torn in several places.

Hands fluttering, Ladybug cursed the fact that she didn’t have pockets. Not a single tissue in sight to mop up the bloody mess. “Just look at you,” she admonished fondly, brushing his soft hair from his face. “You better hope my Lucky Charm can fix this when this is all over. Some of it is going to bruise.”

Chat leaned into one of her palms, his eyes sliding shut. “I’m feline fine, now that you’re here. Barely hurts at all.”

“It’s no time to pun, mon minou. You should have called me earlier,” Ladybug insisted, giving him one last scrutinizing sweep before she was sure the damages weren’t worse than they were. Chat had a terrible habit of taking a hit and pretending he was fine afterward. He’d walked on sprained ankles and smiled through a snapped collarbone in the past; she suspected he had suffered far worse, though she could never prove it. Luckily, the worst of the damage was always undone by the end of the fight.

Gentle claws traced down her cheek, ghosting along the line of her jaw. “I didn’t know you were going to be out of Paris.”

Ladybug huffed, scrunching her nose. “It was a sudden thing. Our train only got in a couple of hours ago.” She took his hand, squeezing his fingers gently. “You never mentioned anything, either.”

His face fell. “I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want to leave you for so long to protect Paris alone, but then I waited too long to say anything. Before I knew it, it was time to go.” Downcast eyes peered up at her sheepishly. “I don’t have much of a choice being here, but I’ll be home by the end of the month.”

Her heart budged an inch for the guilty sincerity in his voice. “We’re just lucky you were here to catch sight of the akuma before it could do worse damage. We’ll have to coordinate our vacations better in the future.” And then she stepped back, poking him squarely in the chest with a pointed finger. “Next time you spot an akuma abroad, you call me at the first sign of trouble, okay? I don’t care where in the world you are, I will hop on the first train or plane to be there to help you.”

Even in the dark, she could see the first signs of a Cheshire grin on Chat’s face. He leaned down, their noses nearly touching, his emerald eyes gleaming. “Careful, Buginette. With words like that, I might begin to think you care for me.”

She rolled her eyes, helpless to stop the smile that crept up on her. “Of course I care, Chat.”

She cared more than she wished to admit. He was more than just a partner to her, he had been her confidante and best friend when there had been no one else to talk to about the stresses of being Ladybug, and every fear that went along with such an important job. Who else in the world she did trust with her life? The one boy in all of Paris who was guaranteed to catch her when she fell, and flirt outrageously the moment they made it safely to the ground.

He leaned closer, as if he might say something…

In classic form, she placed her finger on his nose and pushed back to his full height. “I can’t believe you let yourself get this hurt fighting an akuma.”

“Ah…” He averted his eyes, a flush rising from the collar of his suit. “It wasn’t exactly the akuma…”

Before Ladybug had chance to grill him for clarification, a low bark sounded from behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled with an oncoming sense of magic; she tensed, reaching for her yo-yo, but was stopped by Chat’s hand on her wrist. He turned her slowly, his face set in grim lines. Tension rolled off of him, quite unlike the insouciant Chat Noir she knew so well.

Through the gloom came a loping form, humanoid though unmistakably inhuman. “Do you have any idea how many blocks I had to run to find a place that sells salad after midnight?” the creature griped in accented French, stepping into the island of light both Chat Noir and Ladybug inhabited. “Salad. For a cat. That’s disgusting.”

“I don’t actually turn into an animal when I transform, unlike some people,” Chat retorted with a snort, swiping the Styrofoam container held out to him. “Salad is for civilized people.”

Ladybug smothered a gasp, her spine jerking ramrod straight. Tikki had long ago warned her that the world was not only populated by humans and kwami. There were things that lived in the cities and in the shadows, every myth ever told by humans having some basis in reality. But even when Tikki had been describing that unseen world, Marinette had never thought she would actually see it.

Looking up from the fast food bag he was digging through, the werewolf zeroed in on her and quirked an eyebrow. “Don’t worry, he told me you’re a fan of chicken wraps. Hope you’re hungry.” A steaming parcel wrapped in wax paper was held out in offering, sitting in a palm large enough to cover the entire top of Marinette’s head and then some.

Too stunned to say anything, Ladybug accepted the food with a dazed nod.

Chat, on the other hand, was already digging into his food. “I hope you didn’t walk into the place looking like that.”

“What was I supposed to do? Change back and walk in stark naked?”

Chat choked, looking scandalized for something Ladybug suspected he would have found funny at another time. More agitated than usual, he demanded, “You seriously walked into a place looking like that?”

Their werewolf company continued to look unfazed, popping a whole hamburger into his mouth to chew sedately. “People who work at fast food joints have seen a lot worse than a werewolf ordering a salad in the middle of the night.”

Chat looked on like he couldn’t possibly be more horrified.

Feeling embarrassed on his behalf, Ladybug rammed Chat in the side with her elbow. Turning to their unusual company, she offered a businesslike smile and held out her hand. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced yet. I’m Ladybug.”

“Patron protector of Paris, I know,” replied the werewolf, mindfully wiping his paw on a napkin before taking her hand. “You’re much prettier in person than on the news.” His nose twitched, eyes sliding to the side with a mean glint in them. “You smell prettier, too.”

Ladybug blushed, ignoring what suspiciously sounded like an angry hiss emanating from over her left shoulder.

“I’m John,” the werewolf greeted amicably. “John Moon.”

“Your last name is Moon?” Chat exclaimed.

Ladybug blinked, frowning. Her English wasn’t the greatest, but she knew enough to know that ‘Moon’ translated into… Oh. She tried to stifle a laugh, peering up the very large, and now very annoyed werewolf towering over her.

“Pure coincidence. I was bitten when I was twelve,” John growled, bristling in Chat’s direction. “It’s not like all of us can have a famous last name like Ag-.”

”Arrrrrrrgh!” A horrible strangled noise erupted from Chat’s mouth, his arms flailing wildly. “It’s called a secret identity for a reason!”

John cast a look between Ladybug and Chat that spoke of a level of disbelief that bordered on disgust. “You mean you two don’t know each other under the masks?”

“No!” Chat yowled with more force than necessary.

Ladybug flushed darkly, looking away.

John continued to look dumbfounded. “I thought you two were partners.”

“We are,” Chat huffed.

A black claw flicked in the empty space between the two teenaged superheroes. “How can you be partners if you don’t know each other? What if one of you gets hurt? What if you need to call the other's family in case of an emergency?” His claw falling limp, John stepped back like he was reconsidering having them help him find his witch. As if having a pair of teens who didn’t know each other’s personal identities was a mark against their credibility as a team.

The blame for their continued anonymity laid squarely at Ladybug’s feet, though she could scarcely find the words to defend her reasons. In the face of life-threatening emergencies, the excuse of privacy and personal insecurities fell short. In her silence, she blushed harder, crossing her arms and looking away. Luckily, Chat rushed in to defend her honour, going toe-to-toe with the nosey wolf.

“Ladybug will tell me who she is when she’s ready,” he declared. “Someday, I’ll show her who I am as well, if you don’t blurt it out in front of her first. Until then, I trust her implicitly. If anything happens between the two of us, we’ll figure it out.” His hands landed on his hips, chest thrust out. “Whoever we are under the masks doesn’t matter. In or out of costume, we’re still us.”

Easy for you to say, Marinette lamented silently. Chat was probably as big a dork out of armour was he was in it. Marinette was only Marinette, and she didn’t exactly live up to a Ladybug-like ideal when not wearing spots.

John met Chat’s challenging glare unblinkingly. “It’s still stupid, if you ask me.”

“No one is asking.”

The tension was so great between the two that even if the akuma came back in that second, Ladybug doubted the boys would have blinked away from each other. The whole scene smacked of way too much testosterone; there was only so much male posturing a girl could take before she got a migraine. Steeling herself, Ladybug slipped between the two teens and put a hand to each of their chests, forcing them an arm’s length apart.

“We have more important things to take care of right now, boys.”

Chat immediately fell in line with her, shooting a superior look over the top of her head. “Of course, my Lady. There’s an akuma on the loose, and she’s creating a literal catastrophe in the city.”

She nodded, pinning John with a businesslike stare. “I take it you know the victim?”

“My witch, Sarah,” he replied, quickly outlining the details of the situation. Chat cut in a number of times, filling in with more details on the powers of the akuma and what he suspected the cursed item was. Ladybug watched in astonishment as they quickly devolved back into posturing and flashing teeth at each other. Nasty backhanded comments flew back and forth, all of them cat or dog related.

“Boys! Boys, you’re both pretty!” she drawled tiredly, snapping them out of their latest spat. “We need to focus! Is there anything you think we should know about her being a witch, John?”

He shrugged. “She uses magic. She can fly.”

“What about…” She pinched the bridge of her nose, searching out the term he had used. “What about your contract with her?”

“It’s a familiar contract,” he explained. “I’m bound to her. She can use me to enhance her powers.”

Ladybug shared a troubled look with Chat. “If she gets a hold of you while akumatized, could that cause a problem?”

“Probably,” John conceded solemnly.

“Then we won’t let that happen,” Ladybug said, pounding one fist into the palm of her other hand. “Can you use your contract with her to find her?”

He looked out over the city behind him, his wolven head silhouetted by the moon. “I can find her anywhere in the world.”

“Do you know where she is right now?”

Yellow eyes pierced straight through her. “Yes.”

“Good. Take us there.”

John wasted no time bolting into the night. It became quickly apparent that despite his inability to leap across rooftops as Ladybug and Chat Noir could, he knew the streets of the city well, and he could run like the wind. As Ladybug swung from lamppost to steeple to chimney, she admired the wolf’s unwavering determination. Despite being a civilian, despite it being his own witch that was possessed, he never flinched at the idea of going into battle.

His determination to protect his witch at all costs reminded her of a certain someone…

“You’re awfully quiet,” Chat observed, loping gracefully by her side.

“Just thinking,” Ladybug mused, offering him a half-smile.

“About me, I hope.”

She flicked him a saucy grin. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

John led them into the heart of the city, where a pandemic of black cats had hit. Those who were not transformed were calling for their loved ones, desperately searching through a sea of black. The panic was great enough that the arrival of two superhero teens and a werewolf barely registered.

“Down there,” John growled, nodding down a darkened access alley that would no doubt lead into the loading bay behind the buildings. Ladybug barely had time to grab him by the tail and whip him out of the way before he was beaned in the face by a flaming green blast.

“Careful!” she admonished. “That’s not your Sarah right now.”

Chat was already in the air distracting her, bouncing from one building to the next to draw fire away from the civilians. “Come on, Wicked Witch! Cat got your tongue?” he crowed in English, performed an impressive backflip that spanned the width of the street. He landed atop a swinging pub sign. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up on me being your familiar!”

With a hiss, Wicked Witch shot a rapid fire volley across the face of the pub. A window shattered, glass spraying the street. The sign beneath Chat’s feet blasted off its hinges. One poor civilian got caught in the crossfire, finding himself blinking bemusedly into the night with two more legs than he started out with. Luckily, it was late, and he was drunk, so even as a cat he continued to lap at his pint of Guinness.

Chat skillfully avoided the worst of the attack, landing with a flourish down the street. “Spelling must have been your worst subject in school.” His eyes briefly slid around, connecting with Ladybug. He had the witch’s attention fully on him, which meant it was her turn to work her magic.

“Lucky Charm!” went up like a prayer, and a gleaming, spotted object came down into her hands.

“A pint glass?” she exclaimed.

John eyed her skeptically. “Welcome to England.”

“Damn.” She searched around for what to do next. “John, you’re not going to like this next part, but it needs to be done. Chat is going to separate Wicked Witch from her broom and hold her down; I can lasso her broom, but I need you to run out and cap the end of it with the glass before any more people get turned into cats.”

His ears pinned low, but he nodded his acquiescence. Ladybug instantly switched to Chat, who had been waiting on her signal. He shared a nod with her, launching into action.

“Come on, Wicked Witch! You almost have me convinced to be your familiar!” Chat taunted, flashing his Miraculous as bait. “If you can get this off my finger, I’m all yours! Cat’s honour!”

Wicked Witch took the bait with a wail, diving down headfirst into the trap. Chat used his baton to give him an extra boost into the air, meeting the akuma halfway to tangle midair. They struggled, but then Chat managed to unseat her and send them both into the pavement. Ever the gentleman, Chat made sure to land on his back rather than let the witch land on hers. Nevertheless, he rolled and pinned her.

Ladybug wasted no time flinging her yo-yo out and snaring the wayward broom, now bucking wildly without its rider. She gritted her teeth and reeled it in with all her strength, sensing John moving into action to cap the broom.

A breathy ”Oh,” caught all of their attentions. Not a groan of pain or an exclamation of surprise. It was the type of noise someone made when they were pleased. Ladybug flicked her gaze in Chat's direction, her stomach bottoming out. Wicked Witch was doing the exact opposite of fighting Chat Noir’s hold on her. Now it was Chat who was fighting to get away. Despite possessing the looks of a hag, she batted her eyes up at him coyly.

“I knew you’d see things my way, kitty,” she murmured, slipping her green arms around Chat’s neck in an attempt to draw him down to her. “We can seal our contract with a kiss…”

The second those words were out of her mouth, all hell broke loose.

John whipped around in a fury, letting loose a roar that shook the street. Broom still clenched in one fist, he barreled down on the pair like a bull who’d seen red.

Ladybug, still attached on the end of a very taut line, was instantly ripped off her feet and dragged in his wake. “John, no! You can’t let her touch you or the broom!” Her warnings fell on rage-deafened ears.

Chat fought valiantly to get away from his captor, bent so far backward his spine was nearly arched in half. “Ladybug, a little help here!”

“I’m busy!” she shrieked, spitting gravel.

John reached for the witch at the same time she reached up for the broom in his fist. A flash of blinding green light detonated from the spot. The shockwave hit like a tank, throwing Ladybug down the street. She hit an outdoor patio set, flipping head over heels until she smacked into the front of a stone-faced pub. Blinking against the white blindness searing her retinas, she felt a weight at the end of her yo-yo and realized she had dragged the broom with her.

“I’ve had enough of this. I’m supposed to be on vacation,” she muttered, reeling the now docile broom in to be snapped over her knee. Her vision cleared enough for her to sight the black butterfly released, allowing her to purify it with a sigh. “Bye bye, little butterfly.”

Half-heartedly, she threw the pint glass in the air to undo the damages of the night.

Sore now from her rough landing, she clambered around tables and chairs now set back to their rightful places. Signs hung back in place. Windows repaired. People now back to their regular, bipedal selves. In among the mingling bystanders trying to come to terms with what had just happened, Ladybug caught sight of a hulking, furry form cradling a teenaged girl in the middle of the street.

“I- I’m sorry-,” the girl croaked weakly.

“No, no, this is my fault,” John insisted, dragging Sarah against his chest. “I never should gotten angry with you. I never should have yelled.” He ducked his head, nuzzling his velvet snout against her face. “You’re a witch. You’ll always be a witch.” He kissed her cheek, holding her tight. “You’ll always be my witch.”

He muttered in English, though Ladybug understood the sentiment behind the words.

Sarah stroked his muzzle, shaking her head. “No,” she whispered, her head dropping to the side to catch Ladybug’s eyes. She was free from the akuma, but there was no relief in her gaze. Instead, dread and terrible guilt swam in the witch’s tired eyes. “I am so sorry.”

Panic lanced through Marinette the moment she realized Chat Noir was nowhere to be seen. Her vision tunneled, heart in her throat, as all manner of terrible injuries came to mind. He couldn’t be hurt, though… She’d used her Lucky Charm… Everything should be okay now…

The pained groan that came from beneath the shadow of a righted table said otherwise. Ladybug ran over and threw the table aside, recoiling at the vision she found underneath. Chat Noir convulsed on the concrete, mouth open yet silent, his body twisting in an agony written plain on his face.

“C-Chat-.” Dropping to her knees, she reached for him to draw his head into her lap. As if her touch were a livewire, he yowled in fresh agony, back bowing until only his head and heels touched the ground. Their connection acted as some sort of occult catalyst, a change overcoming Chat Noir’s body right before Ladybug’s horrified eyes.

Writhing limbs twisted against themselves, muscles clenching tight in sharp relief against the ripped material of his suit. Bones snapped, each crack echoing like a gunshot in the air. An agonized cry rose up as his body began to lengthen and grow, the shape distorting. The night itself appeared to be sprouting from his flesh, tufts of sleek black fur erupting from his pores, seemingly dissolving through the leather of his armour.

His belted tail snapped alive with bone and flesh, fur chasing its way down to the tip. His human ears disappeared into the growing tide of his pelt, the decorative ears atop his head suddenly coming to life and pinning themselves against his skull. Claw-tipped gloves morphed into claw-tipped hands. His legs snapped, rearranging. A shout rang out as the bones in his face cracked, grinding as they elongated; fangs dropped down in place of human teeth.

Frozen to the spot, Ladybug could only stare in morbid fascination as the transformation settled, and a massive feline creature crouched in the place where Chat Noir had once been. Humanoid, yet not human at all. He rose up, blocking out the stars, his sleek body limned in silver moonlight. She could see herself reflected in a pair of slitted emerald eyes. A thousand thoughts appeared to be running through his mind, behind his strangely familiar gaze. His nose twitched, whiskers quivering. Fur rustled as his tail swished absently behind him.

“Chat,” she whispered, finding herself reaching for him. Her heart stuttered when his head tilted, watching her hand, and then bowing his feline head for her trembling fingers to stroke his cheek. He felt like silk, and he felt like velvet, and he felt impossible beneath her fingertips.

“Ladybug, he could be feral!” John shouted, already running to her rescue.

Chat reared back with a wild snarl, lips pulled back over dagger fangs. Fur bristled across his body as he took a protective position over Ladybug’s prone form.

Scarcely able to find breath, she touched his flank. Caught his eye. Whatever was in her gaze, it made him mewl a single pained note that nearly broke her heart. He backed away, stumbling through chairs and tables.

“Chat, no-.”

Before she could stop him, he bolted out into the night and disappeared.

Chapter Text

Ladybug continued to stare into the night long after Chat disappeared.

She stared until the first warning beep for her Miraculous sounded. Numbly, she touched one of her earrings, its jewelled surface feeling icy against her fingertips.

Dropping her hand into her lap, she stared at her spotted palm. Mere moments ago, she had been touching Chat, and the feel of his pelt beneath her fingers had been thick and soft. She’d felt the sleek roll of powerful muscle beneath her palm. The heat of him lingered, as hot as a brand.

In the distance, an agonized yowl caused the hairs on the back of her neck to rise.

A large, canine presence crouched in her periphery. “Can you move, Ladybug?”

She startled back into her own body with the calling of her name, remembering that, yes, she was Ladybug. There were certain standards she had to live up to. Ladybug couldn’t show weakness in front of civilians. The public had to know at all times that she had things under control. Ladybug and Chat Noir were a team, and they always had everything under control. No cracks, no wavering, no uncertainty. The façade was necessary, or else Marinette feared the public’s faith in her and Chat could waver.

Marinette knew all of this. She had drilled it into her own head for years. She screamed at herself to move, to get up, to run off into the night after her partner, but she couldn’t seem to find the strength to move her legs. Her face felt frozen, her lips numb and silent.

A human shape crouched on Ladybug’s other side, muttering words just outside of Ladybug’s understanding. “I think she’s in shock. She needs to sit down, maybe get something to drink…”

“Pull a chair out,” John said, shifting closer to Ladybug. She felt large arms come around her, lifting her with incredible ease; they weren’t Chat’s arms. It wasn’t his strength lifting her. This was a stranger, canine rather than roguish feline, and a part of Ladybug felt like she was betraying her partner for letting herself be caught up in the arms of another.

Marinette, Tikki admonished softly, though she sounded just as disturbed with the situation as Marinette was. This was something the kwami had never seen before. She was worried. She was scared.

A shadow darted ahead, followed by the scrape of a chair on the concrete. Seconds later, Ladybug was placed gently on a wooden seat, joined at the table by Sarah the witch. John looked at them both and sighed, his ears pinned low. “I’m going to get us something inside.”

Ladybug barely registered the wolf leaving. She craned around in her chair, searching through the teeming crowd for any sign of black leather or fur or… or anything. She strained for any noise in the night, another yowl, or even the softest mewl calling for help. She searched in vain. Chat was long gone, alone out there in a strange city, turned into some sort of monster…

Her earring beeped a second time, a damning warning that weighed down on her heart like lead.

Across the table, Sarah looked at a loss for words. Then she frowned at the Londoners gathering around with their phones.

Now that the panic of the attack was waning, people were beginning to realize they had an international celebrity in their midst. They didn’t care that Ladybug’s partner had just run off, nor did they notice the way her eyes had turned glassy. Their interest closed in from all sides, importuning questions shouted in English and broken French. Ladybug couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with any of the dozens of cellphone cameras calling for her attention.

“Ah…” Sarah jerked her chin in the direction of the crowd, and then raised an eyebrow in question. Understanding the gist of it, Marinette nodded, watching as the witch raised a trembling hand and snapped her fingers. No sparkles or magic light. Moments later, screens and camera lights went black. Bystanders swore, smacking their phones, cursing their low batteries.

Ladybug deftly lifted her brows in the witch’s direction, who shrugged. Moments later, Sarah stirred her right index finger over the palm of her left hand, forming a small marble of light that she swallowed. Following that, in a sheepish voice that was inexplicably French, she said, “Thank you for saving me.”

“You’re welcome,” Ladybug mumbled, and then failed to make any conversation after that.

John returned without fanfare, setting a shot glass filled to the brim with amber liquid before each girl. “You’re both in shock. Drink it, you’ll feel better afterward.”

The pungent stink of whiskey burned Ladybug’s nose. She watched over the brim of her glass as the witch took her shot in one go and slammed the glass back down, pulling a pained faced. Following her example, Ladybug took a deep breath and let fire rush past her lips and over her tongue. It burned all the way down to her belly, suffusing out to her limbs. In minutes, the shaking in her hands abated.

A third minute warning rang out.

John eyed her solemnly. “You’re going to change back soon, aren’t you?”

Ladybug nodded, finally finding her tongue. “I can’t just leave Chat out there.”

A large hand landed on Ladybug’s shoulder, covering most of her upper arm. “Stay and look for him. Even if you change back, it won’t matter to us.” John nodded between himself and his witch. “Sarah and I won’t tell anyone – chances are, we don’t even know who you are under that mask.”

“I…” She chewed on her bottom lip, hands fisted tight in her lap. “I can’t. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”

John ran a hand through his fur. “Fine. You do what you’re comfortable with. Since you don’t know who Chat is, if we can’t find him by dawn, I can contact his family and let them know what happened.”

Ladybug’s head shot up, eyes wide. “You can’t do that! His family doesn’t know. No one knows what we do, or who we are…”

“Ladybug, I don’t mean any disrespect, but knowing nothing about each other is probably a lot more dangerous than any monster you’ve ever fought,” John admonished, deflating considerably. “Someone is probably expecting him to be in his bed in the morning, and they deserve to know why he isn’t there. If we can’t find him, or if something happens out there while he’s transformed…”

The fourth beep sounded.

Ladybug dropped her gaze to her lap, her fists clenched tight. “I want to stay to help you look, but I’m wearing only pyjamas under this…”

Sarah rose to her feet, whistling for her broom. “That’s okay, Ladybug. You’ve had a long night.” She moved around the table, brushing a stray strand of hair from Ladybug’s cheek. “I can fly you to wherever you need to go. Dawn is only a couple of hours away, but John can keep looking until then. He’s got one of the best noses in the city.”

“And Chat’s scent isn’t exactly hard to follow,” John snorted.

Sarah shot him a disgruntled look. “If it will make you feel better, we’ll hold off contacting anyone until it’s absolutely necessary.”

Licking her dry lips, Ladybug nodded and rose to her feet. “That sounds fair. Thank you for helping us. I know this is highly unusual…”

“Ladybug, you saved me. John and I are grateful. Let us repay the favour.” Sarah mounted her broom, floating comfortably three feet above the ground. With a small smile, she patted the shaft behind her. “It flies both astride and side-saddle, so you can sit whatever way is comfortable for you.”

Ladybug chose side-saddle. Had she been in the right frame of mind, she would have marvelled at how stable the broom was under their combined weight. Aside from a slight bobbing action, the broom was as steady as if it were setting on a solid surface rather than hanging free in midair.

Last beep. One minute left…

John rose to his feet, eyeing them both with a wolfish scowl. “Sarah, are you sure you can fly right now?”

Sarah shrugged. “Does it matter? She needs to get home one way or another, and flying is the fastest.”

“Fine, but if you get tired, I want you to pull over. Good witches have flown into buildings because they fell asleep at the broomstick.”

“Yes, puppy,” Sarah quipped fondly, rising until she was even with his face to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ll text you when I get home. Be safe.”

“You, too.”

“Hold on to your spots, Ladybug,” Sarah warned, tipping the broom back just enough to shoot into the air. Evening out around the tops of the buildings, Ladybug let out a long, tired sigh when Tikki finally released the transformation. The air was suddenly biting against Marinette’s bare skin. She shivered, hunching in on herself, grasping the broomstick beneath her tightly. Tikki gave her a sad-eyed look before zipping into the sparse warmth offered by Marinette’s thin shirt.

“Don’t worry, I won’t look,” Sarah said, determinedly facing forward.

Marinette said nothing, directing the witch into the general direction of the hotel. They flew on for several minutes in complete silence, hidden in the darkened shadows cast by skyscrapers and towering monoliths of blackened stone. Marinette couldn’t help but squint into every alley they passed, searching every gloomy corner, in hopes of seeing a flash of green eyes. Just one little hint that Chat was okay.

Sarah broke the silence cautiously. “What’s it like being a superhero?”

Marinette laughed hollowly. “Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s lonely.”

“But you have Chat Noir.”

“He keeps things interesting,” Marinette admitted, shivering in the cold breeze. Her teeth were beginning to chatter. “I don’t know if I would have been able to keep doing what I do without him.” She hesitated, then said, “It’s my fault that Chat and I don’t know who we are beneath our masks…”

Sarah clicked her tongue. “Up until this moment, did you believe you were doing the right thing by keeping your identities secret?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s the only thing that matters. If that changes in the future, then so be it. That’s between you and Chat Noir.” The witch sounded like she was smiling. “I have no idea how he transformed into a werecat, but if we can’t change him back, you can always make a contract with him. He’d be yours forever.”

Marinette shook her head, looking up at the starry sky. “I’m not a witch.”

“You don’t always have to be. Not every familiar needs a contract for them to stay with someone forever.” They dipped in the direction Marinette indicated, flying for an open window in the side of a hotel. Sarah backed up until Marinette was able to squeeze over the ledge into the bedroom. “Do you have a number we can contact you with if we happened to find Chat?”

“Yeah.” Marinette dove for Alya’s backpack, wrestling out a pen from one of the pockets. Sarah stuck her hand over the sill, keeping her back turned. Marinette scrawled her phone number on the witch’s palm. “Call me the moment you find anything.”

“Sure thing.” A card flicked between Sarah’s fingers. “My card, if you ever need a witch or a werewolf for anything.”

Marinette snatched the card, tucking it into her palm as she watched Sarah float off into the skyline. Her vision blurred, eyes burning, her heart completely sick. Stumbling through the dark, she landed on her bed, inching up to let Tikki up from underneath her. The small, red kwami floated up to Marinette’s face, laying a gentle hand against the girl’s cheek.

“Get some sleep, Mari. Things will look better in the morning.”

Marinette rolled over, hugging her pillow. “What if things don’t look better?”

Tikki was silent for a long second, and then offered a soft kiss to Marinette’s forehead. “We’ll figure it out.”

 

 

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!” Nino announced as he waltzed out of the bathroom amidst a cloud of steam. Freshly dressed and shaved, there was an extra bounce in his step that could either be attributed to a good night’s sleep or a plan that was finally coming together.

Adrien squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face into the pillow.

Nino was having none of it, lifting free the second pillow from the bed and soundly thumping his friend with it. “You promised, Adrien. One morning out on the town, you, me, and The Important Thing.”

Adrien took a wild swipe backwards, curling his claws in hopes of taking a strip off the creature squawking in his ear. If it would have helped, he might have bared his fangs. Bristled until his fur stood on end, hissing… But no. Nino was too insistent to be intimidated. And Adrien couldn’t find the strength to do anything more than cling to his pillow.

Everything hurt. His head was throbbing. Every muscle in his body felt like it had been put through a meat tenderizer. Every stray sound in the room lanced through his brain – the drip of the faucet in the bathroom, the radio playing in the corner, the sound of Nino’s too-loud heartbeat. Adrien was nearly nauseous with the overpowering scents of hotel laundry soap, Nino’s body wash, and the feral scent of…animal. He didn’t dare open his eyes against the burning glare he sensed blazing through the open balcony doors at his back.

Adrien clung harder to his safe haven the moment he sensed Nino get a grip on the corner of the sheets.

“Up you get, lazy-Shit!

The exclamation was enough to have Adrien flipping over in a mild panic, inspiring an even louder explicative from his best friend. Squinting against the sunlight that seared his retinas, Adrien glared up at Nino, perplexed to find the boy reeling backwards, arms up as if to fend him off, eyes glued on the ceiling.

“Dude, we are best friends and all, but let there be some secrets between us!”

“What?” Adrien looked down, only to discover that he was completely, and utterly, naked. “Oh.”

“Oh? That’s all you have to say for yourself? I did not agree to this when I said I would come with you to London!” Nino turned his back, continuing to stare at the ceiling. “Bro, you are naked right now. You are naked as the day you were born!”

“I see that.” Adrien raised a hand to his head, hoping to abate the pounding that Nino’s yelling was making worse.

“I saw it too, and I didn’t want to!” Nino made a beeline for the door. “I am going to go downstairs to get coffee. By the time I come back, for the love of god, have clothes on.”

Adrien stared at the door long after it had slammed shut. He raised both hands to cover his face, scrubbing tiredly. “Plagg, what the hell happened?” He waited in silence before peeking an eye open to an empty room. “Plagg?” The continued silence sent a chill down his spine. With some effort, he levered up, stumbling from the mattress to his suitcase where he had stashed extra wheels of camembert cheese.

No Plagg.

But the once-rancid smell of the cheese suddenly had his stomach growling. Without thought, he swiped a small piece and let it melt on his tongue, a low, pleasured purr vibrating from his chest. He raised a hand to lick his fingers clean, choking the moment he zeroed in on one detail in particular.

His ring was gone.

Fear spiked his heartbeat straight up into his throat. Uncaring of his nakedness, he shot back to the bed and ripped the sheets off, scouring for the little silver ring. When he couldn’t find it in the sheets, he pulled the mattress off the bed. He pulled the whole bed out from wall and looked behind it.

“Shit.” He swallowed a dry lump in his throat. “Shit.”

Feeling like he was about to throw up, he raced into the bathroom. The steam was still thick enough to feel like it was smothering him. Nino’s body wash was overpowering in the small space, making his head spin. The buzzing of the fluorescent lighting was so loud it felt like a jackhammer was piercing his ears. White tracers flashed in his vision, every detail suddenly appearing as if it were in high-definition contrast.

Adrien retched into the toilet, failing to bring up anything other than camembert.

The cool touch of the porcelain seat felt good against his cheek. He didn’t care if Nino came back to find him still naked, hugging the toilet. He retched again, feeling better with every dry heave. He stared at his white-knuckled right hand, unable to tear his eyes away.

The ring that had encircled his finger since the day he had been chosen was gone.

An angry red burn circled his finger in its place.

The last thing he remembered from last night was an akuma, and Ladybug.

Right. Ladybug.

He needed to call Ladybug.

She was here in the city, and he desperately needed her help!

Wait. God, no, he didn’t need her help. No, that was the opposite thing he needed. What the hell was he supposed to say? He blacked out last night and somehow lost his ring? Of all the terrible and stupid things he had managed to do as Chat Noir over the years, he couldn’t possibly tell Ladybug that he had somehow lost his ring.

Groaning, he squeezed his eyes shut and banged his forehead against the toilet seat.

Even if he wanted to tell Ladybug, he couldn’t. No ring, no Chat Noir, no communicator to talk to his Lady.

He was completely on his own on this one.

“Fuck.”

 

 

Hours later, Adrien was still not fit for human company.

He was barely fit for his own company.

No matter what excuse he tried to make, no matter the begging or bartering or outright pleading, Nino was not to be budged on their excursion. Adrien had tried to claim sickness, which was more than a little bit true. Nino had countered with two aspirin and a water bottle pulled out of the mini-fridge. Adrien had attempted to evade with the excuse of a last minute photoshoot. Nino had gone so far as to call Nathalie to confirm that Adrien’s schedule was free until exactly two o’clock that afternoon.

Nothing was budging Nino, which meant Adrien found himself in downtown London nursing a majorly bad mood.

His skin was crawling. Every sound was too loud. The stench of people and car exhaust was choking. Not even the sunglasses he had on were enough to shield his eyes from the vertigo-inducing sight of things randomly going in and out of high definition.

Sitting beside one of the lions in Trafalgar Square, he shut his eyes tight and breathed slowly through his mouth, hoping he didn’t puke in public.

“Dude, you don’t look so good.”

Adrien bared his teeth, choking on the sudden hiss working its way up the back of his throat.

Nino clapped a consoling hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about this, but a promise is a promise. Try to get through this and I swear I will make it up to you, man.”

“You. Owe. Me.” Adrien ground out between clenched teeth.

“Yeah, I do.” Nino got to his feet. “Here they come.”

“Who?” Adrien asked, sucking in a deep breath to steel himself for whatever, or whoever, The Important Thing was supposed to be. Morning air rushed in through his nose, over his tongue, but this time the scents of the city disappeared. Gone was the acrid stench of exhaust and mouldering garbage in the alleys; he did not smell the overwhelming collection of humanity teeming in the square at this early an hour.

He smelled something sweet.

Desperately gulping in more of that beautiful scent, he detected the fine nuances of such a fine aroma. Candied almonds played in amongst the scent of sugared apple blossoms. On his tongue, he tasted the warm, syrupy flavour of melted sugar. His mind raced with visions of a warm place, filled with laughter and welcome, all the things he had ever wanted but had never had at home. He breathed deep, filling his head with the drugging scent of a female that fit perfectly in his home-and-hearth vision; his heart raced, his blood stirring low in the pit of his stomach.

Something else stirred beneath his skin. Something powerful, and feral, and foreign. It reared up as if called by the siren scent of warm woman, hooking its claws into Adrien’s psyche. It wanted more of that scent, wanted it all over Adrien’s body. He wanted her scent on his clothes, on his skin, on his tongue.

He wanted his scent all over her, too. He wanted to rub up against her, and feel her lithe body writhing against the sleek, bare muscle of his…

Shocked by the power of those sudden urges, his eyes shot open.

A pair of startled blue eyes immediately caught his gaze.

Chapter Text

Marinette might as well have been a mouse caught in a cat’s stare.

She had thought Adrien was asleep, seeing him lounging against the side of the massive lion statue. There had been no sign of his alert state until she had stood within yards of him, and he had suddenly shot up as if electrified. His sunglasses slipped down his nose, exposing a pair of vivid green eyes that snapped to her face instantly.

He was looking at her like he had never seen her before.

“You look like death,” Nino announced, breaking the tension.

“Nino!” Alya hissed, ramming her elbow into his side.

Marinette flicked the boy a brittle half-smile, the best she could do with so little sleep and the weight of the world on her shoulders. “I had a bad night.”

Unable to help herself, she glanced back at Adrien, who had risen to his feet in the seconds she had taken her eyes off him. He was, as always, a handsome sight to behold; Gabriel Agreste was not far from the mark when he claimed his son was perfect. Adrien’s model good looks came to him naturally, displayed fairly nicely in the black designer t-shirt and dark blue jeans he wore. He had an athlete’s body, broad shoulders tapering down to a lean waist, with a hint that he would be even more handsome in a few years’ time when he grew into his fully adult body. He had the kind of body Greek sculptors carved into marble. His hair caught in the morning sunlight, tossed in wild waves rather than tamed in his usual refined style. His sunglasses, now pushed back up the bridge of his nose, gave him a movie star-esque quality.

It wasn’t only Marinette’s eye he was catching. Onlookers were stirring in the square, covertly snapping his picture. She caught a distant whisper, someone excitedly hissing the name Agreste. They could look all they wanted from a distance. Marinette was the only one close enough to notice Adrien was paler than usual. His posture was stiffer. Strange to say, but he stood like a predator who had just targeted sought-after prey.

Even with his sunglasses on, she felt his unblinking stare pierce right through her.

Marinette touched her face self-consciously, glad for Alya’s attempts with makeup to minimize the damages of the night. She had slept poorly for the few hours she had been able to close her eyes, and had spent her waking moments worrying about Chat Noir. Her reflection this morning might as well have been a zombie, her eyes ringed in exhausted purple bruises, her skin washed out into an ashen grey. There was only so much that concealer and blush could do for her, but at least between Alya’s concentrated effort and Marinette’s innate fashion sense, she had been able to pull off a minimally human-looking appearance.

This was not how she had wanted Adrien to see her.

Now he couldn’t seem to look away.

Did she really look that bad?

“Er… surprise?” Marinette muttered, waving weakly, hoping to break the awkwardness starting to settle in.

Adrien lifted his sunglasses, grimaced against the light, and let them fall back into place. Marinette noted with some concern that his eyes were also bruised from exhaustion, nearly twins to her own. She watched his nostrils flare, a shiver passing down the length of his long body. He had always been the epitome of a gentleman, radiating a thoughtful, gentle demeanour that drew people in; now she sensed a different sort of energy flickering across his skin. Marinette didn’t want to call it feral, but it certainly didn’t feel civil.

Embarrassment for her own condition morphed into concern for his.

Was he coming down with something? Was he sick?

“Adrien, man, way to be rude,” Nino admonished, slinging an arm around Alya’s shoulders. Marinette smiled wanly as Alya leaned up, kissing him on the cheek, and then tweaking his nose.

“You’re the one who blurted out that poor Marinette looked like death,” she pointed out.

“At least I said something instead of staring,” Nino countered, opening his other arm to beckon Marinette for a hug. She obliged, still discomforted by the weight of a pair of green eyes tracking her back. She let Nino enfold her into a friendly hug, glad for the momentary respite in the warm gesture. “My girl here knows she’s the second most beautiful woman in my life. It’s a close second, and my standards are extremely high.”

Alya leaned into Nino’s side, grinning up at him impishly. “You are such a suck up, you know that?” She flicked her hair over her shoulder, her chin notching an inch in the air. “But so long as I am the most beautiful woman you know, you may suck up all you like.”

Marinette found the strength to laugh lowly, resting her head against Nino’s chest. “I’m okay with being second best in this case. Alya is a hard act to follow.”

Nino mussed her hair fondly. “You and I both know it.”

A low growl startled the threesome apart.

Expecting Chat Noir to appear, Marinette wrenched away, eyes scanning through the crowd desperately. Disappointment struck hard when she failed to find a trace of leather or fur. Her gaze was inexplicably drawn back to Adrien, surprised to see that the tension riding his shoulders had increased. His fists were balled. He looked ready for a fight.

An instant later, Adrien appeared to realize what he was doing. With visible effort, he forced the tension to melt away into his normal poised self, furrowing his fingers through his hair unsurely. He looked shaken.

Marinette frowned worriedly. “Adrien…?”

“Sorry,” he grunted, coughing into his fist. “I’m… a little under the weather. Must have caught something last night.”

Alya wandered up, scrutinizing the side of his face with a narrow-eyed scowl. Adrien leaned away from her, though there was no escaping the girl’s critical eye. “You look almost as bad as Marinette,” she announced, sharing a disgruntled look with Nino. “Maybe something’s going around?”

“Better hope not,” Nino snorted, crossing his arms. “I don’t want to be sick on vacation.”

“It’s, uh, probably nothing. I’ve just been working too hard, or not sleeping enough,” Adrien intoned, inching away from Alya to take refuge at Marinette’s side. His sudden proximity lit up the nerves all down that side; Marinette went ramrod straight, sneaking a glance from under her lashes. He didn’t seem to notice how very close he was standing. She tried to shift away to put some space between them, surprised when he unconsciously shifted with her, staying close enough that their arms brushed.

Alya crossed her arms, huffing. “Your father works you like a dog. You need more free time to be a human being or you’re going to break down like this more often.”

Adrien scratched the back of his neck. “This is the way it’s always been.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Adrien’s shoulders dropped. “I’ll speak to Father about it.” Not that speaking to Gabriel Agreste would do anything productive.

“Good.” Alya heaved a sigh. “In the meantime, how about we enjoy what little free time we have together? Brunch, anyone?” She cocked a brow in Marinette and Adrien’s direction. “You two feeling up for food right now?”

“Er…” Marinette’s stomach roiled sickly.

“I could go for brunch,” Adrien said, looking to her for confirmation.

Marinette immediately quirked a brittle smile. “Sure, yeah, brunch would be great.” The moment Nino and Alya turned their backs, leading the way out the square toward the nearest café, she dropped her smile. She dug into her purse to check her phone, catching Tikki’s eye where the small kwami had taken refuge at the bottom. Tikki shook her head sadly. Still no texts. No sign of Chat.

Marinette nearly jumped out of her skin at the touch of a warm hand at the small of her back.

“Is everything all right?” Adrien asked lowly, adding just the slightest pressure at her back to prompt her to step out at his side, walking behind Alya and Nino so their friends did not think they were being abandoned. Marinette had never noticed before, but Adrien’s hand was nearly large enough to span her entire back. She noticed now, blushing, hating the way she could feel each of his long fingers pressing through the thin cloth of her t-shirt, his palm cupped against her spine.

A completely gentlemanly gesture. Nothing to get worked up about. This was not the time to be inappropriately noticing things about him.

“Everything is fine,” she lied, but then pursed her lips. “Are you sure you’re okay? You seem… a little odd today.”

Adrien peered down at her carefully, his eyes roaming from her hair to her eyes to her lips, lingering there for the longest time. As if he meant to commit the curve of her smile to memory. He leaned down, his nose hovering just above her ear, so close she could hear him taking a long breath in. His hand pressed deeper into her back, a shiver passing down Marinette’s spine.

“Alya’s probably right, we both might be coming down with something,” he murmured, frowning. His nose hovered near her cheek. “Are you wearing a new perfume?”

Marinette swallowed the tight lump that had suddenly decided to jump into her throat. “N-no?”

“Oh.” He returned to his full height, a confused frown playing at the corners of his lips.

She clapped a hand on the side of her neck, staring determinedly at the sidewalk. “Do I smell funny?”

“No,” he replied, offering her a half-smile that was befuddled at the edges, nearly too adorable for Marinette’s poor heart to take it. “You smell good.”

“Ah.” That small sound that came out her mouth? That was the sound of her soul leaving her body.

Nino’s voice called out from down the street. “Come on, you two! I’m starved!” He waved to a small café he and Alya had staked out, ushering Marinette and Adrien through the door and toward the booth Alya had commandeered for them. Nino slid in next to his girlfriend; Adrien, ever the gentleman, waved to the booth seat for Marinette to slide in first before he seated himself.

Their waiter came by a couple minutes later with menus and offers of fresh coffee. He was proficient in French, and claimed the shop’s coffee was some of the best – Fair Trade Arabica beans, freshly ground, made to order. Everyone was game for coffee, its heavenly aroma perking them up. Nino and Alya decided to split a breakfast plate, and Marinette settled for a small fruit salad, hoping it was light enough to keep her stomach settled.

“English breakfast,” Adrien declared, staring hard at the menu.

Nino’s eyebrow went up. “Dude, you know that’s all bacon and sausage and baked beans, right?”

Adrien shrugged. “I’m hungry.”

If he was hungry, it really wasn’t any of Marinette’s business what he ate. Even if she knew for a fact that Adrien had never in his life eaten something that wasn’t nutritionally balanced. She winced, mentally correcting herself. She’d never seen him eat anything that wasn’t nutritionally balanced or a sweet treat that came from her parents’ patisserie. Adrien had a bit of a sweet tooth, which he rarely was ever able to indulge in.

Marinette was responsible for more than one instance of aiding and abetting the trafficking of sweet goods to one sorely deprived model.

She blew on her coffee and took a fortifying sip. The sudden rush of caffeine hit her where she needed it the most, earning a grateful groan. A lock of hair came loose from her haphazard ponytails; she raised her hand to tuck the stray strand away, bumping into someone else’s fingers who had reached at the same time. She dropped her hand in surprise, head whipping around to find Adrien’s hand still hovering in the air.

He’d lifted his sunglasses to the top of his head, and the moment Marinette caught sight of his eyes, she wished he’d put them back down. He was watching her again, in a way that made her feel like she was being stripped naked before him. Like he was trying to see something deeper than just what was on the outside. The feral energy she had named in him earlier reflected especially strong in his glittering eyes, as if someone else was staring out from behind them.

Cautiously, his hand turned, brushing the backs of his fingers against the strand of hair floating by her ear.

Her eyes widened…

Adrien’s hand shot back to his lap, his eyes snapping to the table with a look in them that said he had no clue why he had reached out.

“Oh my god, you’re hurt,” Alya exclaimed, holding out her hand across the table. She took Adrien’s hand and turned it over. All fingers naked except for an angry red burn on one. Alya whistled low upon seeing the injury. “That’s pretty nasty looking. You do that recently?”

“Last night,” Adrien mumbled, tugging his hand back. “I don’t know how it happened.”

“I’ve never seen you without your ring,” Alya observed, frowning.

“It must have fallen off in my sleep,” he replied, fidgeting in his seat.

“That’s not the only thing that fell off in his sleep,” Nino muttered, leaning his chin into his upraised palm.

“Nino-,” Adrien growled, shooting his friend a warning look.

Nino’s eyebrow went up, chased by a teasing grin. He tilted his head to cast the two girls a devilish look. “Ladies, you’ll never believe who sleeps in the nude.”

Alya snorted, rolling her eyes. “You sleep in the nude. I’ve seen it, remember?”

“Yeah, but not when I have guests. Like, guy guests.” Nino jerked a thumb in Adrien’s direction. “I go to wake him up this morning, and here he is stark naked. Not a single stitch on. Everything just hanging out for the whole world to see.”

Marinette sputtered into her coffee.

Adrien fought desperately against the blush threatening to overtake his face. “It wasn’t the whole world. It was just you.”

Nino pointed to himself. “I am practically your whole world, bro.”

Alya slammed her palms on the table. “The real question is, is he as good looking naked as he is dressed?” She traded a laughing glance with Marinette, who had lost her fight against her blush. She tried silently begging Alya to stop. Unfortunately, Alya was not to be swayed. Instead, she leaned into Nino, walking her fingers up his chest to cup his chin. “Inquiring minds want to know, Nino. Does Adrien Agreste, model prodigy, live up to his model good looks with his clothes off?”

Nino played into the scene happily, soaking up his girlfriend’s teasing affections. “He is, in fact, disgustingly handsome without his clothes on. It’s like someone photoshopped him.” He paused, striking a dramatic pose. “If I wasn’t with you, babe…”

Alya burst out laughing.

Adrien groaned, covering his face with his hands.

Marinette gaped silently, trying desperately not to envision what a naked Adrien might look like. Tried, and miserably failed. There were drawbacks to having a creative mind, one such drawback being her wonderful imagination and how detailed a vision she could create in a split second. There would be a lot of smooth, tanned skin involved with a naked Adrien Agreste. With all the time he spent fencing and working out at the gym for modelling, Adrien was likely toned from head to toe. Not an ounce of fat. He probably had a blond treasure trail that whorled down from his navel to his…

Of their own accord, Marinette’s eyes started to wander. Don’t look, she told herself. Don’t look! Don’t look! Don’t lo- Too late, she was looking. Shit. She was trapped. No looking away. Now all she could see was the possibility of what laid beneath the cotton and denim. All of the possibilities flashing in her mind looked better than any Playgirl spread ever pictured. Her mouth went dry. A muted whimper might have slipped past her lips…

Adrien’s ear perked, his head swinging her way.

Damn it, Marinette cursed, forcing her eyes up to his face. Yep, she’d just been caught ogling his body. She, Marinette Dupain-Cheng, had been stripping Adrien Agreste naked with her eyes. She was a terrible human being. A degenerate teenager. A complete pervert…

From beneath the overhang of his hair, Adrien quirked a brow. Despite the healthy flush colouring his cheeks, the smirk he shot her was nearly enough to stop her heart.

Marinette's heart fluttered on a cusp of giving up completely.

Any spontaneous deaths that might have happened in that moment were delayed with the arrival of their food.

Plates and glasses clattered, utensils clicking. Adrien managed to eat a whole breakfast sausage in one bite before anyone else had put food near their mouths. A strip of bacon went the same way, followed by a whole slice of buttered toast. He downed his cup of coffee and started in on his tall glass of milk. There was enough on his plate to feed two grown men, but he looked determined to finish off every last bite. Despite his stunned audience, he ate like a starving man, foregoing his usual table manners.

Marinette nibbled on a cube of pineapple, watching in fascination. She was a baker’s daughter, so sue her if she liked a man who could eat.

Slowly, the rest of the table remembered their food and settled into amicable company.

Alya picked up the next conversational ball by whipping out her phone and inquiring if anyone had kept up with her Ladyblog since last night. While Nino, surprisingly, nodded and admitted that he had seen the recent posts, Marinette and Adrien guiltily looked away. Not that their guilt mattered; Alya caught them up on the extraordinary events that they had missed last night. In what she was calling a ‘freak turn of events’, there had been an akuma attack last night, in London of all places. Ladybug and Chat Noir had shown up. The akuma had turned out to be a witch. A real one. The kind that flew on broomsticks and was friends with a giant werewolf.

“And Chat Noir somehow got turned into a werecat!” Alya exclaimed, shoving her phone across the table so she could show off the shadowy video some bystander had taken. It was thirty seconds long and showed the last moments of Chat Noir’s transformation, him rising over Ladybug like a living shadow in the night. Jewel-bright eyes staring at her as if she were the only person in the world he could see.

Marinette ghosted her finger over the bristling feline figure, her heart breaking all over again. “Poor Chat.”

Adrien grunted lowly, taking the phone from Alya to blow the image up. He scowled down at what he saw. “How is that even possible?”

Alya snatched her phone back, cradling it to her chest. “I have no sweet clue, but you bet your designer jeans I am going to find out.” She scrolled through several more pictures and videos, her face animated with a manic new light. “I bet it has something to do with the akuma this time. Maybe something went wrong when combining a witch and an akuma, like something got cross-wired in the mix? Maybe those two kinds of magic don’t mix?”

Nino rolled his eyes. “You are supposed to be on vacation, Alya. Can’t the Ladyblog take a vacation, too?”

“Truth doesn’t take vacations,” Alya countered. “I gotta keep my ear to the ground in case there’s another akuma attack, or…” Her eyes lit excitedly. “Or there’s a werecat attack! Shit, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it? If I was the first to scoop that on the Ladyblog…”

Marinette cut her friend off. “Are you sure you should be out scooping something like that? Chat Noir looked pretty dangerous like that, and Ladybug might not know how to handle the situation.”

“I’ll be fine,” Alya assured breezily, taking a bite of a syrupy pancake. “Nothing’s ever happened to me before.”

Marinette resisted the need to roll her eyes, wondering at her best friend’s selective memory. She didn’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of times Alya had needed either Ladybug or Chat Noir to scoop her out of danger. Marinette was beginning to suspect that Alya was becoming a bit of an adrenaline junkie on top of a Ladybug fanatic.

They spent time bantering about the possibilities of why Ladybug and Chat Noir were so far from home. The reasons ranged from reasonably to absolutely fantastic. Alya had every intention of tracking down Ladybug and demanding answers as soon as possible. Subscribers to her Ladyblog needed to know! The people of Paris needed to know why their heroes were no longer patrolling their streets. If Papillon had moved from Paris to London, it was Alya’s job to alert the public to the possible new threat to the heart of the English nation.

The only way Marinette could de-escalate the situation was to agree with Alya on all her wild proclamations, and silently promise herself that she would do everything in her power as Ladybug to keep her crazy friend from ending up as cat food.

A fork and knife clicked definitively, announcing that Adrien had polished off the last of his plate.

Nino whistled impressively. “I don’t think I have ever seen you eat that much in one go.”

Adrien shrugged, staring at the plate oddly. “I guess I didn’t realize how hungry I was. Still am a bit hungry, actually.” Inexplicably, he looked at Marinette as he said the words, prompting her to drop the slice of cantaloupe she had barely managed to put in her mouth. Juice pooled on her bottom lip. A fresh blush stole up her cheeks. Heat pooled elsewhere. She couldn’t be completely sure, but the hunger that flared in his eyes didn’t look like it was for food.

Her lips tingled as Adrien’s gaze lowered, fixating on her mouth. The corner of his lips quirked, predatorily intent on whatever caught his attentions. The expression should have been foreign on his face, at odds with a boy who almost perpetually wore a mask of mild manners in public. His hand glided up, gently cupping the side of Marinette’s face, his thumb caressing her bottom lip.

Her breath stuttered. She wondered if anyone else at the table could hear her racing heart.

“You had a little fruit juice on your lip,” Adrien said, thus proceeding to suck the juice off his thumb.

The sound of Alya’s fork dropping on the floor echoed loudly in the silence that followed.

In what was apparently becoming a habit for him that morning, Adrien blinked back to his regular self with a look of horror. He stuttered something, though Marinette caught none of the words. All she could hear was the sound of her internal screaming. Adrien might have said “I’m sorry” or it could have been “I have no idea why I did that” but whatever he said, he immediately evacuated the booth and high-tailed it out of there.

Nino leaned under the table to fetch Alya’s fork. Coming back up, he eyed Marinette suspiciously. “Did you put a spell on him?”

Marinette eked out a jerky shake of her head.

Nino sat back, brushing his hair back from under his cap. “Right. He’s sicker than I thought, then.”

Alya came back to her body with a prim huff. “Or maybe he’s finally waking up to the fact that Marinette is hot on two legs and he should have been on my girl years ago?”

“Or maybe he’s got meningitis,” Nino muttered.

Marinette sighed, pushing her fruit salad away. “I’m with Nino on this one – not the meningitis part, but… I don’t think Adrien is really interested. Something must be wrong. He's obviously not acting like himself.” She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “He only sees me as a friend. I honestly don’t think I’m his type.”

“You are his type,” Alya deadpanned.

“You are so his type,” Nino added.

Alya snared Marinette’s hands across the table. “You are not going to waste this vacation thinking you’re not good enough. You are smart, funny, talented, and one of the hottest girls in our class. Girl, I have seen you naked in the changing room, and Adrien ‘Oblivious’ Agreste ain’t got nothing on your smoking hot body.”

Marinette blushed, ducking her head when the booth behind them turned around with wide eyes.

Alya paid no mind to the scene she was creating as she declared, “We are going to scheme, plot, and plan for a way for you to end up with Adrien. Even if it kills one of us.” She aimed a narrow-eyed glare at Nino, letting him know that if things escalated to human sacrifice, he was the first one to go.

Nino took his fate with aplomb. “Mari, you are our girl. Me and Alya got your back.” He looked over his shoulder to make sure Adrien was nowhere in sight. “Look, this afternoon there’s a photoshoot and a boring business dinner where all Adrien has to do is show his face and leave. I don’t have to be there. How about I come over to your hotel, we have a movie marathon, and I add my two sense about Adrien while you two fine ladies plot a way for him to fall in love with you?”

Alya blinked away fake tears. “That was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said, Nino.”

“What? The fact that I am willing to ditch my best friend for you two, or the fact that I am willing to help you hatch a scheme involving him?”

“Both.”

Marinette rolled her eyes.

Adrien returned with the bill in hand, having already paid for the whole table. Rich kid privileges, he claimed. The guilty look in his eyes said he’d done it more out of apology than the goodness of his heart.

He sat down stiffly, determinedly staring straight ahead. Refusing to look anywhere in Marinette’s direction. Nino informed him of his defection for the afternoon, which Adrien accepted without a blink. He actually looked relieved with the news. When they got up to leave, Adrien scrambled from the booth before Marinette could come into the slightest contact with him.

“I, uh… should get going,” he stammered, glancing at his phone. The time was nowhere near two o’clock. He didn’t need to be anywhere for another two hours. He was escaping.

Nino wrapped an arm around both Alya’s and Marinette’s shoulders. “You have fun with your old rich dudes and fancy clothes, man. I’ll be living it up in style this afternoon with these two lovely ladies.”

Adrien choked back on a response, for a split second looking like he was tempted to wrench his best friend’s arm out of its socket and away from Marinette. A strangled noise came out of his mouth, like a cat whose tail had been stepped on, before he flew out of the café as if the hounds of hell were on his heels.

It might have been a trick of the light, but in that last moment when Adrien had looked ready to kill, his pupils had flashed vertical like a cat’s.

Chapter Text

The moment Adrien slammed the hotel door shut, he fell back against it and slid to the floor.

He buried his fingers in his hair and pulled until his scalp burned.

A horrible growl filled the overly hot air. Adrien’s head shot up, expecting the sight of a wild jaguar crouched in the middle of his hotel room. Instead, the room was empty. The growling had stopped. A ragged noise fell from his lips, a livid curse, realizing where the predatory noise had come from.

Him. He had been growling.

“Shit.”

The last hours he had just spent in his father’s company had been a special kind of hell. The kind of hell usually reserved for tyrannical dictators and people who kicked kittens. Not only had Adrien been bound by familial duty to maintain the façade of a perfect son while in his father’s presence, but he had been forced to do so while suffering from overly wild delusions that he was losing his mind.

The brunch fiasco had been the beginning of a downward spiral. Alya’s obsessions with her Ladyblog had at least given Adrien a name for what the hell was happening to him.

Werecat.

Noun.

A person that turns into a large, snarling anthropomorphic cat.

Otherwise known as Adrien Agreste.

His recollections from the night before were still spotty, but the accumulating reel of videos being posted on the internet were nearly endless. He could watch himself change from a dozen different angles, each one more painful than the last. He watched his body rearrange, bones snapping, fur sprouting. He had zoomed in on Ladybug’s face from a dozen different angles, struck by the horror in her expression.

She had looked at him like he was a monster.

Which he had been.

He tilted his head back, gasping for fresh air. Since leaving Marinette’s company, a clean breath in had been hard to come by. Similarly, a supply of non-panicked thoughts had also been in short supply. For whatever reason, he had fixated on her scent. She’d been his safe haven for the short time he had sat next to her. If human social conventions had not gotten in his way, he would have laid himself in her lap and taken blissful refuge in her heavenly scent.

Adrien could only imagine how well that would have went over.

He doubted Marinette’s tolerance went so far as to allow random boys to put their faces in her lap and purr.

He’d been drawn in by the hypnotic temptation of her presence, yet repulsed by his own behavior toward her. Every time he let his guard down, something else had risen up to put words in his mouth. He’d wanted to elicit reactions in her, and then get drunk on the warm wafts of her scent that filled his head. She had been irresistible not to touch, her cheek downy soft when he had cupped it. Her bottom lip had been as plush as a flower petal beneath his thumb…

Searching for a stronger word to express his current dismay, Adrien settled for, “Fuck.”

The whole thing had smacked of betraying his love for Ladybug.

He disgusted himself with how fickle his affections had turned. Once undyingly loyal, now drawn away with the slightest tweak of his nose. And for his mind to turn to Marinette, of all people! He had too much respect for the girl to ever want her opinion of him to drop. She’d never given a hint that she was interested in him in the least. The idea of forcing his unwanted attentions on her made his blood run cold.

Where he got off thinking she was the least bit his, he had no idea. The concept was archaic. Yet the moment Nino had touched her…

The only viable option had been to escape.

Adrien had choked his way through a photoshoot, suffering the indignities of being told to smile ‘more naturally’ while his eyes teared up from the overpowering stink of the photographer’s cologne. If he managed one decent picture during the whole ordeal, he’d be surprised. He’d sweat through his makeup twice; each breath in had been a chemical assault on his senses, searing the insides of his nose. The makeup artist that came to fix him each time nearly put him on his knees, wafting the scents of cigarettes, Red Bull, and stress.

The business dinner devolved into an Olympic event of how long Adrien could hold his breath at any given time. The less oxygen his brain received, the thinner the leash he held on his temper. Fear of disappointing his father in front of so many important people had had him holding on to civility by the skin of his teeth. Once his face had been seen and his purpose fulfilled, Adrien had been released from his duties as son of Gabriel Agreste.

Now he was Adrien Agreste: Human Disaster. Or was that Werecat Disaster? He didn’t know anymore. He needed someone’s professional opinion in the field of Magically Fucking Up.

Wait. Wait. He did have someone who could give him their professional opinion.

Scrambling on his hands and knees across the floor, Adrien made a beeline for the closet where the slacks he had worn the day before hung neatly pressed. With no care for the expensive material, he ripped the pants down and began tearing through the pockets. A crumpled white business card came out in his fist.

Sarah Candlewick, Witch.

He was amazed to find there was now writing on the back.

Knock Three Times.

He slammed the closest door shut and banged his fist on it three times. An instant later, a tangle-haired witch flew out with a human-looking werewolf on her heels.

“Oh, thank god!” Sarah exclaimed. “I was praying you still had my card!”

Adrien braced himself against the sudden roar for battle had grown tenfold since the night before. Red alert! Dog has been detected! Round one, fight-!

“Don’t even think about it,” John growled.

Adrien sorely wished for fangs so he could flash them.

“We don’t have time for any cat-dog posturing right now.” Sarah bustled up, dragging Adrien to his feet with surprisingly strong hands. She still smelled of potting soil.

Adrien also detected an overpowering reek of dog in the room.

“Are you okay?” Sarah demanded. “Are you hurt? Do you know where you are? Do you remember your name?” She grabbed his chin when his eyes started to wander back to John. “On a scale of one to ten, how human do you feel right now?”

Adrien shook his chin loose. “Five and a half. Barely.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “I have no idea what’s happening to me.”

John rummaged through the minibar. “You need to calm down before you do anything you regret.” He pulled out a miniature bottle of whiskey and popped the top. “Ignore the smell. Just power through it until you can calm down.”

Holding his breath, Adrien chugged the bottle, letting fire burn straight down to his belly. His tastes ran more towards wine than whiskey; despite that, the liquor was thankfully potent, its effects hitting him quickly. The rush of light-headedness took the immediate bite out of his panic.

Sarah took the bottle and set it away, making no sudden moves. “Can you transform?”

Adrien rubbed his hand, prodding at his burn. “I don’t know. My ring is gone. My kwami is gone.”

Sarah dug into her satchel and pulled out a woven grass mat, which she unfurled in front of him. In the middle of the square mat was a large, charcoal circle. “Stand in this and try to transform.”

He stepped into the circle, surprised when the scents of the room cut off. Sounds dulled down. Colours weren’t so bright.

“It’s a containment seal,” Sarah explained. “If something goes wrong, it should hold you.”

Adrien nodded, steeling himself for whatever might happen. “Claws out?”

A moment later, a hook grabbed a hold of his insides and jerked. The magic of the transformation did not pass harmlessly over his skin as it normally did, but instead boiled up from the inside like fire. It rose like a tsunami, from the center of his chest pushing outward into his limbs, pressure building beneath his flesh. He watched his leather armour push its way out of his skin; his spine burned at its base, his ears suddenly ringing.

When the pain passed, he found himself in the fetal position on the witch’s mat. Pushing up into a sitting position, he noticed the tips of his gloves were punctured by polished obsidian points emerging from beneath. Suspicions riding high, he felt around for his decorative ears, instead finding warm, velveteen flaps of skin that flickered at his touch. He grabbed his belted tail, discovering sleek fur rather than leather.

“I have a tail,” he muttered dazedly, catching his tongue on new, elongated canines.

“You get used to it,” John assured.

Adrien shot him an acid glare. “I don’t want to get used it.”

Sarah dug into her satchel again and pulled out that day’s edition of The Sun, featuring a heading that read MONSTER MÉNAGE À TROIS and featured pictures of Sarah as Wicked Witch, a wolfish John, and Chat Noir looming over Ladybug as a werecat.

“I need you to hold this,” the witch said, handing him the paper so he held it front of his chest with the current date exposed.

He frowned, his new real tail flicking against the back of his legs. “Are you taking a hostage photo?”

“I’m providing proof of life.” She snapped a picture and sent it off. Three seconds later, a reply came in. Sarah glanced up. “Do you know where we are?”

He rattled off the address for the obnoxiously upscale hotel.

A reply pinged seconds later. “She can be here in five minutes.”

“Who?”

“Ladybug,” Sarah announced. “She was worried sick last night. I promised to let her know the moment we found you.”

“She was worried?”

“Don’t be an ass. Of course she was worried,” John snorted.

“John, we have to keep him calm. Don’t antagonize him,” Sarah shushed, eyeing Chat the same way someone might eye a cornered animal. “Chat Noir, while we’re waiting for Ladybug to get here, is there anything you’d like us to hide before she sees it?”

“Me,” Chat replied, looking around the suite sullenly. “My luggage. My friend’s luggage.”

John threw it all into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.

Five minutes of sitting idle, Ladybug landed on the balcony with a thump. She spared no time for Sarah or John, immediately rushing for Chat Noir. She hit the seal, flattening her hands against the electric field. There was a moment of recognition as she confirmed it was him, followed by unfettered relief, and then growing shock as she registered the changes in him.

“…surprise?” he mumbled, staring at his feet, deeply aware of the way his ears flattened against his skull of their on accord.

“Oh, Chat,” she murmured, sympathy softening her lovely features. “Chat Noir, you silly cat. Look at me.”

He peeked up from under his bangs.

There were tears pricking in the corners of his Lady’s eyes. “You had me so worried. I was so scared you had run off and I would never see you again!” She leaned her forehead into the electric field. “Thank god you’re okay.”

Chat ghosted his claw along the curve of her cheek, wishing he could touch her. “Buginette…”

“No, don’t give me that tone. I’m allowed to be worried sick.” She rubbed at her eyes, sniffing. “If anything ever happened to you…”

“I’m okay,” Chat assured lowly, then grimaced. He was the opposite of okay. He amended with, “I’m in one piece.”

She laughed lowly, eyes flicking down and to the side. “It looks like you have a couple of extra pieces now.”

“Hopefully not for long.” He looked up over Ladybug’s head, nodding to the pair who waited a polite distance to be acknowledged. Ladybug sensed his switched attentions, taking a deep breath and slipping on a straight face before turning to their audience. Sarah she recognized, but John…

“I was wearing a fur coat the last time you saw me, Ladybug,” the wolf smirked.

Ladybug blinked at him. “You’re…”

“Black?”

“Shorter,” she coughed.

“That, too,” John mused.

She scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. “You can help him, right? You can change Chat back to himself?”

Sarah chewed her bottom lip. “First we have to figure out exactly what went wrong.” She glanced between the two superheroes. “If Chat’s truly a new werebeast, then he can’t consent for himself to undergo magical procedures. New weres are too emotionally and physically unstable to be considered consenting adults. Are you comfortable giving consent for him?”

Despite feeling like he was handling the situation rather well, especially now with a bottle of expensive whiskey sitting in his belly, Chat gave Ladybug an encouraging nod. He trusted her judgement more than he trusted his own. She would make sure nothing untoward happened to him.

Ladybug squared her jaw, nodding back. “Do whatever you have to.”

“This might take a while,” Sarah warned.

“I lied to my friends and told them I was going out for a junk food run,” Ladybug admitted. “I’m stretching my credibility thin as it is, but I don’t care. I’m here for Chat for as long as he needs me.”

Chat Noir embarrassed himself with the pleased little purr that vibrated up his throat.

Sarah clapped her hands. “All right, then. Please take a seat and we can begin.”

Chat took a seat within the containment seal, with barely enough room to sit cross-legged. Ladybug planted herself protectively at the edge of the mat, sitting jackknife straight, her hands clenched in her lap. She didn’t look like she would budge for a tank. Even if she couldn’t hold his hand or touch him, she was there for him, and Chat appreciated her care more than he could say.

Was it the cat in him that made him want to crawl into her lap, or had he always wanted to do that…?

Sarah unloaded a slew of random items from her satchel. Several clay pots. A golden jewellery box. An armful of candles. And a single, tarnished silver spoon.

“Light them,” Sarah ordered, passing the candles off to her familiar. He went about setting them and lighting their wicks without further word.

Ladybug scrutinized every action of the pair. “None of this will hurt, will it?”

“It shouldn’t. I have a lot of experience with werebeasts,” Sarah assured, reaching through the magical seal to take Chat’s hands. She watched his face carefully as she manipulated his hands, turning them over carefully in her grasp, inspecting each of his claws, then his palms, and then his wrists. She focused on the finger missing its ring. “Interesting. Clearly the magic that makes you Chat Noir is still here. Ladybug is a good base reading to judge what’s normal for the two of you; her magic is on top of her skin, like she’s wearing it. Your magic feels like it’s been internalized.”

“Plagg is inside me?” Chat sputtered, feeling like he was about to be sick.

“Possibly. Absorbed into you somehow,” the witch replied, fascinated by his gloved hand the same way someone else might be fascinated with reading a good book. “But it’s not the only thing inside of you. Your magic feels like it’s being subverted, like there’s something else inside of you that’s fighting for dominance.”

“Could it be the magic that turned him last night?” Ladybug wondered.

“Probably. There was a lot of magic being thrown around last night – bad luck from Chat, black magic from the akuma, my magic…” Sarah took a pinch of dried herbs from one clay pot and sprinkled it over Chat’s palms. The moment it came into the seal, he could smell its musty odour, prompting him to turn his nose up at it. “Wolfsbane reaction negative,” she muttered, pinching another herb and sprinkling it on him. It had the same effect as the first. “Masterwort reaction negative.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chat inquired anxiously. Negative tests were good, right?

Sarah flicked him a grim glance. “Wolfsbane is a werebeast repellent, and Masterwort is a powerful healing herb that’s good for exorcising bad spirits.” She took a third herb and tossed it above his head. “Powdered Catwort , for cat-specific beasts.” She scowled. “No reaction.”

“Should we be worried?” Ladybug asked, placing her hand on the seal wall in solidarity with Chat.

“No. It just means he’s not a natural werebeast,” Sarah reported. “For all we know, he could have gained his werecat form from absorbing his kwami. Humans don’t mix well with massive amounts of magic inside them. Things always go wrong.” She tossed another herb into the seal, watching it fizzle in the air. “Chamomile, to detect curses.”

“Curses can be broken,” Chat said, daring to look hopeful.

“Maybe,” Sarah muttered, opening the jewellery box to pull out a pale, spherical stone that she pushed into Chat’s palm, closing his fingers around it. She fit a second brilliant vermilion stone in his other palm. Both were heavy and cold. “Damn it.”

“What do the stones mean?” Ladybug demanded.

“Moonstone for night shifters, sunstone for day shifters. Some were-beasts are night only, some are day only, some both," John supplied. “I can only change at night.”

Ladybug darted an anxious look to the stones. “Which one is Chat?”

The witch took the stones back and slammed the lid on the box. “Apparently your partner is neither.”

“Maybe this-,” Ladybug flapped her hand at Chat, sounding a tad desperate for good news, “is all that’s going to happen now? No more giant furry Chat.” Her breathing was a little too quick to be completely calm.

“The natural state of his Miraculous is Chaos, so it might be throwing off the results,” John intoned solemnly. “That’s a lot of ancient magic to be up against, and Sarah’s nowhere near as powerful as he is. It’s draining a lot of her power just keeping him in the seal.”

Chat banged one of his fist against the wall, dropping his hand when he saw the witch flinch against the assault. He choked back on a growl. “I don’t mean to be messing up the results. All I want is answers for what’s happening to me.”

“Magic isn’t always an absolute,” Sarah said tiredly, picking up the silver spoon. “We’ll try one more thing before I have to call it quits. You’re really doing a number on my witchy reserves.” She pressed the curved back of the spoon to his lips. “Still negative.”

“What’s the spoon supposed to indicate?” Ladybug dared to ask.

“Nothing, I was just curious if it would work,” Sarah replied, tossing the spoon over her shoulder. John instinctively caught it in his bare hand, and then howled in agony.

“I hate it when you do that!”

Sarah traded an impish wink with Ladybug. “He falls for it every time. Just a bit of silver to keep him on his toes.”

Chat’s pity was with the poor wolf, who marched out to fume on the balcony.

“I’ll go make sure he’s all right,” Ladybug said sympathetically, climbing to her feet. “Chat, will you be okay without me?”

“Never, I’ll always need you,” Chat replied, and then grinned. “Go on.”

He watched her spotted form lope across the room gracefully, ignoring the possessive little hiss in the back of his mind that said she was his and he should have kept her by his side. He snorted at himself. The fact that his new feline side couldn’t decide whether to pant after Ladybug or Marinette left him with a poor opinion for the cat under his skin. There were enough cads in the world who could bend their affections between many different women, but Chat was strictly a one Ladybug kind of cat.

Being a werecat also did not give him permission to be a possessive douche bag. Ladybug was free to go wherever she wanted. She could see whatever she wanted to see. She could talk to whomever she wanted to talk to… even if it was a mangy werewolf.

And yet, despite all the things she was free to do, Chat couldn’t look away. He was transfixed to the sight of his Lady standing with a strange male in the purple light of dusk. He bristled at the sight of her delicate hands cupping John’s hand, inspecting the red welt swelling on his palm.

“Chat…”

He really didn’t like the way the werewolf’s head angled down to speak with Ladybug. Too close. Too intimate. A snarl escaped when Ladybug tilted her head up to listen to the wolf better. She was looking at him with way too much fondness in her eyes. They whispered to each other, shared a laughing glance through the doors, and then turned away to laugh more loudly. He bristled, fists clenching so tightly that his claws bit into his palms. He scented blood.

“Chat, you need to calm down.”

Calm? Fuck calm! Some filthy little dog was all over his Ladybug! She was just letting him talk to her! Letting the strange male lean in, letting him look at her yo-yo in fascination. She wasn’t even trying to get away! The fact that she looked like she was welcoming the wolf’s attentions set a fire in Chat’s blood that consumed everything else.

Chat didn’t notice when the bones in his body began to crack. He didn’t notice when fur started sprouting in earnest, racing across skin and leather. The points of his canines were joined by lines of razor teeth that jutted down from his elongating jaw. All the better to crunch a wolf’s neck with.

He didn’t see when the witch went to her knees, clutching her head. “Stop! Stop, it hurts!”

Her pleading fell on deaf ears. Claws curled into massive black fists, pounding on the wavering containment seal wall. Light flickered. Weak magic fizzled against his fur. It wouldn’t take much to shatter the seal.

“John, help! He’s getting loose!”

Chat pushed his palm against the cracked magic, focusing on the nigh-endless well of negative energy deep down inside of him. The welling reserve of bad luck where Cataclysm came from. All the bad luck in the world pooled into one place that only he had access to. He harnessed that power and pushed it out, into the wall, turning the light caging him into a circle of black. The seal at his feet flamed to ashes.

He saw Ladybug rushing toward him, her mouth moving frantically. He couldn’t hear her words.

Behind her, a werewolf was in mid-transformation, teeth bared, claws poised ready for attack.

Chat roared at the threat to his Lady, attacking first.

Chapter Text

As if Ladybug had just been sucked into a time warp, she watched disaster happen in slow motion.

Chat Noir charged across the room with murder flaming in his green eyes. There was no humanity in his rage-filled glare, nor in the bone-chilling roar that rocked the suite. He was nothing but an oil slick streaming through the room, leaping past Ladybug on his way to tackle the werewolf taking form behind her. Two bodies collided with enough force to feel it through the floor; their collision hurtled them backwards over the balcony railing.

Metal screeched as they ricocheted their way down to the concrete. The distant sound of furry bodies hitting the pavement outside was loud enough to suspect a crater impact in the pavement.

An enraged yowl lit the air. Not even falling several stories was enough to faze Chat.

Ladybug rushed to the railing, her stomach bottoming out at the sight of a cat and wolf locked in a teeth-snapping, fur-flying grudge match in plain view of the whole street. Instinct had her whipping out her yo-yo, one foot already on the railing to swing herself down into the fray. A pained groan behind her reminded her that she was not alone in the suite. Jerking around, she spied Sarah splayed on the carpet.

“You have to stop them,” the witch coughed, trying to drag herself up.

Abandoning the fight, Ladybug helped Sarah lean into her side for support. “I thought you had him contained.”

“He was too strong.” Sarah grimaced, shuddering as the sounds of battle escalated outside. “I warned you. New werebeasts can be emotionally unstable – powerful emotions can trigger transformations. Chat saw you talking to John and he couldn’t help himself…”

“Then this is my fault?” She swallowed a hard lump in her throat.

“It’s no one’s fault, but you do have to stop this soon or Chat is going to tear John apart.” Sarah looked up with terrified eyes. “We’re not special like you or Chat. We don’t have Miraculous powers.”

Ladybug steeled her expression, nodding. “Do you think John can hold Chat long enough for me to get you help?”

Something screamed outside. The type of blood-curdling screech usually used by monsters blind with rage. Another voice was shouting, loud and guttural, trying to make sense of the situation. Police sirens lit the air, growing closer. A frenzy of bystanders was gathering, lining the sidewalks and filling every window with stunned faces. Ladybug sensed the many eyes of the city suddenly turning their attentions to the mayhem going down on their street, morbidly fascinated by the sight of their nightmares coming to life.

Sarah tried pushing Ladybug toward the door. “You need to go.”

“We’ll compromise. We’ll both go.” She scooped the witch up and ran for the balcony, hitting the sidewalk harder than she intended despite catching them with her yo-yo. The crowd made way for her, eyeing the superheroine expectantly, waiting for her to put an end to the unmitigated animal violence.

“Ladybug!” a familiar voice called out. “Ladybug, over here!”

Marinette put her head back and, for once, breathed a sigh of relief that she had a best friend who possessed no sense of self-preservation. Alya was already elbowing her way through the crowd, her phone clenched in one fist, Nino’s arm locked in a vice grip in the other. Given Nino’s height, he had his phone trained above the heads of others, recording the fight for his girlfriend while she negotiated her way through the teeming masses.

“There was no way I was missing this!” Alya panted.

“How did you get here so fast?” Ladybug wondered, bewildered, forgetting that Ladybug shouldn't have had a clue that Alya was in London.

"I happened to be staying in the city." Alya held out her phone proudly. “The moment someone started posting about a werecat, I knew about it. Ran the whole way here.” It was only a few blocks, but her face was flushed from the effort. “That’s Chat Noir out there, isn’t it?”

Ladybug nodded, letting Sarah down to her feet. “I need to stop him before he hurts someone.” She grabbed Alya’s hand, holding tight. “Promise me you’re going to stay out of it. This isn’t an akuma attack. I can’t guarantee your safety.”

Alya opened her mouth to argue-

Nino cut in, clamping a hand on Alya’s shoulder. “We’ll stay out of the way. You don’t have to worry about us.”

Ladybug flicked him a grateful smile. “Can I trust you two to look after this witch? She was hurt just before the fight.”

Sarah wavered on her feet. “Ladybug, you don’t have time for this! Please, go get Chat! John can’t fight him for much longer!”

Alya wrapped a stabilizing arm around the girl’s waist. “Don’t worry, Ladybug. We got her, you can count on us.” There was no way in hell Alya’s sharp eyes missed the fact that it was the akumatized victim from the night before, but she held herself in check. There would be time later for lengthy interrogations.

Nino pulled off his sweatshirt and wrapped it around Sarah’s shaking shoulders, herding both the witch and his girlfriend into the safety of the lighted awning in front of the hotel. Over his shoulder he said, “Go do what you have to do, Ladybug. We’ll be fine here.”

“Good.” She used her yo-yo to vault over the wall of the crowd, landing in the middle of the street where cars had been overturned and a number of glass windows had been shattered. Tufts of black and sable fur littered the street. Ruby wet patches dotted the asphalt. The stink of blood and fury hung like a miasma in the air.

To her horror, she discovered that Chat had gotten the upper hand. Though blood dripped from gouges in his face and arms, he somehow had managed to get John on his back. The werewolf was riddled with red-spattered lacerations, his fur matted in shiny black strings around bright red wounds. In amongst the thick layers of protective fur, blackened scorch marks smoked angrily. Where Chat Noir’s fists pinned John’s wrists to the ground, black smoke was curling, the acrid stink of burning hair rising.

Cataclysm, Ladybug realized sickly.

John’s face fell to the side, one eye swollen shut. “D-do something.”

Ladybug cupped her hands around her mouth, doing the one thing she could think of to get her partner’s attention. “Chat!”

His ears flicked back, body tensing at the sound of her voice. Thunder rumbled in his throat.

“Chat Noir!”

The sharpness of her tone had his ears pinning down. He lashed his tail like a whip, muscles rolling beneath his sleek pelt. He adjusted his stance, lessening the pressure on the werewolf’s wrists; smoke stopped curling into the air.

Ladybug swallowed down the frantic beating of her heart, reminding herself that this was Chat Noir. Her partner. He was not a monster. He looked like a monster, but deep down he was still the funny, affectionate boy she trusted with her life. He was sick, and he wasn’t in his right mind, and as soon as he calmed down he was going to be horrified with himself for having hurt someone.

“Chat,” she whispered, ignoring the dozens of eyes that bored into her from all directions. She ignored the approaching sirens, the flash of stupid cameras, the whisper of people who didn’t know any better. She focused solely on the boy trapped in a cat’s body, the boy she wanted more than anything to help right now. “Chat Noir, you silly, silly kitty.”

She braved the empty yards between them, crossing the fur- and blood-strewn asphalt that looked more like a slaughter field than the address to one of the most exclusive hotels in London. As the chasm between them shrunk, Ladybug felt the tumult of the werecat’s emotions vibrating in the air as finely as she felt the lingering effects of Cataclysm. Standing eye-to-eye with him, she saw animal fury in his wild eyes. Fear and confusion fueling his personal rage. His fangs were stained red.

She wasn’t afraid of him.

“This isn’t you, mon minou.” She cupped his furry face, feeling muscle tense beneath her touch. She waited, watching a spectrum of emotions play out behind green eyes. Ladybug did not dare move her hand; she did not give herself time to question putting her hand so close to a jaw that could snap her limb free. She put her trust in him, and waited.

At the end of a spectrum of unknowable thoughts, recognition flared, slitted pupils blowing wide. Chat’s muzzle parted on a muted gasp, a pained noise issuing forth.

“My…Lady?” His voice had turned deep, the words distorted on his inhuman tongue.

“That’s right, it’s me.”

Panic rose. “Stay back!”

“No.” Ladybug stepped closer, wrapping her arms around his neck, bringing his massive body into the comfort of her embrace. She could never be afraid of him. He was always going to be her Chat Noir, no matter his form. She stroked his cheek, playing with his glistening black whiskers. She petted his neck and traced his ears. Eventually, Chat Noir’s heavy body shuddered into her, and she was glad for her enhanced strength or she would have toppled over from the weight of him.

“Shhhhhh,” Ladybug whispered, holding him close. “I know you’re scared, kitty. It’s okay. I’m here. I’ll keep you safe…”

With Chat distracted, John inched out from underneath them.

Chat tensed, but stayed with Ladybug. She kept her arms cinched tight, pressing soft fur and hard muscle against the length of her body. Trembling, clawed hands inched their way up her sides. He touched her hesitantly, ghosting against the small of her back. He let his hands rest against her hips until he was brave enough to shift his arms around her, slowly at first, afraid to hug her back. But when she did not move, when she wrapped her arms tighter around him to let him know it was okay, he dragged her against his chest and locked her there.

Ladybug turned her face into his fur, breathing in the familiar scent of Chat Noir mixed with the scent of wild animal and blood. His heart fluttered rapidly against her cheek like a hummingbird’s wings. She felt his body trembling without the strength to hold him up anymore, swaying in her arms.

Quiet so only one distraught werecat could hear her, she murmured, “I never should have left your side. You’re always jumping to conclusions and getting yourself into trouble without me. You should know by now that you’re the only partner I could ever want.” She leaned back, searching his expression.

Without the rage of battle distorting his features, Chat Noir was actually quite beautiful as a werecat. Fierce and feline, every detail turned fantastical under the golden glow of the streetlamps. Streamlined features gleaming under a pelt of oil black fur. She stroked the backs of her fingers down the velvety pelt next to his jewel-like eyes.

Ladybug saw his expression waver, his feline face crumpling slowly into dismay as he no doubt caught his own reflection in her eyes. He tried to pull away, attempting to turn his head and hide from her.

“Chat, it’s okay.” She felt a gentle smile flicker at the corner of her lips, trapping his chin with her finger. “You’re purr-fect just the way you are.”

The pun was all he needed.

Chat shivered, a low chuff sounding in her ear. Humour danced in his now-calm eyes. The arms he had locked around her tightened for a moment, and then loosened. She stepped away, but continued to stroke his face and neck. A rumble of thunder vibrated beneath her fingertips. He tilted his head into her touch, opening his eyes in the lazy way cats did when they were lost to something wonderful.

Chat leaned in, black nose twitching, snuffling from her temple to her ear. His soft muzzle passed by her cheek, as gentle as a butterfly’s wing. He leaned away, searching her face for something, whiskers quivering with whatever thoughts were racing through his feline mind. “My… Mine?”

“I’m your partner, yes.”

His eyes fell half mast, his head descending yet against toward her. To nuzzle her again? To snuffle her hair? Caught up in the moment, Ladybug felt her chin tilting up to meet him…

“Watch out!”

A heavy weight rammed into Chat’s back, throwing him to the ground, crushing Ladybug beneath the weight of two werebeasts. Her head bucked off the asphalt, stars erupting in her vision. Chat’s chin came down on her left eye, heat blistering against her cheekbone.

Dull thuds caught her ear, one after the other, followed by an enraged howl.

Chat wrenched to his feet, bristling all over again. Ladybug flew to her feet at his side, yo-yo swinging, ready for whatever was attacking them. To her shock, a line of police officers stood yards away, several of them wielding long-range blowpipes.

John writhed on the pavement at their feet, feathered darts sticking out of his back. Panting, in obvious pain, he jerked his gaze up to Chat. “Run. Now.”

Ladybug wasted no time giving her partner a desperate shove. “Do as he says! Run!”

Whether or not Chat understood the words, he comprehended the sentiment. Quick as the night, he vaulted over gawking humans and ran off into a darkened alley.

Ladybug kept swinging her yo-yo, daring the cops to go after her partner. Either her reputation as a badass proceeded her, or the cops just weren’t in the mood for charging a lone teenaged girl. There were glares aplenty from them, which Ladybug returned tenfold, but no clash between superhero and law enforcement happened. Thank god, too, because Ladybug felt protective enough to start an international incident. This was not the night to be arrested for assaulting more than one police officer.

Once Ladybug was sure she had given Chat enough time to get away, she drew her yo-yo in, spared the constabulary a warning glare, and dropped to her knees at John’s side. He cried out, arching violently, fur being forcefully retracted into his body, bones painfully snapping back into human shape. Injuries he sustained in his fight against Chat fused, leaving nothing but raw, pink skin.

He was human again in seconds, sweat dripping from his naked body.

Ladybug was too stunned that he’d shielded them to care about his nudity. “Why?”

John gave her a wincing smile. “Fucking Animal Control.”

Bare feet came pounding over, a shrill voice shrieking, “I can’t believe you just shot my werewolf!”

Alya and Nino’s faces invaded Ladybug’s periphery, shock evident in their expressions. Nino mindfully draped his sweatshirt over John to protect the teen’s modesty. Alya hesitated, but then came up to Ladybug’s side to wrap an arm around the girl’s body. It was then that Marinette realized how badly she was shaken. This was no time for weakness; she patted Alya’s hand and backed out of her friend’s comfort.

John reached back, grunting with each dart he yanked out.

One of the officers dislodged from the ranks, grim faced as he came to stand over Ladybug and her company. He focused on John first. “Sir, are you aware that you just let a rabid werecat loose in the city?”

Sarah bustled in, still sickly pale, but now fired by indignation. She clapped a hand on her familiar’s back, her face draining grey as she drew on reserves she didn’t have to heal the dart wounds. “Seven darts,” she hissed, glaring mutinously. “That is clearly excessive force! You only need one dart to turn a werebeast back! I am so lodging a complaint about police brutality!”

John glared up at the officer, and then sneered and looked away.

Ladybug inched her chin the air, standing to meet the frustrated man head on. Dealing with law enforcement was always a tricky balancing act. No one in power liked to be dictated to by minors, even when said minors were strong enough to bench press cars and fight monsters.

“Ladybug, Detective Oswald Falk of Supernatural Scotland Yard,” said the man, tipping his hat. He had the look of a person who was consistently overworked, underpaid, and had a pair of pointed ears that marked him as a member of the magical community. The badge on his chest read Animal Control Unit. “I do believe you are out of your usual jurisdiction.”

She crossed her arms. “That was my partner you just shot at.”

“It was a werecat I shot at, and it was tearing up the street and terrorizing innocent people.”

“Er…”

Detective Falk leveled her with a flat stare. “I don’t know how they do things in France, but here in England we don’t let rabid animals fight to the death in public.”

Ladybug bit out a low curse. “It won’t happen again. He’s been cursed-.”

“I know. I saw the video.”

She scowled. “We’re working on breaking it.”

The detective ran his hands through his dishevelled hair, shaking his head. “Animal Control is not in the habit of letting strays run loose in the city, even if they are formerly one of the Miraculous superheroes of Paris.”

“He still is a hero.”

“Not while sporting a fur coat. He’s a public safety issue.” Falk cut off, muttering something into his radio, and then looked back at the line of officers waiting on him as the crowds dispersed. They were packing their blowpipes away; many were decked out in silver, from silver rings to silver strings of bullets around their necks. Falk very deliberately said the name ‘Ladybug’ into his radio several times during the course of the discussion, and then heaved a tired sigh and gave in to whatever his superior was demanding.

“This must be your lucky night,” he announced, the corner of his mouth twitching weakly. Ladybug. Lucky night. As if no one had ever made that joke before. “Since no bystanders were hurt or bitten this time around, I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt. You fix this on your own or we fix it for you. We don’t like flashing our fangs or fur around the city, it scares the humans, so keep your cat on a leash in the future.”

“Thank you-.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m keeping my hunters on high alert for any signs of feline deviancy. One bite or one scratch, and Chat Noir is being detained, Miraculous holder or no.”

Ladybug grimaced. “Fine.”

Detective Falk tipped his hat one last time before walking away.

“Holy shit,” Alya muttered, having recorded the whole showdown. “This is going to go viral.”

Ladybug dropped to her knees again, frowning at John who was now propped in Sarah’s arms as she fussed over him. “Why did you take the shot?”

John shrugged, pointedly staring elsewhere. “Chat’s too unstable right now handle being forced back into human form. The darts they use are not gentle.” He sat up, Nino’s sweatshirt slipping down his waist. “Besides, you and Chat still have your masks to worry about. It doesn’t matter if I’m exposed to all of London – no one cares about a random mongrel. Something tells me Chat Noir isn’t ready for that kind of exposure. Neither are you.”

