Actions

Work Header

The Fallen and the Forgiven

Chapter Text

It was one of those sticky-hot Parisian summer nights that layered the city of love in sweet swelter. The twilight shimmered dusky pink, and the stars were still shy. In the distance, the Eiffel Tower shone as a beacon of light to take up the dying sun’s mantle and lend courage to the budding stars above. It was a night for pretty girls and daring boys, ice cream and secret smiles.

Marinette wasn’t smiling when Chat Noir found her on her balcony, alone and gazing at the sky like she wondered what kept the stars from their shimmer. Her white tank top clung to her in the heat, and her legs were bare under her pink jean shorts. She was barefoot, too hot to bother with shoes, too hot even in her own skin. Even her trademark pig tails were relegated to a messy bun to keep her thick hair off her neck. She didn’t see him watching her, but this didn’t surprise him. Chat was quiet and slight when he wanted to be.

Which was why she didn’t see him until he was right beside her, perching precariously on her balcony railing very much like a sly alley cat looking for a little attention.

“I’d ask you to let down your hair for me to come up, but this heat’s catastrophic,” he said, grinning.

Her blue eyes were wide with surprise at the sight of him suddenly there and so close, but she recovered quickly and put her hands on her hips. “The only thing catastrophic here is you wearing black leather on the hottest night of the summer.”

“Hey, my super suit’s an all-weather model.” He hopped down from the railing to stand next to her. “Marinette,” he held out a clawed hand and bowed in a flourish, “it’s nice to see you again.”

Marinette eyed his offered hand warily, rolled her eyes, and accepted the handshake at length. He brought her knuckles to his lips for a chaste kiss, smiling to himself as she blushed and tried to look put-off even as she bit her lip to keep from smiling at his silliness.

Well, at least there’s one cute girl I can flatter tonight, he thought forlornly.

“Y-Yeah, I guess it’s been a while since my run-in with the, uh, Evillustrator,” she stammered. “I haven’t really talked to you since then, nope! Not at all!”

He laughed at her flustered reaction. Even in his civilian life as teen supermodel Adrien Agreste, Marinette was always tongue-tied around him. He suspected that she hadn’t really forgiven him for his part in one of Chloe’s mean pranks on his first day at their shared high school, even though he’d apologized. But as Chat Noir, she was much more at ease. There was no way Marinette would ever tease Adrien with a cat pun the way she’d just teased Chat Noir. The irony of it made him smile at her, bemused.

“So, what brings you to my humble corner of Paris?” Marinette asked. “Don’t you and Ladybug have people to save or something?”

The mention of Ladybug sent Chat’s mood plummeting once more, and his smile fell. He leaned on the balcony railing next to Marinette and pawed at his messy blond hair, restless. “Not tonight. Ladybug’s… Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know where she is. We were supposed to meet up for dinner, but…”

“For dinner? Y-You mean like—”

“A date?” Chat sighed. “Guess it was wishful thinking, as usual. She said she might not make it, but I was hoping she might change her mind in the end. Should’ve known better, hah.”

Marinette was quiet beside him a while, and he watched the people walking below. A couple exited her family’s bakery on the first floor, their arms full of baked goods as they laughed together on their way to a picnic, or perhaps a party.

“Chat Noir,” Marinette said softly. “Are you… Do you like Ladybug?”

Chat sighed again and rested his chin in his hands. “Yeah,” he said, for once not trying to hide behind a smile or a cheesy joke to lighten the mood. “I really, really do.”

God, he was sort of pathetic. It was bad enough that he was pining for a girl who’d never once given him any indication that she even remotely reciprocated his desperately romantic feelings for her, but now he was sulking about it to a classmate who didn’t even know who he was, just some weird guy in a leather cat suit. Maybe he never should have come out here. Maybe he should’ve just stayed home and practiced the piano, like Nathalie had told him to do when his father never showed up for dinner.

Stood up twice in one night. You really hit the jackpot tonight, dude.

A gentle hand on his shoulder startled him, and he looked up to find Marinette right next to him, her big blue eyes dark with twilight and a deep, tranquil sadness he could not begin to understand. Had he said something to upset her so much?

“I’m sorry, Chat,” she said, her voice strained. “I’m so sorry Ladybug didn’t show up tonight. I’m sure…whatever the reason, she didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Chat stared at her, unable to comprehend this sudden welling emotion she seemed to cling to like a lifeline, like it mattered, like he mattered. She didn’t even know him, and yet he could see her heart breaking for him. Her hand gave a reassuring squeeze, reminding him that she was there, too, that he wasn’t here alone after all.

He was reaching for her before he knew it. “Can I show you? I set it all up, and it’s just such a waste if…”

Marinette held his gaze a moment, and then she settled her other hand on his shoulder and nodded. “I’d love see it, thank you.”

Soon, Chat was flying over the rooftops of Paris once again, his extending staff in one hand and Marinette in the other as she clung to him. He found the secluded rooftop where he’d set out a simple picnic spread, candles and everything. The plates were bare, the food still in the wicker basket he’d packed. He set Marinette down to get her bearings, and quickly he set about unpacking the basket.

“Wow,” Marinette said, walking around to the other side of the picnic blanket. “You did all this for…for Ladybug?”

“Of course,” Chat said, setting out a box of strawberries next to a wrapped wedge of camembert. “Pretty romantic, huh?” He gave her a toothy grin, but she wasn’t smiling, and he soon lost his motivation.

Marinette picked up a candle holder and turned it over in her hands. “It’s perfect.”

“Hey, Marinette?” he said, setting down a paper bag with sliced brioche. “If you’re not busy or anything, you could stay for a bit. If you want?”

“You want me to have dinner with you?”

“Sure, I mean, we’re friends, right? And to be honest, I really don’t want to be alone tonight.”

She looked up at him, looking lost in that tranquil, sad way she’d looked all night, like it pained her just to look at him for long. Chat suddenly felt uncomfortable, and he began to regret asking her to stay. If she didn’t want to be here, why couldn’t she have just told him no?

“Unless you have somewhere else you need to be?” he asked, hating how small his voice sounded to his own ears. Just how pathetic was he reaching for any human attention whatsoever, even from a girl who barely knew him, in and out of the mask?

“No,” Marinette said, “I don’t. I mean, I did, but that’s… I don’t have anywhere else to be.” She smiled, and it set his heart fluttering in anticipation. “I’d love to stay with you, if that’s really okay.”

“It’s okay,” he said quickly, no wanting to give her any reason to back out and leave him alone. “It’s more than okay. I want you to stay.”

Marinette giggled. “Okay, Kitty, settle down. I already said yes.”

Chat couldn’t help it. She’d turned what was shaping up to be a completely miserable, lonely night alone in his room into something decidedly less sad and pathetic. He’d take what he could get.

He flashed her one of his trademark Chat Noir smirks. “Okay, okay, I promise not to get too paws-y with the princess. I’m a gentleman, after all.”

Marinette rolled her eyes. “You keep dishing out those ridiculous cat puns and I might just turn into a pumpkin now, Catsanova.”

Chat could have cried from joy at her playing along with him. Okay, so tonight was not at all what he’d dreamed it would be, but maybe there was a silver lining here somewhere. Come Monday, he would make sure to put in a little more effort to befriend Marinette as Adrien. Maybe he could even find a way to get her to forgive him for the gum prank at the start of the semester, if that was really still bothering her.

They began to eat as they watched the pink of twilight fade to violet night, and the stars finally found their courage to light up the sky. The Eiffel Tower blazed in the distance, and the temperature mercifully dropped a few degrees.

“So, what were you doing before I dropped by and swept you off your feet?” Chat asked between bites of cheese.

Marinette leaned back on her hands and gazed at the Eiffel Tower. She bit her lip, debating whether to tell him.

“Did I mess up your night, after all?” Chat asked, fingers trebling a little.

“No, it wasn’t you,” Marinette said, unaware of his nervous trepidation. “I was…supposed to get ice cream with some friends. Well, I did get the ice cream, sort of, but…”

That’s right, he’d been invited to get ice cream at André’s tonight. Well, Adrien had been invited, but he’d canceled to spend time with his father, who never showed up, anyway. The thought made Chat frown, and he set down the strawberry he’d been about to eat, no longer hungry.

“Sounds like fun,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “André makes the best gelato in Paris.”

“Yeah,” Marinette said, smiling wistfully. “Everybody liked it, except… Never mind, it’s stupid.”

“What?” Chat prodded. “You can tell me.”

“You don’t want to hear about my boring personal life.”

“Not true! You know what they say about cats and curiosity.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

As predicted, she giggled and waved him off. “Yeah, they get killed.”

“Good thing I have nine lives, then.”

Marinette considered him. “Let’s just say tonight didn’t go as I was hoping it would. Consider us both a little bit heartbroken.”

The reminder only brought back a host of emotions Chat wished would stay buried a little bit longer, and he felt miserable all over again thinking about everything that had happened today. He hugged his knees to his chest and sighed tiredly.

“Yeah,” Chat said.

You’d think I’d be used to this by now.

But no matter how many rejections he took, how many lonely nights he spent, there was no getting used to this emptiness. He had Plagg, but oftentimes Chat suspected Plagg was only around for him because he didn’t have any other choice in the matter. The cat kwami didn’t seem to mind the solitude nearly as much as his charge, content to stuff his face with cheese and nap all day if he had things his way.

And tonight, for just one night, he’d thought he could have someone—no, the one person in the whole world who could understand just a little—to talk to, to help him forget that these two half-lives he was living didn’t add up to one whole, fulfilling life. Goddamnit, why didn’t Ladybug show up? What could she have had to do that was just so much more important? He was her partner in crime, literally! Even if she didn’t return his feelings, they were at least supposed to be friends, weren’t they?

“Hey,” Marinette said, “are you okay?”

Chat clenched his fists so hard that his sharp nails bit through his leather gloves. “I’m fine,” he lied.

Marinette got up and approached him. “You don’t look fine. Chat?”

“Is there something wrong with me?” he asked, still staring at his knees.

“What? Why would you say that?”

Yes, a small, cruel voice whispered in his head. Of course there is. Why else would they all turn their backs on you?

He hugged his knees tighter and buried his face in his crossed arms.

“Chat, snap out of it. Please, don’t be sad. If it’s about Ladybug, I’m sure she had a good reason for not—”

“You’re only saying that to make me feel better,” he said.

It’s me, isn’t it? It’s my fault. Father, Ladybug, even…even Mom, maybe…

It was strange how these feelings, so long kept under lock and key, chose these moments to come out. Darkness and starlight, an empty room and thin sheets, or on a lonely rooftop with a stranger who would never really know him, no matter how nice she was trying to be. The only common denominator was Chat—Adrien himself. But then, could he really blame them? They didn’t know him any better than Marinette, her hands on his arms, gently shaking him.

“Because I want you to feel better. It’ll be okay, I promise. Maybe you’ll see Ladybug tonight after all, later?”

“Maybe you’ll see your father tonight, later,” Nathalie had said before locking him in his room earlier that evening.

But it was just another lie. Nathalie didn’t even try to mask them anymore. What was the use? He knew the truth, always had.

“I doubt it,” Chat said, hating how miserable he felt about this. Why couldn’t he just enjoy a night with a friend, even if she wasn’t who he’d been hoping to see tonight? He resigned himself to apologizing and excusing himself so she wouldn’t have to put up with his self-indulgent crap any longer.

But something over her shoulder caught his attention. “Is that…?”

It was. Chat moved without thinking, grabbing Marinette and twisting to shield her with his body just as the fluttering darkness was about to hit her. Cold fingers ran down his spine, stealing his breath, until abruptly the pain began. Nails dug through flesh and bone as if to open him up like a person bag. He seized up and lost all motor control. Marinette scrambled away, shouting something, but he didn’t hear her as he convulsed, the agony overwhelming, and a voice stronger and more confident than hers ringing out above it all:

“Chat Blanc, such a pleasure to finally meet you. Although, considering your current melancholy, the pleasure appears to be all mine.”

Chat choked on his breath as he rolled on the ground and pressed his claws into his temples to  rip that silken voice from his head. But when he opened his eyes to search for Marinette, all he saw was a cold, gloomy place full of fallen stars, and a pair of sinister blue eyes that could peer into his soul.

“H-Hawk Moth,” he choked out.

The villain merely bared his teeth in a feral smile, and Chat fell weak with terror.


 

Marinette shook Chat, shouted at him, did anything she could to get him to wake up, but he continued to seize on the floor in the fetal position. One minute he was relatively fine, if not a bit glum, and the next he was tackling her to the ground and having a seizure.

“Chat Noir!” Marinette shouted, a creeping fear making her hands shake. He was digging his own claws into his temples and drawing blood, to her horror. “Chat Noir, wake up! What’s wrong?!”

But when he opened his eyes, they were not the jeweled green she was used to, but a malevolent magenta that burned. His ring began to smoke as though it were burning through his super suit. And then, he uttered the words that sent a chilling terror to her core the likes of which she’d never known before.

“H-Hawk Moth…”

Marinette stumbled back, understanding dawning. “No,” she whispered, scrambling away from him. “No, please…”

But as she watched the dark tendrils creep over him like wandering, oily fingers, she knew in her heart of hearts that it was true. That it was happening right in front of her, and she was just sitting there like a helpless damsel on her ass doing absolutely nothing to help. She hadn’t even seen the akuma.

Tikki flew out of her purse and got right in her face. “Marinette!” she hissed. “This is very bad! We have to help him!”

The tiny, red kwami’s uncharacteristic urgency snapped Marinette out of her daze, and she was on her feet in an instant. Tikki was right. If what she thought was happening was actually happening, then she would need all the luck in the world to pull Chat through this one.

“Tikki, transform me!” Marinette shouted.

The transformation only took seconds, and soon she was super-suited in red and black polkadots, her magic yo-yo swinging. And just in time too—Chat was struggling to get up.

Except it wasn’t quite Chat anymore, not as she knew him. He was drained of all color, from his bright, cornflower hair to his anemic pallor to the white leather cat suit he now wore. And those eyes…

“Hello, my lady,” he said in a low timbre Ladybug hardly recognized. “So you decided not to stand me up, after all.”

“Chat Noir,” Ladybug said, hardly believing her eyes.

His white cat ears flattened, and those glowing, magenta eyes narrowed dangerously. “Not exactly.”

Before Ladybug could say another word, he was already lunging for her, claws bared. Ladybug yelped and backflipped out of the way, tossed her yo-yo, and swung hard away from the building to the adjacent one. She’d barely reached for a handhold when Chat’s extending staff smashed into the stone crenellations just inches from her hand. She dared to look back, only to see him leaping after her, impossibly fast.

Ladybug didn’t think, she just threw her yo-yo again and focused on putting some distance in between them. Normally, she would never have run from an akumatized victim no matter how dire the situation, but something in Chat’s eyes was different from the others they’d faced together, almost poisonous. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but the thought of him touching her filled her with abject dread. And yet, it was all she could do to stay ahead of him. Between his super jumps and his extending staff, Chat was damn fast like she’d never known him to be before, almost as if whatever physical limitations had held him back before no longer applied. Or perhaps he just had the right motivation.

I can’t just run from this! I have to save him!

But that was easier said than done when her whole body shook with fear at the sight of him systematically smashing his way over the rooftops to catch up to her. And watching those possessed eyes watching her, she knew with every fiber of her being that he would catch her.

Hide, she thought, searching for something, anything that might help her.

She spotted a skyscraper with a terrarium that took up most of the roof space. Without hesitation, Ladybug swung as hard as she could and disappeared among the thick trees and flower bushes. No sooner had she touched down and ducked behind a thick tree than Chat landed a few yards away next to a rose bush. The silver bell at his collar tinkled ominously, and Ladybug shivered.

“Laaaaaadybug,” he drawled, twirling his staff. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”

If she wasn’t honestly afraid for her safety right now, she may have rolled her eyes at that particularly trite cat pun. But it was neither here nor there. She needed a strategy, and she was coming up short.

“You know, I was so sure you would show up tonight,” Chat said as he stalked about the terrarium, eyes sharp and searching for movement. “You should’ve seen me, fretting about what kinds of food you’d want to eat, how many candles to bring, hah.” He smacked a hydrangea bush hard with his staff without warning, sending a squirrel scrambling for his life up a nearby tree.

Ladybug bit her lip and tried to tell herself to breathe, to think, she was good at that! She was always coming up with some crazy plan or other to save the day, so why couldn’t she think of anything to save herself? Why was she being such a coward?

“I bet you like that, huh,” he said, continuing his stalking, like a panther sniffing out his prey. “The thought of your simpering little kitten pining and yearning for his Lady, forever at the mercy of your whim.” Another smack, this one not five feet away.

Ladybug quietly skirted her tree and moved to another while his back was turned. He must have heard her, though, because he whirled and stared unblinking into the gloom. She could see him from her angle, the deadened ruthlessness in his eyes, and it was all she could do to cover her mouth to keep from whimpering in fear.

What the hell had Hawk Moth’s akuma done to him? Usually, the akumatized victims lashed out in flamboyant temper tantrums, slaves to their base emotions and unable to control themselves. With Chat, however, it was as if he had never been more in control in his life, and it scared the living daylights out of her.

“I feel it too, you know,” he said. “This…yearning…for you.” He gripped a long-fingered hand over his heart, as if it physically hurt him to admit it. “It consumes me.”

Ladybug was no longer listening to him as she forced herself to swallow her fear and think of something to get out of this. If Chat was akumatized, then that meant she just had to purify the akuma possessing him, right? Which meant she just had to get whatever object the akuma had possessed away from him. Yes, good, this was a dance she knew.

It has to be his Miraculous ring, she decided. The akuma messed with his transformation, so it has to be that.

But how the hell was she supposed to get his ring from him? And even if she did, that would mean…

I’ll see him beneath the mask.

Ladybug wasn’t sure if she was ready for that. Most of all, she wasn’t sure it was fair to Chat to do that to him without his consent. But what choice did she have now? If he caught her before she was ready—

Thwack!

The tree next to hers trembled and creaked under the force of Chat’s blow, and Ladybug bit down on her tongue so hard she tasted blood. He was close, just two feet away on the other side of her tree.

“I can smell you,” he whispered.

Ladybug was done running and hiding. Faster than it took her to think, she swung around hard with her yo-yo and smacked Chat in the face hard enough to knock him over. He swore and stumbled, his hands shielding his face, and Ladybug took that opportunity kick his staff away. He was back on his feet in no time, an ugly gash on his forehead where she’d clipped him, and the sight of his blood turned hers cold.

“Chat,” she said, hating herself for hurting him, no matter the reason.

“I should have known you were the type to play with your food,” he said. He wiped the trickle of blood from his forehead and licked his finger clean. It was so obscene that Ladybug felt physically ill at the sight.

“Chat,” she said again, “listen to me. I know you’re upset that I blew you off earlier, and I’m truly sorry for that. I never meant to hurt you—”

He didn’t let her finish before lunging. They collided in a tangle of limbs, scratching and clawing and punching at each other as they rolled through the grass. Somehow, Ladybug ended up on top struggled to restrain his wrists. His ring was right there! If she could just slip it off—

Chat suddenly spit in her face, the act so appalling and shocking that Ladybug slackened just long enough for him throw her off him. A stone maiden sculpture broke her fall and cracked. Pain lanced through her back for a flash before her super suit absorbed the brunt of it. If not for her suit, she was sure the impact would have shattered her spine.

Unfortunately, their scuffle dislodged her yo-yo from her grip, and it rolled a couple feet away. Ladybug scrambled after it, but Chat had the same idea and beat her to it. His booted foot came down hard on her wrist just as she closed her fingers around the yo-yo, and she cried out under the pressure.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” he scolded her. “You took my toy, so it’s only fair that I take yours.”

“We’ll see about that. Lucky Charm!” The yo-yo exploded with bright light, momentarily blinding, and Chat cursed and shielded his sensitive eyes.

Ladybug took the opportunity to roll away to safety, wipe the spittle from her cheek, and brandish her lucky charm tool, which was a perfect replica of her purse—Marinette’s purse. What the hell was she supposed to do with this?!

Her Miraculous earrings beeped a warning. She wouldn’t have long until Tikki reverted her. Great.

“Sounds like you don’t have much time left,” Chat taunted. “But don’t worry, I’ll make it quick for you.”

“You’ll have to catch me first,” Ladybug spat before taking off again with her yo-yo swinging.

He made a swipe at her, but she was too fast in the air, and soon she was clear of the terrarium and back in the concrete jungle with a decent head start. Chat would have to find his staff before he could properly pursue her, which gave her a little time to formulate a strategy that centered around a perfect replica of her purse. For once, couldn’t her Lucky Charm turn into something immediately useful, like a Taser or a muzzle or something?

Think, Marinette, think! Gotta figure this out before I run out of time.

First things first, she would have to stop running and confront him. She thought about hiding again to surprise him, but his eyesight was even better at night than during the day, and apparently now he could sniff her out. He also still had his Cataclysm. If she could just get him to use that on something superfluous, get it out of the way…

That’s it! she thought. If she could wait out his transformation, then he would revert, right? Maybe the akuma would be forced to leave him without the power of Chat Noir sustaining it. Her earrings chirped again, and her heart sank. This would only work if she could maintain her Ladybug persona. As Marinette, she wouldn’t stand a chance against him…

A crash in the building next to her made her yelp, and she saw Chat glaring at her, his staff extended, and to her utter horror, his right hand glowing white with what she could only assume was his Cataclysm. If he touched her with that hand, what would happen to her?

He appeared to have every intention of finding out as he relentlessly pursued her across the city. They bypassed countless people enjoying the lazy summer evening, but those people barely registered the blur of white and red that passed them by far overhead, too absorbed in their own lives to know Ladybug’s was in grave danger of ending.

No, she thought desperately, even akumatized, Chat would never…

But he was angry with her, right? Was that the root of his turmoil, why the akuma had targeted him? He was angry with her for her perceived rejection, for not returning his romantic impulses. She couldn’t begrudge him that, but would he actually, truly hurt her over it?

She got her answer soon enough when, in an impossible burst of speed, Chat cut her off and forced her to swerve onto the concrete roof of a building. Ladybug lost her balance and somersaulted, yo-yo and purse in each hand as she came face to face with him once more.

“Chat, please,” she said. “You don’t have to do this. Let’s talk about it, okay? You’re my partner, my best friend. You know how much I care about you!”

“Enough of your lies,” he said, approaching. “You’re even worse than him, leading me on just to drop me hard.”

Who was he talking about? She didn’t have time to wonder.

“Stop,” she said. “Don’t come any closer, or I won’t hold back!”

“Good, then neither will I.”

He lunged at her, and it was all Ladybug could do to dodge his destructive right hand. She dropped her Lucky Charm purse, useless as it was, and thrust her yo-yo at him, hoping to ensnare him. But he was too quick, and she only succeeded in smacking his shoulder with it. Snarling, Chat took another swing at her, and seeing an opportunity, Ladybug grabbed his arm and yanked him with all her might. They collided with a painful snap and fell together. He had a hand around her throat, and Ladybug saw stars as she struggled under his weight.

“Uh-oh, Bugaboo,” he said, smiling dangerously. “Looks like I caught you.”

Ladybug gasped for air, but he only squeezed harder. And she realized in that moment that yes, he was trying to hurt her—no, he was trying to kill her. His Cataclysm hand hovered dangerously over her, ready to strike, and there was so much hatred in his eyes that it physically hurt to look upon him like this. Despite herself, she felt tears water her eyes.

“Kitty,” she gasped, reaching around the concrete floor for something, anything to use against him.

Something in his eyes flashed, a glint of recognition, or hesitation, but it was gone as soon as it had appeared and he came closer. “Cry for me, my lady.”

Her hand closed around something soft, but she steeled her gaze and swung as hard as she could, clocking him in the temple with her Lucky Charm purse. He grunted and lost his balance, and it was just enough time for her to slip out of his grasp. She nearly tripped over his staff, and thanking all the little gods out there for her extraordinarily good luck, she snatched it up and brandished it at him.

“Don’t make me hurt you,” she said, her voice raspy and painful.

“I think we both know I can’t make you do anything,” Chat said, spitting blood.

That was it. Ladybug had had it with this sadistic nightmare. “What is wrong with you?! Are you really that upset that I didn’t show up to a dinner I told you I wouldn’t be able to make?”

“What’s wrong with me?” he repeated. “You really don’t know, do you? How could you? You don’t even know who I am.”

Was that what this was about? Their secret identities? Her eyes found the Lucky Charm purse, dusty and smeared with Chat’s blood.

Am I…supposed to reveal myself? Is that how I win?

There had to be another way. Her chirping earrings, however, were not giving her any alternatives. If this dragged on for much longer, she would revert whether she chose to or not, and then she would be completely at his mercy.

Well, forget that.

Ladybug came in swinging with his staff, forcing him to duck and dodge. If she could just get him off balance long enough to ensnare him with her yo-yo, she could get to his ring and purify the akuma before it was too late—

“Agghh!”

She felt rather than heard herself grunt in pain—no, agony. Arms trembling, she dropped Chat’s staff and looked down at where his Cataclysm hand was pressed to her belly, warping her super suit and shredding it before her eyes. Her earrings chirped incessantly, but she could no longer hear them. She met his gaze, and the hatred and despair there hurt even more than the physical sensation of fiery worms crawling under her skin where he touched her.

“Bye bye, little Ladybug,” he snarled.

Ladybug’s knees buckled, and he let her fall. They kneeled together, her shaking and him looming over her to examine his handiwork. Ladybug gagged and choked on her own spit, god there was so much of it. But a quick glance down told her that was not saliva, but blood, and it kept coming. Blinking through her tears, she met Chat’s gaze again and laid her hands on his shoulders for something to hold on to.

“Oh, chaton,” she said, her voice quavering. “I’m s-sorry you’re suffering.”

He blinked at her, and for a heart wrenching moment, he looked like her Chat again. Her suit was disintegrating, her body imploding, and the damage was done. Never had Ladybug dreamed that it would be her own partner and friend to be her undoing.

“My lady,” he said, eyes wide as she took his face in her trembling hands.

It was getting harder to keep her vision straight now, and harder still to breathe with all that blood in her throat. Vaguely, she realized that without her Lucky Charm’s release, she wouldn’t heal. Would it even heal damage done by Chat’s Miraculous? What a silly thought, she was so tired…

“I’m sorry,” she said, her words slurring as consciousness began to fade. “I’m sorry…I left you all alone.”

He was crying, his tears hot and sticky between her fingers like this stifling summer night. The Eiffel Tower, so close, blazed like a torch in defiance of the oppressive night.

They say it’s bad luck to cross a white cat at night.

Maybe her luck had finally run out.


 

“What are you doing?! Take her Miraculous, now!” screamed the voice in his head that drowned hers out.

But Chat wasn’t listening anymore as Ladybug’s unconscious body slumped in his arms, her fingers slick with his tears, her blood on his chin. Except it was no longer Ladybug in his arms, but Marinette.

Marinette Dupain-Cheng.

My friend.

Something snapped in him, tore through the buzzing of a thousand angry moths in his head. It cut them all down and poured out of him in a boiling, wretched rage. He wailed like a dying animal and clutched her bleeding body to him. His ring chirped its limit, and the voice in his head let him be, at last.

But as Adrien sat there cradling Marinette’s limp body to him, her blood soaking through his shirt, he could do nothing but cry and shudder.

“Adrien! Adrien, please!” shouted a tiny voice buzzing about his face.

A red, bug-eyed creature hovered before him, tears in her frightened, compound eyes as she implored him to listen.

“Please!” she wept. “You have to undo the damage! The Lucky Charm, hurry!”

A kwami, he realized. Ladybug’s kwami. Ladybug…Marinette.

Marinette, who had cheered him up tonight when he thought he could fall no lower. Marinette, who had teased him and laughed with him and indulged his aching loneliness just because she had some time. Shy, stuttering, flabbergasted Marinette who wouldn’t even look at him straight at school, but who had shared a piece of herself with him tonight just because he’d asked.

Oh god, what have I done?

