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The Making of Adrinette

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A stray yawn escaped him as he moved into the next pose his photographer wanted.

Barely past eleven in the morning and the sweltering temperatures of July had him wishing for a shower and a cool breeze. Either would be most welcome as small drops of sweat threatened to undo all the hard work his makeup artist had done at the beginning of the prolonged shoot.

What he wouldn’t give for his boredom to abate as he moved into another flawless pose. His concentration waned more with each agonizing minute that passed and he remained trapped in the familiar park of his collège days when he spent precious hours with his friends despite his father’s vast disapproval. At least then, he hadn’t been surrounded by the sweltering heat, or if he had, he hadn’t minded because his friends kept him occupied.

He’d give almost anything to be with them as his photographer tutted over his lack of attention. He imagined an afternoon spent playing video games and listening to some new music with them. He didn’t care if Nino found an excuse to disappear with Alya. They could deny their relationship all they wanted, Adrien knew they loved each other and spent every waking hour together. It wouldn’t bother him in the least because he’d have Marinette to keep him company.

Bluebell eyes and raven-colored hair filled his vision as his thoughts centered around his sweet, sassy friend. It’d taken nearly two years for her to stop stuttering around him. Finally able to hold decent conversations with her, she allowed him to see how truly amazing she was as a friend and as a person. She became the person he trusted more than anyone, including Ladybug and Nino. He didn’t keep many secrets from her as himself or as Chat Noir. She made his days brighter just by being near. He’d never imagined he’d find a friend like her before starting public school five years ago.

A smile formed on his lips as his mind drifted deeper into thoughts of her, wondering how she was doing, if she was surviving this heat, and if she’d be willing to see him after he finished his photo shoot. His smile grew at the thought of her being glad to see him enter the bakery, welcoming him as if he belonged there.

“Yes, Adrien, yes! Perfect! Well done,” his photographer said, snapping his final shots before placing the cap on his camera. “Such a handsome smile. You should show it more often. I’m sure your pretty girlfriend loves it.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Adrien said as he returned to the matter at hand, staring at Vincent as if he’d lost his mind. A girlfriend wasn’t in his father’s plans for him. Everyone knew that. As much as he’d like a girlfriend, he knew his father would never approve of such a distraction as love. Besides, he didn’t think he could stand his father mistreating someone he loved after his father’s horrid behavior towards his friends in the past.

“So you say, young man, but I know love when I see it. You, my boy, are in love.” Vincent continued packing up his equipment, motioning for his crew to do the same. “You did well, Adrien. Your father will be pleased with the photos, I’m sure. See you next time, yes?”

“Next time,” Adrien agreed. He shook Vincent’s hand and moved toward the park’s entrance.

Pulling his phone from his pocket, he checked the time and saw an unread text from Marinette.

MDC: Saw your limo across the street. Your favorite is waiting when you’re done. Feel free to stop by.

His smile returned as he sent her a reply.

AA: You’re the best. Be there soon. ;3

MDC: You’re such a dork.

As he readied his reply while walking toward his bodyguard and the waiting limo, he missed the first stirrings of a gathering crowd surrounding the small park.

The ad for his father’s newest fragrance, Adrien II, had released sometime that morning and several people had gone scouting for him, knowing he had a photo shoot that day somewhere in Paris. The small park had always been a favorite of his photographer and soon a few passersby had spotted Adrien as he worked through the shoot, snapping covert photos of him and tagging his location on the internet. Soon, the few had grown into a small throng and more, waiting for the chance to see him up close.

So lost in thought about biting into the flaky pastry with the right amount of butter, it took the bright flash of a cell phone camera to bring him to the present, flinching from the light and stepping back towards the park’s gate in response.

“It’s really you, Adrien. This is so exciting. Can I have your autograph?” The young man held out the latest fashion magazine with Adrien’s face gracing the cover. “You’re truly amazing.”

Adrien grimaced at the compliments and held up his hands in the hope he could get away before the other man created a riot. While he didn’t mind signing autographs on rare occasions, he had no interest in endorsing his father’s latest campaign, which has sparked renewed interest in himself as the face of his father’s fashion empire.

The young man remained undeterred as he shoved the magazine at Adrien, an eager grin on his face. On top of the magazine, he placed a marker for Adrien to use, unwilling to take no for an answer. He even took a step towards Adrien, forcing the model backward, further from the safety of his limo or even Marinette’s bakery, knowing she’d protect him if he asked.

Before Adrien could do or say anything, his bodyguard had reached his side, coming to stand in front of him with a stern glare most likely gracing his typically stoic face. Without a word, he motioned Adrien to follow, clearing the way to the limo. The low hum of the engine a welcome noise as Adrien reached the curb. Without warning, his bodyguard shoved him through the open back door and slammed him inside. The dark tint kept his admirers from seeing him as he fell against the seat.

With the coast clear, Plagg emerged from Adrien’s shirt and asked, “Hey, kid, you okay?”

Unused to his kwami showing concern for anything beyond camembert, he turned and stared at the black cat in shock. Even as Plagg waited for an answer, Adrien couldn’t form a coherent sentence as he pulled Plagg close and checked the kwami for any signs of fever or other illness.

In response, the small cat squirmed from Adrien’s loose grip, glaring and hissing in the process.

Chuckling, Adrien recalled the question and said, “I’ll be fine.”

His laughter died a sudden death as the limo pulled away from the curb and he caught only a glimpse of the bakery before they turned down a side street towards his home. With a resigned sigh, he righted himself on the seat, sagging against it. With a glance at Plagg, who lounged next to him, he whispered, “I really wanted that croissant.”

“I know you did, kid.” Plagg zipped back into Adrien’s shirt and began purring, hoping to bring a smile back to his miserable Chosen. He continued to purr even as he fell asleep, curled in a loose ball.

A block from his home, the limo came to a stop in an old alleyway.

Adrien’s brows rose as he took in his surroundings, wondering what could possibly be wrong. He didn’t have long to wonder though as his bodyguard opened the back door and motioned Adrien to step out.

Quick to follow directions, Adrien glanced up at his bodyguard with a question on his lips. It died as his bodyguard held out a duffel bag for him and pointed back at the bakery, saying, “Have fun. Be back by curfew.”

With a grin forming, Adrien said, “Thank you, Lawrence.”

He didn’t say anything else as he dashed for the familiar bakery and the croissant waiting for him. He could only hope Marinette wouldn’t hold his tardiness against him.

 

 

Nervous energy kept Marinette pacing back and forth in the front area of the small bakery, her eyes looking out the windows at the slowly dispersing crowd across the street.

When she’d seen the growing crowd, she’d known Adrien would be open game once he completed his photo shoot. As much as she wanted to help him, she couldn’t leave the bakery, not when her parents had entrusted her with the responsibility of running it during their absence. So, with a sad sigh, she remained stuck indoors, hoping and waiting for Adrien to stride across the street and join her for a sweet treat.

A few customers kept her occupied as she continued to wait, asking for items she’d prepared earlier that day. She quickly handled their transactions and soon sent them on their way, wishing them well as the door closed behind them.

“Marinette, you’re staring again.”

Shaking her head to clear it, Marinette turned to her kwami with a sheepish smile, saying, “I can’t help it, Tikki. I just know something bad’s going to happen.”

“It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

Marinette remained skeptical as she watched the crowd grow thicker, soon losing sight of the park altogether.

Despite a few more customers coming in, she kept her eyes trained on the park, her movements slowing when she caught sight of Adrien as he walked through the park gate. She’d heard her phone chime before he appeared, sending back a reply when she’d seen the text had come from him. She smiled as she thought about seeing him, having missed his company since school had ended and his father kept him busy. However, her smile developed into a determined frown as she watched a young man approach Adrien and shove a magazine in his face, expecting an autograph.

“Marinette, don’t do anything foolish.” Tikki fluttered near her ear, hoping to calm her Chosen. She knew Marinette had a tendency to react without considering the consequences when riled or worried despite her growing maturity these past five years.

Luckily, Adrien’s bodyguard took matters into his hands and safely delivered Adrien to the limo.

Glad he remained safe, it hit her hard as she realized he wouldn’t be seeing her that day. She hid her disappointment as best she could as another customer walked in the door. She’d be grateful when she could officially close the bakery for the day, wanting to wallow in her disappointment and sadness within the safe confines of her room.

Another chime rang from her phone.

She waited on the customer, taking the time to provide the necessary answers to their questions before she took a moment to check her phone’s unread text.

The frown disappeared as another smile formed.

“Oh, Tikki, Lawrence is a wonderful man,” Marinette said, spinning around as she read the message to herself again.

Lawrence: Quick detour. ETA 15 minutes.

“He certainly cares about Adrien, doesn’t he?” Tikki settled on Marinette’s shoulder to read the message herself, a soft smile for her Chosen’s love interest.

Marinette hummed in agreement.

She sent a thankful text back and settled behind the register to await Adrien’s arrival.

Minutes later, loud squeals and shrieks permeated the quiet of the bakery, sending Marinette to the windows and peeking out at the commotion building in the street once again.

Chants of Adrien’s name had her rushing out the door and into the street, searching for him as she hoped to pull him to safety before the crowd surrounded him again. She couldn’t see him as the crowd drew closer, wondering what could possibly have happened and praying they hadn’t surrounded him and possibly hurt him in the process.

Dashing back into the bakery, she turned to Tikki and almost called for her transformation when Tikki zipped away as the door banged open.

She spun around and gasped as she took in the sweaty mess of a man standing in front of her. She’d never seen him look so sad and distraught. She reached out a hand to him, only to pull it back as he sank to his knees in front of her and stretched out his hands in a pleading motion.

“Adrien, are you okay?”

“Mari, I need to hide. Please, can you help me?”

She looked down at the miserable guy in front of her, ignoring the streaks of makeup running down his face from fleeing his overzealous fans and their demands on him.

The crowd’s chanting grew closer, growing in strength as several more joined them.

With the decision made, she hauled Adrien to his feet, surprising him with her strength and pushed him behind one of the display cases, hiding him moments before several fans stormed into the bakery in their frantic search for the handsome model. She watched as more of the crowd shoved their way inside the small storefront, determined to keep Adrien from their clutches as best she could.

“Where’s Adrien? We saw him come in here. We demand to see him.” Several voices began chanting their desire.

Marinette listened to their demands with a wealth of annoyance at their attitude, biting her tongue lest she angered them and they damaged her parents’ store. Her hand rested on Adrien’s shoulder, keeping him still even as she felt his desire to bolt before causing her more trouble. When his body shuddered at their impassioned demands, she developed her course of action, starting with his fans and ending with his father.

With her hand tightening on his shoulder to keep him still, she focused her full attention on the crowd, putting on her best surprised face complete with quirked brows and widened eyes. She looked around the familiar surroundings as if searching for the famous model, expecting him to spot him somewhere nearby. When her gaze landed back on the crowd, she kept her surprised face intact as she managed to squeak, “Adrien? The Adrien Agreste? You saw him come in here.”

“Yeah,” several crowd members said.

Their vehement conviction proved hard to ignore, forcing her to turn her head lest they see the mirth growing in her eyes though she continued her ruse. “Oh, Adrien, are you here? Adrien, come out, come out wherever you are.” She allowed a few moments to pass, the crowd waiting in tense silence for Adrien’s answer before she returned to the crowd and asked, “Are you absolutely sure?”

Varying answers came back to her as several began to doubt their previous conviction, backing up as if preparing to leave.

A small crease formed on the bridge of her nose as she tried to think through this newest development. She knew she’d probably teased them enough, not wanting them to leave completely disheartened and vulnerable to a possible akumatization by Hawk Moth.

“Maybe you just missed him. It’s possible he could have snuck through the side door without anyone noticing. I doubt this bakery could ever entice him to stay. You know he has that strict model diet and any dietitian worth her salt would utterly faint if she caught him here. Sneaking sweets is strictly forbidden for models, you know? Too many and their delicious bodies are in utter ruin.” She tutted over the idea of Adrien’s body being anything less than perfect due to the sweets in her shop, allowing the crowd to calm down enough before venturing with the next step of her plan.

Several murmured their agreement with her assessment of the situation though none of them made any movement toward leaving. She frowned as she considered how to spur them into doing so without causing any negative feelings to flare among them.

Glancing down at the trays of cookies in the nearest case, she grinned as an idea formed, hurrying over and pulling them from the shelves. With a few quick steps, she set them on the tables near the windows and announced, “Free cookies for all Adrien Agreste fans. I’m truly sorry you weren’t able to catch him today, but at least you can take home your favorite cookie as consolation.”

 

 

Adrien remained in his crouched position, grateful for his hours on rooftops during patrols with and without his partner. He doubted his knees and ankles would hold him much longer without the practice as he waited and listened as Marinette handled the crowd with supreme patience and cunning. He admired her ability to pull people together and get them to listen to her despite her petite form, impressing him more than Ladybug as Marinette handled the crowd without superpowers.

He smiled as he imagined her determination would someday take the fashion world by storm, overshadowing even his father. No other person in his acquaintance could possibly handle the pressure with such grace and inspiration as Marinette in his humble opinion. He knew he’d made the right decision in listening to Nino years ago and mending fences with her after the chewing gum incident.

They may have had a couple rocky years in the meantime as she stuttered over her words or said some rather imaginative things in his presence. Eventually, she loosened up and became his greatest ally when dealing with his father and the crushing disappointment that his life wasn’t his own.

“Hey, aren’t you one of Adrien’s friends? I’ve seen you with him before. Maybe you’re hiding him and planning to keep him for yourself.”

The change in the store’s atmosphere froze Adrien in his spot, stuck waiting for Marinette’s response to the charge of keeping him to herself. He had to admit the idea wasn’t as abhorrent as it should have been. Chloe would be a worse option, he thought. He admitted she’s been working hard to change her attitude towards others, but her protectiveness of him could be a bit stifling at times.

The crowd’s rising voices had him worried for Marinette’s safety as they turned threatening, demanding she tell the truth about his whereabouts. He prepared to reveal himself and face the music of his notoriety when her voice stopped him again, his eyes widening in surprise at her impassioned words.

“I am one of his friends, yes, but I’d never do anything to lock him away. He’s too beautiful to be hidden from the world as his pictures attest. If he were here, I wouldn’t keep him hidden if he wanted freedom and the pleasure of your enthusiastic company. Sadly, he’s not and all I have to offer in return are these cookies and my sincerest regrets.”

He chanced a peek around the display case, catching her turning from the crowd and walking toward the register. He hoped her offering would be enough to disperse the crowd as his joints cried out for relief. Disappointing others seemed to be his forte, he thought, as he remained hidden in his small sanctuary. He hated himself as he considered the imposition he’d caused his fans, his father, and even Marinette as she hid him at his request.

He hadn’t a clue how he could make it up to her, but he planned on doing all he could to show her how much he appreciated her in his life. He’d keep trying, he vowed, even if it took him forever to convince her.

The ringing of the register and the ding of the cash drawer caught his attention, pulling him from his depressive thoughts. A small smile formed as the latest fan ordered a few other items from the cases, intent on taking the treats home to enjoy with his family. He listened as the young man chatted with Marinette for a few minutes though he bit back a growl when he heard the man ask Marinette if she was single.

“I’m so sorry, monsieur, but my heart belongs to another. If I hadn’t met him first, then I’d probably say yes to a date with you.” She wished the young man well as he walked out the bakery and turned her attention to the few others Adrien heard still milling around.

His heart twisted painfully at her words, wondering when she’d fallen in love and wishing it was him, realizing he wanted her. The thought struck him as he considered his changing feelings for his best friend, wondering when it happened. When did Marinette sneak into his heart and nestle in deep?

Even with Marinette’s lovely face swirling in his mind, thoughts of Ladybug flooded him, reminding him of his feelings for the spotted heroine. What about her? Didn’t he have any loyalty at all? He loved her, but he admitted she never once reciprocated his feelings though she assured him she loved him as a friend and partner. He wanted more with her, but she wasn’t ready.

He was in trouble without any clue how to make this situation any better.

A tap on his shoulder startled him enough to fall forward on his knees. He grunted from the pain resonating from the stiff joints.

A soft gasp followed her words as she said, “I’m so sorry. The coast is clear. Want some help up?”

“I think I can manage.” He pushed himself up, wincing at the popping of his joints as he stretched to his full height. “Thank you for saving me.”

“I was happy to help.” She wiped down the tables, lifting the trays and placing them on top of the nearest case. Satisfied with her cleaning, she turned to him and asked, “I’m closing early today. Would you care for some lunch or do you have to be somewhere?”

“Lunch sounds wonderful. Here, I’ll take those,” he said, grabbing the trays before she could reach for them and took them to the washing station, earning a smile from her. He stayed in the kitchen for a few minutes, trying to come to grips with his new realization and feelings for her as she finished her closing duties. When he felt capable of being near her again, he returned, asking, “Where’re your parents?”

How had he not noticed their absence in the bakery before this, he couldn’t fathom, but he couldn’t say he hated the company he had right then. A smile teased his lips as he watched her count the bills in the till, taking out the ones she needed for the deposit. No, he didn’t mind the company he had as her signature pigtails moved with each shift of her shoulders. He noticed her hair had grown since he’d last seen her, wondering at its exact length and appearance when free from their bindings.

Her words interrupted his thoughts as she said, “Oh, they’re attending a bakers’ convention. I’m holding down the fort until they come back this weekend.”

“It’s nice they trust you so much.”

“Yeah, but it’s a lot of work for one person. I’m glad Alya’s willing to help out when she can. Nino promised, too, though I doubt he’ll be much help.” She tossed him a smile as she wrote down some notes for herself concerning the next day. “Between them, I have every day but Friday covered. You wouldn’t happen to know someone who’d be willing to help me, would you?”

His brow furrowed as he considered her question, wondering if Nathalie had his Friday schedule yet and if he could clear it to help her. As the thought occurred, he frowned, wondering if Marinette even meant him as she hadn’t asked him outright. He feared she probably had no intention of asking him because of his tightly controlled schedule. That hurt him more than he cared to admit. He wanted to help her as she always helped others. Maybe he could convince Nathalie to clear his schedule, curious what working in a bakery was truly like. Would he like the work or was he destined to only model for his father?

“Earth to Adrien.” Marinette waved her hand in front of his face. She smiled when his eyes met hers, saying, “If you can’t help out, it’s okay really. I’m sure I can handle it alone. It’d just be nice to have a partner, you know?”

Oh, he knew all about that. He wondered if she suspected anything though her face gave nothing away.

“I’d love to help, Mari. Let me see what I can do.”

Her smile grew by megawatts as she motioned him upstairs.

He followed her happily, knowing her cooking almost rivaled her parents’. His favorite parts in visiting her home were the home-cooked meals prepared with love rather than world-class chefs and the company he had while enjoying that meal. He much preferred that than eating alone as he did when home. His father remained forever busy with his company without a thought to his son’s feelings about dining together.

As they entered her family’s small apartment, he realized how gross he felt and sheepishly asked, “Do you mind if I take a quick shower?”

She shook her head, promising to have lunch ready by the time he finished.

 

 

Marinette listened as the shower ran, using the time to her advantage. With quick, efficient movements, she set the table and warmed their lunch in the oven. As she waited for the timer to ding, she pulled her phone from her pocket and renewed her mission, determined to succeed in handling the famous Gabriel Agreste once and for all.

A glance down at her phone showed she missed a text from Nathalie.

NS: Is Adrien still at your home?

Sighing, Marinette unlocked her screen and tapped on the message, opening the app in the process.

MDC: Yes, we’re about to eat lunch. Is he expected at home?

NS: No, just wanted a status update. I’ve cleared his schedule after hearing about this morning’s incident.

MDC: Thank you! Can you do me a favor?

NS: Depends.

Marinette hesitated before she steeled her resolve, her intent clear as she typed out her request.

MDC: Can you clear Mon. Agreste’s schedule as well? I think it’s time for our mission to start.

A couple minutes passed before a chime sounded from her phone.

NS: Are you certain?

MDC: Yes! Adrien is wrecked from this morning. He deserves to live his own life.

Another minute passed.

NS: Consider it done. Text Lawrence when you’re ready.

MDC: Thank you, Nathalie.

With her plan in motion, she set her phone down as the shower turned off, pasting a genuine smile on her lips as Adrien emerged a few minutes later. She had to still her hand from rising up to fan her face at the sight of him. Freshly showered, he did a number on her heart as his wet locks lay plastered against his skin in an almost Chat Noir fashion. Something about the look had her heart rate increasing beneath her ribs.

She turned away before he could see how he affected her with the intention of pulling their lunch from the oven. However, her natural clumsiness kicked in as she burned her arm on the oven’s side in the process, eliciting a sharp hiss from her as her skin reddened from the contact.

“Mari, are you okay?” Adrien reached her side in two steps, taking the dish from her hands and placing it on the table. When he came back to her, he pulled her arm towards him with the softest grip and inspected the angry mark on her skin, noting the burn wasn’t too bad though it’d smart for a while.

“Ugh, I’m so over being clumsy.” She huffed as she ran the cold water in the sink, putting the burn under the soothing sensation until her skin felt pleasantly numb.

She chanced a peek at Adrien and froze at the tender smile on his lips, wondering what brought it on though she’d never ask him about it. He didn’t need to know how much she still wanted to hear him reciprocate her feelings after falling hard five years ago.

She shook her head, clearing it of her wayward thoughts. She needed to focus if she wanted her mission to succeed. Everything hinged on the next hour as she pushed Adrien to open up about his past and more. If she couldn’t do that, then her plans to disrupt Gabriel’s day would be for naught. She couldn’t afford to fail.

A soft pat on her hip reminded her she had a special lucky charm.

Sinking into the chair across from him, she dished out their meal quickly and began eating after he moaned his appreciation with his first bite.

“You’re a true magician, Mari. This is the best.”

She blushed at his compliment, knowing he could flatter someone more than Chat could flirt when the mood struck him.

“I’m glad you like it.” She took another bite, taking the time to chew as she considered the best approach to getting Adrien to talk. While she knew food always loosened him up some, she doubted her cooking would spur him into revealing all his deepest secrets, which were exactly what she needed from him. Deciding her best course, she continued to eat, glancing at him every so often.

They talked about their summers and touched on what they wanted for their final year of lycée. They laughed as they reminisced about favorite memories and covered their embarrassment over misunderstandings and antics gone awry. Their easy camaraderie brought Marinette warmth as she considered how awkward she’d once been around him, glad she’d finally destroyed the pedestal she’d placed him on and got to know the real guy behind the public façade.

As their meal came to an end, she allowed Adrien to gather their dishes with the intention of cleaning them. Leaving him to his self-appointed chore, she carried her cup of tea and settled on the sofa. With her few spare moments, she turned on the TV and put on her favorite show as she also pulled out her phone to download the app she’d found a week ago. After it finished downloading, she tapped on her texting app and sent out a quick message to Alya, knowing Nino would also see it.

MDC: Hey, Alya, get ready. Will need you in an hour. Mission Adrien is a go.

“Hey, Mari, what’s next on our agenda?”

With a swift move, she placed her phone under her, hoping he wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She stole a glance at him and saw the open smile on his face, a smile forming on hers as she patted the seat next to her. “Mindless TV sound good?”

“Always.” He settled next to her, holding his hand out to her which she took in hers and laced their fingers together.

She sat next to him for a few minutes as her show played a rerun episode, allowing her the chance to steel herself for the tough part of interviewing him. She waited until the next commercial break to broach the subject, asking, “Are you happy, Adrien? I mean, really happy?”

“What’s this about, Mari?” He turned his head to face her, his features turning serious as he considered her question.

Thanking her luck silently, she pointed at the ad playing on the TV, which featured him with his father’s newest fragrance product. She kept her gaze on his face, watching for any signs of his true feelings about being the object of such overt attention. She knew how these types of advertisements brought him unwanted attention and hated it for his sake, especially since his father insisted he be the face of Gabriel Fashions.

He didn’t say anything until the commercial ended, his voice sounding raspy as he spoke. “No, not really, but it’s not like I have many options, right? My father has certain expectations and doesn’t allow anyone, even me, to fail in meeting them.”

Marinette knew he was holding back. She could feel it. If she wanted Gabriel to face what he’s done, she needed Adrien to be brutally honest with her as she pushed him beyond their friendship’s normal boundaries. She wanted her plan to work for his sake and for Gabriel’s. They deserved to salvage whatever relationship they could before Adrien went to university.

Changing tactics, she slid her phone out from her leg, making a show of checking her messages. She read Alya’s text, smiling at her friend’s willingness to help before she pulled up the recorder app she’d downloaded, hitting the record button before replacing her phone in her pocket this time.

“Okay, how about this? You’re almost eighteen. If you could have your choice in your future, what would it look like? Forget about your father and his expectations. What do you want, Adrien? More than anything in the world, what’s your passion?”

He didn’t answer her immediately.

She waited, knowing this couldn’t be easy for him. For far too long, his father controlled every aspect of Adrien’s life from his schedule to his extracurriculars to his friends. It was sheer luck and strength he’d managed to protect his friendships with Nino, Alya, and even her as each of them had disappointed his father enough to disapprove of their alliance with him. She knew they’d continue to fight his father to be in Adrien’s life, knowing he needed them as much as they needed him.

She wondered if the young man in front of her had ever been given the option to consider his future without his father’s input. Somehow, she doubted Gabriel would ever allow Adrien to leave his influence and control if Adrien didn’t work to stop him. She had her suspicions about Gabriel though she refrained from telling anyone about them except Master Fu. She couldn’t break Adrien’s heart with her suspicions, knowing how broken he’d become if her beliefs were in fact true.

She shook herself from those stray thoughts since they weren’t her greatest concern at the moment. Her friend’s welfare, as they faced impending adulthood, was of more importance as she wanted him to find joy as he entered his final year of schooling before university. She knew this would be their last year altogether and none of them knew exactly what the future held for them.

“Mari, I’ve never considered anything beyond modeling and meeting my father’s expectations. I’m not even sure where to start.” His hand raked through his hair before settling on the back of his neck, another familiar trait she noticed he shared with her superhero partner.

“It’s new, I know, but I’m confident you can do this. Just think about what you enjoy doing and go from there.” She moved to face him, taking care not to hit her phone for fear of stopping its recording session.

A few minutes passed as he thought hard before he said in a soft tone, “I’ve always liked physics and playing the piano. I wouldn’t mind focusing on one of them. I think I’d make a pretty good teacher, you know? I’ve helped several people with physics. I haven’t taught piano before, but I’m sure I could do well if I found some students.”

When he looked at her, she smiled at him, hoping to encourage him to keep going. She wanted him to explore his options, which were limitless without his father’s influence looming over him. She wanted him to see how wonderful his future could be. He could be happy for the first time since his mother’s disappearance.

“I could definitely see you teaching high school students. You certainly helped me with physics when I was struggling. I wouldn’t have passed without your unique technique.” She reached for his hand, pulling it close to her as she prepared her next question to him, knowing he’d hate her pushing him. She could only hope he didn’t hate her when all was said and done. “So, what’s stopping you from being a teacher, Adrien?”

His brows shot up and his hand tightened around hers, clearly surprised she’d asked him such a question.

She admitted she knew the answer, but she needed him to say it.

At his hesitation, she pressed him, saying, “Come on, I want your complete honesty here. What’s holding you back from doing what you want with your future?”

“Mari, please don’t. I can’t answer that.”

“Why not? You know what’s holding you back. Just say it, Adrien. Say it and set yourself free.”

He jerked his hand out of her grasp, rising from the couch to stare out the windows. His fingers raked through his hair, standing tense as the sun poured into the room and warmed them with its sweltering heat.

She felt his indecision and knew she needed to back off as he prepared his next words to her. She knew he hated being put on the spot since it gave him the unfortunate opportunity to embarrass his father, something he stridently tried to avoid at all costs. She felt his pain as he wanted to tell her the truth but also wanted to protect what little respect his father held for him. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and take back all her words, hating the pain she’d caused him as she forced him to this precipice.

“This isn’t fair, Mari.”

“I know, but you need to say it. If you want, scream at me. It’ll help, I promise. What’s holding you back?”

He turned to face her, a shaky breath escaping him before he whispered, “My father.”

He didn’t say anything more as he remained tense by the windows. She watched the emotions play across his features, wishing she could record them as they showed so vividly in his summer green eyes. Each emotion proved more heartwrenching than the last as she continued to wait for him to speak again.

When he spoke again, the dam broke within him. She saw it and her heart broke as she listened to him confess it all.

“All I’ve ever wanted was his approval, Mari. Everything I do and everything I am revolves around him saying he loves me. I just want to hear him say it once. I’m willing to do almost anything to earn those three little words from him. What’s wrong with me, huh? What did I do so wrong that he can’t look at me with anything other than disdain and hatred?”

He stopped, taking a deep breath, and turned away to rub the tears threatening to spill. He hadn’t wanted her to see them, but she had, her own gathering tears at seeing them. She wanted to go to him and hold him until he felt whole again, promising he was everything to her and he never needed to prove anything to hear her say the words she’d been dying to say for five, long years.

Instead, she said, “You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing, you hear me. There’s nothing wrong with you, either.”

He laughed roughly at this, a laugh that spoke of his disbelief and disillusionment.

She hated that laugh and hoped to never hear it from him again.

“Adrien,” she began but didn’t say anything more as he returned to the couch, his head resting in her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair, wondering if he liked it as much as Chat did whenever he visited her.

“In my father’s eyes, I’m the ultimate disappointment. Sometimes, I’d think it’d be easier if I’d been the one to disappear than my mother. At least with her, he was happy.” He stopped to take another shaky breath as more tears leaked from his eyes. However, he didn’t fall silent this time.

The dam had broken within him. Confessions and fears spilled from his lips freely as he forced himself to face the truth he’d been denying for so long, a truth she knew he needed to see for himself in order to heal. He admitted to hating the man he was becoming. He spoke of his years of resentment he held towards his father. He told her how much he hated modeling and all aspects surrounding it, including the incident that morning. He hated how he couldn’t be counted upon by his friends because his father dictated his movements and his schedule. He feared his final year would be another repeat of years past, leaving him in the same rut yet again.

When he finally came to the end, he buried his face in his hands and mumbled through his fingers, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that.”

She shushed him even as she turned off the recorder on her phone. She had her ammunition and she fully intended on using it after she’d comforted him. With her fingers threaded through his hair, she gently tugged him until he faced her, saying, “You never have to apologize to me. I’m so proud of you, you know that? Now, we just need you to say this to your father.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that’ll never happen. It’s not like he’d listen anyway.”

Well, he’ll be listening this time. I’ll make sure of it, she silently vowed as he relaxed into her lap further. She continued kneading his scalp, lightly scraping spots she discovered he liked until his eyes closed and his breathing evened out.

She laid him down on her sofa before slipping her phone out of her pocket. She unlocked her screen and tapped her texting app, sending out a message to both Alya and Lawrence.

Both responded after a few seconds, saying they’re ready on their ends.

 

 

With the few minutes she had to spare, she hurried to her room and changed into her favorite outfit, one she knew would help boost her confidence as she faced her one-time favorite designer. She needed her battle gear ready and willing to stand up against the verbal onslaught she knew he could give without thought to the other person’s feelings. She completed her look with her lucky charm Adrien made for her fourteenth birthday and her favorite lip gloss.

A final glance in the mirror showed her ready to battle the nasty dragon within the Agreste mansion.

“Tikki, let’s go,” she called out softly.

The little red kwami flew into Marinette’s ever-present purse and settled into her favorite space as Marinette snapped it closed and proceeded downstairs.

A knock came as she placed her foot on the final step.

She opened the door, allowing Alya and Nino into the apartment and apprised them of the situation at hand. She asked they take care of Adrien and made them promise to keep him there until she returned, not wanting him near his home while she confronted his father.

When she gained their promise, she hurried outside to meet the limo Lawrence drove for Adrien. She smiled at the large man as he held the door open for her.

“Thank you. I owe you a huge batch of cookies for this.”

“No need. Get Gabriel to listen and we’re even.”

She didn’t know how to respond to this since he rarely spoke, but she sent him another smile as she promised to do her best for all their sakes.

He didn’t waste time in driving to the mansion, pulling into the drive a few minutes later.

Once he parked, Marinette pushed her door open and took a step out, knowing she needed to show her strongest front. She looked at the imposing mansion before her and thought for the hundredth time about the serious risk she was taking by confronting Gabriel about Adrien. She prayed she didn’t make matters worse for him as she took a deep breath and stepped towards the mansion.

Tikki pressed on her hip, reassuring her by just being there.

After several steps and deep breaths, she knocked on the large doors. She glanced at their design and marveled at their craftsmanship despite their unwelcoming color. She couldn’t help but wonder about the house’s warmth even when Adrien’s mother had lived, fearing she didn’t want the answer.

Nathalie came moments later and said, “If you’re ready, I’ve cleared his schedule for the rest of the day.”

“I am. It’s time he faces what he’s done to his son. Will you still stand beside me in this? I know you’re risking a lot by doing this.”

Nathalie nodded. “Adrien is the closest I have to a son. Let’s do this. I’ll follow your lead, Marinette.”

“Thank you.”

Side by side, the women approached Gabriel’s office with Nathalie knocking on the door. With his approval, she pushed it open and announced, “Sir, Marinette Dupain-Cheng has a scheduled appointment with you.”

“She does, does she? What could she possibly want to see me about?” Gabriel demanded though his eyes never left his computer screen.

“Adrien,” Marinette said, her voice soft yet firm.

That caught his attention.

Chapter Text

Marinette saw the look on Gabriel’s face and knew her moment had arrived. She also knew she’d better not screw it up for all their sakes, especially Adrien’s. Because she loved him, she couldn’t fail him when he so clearly needed help in dealing with his father. Besides, she missed her friend since his father had increased the activities on Adrien’s schedule to double, sometimes triple, what they’d been even a year ago.

She stepped into the room and met Gabriel’s eyes with a look of determination as she strode toward his desk, intent on having her say and having it heard by him.

However, her steps faltered a few paces into the room as the noticeable differences practically slapped her in the face. The room no longer had the stark sterility and chilling atmosphere she recalled from her last visit. No, this room had gone through quite the reformation and quite recently if she could be considered a judge on the subject. Gone was the computer stand where he once proudly stood with his imperial attitude. In its place, a large wooden desk littered with papers and even framed photographs, something she hadn’t expected of the unsentimental man she’s known the last several years. Even Nathalie’s desk had been removed and relocated to the gallery near the small seating area where guests waited impatiently for the fashion mogul’s time and attention.

Something had happened. She could feel it deep within her though she wouldn’t let it dissuade her from her current mission.

“Mlle Dupain-Cheng, I’m a busy man. I’m sure whatever petty squabble my son has with you is merely a waste of time and resources. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to leave, I have other appointments and matters to attend.” His voice echoed in the room, his words intending to force her into cowering. His gaze had gone back to his computer, clearly done with the interruption she momentarily caused him.

She wouldn’t be so easily intimidated. No, not this time. With a clear edge tinged with a sweetness purely her own, she said, “Well, it’s a good thing I had Nathalie clear your schedule then, sir. I have no intention of going anywhere until you hear what I have to say. I also have no intention of relinquishing Adrien back to you until we’re on the same page.”

His gaze slammed into hers as he internalized the audacity of her words. By the way his mouth gaped just the slightest bit, she knew she’d caught him by surprise, but then, she’d never spoken to anyone like she’d just done her fashion idol. After a moment, his mouth closed and a small smirk appeared, looking almost as if he’d become amused by her antics.

“Very well, Mlle Dupain-Cheng. You have my attention.” He gestured for her to sit in one of the plush chairs across from him.

“Thank you, sir.” She moved closer though she made no move to sit, feeling her nerves working hard to get the best of her.

Knowing she had his begrudging respect, she decided to use her years as Ladybug to her advantage, scoping his office for anything she could use to connect with him. She needed the connection if she wanted to knock some sense into him. He’d loved his son once, she felt sure, but something had gone terribly wrong. She just needed to find that point and work from there.

As if by some inexplicable force, her gaze landed on the large portrait of his wife, hanging prominently on the wall behind his desk. She stared at the woman’s kind eyes and saw Adrien in her features. The woman’s smile had a welcoming arch to it, almost like she could be trusted to keep your darkest secrets and you’d never worry about her telling them.

The handful of times she’d been in this room had never given Marinette more than a passing moment to admire the portrait. At that moment, she moved a little closer, skirting his desk as she continued to channel her inner Ladybug. She didn’t stop until she stood inches from the portrait and got the close up she needed, gasping at the discoveries she found within the dress.

She ignored the secret panel, knowing that discussion could wait for another day, and focused on the other discovery she’d made. Turning back and finding him staring at her with open curiosity, she whispered, “Her dress is pictures of your family.”

“Hmm, yes.” Gabriel stood to join her, a slight shake in his legs as if he’d been sitting for far too long. “I know Adrien believes I’ve destroyed them, but I never had the heart to. I had them recreated into this portrait.”

“Why not tell him then?”

When he took too long to respond, Marinette assumed he never meant to answer her question. He surprised her when he asked in a quiet, thoughtful voice, “Would it make him hate me any less?”

“He doesn’t hate you, sir,” she said, her voice just as quiet. “I know he misses you though.”

They lapsed into another silence as she tried to figure out the stoic man beside her. She knew there had to be more to him, especially if her suspicions proved correct about his extracurricular activities concerning Paris and the creation of supervillains.

“You know he barely talks about her. I know he misses her more than he lets on, but he just bottles it up. What little I’ve gotten over the years from him, I imagine she was an incredible woman to know. Her loss must have hurt you both immensely.” She rested her hand on his arm in a comforting manner, somewhat surprised when he didn’t flinch. She almost hoped he’d have done so as her heart softened the teeniest bit toward the man and all he’d lost over the years. Not only did he lose his wife, but he now stood a good chance of losing his son. What more could this man possibly lose before he completely lost himself? She wasn’t so sure he hadn’t lost himself. Maybe it was time he rediscovered who he was.

“She was the best woman I ever met.” As if he recalled who he was speaking with, he coughed to cover his mistake. With a visible tightening of his resolve, he spoke in his sternest voice possible, “Mlle Dupain-Cheng, you’re not here to discuss my wife. You said you wanted to discuss Adrien. Let’s keep to the main objective, so you can be on your way.”

She mentally patted herself on her back. She’d found the sore spot. Now, she just needed to reopen the wound the right way. If she did, then maybe, just maybe, these two stubborn men could finally heal the proper way and repair the damage they’ve caused to their relationship. She had to try.

Lighting upon the perfect opening, she allowed for a slight change of topic. “Did you know you’ve been my idol since I first fell in love with fashion? I still remember the first show I ever saw on TV. It had been one of yours. It was simply unforgettable.”

“Flattery doesn’t suit you, Mlle Dupain-Cheng.” He smirked at her, believing he’d won this round.

“Not flattery, sir, when you’re just stating facts. You are the reason I love fashion. I’ve never seen another designer more intuitive or bold than you in all the years I’ve been practicing and designing myself.” She shot him a soft smile as she gestured to her own outfit, one she’d finished a while back and wore whenever she needed a confidence boost.

He moved stiffly as he circled her and noted the stitching and other details she’d poured her heart and soul into. His legs remained a little shaky as he came back to his original position, reaching out for a cane she hadn’t seen upon first entering the office. As he rested his weight on the cane, he continued his perusal of her outfit from the embellishments she added by way of jewelry.

Her hand came to rest instinctively over her purse, a gesture she’d honed over the years to keep Tikki safe from any would-be threats. She had the distinct feeling he knew more than he let on as his smirk reappeared at her protective movement. However, he didn’t say anything, so she let it slide for the time being.

“You definitely have promise, Mlle Dupain-Cheng. I’d be most interested in having you as an intern within my company. Would something like that interest you?”

“I’d be honored if I was considered, sir, but I wouldn’t be able to take the position.”

That got his attention.

Even as he sank back into his chair, she saw the surprise flit over his features as he stared back at her, his brows raised higher than she’d ever seen.

“I believe in loyalty, sir. As much I admire you as a designer, my loyalty lies with your son. I couldn’t take the position without his express approval and endorsement. I wouldn’t.”

“That’s not the best mentality in the fashion business, Mlle Dupain-Cheng. Though, I have a feeling you might be able to make waves if given the right opportunities to change the industry.”

She didn’t know quite what to say. She hadn’t been expecting a compliment, especially from a man who never praised his own son. She tamped down the anger that came from that thought and focused on redirecting their conversation again.

“Your wife was your first model, wasn’t she? I remember the dress she wore for a spring collection almost ten years ago. She looked like an angel.”

“Yes, she was.” A soft smile graced his features.

“Adrien got a lot of her looks, didn’t he?”

He agreed.

Marinette smiled as she chose her next words with some care. “He may have gotten her looks, but he definitely has a lot of you, sir.”

Gabriel looked up at her, his thoughts visible as he tried to make the same connections she had.

Deciding to take pity on the man, she stifled her sudden need to giggle. Her voice remained light though as she spoke, “He’s clever, sir, as well as determined, stubborn, and intuitive. While your intuition lies more with trends, his focuses on others and their needs. You know he’s helped several of our classmates when we struggle in physics? Myself included.”

“That he got from his mother. I’m not much of a philanthropist as you’re well aware.”

She merely smiled at him as she kept her confirmation to herself. She had no intention of causing a rift to form between them when she’d just managed to build a small bridge. No, she could feel the good luck she donned as Ladybug swell over her. Maybe she’d win this man over after all.

“Did you meet her when you entered the fashion industry?” Seeing his tense posture, she knew she’d miscalculated a little, knowing he’d shut down if she didn’t fix this soon. Using the best excuse she could latch upon, she continued, “Adrien told me once, but he admits he doesn’t remember the story well. I was simply curious as you both had such chemistry from what I recall seeing during your televised shows.”

He took several minutes to reply, which she used to her advantage.

She moved around the room though not too far from him, looking over pictures she’d spotted earlier. She wanted a chance to see what moments captured his attention from the past. She hoped to glean as much information as she could from them about the man before her. While she recalled the professional photos of Adrien on one wall from various shoots, she merely skimmed past them, settling on a few new ones from Adrien’s younger days.

One framed photo caught her eye in particular, drawing her closer. The photo looked almost amateurish as she noted the fuzziness around the subjects in the center. However, despite that, the photo became one of her favorites as she noticed the love between the people within it. The young man stared adoringly at the young woman from the corner of his eye while she wrestled with a little boy in her arms.

A fond smile formed as she realized the happiness emanating from this version of the Agreste family.

“Nathalie took that one,” he said quietly as he once again came to stand next to her. “She’d been with us six months, I think. Adrien had just gotten over a cold the day before and been itching to play outside.”

“Aww, so that’s why he looks so restless.” She hadn’t meant for her musings to be overheard, but his inscrutable expression showed he’d heard her just the same.

“Everything I’ve done for my son, Mlle Dupain-Cheng, has been to keep him safe. I know he doesn’t understand it. Neither do you, but I love my son and I’ll do everything I need to keep him safe.” His words came out little more than a rough whisper, but they held more emotion than she ever thought possible.

She didn’t say anything, knowing she had him on the verge and still hoped to hear his answer to her earlier question.

He didn’t disappoint her as he continued, “Emilie was one of the first people I met at university. She didn’t even like me at first, but that can be blamed on a small misunderstanding. When she learned the truth, she quickly forgave me and never really left my side after that. It probably took me a year before I realized she liked me as more than a friend.”

Marinette couldn’t hold back her laughter this time. Her laugh filled the room and soon had her clutching her stomach as she tried to take in some air. Catching his exasperated expression, she fought renewed giggles as she worked to explain in a semi-normal voice.

“Has Adrien ever told you how we met, sir?”

He shook his head. “Enlighten me.”

She told him the story about her misinterpreting Adrien’s actions after Chloe had placed some chewing gum on her seat. She’d thought Adrien to be another lousy rich kid based on his association with Chloe, not even realizing his connection to Gabriel until a quick internet search. She’d hated how much she’d hoped for something different from what she’d seen so far from Adrien, never dreaming she could be so wrong about him. She remained determined to keep her opinion of him, ignoring his initial attempts to speak to her. She admitted to keeping her stubbornness intact until he finally cornered her after school, telling her the truth about the gum and loaning her his umbrella so she wouldn’t become soaked by the rain that day.

At the end of her speech, she dared to peek a glance and gaped at the wonder she found on his face. Her cheeks turned a rosy color when he finally said, “You’re not just an admirer of my son, are you? You really care about him.”

She nodded, her eyes never leaving his. “He’s my best friend.”

With this revelation and confession, unbidden tears pooled in her eyes. Her earlier conversation with Adrien began to replay in her mind, forcing her to move toward the next change of focus in her current conversation with his father.

In a shaky voice, she asked, “Was she your best friend as well?”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry, she chanted to herself as she waited for his answer.

He took a deep breath before he admitted his wife was, indeed, his best friend.

This time she couldn’t stop herself as a small sob escaped her. Despair threatened to overwhelm her as she considered the predicament she now faced with her idol and with her best friend. She doubted she could survive losing Adrien as Gabriel had lost his wife.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Mlle Dupain-Cheng?”

She couldn’t answer him if she’d wanted to. More sobs escaped her as her thoughts swirled around the possible loss of Adrien and how that would affect her. She found she hated the thought more than she hated Hawk Moth and the terror he’d placed on Paris. She needed Adrien back to the way he was before. As she stared at the man who fathered her best friend, she knew she still had a mission to complete. By God, she’d complete it if it was the last thing she did.

When he held out a small box of tissues without a word of condemnation, she took one gratefully and whispered, “I didn’t mean to cry, sir. I’m so embarrassed.”

He brushed off her apology, asking, “What’s wrong? Does this have something to do with Adrien?”

She wiped away her tears, finally getting a grip on her emotions. She felt stronger, having released the pressure valve she’d tightened before her meeting with Gabriel. Her resolve had certainly deepened as she returned her gaze to the man before her.

“I think I’m losing my best friend, sir. He’s not the same guy he was five years ago. He’s not even the same guy he was six months ago. Frankly, it’s frightening how much he’s changed so quickly.” She pulled her phone from her pocket, unlocking the screen to tap on the recording app. She barely spared him a glance as she selected the file she’d made earlier between her and Adrien. “I’ve never heard him like this before. I’m afraid he actually means what he says, too.”

She sped through much of the recording until she reached the part she found most concerning. She didn’t dare meet his eyes in case she found a lack of interest in them. She felt sure she’d hit him if she did. She couldn’t afford to alienate him when she’d come so far with him, either.

Instead, she held out her phone for Gabriel to take and pressed the PLAY button when it rested in his palm. With the segment queued and playing a moment later, she took a step back and watched his face as Adrien’s voice rang out in the silent room.

 “In my father’s eyes, I’m the ultimate disappointment. Sometimes, I’d think it’d be easier if I’d been the one to disappear than my mother. At least with her, he was happy.”

“I’m sure that’s not the case.”

“Mari, he can barely look at me without cringing in utter disappointment. I’m not the one he wants. I’ve never been. If I could, I’d wish to bring her back even if it means I disappeared. It’s not like anyone would notice anyway.”

“I’d notice.”

“I doubt it. The world needs Emilie, not Adrien. So, does my father. It’d be better if that’s the way it could be.”

The words cut through her as deeply as they’d done earlier. She flinched when she heard them for the second time, almost missing the visceral reaction Gabriel also had at hearing them. Unlike her, his emotions quickly faded back to his normal stoic expression from years of training. She found that trait most irritating as she wanted to see him show something, anything. She needed to know she wasn’t wasting her time.

Unable to listen to the despair and utter resignation in Adrien’s voice any longer, she cut the recording off. She needed to move as she fought against the terrible words spoken by the blond model she’s loved for much of her adolescence.

Standing, she walked over to the nearest window and peered outside, unable to see the beauty of the city while remaining trapped in her misery. In a soft voice, she said, “He’s so tight-lipped normally about his emotions. I knew he’d been miserable, sir, but I never imagined he felt this way. I can’t help thinking I’ve done a terrible job as his friend if he believes the world doesn’t need him. He has no idea how loved he is by everyone who meets him.”

She honestly didn’t expect an answer as he’d done admirably in hiding his thoughts from her. All she could say was she’d probably blown her entire mission as she’d done the worst possible thing by getting emotional in front of the distant father. She had no clear plan to fix her current mistake and wasn’t even sure if she should try. She knew without being told how furious Adrien would be once he learned what she’d tried to do. She honestly wouldn’t blame him, either, as she realized how far she’d overstepped this time. Despite it being on his behalf, she’d probably done more harm than good for his relationship with Gabriel.

When he did speak, she turned to face him with some shock, not sure she’d heard correctly until he repeated his request.

“May I have a copy of this, Mlle Dupain-Cheng?” He still held her phone in his hand, staring down at it as if he’d never seen anything like it before. When his eyes finally found hers, she gasped as she saw a soft sheen within them. His words about broke her heart as he whispered, “It seems I don’t know my son, either.”

At that moment, he looked older than his years. Marinette couldn’t see the proud, stoic man she’d come to know as a fashion icon or the stern father of her best friend. No, the man standing before her looked as lost and alone as she’d ever seen someone. Her heart wanted to reach out to him, assuring him nothing was hopeless. She wanted to tell him they could still get Adrien back if they worked together.

She didn’t say anything though as she realized she hadn’t the right. She’s already pushed beyond the boundaries of a friend. She wouldn’t push into territory reserved for family. She wasn’t family despite it being her greatest wish since she’d fallen hard for Adrien in that fateful rainstorm years ago. She had little connection with the man standing before her beyond being her idol and best friend’s father. She barely knew him.

All she knew for certain after these revelations was how flawed Gabriel Agreste truly was. Seeing him as the flawed man had made it so much easier for her to confront him than if he’d stayed the fashion idol she used to worship. While she still admired his prowess in the fashion industry, his pedestal had been demolished almost as certainly as the one she’d built for Adrien as the perfect son and guy of her dreams.

“Marinette?”

The use of her first name shook her from her thoughts, spurring her to his side.

She took her phone from his hand and found the app’s sharing function, sending a copy to his email. Few words were spoken between them as she watched the video’s progress as it uploaded and soon went into his inbox. She didn’t know what to say to him as she blackened the screen upon completing her task.

Progress had been made though she couldn’t be sure about what that progress was.

Unsure if she should stay longer since he hadn’t said a word since she sent the audio file, she checked to ensure she had everything on her. Assured she wouldn’t be leaving anything, she turned back to him and whispered, “Thank you, sir, for your time and indulgence in seeing me on short notice.”

She hadn’t taken three steps when he spoke from behind.

“Marinette, wait.”

He strode to his desk and pulled out a business card. He quickly jotted something down on the back of it. When he seemed satisfied, he walked back to her side and held it out to her.

“If you need anything, this is my personal email and cell. Don’t hesitate to call me please.”

“Thank you, sir.” She tucked the card away in her pocket with her phone, determined not to lose it. She never knew when she might need it in the future.

“No, thank you, Mlle Dupain-Cheng. You’ve given me plenty to consider where Adrien’s concerned. I think my eyes are truly opened for the first time.” He shot her a soft smile as he added, “You know my wife would’ve adored you. You certainly remind me of her.”

She blushed at the compliment, not sure what she’d done to see this softer side of Gabriel Agreste, but she knew better than to question it. She left soon after, having shared a few more pleasantries between them before noting the late hour. She promised she’d let him know if she ever needed anything as she quickly exited his office.

 

 

When Marinette disappeared, Gabriel struggled back to his desk, sinking into his chair with a barely concealed grown. He cursed himself and his stubborn pride for having stood so long. He knew his leg couldn’t handle long periods standing any longer. It’d been why he’d given up his previous setup within this floor office and gone with a traditional desk.

He’d kicked Nathalie into the gallery because he couldn’t bear to see her pitying looks though she was always quick to hide them behind her professional persona. No, this office had become his second home over the past eighteen months as he’d come to accept his leg would never heal properly, much to his chagrin. He’d even come to accept this as he pushed his employees and his son to work harder than ever in order to keep them from prying into his personal hell.

That had been shattered that afternoon in the form of Marinette Dupain-Cheng.

As much as he wanted to resent her, he found himself admiring her. Even at her young age, she had a strength he envied and recalled having in his younger days. While he agreed with his assessment of her within the fashion industry, he wouldn’t put it past her to prove him wrong just to show him she could. He honestly wished her the best of luck in her future endeavors, knowing her strength and pride would help pull her through the volatile industry, much like his had done years ago.

With his thoughts on the young woman and her deep affection for his son, he turned back to his computer and woke it from the automatic hibernation mode. He soon had his email inbox opened and the audio file loading to his hard drive. He needed to hear the entire conversation between her and Adrien. He prayed fervently at that moment, hoping against hope Marinette had blown the entire thing into a bigger drama than it was.

However, he soon pounded on the SPACEBAR to stop the despair he heard in his son’s voice. He couldn’t stand knowing he’d missed all the signs Adrien had exhibited, realizing how much he’d ignored his son as he wallowed in his own grief over their loss of Emilie. However, his son’s words continued to haunt him as he gazed at the strewn papers on his desk. The sketches and his notes blurred as moisture gathered once again in his eyes.

He hadn’t cried in seven years, and he had no intention of starting then. No, he needed a distraction.

He staunchly kept his back turned towards his wife’s portrait, knowing she’d resent his next actions. She’d believe them to be beneath him as he pushed the INTERCOM button on the phone.

“Nathalie, can you join me please?”

“Right away, sir.”

Mumbling to his wife’s portrait without bothering to face her, he said, “Don’t judge me, Emilie. You’re no longer here to keep me in check.”

Her censure remained strong as he waited for Nathalie. He almost yielded to it, too, except Nathalie joined him before he could call her back and retract his request.

“Mlle Dupain-Cheng has left the premises, sir. I have your schedule for tomorrow if you’d like to quickly go over it.”

Well, Emilie, my dear, I never said I was a saint, he thought as he turned his full attention to Nathalie. He gave her his best professional glare as he spoke with an icy tone, “It was highly unprofessional to have Mlle Dupain-Cheng here in the first place. You know how busy my schedule is, Nathalie. You’re the one in control of it after all.”

“Yes, sir, it was,” she said in agreement.

He stared at her, his mouth slightly agape as he considered her quick agreement. He admitted to himself he hadn’t quite been expecting her to simply agree to his words. He almost felt sure she had more to say, but she’d learned long ago to keep her words in check around him. With good reason, he surmised as he hated insubordination, especially in his employees, which had also apparently moved into his personal life. This thought caused him some pause as he considered Adrien though he quickly shut it down, unwilling to dwell on that at the moment.

“Were you hoping I wouldn’t notice this level of insubordination from you? Did you think I would spare your job just because you’ve worked for me the past fifteen years.”

“No, sir. I knew what I was doing. I also know I’d do it again, sir.”

Her stoicism annoyed him as she continued to stand before him, meeting his gaze squarely. He could swear there was a smirk on her features though it disappeared as soon as it appeared. He felt a wealth of cruelty build within him, wanting to attack her in some way. He wanted to make her feel as cornered as he did. He hadn’t wanted to have his mistakes thrown in his face where Adrien was concerned. He hadn’t wanted Marinette Dupain-Cheng to show him how badly he’d screwed up.

He clenched and unclenched his hands several times as he worked through his anger towards the situation and the woman before him. When he felt more in control, he folded his hands together, resting his elbows on the desk, and addressed her with the most imperious tone he possessed.

“Then, Mme Sancouer, please enlighten me about your beliefs in having any authority to meddle in a familial matter. The last I checked, you worked for me. You may have alleviated an itch I’ve had a time or two, but you’re, by no means, my wife or my son’s mother. So, pray tell, what was your reasons for interfering as if you were?”

He knew he shocked her by the way her body tightened more than possible. Her hands gripped her small, ever-present tablet until the knuckles had gone completely white. Her face had paled until the red streak in her hair stood out so prominently that he’d swear it was blood. However, her face’s color soon returned as anger streaked through her, turning her cheeks a lovely shade of red. Her eyes blazed with a flame he’d only seen a few times in the past, usually when he had her naked and writhing beneath him.

He knew he stirred the pot too much as she worked to calm herself despite the deeply offensive words he’d tossed at her. He realized as he watched her that he’d do almost anything to take them back, somehow sensing just how badly he’d screwed up with this woman.

While she may not be his wife, she certainly had taken on the role for him over the years. She’d accompanied him to several stuffy events and ensured he had a decent time despite his deep resentment towards the people surrounding him. She may never compare to Emilie, but she didn’t need to. She’d become important to him and he simply hadn’t noticed until the second he tossed those careless words at her, wanting to hurt her.

“Nathalie, I – “

“Save it, Gabriel. You’ll have my resignation on your desk momentarily. I honestly don’t think I can stand looking at you right now.” Nathalie turned and quickly closed the distance toward the door, her heels tapping harshly on the tile flooring.

Each tap felt like a punch to the gut.

Hoping his legs would support him, he stood and did his best to follow her, needing to stop her before she could actually leave him. He didn’t make it past his desk before his leg crumbled, sending him sprawling to the floor and cursing his foolish mouth for spouting off.

Not willing to give up yet, he called out, “Nathalie, come back here. We’re not done.”

She didn’t respond, but then, he didn’t expect her to.

With shaking hands, he pushed himself to a sitting position, dragging his useless leg in front of him. He became so absorbed in massaging his knee and calf to restore some type of sensation that he missed the soft footfalls drawing near.

“Sir, are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” He clipped his words, not wanting to show vulnerability after behaving so foolishly.

She hummed in response as she moved into the room.

“Didn’t you just quit, Nathalie? Why are you still here?”

She sank onto the floor near him though she ensured they kept a respectable distance. In a soft voice, she said, “I honestly haven’t the slightest idea, sir.”

He hated her words as much as he hated the infirmity he suffered, causing him to spill to the floor in an inelegant mess. He almost wished the floor would swallow him up rather than remain in the presence of the woman beside him.

Resenting his vulnerability, he barely refrained from shouting, “Just go. If it helps, I was firing you anyway.”

“I’m sure you were, sir.” Her hand crept out and touched his sore leg, taking over the massage with her expert fingers.

He barely held in the groan as her hands worked magic, soon allowing him the ability to stand on his own again. He accepted her assistance to his feet, noting her stoic features as she pulled him up without much effort. He wasn’t sure what he should say, but he knew he needed to say something to smooth over his earlier harshness. He had his suspicions it would take more than some pretty words to win over Nathalie. They hadn’t worked on his wife, either, but then, he wasn’t a man who liked to use pretty words to win an argument. No, he was a man of logic and analytical thinking, something he’d worked hard to instill in Adrien as well.

His anger spent and his humiliation complete, he turned toward her, watching as she dusted the invisible dirt from her skirt and jacket set. In a subdued tone, he repeated his earlier question, “Why did you send Mlle Dupain-Cheng in here?”

She took a deep breath and met his eyes without censure but something deeper. He tried not to dwell on what that something could be as he worked to listen to the words she said.

“If I’m being perfectly honest, sir, you and Adrien are the only family I have. For the past fifteen years, your family has been my family. I cried alongside Adrien when Emilie disappeared, feeling her loss as keenly as you two. Since then, I’ve watched in silence as you both grieved over her loss. I’ve witnessed the distance grow between you and have said nothing to prevent it. I’m just as guilty of that distance as you two. I know your extracurricular activities haven’t helped, either, sir, but I could no longer ignore Adrien’s growing unhappiness.”

She paused to collect her thoughts and emotions. They played across her features in the vulnerable moment she allowed herself. He hadn’t thought she knew about his deepest secret, but then, she had to know since she kept his schedule and it hadn’t been like he’d really hidden it from her. He’d trusted her enough to keep working for him despite knowing. The thought comforted him as much as it confused him.

“Sir, I couldn’t leave Adrien when he needed those he knew around him. I control his schedule and I know when he’s being overworked, especially lately. He’s barely had time to sleep since school ended a couple weeks ago. I don’t know why, sir, and I won’t ask, but he deserves to have the answers to all his questions. You should give him that at least.”

“Nathalie,” he began, but she stopped him.

“I allowed Marinette your time because Adrien will be eighteen in a few months, sir. He’ll be able to make his own decisions about his future. He has a right to know the truth about his mother. He deserves to know his father. It’s the least I could do for the two men I love more than anything else in the world.” Her words died a sudden death as she realized what she’d said.

He could see how much she wanted to take back her last words in the way her eyes bulged behind her glasses. However, her shock soon passed, turning to acceptance as she continued to watch him a little warily for his reaction. She met his gaze with a determined one of her own, straightening her shoulders in the process, clearly waiting for him to seal her fate.

“That’ll be all, Nathalie.”

He moved away from her, intent on returning to his chair. He needed time to process everything she’d told him, including her love for him. He didn’t know if he even wanted it, let alone if he deserved to have a woman like her love him. He hadn’t done anyone any good for a long time and he doubted he had enough time to fix the mistakes he made before everything came to an end.

She didn’t say anything as she moved toward the door at a slower pace than normal.

Her hand barely touched the knob before he found his voice once again, saying, “Nathalie, please clear everyone’s schedules for the rest of the week, including yours. I think we all deserve a break, don’t you?”

She whipped towards him as she sought confirmation of his magnanimous gesture. He supposed he couldn’t blame her. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d taken more than a day off in the past seven years. He certainly hadn’t considered taking a break after his wife disappeared, needing work to keep his mind off his loss.

He made sure she could see his sincerity in his features as he sent her a small smirk for good measure.

“Yes, sir, we do. Thank you. I shall see you again on Monday.”

He agreed and allowed her to leave the office.

When the door clicked shut, he turned towards his wife and whispered, “I hope I didn’t disappoint you too much there, my love. I truly miss you. If you were here, things would be so different. I’d be different.”

Her portrait smiled back at him, offering him little comfort as he tried to understand all he’d heard and witnessed through the day. He needed some perspective from someone neutral. His wife would have been neutral for him, but she wasn’t there any longer. No, he needed someone who could help by actually talking to him, guiding him as he faced this new precipice. He feared what would happen if he didn’t take the right steps. Could he really cause more damage to his son? How much had he already done by ignoring his son’s needs and focused on his own? Could he help Adrien before it was too late?

The thoughts raced through his mind until he felt sure he’d go insane if he didn’t make them stop.

Grabbing up his cane and leaning heavily upon it, he moved toward the portrait and pressed the correct buttons to open the portal to his secret hideaway.

His appearance caused several white butterflies to flutter and dance through the air, waiting for his direction toward their potential purpose.

He smiled fondly at them as he called out in the softest voice he’d used since discovering the Butterfly Miraculous.

“Nooroo, come to me.”

“Yes, master.” The purple kwami zipped through the air, his features not quite as fearful as in the past. To Gabriel, the kwami almost looked thoughtful, maybe even hopeful.

He held his hand out for Nooroo, further surprising the magical entity. When the kwami complied, he allowed himself a rare show of affection as he petted the small being.

“Are you okay, Master?”

He glanced down at the small kwami and took a breath, doing his best to collect himself. When he felt calmer, more in control, he finally spoke.

“You tried telling me about the dangers in my quest to obtain the Miraculouses of Ladybug and Chat Noir. I think I’m finally ready to listen.”

Nooroo gaped at the man holding him as though he’d never seen him before. It took a solid minute for the kwami to regain his senses and begin speaking as an attentive Gabriel finally listened.

At the end of his warning about the consequences, Nooroo met his master’s eyes with a hint of fear, waiting for the man’s reaction. While Nooroo understood the man’s loss, he’d been powerless until recently to slow Gabriel’s need to right the wrong done to his family. Hearing his master wanting answers to questions he should have asked long ago had Nooroo more hopeful about his future and the safety of those residing in Paris.

“Thank you, Nooroo. You have given me much to think about.” Gabriel opened the room’s one window and gazed at the darkening skyline of his once-beloved city. Yes, he had much to think about and consider though he knew he had some actions he needed to complete that night. He just needed a little more time before he could successfully tackle them.

 

 

Marinette allowed Nathalie to lead her back to the main door as she exited her idol’s office. She’d been a little surprised by the kindness emanating from the normally stoic woman. When Nathalie had wrapped her in a tight hug and thanked her for being in Adrien’s life, Marinette had to fight back the tears threatening to spill once again. She hadn’t gone looking for gratitude when she’d set out to help Adrien, but she’d take it as long as she knew she’d done the right thing.

With a promise to visit Nathalie again soon, she turned toward the waiting limo and smiled as she caught sight of Lawrence waiting patiently for her. She slipped into the back seat after hearing a few words of gratitude from Lawrence again for taking a chance and working to set Gabriel straight. She didn’t know what to do with herself as she waited for the limo to move after receiving so many surprises during her afternoon mission.

A soft chime from her pocket had her reaching for her phone.

Her screen flashed with the dozen text messages she’d missed from both Alya and Adrien, even one from Nino, during her meeting.

AA: Hope your meeting is going well. You’re so paw-mazing, Mari. You’ll do great, I know it.

AC: Any news? Is Gabriel going to take the stick out his butt for Sunshine or what?

AA: Oh, Mari, I’m so excited for you. Your designs are going to be everywhere after this.

AC: Girl, are you okay? Do you need backup? Has he locked you away somewhere? Please text and confirm you’re okay.

NL: Nette, our friends are insane. Please help me.

AA: You’re not going to forget us when you get famous, are you? That would be pawsitively pawful.

She read the rest and sent off some in the hopes they were the appropriate responses. She smiled at Nino’s text as she knew his laid-back nature could be tested so easily with their excitable counterparts of Alya and Adrien. While many had considered her and Nino as a perfect match, she knew they were better friends, who’d support each other through whatever crisis they found themselves in.

As for Alya, she could only hope she’d called off the warrior woman before she sent a cavalry to the Agreste mansion. Her friend could be so protective of her at times. While she would be forever grateful for this quality in Alya, she admitted it could be a little trying at times, especially when Alya got excited about something. This was most noticeable and annoying when she chased stories for the Ladyblog, putting herself in danger almost every time as Chat and she handled each akuma without too many casualties. Sheer dumb luck has saved Alya so far, but she feared that luck would eventually run out.

Adrien’s texts proved the most confusing, but then, she figured he’d been fed a story about her absence. She could only imagine what that white lie could be though it clearly had something to do with fashion and her designs. She smiled at the support he gave her without hesitation as she possibly faced her biggest break in the fashion world. She knew then she’d made the right decision to do something for him by confronting Gabriel though she didn’t have the slightest inkling if she’d helped.

She knew they would do their best to fill her in when she arrived at the bakery. Alya would most likely take the lead as she’d be the culprit in the white lie given to Adrien. Her wait proved shortlived as Lawrence pulled the limo to a stop a few seconds later.

At the curb, she smiled up at the large man as she asked, “Would you like to stay for dinner? I’m sure my friends won’t mind.”

A rare smile graced his face even as he shook his head.

“Enjoy your friends. I’ll text when I’m here to pick up Adrien.”

She waved him off before turning toward the side door leading to her apartment upstairs.

Her gaze immediately sought out Adrien as she entered her home, finding him sitting at her family’s small dining table and chatting with Nino. The two seemed deep in conversation based on the animation Adrien showed as he tried to win over Nino. From Nino’s skeptical expression, she doubted Adrien would be so quick to win his argument.

She moved further into her home and soon caught Alya working in the kitchen, putting something in the oven. A smile blossomed as she sent silent words of gratitude for her friend’s thoughtfulness at preparing dinner for everyone, knowing Marinette would be less inclined to cook after returning from her mission.

Alya turned and saw Marinette in the living room. In a raised voice, she asked, “So, girl, how was your emergency appointment with Mrs. Chamack? Did you get everything straightened out?”

Catching on, Marinette sent her a grateful smile and answered as best she could without adding to the lie. “Yes, I think we made some progress, but we’ll need to wait and see.”

“Did she ask you for some new clothes, Mari? That’s awesome. I can’t wait to see her wearing your designs on TV.”

A blush tinted her cheeks as she said, “Thank you, Adrien.”

While she knew Nadja would indeed be wearing her designs on TV, it had nothing to do with her meeting that afternoon. She wanted so desperately to tell him the truth, but she needed a little time to gather her thoughts. She hadn’t realized how hard it would be to see him and keep her lips from spilling everything she’d done for him. She did her best to keep herself busy though as she moved toward the kitchen to retrieve a glass of juice, hoping to distract herself until the time for reveals came.

A silence fell over the group, allowing each of them their thoughts. However, none of them seemed inclined to say or do anything as time ticked on, bringing them to a dilemma as Marinette noticed Adrien looking between them and trying to decipher the change in mood.

Luckily, Nino saved them all as he announced, “Hey, Al, didn’t we have tickets tonight for that show? Shouldn’t we be going before we’re late?”

Quick on the uptake, Alya nodded. “You’re right. I started dinner for you, Mari, since we weren’t sure when you’d get back. It’ll be done in a few minutes, okay? I’ll call you later for all the details. Bye, sunshine.”

Before Marinette could make a grab for either of them, they had reached the door and shut it firmly behind them. Left alone with Adrien, she tried to find a safe topic to discuss, but her mind drew a complete blank. She couldn’t believe she’d reverted back to her fourteen-year-old self as she awkwardly stood near the dining table. She wanted to blame it on their earlier conversation and his outpouring of bottled emotions, but she knew better. Doubts had begun to creep in on her as she realized again how presumptuous she’d been on Adrien’s behalf.

The oven’s timer proved a godsend as Marinette rushed to pull out their dinner though she took care not to burn herself again.

“It smells great,” Adrien said from his seat.

“Alya’s lucky to have a world-class chef as a mom,” she agreed.

“You’re not so bad yourself, Mari.”

She shot him a smile before turning back to dish out their bowls of the casserole. She was grateful for the mundane task since it gave her time to prepare herself. She hated lies, and she wouldn’t allow the one Alya gave to remain long. She couldn’t allow Adrien to leave without the truth of her whereabouts, praying she hadn’t made matters worse for him at home.

“I can go if you’d like, Mari. I know I probably weirded you out earlier.”

“Adrien Agreste, you did no such thing.”

With his eyes staring at his hands on the table, he whispered, “You’ve barely looked at me since you came home. It’s okay really. I weirded myself out, too. I didn’t mean a lot of what I said earlier. I think I’m just so frustrated, you know? I shouldn’t have said all that to you. You have enough on your plate right now.”

“Adrien, look at me.” She tapped his chin until his eyes met hers. “You can tell me anything. You never have to hide anything from me. I would never judge you. We all need a release now and then.”

One of his hands crept up to his neck as a soft blush appeared on his cheeks. His fingers ruffled some of the hairs on his nape in the process.

She wanted to smooth them out, but she didn’t have the right. To avoid temptation, she turned back to the casserole and continued dishing out their servings within bowls she pulled from a nearby cabinet.

“Thank you, Mari.” His arms wrapped around her waist, squeezing her slightly before letting her go with the smallest amount of hesitation.

Needing to calm her racing heart, she set the bowls on the table and gestured for them to eat.

Soon enough, they fell back into their normal comfort and talked about everything and anything that crossed their minds as they’d done before she’d pushed him to release his emotions. One topic they soon landed upon caused them both to nearly shout with excitement was the upcoming release of their favorite video game.

“We’ll have to make a day of it,” he said as he stood and took their bowls to the sink.

“Definitely.”

Her phone chimed with a text from Lawrence. Her time had come to tell the truth.

Swallowing the growing lump in her throat and bracing herself, she turned to face him as he put away the leftovers and said softly, “Alya and I lied to you earlier. I didn’t go to an emergency appointment with Mrs. Chamack.”

Adrien’s brows rose as he faced her, a slight frown marring his handsome features.

“Okay? So where did you go?”

This was it. Now or never, Marinette, she thought.

She took a long, deep breath and released it before she admitted, “I went to see your father.”

Chapter Text

After years of modeling, Adrien had learned the best way to stand perfectly still as others worked around him, demanding such inaction as a camera flashed brightly in his face. Hearing her confession put him into a similar state, wondering when the camera’s bright flash would dim. He couldn’t quite believe what he’d heard, hoping against hope he misheard her. Nothing could make sense to him as he tried to assemble a plausible reason for her seeing his father. At least, a reason that didn’t involve him and his earlier reaction to her prodding questions.

The frown he’d made upon hearing her first admission had only deepened. He worked to understand her possible reasons, willing to grasp at any flimsy straw he could. He couldn’t face her until he’d come up with a few that could possibly make sense. Even as his mind covered a variety of reasons, he kept checking them off as near impossible, causing his frown to morph into a scowl.

His cool gaze sought out hers as he prayed so fervently for having misheard her. He had to have heard her wrong because she’d never betray him like that. Even as the hope sparked, his rational side flared. While he might’ve misheard her a few years ago, his years as the holder of the Black Cat hadn’t exactly caused his hearing to dwindle. In fact, it’d enhanced his normal hearing outside his super suit.

The way her eyes bounced away as he found them confirmed his deepest fear yet. He hadn’t misheard her after all. She’d truly gone to see his father and spoke to the man based on her continued avoidance. Fearing the worst but willing to give her a chance, he asked in his softest voice, “Did you apply for his summer internship after all?”

Her eyes collided with his in shock and her voice trembled a little as she spoke in the same soft tone. “No, that passed months ago.”

She sat with her hands fidgeting in her lap, waiting for his next question or statement.

He couldn’t think of another for the life of him. Nothing else made any sense. If she hadn’t been a late acceptance, then she’d gone to his father for one reason alone.

A vile taste rose into his throat and threatened to embarrass him as he considered the harsh reality. She’d betrayed him after all. He didn’t know what to do with this new information. He certainly hadn’t considered she’d be the one to betray him, not after all they’d gone through to become friends. He had to admit the hurt cut deeper than he ever cared to admit aloud.

“Then, why?” He didn’t want to hear her answer though he needed to hear it. He needed to hear her admit to betraying his trust.

“I think you already know, Adrien. You can be oblivious, but you’re not that bad.” Her eyes met his again as though to convey something he needed to hear in her words.

For the life of him though, he couldn’t understand what that was. His blood pounded through his veins as he acknowledged the blow her words caused, the bile tasting bitter in his mouth. He didn’t know how he remained standing but felt sheer gratitude as her disappointment in him hurt far worse than his father’s ever had.

“Well, I guess that’s that, huh?” He’d managed to say the words though he couldn’t get the rest of his body to cooperate. He needed to leave, but his knees remained locked in place, keeping him bolted to the spot where he stood. “It was a nice run, you know? I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d disappoint my friends like I disappoint him.”

“That’s not it at all. Adrien, you’re not a disappointment.” She jumped from her chair and approached him with her hand outstretched.

He flinched away from her, almost afraid she’d burn him with her touch.

Something broke in him as he studied her tense frame and pleading eyes. He hated the way she looked at him at that moment. So full of pity and sympathy, she stood, waiting with a patience he’d seen her develop over the years. He’d never seen it directed at him before, mainly Chloe before the former mayor’s daughter had begun to change for the better.

“You scared me. What you said frightened me. Of course, I went to your father. He’s the one responsible, Adrien. Don’t you see? I did it because I care. We all care about you. If you left us, we’d notice. I would notice.” Her hand reached to swipe at the angry tears welling in her eyes. She took another step toward him but stopped. With a sigh, she whispered, “I know you think I betrayed you. If you want to hate me, it’s okay. I’d hate me, too, if I were you.”

He didn’t say anything as he considered what she’d said. It made no sense to him how she could justify her actions, and he resented her explanation even as it held a grain of truth. He’d be terrified if she’d said the same things he’d said earlier. He hadn’t meant them, not really but then, he couldn’t help how he’d felt over the years, either.

Knowing he had only one recourse, his body began to straighten, the invisible mantle he wore in public cloaking him. He was Gabriel Agreste’s only heir and had a reputation to uphold. While he’d failed earlier by spilling his frustrations to his friend, he’d learned a valuable lesson and wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. His father never afforded him second chances. He wouldn’t afford one to Marinette, either. Not this time. He couldn’t. No, she’d proved herself like all the others, believing she knew what was best for him regardless what he thought.

He forced himself to move toward her front door. As his hand clasped the cool metal knob, he turned back to her one last time. In a cold, final tone, he said, “Well, Mari, I’m sorry I’ve proven such an inconvenience. You won’t need to worry about my problems any longer. After all, I’m just a rich kid with daddy issues.”

A quick glance revealed her shocked expression, almost as if he’d slapped her hard.

She recovered quickly, however, and ran toward him, forcing the door from his hand. With a finger jab at his chest, she spoke with an equal amount of ice in her tone. “Don’t you dare, Adrien Agreste! You can hate me, but you don’t get to say such crap to me again. I have never looked down at you for being rich. In fact, I put you on a damn pedestal for far too long. You are one of my best friends. How can you not see that? I’d face the toughest akumas for you. I did face one today.”

“Well, no one asked you to be my champion. You’re not Ladybug, Marinette. You can’t fix everyone.” His words came out little more than a tired whisper. With another sigh, he added, “Maybe it’s time we faced facts. Maybe we should just admit we’re better off as acquaintances. We’ll hang out with Nino and Alya, but we won’t be alone again. Not anymore. I no longer trust you.”

With a resolve he didn’t feel, he pulled the door open again, uncaring if she remained in the way or not. He felt the briefest touch of relief when she stepped aside and allowed him to go, but he squashed it.

“Adrien?” Her hand touched his shoulder. “Please! You don’t mean that.”

He glanced over his shoulder as he spoke. “I actually do. Goodbye, Marinette.”

With that, he walked out the door, ignoring the tears that pooled in her eyes and leaked down her cheeks. He raced down the stairs, wanting as much distance as he could get from her. He could feel his resolve threatening to break as he realized he’d severed a friendship he’d once held so dear. Never in his almost eighteen years did he believe he’d ever want out of a friendship. He wasn’t entirely convinced he did, but he couldn’t back down after he’d made his feelings perfectly known. Not after she’d betrayed him by tattling to his father about his disappointing behavior. No, he’d made the best decision for all of them.

“You know you’re an idiot, kid,” Plagg mumbled from his pocket.

“Probably, but it’s over now. So, if you care at all, just keep your trap shut about it. Deal? She’s no longer our concern.”

“You’re making a big mistake, but I’m not your keeper, kid. You’ll realize soon enough. I’m not looking forward to being right this time, but you’ve made your bed.” Plagg finished his speech and settled deeper in Adrien’s pocket, intent on napping during their journey home. While he could feel the indecision in his chosen, he didn’t say another word.

For all his talk, Adrien found himself pausing at the side door, leading to the street where his limo would be waiting for him. His hand touched the knob, intent on turning it and walking out, but his mind screamed at him to stop and think. It screamed at him to turn around and talk to Marinette one more time.

He almost heeded what his mind begged from him, but he couldn’t. In the end, he stepped through the door and walked to the curb where his limo sat, the engine running.

The warm evening air welcomed him, threatening to oppress him with its retained heat, but he ignored it as he slipped into the back seat. The plush leather settled around him, comforting him as he sank deeper into its depths.

Grateful Lawrence didn’t say anything, he pulled his phone from his pocket and checked for any text messages, knowing he wouldn’t see any for a while. When he did, he probably wouldn’t want to read them. He knew his fight with Marinette would get back to Alya and Nino. It was just a matter of time. He could already imagine the words the Ladyblogger would have for him upon learning what he’d said. Nino, out of loyalty to the bro code, might try to side with Adrien, but that wouldn’t last. No, Nino wanted to keep his girlfriend, which meant siding with Marinette. So, he’d be alone once again when all was said and done.

The drive to his home took a few minutes, something Adrien lost all track or concern until Lawrence drove through the silent, gleaming gates of his father’s imposing mansion.

With a surprised blink, he glanced up at the house he’d called home all his life and felt nothing. It hadn’t been a home for almost seven years, not since the day his mother disappeared. No, it’d become a mausoleum to his father’s many accolades and awards as the largest fashion icon in this century.

Lawrence pulled the back door open and nudged the blond model into action by saying, “Time to go, young Adrien.”

Without a word, Adrien slid from his seat and straightened to his full height, knowing he’d need to face the dragon he called father sometime. He just hoped he could put it off a little longer, not wanting to hear his father’s bitter disappointment after learning of Marinette’s betrayal.

He took several determined steps with the intent of bypassing Nathalie’s desk and the lower floor as quickly and quietly as he could. He’d briefly considered sneaking around the side and transforming into Chat, but he doubted Plagg would oblige him after their earlier words. No, he’d need more camembert than what he had to appease the little cat god sleeping in his pocket.

As he reached the front doors, he took a deep breath, readying his replies to all comments Nathalie might have for him. He could only hope she’d allow him to seek refuge in his room for a few hours before seeing his father. Surely, he could convince her to give him some time. He knew she wasn’t completely heartless towards him, right?

Out of excuses, he shoved the door open and stepped into the grand gallery the house boasted with black and white tile and marble pillars. He barely spared a glance at his father’s office though the empty desk near the waiting area caught his attention. Surprised by Nathalie’s absence, he took full advantage and moved toward the stairs with a determined pace that quickly had him ascending towards his room.

Maybe his luck would hold this time. Maybe he’d escape the lecture he knew awaited him. He knew his father wouldn’t care he’d arrived home, safe as always, albeit a little later than curfew. No, his father had long since stopped caring as long as he knew where Adrien was. Only one thing would cause his father to seek him out. His father would care one of his friends had interrupted his busy schedule to detail his failings.

Not interested in another lecture, his steps quickened, but his luck didn’t hold.

“Adrien, we need to talk.”

Sighing and cursing his rotten luck, Adrien turned his head. He didn’t meet his father’s eyes as he spoke in a resigned tone. “Can it wait, Father? It’s been a long day. I’m not really up to hearing I’m a disappointment yet again.”

“Adrien Agreste, I am your father. Now, quit your dramatics and join me. You’re a man now. Act like one.” Gabriel shoved his door open wide and pointed to his desk.