Her head dipped, accepting the truth as a weight around her neck. “I don’t know what to say…. Just, thank you.

“Yeah. I’m a regular hero.” He shivered. “If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to call it a night. It’s awfully cold without a fur coat.”

“Oh, right. Er…” Ladybug scrambled to her feet, helping the werewolf to his, studiously ignoring everything below his waist. John apparently had no sense of modesty, whether in human or wolf form. People were taking pictures, and it still never occurred to him to cover up.

“It can’t be that cold,” Alya muttered, definitely not looking at John’s face.

Sarah tried to give Nino back his sweatshirt. Nino raised his arms and stepped back. “You know what? Keep it. I wasn’t that attached to it anyways.”

With a grateful smile, Sarah secured the shirt around her familiar’s waist.

“Do you think I should go after Chat tonight?” Ladybug wondered.

John shook his head tiredly. “As soon as he’s back in his right mind, he’ll change back on his own.” He nodded upward. “At the very least, we know where he’ll end up by dawn.”

Ladybug heard Nino gulp thickly behind her, dragging on Alya’s arm. “Babe, this is my hotel,” he hissed. “Crap. There’s a werecat staying in my hotel.”

“Lucky!” Alya groaned. "That means Chat Noir is staying in your hotel!"

Sarah clasped Ladybug’s hands gently. “I’ll keep working on figuring out what’s wrong with Chat and how to fix it. I’ll text you if I come up with anything.” She stepped back, chaffing Ladybug’s spotted arms. “Get some sleep tonight, and you might want to get some ice on that eye.”

Ladybug touched the blooming shiner that was quickly swelling to the point that she couldn’t see. The throbbing in her face hinted that her cheekbone might have been cracked from the force of Chat’s chin hitting her.

“Come on, witchling. Time for us to go home,” John called, leaning into Sarah’s side as she slung his arm around her shoulders.

“My place or yours?” she asked.

“Mine’s closer,” he groaned, the two of them limping off down the street.

That left Ladybug with her two French compatriots.

Alya tucked her phone into her pocket, chewing her bottom lip. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right, Ladybug? Because… if you need us to call anyone to come pick you up, or if you need anyone to talk to…”

“I’ll be fine,” Ladybug lied, forcing a false smile that failed to convey any confidence.

Nino frowned, looking down at his phone. “Marinette hasn’t texted about coming back from the junk food run.” He shared a concerned glance with Alya. “Your hotel isn’t far from here. You don’t think she got caught up in the crowd, do you?”

Alya paled, zipping through her phone to confirm that her best friend had not made contact. “Oh god, she could be hurt! Or lost!”

Damn it, Marinette sighed, lassoing the nearest streetlamp. “If I happen to see Marinette on my way, I will send her to you.” She leapt away to find a suitable alley to change in, taking a minute to lean into the cold brick wall and hug Tikki to her chest.

“It’s really not that bad,” Tikki assured softly. “Chat knows who you are. He’s still in there somewhere, and he still cares about you.”

A teary laugh fluttered from Marinette.

“Your friends are waiting,” Tikki murmured, flying up under the hem of Marinette’s shirt.

Marinette stepped out of the alley, wincing as the pain in her eye hit her full force. Without Tikki’s magic reinforcing her body, she was mortal again, and there was no Lucky Charm to undo the damage. She wandered over to the two lingering figures now huddled under the awning of the hotel. Alya was the first to see her, rushing up.

“Girl, we were so worried!” Strong arms wrapped tight around Marinette. “You didn’t text us or anything! Where have you been? Did Ladybug find you?”

“Ladybug let me know you were looking for me,” Marinette said lowly, resting her chin on Alya’s shoulder. “I got caught up in the crowds.”

Nino frowned down at her, motioning to her eye. “Someone do that to you?”

“What?” Alya quipped, pulling away. “Oh my god, your eye!”

“Stray elbow,” Marinette lied.

“Ladybug had a black eye, too,” Nino said, but that was as far as he got before the magic that separated Marinette from Ladybug kicked in. His brow furrowed, looking down at her oddly. “I think she had it on the other eye…”

“We gotta get some ice on it,” Alya insisted, taking Marinette’s arm up in both hands to tow her down the block.

Nino kept pace with them, glancing around like he expected another creature feature grudge match to break out. “How about I walk you back? Maybe I’ll stay the night to make sure you two are all right.”

Alya lifted a skeptical brow. “We’re not scared, Nino.”

“Who said anything about you being scared?” he countered, fitting himself protectively on Marinette’s other side. “Maybe I’m scared and I know there’s safety in numbers.”

Marinette leaned into Nino. “Stay if you want to. I wouldn’t mind the company.” More the merrier to distract her from her personal pity party.

“What about Adrien?” Alya prompted.

Nino shrugged. “I didn’t see him anywhere in the street. He’s either still at dinner or knocked out cold in our room. Either way, he won’t miss me for one night. I’ll text him to let him know where I am.”

“Fine, you’re coming with us. It’ll be a big co-ed sleepover.” Alya hugged Marinette’s arm. “Crazy night, huh?”

“Yeah, crazy.” Every single minute since she stepped foot in London had been crazy.

Alya let the silence hold, and then asked quietly, “You think Chat Noir is going to be okay?”

Marinette shook her arm loose of Alya’s grip, turning it to wrap around her friend’s waist and lay her head on Alya’s arm. “I hope so.”

Chapter Text

London was nowhere to be found when Adrien finally came back to his own body.

Instead of the concrete jungle, he was standing in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by trees, with the moon still high in the star-spackled sky. An endless sea of stars stretched to the horizons, seemingly too many for the night sky to hold, all of them twinkling like diamonds. He marveled at the unfettered sight, so rare in the cities where light pollution lit the night too bright.

How far had he run?

Far enough that the sounds and smells and sights of the city were nonexistent in this place.

He should have been afraid. He should have been upset, wondering how he was going to make it back to civilization. Instead, he was curious of the place he found himself in.

Adrien drew his attentions from the sky, blinking into the shadowed gloom that lay closer to Earth. Hidden beneath the summer-heavy canopy of the trees, beyond the silver touch of the moon, the night was dark, but no less beautiful. Darkness was broken by the glitter of fireflies and will-o-the-wisps, their enchanting lights mimicking the stars, beckoning travelers into the trees to get lost with them.

Torches had been lit, their heads ablaze in orange light; the heady scent of wood smoke mixed with the earthy aroma of damp loam. Shadows danced, and the curious eyes of the Folk who lived in the forests and fens watched from their hiding places. Bodies writhed unseen in the underbrush, the night giving them an excuse to dabble in the dirt. Beneath the crackling of flame and the whisper of the leaves, there rose the breathy gasps of wild things embracing the night.

Adrien could feel the magic of the forest in the air. Old magic. Older than the city of London, older than the empire of Rome. Old, ancient Earth magic that lived and breathed and was watching him. He felt it wrapping around him. He breathed it in, tasting power on his tongue, his head suddenly filled with stars.

Despite the night hour, the air was warm.

He looked down at himself and was not surprised to see bare skin. Modesty never rose with the urge to cover himself. It felt right to be naked in the woods, like all the other animals that ran wild. He was part of the night, with magic running through his blood. He wanted to run off into the woods, to shed all the chains that held him down to humanity; he wanted to stretch, and purr, and lay in the soft undergrowth with an even softer body tangled with his.

Anticipation chased across his skin. He was here for a reason. Something important was going to happen.

It was not long before the eyes of another traced the length of his body, eliciting a shiver that chased the warmth that bloomed. Almost a physical caress, for all the intimacy the glance carried. Embers lit in Adrien’s veins until he felt his blood smouldering. His heart stirred in his chest, turning over with a knowledge that his conscious mind had yet to comprehend. Other parts of him stirred lower down, yet he made no move to shield himself.

The woman who stood before him was the one woman in all the world he wanted to see the most.

In the moonlight, she was ethereal. Like him, she was bare. Not a single spot to be seen, no mask to hide behind. The mere sight of her pearlescent skin stole his breath away. She was perfect in every conceivable way, from the curve of her waist to the high thrust of her pert breasts, to the proud way she carried herself.

She was the one who his heart was waiting for. Beneath his skin, the cat that now prowled the confines of his body rose languidly, urging Adrien forward. This is what he wanted. What he needed.

He was entranced by the blueness of her eyes, two jewels of daylight sky lighting up the night brighter than all the stars in the sky. Despite all the other details of her face being fuzzy, cast in flickering shadow, her unmistakable eyes were clear, focused solely on him.

She extended a bare hand to him, waiting.

Adrien lifted a hand to join her…

 

And woke up.

 

Gasping for breath, he opened his eyes to the burn of daylight streaming in through the windows. The stink of the city pressed in from all sides. The open balcony doors letting the coming heat of the summer day leach in, driving out the last remnants of the cool night. It took several moments for Adrien to register that he was no longer where he had been moments before. The trees were gone, the stars were gone, the magic dissipating into the ether.

Adrien was stunned to find his arm extended above him, reaching for… something.

“Damn it,” he cursed, dropping his arm to the sheets.

Wrenched from the dream, he battled back the sudden surge to snarl. Human sensibilities rushed to the fore, a blush scoring his cheeks as reality began to settle in. A raised arm was certainly not his only issue as he cast a jaundiced eye down the length of his body. The white hotel sheet did very little to disguise his very prominent physical reaction to the dream. Heat stirred low in his belly, his gut clenching tight. He groaned, pressing his head back into the pillow.

The cat in him prowled within the confines of his skin, wide awake, and now clawing at him. Now that Adrien had a name for the new presence, he could almost separate it from himself. Its wants were far from the civility of Adrien’s human-mediated thoughts. It was raw, and feral, and passionate to a degree was both thrilling and shocking. The cat wanted back in the dream. It wanted to go back and grasp that important thing they had been reaching for.

The cat’s desire burned so bright that it blurred the lines between human and animal, so much so that Adrien was caught up in a vision of rubbing the length of his body against another’s. He lost his breath with the sudden urge to taste flesh, tasting moonlight shining on pearlescent skin. He wanted soft grass beneath him instead of a mattress, and he wanted night-chilled dew to mix with impassioned sweat on tangled, writhing bodies. Swept up in a potent wave of arousal, he arched, his skin flushing too hot. It was nearly too much to resist the urge to take himself in hand.

He wanted to possess another human being, and be possessed by her.

His mind seized on the last thought. Possessed by her. A long, low groan vibrated from deep in his chest as every muscle from the waist down clenched tight.

Ladybug’s face filtered up from the depths of his mind, spiking his blood with a fresh jolt of desire. More insidious heat crept up to curl around his ears, creep down the back of his neck, tightening uncomfortably between his legs. This time, he didn’t even know if it was the cat in him or his own desires that were enflaming his mind.

If he thought turning into a werecat was bad, this was potentially even more embarrassing.

Tipping his head to the side, Adrien sighed in relief to see that Nino was nowhere to be found. There were small blessings in being abandoned for the night, the least of which being the avoidance of yet another excruciatingly awkward morning. Nudity could be excused. Unrelenting morning arousal probably could not.

He dragged himself up, swinging his legs over the side of the mattress. Gods, his skin was still tingling from the dream! He grasped the edge of the mattress in his fists, focused on finding his breath again, closing his eyes in hopes of remembering what had been so essential just moments ago. Everything was suddenly distant in the light of day; the harder he grasped at the dream, the more it slipped through his fingers like grains of sand.

There had been a clearing in a forest, and magic, and someone important had been there with him…

His phone went off on the bedside table. Cursing, he twisted around, cursing again when he saw it was Nathalie. “Hello?”

“The werebeast attack last night has been all over the news,” Nathalie reported, no preamble whatsoever. “Your father was worried about you.”

Adrien rolled his eyes, surprising himself with the withering retort that threatened on the tip of his tongue. That vaunted self-control he had perfected over the years was really taking a beating with this werecat business. Not that a snide remark would have been undeserved. Adrien highly doubted his father had been personally worried. If Gabriel had been concerned, his room was literally right next door and he could have stuck his head in at any time.

Or not, Adrien thought wryly, considering his current state. Letting his father see him was probably even worse than letting Nino see him.

“Adrien, are you there?”

He startled, sitting up straighter. “Yes, I’m here. Sorry. I’m just a bit… tired.”

Nathalie carried on, holding firm to her businesslike mien. “It’s understandable. Your father selected The Wellesley for its discreet location, but obviously it is not so selective if animal fights are going to break out in the street the moment the sun goes down.”

“Hmm,” Adrien hummed noncommittally.

Because rich folk never had to deal with the realities of werebeasts or monster fights. Their money and status protected them from those sorts of unpleasantness, the same way they were protected from the riffraff of general society. Oh, wait, that wasn’t true! Adrien himself was currently suffering from a mad case of the furries. He’d went down to the pavement no holds barred, and he’d done it with a riffraff wolf, and the eyes of the entire world looking on.

Look at me now, Father, Adrien mentally scoffed.

“He’s thinking of cancelling your holding reservation and moving to another hotel,” Nathalie intoned, unaware of Adrien’s running mental commentary.

“If that’s what he wants,” Adrien replied flatly. London may have had its significant differences from Paris, but they had plenty of common ground when it came to accommodating the rich and stuck up. There were dozens of hotels for Gabriel to choose from if he decided to turn his nose up at the fur flying on the front doorstep of The Wellesley.

“It hasn’t been decided yet, but keep aware that it is a possibility and you and your friend may need to pack.”

“Of course.” He stared at Nino’s empty bed and wondered where he friend might have gotten to. The only reasonable place he could think of was Nino was still with Alya and Marinette.

A hot curl of something other than arousal snaked down his spine. If Adrien hadn’t liked the idea of Nino touching Marinette yesterday, he certainly didn’t like the idea of his best friend spending the whole night with her. He would have to rectify that situation as soon as possible.

Adrien belatedly tuned back into Nathalie’s one-sided dictation.

“-it’s only unfortunate that the designer for your fitting today is staying down the street. He got caught up in the attack and is apparently traumatized. He’s taking the entire day to recuperate outside the city.”

Although Nathalie was not known for being overly expressive, Adrien detected a subtle hint of annoyance in her tone. Parisians had learned to live with Papillon’s nearly weekly attacks – they saw a monster, watched Ladybug and Chat Noir defeat it, and then went back to their days. If Adrien remembered correctly, the designer he had been meeting with today was new on the fashion scene and really couldn’t afford an upset as large as risking offending the Agreste brand by standing up the son of the owner.

Nathalie was clearly not impressed with the man’s fortitude.

Neither was Adrien.

“I will have to rearrange your schedule to accommodate the fitting on another day,” Nathalie continued, pausing as the click of her stylus tapping against her tablet sounded over the phone. Adrien waited patiently for her verdict, mentally tallying what else he had lined up for that day. A fitting with the flakey designer. Lighting test for a photoshoot. Sit in on a financial business meeting for what his father liked to call “gathering experience for the future.”

Or what Adrien liked to call “reasonable motive for throwing himself out a window.”

Nathalie sighed, setting her tablet away. “I will call the photographer and tell her to use a stand in for the lighting test. As for the business meeting, they’re still cleaning the street up outside and Mr. Agreste is not interested in meeting anyone when there is still blood and fur all over the place. I am sure you and your friend will be able to find something to occupy yourselves for the day?”

Adrien nearly dropped the phone in surprise, wasting precious seconds staring at the screen.

“Adrien?”

“Uh, yes! Nino and I can find something to do. Of course. I, er… thank you, Nathalie.”

“Your father recommended having the rest of the day off. More than one individual noticed that you were not yourself yesterday at the dinner.” She almost sounded concerned. Almost. “You are to take the day to rest and remind yourself that you are representing your family name and the face of your father’s company while you are here. Please act accordingly.”

Adrien deflated. “I will remember to do so.”

Not that anyone cared or was concerned that he was dealing with a major monsterly issue at the moment.

Not even counting the issue he was currently hiding with a sheet.

Nathalie didn’t even say goodbye before disconnecting the call. There was no point in taking her dismissal personally; she’d always been a very direct woman or few words. Adrien took a moment to check his messages, confirming that Nino had abandoned him for the company of Marinette and Alya. The lick of irritation that lashed Adrien as he read the short text confirmed exactly where he was going that morning.

Dragging himself from the bed, Adrien slouched his way across the suite toward the bathroom. Along the way, he noted that the room had been put back to rights from the disaster it had been last night. The candles were gone, as were the ashes from Sarah’s flamed out seal. Nino and Adrien’s luggage had been taken out from the bathroom and set neatly beside each owner’s bed, their clothing neatly folded and pressed.

Passing Nino’s suitcase, Adrien briefly read the note attached to the top: Brownie Magical Cleaning Services. For all your magically-related cleaning needs!

Ugh. London couldn’t possibly get any weirder.

Adrien climbed into the shower and cranked the water to ice cold.

 

 

Marinette’s wakeup call was nowhere near as pleasant or as disorienting as Adrien’s, though it was no less abrupt. The severity with which the throbbing headache hit her had her grinding her molars, curling into the fetal position. She didn’t dare touch her face, already able to feel the mottled mess that had become her left eye despite concentrated efforts the night before to lessen the damage with ice.

“She’s awake!” Alya hissed nearby, followed by rustling sheets. “Mari, sweetie, how are you feeling? Do you need us to get you anything?”

“My head is pounding,” Marinette groaned, daring to roll over and crack her one good eye open. She focused just in time to see both Alya and Nino wince sympathetically. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Pretty bad,” Alya replied, sliding from the bed. “I can get you something for your head. Give me a second.” She padded over to the bathroom, rummaging through their collective supplies for the right combination of drugs that would make Marinette’s whole head go numb and make the room stop spinning.

Nino rolled onto his side, watching her from his pillow. Without his glasses, he needed to squint to see her. “You need me to close the curtain?”

Marinette tried to nod, and then quickly regretted that decision. “Please.”

Blessed shade crept over the room moments later.

Alya padded back in with a glass of water and more pain meds than what was probably safe to prescribe. Marinette didn’t stop to think about what was being handed to her, she swallowed every pill and chased them with the full glass of water. Her empty stomach sloshed uncomfortably. Her head throbbed. Alya helped her back down to the pillow and pulled the sheets up to Marinette’s shoulders.

“Lay down for as long as you need. We’re not going anywhere,” Alya said, crawling back under the sheets with Nino. “If you need anything, you let us know, okay?”

“Yeah, Mari, we’re going to stay right here for as long as you need us,” Nino said, flipping on the tv and turning the volume as low as it could go so they could still hear it without disturbing Marinette. He slung his arm around Alya, drawing her close to kiss her cheek, trading worried looks.

As much as Marinette wanted to thank her friends for being the best damned human beings on the planet, words were beyond her. The sound of her own voice ringing in her ears might have been enough to get her to throw up. Hoping that Alya and Nino would instinctually know her gratitude, Marinette groaned and tucked her face up under the blankets, hoping to fall back to sleep for the next forever. At the very least, until her head stopped pounding.

From beneath the covers, Tikki crawled up and laid a gentle hand to Marinette’s cheek. The little kwami’s sweet face reflected nothing but the utmost sympathy. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to spare you from the worst of it.”

Marinette grimaced, doing her best to force a smile. “These things happen. It looks worse than it really is.”

Tikki caught the lie before it even finished rolling off her chosen’s tongue. She was not without power, though her abilities were limited without being in the Ladybug guise. Tikki planted a kiss to the mottled purple bruising that had spread to encompass much of Marinette’s cheekbone. Just a little magic, enough to boost Marinette’s natural healing abilities.

Sweet relief spiraled out across Marinette’s face. She sagged into the mattress, breathing a grateful sigh. “Thank you.”

Tikki merely smiled, poking her head out from under the sheet to make sure Alya and Nino were sufficiently distracted. Sure enough, Alya had immersed herself in her laptop, clacking away at the keyboard at lightning speeds to keep up with the torrent of Parisian Ladybloggers freaking out over Were!Chat and what gigantic douche bags the English were for trying to shoot him. Nino was adding unhelpful commentary to his girlfriend’s increasingly unrestrained online fervor.

Ducking back into the dark haven created by the bedsheets, Tikki fluttered up to lay on Marinette’s pillow where her chosen’s one good eye could see her. “This might be our only chance to talk privately.”

Marinette’s expression sobered, dread settling in her chest.

Tikki’s expression remained soft. “I was there with you last night, Marinette. I held Chat with you, and I felt what you felt while you held him. I think, given what is going on with Chat right now, we need to talk about it.”

Marinette turned her face into the pillow, fresh heat blooming from beneath her collarbone, steadily creeping upward. She couldn’t bring herself to focus too long on the flashes of Chat Noir that threatened to surface in her mind; Chat looking at Ladybug like she had hung the moon and stars, despite the only thing she had done was show up to be there for him. Chat Noir trapped in a containment seal like an animal, yet smiling for her to reassure her whenever their eyes caught. She should have been the one reassuring him.

Monstrous green eyes set into a cat’s face, staring down at her like she was the only girl in the world.

Marinette hated the unbidden flutter that twirled in her chest. Not a new feeling, but a steadily growing one that became more noticeable each time it happened. An increasingly unwanted feeling as it clashed with her established crush on Adrien. A crisis was not the time or place to take her feelings out to examine them. She had to be strong right now. She had to be Ladybug. Marinette couldn’t afford to be herself or else she was going to fall apart with worry, and then both she and Chat Noir were going to be in trouble.

Weakly, Marinette murmured, “Please, Tikki, not right now. I don’t want to think about it, not while he’s-” She swallowed hard, breathing deep. “We can talk about this after we fix him.”

Tikki frowned. “You care a great deal for him.”

“He’s my partner.”

“Marinette,” the little kwami admonished softly.

Marinette took the small god’s soft chiding with grace, accepting that perhaps ‘partner’ was not nearly a strong enough word to encompass the relationship she had with Chat Noir. Although she did not dare give it a name, she knew they had flown past the boundaries of regular partnership long ago. It was a disservice to think of him as less than someone very important in her life, even if she was afraid to think too strongly on the matter.

“I won’t deny that I care for him, Tikki,” she whispered. “But right now I can’t afford to be weak when he needs me.”

“Being afraid isn’t the same as being weak. You know that, Marinette,” Tikki said softly. A playful glitter lit the little god’s blue eyes. “Whatever feelings you have for him, they don’t diminish the feelings you have for others.”

Marinette knew exactly which ‘other’ Tikki was referring to. Shame kept her silent.

“But,” the little kwami sighed, her fluttering eyes betraying her disquiet. “I won’t press the matter with you right now if you feel it would be for the best. You are right that we have to focus on getting Chat Noir back to normal. I worry for Plagg…”

Marinette smothered a gasp, assailed by a fresh wave of guilt. “Oh, Tikki! I completely forgot about Plagg!” She scooped her palm around the small creature, cupping her close. “Can you feel if he’s all right?”

Delicate pink hands stroked comfortingly against Marinette’s cheek. “I can still sense him, though it feels as if he’s gone dormant. Perhaps it’s better this way? Plagg can be difficult to live with sometimes, I can only imagine how hard it would be to share a body with him.”

Marinette found strength the giggle softly. “You know who Plagg’s chosen is, don’t you?”

“I’ve always known.” Tikki smiled wistfully.

“Can you sense if he’s all right?” She bit her lip, hesitating. “I… I don’t want to know who he is, but I don’t want him to be suffering as a civilian, either.” She stopped again, searching for the right words. “I wish I could help him as Ladybug without… without ruining everything as Marinette.”

A sweet belle laugh tinkled in the dark haven of the sheets. “Marinette, you need to trust yourself more. You could never ruin anything so long as your heart was in the right place.” Tikki lay back on the pillow, a knowing smile playing on her fey features. “Chat Noir is going through a difficult time, but he has you to help him.”

Marinette frowned. “Yes, but what about his civilian self? Who’s going to help him?”

Tikki’s smile stretched wider.

The knock that sounded at the door hushed Marinette’s protest before she could voice it. Drawing back the sheet, she poked her head out into the darkened room and shared a quizzical look with her friends.

“Room service?” Nino wondered.

“I didn’t call down,” Alya replied, brows furrowed. “Maybe Mom sent us up breakfast?”

Feeling the need to distance herself from the implications of her discussion with Tikki, Marinette wobbled into a sitting position. There came an accompanying head rush as Tikki’s healing magic clashed with the potency of the drugs finally kicking in. She was thankfully no longer in any kind of pain. Everything was pleasantly numb from her scalp downward.

“I’ll get it,” she announced just as a second knock sounded. “I’ll be right there!”

Alya scrambled to get up, nearly flinging her laptop from the bed in her haste. “Mari, it’s fine, I can get it. You stay down.”

Marinette slid to her feet, waving her friend back. “The meds have kicked in, Alya. I’m good enough to answer a door. You stay cozy with Nino.” She smoothed her tank top and cotton shorts into place, catching her reflection in the large mirror on the wall.

Oh boy, she mused, cringing at her appearance. Her eye was swollen shut, a mess of blacks and purples that stretched down over her cheekbone and back toward her temple. A scabbed-over cut flaked dry blood just beneath her distorted eye. No amount of makeup was going to salvage that mess. Her pyjamas were wrinkled all to hell, and there was no excuse for the terrible rat’s nest that was her hair. All things considered, she looked as bad as she had felt waking up – like death warmed over.

Good thing it was only breakfast on the other side of the door. No one she needed to impress.

Except, when she undid the lock and swung the door open, there was no helpful staff member waiting in the hall with a trolley of food. Instead, there was a handsome boy with perfect blond hair and emerald green eyes. Green eyes that, upon seeing her, first lit up in delight that quickly veered off into widening horror.

“Marinette, your eye-!”

Instinct for self-preservation kicked in. She slammed the door in his face.

Chapter Text

Of all the things Adrien had been expecting, having the door slammed in his face was the last.

He blinked, glad that he had been standing far enough back not to get his nose clipped. As it stood, Marinette’s swing had been strong enough to blow his hair back. She had a surprisingly good throwing arm. Fear made people strong, and by the look on Marinette’s face now tattooed into the back of his mind, Adrien had no doubt fear had been a strong motivating factor behind her reaction.

To his new, sensitive ears, the bang of the door might as well have been a gunshot. He gave his head a shake, managing to clear enough of the ringing to catch retreating footsteps and the sound of another door slamming shut. If he concentrated, his heart broke at the sound of a shuddering whine. Marinette’s scent lingered weakly in the air; although Adrien was still new to the whole sensory overload thing, he detected a tang that he assumed was adrenaline, and a salty scent that might have been tears.

Her damaged eye was also tattooed into the back of his mind, his gut twisting sickly with the thought that maybe… was it possible that he had…?

His mind rushed in with every denial possible. God no, he would never raise his hand to a girl! Never! He’d never hurt Marinette! There was just no way! He would never in his life raise his hand against any girl… unless akumatized. And even then, he never really tried to hurt them. He usually only taunted them until Ladybug could come up with a plan.

Besides, there is just no way that Marinette would have been outside last night, he rationalized weakly, stumbling back a step. What were the chances that of all the girls in the city, he would have ran into her? None. No chance. His luck could not possibly be that bad. Marinette and Alya would have been tucked up safely in their beds last night… with Nino. Which may or may not have been a worse option.

For all the excuses he could make, Adrien didn’t remember last night.

And he didn’t know what he was capable of as a werecat.

Hadn’t Sarah said that new werebeasts were unstable? Adrien barely had a hold of himself in human form, he was scared to think of what would happen when the cat was in the driver’s seat. A jealous, easily angered, unstable cat with teeth and claws and not an ounce of human reasoning to stop it from doing something awful.

Shit. Shit.

Even now, in his own human skin, he had to fight the urge that told him to go through the door to get to Marinette. He had to resist the demand of a snarling voice in his head that said burn the door down with Cataclysm. Go to the girl who he could hear sniffling in the bathroom. Wrap himself around her, bury his face in her neck, and purr into the candied almond scent she radiated. No matter that the demand to be at her side felt more desperate than violent, he couldn’t trust it.

He couldn’t trust himself.

Adrien darted a spooked look down the hall, empty in the early hour. He hadn’t encountered a soul yet, and he hoped not to encounter one in his escape. He was about to sprint away when the doorknob clicked, Nino sliding out into the hall and closing the door firmly behind him.

“I think you just scared ten years off of Mari’s life,” said the boy, crossing his arms and cocking an eyebrow. Though his expression was friendly, Adrien noted the protective stance Nino took on the threshold.

“I didn’t mean to,” Adrien admitted, choosing a spot to the left of Nino’s head to stare at.

The brief glance he had gotten of Nino’s overall dress had been enough to spike his blood pressure. Bad enough that his best friend had spent the night with two girls, alone, unsupervised, not a female chaperone to be scented, but it appeared that Nino had been in there with them half naked. No shirt, no shoes, no socks, not even a decent pair of pants.

Nino was dressed in nothing but a pair of flannel pyjama bottoms that stopped short several inches above his ankles that no doubt belonged to Alya. A bright white room card was tucked into the green plaid waistband.

Silence between them stretched into awkward territory before Nino gave in with a sigh, raking a hand through his closely cropped hair. “Dude, what the hell are you doing here?”

The real answer dried up on Adrien’s tongue. He couldn’t very well come out and say he had been dragged out by an insistent sense of misplaced jealousy. Uttering anything close to the sentiment would probably only raise suspicions. Jealousy toward his thoroughly taken best friend was an absolutely ludicrous idea, and Adrien wished he had realized that long before he had knocked on the stupid door.

“Well?” Nino pressed.

Too late to run away now, Adrien steeled himself. “What happened to Marinette’s eye?”

For a moment, Adrien worried that his friend wouldn’t allow for the topic change. Nino pursed his lips, glancing over his shoulder as if trying to mentally communicate with the occupants of the room. In the end, he gave in with a shake of his head. “What have you heard about last night?”

Adrien very nearly swallowed his own heart when it shot up into his throat. “Last night?” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “Nathalie mentioned there had been another werecat sighting, outside The Wellesley. I- er, still wasn’t feeling so hot from yesterday morning, so after the dinner I must have passed out in our room.” He let a long breath out, scrambling to feign innocence. “I never even woke up.”

His mental monologue consisted of a long string of “Shit! Shit! Shit!” accompanied by the spiralling horror that perhaps he had done something to Marinette last night.

“I figured as much,” Nino said, shaking his head.

“I haven’t seen the news yet. Tell me Chat didn’t… No one was hurt right? I mean… Chat Noir would never hurt anyone, right?” Adrien dragged a hand through his hair, starting to feel lightheaded.

“If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t believe it happened. It’s probably best if you check out the video I got on the whole thing…” Nino trailed off, adjusting the waistband of the too-short pyjama bottoms. “Long story short, Chat Noir showed up out of nowhere and tore into a werewolf. Same guy we met at that luncheon a couple of days ago, actually. It was insane. There was blood and fur everywhere. Cops showed up and tried to dart Chat like an animal.”

“I… I’m sorry I missed it?” He did not sound the least bit convincing, which was apparently fine with Nino, who looked uncomfortable just remembering the incident.

“Never seen anything like it,” Nino admitted, frowning. “It’s one thing to watch Ladybug and Chat Noir fight an akuma. You know everything is going to be all right in the end when they fight one of those, right? All she has to do is fix it with her Lucky Charm. But this time, it wasn’t an akuma…”

Adrien filled in the blanks with his own worst case scenario. Alya had probably flung herself headfirst into the heart of the fight, disregarding everyone’s safety. Marinette had somehow gotten caught up in the mess, and had become the unfortunate victim of an out-of-control monster. Oh god, what if he had mauled her? What if… what if he had dragged her into an alley? All he had seen was her eye in that brief flash of her, but there could have been other damages elsewhere. Who knew what kinds of terrible things might have been done to her?

Had she unwittingly seen him change back into human form? That would explain the fear the moment she set eyes on him.

He was a monster. He was a complete and total monster.

Had there been anything in Adrien’s stomach, he might have thrown up right then and there.

Nino watched the colour drain out of his best friend’s face, replaced with a sickly grey pallor that usually proceeded someone passing out cold on the floor. “Ah, shit, Adrien you look ready to be sick all over the place,” he said, lurching into action to wrap a secure arm around Adrien’s shoulders.

“I…” Adrien couldn’t even finish a sentence with his suddenly dry tongue.

“If you say ‘fine’ I call bullshit,” Nino snorted. “You were completely out of it yesterday morning. You probably shouldn’t even be up right now. What the hell made you come all the way over here?” He stopped short, his face distorting. “Shit, man, please tell me your father knows you’re here. Both our asses are gonna get roasted if your father hears that you bailed on something.”

“I have to see Marinette,” Adrien croaked.

Nino’s brows shot up.

“I have to see Marinette,” Adrien repeated, stronger this time. He shook off Nino’s arm, laying his hands firmly on his friend’s shoulders. “Nino, I really have to see Marinette. She’s hurt and I want to make sure she’s okay.”

In the face of Adrien’s possibly fever-induced demands, as heartfelt as they sounded, Nino relented. “Alya’s probably convinced her to come out of the bathroom by now…” He pulled out the room card, waving it in warning. “I’ll let you in, but only if Mari’s okay with it. If she’s not cool with you seeing her, you gotta leave.”

Adrien swallowed thickly, head bobbing.

Nino slipped the card in, opening the door to creep in first. Adrien followed on his heels, finding the room plunged into half-light with the thick curtain pulled over the windows. Golden light spilled out through the open bathroom door, where one familiar pyjama-clad figure sat on the toilet seat lid with her knees drawn up to her chest. A second figure was leaning against the vanity, murmuring softly.

“Babe, I brought him in,” Nino announced, jerking a thumb in Adrien’s direction.

Marinette’s head shot up in dismay, a long, low whine echoing off the bathroom fixtures. She dropped her face back into her knees, hugging her shins tightly.

Alya kicked off the edge of the vanity, even more intimidating than Nino had been as she stood protectively over her best friend.

Adrien scrambled for words, unable to tear his eyes from the small form huddled on the toilet seat. He swallowed hard, tracing Marinette from the top of her head down to her pink-painted toenails. He tried not to spare a thought for her state of dress, though appreciated that her cherry blossom tank top and matching pink shorts gave him plenty of opportunity to look for wounds. Much to his relief, there was not a scratch to be seen. Not a bruise. No evidence whatsoever that she had had any kind of unfortunate encounters with a rampaging animal.

Well, except for her eye.

In the end, Adrien could say nothing. He found himself carried forward on numb feet, crossing into the cool tiled room where he was stopped short by Alya. She stood even with his nose, their height differences doing nothing to diminish the threat that said she didn’t care how much his face and body were insured for, if he did anything she didn’t approve of, she would fuck him up.

Adrien must have looked contrite enough for her tastes, because a moment later Alya’s expression shifted. She brushed back his bangs and straightened his collar. She made room in the small bathroom for Adrien to have a direct line of sight to Marinette; he would have gone straight for her if not for the sharp warning finger stabbed into his chest.

Alya leaned up on her toes and whispered, “She’s embarrassed as all hell right now. For once, Agreste, try not to be an oblivious dork.”

“I’ll… try?”

She sashayed out and parked herself in the doorway, Nino hovering like a shadow over her shoulder.

Adrien might have felt embarrassed for their continued supervision, were it not for the nagging worry of what might happen if he were truly alone with Marinette. He was close enough that he grew dizzy with the scent of her. Yesterday had not been a fluke at all, her scent really was incredible. As if someone had taken all the wonderful aromas of a bakery and rolled them into the shape of girl. Sweet and comforting and delicious. Adrien wondered if she had always smelled this way, or if it was only with his new nose that he was able to pick up on all the tempting nuances.

He crouched before the girl, catching a glimpse of her face between the gap in her legs before she clamped her thighs together and groaned.

“Mari,” he murmured, stopping himself before he touched her leg. The skin certainly looked soft, nearly as white as a pearl, but he didn’t dare make contact. Touching her clothed knee was nowhere near the intimacy of touching her naked leg. Instead, he sought out the safer territory of her hand, his fingertips brushing the backs of her knuckles.

“Marinette,” he called again, watching her tense up. He waited, rewarded with a tentative peek from between her knees. She parted them only far enough to reveal one eye, her good eye, and the curve of her frowning mouth. Her cheeks were as pink as her shorts. A second later, she slammed her knees shut, hiding again.

“Marinette, please let me see,” he crooned, continuing to stroke her fingers as he might stroke the delicate fur of a kitten. While he waited on her, he felt himself becoming lulled with each intake of breath; he could hear her fluttering heartbeat, slowly starting to return to normal. The fear and the panic that had gripped him minutes ago started to abate. Self-hatred slowly transmuted into the desire to comfort. He turned his hand to run the backs of his fingers up her arm, leaning in to whisper, “I’m not going anywhere until I know you’re all right.”

Her arm shifted under his touch, drawing up against her chest. Adrien sat back, watching as Marinette slowly unravelled herself like a flower blooming in the dawn. She was, he had to admit, quite adorably rumpled in her wrinkled pyjamas and mussed hair. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips pursed, her eyes trained determinedly on her lap. It probably would have killed her if Adrien dared to comment on her natural beauty, so he kept his observation to himself.

He belated found his voice again. “There, that wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

Marinette jerked her head in the tiniest of shakes.

He couldn’t stop himself from reaching up, needing to assure himself that she was okay. Her eye was only superficial. It would heal. He stopped the moment she flinched away from his hand. Earlier fears came racing to the fore, nearly making him fall back away from her.

No, you idiot. She doesn’t need some teenaged wreck pawing at her!

He was stopped from mounting a full blown panicked apology by the quick glance Marinette dared from under the curtain of her loose black hair. One wide blue eye as clear as day, the other swollen shut; neither looked at him with any sort of accusation. In fact, she looked rather shy.

Suddenly unsure of himself, Adrien fell back into shyness as well. His stupid hand continued to hover in the air inches from her cheek.

To his surprise, it was Marinette that swallowed hard and slowly leaned to the side. Her soft cheek felt like warm satin in his palm. He turned carefully to avoid touching her bruise, rising up on his knees and bracing one hand on the edge of the toilet seat lid to better cup the side of her head under her hair. Up close, the black eye looked as bad as he suspected, and his chin oddly throbbed with the ghost of pain he didn’t remember sustaining.

“What happened?” he dared to ask, catching her gaze when it darted up in surprise.

“An… elbow,” Marinette replied lowly. “I wasn’t looking where I was going. Someone totally elbowed me.” Pink deepened to cheery red across the bridge of her nose. “I’m such a klutz.”

A long sigh spontaneously released from between Adrien’s lips, so relieved that he nearly put his head down on Marinette’s knees and thanked her for absolving him of his guilt. In the vacuum that followed, there came the roaring need to exact revenge for her slighted honour, which was so terrifyingly out of character that he put a clamp on the urge instantly. No mauling anyone. Ever. He was not an animal. He was a human being, and as such there were many more options available to him, such as that comfort idea that stuck in his mind insistently.

Tuck her close, curl up around her, and make sure no one ever got close enough to hurt her again.

Yet again, Marinette made the first move, taking Adrien’s hand in both of hers and lowering it to her lap. “I’m sorry I slammed the door on you. I shouldn’t have done that.”

He cocked his head. “Why did you?”

“I…” She rubbed her cheek against her bare shoulder, the thin strap of her tank top falling down her arm. “I didn’t want you to see me like this.”

Unable to resist, he used his free hand to draw her tank top strap back up. “Have I ever given you the impression that I was that shallow?”

“N-no.”

“I’m really not,” he insisted, quirking a smile that he hoped was charming. “I was surprised, sure, but I just wanted to make sure you were all right. In fact,” he added, helpless to stop himself, “even with this big ol’ black eye, I still think you’re awfully pretty.”

Marinette squeaked, and instantly Adrien detected a new facet to her scent. Effervescent, bubbly sweet like a carbonated drink that fizzled in his nose. He discovered seconds later that her blush could extend as far down as her chest when motivated. The tips of her ears were fantastically cherry red. He sat back on his heels, scratching the back of his neck while switching his gaze to the black and white tiled floor.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean…” It hadn’t been his intention to embarrass her again. He didn’t even know if he could blame his runaway mouth on his feline counterpart this time. The words had felt natural, rolling off his tongue like they usually did when he was flirting with Ladybug.

“You didn’t mean what?” Marinette prompted, deflating like a popped balloon.

“Oh! No! I didn’t mean that you weren’t pretty!” Adrien floundered, backpedalling. “Of course you’re pretty, Marinette. You’re honestly one of the prettiest girls I know! Pretty enough to model with me, or- or model on your own. Yeah. You’re very pretty. I’d never say anything otherwise!” He laughed, a bit too breathless. “What I meant was, er- well… I- I didn’t mean to embarrass you… with the compliment.”

And yet somehow he had managed to embarrass her more.

“Ah,” Marinette breathed, unable to take her wide eyes off him.

Adrien continued to stare at the floor.

Finally, Alya took pity on them.

“Okay, anymore sweet talk and you’re going to give yourselves cavities,” she announced, marching in to haul Marinette up to her feet. She heel-kicked Adrien in the shin, getting him to pop up to his full height. Without looking over at him, she said, “You did your job, now go stand with Nino while I fix my girl up.”

Adrien dutifully retreated, sparing a glance over his shoulder only to find Marinette watching him. She ducked her head, and Adrien couldn’t help but smile. He allowed Nino to guide him into the main interior of the classy little suite; though nowhere near as decked out as The Wellesley, Alya and Marinette’s room was well appointed with comfortable beds, a decently large television set up on the wall, and a small kitchenette tucked into the far corner perfect for long term guests.

Five minutes later, the girls reappeared, hair combed, faces washed, dried blood cleaned from the scab under Marinette’s eye. Alya plopped Marinette down on one rumpled bed, and then fell back on the other. “Okay, Agreste, I wanna hear it. Why are you here?”

Adrien shared an unhelpful look with Nino. His mind raced for the right excuse. “I… wanted to apologize for yesterday morning.”

Alya’s brow rose regally. “Go on.”

He shifted his stance to appear appropriately apologetic, stealing curious glances in Marinette’s direction, to whom the largest portion of his apology belonged. “My behavior yesterday was… inexcusable. I wasn’t feeling well, and I may have acted out of character…” Again, he found himself drawn in Marinette’s direction. “I may have said some things… Done some things… that were out of line.” Deep breath in. Deep breath out. “I ran out yesterday because I didn’t know what to do. When I woke up this morning, I realized that I couldn’t just let things lie as they were.”

“So you came here?” Alya prompted, crossing one leg over the knee of the other. “How did you even find us?”

Adrien shrugged. “I looked up all hotels in the area owned by your mother, and took a guess on the one closest to mine. I asked for you at the desk downstairs, they sent me up here.”

Nino plopped down on the mattress next to his girlfriend. “And what about that fitting you have this morning?” he asked. “And the lighting test, and the business meeting. You were booked solid.”

“Canceled and rescheduled,” Adrien reported. “I have the whole day free now, and I wouldn’t want to spend it with anyone else.” He dared one last glance at Marinette, now hugging a pillow to her chest as she silently watched him.

Nino’s face broke out into a shit-eating grin. “On behalf of everyone present, I accept your apology. Someone get this man some pyjama pants! We are having a pyjama party right here, right now! Friends only VIP invite!”

“Nino!” Alya exclaimed, breaking out into a delighted laugh.

Nino leapt up, slapping Adrien on the back. “How about it? You, me, these lovely ladies, staked out here all day watching movies and doing shit all. It’ll be fun!”

Adrien cracked a laughing smile. “Where can I sign up?”

Nino deferred to Alya.

Alya lifted her hands. “You’re already wearing my largest pair of pyjama bottoms,” she said, only to slide a sly look across the room. “But Marinette might have a spare that could fit.”

“W-what?” she sputtered. “Oh no! No, no, no, no-!”

“But Mari! He needs something to wear!” Alya pleaded, flapping a hand in Adrien’s direction. “You don’t expect him to wear jeans all day, do you? That’s just cruel and unusual!”

Like a deer caught in headlights, Marinette stared unblinking, freshly pink as her pyjamas. She stared until she was forced to blink and take a breath. “Oh, all right…” she muttered, sliding from the mattress to the floor to dig through the suitcase at the end of the bed.

Somewhat bemused with the situation he found himself in, Adrien accepted the set of bottoms handed to him. They were clearly handmade, no tag on the back to indicate otherwise. The material was soft cotton worn down from many washes, in a faded pink that Adrien suspected might have been Marinette’s favourite colour. The yellow shooting stars merely made the bottoms even more endearing.

“They’re the biggest ones I brought,” she admitted.

“I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Adrien assured, wandering into the bathroom to change. He stripped out of his jeans and folded them neatly, slipping the bottoms on. They were wide enough in the waist not to dig in, although the legs were predictably too short, ending several inches above the ankle.

Adrien surveyed himself in the mirror and grimaced; not even he was brave enough to walk around with an inch of skin showing between his socks and the hem of the pyjamas. He stripped off his socks and stowed them with his shoes and jeans. After a moment’s hesitation, he stripped out of his shirt as well, because a blue polo shirt looked ridiculous with star spangled pink pyjamas.

Thus changed into the absolute bare minimum, he returned to his friends fully prepared to indulge in his first pyjama party.

A strangled noise exited Marinette’s mouth the moment she caught sight of him.

Alya stopped dead, eyes wide. Deliberately, she turned to Nino and mock-whispered, “You’re right, he does look photoshopped.”

Adrien fought the blush that stole up his cheeks. “I can go put my shirt back on.”

“She’s just messing with you,” Nino laughed. “Find a spot and we can get a movie going. We haven’t had breakfast yet, so we can get something called up for all of us. It’ll be great.”

Adrien moved toward the safety of the mattress that had both Alya and Nino on it-

“Nuh-uh, Agreste. Two’s the limit,” Alya announced, snuggling down with no intention of moving.

“Alya!” Marinette wailed.

Adrien swallowed the sudden lump in his throat.

“You made your bed, now lie in it!” Alya crowed, and then laughed and fist bumped Nino.

Trying to be as gentlemanly as possible, Adrien wandered up to the side of the bed and sat on the very edge. Even the sheets smelled like Marinette, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay sober for very long if he kept breathing in through his nose. He switched to shallow mouth breathing, which did nothing but coat his tongue in sugar. Damn it.

Marinette backpedaled into the headboard.

“We, uh… can keep a pillow between us?” Adrien offered, making no sudden moves as he swung his legs up and leaned back into the large, plumped pillows at the head of the bed.

“S-sure,” Marinette stuttered.

He consciously placed a pillow between them.

Reassured, Marinette dared to creep closer so that she’d have a better view of the television. It took several minutes and much bantering before the four of them could settle on a movie. In honour of the bizarre turn their vacation had taken in only the few days they had been there, they settled on watching Un Monstre à Paris. Which was infinitely better than Nino’s first choice, which had been An American Werewolf in London.

Marinette managed to relax about twenty minutes into the animated film. Adrien found himself relaxing not long after. Unfortunately, not long after that, he grew restless again. He shifted around on the mattress. Fluffed the pillows. The air conditioning was too cold. The movie was too loud. His skin was starting to get that itchy feeling like something was crawling beneath it. He glanced at Marinette to see if she was comfortable. She looked tired, and not at all comfortable sitting up against the headboard with her head cricked to the side to see the movie.

Adrien darted a look to the other side. Alya and Nino had been watching, waiting for their moment to strike. Nino slowly and deliberately brought his arm around Alya, resting it around her shoulders as she turned her head to rest on his chest. Either because they were the best friends ever, or the absolute worst friends ever, they both looked him in the eye and gave him a thumbs up.

There was nothing Adrien could do at that point but follow through.

With much less confidence, he turned to Marinette and lifted his arm in invitation. She stared at him as if he had just grown a second head. Okay… So that overstepped the boundaries of their friendship. Duly noted. He slowly started to drop his arm.

“Ah!” The mattress bounced as Marinette skittered across it, hovering nervously.

That effervescent scent that fizzled in his nose was back, along with a headier scent that made his head spin. Adrien dared to lift his arm again, cautiously this time, giving Marinette the opportunity to back away. She squared her jaw, appearing to make peace with herself before scooting the last few inches between them.

A curious, pleasurable warmth bloomed in all the places that her body touched his as she settled into a comfortable position. She was turned on her side, her belly pressed into his flank, her thighs touching his; Marinette’s head lay as light as a feather against his chest, her dark hair a corona in the bottom of his vision.

Adrien hadn’t known what to expect, but it felt nice to lay with someone like this. His usual quota of human contact generally consisted of platonic contact with Nino and battle time with Ladybug, neither of which were anywhere close to laying with a girl on a bed. Marinette was warm, and she smelled nice. She… she wasn’t Ladybug, but she was beautiful all the same. And this wasn’t betraying his ladylove if it was only platonic cuddling. Marinette was hurt, and offering her a comfortable place to rest was the least he could do. And…

And he was a terrible human being for making excuses.

It was too late now. Marinette was settled. She looked happy, if a little dozy. Her eyes fluttered shut. Adrien didn’t have the heart to move her now. He promised himself he would be more vigilant in the future. He would not let the cat jerk him around by the nose. But for now, he snuggled down and contented himself with the feeling of Marinette curled up to his side – something new, and novel, and strangely satisfying. So much so, that Adrien’s eyelids started to droop shut.

Before the end of the movie, they had both dozed off curled up with one another.

Two pairs of eyes watched from the next mattress over, congratulating themselves and each other on a job well done.

“They grow up so fast, don’t they?” Nino sighed.

“Yeah, they really do,” Alya agreed, happily snapping a picture on her phone.

Chapter Text

Marinette woke to the sound of distant thunder rumbling in her ear.

The sweet temptation of sleep bid her heavy eyelids to stay closed for a few moments longer. Only her ears were online as of yet, as the weight of slumber lingered in her limbs. She wallowed in the halfway world between wakefulness and sleep, listening to the thunder, able to feel the vibrations passing through her cheek and reverberating down the side of her body.

Delight roused in her mind, a smile curling on her lips. She liked the sound of thunder, and the flash of lightning, and listening to the pounding of rain during summer storms. There was something thrilling about witnessing the power of nature rage while she was safe and cozy in her room. She liked the way the rain had a habit of washing the whole world clean in one fast deluge from the heavens, and she loved the roar of thunder as it shook the whole world to its foundations.

She especially loved the rain for the memories that came with it.

Memories of a young boy with sad green eyes and a shy smile, holding out an umbrella while the rain fell all around them.

Marinette drifted in those golden memories, the lines between dream and memory blurring as her mind changed out a young boy for a young man. His face grew less round, his features refined with time. The line of his jaw hardened, the cut of his cheekbones suddenly more defined. His shoulders grew broad, his torso tapering to a lean waist; he crept up in height until Marinette’s head could fit comfortably beneath the crook of his chin.

She watched the years pass, until the one who stood before her was someone new, and yet achingly familiar all the same.

His body might grow, and his face might change, but Marinette would always know him for his eyes. There was kindness in them that never wavered, and a sadness that haunted their depths whenever he thought no one was looking. Eyes that were as kind as they were lonely. His eyes were unique in all the world, not for their colour but for the shy soul that hid behind them.

Clinging to the place where memory melded with dream, Marinette wanted nothing more than to reach out for the young man who let the rain soak through his hair and clothes while he waited for her. He never thought anything of sacrificing himself for another, even when it could be so easy to share the burden. She wished for nothing more than to be brave enough to take his hand and drawn him under the umbrella, so that they could enjoy the rain together.

But, even in her dreams, Marinette’s courage could only take her so far.

She drifted back to reality, slowly shaking the fug of sleep and letting time resume itself. She perked her ear for the sound of rain pattering on the windowpane, but instead came up with a heavy drumbeat beneath the oscillating waves of thunder. Enough sense came back to Marinette’s mind to register the oddity of it, just moments before she took her first full breath into wakefulness and filled her head with heady rush of warm skin and the faint hint of male musk.

Her heartrate spiked, her other senses suddenly coming online in a rush. It clicked in her mind that she knew exactly which brand of cologne she was breathing in, just as she knew where to buy it, and exactly how much it cost. There was a magazine cut-out on her wall back home advertising the scent, using the face of a young man who was featured prominently in many other pictures dotting Marinette’s walls.

Her skin came alive as it occurred to her that the satin beneath her cheek was not a pillow. The drumbeat in her ear was a heartbeat, and the flesh she rested on was someone’s pectoral muscle. It was firm, and was quite comfortable, and, if Marinette remembered correctly, looked so fine as to be photoshopped. She lay so close to his heart that if she turned her head, she could lay her lips against the beat.

Marinette choked back on an agonised groan. She would be lucky if she walked away from this with only a minor aneurysm.

The gooseflesh that broke out across her skin told her all at once that the length of her body was curled up with the body of another. She counted her limbs, finding her arms tucked up against her chest, simultaneously pressed against the warm chest of another laying far too close. Her bare legs were tangled among longer, heavier legs encased in soft cotton. Marinette also counted two extra limbs around her, an arm beneath her in the curve of her waist, and an arm wrapped over her with a hand curled into the hair at her nape.

A tiny, belle laugh tinkled just above Marinette’s ear. “I know you’re awake, Marinette.”

She squeezed her eyes shut tight, not brave enough to open them yet.

Tikki continued to hover, and Marinette could hear the little kwami rustling softly through something. “Alya and Nino went downstairs to buy some groceries. They’ve only been gone for a couple of minutes.”

Marinette silently shook her head, licking her dry lips. Her face was pressed so close to Adrien’s chest that the tip of her tongue grazed his flesh. He was hot as a brand against her tongue, and the low murmur that sounded from him as he stirred had her dying a thousand little deaths inside.

“I’m glad you were able to get a little rest. I was getting worried for you,” Tikki continued cheerfully.

Normally, by this point, Marinette would have started up an internal monologue with herself. She would have been rambling to herself in that bizarre way she did sometimes as a coping mechanism when her brain could no longer handle something. This time, there was no internal monologue. Instead, there was just a single high-pitched note similar to the testing tone when a television station went off air.

Boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooop.

She felt the air ripple, a tiny body swooping in. One soft hand touched her cheek.

“You have to open your eyes some time,” Tikki bid.

But will I survive it? Marinette mused weakly, helpless but to fall into her kwami’s bidding. At the first fluttering of her eyelids, she winced, reminded that one eye was out of commission for the time being. Memory of her injury ignited a dull ache in her face, which actually did wonders to ground her in the moment.

Her good eye cracked open, blurred shapes in the half-light slowly coming into focus. Shafts of afternoon light spilled out from behind the curtains to pierce the gloom. Tikki’s precious face filled Marinette’s vision, the kwami’s eyes dancing before she floated up beyond the immediate range of Marinette’s vision. She was left to focus on the fine plain of a male chest upon which the side of her face was squished.

Marinette swallowed hard and forced her eyes to make their trek up from Adrien’s chest. She found Tikki dancing around Adrien’s head, the boy’s face half turned into the pillow, his expression lax with sleep. Thick lashes curled in twin half-moons so thick they left shadows on his cheekbones. His lips were slightly parted, offering more temptation than Marinette had ever faced in her life.

Scolding herself for lascivious thoughts, Marinette fixed her gaze on Tikki. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing at all.” The small god hummed, returning to her concentrated rearrangement of Adrien’s hair. There was familiarity in her touch, and a fondness that Marinette supposed Tikki would have picked up after years of being inundated with pictures of the boy. She swept his bangs from the side to rearrange them over Adrien's brow, letting the ends rest in disarrangement over his closed eyes. Not a look Marinette was used to seeing on Adrien, giving him a roguish appearance even in sleep.

Where had she seen that particular style before…?

Tikki took a pass too close to Adrien’s face. His brow furrowed, nose wrinkling as he stirred and turned his face away from miraculous marauding hands. Tikki shot Marinette a conspiratorial glance, the sort that said she had a thousand secrets she wanted to tell but was going to let Marinette figure them out instead.

“He’s grown into such a nice young man,” said the kwami, just as she flew out of sight.

Marinette nearly swallowed her tongue as the arms around her tensed, her whole body being rolled into the solid plane of Adrien’s front. He stretched long and hard, muscles moving sinuously down the length of his body. With only thin pyjamas separating them, Marinette felt every movement in detail. She felt everything.

She held her breath, too stunned to move, as Adrien curved around her like some great cat curled in front of a fire. His head arched down, his chin resting above her head, his nose turned into her hair. She heard him take that first full breath of wakefulness… and the rumbling in his chest sputtered into an awkward squeak.

He froze for an instant. Marinette could count the heartbeats it took for him to realize this was real. The body locked around her jerked back stiffly, cold air rushing in where hot skin had been moments before. Red-faced, Marinette peered up into a set of wild eyes displayed to full advantage beneath the tousled arrangement of Tikki’s making. Adrien’s Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. Nothing but silence fell from between his open lips.

She watched the gears start to turn in his seized brain, his pupils blowing impossibly wide as his eyes started to track down across the scene of their rather intimate situation. As soon as it occurred to him how very well acquainted they were with each other in that moment, he made a strangled noise. His arms disappeared from around her, legs disentangling, his body backpedalling for the edge of the bed.

“Adrien, wait-!”

Wumph!

His back hit the floor like a sack of potatoes, one knee still awkwardly hooked on the ledge of the mattress. Marinette rushed to the edge, blinking down at him just he stared wide-eyed back at her. There was no elegance whatsoever in the way he scrambled to right himself, arms and legs going in all directions as he clawed his way up the opposite mattress, putting the full distance of the small aisle between them.

Marinette clamoured up, hiking her tank top back up to a respectable height, yanking the hem of her shorts back down.

Adrien’s chest was heaving, the pulse in his neck racing erratic. The flush in his cheeks extended far past his collarbone. The waistband of Adrien’s borrowed pyjama bottoms played low on his hipbones, confirming for one thirsty teenaged girl that he did, in fact, have a blond treasure trail that whorled down to his…

Adrien clamped a pillow over his lap.

Marinette’s eyes shot back up to his face, whimpering a noise just this side of hysterical.

Adrien determinedly stared at the floor, taut as a bowstring, so red he was radiating heat.

“Adrien-.”

“Mari-.”

“…”

“…”

Well, that summed up her ability to use words at the moment. The silence stretched on until it was almost physically painful. Marinette jumped at the sharp pinch delivered to her ankle by one hidden kwami beneath a bedsheet. The shock was enough to startle her brain into the bare minimum of higher order functions: she remembered one word in all of the French language.

“Ice.”

That was it. That was the one word she remembered. Her grand finale before she flung herself from the bed and flew out of the room like her ass was on fire. She didn’t stop running until she hit the far end of the hotel hallway, where the wall was cut out into a small alcove with an old fashioned icemaker set into the wall. Alya had collected ice for Marinette’s eye from here. There was a vending machine pushed into the corner.

The air was cold on her bare arms and legs. The carpet prickled at her bare feet. She stood there, shivering from head to toe, trying desperately to think of something that didn’t have her brain flashing a blue screen of death.

A maid walked by with her arms full of sheets, stopping dead in the hall with a frown. “Are you all right, miss?”

There were a lot of answers Marinette could have given, but none of them were coming to. God, what a mess she must look standing around next to the ice machine! She probably looked like she had just escaped a serial killer rather than a completely harmless teenaged boy. Her black eye most likely did not help her case. The maid was already lowering the sheets, stepping into the alcove.

“I-!” Marinette squeaked, desperately trying to think of basic English when even her native tongue escaped her. “I’m okay! Just… ice! For my eye!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!” Marinette watched the maid go, fully expecting management to be up in the hall in a matter of minutes to investigate a report of a distraught French girl freaking out all over the carpet. Marinette backed herself up into the wall, the metal of the ice dispenser sending a chill down her body. It gave her the slap that she needed to find her breath again, calm her staccato heartbeat, and drop her head back against the wall with a groan.

Okay.

Okay, she was could deal with this. She probably couldn’t deal with it like a rational adult, so she would have to make do with the questionable common sense of a teenaged girl. It was all she had.

Marinette took a deep breath. She let it out. She told herself that this was no one’s fault. This was just a really awkward thing that happened. She and Adrien had fallen asleep while watching the movie and they had just ended up laying together like that. They were two warm bodies, and humans were designed to seek out warmth and human contact. It hadn’t meant anything beyond fulfilling ancient survival needs. It had been instinctual.

And the hard length that had been pressed into her hip when he had turned to curl around her…?

That was no one’s fault, either.

If… if she forced herself to think about it reasonably, then Marinette could tell herself that most teenaged boys didn’t have control over when things like that happened. They woke up like that sometimes. Erections happened. It was perfectly natural.

Penises were a perfectly natural part of the male anatomy. Most males happened to have penises. Marinette had learned about penises in Sexual Health. Penises were not a big deal. Adrien had had a penis the whole time she had known him. He had been born with a penis.

Stop thinking the word ‘penis!’

Penis.

“Fuck.”

“Marinette?” Of course. Adrien just had to be the gentlemen and come after her.

Marinette was not a religious person, but if God had any mercy, he would smite her down right that second. Except no divine lightning bolt came. It was just her standing in a hallway with Adrien, staring at each other while simultaneously avoiding eye contact.

“You, er… forgot this,” he muttered, holding out the plastic baggie she had used the night before to hold ice over her eye.

“Oh.” Not wanting to be rude, she plucked the plastic from his fingers, shocked by the icy touch of his skin. Her eyes shot to his face, discovering his hair wet, water still glistening fresh down his neck and chest. She pressed her lips together, realizing that Adrien had gone and splashed himself with cold water before coming to find her. He was shivering, and her heart twinged guiltily.

By rote, she turned to the ice dispenser and silently filled the bag with enough ice to fit comfortably over her eye. When she turned back, Adrien had summed up enough courage to look her in the eye, pink staining his sincerely apologetic face.

Bless him! It was no one’s fault and he was still going to apologize.

He cleared his throat, notching his chin half an inch higher in the air in an attempt to seem calm. “I…”

Marinette blurted the first thing that came to mind. “No. It’s okay. I understand. Most guys have an average of eleven erections a day.”

Adrien’s mouth snapped shut.

Marinette stared in horror. If she wasn’t going to hell before, she was now.

The silence was nearly lethal after that, so awkward they both nearly died. After a moment, Adrien managed to stiffly move, scratching the back of his neck, pointedly staring elsewhere. “Still, I didn’t mean to… Well, sorry if I embarrassed you…” He frowned, unable to piece together an apology that covered the general faux pax of unwittingly pressing one’s arousal into a friend’s hip. Was there a proper apology for that sort of thing?

Spotty teenaged common sense said cover it up and pretend it never happened. So that was exactly what Marinette chose to do. It was the right thing to do. Again, this was no one's fault. Adrien shouldn't have to feel bad about something he had no control over.

She cleared her throat, rolling her bag of ice between her hands. “Alya and Nino left for food.”

“Oh.” He looked at a loss to follow the subject change.

Marinette tried again. “Before you woke up… It sounded like you were purring.”

“I- er, um…” Adrien coughed into his hand, and then thumped his chest a couple of times. “Probably pneumonia. You know how it can rattle in your chest sometimes.”

She blinked at him. “Pneumonia is pretty serious.”

“It is.”

She resisted the urge to stare at his chest. “You should probably get that checked out. You were… rattling pretty loudly.”

“Right. I will.” He stiltedly stepped back, waving for her to proceed him down the hall. She stepped out at his side, managing to walk like a normal human being all the way back to her door. And then she stared at the lock. A terrible realization dawned on her.

“I forgot my key,” she said.

Adrien said nothing, but the rising horror that rolled off of him said everything it needed to.

Marinette groaned, thumping her forehead against the wood. “We’re locked out, aren’t we?”

“It would appear so.”

“Of course we are.” She turned and slid down until her butt hit the carpet. “Of course we’re locked out.”

Adrien joined her on the floor, although never so close as to touch her. “Nino and Alya should be back soon.”

Marinette choked on a laugh halfway to a sob.

They sat in silence for the longest time, contemplating the meaning of why life hated them so much. It might only have been a few minutes, or it could have been hours. Out of the corner of her eye, Marinette watched Adrien go through the motions of nervously feeling the burn encircling his finger. Had his ring been there, he probably would have been turning it.

“You know,” Adrien said into the gaping silence. “I…” He frowned, looking down. “I keep screwing things up.”

Marinette turned to him, one eye iced, the other with its brow cocked.

“You don’t deserve any of this,” he lamented, pushing a tired hand back through his damp hair. “I keep trying to prove that I’m a decent guy and that we could be good friends, and every time I think I’ve made some headway…”

She was losing him now. “What are you talking about?”

Adrien shook his head. “I know you don’t have the highest opinion of me, which is fair after the last couple of days, but I just want you to know that I respect the hell out of you. Like, from day one. Even when you thought it was me who stuck gum on your seat that first time. I completely respect you, Marinette.”

Marinette stared in failed comprehension. “You think I don’t have a high opinion of you?”

She watched him fumble for his thoughts, leaning back into the wall to stare at the ceiling. After a moment, he tipped his head to flash her a hapless half-smile. “Sure, you’re always racing off whenever I try to invite you to hang out. I’ve seen you open up with the others in class, but you’re always so reserved with me. I figured that you must still have a thing against me.”

“No.” The word echoed quietly in her ears. She was shaking her head softly, her mind suddenly shifting and rewriting nearly three years of history, re-scripting every encounter from Adrien’s point of view. She saw how her stuttering and cowardice could be perceived as reservation and censure. She saw each instance where he had tried to be her friend, and she unknowingly rebuked him when she chose to escape instead of talking to him.

”No,” Marinette groaned, dropping her forehead into her hands. “That’s not it at all, Adrien! I never thought anything bad about you, ever! I respect you, too!”

He searched her profile for any clue to her thoughts. “I don’t understand. If it’s not that, then why are you always so… different around me?”

“Ah…” She froze with the words on the tip of her tongue. Oh, she could give him a reason. The reason. It would be too easy. There he was, sitting half-naked beside her, locked out of a hotel room, trapped in a hallway in god-forsaken London, and she had his undivided attention. This was the moment she had been waiting for. The moment her whole life had been leading up to.

She took a deep breath. “I-.”

The elevator dinged down the hall.

“Thank god there was a French bakery down the street!” Alya exclaimed as she and Nino stepped out onto the floor, her arms laden with fresh groceries. “I don’t know if I could handle another day here without decent food!”

Nino hiked his paper bag higher in his arms. “I’ve been here a day longer than you have, babe. I’ll bet money I’m in more dire straits than you.” He bumped her with his hip. “If Mari and Adrien are feeling up for it, I bet they’ll be grateful for some real home cooked food.”

A teasing smile bloomed across Alya’s face. “I hope they’re doing all right on their own.” She grabbed out her key-card halfway down the hall, stopping dead the moment she caught sight of two bodies on the floor. “What the hell?”

Marinette bit the bullet and announced, “We’re locked out.”

Alya pinched the bridge of her nose. “I leave you two alone for less than an hour and this is how you repay me?”

“Oops?” Adrien offered, showing his solidarity with Marinette by privately catching her hand and squeezing. Because, hell yeah, they had just managed a whole normal conversation between them. Like adults. They had, in fact, cleared the air of a years old misunderstanding. This was a momentous occasion. It called for private, celebratory hand-holding. Adrien looked happy to have confirmed a friend, and Marinette just looked happy in general

They might be half-naked, locked out in a hallway in godforsaken London, but things were suddenly looking up between them.

Nino patted Alya on the back, none the wiser to their friends’ revelations. “I told you we should have stayed to supervise.”

Chapter Text

Eventually, the boys were summoned back to The Wellesley by Nathalie. In the wake of their departure, the girls’ room was suddenly a lot emptier.

“Well,” Alya said, hands on her hips, staring at the closed door. “Party’s over.”

“Yeah,” Marinette murmured, leaning against the wall.

Alya spun on her heel and began ushering Marinette across the short distance to the kitchenette. “Sit,” she commanded, pointing to one of the small stools lining the narrow counter that separated the kitchenette from the rest of the room.

Marinette did as she was told, failing to find the energy to argue. Despite her nap in the morning, she was already flagging again. A part of her was glad that the boys had left so she no longer had to keep up a façade. A deep ache had started up in her eye socket just shy of a migraine, no doubt the consequence of her temporary monocular vision. Magic and medication could only do so much, and Marinette had resigned herself to a life of nauseating vertigo until her depth-perception came back.

“Now that the boys are gone…” Alya dragged over a paper bag and emptied the contents onto the counter: chamomile and green tea, honey, a cinnamon stick, a tiny package of powdered turmeric, and a whole head of garlic. She quickly put on a kettle for water.

“Do I even want to know?” Marinette dared to ask.

“Grandma’s recipe, from the old country,” Alya informed seriously, rummaging through the cupboards for one of the plain white mugs. She rinsed it out in silence, and when she turned back to set it on the counter, her eyebrow was raised nearly to her hairline.

Marinette cringed, shoulders dropping guiltily without a clue as to why she should feel guilty.

“So,” Alya drawled, sounding very much like a mother who had caught her child doing something naughty. “Do you want to tell me what was up between you and Adrien this afternoon?”

The mere mention of the boy’s name pinked Marinette’s cheeks.

“Ah-ha! Something did happen!”

“Ah…” A tiny laugh fluttered up, Marinette’s eyes zipping to her lap.

Clearing the air between them had definitely been a step in a new direction. For the first time, it felt like Marinette was able to look at Adrien and actually see him. Sure, he was still handsome, but now he was also flawed, and astoundingly oblivious, and had wasted the last three years fumbling around in the dark because he had thought she had disliked him. Not that she was any better, having wasted three years letting him think that.

By silent accord, they had agreed to start over, which proved harder than it looked. How did one go about getting to know someone whom they have already known for three years? The answer turned out to be ‘very awkwardly.’

Their conversation had consisted of a lot of stilted stops and starts. Marinette stuck it out, following up on every stuttered word, finishing her sentences like a pro. She refused to run away when her heart raced and her tongue got tied. She was not making that mistake again. It turned out treating Adrien like he was a regular human being was easier than it looked. She should have tried it years ago.

Was it weird that she thought he was even cuter now that he was a flawed human like the rest of them?

God, she had it bad.

Alya snapped her fingers in front of Marinette’s face, drawing her attention back to the present. “Girl, something was definitely up.”

Before she could stop herself, Marinette heard herself saying, “Yeah, something was definitely up all right.” An instant later, she clamped a hand over her mouth.

Alya’s brow winged up. “Is there something you want to share with the class?”

“Um…” Her gaze wandered off, fingers pressed to her lips where a ridiculous smile threatened to bloom. So much for putting The Incident behind her and never thinking of it again. She had been doing so well all afternoon, too! Not a single penis-related thought. Mostly. Almost entirely… Okay, there’d been a couple.

Not my fault. Those pyjama bottoms did not leave much to the imagination.

Alya tapped the counter between them with her nail, her eyes gleaming devilishly. “Spill.”

Marinette groaned, and blushed, and tried not to make that word seem more explicit than intended. “I’ll tell you, but you have to swear not to tell anyone. Actually swear it this time. Not like last time, when you said you wouldn’t tell Nino I liked Adrien and the first thing you did was tell Nino.”

Alya scoffed. “He’s half the reason you’ve gotten so far with Adrien in the first place.” The whistle of the kettle drew her away. She came back to toss both tea bags into the tea cup, threw in crumbs from the cinnamon stick, a drizzle of honey, a pinch of turmeric, and mashed several garlic cloves with the butt of a knife before throwing them in and drowning the mess with boiling water.

“Drink it all,” Alya ordered, sliding the concoction across the counter. “Once you drink it, we can smear the dregs over your eye. It’s really good for inflammation. Grandma says her grandmother’s grandmother got it from a witch.” Laughter sparkled in her eyes. “Who knows, maybe she actually did?”

Marinette gave the cup a testing sniff. It looked like swamp water. The stink of garlic burnt her nostrils, nearly overpowering an underlying sweetness from the honey, and a hint of warm spice from the cinnamon and turmeric. She dared a small sip, deciding that it tasted better than it looked.

Alya leaned her hip on the counter, watching Marinette’s progress. “I promise that whatever you are going to tell me, it stays between us. I’ll go to the grave with it.”

Reassured of her friend’s secrecy, Marinette told her. Everything. Starting with one awkward boner and finishing up with one thwarted confession. By the end of it, Alya was bent over double with tears streaming down her face. She banged her fist on the table, wheezing when she wasn’t able to get enough air.

“I- I can’t believe I missed it!” she wailed, both in humour and despair. “I can’t believe I fucked it up for you!” She pressed a hand into the stitch in her side. “I am the worst friend ever!” She dissolved into a fresh bout of laughter, her face flushing hot pink.

Marinette steadily worked her way to the bottom of the tea cup, glad to blame her blush on the heat rather than embarrassment. Over the rim, she said, “It’s not that funny.”

“You’re right, it’s hilarious.”

Marinette rolled her eyes, trying to be the one reasonable person in the room. “It’s probably better that you interrupted. I… I think I like the idea of getting to know him better. The real him.”

Alya smeared her mascara with the force she used to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand. “You waited nearly three years for this!”

“I know…”

She smacked her chest importantly. “I’ve waited nearly three years for this!”

Ah, here it comes, Marinette sighed.

“Do you have any idea how much I have invested in the two of you?” Alya frantically motioned in the air. “Nearly as much as I have invested in waiting for Ladybug and Chat Noir to happen!”

Not that again… “I told you to stop shipping them years ago.”

“Tell me all you like, but someday my ship will sail.”

Marinette took a deep breath, reaching into the reserve of maturity she usually saved for being Ladybug. “There will be other moments, right? With me and Adrien, not, you know… Ladybug and Chat.” She sighed. “In the meantime, Adrien knows that I don’t dislike him. I think it would be nice being friends with him first.”

“Fine.” Alya shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You’re probably right. About you and Adrien. Not about the LadyNoir thing, because it will happen. Mark my words.” Her eyes flashed up, a grin breaking through. “Oh, Mari, I am so proud of you!”

Startled, Marinette stared. “Y-you are?”

“This is such a big thing for you!” Alya came around the counter, wrapping Marinette in a tight hug. “You have no idea how proud I am that you are handling this so well.” A smacking kiss landed in the middle of Marinette’s forehead. “Here you are, being all mature and stuff! My little girl is growing up!”

“Yay me.” Marinette handed over her empty tea cup.

“Girl, celebrate the baby steps. They are milestones, too,” Alya chided, dumping out the dripping tea dregs into her palm. “Tilt your head back.”

Splat. A disgusted shiver passed down Marinette’s spine as soaked tea bags and mashed garlic was smeared onto her face. Lingering warmth soaked into her skin, the scents of savoury cinnamon and sweet honey wafting just beneath the overpowering smell of garlic. A cooling rivulet of water trickled down into her hairline, another slowly making its way down her neck.

“There, you have to keep it on for a couple of minutes to make sure it works.” Alya stepped back, nodding sagely over her handiwork.

Marinette dared to touch it. It felt like someone had spat chewed up food on her face.

“No touching!” Alya exclaimed, slapping Marinette’s fingers away. She dragged up a second stool and sat down, leaning in so Marinette could see her in the periphery of her good eye. “Now that I have you right where I want you, it’s time to ask the real questions.”

Oh shit. Red Alert! Shields to maximum! The garlic had been a ruse so Marinette wouldn’t smell the trap. Now the trap was sprung. There was no escape. She dared to ask, “Alya, what are you doing?”

“Being a terrible best friend,” Alya replied, clapping her hands on Marinette’s knees, leaning in, her expression turning downright devious.

Marinette groaned, stuck staring at the ceiling. “You’re going to ask something embarrassing, aren’t you?”

“You know me so well.” The words were a silky hum in the air. “Enquiring minds want to know, Marinette Dupain-Cheng…” She leaned so close their noses touched. Marinette braced herself for whatever hell Alya was about to unleash on the tip of her tongue. “Blink once if Adrien Agreste is hung like an underwear model.”

Oh.

Oh shit.

Don’t do it! Don’t even think about it! You’re stronger than this! Resist the peer pressure! Don’t blink, Marinette! Don’t-

She blinked.

Alya threw her hands up and cheered. “That’s my girl!”

 

 

The funny thing about being drunk was that sometimes it could be pretty damn hard to judge how drunk you were until you had to pretend you weren’t drunk in the first place.

As Adrien discovered walking back to The Wellesley, he may or may not have been slightly inebriated. As in smashed. Plastered. Blotto. All from breathing in Marinette’s scent at close range all day. Who knew that was actually a thing?

Forced to walk back on his own two feet, he was definitely feeling the effects of long-term exposure. It was a bit like the light-headedness that came from one too many glasses of wine, or the warm buzz that hit too quick after drinking a flute of champagne on an empty stomach. Adrien’s head was pleasantly buzzing, his skin was tingling, and every thought in his head was faintly fuzzy. His chest was vibrating, a purr threatening to crawl up the back of his throat.

He was struck by the sudden notion that he was walking in the wrong direction.

The place where he needed to be was behind him. The urge to turn around was nearly overpowering, and in his inebriated state, Adrien almost turned on his heel and wandered back up the street. Three sheets to the wind, he was tempted to become Chat Noir and crawl his way up a wall and straight through Marinette’s window. He couldn’t even be sure if it was his thoughts or the cat’s anymore.

Whatever the case, he sure as hell was having a hard time walking in a straight line.

Thankfully, the evening air was cold enough to be mildly sobering, and any overt stumbling that he couldn’t cover up he could easily blame on his supposed case of pneumonia. Luckily, without Alya’s direct influence prompting him to pry, Nino didn’t bother to ask about Adrien’s sudden case of sea legs.

He did, however, ask about other things. “So, you and Marinette, huh?”

Adrien needed to give his head a shake before the question settled properly between his ears. “Me and Marinette what?”

Nino raised his brows. “You and her are suddenly cool with each other?”

“Ah.” Adrien blinked at his friend for several seconds before cautiously bobbing his head. “Yeah… Yeah, I think we’re… okay with each other now.”

That seemed reasonable, right? ‘Okay’ wasn’t an overly ambitious term. It wasn’t as if they had talked in detail about the whole thing. They’d just sort of swept it under the rug and went from there. Adrien was essentially flying blind, and he honestly couldn’t be trusted with himself at the moment, so he figured following Marinette’s lead was probably best. She seemed like she had a better grip on things.

“Right.” Nino stuck his hands in his pockets. “Things seemed better than ‘okay’ to me.”

“Yeah, I guess. I mean…” Adrien ducked his head, scuffing his toe against the sidewalk.

“You don’t sound okay.” Nino shot Adrien a measured look, brows pinched together. “You’re not playing around on her, are you? Like, I don’t want to hear if this is just some vacation fling thing.”

“Of course not!” Adrien shot him a hurt look.

Nino subsided with a relieved nod. “Sorry, man. I know you’re better than that. I just had to make sure, you know? She’s my girl, right up there with Alya.”

Adrien choked back on a sudden growl. He should be grateful that Nino cared enough about Marinette to look out for her. Nino’s care should not inspire the wild need to use his best friend as a scratching post.

Unaware that he was flirting with death, Nino continued, “Marinette’s a real nice girl. She deserves someone who really cares about her, and, you know, she really likes- ah, er…” He stumbled off on a cough, scratching the back of his neck. “She likes hanging out with the four of us together,” he finished lamely. “I don’t want you to get her hopes up.”

“I don’t want to get her hopes up, either,” Adrien sighed, furrowing his fingers through his hair. There was no way he could tell his friend that the purring, kneading, desperate-for-human-contact side of himself that had been rearing its head all day was all part of a curse. He wasn’t trying to lead anyone on. In fact, he had been frantically yanking himself back from the brink before Marinette noticed.

Adrien desperately needed someone to confide in, but knew it couldn’t be Nino. The closest he could come to catharsis was admitting, “I don’t know what to do.”

A comforting arm came around Adrien’s shoulders. Nino may have been coming from a place of blissful ignorance, but he was completely sincere when he said, “We all get like that sometimes. It’s perfectly natural.”

Supposedly friendship advice, it did nothing for Adrien’s predicament. The corner of his mouth flicked up in a half-smile. “What am I supposed to do?”

Nino flashed a sympathetic look and patted him on the shoulder. “You get used it.”

That was what Adrien was afraid of.

As soon as they got in the room, Adrien claimed the shower for himself and stayed in the stall until the room stopped spinning. He scrubbed until his skin didn’t smell like sugar anymore. He turned his face up into the stream and gargled until the taste of warm syrup melted off his tongue. He didn’t want to get used to this… this feeling of being completely out of control. He wanted to be himself again. He wanted to feel safe being Chat Noir.

He didn’t want to be afraid of what he might do the moment he let his guard down.

Adrien braced his head on the tiled wall and sucked in steamy air. Hot water sluiced down his back, rivulets falling between his legs. He felt his heart pounding, heat rising up from within. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, hoping to clear his mind of the images that somehow kept being conjured – the impetus for all his feelings of losing control.

Marinette’s bare skin pressed against his body, her legs tangled with his…

The feeling of her warm breath skating down his chest…

A rosebud mouth teased by a pink tongue, a fleeting wet caress against his skin…

Burying his nose in the valley where her scent grew the strongest, using the flat of his tongue to savour the taste…

A bare hand held outstretched toward him in the middle of a forest at midnight…

Adrien gasped, eyes shooting open, a shiver passing down the length of his spine. Liquid heat settled in the pit of his belly, coiling hot and tight underneath his skin. Between his legs, a certain part of his anatomy reacted predictably. He glared down at his groin, not the least bit impressed with himself having failed to prevent the inevitable.

“Urgh.”

No way in hell was he leaving the bathroom like that.

Adrien groped around in the shower until he found the tap and cranked it to ice cold.

 

 

Adrien’s true relief came after Big Ben tolled the midnight hour. Nino was asleep, yet again deaf to the world with his earphones stuck firmly in place. Adrien snuck from the bed and braced himself in a shadowed corner, ready for the burn when he whispered, “Claws out.”

Leather pushed its way up through his skin and clothes, amour forming around him with familiar liquid ease. He flicked his tongue against one of the long points in his mouth, testing a fang. The taste of copper instantly rose up. Sharp. He’d have to keep that in mind.

His nose twitched, picking up a scent that made his stomach growl. Kicking open his suitcase, he fished out a small wheel of camembert and sighed. This was the fresh hell he was doomed to. He ate the wheel in two bites, suppressing a shudder of mental disgust. His bloody tongue seemed to think it tasted great.

I hope you’re happy, Plagg.

His heart sank. He hoped Plagg was all right. Life was suddenly a lot lonelier without the little kwami. Surely Plagg would have known what to do about the whole werecat business if he had been around to help.

But he’s not around, so you’re stuck for now…

Chat Noir vaulted out into the night, letting his feet carry him across the city. He let the cold air rush over his face, discovering the whistling sound the wind made in his new ears. Never before had he been able to hear the rats skitter in the alleys, the pigeons cooing softly from their ledges, the soft murmurs in the night of lovers as Chat ran past their windows. Leaping from building to building, he found a new sense of balance that having a tail gave him, its added weight serving as a counterbalance every time he landed.

Up ahead, Big Ben loomed like a gaudy beacon. The Palace of Westminster was lit up, surrounded by late night tourists snapping midnight photos as they strolled across the bridge over the Thames. Chat flashed a few tourists a cheeky salute as they called out to him, waving. Camera flashes flared as he vaulted across the Thames, heading for another iconic tourist trap.

Drawn to the highest point on the London Eye, he found Ladybug sitting atop one of the glass-encased observation decks. Her knees were drawn to her chest, looking out over a city that wasn’t theirs. She looked as lonely as he felt. He wondered if she missed Paris.

Sensing his presence, Ladybug turned to glance at him over her shoulder. “Fancy meeting you here.”

He inclined his head. “There’s nowhere in the world you could go that I wouldn’t be able to find you.”

A quiet laugh flitted on the night breeze. “Is that a promise or a threat?”

Chat shrugged, wandering closer. “A bit of both, maybe?” The wind changed directions, sweeping up over Ladybug before hitting Chat in the face. He was prepared for it, eager to take his first full, conscious breath of Ladybug’s scent. He couldn’t begin to guess what she might smell like. At the first hint of her, he choked.

Ladybug’s head shot up, twisting around to find him bent double, wheezing with his hands on his knees, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.

“Chat, what wrong?” She raced for him, worry evident on her pretty face, her arms outstretched toward him.

For first time in his terrible life, Chat Noir was forced to stumble away from Ladybug’s embrace. “No,” he gasped hoarsely, nose burning. “Please. Don’t.” He regretted his words instantly, seeing hurt splash across her features. She subsided to the far end of the observation deck, leaning against one of the massive metal beams supporting the Ferris wheel.

“Is it anything I can help with?” she asked quietly.

“Garlic,” Chat wheezed. “You smell like garlic.”

Ladybug’s eyes flashed wide and round. “Oh.” From beneath the collar of her costume, a red blush crawled its way up her neck and into her cheeks. She touched her damaged eye, most of it covered by her mask. “I, er… the smell isn’t that bad, is it?”

He finally managed to catch his breath, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m a little more sensitive to smells nowadays.” His smile was strained when he tried for humour. “Let’s just say vampires are not the only ones you’re going to ward off wearing that much garlic.”

“It was my friend’s idea, to help with…” She trailed off, waving to the obvious damage.

Chat’s heart sank to new depths. “I saw what happened. It’s all over the Ladyblog.” It was all over the internet. The news, too.

She eyed him curiously, mindful of keeping distance between them. “You don’t remember?”

He shook his head.

“It was an accident,” Ladybug asserted firmly. “You did nothing wrong.”

Chat felt his ears pin down, his tail suddenly lashing against the back of his legs. “How can you say that? You saw what I did! What I did to John was…” His stomach churned sickly. “Ladybug, I hurt someone last night. I had no control over myself. I hurt him, and I hurt you. A civilian got shot because of me!”

“John took those darts because he knew you wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Ladybug countered, her blue eyes flashing like fire. “And you didn’t hurt me at all. It was an accident.”

Fresh blood pricked the air, bleeding from the points where his claws pierced his palms. “You should have let the cops shoot me.”

Ladybug crossed the observation deck in a flash, all garlic-scented fury and a one-eyed glare, shoving him so hard in the chest that he stumbled back a step. “I’d fight every single one of them before I let them shoot you!” She shoved him again. “Don’t ever let me hear you say something like that again!”

“Ladybug…” Chat caught her wrists before she could shove him again. He stared, no need for his night vision with the lights of the London Eye glaring all around them. Ladybug was lit up like a vision, her skin glowing like a star, her bright red armour gleaming like a flame. Her hair tossed in the night breeze, tousled like she had been in a fight. She looked like an avenging angel, ready to fly to his defence or smite him down. Whichever came first.

Chat’s heart stuttered at the sight of tears pricking at the corners of Ladybug’s eyes. In his hands, her arms were trembling. She took a shuddering breath, struggling to get herself under control.

“I know that look, Chat,” she said thickly, bowing her head away from his stare. “I know you too well. You’re going to let guilt eat you alive for something that’s not your fault.”

“Some of it-“

None of this is your fault.” Her hands curled into fists, pulling free of his grip to curl tightly at her sides. “I am not going to let you take the fall for it. Don’t you dare feel bad for anything that’s happened, or I’ll… I’ll hate you for it.” She sucked in a sharp breath. “If you try to blame yourself, you might as well blame me, too. It was my Lucky Charm that failed. It’s supposed to fix everything in the end, but it didn’t fix you. If you’re going to blame anyone, blame me or no one at all.”

Her shoulders were shaking, the top of her bowed head trembling. Chat stared, torn between the desires to deny her words or take her into his arms. The latter won out, as it always would. He let his arms fall around her, pulling her close, satisfied when her lithe body relaxed into his embrace.

“Have it your way, you stubborn bug,” he murmured, laying his cheek to her hair. He let the backs of his claws trace down her spine.

“Good.” Her arms came around him, locking so tight that he felt her heartbeat fluttering against his ribs. Her face pressed into his shoulder. They stayed like that for a long time.

Eventually, she let her arms loosen until they fell around the lower curve of his back, so close to his new tail that the black fur bristled in anticipation. He sensed the odd, unseen smile that curved into the front of his suit. “You’re holding your breath, aren’t you?”

He released the lungful of air he’d been reserving. “Sorry. The garlic is really strong.”

A sputtering, wet laugh fluttered up in the small space between them. Ladybug made to pull away, and Chat reluctantly let her go, resisting every urge that wanted to pull her back. She dashed the last of the tears from the corners of her eyes, another sputtered laugh on her lips.

“Here,” Chat said, switching their positions. He flashed a bright smile at her bemused frown. “Down wind.”

“Ah.” The smile she hit him with was too much to stop the squeaky purr that puttered up his throat. Her eyes shot wide in surprise, and then delight sparkled. “Oh!”

Chat coughed into his fist. “Sorry. I’m having trouble controlling certain things.”

“No, it’s fine! I imagine it’s a huge change for you,” she rushed to say, waving to him reassuringly. “We never really got to talk about it the other night…” Ladybug motioned for them both to take a seat. It was no Eiffel Tower, but the London Eye would have to do for now. She sat first, and Chat took a seat at her side, finding himself relaxing gratefully into her company. She was studying his profile avidly. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know where to start,” Chat admitted.

“How you feel might be a good start,” Ladybug prompted, placing an encouraging hand over his.

Chat turned his hand up and threaded his fingers through hers in solidarity. “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

“You can’t lose what you never had,” Ladybug teased.

“Ha ha,” he drawled flatly. “You try waking up one morning and suddenly all your senses are going haywire. Half the time, I don’t know what to do with myself. I can see things, and hear things, and smell things… God, can I ever smell things. It’s enough to make my head explode.” He tipped his head back, breathing in the night. The air was fresher up high, and it was cold, and it still smelled a bit like garlic.

“It sounds… difficult.”

“It is.” He lifted a hand, inspecting the needle points of his ebony claws. “I’ve only been like this for barely forty-eight hours. I don’t think I can do this for the rest of my life.”

Ladybug’s hand tightened around his. “You won’t have to. We’ll change you back.”

“I hope so.”

He sensed Ladybug shifting, her whole body wriggling. He felt the energy of her curiosity like static in the air. Curious eyes flicking upward, but her lips remaining stubbornly pressed together. In spite of himself, a smile threatened. “You want to touch them, don’t you?”

“Sorry. They look so cute, but I understand if it makes you uncomfortable-“

Chat bent his head for her, surprising himself with the delight that skittered through him at her first hesitant touch. She grew bolder, stroking the velveteen fur along the backs, letting her fingertips playing in the longer strands of golden fur that blended the front of his ears with the rest of his hair. It was an alien sensation, and yet strangely pleasant. Chat sank into Ladybug’s attentions, quite sure that she could do whatever she pleased with him in that moment and he wouldn’t have cared.

“I wish I could feel them with my skin,” Ladybug lamented softly, pulling one hand away to frown at her gloved hands. “Wait, if you just hold still…” Chat was forced to sit up straight again, watching as Ladybug clamoured to her knees. Her chest was even with his eyes, and he quickly looked elsewhere. She leaned in, one hand on his shoulder to stabilize her, her thighs bracketing his arm.