“ADRIEN!!” Marinette’s kwami screamed at him. She had the dirty Lucky Charm purse in her little hands, and she was shaking badly, as if she could not keep hovering much longer. “I need your help!”

Sniffling through his tears, Adrien grasped the purse—Marinette’s purse, an exact replica, oh god—and together with the red kwami, flung it in the air.

“Miraculous Ladybug!” the kwami chanted, and the purse exploded in a flurry of fluttering red ladybugs. They dashed all over the city, repairing the damage he and Ladybug had caused, and they swirled around Marinette and him. The gash in his head knitted together, the blood on his shirt and pants dissolved, and the ladybugs dissipated into stardust.

But Marinette did not wake up.

“My la—Marinette,” he said, unable to control his voice from cracking with a fresh wave of despair. He turned her over. The gaping hole in her belly was gone, but she was passed out cold, and he was losing his goddamned mind.

“Ugh,” grumbled a familiar voice. Plagg crawled out from under Adrien’s pant leg, coughing gratuitously. “My head… Tikki?”

“Plagg,” said Tikki, the red kwami. She was on the ground, no longer able to fly. “Oh—your eye!”

Plagg’s left eye was its usual bright green, but his right was a blood-chilling magenta that made Adrien whimper in fear at the sight of it.

The cat kwami blinked up at Adrien, but there was nothing in his expression. He merely stared up at Adrien, as if expecting something from him.

“P-Plagg, I…” was all he could manage.

“There’s no time!” Tikki screeched. “Adrien, call an ambulance. Marinette needs a hospital!”

Adrien could hardly see straight through his tears, and there was a deep-seated aching in the pit of his belly that he knew was only going to get worse. But he couldn’t worry about it now—Marinette—Ladybug—was in trouble. He fumbled around for his phone in his jeans, dialed the authorities, and somehow managed to get them to send an ambulance to the area. He dropped his phone and clutched at Marinette’s lifeless body like she might disappear. Her bun had come undone in their fight, and her thick, black hair hid half her face from him.

But he could do nothing for her now, nor for the two kwami at their feet. Nothing but wait, alone, clinging to the hope that he hadn’t just committed the ultimate sin against the person he loved most in the whole world. Sobbing, he held her to him and cried into her shoulder.

It’s all my fault.

The EMTs found them like that, and they had to carry them both down to the ground level to the ambulance, unable to separate them.


 

When Gabriel Agreste’s personal mobile flashed with the number for the Paris General Hospital, he rushed out of his study, shoved Nooroo in his jacket over the kwami’s squeaky protests, and drove through two red lights to get to the room the operator had told him about. And there he found his only son, red-faced and shaking like a leaf, as he clutched an unconscious girl’s hand like she might fade away.

Gabriel had arrived so quickly that even the girl’s parents were not yet present, though he suspected that would not remain the case for long. He did not have much time. Adrien took one look at him and burst into tears all over again.

“F-Father,” he said, small and broken and afraid.

And it was then that he saw it, that silver ring on Adrien’s finger that never left it. The face of the girl, Marinette something or other—she designed a hat for one of my ad campaigns, talented girl—was the same face he had seen through the eyes of his akumatized victim, come to light under her disintegrating Ladybug mask. He could not unsee it, could not rid himself of the blurry-eyed vision of her pale face through Chat Noir’s eyes—his own son’s eyes. Never had he imagined it would come to this, that his own son—

My own son…

“I’m here,” Gabriel said, crossing the room to his grieving child. He took Adrien in his arms without thinking about it and held him close. “I’m here now, son.”

Adrien, oh fragile, innocent Adrien, just crumpled to pieces, overwhelmed. He tore at Gabriel’s lapels and sobbed. Unseemly for a boy of fourteen, almost a man, but Gabriel silenced that niggling voice for once. For once, the boy would have to cry for them both.

“Father,” Adrien blubbered, “sh-she won’t wake up, even after L-Ladybug’s Lucky Charm, she’s…she’s—!”

“I know, son. I know.” But his words did little to soothe Adrien, too distraught to think straight and understand.

Gabriel had had his suspicions about his flighty son, but they had all been dispelled when he’d seen Adrien from afar while Chat Noir fought alongside Ladybug… But whatever he’d thought he’d seen, it had been a lie.

My own son, all this time…

And he had corrupted him.

“It’s all my fault,” he said.

Adrien sniffled. “What?”

Gabriel hugged him tighter, and Adrien didn’t try to pull away. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged his son. Not since his wife, Emilie, disappeared last year. His own son, and he couldn’t even bring himself to touch him, to remind himself…

Marinette—Ladybug—lay still in her bed, monitors beeping and recording her vitals. She looked half a corpse trussed up in the white, paper hospital gown, her hair a matted mess. He didn’t know her, didn’t care about her, and yet he could not avert his gaze.

Her Miraculous earrings were dark and dormant, and just an arm’s length away.

Abruptly, Gabriel stiffened and twisted his lips in disgust at his own abhorrent thought. Had he truly fallen so far? To covet an unconscious girl’s Miraculous over the broken body of his only son, whom he had personally corrupted and turned into a mindless weapon? As though sensing Gabriel’s inner turmoil, Adrien looked up at him with those bright, green eyes that reminded him so much of Emilie’s. He was entirely, exquisitely her in every way. And for the first time since she had disappeared, Gabriel was eternally grateful for that.

“Adrien,” he said softly, “it’s time to leave.”

Adrien grew fearful immediately. “Leave? No, I-I can’t leave her like that! I have to t-tell her—”

Gabriel took his son’s face in his hands and wiped away the tears with his thumbs. “No, Adrien. You can’t tell her anything.”

Adrien’s eyes widened as he understood his father’s meaning, the truth in those words. The fear. His secret wasn’t safe, and neither was Marinette’s.

“It’s all right,” Gabriel said. “You’re safe with me.” He glanced at Marinette. “And so is she.”

Nooroo squirmed in his jacket, but Gabriel ignored the butterfly kwami and the growing knot in his stomach. All his work, all this time, every sleepless, lonely night, all down the drain, and for what?

My own son…

His breath hitched. “You’re safe with me, Adrien. I swear it.”

Adrien gazed up at him with those bright eyes he’d fallen in love with that day they had placed him in Gabriel’s arms in this very hospital. He’d been crying then, too, such an emotional one, this child, just like his mother. But this was the last time Gabriel would watch Adrien cry. He would sooner die than watch his demons become Adrien’s.

I’m sorry, Emilie. I can’t break my promise, not even for you.

He closed his eyes and held his son close, shuddering as he felt his vow sink its claws in, inescapable. Not for her, and not for himself. He would not bend if the price was their only son.

“Let’s go.”

“But Marinette—”

“—will be here tomorrow.”

“But I don’t—”

“Adrien,” Gabriel silenced him. “Please.”

Adrien searched his eyes for something, and god he was so transparent, so open, so much like her that it physically hurt Gabriel to look upon him like this, carrying this terrible weight that Adrien could never, ever know.

Adrien cast a last look at Marinette in her bed and took her hand in his. Gabriel allowed him this final moment, as much as it pained him to watch a story he had already seen play out to its fiery, cataclysmic end once before. But for his only son, all he had left of Emilie, he would hold his tongue just this once.

“My lady,” Adrien whispered, kissing Marinette’s knuckles. “I’m sorry.”

Gabriel’s throat clenched, the guilt and fury almost too much to bear. If they lingered here another minute, he would not be able to contain it. He took Adrien’s other hand and gently, insistently, dragged him away. They had not made it around the corner when Gabriel spotted the couple he recognized as Marinette’s parents—the Dupain-Chengs, they owned that bakery a few blocks down—rushing down the hall with a nurse to Marinette’s room. Gabriel spun and dragged Adrien in the opposite direction, and they avoided detection while Marinette’s parents were too focused on getting to their daughter. As he and Adrien descended the stairs, he could hear a woman burst into tears and wail incoherently, but it was soon washed away in the hospital din.

Adrien was silent the entire ride home, and it was just as well. Gabriel did not trust himself not to say something incriminating in front of his son right now.

Coward, he thought bitterly.

And he was. Gabriel Agreste had always, always been a coward. He had lived a life of regrets and what-ifs, and he’d lost the people he’d loved the most because of his own failings. But so help him, he would not lose his only son.

And he would not allow his son to make the same mistakes he had.

So Adrien would never know any of it. He would live a life without loss, without sorrow, without the crippling burden of his own cowardice that was all he had left to cling to, for he had nothing else left. And now, thanks to Gabriel’s own weakness, he never would again.

Nooroo poked his bulbous, purple head out from Gabriel’s lapel and looked up at him with wide, misty eyes. Gabriel said nothing with Adrien in the back seat doubled over and clutching his hair, but with Nooroo often words were not necessary. A side-effect of the Butterfly Miraculous, he supposed. This crushing empathy, and no one to lend an ear but a god who had too much empathy to protest his own servitude.

Gabriel tried to picture Emilie’s face as he remembered it, but it was like trying to remember a dream upon waking. She slipped through his fingers like smoke, and when he looked up, he could only see their son staring back at him in the rearview mirror.

And he wondered, on those dark, cold nights when Adrien was in his room alone, as he would be for the next fourteen years, what he saw when he looked in the mirror.

Chapter Text

14 years later...

Marinette’s iPhone alarm buzzed angrily and sent her flying out of bed. She swung around like a blind, angry bear and toppled her nightstand lamp, cursed, and rolled over to cover her head with a pillow. Something landed on the pillow and began to bounce.

“Marinette! Rise and shine, you lucky girl! It’s time to get up!” Tikki sang.

“No, it’s not,” Marinette grumbled, her voice muffled by the pillow.

Tikki sighed and tapped the iPhone screen with a delicate, red foot to turn off the blaring alarm. “Yes, it is. It’s 7 a.m., and your meeting downtown is in one hour. You have to get ready!”

Lies, Tikki.”

“Oh, you don’t believe me?”

“I believe it’s 7 a.m. somewhere in the world, but not here it’s not.”

“Really.” She could just picture Tikki’s compound eyes narrowed and patronizing.

“It’s still dark out. It can’t be morning yet.”

Tikki sighed and, with a strength that belied her tiny bug frame, yanked the pillow from Marinette’s head.

“Hey!”

“You’re right, Marinette. It’s not 7 anymore, it’s 7:04 and you’re going to be late!”

“…Damnit.”

With little choice, because who argues with an all powerful deity as old as the universe, Marinette rolled out of bed and landed on the floor with a thud. She had never been a morning person despite growing up the daughter of bakers. Every day was a struggle, and she was pretty sure she would be struggling for the rest of her adult life. Alya, who was always up at the crack of dawn raring to go, assured her that as they approached thirty, Marinette would need less sleep and find getting up in the mornings easier. More lies.

“It’s 7:07, Marinette,” Tikki said. “Shouldn’t you really get moving?”

Marinette groaned and remained obstinately seated for another thirty seconds, just long enough for Tikki to start hovering. She did that when she was fretting about something, and damn it was effective for how annoying it could be, like a buzzing mosquito that wouldn’t quit. Marinette got up and trudged to the bathroom.

“Who schedules 8 a.m. meetings, anyway?” Marinette grumbled.

“Investors who want to give you all their money?” Tikki said.

Marinette smiled over her toothbrush. “Good point.”

She was washed, dressed, and out the door in twenty minutes, which gave her enough time to hail a cab and (hopefully) get to her meeting on time. Bell & Pausini’s offices were in the middle of the downtown financial district, and traffic in the morning was notoriously congested. Marinette escaped the jam a few blocks away, tipped her driver, and ran the rest of the way, her striped purple scarf flailing haphazardly behind her. By the time she made it to reception, her escort was already waiting.

“Morning, Marinette. Do you need a minute?”

Juleka Couffaine was dressed smartly in a grey pant suit and violet satin blouse. Her lusciously long, black hair was twisted in a thick bun that flattered her heart-shaped face. Marinette smiled upon seeing her, even now marveling at how much Juleka had deviated from everyone’s expectations of her back in high school. Fourteen years ago, if anyone had told Marinette that the class goth princess with the purple dye job, fifteen piercings, and extreme diffidence would grow up to become a high-powered corporate attorney at one of Europe’s leading multinational law firms, she would have laughed in their face.

But Marinette wasn’t laughing now as she approached Juleka with a relieved smile. “Hey, sorry I’m late. You know me in the morning.”

Juleka cracked a smile. “And you know how our American friends are.”

Marinette waved her off. “Yeah, yeah, let’s just get this over with.”

“You know, you could sound a little more excited. They want to invest ten million US in your company.”

Marinette smirked. “Yeah, but why couldn’t they throw money at me at 2 p.m.?”

“Okay, okay, let’s just go before you pass out from exhaustion.”

Juleka led her past the sterile lobby to the main part of the law firm, where the client meeting rooms were all set up in one hallway.

“Hey, how are you so upbeat? You were at Hardrock’s concert last night, too.”

“Yeah, but I left at 1 because I’m not averse to sleep, like you are.”

Marinette pouted, and Tikki wriggled in her the pocket of her slacks smugly. “They were playing until 3, and I promised Luka I’d come see him play.”

Juleka smiled and side-eyed her. “You know, Marinette, he wouldn’t disown you if you left a little early next time.”

Marinette shrugged. “I missed the last two, and I promised I’d come this time. It’s just sleep, it’s no big deal. And his band’s really good.”

“You’ve been saying that since high school.”

“I’m a simple girl with simple tastes. Just give me some good indie rock and I’m happy.”

That got a rare laugh out of Juleka. “Well, just so you know, it means a lot to him that you still care so much. And to me, too.”

Juleka’s hand found Marinette’s and squeezed lightly. Marinette blushed at the sincerity from her otherwise reserved friend. It was nothing, really, to support Luka’s band in whatever small way she could. His music had always captivated her since they met in high school so many years ago, and he’d only gotten more talented as they got older. Nothing, not even a college break-up, would change that. It didn’t hurt that he was the gentlest soul Marinette had ever met, a true romantic at heart. The best musicians always were, in her humble opinion.

Juleka led her to a small conference room with a big-screen plasma monitor, a table surrounded by plush leather chairs, and two men who were already seated and waiting. They both rose when the women joined them.

“Miss Couffaine, Miss Dupain-Cheng, it’s good to see you again,” said Will Black, the opposing counsel from Bradley Reinhardt, the American law firm representing Marinette’s investor.

His French was flawless with just the barest hint of an American accent. Marinette had only met him once before, but he was likable enough. Tall, blond, brown eyes, broad shoulders. The typical American boy next door type.

But it was his client that drew Marinette’s full attention. He rose in a flourish, as was his custom in everything he did, and bowed dramatically as if he were greeting a pair of princesses who had deigned to grace him with their divine presence.

“Miss Couffaine,” he said, kissing Juleka’s knuckles, “and Marinette! Lord knows you grow more beautiful every time we cross paths. It’s lovely to see you again after so long.”

Marinette smiled, blushing. “It’s lovely to see you, too, Mr. Legrand.”

“Just Aramis, please,” he said.

Aramis Legrand was a tall Frenchman who could have been a model on the covers of romance novels in his youth. He had long, dark hair pulled back in a stylish ponytail, a trimmed beard that had gone completely grey, and the most intense blue eyes Marinette had ever seen. They were icy and perceptive where hers were deep and tranquil. But there was nothing icy about Aramis, and he proved it by taking Marinette by the hand and guiding her to a seat at the table like a gracious maître d’. He was an older man, already past 60, but he had a youthful spirit full of energy and optimism, and he was the wealthiest man Marinette had ever met.

“So, shall we get started?” Will said, opening up a leather briefcase and pulling out some documents. “I have the term sheet prepared here, as discussed. Redlines to the last versions you saw are here,” he pushed a packet marked up in red and blue toward Juleka. “We incorporated your suggestions and made some changes to the anti-dilution provisions, as discussed.”

Juleka methodically looked over the term sheet, while Aramis continued to beam at Marinette.

“Once the lawyers work their magic, Marinette, I’d like to see what new ideas you have for your spring line. And you mentioned the last time we spoke about expanding to Shanghai?”

Marinette lit up. “Yes, of course, I have some preliminary designs already drawn up that I’d love to send you. And as for Shanghai, that’s the goal, at least, if I can get the capital and find the right local partners for a joint venture.”

“Well, I know I can help with all that. I have many contacts in Shanghai. A meeting shouldn’t be too difficult to procure.”

“I’d really appreciate that, thank you.”

Aramis smiled. “But of course! When I met you while you were still a graduate student, I knew immediately that you were going places. I’m a gambling man, I’m not ashamed to say, and I saw a good bet in you.”

Aramis had been her first investor to stick around. She’d had one other potential investor who’d made it far along in the term sheet negotiations, but ultimately backed out at the last minute, devastating Marinette and her career prospects. Without funding, she would never be able to incorporate, launch her brand, and cover the high fixed costs associated with any startup fashion boutique. But her luck had always had a way of finding her again, and it found her just at the right time in the form of Aramis Legrand, former hedge fund manager, philanthropist, and high fashion connoisseur. He’d spent much of his youth in the United States, where he’d discovered his love of high fashion at the New York fashion shows, and thus began a life-long love affair with art. Marinette could not have asked for better luck than meeting him randomly at an industry function she’d attended with her graduating class. A few glasses of wine and hours of conversation later, and she had a firm offer for one million US dollars handwritten on a cocktail napkin, with the promise of more should she prove herself a good investment. And now, she was ready to cash in on that promise.

Juleka explained the revised terms to Marinette, who trusted her judgment better than anyone’s. Juleka had been helping Marinette since she’d started looking for investors, and together they had risen in the ranks of their respective professions.

“Okay, Marinette, Mr. Legrand. We just need your signatures, and I’ll have my team start drafting the financing documents,” Juleka said. “Will, I’ll be in touch with our initial drafts next week sometime.”

“That works for me,” Will said.

They got up to say their goodbyes and thank-yous, but Aramis stopped Marinette. “I realize this is terribly last minute, but do you have any plans on Saturday evening?”

“Saturday? No, not in particular.” Marinette had spoken with Alya about possibly grabbing dinner, but they hadn’t decided anything concrete yet.

“Excellent! Well, you may or may not know, but there will be an industry networking event at Le Grand Paris Hotel.”

Marinette gaped at him. “Y-Yes, I know it! The Trefoil Gala.” It was only one of the most exclusive fashion industry parties in Europe. Invitations were almost impossible to get without an insider’s help, but the cream of the crop of Europe’e corporate fashion industry were known to attend every year for a night of dancing, drinking, and dabbling. It was every young fashionista’s dream to get a foot in the door at the Trefoil Gala.

“Ah, you’re familiar with it! I can’t say I’m surprised. Well, if you’re not busy, I have a couple extra tickets I need to get rid of. Would you like to take them off my hands?”

Marinette could have literally cried. This man, this angel, had given her the money to launch her business, his undying faith in her talent and drive, and now the chance to attend the Trefoil Gala.

“I-I would love to take your hands!” she stammered.

Aramis laughed, and Marinette realized her slip too late.

“I mean, the tickets, um, I’d love to go,” she said lamely, cursing her perpetual bashful streak. “Sorry, that came out wrong.”

“It’s perfectly all right! I have my answer, and you shall have those tickets. I’ll leave your name with security, so just show up with your plus one and you’ll have no problems. I look forward to seeing you there. We’ll have a toast to the next step in our partnership, yes?”

“A-Absolutely!” Marinette almost tripped over herself to agree with him, and Juleka shot her an amused look. “I’ll see you there, Mr. Legrand.”

“Aramis, please. Must I always correct you?” The smile in his bright, blue eyes belied his amusement.

“Aramis, of course. Thank you so much.”

He donned a bolero and took his heavy trench coat from the receptionist, who had stored it for him. “Then, until Saturday. Enjoy the rest of your week. I’d say you’ve earned it.”

Marinette was left standing with Juleka in the lobby, utterly dumbfounded.

“Well,” Juleka said, “I sort of have a mountain of work to get back to, so…”

“Shh,” Marinette shushed her. “Let me just bask for a minute here.”

Juleka rolled her eyes, but she bit back a smirk and nudged Marinette playfully. “He’s right, you know. You earned this investment, and this party. You’ve been working your ass off the last three years, and you’re finally starting to be profitable. You do deserve the good things coming your way.”

Marinette warmed at Juleka’s kind words. “Thanks. But if I’ve earned it, so have you. Where would I be without my badass super lawyer to guide me?”

Juleka chuckled. “Bankrupt and out of business. And definitely not invited to some swanky fashion party. Have fun on Saturday. Tell Alya I said hi.”

Of course Juleka would know Marinette would bring Alya as her plus one. A part of her felt bad not inviting Juleka first, but as though Juleka could read her mind, she put up her hands.

“Hey, I have plans with Rose this weekend that I’ve been looking forward to all month. And you know I hate those big schmoozy parties. I may have sold out to Big Law, but I’m not about flip on everything I ever stood for.”

Marinette laughed. “Whatever you say. If you ask me, you’d get scouted as the next Gisele within five minutes at a party like this one.”

“You see this face?” Juleka deadpanned. “This is my sexy model face. Can you tell how excited I am?”

“You know, the irony is that you actually do have the smoky model look down pat.”

Juleka gently nudged her out the door. “And that’s my cue to stop feeding the troll. I’ll see you later. I’ll be in touch with those financing docs, so check your email for once.”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you.”

Marinette practically skipped out the door even without Juleka’s encouragement. She could hardly contain her excitement—the Trefoil Gala! It was almost too good to be true. She had to call Alya immediately.

“Psst, Marinette! Are we going to a party?” Tikki whispered from the folds of Marinette’s scarf.

“We sure are,” Marinette said. “But it’s not just any party—think Cinderella with the fairy godmother, the pumpkin, and the prince. This is the real deal. I could meet potential investors tonight who could take me to the next level in a really big way.”

Tikki giggled. “Well, I’m happy if you’re happy. And I like parties, especially if there’s a prince involved.”

Marinette smiled. “I don’t know about a prince, but I’d be super happy to get some new industry contacts.” She suddenly paled. “Oh my god, what the hell am I going to wear?! I’m a professional fashion designer, but I have absolutely nothing to wear. Who even am I?”

Tikki just sighed. Her Chosen was always so dramatic about these things, quick to overreact, and just as quick to settle on a plan of action.

“That’s it. I’m calling Alya as soon as we find a cab. She’ll know what to do.”

And that was that. Tikki grinned and burrowed back into Marinette’s scarf for the ride home.


 

By the time Saturday came around, Marinette was somewhere between exploding with excitement and an all-out panic attack courtesy of, well, her own typical self.

“Girl, you have got to chill the fuck out,” Alya said as she worked on weaving the perfect braided bun. “God, I always forget how much of a pain Asian hair can be. I need, like, a gallon of hairspray just to get it to behave.”

“Maybe I should just wear it down,” Marinette said as she touched up her makeup in the vanity. They had decided to get ready at Marinette Designs, her boutique uptown, which was considerably more spacious and better equipped for party prep than her tiny one-bedroom apartment.

“Oh? Giving up then, are we?”

Marinette scowled at Alya’s goading. “Fine. Just go easy on the hair spray, if you can.”

Alya’s hair and makeup were already done. She had that mermaid hair that always looked good down no matter the occasion, her auburn locks thick and wavy and just so perfect, always. Marinette smiled at her through the mirror, and Alya narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

“What?”

“Just thinking about how I’ll have the hottest plus one at the party tonight.”

Alya grinned. “Tell me something I don’t know. Okay, that should do it. Let’s take a selfie, c’mere.”

Marinette rolled her eyes. “Seriously?”

“I promised Nino. Shush up and put on your best high fashion face.” Alya puckered her full lips for the iPhone camera and balanced it in front of them both.

Marinette bit back a smile and tried her best to look aloof and serious, but Alya tickling her in the ribs ruined it and she burst out laughing just as the flash went off.

“Ah, perfect,” Alya said, typing out a quick message to her fiancé. “That’s some smokin’ haute couture right there.”

Marinette snorted at the picture. “You can see all the way up my nose.”

“And isn’t it just your best angle?” Alya wiggled her eyebrows salaciously, and they shared another laugh. “All right, Miss Fashionista, let’s get our party dresses on and get moving, or we’ll be late.” She paused, considering. “Actually, what’s the rule on being fashionably late to a fashion party? Do you think they just bump the start time up an hour anticipating everyone will arrive late?”

“It wouldn’t be fashionably late if everyone did it.”

Exactly. I feel like I’ve stumbled upon the great mystery of our time.”

“Okay, Ronan Farrow, let’s leave the investigative journalism aside for now. We have a party to get to.”

They changed into their formalwear and did one final check in the mirror. Marinette’s winter qipao-inspired dress was dark navy silk embroidered with golden suns. The long, black sleeves were thin but warm, and contrasted with Marinette’s light complexion. Alya was brighter in a pale lilac empire waist gown. Both dresses were Marinette originals, never before worn.

“Oh girl, what did I tell you? The qipao looks uh-mazing on you,” Alya preened.

After an entire day wasted on what to wear tonight, Marinette had taken Alya’s advice and altered an existing dress she’d been neglecting. The embroidery had taken all her free time the rest of the week, but she was proud of her work and even prouder to be able to wear her own label tonight.

“Thanks, Alya,” Marinette said, blushing at the compliment. “You look great, too.”

“I know.” Alya winked deviously. “So come on, let’s go already!”

They caught a ride share to Le Grand Paris Hotel, and despite the usual Saturday night traffic, they made decent time. Marinette had been to this hotel a number of times in her youth, but never as a guest. Seeing the white stone facade lit up with winter blue and violet light in honor of the event tonight gave her pause.

“Kinda weird being here, huh?” Alya said. “I think the last time I actually set foot in this place was back in high school when Jagged Stone got akumatized.” Alya shivered at the memory.

“I remember,” Marinette said. She recalled that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. “His pet crocodile turned into a dragon.”

Alya made a face. “You know, I feel like anywhere else in the world, talking about that stuff would get us thrown in the insane asylum. What even is Paris?”

“Well, it was a long time ago.”

“You’re telling me. Not that I miss those days or the hell we all went through.” Alya shuddered as they made their way to the lobby entrance, perhaps recalling her own time as the akumatized Lady Wifi. “But I do miss having Ladybug and Chat Noir around to save the day all the time.”

Marinette bit her lip so hard she feared she may draw blood. “Yeah, I guess so.”

They followed the signs through the reception area to the elevators, which would take them to the penthouse ballroom for the gala. The lobby was just as Marinette remembered it all those years ago, red carpet and Doric columns and white marble floors. Other people dressed smartly for a fancy party were heading for the elevator bank, and Alya and Marinette fell in with them.

“It’s just so weird though, you know?” Alya said as they settled in the back of the elevator and rode it to the top floor. “I mean, one day it was all Ladybug and Chat Noir, fighting crime and saving the day, and the next it was all just gone, like that.” She snapped her fingers for emphasis.

“Well, there were no more akumatized victims running around, right?” Marinette hedged. “Hawk Moth retired.”

Alya snorted. “Yeah, and that’s what’s so damn suspicious! Oh come on, you don’t find it a little weird? Dude just decided to give it all up without so much as a parting super villain monologue? No one ever even figured out what his point was. I’m telling you, something about it is weird.”

Even fourteen years later, Alya still wouldn’t let go of what she knew had to be a killer scoop. She had graduated from the Ladyblog and taken a deep dive into the world of investigative journalism, working several freelance gigs until landing a permanent position at the Gazette covering a broad range of political and economic issues. Her job often took her out of Paris to meet with sources and interview witnesses, much to Marinette’s and Nino’s worry. Alya was careful and smart, but no one was safe in a conflict zone, least of all a foreign reporter.

But the Ladyblog was still up and running, despite the truncated content and few hits it got these days. There wasn’t much use for a blog dedicated to a superhero people had rarely seen or heard from in fourteen years. Hawk Moth wasn’t the only one who had mysteriously retired without explanation.

But Marinette said nothing of her thoughts. It was another life, another girl, and it had ended a long time ago on that sweltering, summer night in the arms of a masked boy she had never seen again.