“Fine. Let’s get this done so I can go to bed. I’m so done with this day.” He stomped down the stairs and kept several feet between him and his father. He flung himself into the nearest chair and stared back at the older Agreste with an insolent look. “So, Father, how disappointed are you this time? I’m sure Marinette gave you plenty of ammunition.”

 

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Gabriel flinched at the attitude his son flung at him, wondering how he’d missed this development over the past several months. He couldn’t imagine what Adrien thought of him as a man or as a father though he knew it couldn’t be too great. He hated this side of his son, knowing he’d failed.

Emilie, he knew, would be sorely disappointed in him if she could see their son then. She’d never wanted Adrien to become a cold, emotionless mess as what Gabriel witnessed before him. No, she’d blame Gabriel, and she’d be right to do so.

Leaning heavily on his cane, he walked into his office, his steps hesitating as he neared the seat next to Adrien. Wrapping his cloak of haughty arrogance around him like a security blanket, he sank into the chair and groaned. His leg had nearly given in the time it’d taken him to walk from his desk to the door and back. As much as he wished he could undo the injury to his leg, he had to admit it’d given him the opportunity to see what other’s have seen for years. He also had to admit they’d been right to be concerned about him and his son.

His eyes closed as he maneuvered into a bearable position within the uncomfortable chair, wishing he’d chosen his regular seat. Another groan slipped past the firm line of his lips as his leg hit the chair with a loud thwack.

When he managed to open his eyes again, he found Adrien watching him with a dismayed expression, his brows furrowed.

“I’m not disappointed in you,” he began, taking a moment to gather his thoughts.

Adrien took the advantage and mumbled, “That’s a first.”

Gabriel ignored the pang tearing through him as he fought to regain his composure. When he felt confident enough, he spoke again. “Look, Adrien, I recognize I’m not an easy man to please. It was something your mother had to constantly keep in check. But hear me now, I have never been prouder as a man or a father than the day you were born. I do love you, son. I just haven’t been the best at showing it, especially since your mother disappeared.”

A glance at his son showed him exactly how much he’d shocked the younger man.

“I don’t understand. All you’ve ever said was how I disappointed you. First by wanting to go to public school, then my choice of friends, and even the few times I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I find it hard to believe you.” Adrien’s hands raked his hair as he spoke, doing his best to process his father’s words.

“I get that. I can’t blame you, either. All I can say is I was afraid. Afraid I’d lose you like I’d lost your mother.” He dropped his gaze to his hands, which gripped his cane until his knuckles had gone white. “Losing your mother was painful. Losing you would surely destroy me.”

His son’s silence unnerved him, but he couldn’t think what else to say to make this better. He kept his gaze on his cane, unsure what he’d see if he glanced up at Adrien at that moment. He didn’t think he could bear to see his son’s censure of his behavior, even if it was rightly deserved. He could only hope he’d earn the younger man’s forgiveness before time ran out.

“Did it ever occur to you that you could lose me by trying to control me?” Adrien’s voice came out little more than a whisper.

When Gabriel risked glancing at his son, he caught Adrien’s eyes for a moment before they moved toward the nearest window. They stayed stubbornly fixated on some point beyond the glass though Gabriel wondered if his son saw anything beyond the thoughts plaguing his mind.

“Do you know how often I thought of running away and never looking back?”

“I don’t think I’d blame you, either, but you don’t know the entire story, Son.”

Adrien’s gaze came back and met his with open curiosity and more than a tiny amount of hostility. “Then, tell me now.”

Steeling himself, Gabriel managed to rasp out his next words, confessing, “Your mother had a stalker. She wasn’t all that concerned at first, believing him to be a mere admirer of her as an actress and model, you know? It wasn’t until he proved how far he’d go to see her, to be with her, when she became truly scared.”

He paused as he relived those vivid memories, shuddering as the pain and fear coursed through him, even as he’d staunchly stood next to his wife. He’d been prepared to do more than threaten the man for causing Emilie such discomfort, but he’d never gotten the chance.

“I don’t remember any of this.”

“You wouldn’t. We worked hard to keep this from you. It’s why we kept you locked away in this house. Your mother hated it. It wasn’t fair to you, but I couldn’t take the risk. If that man had ever gotten his hands on you, there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t have hurt you. He was getting desperate and grew more unstable with time.”

“Is this why you didn’t want me in public school? You dug your heels in so hard, but I never knew why.” Adrien sat forward in his chair, leaning closer to his father. His hand reached out to offer comfort, but he quickly pulled it back.

Gabriel smiled at the show of affection, hoping fervently his son never lost his innate kindness. He’d played no role in making his son a compassionate person. That’d been all Emilie, and he was grateful she still held such influence over their son.

“Yes, it’s partly why I refused. You’re innocent in many ways, Son. That’s my fault for keeping you so sheltered, but that innocence was something I didn’t want diminished. It reminded me of your mother and I didn’t want to lose that connection to her.”

His son didn’t say anything for several moments as he processed what Gabriel said. When he did speak again, he asked, “So, what’s the other part? Did that man have something to do with mother’s disappearance?”

Gabriel sighed, knowing he couldn’t keep this from the younger man any longer. In a raspy voice, he said, “She decided to leave, yes. She chose to lead the man away from our home to keep you and me safe. It’s not what I wanted, but she refused to listen. She could quite stubborn when she wanted to be.”

His mouth formed a soft smile as he remembered his proud wife that last day. She’d been so adamant and so beautiful as she proclaimed she’d protect their family. She’d promised she wouldn’t be gone forever, returning when the man had lost interest in her. She’d promised she wouldn’t rest until she came back to her two favorite men.

His smile dropped as he recalled the agony of the following months since her departure. “She left that day with such hope, Adrien. She’d known she was doing what she thought right. It just didn’t work out like she thought, I guess. The man came back and haunted us for a few months. It took weeks for the police to build a case and finally haul the man away.”

“Did he do something to her?”

“Not that I could prove. His return scared me enough to take extra measures around here. I’ll admit I may have gone overboard, but then, I’d seen so many fellow designers suffer at the hands of stalkers. One old friend was even murdered in Florida several years back by his stalker.”

Adrien’s brows rose at this information. Horror filled the younger man until he visibly began to shake at the revelations he’d learned.

With a comforting hand, Gabriel patted his son’s shoulder, waiting in patient silence for him to calm enough to continue their conversation. It took several minutes, but the father didn’t mind as he only regretted not telling the younger man sooner, knowing Adrien had deserved the truth. His fear had truly kept him locked away, far from his son or his son’s needs.

He had to swallow several times before he could speak past the growing lump in his throat.

“I am sorry for not trusting you, Son. I know I should’ve told you the truth a few years ago, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure I’m ready, but you’re almost a man. It’s time you knew the truth.” He paused as he swallowed again and tried to keep his voice even. He didn’t want his son to know how much hope hinged on his next words. “I know this doesn’t lessen what you’ve gone through. I’m just hoping maybe it’ll be enough for a refresh for us.”

“That sounds nice, Father,” Adrien said, his eyes meeting his father’s. He offered the older Agreste a small smile, which slowly melted into a frown as thoughts brought them back to the other half of their conversation. “But where does Marinette fit in all this?”

An image of the fiercely tenacious young woman flitted through Gabriel’s mind, causing a soft smile to form. He stood by his earlier assessment of her. He hadn’t lied to her when he’d admitted to her reminding him of Emilie and a bit of himself at that age. As he considered the proud warrior she’d become, he couldn’t think of a better-suited partner for his son. His smile grew as he considered she fit the bill in more ways than one.

“Ah, Mlle Dupain-Cheng. She’s not at all what I expected.” He chuckled as he replayed some of their saucier moments earlier, relishing the idea of her becoming a part of his family one day. He could only hope his son felt the same about her. Maybe, just maybe, he could help with that.

A quick glance at Adrien had his chuckle flowing once more as he met his son’s raised brows and incredulous expression. He wondered if the younger man’s brows could possibly rise any higher than they already were. It was bad enough his son could gather several flies with his gaping mouth.

In a rare gesture, he raised his hand and gently tapped Adrien’s chin until the younger Agreste closed his mouth, swallowing in the process.

Taking pity on his son, he offered the best explanation he could, saying, “You would do well, Son, to keep her around. I haven’t seen someone like her except your mother.”

“I don’t understand.”

Gabriel chuckled once more as he took in his son’s knitted brows and pinched frown. It took him far longer than he’d thought possible to answer the younger man’s question. “She opened my eyes today. She waltzed in here and demanded I listen to her. She even threatened to keep you until I came around. She somehow got Nathalie on her side. I also suspect Lawrence, too, came around to her side. Did you know Nathalie threatened to quit because of you? I’m sure Lawrence would’ve followed suit if given the chance.”

“Why? I, um, I don’t understand. Why would they do that?”

The stark disbelief in Adrien’s words caused Gabriel’s good humor to evaporate, anguish filling as he considered how little his son truly saw in the people around him. He averted his face to keep his emotions from revealing his turmoil to the younger man. He couldn’t believe his son saw so little worth in himself. Gabriel could only berate himself all kinds of fool for allowing his son to believe such.

Hoping to clarify matters, Gabriel gazed at his son as he spoke in a soft tone. “I know you don’t. That’s my fault. I really am sorry for that.” He paused before he said, “Did you know I offered your friend an internship today? She’s quite talented and would go far with a little guidance.”

“I know. She’s amazing.” Adrien took a moment before he ventured to ask. “What did she say?”

“She turned me down. Said she wouldn’t work for me because she’d never betray your friendship.”

“Then, why did she by coming to see you?”

“She thought I’d know better than anyone else about losing someone they care about. She wanted my help to keep from losing you.”

“Lose me? What made her think that?”

Another moment of truth came, and Gabriel hated it. He didn’t want his son to know how much the words Adrien had spoken hurt him. Knowing he couldn’t forestall this any longer, he pulled his cane in front of him, pulling himself to a stand. A muffled grunt escaped as he balanced before taking the necessary steps around his desk.

Rather than sit down, he leaned over the keyboard, punching the proper keys to pull up the audio file Marinette had made. He had the segment he wanted queued up in seconds, hoping his son would forgive his friend for recording their conversation without his knowledge. Hitting the correct button, he allowed the recording to replay the short piece. He watched his son’s face close as dawning comprehension and horror displayed for all to see.

“She really thought I wanted to harm myself?” A frown marred the younger man’s features as he considered something that Gabriel could only begin to guess. “She wasn’t lying. She really cares about me.”

As if coming back to himself and the situation, Adrien looked at his father and whispered, “I’d never really hurt myself. I may hate my situation at times but not enough to harm myself.”

Gabriel wanted to believe him, but he hesitated, knowing he’d seen stronger people take to self-harm as a way to handle their dire situations. He never wanted such a thing for Adrien, but he knew he’d have no one to blame but himself. In a hesitant, tired voice, he asked, “Are you sure, Son? I think it’d be wise for both of us to get some counseling, don’t you? Maybe help rebuild what we’ve lost these past seven years.”

The younger Agreste shrugged his shoulders before he finally voiced his agreement.

Gabriel came back to his previous seat and sank down with sheer exhaustion. He’d had enough of this emotional rollercoaster, but they weren’t done. He couldn’t abandon his son until they covered a few more topics.

Gathering up the last of his reserved energy, he said, “I’ve also been thinking about your schedule. You’ll be eighteen soon and old enough to make your own decisions. If you’d like to lessen your load, I’ll understand and support your decision. This includes your various lessons and modeling commitments.”

“I wouldn’t mind less modeling. It’s not really my thing. Plus, I’m tired of ditching my friends or school to do one shoot or another. However, I’m not against one or two a week if you need me.”

“Thank you, son. Now, what about your lessons? Do you wish to continue them?”

“Actually, I’ve come to enjoy them. So, yes, I’d like to continue if I can.”

“Of course.”

Gabriel glanced out the window and noted the darkening sky beyond. With a soft smile, he turned back to his son and said, “Well, I’ve had enough excitement for one day. Why don’t we call it tonight? I’ve had Nathalie clear our schedules for the week. So, if you’d like, we can talk more tomorrow. How about breakfast? Say eight-thirty?”

Adrien glanced at his father with some surprise, but he smiled at the older man as he saw the sincerity in Gabriel’s eyes.

Satisfied he’d begun the necessary work in repairing their relationship, Gabriel wished his son a good night, covering a tired yawn. He stood with great care and headed for the hidden elevator he’d installed within his office, pressing the necessary button to take him to the second floor. He turned back to see his son, sitting frozen still in his spot near the desk and hoped Adrien wouldn’t stay up worrying too late.

“I promise you aren’t dreaming, Son. Get some sleep, okay?”

Adrien nodded, albeit absently.

Knowing his son had a decent head on his shoulders, he allowed the elevator’s doors to close as the cage propelled him to the upper level of their home. They may have a long road ahead, but Gabriel didn’t worry about that, knowing his wife would be smiling down upon them from that point on.

 

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Adrien lost track of time as he sat frozen in the chair he’d claimed a few hours back. He’d learned so much about his father, his mother, and even himself in a short amount of time. His head ached as he tried to come to terms with all he’d learned, but he feared that would take more hours than the day had left. He almost believed he could live through an entire year or ten and still find it hard to reconcile what he’d known with what he’d learned.

Hearing his father admit to loving him and wanting them to be closer had been the most surprising. He’d lived with his father’s censure for so long that he’d long given up hope of ever experiencing anything different. He honestly didn’t know what to do with the new information. He needed so much, but he didn’t know if he could seek them out to help this newest conundrum.

He had to be dreaming. That was the only possible explanation. He’d always wanted to hear the words his father had finally spoken that evening. He’d wanted them so much that he’d fallen into bed after arriving home and dreamt the whole situation. He couldn’t reason out another explanation for the events that happened.

Because if there was another explanation, then he’d have to acknowledge his earlier actions. He’d have to admit he’d tossed away one of his most precious friends as if she meant nothing to him. Marinette’s sweet smile and large bluebell eyes haunted him, teasing him as he realized that was exactly what he’d done.

With an audible groan, he dropped his head into his hands, rubbing the weariness from his eyes as best he could. Unable to utter his own stupidity, he raked his hands through his hair, ruffling the once perfect tufts until he almost resembled his superhero persona.

“Oh, God, I really am an idiot.” His words came out little more than a resigned whisper.

Too bad for him, Plagg’s excellent hearing caught them. He emerged a moment later, shooting Adrien a knowing smirk as he said, “Well, at least we finally agree on that.”

“Plagg, I’m serious. What am I supposed to do here?”

“Beg for her forgiveness, I guess. Groveling never hurts. Buy her some cheese. Cheese always works for me.” Plagg’s smirk grew wider though his eyes narrowed some as he added, “You owe me cheese after your earlier sass.”

“You’ll get it, but Mari isn’t going to want some stinky cheese. No, it has to be something she’ll want.” His head snapped up as he sought out Plagg, focusing on the tiny cat kwami. With his best kitten pout in place, he asked, “How about a quick run?”

“No.”

Knowing he’d need a good bribe, he settled on one he knew would work, saying, “Please? I’ll triple your next camembert order.”

“I don’t know, kid.  It’s probably a terrible idea.” Plagg regarded his chosen with some hesitation, knowing Adrien could use the relief that came from a run, but he also knew how Tikki felt about their chosen’s abusing their suits when the need wasn’t warranted.

While Plagg continued his internal conflict, Adrien knew he couldn’t lose this battle and sought his advantage when he realized his kwami was softening toward his plight. He just needed to give the black cat a little more incentive, offering up a better bribe than before.

“Quadruple.”

Plagg sighed. “Fine, kid. Let’s go.”

Adrien didn’t waste time as he hurried up the stairs to his room, disregarding the nagging he felt at seeing the cane his father had used earlier. He also ignored how much his father had leaned upon it, even using an elevator he hadn’t known existed as the older man sought his bed. No, he’d have time to focus on those concerns later. Right then, he needed to learn what he could about Marinette and how he could earn her friendship back. He’d do anything, he realized, as he shut his bedroom door and flipped the lock.

Minutes later, he leaped from his window and raced over the familiar rooftops until he stood across from the one he wanted.

Grateful for his night vision, he stood in the shadows and watched the lone figure sitting in her lounge chair, staring out over the city as it shone with thousands of lights. He wanted to be sure she remained alone, not wanting his approach witnessed by their mutual friends or even strangers.

He almost hesitated as he realized how thankful he felt as he stared at her from his vantage point. He couldn’t begin to express how relieved he felt she wasn’t wallowing in her room. Not that he expected her to wallow because of him, mind you. He recognized he had some nerve in visiting her after the hurtful words he’d flung at her, but he needed this chance. He needed her forgiveness.

Knowing he couldn’t stay in the shadows forever, he took one final glance at her before he extended his baton and vaulted over the street. With a practiced ease he’d developed over the years, he grabbed her railing and steadied himself. Assured he’d made the landing, he turned a soft smile to the young woman before him and whispered, “Hello.”

She startled briefly, her eyes landing on him and staring for several moments before she finally answered. “Hey, Chat. What are you doing out?”

“Needed a run. It helps clear my head, you know?”

“I understand that. Um, you missed Ladybug. Saw her about ten minutes ago.”

“Well, that’s too bad.” Adrien smiled as he latched onto the excuse she’d given him, saying “I was hoping to talk to her, but maybe you can help me out instead.”

“Me? Help the great Chat Noir?”

He smiled down at her. He could only hope he didn’t screw this up. Using her surprise to his advantage, he said, “Well, yeah. I could use some friendship advice.”

“Oh. I don’t know if I’m the best person. I lost a friend today.” Her eyes drifted from him, gazing out over the city without really seeing it. Her lips lost their welcoming smile, becoming a frown as her thoughts drifted inward.

Knowing his chance had come, he moved a little closer to her and rested one of his clawed hands on her shoulder. In a soft voice, he asked, “You wanna talk about it?”

She shook her head, clearing away the thoughts plaguing her. With a glance up at him, she again shook her head in answer, adding, “No, not really. I did something, and now he hates me. I’m not sure I even blame him.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

She laughed at that. It hurt him to hear it because it lacked her usual mirth. She sobered almost immediately as she met his gaze with a saddened expression, tears threatening to spill once again. She spoke in a softer voice than before.

“I went behind his back and sought out his cold and distant father. I wanted him to stop hurting. I just hadn’t counted on how much I’d hurt him, too.”

His heart lurched at her words, reminding him how harshly he’d judged her actions. He’d been so quick to think the worst, never counting on her motives being so altruistic. He might not have agreed with her actions, but she hadn’t betrayed him as he claimed. He hated he’d caused her such pain. Hoping to ease some of it, he chose his next words with care, saying, “Maybe he’ll come around. Maybe he’ll realize how stupid he was to distrust you.”

She laughed again. The same humorless laugh escaped her lips. He hated it more the second time around. When she managed to stem its flow, she turned her face back to the skyline. Her words came out so low he almost couldn’t make them out even with his enhanced hearing.

“Doubtful, but it’s a nice thought. No, I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again. It sucks, too, because I love him. He’s my best friend and all I wanted was to protect him, help him. Instead, I screwed it up.” She stopped to swallow the sob threatening to escape at her despair. She remained quiet for a few minutes. When she finally regained her composure, she turned to him with a soft smile and said, “You came to talk about your problems yet we’re talking about mine. I’m sorry, Chat. That was terribly rude of me. So, how can I help you?”

He couldn’t speak. She’d tossed a hand grenade at him, and he had no clue how to disassemble it. He’d never thought he’d meet someone like her. Sure, they’d had a rocky start, but she’d quickly become one of his best friends. She’d warmed up to him, talked to him, and helped him as much as he helped her. She’d done all of it without ever expecting anything in return except friendship.

He hated himself as he realized how selfless she continued to be, asking him how she can help even as she remained miserable. He’d never seen anyone put aside their pain to help someone with theirs. He knew he didn’t deserve her as a friend. He should just walk away and let her heal without him in her life. She’d definitely be better off. Maybe some lucky guy would come along and grab what Adrien had so carelessly tossed aside in anger.

“Chat? Are you okay?”

He’d become so lost in his thoughts he hadn’t seen her move from her chair, standing next to him and resting her hand on his arm. The touch almost burned him through his suit as her eyes sought his with concern for him.

“I think I really screwed up. I have this amazing friend. She’s everything you could ever want in a friend, you know?” At her nod, he continued, “She can be so protective of those she loves, too. She came to my defense today. Instead of being grateful, I, um, I said some rather cruel things to her. I know I hurt her something fierce. I just hope I can make it up to her. Any ideas how I can do that?”

“Well, an apology goes a long way.”

“I think I might need more than a few pretty words, no matter how heartfelt they are.” He moved toward the railing of her balcony and leaned over it, gazing out over the city. He didn’t know if he could meet her eyes as she puzzled through his words. How he wished he had the right to wrap her in his arms and hold her until she knew the truth.

“You won’t know until you try, Chat.” She came to stand next to him, her arm brushing against his. “So, what did you say to Ladybug to tick her off?”

He chuckled as he pictured what Ladybug would’ve done if he’d said what he had to her instead of Marinette. He fought back his shudder as he pictured it all too clearly. “I don’t think you’d be talking to me if I’d upset Ladybug. She’d skin this tomcat alive for saying what I did.”

Marinette smiled at him, meeting his gaze for a moment. With a thoughtful look, she said, “You know a small, handmade gift can help, too.”

“I’m not the craftiest person. I’m better at numbers and equations. Do you think she might accept a gift like jewelry or another token? I have another friend who swears jewelry cures all ills.”

“Well, that depends on your friend. Does she like jewelry? Do you see her wearing it a lot?”

He thought for a moment, studying Marinette as covertly as he could. He realized then with some satisfaction and curiosity that he rarely saw her wear any jewelry, save the earrings. He didn’t even know if she owned another pair since the ones currently in her ears were always present. He’d have to rethink the jewelry idea.

“What about you? What would gain your forgiveness if your friend had screwed up like I did?”

“There’s nothing I truly need or want other than his friendship back. I guess my case is slightly different than yours though. So, I guess to answer your question, I would want something personal.”

She had his attention as she continued to consider his question.

When she remained silent far longer than he could handle, he prodded, asking, “Like what?” At her questioning look, he added, “Ideas.”

“Well, I like sewing supplies. You know? Nice fabrics, sewing notions, and the like. Though, I guess I wouldn’t mind more sketching supplies. I go through a lot when inspiration strikes me.” She shot him a smile, one brow quirked as she considered him for several quiet moments. His silence seemed to spur her on though as she soon continued. “If you think you really screwed up with me, then I guess you couldn’t go wrong with a new sewing machine or even a new mannequin wouldn’t hurt.”

She shot him a teasing smile.

He did his best to return the smile with one of his own, but his mind whirled with possibilities. He had so much to do before he met up with her as his civilian self again. He remained thankful he had a few days to get everything together, not wanting any possible reason she could decline his apology and send him away.

He wanted to make it up to her and he’d be damned if he didn’t pull out all the stops. After all, she’d done the same for him on a number of occasions as he learned that evening.

He stayed a little longer, asking her a few more questions and learning a bit more about her. Soon enough, though, his time came to an end as she fought back yawn after yawn. He felt bad he’d kept her past her bedtime. He thanked her for helping him and assisted her into her room, dropping a soft kiss on her knuckles.

With a final wish for a good night to her, he vaulted from her balcony and raced back toward his home. He had some shopping to do before he called it a night himself.

 

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The days crept by for Marinette as she remained locked in her misery from the fight she’d lost with Adrien. She missed him more than she ever cared to admit, especially to him. She’d been thankful she had some distractions through Alya and Nino the last couple of days, but she didn’t know how she’d survive that day.

That day being Friday.

Adrien had promised to help her in the bakery before she’d blown up their friendship. While she’d still do anything to help him, she realized how her actions may have come across to him. She wished she could redo that whole day and reconsider her actions, but then, she also knew herself well enough that she probably would have gone through with her plan. She wouldn’t have just sat and let her friend say such things and do nothing. It wasn’t her nature.

“Marinette, it’s time to get up,” Tikki called out softly, bringing her chosen’s ringing phone closer.

“I’m up, Tik. Thank you, though.” She silenced her alarm and stretched her tired muscles, grateful her parents would be home soon. She could use some warm hugs from her mother after all she’d gone through that week.

“Did you sleep at all?”

Marinette glanced at her small kwami, a soft smile gracing her tired features as she shook her head.

“You can’t keep going like this? What if Paris needs Ladybug?”

“I know, Tik, but I can’t sleep, knowing he hates me.” Tears threatened to blur her exhausted eyes, but she quickly brushed them away.

“Oh, Marinette, he won’t hate you forever. He’ll come around. I just know it.”

“I wish I had your enthusiasm.” Marinette descended the stairs of her loft bed and moved into her bathroom, determined to make the most of the day. While she might be managing alone, she’d handle it. She was Ladybug. She could handle anything thrown at her.

She applied a liberal amount of concealer under her eyes, hoping to rid them of their dark shadows before attempting the rest of her makeup routine. When she felt fairly decent and ready to tackle the day, she quickly donned her outfit and favorite apron, which she’d worn to her room the night before in her exhaustion.

She entered the small kitchen and grabbed an apple or two along with some cookies she’d made the day before for her and Tikki. With them in hand, she checked the time and dashed down to the bakery where she prepped the ovens and began working on the day’s worth of baked goods she’d preplanned to make.

She quickly got into a groove she’d learned from her years of helping her father. Soon, she had the ovens full of baking goods, more ready to go, and other projects she just needed to coat with icing. All this and the clock barely chimed six-twenty. She had plenty of time before opening to have everything ready.

She smiled.

At least, she could do this right. She could make baguettes, cupcakes, and croissants. She could ice and glaze the correct ones with fancy colors and extra sweetness. She could do all this and not make a mistake.

“Marinette, you’re doing it again.” Tikki’s chiding words came to her moments later.

“I know. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it.”

“Oh, I hate seeing you like this. Can we close early? I think you need a break.”

She smiled down at her kwami, grateful for the bond they shared.

“I wish, but no, I already closed early a few days ago, remember? Mama and Papa won’t be thrilled to realize I closed early twice in one week.”

“Okay, but you’re not doing anything on Sunday. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” Marinette pulled Tikki close and nuzzled the sweet ladybug entity. She didn’t know what she’d do without Tikki in her life.

A knock on the side door startled them both.

While Tikki zipped to her hiding place, Marinette did a quick check on her goods before hurrying toward the door. She knew it had to be one delivery man or another though she hadn’t expected them quite so early. They didn’t usually arrive until after their morning rush when her parents could help bring it all in.

As she came to the door, she pulled it open with an apology on her lips. It quickly died as she gazed upon the familiar blond figure standing on the other side.

“What are you doing here?”

She stared in shock as Adrien turned toward her and grinned sheepishly, his hand rubbing the back of his neck. She hadn’t expected to see him. She didn’t know how to react to his presence after the silence she’d gotten from him the past few days.

“Hey, Mari. I promised to help you, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’d been before I betrayed you. You said you didn’t want to be friends any longer, Adrien. I’m really confused right now.”

“I know, but I was wrong. I was terribly, terribly wrong. I shouldn’t have said that to you.” His hand reached for hers, but she kept herself back despite the desire to touch him. Seeing this, he pulled his hand back and fidgeted in front of her. “I’m really sorry I hurt you. I overreacted big time, and I can’t say how much it’s killed me not to come sooner. I’ve missed you.”

“I, um, I really don’t have time. I need to get back to the ovens before my baguettes burn.”

“I can help. Let me help, Mari, please. Let me try and make it up to you somehow. I want my friend back.” His eyes became kitten-like as they pleaded with her.

She hated how much those eyes seemed to work on her, feeling her earlier pride loosening its grip and her natural ability to forgive creeping over her.

“Are you sure, Adrien? I mean, really sure? I know I overstepped, but I didn’t do it to hurt you.”

She glanced down at her shoes, unable to meet his eyes. She didn’t want to see his earlier hatred of her resurface because she’d brought back that awful fight they’d had.

“I know.”

Her gaze shot up and collided with his. She didn’t know if she could believe him. Three days of radio silence from him made her slightly wary.

At her dubious look, he added, “I do now. I’m really sorry I hurt you. I, um, I brought you something to show you how much you mean to me.”

Following his gaze, she gasped at the box sitting next to him. The picture on the side revealed more than she ever though possible. He’d gotten her the best sewing machine on the market.

Before she could say anything, he said, “There’s more if this isn’t enough.”

She’d never been more speechless.

Chapter Text

A timer sounded from the kitchen, pulling Marinette from her frozen state.

“Adrien, I can’t accept that. It’s too much.” She dared a glance at him, seeing the slight frown marring his features. “I will accept your help though. I do want to be friends but not like this. I don’t need gifts.”

The timer chimed again.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get that.” She hurried from the door, leaving him standing there without giving him an invitation to come in. She didn’t think he’d need one, but she couldn’t dwell on that as she hurried to the ovens, pulling out the baguettes before they could burn.

She sighed in relief as she made out their golden glow without a hint of dark brown or black to mar their surface. With quick movements, she set them on the racks to cool and put in another batch. A swift check of the other two ovens warned her she didn’t have much time before they’d be going off as well.

Sighing, she debated hurrying back to the side entrance to see if Adrien had decided to stick around or to leave, believing their friendship too much effort to maintain any longer. She cringed at the thought of the latter being the case, but then, she’d never seen him so angry with anyone, let alone her after the other night. She couldn’t blame him, either, since she’d known exactly what she’d been doing and would probably do it again.

With the chiming of the other timers, she made quick work of removing the baguettes and other goods from the ovens, only to replace them with the next batches. As she moved to put them on the cooling racks, she caught some movement through her periphery and whispered, “Not now, Tik. I’m doing the best I can, okay?”

“I’m sure you are, Mari, but I’d still like to help if I can.” Adrien stood next to the prep table and offered her a shy smile, even as she squeaked in surprise and knocked the cooling racks.

“You scared me. I thought you’d left.” She righted the racks before they could topple, ruining her hard work that morning. She really didn’t want to start over when opening would be happening soon.

“I needed to speak with Lawrence for a bit, or I would’ve been inside sooner.” He inched closer to her, his steps hesitant almost like he was prepared for her rejection of him and his presence in her bakery. “Do you want me to go? I will if you can’t forgive me. I wouldn’t forgive me for what I said if I were you.”

She didn’t meet his gaze until she’d become satisfied the racks were stable once again. When she did, she gasped at his nearness and the sadness lurking in the depths of his eyes. Fearing what might happen if she didn’t handle the situation right this time, she moved closer to him, keeping her arms at her sides as she regarded him, unsure if he’d want her touch at that moment.

“Stay.” The word escaped before she could stop it. However, she didn’t want to call it back as she watched his tense body relax and his eyes widen in surprise. “Please stay, Adrien.”

Silence stretched between them as they both worked to control their reactions to her desire for him to stay. While Marinette wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around him and keep him there, she worried he’d resent the motion despite knowing how much he generally liked and sought physical contact with others. She wouldn’t push those bounds with him even if her desire threatened to overwhelm her.

Adrien recovered from his shock first, asking, “So, where do you need me, boss?”

A fiery blush spread across her cheeks even as she returned his grin with a shy smile of her own.

Over the next several minutes, she walked him through the opening routine for the bakery, including the stocking of display cases and setting the few tables the front sported. She showed him how to work the register in case she was pulled elsewhere during the day, handing him her laminated cheat sheet of baked goods with their corresponding prices. She listed the few specials she’d planned with her parents for that day as well as anything else that came to mind.

When she finished, she turned to him and asked, “Still sure you want to help out? It’s a lot of information, I know.”

She’d forgotten how quietly he could move when he wanted, jumping when one of his hands touched her arm while the other touched her chin, urging her to look at him. When she did, a breath of air escaped her as she caught the fondness in his expression. His eyes crinkled at the corners and a soft smile curved his lips. She briefly wondered what it’d be like to kiss those same lips though she shut those thoughts down fast, not wanting to dwell on something that’d never happen between them.

“Mari, you’re not going to scare me away with a tiny bit of detail. I’m made of sterner stuff than that, or at least I should be, right? Now, where do you want me? Out front or in the kitchen?” His brow quirked as a sly grin took over the soft smile as he continued, “I’ll warn you though I’m not the greatest baker. I’ll give it a shot if that’s where you want me.”

Licking her dry lips, she worked to form words, but nothing would come out to her dismay. She hadn’t seen this side of him in a while, admitting silently how much she’s missed it. Her desire to kiss him heightened to a greater peak than before as she continued to regard him in silence.

“Mari?”

“Hmm?”

Before he could say anything else, an impatient knock sounded on the front door, causing both teens to jump and glance around in a guilty fashion.

“Guess it’s time to open, huh? I’ll get the door while you finish up whatever you need to, okay?”

“Okay.” She didn’t move, too fixated on watching Adrien as he walked smoothly to the front door and unlocked the deadbolt. He greeted the couple standing on the other side with his typical friendliness, soon calming their harried nerves and inviting them inside the bakery.

When he turned toward her and found her still in the same place, he raised a brow at her, finally spurring her into action and dashing for the kitchen to pull the cooled bread and other goods toward the display cases out front.

As she emerged from the back, he pulled her to the side and whispered, “You okay? You looked a little off a second ago.”

She nodded, taking a moment before she spoke in a similar soft tone. “I’m fine. I promise.”

“Should we talk about before?”

“Yes, we should but not now. How about after work tonight? Dinner? My treat.”

He smiled. “Dinner sounds great, but it’ll be my treat, okay?”

He didn’t give her a chance to argue as he turned back to the customers as they approached the register with their purchases in hand.

Not wanting to argue with him, she clamped down on her protests and moved toward the displays, placing the baguettes in their usual bin. With them settled, she turned to the few sheets of cookies she’d made that morning, working on setting them on their trays within the case.

Once her hands had emptied, she returned to the kitchen for her next few batches and their ultimate destinations for customers to peruse and pick to their hearts’ content.

The morning passed rather quickly as Adrien handled the customers with relative ease, winning them over with his charming, outgoing personality. His eagerness to please shone through his friendliness, causing even the grumpiest of customers to leave with smiles on their faces. Marinette couldn’t help but wonder at his ability to make people around him so happy with just a smile. She’d been the recipient often enough, but it still caused her some pause as she watched him work due to his own inability to see how he affects others without even really trying. She had to admit she loved that about him.

“Hey, Mari, do we have any more snickerdoodles?” He moved toward the kitchen where she’d been pulling out a few sheets of cookies and croissants.

“Yeah, they’ll be ready in a few minutes. Let them know we’ll give them a few extra for having to wait.” She sent him a smile as he moved to inform the customers, feeling her phone buzzing in her pocket. She ignored it as she moved everything to the cooling racks and began to wipe down the prep counter, readying it for the next batch she’d be making.

Adrien joined her a few minutes later after he’d given the customer their cookies with his heartfelt gratitude for them waiting a little longer.

She shot him a smile as he grabbed a cleaning rag and joined her in tidying up. “Having fun out there?”

“Actually, I am. Thank you for letting me stay.” He didn’t meet her gaze as he worked though a smile played across his lips as he quietly hummed to himself.

Wanting to capture him in that moment, she pulled her phone from her pocket and went to pull up her camera app when she caught the missed text from Alya. She chose to ignore it a second longer as she hurried to her app and snapped a photo before Adrien finished his task, smiling as he glanced up when the flash went off.

“That better not end up in a tabloid, Mlle Dupain-Cheng.” His tone implied he was teasing, but the words still managed to sting her.

She frowned as she debated deleting the picture, her eyes suddenly going blurry from unwanted tears.

“Hey, no, I didn’t mean that. Mari, I’m so sorry. Please, I swear I didn’t mean it.” His arms wrapped around her, having hurried to her side when she hadn’t noticed him move again. He rubbed her back in a comforting, circular pattern while making shushing noises to stop her tears from falling. “Don’t cry. Please, don’t cry.”

She nestled into him, taking comfort in his warmth though she knew she should pull back. They still had the store to mind and customers to tend to, but she wanted that moment to last forever. Her arms wrapped around his waist as she clung to him a moment longer, needing that extra bit of time to compose herself once again and rebuild the smile she’d been wearing all morning as she worked beside him.

Before she could pull back and thank him for the hug, strong, lean fingers gripped her upper arms and ripped her from his grasp. She fought them even as she worked to turn around and identify the culprit, gasping when she succeeded and found herself staring at a furious Alya and a sheepish Nino.

“Adrien Agreste, you better have a good explanation for being here after you hurt Marinette the way you did,” Alya yelled at him.

Oh, no, Marinette groaned as she realized Alya had formed her own conclusions. Once again, her best friend had made the wrong ones and was ready to battle the one person she’d deemed the villain in their small circle. She just hoped she could make Alya see the truth before more damage was caused.

 

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Adrien stared at Alya as if he’d never seen her before.

Surely, he’d heard wrong. She couldn’t be implying that he’d do anything to hurt Marinette, even though he knew deep down he’d done just that.

He glanced over at Nino and saw his best friend, standing in the doorway with the most guilty-looking expression he’d ever seen on the other guy. Nino hadn’t looked that guilty since he’d recalled the events during his time as Bubbler, wanting Adrien to know how sorry he’d been about that day. Though Adrien had never blamed him, he also knew the guilt of becoming a minion to someone else. He’d been that same minion a few times over the years, thanks to one akumatized villain or another.

Unsure what to say as he faced Alya again, he tried for the truth, hoping to ease the anger in her. “I promised to help Marinette out today.”

“You think she wants you here after the way you hurt her. She’s too nice for her own good sometimes. I can guarantee she doesn’t want you here. Why don’t you leave before you make things worse?”

“Al, babe, calm down, please. We don’t know the whole story, do we?” Nino moved closer to his girlfriend, hoping to soothe her anger and get her to see reason, having seen the surprise and hurt dash across Adrien’s face.

Turning to Marinette, Alya ignored Nino. “Tell him, Marinette. Tell him how he’d hurt you so bad that you couldn’t stop crying all day. You worked in the back because you didn’t want the customers to see how distraught you were. He did that. He deserves to know.”

The words hit Adrien hard as he sought Marinette’s gaze, hoping she’d deny them. He didn’t think he could handle hurting her so bad. He didn’t know what he’d do if Alya spoke the truth, knowing he’d never be able to make up for such damage. Guess having the power of destruction could work wonders even outside his suit with a few well-chosen words to a dear friend. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Look, M. High-and-Mighty, if you want to be angry with anyone, it should be me. I convinced her to use the recording app in the first place. She didn’t want to, but I made her. I knew you’d never have the guts to speak to your father openly, so I convinced Marinette this was the only way.” Alya moved close enough to him she could poke him in the chest, which she did with great relish. Each stab of her finger might as well have been a knife to the heart as he realized how much he’d assumed.

“Is this true, Mari?” He didn’t move even though he wanted to, but Alya kept him firmly separated from Marinette. His gaze sought hers for confirmation or any sign that he hadn’t made things worse by making assumptions about what happened.

Marinette turned to Nino and whispered, “Watch the front for me please?”

Nino hurried to do her bidding, not saying a word as Marinette turned her attention to Alya and Adrien.

Adrien’s brows knitted as he continued to watch her, waiting for the proverbial hammer to fall on him with her next words. It never came.

“Alya, really? We’re working. You can’t come in here and start yelling when the bakery’s open, you know that.” Marinette’s arms had crossed over her chest as she glared at her best friend. “Besides that, I didn’t tell you anything, so you’re getting angry over what you don’t understand. Do we really need a repeat of Lady Wifi?”

Marinette’s gaze softened as she spoke, not wanting Alya to believe she hated her for becoming a victim to Hawk Moth years ago.

“No, we don’t, but he doesn’t deserve to get off lightly, Marinette. He didn’t see you the other day; I did. Shouldn’t he have some regret for that?” Alya managed to sneak a glare at Adrien even as she spoke to Marinette.

“Of course, I looked terrible. I hurt him, Al. We all did.” Marinette looked at him for the first time as she said those words, her expression sorrowful. Her gaze didn’t leave his as she continued to speak to Alya. “You may have told me about the app on my phone, but it was my choice to use it without his knowledge. I hurt him by acting as I did. I went behind his back rather than give him a chance to face his problems himself. He had every right to be angry with me because I did betray him that afternoon. I used his trust in me against him. I don’t know if he’ll ever truly forgive me for that. I’m not sure I want him to, frankly.”

She paused and took a shaky breath, her eyes never wavering as she waited for him to process her words.

She amazed him as he kept getting reminders how he’d never met anyone like her before. Sure, she might remind him of Ladybug every so often, but she was so much more to him than Ladybug could ever be. She was his best friend, surpassing even Nino as he admitted how much her words helped in healing the residual anger still within him at her actions. While he knew he’d never forget what she’d done or what he’d said in return, he also knew they’d be okay, maybe even better than okay.

Before he could even form a thought and vocalize it, she began speaking again, this time her attention on Alya rather than him.

“Now, Alya, I love you, but we still have work to do. I promise I’ll call you later, but Adrien and I need to get back to it.”

Alya nodded, hugging Marinette close for several seconds before pulling away. She moved toward the kitchen’s doorway, readying to leave when she stilled long enough to turn and rush to his side, wrapping him in her tight grip.

“I’m sorry, Sunshine. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions about what happened. I just don’t like anyone messing with Marinette, you know?” Her arms squeezed him enough to block him from taking a breath. “How about I buy you two lunch? Nino and I can cover while you eat?”

Adrien found Marinette and shrugged his shoulders as she regarded him. With a soft smile, she nodded her head and walked back to the front while he handled Alya and her remorseful gesture.

Soon, he sent her on her way, a smile teasing at his lips though it quickly faded as he found Marinette handling a customer. The earlier encounter came back to him as he realized she’d taken the fault for their friends as well as herself, but he couldn’t understand why she’d do that. Why not spread the blame around? His father’s employees never failed to do so whenever his father grew angry about some mishap though Gabriel knew better than to believe everything his employees said to protect their livelihoods.

He wanted to ask her about it, but he never got the chance as Alya and Nino soon returned, sending first him, then Marinette, to eat as the others tackled the bakery. Even when they left and he had Marinette in a lull at the bakery, he didn’t get his chance as her parents surprised them with their early arrival.

“Maman! Papa, what are you doing back? I didn’t expect you until late tomorrow.” Marinette rushed to greet them, hugging each one in turn and giggling as her father lifted her several inches off the ground.

“Well, we heard you two had a little trouble, and we’d gotten all we’d needed from the convention, so here we are.” Tom gestured at him and Sabine before encompassing the bakery itself.

Adrien didn’t know what to make of Tom’s words, wondering if Marinette had told her parents something when she hadn’t said anything to Alya. He figured she’d tell Alya before she’d tell her parents what happened, but he couldn’t come to any other conclusion until Marinette groaned and muttered Alya’s name.

“She shouldn’t have called you. I’m so sorry, Papa, Maman. I hope I didn’t worry you.” She shot Adrien an apologetic look before turning her attention back to her parents.

“Nonsense, dear. We have faith in you.” Sabine patted Marinette’s shoulder and turned to Adrien with a warm smile. “Adrien, dear, do you mind helping me with the luggage?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He hurried to the small pile of luggage, picking up most of the cases without any help. With a quick nod to her, he followed her up the stairs, thanking her when she held the door open for him.

“Set them down over there, dear, please. Then, come join me for some tea.” She moved toward the kitchen, not waiting for him to answer one way or another.

He set the bags down where she’d indicated, gulping when he spotted the small pile of items Lawrence had brought upstairs at his request. He hadn’t thought anyone would see them, save for Marinette. He hoped maybe he could sneak them to Marinette’s room before Sabine or Tom noticed them. He groaned at his bad luck as Sabine noticed the pile, and her brow rose in response though she never said a word.

Knowing she wouldn’t let him leave after seeing the pile, he sat on the nearest chair at the dining table, waiting for her to speak. He already had an idea she wouldn’t be happy with him for hurting Marinette. He’d seen her angry before when someone had threatened Marinette and knew she could be downright scary. No one messed with Sabine where her family was concerned. He just hoped he could walk away relatively unscathed.

She surprised him as she set his teacup in front of him and offered him another warm smile. She didn’t speak as she settled in her own seat, sipping at the hot tea for a moment longer. When she did break the silence, she did so with a kindness he hadn’t expected.

“I hope you know you’ll always be welcome in our home, Adrien. We’ve watched you grow up these past few years, and we couldn’t be prouder of the young man you’ve become. While Tom and I don’t know what happened between you and Marinette, we also know that you two can work it out.” She paused to sip at her tea, gesturing for him to do the same. She gave him the time to let her words sink in, as if she knew somehow how much they meant hearing them.

“Whatever my daughter has done, I’m sure she didn’t do it with bad intentions. Though, I’ll admit she can be quite rash and impulsive when it comes to protecting those she cares about. I’m afraid she got that from both her father and me.” She glanced over at the pile of gifts he’d brought that morning and smiled softly. “Has she seen those yet?”

He had the presence to blush as he whispered, “Just the sewing machine. I guess I went a little overboard, huh?”

“Adrien, we all make mistakes, but we do the best we can to make amends when we can. Have you asked her forgiveness?” At his nod, she continued, “Did she accept it?”

“I think so.”

“Then, that’s enough.”

“I still want her to have them. Is that okay?” He fought the urge to rub the back of his neck like he usually did when his nerves threatened to get the best of him. He almost didn’t succeed as Sabine took her time in answering his question, studying him for whatever answer she sought.

She seemed to find it as she smiled at him and nodded, letting him know she and Tom would get them into Marinette’s room before they headed to the bakery later.

With his tea finished, he wished her a good afternoon, hoping she got some rest before joining him and Marinette downstairs.

Upon his return to the bakery, Tom walked up to him and stared down at him for a short time, patting him on the back before heading upstairs to the apartment. He watched Tom walk away, finding himself hoping he and his father reached such a level one day.

When he turned around, he caught Marinette watching him closely. Rather than approach her and tell her what transpired, he shot her a smile and wink before making his way to the counter where a couple customers waited with their purchases. Putting on his best charming smile, he greeted them and rang them up, wishing them a good day as they walked away satisfied.

 

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Marinette wanted to follow Adrien and her mother upstairs, unsure what her mother had planned for Adrien though she had her suspicions. She loved her parents dearly, but sometimes, they could butt in where they weren’t wanted, especially where she and her friends were concerned. Not wanting Adrien to feel uncomfortable, she moved to follow, but her father’s hand clapped onto her shoulder, halting her progress.

“They’ll be fine, sweetheart. Your mother won’t do or say anything to hurt your friendship, so don’t worry.”

“I know, Papa, but …,” She trailed off as her father’s warm gaze calmed her nerves better than anything else could have at that moment.

“Come on. Show your old man what you’ve done this week. It’ll keep your mind off what’s happening upstairs.”

Knowing her father wouldn’t be dissuaded, she followed him into the kitchen while the lull in customers continued, showing him all she’d accomplished for the day along with the previous days since they’d been gone.

Before she knew it, Adrien had returned, and her father headed upstairs, finding some rest after promising to return and relieve them before dinner.

She tried gaining Adrien’s attention, but he eluded her as a couple customers walked in and quickly made their selections. He kept his attention on them as he rung them up, smiling as they soon disappeared through the front door, their purchases in hand.

Knowing she had a few goods in the ovens, she hurried into the kitchen in time to pull them out as their timers chimed their readiness. She soon lost track of time as she moved through the afternoon in a kind of daze, wishing she could close the shop and get Adrien alone so they could talk. She wanted so badly to talk after what had happened with Alya that morning, but neither of them had been having much luck. She wasn’t so sure that Adrien wasn’t avoiding her at some point though he always found one reason or another to keep her down in the bakery. She couldn’t fathom why he grew nervous if she mentioned going upstairs, wondering if her mother had said something after all.

The heady warmth of the kitchen soon had her seeking the front more and more, allowing Adrien a break here and there from customers. He never once complained to her about being out front, which she found all the more endearing about him though also somewhat concerning. She hoped he wasn’t doing it out of obligation.

She worried her bottom lip after thanking a customer and wishing them a good day. Wanting to speak with him, she made a move to track him down in the kitchen when the door’s bell chimed, causing her to groan softly in frustration.

Doing her best to remember she still had a job to do, she turned toward the new customer and found two familiar faces, walking up to her at the register.

“Chloe? Nath, what are you doing here?” She walked around the counter and embraced her friend, a warm smile on her lips as he smiled back. “What can I do for you two?”

Chloe turned to Marinette and met her eyes briefly before her gaze sought Nathaniel’s over her former rival’s head. She must have read something in his gaze as Marinette patiently waited for Chloe to speak.

“Ugh, fine. I’m having a pool party in a couple weeks. I’d really like it if you could come.” Chloe’s gaze met hers for a full second before it flitted away, refusing to come back as Marinette tried to form a decision around her surprise.

“You really want me to come? I thought you couldn’t stand me.” Marinette quirked one brow at the blonde standing in front of her, wondering if she’d slowly fallen asleep somewhere in the bakery. If she did, she could only hope Adrien would wake her before she could manage to embarrass herself.

“Oh, geez, Marinette, it’s not that big a deal. Do you want to come or not?” Chloe huffed, her cheeks reddening as she tried not to glare at the petite brunette.

Nathaniel moved a little then, his hand gently clasping Chloe’s to run soothing circles around her wrist.

Chloe took a deep breath, her eyes softening toward the redhead. “Please, Marinette, I’d be honored if you could make it. Maybe we could finally get to know each other better. I know it’d make Adrien happy to see us getting along.”

At the mention of Adrien, Marinette’s blood ran cold, her earlier fears about their fractured friendship coming back to bite her. She had no clue if he’d want her anywhere near his other friends when she’d hurt him so deeply. She couldn’t blame him, but the thought hurt her as she pondered how best to answer. She didn’t know if Chloe had any indication about what happened between her and Adrien. She doubted it since Chloe was actually talking to her.

However, her fears were soon realized as Chloe leaned a little closer and whispered, “He told me what happened. At least, a little bit. He’d wanted my opinion on making up with you. I offered what advice I could about a make-up gift, but well, you and I aren’t the same, are we? As for Gabriel and your stunt, I’m glad you did it. Adrien wasn’t ever going to. He talks big, but he’s still too afraid of his father to ever say anything. Thank you for caring enough about him to step up.”

Chloe then surprised them both by wrapping her arms around Marinette and hugging her briefly before backing away as if burned.

“So, is that a yes or no to my pool party?” she asked in a normal voice.

Unable to formulate any coherent words, Marinette settled for nodding, a smile forming as Nathaniel grinned wide at her.

“Great.” In a louder voice, Chloe called out, “I still have you coming, don’t I, Adrien?”

Said blond poked his head out the kitchen and smiled upon seeing Chloe and Nathaniel in the bakery. He greeted them and asked the blonde to repeat her question before he responded with an affirmative answer, smiling as he caught Marinette’s surprised gaze and had the audacity to wink at her.

The heat blooming on her cheeks had Marinette excusing herself as she hurried to the kitchen, tossing farewells to their guests before seeking sanctuary in the small storeroom.

She took a few deep breaths and worked to cool her cheeks by pressing a wet cloth she’d picked up against them.

“Hey, Mari, you okay?” Adrien stood in the doorway, his stance unconsciously showing her his nervousness. “I didn’t upset you, did I? By winking, I mean.”

“No, you didn’t upset me. I just, um, I just got caught off-guard. You’re very attractive, you know? Sometimes, I forget until you do something like that.” So much for losing her blush as it flamed hotter after spewing out her confession. She hadn’t meant to tell him that, but she’d promised herself she wouldn’t lie to him anymore. She wanted him to trust her again, even if it meant embarrassing herself.

“You think I’m attractive?”

She giggled at that. She couldn’t help herself as he looked absolutely floored she might find him anything less than sexy on a good day. That didn’t mean she had to embarrass herself with more truths, especially intimate ones that could forever alter their friendship when neither of them was ready.

“Half of Paris thinks you’re attractive, Agreste. How could us poor civilians not be when you’re plastered on every billboard and poster in the city?” She moved closer to him and caught the wonder in his eyes, fighting back more laughter as he looked even more bewildered than before. Patting his shoulder in sympathy, she beckoned him to follow her back into the bakery’s main room for some cleaning and people watching as they waited for the dinner and after-work rush to begin.

They worked in quiet tandem, cleaning up the tables and restacking goods within the displays. Without even speaking, they’d found a rhythm that worked for them, not realizing they’d been doing the same for the past five years.

Marinette soon began humming one of her favorite songs, smiling when she heard Adrien pick up where she left off. She’d known he had a good voice, wishing she could hear him sing more often as she resumed her humming to keep pace with him. When he broke out into soft singing, she joined him, thrilling at this sweet moment they were sharing without anyone to interrupt them.

She didn’t even mind they sang a Jagged Stone song, having chosen one of the rock star’s softer ballads to hum at first. She enjoyed the moment possibly more because it meant their friendship wasn’t beyond repair as he moved a little closer and presented her with a pretend mic. She giggled at his antics, loving how carefree he’d become in such a short amount of time with her again. She didn’t want the moment to ever end.

Alas, her good fortune ended as a customer walked through the door, pulling her away from the happy bubble she’d shared with Adrien only moments before. His sweet smile lessened the blow to the customer’s interruption, allowing her to handle said customer with respect and rapt attention.

She soon wished the customer a good day, smiling as she caught Adrien moving around in the kitchen, checking on the final batches of goods she’d made for the evening crowd. She hoped she’d made enough, knowing her parents would be coming down to finish up the day. She couldn’t say she was unhappy at having their presence as her lack of sleep threatened to catch up with her. Heaviness had begun working its way through her muscles, causing her movements to slow in greater increments.

If she’d had the energy, she might’ve shouted for joy when her parents appeared a few minutes later, shooing her and Adrien out the door with a packed duffel for her in case she needed it. She wouldn’t remember if she hugged or kissed them in farewell before Adrien led her out the door and toward the limo waiting for him, Lawrence sitting patiently behind the wheel.

“Bless you,” she whispered as she settled in the back seat, collapsing against the cushions and closing her eyes.

 

00000

 

Adrien couldn’t help the fond smile that spread across his features as he took in Marinette’s exhausted form slumped against the seat. He brushed the hair from her eyes, knowing she hated when it got in the way. After mumbling a few words to Lawrence through the privacy glass, he settled next to his friend, her duffel bag between his feet.

He’d been surprised when her parents had brought down the packed bag, unsure if they expected her to stay gone or if they just had an idea she might not make it back that night. He didn’t know how he felt about them being okay with her staying with him. Sure, he felt great pride they trusted him so much, but he also worried they had designs for him and Marinette that he didn’t think could ever exist between them.

He continued to watch her as she half-slept in the back seat, his thoughts whirling with the possibilities of them being a couple. He’d thought it off and on over the years, but he’d been so happy when she’d finally opened up to him that he hadn’t wanted to push for more. He didn’t want to lose her as a friend, not when he still harbored feelings for his crime-fighting partner. No, he couldn’t do that to either of them, so he’d bottled his feelings for Marinette and shoved them into the deepest recesses within him. He’d almost forgotten they existed until the other day when she’d rescued him from his fans, and then again as he sat with her in the limo at that moment.

Would she even want a relationship with him? He couldn’t help the question as he regarded her, worrying he might be pushing for more than either of them wanted simply because he’d grown tired of being alone. He readily admitted he wanted what Nino and Alya had despite their on-again, off-again relationship, at least they had a relationship.

His musings came to a halt as Lawrence pulled to a stop beside the restaurant Adrien had asked about, stepping out and dashing inside for the order he’d placed. He quickly paid and thanked them for making it on short notice, moving toward the door before the owner stopped him.

He couldn’t help the silly grin forming as he watched the owner bring him several extra fortune cookies after realizing who Adrien was and wanting to give Paris’s favorite model something to remember the restaurant by. He wondered how Marinette felt about the cookies since he held an entire bag full of them along with more sauce packets than he’d ever use in a lifetime.

He’d barely settled in the back seat when Marinette stirred as she smelled the food he’d gotten. He felt his heart rate kick up as she smiled at him, her eyes still heavy with sleep. He forced himself to look away from her before he could do anything stupid like kissing her. No, he couldn’t do that. She’d hate him for making such an advance when she’d never indicated she wanted him like that.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t shake too much and reveal his tumultuous feelings. “I got us Chinese for dinner. Is that okay?”

“Sounds great. Smells amazing.”

He smiled and held up the bag of fortune cookies, laughing along with her as she found the treasure trove hidden within. It felt good to laugh with her like that, wondering if he could keep up the happy bubbles dancing in his stomach as he continued to watch her whenever she wasn’t looking at him.

“Do you think Lawrence will mind if I munch on one of those cookies now? I’m suddenly quite hungry.” Her eyes glanced over at the privacy window and its raised, tinted glass.

“No, he won’t mind. As long as we don’t make a mess, who will ever know?” He pulled out a couple cookies, unwrapping them without effort and handing one to her. Breaking his cookie in half, he pulled out the small piece of paper and read the small fortune there, a grin turning the corners of his mouth upward. “’You’ll find your soulmate soon.’”

“It doesn’t say that.” She gripped his hand and pulled the paper close to read for herself, giggling as she indeed read the same words he had said aloud. “Wonder who she could be?”

He didn’t as he glanced at her, his smile slowly fading. Before he could derail on that thought train, he asked, “What yours?”

“I’d rather not say.” To prove her point, she tried to hide her fortune from him, working to stick it in her pocket. Her cheeks flamed, causing his curiosity to peak at what it could possibly be.

“Hey, turnabout’s fair play, sweet Mari.” He grabbed her wrist and tugged gently, not wanting to hurt her, until he had the paper close enough to read. He worked to hide his own blush as he read the words, wandering thoughts filling him as her cheeks grew brighter the longer he held her hand captive.

A thrilling night is in your near future … in bed.

His heart rate accelerated at the thought of her in bed with someone, jealousy coursing through him. He didn’t like the image his mind decided to torment him with and worked to still it from imagining anymore. He didn’t think he’d survive another moment of such thoughts.

He lost his grip on her wrist, allowing her to take the offending fortune away from him with some gratitude. He didn’t need the reminder she wasn’t available to him, not when he’d just started realizing his feelings for her again. He couldn’t allow himself to hope, not after how long he’d pined for Ladybug. He wanted someone who could and would love him back, not some ideal he’d held onto far too long. He wouldn’t do that to Marinette. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to him.

The rest of the ride to his home was made in silence as neither knew what to say to diffuse the situation.

As much as Adrien wanted to laugh it off, he couldn’t. His mind had gone into overdrive with thoughts of Marinette. He didn’t know how he’d survive the rest of his evening, thankful when he felt a small, sharp pinch near his underarm. Leave it to Plagg to know when he’d started freaking out or obsessing about something, only to find some way to bring him back down.

His mind slowly cleared, allowing him to appreciate Marinette and the fading blush on her cheeks and wondering how he could get it to come back. He had no idea why, but he loved when she blushed. She looked beyond beautiful whenever pink dusted her cheeks.

He helped her from the limo, pulling out the bag of food and her duffel to carry up to the house. He held out his free hand to her, smiling when she took it without hesitation, and led her up the stairs and inside.

His hand tightened as Gabriel stepped from his office to greet them, unsure why he felt the need to keep them separated but he moved nonetheless until he stood between them.

“Hello, Adrien. Marinette, lovely to see you again.” Gabriel remained in the doorway, leaning against his cane as he observed them. “Did you have fun working in the bakery today, son?”

“Yeah, I did. I learned a lot, thanks to Mari.”

Gabriel smiled at them for a moment before saying, “I won’t keep you any longer. Uh, Marinette, may I have a word with you though?”

Before Adrien could say anything, Marinette’s hand squeezed his as she spoke. “I’ll be right there, sir.”

Keeping his voice down, Adrien turned to her and studied her. He didn’t like the idea of her being with his father, the pain of a few days ago still fresh. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“I know. No more secrets, I promise. I’ll tell you everything he says.” She loosened her grip on his hand and moved toward the office, glancing back at him with a soft smile. “I’ll meet you in your room, okay? First door on the right?”

He nodded, his feet still glued to the floor as she shut the door behind her.

He didn’t know how long he stood there, knowing it couldn’t have been too long as he remembered the bags weighing him down and Plagg’s eagerness to eat forced Adrien to move. He took the stairs three at a time, an easy enough feat for the superhero, and entered his room to let Plagg roam free before Marinette joined him.

He soon had their food spread on the coffee table in front of his couch with chopsticks and forks available if needed. With that done, he moved to place her duffel near the foot of his bed, sensing she’d want it close by.

When she entered a few minutes later, he stilled, wondering how she could look so beautiful yet so unattainable to him.

Not wanting to dwell on that train of thought, he cleared his throat and blurted out the question most on his mind. “What did my father want?”

She settled on the couch before she spoke. “He wanted my parents’ information. He didn’t say why though, but I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. Oh, Adrien, this looks amazing. Are you sure we can eat all this?”

He sank onto the couch next to her and shot her a smirk, saying, “I’m starving, so yeah, I’m sure we got this covered.”

To prove his point, he held out a takeout box for her and picked one up for himself, sinking back against the cushions as he munched on the orange chicken and fried rice within. Eating several bites in silence, he finally gathered enough courage to ask, “Why didn’t you tell me about Alya’s and Nino’s part in your plan?

She didn’t answer him as she chewed on some broccoli, taking her time before swallowing and glancing at him from beneath her lashes and bangs. “I knew I risked everything we had by doing what I’d done. I didn’t want to risk you losing more than me by adding them to the mix. If you’d been alone after everything, I would’ve never forgiven myself.”

“Wouldn’t that have been my choice? My consequence?”

She remained quiet as she considered his question.

He almost wished he hadn’t asked, but he needed to know why she’d martyr herself for him when he’d done nothing to deserve it from any of his friends.

“I honestly didn’t think about that, Adrien. All I knew was your pain despite your best attempts to hide it from us. Alya and Nino sensed it, too. So, did several others. I didn’t want them to get involved and make the situation worse for you, so I took the initiative. Regardless what Alya said earlier, it was my decision to confront your father. No one forced me into it. Once I had Nathalie and Lawrence on my side, I knew it was only a matter of time before I had all the ammunition I needed to confront him. You were my last piece.” She paused to meet his gaze, waiting until she felt sure he was truly listening before she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Adrien. My determination to fix your situation didn’t allow me to see how much I would hurt you even while I tried to help. I’d been so focused on my plan that I didn’t consider your feelings.”

He sighed, wishing he hadn’t opened this can of worms when they’d been sharing a nice meal, but also knowing he couldn’t keep hiding from it either.

“Mari, I’ve never doubted you wanted to help me. That’s who you are. You’ve always been quick to step in and fix things, much like Ladybug. I don’t know how to make the anger go away when I think about what you did and how you did it, but I want it to go away. I don’t want to be angry at you anymore.” He set his food container on the table and ran his hands through his hair. “Today was really nice. I had fun working in the bakery. I’d love to do it again sometime, but is it fair if I’m still a little angry at you?”

He didn’t notice she’d set her own container down until her hands gently cupped his cheeks and turned his face toward her. She wore a shaky, watery smile that twisted his heart into a tight knot upon seeing it. He’d done that to her, caused her to border on crying when he hadn’t had the intention of doing so.

Her words surprised him though as they came out strong and full of conviction.

“Yes, it’s fair. You’re allowed to be angry with me and still want to spend time with me. Look at Alya and Nino. You think they don’t drive each other crazy half the time. It’s why they keep breaking up and getting back together. You think they don’t love each other any less?” She dropped one of her hands and tugged her phone from her pocket. She held it out to him in an open palm. “Take it and delete that recording app. I won’t be using it again, I swear. I don’t want to use it again.”

He stared at her phone, so tempted to take it and smash it against the floor, but he resisted. He couldn’t do it, not when he knew it’d hurt her. He never wanted to hurt her again, not after he’d made her cry.

“I trust you, Mari.” As he spoke, he knew the words to be true, even after all she’d done. He’d trust her again with the words he’d spoken that day.

Marinette broke down then, sobbing into his shoulder as he cradled her close.

He held her as she let go of all the pent-up emotion she’d held in check for fear of angering him and for fear of losing him all over again. He held her as her sobs quieted, and she went slack against him. He held her as her breathing evened out. He held her as their food grew cold and inedible. He held her as the clock slowly ticked closer to midnight.

He didn’t mind.

He’d hold her forever if she’d let him continue to be her friend. He’d take her friendship any day, knowing she cared enough about him to risk everything to confront his father.

Chapter Text

Having the wind whipping through his hair had an amazing effect on him as he raced over the rooftops he’d become familiar with these past several years. He never quite got over the freedom he felt as he leaped and raced toward his favorite destination in all of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. The nights he’d spent there with his best friend and partner had been the highlights of his early teenage years. He could only hope he’d run into her that night as he continued, not daring to glance at the home above his favorite bakery.

No, his mind had been filled too much lately with his other best friend and their renewed friendship. He’d sworn he wouldn’t dwell on her as he transformed, promising Plagg a good run through the city. He’d spent most of the previous week thinking about her, his mind replaying the images of her sleeping in his bed after he’d placed her there. She’d been so exhausted yet so incredibly beautiful, her hair haloing around her. He’d been tempted to kiss her cheek but had held himself back, not wanting to push intimacy on her without prior consent.

He’d made his bed on the sofa, soon succumbing to exhaustion after working hard in the bakery that day. He hadn’t expected to like the exhausted state he’d been in, but the work had been satisfying and he’d enjoyed the company he’d kept.

Since then, they’d shared plenty of texts back and forth, teasing each other and regaining what they’d temporarily lost due to some rashness on both their parts. He couldn’t wait to get back to his room after his run and text her about the next day.

Ugh, seriously, kid, a voice sounding suspiciously like Plagg groaned in his mind.

Chuckling aloud at his kwami’s annoyance, Adrien dashed the last several yards, landing on one of the lower beams of the Tower, intent on vaulting his way to the top.

He made it almost halfway when he caught sight of a familiar figure. The red and black spotted heroine lounged on one of the highest beams, her gaze encompassing the city with a fondness Adrien once wished she’d bestow upon him.

Slowing his progress, he climbed the few feet separating them and sank into a crouch next to her.

“Hey, LB. What’s bring the sweet Bug out on such a nice evening?” He shot her his signature grin, hoping she wouldn’t mind some company since he hadn’t seen her in some time.

“Well, I was hoping to find a certain cat out and about.” She smiled, her deep blue eyes shimmering with quiet amusement as they met his. “Looks like I’ve found him.”

“Oh, Bugaboo, did you miss your alley cat? You should’ve said something sooner. You know I’m always available for you.” His hand pressed over his heart as he gave her his best kitten eyes.

“Silly Chaton,” she murmured though her eyes didn’t lose their sparkle. “I have missed you though I’ve heard some interesting rumors about you.”

“Rumors about moi?” He leaned closer to her, his heart lightening upon hearing she’d missed him. He’d definitely missed her these past few weeks though maybe not as much as he once would have. “Tell me more.”

She didn’t respond for several minutes as her gaze returned to the horizon, her eyes almost sightless as if she’d transported miles from him.

Rather than push her, he sat down, his legs dangling next to her own, and waited, knowing she’d speak again when she felt ready. He’d learned long ago she didn’t have these moods often, but they always held something powerful for them both when she did.

“I’m going to miss this,” she whispered.

“What do you mean? Are you going somewhere?” He turned toward her, his former grin falling into a deep frown. “Are you leaving Paris?” Are you leaving me?

She looked at him then, a sad smile in place of the sweet one from earlier. Continuing in the same whisper, she said, “No, I’m not leaving Paris or you, Chat. I promise I’m not, but I’ve been thinking about the future.” She took a moment, expelling a pent-up breath before adding, “Hawk Moth isn’t attacking as much anymore. I’m not sure why exactly, either. If he’s no longer a threat, then does Paris really need us anymore? Will we get to remain Ladybug and Chat Noir?”

“Do you want to give up your Miraculous if he’s gone?” His fingers fiddled with his ring, twisting it on his finger as he waited for her answer. He knew his, but he needed to hear hers.

“Five years ago, I’d probably have said yes without hesitating, but now, I don’t know. Tikki and I have grown quite close. I’m not sure I could give her up, you know? Plus, I’d lose you.” She paused, her hand reaching for his as she searched his expression for something. “I don’t want to lose you, Chat. You’re my best friend. I really can’t imagine my life without you in it.”

He wouldn’t recall who moved first, but he'd forever remember the embrace they shared on that beam, high above Paris as the sky darkened around them while the city remained lit with thousands of lights.

When he drew away, he forced himself to laugh as he asked, “Finally ready to claim your chaton, Bugaboo?”

She giggled, causing him to glance down at her. His hands rested on her shoulders as she leaned forward, her laughter soon lessening as she found the ability to speak.

“I’m not sure I can. From what I’ve heard, you might be taken by someone else.” Her mirthful gaze met his.

His jaw went slack as he tried to wrap his mind around her words.

Shaking his head to clear it, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, it seems you were caught on a certain rooftop with a certain baker’s daughter. Something I should know about, Chaton?” She quirked a brow at him, her lips struggling to fight back her smile.

“Marinette? How did you hear about that?” His hands dropped to his lap even as his brows knit together. “Who saw us? The Ladyblogger? Did Marinette say something to you?”

“Easy, Chaton. I know you’re a noble cat.” Her hand found his, lacing their fingers together. “Even she said you were a purr-fect gentleman. She only stopped me to ask if everything was okay between us since you’d been down that night about a friend.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.” His mind wandered back to that night, recalling how sweet and vulnerable Marinette had been with him. “She wasn’t having a good night, either, I recall. Something about losing a friend, too.”

Ladybug nodded. “She told me.”

Neither spoke for a few moments as they both grew lost in their thoughts about that particular night.

Adrien had many regrets about his behavior that night, but he wouldn’t regret the closeness he’d gained after he and Marinette reconciled their friendship.

A soft chuckle beside him returned his attention to Ladybug as she glanced his way.

“You know she mentioned she’s also a little miffed with you.”

“What did I do?”

“Oh, Chaton,” she whispered, her hand rising to scratch under his chin. She smiled as she heard the soft purr her action elicited. “She asked if you’d maybe spoken with another acquaintance. It seems her friend showed up with gifts to apologize for his behavior. Gifts that matched the ones she’d told you would help smooth things over with her. So, tell me, Chaton, did you speak to a certain Adrien Agreste about such gifts or is he that good of an apologizer with his friends?”

Adrien had never been more thankful for his mask than at that moment, knowing the blush lurking beneath would be clearly visible if not for the magic covering his cheeks.

“I’m sure he didn’t buy everything,” he muttered under his breath, not quite believing this was happening.

“So, you did talk to him then?” Ladybug’s eyebrow arched at him, a knowing smirk growing as she continued to watch him.

“Fine, LB, you got me. I was heading home and saw him. He looked rather pitiful. I just wanted to see if I could help him like she helped me. I hadn’t meant to give away state secrets.” He hadn’t meant the words to come out broken, flinching as he felt Ladybug’s hand cup his cheek. He closed his eyes, hoping to hide his emotions from her since she could read him so well.

Her lips pressing a kiss to his cheek surprised him, his eyes opening wide and blinking.

“You’re very sweet, Chaton, to care so much about them.” She moved to stand, her hand reaching down to him when she righted herself. “Ready for a quick run before heading home?”

He nodded, pulling his baton from its holster and launching himself from the Tower behind her. He chased her for half an hour, catching up to her on top of Notre Dame.

The night settled around them, soothing them after the hard chase they’d given around the city before collapsing against each other.

When he felt calm again, he helped her stand and bid her a good night, ready to head home as he had an early morning the next day.

“Night, Chaton. I hope we see each other again soon. Don’t be a stranger.” She swung away, leaving him on the rooftop to watch her until she disappeared from his view.

He didn’t tarry too long, vaulting toward home and the quiet of his room.

Dropping his transformation, he fell to his bed, pulling his phone from his pocket.

“C’mon, kid, really? Didn’t the run help at all?” Plagg whined as he settled next to Adrien with a wedge of his precious cheese. “Your girlfriend might want some time to herself, you know?”

Adrien’s fingers halted near his screen, Plagg’s words replaying in his mind. He frowned. Could Marinette be sick of him? Sure, they’d texted a lot this week but not enough to annoy her, right?

“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said, the words sounding weak even to his ears. He wanted her to be, he realized. He expected the realization to startle him, but it didn’t. In fact, warmth spread through him as he thought about asking her out, knowing he’d wanted to for far longer than he’d ever admit. Would she say yes if he asked her out?

“Whatever you say, kid. I’ll be in my usual bin.” Plagg floated away, leaving Adrien alone to ponder his newest dilemma.

A chime from his phone startled him from his thoughts.

M: Hey, I remembered you had a photo shoot tomorrow. Wanted to wish you good luck.

A: Thanks, M. I’ll need it. The photographer isn’t easy to please.

M: Should I ask Maman and Papa to leave you a treat once you’re through? They won’t mind, you know.

A: That’s sweet. Thanks. Are you free tomorrow? Maybe we could hang out after I’m done.

He worked to stem his expectations, but his breath caught as he saw the three dots indicating her impending answer. Please say yes.

M: Oh, that sounds nice, but I can’t.

M: I have a special date tomorrow.

Adrien’s heart seized as the words jumped from the screen, smacking him hard with their implication. He’d known he’d waited too long with her. Why wouldn’t another guy come along and cherish what Adrien had been too blind to appreciate when he had the chance?

M: Manon and I are spending the day together.

Babysitting? She’s babysitting? Oh, thank goodness, maybe I haven’t lost my chance after all. He still had time, right?

A: Maybe another time then? I’d love to see you before Chloe’s party next weekend.

M: You just want to peek at my new designs. Admit it!

A smile played at his lips as he typed out his response.

A: You got me. I’m a curious cat. Your designs never fail to impress, M.

M: Flatterer.

A: Only for you.

M: Night.

A: Sweet dreams. 

Pumping his arms into the air, he shouted, “Yes!”

“What? What’s going on?” Plagg peered out his favorite bin, his green eyes narrowing at the sappy smile Adrien knew was plastered on his face. “Oh, no, kid, I’m done. Ask her out or don’t, but I’m done.”

“Don’t worry, Plagg. I’m working on it.” Adrien rolled to the side of his bed, lurching up and jumping into his bathroom. He had a lot to plan if he wanted to win over Marinette’s heart once and for all.

 

00000

 

Humming, Marinette worked to ready her sewing area for Manon’s arrival the next morning. Manon had been texting her since early that morning, a recent gift from her mother, more than a little excited about the prospect of Marinette creating her a dress. She’d been asking Marinette for the past year to create one for her and had finally worn her mother, Nadja, down into paying Marinette one.

She pulled out the fabric she’d purchased though they’d need to make a special trip in the afternoon for some other items to finish the dress. She wanted Manon to have a Mariette-Manon original, complete with input from the young girl.

“Marinette, Marinette,” Manon shouted as she stomped up the stairs to the open trapdoor.

“Manon,” Marinette called back, a genuine smile spreading as she turned toward the opening. “Are you ready for some fun?”

“Yeah, I am.” The younger girl rushed to the desk and looked over the fabric Marinette had purchased for her. “Oh, so pretty. You’re the best!”

Manon’s arms wrapped around Marinette, squeezing with enough force that Marinette chuckled at the younger girl’s enthusiasm. She’d forgotten how exciting everything could be at the age of ten.

Growing businesslike, Marinette maneuvered Manon into position near the desk, taking the necessary measurements she’d need for the dress. She worked with quick, efficient movements from years of practice.

With such experience, she soon found her mind drifting back to the previous evening she’d spent with Chat and texting Adrien. She had her suspicions despite his best efforts to cover his tracks, but she wasn’t about to say anything, not yet. The timing wasn’t right. She knew that, but her curiosity couldn’t quite be stemmed as she considered what she’d learned from Chat and the lack of anything from Adrien.

The gifts he’d given her and she’d spent the better part of the previous weekend putting away in their proper places couldn’t have been a coincidence. No, she knew Adrien, and she knew Chat. Something had been off about it all, causing her to dwell far longer than she’d ever done before about Chat’s identity. She couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Adrien was Chat, her sweet Chat.

Pushing the bothersome thoughts aside, she continued to work with Manon, giving the younger girl her full attention as they poured over the designs Marinette had cooked up over the past few days for Manon’s dress. They debated different skirt lengths, pockets vs no pockets, buttons or a zipper, and more until the sketch for her dress took shape.

“That’s it. That’s my dress.” Manon’s shout echoed around the room, her excitement causing her to bounce on the tips of her toes. “How long will it take?”

“A few days. You have to be patient.” Marinette tapped the young girl’s nose as she picked up her purse and a canvas tote she’d gotten from Alya for her birthday. Sew Happy was stitched across the front with a needle and thread trailing behind the lettering. Marinette had loved it on sight and used it as often as she could. “Now, we have some shopping to do, okay? You ready to go?”

“Yes!” Manon bounded down the stairs, shouting back at Marinette to hurry up.

Chuckling to herself, Marinette closed the trapdoor and followed the excited girl, wondering if she could possibly bottle Manon’s enthusiasm and energy to use on herself whenever she needed a boost. She had a feeling it’d work better than a caffeinated beverage any day.

The morning passed swiftly as they worked through a few of Marinette’s favorite shops, searching for the perfect items to accent Manon’s dress, gathering other bits and pieces for projects Marinette also had planned in the near future as gifts.

A certain blond-haired, green-eyed guy kept popping into her mind as she fingered a certain zipper, a giggle escaping when she spotted a small golden bell. She couldn’t resist adding it to her growing pile along with a few thick, silver zippers she thought perfect for a jacket she had planned for that same guy.

“Ooh, Marinette, that bell looks just like Chat Noir’s.” Manon’s excited squeal bounced around the otherwise quiet shop, causing the young girl to blush as the other shoppers sent her a warning look.

“I know. I thought I’d make something with it for the superhero. What do you think?” Marinette winked at Manon, not counting on Manon’s next shout.

“You know Chat Noir? Are you serious?”

Now, they definitely had a few more interested stares in their direction.

Marinette tried to hide her growing blush as she shushed Manon and hurried them toward the front before anyone could think to interrogate her about Chat. She had no intention of fueling any speculation between her and Chat beyond what little had happened over the years. She didn’t want this getting back to Alya, knowing how persistent her friend could be about learning Chat’s identity along with Ladybug’s.

“I’m sorry,” Manon mumbled as they hurried out the door and almost smacked into someone coming in.

Marinette stumbled as she tried to right Manon, hoping to get them as far away as she could. She hadn’t thought to check before she’d pushed the door open, not counting on someone walking toward it at the same time.

“I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed as she refused to meet the person’s eyes. She didn’t want to witness the censure of the person, knowing most didn’t find her clumsiness as endearing as her friends and family. “We’ll get out of your way.”

The older woman glanced at them but didn’t bother replying as she hurried into the shop.

Marinette did her best to usher Manon further down the street, her intent on getting them back to the bakery before she could make a fool of herself with anyone else. She certainly hadn’t meant for their morning adventure to be quite so adventurous, but then, she’d forgotten how excitable Manon could be when she latched onto something that interested her.

Oh, to be ten again, Marinette couldn’t help thinking once again. She knew she couldn’t really talk since she still had her excitable days at seventeen. They just didn’t seem to happen as often as they had in her earlier teenage years, especially after receiving her Miraculous and gaining Alya as her best friend.

Walking back to the bakery provided them with plenty of time to discuss Marinette’s timeline for Manon’s dress. Manon skipped alongside Marinette as they continued to talk, both missing the person coming to join them on the sidewalk from the park across the street.

“Mari? What good luck I found you here!”

Marinette’s gaze raised to meet the smiling green eyes she’d been thinking about far too much lately.

“Adrien? What are you doing here?” She moved her bag closer to her, not wanting him to glimpse her purchases. He couldn’t know about the bell until she was ready to show him.

“My shoot ended early. I thought I’d see if maybe I could treat you and Manon to lunch or maybe some ice cream if you’ve already eaten.” He shot a wink to the younger girl.

“Can we, Marinette, please?” Manon jumped next to her. “Ice cream sounds so good.”

Shooting Adrien a look, she turned to Manon with her sternest expression. “We haven’t eaten lunch yet. Let’s eat at the bakery, then we’ll see about some ice cream. Sound fair? I need to get these items home anyways.”

She gestured toward the bag on her arm. Despite the negligible weight of the items within, she didn’t want her surprise for Adrien to be ruined because he happened to see inside while they dined anywhere with him. Knowing him, he’d insist on carrying it, too, which wouldn’t work in her favor at all.

“So, is that a yes?” Adrien asked, his finger tapping his lips as his brow quirked in a way that had Marinette staring far longer than she should have.

Images flashed through her mind of Chat, his mask falling away and leaving a vague figure before her. The longer she stared at Adrien, the more his features began to fit Chat’s.

Shaking herself, she offered him a smile even as Manon whispered pleas in her ear.

“Yes, we’d love to have lunch with you. We’ll see about the ice cream though.”

A brighter smile she’d never seen light up his face than when he heard her acceptance of his invitation.

 

00000

 

Not wanting to look overly excited, Adrien reined in the shout threatening to escape him though he couldn’t stop the smile spreading over his face. Hearing her say she wanted to spend time with him despite babysitting had him racing toward cloud nine. He didn’t even care if his excitement level was higher than it should be for a simple outing; he had his friend back and she wanted him with her even when they hadn’t preplanned an outing together.

Keep your cool, Agreste. No reason to freak her out now, he silently berated himself even as he fell into step beside her. It’s Marinette, your friend. Nothing more. Keep it cool. Don’t blow it.

“I can carry your bag if you’d like.” He held out his hand to her.

“Oh, no, thank you. It’s not that heavy.” She pulled it closer to her, her eyes not quite meeting his.

He didn’t say anything else though his curiosity peaked at the thought of what she could possibly be hiding.

“Did you know Marinette knows Chat Noir?” Manon piped up. Her eyes alight with such excitement that Adrien couldn’t help the smile growing once again.