The first touch of her lips to his ear inspired a gasp from his lips.

He went taut as a bowstring, eyes wide, so shocked that he might as well have turned to stone.

“Oh, they really are soft,” Ladybug murmured delightedly, her lips moving against sensitive skin. “Just like real kitty ears.”

Chat bit back a groan, determined not to ruin the moment. If his Lady wanted to explore his new, built-in accessories, then he was damn well going to sit there and let her. He’d grin and bear it the whole way. He felt every moment of her lips and cheeks caressing his ears. His mind committed the feeling of her body pressed into his side to memory. The moment a breathy ‘oh!’ crossed her lips, her muscles tensing, he felt it.

“C-Chat.”

Chat blinked his eyes open, unaware that he had closed them in the first place.

A shiver passed through Ladybug’s body.

Puzzled, he peered up at her. A fresh pink glow stained her cheeks. He frowned in concern. “What is it?”

“I- uh…” She didn’t move from his side, strangely rigid. “I know you don’t have control over your new limbs yet, but…”

“But?”

“Y-your tail,” she whispered, her head dropping back to stare at the sky.

Chat’s eyes zipped down to spy on what mischief his new appendage had gotten up to. A sleek, black plume coiled up the front of Ladybug’s legs. A strangled noise left Chat’s throat, seeing that his tail had snaked its way between her thighs, tucked snuggly into the juncture at the top. He knew without needing to look that the rest of the tail had curled over the curve of her bottom, the tip caressing firm muscle appreciatively. He could feel the heat of her body seeping through his fur, setting his blood on fire.

Faster than lightning, he grabbed the limb and whipped it away, not caring if he might have sprained himself in the process. Ladybug gasped at the sudden friction, grabbing his shoulder for support, her gloved fingertips digging in. This close, Chat could hear her heart beating too fast. Her breath shuddered unevenly.

Chat tried several times to find the words to apologize profusely. All that came out was a creaking noise.

Ladybug recovered after several seconds, clearing her throat, scooting back to settle at his side. “That, uh…”

“Was an accident,” Chat blurted.

“Yes,” Ladybug agreed.

They stared at the Thames, one of them wondering what just happened, and the other wondering if the river was deep enough to drown himself in.

“I warned you,” Chat sighed. “I’m not in control. I’m not even in control when I’m out of costume.”

"It's... okay. I don't blame you. I wasn't expecting it, but I don't blame you." Ladybug tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you… have anyone to help you? When you’re not in costume, I mean.”

Chat ran through his short list and came up empty. “No, aside from going to John and Sarah, and I can imagine I’m not John’s favourite person in the world right now.” He shook his head. “I have my friends, but there’s one girl that I’m worried for.” He dared a glance at Ladybug, finding encouragement rather than admonition. “Buginette, I hate to say it, but she really makes my cat meow.”

A low groan sounded. “Chat, be serious.”

“I am,” he chuckled dryly. “I’m drawn to her. Or, at least, the werecat inside me is drawn to her. Everything about her. Every time I’m around her, she makes me feel like I’m coming out of my skin.”

“Should I be jealous?” Ladybug laughed.

“Would you be?” Chat wondered lowly.

Surprise flashed, and then consideration. She shrugged unsurely. “Maybe.”

Chat could hear his own heart drumming in his ears. “Never fear then, my Lady. My heart’s yours.”

“So you say,” Ladybug said, sounding like she didn’t believe him.

He wished he could press the issue, but there were more important matters at head. “I’m getting scared for the girl, actually. I don’t know what will happen if I lose control around her. I’m not afraid for you. You could kick my ass if I got out of line, but she’s just a civilian, and I just started getting through to her…”

Ladybug leaned back on her hands. “Maybe you should stay away from her?”

Chat’s shoulders sank. “I was wondering the same thing.”

She turned her head, a consoling smile on her lips. “It’s for her safety. If she knew what was going on with you, I’m sure she would understand. Just keep your distance until we can figure this whole thing out. It’ll be over before you know it.”

She got to her feet, holding a hand out for him. Chat let himself be drawn up.

“In the meantime,” Ladybug said, staring at his bell rather than his eyes. She smoothed invisible wrinkles out of his suit. “If… if you need anything, I’m here for you. Whatever it is you need. I… I won’t judge. At all.”

Chat caught one of her hands, raising her knuckles to his lips. “Careful. I might just take you up on that offer.”

Ladybug giggled softly, tugging her hand back. She made to take a step back, misjudging the curve of the observation deck. Gravity took hold faster than either of them could react. Suddenly she was a streak of red plummeting through the night, and Chat Noir dove after her without thinking. He watched in astonishment as her yo-yo shot out for a girder and missed. The shock on her face would have been priceless if she hadn’t been heading headfirst for the pavement.

“Fuck,” Chat cursed, tucking his arms to his sides to shoot down the last few feet to snatch Ladybug’s arm, wrenching her body hard against his own while with his free arm he extended his baton straight down. The end hit the ground hard enough to pierce the asphalt. Their sudden stop in midair nearly jarred Chat’s arm from its socket.

“Shit,” Ladybug swore into his shoulder, gripping him tight with her arms and legs. She sounded in shock.

Chat let them down slowly, cautiously releasing his hold around his partner once her feet were on the ground. She didn’t waver, but she did blink up at the Ferris wheel as if she couldn’t understand how she had gone from the top to the bottom so quickly.

“Ladybug?” Chat intoned, touching her shoulder. She jumped. “Are you all right? You’ve never fallen before.” He eyed the yo-yo still held limply in her hands. “You’ve never missed before.”

She swallowed hard, stepping back. He caught her wince, watching the way she instinctively raised her hand to the side of her head. “It was an accident,” she said quickly. “My depth-perception is zilch until I heal up a little more.”

He continued to frown at her. “Maybe I should escort you back to your hotel?”

“No.” Ladybug drew herself up, chin notching stubbornly in the air. “I can make it back just fine. There’s no need for you to go out of your way.”

“Ladybug…”

“Chat.” She appealed to him with a cajoling smile that shook at the edges. “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll avoid being Ladybug for the next couple of days until I heal up, if you avoid being Chat Noir.” She brushed a wild hank of hair from his brow. “I don’t want to worry about you out on the streets on your own, possibly accosting innocent young girls, slave to your new kitty instincts.”

Her teasing held a ring of truth. Chat inclined his head. “Deal. No Ladybug, no Chat Noir.”

“Unless there’s an akuma,” Ladybug amended.

“Right.”

She tipped him a smile, but it didn’t meet her eyes. She was still shaken, trying to hide it. “Be safe, Chat.” She let her yo-yo fly, this time managing to catch on one of the higher girders. With a tug, she launched into the air.

Chat watched her disappear, anxiously tracking each swing in case she needed a rescue. She left his sight unharmed. He breathed a heavy sigh and tiredly extended his baton, vaulting across the Thames with little enthusiasm. Suddenly he was exhausted, and heartsick, and wanted to sleep for a thousand years. The Wellesley had never been a more welcome sight as it took form in the night. He landed on the balcony and wandered into the dark suite, nearly too exhausted to keep his eyes open as he released the transformation. His bed was calling him like a siren’s song.

Bright light suddenly seared his retinas as the overhead light switched on.

Blinking wildly, Adrien’s heart just about flew out his mouth at the sight that greeted him.

Nino stood on the other side of the room in his boxers, the light switch clutched in a death grip between his fingers.

“You’ve got some explaining to do.”

Chapter Text

There had never been a silence so terrible as the one that stretched within the chasm that now gaped between two best friends.

Adrien forced himself to straighten, dropping his shoulders, swallowing hard against the unblinking stare that pierced him from across the room. Everything from his scalp down suddenly felt numb.

“Nino,” Adrien croaked, hating how hoarse his voice had become. The sound of his best friend’s name in the air sounded profane in the silence, disappearing nearly as quickly as it came.

Even at a distance, Adrien could see the way Nino twitched at the calling of his name. The muscles of his long frame stood out in sharp relief, tensed for a second as if he stood balanced on the cusp of fight or flight, and couldn’t decide which he wanted more. The pulse that flickered in Nino’s neck might as well have been a jackhammer in Adrien’s head, and the tang of adrenaline was so thick in the air that it burnt his nose. Stress and fear and sweat hung like a miasma, too thick to have been conjured within the last thirty seconds; Adrien eyed his friend warily, wondering how long Nino had been waiting for him.

Clearing his throat, Adrien tried again to break through the great, yawning chasm of silence. “What… did you see?”

Nino finally blinked back to life, jerking his seized fingers away from the light switch. It took several more seconds for the boy to completely come back into his own body, swallowing hard around a large lump lodged in his throat, breathing deep against the erratic staccato of his heart. Finally, finally, Nino cursed hoarsely and let it all out, letting go of the tension riding his frame until he looked almost normal standing there in his boxers.

“I think,” said the boy, his voice unsteady. “I think I just saw something I wasn’t supposed to see.”

Adrien absently rubbed his clammy palms against his thighs, glad that the status quo had remained that he got his clothes back after changing back from Chat Noir. His pyjama bottoms were Agreste brand, not comfortably soft homemade ones with shooting stars all over them, but they were familiar, and at least he was covered. Something told him that appearing naked before his best friend would have made the whole situation worse. As it stood, his body was still numb and he couldn’t tell if the expression he was making was a travesty of a smile or a horribly agonized grimace.

One of Nino’s hands travelled up to pass over his head, running over his scalp until he could scratch the back of his neck. “You’re…?”

Adrien couldn’t find the words to say it, so he nodded.

“Well, shit.” A long gush of air rushed past Nino’s lips, his whole body sagging under the weight of sudden realization. His brows fell low over his dark eyes, a frown pulling at the corners of his lips. Like Adrien, he appeared to be trying to find the right words, only to find that the silence had swallowed them.

Flicking Adrien a disquieted look, Nino turned his back and knocked the side of his curled fist into the wall.

Adrien felt his lungs seize. He could see the subtle tremor running down from his best friend’s shoulders, how tightly Nino’s fists were clenched at his sides. After years of running out on him, being late for things, or not showing up in the first place, it just figured that the moment the real reason for Adrien’s disappearances came out, it would be the last nail in the coffin of their friendship.

“Nino, please, give me a chance. I can explain!” Adrien nearly tripped over his own feet as he scrambled across the room. His shin rammed into the hard corner of Nino’s bed, and he bit out a breathless curse. He reached for Nino, but then jerked back, afraid to bridge the gap between them. Defeated, he hung his head and said, “You weren’t supposed to find out like this. It was an accident. I’m so sorry, I-!”

Nino whipped around, eyes wide, freezing Adrien to the spot. “You’re sorry?”

“Y-yes?”

“You’re sorry?”

“Nino, it’s true. I am sorry. You have to understand, keeping it a secret was for everyone’s protection-!”

Two hands clapped down on Adrien’s shoulders. “Adrien, shut up.”

“Nino-.”

“No, dude, shut up.”

The grip Nino had on Adrien’s shoulders tightened until it was painful. Adrien couldn’t bring himself to care if there were marks in the morning. Hell, Nino could punch him if he wanted to, so long as it meant this wasn’t the end to one of the first friendships he had ever managed to make. He didn’t want this to be the end. Adrien desperately wanted to trip over his own tongue to word-vomit every apology he could think of. Despite years of modeling and posing for camera, standing still under Nino’s unwavering stare was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do.

And while Adrien squirmed under his friend’s stare, Nino took a deep breath and squared his chin… and then proceeded to shock Adrien when the corners of his eyes crinkled, and his lips lifted, and a small laugh lit the air.

Adrien found himself frozen in place when Nino’s grip shifted, his arms turning to hook over Adrien’s shoulders, their chests colliding in a surprisingly tight embrace. The numbness that had pervaded every fibre of Adrien’s body faded into giddy tingling. Warmth rushed into places that he hadn’t realized had gone cold. Without knowing exactly why, he laughed too, and locked his arms around his best friend. He didn’t care that Nino smelled too strongly of soap and deodorant. He didn’t care that he felt like he was about to throw up. Adrien laughed, and hugged Nino, and felt relief rush up so strongly that it made him lightheaded.

That terrible, horrible silence that had gripped the room moments before dissipated from the atmosphere like the cold of night being chased away by the dawn. Left in its place were two boys standing in the middle of a hotel suite, hugging each other like it had been years since they had seen each other, and laughing for reasons they couldn’t put into words.

Nino was the first to get a grip on himself, disentangling his arms to step back, his hands falling once again to Adrien’s shoulders. “So you’re really…?”

Adrien choked on a strange laugh, embarrassed to find that in his relief the corners of his eyes had pricked wet. He quickly swiped his face dry with his wrist. “Yeah, I am.”

“Like, the whole time I’ve known you?”

“I guess so.”

Without a word, Nino peeled off his glasses and cleaned them on the edge of a sheet. He slipped them back on and squinted like he was trying to read extra-tiny fine print. “I can’t believe I never saw it before.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Adrien sighed, forced to lean away when the distance between them got comfortably close. He was still smiling dumbly, trying desperately not to let loose on the purr threatening to crawl up the back of his throat. That was the last thing he needed to happen.

Nino shoved a finger into Adrien’s cheek, so hard that it actually hurt. “The mask doesn’t even cover all of your face. How could I not have seen it?”

Adrien shoved his friend’s marauding finger away. “It’s magic. There’s a glamour that keeps people from seeing me and Chat Noir as the same person.”

“Now I can’t unsee it,” Nino groaned, pinching the bridge between his eyes. “Oh my god, it’s so obvious now. I feel like an idiot.”

“Seeing me change is probably what broke the glamour,” Adrien theorized.

Nino gave a sweeping gesture that encompassed all of Adrien, from the top of his head to the floor. “Three years, and it never occurred to me that you’ve never been akumatized. You’ve never been around when there’s an akuma attack.” Nino’s eyes narrowed into glinting slits. “You’ve never been in the same place as Chat.”

“Like I said, it’s magic,” Adrien mumbled, feeling a dull heat creep up his cheeks. “Don’t feel bad for not figuring it out. I don’t even know who Ladybug is beneath her mask because of the glamour.”

“But three years, man.”

“I know.” Adrien sucked in a fortifying breath, deciding to take the bull by the horns. There really wasn’t any point putting off the inevitable, and it seemed like a better policy to be up front about it now that the cat was out of the bag. “Look, Nino, I know that I owe you an explanation for this, and I probably owe you a huge apology, but-“

Nino cut him off with an astonished laugh. “Owe me? This was your secret, bro. You kept it for a reason.” He shrugged. “I understand why you couldn’t tell me. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Of course I do,” Adrien insisted, running an unsteady hand through his hair. “You probably have a lot of questions for me, and I have no idea how to go about this. I’ve never had to do this before with anyone.” He cringed. “Okay, I’ve done this once before, recently, but I didn’t exactly owe him any explanation for it.” A little too bewildered with the situation, Adrien glanced up at Nino and shrugged helplessly. “I’m sorry, I’m not making any sense, am I?”

Nino’s smile wavered, and he motioned to the rumpled bed nearest them. “You look like you need to sit down. You’re taking this pretty hard.”

Adrien shook his head and frowned, backing up several steps. “You’re taking this awfully well.”

“How else should I be taking it? One of us has got to keep a level head, right?” Nino slipped by to take a seat on the edge of his bed, leaning back on his hands and staring up at Adrien with a surprisingly calm look. He wasn’t frazzled, or tense, or even the least bit frustrated. There was no hint of anger or fear or betrayal in the air. In fact, with the smile playing on his features, Nino looked more amused than anything else.

“Shouldn’t you be… angry?”

“At what?”

“Me?”

Nino’s eyes danced behind the lenses of his glasses. “Why would I be mad at you?”

Adrien found the gumption to unroot his feet from the floor and wander over to the edge of his bed, sinking down carefully onto the mattress to stare at his friend. “I lied to you. I’ve been lying to you this whole time. I just…” He motioned half-heartedly to the corner of the room where the whole debacle had begun. “I just changed in front of you, from Chat Noir to… to me.

“Yeah,” Nino said, both brows going up. “I definitely saw that.” He sat up, abandoning his seat in order to take a place at Adrien’s side, wrapping an arm around Adrien’s shoulders. “You don’t have much faith in me if you think I’d be pissed about something like that.”

Adrien gapped in awkward silence. It’s not as if he had much experience with this sort of thing. He had thought it was only the English and idiot Canadian werewolves that refused to freak out over identity reveals. No one seemed to be freaking out except him.

…maybe he was the problem?

Maybe the whole world was perfectly okay with throwing secret identities around, and Adrien was the only one acting weird about it.

Nino shook his head in a consoling manner that said Adrien was still as clueless as the day they had met. “I’m going to be honest with you, when I woke up an hour ago and you weren’t in your bed? I freaked out. I tore the room apart. I looked outside to make sure you didn’t fall off the balcony. I even called down to the front desk to see if they saw you downstairs. I thought someone had crawled up the balcony and kidnapped you.”

Adrien snorted.

“Don’t laugh, it could happen,” Nino admonished, nevertheless laughing too. “I thought Chat Noir had turned into a werecat again and had broken into our room. I thought you were somewhere out in London being mauled by a monster, and Ladybug would have to come to your rescue, and I was halfway to calling your father, and Nathalie, and the cops.” His arm tightened around Adrien’s shoulders. “I sat here for an hour scared shitless that I was going to wake up in the morning to find your dead body in an alley somewhere.”

Guilt hit in a fresh wave, and he opened his mouth to apologize yet again.

“Let me finish, bro. I’ve got a lot to say here,” Nino hushed. “You have no idea how close I was to calling the girls and mounting an emergency search and rescue. I would have had Alya and Marinette down here in an instant to go out at two o’clock in the morning combing the streets looking for you. My finger was on the button when Chat Noir came waltzing in here. I had half a mind to attack him and demand to know where he stashed your body-.”

“Nino-.”

“I know, bad idea to attack a guy with superpowers, but I was desperate,” Nino admitted, doing nothing to hide the sincerity behind his words. He quirked a strained half-smile, one shoulder angling up. “And then suddenly it wasn’t Chat Noir standing there anymore, it was you, and I had no idea what to think anymore…”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Nino admonished. “I’m not mad. I’m relieved.” He sat back, shaking his head. “That look on my face when you first got in here? That was shock, and maybe I wanted to punch you for scaring the shit out of me, but now I’m just relieved that I’m not going to find your mauled body in an alley tomorrow morning.”

“That’s a relief for both of us,” Adrien said dryly.

“After thinking you were dead for an hour, you being Chat Noir is suddenly a lot more anticlimactic.” Nino eyed him speculatively. “The last thing I ever pictured you being is Chat Noir. There is so much about you that suddenly makes sense.”

A stubborn little blush splashed Adrien’s cheeks. “So you’re really okay with this?”

That got him a punch in the arm. “Don’t be an idiot. My best friend is one of the superheroes of Paris.” Nino tossed his head back. “That’s something I need to put on my resume!”

Adrien pursed his lips. “You know you can’t tell anyone about this. It has to stay between us.”

Duh. I’m not going to tell anyone about this. My lips are seal. Not a single word to anyone, not my family, not my friends, not- ah shit,” Nino groaned, slapping a palm over his face. “How am I going to keep this from Alya?”

Adrien grimaced. “Good luck. Ladybug and I have been skirting around her for years. It’s harder than it looks.” His fists clenched over his knees. “But it’s important you keep this a secret, Nino. No one can know that I’m Chat Noir. It’s not just for my protection, but for everyone around me. If Papillon found out who my family was, or who my friends were…”

“Your secret is safe with me, bro,” Nino vowed, patting him on the knee. “I’ll find a way to keep it away from Alya. If you’ve managed for this long, I’ll find a way, too.”

Adrien let out a small sigh. “Thank you.”

“What are friends for?” Nino glanced over his shoulder, at the open balcony door and the night sky that still clung to shades of light-polluted purples and indigos. He turned back to Adrien with a raised brow. “If we’re going to make a habit out of this, next time you decide to go out for a midnight run, how about you leave me a note so I don’t think you’ve been kidnapped? It’s the least you can do.”

Adrien nodded, staring at his lap, his thoughts a strange jumble of elated and confused. “Yeah, sure. A note. I can do that.”

“Good.” Nino got to his feet, pacing to the door to close it. “There wasn’t an akuma out there tonight, was there?”

Adrien shook his head. “I needed the fresh air.”

Nino inclined his head, searching Adrien’s profile. “Did you see Ladybug while you were out?”

“Yeah. We talked.” Adrien raked a hand through his hair again. “It’s ironic that you caught me tonight of all nights, the last night I was going to risk going out as Chat Noir.”

Continuing with his bizarrely chill take on the matter, Nino shrugged. “Life’s funny like that.”

“I’ve been so careful for years, not even my father knows, and just one stupid slip up tonight… I guess that’s just my luck, isn’t it?” Bad luck. Bad luck since I stepped foot in this city. Adrien eyed his finger, the red burn that just wouldn’t heal. The blistered reminder that he wasn’t right in the head at the moment. Something was seriously wrong with him. He was sick, and he was dangerous, and he had to be careful or someone was going to get hurt.

With the reminder came all of the exhaustion that had dogged him before. Adrien hunched over his knees and admitted, “Ladybug and I both agreed not to transform for the next couple of days. Her eye needs to heal up, and I... I can’t be trusted right now.”

Saying the words hurt more than he cared to admit.

It took several seconds for Nino to actually catch on to what Adrien was saying, and it took several more seconds before all the dots were connected. Adrien watched out of the corner of his eye while Nino’s face went through a spectrum of thoughts, bordering first on confusion before slowly evolving into dawning realization. The moment the gravity of the moment struck, Nino’s spine went ramrod straight, and a chill passed down his body. Adrien wrinkled his nose against the fresh burst of sweaty adrenaline that hit the air.

“The werecat,” Nino sputtered. “Chat Noir is the werecat.” He pointed needlessly to Adrien. “You’re Chat Noir.”

Adrien ducked his head, staring at the floor. “And I’m also the werecat.”

“Oh. Yeah. Damn, yeah, you’re… well, yeah. You’re… a werecat.” Nino gripped the back of his head with both hands, the muscles in his arms standing out in sharp relief. “Holy shiiii- yeah. Damn. A werecat.”

“You didn’t bother freaking out over the fact that I’m Chat Noir, but now you choose to freak out?” Adrien huffed, trying hard not to sound a little miffed.

“Chat Noir wouldn’t maul me in my sleep,” Nino countered, immediately snapping his lips shut the moment he saw the slapped look on Adrien’s face.

“I would never do that,” Adrien mumbled.

Nino cursed softly, scrubbing a hand tiredly over his face. “No, of course not. I know you’d never. That was shitty of me to say that.” He came over to sit again next to Adrien, and this time it felt like he was trying to prove to both of them that it didn’t matter that Adrien was Chat Noir or a werecat or even a freaking alien. Nino was trying, and that was what counted the most. “Cut me some slack, I’m new to this whole side-kick thing.”

“You’re not a side-kick.”

“Well, I’m definitely not a superhero like some people.”

Adrien socked his friend in the shoulder lightly. “You’re my friend.”

“Best friend,” Nino corrected, grinning.

Adrien’s expression softened. “Best friend.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Nino laughed, returning the light punch. “I don’t care if you're mundane, or magical, or monstrous or whatever. You’re my best friend, bro, which means you are stuck with me.”

“I can live with that,” Adrien said, obscenely relieved just to be assured of that fact.

Nino took a moment to pause and catch his breath, gauging Adrien with a thoughtful look. “And about that werecat thing-.”

“We’re working on it.”

“Right.” Nino pursed his lips, weighing his options. “I figured you and Ladybug would be on the case.” He cleared his throat, scratching the back of his neck. “So… is there anything I should know about? Or, you know, anything I can help with?” At Adrien’s confused look, he rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to help here. I figure you’ve been Chat Noir long enough to know what you’re doing, but you’ve been a basket case for days now and I’m willing to bet money it has something to do with the new fur coat you have.”

A blasted flag of red heat crept up into Adrien’s cheeks, too bright to hide under the unforgiving light shining from the overhead fixture.

“Ladybug said she would help,” he mumbled, somewhat petulantly.

Nino gave an exaggerated look around the room. “I don’t see Ladybug here, do you? You just said she’d not going to be in costume for the next couple of days, so she’s not going to be around to help.” He slapped his bare chest determinedly. “I’m here.”

It’s worth a shot… Adrien closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and prayed that this didn’t backfire on him. He prayed Nino didn’t end up on the floor laughing at him. “There is something you can help me do.”

“Name it.”

Adrien cracked his eyes open a slit, taking Nino’s measure. “Keep me away from Marinette.”

Nino stared blankly. “…what?”

“Keep me away from Marinette.” He sighed, shoulders dropping. “Nino, there’s something seriously wrong with me right now. You said it yourself that I’ve been a basket case for the last few days. You saw what happened when I lost control and attacked John outside.”

Nino did, in fact, remember. The brief look of fear that flashed on his face said enough. The last of Adrien’s resistance fled in that moment, leaving him with only a persistent look of pleading on his earnest face.

“I’m scared right now, Nino. I’m not in complete control of myself, and whenever I’m around Marinette it’s worse..”

“Have you told Ladybug?”

“Yes, I told her tonight, and she recommended I stay away from Mari. I completely agree with her, but I don’t even know if I have the self-control to do it.” A self-deprecating, tired laugh flitted in the air. “For some reason, whenever I catch a whiff of her scent, it goes straight to my head. Everything else smells awful, like my nose is burning and my head’s going to explode, but the moment I’m around her…” The heat in his cheeks flared hotter. “I feel like I’m going to lose all control and do something stupid. I got drunk off her scent alone today, and I’m lucky I didn’t stumble into the street and get hit by a car when we were walking back here.”

Thankfully, Nino didn’t laugh at all at Adrien’s confession. In fact, he took it very seriously. “Do you think you might be a danger to her?”

Adrien cringed. “I don’t want to be, but there’s something inside me that wants to…” He trailed off, unable to say the words. “I could be a danger to her, or I could be a danger to other people. You got close to her several times, and all I wanted to do was fight you.” He didn’t even have the strength to make a joke out of it. “If I had been Chat Noir, I would have used you like a scratching post, or used cataclysm on you. I might have even shifted into the werecat and mauled you. Thank god I didn’t, but it was close.”

Every last drop colour drained out of Nino’s face.

Adrien’s heart sat like a lead weight in his chest. “I like Marinette. She’s a sweet girl, and a good friend, and the last thing I want to do is hurt her in any way because of whatever curse I’m under right now. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Defeated, he ended with his final plea, “I need your help, Nino.”

Nino sighed long and hard, hunching over with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “Alya is going to kill me for this.”

“What do you mean?”

Nino opened his mouth to explain, and then shook his head. “Never mind. It’s not important.” He sat up again, looking determined. “You got yourself a buffer, man. I’ll keep you away from Marinette for as long as you need me to. I’ll risk life and limb to do it.”

Adrien leaned into his friend’s side. “Thanks, Nino. It means a lot that you would do this for me. I’ll… I’ll try my best not to want to maul you.”

“It’s cool, man. You’re going through some crazy shit, and I can’t begin to imagine what’s going on in your head right now. If what you need from me is to be kept away from Marinette, then I’ll run interference for the whole summer if need be.”

“You’re the best.” He held out his fist, gratified to be solidly fist-bumped in return.

“And besides,” Nino drawled guiltily. “It’s not even you I’m scared of.”

Curious, Adrien leaned away with a questioning frown.

With a choked laugh, Nino’s gaze skittered away, real fear flashing in their depths for the first time. “It’s Alya I’ve got to watch out for.”

Chapter Text

Adrien dreamt of the forest again, as he did nearly every night without recalling in the morning.

The moon was still full above him, and the torches were still lit in the trees. The old magic of the forest still hung heavy in the air, caressing his bare flesh like a physical touch.

Whether it was the flames or magic or the scent of sex that hung redolent in the clearing, warmth flooded Adrien’s body. His blood simmered. His heart knocked against the inside of his chest, and other features of his anatomy were rising to the occasion of temptation that flooded his senses. The animal inside him roused with ravening interest.

In every dream, a bare hand was always held out to him.

Every night since the first, he took her hand, and let the dream take him where it would.

Tonight, Ladybug twined her fingers with his. Her hand was small in his grasp, her fingers tapering off into delicate points, her skin as pale as alabaster in the moonlight. Adrien was entranced by the connection, watching as obsidian points emerged from the tips of his fingers. Black as night against the pearl of her skin. A reminder of the monstrous entity residing beneath his skin. An urge to close his hand rose within his mind, a savage demand to trap Ladybug’s hand and bring her within his embrace, press their bare bodies together until there was no telling where one ended and the other began.

Superimposed upon the image of their hands entwined, Adrien saw possibilities flash in his mind’s eye. He saw himself falling back into the grass with a naked, pagan goddess rising over him. Her thighs bracketing his hips the same way her fingers grasped tightly between his knuckles. Her head tossed back with a smile for the moon, her hair blending with the night sky, her breasts bathed in starlight. Her hands stroking his chest, loving every inch of him, delighting the cat within him with her touch.

The force with which the animal within him rose shocked the breath from him.

He suffered the craven urge to fall back into the grass, and then roll until he could rise above Ladybug. He wanted both of his hands to entwine with hers, to pin her arms by the sides of her head while she looked up at him with wide eyes and an unmasked face. Adrien found himself crazed for a split second with the wanton need to see Ladybug’s body cast in his shadow, tucked beneath him like a shining pearl protected by a dark shell. Marked by his presence, even if only in an insubstantial way.

His feline self stretched, and purred, and hardened with the intense vision of his mouth crashing against hers, his fangs pricking flesh, ruby red welling on her lips.

The violence of the passions that rose up within him had him gasping for breath. Ladybug’s name on his lips was like a prayer. He tried jerking his hand from her grasp, terrified of what might happen if they continued their connection. What little control he had over himself was fraying, eroded by his own whirling desires and by the pulsing magic of the forest.

If his visions came true, if he gave into the craven need coiling tight in his gut, there was a chance Adrien would lose himself and never be able to find his way back.

She would own him, body and soul, and he would love every second of it.

Instead of releasing him, Ladybug’s fingers tightened. Adrien’s wild gaze shot to her face, finding midnight eyes watching him without fear. Her smile was unwavering. She was steady, and strong, and the magic that shivered in the air played across her skin with a light of its own, setting her to shine more perfectly than any beacon in a storm.

Ladybug drew him in, more powerful than all the resistance Adrien could conjure; her cheek brushed his cheek, warmth and the sweet, sweet scent of woman flooding his senses. Gentle fingertips cupped his other cheek, as light as the touch of a lover.

Pink lips moved against his ear, and Adrien’s heart nearly gave out.

He never did get to hear what she said.

 

 

The power of the dream still had him in its sway when he awoke.

Although the images faded, the magic remained. The touch of the night, and the welcome of the forest, and the sensual feeling of a woman’s body moving against his own. Adrien found himself panting into the darkness, his blood racing in his ears, his fists clutching the sheets so tightly that he was distorting the threads. Had he the mind to look, he would have seen his fingertips pierced by black claws. He tasted blood on his tongue, the razored edge of animal fangs lingering like nightmares in his mouth.

Animal passions had him writhing against the mattress, struggling desperately to put a leash on the visions that whirled in his mind. He was aroused to the point of pain, heat burning in his core and smouldering in his veins. Sweat slicked his flesh.

A savage noise vibrated the air. An utterly inhuman snarl that curled up from Adrien’s gut, shocking his human ears with the ferocity of it.

“Fuck it,” he spat, vaulting from the bed to race for the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Mindless of the claws that still pierced his fingertips, he clawed his pyjama pants from his body and flung himself into the shower stall, as if a cage of glass and tile might contain the primal force twisting beneath his flesh.

The moment the freezing deluge hit him, it was like a thousand little needles pricking his skin, but cold water was only doing so much to douse his ardour. Each morning he raced for the shower, it took longer for the touch of ice to cool his fire. Eventually, the last of the dream’s power faded at the glacial touch.

It was longer still before he could wrestle himself back under full control.

Adrien stayed braced beneath the spray for so long that his back turned numb. His skin turned pink and raw, verging on the white of hypothermia. His braced hands on the wall were knotted from the strength of the death grip he had on the tiles, knuckles bleached white. Thankfully, his fingertips were back to being round, and pink, and human. His tongue no longer abutted the sharp points of fangs. The sharpness of night vision in the unlighted bathroom faded into the pure blackness of dull human sight.

At least he could no longer see the erection that still jutted stubbornly between his legs.

A hesitant knock sounded at the door. “You okay in there, man?”

“Go away, Nino!” Adrien groaned hoarsely.

The silence that followed had Adrien regretting his words. He wrenched the water off and fell from the shower, blindly grabbing a towel. Before he could rip the door open, Nino’s voice returned.

“You want me to give you some privacy?” he asked calmly.

Adrien leaned his forehead against the back of the bathroom door, thanking his lucky stars for his best friend’s patience. Nino had been nothing but understanding since that night three days prior, purposefully choosing not to be offended every time Adrien lost his temper. It was always worse in the mornings, fresh from sleep and the deprivations thereof. Flares of temper were happening more and more often. Adrien had not dared transform into Chat Noir or the werecat, and he could not help but feel like a cistern quickly building steam, ready to blow at any moment. Nino was a godsend, his one thing left that was anchoring him to normality.

Sucking in a sharp breath, Adrien grabbed blindly for the doorknob. “Coffee,” he croaked into the open doorway.

Nino stood there with his arms crossed, brows furrowed in obvious concern. Instead of questioning him, Nino went along with the desperate request. “Right, coffee. Coming up.” He paused, frowning deeper. “Dude, you want me to get you a fresh razor while I’m at it?”

Swiping his wet hair back from his face, Adrien wondered if he had heard the question right.

Nino wrinkled his nose, searching for the right words that wouldn’t push his best friend off the deep end. “Er… yeah, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your hairy situation is getting a little hairier.”

The hand in Adrien’s hair slithered down to his cheek, the rough scrape of fresh stubble rasping against his palm. “The hell…?” Without thinking, he flicked the light on, hissing when it burned his retinas. Blinking into the vanity mirror, Adrien bit out a fresh curse to find that Nino’s crack was not a hyperbole.

There was hair. On his face.

Not a lot, grant you, but enough to be noticeable.

Enough to freak him out.

Previous to this disturbing development, Adrien easily could have been described as baby-faced. The type of male whose genetics simply had not given him the predisposition for growing facial hair. He could shave once a month, less than that even, and still be as fresh faced at the end of the month as he was at the beginning.

The fine blond stubble that grew down the sides of his face and along the line of his jaw were the opposite of fresh faced.

More along the lines of he was fucked.

“It’s not that bad,” Nino said, trying to inject some calm into his best friend’s personal existential crisis.

Adrien scrubbed his palms harder against the scruffy sideburns that framed his face, as if he could scrub the offending hair from his body. No such luck. It was real. It made him look scruffy. It didn’t look right on his face. “No one randomly goes around sprouting facial hair. What the hell am I going to tell people?”

“You’ve finally hit puberty?”

Adrien flashed his teeth in a snarl.

Nino put up his hands. “Okay, no, don’t tell people that.”

“How does this sort of thing even happen?” he exclaimed.

“It might have something to do with, oh, I don’t know, being a freaking werecat?” Nino drawled, rolling his eyes. “It’s just your freaking luck that you wake up with perfect stubble. I swear to god angels come down in the night to photoshop your face. Even while cursed, you’re still good looking!”

“You’re not helping.” Adrien was already scrambling through his toiletries for his razor.

“I’m going for coffee, remember? Just shave it off and no one will notice.”

“And if it grows back?”

Nino sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Then you’ll be like every other guy on the planet who has to shave. It’s not a big deal.”

Adrien flicked his reflection a hateful glare. This was a big deal. Of all the terrible things happening to him, couldn’t fate have left his face alone?

“Maybe when you’re shaved and dressed and get some coffee into you, you’ll feel better.” Sparing a consoling pat for Adrien, Nino turned on his heel to get dressed and head downstairs to the twenty-four hour café tucked into the corner of the lobby of The Wellesley. He was becoming an early morning regular; the baristas knew him by name now.

Adrien did shave, and he did get dressed, and he did suck back half the cup of coffee offered to him not fifteen minutes later. None of it made him feel better.

He found himself pacing the length of the suite, hunched over his coffee cup, still feeling more animal than man. Every glimpse of his reflection he caught from the wall mirror, he worried if his pupils were slitted. Did his canines look sharper than usual? He couldn’t tell if his hair looked longer, or if it was just really messed up from him running his hands through it.

Nino sat in a chair in the corner, sipping his coffee, making no sudden moves. “It’s getting worse, man.”

“I know.”

Coffee slurped quietly. “You snapped at a makeup artist the other day.”

Adrien squeezed his eyes shut, shame burning up the back of his neck. “I know. I couldn’t help myself.” The feel of so many hands on his body, and the smell of so many humans packed into such a small space, had finally gotten the better of his temper. He had snapped, demanding some space from the young intern who had been frantically touching up his makeup for the shoot-in-progress. The silence in the room in the wake of the outburst had been profound.

He had apologized profusely afterward, and privately ordered a fruit basket to be delivered to the poor girl.

“You managed to cover that one up, but your father is going to starting noticing something is wrong. You’re not playing the perfect son anymore. The moment you besmirch the Agreste family name, this delicate little balancing act we’ve been playing is going to come crashing down around our ears.” Nino took another long draught from his cup, finishing the last dregs of his coffee. “I caught Nathalie eyeing you the other day. She’s probably already suspicious, especially with you suddenly wanting to throw yourself into your career as a model and running the Agreste fashion house.”

A low, pained groan was Adrien’s only reply.

Falling into his busy schedule had been Adrien’s only recourse for avoiding Marinette. He had chosen the devil he knew over the devil he was losing his mind to. Nathalie and his father were the only ones impressed with his sudden zest for modelling; at his request, Nathalie had packed his schedule with as many appointments as possible – fittings, photoshoots, meet-and-greets, interviews, business meetings. Anything and everything designed to keep Adrien’s mind off of how quickly his mind was spiralling out of control.

Nino had made good on his promise to run interference. Thankfully, with the perfectly legitimate excuse of a busy schedule, he had redirected the girls without absolutely destroying his relationship with Alya. But three days was starting to stretch his credibility, and Alya’s texts were quickly becoming shorter and terser.

“Maybe you should go for a run or something?” Nino offered, nodding toward the balcony. “You know, just to get some of this energy out.” The sky was just starting to turn light outside, though the flat greyness of the sky said it was going to be overcast. There was a call for rain that morning that would last for a few days.

Adrien recoiled, shaking his head. “I can’t. I don’t know what will happen if I try changing into Chat Noir like this.”

Chances were, he’d go straight from Adrien to werecat.

That would be bad.

“You have to do something,” Nino insisted. “You are majorly strung out right now, like you’re coming out of your skin.”

“What do you suggest?” Adrien exclaimed, throwing his hands up.

Nino’s brows went up, his mouth screwing into a tight line. “Well…” the boy intoned hesitantly, eyeing Adrien like he wasn’t sure how he should word his next statement. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but even without my glasses I am not completely blind in the mornings. I can see you when you’re running for the shower.”

Adrien’s face flamed red hot.

Nino looked just as discomforted talking about his friend’s untimely morning situations. “While you’re in the shower, have you thought about, you know…?”

“Nino, please, no,” Adrien begged. “For the love of god, no.”

Nino’s face flashed ruddy beneath his complexion. “It’s not like I’m offering to give you a hand, dude. I’m just saying that maybe if instead of drowning yourself in a cold shower you took care of business-.”

“Nino!”

Nino decided to stop being delicate about it. “Adrien, god is not going to kill a kitten if you jerk off in the shower.”

Adrien choked incoherently.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never done it,” Nino scoffed.

Adrien focused on one spot in the carpet and muttered, “Of course I have…”

“Then what’s the matter? It’ll let off some steam, relieve a little bit of the stress, and probably allow you to act a little more human during the day. Every little bit helps when we’re trying to keep your little furry secret from getting out.”

Adrien’s fingers furrowed through his hair so roughly that he pulled on his scalp. How was he supposed to tell his friend that he couldn’t possibly think about touching himself when he could barely trust himself? If he tried to think of a red mask and blue eyes and pink lips, the vision would invariably shift to pale skin, and black hair, and the innocent face of Marinette Dupain-Cheng. No matter how badly he wanted to touch himself just to take the edge off, it somehow felt disrespectful to do so while envisioning two different women in his head.

He’d rather suffer the cold water.

When Nino decided that he wasn’t going to get any coherent response out of his friend, he shook his head in disgust. “Fine, go the way you’re going, but at the very least, you need to talk to someone about this.”

A strangled laugh lit the grey room. “And who the hell am I going to talk to?”

“We know exactly one witch and one werewolf in all the world, so feel free to guess who,” Nino replied flatly. “I had to go out on a major limb for this, dude.”

Adrien zeroed in on the scent of guilt like a heat-seeking missile. “What did you do?”

“I couldn’t find them anywhere on my own, so I had to… ask Alya,” he muttered in defeat, ducking his head. “She found a shop owned by Candlewick witches. It’s in Camdem. I’ve got the address, but…”

“But Alya won’t let it go,” Adrien breathed, horror rising.

Nino grimaced. “I couldn’t convince her of anything else. She’s now obsessed with the idea of hunting Sarah down and interviewing her for the LadyBlog. She also may or may not have hacked my email and stole that updated schedule Nathalie sent me. She knows you have nothing going on tomorrow afternoon.”

Adrien crumpled onto the nearest bed, hiding his face in his hands. “Nino, no.”

The acrid musk of guilt hung heavy like a hangman’s noose between them. “Dude, I am so sorry. You know I am going to do my best to keep you away from Marinette. I won’t let you do anything to her.” There was silence, and then Nino murmured quietly, “Maybe… maybe it won’t be so bad?”

A fresh vision of Marinette flashed in his mind, standing before him with eager eyes and bright smile, setting an instant fire in Adrien’s loins. He threw his head back and wailed, “It’s going to be worse!”

 

 

“They should be here any minute now,” Alya announced, scrolling through her phone with a look of agitated concentration.

Marinette nodded absently, resting her head upon her upraised palms. The long, window-lined café counter was hard and cold beneath her elbows, although the swivelling seat beneath her bottom was decently soft. The atmosphere of the café was slightly more upscale than she normally would have gone for, but the air was pleasantly warm and spiced with the scent of cinnamon, and Marinette really was not in the mood to complain about the place they were taking refuge in from the rain.

A light elbow nudged Marinette’s side. “How’re you feeling?”

Marinette did not shift her gaze from the grey haze outside. “I don’t know…”

The ghost of her reflection floated in the glass, staring back at her contemplatively. Alya had pulled out all the stops for the day, dashing Marinette’s hair up into a bun and doing her makeup in a way that nearly hid all of the healing evidence of her eye. Alya even went so far as to go rifling through Marinette’s suitcase for just the right outfit, which turned out to be a beige halter handcrafted by Marinette herself, its delicate apple blossom print further accentuating the adorable cut of the top. A pair of white, high-waisted shorts and a pair of peep toe sandals completed the look.

It was the perfect outfit for a sunny summer Parisian day. Not so much for a rainy London afternoon.

At least her duck yellow rain jacket was cute, too.

From under the clasp of her purse, Tikki’s wide eyes peered out, offering a tiny smile of encouragement. The little kwami had been keeping her informed of the oscillating power currents radiating across town from Chat Noir. More often than not, he was agitated. Sometimes Tikki said this with concern, and other times she would look up at Marinette in consideration, and flick her an ancient, knowing smile.

Marinette, for her part in the whole ordeal, merely found herself feeling like she had her hands tied. She was useless as Marinette in helping Chat Noir, but she didn’t dare go to him as Ladybug until she could be sure a repeat of the London Eye incident wouldn’t happen again. Obviously, he needed her. If she could help him, she would…

A part of her was actually quite relieved over Adrien’s busy schedule, knowing that she would have been terrible company while distracted with thoughts of another man.

Snapping fingers in front of her nose startled Marinette from her own thoughts.

“Mari, girl, you’ve been spacing out a lot lately. Everything okay?”

Marinette sat back and pasted on a cheery smile. “Just, uh, thinking about what Adrien will think of my outfit.”

Alya brow went up, lips pursing into a frown. “You’re lying.”

“Er…”

“If there is something on your mind, you know I’m here for you,” Alya said, even while her eyes slipped to the glass. She heaved a sigh, patting one of Marinette’s hands. “We’ll have to talk about it later, though. Here they come.” She hopped down, collecting her blue rain jacket from the back of her chair. “I thought I told Nino to bring only one umbrella?”

Marinette laughed, collecting her jacket as well. “You didn’t expect them to walk all the way here with just one umbrella, did you?”

“Why not? We did,” Alya huffed.

Marinette threaded her fingers through Alya’s free hand, tugging her friend to the exit. Adrien and Nino were still coming down the sidewalk, waving their greetings.

“Spot check,” Alya announced, turning her back on the boys to quickly assess Marinette from the top of her bun to the tips of her toes. Her gaze turned sly as her eyes tracked from Marinette’s chest up to her eyes. “You’re not wearing a bra, are you?”

Marinette went pink and wrenched the sides of her jacket closed. “The halter didn’t allow for one!”

“You’re lucky you’re perky,” Alya teased lowly, spinning on her heel just as the boys came within earshot under the striped awning over the café doorstep. From the corner of her mouth, she muttered, “Adrien will appreciate it when he’s sharing an umbrella with you.”

Marinette went from pink to red, clashing terribly with her jacket.

“Ladies!” Nino called out, taking the lead to quickly hug his girlfriend and peck her on the cheek. Was it just Marinette, or were his eyes darting a little too much? He looked pale for someone who had just hiked several blocks through the rain. Nino’s smile was just a tad too wide as he slung his arm around Alya’s shoulders and said, too brightly, “Are two you ready for a witch hunt?”

Alya ducked out from under his arm. “I didn’t think you’d be so excited about it.”

“Ah, well, you know, I am the one who asked you to look them up,” Nino countered, and yes, Marinette decided, his eyes were darting a little too quickly.

Alya was no fool either, and her bullshit radar was suddenly on high alert.

Marinette switched her gaze to Adrien, frowning when she noticed that he was still standing in the rain. The distance between himself and their little threesome was painfully obvious, as was the remote look in his eyes when he caught her staring. For a split second, his green gaze fell upon her and warmed like the sun breaking through the clouds. She watched his nose twitch, his tongue tracing his lips as if he had just scented something delicious, chased by a look of utter alarm. In the next instant, the clouds returned, Adrien’s burgeoning smile sputtering out into a frozen, crooked gesture. Both of his hands were wrapped around his umbrella handle as if he were holding on for dear life.

“N-Nino!” Adrien croaked hoarsely, backing up a step until he teetered on the curb of the street.

“Right,” Nino crowed, again too brightly for the rainy weather. Marinette jumped when a lanky arm threaded around her shoulders and ushered her out into the rain. “Shall we get going? The station is this way, isn’t it?”

Marinette stared dumbfounded up at the boy as he continued to steer her down the street.

“Nino?” Alya called, hurrying behind them under her own umbrella. The shocked look on her face was priceless. “Nino!”

Just to get his girlfriend’s goat, Nino crooked his arm around Marinette’s neck and swooped to plant a brotherly kiss on the crown of her head.

A low rumble of angry thunder rolled behind them.

Nino dropped his arm faster than lightning.

Marinette eyed him warily, trying to keep pace with his much longer strides. “I didn’t hear that we were getting a thunderstorm today.”

“More like a shit storm,” he sighed, his cheery façade wavering for a moment. Belatedly noticing Marinette huffing to keep up, he slowed to a reasonable pace. Strain showed around his eyes. He wasn't his usual carefree self.

Marinette touched his arm, concern taking the place of wariness. “Is everything okay?”

Nino patted her hand tiredly, his palm feeling clammy against her skin. “Everything is fine. Don’t you worry about it.”

He looked over his shoulder, caught in the path of the knives shooting from his girlfriend’s eyes straight into his back. Adrien hung even farther back, keeping his eyes on the ground. Nino quickly looked ahead, pasting on yet another overly bright façade for Marinette. “It’s been a while since just the two of us hung out, huh? It’s long overdue that we switched up our foursome a little.”

“I guess?” Marinette traded a questioning look with Alya, and then dared a worried glance toward Adrien. He looked stressed, his hair tousled around his head like he had been pulling at his scalp. She saw the shadows of hollows in his cheeks, his eyes more haunted than lonely. As if drawn by her stare, he jerked his head to catch her stare once again, and the intensity of it shivered down Marinette’s spine. Quickly, she turned her head forward. “Alya told you what the plan was supposed to be, didn’t she?”

“Yep.” Nino coughed into his fist. “Change of plans. Adrien went to the doctor the other day and turns out he actually does have pneumonia. Highly contagious. It’s best that you don’t share an umbrella with him. You wouldn’t want to catch anything. It’s best if… if you stay away from him for now. For your own safety.”

She squinted up at him. “But what about you? Couldn’t you have caught pneumonia from him?”

“…I got a vaccine for it?”

Marinette narrowed her eyes. “There’s no such thing as a pneumonia vaccine.”

Nino stared straight ahead, frozen, and then all but exclaimed, “Yes there is! I Googled it! And would you look at that! The train station is right there!” He bounded down the stairs three at a time, Alya racing after him with her folded umbrella clutched like a spear in her hands.

Marinette hopped her way to the bottom and politely waited for Adrien to catch up. He continued to keep his distance.

“Train’s coming!” Alya yelled, beckoning for them to hurry up.

Unthinking, Marinette grabbed Adrien’s sleeve and tugged him toward the platform. In a move cast with military precision, Alya yanked Nino onto one train car and herded him against the wall where he couldn’t escape unless he wanted to plough right through her. To all the rest of the world, they looked like a couple of randy teenagers fooling around. No way in hell was Nino willing to make a scene in front of so many witnesses. Alya jerked a determined nod at Marinette. Go get him, girl.

Right.

Marinette pretended not to see the horrified look in Nino’s eyes, nor the way he stretched his arm out helplessly. Whatever guilt she might have suffered, she swallowed it down. This was in the name of the greater good. All's fair in love and war, right? She tightened her grip on Adrien’s sleeve and jumped into the adjoining train car, gratified when he followed on her heels. The car was populated by a single rider, who sat at the far end hidden behind a newspaper.

Determinedly holding on to her bravery by the skin of her teeth, Marinette guided them both to take a seat. Adrien managed to keep an arm’s length of space between them, his movements oddly mechanical. He wouldn’t look her in the eye. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear nervously, her hopeful smile fading. Adrien appeared to be holding his breath. His face was starting to turn red. Marinette’s heart sunk.

“You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to,” she muttered, fixing her stare on her feet.

“It’s not that,” Adrien replied lowly.

Her head shot up. “Then is it me?” she asked worriedly, clapping her hands over her mouth to smother a gasp. “Oh my god, it was something I said, wasn’t it?”

He looked suddenly alarmed, rushing to reassure her. “No, no, it’s not you! It’s me, I promise!”

Marinette sputtered over him. “It was the erection comment, wasn’t it? I knew I shouldn’t have said that! It was completely inappropriate.” She shook her head, tendrils of hair flying against her cheeks. “I am so sorry! I was trying to not make a big deal about the issue. Everyone gets erections, and I didn’t want you to feel embarrassed-!” She hid her face in her hands, speaking directly into her palms. “You probably think I am completely uncouth for saying something like that.”

“Uncouth? Never.” A warm hand touched her shoulder, hovering at first before taking the plunge to rest his palm fully against the ball of her shoulder. Self-depreciatingly, he muttered, “It was more accurate that you think.”

The train chose that instant to hit the next stop.

Neither of them were braced for the jarring movement. Marinette toppled backwards across the seats, followed by an oomph!’ as a larger, heavier body collided with her. Their single witness on the train folded his paper and left. Moments later, the train started up again.

“A-accurate?” Marinette sputtered belatedly, doing everything in her power to resist the urge to look down in one particular direction. Her Sexual Health statistic probably wasn’t going to be accurate right that very second.

“Ah… yes? …no? Sorry, what was the question?” Adrien choked, scrambling up on his arms to get away. He didn’t move as far away as his original seat.

Marinette scrambled to sit up with him, her thigh pressed against his. Her very bare thigh. Wow. She hadn't noticed how much skin she was actually showing off until she was showing it off to someone. She fitfully adjusted her shorts, and then her shirt. Okay. Everything was fine. The world was crashing down around her ankles, but everything was fine. She would be damned if she aborted the mission.

Her fretting drew Adrien’s eyes down. His pupils blew wide, entranced for a moment, before forcing his eyes up to her face. His cheeks were fully pink now. Marinette dared a glance down, hoping against hope that she hadn’t somehow made herself indecent. Had her shorts ridden up? Did the ties of her halter suddenly come undone?

No such luck. Her personal sweet hell was so much worse. Marinette’s sartorial choices were coming back to bite her in the ass. Her top was still very pretty, and she would forever be proud of herself for designing it, but she really should have gone strapless instead of braless, because right now she was looking pretty damn perky through the thin material.

“It’s cold in here!” she squeaked, hands flying to her chest.

That was the wrong thing to say, because the gentleman in Adrien had him scrambling to slip his jacket off to offer it to her. Marinette clung to her own, clutching it around her chest, shaking her head in denial because she didn’t dare accept his offering and she didn’t dare open her mouth for fear of what might come out next.

Adrien also appeared to be having trouble forming words, holding out his jacket in a fist so tight his hand was shaking. When she wouldn’t take the jacket, he laid it over her bare legs. His warmth lingered in the soft flannel lining. The motion of his hands smoothing the material down had the side of his palm accidentally stroking the outside of her thigh.

Marinette bit her lip, shocked by the feel of his hot palm against her skin. A flutter of heat answered low in her belly.

“Oh?” Adrien breathed, eyes suddenly blowing wide as he took a quick, shallow breath. He leaned in, nose twitching. His expression turned agonized and entranced at the same time. “Please, no.”

Marinette wished she knew what he was trying to deny. If she knew, she might have helped him. In reality, she had a sinking feeling she was only making it worse. She felt the power of the shudder that passed through his body. His hand was still braced near her thigh, the ghost of his touch echoing in her nerve endings. With the amount of heat radiating from him like a furnace, she knew he wasn’t shivering from the cold.

Marinette felt the moment he went from floundering and scared to… to something else. She wasn’t sure she had a name for it. It was the same strange, feral energy she had sensed in him during that first encounter in Trafalgar Square. Thrilling, and wild, and somehow entrancing. It was something that took over Adrien’s body like a demon’s possession. The last of the rigidity faded from his form. He lost all resistance. The remoteness that had haunted him out on the rainy sidewalk was chased away by a sudden confidence that was breath-taking. A single-minded intensity took over his attention, zeroing in on Marinette as if she were the only woman in the world.

Suddenly, even with the extra layer Adrien’s jacket afforded her, she felt naked.

They were both trapped by whatever power was exercising dominion over Adrien’s body. No matter how many times Marinette told herself He’s sick. He has pneumonia! He’s probably contagious! she couldn’t seem to hear herself. There was an even more terrible voice in the back of her mind screaming, Kiss him, you fool! Risk the disease, get the reward!

Yep. Her priorities were fucked.

He smelled of cologne and wild things when he leaned in. His palm was like a firebrand against her cheek, fingers tracing her skin as if savouring the touch.

Adrien's voice was a low hum against her skin as he said, “If you’re cold, I could warm you uh-!”

The train jerked to a halt at its next stop, yet again throwing the teens off balance. Marinette listed to the side, arms whipping out to catch herself. Adrien lurched forward, his lips colliding with the apple of Marinette’s cheek. Heat detonated from the spot where his lips touched her skin. Her nerves came alive, her hair standing on end, her heartbeat kicking into high gear. She twitched, mouth moving silently, failing to voice even a surprised squeak.

The hand cupping her other cheek tightened reflexively. Adrien’s head turned ever so slightly, the pressure of his lips firming, derailing a kiss from perfectly accidental to sinfully intentional.

Marinette felt the kiss sear itself into her being, right down to her immortal soul.

Time stopped. The world rocked… or that might have been the train starting up again. To steady herself, she leaned back on her elbow, her other hand rising to ghost across his cheek. The skin was soft. There was no denying that he was definitely freshly shaved. A little thrill of devilment twirled low in her belly, wondering if a scruffy Adrien would be as handsome as refined Adrien? What would his kiss feel like with whiskers scratching her cheeks while his lips warmed hers? Rough and sweet at the same time. Her toes curled at the thought.

Well, that's a kink I didn't know I had.

She turned her hand up into his hair, threading her fingers in the golden strands. If she turned her head just an inch, if she dared to be brave and lean in a heartbeat closer, she could be kissing Adrien’s cheek, too. Kissing him. With her mouth. Like he was currently kissing her.

Seize the day!

From above them, a loud, slightly panicked voice boomed, “Well! This looks like a nice seat!”

Adrien startled like a cat doused with water, flying away in a flash. Marinette was left hanging, her lips still pursed in a small moue, ready to lay a kiss three years in the making on the cheek of her crush.

Nino plopped down in the newly vacated space between them, panting for breath as if on the verge of a panic attack.

Alya loomed like the devil in the open hatch between train compartments, her hands still outstretched in their failed attempt to hold Nino back. Her fingers curled into claws, amber eyes flashing like lightning. So close! her agonized expression screamed. So fucking close!

Stepping fully into the train compartment, Alya pinned Nino with a single pointed finger. “You. Are. Dead. To. Me.”

Chapter Text

By the time the train trundled into its stop in the Camden borough, Alya was no longer on speaking terms with Nino. Nino was too scared to make eye contact with Alya. Marinette had yet to utter a peep since suffering the trauma of being seduced on a train seat in public.

And Adrien… Adrien was slowly dying inside.

There was only so much torment one young man could take until he was walking the razor’s edge of insanity. It currently felt like Adrien’s unravelling mind had somehow managed to backflip over that sharp line and kept running with both middle fingers in the air. His sanity was so far gone that it was running naked down Main Street with a lampshade on its head.

It was a miracle he managed to passably human on the outside when everything else was chaos on the inside.

The walk through Camden existed as only a vague blur in his memories. An overcast grey sky, the cloying scents of humanity and car exhaust; an obnoxious splash of colour as they passed an artists’ market, and the doldrums of plain English streets with their narrow, brick faces and dark, crooked alleys.

If it was at all possible to be suffering post-traumatic trauma after an overwhelming sexual experience, Adrien was definitely feeling the effects. The scent of warm honey permeated his every thought. Warm, syrupy sweetness that coated his tongue and ran down the back of this throat to gather low in his belly. Thick and sugary, begging him to run his tongue along the source of the scent. Set his tongue to wet heat and lap like a cat at a bowl of cream. Thoughts of scent, and taste, and touch whirled about in his head. Flashes of possibilities, things that might have been if Nino had not interrupted.

Turning his mouth to slant over petal soft lips.

Sliding his tongue into the wet haven of her mouth.

Laying her down on the long bench seat to devour every decadent inch of her trim little body.

Fuuuuuuck.

Adrien was quite sure the most erotic experience of his life now consisted of a single, chaste kiss on the cheek.

Bad enough he was sporting a majorly uncomfortable hard on, currently tucked into the waistband of his jeans and blessedly hidden by the fall of his jacket, the absolute last thing he needed was to be creating an erotica film in his head.

One breath, one taste, and the effect went to his head nearly as fast as it went to his groin. What kind of man was he supposed to be if he lost his mind at the mere scent of a woman’s arousal? Worse still, judging by the way Marinette refused to make eye contact with him for the rest of the train ride, she had not been a willing participant in the exchange.

Arousal does not equal consent.

Reality curdled like sour milk in the pit of his stomach, doing wonders to curb his ardour. He had practically forced himself on her. God only knew what might have happened if Nino hadn’t interrupted when he had.

“Have I told you ‘thank you’ yet for saving my ass?”

“Not yet, but it was implied anyways,” Nino replied in a similarly low tone, refusing to take his gaze off his girlfriend’s retreating form as she lead the charge through Camden.

Adrien followed Nino’s gaze, trying to avoid the tantalizing flash of bare legs beneath Marinette’s rain jacket. “How badly did I screw things up between you and Alya?”

“This isn’t on you, bro. I knew what I was doing when I said I would help,” Nino said, frowning. “Besides, she can only stay mad for so long.”

“How long is ‘so long?’”

Nino cut him a sheepish glance. “Probably only until after my funeral.”

The humour of it was lost to Adrien’s foul mood. “I don’t want to be responsible for driving a wedge between the two of you. If you want, you can tell her this is all my fault. Blame it all on me.”

“Right, and what am I supposed to say? ‘Hey, yeah, Alya… Did you know Adrien happens to be Chat Noir and a werecat and he’s throwing wood like a woodchuck every time he’s within breathing distance of Marinette?’” Nino shot him a deadpan look. “No matter how optimistic you might be, there is no alternate universe out there where that scenario works in your favour.”

Adrien deflated, sinking deeper into his jacket.

Nino slowed, eyeing the shop that the girls had stopped in front of. He shot Adrien a sympathetic smile. “Don’t let this get you down, bro. I’m still here for you no matter what.” His chin jerked ahead. “It looks like we finally found witch central, though. Hopefully someone inside will be able to help you.”

At first glance, the Candlewick family business was not much to look at. The multistory shop sat on a stone foundation pocked marked from centuries past, soot from decades past blackening the corners of the brick. The display window was picked out in golden cursive, proudly stating Candlewick Apothecary. Below that, in smaller writing, the window said: Spells, charms, fortunes and more! Serving London since 1666.

Alya tried the front door. “Locked.” She squinted at the wooden sign in the window. “Closed? It said online that this place was open until midnight!”

Marinette hurried over, going on her tiptoes to peer in through the glass. Adrien quickly looked away from the expanse of trim leg and toned thigh that was flashed. “I don’t see anyone.”

A lick of dread settled in Adrien’s chest. To come all this way for nothing…? Stepping around the girls, he grabbed the knob and gave a determined shove. Open, open, open, please! Heat flared in his palm. Flickers of black magic distorted the air, barely discernible against the shadows of the narrow stoop. Cold metal vibrated in his palm. A sudden awareness rushed over him, a feeling of dread rising. He released the knob in a flash.

A second later, the lock clicked and the door swung open.

“I guess it’s open after all,” Alya said, bounding over the threshold before anyone could stop her.

I’ll add breaking and entering to the list of horrible things I have done today, Adrien mentally sighed, stepping aside for Marinette to cross the threshold before him. He held his breath as she passed. She flicked him a cautious look from under the fall of her bangs, hesitating for all but a second on the stoop as if she wanted to say something to him.

Probably to demand an apology!

Alya doubled back and snagged Marinette by the arm before any sound could leave her lips. Alya’s impressive grudge extended so far as to stick her nose in the air and flounce away when Nino dared mount the short steps up to the door. Nino traded a pained glanced with Adrien, but nevertheless entered the shop on his girlfriend’s heels. Adrien entered last, letting the door swing closed behind him.

The inside of Candlewick Apothecary left no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was definitely a witch’s shop. The floors were so old that the scuffed wood had warped in the places most tread upon. Large lamps hung from the ceiling on brass chains, their glassy globes emitting golden light.

Shelves soared from floor to the ceiling, packed full to overflowing with every manner of curiosity; leather-bound books alongside piles of scrolls, anatomical skeletons of small animals quivering on their stands, the unseeing skulls of much larger animals watching silently. A brass world globe sat spinning on its own in a corner. There were rows of small dark bottles with lists of oils and essences on them, from clove to ginger to wormwood.

Small tables in the middle of the floor showed off displays of candles in every size, shape, and colour. Another table was laden with crystals, with a sign announcing Two for One Sale! Yet another table was stacked high full of modern books with titles like “The Modern Witch”, “A History of Magic” and “Feminist Empowerment of the Craft: Find Your Power Within.”

The air was still, yet the shop whispered in the silence. Adrien breathed in the magic, strange visions of a forest forming behind his eyes. He gave his head a hard shake. The visions disappeared, but the sense of being watched remained.

“Hello?” Alya called out, planting her hands on her hips. “Hello!”

“No one’s here,” Marinette murmured, blinking around with interest.

“Please tell me we didn’t just break into a shop,” Nino groaned, wandering over to the glass-faced counter that ran along one side of the shop. An old fashioned brass register sat in pride of place. A long-haired black cat lay curled in a small bed next to the register, watching them with blatant disdain.

“You wouldn’t know where the shopkeepers are, would you?” Nino asked, letting the cat sniff his offered fingers. He scratched the kitty beneath its soft chin. “We’re looking for witches.”

“Nino, leave the cat alone,” Alya bid curtly.

“It never hurts to ask,” Nino countered, lifting the cat’s silver tag. He frowned. “Frank? What kind of name is ‘Frank’ for a cat?”

The cat rolled its eyes and replied, “What kind of name is ‘Nino’ for a boy?”

Nino heaved a terrible sigh and hung his head. “I’m not even surprised anymore.”

The cat got up and stretched. “If you will please wait here, a witch will be with you shortly.” He hopped down and padded across the shop to an open door hung with wooden beads, muttering as he went – “I thought I locked that stupid door. Didn’t even feel like doing business today…” Frank looked back at them with a jaundiced eye. ”Tourists.”

They didn't have to wait long before bodies began to stir in the shadows beyond the curtain of beads. Adrien could just barely make out several murmured voices, growing closer in time to the sound of padding footsteps. Frank the cat entered first, the beaded curtain catching on fur and appearing to pull back a thin membrane of reality surrounding the small creature. Furry paws were replaced with the scaly black legs of a crow. The cat’s head peeled back to reveal a bone white plague doctor’s mask, its blank, glassy eyes staring out with uncanny interest.

Adrien was the recipient of the odd creature’s empty, unblinking gaze. A fascinated, discomforting stare that might have been curiosity, or it might have been awe.

On the creature’s heels, three figures entered. Two were familiar; Sarah, with her tangled hair and ratty paisley dress circa 1960s, and John in a much more respectable long sleeved shirt and jeans. The third of their party was a woman who could have been anywhere between her late twenties and early fifties. Her dark hair hung in tangled, braided streamers around her bare shoulders, a simple cotton dress of pale blue serving as her only attire. Her feet were as bare as Sarah’s, smudges of dark earth clinging around her toes and ankles.

“Welcome to Candlewick Apothecary,” the woman greeted, swamp water eyes roving from one face to the next, taking their measure in a single glance. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Adrien found his gaze unerringly finding its way back to John, locking gazes the same way two bulls would lock horns. Instinct flared, exacerbated by the fact that Adrien was treading in another predator's territory. They both tensed, hackles rising, lips quivering with the need to pull back over emerging fangs. Adrien flexed his fingers, feeling the prick of claws threatening. His vision began to tunnel.

A lanky body suddenly slid into view, blocking all evidence of the werewolf in the vicinity. “Get it together,” Nino hissed over his shoulder, adrenaline spiking his scent. Adrien could hear the boy’s heart skipping in his chest.

“Right.” Squeezing his eyes shut did little to quiet the screaming cat in his head. It took a second before he could find a well of calm deep enough inside him to release the tension that knotted his shoulders.

Given Nino’s timely intervention, John blinked back to himself with ease. Nino he would have known from their first meeting, and perhaps Alya from their encounter outside The Wellesley, but Marinette was certainly new. It wasn’t her face that held much interest to the wolf, easily passing over her features; it wasn’t until John breathed in that he yelped like a dog who had its tail stepped on.

Adrien bristled, but was prevented from stepping out in Marinette’s defence by Nino bravely grabbing a fistful of his shirt. There was no doubt in Adrien’s mind that the wolf knew exactly what that spicy extra nuance in Marinette’s scent meant. Adrien knew firsthand how intensely overwhelming the draw of it could be. If John so much as looked at the girl in any untoward way…

“Dude, you’re growling again,” Nino hissed from the corner of his mouth.

When Adrien pulled back his lips to reply, he felt fangs pricking his tongue.

However, no matter how enticing the scent, John did not blush. He looked rather… pissed? His head jerked back around to nail Adrien with an incredulous glare. Adrien read the boy’s lips loud and clear as he mouthed the words, “You have got to be shitting me.”

“What?” Adrien mouthed back, bewildered.

John spread his hands in the air, expression evolving into one of utterly horrified disbelief.

Poor Nino stood in the middle of the two posturing werebeasts, distinctly uncomfortable and completely confused.

Luckily, Alya’s tiff with Nino extended so far as to consciously pay him as little mind as possible. It was her patented cold shoulder technique, perfected after years of living with siblings who made an Olympic sport out of being passive-aggressive with each other. She encouraged Marinette to embrace the cold shoulder as well, despite its petty implications. They invested themselves in being otherwise decent human beings, introducing themselves to the witches who had come out to greet them. It was a far better option that giving attention to the trio of boys mouthing things back and forth at each other.

The elder of the witches was introduced as Sarah’s mother, Alathea Candlewick, proprietor of the apothecary and head priestess of the Candlewick Coven. Alathea proved to be one of those adults who had apparently seen and heard everything, and was not given to being shocked or startled by the little things. A seemingly good quality to have in a witch.

Alya’s bold request for an interview immediately fell on interested ears. Sarah blushed to the roots of her hair, nodding eagerly that she wouldn’t mind talking about her experience being akumatized or answering a few questions about being a witch. Indeed, when Alya let drop that the interview would be posted on the LadyBlog, Sarah looked more than a little awed.

“Go on,” said Alathea, waving her daughter onward. “You can take our guests to the fortune room for the interview. No one’s scheduled for a reading until later this evening. You’ll have the room to yourself, completely uninterrupted.”

“Oh!” Sarah exclaimed, her skirt swishing as she hopped from one foot to the other, excitedly beckoning Alya and Marinette beyond the beaded curtain. “We just had the fortune room refurbished. It’s really nice in there.” Gaining an approving nod from her mother, she added, “If you’re up for a little magic afterward, I can always tell your fortunes!”

The offer was met with excited glances. Fortune telling from a bona fide witch was too good an opportunity to pass up.

John snagged Sarah’s arm before she could bustle away, bending to whisper in her ear. Whatever it was had Sarah’s head shooting back, her mouth dropping open. “Her?” she gasped, clapping her hands together in delight. She kissed her familiar’s cheek, but could not budge John’s scowl.

“It’s not stupid, puppy,” she admonished. “It’s the cutest thing ever!”

“It’s ridiculous,” John groused, shooing her off after Marinette and Alya.

Adrien grumbled rottenly, not sure if he should be offended for his sake or for Marinette’s. He was fine if he was being made the butt of a joke again, but god forbid if John was passing it around that Marinette smelled like heaven on legs. He tried to share disgruntled look with Nino, finding his friend’s attention fixed elsewhere. Following Nino’s gaping stare, Adrien discovered a large anaconda coiling its way up Alathea’s body, its forked tongue caressing the witch’s cheek.

“All isssss ready in the greenhouse,” announced the snake.

“Excellent. Thank you, Hector,” said the witch, turning her knowing gaze on the two boys left standing in her shop. She cocked her head and pursed her lips, fixating on one boy in particular. Adrien felt her gaze acutely, moving over him and through him, seeing deeper down into him than any invasive scan ever had. A small smile flickered to life at whatever she saw. “I hear you have found yourself in quite the predicament, little kitten.”

John tensed, eyes flying to Nino. “Alathea, wait-!”

She quieted him with a gentle pat on the shoulder. “The boy already knows.” Nino became the recipient of an unnerving stare. “Don’t you, my dear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nino mumbled, his cheeks staining ruddy red.

John’s expression turned disgusted. “Oh now you decide to tell someone.”

“It was an accident,” Adrien grumbled.

“So was meeting you,” the werewolf griped, pinching the bridge between his eyes.

Alathea clucked her tongue. “Johnny, sweetie, tone down the cat-dog theatrics for now. We’re here to help this poor boy, not make it worse.” She stepped back, holding the beaded curtain open. “If you two will follow me?”

A heavy weight landed on Adrien’s shoulder, a wall of black fur taking up the left side of his vision. Above his head, the unseeing, blank eyes of a plague doctor’s mask stared down at him. A bone white head bowed solemnly, its touch against Adrien’s temple reminding him of smooth leather, but also made him think of cold bone.

“It is an honour, Lord Plague,” said the spirit. “I have waited over three hundred years for your return to London.”

Adrien stiffened, but found no recoil against the title. It settled around his shoulders like a familiar mantle. The place in his soul where Plagg must have been bonded suddenly churned to life. Plagg’s dormancy lessened; in the deepest recesses of Adrien’s mind, he could almost imagine the kwami calling for him.

“Come along, my lord,” Alathea called, beckoning him into the dark. “You will have plenty of time to catch up with your subjects later.”

He lurched forward on unsteady legs, off balance from more than just the weight of the spirit on his shoulder. Frank weighed less than the burden of Adrien’s thoughts on his mind. He was glad for Nino’s support as they followed Alathea and John into the back of the apothecary, down a hallway that was dark and narrow, cluttered with shelves that bowed under the collective weight of things better left unseen. Small wings fluttered in the high shadows of the ceiling, and small feet pattered along the walls. Dozens of eyes watched from every unseen direction.

The smell of green things and potting soil grew stronger until a door was cracked open at the end of the dark hall, and light poured in alongside the verdant rush of humid air. Adrien and Nino found themselves tripping into an old fashioned greenhouse of twisting wrought iron and glittering glass faces. A soaring domed roof came together high above their heads, hung with garlands of overzealous creepers clinging to the exposed framework. It was obviously magic that made the light pouring in look like a bright summer’s day rather than a stormy grey one. The ground below was composed of exposed earth, with every manner of green thing left to grow wild in the magically-enriched soil.

Adrien let his head fall back, breathing in the fresh air, feeling as if a set of tight reins were suddenly being loosened around his neck. He flexed, rolled his shoulders, and for the first time became aware of the rising presence of the cat within him without feeling the need to tamp it down. He let the magic that hung redolent in the greenhouse dance on his skin, wearing it like a familiar cloak. A sense of déjà vu tickled the back of his mind. It made him want to take off his clothes and reach for someone who wasn’t there…

Nino’s voice cut through Adrien’s distracted thoughts. He was pointing to a distinct looking bush, its bright green leaves arranged in a familiar pointed pattern. “Is that…?”

“We have a permit for it,” Alathea assured.

“Ah.” Nino dropped his finger, looking impressed.

They were led to the center of the conspicuously large greenhouse, where a patio set sat in amongst overgrown wisteria. Two more witches waited for them at the table, sharing several of the older witch’s features.

“My eldest daughters, Beatrice and Cordelia,” Alathea said, just as the pair pushed quietly to their feet and bobbed respectfully in Adrien’s direction.

“Lord Plague,” they echoed. The one called Beatrice was dressed in the bohemian style of her mother and other sister. Cordelia diverged from the others, her hair combed and her clothes appearing modern.

“Please, stop calling me that,” Adrien muttered, his ears feeling comfortably hot under their curious stares.

Alathea waved him to a seat, stroking his cheek with the backs of her knuckles in a motherly fashion. “What would you like us to call you?”

“Adrien,” he said quietly. “Just Adrien.”

“Adrien is a lovely name,” Alathea hummed, nodding to her two daughters. Unsure of themselves, they still bobbed quickly before backing off to a low daybed were clay pots of black ink waited. John came around the table and stripped off his shirt, lying face down on the daybed to allow the pair to begin painting a series of obscure sigils across his back. Hector the snake uncoiled to join the proceedings.

Frank hopped down from Adrien’s shoulder and took up a spot on the scalloped glass of the patio table, the talons of his crow legs clicking with each step. Yet again, the spirit swept a solemn bow. “Whatever you wish, my lord... Adrien. I am here to serve.”

Adrien bit back the request to not be called ‘my lord’ either.

Alathea caught on to his discomfort, offering a sympathetic smile. “You will have to forgive us, my dear. You have had many faces throughout the centuries, but we in England know you best as Lord Plague. It is a great honour for us to host you here, and beings like Frank have natural sworn loyalties to your Miraculous.”

“What is he... it... Frank supposed to be?” Nino wondered, leaning his elbows on the table and laying his chin in his upraised palms.

“I am a plague spirit,” Frank replied, cocking his uncanny head. “I was festered from the Great Plague of London in 1665.”

Nino whistled low, backing away carefully.

Adrien stared unblinking at the spirit, his stomach feeling like it was bottoming out.

A cup of tea was slid into view. “Drink this. It’ll help with your nerves.” Alathea watched him take a tentative sip. “I understand this must be very hard for you. You don’t know much of your own history, do you?”

Adrien found the strength to shake his head.

“It makes sense, given you are human. The Miraculous histories have not carried so well through your histories as they have through ours.” She sipped thoughtfully from her own teacup. “We have known you as Maahes, Son of Bastet, Dawon the Sacred Tiger, Bakeneko, Miss Fortune, and Lord Plague. You have worn many faces throughout the millennia, as many as your Ladybug has.”

Adrien stared at his cup, breathing carefully through his mouth. It felt like every eye in the room, seen and unseen, was staring right through him.

“Where do the Miraculous come from?” Nino asked, surprising Adrien with the question. The speed at which he asked it hinted at how long he might have been pondering the question.

“Do they need to come from anywhere?” Alathea replied, eyebrows arched. “Even the best memories can only extend back so far. Creation and Destruction have been with us since the beginning. Their powers are old, and few in this world except other Miraculous can rival them. Only select magics can be their equal.”

“Doesn’t that freak you out?” Nino pressed, looking from the witch to Adrien. He sat back, gripping the table’s edge tightly. “The way you talk about them, it’s like they’re living gods. They’re stronger than anyone else, they can basically do whatever they want, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. Isn’t that just… How are you not scared of knowing people like that exist?”

“Does it frighten you that one of those people is your best friend?”

Nino’s darting gaze settled heavily on Adrien, prompting Adrien to raise his head. He searched Nino’s golden brown gaze for some evidence of the boy’s thoughts. Knowing he was Chat Noir, and knowing what Chat Noir actually was were two very different things, and the weight of that realization settled heavily on Nino’s shoulders. Adrien’s heart lurched in his chest the longer he had to wait for a response.

Eventually, Nino’s expression relented and he shook his head modestly. “I know Adrien. He’s a good person.”

Adrien let go of the breath he had been holding.

Alathea’s swamp water eyes sparkled. “There is no more reason to fear the Miraculous as there is fearing a storm. They are powerful, but also inevitable. It’s best to let them be.”

“Is that why Ladybug and I have never encountered your kind before?” Adrien asked lowly.

“We of the magical communities usually only watch you from afar, out of respect for your human roots,” Alathea said, letting his sullen tone slide. “Magic and mundane have never mixed well, and worst still when Miraculous are involved. As much as we hold your powers sacred, we try our best to not interfere with whatever purpose has given rise to your incarnations.” She quirked a brow and amended with, “Your current predicament is a special circumstance. Hopefully, we can have this resolved for you soon.”

“Please,” Adrien sighed. “I just want to get back to being myself. I want to be normal again.”

In the background, John snorted.

Ignoring him, Alathea rose from her seat to come around the table. She cupped her hands around Adrien’s hands, holding him as gently as one might cup a newborn kitten. Her thumbs circled his cheeks, tingling magic buzzing from her palms.

“Sarah was right about there being more than one magic in there,” she observed, quirking a brow. “A very powerful magic, if it’s rivaling yours. I’ll need to know more about what’s going on inside of you before we can do anything about it.”

Recalling the herbs and stones and spoon Sarah had used before, Adrien pulled a sour face. “That didn’t work out so well last time. I kept screwing the results up.”

The hands around his face tightened for a moment, fondness flickering in the elder witch’s eyes. “My daughter is still young, little kitten. She’s not a fully licensed witch and was probably poorly prepared to deal with someone like you. You’ll find that I have a little more experience under my broom.” She let him go, turning to glance over her shoulder. “How is the spell coming?”

Beatrice sat back and wiped her forehead, leaving behind an inky streak. “Done.”

“He should be able to transform now,” Cordelia said, stretching her arms over her head with a groan.

John pushed to his feet, his back and arms now covered an occult sigils.

“John, try to see if you can force a day transformation,” Alathea bid, failing to bat an eye when the werewolf stripped off the rest of his clothes. The air around him wavered, the silence in the greenhouse broken by the sound of a bone snapping. John’s form distorted, his body beginning to shift and bulge outward as his humanity gave way to wolven features. His locs blended into the thick scruff around his neck and shoulders, sable fur rapidly bristling down his body.

Once complete, John flexed his clawed hands. “Feels odd to be wearing fur in the middle of the day.”

“Duuuuude,” Nino groaned, smacking Adrien in the side as if Adrien had not been watching the exact same transformation happen.

Alathea nodded sagely. “If anything happens while we’re working with Adrien, you can distract him long enough to allow us to get things back under control.”

“Great, I get to be a punching bag again,” John sneered, tailing swishing in the tall grass.

“Now, Adrien dear,” the witch prompted. “Are you comfortable taking off your clothes?”

Tea snorted out of Adrien’s nose. “E-excuse me?”

“Your clothes,” Alathea repeated. “How comfortable are you with taking them off?”

“He’s a model, mum,” Cordelia said, as if being a model somehow equated with him taking clothes off for strangers. Adrien was quite sure that description was for strippers.

“I’ll take my shirt off if you need me to, but I’m not doing more than that.”

“Whatever will make you feel the most relaxed,” Alathea assured. “We can work around your clothes for now. You’re still rather new as a werebeast… Do you trust your friend enough to give consent for you?”

Adrien needn’t look back at Nino. He nodded decisively. “I trust him.”

“Good.”

With his shirt removed, Adrien allowed himself to be surrounded by witches. He found that their proximity was not as jarring as humans; their scent profiles tended toward soil and greenery rather than the acrid stink of chemical soaps and detergents. Their touch did his nerves little damage, their probing magic failing to rile the cat within him as much as he thought it would. They whispered amongst themselves like the wind through dry leaves in autumn.

Someone stuck their fingers in his mouth. “His gums are pale; he definitely stressed.”

Another finger poked his abdomen. “He hasn’t been eating properly, either. He should have packed on more muscle than this.”

“Poor boy is practically skin and bones!”

“He eats salad,” John scoffed.

“Salad? For a cat?”

“No wonder he’s so sickly!”

Adrien pressed his lips together, trying to hold up his head while his pride continued to be scored.

A warm palm smoothed down his chest. “Oh, feel this! His heart is so pure!”

Someone else pressed their palm to his left pectoral. “You don’t come across pure-hearted virgins that often nowadays. They’re such a rarity.”

Another witch gripped the back of his head. “Pure hearted, but definitely dirty minded. Hoo boy, this kid is just stewing like a pressure cooker in there.”

Adrien went pink from his ears down to his navel.

To further his horror, Nino chimed in from the background, “He wouldn’t be stewing if he would just take care of himself.”

John gave a wolfy sputter. “He’s not?”

“I tried to talk him into it, but he’s, you know, super repressed about that sort of thing,” Nino sighed. Adrien could picture him crossing his arms and shaking his head out of pity.

“How is he not coming out of his skin?” John exclaimed, the same way normal people might exclaim over shitty weather or the fact that a piano has fallen out of the sky. That sort of tone was not required for a discussion on Adrien’s masturbatory habits, or lack thereof in any case.

“Beats me,” Nino replied. “Not that he’s doing a good job of staying in his skin anyways. You should have seen him on the train.”

“Nino, please, shut up!” Adrien pleaded.

“Hey man, we’re here for a reason. They gotta hear all of this if they’re going to help you,” Nino said stubbornly, carrying on with airing all of his best friend’s dirty sexual laundry. “Like, is it normal to be horny all the time?

“Pretty much,” John replied. “It’s not pretty, but it’s the nature of the beast - animal desires meeting human imagination.”

“So it’s perfectly safe and healthy for a werebeast to masturbate?” Nino pressed for no one else’s benefit except Adrien’s, and Adrien wished he could have gone deaf.

“Sex works best, but masturbating is a good way for keeping the worst of the urges under control,” John answered reasonably. “It can get pretty wild sometimes, especially when mixed with volatile teenaged hormones.” He scratched the back of his furry neck. “Worse time of my life was when I first hit puberty and basically found myself jerking off all the time.”

“Same.”

John laughed. “Try doing it when you’re coming out of your skin at the same time. I could barely control my transformations.”

“No thanks. Regular masturbating works for me.”

Adrien shook off the hands that held him in order to stick his fingers in his ears and start humming the French national anthem as loud as he could.

“Being a teenaged werebeast is the worst.”

“Basically, what you’re saying is,” Nino began, raising his voice so he could be heard over the humming, “is that someone, and I’m not saying who, is being very stubborn and immature about something that is perfectly natural!”

John made no demure when he looked Adrien in the eye and said, “No, Nino. What I’m saying is he’s an idiot.”

Adrien finally had enough, whipping his fingers from his ears. “Just because I’m not comfortable doing that sort of thing doesn’t mean I’m an idiot! How would you like it if your heart was saying one thing and your nose was yanking you in a completely different direction?!”

He knew the moment he said the wrong thing when silence permeated the greenhouse.

Floundering, Adrien choked for a decent cover up, but his dry tongue was suddenly tangled.

Steady fingers on his chin helped his jaw snap back together. The witches surrounding him drew back their hands and stood back. They weren’t laughing at him. John wasn’t laughing at him. Nothing, not a single thing, was moving or making a sound. The sound of Adrien’s heartbeat was suddenly deafening in his ears, and he wished he could use Cataclysm to open a hole up in the floor and throw himself in it.

Very seriously, Alathea murmured, “A werebeast’s nose is the same as his heart, Adrien. Its loyalty can be assured.”

Adrien recoiled into himself. “Not mine, apparently. I’m not normal, remember? I’m just a mess rolled up in a curse.”

“Maybe,” said the witch. “Or maybe your heart knows exactly what it’s doing and it’s your head that’s getting mixed up.” She brushed her hands together, as if ridding her palms of dust. “Maybe it’s time we stopped looking at the body and had a look inside the mind?”

“I don’t want you inside my head,” Adrien growled, hating that he sounded like a petulant child.

“Only you have to be there if that is what you wish,” Alathea said. “It sounds like you’ve been building walls and digging moats in your mind, and now you’re so lost inside yourself that your heart can’t find your head anymore.”

Adrien scuffed his toes in the dirt. “What do you propose I do about it?”

Her smile was warm when she said, “I think it’s time you had a little a nap.”

 

 

Incense had had been lit. Hazy, pungent incense that made the whole world look fuzzy. Adrien had been made to lay on the daybed and breathe deep. Breathe until his lungs went numb and his arms sank unmoving at his sides and his head lolled on his shoulders.

The next thing he knew, he was standing in a forest in the middle of the night.

She was already waiting for him.

To his own ears, his voice echoed when he asked, “Is this a dream?”

“Do you want it to be?”

Inhibitions set to the wind, he found himself drawn to her. He soaked in every detail that had always flown away with the dawn. His Lady was more beautiful than any dream could ever make her out to be. Greedy eyes traced the fall of her hair and the curve of her swan neck. He drank in the soft pink in the apples of her cheeks, and the rose blush of her lips.

In any other circumstance, he never would have let his eyes drop from her delicately slanted shoulders. But here, now, Adrien let his eyes fall to the swells of her chest. Small, pert breasts that shone milk white in the moonlight, and pink nipples that beaded under his gaze. Trim legs and pale thighs that led up to a thatch of midnight. The dew of the evening glittered on her skin like the stars in the sky.

“I want this to be real more than anything,” he said, the echo in his voice now chased by a growl as the animal in him rose up like the tide. He fought it. He clawed back against the swelling presence with his human fingers, biting desperately with his dull human teeth. Hunger turned too easily to hate as he curled his arms around his gut, gripping his flanks so tightly that he raked bloody furrows in his skin.

He didn’t want… He couldn’t let Ladybug see him like this.

This wasn’t him.

He wasn’t an animal.

But for every screaming voice in his head that told him to fight it – for every ounce of maddened strength that had him raging against the thing inside of him that refused to be controlled – there was a softer voice that lilted in his ear. As gentle as the breeze, a few whispered words on a single breath were strong enough to calm a hateful storm.

“This is real.”

Adrien’s head shot up, finding himself panting on his knees, staring up at a goddess whose face was masked in shadow. She rose over him like the mountains and the sky and the moon itself. Her eyes were diamonds shining in the dark. Her lips glittered with stardust. She was so close that he could have wrapped his hands around her hips and kissed the dew from her skin. He could have set his tongue to her flesh and painted worship upon her with every lap.

Instead, he found himself taking her offered hands. It was the simplest gesture that captured all of his attention. Her gentle, beautiful, powerful hands that drew him to his feet, and nearly pulled the beating heart from his chest. She threaded her fingers with his, pushing their palms together in a caress that felt far more intimate than it was. Heat stirred in the dark places where their flesh rubbed together. There was no fear when she stepped into the line of his body, pressing her chest to his chest, her thighs to his thighs.

“Let yourself be real, too.”

She swayed with him in the night. She looked into his eyes and revelled in the creature that stared back at her. Her fingers tightened around his when claws pricked at his fingertips. Her lips curved when fangs pierced his tongue. The distance between them was so small, there was no doubt she felt the evidence of what she did to him. She did not shy away when he felt slick wetness between her thighs.

She rose onto her toes, her breath as sweet as nectar on his lips. “Catch me.”

“W-what?” His heart fluttered with a sudden spike of nameless excitement.

“Catch me,” Ladybug bid with a belle laugh, suddenly gone from his embrace.

Her laughter lit the night as a streak of milk and honey went dashing off into the trees, dodging flickering torches and disrupting the lovemaking of a dozen fair folk in the underbrush. Blue flame eyes beckoned him like a pair of will o’ the wisps, calling out to him to get lost with her. Her hair was shadow streaming behind her, and her body was moonlight in the dark. She moved faster than the dark itself, not even the night was able to catch her.

Adrien’s stunned gaze fell to swells of her retreating rump, and he was hit with the realization that bards wrote sagas and artists created masterpieces from a sight like that.

He also knew that he was no bard nor an artist. He was not an ordinary man, either.

He needed to become the night itself to catch her.

Adrien let the cat rise up without a fight. He called it forth eagerly, embracing it in a dizzying rush if it meant he could chase after his Lady. He coaxed the cat to break his bones and burst through his skin. Euphoria called in the place where pleasure met pain. Adrien felt his Lady’s hands holding him as his claws pierced his fingers. He felt her lips on his mouth as fangs descended from his gums. Her breasts and belly and thighs were ghosts on his skin as jet fur chased down his body.

Every inch of what he was had been touched and shaped and loved by a creature made of Creation. She was light and love and life itself.

Inspired anew, a werecat leapt into the trees with a joyous yowl of freedom. Where Ladybug had dashed, he crashed like a storm, scattering fire and fey in all directions. His heart soared, lungs overfull with the scents of magic and woman. His paws dug into fertile earth and kicked up sprays of black peat and moss. Warm honey dripped on his tongue, calling him forth more strongly than any physical tug ever could.