“Hey, you okay?” Alya said suddenly. “You suddenly look a little down. Not pooping out on me early, are you?”

Marinette blinked and forced herself to smile, banishing those dark memories to the farthest corner of her mind where they had remained undisturbed for years. “No, I’m fine. Just, um, a little nervous I guess. Networking can be exhausting for me, you know.”

“Well then, it’s a good thing this is a party where we’re meant to have fun. Don’t look at me like that, Marinette, you’re going to have some fun tonight if it kills us both. You’ve been working yourself into an early grave for the last three years, and it’s time to live a little. Don’t you have a new term sheet to celebrate?”

Marinette forgot her worries momentarily and beamed. “Yeah, I do.”

“Well then.” Alya offered her arm in a comical flourish as they exited the elevator together with the small group of partygoers ahead of them. “Shall we?”

Marinette grinned and made a show of fanning herself daintily before taking Alya’s offered arm. “We shall.”

They laughed together, and Marinette checked them in with security at the doors. She’d half expected them to turn her away, but her name was on the list just as Aramis promised it would be, and soon she and Alya were escorted inside. Marinette could not help but stare openly at the lavish decorations.

They had gone all out with the winter theme. The wide room, which was a ballroom ringed by standing tables, had a glass ceiling open to the night sky and the blue and violet search lights spinning outside. A live band played soft jazz in the far corner while gorgeous partygoers dressed in everything from Chanel to Calvin Klein danced and mingled on the dance floor. A full-service bar stretched along the western wall decorated for the occasion with ice and snow garnish. Waiters wore three-piece tuxedos with white gloves and black masks. In fact, now that Marinette looked around, she saw that almost everyone in the room was wearing masks. A table near the entrance was handing them out to anyone who wanted one.

Alya, of course, delighted in the opportunity and dragged Marinette to the table. These masks were much fancier than the plain ones the wait staff had donned, and Marinette found herself looking covetously at a black satin harlequin mask embroidered with lace and tiny rhinestones.

“Yes, that one, absolutely,” Alya said, accepting a white mask embroidered with purple forget-me-nots that matched her dress. Each mask was different, and Marinette wondered who of the many famous designers here tonight could have been responsible for them.

“Excellent choice, miss,” said the man overseeing the mask distribution. “That one is one of Mr. Agreste’s most successful designs.”

“Agreste?” Marinette said as she fingered the black mask she’d tentatively selected. “These are Agreste Fashion’s masks?”

The staff person smiled. “Of course. Gabriel Agreste himself designed each one with tonight’s gala in mind. Please, take whichever ones you like. They are compliments of AF for all tonight’s guests.”

Once they had their masks, Alya said, “Gabriel Agreste, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”

AF had opened a new corporate office in New York City across the pond, and Gabriel Agreste himself had traveled there to oversee the operations and build AF’s brand stateside. That had been fourteen years ago, and since then, AF had enjoyed more and more success as they expanded into Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, and Milan, among other places. What had begun as a premier French fashion house was now an international phenomenon able to compete with the likes of the biggest fashion powerhouses in the world.

“He’s one of the most powerful businessmen in fashion today,” Marinette said. Unlike Alya, she had kept up closely with developments in her industry, including AF’s incredible growth over the years. “But he hasn’t been in France for years, apparently.”

Alya gave her an unreadable look. “You mean, since he pulled Adrien out of high school and shipped them both across the world without so much as a goodbye?”

Marinette winced. “Technically, yes.”

They had stopped at a standing table, and Alya crossed her arms with a look Marinette knew all too well. That was Alya’s reporter scowl, and she wasn’t going to let this go. “Marinette, is that why you looked so down in the elevator? Do you know something about AF’s involvement tonight?”

It was no use lying to Alya. She’d heard through the grapevine that Gabriel Agreste himself was back in Paris since last month, and that he was even rumored to be making an appearance at tonight’s gala. Marinette had never really known the man personally, having met him only a handful of times in high school, but he had been the first person to see any sort of potential in her as a budding fashion designer. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t wonder what he might think of her now that she had made a name for herself, albeit a modest one.

“Not really, just that Gabriel Agreste is supposed to be in Paris for a while.”

Alya studied her closely. “Uh-huh. And is that really what’s on your mind?”

Marinette frowned. “Alya, please. It’s been years. I haven’t thought about him like that in a long time. I haven’t thought about him at all in a long time.”

“Adrien Agreste. You can say his name, you know. It’s not gonna summon a swamp demon from another dimension or anything.”

Marinette’s frown deepened. “Yeah.”

Alya laid a reassuring hand on Marinette’s shoulder. “Hey, I know they say time heals all wounds, even broken hearts. But it’s okay to still feel sad, you know. His dad did shuttle him off, and you didn’t get to see him at all to say goodbye while you were in the hospital. It’s okay to still feel bad about that.”

Everyone else from their class had come to the hospital to visit Marinette while she was recovering from a devastating incident she had vowed not to dwell on or discuss with anyone, lest she reveal her secret identity as Ladybug, but Adrien hadn’t come. He’d sent her a get-well-soon card, generic and simple, and some pink carnations, which had made Marinette’s heart flutter at the time, but looking back over the years, she realized just how far apart they had always been. As much as she’d cried her eyes out finding out that not just one, but two important boys in her life were suddenly gone without a trace, the true sadness was a subtler beast that grew over time and she realized she didn’t really have a right to be sad about Adrien.

She’d never really known him or been close to him, after all. A generic card and some mail-order flowers only proved it. And that, perhaps more than his abrupt departure from her life, had stung the most.

“Can we talk about anything else, please?” Marinette said. “I thought we were supposed to be having fun tonight?”

Alya hesitated, unwilling to let things lie when her best friend did not seem totally, one hundred percent, okay. Marinette loved that about Alya, her genuine compassion and concern for others.

“You’re absolutely right.” She pulled on her mask and fluttered her long eyelashes. “So, do I look like I’m ready for some fun or what?”

Marinette smiled and pulled on her own mask, careful of the bun Alya had torn out a chunk of her hair to fix up just right. “You look like you’re ready for trouble.”

Alya’s hazel eyes glittered mischievously. “That’s the spirit. Now, let’s go find some millionaire playboys to charm.”

Marinette laughed, but she also knew Alya wasn’t entirely joking. Well, tonight was supposed to be about networking as much as it was about having some fun, right? And if she could meet some rich businesspeople with an eye for fashion and a willing ear, what was the harm in that?

They stopped at the bar first and ordered drinks, and then began to mingle with the guests. Despite her years working in the industry, Marinette was forever amazed at just how beautiful so many of these people were. There were more than a few super models about, many of them on the arms of corporate suits and high-powered designers. People were friendly enough, and she suspected that many of them were here strictly for the expensive booze, good music, and eye candy to unwind.

Alya had been pulled into conversation with a middle-aged woman who looked like she’d once been a super model. They were talking animatedly and gesticulating. Leave it to Alya to make friends wherever she went. Marinette excused herself from a conversation with two fellow designers to grab some food from a passing waiter, but had too much between her drink and the little plates to carry gracefully all at once. She made her way to a table nearby and set down the couple plates she’d grabbed. There was a leggy blonde woman standing there typing on her cell phone, and she didn’t notice Marinette immediately.

“Do you mind if I share your table? I’ll just be a few minutes,” Marinette said.

“It’s fine,” said the woman, “I was just about to leave…”

They locked eyes with each other, and Marinette was struck with a slap of recognition meeting those dark cobalt eyes. “Chloe Bourgeois?” she blurted out.

Chloe wore no mask and was dressed in an elegant, floor-length, black cocktail dress with a pastel yellow sash around the middle. She frowned as she struggled to place Marinette’s face behind the mask. It didn’t take her long. “…Marinette Dupain-Cheng.” She set her phone down on the table. “Wow, I didn’t actually expect to run into you here tonight.”

Marinette was immediately on the defensive. Chloe was still obnoxiously pretty, tall, and had that air of superiority that followed her like a bad smell. It had been years since she’d seen her former high school classmate, but old habits died hard, she supposed. Chloe must have sensed something in her expression because she pressed her glossy lips in a thin line, annoyed.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. “Only that this event is exclusive. Not many independent designers can snag an invitation.” She looked her up and down. “One of yours, I assume?”

Marinette could do little more than stare like an idiot for a moment as she processed what Chloe had said. “I… Yeah, this is one of my designs.” She shook her heard. “Sorry, how do you know any of that?”

Chloe looked at her with an icy boredom that suggested she was trying very hard not to say something condescending. “This is my hotel. It’s my job to know who’s on the guest list for an event I’ve been planning for months.”

Your hotel?”

Chloe crossed her arms. “That’s right. Problem?”

Marinette suddenly felt a little embarrassed for reasons she could not name. “No, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Um, your father… I thought he owned this hotel, right?”

“This one, and every other branch of it from London to Beijing. He’s retired now. I’m running all the operations here in Paris.”

“Wow,” Marinette said, unable to keep the awe form her voice. “You?”

At this, Chloe bristled. “Yes, me. No need to sound so incredulous. I did graduate from the top hotel management school in the States, for your information. I know what I’m doing.”

Marinette closed her mouth before she could catch any flies. She blushed. “I’m sorry, I… I guess it’s just a surprise. A good surprise.” She swallowed her nerves. “I mean, good for you.”

Chloe seemed to weigh her words, searching for any hint of disingenuousness, but found none. “Yeah. Good for you, too. If you’re here, you must be doing something right.”

It was just too bizarre having what amounted to a passably normal conversation with Chloe Bourgeois, of all people. Marinette keenly remembered how blue in the face Chloe would get in her anger, usually with Marinette. The girl had simply loathed Marinette with every fiber of her being for the longest time, and for seemingly no other reason than that Marinette was well-liked, nice, and had a crush on Adrien Agreste, Chloe’s oldest friend. Where had that girl gone? There seemed to be little and less of the catty high school bully in the woman standing across from Marinette now.

“There you are,” said a man dressed in a sleek, black Hugo Boss three-piece suit and a white mask as he drew up to their table with long strides. “Way to abandon me to the wolves, Chlo.”

Chloe rolled her eyes like she could not be bothered. “Some of us have actual work to do.”

“I’m working,” the man pouted.

“Flirting with super models isn’t work. You’re such a man-child, A. This isn’t your second year MBA anymore.”

Marinette stared at the newcomer, suddenly tense. He was north of six feet with styled, dirty-blond hair, a leonine profile, and very clearly in peak physical condition from the way he filled out his well-tailored suit. And that voice, a soft baritone that she recognized the way one recognizes an old song on the radio, filled her with an inexplicable nostalgia. When his luminous, green eyes alighted on her, Marinette knew she was blushing behind her black mask and staring. Openly.

Because no way. No fucking way was he who she thought he was. No. Way.

As if someone had flipped a switch on him, he turned his full attention to Marinette and flourished—practically glowed with charm. “Hello there,” he said in a subdued timbre he absolutely did on purpose.

Marinette squeaked. Like a mouse caught in a devastatingly handsome trap, she literally eeped. He sensed her embarrassment and smiled brilliantly as he offered his hand to take hers.

“Adrien Agreste,” he said. “And you are…?”

Marinette chanced a look at Chloe, who actually looked amused as she watched this happen. She didn’t fly off the handle in a jealous rage, or shriek and protest like she may have in high school. No, she was enjoying watching Marinette squirm at the misunderstanding, those blue eyes laughing with her growing smirk. Who was she?!

Marinette’s body moved without her consent. She held out her trembling hand for Adrien, which he took and kissed her knuckles.

“Gorgeous dress,” he said in that same, husky, flirty voice that was starting to send Marinette into a panic. “Who are you wearing tonight?”

Oh my god.

Chloe couldn’t contain her laughter anymore. “Okay, enough, even I can’t watch this horror show go on.” She put a friendly hand on Adrien’s shoulder. “A, you remember Marinette Dupain-Cheng. She was at Dupont with us before you moved to New York.”

As though he’d been doused in ice water, Adrien tensed and his grip on Marinette’s fingers tightened uncomfortably. He soon released her as though he’d been burned, awkwardly righted himself, and flushed as red as Marinette’s lipstick. The abrupt change in him from suave ladies’ man to pre-pubescent teenager caught looking at porn for the first time was almost enough for Marinette to momentarily forget her own embarrassment and discomfort. She forced herself to breathe deeply, and then she carefully removed her mask to look at him directly.

“Hi,” she said, stupidly proud that her voice didn’t sound as weak as she felt.

It was Adrien’s turn to gawk, and it took him just a second too long to gather his bearings. Marinette got the strange feeling that he wasn’t just feeling surprised, but a little afraid. He fumbled with his own white mask, and when it came away, Marinette came face to face with those blazing green eyes she had once swooned and sighed over in her naive youth.

“Marinette,” he said, almost a question. “You’re…”

His gaze fell to her abdomen, but averted just as quickly. Marinette caught it, though, and instantly paled. Of course he would remember her stint in the hospital. It was the last thing that had happened before he’d left town forever. She was depressingly not surprised that that was how he remembered her, at her lowest and most vulnerable.

How would he know? He never even said goodbye, taunted a bitter little voice in the back of her head.

She ignored it and forced herself to smile. “I’m a fashion designer. That’s why I’m here tonight, I was invited.” She peered at him. “I’m guessing you’re here with AF’s models?”

Adrien was not quite so pale anymore as he recovered from the shock of his mistake. But even so, he was looking at her nervously, like she might crush him or humiliate him somehow.

Weird.

“Oh, Adrien doesn’t do that anymore,” Chloe said when it was painfully obvious that Adrien had not yet regained full control of his bodily functions. “He’s an old maid in super model years now.”

Chloe’s teasing snapped him out of his uncomfortable, embarrassed trance and he shot her a withering look. “You make it sound like I age in dog years or something. I’m not that old.”

“Twenty-eight is old in that business.” To Marinette she said, “Adrien just finished his MBA in the States, and he’s back at AF now as a VP of Finance.”

“Manager, not a VP,” Adrien corrected her. “I’m working my way up.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. You’ve basically been doing this job since college. The only reason Gabriel won’t give you the title is because of your age. Not a lot of new MBAs come in as VPs right out the gate.”

Adrien chuckled. “A second ago I was an old maid.”

Chloe nudged him playfully. “Do try and keep up.”

“Hah, yes ma’am.”

Marinette watched their easy interaction with no small degree of fascination. They were like two old friends with no secrets between them, or possibly more than that. And it was silly, and little bit petty, but on some level, the fourteen-year-old girl in Marinette could not help but feel a small prickle of envy at their closeness.

Chloe’s phone beeped, and she quickly scanned through whatever text she’d just gotten. “Well, as entertaining as this…whatever this is, I have an actual job to get back to.” She pointed a finger at Adrien like an old schoolmarm. “You, behave. I’m not driving your drunk ass home at three in the goddamned morning again.”

With that, Chloe melted into the crowd of glamorous guests, her phone to her ear. And suddenly, Marinette was alone with Adrien Agreste: corporate fashion suit, former super model, and the keeper of her teenage sexual awakening.

Jesus Christ, you did not just think the words ‘teenage sexual awakening.’

Adrien, while clearly cultured and skilled in many mysterious arts, thankfully had not yet acquired the ability to read the minds of formerly infatuated women from the way he was watching her thoughtfully. The longer they stood there just watching each other, the more uncomfortable Marinette felt.

“So,” she said, trying to come up with something to say that would allow her to duck out of here as soon as possible without being rude, “been a while.”

“Fourteen years,” Adrien said.

“Who’s counting?” Marinette immediately regretted her words at the look he gave her.

Wow, way to go, Mari-nut. Obviously he’s counting—he literally put a number on it.

She wanted to dissolve. Right there, like a little escargot in salt, just shrivel up in her qipao as if she had never been there at all. It would have been less painful than the awkward tension sucking the very life out of her the longer she stood here with Adrien Agreste: actual stranger she hadn’t seen in fourteen fucking years because of course she was counting, whom she’d never actually known on any kind of personal level, and who had never even said goodbye—

“I should apologize,” he interrupted her private lambasting, “for not recognizing you earlier.” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “And for making a complete idiot of myself coming on to you like that…”

Oh.

Oh no.

Had someone told him that back-of-the-head-scratch thing was unbearably cute? Did he just do that on purpose?

“Definitely on purpose,” she muttered to herself without thinking.

“Sorry?” he said, leaning closer to hear her better over the music and the din of voices. He even smelled hot. That cologne was definitely Paco Rabanne, subtly floral.

Do. NOT. Smell. Him.

Which, admittedly, was a little difficult considering he was leaning towards her. Marinette leaned back.

“Uh, you didn’t do it on purpose!” Marinette hedged. “I mean, um…” She snatched her mask from the table and brought it up between them. “I was wearing a mask, so of course you wouldn’t know it’s me after all this time.”

He looked at her strangely, almost suspiciously, like he didn’t believe a word she said. But when he took the mask from her and rubbed the folded satin and lace in his fingers, there was something…almost tender about the way he handled it.

“No, I guess not,” he said.

They stood there like that—him fondling her mask, her gripping her gin and tonic like a lifeline—for what seemed like an eternity. Of all the people Marinette had thought about running in to tonight, her teenage crush was not one of them. She honestly thought she would never see this man again for the rest of her life, and she had come to terms with that truth a long time ago. He was wealthy and beautiful, his father was the CEO of a growing, multinational corporation—people like him were a kind of royalty, never meant to linger in one place among the little people for long.

Adrien?!” said Alya, who was suddenly at Marinette’s side holding two glasses of Merlot, one of which she passed to Marinette.

Marinette gratefully accepted the drink and downed a large gulp. She made a mental note to grovel at Alya’s feet later for her impeccable timing and thought to libations.

“Alya, hi,” Adrien said, recognizing her even behind her mask, which she promptly removed to properly stare at him.

“Wow, talk about a blast from the past. What’re you doing here?”

“He’s a VP at AF,” Marinette said, intensely interested in her wine glass.

“Manager,” Adrien corrected her without thinking. They caught each other’s eyes, and he promptly averted his gaze. “I’m a senior manager in the finance department.”

“Well that’s…something,” Alya said, trying and failing to be polite.

Was that… Was he blushing?

Alya gave Marinette a reassuring arm around her shoulders, and Marinette could have melted at the silent encouragement. Alya was here for her no matter what she was up against, even her former high school crush.

“Marinette, there you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Aramis Legrand had spotted Marinette and was heading directly for her, two glasses of champagne in hand. He handed one to Marinette, grinning from ear to ear.

“Aramis! You’re here,” Marinette said lamely, blindly accepting the champagne flute and abandoning her half-drunk wine goblet. His sudden appearance seemed to command the light in the room and offered Marinette a welcome respite from focusing on Adrien.

“But of course! And now that I’ve found you, we shall have our toast, as promised.” He noticed Alya then and beamed. “Ah, and who is your lovely friend?”

Alya flushed prettily, and Marinette found her confidence again. “This is Alya, my plus one. We’ve been friends since high school. She’s an investigatory journalist.”

Enchanté,” Aramis said, dipping his head and taking Alya’s hand to kiss politely. “A friend of Marinette’s is a friend of mine. Aramis Legrand, at your service, mademoiselle.”

“Aramis Legrand?” Adrien said. “As in, Legrand Capital?”

“My hedge fund, yes,” Aramis said, glancing at Adrien. “Formerly, of course. I’m retired. And you are…?”

“Adrien Agreste, sir. I-I was an MBA intern at your hedge fund’s New York office two summers ago…”

Aramis peered at him. “Agreste, you say… Ah! Of course, you must be Gabriel’s son! I’d know that strong nose anywhere.”

“You know my father personally?”

Aramis smiled enigmatically. “We have a little history, Gabriel Agreste and myself. An intern, you say? I see my colleagues were unable to sway you to our side of the table in the end if you’re back with AF, yes?”

“A-Ah, well, it was a difficult decision in the end,” Adrien said.

Aramis just smiled. “Not so difficult, I think. You have an eye for beauty, like your father. I can always tell these things.” He gestured at Marinette and Alya. “After all, here you are surrounded by beautiful, talented women, are you not?”

Alya was practically glowing with delight at Aramis’s compliments, but Marinette had heard quite enough. “Adrien’s just an old high school acquaintance,” she said a little more harshly than she’d intended. “We haven’t even seen each other in years.”

Aramis frowned. “Oh no, then it appears I’m interrupting an important reunion.”

“Oh, interrupt away,” Alya said dreamily.

“No!” Marinette blurted out. “I-I mean, you’re not interrupting anything. Uh, here!” She raised her champagne flute. “A toast, you promised we’d have one, right?”

Aramis looked like he might have been put off, but to Marinette’s relief he smiled and clinked his glass to hers after all. “Of course! Cheers to you, Marinette Dupain-Cheng: fashion’s newest rising star. You will do great things, I’m sure of it. After all, I would not have invested so much in you if I didn’t believe it!”

“You’re her investor?” Adrien asked.

“We just signed a new Series Seed term sheet this week. Marinette has plans to expand into Shanghai in the future, isn’t that right?”

“Well, yeah, that’s the plan once I’ve found a suitable local partner,” Marinette said, chancing a glance back at Adrien, who looked oddly contemplative. “That, and I’ll be launching my spring line at the end of the season.”

“And I very much look forward to it,” Aramis gushed.

“I see,” Adrien said. He glanced at Marinette askance. “Congratulations. You seem to be doing well for yourself.”

“Thank you,” Marinette said, proud. She was doing well, and it felt damn good to be able to say that out loud to someone who had always done well in everything he’d ever tried. The butterflies she’d been wrestling with upon seeing Adrien in the flesh again had mercifully subsided. Aramis’s timing was impeccable.

“Careful now, young Agreste. I know very well how AF operates, poaching fresh new talent before they can make it big on their own. I’m afraid Marinette Designs is under my protection for the time being, but I look forward to seeing what your in-house designers will produce come spring.”

“Of course,” Adrien said. “I think it’ll be a lucrative season for French fashion.”

“For some of us, at least.” Aramis raised his glass to Marinette, and she almost melted in the presence of his very obvious, very vocal faith in her abilities. “Anyway, Marinette, I must be on my way. I have some other business to attend to, I’m afraid. Please, enjoy the party with your friends. I’ll be in touch, of course.”

“Thank you, Aramis, for everything,” Marinette said.

Aramis flashed Alya a dashing smile that made him look fifteen years younger. He was such a character, and Marinette often had trouble remembering he was worth as much as some small countries’ GDPs.

Mademoiselle,” he addressed Alya. “The pleasure is all mine.”

Alya just giggled dreamily, and he excused himself to rejoin the party.

“Oh man, Marinette,” Alya said, “that’s your sugar daddy? For real? He’s a total silver fox!”

Marinette blushed furiously. “He’s my lead investor, not my sugar daddy! Christ, Alya!”

Alya placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Oh, honey.”

Adrien, whom they had both forgotten was still there, cleared his throat. “That’s impressive that Aramis Legrand invested in you at this stage,” he said. “He must have seen something truly inspired in your work.”

Before Marinette could respond, Alya was leaning across the table. “Count on it, Agreste. Marinette won the 2017 Paris Fashion Week’s Newcomer Award. You’ve missed a hell of a lot.”

Adrien looked between the two of them, his expression unreadable. “Clearly.”

“Weird seeing you again, though,” Alya went on. “You in Paris long?”

“Why?”

Alya shrugged him off like he didn’t matter at all. “Oh, you know, just wondering if I should let my fiancé know. You remember Nino Lahiffe, right? ‘Bout yea tall, glasses, drops the sick beats, formerly your best friend before you dropped off the face of the earth without so much as a goodbye?”

Marinette resisted the urge to groan. She had a feeling she was going to get an earful from Alya about this bizarre blast from the past encounter later tonight.

“Fiancé,” Adrien repeated, his eyes drawn to the diamond engagement ring on Alya’s finger. “…I guess congratulations are in order all around.”

A pretty redhead nearly of a height with Adrien in her four inch pumps had made her way to their table and reached for him. “There you are! Hey, come join us, we’re opening up the Dom Pérignon.”

She was already dragging Adrien away from the table before he could respond properly. “Oh, right, I’m coming.” He awkwardly waved to Marinette and Alya as an afterthought. “Good to see you both.”

They just watched him go, and Marinette raised her hand in a wave, but he was no longer looking at her and disappeared in the crowd.

“Well,” said Alya, sipping her wine. “That was fucking weird.”

Marinette did groan this time. “I feel like my head’s about to explode.”

“Hey, breathe, girl,” Alya said, no trace of her fiery sarcasm left at the sight of Marinette slumped. “You okay?”

“Yeah…I think,” Marinette said. She shook her head. “No, I don’t think I am. I suddenly feel like I’m gonna be sick.”

“Did he say something to you?” Alya’s expression darkened dangerously. “Because if he did, I swear to god—”

“No, no, it was nothing like that. Adrien was perfectly nice, at least, after he stopped coming on to me.”

She realized her mistake when Alya gaped at her and a teasingly wicked smile spread over her face. “I’m sorry, come again?”

“It’s not what you think, he just didn’t recognize me.” Marinette held up her mask. “I was wearing this, and it’s been a while. I’m not surprised he didn’t recognize me.”

Although, Chloe knew it was me right away, and I haven’t seen much of her since college…

“Suuuure,” Alya drawled, understanding. Mercifully, though, she decided to spare Marinette a ribbing. “Well, look, I dunno what’s going on with that dude, and honestly I couldn’t give a crap. What I do give a crap about is you.” Alya reached for her hand. “You don’t have to be okay, you know. I remember how you were when he left back in high school, right after your accident, too. That was a rough week, and I’d totally understand if you wanted to leave. Just say the word, and we’re outta here.”

Marinette squeezed Alya’s hand back in an attempt to convey her genuine gratitude. “Thanks, Alya, I mean that. But…I’ll be okay. I think it’s just a shock seeing him again after so long. I wasn’t prepared. It’s not like I’m still upset like I was back then. I’m obviously over him and all that.”

“Right,” Alya said, not quite believing her. “Well, just don’t forget that you’re a grown-ass woman. An amazing, beautiful, successful grown-ass woman with nothing but good things coming your way. Don’t let Adrien Agreste and all his baggage get you down, okay? He’s absolutely not worth it.”

“You’re right. I want to enjoy tonight, Adrien or no Adrien. I came here to meet people and build connections.”

“There’s my girl! C’mon, I’ll help you. You know everybody loves my natural poise and charm. Just consider me your networking wingman tonight, okay?”

Marinette laughed and looped her arm through Alya’s. “Sounds like a plan.”


 

Marinette had met so many people tonight that she was starting to regret not bringing a larger purse than the gold clutch nearly bursting at the seams to hold her cell phone, a tube of lipstick, and the many business cards she’s amassed. Alya had been her unintentional secret weapon, ever the social butterfly eager to strike up conversation with anyone. She gushed about her dress (“A Marinette Designs original, isn’t it just gorgeous? Let me introduce you to the lady herself.”), about this party (“Aramis Legrand was kind enough to invite us in honor of his latest investment in Marinette Designs. Isn’t that right, Marinette?”), and about Marinette herself (“You probably recognize her from the Parish Fashion Week awards last year—Marinette won the 2017 Newcomer Award, you know.”). With Alya at her side breaking the ice, Marinette found herself with half the battle already won. All in all, tonight had been an unequivocal success. She’d had more than a few promising conversations with potential future investors intrigued by some of her ideas for her spring line.

Now, with her face sore from smiling so much and her feet aching from standing in three-inch heels without rest, she left Alya with a group of fashion reporters to talk journalism and escaped to the balcony for a brief reprieve. It was cold even with the heater towers blazing at full power, and Marinette shivered. But the chill also had a liberating effect after the close-quarters and buzzing energy inside. There were a couple others outside on a smoke break conversing quietly, and Marinette gave them a wide berth so as not to intrude. She leaned over the balcony’s edge and looked down at the busy Champs-Élysées and the towering Arc de Triomphe glowing gold in the distance at the end of it. She hugged her arms for warmth and let herself smile, still not quite believing she had actually made it this far.

“Brave of you to come out here in this weather.”