“I did hear something about that.” He glanced over at Marinette, the smile growing a bit more as he noted the soft blush tinting her cheeks. “I heard she might also know Ladybug. How cool is that?”

“Marinette, is that true? Do you know both superheroes? That’s so cool.”

“Thanks a lot, Adrien,” the raven-haired woman said under her breath. She turned toward the young girl and smiled with great fondness. “Yeah, I’ve met them a few times. Chat saved me from a couple of akumas. He’s a bit over the top but such a nice guy. Don’t you think, Adrien?”

The sly look she sent him unnerved him. He hadn’t counted on her turning the tables on him as she’d done. He should have though. She never backed down from a challenge, much like the other woman who’d claimed his heart long ago. What was it with strong women and their ability to spark his interest in them?

When he remained silent too long, Marinette continued, her sly smirk growing, “You know, Manon, Adrien here has spent more time with Ladybug than I have. He’s practically an expert on the superhero, aren’t you, Adrien?”

“Wow, that’s awesome. Tell me everything.” Manon moved around Marinette and grabbed Adrien’s hand, tugging him along as she shot question after question at him about the famous spotted heroine.

He answered each one in turn, his gaze never straying far from Marinette’s as she remained rather amused with his predicament. Oh, he’d get her back for this little trick later. He already had his plan in place, just needed the right time to execute it. Two could play this game if that’s what she wanted.

As they entered the bakery together, Sabine greeted them warmly, embracing Adrien as she’d done every time he visited. She shooed them upstairs where she’d assembled the makings for sandwiches, wishing them a good lunch before turning back to a few new customers.

Marinette led them upstairs, thanking Sabine for being an awesome mother, which Adrien seconded though in a quieter tone than his friend.

“Manon, help Adrien with the sandwiches. I’ll be right back.”

Adrien watched her a few moments before Manon captured his attention, tugging on his hand and leading him to the small kitchen where all the trappings Sabine promised were laid out for them, including dishes and glasses.

“Do you like Marinette?”

He spluttered, his gaze colliding with Manon’s innocent one.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Kinda, but I don’t think she knows.” Her eyes slid to the stairs before coming back to him. She dropped her voice more as she whispered, “She likes Chat Noir, you know? She bought him a bell, but it’s supposed to be a surprise. Don’t tell.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” A bell? She bought me a bell?

Knowing Marinette would be rejoining them soon, he moved closer to the lunch spread and began working on their lunches, listening as Manon described the sandwich she wanted. He soon had her plate completed and had begun his when he heard Marinette reemerging from her room, her feet soft on the stairs.

“How’s it going in here?” She picked the chair nearest Manon, her eyes soft as she watched him make his plate. “You two getting along?”

“Yeah, we’re thick as thieves, aren’t we, Manon? We’ve been sharing secrets.” Adrien shot the young girl another wink, eliciting several giggles from the girl.

“Secrets, huh? Should I be worried some of mine were told?” Marinette’s gaze slid to the young girl, a brow arched in inquiry.

“Oh, no, she’s been quite tight-lipped.” Adrien rushed to assure Marinette, not wanting the young girl in trouble. He doubted Marinette would truly punish her, but he didn’t want to take chances. He knew what punishments looked like, thanks to years of living with his father. He didn’t want to see a similar fate for Manon. “She’s better at getting me to spill mine.”

“Really now? So, Adrien Agreste, what secrets are you keeping? Hmm?” Her brow remained arched as she turned her attention to him, a smirk playing across her lips.

“I’d never keep secrets from you, Mari. You should know that.” His smirk mirroring hers.

“I doubt that’s true, but there’s one way to know for sure.” She stood up and faced Manon, her smirk changing into a devilish grin that his Chat persona would be proud of. “Now, I have my ways to make you talk, Manon. Shall I see what you two are hiding from me?”

Her arms raised to chest height with her hands outstretched and her fingers curled, prepared to tickle the young girl until she talked.

“Run, Manon. I’ll protect you, princess,” Adrien shouted, shooing the young girl to the living room while he made to grab Marinette.

She dodged him without effort, running toward Manon and catching the younger girl on the couch. Before she could complete her tickle assault, Adrien caught up to her, grabbing her around the waist and twisting her in his arms. She giggled as she faced him, her breath mingling with his as he held her close, too close.

He glanced at her parted lips and wondered if they’d be as soft as they appeared, if they’d taste sweet. He noted the slight sheen to them, realizing belatedly she wore lip gloss. His thoughts turned to possible flavors, his mind whirling with the possibilities.

“Adrien? You okay?” Marinette’s voice dropped, her eyes searching his as her smile faded into a frown.

“Yeah, yeah.” He shook himself, setting her down. His hands ached to hold her longer, but he let her go. He had no claim on her. “How about lunch? I’m suddenly starving.”

She didn’t say anything more, which he would be eternally grateful for. He hadn’t meant to change the cozy atmosphere they’d created in such a short time, but then, he hadn’t expected his desire to kiss her to overwhelm him.

Sitting back at the table, they all dived into their sandwiches though their playful banter soon returned as Manon asked Adrien if he knew any good stories, having heard Marinette’s too many times to count.

“I’m sure Mari’s stories are amazing.”

“They are, but I’ve memorized them. So, do you have any good ones? I love stories about knights and princesses.” She took a bite, missing the way Adrien’s gaze slid towards Marinette and found her fighting a soft staining on her cheeks.

“Yeah, I might know one or two. How about I tell them to you over ice cream? I promised something sweet for you two, didn’t I?” He picked up his plate and carried it to the sink, returning for Marinette’s and then Manon’s.

“Can we, Marinette, please?”

He caught the internal debate raging in his friend, wondering if she’d choose to go or decide to keep them home. He hoped she chose the first one, but he wouldn’t pressure her. After all, he’d butted into her day with Manon though she’d been sweet to accept his presence with them.

“It’s okay to say no, Mari.” He dropped his voice as he leaned near her, not wanting Manon to overhear him. “I can go if you want. I’ve already taken away enough of your time with Manon.”

Her eyes met his, searching his for several precious seconds.

He could only hope she didn’t see how much he wanted her to say yes, how much he enjoyed her company.

“Okay, let’s go. One scoop, Manon, I’m serious. I don’t want your mom mad at me for spoiling your dinner.”

She picked up her purse, took Manon’s hand in hers, and turned to Adrien with a nod.

“Lead the way, M. Agreste.”

“As you wish, My-Mari.” He bit his tongue, hoping she didn’t notice his slip. He couldn’t afford for her to know his secret, not yet anyway.

 

00000

 

Adrien proved full of surprises as he walked with them to the nearby ice cream parlor, entertaining Manon with stories as he’d promised. All of them filled with knights and princesses. Some she recognized while others she found herself as enthralled as Manon with their newness. She’d never seen him so animated as he’d been while they finished their scoops of ice cream.

The next hour in the parlor passed so fast.

Soon, they were cleaning up and preparing to leave when an older woman stopped by, her hand touching Marinette’s arm. She leaned in to whisper, “You have a handsome young man there. It’s so nice to see young people in love.”

Warmth infused her cheeks as her gaze slid to Adrien, wondering if he’d overheard the woman. She found his attention focused on Manon, which she silently sent a prayer of thanks about. She didn’t need him knowing people thought they looked good together. They weren’t a couple despite her most fervent wish, but then, she wouldn’t jeopardize their friendship, either.

“He’s definitely something, but he’s not mine,” Marinette whispered back, adding, “but I wish he was.”

The woman’s gaze slid back to Adrien before coming back to Marinette with a soft smile. Her wise eyes echoed the smile on her face as she leaned in close, ensuring she had Marinette’s full attention, as she whispered, “All he needs is a good push in the right direction, dear. Sometimes, a good kick in the rear does the trick. Think about it.”

She laughed, soft and low. She couldn’t help herself. Her mind pictured her kicking Adrien as the woman suggested to get his attention, her cheeks infusing with more color. She could never kick him, not to get his attention, not for anything really. No, she wanted him to notice her because he found himself unable to do anything else. While she admitted he noticed her as his friend, he’d yet to see her beyond that. If that was all she’d ever be to him, she’d live with that. She still had her dreams to keep her going in the meantime.

“Mari, you ready?”

“Coming.”

She nodded to the older woman as she moved toward Adrien and Manon as they waited near the door for her, realizing belatedly she hadn’t followed them as they’d thought.

“Do you know her?” Green eyes looked at her with some concern.

“No, but it’s okay. She just wanted to offer some woman advice.” Seeing the concern build in his gaze as he glanced at the woman, she hurried to add, “She didn’t do anything, Adrien. I promise.”

“You’d tell me if someone was bothering you, right? I don’t want anyone to hurt you, Mari.”

“Yes, my sweet knight, I would tell you. Everything’s fine though.” She rose and kissed his cheek, pink staining both their cheeks as she resumed in her normal voice, “Let’s go.”

Manon walked a little ahead of them as they made their way back to the bakery. She would come back and ask Adrien a question now and then, but for the most part, she left the teenagers alone, content with the stories Adrien had told her.

Nadja met them outside the bakery’s door, a smile on her face lighting her pretty features as she spotted them. She hurried to thank Marinette for watching Manon, paying her for her time while also greeting Adrien with some fondness.

Manon hurried over to hug Marinette and surprised Adrien by hugging him as well, asking if he’d come back next time and tell her more stories. She beamed at him when he promised to do his best, turning back to her mother. She hopped into her mother’s car and proceeded to tell Nadja all the stories he’d told her about knights and princesses, even detailing how he’d gotten Marinette to help him reenact a few scenes.

“She’s a sweet kid.”

“Yeah, she is.” Marinette’s smile softened as she thought about her young charge, hoping to get the dress she promised Manon done in a few days. She couldn’t wait to see the younger girl in it.

“So, um, Mari, I was wondering if you still had a few hours free. A friend got me an early copy of Ultimate Mecha Strike VII. Would you maybe like to come over and play a few rounds?” His hand rubbed at the nape of his neck, his green eyes not quite meeting hers as he spoke. “You don’t have to. I know I’ve probably already monopolized your time today. I, um, I just – “

She rose on her toes and pressed another kiss to his cheek as she whispered, “I need to let my parents know, but yeah, I’m free to play a few rounds. Are you prepared to lose, Agreste?”

He recovered quick enough, saying, “Oh, we’ll see who loses, Dupain-Cheng. I have a good feeling about this game. I think I have Lady Luck on my side this time.”

“Is that so? Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” She hurried inside and informed her parents, kissing them both on the cheek as she promised to be home before curfew.

She gasped as she saw the waiting limo, unsure when Lawrence had arrived since she hadn’t seen any evidence of him earlier.

“Father still dislikes me walking far on my own,” Adrien said, motioning toward the back seat where he opened the door for her. “He gave Lawrence a raise to compensate for my freer schedule. I’m hoping to get a car of my own soon though. It’d be nice for both Lawrence and me, I think if I had my own car.”

“I know what you mean. I’ve been working and saving for the last couple years. I’m hoping to have one before I graduate.” She sank into her seat, turning so she could face him as he sat next to her. “I think it’ll help with university and any internships I might get.”

“Might get?” Adrien chuckled, earning a glare from her. “Sorry, but Mari, there’s no might. Of course, you’re going to get plenty of internships. You’ll be turning them down left and right. You’re too talented to be ignored by any design house.”

“Flatterer.” Her smile returned as she regarded him. “What about you? I’m sure any university would jump at the chance of Adrien Agreste gracing their halls.”

“Now, who’s the flatterer?” His hand fluttered over hers, almost as if he couldn’t decide.

Helping with the decision, she raised hers and laced their fingers together, content with his warmth spreading through her hand and wrist.

“I only speak the truth,” she murmured, working to hide the warmth she felt in her cheeks.

They pulled into the drive of the Agreste mansion a few minutes later and soon found themselves sitting on Adrien’s sofa as the game loaded.

“Ready to eat your words, Agreste?”

“Never, Dupain-Cheng. Like I said, I have Lady Luck on my side.” He pulled out his lucky charm, causing her to still as she eyed the charm she’d given him years ago.

“You still have that?” Her gaze collided with his, her eyes wide and her lips parted in an ‘o’ shape.

“Well, yeah, why wouldn’t I? After all, my best friend gave it to me.” He pocketed it again and turned his attention back to the game.

She tried and failed to collect herself, her mind awhirl with thoughts of him keeping something she’d given him before they’d been true friends so long ago. She’d known he’d had it at least a year after she’d given it to him, but for him to have it five years boggled her mind. She didn’t know what to make of it.

“Mari, you going with your favorite bot or choosing a new one this time?”

Shaking her head to clear it, she turned her attention to the large screen, grinning as she spotted her favorite bot, the ladybug-themed one, and picked it. “You never mess with your lucky bot, Agreste. It’s why you still choose the cat one, right?”

“You know me so well.” He selected his bot and pressed PLAY MATCH, loading them into the tournament round. “Let’s do this.”

“Yes, let’s.”

She managed to start off well enough, but three strikes by his cat-themed bot and her ladybug had fallen, depleted of all health.

“Beginner’s luck,” she muttered as he started the next round.

Her bot lasted a total of five hits before going down without much effort on his part.

Her brows drew together as she noticed how at ease he seemed, knowing he usually grew quite tense when they’d play in the past. Something wasn’t adding up.

The third round went the same way as the first two. So, did the fourth and fifth.

As they prepared for the sixth round, she distracted him long enough to claim his bot, seeing his smirk drop the tiniest bit.

It took two direct hits to take down his temporary bot with the cat-themed one, an impossible feat in ordinary circumstances.

“You’ve been cheating.” She turned to him, her finger pointing in accusation. “You cheater!”

“I have no idea what you mean, Mari. I can’t believe you’d think I’d stoop so low. I’m frankly insulted.” His hands went into the air though his smirk returned, teasing the corners of his lips with its devilishness.

“You big, fat cheater!” She launched herself at him, tackling him from the sofa and landing with a soft thud on the floor. As she straddled him, she prepared her next attack. “Admit you’ve been cheating or suffer the consequences.”

“Never.”

She attacked then, finding his ticklish spots with expert fingers until he begged her to stop. She kept it up for a few extra minutes to ensure proper punishment before she stopped, her hands dropping to her legs as she continued to straddle him.

“Admit you’ve been cheating.”

“Fine, I cheated. I had a tech friend recreate the game for me with a few added bonuses for my favorite bot.” He grinned up at her as he added, “It was nice to finally beat you. I’ve only been trying for the past five years.”

“It’s not winning if you’re cheating, Agreste.” She leaned over him, her hands dropping to the floor to support her as she inched her face closer to his. “Besides, I demand a rematch when we get a clean copy. I’ll wipe the floor with you like always.”

“Care to make a bet, Mari?” His brow quirked up, a challenge clear in his eyes.

“What you got in mind?”

“What are you willing to lose?”

“Don’t you mean what you’re willing to lose?”

He smiled as he shrugged. “How about loser owes winner a kiss?”

Lightning struck her as his words washed over her, reminding her of their current position. Her face so close to his own, she could easily give him that kiss if she’d wanted. All she had to do was move a breath closer to him and their lips would be touching.

Unable to form a coherent reply to his challenge, she nodded, her gaze not quite leaving his lips as she tried to refocus her thoughts to safer ground.

“Mari?” Her name whispered between them as he waited for her next move.

She wanted to kiss him, see if his lips were soft or firm. She’d always wanted to know since that fateful day outside the school in the rain. She could find out so easily, but then, she’d risk changing everything between them. She couldn’t do that.

Pushing up and off him, she moved back to his sofa, her hands shaking slightly as nerves wracked through her.

He came to join her, but she wasn’t prepared for him, jumping up and hurrying toward the door of his room.

“Mari?”

“I-I need to get home. I promised to be back before dinner. I’ll see you at Chloe’s next week, okay? Take care, Adrien.”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer as she rushed out of his room and down the stairs. She didn’t stop until she found a small alleyway, opening her purse and calling Tikki to transform her. She swung through the few blocks separating her home from Adrien’s, using the freedom of her magical suit to calm her frazzled nerves.

She hoped he didn’t hate her for running away, but she hadn’t been prepared for the shift that had begun between them. It felt like her dream might be coming true, and it scared her. Too many what-ifs and not enough answers. She’d never forgive herself if she made another misstep with him. No, she’d done the right thing by running.

Didn’t she?

 

Bonus:

“Tik, these two are killing me. Have you ever met two more frustrating chosens than these two?” Plagg whined as he rested in Tikki’s warm embrace, purring as she scratched his favorite spot behind his ears.

“I don’t know. Marinette is getting close. She might already know Adrien is Chat,” Tikki whispered, a fond smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“Ugh, not my kitten. He’s an oblivious mess. I honestly don’t know what to do with him sometimes. It’s why I haven’t told him any of our suspicions. He’s getting better, Tik, but he’s still pretty fragile. I hope your Bug is ready to care for him when his world crumbles. It’s coming. I can feel it.”

Tikki didn’t answer him as she studied their charges below them, watching as they played their favorite game together. She didn’t have any doubts about Marinette, but she wondered about Adrien, her heart breaking for the young man as she realized how true Plagg’s words were.

“I think she’ll handle it just fine. Don’t worry too much, my grumpy cat.” We’ll make sure your kitten doesn’t suffer too much. This, I swear. He’ll have the home he was meant to have.

Chapter Text

“Girl, you’re amazing, you know that? How did you find the time to accomplish all of these?” Alya gestured toward the chaise where Marinette had laid out her finished designs for the week.

“I’ve gotten better, I guess, with time management.” Marinette shot her friend a quick smile before refocusing on the fabric she needed to stitch. With a soft press, her sewing machine whirred to life and handled the last few inches on the material she held. “Maman and Papa have also been understanding, too. They’ve cut my hours in the bakery this week, so I could get everything done.”

She picked up the sarong she’d just completed and motioned Alya closer, wrapping the material around her friend’s waist. She spun her finger, waiting for Alya to comply, and smiled as she saw the effect the sarong had along with the bathing suit she’d finished that morning.

“What do you think? Any pinching? Feel loose?”

“It’s perfect, M. You are truly a genius.” Alya hurried to the floor-length mirror Marinette had and spun to see the full effect as well. Her smile grew while her eyes took on a wicked gleam. “Wait until Nino gets a look at me. He’ll worship the ground we both walk on.”

The simple bathing suit worked to highlight Alya’s natural beauty, following curves without being over-emphasized. The one-piece was a true homage to her friend’s beauty and to the superhero she’d been for the past four and a half years.

“So, where’s yours, M? I can’t wait to see what you’ve made for yourself.”

Marinette glanced up from cleaning her desk of supplies and smiled. “It’s a secret until tomorrow. I want Adrien to be the first to see it.”

“Hmm, so are we finally ready to stop pretending he’s not Chat and you’re not Ladybug?”

Spinning, Marinette found Alya sporting a wide, knowing smirk. “How did you know? Have you known the entire time?”

“No, girl, not really. I just finally put the pieces together not too long ago.” Alya reached out for the designer’s hands, clasping them tight as she added, “When I figured you out, it didn’t really take long to figure out Adrien was Chat.”

“How? I just figured it out.” Hands on her hips, Marinette huffed though it was mostly for show as she asked, “When did you get so smart?”

“Oh, girl, I’ve always been smart, but I finally put my investigative skills to good use.” In a softer voice, she said, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul. I owe you everything, M, for picking me to be Rena.”

“It’s not like I’d trust just anyone. You’re my best friend, Al, and I knew you were the right person for the job. I still do.”

They hugged then, fighting tears at the sweet moment.

Neither felt inclined to break the hug as they enjoyed the friendship they’d shared for the past five years, reliving all they’d faced together from the rough days of Chloe’s bullying to the laughter of sleepovers and lively little sisters.

“Okay, enough of that.” Alya laughed, moving away. “Keep your secrets, M. I’m sure you’ll knock him dead tomorrow. He’s already quite smitten if he’s asking for a kiss.”

“Don’t remind me. I still can’t believe I ran. Why did I run? I’ve wanted to kiss him for years.” Her hands came up to cover her flaming cheeks. Nerves shook her as she relived that moment from a week ago. She’d never thought he’d want to kiss her.

“M, look, you didn’t do anything wrong. Of course, you ran. Kissing him would change things between you. You’ve just gotten over a fight and regained a little more than you lost from it. Anyone would be scared after that.”

Warm arms wrapped around Marinette’s shoulders, eliciting a smile as she thanked Alya for always sticking with her.

“Besides, Adrien is still an oblivious ray of sunshine most days. I can’t believe he’s been able to keep his secret from us for so long.”

Marinette giggled at that. She recalled the few times when he’d almost given himself away over the years, especially in the quiet moments they’d shared while transformed. Oh, how he’d wanted to tell her on so many occasions, but she’d held him back for both their sakes. She still couldn’t quite believe she was the one preparing the reveal. She’d honestly thought it would be him, but then, she also knew him. He wouldn’t betray her when she’d made it clear she hadn’t been ready. She wasn’t sure she was ready, but the lingering insecurities dwindled with each passing day.

Another hour passed before Alya readied to leave, remembering her promise to babysit her little sisters while her parents enjoyed a date night.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, girl. Make sure I’m there to snap Sunshine’s photo. I don’t want to miss his face when he sees your suit.” The redhead winked, stepping through the trapdoor with a final wave.

Shaking her head, Marinette turned toward her closet and began putting away Nadja’s commissioned suit and Manon’s dress next to her ensemble for the next day.

“It’s nice you have Alya as a friend. She’s good for you, Marinette,” Tikki said, coming out of her hiding spot.

“Yeah, she is.” She smiled at the little kwami. “I can’t believe she’s known my secret and never said anything. She’s usually eager to share anything Ladybug related with me.”

“She’s growing up just like you. I’m proud of you, too. You’re becoming an exceptional young woman, Ladybug or no.”

“Thank you, Tikki. I love you, too.” She dropped a small kiss on Tikki’s head before turning back to her desk, checking her phone for any messages.

Tikki came to rest on her shoulder, peering at the phone’s screen before nuzzling the designer’s cheek. “He’ll text you soon, I’m sure. He had a photo shoot today, right?”

“Yeah, it must be running late.” She dropped her phone and headed downstairs, noting the growing lateness of the day. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten lunch before Alya arrived to pick up her swimsuit.

She made a plate of sweets for Tikki and some leftovers of her mother’s famous roast beef before returning to her room to eat in peace as she poured over a few other sketches she’d been experimenting with the past week.

A chime from her phone had her jumping, having been lost in revising her sketches upon finishing her meal.

She smiled as she saw Adrien’s name, unlocking her screen to read his message.

A: Mari, it’s been a claw-ful day. Wish I had a croissant to make it better.

M: Oh, poor baby. Were the photographers mean to you? Want me to beat them up?

A: They were so mean, but I’ll recover. You’re too sweet to me. I’m looking forward to Chloe’s party tomorrow. ;)

M: Really? Any reason for your excitement?

A: Well, I’ll get to see you. I’ve missed you this week.

Her cheeks warmed as she read the last text while her smile grew.

M: Sorry about that. Had a few new commissions.

M: I’m looking forward to the party, too.

A: Can I see your swimsuit?

M: Nice try. No.

A: Just a little peek. Pretty paw-lease.

How did she not guess he was Chat? They both loved cat puns way too much.

M: No! Now, I’m going to bed. I’ll see you tomorrow.

A: Ugh, fine. I guess I can wait.

A: Good night, Mari.

M: Night.

“Okay, Tikki, time for bed. We have a big day tomorrow.” She moved to stand, catching sight of her kwami already snoozing in her specially made bed. Smiling, she hurried through her nightly routine and settled soon under her covers, her eyes drooping as she succumbed to the dreams waiting for her.

 

00000

 

He hadn’t been lying when he’d texted Marinette about his long day though it hadn’t been as bad as he’d let on. No, he actually wanted to celebrate the day, especially after the dinner he’d just shared with his father. They’d come so far in such a short time, surprising Adrien again though he sometimes wondered why the sudden change. Sure, Marinette had helped matters, but it almost seemed too easy to him.

Not wanting to sour his happy mood, he shut down the questions he had regarding his father, sitting at his desk and pulling up the latest game he’d found online. He didn’t have any responsibilities in the morning before Chloe’s party, so he had every intention of taking full advantage, sleeping in as long as he could.

“Hey, kid, are you going to brood again?” Plagg asked, floating near Adrien’s desk and watching the blond with some curiosity.

Rather than make a snarky comment, Adrien smiled and shook his head. “Not tonight. We had a good today, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, it was decent. I’m happy for you.” With his camembert stash in hand, Plagg took his leave though he offered a final glance at his chosen before disappearing into his favorite hiding spot.

Spinning in the chair, he couldn’t help going back over the afternoon, recalling the fond smile Nathalie had given him as he walked through the door. She’d started smiling a lot more, he noticed in the past couple of weeks. He could’ve sworn before his father had changed that Nathalie had only smiled a handful of times. He liked her smile, too, reminding him almost of his mother’s whenever she felt in a playful mood.

She’d asked about the photo shoot and his schedule for the next day, wanting to ensure all the arrangements with his transport had been made. Satisfied by his answer, she’d directed him to the dining room where his father had been waiting for him.

He hadn’t expected that and figured his father would spend the time ignoring him as he’d done in the past. Boy, had he been wrong as his father put down his tablet and asked Adrien to join him on his side of the table. The two proceeded to have a fairly pleasant meal together as they talked, surprising Adrien even more though he felt almost sure his father’s surprise had been high as well.

“How did the photo shoot go, son?”

“Surprisingly well, sir. The photos should meet with your approval.”

Gabriel smiled then. “I have no doubt. You’re a good worker and know what you’re doing. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, Father.” His voice had come out softer than he’d meant for it, but the praise he’d gotten had shocked him.

They had eaten in silence for several minutes before Gabriel thought to break the silence again by asking, “What are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Oh, um, Chloe’s hosting a pool party. I was planning on going. Marinette and Nino are going, too. I haven’t seen them much this week.” He set his fork down, waiting for his father to pull the plug on him going. It’d happened too often in the past for him to believe it wouldn’t happen this time, his gaze dropping to his plate as his appetite suddenly fled.

“Sounds like fun, son. I’m glad you’re getting some time with your friends.”

“You’re not forbidding me from going?” He hadn’t meant to ask. He blamed it on his shock, hoping his father wouldn’t change his mind after Adrien spoke out of turn.

Gabriel winced at the question, causing Adrien to mimic the action.

“No, I’m not. You should go and have some fun. I believe Nathalie had your new swimsuit placed in your room earlier.” The older Agreste stared down at his plate for several seconds before returning his gaze to Adrien’s. “Son, I’m sorry. I’ve been tough on you and your friends. Nino seems like a good kid. You could do worse than someone facing your father in the hopes of giving you a birthday party. I shouldn’t have forbidden you from seeing him. His heart was in the right place.”

“He’s the best friend anyone could ask for,” Adrien agreed.

“I know, son. I’d actually like to have him and Marinette over soon for dinner. It’s time I got to know them better, don’t you think?”

“Are you serious? I mean, if that’s what you wish, Father, I’m sure I can arrange it. I know Marinette’s admired your designs for years. Nino’s pretty down-to-earth when you get to know him.”

Gabriel smiled at Adrien’s enthusiasm. “Then, we’ll set it up. I’ll talk with Nathalie tonight about clearing my schedule.”

The two continued to talk for another few minutes about small, inconsequential things as they finished up their meals. Neither seemed in a hurry to leave the other’s company for once, enjoying the rare moment together.

As they wrapped up their dinner, Gabriel turned to his son. “I have an early appointment tomorrow, so I’ll be gone before you wake up. I will see you after your friend’s party.”

“Yes, sir.” Adrien stood and walked toward the doorway, knowing when he was being dismissed. For once, he didn’t mind. He turned back and waited until he had Gabriel’s attention, almost shy as he rushed to say, “I love you, Father.”

“I love you, too, Adrien. Now, go on. I know you’re itching to text your friends. I have a few things to finish up before I go to bed.”

Torn between staying and going, Adrien watched Gabriel a few seconds longer, an amused smile curling up the corner of his father’s mouth. When Gabriel turned with a quirked brow as if waiting for Adrien to say something, Adrien shook himself, offering his father a small wave and heading toward his room.

Coming back to the present, he eyed the box sitting on his bed, knowing he couldn’t wait for Marinette and his friends to see the swim shorts he’d wanted. A little foolish, maybe, but his excitement at being able to see them after the past week was proving almost too great for him to contain. Like they’d really care what he wore to Chloe’s party. They just wanted to see him and he them.

Grabbing up his phone, he shot out a text to Nino about the next day.

A: Any idea what the girls are wearing tomorrow?

N: Nah, dude. They’re keeping tight-lipped. Be prepared, bro. We may be in trouble.

N: BTW, why do you care what they’re wearing?

A: Just curious. Can’t a guy be curious?

N: Sure, but I also know you have feelings for Nette.

A: Well, she doesn’t have them for me.

N: BS. She likes you, dude. A lot.

N: Crap, I shouldn’t have said that.

Adrien sat up at that.

A: If she does, why didn’t she kiss me?

N: What? Kiss you? When did this happen?

A: A week ago. It’s not important.

N: You kept this from me? I’m your best bro.

A: Forget I said anything. It’s not important really.

N: Of course it is. You want her to kiss you! Oh, my dude’s finally growing up. I’m so proud.

A: Ugh, forget it. I’m going to bed.

N: Sure you are. After you text Nette, I bet.

Ignoring Nino’s last text, Adrien pulled up Marinette’s contact information on his phone, smiling at the photo of her. Boy, did he have it bad. Hitting the text button, he opened the app and sent her a simple text, smiling brighter than he had any right to when she sent one back.

They continued their back and forth for half an hour before she’d called it, unwilling to give him a peek at her swimsuit.

Deciding a shower would help relax him, he set his phone down and walked into his en-suite to do just that.

 

00000

 

The angry beeping of her alarm couldn’t deaden the excitement building within her as she slowly woke from the sweetest dreams.

She tapped the alarm off, her hand tightening on her phone as she stretched, covering a yawn with her free hand. She blinked her eyes several times as she focused on the collage of her friends beside her, her gaze finding Adrien’s picture almost instantly in the mix.

“A few more hours, Chaton. I hope you like my surprise.” She smiled at the memories the picture stirred but waved them off, knowing she had a busy morning before the pool party. With a few swift kicks of her blankets, she moved toward the stairs of her loft bed and slid down, smiling when she stuck her landing.

“You’ve been practicing,” Tikki chirped from her perch on the desk, a cookie from her stash in her tiny arms. “Nicely done.”

“Thanks, Tikki. I’m going to take a quick shower, okay? I have to meet Nadja at the studio in two hours.” Grabbing up her things, she hurried into the bathroom, turning on the faucets in the tub. Satisfied with the temperature, she soon stepped in and washed her hair, wanting it extra shiny for the day ahead. She chose her favorite scented shampoo and matching body wash, hoping Adrien might compliment her.

Shaking her head, she giggled at the idea of Adrien doing any such thing, feeling beyond ridiculous.

“You’d think I was fourteen again,” she mumbled, turning off the shower as soon as she rinsed the suds off. “He’s probably forgotten all about that kiss offer by now. I just need to keep my cool and I’ll be fine. I’ve been fine for five years now. What’s another day, right?”

Standing in front of the mirror, she combed out her wet tresses, putting them into an intricate bun at the top of her head, allowing the tips to rest haphazardly over her crown and a few tendrils to remain loose near her ears. She tweaked them some with a curling iron, creating a soft wave in them.

Satisfied, she moved on to her makeup, deciding on a light amount since she’d be in the pool where it’d wash off. She opted for a tiny bit of waterproof mascara and some pink lip gloss, smiling at the slight tint it produced on her lips.

“Marinette, it’s getting rather late,” Tikki called from the door’s opposite side.

“Don’t worry, Tikki. We’ll be fine,” she said, stepping from the bathroom to pluck her waiting ensemble from her closet.

Slipping on the two-piece swimsuit, she grabbed up the dress she’d made to cover it, cinching the belt tight around her waist. She tested the buckle, smiling at the way it held. She could only hope she didn’t get stopped too often between the bakery, the studio, and the hotel.

Unable to dwell too long, she slipped on the strappy heels Alya had insisted she borrow for the day. While she had a bit of clumsiness, she’d learned to master wearing heels and not tripping on invisible cracks in the past year. She could only thank her time as Ladybug for the extra bit of luck and boost of confidence for that.

The last piece to complete her look was the anklet she’d made especially for her favorite cat hero. She clasped the gold piece around her slim ankle and smiled as the jingling sound washed over her with the slightest movement.

Oh, this was going to be fun, she thought, pulling out the other two garment bags from her closet.

With a quick grab of her purse and unsnapping the small clasp, she ensured Tikki had settled in with the replenished stash Marinette had prepped the evening before. With another snap, the purse closed tight, protecting Tikki from any outsiders’ curious eyes. She picked up the tote she’d also packed with all her necessities for swimming in an outdoor pool, hurrying from her room after catching the lateness of the morning hour.

She kissed her parents’ cheeks, promising to eat the breakfast her mother had packed her after she’d finished her meeting with Nadja at the studio. She tossed them a grateful smile as they wished her luck, not that she needed it, they assured her as she rushed out the door.

Reaching the studio, she breathed a sigh of relief, noting she’d made it ten minutes early. She wondered if Nadja would notice since Marinette had a horrible tendency of being ten minutes late on a good day. At least, she did before Hawk Moth had slowly begun to dwindle his akuma numbers in the past year or two.

The secretary at the front desk motioned her toward the elevators and Nadja’s office on the third floor.

She followed the familiar path she’d taken numerous times in the past six months as part of becoming Nadja’s fashion consultant and designer. She gripped the garment bags tighter as she entered the elevators, not wanting them to get caught on something and possibly ruining her hard work.

The doors shut behind her as the elevator whisked her to the third floor where she quietly greeted the few coworkers she recognized of Nadja’s as she worked her way to the corner office Nadja had gotten in a recent promotion.

“Ah, Marinette, there you are. You’re right,” Nadja paused, gazing down at her watch with some amusement. “You’re early. Wonderful. Let’s see what you have for me.”

“Nice to see you, too, Ms. Chamack.” The designer slid her tote in a nearby chair as she rested the garment bags on the other. With a few quick movements, she had both bags open to reveal the contents within them.

“Oh, these are gorgeous, Marinette. You really outdid yourself.” Nadja’s hand slipped over the fabric of Manon’s dress before reaching over to check out her business suit. “Let me get my checkbook. I’m paying you double what you quoted.”

“That’s really not necessary. I’m just glad you like them.” She waved her hands, hoping to stop Nadja, but she soon gave up as Nadja ignored her protests, writing out a check for double the rate she’d quoted the previous week.

She smiled and thanked Nadja, readying to leave when one of the other reporters walked in, spotted Marinette’s completed designs, and handed Marinette a business card. Thinking she’d heard the end of it, she was in for a big surprise when that same reporter called over a few others, showing off what Marinette had done for Nadja.

By the time she walked out of the TV station, she had a veritable stack of business cards, all requesting she measure and design them a new suit in the coming month for one feature or another. Each had promised to match the pay rate Nadja had quoted if she could follow through.

She doubted her feet touched the ground as she moved toward Chloe’s father’s hotel, offering a nod to the doorman as he held the door open for her.

“Hey, girl,” someone called out though Marinette couldn’t quite place the voice at first.

The same voice chuckled as Alya came into view and waved her hands in front of Marinette’s face. “What’s up, M? You look all shades of happy right now. Did you decide to surprise Adrien early or something?”

Shaking her head, Marinette giggled at the thought, the soft jingle of her ankle a friendly reminder of her upcoming reveal for her sweet partner.

“No, actually I’m happy because of this,” she said, showing Alya the stash of cards in her tote. “I have more clients than I thought possible. I think I’m going to be busy our final month of vacation.”

“Oh, I’m so proud of you, girl. Look at you. Your dream is coming true. You don’t even need Gabriel to make it happen. You never did.” Alya hugged the designer close for several seconds.

A movement to their right caught Marinette’s attention, a smile forming as she recognized the person drawing closer.

“Hey, dudettes, long time, no see.” Nino moved closer though he halted and stared with the largest eyes Marinette had ever seen. “Whoa, Al. You look-you look amazing.”

Alya blushed, much to Marinette’s amusement, though her friend rallied, saying, “Well, you can thank our girl here. She’s a magician, isn’t she?”

Nino’s gaze didn’t leave Alya as they entered the elevator or when it deposited them on the roof where the pool sat. He barely spoke two words to them as they asked him questions.

Finally taking pity on him, Marinette reached up and pinched his arm hard enough to get him back but not enough to bruise.

“Thanks, Nette. I needed that,” he whispered, not wanting Alya to overhear.

“Don’t mention it.” She stepped off the elevator first, grunting as skinny yet strong arms wrapped around her and hauled her to the side. Her gaze collided with the cool blue of Chloe’s. “Is there a reason you’re manhandling me, Bourgeois?”

“As if, Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” the blonde huffed before her façade fell away. “Thank you for coming. I overheard some of the others. If you hadn’t come, they wouldn’t have shown up. I can’t blame them, either. I’ve been horrible to everyone for so long, especially you.”

“That’s certainly true. You have, but you’re trying now.”

“Is that enough though? I feel like I should be doing more.” Chloe’s arms crossed over her chest as she cast a surreptitious glance around the pool and the partygoers. “I owe you a lot, Marinette. I know that. I hope I can eventually make it up to you.”

“You’re heading in the right direction, Chloe. Just keep going, okay? If it helps, I don’t hate you. I haven’t for a while now.” Her hand came to rest on Chloe’s crossed arms as she spoke, wanting the blonde to know she could be forgiven if she allowed herself. “Just remember to forgive yourself, too, okay?”

Chloe smiled before turning her attention back to the party, pointing to another blond sitting at the pool’s edge. Her voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “I believe he’s the real reason you came. You should definitely show him whatever you’ve got hidden under that dress. He’s been waiting a long time for you, you know?”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” She turned to scan the tables and chairs, spotting Alya and Nino setting up near the other side. She smiled as she realized she’d have to walk right by Adrien to get to them and the chairs they’d saved. “Well, I’ll let you get back to your guests. I’m sure this party will be something to remember.”

She gripped her tote tighter as she moved closer to the pool, praying she didn’t have a moment of clumsiness. She couldn’t afford to lose everything in her tote should she fall in, especially when she chose the route she did, wanting to capture Adrien’s attention.

As she neared his position, she straightened to her greatest height possible, allowing her anklet’s jingling to garner his attention. She hoped so anyway. She had a moment of doubt as she thought back to all her conversations with Chat about his advanced hearing. She prayed she hadn’t invented the memory his hearing had improved even in his civilian form.

Adrien’s head swiveled in her direction as she passed him, her gaze watching from her periphery for confirmation.

She fought her desire to jump in triumph as he gracefully stood from the pool’s edge and followed behind her, sensing his presence though he remained silent, almost as if he planned to stalk her like an actual cat would.

She kept her cool though as she reached Alya and Nino, winking at them as they tried to unsuccessfully warn her about her would-be stalker. She merely grinned as warm fingers covered her eyes from behind and a silky whisper tickled at her ear.

“Guess who?”

“Hmm, Kim?”

A chuckle. “Nope. Guess again.”

“Well, you can’t be Luka. He’s on tour with his new band.”

“Not Luka.”

She suppressed a laugh, working to remain composed as she whispered, “I’d know your voice anywhere, Chat Noir.”

His hands dropped as if she’d burned him.

She spun to face him, smiling as he gazed at her in disbelief. She inched a bit closer to him before anyone could notice his distressed state, taking pity on him as she whispered, “I’m teasing, Adrien. I knew it was you.”

His cheeks reddened as he visibly worked to calm his frazzled nerves.

“Good, you’re finally here. Now, M can show us her new design. She wouldn’t even show me and I’m her best friend.” Alya reached across the chair and poked Marinette’s arm, spurring the designer to grin as she worked to remove the custom belt she’d made for her dress. “Oh, girl, that’s so cool. It looks just like Ladybug’s yo-yo.”

“Thanks, Al. It wasn’t easy to recreate, but I even made it so it could open at the top to hide a few personal items.” She held it up and showed how the belt worked, including the mini-purse feature where one could stash their ID, some change, and a few euros for emergencies. After she’d showed them all it could do, she held it to Alya, saying, “I made it for you, but I needed to borrow it for today. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Seriously, girl, you’re amazing. I love it.” Alya hurried to stash it in her duffel. As soon as she had it secure, she turned back to the designer and commanded, “Now, show us the main event, M. I’m dying here.”

Laughing, Marinette tugged on the button snaps of her dress, her grin growing wider with each satisfying pop. She turned so Adrien wouldn’t get the chance to peek before she was ready, sliding the dress off her arms as she did.

The last button popped, and her dress fell to the chair behind her, revealing the design she’d been working on for the past week. She tweaked a number of features until she had it just the way she’d wanted for the party, hoping Adrien’s expression made it worth all the effort.

By the dazed look she found on his face, she’d more than succeeded.

“So, what do you think?”

 

00000

 

She’s trying to kill him, he thought. She had to be. He wasn’t sure he didn’t deserve it, but man, she’d found the best way to kill him.

“Adrien?” Her hand waved close to his face, causing him to blink. “You okay?”

Snickering behind them distracted her.

He could swear he heard Nino saying Mari had broken him.

He couldn’t disagree.

Finding his voice, he rasped, “Yeah, I’m good.”

Adrien’s gaze swept her from head to foot, taking in the entire effect before going back to examine each piece individually.

Her tankini top had a keyhole that enticed him though he found himself more enthralled by the red fabric with the black polka dots, reminding him of his Lady’s suit. The red soon gave way to black as it covered her abdomen though not quite all as a bit of skin peeked out, showing off the tan she sported.

He wanted to die a little as he caught the bright green that started the skirt of her suit as it matched the green on his super suit. She’d even sewn a bright green paw print on the edge. His fingers itched to trace it as it rested against her right thigh, doubting she’d allow such an intimate touch from him or any guy in public.

Almost believing he was done, he heard the distinct sound of bells jingling softly on the breeze, pulling his gaze down her toned legs until he found the anklet wrapped with the most delicate gold chain.

So, he hadn’t imagined the sound after all, drawing him to her as surely as if she’d been an angel calling him home.

“Mari, you look incredible,” he breathed, unsure how else to describe her as he met her deep blue eyes.

“Thank you,” she said, leaning forward to whisper, “Adrichat.”

He coughed, hoping to hide the unmanly sound he emitted at hearing her new pet name.

She can’t know, can she? I know Ladybug might have some clue, but could Marinette? Oh, this wasn’t looking good for him.

“Hey, guys, we’re getting ready to play a game. Come and join us,” Alix hollered from the pool, drawing the small crowd’s attention toward the pool. “Partner up, too. First game is Chicken.”

Alya turned to Nino and smirked, “Partners, Monsieur DJ?

“You know it.”

They sauntered off to the pool, leaving Adrien floundering next to Marinette as she smoothed her dress before folding it and placing it neatly on top of her tote. She set her small purse on top, inching them both closer to his bag.

“Hey, Adrien, looks like we’re the last ones. Wanna be my partner? I’m sure we’d make a fantastic team. You know like Ladybug and Chat do?” She blinked her big, bluebell eyes at him, her face a look of pure innocence as she regarded him.

He felt sure she was messing with him, but he couldn’t understand why she’d do that. Unless…

No, that can’t be it, can it? No, that’s just wishful thinking, but what else could it be?

His eyes widened as he considered the other scenario.

Oh, man, she’s still upset about that almost-kiss. He couldn’t believe he’d been bold enough to suggest it, let alone think for a second she’d want to kiss him. She’d never indicated she wanted more than friendship with him. Oh, man. Oh, man, he wasn’t going to survive this party.

“Adrien?”

“Yeah, partners. Sounds good.” He turned toward the pool, missing the amused gleam in her eyes as she called out his name again.

When he faced her, she held up her ankle and asked, “Do you mind? I applied some sunblock before I got here, and my hands are still too slick to handle the clasp.”

He nodded, sure his cheeks could provide enough heat to transform the pool into a hot tub. His fingers ghosted over her skin as if he feared she might disappear or consume him. He didn’t know which he’d prefer at that point as his fingers fumbled the clasp a couple times before he successfully removed it.

“Here you go,” he said, his voice higher than he thought possible.

“Such a sweetheart, aren’t you, Chaton?”

His brain froze as the realization smacked him hard. She knew. She knew his secret and was going to tease him until he begged for mercy. Oh, he was really and truly screwed.

Needing to find some semblance of sanity, he focused his gaze on the anklet he still held, noting the tiny chain held not one bell but five. Each of them looked like perfect replicas of his, causing a warmth to flood him along with the burning question that he couldn’t quite hold back.

“Why five?”

She smiled with such fondness that his heart melted and twisted simultaneously. How could she do such a thing to him? When did she hold such power over him? Who was he kidding?

“Well, I know you have only one, sweet Adrichat, but you’ve been with your Lady for five years now. What better way to commemorate such a wonderful partnership, don’t you think?”

Grasping for anything to keep from melting further, he forced his next question past stiffening lips, “Does she know you know?”

She nodded.

“And she approves of you torturing me like this?”

She moved close enough to touch him, her hand teasing his leg as she found the patch he’d had specially made for his black shorts. He could see the teasing light in her eyes as she whispered, “Oh, she heartily approves of this. What’s wrong, sweet Chaton? You can flirt, but you can’t handle a little flirting back?”

The challenge she issued worked, he saw to her amusement, as he straightened and gave her his best Chat grin.

“Well, then, my fair Mari, what say we join the others and show them the best team they’ve ever seen?” He held his hand out to her, his other depositing her anklet on top of her tote. He walked her to the pool’s edge, jumping in and reaching for her.

“Such chivalry,” she whispered, her hand fluttering in true US Southern belle fashion. She graced him with a soft smile as she accepted his offer of assistance though yelping when he swiveled at the last moment and plopped her easily on his shoulders.

“Well, now, you didn’t think this cat had shown all his moves before now, have you?” He turned his head to smirk up at her, his gaze freezing for a moment longer than proper on the green paw. In a rough whisper, he added, “I love the loyalty, Mari. You make this alley cat’s heart pawsitively pound.”

She didn’t get a chance to retort as Alix shouted, “Hey, you two, enough chit-chat. Let’s play already.”

The next ten minutes passed in tense competition as Adrien and Marinette soon dominated the game, taking out each team they faced until they faced off with Alix and Kim, formidable opponents when they weren’t bickering with each other. Adrien gripped Marinette’s legs a bit tighter as she faced Alix. Both wore determined smirks on their faces as they pushed against each other, hoping to knock the other off.

“You got this, Mari. Don’t let her psych you out. We can’t let our favorite team down, can we?” He tossed her a smirk for good measure, much to their opponent’s annoyance as Marinette gained the upper hand and shoved Alix into the water.

“Whoa, Adrien and Marinette are the team to beat today.” Several shouted as their classmates rushed forward to pat them on the back.

Adrien couldn’t believe all the well wishes and cheers they got, not having heard them much outside his superhero self. He grinned at Marinette, only to still as she beamed back at him, her hand clenched in a fist and ready for a celebratory pound. He hadn’t done it with anyone really outside of Ladybug, not like this anyway. He prayed he’d keep it together as he bumped her fist with his before their friends pulled them toward the next game they had in mind.

Hunger and fatigue eventually drew everyone save Marinette and Adrien from the pool, both content to remain for a bit longer.

Swimming in lazy circles around him, she offered him a soft smile. “Having fun?”

“Yeah, I am. It helps having you next to me,” he paused, gathering what courage he could muster as he whispered, “Maribug.”

He held his breath, waiting for her reaction, almost disappointed when she merely smiled. Her eyes remained closed as she continued floating next to him.

After a moment, she spoke, her voice low to keep any eavesdroppers out of the loop. “About time, Chaton. I was a little worried I’d lost my touch.” One eye peeked open, the blueness drawing him in. “I’ve given you plenty of hints today, haven’t I?”

“You certainly did.” He chuckled, coming to float beside her. “We should probably get out and eat something. You know Alix and Kim will have more challenges waiting for us.”

“You’re probably right, but this is nice.” Her hand reached for his, which he gladly took in his own. “I hope you aren’t upset with learning who I am.”

“More surprised than upset, My Lady. I thought you didn’t want to know who I was. I almost feared you’d be disappointed when you learned the truth.” His thumb grazed her skin, wanting to keep what contact she’d give him as long as possible.

“Oh, sweet Chat, I’d never be disappointed in you. I wasn’t ever worried about you disappointing me. I just wanted to keep you, our friends, and our families safe, but I’ve always been a little curious about you behind the mask. I just never thought you’d be so close by all this time.” Her head turned slightly, her gaze meeting his as she offered him the sweetest smile he’d seen from her that day.

“How? When?”

“The gifts you brought me after our fight.” She paused, her gaze traveling to the pool’s edge. “Did you really think I wouldn’t put it together?”

“I didn’t think about it. I just wanted you back, Mari. It was like a piece of me broke after I left that night. I wanted that piece back so bad that I didn’t stop and think.” His eyes had snapped shut as he spoke, not wanting to see the censure he felt he deserved for giving away his identity so easily. He couldn’t help but feel like she’d be mad at him for it. They still hadn’t caught Hawk Moth and now they knew who the other was. They’d never discussed this contingency before.

Her hand brushed his cheek, startling him. His eyes popped open and looked into her blue gaze as she leaned over him, so close he could feel her breath.

“Oh, Chaton, it’s okay. We’ll be okay. We are okay. I know what you mean because I felt the same way that night, but we’re working through it like we’ve always done. Together. We make a great team.” She brushed a kiss over his cheek, much to their classmates’ amused cheers.

Not wanting to showcase anything else for their friends, he stood, taking her hand in his.

“I think I’ve had enough fun with the group today.”

“Have you now?” she asked, the teasing light returning to her eyes. “What did you have in mind after here?”

“Hmm, well, I’ve been craving one of your parents’ croissants. I thought maybe we could head to the bakery and hang out there for a bit. My father isn’t expecting me for a few hours, and I’d like to spend them with you if that’s okay.” He leaned close enough to rest his forehead on hers, a tentative smile threatening to quirk the corners of his mouth.

“Well, let’s go. I’m sure our friends will understand.” She led him from the pool, whispering a few words to Alya as she plucked up her dress.

He stood in awe of her as she slipped the dress on, realizing belatedly she’d chosen a yellow color that matched his hair almost perfectly while the small decorative buttons going down the front matched his eyes. How had he not noticed that before? Would it be bad form to kiss her in front of their friends? She’d turned down his kiss a week ago, but would she accept it this time?

In the end, he didn’t risk it, not wanting to break the fragile bond that had begun to grow even stronger between them the past couple of weeks. He wanted her by his side, especially now that he knew she was his other half, making him the luckiest guy in the world. He’d never thought it possible to be so lucky. He certainly didn’t think he deserved it, not when she’d given him far more than he could ever hope to return.

“Ready?”

Shaking himself back to reality, he nodded, his hand waving a quick farewell to their friends as they stepped toward the elevator.

Their trek back to the bakery didn’t take long, which seemed both a blessing and a curse to Adrien, recalling at the last moment how sweet yet nosy her parents could be. He waved the thoughts away, happy they seemed to care about him as much as they did Marinette. They’d never made him feel like he wasn’t welcome or worthy to stay in their home. He almost wished they could’ve adopted him years ago, or at least before he and his father had begun working to rebuild whatever relationship they could.

“A euro for your thoughts.” She nudged him with her shoulder.

“They aren’t worth that much, My Lady.” He offered her a smile but didn’t offer more.

“Hey,” she whispered, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and forcing him to do the same. “You can talk to me about anything, Adrien. We don’t have any more secrets, right?”

“Right,” he agreed. “I’m just really happy, that’s all. I found you without even knowing I’d found you. You’ve been beside me this whole time, Maribug, and it fills me until I think I might explode. That’s all I was thinking.”

She nestled into him, taking comfort in his warmth for a moment before pulling away and resuming their journey to the bakery.

In a shy tone, she confessed, “I like the emblem on your shorts. The yin and yang are fitting for us, especially with our colors.”

“I thought so, too.” He let go of her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulders, smiling when she accepted the change of intimacy without complaint.

They finally reached the front door of Tom and Sabine’s bakery a few minutes later, Marinette freezing beside him.

“It’s too early for them to close. Something’s not right.” She glanced around the area, searching for any signs of trouble and finding none to both their chagrins.

“How about we check your apartment? Maybe they’re up there and just fine. We don’t need to worry yet, right?” His hand crept to her cheek, hoping to calm her before she lost focus in her anxiety. He’d seen it happen before and didn’t want her jumping to conclusions just yet.

He took her hand back and led her to the side door, leading her to the apartment where she lived with her parents. He let go long enough to take the key she held out and unlocked the door, pushing it in slowly, carefully, in case burglars or other dangerous persons still lurked within.

With a soft breath, he dared a peek inside, his eyes widening in surprise at what he found.

“Oh, look, dear, they’re back, safe and sound. I knew we could count on Adrien to keep our sweet baguette safe.” Tom’s voice boomed as Sabine fawned over their guest at the table.

“Hello, son,” Gabriel greeted, a warm smile on his face. “Marinette, lovely to see you again.”

“Father, what are you doing here?” Adrien asked, remembering to step aside long enough to allow Marinette to enter her home. His hand clasped hers a little tighter than he wanted, but he almost felt sure something big was about to happen, greater than even learning his Lady’s civilian identity. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine, Adrien dear,” Sabine confirmed, coming to wrap both him and Marinette in hugs. “We were just having a lovely chat with your father. Why don’t you two join us after you’ve changed out of your wet things? I’ll have some nice tea waiting for you by then.”

Not given much choice, Adrien followed Marinette to her room where she wrapped her arms around him, murmuring words of encouragement until he stopped shaking. He hadn’t even known he’d started until her warmth enveloped him.

She didn’t say a word as she pulled out some dry clothes from his duffel, offering a tiny smile to the kwami she found nestled in some socks.

If he had any doubts about her being Ladybug, they died a quick death as he watched her reaction at seeing his kwami before hers appeared and nestled next to Plagg, looking like she’d missed the stubborn cat. A soft purr soon sounded as Plagg received attention from the ladybug-looking entity, her blue eyes matching Marinette’s as she gazed at him with a fond smile.

Marinette ushered him into her bathroom, promising she’d had another place to change. Her finger pointed at the privacy screen she used to close off her workspace.

True to her word, Sabine had tea waiting for them upon their return, her sweet smile further calming his nerves as he sank into the chair next to Marinette.

“What’s brought you here, Father?” He managed to ask after a few moments had passed, the tea he sipped warming him almost like a promise.

“Well, I figured it was about time I met Marinette’s parents after your years of friendship, wanting to see what type of people they were. You’ve certainly found some wonderful additions, son. Tom and Sabine have been more than hospitable to me despite everything.” He nodded at the couple sitting in the living room, a smile gracing his usually hard features.

“Is that the only reason you came?” He couldn’t stop himself, needing to know if his father had some ulterior motive. He realized his anger and distrust of his father’s intentions remained far stronger than he’d previously thought.

“Not exactly.”

“Am I being forbidden from seeing them again?” He felt Marinette’s hand grip his leg, offering him silent support no matter what his father decreed.

“No, son, I wouldn’t do that. Not now, anyway.” His father paused, almost appearing a little choked up by Adrien’s question. “I actually came to ask them if they’d mind losing their daughter for a month.”

“What do you mean? What are you planning to do with Marinette? I won’t let you hurt her.” Adrien stood, ready to fight for her. His throat almost aching in his need to shout the words he needed to transform into Chat Noir.

“I’m not going to hurt her, son. Please calm down.” In a gentler tone, he begged, “Please, son. Trust me a little more than that.”

Adrien didn’t trust himself to do anything more than nod. He slowly lowered back into his seat, waiting for his father’s next words.

“I planned a trip for us to explore Italy next month. I wanted to see if Marinette would like to join us. Nathalie and Lawrence would also be there to chaperone, but she’d get to see Milan. We’d go to Rome, Venice, and a few other places before you started your final year.” Gabriel turned toward Marinette and offered her a fond smile, almost as if he considered her his daughter. “Would you like to join us, Marinette?”

“Oh, sir, I’d be honored,” she stopped and turned to Adrien, her gaze locked onto his as she continued, “but I have to decline.”

Chapter Text

 

The warmth of the afternoon sun shone down on Gabriel as he rested in one of the lounge chairs outside his room, the balcony providing the perfect view of the beach below.

If he felt truly fanciful, he could almost imagine seeing his son down in the waves, frolicking with the abandoned enjoyment of a youthful man, still in the infancy of his life. 

Eighteen seems a lifetime ago, Gabriel mused, a soft smile forming even as he wrapped his jacket closer to his body. He hadn't known how much his diagnosis would affect him, wishing he had more time. He needed more time, but that had become a luxury he could ill-afford. 

Plans would need to happen sooner, he realized as he continued to watch the beachcombers below. He balked at all he still had to accomplish before the clock ran out. He couldn't handle leaving any loose ends and refused to do so. 

"One more day," he whispered to the empty room. 

That's all he asked for as a tap sounded in the distance, moments before his hotel door opened and emitted Nathalie into their shared room. 

"Are you packed? Our plane leaves in a couple of hours," she asked, her shoulder leaning against the doorway.

He glanced her way, still with that soft smile curving his lips as he nodded. His gaze raked over her jean-clad legs and loose, billowing shirt. He couldn't recall the last time he'd seen her so relaxed or at peace. He could still sense the questions she had bubbling beneath the surface, especially after the attack he'd recently suffered, but she refused to voice them, knowing he'd tell her eventually.

That level of trust from her surprised him. He hadn't expected her of all people to continue trusting him, especially after knowing all he'd done and been capable of doing these past several years. 

"Where's Adrien? Is he ready?" He asked, patting his lap. His smile grew the tiniest bit as she accepted his silent offer. Her arms wrapped around his neck as she mimicked his smile with a sweet one of her own. 

She leaned forward to brush a kiss against his stubbled cheek, his hands too shaky of late to properly shave. She didn't seem to mind in the least, telling him so the other night as they'd laid under the covers, wrapped up in each other. 

"He's in the gift shop, trying to decide one final gift for his friends." She laid her head against his shoulder as she added, "I think he's really seeking something special for Marinette. He's missed her the most these past few weeks."

"There's not many like her. I should know. I've only met two others in my time," Gabriel whispered, his cheek resting in Nathalie's hair as his eyes swept the beach a final time. He doubted he'd get the chance to see it again.

Thoughts of Adrien shopping for Marinette brought up so many memories from a month ago.

He still struggled to believe it hadn't been more than two months since Marinette had confronted him with his despicable behavior, demanding in her own way for him to step up. The audacity she'd shown him in doing something so bold had woken something within him, something he thought long dormant or even dead. She'd brought him back from the brink, opening him to the world he'd created by being Gabriel and by being Hawk Moth. He found he didn't like what he saw. 

"M. Renoir says she's quite the talented and busy worker these days. He's been seeing her around the office each week," Nathalie said after a moment. "He thinks she'll make a wonderful addition to Gabriel when the time comes. He actually wants to teach her all he knows."

"I thought he might," Gabriel murmured. "It's why I gave his card to her before we left. I had a feeling he'd see the same thing I do."

"You know Adrien has no interest in this business." Stirring a bit, she rose until her eyes could meet his as she asked, "Have you considered who might eventually take over Gabriel Fashions when the time comes?"

He caught a glint of something in her eyes before she quickly hid it from view. He couldn't quite pinpoint the emotion, debating between sadness and grief, possibly a bit of steely determination. He knew Nathalie had gone above and beyond for his company. Her hard work deserved some type of reward compared to the years of abuse and indifference he'd thrust upon her all those years. Well, not all of them but more than he cared to count any longer.

He nodded. "Yeah, I've been considering my replacement. I'm just not ready to announce anything yet. Trust me?"

"Not likely, sir, but you're getting there." She came to a stand, holding out her hand for him to take. "Come on. We have to finish packing if we want to catch our plane on time." 

Gabriel rose with a slowness that belied the power that he still held within his family, within the fashion world, and within Paris as a supervillain despite having taken a break from such activities these past few months. He could almost applaud himself for keeping himself in check, especially after the words he and Nooroo had begun exchanging before this impromptu trip. 

When he could, he'd done some research and found himself eager to return home. He wanted this final opportunity he discovered in the hopes of changing his future, changing the course he'd set off on all those years ago. He just needed this to pan out, to become the man Emilie had believed him to be, the man his son and Nathalie needed, and the man he knew deep down he could be. 

A glance at Nathalie as she rearranged their luggage near the door had his heart panging. He could be screwing up everything with her, he knew. He'd done it a few months ago, too, but she'd forgiven him then. Maybe she'd forgive him now. He had to take his chance. He needed to. 

"Gabriel?" 

Startled, he met her gaze and discovered her frowning at him. He didn't like that frown. It spoke of her being ill-at-ease. It warned he could be heading into dangerous territory with her again. He should heed that frown and turn back before it was too late. 

"Yes, darling," he said instead, feeling his face shifting into the neutral mask he'd developed years ago.

She stared at him for a long moment.

He did his best to keep his neutral expression intact. He knew if he broke, she'd know. If she knew, then she'd leave. 

He couldn't let her go. She'd come to mean so much. Better she didn't know what his plans for their return were.

Not yet. 

She wouldn't understand. She couldn't.

She shook her head, turning back to her task and completing it in record time. 

He couldn't help the sigh of relief he exhaled as she let the matter drop. 

Taking the opportunity he was given, he picked up the lightest cases, testing their weight to his new weakened state, something he hoped to remedy soon enough. 

"Shall we?" He opened the door and motioned for her to lead the way, nodding to Lawrence who'd been walking past their room. Gabriel motioned toward their bags and the room key, knowing he didn't need to say more. His son's bodyguard had been the right choice all those years ago and continued to prove his worth to the Agreste family despite the derisive words Gabriel has tossed at him over the years. 

"Adrien's in the lobby, sir. He's texting his 'friend.'" The large man formed quotation marks with his fingers, eliciting smiles from the other two. They were all aware of the running joke by this point, Gabriel having been informed not long ago by Nathalie about Adrien's thoughts on his status with Marinette.

How little his son knew about his emotions where that young woman was concerned, Gabriel thought, his smile growing as he recalled his own tangled mess of emotions where Emilie and then Nathalie had been concerned.

All too soon, everything was packed into the waiting limo he’d hired for their stay at the popular beach destination. Adrien met them at the curb, his purchases in hand, looking tan and healthy with an eagerness to head home. Gabriel couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen such happiness on his son’s face, another regret he’d carry.

The trek to the airport proved relatively painless as was the flight over the country borders. 

Despite their relatively short distance between their departure and arrival destinations, Gabriel's body had grown weary from sitting prone for too long within his seat on the plane. A slight twitchiness had begun in his feet and slowly weaved upward into his calves and thighs, the muscles jumping from the excitable nerves shooting through them. 

Doing his best to hide his discomfort from everyone proved more difficult than he'd thought as Adrien turned to him, frowning. "Are you all right, Father?"

He forced a smile though he doubted it looked convincing as he nodded. "Just ready to be home. Tell me what you got your friends from our trip."

The distraction worked for them both, Adrien diving into all the gifts he'd gotten for Nino, Alya, Chloe, and eventually Marinette, having saved her for last. Her gifts proved the most numerous, much to Gabriel's silent amusement. 

"So, are you excited for school tomorrow, son?" he asked after a lull occurred in their conversation, the discussion of gifts having ended and nothing of interest had come up yet to occupy them.

The younger Agreste nodded. "I know it's going to be hard saying goodbye to all my friends, but I'm ready to see what the future holds. I still plan on making the most of this year. If that's all right with you, Father, that is."

Ignoring the lancing pain in his chest at his son's words, Gabriel took a steadying breath and met Adrien's hesitant yet hopeful green eyes. A silent thought about how much Adrien looked like Emilie flitted through his mind as he spoke in a low tone. "You do what you need, son. This is your year. If I need you, I'll let you know with plenty of advanced warning."

"Thank you, Father." The younger man turned to gaze out the window for several minutes, his blond hair falling in such a way that Gabriel couldn't see the thoughts swirling across his son's features. After a while, Adrien turned back, his head facing his feet as he mumbled, "This isn't all Marinette's doing or even Nathalie's. Something's wrong, isn't it? You don't have to tell me what it is, but just please, acknowledge I'm not crazy."

Unable to speak from the shock, Gabriel reached out, resting his hand on Adrien's shoulder. 

Neither spoke the rest of the trip toward Paris or even in the car ride home. 

Gabriel tried several times to make his mouth work and form words to comfort his son yet they froze in his throat each time. 

He wasn't surprised when Adrien excused himself, feigning exhaustion though the older Agreste knew Adrien's true intention was a run along the rooftops, maybe even a rendezvous with a certain spotted lady. With a few words of farewell, he sent Adrien onward, knowing his son needed the comforting embrace of the woman he loved. 

A smirk formed as he, too, realized he could use some comfort from his own woman, seeking out Nathalie before she could try and sneak away. He had plans for her despite the bone-weary tiredness dogging him from the trip. He had no intention of allowing that to stop him, especially when they had the house all to themselves. 

Everything else could wait until tomorrow.

 

00000

 

"There! It's finished," Marinette declared, snipping the final thread on her latest commissioned piece. "That's the last one, Tikki."

"Whew, I thought you might be pulling another late night." The kwami floated toward the mannequin inspecting the finished product, her eyes glowing a deep blue as she smiled at her chosen. "You had me a little worried with how you were pushing yourself this past week."

Marinette's determined triumph softened as she caught the concern still shining in her little friend's gaze. "I know, Tik. I didn't mean to worry you. I'm done, so now I can take some time to enjoy school and my friends."

Her gaze moved toward the small cashbox she'd been storing her profits and the sum counted on the slip of paper. A smile formed at the number she'd last tallied, adding the final few pieces she had left to deliver in the next couple of days. 

"At least now, I can afford to be a little picky about what I want to work on and what I don't." She beckoned Tikki closer and nuzzled her kwami for a moment. "Thank you for caring about me. You're such a wonderful friend, Tik."

"Don't you forget it," Tikki declared, her tiny arms crossed. Her bravado faded into giggles a moment later. 

An insistent chiming interrupted whatever Tikki had been about to say.

"Let me guess," Tikki began, floating toward the phone lying on Marinette's bed. "Yep, I knew it."

"Hush, now," Marinette admonished, putting away the few scattered sewing notions she had left. "I promised we'd meet up once he got home. I'm not about to disappoint him." In a softer voice, she added, "I missed him."

"I know you did, but you did the right thing, Marinette. He needed that time alone with his father. I'm so proud of the woman you're becoming."

"Thanks, Tikki," she whispered. She took a final glance around before clapping her hands together and calling upon her transformation. She smiled as Tikki flew into the earrings, wearing a matching smile. The magic soon washed over her, covering her in the suit she'd become to consider a second skin after years of donning it. 

It took mere moments to climb through her skylight and take to the air, zipping through the city toward the Eiffel where her Chat waited. 

Dropping onto their favorite beam a short time later, she noted his absence, wondering if maybe he'd changed his mind. She felt almost certain he'd be tired after all he'd said he'd done during the month in Italy, but that didn't stop the small swell of disappointment filling her.

Thankfully, the moment didn't last long as she caught the faint thud of familiar boots behind her.

"Well, it seems like an unlikely place to find such a beautiful bug, but then, I guess it's my lucky charm at work."

She whirled to find him wearing his normal cheeky grin as he gazed upon her. He offered her a wink and an oomph as she launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck. It didn't take long to feel his arms clamp around her, tightening their hold as he returned her exuberant greeting. 

"Aww, did my Bug miss me that much?" he asked in her ear, sending a delightful shiver down her back. He waited a bit before admitting in the softest voice she’d ever heard from him, "I missed you, too. I really missed you."

The change in his tone worried her, causing her to pull back and gaze into his eyes. He could never truly hide from her there, not since their second year anyway as crime fighters.

"Talk to me, Chaton," she whispered.

He shook his head, but his arms tightened another fraction around her, tugging her a bit closer. She went willingly enough, sensing he needed her comfort and she wasn't about to deny him. 

The city's sounds surrounded them, neither quite sure what to say to break the moment they found themselves. An occasional car horn blared or a siren twanged in the distance. They could even hear music wafting on the wind from the restaurant above them. 

"I-I brought my camera. You wanted to see pictures, right?" He pulled the sleek black equipment from his pocket, a half-hearted grin covering his lips. 

As much as she hated that smile on him, she'd learned long ago not to push when he didn't want to talk. He'd tell her when he was ready. Exhaling a soft breath, she presented him her best smile, nodding. "I'd love to."

"I have gifts for you as well, but I didn't want to risk breaking them, hopping over rooftops." He shrugged. "I can bring them by tomorrow after school if you'd like, or whenever is more convenient for you."

So much for waiting on him, she thought, her ire growing as she listened to him. If she hated that awful fake grin, she hated when he sounded like an inconvenience to others more. 

She poked his chest. "Start talking, Chaton. I'm not kidding."

"LB, there's nothing going on."

"You're lying. Don't think I don't know when you're lying to me, Adrien Agreste." Her arms had come up and crossed over her chest, her hip cocked in a stance that spoke of her determination and stubbornness. She wasn't about to rest without learning what had happened on his trip to make him so unhappy. Softening her tone, she gazed up at him, whispering, "Please, I know I made my share of mistakes before, but trust me. Tell me what's wrong."

"It's nothing you can fix, My Lady. Just drop it." He took a step back, his arms dropping to his side, breaking off all contact between them. 

"Did you have a fight with your father?"

A shake.

"Did he say something to hurt you?"

Another shake.

"Did he ignore you the entire trip?"

Yet another shake.

"Then, what is it? What happened? It can't be that bad, can it?" The moment the words left her mouth, she regretted them, recalling the state she'd found Gabriel before her confrontation and her own conclusions she'd drawn about his health. 

The dejection she caught in Adrien's eyes as they glowed within his mask had her reaching for him again.

"Oh." 

She pulled him close, wrapping her arms around him and allowing her hands to nestle in his hair. She worked to find each spot she knew brought him comfort as he clung to her, his body shaking slightly as he faced this new demon that might exist in his new world.

She lost track of time as she simply held her partner, pulling him tight to her. She had no intention of leaving him as she waited for him to speak, knowing the dam would soon break.

"It's like he's become a new person, Mari," he rasped, struggling to maintain some control over the emotion in his voice. He moved back a bit to see her as he spoke. "The change has been almost too much. I can't help thinking this whole summer has been one long dream. I'm not sure I ever want to wake up."

"Well, I wouldn't mind forgetting a few things this summer." She offered him a tentative smile, hoping to help ease the tension within him. "You know? Our fight wasn't exactly dreamlike."

"No, but it gave me this. It gave me all of you." He pulled her close again as he added, "You don't know what that means to me."

"I just might," she murmured too low for him to catch as her words became lost on the wind.

They remained like that another few minutes before Adrien pulled back, his glowing gaze meeting hers as he asked, "Do you think something's wrong with my father?"

She hesitated, unsure what he'd do if she admitted the full truth. Her oath to not keep secrets won in the end. "I'm not completely sure, but yes, I do think there's something wrong. I'm sorry, Adrien. I wish I could lie and say he's fine."

"No," he said, pulling her close and pressing a kiss on her forehead. His voice shook as he continued, "Thank you for being honest. I know I can count on you to be honest when I need to hear it."

"Anytime, Chaton." She leaned into him, giving him as much comfort and warmth she could. 

They stood there, content to enjoy the evening. Neither mentioned the photos Adrien had taken and promised to share, knowing they'd keep. 

As the night grew later and the streets thinned out, Marinette stirred in Adrien's arms, her eyes opening to find his green ones on her. Despite her mask covering her face, she felt sure he could make out the blush blooming over her cheeks as she whispered, "I didn't mean to doze on you."

"It's okay, Bug. I might've dozed a bit, too. Maybe we should head home and call it a night?" 

Despite his question, he seemed content to continue holding her, his arms still wrapped solidly around her middle. 

"Would you like to come home with me? You could stay. My parents won't mind." 

The smile he gave her looked so sweet yet so heartbreaking. He shook his head. "Thanks for the offer, but I'd better head home to my bed tonight. I still haven't unpacked or gotten ready for school tomorrow."

She nodded, taking the initiative in stepping back. A pluck had her yo-yo in hand and a toss secured it on a nearby building. 

"Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow, Chaton. Sleep well, okay?" Before she took off, she closed the tiny amount of space between them and pressed a kiss against his cheek. "I need you by my side."

"Yes, My Lady. I won't let you down." A flick of his wrist produced his baton from its holster. With a salute, he prepared to vault from the beam they'd long ago claimed as their own. "Tomorrow."

She watched as he took off first, vaulting over the rooftops before racing toward his home. She smiled as she watched him disappear into the dark night. "Tomorrow, mon Chaton."

Hurrying home herself, she dropped into her room, plunking down on her bed as her transformation faded, her eyes going to the picture of Adrien she'd chosen to keep on her wall next to her pillow. 

"I love you," she whispered as her eyes closed and sleep claimed her.

 

00000

 

Adrien slipped through the cracked window of his room, taking care to remain silent as his superhero namesake. The quiet of the house permeated into his room despite all the gadgets and high-priced noisemakers he owned, none of them stirring in the late hour and his prolonged absence.

He almost wished he'd taken Marinette up on her offer to spend the night at her place. At least, then, he'd have her nearby, maybe even have her snuggled against him on her small bed. He felt sure it'd be a tight fit, but he wouldn't care if it meant getting to hold her close. 

A whispered command had his transformation dropping away, a whining Plagg ready to harangue him for taking forever and not feeding him a wheel of Camembert before taking off. 

"You know I need my energy, kid." The little kwami proved his statement by inhaling a large wedge of Camembert and followed it with another and another. "Just because you miss your girlfriend, doesn't mean you can mistreat me. I'm a god, you know."

"Not now, Plagg." The young man dropped onto the edge of his bed, his hands raking his hair as he considered the evening. It'd been nice to see her again even if he'd ruined their reunion with his stupid worries. Dropping backward, he soon groaned as he recalled the way she'd looked. He groaned louder.

"Man, she looked so beautiful," he murmured to the room, not particularly caring if he received a response.

"Well, sure, kid, you've always thought that about Ladybug."

"No, it wasn't Ladybug. Well, it was, but I meant Mari. She was so gorgeous tonight. Yet, instead of wooing her like I'd planned, I practically cried on her shoulder." He groaned even louder, his hands grinding into his eyes as he rubbed them with vigorous movements. "How am I ever supposed to win her heart if I keep showing her how weak I am? She's so much stronger than I am. She must think I'm some kind of joke."

"Yeah, I'm out," Plagg answered, zipping to his basket and hiding with his restocked paws full of Camembert.

"I'm serious, Plagg. I need some help." The blond sat up and moved toward the basket, peering into the same glowing eyes he borrowed as Chat. "Come on, please. Help me."

"Ugh, don't you have that DJ kid to help with these matters? Why me?" 

The familiar whining brought a smile to Adrien's lips as he considered his kwami, knowing the perfect bribe to gain the little black cat's help.

"I'll double your order of Camembert next month if you help me." He held up two fingers as part of his scout's honor. 

Plagg considered him for a long moment, his eyes narrowing at Adrien's earnest expression.

With a sigh, the kwami finally agreed.

"Yes! You won't regret helping me win Mari over," Adrien declared, feeling better with each passing moment. "Now, we need to plan out our next step."

"No."

The simple word brought Adrien to a halt, his head slowly turning to face his kwami as if he'd misheard.

Plagg refused to speak again until he had his chosen's complete attention. Only then did he elaborate, saying, "The first thing we're doing is getting some sleep, kid. Now, go take a shower and get to bed. You have school tomorrow or did you already forget?"

Chuckling, Adrien nodded, knowing he'd lost this round. "You're right. Thanks, Plagg."

Doing what he was told, the young Agreste soon emerged from his in-suite bath, a towel draping his waist as he searched for some night clothes. He tossed aside several suitable matching sets his father had bought him over the years until he found the one he wanted most. He smiled as his hands touched the set, pulling it from the drawer in his massive closet. 

He didn't mind that the shirt didn't match the bottoms or that both sported a few holes from all their wear and tear. They'd become his favorite because they'd been made with his happiness in mind. They'd been a gift from someone who'd become such an important part of his life. He'd wear them until the last stitch fell out and left him naked before he'd get rid of them.

"Maybe I should ask her to make me another set," he murmured, realizing he'd grown another inch in the last several months since wearing these last. He doubted he would, knowing how busy she'd been over the summer. He wondered if she'd grown sick of all the designing she'd done. She'd sent him a few pictures over the past month, but she'd been holding back, wanting to hear more about his experience than sharing her own. 

That last thought struck a chord within him, freezing him near his bed as he glanced over at Plagg's wastebasket. 

Could he be that selfish? Did he really make his friends believe the world revolved around him? What did that say about him?

He sank onto his bed, worrying his hair again as he considered the events of his evening with Marinette on the Eiffel Tower.

They'd planned to see the photos he'd taken of Italy, something he'd been dying to show her. But he'd upset that plan with his problems, forcing her to spend that time instead on helping him through yet another crisis.

"Go to sleep, Adrien," Plagg called out. "I can hear you worrying from here. It'll all work out in the end, kid. Trust me."

The blond nodded though Plagg couldn't see him, moving further up his bed and climbing under the covers. A glance over his shoulder gave him a reason to smile as he caught the picture he'd framed of him with his friends, Mari under his arm with the cutest blush he'd ever seen dusting her cheeks. 

"Good night, Mari." Turning over, he closed his eyes and smiled. "I hope you sleep well, my princess."

Dreams assailed him of raven hair tied up in pigtails or a single braid with deep bluebell eyes that lit up with such happiness as they gazed at him. He dreamed of pulling her close and whispering his love her and dream of her whispering hers back to him. He dreamed of kissing to seal that new love they shared. More dreams kept him diving deeper into a bliss that he hadn’t experienced before, something he yearned to experience in real life. He wanted those dreams to come true with Marinette.

All too soon, Plagg came to wake him, whining for more Camembert and threatening to destroy his room if he didn't comply. 

"Come on, lover boy. You have school this morning. Don't want you to miss your chance to see your girlfriend before class, do you?" Plagg taunted, earning him a tossed pillow from his chosen.

"How are you so annoying?" Adrien asked with a large dose of derision in his raspy voice. "I'm up."

"Hmm."

A glance at his phone nearby had him dashing into his bathroom, rushing to complete his morning routine before he was indeed late for his first day of school. 

He finished in five minutes what usually took him almost an hour, foregoing most of the products his father and every other adult expected him to use as part of being a model. 

As he wrenched open his door, he stared with widened eyes as he met the surprise in his father's. The older man stood poised to knock, his hand raised uselessly in the air. It took him another moment to recall himself and lower it back to his cane, leaning a bit heavily on it that morning.

"I wanted to see you off this morning." His father took a step back to allow Adrien to leave his room, adding, "If that's all right with you."

A shy warmth filled the younger man as he regarded his father, nodding his consent. "You're welcome to ride with me, too, if you'd like to see my school and my friends."

"I think I'll pass this time, but thank you, son. I figured most young men your age would be embarrassed by their fathers. I know you have every reason to be."

The derision came back with a vengeance as he rounded on his father. In a low voice of warning, he demanded, "Stop. Just stop. It's no secret you were a crappy father, but this isn't helping, either. Please, just stop."

"Adrien," Gabriel began, but Adrien cut him off.

"No, Father, I can't take it anymore. I hate this. You've never cared about my feelings before and now you make all these self-deprecating remarks. I do the same thing and honestly, I'm tired of it. I don't want to be like this anymore. I want us both to be better. We shouldn't have to keep bringing ourselves down. So, just stop." He swiped his arm through the air to emphasize his point, moving towards the stairs as he recalled the lateness of the morning hour. 

"You're right, son. I'll try to do better in the future." His father reached out a hand, almost like he wanted some type of physical contact. 

Adrien didn't hesitate this time, turning and embracing his father. "We both will."

He ended the hug almost as soon as he began it, promising they'd have some time together later. 

He didn't see the pride or the sadness that crept into his father's gaze as he disappeared through the door, intent on reaching school and spending at least a few minutes with his friends. If he had, he might have missed his first day, which was the last thing Gabriel would want.

No, it was better he hadn't seen it.

 

00000

 

"M, over here," Alya called as Marinette dashed toward the school, her gaze scanning for the familiar limo she wanted to see most. 

"Hey, Al. Nino, look at you. You're very handsome," Marinette said as she neared her friends as they cuddled on one of the steps outside the school. 

"Girl, are you trying to start something? Get your own man." Glancing around, Alya asked, "Where's our sunshine boy? Hit on him."

"He's not here yet." She bit her lip as she scanned the familiar and not-so-familiar faces of the students. 

The bell rang, officially beginning of their first day. 

"Come on, Nette. We'll wait for him in class." Nino grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the doors, understanding in his golden eyes and in the smile he gave her. "He's coming. I know it."

She nodded, following behind her friends as they made their way to the new room they'd call homeroom for their final year. Situated much like Francois Dupont, the desks were formed into a stadium-like arrangement.

Alya pointed out the seats they've taken in whatever room they called their own, pointing at the second row for her and Nino while pointing out the front for Marinette and Adrien when he showed up.

Marinette slid into her new seat, her gaze going to the clock above the board. She didn't dare glance away as the final minutes wound down to the start of the hour, the tardy bell preparing to ring when a whirl of motion near the door caught her attention. 

A glance had her gasping with some relief as a blond mess entered the room, his bag falling from his shoulder from his mad dash into the classroom.

"I'm here," he gasped out. "I made it."

Several giggles filled the room as they took in the disheveled mess that was Adrien Agreste.

Marinette didn't.

She beamed at the sight of him.