He gave chase like he could run after her forever.

All too soon, the sights of the forest narrowed to the singular vision of a breath-taking backside. Adrien put on a burst of speed that had him flying over the last of the distance between them. His arms came around her, just as she cried out in delight. Pale skin crashed into black fur. A small body curved into a much larger one, the curve of her bottom finding the lee of his hips, and his arms unerringly skimming around the narrow dips of her waist.

They tumbled head over tail. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. No sign of where one ended and the other began.

Adrien wrapped himself around his Lady, taking the brunt of the fall. They ended in a heap in the warm underbrush, the trees shushing around them. The only light was fireflies and the fire in Ladybug’s eyes. Her face was framed by flowers, her body laid to rest in a nest of lush grass. The thrill of the chase still pounded in Adrien’s veins, his fur bristling, whiskers quivering.

It was his turn to reach for her. To grasp her hands and twine her fingers with his. He laid her arms by her head and rose over her, for once revelling instead of resisting what was happening to him. She filled his head with scents of freedom, and home, and honey. He didn’t even notice when his fur receded and his bones snapped back into place. He hardly knew he was human again except for the shock of bare flesh against his flanks when Ladybug parted her thighs. She was glistening and pink and took his breath away.

She arched up, and he knew he wanted her kiss more than he had ever wanted anything in his entire life.

Instead, she asked, “Do you understand now?”

He blinked at her, torn between watching her lips move and licking his way between them.

Her eyes fell half-mast, laying back down in the grass and bringing him over her with a squeeze of her thighs. As if from a great distance, she whispered, “Do you understand now, Adrien…?”

 

 

“Adrien-.”

 

 

“Adrien-!”

His name might as well have been a slap to the face. Adrien snapped from the dream with a gasp, blinking blindly back into the bright of day. A groan filled his ears, belatedly realizing that it fell from his own lips. His body ached all over. Not simply from arousal, but the muscle-deep ache of a body that had just chased a dream and tumbled with her through a forest.

Slowly, he registered that he was no longer lying down.

His knees were dug into the soft earth. His hands were wrapped around someone’s wrists. His thighs bracketed another body, back arched, muscles trembling with the effort of holding himself aloft. Hot skin was pressed to bare hot skin. The breath that sawed from his heaving lungs did not warm him with the taste of honey and woman, but instead seared his insides with the rank stink of horror and dog.

Clarity struck like a freight train.

John’s human face materialized, looking supremely unimpressed as he stared up at Adrien from his position in the dirt. “Hi.”

Luckily, the greenhouse was soundproofed, or otherwise the shriek that exited Adrien’s mouth could have easily been heard all the way to Paris.

Chapter Text

The fortune room tucked into the back of the apothecary was a snug cubby space little bigger than a walk-in closet. The walls were draped in tapestries of silk set in hues of blue and violet, upon which golden stars and moons had been embroidered. Banners of more blue and violet hung from the ceiling, billowing gently around a brass chandelier that hung low with a multitude of small, dim bulbs.

Low, black shelves ran along the back wall, accoutrements of the fortune trade on display; crystal balls, tarot cards, cups for tea leaf readings. Massive floor pillows were piled in the corners, columns of silk and satin that threatened to topple over across the floor. A round table took up the center of the room, its old wood stained black. The floor underfoot was piled plush with layers of oriental rugs, their many colours and patterns whirling together in the shadows.

Marinette ran her bare toes through the plush beneath her chair, laying her chin upon her folded hands. There was little for her to do during an interview other than be unobtrusive. Alya had come prepared, her phone poised on the table to record ever word, a notebook pulled from the pocket of her rain jacket to quickly scribble extra notes. The first three pages of the notebook were a list of standardized questions prepared for every akuma victim who agreed to an interview.

Sarah was free with her memories of her akumatization, though most of the details of the experience proved hazy. Most likely it was her witchy attributes that allowed her to remember the experience at all. Her most significant insight into the incident was that akuma possession was very similar to demon possession.

“But,” the witch qualified, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She kept leaning forward to make sure Alya’s phone could hear her, even though Alya kept assuring her the phone’s microphone was sensitive enough. “It’s not… it’s not exactly like demon possession. I mean, he still had to ask permission, sure, but I felt compelled to agree. You know? Like there was no choice at all. But… when he took over, it was still me in a way.” She glanced at Alya, as if to see if her experience was shared.

Marinette found her gaze drawn to her best friend, finding Alya's expression closed off.

“Sometimes I have nightmares about it,” Alya admitted lowly. “I wake up reaching for my phone. I feel like if I grab the phone, I’ll fall into it, like Lady Wifi is still a part of me somehow.”

Marinette lifted her head, lips pursed in a frown. “You never told me that.”

“You’ve never been akumatized. I didn’t think you’d understand,” Alya sighed. “Nino still can’t stand bubbles. He won’t even do the dishes if the water is foamy.” Her fingers clenched reflexively around her pen. “It’s like a part of the akuma is stuck with us, even though Ladybug purified the butterfly.”

Sarah nodded slowly, looking from Alya to Marinette. “Demons suppress the host, but Papillon… it was like he was bringing out something that was already there. Maybe all Papillon is doing is bringing out our potential. Which makes sense, I guess – making us cocoons for evil butterflies.”

With the mood in the room turned leaden, Alya scribbled one last note in her notebook before carefully choosing to transition into a lighter topic. Sarah gratefully took her cue to discuss what it meant to be an English witch. It wasn’t that much different from being plain English, except they tended to run around the woods naked a little more often.

She couldn’t say much about French witches, though she had the impression they tended to be more fashionable.

“And, of course, we know about the Miraculous,” Sarah admitted, none-too-discreetly glancing Marinette’s way. Marinette resigned herself to keeping a blank face and pretending she didn’t notice. Sarah cleared her throat, abashed, and continued. “I grew up with stories about them, like the story of Lord Plague and Lady Luck, or… or Hippolyta, the tengu, Jeanne d’Arc-.”

“Jeanne d’Arc was Miraculous?” Alya asked, latching on to the name with laser focus.

“Sure!” Sarah’s smile lit up her face. “You didn’t think it was just God’s voice in her head that made her capable of doing miraculous things, did you?”

Alya’s eyes flashed, her pen scratching like wildfire in her notebook.

Marinette sat back, searching out Tikki hidden in her purse. She slipped her fingers in, searching for… she didn’t know what. Comfort? Reassurance? She came from a history that included people like Jeanne d’Arc. Extraordinary people who had done extraordinary things. A familiar vice closed around her chest, old insecurities coming to the fore. She was a teenager running around in spotted spandex, not a leader of armies. Not a beacon of victory. Not… not anything special like that.

Small hands reached out and squeezed her fingers. A warm body pressed into her hand.

Sarah peered at her wide-eyed, brow furrowing as if she sensed Marinette’s discomfort. She looked on the cusp of asking what was wrong, though never got the chance. Alya rattled off a new slew of questions, her journalistic soul now inspired for details regarding past Ladybugs. Sarah demurred quietly, making the excuse that there was not enough time in the day to discuss all of Ladybug’s history. It stretched over five thousand years, after all, and many of Ladybug’s incarnations deserved to have justice done to their histories.

The conversation transitioned yet again, and this time the topic was thankfully innocuous. As innocuous as fortune telling could be, anyways. Alya finally set away her pen and notebook, stashed her phone in her pocket, and asked how the whole fortune thing worked. Her eyes eagerly raked the shelves containing crystal balls and tarot cards and tea leaves.

Embarrassed, Sarah held her hand out. “I’m not trained in the advanced stuff. I can do enough to impress the tourists.”

“That’s still more than what I can do,” Alya replied, happily dropping her hand into the witch’s palm.

“Well, if you’re okay with just the basics… It’s not flashy or anything. You’ll have to give me a couple of seconds to warm up.” Sarah bent over Alya’s hand, inspecting it much the same way she had inspected Chat’s the night she had tried to figure out what was wrong with him. Soon, the witch’s eyes grew glassy. Her movements slowed. The chandelier flickered overhead. The hair on the back of Marinette’s neck began to prickle as a sense of low-grade magic began to rise.

Alya leaned in eagerly.

“Truth is a thing with feathers in your soul,” the witch murmured, in a voice that did not quite sound like hers anymore. “You mustn’t grasp it too tightly, lest you crush its wings. Let truth come to you, and you will need no cage to hold it.” Bending, Sarah placed her ear just above Alya’s palm to listen for something. “Your heart is strong, but it beats so loudly that it drowns out the music that wants to be there. There are times when you must speak, and times when you must listen. When the music plays for you, listen, and your heart will hear it.”

Marinette flicked a curious glance toward Alya, unable to read her friend’s expression. When Sarah released her hand, Alya tucked it to her chest. The magic remained in the air, tingling down their skin.

“What’s it supposed to mean?” Alya dared to ask.

Sarah blinked back to herself, giving her head a shake. “It’s your fortune. It’s up to you to decide what it means.”

Alya looked down at her hand, the gears turning in her head. She was clever, but there were limits to even her imagination. She drew to an immediate blank, deferring to Marinette with raised eyebrows. “Your turn.”

Marinette offered her hand. Sarah hesitated before taking it; her touch was reverent.

At the moment of contact, the pressure in the atmosphere spiked. Marinette felt magic like a physical touch upon her skin. She tasted stardust on her tongue, and heard a ringing in her ears. Stars bursts flickered in her vision.

Sarah wavered in her seat, eyes falling half-mast, her entire focus zeroed in on Marinette’s hand to the exclusion of all else. When she spoke, her voice echoed eerily.

“Yours is the fortune that cannot be owned. Richer than silver, more beautiful than gold. Many covet it, but it cannot be stolen, only earned. You know not the bounty until it is shared.” A breeze circled the room from nowhere, causing streamers of the witch’s hair to billow. Her tranced eyes reflected the dim chandelier light. “Hide not your heart beneath your carapace, for your strength is not your armour. The spirit that trembles is not weak.”

Marinette reflexively tried to jerk her hand back, shocked when the witch’s grasp closed like a trap. There was no budging Sarah’s fingers. Her voice was the only noise in the dead silence.

“Embrace the darkness when it comes, for it will help you see the light, and you will help the shadows see that which is beautiful in the dark. The masks you wear are naught but illusions. When you are ready, you will see each other. But first, you must be brave enough to see yourself.”

Sarah’s voice trailed off, her grasp loosening. Marinette let her fingers slip free, glad for the moment the connection was lost and the pressure building in her head died. The air that prickled with magic fizzled out, suddenly bereft. Tikki stirred in her hiding place. Marinette’s earrings felt warm and heavy in her ears.

In the continued silence, the sound of a body hitting the floor was obscene.

“Shit!” Alya swore, diving from her chair.

Marinette shot up so quickly her chair toppled backwards. Sarah lay limp atop the carpets, her face flushed and dotted with perspiration. Her muscles jerked spastically, just short of an actual convulsion. In the dim light, she appeared to be glowing. The air crackled around her.

The door to the fortune room swung open, Sarah’s mother swooping in to take her daughter’s body into her arms, tapping Sarah’s cheek with a coaxing hand. The dim glow in the younger witch’s skin slowly siphoned off. “You should have known better than to try something like that.”

Sarah’s brow furrowed. “Mum?” She tried to sit up. “W-what happened?”

“You did the equivalent of sticking your finger in a light socket.”

Clearly still dazed, Sarah grasped her mother’s wrist and whispered, “It was worth it.”

“If you keep this up, you are going to burn yourself out.” Alathea tweaked her daughter’s nose, and then handed over a polished stone into Sarah’s keeping. Marinette surmised it was some sort of healing charm, by the way Sarah wrapped it in her fist and tucked it to her chest.

Alya glanced back and forth between the pair. “Is everything all right? She went down pretty hard. Do you need me to call anyone?”

“Ah.” Sarah wriggled away from her mother, straightening her hair and skirt. “It’s nothing, I promise. Just…” She waved her hands about, trying to pull an excuse from midair. “One too many fortunes at one time, that’s all. I was pressing my luck as it was.” The word ‘luck’ was followed by a not-too-subtle glance.

“Are you sure…?” Alya pressed, fingers hovering over her phone screen.

“Yes.” Sarah proved her point by wobbling to her feet and sticking her chin in the air. The only thing hurt was her pride, showcased in the way her cheeks turned bright pink when her gaze inevitably strayed in Marinette’s direction. Shoring herself up, Sarah looked to her mother. “Where’s John? He should have come running the moment I hit the floor.”

Alathea rose from the floor. “He left a while ago.” She slid her daughter a speaking glance, her lips pressed together as if trying not to laugh. “Something came up with the boys and they had to leave. Since John lives near where they are staying, he left with them.”

Marinette froze in place, disbelieving the words she was hearing. That didn’t seem like Adrien or Nino at all, to sneak away without saying anything. It was downright rude.

Alya was more vocal about her disbelief. “The boys, our boys, left without us?”

“Yes,” said Alathea.

Marinette’s heart plummeted.

“I can’t believe they would run out on us like that!” Alya exclaimed, rounding on Marinette. “What is wrong with them?”

“I am sure they had their reasons,” Alathea reasoned.

“And I’ll have mine when I finally commit murder,” Alya countered mulishly. “I just can’t believe that they would-! How could they-? Just, urgh! How god damned juvenile!”

Marinette looked on silently, taking a mental step back from her best friend’s ire. Things were bad when Alya Cesaire was unable to finish her sentences. But was such anger really misplaced? It was rude to simply run out without telling anyone. Even if an emergency came up, the least Adrien or Nino could have done was text them.

But then she recalled the way Adrien purposefully put space between them since getting off the train. He had refused to look her in the eye. Had actually backed up to avoid touching her. Was it just embarrassment because he had fallen on her and accidentally kissed her? Was he upset her? With himself?

She scowled. Getting to know Adrien Agreste as a regular human being was proving harder to do when the boy ran hot and cold faster than a broken faucet. A little consistency would be nice.

Marinette was startled from her thoughts by a hand locking around her wrist. “Come on!” Alya crowed, yanking Marinette over to their stuff, loading up with their jackets, purses, and umbrella. “Thank you Sarah and Mrs. Candlewick. We appreciate your hospitality, but we have to go.” To Marinette, Alya growled, “We are going to hunt those two nitwits down, and I am going to give them a piece of my mind!”

“We don’t even know where they are,” Marinette sighed, slipping her shoes on.

“But she probably does,” Alya snapped, pinning Sarah with a pointed finger. “Can’t you hocus pocus us a locator spell, or scry them in a magic mirror? I can pay. I’ve got cash on me, and my mom’s credit card.”

Sarah turned pink again. “It doesn’t work like that.”

Alathea took a breath like she meant to diffuse the situation, but then instead proceeded to throw her daughter under the bus. “Sarah doesn’t need to cast any magic to find your boys. If they happen to still be with John, she can simply follow her contract.”

“Excellent,” Alya hissed, with fire in eyes.

Oh dear… Marinette mentally sighed, praying that she would not be made accessory to a murder in the near future. Possible double homicide. There was no way in hell she could be Ladybug from a prison cell. And besides, she looked much better in spots than she did in prison stripes.

 

 

Adrien stared at the pile of grease that had been set before him.

Greasy steam wafted up to tempt him sorely, his stomach rebelling from its usual strict diet with a loud demand to dive face first into a heart attack waiting to happen. Vinegar-drenched salt-coated chips glistened lovingly beneath the mood lighting of the pub booth they sat in. Two massive slabs of haddock laid across his plate, coated in a crispy golden layer of deep fried beer batter that called to the cat in him like two sweet angel fish calling him from the gates of marine heaven.

John looked up from the steak he was in the process of devouring, blood still dripping from its pink insides. “Are you just going to stare at it all night?”

A low flush worked its way up Adrien’s cheeks.

“You heard what the witches said. You need to start eating properly or you’re not going to get any better,” John insisted, poking the platter of fish and chips closer to Adrien’s side of the table. “I figured this was a good place to start, seeing as you’re a cat an all. You like fish, don’t you?”

Adrien’s lip curled. Yes, he did like fish. He liked it when it was properly prepared as part of a well-balanced diet. Things like lemon and ginger oven-baked cod with dill sauce. Almond-crusted mahi mahi on a bed of rice. Maple-glazed salmon fillets grilled over cedar planks.

Not… not deep fried nightmares on a bed of soggy potato sticks.

Nino had no such issue with digging into his hamburger piled high with a horrifying amount of everything. Rivulets of grease ran down the backs of his hands, dripping onto his plate. There was no stopping the horrifying vision of him dislocating his jaw and inhaling the pile of meat, vegetables, and toasted buns like a starved snake. Nino’s only caveat had been to exempt the bacon, and yet left the gooey, dripping cheese as an option that now mixed with the mayo to form an oozing pustule at the corner of his mouth before he licked it away.

“It’s his first time in a pub,” Nino said, swallowing down an unholy mouthful of masticated animal carcass. “He’s probably never even seen real pub food before.”

John’s brows stretched nearly to his hairline. “Seriously?” He looked across the booth. “Are you that much of a rich snob?”

Adrien’s hackles were immediately up. “I like to watch what I eat, thank you very much. It’s a prerequisite of my day job.”

He hated to admit that he might have been a bit of a food snob. One did not simply grow up with personal chefs without developing a taste for finer things. Or a crippling fear of going off diet lest he a gain a few pounds and be called out for it by designers, or photographers, or worse – his father.

His reluctance to try new – if utterly disgusting – food was not at all soothed by their surroundings, either. The pub, preposterously called The Cat and Cauldron, was a dingy hole-in-the-wall kind of place that lived down to every horrible stereotype Adrien had ever thought about English pubs. The lighting the dim, the floor was scuffed, and the stink of decades’ worth of tobacco smoke and spilled beer clung to every surface.

To make matters worse, it was loud. There were more human and inhuman bodies crushed into the small space than what should have been possible based on the laws of physics. Two flat screen televisions behind the bar were blaring a football game between Manchester United and Liverpool. The pub was divided down the middle by team colour, and Adrien knew exactly when either team was about to score by the piercing level of pure noise that erupted each time. Chairs banged, beer steins chinked, fists slammed on the bar top.

God only knew who was winning.

“Look,” John grunted, coming to the end of his patience. “Less than an hour ago, you had your dick pressed up against my thigh. That is closer than I have ever wanted to be to a man in my entire life. The least you could do to make up for that is eat the fucking fish.”

Adrien scowled, wincing when a fresh wave of noise erupted around the bar as one team scored on the other.

“You’re not going to get hepatitis from touching anything in here, man,” Nino prompted, gaily chowing down on his heaping pile of chips. “Give it a chance. You heard the witches – they said you need to eat more to keep up with your metabolism. Try the fish, and if you don’t like it we’ll go somewhere else.”

“If we go somewhere else, he’s still paying for it,” John drawled. “A man does not dry hump another man without paying for dinner.”

“Please stop bringing that up,” Adrien grumbled sourly.

“Stop bringing what up? The fact that you freaked out in your sleep, chased me, and pinned me to the floor? Or the fact that you used Cataclysm on me to undo my day shift so that we both ended up naked in front of everyone?” John toasted him with his glass of water. “Or the fact that you tried to assert your dominance while whispering Ladybug’s name in my ear?”

Nino choked, pounding his chest in order to cough up the food that went down the wrong pipe.

“I said I was sorry!” Adrien hissed.

“That doesn’t mean I have to forgive you. You’re just lucky Alathea magicked your pants off before you could rip them, because I damn well wasn’t going to give you a spare.” John jerked his chin at the fish and chips. “Eat it, and I will think about forgetting that this ever happened.”

Stomach twisting, part hungry and part horrified, Adrien stabbed the fish with his fork and took a burning mouthful - simultaneously delighted and dismayed to find the mess that was called English cuisine was actually delicious. Hunger took over, and suddenly it was like he hadn’t eaten in days. All that mattered was shovelling food into his face as fast as he possibly could.

He didn’t even notice when he started sprouting fangs and claws in his desperation. Each bite broken by a growl or squeaky purr. He was so hungry he was shaking. Fish had never tasted so good, deep fried or otherwise.

Nino shifted uneasily, on the cusp of saying something about the emerging catlike features, when John quietly shook his head. “Let him eat.”

With a sigh, Nino turned his attentions to his plate, about to reinvest himself in his mind-numbingly large burger. Movement flashed out of the corner of his eye. He had just enough time to recognize what was barrelling toward the window just seconds before impact.

“Shit!” Nino crowed, slipping beneath the table so fast it was like his ass was smeared with butter.

Alya hit the window like a bomb blast, mouthing an obscenity to her boyfriend hiding like a coward on the floor.

Adrien’s head shot up, strings of soggy potato hanging from the corner of his mouth. He went as red as the ketchup bottle on the table the moment he caught sight of Marinette eyeing him from out on the street. He swallowed his mouthful and had the sudden, burning need to join Nino on the floor.

John wiped his chin with a napkin, watching the trio of girls march their way to the front door. “I was wondering when they would get here.”

Nino glared, punching the werewolf in the shin. “You led them right to us!”

“I led Sarah right to us. It was a fifty-fifty shot whether your girls would come along, too.” John waved them over the moment they stepped inside. From the corner of his mouth, he said, “It was rude as fuck that you two wanted to run out on them. That shit don’t fly with me.”

“Puppy,” Sarah exclaimed above the crescendo of noise cresting in the pub. She slid into his arms and pecked him on the cheek. “I can’t believe you brought them here, of all places. You’re awful.”

“It’s one of the few places that sells portions big enough to suit my appetite,” he replied, letting her pick at his plate for something to eat.

“You want to know who’s actually awful?” Alya snapped, her patience worn to an all-time low. “I can think of two idiots in particular who are on my shit list right now.” She glared daggers through the table at the two French teens huddled pathetically out of sight.

Adrien shared a wincing look with Nino. If he had had a tail, it would have been curled between his legs. Their madcap dash from Candlewick Apothecary had seemed so necessary at the time. Now faced the ultimate consequences of their actions, namely in the fury of one female and the quiet disappointment of the other, Adrien regretted his every decision since waking up.

His terrible guilt was compounded when a pair of bare legs crouched down, and a pale face peered under the table at him. Instead of rightfully accusing him of being a terrible human being, Marinette tipped her head and searched his pained face. “Is everything okay?”

Adrien felt Nino’s fist dig into the base of his spine in warning. He stoppered his breathing and nodded rapidly.

She pursed her pink lips. “Are you sure?”

“I-.”

A deafening roar rose up, the sound of several dozen sports fans tripping into a post-game psychosis. The winners bellowed, launching themselves at each other. Hugs and rib-cracking back pounding. Banners being waved, hats and scarfs thrown in the air. The losers swore, throwing their arms in the air, sneering at what snooty twats the winners were being. It was a close game. The ref was biased. Liverpool should have kicked Manchester’s arse.

Adrien cocked his head, instinct honed from being Chat Noir for so long suddenly sharp in the back of his mind. Any kind of festering negativity was a hotspot for akuma activity. Sports games were actually the worst; if an akuma didn’t appear at least once every major football match, it was a slow week. If Papillon was still in London, a rowdy sports fanatic on a loss-inspired rage bender was perfect fuel for an akuma.

Adrien failed to notice Marinette’s sudden abstraction. She straightened, turning to look out across the mix of celebrations and sorrows, all of which was being drowned in copious amount of beer.

They turned their heads as one to the stark vibration in the air, a cold shiver passing down their spines. They weren’t the only ones to see the small butterfly phase its way through the wall and glide through the crowd. Wide eyes followed the little apparition’s progress as it unerringly flew to the back of the pub where one man dressed in Liverpool colours was handing out a depressing amount of lost money.

“Fuck,” Adrien hissed, watching the akuma merge with the man’s jersey. This was the exact opposite of what he needed right now. Dark energy flickered down his nerves as he watched the transformation happen, humanity slipping away beneath a black tide. What came out on the other side was a steroid-pumped, red-faced bruiser with spikes on the bottom of his cleats, brass knuckles on his fists, and Papillon’s emblem emblazoned across his jersey.

“Who wants a piece of the Foot Brawler?!”

Adrien leapt without thinking, grabbing Marinette and whipping her over his shoulder. She was lighter than he imagined. “Nino, grab Alya!”

Without looking back, Adrien flung himself at the door barely two feet ahead of the stampede of terrified patrons. Marinette was screaming something at him, pounding her small fists into his back. He didn’t put her down until he was across the street and safely tucked out the way of the landslide of humanity streaming out into the streets.

Nino elbowed his way through the teeming masses, his height his only advantage against the frantic flailing of arms and legs from all directions. Behind him, he had his fist locked in the back of his girlfriend’s shirt while she fought to get her phone out to begin recording. Nino shared a hard look with Adrien, and then yelled over the commotion, “John got trapped inside with Sarah!”

Adrien smelled the lie, and was glad for his friend’s quick thinking. It was just the excuse he needed to get back in there and change into Chat Noir.

Whether he was ready to do so or not.

“Adrien, it’s not safe!” Marinette called, grabbing him by the sleeve. “Wait for Ladybug and Chat Noir to get here!”

“There’s no time!” He felt like a terrible ass for doing so, but he managed to shake her off in the middle of the street. He tried not to choke on the guilt when he caught sight of her small figure getting carried away in the tide. Marinette was a smart girl, though. She could take care of herself. He just hoped she didn’t end up with another black eye.

Diving into the service alley next to the pub, Adrien backed up behind a dumpster and prepared to change.

“Oh, hell no,” John snapped, appearing from the kitchen exit just feet away. He was already shifted, though his form wavered as the last of the day shifting spell lingered on his skin. Sarah was perched safely on his shoulder, his clothes folded on her lap, and his dinner plate balanced in one hand as she calmly picked at anything not covered in steak blood.

Adrien drew back his lips and hissed. “I have to change!”

“Clothes first, idiot,” John said. “If you change now and end up shifting into the werecat, your wallet is going to burn up with your pants.” He held out his paw. “You haven’t paid for dinner yet.”

Swearing a blue streak, Adrien slapped his wallet and phone into the wolf’s paw. He stripped out of his pants and shirt in record time, throwing them in John’s face in a fit of frustration. Naked except for his boxers, he snapped, “Happy?” before calling, “Claws out!”

Chat Noir bounded back into the pub ready for a fight, narrowly avoiding the stream of watered down tap beer that arced his way. It spattered against the door behind him, the scent of barley and hops making his head spin. He found Foot Brawler behind the bar, a tap hose in each hand, spraying anyone who tried to get close to him.

“That referee’s phone must have been disconnected, because he sure as hell wasn’t making any good calls!” Foot Brawler bellowed, putting his fist through one of the televisions.

“I’m supposed to be the one with the puns around here!” Chat yelled, dodging the sudden barrage of razor-edged yellow cards whipped at him like throwing stars.

The door, now askew on its hinges, was kicked off completely by a spotted foot. Ladybug appeared amidst her signature flare of red and black, her yo-yo already spinning. “Careful, Chat, you might get carded out of the game!”

“Penalty!” Foot Brawler howled, his eyes bugging out as he darted between the two of them. “Too many players on the field!” He hauled up another tap hose in a meaty fist and let loose a stream of Fullers London Pride.

Expecting at actual attack, Ladybug swung her yo-yo up too late; her normally impervious shield took the brunt of the hit, but unfortunately its whirling movement sent the spray of beer in every direction – including up and over her yo-yo.

Chat skidded to a shocked halt atop the bar, hands poised to smack Foot Brawler with a five-clawed bitch slap across the jaw. In the dimness of the pub, an unexpected beer mist rainbow appeared. From beyond the mists, Ladybug emerged, her hair and suit soaked and her eyes flashing like a pair of lightning strikes in the dark.

Chat’s face split into a mad grin, trading a wild glance with the akuma. “You’re in trouble now.”

Ladybug’s yo-yo shot out and whipped itself around the tap hoses. With one forceful yank, she hauled every hose out of Foot Brawler’s grasp, catching one in her free hand to snap like a whip.

“See how you like getting a golden shower!” she cried, launching herself feet first across the bar to ram dead center of the akuma’s chest. She might be small, but Ladybug was mighty. Even her feet packed a punch. Foot Brawler went ass over tea kettle straight into a massive wooden keg in the corner, splinters and beer exploding in a wet mess in every direction.

Ladybug found her feet again with a huff, eyeing the downed akuma and the miniature flood of foamy malt slowly washing over the floor. “Gross,” she harrumphed, wringing out her sticky hair. “This is just plain gross.”

Chat slipped down from the bar top, covering his nose. Barley and hops. Barley and hops everywhere. He snagged a dish rag and offered it to Ladybug, though it was a pittance compared to the soaking she had received. Nevertheless, she heaved a sigh and accepted the offering, wiping her face off. There was no fixing the rest until they had the akuma caught and purified.

“Would it kill the English to drink something decent?” Ladybug lamented, sniffing at herself. She peered up at him guiltily. “This isn’t bad for your nose, is it?”

“A bit,” Chat admitted, turning his face away. “It’ll be better once you fix this.”

Ladybug nodded. “I’ll fix it soon, I promise.” Without thought, she reached up to caress his cheek fondly, the tips of her fingers teasing the bottom of his ear. “You’re holding up really well. I was worried about you over these past few days.”

He leaned into her touch, and watched her eyes sparkle as one velvet ear turned to keep track of their wayward akuma. It wouldn’t do to be caught unawares during their exchange. “Your eye is healing up nicely, too. I’m glad.”

Ladybug glanced around them and pulled a face. “I’d ask if you wanted to go out for a drink to celebrate, but this place kind of ruins the mood.”

“Go out for a civilized glass of Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps?” Chat offered. “I’ll buy.” He’d buy a whole winery for her if there was even the remotest chance of getting her to go out for drinks.

“I’m actually quite partial to a nice Pinot Noir.” She just had to pair that statement with a playful wink and a saucy smile.

Chat felt his ears prick up and his tail quiver. He had the most vivid vision of Ladybug’s lips stained red with wine, her eyes peering up at him over the gleaming rim of a wine glass. He suddenly wondered what wine might taste like when licked off of woman’s lips.

He never got the chance to find out. In his distraction, he went deaf to the sounds of a rousing akuma. He missed the warning growl, the flare of angry black magic. What he did see was the rising alarm on Ladybug’s face as she realized their fatal mistake. Her muscles tensed, arms whipping around to grab for her yo-yo. By instinct alone, Chat swung into a defensive position to take the dreaded blow he knew was coming.

“Red Card! Excessive violence! You’re out of the game!” Foot Brawler bellowed. The world moved in slow motion as Chat Noir witnessed the moment the akuma lived up to his pugilistic name; Foot Brawler rammed his elbow into Chat’s nose, using his other arm as leverage on the bar to rear his spiked cleats and punt Ladybug full-force across the pub and straight through the front window.

Head ringing, nose stinging, the wet, metallic ooze of blood streaming down his lips and chin, Chat watched glass shatter in every direction. He watched shards cut red ribbons into Ladybug’s cheeks. He watched her body hit the pavement with enough force to bounce; his ears caught the last dregs of air puff from her abused lungs. She skidded, rolling, until her spine collided with a lamppost, her momentum bending her body backwards around the metal to unnatural angles.

The sound of her limp form hitting the sidewalk echoed obscenely loud in the following silence.

Not a creature stirred in the black abyss of shock.

And then an unholy feline howl of rage lit the air.

 

 

“Ladybug! Shit, Ladybug, you okay? Wake up! Damn it, you have to wake up!”

Voices cut in and out, like a badly tuned radio. Ladybug flailed in the fug of smudged darkness that winked in front of her vision. Was she breathing? It didn’t feel like she was breathing. She clawed back into consciousness, head lolling, muscles spasming in an uncoordinated mess. Blurry shades of brown materialized above her. Brown fur, brown hair, brown skin.

Someone’s large, sweaty palm was patting her cheek insistently.

Get up! Tikki cried in the back of her mind, jolting her with a fresh wave of adrenaline.

Ladybug shot up, air rushing into her bruised lungs. Her spine cracked loudly back into place. A fiery pinprick sensation of wildfire magic shot from her earrings down to the rest of her body, bringing nerve endings back to life. The pain she should have been feeling from being punted through a window and across a street faded. The deep ache in her lower spine abated.

Nino stopped tapping her on the cheek, but his face was still much too close to hers. He was sweating, his pulse ticking rapidly in the side of his neck. “You have to stop him!”

Without her full bearings yet, Ladybug forced herself to her feet, wobbling on numb legs. The edges of her vision were still blurry. She could feel the eyes of onlookers burning holes through her suit; was that fear she sensed? Disappointment that she had been knocked down on the job? Worry that she and Chat were not enough to face down a sore loser with anger management issues?

Gasping on the breath she didn’t know she was holding, she fell forward and caught herself on the lamppost that had nearly twisted her in half.

“Shit, you’re not doing so hot,” Nino cursed, scrambling after her.

“I’m fine,” she grunted, pressing a hand to her tender sternum. Fuck, those cleats had hurt.

He hovered worriedly, strangely closer than he had ever dared to get to her before. His eyes kept darting back to the street, to the massive black shadow emitting a piercing yowl as it tore its way through a screaming akuma. Puddles of red washed through the street, blood becoming mixed in the rain. Glass shards cut where unprotected paws tread; claws slashed akumatized flesh to ribbons.

Swallowing thickly, Nino nodded to the one-sided bloodbath. “He went out of his mind the moment you went down.”

Ladybug grimaced.

John appeared on her other side, his wolven features set in grim lines. “You better wrap this up fast, Ladybug. Animal Control has probably already been called, and they won’t miss their shots this time.”

“As if I didn’t have enough to deal with,” Ladybug spat, throwing her yo-yo up in hopes of a Lucky Charm that would end this in a hurry. What she got was a football.

Sirens wailed in the distance, growing ever closer.

“I don’t have time for this!” Ladybug exclaimed, eschewing her usual attempts at finding a clever solution. Instead, she decided to go with pure brute force. Putting two fingers in her mouth, she whistled loud enough to get Chat’s attention, giving the akuma the split second needed to break away and give her a bloody clean shot.

Investing every iota of fear and shame and utter disgust into her next move, Ladybug jerked her leg back and punted the football as hard she could straight into Foot Brawler’s gut. The force was enough to throw him back through the broken window into the pub. She shouldn’t have felt the least bit satisfied with the bodily thump that echoed from the back wall of the pub, but there it was. A sick sense that she was going to end this quick and dirty before anyone else was going to get hurt.

She’d put an end to the madness before anyone could even dare shoot at her partner.

Londoners cut her a wide berth as she marched from one side of the street to the other, kicking glass out of the way, stomping over the broken sill. Even Alya wavered for a moment, taking a half-step back, though her phone never stopped recording.

As Ladybug passed Chat, she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. His big, beautiful body was panting and trembling in the aftermath of battle. Soaked from the rain, red dripping from his clawed hands and feet. A deep, pained whine rose from his heaving chest. He reached for her, reverent, needful, but didn’t touch her. If she looked him in the eye, she was going to start crying. She couldn’t cry. Not in front of people. Not where the public could see her.

Ladybug needed to be strong.

Sucking in a cold breath through clenched teeth, she curled her fingers at him and whispered, “Come on, mon minou. Let’s end this.”

He followed her through broken glass and splinters of wood. A terrible, monstrous incarnation of black fur and undying devotion that followed on her heels no matter that littered ground cut his bleeding paws. His acid eyes were only for her, his gaze a palpable thing on her back.

Ladybug loomed over the crumpled akuma and suffered a moment’s regret for using her full strength. That was an innocent human laying at her feet, brick and mortar crumbled around him. Her Lucky Charm lay nearby, its red and black colour scheme appearing vulgar in the setting. She was Ladybug, protector of the people; she was the tactician, the defence expert, the one who fixes everything in the end. She was not supposed to be the one who violently assaults victims.

Chat Noir snuffled at her side, lowering his feline face into her periphery. Blood dripped from his muzzle.

Ladybug cringed. Neither of them were supposed to be like this.

There was no clever quip when she ripped Foot Brawler’s jersey from him. Pity and regret suffused her mind and body as the akuma’s possession ended and a deeply confused human appeared. Her usual catchphrases were in abeyance as she purified the little butterfly. Exhaustion beat at her when she tossed the football into the air and let her Miraculous magic to its job, righting everything that had gone terribly wrong in the last forty-five minutes.

A wet, velvet muzzle lowered to nuzzle her cheek. “My… Lady.”

Her earring beeped, sounding the countdown.

Ladybug squeezed her eyes shut, raising her arm to wrap around Chat’s soft, soaked face and press his warm muzzle closer. “I’m not going to let them dart you. We’re going to change you back first.”

With coaxing whispers, she got Chat to follow her through the back kitchens and out the exit into the adjoining alley. The rain was suddenly so cold on everything that wasn’t covered in spots. The buildings around them were so high that they cut off what little light was left of the evening. In the dark, only Chat’s eyes glinted.

He reached for her, paws trembling, thankfully no longer bleeding. Ladybug went willingly into his embrace, sensing the fragile need that vibrated through him. The heartbreaking need to make sure she was safe. To see for himself that she was hale and whole. As he brought her into his arms, he arched down, wrapping himself around her in a blanket of midnight fur and muscle. He breathed her in, tasted the salt of her skin with the tip of his hot tongue, and ran his large, clawed hands down the length of her body.

“I’m all right,” she whispered in his ear, shivering with the pass of his palms over the curve of her bottom.

Slitted eyes watched her from just above her head, hovering in a face of shadow. He was calm again, simply watching. Waiting for something. Ladybug felt the urge to open her arms and embrace the darkness, letting Chat flow into her arms in a sinewy mass of magic and monster. He sank to his knees, pressing his face into the curve of her belly, his arms locked tight around her back.

“My Lady,” he croaked hoarsely.

“That’s right, your Lady,” she murmured, hardly thinking of the words falling from her lips. She was still half-concussed, prepared to say anything to get Chat to return to his human body. She wrapped her arms around his head and pressed him into her body, willing every ounce of magic she possessed to flood its way into his skin and fix him like she could fix everything else.

Another beep. Four minutes left.

The first sign that her prayers were being answered was so subtle she nearly missed it. Chat’s soft, panting breaths hitched against her suit. And then the muscles in his body tensed. Something inside of him jerked, and a bone cracked like a gunshot.

A strangled groan forced its way up his throat. His arms tightened into vices, his claws digging into her for dear life. She felt in gory detail as feline became human. Bones and muscle shrinking and rearranging. Fur retracting into endless planes of bare skin.

Not like this! she mentally cried, tipping her head back to the crying sky, squeezing her eyes shut against temptation.

Footsteps padded down the alley, a large body looming to her side. “Don’t worry. I’ve got him covered,” John sighed tiredly, followed by the rustle of wet cloth. Gentle, furry hands peeled Chat Noir away; the pitiful mewl that fell from his lips put a crack through Ladybug’s armour. John sounded exhausted when he said, “You can open your eyes now.”

Ladybug opened her eyes to the grey sky first, dropping back down into the dark alley only after steeling herself first. John’s face materialized in the shadow first, and then Sarah’s, both of whom were standing on either side of a hunched figure. Ladybug zeroed in on the familiar body. She had never seen him without his leather, but his outline was exactly the same. Every inch of his pale skin was shivering; he was naked except for the wet shirt John had thrown over Chat’s head to hide his face.

Chat Noir looked so small without his armour.

“Chat,” Ladybug whispered, watching his trembling hands jerk at his sides. Black claws still pierced the tips of his fingers. A snuffling cough sounded from underneath the limp shirt on his head, the only thing protecting his identity. He had nothing else to protect his dignity.

The third beep of her earrings was deafening.

“Oh my god,” a low voice echoed from the end of the alley. Alya’s voice, and no doubt Alya’s phone not far behind.

A spike of virulent protectiveness lit a fire in Ladybug’s blood. She grabbed for Chat, yanking him to her, making sure that every naked inch of him was shielded from the marauding eyes of a journalist’s camera. Chat reacted like a coiled spring, hands shooting to grab at her hips. She winced, learning in that moment that his claws had yet to retract. He didn’t break her suit, but his grip was shockingly strong.

Pounding footsteps boomed closer, and a shockingly loud voice demanded, “Turn it off, Alya!”

Ladybug and Chat Noir jumped at the sound of Nino’s bellow. Neither had ever heard him shout before.

Neither had Alya, but the sound of her shocked silence.

“Have some respect! The poor guy is basically traumatized down there!” Nino’s sneakers creaked down the damp alley, his face materializing from the gloom. He was pale and shaking, looking like he was about to be sick. “Animal Control is here. I told them you have everything under control. They’re giving you five minutes to leave peacefully or they’re coming in with force.”

“No one is getting darted tonight,” Ladybug claimed in a surprisingly steady voice, steel gilding every word. She turned to Chat, poor blind Chat hiding under nothing but a wet t-shirt slapped over his head. She wrapped her arms tighter around him, wishing that she could force every last ounce of her failing strength into his shivering body. He continued to hold her, his shuddering breathes hitching unevenly in her ear.

Ladybug leaned back just enough to see where Chat’s face would be if it weren’t covered. She saw his forehead, his nose, and the billowing stretch where his harsh breaths sawed from his mouth. Instinct took over. This was her partner. Her best friend. He was hurting, and all she wanted to do was comfort him.

Her lips found his cheek beneath the cotton, so close to the corner of his mouth that she felt the press of his fang.

She comforted him with the only gesture she could think of, the one that she knew would mean the most.

Chat tensed for all but a second, and then slumped, falling into the kiss that was not a kiss. He took whatever comfort she could give him.

The fourth beep rang out. Tikki’s grip on the transformation started to turn tenuous.

Ladybug broke away. Slipping out of the embrace was the hardest thing she had ever had to do. The broken sob that shuddered from Chat just about had her yanking him back into her arms. Marinette might have given her heart to a bright sunshine boy with a sad smile, but she was just beginning to realize that Ladybug may have had her heart spirited away by a sad cat in the dark.

“I have to go,” she whispered.

Chat hung his covered head. “I know.” His shivering grew worse.

Nino stripped off his jacket and wrapped it around Chat’s waist. He had Adrien’s rain jacket hung over his arm for some reason, which he yanked Chat’s arms into, slipped it up his body, and zipped it into place. Oddly determined, the boy rounded on Ladybug. “I’ll make sure he gets back to The Wellesley.”

“We both will,” John intoned.

Alya snuck into the periphery, her gaze skittering away from Nino nervously. “I’ll stick around and head off the media.” She pointed to the other end of the alley. “You can escape that way. I won’t say where you’re going.”

Sarah whistled for her broom, which zipped readily into her hand from around the corner. “I’ll… go search for Marinette? She must have been carried off the crowd. Er…” She mounted her broom, hovering unsurely.

Knowing that she had to go, Ladybug flung her yo-yo out and lassoed a far off chimney. With a tug, she was airborne. Rainwater felt like pricks of ice in her face. She landed hard, circling around the brick outcropping to hide, pressing her back against the wet stone and sliding to her butt. There was nothing she could do to block out the sound of an anguished yowl from the dark alley down below.

Chapter Text

Numbness sank into Marinette’s skin. Her bare legs and exposed feet were stained pink from the evening chill, the coldness sinking into her bones and becoming a deep ache. Everything… hurt.

She ached for reasons deeper than the physical.

Though the downpour steadily became a roar off the brick and concrete, an agonized yowl still lingered.

The worst of all her aches was the vice around her chest, and the grip someone else had on her heartstrings; every beat of her heart felt like she was being pulled back to the edge of the roof. Pulled back to a naked boy huddled in an alley. She barely had the strength to shuffle over to the eaves and squint.

The only feeling left in Marinette’s heavy limbs was the memory of claws clutching her hips. Chat’s heated grasp digging into her, using her as an anchor as if he might fall apart otherwise. His palms had burned when the rest of him had been so cold, the only warmth she could feel now. He’d needed her. Without masks or artifice, he had been stripped raw and needed her with a ferocity that Marinette had matched. Still matched.

Through the darkness of the distant alley, she watched a muddled lump of shadow slowly make its way out of sight. The tension gripping her heart released with each step the odd trio took. Marinette could make out the stumble in Chat’s unsteady gait, Nino’s slow plodding to let Chat rest against him, and John’s large, wolven form carrying them forward steadily.

Beyond the mouth of the alley, Alya was already working her magic with the few media personnel braving the rain to cover the akuma attack. Her minor fame from working the Ladyblog and her regular appearances on French television documenting her harrowing adventures following on the heels of Paris’s heroes gave her enough credibility to distract the cameras.

Marinette zeroed in on the ranks of Animal Control officers that had shown up. Not as many as before, she noted, though they were still heavily armed. Silver knives and long range blowpipes. She spotted Detective Oswald Falk, the officer who had promised to shoot Chat the next time he went rogue; he was packing away his blowpipe, telling the others that the show was over. The Miraculous had done their jobs, there was no more akuma, and Ladybug had diffused the situation with the werecat.

The hunt was over for now.

That’s right. No live target practice for you, Marinette thought savagely. A spark of heat lit in the sodden ashes left to gutter out after battle. If a single one of those officers decided to stray down the alley, if they dared go around the corner and raise their weapons on a defenceless, escaping Chat Noir…

Tikki peered at her curiously, exhausted from battle and in no position to become Ladybug so soon.

Marinette squared her chin, her heart turning over in her chest. Her mind churned up unbidden memories; the remembered weight of Chat’s rangy body filling her arms. The way he had held her, like he had always held her – as if he never wanted to let her go. She felt the ghost of his heartbeat against her skin, and the feel of stubble on his cheek and the hint of softness where the corner of his lips had pressed against her own.

Chat Noir was her partner. Her friend. Her… something else she couldn’t give a name to yet.

Nevertheless, Marinette was sure in that moment that she was willing to trade a year off her life to become Ladybug if it meant protecting him.

Chat was not the only one willing to make sacrifices in their relationship.

“Ah,” Tikki murmured, so softly that the rain washed the sound away. Her knowing gaze strayed to the path of a boy who unknowingly held the heart her chosen; she sensed Plagg’s magic and Chat’s wavering mood, a volatile combination that suited the stormy weather well. She sensed in equal measure love and devotion far older than Chat's meager teenaged years. Tikki felt it as finely as she felt Marinette’s own tumultuous thoughts, and not for the first time did she wish that things could be easier.

The kwami turned to her chosen and said without accusation, “You could have stayed with him.”

Marinette grimaced. “It’s better that I didn’t.”

There were a thousand reasons why that wasn’t true.

Marinette appeared to realize that as well, ducking her neck and chin into the collar of her jacket. Maybe she didn’t have any good reasons, but they were insistent ones. Among them being that an identity reveal in a dingy alley while Chat stood naked and trembling and scared in front of her would have done more damage than good.

Having Marinette suddenly appear in the alley wouldn’t have made anything better. It wouldn’t have comforted anyone. The shock alone probably would have made things worse.

Tikki said nothing. Denials waited on the little god’s tongue, but she held them. If her bonds with Ladybugs throughout the millennia had taught her anything, it was that these sorts of lessons were best learnt on their own. Kind words with the best intentions often fell on the deaf ears of those too afraid to listen.

Being as old as time, Tikki knew patience. She knew there were a thousand different ways to teach a Ladybug a lesson without needing to say a word. Given that her chosen always tended to be a dozen different kinds of stubborn, Tikki had long since become an expert in getting creative.

“Ah…” Sarah’s head poked above the edge of the roof. She made eye contact, gasped upon seeing a civilian Marinette, and immediately ducked out of sight. From beneath the eaves, she said, “I can fly you back, if you want, Ladybug. Chat’s making his way back safe and sound as we speak.”

Marinette lurched forward mechanically, Tikki resting on her shoulder. Without preamble, she stared bald-faced down at the top of the witch’s head. “You know it’s me, don’t you?”

Sarah hesitated, lifting her head. “John told me.” She floated up higher, touching down on the roof with nary a whisper. “I didn’t see you change, though. The glamour is still active.” She wrung her broomstick between her hands. “If you want, I can make myself forget. There are ways-.”

“Just fly me back.” She didn’t have the strength to deal with anything else. She didn’t know Sarah or John well enough to care that they knew. It still made her sick to her stomach that her secret identity was slowly being torn to ribbons, but somehow it was easier for strangers to know her.

“…sure. I’ll fly you back.”

Marinette closed her eyes for the cold, wet journey. When the hotel window appeared, she slid over the sill, shedding her jacket in a sopping heap on the carpet. It wasn’t full dark out, but the rainclouds brought a dreary darkness of their own that filled the room. Marinette didn’t have the heart to turn on a lamp.

Sarah lingered on the other side of the sill, rain steadily soaking through her hair and clothes. “Are you okay?”

“Did I do the right thing?” Marinette croaked.

“Only you can answer that.”

Exhausted, heartsick, Marinette rested her forehead on the glass and closed her eyes. “I don’t know what the right thing is anymore.”

Sarah appeared to be trying very hard to think of something to say, to balance her unshakable belief in the Miraculous of Creation with the fallibility of the teenaged girl who wore the mantle. In a small voice, she murmured, “Not everything is about being right or wrong. You should trust yourself more.”

“Trust me, or trust Ladybug?” Marinette asked flatly.

The witch shrugged, deciding that it would have been unwise to point out the two were one and the same. It wasn’t her place to say such things. She dug into her pocket and fished out the small stone her mother had given her. She offered it through the window, its polished surface shining like a sunset in the dark, a sharp slash down the middle making it appear like an eye staring out from the middle of her palm. “I think you need this more than I do.”

Marinette drew away. “Your mother gave that to you.”

“She never meant for me to keep it.” Slowly, as if afraid to make any sudden movements, Sarah set the stone down on the window sill.

“I can’t accept-.”

Tikki landed on the sill next to the stone, laying a gentle hand upon it. A half-smile curved the ancient creature’s lips. “This will do quite nicely. Thank you.”

Upon seeing the kwami, Sarah dipped until her forehead touched her broom. Her hair swung forward, heavy ropes of sodden tangles streaming like muddy rivers over her shoulders. The reverence with which Tikki was given shot a cold spike through Marinette’s chest. That sort of admiration was meant for physical manifestations of Creation and the hundreds of incarnations of Ladybugs who had championed the ideal.

It was not meant for Marinette, so she looked away.

Tikki accepted the obeisance as her due, as regal as a small god should be. “It’s cold out and getting dark. Go find your familiar and get yourselves some place warm for the night.”

“Yes, of course.” Sarah rose from her bow, but did not raise her eyes to the kwami. She flashed an awed look in Marinette’s direction, dipping her head one last time before backing her broom up to fly away through the rain.

Marinette stared out at the dreary grey landscape unblinking, her shadowy reflection staring back at her in the glass.

“Marinette,” Tikki intoned, her voice too loud in the small room, causing Marinette to jump. Her eyes swung down automatically, helplessly drawn to the creature bonded to her soul.

Tikki peered up at her, head canted, and Marinette was relieved to merely see a small, fey creature rather than an old, old god. Gone was the being who was accustomed to human reverence. Warm, sweet Tikki had returned with her loving blue eyes and sympathetic smile. Her hand had yet to move from the charmed stone. “I can see you shivering. Go warm up in the shower. Take as long as you need.”

Marinette had no strength left to argue, so instead stripped from her cold, damp clothes and padded silent and naked to the bathroom.

She proceeded to take the slowest shower of her life.

She untangled her hair one strand at a time, running her fingers through the sodden tresses like she could shake the weight of the day from the knots. With her facecloth, she washed every inch of her cold skin until it turned pink again, and she counted her freckles instead of thinking about how Chat’s body had felt in her arms. For the longest time, she simply stood with her face turned up to the water and didn’t think about how easy it would have been to stay with Chat in the alley until she became Marinette again.

Easy, and terrifyingly tempting.

Marinette stayed in the shower until someone else spoke in the small room.

“I really fucked up tonight.”

Taken off guard, Marinette gasped, and then choked on the rush of water that shot down her throat. She sputtered, jerking back out of the spray. One hand caught the small soap shelf in the corner, and the other gripped the shower curtain for dear life, saving her from an untimely concussion.

When her wits finally caught up with the rest of her, Marinette peeled back the edge of the curtain far enough to stick her bewildered head out. “Alya?”

Alya nodded from her spot on the vanity, her hair soaked to her scalp, sitting in nothing but the shirt she had worn that day, the hem hanging to mid-thigh, and her panties underneath. Her soaked jeans laid in a dark pile on the bathroom floor.

Marinette drew the curtain tighter around her neck. “What are you doing in here?”

A single brow arched up behind Alya’s glasses. “If you didn’t want me in here, you would have locked the door.”

Marinette blinked back at her friend, bordering on a frown. Every excuse she could come up with to get rid of her best friend never made it to her tongue. Even when she told herself she should be angry with Alya for the stunt she had pulled earlier, vitriol never came.

Too tired for anything else, Marinette grumbled a wordless answer, letting the curtain fall back into place as she returned to staring aimlessly at the tiled wall through the shower spray.

“I’m glad you made it back all right,” Alya said lowly, garbled through the water trickling into Marinette’s ears.

“Sarah flew me back.”

“Oh, good, so she did find you. I was worried.”

Marinette nodded, though the gesture would have gone unseen. No matter how long the silence stretched, Alya didn’t leave. Eventually, Marinette was forced to find what little strength she had left and asked, “How did things go with the media?” She grimaced, realizing that only Ladybug would have known about the media. Marinette had been gone at the time. She followed up with a hasty, “Sarah mentioned you were running interference.”

“I did what was necessary.” Alya made a pained noise. “I still fucked up, though.”

The immediate response of I know threatened to topple out. Marinette took a breath to steady herself. “How did you fuck up?”

The vanity creaked as Alya adjusted her seat. “I crossed a line.” There was silence as she searched for what next to say.

Marinette waited, deciding that Alya’s answer would make or break whether or not she could forgive her friend for the attempted invasion in her and Chat’s privacy. She prayed that she was going to hear the right answer, because she didn’t know what she was going to do if Alya answered wrong. How could Ladybug be angry with Alya while Marinette tried to stay civil? With as fragile as she was feeling right that second, she knew someone or something was going to crack.

“I wasn’t thinking, Mari,” Alya admitted. “There was the akuma attack, and Chat turned into the werecat again, and all I wanted to was get more video for my blog-.”

“And?” Marinette cut in, more sharply than she intended. The hand she had braced on the wall curled into a fist.

“And I completely lost my mind. All I was thinking about was the next big hit, the rush – you know, getting in there when Ladybug and Chat are fresh from a fight. I was hoping to get an interview, or even a close up of Chat being a werecat.” A vague shadow on the other side of the shower curtain moved, Alya’s legs drawing up so she could tuck her knees to her chest and wrap her arms around her shins. “I didn’t know he would shift back naked.

Marinette harrumphed. She hadn’t known about that part either. Thank god the situation had been dire enough for her not to blush about the naked boy she had had pressed up against her. She could proudly say she had respected Chat, and never once looked down.

Alya heaved a sigh. “Mari, he was naked and obviously disoriented, and there was this awful voice in my head that said if I kept recording, I might see Chat’s face. I might find out who he is under the mask.”

“Alya, no-.”

“I know. It’s sick! Who the fuck thinks like that when people are hurt?” To her credit, she sounded disgusted with herself. “I realized that a split second later.”

“But you kept recording anyways,” Marinette said flatly, forgetting that she was supposed to make it sound like a question. She wasn’t supposed to sound like Ladybug being pissed off that someone had thoughtlessly tried to hurt her partner.

“I forgot I was recording,” Alya groaned. “I saw Ladybug and Chat, and they both looked so… I don’t know. Sad? Broken? I’ve never seen them look like that before. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt them, but I forgot my phone was in my hand. And then Nino…”

Marinette’s heart lurched.

“I’ve fought with him before, Mari, but he’s never yelled at me like that. I’ve never heard him sound so angry.”

Neither have I, which made the boy’s anger seem misplaced now that Marinette had a clear head to think on it. Hadn’t Nino been wary of Chat when this whole werecat debacle began? Nino was a general fan of Ladybug and Chat Noir, but he had never shown the same overt loyalty that Alya did.

Marinette wondered what had changed to make Nino come to Chat’s defence so aggressively.

“I have no idea how to make up for this, but I did the one thing I could think of,” Alya intoned, pausing to dash her tearing eyes and wipe the stream of snot begin to leak from her nose. She blew her nose too loudly. “I deleted the video.”

Marinette raised her head, staring holes through the opaque shower curtain. “You deleted the alley footage?”

“No, all of it.” The words sounded like they caused her physical pain, but Alya powered through it. “I deleted the whole thing from my phone. I don’t want anything to do with it anymore. If I kept it, I would have been tempted to post it. I know posting it would be something I couldn’t come back from.”

You are damn right.

Alya grabbed another tissue, wiping her nose again. “I didn’t want to lose Nino, or Ladybug and Chat. I couldn’t stand the idea of hurting them like that.”

Marinette’s eyes stung with the sudden wash of unwanted tears, her chin trembling. “You did that? For m- Ladybug?”

“Of course I did. I’d never want to hurt her or Chat. Not ever. They… I… They’re superheroes, and I know we’re not close, but I still care about them.” She poked at the faucet next to her hip. “It’s like my fortune said, right? I grasped the truth so hard that I hurt people I care about. I didn’t mean to, but I still hurt them, and I have no way of telling them how sorry I am right now.”

“I have a feeling they know,” Marinette croaked.

Alya ducked her head. “Maybe. But, if they don’t… I hope they get the message with me not posting the video. I won’t chase after them anymore while they’re in London, at least not until Chat Noir is fixed.”

“That’s very big of you.”

“I’m trying, at least. Instead of chasing after the truth, maybe I should let it come to me.” Alya chuckled lowly. “Who knows? This could be a step in the right direction. Someday Ladybug and Chat might trust me enough to tell me who they are.”

The temperature in the balmy room plummeted.

No. Marinette’s smile faltered, and she stepped back from the curtain until her butt hit the tile. Not that. Her heel slipped, she wavered, and in the stretch of silence that followed, she belatedly shut off the shower tap.

Alya slid from the vanity, her silhouette growing more defined as she advanced on the thin, plastic curtain. “Mari, are you okay in there? Did I say something wrong?”

A creaking noise fell out of Marinette’s mouth.

“Shit, Mari, say something! Did you get hurt tonight out there?” Alya’s hand pushed against the curtain. Marinette said nothing, only shook her head, frozen in place, forgetting that a curtain lay between them, At a loss, Alya let her hand drop. “…you’re not angry with me, too, are you?”

“You’re not the one I’m angry with.” Sucking in a shaking breath, Marinette croaked, “I think I’m a coward.”

Alya rushed to assure her. “It was an akuma attack, Mari. You’re allowed to be scared. Hell, I’m always scared when they happen.”

Ironically, akuma attacks were the one thing Marinette wasn’t afraid. Akuma attacks always turned out right in the end. She could always fix the damage with a wave of her Lucky Charm. But Ladybug herself was not something that could simply be fixed with a Lucky Charm. Letting people know who was behind the mask was the one damage in all the world that could be inflicted and never undone.

After having it so easy for so long, repairing every damage to Paris and its peoples with little more than a thought, the idea of inflicting damage that could never be fixed made her sick inside.

“Mari…”

“I’m scared of me,” she admitted lowly, cooling water dripping from her hair, down her chest and back. Drops pearling off the tips of her breasts, trailing over the curve of her belly. Marinette’s body. The body underneath the Ladybug mask.

The curtain rustled as Alya took a seat on the ledge of the tub, caring nothing for her own partial nudity or Marinette’s full nudity less than a foot away. “Talk to me, honey.”

If ever there was a time to lay one’s self out bare to their best friend, than doing so when utterly bare seemed like the best time to do it.

Marinette let her feet slip until she was curled in the bottom of the tub, her knees curled up by her ears, tucking her arms up over her head like she meant to hide from the world. Every filter she had in place to keep her fears to herself, to keep Ladybug separate and elevated above the miasma of Marinette’s life, slipped down the drain like black oil.

Words were falling from Marinette’s lips, and she wasn’t sure if any of it made sense.

“I could have shown him who I was today, Alya. I was so close. Closer than I have ever been to letting him see me. I could have said something, or done something-! He was just standing there in the rain, and he was cold and wet and he needed me. He’s sick, and he needed me more than he ever has before, but I still ran away like a coward!” She swung her fist out, connecting with the wall with a wet thump.

“Three years, I’ve been hiding. Can you even believe that? That’s how big a coward I am, that I have wasted years playing a ridiculous game of cat and- and bug! A game where nobody wins! I’ve spent three years being utterly terrified of showing him who I am, because if he knew who was really behind it all…” Hot boils of acid welled up in her eyes and streaked down her cheeks. She sucked back the rivers of snot that threatened to run from her nose. “Alya, he’d just be disappointed. Everyone would be so disappointed. I can’t live up to… to those ideals. I can’t be what everyone thinks I’m supposed to be.”

Curling forward, she dragged her hands into her hair, pulling at her scalp until her skin hurt nearly as much as her heart. “I hate this! I hate living half my life like it’s a lie! I hate feeling like I’m being torn in half! I hate that I care for him so much that it hurts-.” Her breath hitched, her ears ringing with the admittance. There was no backpedaling, though. Just acceptance of the reality. A sad, breathless laugh escaped her. “He’s always been there! He’s always been supporting me, but I am so god damned selfish and scared that I can’t do anything! I can’t give him anything in return! I’m just stuck on repeat, running away again and again…”

Still gripping her hair, eyes closed, panting raggedly, Marinette groaned, “I don’t want to be like this anymore.”

The curtain ripped open so fast that one of the rings popped off the curtain rod.

Alya swooped in with a towel, throwing it over Marinette before sliding into the tub with her. Marinette found herself the recipient of a hug so tight that her ribs rubbed together. She was being hugged so tightly it hurt to breathe. It took a second to wrap her mind around the reality that she was sitting naked in a shower, with a towel precariously thrown over her, and her best friend draped around her. Marinette wriggled one of her arms loose, wrapping her fingers in Alya’s shirt for an anchor. She let her head fall forward into Alya’s chest, hot tears welling at the corners of her eyes.

She might have just unmasked herself. She might not have.

She was so heartsick, she didn’t know if she could hurt any more than she did in that moment.

Alya kissed the top of Marinette’s head. “Is this what’s been bothering you for the last couple of days?”

Marinette choked on a wet laugh. “It’s been bothering me for a lot longer than that.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t about impressing Adrien, is it?”

“No.”

With a groan, Alya slipped the rest of the way down into the tub, her bare skin squeaking. She thought nothing of her panties getting soaked through. All that mattered was comforting her friend.

Marinette hid her face, saying nothing.

“I wish… I wish you had trusted me sooner and told me that you were feeling like this,” Alya murmured.

This wasn’t trust. It was desperation. And it made Marinette feel like dirt.

“Do you want to go home? We can pack up and leave tomorrow morning on the first train, if you want.”

Marinette shook her head. She couldn’t leave Chat on his own in London. She had to stay for him.

“Fine,” Alya sighed, tightening her reassuring grip. “That’s fine, we can stay.” She leaned her head against Marinette’s.

Water dripped from the faucet. The steam cleared. The air cooled.

Into the silence, Alya gently said, “I want you to know that you could never, ever disappoint anyone with who you are, Mari.”

A humourless laugh dropped like a dead weight in the air.

Alya pinched her. “You’ve never once disappointed me, not with who you are or what you can do. If Nino were here he’d say the same thing. Probably Adrien, too.”

Marinette flinched. Right. Adrien, the other boy she was supposed to be in love with.

Alya laid another kiss to the side of Marinette’s head. “You put way too much pressure on yourself to be perfect when no one else in the world is expecting that from you. Not a single person on this planet is perfect, not even freaking Ladybug. I bet she gets scared! She’s probably unsure about a shit ton of things! But you still see her going out there and doing what she has to do.”

Marinette started to shake her head, only to be shushed.

“You are so much like Ladybug sometimes that it freaks me out, Marinette- except you never seem to be able to see all the amazing things that you do,” Alya admitted honestly, eyes glittering wetly. “This might be hard to hear, but I am saying this with the utmost love for you, girl. You need to ease off the pressure and have a little confidence in yourself.”

“Having confidence in myself isn’t the problem,” Marinette mumbled, eyes downcast. “It’s just when I compare myself to-“

“Then stop comparing!” Alya exclaimed. “If I can take a little advice from my fortune, then maybe you should listen to yours, too. You are stronger and smarter and braver than you know. Stop hiding your heart because you think you’ll get hurt.”

That was the crux of the problem, now wasn’t it? Marinette mused darkly. She’d rather take a physical punch to the gut any day over letting anyone seeing her softs spots within.

Alya rambled on. “What was it Sarah said? Embrace the darkness? Well, yeah, sure, embrace all your flaws! Those aren’t bad things. It just proves that you’re human.” She turned, enveloping Marinette in a crushing embrace. “I want you to see yourself the way I see you.”

Marinette dared to peer up through her wet hair. “How do you see me?”

A small grin quirked the edges of Alya’s mouth. “I see you as pretty damn amazing. Even more amazing than Ladybug, and you want to know why?

“Why?”

“Because you do all the things you do without spots.”

A gurgled, low laugh bubbled up without warning.

Alya’s grin widened. “Yeah, that’s right. There’s the Marinette I know and love. Best damn friend in the whole world.”

Marinette let both of her arms free of the towel to wrap them around Alya. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

“I know.” They pulled away, dashing at their wet eyes. Alya wiped her glasses with her shirt to no avail, leaving streaks across the fogged lenses. She sighed, shaking her head. “We’ve both had a really long and shitty day.”

“Longer and shittier than you know.” Marinette shivered, tucking her towel closer around her, chafing her arms for warmth.

Alya eyes her up and down. “How about you go get dressed, I get a shower, and we both snuggle down and watch television until we pass out?”

“That sounds amazing.”

“Good. Then it’s a date.” Alya shooed Marinette from the tub, halfway through stripping off behind the pulled curtain when she called out for Marinette again. She poked her head out, followed by a finger aimed for the dead center of Marinette’s chest. “And remember, you’re amazing, Marinette. Maybe even miraculous.”

The curtain fell back into place before Alya could see Marinette’s expression falter.

 

 

Late into the night, long after the television had been turned off and the girls had finally put an end to the day, Tikki came out of hiding. She was fully recharged now, having snacked on the stash of cookies Marinette had hidden beneath the bed.

With only the sound of the rain and soft breathing filling the room, the small kwami fluttered up to take a perch on a pillow next to her chosen’s head. In sleep, a frown haunted the lines of the girl’s face. Tikki sighed, shaking her small head. Not that she had had high hopes for the heart-to-heart between the girls, but she had been hoping for some progress. Some fears were planted a little too deep to be budged with words alone.

In hindsight, the little god realized her mistake of letting this go on for so long. Marinette was one of her special bugs, with a heart as strong as diamond, yet afraid to test the strength of her own spirit. Growing into the mantle of Ladybug was never easy for the ones who feared it.

That was going to end now.

It was Tikki’s turn to try one of her creative ideas.

In her lap was the Cat’s Eye stone left by the witch. As a creature gifted of luck, the stone was one of her favourites, not least of which because Cat’s Eyes were known for amplifying good luck and fortune. More importantly in this case, the all seeing eye of the stone was extremely effective at stimulating intuition and enhancing awareness.

Self-awareness was what Tikki was aiming for.

The coincidence between the stone’s name and a certain cat boy lurking mere blocks away was not lost on the kwami. Indeed, it aided her purpose fantastically. The stronger the connection she could build, the better it would be.

With turn of the stone in her arms, Tikki focused on the wealth of fortune all around that ebbed and flowed at her command. As the embodiment of Creation, her powers were usually stronger in the forests and fields where life flourished wildly, but the cities could still hold power despite the concrete and steel. The sheer density of humans living together in such condensed places offered Tikki a tenuous tendril of power.

Plagg tended to be more powerful in cities, where it was much easier for plagues to start and spread.

The air in the room warmed to the new light now spilling from the polished confines of the stone. Tikki held it away for inspection, considering the steady orange glow. The magic was finely wrought and perfectly weaved, but orange simply wouldn’t do. Magic tended to be fickle, so it was best to keep things simple. With consideration for another cat’s eyes, the orange glow was switched out for verdant green. Much better.

Tikki slid the winking Cat’s Eye beneath Marinette’s pillow and kissed her chosen’s forehead.

“Sweet dreams, Marinette.”

 

 

Laughter burst from between Marinette’s lips, each exhalation tasting like freedom.

The weight of the world disappeared into the ether, too heavy and slow to catch her racing heart. As if the moonlight through the trees was whispering where to set her feet, she leapt without conscious thought. Each step was like throwing herself from the edge of a cliff. The moss underfoot sprung back like springs; she could run and leap and fly on pure exhilaration alone.

The forest formed a kaleidoscope of night, passing around her in a dizzying blur. She grinned madly into the trees, finding no shame as she scattered fey folk underfoot. The sounds of their frantic lovemaking echoed to the rhythm of her pounding feet. Ferns whispered against her legs, firelight from blazing torches gilding her skin. Dozens of eyes watched from the nooks and crannies as a white form of streaming arms and legs made a mad dash through the trees.

It was the magic of the old trees that told her to run.

Run!

Run faster than she ever had in her life!

So she did.

Marinette ran like the dawn chasing the night. Her heart was a drum in her chest, her lungs overfull with the scent of loam and wood smoke and wild things.

Somewhere in the back of her mind she recognized that she was naked. She felt the humid air on her bare skin, the brush of undergrowth against her shins, the weight of her own body bouncing and leaping with each boundless spring. Her small breasts bobbed, her hips and thighs shimmying in time to the run. Her nakedness felt... Good. There was no shame. Here, in this place, she could embrace herself without compromise or artifice.

This was the place where the wild things lived.

She was filled to the brim with sparkling magic. In every direction, in all things that she could see, smell, taste, and hear there was life. This was her element, and she was overflowing with it. The thought of covering herself, of cutting herself off from the beauty around her, of distancing herself from the euphoria in this sacred place, was obscene.

She was not the only one revelling in the intoxicating rush of wanton inhibition.

Every nerve ending from her scalp down to the soles of her bare feet sparked to life under the unwavering gaze of another. Marinette felt him like a physical caress. Where his eyes touched, sensation whirled. She felt his unwavering stare like fingers in her hair, a caress down her back, like warm palms shaping themselves lovingly over her derriere. She felt him as strong arms spanning her waist, hands gripping her hips in hungry passion. He was loving her with his eyes alone as he ran on her heels.

Marinette felt her skin flicker. She felt power deeper than magic burgeon in her blood.

The old magic in the forest was settling into her bones, the fervent passions of lovemaking in the undergrowth sparking fresh heat in her belly. Her mind filled with flashes of writhing bodies, the familiar curves of her pressed into the hard planes of him. Slick flesh over rolling muscle, a soft body meeting hard angles in a dance of undulating passion. A flush spread from the tips of her ears down past her breasts, her nipples beading tight, slickness beginning to coat her thighs like evening dew.

A hungry growl vibrated the air behind her.

Marinette bit her lip, running faster. The heat in her belly grew warmer, tension coiling tighter until each jarring step was a delight of its own. It was sensation and friction and heat. The chase was pure fun and excitement, the embodiment of passion and teasing, and she knew deep down that it was only a prelude.

Marinette knew she was not running for freedom.

She was running because she wanted to be caught.

No sooner did that thought enter her mind that it became reality. Strong arms, black with a thick pelt of impossibly soft fur, seized her from behind. Her breath left her in a rush as her feet left the ground, her body made to curve into the line of a much larger creature. Large palms held her hips. A broad chest heaved against her spine. Against her back and bottom and thighs, she felt fur and muscle and heat. Pure strength surrounded her, yet cradled her with such gentle reverence that she lost her breath.

Magic flared against her senses, as powerful and uncontrollable as a storm, and as familiar as a lover's caress.

She stilled, tilting her head back, eyes closed, breathing deep of the scent of animal and man. She knew the scent as intimately as she knew the cat. The body gripping her tight twitched against her; fur receded, bones and muscle rearranging. In seconds, bare flesh pressed against her in place of fur. A man’s chest and ridged abdomen curved against her spine, his groin fitted snugly against her bottom, his thighs bracketing her own.

She felt hot breath fanning over the hollow where her neck met shoulder. His lips ghosted over her skin. His touch was as hot as a fire brand. He was pressed so close that Marinette could tell that she was not the only one who had taken delight in the chase. His flagrant arousal pressed unyielding against her bottom, inspiring fresh excitement to skitter down her nerves.

Feeling like she was losing her grip on reality, Marinette reached back to steady herself against familiar creature who held her. Her palms skimmed down sweat-slicked flanks. Sinewy muscle jumped beneath her touch. She bit her lip and pressed her thighs together.

Her captor let his lips ghost against the shell of her ear. “I caught you.”

A low groan sounded in her ears, welling up from her own throat. She would know his voice anywhere.

Fangs nipped at her ear lobe, sending a sudden spike of pleasure spiralling low in her belly. “You let me catch you, didn't you?”

Breathless, she whispered, “Yes.”

She felt his arms shift, claws tracing the dips of her waist down over the swell of her hips. His palms planted themselves securely on either side of her, his grip shockingly possessive. Against her neck, his lips moved. “Do you know why I chase you?”

She tipped her head back, wetting her dry lips. “Because I am Ladybug.”

“No.”

Marinette stilled, breath hitching as the body behind her peeled away. Cold rushed in, and for the first time since finding herself in the forest did she feel the stirrings of uncertainty. She tensed to turn around, but froze in place with the hot press of reverent lips to the base of her spine.

“C-Chat?”

The press of his fangs against the small of her back inspired a riot of new sensation. He dragged his tongue up her spine, his hot, damp breath causing her to gasp.

"Let me see you," he begged, taking her hands. She let him turn her, his movements slow and gentle. Nothing rushed, every touch reverent in a way that made her feel weak and powerful at the same time. She was surprised to find him kneeling in the plush of the gras.

"Beautiful," he murmured. Emerald eyes peered up from a mask of shadow, his features impossibly handsome yet undefined. From under the curve of his lip, the point of an ivory fang flashed. He could have been looking at God, the way he was looking at her.

Marinette found her eyes being drawn downward, though not out of shame. Curiosity welled, with no inhibition to temper it. She drank his form in, absorbing every detail with an artist's eye. He was a thing of beauty in the moonlight, where the darkness hid as much as it revealed. His broad shoulders and the planes of his chest were limned in silver, shade defining the lines of his abdomen. His toned thighs stood out starkly as he knelt, muscles bunched, sharp lines and powerful muscle arrowing inward. A thatch of sunlight hair curled at his groin, and from it rose the prominent evidence of his arousal.

An answering quiver between Marinette’s legs had her shifting, able to feel the slickness of her arousal spreading anew.

Chat’s chest expanded on a deep breath, his head falling forward. His hands clenched on her hips tight enough for his claws to bite. “My Lady.”

Of their own accord, Marinette found her hands falling to his hair, tangling her fingers in kitten-soft tresses. He shuddered as if she had wrapped her fingers around another part of him.

The way he wavered on his knees from a simple touch made her feel powerful.

His hands trembled as they rose to his head, wrapping around her wrists, luring her hands away in his.

“Let me show you why I will always chase you.”

Marinette was not prepared for the touch of his lips to the inside of her wrist. No matter that he had just paid sweet homage to her back, and moments before that his lips had ghosted her neck and ear, it was his mouth on her pulse that made her heart stutter. He kissed her wrist like a knight offering his eternal pledge. He kissed her flesh like he would kiss a lover.

With a turn of his face, he laid his mouth to the cup of her palm. She felt the heat of his mouth, the damp sweep of his tongue. Marinette felt the weight of the meaning of the gesture. Without the artifices of her insecurities raising walls between them, she felt the heart of the boy who had sworn his loyalty long ago. She could see the soul of the man who was forever unwavering at her side. She felt his kiss brush the very essence of her being.

Chat invested himself just as deeply kissing her other hand. He held both her hands together in his and kissed her knuckles. Watching her eyes the entire time, he spread her arms wide at her sides and kissed her navel. His lips curved as her belly dipped. Stars lived and died in the space of time he took to pay homage to her hips. His golden hair was like the setting sun as his head sank lower, bringing searing heat to every inch of skin he loved.

Marinette shook one hand loose from his grasp to press the back against her lips. The silence of the trees was broken only by a deep purr and broken gasps. Her other hand found his hair yet again, anchoring herself to this world when she truly felt like she was coming apart at the seams.

She let herself be lowered into the grass when his touch beckoned her to fall like a star from the sky. Marinette could have stayed standing, she could have stayed as distant as the heavens from Earth. She knew the man before her would still worship the stars without ever needing to catch a single one. He would love her always from a distance.

Which is exactly why she found herself falling.

Chat caught her. He would always catch her. He laid her out like an altar, and whispered prayers against her skin with the press of his lips on the inside of her knees, lingering in a slow dance up her thighs.

His slitted eyes gleams with hungry delight as his head descended to the thatch of midnight between her legs. Marinette’s breath stuttered before his mouth could even pay homage. A soft cry hitched on the tip of her tongue. Sunlight kissed midnight, inspiring a burn deep inside that she welcomed. It was new, and thrilling, and oh so wonderful, unlike anything she had ever felt before. She revelled in it.

Found herself wanting more.

She was writhing in the grass. Undulating with each whisper across her skin. Wallowed in the undivided attentions being lavished on her. Her, Marinette, stripped before the stars and the moon and a cat boy with emerald eyes.

Though her body wept, her thighs open in invitation, Chat’s erection jutting proudly in reply, he moved on. No matter how tightly he wound them both, he visited all parts of her body. He counted the stars in the sky by kissing each freckle on her body. He painted devotion on her skin with his tongue, connecting the constellations. He loved her fingers and her toes and everything in between.

Marinette found strength enough to weave her arms around his neck, lifting her knees to bracket his flanks. She embraced the darkness fully, staring into the shadows around his eyes and the light that shone from his gaze. She felt the press of his belly against her belly, and between them was the slickness of her arousal and the hardness of his. She felt tension rock him, every muscle tensing. His hands clenched at her sides in promise.

With his eyes on hers, Chat lowered his head one last time to rest his lips against her heart.

Heat flooded her from her chest outward, from the point where his mouth set her flesh aflame. She was coiled tight, panting, quivering with the need he had stoked in her, and was loving every minute of it. This was her, without her mask, being loved everything that was not Ladybug.

A low chuckle vibrated between them.

“I love Ladybug, and I love you, and there is no difference between the two,” he said, each brush of his lips setting off miniature starbursts across her nerves.

“I- I…” Marinette could hardly form words, let alone thoughts. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes with the perfection of the sensations he inspired in her. Even more enthralling, the sensation of perfection within her.

Chat smiled, letting the moment stretch. The light in his eyes was something that Marinette had always known, but had never been brave enough to truly see. Now that she did see it, it was like sunrise cresting over a night that had lasted too long.

“This is how I have always known you,” he murmured, sweeping a reverent hand down her side to cup her hip. “I knew the girl under the suit before you gave the spots a name. I saw you as you were from the very beginning, and that’s all I have ever seen you as since.” His warm palms swept up to cup her cheeks, a kiss dancing off the tip of her nose.

“Chat,” she breathed, tightening her arms. She wanted more than anything to drag his mouth to hers and see what shadow and sunlight tasted like.

Chat laughed, warm and rich and wild, whispering a secret to her that he had always known: “It’s not the spots that make a Ladybug. It’s the spirit.”

For all the love he had lavished on her with his mouth and hands, setting her teetering on the edge of wonder, it was his eyes and his words and the utter truth behind them that had Marinette toppling over that euphoric precipice into a night sky of starbursts and super novas, knowing she would never be the same again from the fall.

Chapter Text

Adrien awoke to the taste of honey and starbursts on his tongue.

Blinking rapidly into the half-light of burgeoning dawn, Adrien was startled to find that the decadent flavour that haunted his dreams was vivid on his lips when he licked them.

Something’s different… Anticipation thrummed in his blood, the same that spiked moments before a chase began. Too late did he realize that the dream was not dissipating with daybreak. It lingered, growing stronger with each moment he fell back into reality.

Adrien's eyes shot wide, a startled gasp puffing from his lips. What once had been fleeting images haunting his subconscious roared to life in stunning technicolour inside his head. The room tilted on its axis, his stomach bottoming out as if falling from the top of a rollercoaster. He whipped around onto his stomach, gripping the pillow for dear life, struggling to piece together the deluge of images suddenly playing behind his eyes. As if a dam had been cracked and splintered, weeks’ worth of dreams were crashing in on him all at once. Along with them, every sensation he had felt – every touch, every taste, every scent that had made his head spin.

A forest under the full moon, its trees alive with flames and faery folk.

Old magic in the air and the earth and the dew that glittered on every blade of grass.

And a woman.

Oh God, Adrien groaned, pressing his face into his pillow as a wave of heat passed down his spine, pooling deep in his gut. He pressed himself into the mattress, choking against the friction that lit sparks in his groin, his heart racing as a flood of dreamed memories crashed upon his consciousness. His claws bit into the sheets, back bowing under the power of the sudden breath-taking arousal that hit him.

In his mind’s eye, a woman unlike any other he had seen in his life took shape. Someone he knew deeply and intimately, and yet someone he knew not at all. She stood beneath the moonlight proudly, power radiating from every sleek line of her body, unafraid of her nakedness before him. Her face still in shadow, but her eyes sparkling like the blue flames of will o’ the wisps.

And last night…

Adrien bit back a deeper groan, forced to bite his cheek and squeeze his eyes shut.

Last night she had been more beautiful than he had ever seen her. More real than he had ever dreamed of her before. There was no other way he could possibly describe her other than a soul laid bare before him, as bare as he stood before her. Her beauty had been greater than anything he could ever imagine. Adrien had seen her exposed with every supposed imperfection – her fears, her uncertainties, her insecurities – and had loved her more fiercely for everything he had seen, every freckle, blemish, and spot-

Spot.

Spots.

Belatedly, the last of his crashing revelations hit him like a freight train.

Ladybug.

Over and over, he had dreamed of Ladybug. Every night. Last night. Oh, especially last night, when it had felt that she had truly been standing with him. Laying with him. Letting him pay tribute to every inch of her skin. Returning the favour for all the nights that she had loved him for his flesh and blood, claws and fangs.

There was no biting back the moan that rode on the wave of realization. Adrien flung himself from his bed, stumbling blindly into the bathroom. The quick flash he caught of himself reflected in the vanity mirror was no longer a stranger to him – wild-eyed, hair askew, the cat so close to the surface that his fangs and claws were showing. Not the Adrien he was accustomed to seeing, who had once been so refined and repressed, but the aroused, passionate creature whom Ladybug had embraced night after night.

For once, he wasn’t horrified to see himself so out of control.

That’s me. That’s me, and she had loved me like that-!

…all in a dream.

The burn on his finger flared, and the heat in his gut clenched tight. The vice around his lungs preventing him from taking a full breath was starting to make him lightheaded. Releasing himself from the confines of his flannel pyjamas was a pleasure on its own, eliciting its own low, hoarse growl of relief. Cold air rushed in, wrapping around his rampant erection, warring with the heat burning beneath his skin. Blood pooled low and thick, pleasure burgeoning on discomfort.

Adrien fell into the shower stall with an absence of all grace. Nearly cross-eyed, he scrambled for the taps, yanking the water on with more force than necessary. Pinpricks of cold hit him an instant later, his agonized hiss lost in the dull roar of the water.

Bracing himself by his forearms against the cold tile, Adrien gulped back lungfuls of wet air. Panting, mind scrambled, he was unable to focus on a single thought while a kaleidoscope played behind his eyes. Smiles, soft touches, and chases through a forest that set his heart pounding. Pink lips and blue eyes and black hair whirling together. Water sluiced down his back, rivulets snaking around his sides, arrowing down his front to follow the lee of his hips to his groin. Water slithered around the base of his shaft like a silk ribbon, running down over his sac before streaming away. He felt each drop acutely.

Where once the icy touch of water would have been enough to bring him back to reality, he was too far gone to register much else other than pure electric sensation. His livewire nerves lit up like fireworks. He grew so painfully hard to the point that he felt his own pulse racing in his loins. His balls drew up heavy and tight, on the verge of release. He was rocking his hips without conscious thought, whispering mindless oathes alongside a breathless string of prayers to make the madness stop.

One touch was liable to set him off.

Adrien’s fevered mind seized on that very thought. His hands spasmed against the wall. The muscles in his back and legs tensed; between his legs, his erection throbbed insistently, twitching. Visions of Ladybug churned over in his mind, mixing with memories of Marinette’s distinctive scent, until he couldn’t tell one from the other. Lovely Ladybug who didn't deserve to be used as a receptacle of his lusts, sweet Marinette who he had no place using her face or body or scent for any of his licentious thoughts.

A werebeast's loyalty is assured? Ha! Not while he was panting after two women at the same time, so twisted up inside he could hardly tell them apart.

Although his mind rebelled, it was the animal side within that roared to impassioned life. To the cat, one woman was as good as the other. It was bursting at the seams for release, claws puncturing their way to the surface, sharpened fangs piercing Adrien’s tongue as he panted. Visions of Ladybug and Marinette overlapped until it was impossible to tell where one ended and one began.

Her brilliant soul and breath-taking scent wrapping around him as her body had in the dreams.

What little blood left Adrien had going to his head went south in a rush. He teetered on the verge, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. Hard-fought resistance shattered under the brunt of the cat’s unrestrained desire. All the reasons why he shouldn’t turned distant and hazy-

One touch. That’s all I need. Just one. It’ll be over quick. No one will know…

It was what everyone was pushing him to do, right? Just take care of it. Take care of himself. Just do it.

Chest heaving, mind racing, Adrien peeled one of his hands away from the wall. Through slitted eyes, he saw his arm trembling from the force of his arousal. Mouth gone dry, heart pounding against his ribs, he let his arm fall. The muscles in his belly swooped inward, clenching tight.

A shiver passed down his spine the moment his fingers closed around the base of his shaft. His palm was too hot, too tight, and he nearly imploded from the feeling of him dragging his fist slowly up his length-

Bomb blasts erupted on the other side of the door.

Adrien’s heart shot up into his throat, his fist whipping away from his erection so fast he smacked the wall. The loss of sensation was like a punch in the gut.

The bomb blasts came again, heavy and regular against the door. Adrien recognized the sound of a fist banging against wood. Anger and humiliation soared up. He stuck his head out of the stall and yelled, “I’m busy!”

Nino’s muffled voice sounded panicked when he shouted back, “You better get out here, bro!”

“I’m-,” Adrien momentarily choked, blushing red. “I’m showering!”

Yeah, showering. That was exactly what he had been doing.

“This is an emergency!” Nino yelled, continuing to bang on the door. “You need to get out here now!”

Tripping on numb feet across the bathroom floor, trailing a river of ice water behind him, Adrien barely had the sense of mind to yank a towel around him before whipping the bathroom door open. Nino stood poised on the other side, face pale, eyes wide, fist raised in mid-knock.

Knowing too well what he must look like looming in the doorway, Adrien met his friend’s horrified stare as steadily as he could. “Is it an-?”

“No. Worse.” Nino’s head jerked mechanically to the side, staring at something beyond Adrien’s line of sight; in a faint voice, the boy muttered, “Your father is here.”

“Crap.”

“Yeah.”

Adrien pressed his lips together to keep from muttering an even pithier curse. The temperature felt like it was plummeting, and it had nothing to do with the cold shower he had just exited and had everything to do with hell freezing over.

Mouth gone dry, he croaked, “…are you sure it’s him?”

Nino nailed him with a pitying look. “Pretty sure, and he’s not happy.”

“Damn it.” Grabbing Nino’s shoulder for stability, careless of the water he dripped down his friend’s bare arm, Adrien lurched out of the doorway to peer around the corner.

There, standing in the middle of the room, was indeed Gabriel Agreste. Standing just behind him was Nathalie. Neither looked impressed as their eyes roved from one mess to another; the pile of ruined clothing Adrien had abandoned on the floor the moment he had made it into the room. The empty bottles of liquor John had pushed into his hands in a poor attempt to calm him down after his harrowing evening. The lamp he had disintegrated with a touch when he had gotten drunk enough to forget that he was cursed, that Plagg was inside of him, and he wasn’t in full control of Cataclysm anymore.

The moment Gabriel and Nathalie’s disapproving stares snapped to him, Adrien felt his tail tuck between his legs faster than any cold shower could ever work. Dread settled in the pit of his gut, as heavy as a lump of lead. Goosebumps broke out across his arms and legs.

So this is how it ends. This is how I am going to die.

Not with a bang, but with a cold shiver.

“You were seen last night,” Gabriel began in a low drawl, his voice alone dropping the temperature in the room until it felt like frost would start forming on the windows.

Adrien tensed, mind immediately seizing on the worst case scenario.

Nino, likewise, went ramrod straight, muttering a curse beneath his breath.

Gabriel continued, eyes narrowing a fraction, mouth turning down in a frown. “Nathalie has informed me that the doorman saw you stumbling in last night, being carried by your friend and a…”

“A werewolf, sir,” Nathalie supplied plainly.

“A werewolf.” Gabriel confirmed. Quite aside from any surprise, he looked extremely disappointed in his son’s choice of company.

Adrien ducked his head, staring determinedly at the carpet. His relief to have not been outed as Chat Noir was short lived.

“There is a video circulating of you sitting at a pub that was attacked by an akuma last evening.” Gabriel did not need to tack on any descriptors for Adrien to hear them in his father’s voice – rowdy, cheap, low class pub. Everything that Gabriel Agreste stood against. “There are more videos of you walking home under no less than two raincoats, and not much else by the looks of things.”

Despite the cold, a hot flush suffused Adrien’s cheeks.

“I was told you weren’t even wearing shoes.”

“He wasn’t,” Nathalie confirmed, checking her tablet.

Adrien fought against flicking the woman a betrayed glance. Though Nathalie wasn’t one for outward displays of affection, she usually was an unexpected ally in small ways. This time, there was not remotest flicker of support in her dark gaze. Adrien supposed the evidence against him was damning enough to sway her allegiance to her employer.

“I-.”

Gabriel raised a hand to cut off whatever halfhearted excuse Adrien was about to attempt. “I think I’ve seen enough to come to my own conclusions.”

Swallowing a bitter lump in his throat, Adrien forced his head to bob.

“I trusted you, Adrien. I believed that you were mature enough to handle yourself. I gave you freedoms, allowed you to make your own decisions, and the only thing I asked in return was that you comport yourself in a manner benefiting my son and the face of my company.” He swept an arm to encompass the mess of the room, with its ruined clothes, empty liquor bottles, shattered lamp, and – now that Adrien had a clear enough mind to detect it – the pervasive smell of wet dog clinging to every surface.

“This is how you repay me? You go out and disgrace your name? My name? You get drunk at the first opportunity, have your friends drag you back, and think that I am going to foot the bill when you polish off the stock in here?”

“Father, I-!”