Marinette turned to see Adrien approaching, hands in his pockets and his dress shirt rolled up to the elbows. His suit jacket was nowhere to be found. Before she knew it, he was leaning on the railing a couple feet from her.

Marinette swallowed. She’d actually forgotten he was even here after the whirlwind networking she and Alya had done in the last couple hours. This time, thankfully, he did not catch her so completely off guard as before. He was looking down at the Champs-Élysées lights, his blond hair tinted indigo in the glow of a passing searchlight.

“I could say the same to you,” Marinette found her voice, nodding at his bare arms.

Sensing her gaze, he turned to look at her and offered her the ghost of a tired smile. “It was getting a little too humid in there.”

Marinette nodded. The bracing, early-winter air did feel good after the heat inside. But she’d been out here for a few minutes already, and now that she had company, she wondered if she should go back inside and find Alya again. It was getting late, anyway.

“Well, um, I’ll just…”

Before she could get her body to obey and take her back inside, his voice stopped her. “Don’t go.” He righted himself and turned around, his back to the street and his hands gripping the stone railing lightly. “You were here first. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“You’re not intruding,” Marinette felt compelled to reassure him.

“Really?”

The way he looked at her suggested he already knew the answer to his question. Marinette frowned, not liking that look. This was stupid. Stupid and childish, she decided. So he was an old acquaintance, and he was easy on the eyes. That wasn’t really surprising considering his former profession and her former feelings. All things considered, it wasn’t that weird to run into him here, of all the places. He did work for one of the most successful international fashion houses around, and Marinette had spent the better part of the evening schmoozing with names much bigger than his.

But even so, something about his presence here was still irking her.

You’re a grown-ass woman, and don’t you dare let anyone make you forget it, she imagined Alya’s voice in her head.

“Okay,” Marinette said, giving him her full attention. “Honestly? It’s weird seeing you again after all this time. And maybe a little bit uncomfortable.”

His expression gave nothing away as he watched her. “It’s been fourteen years.”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that. I get that it doesn’t make much of a difference to you, but it doesn’t make it any less awkward for me.”

He said nothing to that, and Marinette took that as good enough. She tried to leave.

“Marinette, wait,” he said, reaching for her wrist.

His hand was cool through her sleeve, his grip firm but not uncomfortable. She whirled and found him watching her in the most peculiar way. Was that… Was he…?

Blushing?

As if sensing her incredulity, he averted his gaze and let go of her. “Look, I can appreciate how…weird this is. It’s weird for me, too. I’ve been back in Paris for more than a month and I still wasn’t prepared for…”

Marinette was so taken aback listening to him stumble over his words that all she could do was stand there and wait for him to finish. Who was this man? He seemed a far cry from the cool, kind, easy-going super model she remembered.

“What I’m trying very poorly to say is…I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

He looked at her strangely. “For leaving the way I did. For not saying goodbye?”

It took her a moment to realize what he meant. “You’re sorry.”

He grew visibly more uncomfortable. “Um, yeah. You were in the hospital, and I… My father put me on a plane for New York that same week. I barely got a chance to say goodbye to anybody.” He searched her face for something. “You…don’t remember?”

Marinette could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Of course I remember. I didn’t think… I mean, it was so long ago, and you’re…” She shook her head, suddenly feeling the strangest urge to apologize to him, too. “I got your get-well card and flowers.”

“Card and flowers?” He frowned, thinking, and then his face fell. “Nathalie.”

“What?”

He shook his head. “I never sent you a card or flowers. It must have been Nathalie, my father’s personal assistant.”

“Oh.”

Wow, I’m an even bigger idiot than I realized.

He hadn’t even sent her a shitty card. He’d just left without a word, after all. All this time and she thought, at the very least, he’d reached out if only because his classmate had been hospitalized and that was the kind of thing normal people did in those situations. It wasn’t what she’d wished for, but at least it had been something. But even that had been a lie.

At this point, she was surprised he’d recognized her tonight even without the mask.

“Hey,” he said, perhaps registering the utter, soul-crushing shame she was probably radiating. “Marinette, look at me.”

She shook her head and forced herself to smile through this new and unexpected surge of heartache she would never have imagined could still affect her after all this time. God, she was so pathetic. “It’s fine, I should probably just go—”

“I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for her again before she could flee. “Please, you have to believe me. I wanted to come see you in the hospital when you woke up. I begged my father, but he wouldn’t budge. Not being there for you after I—after your injury, I’ve never been so sorry for anything in all my life.”

Marinette barely felt his grip on her elbow as she bore witness to the raw, unfettered emotion on his face. There was pain there, a deep-seated regret she would never have expected from him, of all people, after all this time. Had she really upset him this much? Over something that had nothing to do with him? Where were these sudden feelings of his coming from?

“Adrien,” she said, unsure what else to say at this bizarre and strangely heart wrenching turn of events. “I didn’t realize you felt so strongly.”

He squeezed her elbow as though trying to convey with his actions what he could not find the words to say. “I did. Do.” Suddenly, he released her and took a step back. “I mean… I saw you tonight and it kind of all came rushing back without warning. I should’ve reached out back then. I’m so sorry, Marinette.”

Marinette honestly did not know what to make of this, or of him. All things considered, in all her youthful fantasies of one day reuniting with Adrien, this was not at all how she’d imagined it would go. And yet, he looked so earnest, so…unlike the man in the mask who’d kissed her hand upon first meeting earlier tonight. Whatever his reasons, she could not hold such earnestness against him if she tried.

“Thank you,” she said, meaning it, hugging her arms around her middle. “That really means a lot to me. More than you know.”

“I do know,” he said, and she realized he truly believed it. What a thing to say.

It made her smile a little. “You’re not at all like I remember you.”

“You are,” he said readily. “You’re exactly as I remember you.”

Marinette’s smile widened. “God, I hope not. I had such a monster crush on you back then that I could barely speak to you.”

He looked at her like a deer caught in the headlights, and it took him a few seconds to swallow and regain some measure of control. “S-Seriously?”

At this, Marinette laughed. It felt like ages ago, that silly little girl with her first crush. Nostalgic, and just a little bit sad. “Let’s just say if you didn’t know, you were the only one.”

He said nothing as he watched her, contemplative, and the silence stretched to the point where Marinette began to fidget. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything? Shit, maybe she’d made it too awkward.

And that’s my cue.

“Well, hey, thank you, really. You didn’t have to tell me all that. It’s not like you owe me anything, of course.” She glanced inside at the party, wondering if Alya was looking for her. “I should…”

“Yeah, of course, sorry to keep you,” Adrien said a little too quickly. “I’ll walk you back inside.”

“Oh, okay, sure.”

It was surreal walking like this with Adrien Agreste, of all people. This may have been the first real conversation she’d ever had with him that didn’t devolve into blithering drivel as she stumbled over her words and barely made eye contact. She’d really had it bad, huh? What would her fourteen-year-old self think of her now, attending the most exclusive fashion party in Paris walking side by side with him and not about to fall over under the weight of an oppressive, and slightly misguided, infatuation?

Perhaps there were some wounds time could heal, after all.

They arrived at the doors, and Adrien held them open for her. Marinette lingered a moment and worried her lip, wondering what her fourteen-year-old self would think of what she was about to do.

“Adrien,” she said.

“Yes?”

“Do you, um… You said you just recently moved back to Paris?”

“Yes?”

One-word responses, Marinette thought, annoyed. And while fourteen-year-old Marinette would have disintegrated into dust by now, grown-ass-woman Marinette had a little more fortitude and pride than that. Pride that was telling her she would never forgive herself for not at least trying after that bizarrely heartfelt apology he’d laid on her.

“Well, I was thinking, if you want, I could, you know, take you out sometime?” She immediately realized her damning word choice and flushed. “Uh, I mean with friends!” She gestured wildly. “You know, friends from Dupont. You probably haven’t seen many people yet, right?”

His eyes flashed with emotion, but it was gone before she could make any sense of it. When he smiled, it was polite and a little distant. “Maybe. I’m pretty busy these days, though.”

Marinette wished she could go ahead and disintegrate with her fourteen-year-old self right about now. Of course he was busy, he was a big-time businessman now. He probably had a million things he’d rather be doing than running around Paris with old high school acquaintances. And it wasn’t like she had all the free time in the world these days. Once Aramis’s new investment closed, she’d have her hands full for the foreseeable future getting her company to the next level.

“Right, of course you’re busy, I didn’t mean to imply—”

“But let me get your number,” he interrupted her hastily, already pulling his phone out. “For when I’m not busy one of these days?”

Marinette knew she was staring, but she could not figure this man out for the life of her. “My number…”

He laughed, and goddamnit even his laugh was hot.

“You know, so you can call me, maybe,” he said.

Marinette’s eyes widened. Did he just…

“I know I just met you again,” he went on, grinning wider at her reaction, “and this is crazy. But here’s my number.”

He did just.

“Are you seriously quoting Call Me, Maybe to get my number?”

His eyes danced with mirth, and Marinette’s pride and dignity promptly rose from the ashes, er, dust.

Oh my god, he’s a dork.

Adrien Agreste: certified gorgeous, emotionally not unintelligent, workaholic had just outed himself as a huge dork.

Marinette was already pulling out her phone to exchange with his.

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” he said.

“No, I’m just in shock and have no control over my actions right now.”

He laughed again as he typed his number into her phone. “Hey, that song was my karaoke staple in college. It’s a classic.”

“Oh, so you karaoke now, too? Is there anything you can’t do?”

He shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out.”

They exchanged back their phones, and she realized she was staring at him again. But he was also staring at her. And very much like a dumbass teenager with a crush (goodbye again, pride, thou art a fickle mistress indeed), Marinette did not want to be the first one to look away.

“There you are!” Alya said as she arrived at the door. “Marinette, I’ve been looking all over for—oh. You again.” She gave Adrien a suspicious look.

“And that’s my cue,” Adrien said a little brusquely. All traces of his previous teasing were completely gone. “Marinette. Alya.”

Adrien left to rejoin the party, and Marinette was left with a highly suspicious Alya.

“Do I even want to know what that was all about?” Alya said.

“I don’t think I even know what that was about,” Marinette said. “But I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

Adrien’s number glowed on her phone screen, and she stashed it back in her bulging purse.


 

Marinette could not sleep when she and Alya finally left the party and went their separate ways for the night. It was late, well past midnight, and she should have been exhausted. But her thoughts were filled with the excitement of the night, all the new connections she’d made, and all the strange encounters she’d had. One in particular was keeping her up.

“Marinette? Are you okay?” Tikki asked in between bites of macaroon.

“I’m okay, just a little mind blown, I guess.”

“Does that have to do with seeing Adrien tonight?”

Marinette cast Tikki a knowing look. “Maybe, but not for the reasons you think. I’m not fourteen anymore.”

Tikki smiled understandingly. “I know, but it still must be a surprise to see him after all this time. And he apologized, too.”

“Yeah, he did.” Marinette frowned. “I still don’t really get why.”

Tikki set down her macaroon to hover next to Marinette’s head. They were in her loft apartment and sitting on Marinette’s bed, a half-drunk cup of tea on the night stand that was supposed to help her sleep but had done nothing to ease her nerves. “I think it was really nice of him. He knew how hard it was for you being in the hospital back then, not getting to see him to say goodbye.”

“That’s just it, Tikki. He didn’t know. No one did. At least, not the real reason.” And she planned to keep it that way for the rest of her life.

Tikki’s compound eyes glowed indigo in the muted lamplight. “We aren’t talking about Adrien anymore, are we?”

Marinette hugged her knees to her chest. There was no hiding anything from her omniscient kwami, and Marinette was glad of that. She couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not that she wanted to when it would mean facing the shame of defeat and betrayal all over again, but having Tikki at least silently understand what she’d been through had been invaluable as she coped with things, then and now.

“I don’t want to talk about him,” Marinette confessed in a small voice.

“You never do.”

Marinette sensed a ‘but’ in there. “What’s wrong with that? It’s not like he’s ever coming back.” It’s not like I ever want him to come back.

Tikki watched her quietly. “It’s okay to miss him, Marinette. He’s your other half.”

A spike of anger, out of nowhere, struck Marinette with almost physical force, and she glared at Tikki. “That monster isn’t my other anything.”

Unbidden, Marinette felt her eyes grow hot with tears. She wiped at them furiously, ashamed of herself. It had been years since she’d thought about him, the boy who’d once been the other half of her world before he’d ripped it apart, just like he’d nearly ripped her apart, too.

“Damnit,” she swore, hiding her eyes. “I thought I was over this.”

“Oh Marinette, whatever he’s done, Chat Noir will always be—”

“Stop,” Marinette snapped. “Please, don’t say that name.”

Tikki looked at her Chosen sadly. “It wasn’t him who hurt you, Marinette. I know you know that.”

“But it was him who left,” Marinette bit out, ashamed to be taking her bitter anger out on poor Tikki, who did not deserve it, but there was no one else to hear it. No one else who knew this old pain she’d carried on her shoulders alone for years. “He left, Tikki. He ran away and left me. He’s not my other half. I don’t think he ever was.”

“You don’t mean that.”

Marinette got up. “Well, we’ll never know now, will we?”

“Oh Marinette—”

“Tikki, transform me.”

The little red kwami gasped in surprise, but at the magical command, she dissolved into scarlet shimmers, merged with Marinette’s Miraculous earrings, and transformed her. Soon, Ladybug was racing over the rooftops of Paris, her yo-yo swinging and cutting a scarlet streak through the darkness as the denizens of the night lingered in the lighted streets below. None of them paid her any mind, none looked for the spotted former heroine who’d once captured their hearts and imaginations fighting supernatural villains next to her equally super partner. The Paris of today had all but forgotten Ladybug, just as Chat Noir had forgotten her all those years ago.

Ladybug’s tears were blown away in the rushing wind, the cold hardly noticeable under the protection of her super suit. She ran faster, jumped higher, threw her yo-yo farther, hoping to outrun this heavy, familiar weight that threatened to drag her down as it once had so many years ago. She’d been doing so well. Her civilian life was so busy and bright that she’d nearly forgotten the other life she’d once led, and the person who’d once made it worth every moment.

Ladybug gasped on a sob and she threw her yo-yo as hard as she possibly could. She felt the whiplash in her neck even through her magical super suit, but she held on and pulled herself skyward all the same. When she landed, she was out of breath and steadied herself on a metal bar to regain her bearings. She wiped the last of her tears away and looked around. She couldn’t help the bitter laugh upon realizing where she’d ended up without even meaning to.

The Eiffel Tower rose tall and proud, its many lights a blaze of soft silver that rivaled the stars. She could see all of Paris from here, even Le Grand Paris Hotel, where the searchlights still swept the sky as the party continued without her. It would probably go on all night.

Ladybug sank down, her legs dangling over the edge of the thick bar she’d landed on about halfway up the tower. Her loose hair fluttered haphazardly in the wind, still curly from the braided bun Alya had woven into it hours ago. She knew why she had come here.

This had been their spot, once. A lifetime ago. She hadn’t visited it in years. Once Ladybug had woken from her coma after two days in the hospital, she’d scoured the city relentlessly, day and night. But there was never any sign of either Hawk Moth or her wayward partner. It was as if they’d both simply vanished without a trace, and Ladybug was alone.

For months, she drove herself to the brink of insanity trying to find Chat. The last she’d seen him, he’d been akumatized and very nearly killed her. Why he hadn’t finished the job, she could not be sure. But she woke up in the hospital as Marinette, surrounded by flowers and cards and her sleep-deprived parents, good as new. And she still had her Miraculous. Why hadn’t he taken it?

Tikki had been in very bad shape, and Marinette had to rush her to Master Fu for treatment, which took far longer than Marinette’s own recovery. The little kwami’s memory was fuzzy, and she admitted that she did not know what had become of Chat Noir or the akuma that had infected him. That had troubled Marinette to no end. If she didn’t purify the akuma, what would happen to Chat? They had always been able to defeat akumatized victims in a matter of hours. But now, it had been fourteen years since he’d been infected. Was he still infected? If he was, why didn’t he come for her to finish the job? Was his disappearance related to Hawk Moth’s own disappearance? Was Chat even still alive?

He’s alive, Marinette reminded herself. Tikki would know if her other half was released from his Chosen bond.

But beyond that, Tikki had been less than helpful. Even though she and Plagg, Chat’s kwami, were bonded, they did not share as much as Marinette had once believed. Tikki did not know where Plagg and Chat were, or if they were even still themselves.

And honestly? A part of Marinette hoped she would never find out.

“Cry for me, my lady.”

Marinette shuddered. She could hear his voice in her ear, dripping poison. Those malevolent magenta eyes she didn’t recognize, that cold touch ripping her apart from the inside out. And god, the fear. She could feel it even now, a fear like none she’d ever known before creeping under her skin and pulling her apart like stitches. He had been so soft before, so sad.

“I really don’t want to be alone tonight,” he’d confessed to Marinette in a moment of raw vulnerability she’d had no idea lay simmering beneath the layers of patented Chat Noir bravado.

It had taken her so long to finally come to terms with his disappearance after that night, and even now the pain was as fresh as the very day. He had been in love with her, with Ladybug, and she had rejected him. What other reason could he have to leave her forever?

He just hadn’t wanted to be alone anymore.

Ladybug got to her feet, exhausted. It had been a long time since she thought about Chat and his murderous alter ego. Perhaps Adrien coming back into her life had reopened old wounds. They had both left around the same time, after all. Well, at least Adrien was back now, whatever that meant. She was not some simpering teenager holding out hope for anything. She wasn’t even sure there was anything worth hoping for. Adrien Agreste belonged to some other girl’s life, a life she had left behind a long, long time ago.

But Chat…

Ladybug hugged herself for the warmth she couldn’t feel through her super suit. Without Chat Noir, she didn’t feel like Ladybug. Without Chat, she couldn’t be Ladybug. Maybe it was finally time to accept that, once and for all.

She threw her yo-yo in the direction of home, the wind in her hair and the lights of the Eiffel Tower shrinking behind her. She never noticed the pair of glowing, green eyes that had watched her from the shadows, and how they followed her retreat.

Chapter Text

Paris was a city of dreamers. Tonight there were two who, unlike their fellow Parisian dreamers, would not find sleep within their grasp. One sat alone in darkness, watching the distant lights of the Eiffel Tower and the scarlet figure that flew from its ramparts in defiance of the laws of gravity. Not long after, another followed, harder to pinpoint as it melted into the darkness.

“It’s time,” said the muffled voice on the phone.

The sleepless figure stared out the window and held the cell phone to their ear. “Finally. You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”

The disembodied phone voice chuckled, a mouthful of static. “I know I have. We’ll be together soon now, once I have what I want.”

The figure smiled with painted lips and took a long drag of a cigarette. The smoke tasted like chocolate and ash. Like all addictions, a little sweet, a little poison. “Give me five days.”

“Make it three.”

Painted lips twisted in a gleeful smile. The challenge was a rush.

“Three it is.”

The connection died, and the cell phone fell dark. The figure drew another puff of lacy arsenic and blurred the window view. The sun would rise soon, and Paris would awaken.

“Three days. We’ll be ready by then.”

A pair of glowing, pink eyes watched from the gloom. “As you wish.”

Three days, then.

Three days until my wish comes true.


 

Marinette’s week turned hectic literally overnight. No sooner had she managed to catch a couple hours of sleep than her phone woke her at 6 a.m. the Sunday morning after the Trefoil Gala—a supplier was out of the royal blue taffeta fabric she’d ordered, and Marinette needed to decide if she wanted a substitute or wait two weeks for resupply. Neither option was palatable given a custom order fitting coming up on Wednesday. She needed that royal blue.

Luckily, her staff and business partners had her back.

“Marinette, I’ve got Watson’s on line two. They have the royal blue we need for the Fujiwara custom order,” said the lone intern of the staff.

Marinette looked up from her dummy model, one Alfonse Laroux. He yelped in pain when she stuck his shoulder with a needle. “Oh! Sorry, Al, I wasn’t looking.”

“Yeah, I can see that, Mar. Do I really have to be the dummy? This is a women’s bubble dress!”

Alfonse was a short, slight man with a receding hairline, brown eyes so dark they were nearly black, and a face made for scowling. He was her grad school classmate-turned-business partner, and she trusted him implicitly with her company’s financial stability and luxury branding. Marinette Designs was as much his project as it was hers.

“I know, but it’s Sunday and you and I are the only ones here," Marinette said.

“The intern is sitting right there!” Alfonse complained, but he dutifully held up the fabric Marinette was working on all the same.

“Yeah, well, the intern is saving your asses and she’s not even getting paid to do it,” quipped said intern.

“Manon, what’s this about Watson’s?” Marinette asked.

Manon Chamack, a newly-minted college Freshman, had been interning sporadically with Marinette’s boutique since she graduated from high school. She dreamed of one day having her own fashion line, inspired by Marinette’s dedication and success over the years. And she was willing to help out this Sunday in Marinette’s time of need, so that the rest of the full-time staff could take the weekend off like normal people.

Manon grinned, her honey-brown eyes glittering with smug satisfaction. “They have the taffeta you need for the Fujiwara contract. Aaaaand I may or may not have convinced them to ship a rush delivery for tomorrow.”

Alfonse paled. “And how much will that cost, exactly?”

Manon grinned wider. “The same as regular delivery. They’re willing to help us out as long as we commit to an output contract for three months.”

Marinette looked at Alphonse, who looked like it pained him to consider it. “Watson’s has been hounding me lately. They lost some big customers to the Italians, but they have quality product, and I haven’t been very happy with our current supplier. This is the third time they’ve had to reschedule deliveries due to inventory problems…”

Marinette winked at Manon. “Well, that sounds like a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one, Al.”

Alphonse was muttering something under his breath that sounded a lot like math. “I suppose the high initial contract costs could eventually be made up with the on-time deliveries… Manon, tell them yes on the condition that we get rush delivery for the three months. If all goes well, I’ll commit for the year.”

Manon beamed. “On it, Boss.”

Sunday mercifully proceeded without anybody dying and the boutique still standing, which all things considered was an A+ kind of day in Marinette’s book. She was in the midst of treating Alphonse and Manon to happy hour drinks at a cozy bar down the street from the boutique when her phone buzzed.

[Adrien: So it’s one of those days.]

Marinette stared at her iPhone screen in disbelief. Just how much alcohol was in her beer? Because her brain was not registering what her eyes were telling her.

“Uh, earth to Marinette!” Manon said, clinking her beer to Marinette’s.

“Anything I should know about?” asked Alphonse at the concerned look on her face.

Marinette whipped her head up and smiled nervously. “Oh! Uh, no, it’s not work.”

Manon instantly broke out in a wolfish grin. “Ooh, so it’s pleasure, then?”

Alphonse shot her a withering look. “How old are you, again?”

[Adrien: I mean I’m not busy today. That was vague sorry.]

[Adrien: You mentioned taking me out sometime?]

Marinette still did not quite understand what was happening. Adrien…was texting her? Wait, yeah, she’d given him her number at the gala. Was that just last night? Jesus, she was wrecked today. Barely any sleep after her rather emotionally-charged conversation with Tikki, gallivanting as Ladybug for the first time in months, and this morning’s supplier fiasco at the boutique had her moving with all the grace and agility of a blue-eyed slug.

“Sorry, just a sec,” Marinette mumbled an apology to her coworkers as she began to text back.

[Marinette: Sure! I didn’t mean today…]

[Marinette: Not that today is bad! Just that I saw you only yesterday.]

[Adrien: So that’s a yes?]

Someone’s eager, she thought, curious. He’d seemed hesitant to see her again despite the whole Call Me, Maybe exchange. What was with this hot and cold vibe?

[Adrien: Unless you’re busy…?]

Marinette warred with herself. She wasn’t busy per se, but she was definitely starting wonder exactly who was on the other end of these texts. One moment he was too busy to potentially, hypothetically meet up with old friends in the future, and the next he was texting her not twenty-four hours later wanting to see her. Talk about mixed signals.

[Marinette: No I’m free.]

[Marinette: But since you’re being so pushy, I get to pick the place.]

[Marinette: It’s only fair.]

She bit her tongue as she watched the three blinking chat bubbles shuffle as he typed.

[Adrien: Sounds fair. Dress code?]

Marinette thought about that.

“What’re you smiling about?” Manon said.

Marinette’s smile abruptly fell. God, pull yourself together, girl.

It was just Adrien. It wasn’t like she was still infatuated with him. He was just a friend. More like an acquaintance, really.

An acquaintance with an eight-pack and longer eyelashes than me.

What was wrong with having hot acquaintances? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. And she had been the one to suggest they hang out sometime…

[Marinette: Anything that doesn’t scream millionaire playboy supermodel.]

[Adrien: I do love a challenge ;)]

Marinette stared at the infernal winking emoji. What did that mean? Were they on emoji-level terms now? Since when?

[Adrien: When and where?]

[Marinette: 8 pm @ Firefly Lounge]

[Adrien: I’ll be there.]

Well.

Is this a date?

“What am I, fourteen?” Marinette grumbled.

“What was that?” Alphonse said.

Marinette put her phone down on the table and groaned. “I feel like I’m being gaslighted.”

Manon patted her arm. “There, there, Marinette. You’re good. When in doubt, just ask yourself what I would do.”

“Hah, pass.”

“Mar, is everything all right?” Alphonse asked.

Marinette saw the genuine concern in his dark eyes, and she spared him a smile. “Fine. Maybe. I’m not sure yet. I mean, hypothetically speaking, say a…person you were estranged from for a really long time, like, oh I don’t know, fourteen years? Suddenly came back into your life? And sent a winky-face emoji?”

Alphonse looked unamused. “So you’re meeting an old flame?”

Marinette groaned again and buried her face in her arms, her beer forgotten. “Not exactly.”

“Well, I think that sounds great,” Manon chirped. “The winky-face is promising.”

“It is? Why?”

“DTF, duh.”

“Debt Transaction Financing?” Alphonse said.

Manon rolled her eyes so far back in her head that Marinette saw white. “No, god, how old are you?” To Marinette she said, “DTF, down to fuck. Seriously, you guys are the worst millennials ever.”

Marinette flushed like a tomato. “That is not what it means,” she hissed.

“Uh, yeah it does. D-T-F, it’s an acronym for—”

“Not that!” Marinette slapped her hand over Manon’s scandalous mouth. “The winking emoji! That’s not what it means! A-At least, not in this context.”

Manon pulled her hand away and held out her own hand. “Let me see.”

“What? No, I’m not letting you read my text messages!”

“Then you’ll just have to take my word about the DTF.”

Marinette was torn between her pride and masochistic curiosity. The latter won out in the end, and Manon greedily scanned through the few messages she’d exchanged with Adrien.

“Oh, never mind, this guy’s not DTF,” Manon said. “He’s just clingy.”

“What? Let me see that.”

Manon handed Alphonse the phone, and Marinette choked on a scream. “Manon! Don’t just pass my phone around!”

Alphonse squinted at the screen. “It just sounds like he’s looking forward to seeing you tonight. That winking emoji is a little creepy, if you ask me.”

“Nobody asked you!” Marinette snatched her phone back, mortified. She clutched it protectively, and the screen lit up. She had a new text from Adrien.

[Marinette: I’ll wear something cute ;)]

[Adrien: Can’t wait :3]

Marinette stared at the text she absolutely did not send and Adrien’s response with another emoji, this one inexplicably cat-inspired.

“What’d he say?” Manon leaned over to peek.

“You did not,” Marinette said.

Manon’s wicked smile was back. “Well, someone had to. You’re trying to bang this guy, right?”

Marinette wished she could melt into her half-drunk beer bottle and just die. “I used to babysit you,” she said weakly.

“Well, uh, good luck with that, I guess,” Alphonse said. “Just don’t forget about the Fujiwara order. The taffeta will be in tomorrow by noon, and the client’s scheduled for that fitting on Wednesday.”

Marinette mumbled a weak acknowledgment, too mortified to manage much else.

“Hey, if you’re going to Firefly Lounge, you should get moving,” Manon said. “If it’s what I think it is, tables’ll fill up fast.”