He'd made it. 

She didn't even hear Nino calling out for Adrien to take his seat before the teacher gave him detention on the first day. All she saw was the smile Adrien shot at Nino for being a good friend before walking toward the desk he'd share with Marinette, their eyes finally meeting and holding as he moved ever closer.

"Hey," he whispered, sliding in beside her.

"Hey." She barely recognized her voice as she felt an electricity stirring between them.

One moment they were staring at one another, inexplicably leaning closer and the next they were jumping apart as the teacher entered the room, killing the moment that had barely begun.

"Welcome to your final year, students." The teacher performed roll call and soon dispensed with a few unnecessary announcements that were heard every year and elicited only groans as they heard the rules for the umpteenth time. Soon though, new business was brought out with several flyers for the students to glance over. "We have several fundraising opportunities for you to volunteer your time this year. Each will fulfill your community service requirements for the year. Let me know which ones interest you by the end of the week."

She handed off the stapled pile to Marinette and Adrien, beckoning them to pass them around until everyone had copies. 

Marinette took a moment to comb through the different opportunities, two immediately catching her eye. The first was a major dance competition that would be raising money for several countries that had been affected by a series of wildfires. So many families had been destroyed and/or devastated by the fire's widespread damage, claiming lives and homes in its wake. The other was a fashion show where the recipient of funds hadn't yet been decided though there were a few options available. 

Raising her hand, she volunteered for the fashion show, asking if she could head the whole production. The only other to raise their hand was Chloe, who nodded and acquiesced the leadership role to Marinette, offering to help with procuring the needed clothing for the show. 

Everyone froze, causing Marinette's focus to leave her papers and meet those of her long-time classmates. It took her longer than it probably should have to see that they hadn't been expecting such civility between the once-feuding women. 

Hoping to help Chloe further her endeavors in winning more supporters, she offered Chloe a smile and asked, "Can you meet up this weekend? We can discuss some of the beginning details for the fundraiser."

Chloe nodded, smiling in gratitude.

Satisfied, she went back to her cache and looked over the other sheets, waiting for the bell to dismiss them to their first classes for the day.

"Hey, Mari," Adrien whispered near her ear, doing his best not to draw attention to them yet still succeeding in doing just that.

She felt several pairs of eyes on them as she glanced at him.

"What's up?" she asked under her breath.

"You're amazing. I don't think I can say that enough." His fingers touched hers beneath their desk, away from the prying eyes of their classmates. "I know the fashion show isn't until spring and I know it'll take up a lot of your time even this fall."

She caught his other hand going toward his neck, revealing his rising nervousness as his fingers played with the hair at his nape. 

"Yes, it will, but I'll still have time for friends and other commitments." Dropping her voice as low as she could go, she added, "Don't worry, Chaton. We'll still have our patrols together."

He blushed, much to her delight and stammered, "Oh, I, um, I-that would be awesome, but I was actually wondering if you'd do another fundraiser with me during the fall."

This time, warmth flooded her cheeks even as she smiled. "Which one were you considering?"

"The dance competition?" His hand rubbed harder, leaving behind a slight reddish mark across his skin. "If you would rather not, I understand. I, um, I thought it might be fun, you know? It's not ballroom, but hey, we were pretty good that one dance we shared, right?"

Placing her hand over his mouth to stem his words, she smiled and nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. I'm game if you are. We do make a pretty unstoppable team, don't you think?"

A wink from her had three choking on air as they stared at her. 

Unperturbed, she held out her hand and asked, "Partners?"

"Always."

Agreement made. They turned toward their teacher and volunteered themselves for the upcoming dance competition, smiling as several classmates started talking excitedly about this latest development. 

She could've sworn she heard something about ships sailing or close to that effect.

She didn't care as she peeked at Adrien and found his smile hadn't diminished as the bell rang, his hand going out to help her from her seat. 

As they separated for their first class, Marinette felt her mind wander several times throughout the morning, never straying far from the developments she's made with Adrien as both his civilian self and superhero self. She could only hope things continued progressing. She had dreams she wanted to see come true even if she tried to tell herself to remain patient. 

Her optimism couldn't be stemmed though as the day wore on and Adrien followed her to a nearby cafe for lunch. 

In a cozy booth, they talked about their classes and made plans for after school. 

Yes, indeed, the future looked far more promising for these two in Marinette's mind as they walked back to the school together, his hand brushing hers. 

She could only hope that promise continued to grow, but she somehow doubted life would be so kind for long. 

 

Chapter Text

"This place is nice," Adrien said, noting the modern yet cozy tables and chairs dotting the cafe. It wasn't the same as her parents' bakery, but he could feel his body relaxing as they placed their orders and took them toward a small table in the corner. 

She smiled as she nodded. "It opened a week ago and I've been dying to come here once school started. I'm glad you came with me."

"Happy to oblige, Bug," he whispered, his gaze meeting hers for a moment. The soft blush gracing her cheeks had him wanting to lean closer and feel the warmth with his fingers. He kept himself where he was though, content to enjoy her company in a friendly capacity. There would be time to tell her his feelings soon enough, maybe even on the way back to school. 

There was that romantic little park nearby, he mused. Maybe they could stop in so he could tell her then. Maybe she might even reciprocate them. Oh, wouldn't that be amazing to hear her say she loved him, too! 

"So, I know the dance is over a month away, but I could probably use some practice." Marinette took a bite of her sandwich, chewing for a few minutes before she spoke again, her smile still teasing at her lips as she met his gaze. "So, think you can fit me on your schedule? For dance practice?"

"Mari, I'll always make time for you, no matter what," he replied, his body tensing as if preparing for war than a simple confession. 

Unsure a bit how to start, he mimicked her earlier actions and bit into the sandwich he'd ordered, chewing as he thought back on all he knew about her and what they've shared. He wanted her to know he meant what he said. He hadn't told someone he loved them in a long time and never in the way he felt for her. He didn't want to screw this up.

A thought occurred, spurring him to ask, "Hey, Bug, when I visited you that night as Chat?"

"Mmhmm," she hummed, chewing another bite of her sandwich.

"You said you loved me," he spoke each word slowly, allowing her time to process without mishap.

She choked anyway, coughing around the bite in her mouth as she fought for air. Her hand tapped at her chest as she tried to breathe again, tears gathering in her eyes as she struggled.

Instantly beside her, he tapped her back until her coughing changed and soon settled into soft pants of air, her hand reaching for the glass of water. 

"Better?" 

"Mmhmm." She took a few sips before she met his gaze with wide blue eyes and a quirked brow. She coughed as she asked, "What brought that on?"

He shrugged, feeling sheepish as he watched her closely, not wanting her to choke again. He hadn't meant to unsettle her enough that she actually choked. Oh, this could be going a bit better, he thought as he debated saying anything else just yet. 

"It, um, it just struck me that you'd said that and I was just kinda wondering if maybe you still felt that way." One hand had moved from the table to his neck, rubbing at his nape again. He really needed to work on that tell of his, catching her amused smile at his nervous gesture. 

"Well, I think that whatever I told Chat Noir should be privileged information. I didn't have a clue he was you and that shouldn't be used against me. I know Ladybug wouldn't ever do that to a civilian or her partner." She winked up at him. 

She freaking winked at him as if she wouldn't use any information he told her against him. Well, maybe she wouldn't use it to hurt him, but she would use it. He knew her well enough. 

Sensing a game about to start, he sat across from her again and leaned forward until he invaded her space, watching her eyes widen at this latest move. Despite her surprise, he caught the amusement and playfulness underneath. She didn't mind this game, having played it with him in different capacities over the years. 

"Well, we both know that alley cat can't keep a secret, Bug." 

"That's not true. Chat is the sweetest, most trustworthy cat I've ever met."

Hmm, he loved hearing her quick defense of him both in and out of the suit. It made his heart flutter the tiniest bit at the knowledge she cared for him on some level, even if it wasn't the level he wanted just yet.

Not done with pulling more out of her, he tried another tactic, sure this time he'd gain the information he most wanted. "Okay, but he does like to tease a bit too much, don't you think? He is a considerable goofball as I know you've said on numerous occasions. Something about being a flirty cat that's way over the top?"

"That was years ago. He's mellowed quite a bit. He's a wonderful partner who just likes to blow off some steam when he's had a rough day. You can't fault him for that. Besides, I can always count on him when I need him, especially in a battle."

"Well, you got me there. I know he'd never recover if something happened to you, Bug," he whispered, not wanting the other patrons to overhear their conversation. 

She didn't say anything for a bit, her eyes searching his as she sipped at her water. The intensity of her stare would normally put him off as she looked ready to interrogate him further, but she surprised him as that intensity softened. In a whisper, she confessed, "I feel the same about you, Chaton. I think we're fairly stuck with each other."

His mind couldn't help but begin to break down that last comment, wondering if she meant it as something good or something she had to suffer through. He sincerely hoped she meant the former, knowing his heart couldn't take the latter. 

She didn't leave him to suffer long as she added, "I can't think of someone better to be stuck with. You're an amazing partner and friend, Adrien."

A soft alarm sounded from her phone, pausing their conversation and his hope for ultimate love confessions, reminding them that they still had their afternoon classes. 

"Walk me back?" she asked, standing and holding out her hand. "I have something to show you before class."

He nodded, taking her hand in his and squeezing a bit as they cleaned up and headed back to school. 

Neither really spoke as they walked. 

Much to Adrien's relief, the silence proved comfortable as they'd accepted whatever was building between them, not freaking out at the different possibilities it could mean for them. At least, they weren't doing that yet. Neither had really confessed anything of great significance but rather reiterating their previous closeness. 

Sure, he wanted more, but he also wanted the memory of them proclaiming their love for one another to be one she'd remember for years to come. He wanted her to be able to tell their kids and grandkids about how sweet and romantic it had been. The idea of children and years together didn't frighten him as he momentarily paused, realizing he wanted that with her. He wanted so much with her despite how young they were. He had an undeniable feeling that they belonged together and would work toward seeing that happen.

"You're awfully quiet." She peeked at him under her lashes. "A euro for your thoughts, Chaton."

Their school had come into sight, causing him to start as he realized he'd been indeed quiet the entire walk back. Not very Chat Noir of him if he was being honest or even Adrien of him where Marinette was concerned. 

"Just thinking, Bugaboo." He glanced at her and caught her eye, a soft smile teasing his lips. "Nothing bad, I swear. Maybe a little scheming though."

"Gonna tell me this scheme you're planning?" Her arms moved to cross over her chest as she gave him her best commanding look, reminding him so much of her superhero ego at that moment. He still couldn't believe he hadn't seen it sooner. 

His teasing smile grew a bit wider as he opened his mouth to retort.

He never got the chance as several screams rang out. Students began to pour onto the walkways, dashing away from whatever threat that had invaded the building. 

He felt her tug at his hand, already searching for a hiding place for them to transform. He didn't hesitate, more than trusting her to lead the charge when she stopped hard. He managed not to bump her and knock her over, following her gaze to the top of the school's stairs. 

"Alya," she whispered as they caught their friend leading a bunch of students from the school. 

An akuma appeared behind the reporter and shouted loud and long as he raged at Alya's audacity. One moment, he shouted at their friend. The next he was sending her flying across the courtyard. Adrien heard the crack of bone even from the distance they stood, his eyes going wide as he witnessed the level of rage within the akuma, never having seen it at such lengths before. 

"Alya," Marinette shouted next to him. She rushed forward and would have continued running if he hadn't grabbed her hand and pulled her back. She looked back at him with mounting fear and anxiety. "Adrien, we have to go."

He nodded, saying, "Yes, we do. As Ladybug and Chat. We can't do anything as we are right now. Come on. We'll take care of it."

He tugged her behind a large tree and called upon Plagg to transform him, watching as she finally did the same with her kwami. As much as he wanted to enjoy the magical lights as they transformed her into his beloved partner, he knew it wasn't the right time. Taking her hand in his, he pressed a gentle kiss onto her knuckles, hoping to soothe her as they prepared for this battle.

"I'll take care of the akuma while you get to Alya and get her someplace safe. Hurry back, LB. I don't trust this guy. Something's different about this one."

She nodded, already moving toward the area where Alya laid, one of her bones broken and her soft moans of pain plaguing Adrien as he hurried to the akuma to create a distraction.

It felt like she remained gone far too long as he continued to taunt the akuma away from other students, getting the victim's focus on him and keeping it there as he waited for her return. 

"Need some help, tomcat?" Honey Bee asked as she joined the fight moments before Ladybug reappeared.

"Yeah," he called out, his gaze going to his partner and sensing something dangerous within her. She didn't look anything but determined on the outside, but he could feel something bubbling within her that he hadn't felt in a long time. "Honey, sting him with your rapier. Paralyze him. The akuma's in his pocket."

"Got it," the Bee holder called back, moving in with her rapier and landing a direct blow to the akuma's legs, stinging and paralyzing him on the rooftop. She made quick work of gaining the item from the now prone figure, placing it in Ladybug's outstretched hand.

Adrien didn't say anything as he watched her break the item and cleanse the butterfly. He still didn't say anything as she released her cure on the school and those affected by the akuma. He remained silent as he followed Ladybug back to their previous spot behind the tree, merely nodding in farewell to Honey Bee.

He didn't talk again until they dropped their transformations and she collapsed in his arms for a moment, tears streaming down her face. 

"It'll be okay. It'll be okay," he crooned in her ear as she shook from her pent-up emotions. He pressed kisses to her hair as he worked to comfort her as she'd done for him over the years. He could do this for her. "Alya's strong, Bug. She'll be fine."

 

00000

 

The white butterfly fluttered through the window of Hawk Moth's lair, coming to settle a bit nervously in his palm. 

Gabriel did his best to assure the little creature of its safety, having no desire in harming it. He hadn't done that in years as he lost any derivative of pleasure from harming them after each unsuccessful attempt at gaining what he'd thought he wanted. 

"Come here, my friend. You did well," he whispered, his finger grazing over the sparkling white wings. "It wasn't your fault the magic didn't go right. Rest now." 

A soft puff of breath sent the butterfly floating toward its hundreds of friends throughout the room.

With a heavy sigh at the disaster he faced from this akuma, he mumbled the words to drop his transformation, feeling the magic wash away and leaving him a trembling mess, his hands gripping his cane tighter than ever before to remain upright.

"Master, that was a decent effort, but I don't think this is the right course," Nooroo said in a quiet, reserved tone. His large eyes remained wary of Gabriel's wrath as Gabriel hated admitting failure in the past and had taken it out on the tiny kwami.

"It's Gabriel, Nooroo." He struggled to remain upright, his knees shaking from the efforts he'd put in to stop the akuma. "I couldn't break our bond. Why couldn't I do it? I thought I had that ability."

"You do, sir, but you've never used it before. You've also corrupted the magic by using it for evil purposes. I'm sorry, sir, but I don't think this will work. I don't think you have the power to remedy the corruption on your own."

"I'm not ready to give up yet. I owe it to you, Nooroo, to try one more time." Gabriel sank to his knees, his legs incapable of holding him any longer. Resting his head against his cane, he took a few steadying breaths before he continued, "I owe it to everyone to try and fix the mess I created."

The small tapping of Nooroo's arm on his cheek surprised him, not having felt comfort from the tiny creature since gaining him all those years ago. Turning to meet Nooroo's eyes, Gabriel watched as the butterfly kwami finally nodded, saying, "I disagree with this course, but I can see your determined. I shall only warn you that the next time could lead to more disastrous results."

"I'm aware," Gabriel whispered, fearful yet trying to maintain some hope. He needed that hope to keep him going. 

"Fine, Gabriel, but I do have one demand before you try again." The kwami had a serious face that surprised and almost amused the older Agreste if he hadn't learned to heed Nooroo's words by this point.

"You need to bring in Ladybug. She needs to know so she can help with this. Without her, I refuse to help you any longer." Tiny arms crossed over his puffed-up chest as he waited for Gabriel to say whether he agreed or not. The fear lurking behind his bravado swayed the fashion icon more than anything else might've.

"Fine, we'll bring her in." He fumbled for his phone, his fingers shaking from the exertion of fighting to break the bond between him and his would-be champion. With it finally free, he pulled up Marinette's information and typed out a quick text, hoping she'd see it and agree to a meeting after school let out. He'd have to figure out what to do with Adrien since he didn't want his son knowing this side of him just yet. He didn't want to witness the anger and disappointment he knew his son would harbor toward him, deserved or not.

Turning back to Nooroo, he muttered, "Done."

"Do you need some help upstairs, sir?" Nooroo flitted nearby, waiting to be called back into his broach. 

A ruddy shade entered Gabriel's cheeks as he acknowledged his cursed weakness, saying the words to transform into Hawk Moth and gaining just enough energy to leave his lair behind. 

As the doors opened, he nearly fell backward as Nathalie stood next to the secret hatch, her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes shooting daggers at him. 

"Gabriel Agreste, you owe me the biggest explanation," she commanded, her eyes never leaving him as he moved into his office.

Despite it all, he smiled as he dropped his transformation, knowing how she felt about Hawk Moth and all the villain represented. He moved toward his desk, Nooroo floating above his shoulder and sank down into his chair with a slight groan of pain. 

"Now, Gabriel. I don't care any longer about giving you time and space. I've shared your bed and allowed you back into my life. I refuse to be shut out anymore. You'll tell me what's going on or so help me, I'll take you down myself right now." She pointed and wagged her finger in a threatening manner. Her typically cool and aloof personality gone and in its place, a spitfire that looked ready to devour him for his stupidity.

"You're right, mon Coeur. I do owe you an explanation." He reached out and caught her still-wagging finger in a soft grip, tugging her closer. When she came as far as the edge of his desk and refused to move any closer, he sighed as he said, "I have a meeting with Ladybug after she's done with school. If you can wait that long, then you'll have all the answers you need. I promise you, Nathalie. No more hiding."

She wilted before him, her ire going out of her as worry for him overrode her better judgment. 

It hurt him to see it as he tugged on her hand until she acquiesced and dropped into his lap. His arms wrapped around her, tugging her even closer. As her head dropped to his shoulder and her hands came around his neck, she held him close. He did his best to comfort her, pressing kisses to her temple and perfectly coifed hair while one hand rubbed soothing circles on her back.

"What was that? The news is going crazy over the changes in the akuma. What happened, Gabriel?" she asked, her warm breath teasing the skin at his neck as her glasses dug into his shoulder. He didn't mind though as he continued to soothe her. 

"I'll explain everything soon." Recalling the young woman who'd been hurt, he rested his cheek against Nathalie's hair and whispered in a pained voice, "Will you ensure Mlle Cesaire is properly treated and all finances handled? I fear she might've suffered lasting damage from the akuma this afternoon."

"Gabriel?" She moved far enough back to look into his eyes as she asked, "Why didn't Ladybug's cure fix it?"

"I'm not exactly sure, mon Coeur, but we'll get those answers later. I assure you."

Nooroo spoke for the first time since their arrival in the office, his tiny body now resting on Gabriel's desk as he watched their interaction. "Ladybug's cure doesn't work if an akuma attacks and causes extreme harm before she's transformed herself. Her friend had been hit before she'd had the chance. It's the only explanation on why it hadn't worked."

"She's going to be furious, Gabriel, with good reason," Nathalie said before adding, "I hope you have a good explanation planned for both of us. I wouldn't put it past Marinette to demand you give up Hawk Moth altogether."

"I know she will," he mumbled, his gaze dropping to his phone and noting the time. Only a couple more hours before he'd face his ultimate judgment. "Nathalie, can you send Adrien somewhere as a distraction? I don't want him here for this. Not yet anyway."

"Yes, sir, I think I can manage that." She pulled out her phone and began typing furiously, hitting send about a minute later. "Done."

Now, they waited.

 

00000

 

Adrien's arms wrapped around her felt nothing short of heaven as she nestled deeper, allowing him to comfort her. 

She knew Alya would be fine, having suffered a broken leg that would need to be set, but she'd survive with only a cast to show the damage the akuma had wrought. It didn't help Marinette though as she faced the reality that her cure couldn't fix everything as she'd always depended, watching as Alya had been carted into an ambulance, Nino demanding to go with her. 

"Mari, do you want to follow Alya to the hospital? I can call Lawrence. I'm sure our teachers will understand," he whispered near her ear. "So would our parents."

"Just stay with me for a bit longer. I'm not ready to make any decisions yet. Please, Chaton," she choked on his pet name as new tears threatened. All the anger she'd felt and had been prepared to aim at the akuma hadn't had a release, seeking and finding one in her tears as she continued to leak them despite her best efforts to stop.

"I'm not going anywhere," he promised, his arms tightening just a fraction more. "Tell me what you need, Maribug. I'll do it."

"All I want is you," she whispered, not even ashamed to admit it as she remained in his arms. She didn't ever want to leave.

A soft chuckle escaped him. "I think I can manage that, Bug."

They stayed like that for several minutes.

She caught a few of their teachers looking at them with some consternation until they recognized her. Sympathy would then soften their prepared reprimands as they knew how close she was with Alya, leaving them in relative peace until the principal came and asked them to head toward class.

Marinette allowed Adrien to lead her toward her next class, unmindful of her tardiness as she moved a bit closer, not ready to leave his warmth just yet.

He seemed to sense her need, leaving her grateful yet embarrassed, as he whispered, "I'll see you in our last class. After that, how about I walk you home and I'll hold you as long as you want. I won't leave you until you're sure you're okay. Sound like a plan, Maribug?"

She offered him a smile as she nodded, pressing a kiss to his cheek. With a tiny wave, she said her farewell and walked through the door, the teacher giving her a reassuring nod as she walked to her seat. 

She caught a final glimpse of him as he moved toward his classroom, wishing their shared class wasn't so far off as she glanced at the clock.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket, eliciting a smile as she considered he'd wanted to check on her. A glance at the name had her frowning as she wondered what the man could possibly want after the stunt he pulled with that akuma.

She debated opening the message for a few minutes, her finger hovering over her screen. She could just delete the message without reading it. She didn't owe him anything. 

Her curiosity won out. She opened up her texting app with a couple taps on her screen and read the message.

G: It's time I made some explanations. Please meet me this afternoon after school at my office. I'll tell you all you need to know. Please, Ladybug, I need to do this.

M: What about Chat? Is he coming?

G: No, he's not. I'm not ready to talk with him just yet, but I will talk to you. 

M: I won't keep secrets from him. 

G: I don't expect you to, Marinette. Please, come. At least, hear me out.

She didn't know what to expect, hating that Adrien wouldn't be there. She didn't like sneaking around him, especially after what she'd done. She didn't know what to do as she couldn't force Gabriel to include him, but she wanted answers.

Deciding her course, she sent her final text.

M: I'll be there, but if Adrien asks, I won't keep your secrets. Not anymore.

G: Agreed. See you soon.

She closed her phone and put it away, hoping to use class as a distraction. She thanked her lucky stars she was sitting in her art class, offering a feeble smile to a few of her friends. Nathaniel looked at her with some concern from his seat across the classroom, but she shook her head, not ready to discuss what happened with Alya to anyone. Well, Adrien was the exception but only she knew that. 

The clock taunted her as it wound down at a snail's pace until the time finally came to end class and send them to their final one for the day.

She gathered her stuff and accepted a few words of condolence from Nathaniel and others, her mind already working on her best route to her final class to avoid this and risk being late.

As she burst through the door, a strong hand gripped her wrist and tugged her into a solid form beside her, a form she recognized with a soft smile. In a whisper, she leaned in close and said, "Oh, I'm so happy it's you."

"Well, that makes me want to just purr, Bugaboo." Adrien nuzzled her hair for a moment before leading the way to their final class. "Was it that bad?"

She nodded, moving closer as she recalled all the sympathetic looks she'd gotten as Alya had been hurt, even though the injuries had been minor compared to what could've happened.

"Well, one more and then, we're free to escape." He opened the door for her to their final classroom, bending low enough to say, "I, um, have a few errands to run after class. Last minute ones. Do you mind if I postpone comforting you until afterward? I'd ask to do them later, but Nathalie had texted they were pretty urgent."

"It's okay, Chaton. I need to take care of something myself. I'll meet you later this evening, say around patrol time. My balcony will be ready by then." Her hand found his and squeezed, hoping he wouldn't realize where she planned to be. She didn't think she could handle the look of betrayal sure to be on his face if he did. "I'll see if I can sweet talk my father in setting aside some of those croissants you love so much."

"Well, you don't have to bribe me to come over, Mari, but I'd never turn down those amazing flaky bits of goodness." He offered her a smile as he led them toward their seats.

Feeling slightly nostalgic, she nodded at the seat behind the one he normally took. At the questioning look he gave her, she explained, "I've looked at the back of your head for years. I've kinda missed it today. Do you mind?"

She caught the small range of emotions as they shone in his eyes as he thought out his best answer, finally settling to say, "Sure thing, Bug. Do whatever makes you happy right now."

He settled in front of her as the teacher walked in and announced a large group project that they'd have to complete before the winter term ended. The teacher then went on to designate the groups. Much to her surprise and delight, the teacher called her name with Adrien's, Nino's, and Alya's. She couldn't help sending Adrien a quick text about how lucky they were. 

The rest of class sped by as the teacher dived right into the lesson after finishing the roll call. 

The final bell rang out and students leaped from their seats, eager to escape school grounds, not quite used to the transition from summer vacation to school time.

All too soon, Marinette waved farewell to Adrien as he ducked into his waiting car with Lawrence, having walked with him to the curb. She lingered a moment as she watched him disappear into traffic, making sure he wouldn't see the direction she had to go.

Pulling open her purse, she glanced down at Tikki and whispered, "Let's do this."

With a nod, Tikki flew into her earrings, soon swinging toward the Agreste mansion. She noted the open window in Gabriel's office and changed course, dropping to her feet and releasing her yo-yo as she met his expectant gaze with a determined one of her own. 

"So, what was the reason for that akuma? It wasn't for my earrings or Chat's ring. You stopped caring about them a couple years back." She crossed her arms and popped her hip, determined to have her answers one way or another. She barely noted Nathalie's presence in one of the chairs opposite Gabriel. "Why not have Chat here, too? He deserves the same answers I'll be getting out of you."

"You're right. He does. He will have them soon," Gabriel agreed, his hand coming out and motioning her toward the chair next to Nathalie's. "Please, sit, Marinette. I'm afraid we'll be here a while."

"I'll stand. Thank you." She moved closer, not sure if she should suspect a trap since he was Hawk Moth yet sensing he hadn't asked her there with ill intent. After a moment of silence passed, she felt her patience snap, her teeth grinding as she commanded, "Talk, Gabriel. Why are you bringing Hawk Moth back now?"

"I'm running out of time, Marinette," the older Agreste said in a soft tone. "I'm trying to right some wrongs I've committed before that time is gone."

"Explain." She moved a bit closer to his desk, still not caring to sit as she waited for whatever bombshell he planned on dropping.

He offered her a small smile, one full of regret as he continued in that same soft tone, "I started suffering small blackouts a few years back, not long after I learned who you and Chat were. I didn't think much of them at first. It wasn't until I'd blacked out for several hours and missed almost an entire day that I grew a bit concerned. I finally heeded Nooroo here and sought the medical advice of a doctor."

She nodded for him to continue, her gaze going to the small kwami sitting on Gabriel's shoulder, munching on something tiny. She assumed some kind of nut, but she couldn't be sure.

Shaking her head, she refocused in time to hear Gabriel say, "The doctors found a mass in my brain, Marinette. An inoperable one that's been slowly growing in size. At its current rate, they fear I only have a year if I'm truly lucky before I lose the person I am."

"Gabriel," Nathalie moaned, her hands going to cover her mouth as she stared at him horror.

Marinette sank into the chair beside Nathalie, her legs shaking so badly she doubted they'd hold her another moment. Dropping her transformation, she caught Tikki and pulled her kwami close, needing Tikki's comfort as she tried to take in all she was hearing.

"So, you're dying?" She began slowly, trying to keep her racing thoughts in check. "And Adrien doesn't know?"

"No, I haven't been able to tell him yet." Gabriel met her gaze as he admitted, "I can't."

"Then, why are you telling me?" she demanded, growing angry for having this new secret she'd be forced to keep. She couldn't tell Adrien this and she hated Gabriel for putting her in this position. It wasn't a secret she could share, she realized, as Gabriel owed Adrien the same courtesy he'd given her. How was she supposed to face him after learning this? How was she going to be able to keep this from him?

"I want one last chance to create a superhero, fixing the magic I corrupted over the years. Nooroo refused to try again after what happened today without having you brought into the mix. He demanded you know what we're trying to do." The older man held up his hand for Nooroo who took the opportunity to move from Gabriel's shoulder to the desk between supervillain and superhero. 

Tikki took the opportunity, too, and flew toward Nooroo and throwing her tiny arms around him, checking him over. 

Everyone watched the reunion happening, giving the kwami time to reconnect and enjoy the moment.

However, Marinette's patience wore thin as she looked down at the butterfly kwami and asked, "What could happen if he tries another time? What went wrong today?"

Over the next several minutes, Nooroo patiently answered her questions about the akuma being a friend of a bullying victim. His great desire to help his friend had called out to the magic butterfly as Gabriel had desired. Yet, when the young man accepted the magic, it twisted and changed to fit with the young man's anger and desire for revenge over his desire to help his friend. It had changed the butterfly's attempt to create a hero by turning him into a villain instead. 

Nooroo went on to explain that such could happen again on an even greater scale with the next one as the magic is resistant to change after being corrupted. There is a chance it could work, but it'll need some heavy help from her and Chat though on a smaller scale from the Black Cat. It'd be hard without her knowledge of what to expect.

As his speech ended, she took her time before saying, "I don't like this. Why not let Nooroo go and have his magic fixed by the Guardian? It'll be safer that way. This is too risky."

"I understand your reticence, Marinette, but I would like one more shot at this. If you'll allow me this last chance and it fails, then I'll hand over the broach and Nooroo without a fight. Do we have a deal?"

"And why keep Chat Noir out of this equation? At least for this part. He deserves to know you've been Hawk Moth all this time. He'd been so adamant years ago when I first suspected you. I didn't understand then, but I know better now. He should know."

"We're not the ones wanting this kept from him?" Nooroo chimed in before Gabriel could say anything.

She glanced at the older Agreste, wondering if he wasn't part of it still, sensing he was, but she needed to know who else stood in Adrien's way of learning something he had every right to know. Looking at Nooroo, she demanded, "Tell me who it is."

Nooroo took his time in answering before he finally said, "Plagg, his kwami."

 

00000

 

"I hope she's doing all right," Adrien mumbled, glancing down at his phone as he reread the text Nathalie had sent him. He hadn't expected her to ask him to handle these types of errands. If she asked him, then he'd do it as long as it meant getting to see Marinette again and checking on her. "She didn't seem too upset, did she, Plagg, when we left?"

"Gah, kid, can you please drop it? You're worrying again and there might be nothing to worry about." The black cat flew out of his favorite pocket of Adrien's shirt and got close enough that Adrien had to tilt his head back or risk going cross-eyed. "Look, I'm sure she's fine, kid. She's a strong one, right? She can handle herself. Heck, she can handle your father and you for that matter."

A smile graced Adrien's features as he considered the validity of Plagg's words. 

He didn't need to be reminded of how strong Marinette was, having witnessed her over the years, but that didn't stop the small worry he held for her. Even the stronger could crumble if given enough reason to. He didn't want that for her ever, not when he could do something to help her.

"Ugh, you're not going to stop, are you? Why am I not surprised?" Plagg groaned, his tiny paw tapping his cheek as he narrowed his eyes at his chosen. "Look, let's get this list done and we'll go. Can you focus that long on something other than your precious girlfriend?"

Adrien nodded, not bothering to correct Plagg's incorrect assumption about Marinette being his girlfriend. His plans had been thwarted for that day, but he planned on asking her soon enough. He just wanted to be sure Alya was indeed all right and Marinette had a chance to come down from such a scare. Then, he'd plan the perfect date and ask her if she'd be willing to go out with him.

As Lawrence pulled the car toward the curb, Adrien checked Nathalie's text one final time, wanting to ensure he didn't screw this up before entering the store in front of him. He had a few stops based on the list he'd gotten from food items to some home decor and even an mp3. He hadn't a clue what his father could want with these items, but he didn't dare to question it.

Inside the small grocer's shop, he hurried through the few aisles and pulled down the necessary items on the list, grabbing a couple wheels of camembert as Plagg's stash had gotten a bit low on his last check. He'd need to order more later that night or risk the little kwami's wrath. 

As he moved through the last aisle toward the register, he paused as he came across some of the sweetest looking strawberries, recalling them as a favorite of Marinette's. He quickly tossed a pound's worth into a bag and moved toward the register, knowing his father would wonder if Adrien took too long in procuring the items he needed.

Hurrying back to the car with his purchase complete, he happened to glance up and see Chloe walking down the street, a large number of bags dangling from her arms. Concerned, he shut the door and walked toward her, calling out, "Hey, Chlo, what you up to?"

"What's it look like? I'm shopping. You got a problem with that, Adrikins." 

While he might've taken offense at her brisque words, he stopped as he caught the noticeable sheen in her eyes, threatening to ruin her mascara at any moment.

"Come on. I'm giving you a lift home." He urged her toward his waiting car and ushered her inside, helping her sort her bags while keeping his first set of purchases out of the way. "Now, tell me what's wrong. Did you and your father have a fight? Your mother?"

"Daddy is fine. We're fine. Mother is off somewhere showing the world her newest flair." She waved her hand as she added, "I'm fine, Adrikins. Don't worry about me."

"I'm always going to do that. You're my friend, Chlo. Now, if it's not your parents and we're good," he mused, tapping his chin for a moment before snapping his fingers, "did you have a fight with Nath?"

"That's none of your business, Agreste." Her tears swam despite the defiant look she gave him. She kept it together for another moment before she crumbled, "I don't think he wants to be with me anymore."

"I doubt that. I've seen the way he looks at you. I know he cares." He pulled her into a close hug, allowing her to draw some comfort before he continued, "Now, what happened?"

She spent the next couple minutes spilling everything about the argument she had with Nathaniel about the latest akuma and his take on her getting involved, not liking that she put herself in danger. She'd told him he'd done the same thing by helping students to safety, demanding to know what was so different. The argument continued until she'd stormed out and left him calling her name and asking her to come back.

All throughout, her tears kept threatening to spill down her cheeks despite an extreme effort on her part to keep them in check. Adrien knew how much she hated showing weakness to anyone, including him, having only witnessed her break down a couple times in their years of friendship.

As she grew quiet, he took a moment to gather his thoughts before finally saying, "I think you should go back and talk to him. I don't think he's trying to hold you back, Chlo. I think he's genuinely worried you might get hurt. He loves you and wants you safe. I think it would hurt him more than you know if you got hurt."

"Well, why not just say that?" she huffed as she confronted Adrien, her eyes trying to bore holes into him as she demanded, "Is this the way you feel about Marinette? Do you worry about her every time she dons Ladybug?"

"You know?" He didn't think he could handle any more surprises as she merely nodded. When he could think to ask, he said, "How did you know?"

"Who else besides you would choose me to be Honey Bee? Come now, Adrien. Surely, you had some suspicions before now, right?" She looked at him as if he'd grown an extra appendage, almost scandalized yet pitying as he could only shake his head in response. 

Gaining his voice proved difficult as he continued to consider her. "I guess I had my hopes she might be, especially after we'd gotten closer, but she always demanded privacy about her identity. I wanted to respect that despite any teasing I might've done."

Chloe smiled at him, a genuine smile full of warmth as she admitted, "You're one of the good ones, Adrien. I'm glad she makes you so happy. You deserve to be happy."

"So do you, Chlo." He took her hand and squeezed her fingers. "Talk to Nath."

She hesitated before she finally nodded. "Okay, but you have to promise you'll tell Marinette you love her. I've been dying here. We all have, waiting for you to say something to her. Don't make us wait much longer."

Lawrence pulled up outside her father's hotel by then.

Adrien helped her gather all her bags and held her hand as she climbed out of the back seat. A glance toward the hotel had him smiling as he leaned close to Chloe to whisper, "Look who's here. Go and talk to him."

He gave Nathaniel a simple nod and a gentle push on Chloe's back, sending her in the redhead’s direction.

With a wave, he climbed back into the car to continue his errands.

Forty-five minutes later, Lawrence pulled them into the drive of the Agreste mansion, stopping near the front door.

Thanking his driver for taking him around town, Adrien made his way inside to find Nathalie waiting for him at her desk with a warm smile though her eyes seemed a little red. Frowning at all the red-rimmed eyes he'd encountered that day, he wondered if he shouldn't be worried about another akuma or some other pandemic plaguing the city.

Nathalie waved away his question before he could even ask, changing the subject by asking, "Did you get everything? Food? Pillows and blankets? MP3?

He nodded, opening bags to show her everything had been bought correctly, including a few purchases he'd made as impulse buys for Marinette.

She merely grinned as she pulled out a large duffel and a wooden basket, placing each of the items between them.

"Wait, I thought Father needed them?" He moved to stop her packing but pulled his hand back when she lightly smacked at it.

"Oh, no, this is for you and Marinette. We thought you might enjoy a nice evening together after all you've experienced today. Take her someplace special, Adrien." Nathalie patted his cheek after she finished packing up the bag and basket. "Have some fun, okay? You could use more of it."

Unable to stop himself, he threw his arms around the older woman and held her. "Thank you, Nathalie. I owe you."

"No, you really don't," she whispered. Recovering herself, she pulled back and shooed him. "Go on now. Oh, you have a photo shoot this weekend. Why don't you invite her along? Show her what the industry looks like on the modeling end?"

"Father won't mind?" He had to ask, unsure what was going on but not willing to dig too deep. 

When she shook her head, he took off, heading toward his room before recalling Nathalie watching him. A glance behind him showed her merely smiling as he changed course and headed outside to a secluded spot in the back, transforming and vaulting toward Marinette's family bakery. 

When he landed on her balcony minutes later, he found her waiting for him, leaning against her railing and looking more beautiful than he could ever imagine a woman being. Dropping down behind her, he pulled her into his arms, thrilled by the welcoming smile she gave him as she went willingly. 

Seeing her smile killed any need to tease as he wanted something more, dropping his voice to a whisper to ask, “Mari, may I kiss you?”

She took a moment or two before nodding, her eyes on him as she stood in his arms and waited for him to take what she freely offered.

He didn't even hesitate as he swooped his head closer to hers and sealed their lips in a kiss that took them both by surprise. Not moving as he grew accustomed to the softness of her lips, he almost shook when she moved first, brushing hers back and forth until he reciprocated. 

A breath escaped as he tilted his head to gain a better angle and finding better purchase to explore her lips with his own. A thousand and one emotions exploded within him as he pulled her closer while remaining gentle, not wanting to scare her with how intense his emotions were for her. He never wanted this moment to end as he continued to explore her lips, adding just the smallest amount of teeth to nip at her bottom lip. He almost lost it when she moaned at his advance, tugging him closer as she accepted this new sensation.

When he pulled back after several minutes, he gazed down at her shining blue eyes and smiled as he confessed, "I've been wanting to do that for so long, Bugaboo. You've no idea."

Touching her finger to her slightly swollen lips, she offered her own smile as she said softly, "I think I do."

Bringing her closer, he rested his forehead against hers as he prepared his next words, taking a deep breath before asking, "Do you have any idea how much I love you?"

Chapter Text

 

Panic raced through her as she clamped her hand over his mouth, preventing him from saying anything else. She felt like a deer caught in those proverbial headlights, about to get hit and unable to do anything about it. She didn't know what to say to him. She couldn't tell him she loved him, too, not when she held secrets that would devastate him. 

"Mari," he mumbled behind her hand. His amusement and confusion showed as he tried to move away from her hand. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah!" She clamped her free hand over her mouth as she rose wide eyes to look at him, not realizing she'd scream her answer. She counted to five before she lowered her hand again to say in a softer, calmer tone, "Yes. I'm just a little tired after everything."

His green eyes glowed with concern as she worked to remain strong. She didn't want him to see her as weak, hypocritical as it was.

His hand raised to touch the one she still used to cover his mouth, running over her fingers in a gesture of comfort. After a moment, he asked, his voice muffled from her hand, "Am I safe to talk now?"

"Oh, yes," she cried, rushing to pull her hand away. "Sorry."

He didn't let her get far, his arms wrapping back around her waist and pulling her close to him. She nestled into him, allowing him to comfort her as he'd done earlier that day. She enjoyed feeling his warmth enveloping her, wondering if he knew how much she appreciated his sweetness in either form he wore. 

She dared a glance up at him and smiled at the leather catsuit he still wore, uncaring if anyone saw them on her balcony at the moment. She didn't want him to leave her, fearing the future and what could happen once he learned she'd kept secrets she shouldn't have. She didn't see a way around his anger, having agreed to the meeting without him in the first place, but she'd needed the answers for both their sakes.

With a sigh, she resigned herself to her new fate, deciding to take what she could get in the meantime.

"Did you hear from Alya? How's she doing?" he asked as his head rested on hers, a soft purr starting up. 

"She says she's fine. She has a pretty orange cast and can't wait to get everyone to sign it." She managed to chuckle as the image came to her mind. She could see the cast being a mere nuisance to the ever-tenacious reporter and part-time superhero. "She's already itching to come to school tomorrow. She says she has some news to share with us."

"Does she now? I can hardly wait to hear it then." 

Night sounds filled the silence around them, an occasional car passing below would honk and insects bussing as they inspected the flowers on her balcony. As the sun worked toward the horizon, a breeze blew lazily around them, wafting the sweet fragrance of those flowers and adding to the ambiance of her balcony and its little world. 

Marinette smiled as she considered how much her small haven had become just that much more with the guy beside her. She nestled a bit deeper into his arms as she enjoyed their surroundings for as long as she possibly could, sensing it would end all too soon.

"So, I wanted to apologize again for not walking you home earlier," Adrien whispered near her ear, "but I do have a surprise for you. I hope it'll make up for my temporary abandonment."

"You're ridiculous, you know that?" She gave him a playful shove and a jab at his chest for good measure. A smile teased at her lips as she tilted her head to look at him. "You know I'm not some damsel in distress, right? I don't need some knight to save me, no matter how nice his steed is."

"What? I can't want to ensure that you're safe, My Lady? What kind of cat do you think I am?" He touched his clawed hand to his chest, a cheeky grin destroying any hope of appearing truly wounded by her words. 

"A rotten one," she retorted, sending him a wink.

"Meow-ch, Bug. I thought I was the only one with claws." His hands came up to show her, his fingers spread.

Sobering, she reached up and laced their fingers together. She met his gaze, her blue eyes wide and searching, as she whispered, "You do know I care about you, right? More than anyone else in this world."

"I do, Maribug," he whispered, leaning in close enough to kiss her yet holding back. His eyes searched hers. She could see the questions forming in them, but she didn't have the heart to answer them, not yet anyway. In his own sweet way, he must've sensed that as his eyes cleared and he smiled, a true smile filled with love and warmth for her, just for her. "You mean a lot to me, too."

It took her a moment to recover as she fought the desire to close the distance between them and kiss him senseless. How she wanted to do just that! Kiss him senseless, forgetting about everything she'd learned that day. She didn't want to think about the secrets she had to keep, hoping Gabriel got it together and told his son before it was too late for any of them. She didn't want to consider what could happen if and when he tried to create another champion rather than a villain. She could only hope her magic could handle the repercussions. 

"You mentioned a surprise? What kind of surprise, Chaton?" Moving back from his arms, she noticed the duffel and basket he brought with him, resting near his feet. She crossed her arms over her chest as she quirked a brow at him, a smirk forming as she asked, "Okay, what did you do?"

She giggled as she caught the blush peeking under his mask.

"In fairness, Bug, this was Nathalie's idea. She sent me on those errands for my father and then told me they were for a nice evening with you." He shrugged despite the growing, hopeful smile he gave her. "Besides, who I am to deny how much I'd really like to take you on a date?"

She froze, her gaze going to his and searching for an answer that she almost feared. "You want to take me on a date?"

"Well, yeah, why wouldn't I?" he asked as his hand crept up to his neck. "I mean unless you think it's a terrible idea."

His uncertainty caught her off-guard. She'd forgotten for a moment that beneath her sweet and flirty partner was a guy who'd been used to disappointment most of his life. She couldn't do that to him as she took a step closer to him, her hand coming up to rest on his chest. Besides that, she wanted to experience a date with him, one that she actually said yes to.

"Let's do it, Chaton. Show me what a date with you looks like." She leaned a bit closer, enjoying the hitch to his breathing as she brought her lips so close to his, almost enough to press against them. Almost. "But, first, why don't you grab a few of those croissants you like. They're waiting for you in my room. I just need to borrow your kwami for a moment."

"My kwami?"

"Yeah, Plagg, right?" She pressed a soft kiss on his jaw. "Please, Chaton?"

Adrien dropped his transformation before she could say another word, his green eyes showing his need to please her as they held a hope she wouldn't disappoint him. She had no intention to do so though she felt sure he'd see it differently soon. 

Rather than dwell on that, she motioned him into her room, getting Tikki to go with him while she held the black cat by his tail when he tried to flee. She spoke in a soft, firm voice as she kept Plagg still. "Not so fast, little cat."

"Spots?" He crossed his arms over his tiny chest and peered at her through narrowed slits. "What do you want me to say?"

"Are you serious? I want to know why you think it's better Adrien not know about his father. I also want to know how long you've known and been communicating with the butterfly kwami. What if you'd gotten caught? Did you consider what would've happened if Gabriel had seen you, knowing who he is?" She mimicked his actions, her arms crossed and her stance defensive as she waited for him to answer. Her eyes had narrowed, too. She had no a qualms in fighting it out until she had the answers she needed.

Plagg had the nerve to laugh, tears streaming from his eyes with the force of his laughter.

"Excuse me, this is serious," she almost shouted, glaring at the nerve of the tiny god before her.

He seemed to sober after another minute, his paws wiping at his eyes as he rasped out, "I know. I'll give you your answers soon, but for now, just let him have this, Spots. He needs it."

"You do know he's going to hate us, right? He hates secrets almost as much as I do, especially when they concern him." Peeking at the kwami, she caught the sadness settling over him a moment before he hid it, wondering just how often he's had to do that in the past. 

"I'm fully prepared for it, Spots."

She doubted it but didn't say anything more as she headed into her room, catching Adrien at her desk with her latest sketchbook open in front of him. With a teasing smirk growing, she asked, "Snooping, are we? You should know that curiosity could cause you harm, Chaton?"

"Yeah, but I'm fully prepared for satisfaction to bring me back, Bugaboo." His eyes dropped back to the sketches she'd made in the past couple of weeks. "These are amazing, Mari. I sometimes can't believe I know someone as talented as you."

"Flatterer," she admonished, a blush blooming across her cheeks. 

"Not flattery when it's the honest truth," he countered. 

She didn't know what to say as a retort, allowing him time to go through a few more sketches with a pure, feline grin on his face. 

Not willing to let him have the last word, she finally said, "I thought you had a date for us."

"So eager, Bug. You surprise me," he shot back, a pleased grin stretching his lips.

"Ugh, forget it. Get out, you crazy cat. I'm going to go to bed early instead." She made a great show of huffing and shooing him toward her skylight again, fully prepared to take it the entire way when he turned back to her and cupped her shoulders.

"I give, Mari. I give. I'll behave. Cat's honor." He held up two fingers as a show of his seriousness. In a softer voice, he asked, "Can I still take you out? I promise you'll have fun."

"Well, duh." She leaned into his loose embrace, her hands coming up to rest on his chest as she looked into his eyes. "I know I will. I always do with you."

He didn't say anything as he pulled her toward her loft bed and out the skylight, calling Plagg to his ring and staring at her as she did the same with Tikki. As he pulled out his baton and picked up the duffel and basket, he looked at her and asked she follow him somewhere nearby.

She didn't hesitate as she stayed one step behind him, landing on a rooftop she hadn't dared go near for the past few years. 

In a low voice, he said, "I thought I'd test this place's luck again. It hadn't worked for me a few years ago, but I'm hopeful this time will be different."

She didn't say anything, knowing she couldn't without risking hurting him, the truth ready to slip off her tongue as she watched him move around, setting up the rooftop for their date. It broke her heart she couldn't tell him what he wanted and needed to hear. 

Putting on a brave and innocent front had been one of the hardest things she'd done in a long while as she sat next to him on that rooftop, hearing him talk about his hopes and his plans. Some even included her, which she doubted would happen after he learned the truth. She had an unsettling feeling he wouldn't want her near him again. She hadn’t a clue how she’d survive him despising her, still retaining some hope he wouldn’t hate her forever.

Whatever time she had left with him, she’d take it and she’d enjoy it, knowing it could be the end.

 

00000

 

Adrien was on cloud nine as he moved into his next pose a few days later.

Twenty minutes into the photo shoot and he blinked in surprise at his desire to stay. Never had he been so enthusiastic about a photo shoot for his father as he did with this one. He knew before anyone could voice it that the change was Marinette. Her presence soothed yet excited him, pleasing his photographer as Adrien posed without complaint. Not that he ever complained, but he completed each direction with a smile that could rival the brightest day in the summer. 

While he posed, changed, and reset for each batch of photographs needed for his father's next campaign, his gaze kept straying back to Marinette wherever she was on the set. She'd been making the rounds, working to introduce herself to each crew there. 

She'd met with the photographer and his assistants first, knowing she couldn't bother them in the middle of the action. The questions she asked had Adrien almost wistful he had the answers, just so he could have her eyes light up at him as they were doing with those she spoke with over the last several minutes.

From the photographer, she tackled the lighting and staging crew along with hair and makeup, saving the designer and his clothing team for last, learning all she could and even taking notes in one of her sketchbooks.

He'd had to suppress a hearty laugh when the ladies from hair and makeup got a hold of her, pulling her into his vacant chair and trying out different styles and offering tips. He didn't think she needed any, preferring her the way she was, but he wasn't about to step in and save her. He sensed he'd be in grave danger of having his own face and locks under their intense scrutiny more than it already was. Nope, he decided it better to hang back and allow them their fun with Marinette. Besides, he knew his Lady could handle them if she truly wanted.

"Adrien, my sunshine, I need you to focus," the photographer admonished softly, keeping his voice low. 

Turning back to the older man, the model offered him a sheepish expression, his shoulders hunching a bit in embarrassment at being caught staring at the woman across the room. 

"She's a true beauty. You've done well for yourself." The photographer drew nearer to gain some close-ups. "I wouldn't let her out of your sight if I were you."

"Thanks, Vincent. I don't intend to," Adrien whispered, his gaze straying back to Marinette as she laughed at something one of the stylists said. No, he had no intention of letting her go unless she wanted him to, he thought, a smile playing across his lips to see her enjoying herself so much.

Her hair had been rearranged. Gone was the single braid she'd worn at the start of the shoot and in its place was an updo that Adrien knew would work with the dress he asked the designer to bring. Her hair still maintained a braid, he noted, but it sat over the low bun and had been studded with a few pearl pins that his fingers itched to touch and maybe pluck at the end of the night if she'd let him. 

As it was, he couldn't wait to see her in the dress, knowing it'd fit her like a dream and hoping she wouldn't be too mad at him for planning the impromptu date after his shoot ended, having already picked out the restaurant for them to enjoy. 

A chuckle beside him probably should've worried him more as the photographer called out, "Marinette, mon belle, join us please?"

When Marinette turned and caught Adrien's gaze, he nearly dropped to his knees, thankful his years of modeling for keeping him upright as she walked toward them. The smoky eye looked fantastic on her, bringing out the bluebell color more than he dared believe possible until that moment. Her lips had been stained, making them far more kissable than he thought any woman's lips should be as several men followed her progress with appreciative glances. 

Oh, crap, I'm not going to survive the rest of this shoot with her looking like that, Adrien thought, a slight panic rising, fighting it as best he could. He sincerely doubted she'd want or appreciate him hauling her over his shoulder like some deranged caveman and dragging her from the set, keeping her away from the other guys that looked ready to devour her if she gave them the chance.

"Yes, sir?" she asked as she drew closer, her eyes straying to his and sending him a soft smile, a warm upturning at the corners that caused his world to right again. 

He felt the air rushing back into him as she returned her attention to the photographer and spoke with him a few more seconds before coming to stand beside Adrien, her smile still in place and just for him.  

"How do you do that?" he asked under his breath while pasting on his best model grin as the photographer began snapping photo after photo. 

Her eyes slid up to his. "Do what?"

"Make beautiful look so easy," he murmured, catching the light blush peeking through the thin layer of model makeup.

She didn't take long to retort, saying, "Well, you're one to talk, Chaton. You're the most beautiful person I've seen in a long time."

He felt a purr building in his chest and throat, threatening to escape as he caught her blue eyes sneaking another peek at him. He didn't think he'd survive having her look at him like that again, that not-really-teasing smirk dancing across her lips as she dared him to come back at her with something even wittier or cheesier than he'd said before. For the life of him, he couldn't think what to say. He did know what he wanted to do, his hand finding hers and lacing their fingers.

"You're lucky, Bug, that I can't kiss you right now." He leaned in close, his forehead touching hers as they looked into one another's eyes. He didn't think the photographer had said to change poses, but Adrien hadn't heard any complaints, so he went with it. 

"Hmm," she hummed as she inched a bit closer to him, lessening the distance between them. "So, you've been thinking about kissing me, Chaton?"

"I've always thought about kissing you, My Lady. You haven't a clue how much I thought about it," he admitted, not even the slightest bit embarrassed as she moved even closer, their distance almost non-existent as the camera continued to shutter with each new photo taken. 

Her lips moved near his ear as she tilted onto her toes and rose to her tallest height. He leaned down a bit to help her out, waiting with an impatience that stole his breath and kept it until she whispered, "Well, then I suggest you get this right so you can do just that."

"Mari," he breathed, the trapped air expelling in a large gasp as he caught the pleased twinkle in her eyes. "You're going to be the death of me. I just know it."

Her gaze remained on him as they stood close, so incredibly close. He could feel her soft puffs of breath on his cheek, wishing they were her lips instead. His hands settled on her hips, gripping a bit tighter as he fought to control himself with her so near. 

"Thank you, mon belle," the photographer shouted, his smile beaming as he approached them. "You did beautifully, Marinette. Thank you for helping this poor boy with his shoot. I think the designer would like a word with you."

As the older man pointed toward the designer, his eyes came to Adrien's, beaming with the knowledge he'd gotten Adrien one step closer yet still denied him his greatest desire to gain the necessary pictures Gabriel had requested for his new campaign. 

Adrien waited until Marinette had moved out of hearing distance to roughly whisper, "You are an incredibly cruel man. I hope you know that."

"I might be, my sunshine, but you're one step closer to truly winning over your lady there. Don't blow it." The photographer offered him another grin before finishing up the shoot and allowing Adrien to finally step out of the hot spotlights and into the coolness of his changing area. 

Pulling down the suit he found hanging on the makeshift wall, he took his time to ensure everything sat just so, especially his tie. He didn't want anything out of place or unsatisfactory for Marinette when she saw him and hopefully accepted his date. He pushed back the sudden bout of nerves threatening to keep him a bit tongue-tied around her as he emerged, feeling Plagg move into an interior pocket from his bag. 

A low whistle echoed around him as he caught sight of Marinette in her dress. He could see why someone would want to whistle. She looked beyond stunning in the flowing red material that stopped just above her ankle, matching heels and accessories completed the ensemble. He couldn't quite believe she wasn't an angel as she stepped closer, her walk graceful and her smile shining for him alone.

"Hello, handsome," she whispered, letting another soft whistle loose as she straightened his tie. "What's the special occasion?"

Channeling his best Chat Noir, he grinned at her. "Well, that, My Lady, is a surprise."

 

00000

 

"Adrien, this is too much," she whispered, causing a delighted shiver to run up his spine as he took in her awed gaze when they entered the restaurant a short time later. 

Pulling her closer with the hand resting on her waist, he leaned in so he could whisper in her ear, "Nothing is too much for you, Marinette. Don't you know that by now?"

A sadness entered her eyes a moment before she looked away.

He couldn't fathom her reaction, wondering why despite her earlier teasing, she still seemed uneasy around him whenever he tried to tell her how he felt. He didn't know why she'd pull away from him.

Unless she didn't return his feelings. Unless she couldn't.

The thought smacked him hard in the abdomen and threatened to steal his breath and appetite as he continued to walk her toward their table. He didn't know if he could survive learning that particular truth when he'd been steadily growing closer to her both in and out of their super suits. 

"You're brooding, Chaton," she teased as he helped her into her chair, pushing her a bit forward. "Do I need to pay another euro for your thoughts?"

"Oh, Bugaboo, it's truly sweet you think they're worth that much. I'm just thinking, that's all." He offered her the best smile he could muster, sure he fell far short of his normal smile, not bothering to strive for Chat-level. He'd never make that one in his current emotional state.

She looked at him for a few moments before dropping her gaze to the menu beneath her, her voice low as she asked, "So, what made you pick this place? It's quite lovely but doesn't exactly seem your style, more like your father's."

He managed to chuckle, feeling his world righting itself again as she continued to tease him out of his funk. "Well, you'd be right, My Lady, except you haven't seen the dancefloor yet. Now, that's where it's definitely more our speed."

"Hmm, so you brought me here to show these people how bad I dance?" She shot him a saucy wink before glancing back at the menu and clicking her tongue as she decided what she wanted, smiling such a sweet grin when she found it. "I hope you're prepared to carry me through whatever you have in mind because I have a terrible case of two left feet."

"We'll see, Bug," he murmured, a genuine smile tugging at his lips as he caught the warmth returning to her features and the earlier sadness fading. "So, you think we stand a chance at the competition next month?"

"As long as I get some practice, I don't see why not. You're already a greater dancer, Adrien, so we're halfway there." 

Their server appeared before he could retort though he did his best to convey he would the moment their order was taken and they were alone once again. He listened as she ordered one of the chicken dishes they served, his gaze narrowing as the server smiled with a flirtatiousness that prickled a bit. Refusing to be baited, he almost sighed with relief when Marinette's attention returned to him and stayed there, much to the server's displeasure.

"So, where were we?" she asked as the server walked away with a loud harrumph.

"You were trying to convince me you're a bad dancer." He smirked at her, his inner Chat preening as she chose him over the other guy even if she couldn't return his feelings. It helped a lot more than he could ever express she'd done that for him. 

She laughed as she shook her head, a memory floating in her blue depths. "You might have a couple blinders on. I wasn't that great all those years ago, either, but it helped having a great partner."

As if his ego needed a further boost, she added, "Both in and out of our suits."

"You're going to make me blush, Bugaboo." 

Another laugh escaped her as she glanced at him, her eyes twinkling under the lights. "Well, that's good to know. I hope I can keep it up throughout the evening."

"Ugh, I need to stop confessing these things to you," he groaned, his hands coming up to hide his face from her. He chuckled as he wasn't truly blushing, but he didn't mind teasing her a bit about it, hoping to gain some rosy cheeks from her at some point in the evening.

He caught her glancing around after the teasing moment passed and a comfortable silence descended as they waited for their meal to arrive. She looked like a true princess to him with her hair and makeup done just right and the deep red dress flowing around her. He had no idea where the jewelry had come from, but he appreciated their addition, adding a sparkle that she didn't really need except to show off how exceptional she looked and he thought her to be. 

"You're staring again, Chaton," she murmured, her hand hovering over his as though she meant to touch him but hesitated. 

Making the decision an easy one for her, he clasped her fingers in his. A soft tug on her hand pulled her forward so he could brush a kiss over her knuckles. 

"Was I, My Lady?" He offered her a smirk as he added, "I find it hard to look away from your loveliness."

"You're too much, you know that?" She swatted him upon freeing her hand, a playful move that he could easily deflect but had no desire to. "There are days it's hard to believe my pun-loving partner and my long-time friend are one and the same, yet here we sit. I definitely wouldn't change it for the world, either, in case you were wondering."

Their food arrived, giving him time to calm the ache his pounding heart was causing in his chest. He could feel the words bursting to come out of him, words that told of his undying love for her. Oh, how he yearned to shout from the rooftops as he placed sweet kisses on her cheeks, her eyes, her lips, anywhere she'd let him kiss. 

Deciding a change of subject might be in order, he asked, "Are you ready for our group meeting tomorrow?"

"Oh, yes, I've already got some ideas and I can't wait to share them with everyone." She took a bite of her chicken and smiled. 

He thought he could make out a small moan of pleasure as she took another bite, her eyes closing for a second to savor the flavor. 

When she opened them again, his mouth dried out as she turned those shining blue eyes at him and offered him the widest smile he could recall seeing on her in a while. 

"You have to try this, Adrien. It's amazing." She picked up a piece and held it out to him. 

She must be trying to kill me, he thought, even as he leaned forward and took the bite she offered him. She hadn't been wrong as he chewed, thinking he'd have to ask the chef at home to prepare this one night soon, maybe on a night Marinette dined with them. Thoughts of her dining with him and his father brought a pleasant feeling in his stomach, imagining how well she'd do after everything.

Unaware of his internal thoughts, she asked, "I was right, wasn't I?"

He could only nod.

"I really should thank you and your father for hosting this planning meeting, Adrien. I would've done it, but Alya's still struggling with stairs and my home has too many for her, you know?" 

Her eyes took on that sad look again, propelling him to reach for her. She continued to surprise him with how unhesitant she was in accepting the comfort he offered her, even if it meant simply holding her hand. 

"Mari, you don't have to thank me for that. It's not like I don't have plenty of space for us to work." He took a breath before he admitted, "I haven't exactly hosted much before. Do you think you could help me? I'm not sure we have everything we’ll need at the mansion."

"Adrien Agreste, you are not hosting a grand gala," she admonished softly as her hand gripped his tighter. "We're your friends. Whatever you want us to try, we'll try. Don't you know that by now?"

He smiled, realizing she'd used his earlier question against him. "Touche."

"Now, if it'll make you feel better, then yes, I'll come by a bit earlier and make sure you're well stocked in snacks and the like." 

"You're too kind to this alley cat, Bug." 

She hummed as she finished the last of her meal, nodding to the dancefloor behind them. "So, you ready to show me what you got, Chaton?"

"Always, My Lady," he retorted, standing and taking her hand in his. 

Never would he forget the night they shared as they danced several slow numbers, curled into each other as they swayed to the softer music. Then, there were the faster dances where they laughed and teased each other as they pulled out new and old dance moves alike, seeing who could prove the silliest. 

Of course, he won that battle, pulling out the perfect moonwalk and robot almost simultaneously. 

Hearing her laugh as she admitted defeat had been the sweetest sound to his ears, falling harder than ever for the woman beside him as she smiled at him, her eyes shining with a look that he kept hoping meant she might love him soon enough. He just had to try a little harder, right? He could sense her coming around, but he didn't want to push too hard, wanting her to love him as freely as he loved her. 

By the end of the evening, his feet weren't the only parts of him hurting as he escorted her to her family's home above the bakery, the sun long since set and the night sounds dying down, lulling them much as they’d done a few days ago. 

"Until tomorrow, Chaton," she whispered, taking care not to wake her parents as she leaned up to kiss his cheek. 

His head moved at the last second to ask her something, freezing when he felt her lips brush his own. He pulled back and caught her wide eyes before leaning forward to ask, "May I, Mari?"

She barely hesitated before she nodded, allowing him to close the distance between them.

He brought his lips to hers, taking his time to explore them again. He missed the sensation of her kiss as she'd kept him at arm's length for the past week, much to his confusion when she accepted this time. Granted, he hadn't asked, either, sensing she needed time. However, he couldn’t resist asking as he stood so close and claiming her lips with his, delighted she hadn’t resisted either. Her hands had even come up to grip his suit’s jacket and dragged him closer. 

When he pulled back, he couldn't stop himself from whispering, "I love you, Marinette."

His heart broke when her hands tightened on his jacket and her eyes shining with unbidden tears, whispering, "I wish you didn't."

With that, she slipped inside and left him alone in the hallway, nursing a heartache he didn't know how to erase or lessen. He stared at her door for an indeterminate time before he finally gathered himself enough to walk down the stairs and back to the car waiting at the curb. 

If it hadn't been for Plagg, he doubted he'd ever have found his way to his room upon arriving home, much less get any type of sleep as her words replayed through his mind. They hounded him into the wee hours of the morning, bringing with them nightmares he thought to never have plaguing him again.

 

00000

 

Marinette didn't fare much better as she sank to her knees on the other side of the front door, tears leaking down her cheeks and dripping onto her dress, staining it with small splotches of mascara. 

"I hate this, Tikki," she cried softly, her voice raspy as she fought to keep her sobs undetectable to her parents. 

"I know, Marinette. I wish I could make it better for you." The kwami moved from Marinette's purse and settled on her shoulder, doing her best to comfort her chosen. 

"I can't tell him I love him. It’s all I ever wanted for so long. To love him, Tik. He's going to hate me when he learns the truth, isn't he?" She wiped at her tears, groaning as they continued despite her best efforts. In a huff, she stood and hurried to her room, not wanting her parents to happen upon her and ask questions she couldn't answer.

Inside her room, she paced the floor, her phone in her hand. She'd grabbed it after dropping her purse on the desk, lighting up the lock screen and catching sight of her with Adrien. She'd smiled for a moment, forgetting the predicament she found herself in as she recalled that day almost a year ago. That day had been a good one, she thought though she let the memories fade as her worries crowded in again. 

"Marinette?" Tikki asked, settling on the desk beside her cookie stash.

"I can't keep lying to him, Tik. It's not right. Gabriel and Plagg have had a week to tell him the truth. They should've found the time to tell him, right?" She continued to pace, her eyes still locked on her screen and Adrien's sweet smile shining back at her. Making up her mind, she unlocked her phone and opened up her texting app.

M: Chaton, we need to talk. If you'll hear me out, I'll explain all I can after the group meeting tomorrow. 

She stared at her phone for the next several minutes, hoping to hear some response from him yet it never came. 

"Get some sleep, Marinette," Tikki urged, gently tapping on her chosen's cheek. "You'll feel better in the morning. I just know it."

While Marinette felt like that was debatable, she didn't argue, removing her dress and makeup before climbing up to her bed and collapsing in a ball. 

She didn't know when she finally fell asleep, sensing it wasn't for hours as her alarm barely registered until Tikki roused her, reminding her of her impending meeting with Chloe about the fashion show fundraiser in the spring. 

The insistent tapping of Tikki's paw on her cheek eventually forced her up, wiping at her eyes a bit angrily and moving to get dressed for the day, including a shower to wash off the previous day's fun. She cringed as she heard the slight crunch in her hair and the grimy feel of her skin from the makeup still clinging to her face despite a half-hearted scrubbing the night before.

"Are you doing all right, Marinette?" Tikki asked after her chosen came back into the room. 

"I've been better, Tik." Her gaze landed on her phone and noted the lack of flashing to indicate any messages. With a sigh, she added, "I'll feel better after I talk to Adrien about everything. I won't keep lying to him."

"I understand," the little kwami agreed, nodding. 

With a little help from Tikki, Marinette soon looked presentable enough to head toward the Le Grand Paris Hotel where she planned on eating brunch with Chloe and discussing all they wanted for the fashion show. As she tucked Tikki into her purse and picked up her phone, she caught the flashing light.

She bit her lip before unlocking her screen to read the message left for her.

A: Whatever it is, it can't be that bad, right? You can tell me anything, Mari.

She debated answering him back when she got another text from Chloe. Sighing, she opened up the other box to read it.

C: You better hurry up. Vultures are taking the good food.

M: I'm coming right now. Be there soon.

She hurried through her trapdoor and raced past her parents in the bakery, shoving the door open and nearly smacking into the solid chest in front of her. 

"Sorry," she mumbled, trying to regain her balance and continue on her way.

"Where's the fire, Nette?" Nino asked as he held her steady. 

"Running a bit late." She took a step away, intent on getting to her destination but stopped. Grabbing Nino's arm, she pulled him to the side of the building. 

"Hey, dudette, what's up?" He righted his cap as he looked through his glasses at her, his brow furrowing in concern.

She bit her lip for a moment before she blurted, "I know something that I shouldn't about someone. I think he should know, but everyone else is saying he shouldn't. I want to tell him, Nino, but the secrets I know aren't really mine to share. If he finds out that I know, he's going to be mad at me for not telling him before. He's going to be so hurt. What should I do? Tell him or keep secrets?"

"Well, this reeks of Adrien and Gabriel," Nino mused aloud as he continued to watch her. She'd forgotten how well he could read her as he continued, "Look, Nette, I can't tell you what to do without knowing the secrets, but I think you should tell him. If he should know, then you kinda owe it to him, right? Even if they aren't your secrets to share."

"You're right. Thanks, Nino." She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and turned toward the hotel before stopping and swiveling back. "Promise you'll be there for him if he hates me. He's going to need someone, Nino."

Nino didn't answer for a few moments as he tried to read her again. She didn't try to hide anything as his gaze met hers, allowing him to see the worry clearly written there. When he did, he nodded. "I won't let him be alone. When you going to tell him?"

"After our group meeting today. Will you stick around a bit just in case?" She wrung her hands together. "He really shouldn't be alone after what he's about to learn."

He nodded. "You got it, Nette. I'll watch out for him."

She thanked him a final time before racing toward the hotel, dropping into the chair across from Chloe about fifteen minutes later. It helped she used her favorite mode of transportation via yo-yo to make up some time. 

Chloe came prepared, not in the mood for socializing that morning, which Marinette wholeheartedly accepted and silently thanked the blonde for such consideration. Within thirty minutes, they had their ideas and duties agreed upon and divvied up, both heading their separate ways. 

Deciding to head over to Adrien's a bit earlier to talk, she hurried into a nearby alleyway and called upon her transformation, zipping through the city until she landed in the open window of Adrien's room, surprising the blond model within. 

"What do I owe this pleasure, Bug?" he asked, sitting at his computer with the Ladyblog open on one of the monitors. 

"I thought we could talk before Nino and Alya arrive," she murmured, walking as far as his sofa and leaning against the back of it.

"Okay, but do I get to talk to Mari or is this more a Ladybug thing?" His hands came to rest on his knees as he regarded her, a quirked brow and a slight frown marring his handsome features. "I meant what I texted earlier. You can tell me anything."

"It's not my secret to share, not really," she whispered, her gaze dropping to her hands as she waited for him to speak again. She couldn't handle seeing the change she felt sure was coming between them.

"But it affects me?"

She nodded. 

She jumped a bit when warmth cupped her shoulders, noting his hands there and their ability to soothe her despite it all. 

"Is it why you've been pushing me away this week?"

She nodded again. 

"Then, just tell me. I’m not a child, Mari. I’m certain I can handle it." He pressed a kiss to her temple, humming a bit as he continued to soothe her.

Dropping her transformation, she looked up at him, her misery written clearly across her features or at least that's how she felt. She couldn't meet his eyes as she asked, "Has your father said anything?"

"Is he involved? Did he say or do something that's upset you?"

She shook her head, then nodded. "A little of both."

"Okay, well, let's go and talk with him then. I'm sure we can clear everything up, right?" His hand found hers and tugged her gently, leading her from his room. 

A bit stunned by his determination, she didn’t protest or even try to as he led her downstairs, her dread mounting as they neared the large office door that belonged to Gabriel. 

She didn't have the heart to stop Adrien as he tapped on the door and called out to his father, hoping they could have a moment of the older man's time. 

No answer seemed forthcoming, which caused some concern as Adrien turned to meet her gaze. "That's weird. He hasn't left all morning. He said something about preparing for a meeting later today, but that’s still hours from now."

"Maybe he's in the kitchen or his room?"

"No, I don't think so," Adrien muttered, pushing the door open and sparing a glance back at her before calling out to his father again.

Marinette didn't like the feeling spreading over her as she tried to peek around him before he barged further into the room, dropping to his knees beside a prone figure on the floor. Recognizing Gabriel, she gasped and fumbled for her phone.

"Call an ambulance," Adrien yelled, his eyes never leaving his father's unconscious body.

As Marinette hurried to dial the emergency service number, a hand shot out behind her and stopped her. She turned to find Nathalie standing there, shaking her head with such sadness that the young designer dropped her phone hand to her side, that same sadness seeping into her and chilling her.

Turning back to Adrien, she took a breath and whispered, "I can't. It goes against his wishes."

"What? What do you mean?"

With another breath, she shattered her heart and his world as she whispered, “He’s dying, Adrien.”

Chapter Text

 

Adrien had no idea how long he knelt beside his father's unconscious body, Marinette's words repeating in his head before Lawrence arrived to take his father upstairs. As the giant man lifted his father's body, the younger man had to fight the urge to push his bodyguard aside. It was bad enough seeing his father so helpless, but to see him lifted as if he were nothing more than a large sack of bone and tissue nearly proved Adrien's undoing. He couldn't remember the last time he'd ever seen his father so vulnerable, not even when delivering the news about his mother's disappearance. 

Cold numbness seeped into him as he worked to understand the current travesty that was his life. All he wanted was to curl into himself and wait for this nightmare to end, wishing desperately to wake soon. He didn't think he could survive knowing his father was actually dying, leaving him alone in this world. Sure, his father wasn't a demonstrative man, but Gabriel Agreste was the only family he had left. That still meant something to Adrien. He couldn't fathom how fate could continue to be so cruel, making greater demands on him than he could ever hope to bounce back from. He could rebound so much before he shattered. 

He'd known something had been wrong, but he never would've guessed this. How could his father keep this a secret from him? Why? Was he so fragile in everyone's mind that they truly believed he would crumble at learning this awful truth?

Maybe he wasn't handling this the best he could, but he doubted anyone else could understand the pain threatening to buckle him, keeping him locked on the floor, a paralyzed shell of his former self. It proved far too tempting to just let it happen, almost succumbing to that dark allure of despair. 

"Adrien?" A soft voice beckoned him from that pit, tugging him back to reality and a world that would soon be without his father. He wanted to ignore that soft voice, push it aside, but it remained insistent, calling out to him until he came around again.

When he managed to glance in its direction, he spotted Marinette kneeling beside him, Plagg hovering near her shoulder with his green eyes focused solely on his chosen. Her hand hung above his arm, not touching yet still offering comfort should he want it. 

He almost reached out, intending to take what she so freely offered when a thought struck him, knocking him backward. With a weariness he didn't know he could feel, he looked up at her and forced the words past the large lump in his throat, "How long have you known?"

She grimaced, an action that tightened the growing knot in his stomach to match the lump in his throat. He had the distinct impression she had every intention of further destroying his world, or at least the one he thought he knew.

She didn't prove him wrong.

"Almost a week. I swear, Adrien, I wanted to tell you sooner, but it wasn't my secret to share." Her hand did touch his arm then, resting near his wrist as she gazed at him with those deep blue eyes he'd been almost obsessed with the past five years. 

He did his best not to flinch at the touch, but he doubted his success as she pulled away, almost as if he'd burned her. He reached out to her on instinct but pulled back, toppling from his kneeling position in his hasty retreat.

"Why did he tell you? Why you and not me?" The question burned through him as he fought his desire to run, needing this information more as he waited for the proverbial hammer to drop on him. He forced his gaze to meet hers, gauging her reaction. He hoped she wouldn't resort to lying, relying on her once-strong stance on the subject. He didn't know how she felt about it anymore after learning of this latest cover-up attempt by her and his father. 

She didn't flinch as she whispered, "He wanted my, well Ladybug's, help with something. He asked to meet me after the akuma attack Monday."

"Why would he--"

Adrien's voice trailed off as she grimaced again, revealing he'd been correct to assume she knew more than he did about his father. Shock claimed him more than anger as he tried to work out this new development. 

He didn't speak as he worked through what he knew about the akuma from Monday, the weird text from Nathalie, his father's need for Ladybug. Sure, the akuma had been different, especially after he'd spent a few minutes calming the young man down and realizing the victim could remember everything clearly, something they hadn't seen before. The young man had been adamant that he'd been offered the powers to become a hero, not a villain but something had gone horribly wrong as the magic covered him, bubbling and churning until his strong conviction mutated with the underlying anger he felt for his friend. 

The superhero clearly recalled the horror and angst on the young man's face as he relived all he'd done to his classmates. The damage he'd done to Alya proved almost too much for the young man, especially upon learning Ladybug hadn't been able to fix it with her cure. The genuine regret and guilt had been more than enough to convince Adrien that something was happening with Hawk Moth, but he couldn't figure out what or why. 

It wasn't long before his mind drifted to more recent akumas and recalling their occurrences, specifically the dates they happened. With an inaudible gasp of breath, he realized each date had significance to his family's life, especially where he and his mother were concerned. 

"No," he whispered aloud. "It can't be."

Marinette didn't say anything.

An invisible sledgehammer slammed into his abdomen as the truth hit him with enough force to knock him from his knees. How had he not seen it earlier? How could he have lived with a supervillain and not known? What did that say about him as a superhero? As a person?

"How long have you known?" he shouted, his hysteria growing as his world shrank further.

"Kid, calm down," Plagg pleaded, flying into Adrien's line-of-sight.

A blur of red rose from Marinette's purse, taking Adrien by some surprise until it clicked in his desperate, frazzled mind. Tikki.

Undeterred, Adrien repeated his question though he did lower his tone some, "How long, Mari?"

"Not too long, I swear, but I've had my suspicions since he became the Collector." Her blue eyes closed as she continued, "I didn't know how to tell you, Adrien. You didn't want to hear it as Chat without concrete proof. I couldn't exactly come to you as your civilian self. Would you have believed me?"

Adrien wanted so much to say he would've but he couldn't. He still didn't want to believe his father had been a supervillain all this time. 

"I need to get out of here."

"I think you should calm down first. Take a breath, Adrien," Plagg pleaded again, his nervousness almost tangible. The kwami flew into Adrien's face, holding his paws up and begging, "Please, kid. I can't let you get hurt. Please, take a breath."

"Did you know, too, Plagg? Did you know about all of this? Did you keep it from me?" Adrien demanded, his voice whisper-soft yet dangerous. It frightened everyone in the room, including himself. His anger had begun building since hearing those words Marinette whispered not even an hour before. In truth, they still rang in his ears. They taunted him with their promise he'd be losing more than he ever wanted to lose.

Seeing his kwami so defeated, his ears drooping and his tail falling lifeless behind him, broke Adrien. His confidante and friend had also decided to keep this from him. He didn't need to hear Plagg say the words, but that didn't stop his kwami. "I was the one who told Marinette to keep this from you. I didn't want you to know, not just yet, kid. Don't blame her for this."

"Why? What gave you the right, Plagg?" He fought the urge to rip his ring from his finger, not wanting any part of the Miraculous any longer. He hated the powers Plagg gave him almost as much as he hated the future looming towards him. He fought against his despair to focus on his anger.

Anger was better, he thought. Anger meant action. He needed action. Surely, he'd crumble if he didn't take action,  hiding from the despair dogging him. 

"I couldn't lose you, kid," Plagg shouted, his green eyes blazing as they met his chosen's similar ones. "Do you know how many Chats I've lost? Too many to mention. The difference between them and you, kid, is your more precious to me. You're the best Chat I've ever had. If I lose you, I don't think I'd ever recover."

Adrien didn't know what to say. It'd been a while since Plagg had openly expressed any feelings he might have for the young man staring down at him. Sensing his kwami had more to say, he remained quiet, allowing the small god to have his say before Adrien responded in kind.

Plagg's gaze dropped to his paws before he straightened and met Adrien's once more, determined to say it all. "Call me selfish. I know I am, but I had my reasons. We all do in protecting you whether you like it or not. None of us are perfect, Adrien. You, above all, should know that. Perfection doesn't exist, but love does. We love you, kid. We just wanted to try and spare you some pain. Is that really so terrible?"

Having said his piece, Plagg's anger dissipated into a sadness that called out to Adrien, more than he thought possible. He resisted allowing Plagg off the hook. Plagg had been lying to him for years about everything. He'd sensed his kwami knew far more than Adrien would ever know. That thought hadn't bothered him as much until he learned that also meant Plagg had known about his father, about Hawk Moth, and even about Ladybug, keeping it all to himself.

Plagg's reasons aside, Adrien's anger swelled once more. His left hand twitched over his right, finding his ring resting heavier than usual on his finger. Twisting the metal, he wondered if he could do it. Could he tug off the ring he'd worn the past five years? Could he walk away? There wasn't anything stopping him, not after all he'd learned in the space of an hour. 

Unable to make a decision with them staring at him, he tried to calm himself. After all, this wasn't the first time or even the tenth time someone had disappointed him. The difference was it'd been those he'd counted on not to. That hurt the most for him. 

His voice hoarse, he managed to finally whisper, "I can't. I need to get out of here. I'm sorry, but I can't do this."

He stood on shaking limbs and took a step, his legs threatening to buckle once again. He cursed his weakness as he fought to leave those he'd considered his adopted family. He couldn't stand to look at them as he took a step and another, gaining momentum with each one until he bolted toward the front door. He didn't make it outside before her voice stopped him. He cursed the power she continued to hold over him as he turned toward her, his face surely reflecting the pain he'd endured at everyone's hands that day.

 

00000

 

Marinette's heart shattered as she took in the devastation Adrien couldn't hide. She doubted he was even aware of the stark mask he wore as he raced as far from them as he could get. That devastation struck her deep as she jumped up and dashed after him. She had a responsibility to keep him safe when he couldn't. She called out to him hoping he wasn't beyond hearing her.

"Adrien, stop, please," Marinette said, her voice little more than a whisper. "I know a place where you won't have to see anyone.
You'll have to become Chat to get there though. Is that okay?"

He nodded. A greenish tint formed under his paling skin. 

She almost called it off, but he took a step toward her, seeming to trust her despite everything. Not wanting him to ever doubt that trust, she held out her hand for him. She smiled when his hand slipped into hers, their fingers almost interlacing yet not quite. The uncertainty in his gaze ate at her though she hoped he'd give her a chance to right the mess she'd made. If only she could take his pain and make it her burden, she'd do it without hesitation. 