Gabriel waved him to silence. “This is not a reflection of how you have been raised. I can see now that your friends have been a poor influence on you.” He paused, letting the words sink in before he offered the final blow. “I’ve called your bodyguard to London to take up his usual position watching you. He is not to leave your side for the rest of your stay here. He will ensure that your behaviour reflects the ideals of my company and what I would expect of my son. And as for your friend-.” His penetrating gaze switched to Nino. “You have one hour to pack up your things and return to Paris.”

“Sir-!”

“You were invited here to be Adrien’s companion, at my cost entirely. You betrayed my trust and placed my son in an untenable position.” Gabriel’s stare had never been so remote, so frigidly glacial. “You are no longer welcome to stay in this hotel, and I would recommend not calling on my son when he returns to Paris.”

“A train seat has already been reserved,” Nathalie intoned. “I can call a cab to take your friend to the station.”

Nino bristled, a ruddy flush working its way up the back of his neck. No one had worked harder at keeping Adrien out of untenable positions over the last few days! He’d risked getting mauled multiple times just to keep Adrien’s ass in line! Not that he could say a word. His fists clenched at his sides, jaw locked.

Adrien didn’t dare exchange glances with his friend, lest he lose his increasingly tenuous grasp on his growing temper. His usual coping mechanisms when dealing with his father appeared to be in abeyance. He couldn’t take a step back. He couldn’t send his mind elsewhere. He couldn’t shove his emotions down until he felt nothing at all.

No, Adrien found himself trapped in the moment, running through a spectrum of emotions he was ill-equipped to handle. How long had it been since he had given up on indignation or righteous fury in the face of his father? Yet here they were, rearing their hot heads in impotent rage. He was holding on to his calm façade by the skin of his teeth.

Bite your tongue. Say nothing. Preserve the status quo. Do not maul your own father or his personal assistant!

“I think that will be all for today,” Gabriel concluded, sweeping one last look around the suite. “Nathalie, make a note to contact hotel staff to have this place cleaned. I’ll settle the bar tab with the front desk when I go down.” Blue eyes settled on Adrien with an absence of anything warm. “You are not to go anywhere today. Nathalie will have your schedule rearranged so you will no longer have the opportunity to have these obscene public displays. She will report to me if your behaviour does not improve drastically. Your phone will be confiscated to ensure you do not have any contact with you… friends.”

He said ‘friends’ the same way some people spoke about the plague.

Gabriel was free to say what he liked about his son, but Adrien would be damned if he let anyone speak poorly of his friends. That, it seemed, was the last straw. He felt the frayed leash holding on to his temper snap. It was almost a physical sensation. A quick, sharp yank in his chest that propelled him forward until he was standing between his father and the only exit from the room.

Head up, chest out, fists clenched – like he was Chat Noir facing down an akuma several times his size. The surprise that lit both Gabriel and Nathalie’s faces might have been satisfying if Adrien wasn’t facing down his personal demons in nothing but a wet towel.

Relying on instinct alone, Adrien met his father’s unblinking stare. “Nino is not going anywhere.”

One of Gabriel’s pale eyebrows arched. “I would beg to differ.”

“If he leaves, then so do I,” Adrien countered lowly, flashing teeth that felt too sharp in his mouth.

His father canted his head.

Adrien lowered his, like an animal ready to attack. “If you try to force me to stay, you’ll see how badly I can besmirch the family name.”

“An idle threat.”

“Is it?” Nose to nose with his father, Adrien realized for the first time that he now stood even with the giant who had loomed over him his entire life. Suddenly, the giant was a mere mortal, and a lot less frightening than he had once been.

Gabriel stared back, perhaps wondering when his son had grown up enough to look him in the eye.

Emboldened, Adrien let fly with years of pent up frustration. No Chat Noir finesse, nor even the rage of the werecat – just raw, festering hurt from a boy who had been controlled and ignored for too long. “My whole life, I’ve let you dictate where I’ll be, what I’ll do, and who I’ll talk to. I’ve done everything to please you. I rarely, if ever, asked anything from you. But it’s never enough, is it?”

Something that might have been hurt flitted in his father’s gaze.

Nathalie covered her mouth with her hand, quickly looking away.

Nino, unseen behind Adrien’s shoulder, was nevertheless deeply uncomfortable to be caught up in this particular family squabble.

Adrien didn’t have time to regret his thoughtless words. “Say what you want to me; do what you want to me, but you leave my friends out of this. Nino has been a better friend to me than I deserve. He’s been there for me when no one else has been. I won’t stand for you talking about him like he’s some sort of disease.”

“I am only trying to protect you. You are my son-.”

“And I’m also human!” Adrien exclaimed, throwing his arms out. He amended in his head with mostly human. He didn’t know where being a Miraculous wielder or a werecat actually put him on the spectrum of humanity. “I’m not going to stay a child forever. You have to let me grow up sometime.”

“Growing up doesn’t mean you can get drunk in a foreign city and run our name through the mud.”

Pride stinging, Adrien forced himself to let the lie stay – because the truth would be so much worse if it got out. “You're right. I let a little bit of freedom go to my head and I screwed up. I went to a pub. I got drunk. Those are mistakes that I made. No one else. Because I am human. And guess what? I get to learn from my mistakes, if you would just give me a chance.” He fixed his glare on his father. “But if you send Nino away, I’ll do a lot worse than that.”

Gabriel’s frown hit glacial proportions. “Throwing a child’s tantrum is not the way to try and tell me you want to be treated as an adult.”

“As if I had any other option? You never would have looked at me otherwise.”

“I’m looking at you now.”

“But do you see me?”

Swallowing back the instant recoil when Gabriel raised his hand, Adrien let his father cup his chin. At the moment of contact, a low-grade vibration passed from father to son. For the briefest moment, Adrien saw the shadow of something clinging to the outline of his father – as thin as cobwebs, much darker than shadow. He blinked and it was gone, though the uncanny sense remained. Adrien’s ring finger suddenly burned as if a match had been lit against his skin. He tucked his hands behind his back, clenching his fists against the fire racing up his nerves. It was everything he could do to keep his face impassive.

The sound of Gabriel’s thumb scraping against the stubble that had grown in overnight was too loud in the silent room. After several seconds, his hand dropped back to his side. “It seems I haven’t been looking at you enough to see all the things that have changed.”

Adrien gaped, tongued tied by his father's sudden change of tact.

“If it is so important to you, your friend may stay, but only if the both of you toe the line from now on,” Gabriel said, stepping back. “If you want to be treated as an adult, then you will be treated as an adult. Nathalie will adjust your schedule to reflect that.”

With the fight drained out of him at last, Adrien stepped away from the door numbly. Had it really been that easy? “I don’t understand.”

Gabriel shook his head. “I may be strict, but I am not unbending. I’m willing to give you a second chance to show me you are mature enough to handle yourself.” He straightened his blazer, as unaffected as if it had been a business transaction. “Now, if you will excuse me? I have a flight to catch.”

“You never said anything about leaving.”

Gabriel spared him a brief glance. “Things are not working out here as I had hoped. You may stay to finish your scheduled appearances, but there is nothing more to keep me here. Nathalie will take care of everything in my place. There is company business I need to attend elsewhere.” The moment he slipped into the hall, the room warmed by several degrees.

Nathalie brushed by with a rustle of her tailored pantsuit without sparing Adrien a glance, the pungent scents of juniper, clove, and lilac tickling his nose as she passed.

Strange, he thought, dumbstruck in the aftermath, watching the door close behind her. Normally she wears Chanel.

Nino warily crept up to Adrien’s side, waiting for something to be said rather than break the terrible silence on his own.

Adrien scrubbed a hand over his face, dragging his palm through his hair. Feeling incredibly dumb, he said, “I could have handled that better.”

“It could have been worse.” Nino scuffed a toe in the carpet. “Thanks for sticking up for me.”

“It needed to be said, among other things,” Adrien assured tiredly, making his way over to his clothes to snatch a fresh pair of boxers. He slid them on under his towel, and then let the towel fall away. The open balcony called, as did the freedom that came with donning a leather cat suit. “I need to get out of here.”

Nino snorted curtly. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”

“No, but I need to clear my head somehow.” He headed for the corner, away from the windows where he wouldn’t be spotted as he transformed.

“After what just happened, don’t you think it would be smarter if you took a breather first? You don’t need a repeat of what happened last night.”

“What I need is a run,” Adrien countered.

“That’s a terrible idea.”

“So was confronting my father, but I did that against my better judgement, too. Claws out.” His grimaced as the suit pushed its way through his skin; the ears and tail barely registered anymore. Should he be worried that he was getting used to the insanity? He stepped onto the balcony, balanced on the railing without a second thought.

“So you’re going to go off and do something irresponsible not even five minutes after convincing your father that you are a responsible adult?”

“It’s not like they’ll be back any time soon. I won’t be missed.” Looking back at Nino, who had come to stand in the shadows by the doorway, he said, “Besides… I think I need to talk to Ladybug.”

Nino’s brow quirked. “It always comes back to her, doesn’t it?”

“Always.” He looked out at the lightening sky. “After what happened last night, I should probably talk to her. I want to make sure she’s okay.” Among other things, one being the uncanny sense that still lingered long after his father had left. Not akuma, but still unsettling. He didn’t know what to make of it.

He staunchly set aside any lingering visions of his dreams, and prayed they would not arise later at an inconvenient time.

“You think you’ll find her out there?” Nino wondered skeptically.

Chat’s tail flicked. “She’ll find me.”

“I can’t stop you, can I?”

“You could try.”

Nino looked back at the remains of the lamp, lingering on the pile of rust and twisted parts. “No thanks.”

“I figured you’d see it my way.” Chat flashed him a half-hearted smile before launching himself into freefall from the balcony.

“Your way. Right.” Nino wandered to the railing, watching as Chat Noir bounded away down the street. A week ago, he never would have imagined there were downsides to having a superhero for a best friend. Now he was discovering several, among them being that some superheroes didn’t know when to stay down. Some superheroes couldn’t be kept apart.

To no one in particular, Nino muttered, “I still think this is a terrible idea.”

Chapter Text

Something was definitely… different?

Marinette leaned over the vanity to be closer to the mirror, peering hard at her reflection.

Her hair was still damp from the shower, strands of black hanging in wild disarray. She ran her fingers through it, though felt no different for the styling. Her palms smarted when she clapped them to her cheeks. She scrunched her nose, and then stuck out her tongue. Nope, none of that was different, either.

She licked her lips, though the taste of wild things had long since washed away. Her teeth sunk into the pad of her bottom lip, considering how flushed her reflection was. The pink from her cheeks down to her navel was only partially due to the heat of the shower. The rest was from what she had been doing in the shower.

The mirror rattled in its moorings when she leaned her forehead into it.

Marinette was no stranger to dreams that could have her waking up in a lather. She had woken up from a fair few since hitting puberty and figuring out that, yes, boys were quite lovely to look at. Some were lovely to dream about. One boy in particular stood out from the rest, and at one time had made excellent fodder for a young teenaged girl’s fantasies.

But last night…

A low groan vibrated up Marinette’s chest.

Last night’s dream had had nothing to do with Adrien Agreste, and everything to do with someone else. Someone she had never given herself the freedom to think of like that before. Someone she should not have been thinking of like that when there was a crisis going on.

Marinette recalled with stunning clarity the feel of his lips pressed to the insides of her wrists. His warm mouth against her palms. Her nipples puckered beneath the drape of her towel upon recalling the feeling of soft grass beneath her back, and warm satin skin between her thighs as a trail of worship made its way from her knees upward. There hadn’t been an inch of her left to hide.

Dare she say it? She had felt free in the dream.

She had felt miraculous.

The dream had been so vivid that Marinette had startled from bed half expecting to be twined with another body. Instead, she had been in a rather compromising position with an unwitting pillow. Luckily, Alya continued to sleep like the dead and Tikki was nowhere to be found as Marinette made her mad dash to the bathroom.

Papillon himself could have been standing smack dab in the middle of the room and Marinette would not have seen him with her tunnel vision. The thrill of arousal coiled hot and low in her belly nearly had her blind with need. The brush of her shirt against her breasts, and rub of her thighs with each step, was delight and torture. Hair standing on end, muscles quivering, skin feeling too tight to be comfortable. Her heart raced, blood pounding in her ears, mind scrambled to the point that she nearly turned the water on while still fully dressed.

The first rush of water over her sensitive skin earned a heartfelt groan that echoed in the small room.

Marinette could think of little else except the sleek feeling between her legs as her thighs rubbed together, the feeling of lips trailing reverently across her skin, and the look of a boy whose face was masked in shadow and his body kissed in moonlight.

A light touch between her legs had been all she needed.

Her shout of delighted release had thankfully been muffled by her free hand. The warmth that flooded her afterwards had outpaced the lukewarm water of the shower slowing making its way to hot. In the aftermath, her legs had shook from the force of her orgasm. Her head had gone fuzzy. In the places where Chat had kissed in her dream, her skin tingled. It had taken several minutes before Marinette was brave enough to lean back and let the water run down her sensitized front. Taking the washcloth to her skin to clean herself had been a special torture on its own.

Back in the present, she swallowed hard and gave her head a shake. Heat still lingered, waiting for even the tiniest spark to flare back to life.

Of all the men in her life to dream of, it just had to be Chat Noir. It made a strange sort of sense, she supposed. Aside from his identity, she knew him better than she knew any other boy. Despite having tried to respect him in his naked state in the alley, apparently Marinette had caught enough of an eyeful to know him better than she had ever physically known another boy – enough to grant her a rather detailed and informative dream.

A mildly strangled laugh fluttered from Marinette’s lips. There was no point going down that path again unless she wanted to jump back in the shower.

“You,” Marinette said, addressing her reflection, “are a terrible person.”

Her reflection laughed at her.

Aside from the post-euphoria of an expectedly pleasant orgasm, she was no closer to finding what felt different in her this morning.

In a last ditch effort, she turned around and dropped her towel, eyeing the base of her spine where she had first felt Chat’s lips. Heat still lingered there, though the skin was smooth and pale. Marinette frowned, turning one way and then the other. She half expected to find something back there.

A kiss? A bite mark? Maybe a hickey…?

Turning to face the mirror again, towel still draped over her arms, she stepped back to scrutinize her front. Faded stretch marks on her hips? Check. Old scars on her knees? Check? One breast slightly larger than the other? Double check. Everything that should be there was still there. Every freckle accounted for.

Someone had made sure they were all there last night…

“You look much better this morning,” Tikki’s small voice chimed in from her spot on the vanity.

Marinette squawked and yanked her towel up. “How long have you been there?”

“Not long.” The kwami shrugged, unconcerned with her chosen’s nakedness. Given Tikki’s long life, she had seen thousands of naked humans in every possible shape and colour; you see one human, you see them all. She waved to the closed door. “I wanted to check on you to see how you were doing.”

Marinette tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, eyes catching momentarily on her earring. For a split second, it was Ladybug who stared back at her in the mirror, and then she realized no it was still Marinette she was looking at. The spots were there, just on the inside.

A strange little laugh bubbled up, uncontained. She dropped her gaze to her kwami. “I woke up this morning and I felt...” She laughed again, blushing, shaking her head. “I don’t know. Is that strange? I don’t know how I feel right now, but it’s not what I thought I should feel.”

“How do you think you should feel?”

“Tired. Emotionally drained. Sick inside.”

Tikki canted her small head, her bright eyes sparkling. “How do you actually feel?”

Marinette stole another glance at her reflection, smoothing her hands down her front. Absolutely nothing had changed, and yet it felt like someone had tweaked her somewhere and suddenly her skin fit so much better. How was she supposed to describe a feeling like that? Especially when there was no cause for it.

Trying to sum it up in a way she prayed her kwami might understand, she murmured, “I feel miraculous.”

The answer seemed to surprise Tikki at first, her eyes popping wide, her little mouth parting. But then she all but glowed with a grin that split her fey face, something akin to satisfaction lighting her ancient eyes. “I am so happy to hear that.”

Marinette narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “You didn’t do anything, did you?”

Tikki peered up in utter innocence. “Not at all.”

“Are you sure? Because last night I…”

“Yes?”

A laugh flitted from Marinette’s lips. “Never mind.” There were some things she wasn’t prepared to share with her kwami, and altering dreams about a certain black cat happened to be one of them.

Without warning, the bathroom door flew open amidst a howl of Marinette’s name. Alya flew in over the threshold with her phone held out before her like it was radioactive. Tikki had just enough time to zip into the small hollow between Marinette’s breasts to hide.

Marinette was far less graceful in her reaction, one hand flying to her towel to keep it secured while the other flew out defensively. Turns out Ladybug was pretty damn close to the surface when she was in a panic. Unfortunately, her good luck happened to be stored much deeper down. She managed to collide with the mess of cosmetics stashed across the vanity. Makeup kits hit the floor, lotions and brushes scattering in every direction. Hairspray, dry shampoos, deodorant, and body sprays went flying. Several hit the floor hard enough that their caps flew off.

The body spray landed in such a way that Marinette received an unfortunate, yet pleasantly scented, shot of Tropical Mist straight up her towel. The hairspray rebounded off the wall, losing its nozzle upon impact. Pressurized hairspray was suddenly gushing out in a massive geyser going in all directions as the canister vomited its aerosolized contents into the air. It ricocheted off the wall, the floor, and caught Marinette hard on the knee, shooting around like a pinball.

“Oh my god!”

“Catch it!”

“It got in my eyes!”

“Shit, I got this!” Alya snagged the damp towel Marinette had been using to dry off her hair and threw herself across the bathroom floor, landing on top of the bucking hairspray bottle. She wound it tight in the towel, holding it aloft like a hunter who had just nabbed a prized kill. The hairspray continued to hiss angrily, impotent in its terrycloth straightjacket.

Marinette fell back on the toilet seat lid, staring wide eyed at her best friend. “What the hell was that about?”

“You’re the one who knocked everything over.” Alya stared down at her with the same shell-shocked expression. “You should really start locking the door.”

“You should learn to knock.”

“Yeah, probably.” She crossed the bathroom and shoved the still-hissing hairspray underneath the sink where it could blow itself out in peace.

Marinette carefully slid to her feet, cringing against stiff way her hair moved now that it had been sprayed into place. Her arms were sticky, the little hairs on her arms now stuck in their upright positions. “Is there any reason you decided that I needed to have a second shower this morning?”

“Oh, right! I need you to take this!” Alya whipped her phone back up and shoved it into Marinette’s arms, herding them both towards the door until the girl was able to shove Marinette completely out of the bathroom. “There’s been a Chat Noir sighting!”

Adrenaline instantly spiked. Chat was already out in the city? Was he okay? Did he need her? Was another akuma attacking? Marinette sucked in a breath, hoping that her face didn’t betray her. She watched in astonishment as her friend proceeded to strip out of the t-shirt she had worn to bed. “And you are getting naked because?”

“Because there has been a Chat Noir sighting!” Alya exclaimed again, shimmying out of her shorts. She leapt into the shower stall and yanked the curtain closed. Moments later, her panties flew over the curtain rod. “What did I just tell you last night? I am not going after Chat or Ladybug until this whole shit show is sorted out!” The shower hissed on, Alya shouting above it. “Which means I am going to take a shower for the next hour, and you are going to take my phone far, far, far away from me!”

Marinette stared down at the phone, heartened that her best friend was taking her vow so seriously.

On the other hand, she seriously had to wonder how effective this new regime of avoiding the problem by hiding in the shower was really going to work.

"Are you still there?" Alya called. "You're supposed to be gone. With my phone."

“Okay,” Marinette replied, closing the bathroom door and backing away. Tikki was already at the window, waving for her to hurry up. Chat was out there, possibly waiting for her. “I’m taking your phone now!”

“Good!”

Marinette rushed over to the window, losing her towel halfway there. “I’m leaving for the next hour!”

“That’s exactly what I want!”

She shoved the window up, morning air rushing in. “Don’t come looking for me!”

“That’s the plan!”

“Okay, bye!” Marinette scooped Tikki up, whispering fast and hot, “Spots on!” The magic of the transformation whirled over her, leaving her breathless from the rush. Tikki seemed to have invested a little extra oomph in the change. Wasting no time on how welcomed the spots felt, how warm the suit was against her skin, Ladybug slipped over the sill and let fly with her yo-yo, swinging off in the direction she felt a sense of chaos rioting against her senses.

 

 

Chat Noir felt her coming long before a streak of red flashed into his periphery. Nevertheless, he gave a shout upon her arrival, leaping from one building to the next while Ladybug soared by on the infallible tug of her yo-yo string.

Instead of swinging back around to meet him, Ladybug replied with the laugh of her own and threw herself high into the air on the end of a strong swing. Her body flew into a perfect backflip in midair. The sun caught in her midnight hair, setting it to shine like a raven’s wing. The red of her suit was especially vivid against the saturated blue of the sky after the rain.

She was free for a perfect moment, hanging in midair like a jewel, before plummeting into free fall.

A moment’s fear gripped Chat, watching her and remembering the fiasco at the London Eye. His concern was unnecessary. Ladybug lassoed a decorative stone outcropping, catching herself from the fall in a swing that carried her yet again into a high swing. She turned in midair, her eyes sparkling behind her mask, a grin splitting her face. A red, spotted arm extended toward him, a finger crooked, before she was forced to catch herself again and fly even further away.

Dumbstruck, Chat watched her go before his paused heart caught up with him. How long had it been since he had seen her truly this playful? He had forgotten what a breath-taking sight she could be in her element. Though they often flew across the rooftops of Paris, trained together and fought together, it was a rarity when Ladybug dropped her professional mien to indulge in the abilities they had been given.

There was only one thing his Lady could mean by her aerial acrobatics.

Catch me if you can.

Before he was even aware of reaching for his baton, Chat Noir found himself vaulting through the air on the trail of young, spotted prey. Ears pricked, tail waving, he cared nothing for the sight he made of himself as he ran and leapt in her wake. His tongue might have been lolling around the grin stretching his lips. All the sights of the city faded until there was nothing but the rush of the wind and the laugh of a Ladybug taunting him to run faster. Instinct roared to chase her!

Chase her! Catch her! Keep her!

Whether or not this had happened once upon a time in a dream, Chat had no time to linger. He wasted not a thought on the memory of a naked bottom pale and round like the moon. He had a spotted one waving in the air in pure challenge. Her continued laughter was the perfect taunt to draw him onward.

The thrill of the chase was on! It filled his head, adrenaline racing in his blood, his tight only from exhilaration. Thoughts of his father and all the heavy things that had brought him out that morning fled faster than the wind blowing through his hair.

His hands and feet pounded the rooftops in time to the beating of his heart.

Instead of a forest, they ran through a concrete jungle. Pigeons scattered instead of fey folk making love in the underbrush. Chat made no move to shed his skin for fur, reveling instead in the feeling of his body working itself to the limit as he sprinted and leapt. Muscles burned, lungs working like bellows. The cat was there, rising up with his pulse, but it moved with him beneath his flesh rather than claw for control. Adrien embraced the extra power it supplied him, blending with the magic that made him Chat Noir.

They were two beings running in the same skin, chasing the same prey, desperately wanting the same thing.

Down below in the streets, Londoners shouted after them. Cameras flashed, phones waved. Witnesses laughed at the superheroes’ antics as they leapt, twisted, and flew as no other humans on Earth could ever do.

Ladybug reached the zenith of yet another playful arc, letting herself turn in the air as gravity took hold. Her voice called out, though the words were lost in the slipstream. She twisted backwards into a practiced high dive, all grace and perfect form, her eyes unerringly finding their way to Chat.

She extended both arms to him.

Chat found the strength for one last burst of speed, ramming the end of his baton into the edge of a roof and propelling himself into the air. Arms outstretched, he caught Ladybug with enough force to knock the air out of a regular human. In perfect synchronicity, they turned to aligne with each other. Ladybug’s open arms came around him in welcome, holding him tighter than he thought the catch should warrant. She was laughing in his ear as their combined momentum threw them down and to the side. Her legs came around his waist, the heat of her chest pressed tight to his front.

Her nose bumped his nose. Her panting grin was no doubt a mirror for his. Ladybug’s eyes were a shade of blue that matched the sky. She searched his eyes, darting a glance at his cat ears flapping – the wind was a roar through them – before dropping to his lips, where the points of his elongated fangs poked out.

He heard her delighted laugh, not a moment of hesitation toward the changes in him. Her arms tightened a fraction. Chat tightened his arms in return. They were so close, they were breathing the same air. Chat had a feeling that if he caught her lips the way he had caught her body, she wouldn’t push him away.

They were falling, and neither was afraid.

There was no need for words or warning when she unleashed her yo-yo one last time to control their fall. They jerked against the initial catch, swinging on the line in their tangle of arms and legs. What an odd sight they must make to the people of London, yet for once neither hero could find room to care amidst their cathartic laughter.

Chat knew instinctively when Ladybug let go of the swing, leaving their landing to him. The line released, their shortened fall to Earth uncontrolled again. He wrapped her tight against him, one arm around her back and the other under her bottom to stabilize her weight. They landed first against the shingles of an ancient church, sending pigeons to the air around them. Bounding again, Chat landed with catlike grace on the branch of a maple tree farther down. One last time, he used their momentum and his imbued sense of balance to catch the top of a gravestone under his steel-toed boots.

That was where his grace ended.

His boot slipped, Ladybug’s weight overbalancing him from the front, sending them both tumbling into the emerald plush of grass and clover below. Chat made sure to turn, taking the brunt of the fall on his back with Ladybug cushioned above him. A second later, he rolled, taking his Lady with him. She giggled, letting herself roll with his strength. He hovered on hands and knees above her, waiting for Ladybug’s arms and legs to fall from around him.

Curious of the silence pressing in around them, Chat swept a cursory look around. Walls of crumbling stone rose up around them, a courtyard closed in on all four sides by the old church. One of the few, rare spaces in London that felt entirely cut off from the modern noise and bustle of the city. A maple tree stood guard in the corner, eroded gravestones from centuries past scattered through the grass like the crumbling scales of an ancient dragon.

A lonely courtyard, but Chat Noir was certainly not alone.

“Chat…” Ladybug made no move to roll out from underneath him, instead sinking into the deep clover to stare up at him, curious – as if she had never seen him before. Dappled sunlight filtering through the maple canopy shivered all around her. Her heartbeat fluttered against the front of her suit, between her breasts heaving for breath.

“I caught you,” he whispered a breath away from her lips, needing to say the words. Needing to, because he had said them before. The first time he had said them, they had been naked. Not that Ladybug would know that.

Yet her eyes flared, pink rising from the collar of her suit. “I think I caught you.”

“I think we caught each other.”

A little laugh fluttered up. “That sounds fair.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Chat let his head dip, though could not bring himself to dare a kiss no matter how badly he wanted it. Other desires proved pressing. He pressed his cheek to hers and rubbed fondly.

Rough stubble scratched her soft skin.

A soft cry of surprise broke the air.

Chat jerked away, mortified.

“Wait, don’t go!” Ladybug laughed, catching him with her legs before he could throw himself away. She pushed herself up, seated squarely between his legs, her thighs still firmly planted around him. "You shouldn't run away after all the trouble I went through catching you."

"I thought we agreed we caught each other?"

Ladybug's thighs squeezed around him, a staunch reminder that she was as strong as he was in her suit. She could literally crush a man with her thighs. "Pretty sure I caught you this time."

"Right." Chat kept his eyes on hers, too much of a gentleman to look down. He touched his cheek, then grimaced. "I thought I hurt you."

"Hurt me?" Ladybug wondered, tipping her head. The excuse sounded as flimsy to her as it did to him. "You took me by surprise, but it didn't hurt."

Chat nevertheless pinked when her gaze strayed downward, tracing his jawline intently.

“Do you mind?” she wondered, holding out her hands in obvious inquiry.

He eyed her palms, chewing his lip, before nodding and lowering his head. Spotted hands rose to cup his face, her thumbs brushing his cheeks. To Chat’s sensitive ears, the sound of her suit scraping against stubble sounded obscene. His ears pinned against his head. Each hair brushed against the grain on his face felt wrong. It wasn't supposed to be there. It was just more evidence of the werecat taking over. He tried to turn away, only to find himself firmly caught.

He peered at her from beneath the fall of his hair. “Buginette?”

“I should have known my kitty would grow whiskers someday,” she murmured.

Chat’s gaze skittered away, feeling a flush work its way up the back of his neck. “I forgot to shave this morning.”

Ladybug’s touch stayed soft, exploratory. “Have you always…?”

“It’s recent,” he grunted, tail flicking in the grass behind him.

“Oh.” Her legs slipped from around him, knees gathering beneath her. She rose above him, dipping close and then weaving back. “May I?”

Curious, Chat nodded.

She let her fingers slide around his scalp until they tangled in the hair at his nape. Arching down, she pressed her cheek to his, rubbing much in the way Chat had wanted to earlier. It was more than just the werecat that thrilled in her closeness. Ladybug did not shy away from the scrape of stubble; the low hum that floated up from her spoke of pleasure.

The quiet purr that rose up in reply was beyond Chat’s power to stop.

Too soon, she parted from him, searching his eyes while her fingers returned to petting his cheeks. “I think I like the stubble.” Something in his expression must have given him away, because her hands stilled. She pursed her lips. “Does it… bother you?”

He canted his head, brow furrowed.

Ladybug’s shoulders fell, searching for a better way to ask the question. “I’m sorry, I never thought…” Her hands fell away. “These changes, do they bother you?”

Chat wrapped his hands around hers, pressing her palms to his face. “When I’m with you, it’s not so bad.” His smile faltered, ears twitching. “Do you mind them?”

She shook her head, slipping her hands loose to thread around his neck, falling into a tight embrace. Still on her knees, she had enough height to rest her chin on his head and kiss one of his ears. He felt her lips like a brand on his soul. “The only thing I mind is that this is hurting you.”

Emboldened, Chat let his hands fall to the curve of her waist. He closed his eyes and turned his face into her chest, resting his forehead on her sternum. On reflex, he breathed her in – and should have expected the choke that followed.

Releasing her in a snap, he turned away and rolled onto his knees, hacking against the chemical smell that burned his noise.

“Not again!” Ladybug wailed, sounding on the verge of both frustration and humour. “I am so sorry! I was in such a rush to get out of the hotel, I forgot I got sprayed!”

Chat cracked a watering eye open. “Cheap hairspray?”

Ladybug’s lips turned down in a stubborn pout. “It was moderately expensive.”

He spit a wad of saliva that came up with his coughing. “That explains your hair, at least.”

“What?” Her hands shot to her hair, letting loose a disgusted squawk upon finding the damage wrought from their romp above the city. Aside from her usual ponytails, her midnight hair was full of flyaways. Strands that stuck out stiff from her head, long stands curling down by her cheeks like little antenna. Her bangs were swept up at weird angles.

The model in Adrien desperately wanted to help her comb her hair back into place. The cat in him wanted to lick its paw and solve her problem in a completely inappropriate manner.

Thank god the model won out.

“Here, let me,” he bid, batting her hands away. His claws gave him the advantage when combing through her hair, breaking the hold of the hairspray to smooth things back into place. "For someone who is supposed to be the embodiment of good luck, you sure have an odd way of showing it."

"Oh, shut up." She punched him in the arm.

"At least it's not that bad this time," he said, absently rubbing the spot she had assaulted. Ladybug had a swing no one should mess with. "What's the fruity scent?"

"Tropical Mist." Ladybug subsided under his ministrations, settling on the ground to let him fuss. She even leaned into his touch. “When I heard you were out this morning, I thought it must have been an akuma.”

Chat glanced down at her, frowning.

She peered up at him, a half-smile quirking her lips. “Clearly there’s no akuma.”

“No. I needed the run,” he replied, mindful of how close he was kneeling to her. He had knelt before her like this once before, except that time she had been standing. And he had been kissing her. She had tasted like starbursts.

“Is that all?” she wondered, unaware of his musings.

His hands paused, followed by a sigh. “I needed you.”

Tapered fingers twined with his. “I’m here. I’m always here.”

“I know.” He raised her knuckles to his lips.

She tugged his hand in silent invitation, bidding him to come sit by her side. He patted her hair one last time, making sure it looked somewhat presentable, before settling in the grass so that their shoulders touched. Ladybug leaned her weight into his shoulder. Her voice was quiet when she said, “I’m sorry I left you last night.”

Chat needed a moment to digest the words. He took a deep breath in, letting the last of his tension out in one long sigh. “I understand why you left.”

“I should have stayed.”

“Last night was not the right night to reveal ourselves.” Tipping his head back, he watched white clouds drift by on a lazy breeze. The storm clouds had rained themselves out last night, leaving nothing but blue skies and fresh air. The scent of the hairspray wasn’t even that bad, if he breathed through his mouth. After two weeks of hyper-sensitivity, he was slowly growing used to the intensity of all sensory input around him. Now if only Ladybug would stop taking him by surprise...

Ladybug’s head fell to his shoulder. “No, last night definitely was not the right night, but…”

“But?”

She hummed, letting the silence stretch. Spotted toes dug furrows in the grass.

Chat glanced at the top of her head. “My Lady?”

Your Lady,” she laughed lowly, shaking her head. The phrase echoed oddly in Chat’s head, as if he had heard her murmur those exact words before, though he couldn’t remember from where. “A part of me wanted to stay with you all night.”

A part of you did stay with me, Chat thought, though wisely kept his mouth shut.

As if she had heard his thoughts, she giggled. The little of her face he could see had turned light pink. “You were all right after I left, right?”

“I don’t remember much of it,” Chat admitted. “Nino and John got me back to the hotel. I destroyed a lamp. Had an… interesting wake up call.”

Ladybug darted a quick glance at the side of his face. “Same.” She looked back down. “That was very kind of Nino to help you back.”

“Yeah…”

“Did he see who you were?”

“Er.”

“Chat?”

“…no?” The lie felt poor on his tongue, but was probably the lesser of two evils.

“Oh. Good.” Apparently that was the right answer. Ladybug relaxed deeper into his side with a sigh of relief. “Do you think I made the right decision keeping our identities a secret all this time?”

Chat found her hand, lacing his fingers with hers. “It takes two to keep a secret, Buginette. I could have shown you who I was years ago, but I didn’t.”

“Do you still want to?”

He sucked in a breath, tinted with hairspray and clover. “Yes, but not now.”

“Not now,” she agreed.

“I’d give anything to know what you smelled like, though.”

She tilted him a laughing look, her mask rising with her skeptical brows.

“I’m serious,” Chat insisted, nudging her with his elbow. “I have this feeling that you smell great. Better than great. I bet you’d have such a lovely scent, and yet every time I might get a whiff…”

Ladybug patted his knee consolingly. “It’s as if the universe is conspiring against you.”

“You'd be surprised how often it feels like that,” he scoffed, taking comfort in her close presence.

"Don't take it personally. I'm sure the universe isn't actually working against you." She shook her head. "Besides, I probably don't smell all that great. One of these days you're going to get a whiff and be disappointed that I smell like a regular human."

"Somehow I doubt that." He pursed his lips. "There's always next time, I suppose."

“Next time,” she assured, although it sounded like she was laughing.

He felt his tail move, wrapping around the curve of Ladybug’s bottom and up over her thigh, the tip settling in her lap. Ladybug welcomed him, letting her free hand stroke his fur absently. It felt weird to have someone touch him there, touching a literal extension of his spine. Not even he had been brave enough to touch his own tail yet. Sensation tingled all the way up, like butterflies in his nerves.

“If…” she murmured, twirling her fingertip in his fur. “If something happens in the future, if you need me again like you needed me last night, I won’t run away.”

Something in the way her voice quivered prompted him to say, “I only want to see you if you’re ready.”

Ladybug leaned away, biting her bottom lip. “I think I’m ready. Maybe. I don’t know.” She sighed. “I want to be ready.”

On impulse, he kissed her cheek. “I can wait for as long as you need.”

“We’ve waited so long already, mon minou.” She lifted their twined hands and kissed his knuckles. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help you.”

It was his turn to lean on her, nuzzling the side of her head. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

“Right.”

Chat closed his eyes, revelling in the rare quiet moment. He didn’t know how long they sat together in the small graveyard. It could have been hours, and it still would not have been enough. Ladybug seemed content to simply sit in his presence, his tail wrapped around her, their hands still twined together.

A quiet cough, the kind designed to get others’ attention, sounded behind them.

Ladybug was the first to react, jerking straight, and then craning around. Chat swallowed down a growl before following suit.

An old man stood in the stone archway set into the wall at their backs, wearing robes that marked him as a man of the church. He eyed their presence in the private yard with some skepticism, but then shrugged and held up a cell phone.

“I do believe this is for you?” he said, showing off a live news reel of the M4 motorway being choked off by what could only be described as a horrific mountain of lost luggage. An akuma was perched at the top, waving a pair of lighted marshalling wands normally used to direct aircraft from the ground. Warped from the akuma, the wands now looked like lightsabers.

Ladybug got to her feet, stretching, before offering her hand to Chat. “Duty calls?”

He would have preferred to stay much longer in the courtyard alone with her, but nevertheless he put his hand in hers and let her strength draw him up. He planted his baton in the ground, and was delighted when Ladybug readily stepped under his arm to vault out of the courtyard together. His heart turned over when she looked up at him, waiting.

Flashing an insouciant grin, he confirmed, “Duty calls!”

Chapter Text

Alya tried to make her shower last for longer than an hour.

She really did try.

She washed her hair twice. She shaved every square inch of her legs with painstaking precision. She shaved her armpits with more care and time consumed than any one armpit ever deserved. In her desperation to waste time, she even did some mindful landscaping in between, because why the hell not? If she was trying to waste an hour in the shower, she might as well make things interesting.

Too bad she had no idea where she stood with her boyfriend, so there was no one around to admire her handiwork.

When she could find no more reason to stay in the shower, she stepped out in defeat.

Marinette was nowhere to be seen, exactly as Alya had wanted. No phone, no problem. Temptation was the undoing of many addicts. She dressed mindfully, realizing that the growing restlessness in the pit of her stomach was the first sign of withdrawal. Her fingers absently tapped against the metal button of her shorts as she clasped them closed, as if instinctually texting on a phone that wasn’t there.

She wondered if Chat Noir was okay after last night.

She wondered if Ladybug had found Chat Noir yet.

Her eyes were drawn to the bedside table, where Marinette’s phone had been left charging. Alya bit her lip and glanced around. A quick check wouldn’t hurt. No one would know. It wasn’t as if she were going to go running after the superheroes.

Her fingers made it as far as to brush the case of the phone before she jerked her hand back.

“Damn it.” There was no such thing as a little hit for an addict. A little bit of alcohol. A little shot of heroine. Nope, the mere touch of a phone in her hands would probably be her undoing. A little bit too much like the days following her transformation into Lady Wifi, when something inside of her had hold her to hold on to her phone for dear life. Fear it, but cling to it.

Nino might have turned his discomfort of bubbles into full on avoidance, but Alya had ended up cleaving to that which had akumatized her. Here she was now, years later, without an akuma and yet feeling the same itching, anxious want for a phone. For a glimpse of the outside world. For connection.

The memory of the cold rain on her skin and the sound of Nino’s shout in her ears was all she needed to remind her that phones had gotten her into enough trouble for one lifetime. Pursuing the truth at all costs had nearly destroyed the fragile connection she had forged with the two shining superheroes of Paris. Her single-minded pursuit of them had managed to put her relationship with her boyfriend on the rocks.

She cringed. No, that was already on the rocks. She had just managed to make it worse.

Just to be safe, Alya dropped Marinette’s phone in the nightstand drawer.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Alya found her fingers tapping on the bedspread. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been without a phone. It had been literally years since she had let herself be disconnected. The Ladyblog had become such a large part of her life, she didn’t know what to do with herself without it.

Thirty seconds into turning on the TV, she regretted that decision. There was an akuma blocking traffic on the M4 motorway, making the morning commute an even bigger hassle than it already was. London was waiting on Ladybug and Chat Noir to appear to save the day; the BBC reporter joked that the superheroes might have gotten stuck in traffic.

Alya switched off the TV and stared out the window.

What she needed was a distraction.

A brisk walk later, Alya found herself at The Wellesley, naming dropping her mother to get her past the front door, taking mental notes of the opulent décor to report to said mother at a later time. Without her phone, she was flying fairly blind through the halls, working off only a vague memory of a text Nino had sent her weeks before. The door she found herself standing before could either have two French boys sleeping behind it, or it could have a foreign minister, a sheik, or possibly a strung out celebrity doing high-class cocaine off the ivory-and-gold toilet seat.

Courage wavering, Alya let her hand drop, prepared to turn tail and slink back to her mother’s hotel where she could wait for Marinette’s return. Her feet paused on the expensive Persian carpet the moment the first strains of a violin floated through the door.

Alya found herself knocking before she could stop herself. The violin cut off, followed by a muffled voice that made her heart jump into her throat. She backed up a step, rocking onto the balls of her feet, glancing down the empty hall and briefly wondering if she still had time to make a run for it.

No. Stay. You fucked this up and you are going to fix it.

She planted her feet and counted each padding footstep that came closer to the door. She heard the lock click, watched the knob turn, and was forced to lick her suddenly dry lips when Nino appeared in the doorway.

He stopped short as well, surprised at first before his brows lowered in confusion. He wore only a pair of cotton pyjama pants, a violin dangling from one hand. When Alya failed to make a noise, Nino took up the gauntlet.

“What are you doing here?” His fingertips brushed down her arm, his frown deepening to concern. “Is everything all right?”

“Er.” She bit her lip, hand automatically moving to her pocket to fiddle with a phone that wasn’t there. It dawned on her how little she had looked at her own boyfriend in the last two weeks. Her cheeks heated to recall that her only thoughts with regards to him had consisted of using him as a prop to get Marinette and Adrien together, or otherwise had been focused exclusively on murder.

I think I’m a terrible girlfriend.

Nino seemed to sense her distress, stepping back to motion her into the room without a word.

Alya skirted the wall to avoid touching him. All the things she thought she would say to him withered and died on her tongue.

Keeping an eye on her as she continued to stand, Nino set his violin away on one of the rumpled beds. Without any hesitation, he crossed to her, the heat of his palms burning through the sleeves of her shirt when he clasped her shoulders. “Alya, you’re scaring me. Say something.”

She raised her hand, settling her fingers to the center of his chest. Another thing she had forgotten about him. He was always warm. So very warm, and she loved it when he held her.

Nino stared down at the hand on his chest, then back up at her face.

Alya finally found her tongue, eyes trailing over his shoulder toward the polished instrument on the bed. “I thought you hated playing.”

A ruddy flush scored his cheeks. “It’s not that I hate playing…”

The violin hadn’t been his choice, and the years of lessons had been a chore, but he loved his mother too much to break her heart by quitting. Alya hadn’t even known he played until she had stayed after dinner with his family and his mother had made Nino perform as after-dinner entertainment.

“Maman wanted me to practice, since I was going to be away for a month,” Nino mumbled.

Alya felt herself smiling. “You’re such a Mama’s Boy.”

He shrugged.

“What were you playing?” She noted the darker flush working its way up his neck and into his ears.

“A…duet,” he admitted at length, scuffing his toes in the carpet. “Adrien is supposed to accompany me on the piano.”

Alya dropped her hand from his chest. “Can I… can I hear what you were playing?”

Nino looked poised to politely deny her, but then sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He collected his violin from the bed, and then wandered to his computer to bring up a music file. “I just started practising this morning, so it’s not going to be perfect.”

“I don’t care.” She took up a seat on the nearest chair, rooting herself to the spot.

He pressed play, taking up his violin just as the first keys of the piano chimed in.

Alya watched in awe as Nino settled into the music, calm rather than the energized persona he took on when he was commanding the tunes at a party. This was a side of him she rarely got to see; his eyes nearly closed, head tilted to accommodate the violin, shoulders and torso moving unconsciously to the tune as slow, mournful notes began to fill the air. He drew on the bow without a second thought, fingers moving across the strings with thoughtless grace.

Not perfect, but heartfelt.

She closed her eyes and let herself be swept up into the soothing duet. The world and every regret she had in it faded under the soothing tide of Nino’s playing. Listening to him play was a rare treat.

She found her eyes closed long after the last long note faded, only opening them when a warm palm shaped itself around her bare knee. Nino hovered less than two feet in front of her, still concerned. Alya let loose the breath she didn’t know she was holding. “That was beautiful.”

His golden gaze darted down, then back up again. “It… was for you.”

“Me?”

He opened his mouth to reply, then shook his head. He retreated to the bed to set his violin down once more before returning, dragging a chair over to sit with her. Upon closer inspection, Alya noted the bags under his eyes and the slump in his shoulders, the weight of his thoughts weighing him down.

“I wanted to say that I was sorry,” he said, holding one of her hands between both of his. “I’m not as good with words as I am with music, so I was hoping that if I played for you…” His hands tightened around hers. “Alya, I don’t like fighting with you.”

“I don’t like fighting with you, either.” She turned her hands to clasp his in return, chuckling softly. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”

The fact that he looked up at her like he had no clue what she should be apologizing for broke her heart. All the shit she put him through, and he still thought it was his fault they were on the rocks? Clearly she had done something very right in a past life if the universe thought she deserved to have a dork like this in her life.

“Adrien’s obliviousness must be rubbing off on you,” she teased, seeing a spark of hope light Nino’s eyes. Her eyes stung, and she clasped his hands tighter. “Don’t make me regret walking all the way over here, okay?”

“Okay.”

God, he made her want to kiss him. She resisted. Words had to be said first. Talk now, kiss later – hopefully. Taking a deep breath, she came out with it: “Nino, I’ve been acting like an ass and it took you yelling at me last night to see it.”

He grimaced. “I hated yelling at you. I was angry, but I never should have yelled.”

“I’m glad you did.” At his quizzical look, she gave him a watery smile. “If you hadn’t yelled, I might not have heard you. It was the slap I needed to see how blind I’ve been. I’ve been hurting the people I care about and I didn’t even know it.”

Unsure, he frowned, waiting for her to go on.

“Sometimes… sometimes I can get so wrapped up in one thing that I forget about everything else.”

He coughed a low laugh. “Don’t I know it.”

Alya hunched inward, squeezing his hands tight.

“It’s one of the things that makes you you, Alya,” Nino said, scooting to the edge of his chair so that their knees bumped together. “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve never done anything by halves. You’re all in about everything you care about and I love that about you.”

It was her turn to grimace. “Even when I’m running headfirst into an akuma battle and dragging you along behind me?”

“I could do with less of that,” he replied flatly.

She deflated.

Nino’s hands tightened around hers as he leaned in. “Alya, look at me.” She peeked up, spying his small smile. “Can I be honest right now? Really honest? You might not like what I have to say, but if we’re going to hash things out right now then I think you have to hear it.”

Wary, she nodded.

He flashed her an admiring look. “Alya, babe, I hate that you are constantly running into fights and putting yourself in danger. I hate that you don’t think about what might happen if Ladybug or Chat Noir weren’t there to save your ass. I hate it that you put your heart and soul into the Ladyblog without knowing that it’s not worth your life.” He raised their twined hands, kissing the backs of her knuckles. “I hate it that you don’t think about what it would do to me if you ever got hurt.”

Alya felt her heart tremble with a fresh crack down the center.

Nino pressed her hands to his cheek. “I don’t stop you, because this is who you are and it’s a part of the reason I fell in love with you. I’d rather let you drag me into a fight so that I can be there for you instead of being stuck on the sidelines watching you get tossed around by monsters.”

“Nino…” She sniffed back the tears that started to well in earnest.

Ever the soft-hearted one, Nino didn’t let that little sniff go unnoticed. He tugged her up and settled her on his lap, wrapping his arms around her. “The best thing that ever happened to me was the day Ladybug locked us in that stupid cage together. If you hadn’t been so damn pig-headed to be in the middle of the action, that never would have happened.”

Alya coughed a wet laugh into his shoulder.

Nino kissed the side of her head. “You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t getting yourself into trouble somewhere.”

“But last night-.”

“It’s already over and done with,” he assured, rubbing her hip. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that you didn’t post anything to the Ladyblog. I’m proud of you, and I am sure that Chat Noir and Ladybug will be relieved when they notice.”

She peeled away from him, hating the cold air that rushed in to fill the space. “And what about everything else? You can’t say everything is fine after the way I’ve been treating you for the last couple of weeks. I owe you an apology.”

Nino’s face flushed guiltily. “It’s not like I’m innocent in all that. It’s been killing me trying to keep Mari and Adrien apart after all the work you’ve put into trying to get them together.”

Threading her arms around his neck, she settled against him once more, relaxing into the steady heat radiating from him. “Can you tell me why?”

“I…” His arms closed tightly around her. “I can’t, I’m sorry. I love you, but it’s just one of those things that I can’t tell you. I wish that I could, but there’s someone else that I have to protect.”

She tensed, processing the answer, and then nodded. “You’re doing this for Adrien.”

His body slumped tiredly into hers. “Yes.”

Hating how exhausted he felt, she stroked her fingers down his back lightly. “Did he say anything to you? Does he not like Mari or something?” Her heart clenched tight, but she trucked on. “If he has a secret girlfriend from modeling or something…”

“No, no, it’s not that,” Nino sighed. “Believe me, it is not that. Just trust me when I say what I’m doing is for the best right now.”

“Should I be worried?”

He shook his head. “Adrien is going through some stuff in his personal life, and I don’t think he can handle having Mari thrown at him right now. She’s a great girl, I love her, and I want the two of them to hook up as much as you do, but Adrien is my best friend and I gotta look out for him.”

Alya kissed his neck. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

“I know,” he chuckled. “You just told me.”

She pinched him.

He laughed, eyes lighting up behind his glasses. He jogged her on his lap, kissing a playful trail across her cheek. “So, now that we have that all out between us, does this mean I can stop writing my last will and testament?”

Alya reached down and pinched him again, harder.

“Hey! Ow!” He scrabbled at her marauding hands. “What is this? I thought we were making up!”

“We are. Right now.” She grabbed the back of his head and kissed him.

Nino froze for a split second, lips unmoving against hers.

"Kiss me, stupid," she commanded against his lips.

"Sure, I'll kiss you stupid," he laughed, earning himself a third pinch and a kiss that was nearly violent in its intensity. She kissed him harder than she should have dared, but couldn't seem to stop herself from going all in. Two weeks was long enough to go without, and make-up make out sessions were the best. Whatever resistance Nino might have had, it melted under the sudden heat she threw at him. His hands found their way to the swell of her hips and he fell into the kiss with a low hum. She felt him smiling as he worked his lips against hers. The lingering tension riding his shoulders fled in favour of revelling in Alya's passionate attentions.

"So," Nino intoned between wild kisses, "we're good now?"

"Very good." Alya grinned, hooking her arms over his shoulders.

He dragged her up flush on his lap, palms rubbing from her hips down her thighs. "We're making up right now, aren't we?"

"If you have to ask, then I'm not doing it right." She revelled in the thrill of his lips on hers, reminding her of all the things she had been missing out on in the time she had been plotting murder. She could have been kissing this loser on the London Eye, and kissing him in front of Westminster Abbey, and kissing him in the face of Buckingham Palace. Instead of feuding with him over something so petty as interfering with her OTP, Alya could have been getting her wallet sucked dry at every stupid tourist trap in London while making out with her damned boyfriend like a couple of crazed teenagers loose in the city.

She was kissing him now, though. This was the connection she had been looking for. Fuck her phone, she just needed more of this. The taste of coffee lingered on his lips; his familiar soap and deodorant filled her head, his callused fingers cupped her face as he returned her fervour. His lips were as soft as she remembered them, slanting in just the right way. He pulled away too soon, leaving Alya hanging on to the last second, lips still pursed even as he put a breath of distance between them.

He pressed his forehead to hers. “I missed you.”

She blushed. “I missed you, too.”

Nino weaved, kissing next to her ear, down the line of her jaw, and finally the pulse point on Alya’s neck that made her gasp, her fingers clenching tight around his arms. “I love you.”

Like music to her ears. She tipped her head back, letting his lips dance across her skin. “I love you, too, you dork.”

He got down to her collarbone, kissing the sensitive skin there with extra fervour – no doubt in retaliation for the ‘dork’ comment. The loud pop his mouth made when he finally released her skin hinted that Alya would be seeing a bright red spot on her skin courtesy of her boyfriend next time she looked in the mirror. Instead of consternation at his cheekiness, contentment fluttered in her chest. Pleasure coiled lower down.

“Nino.”

“Yeah?” His voice hummed down her skin, resonating in the hollow on the other side of her throat where he was steadily working his way back up. His hands had circled around to her back, slipping underneath the thin cotton. His palms were as hot as brands on her skin.

Alya found the strength to drag her knees beneath her, slinging one leg over Nino’s lap so that she could rise over him. She kissed him with fresh passion, pressing her chest against his, loving how he unconsciously moved against her. It was like he had music forever playing inside him, always giving him a rhythm that took her breath away. She moved to his beat, falling into the growing heat sparked by the friction of their bodies.

She knew by long groan Nino gave her when she came down on his lap that she was not the only one effected. He wasn’t fully aroused yet, but she be damned if she didn’t get him there quick by sinking down lower and riding him through the soft cotton of his pyjama pants. The soft noise he made against her mouth was music to her ears.

“Nino,” she murmured again, loving that she could make him forget his own rhythm in favour of grinding against her like he wanted to get under her skin.

He grunted, ducking his head to kiss his way down her chest, finding her nipple through her shirt just as he found her clitoris through her shorts. His mouth was hot on her breast, twisting her insides into knots. Mindless friction became slow grinding, clever fingers working around khaki material to find the best angle to touch her. He found a new rhythm that had her clenching her thighs around him, tipping her head back to see stars through glazed eyes.

“H-how long to do think Adrien will be gone for?” she panted, biting her lip, pushing back against the wonderful, spiralling warmth growing between them.

“Long enough,” Nino groaned, taking her question as invitation to hook her thighs up over his hips, grabbing handfuls of her ass to push them together so that the heat of her rode deliciously against the hardness of him. In one smooth movement, he rocked to his feet and stumbled toward one of the beds.

Alya’s legs closed around him, her arms flying around his neck. She kept up the friction until his hands clenched painfully tight on her bottom, his legs stumbling. She kissed her way down his neck, laving his pulse, grinning when a low curse fluttered in the air and his cock pressed insistently between her legs. The world tilted in a whirl the moment his knees hit the mattress and her back bounced against Egyptian cotton sheets with thread counts higher than her bank account.

Nino found her mouth again, kissing her, hands skimming around her body to find the button on her shorts. His fingers slipped inside, finding her wet and wanting.

Not to be outdone, Alya let her hand slide past his waistband and took him in hand, stroking him from base to tip. She grinned into the groan he gave her, kissing him harder. “We have a lot of time to make up for.”

“Fuck,” he moaned, bucking into her knowing hand.

Alya grinned. “That’s the plan.”

 

 

The akuma had not been hard to find.

Realizing the M4 was a stretch of motorway best traversed on four wheels rather than two legs, the heroes had hitched a ride atop a lorry. The blaring of angry horns grew louder the closer they got. The traffic backup nearly one hundred cars deep in either direction was a sore reminder that this was the morning commute, people were trying to get to work, and – judging by the amount of rude gestures being flung at them as they raced across car rooftops – a vast majority of motorists had not had their morning coffee yet.

Around the base of the mountain of luggage, cars were upended. Victims were pulling themselves from the wreckage, or else still trapped inside by their tangled seatbelts. Amid the mayhem, the akuma had built a slingshot out of bras and pantyhose, aiming at every airplane to cross overhead.

BlitzCraig, he called himself. Once an overworked, underpaid airline worker named Craig who had suffered one too many setbacks in the morning and a threat from the boss that if he didn’t come in on time that morning, he was going to be fired.

With the help of a little akuma possession, BlitzCraig decided to fire back.

Luckily, it seemed Papillon had chosen poorly this morning, as the akuma was nowhere near the violent pugilist of the Foot Brawler. On occasion, an akuma could rise that was more hot air than true rage. Despite his name, BlitzCraig was not particularly fast, nor overly graceful. He depended strongly upon his lightsabers for close-combat defense.

Out of the two heroes facing off with the akuma, Chat Noir was best prepared for a duel. Fencing as a civilian oddly enough translated to a useful, and occasionally life-saving, skill on the battlefield. Beyond that, the years had given him greater skill in the art of close combat.

Whereas Ladybug could attack at a distance, adapted best for defensive maneuvers, Chat was her sword and shield. By design, every incarnation of Chat Noir was meant to take and wreak havoc. His suit was armoured with thicker leather panels whereas Ladybug’s was thin and flexible; he could deflect damage more easily, diverting the worst of it by converting the destruction into a quick battlefield recharge. When Adrien had gotten it into his head to pursue martial arts as a means of harness the raw power his Miraculous gave him, he had also quickly learned that along with enhanced strength and senses, he had been given an innate instinct for mastering armed and unarmed combat.

Using Cataclysm to destroy one of the two lightsabers, he pinned the other with his baton, giving Ladybug the opportunity she needed to use her Lucky Charm. A red, spotted paper airplane slipped under BlitzCraig’s defense and knocked his nametag from his chest.

“I believe you’re flight’s been canceled,” Chat quipped, bringing his boot heel down on the cursed object. He felt the flare of dark magic as the butterfly was released; fast as lightning, Ladybug snapped the creature up into her compact.

“Bye-bye, little butterfly,” she called, releasing its purified self into the air with a smile.

Chat politely scooped up the Lucky Charm and handed it over, watching with an immense sense of satisfaction when she threw it up and yelled “Miraculous Ladybug!” The wave of curative magic that rushed out quickly corrected the damages wrought by the akuma; BlitzCraig became plain Craig once more, luggage was presumably returned to its owners, and the upended cars were returned to their normal positions with their bruised owners relieved of their injuries.

“Bien joué,” they chimed, bumping fists to complete the tradition.

“You did well today,” Ladybug praised. “I was worried you might change, like last night.”

Chat tipped his head, admitting, “I was worried too, but you weren’t in danger.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I only seem to lose my head when you’re involved.”

“Not that your head was ever screwed on that tightly to begin with,” she teased.

“Ha. Ha.”

A car horn blared not two feet away, startling the teens into realizing that they were blocking traffic. They made a quick dash to the shoulder of the road, allowing for the tide of cars to get moving again. Chat winced at the increased noise, the combined vibrations of so many engines reverberating in his head; the smell of petrol exhaust was as pungent as ever, though his stomach didn’t churn as strongly as it once did.

Amid the multi-coloured metal tide of movement, a town car stood out in its stillness where it was parked on the verge. Chat recognized the subtle sticker in the window as the car company his father used when visiting London. Upscale, discreet, and hideously expensive.

“Engine trouble?” Ladybug wondered, approaching the driver who leaned against the bonnet.

“Eh, the boss wanted to stop so I stopped. I’ll drive when he tells me to drive,” the man replied, watching traffic go by without much interest. He got paid by the hour whether he was driving or not.

“I smell smoke,” Chat reported, winging around to the passenger side where a familiar shape in a dark pantsuit was crouched in the gravel. Her hair was pulled out of her chignon, hunched with her back to the heroes. A thin ribbon of white smoke rose before her.

“Nathalie?” Chat called thoughtlessly.

“Mme. Sancoeur, are you all right?” Ladybug asked, shooting Chat a look when his fist closed reflexively around her wrist. He couldn’t explain the shiver that passed down his spine at the sight of his father’s personal assistant, so he merely held on and kept his distance.

The door on the driver’s side clicked open, Gabriel Agreste unfolding from the darkened interior. He tugged his shirt into place, paying no mind to speeding traffic whizzing by him on one side or the waiting superheroes on the other.

“M. Agreste-.”

“Ladybug.”

His tone had her tensing, notching her chin an inch higher in the air. “M. Agreste, your personal assistant may need some medical attention.”

Ladybug’s earring beeped, though she ignored it in favour of keeping a straight face.

In no particular hurry, Gabriel crossed around the car to see for himself what the trouble was. Chat searched the man’s face, finding no difference between now and the expression he had worn that morning. The same aloof detachment Adrien had lived with for years. With their heated exchange still fresh in his mind, Adrien was having a hard time remaining neutral as Chat Noir.

Gabriel settled his palm on Nathalie’s shoulder, saying nothing at all. His touch caused her to startle, freezing for all but a second before letting her shoulders drop. Gravel crunched as she rose; Chat watched her toss a small, smoking bundle on the ground and snuff it out with the toe of her shoe.

Ladybug valiantly stepped in. “Mme. Sancoeur, if you’re injured-.”

“I am fine.” Nathalie fixed her clothes and drew her hair back into its chignon. Gabriel’s hand remained on her shoulder, pale against the dark plum of her blazer. Either he was getting paler or her blazer was getting darker the longer Gabriel let his hand rest on her shoulder. “I was merely finishing a cigarette.”

“I didn’t know you smoked,” Chat intoned before he could stop himself. Both Gabriel and Nathalie’s gazes switched to him, staring through him. It was a physical effort not to cringe under their combined dispassion.

“I don’t believe we’re acquainted enough for you to know anything about me,” Nathalie replied, lifting her wrist to check her watch. She turned to Gabriel. “Sir, if we leave now you may be able to catch your original flight instead of needing to reschedule.”

“Then we leave now,” Gabriel said, leaving his assistant’s side to travel back around the car. Nathalie slid into the car without a word or backward glance. The windows were tinted, blocking any view of her.

A second beeping rang out. Four minutes.

Gabriel eyed them, his usual aloof expression falling into a considering frown, gaze roving carefully from Ladybug to Chat. The touch of his gaze had Chat straightening instinctively, unconsciously assuming the posture best suited for a model to be viewed. Gabriel’s eyebrow quirked, though did nothing else but take note of the changes in Chat, the lines in his face deepening into a definite frown.

Fur is a terrible fashion faux pas in the summer, isn’t it, Father? Too bad mine doesn’t come off.

Gabriel’s gaze switched to Ladybug, darting to the hand still hovering over her earring. He inclined his head. “It seems both of us have somewhere to be.” As an afterthought, with very little warmth given in the gesture, he paused, looking over the top of the town car, and nodded. “Thank you for your services in London. You seem surprisingly at home here.”

“We’re prepared to fight Papillon wherever he might appear, M. Agreste,” Ladybug replied. “It’s what Chat and I are here for.”

“How fortunate for us mere mortals.” He disappeared into the car without further ado, offering little more than a nod. Chat and Ladybug watched the car go, disappearing into the tide of cars.

Ladybug chewed her bottom lip. “That was odd.”

“It wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Chat replied, wincing when Ladybug sent him a questioning look. He shrugged, glancing down at his hand where his ring should have been. No warning beep, but instead a creeping tremor passed down his spine. Small at first, but growing. The skin and bone and tendons of his new, inhuman appendages went numb. As he watched, a spot of pale skin appeared amidst the black of his suit, a single piece of leather no bigger than a coin absorbed back into his body.

So that’s how it’s going to happen. And here he was, on the side of a motorway, definitely more than five minutes away from the hotel. Nothing but residential and estate land for miles. This can’t possibly get any worse.

Another pale spot of skin appeared, splashed across his abdomen like a blot of paint.

Chat stared, recalling with terrible clarity why he was seeing skin instead of clothes. Because there were no clothes underneath.

He turned to Ladybug, whose head was darting in all directions as she tried to figure out which direction to take. There wasn’t a lot of choice, and even less cover. He could tell she was struggling to maintain a reasonable calm in such a public place. Her face was going paler by the second, the grip she had on her earrings growing tighter until she bleached all the colour from her ears.

“I have to go!” she gasped.

Concerned, Chat took her wrists to peel her hands away from her ears. “You have to calm down. Go find some place to change, I won’t follow.” He tried to offer a reassuring smile, despite the fact that more spots of white skin were appearing across his suit. “We’ve done this before, remember?”

Ladybug leaned in until they were nose-to-nose. “There is an issue with me changing back right now!”

“Probably not as big an issue as what I’m about to have,” Chat replied. “I’m not exactly dressed to be walking around in public.”

“I guarantee you, I am wearing less than you are right now!”

Ladybug’s earring went off for the third time. Three minute mark.

“Shit!” Ladybug swore, thoughtlessly grabbing Chat’s wrist to hightail it like a madwoman across the open field next to the motorway.

She ran faster than Chat had ever seen her run. A crazed, screaming blur of panicked teenaged girl that kicked up rabbits and startled partridge from the grass. Chat kept up as best he could, though he would have been able to go faster if she let his arm go so he could run on all fours. The detransformation was getting to a point where he had lost control of his tail, getting tangled with his legs. His hearing turned muffled, sounds resonating from atop his head, and then from the sides, his human ears trying to reassert their dominance.

They streaked their way through a thin copse of trees, bursting onto a residential street. Children on their bikes and adults washing their cars stopped to stare. Ladybug and Chat Noir stared back, panting, panic growing. No direction seemed like the right direction when they were verging on being naked at the whim of their kwamis with the prying eyes of the public all around. No safe place to hide!

“I’ve got an idea!” Chat cried, whipping out his baton and grabbing Ladybug around the waist. Together, they vaulted far and fast over the houses, covering more ground than on foot alone. He paused for a split second in one backyard, whipping a blanket off the clothesline where it had been left to dry.

“Oh, great, so we’re thieves now, too?” Ladybug squawked, forced to carry the blanket while Chat negotiated their wild high-vaulting through the maze of streets and backyards.

Beep, beep!

Two minutes!

“It’s an emergency! I’ll return it later!” Chat snapped, extending his baton higher than he should have dared, yowling when he finally saw what he had been desperately praying for. Rocking his weight forward, gravity took hold. Chat and Ladybug were falling, falling like they had been in the city, but this time adrenaline was pumping and a special kind of terror had taken hold.

They hit the lawns of a sprawling English estate. The moment their feet touched down, Ladybug took over, her feet flying before Chat could get a word in edgewise. She was flying, and he could only direct her with silent yanks on her arm. Manicured lawns rolled under their feet; a decorative pond passed by; several very confused gardeners looked up when a cold breeze shot by their backs.

Chat was barely holding on to the rest of his dignity by the time the last minute warning beeped. Much of his suit had already disappeared, leaving large swaths of naked skin exposed to the bite of the wind as they ran and the burn of the sun overhead. His tail was gone, both human ears returned; he had no idea if his mask was still in place.

Ladybug’s hand clenched so tight around his that bones ground together.

Leaping over a stile, they hit a private apple orchard at the far end of the estate, a field of old, gnarled trees with their pruned branches bent low to the ground. They dashed to the far end for cover, Ladybug shouting warnings as they went – “Thirty seconds left! Twenty seconds!”

Not good! Not good! Not good!

This was not how their reveal was supposed to go! It was supposed to be on their terms! In their own time! When they were both ready and comfortable and completely consenting-!

“Ten seconds!” Ladybug shrieked, releasing Chat’s arm to clasp her earrings as if clenching them to her ears might keep her suit on longer.

Chat scooped up the fallen blanket, whipping it around his back and holding it wide with a corner in each fist. “Hurry!”

Ladybug’s suit wavered, light beginning to erupt near her feet. With no time to waste, she took a flying leap just as her transformation finally gave out.

Chat reflexively snapped his arms closed the moment a warm body made impact. The force of Ladybug’s tackle took them both to the ground, rolling over each other in the soft grass until coming to a halt under the shade of an apple tree. Chat felt the last of his transformation give out, returning him fully to being Adrien Agreste.

A bird chirped.

The wind blew gently through the leaves.

Adrien stared up at the sky like he had never seen the colour blue before. “Are you okay?”

“I think so.” Her lips tickled against his bare chest as she spoke. She was tucked beneath the hem of the blanket, only the black halo of her hair poking out. “Did you see…?”

“No.”

“I didn’t see anything either.” Always the bastion of strength in their relationship, Ladybug was the first to move, shifted until her legs fell to either side of Adrien’s hips, lifting up just enough on her elbows and knees to allow for a small, red kwami to squirrel out from between them. Ladybug kept her head bowed, face averted; Adrien respectfully tilted his head back so as not to be tempted to look at her. Once Tikki was free, the civilian girl who was Ladybug came back down so that the full length of her body was once again pressed to Adrien’s.

Wherever they touched, skin burned. Nerve endings sizzled.

Dazed, Adrien wondered if he somehow had gotten knocked out in battle and this was actually just another one of those dreams?

Ladybug unconsciously wriggled, her hipbones bumping his. Her elbow rammed him in the side. Her legs shifted, sinewy muscle rolling beneath satin skin. Her belly dipped, running over the tensed muscle of his lower abdomen.

There were other body parts unintentionally rubbing down there as well.

Adrien bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut.

Not a dream. Definitely not a dream. Ladybug in his dreams had been bold, but never cruel. Having this Ladybug thoughtlessly wriggle above him was pure cruelty.

Unaware of the turmoil she was inspiring, Ladybug calmly asked, “Tikki, are you all right?”

“I’m fine. That’s not the longest I’ve had to hold on before,” said a sweet voice, matching the kwami that floated into Adrien’s line of sight. She was a pretty little thing, as red as a ladybug and crowned with startling black spots. No wonder Plagg spoke fondly of her whenever he mentioned her.

“I appreciate you holding on for as long as you did.”

The small god scoffed fondly. “I couldn’t let you go running naked through peoples’ backyards, Ma… my Ladybug. Humans don’t approve of that in this century.”

Adrien wondered in what century that had been approved of.

“I don’t have any cookies for you.”

“I can fly up to the estate house and see if there is anything in their kitchens.”

Ladybug tensed. “What if they don’t have any cookies there?”

“I’ve lived a lot longer than the invention of cookies,” the kwami assured. “I like cookies the best, but so long as I can find a source of sugar, I’ll be fine. It may take a while to recharge, though.”

Adrien’s stomach chose that moment to gurgle loudly. He felt the muscles in his abdomen cramp, belly twisting like someone had sucker punched him in the gut. Were it not for the girl he had lying on top of him, he would have curled on his side from the sudden pain of it. It felt like stomach acid was chewing a hole through his digestive tract. His mouth went dry, dizziness rioting as if he hadn’t eaten for days.

Tikki laid a small hand to his cheek. “Hello, Chat. It’s unfortunate we’re meeting under these circumstances.”

He grunted, embarrassed that an animal noise was all he could make in his agony. First impressions never seemed to be in his favour.

The small god didn’t seem to notice. Her smile stayed fond as she watched him. “You need to recharge, too. Plagg will be very hungry after you used Cataclysm.”

Clearing his throat, he managed to string together a graveled question from between clenched teeth. “Do you guys feel like this every time we change back?”

“Not always, but the hunger can be pressing,” Tikki moderated. “You haven’t been eating as much cheese as Plagg normally would to keep it at bay.”

“I am never complaining about Plagg being hungry all the time ever again.” He groaned, drawing his arms around Ladybug for something to hold on to as a fresh wave of cramping rolled through his gut. Through the pain, he felt Ladybug’s body go soft against his. Her small hands stoked him in comfort. Maybe he was imagining it, but he could have sworn he felt a pair of petal-soft lips brush his shoulder.

“If Plagg were here, I am sure he would be happy about your newfound insight. But since he is not…” Tikki puttered away, returning with a bulbous mushroom clutched between her hands. “Eat this.”

No matter his hunger, Adrien turned his nose up at it.

“It’ll stave off the worst of the hunger,” the small god tempted.

Ladybug clasped her hands around Adrien’s shoulders and bid, “Just eat it, Chat.”

Fearing the worst, Adrien braced himself for the taste of dirt and a possible self-poisoning. Instead, much like his experience with camembert, the mushroom burst upon his tongue like the best thing to ever hit his taste buds. It was woody and meaty, with the complexity and subtly of a truffle that most people would pay hundreds of euros to eat. The pain in his stomach abated until it was only a distant gnawing.

Smacking his lips for any lingering flavor, Adrien stared up at the kwami skeptically. “I thought that only worked with cheese.”

“Anything rotten or fermented will actually work. Plagg simply prefers cheese.” The quirk of her mouth definitely said she was laughing at him. “Mushrooms don’t offer the same kind of boost, but they do in a pinch.”

“And if I die from mushroom poisoning?”

She patted his head. “Plagg is bonded to you right now. He can’t be poisoned, so you should be fine.”

“Should be,” Adrien scoffed.

Small fingers pinched him beneath the blanket. “Leave her alone, Chat. She’s only trying to help. Tikki, stop wasting time and go find some sugar.”

“I will be back as soon as I can.” Tikki left them in a flash of ruby red, fluttering toward the estate house looming in the distance.

Adrien felt his lip curling, the points of his incisors sharpening in response to his irritation. “I suffered smelling like old gym socks for three years because that little goblin only preferred cheese.”

Ladybug wiggled; her chest fluttered with a quiet laugh. “When all of this is over, you can take that up with him.”

“Oh, you bet I will.”

She hummed, waiting a beat. Adrien could sense her want to look up. Curiosity was not only for cats. It was there in the tension in her shoulders, the way her fingers dug into his front a little too deeply; here they were, in civilian form, as close as two people could be. Electric energy tingled in every line of her body.

Adrien fought the urge to look down. He’d seen every inch of her in his dreams except her face, and here her face was pressed to his chest. All it would take would be to peel the blanket back, tilted his head down. The last mystery of his Ladybug teased and tantalized…

By the skin of his sharpened teeth, he resisted.

Now was not the time.

Ladybug relaxed a fraction. “Plagg’s not the only one who kept secrets. I never knew Tikki only needed sugar. I’ve had cookie crumbs all through my bags for years, all for nothing.”

“It makes a strange kind of sense about them, doesn’t it? All living things on Earth require sugar to survive. Tikki represents life, so her needing sugar makes sense.” Adrien settled his arms in the most polite spot he could think of – around the middle of Ladybug’s back. He could feel the compact lines of muscle that framed her spine – a long, lean powerhouse packed into such a small body. Realizing his thoughts had derailed, he chimed in again, “Plagg is Destruction-.”

“So he’s the opposite. He’d eat rotten things.”

“Yeah.” He huffed a disbelieving laugh. “I just learned more about my own kwami in the last thirty seconds than I did living with him for three years.”

He could feel Ladybug smiling. “Kwami can be extremely elusive when they want to be.”

Adrien nodded, letting silence fill the gap.

Their legs tangled together, bare feet trailing from the end of the blanket to swish absently in the grass.

“We probably look ridiculous,” Ladybug lamented.

Adrien glanced down the length of their bodies. “Like a blanket-wrapped Miraculous burrito.”

“Great.”

Adrien tried to think of something more to say, finding his glib Chat Noir tongue had abandoned him. He was sinking into the realization that when Ladybug had guaranteed she was wearing less than he was, she had meant it. The surprisingly soft touch of warm, trim hair brushing against his lower belly – proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she wasn’t even wearing panties – had his imagination rioting.

The cat under his skin wanted to arch and purr and roll over on the girl who laid with him. A part of Adrien wanted to curl around her and keep her cocooned with him for as long as she would let him. His tongue itched to lap at her neck; his skin twitched to rub against her until she smelled of him and not hairspray. Beyond his civilized control, the cat wanted to do all the things he had imagined and acted upon in his dreams – things he didn’t dare linger on in the light of day, nor ever dare to act on.

A blush started from beneath the line of the blanket, steadily working its way up to his face.

Unaware of his self-chastising, Ladybug drew pictures on his skin with the tip of her finger. “We might as well get the hard part out of the way.”

He sputtered on the word ‘hard.’

Ladybug valiantly ignored him. “I’m just going to come out and say it: Chat Noir, I’m naked.”

“I noticed.” He was proud of the fact that his voice didn’t crack.

“You’re naked, too,” she countered haughtily when he failed to give her a more satisfactory response.

“Not as naked as you are.”

He heard the intake of breath meant to counter, and her grumble when she was forced to concede. “…that’s true, I guess.”

Adrien ran his fingertips down her sides, taking equal pleasures in the small victory and her continued closeness. “Why weren’t you wearing anything when you transformed this morning?” The moment the words were out of his mouth, courage fled, prompting him to backpedal lest he offended her. “You don’t have to tell me if it’s personal. I just thought I’d ask-.”

“I was in a hurry to see you,” Ladybug replied, stroking the backs of her fingers along the line of his shoulder. She giggled when a soft purr rose in response. “Like I told you, I was worried about you after last night, so when I heard that you were out in the city I rushed for the window.”

“With nothing on?”

“I had just gotten out of the shower.” Her stroking fingers poked him. “What excuse do you have?”

“I-.“ He cleared his throat. “I wasn’t thinking. Mostly, I wanted to see you. I never thought we’d be fighting an akuma.”

“Papillon sure knows how to ruin a good morning.” Ladybug thumped her forehead on his shoulder. “Chaton, be honest. Is this the most ridiculous situation we’ve ever gotten ourselves into?”

Searching his memories, Adrien drew a blank on anything that might top being trapped naked with the love of his life. In all honesty, he replied, “This is definitely the most ridiculous thing we have ever gotten ourselves into.”

“I was afraid of that.” Her tone was flat, dejected. Ever the practical one, Ladybug rallied seconds later. “We can be mature about this, can’t we? We’ve known each other for years. We trust each other. This doesn’t have to be weird.”

Adrien sank his top teeth into his bottom lip, wondering what Ladybug’s definition of weird was. For him, the situation crossed over from weird to mortifying the moment the realized he was only wearing boxers.

“I mean, we’ve been this close before. Plenty of times, really,” Ladybug justified, the words only slightly stilted. Her voice was unsteady – from nerves or embarrassment. “This… is just like all those other times, right? We’re just… watching each other’s backs.”

“Except we’re naked.”

There was silence, and then a dull sigh. “Yeah, we’re naked.” A small whine floated out from under the blanket. “We’re going to be stuck like this for a while, aren’t we?”

“Probably.” A rough estimate of the distance they had covered from the estate house to the orchard meant it was going to take Tikki a while to get there and back.

Ladybug grumbled and rose again, wriggling for a more comfortable position. Either she had no clue what the friction was doing to him, or she had way too much faith in his ability to control himself. There were some things that simply could not be controlled. The feeling of skin moving across skin; her warmth and pleasant weight pressing down around him; the sound of her little grunts and groans as she manoeuvred in the tight space of the blanket, were all triggers.

All too soon, arousal ignited like a spark to dry tinder. Adrien felt himself twitch and harden. The roomy confines of his cotton boxers quickly shrank.

His hands clenched tight around her waist, stilling her movements. “Ladybug…”

“None of this can be helped, Chat, so we might as well be comfortable.” Warm breath gently huffed against his front.

He bit back a groan, fingers digging into her bare sides. Finding a small reserve of self-preservation, he managed to grate, “I don’t mean to be crude, but the more comfortable you get, Buginette, the more uncomfortable I am going to get.”

“What?” It took a moment for the reference to click. He could see the tips of her ears stain bright red. “Oh.”

He turned equally red, gasping quietly when he felt Ladybug waver unsurely on her knees. Her pelvis brushed along his shaft. Sensation rioted, pleasure spiralling against his will; he bit back a groan, though a low noise still escaped his throat. He didn’t want to think it, but even the smallest contact felt good. Oh, so good. Good enough that his erection twitched again, kicking up in the small space between them, returning the caress Ladybug had given first. She went rigid, sucking in a gasp of air.

Humiliated, Adrien mumbled, “Sorry.”

“Ah, no… Don’t be,” Ladybug replied, each word coming out like its own separate sentence. She swallowed loud enough for him to hear it. “It’s not… It’s not your fault.” There was a slight tremor in her voice. “It’s, um, my fault, really. All that wiggling, I wasn’t thinking. It wasn’t fair of me to do that.”

The muscles in her arms and legs quivered from holding her suspended a bare few inches above him. She didn’t dare go to the full extension of her arms and legs, lest she part the blanket around them and flash the whole world their birthday suits. There was only so long even someone like her could hold an awkward pose before she tired. She wavered. The low curve of her belly brushed the tip of him again. He grit his teeth; she bit her lip.

Nevertheless, Ladybug took a deep breath and tried to ease the tension. “It’s… a perfectly natural reaction, Chat.”

He whined through his nose.

She pinched him. “We’re naked, and we’re really close together, and we’re rubbing up against each other…” Her voice cracked; she swallowed hard. “Things were bound to happen. It’s just instinct. It doesn’t have to mean anything unless… well, unless. Yeah.” Her voice quieted as she murmured, “I’m not going to think less of you for… for, you know. I want you to know that, okay? I could never think less of you for something like being aroused in a situation like this.”

“I know.” That didn’t stop him from blushing to his toes and praying for the earth to open up and swallow him whole.

“Good.” She started shivering worse as her muscles started to reach their limit. Instead of lowering the whole of her body, she kept her knees braced and let her upper half come down to relieve the pressure on her arms. Her head tucked under the crook of his chin, her soft breasts pressed to his front. He felt the poke of her nipples, saw the round swell of her bottom in the air under the drape of the blanket, and that was nearly Adrien’s undoing. He heard Ladybug's muffled grunt, rocking her weight between her knees as her thighs continued to burn.

His heart turned over because Ladybug chose to stay in discomfort just to keep some space between them to preserve his dignity.

Worst still was the soft voice that whispered against the front of his throat. “I don’t want you to be embarrassed.”

“Too late,” he sighed.

“Chat…” She curled her fingers into fists, digging in at the sides of his ribs. He felt her set her chin, determination rising above awkwardness. “If it helps, you’re not the only one who… What I mean to say is…” A small laugh drifted up. “It’s not like I’m unaffected by all this-.”

Adrien nearly swallowed his tongue. “You… you’re-?”

“Yeah.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “You’re not unattractive, Chat. I’ve seen you in leather, and now I can feel you out of it, and years of fighting akuma have clearly done us both justice.”

A strangled squeaking noise exited Adrien’s mouth.

Ladybug patted him consolingly. “And, like I said, it’s instinct. Two people pressed together like this… it’s just instinct.”

Instinct. Right. Maybe that wouldn’t be something to worry about if Adrien only had to compete with human urges. But he wasn’t completely human any more, and the cat’s instinct currently wanted Ladybug to stay on her knees while he slipped out from underneath and draped himself over her back, hands on her hips and his mouth at her neck. He wanted to feel the whole length of her body tremble as he held her, count the freckles on her back and every vertebrae in her spine, and he wanted to know what it would taste like to kiss her between her legs or slide himself through the silken haven of her sex.

His instinct clearly was not to be trusted. Thoughts alone were digging his grave, each explicit scene blooming in his mind serving to unravel his sanity a little more. Ladybug on her knees. Ladybug rising over him. Ladybug on her back while he stole a taste of heaven from between her legs. He tipped his head back and groaned, straining against the confines of his boxers; much more of this and he was going to hit dream-critical. There was enough pent up lust leftover from that morning’s unresolved attempt to make him thoroughly miserable.

The unconscious buck of his hips brought him in contact with the cleft of Ladybug’s open legs. Through the cotton of his boxers, he felt her searing heat, gliding along slick softness as evidence of her arousal. A split second of contact was all he needed for the moment to be seared into the back of his mind for the rest of his life.

Ladybug’s legs gave out upon contact. A gasp fluttered in the air as she came down squarely atop him, aligned in ways that had both of them freezing. A sudden rush of pleasure to match the pressure of damp heat meeting insistent hardness made their hearts skip a beat, breath stuttering. Warm, tingling, incredible sensation rioted unexpectedly from the point of contact outward, fading too soon, leaving them with a startling want for more.

“Mmmmph,” Ladybug murmured, pressing her lips together in a long, thin line, turning her face down into Adrien’s chest.

Adrien found his hands secured to Ladybug’s hips, grasping her so tightly he feared he might leave bruises. The noise that left his mouth wasn’t human.

Ladybug tensed, gathering strength to rise again. Though she meant to put space between them, the mere shift of her weight and the play of tensing muscle set off fireworks down the length of Adrien’s body. Tucked into the cleft of her legs, heat radiating through his boxers, he felt even the smallest twitch of her body.

“Don’t. Move.” His claws were definitely out, threatening to prick her skin. The trembling strength with which he held her kept her firmly against him. The muscles in his stomach locked tight, a vice around his lungs keeping him from getting a full breath of air. Every little movement, down to their breathing and heartbeats, set off miniature sparks of coiled pleasure in his loins, winding him tighter with each second. But better this than allowing for movement that would set him off completely. There would be no coming back if he... well, if he came.

“Chat, I-.” She sounded as shaken as he felt.

“My Lady…”

She shivered at the calling of his personal title for her, gooseflesh breaking out along her skin. “It’s okay” she murmured, thinking of him first and always. Damn her and her kind heart. She was trying so hard to act normal when she had his cock pressed between her legs, both of them somehow managing to get off on the clumsy contact. “This is okay. Everything is-.”

“Don’t say okay.” He swallowed hard, gasping in time to the tiniest flex of her thighs. “This is not okay.”

He was very not okay!

Her lips moved against his racing pulse. “Maybe not. Maybe…” She heaved a terrible sigh, letting her face fall fully into the curve of his throat. He felt the vibrations of her voice as much as he heard them. “Oh my god, Chat, how did we get into this?”

It was beyond him to answer.

She shook her head, arms tightening around him. “This is ridiculous.”

He nodded.

Her shoulders dropped, her body sinking against him. “Just in case, I want you to know that I trust you.”

He tipped his head back and whined. “Why are you telling me that now?”

“Because it’s important!” she chided, bumping against him thoughtlessly. They both ended up sucking in startled breaths. Her legs clasped tighter around him. Adrien’s hips moved on their own, adjusting his position. Dampness from her arousal was starting to soak through his boxers. He could feel it against his skin, warm and wet and so damn wonderful that he somehow managed to get harder. She felt so good he was in pain. He teetering on the brink, eyes watering. Ladybug groaned quietly. “You’re important to me. I want you to know that I trust you.”

“I trust you, too.” A pained laugh scraped from his raw throat. “I don’t trust myself.”

“Because of the werecat?”

“Because I am an idiot.” His fingers clenched tight, claws breaking the surface of her skin. Ladybug startled, going as taut as a bowstring. Adrien waited for the recoil. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and braced for whatever she might dole out in retaliation. God only knew, a good punch might be enough to help take him down a damned notch.

No punch came. No slap. No short-range knee jerk between the legs. Ladybug’s arms stayed around him, tightening even when the tension in her body left. Confused, a small puff of air fell from Adrien’s parted lips. “Puh.”

She laughed at him. “I know you’re an idiot. I’m not afraid of your werecat, Chat.”

He snorted, turning his head away. “Because you’re insane.”

“No. Because I am Ladybug and you are Chat Noir.” Her tone brooked no room for argument. She paused, as if stunned by what she had just said; the words sank in, and she came back stronger with her next words. “No matter what form you come in, or whatever bizarre situation we find ourselves in, you could never hurt me. I could never be afraid of you.” She paused; Adrien knew when she licked her lips, because he felt the light skim of her tongue against his collarbone. “Let me show you.”

“Show me?” That time, his voice did squeak.

“Yes, show you. I trust you, and I am going to show you,” she bid, taking his hand and placing it over her eyes. He felt her lashes tickle his palm. Darkness obscured his vision a moment later when her palm skimmed up his neck, followed the line of his jaw to his ear, and allowed her hand to cover his eyes. “Are you okay with this, Chat?”

“Y-yes.”

“Good. Just make sure you keep your hand over my eyes.”

Adrien lost his breath to the rush of cool air and the shift of weight as Ladybug glided like silk against him. His hand followed her head up, while every muscle in his abdomen tightened under the feeling of Ladybug’s bottom sitting snug against him. The blanket floated free from around her shoulders; Adrien desperately wished he had his eyes to see what his Lady looked like bathed in sunlight rather than moonlight.

Was he supposed to be this deeply turned on by the idea of her sitting above him like she ruled him?

He felt himself twitch and pulse, hips undulating in search of relief. Cool air licking his heated skin was a torture of its own. The true cruelty came in the form of a powerful, lithe body that moved atop him like a dream. She murmured softly, the brush of soft midnight hair and warm, damp skin nearly too much for Adrien to handle. The palm across his eyes tightened, her other hand blindly falling to the side of his face, thumbing stubble.

Her warm breath across his lips made him startle.

Adrien heart raced suddenly raced. Blood soared south until he was lightheaded, so desperate for something, anything, to relieve the building pressure that he bucked against the air. Dampness spread where the tip of him wept; friction from his boxers on his cock alone was enough to leave him wanting more. He nearly jerked his hand away from Ladybug’s eyes. It was a herculean effort to lock his arm in place; his other hand found its way to the curve of her hip.

Ladybug sensed his restlessness, petting him as she would a panicked animal. Her arousal left a damp spot on his belly. It was among one of the most erotic things Adrien had ever felt.

The movement of her lips so close to his had his racing heart thumping in his throat, blood beating to a fever pitch. “You’ve always seen me, haven’t you? Even with the mask on, I’m just…” Her breath hitched. “To you, I’m just-.”

“You are my Ladybug.” He knew those were exactly the words she had been looking for. He felt the pleased jump in her muscles, and heard the small hum of her agreement.

“I’m your Ladybug, and you are my Chat Noir.” The hand stroking his face moved into his hair. “Your claws don’t scare me. Your fangs don’t scare me.” He sensed the shift in her weight, the draw of her presence as she leaned infinitesimally closer. “Look how close I am to the big, bad werecat, and not one bit of him scares me.” There was a smile in her voice, so close that her words resonated on his lips. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“You’re fearless,” he laughed, breathless, awed by her.

“Only when it comes to you, mon minou.”

He felt her head dip. His heart seized. Other parts of him leapt. He levered up to catch her falling mouth.

“I’m back!” Tikki cried.

The twin shrieks that followed scared every bird from every tree in the orchard. In a show of terrifying reflexive strength, Ladybug slammed the back of Adrien’s head into the dirt with the force of a Mexican wrestler in a grudge match. Stunned, his hand flew from across her eyes just as she threw herself backwards – losing her balance on his torso when she attempted to assume a defensive position.

In the blurry seconds that his vision cleared, Adrien was presented with a fleeting glance of flying legs and pink-tipped breasts before Ladybug managed to roll ass over tea kettle between his spread legs. Her flexibility, once an asset, now meant her knees were up around her ears and her pert little ass was in the air.

“Oh dear,” Tikki hummed, looking back and forth between the pair of shell-shocked teens. She looked neither disappointed nor surprised to come upon them as they were.

“Tikki!” Ladybug shrieked, calling the god’s name as one might shout a curse. “Spots on!” The little kwami had only a moment to laugh at her chosen before being sucked into the earrings.

Adrien took his cue, calling “Claws out,” and letting familiar leather come to his protection. Where once the armour had fit snugly, it was now uncomfortably tight. The transformation didn’t feel as stable as usual, the ghost of unsated hunger still gnawing in his gut. He looked over at Ladybug, flipping herself right side up amid a tide of spots and flushed cheeks.

“So,” he intoned shakily, scratching the back of his neck. “That just happened.”

Her eyes blinked wide behind her mask. “That definitely just happened.”

He nodded, shifting where he sat in a poor attempt to adjust himself without actually using his hands. This wasn’t his first time with an inconvenient erection while transformed, but this certainly was the most aroused he had ever been while stuck in costume; a leather cat suit was a lot more restrictive than a pair of boxers.