Marinette checked her phone: 6:32 p.m. Shit, Manon was right. She tossed some bills on the table, bade her coworkers goodbye, and ran out the door to hail a cab. Whatever she was in store for tonight, she had some damage control to manage when she saw Adrien. She just hoped she could hold it together long enough to actually do it.

She very maturely ignored Manon’s departing words of, “Remember to wear something cute!”


 

She debated inviting Alya, if nothing else than for a sanity check, but remembered Alya had plans with Nino that night. So Marinette was on her own. This wasn’t a date, right? She’d literally just re-met Adrien yesterday. For all the time he’d been gone and not a part of her life in any way, he was half a stranger. And now he was texting her wanting to hang out?

Wait… Was this a booty call? Damn Manon and her teasing.

He did come on to me.

Marinette hung her head in her hands at the small, round table she’d snagged at the Firefly Lounge.

He came on to me before he even knew who I was.

From the way he’d behaved, something told Marinette that behavior was routine for him. He probably was, in every sense of the stereotype, a millionaire playboy supermodel.

Ex-supermodel.

Right. Chloe had said he was retired. Didn’t change the fact that he had a face made to be sit on.

“Oh my god, shut up,” Marinette hissed at herself.

It was fine. So he was good looking. Didn’t change the fact that she didn’t know the guy. Lots of people were good looking. And if he really had reached out tonight looking for a tryst, well…he’d be leaving here disappointed.

“Marinette.”

She looked up in surprise that he’d managed to approach her without her noticing. Pretty stealthy for a dude over six feet tall. She got up and smiled politely.

“Hi, Adrien.”

He’d taken her advice on the dress code, it seemed—designer skinny jeans, a jade button up open at the front, black v-neck T-shirt, and that just-woke-up hair that of course looked perfect on him and would have looked an absolute terror on a mere mortal like her.

He took one of the tassels on her chunky, pink sweater in his fingers and caught her eye. “Cute.”

It took Marinette a moment to understand what he was talking about, and then she remembered Manon’s infernal texting. “Oh, yeah, about that… My intern may have stolen my phone and sent you some weird texts.”

He grinned. “I’ll have to stop by your shop and thank them sometime.”

Okay…flirting?

It seemed like he was flirting. With her. In real life. Marinette just smiled and hoped she wasn’t blushing too much as she gestured vaguely for him to take a seat. Instead of sitting, though, he asked the couple at the table next to them if he could steal their third chair, which they obliged.

Before Marinette could ask, she got her answer in the form of a slightly put-off blonde in a red sweater dress, leggings, and Louboutins carrying a tall glass of something alcoholic with a hot pink straw hanging over the edge.

“I recommend sticking to beer or coffee in this place, the simpler the better,” said Chloe as she approached their table. “The bartender looked at me like I was speaking Greek when I tried ordering a Floradora. Eight euros, and I had to tell him how to make it. Ugh, what the hell kind of dive bar is this?”

She didn’t wait for an invitation and sat down in the empty third chair Adrien had procured for her in between Marinette and himself.

“I think it’s technically a lounge, right?” Adrien looked to Marinette for confirmation.

“Uh, yeah,” she said, still trying to make sense of what was even happening here. “Chloe Bourgeois?”

Chloe cast her a sidelong glance, then focused on her drink as she swirled it with that ridiculous Lisa Frank-inspired straw. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Are we really going to do the whole full-name greeting every time?”

Luckily, Adrien offered the explanation Marinette clearly wanted but had lost the ability to ask for as she slowly internalized the fact that she had seen Chloe more in the last twenty-four hours than she had in the last four years. “I invited Chloe. Hope that’s okay?”

“That remains to be seen,” Chloe said. “What’s going on here? Is there a show, or are we just supposed to entertain ourselves?”

Marinette took her proverbial foot out of her mouth and managed by the grace of whatever god was probably laughing at her right now to speak a full sentence. “Yeah, a band.” She swallowed. “Sorry, I… Are you two…?” She gestured between them vaguely.

“Master and sex slave. Didn’t A tell you?” Chloe deadpanned.

The shock on Marinette’s face must have been something stunning, because Chloe burst out laughing and Adrien flushed hard enough to match her dress.

“God, your face,” Chloe snorted—snorted. “You can stop internally hexing me. Adrien and I are just friends no matter how genetically superior our children would be. He was afraid to come here alone to see you, so I graciously agreed to chaperone.”

“Chlo!” Adrien hissed. “That’s not why I invited you.”

Chloe sucked on her pink straw, nonchalant. “Whatever.”

Marinette looked between them, recalling the way they’d been at the party last night, so at ease around each other. And she found that she couldn’t hold on to her shock and embarrassment.

They’re friends.

Good enough friends that Chloe was maybe a little bit worried about Adrien if she was coming to a grungy lounge bar clearly out of her comfort zone, sipping a watered down cocktail through a middle school birthday party straw instead of doing whatever high powered, wealthy, beautiful people did on a Sunday night.

Huh.

“Oh fuck me, not this guy again,” Chloe said, looking at at a man in dark jeans, an ACDC T-shirt, and an unzipped hoodie who was approaching their table. She began fixing her already perfect hair.

He weaved around the other patrons, who had quickly snapped up the remaining tables and now took to populating the bar and sagging leather couches closer to the stage.

“Who?” Adrien asked.

“Luka, hey!” Marinette said, standing and greeting him with a hug. “What’re you doing out here? It’s almost 8, shouldn’t you be backstage?”

“Yeah, just saw you out here and wanted to say hi.”

“No way…Luka Couffaine?” Adrien said with the unmistakable lilt of recognition.

Luka peered at Adrien, and the memory clicked. “Adrien Agreste, wow. Is that really you?”

“Wait, you know each other?” Chloe said.

“Yeah,” Adrien said. “We played in a band together back in high school for a semester. Good to see you, man.”

“Back at you,” Luka said with a friendly smile.

Luka was a couple years older than them, and he’d fronted Kitty Section, the Dupont high school rock band, before heading off to college. Adrien had subbed in on keyboard for them a few times, Marinette recalled. As Juleka’s older brother, Luka shared her slender figure and half-Japanese features, except for the teal highlights in his styled hair. No matter how many times she came to one of his shows here, Marinette could never quite get over how he and Juleka had turned out so differently despite being related.

“So you’re back in Paris?” Luka asked, shoving his hands in his pockets casually.

“Yeah, mostly working, catching up with some old friends here and there.” Adrien glanced at Marinette.

“Oh, I get it, so this was your doing, huh?” Luka grinned at Marinette.

She grinned right back. “What? You said I should feel free to bring people whenever.”

“Got me there. Thanks for coming. I heard from Juleka that you had some big party last night.”

“You know I wouldn’t miss it.”

He held her gaze. “I know, Mar. Thanks.”

Adrien and Chloe watched their exchange in silence, until Chloe inevitably broke it.

“So you’re obviously not the bartender.”

Luka turned to her and eyed her drink. The ice was melting and watering it down to a pale pinkish color. “Not tonight I’m not, but I’d never let a gorgeous girl go thirsty on my watch.”

Chloe looked like she’d been held up at gunpoint for a hot second, but she frowned dangerously. “Okay, Gerard Way, take it down a notch. You’ll need to do a lot better than Tanqueray and a fluorescent bendy straw before you can say something like that to someone like me.”

Luka looked amused and not at all offended. “I’m a quick study.”

“Damn, and I left my grading pen at home. Too bad.”

Chloe held his gaze in challenge. Adrien and Marinette, meanwhile, exchanged looks of intrigue (Adrien) and abject horror (Marinette).

“Well, I better get back there,” Luka said. He ran a hand through his long, blue-tipped bangs. He wore a couple silver rings on his black-painted fingers. “Glad you guys could make it, Marinette, Adrien, and…” He glanced back at Chloe, who was busy bending her bendy straw.

“Chloe,” Adrien said when it became apparent that Chloe had no interest in responding.

Chloe shot him a look that promised medieval torture levels of pain later. Adrien pretended not to notice.

“Chloe,” Luka repeated, dark eyes bright with amusement over the way she bristled. “Enjoy the show.”

Marinette waved him goodbye and retook her seat. Adrien, however, was quick to offer to get drinks for the table before Chloe could make good on the glares she was sending his way. Which left Marinette alone with her for the next few minutes.

“Um, are you okay?” Marinette asked.

“I’m fine.” She bent her straw back and forth. It made a soft crinkling sound. “So how long do I have to be here, anyway?”

“Oh. Well, the show goes until about 10 or so, but if you have somewhere else to be…”

Chloe made a face. “Great. Two hours of emo ballads. I’m sure this is some karmic whiplash finally catching up to me.”

“Hardrock’s music isn’t even remotely emo, and neither is Luka, for that matter. You know, if you really don’t want to be here, you could leave.”

Chloe shot her a look. “Nice try, but no. I’m the chaperone, remember?” She shifted in her seat and sucked the last of her drink down through the straw.

Marinette couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated with Chloe. “We’re all adults here, Chloe. I get that you’re his friend and you’re worried about him, but you don’t have to babysit Adrien if you really don’t want to be here. It’s not like I have some ulterior motive or anything.”

Chloe looked at her with a mixture of pity and amusement. “Oh Marinette, it’s not your ulterior motives I’m concerned about.”

What does that mean? Marinette wanted to ask, but Adrien returned with drinks just as the lights were dimming and the band took the stage at the back of the room. The patrons clapped as Luka set down his guitar and adjusted the standing microphone. The rest of the players shuffled about tuning their instruments and making last minute adjustments to their set up.

“Hey, everybody, thanks for coming out tonight,” Luka announced. “We’re Hardrock, and we’ll be playing a couple sets and taking requests later on. Well, I’m not gonna waste any more of your time, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”

Soon enough, the soulful sounds of Hardrock’s music filled the room, and patrons nodded along with the beat and carried on their side conversations.

Adrien leaned around the table and tapped Marinette’s arm. “Hey, they’re actually really good,” he said a few inches from her ear so she could hear him.

Marinette smiled. “Yeah, they’ve been selling out shows lately. Just a matter of time before some big label snaps them up.”

“Sort of makes me miss the old high school band.”

He was smiling at her and close enough to smell his cologne. His hand was still on her arm, heavy but warm. Marinette tried not to think about it.

“Well, you could always put in a request at the end. They might even let you jam with them, for old times’ sake?”

“I just might.”

Marinette was suddenly very warm as he lingered in her personal space, but soon enough he withdrew to sit back and enjoy the music. She clutched her drink for something to hold on to and tried to do the same. It wasn’t difficult considering how much she loved Hardrock’s music. The band had evolved over the years since they formed in college and Marinette had started going to their shows.

Luka thrummed a low beat on his bass, while Rokia, the curvaceous lead singer-slash-celloist, belted out a sultry crescendo that Marinette felt down to her toes. Marcel kept the rhythm on drums, his eyes closed and his trademark orange beanie low over his curly blond hair. Prakash supported Rokia’s voice on lead guitar. He was heavyset and hirsute and couldn’t sing in tune to save a life, but his fingers were downright supernatural. Those magical fingers flew into an electric solo while Rokia stepped back and swayed to the music as she waited for her next verse.

Marinette chanced a furtive look at Chloe, who was busy checking work emails on her phone and only half paying attention to the music. Adrien, on the other hand, seemed very pleased with Hardrock’s performance as they finished their seventh song of the night.

The band took a short break soon after, and Chloe excused herself to use the bathroom. Marinette got up to follow her, and they were standing side by side at the long basin sink as Chloe touched up her makeup.

“Well?” Chloe said. “You followed me in here, so you obviously have something to say to me that you don’t want Adrien to hear. So spit it out already.”

Marinette did have something she wanted to ask Chloe, but the blonde’s perpetual annoyance with her very existence made her forget her mission for a moment.

“Look, do you have a problem with me or something?” Marinette said.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Oh, I don’t know, your negative attitude all night?”

Chloe let out a sharp breath and pulled out a tube of lipstick from her purse. “Negative, huh? I didn’t realize your feelings were so fragile.”

It was Marinette’s turn to roll her eyes. “Okay, let’s just get this out right now. You and me? We don’t like each other. It’s been that way since high school, and I accepted it a long time ago. So I’d appreciate it if you could stop the passive-aggressive threats.”

Chloe pursed her peach-glossed lips in the mirror, satisfied with her touch up. “Please. If I’d threatened you, you wouldn’t be here talking to me with that tone of voice.”

Marinette slammed her hand on the counter just hard enough for the smack to reverberate. Chloe, whom Marinette was convinced must be carved from literal stone, only spared her a bored glance. It just served to piss off Marinette even more.

“Then what was all that about an ulterior motive?” Marinette said, hating that she was having this conversation with Chloe, of all people. “Look, I accept that you and Adrien are close, and despite our differences, I can see that you guys genuinely get along. Great, I’m happy for you both. But for your information, he approached me about tonight. So if you want to play the territorial she-wolf, take it somewhere else. I really have no interest in this high school drama bullshit.”

Marinette turned to leave, but Chloe’s voice stopped her.

“I only meant to warn you,” she said.

Marinette huffed, incredulous. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I don’t need you looking out for me.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be doing that for Adrien? Since you guys are such good friends?”

Chloe’s blue eyes flared with anger, and for a moment, Marinette felt like a skinny high school girl again facing down the wrath of the class bully. “Look, I’m the only person from Dupont who kept up with Adrien over the years. We were even at grad school in the States together. I’ve known him a lot longer than you.” She put up her hand for silence when Marinette opened her mouth to protest. “It’s not a competition. I mean that I’m the one whose had splash section seating in the roller coaster that is Adrien Agreste’s adult life thus far. He’s had incredible ups, but he’s also fallen lower than most, and it’s not entirely his fault.

“There are things about him you don’t know,” Chloe went on. “Things…that aren’t my place to talk about. But all the same, I’d be remiss not to give you a heads up. He’s fragile, but he’s also very good at breaking things.”

Marinette stared at Chloe as she tried to process. “So, what? He’s had some bad relationships? Falling outs with friends? Everybody has.”

“Not like this.” Chloe looked her dead in the eye. “He’s not… He’s gotten help, I made sure of it. He puts on a good show, but he has cracks, and I’ve seen what happens to the people who slip through. Not everyone can handle it.”

“So, you’re saying he’s what? Depressed? Anxiety? Anger issues?”

“I’m saying he’s not always what he’s shown you yesterday and tonight.”

But he seems so confident. So composed. And he’s so privileged, he could have or do anything he wanted…

But he’d also cornered her the other night with an apology so emotionally charged that it had thrown Marinette for a loop. Where had those emotions come from, and why? Was she missing something?

“Adrien’s both the easiest and the hardest person to love,” Chloe said, though she was staring intently at her lipstick tube. “So look, you and I are whatever. Whether you’re interested in his friendship or his dick or his connections or whatever, that’s between you and him. I’m not trying to stand in your way.” She looked Marinette directly in the eye. “We’re not in high school anymore, and I’m not the queen bitch I used to be, as hard as that might be for you to believe. I have way more important shit to worry about in my very exciting, successful life. So you can leave your complaints in the past where they belong.”

Marinette could honestly say she was speechless, if she could actually say anything at all in that moment. All she managed was a dumb nod.

“Good, I’m glad we understand each other,” Chloe said.

The bathroom door opened to admit another woman, and with her came the sounds of conversation and the band warming up for the next set. Chloe returned her lipstick to her bag and held the door open. She gave Marinette a look like she had better appreciate the gesture, or else. So Marinette obliged her and slipped out of the bathroom, still reeling.

“Hey, Chloe,” she said softly. “For what it’s worth? Thanks for being honest. I… I really appreciate it.”

“Yeah, yeah, girl power, blah blah. Let’s just go before I get a staph infection in here.”

Marinette cracked a smile. This was turning out to be the strangest Sunday she’d had in a long time. Maybe ever. “After you.”

They headed back to the table, and Marinette felt a little bit lighter in her steps than she had before. Who would’ve known Chloe Bourgeois of all people could have actually made her smile? Adrien waved them over, and they reclaimed their seats.

“You guys were in there a while. Everything okay?” he asked casually, but the way he side-eyed Chloe betrayed his worry.

“Marinette came on to me, but I rebuffed her advances. Don’t worry.”

Marinette flushed, and Chloe smirked in triumph. It was such an irritating look, such a challenge, that Marinette could not resist rising to the occasion.

“Yeah, well, I have a thing for blonds. Can’t help myself,” she said.

Chloe choked on a piece of ice she’d been chewing on. Adrien just laughed.

“I take it back, what I said about you not changing since Dupont. I doubt fourteen-year-old Marinette would’ve ever said something like that to Chloe.”

“Shows how little you knew me.”

“Oh, you had a secret side I never saw or something?”

Marinette sipped her beer. “Or something.”

“Well, I’m interested to get to know you more now.”

It was Marinette’s turn to nearly choke. Had Adrien always been so flirty? She did not remember him acting like this in high school, but Chloe had a point—that was a long time ago. Still, her warning about how he put on a good show stuck with Marinette. Was that all this was? A performance for her benefit? Try as she might, Marinette could not find the cracks Chloe claimed were there somewhere behind Adrien’s dazzling green eyes, shy smile, and long-fingered hands folded just inches from her own.

“Okay people, we’re about ready to get started with our second set tonight,” Rokia spoke into the standing microphone, pausing while the audience clapped. “As most of you probably know, I bring the pipes to our humble ensemble.”

Some guy whooped loudly, and Rokia patted her violet hair wrap dramatically as if to bask in the praise. The deep purple and the audience’s enthusiasm made her flawless teak skin positively glow. She lived for the attention.

“All right, down boy!” she said with a laugh. “So like I said, I’m generally the pipes, but even I need a break sometimes. Oh, don’t cry!” She reached dramatically for the man in the audience who’d enthusiastically whooped. “Luka’s going to take over for this next song. Ladies, get your panties ready.”

Some women in the audience clapped and one even whistled. Luka, now with an acoustic guitar over his shoulder, took the teasing in stride and traded places with Rokia, where she sat and settled her cello in her lap.

“Thanks Rokia, for that, uh, introduction,” he said a little sheepishly. “I got some friends here tonight who probably have a thousand better things to be doing than sitting here listening to this crap.”

Someone in the audience booed sarcastically, and he laughed. He cast a glance at Marinette’s table. “I’m no Gerard Way, but I’ll try not to disappoint.”

Some people in the audience booed for real at the name drop, and others clapped and called for the music to start. Adrien whispered something to Chloe, and she elbowed him in the ribs. Marinette was on the edge of her seat; Luka had a great voice, but he rarely took the lead mic no matter how much Rokia pestered him about it. She wondered what had convinced him to step up now.

The music started up with Prakash on the keyboard, Rokia on backing vocals, and Luka singing along with her. It was slow, soft, and a little sad. Marinette nodded along to the lulling tune, but when they approached the chorus, the music swelled, and Luka’s voice drowned out Rokia and the music.

“There’s nothing to hold but voices and souls.
All of your ghosts still haunt me…”

Immediately, Marinette was captivated. His voice was raspy and raw, full of emotion as he began to carry the song forward like a wave rushing toward the shore ahead of the rest. He strummed his acoustic, and Rokia swelled on the cello through the next verse and chorus again.

His voice was as good as she remembered it, better even. He used to sing for her all the time in college, back when they were Luka and Marinette, however briefly. And while any romance between them fizzled after Luka graduated from college and got busy being a full-time musician, they had remained close friends. She’d witnessed his rise, as he’d witnessed hers. And somehow, he still had the gall to be surprised when she turned up for one of his shows, like he couldn’t quite believe she still cared enough.

Hopeless, hopeless Luka.

Marinette glanced back at Adrien, who was listening and nodding along to the song, and Chloe, who had her phone out but was ignoring it in favor of watching the stage. She had a strange look on her face, not quite annoyed or bored, not quite happy or even entertained. Just…attentive.

“I hear them call when silence falls.
All of your ghosts still haunt me…”

Luka took the mic in his hands to give it his full power, expression appropriately pained as he pined for a love he would never know.

The final chorus gave way to Rokia’s backing oohs as Luka held on to his last notes beautifully. The music tapered out, and the audience clapped and cheered. Luka accepted the praise with grace and aplomb, bowing out to return to his usual spot and pick up his bass. Marinette let out a whoop of her own because she knew he was embarrassed and trying to hide it and they couldn’t have that, now, could they? She was loud enough to draw his eye from the stage, and he laughed, shaking his head.

The band began their next song, and Marinette turned back to her table mates.

“Chlo? You want anything? Marinette and I’ll grab more drinks,” Adrien said.

“What? Oh… Yeah, no, I’ll have whatever.”

Adrien looked at her like she’d been body-snatched. “You’ll have whatever?”

“Yeah, whatever, A. You know what I like.”

Adrien shot Marinette a look like he absolutely did not know what she liked because Chloe Bourgeois had to have things done in a very specific way exactly how she wanted them, but he also wisely chose not to argue. He jerked his head toward the bar, a silent invitation for Marinette to follow.

“Well, that was weird,” he said as they made their way to the end of the bar and waited to be served. “I don’t think she’s very happy with me for dragging her out here.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not it,” Marinette said, fighting hard not to smile at his expense. Unfortunately, he wasn’t looking at her as he waved at the bartender and ordered three beers.

“Hey, I’m sorry about that, by the way. I know you and Chloe never got along before. I just thought you’d prefer to have some kind of buffer.”

“You mean that chaperone thing was for real?”

He looked at her, realized what he’d said, and immediately tried to backpedal. “No, I mean, that’s not what I meant, I—” He ran his hand through his hair in the universal sign of frustration. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Then what?” She looked up at him until he finally met her gaze. “Hey, whatever it is, it’s okay. I’m not mad that Chloe’s here. The more the merrier, right?”

“Hah, yeah, sort of.” He looked uncomfortable as he warred with something. “Last night, when I… When I met you and didn’t recognize you, I was… I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”

“The wrong idea,” Marinette repeated. “Oh… You mean when you hit on me?”

He blushed at how easily she said it, and Marinette couldn’t help but laugh this time. Abashed was a good look on him.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I made a complete ass of myself. Not the first time it’s happened, and probably not the last.”

The bartender arrived with their drinks, and Adrien pulled out a few bills. But the bartender waved him off and moved to help the next guys.

“Your money’s no good here, Agreste. I have this magical thing called a tab. They just give me all the drinks I want, no cash upfront required,” Marinette said in an effort to assuage him.

Unfortunately, Adrien just looked a little miserable. “That’s great. Now I’m the asshole who blindly came on to you and I can’t even buy you apology beer.”

“You already apologized. And besides, it’s not like it was all that necessary. Why would any girl object to attention from a former supermodel?” She handed him his beer. “Especially one with such a pretty blush?”

And bless his heart, he did it again, right on command. Marinette really wished she could be filming this.

Sadly, her time at the top did not last very long. Adrien’s gaze darkened with what could only be described as mischief, and Marinette’s heart took full advantage of the opportunity to implode just a little.

“Well, then,” he said in a voice that was not his voice two minutes ago, because two minutes ago she did not feel the sound of him shiver down to her fingertips. “If it’s attention you want, you should know you’ve had mine all night.”

His hand on the small of her back was fire as he slowly guided her back to their table, and she was keenly aware of how close he was. And goddamnit, this was not fair. Because somewhere along the line, some horrible, no good, weak-willed traitor had made him realize just how obnoxiously attractive he was, and he’d learned how to weaponize his advantage to deal maximum damage to unwitting women harboring old crushes.

“Marinette,” Chloe said when she and Adrien reclaimed their seats. “How late does this show go?”

Marinette checked her phone. “Maybe another half hour or so? Why?”

Chloe was simultaneously typing an email on her phone while talking to Marinette. “Perfect. I assume there’s some kind of after-party?”

“Uh, kind of. The band usually grabs a drink together after the show.”

“Great. A, we’re staying.”

Adrien looked at her oddly. “You want to stay? Seriously?”

“Yeah, is that a problem?”

“Well, no, just that you were complaining earlier that you had an early meeting and wouldn’t want to stay out too late.”

“Canceled. I just cleared my morning.”

“You did?”

“I’m the boss. I can do whatever I want.”

Marinette watched their exchange, a smile spreading on her face.

Hopeless, hopeless Adrien.

“That’s great, Chloe,” Marinette said.

“It is?” Adrien looked at her like she’d forgotten who she was talking to.

Marinette held out her beer expectantly. “Absolutely. Cheers.”

He shrugged, still not totally convinced, but clinked his beer to Marinette’s all the same. Chloe automatically reached for her beer, scowled when she saw the brand, and put it back down.

“Nastro Azzurro? God.”

“You said to get you whatever!” Adrien pouted.

Whatever isn’t piss in a bottle.”

“Ahhh, Chlo.” Adrien put his arm around her and half shook, half squeezed her like an obnoxious big brother might do to his kid sister to fluster her. “You’re so adorably high maintenance.”

Chloe pushed him off her. “Says the guy who takes an hour to do his hair. We were late because of him.” Chloe gave Marinette a very serious look that said, ‘You have no idea what you’re getting in to.’

“It didn’t take an hour. That’s ridiculous!”

“Your bathroom is ridiculous. Marinette, guess how many different hair products this prima donna owns.”

“Uh, I don’t know, five?” Marinette couldn’t keep from smiling at Adrien’s obvious distress.

Fourteen,” Chloe said, putting a hand over Adrien’s mouth before he could protest. “I counted while I was waiting for him to finish styling his hair. And let’s not forget, this is me saying this. Look at my hair. This shit should be insured.” Chloe flipped her perfectly styled ponytail.

Marinette was laughing now, and Adrien stewed in his chair, pissy. She felt a little bad making fun of him, but fourteen hair products seemed like a bit much… On a whim, she leaned across the table and ran her fingers through Adrien’s hair. It was a little stiff with product, but soft enough to surprise her. The fact that his hair was thicker and softer than her own put her off a little.

“Very nice,” she said, teasing.

Adrien grabbed her offending wrist. “Hey, hands off the goods.” But the way he was looking at her suggested that was the last thing he wanted.

Marinette suddenly regretted her caprice. Her wrist burned where he held it, and she was very aware that she was leaning precariously over the table, balancing on one foot, and one tug from Adrien would probably send her falling face-first into his chest.

“Well, since I have to do everything myself, what a surprise, I’m getting something else to drink.” Chloe got up, grabbed her purse, and stalked off toward the bar.

Adrien returned her wrist, and she sat back in her chair.

“Bold of you to go for my hair like that,” he said.

“You’re really protective of it,” Marinette said, wondering if she’d inadvertently crossed a line.

“Not really. It’s just that when a woman grabs my hair like that, she's not bending over a table.” He tapped his fingers on the table and chuckled softly. “Well, usually.”

It took Marinette a moment to get his meaning, and she felt the heat in her wrist slowly rise up her neck and face through her hairline. He smiled slowly, carefully. There was something almost hungry in that look, like it was all he could do not to return the favor. Marinette tugged on her loose hair nervously, and her breath hitched at the sight of his eyes falling to her fingers as they entwined in her hair.

If she’d had any doubts about Adrien flirting with her before, that look burned them out of her completely. And now, she had no idea what to do.  She actually wished Chloe would hurry up and come back.

Oh my god, Marinette thought frantically as Adrien shifted and slowly leaned across the table like some kind of predatory big cat. Her throat went dry and her tongue was suddenly way too big for her mouth.

When he reached out and curled his fingers around hers in her hair, Marinette was sure she would literally spontaneously combust.

“Very nice,” he said.

Somewhere in Marinette’s messenger bag under her chair, Tikki was having a stroke.

And just when Marinette was absolutely certain she was at death’s door—and god, just fucking kill her already and get it over with—Adrien lost his composure and broke into a shit-eating grin.

“Oh man, your face,” he said. “You’re really cute when your embarrassed.”

Marinette’s heart felt like it had dropped into the pit of her stomach. The heat and color drained from her face, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Oh, I see how it is. You’re keeping score, huh?”

He was still grinning like a fool. “You strike me as the type who likes a challenge.”

“Oh, Adrien,” she said, her blood boiling as adrenaline brought her back from the dead. “You have no idea what you’ve just started.”