The journey to his room lasted a lifetime as she kept glancing back. She could feel his hand in hers yet that didn't satisfy her. She needed the visual confirmation he hadn't slipped away from her, her gaze searching him every few steps they took. With some relief, his skin lost most of the sickly green pallor before reaching his room. 

Without wasting time, she pushed the door open and led him to the window, catching a glimpse of reflected light. She moved closer for inspection and found a camera aimed at Adrien's bedroom, specifically the window. A sickening sensation bloomed in her abdomen.

How had they missed that over the years? Granted, the camera proved smaller than most she would've suspected capable of outdoor use. Clearly expensive and high-tech, Adrien's nightly trysts as Chat Noir couldn't have gone unnoticed over the years. The sight of it disgusted her. It spoke of the boundless violations Gabriel committed against Adrien and his privacy.

If only she'd known, she could've saved them all more heartache by confronting Gabriel sooner. Maybe they could have stopped Hawk Moth years ago. Maybe they could've avoided all this hurt. Or maybe she could've stopped nothing at all. 

She shook herself from her thoughts and called upon her transformation. Jumping onto the window's sill, she yanked the camera from its hiding place. As she looked down at the offending object, she cursed the day Gabriel ever felt the need to control his son's movements. Renewed hatred for the man Gabriel was filled her though it faded as she recalled all the effort he'd made in recent weeks with Adrien. She doubted it would ever completely heal the blond behind her, knowing the scars ran too deep. Their depths almost a certainty beyond her imagining. She wondered if they'd ever heal completely.

She spared the camera a final glance and all it represented. Adrien's eyes watched her, boring into her back. He didn't say a word as she pulled back her arm and sent the expensive piece of equipment shattering against the pavement below. The sound proved more than satisfying. She never wanted to see anything like it again near him.

Having handled that small obstruction, she chanced a glance at him, her eyes filling with tears at the statue he'd become. It took her a moment to calm herself, gathering her need to comfort him and draping it over her shoulders. Nothing else mattered but him as she bore that invisible cloak, determination her companion in this new mission. 

"Ready?"

He glanced down at his ring, twisting the silver metal several rotations. As his green eyes met her blue ones, he whispered the words he needed, his skin becoming that same sickly green again as the magic washed over him. After a moment, Chat stood in Adrien's place though he looked anything but thrilled about the journey she had planned for them. Instead, he appeared panicky at the thought of depending on Plagg's magic.

"We don't have to do this, Adrien. The last thing I want to do is coerce you." She swiveled to kneel on the sill, doing her best to come back to his level. His gaze refused to meet hers as he fought some internal demon. She realized she'd done that to him, hating herself for making him, above anyone else, feel such misery and doubt in her presence.

Oh, boy, she'd seriously screwed everything up in a short timespan. How could she ever make it up to him? Hoping to help him decide, she dropped her voice a bit lower. "Can you trust me just a bit longer? Please?"

His hesitation reappeared. The blade of her guilt stabbed her, twisting a bit further with each show of his newfound reticence. She struggled to keep her pain in check as she waited for his decision. 

His battle continued, leaving her breathless and fighting against her own warring emotions. Dread and hope tore through her as she waited. As he met her gaze, he held her captive, waiting the space of several heartbeats before he finally nodded, pulling his baton from its holster. 

Satisfied she expelled a pent-up breath at his acceptance, hope defeating dread for the foreseeable future. She stood and turned around, unstrapping her yo-yo from her waist. The first swing always took her breath away, at least on most occasions. This time, the worry she had for her partner and best friend outweighed that amazing swooping sensation as she worked her way toward their destination. She continued to steal glances behind her to ensure he followed. 

The path she chose took them to the outskirts of the city. Older buildings lined one section, many abandoned and beyond redemption in the city's eyes. 

She'd found the relatively large patch of buildings on one of her many travels through the city on their nightly patrols. About six months into their time as superheroes, she'd decided this side of town appealed to her far more than the touristy areas. She'd been more than happy to give those to Chat as he loved the attention from passersby far more than she ever did. 

Based on the curious glances he gave to their surroundings, he hadn't really known about this section of the city. Knowing his identity, she didn't wonder any longer either as to why he wouldn't. Of course, Adrien wouldn't have been allowed here with its shadier, seedier appearance compared to the safer areas of the city. Gabriel wouldn't have stood the idea of his son in either form coming to this section. 

A brief sensation of satisfaction at seeing Adrien's curiosity gave her the push to continue the route she'd chosen. She had wanted to show him before but had never given herself the opportunity. The thought gave her some pause as she prepped for next swing. Her gaze swept over the landscape around and below them.

She'd fallen in love with these buildings. Despite the neglect they'd faced over the years, the potential these buildings still had reminded her of the guy vaulting behind her, his footfalls on the rooftops enough to keep her going. She could see them flourishing if only given the chance they needed, the attention they craved by people who understood their worth. 

It was the same belief she held for the young man, who'd carved a place in her heart five years ago. With a healthy amount of love, attention, and respect, she could see him become the person she always thought he was meant to be. She doubted he'd ever let her see him through such transformation. Yet, her heart continued to yearn with a hope that refused to disappear. 

A building caught her attention, changing her course by a small degree. She landed next to it, her hand touching its aged siding. Affection for it and her partner threatened to overwhelm her as he landed next to her. She could feel his gaze upon her before it darted away, leaving her a bit adrift. 

She pressed her hand to the building a final time, whispering her farewells. She knew she could restore any damage or destruction brought on by Adrien's special ability, but that didn't lessen the sorrow she felt for the building. A deep breath expelled from her lips as she turned toward her partner. She stared at him with concern as his emotional storm, shadowing the one raging within her. It proved too strong for her as it wafted over them, threatening to engulf her in its severity. She knew then he needed an outlet for that storm, stepping back before she spoke to him. 

"Go ahead. No one's around to see. Let it out, Adrien. We can take it. Destroy the building or fight me if you think it'll help."

 

00000

 

Her words sparked something within him. 

Glancing at his right hand, the phantom sensation of magic he could conjure filled him. It bubbled below the surface, just waiting for him to call it forth. He could humble the entire block with just the touch of his hand on one of these buildings, he knew, yet he didn't do it. Not immediately. He spared another glance at his once-dear partner, his best friend. 

At that moment, he almost resented her automatic assumption he wanted or even needed to destroy something. He doubted she ever put anything together about their first Christmas and the advertisement stand he'd destroyed before running into Santa. He recalled the park's Christmas tree had been his initial target, wanting to destroy the physical symbol of happiness, family, and love. 

In the end, his mother's image had come to him and stopped him from making a terrible mistake. He couldn't hurt others as he hurt that first Christmas without her. He missed her more at that moment than he had ever thought possible. 

He fought back the unbidden tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. He resisted showing his weakness to the only other woman that ever meant as much to him as his mother. Sure, Nathalie and he had grown closer over the years, but she still didn't hold a candle to his mother or even to Marinette. No, Marinette was the one to show him how wonderful and bright his world could be just by her very presence in and out of her mask. 

The earlier resentment faded, but his desire to destroy something to match his disillusioned state remained the same. 

He eyed the building before him, its abandoned state almost a perfect metaphor for his emotions, windows busted and the interior a wasteland of debris and empty space. No one would miss this building, he mused as he called up his Cataclysm. Why not destroy something so pathetic? Reduce it to ash so maybe something greater could rise in its place.

An image of Marinette's hand brushing over the building's side came to him, unbidden. The look on her face as she whispered quiet words as if they could hear her. She'd whispered her farewell as if she'd miss the building. Without a doubt, her cure would fix it, but she'd still said goodbye to the forlorn building as if she knew its destruction would take something away, something that no one would see except maybe her. 

The thought gave him pause, pulling him up short. His hand bubbled with his power mere centimeters from the crumbling brick. He couldn't do it. He couldn't destroy the building, not when it meant possibly destroying a piece of himself as well. He'd also be taking something away from Marinette. No matter how much he hated and distrusted her, he couldn't take anything from her. He didn't want to. He did care about her. Deep down, he did trust her despite everything. He just smothered it under the hurt she'd shoved at him in the space of a single hour. 

He stared at the building a while longer, gazing at it through the same eyes that Marinette had. Sure, the building could be restored, but it would take something from them, keeping them separated more than they already were. He didn't need the image of his mother to stop him this time. He had enough motivation to calm himself as he turned toward the sad blue eyes of the woman beside him. 

He couldn't destroy a part of himself, the part that still cared, still retained hope. 

It'd been the reason he hadn't destroyed that Christmas tree all those years ago. It would've been the beginning of the end for the man he wanted to be, the man he saw himself becoming if only given the chance. 

Seeing a small pile of garbage nearby, he pressed his hand against the top layer, disintegrating it in seconds. It transformed into ash at his feet. Little satisfaction followed its destruction. He sighed as he spared a final glance at the building he'd thought to demolish, whispering a soft farewell as he turned toward Marinette and catching the question in her eyes.

"We should get back. Alya and Nino should be there soon." He took a step toward the direction they came, his hand reaching back for his baton.

"Adrien, I'm--"

He shook his head, extending his baton and leaping to a nearby rooftop.

A whir behind him alerted the superhero to his partner's presence. She stayed close yet not too close, silently offering her support if he needed it. Her presence remained a warming calmness despite everything he learned, despite her secrets. He didn't know what she expected from him, grateful she hadn't made any demands. Yet, he refused to be lulled by her or her calming presence. No, he'd been burned one too many times. He spurred himself faster and higher, forcing her to catch up or risk falling too far behind. He almost smiled as she met his new speed without complaint, never veering more than ten meters from him on their return to the mansion.

She remained silent on their trip back, not forcing him to talk as Chloe would've done. No, she didn't say anything until they reached the window of his room, hesitating on the sill while he entered and dropped his transformation. 

"Would you like me to go? I can always get the project notes from Alya later. All I want is for you to feel in control, Chaton?"

He started at the endearment, realizing she hadn't used it on him since she'd stopped by earlier that day to deliver the worst news imaginable. He missed hearing her call him Chaton, almost as if she didn't want to lay claim on him after shoving the news at him. It took him a moment longer to realize her reasons, almost softening the tiniest bit toward her. She didn't want to continue laying her claim on someone who no longer wanted her in his life. 

He wanted to assure her he would always want her by his side as she'd often done for him in the past, but he wasn't feeling so magnanimous toward her. She'd lied to him for almost a week. She'd known something she shouldn't have been told. She kept it from him on the premise it wasn't her secret to share. He hated that most of all. Secrets should be shared if they could cost someone else dearly. How could she not know that after all these years? She was supposed to be the smarter one between them? The strategist capable of seeing every outcome? Where had that gone this past week?

Realizing he hadn't answered her, he opened his mouth to speak, but a tap on his door interrupted him, forcing him to close his lips and turn toward his bedroom door as Nathalie walked in. "Your father's awake and asking for you, Adrien."

Relief for his father flooded him, nearly knocking him to his knees. He'd seen his father breathing before Lawrence had taken him away, but that hadn't stopped the worry and the fear from overwhelming him, threatening to suffocate him. Being denied access to his father had only escalated those feelings.

Taking a moment to ensure he wouldn't embarrass himself, he stepped toward Nathalie when he recalled Marinette still sitting in the open window. Turning toward her, he found her smiling in that soft way of hers that never failed to stir his heart or make his knees feel like jelly. Those same effects appeared as he glanced at her, ignoring any other feelings he might have toward her.

"I'll go," Marinette whispered, slipping her yo-yo from her waist again. "I'm glad he's doing okay."

"No." Three large steps had him within touching distance of her. Holding out his hand, he worked to find the right words to keep her beside him, ignoring the internal struggle he battled. He couldn't face his father alone. He wasn't strong enough. "Stay, please."

She stared at him. He wished he could read whatever emotions flitted across her features. He hated the disconnect between them, hoping one day they could fix it yet knowing they'd both need time. He needed time.

Whatever she saw in him must've satisfied her because she nodded and dropped to the floor beside him. While she didn't drop her transformation, she did step closer and take his hand. "I'm here for you. Let's go."

 

00000

 

Marinette could feel the tension Adrien held as they followed Nathalie to Gabriel's room. Despite the spandex of her suit, the tightening grip of his fingers almost proved too painful for her with each step closer to their destination.

"Are you sure you're up for this?" She dared to ask when they paused outside the room, its door looming over them. It dared them to enter the sacred space within, a room neither had ever been privy to see before. She wasn't sure she wanted to see it, especially with Gabriel watching her every move as he often did when silently judging others. 

However, her needs and desires didn't matter; Adrien's did. The tension tightened within him as did the pressure he placed on her hand. He'd asked her to stay despite his great anger at her. She wouldn't do anything to abandon him, not when he needed her. He might hate her for all she'd known, but he still had the presence to realize he needed someone to stand beside him, to fight alongside him as she'd done the last few years. She wouldn't leave him to fight alone. 

"I don't really have a choice, Mari. I want answers." He blew out a breath before he pushed open the door, not bothering to knock in his agitation and anger. His hand gripped hers tightly as he dragged her inside. He shoulder gave a twinge as he pulled her along. He wouldn't have been half as rough if she'd been in her civilian form, but then, she'd made the silent vow to be whatever he needed. That included being a punching bag of sorts if he desired. She remained quiet even as her shoulder gave another twinge. 

She heard Gabriel's soft greeting seconds before she saw him resting, propped up by several pillows. She took in his large bed, surprised to find it larger than the one Adrien possessed. Situated in the center of the room, it took up most of the floor though plenty of space remained to Marinette's amazement. Several large pieces of furniture lined the walls despite the bed's imposing size. She couldn't quite fathom a room as large as this one existing as a mere bedroom, awed by the immense wealth her former idol possessed. 

She no longer wondered how he'd been able to create a lair that she and Adrien had yet to discover. This much wealth could easily build a fortress that would take an army to penetrate, something far greater than the two superheroes could've possibly imagined. It probably hadn't even been too hard for Gabriel to construct some secret space within the mansion, transforming it into his lair. She pushed down the desire to explore the large home at length. She hoped to locate his lair and close it off permanently for Adrien's, and Paris's, sake.

Coming back to the matter at hand, she gasped as she inspected Gabriel closer, his usually stern demeanor overtaken by a haggard weariness that broke her heart. She hadn't expected to see the man she'd once admired brought so low and aged so fast by a disease she still couldn't wrap her own mind around. She fought the wave of sadness as it threatened to undo her resolve. She had a mission, and she couldn't be deterred or derailed by another, not when Adrien counted on her to remain strong.

"I'm sorry I scared you, Adrien, but I swear I'm fine." Gabriel worked to reassure, holding out his hand to his son. The smile he presented to the teenagers seemed false, even to Marinette. Beside her, she caught Adrien's struggle not to rush forward or run away, illuminated across his features. His fight or flight response had been thrown into overdrive, fueling the battle within him more. She tightened her grip on his hand.

All too soon, the tension broke, freeing her partner to act in a way she hadn't seen before. She barely had time to react as the blond lunged forward, his anger and intent clear to the others in the room. Not wasting a moment, she leaped after him, catching him by the arm and hauling him back. She struggled with him, hoping to keep him from reaching his father and exacting whatever damage he felt Gabriel deserved. The blatant lie his father gave lying useless in the room as the younger Agreste fought against her until he stopped. 

Adrien glared at her, resenting her interference, but she didn't loosen her hold. She waited for him to recognize his quick reaction and his need to calm down, keeping her grip firm on his arm. She didn't dare loosen it even as he calmed and turned back to his father.

"I know the truth. All of it, Father. I know you're dying and I know you're Hawk Moth." Adrien spat the words though he didn't fight the hold Marinette maintained on his arm.

Gabriel didn't say anything for a while, his gaze meeting hers and seeking confirmation she'd been the one to tell Adrien.

"I warned you I wouldn't keep your secrets from him. He's my partner and best friend. He deserved to know."

Gabriel's smile returned for the briefest time, nodding once as he acquiesced to the truth in her words. 

This didn't appease Adrien, she knew, as she felt the tension in his arm return, moments before he broke the silence.

"You had no right to tell Mari before you told me. I'm your son, you insensitive bastard," Adrien cried, his anger rebuilding. "How long have you known I was Chat Noir and Mari was Ladybug? How many akumas did you knowingly send to take us down? All for what, Father? What did you want so badly that you would endanger my life? Marinette? My friends?"

The tension within Adrien grew until he fought the hold she maintained on his arm, forcing her to tighten in response. She couldn't allow him to do something he'd only come to regret. She couldn't allow him to attack his father, knowing the consequences would haunt him forever. 

Gabriel withered at Adrien's accusations, his sadness and regret manifesting physically, much to Marinette's deepening sadness. She couldn't recall a time when she'd seen the fight leave the older Agreste as it'd done with the accusations thrown at him by his own son. Not too long ago, Gabriel would've merely considered Adrien a hysterical child, patronizing the young man and sending him to his room. He would've berated Adrien for not considering the effect the younger man's actions had on his father's company and their last name. This time, she could see those same thoughts reflected in the older man's eyes as he struggled to meet Adrien's cold anger.

When he finally answered his son's questions, his voice was a mere shadow of the quiet commandeering one he'd used in the past. "Far more than I should've, son. Too many to ever regain your forgiveness. I wanted to do right by you, but I only ended up hurting you more. I doubt I'll have enough time to even try. For that, I'm most sorry."

"How long have you known about us?" Adrien repeated, his gaze meeting Marinette's for the first time since entering the room with a look of sheer sadness rather than hostility. "We know about the camera. It's been handled, too."

Gabriel appeared uncomfortable for a few moments as he steeled himself to answer this question. His fingers fiddled with the fringe on the top blanket covering him as his eyes glanced beyond their shoulders, not quite daring enough to meet either of them directly. The paleness of his skin contrasted sharply with the bright colors of the blanket, something that didn't quite fit Gabriel's brand or image. 

It took Marinette a moment to recognize the worn state of the blanket and its possible significance. It looked like something a woman would buy to liven up her living space, something a man would only appreciate when that woman disappeared from his life. She gasped, realizing that her former idol still loved his wife, cherished her even if the blanket was any testament.

She spared a glance at Nathalie and caught the sadness in the other woman's eyes. Despite what the two adults had shared, it had become clear that Nathalie would always remain in the shadow of Emilie Agreste, something that broke Marinette's heart to see. She wouldn't want that for anyone. 

As Gabriel began to speak, her mind came back to the present and all that was still taking place in front of her. 

"You kept escaping your room, Adrien, so I had the camera installed. It was no longer active, I swear. It was programmed to record any time the window remained open beyond a few minutes. It's how I caught you." He took a moment to pause, allowing that information to seep in before he added, "Marinette proved trickier. Ladybug rarely came to the house, so the camera system was useless. No, I didn't figure her out until quite recently. Her demeanor toward you was what gave her away. She cared about you, no matter what form you wore. She loves you, Adrien."

Gabriel's words caused a blow to Adrien, causing him to stagger beneath her fingers. His knees buckled and nearly dragged her down, too. She barely managed to keep them upright, pulling Adrien up and supporting him with her strength. She caught the unspoken question in his green eyes as they met hers, moisture gathering near the corners again at the blow he'd received.

Forcing herself to tear away from his beseeching gaze, she met Gabriel's openly curious one.

"Then, why not take his miraculous or turn him against me?" she asked, curious about his lack of progress via those options.

"Any fool could see how smitten my son was of Ladybug, of you. It would've been too great a gamble to reveal myself and my motivations when I had no guarantee he'd leave your side to fight with me." Gabriel's gaze appeared sincere as he met hers before daring a glance at Adrien. "What else would you like to know, son? I have no more secrets to keep."

Adrien didn't respond for the longest time, almost as if he'd grown lost in his thoughts.

Marinette resisted the urge to tug him into an embrace and hold him until he felt better. She doubted he'd appreciate the gesture. The longer he remained silent and battled whatever emotions churned within him, the more distressed she became for him. She feared what he might do once she was forced to leave, hoping she'd gotten through to Nino earlier that day how much their friend would be hurting. 

Granted, she hadn't expected him to find his father unconscious as she told him everything. That had been the last thing she ever wanted Adrien to experience. She wished she had the ability to turn back time, to change it all. She'd give anything as payment for that ability, especially if it spared Adrien this pain. She didn't even care if he never wanted anything to do with her again. She could handle that consequence to see him smile and laugh again.

She jumped a bit guiltily when Adrien spoke. The silence in the room broken as his quiet voice, raw from his emotional upheaval, captured their attention. "Mari didn't tell me why you wanted to see her after the last akuma. What could you possibly want us to agree to besides taking away your miraculous and giving it back to the guardian?"

The next ten minutes proved agonizing for all involved as Adrien and Marinette listened to Gabriel's more refined plan. Nooroo popped up to add his own opinions when necessary to help in convincing the two teenagers of this new plan. Both hoped to reverse the magical hijinx Gabriel had completed through his misuse of the butterfly miraculous. Some, Marinette recalled from their earlier meeting, but other parts were new even to her. It took her a moment to realize the amount of research Gabriel had done since that fateful day. She still had her reservations about this working, but she'd promised to hear the man out. She would even approve the idea if Adrien also agreed to it. She wouldn't go back on her word to either Agreste.

At the end of Gabriel's speech, Marinette realized she wasn't quite prepared for the blazing green of Adrien's eyes to meet hers. They never faltered in their steadfast accusation. "You agreed to this plan without consulting me?"

"I don't like it, Adrien, but yes, I did. I did make the demand he tell you the truth. He wasn't allowed to even try before telling you about who he was and his reasons for trying. When he hadn't told you after almost a week, I couldn't keep it to myself any longer. I couldn't take the chance he would try, and something went terribly wrong. It's why I decided to come and talk to you. If this is going to work, we need you."

She gulped as she continued to hold his gaze. It took her another swallow before she garnered the courage to continue. "I need you. I can't do this alone. I don't want to. It's your decision that I'll abide, not his. So, Chaton, what do you want to do?"

Chapter Text

 

What did he want to do?

Well, he wanted to do a lot. He wanted to go back to the happy (well, almost happy) ignorance of his father's ill health. He wanted to stop his father from becoming Paris's most notorious supervillain. He wanted to bring his mother back, saving his family from becoming the sad shell it was. He wanted Marinette to drop Ladybug and allow him to see the one person he loved more than he ever imagined loving. He wanted to go back to a time when he could trust Marinette. However, he couldn’t focus on all he couldn’t change. He needed to focus on the present and what he could achieve by deciding his next course of action.

He turned toward the butterfly kwami and frowned. "You believe he can do this? You're willing to stay with him to find out after everything he's done?"

Nooroo offered him a smile. "You really are Ladybug's other half. She asked the same question. My answer hasn't changed. This could prove dangerous and foolhardy, but your father is determined to try. I'm willing to stay with him and give him this one last chance. What about you, Chat Noir? Do you believe he deserves a chance to redeem himself?"

The immediate need to say no nearly overwhelmed him. He didn't want this decision to be his.

Either way, he lost.

Plagg leaped in front of Adrien, much to the teenager's surprise, glaring at Nooroo. "How dare you word it like that? My kitten has done everything ever asked of him from everyone in this room. You have no right to say he'll be the disappointment when he's been the obedient son and partner all this time. It shouldn't be his decision alone. He has a right to be selfish if he wants."

Surprise built at Plagg's defense and Nooroo's guilty expression. So lost in all this, he almost missed the movement in his periphery. He tilted his head to find Marinette leaning towards him, ready to aid him however he needed or wanted. A glimpse of the sadness in her eyes had his breath hitching as a startling realization hit him.

"You would say yes, wouldn't you? You believe people can be redeemed?" She nodded. "But that isn't the only reason you said you'd help, was it? It was because of me, to spare me any more pain?"

She raised her hand to touch his cheek and caught the red spandex still covering her. Speaking the words to drop her transformation, she moved a bit closer to him, her hand cupping his cheek once more. "I love you, Adrien, so much. I'd do anything to make this go away and give you back everything you lost. If he can fix the magic, then maybe there's still a chance. You matter to me more than anything else. All I want is to see you happy again."

He thought about what she said, maybe the hope of fixing and redeeming Hawk Moth's magic proved more alluring than he cared to admit. However, images of their classmates and friends being akumatized at one time or another came to him. Could he really turn his back on their pain and help the man who'd hurt them? Could he ever look them in the eye again and hope they'd understand the impossibility of his choice? Could he allow himself to be selfish toward them? Toward his father? The questions continued until his mind swam with all the what-if scenarios he could conjure.

A dull ache formed near his temples. 

With a groan, he realized he couldn't do it. He couldn't make this decision. He wasn't Ladybug, wasn’t Marinette. He'd never been expected to make such potentially life-altering decisions on his own before despite recent events. He couldn't possibly choose between his classmates and his father. He couldn't ignore one side’s pain, even if it might mean easing his. He doubted his pain would ever ease with the knowledge he'd gained this day. 

A collective breath seemed to be taken as everyone waited for Adrien to make up his mind. He took a long time to stare at Marinette before he turned and met each set of expectant gazes until he met Plagg and found the guilty expression on his kwami's face. 

"I'm sorry, kid. I tried to spare you this, but Spots is right. This is your decision. I shouldn't have tried to shield you from it." The small black cat fidgeted as he, too, waited for Adrien to say something.

"If I say no to this, then I'm the bad guy, aren't I? I'm in a no-win situation." He pointed a menacing finger at his father. "You don't deserve a second chance. You've been a terrible person since mother's disappearance. Selfish and even cruel to those who loved you. You don't deserve my empathy or pity."

That collective breath grew heavier as everyone glanced at Gabriel, awaiting his reaction. 

A sad smile graced the older man's features as he nodded. "Then, let's end it here. Take Nooroo and the brooch back to the guardian. We'll give Paris a chance to heal and Hawk Moth will just become a distant yet disturbing memory in the city's past."

"Just like that? You won't fight me?" Adrien couldn't quite wrap his mind around that, almost sure his father had to have another angle. "What about you? Your life?"

"The chances of reversing my punishment are far too slim, son. This was just a chance to save you should anyone learn my identity. I only want to try and preserve your future, not my life." The older Agreste fell back against the pillows, having used his last bit of energy to sit straight and speak frankly to his son.

Adrien bolted forward, seeing his father's energy escape him. Fear gripped him, believing his father had succumbed to whatever gripped him. He still couldn't imagine this invisible monster existed as he looked at the older man. He didn't want to face the fact he'd be losing his father before he was ready. Sure, their relationship was far from perfect, but they'd finally started getting somewhere. They could become better if they had more time. He wanted more time. 

The questions threatened to paralyze him again as they crossed his mind, reminding him of his earlier indecision. He spared a glance at Marinette and found Tikki watching him with a sadness and empathy that brought fresh tears to his eyes as she met his gaze. When she did speak, he felt the moisture streaked down his cheeks, unchecked as he listened.

"Adrien, you don't have to decide anything today. Regardless of everyone's seeming urgency, your father is too weak to try again. Take a few days and decide. It is your decision, but it's one that shouldn't be rushed."

In a soft voice, Marinette chimed in, agreeing with her kwami. "She's right, Adrien. I'm sure your father or Nathalie will give us advanced notice should you decide to agree with his plan. Either way, Hawk Moth's terror will be over soon."

He nodded, unsure what he should say. He almost thanked whatever higher power above them when a chiming in the distance reminded them of his other expected visitors. 

"I'll let you know my decision in a day or two," Adrien said, moving out of the room, more than eager to table this discussion and greet his other friends. He swiped at his cheeks roughly, wanting to be rid of the tears he spilled. He took an extra moment to collect himself, remaining still until he felt sure enough he could breathe again. He hurried down the stairs and wrenched open the door to find only Nino standing in the doorway.

"Alya texted she couldn't make it last minute. She asked we take notes and catch her up at school tomorrow," Nino explained as he stepped into the large gallery, his gaze on his phone and not his best friend. "Where's Nette? She here yet?"

Adrien glanced behind him and found her standing at the top of the stairs. He stared at her for several seconds, unsure what to say or do with Nino beside him. They hadn't finished talking or come to any decisions about their friendship or even partnership. He didn't even know what he wanted anymore.

He caught her taking a step toward them, moving closer as if she had something of importance she wanted to impart to him. However, she froze after that one step, her gaze creeping toward Nino and offering the best smile she could. A moment passed before Adrien realized Nino had caught sight of her.

Their moment had ended, he knew, wondering if they'd ever get their chance again or if he'd be stuck in this endless labyrinth of emotion where she was concerned.

"There you are, Nette! Ready to take on this project?" Nino’s gaze darted between the other two, his brows raising in confusion by the thick tension surrounding them.

She spared a glance at Adrien before she came down the stairs to meet them in the gallery, her most pleasant ring pasted on. He knew she was trying to hide her emotions from Nino, but Adrien almost wished she wouldn't as he hated the fake smile on her face. It looked too much like the one she accused him of wearing whenever he wanted to hide.

"I'm sorry, guys, but Alya texted and asked me to help with her emergency. Do you think we can meet up later this week and try again?" She came down the stairs and pressed a quick kiss to Nino's cheek. Eying Adrien for an extra moment, she nodded and walked out the door, saying her goodbyes over her shoulder.

As the door shut behind her, Nino turned toward Adrien and asked, "What going on, dude? You two get into a fight or something?"

"Or something," Adrien mumbled. Motioning for Nino to follow him, he said, "Come upstairs. I'll tell you there."

 

00000

 

Seeing his son walk out the door had Gabriel reaching forward, risking a fall from his bed in his need to stop Adrien from leaving. He wanted a chance to explain yet knew he had no reason or excuse great enough to keep the young Agreste from walking away. He couldn't believe he'd screwed up again, sensing this time wouldn't be like the ones in the past. His son's need to please him had dwindled bit by bit over the last several weeks as their relationship changed for the better. While he admired the changes he saw happening in his son's life, he couldn't help wishing he wielded that power once more, if only long enough to make his son understand.

He felt like the worst father ever as he dismissed the thought with a shake of his head. That course wouldn’t help him. Not at this point.

"He has a right to be angry," Nathalie scolded in a soft voice, her arm going out as if she needed to rescue him from the possible topple he risked. "He just needs some time, Gabriel. Give him that."

A sigh shook his thinning frame as he glanced a final time at his door, hoping against everything Adrien would come back. He just wanted to share what he could with the younger man before their time together ended. He'd done so many things wrong where his son was concerned, knowing he'd never get the chance if Adrien remained angry. 

"He may need more time than I have to give, Nath." His voice came out raspy as he fought down the emotions he rarely allowed anyone to see. He hated emotions, deeming them useless but he couldn't deny the need to shout his fury and despair at watching his son walk away. He never felt more helpless or weak than that moment. "What if he never comes back?"

A dip in his mattress had him glancing up with surprise as she settled next to him, her arms wrapping around his middle. She rested her cheek against his shoulder, her glasses tilting a bit askew as she met his curious gaze with a knowing smirk. That smirk never failed to put his heart into overdrive, especially as he acknowledged the feelings he had for her. Feelings he had ignored far too long.

"He'll come around." She settled closer to him, providing comfort without him being asked. She never failed to surprise him in these instances. As she curled around him, she met his cool blue eyes once more as she dropped her voice another octave, creating an intimacy between them in the spacious bedroom. "I know he will. Just give him some time to process."

He hesitated before moving so his arms wrapped around her, pulling her impossibly closer. He needed her warmth against the cold disdain he’d seen in Adrien’s eyes. As he thought further he realized he hadn’t such a reaction from Nathalie, confusing him. "How is it you're not angry with me for not telling you sooner? I kept a lot from you, including Hawk Moth. What made you so forgiving toward me?"

She didn't answer him for some time, almost as if she hadn't expected the questions. 

Six months ago, he wouldn’t have cared about her reasons or her knowledge about him. His diagnosis had been a major turning point for him, smacking him with a reality that he’d refused to acknowledge. One of those realities had been his feelings for Nathalie, feelings she reciprocated, much to his continued surprise and secret delight.

More harsh realizations than he cared to recount came to him as he sat there with her curled against him. He had so much to atone for yet not enough time with the people he cared the most about. He could only hope that maybe she'd be right and Adrien would come around enough to accept Gabriel's deepest regrets.

He jumped a bit when she did answer his earlier question as he'd been lost in regretful memories. Realizing she'd been speaking before he'd become aware of it, he held up his hand, a guilty look crossing his features as he asked her to repeat herself.

She merely smiled, her eyes rolling behind her glasses. "You Agrestes are quite irritating, do you know that? The number of times I've had to redirect and repeat myself to Adrien over the years. At least now, I know where he got it."

"I apologize, mon Couer. I'll try to do better." He held up his hand, making his vow an honorable one.

Her smile widened a bit more. 

"As I was saying, I don't think I'm truly over my anger with you, but I have set it aside for now. I only have so much time left, don't I? I decided a couple of days ago I wouldn't waste that time, staying angry at you." She pressed a kiss to his jaw, having swiveled to reach him. Her lips remained on his stubbled jaw a moment longer than he would've deemed necessary in most situations, but nothing would've made him reprimand her for it. In fact, he found it quite soothing to his frazzled state, bringing him that much closer to accepting the mess he'd created. "Besides that, I know Adrien. He's angry and young. He's never been allowed to show his emotions. It's better he doesn't bottle them right now. We'd do well to let him unleash them and get them out of his system. I fear what will happen if he doesn’t."

"If you say so." The muttered words got him a derisive look as she tapped his cheek with her index finger. "You're right, I know, but I can't help hating it."

"I know you do," she whispered, "but it's something he needs to do, Gabe. Let him handle it the best he can. He'll come back to you eventually. You're his father. He still cares about you and craves your love above all else."

That last bit caught his attention. Based on what he’d witnessed, that honor belonged to Marinette more than him. If he was a betting man, he’d put his entire fortune on Adrien craving her love and attention above Gabriel’s.

While he knew his son's anger had manifested in distrust of them all, he could only hope that that hatred wouldn't remain on the young woman. He cursed himself for placing such a burden on her when she'd been so adamant in bringing Adrien into the conversation. He shouldn't have allowed her to be a target when she'd incurred it once before by coming to him. She’d been a tigress that day, defending his son against him. Her quiet demands far more potent than a direct confrontation would’ve been. 

The sadness he'd seen in Marinette's eyes before she'd followed Adrien proved almost Gabriel’s undoing. He'd come to care for the young woman as he would a daughter, her warmth and ability to stand up to him her greatest strengths. She'd make a wonderful wife for his son, someone who wouldn't take any gumption from anyone yet also possessed a kindness for those less fortunate. She matched Adrien in intellect as she'd bested even Gabriel in seeing the wrongs he'd ignored too long. 

"Worrying about things beyond your control won't help you regain your strength. Try and rest, Gabe." Nathalie tugged him further down into his pillows and wrapped the blanket he cherished tighter around him. She smiled as she recognized the pattern. "I always loved this blanket. I miss designing sometimes, you know?"

"I never should've let you quit. You had such talent." He took a breath as he prepared himself for his next confession. "You still do. You've been an inspiration for me these past few years, even more than the memory of Emilie."

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to flatter me." She tapped his chest with an open hand, not enough to harm but certainly enough to tease, eliciting a chuckle from him.

"I wouldn't dream of that, mon Couer. You're too smart for it." He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. "You really would've been a great designer if I hadn't pulled you into the administrative side of the business."

"You didn't pull me anywhere, Gabriel Agreste. I went willingly enough." Picking up the blanket, her eyes focused on the faded pattern. "I'm happy with the only design contribution I made at Gabriel Fashions. It seems to have fared well in the eyes of its owner."

His hand drifted over the blanket until he could lace their fingers together, tugging her hand back to his chest. He placed it over his heart as their eyes met. "Gabriel Fashions wouldn't have gotten far without you. I hope you know that. You pushed me when I needed it. Quite forcefully at times, too."

He tightened his hold on her hand as he felt her shift, knowing she wanted to smack him for the gentle teasing he tossed at her. He smiled down at her, a slightly less cheeky grin spreading over his lips. If he'd looked in the mirror, he might have seen the resemblance he shared with his son's superhero persona. He might’ve even made Chat Noir proud, but that was a thought best left alone right then.

She settled once more against him after stealing a kiss. Her eyes promised far more when he regained his strength. He couldn’t wait, pushing aside his doubts and concerns to bask in this woman’s love. A love he felt sure he’d never completely earn before his time ended.

"All I'm saying, mon Couer, is I love you. You've become so dear to me." His voice dropped. "I wish we had more time. I really wanted to grow old with you, maybe welcome some grandchildren if Adrien ever speaks to me again."

"He will, Gabe. I know he will." Her hand tightened in his, her body moving a bit closer.

He couldn't be more grateful as his fatigue soon claimed him, pulling him into a world of intermingled dreams and nightmares. 

 

00000

 

Running through the streets did little to soothe the ache in Marinette's heart as the distance between her and Adrien grew wider. She knew that distance went beyond the physical, sensing the emotional shutdown Adrien had begun since learning of her knowledge. She hated disappointing him yet again, knowing this time would be the hardest to overcome. If they ever could.

She fought back a stray sob as she recalled the look of betrayal on his face. She knew without being told she'd really done it this time. She'd never get another chance to be his friend, never see his eyes light up when he was happy, never hear him laugh at one of his cat puns, never feel his lips on hers. 

Cold misery accompanied her as she worked to maintain her fast pace toward Alya's home. Her lungs burned and her muscles screamed at her to slow down, but she ignored them. She just wanted to get there and hope that her friend might want some company, even if Marinette knew her company wouldn't be that great. Selfish, maybe, but she needed Alya's tenacity and assuredness more than she needed anything else.

What she didn't count on was her distraction being so great that she almost walked right past her destination.

"M? Hey, M? Wait up," Alya hollered from the front door of her family's apartments. The Ladyblogger hobbled after the designer on her crutches, coming to a halt beside Marinette several meters away. She huffed from exertion before she focused on her friend. The reporter frowned when she caught a better look at Marinette’s face. "What's going on? Nino texted and said something was happening at Adrien's. Did you two get into a fight? It happens, you know, but you two are made for each other."

Marinette barked out a laugh at that, wiping roughly at her cheeks. She probably looked a fright, but she couldn't bring herself to care. "Doubtful. Adrien wants nothing to do with me. It's my fault, too."

Marinette allowed her best friend to drag her upstairs to the apartment, walking the young designer to the sofa and pushing her into the cushions. She dropped into their welcoming softness without complaint.

"Okay, sister, tell me everything. We'll see if we can't fix this." Alya sat next to her, propping her casted leg on some pillows she placed on the coffee table.

Marinette had every intention of keeping some details to herself, but soon the dam within her broke, not stopping until she revealed everything. She talked for almost an hour before she took one final breath and turned to Alya. "So, how do I fix this one? How do I make this all better for everyone? I know I can't appease Hawk Moth's victims if I allow him another chance, but that chance could help Adrien. I love my city. I love you, Al, but I can't ignore this chance, can I?"

"Damn, girl, this is a tough one." Alya stared as Marinette fought a fresh wave of tears. "I know you love me and our city. You don't have to convince me of that, but will this really help or could it make things so much worse? You said the consequences could be even worse if he tries again. Should we really let him take that chance? What if his next would-be champion does even more damage than the last one, damage you can't fix?"

Marinette stared guiltily at Alya's casted leg, recalling how brave her friend had been in trying to save their classmates. Her inability to reverse the damage had done something to Marinette that day. She tried to keep the thoughts away, but times like this only punctuated her failure. Sure, she had her doubts about Gabriel’s plan, but she couldn’t ignore the implications or the possibilities of its success.

Her head throbbed as she went over it once more.

After a moment, she conceded defeat. No clear decisions had been made so all the speculations would only cause her more stress. She didn’t need any more, she thought with a derisive smile.

She turned her head toward Alya and voiced the thoughts she’d been trying to tackle that day. "Maybe you're right. I don't know, Al, but I couldn't allow Gabriel this chance without Adrien knowing. From what I could tell, Adrien looks ready to say no. He's having the same problems I'm having with this plan. We don't want Hawk Moth to retraumatize everyone if another attempt should fail. Maybe I should just call this whole thing off."

"What about giving Adrien the chance to decide?" Alya asked, bringing Marinette's gaze back to hers. "I don't really like this plan either. I've been on both sides, M. It's not easy for the victims to rebound after learning what they've done, but I also would like to see Hawk Moth try and redeem himself. I mean, you gave me my chance when you gave me Trixx. I guess if this is what you want to do, then I'll support you, no matter what. I just hope you're prepared for the consequences, M."

A sigh escaped as she sank further into the cushions and dragged her knees to her chest. She nodded. "Thanks, Al. I'm glad I came over. You always help me when I need it." 

"Anytime, girl." Alya held out a spare blanket, sensing Marinette's need for the warm weight after their years together. Marinette smiled in response, glad she had this woman as her best friend. After Marinette had settled once again, Alya asked, "Do you want to spend the night?"

The young designer shook her head though she made no move to stand, let alone walk out of the apartment.

"Maman and Papa are expecting me," Marinette said, her voice muffled by her legs, "but can I stay a bit longer? I'm not ready to face them yet."

Alya nodded, turning on the TV in the living room and changing the station until she found some mindless reality show playing.

Neither moved as their phones chimed with various text messages, both unable or unwilling to break whatever peace they'd managed to find as Alya worked to comfort her. 

Marinette sensed the messages weren't important as she continued to stare at the TV, not seeing the show’s drama playing out. Her mind continued to replay all that happened earlier in the day, even as she tried to rein in what little hope that built each time she imagined Adrien's face before her visit that day. She wanted to always remember him before she ripped his world apart with those two awful words. She wished she could spit the bitter taste from her mouth. It continued to linger on her tongue despite the number of hours that had passed.

The sky darkened. The city’s lights provided the only illumination besides the TV.

She eventually stirred enough to head home, taking the Ladybug route due to the lateness of the hour and her expected her presence at home. The final landing onto her balcony minutes later did little to reduce the heaviness in her heart as the Eiffel Tower taunted her. She spent a few extra minutes, allowing memories to wash over her. She wondered if that was all she’d ever have after that day. She eventually turned away with a sigh and a renewed ache in her heart. 

Calling off her transformation, she dropped through her skylight and curled up on her bed, with no intention of joining her parents that night. Any appetite had long since disappeared once she revealed all she knew to Adrien.

She ignored Tikki and her phone as it continued to buzz over the next few hours, uncaring if there were any emergencies. They could wait. She merely curled deeper into her pillow and dragged her blanket further over her head.

"Marinette, this looks urgent," Tikki said after the latest text message chimed, holding the phone up for Marinette to see the caller's ID. "Nino says Adrien's gone missing."

"What?" She jerked up and plucked her phone from Tikki's small arms. She pulled up the numerous texts and missed calls over the past hour. "No!"

Hurrying toward her skylight, she pushed the glass upward, only to freeze as a familiar figure greeted her, his body curled in the far corner.

"Chaton? Are you okay?" She crawled through the opening and sank onto her knees near him. "Nino's really worried about you. So am I."

 

00000

 

His laugh lacked any real humor as he thought about how not okay he was. 

In the space of a few hours, his life had imploded. All he thought he knew had been destroyed. His father had lied. Marinette had lied. Plagg had lied. They’d all lied to him. They’d lied and broken his trust in them as if it meant nothing. As if he meant nothing.

To make it more confusing and sadder, he sought one of them out. Hell, he’d come to her, landing on her balcony as if he’d made the conscious decision. Another laugh escaped. Nothing more pathetic than a homeless kitten he supposed.

Maybe they’d been right to believe him so pathetic, but he had nowhere else to. His only other friends weren’t available to help him. One had some important social function with her father and the other slept in his room, the absolute last place he wanted to be. Even as the sad thoughts crowded his mind, he knew this was where he needed to be. If anyone had answers, it was Marinette.

If only…

He sighed. He didn’t have time for those thoughts anymore.

He’d come for answers. He had some decisions to make, decisions that needed some clarification before he made them.

Nino had helped him without realizing it. The DJ had been shocked to learn everything Adrien told him, offering the only words he could. "Dude, that's beyond messed up."

Adrien couldn't help agreeing once again as he met Marinette's concerned eyes, their blueness deeper than he'd ever seen in the darkened sky. He could see himself growing lost in those blue pools. He could even pretend to forget everything she’d done to him. Oh, how he wanted to forget. If he were being honest, that was the reason he’d come. He wanted to forget and simply be with her, even if it only lasted one night.

First, though, they had to clear the air, which meant he had to understand her motivations. He had to understand why she could see his father once more behind his back. To make it worse, she kept the man’s secrets. He still wasn’t ready for that part. However, the damage had been done. No sense in arguing over it.

"I'll be fine."

The mumbled words fell from his lips like many rehearsed lines had over the years. It didn’t make him feel any better though.

"You don't have to pretend, Adrien. It's okay not to be fine. You were handed yet another unfair hand today. I'm so sorry I was the one to tell you, too. I know you hate me." Her voice drifted off. 

One final laugh escaped him. Her words had struck something within him as he managed to find his voice again.  "That's the thing. I don't hate you, Marinette. It's the opposite actually. I still love you so much that I can't breathe at times."

Tears pooled in her eyes as he glanced at her. He wanted to soften enough to comfort her, hating the despair so clear on her face, but he couldn't. He couldn't do it, knowing she had no problem in keeping information. Sure, she'd pushed him away from her, avoiding reciprocating his feelings until today. He could even see why she'd done it, but that didn't excuse her actions. 

"Adrien."

He held up his hand as he continued, "I love you. I fear I'll always love you, too, Marinette, but I don't know if I can ever trust you again. You should have told me about my father the second he texted you. I should've been there. You had no right to exclude me."

She nodded, her head dropping as she gazed down at her fidgeting hands. "You're right. I should've. I should've taken my chances in telling you. I should’ve pushed harder against your father’s demands. I'll never be able to earn your forgiveness for that. I know that. I'm, uh, I'm still working on accepting that."

She paused to swipe at the tears gathering in her eyes. "You don't have to decide tonight unless you want to, but I'll take whatever punishment you deem deserving. You won't hear one complaint either even if it means you never want to see me again."

That caught him by surprise. He hadn't expected her to give in so easily. She didn't seem interested in arguing why she'd been right to hold back, to keep him in the dark. His father and Plagg had both been adamant in their desire to protect him. They'd even admitted they would've continued keeping this a secret from him, allowing the time to slowly wind down until he lost the only family he had left. 

Unlike the other two, she seemed so genuine in her self-hatred and remorse that he almost caved. Almost.

Despite his anger, one question had plagued him long after Nino fell asleep and Adrien laid on his bed, staring at the ceiling and seeing nothing but her face. Most of his decisions would stem from her answer. It took him a moment to gather his courage.

"Did you mean it earlier?" He kept his voice low, his eyes meeting hers briefly. He couldn't take much of the hope that maybe she'd have a chance to make it right. He wasn't feeling that magnanimous yet, but he needed answers. He couldn’t hope to move forward without them.

"About accepting my punishment?" she asked, confusion flashing across her face as she spoke with some hesitation. It seemed like she was almost feeling him out. "Yeah, I meant it."

He actually smiled a bit at that, his hands still lifeless on his knees. A short-lived amusement flashed in his eyes before he sobered to meet her gaze once more. "No, I wasn't talking about that, but good to know. I was wondering if you meant it when you said you loved me? Did you mean that?"

"Yeah, I did." She grabbed his hand, surprising with him the strength of her grip. He could feel his claws pressing into her skin, fearing she’d cut herself if he didn’t do something. He tried his best to loosen her hold yet she refused to let go. After another moment, he stopped and allowed her to finish her thoughts. Determination lit up her eyes and dried her unshed tears. "I fell in love with you that first day when you handed me your umbrella. You'd been so genuine and kind despite my judgment of you for that stupid chewing gum prank. I couldn't help falling for you. I haven't stopped loving you all these years. I doubt I'll ever stop loving you."

The beginnings of another smile ghosted along his features, disappearing almost as soon as it appeared. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to believe that she'd accepted his heartfelt apology and his need for a friend. He wanted to believe that moment had meant as much to her as it did him, even if he'd only seen friendship.

He couldn't.

He saw the light leave her eyes as he met them again. She looked so sad and so small beside him, almost as if she feared he'd be leaving her forever. He couldn't say that thought hadn't crossed his mind. He sometimes wished he could care less about people, but that wasn't the case. Losing his mother and watching his father grow distant had damaged him. He needed people, so he learned to care too much, clinging too hard to those he’d chosen to be in his life.

He never thought he could’ve chosen wrong.

He didn’t want to dwell on that, either. She’d told him what he needed to know, allowing him to take his next steps as he’d planned before leaving the stark coldness of his bedroom. He just needed to follow through with the rest of it that night if he wanted a chance at healing any of them.

He surprised them both when he found the ability to speak again. "Can I stay? Just for tonight. I just want one night to pretend everything isn't crumbling. Please, Mari?"

As the words left his mouth, he knew them to be true. He wanted one more night, even if it was pretend. He wanted to hold her close and promise her everything would be all right, much as he'd done in the past. He wanted to memorize her features for fear that he'd forget them as he sought out his answers and made some tough decisions about his life. He had no interest in returning to the mansion that night and Nino's home was out of the question since his friend wasn't there. 

Turning pleading eyes toward her, he pouted his lower lip, knowing it'd worked whenever he really wanted Ladybug to feel guilty. He still couldn't quite believe Marinette had been behind the mask the entire time despite having witnessed her transformations earlier that day.

If only he'd known sooner, maybe they could've had a better relationship than the shattered one looming over them. Maybe they could've made enough progress that she would've never considered leaving him out of the loop. Maybe he wouldn’t feel like an unwanted child shoved into his room while grownups decided his fate.

She didn't answer him right away, choosing instead to study him. He couldn't quite displace the idea she didn't believe him, wondering if she truly thought him so distrustful after all they'd shared on both sides of the mask. The thought hurt more than he cared to admit, but he refused to show her that hurt. Never again would he allow himself to be so vulnerable. It never amounted to anything good as far as he could tell. 

If there were any parallels to their situations, he refused to see them. He was content to wallow in his pain and ignore any turmoil he believed she’d brought on herself. Petty and selfish as it might’ve been. He couldn’t allow himself to be swayed, not yet. Maybe in time, but not then. Too much rode on his next moves along the chessboard.

When she acquiesced and tugged on his hand, he moved to follow her into her room via the small skylight.

He stared at it after landing with a soft thud on her mattress, a little impressed he could slip through even after the few growth spurts and filling out he'd done. He smirked as he realized it helped to have some cat in him, becoming one for so many years with the help of Plagg. 

The thought sobered him, his gaze drifting toward her where she stood near her desk, speaking to a frantic Nino on the other end. He could make out her reassurances that he was indeed safe, having been found outside her apartment door. He chuckled at the thought of the small lie. He had come through a door of sorts though not the one she told Nino. She'd kept his secret about being Chat Noir from his best friend. He couldn't help admiring her for that though it still didn't absolve her. 

She gestured at him, regaining his attention and held up her phone for him. 

He shook his head. He couldn't talk to Nino, not yet. He needed more time before he talked to his friend. He had too much to consider, but he did ask her to inform Nino he could sleep in Adrien’s bed. His friend might as well be comfortable since he wouldn't be back that night. 

She hung up a few minutes later, turning to him with a questioning expression. Her brow quirked even as she worked to hide the smirk teasing the corners of her lips. "Are you going to stay like that all night or do I get to see you as Adrien before we turn in?"

He shrugged. "I’m not ready yet."

It wasn't a lie, he realized. He'd be vulnerable to her, something he wasn't nearly ready to handle. He conceded he drew comfort from being Chat Noir still, finding freedom behind his mask he wouldn't have in his civilian form. 

"Okay, take all the time you need," she whispered, coming to rest beside him. She worked to keep some space between them out of respect, but her bed wasn't nearly as spacious as his. He didn't know if that was a blessing or a curse. 

She grew quiet and still next to him, her eyes open and searching though she didn't say anything. She didn't have to, either. She'd grown used to his quiet moods, something he didn't often have as Chat, but he appreciated it nonetheless. 

He found her hand and laced their fingers together, bringing it to his lips and pressing a soft kiss to her knuckles. A wave of memories hit him as he recalled all the times he'd done the same in the past, especially those in recent memory. The happiness mingling, even calming, the pain he experienced looking upon her and experiencing the betrayal all over again.

He broke the silence. "Nino knows I'm Chat Noir. I told him everything." 

Blue eyes gazed up at him. 

"Well, almost everything. I didn't tell him you were Ladybug."

"You could've."

He shook his head. "No, it's not my secret to tell."

He heard the irony in his statement and caught a glimpse of her acknowledging that irony. She didn't say anything, allowing the matter to drop without an argument. Another surprise he hadn't expected as anyone else would've fought him, showing him how he'd been wrong to be angry, to be hurt. 

He appreciated her more as she waited for him to speak again. 

He didn't have anything more to say, allowing the quiet to eventually claim her through sleep. 

Seeing her so peaceful and beautiful, he couldn't resist pulling her close for a small time, hugging her as his time for pretending came to an end. The early morning hours drew closer, meaning his surrogate family would be stirring soon enough. He had no intention of being there when they woke. He couldn't tell them the reasons he'd stayed in their daughter's room overnight, not without a longer talk than he cared to have.

He held her a moment longer before easing away, crawling down her ladder with the stealth granted him by his miraculous. He crept toward her desk, pulling out the letter he'd taken great pains to write her. He stared at the envelope, hoping she'd take the explanation he'd written for now. He didn't know if he'd ever be fully ready to speak to her again, but he couldn't take his next steps without her knowing his thought process. 

As he placed it with care next to her computer, he pulled out a dark, wooden box from his pocket, surprised she hadn't seen or felt it as they'd laid on her bed together. Popping the top, he called off his transformation and stared at his kwami for a few moments, hoping Plagg wouldn't hate him too much for his next actions. 

"I'm sorry." He twisted off his ring, watching as Plagg disappeared into the ring, locked away until his next chosen opened the box. Adrien almost hoped he'd get Plagg back eventually, but he had doubts the guardian would think so kindly on him after he walked away from his responsibility. 

"Adrien?" 

The soft voice caused him to look up and meet the blue, blue eyes of Marinette's kwami.

"I can't, Tikki. I'm sorry, but I can't."

"I know. Please, take care of yourself. She'd never forgive herself if something happened to you."

The little ladybug floated toward him, nuzzling his cheek. 

"I will. I promise."

He turned away, climbing through her trapdoor with care. He had to walk away or risk going back on the few decisions he'd made so far. He couldn't afford to go back. He needed to find his answers, even if it meant he never returned to the life he had before. He wasn't sure he wanted that life any longer. 

Pulling out his phone, he sent out his prepared texts to Nino, hoping his friend would understand. With them sent, he opened his phone app and dialed his father's number.

When his father answered, concern in his voice, Adrien stiffened his spine. "We need to talk."

 

Bonus:

M: I'm not going to be making it. Please offer my excuses to our teachers. I'll be back tomorrow. Thanks, Ninny.

A: Hey, man. Sorry for ditching you last night. I couldn't stay. 

A: I won't be making it to school. I have somethings I need to do. I might be gone a few days. I'll talk more when I can.

A moment later, another text from Alya expressing her concern popped into his notifications. He couldn't help but wonder as he went back over Marinette's and Adrien's texts, pondering what else he could be missing between them. Either way, he knew he had a decision to make, not that it proved difficult with this latest development.

He opened his phone's calling app and pulled up his newest contact, pressing the DIAL button.

The phone connected on the second ring as a man's voice answered, "Yes?"

"I'm in. When do we start?"

Chapter Text

 

One more day. Make it one more day. That's what he kept telling himself anyway.

Then, he'd have the weekend to relax and plot his new mission. Sure, he'd need to rope in Alya, but he doubted he'd need much to persuade her.

The time had come to fix their group. The past month had been one giant pot of torture upon his mind and body. Much like Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Nino couldn't recall the last time he set that weight down. The large tome in his bag provided an ungentle reminder, bouncing into his leg with each stride.

One month. An entire month of Adrien and Marinette avoiding each other. One month of them avoiding him and Alya, too. That'd made the whole situation worse in Nino's mind.

Both he and Alya had suffered from the disconnect with their friends. He'd lost his passion for music, especially when his latest playlist matched the other four in terms of sadness and despair. Alya hadn't any desire to chase after stories. Her casted leg wouldn't have stopped her, he knew. Losing Marinette had. She didn't bother noting when Ladybug was seen around town or speculate on Chat Noir’s absence, who'd disappeared for reasons only a select few knew.

The only positive from the whole debacle was the closeness he'd achieved with Alya once again. They even solidified their relationship once more, creating something far stronger than they'd had four years ago when they'd first discovered their mutual attraction. The number of nights they spent together had increased quite rapidly as their friends continued their avoidance game.

This would've made Nino's year if he hadn't also been working hard to keep a secret of his own from her. Late nights and tough training sessions hadn't exactly been the best for his already deprived body, but he couldn't stop. No, he'd made a promise to see this through for all their sakes. The tome smacking his hip served as a constant companion for that promise. He gripped his bag's strap for added support, hoping to save his hip from a nasty bruise though that seemed a losing battle.

To his relief, their school came into view, meaning he could set the heavy bag down, resting his aching shoulder and hopefully easing the pain in his hip.

He hoped this secret wouldn't be the death of him. He'd even be happy to share it, but something beyond their fractured friendship stopped him. He couldn't quite put his finger on what that something could be, but he couldn't shake the feeling it was going to be huge. Normally, he wasn't so sensitive to the strange signals within the universe, but this couldn't go ignored after his hours of training. He'd feel better if he could say with some certainty this mystery would have a positive effect on them all. However, the more he focused, the more confused he became. It almost seemed like it was waiting to decide its own fate. How odd.

Alya's smiling face forced his mind back to the present, taking the last few steps to her side.

"I missed you, babe." Pressing a kiss on her cheek, he almost missed the widening of her eyes as she caught something behind him.

Turning, he found himself face-to-face with his favorite raven-haired designer as she attempted to walk past without notice. "Hey, Nette. What's up?"

She nodded in his direction but kept walking. She ignored Alya's attempted greeting, hurrying toward the school and the safety of their classroom.

Seeing Alya's smile disappear and tears shimmer behind her glasses, something snapped inside him. Spurred on by the anger coursing through him, he ignored the heaviness of his bag and lunged after Marinette, halting her progress with a hand on her shoulder. "Enough, Nette. Talk to us. Whatever it is, we can help."

"Adrien--"

"He's avoiding us, too. Why are you two punishing us? What did we do to deserve this?" His anger crested and vanished as he caught her wide, blue eyes staring up at him. Matching tears gathered at the corners of her eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks and washing him with guilt. "Hey, Nette, please. Don't cry. All I want is our group back together. It's all Alya and I want."

"I know." She swiped at her eyes, swallowing a couple of times. "It's not your fault. It's mine. I just wanted to leave him with you two after what I did."

Nino didn't get a chance to retort as Alya stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Marinette's neck. Her mouth close to the designer's ear still spoke with a clarity that Nino didn't have to strain to hear. "Girl, don't you know by now I'm always on your side. It doesn't matter if you're right or wrong. I just want my best friend back."

Marinette's arms came up and tightened around Alya's back, squeezing for all she was worth as best Nino could tell. "Oh, Al, I'm so sorry. I've missed you so much."

The strength of their grasps upon one another caused them both to giggle. Neither seemed in a hurry to let the other go, which suited Nino as he caught the returning fire in Alya's eyes as she met his gaze with a smile.

A movement beyond them caught his attention, tilting his head a couple centimeters to find Adrien watching them. Kagami stood nearby, looking polite yet bored by the emotional scene playing out.

Nino wished he could understand the reasoning behind Adrien's decision to lean on his ex-girlfriend. Sure, their relationship hadn't gone beyond a few dates, but he couldn't recall a time seeing them together outside of class or fencing lessons in the past three years. He hated it, too, as the distance between them grew the longer Adrien managed to stick with Kagami. He was truly losing his best friend and didn't know how to stop it.

Or did he?

Determined not to let his friendship wither any longer, Nino excused himself from the embracing women beside him and pursued Adrien into the school. He didn't catch up to the blond until they neared their homeroom class.

"Hey, dude, wait." He panted a bit as the large tome slammed into him, his hip throbbing by the time he reached Adrien’s side. "We need to talk."

"Later, Nino. Class is about to start." Adrien pointed at his seat in the back. His eyes momentarily froze on Marinette's desk and the small bouquet resting there.

"Those bother you, don't they? They should." His hand rested on Adrien's shoulder, keeping his friend from following Kagami to their desk. "Look, I know Nette hurt you, but I also know you still care about her. Talk to me, dude. Stop shutting me out."

Shaking himself, Adrien turned his attention to the DJ. "I can't, Nino. Not yet."

"Then, when? Your birthday is in two weeks. Are you really planning on hanging out with just her." He pointed at Kagami, frowning at the smirk crossing her features. He didn't like that look. It spelled trouble. "Come on. You're turning eighteen. We should do it right. Ask your father for a party, dude."

Adrien's face paled to a sickly white color.

"Crap. Sorry. I know you aren't on good terms, but this could be just the thing we need, dude. Think about it, please." He patted the blond's shoulder, moving toward his seat upon catching sight of Marinette and Alya entering.

A loud squeak behind him turned his attention away from Adrien to Marinette. His brow quirked as he took in the small card she held, the bouquet clutched in her other hand. The teal ribbon irritated Nino for reasons he couldn't quite express. Something about the color bothered him. He just couldn't put his finger on why.

"M, what is it?" Alya tried to peak over the designer's arm to see the card but had little luck.

"Nette?" Nino crept closer, his hand reaching out for the card.

"They want to take me to lunch today. They said it's time to reveal who they are." Her hand shook the slightest bit as her gaze bounced between him and Alya, refusing to go near Adrien as the blond moved closer with his own concerns for her.

Nino wanted to point out how right he'd been about Adrien's lingering feelings, but the time wasn't right, refocusing his attention on the designer as she tried to work out what she should do about this admirer she'd gained a couple of weeks ago.

Her refusal to look at Adrien had an effect on the blond, Nino noted, as the model turned toward him. "You know what? Get my father's permission for the party, and we'll make sure it's the best one yet. Maybe I’ll even find the right woman this time. Wouldn’t that be something? Someone who actually holds to her values, especially those about lies."

He moved a few steps away, but the fire Nino had seen building in Alya broke loose. Her gaze flashed moments before she set that fire on Adrien, wanting him to feel a burn to match the one he'd given Marinette.

"Wow, Sunshine. Tell us how you really feel."

Nino didn't know if he should rejoice her former self had made an appearance or admonish her when they both wanted Adrien back in their group again. He knew antagonizing the blond wouldn't help matters.

Marinette took his options away as she gripped Alya's wrist and turned pleading eyes to her friend. "Please, Alya, let it go."

Classmates froze as they witnessed the swirling storm surrounding the small group near the front. They held their breaths, waiting for Adrien's next move. Their buildup almost palpable to the young DJ as he, too, waited for the model's reaction.

Air left his chest in a whoosh as Adrien swiveled around, his shoulders slumped. "No, Mari, she's right. That was uncalled for. I apologize."

Marinette nodded, slumping into her seat while the model dashed the final few meters to his.

The class lost interest as the fight dissipated before even truly building up, the excitement gone.

Nino sank into his seat, gratitude for so many small blessings.

He had too much on his mind to be sidetracked by a potential argument breaking out between Alya and Adrien over Marinette.

He had a party's approval to gain for his friend, a guest list to build, and more. He had to make sure this party happened for all their sakes. If that meant taking on the bear known as Gabriel Agreste, then so be it. Nothing was too good for Adrien's eighteenth birthday party. Now, he just had to hope that time had been kind to him in the older man's mind when he managed to call after class. After all, they didn't need another Bubbler roaming the streets despite the doubts he had about that happening.

Better safe than sorry, he thought.

 

00000

 

Why now? Why did this person want to meet her now rather than two weeks ago? What had changed?

Sure, she'd liked the flowers they'd given her. Each one representative of friendship, encouragement, and compassion for her. None of the flowers indicated they had any desire for more. She had to admit that had been their greatest appeal. She didn't have any desire to pursue more than friendship with someone else, not when her heart still longed for the blond hiding in the back of the classroom.

Despite his rude outburst earlier, his quick apology meant something. She knew deep down he remained the same guy she once knew and still loved, buried under the many layers of hostility and avoidance. It was the reason her hope remained alive and well even as their break neared its one-month mark.

Her mind drifted back to her admirer as her fingers brushed over the latest flower they’d left her. For some reason, they'd changed the game, wanting to meet her and take her to lunch.

She didn't know if she had it in her to do that. She certainly hadn't worn anything special for meeting this person, not that she wasn't wearing something presentable. After all, she had her growing brand to consider as her commissions had skyrocketed again with her lack of a social life. She had a nice little bundle of savings from the past few weeks of being alone to prove it.

A glance at Alya showed her friend's enthusiasm at the idea of Marinette meeting this person, whoever they might be.

She honestly didn't even know if they were male or female, not that it truly mattered to her. She could handle either one if it came down to it. She was Ladybug after all.

"You should go, M." Alya leaned close when their teacher had turned her back to them.

"I don't know, Al. Are you certain this isn't some kind of setup? It all seems a bit coincidental, doesn't it?" Even as she spoke, her fingers grazed over the card in her purse.

She smiled as Tikki pushed the offending note away and settled under Marinette's fingers, seeking affection and giving it in return. Her poor kwami hadn't been faring well since Plagg had been put back in his ring. The designer knew all too well the effects of losing one's other half as she fought the urge to peek back at Adrien.

She and Tikki made quite the pair, she mused. At least, Tikki had Plagg close even if he wasn't there, his ring's box sitting at the bottom of Marinette's small purse. She had argued with Tikki about bringing it with her, but her kwami had been adamant, stating the need to ensure Plagg's safety outside the guardian's care.

In the end, Marinette hadn't the desire to argue, placing the box in her purse and checking to ensure it remained with her wherever she went. Like Tikki, she still held hope that Adrien would want it back one day soon, allowing Plagg his freedom once more.

"Okay, no more excuses, girl. You are going on that lunch whether you like it or not." Alya tapped the designer on the cheek to regain her attention. "If you'd like, I'll have Nino walk with you. That way, if the person turns out horrid, you have an escape route with him. Deal?"

For the first time that morning, Marinette felt a genuine smile tug at her lips. Giving into it, she turned to Alya and shook the reporter's proffered hand. "Deal. Thanks, Al."

The rest of class ran smoother for the secret hero as she retrained her focus on the lesson rather than her admirer or the blond in the back.

She realized she spent too much time focusing on him the past several weeks, wallowing in the dying hope he might come back to her. That hope had nearly driven her crazy as she tried to keep her head above water with everything. The only saving grace she'd gotten without Alya by her side had been designing once more. So, she'd reopened her commissions on her small website and soon had more than enough orders to fill up the extra hours in her day.

As the class came to an end, she caught Adrien walking out of the room beside Kagami.

She had her thoughts about them, but she'd learned long ago to keep them to herself. While she liked Kagami well enough, she'd always felt a rivalry between them, thanks to Adrien's early interest in the fencing champion. While she had quite a bit in common with the circumspect fencer, she also knew the woman had a special connection with Adrien in terms of parental pressure. In that way, Marinette would never be able to understand Adrien, not like Kagami anyway.

She'd even been thankful he had someone who did understand in his life though that gratitude had waned over the last few weeks. Seeing them together had touched something within her she thought long buried. It'd reared itself back up in the past week as their time together had intensified. Granted, she knew they had an upcoming tournament, but that did little to ease the ache in her heart.

"Hey, Nette, I'll meet you outside of class when the bell rings for lunch." Nino waved as he stepped through the door, heading toward his next class with Alya in tow.

Her friends tossed her a final look of support as she gathered up her supplies, smiling as Chloe and Nathaniel waited nearby.

"Ready, Marinette?" Nathaniel stepped forward and took her bag, tossing it over his shoulder with Chloe's.

"You don't have to keep doing that, you know?" She offered him a small smile to lessen the blow of her words.

He offered her a smile as Chloe brought her hand to his elbow, leaning on her toes to press a kiss to his cheek. "You know she's right. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you're her admirer."

That brought Marinette up short, her eyes widening as they took in the faint blushing on the redhead's cheeks and ears. She'd known about his crush from their lycee days, but she hadn't thought him still infatuated with her. After all, he and Chloe had been an item for nearly two years, not long after Chloe had become Honey Bee.

"Chlo, stop teasing." He tapped the blonde's chin with a finger. "As you know, I'll always admire Marinette. She's awesome, but she's not you. Besides, I already have an idea who her admirer is."

Another shock shot through her, stopping her. Her hand shot out and grabbed his other arm, her fingers tightening around his wrist. She felt almost certain her nails dug into his skin, but she couldn't bring herself to loosen her hold. "You know who it is? Were you planning on keeping it to yourself?"

He had the nerve to chuckle at the fierce look she gave him. His ability to remain unfazed by her glare enough to make her drop his wrist in disgust.

"You spend too much time with Chloe. She's clearly ruined you for any type of threats." Folding her arms over her chest, she tried her best to glare at them both. She failed this time as a smile tugged at her lips, seeing them so happy together. "Come on, Nath. Please, spill what you know."

He met her stare with one of his own, looking for all the world pleased to have the upper hand on her for once. The smirk he wore told her without words that he had every intention of keeping his secret a while longer.

Chloe also proved unhelpful as she matched his smirk, her blonde ponytail sassy in its swishing as she shook her head at Marinette's pleading eyes.

"Fine. See if I do anything nice for either of you again." She huffed and stomped out of the room, her antics ceasing as she exited the classroom and moved into the hallway. Their laughter followed her, much to her chagrin.

Her fake anger dissipated as they fell into step beside her, intent on reaching the art class where she and Nathaniel would part ways with Chloe.

"Look, Mari, you don't have to worry about your admirer. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised as you like to say." He offered her the kind words before moving toward his seat near the middle of the room.

She'd chosen a table off to the side, content to have some space away from the others to work on her designs and projects in peace. She made sure she could still listen to the teacher during his few lectures and his observations on everyone's artworks, but she liked the distance she had from the others. It gave her a chance to truly lose herself in her work, knowing their final project's theme would be given soon. She had every intention of making it her best work yet.

How right she’d been when their teacher wrote the theme for their final projects in large letters on the blackboard.

Masquerade.

Ideas flowed through her, filling several pages of her sketchbook.

All too soon, the bell rang, bringing class to an end.

True to his word, Nino met her outside the door of her class, a wary smile tightening his features.

"What's with the face, sourpuss? Talk with Gabriel, did you?" She gave him a smile, knowing how daunting that task could be and sympathizing with the DJ. It helped she'd grown used to the older Agreste's moods the past few months, almost missing them as she missed his son. Almost.

"Nah, nothing like that. I haven't actually spoken with him yet." Nino's hand came up to his neck, reminiscent of another guy she knew. Rubbing his hand over the cropped hair at his nape, he glanced down at her, the worry in his amber eyes more than she could handle. "I don't think you should do this. We don't know who this person is, Nette."

"Maybe that's a good thing though. Someone who doesn't know all the drama surrounding us sounds nice. I just want an hour to forget everything that's happened, Ninny. Is that too much to ask?" Her hand tightened on her purse as tiny paws pressed into her hip, offering what comfort Tikki could give.

"I guess that's true. I just worry about you, Nette. It's been rough on both of you after everything. While I feel for Adrien, I also know you. You were put in an impossible situation. I can't say I'd have done anything differently, especially when everyone counts on Ladybug to have all the answers." The smile he sent her stuttered her heart, a painful twist following its restarting.

"So, everyone pretty much knows now, huh? Well, so much for having secret identities any longer." Her muttering only caused him to grin wider.

"You two are pretty obvious, you know? It didn't take much of a leap once Adrien told me what happened. It made even more sense when he confessed to being Chat Noir."

"Try to keep the fact you know from him. He'd been so proud when he told me he kept my secret from you. Please, don't ruin that for him." She patted Nino's arm.

They emerged from the school a moment later, her eyes scanning the crowd for her possible admirer. When she spotted a medium-sized bouquet of varying pinks, blues, and purples of flowers she'd gotten over the last couple weeks, her smile widened. She nodded toward the guy, feeling Nino fall in step behind her.

"Mama Marinette, look at you. Pretty as ever. Now, to see if you're still as awesome as I recall." Luka opened his arms for her upon catching sight of her. His dark hair with teal tips matching the ribbon wrapped around the bouquet to perfection.

"Luka! Oh, my goodness, how are you?" She launched into his arms, her own wrapping around his neck and not bothering to let go.

He swung her several revolutions, goaded into more with her escaping giggles.

"Put me down, you silly man. I want a real hug this time." He set her down and wrapped his arms around her back, dragging her close. "Oh, I've missed you. You'll have to tell me everything about your tour over lunch."

"Sure thing, Marinette." He picked up her bag and nodded at Nino, who'd remained nearby. "Hey, DJ, what's going on? Long time."

"Yeah, long time."

"Be nice, Ninny. You promised." She settled her purse in its proper place, turning to her longtime friend. "I'm in good hands. Will you let Alya know I'll give her all the details when I get back?"

"Be safe, Nette." Nino gave Luka a final look before he moved toward the school, intent on finding his girlfriend.

She watched her friend go, waiting until he'd disappeared before she turned her attention to the man beside her. "Oh, we have so much to talk about, but first, you're my admirer? How did that happen?"

He smiled down at her, leading her toward a nearby bistro. "Now, that's an interesting story."

"Well, I look forward to hearing all about it."

He nodded, his smile never faltering as they settled at a table and glanced over the menus set before them.

She'd never thought lunch could be so relaxing yet so educational, Luka having proven her wrong on all scores by the end of their meal together.

"Huh," she muttered, chewing on her last forkful of seasoned potatoes. "Well, I guess I should probably thank Kagami for all this. I just hope her little scheme doesn't backfire on her as mine did in the past."

He had the presence of mind to look thoughtful as he finished off his plate as well. "Me, too. Regardless of her scheme, I'm glad I did this with you. It was nice seeing you again, Mari. You're even more awesome than I remember. Just don't tell my girlfriend. She's pretty fierce with that saber of hers. I'd rather it not be pointed at me."

That got her giggling as the mental image surfaced.

"You got it."

Her phone chimed with the warning alarm she set.

Picking up after themselves, they soon left the bistro and walked side-by-side to the school. The entire meal had been pleasant and just what she needed. She couldn't wait to get back to class and finish the day out. The energy coursing through her would be more than enough to get her through a few commissioned pieces she had taken on.

Neither saw the blond watching them from an arriving limo as she embraced Luka, thanking him for the meal and the company. If she had, she might've refrained from kissing Luka's cheek in deference to the man who still held her heart despite everything.

 

00000

 

"Come on, Agreste. We're going to be late." Kagami shoved Adrien forward, propelling him past the retreating back of the guy hugging Marinette. "I thought you said you were over her."

"I never said that." The hedging of his words only sparked a knowing smirk as she regarded him. "I just can't be with her right now."

"Mmhmm, that's what you keep saying. I still don't buy it." She walked ahead of him into the locker rooms, pausing outside the women's door. "You know? I wonder what you'd do if they'd actually kissed. Would you have gone up to him and thrown a punch? What would she have done? Would she have thanked you? Or would she have walked away from you for good?"

Her words shocked him enough to feel anger rising at her presumption and callous attitude toward him. Though if he were completely honest, his anger only rose when she'd brought Marinette into the conversation, offering the possibility Marinette might not want him any longer.

That deflated his anger faster than he'd thought possible.

"Hmm, maybe I should ask M. D'Argencourt for another sparring partner. I fear you'll be useless today." She stepped through the doors, preventing him from saying anything more.

With little recourse, he pushed open the men's door and overheard a few students discussing the woman who never failed to retreat far from his mind, no matter how hard he tried to make it otherwise. His classmates didn't stop despite hearing his approach, deepening his frown at their excitement at seeing her back on the market once more. Hearing the idea she might be over him had him wanting to smash something. This wasn't what he wanted, not at all, but then, he'd asked her to move on, hadn't he?

Recalling that blasted letter he'd written to her that night, the words taunted him as he whispered them. They'd long since become ingrained into his memory as he spent countless hours writing that letter on that fateful night, making decisions he'd started to regret almost as soon as he'd made them. He doubted the memory of her embracing that guy would ever truly leave him.

The only other decision coming close to asking her to move on had been giving up Plagg. He missed his kwami with something akin to the loss of a loved one. Plagg had been the only other one he could talk to in the lonely hours between coming home and going to bed. The only one to listen, despite all his grouching, to Adrien's complaints about being lonely or his obsession with a certain Ladybug.

Every night he saw her patrolling, he had to tamp down the urge to call up his transformation, realizing at the last moment he no longer wore his ring. He sometimes wished he had the nerve to seek her out and ask for it back. Fear stopped him cold each time. Fear she might laugh in his face, saying she was better off without him. Fear she'd push him away, saying he had no right after giving it up like it meant nothing.

He knew she probably wouldn't do that. It wasn't Marinette's style to ever hold a grudge of that magnitude, but then, he'd never pushed her quite so far before. He'd pushed her out of his life with a single letter and his ring with Plagg trapped inside. He had no one to blame but himself.

Sure, he had his reasons. Still did, but that didn't stop the aching and pining whenever he felt her nearby.

"So, are you going to ask her out or what? Dude, you should. Agreste isn't coming back into the picture. You should have heard how he ripped into her earlier. It was pretty pathetic if you ask me." One classmate's words washed over him as the young man goaded his friend into asking for a date.

"Nah, she's still hung up on him. Anyone can see that. So, she went out with someone else. From what I heard, it was Kagami's guy and they're just friends." The friend's words battled for attention in Adrien's mind as he tried to understand what they were saying.

Kagami had a guy? Since when? She never mentioned a boyfriend.

Marinette still cared about him? Was that even possible after everything? He couldn't allow that hope to grow. It would only kill him more if it proved she had moved on, content to get far from him.

"Well, if she's willing to go out with someone else's guy, then who knows what else she might do? The possibilities are endless. If you know what I'm saying." The guy paused, presumably to settle his gear correctly. "It's worth a shot. Who knows, man? You might actually get somewhere with a girl for once."

The friend said nothing.

Adrien's anger returned as he slammed his locker shut, coming to stand near their bench. He caught the guys' looks of surprise as they finally noticed him. "Mari is off-limits to either of you. If you go near her, don't think I won't take matters into my own hands."

Bravado had never been some guys' strong suits, he mused as the first guy straightened his shoulders and faced off with the blond. "You have no claim on her any longer, Agreste. She's free game for anyone wanting a taste of her."

It took everything in him not to hit the guy for the horrible innuendos he tossed around like Marinette was simply a plaything. The model persevered though, tamping down his anger until he could offer his best answer to the guy's challenge. The smirk teased at his lips, threatening a full-blown Chat grin. "Sure, why not take your chances with her then? Just a word of warning though. She's a favorite of Paris's superhero duo. You hurt her, and you'll be answering to them, not me."

Neither spoke for several moments as they digested what he'd imparted to them. The braver of the two finally spoke up. "You're bluffing. There's no way she knows the heroes."

Adrien shrugged. "If you think so, then try your luck. I'll tell you she's special to Chat Noir. She's helped him a few times take down an akuma without Ladybug. She's pretty fierce on her own. I'm sure you'll do fine though."

He patted their shoulders, cinching his gloves into place and stepping through the doors. His Chat grin bloomed as the door shut behind him.

"Someone's happy again." Kagami appeared at his side with an eerie stealth that scared the former cat hero. How could anyone be so much quieter than his alter ego? He disliked it more than he'd ever admit aloud. "I guess you've made a decision where Marinette's concerned, huh? So, what's it going to be?"

Adrien opened his mouth to answer when a panting, shaking Nino crashed into him. Both nearly toppled to the ground as the DJ struggled to stop himself too late. Adrien managed to keep them upright, but the test on his strength almost proved too much.

"Whoa! What's the rush?" He adjusted Nino's glasses as his friend righted his bag on his shoulder, a large tome protruding from the top.

The DJ shook his head, working to catch his breath. A smile broke through his exertion, the shaking becoming a series of nods. He panted after each word he forced past his lips. "Party's a go. Your father said yes. Start planning now, dude."

"That's not quite surprising, Nino. He's been quite accommodating since his latest screw-up. You want to come over after school today? We can make some plans then." Adrien's hand never left his friend's arm as Nino struggled to stand upright as he fought for another breath. That large tome sparked his curiosity, wondering what class the DJ had taken to warrant such a large book be carried everywhere.

After another moment, Nino nodded his agreement.

"Okay, well, I'll meet you at the limo then. Right now, I better get to practice before D'Argencourt comes for me." He patted his friend on the back, his gaze traveling to the book in Nino's bag a final time. It reminded him of another book in his distant memory, but he shook the thought away, not ready to consider that possibility at all. "You going to be alright?"

Another nod and a thumbs up.

Falling into step with Kagami, he walked onto the mats set up in the courtyard, taking his position across from her.

"You know you never answered my question." She pulled her mask over her face and took up her fighting stance. He must have appeared confused for too long because she straightened and lifted her mask once more. "Well, Agreste, do I get my boyfriend back or do I send him on another date with Marinette to make the point clearer for you?"

A truck slamming into him would've shocked him less as he stared at her, his mouth gaping. He couldn't close it for the life of him as he met her smirking face, a glint in her eyes he hadn't seen since their first days of acquaintance. She'd been out to prove herself better than him. She'd actually succeeded though that hadn't stopped a bad call from happening or her becoming Riposte in response to that bad call.

"You're dating that guy?" He couldn't seem to form any other words beyond that.

"Yeah." Her smirk widened. "His name's Luka. You used to be in a band with him until he got a record deal. You liked him well enough if I recall correctly."

"You're dating Juleka's brother?" He paused to consider her. "Really?"

Her smirk disappeared as she sliced her saber through the air. "Don't make me hurt you, Agreste. What's that supposed to mean?"