Ladybug’s eyes dropped as he moved, only to dart back up when she realized what she had been doing. “Ah…”

Chat drew his tail into his lap, blushing to the roots of his hair.

“Sorry,” she croaked, licking her dry lips.

“It’s fine.” He wondered if his face was going to be permanently stained pink.

“Are you… going to be okay? With, um…” She moved her hand in a vague gesture towards his lap.

Chat winced. “If you give me a couple of minutes, I’ll be able to walk out of here.”

Ladybug nodded, gliding to her feet. Chat stared at the grass, listening to each blade rustle under her weight. The calling of his name had him looking up, into eyes that reminded him of the sky after a storm – the deepest, richest blue imaginable. She cracked a half-smile, ducking her head into her shoulders.

“I almost kissed you,” she said.

“I almost kissed you back,” he replied.

Her half-smile wavered. “I’m sorry. I got so caught up in the moment…”

“Don’t be sorry.” Despite his personal discomfort, he found the strength to flash her a cheeky, fanged grin. “I’m not sorry.”

She laughed, shoulders relaxing, her smile blossoming in full. “You wouldn’t be, would you?”

“Never when it comes to you.” He’d wait another three years just to get that close for another kiss. They wouldn’t even have to be naked the second time around. His grin stretched wider, feeling unreasonably confident now that he was back in the protection of his armour. “You said it yourself - what happened was… it was a perfectly natural reaction to the situation. We’re only human… mostly. Besides, er…” What was that statistic Marinette gave him again? Oh yeah. “I heard the average guy has around eleven erections a day, so…”

Ladybug expression dropped, eyes going wide. “What did you just say?”

Chat blinked at her, glanced down, and then back of at her haplessly. “Uh, guys can have an average of eleven erections a day?” He frowned. “It might not be right, though. I heard it from a friend.”

“A friend,” she parroted.

“Yeah.” Not knowing what to make of her sudden change of mood, and growing increasingly uncomfortable with the way she was looking at him like she had never seen him before, Chat swooped to his feet. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“No, no, you didn’t. It’s a true statistic," Ladybug assured, for some reason completely confident in the random number. Perhaps she had taken the same Sexual Health course? She cracked an odd smile, aiming a pair of finger guns at him. "One down, ten more to go, right?”

Chat's eyebrows flew into his hairline.

Ladybug gasped, clapping her hands over her mouth. “Oh my god, I am sorry. That just slipped out.”

Chat felt his mouth start moving before he could stop himself. “That’s what she said.”

With her hands already over her mouth, Ladybug snorted behind her fingers. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“That’s what she said, too.”

“Chat!”

He grinned.

Ladybug scoffed. “I almost like your puns better than ‘she said’ jokes!” Nevertheless, she was giggling, which made Chat grin and laugh harder. His laughter triggered her giggles to evolve into true laughter. A single glance at each other had them bursting out into full gales of laughter that were in part due to their humour, but also a form of release from the tension that had built between them. Suddenly they were back to being Ladybug and Chat Noir, friends and partners. Everything was okay again.

Wiping the corners of her eyes where tears had gathered, Ladybug managed to collect herself enough to say, “We’ve been here long enough. I have a friend waiting on me back in the city.

“Same. We should get going.” Chat snagged their stolen blanket from the ground, grinning crookedly. “I’ll have this washed before I return it. I doubt the owners would appreciate knowing it had naked Lady-butt all over it.”

She quirked a brow, eyes dancing. “I would have guessed you’d keep it for the same reason, Chat.”

He put a hand to his heart, not at all abashed. “You caught me, my Lady.”

“Tomcat.”

“Literally.”

She laughed again, crossing the distance between them to hug him tight. He bit his lip when her belly brushed his still semi-hard erection. His apology never materialized as he watched Ladybug’s arm fly down, snatching the tail that had curled snugly between her legs.

“Chat Noir, you alley cat!”

He snatched his tail back, wringing it like he meant to wring its neck. “It has a mind of its own, I swear!”

She shook her head. “I am going to leave you and your tail here. Find your own way back into the city.” To show that there were no hard feelings, she winked before dashing off up a row between the apple trees.

Chat watched her go, and then switched his gaze to his tail still clenched between his fists. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth, you know that?”

Of course, he didn’t get an answer.

What he did get was a light breeze that picked up across the apple orchard. On the wind came the fresh scents of grass clippings and flowers in bloom, the heady scent of apple trees and the remnants of hairspray left behind by Ladybug. Mixed in among that, he detected a new bouquet – a thread of scent that made his nose twitch, his gut clench, and his lungs lock tight on a gasp.

His eyes fell half-mast, an unbidden purr of pleasured delight rumbling up from the depths. The world suddenly tilted on its axis as he swayed from the dizzying smell that filled his head and made his heart trip over itself.

Dazed, he stared down at his tail that wafted with the new scent. He detected a hint of it from beneath his leather, warmed by the heat of his skin. Its perfume wove within the threads of the blanket draped over his arm. The cat in him stirred, drawn up from dormancy by the allure of arousal. Chat groaned as pleasure settled deep in his gut, muscles clenching tight, lust roaring back to the fore in a rush of blood going south.

She smelled more wonderful than he ever could have imagined.

Like candied almonds, melted sugar, and liquid honey coating his tongue. Like warmth, and sex, and laughter; she smelled like everything he imagined home should smell like.

She smelled like…

“Marinette?”

Chapter Text

Tikki’s voice echoed in the back of Ladybug’s mind as the hotel came into view. Alya’s not in our room. You can slip in through the window.

Marinette offered up a silent thanks for the small blessing, diving headfirst through the open window and landing flat on her belly. No grace or special acrobatics. Ladybug went through over the sill and slid across the floor with the smoothness of a dead fish soaked in butter. She let her transformation slip away, sensitized skin tingling against the nap of the carpet. She remained unmoving face-down on the floor until her kwami floated down next to her cheek.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Marinette’s head popped up. Whatever was written on her face, it made Tikki pull an expression that was a cross between a wince and a laugh.

“You should see your face right now,” said the little god.

“I don’t want to.” A low groan rattled from Marinette’s chest, her face flopping straight back into the carpet. “Did that seriously just happen, Tikki?”

“Yes, it did.”

“Chat and I… We…” Words failed her.

“You were intimate together.”

A tiny whine escaped. “You make it sound like we were having sex.”

Tikki settled back, amending with, “You and Chat Noir were naked together in a field. Not having sex.”

“That’s better,” Marinette grumped, peeling herself off the floor and propping her back against the corner of the nearest bed. A discarded nightshirt was within reach, which she pulled over her head. It was barely long enough to fall past her ass. She felt the cotton as finely as she had felt the carpet.

“You almost kissed him.”

Marinette buried her burning face in her palms. “I almost kissed him.”

Tikki calmly collected a cookie from Marinette’s stash, sedately chewing while she watched and waited.

She didn’t have to wait long.

“Oh my god!” Marinette exclaimed, kicking her legs out, heels banging into the floor. ”I almost kissed him!”

Tikki cast her a pitying look. “You kissed him last night, too.”

“On the cheek!”

“You’ve kissed him on the mouth before.”

“That was three years ago, and he was under an akuma’s control.” Marinette glared from between her fingers. “There’s a big difference and you know it!”

Tikki rolled her eyes. “Of course there’s a difference. Both of you are older now, you’ve gotten to know each other much better.” She paused, and then added, “You would have kissed him, and you would have liked it.”

Marinette sucked in a sharp breath.

“Tell me that I’m wrong,” said the kwami.

She worked her jaw, unable to deny it.

To her credit, Tikki chose to be sympathetic rather than triumphant. “It’s not wrong for two people to enjoy a kiss, Marinette.”

“I know that.” Heat worked its way up the back of her neck, flaming in the tips of her ears. “If you had seen anything at all, you would have seen that I was enjoying a lot more than just trying to kiss him.” Squeezing her eyes shut did little good, conjuring memories of his warm palm over her eyes. His breath fanning against her lips. His belly pressed between her thighs, the stiff presence of his arousal prodding her bottom as she straddled him. “I took advantage of him!”

“From where I was standing, it looked like you were both very involved in what was happening.”

“He couldn’t help what was happening to him!”

“No more than you could.”

Marinette tipped her head back, banging her skull into bed. The punishing run from the orchard to the hotel had done little to diminish her arousal. It was still there, beating in her blood, reminding her of how wonderful it had felt to be pressed up against another human body. Not pleasure inspired from a dream, nor given by her own hand, but the delight that existed in experiencing the touch of another for the first time and loving the thrill of discovery. And it had been him, of all people, that she discovered it with.

She wouldn’t deny how good it felt. God, had it ever felt good. Wonderful, even. But there were certain lines one did not cross when it was your best friend involved, and his consent was dubious given his condition, and she was supposedly in love with another boy. At the very least, she was very infatuated with another boy. Did that make her a two-timer? Was she emotionally cheating on the boy she wasn't dating with another boy she wasn't dating?

Marinette didn't know much about being stuck in situations like this, but shouldn't she be feeling a hell of a lot more torn than she was? Was this not a test of her loyalties?

It was, wasn't it?

...unless Adrien and Chat happened to be the same-

“Argh!” Had a pillow been handy, she would have screamed into it. Her palms were a poor substitute.

Tikki patiently waited for her chosen to let it all out. She finished her cookie in the meantime.

In the end, Marinette toppled over and curled up on her side. She brought her knees up and hugged them to her chest, staring at the phone that laid abandoned in the middle of the floor. Alya’s phone. The phone that Marinette had not given a second thought to from the moment she had transformed that morning.

In morbid fascination, she asked, “Shouldn’t Alya’s phone be in the middle of an apple orchard right now?”

“I work in mysterious ways,” Tikki replied sagely.

Marinette blinked dumbly. “You are truly a powerful god.”

“You have no idea.” A small hand patted Marinette’s cheek. “And please don’t change the subject.”

“Change the subject?” A crazed laugh fluttered from her lips. “What I am supposed to say, Tikki? I don’t even know what to think!” She tugged half-heartedly at her mussed hair, strands of it still stiff from her hairspray dousing hours earlier. “Where do I even start?”

Tikki smiled comfortingly. “Say whatever is on your mind. Be honest, it’ll make you feel better.”

Marinette’s squirmed, pressing her legs together, though finding no relief. She released one arm from around her knees in order to reach out and cup her kwami in her palm.

“I am here to listen,” Tikki assured. There would be no judgement from her.

Maybe it was because they were alone that loosened the reins on Marinette’s tongue. Maybe it was because she was still riding high on the endorphins. Her head was still full of the way Chat had felt pressed against her. She remembered the heat, and the hot, coiled sensation he inspired low in her belly. A blush didn’t even rise with the memory of her legs spread over him, her sex touching his belly, and the sense that, if he had been able to look up at her, he would have been looking up in wonder.

She might have looked down at him in the same way.

“I loved every minute of it,” she admitted.

Tikki made a pleased noise, glowing a soft shade of red.

Marinette smiled fleetingly. “I… loved every second of it. Am I even allowed to say something like that?”

“No one’s stopping you.”

She closed her eyes, licking her lips. “I’ve never done anything like that before. You… know I haven’t been with a boy before. Or anyone, really.” Not that there had ever been a shortage of attention in that particular area of her life. There had been plenty of boys who had flirted with her over the years, from collége to lycée, but none who had ever caught her eye as finely as one shy boy. There had been no one who could keep her attention as riveted as one cocky grandstander carolling from rooftops in black leather.

Two boys who might...? Quite possibly…?

Marinette cut off that train of thought before she derailed completely. “I never knew it could feel like that with another person. I never imagined what it would feel like with Chat Noir. I didn’t even think twice about what I was doing with him, or to him.” There wasn’t a chance in hell that she was ever going to forget what she did to him with just a thoughtless wiggle of her hips. His leather suit hardly did him any justice compared to the feeling of him pressed snugly between her legs. “He was there, and it felt so good, and…”

“And?”

“And I trust him more than anyone else in this world. I know I said that it was just instinct, but it felt like...” She made a noise when words failed her. “It was Chat, and it was me, and we were… I don’t know.” She brought Tikki close, taking comfort in the kwami’s warm aura. In a small voice, she murmured, “I don’t know anymore, Tikki. I thought I knew, but now…”

“Not knowing is a part of growing up.” Gentle hands brushed strands of hair from Marinette’s face. “It sounds like you had fun anyways.”

“You’re terrible,” Marinette admonished fondly. “Am I supposed to be this confused?”

“That is especially a part of growing up. Learning things for the first time is not without its ups and downs.”

Marinette’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Was that a pun? That better not have been a penis pun.”

Tikki side-stepped the accusation by planting a warm kiss to Marinette’s cheek. “The ups and downs are sometimes the best part, Mari.”

“I don’t see how,” she lamented.

“You will someday, when you look back on this and remember what it was like feeling this way the first time.” A tinkling laugh chimed like a song. “You are not the first Ladybug to be confused about anything.”

Her words struck a chord, sinking home the weight of such a long-lived being’s single-minded attentions. Thousands of lifetimes, thousands of Ladybugs. Heroes who had fought in wars and faced life-threatening situations. Not simply fretting about the implications of dry humping a boy for the first time. Marinette blushed. “You must think I’m so silly.”

“Never.” Tikki nuzzled fondly against Marinette’s cheek. “Never, you dear sweet thing. I have loved each of my Ladybugs for their uniqueness, and I love you for your heart and your awful stubbornness.” She kissed her again, a spark of magic that tingled so sweetly against Marinette’s skin. “You make living new again for me, and I wouldn’t trade you for the world.”

A breathless sound spilled into the air. Marinette’s throat closed in tight, her eyes stinging, on the verge of laughing and crying at the same time. She uncurled in order to wipe her eyes with her free hand, sitting up again, feeling lightheaded like she was in free fall from the top of the Eiffel tower. Bringing both hands up, she cupped her kwami and planted a heartfelt kiss to the top of Tikki’s head. “I love you, too.”

“My silly, stubborn bug. I left you to your own devices for far too long,” Tikki mused, basking in the attentions.

Marinette pulled away, eyes narrowing playfully. “I knew you had a hand in this somehow.”

The small god’s eyes danced as she asked, “What do you think I’ve had a hand in?”

“I don’t know.” She laughed at her own words, wiping away the silly trail of tears that slipped from the corners of her eyes. “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I don’t care anymore. This is crazy. It’s probably stupid.”

“But it’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

Strange, nameless emotion swelled in Marinette’s chest, leaving her overfull with a thousand feelings she couldn’t give a single name to. It was a mix of anticipation and excitement and nervousness, the beat of her heart in her ears and the race of thoughts that refused to be pinned down. “It feels like the first time I was brave enough to fall from the top of the Eiffel tower.”

“You never forget your first jump.” Tikki’s belle laugh joined Marinette’s. The air in the room fizzled and popped electric in response to their combined delight. Magic overflowed, unchecked, spilling outward in a tide that caused unbidden smiles to bloom on unexpected faces, children laughed for no other reason than a sudden spout of happiness; flowers not yet bloomed in their planters unfurled in vibrant displays, turned up to a sky that shone the vibrant blue of a young girl’s laughing eyes.

A taste of magic Marinette had no inkling of yet.

Something that Tikki knew was best discovered in its own time, alongside everything else.

Marinette finally took one last giggling breath, letting the merriment dial back until it was only dancing in her eyes. “Tikki, I need you to tell me something.”

“Anything,” Tikki promised fondly.

“What would have happened if I kissed Chat Noir?”

“I told you, you would have kissed him, and you would have liked it.”

“Then why did you stop us?” She aimed a knowing look down at her kwami. “Don’t even try to deny it. I know you did that on purpose.”

There was not an ounce of guilt in Tikki’s smiling eyes. “If you had kissed him, his hand would fallen away from your eyes. Your hand would have fallen from his eyes. You two would have seen each other for the first time, and it would be another thing that you would never forget for the rest of your lives.” She tilted her head knowingly. “Were you ready to let him see you?”

Marinette’s lips parted, then closed. She shook her head slowly. For all her revelations, she wasn’t quite there yet. Not yet.

“Someday, you will be.”

Confident in a way she couldn’t explain, Marinette relished her answer: “I know.”

Tikki drew herself up importantly. “I may push you in some ways, Marinette, but I am still here to protect you. You weren’t ready, so I stepped in.”

Feeling impish, Marinette heard herself asking, “Would Plagg have stopped us if he were there?”

Tikki bobbed in the air. “He would have waited for your lips to touch, and then brought an apple tree down on you both.”

Marinette threw her head back on a sudden laugh. Would Chat’s lips have been soft enough to make up for having a tree felled on them? His mouth had been warm and soft with every kiss in her dreams. Her heart pattered against her ribs. An apple tree didn’t seem like such a big deal…

She pushed herself to her feet, standing a little taller than before. “You’ve always known who was under that mask, haven’t you?”

Tikki inclined her head. “You know I have.”

“Someday, I’ll know too.”

“You will.”

Marinette pressed a hand to her heart, unable to stop it from racing, just as she was unable to stop grinning. “What if he gave me a hint today?” Unintentional, perhaps, but still…

Tikki matched her grin. “Then I would say you were very lucky.”

“I am, aren’t I?” She quirked a brow, acknowledging her kwami. “Thanks to you.”

“You’d be surprised how very little I have to do with it.”

Marinette bounced on her heels, high off the magic and laughter and the sense that things really weren’t as terrible as she had once believed. She saw electric green eyes in her head, and they were at once both a cat’s eyes and a boy’s eyes. The smiles she had filed away in her memories were both fanged and cocky and simultaneously shy and demure. Black leather alongside expensive designer brands.

For once, for the very first time, the glamour separating two very different worlds had cracked and the mental images she had of two boys was starting to blur together.

Not a perfect overlap.

Not yet.

But maybe…

That statistic couldn’t have been a coincidence.

Who in their right mind knew something like that off the top of their head? Other than her, of course. And the one other person in all of London that she had dared utter those words to.

If they happen to be the same person…?

“Tikki?”

“Yes?”

Marinette put her chin in the air proudly. “He won’t be disappointed when he finds out I’m Ladybug.”

It wasn’t a question, and the kwami replied in kind. “You will not be disappointed when you find out who Chat Noir is.”

That was all the confirmation Marinette needed. Maybe she wasn’t quite ready to be unmasked yet, but… A little reconnaissance never hurt anyone, right?

She tugged on the hem of her shirt, her lip caught between her teeth, shifting her weight from foot to foot as she glanced over her shoulder.

But first, a shower.

 

 

She smelled like-

“Fuck.”

-like sex and sugar and starbursts on his tongue.

“Damn it.” Harsh breaths sawed from between his lips, scraping his throat raw. All of London was a blur as he ran, though he could never run fast enough to outrace his whirling thoughts. His head was so full wine-rich female arousal that he scarcely scented the city below. She clung to his skin, caressed the taste buds of his tongue, running down the back of his throat like sweet syrup.

However long it had taken him to snap from his daze in the orchard, it had taken nearly twice that to simply get himself under control to leave in a dignified fashion. Not that vaulting like a madman over rooftops was in the least bit dignified, but it was the best he could do. Especially while sporting a semi that just wouldn’t quit.

He dragged his claws through his hair. “I might be losing my mind-!”

Because Ladybug smelled like-

“Nino!” Chat hit the balcony at top speed, stumbling in his panic. “Nino!”

He scrabbled at the glass, forgetting that opposable thumbs were a real thing when it came to opening doors. He tripped over himself trying to wrap his shaking fingers around the latch. Had he been in his right mind, Chat might have picked up on all the telling clues not to enter.

Might have.

Maybe.

He sure as hell wasn’t picking up on them now.

If he had been using his eyes, he might have easily seen through the glass door the large, irregular shape beneath the drape of a sheet, undulating in a way no one could mistake for anything other than what it was. Chat might have seen the clothes scattered everywhere in a frenzy, the hands that gripped the headboard in a white-knuckled vice.

Had he been listening to anything other than the race of his own heart, he would have heard panting breaths and low groans cresting to a fever pitch. The muffled slap of flesh. The tossing out of a heartfelt curse, the calling of a name like a prayer.

Damn it, if his head hadn’t been so full of the fragrance of Ladybug’s arousal, and all the terrible and wonderful things it did to him, he might have picked up on the very real spice of lovemaking seeping through the doorframe.

Chat missed out on every single one of those cues. He hooked his hands around the latch and yanked. A bit too much strength and a dash of bad luck had the sliding door flying off its runners, crashing into the frame and inspiring a deep crack through the glass.

All movement on the bed ceased.

“Nino!” Chat ran straight past the bed, halfway into the room before it occurred to him that he should have seen his friend by now. Spinning around, he first spied the violin abandoned on Nino’s bed, and then the telling lump in the middle of his.

Chat gaped at the frozen lump of a body in the middle of the mattress. “Nino?!”

But it wasn’t Nino who flung back the sheet.

Alya Césaire rose up like a war goddess. Hair tossed up like flames, reddened bruises decorating her shoulders like war prizes, the curving line of her bare back twisted around until Chat could see the fire in her eyes.

Time screeched to a stunning, deafening, terrifying halt.

Those first five seconds of incredulous revelation were the longest lived in all of Chat’s nine lives. Dear god, he had never stared at a woman’s face so hard. He didn’t dare twitch an eye in any direction. Not that it saved him from possessing peripheral vision; with that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Alya was not wearing any shirt.

The flash of her naked bottom where the sheets pooled around her hips, sitting astride Nino in one of the most telling positions possible, said she was wearing about as much as Ladybug had been in the orchard.

Time resumed with the slow march of reaction across Alya’s face. Nuclear reaction. Her features twisted as shock coalesced into rising fury. Glazed eyes went diamond sharp, flames of rage borne from interruption ignited in her gaze. A strangled noise rose up, tangling in her throat, every possible curse word trying to escape all at once. She was absolutely incandescent as she rocked forward, fist closing around the nearest object she could use as a projectile: the television remote.

Were it not for catlike reflexes, Chat would have taken a bullet to the face.

As it was, the remote rushed by in a black blur. The sound of its explosive impact against the wall was accompanied by the fireworks shattering of plastic and batteries. A sizeable gouge was ripped out of the expensive wainscoting. The accompanying yowl that lit the air was enough to make any eardrum within a hundred yard radius bleed, a noise that embodied a thousand scrambled thoughts and emotions all at once. Nails-down-a-chalkboard, screeching brakes, scalded cat scream that echoed into the abyss for ten thousand years.

Alya might have been screaming, too.

Not that Chat was looking directly at her, but he was quite sure her mouth was moving. He imagined every possible explicative known to the French language was being flung at him right that second. Had he not been struck deaf by his own babbling list of panicked apologies, Alya might have succeeded in flaying the skin from his body with words alone.

Nino shot up just in time to grab his girlfriend before she could make a projectile out of the bedside lamp. She gave a war cry, bucking against his sudden grip, her free arm flying out with her fist cocked, forcing Nino to grab that arm too before he was coldcocked on the chin. Enraged adrenaline granted her the divine strength of ten men. Strong enough to nearly be Miraculous. Nino was not holding his girlfriend back as well as Chat would have liked.

The boy’s wild gold eyes snapped to the hero and for the second time in as many days, the once quiet boy roared. “Get out!”

“Shit!” Chat scrambled one way, then the other, and then remembered the broken balcony door. He slipped on the carpet in his haste to escape. Scrambling on all fours, all he could do was blather the same words over and over: “Sorry! Shit, sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry-!”

With all the ear-piercing noise echoing in the suite, it was a wonder that the occupants heard the sharp knock on the door. Somehow, beyond all logic or reason, they heard it and the muffled voice that followed: “Adrien, we can hear you down the hall. What is going on in there?”

A cracked noise exited Chat’s tight throat, now a deer in headlights rather than a cat on a hot tin roof. Nathalie. Nathalie had made it back? So soon? Too soon. Damn it, this was not happening!

The doorknob jigged too loudly in the ensuing silence. “Adrien, are you all right?”

Nino lowered his head and hissed. “Say something!”

Clearing his throat, Chat didn’t dare take his eyes off Nino or Alya when he answered in the best approximation of Calm and Collected Adrien. “I- I’m fine, Nathalie-!”

Nope, that was high-pitched prepubescent Adrien on helium.

Close enough.

Alya eyes shot wide, her whole body bristling as realization dawned with a fury. She geared up for a fresh scream of rage. Nino clamped a hand over her mouth. He also belatedly yanked the sheet up over her chest and sent Chat a death glare.

“Everything’s fine in here. N-nothing to worry about,” Chat continued. He flushed and started moving his hands at Nino and Alya, mouthing that he wasn’t looking. He didn’t see anything. He was so damned sorry-!

“Gunnar heard crashing,” Nathalie intoned.

Chat slapped a hand over his face, while Nino groaned. The Gorilla just had to arrive at the perfect time to partake in the second most embarrassing thing to happen to Chat that day. Really. That was truly his luck.

The doorknob jigged again, a last warning before Nathalie announced, “We’re coming in.”

The click of the door unlocking to its key card resounded in the shock of silence.

Chat stared in horror.

Nino mouthed the word Fuck before hissing, “Change back!”

“But-!”

“Now!”

Chat Noir became Adrien Agreste right before the eyes of a one very surprised, and increasingly incredulous, Alya Césaire. She had just enough time to take a breath meant for a hellfire scream that would peel the paint from the walls, just before Nino adjusted his grip to flip her beneath him and yank the sheets up over her body. He jumped on top of her and clapped a pillow over her face.

“Her clothes!” Nino hissed. “Grab her clothes!”

Adrien dove just as the door to the suite opened, two sets of familiar footsteps padding in. In his panic, his already volatile state flared, uncontrolled black magic jumping into his palms and igniting Alya’s bunched clothing.

“Shit! Shit!” He threw the smoking bundle out the balcony door. The approach of his bodyguard and personal assistant thundered like war drums in his head. A couple more feet and a couple of adults were going to see something that was going to be very damn hard to explain.

“Help me hide her!” Nino flailed his free arm, slapping the mattress next to him. Adrien took a flying leap, stretching himself out on his side in hopes that he and Nino combined were enough to disguise the fact that there was a naked woman in his bed.

His bed.

Maybe his friends didn’t think he’d notice, but he noticed. Oh, he noticed. There was no way in hell he wouldn’t have noticed Nino and Alya had been having sex in his bed.

Nathalie and the Gorilla came around the corner and stopped dead the moment they caught sight of their ward.

They stared.

Adrien and Nino stared back.

Nathalie’s dark brow winged up slowly.

A ruddy blush rose on the Gorilla’s pale cheeks.

Alya’s hand got loose from beneath the sheet, fingers curled into claws as they sank into the back of Adrien’s thigh. It felt like she was digging for his femoral artery. He gritted his teeth and pasted on the best smile he could force. Nino likewise tried for a causal smile, quickly swinging his knee over the gap between them to hide Alya’s hand, exposing his very naked leg and a strip of naked hip.

Both Nathalie and the Gorilla focused on that patch of brown skin, following it up to the boy pressed conspicuously close to their ward’s back. Nino’s smile cracked, his eye twitching. Adrien’s forced smile took on an edge of physical pain, his cheeks beginning to burn from the effort.

The Gorilla coughed into his fist, dropping his gaze to the carpet.

Nathalie was not so easily flustered, looking from one boy to the other with such stunning composure that she should have been an actress rather than a personal assistant. At the very least, she should have been a professional poker player. She met Adrien’s gaze unflinching. “I see that you are all right.”

Adrien bobbed his head weakly.

Nathalie took note of the hole in the wall, the shattered remote, and the cracked door thrown off its runners. This was, of course, on top of the mess she had witnessed that morning – the destroyed lamp, the sodden clothes, and the liquor bottles stashed across the floor. She marked it all down in her tablet, probably along with a memo to send to Gabriel that his son had finally lost his mind and went rock star on a hotel room.

Adrien watched her with his heart rapidly sinking into the void. Nathalie’s closed off expression spelled a thousand terrible fates. Each tap of her stylus was adding another year to his eternity of punishment. He was going to be locked up somewhere where keys didn’t even exist. Only designers and photographers were going to be allowed in on visitation.

I’m going to find out what’s it’s like to be a big cat in a zoo.

Nathalie glanced up from the tablet. “Your father is not going to be impressed with this after he spoke with you this morning.”

Adrien cringed. Forget the zoo, I am going to be skinned alive. Against all hope, he dared to ask, “Do we have to tell him? I can pay for it myself…”

“I’ll help,” Nino croaked, the pressure of his knee on Adrien’s hip increasing as Alya silently bucked beneath them.

It was written all over Nathalie’s face that that was not an option.

Surprisingly, the Gorilla placed a hand on the woman’s arm. “Let the kid pay for it.” At her raised brows, and Adrien’s gaping look, he shrugged. “We all get carried away sometimes. It’s not like he’s some punk who can’t pay for it on his own.”

Nathalie’s lips pursed. “Gunnar…”

Adrien’s nose twitched, catching the odd whiff of juniper and clove again, this time accompanied by a smoky scent. Not cigarettes. He didn’t know what it was supposed to be. He didn’t like the way it made his skin crawl.

“This is Adrien we’re talking about. He’s a good kid,” the Gorilla insisted, still avoiding looking directly in Adrien’s direction.

A light briefly sparked in Nathalie’s eyes, her shoulders dropping as she relented. “Fine.”

“Fine?” Adrien squeaked.

“Fine.” She pointed her stylus in warning. “You’ve already been spoken to by your father about this kind of behaviour. It won’t be tolerated, Adrien.”

“No, of course not-!”

“I will give you the benefit of the doubt, as it seems you and your friend merely got… carried away.” Even if she didn’t blush, her hesitation spoke loudly of her thoughts on the situation. She pushed her glasses up her nose, frowning. “This one time I will not inform your father, but you will be paying for all of the damages.”

“All of them, I swear,” Adrien vowed.

“I’ll inform the front desk.” She turned on her heel and left.

The Gorilla hovered for a moment, glancing after the woman, and then glancing back. His cheeks were still ruddy, though he politely inclined his head to both boys. “Next time, try not to be so… enthusiastic.”

“…sure thing.” Adrien gave his bodyguard a weak thumbs up as he left.

Neither Adrien nor Nino dared moved for several seconds after they heard the door shut.

Eventually, Adrien heaved himself up with a groan, burying his face in his palms. “They thought we were-.”

“Yep.”

Adrien groaned again.

“Better than the alternative,” Nino offered dryly.

Adrien pulled a face, glancing back at his friend, and then at the shrouded form still pinned to the mattress. “You should probably let her up now.”

Nino paled, not moving an inch. “Bro, at this point I’m too scared to.”

 

 

Half an hour later, no one was digging any impromptu graves. Alya had been let up, and the three of them were blessedly fully clothed again, seated in a semi-private booth at the back of the hotel’s café. Nino and Adrien sat on one side. Alya sat on the other, a steaming up of battery acid-strength black coffee steaming on the table before her.

Adrien opened his mouth to apologize for the one thousandth time.

Alya thrust a finger in the air. “You don’t get to talk.”

Nino opened his mouth.

“You don’t get to talk, either.”

Both boys glanced at each other contritely, sinking lower in their seats.

Alya took a long, fortifying sip of her coffee, taking her time with the mug at her lips. Her grey eyes stared over the rim, refusing to blink for even a second. The moment the mug clicked down on the table again, she narrowed her gaze and stated, “You are both lucky I don’t have my phone right now.”

Adrien cringed. “Because you’d post this to the Ladyblog?”

“No,” she snapped. “Because I would throw it at you.”

“Oh.” Adrien recalled the sizeable crater Alya had managed to make with the remote, and he winced.

Nino opened his mouth again.

Alya’s finger went up. “You’re still not allowed to talk.”

“But-.”

“You tried to smother me with a pillow.”

Nino pulled a face. “I was trying to hide you.”

“Any longer under there and you would have had to hide a body.”

Nino deflated, his cheeks flushing. “I said I was sorry.”

“So did Adrien. Or should I say,” her eyes flashed into flinty slits, “Chat Noir?

Adrien inched lower in his seat, passing off a fleeting glance to make sure no one was within hearing range. There was no point in denying it, just so long as a whole café didn’t hear about it.

“Chat Noir. Seriously? Seriously? No, don’t say anything, Agreste. I’m still too angry to listen.”

Angry about him being Chat Noir? If he weren’t terrified for his life, he might have asked. As it was, Alya in her natural state was a thousand times more terrifying that her akumatized self any day.

Alya took another long sip of her coffee, dragging out the moment for as long as she could. Not a hair was out of place on her head. Her clothing was a mix of both boys’ wardrobes, the very best of their casual wear sacrificed to her in reparation for Adrien setting her clothes on fire. As demure as she looked on the outside, it was only within close quarters that one could sense the simmering rage still contained within. Needlessly patting her lips dry with a napkin, she deigned to look at them again. “You have no idea how lucky you are that I gave Marinette my phone this morning. Otherwise it would have been a literal murder weapon.”

Nino nodded in silence, picking at a napkin.

Adrien tensed at the mentioning of Marinette’s name. Marinette. Right. Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Alya’s best friend. A girl who Alya had just confirmed had been out that morning. Out and gone from Alya’s company. Alone. Somewhere in the city.

…possibly wearing spots.

Adrien pulled on the collar of his shirt.

Alya zeroed in on him with laser focus. “Got something to say, cat boy?”

“Nope.”

She continued to stare holes through him. “Not even about the cat boy thing?”

“Um…” He wondered if that was a rhetorical question or merely the bait in a trap.

Nino cleared his throat, leaning in. “If we’re going to talk about that, maybe we should go to a more private place.”

Adrien slouched as low as he could go in his seat. “It’s fine. We can talk here if we keep our voices down.”

“So long as your eyes stay up here, Agreste,” Alya said, pointing squarely at her eyes.

Adrien shot up in his seat in a flash. “I wasn’t-! I’d never-!”

“You better not have,” Nino grumbled.

Alya once again pointed her finger. “You still don’t get to talk, Nino. You have no idea how embarrassed I am right now.” Her grip on her coffee mug went white-knuckled. “I’m not even mad about the Chat Noir thing. I am shocked, yes, but I am not mad. I am just super embarrassed that everyone and their cat got to see me naked today.”

“It was just the cat, really,” Adrien mumbled. “And I didn’t look, I swear.”

“Do not split hairs with me.” It looked like it took conscious effort for her to release her grip on her mug, moving to entwine her fingers together and lean her forehead onto her fists. She took a deep breath, eyes closed, almost as if she were praying for strength. She stayed like that for several seconds, long enough to cause the boys to jump when she finally spoke again. “Adrien.”

He sat up a little straighter at the calling of his name.

“I am going to ask you something and I need you to be honest with me.”

He swallowed hard and nodded.

Alya lifted her head, face set in determined lines. “Are you okay?”

“…what?” That was not the question he had been expecting.

She cut him a belligerent look. “I’m trying here, so work with me. Are you okay? After last night, I was so worried for Chat…” She blew out a long breath. “If you’re really Chat Noir, then you’ve been going through terrible things for the last two weeks without any support-.”

Nino snorted quietly, sitting back and crossing his arms. “He’s had some support.”

“You’re right.” For the first time since sitting down, Alya regarded her boyfriend with a soft look. “This is what you meant by him going through some things right now.”

“Yeah.”

“I never imagined…” She trailed off, unable to articulate her thoughts. Miraculous. Superhero. Werecat.

Nino shrugged a shoulder. “No one would ever imagine this.”

Alya dared to reach across the table, laying her palm atop of Adrien’s hand. He stared at her fingers as they gave a squeeze. “You’re Chat Noir.”

“I am,” he confirmed lowly. “I’ve been him since… well, since he first appeared in Paris.”

“Oh my god.” Letting reality sink in without the burn of embarrassed fury, Alya sat back and coughed up a small, stunned laugh. “But you’re a werecat right now, too.”

“Yes.”

Nino leaned in. “Did you find Ladybug this morning?”

Adrien’s gaze skittered away, his heart suddenly tripping in his chest. “I did.”

Alya’s eyes lit up. “Do you know who she is?”

“I… no. I don’t. I don’t think I do. Maybe.” Adrien withdrew his hand from under Alya’s touch, avoiding Nino’s odd look. “We talked.”

“And?” Alya pressed, a slave to her inquisitive nature.

“And we talked, that’s it.” Adrien was helpless to stop the blush that scored his cheeks. Ladybug’s scent still clung to him, conjuring visions of black hair and blue eyes and freckled skin. Technically, they had been talking, they simply hadn’t been dressed for the majority of the time.

Nino cut Alya off before she could press the subject. “Now that you’re in on the secret, you have to help out.” At her questioning look, Nino nodded to Adrien. “He’s not completely in control right now. You saw what he did to your clothes.”

Alya sighed. “That was my favourite bra, too.”

Adrien stared at the table. “I’ll buy you a new one.”

“No, I’ll buy her a new one,” Nino insisted, because no man was going to buy his girlfriend lingerie except him. Plus, it was the least he could do for almost smothering her with a pillow. “But the thing is, Alya, it’s not just wrecking things he has to be careful about. It’s people. A certain person, actually.”

“Marinette,” she intoned, not at all slow about putting the pieces together.

Nino nodded sharply. “We have to keep him away-.”

Adrien coughed into his fist.

“Yeah?” Nino intoned.

“Maybe… maybe we can loosen that rule a little,” Adrien muttered, unable to look at either friend.

Nino looked stunned. “Are you sure about that? I mean, you’ve been pretty adamant, and I saw that almost-kiss on the train. Why the sudden change?”

Adrien scratched the back of his neck slowly, searching for a reasonable answer. He couldn’t very well tell them what he suspected of the girl. Bad enough he outted himself to them, he was not about to betray Ladybug’s identity by letting his suspicions slip.

“This curse isn’t budging, and if I am going to be stuck like this for a while then I need to start getting used to everything, including what Marinette’s scent does to me,” he said, proud of himself for sounding so reasonable. “I can’t keep pushing her away. It drove a wedge between you and Alya. I hurt Marinette. It’s my responsibility to control this, and it’s time I started taking an active role in doing that.”

It took a moment for Nino’s concerned expression to budge. “That makes sense, I guess.”

“I can’t keep running away from her.” Especially not if she was his Lady. All he really needed was a single sniff to confirm it. If he could keep himself under control long enough just to catch Marinette’s scent and confirm that she was, indeed, Ladybug… He had no clue what he was going to do after that.

“Why don’t you just tell her who you are?” Alya offered. “If she was in on it like Nino and I, she would understand if you acted odd around her. She could help.”

“Er…”

Alya’s gaze narrowed. “You don’t want to let her in on this?”

Nino automatically came to Adrien’s defence. “Let the guy catch his breath. He’s been outted a lot since getting here. If he wants to tell Marinette, he can do it in his own time. This is a big secret, you know?”

“I know.” She didn’t shift her stare from Adrien was a full ten seconds, unmoving, unblinking, the gears in her head turning. She slowly canted her head, brows lifting, sitting back with a look that made Adrien feel as if he were being examined under a microscope. Even slower still, she sat back, and the calculating look that came over her face caused a cold chill to run down Adrien’s spine. “All right, we won’t tell Marinette. You do what you think is right-.”

“Thank you.”

“-and I’ll do what I think is right.”

Adrien stiffened, ire rising too quick. “Alya.”

One brief flash of fang, a pair of slitted cat eyes, had Alya sticking her chin in the air, refusing to be cowed. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe. I have bigger fish to fry.” She abruptly rose from the table, pointing to her unfinished coffee. “Who’s going to pay for that?”

“I will,” Adrien sighed.

“Good.” She hitched her purse on her shoulder, the one item that had been safe from Adrien’s pyrotechnics by being stashed on the floor by the chair she had sat in early. Alya’s expression was hard to read when she said, “Marinette’s probably gotten back to our room by now. I shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

“Say hi for us,” Nino intoned.

“Sure thing.” Not a single patron in the café batted an eye at her as she exited.

Nino watched his girlfriend go, scratching the back of her neck. “So, do you want me to apologize for defiling your bed now or do you want to go upstairs and set the sheets on fire first?”

“Both. Later.” Adrien found himself rising after Alya, leaving a pocketful of bills scattered on the table to pay for her drink. He might have grossly overpaid. Oh well. The server could keep the tip. Without a word, Nino rose after him, making a beeline for the front lobby. Adrien slid into place behind a large, gilded pillar. Nino slid in behind him, tall enough to peer over Adrien’s head, and smart enough not to ask any questions about what had suddenly drawn Adrien out. They watched in silent accord as Alya walked out the front doors with her head held high, taking a sharp left down the sidewalk.

“You don’t have, like, memory erasing powers, do you?” Nino whispered, when there was really no need for it.

“No, why?” Adrien glanced back, lips pursed in a frown. “Do you think I need to erase Alya’s memory?”

“No. I just don’t want my best friend to know what my girlfriend looks like without a shirt.” With one last glance out the door after his girlfriend, Nino stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered off toward the elevators.

Adrien turned to join him, pausing when his nose twitched, a hushed whisper catching his ear from across the lobby. Partially hidden by a marble pillar, he spied his bodyguard’s large form bent conspicuously close to Nathalie. They would have looked intimate were it not for the tension radiating from them.

“Gunnar, it’s getting stronger.”

“How long do you think we have?

“I don’t-.”

“Wait.” The Gorilla turned, meeting Adrien’s stare dead on.

Caught, the sudden sense that he had heard something he wasn’t supposed to hear clenched like a dread fist around Adrien’s heart, He turned on his heel before his mind could catch up. Yet again, in his alarm he lost control, a lightbulb shattering overhead. An electrical socket in the wall sparking as he passed.

Sprinting for the elevator that Nino held open for him, Adrien felt Nathalie and the Gorilla’s combined stares burning a hole through his back the whole way.

Chapter Text

In the dark of the night, on the cusp of sleep, the quiet air rippled with a long sigh. Not a sigh of slumber, but one that hung with the silent hope that someone would ask why there had been a sigh in the first place.

Marinette cracked an eye open, peering at the silhouette of her best friend outlined on the next bed. The light pollution streaming in through their window ensured that her pale face was a beacon in the shadowed room. No point in pretending sleep, she gave a questioning groan.

Alya slipped her arm beneath her pillow, gathering it beneath her head to prop herself an inch higher. “So.”

“So?” Marinette replied, slurring the word on her already sleeping tongue.

“So.” Alya did not sound nearly as sleepy as she should have. The girl should have been tuckered out after a morning of over-excited showers and interrupted sexual escapades, followed by an intense afternoon of moping. But no, leave it to Alya to defy expectation at ass crack o’clock in the morning.

For those in the room who were far more mortal and dependent on sleep, Marinette let slip with a grunt and turned her face into her pillow. “I was almost asleep.”

Alya deflated into her mattress. “Sorry.”

Not that tone. The sort of defeated tone that had no business being anywhere near Alya’s voice. Summoning what little energy she had left, Marinette managed to drag her arm beneath her pillow and prop her head up. She dragged her free hand over her face, scrubbing roughly. “What is it?”

Sheets rustled as a body scooted to the edge of the mattress. “We tell each other everything, don’t we?”

“Of course we do.” Marinette offered a weak smile, stretching her arm across the narrow aisle separating their beds. With no hesitation, Alya reached back, twining their fingers together. Marinette’s tired smile stretching wider. “You couldn’t keep a secret to save your life.”

Alya’s fingers twitched. “That’s not what I meant.”

“But it’s true. You are the most annoyingly honest person I have ever met.” Marinette squeezed her friend’s hand before dropping the connection and tucking her arm back into the cocoon of her sheets. Having the world’s most determined truth-seeker as a best friend came with its own set of hazards as a superhero with a secret identity, but Marinette wouldn’t trade Alya for the world. “Why bring it up?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing if you’re bringing it up at one in the morning.” She balanced her chin in her hand. “Are you trying to keep a secret from me?”

Alya’s lips firmed into a straight line. “No.”

“Which means yes.”

Alya’s frown deepened into a scowl.

Marinette turned over onto her back, taking a deep breath and letting it out in a slow exhalation. It couldn’t have been a Ladybug-level secret or else she would have been the first to hear about it from Alya. Marinette was always the first to hear about that sort of thing from Alya. So, by process of elimination, Alya’s secret had to be something else. Personally reassured, she said, “We’re allowed to keep secrets from each other. There’s no rule that says we have to share absolutely everything with each other.”

“I know, but…” Her fingers tapped softly in the sheets.

“Whatever it is, you can tell me if you want. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay, too. I understand.” Marinette understood better than anyone what it was like to have a secret she couldn’t share.

“It’s not that I don’t want to. I can’t,” was the soft reply.

“That’s okay, too.” She wriggled a leg free from her sheets and stretched it across the aisle, poking Alya’s mattress with her toes. So long as her secret identity wasn’t on the chopping block with her best friend, she could try to keep things light. “I bet I know your secret.”

Alya tensed, sucking in a sharp breath.

Marinette forbore the tension. “You’re trying to spare my feelings because Adrien saw you naked this morning and now you have to marry him to spare your honour.” She patted Alya’s leg with the tips of her toes. “Because you’re my best friend, I’ll give him up for you. I’ll try not to be completely and utterly jealous of you.”

A pillow arched across the distance between the beds and landed squarely on Marinette’s head with a soft ‘wumph!’ “I was trying to be serious.”

Marinette flung the pillow back. “So was I.”

“Who’s the bad liar now?”

“Still you.”

She stuck her tongue out.

Marinette returned it with a raspberry, a sound that assured every last ounce of tension between the two of them drained away.

Alya harrumphed loudly, nevertheless giving in to Marinette’s teasing diversion. “If I’m going to take Adrien as my bride, I’ll be saving his honour, not the other way around. My honour is fine where it is.”

“True.”

“You’ll have to marry Nino, of course.”

“Of course,” Marinette parroted. As if there was any other option.

Alya stuck her nose in the air. “I want at least a dozen cats for Adrien’s dowry.”

“I thought you were supposed to ask for cows?”

“No, cats. Definitely cats. A dozen of them.” She sounded like she was laughing, which was much better in Marinette’s books than moping.

“Fine,” Marinette sighed at length, putting on an air of ultimate reluctance. She was, after all, giving away her beloved and most prized boy-crush to be wed to her best friend. “I’ll agree to a dowry of cats, but he’s worth at least two dozen. Maybe even three.”

“Deal. And they have to be black.”

“With green eyes.”

“And bells on their collars.”

“Yeah, with bells…” Marinette breathed, cocking her head. They caught each other’s shadowed glance, expressions frozen on the cusp of an unspoken epiphany. Teetering on the precipice of a shared realization, hanging there between them in the silence.

A black cat with green eyes and a bell on his collar.

Alya was the first to break the spell, dropping her gaze to the nightstand. “Ah, so, three dozen cats for a dowry to marry Adrien to save his honour because he saw me naked.”

“Yeah, three dozen cats, and I’ll take Nino for free.” A commiserating half-smile cracked at the corners of Marinette’s mouth. She could never say as much, but she knew the feeling of keeping secrets from her best friend. “Good night, Alya.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Alya acquiesced. “Good night.”

Marinette rolled over so that her back was to her friend. Sleep rolled in like a warm fog, ready and waiting for Marinette to get lost in its familiar embrace. Her dry eyes grew heavy once more, her body falling into the plush of the mattress. She did not want to claim an eagerness for sleep, but could not deny the flutter of anticipation that danced low in her belly.

Beneath her pillow, her fingers bumped something warm and solid. Tikki? Too solid. She wrapped her fingers around it, feeling the warm tingle of low-grade magic. The stone charm Tikki had taken from Sarah. Marinette vaguely wondered how it had found its way beneath her pillow.

“Marinette?” Alya murmured, no more than a whisper in the space between them. “Have you ever kept a secret from me?”

Marinette turned her cheek into her pillow. “Yes.”

“Oh.”

Marinette bit her lip, waiting for Alya to ask what sort of secrets she had been keeping. Those questions never came. Instead, there was the breeze rattling by the window and the soft hum in the walls of a hotel still active after midnight. Bed sheets rustled as Alya turned over, making no noise long after that. Marinette was tempted to look over her shoulder, maybe say something, do something, but resisted the urge.

No good would come from tempting her fate too many times in one day.

 

 

Marinette was not the only one who could recite odd statistics at moments of high stress.

Adrien had a statistic of his own: The typical human brain can survive approximately six minutes without oxygen before irreparable damage begins to set in…

By his estimation, he was getting close to that point. His head was swimming, his chest burning, the need to breathe pounding in his blood as intensely as the thunder of his deafening heartbeat. Blackness set in around the edges of his vision, all of his extremities tingling with numbness. He held on for as long as he could. That one, short breath he had sucked in before his marathon of breath-holding began was not nearly big enough for him to have held on for as long as he had.

Against his better judgement, Adrien gasped for air. A tiny breath. Barely a squeak. He immediately regretted that decision.

Toxic fumes burned the insides of his nose, searing the back of his throat and rendering his lungs to ash. Fetid sewage stewed on his tongue, its thick, pungent flavour sinking past the physical experience into an assault that marred his very soul.

He couldn’t remember what fresh air smelled like. He did not know what it was to breathe without agony.

Sweat trickled down his back in rivulets, soaking the expensive material of his clothes. The finest of the summer collection for the Gabriel line – now sopping with sweat, hanging lank from his frame. His muscles locked up in a desperate bid to keep himself upright. When everything else in his mind was drown in a continuous scream, he repeated the mantra that had kept him going for years as a model – through exhaustion, through hunger, and through physical pain that nowhere near matched what he suffered now.

Just one more picture. One more pose. Remember to smile. Don’t let it show.

He performed by rote rather than by actual direction. The standard movements and poses were ingrained into muscle memory; if his partner moved, he moved with her. His blurred vision gave him nothing but a vague impression of the world, but the flash of the camera ensured that he knew in which direction to smile. Whether or not those smiles would reach the camera without a grimace to chase them, he didn’t know. He didn’t care.

The only thought on his mind was to survive.

“How about some intimacy for the camera?” the photographer called, ignorant of his subject’s struggle. “Something a little saucy to show off the detailing on the back of the dress? Adrien, show the camera how much you love a girl who has dressed just for you.”

Brown eyes peered up curiously when Adrien failed respond to the direction. If anyone asked him what his fellow model looked like, all he would be able to answer was pretty, and Greek. Gisela Castellano – Adrien had never worked with her before, but he supposed if today had been any other day, he might have enjoyed working with her now. Although very pretty with her swept up brown hair and brown skin, she was otherwise quiet – a nice change from the sometimes haughty models who would come in thinking they hit the big times by being able to work with the son and face of a major fashion house. Gisela said little, though the loudness of the bright yellow dress she had been made to wear made up for it.

Thus far, she had been professional and did not comment on Adrien’s bizarre breathing habits.

Now she smiled for him in an attempt to be reassuring – perhaps seeing his lack of response as shyness. She placed her hand on his arm. “I don’t have to get too close, if you’re not comfortable.”

A fresh waft of death hit him and his stomach rebelled with enough power to throw him over his knees. He wretched wetly, strings of mucus and saliva hanging from his lips and chin. He wretched in plain sight of nearly two dozen people, and the curious eyes of the public lurking beyond the cordon. Were it not for his hands flying to his knees to lock in place, he might have thrown himself face first into the dirt.

Gisela jumped away with a shout, her flapping skirt scattering the source of the scent into the air. Rotted fish on the docks, the putrid miasma maggoty meat - every possible foul smell in the world mixed into a rancid perfume so vile it could peel flesh from bone.

Adrien heaved again, so powerfully that it felt like his stomach was climbing up his esophagus.

God, he was dying.

How could no one else smell it?

Even with human noses, someone should be able to smell something that rank!

Above him, Gisela dithered, sounding close to tears. “I’m sorry! I am so sorry! I didn’t know-!”

A familiar soap and deodorant scent cut through the cadaverous stench. Nino’s sneakers shuffled into Adrien’s periphery, long arms wrapping themselves around him and hauling him upright. “You look like crap.”

“Feel like it. Get me out of here,” Adrien mumbled hoarsely, finding the strength to wipe his wet mouth with the back of his hand. That effort alone made him feel like he was about to topple over, if not for Nino’s determined grip around his middle.

People were converging from all directions, a wall of humanity that made Adrien’s stomach rebel once more and his knees give out beneath him. Vertigo struck alongside his gurgling stomach and burning nose; if anyone were to get close enough, they would have seen his pupils stretch vertical, worsening the carnival funhouse-type nightmare his vision was suffering. He knew he was losing his tenuous grip on the façade of his humanity when a nearby camera blew its light.

He gripped Nino, mindless of the claws he was digging into his friend’s side. The weak growl he thoughtlessly conjured was buried beneath the tide of demands that he be relinquished into the care of trained assistants, into the waiting arms of paramedics, tossed into the Gorilla arm’s for safe keeping.

“Would you all back off?” Nino snapped, forgetting himself and falling back into French. Despite the language shift, his sentiment was understood. Humanity parted like the red sea, while Nino continued to issue warnings. “Let the poor guy get some fresh air! He’s dying here! Like, heat stroke or something!”

As woozy as he was, Adrien did not remember clearly how he got to the edge of the demarked area of the photoshoot. There was a folding chair underneath the overhang of a large umbrella, and a canvas privacy wall to partially hide him from the rest of Hyde Park. The moment Nino dropped him into the chair, Adrien let his head fall between his legs and he spat several times into the grass.

Above his head, Nino continued to head off the crowd. “No, go. Shoo. He doesn’t need a bunch of people hovering over him. Shoo!

Adrien thanked the few lucky stars he had that he had a friend as loyal as Nino.

It was a solid five minutes before Nino convinced the last of the overly cautious personnel to back off. He fell into the grass next to Adrien’s chair, clapping him on the shin. “Shit, man. I thought you were going to actually puke in front of everyone.”

“I thought I was going to pass out,” Adrien replied hoarsely, driving his fingers through his hair. It felt good to feel the sharp scrape of claws, that extra bite of pain that helped him focus. Sweat trickled down from his hairline, dripping off the tip of his nose. He shed the light jacket he was wearing and loosened his shirt collar.

Nino watched him warily. “What happened?”

Adrien sent him an incredulous look. “You honestly don’t smell it?”

Puzzled, Nino put his nose in the air and gave a sniff. “I don’t smell anything.” He glanced around and then leaned in to whisper, “Is this another one of those werecat things? Or, like, a Chat Noir thing?”

“Werecat thing. Definitely a werecat thing,” Adrien grunted. He sat back and let his head fall back, eyes closed, taking deep breaths until his stomach settled. Minutes passed, a comforting lull settling between them. To no one in particular, Adrien lamented, “I miss being human.”

“You’ve only been inhuman for…” Nino briefly did the mental math. “Two and a half weeks? Feels longer.”

“Long enough,” Adrien scoffed, scrubbing his forehead with his sleeve. “It was easier just being Chat Noir. I didn’t have to deal with all this crap. I just put on the leather suit and fought Akuma and-.”

“And flirt your tail off with Ladybug?”

A blush crept up the back of his neck. “Yes, I flirted with her. It wasn’t part of the job description, though.”

“Just one of the perks.” Nino leaned back in the grass, quirking an eyebrow. “I was going back through old footage on the Ladyblog and I almost can’t believe it’s you behind the mask.” His grin turned teasing. “You were really going for it.”

Adrien picked at the cuff of his shirt. “I was chosen to be Chat Noir around the same time I was finally allowed to go to school. You saw how I was back then – I was… embarrassingly awkward. I didn’t have a clue how to make friends or flirt – all I knew was that Ladybug was the most amazing girl I had ever met.” He sighed. “I’ve calmed down a lot since then.”

“You have,” Nino conceded. “Is she the reason you never noticed Marinette?”

“Yes.” Adrien’s blush settled more definitely on his cheeks. “I’m noticing Marinette now, though.”

“Not that that’s necessarily been a good thing,” Nino pointed out.

“Ah…” There were a lot of ways Adrien could answer that. He chose not to answer at all.

“Being a werecat is more trouble than it’s worth,” Nino scoffed. “You really need to get fixed soon.”

Adrien shot him a glare.

Nino rolled his eyes. “Not fixed fixed. I meant uncursed.” His face twisted. “They can’t neuter werebeasts, right?”

“I have no idea.”

“The way things have been going for you, you better look into that, you know, just in case.”

Adrien’s glare morphed into a scowl.

“It’s so weird that I even have to think about that now,” Nino grumbled to himself, looking off into the distance of the park; they were located in a rather nice part of Hyde Park, the flowerbeds in full bloom and the fountains offering a cheerful accent to the sunny mood. “Magic stuff, and Miraculous stuff, and watching you eat all of those disgusting foods.” He raised his fingers, ticking off a few. “That cheese, those pickled herrings, that disgusting brown thing-.”

“It was a century egg,” Adrien corrected. Sacrificing his palate to every fermented food known to humankind was all part of his experimental explorations into what delicacies other than camembert might appease Plagg. So far, everything he had experimented with thus far either smelled as bad as camembert or worse.

Even more horrifying, Adrien might have been developing a taste for some of it.

“That did not look like an egg.” Nino shot up, eyes wide in a sudden eureka moment. “Maybe what you smelled earlier was the food coming back to haunt you?”

Adrien buried his head in his hands. “I don’t think it’s the food. If it were, wouldn’t you be able to smell it, too?”

“Eh, you’re probably right.” Nino deflated.

“I thought a sewer main ruptured nearby, but apparently I’m the only one who can smell it.”

A steady hand clapped him on the back. “Are you okay right now?”

“It’s not as bad, but it’s still not good.” He took several steadying breaths before he raised his head, looking around at the scene he had inadvertently caused. People were in a tizzy – the sort where everyone was pretending to remain calm while simultaneously hissing into the phones and shooting each other tense looks, walking too fast and looking over their shoulders too often. Most of the uneasy looks were directed toward Adrien, which he valiantly tried to ignore.

Searching out the crowd, he found Gisela with her people, waiting for a new pair of shoes after Adrien had spit on hers. Rather than look upset, she was craning over heads to get a look at him. The moment their eyes met, she mouthed the word, “Sorry.”

A waft of unsavoury air drifted his way. Adrien felt his face go sallow; he locked his jaw and jerked a quick nod, turning away from her.

“Do you think I should call up Alya and tell her to make up an excuse to keep Marinette from coming today?” Nino asked, a little too quick to pounce on the suggestion. Unlike Adrien who had been itching to test his theory about Marinette, Nino had been cautious about letting the meeting go through. Admittedly, Nino did not have Adrien’s confidence that Marinette was Ladybug and therefore capable of handling her own should Adrien lose control of around her, but Nino’s wariness bordered on something deeper than just concern for his friends’ wellbeing.

The tang of ever-present fear laced the boy’s scent.

Something cold pressed into Adrien’s arm, distracting him from Nino pulling out his phone. He blinked up into the Gorilla’s concerned face, following his bodyguard’s massive arm down to the bottle of chilled water pressed into Adrien’s arm.

“Drink it,” the Gorilla bid, releasing the water into Adrien’s weak grasp.

The first few mouthfuls Adrien managed was to rinse out his mouth. He spat into the grass again, wiped his chin carelessly on his sleeve, and then chugged the rest of the bottle until his insides stopped burning. Still, the putrid stink in the area remained.

“It won’t do for you to suffer heat stroke out here,” Nathalie intoned, standing just behind the Gorilla’s shoulder. “I’ve asked the photographer for half an hour for you to recover. We’re moving the shoot into the shade.”

“Thanks.” Adrien looked from one adult to the other. Whatever he had seen between them days before, there was no evidence of it now. Neither betrayed their thoughts in their expressions, nor offer an opening for Adrien to enquire about what he had overheard. They were the epitome of professionalism, if not more distant than usual; the Gorilla said less than he usually did, and Nathalie did not stay in Adrien’s company for longer than absolutely necessary.

The little time that she was in Adrien’s company, he couldn’t help but suffer an uncanny sense from her presence.

This encounter was no exception. Nathalie took a step back, tightening her grip on her tablet until it creaked in her arms. “I’ll go speak with Mlle. Castellanos about the change in timing and venue.” She beat a retreat faster than what might be deemed excusable, making a beeline for the other model who was now ensconced with several other models contracted for the shoot.

The Gorilla tensed, shooting Adrien a warning look that the boy had no way of interpreting, before he took off after Nathalie. For his size, the man was surprisingly quick. Nathalie, it appeared, was quicker – and for some reason avoiding the Gorilla’s attempts to head her off.

Adrien watched them until he was diverted by the chirp of Nino’s phone, a series of text messages scrolling across the boy’s screen. Nino didn’t look pleased with whatever the messages said. Adrien leaned in and caught sight of a selfie, Alya and Marinette posed on the hood of a silver Porsche, flashing grins and peace signs. Several more text messages appeared in rapid succession.

Nino made a noise of disgust. “Alya’s not backing down. She’s dragging Marinette here whether we like it or not.”

“I never said I didn’t want Marinette here,” Adrien pointed out.

Nino turned his head away, pointedly ignoring that point. “She said she’s bringing backup.”

“Backup?” That didn’t sound good.

“Who else could she be bringing? We literally only know two other people in this city.” Nino shoved his phone back in his pocket. “And do you have any idea what she means by saving up for three dozen cats?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Nino tugged at the bill of his cap. “You know, this is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen. Once Alya gets an idea in her head, there’s no going back. I don’t know what game she thinks she’s playing, but…”

“She’s not going to out me.”

“Out you? Of course she’s not going to out you! Neither of us would ever do that. What scares me is that I have no idea what else she has planned,” Nino vowed ominously, and Adrien couldn’t help but feel uneasy.

Even for a magical catboy, facing off against three dozen cats sounded daunting.

They didn’t have long to wait before a silver Porsche pulled up on the verge of the park, dislodging its occupants. Sarah popped out of the passenger’s side, dodging around to let Alya out; John rose from driver’s side and politely offering a hand to help Marinette from the backseat.

Adrien was half-risen from his seat before Nino shoved him back down.

“You stay. I’ll go get them,” the boy bid, dashing off across the green to meet up with the four people now lingering unsurely on the curb.

Adrien hunkered down, watching Nino intercept the group. Marinette immediately swept up to Nino and caught him in a hug, which he returned just as amicably. Even when he was expecting the affection, Adrien choked back on a growl, hating that he still had that reaction. It was, perhaps, even worse now that he suspected the identity of his Lady… The plastic arms of his chair snapped under his grip.

Nino seemed aware of the issue despite having his back turned; he broke the hug and motioned over his shoulder in Adrien’s direction, bending to Marinette’s height to say something.

A smile wreathed her face in reply.

Adrien felt an answering smile tug at his lips, anticipation thrumming to the fore. He sat up a little straighter, combing his hair back, hating that his scalp felt damp from sweat. Urgh, he was a sweaty mess. At least the makeup they put on him earlier would hide any of his sallow complexion. He fixed his shirt collar and settled his cuffs. On second thought, his fingers shot back to his hair, wondering if he should muss it up like Chat’s. Would that be better? Would she recognize him like that?

Could she recognize him like that?

Was the glamour between them still active?

A strange little laugh fluttered past his lips. Why was he so nervous? There was no reason for him to be so nervous. Either this was Marinette, who was very kind and just beginning to open up as a friend to him, or this was Ladybug, his Lady, who was his partner and the most trusted person in his life. He respected both girls, and if they happened to be the same person…?

His fussing resulted in him nicking his scalp with his claws. The scent of blood spiced the air, mixing sourly with the stink that still haunted him like a ghost. Breathing a low curse, Adrien sat on his hands to prevent any further mishap.

Maybe Nino was right. They should have held off on this meeting. A thoughtless reveal in the middle of Hyde Park surrounded by the prying eyes of the public hardly did Chat’s relationship with Ladybug the justice it deserved. He had to put proper thought into it. He had to make it a special occasion.

The works. Buy her flowers. Take her out to dinner. Take her dancing afterward-

He paused, frowning. That didn’t sound right, either…

Sensing a pair of eyes on him, Adrien snapped from his musings to peek up just in time to catch Marinette’s eye. The moment she realized he was looking, a fresh smile appeared. Her hand eked up in a small wave.

Suddenly shy, it took a moment for Adrien to remember he had hands, and another moment for him to remember how to lift one in an answering wave. His effort resulted in a laugh from the girl that he wished he could hear, but could only admire from a distance. Cast in bright afternoon sunlight, dressed in a white, lace-hemmed off-the-shoulder top and a pair of casual brown shorts, Marinette looked like she was having more fun with just a laugh and a wave than all the rest of the world was having combined.

She looked so much like Ladybug in that moment that Adrien was physically stunned not to have seen it sooner.

Something in his expression must have shown, because her smile faded. Her eyes grew wide.

Adrien wanted to give her his best Chat Noir smile, but found his face utterly frozen.

The moment lasted as long as it took for someone else to hijack it.

Alya unexpectedly reached out and wrapped her fist in Nino’s shirt, planting a kiss on him that might have been better placed if they were seeing each other for the first time in six months, not merely two days. In her fervor, Alya knocked Nino’s hat askew and clicked their glasses together; she had her arms around his neck and kissed him long and hard enough to make everyone standing around them pointedly look in another direction.

Adrien politely switched his gaze back to John, Sarah in tow. The witch caught his eye and waved ecstatically, pointing to her satchel with exaggerated importance. Adrien had no idea what she meant, so merely smiled and waved.

By some planned cue, Nino and Alya broke apart. They righted their clothes, caught each other’s eye, and nodded determinedly – like a couple of spies who had just disguised an information exchange as an overly passionate kiss to throw off their enemies.

Adrien scowled at the pair of them. If they honestly thought they were fooling anyone with their attempts at being sneaky, his secret identity was as good as broadcasted on national television.

Nino slipped away from his girlfriend’s side with one last fleeting peck to her cheek. He slid up to Marinette and slung an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pasting on an overly bright façade. At the distance, Adrien couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was obvious that Marinette was resisting. She ducked out from underneath Nino’s arm to move in Adrien’s direction, only to be headed off by an overly determined Alya that delivered her back into Nino’s care.

Nino pressed on, apparently rambling, luring Marinette into the temptation presented by so many fashionable possibilities on tap for the shoot. With no other recourse, Marinette exchanged a defeated look with Adrien – maybe next time? Her eyes seemed to say – before letting Nino distract her.

Unlike Nino’s meandering distraction with Marinette, Alya cut across the park like a battleship in full sail. She didn’t even stop for the half-hearted attempt by security. Whatever she said to the uniformed woman, it paved the way for her to make a beeline for Adrien. John and Sarah jogged bemusedly in her wake, two tugboats being dragged along in the surge of a warship.

Feeling like a siege was upon him, Adrien sank back and braced himself.

The culmination of Alya’s charge manifested in a hug that might as well have been a noose around Adrien’s neck. He choked under her strength, thrust uncomfortably close to her chest. She was wearing a bra; he didn’t want to ask Nino had bought her a new one yet. There was no escape, even when he ineffectual flailed his hands at his sides.

In her own time, Alya released him and held him at arm’s length. “You are so lucky that I am so much smarter than both of you nitwits.”

Convinced that was a rhetorical statement, Adrien nevertheless replied, “Sure?”

“Good thing I decided to drag backup along today or you would have been completely out of luck.” She proudly waved a white business card, identical to the one Adrien had summoned Sarah with the first time. “I nicked this from the apothecary when we visited.”

“Pickpocket,” John coughed behind his fist.

Alya let the accusation roll off of her. “I figured having a couple of people around who actually know what they’re doing might help. And clearly after what Nino just told me, you need help. More help than usual.” She threw her arms up the in the air. “How in the world have you managed to be Chat Noir this long and not get yourself killed?”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” John grumbled, cut off by Sarah’s insistent, “Shhhh!”

Suffering the distinct feeling of being steamrolled, Adrien blinked up at the girl dazedly, now bringing into question every decision he had ever made for the past three years.

“Well?” Alya pressed, now with her hands jammed on her hips. “You’re a mess.”

“It’s no wonder,” Sarah cut in, ramming her elbow pre-emptively into her familiar’s side to prevent him from saying anything. “There’s a stink spirit in the area. Any werebeast with a nose is going to be a mess if they have to spend any time near that kind of spirit.”

Adrien pushed himself to his feet, leaning on Alya’s offered shoulder when his knees wobbled weakly. “A stink spirit?”

“The name is self-explanatory,” John drawled. “Kind of like Frank – you remember Frank? Body of a cat, legs like a crow.” Adrien pulled a face, which John accepted as confirmation. “Like that, except instead of being festered from a plague like he was, they’re fumed from filth.”

“Stink spirits are dangerous to a werebeast,” Sarah interrupted, digging quickly through her satchel to pull out a clear, plastic dime bag filled with white powder. She handed it to John, who spread some on his index finger and quickly ran his finger beneath his nose, inhaling the powder. Sarah then dug back in to her bag and pulled out a salt shaker, which she shook into her hand and tossed over her shoulder, repeating the exercise with Alya. “I didn’t expect one to be this deep into the city. That’s awfully rare.”

John handed the baggy of powder into Adrien’s hands. A small cloud puffed up from the open top. “You’ve been exposed for way too long. Take it before you get your nose burned off.”

Adrien held it away from him instead. “What is it?”

“Cocaine.”

Adrien nearly dropped the bag.

“It’s a numbing agent for your nose,” Sarah groused, snatching the bag back to carefully press the top closed, preserving the fine powder within. “John mentioned you were having trouble, so I made this up for you. It’s meant to numb your nose.” She blushed, scowling mulishly. “And it’s not cocaine.”

Alya snatched the baggy and held it up for inspection, and then shoved it into Adrien’s hands. “You heard the witch – snort it.”

“I am not doing it in broad daylight!” Adrien exclaimed, fumbling with the bag. Cocaine or not, there were enough eyes on him as it were, if even one of them caught him snorting a mysterious white powder from a tiny dime bag given to him by a girl who looked reportedly homeless, all hell was likely to break loose.

“Fine.” Alya pointed to a series of tents set up for changing. “Go over there and snort it where no one can see you. Nino can’t keep Marinette distracted forever, and I am not having her come over here while you look like you’ve already done a three-day bender on nothing but vodka and high-class cocaine.”

Adrien had the decency to flush, glaring at the tiny baggy.

“Come on,” John bid, nodding to the tents. “I’ll show you how to snort it in one go. It’ll only sting a little.”

It was already stinging Adrien’s pride a lot.

 

 

 

Alya watched the two boys slink off, shaking her head. Had there ever been a boy who looked more miserable than poor Adrien Agreste? Rich, handsome, and utterly humiliated. If he had been dressed as Chat Noir, his tail glued to the back of his legs. Poor little rich boy, he really did have that kicked puppy look down – for a cat.

The things I do for you people. She sighed, once again scanning for Marinette – cheerfully engrossed in taking sly pictures of the racks of clothes while Nino covered for her.

Sarah pointed to the left, picking out a girl in a vivid dress standing at the far edge of the activity with her head bent toward Nathalie. “There. That’s the stink spirit.”

Alya squinted. “Her?” A perfectly normal looking girl, if not a little more beautiful than your average Jane on the street. “I expected something a little more… er, stinky?”

“She’s wearing at least four glamours to make her look like that,” Sarah replied, balanced on the tips of her toes to get a better look. “Can’t exactly be a model when you look like a trash heap, now can you?”

“Should we warn someone…?”

Sarah shook her head, offering a hapless smile. “Stink spirits aren’t inherently dangerous. They’re actually quite peaceful – the usual problem with them is… well, you can probably guess. Humans aren’t bothered by them, but us magical folk can pick’em out in a crowd pretty quick.” She pinched her nose with a grimace. “I can smell her from here, but John’s nose is stronger than mine. Adrien’s nose might be stronger still, judging by his condition. He must have had to be in close contact with the spirit, poor thing. He’s lucky he’s still conscious.”

Alya shot a worried glance in Adrien’s direction, now ensconced in the tents. “You really have this magical thing down pat, don’t you?”

Sarah smiled faintly. “It’s not hard when you’re born into it.”

There was no sign of any movement from the tents. “How long does it take for the powder to kick in?”

“It should work as soon as he gets enough into him to numb his nose.” Her brow furrowed. “He’s taking an awfully long time. I hope John’s not giving him a hard time.”

“Boys,” Alya scoffed.

“Cats and dogs,” the witch lamented.

Alya inclined her head. “I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble to make that powder.”

“Not at all. It was my pleasure, really.” Sarah blushed, fidgeting with her skirt. “It’s not often that a witch gets to say they made something for a Miraculous wielder.”

“Ah.” Alya glanced again at the tents. No sign of life. “What’s actually in the powder?”

“The usual stuff – ground mealworms, dried spiders’ webs, roasted toadstools, and a little bit of tapioca powder to make it go down easier.” She leaned in, motioning for Alya to lean in as well. “I added some valerian to the mix, for the antianxiety. I figured with Adrien being under so much stress, a little extra something to calm his nerves wouldn’t hurt.”

“He needs all the help he can get.” Alya did another sweep of the area, finding Marinette sneaking ever closer to the changing tents despite Nino’s efforts to keep her away. Alya frowned, watching the girl’s progress; her determination wasn’t new, but it was unusual when directed so completely in Adrien’s direction. Not a blush or stammer in sight. She had been oddly insistent about meeting up with the boys to hang out, and jumped on the opportunity to crash the Hyde Park shoot.

Nino turned and flapped his hands violently at Marinette’s back, mouthing, “Help me!”

Alya lifted her arms and shook her head, the universal sign of “What do you want me to do about it?”

Before she could finish her sentence, a car alarm shrieked. Both girls jumped when a light bulb violently blew out. The tents rustled, their shadows growing longer. Several dogs in the park started baying frantically. Belatedly, Alya felt the air charge – too familiar with the comings and goings of superheroes not to know exactly what that feeling was. She had been in too many close-quarters situations when Ladybug and Chat Noir had to call on their major attacks not to know the feeling of a Cataclysm building in the air.

One of the tents suddenly burst into flames.

 

 

Sometimes it was good to have ingrained superheroic reflexes when the unexpected happened.

And sometimes it was really hard to explain to other people what the hell just happened when those reflexes instinctively kicked in.

The explosion of heat and flame had Marinette kicking into action instantly, whipping around to protect the nearest civilian. Even without her enhanced strength, she managed to haul Nino off his feet and throw him to the grass, covering him as sparks flew over their heads. She felt embers sear her bare shoulders and the exposed section of her lower back. Pin pricks of heat dotted the backs of her legs. Tikki vibrated wildly in Marinette’s purse, like a swarm of wasps just buzzing to be released.

Marinette focused on the boy pinned beneath. “Are you okay?”

Nino blinked up at her, nearly nose-to-nose, eyes wider than she had ever seen them. “Holy shit.”

She hauled him up, slapping debris off his front. “Stay here!”

His hand closed around her wrist before she could fly into the fire. “The hell do you think you can do?” he sputtered, nearly jerking from his feet when Marinette yanked her arm back.

“I can help!”

In the seconds she had taken to turn her back, the fire had jumped from the central tent to its surroundings. Fellow tents smoked, smouldered, and then caught flame. The stench of burning canvas filled the air.

No sense of an akuma flickered on Marinette’s senses. Instead, the steady beat of bad luck quickened in her blood. It didn’t warm her as it normally did. Despite the flames, her skin licked cold and her stomach bottomed out. A dark figure stepped through the flames unsinged, unsteady on his feet.

“Chat!” She rushed in to drag him away from immediate danger, thinking nothing of wrapping her arms around his middle and bodily hauling him out of range of the flames.

He rested on her limply, his full weight nearly enough to cause her knees to buckle. Throwing him around was a lot easier when she was Ladybug. His chin rested on her shoulder heavily, knocking the side of his head into hers. He was close enough that she felt the moment he stuck his nose into her hair, just behind her ear. He inhaled, and then fell into a state of dead weight in her arms.

“Damn it, Chat! Are you hurt?” Marinette snarled, nearly bent double under him.

“I can’t,” the boy whined, his breath hot on her skin.

“Can’t what?”

“Can’t smell you!” he wailed, throwing his head back to flash a powdery white mustache across his upper lip.

She dropped him like the dead weight he was. “You better not have set that fire!”

From beneath her, with her heel grinding down on the center of his chest, Chat stared first at her and then at the tents. His slitted pupils were blown so wide that they nearly consumed all the colour of his glassy irises. It appeared to take him several tried to get his mouth to coordinate with his brain; when he did speak, he failed to say anything remotely useful.

In fact, it was the opposite of useful: “I wanted to smell you. I had to know...” His attention diverted to her leg, tracing his claws up the back of her calf. He looked up at her again in awe. “You’re beautiful from this angle.”

Marinette fought the sudden blush that threatened. “Focus, Chat!”

He dragged his arm under his nose, streaking white powder across the arm of his suit. He settled in the grass and stared up at her from under half-lidded eyes. If Marinette didn’t know any better, she would have said the vibration she felt up through the sole of her foot was a purr. She did not want to think about the implications of Chat Noir, who could possibly be Adrien Agreste, getting off on being pinned by her.

Chat did not appear to have that same compunction in his current state. Indeed, he went completely lax under her sole. “I had to know if it was you, but the tent was in the way.”

“What did you do?!” The sound of the plastic scaffolding snapping and exploding as it succumbed to the flames punctuated her demand.

“I wished it wasn’t there.” He grinned up at her dopily.

A shadow loomed over Marinette’s shoulder, Nino materializing to squat next to Chat’s head. “Dude, are you high?”

Chat gestured to Marinette’s foot on his chest. “I’m low.”

“Stand back!” someone yelled. “I don’t know if this’ll work!”

Marinette looked up in time to see Sarah dashing across the green with Alya in tow. The witch skidded to a halt near the large fountain that served as the central display of the nearby stone pavilion; she raised her hand and snapped her fingers as loud as the crack of a whip. The air warped around her raised hand. Behind her, spigots rattled, and then exploded as pressurized water geysered into the air.

Uncontrolled, the wall of water rushed in all directions. Some showered down on the burning tents, throwing white steam and grey ash in all directions; hissing of guttering flames cut above the confused shouting of scattered bystanders. All the rest of the water soaked everything else within a fifty-foot radius. Cameras. Lights. Very expensive equipment no teenager short of Adrien Agreste could ever hope to ever pay for. People and their fashionable clothes were rendered sopping to the skin.

One model in a brightly coloured dress shrieked as if she had been sprayed with acid.

“Sorry!” Sarah yelled, waving frantically. “Sorry! I couldn’t aim it!”

Marinette rocked backwards as the body beneath her foot struggled to rise. She let him, anger morphing into concern when Chat remained unsteady even when she gave him her hand to get up. His proximity left an odd sense crawling over her skin. It was him, but not. Obviously something was wrong. Very, very, very wrong.

He cocked his hip, wavering where he stood, a crooked smile pasted on his dazed face. “You look just like someone I know.”

“I just bet I do,” Marinette grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose. She really shouldn’t be acting so familiar with him while standing around as a civilian, especially with so many people around, but there really wasn’t any helping it. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Not-cocaine.”

“Excuse me?”

Chat glanced around himself confusedly. “You’re excused.”

“Oh my god.” She glanced back the flaming remains of the tent he had stepped out of. The tent that Adrien had very definitely stepped into first.

“…I don’t feel so well,” Chat mumbled, his cat ears flapping as he shook his head.

Nino tried to cut in. “Mari, maybe confronting him right now isn’t the best idea.” Brave kid tried to put himself between Marinette and Chat. “You got burned pretty badly-”

“I’m not going anywhere until I get an explanation,” she hissed, poking Chat squarely in the center of his chest. He nearly toppled over backwards. Surprisingly, his catlike reflexes seemed to be operational even if nothing else was. His hand shot out to encircle her wrist, tugging her into the solid wall of his chest.

“You’re hurt?” he slurred, patting her cheek with his gloved hand. He was clumsy, but at least he didn’t forget to pull back his enhanced strength. “Where? Where are you hurt?” His hand patted down her neck, oddly sure of itself when its owner could hardly get his eyes to focus. “I can’t have you hurt. Not you. Anybody but you.”

Marinette tried to tug herself out of his grip. “Just a bit of singed skin- ah!”

His hand came down on the back of her shoulder, inspiring a shock of pain to reverberate up her nerves. Adrenaline had covered up any of the damages she had sustained, but a jolt from the first awakened the nerves of the others. Patches of burning skin erupted across her shoulders and lower back, down the backs of her bare legs.

Chat took her by the arms and spun her hard and fast. “You’re hurt.” Those words, compared to all the others, sounded remarkably sober.

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not.” More sober still, but still not entirely himself.

“He’s right, Mari. You can’t see it, but it’s-”

“Stay out of this, Nino!”

Chat pinned his ears back and tried to hiss at the boy; he hiccupped instead.

“Chat, we don’t have time for this. You’re not in your right mind.” She tried to wriggle loose, failing fantastically without her Ladybug strength to match him. “You can’t do this where people can see you!”

“Ah,” he breathed. She felt him shift, the heat of him pressing flush against her back, his lips moving against the shell of her ear. “So we’ll go somewhere they can’t see.”

"Chat-!"

He spun her back around, hooking his arm beneath her bottom to scoop her up against him. She squawked, scrambling for something to hold lest she fall backward off the perch of his forearm. From the periphery, she saw him extend his other arm, his silver baton shooting down into the ground. "Hold on tight."

She bristled, digging her nails into his shoulders. “Don’t. You. Dare.”

He kissed her cheek, sloppy and sweet and so very stupid. “When it comes to you, I’ll dare anything.”

Marinette wished she had a clever comeback. She wished she could have said anything at all. In the end, she swallowed her tongue on a curse when Chat’s baton rapidly extended upward and one leather-clad, clearly inebriated, hero proceeded to kidnap her in broad daylight amid dozens of witnesses.

Chapter Text

There was nothing Nino could do as he watched his best friend kidnap his girlfriend’s best friend.

What was one supposed to do when a superpowered teen apparently loses his mind and literally sets shit on fire and kidnaps people? Nothing, that’s what a regular human being was supposed to do. Absolutely freaking nothing.

“I hope Ladybug shows up soon,” Nino sighed, pulling his glasses to clean them slowly on his shirt. There was no point in yelling – as if that would bring Chat back. No point in freaking out, either. He was quickly hitting the limit of his ability to freak out. One of these days he was going to witness something truly mind-numbingly bizarre and merely yawn at it. He looked forward to that blessed day when he ran out of every last one of his fucks.

For now, Nino hoped against hope that when he put his glasses back on, everything he had just witnessed would prove to be a hallucination. He was going to put his glasses back on and the tents would no longer be smouldering piles of ash. People would not be shrieking over wet clothing or wrecked equipment. His best friend was going to be standing beside him, completely sober, and Marinette was going to have both feet on the ground.

Nino slid his glasses on with brittle hope, and was promptly disappointed that all his cleaning accomplished was that he could now see the chaos much more clearly. He pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the migraine that threatened. From the corner of his eye, he saw police and firefighters racing across the green; journalists were not far behind, reporters and camera crew jostling to be the first to hit the exclusive.

He could see the headlines now: Chat Noir: Famous Parisian Superhero, or Kidnapping Arsonist?

…Catnapping Arsonist?

“Urgh,” Nino groaned, startled when he heard an answering groan from nearby. A heavy panel of smoking canvas shifted as someone stirred underneath. A sooty head popped up, etched grey from ash. With a curse, Nino leapt over the smoking remains, hauling John up to drag him to safety.

John spat a wad of ash, lifting the collar of his burnt shirt to wipe his mouth. “At least someone remembered me.”

“How are you not dead?” Nino exclaimed, slapping a section of still-smoking linen.

John touched one of the golden rings in his hair. “Protection charms can come in handy once in a – fuck, am I still on fire?” He reached around and started clumsily patting his back, his palms already singed.

“You’re gonna hurt yourself worse if you keep doing that,” Nino warned, forcing the boy into the grass.

An ambulance rocked up on the verge, disgorging two paramedics who zeroed in on John like a pair of heat-seeking health care professionals. Nino backed off to give them room to work, listening with half an ear as John to admitted his non-human status with the same bored tones as someone who would admit to being allergic to penicillin; he was familiar contracted, and his witch was nearby. Funny how Nino had never considered the dynamics of treating someone who wasn’t human. Was there an extra class in medical school for that? Was veterinary medicine adequate to treat a werebeast?

Unaware of his musings regarding the complexities of non-human medical care, the paramedics continued to assess John and ask a series of standardized questions: what type of magical being was he, how long had he been actively contracted, and was his witch powerful enough to treat his burns without medical intervention?

Werewolf. Six years. Definitely not.

John was given a breathing mask hooked up to an oxygen tank to deal with smoke inhalation. While one paramedic continued to take his history and ask how he got caught in the fire in the first place, the second paramedic prodded through the large holes seared through his shirt to investigate the extent of the werewolf’s injury. An irrigator full of sterile water was brought out to begin the process of gently debriding the area.

Nino was nearly knocked off his feet as Alya stumbled up, pushing a tangled mop of wet hair out of her face. “Okay, you have to admit, that was pretty cool,” she announced. “Did you see the witch?” She raised her hands and snapped her fingers. “Just whoosh! Everywhere.”

“Your best friend has been kidnapped by a cracked out werecat.”

Alya cast him a rolling side-eye. “Yeah, I saw that. I’m not blind, Nino.” She proceeded to wring out her shirt. “I’m not happy about it. I might approve of them finally having some alone time together-”

“Alya!”

“Let me finish.” She wrung her shirt out deliberately over his shoe. “I might approve of them finally being alone together, but if that mangy cat so much as hurts a hair on Mari’s head, I’ll skin him alive.”

The stubborn set of her chin had Nino gearing down. “Okay. Good. If he hurts Mari, I’ll help.”

“We’ll make a date out of it.” She leaned up on her toes to peck him on the lips.

Sarah sloshed up and landed on her knees in the grass in front of her familiar, cupping his face in her hands and placing a sweet kiss on the tip of his nose. “Those burns are pretty serious, puppy. You should have let me know- I could have done something sooner.”

John sent her a flat look over the top of his oxygen mask.

Sarah frowned. “We can share, if that would be better-?”

John jerked out of the mask with a scowl. “No.”

Sarah’s expression turned churlish. “I can handle it.”

“No.”

“Don’t be such a baby.”

“No.” He pointed a shaking finger under her nose. “There’s no point in sharing when you’re the only one who can fly, and Chat Noir is god-only-knows-where and completely out of his gourd while he’s at it.” He grimaced as someone applied burn ointment to his back. “I want to know what the hell happened, and then you are going to go fix it.”

Nino lifted his glasses to scrub his eyes. “I think we all would love to know what the hell is going on around here.”

“First off,” Alya cut in, turning to the paramedics who had been keeping their head down throughout the exchange. “It looks like you have things under control here. Thank you so much for being so awesome at your jobs. We all appreciate your hard work.” She steepled her fingers in front of her, smiling too brightly. “But now we need a bit of privacy. Please. That was my best friend who was kidnapped, and I would really love to get this sorted out without getting the police involved.”

The paramedics cast each other an unimpressed look, one of them turning to John. “Sir, are you refusing treatment?”

“I am if it means you’ll go away.”

“That’s your decision.” With a huff, one of the paramedics stood, grabbed his jump bag, and stalked off toward the ambulance left flashing on the side of the road.

The second of the paramedics shook her head, flashing fuzzy moth antenna tucked back in her hair, her skin briefly catching opalescent in the sunlight. A glamoured fae of some sort, Nino guessed. From the Seelie Court, he hoped. From what he’d read, he’d rather deal with an akuma than an Unseelie fae. Thanks Wikipedia for nightmares.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” the fae sighed. Her nametag read Applebottom. “He’s grumpy around non-humans right now. He just broke up with his boyfriend, a satyr.”

“Ah.” Sarah nodded sagely. “Satyrs are the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. My sister’s dated a couple.”

Satyrs are the goats, right…? Nino made the mistake of trying to imagine the mechanics of dating a half-goat, and then discovered he really didn’t like the visuals his brain came up with. The look Alya shared with him said she was not a fan of what she came up with, either.

“I tried to warn him.” Applebottom the fae looked from the tents back to the teens. “Was Lord Plague really here?”

“He was, and now he’s gone – which is the crux of our problem right now,” Nino sighed. “Please, there’s no telling what he could do out there. He could hurt someone if we don’t catch him quickly.”

“If it’s for Miraculous business, I suppose I can run interference.” Applebottom nodded back into the collection of humanity. “Someone is going to have to shore up that stink spirit’s glamours or she’s going to end up oozing all over the place. I don’t imagine anyone would want to be outed like that.” Gisela had backed off from the crowd, the whites of her eyes gone completely brown, her hair appearing to liquefy into streamers of mud; she looked utterly terrified, thick gobs of dark sludge tracking from the corners of her eyes. Nathalie stood not far away, nose wrinkled, tapping something into her tablet as she spoke lowly to the devastated model.

“That’s my fault – I caught her with some water,” Sarah apologized, pulling three long hairs from the top of her head. “You can use these to help fix her glamour. If she can get to Candlewick Apothecary in Camden, my mom or one of my sisters can fix her completely. Tell her I’m sorry. I hope she doesn’t lose her job because of this.”

“That’s a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen if she gets fired.” Applebottom tugged her ponytail tighter, notching her chin in the air. “You kids get this sorted out fast before Animal Control gets involved. I’ll…” She pulled a face. “Worse comes to worse, I can drop my glamour and go running naked across the park. No one expects any less from a pixie.” She pointed a damning finger at John. “You either get those burns looked at by a certified witch or I better see your ass in a hospital getting treated. Hear me?”

John shot her a weary thumbs up.

“Good, and I’m warning you all now, whoever Lord Plague is under the mask, you better figure out quick how to cover for him, because I’m guessing there are people who are going to be looking for him.” She jogged off in the direction of Gisela, waving the three strands of witch hair clutched in her fist.

Alya watched the paramedic skid up to the stink spirit, and then she rounded on Nino with her hands on her hips. “Who the hell is Lord Plague?”

“Chat Noir isn’t the only name he’s ever gone by,” Nino explained, feeling weird for knowing Miraculous trivia that Alya didn’t know. Wasn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse?

“Personally, I have a lot of names for him,” John sneered.

“Name-calling is going to help the situation, dumb-dumb,” Sarah chastised, pulling more hair from the top of her head and knotting them together. She pinched the knot between her teeth and rapidly braided the threads together. “The fae was right, people are going to be wondering where Adrien is.”

“We can’t exactly pull him out of magic hat right now,” Alya groused.

“No, but we can make it seem like he never left. Hold your arm out.” Alya offered her right arm, allowing Sarah to wrap the thin braid of her hair around her wrist nearly a dozen times, tying it off in a tight knot. “John, I’m going to need a little extra juice for this if you can spare it.”

“Take as much as you need.”