“Is that so?”

“It is. But remember, you’re the one who just had to make it a competition. You’ll only have yourself to blame in the end.”

He laughed and ran his thumb over her knuckles. She’d forgotten he was still holding her hand. “Looking forward to it.”

His laughter sobered her a little, and she gently reclaimed her hand and crossed her arms. “Please, who’re you fooling? Your favorite song is Call Me, Maybe.”

“I never said it was my favorite song, but it’s up there.”

“Oh, yeah? So, what else is in the Adrien Agreste Billboard 100? Justin Bieber? Taylor Swift?”

He made a face. “Hardly. I’m a little more of a late ‘90s and early 2000s pop connoisseur.”

“Ah. Britney.”

“The one true queen.”

“I’m more of a Spice Girls fan.”

“No Doubt,” he countered.

“TLC,” Marinette said.

“Destiny’s Child, obviously.”

“Backstreet Boys.”

He gave her a look of mock offense. “N’Sync, and I’ll hear no arguments on the matter.”

“What? No way! Backstreet Boys were the boy band.”

“Ninety-Eight Degrees,” Adrien said.

Marinette threw her hands up. “Oh, come on.”

“You’re the one who picked TLC over Destiny’s Child.”

“Hey, Don’t Go Chasin’ Waterfalls was twelve-year-old Marinette’s personal anthem, I’ll have you know. God, next thing I know you’ll be saying Avril Lavigne is a true artiste.”

He said nothing, and Marinette gaped at him.

No,” she said.

“If Britney’s the queen, Avril’s the princess.”

Marinette hung her head in her hands, distraught. “I feel like I’ve just been incepted.” She looked up. “Where’s the spinning top? Where’s Leo?”

“Who’s Leo?” asked Luka.

Marinette almost jumped out of her seat. “Luka! Hey, what’re you doing here?”

He gave her a weird look. “We finished our set for the night. You weren’t listening?”

Marinette instantly felt like the most horrible friend to ever disgrace the world with her selfish existence. “Crap, I’m sorry. That sounded so bad. I was listening, and you guys were amazing! I guess I just got caught up in the conversation…”

Luka smiled a little. “Oh, yeah? What’re we talking about?”

“I was just telling Marinette that Avril Lavigne is the punk pop princess we all deserved,” Adrien said.

Marinette groaned. “Oh my god, stop.”

Luka looked thoughtful. “She had some good stuff back in the day.”

“Luka, no.” Marinette looked at him like she no longer recognized him.

“What? Some of her earlier stuff is great to cover. Lots of energy.”

Adrien looked like a cat with cream. He pulled up a fourth chair, and Marinette scooted over to make room for Luka in between Chloe’s empty chair and hers. “I know what I’m requesting next time I come hear your band play,” Adrien said.

“What are we requesting?” asked Chloe, rejoining them. She had a whiskey on the rocks and a bowl of caramel popcorn for the table.

“An ambulance,” Marinette deadpanned, “to pronounce me dead on arrival. Adrien wants Luka to cover Avril Lavigne songs for the next show.”

“…I left for five fucking minutes,” Chloe said. “I swear to god, A, if you get ‘Hot’ stuck in my head again, I will skin you.”

Luka began humming the melody for Hot, and Chloe turned on him.

“Zip it, Sk8ter Boi,” she said. “Your voice isn’t that pretty.”

He smiled up at her, casual in that sleepy way he had, and Chloe scoffed and sank into her chair. Marinette did not miss the rosy glow on her cheeks as Luka reached across her and plucked the untouched beer she’d abandoned.

With the show over, most of the tables cleared out as patrons went home, but the band hung around and socialized with those who lingered. Marinette introduced Adrien and Chloe to the other members of Hardrock, who in turn introduced other friends and fans, and soon the group had grown to three tables strong as everyone talked and laughed and enjoyed the evening.

And despite how distracting Adrien had been earlier, Marinette found herself more caught up in observing Luka, her normally soft-spoken, sensitive, easygoing friend, tease and banter with Chloe the entire evening. He had her boxed in with one arm on the table between them and the other strung lazily over the back of her chair. Chloe leaned her shoulder against his arm as his fingers discreetly brushed the ends of her hair. When Luka finished his drink, he moved his free hand to Chloe’s knee and whispered something to her. She rolled her eyes, but she was fighting a smile and leaned in a little closer.

“Earth to Marinette!” Rokia said, laughing. “I asked if you wanted another coffee. I’m busting out the espresso machine and none of you unbelievers can stop me.”

“Somebody please stop her,” Prakash said. “She’ll burn this place down, and we’ll have nowhere to perform.”

“Ha ha, asshole.”

“I’m okay for now, thanks,” Marinette said. Her phone clock said it was well past 11 p.m. She should probably get home soon, and she didn’t want a caffeine buzz if she was going to get some sleep in the near future.

Adrien saw her checking her phone and leaned over. He’d been pushed around their circular table to accommodate the others, and now he was seated directly next to Marinette. “Will you be turning into a pumpkin soon?”

Marinette snorted. “I’ll turn into something a lot worse than that if I don’t get some real sleep tonight.”

“Something keep you up last night?”

It was an innocent enough question, but it nonetheless recalled her midnight run to the Eiffel Tower as Ladybug, and all the muddled emotional baggage she’d allowed to get the better of her last night. She didn’t often think of Chat Noir and his sudden disappearance from her life, but when she did, it had a tendency to turn into a whole ordeal that could drag her down for hours, even days on end. But of course, she couldn’t tell Adrien any of that without raising some uncomfortable questions about how she managed to swing through the city and climb the Eiffel Tower with nothing but a yo-yo…

“I had a really early morning,” she hedged. “A little crisis with a supplier.”

“Really? Who do you use?”

“We just signed Watson’s. Just a few too many late and canceled deliveries with our previous guys.” She shrugged. “I have an important custom fitting this week, so Watson’s better show me some royal blue taffeta by noon tomorrow or I’ll turn into the Evil Stepmother. Forget the pumpkin.”

Adrien looked at her, bemused, and Marinette winced. She’d just complained to him, like a whiny brat and not at all the mature, successful designer she was supposed to be.

Definitely time to call it a night.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to just word vomit all over you like that.”

He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “That’s okay! Obviously you’re stressed out about it, so you should talk if that helps. I’ll, uh… I’ll hold your hair back while you word vomit everything up.”

Marinette laughed. “Somehow, you made that really gross mental image sound kind of endearing. What a gentleman. Thanks.”

“I’m at your service, my lady,” he said.

Marinette tensed without meaning to at that turn of phrase. He was still smiling softly and hadn’t seemed to noticed the sudden shift in her. She stared at him, trying to make sense of this achingly nostalgic feeling that had hit her like a freight train all of a sudden, but he turned away and took a sip of his drink, and it was gone again. When he caught her watching him thoughtfully, he frowned.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, shaking her head and wondering what on earth had possessed to her think, even for a fleeting moment, that she was fourteen again hearing Chat Noir bluster and bloviate and call her his lady. “Sorry, I just… Never mind.”

She looked away and chewed on her lip, trying to rid herself of this sensation. This ache of longing, something that ran oceans deep within her, real and true and so very wrong. Because it wasn’t Chat Noir who had left, but someone else. Something else. It had devoured him from the inside out and wore his face, but it was not him. And despite knowing that, despite what that monster had almost done to her, for just a quiet, unguarded second, she couldn’t help but wish he was still here.

Marinette almost spat out her drink. It tasted like ashes on her tongue. She had to get out of here before she threw up for real.

“I have to get going,” she said, forcing a smile for Adrien. “It’s getting late.”

“Oh, okay, sure,” Adrien said. “I guess it’s almost midnight. Maybe I should go, too.”

“No, stay! You don’t have to leave because of me.”

“I know, but I came out to see you. Not much of a reason to stay if you’re leaving.”

Marinette couldn’t help the fluttery feeling in her chest at his sincerity. Maybe the Adrien she’d fallen for once many years ago was not so left behind, after all.

“I’ll walk you out,” he offered.

“Okay, thanks.”

“Let me just get Chloe.”

Marinette stopped him with a hand on his arm and shook her head. “I don’t think Chloe’s ready to leave yet.”

He followed her gaze to where she and Luka were still talking and completely ignoring everybody else around them. His hand was still on her knee tracing circles with his thumb.

“Oh,” he said. “Wait, really? When did this happen?”

Marinette rolled her eyes. “You know, you’re a little oblivious. Pretty sure he had eyes for her the second he saw her.”

“And Chloe?”

“Did you really not see her reaction when he was singing before?”

Adrien looked thoughtful. “Huh… I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” He had a sudden thought. “Actually, she never cancels her meetings unless it’s important…”

Marinette grinned. “Seems important to me.”

“Give me a sec, I’m just going to let he know I’m leaving.”

Adrien talked to Chloe while Marinette got up and said her goodbyes to everyone. She caught Luka’s eye and gave him a cheeky thumbs up, and he just smiled and waved before turning back to Chloe. She then left the lounge with Adrien, and together they waited on the street for their ride share drivers.

“Chloe will be okay on her own, right?” Marinette asked as they huddled on the sidewalk for warmth. “Not that Luka isn’t safe or anything. That came out wrong.”

“Chloe can take care of herself, believe me. It’s him I’m worried about.”

“Oh, really?”

Adrien cast her a knowing look. “When Chloe decides she wants something, it’s best to get out of her way. She can be…a lot.”

“Well, I know Luka pretty well. He’s not as gentle as he seems. I’m sure he can handle her.”

“From the way they were practically knotted together in there, I’d say they’re going to do a lot more than just handle each other.”

Marinette elbowed him playfully. “That was a terrible pun. Don’t quit your day job.”

“Okay, okay, not my best work, that’s fair. I’ll have to do better next time.”

Two cars pulled up to the curb, and the first one lowered the passenger window to reveal a college-aged guy with wide doe eyes. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng?” he asked.

“That’s me,” Marinette said.

“And that one’s probably mine,” Adrien said, nodding at the second car. “I guess this is goodbye for now.”

“Yeah,” Marinette said, biting back a smile. “For now.”

“I had a great time with you tonight,” he said more softly. “Thanks for this.”

“Any time. Or at least, whenever your busy schedule permits.”

“Ah, yeah, shit. It’s going to be a hell week for me. I’m dreading tomorrow.”

“You’ll get through it.” She opened the back seat door of her ride. “And, you know, if you find yourself with some time on your hands, you can always call me, maybe.”

Adrien smiled like a goof. “Careful, an open invitation to blow up your phone is a dangerous thing to give me.”

“Bring it on, ambiguous winky-face emojis and all.” Marinette slipped into the back seat of her ride.

“Be careful what you wish for!” Adrien teased, closing her door for her.

Through the window Marinette winked dramatically. The last sight she saw as her ride pulled away from the curb was Adrien’s happy smile, those green eyes shadowed in the cover of night and pale street lights. She pressed a gloved hand to the window and bit her lip.

The drive was not a long one, and she was dead on her feet when she finally made it inside her apartment and put her coat away. Tikki had fallen asleep in her bag and hardly stirred when Marinette pulled her out and gently set her on the pink body pillow on her bed. She quickly changed into her pajamas and checked her phone before she headed to the bathroom to brush her teeth. There was a text from Adrien.

[Adrien: Goodnight Marinette. Sweet dreams.]

[Adrien: :3]

She rolled her eyes at the stupid cat emoji. In all fairness, he had warned her.

[Marinette: Goodnight Adrien.]

Marinette stepped lightly to the bathroom and smiled as she examined her reflection in the mirror.

I had fun tonight.

With Adrien. And, dare she say, even with Chloe, sort of. She wondered if Chloe was still with Luka, and then realized it was both none of her business and also not something she wanted to be thinking about as she lay in bed alone tonight. But that was okay. Luka was a good guy, and he deserved good things in his life, if Chloe Bourgeois could be considered a good thing. Perhaps for a night, just about anyone could be.

Marinette smiled. Wait until Alya heard about her night. What had started off as sort-of-a-date, sort-of-not-a-date with Adrien had turned into a hookup for their friends and nothing for either of them.

Well, nothing but a goodnight cat emoji.

She climbed into bed and petted Tikki’s forehead gently. The kwami stirred a little, but didn’t wake. Marinette grew drowsy and soon fell asleep, too. Her last thoughts were of Adrien watching her through the window of the car, her hand pressed to the glass, as she drove away.

She fell asleep with her fingers in her hair, and dreamed they were his.

 

Chapter Text

Alec Cataldi was running late this morning. His producer was going to skin him alive if he missed another live taping, he lamented as he emerged from the subway and all but ran the remaining four blocks to the Canal Plus building, where his game show was taped in front of a live studio audience every Wednesday. He pulled his blue beanie down over his bald head to stave off the chilly wind as he practically flew down the sidewalk and resisted the urge to check his watch.

I’m getting too old for this shit.

Nonetheless, the thought made him smile. He’d come a long way from pre-teen talk shows to prime time game shows with prizes valued in excess of one million euros. He’d made a good name for himself and his brand. And all he had to do was show up on time one day of the week. Yep, Philippe was going to kill him.

It was a cold, grey morning that threatened snow, and the people he passed on the sidewalk trudging to work were a sea of black and blue pea coats, fur-lined hats, and sturdy leather boots. Alec’s scarf flapped behind him in his haste, hopefully not smacking any passersby in the face.

The Canal+ building loomed tall just around the corner. Almost there. But he’d barely cleared the corner when he ran right in to oncoming traffic. A woman yelped, and a man’s thick shoulder slammed into Alec’s. He went down, landed forward, and dropped his bag, which of course opened and spilled its contents everywhere.

“Pardon me!” said a woman, her heels clacking as she rushed off.

Swearing and smarting where his forearms had struck the concrete, Alec struggled to get to his knees and looked around. No one had fallen with him, and there was no sign of the person he must have collided with. He was getting looks from passersby as he lingered on the ground.

“Damnit.” He winced and began gathering his things back into the bag.

The last object he picked up was a pin he didn’t recognize. It was small and pale pink, hand carved from the looks of it, some kind of coral perhaps. Its shape was a rose, and it was no bigger than a two euro coin. The person he’d bumped into must have dropped it by mistake. Alec looked around again, but of course they were long gone by now. He hadn’t gotten a look at them, couldn’t even be sure if they’d been a man or a woman on this crowded morning. Sighing, he picked up the pin, intending to hold on to it for now and perhaps turn it in to the police station after work.

The moment he picked up the pin, he was surprised to find it warm. Not just warm, but radiating warmth, as if it produced heat itself. He cradled it in his palm, curious, and ran his thumb over the intricately carved rose petals. He’d never seen jewelry carved from coral before. It was quite lovely. So lovely, in fact, that he felt compelled to wear it. Careless of the passersby shooting him odd looks, he carefully pinned the rose to his lapel. He could feel its warmth radiating through his clothes over his chest, pleasantly buzzing.

...What had he been doing? Oh, yes, work. He was running late, and Philippe was going to chew him out like a piece of old gum. But somehow, Alec could not be bothered to care about that anymore. He got up, a determined smile on his face, and walked purposefully the rest of the way. He had a very good feeling that today’s show would be spectacular, and Philippe would forget all about his delay. After all, Alec Cataldi was the most charismatic, successful, handsome game show host in France, if he did say so himself. And today, nobody would be able to bring him down.


 

It was Wednesday, and Marinette had not heard from Adrien since the goodnight text on Sunday. It was for the better, honestly, since she’d been working almost nonstop since then. Watson’s delivered on the royal blue taffeta, literally, and since noon on Monday, she’d been furiously measuring and sewing. She had a staff and two other full-time seamstresses, but she had them working on the preliminary designs for the upcoming spring collection, leaving Marinette to shoulder the brunt of this custom order. The customer had asked for her expertise specifically, and so she had little choice in the matter.

But Marinette was happiest when she was alone in her studio, her fingers black with lead from sketching, or a needle and thread in hand and the sound of the pedal sewing machine whirring. Alphonse was handling the supplier contract negotiation with Watson’s, as well as turning comments for Juleka on the financing documents she and her team had been drafting, leaving Marinette to focus on the part of the job where she really shined.

It wasn’t all work, though. Between Manon and Alya, Marinette had recounted all the details of her not-a-date with Adrien and Chloe on Sunday. She left out her bathroom conversation with Chloe when Manon bugged her for details, deciding to relay that part of the night to Alya only.

“So what, you’re BFFs with Chloe Bourgeois now?” Alya said sarcastically as they grabbed a quick lunch together at a cafe uptown near Marinette Designs.

“Of course not,” Marinette said, frowning at her banh mi. “I mean, I don’t hate her or anything like I used to. She’s really… We grew up, that’s all.”

“Right.” Alya was not at all convinced. “Forgive me for not taking your word for it.”

“Maybe you can take Luka’s word for it. From what I heard, he and Chloe had a pretty fantastic night together.”

Alya pretended to gag. “That sweet summer child. Marinette, how could you let her corrupt him? He was one of the last pure ones.”

“You’re talking like she turned him into a vampire or something. They had a one-night stand. Two consenting adults. Who cares?”

“Apparently not you.” Alya gave her a knowing look across the table they had snagged by the window with a view of the street and people passing by. “Which is weird. How can you not care?”

“Because it’s none of my business who Luka’s with. We’re just friends.”

“Riiiiight, because you can totally just be friends with a guy who gave you some of the best orgasms of your life.”

Marinette blushed furiously. “That was a really long time ago. And keep your voice down, Jesus Christ.” She looked around furtively, searching for the eyes of disgust that must surely be casting their way. “I would hardly say best, anyway. It was college. We were young and inexperienced and didn’t know any better.”

Alya brightened, which was never a good sign. “Good thing Adrien’s back to finally show you better, am I right?”

Marinette groaned. “I walked right in to that one.”

“You sure did, sweetie. But hey, from the way he was with you on Sunday, I bet you could walk right into him and he wouldn’t mind at all.”

Alya waggled her eyebrows behind her cat eye glasses, and Marinette tried her very best not to groan again. “I thought you didn’t like him. You weren’t the friendliest at the gala on Saturday.”

Alya shrugged. “I’m on Team Marinette. If you’re happy, then I’m happy. And you are happy, right?”

Marinette pulled her fingers through her hair and smiled, remembering Sunday. “I think…ugh, I don’t know. It’s way too early to tell. I mean, I kind of barely know the guy, to be honest.”

Alya peered at her. “What about what Her Royal Highness said to you?”

“Chloe’s probably his closest friend at this point. I guess she would know him better than anyone from what I gathered. I’m now really curious about what the story there is.”

“Are you sure she wasn’t fucking with you? I mean, it’s Chloe. She makes Regina George look like Malala.”

“Alya, really, she’s not that bad. And anyway, I don’t think she was making it up. I think… I believe she was genuinely looking out for him. And for me, even, in her own way.”

Alya snorted. “If you say so, but I’ll have to see it to believe it. What’re you going to do about it?”

“What can I do? It’s not like I can just come out and ask Adrien, ‘Hey, do you have any history of crippling emotional or mental instability I should know about before we take our emoji texting to the next level?’”

“Obviously that’s not what I meant. Just, you know, maybe stay vigilant is all. If nothing else, you haven’t known him for fourteen years. That’s a long time to go not knowing someone. He’s not the same Adrien you remember.”

“Yeah, I think I got that memo loud and clear.” Marinette nibbled on her banh mi thoughtfully. “I think I’m just going to see what happens. I don’t want to be that stuttering teenager with a crush again.”

“You sure it’s not too late for that?”

Marinette shot her a look. “I thought I was a grown-ass woman with so much success and potential and, like, glitter coming out of my ass to hear you talk about it.”

Alya laughed. “Girl, you know you have a lovely ass, but don’t go letting that go to your head. Anyway, I fully expect you to bring your boy toy over so I can properly examine the goods.”

“Alya, he’s not a piece of meat.”

“Good, because as you know, I’m a vegetarian.” She grinned. “I told Nino he was back. He seemed open to the idea. Consider it a double date.”

“We’re not dating.”

“Of course not. Which is why you’re here having sad lunch with your best friend instead of having steamy office sex with Adrien.”

“Oh, look at the time! I have to get back to my taffeta.” Marinette wrapped up the rest of her uneaten sandwich to take to go.

“Make good choices, dear!” Alya called after her.

Marinette flipped her off, but Alya made a show of catching her middle finger and keeping it in her pocket for later. Marinette trudged back to her boutique to keep working. She had a fitting appointment with the client, Jessika Fujiwara, and she wanted to make sure she had something presentable to show the woman, who Marinette discovered through Google was a fairly prominent film and television actress based in Tokyo. How on earth she had discovered Marinette’s little corner of the fashion world remained a mystery.

The office was much as she'd left it with staff running around with armfuls of fabric, taking measurements, sketching in notebooks. The retail part of the boutique had a few customers browsing, and Manon tapped her watch teasingly at her from behind the register as Marinette hurried past. She only had a couple hours before the client would be here, and she still had a few alterations to make—

“Ah, there she is,” said Alphonse, who looked like he’d just eaten a ghost pepper whole. He wrung his hands nervously. “Marinette, Ms. Fujiwara has been here waiting for her fitting.” He shot her a look that said, ‘Where the hell were you?!’

Marinette gaped. “N-Now? But I thought our meeting wasn’t until four!”

“It was, but something came up and I had to move some things around in my schedule. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I promise I won’t be too much of a bother. I understand the dress is not yet finished,” said a slender woman whom Marinette guessed must be Jessika Fujiwara.

She wore her jet black hair up in an elegant twist. Her face was perfectly made up and her green winter dress fit her very well, as one would expect of someone used to being seen for a living. She was an older woman, probably past fifty, but she could have passed for ten years younger.

“Oh! No, it’s not quite finished, I’m afraid. My apologies, Ms. Fujiwara,” Marinette said, feeling nervous in the presence of someone famous, even if Marinette was not personally familiar with her work. She had a man with her, a slender Japanese guy in a suit and sunglasses who looked like he could be an international assassin from the way he held himself. Marinette wondered just what kind of trouble Ms. Fujiwara was expecting to have a second shadow like that following her around.

“It’s Jessika, please,” she said, removing her own sunglasses to reveal two dark, glittering eyes. “After all, I feel as though I know you already. My niece, Juleka, says such lovely things about you.”

“You’re Juleka’s aunt?” Marinette said, incredulous. She looked Jessika up and down again, and the longer she looked, the more she saw the resemblance. Juleka had that same willowy build, heart-shaped face, and sly half smile. They could have been sisters if not for the age gap. “Wow, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize. It’s so nice to meet you!”

Jessika smiled brightly. “When I told Juleka I was filming here in Paris for my new show and needed a dress that would stop hearts at the premiere party next week, she insisted I come to you. And I do love being at the cutting edge of high fashion.”

Marinette returned the smile. She owed Juleka dinner for this, no doubt about it. The custom order was her largest individual sale in months. “Thank you, but the honor is all mine. Please, this way. We’ll do the fitting in my studio. Thanks Al, I’ll take it from here.”

Alphonse looked immensely relieved and nodded. “Thanks, Mar.”

He scampered off to his office, and Marinette was left with Jessika and her statuesque body guard. Jessika saw her looking and gestured noncommittally. “That’s Yuki, my personal body guard. Just think of him as wall dressing.”

“Um, sure. Can I at least get you something to drink while you wait?” Marinette offered.

Yuki turned his head slightly, but it was impossible to see where he was looking behind those sunglasses. He said nothing and remained standing ramrod straight.

“Oh, never mind him. Now, please show me what you’ve got so far. I’m dying to see!” Jessika said.

So Marinette took her to the studio in back and brought out the royal blue taffeta and silk she’d been working on nonstop. It was not the finished product, but Jessika was able to try on the shell of what it would become.

“The skirt will be longer than this,” Marinette said as she took measurements and scribbled some notes for the alterations she would need to make. “The taffeta will layer from the side, here. And the brocade you requested will fan out from the bodice here, in gold.”

“This dress is luscious,” Jessika said, admiring herself in the full-length mirror. “I especially like the plunging neckline.”

“Oh, yeah, I was going to add a sheer teal gossamer there.”

Jessika touched a ringed finger to the exposed center of her chest, imagining the feel of gossamer there. “Yes, good, all right. As long as the plunge stays. I’ve always loved a little bit of teasing, you know?”

Marinette nodded. “I do know. I’m partial to plunging necklines, myself.”

Jessika made no secret of how pleased she was with the progress so far. Marinette secretly thanked Manon again for her quick thinking with Watson’s.

“So, this will be ready for me by next Saturday, yes?”

“Uh, yeah, of course!” I guess I won't be sleeping this week…

“Perfect! Oh, and while I’m here, you don’t mind if I take a look at your boutique offerings, do you? I only just arrived in Paris last week, and of course my wardrobe is just far too Tokyo.”

“N-Not at all! Thank you! Um, please be my guest.”

“I shall. Marinette, it was delightful to meet you. Oh! We’ll do lunch sometime. I have a feeling this is only the beginning of a lucrative business partnership.”

“Thank you!” Marinette said, pleased. “And I really hope you enjoy your stay in Paris.”

Jessika smiled slyly. “I certainly intend to.”

She changed back into her own clothes and snapped her fingers. “Yuki, watashi no kaban wo motte kinasai.”

Yuki the bodyguard retrieved Jessika’s large hand bag and followed her quietly back to the main boutique, leaving Marinette with an armful of taffeta and a few pages of alteration notes. Well, it could be worse, she supposed. It wasn’t every day she gained a glamorous, international actress for a client. Sighing, Marinette resigned herself to another full day of grueling work.


 

She’d fallen asleep in her studio. Again. Groaning, Marinette sat up and winced at the ache in her stiff neck. Tikki was out of her bag and munching on a macaroon from the stash Marinette kept on her person at all times.

“Hello, sleepyhead,” Tikki said. “You have a lead smudge on your face.”

“Huh?” Marinette pulled out her compact and checked her reflection. “Crap.” She licked her fingers and rubbed her cheek until the smudge came out. Unfortunately, the smudge also appeared on the page she’d been working on, and a little spit wouldn’t fix this mess. “I have to redo this. Goddamnit.”

She’d made a lot of progress, all things considered, but somewhere along the line, her concentration drifted and her eyes drooped. It was past 10 at night, and everyone else had gone home.

Sighing, Marinette debated the efficacy of washing her face and getting back to work, or calling it a night. Jessika’s dress hung draped on a nearby sewing manikin, looking marginally more like a dress than it had five hours ago, at least. A light was flashing in the corner of her eye, and Marinette saw that Tikki had the television on low.

“Bored, Tikki?” she asked.

Tiki smiled shyly. “I like the voices. And you were snoring, so…”

“I would never,” Marinette protested playfully. “What’re you watching? Is that the news?”

Marinette popped one of Tikki’s macaroons in her mouth and turned up the volume. Nadia Chamack was hosting a special report from the TVi news studio.

“…the bizarre broadcasts coming out this evening, all from Canal+ channels. We’re turning now to live coverage of the Canal+ building. What can you tell us, Emile?”

The picture cut to Emile, a reporter on scene in front of the Canal+ headquarters downtown, where a police barricade was blocking entry by any pedestrians.

“Thanks Nadia,” Emile said. “As you can see, local authorities have cordoned off the area. The suspect is inside, and I can confirm that he has at least twenty hostages working with him to continue the strange broadcast. No sign of police entering the building yet, but we have Municipal Police Chief Roger Raincomprix here discussing strategy with his men behind me, as you can see.”

The camera moved in for a shot of a bulletproof vest-clad Roger Raincomprix huddled over a table with several men and women in uniform.

“Back to you, Nadia.”

The picture cut back to the main news room, and Marinette sat watching, curious. “What’s going on? A hostage situation?”

“Yes, I think so. At first it was just some strange broadcasts, but I didn’t realize something was actually wrong,” Tikki said, worried.

Marinette picked up the remote and flipped through a few channels until she landed on one of the Canal+ channels. What she saw didn’t look all that strange to her, just some kind of game show.

“Wait… What the hell?!”