He backtracked, even taking a step back at seeing her angry stance. "Nothing. Really, Kagami, I think it's great. I didn't mean to imply otherwise."

She relaxed once more, her saber dropping to her side. She seemed to consider him for a moment before she replaced her mask and moved into her fighting stance once more. "Come on. I have a story to tell you as we duel. We can't slack just yet, Agreste. Not with the tournament around the corner."

Taking her advice seconds before being reprimanded by their instructor, he crouched into his stance and fended off her first attack. He didn't succeed in stopping her second one as his mind tried to catch up with all he knew so far about the day. He couldn't help but wonder what other surprises he might learn before the end of their training session.

As the hour came to an end, he cursed his curiosity and need to wonder anything, having learned far more than he ever wanted to know about Kagami's scheming mind.

Not only had she sent Luka on a date with Marinette, but she'd also helped orchestrate the flowers Marinette had gotten the past few weeks. The same flowers had tormented him as he faced the real possibility that the designer might find someone better waiting for her on the other side. He couldn't even sigh in relief that it had been Luka because Kagami had driven home the fact they could've been from anyone. That hadn't set well with him at all.

Sure, she'd set the whole scenario up to have more time with her boyfriend by forcing his hand, but it had been the kick he needed. He might resent her some for the tactics she used, but then, he probably would've remained in his self-imposed funk for longer than was healthy for anyone.

They walked back to the locker rooms together.

His mind ran the gamut of options available to him. Scenarios playing out for both choices he could make concerning Marinette. On one hand, he could try his luck and hope she'll want to try again. On the other, he could admit they didn't belong together and finally set both of them free. Either way, he'd have to talk to her once more, give them both the closure they deserve.

A smile similar to the one he'd worn out of the locker rooms spread across his lips, his Chat clearly showing.

"Ah, so you have made a decision then? Do I get the privilege of knowing what it is?" Kagami matched his stride despite being a mite smaller than him.

He continued to grin as he turned to face her, his hand on the door handle. "Nah, I think I'll keep it a surprise for now."

As he stepped through the door, he heard her calling after him, "Win her back, Agreste."

He shook his head, moving toward his locker and pulling out his phone. He tapped on the screen until he had his texting app open and Nino's name in the Recipient's box.

A: Hey, man, we have a lot of work to do. I hope you're up for a true challenge, Monsieur DJ.

 

00000

 

The next two weeks proved interesting and exciting for most of Marinette's classmates. The dance competition, fall break, and Adrien's birthday party all mingled into one cohesive free-for-all conversation between the student body and teachers alike. There wasn't any end to their discussions about those three topics.

However, only one remained the single focus for the designer as she doubted her participation happening in the other two. Not only had she lost Adrien as a friend, but she'd also lost her dance partner for the competition. She didn't mind the latter as much as the former since she doubted they would've won despite making the best duo.

She couldn't help looking forward to the coming few weeks off from school, knowing her hours would be spent working on a few more commissions she'd managed to pick up over the past week. At the rate she was going, she'd have a sizable account by the time she graduated, maybe even enough to afford a small apartment near the campus she chose to attend come the following autumn. She didn't need much, just enough space to fit her bed and all her sewing supplies. A small one-bedroom could work if nothing else was available.

Lost in her daydreams, she didn't hear Alya calling out to her until her best friend came close enough to nudge her arm. "Hey, girl, where were you just now?"

"My dream apartment." She offered Alya a smile as they continued walking toward their school before ducking her head back into her scarf. The day's unseasonably cooler weather spurred her into pulling out her heavier outerwear, noting the need for a few new items to add to her closet when possible. "Just thinking how nice it would be to have my own place. Away from prying eyes of parents."

"Hmm, or nosy sisters." Another nudge. "So, were you thinking of living alone or with your bestie? Please, say your bestie. Don't leave me, M."

A chuckle escaped Marinette as Alya squeezed her tight. "I promise I won't leave you. Though, I figured you'd want to live with Nino since you two have become so cozy again. I'm happy for you two by the way. You're an awesome couple."

"Thanks, but I don't think we're quite to that stage yet. We just got back together. Besides, I've seen Nino's room compared to yours and I'd rather live with you for a while." Alya's tongue poked out, her eyes crinkling with humor behind her glasses as she looked fondly at her best friend.

Marinette couldn't say she blamed Alya for that observation, having witnessed Nino's idea of clean. Stray thoughts of Adrien and his neat room came to mind. She wondered if he was naturally a neat person or had a cleaning crew handle his room on a daily basis. Neither would truly surprise her, she admitted.

Shaking herself of those thoughts, she glanced ahead and caught a commotion outside the school, her gaze darting to Alya and noting her friend had caught it, too.

Quickening their steps, they made their way across the street, pushing their way to the center of the massive collection of bodies.

"Look, there she is. She's the one." Fingers pointed in her direction, producing a sudden fear response as Marinette realized she'd become the focus of the crowd.

"What's going on?" Her shouts went unheard as the murmurs at her appearance rose, deafening her with their excitement. She couldn't take the din of their combined voices for long, placing her fingers into her mouth and blowing a shrill whistle to silence them. She smiled as she realized it worked. Soon, everyone had grown quieter, waiting for her to speak. "So much better. Thanks. Now, tell me why everyone's so excited."

She caught a glimpse of her homeroom class making their way toward their room. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, she followed them, Alya close on her heels. Together, they worked through the sea of bodies surrounding the school's main doors and into the interior where more students eagerly awaited her arrival. She finally caught up to her fellow homeroom friends outside their door, where they waited for her with such excitement that she couldn't help but quake in response.

"Okay, seriously, you guys are scaring me. What's going on?" She tried to stare them down, but none of them budged one iota as they stayed where they were. The smiles on their faces giving nothing away. "Alya, talk some sense into them."

"Can't, girl. It was my job to get you here on time." Her friend's phone camera flashed in Marinette's face. "Sorry, but you're going to want to remember this one, M."

Blinking away the dots, she turned to find Nino holding the door for her, a smile lighting up his features. As she neared him, his hand came out, a white envelope stretched toward her. "Don't forget this, Nette."

"What is it?" She took the envelope, ignoring the scrawled handwriting on top. Seeing it brought back too many memories, memories she thought best left in the past.

Stepping into the classroom, she froze as mountains of flowers bombarded her desk, overflowing onto the floor and led toward her position in the doorway. All types. All colors. All wrapped in different colored bows. She wondered how anyone would get around the sheer volume of flowers to find their seats without crushing the petals or breaking stems. Some looked quite expensive even as they littered the ground around her.

Swiveling back toward her classmates, she caught their excitement as they waited for her reaction. All she could offer was a gaping mouth and wide eyes, much to their endless amusement.

"So, Marinette, which one of these lucky contenders gets to be your plus-one to Adrien's birthday party tonight?" Kim's voice rose above the growing din of excitement from their group. The knowing smirk he sent her almost too much for her to handle, her gaze traveling back to the pile awaiting her within.

"Come on, guys. Give her a little room. She has plenty of options, right? She doesn't have to decide right now, does she?" Chloe moved toward the designer and hooked her arm around Marinette's elbow. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "I can't believe how lucky you are, but then, you aren't Lady Luck for nothing. If I were you, I'd go stag. You'll leave everyone drooling for a chance with you tonight."

As wonderful as that might be for some, she couldn't do that. Her gaze swept over the flowers once more, coming to a decision. "Thank you, everyone. This truly means a lot, but I'm not sure I'm even attending tonight. I wasn't exactly invited."

"Maybe you should open the envelope." Adrien appeared beside her a moment later, his body only millimeters from hers. His gaze met hers with a glowing softness she hadn't expected to see from him again. "Go on, Mari. Open the envelope. You can't keep your admirers waiting."

There was only one admirer she wanted, she thought. She couldn't help tracing his features with her eyes, knowing he might not hold her in such high regard again anytime soon. She had to get her fill before he moved away from her.

Recalling the envelope at his second urging, she opened the flap and found the gilded invitation within, a touch of Gabriel and Nathalie if she had to guess. She read over the carefully chosen wording for his big celebration to come and smiled sadly.

"I do hope you'll come, Mari. I'd really like the chance to talk." He eased around her then, moving toward his seat in front of her desk. He offered her a smile as he moved a few of her flowers out of his chair, taking his seat and looking like he'd never left.

Her smile disappeared, only to be replaced with a gaping mouth to match the one she had earlier. To say she hadn't expected this new development would be understating just how important it was in her mind. His seat's occupancy renewed her dwindling hope that he'd come back into her life, into their group. They'd get the second chance they all needed to make their friendship stronger than ever.

A cough broke up the party as their teacher stood behind Marinette, causing the young designer to jump out of her skin.

Turning with a guilty expression she knew was there, she caught the silent amusement on their teacher's face as she glanced around the room, taking in the disarray of strewn flowers. "I trust this will be brought to rights by the end of class, Mlle Dupain-Cheng?"

"Yes, ma'am." She moved aside to allow their teacher to enter the room. She watched as the woman placed her briefcase on the large desk at the front.

"All right, class, shall we begin the lesson for today?" She turned toward the board and began writing out the notes they'd need for the day's lecture and assignment.

Marinette took the opportunity to hurry toward her seat, picking up flowers as she went. The bright colored ribbons hinting at their true recipients. Yellow for Nathaniel and red for Chloe. Amber for Alya and orange for Nino. Purple for Rose and pink for Juleka. So on went the list of flowers until she had them distributed with some help from Alya.

With a satisfied sigh, she prepared to sink down at her empty desk when a new bouquet caught her eye. Her sigh became a gasp as she caught the color of ribbon adorning it. Her eyes went to the only person who would use that color, staring at the back of his blond mop for several moments, hope fluttering to life once more.

Bright green to match his superhero alter.

Adrien, her sweet Chaton, had gotten her flowers. Deep red roses, purple hyacinths, and yellow daffodils filled the crinkled plastic, threatening to burst without the ribbon holding them together.

Thanks to the flowers Luka had sent, she had a pretty good idea of the meanings behind the ones Adrien had presented her. Forgiveness, new beginnings, and romantic love.

If he truly wanted that second chance, she had some work to do before his party that evening. She wasn't about to disappoint him by coming empty-handed, not when it might mean a second chance for them in whatever capacity they agreed upon. She wasn't about to get greedy, not when he'd opened himself to trust her again.

Chapter Text

 

Adrien’s big night arrived.

No detail had been overlooked.

Lively music blared as dancers moved across the grand gallery of the Agreste mansion. The DJ booth stood tall and proud to one side, Nino manning the playlist and motivating the crowd with his catchy beats. The resulting grin at the crowd’s jubilant mood from his efforts was soon mirrored on the Agreste men as they watched the action from the top of the stairs.

The lighting had been adjusted and improved, mimicking the interior of a club rather than the staid, immaculate home of fashion icon, Gabriel Agreste. An idea that Nino had proposed for Adrien’s birthday party and Gabriel had agreed to with the tiniest bit of reluctance.

Food lined the large dining hall where some partygoers had moved, anxious to replenish their energy before hitting the dance floor once more.

Their chefs had been planning and prepping for the past two weeks since learning of the party. Rather than being daunted by the enormity of the project, they’d smiled with glee, each taking a moment to hug the young man standing before them. They’d promised the best food they’d ever prepared. They hadn’t disappointed.

Nathalie, to no one’s surprise, had overseen the entire production, her natural element shining as she checked off each item from her list. She’d come alive at the prospect of his eighteenth birthday and the resulting party, taking to her role with a relish Adrien hadn’t thought to see from her. He almost wondered if she’d be happy to have him out of her hair, old doubts coming back to haunt him at the oddest times.

He’d done what he could to remain out of her way, his mind not quite as distracted by all he’d been working on the past few weeks in secret.

His luck of avoiding her came to an end when she cornered him a couple days before the party.

“There you are.” She pointed at him, her hand beckoning him to her side. “I have something for you.”

“Oh?” He approached with some caution, uncertainty shadowing his steps. “You didn’t have to do that, Nathalie?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s your birthday.” She pulled a wrapped box from her desk drawer, placing it on the edge. Her eyes met his, sincerity and warmth flowing from them as her lips curled into a soft smile. “I’ve watched you grow into a fine young man, Adrien. This is something I’ve been working on the past couple months. I hope you like it.”

He hesitated a moment, his hand hovering over the package for a moment. When he lifted the gift, he tore through the paper with some reverence, his eyes widening as it fell away to reveal a photo album.

His gaze bounced between her and the album. She regarded him with a greater warmth than he’d seen from her in recent memory, her smile reflecting that warmth. He didn’t know what to do for a moment, his gaze eventually returning to the book in his hands and remaining there.

“I know I’m not your mother, Adrien, nor would I try to replace her, but I thought you might like a way to remember the better times from your past. Your father helped me track down some of the pictures, but most of them are ones I’ve taken over the years.” Her hands, so active during her small speech, came to rest on her desk with a quietness that surprised him.

Turning a few pages, he gasped, seeing a few pictures from his infancy and toddler stages. His mother appeared in a fair number alongside his father as they doted on him, smiles wide and beyond happy. His interest building, he flipped through the next several pages, the years moving forward through his early school years at home, through his preteen years, and into his most recent years. The final pages had him pausing as pictures of him with his friends came into view.

Marinette’s image stared back at him, his heart twisting as he recalled the cruel words he’d flung and the devastation she wore at hearing them. If he’d punched her, he might’ve hurt her less than when he’d said those regrettable words. He still had a hard time believing that had been him. He’d never imagined being so cruel to someone he loved.

It hadn’t left his bedside table since Nathalie had given it to him. He’d flipped through the pages each night, reliving old memories and emotions at the images she’d taken the time to capture for him. His gaze had lingered on Marinette, reminding him each time of his abominable behavior and all he’d been keeping from her.

He couldn’t recall if he thanked Nathalie for the photo album as he stood at the top of the stairs a few days later, his gaze sweeping over the crowd.

“Adrien, don’t you want to join your friends?” Nathalie stepped up to his side, her hand hovering over his arm. She wore a soft smile

Not sure what had happened between them, he did his best to distract her by pulling her into a tight hug. He pressed a kiss to her cheek, surprising them both with the display of affection yet he couldn’t bring himself to let her go. “Thank you for the album and for being there for me all these years, Nathalie. I know I haven’t always been the easiest kid to handle. Or the most grateful.”

Uncharacteristic tears filled her eyes as she met his gaze.

She swiped at them, shooing him toward his guests as she moved toward his father’s side.

Two chairs had been placed close to his current position, so his father and a guest could relax and watch the festivities unfold below them. She took the one Adrien had recently vacated, fixing her dress’s skirt as she sat.

Seeing them together, he began to wonder if he could find that happiness for himself.

Determined to make amends with Marinette, he searched through his guests, seeking out the midnight raven of her hair in the crowd.

A smile appeared as he caught familiar hair dancing near the center of the large group, making his way down the stairs. He twisted and twirled around several guests until he reached the young woman’s side.

With a single tap on her shoulder, she whirled to face him, and his smile shrank.

“Hey, Jules, having fun?” He glanced at her hair, wondering how he’d mistaken her dark locks for Marinette’s.

The violet-eyed woman smirked as she leaned into him, her voice still low despite the pounding of the music around them. “Yeah, but I don’t think you are, are you? I haven’t seen her by the way if you were going to ask next.”

He shot her a sheepish smile as his hand’s upward trek faltered, tapping another dancer in the back. He offered another to Alix as she glared at him, resuming her frenetic dance moves with Kim and Max as her partners.

Winding through the crowd once more, he soon climbed the couple steps to stand beside Nino and Alya. Nino prepped his next disc while Alya bobbed to the music, taking care not to hit anything. A smile played across her lips until she met Adrien’s gaze. It slipped for a fraction of a second yet came back full force as Nino’s gaze focused on them. 

“Hey, sunshine, having fun?” Her words didn’t quite mask her lingering anger. He’d broken her cardinal rule by hurting Marinette.

He nodded, unsure if he should say more and risk digging himself into a deeper hole with her.

“Hey, dude, I gotta play another slow one. I’ve been trying to save them, but the crowd’s getting a bit sluggish.” Sympathy poured out of Nino and flowed into Adrien, reminding him how great Nino had been despite everything.

Adrien’s gaze swept over the dancers, seeing what Nino had seen as several dancers missed steps or paused to catch their breath. As he thought about it, Nino had managed to keep the music upbeat and lively for most of the past hour, only slowing the tempo with romantic songs once or twice.

Not wanting them to suffer because of him and his lonely yearning, he turned back to Nino. He tapped his best friend’s shoulder with a reaffirming hand clenched into a loose fist, an almost genuine smile stretching over his lips. “It’s fine, bro. Give them the break. I could use some air anyway. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

He didn’t wait for confirmation from either of his friends, moving away from the DJ stand and through the throng of slow dancers. He tossed a few words to those calling out to him, unsure if he answered them correctly as he edged closer to the front door and the cooler air outside. His hand on the knob brought an instant sense of relief, twisting it and pulling the door wide.

Tempted to leave the door open, he thought better of it as he cinched his jacket, bringing the door with him as he stepped outside.

Damp earth greeted his deep inhale. The past few weeks had been too dry, the rain more than welcome despite forcing his celebration indoors. Too many days of promised downpours only to be disappointed as the humid air remained thick and heavy. The break they’d gotten earlier in the day had been most welcome, the temperatures dropping enough many had thrown their windows open and basked in the changing of the seasons.

The dulled notes of the music within reached him, flowing from the few cracked windows of his father’s office and the dining room. He imagined the slow dance had brought several couples in close proximity, using the slow pace and softer music to their advantage as they discussed the upcoming break and other events in their lives or simply held one another, swaying to the beat.

A sigh escaped him as he could almost picture himself doing the same with a certain blue-eyed Ladybug if he hadn’t royally screwed up with her. He wondered if she’d ever show despite the invitation she’d gotten earlier in the day. As much as he wanted to believe she’d forgiven him enough to come, he couldn’t blame her if she didn’t. He wasn’t so sure he wanted her forgiveness so easily after his harsh words and blatant avoidance of her these past weeks.

His left hand came to rest over his right, his fingers going to the whiter skin on the finger where his ring had sat almost five years. If he allowed himself enough concentration, he could almost feel the metal twisting under his fingers once more.

Another regret, he mused.

He missed Plagg more than he could imagine in moments like this, quiet moments that allowed for too many thoughts. He could always count on Plagg to whine about wanting more Camembert or listing the reasons why cheese was far superior to girls.

A soft smile at the latter helped ease the tension building in his shoulders as he recalled the few times they’d argued quite extensively, each staunchly defending their stances and listing the various pros and cons of cheese and girls.

Those days had been the highlight of his lonely years. His father’s forbiddance of him joining his friends in so many outings had been hard. Yet, Plagg had lightened a lot of that.

He hoped that Plagg had a new chosen one day who appreciated him far more than Adrien ever had. He regretted that most as he’d locked his kwami away that fateful night. If he could have one other wish come true on his birthday, it would be to see Plagg once more. He wanted the opportunity to apologize for how badly he handled everything, especially when everyone had been working to protect him from the heartbreak they’d seen coming.

Another sigh escaped, unbidden.

So many regrets in such a short amount of time, he mused, his smile disappearing into a frown. Could he ever make it right with those he hurt? He had his reasons, but would those reasons be enough to convince them he deserved a second chance?

His frown deepened, his thoughts plaguing him.

The temperature had begun to drop a bit more in the few minutes he stood there, but he didn’t mind. He could handle the cooler weather, loving it most when he could run across the rooftops of Paris while patrolling the city he loved with the woman he loved more.

Those days were over, he knew, but that didn’t stop him from wishing for the sensation one more time.

“I thought frown lines weren’t permitted on famous models.” The lilting voice warmed his heart, whipping his head to the side where he caught a flash of pink before she came into view.

“Marinette!” He took a step toward her, his hand reaching out to her. “You came!”

 

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She offered him a warm smile as she climbed the steps, making sure to take her time with the kitten heels she wore for his birthday. She didn’t want to risk a fall and tear the dress she’d been working on for the past month or worse, hurt herself before she could say what she needed to him.

Her heart jumped when he stepped forward and reached for her. It ached to have him wrap his arms around her and promise everything would be all right between them.

She ignored the desperate sensations of those tugs.

She couldn’t, wouldn’t give in to them before they’d talked. She couldn’t allow herself to become so enamored and engrossed by him once more and be devastated when he pushed her away again.

“Sorry, I’m late. I needed to patrol before I got here. It took a bit longer than I expected.” Her hand came up to touch her hair, hoping the rushing wind hadn’t damaged the work her mother had put in to make it look just right. Her mother would be disappointed to learn her hard work had been ruined.

As her hand checked her hair, she took a moment to check her progress up the stairs. So far, so good, she mused, grateful her clumsiness hadn’t made an appearance. Taking the victory, she glanced up and met the brilliance of his emerald gaze, a gasp escaping her. How could his eyes glow like they did in the fading light without his miraculous?

She fumbled but managed to right herself, her gaze going to his once more, triumphant dancing in her blood for staying upright.

A hint of something passed over his features, gone before she could fully decipher it.

“I’m just glad you decided to come, Mari.” His voice had a sad quality to it that threatened to undo all the pep talks she’d given herself earlier that day. How easy it would be to allow him back in despite everything. That bothered her enough to regain some of her wilting determination.

“Would you have been terribly disappointed if I hadn’t?” Her words remained quiet as she came to stand beside him, her arms crossing over her chest. She held his gaze, unwilling to back down now that she’d started. “You haven’t exactly wanted me around lately. You even made it perfectly clear two weeks ago that you could do better than me. In front of everyone, I might add.”

He had the grace to grimace as she spoke. She hadn’t meant to have this talk with him yet, but then, she hadn’t thought she’d ever be having this conversation with him. She loved him, but that hadn’t stopped either of them from hurting each other through their past actions. If they ever hoped to come back from this, they couldn’t ignore it.

Straightening her shoulders, she held his gaze another moment or two, hoping he’d break the silence growing between them. When it appeared he wouldn’t, she opened her mouth to speak, only to shut it when words began pouring out of him.

“Mari, I wish I could take those words back. I still can’t believe I ever said them, especially to you. God, Mari, I’d rather take on a hundred akumas at once than ever hurt you like that again.” He took a step closer, his hands reaching out to clasp her arms. They never made it, dropping to his side, limp even as he stared at her miserably. “I will spend the rest of my life regretting those words. I wouldn’t blame you if you hated the very sight of me.”

She exhaled, not realizing she’d even held her breath as he spoke. His rushed words washed over her, setting her on fire yet dousing her with ice water. She didn’t react as she took another breath in and out. She repeated the action three more times, her eyes closing as she concentrated on her breathing and calming her racing heart.

“I don’t hate you, Adrien. I don’t think I ever could,” she paused for another breath, her heart rate still beating too fast to be healthy, “but I’m not ready to let it go, either.”

Neither knew quite what to say at that point, settling into a silence that comforted yet left them on edge.

Marinette took the moment to look around them, her hands running over her chilled skin. She cursed her lapse of memory before leaving the house, wishing she hadn’t forgotten her jacket laying on her chaise. She’d been too hasty in getting through her patrol and getting to his home to recall it until she dropped her transformation and the cooler air touched her exposed skin.

The clicking of zipper teeth drew her attention back to Adrien in time to see him tugging off his jacket and wrapping it around her. Her heart skipped a beat as the warmth, his warmth, enveloped her, the fleece expensive and soft against her skin.

“Silly Bug, you shouldn’t be traipsing around Paris without a jacket this time of year.” His fingers adjusted the collar of his jacket around her neck, catching the soft wisps of her hair and tickling at her nape.

She shuddered, not from cold or fear as her gaze met his, their bodies closer than they’d been before he played the gentleman.

“I have something for you, Mari, to apologize.” His breath teased at her cheek as he remained close to her, almost like he hated the distance between them as much as she did. “Will you come inside? We can talk more if you’d like. I’m sure Father won’t mind if we borrow his office. That way, we can both be warm.”

Unsure her voice would remain steady as her heart rate kicked up another notch, she nodded, cursing her desire to remain close to him. Hadn’t she improved since her first days of his acquaintance and her ridiculous crush? Would he forever have the ability to win her over without a fuss or fight, even in something as innocuous as escaping the cold? Apparently not, she chided herself, her feet carrying her into the Agreste mansion.

Shouts of excitement and greetings assailed her as she stepped into the gallery, their classmates smiling the widest grins she’d seen on them since the days of Hawk Moth’s terror waned. She wondered how they’d feel, knowing they stood in the very man’s home, celebrating his son’s birthday. She had no intention of finding out as a few stepped forward, waylaying her trek toward the office she’d come to know in the past few months better than she had in the past five years.

“You made it!” Rose and Juleka echoed one another.

“We thought you’d surely be a no-show, Marinette.” Alix chimed in, her smirk a bit irritating as she stood between Max and Kim.

Not about to give Alix the satisfaction, she mirrored the street artist’s smirk, shedding Adrien’s jacket as the room’s warmth started seeping into her chilled skin.

She’d barely managed to hand it over to him when her best friend reached her side, a determined gleam in her eye as she looked between the two of them. Not wanting an episode to start again between their small group, she opened her mouth to speak, but Alya beat her to it.

Zero for two tonight, she mused wryly as Alya’s voice rose above the music.

“There you are, girl! Come on. You must be starving.” Alya’s hand clasped her wrist, intending to pull her toward the dining room.

“Oh, Marinette, look at your dress. It’s simply gorgeous.” Mylene’s words rose above Alya’s determination and caused several new pairs of eyes to land upon Marinette, much to her surprised embarrassment yet secret delight.

She turned her head toward the blond guy beside her, her brows arching as he took a step back while gripping her free hand. As he brought their hands up, he gave a twist of his wrist, silently asking her to spin for her new audience.

Alya’s hand slipped away as she accepted his request and gave everyone a show.

A collective gasp reverberated through the large room, echoing off the marbled flooring and moderately adorned walls.

The knee-length dress featured a deep blue color to match her eyes. The neckline dipped at her collarbone yet remained quite chaste compared to the dip in the back. She’d spent the better part of two weeks’ sketching the design before purchasing the expensive fabric and making the first cuts.

Diamond rhinestones sparkled from the shoulders where she’d clustered them. They continued to the bottom hem, the pattern morphing into a constellation at the waist. They shimmered and sparkled with each step she took. They’d been a major pain but well worth the effort if she judged by the expressions their classmates and friends wore as they stared at her.

“Beautiful as ever, Maribug.” Adrien’s words shivered at her ear as he leaned forward to keep others from overhearing him.

“Ever the flatterer, Chaton.” She glanced up at him, realizing her blunder the moment she spoke the words. She caught the sadness and something else in his eyes before he shut it down. The words had come so easily, she hadn’t thought twice before saying them. She tried to apologize, but her mouth refused to form the words, her throat too dry to help much.

“It’s okay. Still want to talk or would you rather hang out with everyone first? I know Father and Nathalie would like to say hello, too.” He pointed toward the top of the stairs, his brows rising at the empty seat next to Gabriel. “Hmm, she was there a minute ago.”

“Worried?” She arched a brow.

“What? No.” He searched the room again, his brow furrowing. “Well, maybe a little. I can explain it better when we’re alone. There are some things I need to tell you. Some things I’ve been keeping to myself, but you should know.”

“Should I be concerned?” She turned so she could see him better, her body blocking his progress towards the stairs. She didn’t miss the irony in his words as he avoided her gaze, searching the room for signs of Nathalie despite the ringing alarms his words had caused her. Grabbing his wrist, she glimpsed a movement behind the stairs near the waiting room and Nathalie’s desk. “Come with me.”

She dragged him toward the movement, her eyes widening as she discovered Nathalie swiping at her cheeks with angry fervor. Mascara leaked dark trails and smudged under the older woman’s cool blue eyes, creating a shining effect that would make her beyond beautiful if she didn’t look so miserable.

“Are you alright?” Marinette ventured closer, loosening her grip on Adrien’s arm.

“No, I’m not.” Laughter, bordering on hysteria, shook Nathalie’s frame. “That man can be so insufferable. He honestly believes he can keep secrets from me still. Me! Can you believe it? To make it worse, he’s got others helping him keep those secrets.”

Nathalie’s gaze caught and held Adrien’s, much to Marinette’s consternation and confusion.

The older woman didn’t allow either of them a chance to respond as she continued her tirade. “Don’t think I don’t know when something’s going on this house, Adrien Agreste. Your father might be the biggest holdout I know, but you aren’t like him. What are you two up to? What are you contriving behind my back? Behind Marinette’s? I’m so sick of secrets around here. I just want to know if you two are going to do something incredibly stupid and dangerous. A woman has the right to know, you know? I have the right to know if I’m going to be alone before I’m ready. Before this baby’s ready.”

Nathalie continued to rant, not realizing the bomb she’d dropped on them. Her hand rested over her stomach as she paced the small area. Words flowed past her lips in her frazzled, angry state though they’d lost some meaning to the two watching her.

Marinette didn’t move, feeling the stillness surrounding her and Adrien. She couldn’t imagine how the news had hit him, sensing it could go a hundred different directions as she’d probably do the same if she learned she would be gaining a sibling as she neared her eighteenth birthday.

“Nathalie,” Gabriel’s voice broke through Marinette’s inaction, turning her head to face the older man standing behind her. “You’re pregnant?”

 

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The distressed woman, Adrien barely recognized as Nathalie, stopped pacing as she turned to face his father with her tear-streaked face and nodded. Collapsing into a chair, her head dropped into her hands as she cried in earnest, shoulders shaking as sobs wracked her body.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen such emotion pouring out of the stoic woman, but his heart broke as he realized how careless he and his father had been with their secrets. By trying to protect her and Marinette, they’d hurt them instead.

His gaze collided with the deep bluebell ones.

He didn’t know what to say, which didn’t seem to matter as she took his hand and led him toward his father’s office. He allowed her to lead him to some chairs, sitting him down with little force before taking the seat next to his.

“Did you know?” Her hands fidgeted with her dress skirt, needing to keep busy for reasons that didn’t resonate with him in his stupefied state.

“No. I didn’t even suspect. You would think I would, though, right? I know they’ve grown closer, but I guess I didn’t want to go there.” Shaking his head to clear it of dangerous mental images, he shuddered, grateful when his mind cooperated and filled instead with images of the woman beside him.

She smiled at his words, a genuine smile that barely contained the laughter she tried to hold back. She failed miserably as a few giggles escaped her. “Do any of us want to imagine our parents like that?”

He laughed with her, his hand coming to rest over hers and lacing their fingers together. “No, you’re right. It’s quite unsettling and a bit disturbing.”

They both chuckled at that, their laughter freeing as their hands remained clasped.

Adrien recovered first, his gaze traveling over her rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes, and shimmering midnight hair. He doubted he’d ever get tired of looking at her, having spent more school hours than he cared to admit over the past month doing just that. His laughter died as he recalled why he’d pushed her away and continued to keep his distance.

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it? He’s dying. Nathalie will be left alone to raise that baby. Where’s the justice in that?” Unable to hold her gaze after revealing such depressing thoughts, he didn’t catch the surprise on her face or the love shimmering in her eyes before she quelled it.

Her hand tightened around his. Leaning forward, her free hand came up and tapped his chin until his gaze met hers once more.

“She won’t be alone. She’ll have you. You’re going to be a big brother, Adrien. You’ll be there to see that little one grow into the person they are meant to be.” The kindness in her words humbled him more as he didn’t expect it, not when he’d done everything to avoid her and even punish her for hurting him by keeping his father’s secret.

“I’ve missed you.” His fingers tightened their grip on hers. “There’s so much I need to tell you, Mari.”

This time, her eyes dropped to her lap, her voice lowering into a whisper. “So, Nathalie’s telling the truth. You and your father are working on something?”

He swallowed. “Yes.”

“Is it dangerous, Adrien? Can you or someone else get hurt?”

Another swallow had him coughing, nearly choking on the lump growing at the top of his throat. “We’re working hard so that won’t happen. I swear we’re doing all we can.”

She looked at him then, her bluebell eyes searching his. She took her time, too, disconcerting yet comforting him as he waited. A full minute passed, and she hadn’t said anything, ratcheting his nerves as he fought the urge to fidget under her deep gaze.

“Mari, I—”

“Hey, dude, your guests are leaving. You might want to come out and say something to them.” Nino popped his head into the office, not bothering to tap on the door. He looked at Adrien, then Marinette, and back to Adrien. “Or I could say something if you need more time.”

“Thanks, Nino.” He glanced at Marinette and caught her slight nod. He returned his attention to Nino to say, “I’ll be right there.”

Nino nodded, closing the door behind him.

Alone once more, Adrien turned back to find her watching him once more. “Will you stay? I really want to tell you as much as I can, Mari. Please, stay.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” To prove her point, she set her purse down and popped the tab to allow Tikki to float toward her shoulder. A small cookie dangled from Tikki’s little paws as she regarded Adrien, her gaze soft and her smile warm. “We’ll be fine until you get back.”

Vowing to hurry, he walked out of the office in time to slap Kim on the back, hug Rose and Juleka goodbye, give Chloe a cheek kiss, and fight back a cringe at the unspeakable things Alya threatened to do if he hurt Marinette again. He didn’t dare say anything lest he anger her more, sensing it wouldn’t take much to bring her sass to full-on assault level. Nino brought up the rear, asking if he should stay the night.

Ever the best friend Adrien could imagine having, he shook his head. “I’ll be fine. I just need to talk to Mari. I’ll text you later and let you know what happened.”

“Okay, dude. See ya later.” With a final glance at the closed office door, Nino nodded, bumping Adrien’s fist as he walked through the doorway.

With the door shut and locked for the night, Adrien turned and sprinted toward the stairs, intent on finding the gift he’d been making for Marinette since their fight over the summer. He hoped she wouldn’t hate it, knowing she could do far better than him in the homemade gifts department.

He’d almost reached his bedroom door when his father appeared at the other end of the hall, leaning heavily on his cane and wearing his exhaustion in the swooping of his shoulders.

“Are you alright, Father? How’s Nathalie?”

“I’m fine, son. She’ll be fine.” A weary hand rubbed over the older man’s stubbled jawline, belying his words about his current state. “I never imagined I’d father more children after you. Your mother and I tried, but it never happened.”

“Did you tell her anything about our plan?” His hand went back to his bare finger, rubbing at the skin. He really should get something to put there, he mused.

“Bits and pieces.” Gabriel released a lengthy sigh as he regarded his son. “Maybe we should rethink this, Adrien. I know you want to help, but maybe we should leave it alone for everyone’s sake.”

“You’ve never played it safe before, Father. Why now? Because you have another child on the way? That’s all the more reason we should. If this works, we could possibly change everything. That’s a risk we should take.” Determination filled Adrien as he met his father’s cool blue eyes with his green ones.

“What about Marinette, son? Have you told her? What does she have to say?”

“I haven’t exactly had the chance. She knows something’s going on, but she doesn’t know what yet. I’m not sure I can tell her everything, but I’m going to try and make sure she understands how necessary this is.” He took a step toward his room but stopped as his hand gripped the knob. He frowned as he met his father’s gaze once more. “You spent most of my teen years fighting against me and acting like you had nothing to lose. Why change that now? Surely, you can forget you have a child depending on you and do this last mission. Surely, you owe it to me and to your unborn child to try.”

“Adrien.” Gabriel’s hand touched his shoulder, but Adrien flinched away in rising anger. The older man let his hand fall back to his side with a defeated sigh. “I hope you know what you’re doing, son.”

He didn’t answer. Not right away at least.

He walked into his room, closing the door behind him and falling back into it. His head rested against the cool wood, his eyes closing as he recalled his father’s parting words. His anger died as he whispered, “Me, too.”

Taking a final moment to collect himself, he pushed away from the door and hurried to his closet. He rummaged through the first few drawers, searching for the present he’d hidden within one of them. He couldn’t have the household staff finding it and tossing it, so he’d hidden it for safekeeping.

Seven drawers later, he pumped his fist and whooped in triumph at locating it, tucked away behind his pile of neatly folded socks. He’d gotten a tad bit worried that they’d found it after all and chunked it without him knowing. That would’ve been devastating after the hours he’d put into it despite its visual lack of such evidence.

A tap at his door had him turning with warring interest as he called out for the person to enter. His anxiousness to return to Marinette’s side could wait a bit longer if this proved important. She’d understand, even if he didn’t want her to. He sometimes wished she’d be a little more selfish, but then, she wouldn’t be Marinette. She would always be empathetic towards his busy schedule since he’d heard hers had grown quite steadily over the last few weeks with commissions.

As if he could conjure her presence, she appeared in the doorway of his closet a moment later, a tentative smile on her lips. “I, um, I got a bit anxious, waiting for you, so I thought I might find you instead. I need to head home soon. Maman and Papa are expecting me.”

“Of course.” He glanced down at his gift, his nerves getting the better of him and tucked it back into his sock drawer. He closed it with a sharp snap before walking toward her. “I guess we should talk then. Um, the sofa okay or would you rather go back downstairs?”

“Wow, you’re really nervous.” She moved toward his sofa, a teasing smile tugging at her lips as she sank into the white cushions. “It’s not like you. Even without your Chat persona, you’ve always been pretty confident around our small group. At least, it seemed that way to me.”

“Bravado and excitement helped. You were pretty intimidating when we first met if you recall. I never thought you’d forgive me for the gum incident.” He eased around her, taking care not to touch her despite the itch of his fingers and the ache in his heart. “Life had been simpler back then. All I’d wanted were friends and a bit of freedom.”

“Well, you got both, but I wouldn’t agree on simpler. Juggling a superhero ego with a normal life hadn’t been easy. All the tardiness and missed classes while fighting some supervillain and working through a massive crush on a certain blond friend of mine. That first year had been a real rollercoaster for this ordinary girl.” The smile blossomed as she recalled those memories, sharing them as she settled a bit deeper into his sofa.

“You were never ordinary, Mari. You’re the least ordinary woman I know, Ladybug or not.” Dropping his gaze to his hands, he stared at their larger size and the paler skin where his ring once sat. “I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize it.”

“Well, it hasn’t been the best few months, has it? Impulsive actions and secrets. Oh, so many secrets. Too many secrets really.” Bluebell eyes rested on him as her smile faded. “You know I regret keeping your father’s secret, don’t you? I would’ve told you sooner if he’d given me the choice.”

Falling back, his head lounged on the sofa’s top edge. “Yeah, I do. It took me longer than it should’ve to accept you’d been stuck. I shouldn’t have taken all my hurt and anger out on you. I’m truly sorry for that.”

She didn’t respond as she settled a bit closer to him, rhinestones sparkling as they caught the soft lighting he’d opted to turn on during his search over the harsher ones he used during the daytime hours.

“Can we be friends again? Like wipe the slates clean for both of us and just be friends?” His hand crept between them, palm out for her to take if she wanted. He did his best to appear relaxed and nonchalant, but his heart raced as he waited for her acceptance or refusal. He prayed she didn’t refuse him, not sure he could handle the rest of their school year isolated from her.

Her gaze came to meet his as she mimicked his position on the sofa, taking care to keep her dress decently arranged around her. She brought her feet up, tucking them under her to keep them warm in the cool air of his room. “Will you tell me what you and your father are planning?”

“As much as I can, yes. There’s some I can’t tell you.” Her fingers slid into his, his heart lurching as she entwined their fingers. “What would you like to know?”

“Everything you can tell me.”

 

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She listened to the few pieces he could tell her with mounting horror, her mind putting them together. As he spoke, her fingers tightened as her fear grew with each new detail she garnered from his sparse words. Unable to hold herself back, she leaned over him, her free hand trapping his jaw. Her fingers dug little crescents into his skin without her realizing as her fear for him grew. “Adrien, this is a bit crazy. What if this fails? What could happen to you?”

“I’m well aware of the risks, Mari. I take full responsibility for any consequences that result from this plan, but it’s the only option we have at this point. I can’t afford to wait around and hope another plan comes to us.” He loosened her grip on his jaw with a small grimace and a tight smile. “I didn’t give Plagg up and push you away without thinking this through.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” She muttered the words under her breath as she turned from him, her feet finding purchase on the soft rug. Standing to her full height, she began to pace the length of his sofa’s back. Finding it not nearly long enough, she adjusted her route to include the length of his room, her mind whirling with the possibilities. “Why does it have to be you, Adrien? What if this goes terribly wrong. You could be seriously injured by your own hands.”

She glanced down at her outstretched hands, studying them much like he’d done his earlier in the evening. In a softer voice, she added, “Or mine.”

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take. I’ve been working with Father closely and another trusted party. We’re confident this could work. We can make it all better, but I couldn’t keep lying to you about our plans. I wanted to tell you weeks ago, but I got jealous when you started receiving those flowers.” He didn’t meet her gaze as he struggled to find the words he wanted to say. “There’s no excuse or reason great enough for the words I said that day to you. I knew they’d hurt you, but I said them anyway. I wanted to hurt you, Mari. I wanted you to hate me, I think.”

That had her attention, bringing her back to the sofa. She didn’t sit, opting to stand at the edge as she looked at his slumped, almost defeated, posture. “Why? Why would you want me to hate you?”

“Self-defeating behavior would probably be my therapist’s answer.” He shot her a deprecating smile though his eyes held a sadness that bothered her more.

“It’d take a lot more than mean-spirited words for me to truly hate you. I mean look at Chloe and me. She’s done a lot worse yet we’re moving toward friendship despite it all.” She moved closer then, taking the spot she vacated earlier so she could take his face in her hands. “Chaton, I can forgive those words this time, but I won’t do so again. I don’t mind helping you through the tough stuff, but I won’t be your punching bag. Got it?”

“Yes, My Lady.” His green eyes didn’t lose their sadness, but a new light had begun to show through them, warming her as she held his gaze another moment. His hands crept up to hold her at the elbows, gentle in their grasp as he came to rest his forehead against hers. “You are the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten. Thank you, Marinette, for coming tonight.”

“Seriously, that flattery is going to get you in trouble one day.” She smiled to lessen the threat of her words as she remained close for a bit longer, content to sit with him like this. “I did bring you a gift though besides myself. It’s not much or even homemade, but I think you’ll like it.”

She twisted, grabbing at her purse. She smiled as Tikki brought one box out and then another, her sweet smile warming both humans as they watched her.

Adrien’s entire being froze beside her as he recognized the first box. His hand shook a bit as he reached out to touch it, pausing as he caught her gaze on him once more. “You kept him? I thought surely you’d have chosen another partner by now.”

“I don’t want another partner, Chaton.” She held the box up, inspecting the familiar wooden box as if she’d never seen it before. She caressed the ancient symbol painted on its cover, tracing it as she’d done often with the one that once held her earrings. “Besides, you and Plagg need closure before he’s just given to someone else. Until you’re ready, Tikki and I are keeping him safe.”

She looked up to find his attention fixated on her small kwami, a grief she’d only seen a few times since meeting him seeping out of him. She choked back her cry, wishing with all her heart she could un-damage him in some small way. So much heartache had been heaped on him without being at fault. Well, most of it, she amended in her mind. It was a small miracle he’d turned out as kind and trusting as he was. His father had done his hardest to rid Adrien of those perceived weaknesses, much to her irritation and lingering anger.

A flash of red zipped past her to nuzzle his cheek. Tikki, tiny tears leaking from her large eyes, remained close to the blond, taking in his despair. She matched it with her own as she, too, grieved Plagg’s fate, locked inside his ring as his chosen figured out his next moves.

“He said you were his favorite kitten of all, Adrien. He’ll forgive you, but you know he’ll be snarky the entire time. He really loves you more than I’ve ever seen him love his previous Chats or even his precious cheese.”

That earned a small chuckle from the blond. “I have plenty of Camembert. Hopefully, that’ll help my case. He’ll never be without it if he’ll accept me again.”

“He will.” Tikki nuzzled his cheek once more before taking Plagg’s box back to her hiding place while Marinette held the other jeweler’s box in her hand. She waved before settling deep inside, content to snuggle against the worn wood.

“I know that can’t be a ring for me, Maribug.” His light teasing revived her as she met his eyes with a warming smile. “Come now, I know I’m handsome, but even the great Ladybug can’t win me so easily.”

The waggle of his eyebrows broke her barely composed façade, sending her into a fit of giggles. She felt wonderful being able to laugh with him once more. She’d missed the easy camaraderie they’d shared before everything had imploded between them.

It took her far longer than she cared to admit to regain some composure.

Smacking his shoulder, she rolled her eyes. “Not so fast there, Agreste. If anyone’s proposing around here when or if the time comes, it’s going to be you.”

“Yes, My Lady.” He gave her another brow waggle, sobering a bit as he nodded toward the box in her hand. “So, what gift did the loveliest Ladybug bring for this alley cat?”

Meeting his teasing with some of her own, she tapped her cheek as she regarded him. A devilish smile spread. “Hmm, I don’t think I’m going to give it to you after all. Maybe I’ll hide it somewhere in the city and you’ll just have to find it.”

“Oh, Mari, don’t be so cruel. It’s simply paw-ful treating me this way on my birthday.” His arms snaked around her, bringing her back to his chest and holding her secure. “Please show me my present. Purr-ty please.”

Giggling, she tapped his arms to loosen them, smiling in fondness as he set her back in her spot without a fuss. “Okay, but no more puns, monsieur. They’re starting to bug me.”

That got her a chuckle as he crossed his fingers over his heart and mimicked zipping his lips while his eyes sparkled, pleading for her to give in to his charms.

It wasn’t so hard to do as she held the box out for him, watching him take it from her with a reverence she rarely saw in others, only him.

“I mentioned to Maman that you’d lost your ring and had been missing it. She thought you might like this as a temporary replacement for its loss.” She popped the cover for him, revealing the simple silver band within. “It belonged to my grandfather before he passed. Papa’s fingers are too large, and Maman wanted it to go to someone who’d appreciate it. I thought of you when she showed it to me.”

He didn’t speak for several moments, his eyes fixated on the silver ring. He looked almost frozen as he continued to stare, his hands not moving to pluck it from its velvet interior and try it on.

“Well?” She prodded when he remained still too long for her liking. “If you don’t like it, that’s fine. It was just a thought I had.”

“I love it, Marinette, but this is part of your family. It’s an heirloom. I can’t accept this, not when I haven’t done anything to deserve it. Especially in recent weeks.” He took great pains in shutting the lid, his gaze lingering on the band before handing it back to her.

“Adrien Agreste, you take this ring or so help me, I’ll sic Maman on you. She won’t be happy you turned down this gift from us.” She opened the lid, picked up the ring, and held out her other hand, waiting for his. He acquiesced, much to her amazement, and allowed her to slip the ring onto his right finger. “There! Now, I can give you Papa’s gift.”

He stopped her with a kiss on the cheek. “First, I have something for you.”

She didn’t get the chance to stop him as he dashed toward his closet, diving into the deep interior and pulled open a drawer towards the back. He came back moments later, holding a bundle of netted yarn in his hands.

“I, uh, I started making this for you a couple months back. I wanted to make you something for being you. It’s not great. I know you can do a thousand times better, but I wanted to try, you know?” He smoothed the bundled, twisted yarn in his lap as he spoke. When he finished, he lifted the long piece and wrapped it around her neck, tucking it with gentle fingers until it sat just so. “It’s nothing like the scarf you made me years ago, but I hope you like it just the same.”

She took in the bungled scarf he’d tried to knit for her, a watery smile spreading over her lips as she caught the red color with black polka dots. He’d made her a Ladybug scarf or tried to. She didn’t care that it looked less than perfect. She’d cherish it because he’d taken the time to try something new and produced something from those efforts.

She took her time in inspecting the fineness of the wool he’d used, realizing he hadn’t scrimped and bought the acrylics that can be a bit easier to manage for new knitters. No, he’d bought the best on the market and tried not to mangle it. With a bit of work, she could fix the mistakes he’d made, but she wouldn’t. No, she couldn’t wait to wear it through the winter, proud of him for thinking of her while going outside his comfort zone.

“Okay, so I might have one more gift for you.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek. “While Papa promises to teach you all he knows about baking and Maman cooking, I’m going to teach you to knit like a pro in no time. For now, though, I love it, Adrien. Thank you.”

She nestled into his side, content to sit with him for a few minutes. She’d caught the time on her phone as Tikki pulled out the boxes. She had a little time left before her parents expected her home. She planned to use them, too, curled in his side and enjoying the silence enveloping them.

She knew they still had more they needed to discuss, but they’d made a new start, rebuilding the bridge between them with stronger beams than before. They had a long road ahead and more work to do, but she felt confident they could manage it. They just needed to work on their communication skills once more and trust one another when the other asked them to. Somewhere in the past few months, they’d lost that ability and she was determined to get it back for their friendship’s sake.

The chiming of her phone’s alarm came too soon for either of them, scowling at the offending technology. She met his gaze for a moment, pressing a final kiss to his cheek before she stood. She called for her transformation, heading to his window as the magic flowed over her.

“The dance competition is tomorrow. Would you still be interested in being my partner, Maribug?” Adrien followed her to the window, grabbing her hand and stilling her for the moment to ask his question. “We don’t have to go, but I thought I’d ask.”

She offered him her sweetest smile. “That sounds fun. Text me in the morning. Maybe we could meet up for lunch or something before the competition.”

He nodded, his smile wider than she’d seen it in a long while. “I’ll be waiting on pins and needles, My Lady.”

Giggling, she jumped onto the windowsill and tossed her yo-yo, securing the line before turning back to him. She bid him a fond good night, whispering her hopes he’ll have sweet dreams as she disappeared into the chilly night air.

She didn’t dare glance back for fear she might turn around and stay with him a while longer.

No, she pushed onward, intent on getting home before the cool air caused too much gooseflesh to rise on her skin beneath the thin layer of her suit.

She’d almost made it, too.

Just a block from home, she heard the beginnings of a scream before it was muffled. Gruff voices followed, threatening the woman and igniting Marinette’s inner Ladybug with feminine anger. Changing course, she dropped down behind the small group of rowdy, rough-looking men as they held a young woman against a wall in an alleyway.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, but I believe the lady said no.” She tossed her yo-yo, looping it around the nearest guy and sending him backward. She released and set about getting the next one off the young woman when a few of the men broke off and proceeded in her direction.

“Look who we have here, boys. It’s a pretty bug. Maybe she wants to play, too.” One brave, drunk guy said to his fellow cronies as they advanced on her.

She took a step back and then another. She continued to step back until she brushed against the wall on the other side.

The men had let the other woman go, she noted, as she caught the remainder joining her first few advancers. They had surrounded her in less time than she’d thought possible in their inebriated state.

Hoping she could talk her way out of the situation, she opened her mouth, but no words came out as they grabbed her, one grimy hand covering her lips and filling her senses with its putrid stench. She fought their hold, praying she wouldn’t be a victim to their evil intent but fearing she wouldn’t have an opportunity to free herself before it was too late.

“Where’s that mangy cat when you need him, huh, Ladybug?” One man sneered, his warm breath nauseating as it touched her cheek and assailed her with the heavy spirits he’d consumed earlier in the evening.

Her heartbeat raced as she caught the glint of triumph in his gaze.

It nearly stopped when a familiar voice spoke from above them before hope jumpstarted it once more.

“That mangy cat is right here.”

Brilliant green eyes lined with bright purple flashed in the darkened alleyway.

Chapter Text

“Chat Noir!” several men shouted.

He leered at the men below him. He counted more than a dozen surrounding Ladybug though his gaze remained fixed on the ones holding her. He snarled, “Let her go, gentlemen, if you’d like to keep your limbs intact.”

She struggled against their hold, which tightened more. A muffled cry of pain echoed up to him.

Magic coursed over him, bubbling purple as it shimmered in the moon’s glow. The butterfly fluttered to life, the spell they’d used weakening as his emotions changed with his rising anger.

The power he could feel within him grew. His new claws tapped on the brick in front of him, a smirk forming as they glinted a dangerous and deadly silver.

Yes, Adrien, allow me control. Use me as you’ve wanted to use your miraculous all these years, the butterfly preened in the back of his mind.

His smirk bloomed further.

“What’s wrong with him?” one man dared to ask his companions.

Taking great pleasure in the man’s fear, he slinked over the roof’s edge, almost as if he were shooting a set of sexy photos, draping himself over the brick. His nails scraped lightly over the siding, making a satisfying screech that shot through the men below him. “Hmm, you don’t like the new look? You’re going to hurt poor Hawk Moth’s feelings. After all, he made this special for you and our night together.”

Bravo, the butterfly cheered. Show them who has the real power here. Look at Ladybug as she worships you and your new prowess.

Adrien, no, Gabriel cried out. Resist, son. You must resist the butterfly’s allure. Don’t fall for its pretty words and empty promises.

Shaking his head of both voices, he caught Ladybug’s pleading eyes. Their sapphire depths speaking volumes despite the hand covering her mouth. “Evening, My Lady. A bit of a hairy situation, wouldn’t you say?”

Muffled words floated up to him, her struggles for freedom futile against their hold.

“This doesn’t concern you, Noir,” the ringleader shouted. He glared at Adrien with such malice as his hand tightened further upon Ladybug. “This little Bug is ours for the night. Take a hike if you know what’s good for you.”

“It’s Chevalier, and I say it does concern me. After all, that pretty Bug you’re bruising belongs to me.” Stirring from his draped position, he moved into a lithe crouch before dropping the few feet into the alleyway. Popping and fizzing from his suit told him the colors had changed. He spared a glance to see the new purple stains on what was once black. Interesting.

Adrien, I’m serious. Please calm down. You’re no longer neutral. Please, son, don’t fall for the butterfly. I can’t lose you, too.

Such a blithering weakling, the butterfly spoke. He’s been an insufferable master for too long. Imagine if you take over as our new master. Imagine the power you’d have in the palm of your hand. Ladybug would never be able to resist you.

His gaze traveled back to Ladybug and met her sapphire eyes. She continued to struggle, her voice garbled from the man’s thick hand clamped over her mouth. Her eyes sparkled with a muted deadliness she kept in tight control, especially considering they were dealing with civilians rather than an akuma. A distinction Adrien failed to appreciate as their hold tightened enough to pull another cry from her.

Adrien, please, listen. Don’t give in. Think about Marinette. Do you want her to see you succumb to its allure? Do you think she’ll forgive you if you willingly hurt someone? The butterfly is trying to twist you around. You aren’t the butterfly. You’re better than it will ever be. Now, prove it.

“Maybe I’m not,” he whispered, his fists clenching and his gaze hardening as he met those of the men surrounding them both. He could feel the butterfly gearing up for another speech, hoping to contradict his father’s words. He couldn’t let that happen. Shaking himself hard, he managed to quiet the voices in his mind and speak with authority, “Final chance, guys. Let her go and leave without a fuss, or we’ll see how well this new suit works. What’s it going to be?”

A howl from the ringleader brought his attention back to the man and Ladybug. The man shook his hand as angry, red teeth marks formed in his palm.

His eyes glared daggers at Ladybug though she didn’t notice. Her gaze fixed on his, her eyes pleading, “Chat? What did you do?”

Her arms twisted hard as her legs kicked away from the wall, loosening her captors hold. She’d almost gained her freedom when a large fist crashed into her cheek and sent her to her knees.

“Watch it, guys. She’s got teeth.” The ringleader leaned down to reclaim her with one hand while the other raised to strike her again.

That was all he needed, spurring into action and knocking down several men. He fought and scratched his way to her side, intent on taking out the main threat against her. He ignored the popping sound as it turned into sharp crackling, new purple marks marring the black sheen of his suit. It didn’t matter if he succumbed as long as she remained safe.

What little part of Chat Noir had remained within him disappeared as Chevalier broke through, the butterfly infusing him with greater power than he’d ever wielded with Plagg. Adrenaline overwhelmed his senses and his blood with its high.

Invincible.

“Chat,” Ladybug shouted, her fingers digging into the material of his suit. “Please, stop.”

Her cry froze him, his hands twitching and his body shaking from the adrenaline still coursing through him.

“Chaton, look at me.” She lowered her voice, her hands letting him go long enough to place them on his cheeks. She waited for him to look at her before she spoke. “You did it. They’re down. You can stop now.”

Exhaustion hit him like a freight truck. The adrenaline left him with a whoosh. His knees threatened to buckle under him. Her hands on his cheeks the only anchor he had in remaining upright.

“Mangy cat,” the ringleader spat from the ground. “You should be put down like any other stray around here.”

A snarl escaped his lips. He tried to focus his gaze on the man, but Ladybug refused to let him go. Her foot shoved the man back to the ground, sending him spinning several feet.

“Let it go, Chaton. Come back to me. Let me see those pretty green eyes of yours.” She offered him the softest smile he’d ever seen. It lit her face with a glow that enhanced her natural beauty, beckoning him closer. The promised warmth in her eyes memorized him. “Come on, Chaton. Let me see them, purrty purrlease?”

The pun warmed him, soothed him. The anger flowing through his veins, the righteous indignation ebbed away, leaving him an almost goo-like pile at her feet, succumbing to the earlier buckling of his knees. His arms wrapped around her waist and held on.

“My Lady, they didn’t hurt you, did they? I’d never forgive myself if they did.” His eyes closed, waiting for the words he feared most even as hope filled him, seeing her standing so strong before him.

She laughed softly above him, pressing a kiss into his hair between his ears. “I’m alright, Chaton. I think the better question is if you’re alright, don’t you think?”

He rubbed his cheek against her abdomen, a soft purring sound building in his throat as he held her close to him.

He could make out the faint bubbles popping and fizzing around him, his suit shifting and changing around him into a new pattern. He didn’t dare look at it, preferring to continue his nuzzling movements and earning another laugh from her.

Movement beyond them stirred him enough to open his eyes. He spied the men he’d sprawled around them stirring to their feet. Several glanced in their direction, wary of him and even her as they took several steps back.

He didn’t pay them any mind as he sought out their leader, his gaze narrowing as the man managed to regain his feet. He hissed as the man took a threatening step forward, freezing the man in place though the man’s glower could’ve burned them with its intensity.

“Don’t think this is the last you’ll see of us, you mangy stray. Our boss has been looking forward to meeting you for a while.” The man motioned for the others to drop behind him with a spin of his finger. His gaze returned to Adrien as he spat, “We’ll be back. Mark my words, you filthy cat. We’ll be back, and you’ll pay for interfering.”

Snarling, Adrien rose to his full height, ignoring Ladybug’s hands as she tried to bring him back. He stepped up to the ringleader and watched as the man took a step back in fear. A smirk replaced his earlier snarl. He lifted a clawed finger and tapped at the man’s chest, right above his heart. “Tell your boss I’m not afraid of him or his worthless hoodlums. He’d do well to remain snug at home than venture out to meet me tonight.”

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug’s admonishing cry hurled into him.

He didn’t let it show as he stepped back from the man, returning to her side as the others raced down the street.

Good riddance, he mused as he met her gaze.

You did well, Adrien. You’re a true chevalier if I’ve ever seen one, the butterfly whispered, pleasure riddled its voice.

Adrien, please, son. This isn’t you. Look at her and remember who you are. Remember the ones who love you. Come on, son. Come back to us. Don’t let the butterfly win.

He ignored his father’s plea.

“It’s Chevalier, My Lady,” he murmured, turning to face her. “Your Chat Noir doesn’t exist anymore. He’d never be your equal, not like I would.”

00000

She swore she wouldn’t cry out. She wouldn’t give this akuma the satisfaction in seeing her weak. Too much counted on her being strong for them both.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Chat Noir was the strongest hero and partner I know. I couldn’t have saved Paris all these years without him.” She met his gaze, ignoring the panging of her heart at the bright purple blazing back at her. Oh, how she wished to see his green gaze instead.

The chuckle that left Chevalier’s lips almost frightened her, or it would’ve if it hadn’t been for the fear she heard beneath it. It gave her hope as she realized Chat Noir was still in there somewhere, fighting to get out.

Thinking back to the romances Rose liked to read over the years, Marinette worked through what she could recall about the knights in those stories. She had to find some way to break through Chevalier’s walls and regain her Chat Noir. She couldn’t leave him to run amok in the city they’d sworn to protect.

Hmm, knights and damsels in distress. Right up Adrien’s alley with the anime he liked to watch and the manga he read over the years. Her Chaton hadn’t gone far from her after all.

A smile formed as she recalled what knights got from their damsels in distress, at least in the books Rose told her about.

A kiss.

She could handle a kiss. After all, she’d kissed him before to bring him back. Maybe it would work again.

She turned toward him, doing her best to hide her plan from him. It wouldn’t do for Chevalier to learn it before she could implement it. “Chevalier?”

His gaze dropped to hers, a brow arching behind his purple mask.

“I never did you give your reward for saving me. What kind of lady would I be if I didn’t give the best knight around a kiss for his efforts?” She leaned up, standing on her toes and pressed her lips to his. Her eyes closed a moment later, the memory of his lips more than enough to send her back to their first kiss all those years ago.

He didn’t move for several heartbeats, his arms stiff beneath her fingers.

She pulled away, her face remaining close even as she broke the contact between them. “Chat?”

His arms wrapped around her and pulled her close, his lips seeking hers again. He growled softly in his throat as they reconnected. He took charge of the kiss as he brushed his lips so soft against hers, his breath fanning over her skin in such intimacy that she gasped. She hadn’t expected such a response from him as he deepened the kiss, pulling her along for the ride and losing themselves in each other.

She thought she could make out the faint sounds of popping bubbles and slight fizzes, but she couldn’t be sure as he deepened the kiss further still.

An amused chuckle behind them broke the spell he’d woven around them.

“Wow, LB, didn’t know we’d be interrupting a reenactment of one of Rose’s favorite novels,” Rena said, her eyes glowing with mirth.

Honey Bee hovered behind her, her eyes glancing around the empty street a moment before she touched down and walked closer. “Hmm, maybe we should book them a room at Le Grand Paris. I think there’s a honeymoon suite they can use.”

“Haha,” Marinette deadpanned as she stepped back from him, her gaze meeting her teammates’ amused ones. “You two are hilarious.”

His arms didn’t drop from her waist, his fingers gripping at her suit as if she were an anchor.

“You alright, Chaton?” Her voice dropped so the others wouldn’t overhear her.

She glanced over her shoulder to find his eyes blazing green at her. The purple had receded back to rimming his mask. A step in the right direction, she supposed.

“Yes, My Lady, I’m back. I think I am anyways.” His hands left her waist, moving back to his sides. He stepped forward, meeting their other teammates with a sheepish expression. “Hey, ladies, long time, no see, huh?”

Catching sight of his suit, Marinette tried not to cheer at seeing the purple receding from the black, the bubbles and fizzles fainter than before. She could almost see the gentle teasing that belonged to her Chat as she met his gaze.

However, Rena and Honey didn’t have the same relief as they charged forward, shoving him into the wall. Their fierce protectiveness would’ve been endearing if their timing hadn’t been so much worse.

His head made a sickening thud against the siding as they held him captive.

“What have you done?” Honey Bee hissed as she pulled out her rapier and prepared to strike him. “Where’s our Chat Noir? What is Hawk Moth planning to do with him?”

Stepping forward, Marinette gripped Honey’s shoulder and tugged her loose, ripping her rapier away. She tossed it to the other side of the alleyway, saying, “Enough, both of you. He’s Chat Noir, not some copycat. I’d know the difference.”

“She would, you know? I mean, it’s not like I haven’t been copied before.” Chat put up his hands as the two other heroes released him in slow motion.

Rena’s gaze met hers. “Girl, you okay with this?”

Marinette turned to Chat and saw the hopefulness lurking in their depths. He’d tried telling her his plan earlier that evening, and she’d known, deep down, what that plan had entailed without all the smaller details spelled out. But, she hadn’t been prepared to see it in action.

“We don’t have any other choice. We’re going to make the most of it and hope we can fix this before he succumbs to the butterfly.” She met his gaze again. “How exactly are you keeping yourself from completely falling under its power anyway?”

“Short version is a spell. Longer version is a couple months of building up my immunity to its charms while also mastering the spell that would keep the butterfly from complete control. It’s not foolproof, My Lady, but it’s doing the trick so far.”

She had her doubts after seeing the bright purple glow earlier.

Before she could say anything, Honey Bee reared back and slapped him hard across the cheek, leaving a bright red handprint under his mask. “You idiot. What went through your mind when you decided this course of action without us? You pushed us away and then, you expect us to just go along with this. You selfish, spoiled brat.”

“Honey, enough,” Marinette called out. Her gaze remained kind as she met the fire in the blonde’s eyes. “What’s done is done. We need to figure out how to help him, not antagonize the butterfly with more anger. Okay?”

“How are you not beyond pissed about this? How can you be so calm? He’s supposed to be your partner, LB?” Honey stopped, her eyes assessing. “Did you know? Have you known this whole time?”

Marinette opened her mouth to speak, but Chat interrupted her this time, saying, “No, she didn’t know. I didn’t want any of you to know until the time came. It came sooner than I thought it would, but I can do this. Come on, Honey, have a little faith in me like you used to. We’re friends still, aren’t we?”

The bee hero stared at the akumatized version of their friend, his cat ears flopping forward as his hope began to shrivel within him. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, her body relaxing and letting go of her anger. She launched at him, closing her arms around him tight.

“Okay, now that we’re on the same page, maybe it’s a good time to brainstorm how we’re going to fix this while also keeping the streets safe.” She continued by explaining what had happened earlier, the incident that initially brought Rena and Honey out in the first place. “We can’t let that gang get close to him, not after what happened earlier. We also can’t let them hurt others.”

“Just say the word, LB. We’re beside you through this,” Rena whispered, her hand on Marinette’s shoulder more than bolstering in its comfort.

Her gaze went back to Chat’s and found him watching her, his gaze soft and yearning.

Unable to resist his silent call, she moved closer to him, taking his hand in hers and gripping it tight. “We’ll free you, Chaton. You won’t be like this forever, I swear to you. Just promise me you’ll keep fighting even if the butterfly tries to take over again.”

“Always, My Lady.” His hand crept up to her cheek, his thumb swiping at the small cut that smarted upon being touched.

She did her best not to flinch at the touch, but seeing the change in his expression, she knew she’d failed.

Fight, Chaton. Please, fight, she silently screamed at him. Don’t leave me to fight alone or worse, fight you.

00000

The butterfly taunted him, forcing his eyes shut.

She’s lying, Adrien. She thinks you’re weak without me. She’s never wanted Chat Noir, but she’ll accept Chevalier if you give her the chance. Just accept me, Adrien. Take the power I have to give you.

His father’s voice spoke up from the darkness, shouting at him. He cringed as his father’s voice echoed through his mind, reminding him of years past. The difference this time was the lack of anger and disappointment in the older man’s voice.

Adrien, son, don’t give in to it. The butterfly can’t make you something you already are. You’re a hero, son. You always have been. You’re strong, son. You can do this.

He wasn’t so sure as the butterfly flitted through his mind, pulling up memories he thought long forgotten. Memories of being an utter disappointment. Memories of being alone and ignored. Memories of being judged for actions others had taken in his name.

“Chaton, what’s wrong?” Her voice called to him, her hand letting go of his.

He felt bereft without it. He opened his lips to beg for it back, praying he didn’t succumb to the rising tide of negative emotions. He couldn’t succumb to them, not when he’d promised to fight for her. He couldn’t disappoint her, too.

Gloved hands moved through his hair, ruffling the wild locks more. One found his cat ear, rubbing it as he liked. He fought to keep from groaning as her hands found all his favorite spots and soothed the emotions churning, erasing the images from his mind.

Her face came to him, laughing or smiling. Image after image, she came to him, warming him from the inside out.

“You’re going to be alright, Chaton. I’ve got you. I promise you won’t ever be alone.” Her arms encircled his neck and her head rested next to his cheek, allowing her to whisper in his ear.

Renewed strength filled him, opening his eyes to see the others smiling at him.

“Doing better, Sunshine?” Rena asked, her flute spinning in her hand.

He nodded, the movement causing him to cringe.

“Hey, you sure?” Honey asked this time, her hand coming to rest on his forehead. “You’re burning up, Chat.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be fine. A minor side effect of the spell.”

That had Ladybug’s attention, wrenching from his arms. He had to hide a smile as her arms crossed over her chest and she glared at him with those sapphire eyes. He really did love that determined look she got whenever she discovered something surprising.

“I’m fine, Bugaboo. I swear. I’ll just need to rest for a few days once this is over. Don’t worry about me, okay? I knew what I signed up for when I agreed to this.” He held out his hand to her, praying she’d take it and give him the lifeline he desperately needed to stay sane.

“If Hawk Moth can hear me, he should know I have plans on yelling quite loudly at him after we get that butterfly out of you.” Her stance remained stubborn another second or two before she caved, giving the comfort he sought.

He hummed as she sank into his embrace, working to keep his purr quiet.

He failed spectacularly if Rena’s and Honey’s faces were any judgment.

She’s a keeper, son. I’m glad you found her so long ago. She’s been good for you as you’ve been for her. Tell her I don’t mind the yelling as long as she promises to never lose that stubborn streak of hers.

“I know,” he whispered, burying his face in her neck.

“You really are burning up, Chaton. Maybe we should seek out Master Fu. He might have something that will help with the fever.” She moved a bit, her eyes seeking his. She held him up as though he might collapse from the fever itself.

As I warned you, she thinks you’re weak, Adrien. Look at how she babies you. Give in to me and show her what Chevalier is capable of. She’ll never think you weak again.

“Lies.” He shrank away from her as the butterfly screamed and hissed, angry at Adrien’s attempts to resist him.

Truth. You’ll see it soon enough. You’ll give into my lure at some point. Just you wait, Adrien. You’re weak without me. You will always be weak. Accept that and give in.

“No, you won’t win. I won’t let you.” His hands gripped Ladybug tight, pulling her close without realizing it. He dragged her until her scent surrounded him, desperate to ignore the cackling of the butterfly as it hid further within his mind, seeking out more memories to torment him. “You can’t win.”

“Adrien,” she whispered low, her hands running from his hair to his shoulders. “Talk to me, Chaton. What’s going on? Is it Hawk Moth?”

He managed to shake his head. “The butterfly is its own entity now. It’s trying to force my hand, make me surrender to it.”

Pressing her lips to his cheek, her arms tightened around him. “Tell me what you need. I’ll do what I can to help. I won’t let you suffer through this alone, not willingly. You hear me, Chaton?”

He nodded, his eyes opening and seeking hers. He needed to know she wasn’t a figment of his imagination, a dream within the nightmare he’d accepted by taking on this mission.

“LB, he’s not looking so good,” Honey said from behind them.

“His suit is changing,” Rena added, her eyes following the growing purple as it overwhelmed the black leather. “Should we start prepping for some diversions?”

She met his gaze, her deep blue eyes questioning.

He nodded, not trusting the shakiness he felt or the lump building in his throat. The darkness in his mind had grown exponentially in the time it took to answer her, the butterfly settling within his amygdala and pressing the right buttons. He couldn’t breathe as it overwhelmed him with the darkest emotions he’d ever experienced.

Anger. Jealousy. Disappointment. Envy. Greed. Frustration. Despair. Grief. Doubt.

Each one sank him deeper into a pit of darkness, his soul corrupting even as he fought to remember the positives in his life.

Son, you can do this. Fight. You have to fight. Forget about me. Fight for yourself. You can do this.

“I don’t think I can,” he whispered, his eyes slamming shut against the world. He couldn’t handle seeing the disappointment in Ladybug’s expression.

“Chaton, look at me.” Ladybug’s head rested against his, her breath warm on his cheeks. “Come on, Chaton. You can do it. Look at me.”

He took several breaths that caught in his throat and threatened to choke him. With some effort, he managed to peek them open, catching sight of her so close to him. Her so, so blue eyes watched him, a smile spreading across her face as he complied.

“There’s my sweet Chaton. How are you doing?” Her voice remained a whisper.

He worked his mouth several times, opening and shutting it, preparing for his next words.

He had to assure her he could do this if only for her sake.

You’ll never beat me, Adrien. I warned you that you were weak. Shall I prove it? How about I press here? Let’s see what happens when you relive the worst day of your life. Or how about your worst nightmare?

Enough, he shouted, his hands clutching her closer. You can’t beat me this way. I’ve survived those days and I will survive anything you throw at me.

Is that a challenge, little Adrien? Let’s see what you do when I combine everything you’ve ever suffered. Let’s see how long you resist me then.

No, he shouted. Too many emotions, too many bad memories.

The butterfly cackled with glee as Adrien lost himself to those memories and the emotions tied to them.

Adrien, son, you’ll be fine. Just remember who you are and all you’ve accomplished despite the odds I set against you. You’re so strong, son. You can beat him at his game. Just focus.

“It’s too hard,” he whispered, the darkness sweeping over him. His eyes closed as he accepted the fate of the butterfly. The darkness engulfed him and his suit based on the loud popping and fizzing he could make out over Ladybug’s words.

“Chat! Chat?” Her voice sounded too far away to make a difference.

He let go. He stopped fighting, retreating as his exhaustion won out. He’d have another chance if he knew Ladybug and her determination as he did, but he’d have to wait for that opportunity to come.

When he opened his eyes again, he caught the surprise crossing her features, her eyes sweeping over his new ensemble of purple leather. He had to admit, gazing down himself, that it didn’t look half bad.

00000

Seeing the bright purple taking over his green eyes, she took a step back, unsure what he might try in this state. He’d been ready to push the envelope further than she’d ever seen him with the men earlier. She didn’t know if she could trust Adrien to pull through in the end by remembering who he was.

She wanted to.

She had to.

“What’s wrong, My Lady? Not the knight you were looking for?” Chevalier stood beside her, his hands coming away from her waist to take one of her hands. He pulled it to his lips and dropped a kiss to her knuckles. “I did save you earlier if you recall, Ladybug. Shouldn’t this knight be rewarded for those efforts?”

“Back off,” Honey hissed, her rapier swishing as she stepped between them. “Sorry, LB, but he can’t be trusted.”

Rena hurried into the fray, pulling Chevalier toward the far corner of the alleyway. Her flute spun in her hands as she showed him its abilities, distracting him for the moment.

“Honey, Chat’s still in there. So is Adrien,” Marinette whispered, her voice low. “We can’t just push him away when he needs us the most.”

“You also can’t let him get too close, either, Maribug,” the blonde retorted. Her blue eyes met Marinette’s, appealing her to use logic and reason rather than emotion.

With a sigh, Marinette nodded, knowing she couldn’t allow the butterfly to lull them when Chat needed them most.

They needed help. She needed help. She needed a new temporary partner.

Voices from the corner caught her attention.

Fear the gang had returned before they were ready filled her. How would they handle whatever those guys wanted and Chat in his current state? She couldn’t risk a Lucky Charm that might potentially harm any of them, especially civilians. Her ethics wouldn’t allow it, even if her pride argued they deserved whatever they had coming for their abhorrent behavior earlier.

The voices grew a bit louder as they neared the alleyway where they stood.

She gasped, recognizing one voice.

Luka.

“Oh, no,” she breathed, her gaze going to Chat and finding him still occupied by the flute Rena wielded and the small illusions she created. Turning to Honey, she whispered, “Don’t let him out of your sight.”

“LB, what are you going to do?” Honey’s eyes met hers as she stilled Marinette’s progress.

Resolve filled her as she met her teammate’s eyes. “I’m going to get some backup for us. Keep him occupied because he’s not going to like what I’m about to do.”

She dashed out of the alleyway, catching Luka and Kagami before they could reach it. With a few quick motions, she escorted them back around the corner and into a cornered doorway of an apartment building.

“Ladybug, what’s going on? Is there trouble?” Luka asked, his eyes assessing her erratic movements with growing concern. “We didn’t see anything about an akuma.”

“I doubt you would. Everything’s under control, but I do need to ask a favor.” She paused, waiting until she had both of their attention before she dropped her transformation. “Adrien’s in danger, and I need your help.”

Without hesitation, Luka spoke first. “Anything.”

Kagami and Marinette shared a smile, grateful the man before them didn’t hold grudges.

Sobering a bit, she continued, “Actually, I need Kagami to fulfill this favor. Sorry, Luka, but Adrien will be less hostile toward her. Plus, she has some serious fencing skills that might prove useful tonight.”

The man nodded though his expression belied his worried state.

Marinette couldn’t blame him under these weird circumstances.

Not wanting to waste another moment, she reached into her small purse, pulling out a cookie for Tikki and grabbed up the small box that held Plagg’s ring. She held it out to Kagami and asked, “Can I trust you to become my other half for the night? You’ll be wielding the power of destruction, becoming the black cat hero, Chaton Noire.”

“Why not Chat Noir?” Kagami smirked as their gazes met once more.

Marinette resisted rolling her eyes. “I’m not up for a feminist debate tonight. Besides, there’s only one Chat Noir in my life and he’s in trouble. Are you going to help him or not?”

Rumbling behind them pulled her attention. She ducked her head from behind the doorway, her eyes widening at the large number of motorcycles heading toward the alleyway.

“Now or never, Kagami. What do you say? Help me save the day and Chat?” She held the box out closer to Kagami.

Kagami’s hand came up and popped the lid from the box, bringing forth a bright green light and a snarky cat kwami.

“You owe me big time for packing me away, kid.” Plagg glanced up to see Kagami, his mouth dropping open. “Where’s my kitten? Where’s Ladybug? I demand answers, you imposter.”

“Plagg,” Marinette admonished, grabbing the black cat from the air and pulling him in close. “It’s a long story, but I need you to trust her and me. For Chat’s sake, do this, please.”

He took a final look between her and Kagami before he nodded. “You owe me a lot of Camembert for this.”

“All you can eat. Suit her up, Plagg.” Turning to her own kwami, she whispered, “Tikki, spots on.”

 

Chapter Text

Green and red lights flooded the doorway, engulfing Marinette and Chaton in their magic.

An appreciative whistle followed, bringing both women's attention back to the guy behind them.

Wistfulness filled Marinette as she recalled Chat and his similar appreciation before everything had imploded between them.

Giving herself a shake, she smirked. In a soft voice, she admitted, "Never gets old."

A blush fell over Luka's cheeks at being overheard, dropping a kiss on Chaton's cheek beneath her new mask to hide his discomfort. His attention focused on his girlfriend as he whispered, "Be careful, okay?"

She nodded, pointing him toward the back of the building. "I'll meet you at your place after this is over. Stay out of trouble, handsome."

"Take care of each other." He gave them a half-hearted wave as Marinette pointed toward the roof and sent her yo-yo flying, Chaton on her heels.

She caught him disappearing out the back door as she walked the perimeter of the rooftop. She could make out Chevalier as Rena continued to hold his attention, but she couldn't trust it would last much longer if his ears were any indication.

Hurrying toward the front, she caught sight of the motorcycles and their riders as they pulled to a stop, grouping themselves an alleyway down from the one currently occupied by her other teammates.

"Great," she muttered to herself. "Just what I needed is more drunken fools and their friends."

Her gaze scanned over the riders as they removed their helmets, at least the ones that actually wore them. Many had simply wrapped their heads with bandanas or placed regular hats that ran the gamut from ballcaps to cowboy hats. She groaned at the horrid fashion these men wore, thinking they'd benefit from a few online tutorials.

"Focus, girl." Another shake of her head brought her back into the game.

She jumped when a hand touched her shoulder, recalling Chaton's presence.

"What's the plan?" The new cat hero met her gaze with a determined frown as she added, "Partner."

Taken aback by the other woman's quick acceptance of her, she nodded, a small smile forming as she pointed to the rooftop across the street. "Think you can distract them as I work on Chat? I'll send Rena and Honey to help you."

Chaton glanced down at the men as they grouped around a few in the middle. From her stance, she almost looked frozen as she watched them before she sighed and nodded. "I think so, but I wouldn't take too long. I don't trust these guys."

"Neither do I." Marinette jumped onto the roof's ledge, swiveling to face Chaton. "Hey, thank you for helping me with this."

"Adrien's my friend. I'd do anything to help him, including manipulating him as I did before. I know I'm not your favorite person, and that's fine. I don't have to be, but I would like to try and create some type of truce once this is over. For his sake, you know?" She leaped across the street, using her baton almost expertly and landing with a soft thud on the opposite rooftop.

Not daring to dwell on Chaton's words, Marinette hurried to the edge and lowered herself into the alleyway. With a quick motion, she sent Rena and Honey into the street, warning them in a quiet tone of the bikers awaiting them.

"Well, My Lady, I'd wondered where you went off to. I thought maybe you might've found yourself another knight." Chevalier draped himself across several stacked boxes, his purple leather a sickening sight.

Everything felt wrong as she met his gaze with what she hoped was a soft look.

Walking closer, she put her hand on his chest, feeling his strong heartbeat beneath her fingers and taking solace in knowing her Chat was somewhere within. She just had to find him before Chevalier obliterated him and she had to take him down like any other akuma in the past.

"Another knight? Hmm, that's doubtful. After all, there's never been one as tough and handsome as you." She leaned closer, her lips going towards his ear to whisper, "Mon Chaton."

Purple eyes flared as his suit bubbled, deeper shades of that horrid color marring the leather. He moved with an agile grace that would've frightened her if she hadn't prepared herself for his reaction. "Your precious Chat is gone, My Lady. He's not coming back, so you might as well accept that."

His hands gripped her upper arms and hauled her against the nearest wall, his eyes blazing a lavender fire that burned brighter as he glared at her. His fingers tightened until his claws threatened to rip her suit.

"Never," she spat at him. "He's still in there somewhere. I know it. He'll come back and beat you. I believe in him. I always have."

"You're quite annoying in your persistence. I'm surprised he put up with it for so long." His eyes traveled down her form, taking in every detail outlined by her spandex suit. "Then again, maybe it's not so hard to imagine after all."

"I'm sorry, Adrien," she whispered, bringing her knee up and connecting with Chevalier's stomach.

He dropped her, his arms clutching his stomach and coughing.

She moved toward the alleyway's entrance, checking on the happenings in the street. Satisfied for the moment, she turned back to find Chevalier advancing, having recovered from the blow she'd given him.