Sarah nodded, digging into her satchel to pull out a pen knife and stab the blade into her palm, dragging open a bloody gouge from fingers to wrist. She turned to Nino, raising her unbloody hand; he tensed, waiting for her to inexplicably steal his soul. Instead, she snatched a short blond hair from his shoulder, twirling it between her fingers. “This will have to do.” She grabbed Alya’s hand and placed Adrien’s hair in her palm, slapping her bloody hand over it as she muttered a string of unintelligible words. A jolt of electricity spiked the air, a moment of heat that rolled out like a shockwave.

Nino watched in pure astonishment as Alya's hand began to fade from warm honey brown to pale white. Pale skin raced across her arm, forking out at the juncture of her neck and shoulder to climb up her throat and down her chest. Alya’s auburn hair retracted into her scalp, and was quickly replaced with a mop of golden hair; her face reshaped itself, her rounded chin squaring off, her cheekbones shifting. The grey of her eyes deepened to green. Nino mourned the loss of her curves, watching as Alya’s breasts flattened, her hips narrowing, her shoulders broadening; her clothes flickered, rearranging into the outfit Adrien had last been seen wearing.

Nino’s eyes stung before he remembered to blink. “Holy shit.”

Alya, now a stunning carbon copy of Adrien Agreste, looked down at herself, hands immediately flying to her- his? – chest. She…he? felt around, and then sighed in relief. “Whew, they’re still there.”

“It’s just an illusion. You’re still a girl underneath,” Sarah assured, bent over her knees to pant. Her face had paled to a greenish-grey. “Nino was too tall and John was too hurt. You were the only option. The glamour should hold for as long as you keep my hair around your wrist.”

“No shit,” Alya breathed, glancing at her new accessory.

“How good are you at acting?” John asked dryly, snatching his witch’s injured hand to check on the wound. Without hesitation, he pressed his open mouth against the bleeding laceration. Sarah ripped her hand away with the squawk. It was only a brief glance, but Nino was sure the skin of the witch’s palm had mended. A smear of blood appeared in the grass where John had his hands braced behind him.

“Er…” Alya blushed, colour creeping up on Adrien’s pale cheeks.

“We’re doomed,” Nino groaned.

“Shut up, I can do this.” She effected a moue that looked plain wrong on Adrien’s face. “I always wondered what it would be like to be a guy. This is my chance.”

“It’s not that exciting,” Nino huffed.

“I don’t know. I think I could have fun with this.” Devilment lit Alya’s newly green eyes, a look of pure mischief rising that had no business being on Adrien Agreste’s face. She clapped her hands to her cheeks, letting her palms skim down her body in a provocative foray discovering the new angles and contours of her glamour. The hum that rolled from her throat as she paused just shy of her groin, fingertips teasing below her belt, was both foreign coming from Adrien and simultaneously the seductive adult material fashion campaigns were looking for nowadays. The sort of look, the sort of pose, that was going to get Adrien’s face and body plastered half-dressed on every billboard across Europe. Nino prayed there were no cameras trained on them at that very moment.

Alya spared nothing for the boy whose face she was wearing, turning the blunt of her attentions on Nino. Nino was forced to watch as his best friend slunk around with a seductive swing in his hips, his tongue poised on his bottom lip. Eyes gleaming at half-mast, hair tousled as if he had just rolled out of bed, his fingers playing suggestively with his belt buckle. Adrien Agreste, more handsome than any teenaged boy ever had a right to be, and now with the terrifying bonus of looking like he wanted to devour Nino alive.

Alya placed her palms on Nino’s chest, stretching up on her toes. It was less of a stretch with Adrien’s height aiding her. Nino went onto his toes as well, bending backwards as far as he could go, hating that he could feel his girlfriend’s curves pressed up against him but all he could see was Adrien, and it was making him really confused about what he was supposed to feel in this situation.

“What’s wrong, Nino honey?” Alya cooed. The fact that it was Adrien’s voice that slipped from her lips, rolling like a kitten’s purr down Nino’s skin, made the whole thing worse. “Don’t you want to give me a little kiss?”

“I am so uncomfortable right now,” Nino whined, gulping back the lump lodged in his throat. He caught the Gorilla’s eye, his face flaming ruddy red when the bodyguard took in the sight of what appeared to be two boys flirting outrageously with each other. Nino had half a mind to mouth the words Help Me! But knew better than to even try. The Gorilla gave them a respectable nod and moved on, as if to say that he completely supported his charge’s relationship with his best friend and he was not about to make a big deal about it.

Alya saw the Gorilla’s nod as well, slipping away from Nino the moment the bodyguard looked away. She brushed off her shirt, fixing her blond hair merrily, as if she had not just been rudely accosting her boyfriend seconds ago.

“What was that about?” Nino exclaimed.

“Revenge. You didn’t think I forgot you tried to smother me with a pillow, did you?” Alya quipped cheerfully, cocking her hip. The pose would have looked fine on her as Alya, but looked intensely odd on Adrien. “How’s that for acting, jerk? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear the cameras calling. You three figure out what the hell went wrong with Adrien while I make sure no one suspects he’s gone.” Instinctively, she leaned up to peck Nino on the cheek; he reflexively bent down to return the kiss. They pulled back, staring oddly at one another. Alya cracked a teasing grin. “I always knew you were secretly gay for him.”

“Who says it was secretly?” Nino turned her by the shoulders and shoved her in the direction that Adrien’s name was being called. “Go on. Do us all proud and try not to drive Adrien’s career into the ground.”

“No promises.”

Nino watched her go, with more spring in her step than any guy had any right to walk with. He clapped a hand over his face and prayed that this didn’t make it to the tabloids. When he felt brave enough to face the world again, he caught John’s eye, who, despite his burns, looked like he was intensely enjoying the whole debacle. Squeezing his eyes shut, he asked, “Do you have any idea what happened?”

John snorted. “No idea. He only managed to breathe in a little of the numbing powder before he started losing it.” He turned to his witch. “Did you put too much root in?”

Sarah shook her head, wringing her skirt between her two hands. “I’ve made that powder hundreds of times. Valerian root shouldn’t have any psychotropic effects, it’s purely anxiolytic-.”

The name rang a bell with Nino, spiking his heart rate. Somewhere in the endless reams of Wikipedia pages he had been scrolling through… “Say that again.”

“Anxiolytic, it means antianxiety-.”

“No, the root!” He flapped a hand. “What did you call the root you used?”

“Valerian,” Sarah intoned. “Garden valerian. It’s harmless – I’ve used it plenty of times.”

Nino’s stomach bottomed out. Ah, yes, he remembered now. Valerian root, he had read it in reference to a Wiki page about cats. “You’ve never used valerian on a werecat before, have you?”

Sarah traded a guilty look with John. “My speciality is canines, but…”

“Valerian acts like catnip.” Nino groaned, burying his face in both hands. “You roofied him!”

“Oh.” The last vestiges of colour drained out of Sarah’s pale face. “Oh dear. That’s not good.”

The migraine that had been threatening before became a full-blown war drum beating inside Nino’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut, praying for a sense of calm that did not want to come. “Great. That’s just great. He didn’t have a lot of control to begin with, who knows what this is going to do to him?”

“Let’s not find out, shall we?” Sarah put her fingers to her lips and whistled. The boot of John’s Porsche popped open, a crooked broomstick zipping out to slide into the witch’s waiting hand. “I can try scrying for him. Hopefully he hasn’t gone far.” She mounted, rising from the ground. “The effects of the valerian shouldn’t last very long, but if he puts up a fuss, I’ll mickey him again. Since this is my fault, I’ll fix it. I promise.” She patted her satchel confidently, and then turned her broom to rush off in the direction Chat Noir had disappeared in.

Nino drove his palms through his hair, eyeing police and reporters slowly but steadily making their way closer to get their own accounts of what had happened. He glanced at John, still sitting in the grass. “Should I be worried? I feel like I should be generally worried for everyone involved, but… like, should I be especially worried for Mari? How’s she supposed to handle Adrien on a catnip-high?”

John squinted up at him. “Something tells me that girl can take care of herself.”

 

 

They set down on a familiar balcony near the top floor of a familiar upscale hotel. The first time Marinette had landed on this balcony, she had been Ladybug, and Chat Noir had been trapped in a containment circle with a witch and a werewolf looming over him. Now the glass door was webbed with deep cracks, and instead of walking into the room under her own power, she was being whisked over the threshold in the arms of a leather-clad superhero.

Chat turned her gently, with more care than one might have thought possible for someone so tipsy. Her outrage over being kidnapped guttered out in the face of such mindful attention. Her bare feet sank into the plush of the carpet.

Marinette peered down, discovering that in the jarring rush of vaulting across London, she had somehow lost her sandals. That was fine. She could get new ones. Her biggest concern were hot spots that pockmarked her shoulders and the backs of her thighs. As careful as Chat had been in handling her, vaulting via his baton was nowhere near as smooth as traipsing from Ladybug’s yo-yo. What she needed now was some cold running water, aloe cream, and a little bit of healing kwami magic – none of which she was going to get any time soon with an alley cat stumbling around in a stupor.

Damn it. She could grin and bear it for as long as it took to sneak away from one curiously intoxicated kitty.

“Mari,” Chat mumbled, standing so close that heat radiated from him. He smelled like smoke and a brand of cologne that Marinette would have recognized anywhere – savoury and expensive and worn by a boy she should have recognized anywhere, were it not for a bit of glamour magic getting in the way.

“Chat Noir,” she murmured back, even when another name lay poised on her tongue. The glamour between their identities was really and truly cracking if she was able to make that connection so easily. When she looked at him, she could almost see his face through the mask. Handsome and familiar, human green eyes and a shy smile. She could admit, a part of her still recoiled at the idea. That deeply ingrained part of her that had become reflex after three years. That scared little part of her that, when she looked into his eyes, wondered if he was as close to seeing her as she was to seeing him.

There was a newer part of herself that thrilled at the idea.

“Mari,” Chat murmured again, slurring so that her name stretched on for long seconds and the ‘r’ became a purr that vibrated on his tongue. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng.” Another dopey smile appeared, a low chuckle fluttering past his lips. His head dipped when his body weaved, looking like he might topple over at any moment.

Marinette was not going to try catching him a second time. Let him eat carpet before she tore open any of her new blisters.

Thankfully, he caught himself, drawing up to his full height. Tall enough that Marinette had to tip her head back to keep looking him in the eye. He continued to stare at her like she was the only thing worth staring at in the room. “You’re beautiful from this angle, too.”

He was very definitely drugged.

“What am I going to do with you, you silly cat?”

“Anything you want,” he bid, clapping his palms confidently on her shoulders.

Marinette bit back a sudden gasp. Ah. Too close for comfort. There was a welt that she couldn’t see that did not appreciate being jostled. Shit. What had she been thinking diving on top of Nino like that? Human skin was nowhere near as fire retardant as Ladybug armour. She hoped Tikki had enough magic stored up to give her a healing boost as she had with Marinette’s black eye.

Despite his intoxication, Chat startled to even the smallest sign of her discomfort. He retracted his hands in a flash, wavering from the effort, yet still trying so hard to remain upright in front of her. “I forgot that you were hurt.” His ears pinned down, eyes widening in dawning horror. “How could I forget that you were hurt?”

“It’s understandable.”

“No, it’s not. I hurt you.” He stared down at his hands. “I hurt you. I’m never supposed to hurt you.” He looked up with bright, wide eyes. “I adore you”

“Ah, thank you?” It would have meant a whole lot more if the boy wasn’t higher than a kite. Nevertheless, his earnest tone had her quirking a small, tired smile, patting his arm consolingly. “It was an accident. We all get hurt sometimes.”

“Not you. Not while I’m here.” He lurched forward, both palms rising to cup her cheeks. “I can take the hurt for you.” His numbed lips stumbled, the next words garbled; Marinette thought she heard him say “I have more experience being hurt.” She prayed that wasn’t what he said.

He fell forward, their chests meeting with a thump. She braced for his weight, but gasped when it was Chat who balanced first and swept her close. He tucked her head beneath his chin, his arms falling to hold her gently, so gently, by the hips. She was flush up against him, lean muscle and leather armour felt acutely by her sensitized skin. He was trembling, and Marinette knew that he was afraid to touch her anywhere else lest he hurt her more.

“Silly kitty,” she murmured against warm leather.

“Am I being silly? I didn’t think I was…” He pulled away, looking down with his brows knitted together. So lost and confused and stupidly handsome. “I don’t know anymore.”

Marinette took the opportunity to step away, dabbing her fingers in the powder on his lip, showing it to him. “You’ve been drugged, Chat. You need to get sober.”

He blinked so slowly that it seemed as if he had fallen asleep. A slow smile curled his lips, his eyes opening as slow as the sunrise creeping over the horizon. “It’s… making me feel strange.”

“I can tell.” Marinette pinched the bridge of her nose. “I can’t leave you like this, can I?”

“Please don’t ever leave me.” Chat’s eyes fell to her raised fingers, head cocked, ears twitching. He fixated the way a cat focused on a mouse before it pounced. She watched his body tense, sensed the flick of his tail and the spike in the air as his world narrowed to a single point in the room. His head dipped, lips parting over her fingertips. The warm, wet slide of his mouth down to her second knuckle shocked the breath of her. He watched her, his lips wrapped around her fingers, sucked gently. He pulled up, his tongue sweeping the pads of her fingers. He kissed her fingertips before pulling away, licking his lips with a crooked grin.

Colour flagged high on Marinette’s cheeks, a cross between a choke and a laugh flying from her. “You dirty little alley cat.”

“You taste sweet,” he hummed, looking so pleased with himself. A cat drunk on cream. “I can’t smell you, but you taste so sweet. Just like when I dream of you.”

An indelicate snort exited Marinette’s nose.

“Sweet like sugar, and honey, and starbursts,” Chat purred drunkenly, bowing his head, lips pursed.

Marinette stopped him with a fingertip to his lips, which he happily placed a kiss on instead. He placed several kisses on her fingers, seemingly content to keep kissing for as long as she let him. Marinette marvelled at him, recalling all the times Chat had kissed Ladybug’s hands, her fingers, and her wrists. She remembered the dream where he had kissed so much more of her. Here he was, divested of every inhibition, happily kissing her like there was nothing else in the world he would rather be doing. She had to wonder if that was the drug talking, or if kissing was a soft spot she never realized her partner had.

She turned her hand to brush his cheek; he kissed her palm, and then her wrist. She cupped his face, finding no more kitty whiskers framing his jaw. A moment of disappointment fluttered. Smooth, freshly shaved skin was nice, even powder fresh against her fingertips with the layer of makeup she was not surprised to find applied, but she had rather liked that little bit of rough-around-edges scruff she’d found the other day. It suited Chat Noir’s flirty, roguish self. Clean shaven was for his alter ego.

He leaned into her touch, a deep purr rolling from his chest.

Marinette’s teeth sank into her bottom lip. Was it terribly wrong for her to enjoy all these changes in her partner? The whiskers and the ears and the purr- she enjoyed it far too much. She should stop. Really. Any moment now.

“I should go, Chat.” Nevertheless, Marinette let her fingers slip from his face to one of his velvety ears, adoring that she could freely touch one kitten-soft appendage with her naked fingers. It felt softer each time she got to touch it, delicate and flexible; she could see pale skin and small veins on the inside of the ear. The outside drew her like a magnet, stroking in time to the oscillations of Chat’s purring. Heat radiated from the thin skin, tiny hairs tickling the backs of her knuckles.

Chat’s purr sputtered for a moment, paused on the intake of a shuddering breath. She felt him go suddenly lax beneath her fingers, crashing to his knees before her. His arms laced around her hips, pushing his face low against her belly. The loose hem of her shirt pushed up, exposing sensitive skin to the rub of Chat’s face and hair, the delicate brush of his little kitty ear, and the deep vibration of his purr that rumbled even louder as she continued to pet his other ear.

“I really shouldn’t be taking advantage of you like this,” Marinette groaned, looking up into the bemused face of her kwami, escaped from Marinette’s purse and now floating behind Chat’s back with her arms crossed. “Chat. We can’t. Think of… think of Ladybug. Think of your Lady.”

His arms tightened around her when she tried to step away. His purr ended, and a growl began. Low, but half-hearted. He nipped her belly, and then pushed his face fully against her soft skin. The movement of his lips, just above them hem of her shorts, caused heat to flutter lower down. “I am thinking of you.”

“Ah,” Marinette breathed, tipping her head back, closing her eyes. There it was. He said it for certain. She inhaled deeply, waiting a moment before she let it all out in rush. Was he even aware of the words coming out of his mouth? Was this just a part of the drug-induced stupor? Did she care?

There was really no point in feigning ignorance now, and she didn’t have the energy besides.

“I can’t stop thinking of you,” Chat whispered, pressing himself against her legs, his face buried in the warm, low curve of her belly.

“Why do you have to go and say things like that when you’re high?” She slid her fingers through soft hanks of golden hair, shifting gently, feeling him shudder against her. “There’s a chance you won’t remember.”

“There’s a chance that I will.” He peered up the length of her body. “Or I’ll find you again, even if it takes another three years. Or a lifetime.”

Marinette chuckle softly, warmth bubbling up from the pit of her belly – heat that was soft and fond ad made her forget the sting burnt skin. She tugged gently on golden hair tangled around her fingers. “Chaton.”

He swallowed hard, his arms cinching tighter. “Buginette.”

Her smile stretched wider. “Hello, Chat.”

“I found you.” He kissed her navel.

“Your timing is terrible.” She continued to sift through his hair, caressing the rim of an ear each time her fingers drew near. His little mewls made her want to tickle his ears more. Funny how relaxed she felt; she hadn’t been ready for a reveal, but she wasn’t crying now that it happened. It just was, and she was strangely okay with the way things were. Metaphorically speaking. Literally… “We can’t stay like this, Chat. You caused a lot of trouble in the park. You kidnapped a civilian. Animal Control has probably already been called on you.”

A long sigh of hot air ghosted across her skin, Chat’s heavy weight pushing against her belly and legs. “You’re right.”

“I usually am,” she teased. “We can do this later, when we have time to do it right. Right now, I need to see how bad my back is and then I’ll go to the park to help sort things out. I’ll leave you to sober up.”

“I can help,” Chat insisted. “I want to help you.”

She smoothed his bangs from his face, glad to see a little clarity coming back to his eyes. “I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“Why not?” Distress flickered across his features. Marinette missed the way his shadow guttered, a little bit of black magic bubbling up. “At least let me help with your back. If it wasn’t for me, you never would have been burnt in the first place.”

Tikki suddenly twittered in alarm. “Marinette, don’t let him touch-!”

Chat’s claws hooked on the bottom hem of her shirt, a spark of black magic staining the cotton. Marinette went rigid, watching in shock as rot took hold and white cloth darkened to a musty yellow, woven threads loosening before unravelling. Seams peeled apart, lace detailing going black and curling up like the death of flower petals. In a matter of seconds, Marinette’s shirt fell from her in ashes, scattering soundlessly across the floor, never to resemble a shirt again.

“Oops.”

Marinette clapped her hands over her bare breasts. “Chat Noir, that was the opposite of helping.”

Chat sputtered wordlessly, steadily going red in the face.

She clutched her chest tighter. “For all I know, you did that on purpose.”

He choked. Even the skin on the insides of his kitty ears stained bright red. “I’d never! It was an accident!”

“Just like setting those tents on fire was an accident,” Marinette sighed, exchanging a dry look with Tikki. The kwami spared her no sympathy, brows raised with a distinct look of, “I tried to warn you.” Absolutely not helping in the least. Marinette switched her flat stare back to Chat, still on his knees, goggling up at her. Impressively, his eyes did not dare stray lower than her collarbone. Even high, he was still very much the gentlemen.

Marinette deigned to cast him an almost sympathetic look. “I am going to go check my back in the mirror. You stay.” She slid one arm across to cover her whole chest, freeing the other so she could poke her finger squarely into the tip of Chat’s nose. “Stay.”

Like a dog.

Chat fell back on his tail and made no move to get up.

With a blush that reached all the way to the hem of her shorts, Marinette jerked around and made it all of two steps toward the bathroom before the sounds of shock reverberated through the suite. Tikki’s low coo was drown out by a much louder gasp, tripping on the heels of a shocked curse. Marinette’s hair stood on end as she felt the spike in the air, a tremor passing through the floor and rattling up the walls.

Her heart leapt into her throat at the first gun-shot crack of bone. Forgetting her nakedness, forgetting the sting of her welted skin, she snapped around to find Chat Noir on his feet, staring at her with horrified devastation rocking his shifting features.

“I didn’t know you were that hurt,” he breathed, his words breaking up around his elongating jaw and descending fangs. He didn’t seem to realize he was shifting, fur sprouting, leather armour and human form melting away into a much larger feline figure. “Why did you hide how hurt you were…?”

Marinette rushed the distance in a single thoughtless leap, clamping her hands on either side of the werecat’s head before he could rear and roar. She dragged his head down even as the body in her arms grew and expanded. Beneath her clutching fingers, she felt bone, flesh, and muscle stretch and churning.

“Why?” Chat croaked, the low hum of his voice turned guttural. “Why hide? You were hurt.” Animal eyes stared out from a mask of black fur, terrible guilt written on his feral features. It took more strength than Marinette had to keep him in her grasp. Her feet left the carpet as he surged to his full height, fur bristling, head swinging around as if searching for the nearest exit.

“No!” she bit out, grasping handfuls of thick fur from the scruff around his thick neck. “No, you are not running away! Not while you’re like this!”

Chat grunted, scooping her up with ease. Marinette smothered a gasp as her skin came alive to the sensation of thick fur pressed so close. She felt the softness of his pelt, and the hard wall of muscle underneath, and heat radiating from every inch of him. “Hurt,” he breathed. “You’re hurt.” His muzzle snuffled the crown of her hair, his arm pressed proprietarily over her bottom. He was even less coordinated in his new body than he was in his human one, stumbling several steps before finding a new balance. The open door to the balcony loomed too close for comfort.

Marinette tensed, sucking in a breath meant for the words “Spots on!” Instead, it was wasted on a sudden gasp as the werecat that cradled her promptly turned from the balcony and dropped her on the nearest bed.

Marinette bounced once before she scrambled for the edge.

Chat made a low rumbling noise, easily, and so carefully, tossing her back on the mattress.

Marinette made a mad dash for the opposite side. “Chat, let’s think about this! We’re supposed to be friends! Partners!”

Chat rumbled louder, letting loose with a distinct grunt as he knelt on the ledge of the mattress and leaned across to catch her by the ankle.

Marinette latched on to the corner of the headboard and refused to let go. “Don’t make me ruin our friendship by killing you!”

Chat’s strength as a werecat outdid hers as a mortal human by embarrassing leagues, but Marinette held on. She gripped the headboard until it groaned. “Tikki, help!”

“He’s not attacking you, Marinette,” Tikki intoned, sounding unhelpfully far away.

“He’s not letting me go, either!”

“You know what words you have to say to call me.”

The words that fell from Marinette’s lips were not Spots On. If her mother ever heard the words she had hissed, she would have been grounded for a week.

Luckily, Tikki was not the easily offended type, choosing to laugh quietly from her convenient vantage point across the room. “Obviously you don’t want my help that badly if you won’t call me.”

Marinette dropped her face into the rumpled sheets, cursing a mean streak.

Beneath her, the whole bed jumped as one very large, very furry body mounted the mattress and crawled closer. She felt his heat, and sensed his weight, and shivered under his unwavering regard. She tensed as one large arm braced itself by her side, the werecat’s body levering over her, arched over her back on his hands and knees. Slitted eyes tracked from one point of her shoulder to the other, down the line of her spine and across the backs of her thighs. Her knuckles went white when she felt large paws on her hips. A shadow loomed over her back, hot breath fanning across the nape of her neck.

Marinette’s head snapped up sharply. “Chat Noir, if you even think about doing something stupid-!”

Soft lips and a velvet muzzle pressed firmly against the curve where neck met shoulder.

Marinette froze on a shocked gasp.

Chat pressed more firmly, lips parting to drag his tongue over a section of blistered skin. Hot and wet, chased by the touch of cool air. Rough as any cat’s tongue. There was the initial sting of nerves reacting under distressed skin, followed by the most curious melting sensation. Not numbing, because Marinette could still feel every minute touch, but a pleasant, gradual fading of pain in that one particular area. Chat lapped gently until no pain remained, only a pleasant tingling from the scrape of his sandpaper tongue, soothed by the contrast of his furry muzzle.

Content with the one area he had treated, he pulled back and chuffed. Marinette felt the puff of air against the back of her head.

“What in the world are you doing back there?” She tried to turn over, but was stopped by a large hand in the center of her back. “Chat, what are you doing?”

“Mine,” he grunted, laying his lips to her back again, this time to the left, just behind and below the ball of her shoulder. Expecting the initial sting, Marinette bit her lip and pressed her face into the sheets. She could count the tiny pinpricks of Chat’s whiskers poking her back. His kiss lasted for longer than any kiss Marinette had ever shared with a boy before. The rough drag of his tongue over the area elicited a swath of gooseflesh to break out down her arms and back.

His ministrations were methodical, each touch of his lips and tongue performed with the utmost care. Maybe Chat Noir the boy didn’t know what he was doing, but the werebeast certainly had a clue about something.

Marinette could count the beats of her heart ringing in her ears as Chat ghosted his warm nose over the sweep of her shoulders, so close that she felt the tickle of tiny hairs on the end of his muzzle. She felt the weight of his focused attention, bringing a sense of comfort rather than stifle her. She said nothing when she felt the light pinch of small, sharp teeth nipping at her neck. The press of much larger fangs against the vulnerable pulse in her throat only brought about its own thrill without an ounce of fear.

“Mine,” murmured the beast again, warping the word into a physical caress that Marinette felt curl low between her legs. She bit her lip and pressed her thighs together as Chat slowly moved down her back. She could barely make out the words as he spoke against her spine. “Mine. Take care of.”

“If this is some kind of weird kitty-mojo magic…” Marinette cut off as Chat found another burn on the back of her arm, giving it the same attentions as the others. A kiss that lasted for long seconds, and the sweep of a tongue that did not last nearly long enough.

His large hands roamed up from her hips, barely touching her sides as he skimmed the curve of her waist and the underside of her ribs. She felt the slide of his claws, and the fleshy touch of black pads on his palms, and the tickle of kitten-soft fur on his fingers. He adjusted his hold on her, rocking the bed as he shifted down her body. The next touch of his muzzle was to the center of her back, between her shoulder blades, where a flaming ember of canvas must have embedded itself in her back.

That one hurt.

Marinette bit back a sudden cry, losing her grip on the headboard to curl her fingers into the more giving sheets. Instinct had her bucking against the large shadow at her back. A pained mewl answered her. His hands and lips were gone in an instant. Marinette couldn’t find the strength to lift her head. Chat levered up to lay his head next to hers, rubbing gently, the sweep of his tongue against her cheek prompting Marinette to let loose with the breath she had been holding, squinting at her partner-turned-monster.

She turned her hand, running the backs of her fingers down his sleek fur. “What are you doing, minou?”

His large eyes gleamed, relief suddenly lighting his features. He pushed into the side of her face and purred louder than he had ever purred as a human, as powerful as a motorcycle engine, rumbling like real thunder. “Help… you.”

“Oh.”

“Never you hurt.”

Marinette turned her face back into the sheets, biting her lip. “You never could.”

He chuffed, seeming to take her admonishment as permission to continue. He slid back down, gentler now than he ever had been before as he ministered to each reddened blemish. His purr only added to the experience, vibrating through Marinette’s skin, sink down past flesh and bone into her blood. It was soothing in a way she had never imagined a purr could be. Now she knew why cat’s purred when they were scared or in pain. Chat was the one purring, yet Marinette found she was the one being lulled.

They settled into a comfortable rhythm, Marinette trusting this new side of Chat as he worked gently to relieve her of her burns. She didn’t know how he was doing it, or even how he had figured out how to do it, but she didn’t sense anything cursed about the magic. Comforting, maybe. Familiar, almost. But certainly not dark magic in the least.

She let him care for her until she remembered too late how far down her burns went. Her eyes shot wide, a startled yelp lighting the air as a sleek, furry head fit itself between her legs and kissed her on the high seam between her leg and the lower curve of her bottom. Heat instantly flooded her cheeks, both top and bottom, a squeak falling from her lips when she tried to snap her legs closed. Chat liked that as much as he had appreciated her trying to escape earlier.

Marinette squealed the moment she felt teeth against the underside of her bottom. "Chat Noir, what the hell to do you think you're doing-?"

"Stay still." Strong hands caught her thighs, giving Chat room to drag his tongue under the abbreviated hem of her shorts from the outside of her thigh to the sensitive inside. He repeated the action, slower than the first, making sure that he caught every speckle of singed skin. Marinette was so pale back there, every red little blemish stood out brightly. It made the werecat's job much easier, finding each spot and taking the burns unto himself.

Marinette clapped a hand over her mouth, squirming fruitlessly against the cat that caught her. Fuck. Fuck. Fuuuuuuuck.

There was no sign from the beast that he recognized the intimacy of his actions. No human notion of crossing boundaries. Chat was thoroughly engrossed in the act of ensuring that she was properly treated and cared for. He worked his way down one thigh before switching to the other, alternating between the sweep of his velveteen muzzle and the rough scrape of his tongue. The tickle of his whiskers and the nip of his teeth. His purr, once soothing, inspired an entirely different reaction in the girl as the rolling vibration tingled up the insides of her legs.

If there were any burns left, she wouldn’t have known it anymore.

Tears were beginning to prick at the corners of her eyes. Her breath sawed unevenly from her lungs. Chat kept her legs trapped, but that didn’t stop her from rolling her upper half. The scrape of cotton sheets against her bare breasts made her bite down on her lip harder. She squeezed her eyes shut, only to force them open when visions of green eyes and black fur and pink tongues tattooed themselves across the insides of her eyelids. She suffered the inevitable coiling tension low in her belly, heat blossoming unbidden between her legs. Try as she might, it was impossible to stop the feeling of gathering liquid heat. Her brain was screaming no, her body was yelling hell yeah, and she was stuck with a partner-turned-werecat whose number one priority remained her well-being.

Even if it killed her.

A tiny sob left her lips just as she let her face fall back into the pillows, resigned to suffer the werecat’s concerned attentions.

Chat finished with her burns with a last lick along the inside seam of her right leg, cooing proudly that he had accomplished so much. He paused, snuffling around as the new scent bled into the air and he tried to make sense of it. Marinette bit the pillow cover and prayed her heart didn’t give out. She felt the bed rocking, fur rustling as Chat crept closer. A shiver passed down the length of her body as hot breath fanned down the insides of her legs.

All too suddenly, without an ounce of human restraint, Chat’s furry head dove directly between her thighs for a deep breath in.

Marinette’s startled shriek threw them both apart.

Panting, so red in the face that she looked sunburned, Marinette flipped over on her back and glared down the length of her body at the large, black body of her transformed partner perched on the end of the bed. His eyes had gone half-lidded, his tongue peeking out from between black lips. His head bobbed drunkenly, and Marinette knew for a fact that it wasn’t the drugs anymore. He was high off of something much more embarrassing than just cocaine.

One glance from her had him cocking his head, warbling a chirp.

Marinette planted a pillow directly over her face. “Chat, I don’t know if you can understand me, but this is not your fault.”

He chirped again.

“I’m the responsible human here, and I fucked up.”

A low, soft mewl floated from the end of the bed.

Marinette peeked out from under the pillow. “I don’t even know how to begin explaining this to you when you change back.”

Chat teetered forward onto his hands and knees, crawling up the length of Marinette’s body to hang directly over her face. Bright green eyes peered down at her, his tongue still poking stupidly out of his mouth. She pulled a face at him, flicking his tongue. He licked her fingers, and then yawned. His arms and legs gave out, his whole body coming down with a muffled ‘wumph!’

“Chat?” Marinette called, wriggling under his considerable weight. “Chat?”

A quiet snore reached her ear.

“Chat Noir!” She failed her arms and legs with all her might, only to confirm her worst fears. She was pinned. “How do I get myself into these things?" Expecting an answer from her kwami, Marinette tensed when the silence continued. "Tikki?”

Silence.

"Oh, that's just great. Some protector you are," Marinette huffed, though could hardly blame the little god for getting scarce. She had probably high-tailed it out of there the moment things started getting weird between Marinette and her giant werecat partner.

Things had gotten very, very weird.

She blinked back tears of desperation. I do not have a furry fetish. I Do. Not. Have a furry fetish.

Chat wriggled in his sleep, burying his face in her neck and heaving a content sigh before settling even more heavily on top of her.

I might have a furry fetish.

Marinette swallowed thickly. “You and I have a lot to talk about when you wake up.”

 

 

Adrien woke up feeling better than he had ever felt in a long time.

Pleasantly hungover, if there was ever such a thing.

Instead of the recent rash of terrible rousings he had suffered in the last weeks, waking stressed and panicked and aroused to the point of pain, Adrien floated in a pleasant state of sleepy awareness. His head was muzzy and his body heavy and sated. Everything felt good. The mattress beneath him was both soft and firm. He loved how every curve fitted against him perfectly, every dip seemingly made to cradle a part of him. He loved the heat that radiated from every direction; sunlight flooding in through the glass doors, warmth surrounding him from the bed. He let his arms snake beneath the satin-covered pillow beneath his head, snuggling down deeper into the plush embrace.

Even better than the myriad of sensation was the smell.

God, everything smelled good.

He turned his face into the haven where the scent radiated from the strongest. He had the vaguest sense that he knew this smell. It was his smell. He belonged to this scent. It was home, and it made him feel safe, and he wanted it all over him. He wanted it inside of him.

Without thought, he opened his mouth and dragged his tongue up the warm curve that had pillowed his face as he slept. Sweetness and sweat and musk burst upon his tongue. It sent a shiver down his spine. Half roused from sleep, he felt the cat stir in his skin. He couldn’t be sure if it was the beast or himself that bid him to continue taking a taste. The action felt oddly familiar. The taste slid down his throat and settled like thick syrup in his belly. Between his legs, he twitched, steadily growing from sleepy semi to pleasantly full mast.

A sleepy murmur rose the moment he paused for breath.

Adrien froze.

The body, and it was a body not a pillow, stirred languidly. Long legs spread wider, allowing him to sink deeper into the warm cradle of someone’s hips. The shock of the sheets against his naked groin forced him to bite back a groan. A pair of slim arms rose to ghost up his sides. One set of fingers followed his spine up to the nape of his neck, slowly working their way into the back of his hair. The other set of fingers traced down in a long caress, finding the low curve of his back and the upper swell of his ass, before making a leisurely trip back up.

Those stroking fingered managed to make two lazy circuits across Adrien’s skin before he found his wits again, bowing to the golden pleasure rocking up his nerves. He pushed his face into the damp curve of someone’s neck, fighting to get the gears of his foggy brain working again. He knew this scent. He knew this person. The details were still vague, but he nevertheless basked in the contentedness that rose with the elusive memories.

As more of him awoke, he tuned into the world around him and realized that his golden world was a lot bigger than just him and his sweet companion. Two voices fluttered in and out of range, low and at peace with each other. Not a threat. He needn’t rise to the occasion to protect his prize. No need to rouse himself to flash an unnecessary fang or claw when he would much rather be cuddling up to a compact little body with the softest satin skin he had ever had the pleasure of rubbing up against.

“He has a very nice bum.”

“He does, for a human. Marinette admires it a lot – in and out of leather.”

Marinette. Adrien perked up at the name, letting it sound a bell of recognition. Marinette. That’s right. That was the name of the girl he was smelling. He turned his face into her neck, warbling a lazy purr as the girl beneath him came awake with a low giggle only he could hear with his ear pressed so close to her. Her dancing fingers sank deeper into his scalp, her nails dragging down his spine until he wanted to tip his head back and let his eyes roll into his skull.

“I bet he could crack a walnut with cheeks like those.”

Adrien tensed up.

“Yep, just like that.”

“Oh dear, I think he’s waking up.”

Marinette groaned, pushing back against Adrien’s suddenly stiff weight pressing down on her.

“I think they’re both awake.”

“We’re awake,” Marinette called, arms falling to her sides. “We can hear you.”

Something whooshed into the room. No footsteps, just a vague sense of something floating in midair behind Adrien’s back. It occurred to him how very naked he was on top of Marinette, and he did not dare turn around unless he wanted to flash the whole world and the woman beneath him his serious case of a hard on. He had no doubt that Marinette was fully aware of his condition. A blush crept up the back of his neck and splayed into his cheeks. This wasn’t even the first time he had accosted her like this.

It wasn’t even the second time.

Marinette grunted and tried to shift, reaching between them to adjust her belt buckle from digging into her pelvis. The backs of her knuckles brushed the thin trail of blond hair that arrowed down from his navel. Adrien lost his breath, biting back a groan and the urge to wrap himself around the girl.

“Chat?” she squeaked lowly, her lips against his ear. He shivered. “We have company.”

“I know.”

“Do you… remember what happened?”

He searched, and deflated, feeling like it was something very important he was missing. When he shook his head, he felt Marinette deflate.

“Er,” intoned one voice that Adrien could vaguely place as Sarah the witch. He had the sudden urge to hold his breath around her. “We didn’t want to interrupt your nap. You looked really comfortable.”

“Really comfortable,” stressed another voice that Adrien had only heard once before. He recalled the apple orchard, and a small god with a cheery smile.

He tensed up yet again, his arms snapping so tight around Marinette that she gasped.

“I think,” Marinette squeaked, breaking off to lick her lips. “I think… it’s time for me to leave now.”

Adrien pressed his face into the pillow next to Marinette’s head.

“You’re sober now,” she continued. “I should really be getting back to my friends.”

“It was the valerian root I added to the powder,” Sarah explained contritely. “I didn’t realize it’s secondary effect on cats. It acted like catnip. I hope no one got hurt.”

“Nothing but our pride,” Marinette muttered, tensing and bucking subtly beneath Adrien, cuing him to lift up and let her slide out from under him. He kept his face down, his world still rocking as the fan of her hair passed under his nose and he took in the scent that filled him to the brim and so recently had scented from Ladybug herself. He squeezed his eyes shut and gulped for air, a mural of spots plastered to the inside of his eyelids.

“Chat, I’m borrowing one of your shirts. You burnt mine off.”

“Go ahead,” he sighed, listening to her rummage through his luggage on the floor. He couldn’t resist peeking to the side to catch sight of her pulling one of his old shirts over her head, the black t-shirt with its familiar coloured stripes across the chest. Adrien did not fight the approving growl that rose as he watched her smooth the material down. Was it terribly wrong to appreciate how good she looked in one of his shirts? He didn’t think that was something he would have liked. It seemed awfully rude to wallow in a sense of possession because a girl was wearing something he owned.

He really liked her wearing his shirt.

Marinette’s bright gaze shot to his peeking eye.

Adrien slammed his face into the pillow.

“I found your shoes on the way here,” Sarah said, sounding as if she were rummaging through her bag. “I thought you’d be a little more… you know, worse for wear. Didn’t you get burnt?”

Marinette grunted as she bent to slip her shoes on. Adrien tried not to pay too much attention to her soft noises, which might have been a substitute for other noises that would have been very pleasant if there weren’t an audience in the room.

“Chat, ah… kissed them better?” Marinette offered, sounding confused. Adrien canted his head, damn well confused as well. He wasn’t aware of any healing powers. That was more Ladybug’s department than his.

“Kissed?” the witched prompted in interest.

“Among other things,” Tikki added airily.

“Oh my,” Sarah giggled.

“Okay, how about we not talk about it!” Marinette announced too loudly.

“How about we leave and let Chat get dressed?” offered the kwami.

Adrien pressed his face deeper into the pillow, wishing he could take on Plagg’s ability to phase through the bed and fall directly into the center of the Earth.

“Time to go,” Marinette insisted, followed by a muffled thump as she grabbed Tikki from midair and shoved her in her purse. Adrien tensed as he sensed a body loom next to the bed. Soft lips pressed gently next to his ear. “We’re going now.”

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“Don’t be.” She was gone in the next second. A near-silent whoosh announced the exit of a broomstick over the balcony threshold.

Adrien pushed himself up to sit, swinging his legs over the side of the mattress facing away from the open door. He tilted his head back, breathing in deep, filling himself with the scents of sweetness and woman and home. They wrapped themselves around his heart until he felt like it would stop beating. He searched for one sliver of bravery that had him calling out blindly, “Marinette?”

“Chat Noir.” They hadn’t gone as far as he had thought they would.

He stared down at his hands in his lap, heart tapping unsurely against the inside of his ribcage. This felt right, but he couldn’t be sure. He wanted to be sure. There was only one way to find out. “My Lady?”

The seconds ticked on in silence, and Adrien waited. He waited with his hands fisted in his lap and his heart lodged in his throat. At any moment, if the silence stretched on any longer, he was going to shatter into a thousand pieces.

A hushed breeze blew, and there was a smile in her quiet voice as she replied, “Mon minou.”

Chapter Text

There was no point going back to the park covered in cat spit, with someone else’s shirt on, and no way to explain where her burns went.

Marinette asked Sarah drop her off at the hotel instead.

Some time alone would give her the breather she needed to come up with a plan. Or some excuses. She needed a plan for her excuses, because she was likely to be cross-examined by Alya the moment she saw her.

Yes, Your Honour, on the day in question was I kidnapped by a boy who also happens to be my secret superheroing partner who also happens to be a werecat. No, Your Honour, I have no idea where my burns went.

There was a tongue involved, Your Honour.

No, it was not licking my face.

Marinette grimaced.

…the defendant pleads guilty to one count of being a furry.

Her wittiness was gone, and she was still losing the last of her wits as she squirmed on the back of a broomstick. Air turbulence jostled her in a way that was not entirely unpleasant, and prompted her to bite her lip as her face went pink. Against her better judgement, her mind looped back to the feeling of having something other than a broomstick between her legs. A sinewy body heavy in sleep, his weight far from unpleasant. Satin skin, and sinewy muscle pressed as tight together as two bodies could be. Heat radiating like a furnace.

From the first, it had been enough to spark a coil of interest underneath her skin. One did not simply wake up with a very naked, handsome boy on top of you and feel nothing about it. Especially not when he had been…

Well, he’d been moving in his sleep.

It wasn’t the first time she had felt him aroused.

Marinette bit her lip and sent a quick glance at the back of Sarah’s head. The witch was busy flying, so Marinette subtly crossed her legs and hoped no one noticed the rising colour on her cheeks.

The body that had gone from fully-furred werecat to very naked sleeping boy, pressed comfortably and firmly between her spread thighs, had moved in his sleep. The sleepy roll of someone’s hips pressing into hers. The tensing of muscle down his abdomen and thighs, the subtle shift of his hips. The growing presence of his arousal between them, grinding first against the sheets, then her thigh, and finally, when he had managed to wriggle in his sleep into a better position, squarely grinding against her core.

Marinette had been awake a lot longer than she had pretended to be, and was embarrassed to admit that she had enjoyed the interlude far more than she should have.

His low groan in her ear had nearly been her undoing. How was one red-blooded French girl supposed to resist all that? It was plain cruel and unusual… and she had no excuse for wanting it to go on forever.

And when he had finally roused, it had taken everything in Marinette’s power to remain lax. She wasn’t religious, but the moment he had opened his mouth and started sucking on her neck, she might have seen God. It had taken everything in her power not to resist the clamouring need to slide her hands all the way down his back to grab his very fine ass and press him more firmly against her.

Just a little bit more friction would have gotten her there…

That sweet memory alone gave Marinette had enough fantasy material to do herself right for the rest of the summer. She revelled in the added bonus of having their positions reversed from their time in the orchard. Different position, different sensations. She’d liked being on top, but found there were advantages to having him on top and letting him snuggle into her.

Her fingertips tingled with the memory of touching him; stroking naked skin and feeling in real time how he liked it, and how he responded with a purr and the feline stretch of his body wrapping around her. She reveled in the tactile prize of feeling the defined muscles in his back move and shift. Hard earned muscle from years of back-flipping across Paris with her. His chest and belly had rolled against her, and each remembered undulation did nothing to sooth the pleasant spark that tingled low down between Marinette’s legs.

“Ah…” Back in the present, Marinette clenched one hand around the broomstick to keep her in place, and used her other hand to gather the hem of her shirt and tuck it between her legs. It wouldn’t do to flash all of London if a stray breeze came along strong enough to flip her shirt. Bad enough that every other little breeze that came alone was doing its best to remind her that she was currently braless, and peaked enough underneath that every time the t-shirt brushed her, she felt it.

At this rate, she was going to embarrass herself on the back of a broomstick if she didn’t get to the privacy of her hotel room soon.

She didn’t dare look down at herself.

Every time she looked down, she was reminded that the shirt she had stolen – the very shirt she was essentially naked and aroused underneath – was a very familiar shirt that she had seen someone else wear a thousand times before. Black, with coloured stripes across the front. A Gabriel brand shirt, with its distinct stylized G on the tag. A few too many seasons out of fashion, but it was soft and worn from years of washing.

She had only ever seen one boy wearing a shirt like that, and now she was convinced it was no coincidence that she dug this exact shirt out of Chat Noir’s luggage.

“Marinette, we’re here,” Sarah prompted, backing her broom up to the specified window. “I’ll text you later? Maybe. Um…” She scratched the back of her neck. “Sorry about… you know…”

“It’s fine,” Marinette croaked, finding her voice strangely hoarse. “He… I…” She flushed. There were no words to sum up what happened. She recalled the touch of his tongue to the underside of her bottom, and all the moisture dried up in her mouth. “Yeah.”

By the time Marinette managed to dismount the broom and crawl her way over the windowsill, she was wound up tighter than her yo-yo. She could feel the growing dampness in her panties; it was doing nothing to help her failing peace of mind. Damn her, and damn a cuddly, sleepy cat-boy for getting her so pent up she could hardly think straight.

Especially damn him for that.

Marinette looked from the window to the door of the hotel room to the open door of the bathroom. She was alone. Alone-ish. She would never be totally alone for the rest of her life so long as she was Ladybug, but Tikki was at least a discreet presence in her life when the god wanted to be. The door was locked. Teenaged hormones and a rare opportunity was calling. There was no point in letting herself suffer the rest of the afternoon when there was a perfectly serviceable shower with her name written on it.

Tikki didn’t bother to comment on Marinette’s mumbled excuses as she tossed the kwami on the bed and yanked her clothes off. The small god’s laughter could be heard through the door until the water drowned her out.

The first touch of the water was icy cold, sending gooseflesh to prickle down Marinette’s arms and legs. It did nothing to cool her ardour; the tightening of her skin and the flinch of her muscles only seemed to stoke the fire a little higher. As the temperature of the water adjusted, so too did she, closing her eyes and letting the dull hiss of the water fill his ears. She felt the patter of the spray and the drag of her palms down her body. She let her own temperature rise, anticipation mounting with it.

Sufficed to say, she had practice conjuring fantasies.

Those fantasies came easier now that it wasn’t just pictures and magazine clippings in her head.

Marinette had the pleasure of recalling dim hotel rooms and being pressed up against a bare chest as they cuddled in a half-conscious state. That first time, when she had worn nothing but pyjamas, and he in a pair of star-spangled pink flannels. She recalled pale skin and perfectly wrought muscle. Laying so close that her cheek brushed his chest and her lips knew his heartbeat.

She should have known right then and there that deep thunder rumble in his chest hadn’t been pneumonia.

It had been a purr.

A purr.

Adrien had been purring as he slept curled up around her.

Marinette laughed to herself, feeling her heart beat out of tune as she let her hands roam over her belly and down her hips, reacquainting her hands with the rest of her. She made the familiar trek down between her legs, ruffling the short hair there. Against the rivulets of water, she traced back up and curved her fingers around her breasts.

Oh, from the moment she had heard that low purr, she should have known who he was! She should have guessed! Notwithstanding the glamour, of course. The boy she had crushed on for so many years was the same boy that had been chasing her across rooftops for just as long. Shy smiles and sad eyes belonged to the same cocky crower who grinned from ear to ear and had eyes that lit with green mischief every time she looked at him.

Tikki was right: Marinette had been admiring his fine ass in and out of leather for three years, she just hadn’t known it had been the same fine ass.

“I don’t know if I should tell him or not…” If she told Chat Noir, he’d never stop crowing about it. If she told Adrien, he’d probably go redder than her suit. Except they were the same boy. And he really did have the finest ass in Paris. London, too.

Probably in all of Europe.

She licked hot water from her lips, humming gently, thrumming her nipples with her fingers to build up that growing flicker of delight. Her fingers were a poor substitute for the wonderful electric tingle that his purr gave her, but so long as her eyes were closed and she was imagining him there with her, it worked. She could imagine his purr when they were pressed chest to chest. His hot mouth poised over her neck, the flat of his tongue dragging over her pulse.

Too easily, she slid down into that hazy, squirming mindset of pleasure, seeking it and feeling it, wallowing in everything she could make herself feel with a thought and a touch. She reveled in the feeling of growing tension lower down. That coiling knot of lust that grew tighter as she fell deeper into the fantasy, her fingers given more freedom to roam as they would.

To her growing delight, Marinette had more than just one fleeting memory to play with. Not simply dreams that left her in a lather, touching herself desperately in the showers in the morning while trying to be as quiet and discreet as possible. She knew of a reality filled with sunshine and apples and the cocoon of a stolen blanket.

She knew the feeling of Chat Noir’s body trapped beneath her own, and his fleeting, shy touches – afraid to touch her, not knowing where to put his hands. His deep voice rumbling almost like a purr through his chest. The heat radiating from every inch of his skin had been glorious, better than any heat pad Marinette had curled up with when she was sore from a long battle. His heat had sparked her own; where he had been hard, she had been so terribly wet.

Should she have recognized him by the feeling of him pressed between her legs?

It seemed like the kind of thing she should have recognized him for.

It wasn’t like she had seen many penises, hard or otherwise, to compare with.

…unless she counted those few times she had walked in on Alya and Nino.

She let one hand drop from her breast, sliding down the valley of her chest and over the curve of her belly. She felt muscles in her abdomen fluttering, anticipation doing her as big a favour as touching herself was. The caress of her fingers in the curling black hair over her mons elicited a tiny noise, a delighted moan that echoed off the wet tiles. She sifted her fingers through the hair and imagined a pale hand much larger than her own taking the place of her familiar touch. She pictured a clawed hand in black leather touching her for the first time, their colours blending until there was no telling where one ended and the other began.

Marinette worried her bottom lip between her teeth, easing back against the slick wall for support as her middle finger slid down between her lips where everything was hot and plump from arousal. Slicker than water, her own wetness slid around her fingers and made the slow glide back to her clit easy and quick and worthy of a shiver all the way down her spine.

One hand turned to pinch her nipple, rolling it between her fingers. The other played slowly, rubbing fine little circles that had Marinette catching her breath and biting her lip through a smile. She dipped back down to her entrance, letting one of her fingers dip in before sliding out, in and out, make her want to spread her legs and give herself more room. With the slick arousal she had gathered, she took her time petting herself, tickling the valleys between her lips, before finding her way back to the top again.

The old song and dance she had grown to know too well since hitting puberty. She timed a touch to her clit with her other fingers thrumming her nipple, and needed to bite back the groan that rose in response. She switched breasts for added stimulation, loving the coiling pleasure that spiralled inward as her fantasies grew more fevered.

She latched on to one thought in particular.

What would it be like to touch him?

What would it be like to wrap her fingers around him and let her hand glide from bottom to tip. Touch him gently, like the way he had pressed against her and murmured in her ear. Or touch him harder, both of them super-powered and drunk on lust and magic.

How would he react? With hitched breath or a low groan? Would he buck into her hand? Whisper her name, or curse hoarsely under his breath as she worked him? What if she slipped her hands lower and cupped his balls? Would he like it if she rolled them around in her palm, or ran her fingernail down the seam of the middle.

What would his face look like while she palmed him? Cheeks flushed pink, green eyes gleaming, as she learned every curve and vein he had down there?

A Cheshire grin or a shy smile?

Would his skin be soft? How hard would he feel in her palm? How pliant?

How long? And how thick? And what colour?

Marinette groaned.

Damn, she should have looked when she had the chance.

Now all she had was her imagination and her fingers and the beat of the shower peppering her in a continuous deluge of wonderful sensation. Water and steam running down her neck became Adrien’s clever mouth on her skin, and the patter of the water on her belly shaped itself into Chat Noir on his knees kissing his way up her body, and the wet press of the wall behind her conjured images of the werecat dragging his tongue along the seam of her legs.

They were all the same boy. Different faces, but all the same underneath. Her friend and her partner and a very handsome boy in a leather suit.

Imagining them all at once was dirty and illicit and thrilling in a way that made Marinette want to laugh and cry out at the same time. She let herself be glutted in revelry and memory, where her hands were someone else’s, and hot water became lips and tongue, and the squirm of her legs and the press of her bare bottom against the tiled wall set tiny flames under her skin.

Oh god, yes-!

It felt so damned good.

Marinette tipped her face up, swallowing hard, eyes screwed shut tight as she hit that critical high when there was no turning back. It was all or nothing now.

Everything was heat and delight and a golden feeling coiling so wonderfully tight between her legs she was fit to burst. Her legs were trembling, her belly quivering, her arm beginning to lose its rhythm as she got lost in the growing crescendo. Rubbing and pinching and circling and rolling, finding anything and everything that felt good.

Her mind awash in visions of pale skin and black leather and even blacker fur.

The pads of her fingers came down on just the right spot, circling in just the right way. Instead of sparklers, there were fireworks. Bright and hot and shooting up her nerves until her brain was nothing but colour and light. Her other hand clenched tight around her breast, pinching and pulling, adding power to an already exploding keg, driving the explosion higher and brighter.

She didn’t just topple over that precipice; she threw herself wholeheartedly into the void with a cry of abandon. Muscles clenching, rolling, and relaxing until she could scarcely hold herself up anymore. She slid down, down, down the wall until she was sprawled in the bottom of the tub with the water coming down on her and her fingers still jerking and rubbing to keep that undulating wave of pleasure going.

But soon enough she had to slow, and then still. She wasn’t panting, but she certainly wasn’t breathing normally either. Her heart raced in her ears. The shower was suddenly too hot pounding down on her, but there was no strength left in her arms to reach over and crank the taps to a decent temperature. Little twitching aftershocks rippled through her muscles. She was sure she wouldn’t be able to stand for a while.

Instead of bothering to get up, she turned herself lengthwise and laid out in the tub, one foot idly playing with the tap while the other hung over the side and dripped quietly on the floor. She had no clue what expression she was wearing – her face felt numb. She let on hand rest over her navel while she tucked the other arm beneath her head.

Wow.

That was…

“Wow.”

She didn’t even have the strength to move when a tiny knock sounded at the door and Tikki phased her way through wood. Marinette glanced at the curtain, watching a little shadow hover on the other side. The usual tingle of magic that radiated from the small god felt extra tingly down Marinette’s sensitized skin.

“Marinette?” Tikki waited a beat, a dull red shine coming from around her small silhouette. “Have fun?”

Forgetting that there was a curtain between them, Marinette nodded. No point lying to god who knew exactly what she had been doing. They’d lived in close quarters for too long, and Tikki had repeatedly assured Marinette that she had lived through nearly every possible incarnation of human sexuality. There was very little that could surprise her, not least of which a teenaged girl with a healthy imagination.

“Well, at least you got that out of your system,” the small god chuckled.

Trying to gather the last of her scattered wits, Marinette stared at the ceiling and breathed until she was sure she could manage a normal voice. When she spoke, she addressed the ceiling. “I don’t know if I was ready to give him my identity.”

Tikki twittered softly. “You gave it to him anyways.”

“Yeah, I did.” Funny how she still didn’t feel a lick of panic or regret about it. That terrible, horrible, huge thing she had feared for the better part of three years, and all she could feel was a satisfying residual tingling in her blood. Maybe a little bit of anticipation for when she was going to see him again.

When was she going to see him naked again?

Soon, I hope.

She smothered a snort before it could escape, fixing her attentions on the bobbing shadow beyond the shower curtain. “I thought you were supposed to be protecting me until I was ready?”

“I was… I am.” She sounded flustered. Dull red light flickered through the thin plastic curtain. “He was treating your wounds, and then you both looked so comfortable sleeping...”

“You’re a romantic at heart,” Marinette sighed.

“I’m a god of Creation, Mari. It comes with the territory. Plus…”

“Plus?” Marinette slung an arm over her eyes, nevertheless grinning.

“You were enjoying yourself.”

A small laugh fluttered up, and a dull pink flush hit her cheeks.

Tikki laughed with her, precious and magical like faery wind chimes in a summer breeze. “More than anything, Mari, I want you to have fun. There are so many things in this world…” Her voice trailed off, and Marinette felt the stirrings of unease for the past the kwami had lived and a future that was still so unsure. Tikki cleared her throat pointedly. “Well, you should take every opportunity you have with him. Don’t waste it.”

“Tikki, you are terrible.”

“Sometimes I am.”

Marinette lifted her arm from her face, turning the water off with her toes. Strands of black hair stuck to her shoulders, reminding her of fur as black as midnight and a muzzle that made her stomach twist into funny knots remembering how soft it was. “He was just… You were there. You saw him. He was furry at the time, and that made it kind of...”

“Weird?”

“Yeah.”

“So long as you both were enjoying yourselves, there was nothing weird about it.” Tikki lowered herself until she could perch on the ledge of the tub, on the outside of the curtain. “If it helps, I have seen a lot stranger things in my lifetime than someone enjoying being licked by a boy.”

Marinette groaned, knowing Tikki’s word choice had been on purpose. Her imagination gave her the briefest vision of what being ‘licked by a boy’ might look like, which was promptly replaced by fur. Marinett groaned louder. “He was a werecat.”

“He’s the boy you like, and I don’t think it matters that he was wearing fur at the time.”

The pink in Marinette’s cheeks deepened to cheery red. A denial never came to her lips.

Tikki floated into the air again. “As for the licking, I am curious how he was able to treat you through just that. Plagg doesn’t have that kind of power.”

“Magical cat spit.”

Fae laughter vetoed that option in a heartbeat.

Marinette pushed herself up, restored somewhat to her normal strength. At the very least, she no longer felt like she was coming out of her skin from tactile overload. She scrubbed her face with her hands and dragged her hair back over her head with her fingers. “You can ask him next time we see him.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

Marinette wondered if he would be wearing leather or not when Tikki asked.

The way things were going between them, would he be wearing anything at all?

“Ah.” The curtain poked in where the little god’s hand touched it. “I just remembered, now that you’re done you might want to get dressed.”

“Why?”

“Alya texted your phone earlier wondering where you were. I texted her back to let her know you’re here.” She paused, puttering towards the door. “She’s on her way up now. With Nino, I think.”

Marinette snapped to her feet so fast she got a head rush. “You couldn’t have told me that sooner?”

“You were comfortable, and it slipped my mind.”

“Oh, I just bet it slipped your mind!” She whipped the curtain back with no care for her modesty anymore, falling across the room and scrambling with the doorknob, slippery with condensed steam. Tikki was no help, floating calmly behind her as Marinette ran stark naked across the room to where she had left Adrien’s shirt wadded on the floor.

“Alya just got off the elevator,” the small god announced.

“You’re not helping!” Marinette jerked in one direction, and then the other. Adrien’s wadded shirt waved in her fist like a banner to her insanity.

The treated burns she could toss off as mysterious Miraculous magic. Chances were, Alya would buy it. Buy it completely? Probably not. But it was better than nothing.

Adrien’s shirt laying in the middle of their room after she had been kidnapped by and rescued from Chat Noir… no amount of Miraculous magic was going to cover that one up.

Marinette wrenched the mattress on her bed up and shoved the shirt underneath, slapping pillows and blankets into place. It looked… good? Passable. It was passable. No one was going to guess a shirt was randomly hiding under there. Chat Noir’s identity as Adrien Agreste might have been revealed to her today, but that didn’t mean she had to let the rest of the world know. She had a sacred duty to protect his identity as fiercely as she protected her own.

Unfortunately, the ferocity with which she protected Adrien’s identity left nothing for the protection of her own modesty. Too late, she heard the click of the door and Alya’s loud greeting. Nino’s call came not far behind.

Common sense should have had her diving for her luggage to yank a dress over her head.

Panic had her screaming “DON’T LOOK!” as she sprinted across the room and dove headfirst into the bathroom. The one caveat about her last-minute sprint to freedom was that human reflex dictated that the moment anyone yelled ‘don’t look’ everyone looked. Without fail. Every single person on the planet looked the moment someone yelled not to. Alya and Nino were no exception to the rule. Both of them had their eyes wide open as a streak of naked teenaged girl flashed by in full glory.

The door slammed shut behind her.

“Great,” Alya groused, arms crossed. The glamour was gone; she was one hundred percent back to being herself. “Now we’ve all seen each other naked.”

“Our friendship just keeps getting weirder,” Nino lamented, shoving his hands in his pockets. “On the bright side, Marinette looks fine.”

Alya slid him a deeply unimpressed look. “You should probably go check on Adrien.”

“If she’s naked, I don’t want to know what he’s doing.” A light blush suffused his cheeks. “I’ll give it an hour or two.”

 

 

Nino ended up giving it until nearly midnight.

 

 

Despite having napped the afternoon away, languishing in a valerian-induced hangover that made him feel cuddly and horny and too paranoid to go anywhere near another human being, Adrien fell asleep early into the evening and slept like the dead until dawn. He had been passed out by the time Nino came sneaking in the door, and he stayed conked out even while his best friend went about showering and climbing into bed.

Adrien did not wake until something reached into his dreams and wrenched him back to consciousness. He was ripped from his dreams so suddenly that the force of it propelled him from the bed, coming to stark awareness already sitting up with the hair on his arms standing at full attention. He hunched over, trying to catch his breath, flexing his stiff fingers in his lap. His heart was racing, sweat dotting his brow. There was a knot in his gut that had nothing to do with arousal.

Human instinct blended in harmony with the cat, both on high alert like a livewire touching raw nerves in Adrien’s skull. The werecat’s growing presence bristled and growled, telling him to get up. Get up! There was a thing in his territory, too close to his sleeping friend. Too close to sleeping innocents. Adrien needed to get up, get going with fang and claw, before the thing that had startled him back to reality found him first.

His brain was slower to catch up than instinct.

Brains liked having concrete things to focus on. If they didn’t have concrete things, brains tended to take the information they did have and try to make it concrete. Adrien knew there was a thing in the hotel because he could feel it. There was a creature in the hotel, and it was magical, and it left a sour taste in his mouth and a cold feeling dripping down his spine. It was the touch of clamminess on his skin, tightness in his lungs, the anticipation of battle thrumming in his blood.

“Shit,” he whispered, blinking back the last remnants of sleep. Afterimages of the dream did not fade from his mind, but instead remained tattooed on the inside of his eyelids. A distraction he didn’t need while he was possibly being hunted and cornered.

Ladybug who had chased him through the forest, who had leapt through the trees into the moonlight, and caught his tail in her silvered hands. She who had taken handfuls of his fur and buried her face in it, and who had pushed him to the ground and mounted his belly like she would mount the back of a stallion.

Her knees had dug into furred flanks until they became flesh, and then there had been nothing between them. She had tossed her head back and laughed at the moon while Adrien had held her hips and wallowed in the feeling of being there with her. At any moment, they could have let the shadows fall from their faces. They could have whispered each others’ true names. Instead, they spent the night rolling in the grass and laughing like they hadn’t laughed in a thousand years.

Let’s just enjoy ourselves for now, she had whispered, joy fluttering from her with a magic of its own, and you can find me again in the morning.

Adrien had been fully prepared to spend the rest of the night with her and run through the streets first thing in the morning to find her.

It seemed, as his brain kicked into all of its higher functions and he registered exactly how tight the sick knot in his gut was, that something else had found him first.

There was something in the hotel that was steadily making its way closer. The air turned feverish, and then washed out in the same cold, clammy feeling a body takes on just before it dies. A faint stink rose to Adrien’s nose – not the overpowering stink that had nearly killed him the day before, but something old and musty and well-rotted after several hundred years.

The scent of smoke, and the savory smell of clove and juniper.

The hairs on the backs of his arms rose.

The skin on the back of his neck prickled.

He felt his fangs emerge, biting against his tongue.

There was both dread for the thing’s presence, and a stirring under Adrien’s breast that might have been his heart or it might have been Plagg trying to make himself known.

Next to him, Nino lay in blessed ignorance.

“Damn it,” Adrien cursed, swinging his legs from the bed and tiptoeing across the room. The leaded weight of cold dread grew heavier near the door. He wasn’t stupid enough to face the unknown without armour. “Claws out.”

Braced for the worst, Chat Noir flung the door open, stepping out into the hall ready to do battle with whatever monster was darkening the hallway, be it akuma or Animal Control officers-

Or a plague spirit wandering up the hall.

“Ah, there you are, my lord,” Frank called, trotting the short distance to sweep a deep bow that had the spirit’s bone-white head brushing the carpet.

A door slammed down the hallway behind Chat’s back.

“Frank.” The name sat hollow in the air between them. Chat stared, blinked, and then glanced down the opposite direction of the hall where he had been sure the sense had been coming from. It was muted now, like the distant buzz of a hive of angry bees in the back of his mind. The room next door was empty now that his father was gone; the room after that was Nathalie’s. The Gorilla had a room a few floors down.

Turning back to Frank, Chat eyed the creature and frowned.

Frank sat back, head up and chest out, turning his uncanny head to the side in order to peer up at Chat with one black, glassy eye. “Are you alright, my lord? You don’t look well.”

Chat dropped his transformation, crouching down as Adrien to peer at the little spirit sitting before him. “I thought you were…”

Frank cocked his head.

“I don’t know,” Adrien admitted, falling flat on his butt in the doorway. “I thought I sensed you, but…”

“Ah, that.”

“You felt it, too?”

The spirit looked one way down the hall, and then the other. “It’s not just me in this world who pays you tribute, my lord. There are many others who hold loyalty to Destruction.” There was a pause. Frank’s long black fur rustled. “I can leave, if that is what you wish.”

Adrien pushed his fingers through his rumpled hair. Far be it from him to be impolite on purpose. “What are you doing here?”

“I was sent by the Candlewick coven.” Frank tipped his head up, flashing a small dime baggy stapled to a ribbon tied around his neck. The baggy was full of white powder, and someone had taken a black marker and written across the front: NO VALERIAN

Adrien half-heartedly plucked the bag from the spirit’s neck, but made no move to open it.

Frank watched him, waiting, perhaps hoping for some recognition for his efforts from the patron Miraculous of his kind. When none came, he ducked his head and coughed lowly. “Yes, well, you shouldn’t have any trouble this time.”

“Thanks.” His heart had yet to settled back into a regular rhythm.

Frank swept another bow as Adrien slowly got to his feet. Straightening, the spirit shifted his weight between his feet, talons plucking at the carpet. “If you are not busy, my lord, the witches request that you come by their home tonight.”

“For what?”

“They believe you have been left to your own devices for too long.”

He winced, hating that there were people who thought him incompetent about anything. Granted, his luck with the curse – his luck with anything, really – had not been the greatest, but he did his best as Chat Noir, and it was embarrassing that anyone might think less of him.

God forbid Ladybug ever think less of him.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s best you learn quickly so Animal Control has less reason to hunt you.” Frank swished his tail in the carpet. “If you come tonight, the coven will aid you as best they can to gain control of your werebeast.”

Adrien scowled. “The last time they tried anything, I ended up naked on top of someone else.”

“There is that.” The spirit canted his head. “If you are not in favour, say the word and the low beings in this city are yours to command.”

Adrien grasped English well enough to understand the connotation of ‘low beings.’ His head was suddenly filled with shadows of things best never to be seen in the light. The ones that slithered and left trails of slime, whose eyes glinted from the dark, and whose claws scratched beneath beds. Things that lurked in hotel hallways and smelled of clove and death.

Frank bowed again. “If you wish it, I can infect an entire precinct and more to keep Animal Control away from you.”

“That’s not what I wish.” Adrien’s stomach twisted tight. “I don’t want anyone to get sick or hurt.”

“You are so much like your predecessor like that… at least, before the end.” The spirit shrugged, but added, “Lady Luck will be there. The witches are contacting her as we speak.”

That certainly caught Adrien’s attention. “Ladybug?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll be there.”

Frank bobbed his head. “Very good. They will be awaiting you tonight at the apothecary. Come after dark.” He made to leave, and Adrien backed up to close the door. Frank paused, head darting up again and bobbed pointedly at Adrien’s feet.

“Er.” Adrien backed up a step.

Frank bobbed again.

Adrien tried nodding his head in return.

The spirit cocked his head and finally just pointed. “Someone else has left you tribute, my lord.”

Looking down, Adrien spotted a folded newspaper on the floor, balanced above a small box underneath. Crouching, he took the newspaper first and felt his heart shoot up into his throat when his face stares back at him on the cover. Not just a single shot of his face, either. Several angles of his face, from varying distances. Some wearing a mask. Some not. The headlines for the trash paper were exactly as unflattering as one might expect from a trash paper.

Stunned, choking on indignation, he peeled his eyes from the slander to land on the box still sitting innocently on the carpet. It was colourful, still sealed and with a receipt politely tucked under the corner. Condoms. Adrien garbled a noise he wasn’t sure was human. He couldn’t move fast enough to cover the box back up, cheeks blushing a deep, unholy crimson.

Frank took note of the items of tribute, but made no comment of them. “I will see you at the apothecary, my lord.”

Adrien scrambled back into the suite, not caring anymore if he was being rude when the door slammed behind him. In one hand, he pinched the box between two fingers as if afraid the contents might burn him at any moment. Who left that sort of thing in a hallway???? In his other hand, the newspaper glared impossible pictures at him. Not a trick or the light or a hallucination. It really was his face staring back at him. There was a picture of Chat Noir being hoisted on Marinette’s shoulder, and even better picture of him on his back with her heel jammed into his chest, and a picture of him sweeping the unsuspecting girl into his arms with his baton extended.

Adrien knew, he knew, those things must have happened because how else would he have gotten from Hyde Park to the hotel room? Taking her away as Chat Noir was the most logical explanation. He had already come to terms with his actions. Catnapping Arsonist was a little bit strong, but unfortunately in this case not that far from the truth. He could deal with that.

Logic did not explain the paparazzi photos lining the bottom of the splash page. The headlines in bold black letters boasted BOY MODEL OR BI MODEL? The fine black print of the gossiping column read like a personal nightmare: Adrien Agreste, French model prodigy and son of the founder of the Gabriel fashion house, may be doing more than just flashing his good looks around London this summer…

There he was a photo of him walking into one of the changing tents with John. Next to that were photos that Adrien was quite sure he would have remembered happening no matter how obscenely high he was. He would have had to be a heck of a lot higher than he had been to lean into Nino’s personal space like that. It would have taken something a lot stronger than just some powdered valerian to put that flirty look on his face. Adrien wasn’t sure how much drug it would take for him to kiss his best friend, but he was pretty sure it would have taken more than what he had snorted.

Marching up to the side of Nino’s bed, Adrien fanned the front page out in all its glory and shrieked, “Why am I on The Sun?”

Nino jumped awake with a squawk, rolling over to put his back to the shouting, yanking a pillow over his head. “Are you still high, man? You are on Earth!”

“I don’t mean the sun! I mean The Sun!” Finding himself inarticulate in his growing panic, Adrien mounted the bed to grapple with Nino to get him to roll over. The abandoned box, with its shiny outer print and obvious brand name, bounded on top of the sheets. Nino put up a fight for all of twenty seconds before Adrien proved his superior strength and battle prowess.

“The Sun, Nino! I am on the front page of The Sun!” Poised above his best friend, he shook the paper frantically.

The paper was yanked out of his hands and squinted at, followed by a curse as Nino fumbled for his glasses. His eyes widened behind the lenses. “I, uh… can explain?”

“You can explain?”

“…yes?”

“You can explain why I am kissing you?” His voice cracked.

“Uh…” Nino let his eyes drop, glancing down the length of the bed. The sheets were scattered from their wrestling match, and Adrien’s legs pinned Nino’s together as one boy straddled the other. They were both in flannel shorts that were way too thin for the positions they were in. For some reason, there was a box of condoms crushed under Adrien’s knee. He took a steady breath through his nose. “Can you explain why you’re on top of me first?”

“Ah.” Belatedly, Adrien looked down and realized that a good pin against an opponent actually put him a lot closer to his best friend than he intended. He shifted back until he was sitting on Nino’s thighs, so parts of them were not in such close contact, and Nino sat up with a ruddy blush covering most of his face.

“I.” Adrien stared at the newspaper crumpled in his hand. “You.”

“That was Alya’s fault. Mostly.” Nino’s blush crept up into his ears. “I’m sorry. You were gone, and she was covering for you. She kissed me, and I wasn’t thinking.” He cleared his throat, looking out the window rather than at Adrien.

“You kissed me.”

“I kissed Alya. She just happened to look like you at time.”

“Oh. Right. Er… it was a glamour, then. That’s Alya.” He grimaced. “So I didn’t actually kiss you?”

“No.”

Now he felt awfully stupid. “People think I kissed you.”

Nino pinched the bridge of his nose. “Does it matter what they think?”

“I…er, no?” He deflated, most of his panic-inspired fight fizzling out into self-effacement. “No, it doesn’t matter.”

“Exactly. You’re not the one who is probably going to get a call from his mother in a couple of hours and will have to try to explain that the picture is a hoax. Even when it’s not a hoax. I can’t even tell her that’s not you.”

Feeling like an incredible ass, Adrien tossed the newspaper to the nightstand and tried to look repentant. “You were just covering for me.”

“Obviously,” Nino exclaimed. What might have been an exasperated laugh escaped through his nose.

“Thanks for covering for me.”

“What are friends for, right?”

Adrien blushed and fiddled with the crushed box of condoms under his knee. His phone vibrated on the nightstand, the Gorilla’s number coming up. A short text message flashed. Neither boy made a move to grab the cell. Another text message flashed. A third came seconds later, and the tone of the alert almost sounded desperate.

Out of sight, a knock sounded at the door to the suite followed by the click of the lock.

“Adrien, are you all right? I was told a spirit of some kind had been spotted in the hotel earlier.”

Nathalie. It was Nathalie, and for the first time in a long time, she sounded something other than dispassionate. Was that concern in her voice? No, couldn’t be. He hadn’t heard concern from her in a very long time. Years, in fact.

“Dude, you have to move!” Nino hissed, bucking. “Move!”

Taken by surprise, Adrien pitched forward, the heels of his palms slipping off Nino’s shoulders. The rest of him crashed forward. They didn’t hit hard, but the surprise of it had them freezing. Nino’s chin got clipped by Adrien’s head, and Adrien ended up biting his tongue hard enough that he tasted blood.

Footsteps halted in the middle of the suite, and a small gasp hung in the air.

The silence after that was deafening.

“Nathalie! Nat!” Heavy footsteps pounded on the carpet outside in the hallway, taking a sharp turn at the suite’s open door. “Nat, we agreed to give them privacy!”

The Gorilla burst into the room with a lot less grace than Nathalie, panting from the sprint he must have taken up the stairs to get there so fast. The fact that he was shouting about privacy while doing the exact opposite made everything worst.

“Gunnar, they’re-!”

“I can see that.”

Adrien felt their eyes boring into his back. He found the strength to lift his head, squinting over his shoulder. “Please. Leave.”

A solid blush had taken over the Gorilla’s pale face. Nathalie was staring determinedly at her tablet.

“We’re leaving,” the Gorilla said, taking Nathalie by the shoulders and bodily turning her out of the room. “Sorry. We’re leaving. This won’t happen again.” He muttered to Nathalie as they left, not nearly quiet enough for the boys not to hear. “See? He found the condoms I left. Everything is fine. He’s being safe.”

“Gunnar-”

“He’s an adult, Nat.”

“Gunnar-!”

“We agreed to support him, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“Gun-!”

The door snapped shut.

Adrien slumped on top of Nino.

Nino groaned. “At least they’re supportive, right?”

“Right.”

The door clicked and swung open once more. Both boys tensed. Nathalie blessedly stayed outside this time. “Adrien, be ready for nine. The photoshoot yesterday was a wash, so retakes were scheduled for today.”

Because there was only one decent reply to something like that, and manners were important after all, Adrien lifted his head and choked out, “Thank you.”

“…you’re welcome.”

The door snapped shut again. It didn’t reopen.

Chapter Text


Adrien cracked an eye open to squint at his best friend, remaining as reasonably still as possible as he was prepped for the shoot. “I thought we agreed to play it low key?”

“I am,” Nino insisted, leaning over the back of his chair to watch the progress of the makeup artist working on Adrien’s face. “This is from a completely non-biased point of view. You are a very pretty man.”

“Calling me pretty is the opposite of being low-key.”

Nino made a frame out of his fingers, squinting at Adrien through it. “No, kissing in public was the opposite of low-key. Me making a completely unbiased observation about your face is not.”

“Don’t call me pretty.” Heat started creeping up the back of his neck.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Would you prefer it if I called you purr-tty?”

Adrien’s eyes snapped wide. “Was that a-?”

Nino choked on dawning horror. “Oh god, you’re rubbing off on me.”

The makeup artist, who had said little since coming in to work, pinched her lips into a tight line. The crinkling around her eyes said she was trying hard not to laugh. The way her eyes darted between the two boys said she had read the headlines. She, like everyone else, now assumed Adrien and Nino were a thing.

For the sake of keeping up appearances, the boys had decided not to correct anyone.

The door creaked open, dark eyes peering in before a body slid into the narrow opening. Adrien inched up in his seat, recognizing Gisela. She was dressed today in a new outfit to begin the shoot, a simple dress of bright sky blue lace over a snow white sheath. She licked her lips and carefully made her way down the long room following the path of the wall.

Adrien braced himself, and then relaxed, reminded that he could smell nothing at all. The numbing powder Frank had delivered proved effective. Without the valerian, he was perfectly clear-headed. He hadn’t once choked on the scent of exhaust or human stink; Gisela’s close proximity caused no harm whatsoever. Being so close to her without feeling like he was dying gave Adrien the chance to notice the quiet vibrancy in her eyes was gone. Her shoulders hunched inward, eyes steady on the floor.

Adrien wished he could remember more of what happened.

Nino came to his feet and pulled his hat politely from his head. “You look really nice today.”

Gisela’s head came up.

Nino stepped away from his chair, looking awkward as he searched out the right words. “Your glamour, it looks…”

A small smile appeared. “The witches were able to repair it before it broke completely.”

“It looks good.”

“Thank you.” She bent to a table scattered with makeup supplies, plucking up a phone that must have been hers. The phone case was Pokémon themed; Adrien noticed the Pokémon on the back was Grimer.

Feeling like he needed to say something, because the breaking of her glamour was squarely his fault, Adrien cleared his throat. The kind words he meant to say dried up before they could be said. There wasn’t much he could say without outing himself. Embarrassed, he sat back and settled for asking, “Are you okay?”

She barely managed to make eye contact with him before her expression wavered and her eyes were back on the floor. “Everything is fine.”

“You didn’t get in trouble for walking out, did you?”

She flinched. “No.”

Nino tightened his fingers around his cap. “No one’s giving you a hard time, are they?”

“Ah…”

Outside the door, voices ebbed and flowed. Snippets of conversation floated through the walls. Interns, photographers, lighting crew, a studio full of people booked at the last minute to make up for the chaos of the day before. With the door only cracked open a couple of inches, it was impossible to tell who was speaking, but they could hear the words nonetheless. “Oh man, it stinks that we have to be stuck inside on a day like this!” “I was up late last night. I look like trash.” “Hey, mate, don’t try the coffee in the breakroom, it tastes like garbage.”

Whether the digs were intentional or not, Gisela cringed with each one.

They all jumped when a set of manicured nailed wrapped around the door’s edge, pushing it inward to reveal Nathalie’s unflinching self. Unlike that morning when she had caught Adrien and Nino ‘in the act’, she was now as composed as a block of ice. “Five minutes.”

“I’ll be out,” Adrien called, with an approving thumbs up from the makeup artist.

Nathalie slipped away without further comment.

Gisela bit her lip, phone creaking in her hand as her fingers closed around it tight. “I should go. “

Adrien watched her go feeling like he had failed the girl somehow. He was the reason she could barely look other humans in the eye. She passed so close to him that the air stirred, though his nose stayed dead. Gisela’s shadow passed by on her heels, and then another not quite so attached to her heels.

An icy prickle started under Adrien’s skin, the touch of magic running cold fingers down his spine.

He blinked, and the second shadow was gone.

Adrien startled back to the present with light flick to the tip of his nose. “You’re free to go now,” said the makeup artist, straightening up with a groan. She peered between the boys expectantly, perhaps hoping to see a cute little hug, maybe a peck on the lips. Adrien gave an awkward shrug, which Nino replied by putting his cap back on and shooting him a thumbs up.

The shoot for the first two hours was a flaming bust.

Gisela’s robbed confidence undermined her comfort in front of the camera, leaving her poses stiff and her expressions brittle. Adrien caught himself in a similar conundrum, distracted by concern for the girl’s welfare, which the cameras picked up on as disengagement. The clothing they were meant to showcase hung limply on them no matter the efforts from photographers and crew. Multiple outfits, each with the same disappointing result.

Mounting stress on both their parts caused their human guises to slip up more than once. Adrien’s eyes would flash if he looked at a camera from the wrong angle. Gisela’s skin would appear to liquefy in some photographs.

When the numbing powder started to wear off and a subtle stink began to burn his nostrils, Adrien was forced to call for a break. The relief that washed through the ranks was immediate. People scattered like cockroaches before they could be called back. Gisela muttered a half-hearted “my Lord” before slinking from the set. Despite her shoes looking dry, she made a wet squelching noise with every step.

While Adrien’s nose was under control, his hearing was not. It was no strength of his abilities to be able to hear Nathalie clear across the room, despite her attempts to keep her voice down. The topic at hand was the possibility of switching out models. Adrien had a contract and was explicitly meant to be seen wearing the clothes, but the female model was interchangeable. “Someone more compatible, perhaps?”

Someone more human.

“Come on,” Nino whispered, wrapping an arm around the small of Adrien’s back before he could react. “I got the powder in my pocket.”

Adrien let himself be taken away to the nearest bathroom. Once secured in a place where no one could see him, he breathed in two snorts of powder – one for each nostril. It burned, his eyes watering. He eyed Nino in the vanity mirror. “It’s my fault with that model.”

Nino looked up from his perch on the edge of the sink, fingers paused on his phone. “It’s not like you did it on purpose. I am pretty sure it was Sarah that hit her with the water.”

“She wouldn’t be in the position she’s in now if not for me.” He ran his forearm beneath his nose, wiping away the remains of any potion. “I have to get myself sorted out. I don’t want to keep screwing up like this.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re going to the apothecary tonight.”

“Yeah.”

Nino’s phone buzzed; he glanced at it, and then at Adrien. “You wanna get a couple of minutes of fresh air before you go back to smiling for the camera?”

Adrien leaned his hip on the counter next to Nino’s knee, peering at the phone. “Alya’s here, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, with Marinette.”

There was no stopping the sudden leap in his pulse. He belatedly remembered to school his features, which did little good to disguise the sudden interest in his eyes. Marinette was here, which meant Ladybug. She had told him to come find her, but it seemed she was the one doing the finding.

Nino eyed him reservedly. “You’re not gonna run off with her again, are you?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

“Ah…” He couldn’t exactly put a guarantee on it, but he was willing to try.

Nino’s phone buzzed again. He checked it, and nodded to whatever the text said. He gave Adrien one last surveying glance from head to toe, nodding once more, and texting Alya back with a short message. Finally, he looked up again and reasoned, “At least you look okay, and your nose is out of commission.”

“Marinette can handle herself against me,” Adrien assured. Ladybug could put him in the ground if she really needed to.

“That’s not what you said when you asked me to keep you two apart,” Nino groused, heading for the door. He paused in the doorway, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Everything should be fine.” He blew out a breath, shaking his head as he muttered to himself. “Everything should be fine.”

“Everything will be fine, you’ll see.” Funny how knowing the secret identity of your partner could make a guy so confident.

Nino glared at him sourly.

“Trust me.” When Nino failed to look convinced, Adrien cocked an eyebrow. “She took you down, didn’t she?”

Nino rubbed his chest where Marinette had thoroughly slammed him into the grass to protect him from the minor tent explosion. “Taking down a human doesn’t mean much when you’re up against a guy who can sprout fur and fangs.”

Adrien pulled a face. “I can’t hide from her forever.”

Nino’s phone buzzed again. He grimaced at the text, tucking the phone away. “Okay. Fine. You have to start somewhere, but if I see you sniffing her, or licking her, or… or nibbling her-.”

“I wouldn’t do any of those things!” In public. Heat instantly dashed up his cheeks.

“Let’s just get this over with.” Nino shoved his hands in his pockets and took the lead.

Adrien hurried along behind, eager to get out of the building that was beginning to feel more and more like a cage. The nerves that had once been strung tight out of fear for the girl twitched for an entirely different reason. There was a girl waiting for him who he had been waiting for his whole life.

It was easy enough to get out of the building. Adrien needed only mutter a few short excuses to Nathalie before she dismissed him, pointedly avoiding looking at both boys at the same time. She narrowly accepted Adrien’s bid for freedom, so long as it was within a five-meter radius of the Gorilla.

Thankfully, the Gorilla hung back at as far as plausibly safe, looking unreasonably happy to follow two boys around the streets of London. Though his face was schooled and his body language was as intimidating as ever, Adrien caught the occasional contented smile from the man. A rare thumbs up when he glanced over his shoulder to make sure the Gorilla was far enough back.

The guilt for lying to his bodyguard pricked sharp enough that Adrien was tempted to just reach out and thread his fingers through Nino’s just to make the Gorilla happy.

A happy shout from down the street caught him before his fingers could brush his best friend’s.

“There you are!” Alya chided, leaving the shaded sanctuary that she and Marinette had taken refuge in. It was a small green square in the middle of a built up section of the city, the kind of place that office workers came to for lunch away from their cubicles. A few decent trees offered shade over a scattered set of benches.

The Gorilla subtly slipped into a tiny coffee shop across the street, taking up a silent spectator’s seat in the front window of the shop.

“You,” Alya intoned, shoving her pointed finger beneath Adrien’s nose. “Have some explaining to do.”

“It’s no use,” Nino scoffed. “I couldn’t get anything out of him this morning.”

“You weren’t trying hard enough,” Alya scoffed. “I call ‘Miraculous Magic’ bullshit.”

Adrien pulled a face. Nino had tried plenty hard to get the story of what had happened between Chat Noir and Marinette. Adrien might have told him, too, if he had had any recollection beyond waking up naked on top of a girl.

“How about we don’t use the ‘M’ word where people can hear us?” Nino muttered, shooting a pointed look over Alya’s shoulder toward the one girl yet to join their group.

Drawn by force of gravity, Adrien found her waiting at the base of a tree, dappled sunlight playing like stars across her midnight hair. Marinette straightened, lips parting, eyes growing as wide as the sky. The sound of chimes danced in time to the tiny charmed chain around her ankle, flashing silver over a pair of red flats.

Red, red flats as red as ladybugs.

“Oh,” he breathed, unaware that he had said anything at all. He was blind to the knowing glances shared between Nino and Alya, deaf to their low laughter. His sudden fidgeting was entirely unconscious, running his fingers through his hair and settling his cuffs.

Marinette tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear. Adrien could not recall a time he had ever seen her hair loose before, and was surprised by how long it was. Her earrings caught in the sunlight, two little stones he had seen a thousand times in a thousand different lifetimes. They were dark now, but even in the light they gave off a faint red shine.

The momentousness of the occasion struck him like the first stroke of midnight in a fairy tale.

It was her.

She was right there in front of him.

A smile quirked at the edges of Marinette’s lips, visible even across the short distance.

Adrien automatically returned the smile with something that was nowhere near as suave as he would have liked. His lips felt numb. His whole face felt numb. Was his heart even beating? He waved at her, just a tiny wave of his hand that he could barely raise above his waist. Above the gutter of cars and the din of the city, he heard her giggle and watched her hand eke up to mirror a wave.

Her lips formed a word that trailed off into silence, pink suffusing her cheeks.

“I…” Adrien caught his breath and promptly forgot how to breathe all over again, an answering wash of heat creeping up the back of his neck.

Alya stumped up to Adrien’s side and turned to stare back at Marinette. Her eyes darted back and forth before her eyebrows made the slow trek into her hairline. “I knew something happened between you two yesterday.”

Adrien couldn’t tear his eyes away from Marinette.

Alya leaned in, arms crossed. “Does she know?”

“Know what?”

“That you’re Chat Noir?”

“Oh. That.” He still couldn’t look away, and feared that he never would for the rest of his life.

Alya harrumphed.

“You know,” Nino intoned lowly. “It would be a lot easier if she knew.”

Adrien’s curving smile might have been an answer, or it might have been a way to avoid the question completely. Maybe someday Alya and Nino would know, but only if Marinette wished it. For now, only he knew the truth. He took a selfish joy in having something of his Lady that he need not share with anyone. It was his alone. At least for now.

Adrien’s feet were moving before he realized.

Alya reached for him.

Nino reached for her, snagging her arm and bringing it back down to her side. “Let him go.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re the one who didn’t want them to meet at all.”

“Yeah, but…” Nino shrugged haplessly. “Just look at him.”

He was like Chat Noir looking at his Ladybug.

Except he was Chat Noir.

And Marinette was-

Nino’s brow pinched for a moment.

Alya’s lips pursed, trying hard to hold on to the thought that threatened to break through. The harder she tried to hold on, the faster it slipped away like sand between her fingers. Tension snapped like a magic blade cutting through the threads of her thoughts. Alya’s lips smoothed, her shoulders dropped; she threaded her fingers through Nino’s and tugged him toward a bench away from the other two. “Let’s give them a little privacy.”

Adrien tugged on the hem of the waistcoat he had been fitted with, disappointed that he hadn’t thought to change into his normal clothes. Someone was going to come looking for the outfit when they found it was missing. The black button-up and white waistcoat were a little too bold, and far too formal, for a meeting in the park in broad daylight. He could feel sweat beginning to dampen the nape of his neck.

The shade of the tree Marinette stood under offered mild respite from the mounting heat of the day. He came under the touch of the shade and could almost believe it was night, and the black of his shirt was his armour. Marinette’s shoes were the only thing red she was wearing; her white dress reminded him of the white of the full moon above the forest.

She rocked forward on her toes, hands clasped behind her. Her charmed anklet chimed softly like magic.

Marinette’s gaze dropped to his chest, and a small, surprised laugh bubbled up.

Adrien quickly looked down to make sure he hadn’t spilled something on himself. A crisp, folded handkerchief poked from the top of his breast pocket, red as bold as rubies against the white. He chuckled, trailing back to Marinette’s laughing gaze.

“We’re a perfect match,” he managed to say.

“We are,” Marinette agreed without a hint of her usual stutter.

Adrien took a breath, able to feel his heart beating against the inside of his ribs. His lungs felt too small and his heart was too big; he couldn’t feel his feet or his fingertips. His lips were chapped dry when he licked him.

Even if he practiced for a hundred years, Adrien knew he would never have been able to say anything more eloquent to her than the breathless greeting he ended up with: “Hello.”