She got right up to the screen to see better, but her eyes were not playing tricks on her. The game contestants were slumped, some of them unmoving. They were crusted in some kind of branching pink growth. But it was the show host, a man she recognized from daytime television, that captured her particular attention.

“Isn’t that Alec Cataldi?”

Perhaps it had once been. It looked enough like him, but he had the same pink growths slithering over his body. They seemed to rip through his clothes, as if they’d broken free somehow. One curled around his neck, jagged and sharpened to a point. And his eyes…

“What’s going on?” Tikki said. “What’s wrong with those people?”

“I don’t know,” Marinette said, but she had a thought. She dreaded voicing it aloud.

“Marinette, you don’t think this is…”

Marinette set her jaw. “I don’t know. But I know I have to do something.”

“You mean—”

“I do.” She pulled her hair back in a messy bun and took a steadying breath. “Tikki, transform me!”

Tikki quickly fused with her, and soon Ladybug was out the window and flying over the rooftops of Paris. It was snowing lightly, and her ears burned with the cold, but she swung her yo-yo as quickly as she could in the direction of the Canal+ building in the middle of the financial district downtown. And all the while, Ladybug’s dreaded thoughts dwelled on the possibility she could not bring herself to consider out loud.

What if he’s back?

What would that even mean? And why? It had been years, and no sign of Hawk Moth at all. So why would he return now?

Ladybug landed on the roof of the Canal Plus building and stowed her yo-yo. Whatever Hawk Moth’s reasons, she would find out soon enough. Below, the police barricade was in full swing. Siren lights flashed ominously, and a larger crowd had gathered as they watched the bizarre broadcast on their smart phones. From the looks of it, the police were getting ready to send in armored men. Ladybug needed to move quickly.

Using her super strength, she kicked in the roof access door and followed the floor map signs to the recording studio.  She burst through the doors, yo-yo swinging and a hand on her hip. “What’s going on here?”

The studio was bright on stage, and a red ‘Recording’ button glowed over the door. Three cameras were angled on the stage from different positions in the room. The stage had a guest panel, where three people sat worrisomely slumped over and twitching erratically. The studio audience was equally catatonic, and those weird pink growths had gotten worse since she’d seen the broadcast back at the boutique. They reminded her a little of coral.

But most horrifying of all was Alec Cataldi himself, whom she hardly recognized anymore. A coral branch grew out of his shoulder and curled down his arm like a fat, pale snake. Now that she was seeing him in person, she saw how the coral seemed to originate from his chest and spread like wandering fingers over his body. And his eyes when he turned on her froze her in place. They were red-rimmed and wide, the eyes of a madman, as if he did not see her at all.

“What’s this, a new contestant? Step right up, little lady!” Alec said.

The cameras turned to her, and she knew that now all of Paris would see her standing there after fourteen years without her. After Hawk Moth’s disappearance, Ladybug had hung up her yo-yo and left the crime fighting work to the police. No need for a superhero without a super villain running around. She wondered what people thought, seeing her now after so long, older and taller, no cute pigtails in sight. Maybe their hearts soared. Or maybe they resented her long absence. There was no time to worry about it. She had a job to do, and now that she’d revealed herself, she had a feeling the police would not be long in catching up.

“Alec Cataldi,” she said, cautious as she approached the stage, one hand on her yo-yo. “You don’t look well. Let me help you.”

Alec looked at her strangely. “I’m not Alec Cataldi; I’m the Host. And this is the greatest show on Earth!”

He spread his arms and grinned, revealing his bright, white TV teeth, but Marinette only cringed. There was something…grotesque about him, something that went deeper than the creepy growths enfolding him. What kind of akuma was he?

“Okay, sure,” Marinette said, stalling for time as she looked him over and tried to figure out where the akuma could be hiding. “What’re we playing for?”

“Why, the grand prize, of course! Step right up and spin the wheel. Fortune favors the bold! But if you lose, well…” He chuckled to himself. “You’ll join the others in my garden.”

As she passed them, the other contestants twitched and wheezed. Their eyes swiveled to see her, and Ladybug nearly lost her composure. Their hollow gazes betrayed their agony, as if the coral growing around them was strangling them, or piercing them, or—

“Hey, you look familiar—have you been a contestant before?” asked the Host. “Because I never do repeat performances. Every show is unique, and every show is the greatest it’s ever been!”

A round of recorded applause roared through the speakers, and he positively writhed at the attention. Ladybug stared at the coral wrapping around his back—did it just move?

“I’ve never been a contestant,” Ladybug said, racking her brain. Nothing on his person looked suspicious enough to be hiding an akuma. She couldn’t even see most of what he was wearing with all the coral enveloping him like armor.

Could that be it? Is the akuma hiding in the coral?

The Host peered at her, and then his eyes widened in a ghastly stare. “What a minute, I know you! You’re Ladybug, aren’t you?” He looked her up and down. “I’d know that spotted suit anywhere. Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a celebrity contestant tonight!”

More recorded applause, and the catatonic studio audience stirred. A few of them got up, woozy on their feet as though drunk.

“Spin the wheel, fair Ladybug, and claim your prize,” the Host ordered, grinning sinisterly.

Ladybug decided to play along for now. Maybe she could distract him long enough to lasso him with her yo-yo and pin him down, search him for his akuma. But those audience members shuffling on ungainly feet toward her were beginning to worry her. Swallowing her doubts, Ladybug spun the colorful game wheel as the cameras, and the Host, watched hungrily. The needle rattled past all-black sections, a few skull icons, a rose, and finally landed on a triple euro sign icon.

“What?! T-That’s not supposed to happen!” the Host said. “Nobody ever wins the grand prize!”

“Just lucky, I guess,” Ladybug said. “And now I’m claiming my prize!”

She threw her yo-yo, snagged him, and yanked hard. The Host jerked forward, but he didn’t fall. In fact, it was Ladybug who felt the strain of the pull. She stared at him in shock. It was as if he weighed thrice what he should.

“What the hell?”

The Host wobbled on his feet, but he was quick to recover. And when he did, he began to strain against her yo-yo strings. “Uh-oh, folks, we’ve got a rule breaker on our hands! And you know what happens to contestants who break the rules.”

The audience members, more and more of whom had begun to stir, groaned out something unintelligible. Behind Ladybug, the three contestants were also on their feet and moving with jerky twitches toward her. But all she could focus on was the Host who, by some feat of inhuman strength, broke through her yo-yo cord. The sound of it clattering to the floor, useless among the scraps of frayed string, sent a jolt of fear down to her toes.

“I break them,” the Host said in a low, threatening voice that sounded more rock than man.

He placed a hand over his heart at the point of origin where the coral grew, and under his fingers, Ladybug could just barely make out the glow of a rose, small and sinking under the growths. Before she could make sense of it, heavy hands landed on her shoulders from behind with the crushing force of ten men instead of the petite, twenty-something woman they belonged to. Ladybug yelped and sank to her knees on instinct, rolled, and jumped away. The woman who had accosted her tripped and fell to one coral-laden knee. Her impact cracked the floor of the stage, but her coral armor growths remained intact.

“A wild card, are you?” the Host said. “Well then, I suppose I’ll have to break a few rules, too! After all, I’m the greatest showman on Earth, and I promised my viewers a performance they’ll never forget!”

Ladybug snatched up her broken yo-yo and stowed it at her hip. Needless to say, she was now at a severe disadvantage without a reliable weapon. Fourteen-year-old Ladybug had a partner for her secret weapon; twenty-seven-year-old Ladybug had only her wits. She jumped at one of the rotating camera dollies just as some of the audience members were getting ready to maul her, and pushed it with all her might. It crashed into six of them, broke off its stand, and smashed on the floor.

Just when she’d cleared a path, however, the Host caught up to her and swung. His punch grazed her shoulder, but she went stumbling all the same. Pain exploded in her shoulder, but her super suit absorbed most of it, allowing her to flip away and regroup. Out of practice, alone, and now without a weapon, suffice it to say Ladybug was a little rusty at the akuma fighting thing. And that grazing punch had hit her like a ton of bricks. What kind of super strength was this guy packing?

I just need to get the akuma, she reminded herself as she leaped over the fortune wheel and landed on the host podium. Which means I just have to smash that coral armor.

But what would be strong enough? She looked around for something she could use, anything at all, and noticed the huge spotlight currently illuminating the stage. That could work if she could get up there and get it down. But without her yo-yo…

“Ladybug!” shouted a man from the doors she’d broken down to get in here. He was dressed in a black, armored police uniform and carried a bulletproof shield. There were seven others with him.

Ladybug was actually relieved to see them. “The akuma’s in his coral, over his chest! I have to smash it, but it’s as hard as stone. Stay back!”

The police officers spread out, pistols aimed. One of them got too close to one of the coralized audience members, and he struggled against them. “Agh! Let go!”

Ladybug was climbing her way up the rafters when his gun went off, four staccato shots in succession. One of the stray bullets came dangerously close to Ladybug’s head and ricocheted off the metal rafters. And one actually hit the Host, breaking off a large chunk of his coral over his left thigh. The cop went down, though, and he screamed as more audience members piled on top of him, their weight crushing and their limbs beating. His colleagues shouted for them to desist, warned them that they would open fire, but they didn’t stop. They didn’t even hear the officers. Ladybug saw it happening, and yet she remained paralyzed mid-reach for the spotlight.

No, she wanted to say. But she just hung there, suspended, mute.

The police opened fire on the audience members, spraying them with bullets that would have instantly killed any normal person. But for every bullet that embedded in soft flesh, the audience members only groaned and crawled off the crushed police officer, their attentions now on the remaining officers.

“W-What the fuck is this?!” one of the officers said.

They were outnumbered and up against seemingly impervious foes. Hostages, Ladybug had to remind herself. But what kind of hostage crushed a police officer with their raw weight and absorbed bullets like a sponge absorbed water? She had to put a stop to this, and fast.

“Hey, Host!” she said, settling behind the huge spotlight. “Up here!”

The Host squinted up at her. To her horror, the coral he’d lost was already regrowing over his thigh. “You’re bad for ratings, little bug!”

“Yeah? Well I’m about to take you off the air, permanently!” Ladybug kicked the spotlight with all her might. The metal whined under her super strength, but it broke and down she went. The Host raised his arms to shield himself, and Ladybug crashed on top of him with the spotlight to break her fall. The landing rattled her teeth so badly that she was sure she’d popped a few loose. Quickly, she rolled off the spotlight as the audience members noticed her in reach now and began coming after her.

Under the smashed spotlight, the Host groaned and tried to get up. His coral was shattered to hell, and Ladybug lifted the twisted remains of broken glass and metal off of him. Sure enough, his armor had cracked and broken such that only the growths around his heart remained. At at their center, Ladybug could see the shape of a small rose pinned to his lapel. It had to be that.

But as soon as she reached for it, strong hands grabbed her and yanked her back. Two coralized audience members had gotten ahold of her, and Ladybug was shocked to see that one of them was wearing a police uniform. He had a gash in his head from the earlier scuffle, and from the bloody folds of his skin, Ladybug could see a tiny tendril of coral fast engorging and wriggling its way out of his skull.

She was going to be sick. The strong hands shoved her down, and Ladybug saw stars when her head hit the floor. They loomed over her, and when they moved, they shed flakes of crusted coral. She could see it now, how it grew not over them, but out of them, through flesh and bone, protruding from welts in their skin beneath their clothes. Hawk Moth had never been so bloody in his transformations before, so what had inspired such a gruesome turn now?

She snapped out of her thoughts when she realized just why they had shoved her to the floor—they were trying to crush her like they’d crushed that first cop. Somewhere, bullets were still flying intermittently and men shouted for backup. Ladybug gathered her wits and pushed back against the shoulders of the coralized person pinning her down, but damn if they weren’t strong. Another body joined them, and another, and soon she was holding up the weight of four coralized victims. She gasped as she felt their pressure on her lungs, cutting off her air. She struggled, but there was no moving them. They were too heavy. Gasping, Ladybug felt tears prickle at the edges of her mask as panic and fear began to weaken her resolve.

Not like this, she prayed. Please not like this!

Her Lucky Charm. If she could just chant the magic words, then she might get out of this yet. But her throat clenched for lack of air, and she only managed a pitiful wheeze. Her vision dotted with black spots that grew larger and fuzzier with each passing second.

And then, the pressure was alleviated, just like that. The bodies pressing down on her lifted off as if by magic, or something just as strong. The weight gone from her chest, Ladybug sucked in a gasping breath and coughed violently, hugging her belly instinctively. She screwed her eyes shut, her head throbbing and dizzy as her brain screamed for oxygen and shut down everything else. Strong arms lifted her, and she was flying. The sensation was a short one, and she soon felt the cold bite of metal where she’d been set down in the rafters, out of reach.

“Stay here,” a voice commanded, and soon the warm presence next to her was gone again.

Like hell Ladybug would stay there. She struggled to get to her feet, but she couldn’t stop coughing up a lung as her body trembled after the assault. Nonetheless, she gripped the railing and looked around the stage. The cops were on the defensive and using their shields to corral the coralized victims. It looked like some backup had arrived to help them, including Chief Raincomprix himself. And one more figure Ladybug was frozen to look upon.

No way, she thought, gripping the railing so hard the metal twisted and bent under her super-powered fingers. It can’t be…

But it was. He was. Chat Noir, his extending staff swinging, was slipping in between the slower moving coralized victims as he contended with the Host, whose coral armor had once again miraculously grown back at an alarming rate. And for every hit Chat Noir landed, breaking off a chunk, two more branches soon filled the holes left behind.

Ladybug knew she was shaking. She knew she couldn’t just stand here on the sidelines. She knew this reaction was purely emotional, the result of a shock so bone-deep she couldn’t even hear herself think because he was here, right here. Not a stone’s throw away, black leather and blond hair. Ladybug’s breath hitched in her throat.

“Chat Noir,” she said, barely a whisper.

Not the akumatized version she’d last seen, but the real Chat Noir, exactly as he used to be. As if he felt her stare, he cast a glance her way, and they locked gazes for a split second. Green eyes, no trace of that malignant magenta when he’d—

“Look out!” she shouted.

The Host came in swinging, and Chat took a bad punch to the face that sent him flying. He crashed into the fallen spotlight and crumbled among the broken glass, his staff rolling away out of reach.

Shit!

This needed to end now. If the police started shooting again and they hit her, or Chat… Would Lucky Charm even reverse that kind of lethal damage? She didn’t have time to dwell on it. The super suit had dulled her pain to a manageable level, so Ladybug swung over the railing and landed on the stage again.

“Hey, Alec! Over here!” she taunted him.

The Host spun around in a rage. “I am not Alec! I am the world’s greatest television host of all time!”

Chat spat out blood and a broken piece of tooth, but he got to his feet and snatched up his staff. The police had rounded up most of the coralized audience members, and now it was just Ladybug, Chat Noir, and the latest akumatized victim.

“Yeah, well, I’m canceling your run! Lucky Charm!” Ladybug tossed her yo-yo, and when it came back down, it was followed by a red and black spotted cat's paw. She could have screamed at how utterly useless this was.

“Show’s over,” Chat said, lunging and cracking off another large chunk of coral from the Host’s torso.

Ladybug jumped out of his way and landed a kick to the back of the Host’s head, which felt like smashing her foot into solid concrete. She yelped and landed on her good foot, wincing as her suit absorbed the brunt of the pain yet again. She was going to be very relieved to purify this particular akuma. But how was she supposed to get at the rose pin she was certain contained the corrupted butterfly? She glanced at her Lucky Charmed cat’s paw again.

A cat’s paw…

Tikki was getting very cheeky with her double entendres if Ladybug had to do what she was thinking she would have to do. Stowing the cat’s paw at her hip, she ran after the Host and Chat again.

“The akuma’s in a rose pin buried under all the coral!” she said. “You have to destroy the coral to get to it!”

Chat looked at her through gritted teeth as he grappled with a stray coralized audience member and struggled to throw him off. “I’ve got my paws full over here, my lady!”

Ladybug’s heart wrenched at the sound of that old pet name. She swallowed her pain and reached out a hand. “Throw me your staff! I’ll give you an opening!”

“What?!”

“Just do it, Chat!”

Something in him changed at the sound of his name in her voice, and with a grunt of effort, he threw the coralized victim at the Host like a sack of flour. It bought him a couple seconds as the Host angrily tossed the body off the stage, and Chat tossed Ladybug his staff. She caught it and brandished it like a baseball bat.

“Over here, Alec! You still owe me my grand prize!”

The Host bared his teeth in a snarl. “How many times must I tell you?! I am not Alec!”

He ran at her, and Ladybug sidestepped him and swung as hard as she could. A chunk of coral broke off, but he was surprisingly agile and spun around with every intention of punching her into next Tuesday. His coral armor twisted and moved, making a sound like teeth grinding that curled the hairs on the back of Ladybug’s neck. It was almost as though the stuff was alive, even sentient…

She had his attention now, and Chat had the time he needed to activate his Cataclysm. The sight of his clawed hand dripping with dark energy made Ladybug whimper, but she forced herself to focus on moving her body for now. Another swing of Chat’s staff to the legs sent the Host stumbling, and that was when Chat swooped in. The Cataclysm sank into the coral armor like a hot knife through butter, and the two of them watched as the ultimate destructive power devoured the coral growths faster than they could regenerate, until only the unprotected rose pin remained. Chat closed his fingers around it, too, and the delicate pin crumbled to dust.

The Host—Alec Cataldi—let out a strangled gasp and fell still on the floor. The other coralized victims also collapsed like dominoes as the coral branches growing through them dissolved now that the core had been destroyed. Ladybug got her yo-yo ready to purify the akuma, but none emerged. Chat had the same confusion as he looked around for the telltale flapping wings. When he met her gaze, she saw her own rising fear reflected in his slitted cat eyes.

“It must be something else,” he said, dropping to his knees and searching Alec’s person.

Ladybug stared down at Alec, who lay unmoving and bleeding where the coral had dissolved and left numerous gaping holes in his body. The police had lowered their shields and were similarly taking stock of the formerly coralized victims, all of whom lay unmoving on the floor in heaps. They, too, oozed blood from the wounds in their flesh where the coral had grown through them—no, out of them. As if from within. Ladybug only realized she was shaking when her yo-yo began to rattle in her grip. Chat had already destroyed two pens, a building ID card, and a box of tic tacs he’d found on Alec’s person, but there was no black butterfly to be seen.

Ladybug stared at the cat’s paw in her hand. Maybe this was just a different process than before. Maybe once she reversed all the damage, everything would be okay. She threw the cat’s paw into the air and shouted, “Miraculous Ladybug!”

Glittering ladybugs made of pure magic exploded and flooded the studio, repairing damaged equipment, healing her bruises, and even fixing her shredded yo-yo at high speed. But Alec’s wounds did not close up, and he didn’t stir. Ladybug covered her mouth with a trembling hand.

“Sir,” said one of the police officers to Chief Raincomprix, “they’re… They’re all dead.”

Every last one of the coralized victims.

Chief Raincomprix remembered himself and jerked hastily at the cameras. “Turn those off, now! Hurry up!”

One of the officers tripped over himself to cut the power to the cameras. Ladybug glanced directly into one of them, her face half covered by her trembling hand and tears in her wide, blue eyes.

A telltale beep broke her out of her trance. Chat was on his feet again breathing shallowly through his nose. “Ladybug,” he said, “we have to leave.”

She just looked at him, and something in her expression made him look away.

“Get the medical team up here,” Chief Raincomprix barked into his radio. “And forensics. We got bodies here. A lot of bodies.”

Ladybug’s earrings gave a warning beep, and she touched one. Alec’s blood pooled beneath him, and it had reached her booted toe. She leaped back without thinking, trailing a few drops of his blood in her wake. It stained her boot. Alec’s blood is on my boot.

Alec is dead.

They’re all dead.

There was never any akuma.

Movement caught her eye—Chat was leaving. And suddenly, all she could think about was that he was going to disappear again, that he would vanish without a trace or explanation, a shadow in the moonlight. There was a dead man at her feet—a dead man I couldn’t save—and twenty more scattered around the studio, and all Ladybug could do right now was follow Chat. It was easier than facing the glassy eyes of the fallen all around her.

So she flew after him over the protests of a couple police officers. There was only one way he would have gone, and that was to the roof. She raced up the stairs and burst through the roof access door just as she spotted him getting ready to extend his staff and disappear.

“Don’t you dare leave!” she said.

He froze mid step, and his cat ears flattened over his wild blond hair. He looked back at her over his shoulder. “My time’s running out.”

“I don’t give a fuck.” Ladybug marched right up to him and yanked him by the arm.

He was considerably taller than he’d been when they were fourteen, a man grown in every sense of the word. Even the perpetually teasing glint in his eyes from back then was nowhere to be found in the cold, jaded stare he held her in now. Despite herself, Ladybug’s heart wrenched at that look, so unlike the Chat she’d once known.

They faced off for a couple seconds, neither willing to back down, but men’s voices and footsteps drifted to them from the access door. Chat extended his staff, and Ladybug tightened her grip on him.

Don’t,” she warned him again.

He looked away and set his jaw. “Then you better hold on tight.”

Staff in one hand and Ladybug’s waist in the other, Chat vaulted them off the roof and onto the next one over, where he barely touched down before taking off again. With a few city blocks between them and the action back at Canal+ headquarters, he released her and stowed his staff. Their Miraculous beeped, but they still had time before they reverted. He stood opposite her and waited. 

But Ladybug had once again lost her words as she just looked at him, took him in, believed. He was really here, flesh and blood, the same man from fourteen years ago before he… Before…

“Ladybug, I… I’m—”

That snapped her out of it, and she closed the distance between them so that they stood nearly nose to nose. God, he even smelled familiar, sweat and leather and the night itself, and she almost lost her nerve. But Ladybug could be hard when she wanted to be, and now she steeled herself.

“You left me,” she said in a whispered tone so scathing, so venomous that Chat flinched.

“I didn’t think—”

“You left me!” She shoved him, shaking and unable to control the floodgates of her wrath any longer. Fourteen years was a long time coming. “You attacked me, you used your Miraculous against me, and you fucking left me!”

He didn’t fight her, didn’t even try when she shoved him again, hard. He stumbled and grunted under the force of her blows, but he took it without protest. Ladybug could not have cared if he’d begged her for mercy right now. Her fists flew of their own accord, and she followed them blindly, willingly, anything for the chance to make him feel even a little of this pain he’d selfishly left her with.

“I hate you!” she said through gritted teeth as she pushed him again, this time into the roof access door, busting the lock and nearly knocking him down. “I hate you so much!”

He took her wrists in his hands. He was shaking, and there were tears in his eyes. “I know.”

And Ladybug came undone. Those tears, that broken voice, so much like the scared, lonely little boy who’d confessed his pain to Marinette all those years ago because he had no one else to talk to, they dismantled her. Ladybug choked on a sob and sank to her knees, and he sank with her.

“I know,” he said again, his voice cracking with emotion. “I hate me, too.”

She let out a strangled cry and beat his chest with her fists, but there was no power behind her blows anymore. He’d taken her pain and paid it back in kind.

Alec is dead.

They’re all dead.

She couldn’t stop seeing their mangled bodies all over the studio, many of them peppered with bullet holes in addition to the coral holes. And she couldn’t save a single one of them. She had lost, just as she’d lost Chat all those years ago. 

Ladybug heaved a sob and collapsed against him. She clung to him, buried her face in his chest, and held on to the one source of familiarity and safety that had pulled her out of that sea of death, no matter what he’d done before. There would be time to hate herself later, to beat herself up for this weakness. That was future Ladybug’s problem. Right now, he was here for her like he hadn’t been for fourteen lonely years, and when he held her close, she almost didn’t care that it was a lie.

They sat there rocking back and forth, Ladybug half sprawled on his lap as he held her, shaking, until their Miraculous gave another warning beep. Heeding the warning, they slowly disentangled themselves. Ladybug’s cheeks and neck were sticky with her tears, but there was no helping it now. Chat rubbed the heels of his palms over his eyes to dispel his own tears, and after a few seconds, they had collected themselves enough to look at each other once again. Ladybug sniffled and gathered her courage, what little was left of it.

“There was no akuma,” she said.

He averted his gaze. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“I was sure it was Hawk Moth.”

“Me, too.” He met her gaze again. “But it wasn’t.”

Their unspoken question hung between them, neither brave enough to give it voice and shape.

If it wasn’t Hawk Moth, then who was it?

What was the shape of this monster with the power to possess and control, and then discard the used up shells after? It was beyond Hawk Moth, beyond anything they’d ever encountered. Hawk Moth didn’t kill, but this… Tonight had been a slaughterhouse.

And Ladybug had no idea what to do about it.

Their Miraculous chirped twice more. They were out of time. Chat drew his staff again.

“We’re not done here,” she said, hating the way her voice shook still.

“I know,” he said, resigned. “Rain check?”

His weak attempt at levity did not go over well. Ladybug clenched her fists. “Tomorrow. Eiffel Tower at midnight.”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Tomorrow’s not the best for me…and I can see you don’t give a shit. Okay, tomorrow it is.”

She continued to glower at him.

“I’ll, uh… I’ll see you.”

Ladybug said nothing as she watched him bound away over the rooftops, fast disappearing from sight. Her Miraculous gave its final beep, and her transformation reverted. An exhausted Tikki floated into her hands, and Marinette slumped against the wall, the blows she’d taken in the fight coming back to haunt her in pulsing, phantom aches all over her body. She was alone on a rooftop downtown with no yo-yo to help her fly, and she’d left her winter jacket at the boutique. She sorely hoped whoever’s building this was wouldn’t ask too many questions about a random woman just trying to get home.

“Oh, Marinette,” Tikki said with a sniffle. “I’m so sorry.”

Marinette didn’t know when she’d begun to cry again. She sniffled and wiped her eyes, and she hugged Tikki close to her heart. “Tikki, I… I’m so…”

“Shh, I know. It’s all right, I’m here for you.”

“It hurts,” she sobbed, her voice strangled with grief. “It hurts so much.”

Tikki snuggled closer to her and cried softly, her tears like liquid starlight.

“I’m so weak,” Marinette said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I ca—I can’t…” She choked on a sob and covered her mouth.

“Cry for me, my lady.”

Marinette squeezed her eyes closed. It wasn’t the monster she saw in her recurring nightmares, but Chat Noir’s tears as he held her tonight.

I can’t hate him at all.

She couldn’t say how long she and Tikki stayed there huddled, aching together.


 

It was late, far too late for an old man his age to be awake, and yet something had stirred Wang Fu from sleep and would not leave him be. He quietly got out of bed and headed for his modest kitchen, where he put a kettle to boil and took a clay cup from the cabinet. His hand lingered on the knob to close it, but after a moment’s hesitation, he pulled another cup out and set it down quietly next to the first.

The water boiled quickly. He transferred it to a clay pot on a tray with the cups, and then he carried the tray slowly to the adjoining sitting room. The moon was bright tonight, so even without the room lights, he could see his unexpected visitor already seated at the table waiting for him. He paused, taking a moment to look at her. It had been many years since he had last seen her, but she had not changed much.

Then again, the glamour she wore made it impossible to tell.

“I apologize for waking you,” she said in a voice that reminded him of a deep, still lake, impossibly blue. “But this could not wait.”

Fu set the tea tray on the table between them. Over two hundred years old and still kicking, but these old bones had their limits. He sighed as he settled into the cushioned seat opposite her and offered her a clay cup.

“Tea?”

She poured for them both and held her cup in both hands as if to warm them through her blue gloves. Most of her was blue, though in the moonlight she appeared nearly black. Even her skin was glamoured blue, and her hair was completely hidden beneath a feathered cap that framed her face. She wore a long, blue, warrior’s dress with slits to the hips for ease of movement, revealing functional, dark pants and boots underneath. Two long, metal fans were folded and holstered across her lower back, and a glittering, aquamarine broach secured a blue sash at her nape. Most of her was blue, except for the eyes—a pale green that glowed in the moonlight.

“Mayura,” Fu said, using her Miraculous name out of respect. “I can see that this is not a social call. Although, I would have hoped to have a bit more time to speak with you after so many years. You look well.”