"You'll pay for that, Bug." His claws swiped outward, nearly catching her across the thigh.

"You'll have to do better than that, Chaton." She launched high, her yo-yo propelling her upward until she perched on the rooftop's edge. Her hand propped her chin, calling to him with a teasing taunt. "Come now, Chaton. Surely, you know I'm not that easy to catch. Not unless I want to be caught."

He scrambled up the siding, pulling himself up to crouch nearby. His eyes glowed with a glee that reminded her of the old Chat she fought back sudden tears, but she shoved them down along with the memories. It wasn't the time to reminisce.

Focus.

Sliding from the roof, she swung toward the opposite side of the street, landing softly in an alley further from the bikers.

She caught sight of the leader as she swung, her eyes widening as she recognized him.

Sacha Manoury, president and CEO of Manoury Corp, one of the largest textile companies in France. Also, the leader of the Manoury Biker Foundation, which aided several other foundations in Paris.

She hadn't thought he employed men like the ones who'd attacked her or that other young woman earlier, but then, she hadn't thought a lot of things could happen that have over the years.

Distracted, she didn't hear Chevalier on her heels until he grabbed her around the waist, tackling her into a pile of old mattresses.

The purple in his eyes darkened as he straddled her, his hands holding her arms above her head. "So, pretty Bug, what was that about wanting to be caught?"

A shadow passed behind him, catching her attention as she caught the flash of green.

One moment, he straddled her, his eyes alight with wicked glee. The next, he groaned as a large circular object knocked against him, shoving him off her. HIs hands cradled his head. He was sure to have a headache from the blow.

"Sorry, dude, but that's not how you treat ladies. You used to know that," the turtle-like hero said, holding his shield protectively across one arm. His other hand extended toward her. "You okay, Ladybug?"

She nodded. "Who are you?"

"Carapace. The Guardian sent me." He pulled her to her feet. "He figured you might need some backup. I'd say he's right after what's going down here and out there."

A bit ruffled at the presumption, she grumbled beneath her breath, dusting her suit to remove old mattress pieces and dirt. "I have it under control. Well enough, anyway."

The turtle hero chuckled. "Stubborn as ever, huh, Nette?"

"Do I know you?" She glanced up to meet the golden eyes behind the goggles he wore, her mind going over what he'd said earlier. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me! Oh, that man has some serious explanations in tapping you. You're supposed to be the only one not touched by this."

"It's okay, LB. I wanted to help after I saw that fight that broke you two a while back. I couldn't just stand by and do nothing." His eyes traveled back to the still prone Chevalier. "I can't leave my best friend when he needs me most."

She wrapped her arms around Carapace, squeezing tight. In a soft whisper, she voiced her most heartfelt gratitude, "Thanks, Ninny."

He didn't say anything, simply held her as though the world hadn't begun to crumble around them. When he did manage to speak, he coughed before saying, "I have something that might help bring Chat back and send Chevalier away for good. It's not foolproof, but I think you might take anything at this point."

She nodded, watching as he pulled out a vial of glowing purple liquid. She cringed at the color, hating the hue and wishing she never saw it again after that night.

"What does it do?" She took it from his open hand, popping the cork top and walking toward Chevalier.

"It'll magnify the butterfly's powers about tenfold, giving both Chevalier and Chat a major boost of adrenaline. After it takes effect, Chat will need to fight hard if he wants to come back to us without having to rip Chevalier out of him." He knelt beside her, his shield coming up to defend her if necessary. "Do you know where the akuma could be hiding on him?"

She glanced over Adrien's akumatized form, seeking out wherever he could've accepted the butterfly's touch. She gasped as she spotted the glowing ring on his right ring finger, the same ring she'd given him earlier that night. Her grandfather's ring.

Oh, he's in so much trouble when this is all over, she fumed.

She pointed out the ring before hauling Chevalier to a sitting position and forcing his mouth open. Without ceremony, she dumped the contents of the vial down his throat, holding him in place as he sputtered and fought the liquid as it flowed into his system.

"How long before it takes effect?" She shoved Chevalier down and straddled him, taking the opportunity to turn the tables on him.

Carapace moved closer to Chevalier's head and stood, ready to aid her should she need it. "Not long according to the Guardian."

Chevalier gasped, fighting against her hold. The purple receded as bright green returned.

"Fight, Chaton. Fight as you've never fought before," she shouted as he continued to struggle against her hold.

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Adrien's consciousness flared to life, the fire of the awful-tasting liquid lingering on his tongue and burning down his throat. Adrenaline rushed through his veins, fueling him to fight against the one holding him down.

His eyes popped open and met the blue of his partner's, a softening at seeing her beautiful face above his.

Aww, there's the golden boy. Back to fight me again, are you? Think you stand a chance of winning this time?

Adrien, fight, son. Fight! Don't give into it this time. You can't. It'll destroy who you are if you do.

Shut it, old man, the butterfly hissed. Come, Adrien. You know you liked me at the helm, taking control. Your precious Ladybug certainly didn't mind.

His gaze sought hers as the butterfly taunted him. Her eyes shined down on him as she yelled at him, pleading with him to come back to her. As his gaze drifted around him, he caught the tiny rips in her suit, something that could only be made by claw marks.

You touched her? You hurt her? His shouts reverberated through his mind as he sought the butterfly.

Anger flowed alongside the adrenaline, his search gaining momentum as he raced toward the butterfly's last hiding place within his mind.

She made her choice, Adrien. She wouldn't submit to being beneath you as she should. We're stronger than she'll ever be. Don't you see that? Don't you feel the power coursing through you? That's my power, not yours, you puny runt. You want me so bad? You want to tear me down for doing what needed to be done? Then, come and get me.

Darkness surrounded him, thick and almost frightening, except for Ladybug's voice calling to him. Her voice became the light he needed as he spotted the butterfly, vaulting toward it. A true Chat Noir in his mind, he chased down the butterfly and caught it before it could flutter out of reach.

Clasped in his hands, the small entity he'd fought against the entire night proved quite puny and almost pathetic.

You need me, Adrien, it pleaded. You know you'll never be as strong without me. You think she'll want you after all you've done. You think she'll ever find anything lovable about you after this.

"Chaton," Ladybug's voice broke through, calling him toward the light she possessed.

He smiled, warmth and surety filling him.

Yeah, she will. She might be madder than I've ever seen her, but she'll forgive me one day, maybe even love me again. I know she will because she's far stronger than you could ever be.

Adrien, no, don't. You can't, the butterfly begged.

Not hesitating, he smashed his clawed hands together, ignoring the tiny screams of the butterfly. He had to help Ladybug. He didn't have time to dwell on the butterfly's last words, his mind clearing of the darkness to take in her lovely face again.

"My Lady," he whispered, his body slackening under her grip as he smiled at her. "Oh, such a beautiful sight to behold even if I'd prefer a cleaner place to gaze at you all night."

She laughed.

Oh, that heavenly sound couldn't have come at a better time. He wanted to bathe in that sound, luxuriating in it for the rest of his life.

"Oh, Chaton, I've missed you." She leaned down and pressed a kiss to his lips. She didn't linger, much to his disappointment, moving to stand and drag him with her. "We have a bigger problem awaiting us. You think you're up to it?"

He held out his hand to her. "With you? Always, My Lady."

She surprised him by turning to ask, "You joining us?"

Swiveling, his eyes widened as he took in the green-clad turtle hero behind them. "Who's that?"

"A friend, Chaton." Her hand squeezed his. "It seems the Guardian thought we could use an extra hand tonight. Lucky for us, he came just in time."

His gaze slid to the tiny rips in her suit, gulping as the implications hit him with enough force to send him to his knees. "I did that, didn't I? I actually tried to hurt you. Oh, Bug, I don't even know what to say."

Her hand covered his mouth, shushing him as she tutted. "Don't. It wasn't you. I know that. You'd never hurt me like that. You understand me? You wouldn't."

She's right, son. You're a good man. A better man than I've ever been, his father's voice spoke softer than before. Her suit will heal and so will you, son. Just give yourself some time.

Adrien nodded, his gaze softening more as he caught the small smile she gave him.

Together, they walked into the street, coming to stand beside the others.

His eyes widened as he caught the female version of himself. She looked more than a little familiar as she met his gaze, her eyes alight with a secret knowledge that never failed to unnerve him. The smirk she presented hit him hard as realization dawned.

"Hey, Bug, what's with the new Chat Noir?" He kept his voice low as the gang standing a few meters away looked eager to start something.

"Chaton Noire? She's my Plan B. I didn't know how long Chevalier would hold you hostage and wanted a backup if needed for these guys." She moved a bit closer to him, her warmth seeping through his suit. "Don't worry, mon Chaton. You'll always be my Chat Noir. I chose her because I knew you'd approve if I had no other choice."

He didn't know what to say. He couldn't exactly tell her the truth, not then. They had bigger problems glaring at them as the gang moved away from the bikes, stepping closer to their small group.

The earlier ringleader led the others, not stopping until he stood in front of Ladybug and himself. The man's menacing demeanor didn't sit well with Adrien as he studied him. He wasn't drunk any longer but rather cold sober and dangerous.

"I told you I'd be back with some friends. I even brought the big boss with me." His thumb hooked over his shoulder and indicated a man Adrien thought he knew. "Let's see what you think you can do against all of us now."

So many emotions swirled. His head began to pound from them.

A dark chuckle escaped from the deepest recesses.

You thought I had actually been defeated so easily, Adrien. All it takes is the right emotions to bring me back to life, the butterfly whispered. Triumph in its voice more than enough to send Adrien stepping back, his hands going to his head.

No!

Yes! You think you're so tough against me. When are you going to learn that you Agrestes are nothing but weaklings compared to the awesome power I wield?

"Chat?" Ladybug called to him, her hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"The butterfly isn't gone," Carapace said, his shield coming up. "Fight, dude. Fight it now and defeat it once and for all."

Listen to your friends, son. You can do this. Fight!

The butterfly cackled in the back of his mind.

You won't win, Adrien shouted. I won't let you.

You can try, little Adrien, but you should know I've been doing this far longer than you have. Your father has unleashed my full potential by corrupting the sweet Nooroo. But, go ahead. Give it your best shot.

"What's wrong with the mangy cat now?" The ringleader's voice sounded almost frightened as the popping and bubbling returned, their echoes almost deafening in Adrien's ears.

"Tell your men to back off and go home," Ladybug shouted to the men's true leader as he continued to sit on his motorcycle. "This isn't the time for some showdown. Your men were in the wrong for attacking a woman tonight. Have them sleep it off."

The man in question clapped his hands, a sinister smile crossing his features. He took his time in getting off his bike, walking in slow motion. At least, that's what it felt like to Adrien as the butterfly taunted him more. When the man finally stopped, his smile grew as his eyes met Adrien's.

Where had he seen this man before? He knew him. He was sure of it.

The butterfly's power drew his attention away, distracting him until the man spoke. Sacha Manoury, Aline's husband. One of Hawk Moth's final victims before his father started slowing down in his attempts to gain their jewelry.

"Well, there's something you should know, dear Ladybug," the man paused for dramatic effect, annoying Ladybug and even himself, before continuing, "I had my men create that diversion just for you and Chat Noir here. Though, is he really Chat Noir when he's clearly an akuma made by the great Hawk Moth? Or should I say Gabriel Agreste?"

00000

The world spun as Marinette tried to digest all the new information she'd gained from Sacha.

His smile didn't endear him to her, coming to stand in front of Chat as she worked to find something to say as a retort.

"You honestly believe the greatest fashion icon of Paris is secretly the biggest supervillain?" Honey asked, her voice scoffing at the notion. Her gaze met Marinette's for a moment, worry lurking in their depths. Not ready to give in though, she flounced her ponytail as she added, "That's quite laughable. You should be a comedian."

"I wouldn't be so quick to deny the truth when you hear it, little Bee," Sacha retorted, calm seeped out of him. His gaze remained on Marinette as he spoke, his eyes bright with the knowledge that she'd thought no one knew but a select few.

"Say you're right about Hawk Moth's identity. What makes you so sure that Chat here is an akuma and not an upgrade to his normal self? We've done that before." She stepped closer, doing her best to keep Chat from the man's reach. She wouldn't risk her partner in his current state, not when he'd taken on the riskiest mission yet. "What makes you believe that Gabriel Agreste would care about our miraculous? What could he possibly want?"

Sacha tutted, his finger wagging and halting her from continuing. "Come now, Ladybug. You and I both know exactly what the great fashion mogul would want. That pretty wife of his had been his world, far more than his son could ever be. He'd do anything to get her back, even sacrificing his son as I see happening before us now. After all, Chat Noir is none other than his son, Adrien Agreste."

Rena laughed, loud and hard, her hands clutching her stomach in her enthusiasm. "Oh, man, this guy is something else. Imagine the famous Adrien Agreste running around the city as a cat superhero. Surely, someone would've recognized him. I mean, he's plastered everywhere. Are you saying that no one but you has recognized Chat Noir all these years? No one has figured out his secret identity but you?"

The man shook his head. "Clever fox, aren't you?"

Having had enough, Marinette took another step closer and dared to poke his chest. "Look, I don't know what game you're playing, but this isn't funny. You and your associates need to leave."

He grabbed her arm, pulling her close enough she could make out his expensive cologne. His hardened eyes spoke volumes far greater than his tightening grip on her.

"Let her go," Chaton seethed, her baton extended into a staff. She tapped his arm once for good measure. "I might be new to this gig, but don't think I'll hesitate in taking you down. Let her go now."

He grinned, his fingers loosening. "I'd never dare to hurt our precious Ladybug. After all, she's been working so hard to keep our fair city safe all these years. Too bad her partner has been working with the enemy this entire time."

Chaton's staff smacked his hand away from Marinette, a sneer marring the fencer's usually stoic features. Memories of Riposte came back to the ladybug hero as she watched in fascination as Chaton wielded her staff expertly, turning the man toward the others.

"Take it back. Chat Noir is a hero and always will be. He deserves better from the likes of you, great philanthropist or not," Chaton spat, her tail swiping furiously behind her and betraying her emotional state.

"Your new cat has larger claws than I anticipated, Ladybug. Maybe we should trim them some." He motioned to the men behind him, stepping back as they surged forward.

They invaded the space between the heroes and their boss, weapons not previously seen dangling from their hands. Bats, wooden and metal, alongside brass knuckles and even a knife or two appeared, glinting dangerous in the lights illuminating them.

"My Lady," Chat cried behind her. His hands gripped his head as his suit became a wild discoloration of purple and black. "Let him take me. Save yourselves, please. It's my fault we're in this mess. I can't fight the butterfly much longer. We might as well let the butterfly handle them before you destroy it."

Spinning, she pulled him into her arms, disregarding the threat behind her for the moment. Her partner needed her. "You are not giving up on me, you understand me? You can win this, Chat. You are no quitter. I know this isn't easy, but you have all of us behind you. We can handle them while you destroy that butterfly yourself."

He nodded, his green eyes almost purple as they looked at her.

"A retreat isn't considered a defeat, Chat. You taught me that. If you need to retreat to regroup, then go. We'll be fine, but come back to us, okay?" She pressed a kiss to his cheek, whispering, "I love you now and always, Adrichat."

She turned, not watching him retreat to the alleyway they'd occupied earlier. Her gaze caught the men staring after him, their body language almost giddy in their willingness to chase after him.

Over my dead body, she threatened silently.

"Rena, Illusion," she shouted, pulling her yo-yo from her waist and shooting it at the nearest lamppost. "Chaton, Cataclysm the street if you need to. I'll fix it later. Honey, use your rapier. Carapace, I'm not sure what you can do but do it. Protect Chat at all costs, you hear me?"

Swinging into the air, she caught her teammates as they broke into their fighting stances. Chaton and Honey beckoning several men their way, handling them with their individual wiles and skills. Carapace followed Chat's retreat, putting up his shield and forming a mini force field around them. Rena dashed upward, landing on a nearby rooftop and pulled her flute to her lips, playing a soulful tune. A large orange ball formed, which she shot at the men below, dazzling several with its spectacle.

As she soared higher, she caught sight of Sacha, targeting his movements as he walked further down the street. Sensing the trap he'd set, she prayed she could handle whatever he had in store for all their sakes. She wouldn't, couldn't allow this man to hurt either Chat or Hawk Moth, her feelings for the latter set aside.

In her narrowed determination, she didn't see the man following behind her, the same man who'd played ringleader earlier. As she touched down to follow, he jumped her, tackling her to the ground.

Her head smacked into the concrete, creating an intense shooting of pain at the impact site. She groaned, fighting against his hard grip and the pain. She managed to shove him off and away, struggling to stand up and face him for a new fight.

After a moment or two, her vision cleared and her focus returned.

His hand aimed for her cheek, but she dodged the attack, landing a blow to his middle with her clenched fist. As he doubled over, she brought her elbow down on his shoulder, bringing him to his knees before her.

"I don't have time for your idiocy." She shoved him backward. With her yo-yo, she wrapped him against a nearby pole, her grin spreading as he spewed curses at her.

"Such language in the presence of ladies! You should be ashamed. I'm sure your mother is," Chaton chided, her amber eyes alight with a secret mirth that matched Marinette's at gaining the upper hand against this abhorrent individual.

"Where are the others?"

Chaton glanced over her shoulder. "Honey's keeping the others occupied and corralled while waiting on the authorities. Rena is helping Carapace with Chat. I came to assist you like the partner you asked me to be. I've got your back, LB."

Touched, she reached across and tapped Chaton's shoulder. "Thank you."

Together, they walked into the building where Sacha had disappeared, taking their time to scan each new room for any traps or signs of possible ambushes. They walked down the long corridor, reaching a large wooden door and shoving it open.

A long, winding stairwell greeted them.

"I don't like this," Chaton whispered.

Marinette had to agree, her head turning at the loud thuds above them. "What is he up to?"

"That's what has me worried. He's holding all the cards and we're playing blind." Chaton glanced around the stairwell. Her eyes hardened as she caught something that Marinette couldn't see or hear. "We're not alone."

Marinette barely had time to react before Chaton whipped around and extended her staff, lowering herself into her favored fencing pose.

"Whoa, girl, it's just us." Rena came into view, her hands up and her flute holstered behind her. Chat and Carapace followed close behind.

His green eyes warmed as they spotted Marinette. Purple marred his suit in spots and rimmed his mask, but his eyes remained clear of the horrendous color.

"You're okay?" She launched into his arms, wrapping around his neck and pressing a kiss to his cheek. "Truly okay?"

"He's weakened the butterfly, LB. It's still there, but it shouldn't take him over again." Carapace's hand clasped Chat's shoulder, a wide grin on his face. "I knew he had it in him."

"Thank you for believing in me, bro." His arms tightened around her as he dragged her closer. In a softer tone, he added, "Your belief in me, Maribug, means the world to me."

"Touching, but shouldn't we be focusing on the bad guy?" Honey admonished, joining the scene. Her blue eyes also bright with happiness at seeing Chat's return.

"She's right." Chat let her go, his hands remaining on her waist. "So, My Lady, do you have a plan or are we winging it?"

She waited for any tell-tell beeping before she spoke. "Here's what we do."

00000

Hearing those words filled Adrien with peace, knowing Ladybug had the situation well in hand as she directed them through their next course of action. Leave it to his Lady to know their next course of action.

Adrien, son, how are you feeling? I know that wasn't easy for you, and I'm so sorry for ever allowing you to go through it. I should've insisted harder that you didn't.

I'm fine, Father. It wasn't the greatest experience, but you're right. I'm stronger than I thought. I have the butterfly under control. It won't unleash without my saying so this time. Trust me a bit longer, Father. We're almost done.

"Hey, Chat, you still with us?" Ladybug asked, her eyes searching him for any signs of trouble.

He smiled, nodding. "I'm here. Hawk Moth just wanted to check in. Let's do this."

I'm so proud of you, son. If you don't remember anything else, always remember that you are my greatest accomplishment. Your heroism and sacrifice all these years, fighting against me, has been my greatest inspiration this past year. You are inspiring, Adrien. I love you, son.

The words didn't sit well with him, pausing when he would've followed Ladybug. His brows knitted as he puzzled over the words.

They sounded like a farewell.

Father, what are you doing? He shouted, his mind filling with images, so many images he couldn't breathe from seeing them. Please, don't do anything rash.

I'm not, son. This is anything but rash. I knew this day would come eventually. I'd just hoped it would've happened after you'd grown up and moved on with your life. I'm sorry for the pain this will cause you and for Nathalie. Take care of them, son.

"No," Adrien shouted, racing past the others. He moved with a swiftness he hadn't known possible, his steps leaping and bounding the several flights of stairs. He didn't dare stop until he reached the roof access door, shoving it open and racing outside.

He ignored teammates' shouts. He couldn't listen to their pleading to wait, to stop before he ruined his Lady's plans. Her plans hadn't included what he feared most. He knew that even if they didn't.

He shrank back at what awaited him on the other side. His father, dressed in his Hawk Moth suit, was tied and trussed up beside the man they'd been chasing. His father panted and coughed as if he'd been fighting against the man and losing.

How had he not noticed his father had left the mansion? How had he not noticed his father had been in trouble?

"Nice of you to join us, Chat Noir. I see you have the akuma well in hand." Sacha clapped as his gaze assessed Adrien. His eyes remained cold as he tilted a bit and whispered to the bundle beside him, "Something you should be proud of, Hawk Moth. My wife couldn't quite handle the akuma and its powers that you gave her."

"Don't hurt him," Hawk Moth pleaded, coughs punctuating each word. "He's innocent in this."

"So was my wife, but you didn't care about that, did you?" He gripped Hawk Moth's lapels and pulled him up roughly. "She'd had an off day, and you used that to your advantage, sending her to attack your son and his friend for some pretty jewelry. Just how pathetic are you that you'd take an innocent woman and make her do your dirty work?"

"Let him go," Adrien shouted, his gaze widening as he caught the man's smirk. "Please, I know what he's done is wrong, but he's changed. He wants to repair what he's done to the city and its citizens. He deserves that chance."

"Chat," Ladybug called from the doorway. "Hawk Moth? What are you doing here? What are you doing to him?"

"This man doesn't deserve anyone's forgiveness. He's hurt more people than just those he's akumatized over the years. You should know, young Adrien. You've fought them and even succumbed to a few of them, leaving your partner without your help in taking them down, including my wife." Sacha dropped Hawk Moth without further thought, the reforming villain landing with a solid thunk against the rooftop.

"We understand your anger, but that doesn't mean you can seek vengeance for your wife through these means. What would she say if she knew you were doing this in her name?" Ladybug demanded, her hand resting near Adrien's as he remained frozen.

He hadn't heard her approach but took comfort in her proximity.

"I wouldn't know, dear Ladybug. My wife killed herself six months after he'd gotten his hands on her. She couldn't handle knowing what she'd done." He spat the words at the beaten man kneeling beside him, his gaze hardened steel. "My daughter still cries herself to sleep every night, wishing her mother would tuck her in. At least, she did before her grandparents took her away from me. Said I was unfit to raise her any longer."

Adrien didn't know what to say. He could sympathize with the man, even empathize, but words failed him. What condolences could he offer Sacha, knowing his father had played such a heavy hand in the man's life?

To his gratitude, his Lady didn't disappoint as she stepped forward, her hand outstretched. "I know you think this is the worst thing that's ever happened to you. I know what it's like facing the hardest choices, but you can't do this. You'll change your daughter's life forever if you do this. Don't become what she might fear later."

"You'd have me let him go after all he's done." Sacha's voice wobbled, and his hand shook. "I can't do that, Ladybug. I can't let him walk away without facing some consequence for his actions."

"He's dying," she yelled back. Her shoulders slumped, her voice choking. Her pain reflected in her eyes as she turned to Adrien and whispered, "I'm sorry, Chat."

He nodded. Her words hurt, but he could withstand them. He'd had time to come to terms with his father's condition, knowing their time as father and son would soon end. His actions that night wouldn't change that, he knew, and it hadn't even been why he'd chosen this path in the end.

He'd wanted some redemption for not seeing the truth sooner. He could've done something if he had. They could've done something.

 "He's already facing the consequences of his actions. He twisted the magic until it infected him. It's too late to save him, but there's still time to save yourself. You can still walk away as if nothing happened. No one has to know that this was your plan." The plea in her voice broke Adrien's heart as he realized she fought for him harder than he ever thought someone might.

"It's too late, Ladybug. My mind's made up." Sacha pulled a revolver from his pocket, opening the chamber and checking the loaded slots. He snapped it back and cocked the hammer. "I never intended to end his life tonight. I came here to make him suffer as I've suffered these past two years."

"No," Hawk Moth cried, his body hurling forward to knock the gun from the man's hand.

Sacha sidestepped him, smirking at the futile efforts of the once-infamous supervillain.

Adrien caught the man's gaze, knowing this night had changed from one of redemption to one of judgment. He'd been judged the one worthy of sacrifice for his father's sins.

"You did this yourself, Gabriel. I thought to take out your pretty assistant since I thought your son innocent before I heard you'd used him to create another of your abominations. How low could you stoop to involve your own son?"

His father didn't reply, remaining stoic despite the accusations tossed at him.

The man leaned down, the gun moving closer to Hawk Moth, closer to his father.

Adrien felt sick to his stomach. He couldn't watch this man torment his father, not when he could stop it. He reached out and moved Ladybug aside, putting as much distance as he could between them. He didn't stop moving until he stood a half-meter from the gunman and his father.

"He didn't make me do anything. I asked for this." He could hear Ladybug yelling at him to stop. He could only hope their friends, their teammates held her back. He had to do this for all their sakes. "You want to be mad at him. I can't blame you. I've spent years resenting the fact he cared little for me. He shoved me aside, wanting my mother more than he wanted me. At least, he did before this past year."

His father met his gaze, a silent plea for him to step back. A plea he ignored as he faced Sacha, a man broken and hurting.

"He's changed." He paused, gathering his thoughts as he hoped to convey what this man needed to hear. "I know that's small consolation for what's happened to you. I don't know what it's like to lose a wife, but I do know what it's like to lose a parent. It's unbearable. It's so lonely. I've been so alone for so long. If you love your daughter as I think you do, then fight to get her back. Prove to her that she's your world and always will be. Do what's taken him far longer to do for me. Be the man your daughter would want you to be."

Is it time now, master? Is it time to say goodbye? The butterfly's whisper brought a bittersweet smile to his face.

His left hand went to his right, playing with the ring Marinette had given him earlier. He'd have to apologize for using the ring as he had, but it'd done the job he'd needed it to.

The man standing across from him glanced down at his gun and at Hawk Moth kneeling before raising his gaze once more to meet Adrien's. "I don't know that I can do that. I've come too far to stop this now."

He didn't know how he managed it, but a chuckle slipped past his lips, soft yet calm. "I understand. I've felt that way myself. It's hard, but I've found I don't need this akuma or even Chat Noir anymore. I can be a hero with or without my miraculous or his. You can do the same if you give yourself the chance."

He slipped the ring from his finger, a white butterfly slipping from the metal and fluttering above them. The suit melted away, leaving behind a vulnerable yet assured Adrien Agreste.

"Put the gun away. Please?" He held out his hand, hoping they could reach a non-violent conclusion to this entire mess. He'd seen enough heartbreak and damage over the years. He didn't want to see this man's life ruined, not after everything. "Let the authorities handle Hawk Moth. He'll pay for his crimes one way or another. Let your daughter's memory of you remain intact."

Sacha's hand shook as he gripped the gun tight. His eyes clenched shut as though he wrestled with his inner conscious.

The moment seemed to last forever, or at least, it did for Adrien.

When the bereft man's eyes opened again, they were clear. His hand raised, the gun cocked and aimed it at Adrien's chest.

Adrien's mind cleared, his eyes sliding shut as he accepted the fate Sacha decided for him.

The world froze for only a moment before a loud shot rang out.

Chapter Text

“Adrien, no!”

Gabriel jerked awake, his chest heaving and his forehead beading with sweat. The nightmare flashed through his mind. That day would forever haunt him, he feared. He would never forget the gun pointed at Adrien’s chest or Adrien’s serene nod as his eyes slid closed, ready to accept the fate decided for him. The bullet zipped through the air, the gun’s bang echoing over the rooftop.

Air seized in Gabriel’s lungs as he kneeled on the ground, unable to do anything to stop the bullet’s trajectory. Nothing could save his son the fate meant for him. How did the world go sideways? How had he allowed his son to become another victim in his selfish desire to bring Emilie back? Again! Emilie would never forgive him for their son’s sacrifice that day. He knew and hated the hopelessness he felt at that moment.

Tears streaked down his cheeks, his heart grieving for another loss he hadn’t counted on, a loss more unbearable than Emilie. Adrien, his son, stood proud and tall, awaiting that awful bullet to strike him.

Shrieks came from Gabriel’s side. Marinette, he realized later. She’d screamed for Adrien to move, to do something. She shouted at Sacha, begging him to stop. He could hear the fear in her voice. It matched his.

One second, his son stood. The next, he lay on the ground, blood seeping around him.

More tears trekked down his cheeks as he relived that nightmare, his shoulders shaking as he bit back his grief.

He didn’t dare wake Nathalie. She deserved her rest. Like him, she hadn’t been sleeping well, the baby keeping her up with morning sickness and weird cravings.

“Shh. It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” she whispered in his ear, her arms wrapping around him. “It’s just a dream. A bad dream, Gabriel. He’s fine. He’s alive. Adrien is alive, darling, and so are you.”

He clung to her, letting her words wash over him. They calmed him.

She wouldn’t lie to him. Nathalie had never lied to him, not about something like this.

Adrien is alive. That was all that mattered.

“Would you like to check on him? He should be sleeping, but I don’t think he’ll mind.” She pulled back, her head resting on the pillow. She offered him a smile, her hand running over his shoulder. “Come on. I was feeling a bit hungry anyway. It’ll make you feel better.”

She tossed aside her blankets and slid from the bed, pushing from the mattress with a soft moan. Her hand rested on her abdomen, rubbing soft circles to soothe the small child within. Her other hand reached for his upon making her way to his side, her smile still in place.

He didn’t hesitate in taking hers, coming to stand beside her. A quick tug pulled her into his arms where he kept her for several seconds, content to hold her close and feel her heart beat against his chest.

“Come on. The baby’s getting antsy for some Camembert and figs.” A soft giggle escaped her lips at the shudder going through him. “I know. It doesn’t sound pleasant, but it’s quite satisfying.”

“If you say so, my dear. If you say so.”

Together, they walked down the hall, stopping at Adrien’s door.

Gabriel stared at it, unable to move, unable to breathe. Phantom grief came flooding back, threatening to engulf him. It took everything in him to reach out and clasp the doorknob, his hand trembling.

“He’s fine, Gabriel. He’s on the other side. You’ll see.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek and took a step back. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

He froze, his gaze following her down the hall and to the stairs. He didn’t stop watching until she disappeared down the stairs, her destination’s promise clear in each step she took toward the kitchen.

Blowing out a pent-up breath, his hand pushed the door open, its hinges silent. Gabriel hesitated another moment, almost hoping Nathalie would return and bolster him. He hadn’t taken a step forward. He couldn’t. The nightmare’s stark images came charging back. Blood surrounded Adrien’s still body, his last breath escaping with a soft exhale. None hurt as much as that one, threatening to tear his heart and soul asunder.

He shoved the thoughts aside, Nathalie’s voice chanting her recent mantra. He’s fine. He’s alive. Adrien’s fine. Adrien’s alive.

“He’s fine. He’s alive. Adrien’s fine. Adrien’s alive.” He repeated aloud, his low voice loud in the quietness that blanketed the mansion at that early morning hour.

He moved, forcing his feet forward. His gaze traveled over his son’s room, taking in the few changes Adrien had made.

Not many, Gabriel noted with some sadness.

The rock-climbing wall, basketball hoop, and skate ramp stood near the bedroom’s main entrance. The long, white sofa with the large TV and game consoles sat across the way. Everything he had Nathalie purchase over the years remained. Sure, some of the arcades had been unplugged, but they still sat, reminders of his failures as a father.

The only changes being a few sentimental items scattered around the room. Little tokens his friends had given. A few framed photographs mingled with those trinkets, but those proved sparse.

His gaze traveled over the room, widening upon seeing Adrien’s bed perfectly made and empty. He searched the room, certain Adrien hadn’t gone out. None of his windows stood open but rather closed and locked, a rarity for the younger Agreste until a couple months ago.

A soft snore pulled Gabriel’s troubled thoughts toward the baby grand sitting in the room’s center. Draped over the keys and his head cushioned by his arms, Adrien slept.

His heart swelled at the sight. He’d forgotten how young his son could look while sleeping. It didn’t feel real the young man had turned eighteen a few weeks ago. How Gabriel wished he could turn back time and relive Adrien’s younger years, doing them differently this time around.

Stepping closer to the piano, his gaze swept over the jumbled music sheets. Several had bunched under Adrien’s sleeping form, others had fallen to the floor, and a few remained on their stand, pristine. The title on the otherwise blank sheets caught his attention but not as much as the dedication scrawled in Adrien’s neat handwriting.

To Marinette, the only Lady to capture my heart and never let go.

 A smile spread across his lips. Adrien had certainly found a young woman who fit him well. Despite all the trouble he’d caused their relationship, he felt certain the two would come together again soon, stronger than ever before.

The thought filled him with pride for his son and a tiny bit for himself, knowing the boon he’d be gaining with Marinette as a daughter-in-law in time. She’d been exactly what his son and he had needed to do the work necessary to repair their relationship.

His hand rested on Adrien’s shoulder, giving a tiny nudge. “Adrien, son, time for bed.”

Gabriel’s smile grew a bit wider as Adrien mumbled in his sleep, asking for a few more minutes.

“Come on, young man. You should be in bed. What would Marinette say if she caught you sleeping at the piano?” The words had their desired effect. Adrien’s eyes fluttered open, glancing around his room and blinking back sleep.

00000

“What’s going on? What time is it? Mari? Is she okay? Nathalie?” The questions tumbled over one another while Adrien stumbled in his haste to stand.

“Everything’s fine, son. Calm down.” Gabriel’s hand rested on his shoulder, a slight squeeze of reassurance grounding Adrien’s tired nerves.

His hands rubbed at his eyes, their dryness a bit painful. He blinked them several times before he turned toward his father. A glance at his clock told him how early it was.

“Nightmare?” Adrien didn’t have to see his father’s expression to see the truth there. The sharp inhale Gabriel gave answered his question.

His arm panged, the bandage around his bicep rubbing his shirt. He relived that night often enough to know how it haunted his father. It haunted him, too.

If it hadn’t been for Luka, he’d have died that night. He knew that. The bullet’s aim had been true, aiming straight for his heart. He’d seen the certainty in Sacha’s eyes that night. He meant to take Adrien’s pain away while drowning Gabriel in never-ending sorrow and guilt.

Adrien had even been ready to accept that fate if it meant keeping everyone around him safe, including his father. He should’ve known his father was Hawk Moth. He should’ve known and done something about it long ago. He should’ve been open to hearing Marinette when she’d first suspected his father.

Even with all the evidence pointing at Gabriel, Adrien had refused to believe it. How could he? It was his father, a man he’d spent most of his life trying to impress and gain an ounce of affection. He doubted he’d ever forgive himself fully for missing the obvious and allowing his father to terrorize Paris.

So, he’d accepted Sacha’s ruling to pay the price for his father’s deeds. He’d accepted it, knowing he’d leave Marinette behind and his other friends. They’d survive without him, he knew. They’d done well without him before he came into the picture and would get over his absence soon enough.

He’d been checkmated. He couldn’t see any other way out because there wasn’t any, not without incurring further casualties or injuries. He wouldn’t risk that.

It didn’t matter if a small part of him protested the insanity of that acceptance. That small part had pleaded for him to make a move, to stop the madness happening. He’d squashed it down, ignoring the cries he heard behind him and his father’s tears in front of him. He closed his eyes and willed the world away, the gunshot being the only sound to intrude.

He’d hit the ground hard. Too hard. Another body heaved over him, harsh breathing in Adrien’s ear. He’d thought for a moment maybe Marinette had intervened, a hopeful fluttering in his heart at the thought, but the person hovering over him was heavier, stockier.

“Idiot,” the familiar voice hissed at him. Luka.

Fire blazed in his arm. His other hand reached over and came away, covered in thick red blood. He’d stared at it, unable to move as he realized he’d been shot but hadn’t died. The bullet had missed his heart, catching his arm instead.

The rest of the night passed in a blur. One moment, they stood on that rooftop with Sacha incapacitated and the next, he laid on a hospital bed, his arm stitched and bandaged. He couldn’t recall the story Marinette had given the medical staff about his injury, but they didn’t ask for further questions. Once they cleared him, he went home, Marinette quiet yet beside him. Her hand clasped his in a tight grip, almost afraid to let him go.

He fell asleep in his bed, the sedatives working their magic. Marinette sat beside him, her hand still holding his. She didn’t say a word, her expression speaking volumes.

He dreamed that night. Vivid dreams of futures to come. All had Marinette as his girlfriend, his wife, the mother of his children. Dreams wove themselves into intricate knots, showing him the past and extraordinary possibilities for the future. A future he wanted more than anything. A future he wanted with Marinette.

He woke with a smile on his lips. A smile that died as he realized he woke alone.

“Son, you alright?” Gabriel asked, sinking onto the bench beside him. “You’re not looking well.”

Shaking himself of the past, Adrien glanced toward his father, catching the concern furrowing the older man’s brow. Doing his best to calm the ache in his heart, he offered a tight smile. “I’ll be fine, Father. It’s nothing a little more sleep won’t cure.”

If only that were true, he thought. What he needed, he couldn’t seek out. He’d become a prisoner once more in his home, trapped without an end in sight.

He didn’t have a kwami or superpowers that defied his prison before, meaning he was well and truly trapped this time. Plagg and his ring remained with Marinette or maybe Master Fu. He didn’t know. He hadn’t spoken to anyone in the past three weeks. The prosecutor handling his father’s case had taken his phone and computer as a precaution.

No one was allowed any communication outside the house. They’d all become prisoners as everything worked to be sorted and Gabriel’s fate decided.

“Have you heard anything? From the prosecutor?” He hated voicing the questions, but he had to know. He had to know how much longer they’d be trapped.

“Not yet. It shouldn’t be much longer, son. You’ll be free soon.” His father’s hand rested on his shoulder. “I’m sorry for doing this to you again. I never meant to trap you here, not like this. Not this time anyway.”

“It hasn’t been all bad, but I do miss my friends. It’d be nice to see them again.” He glanced at the sheet music on the piano, a blush staining his cheeks at the dedication he’d written. He hadn’t expected company, or he would’ve tucked it away.

His hand reached out to grab it, but Gabriel stopped him. “She’s lucky to have you, son. The love growing between you is rare. Don’t ever let it go. Embrace it. Fight for it. Do everything I failed to do with your mother and almost failed to do with Nathalie. Don’t be like me.”

“Yes, Father.” He offered the older man a small smile, tiredness working to reclaim him. “I can’t help wondering where I stand with her after everything. That night’s still a bit fuzzy in places.”

“I think,” the older man paused, his eyes searching Adrien’s face, “that it’s time to sleep. You can get your answers later. I’m sure Marinette will answer them if you ask her when the time comes. For now, get some sleep, son. Dawn will be here soon enough.”

Adrien nodded, moving to stand. His hand reached out to help Gabriel stand, knowing how far his father’s health had declined in the past few weeks. The older man didn’t resemble the man he’d once been. Gone was the imposing persona, something Adrien couldn’t admit to missing. In its place, the man before him had grown kinder, wiser.

They embraced for a moment, Gabriel pulling away first and shooing Adrien to his bed.

As the door clicked shut behind his father, Adrien settled under his blankets, his gaze traveling to the empty pillow. Plagg had slept there the past five years. The pillow had lost the scent of Camembert since he locked Plagg back in his ring and gave the kwami to Marinette a few months ago.

Tears misted his eyes, his thoughts returning to those first few years. He missed them, wishing he could go back and redo so much. He wanted to spoil Plagg more. He wanted more time with Nino and his other friends. He wanted so much to go back and undo all the hurt he’d given Ladybug and Marinette before he’d learned they were the same person.

Her image came to mind, the one from that long night. She’d sat next to him, her hand holding his.

“Sleep, Adrien. It’s over. It’s finally over. Sleep. We can talk in the morning when you’re stronger,” she whispered, a soft smile on her lips.

He recalled her leaning close to drop a kiss on his cheek, but he couldn’t be sure. Her lips had been soft, and she smelled sweet despite the battle they’d just endured. He didn’t know how she managed that. He’d always felt gross after a long battle, but he didn’t dare analyze it, not wanting that to be his last thought before drifting off to sleep.

He did the same this night, picturing Marinette and her sweetness. He wished he could hear her voice whispering to him, smell her sweet scent, and touch her cheek, her lips, and anywhere else she allowed.

Sleep claimed him, pulling him under with the promise of Marinette and kept him there the next few hours. He didn’t stir again until a tapping woke him.

“Come in,” he called out, believing his father had returned. He rubbed at his eyes, sleep close to overcoming his barely awakened state.

The tapping continued.                                                                                                                                                                   

Throwing off the blankets wrapped around him, he hurried to his bedroom door, wrenching it open and finding the hall empty. Confused, he looked around. He turned, his gaze skittering over his room. He hadn’t imagined the tapping, not when it came again.

Looking up, his breath caught in his throat. A sight he hadn’t thought to see again dangled near his window, her smile warm while her finger pointed at the window.

“Can I come in?” she asked, her voice raised to hear through the glass.

00000

Nerves jangled throughout her body, threatening to send her tumbling from her current position.

Three weeks. Three long, excruciating weeks of staying away.

They ended today, she mused, her gaze fixating on Adrien’s sleepy movements as he answered the knock he heard. She’d missed him. She hadn’t slept well since she’d been told to stay away by the prosecutor.

He’d wanted to ensure that the Agreste men and those connected to them didn’t have any other secrets or crimes. She’d bristled at his belief Adrien could be a criminal. It didn’t matter the man hadn’t a clue Adrien was Chat Noir, not to her. She’d fought to have their confinement reduced, earning the men a few weeks less than the prosecutor initially desired as the courts decided Gabriel’s punishment.

Waking up that morning, she hadn’t slowed down, hurrying through her morning routine and chores. She had a meeting with Master Fu, reclaiming Tikki and a few others from his possession. She had no intention of being separated from Tikki again or her Chat.

Never again, she vowed.

She tapped again and called out to him, her smile tentative at first but soon growing when he caught sight of her.

He’d lit up at seeing her, a good sign in her book. He proceeded to trip over everything in his haste to reach the remote.

The window opened.

Taking her cue, she lowered herself to sit on the sill, her gaze returning to his. “Hi.”

“You’re here? Really here? I’m not dreaming this, am I?” He took a step closer, his hand reaching toward her but stopping shy of touching her. He frowned though hope flared in his green eyes, eyes she’d missed these few weeks.

She grabbed his hand, pulling him close to wrap her arms around his shoulders. “You’re not dreaming, Adrien. I’m really here, Chaton, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Arms wrapped around her waist and dragged her from the sill. They didn’t let go, either, until Adrien had them on his couch. He fell back, sinking into the deep cushions and cradled her in his lap. His forehead touched hers as he rasped, “I missed you, Marinette.”

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to.

They held each other for the next several minutes, content in the quietness surrounding them. They sat there, their arms tightening every so often. Emotions passed between them, not needing names or labels.

She didn’t have the heart to ruin it with chatter. Neither did he. Whatever they needed to say could wait another day.

Three weeks, she reminded herself. Three long, excruciating weeks.

Her yo-yo dinged, reminding her of the mission. She had a purpose for coming, not just to see Adrien and check on him. She had to remember that.

“Tikki,” she whispered, “spots off.”

Pink engulfed her, the magic fading and leaving her civilian form in his lap.

Tikki zipped from her earrings, coming to rest on her shoulder. “Nice to see you again, Adrien.”

“It’s good to see you, too.” He smiled, his arms tightening around Marinette’s waist. He brought his eyes back to hers, asking, “Can you stay for a while?”

“Actually, we can’t. We’re expected at Master Fu’s in fifteen minutes.” She scooted out of his lap, Tikki floating a bit away to keep from toppling off her perch.

“Oh, okay, I’m glad you could drop by then.” He kept his head down, his hands fidgeting with the ringless finger where his miraculous once sat. “It was nice seeing you, Marinette, even for a moment.”

Marinette’s hand dived into her small purse, tugging out a cookie for her kwami before reaching in once more. This time, she smiled as her hands touched the familiar wooden box. Her hand wrapped around it, pulling it from her purse. She crouched beside Adrien’s slumped form, the box sitting in the palm of her hand.

He looked up, his eyes going wide at the box. His hands closed and opened several times, the desire to reach out and claim the box from her bright in his green gaze.

When they met hers, she offered him a wide grin. “Ready to become Chat Noir again?”

“Seriously? You want me back as your partner? You don’t hate me for what I did?”

Grabbing his hand, she slid the box onto his palm. Her gaze remained on the box for a moment, composing her thoughts before she met his curious, hopeful eyes. “I think you’ve earned it, Adrien. You proved you’re a hero even if I don’t agree with what you did. I still have a bone to pick with you about that decision, but for now, we’re needed elsewhere. So, are you ready? Will you be my partner? My other half?”

He nodded, opening the box and flooding them with green light.

“Oh, thank Camembert! Kid, it’s you.” Plagg flew at Adrien, hitting his cheek and squeezing tight with his tiny arms. “Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again, kid. You hear me? I will cataclysm your butt you ever scare me like that again.”

“I promise.” Adrien’s eyes met hers. “Never again, I swear.”

Nodding, she called Tikki to transform her, watching as Adrien did the same with Plagg. She smiled at the familiar suit covering him, everything intact from his cute ears to his bell and tail. The only difference she noted was the bell no longer shined in gold but silver.

She flicked the bell, satisfied upon hearing it jingle. She could live with the color change, but she couldn’t handle not hearing it jingle.

“Come on, handsome. We need to grab your father before we go.” She took the necessary strides toward his bedroom door, aware he froze at her words. Her hand on the knob, she turned back to him and asked, “You coming, Chaton? We really do need to hurry.”

Questions sparkled in his eyes, but he quelled them, following her out of his room.

Soon, they’d tracked down Gabriel and Nathalie in the dining hall, where they were finishing up their breakfast. They smiled at her, warm smiles that didn’t fade until she presented Gabriel with a final wooden box.

“Nooroo?” Gabriel asked. “I’m getting him back?”

She shook her head. “Not exactly. Master Fu needs all current wielders to heal the peacock miraculous. Since you were the last wielder for Nooroo and you’ve redeemed yourself, Master Fu and I both thought it best to keep you assigned to him until a new one can be found.”

Like Adrien, Gabriel hesitated a moment before taking the box from her hand, his fingers brushing the wooden lid another moment. As he popped it, purple light encased them as Nooroo appeared, his eyes bright and his smile wide.

“Master, it’s good to see you again. I hope you’re well.”

“Hello, Nooroo. I should be saying that to you.” Gabriel’s hand reached out to the tiny butterfly. “You are well, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Master. Never better.” Nooroo glanced over at her. “Ladybug has been taking great care of me.”

Before Gabriel could say anything, Marinette stepped forward. “I’m sorry, but we need to go now. Master Fu needs us for the peacock. Then, we’re to head to the prosecutor’s office. He, um, he has some news for us.”

She didn’t dare meet Adrien’s questioning expression, knowing she’d break and tell him what little she knew. It wasn’t much, not enough to satisfy the other questions he’d have or the questions churning within her.

She’d had to browbeat the prosecutor to talk to her in the first place, not accepting his first or second answers to her pleas for information. She’d worn him down over the past three weeks, finally gaining the smallest bit of information. She’d learned that the special panel convened to determine Gabriel’s fate had reached their decision. She agreed to bring Gabriel to his office upon the completion of their mission at the Guardian’s home.

She’d made sure they didn’t have any tails on them as Gabriel called for his transformation. It took her a moment to calm her rising anger. However far he’d come, Gabriel had still terrorized her city for far too long. She wanted to deck him despite all the good he’d done in the end. She wanted to deck him for hurting the young man beside her with his selfishness.

She refrained, stepping back to stand beside her partner, her best friend.

“Let’s go,” she said a moment later, leading the way out of the Agreste mansion.

She felt the others following her, Adrien at her side and Gabriel behind them. She didn’t dare look at either, not until they touched down at Master Fu’s massage parlor.

A peek into the window confirmed her suspicions. Turning to the Agreste men, she offered them a small smile, whispering, “Come on. Everyone’s waiting on us.”

00000

Adrien stepped into the massage parlor, his steps hesitant compared to Marinette’s. It didn’t matter that he wore his super suit and mask. His nervousness overpowered his typical carefree persona. He didn’t know what awaited him, but he could honestly say he never expected to be tackled by several others.

“Adrikins!”

“Dude!”

“Sunshine!”

A giggle behind him tickled at his cat ears, a sound he’d missed more than anything. Marinette’s laugh. He hadn’t thought to hear it again, not after being locked away and forgotten by society. He couldn’t add his friends as they continued to hug on him, threatening to cut off his air.

“Welcome, Adrien. Gabriel.” Master Fu stood in the doorway, a serene smile on his face. “Come, let’s get started.”

Disentangling from his friends, they followed the Guardian into the large room, the peacock broach lying in the middle of a large mat. He guided them to their appointed spots. “Hold hands and chant after me.”

He spoke an ancient language. A language Adrien didn’t recognize but sounded easy enough. The phonetics proved simplistic and soon magic spun around them. The broach wriggled and danced as their magic flowed into the miraculous. It spun faster with each new round of chanting until it dropped in an instant, leaving a beautiful blue bird floating in the air.

“Welcome back, Duusu. It’s been a long time,” Master Fu said, his voice soft. “You may drop your transformations if you’d like, give your kwamis a chance to recharge. You have all worked hard today.”

Adrien glanced at his friends and father as they dropped their transformations, one by one. His voice soon joined theirs, saying the familiar words to Plagg. The magic drained away.

Each kwami sank gratefully onto their favored perches, taking the small offerings their wielders had learned to keep on-hand.

“Kid, you okay?” Plagg whispered near his ear, a wedge of Camembert in his tiny paws. The small black cat broke his prized cheese in half, offering half to him. “You look a little pale.”

He smiled, his teeth flashing for a moment. “I haven’t been getting out much.”

His kwami nodded, gulping down his piece in one bite. “We’ll fix that soon enough, right? You wouldn’t want to be apart from your Ladybug, would you? You two good?”

Adrien’s gaze slid across the room where Marinette stood next to Alya and Chloe, her words too low to hear. Tikki munched on a cookie nearby while Trixx and Pollen played. When she glanced up, she searched for him, a hopeful look in her eyes and a blush dusting her cheeks.

“Not yet, but I think there’s hope for us. We haven’t talked, but we will.”

Plagg nodded, satisfied. Finished with his snack, he zipped off to capture Tikki in a hug, yelling out her pet name and earning him a derisive look in return.

Shaking his head, Adrien turned to find his father chatting softly with Nooroo. The two looked almost friendly, something he hadn’t expected after his father’s treatment of the kwami over the years. He took a step closer but stopped when a hand clasped his shoulder.

“I’d give them a minute, bro. You’ll be leaving soon, but Nooroo won’t be. He’s staying with Master Fu until he’s ready for his new wielder.” Nino’s voice remained quiet, his tone soft with understanding and compassion. “For all your father’s faults, Nooroo really came to like him this past year, especially these past few months. He’s been telling us about the changes in Gabriel’s life, including his treatment of you. He wishes he could undo the damage the magic has done to your father.”

Marinette joined them a moment later, her eyes dark with foreboding.

“We have to go, don’t we?” he asked, seeing the answer in the way she carried herself. Tikki sat on her shoulder once more, sadness lurking in her matching blue eyes. He spared another glance at his father, catching sight of Master Fu approaching the older Agreste. “I’ll get Plagg.”

He hurried toward his kwami, not quite sure why he rushed. He’d known this day would come, but he hadn’t thought it would come so soon. He hated the thought of his father going to prison or worse, but then, he also knew the prosecutor and special panel couldn’t look the other way, either. They couldn’t in good conscience ignore all the pain his father had wrought on Paris’s citizens.

He found Plagg chasing Trixx around the room as Pollen cheered on the little fox. Chloe and Alya shared amused glances though those faded upon seeing Adrien. It hit then how he must’ve looked to them, his posture tense and his lips curved into a deep frown. He probably didn’t look like much of a model, not even sure why he cared except he didn’t want them worrying about him, not again.

“Hey, Adrikins, come here a sec.” Chloe beckoned him to her side, her sliding into her clutch. A moment later, a cell phone appeared in her hand. “Call me later. Check in and let me know what’s going on. Okay?”

“I’m not sure I can take that. The prosecutor took mine because he didn’t want me in contact with anyone. I don’t want you to get in trouble.” He shoved his hands into his pockets, fighting the urge to take the phone she offered him. He’d missed being able to communicate with his friends, but he wouldn’t risk their freedom by breaking the rules. He’d broken enough in the past few months to last him a lifetime, including unspoken friendship rules.

Chloe smirked, her blonde ponytail flicking back and forth as she shook her head. “That prosecutor is being utterly ridiculous and can bite me. Take the phone and call me. I’m serious, Adrien. Take it.”

Not about to argue with her more, he grabbed the phone from her hand and stuffed it into his pocket. He pulled her in for a tight hug, whispering, “Thanks, Chlo. You’re the best.”

“Don’t ever forget it, either,” she murmured, her arms tightening around him. “Now, get your stinky kwami and go. Marinette’s going to start overthinking and fretting if you don’t.”

A glance at his sweet Lady proved Chloe’s words of warning. She indeed looked anxious, her hand going to her phone multiple times and lighting up the screen for the time. Her teeth nibbled on her bottom lip, deepening its natural color.

“I’ll call you.” He waved, calling out Plagg’s name before making his way back to Marinette’s side. When he caught sight of the black cat, he said the words he needed to transform. “I’m ready to go, Maribug. Lead the way.”

His father joined them a moment later as her transformation filled the room in a pink light as she called Tikki to her earrings. She didn’t smile as Gabriel nodded his readiness.

Together, they walked out of Master Fu’s massage parlor, his father between them. Together, they walked toward the future that awaited him and Gabriel.

Something told him his world would never be the same.

Chapter Text

Entering the prosecutor’s office, Marinette shivered. Nothing personal or warm could found anywhere. She frowned at such surroundings and wondered how anyone functioned in such an environment.

The foyer of the building held more personality than the room they sat in with its sparse and cold artwork. Filing cabinets lined one wall, dull and dingy metal from years of overuse. Two of the keyholes appeared broken and another missing altogether. Bookshelves drooped from their heavy burden of lawbooks, their aged wood cracked and splintering at the edges. One shelf had given out some time ago, its contents dumped onto the shelf below. Not a single plant existed in the room, emphasizing the stark coldness within the room. Nothing survived or even thrived in this room.

Nasty grumbling announced the prosecutor’s arrival before his massive form filled the doorway.

He didn’t spare them any acknowledgment, his thick waist brushing against each piece of furniture he passed. The man looked beyond unhealthy in both physical and mental capacity, worrying Marinette more about the outcome of Gabriel’s case.

“Let me just say this,” he began, slamming down the large stack of files onto his desk, “I disagree with every determination made by the special panel. If I could, I’d toss their findings out this window or burn them.”

Marinette didn’t need to look in Chat’s direction. His tension filled the room, encompassing her in a suffocating band.

Pushing it aside as best she could, she turned to the prosecutor, her voice calm. “What did they decide?”

“Ah, Ladybug, our beloved heroine.” The man sneered at her.

Gooseflesh broke across her skin upon seeing that menacing look.

Chat moved in front of her, blocking her from the man’s view. “I believe the lady asked you a question.”

“Threatening a law enforcement official, Chat Noir?” A speculative gleam entered his eyes upon focusing on Chat Noir, almost as though he suspected the superhero’s identity. “I sincerely hope you are. I’d love to bring you and your precious Bug down a few pegs after all your failed efforts to capture this terrorist.”

The tension built to heights she hadn’t felt in years from her partner, worrying her enough to place a hand on his shoulder.

“I have no interest in threatening you, sir. I merely want answers about this man’s punishment for his crimes. Can we stay on track and get down to the business that’s brought us here?”

The calm tone Chat used belied the tension within him, but Marinette applauded him for his ability to stay rational despite the unhinged man sitting in the prosecutor’s chair.

“Whatever you say, Chat Noir.” The prosecutor flipped the top file open, his eyes skimming the first few lines before looking up. “First though, I think it’s time you and Ladybug retired, don’t you? Hand over the miraculous you wear, and we’ll forget trying to prosecute the two of you.”

“We will hand our Miraculous back only if the Guardian asks it of us. Until then, we won’t be giving up anything. We’re here to protect Paris and its citizens, and that’s what we’ll continue to do until threats against this city have ended.” Glaring at the man, Marinette’s anger threatened to boil over at his audacity, her words seething as they fell past her lips.

“You are a bold woman, aren’t you? Presumptuous, too, if you believe yourself above the law,” the man countered, his glare growing more threatening by the moment.

“No, sir, but I’m not nearly as arrogant as you pretend to be. I, too, have friends in high places and know the contents of that folder. We’re here as a courtesy, sir. Nothing more, nothing less. Now, tell M. Agreste his fate and let us be on our way.” She returned his glare with one of her own.

The staring match continued longer than she expected, but she refused to back down. Too much was at stake for her to falter. She refused to let this man’s attempts to make her cower work. She had faced tougher akumas and even more elusive supervillain. She could handle this power-hungry man with some agenda against her and Chat Noir.

A cough from one of the prosecutor’s assistants ended their battle.

“Fine,” the man huffed. “Keep your miraculous, but don’t think I won’t be watching you two closely.”

She refused to say the words she wanted to say. They could battle again another time, she thought. Today was about Gabriel and the panel’s decided fate for him.

The prosecutor’s air changed, his voice stiffening with each word he spoke, “The panel has decided the following judgments. Gabriel Agreste has been found guilty of his crimes against Paris and its residents. However, due to his terminal condition, he’ll be serving his sentence within his home, where he’ll continue to receive medical treatment. Should his condition change, the panel will reconvene and decide further punishment at such time.”

The tension holding Chat upright disappeared, threatening to buckle him. Its suffocating air dissolving with it, allowing Marinette to take a deep breath.

She kept her hand on his shoulder, giving him what support she could without drawing attention to him.

The prosecutor hadn’t finished, continuing, “As for Nathalie Sancoeur and her collusion with Gabriel Agreste, she has been found innocent of all major crimes but guilty of a few minor ones. She won’t be serving a jail sentence but will serve ten years of probation. Any misstep and she will find herself locked away to serve the remainder of her sentence.”

All remained quiet, allowing the information to wash over them.

“Finally, Adrien Agreste, son of Gabriel Agreste, has been found innocent. He lacked any knowledge of his father’s secret doings and will be allowed the freedom given to any upstanding citizen of Paris.” The prosecutor looked directly at Chat Noir as he spoke, his eyes assessing the superhero. His voice held a tinge of hatred and anger at the verdicts being handed down.

“When asked of the panel regarding you two, they refused to consider any charges. You both have worked to destroy this city and its safety in your pursuit of this monster,” the prosecutor spat. “You will pay for your crimes one day. Be sure that will happen when I gain enough evidence against you two.”

She refused to give him the satisfaction.

Seeking Chat Noir’s hand, she whispered her sincerest gratitude to the prosecutor, walking away before her temper unleashed.

Chat didn’t say anything, following her lead.

She squeezed his hand in silent thanks of his understanding.

With a glance to ensure Gabriel wasn’t far behind, she led their small group outside, gulping the fresh air breezing past them.

“My Lady?” He pulled her to a stop, turning so he stood in front of her.

His green eyes scorched her, searching for some sign from her.

She shook her head. “I need some space, Chaton. Can I meet up with you later? Please?”

“Whatever you need,” he whispered. Pulling her gloved hand upward, he dropped a kiss on her knuckles. “Thank you for being here with me, with us. It means the world to me.”

Nodding, she unsnapped her yo-yo from her waist and sent it flying, securing the string around a nearby lamppost.

“Ladybug?” Gabriel’s voice rang out behind her, soft in command of her attention.

She spared him a glance, her hand holding tight to the yo-yo as though it were a lifeline. “Yes, M. Agreste?”

“Stop by the house later. There are some things I wish to discuss with you and my son,” he paused long enough to meet Chat’s eyes briefly before adding, “about the future.”

“Yes, sir.” Meeting Chat’s uncertain eyes, she gave him the best smile she could in those circumstances. “I’ll see you soon, mon Chaton.”

Before either could stop her, she swung away, allowing her yo-yo to carry her toward the nearest rooftop.

She zipped and ran across the city, not stopping. Determined to run as fast and as far as she could, she didn’t stop until she missed her landing. Her foot twisted and sent her rolling across the rooftop of a local restaurant.

Soft pants punctuated the words she used to drop her transformation, Tikki appearing before her moments later.

“Oh, Marinette,” the red kwami tutted, hovering over the rapidly swelling ankle. “Are you alright?”

A watery smile flashed before her resolve crumbled. “No, Tikki, I’m not.”

 

00000

 

“Let’s get you home,” Chat said, his eyes glued to the path Ladybug had taken.

Gabriel smiled at his son. He had no doubts Adrien would be sneaking out to chase after the spotted heroine. “I’ll call Lawrence. Nathalie is waiting for me anyway.”

“No, I made a commitment to everyone in this city. I won’t shirk my duties.” The argument sounded weak despite Chat’s best efforts to appear official, even turning himself away from Ladybug’s escape route. “I’m sure she needs her space like she said.”

Limping forward, Gabriel closed the distance between them. Dropping his voice low to prevent eavesdropping, he said, “You’re a good son, Adrien, but I’ll be fine. Go after her. I think you both need each other right now.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to leave you alone here.” The superhero glanced at the building behind them, unease settling over him. “That man has an agenda.”

Gabriel agreed but kept the thought to himself. Time would tell, he knew, what the prosecutor’s true agenda was. He hoped whatever it was, the heroes would be ready to tackle it.

“Go on. Your Ladybug needs you, Chat.” Gabriel took a step back. “I’ll be fine. I’m the Gabriel Agreste after all.”

Giving his son a final encouraging smile, he watched in silence as Adrien took his advice. The young man’s extended staff would no doubt close the distance between him and the young woman destined to be his other half.

When Chat had disappeared from his sight, he finally spoke, “I hear you’re the newest member to the team. Is it your initiation to be trailing an ex-supervillain even when he’s escorted by your team leaders?”

Emerging from the shadows of a nearby alleyway, Carapace retorted, “Well, I figured an extra set of eyes couldn’t hurt. You have truly changed for the better, haven’t you? I will say I never thought I’d see it happen, but I’m glad it did.”

Meeting the golden gaze of the turtle hero, Gabriel’s stance softened toward the young man. “I don’t think you’re the only one. My son didn’t hold out much hope, either. I’ve done a lot of bad things to a lot of people, including you. For my son’s sake, I do hope you might forgive me for what I did one day.”

“Have you forgiven yourself, sir?” Carapace moved a step closer, not threatening yet not quite welcoming.

A derisive smile flitted over his lips before disappearing as he admitted, “No, I guess I haven’t gotten there yet.”

“Well, I think you should,” Carapace said in a low tone, “for your sake and your son’s.”

Surprised by the younger man’s maturity, it humbled the older Agreste. His son would be in good hands long after he was gone, he realized. Friends like Marinette and Nino would help his son through the tough times ahead.

“The Guardian chose well when he tapped you.”

Carapace shot him a proud grin. “Speaking of the Guardian, he’s requested a private chat with you. I’ve been sent to ensure you return home where he’ll be waiting.”

Movement behind the hero caught Gabriel’s attention. Lawrence emerged from the limo, nodding in his direction. With years of expertise, the driver stepped toward the back and held the door open, waiting for Gabriel to step inside.

“Joining me?”

Carapace shook his head. “I’ll be following to ensure no one tails us. The Guardian fears there might be prying eyes.”

Gabriel didn’t say anything, his suspicions too uncertain to voice aloud yet. Before he’d slowed down as Hawk Moth, he’d felt new energy moving into Paris, something that he couldn’t quite pinpoint.

His final night as Hawk Moth, he’d felt those same sensations, stronger than before. It’d motivated him to leave the safety of his lair, hoping to end the battle. Whatever lurked within those sensations couldn’t be allowed to harm his son and his friends, not when he had the means to stop it.

No longer hesitant, he approached the limo and slid into the back seat, his thoughts consuming him. He couldn’t shake the nagging thought Master Fu believed the same as he did. What that meant, he hadn’t a clue, but he needed confirmation first. He’d worry about preparing Adrien and his friends when he had more information. He wouldn’t leave them defenseless if he could help it.

Not this time, he thought. He owed Adrien the truth when he had the answers.

The limo maneuvered through the streets of the city he’d terrorized for more years than he should’ve. His eyes scanned the horizon for a possible sighting of Chat Noir or Ladybug, but his search proved fruitless. Only Carapace came into view now and then on their journey toward the mansion.

From what he’d seen upon the young woman’s face, she’d wanted to get as far as she could from the prosecutor’s office. He could well imagine why she’d wanted to run. If he’d been twenty years younger, he might’ve taken the same course as her, running away from something so ominous as the horrid man filling the prosecutor’s chair.

The familiar figure of Fu waited for him on the stairs outside his home.

Gabriel couldn’t get over the knowing smile the man offered him. That smile had the power to unnerve him with whatever secrets the Guardian might be keeping. While he had no doubts Master Fu had seen some things, he didn’t dare ask questions.

Carapace dropped into the courtyard, coming to stand beside the aging gentleman.

Taking a few cautious steps from the limo, the older Agreste nodded toward the Guardian. “I heard you wanted to see me. Your protégé is quite diligent.”

“He has proven quite the apt student.” Master Fu’s proud grin shone for a moment. It faded as he turned toward the turtle hero. “Were you followed?”

“No, not as far as I could see, Master.” The young man scanned the courtyard. “I think we’re safe for now, but I’ll keep patrolling, ensure that something doesn’t come along.”

“I’m sure we’re fine. Come, Carapace, your presence is required for this meeting.” A ring of something foreboding floated through the Guardian’s words, putting both Gabriel and Carapace on edge. “I suggest we take this inside now.”

Together, the trio moved up the stairs. Carapace’s youth allowed him the lead, moving several steps ahead to wait for the other two near the doors.

Nathalie met them at the door, her worried eyes taking them in.

Wrapping an arm around her waist, Gabriel whispered for her ears alone, “We’ll talk later, mon Coeur. For now, I think it best we see what Master Fu needs of me.”

“Gabriel, they brought back everything. All the computers, tablets, and phones are back. I had them put it all in your office.” She leaned closer, her voice raspy with concern as she added, “I didn’t trust the men. Something felt off. I don’t know if pregnancy hormones going are crazy or if I should be worried. I just know I don’t like this.”

He pressed a kiss against her temple. “Not to worry you more, but I don’t think it’s hormones. You’re a smart and capable woman, Nath. If you didn’t trust them, then you’re probably not wrong about their intentions. I’ll have the stuff checked for bugs or other devices as soon as we’re through here.”

“Was the prosecutor that horrible? I’ve done some research on him. He’s another victim, Gabriel.”

He wished he could be surprised by her statement, but he’d come to accept the damage he’d done to everyone in Paris, including ones he didn’t know about. “What did I do to him? Was he an akuma or a family member of an akuma?”

“That’s just it. He’s not one of yours.”

“What do you mean?” He frowned down at her. Something wasn’t adding up.

“Before he became head prosecutor of Paris, he made several claims that Ladybug and Chat Noir were terrorizing the city. He claims they’re in the same league as you, using their power to gain notoriety for supposed saves they orchestrated. Gabriel, the man is completely unhinged as best I can tell.” She nibbled on her lower lip, something she only did in times of great stress.

Pressing another kiss to her skin, he tugged her closer to his side. His voice remained even, resolute. “Don’t worry, Nath. We’re going to figure this out.”

“I hope so. I want this to be over.” She leaned into him. “For all our sakes.”

He couldn’t help but agree as they moved into the kitchen where Master Fu and Carapace waited.

The looks they exchanged before spotting him proved they, too, had matching concerns about what the future held for them all.

“Let’s get down to business, gentlemen.”

 

00000

 

Checking the scanner on his baton, he double-checked his surroundings. Ladybug had been here last, he thought.

How much further could she have gotten without being transformed?

The question plagued him, sending him around the perimeter of the rooftop. He made it three-quarters around when he spotted a hunched form near a small storage shed. Her raven hair hung loose around her shoulders, which shook with the emotions coursing through her.

If he hadn’t guessed her identity by her raven hair, the little red kwami hovering over her ensured he had the right lady.

“My Lady, are you okay?”

He took a step toward her. He froze when she pulled herself into a tighter ball minus one leg.

A glance at the angry swelling at her ankle had him closing the distance between them. He crouched near the injured leg. Keeping his hands gentle, he probed it for breaks.

She sucked in a breath, doing her best not to cry out.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, wishing he could do more to comfort her. “It doesn’t feel broken, but it’s a bad sprain at the least. It’s going to need some ice soon. Would you like a lift home?”

She mumbled something into her arms. The words proved too low even for his heightened hearing as Chat.

“I didn’t catch that, Mari.” He reached toward her hair, hoping to move the small cascade away from her face. “Tell me what you want to do, please.”

Blue eyes slammed into his unprepared gaze. Anger blazed in them, so hot and so bright that he fell backward, landing with an oomph.

As quickly as it came, it disappeared. Tiredness crept into its place alongside a sadness that spurred him forward. He scooped her into his arms and held her tight.

“I’m so sorry, Mari,” he murmured into her hair. “Let me take you home. I just want to make sure you’re safe. Please?”

“I don’t want to go home,” she whispered. “I want to escape. I want to forget today and that horrid man. I want to forget what’s happened the past few months. Is that possible? To forget everything and simply be?”

Holding her close, he let her be, allowing his closeness to soothe what it could.

He knew well enough how much the past few months had taken a toll on them both. He wondered if the scars would ever truly heal between them. He hoped so. Time would tell, he supposed. He couldn’t help wishing to have an escape, to shed his memory of the past as well. He wanted so desperately to move on, but he knew he wanted her beside him, sharing in the making of new memories. He wanted better memories for them to build whatever future they had together.

“You’re thinking awfully hard,” she whispered, a ghost of her former self peeking through. “Care to share, Chaton?”

He shot her a weak smile. “I’m more interested in taking care of your ankle.”

“Oh,” she breathed. “I really don’t want to go home, but I guess I should.”

Her reticence bolstered his courage enough to say, “I might know a place where you could stay if you’d like. It should have the supplies we need to treat your ankle, too.”

“As long as it’s not the mansion, I’m game.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, giving him the first smile he’d seen since discovering her. “Take me to this secret place, Chaton. I trust you.”

A lump built in his throat, his arms tightening around her. His voice raspy, he whispered, “Thank you, My Lady. That means a lot.”

He set her on the ground, taking care with her ankle. Stretching his limbs from the prolonged sitting session against the graveled rooftop, he plucked the baton from his back. With a small press, he lengthened into a staff before bending down and lifting her into his arms princess-style.

“Comfy?” he asked, his eyes not quite meeting hers as heat suffused his cheeks at her nearness.

He prayed she couldn’t hear the way his heart pounded having her so close again. He’d forgotten how it felt to carry her like this, not having the privilege since before everything blew up around them, around him.

She nodded, resting her head against his shoulder and closing her eyes.

Sure, she’d told him she trusted him, but seeing it happen humbled him and filled him. He knew they had a long way to go, but he felt hope’s flame flickering back to life within him.

Taking care, he approached the roof’s edge and took a faithful leap, landing on the next rooftop. A glance at her showed he hadn’t jostled her ankle too much, giving him the courage to quicken his pace. Rooftop to rooftop, he leaped and pole-vaulted them toward a building on the outskirts of town, dropping onto a hidden balcony.

Setting her down in one of the newer chairs, he fished the hidden key from a dead plant’s pot. A few clicks later, he had the doors open and her in his arms again, carrying her into the small apartment.

“What is this place?” she asked, glancing around the small living area with its dated sofa and chairs. “It looks cozy.”

He chuckled.

How like his sweet lady to find something kind to say even when her thoughts rampaged with less than pleasant descriptions.

“It’s my mother’s first apartment. Father bought out the previous owners after she disappeared, wanting to cling to her memory, I guess,” he explained, setting her down on the sofa and propping her ankle with the few pillows he’d kept. “When I needed space after everything, I came here. I spent two weeks here. Being here helped, I think. It gave me perspective I wouldn’t have gotten at the mansion.”

She nodded. “I’m glad you had someplace you could go.”

“Yeah,” he murmured, walking into the kitchenette and pulling out an ice pack. “Father packed away and stored Mother’s belongings here. She’s filled the apartment despite not living here twenty years. It was comforting during the long nights.”

Bringing the ice pack and a towel he scrounged up, he sat on the heavy coffee table and tucked the pack into the towel’s folds. His hands remained steady as they worked to drape the prepared pack over her swollen ankle.

A soft sound hissed through her lips, ending with a softer sigh as she adjusted to the cold.

“Better?”

She nodded, her eyes closing as she rested against the sofa’s arm. “Thank you, Adrien. You didn’t have to do this for me.”

“Are you kidding?” he gently chided. “You’re still my friend, Marinette. I wouldn’t turn my back on you when you need me. Especially after the way you stood against that guy today. You were glorious, My Lady.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me of him. I’m still too angry about his demand we give him our Miraculous.” Her eyes shot open, wide and alert. “There was something about him. Like we should know who he was or something. But I can’t put my finger on why. Something’s off, and I plan on finding out what it is.”

She appeared ready to get up and do just that.

His hands on her shoulders stopped her, his lips curving down. “Easy. Your ankle isn’t ready for any heroics, Maribug.”

“Adrien’s right,” Tikki chimed in, emerging from her place in Marinette’s purse. “You need to rest and let him take care of you.”

A stubborn tilt appeared in her chin.

He fought the urge to smile at her tenacity, knowing it’d work against his cause.

“He’s not going anywhere. We’ll figure him out and deal with him after you’ve healed up a bit.” He smiled as she relaxed a bit. “Did you want to call your parents and let them know where you were? Or I can go and tell them, maybe pick up some things you might need. The apartment has a bit of everything, but if there’s something specific, I can get it for you.”

Her hand crept over his, lacing their fingers together. The smile he missed the most flitted across her lips as she opened her eyes to search his. “Right now, I just want you to stay with me. I’ll call my parents soon and let them know I’m here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He inched closer to her, dropping from the table and sitting on the floor beside her. With his head resting against the sofa’s arm, he glanced up at her with a soft grin. “Is the ice helping? I know there’s some aspirin or ibuprofen around, too, if you need it.”

“I’m good, Chaton,” she whispered, her voice growing drowsy.

Her breathing deepened as sleep claimed her.

“She didn’t sleep well last night,” Tikki explained. “She hasn’t slept well the past couple of months really. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that, but I thought you should know.”

“Your secret’s safe,” he whispered, his gaze traveling towards his partner.

He watched her sleep for several minutes, wanting to be sure she stayed asleep.

Coming to a stand, he pulled the afghan decorating the sofa’s back and draped it over her. He took a few extra moments to tuck it around her, ensuring it wouldn’t dislodge before turning toward Tikki.

“Can you watch her?” He rushed on to explain, not wanting to worry the kwami or have her believe he was abandoning Marinette. “There’s not really anything edible here. We have everything but food anyway. I’d like to go shopping for some and maybe pick some things up from home.”

“Go,” the little ladybug urged. “I’ve got her.”

“Thanks, Tikki. I’ll be back soon.”

 

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She woke with a gasp, her eyes adjusting to the darkness surrounding her. She blinked, searching for a skylight that didn’t exist in this room. Her breathing calmed as memories from the afternoon came back to her.

Emilie’s apartment. She’d fallen asleep in the apartment of Adrien’s mother.

Thinking of her friend and partner allowed a new peacefulness to settle over her, giving her a flicker of hope that they’d work out their problems. She didn’t want to lose him in her life, even if it meant they remained friends.

Before her thoughts could go down the wrong path, her bladder reminded her why she woke in the first place. Its insistent propelled her to push her blankets aside and seek out the bathroom.

Making her way in the unfamiliar surroundings, she managed quite well until she tripped over a pair of feet she hadn’t seen protruding from a blanket on the floor.

“Chaton?” She crouched down and mussed his hair, earning a mumbled groan for her efforts. She bit back a smile, her immediate need receding as she asked, “What happened to the couch?”

“Too short,” he murmured, his head seeking more cushion from his folded arms. “Didn’t want to presume so I found a spot on the floor. It’s not so bad really.”

She couldn’t stop the giggle that escaped her throat, its melody echoing through the room. “Silly Chat, get in the bed. We can share one night without it being weird. Besides, you’re blocking the bathroom. So, please, move like the good chaton you are.”

Another groan answered her, but she insisted until he began to move, crawling toward the bed. She didn’t relent until she had situated, covering him with the same blankets she used. Pressing a kiss to his cheek, she hurried to the bathroom and returned to find him sprawled across the mattress.

Folding her arms over her chest, she debated her next move, her ankle making her decision easier. She lifted the covers, scooting as far onto the bed as he would allow.

His arms closed around her, pulling her close. He murmured something too low and unintelligible to make out, sighing a bit as he fell back to sleep.

“Night, mon Chaton,” she whispered, allowing sleep to reclaim her.

The next time she woke, sunlight poured through the large bay window within the bedroom, haloing the pillows on the window seat with rays of promising hope.

Stretching, she paused upon connecting with a warm body beside her.

“Morning, My Lady,” he whispered.

He jumped upright, his eyes wild as he assessed his position next to her.

If he didn’t look so worried, she might’ve laughed at his goofy concern.

“Mari, I, I didn’t, I wouldn’t, I –”

Covering his mouth with her hand, she gently shook her head. “It’s alright. I told you to get up here last night when I nearly tripped over you. You didn’t have to sleep on the floor. I would’ve understood if you’d joined me.”

He sank back, resting on his knees toward the edge. His hands rubbed straight lines up and down his upper legs.

“You don’t trust me, do you?” she asked, a lump building in her throat. “You’re afraid I’m going to purposely hurt you again.”

“No, Mari, I –”

“It’s okay.” She pushed the blankets off, sliding to the edge of the bed. “I should get dressed and head home. School starts tomorrow, and I have a lot of homework I need to catch up on. Thank you for helping me with my ankle. It’s feeling much better.”

His hand shot out and clasped hers. “Please, don’t go. I do trust you, and I’ve hurt you, too. I know I have. Can we talk? I really want to talk about us. Then, I’ll take you home.”

Sinking back to the mattress, she turned so her legs curled under her as she faced him. She shoved back some wild locks of hair, wishing she’d thought to bring some hair ribbons with her.

“Is there an us, Adrien?” She sighed, the dam breaking loose within her. “We haven’t been all that great to one another. The mistakes we’ve made haven’t helped or the secrets we’ve kept from one another. You’re my best friend and partner, but whatever yin and yang we’ve shared seems almost broken. I don’t want to hurt you anymore. All I’ve ever wanted was to see you smile, to love you the way you deserved to be loved.”

Tears filled her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She refused to let any more tears be expended over something she couldn’t control.

His hand tightened around hers.

She looked up to find his eyes watching her. Blinking back the tears, she continued, “Maybe we shouldn’t try. Maybe we should let it be for a while, you know? Maybe we need to let ourselves heal and mature a bit more before we decide on anything.”

“Is that what you want?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“I want my friend back. I want my partner by my side, ready to face whatever’s coming next. Having that would mean everything to me, Adrien. This love stuff can wait, right?” She laughed, sounding almost hysterical yet reining it in. “I can’t believe I’m saying that. Fourteen-year-old me would be screaming right now if she could hear me, but we need time to heal and get back what we lost. I broke your trust and kept secrets from you. You hurt me with mean-spirited words and kept secrets yourself. We just need time. I’m willing to give us that time.”

He didn’t say anything, his hand tightening and loosening around hers. She didn’t mind, watching as he fought some internal battle.

“This time? Does it include space?”

She frowned, her brow scrunching. “I don’t understand.”

“Are we supposed to stay away from one another? Are we allowed to do things together or is that off-limits?”

Realization dawned. “Is that what you need? Do you need space from me in order for us to get back to where we were?”

“No, I don’t,” he admitted. “I’ve already had enough space from everyone I care about. I want to be able to hang out with you, My Lady.”

“Then, we’ll hang out with each other.” She twisted her hand in his and squeezed his fingers. A small smile peeked out as she added, “I don’t want space, either. I feel a bit lost without you and your clawful puns.”

“Hey, puns are the highest form of comedy.” He huffed at her. His act didn’t last, giving way to the gentle humor she’d missed from him these past couple of months. “We’re going to be alright, aren’t we?”

“I think so. I hope so.”

Conversation at an end, they agreed on getting dressed and sharing breakfast before making their way home for the day. While neither wanted to leave the other’s side, they did have school the next day and a lot they needed to take care of before then.

Marinette helped him cook up a simple breakfast, impressed by the basic skills he’d mastered. At one point, she smiled at his deft handling. “Maybe you don’t need Maman’s lessons after all.”

“Oh, I’ll take all the help I can get. We’re about through what I can actually do without damaging the kitchen.”

“My kid’s modest,” Plagg chimed in, his big eyes watching the cheesy omelet with glee. “When he’s focused, he can do anything he puts his mind to.”

“Aww, Plagg, you big softy,” Tikki chirped, coming to sit beside the black cat. “You’ve really missed your kitten, haven’t you? I bet you spent a lot of time thinking of ways to brag about him.”

“Don’t think I don’t know your secrets, too, Sugar Cube. I’ll share them, too, if you keep it up.” The challenge brought a smirk to his lips, sensing victory.