Marinette tipped her head, sounding equally breathless. “Hello.”

The canopy of leaves above them danced. Dappled sunlight became shooting stars across Marinette’s hair and skin. The shadows cast by her bangs flitted over her cheekbones, like an all too familiar mask. White light served as her spots.

There was no doubt in Adrien’s mind who she was.

“Um.” His glib Chat Noir tongue was nowhere to be found, and his regular Adrien tongue was thoroughly glued to the roof of his mouth.

“Yeah.” Marinette appeared just as flustered, watching him with pink beginning to creep up into her cheeks.

A mournful cat’s yowl echoed in Adrien’s ears. He had no nose to smell her with, and his sense of taste was skewed by his dead nose. The flavour of her nearness was nowhere near as sweet as it should be on his tongue.

The urge to bow his head and run his cheek next to hers offered a temptation as sweet as sugar. He was nowhere near as bold to try, no matter how badly he wished to notch himself beneath her chin and purr.

Just a touch, though. Just a small touch to make sure she’s real.

Marinette brought her chin up the moment she saw his fingertips in her periphery. “What are you-?”

The first brush of her hair against the backs of his fingertips was as soft as cobwebs, and as powerful as a strike of lightning. Adrien followed every movement of her hair, fascinated by the play of light in each strand, so black that they were blue against the backdrop of his skin. He let his fingers rise, brushing the side of her head, following the curve of her ear, letting her hair settle back away from her face.

He let the backs of his fingers linger over the shining dark stud in her lobe.

She was warmer than he ever imagined, real and alive under his touch.

Latent magic sparked between them.

Marinette jumped, but did not step away. There was trust in her blue, blue eyes. She was letting him touch her Miraculous. She was waiting to see what he would do.

Adrien had no clue what to do. His hand was left hanging in the air, barely a ghost against her earring. It felt like static against his skin. There was power in such a tiny thing; there was power in the girl wearing it.

“It’s you.”

She smiled. “It’s me.”

She reached up, clasping his hand in both of hers, turning it over to look for his ring. More than anything in the world, in that moment Adrien wanted her to touch his ring. Touch his Miraculous. But there was only a burn where a ring should have been. It no longer hurt in the physical sense. Still, her fingertips were cool against red skin that refused to heal.

“Oh,” she murmured, a frown forming.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not.” Marinette peered up through her bangs, fingers tightening around his hand. “We’ll get your ring back.”

Adrien turned his hand to wrap around one of hers, offering a smile that came readily to his lips. “I know.” He glanced over her shoulder, at the narrow bench anchored beneath the tree they stood under. In a motion that was only mildly stiff, he waved to the seat in a half-bow. “Would you like to sit down, my uh-?”

He almost said ‘my Lady.’ He also almost said ‘Princess.’

It almost came out as My Princess.

Instead, he swallowed the endearments and choked on his own tongue.

The look she cast him was so deeply Ladybug that Adrien saw spots flash before his eyes. But that playfully chiding look faded into a laugh, taking up his invitation with a tilt of her head and a small jingle from her belled anklet. She brushed off the seat beside her and patted it, grinning with her own invitation.

Adrien gladly took his spot beside her.

A beat of silence passed when they both moved to speak, and cut off when they suddenly had nothing to say. Adrien scratched the back of his neck; Marinette shook her head, eyebrows quirked oddly. She directed her gaze ahead and took a deep breath, tilting her head back to the sky and closing her eyes.

When he was sure he wasn’t going to be caught, Adrien peeked down, sucking in a near-silent breath as he traced Marinette’s profile. The rounded tip of her nose and the plush curve of her lips and the stubborn tilt of her chin. He’d known, somehow, deep down, even with the glamour getting in the way, he’d known that the girl beneath the Ladybug mask was incredible.

He was glad to know he wasn’t wrong.

Marinette tensed, as if privy to his thoughts. Her head came down to catch him staring,

“Ah…”

“Is there something on my face?” Her hands patted her jawline worriedly. Adrien noticed that she had painted her nails red.

Swallowing thickly, he managed a wavering, “N-no.”

You’re not wearing a mask anymore.

The bridge of her nose turned pink, and the speechless silence between them stretched on.

To save face, they searched out the small green lot for their missing friends, finding that Nino and Alya had retreated to the far corner. The idea of privacy was there in the gesture, but the effect was ruined by the way Alya watched them like a hawk from her seat on a bench. Nino was trying in vain to grab her attention.

Farther out still, the Gorilla oversaw the quiet drama and sipped quietly at his chamomile tea.

Finally, finally it was brave Ladybug who was bold enough to break the awkwardness between them.

Marinette eyed him, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “I didn’t think meeting you without the mask would be so…”

“Awkward?”

“Yeah.” She searched the sky that held nothing but sunlight and clouds.

Adrien sat up, adjusting his shirt before relaxing back again. Marinette watched him from the corner of her eye, making Adrien’s skin tingle wherever her roaming gaze landed. The top of his hair and around his ears, down his neck and across his shoulders. She landed on his ring finger, a sad smile now flitting around the edges.

For a brief moment, Adrien wished he knew how to summon his werecat claws on command. Ladybug in his dreams had always loved when they came out. He wondered if that would cheer the real one.

Not quite ‘on command’, the tips of his fingers tingled, briefly stinging as the points of his black claws began to emerge from the soft flesh beneath his human nails, extended out into sharpened points.

Marinette blinked, her sad smile suddenly a laugh of discovery. Her blue eyes danced when they landed on slitted green. “It’s you.”

Adrien coughed a light laugh. “Yep, it’s me.”

She cast him another look that he had received far too many times when he was Chat Noir and she was Ladybug. There was confidence in that look, validation that this was real. This was them. They knew each other. The awkwardness that lingered like a miasma lightened. The masks they had worn had only ever hidden their faces, not who they were.

They already knew who the other was.

“I can’t believe it,” Marinette chided, shaking her head in affectionate self-admonishment. “All this time, you were so close.”

“So were you.”

“You sat in front of me!” she exclaimed.

“You sat behind me!” he countered, wanting more than all the world to scoop her up and hug her. He wanted to hug like all the times they had been in life-threatening situations and she had put herself at risk and he was sure he was never going to see her again. Just throw her into his arms and spin around laughing, because there she was, sitting beside him, and she was incredible.

When he couldn’t make his arms move to wrap around her, he managed to get his hand to inch across the small space between them, finding her hand and laying his fingers on top. “If it wasn’t for the glamour, I would have known it was you.”

Marinette rolled her eyes, but let her hand stay beneath his. “Our masks don’t cover that much of our faces, chaton.”

He delighted in the calling of his nickname, letting a lick of pleasure slither down his spine. “I meant that I would have known because there were two girls I know that I admire for the exact same reasons. Same strength, same bravery, same stubbornness-.”

Her nose wrinkled. Adrien resisted the urge to kiss it.

“If not for a bit of magic, I would have known by the end of fighting our first akuma together.”

Marinette slid him a skeptical look.

“Okay,” he amended with a grin that was definitely Chat Noir. “At least by the second akuma.”

“That’s fair,” she reasoned, skepticism melting into fondness. “I would have known it was you, too.”

“So I heard.” Adrien leaned in, ducking down to nearly nose to nose with her. She was Marinette who he had wanted to get to know more and she was Ladybug who he knew better than anyone else. She blended together into this fine creature sitting beside him that he couldn’t look away from.

He wondered what he must look like to her. A new blend of Adrien and Chat Noir who was both and neither, who was new and old in her eyes. By the looks of her, she couldn’t look away any more than he could.

The fluttering in Adrien’s belly felt like butterflies, the absolute opposite of akuma. Maybe they were ladybugs? It made him feel shy and bold at the same time. There were words falling out of his mouth before he could stop them. “Wasn’t it my fine bum that you admired – in and out of leather?”

With a startled laugh, she reached out and twisted his ear.

Adrien bit his cheek so as not to let loose an embarrassing yelp.

Marinette’s smile was down right impish as she leaned in, closing the distance until the tips of their noses brushed. “Just because I can’t throw you off a building right now doesn’t mean I won’t try, minou.”

Playful warning delivered, Adrien was released. He rubbed his ear, but his expression was entirely unrepentant. “My Lady is deadly in and out of armour.”

“Don’t you forget it,” she scoffed, and then settled back in her seat, watching him with glittering eyes. Her lips parted several times in silence. Cloth shushed as her fingers closed tight in the white of her skirt. Her chest expanded on a deep breath, shoulders squaring, meeting his gaze proudly – and a little shyly. “It’s… it’s like meeting again for the first time, isn’t it? Us, like this.”

Quietly, he said, “Not many people can meet on three separate occasions and still be meeting for the first time.”

The first time as civilians. The second time heroes. The third time as themselves.

“We’re just lucky, I suppose,” she laughed. He laughed, too. “If I remember correctly, our first two meetings were disasters.”

“Only because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Oh, I was?” Marinette mused, sweeping her palms down the light material of her skirt.

“The first time, maybe,” Adrien reasoned, recalling his untimely Good Samaritan deed trying to get the gum off of Marinette’s seat. Had she only been thirty seconds later walking into the classroom… Things could have been different. The impetus for a three year misunderstanding that had only resolved itself very recently.

He inclined his head, free to grin like Chat Noir. “The second time, I was definitely in the right place at the right time.”

The first time to catch her when she fell, and to fall for her at the same time.

Both of them had been so new to their new powers.

Now they were comfortable with their powers, and suddenly new to each other.

Marinette’s brow quirked, eyes widening as she recalled that second time. When she had been flying, and then falling, and she had been very lucky to find a black cat to break her fall. She scooted an inch closer, casting him a look from the corner of her eye. “I think you’re right about the second time. You were in the right place.”

“One of the few times I was very, very lucky.” He meant every word, never once looking away from her.

She stared back like she knew what he meant. Her sigh was soft on his lips when she leaned in to whisper, “Me, too.”

Blushing, he ducked back an inch, looking down at himself, and then around at the park, and then down at the girl sitting next to him. “This is okay, right? You’re okay with me knowing? With knowing each other?”

“I… yes.” She nodded, crossing her legs at the knee. Her flashing anklet glittered briefly. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve been better,” he admitted, laughing when Marinette pinched his thigh. “I’m happy, I promise. You are more than I ever could have hoped for.” He noted her blush and stubborn little grumble. “I wish I could enjoy it more, but…” He dug into his pocket to flash his baggy of powder, hoping that would explain everything.

Marinette plucked it from his fingers, turning it over. “Let me guess, this is not-cocaine?”

Adrien glanced around hoping no one was near enough to hear her. “We need a better name for it.”

She handed it back, curling her fingers around his until the baggy was hidden in the combined cup of their hands. “If it’s working, I don’t want to jinx it.”

A moment’s guilt assailed him. “Whatever I did to you yesterday-.”

Red splashed across Marinette’s cheeks. “You already apologized for it.”

“But still…”

“You can be such a… such a kiss ass sometimes,” she said, her cheeks going even redder even as she snorted at her own words. Adrien peered at her oddly, feeling like he should have picked up on a joke but missed it completely. Marinette lips pressed together in a thin line, fighting laughter until she could manage a straight face. “Tikki… ah, Tikki wanted to know if you knew how you- er, licked my wounds better?”

Adrien glanced around, expecting to see a little red god floating about.

“I didn’t bring her with me. I wanted it to be just us when we…”

“Saw each other again for the first time?”

She nodded.

Adrien looked down at his hands, remembering the powder tucked in his palm. He shoved it in his trouser pocket. “I don’t remember any of it. I was hoping to ask the witches tonight if they knew anything. You were invited, right?”

“They texted me this morning.”

“Tonight we might actually get some answers.”

“Maybe,” she cautioned. “I don’t think they know much more than us, really.”

“Too bad Master Fu wasn’t here,” Adrien lamented, though doubted the old Miraculous wielder would know much more about this nonsense.

A shout from across the green drew both their eyes. Nino waved to them, Alya tapping her phone to indicate that their time was up. The Gorilla standing over their shoulders looking somewhat befuddled that his ward was standing with a girl.

Adrien came to his feet and offered his hand, loving that there was no hesitation anymore on Marinette’s part to place her hand in his. He drew her to her feet, releasing her so she could brush her skirt into place. Each little movement was accompanied by tiny silver bells dancing from around her ankle. The red of her shoes still drew his eyes.

“See you tonight?” he prompted, both hopeful and nervous.

Marinette stepped close, casting a careful look around. She was so much braver than he was, and still there was a little fear as she rose up on her toes and slid her hands to his shoulders. Adrien found himself bowing for her, unable to do anything more than be drawn like the ocean tide to the moon.

He was stunned breathless the moment he felt the light brush of a kiss at the corner of his mouth.

Too soon, she stepped away, flustered and smiling. “See you tonight.”

 

Chapter Text

“You don’t think it’s weird? At all?” Alya prompted from across the small table, waving her food-laden fork in time to her questions. “You don’t think it’s convenient that Marinette’s parents asked her to go check out a boulangerie tonight, on the same night that Adrien is going out to see the witches?”

Nino eyed her, the red highlights in her hair catching in the light of the single candle lit between them. His eyes dropped briefly to the half-eaten meal he had hoped would be romantic. Flicking back to the unwavering gaze of his girlfriend, he quirked a brow. “No, Alya, I don’t think it’s weird.”

“Not even a little bit?” she pressed, mouth screwed up.

“Maybe.”

“Really?”

“No.”

She stuffed her fork in her mouth and chewed stubbornly. Nino could see the fingers of her free hand were tapping the table, impatience getting the better of her. He gave her credit though; she was really trying not to reach for her phone.

After a brief respite, Alya swallowed and leaned closer, her chin set determinedly. “Nino, you’re not taking this seriously.”

“Neither are you,” he sighed, wondering if he had made a mistake asking Ramona Cesaire to reserve a small table in her hotel’s restaurant. It had been embarrassing enough o have the mother of his girlfriend look him in the eye and ask if he would be dining with Adrien or her daughter. Alya he had assured. He was dating Alya Cesaire, and had wanted to have a romantic dinner with her to make up for the past few weeks of skirting around each other.

Now he was starting to wonder if he shouldn’t have just had dinner with Adrien instead.

Adrien might have enjoyed the food more.

Alya caught his downcast look and immediately stopped hacking at her dinner. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”

“Doing what?”

“Ruining things because I’m obsessing over something else.”

Nino pulled a face, but nevertheless nodded.

“Sorry. I’m trying, but it’s a hard habit to break.” She offered a weak smile, scooping up a forkful of her dinner and thoughtfully popping it in her mouth. This time, she looked like she was savouring the flavour. “It’s actually really good, you know.”

“Your mom made it.”

Alya cast a look across the restaurant, catching her mother in chef’s garb hovering in the kitchen doorway. Despite owning a chain of restaurants and hotels, Ramona could still kick ass in the kitchen. Alya pursed her fingertips together and blew an exaggerated kiss – perfecto! – to her mother, who rolled her eyes and disappeared beyond the door.

Nino offered a weak smile, tugging at the dress shirt he had chosen to don over his jeans in a semblance of semi-formality. Alya had dressed for the occasion as well, looking stunning in a sheer bronze blouse over a black camisole, the golden light from the candle between them playing off the tortoise shell pattern in the frames of her glasses. The rose he’d bought her for the occasion was tucked behind her ear, red petals brushing her temple.

“Nino?”

Snapping from his distraction, he met her knowing gaze. “Yeah?”

“Thanks for taking me out tonight, even if it’s dinner in my mother’s restaurant in my mother’s hotel, cooked by my own mother.”

“She gave me a discount I couldn’t refuse.”

Alya snorted, her toe tapping him lightly on the shin under the table. “We don’t do this nearly enough back home.”

Nino took a sip of water, shrugging. “We never really have time to do things like this. We’re either running backup for Adrien or Marinette, or you’re running after Ladybug and Chat Noir, or you’re busy with the blog-.”

“I’m trying.”

“I know.” He reached across to cup her hands in his own, leaning down to kiss each one. “And I am so happy that you are trying. I was just saying that before now, we never really had time for the two of us.” Tugging her hands closer, forcing Alya to lean across the table, Nino lowered his voice to a murmur. “Now we have all the time in the world. Adrien’s off doing Chat Noir things with Ladybug and Marinette has the common sense to make herself scarce when I want some time alone with you…”

Alya tugged her hands free. “Yeah, about that…”

Nino hung his head with a groan. “Alya, for the last time, it’s not suspicious that she went to a boulangerie.”

“But there’s always a convenient excuse with her. Always.”

“So?”

“You don’t find that the least bit strange?”

“No, and neither did you before this.”

Candlelight flashed across her glasses. “Maybe something was preventing me from thinking about it.”

“Alya, I don’t want to talk about this right now. This was supposed to be a romantic dinner.” Nino went back to his food, determined to finish before it got cold.

Alya jumped up and grabbed his wrist, giving him a short shake. “Just… just hear me out, okay? Give me one minute and I won’t bring it up for the rest of the evening.” Her fingers tightened around his wrist. “This is important.”

It wasn’t the determination in her eyes that made Nino’s resolve crumble, it was the small tremor in her grip. The way her gaze flashed desperate. She needed something, and he would be damned to deny her.

“Alright,” he sighed, setting aside his fork and giving her his undivided attention.

Alya released her grip cautiously, watching him, as if expecting to see him go back to eating in the first second of his freedom. When he continued to wait on her, she swallowed hard and fell back into her seat, reaching below her chair for her purse. Nino noticed the way her fingers shook as she scrolled through her phone. She landed on the photo she was looking for.

“I want you to look at this.” She swung the screen around, showing a picture of Marinette posed outside of her parents’ boulangerie.

“Okay.”

“Now look at this.” She scrolled to the side, showing a picture of Ladybug posed for the Ladyblog. Nino remembered reading the article that the photo belonged to.

“Okay, I’ve seen them.”

Alya’s lips thinned, her chin jutting out. “Look at them.” She flipped the pictures back and forth. Back and forth. First Marinette and then Ladybug. Civilian and then superhero. One girl, and then the other.

“Uh…” Nino tried to keep his eyes on the photographs. He tried to stay focused where one girl ended and the other began.

It was unexpectedly harder than he thought it would be.

He found his attention diverted to Alya’s fingers, and then briefly to her chest. Was she wearing a bra? Alya cleared her throat pointedly. Nino let his eyes dart up. He thought of his dinner, and about dessert, and what might happen later if Alya invited him back to her room. When he realized he was doing everything except look at the pictures, he tried harder. He tried as hard as he could to focus. No matter hard he tried, he couldn’t.

“Oh.” Lips pursed, he leaned in, squinting. Powerful, insidious, a side-step so small and silent that if he were not trying so hard to hold on to the thought he would have missed it entirely.

Hands fisted under the table, he glared at the screen of Alya’s phone. Like two magnets of the same pole, he couldn’t force his mind to get close without veering wildly away.

His heart raced in a panic he couldn’t name. He felt the deep down instinct to turn away. Stop thinking. These were not thoughts for mortal minds. The feeling was so familiar that it made him sick inside. He couldn’t count the number of times he had felt the warning and let it lead him away from danger without ever questioning it. Years and years of feeling it without ever seeing it for what it was.

This was the first time he had ever noticed it happening.

Alya caught his eye and took a deep breath, her fingers stilling over her phone.

Nino cleared his throat.

Alya beat him to the punch. “You can’t do it, can you? You can’t think of them together.”

“No.”

She tucked her phone to her chest, glancing around to make sure they hadn’t gained an unwelcome audience. Her fingers bleached white from the grip she had, phone case creaking. There were no wayward eyes turned their way. Nevertheless, she scooted her chair in to lean closer over the table.

“How did you figure it out?” Nino’s voice had turned hoarse, tongue parched on disbelief.

Alya stared at her plate, her food hacked up and half eaten. “I don’t know… It just came to me, I guess.”

Nino’s brows went up.

Alya looked as if she were having trouble getting her thoughts together. “It’s hard to explain. I know I’ve thought about it before, but every time I did something stopped me. I stopped thinking about it and never noticed that I had stopped. But…” She looked like she was pleading with him to understand. “But then I thought about it again and suddenly… suddenly I could think about it. It’s still hard, though. I can’t do it every time, and I really have to concentrate, but it’s like whatever was stopping me before has weakened.” She paused, licking her lips; the look she sent him was apologetic, knowing she was making little sense.

“Weakened?” Nino parroted. She was making a lot more sense than she was giving herself credit for.

“I don’t know what else to call it.”

He reached across the table to find her hand, enfolding it in a tight grasp. “What do you think changed to make it weaken?”

“I think it’s because we know about the magic now. We saw it cancel out, so… so whatever it is, it’s not as strong if we know it’s there.” Alya turned her hand and laced her fingers with his, squeezing until it hurt. “Who else couldn’t we think of together until recently?”

“Adrien.” He ducked his head and lowered his voice. “And Chat Noir.”

Alya nodded.

“So what you’re saying is…?”

Alya glanced down at her phone, Marinette’s image staring back at her. She flicked her thumb, bringing Ladybug to the fore. Eye wide, glowing feverish and frightening in the candlelight, she leaned in and hissed, “A mutual friend of ours has got some explaining to do.”

 

 

Ladybug knew Chat Noir was with her long before he made a sound. His continued silence failed to bother her.

She had sensed him coming on the night breeze, and had felt his unblinking stare from the shadows behind her. The night around them was mild, and the street below was silent except for the occasional skitter of unseen things in the alleys. Even in Camden, away from the city center and the usual bustle of the heart of London, the sky was still too clogged with light pollution to show the stars; only the moon watched them, a fat crescent as it waxed in the sky.

She inclined her head, continuing to watch the dance of golden lamplight on the small canal below. The street she perched above was a broad avenue that opened up on both sides to a colourful market, shop fronts painted in wild colours, art sculptures rising from the sidewalks, every imaginable thing on sale from costumes to clothes to knickknacks and more. An offshoot of the Thames glittered black in the night, cutting under a section in the street where tourist gondolas could pass.

Ladybug had been watching the water long enough that she imagined pale faces in the waves. Green hair tangling in the current, clear, fishy teeth glinting below gelatinous eyes tempting her into the depths. Silvery scales where legs should be, and a song in the night that would have tempted many sailors to their doom.

A fox trotted down the avenue, bold in the night with no humans around.

Two cats yowled in a dark alleyway, trash can lids clattering as they leapt and spat and scratched.

Behind her, Ladybug listened to the shift of a shadowed body and the low grumble of a werecat deeply unimpressed with his feral peers.

Ladybug suppressed a laugh, asking over her shoulder, “Are you going to stand there all night, or are you going to join me?”

She heard a soft chuff, and then the distinct tread of his boots in the gravel. She wondered what to expect from him, curious to see if Adrien’s shyness would be at the forefront as it was that morning. She half hoped to fend off Chat Noir’s usual flirtatious overtures and over-the-top gallantry. As Ladybug, it felt only right that he be Chat Noir with her.

Adrien Agreste was Chat Noir.

Chat Noir was Adrien Agreste.

Ladybug nearly laughed out loud at the thought.

Chat’s familiar presence at her back made her sit up straighter, waiting to see what he would do. There were no flirtations whispered in her ear. No clawed hand to capture hers and bring to his lips. She tried not to let disappointment sting too harshly. Instead, a blue iris appeared in her periphery, offered in a leather-clad hand.

“For you,” he said, so close to her ear that she shivered.

Ladybug brought the flower to her nose. Against the petals, she murmured, “Where in the world did you find this?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

"I believe that's my line, Chat."

He laughed lowly. "Sorry." He let the tip of his claw trace down one of the petals. "It reminded me of your eyes. I hope you don't mind."

“Why would I mind?” When she glanced to the side, he was sitting beside her, watching her with a mix of awe and uncertainty and fascination.

"You threw away all the roses I gave you," he said.

She bit her lip, dipping her nose to the petals to hide her wince. Roses she had always believed were all part of the flirtatious games she and Chat played. "Maybe..." She darted another glance to the side, catching green eyes that were just as wide and awed as before. "Maybe I just didn't like roses?"

With utter seriousness, he murmured, "Then I'll plant you a garden of irises instead."

Just because she could, Ladybug twirled her new iris between her fingers and whispered, “Adrien.”

His ears popped up, eyes shooting wide behind the mask before a fanged grin appeared. “Marinette.”

The roll of her name off his tongue rang in her ears. Without thinking, she fell toward her name, curling her finger beneath his chin to tickle him fondly. Chat automatically tilted his head up, eyes falling closed in pleasure. As she delighted him with her fingers, she mused, “This is a lot more comfortable than this morning, isn’t it?”

He blinked at her, cat eyes reflecting in the dark. Her finger fell away and he looked disappointed. Coughing quietly into his fist, he said, “I think we might be a bit braver when we have the masks on.”

“Maybe,” she reasoned, glancing down at her iris. “Or maybe we just know each other better like this.”

“That’s probably true. I feel like I know you better than anyone.” Said without guile, it was a pure kind of honesty that made butterflies take flight in Ladybug’s chest.

She cast him a knowing look. “You probably do know me better than anyone.”

Now, with their identities laid bare between them, it was more truth than platitude that they knew each other.

“You know me, as well,” Chat insisted. “Maybe not so well without the mask, but like this- When we’re like this…” He looked away, took a breath, and squared his shoulders. “I’ve never hidden anything from you like this, except-.”

“Except your name.” Ladybug reached for his hand, curling her fingers around his, squeezing as tight as she could. He matched her strength, squeezing back. “That was all on me. I was the one who was afraid that I wouldn’t live up to my spots.” She felt the heat of his palm pressing into hers. She smiled. “We can’t go back now.”

Chat watched her cautiously, head ducking down, a pink blush working its way up his cheeks. His ears flickered back and forth, the tip of his tail swishing softly in the rooftop gravel behind them. Ladybug bit her lip to keep from giggling. How strange to think that the reserved and quiet boy she had crushed on for so long was the same boy who wore his heart on his leather sleeve for the whole world to see.

Or just for her to see.

Adrien Agreste grandstanding from the top of Notre Dame, crowing at the moon as he leapt freely from the rooftops. Grinning and laughing and sweeping her off her feet to crack puns in her ear. The rogue and the gentleman, her partner and her friend.

Ladybug tightened her fingers and scooted an inch closer as a cool breeze blew.

Chat grinned and happily slid to the side until his hip bumped hers and their thighs lined up. He was pink around the edges of his mask, but still eager to be near her. The reserve she was so accustomed to seeing on Adrien’s face was gone in favour of expressions so much more sincere, no fear of social reprise to rein them in.

This was Adrien Agreste when only she was looking.

In the quiet of the night, he asked softly, “Are you still afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Of you not living up to your spots?”

She notched her chin in the air, and felt Tikki rise in the back of her mind, warm and proud and overwhelmingly powerful. Unbidden, she remembered the dream of lying naked in the forest while Chat Noir kissed her and told her it wasn’t her spots that made her Ladybug. She shivered, hoping her blush wasn’t visible. What would the real Chat Noir feel like kissing her like that.

Not privy to her thoughts, the real Chat Noir cocked his head and waited for her answer.

Huffing, Ladybug posed her answer like a challenge. “What do you think?”

Chat leaned in, the tip of his nose ghosting just below the seam of her mask. So close, his eyes gleamed poison green. “You don’t smell afraid.”

“What does fear smell like?”

“Tangy and electric. You don’t smell like that at all. You’re not afraid one bit.” He breathed in deep and seemed to be savouring the moment.

Ladybug turned, the tip of her nose butting against his. “What do I smell like, chaton?”

“Home,” he sighed.

She quirked a brow.

He blushed, scooting away.

She missed his warmth the moment it was gone. “I smell like your home?”

Cold, empty halls in a sterile mansion. The smell of floor polish and window cleaner and empty spaces.

“Not my home,” he replied lowly, tail swishing quietly as he searched for the words.

Unable to help herself, Ladybug raised her palms to cup his cheeks and let him calm to her touch.

“It’s strange saying it out loud. From the moment I smelled you in Trafalgar Square, I just…” Chat let his eyes fall closed, leaning in for comfort. “It scared me at first, but I kept wanting it more and more, even when I was terrified I might hurt you-.”

“Oh, minou.”

He lurched closer, cupping her face in his gloved palms, drawing them close until their foreheads touched. “You smell like home in the best sense of the word, Buginette. Not my home, but…” His nosed twitched, his cheek pressing heavier into her palm. “You smell like a home I want to come home to. Warm, and comforting, and… and sweet.”

His voice cracked on the last word, hushed and reverent.

The butterflies in her belly swooped up into her chest. Her cheeks felt as red as her armour.

Sensing her surprise, Chat shied. Ladybug scrambled to keep him close. She didn’t want to let go of him just yet. Her hip bumped into him, and her free arm came around his front to grab his other shoulder, turning him to face her. She leaned up, and his head came down, the warmth of their skin tingling brilliantly up and down their nerves as their cheeks touched this time, pressed so close that their lips were near enough to whisper in each others’ ears.

“Sweet?” she prompted.

She felt him nod, his hand gliding up to hold the hand that held his cheek. His mouth turned so that his lips rested in the cup of her palm.

“Do I really smell that good to you?” she wondered, for some reason remembering the night they met atop the London Eye. Chat looking at her with awe and fear in his eyes as he described his uncontrolled reaction to a girl he had not dare name: she makes my cat meow.

Marinette had been the girl.

Marinette smelled so good to him she made his cat meow.

Chat closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “You smell better to me than anything else in this world, my Lady.”

Curious, she lifted her wrist to hover under his nose, watching as his nostrils flared and his eyes cracked open first in surprise, and then lowered to half-mast as the full perfume of her scent took effect. She wanted to say he looked drugged, but she already knew what that looked like. She already knew what that felt like, as well – like a rough cat’s tongue against her curve of her bottom.

Ladybug coughed quietly, pressing her legs ever so slightly closer together.

Chat jolted, eyes shooting up to meet hers. She watched his slitted pupils expand, black devouring the green.

She blushed deeply. “You can smell that, too, huh?”

He swallowed hard and nodded, ears flicking back unsurely. “In the apple orchard, after you left, your scent is what gave you away…”

Ladybug watched his hand trail down, the tips of his claws ghosting over the low plain of his belly. The place where she had sat on him naked, and aroused, and wet. She squeezed her eyes shut, not even the damp mist from the Thames enough to cool the sudden heat in her cheeks. “Oh my god, Chat.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry. That’s awful.”

“It wasn’t awful at the time. Kind of uncomfortable, though.” His eyes dipped to his lap, and then he swallowed thickly. Ladybug remembered too well how uncomfortable he’d been, and no amount of trying was ever going to make her forget the sight of him aroused in skin-tight leather armour, or the feeling of him naked and aroused out of it.

She let her forehead fall to his shoulder, thumping it several times.

Chat Noir mumbled something, his hand patting her on the back.

“This is awkward now, isn’t? This is way more awkward than this morning.”

“A little.”

Ladybug thumped her head off his shoulder one last time before making the attempt to meet his eye. “I don’t want this to be awkward.”

“Neither do I.” One of his fangs had hooked on his bottom lip. His ears were twitching, laying at half-mast against his hair.

Ladybug’s heart turned over in her chest. She held her wrist out beneath his nose and watched his ears come up and his eyes go wide. “Go ahead,” she urged quietly, hoping that if… if she made the effort, it wouldn’t be as terribly embarrassing as it was. “This is what you’ve wanted for a while, isn’t it?”

He gave her wide owl eyes.

“Don’t give me that look,” she admonished fondly, wrinkling her nose. “At least I know why you were trying to avoid me as Adrien. I told you to say away from myself.” She paused, lips pursed. “You were really bad at staying away from me.”

“You are hard to ignore, Mari,” he admitted guiltily, her name just barely above a whisper.

“And you are-.” She cut off, shaking her head, tongue tied on what might have been an ill-timed confession. And you are the most handsome boy I have ever met. She settled for chuckling softly. “You are a silly kitty. Go on, now. Smell me, or scent me, or whatever it is you do.”

I want to see what happens.

He kept his eyes on hers as his head dipped the small distance down to rest his nose and lips upon the thin membrane of her armoured costume. Her skin burned where he touched. She felt the sweep of air as he inhaled, and the hot rush when he exhaled. He curved his palm around the back of her wrist, bowing over her hand, pressing his nose and lips against her until it was more of a kiss than it was taking her scent.

Ladybug could have pulled her arm away at any moment.

She didn’t.

As she watched, it occurred to her what he looked like. Entranced. Like magic.

She watched as he fell under a spell he was helpless to resist, each long inhalation dragging him under deeper. He started to sway, head bobbing, beginning to nose his way up her forearm. His lips were not far behind, not quite a kiss against her spots, but something faint and gentle and barely there.

“Chat.” A shiver travelled down her spine.

“Ladybug.” His eyes continued to glitter, watching her each time his nose slid a little higher, keeping eye contact as his lips burned her skin. She could feel the vibration of his purr through each touch. His nose rested at the ball of her shoulder, with his eyes so close that Ladybug imagined she could see herself reflected in the depths.

She felt his tail curve around her bottom, slipping up and over the top of her thigh to rest in the warm space at the top of her thighs. Chat’s expression did not flicker for a moment; he had no notion of his tail’s wayward travels. Ladybug bit back a grin, letting his tail rest as it was. She raised her fingers and pushed back a hank of wild blond hair, finding that without human ears to hook it behind it merely fell right back into place.

Chat’s warmth pressed up along her shoulder and down her arm, radiating down the length of her side. He rested his chin on her shoulder and asked, “May I?”

Ladybug tilted her head, granting him access to the hollow of her throat.

“I won’t hurt you,” he promised, gliding into the space she afforded him to bury his face in her neck.

A laugh really did slip by Ladybug’s lips the moment she felt the tickle of his breath and cold poke of his nose and the velvet of his lips hovering just above the collar of her suit.

Chat shot away like a scalded cat.

“Tickles,” Ladybug giggled, summoning him back with open arms. She welcomed his familiar warmth and weight, letting the scent of his cologne wash over her, the scent of wild animals not far behind.

Chat was much more cautious the second time around, but was nevertheless drawn in by her scent. The enchantment took him without protest. He relaxed, pressing his full face into her neck, going wonderfully lax in her arms. A purr rumbled up, vibrating through them both. He rubbed his face in the hollow of her throat, soft lips, a wet tongue, and the scrape of whiskers that sent fresh shivers down Ladybug’s spine.

“Why do I feel this way with you?” he wondered, mumbling like he was already half-asleep.

“I don’t know,” Ladybug replied, letting her fingertips stroke the length of his back. Muscle rolled beneath flesh and leather. “Maybe because you’re Chat Noir and I’m Ladybug?”

“Maybe.”

“We’ll figure it out when we go see the witches.” Ladybug let her hand slide down, down, down his back until she could curl her fingers around the base of his tail. It was sturdier than she thought, more muscle than bone. She let her fingers encircle the foreign limb and stroke down. Chat Noir shot tense in her arms, a gasp puffing against the curve of her neck, the sudden bite of his claws against her hips.

“Ladybug,” he groaned, a moment later going all but boneless against her.

She let her hand fall away, biting her lip. “I shouldn’t have done that, should I?”

Still buried in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, Chat groaned long and low.

“Okay, I won’t do that again.”

Chat’s head came up and he looked like a man ready to beg for her to do it again. But his lips firmed into a thin line, a terrible red flush working its way up from the collar of his suit. He let his head fall back into the safety of her shoulder.

Ladybug tipped her head to allow her cheek to rest on the nest of blond hair nestled in her periphery. Mindful of committing any more faux pas against Chat’s person, she resisted the urge to kiss one velvety cat ear poise near her lips. She let him wallow on her shoulder and she took the time to enjoy his closeness and how easy it felt to be in his presence despite knowing exactly whose face was beneath the mask.

It wasn’t long before Chat tensed, drawing away to look down the dark street below them. “Do you feel that?”

Ladybug blinked back to herself, eyes growing wide. The night grew cold around them, still dropping rapidly.

Chat raised his arm to cover his nose. “Something stinks.”

Though her nose wasn’t as powerful, Ladybug caught a whiff of the rank stench of rot. She recoiled, scrambling to her feet as Chat did the same. “Something’s coming.”

“Not the witches.” Chat let loose with a low, raw growl.

The first sign of encroaching danger was the flicker of the lamplights, wavering in the dark before guttering out until the whole street was plunged into gloom. Ladybug felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Pressure closed in around her, like the weight of an entire ocean bearing down on her body. Dark and heavy and cold.

Not an akuma. Something else.

Don’t look! Tikki warned, her disembodied voice ringing sharp in Ladybug’s head. Whatever you do, don’t look!

Ladybug twisted herself into the dark wall of Chat’s chest, hooking her arms around him and forcing herself blind against the leather. Chat’s arms closed around her by reflex, pressing her closer still. His head remained raised above her, and Ladybug found her mouth too dry to share her kwami’s warning.

Humidity condensed into fog, a slick coat of sleet forming across Ladybug’s armour. Cold and unpleasant like slime, sliding through her hair, dripping down the back of her neck. Her ears popped. She had the sudden sense of being somewhere dark. Standing at the bottom of the ocean with a thousand nameless things staring down at her from the black water.

She felt Chat Noir jolt in her arms, muscle tensing, a growl working its way up his throat. Seconds later, she caught the first strains of what was coming for them. A heavy body dragging itself with great effort. Squelching steps of things long ago drowned at sea; the death rattle moan of lungs clogged with sea water. The grind of dirt being churned from unused mouths and lungs, sunken eye sockets full of worms.

Closer still came the echoing clop of horse’s hooves. A hollow nicker flittered up from beneath loose graveyard soil.

Its rider was seated in a saddle of rotten leather, dressed in rags of black. Its skin was whiter than a bloodless corpse, crowned by a wreath of flaming hair; an eyepatch covered its right eye.

Chat blinked, and the rider was gone from the head of the parade.

Ladybug gasped as she felt something materialize at her side.

“Damn it.” Chat whipped around to put his back between the creature and his Ladybug. Instinct warred to both flee and fight. Plagg rose up, turning over in Chat’s chest, and the memory of bitterness on his tongue and death in the air struck Chat like a fist to the gut.

Plagg hissed from the cage of his dormancy. Wordless, full of rage.

Chat bristled, ready to summon Cataclysm at any moment.

“Father,” said the creature, in a voice that had died long ago. Or perhaps had never lived in the first place. Its gaze travelled to the top of Ladybug’s head, the only thing visible around the wall Chat made of his body. “Mother.”

“What do you want?” Chat demanded.

“I did not think to see you again.” A hand as white as moonlight rose, ghosting down the outline of Chat’s cheek. “You have changed, Father.”

“What are you?” Ladybug hissed, fingers sinking deep into Chat’s sides. Whatever it took, she would not open her eyes.

“The name you gave me was Ophelia.”

With Chat pressed so close, Ladybug felt the sudden shiver that ran down his spine. His fingers clenched tight on her hips. Ladybug bit back against the sudden wave of nausea coiling in her gut.

Ophelia’s presence seemed to reach deep and wrench loose some painful fragment of themselves; Tikki cried out, and Ladybug saw flames behind her eyelids from a distant memory. Cold enveloped Chat Noir from the inside out, an empty hollowness opening up as if his heart had been gouged from his chest.

“I am forgotten, it seems,” said the stranger.

Ladybug dropped her hand to her yo-yo. Her fingers shook.

“I suppose three hundred years is a long time for a human to remember.” Rags rustled, followed by the sense of an abyss drawing nearer. Dread swallowed up the last of the oxygen in the air. “Heed me, Mother. Father. There are weeds in the garden of the Muse. The seeds are spreading on wings instead of whispers. You mustn’t forget what happened last time.”

“The last time?” Chat whispered hoarsely.

“The last time you died, Father.” Cold, dead lips pressed like a poisoned brand below the curve of Chat Noir’s mask. “I am glad that you were able to find Mother in the end.”

Rags stirred once more, and the stranger was gone.

Ladybug kept her face pressed into Chat’s chest, listening as Tikki counted down the steps of the monstrous parade below as it was led away from a flame-haired demon. The air grew warm again. From behind her eyelids, Ladybug could see the glow of the streetlamps restored one by one.

You can look now, Tikki said.

Ladybug pulled away, searching Chat’s face above her. He blinked down at her, dazed, and she recoiled at the sight of him. “Your eyes!”

“My-?” He touched the corner of one, where the green had been swallowed and there was nothing but black behind the lenses. Black, and black, and blacker still until it felt like Ladybug could be drawn into the depth and fall forever.

Chat’s fingertips fell to his cheek, to the dark stain left behind by Ophelia’s kiss. A hiss rose, smoke rising beneath his fingers as the mark sank in and was gone. Around him, the air wavered. His armour seemed to vibrate, growing several shades too dark for his usual costume. His shadow stretched across the gravel, again too dark, and too wrong, to be his.

Wincing, Chat blinked several times.

Drawn to him, Ladybug gripped his face and traced her thumbs beneath his eyes.

Green came back on a final wink, human once more.

His knees gave out. Ladybug caught him.

“What the hell just happened?” he gasped.

“I don’t know,” Ladybug murmured, hefting him safely against her with one arm. The other trailed down, grasping her yo-yo. “Are you alright?”

“No.” His voice was little more than a pained groan.

Ladybug steeled herself, letting her yo-yo fly into the night. “We- we should probably go find the witches.”

“Good idea.” Chat sank heavy and trembling against her. He didn’t feel right in her arms anymore.

Chapter Text

Chat remembered very little of the trip from the rooftop to the Candlewick Apothecary.

His stomach threatened to turn itself inside out on every crest and fall of Ladybug’s yo-yo. The coldness that gripped his heart in a vice warred with the infectious heat that now pulsed under his skin. His nerves were vibrating, every inch of him electrified from a lightning bolt that wouldn’t end.

The night sky fell from his vision, narrowed only to glimpses of red and black. He felt arms around him, their strength the only thing keeping him from falling apart at the seams. If the night winds were howling, he heard nothing but a whispered voice whose words bled together.

“Hold on, Chat. We’re here.” Their jarring landing on black asphalt brought him back to semi-consciousness, enough to try to get his feet under him. His knees shook. He couldn’t feel his heart beating in his chest.

“Mari…?” He focused on a pair of wide blue eyes, bordered by a mask of red and black. He licked his dry lips, hating the taste of sick that haunted his tongue. “Ladybug.”

Ladybug’s face shifted, determination giving way into flickering fear. The strong arms keeping Chat on his feet shifted, bringing him closer. Her lips were soft against the shell of his ear, “Shh, you’re safe, Chat. Save your strength, we’re at the apothecary.”

Contrary to her instructions, he summed up what little energy he had to lift his head. His gaze managed to tip as high as the front stoops of the houses lining the street before his vision swam and his stomach rebelled. He fell forward, caught by Ladybug, and threw up across the asphalt.

“Chat!”

He dragged his arms up, panting with the effort, hooking his claws into the neck of his suit to yank at it. He needed air. He needed his suit off of him. He gave another fruitless yank, spittle hanging in strings from his chin, feeling his skin jerk along with his armour.

“Chat! Stop it! You’re hurting yourself!” Ladybug juggled him into one arm, the other trying to smack his arms away.

“Off,” he coughed, gagging. “I need it off! Something’s wrong with my armour.” His claws slipped, sinking into the skin just above the line of the leather. He hardly felt the sting.

Instead, the sensation of something crawling beneath his skin intensified. There were insects in his armour, thousands of little legs crawling over him, little pincers pinching at his soft spots. Red hot needles driving into nerve endings, radiating out from his cheek where he had been kissed.

Kissed by that thing.

He felt like he was dying.

The last time you died, Father.

Chat lost what precious little was left in his stomach. He wretched across the asphalt again, hacking and gagging like a cat on a massive hairball.

“Shhh, shh, it’s okay,” Ladybug soothed, holding him through it. “I’ve got you. Let it out.” She rubbed his back, even as strings of saliva dripped on her foot. She radiated warmth and comfort, soothing even while the insects in his blood roiled in a fury.

A long, pained groan escaped his raw lips. Muddled words fell out. “I don’t have a daughter, do I?”

Ladybug’s arms tightened around him. “No.”

A white face and one black, black eye felt seared into the backs of his eyes.

Ladybug made a sound very close to a growl. “Even if you did have a daughter, I doubt that thing would be it.”

Chat nodded, staring at his feet.

Distant sounds were growing closer, voices and the patter of dozens of bare feet.

Ladybug shifted his weight into one arm, pressing his body into her side to lift her free hand in the air. “We’re over here!”

Dozens of witches converged in a dizzying rush of bodies and voices, males and females and both and neither, and things that weren’t shaped like humans at all. Magic and fresh earth and wild animals filled the air.

Chat couldn’t tell if they were all shouting at once, or if his ears were making their whispers sound like screams. His head lolled, stomach churning once more.

“Lady… bug-.” Chat might have blacked out for a few seconds. When he cracked his eyes open once more, the crowd had lessened. There were voices above his head, soft and serious.

“Do you need help carrying him, my Lady?”

“No, I’ve got him. Are you sure you can you help him?”

“Of course. Ladybug. Take him upstairs and lay him on the couch.”

A low groan vibrated up Chat’s throat as he felt a pair of arms loop under his shoulders and knees. He turned his face into Ladybug’s chest and focused on breathing.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Chat. We’re getting you help.” Her arms were steady around him. He heard the creak of a front door, the tinkle of the shop bell, and suddenly his nose was full of spice and incense.

Chat pressed his face deeper into the safe hollow of Ladybug’s chest. The stairs were a challenge on their own, each rocking step threatening yet another upset. Ancient floor boards groaned. Ladybug’s arms never once wavered.

Chat could hear Ladybug’s heart against his ear. His head fell back limply, exposed skin feeling hot and flushed and wrong. He dared crack open an eye against the low light filtering down the gloomy stairwell.

Ladybug was closer than he thought, her face mere inches above him. Sensing his gaze, she offered the tiniest smile, swooping down to press a kiss to his forehead. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

Assured, Chat nodded and closed his eyes again.

The next time he came to, he was horizontal on something soft that smelled like a spice rack. Someone was stroking his cheek. Close by, in a whisper, a small voice bid, “Can you sign this? And this? And this?”

From beneath the cover of his lashes, Chat saw Ladybug perched on the edge of a cushion, her hip pressed firmly into the line of his waist. With her left hand, she pet him gently, down his cheek and throat to the collar of his suit. The coolness of her touch was just the right balm against his fevered skin.

A child stood before them with its arms full of newspapers, books, and t-shirts, steadily handing one after the other over to be signed by a real live Miraculous superhero.

Chat traced the familiar lines of Ladybug’s face, noting her smile as she drew ladybug after ladybug without complaint.

They were safe.

He relaxed back into the cushions, eyes wandering. Nearby, a single candle had been lit and placed in the upturned husk of a tarantula, its hairy legs keeping the fat candle secure on top of a coffee table. The lofty room, with its vaulted ceiling cast in shadows, smelled of spice and dirt, and could only be the living space hidden above the apothecary.

“What about Frank?” chimed the child’s voice, strained now under the weight of a plague spirit in its arms. “Can you sign his head?”

“Um…?” Ladybug bit her lip.

Chat quirked a faint smile, barely a twitch of his numb lips. Through the dim candlelight, he spied a clothesline strung beneath the beams of the vaulted ceiling, clothes flapping in the breeze let in by the tall windows. Another clothesline hung heavy with drying bundles of herbs. A nest of pigeons was roosting peacefully in the corner.

The walls were high, and green; rather than wallpaper, the witches grew ivy from troughs in the floor, climbing up the walls in curtains of bushy green. Exposed floorboards were outlined in black earth, blades of grass and clover peeking through. Mushrooms gathered in the shadows, crowned in spotted red caps.

In the moonlight, Chat saw rickety bookshelves pushed up against bare spaces in the walls, full of leather-bound books and ancient grimoires. Piles of opalescent scales from things made of dreams, and marbles with glass hearts made of stars; the tiny, bleached bones of countless little animals collected in jars and decks of cards full of fortunes greater than what anyone could gamble.

Brass divining rods; a wrought iron cauldron as big as a crockpot; a shrivelled hand that looked far too human.

A battered witch’s hat; a hangman’s noose; the skull of a cat with clover growing in its eyes.

Two shadows fell across his face, two silhouettes hanging over the back of the couch. Matching falls of straight black hair swung forward, darkening the already pitch shade of their curious stares.

“Oh,” said one.

“He’s awake,” said the other, twin to the first.

Ladybug was with him in an instant, the only one who mattered as she swooped in to cup his face in both her palms. Despite the unceasing ache in every fibre of his body, Chat could not help but relax into her hands and think that he would have gladly waited another lifetime for her to look at him like that.

“Chat Noir,” she whispered, her palms pressing tight against his face. “Don’t you ever worry me like that again.”

“No promises,” he croaked, startled by the hoarseness of his own voice.

Ladybug’s lips thinned.

He blinked up at her, finding his eyes dry and sore. “How long was I out?”

“An hour,” Ladybug replied, straying to an old grandfather clock ticking beyond the back of the couch. “Maybe more. How do you feel?”

“Strange.” Strangely empty now without the insects crawling under his skin. He was left with a coldness that went down to his core, a stiffness in his bones like rigor mortis was setting in. His cheek still burned where he had been kissed.

“Strange?” Ladybug prompted, tracing her fingertips gently from his temple to his chin.

“Strange,” Chat confirmed, running his palm from his chest down to his hip. In the candlelight, his armour looked wrong, darker somehow.

“Strange is to be expected, my Lord.” A woman sat down on the corner of the coffee table. It took a moment for Chat to recognize her as Alathea Candlewick, her hair pulled back into a massive tangle atop her head and a long dress of simple tanned linen sweeping from her neck to the floor.

“Ah-.” Chat struggled to rise.

Alathea raised a hand. “Take your time, my dear. You were just through quite the ordeal.” She shooed a hand at the figures who hovered just out of Chat’s direct line of sight. “Girls, sit down. It’s rude to hover over our guests.”

Seven shadows bolted for the chairs and couches, taking seats wherever they would fit, their eyes collectively wide, obviously sitting with baited breath as their avid gazes flicked from Chat Noir to Ladybug.

Sarah sat on the floor, rumpled and pale, mouth agape as she met his eye. Chat recognized two others from his last visit to the apothecary – Beatrice and Cordelia, one looking like a traditional witch while the other did not. They were seated alongside a witch whose skin was colour of peat, the white of her eyes standing out in stark contrast beneath nebulous curls the colour of autumn. A pair of black-eyed twins sat birdlike on the arms of a chair, and between them sat the youngest, a small thing with freckles and glasses, skinned knees beneath the hem of a long nightshirt.

A chilled metal cup was thrust into Chat’s hands, John standing above him with a grim frown. “Drink this.”

Chat relied on Ladybug to help prop his back against the couch. Much to his chagrin, he lacked the coordination to raise the cup to his lips. Ladybug helped him with that as well. Their combined movements disturbed the dried bundles of clove, lilac, and juniper branches scattered around him like the dead remains of funeral castoffs.

The potion was cold and sweet, though strangely without flavour. He wasn’t sure he could taste any magic in it, but was relieved when a rush came that rivaled the headrush feeling he got when he ate camembert.

“Not too quick, my dear,” Alathea warned, followed by Ladybug trying to wean him.

Chat bit down on the ledge and tipped his head back, thick brown potion oozing between his teeth and down his chin.

“Oh, Chat, you’re making a mess!” A hand landed on his forehead, another taking a firm grip on the cup, separating the two with a hard shove in between. Chat choked, brown sludge snorting up his nose. With the magic gone, the pleasured daze of the drink wore off and he became aware of the gritty film on his tongue and the green pallor of Ladybug’s face as she gingerly set the cup away.

Chat ran the back of his hand across his wet mouth, staring up at the werewolf who continued to tower over him. “What did you give me?”

John shrugged. “They told me to give you something rotten, so I dumped the compost bin in the blender.”

Chat choked.

John rolled his eyes.

“You let me eat that!” Chat hissed.

“Yep.”

“You-!”

“How about I throw this out?” Ladybug cut in hastily, before Chat could spit something as vile as his drink. She swung to her feet, cup in hand, and in an instant, there were seven wide-eyed girls on their feet with her, all looking like they all wanted to be the first to grab the cup from her hands.

“Down, girls,” Alathea chuckled. “Please, my Lady, allow me to take that.” With a snap, the cup was away to the kitchen, tipping itself into the sink. Another snap brought a dark green bottle from a rack in the kitchen, pressing itself into Chat’s hands. “My Lord, you can rinse your mouth out with this.”

With far more caution than before, Chat popped the cork with his claw and gave a tentative sniff, and then peered down the neck of the bottle.

“Dandelion wine,” Alathea supplied wryly. “It may not be as effective as what you were drinking before, but it will have to do.”

Chat took a tentative sip, watching Alathea over the rise of the bottle.

Ladybug scooted over the cushions until she could press into his side, finding his hand to twine their fingers together. Her chin was set. “You said as soon as he woke up that you would explain what happened.”

Alathea flicked a glance between them. Her gaze settled on Chat. “From what Ladybug has described, it sounds like you had the unfortunate business of being caught up in a Black Parade.”

Chat took another sip of wine. “That was like no parade I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t imagine so. When a demon Court is on the move, we call it a Black Parade,” the witch explained. “They are not to be witnessed by the faint of heart, nor anyone with a human heart, for that matter.”

Ladybug’s hand found Chat’s knee, squeezing.

“Is that why I got sick?” he wondered, glancing down the neck of the wine bottle before taking another long swig. It was sweet, with a vinegary aftertaste, and didn’t have as much magic in it as the unfortunate compost smoothie, but it was better than nothing. It put warmth back in his belly, slowly spreading out into his limbs.

“Part of the reason. I am sure if this were not an exceptional circumstance, your kwami would have told you to close your eyes.” The witch glanced between them. “The eyes are the window to the soul, after all. Things tend to find their way in through there.”

Chat palmed his chest, searching for a familiar beat. “But I looked, does that mean…?”

“Don’t worry, you were lucky.” Alathea leaned forward, placing her warm hand over his fingers. “You’re not possessed, at least not in the traditional sense. You are very, very lucky that not even Prince Ophelia could outrank you.”

Prince Ophelia?” Chat repeated numbly. The name sat hollow on his tongue, striking loose a grainy memory of dark shapes and the taste of ash in his mouth. Thick, black dread boiled up the back of his throat. With a start, Chat realized it must have been one of Plagg’s memories.

Glass cracked in his hands.

Alathea swept from her seat to rescue the cracked bottle before Chat could shatter it. “I think you’ve had enough for now.”

Chat blushed terribly, staring at his lap. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Ladybug hushed gently.

“Ladybug is right, none of this is your fault,” Sarah assured somberly, with her sisters nodding emphatically around her.

John crossed to her side and sank to the floor, hushing her with a hand to her shoulder and a small shake of his head. “Let your mother handle it."

Chat trailed tired eyes up to Alathea, who returned from resealing the glass of the bottle and setting it away.

She met his gaze and offered a crooked half-smile. “I imagine an explanation of any sort would do you a world of good.”

“Please,” Chat sighed.

“Start with that Ophelia creature,” Ladybug demanded, scooting so close that her side lined up with Chat’s from shoulder to knee.

The old witch inclined her head. “A demon is not a thing of hell, no matter what you might have been taught. Demons are borne from the hearts of man. You let the seed in and let it grow as it devours your heart,” Alathea said, soft and solemn. “The highest rank of a human-borne demon is Prince, the result of a fully devoured human heart – such as Prince Ophelia.”

The cold in the pit of Chat’s stomach returned. “It- Ophelia called me Father.”

Alathea closed her eyes and let go of a long sigh. “She was sired from the heart of Destruction, upon the death of your previous incarnation, Lord Plague.”

The last time you died, Father.

Chat lurched forward, not sure if he was about to be sick on the floor in front of everyone. Ladybug was there in an instant, her arms wrapping tight around him. Her eyes were on the witch.

“That thing thought we were Lady Luck and Lord Plague? They’ve been dead for over three hundred years!” she exclaimed.

“Ophelia may have been borne from a human, but there is nothing human about her. She would only see your Miraculous, and that magic will never change through time.”

“Why did it… she kiss me?” He felt Ladybug’s fingers dig into his knee. He unclenched his fists to find her hands and twine his fingers with hers. “What did she do to me?”

“I warned you that there existed beings who would pay you tribute.” Frank, largely forgotten on the floor, hopped up on the coffee table – his Ladybug autograph flashing in the middle of his forehead. He swept a deep bow. “What is a Prince without a King, after all?”

Ladybug’s arm’s spasmed around Chat’s body.

“K-king?” he all but croaked.

“Prince Ophelia paid tribute to your Miraculous from her and all her Court.” Frank canted his uncanny head, empty eye sockets boring through Chat in an unblinking stare. “It was meant for your kwami.”

Chat’s ears flattened against his head. “But I took the brunt of it instead.”

“Indeed,” Alathea sighed. “It was more dark magic than what any sane being should be able to handle, Miraculous or not. However, luck was on your side.” She nodded to Ladybug.

Chat turned to Ladybug, who quickly looked away, ducking her head to her shoulders. “I didn’t do much,” she mumbled.

“No need to be humble,” Alathea chuckled, turning to Chat. “You were deeply effected by Ophelia’s tribute. Had it not been for Ladybug, we may not have been able to complete the exorcism. She saved your life.”

Ladybug peeked at Chat from beneath the hang of her bangs, a distinct rosy hue creepy up her cheeks. “I may have done a little. Tikki told me what to do, and the witches showed me.” Her cheek landed against his shoulder, face turned down. “It was a bit like trying to purify an akuma, but… not exactly.”

“You did more than enough,” Chat whispered, squeezing her hand.

Her shoulder bumped his. Softly, without quite meeting his eyes, she murmured, “I told you I would protect you.” She glanced at him, and then away. “No matter what.”

Chat might have said more, might have pledged his heart to her right then and there, were it not for the excited whispering to break out from the ranks of the Candlewick sisters watching them from across the coffee table. The youngest was using a phone to record the exchange, an excited grin stretched from ear to ear.

“It was only a matter of time before Prince Ophelia found you. I supposed we should all be grateful things did not turn out worse,” Alathea said with a shake of her head. “Her Court has been restless since you came to the city. At least now you are aware of her, and you will know what to do if you encounter something similar in the future."

"That's not reassuring," Chat groused.

"Not everything in life will be, I'm afraid," Alathea lamented. "Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to what you came here to discuss with us in the first place.”

Chat shifted gingerly in his seat, too weary to dare to hope. “Did you figure out how to fix me?”

“Fix? Like he’s broken,” John spat, hushed quietly by Sarah.

Alathea nodded absently, glancing back at her daughters, singling out Sarah who sat up straight in John’s lap with wide eyes. She slid from the safety of her wolf's arms, kissing him once on the cheek before taking her place at her mother’s side on the coffee table, staring at the floor with her hands tucked in her lap. Alathea took her daughter’s hand and squeezed it reassuringly.

“We don't have a fix-all solution, Chat Noir,” Alathea warned. “We have two possible options, but neither one is easy.”

“We’ll do whatever we have to,” Ladybug vowed.

Alathea inclined her head. “That’s good. We’re dealing with some very powerful magic, and it would not be wise to go into this without knowing everything that we suspect.” She took a breath, held it, then let it out slowly. “At first, we suspected some form of corruption from Sarah’s magic coupled with the demonic-type possession of the akuma serving as a possession catalyst for Chat to absorb his kwami. Possession is not so far off from what a kwami does when it bonds and works through its host, and the kwami of Destruction is considered an honorary demon in his own right, so prompting an outright demonic possession would absolutely make sense.”

“I’m possessed?” Chat squawked.

“Not in the traditional sense, my dear,” Alathea soothed.

“Didn’t we just exorcise him?” Ladybug demanded.

“It was a minor exorcism, more like a purification since we were only dealing with negative energy and not an actual entity. It would take a lot more power than what we used to try to pull something as powerful as a Miraculous kwami out of a human.” Alathea sat back, her face grave. “Exorcisms are grueling and dangerous. Miraculous magic like yours, Ladybug, is well-suited to performing exorcisms, but even still it is not without risk to the host’s heart.”

“Could I die?” Chat croaked.

“Yes."

Chat lost his breath, tasting vomit on the back of his tongue.

"But on the bright side, upon your death your kwami will likely be released.”

“That’s a bright side!?”

Ladybug slid in, turning so that she became a shield between him and the witches. “Nothing is going to happen to you.” She nailed Alathea with a narrow-eyed glare. “You said there was a second option. What it is?”

“It’s a recent theory, thanks to Sarah. If this is not a case for an exorcism, then it may be a mess of very old, very powerful magic being fouled up in a very peculiar way.”

“What magic?” Chat turned to Sarah, not daring to look at her mother. “What did you do?”

“I opened a contract,” Sarah murmured, eyes on the floor. “Do you remember? That first night, and I wanted you as a familiar, so I opened a contract.”

John quickly rose from his spot to grab her arms and give her a small shake. “We talked about this.You didn’t open it. Wicked Witch did.”

“She was still me. It was still my magic.” She dashed her eyes against the collar of her dress. “I’m so sorry, Chat Noir. I may have accidentally done this to you. Whether it’s demon possession or a contract gone wrong, this is my fault.”

Chat deflated, slumping until his shoulders bumped his temples. “It was an akuma that did this, not you. Ladybug and I have seen way too many people come out of an akuma possession blaming themselves for things they had no control over. If you want anyone to blame, blame Papillion. Just please explain how a screwed up contract could do this to me, and then tell me how it can be fixed.”

Alathea bent and held out her arm for a massive anaconda that slithered out from the shadows, climbing up her arm to wrap around her body. “A familiar contract is one of the most powerful and sacred forms of magic a witch can enact.”

“A witch only gets one,” John cut in, eyes glinting amber in the low light. “It’s a lifetime commitment. There’s no backing out once it’s formally signed.”

“And yet, Sarah managed to open a second contract while she was under the influence of the akuma,” Alathea said, continuing to stroke the anaconda. “Obviously the magic was corrupted, and you were caught in the middle of it, Chat. Humans are not meant to take on contracts, which may have been the catalyst for the absorption of your kwami and your shift from human to werecat to accommodate the magic.

“It seemed so impossible at first that we didn’t consider it. Possession was so much more likely,” Alathea amended carefully. “Contracts are sacred, nearly as powerful as Miraculous magic. No witch would conjure it lightly. It wasn’t until Sarah mentioned what happened the other day between you and Ladybug that things tipped in favour of the contract.”

Ladybug sat back, eyes wide. “You mean when he…?” She waved her arms, gesturing to her back. She went pink from her neck up.

Chat tipped his head, ears flickering unsurely.

Sarah nodded. “Uh, yes, when you said he kissed your wounds and they disappeared. I knew right then what it had to be.” Seeing Chat’s continued confusion, she eeked out a crooked smile. “Let me show you.”

She pulled out a short athame and pricked the tip of her finger with the blade. John took her hand and pressed his lips to the spot, tongue dashing away blood. A moment later, she and John raised their index fingers. Sarah’s showed no sign of damage, while John’s fingertip now ran with a single streak of blood from a pinpoint wound.

“It’s not exactly common practice nowadays. A hospital works just as well, but it’s a pretty telling kind of magic,” John said, shoving his finger in his mouth.

“Except, when Chat did it, he was the werecat, which meant when he shifted back to human he would have repaired the damage,” Sarah pointed out. “If you hadn’t said anything, Ladybug, we might never have put the pieces together. It’s thanks to you that we figured it out.”

Chat pulled back, lips pursed. “But that’s Ladybug. Shouldn’t I be able to do that with you? You’re the one that opened the contract.”

“I opened the contract, sure, but you didn’t choose me.” Sarah blushed, shrugging haplessly. “You chose Ladybug, which is, of course, perfectly understandable.”

“And romantic,” one of Sarah’s sisters piped in.

“Yes, very romantic,” Sarah confirmed. “And probably for the best, really. I don’t know what would have happened to John if a second contract had been signed. Ladybug is a much, much better fit for you.”

“Er.” Chat flushed, daring a glance to the side. Ladybug was watching him from beneath the hang of her bangs.

“They’re right, I am a much better match for you,” she murmured. “It makes a lot of sense, too. When you change, you’re so focused on me.” She turned to the witches. “That’s the contract, isn’t it? It draws him to me.”

Chat snatched her hand, pressing it to his cheek. “It’s not just the contract, Buginette. You knew my feelings long before this happened.”

Her lips parted on a small breath, followed by a nod and a tiny smile. “You’re right, Chaton. But you said yourself that it makes you feel out of control. It can’t last forever.” She turned back to the witches. “What do we do to fix the contract?”

“You don’t fix a contract. You sign it,” Alathea said.

“Doesn’t that make it permanent?” Ladybug cautioned.

“Yes.”

Something warm and wanting clenched in Chat’s chest. The werecat in him reared its head, its wild heart beating with want for the woman that sat next to him. Chat fought to keep his face neutral, breath catching, heat coursing underneath his skin.

John raised his head, scenting the air. A dark brow went up, eyes glinting knowingly.

Chat flushed and tucked his chin to his chest.

“A less permanent option is signing a temporary contract,” Alathea offered. “Witches and their familiars use it to see if they are compatible for something more lasting. It will last for one year and one day. That may just be enough to satisfy the terms of the contract; once the magic of the open contract dissipates, there will be nothing holding on to Chat’s kwami and it should be released and Chat can return to being human. If he’s human again, the contract you signed will be cancelled.”

“Shouldn’t that have been option number one?” Chat exclaimed, tail flicking so that it knocked Ladybug in the back. “Unlike exorcism, it doesn't sound like it could result in my literal death!”

“Signing the contract may not result in your death, no, but it is not without risks. I must caution the both of you before rushing into something you do not understand,” Alathea warned. “Ladybug’s Miraculous may be the patron kwami of witches, but Ladybug herself is human – she may not be able to sign as a true witch could. And even if she does manage to sign, a contract is still very intimate and powerful magic. It can be unpredictable, and we don’t know exactly how it will react with Miraculous magic.”

“Could it be worse than this?” Chat coughed a humourless laugh. “I’m not human anymore, I’m not in control of myself. Everything I smell makes me sick, everything I hear is too loud! Demons come out of nowhere to kiss me and make me feel like I’m coming out of my skin. I want my humanity back. I want my kwami back.”

“We all want that, Chat Noir, but if you are not careful, you could be permanently bonded with your kwami,” Alathea countered. “You could accidentally make the contract with Ladybug permanent; you two would be bound for life, in the most intimate ways possible. There is no undoing something like that. One mistake could accidentally make you a god, as immortal as your kwami, cursed to be Destruction for the rest of your existence. Or it could destroy your Miraculous and leave the world vulnerable without it.”

Chat buried his face in his hands. “So what you’re saying is that I can choose to risk of my own life or I can choose to risk Plagg’s life? What kind of choices are those?”

“The only choices you have, I’m afraid.”

He shot to his feet to pace away, drilling his claws through his hair and yanking. “I can’t choose something like that!”

“You can and you will, my Lord. You have to.” Alathea rose from her seat, with all seven daughters in tow and John the last to rise. “It’s a difficult choice, but you don’t have to make it right away. You have until the night of Lughnasadh to decide.”

“The first day of August,” Sarah murmured.

“That’s just over a week away,” Ladybug said, her steady presence at Chat’s side giving him the support he needed to not fly apart at the seams.

“It’s all the time we can give you. Our powers will be strongest on the eve of the Festival of First Fruits, where we will be able to help the most with whatever you decide.” Alathea folded her hands before her, distant now, tired. Her familiar rose around her shoulders, its thin tongue flickering gently against her cheek. “If not, the next time will be Samhain in October. I doubt you want to wait that long.”

“No. I don’t,” Chat spat.

“Then we will see you in a week, my Lord. My Lady.” She gestured to the end of the room. “It’s been a long night. I had planned to do more for you, to help you control the werecat, but no one expected to be performing a minor exorcism. We’re all tired and in need of some recharge and perspective.”

Ladybug prodded Chat toward the door. “We’ll go, then. Thank you for all your help.”

“It is our honour, Ladybug. Chat Noir, should you need any help in deciding what you want, please feel free to call upon Sarah or John. They got you into this mess, so they will be with you until the end.”

Chat cast a wary glance at John, before letting his ears and tail droop low. “Thank you. This is a lot to think about, but…” He sighed. “Thank you.”

He felt Ladybug’s arm wrap around his waist, tugging him against her so that his full weight leaned on her. He slung his arm around her shoulders and let her lead from the room, down the creaking flight of steps into the apothecary and then out into the cold, dark early dawn.

Ladybug let her yo-yo fly, hooking hard on the corner of an old building. She leaned her head against his shoulder, tensed to take off. “I’ll be with you until the end, too, mon minou. Whatever you choose.”

The lump that formed in Chat’s throat stoppered any words from escaping. He could only lean down to kiss the crown of her hair, ignoring the hot, wet trails that dripped from the corners of his eyes.

Chapter Text

The silence was deafening.

Even when they landed on the balcony of Chat’s hotel room, not a word was whispered between them.

Ladybug kept an arm around her partner, steadying him, watching him. Beyond the few tears that had escaped moments after they had been dismissed from the witches, Chat’s eyes remained dry and disturbingly blank. Despite their feet being on solid ground once more, Chat did not make a move to step out from the support of Ladybug’s arm.

He stared straight ahead at himself reflected in the dark pane of glass in the balcony door. Not a twitch of his tail. No flutter of his ears. It was as if the appendages were fake once more, a part of his armour rather than a part of himself. His hair scarcely moved in the wind. Chat stared without a sign that he recognized himself.

Ladybug cinched her arm an inch tighter around him, looking from Chat to his reflection. She saw the harder edges to his armour, the darker hue the leather had deepened to. She saw the shift and felt the discomforting tingle of darker magic in the air. The lights of London were still high behind them, but Chat Noir appeared to remain cast in shadow, no longer reflecting the light as he once did.

She had tried to fix it all, but there had been somethings she could not touch.

When Chat Noir had laid all but dead on that couch, Ladybug had stood over him with her heart in her mouth and her kwami shouting in her mind. She had been sick with fear as she performed an exorcism for the first time. The taste of vomit still haunted her tongue. She ached all over from the strain of it, from holding on for too long when she should have listened and let go. Long past the time the witches had been forced to back down. Past Tikki’s order that Ladybug had to let go lest she drain the magic out of both of them, or worse.

Ladybug had steeled herself and pulled with all her might against the power that had clung to Chat. No matter how he had Begged. Screamed. Twisting under her, eyes blank and dark, staring at her like he had never seen her before. She had grit her teeth and pulled no matter that the threads had sunk deep inside and pulled on his heart. The magic had been like a living thing. Like porcupine quills burrowing down, like a fungus spreading deep and wide.

Ladybug pulled against the infection never expecting Plagg to pull back.

He had sunk his claws in, curled around the tribute, and refused to let go. Whatever consciousness was left existing inside of Chat, it rose and fought, as demonic as the power it clung to. It was instinct and fear and the raw animal demand to exist. There had been strength in Plagg's mindless rage, in his desperate bid to cling to something he knew. He was powerful despite being caged, and Tikki had been taken to her limit.

There had been nothing for Ladybug to do but concede those last few licks of the demon's kiss. Let it sink into the armour, let it become a part of Chat Noir.

She had been relieved when Chat had come to and remembered nothing of the exorcism.

Now she watched him stare at himself like he was a stranger, and each second that passed broke her heart a little more.

A car alarm went off in the street below.

Chat flinched.

Ladybug cinched her arm tighter around him. She reached for the door with her free hand, sliding it open, waving him in without a word. The air was stale inside, heavy and humid without the air conditioner running. Chat left the circle of her supporting arm without looking back. She felt the emptiness acutely, the touch of heavy, damp air hanging off her armour like a heavy film.

Too much like the heavy, dead air of the Black Parade.

Ladybug left the door open to give the room time to breathe.

Chat struck a lonely figure in the dark. His voice was raw when he finally spoke. “We should change back.”

Ladybug stared at his back, but saw no sign of tension in the set of his shoulders. His tail continued to hang unmoving. Nothing to indicate he had even heard himself speak. It scarcely looked like he was breathing. He was like a shadow standing in the middle of the room.

A big black hole existing in the shape of Chat Noir.

In the end, Ladybug made the first move, gliding up to his side and laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. He was cold, but solid to the touch. “Chat.” His eyes flickered with the calling of his name, but it still took a second for him to look at her. She wet her lips, making sure she kept his gaze as she spoke. “I’m going to change in the bathroom.”

He nodded.

“Are you going to be okay by yourself?”

He nodded again.

“I’ll be right back.”

Chat Noir made no move to acknowledge her as she left his side.

Air in the bathroom was just as heavy as everywhere else. Ladybug didn’t turn on the lights until after she locked the door. Her grip on the vanity bleached her knuckles white beneath the red of her costume. In an instant, she was leaning over the sink, rocking with the race of her heart, fighting sudden urge to be sick.

Marble groaned under her grip, the whole vanity lurching in its moorings. She jerked back before the thing cracked, slapping the cold water on to splash her face several times.

Everything still hurt.

It takes a while for the effects of an exorcism to fade, Tikki murmured.

Ladybug swallowed hard and nodded. A soft wave of awareness tingled down her spine. Chat Noir had finally shed his guise. She lifted her head and stared at the door. No noise came from the other side.

She looked back at herself in the mirror. “Spots off.”

Tikki landed silently next to the sink.

Marinette now stared back in the mirror, purple blooming under her eyes and blue veins standing out starkly under skin drained white as death. She splashed herself again with water. Icy streams ran down her chin, down her neck, dripping from her hair, wetting her shirt.

“What…” she trailed off, panting slightly. It was an effort to raise her eyes to her kwami. “What do I do, Tikki?”

“Do what feels right,” Tikki murmured.

A bitter laugh echoed off the tiled walls. Marinette peered at herself once more, hating the twist of her mouth and how blue her eyes were against the ashen shade of her face. Nothing felt right, not since the moment the witches handed Chat a two-pronged death sentence.

Either Chat Noir dies.

Or Plagg does.

“Go, be with him,” Tikki urged, with a silent “while you still can” tacked on the end.

Marinette stumbled to the door, gripping the door knob too tightly. “Will you be okay?”

In all the righteous worry over Chat, Marinette had forgotten her own kwami. She couldn’t get the word exorcism out, no matter that it ran in endless circles through her mind. The toll of it had been steep. In the end, before Chat had come to, Marinette had been forced to shed her Ladybug armour and Tikki had gorged desperately on cookies offered up by the witches. But even after that, Marinette had felt an empty gnawing in her bones when she donned her Ladybug armour once more.

The small god peered up with tired, old eyes. “It has been a very long time since I have had to perform an exorcism. I am a bit out of shape.”

“Do you need me to-?”

“I need you to look after Chat Noir, Marinette. I can look after myself.” Tikki dismissed her with a short wave.

Marinette tumbled out of the bathroom without looking back. One numb hand slapped at the wall before she left, catching the light switch with numb fingers. A dull red glow cast by Tikki lessened the sudden wash of dark, nowhere near strong enough to chase away the night.

Adrien stood in the pale city light flooding in through the open balcony door.

Not that Marinette had been expecting anyone else, but there was something to be said for seeing exactly who she expected to see, and being struck by how unextraordinary it was to see him. There was no pillar for Marinette to place him on anymore. No shining paragon of perfection. She stared at him in the unforgiving light of London at night, and saw only a boy. Mortal, fragile. Nothing more than a boy.

A moment that should have been sacred between them was instead empty.

With his back to the light, Adrien’s face was cast in shadow. Everything else was painfully pale. Corpse-like. He had shed his clothes, casting his trousers and shirt and socks and shoes across the floor in a silent fit. He stood only in a pair of plain briefs, his nakedness making him appear smaller than Marinette had ever seen him, every inch of his too-pale frame looking as fine and fragile as porcelain waiting to break.

“I didn’t want it touching me,” he croaked, arms coming around him to hold on too tight. “I can still feel it underneath my skin.”

Marinette toed the hem of his crumpled shirt. There were rips in the seams, the collar stretched wide to the shoulders. There were red rings around Adrien’s neck where the shirt must have caught as he had ripped it from his body.

She left the clothes where they lay.

Adrien backed up a step the moment she came one step forward. "I know you tried to get rid of it, but I don't think you got all of it."

“Adrien…” She opened her arms to him, palms open, giving him the space to come to her.

“I can feel him, you know.” Empty eyes stared at the carpet without seeing. “I couldn’t before, but I think I can now.”

“Adrien, I know what just happened was quite a shock. I’m here for you. I’m here for you, whatever you need.” Marinette watched as shadows of grooves formed in the skin of his arms where his fingertips curled in and his nails bit down. Red welts formed on white, cold skin. His breathing grew haggard.

“I can feel Plagg inside of me,” Adrien choked out. “He feels like… I’m rotting inside.”

Marinette crossed the space between them in a heartbeat. Fragility bedamned, she grabbed that boy and wrapped her arms tight around him. She dragged his head down until his face pressed against the crook of her neck, bending the rest of him until his knees gave out and his full weight came slumping down against her.

He was her partner, and her friend, and so many other things she couldn’t give a name to. He belonged to her, just as a thousand Chat Noirs belonged to a thousand Ladybugs before her. Fuck the night, and the darkness, and the demons on Parade. She would fight every last monster that went bump in the night if it meant protecting this one precious boy in her arms.

“You,” she ground out, bracing herself under his weight, arms so tight around him that her joints burned, “are not rotting inside.”

A long, shuddering breath released against the side of her neck.

Marinette’s knees shook. He was so heavy.

She refused to think the words dead weight.

“You are alive,” she declared, her lips brushing against the side of his head.

“Maybe not for long.”

Tears stung where they welled up, hovering just at the edges of Marinette’s eyes, burning before they fell. “Don’t talk like that.”

Adrien’s arms hung between them. Weak fingers found the hem of Marinette’s shirt, using it to drag his arms up. Painful and slow, his fingers grasped, muscles straining, moving up and up until his palms pressed flat against her back and he buried his face into her neck so that every little breath was hot and damp against her pulse.

“You heard them,” he croaked.

“Yeah, I did, and I didn’t hear any guarantees. I heard a whole bunch of maybes that might never happen.” She sank her fingers into his back, clutching him so hard he might have snapped in half were he anyone less than Miraculous. She pressed her heart against his heart, held him up from the cold floor, and pressed her lips to his hair. “I am going to do everything in my power to help you. No matter what decision you make, I am going to be there for you.”

“Marinette-.”

“No, you listen.” She shook him. “What is the point in being the Miraculous of Creation and Good Luck if I can’t make a single good thing happen to the one person who deserves it the most? Even if I have to pour every last drop of good luck I have into you, even if it costs me every last one of my spots, I will do everything in my power to help you.”

“Marinette.” She felt his smile as it twitched against the side of her neck. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a lot fiercer like this than you are with spots on?”

“You just did,” she huffed quietly.

He leaned his head against hers. “Please don’t ever change.”

“Promise me the same thing first.”

He chuckled, but it sounded like it hurt.

Marinette pressed a kiss to his crown. He smelled of sweat and the spice of cloves and the must of the witches’ old couch; he smelled of wild animals and the night air and indefinably like magic.

Goddamn it, he smelled alive! He was alive! Not dead! Not yet - not ever. And he smelled like Chat Noir, and he smelled like he belonged to her, and if this was even half the feeling that Adrien felt when his werecat roused and smelled Marinette, then he was a damned better person than her, because all Marinette wanted to do in that moment was spirit him away to a place where no one would ever hurt him again.

Adrien sank into her hug, let her brace for his whole weight, trusting Marinette to hold them both up. He stood nearly naked with her, devoid of shame, and took what little comfort she could offer him. A faint rumble in his chest might have been a purr. It might have been the tremor of a silent sob.

An eternity passed as they stood together. All feeling drained out of Marinette’s body. Their awkward embrace devolved to a point where she only managed to keep them standing by willpower alone.

Finally, Adrien let his arms fall, slowly taking his weight back until he was on his own feet. He rocked gently, unsteady, but refusing to lean on her again. Marinette eased back up, knees straightening, back unbending. She searched his eyes, still empty and cold with shock.

He touched her cheek, tracing the shining line of a tear track. “I don’t want to die.”

Marinette clapped both hands to the one trembling hand on her cheek. She would have given up her Miraculous just for the right words to say in that moment.

His lips were dry and cracked, skin pinching as his mouth moved. “I don’t want Plagg to die, either.”

Marinette turned her face, pressing her lips into Adrien’s palm.

“I’m so tired,” he said, barely more than a whisper.

“Then sleep,” she bid, swallowing the sudden dry crack in her voice. Her bid did nothing to break whatever spell had a hold of Adrien. He continued to stand, merely staring, watching the slow movement of his fingers tracing Marinette’s cheek. He wasn’t even watching all of his fingers. Just one. One finger with a red burn that refused to heal ringed around the base, where his Miraculous ring used to sit and now the heart of his curse burned.

Marinette stepped out from his touch, frowning when his arm merely hung dead in the air. She took him gently and guided him to the big empty bed with mussed sheets and scattered pillows. “Just sleep, Adrien. You’ve been through a lot tonight.”

She helped him up and under the sheets. He fell like a ragdoll against the pillows, unblinking at the white ceiling above him; Marinette brushed his hair from his face, pulled the sheets up and tucked him. In the stark, white light the filtering in through the open door, Adrien was nearly the same colour as his sheets – an ashen, pale, off-white colour.

She kissed his forehead. “We can talk about this in the morning.”

He continued to stare at the ceiling. “Stay with me?”

Marinette nodded. “I’ll stay in Nino’s bed.”

“No. With me.” For the first time since arriving in the room, Adrien showed signs of life. He rolled over onto his side and lifted the edge of the sheets. “Please.”

“Alright.” It did not feel right to argue with a man who had just been handed a death sentence. Marinette pulled off her shoes and socks, crawling into the small space made for her on the mattress. Adrien let the sheet fall back into place. Marinette let her head rest on a second pillow, watching him as he watched her.

A chasm stretched between them that had never existed before.

The exhaustion that had been riding Marinette finally caught up. The soreness in her muscles and the fatigue in her bones dragged her down into the plush of the cold sheets. Her body went lax, waiting for relief that would not come. This did not feel like a night she would sleep well. Or at all.

“Marinette?”

She pried her eyes open, unable to remember when she closed them. Adrien was a lot closer than she remembered. Had the bed even moved? His face rested on the opposite edge of her pillow. So close that each breath stirred the fine hairs around her face; she tensed, reminded that the last things he had to drink were wine and a potion made of rotting compost.

The smell was nothing compared to the fine glitter of wetness now welling across Adrien’s eyes. A deep flush was blooming from his neck upward, staining his cheeks, his nose, his ears. Steady breaths gave way to a quiet tremor. Marinette had not felt him move, but now she felt the whole mattress vibrate in time to his shaking shoulders.

She watched the slow, inexorable march of life return to Adrien’s body, only to watch him fall apart.

“I-.” His voice cracked, a real sob retching from his throat. “I don’t want to die.”

“I know.” She reached for him again, drew him into her arms and pressed his heart to her heart. Gone was the protective shell of shock, the cold touch of dissociation. This time, he was warm. His pulse thundered under his skin. Every inch of him was shaking as reality set in. Marinette held him, wrapped her arms tight around him again and threw a leg over his thigh to drag him ever closer. She curled around him, grounded him, offered every inch of herself in comfort.

Adrien broke. Became as much raw animal as he did a hurting boy. He curled up, clutching himself, clutching her. Shaking like a leaf, full-body sobs wracking his body violently. His arms around her crushed her ribs, fingernails turned to claws hooking into her skin. A thousand trembling words tumbled out of his mouth, a live stream of tear-soaked thoughts, most of them unintelligible.

It was a delayed reaction, for sure, but she welcomed this above the alternative.

Marinette held him until the sky began to turn grey at the horizon. She rocked him and whispered to him until her aches turned to fire and then numbness, and then nothing at all; her voice dried out and fell to silence. He wet her shirt with his tears and runny nose, sometimes crying and others clutching her tight and screaming.

By the time dawn rose fully, Adrien had insinuated himself around Marinette until it was impossible to tell where one ended and one began.

The sky outside was dull and grey. The air was cold now, an uncomfortable dampness rolling in with a thick fog that clung to the streets.

Adrien hovered unsurely above Marinette’s tired face, his eyes and nose stained a deep, chafed red. He sniffed harshly, sucking back a wad of mucus in his throat. His eyes were still wet, but the tears had finally cried out for now.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“For what?”

His face twisted, mouth opening and closing. Marinette could see the thoughts churning in his head, trying to figure out where to start. She pushed him before he could say anything. Adrien wobbled and fell, boneless, back the sheets that were now damp and smelled vaguely of sweat and compost.

“Don’t be sorry.” She shushed him, tucked him in once more, and curled up around him like she could protect him from the world. One of her Miraculous studs dug into her skin where her ear was bent awkwardly against the pillow. She ignored it. “Go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

She watched him close his eyes, waited until his breathing evened out, and then followed him into an empty sleep.

Chapter Text

True to Marinette’s word, she was there when Adrien woke.

He felt her heat and her weight wrapped around him, her scent in his nose. Sometime in the night they must have moved; Adrien found his face now pillowed against Marinette’s chest, her steady heartbeat thrumming in his ear. She made no move to dislodge his weight, letting her fingers sooth along the back of his scalp under his hair. He felt the ghost of her free hand down his back, following his spine from his nape to as far as she could reach before falling away. Up and down, back and forth, no more than a whisper but more real than anything he had ever felt before.

He turned his face up, finding her gaze unfocused on the ceiling. Grey moons hung beneath her eyes. Her fingers paused in his hair; her chest rose beneath him in one deep breath, a long sigh through her nose tickling his face. Eventually her eyes came down to look at him. Sad, red-rimmed. A sickly flush pushed up into her cheeks, while her lips looks far to pale.

The backs of her fingers moved to brush down the side of his cheek.

Suddenly desperate, starving for contact, Adrien pushed his face into her hand, dragging his deadened arms up to grasp her wrist, turning her palm over so that he could lay his face within its comfort. Of all the things he needed in the world, he needed her right then and there. He needed shelter from the cruel cut of daylight, a safe habour from the truth of the nightmare that chased him from the darkest depths of the night before.

He let her fingers cover his eyes, fingertips tangling in his hair, pushing his mouth against the cup of her palm. Hungry for her. Starving for more. She was solid and real, warm and more beautiful than he could ever put into words.

He kissed her palm.

She murmured something low in his ear, wordless but sad. It kicked his heart up, a vice coiling around his chest. Air grew sparse, thin in his lungs.

“Adrien…”

He held her wrist with all the strength he had and knew he did not have enough in him to even dust a butterfly’s wings.

What little will he had summoned to move drained away seconds later, leaving him more tired than he had ever felt. His full weight came down on the body beneath him. Marinette shifted to wordlessly accommodate, letting him fall deeper into the cradle of her thighs, her shirt rucked up so that his bare chest was against the smooth skin of her belly. Her free hand came up to press the back of his neck, settling his head back on her chest, letting Adrien continue to breathe into the hand he still had captured in his grasp.

They lay in silence for an agonizing eternity until they could no longer ignore the world around them.

Tikki settled herself on the bedside nightstand, glowing dimly in the dread grey morning. “I ordered breakfast.”

A knock immediately heralded the arrival of food.

Adrien managed to push himself onto his elbows, his elbows and shoulders shaking with the sheer effort to haul himself to the side.

“I’ll get it.” Marinette slid from the bed and disappeared around the corner.

Tikki did not take her eyes from Adrien the whole time. He saw her watching through his lashes, in the moments when he had the strength to open them. There were no tears in her strange, lovely eyes. She looked old, and tired, and somehow she looked less, the same way Plagg occasionally looked incomplete when he floated in front of a window like a solid shadow and Adrien wondered if Bad Luck was all he was and nothing more. Tikki was inescapably the dark's other half, the light who cast the shadow. She was lacking in a world without her darker half, and it was beginning to show.

“You need to eat,” bid the little god, just as Marinette returned with a large tray burdened by two covered plates.

Adrien pulled himself up, finding no strength to be embarrassed about his state of undress. It was Marinette who pulled the sheets up over his lap before she set the tray down; she settled next to him on the bed, over the sheets, shivering in the cold morning air.

“Both of you need to eat,” Tikki said, flicking one hand toward the glass door that jumped to heed her order, sliding shut with little more than a click when the lock fell into place. She glided to the bed and motioned for Marinette to uncover the plates, making Adrien’s stomach turn at the sight and smell of food.

Plagg churned inside of him. It was true what he had said last night; before, he had not been able to feel Plagg beyond the occasional awareness. Now there was a physical lump inside his chest that coiled over on itself like wet, twisting eels. There were worms crawling through his veins, spiders under his skin. He felt the ebb and flow of magic like the beat of a second heart.

Marinette may not have been suffering under the same pall, but she looked equally as disturbed at the idea of eating. She put her face into her palms and breathed long, unsteady breaths.

"Alright," Tikki murmured, eyeing them both with pity. "We can start with something simpler."

Another knock at the door made Marinette disappear around the corner again, finding a befuddled teen in the hotel’s uniform with a carafe of coffee in one hand. Too late did he realize that he had knocked on the wrong door. He looked to have no clue how he had managed to take such a wrong turn. For his mistake, he offered the coffee for free.

Lucky them.

Marinette shot her kwami a look when she settled back down on the bed, though Tikki remained guiltless for whatever nameless magic she had pulled. There was no point in wasting what they had been given, so Marinette poured a cup for herself, but did not drink right away. She stared down into the cup like it might have answers she couldn't begin to fathom. When answers didn't come, she bent over the rim and let the rich, savoury smell breathe life back into her.

Adrien numbly poured a cup for himself, not bothering to look for answers where there were none. He knocked back the whole thing in one go without pausing for breath. If it burned his insides, he could scarcely feel it until it hit his stomach and roiled. He dragged his arm over his mouth, whiskers scratching against skin. Finally, he felt something, even if it was only caffeination. The closest thing to life he had at this point. He blinked a couple of times until the opaque film that clung to his vision finally cleared, the world coming into sharp relief.

He settled on the plate in front of him, an omelette stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, and cured ham – all within the spectrum of ‘rotten’ that would give him a faint boost. His lips twitched, an attempt at thank you that Tikki wordlessly understood. His first bite still turned his stomach. The second bite less so. Half way through robotically moving his arm plate-to-mouth, he felt eyes on the side of his face.

“Adrien.”

“We can’t stay in bed all day,” he said, hoarse to his own ears. He had to do something, and eating was all he had to do at the moment. It's what pre-dead people did. One step at a time... all the way to the grave.

Marinette blinked, and then looked down at herself as if realizing for the first time that there was a whole world out there beyond the two of them. Her shoulders sagged, sinking into the wrinkles that had taken over her slept-in clothes. “You’re right.” She dug into her own plate, still looking dazed. Had anyone asked what she was eating, she would no