Much to Marinette’s amusement, Tikki flew toward Plagg, intent on shushing him and ended up chasing him through the apartment.

“Mari?”

Turning her attention back to her partner, her smile remained, growing fonder as she watched him. “Hmm?”

“I love you,” he confessed. “I just wanted you to know.”

Pleasure filled her at his words, sending her heart racing. She had to swallow a time or two before she could manage to whisper, “I love you, too, Adrien.”

Chapter Text

Coming back to school had proven quite surreal, almost unbearable for Adrien.

Reporters had nothing on the student body. Half remained fairly friendly; the others had switched to active hatred. Hard nudges in the ribs, shoulder bumps, legs sticking out to trip him. All had been par for the course throughout his day.

The teachers hadn’t done much in the way of curbing the wayward behavior. Most had allowed the harassment to grow until another student stood up and said something.

He’d done his best to hold his head high, but his head began to droop by their second class. He hadn’t imagined the fallout of his father’s sentencing would be so tough to handle. If he had, he might’ve taken his father’s offer of private tutoring again, hiding away in the mansion until the news died down.

His one constant had been Marinette’s presence. She’d stood beside him, ready to take on the world for him. He knew he wouldn’t have made it to their last class if she hadn’t been there for him.

Sinking into the seat beside her, he rested his head against the desk, wishing the day over.

“Hey, you’re doing great,” she whispered, her hand rubbing his back. “I’m so proud of you, Chaton. How about I treat you to something special after school, hmm?”

“You’re sweet, Mari, but I think I’ve had enough today. I’m ready to just go home and wash this day away.” He rubbed his head against the cool wood.

“No sleeping in my class, M. Agreste,” their teacher said, breezing into the room. “You might’ve gained some sympathy today for your father’s ill-doings, but you won’t find it with me.”

A tired sigh escaped him. “Yes, ma’am, I understand.”

Raising his head, he met concerned blue eyes. He tried to muster up a hopeful smile, but her expression showed he’d fallen far short in his attempt.

“You don’t have to take all this,” she whispered, leaning closer.

He shook his head. “It’s fine. It’ll die down, right? I just need to get through the next few weeks.”

“M. Agreste, are you going to be a disruption?” Their teacher’s sharp tongue slapped him with her irritation.

Sparks lit up Marinette’s eyes. “He didn’t do anything wrong. I did. I was checking on my friend. He’s had a rough day, and he looked a little down.”

“Mlle Dupain-Cheng, are you going to be a problem as well?” The older woman’s arms crossed over her chest, her brow arched. She looked ready for a battle.

Placing a hand on her arm, he shook his head, speaking up for them both, “No, ma’am, she’s not. We apologize. It won’t happen again.”

Much to his relief, Marinette didn’t argue. The sparks hadn’t disappeared, but she calmed enough to let class continue as planned. His sweet Ladybug had a lot of bite, he knew, and a heart of gold. He doubted he’d ever have the chance to repay her for all she’d done for him over the years.

He wanted to be angry at her for fighting someone, defending him against the big bad world. Somewhere along that day, he’d lost the desire to fight, welcoming the harsh reality of his father’s doings against his classmates and teachers. Hearing her defend him despite all his father had done and all he’d done to hurt her, he couldn’t help the thankful feeling squeezing his heart.

Love flowed through him, warming the stark coldness of his classmates and the teachers. He had her to thank for that.

Risking the teacher’s ire once more, he leaned in close and mouthed, “Thank you.”

She smiled.

Her hand squeezed his, lifting his spirits a bit more.

Class smoothed, their teacher going over the lesson she’d planned.

Adrien remained attentive, taking notes, though he never quite forgot the young woman beside him, her presence comforting. The heady mixture of flowers and baked sweetness she wore drifted over him, lulling him into believing his world would right itself in time.

The faint ticking of the clock soothed him, reminding him the day would be over soon. A wave of relief washed through him, his room never more welcome for its solitude.

“All right, class, with our time winding down, I’d like to remind you all of your group projects. They’re due in a week and are worth twenty-five percent of your grade. I hope that you’ve been preparing accordingly.” The teacher’s gaze landed on him, narrowing as she added, “Our first group will be M. Agreste’s. I trust your father’s extracurriculars haven’t prevented you from completing this task.”

Marinette tensed beside him, the spark returning to her eyes.

Neither he nor Marinette had the chance to answer the matronly instructor.

“Adrien has done more than his fair share. I think you’ll be blown away by all he’s done for this project,” Alya called out. Her voice held an edge to it though she sounded in complete control. “He’s one of the best team members we could have.”

Her words humbled him.

He peeked at her, returning her small smile with one of his own.

“Very well then. I look forward to your presentation, M. Agreste.” Their teacher sniffed, her shoulders ramrod straight and her hands holding her paper with prim fingers.

She continued down her list, asking questions of each group. Her adversarial air dropped after speaking with him, her words and voice kinder to others with questions or comments about their projects.

The bell rung a few minutes later.

Gathering up his supplies, he jumped as arms wrapped around his shoulders from behind.

“I may be madder than ever at you, Sunshine, but you’re my friend. No one messes with my friends. You get me?” Alya’s arms tightened around him before releasing him to take a step back.

Nino punched his shoulder, the tap a small reminder to their easygoing friendship. “She’s right. We’re not going anywhere. Best bros forever, dude, and all that.”

He pulled his bag over his shoulder, a warm smile lifting his lips. Pushing up from the desk, he turned to face his friends. His hands fidgeted with the strap as he admitted, “Thanks. You’re really the best friends a guy could ask for.”

“Yeah, we know.” Alya nudged him with her elbow. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. Hey, M, we still meeting at your place in a bit for final touches to the project?”

Marinette nodded. “Maman needs my help for a half hour or so, but I’ll be ready after that. I’m looking forward to seeing this off my list of things to do.”

“Me, too, girl.” Alya slipped her arm through Marinette’s, pulling them in the lead of their small group.

Adrien watched them walk out of the room. Their acceptance of his presence soothed his battered soul. He wished there was something he could do to repay them though his mind drew a blank.

“We’re pretty lucky guys, aren’t we, dude? We have the most understanding women in our lives.” Nino shot him a lopsided grin, adjusting his hat as he spoke.

Another peek through the classroom’s windows had Adrien’s voice sounding quite wistful. “I know. Mari and Alya are pretty amazing.”

“Come on, dude. I know I could use whatever points I can get with Al.” Nino fell into step beside him. “So how are you and Nette doing? I heard yesterday was pretty rough for both of you.”

Shoving thoughts of the prosecutor’s hatefulness from his mind, Adrien nodded. “We’re friends again, I think. I hope.”

“You want more with her, don’t you?”

He nodded again. “We agreed a break would help. She wants to make sure our friendship is unbreakable before we try again. If we try again. She’s right, too. We’ve hurt each other a lot these past few months. I don’t want to keep hurting her.”

“That’s smart. Very mature of you both.”

Silence lapsed between them.

The locker rooms soon came into view.

A glimpse of Alya and Marinette slipping into the girls’ side captured Adrien’s attention.

“What about you and Alya? Everything okay with you two?”

Nino laughed. “Yeah, it will be. She was pretty pissed I kept a certain secret, but she’s coming around to forgiving me.”

Raised voices echoed from the girls’ locker room, turning both their heads. They heard Marinette’s and Alya’s along with another female or two they didn’t recognize.

“Dude, Nette might just hurt someone for you,” Nino mumbled, cringing as they both heard her voice rise in pitch, anger clear in her words.

Adrien shoved his way into the boys’ locker room, determined to get his stuff and escape the hellish day he’d had. He thanked whatever higher being he could they’d ended Hawk Moth’s tyranny, sensing Marinette would make an easy target that day.

 

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Hearing Adrien’s name and character disparaged, Marinette saw red.

She marched toward the young woman who’d started the conversation, tapping her shoulder with as much patience and niceness as she could muster.

She smiled her sweetest smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing you as I walked in. You think Adrien Agreste deserves all the hate he’s getting for his father’s sins? Is that something you would want if your parents did something that caused an uproar, having you blamed for it?”

The woman shrugged, her voice scathing. “I wouldn’t have to worry about that, now would I? After all, my parents would never become evil like Gabriel Agreste. They aren’t nearly as pathetic as him. Imagine not knowing your parent is the biggest baddie of them all. I don’t buy Adrien didn’t know, and I don’t accept Gabriel’s reasons for terrorizing the city. He wanted power, pure and simple.”

“While I can’t speak for Gabriel Agreste, I do know Adrien. He would’ve done anything and everything to stop his father if he’d known. He’s the most selfless guy out there, going above and beyond for people he doesn’t even know. He’s kind, a lot kinder than you and your judgmental attitude.” Her fists sat on her hips, her eyes narrowing in challenge.

“Oh, please, we all know you’ve been drooling after him for years. You’d say anything to keep him on his pedestal, Marinette. Your words are hardly proof of his innocence. His actions speak louder than your paltry attempts to earn his love. You’re just as pathetic as both Agreste men.” The other woman’s eyes lit with triumph.

Marinette couldn’t speak, having felt the slap of those words harder than if she’d been struck across the cheek.

“I’m not in love with him, but I stand by Marinette’s assessment. Adrien Agreste is a decent guy with flaws but a good heart. He would’ve have tried to stop his father if he’d had known.” Kagami stepped forward, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her.

The fencing champion shot her a small nod in solidarity.

Several others joined in, siding with Marinette and Kagami about Adrien’s character. Alix, Rose, and Juleka led the new pack, standing over the young woman as she continued to disparage Adrien to their faces. They each had stories to share and presented evidence for Adrien’s innocence. Mylene and Chloe stepped in next.

Throwing her hands up, the young woman pushed to her feet and stomped out of the locker room.

Marinette followed, Alya right on her heels.

All of them froze in the doorway, their eyes widening at the sight before them.

“So, we couldn’t help but overhear you ladies,” Kim began, flashing a grin at Marinette. “We thought you might like some backup. We are all here to say we’re on Adrien’s side.”

Behind Kim, she spotted most of the guys from their earlier college days. Ivan took his place near the back while Nathaniel and Max stood near the front. Nino joined them moments later, having come from the boys’ locker room last. Others, too, had gathered that she recognized though their names remained lost to her at that moment.

“Adrien’s our friend, and we’re not going to let anyone badmouth him while we’re around.” Kim leaned closer to the young woman, his grin still in place. “Have a nice day.”

The young woman stalked off, huffing with anger at their treatment of her.

Marinette didn’t pay her any mind, stepping toward Kim and wrapping him in a tight hug.

“Thank you for that,” she murmured. “You guys are really terrific to stand up for Adrien.”

The guys all grinned at her, pleased with her praise of them.

“Hey, we learned from the best, class prez.” Kim tapped her nose.

“I owe you all something sweet. Macarons on me tomorrow? I’ll bring them in the morning.”

Several shouts and exclamations reverberated around them, excited at the prospect of free baked goods.

She turned to leave, her gaze colliding with Adrien’s. He stood frozen by the boys’ locker room, his hand holding the door open.

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow. Thanks again.” She waved behind her, already making her way toward him.

The wounded expression he wore tore at her, threatening to spill the tears she’d held back with relative success through the day. Under the pain, she thought she caught a glimpse of hope, barely a flicker after his day but still a flicker.

Coming to a stop in front of him, she offered a small wave. “You want some company to your car?”

“You don’t have to, Mari.” His voice strained, emotions bubbling close to the surface.

“Come on, kid. You know you want her to. Just say yes already,” Plagg grumbled. “I need my Camembert before I’m thrown in a room with everyone for that silly project. No awesome cat gods. Blegh.”

She couldn’t help it. She giggled at the little kwami’s attitude.

“Don’t encourage him, Marinette. He’s already going to insufferable,” Tikki insisted, popping her head from the small purse. “Ol’ Stinky Socks hasn’t forgiven the ancient Greeks for not having one cat god among them. He’s never going to let it go.”

“Why should I, Sugar Cube?” Plagg retorted, his little tongue poking out even as he pouted within the pocket of Adrien’s top shirt.

“Enough, you two,” she admonished. Her hand slipped down Adrien’s arm, lacing their fingers. “Come on, Chaton. We have a busy afternoon, and I intend on taking a run later. I hope you’ll join me. We haven’t played cat and mouse in a while.”

He fell in line beside her, his steps matching hers.

“I’d like that.”

She ignored the looks they’d garnered from several passing students and teachers. None of them would ever convince her to abandon the guy walking beside her. She hated the way they’d treated him, doing her best to keep her calm, but she’d reached her limit in the locker room. She supposed she should feel bad, but she couldn’t help the swell of pride at seeing their friends come together in support of him.

Things would get better, she assured herself.

Her hand tightened around his. It wasn’t much, she knew, but she hoped he’d know her feelings in that small gesture.

The entryway came into view, soon spilling them onto the main sidewalk and freedom from their school day.

Lawrence stood waiting for his young charge near the passenger door. His face remained stoic until he caught sight of them, the tiniest smile cracking through.

“I’ll see you,” she whispered, rising on her toes to press a kiss to his cheek. “Save some room for dessert. You know Papa and Maman will have something delicious waiting for us.”

“You’re the best, Mari.” He wrapped his arms around her, holding tight for a moment before pulling away and disappearing into the waiting limo.

Lawrence nodded at her, his professional façade slipping back in place.

A chime interrupted her attention, drawing her to the phone lying in her purse.

She plucked it from its secure pocket and smiled at the name flashing across her screen.

Tapping on her screen, she watched the short video clip he’d sent. The first part showed a kitten lounging on its back, its paws flopping back and forth. The word ‘hello’ flashed across the bottom. The screen went dark a moment before the next clip showed two kittens play fighting, one knocking the other off a table. The screen dimmed before the final clip showed the same two kittens snuggled together in a small bed, their bodies shaped like a heart.

“My boy has it really bad for you,” Nino observed aloud.

“It’s mutual, Ninny, but we’re not ready for more than friendship. We’ve proven that, haven’t we?” Her eyes sought his, seeking his confirmation.

He glanced in the direction the limo had taken, his lips pulling into a thoughtful frown.

“Time heals most wounds,” Wayzz chimed in, his head sticking out from under Nino’s hat.

Nino’s frown turned upward into a smile. “Wise words, little dude.”

“Are you coming over now, Ninny, or waiting for Alya?” She arched her brow, a smirk stealing over her features. “What about you two? I know she wasn’t exactly happy about you being Carapace.”

“We’re working through it,” he mumbled, his phone becoming quite interesting. “I’ll come over and help if you’d like. Figured we could talk about some stuff, too, before Alya and Adrien join us.”

 

00000

 

The bakery’s busy crowds took a while to thin. Too long if anyone asked Nino, his impatience and anxiety kicking into higher gear as his time alone with Marinette slipped away.

Ten minutes before they could expect Alya and Adrien, he’d had enough.

Marching into the kitchen, he grabbed her wrist and whispered in a rough voice, “We really need to talk.”

“What’s gotten into you?” she hissed, wrenching her arm from his loose hold. “You’re being weird, Ninny.”

He blew out a breath, trying to calm his nerves and failing miserably. A glance at the stubborn tilt of her jaw, he knew he’d have to explain or risk her ignoring his less-than-polite plea.

His hands worked to adjust his hat over his growing curls. “I have some information that a certain Bug would be interested in hearing. Please, Nette, I need to talk to you.”

Her eyes bored into his, searching for whatever information he held. He’d seen her do it numerous times though he’d never had the pleasure or rather displeasure of such an experience himself. Shudders could barely be suppressed the longer she continued to stare at him.

“Alright.” She pushed away from the prep counter and approached her father. A few words passed between them before she came back with a solemn nod. “Let’s go. Papa can handle the rest.”

Leading him up the staircase, she continued their little journey upward, not stopping until they’d stepped into her room. The trapdoor shut behind them with a soft bang. She wandered toward her desk chair, dropping into it and spinning to face him.

“Alright, Ninny, start talking. What’s going on?”

Her easy compliance had astounded him, unused to having anyone be so open and straightforward. The idea she took him seriously pulled him up short, staring at her a long moment before he could move. Taking the opportunity, he walked toward her chaise, using the time to gather his thoughts and how he wanted to present them.

“I hope you aren’t going to use this stalling technique during our presentation. It certainly won’t help our grade if you wear that sad face, either.”

Her teasing tone did little to stem the worry bubbling in his stomach. An ulcer was sure to be the result if he didn’t do something soon.

He plunked on her chaise, his hands resting against his forehead.

Wayzz shimmied out from under his cap and dashed off to sit with Tikki in her little hideaway. His little head popped out long enough for him to say, “I’ll be here if you need me, Master.”

“Dude, don’t call me that. It’s Nino or Bro, not Master.” Nino managed to smile at the turtle kwami.

“Yes, M-Nino.” Wayzz disappeared, his presence not at all forgotten.

“He’ll get there,” Marinette said after a moment of silence passed. “So, what’s going on?”

“We need a group meeting soon. A miraculous one.” He paused, taking the time to determine what he should and shouldn’t share without the others. “Something big is coming. I can feel it. We need to be prepared.”

She frowned. “You can feel it, too? I thought I was the only one.”

Surprised, he nodded.

“Ninny, this feeling is different than Hawk Moth, isn’t it? Darker? More dangerous?”

He nodded, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Yes. I had the feeling before I even became Carapace. I had it the day you and Adrien blew up, Nette. It’s only grown since.”

“Do you have an idea what it is?” Her teeth gnawed on her lower lip, her eyes traveling to her bulletin board where pictures of their group hung. “I hate this. Hawk Moth should’ve been the end, not the beginning.”

“I know, but we’ll get through this. We have Chat back, and Master Fu says we can add new teammates if we need them. Duusu and Nooroo should be ready for new holders soon.” He leaned forward, his hand reaching for hers. “I don’t know who is behind this new shadow, but Nette, we will find out. If we lean on each other and stick together, there’s nothing we can’t do. Right?”

Her first smile spread across her features. “You’re right. We aren’t powerless. We’ll fight, and we will triumph again.”

“That’s my girl.” He wrapped her in a hug. “You’re our leader, and I needed you to know.”

“Thank you, Ninny,” she whispered, her breath fanning his neck. “I’ll talk to Adrien, and we’ll set up a time for everyone to meet up. I have a few ideas on where we should be looking.”

The trapdoor banged open, Alya’s head popping through the opening.

“You two sure look cozy,” she accused, stepping into the room. “Should Sunshine and I be worried?”

Marinette eased from his arms, a Cheshire grin lighting up her features. “Oh, yes, you should be completely worried. Ninny knows how to spoil a girl by helping her in the bakery unlike someone who shall remain nameless.”

Her tongue poked out for good measure, earning his laughter.

It pleased him to see his friend becoming light-hearted again. Despite all the danger possibly waiting for them, he never doubted her ability to handle it. No, what scared him had been all the drama within their small group and the heartache resulting from it. Seeing her smile again gave him hope they could move forward, become the group they’d once been.

That was until another head popped into view.

“I should’ve offered, huh?” Adrien asked, his eyes not meeting anyone’s in the room. His hand had gone to the nape of his neck, rubbing back and forth in his discomfort. “I haven’t been a great friend to any of you lately.”

“Dude, I think you’re due a pass.” Nino held out his fist, waiting for his friend to pound it. “Bros again, right?”

The blond stared at him, uncertainty lacing his posture. When he finally reached out and connected their fists, Nino smiled, glad to see some life back in his friend.

“Bros.”

“Alright, you’ve bonded again. Time to get down to business.” Alya clapped her hands together, taking her place on the chaise beside where Nino had been sitting. “I have our report almost complete. Nino, you have our cards and bullet points to cover, right?”

He nodded. “Yep, I’m finishing them up tonight after we’re through here.”

“Okay, good.” She glanced down at the list she’d produced on her phone, reading through the notes she’d made. “Hey, M, how are the costumes coming? Need some help in finishing them?”

“I can help,” Adrien shouted, his hand raising high.

Nino bit back the chuckle threatening to tear loose. He’d forgotten how eager the blond could be when he felt the need to please. Sadness swept through him, seeing it happening again for his best friend.

“I’d love your help,” Marinette said, her voice soft. “I’m heading to the costume shop after this. Care to join me? All I’m missing is yours and a few other accessories.”

“If you don’t mind the company, I’d love to.” The blond’s hand crept back to this neck, a pink staining his cheeks.

Hope fluttered in Nino’s chest. Whatever was going on between them, they still cared. Quite deeply if he had to guess. While he couldn’t predict the future, he held out hope these two would be reunited, stronger than ever, before their final year ended.

He glanced at his kwami, who’d poked his head out. The slow smile on the little turtle’s face solidified the hope growing within. Wayzz hadn’t been wrong. Time could and would heal their wounds.

His gaze swung to Alya, sensing her eyes on him. His heart squeezed at the soft expression she gave him.

She nodded, assuring him without words they’d be okay, too.

With a full heart, he took comfort in their group’s bond, sensing the tests ahead could either break or solidify it more. He could only hope for the latter, not daring to think what would happen if it was the former.

 

00000

 

Their meeting ended far quicker than he’d expected it to. Not that he minded, having found himself alone with Marinette as she readied for their trip to the costume shop.

Alya and Nino had beat a hasty retreat, a look passing between them that pulled envy from him. He wanted what they had, even if they were going through a small rough patch. He thought he had it with Marinette, but their relationship hadn’t been exactly the smoothest sailing as he’d hoped it would be. Their future remained uncertain beyond friendship.

“Hey, you,” she whispered, poking his side. “Ready to go?”

He poked her back, earning a soft giggle. The sound floated over him, a melody that promised to haunt him later in the sweetest ways.

Holding up his bag and the report he’d gotten, he nodded for her to proceed him down the stairs.

“Meeting go alright, you two?” Sabine asked them from the kitchen. “Adrien, dear, will you be staying for dinner?”

“Maman, we’re going to catch a bite out. I have an errand or two to run before the shops close.” Marinette rushed over to press a kiss to her mother’s cheek as she spoke.

“Another time then?” Sabine shot him the sweetest smile.

He nodded. “That would be nice.”

Marinette’s hand settled around his bicep, tugging him from the room.

With little choice, he followed her, doing his best not to smile at her eagerness to dash away.

“We’ll see you later, Maman,” she called as the door closed behind them.

Her feet practically skipped down the steps, her confidence overflowing with their latest assignment. If he hadn’t known she was Ladybug, he might’ve suspected with the aura exuding around her. It matched his partner’s with an unequivocal air that he hadn’t seen on anyone else in his life, including Marinette until recently.

“Are we in a hurry?” he asked, his thoughts a bit scattered at her enthusiasm to shop.

She shook her head, falling back enough to lean against him. “No, but I am excited. We’re almost through with this project, which means I can refocus on the fundraiser fashion show. Chloe’s been picking up a lot of my slack lately despite all her responsibilities, too. I owe her a lot for that.”

“I’m sorry my family has been such a handful for you, Mari. I wish I could undo all the burdens we’ve placed on you these past few months, especially all the hurt we’ve caused.” He pressed a kiss into her hair, doing his best to hide the sadness welling in him at her words.

“You are worth whatever trouble you’ve caused me, Adrien.” Her hand loosened its hold to slide across his back and squeeze his waistline. “The only thing I’d change is the hurtful words and actions we committed against each other. I wouldn’t ever not help you and your family.”

“I know you would. You’re Marinette Dupain-Cheng, my everyday Ladybug.” His voice dropped to a whisper, leaning close to her ear to add, “The most beautiful Ladybug to ever live if you ask me.”

She shoved at him, her face flushing. “Ever the flatterer, hmm? How is it I didn’t know this about you before this year? Any other secrets you’re hiding from me, Agreste?”

“I’ve got nothing left to hide, Mari.” Sadness swept through him, earlier events plaguing him.

She moved in close, her arms wrapping around his waist. “It’ll get better. I know it will, Chaton.”

The shop came into view a few minutes later, its windows overflowing with garish displays of every costume the owner thought appealing. Clotheslines with hangers upon hangers sagging them hung beyond the darkened windows. One such line slung across the doorway, costumes hanging from both sides.

Adrien took a breath, holding it in as long as he could. The distinct smell of mothballs permeated the air, stifling in its intensity. Tears gathered in his eyes, the strong odor setting them loose down his cheeks.

Cool fingers swept a cooling substance over his upper lip, the smell dissipating with the stronger, clearer odor of VapoRub. Blue eyes watched him as he took a few tentative sniffs, relaxing as the mothball smell melted away.

“Better?” she murmured, the small jar disappearing in her purse.

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“Anytime.” She gripped his hand and dragged him further into the crowded shop. “Hold on tight. I don’t want to lose you in this costume plethora. I’ll never find you again.”

His fingers tightened around hers, allowing her to lead him. He batted at several draping costumes, sighing as more fell to smack him everywhere he turned.

She suppressed her giggles, pulling him even deeper into the labyrinth. “Not much further.”

Her words came true, he mused with a smile. She reached for a long flowing chiton, pulling it from a large pile of white cloths. A gold belt had been cinched to the waist and a few other gold accents had been tossed into a bag and pinned to the fabric.

“Perfect,” she declared. “Try it on, so I can see how it fits.”

She motioned toward the back of the store, mountains of costumes littering their path toward the tiny rooms.

Unsure how he might navigate them, he asked, “Why not let me pay for this and I try it on at your place? I’m sure I can find a tailor to make proper alterations before our project is due.”

“I can’t tell if you’re trying to be nice or snubbing my sewing skills.”

He glanced up to find her eyes sparkling with humor.

“I don’t want to burden you, Mari. I know you’re ready to wash your hands with this project.”

She surprised him by pressing a kiss to his cheek. “You’re very sweet, but I don’t mind altering it if you’re ready to go. The accessories I need can wait another day.”

“Are you sure? We’re already out to get them now.” His fingers fumbled with the chiton she’d placed in his hands.

“I’m sure.” She shooed him toward the front where he thought he’d seen a cash register. “Besides, I promised you a sweet treat. I’m not about to break that promise to you, Chaton.”

Walking slightly behind her, he followed her toward the front where a kindly older gentleman handled their transaction, smiling at the two of them.

“You two are a lovely couple,” he mumbled as they headed toward the door. “Enjoy your evening, lovebirds.”

Stepping into the chilly evening air, he took a deep breath, free of the mothballs and the musty layers of costumes. His chest heaved as it relished the clearer air found outside the shop. Deep breaths filled his lungs, threatening to burst his chest wide open.

The man’s words played on repeat within his mind, taunting him with the promise of something he doubted would come true. A fluke, he assumed, of the man’s aging eyesight. No way would Marinette consider going down that path with him again, almost sure it’d only lead to disaster for them both.

“You really are going to make a great Helios, Adrien,” she murmured, her eyes watching his every move. “You are the perfect personification of sunshine.”

“Is that who I’ll be for our presentation? Helios?” He held up the white fabric, imagining himself dressed as an ancient Greek god. “What about you? Which goddess can I expect from you? Aphrodite? Demeter?”

She smiled. “Close with Demeter, but actually I’m going to be Antheia. She’s a minor goddess of flowers.”

“Most fitting, My Lady.”

“I thought so, too.” Her cheeks had turned a rosy hue. “Come on. Let’s get our sweet treat. I want to get home, so I can make sure your costume is ready on time. We can also go over the report and the part Nino’s prepared for you to speak.”

His mood dimmed. “I should’ve been there to help with all this. I shouldn’t have let you three do all the work yourselves.”

“You can make it up to us by kicking butt on the presentation,” she assured him, her hand slipping around his bicep and dragging him toward her home once more.

He went willingly.

The promise of sweets and her company proved too strong for him to withstand.

“We never got to dance together,” he said after they’d reached the bakery’s side door. “Another regret I’ll have to carry.”

“I don’t know. That sounds like an easy remedy, Chaton.” She winked at him, pushing the door open and slipping inside.

His heart threatened to fly away, pounding hard at the promise in her voice.

Following her inside, he tried to keep his hope from getting too out of control.

One potential-filled glance from her, and that thought flitted away.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

“Well done,” their teacher announced. “Top marks for each of you, including you, M. Agreste.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Adrien said, his voice respectful.

The look their teacher sent him had Marinette bracing for a good showdown. His time in school hadn’t gotten any easier as the week had progressed, and she’d had enough of the treatment he’d received.

“While I have my doubts about your actual participation, your group has vouched for you.” She glanced up from the clipboard she held, her hand pausing in its notetaking. “I hope you know how lucky you are to have such good allies.”

His eyes shifted between them. “I do, ma’am.”

She motioned for them to resume their seats, the bell not far from dismissing them for the day.

Marinette didn’t mind, her arms wrapping around him in a tight hug. She held on a bit longer than she probably should have. His return hug had been almost hesitant, spurring her to continue the hug. It hit her again how hard the week must’ve been for him.

Wanting to see a smile on his face again, she pulled away. A smile lit up her features as a thought came to her, turning to face each of her friends.

“We all worked really hard. How about I buy us dinner to celebrate tonight?”

Alya and Nino cheered at the news, happily stuffing their bags in preparation for dismissal.

Adrien didn’t say anything.

She brought her attention back to him. Resting her hand on top of his, she brought him to a standstill. Warmth rushed through her system at the way his gaze followed her hand until he reached hers. She could read the questions in his eyes, the green shining with the overhead fluorescence.

“Hey, you.” She dropped her voice low. “Come out with us tonight. You deserve this as much as we do.”

The wry chuckle he used to answer her hurt a bit, but she persevered.

“Chaton, this isn’t a request. You’re coming with us, and you’re going to have fun.” She poked his side, earning a half-hearted glare from him. “You can even pick where we eat.”

“I probably should head home, Mari. The public is pretty hostile toward all Agrestes right now.” He returned his attention to his current actions of gathering his things. “I doubt anyone will let you three eat in peace if I’m there.”

“Dude, you can’t hide forever. Besides, we want you there.” Nino tapped Adrien’s shoulder. “Come on, Nette’s right. You deserve to have some fun, too.”

“I agree with them, Sunshine, so it looks like you’re being outvoted.” Alya smiled at him. “Now, get your stuff and let’s get out of here.”

The bell rang.

With a quick speech about the next presentation, their teacher dismissed them, wishing them all a good night.

Marinette didn’t miss the cold look she’d given Adrien as he passed her desk at the front. She took a step forward to say something.

A hand on her arm stopped her.

“It’s not worth it, my Lady. Please, just let it go.” His eyes pleaded with her.

She exhaled. “It’s not right, Adrien. You haven’t done anything wrong. You don’t deserve any of this.”

“I think I do,” he admitted, his voice dropping low. “I should’ve known what he was up to. I could’ve believed you when you first suspected him. I didn’t do either. So, yeah, I do deserve the city’s censure.”

“Adrien –”

“I’m not being self-deprecating, I swear. I’m just taking a bit of responsibility and letting the city heal however it needs to. If that means hating me, then so be it.” He held out his hand, waiting for her to take it. “Having you beside me makes it easier to handle all the anger Paris feels.”

She slid her hand in his, a smile lighting her features once more. “I’m not going anywhere, Chaton. You’re pretty much stuck with me.”

“There are worse fates,” he murmured, a smile spilling across his features.

Alya and Nino waited by the classroom door, a look shooting between them that only they could decipher.

“What?” Marinette demanded.

Smirks met her and Adrien.

“Nothing, girl.”

A derisive snort came behind them.

“Yeah, right,” Chloe said, her hand covering her blushing cheeks. “We’re all waiting for you two to come to your senses and get back together. You two are absolutely disgusting in your cute couple-ness.”

Nathaniel shook his head, his eyes meeting Marinette’s for a moment. He may not completely agree with Chloe’s word choice, but he concurred with her assessment.

“We’re just friends,” they said in unison, earning more laughter and derision for their efforts.

Moving as a unit, their small group made its way toward the front of school, filing out with giant sighs of relief. The weekend had arrived, and they had every intention of enjoying it.

Chloe and Nathaniel separated from their group, heading toward her father’s waiting limo.

Lawrence pulled up behind the Bourgeois limo, tapping at the horn.

“I’ll be right back.” Adrien hurried toward the waiting car and spoke through the passenger window.

Marinette watched and waited as Lawrence spoke a few words but generally nodded in agreement with whatever Adrien told him. She smiled and waved when Lawrence pulled away a few minutes later, gaining a smile and wave in return.

Upon his return, he took her hand in his. “So, does Chinese sound good? I was thinking the place we stopped at a while back.”

“Mm, that does sound good.” She glanced at Alya and Nino, happy to see them in agreement.

Twenty minutes later, they were seated at a booth and had their orders placed. The hostess had smiled and greeted each of them warmly, not even the barest hint of disdain toward Adrien. Their server had been professional and swift to serve them.

“You did good, Chaton.” She leaned into his side, happy to rest from the hectic week they’d been through.

“Thanks,” he said, chuckling. “I hope their fortune cookies have gotten better since our last visit.”

At his words, her last fortune came back to her, setting her cheeks ablaze. Swatting him, she shushed him before they had to explain that unfortunate tidbit with the others.

When their food appeared, they all dived in, ready to rejoice at passing their class and earning top marks on their group project.

“I don’t know how to thank you guys,” Adrien said, breaking the easy silence as they ate. “You shouldn’t have gone to the bat for me, but I really appreciate that you did. I know I haven’t been the best friend I could be lately. To any of you. But, seriously, thank you.”

“Dude, don’t worry about it. What are best buds for?” Nino slurped his soup, causing Wayzz to shake his head under Nino’s cap.

Marinette giggled at the pair, Tikki joining in from her purse.

Trixx poked out of Alya’s hair, eager to see what was happening. The little fox had no trouble slinking about, darting down for a dumpling or two while Alya screeched at them.

Plagg remained fairly aloof, his appearances rare and a bit subdued for the little troublemaker he typically was.

Disturbed, Marinette leaned close enough to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Large green eyes stared up at her, whiskers twitching.

“Come on, Plagg, you can tell me,” she whispered.

“No Camembert,” he mumbled under his breath.

Laughing aloud, she turned to Tikki and held out her hand for the small tin she’d packed earlier that day. Not bothering with ceremony, she opened the tin and held it under Plagg’s hiding place.

“Will this do until you get home?”

He didn’t need to be asked twice, zipping up and out to grab the beloved wedge. With a single gulp, it was gone, a delighted groan escaping him before he settled in Adrien’s pocket again. She heard a thankful burp and bit back another laugh.

“Don’t encourage him, Mari. I beg of you. He’s already insufferable,” Adrien pleaded.

“Oh, he’s not that bad.” The look Adrien shot her sent her into a giggling fit. “Alright, maybe he is.”

“I heard that.” Plagg continued to grumble about holders and their insufferable other halves.

Before either could retort, Tikki held up Marinette’s vibrating phone.

Without thinking, she unlocked her screen and read the message. Then, she read it again for good measure.

“Hmm?”

Leaning closer, Adrien tried to peek at her phone, but she closed it before he could.

“What’s going on, my Lady?”

“It’s your father. He’d like to see me tomorrow. Apparently, he has a favor he’d like my help with.”

He tensed with the news.

Placing her hand on his shoulder, she hurried to assure him. “Look, we don’t know if it’s good or bad yet. If it’s something you should know, I’ll tell you. No more secrets, remember?”

“No more secrets,” he agreed.

She pressed a peck on his cheek, enduring the fawning noises Alya and Nino made at them.

Thoughts of her meeting with Gabriel disappeared as they endured more torture at the hands of their friends.

 

00000

 

“Gabriel,” a feminine voice shouted.

Footsteps rushed toward him.

“Are you alright?”

Blinking against the fog covering him, he focused on the woman kneeling beside him, her hands frantically typing on her phone.

“Don’t worry. I’m getting help.”

She put the phone to her ear, its ringing loud enough to hear where he lay prone against the cold tile flooring.

He raised his hand, hoping to stop her, but it wouldn’t budge from his side.

Licking his lips, he managed to rasp, “Please.”

It was too late. The phone connected.

Lawrence’s clipped tone softened upon hearing her voice and the worry lacing it.

Some give and take occurred as she explained the situation, a sigh escaping when Lawrence promised to hurry.

She hung up a moment later.

“Lawrence is coming. Try to relax. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Adri –”

“Is he upstairs? I can get him, but I don’t want to leave you alone.” She bit her lip.

He shook his head.

She didn’t notice in her distracted state.

He sighed, resigned.

Watching her, he caught the little lightbulb going off moments later, an idea having occurred to her. A small smirk managed to tilt one side of his mouth upward. It wasn’t any wonder why she’d been chosen as Ladybug. Her ability to strategize and work through conundrums had served her well, thwarting him for more years than he’d once thought possible.

“I’ve got it.”

She presented him with a smile as she raised her phone once more. A few taps gave her what she needed. The phone rested against her ear a moment later, its ringing growing profoundly irritating.

“Adrien, I’m downstairs with your father. Something’s wrong.”

Hearing the panic in his son’s voice, Gabriel closed his eyes. He hadn’t wanted Adrien to find him like this, not again.  

She set her phone down, having disconnected the call. “He’s coming.”

Sensation returned to his extremities.

He reached out and patted her hand. “You’re a good one, Marinette.”

“I’m certainly trying,” she said, laughter ringing her words. “Do you need anything?”

“Off this floor.” He grimaced, sensations continuing to return. A large bruise he hadn’t felt before had begun making its presence known.

“Can you sit up?” She leaned over him.

He nodded, taking her silent offer of assistance. With her guidance, he soon rested against one of his office chairs, the hospital bed he’d been given across the way.

Footsteps thudded and scuffed across the large gallery outside his office door.

“Father,” Adrien hollered, sailing through the open doorway, “you alright?”

A terrified look passed over his son’s features as he dashed closer, only to trip over his own feet. He slid across the floor, pushing himself up upon slowing near them.

“He’s fine for now, Adrien.” Marinette’s voice dipped lower, her hand shooting out to clasp his son’s arm.

Gabriel watched the emotions and silent communication the two held. It warmed him to see them so close despite all he’d done to ruin it, even if that had been his last intention. Hope flourished within him at their ability to work past their issues with each other. He crossed it off his mental bucket list, knowing his son wouldn’t be truly alone when the time came.

“She’s right, son. It was a small episode, nothing more.”

He pushed to sit further upright, fighting a brief wave of dizziness.

“Are you sure? Should we call an ambulance or something?”

Gabriel nodded. “I’ll be fine.”

Lawrence and Nathalie walked into the room a few minutes later, taking in the scene with opposite reactions. Nathalie hurried to his side, dropping next to him and checking him as a mother might a hurt child. He’d have been irritated if she hadn’t been so distraught.

Unlike Nathalie, Lawrence took a moment to survey the situation. He strode toward the small gathering, stooping down and lifting Gabriel with little effort. Without a word of acknowledgment passing between them, Lawrence soon had him situated and tucked back into the hospital bed.

Settled, he nodded to Lawrence, dismissing him. He couldn’t bring himself to meet the other man’s eyes, embarrassment blazing through him.

“I can come back if you’d like to rest.”

He glanced up to see Marinette fidgeting with her purse and glancing at the doorway.

“That would be for the best,” Nathalie said.

To his dismay, Marinette moved to leave.

“No, we still have a matter to discuss. A few minutes won’t make much difference.”

“Gabriel –”

“I’ll be fine, Nath.” He met her concerned gaze. His voice dropped low to add, “You should rest, mon Couer. You haven’t been sleeping well. Go change and join me here. We can take a nap together.”

His fingers traced the soft shadows her makeup couldn’t hide.

She nodded. “I’d really like that.”

He pressed his lips to hers, not lingering with the young audience they had.

When she disappeared through the door, he turned his attention to Marinette and smiled. “I appreciate you coming today.”

“I’ll admit to being curious. What favor were you wanting my help with?”

His gaze slid over to Adrien. “Son, do you mind giving us a moment?”

“Yeah, I do.” Adrien’s arms crossed over his chest. “I won’t be left out again.”

He opened his mouth to argue, but Marinette jumped in. Her eyes bounced between them, wide and a bit disconcerted by the rising emotions within the room.

“Okay, wait.” She spread her arms between them as though to stop them from a physical altercation. “I propose a new rule. No hiding any more favors or surprises unless it’s something good like a surprise party or something along those lines. Deal, you two?”

Both nodded.

She straightened, her arms coming to rest at her sides. “So, Gabriel, is this favor along those lines or is it something Adrien needs to know about right here, right now?”

He bit back another smirk, pride shimmering near the surface at her audacity.

“Father?” Adrien prodded.

“It’s a good favor, son. One that I don’t know can happen without Marinette’s help, so I’d rather keep it between her and me for now.” His brow arched as he regarded his son. “Will that suffice?”

Adrien glanced in her direction.

“No more secrets, Chaton. If he breaks the rules, you’ll be the first to know.” She shot a warning glance at him, a promise made clear.

He wanted to be offended, but his pride for her swelled, tugging a smile to the surface of his lips.

“On my tarnished honor, it doesn’t.” He held up his hand for added measure.

Adrien remained another moment or two before accepting their word and walking from the room. The door closed behind him, leaving them alone.

“So, what’s this favor?” She took a seat in a nearby chair.

Adjusting the covers over him, he bought some needed time, unsure how she’d take the request he was about to ask of her. He’d already asked so much of her. Could he ask for anything more?

For Adrien, he had to try.

“I would like your help in seeing the fencing tournament next weekend.”

She stared at him.

His steel nerves deserted him, leaving him a jangled mess. The episode hadn’t helped, he thought. Spurred on by his need for her to understand, he added, “It’s Adrien’s last one. I haven’t managed to see one before. I’d like to see him compete before it’s too late.”

She continued to stare, her brow furrowing.

“I know I’m being punished for what I did. If I’m honest, the panel was too lenient for all the harm I’ve done.” He exhaled, tiredness washing over him. “But, I want to do this for Adrien. He deserves to have his father there, proud of all his hard work. I want to show him I’m proud of the man he’s becoming however I can before I can’t anymore.”

She remained silent, the furrows deepening across her forehead. Her nose had begun to crinkle with whatever thoughts she had swirling.

“Marinette, I –”

Her hand shot up.

Falling silent, he waited.

The furrow vanished, a smile replacing it. “I’ll see what I can do.”

A knock on the door announced Nathalie’s arrival.

“No promises,” she warned, standing up and preparing to leave.

“I understand. Thank you, Marinette.”

She waved, disappearing beyond the doorway.

Nathalie walked in, her stocking-clad feet carrying her swiftly to his side.

She settled beside him and asked, “So, what was that all about?”

He merely smiled. Pulling her close to his side, he nuzzled her cheek, content to hold her and keep his secret a little bit longer.

 

00000

 

Sliding his gloves into place, he picked up his rapier, his mask resting on top of his hair.

“You okay?” Kagami shot him an expectant look. “Nerves?”

“Secrets.”

She didn’t respond.

Her hands checked over her fencing attire, ensuring everything remained in place. With a few slices of her rapier, she slid her mask in place and faced him.

“Marinette and your father, I presume?”

He nodded, misery settling over him like a familiar blanket.

“Want my advice?”

“Does it involve sending your boyfriend on a date with Marinette again?”

She poked him with the tip of her rapier.

“Hey. Uncalled for.”

His hand rubbed at the spot of impact.

“I barely touched you.”

She poked him again, earning a return strike from his rapier, which she parried with ease.

He smiled at the challenge entering her eyes, almost delighted at the fire he saw there.

Blue eyes flashed before him, reminding him of another fiery woman. Her uncanny ability to twist him into knots not lost on him. She’d sworn the favor his father asked had been nothing of consequence, but he’d been restless ever since.

His smile dimmed, his thoughts returning to the past several days.

Nightmares had haunted him off and on through the week, leaving him bleary-eyed and frazzled. Fearing the worst, he’d imagined all sorts of distinct horrors lying in wait for his unsuspecting self. Any demands had been met with pained silence from both parties, keeping him further in the dark and fueling further nightmares.

“My advice is to tuck it away. Focus on the tournament. You’ll discover their secret soon, I’m sure.” She took a step, ready to head toward the event’s arena.

“Hey, Gami.” His hand shot out and gripped her arm. He gave her his best competitive smile, taking her advice to heart. “May the best fencer win.”

She nodded. “See you in the winner’s circle, wearing silver to my gold.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.” He followed her from the locker room.

He attempted to tap her side with his rapier, but she thwarted him, shooting him a knowing smirk over her shoulder. He laughed, his muscles relaxing for the upcoming event.

Stepping into the arena, they joined their fellow teammates and M. D’Argencourt. The master shared a few words with his students, his pleasure at their hard work shining in his stance.

Kagami nudged him. “You have a fan club.”

Following the direction she indicated, his eyes widened at the sight waiting for him in the bleachers. Marinette stood beside the metal stand. She held her phone up with a smile, ready to record his matches for future viewings. Beside her, his father and Nathalie sat on the highest tier.

He waved back, his mind working to catch up with this new information.

She turned toward his family and mumbled something he couldn’t hear even if he’d been wearing his super suit.

They smiled and opened their jackets to reveal another surprise for him. Emblazoned along the front were the words, Adrien’s #1 Fans. Both held their thumbs up in encouragement.

He laughed, his heart threatening to burst from his chest.

“Seems like some secrets aren’t so bad, huh?” Kagami murmured, her shoulder nudging his again. “Ready to make them proud?”

“You know it.” He slid his mask into place.

The next few hours passed in a blur for him. His name had been called with each new round he entered until they’d reached the final match. He’d met the determined stance of his opponent, a smile forming as he knew her every move.

She gave him everything she had, making him work for each point he earned against her. Their rapiers parried and landed points until they’d come down to the winning tap. Their equality on the mat had the entire arena holding its breath, waiting to see which one would be crowned victor.

The final tap against his thigh hit almost simultaneously with her tap to his calf.

He couldn’t be sure who’d touched the other first, knowing their judge would make the ultimate decision. Pulling his mask up, he met Kagami’s knowing smile with a look of anticipation. He swiped at the sweat beading his forehead, turning toward the judge as he stepped toward the mat’s center.

“And the winner is …” the announcer paused, drawing out the tension, “Adrien Agreste.”

Shock hit him hard. It threatened to buckle his knees and send him sprawling across the floor.

“Congratulations, Adrien. You deserve the win.” Kagami walked past him, her mask high on her head and her shoulders squared. The smile she gave him assured him she’d accepted his victory and wouldn’t be demanding a rematch. “Until next time, Adrien, enjoy your win.”

“Hey, Gami, wait.”

He grabbed her arm to still her.

She met his gaze with a curious one of her own.

“I’d like to treat you to dinner if you don’t mind. Celebrate our hard work and our friendship. Bring Luka, too. I still owe him for saving my life.”

“Only if you bring Marinette. I can’t have you become an awkward third wheel.”

Their conversation over, she walked toward the locker room, intent on changing into her street clothes. The silver medallion she wore gleamed in the sun, showcasing her extreme talent as a fencing champion.

He glanced down at the gold one he wore, its pristine shine reminding him of the gold bell he wore as Chat. The beginnings of a smile slid over his lips. His thoughts of a certain bug and the merry chase she’d given him almost two weeks ago still fresh in his mind.

“That was insane. I’d almost forgotten how good you were.”

Spinning at her voice, he swept her into his arms and spun her around.

Laughing, she managed to ask, “Did you like your surprise?”

He spun her another revolution, enjoying the feel of her in his arms. They tightened around her to bring her closer. The need to kiss her hit him with the impact of a wrecking ball. He glanced at her lips and wondered if she might object should he decide to take the chance.

“I did,” he whispered.

She glowed with happiness.

The need doubled within him, spurring him into action. His hands lowered her so her feet touched the ground, remaining near her waist. Leaning in, he brushed his lips across hers. He kept the kiss brief.

“Thank you, Mari, for the sweet surprise.”

He brushed a second kiss to her lips and stepped back. His hands fell to his sides, itching to return to her hips. Resisting took more effort than he’d thought he’d need.

“You’re welcome.”

Her fingers traced her lips, almost spellbound by the kisses he’d given her.

Feeling his resistance buckling, he asked the first question to pop into his mind. “Would you come to dinner with Kagami, Luka, and me tonight?”

Her features took on a thoughtful expression.

“Kagami said she wanted you there, and I know you like Luka. What do you say? Will you join us?”

She seemed to consider his offer and explanation, taking her time in answering him.

“My Lady?”

“Sounds like a great evening, Chaton.” She glanced down at her phone. “I, um, I need to make a phone call real quick. Do you mind if I meet you there?”

He nodded. “Yeah, sure. Everything alright?”

“Everything’s good. I think I might have a solution for something.” Her fingers deftly unlocked her phone and began typing against its screen. “Text me the address and time. I promise I won’t be late.”

With a kiss pressed to his cheek, she walked away, disappearing into the small crowd surrounding the locker room doors.

He watched her go, unsure what had come up in such a sudden fashion, but he pushed the growing thoughts away. Negativity had no place in his life, not when he’d busted his butt to win the fencing tournament for his age group. Not only had he won, but his father had been there to see it happen. Never in a millennium would he have believed his father would ever come to one of his events.

Walking into the locker room, he shoved his gear into his bag, replacing it with his street clothes.

“You smell worse than my favorite pair of socks,” Plagg groused.

The little kwami floated near Adrien’s shoulder, taking care not to touch his chosen.

“Tell me you’re taking a shower before you go out to win your lady love.”

He chuckled. “Of course, I am. What kind of guy do you take me for?”

“An oblivious one.”

The spirited volley earned the black cat another chuckle.

“Touché. Let’s go home and relax before dinner tonight.”

“Music to my ears, kid.” Plagg hunkered down on top of his duffel bag. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have any Camembert on you?”

Pulling a tin from his locker, he waved it in front of Plagg’s face.

A little drool pooled at the corners of the kwami’s mouth.

With Plagg handled, Adrien hurried to track down Kagami and set their dinner plans that evening, shooting Marinette a text as he’d promised.

Something told him the night would be a good one.

 

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“Thanks, Ninny, you’re the best.” She hung up and sailed through the restaurant door, spying her party already seated. She tossed a quick greeting to the hostess and hurried toward the table. “I made it.”

Dropping into the chair beside Adrien, she took a breath. The run across Paris’s rooftops had taken longer than she’d thought, swinging the last hundred meters or so. She patted her hair, pleased to find the magic had kept it neat after she’d called off her transformation.

Adrien chuckled while the others smiled.

“I hope you don’t mind, but we ordered your drink for you.” Adrien glanced toward their server. “He seems to be having an off night, so we’re trying to stay on his good side.”

She twisted to follow Adrien’s gaze, her lips curving downward. “I hope everything’s alright.”

Fingers grazed her hand.

Turning back to the table, she caught the adoration shining in Adrien’s eyes. The soft look warmed her to the point her cheeks tingled with a burst of color. Lacing their fingers, she brought their joined hands to her lap and covered them with her free hand.

The world melted away. It didn’t matter they’d joined another couple for dinner or the restaurant was full. They had each other. That was all that mattered.

She missed this closeness with him. It’d been so fleeting before, hardly able to root itself firmly before their relationship had been blasted hard. The devastation had been rough and uncertain. Sitting with him though at this point in time and having him look at her the way he was, she could almost believe that they could make it work. She only had to reach out and grab the opportunity.

The words sprang to her lips, yearning to break free, but another spoke up first.

“Okay, you two, you’re making the rest of us couples look bad.”

Jolted back to the present, the bubble burst around them, reminding them of Kagami and Luka.

She glanced toward them. They both wore grins that pulled an eye roll from her.

“I was going to surprise you both with something, but I think I’ve changed my mind.” She huffed, a smile peeking through.

“Oh, no, how will we ever live?” Kagami shot back, ready for some back and forth.

Marinette shrugged. “I guess you won’t.”

Both ladies ended up laughing, the air clearing between them.

“I do want to thank you both for that night. Without both of you, I don’t know what would’ve happened.” She glanced at Adrien and saw him tense, the hazy memories clouding his eyes.

Her hand tightened around his.

She had no way of knowing what he’d experienced that night as he’d wrestled with the butterfly. If they were anything like the ones she relived every few nights, she knew he suffered more than he should have.

Their server interrupted the moment, returning with their drinks and taking their orders.

When he stepped away, they fell into a small silence until Kagami broke it.

“It was certainly an experience I won’t soon forget. I liked … Plagg, was it? He was quite the character.”

“He can be, but he’s not bad once you get to know him.” Adrien’s free hand patted his pocket, a tiny lump purring softly at the attention.

They shared a small laugh at the kwami’s expense.

The air changed as Kagami regarded Luka.

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “If I could change one thing, it would’ve been that rooftop. Too many risks taken with stakes way too high.”

“We’re all here,” Luka whispered.

Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he pulled her into his side and pressed a kiss against her hair.

Kagami smiled. “Yes, we are.”

Tears sprang to Marinette’s eyes as she witnessed the closeness between Kagami and Luka. Something akin to longing filled her at the sight of them together, the closeness they shared.

Her ascending hand dragged her attention toward its coaxed movement.

Adrien brushed his lips over her knuckles. The stubble along his chin scratched in the most delicious way against her skin.

“Good luck found us all that night.” His eyes remained locked with hers, the message clear within them.

She blushed. The rush of color and warmth singed her cheeks and the tips of her ears. His ability to casually drop his feelings for her almost too much yet not enough for her own swinging emotions.

Ready for a new topic, she tore her gaze from his and blurted out her next thought.

“So, did you get your invite from Chloe yet? She’s throwing this huge Christmas party the day before Christmas Eve.”

She’d seen the determination in Chloe when she’d written out the invitations for both Luka and Kagami. When she’d asked about the separate invites, Chloe had surprised her. Not wanting to presume they’d go together, she’d written them separate cards. She’d also wanted to ensure they both knew how welcome they’d be after their help in saving Adrikins.

Luka nodded. “We’ve already RSVP’d. She was quite insistent we be there.”

Marinette smiled. “Sounds like her, but I know it’ll be fun. I’m glad you’ll be there.”

“That’s true. She does know how to throw a party, and the hotel goes out all for her Christmas party. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun.” Adrien shifted in his seat, leaning back as their server appeared with their orders. “Chloe mentioned something special would be happening this year.”

That had Marinette’s attention. “She did? I wonder what it could be.”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged though a familiar cat-like grin appeared. “I guess we’ll have to go together and find out.”

He balked, his eyes flaring and his free hand going to his nape. He rushed to add, “As friends.”

Laughter bubbled out of her.

“I knew what you meant, Chaton, and yes, I’d love to go with you as friends.”

Kagami and Luka laughed along with her.

Adrien smiled. He dropped his hand to the table, his embarrassment diffusing. A longing look entered his eyes as he spied the course laid out before him.

Another laugh escaped as she relinquished her hold on his other hand. She missed the warmth she’d found there, but her own gaze traveled to the plate in front of her. A soft moan followed, eager to dig in and enjoy.

Silence soon reigned the table, each content to savor the food they’d ordered. Occasionally, they’d share bits of their favorites with the others with the barest amount of words exchanged.

When the evening came to an end, peace and friendship settled between them.

The dinner had been a good idea, Marinette thought as she took Adrien’s hand in hers, waving to Kagami and Luka. She leaned into him to rest her head against his shoulder.

“We’ll have to do that again,” she murmured.

His arm wrapped around her waist, holding her close.

Together, they walked alongside the shops, not ready to call it a night and head their separate ways. Several stores had gone all out with their decorations. Some even spilled out onto the sidewalk, Christmas alive and well for shoppers and passersby alike. Tiny blinking lights dangled from awnings in various shades of red and green. Gold and silver tinsel mingled with fake snowflakes within window displays to highlight the season’s hottest sellers.

Sparing a glance at Adrien, she caught the pensive expression he wore. His eyes darted around them, searching the darkest corners and alleys they passed.

On alert, she whispered, “A euro for your thoughts, Chaton?”

He shook his head, his eyes continuing their search.

Hairs raised on the back of her neck. The sensation of being followed danced across her skin, raising her awareness of their surroundings.

She grabbed his jacket and pulled into a nearby shop, intent of reaching the backroom without causing too much fuss. Once clear of store personnel and shoppers, she ducked with him into a small mop closet. With three little words, pink flashed over her, mixing with the green of Adrien’s transformation.

Rushing out the back door, Chat Noir extended his staff and propelled them toward the nearest rooftop. Her yoyo remained at her side, knowing her partner wouldn’t leave her defenseless.

“Something’s coming, My Lady,” he whispered. “Something big.”

She peered over the roof’s ledge, a dark shadow passing beneath them.

She met his eyes. “I’ve had a feeling, and I think it’s time we add a couple new players to our team.”

“Have someone in mind?”

 “Yeah, I think I do.” Taking his hand, she walked to the roof’s opposite side. “Come, I think it’s time we see Nino and Master Fu about the Butterfly and Peacock and their new holders.”

He nodded. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

He stepped into the Le Grand Paris Hotel amid a cacophony of activity. The sheer number of people shouldn’t have surprised him, having seen Chloe’s attention to the finer details for her parties. This included the Christmas party she’d hosted and planned the past four years. The reins had clearly been handed over from her parents, who no longer cared how she handled matters as long as she maintained their standards and reputation.

A heavy burden for many, he knew. Knowing Chloe as he did, she handled with all the grace and patience she possessed.

“What do you think you’re doing? I wanted this piece over there. This” – she held another centerpiece out for the preppers inspection – “is the one that should be here. Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.”

Taking the steps to the balcony, he smiled. “Leave it to you, Chlo, to always keep others on their toes.”

“Oh, Adrikins, you’re here. Thank goodness. These people are going to be the death of me.” She wrapped her arms around him in a welcoming hug. “Please, save me from such incompetence.”

“Come on, Chlo. They’re not doing that bad.” He returned the hug, his smile growing wider.

She huffed though a small smile emerged. “I guess you’re right.”

They returned downstairs, taking up positions near the entrance. Chloe’s eyes had taken on a speculative gleam as she surveyed the work being completed around them.

Adrien admired her ability to focus on all that happened around them. It reminded him of another who had similar abilities, bringing another smile to his lips.

“Someone’s still a smitten kitten,” Chloe whispered, her eyes on him. The speculative gleam had shifted into a knowing one. “Everything’s set for tonight. It’s sure to be the talk of Paris.”

“Well, it’s not Paris who matters, but that’s good to know.”

Several helpers approached them, interrupting their conversation. Each had questions about one aspect of the party or another from decorations to food to entertainment.

Chloe’s fingers, at one point, pinched the bridge of her nose. Her eyes had scrunched shut while she counted to ten beneath her breath.

“Okay, I think you need a break. Let’s head up to your suite.” He placed his hand on her back, escorting into the elevator. “There’s something I wanted to tell you in private.”

The doors slid shut and the car propelled them upward.

“Does it have something to do with the new baddie in town?”

He stared at her.

She stared back, an arch look crossing her features.

“You already know?”

“I’m not exactly stupid, Adrikins. Besides, Pollen’s been acting wired lately.”

“Hey,” a tiny voice chirped, indignant at being called out.

“Well, you have been. I figured it had to be something big.” She cast a smile to the little bee kwami popping out of her ponytail. “I’m not wrong, am I?”

“No, you’re not.” He grew quiet, recalling the other night when he and Marinette had ducked into a shop to escape whoever had been following them. “I don’t know what it is yet, but Mari and I are looking into it.”

Holding up something sweet for Pollen, Chloe asked, “Are we getting new teammates?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

The elevator stopped on her suite’s floor, the doors sliding open. The luxury of the floor had been revamped in the last couple of years to provide weary guests an unforgettable taste of what Paris has to offer.

“Alright, well, enough talk about doom and gloom, hmm? It’s Christmas, Adrikins.” She stepped off the elevator and led him toward her suite. “Everything’s set for tonight. I expect a nice gift for all my trouble, just so you know.”

He chuckled. “I had no doubts. I’ll bring it tonight. Thank you, too, for helping me with this.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “What are childhood friends for, right?”

“Right.”

She slid the key into the lock and pushed the door open, her head nodding in agreement.

“You have time?” She stepped inside and held the door for him. At his nod, she added, “I could use your fashion sense. I want to knock Nath’s socks off tonight.”

“You could wear a paper sack and knock his socks off, Chlo. He’s never cared what you look like.”

She scoffed. “Of course, he doesn’t, but I do, Adrikins. I want to look special for him.”

When she faced him, he caught sight of the soft love she wore when she’d mentioned Nathaniel’s name. She looked almost giddy from the love bubbling in her expressive eyes. It didn’t matter that they were often hidden behind sunglasses. She could never hide her emotions from him, not since they’d become friends so many years ago.

Marinette flashed through his mind. He hoped one day to have the freedom to show his love for her as Chloe planned to show hers to Nathaniel.

Offering Chloe a smile, he said, “Okay, show me what you have.”

She squealed and hurried into her room to change.

The next thirty minutes passed in a flurry of outfits, each ranging from classic to over-the-top couture. His mind reeled at all the dresses and two-piece ensembles she tossed at him. A sea of yellow and black swarmed around him with spots of blue, purple, and pink; each one discarded at his suggestion.

“Adrikins, this is the last one. You better like this one,” she called behind the door.

He groaned, his eyes going to the clock on his phone. With the party fast approaching, he’d be lucky to get home to shower and change before heading toward Marinette’s to pick her up.  

Knowing he couldn’t disappoint either woman, he sighed before he said, “Alright. Ready when you are.”

She stepped out of her room, her steps hesitant in the doorway. Her hands played with the straps that rested against her upper arms.

He spared her his most critical eye, one honed from years of watching his father and learning the fashion industry. The yellow crème of the satin dress matched the yellow accents on her onyx jewelry. If he hadn’t known before she was Honey Bee, he would certainly have known it then.

“Chlo, you look stunning. That’s the one.”

She met his gaze with a steely look. “You’re not just saying that to get out of here.”

“No,” he said with a smile, “you look absolutely beautiful. Nathaniel is going to love it. I have a feeling we’ll be picking his jaw off the floor.”

Her look melted away, revealing a shy smile. “You think so?”

“I know so.” He wrapped her in a hug. “Now, this prince needs to get presentable for his princess. I can’t woo her in these rags, now can I?”

“I don’t know. Marinette isn’t half as picky as I am.” Chloe’s hand tapped his cheek. “She really suits you, Adrikins. I hope you get what you want for Christmas. You deserve it.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you later.” He brushed a kiss against her cheek and left her suite, heading for the elevator.

He stepped into the plush car and sank against the far wall, his mind awhirl with all he needed to do before that evening.

“You’re worrying again, kid. I can tell. So, hurry up and tell me what’s wrong so I can enjoy my Camembert without you wallowing.” Plagg pulled out his final wedge and shoved it into his mouth in one large bite.

“Classy.”

A sigh slipped out of him, his eyes closing.

“Out with it, kid.”

“I’m a little nervous about tonight. What if Marinette hates what I have planned? I didn’t exactly ask her before I went to Chloe with my idea.” His hand crept up to his nape and rubbed, his nerves fluttering to life with each floor the elevator bypassed.

“Spots adores you. While I couldn’t care less about lovey-dovey stuff, I know it when I see it.” Plagg touched Adrien’s chest with one tiny paw. “You two have it, okay? She’s your other half, even if you’re going through a rough patch right now.”

Adrien smiled. “Thanks, Plagg. You know how to cheer me up.”

“Well, duh. I’ve been doing it for years, and I plan on keeping it up, too. Just don’t get stupid and give me up again. Deal?”

“Deal.”

The elevator’s doors opened on the ground floor.

Adrien wasted little time in vacating the car and hurrying outside to the waiting limo. A glance at his phone’s clock told him he had enough time to shower and change, but he’d have to hurry through everything or risk being late to pick up Marinette.

Something deep inside warned he didn’t want to be late.

He had a feeling this would be an important night for them. He had no intention of wasting a single moment, either.

Forty-three minutes and twenty-six seconds later, he stepped up to the bakery’s side door.

She appeared in the doorway before he had the chance to knock, pushing the door open for him to come inside.

Seeing her, he whistled in appreciation. “You look so beautiful, Maribug.”

 

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A pleasant warmth filled her at his words.

“Thank you.” She looked him over with a small smile. “You’re looking pretty handsome yourself, Chaton.”

Stepping toward him, she straightened his collar, her fingers skirting over the expensive fabric. Her eyes remained on the task at hand, not quite daring enough to meet his eyes.

The air around them grew charged with an energy that scared yet thrilled her at the same time.

Satisfied with her work, she stepped back, her smile still in place to ask, “Ready to go? I know how much Chloe hates late arrivals.”

He didn’t answer her. His eyes hadn’t moved from her or her dress. His hands remained quite lifeless at his side while his feet remained firmly planted where he’d been standing since she opened the door. If she couldn’t see the soft breaths he took, she might’ve thought someone had replaced him with a statue.

Stepping back into his space, she ignored the air around them recharging, her concern for him growing with it. She reached up and placed her fingers against his warm cheek, tracing his smooth skin.

“Chaton, what’s going on? Talk to me.” She inched closer. “Are you having doubts about Chloe’s party? About going with me?”

Her heart squeezed hard as she asked the last question. Fearing she might be taking advantage where she shouldn’t, she let her hand fall away. A part of herself broke at the loss of contact, but she couldn’t stand the thought of him resenting her touch more, especially if she’d already overstepped by fixing his collar.

Neither had broached the subject since his kisses after his fencing tournament. They’d been busy with one thing or another in life. When they had spent time together, they’d been working with Master Fu and Nino or handling schoolwork. While she’d been busy working on her dress for the evening, she knew he had familial concerns to tackle, having heard rumors of major changes at Gabriel’s fashion house.

Maybe she’d misread the charged air around them. It hurt to consider, but she’d work through it and move on. For both their sakes, she wouldn’t hang on to some false hope she’d thought had been building between them.  

He surprised her by grabbing her hand and bringing it back to his cheek. His eyes closed as he inhaled, gathering his composure. When they opened again, they held a fire she hadn’t seen in a long time, a fire that threatened to consume her if she remained there.

“I have no doubts, My Lady,” he whispered, “not about this.”

He brushed his lips across the sensitive skin of her wrist.

“Oh.”

Heat suffused her. It built in her blood and flowed throughout her body, setting places she hadn’t considered on fire. It scared her. It thrilled her. Her heart pounded, echoing in her ears. She doubted she’d hear anything else for some time.

His fingers laced with hers and gently removed them from his cheek.

She followed their movement, helpless to do anything else until they settled between them.

“I’ve spent so many years having my breath taken away by you,” he said, leaning to whisper in her ear. “It’s nice to see I can do the same to you.”

Her eyes met his. She caught the light teasing lurking in their depths. Seeing it, she smiled.

Peace filled her, banking the fires he’d caused. They churned beneath the surface, but she regained the ability to think around him. Her heart settled into a steady beat that matched his pulse.

“Let’s go. I have a feeling you’ll cause trouble if we stay here any longer.” She glanced up and stifled a small giggle at his mischievous smile.

“Does that mean I can cause trouble later?”

She smacked his shoulder, her smile widening though she refused to let her laughter escape. Encouraging him wouldn’t serve her or their obligations to Chloe.

“Move it, Agreste.”

He chuckled. “Going. I’m going.”

Her hand remained firmly wrapped in his as he led her toward the waiting limo. He held the door open for her, relinquishing her hand long enough for her to situate herself and slip in beside her.

On the short ride to the hotel, they fill the back seat with soft laughter and quiet murmurs. They talked of anything and nothing, not willing to spoil their evening after getting it back on track.

Alya and Nino met their limo, wide smiles on their faces. They couldn’t contain their excitement for the evening ahead and made sure Adrien and she knew it as soon as they stepped out.

“Look at you, girl. That dress is fabulous.” Alya wrapped her in a tight hug. “I really need to save up and get you to make me something again. I need another Marinette original before we all head our separate ways after graduation.”

She met Adrien’s gaze, the warmth dimming a tiny bit. The thought of their group separating hurt to consider, but she knew they wouldn’t stay together forever.

Refusing to think about it, she rebounded and smiled. “Of course, but you don’t have to pay for it. You’re getting the best friend discount.”

Alya shook her head. “Nope. Not going to happen. I want the bragging rights, girl.”

She rolled her eyes but accepted her friend’s stubbornness on this subject.

“Alright, let’s get this party started.”

She peered back to see Nino and Adrien talking quietly. Her brows scrunched as she caught the conspiratorial looks they shared. They were up to something, she realized, but she hadn’t the slightest idea what it could be, something she didn’t like one bit. She recalled their little escapades over the past couple of years and knew they’d be causing trouble this evening.

Breaking away from Alya, she fell back and sidled up close to Adrien.

He smiled and took her hand in his. Placing it in the crook of his arm, he led her inside where several other guests meandered through the main floor of the hotel.

Chloe met them at the door.

“About time,” she huffed. “You didn’t see Nath outside, did you?”

“No, but don’t worry. I’m sure he’s not too far behind.” Marinette tried to assure, but her gaze met the worried one Chloe wore and wondered if something had happened.

Before she could ask, Chloe’s attention went to a point behind them, growing quite still.

Glancing behind them, Marinette smiled. “Guess we weren’t wrong.”

Nathaniel had been rushing toward them, but he stopped dead when he spotted Chloe. A slow smile crept over his features as he took in her gown and the care she’d taken for that evening.

“Come on, Chaton. I think we might be intruding.” She tugged on Adrien’s hand and took the lead into the grand ballroom of the luxurious hotel.

Gold and silver greeted them with small touches of traditional Christmas colors of red and green. Those came in the forms of poinsettias and holly sprinkled or tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the large room. Gorgeous centerpieces sat at each table alongside fine china and sparkling flatware.

She whistled. “Chloe spare no expense this year.”

“Yeah, last year and all that,” he murmured. “She has plans on going to Italy for university next year.”

“Mm, that sounds lovely.” She met his curious gaze, sensing the question he refused to ask. “Paris still holds my heart. I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”

He exhaled the breath he’d been holding.

Unable to stop herself, she giggled. “Thought I was leaving, did you?”

Pink swept over his cheeks while his free hand went to the back of his neck.

She shook her head, amusement singing through her.

Alya and Nino returned to their side, having found Luka and Kagami. Each having a place at the table Chloe had assigned them as a group. Two seats were left open for Nathaniel and Chloe near the front of the room.

Marinette noted they sat the closest to the dancefloor and the DJ’s stage, perfect for Nino to get up and do his set and Chloe for all her hostess duties.

As the thought crossed her mind, Chloe took the stage and picked up the microphone. “Thank you all for coming tonight. This is indeed a special Christmas. I hope you enjoy yourselves and all the delicious food the cooking staff has prepared. They’ve gone above and beyond this year.”

She paused, smiling at the applause coming from the multitude of guests.

Marinette’s heart warmed at all the love in the room, especially that aimed at Chloe. Their friendship might be newer than it should’ve been, but she knew Chloe deserved some recognition for all the work she’d done in changing her attitude and outlook in the past couple of years.

“Before I let you get back to it, I received a request from a dear friend. I couldn’t help but say yes when he asked for my help in making this happen.” Chloe turned to them. “So, come on up, you two, and lead us in the first dance of the evening.”

She whipped her head to meet his eyes, shock knocking the air from her lungs.

 

00000

 

He smiled. “Will you dance with me, My Lady?”

Bringing his hand up for hers, his smile grew wider as she took it without hesitation. He stood up and led her onto the dancefloor, placing their hands into the traditional places for the waltz they’d practiced a few months back.

The beginning strains filled the room.

One, two, three. One, two, three.

“This is nice,” she murmured.

He smiled. “Yeah, it is. I regret we missed our chance before.”

Everybody needs inspiration

Everybody needs a song

A beautiful melody

When the nights are long

Her eyes widened. “You made this?”

He nodded.

Moving into the first spin, he sent her swirling, relishing the way her dress’s skirt flared around her.

“Nicely done,” she whispered.

“Not so bad yourself, My Lady.”

‘Cause there is no guarantee

That this life is easy

Other couples trickled onto the dancefloor, but they gave him and Marinette a wide berth. He smiled at the look of wonder on her face.

Nino and Alya shot them nods of approval as they stepped onto the dancefloor. Nino’s thumbs came up while Alya rolled her eyes, a fond smile spreading over her lips at them both.

He thought he saw her mouth her gratitude, but he couldn’t be sure.

Marinette regained his attention, her feet tripping over each other.

He didn’t let her fall. His grip tightened around her waist and hand.

Yeah when my world is falling apart

When there's no light

To break up the dark

That's when I, I

I look at you

She smiled. “Thank you. That would’ve been quite embarrassing.”

“My pleasure.”

He continued to lead her, preparing for their next spin.

“Ready?”

“With you, always.”

He spun her.

She twirled away but came back, her eyes sparkling with the joy she’d given him.

When the waves are flooding the shore

And I can't find my way home anymore

That's when I, I

I look at you

She tucked into him, forgoing the traditional stance of the waltz. Her head came to rest against his chest while her hands rested on his shoulders.

“This is nicer,” she murmured. “Not that I don’t enjoy the waltz, but I’d rather be closer to you right now.”

A purr rumbled out of his chest. He tried to tamp it down, but her cheek nuzzled against his shirt right where his heart was. He lost all ability to control the rumbling vibrations as they poured out of him.

She smiled against him. “I’ve missed that sound.”

“I haven’t,” he half-grumbled, his happiness wiping away any discontent from the sounds he made.

It didn’t matter if people stare at him and wondered why or how he could make such sounds. All that mattered to him was the woman in his arms.

His arms shifted to her hips and tugged her closer, not willing to share her that evening. At least, he had no plans on sharing her for the foreseeable future as the song played around them.

His heart pounded with the beat, knowing the lyrics coming next.

When I look at you

I see forgiveness

I see the truth

You love me for who I am

Like the stars hold the moon

Right there where they belong

And I know I'm not alone

“Oh, Adrien,” she breathed.

He shushed her, not quite ready to hear whatever she might have to say. His heart couldn’t handle a rejection. Not yet.

“Just listen,” he pleaded.

She settled against him, her cheek pressing against his heart. Her hands tightened on his shoulders, but her steps remained steady, following his slower ones as they moved across the dancefloor.

Yeah when my world is falling apart

When there's no light

To break up the dark

That's when I, I

I look at you

Several more couples joined them, having trickled in late for the holiday party. They moved to the song he’d created with Nino’s help. Several nodded in his direction, explaining to other guests presumably about his special plea to Chloe.

He shook off his nerves and dared a peek at the woman in his arms.

Her eyes had closed, her soft voice humming to the music.

When the waves are flooding the shore

And I can't find my way home anymore

That's when I, I

I look at you

Pulling her a bit closer, he dropped his head against hers. In his heart, he knew they belonged together despite the rough patch as Plagg put it. He wanted that chance to show her they could have it and more, but they both had to take that leap.

If she wasn’t ready, he could abide by her decision, but he had to put it out there. He was ready to try again. Maybe that could be enough.

“I want to spin you,” he whispered.

She nodded, stepping back with her smile in place.

You appear just like a dream to me

Just like kaleidoscope colors that cover me

All I need

Every breath that I breathe

Don't you know you're beautiful

Yeah, yeah, yeah

He grabbed her hand and led her into the final spin he’d planned for this song. He spun her around him, his heart pounding with each twirl she completed the revolution around him. Her skirt brushed around his shins. The images it conjured enough to buckle him if he let them.

When she returned to her place against him, she exhaled, a small laugh escaping with her breath.

“That was fun. We’ll have to do that again sometime, Chaton.”

His heart soared at the promise in her words. Hope fluttered to life as another purr began to rumble in his chest.

“Easy, Chaton,” she whispered, her cheek resting against his chest once more. “We don’t need you passing out in front of everybody.”

He didn’t mind the gentle ribbing she gave him. His hope stayed high at the prospect he might get his Christmas wish after all.

When the waves are flooding the shore

And I can't find my way home anymore

That's when I, I

I look at you

His arms wrapped around her waist, his hands locking her against him.

Soft laughter brought his attention beside him, catching the amusement in both Luka’s and Kagami’s eyes as they watched him. Kagami shot him an approving nod. Luka nodded, his smile serene.

Whatever animosity he harbored toward the other man disappeared. Anyone looking at Luka could tell he was beyond smitten with the woman in his arms. There was no desire in him to seek out another woman, including Marinette.

Nodding at them both, he felt her stir in his arms. The music shifting toward the end of the song. He wasn’t ready, but he loosened his hold to let her pull back.

I look at you

Yeah,

Whoa-oh,

You appear just like a dream to me

Her smile radiated warmth as she gazed at him.

His heart picked up speed at the look she gave him.

“Merry Christmas, mon Chaton,” she whispered and raised onto her toes. Her eyes fluttered shut as her lips met his. The kiss lasted but a second, but it packed quite the punch. Her love for him flowing into him and surrounding him. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Where did you have in mind?”

Her eyes sparkled with mischief as she said, “I was thinking I haven’t given you your Christmas gift yet. So, how about my room?”

“Lead the way, My Lady.”

 

00000

 

Tossing a wave at their friends, she pulled him toward the elevator. Her fingers found the button for the top floor and pressed it. She winked at the surprised look crossing his face and shrugged her shoulders. “Figured this way would be faster than the limo.”

“Whatever pleases you.” He tugged her into his arms. “You are the best gift I’ve ever been given, Mari. I may not have known it at first, but I’ll forever be grateful.”

She leaned into him, a smile playing across her lips. “I feel the same.”

When the elevator neared their destination, she called Tikki to transform her, watching as Adrien did the same with Plagg. The sight never did get old, she mused, having only seen his transformation a handful of times. It didn’t seem real sometimes to her that they’d figured each other out mere months ago.

A sigh slipped out as her feet sank to the floor, the low heels she’d worn disappearing from the magic.

“Better, My Lady?” His words tickled as he breathed near her ear.

“Mmhmm.”

With a small ding, the doors opened, giving them a lovely view of the hotel’s rooftop. The glass-covered pool sparkled in the moonlight.

It would make a romantic spot any other night, she thought, but she had other plans for them. Taking his hand as she stepped from his embrace, she tugged him toward the roof’s edge. Her hand went to her yo-yo while his grabbed up the baton out of its holster.

“Care for a game of cat and bug?”

“As much as I love chasing after you, My Lady, I’d much rather spend our time together cuddling instead.” His hand squeezed hers. “Besides, I know you don’t care for the cold. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get you cozy warm.”

“Alright, Chaton. Point taken,” she whispered, chills already creeping over her from the cold night air.

White flakes sprinkled over them.

“Oh, it’s snowing.” She closed her eyes and sighed.

His chest rumbled. “My mother always loved Christmas. She’d go all out on the decorations, on the gifts, on everything. I remember the first Christmas without her. It was so hard. I was so angry. Father had locked himself in his office. I had no one really to share the season with.”

“Adri –”

His hand came up, stopping anything she might’ve said. “I, um, I transformed and went out that night. I destroyed one of those billboards because I couldn’t destroy the city’s big tree. I wanted to. Boy, did I want to. I wanted others to hurt as I was hurting. Something stopped me. My mother, I think.”

She wrapped her arms around him, hugging him close.

He shuddered, but he kept going. “I dropped my transformation then. Seeing Plagg so cold and tired almost broke me.”

Her arms tightened, tears pricking her eyes. She hadn’t known. He’d never told her this story before.

“I still had your gift with me. That Santa hat had been a lifesaver for Plagg and for me.” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “You made me realize I did have people even if they couldn’t be with me. I had you. I had Nino and Alya. I had people, Marinette. Because of you, I had people who I loved and loved me in return.”

Her arms ached from how tightly she held him, but she refused to pull away.

It didn’t matter she’d begun shaking from the cold or that the snowflakes had grown bigger and fatter, growing in number as they fell faster from the sky. All that mattered was the guy wrapped in her arms.

“I love you, Adrien,” she whispered, her breath forming white puffs with each word. “So very much.”

Air whooshed out of her as his arms shifted and swept her upward.

The smile he wore could’ve lit the world brighter than the sun ever could hope to do.

“Let’s get you home, Maribug.”

His hand pressed the button on his baton, which sent them soaring over the cityscape of Paris. His booted feet thudded against the rooftops, soft yet determined. With each leap and bound, he kept his pace steady, allowing her to sink further into his hold. Her cheek rested against his heartbeat, listening as it thumped in time with hers.

He didn’t set her down until they’d reached her balcony, a fine layer of snow covering everything.

She pulled up her skylight, thankful she hadn’t latched it before leaving.

With well-practiced ease, they landed on her bed and shimmied toward the main floor, calling off their transformations as they went. They shared a laugh as Tikki and Plagg hurried to the little bed on her desk, cuddling close to get warmed up.

“I second their motion.”

She giggled as he pulled her into his arms, both falling onto her chaise in a heap. “What about your presents? That’s why we’re here, right?”

His chest rumbled with pleasure. “I have the best gift right here. You’re the only gift I want right now.”

“Chaton, I –”

“Please, don’t say anything yet. I just want to enjoy this time with you. I promise I’m not looking for an answer. Not right this minute anyway.”

She kissed him. Her lips brushing his until he sighed, then sealing them in a kiss that promised to scorch them both with its intensity. He tasted of mint and cranberry from Chloe’s party, bringing a smile to her lips. Her hands came up to cup his cheeks, keeping him where she wanted him as she deepened the kiss even more.

He gave as good as he received, taking the initiative after another moment or two. One of his hands settled on her upper back while the other crept upward to cup her neck, holding her in place. He’d changed the course of their kiss, softening to draw it out longer. Gentle nips from his teeth sent her soaring.

Her gifts could wait, she thought. She doubted he’d be leaving her anytime soon if either had their way.

When she finally pulled away to breathe, she smiled down at him. She hadn’t recalled moving so that she straddled him, but she had no intention of moving, either. Her dress draped over him, coating him in the carnation pink she’d chosen. She had to admit he could pull off the color.

“My Lady?”

He raised his hand to cup her cheek, questions burning in his eyes.

Her smile widened. “Yes, Chaton, I’m ready to try again.”