“As do you, Master Fu,” she said politely. “But as I said, this is urgent. I’m afraid I don’t have much time. I shouldn’t be here at all.”

Fu sipped his tea. “Tell me what you require of me.”

“You saw the broadcast tonight.”

Ah, so that’s it.

He had not been able to put it out of his mind, in truth. Like all of Paris, he had watched from the comfort of his own home as Ladybug and Chat Noir, after so many years away, appeared to fight a mysterious new threat on live cable television. He had thought it would be Ladybug to visit him tonight, or even the elusive Chat Noir. Mayura was a surprise, and not entirely a pleasant one.

“I saw it, yes,” he said. “It’s…troubling.”

“Then you know why I’m here.”

He had an idea, and he didn’t like it. He set down his tea. “There is only one reason I can think that you would risk everything to come here. And as Guardian, it is incumbent upon me to remind you of my position.”

“You know the risk I take,” Mayura said, “and you know why I can’t leave without what I came for. I’ve seen…”

Fu leaned forward, curious and a little fearful. “What have you seen?”

Mayura touched a delicate finger to the truncated peacock feather fastened to her broach. In the murky moonlight, it could have passed for a trick of the light brought on by a lack of sleep. But Fu trusted his eyes as he watched the peacock feather’s Eye blink with sight.

“Not enough,” Mayura said. “But after tonight, I fear I’ll have too much to keep watch over alone. I need help.”

Fu sighed over his tea, wishing Wayzz were here. The turtle kwami was sound asleep in his little bed, and Fu did not think it right to disturb him. Often, Wayzz could be more hindrance than help, anyway. There was such a thing as too much wisdom, too many answers, as Fu himself had learned over the course of his too-long life. “I see.”

“Master Fu, please. It will only get worse.”

He nodded. In this, after what he’d seen tonight, he was inclined to agree with her. But he did not have to like it. Still, Fu rose and went to the old gramophone he kept above a cabinet that housed his small but treasured records collection. It was not a record he was after tonight, however. He bit his thumb and pressed the bloody print to a button on the gramophone, which caused the top portion to slide open. After pressing a few buttons on the newly revealed panel, it too slid open to reveal a small jewelry box, which he retrieved and brought to the table. Inside sat two pieces of jewelry: a necklace inlaid with amber and mother-of-pearl in the shape of a fox’s tail, and a lacquered comb decorated with a jeweled honey bee on the handle.

“Trixx will be pleased to be reunited with Duusu. It has been more than a century since they were last active together,” Fu said.

But it was the comb containing the Bee Miraculous that Mayura selected. Fu had not been expecting this.

“I do not understand,” he confessed. “The Peacock and the Fox are a pair: the perfect sight and the perfect blind. The Fox is your most potent ally.”

Mayura examined the delicate comb. “I didn’t come here for myself. Illusions won’t help those two; they need a weapon that can cut through anything. The ultimate sword.”

Fu looked at her as she examined the Bee Miraculous, and he knew that nothing he said would sway her. She had made up her mind before she’d come here, and he’d never been able to change it before.

“You have someone in mind,” Fu said.

“I do.”

“Are you certain?”

She met his gaze, and the part of him that was still human regretted his words. But the Guardian in him knew he had to push her now, as he had not pushed her the last time.

“No,” she said, her tone laced with remorse. “I’m not certain of anything. But I believe in my choice.”

He peered at her, but it was clear that she believed her words, had considered them carefully, and still could justify the risk of coming here. Not at all like the last time when she’d come to him, desperate and wrapped up in the passion of her convictions, so sure of success that she never stopped to consider the consequences. That was the thing about people, though. Unlike pieces of jewelry in a box that remained unchanged and pristine for thousands of years, people were not so certain. They could fail, they could fall, and they could break.

But given time and trust, they could also rise.

“Then I will choose to believe in your choice, too,” Fu said, closing the box with the Fox Miraculous still safely in its place. “And I am sure those two will, as well.”

Mayura folded the comb in her hands, and it disappeared in a sleight of hand. She rose. “Thank you, Master Fu.”

He smiled and reached for the kettle to pour himself another cup of tea. “Take care, Mayura.”

She was gone when he looked up again, no trace of her having been there at all, save for a lone peacock feather on the table next to her cold tea.

Chapter Text

Adrien sat in his office with the door closed slumped over the draft of this quarter’s financials trying his damndest to focus on the cannibalization rate of the latest men’s underwear line when he realized he’d reread the same footnote four times and still could not make sense of it. He groaned and rubbed his eyes. His mind kept wandering to places it should not, not when he had a mountain of work to deal with and a small army of analysts to manage.

Somebody’s pissy today,” said Plagg, a.k.a. all powerful kwami of the Black Cat Miraculous, a.k.a. Despotic Harbinger of Chaos and Destruction, a.k.a. pocket-sized anti-gravity cat-shaped loudmouthed bobblehead, a.k.a. the bane of Adrien’s miserable existence this fine, French Thursday afternoon.

“Not now, Plagg,” Adrien said. The beginnings of a migraine prickled at his temples. Was it too early for a drink? Only 2 p.m. and he’d skipped lunch, shit. He opened the top drawer of his desk, fished out the bottle of pain killers, and swallowed three dry.

Plagg hovered over and plopped his furry, black cat butt down right over the passage Adrien had been staring at fruitlessly and began to lick himself clean as if he were an actual house cat. Adrien watched, torn between frustration and fascination at seeing Plagg act so, well, domestic. Banal. Until Plagg stretched his back leg over his head and licked around his butthole.

“Do you really have to do that here?” Adrien said, leaning back in his ergonomic chair and rubbing his temples, willing the pain killers to kick in before this migraine really picked up steam.

“Do what?” Plagg said, the paragon of innocence as he blinked his big, green eyes like a regular Puss in Boots.

“You know what.”

Plagg let his leg drop and crossed his paws. “You’re distracted. I can smell your negativity from across the room, and it stinks.”

“Gosh, I’m so sorry to disturb your regularly scheduled eight-hour nap.”

Plagg floated up and got in his face. Those luminous cat eyes peered at him dispassionately, the way a scientist might examine a lab rat. “You’re stressed out.”

“I have five hundred things to finish today, and you’re distracting me.”

“Why don’t you just beat off or something? That usually helps.”

Adrien growled and swatted Plagg like the buzzing carrion fly he was, but the kwami was damn fast and too practiced in their particular brand of conversation. “You know, you could try not being so…you for once,” Adrien said.

“Oh, I’m sorry, kid. But you know the rules: you wanna act like a brat, I get to treat you like a brat. Feel free to grow up anytime.”

Adrien groaned and dug his fingers into his temples. This day needed to end. “I just feel like I’m going to spontaneously combust.”

Plagg sighed and shook his head. He drifted back to Adrien and settled in his hair and began to knead. Adrien would never admit it, but the sensation was kind of pleasant, like someone playing with his hair. At least, so long as Plagg kept his claws retracted.

“You knew this was coming. You knew you’d have to face her eventually,” Plagg said in a flat tone.

“I’ve been facing her,” Adrien said. “I thought I was even doing all right.”

“There’s nothing to face with Marinette. It’s Ladybug who’s got you by the balls now.”

Same difference.

But Ladybug didn’t know that. Maybe she didn’t remember. That wouldn’t surprise Adrien at all considering what she’d been through. What he’d put her through. Just the thought of it made him tremble with shame and guilt. The tears in her eyes, her fingers on his cheeks.

“Oh, chaton, I’m sorry you’re suffering.”

Adrien wanted to break something. Every night for the last fourteen years when he closed his eyes to sleep, it was her crying face he saw, broken and bleeding because of him. And last night, seeing her suited up and trying to be strong even after all this time, seeing her tears as she shoved him, pushed him, hated him—it was too much.

“I deserve her hatred,” Adrien said, covering his face with his hands and wishing desperately that he could just peel it off and be someone, anyone else. “I deserve so much worse than what she gave me last night.”

Fourteen years and the wounds were as fresh as the day he’d inflicted them. He’d thought he could move past it in time. He’d thought he could return to Paris after so long. Chloe was here for him, she’d carried so much of his shit over the years, never truly knowing why and never forcing him to explain. Without her, he would have wasted away a long time ago, forget ever coming back here.

But he was here now, and after weeks of making excuses not to look her up, not to go out of his way to bump into her somewhere, there Marinette was at the Trefoil Gala looking like he never remembered her looking before. Surely the shy, stammering girl who hadn’t ever held a full conversation with him could not be the dark beauty behind the mask he’d shameless courted as he would any other potential conquest. But much had changed in his absence, and all of it for the better.

She was better without him around.

He couldn’t face her after the gala, instead watching her from the shadows at the Eiffel Tower like a coward, watching as she stood alone with all of Paris at her feet. He’d vowed he would not insert himself into Marinette’s life, into Ladybug’s life. She did not deserve to suffer at his expense again. And damnit, he’d tried his best not to give in to weakness. Being away dulled the pressure; seeing her up close, her endless blue eyes, her smile, even her raw anguish as she watched over the city thinking herself alone, brought it all back like a knife to the chest. Seeing her flourish at the gala, seeing how far she’d come, he could not help but want to be near her. How could he not? And Sunday had been better than anything he expected, anything he could have imagined. All because she didn’t know him beneath his mask.

It was official: Adrien Agreste was the most selfish person he knew.

They said ignorance was bliss; Adrien was sure it was only heartbreak that hadn’t happened yet. How was it possible for him to be hopeful and, dare he say, even cautiously happy with Marinette, when Ladybug was in so much pain because of him? How did she do it, balancing both? If he hadn’t seen her Miraculous glamour fade under the power of his Cataclysm all those years ago, he would never, ever have guessed they were the same girl. Even now, seeing Marinette glow and rise while Ladybug languished and lamented, he could not quite believe it. Her strength was unlike anything he’d ever seen, and he wanted—craved to be near that, to feel strong in her shadow, inspired, for once. It had been so, so long.

He hated himself every day for his weakness.

He hated himself even more for being unable to stop.

“Okay, pity party, get ahold of yourself. This isn’t all about you, you know,” said Plagg as he circled himself in Adrien’s hair, trying to find the fluffiest, choicest locks to nest in.

“How is it not about me? I’m the whole reason any of this is even happening.”

He could almost feel Plagg rolling his eyes. “Get a grip, kid. The world doesn’t revolve around you and your problems, no matter what that crackpot you call a therapist says. Bottom line is you fucked up once upon a time, Ladybug got hurt, and now you both have to learn how to work together again in spite of it. So I repeat, get a grip.”

Adrien scowled. “Thanks, how much do I owe you for that insightful piece of bullshit I already know?”

“You know my price: a wheel of camembert per hour. That’s my friends and family rate, so consider yourself lucky.”

Says the avatar of bad luck himself.

Still, as much as Adrien did not like to admit it, Plagg had a point. The attack last night had been bad, much worse than anything Ladybug and Chat Noir had ever faced in their youth. This wasn’t Hawk Moth, of that Adrien was dead certain. But then, who was behind the grisly murders? And more importantly, why? Like it or not, Ladybug would need Chat Noir’s help with whatever the hell this was, and that meant Adrien would need to pull his head out of his ass and do some long overdue damage control. But would she go for it?

“Hey, Plagg,” Adrien said softly. “Do you… Do you think she could ever forgive me?”

Plagg was silent for a while, and Adrien was beginning to wonder if he’d even bother answering what probably sounded to him like another bratty, human question. “As Ladybug? Sure, I’ve seen Ladybugs forgive far worse. But as Marinette? Hell if I know. You humans’re all psychotic.”

But they’re the same, Adrien wanted to say. Marinette is Ladybug, and Ladybug is Marinette.

Why should it be different?

But it was. It was so different. And he could not afford to forget that when he was with her, masks or no masks. Above all else, Marinette did not deserve Ladybug’s pain. He would not do that to her.

Adrien slumped in his chair, exhausted. He reached up to scratch Plagg’s bulbous head and earned himself a purr. And for the next thirty seconds or so, kwami and Chosen sat together in a silence that spoke louder than any words could.

A knock on the door. “Mr. Agreste? Your 2:30 is here,” said Armand, his executive assistant.

Plagg, comfortably hidden in the gelled jungle that was Adrien’s hair, remained perfectly still and immediately ceased his purring, as if he wasn’t there at all. Adrien rubbed his tired eyes and gestured noncommittally. “Thanks, Armand. Send them in.”

Arman nodded and opened the door for Adrien’s guests to file in. He’d just have to finish his review work later. For now, he plastered a polite smile to his face and got up to shake hands with the suits waiting to speak with him. It was time to leave Chat Noir behind and be Adrien Agreste, as if the difference even counted anymore.


 

Chat was late, to the surprise of absolutely no one, least of all the man himself. He raced over the rooftops of Paris, a sleek shadow in the cold, winter moonlight hardly seen and barely heard. Work, predictably, had kept him at the office putting out fires and dealing with ornery executives, but such was the life at quarter’s end. Everyone wanted results, and nobody wanted to wait for them. He just hoped Ladybug wouldn’t chafe too much at having to wait an extra half hour for him to drag his sorry ass to the Eiffel Tower as planned.

Although, all things considered, that was probably the least egregious of his many offenses against her. What was one more log to add to the fire?

She was already there waiting when he finally landed on the metal platform she’d camped out on, about three quarters of the way up the tower. It was lit up, as it usually was, a silver knife gutting the night sky, beautiful and a little lonely surrounded by so much darkness. Her hair was long and loose tonight, and at the sight of her standing there looking out over Paris, Chat had the irrational urge to run his fingers through it. Marinette had let him on Sunday, but Ladybug would probably sooner slice off his fingers than let them anywhere near her hair.

There was something different about her, he noticed now that he was standing next to her. Her suit, which had always been form-fitting and sleek for ease of movement, was now corrugated with scales, almost as if she’d donned red and black spotted armor. But it moved with her, as if it were a part of her super suit. Had her super suit…changed somehow? Was that even possible?

“Nice of you to finally show,” Ladybug said, glaring at him for good measure.

Chat lowered his head. He definitely deserved that. “Sorry, I got held up at work.”

She peered at him, perhaps searching for the lie. Even in this, she mistrusted him. It should have been expected, but it stung all the same. And he hated that her judgment, no matter how much he thought he deserved it, affected him so much.

“First,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “I want to…thank you. For showing up last night. Honestly, it was the last thing I ever expected to happen.”

At this, Chat could only blink in surprise. Of all the things he’d prepared himself for in anticipation of what was surely to be a painful conversation tonight, the last thing he’d expected was her gratitude. “Oh, uh… I mean, I saw you on TV.”

He and the rest of Paris. Their fight had been all over the news all day. The cameras had recorded nearly all of their fight against the late Alec Cataldi, a.k.a. the Host. Suddenly, after fourteen years of radio silence, the airwaves were alive with chatter about Ladybug and Chat Noir, reunited and returned to face the newest supernatural threat to terrorize Paris. But would Paris’s heroes find a way to work together again? From the way Ladybug was looking at him, Chat wasn’t holding his breath.

“How long have you been back?” Ladybug asked, her expression unreadable.

Shit, Chat thought. He could not say anything that might compromise Adrien.

“A while,” he hedged. “But last night was the first time I suited up.”

Ladybug had always been creepily good at sniffing out his dishonesty on the few occasions he’d tried to massage the truth in the past. Maybe he’d gotten better at lying, or she just didn’t know him anymore, because she nodded at length, accepting this explanation. Chat didn’t know which option was more depressing.

“Me, too,” she said, hugging herself. “God, all those people…”

He stepped closer to comfort her, but stopped short when she whipped her head around, suspicious. Chat hid the sting of her clear rejection with a sigh. “Look, Ladybug, I’m here to help you. With this...whatever this is. It’s why I showed up last night. Whatever you think of me personally, please… Just know that I’m here to help, however I can.”

“Whatever I think…? You honestly think that my personal issues with you would make me forego your help with this? You really think I’m that petty?”

Chat raised his hands in a placating gesture. “No, I—that came out wrong. I just meant—shit.”

“You’re Chosen by the Miraculous,” Ladybug said through gritted teeth. “It’s your goddamned job to use your powers for good. Or were you planning on skipping town again if I didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear?”

“No!” Chat snarled, unable to help his anger. “How could you think that?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe because you’ve done it before?”

“Yeah, and I’m sorry! I’m sorry I got akumatized and attacked you! I’ve been sorry every day since.”

“Oh, wow, poor you.

“You know what? I came here to apologize and let you say or do whatever you need to get past this. But maybe I made a mistake.”

“You think?” she said sarcastically, but her blue eyes flashed with pain.

Chat bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood. “Ladybug,” he said, trying hard to rein in his emotions. “Please. Let me atone.”

She bared her teeth in a fury and turned on him. “No. No way, you don’t get to skate by with an apology and expect me to pretend everything’s fine. It’s not fine, Chat.”

“I was akumatized! I wasn’t even myself!”

“I know that!”

He stared at her. “You do?”

There were tears in her eyes, and fuck he’d done it again: he’d made her cry. He was shit, lower than shit. He was yelling at her when she had every right to be upset with him. Plagg was right, he was nothing but a brat living in a world that revolved around him. 

“You think I don’t know you weren’t in your right mind?” Ladybug said through her tears, wiping them angrily like she couldn’t stand them. “You think I don’t know Chat Noir would never do anything to hurt me?”

The look on his face must have given her an answer, because her lip trembled and she covered her eyes with her arm to hide her pain from him.

“I must have really hurt you to make you think that,” she said, her voice cracking.

No. This was all wrong, so wrong. She wasn’t supposed to be the one apologizing for his mistake. Chat took her by the arms and shook her lightly, his eyes wide with emotion.

“Stop,” he pleaded with her. “Please stop. You have nothing to feel bad about. It was me, my fault, all of it. Yell at me, hit me, hate me if you want. I can take it. But don’t you dare blame yourself for what I did to you.”

She sniffled and shook in his grip, and god he just wanted to hold her and tell her it would all be all right. But it wasn’t all right. It hadn’t been for a long time.

“I looked for you,” she said, barely a whisper.

“What?”

“For months I scoured the city and even beyond. Every night for three months I searched for you. I even wished for you.” Her voice cracked, and something in Chat cracked, too. “But you never came back. You left me all alone.”

He could not bear to hold onto her anymore. He could hardly bear to remain standing, and he staggered back, the weight of his own words from so long ago thrown back at him as he finally understood the shape of her pain.

“You were my partner, the person I trusted most in the world. And you abandoned me. You never even said goodbye,” Ladybug said, her eyes puffy and her tears freely falling. “How can you ever atone for that?”

Chat’s heart throbbed with a pain that was all too real. Because it was not just Ladybug accusing him, but Marinette, too. Marinette, who had comforted him that fateful night when he’d felt abandoned by Ladybug, by his father, by the world. Marinette, who had given him her time and her attention just because she could, because she cared, because secretly she was Ladybug, and she trusted him. Because she did not want him to be alone.

And he had abandoned her.

“I can’t,” he said, miserable as his own tears slicked his cheeks and made his mask itch. “Even if I tried for a thousand years, I can’t.”

Silence stretched between them, punctuated only by Ladybug’s sniffles as she tried to get her crying under control. He couldn’t bear to see her so fractured.

“Ladybug… Are we too far gone?”

He shook with fear as he waited for her answer. Whatever Plagg said, Ladybug was not just Ladybug, she was Marinette, too. And Marinette deserved so much better than him.

“No,” she said at length, so soft he wasn’t sure he’d heard her right at first. “You’re here now.”

Chat knees wobbled and he leaned against the metal rafter next to him, disbelieving. Even after all he’d put her through, she was willing to give him another chance.

“Ladybug,” he said, clutching his face to hide his shame. “I’m so sorry.”

Her hand on his shoulder was tentative, afraid, but she held on all the same. “I know you are.”

He looked up at her, only to find her eyes closed and her teeth clenched, like it hurt her to be this near to him.

“I don’t hate you,” she said haltingly. “I-I just…” Her face contorted in pain, and fresh tears beaded around her eyes. “I missed you so much.”

Chat was holding her in a crushing embrace before he could think about it, and she collapsed against him. So small, and yet so strong even in her suffering, and he clung to her for dear life. She sobbed against his chest, shaking like a leaf, and he buried his face in her hair and curled his claws around the ends of it. His tears disappeared in her hair, as if she absorbed his pain and shouldered it for the both of them, like she’d always done.

“I missed you so much!” she sobbed, her fingers digging into his shoulders.

“I'm here, my lady,” he soothed her, clutching her tight. "I'm right here for you."

She tensed at the old, romantic diminution, but she didn’t push him away. They stayed that way for a while, saying nothing and simply feeling. He could have stayed with her like this all night if she asked it of him. It was the least he could do for her. But eventually, she pulled away and met his gaze. Her eyes were puffy but still that brilliant topaz blue he’d fallen for so many years ago, the same topaz he saw in Marinette when she ran her fingers through his hair, never knowing it was him.

“Tell me what to do,” he said, searching her eyes for any clue. “I’ll do anything, just say the word.”

Slowly, regrettably, she extricated herself from his grasp and they stood an arm’s length apart high above Paris. “I don’t know. I didn’t think that far ahead.”

He couldn’t help but laugh, however sadly. “You always have a plan, though.”

She sniffled and wiped her cheek of stray tears. “I wish.”

“Can we…” He was almost too afraid to ask. “Can we start over?”

She looked at him. “No, Chat. We can’t.”

His heart sank, even though he knew he had no right.

She hugged herself for warmth. “And I… I don’t know if I’m ready to trust you again.”

That hurt more than it should have. It must have shown, because she averted her gaze, ashamed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, contrite. “But I need time.”

Yes, and he knew he could not begrudge her that. This wasn’t about him at all; it was about her. It was about their shared mission, the common enemy. He had no right to question her, to hold her to the same lofty expectations he had when they were fourteen.

“I understand,” he said, wishing he didn’t.

“Chat—”

“No, I do.” He flashed her the shadow of a grin he didn’t feel. “I get it. And you’re right. Which is why I’m making you a vow right now.”

He got down on one knee and asked for her hand with his. She didn’t give it, and he tried to ignore this newest sting as he folded his hands over his bent knee.

“Ladybug, I promise to do everything in my power to regain your trust. Even if it takes the rest of our lives, I won’t quit. I swear to you.”

“Chat…”

“I just ask one thing of you.” He swallowed, gathering his courage. “I’m not asking for your forgiveness. I just want you to give me a chance to make it up to you. To prove you can trust me again. Please.” He searched her eyes, more afraid than he’d ever been. “Please don’t give up on me.”

She took her time answering. “I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll try. I need you, Chat. What we’re up against… I can’t do this alone.”

“You don’t have to.” He got up, and at his full height he towered over her. It took everything he had not to reach for her then. Instead, he tried to convey his sincerity with his eyes alone, and hoped beyond hope that she heard him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

They stood there like that for what seemed like an eternity, so high above the world, alone together. Like old times, and yet not at all. There was a distance between them now, a chasm neither of them dared to cross, neither of them could cross. Not yet, maybe not ever, though he did not want to think about that. Foolishly, he found himself holding onto Plagg’s words, that Ladybugs of the past had forgiven far worse. Did he dare to hope?

“Chat, there’s actually something I wanted to ask you about.”

“Sure,” he said. “Anything. Ask away.”

“Before, when you were akumatized.”

Oh.

He crossed his arms. “What about it?”

“The akuma. I never purified it.”

He had a feeling she’d mention that. “Yeah.”

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know. One minute I was Chat Blanc, and the next…”

He trailed off seeing her flinch at that name, the name Hawk Moth had bestowed on him as he felt himself slip away. What a strange feeling, even now after all this time. He remembered it so vividly. It was like water dripping through his fingers, feeling everything that made him Adrien slip away through the cracks he never knew he had, and looking up from below, unable to reach the edges.

“The akuma,” Ladybug pressed. “When I don’t purify them, they multiply and spread.”

“I know.” Of course he knew that, had thought of that, had agonized over it for years after the fact. “But I’m fine. Plagg was out of it for a week or so, but he recovered. We’ve been fine ever since.”

“Plagg… Wait, are you saying the akuma possessed him?”

Chat had been over it a thousand times with Plagg already, and every time they arrived at the same conclusion. “One of his eyes… It was magenta for a while. He wasn’t himself, but it eventually faded. I don’t know why. The best we could figure was that he just absorbed the dark energy. He’s a god of destruction, so he probably destroyed the akuma from the inside out.”

Ladybug chewed on that, her brow furrowed in consternation. “The akumas from before always possessed inanimate objects. I guess possessing a living thing, an omnipotent kwami of all the things, may not have the same effect.”

“I haven’t had any issues since,” Chat said more confidently. “Not that I’ve been running around as Chat Noir much since Hawk Moth disappeared. But I’m telling you, there’s no trace of the akuma left. Maybe the rules are just different with kwami and Miraculous holders.”

Ladybug nodded, but she still seemed skeptical. “I guess that makes sense.”

“But you’re not convinced.”

Her gaze flickered to him briefly. “Can you blame me?”

No, he supposed he couldn’t. It didn’t make the conversation any less unpleasant.

“I feel fine as far as that goes,” he said with quiet conviction. “I’d know if something was wrong.”

“Are you sure?”

“I would know.”

“Well, all the same, you’ll let me know if anything changes. Even if it seems negligible, I want to know.”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course I’ll let you know.”

“Okay.” She nodded.

“Okay.”

The lapsed into an awkward silence again, and Chat hated how obviously uncomfortable they were, a far cry from their seamless partnership and playful banter from before.

“It’s late,” Ladybug said. “I should probably get home, get some sleep.”

“Oh, yeah, okay,” he said, unable to mask his disappointment.

She peered at him askance. “Chat, I…” She looked away. “Thanks.”

For what, he could not have said. But he nodded all the same. “Yeah.”

And then she was gone, flying away with the aid of her magical yo-yo, and he was alone once more. Not ready to leave yet, he sank down and sat with one leg curled to his chest, the other dangling over the edge. He curled in on himself and buried his head in his arms, shuddering.

He thought he’d be used to being alone by now, having stripped himself of all the connections he’d made here so long ago. But that was the thing about loneliness: it was most powerful at the mercy of hope. And she had given him a glimmer of hope tonight, so small in his hands that he feared it would slip through his fingers at the slightest disturbance.

Chat lingered there, hanging just over the edge, until the sun came up.


 

Chloe grunted as she dodged and slashed, parried with shaking arms, and tried to ignore the sting of sweat dangerously close to her eyes behind her fencing mask. She and her mysterious partner had been at this for three straight hours. The last five minute break for water felt like a hundred years ago as Chloe panted and danced backwards to give herself a little breathing room. But her partner charged forward, closing the gap as soon as it opened, her blunted rapier nothing but a silver flash.

It wasn’t that Chloe was a poor fencer. Maybe a little out of practice, but she knew her technique and she kept in shape. A size two didn’t maintain itself, thank you very much. But the years of fencing lessons she’d taken initially because she wanted to spend more time with Adrien, and subsequently in college because it made her feel like a badass, could not prepare her for the supernatural technique her opponent employed to systematically carve her like a turkey dinner. Or would have, if their blades had not been blunted. Chloe had so many bruises she probably looked like a leopard under her padded suit.

Her opponent lunged impossibly fast, and Chloe was too slow to parry in time. She tried to twist, but the angle was wrong and she lost her footing. With a yelp, she fell back on the floor with a thud. A blunted rapier pointed a hair’s breadth from her throat.

“Oh, Honey Bee, you can’t give up yet!”

Chloe growled in frustration and ripped her mask off. Something buzzed around her head and landed delicately on the extended rapier. Blue compound eyes glittered down at her over a luxurious yellow mane.

“Easy for you to say, Pollen,” Chloe huffed. “You’re not the one working her ass off over here.” She winced and rubbed her sore tailbone. “Ugh, literally.”

Pollen, the talking bee-shaped creature Chloe had come to know as a kwami, giggled down at her. Her antennae twitched mischievously. “Well, I would offer to help, but…”

“But you would do well to commit your skills to muscle memory in your human form before you attempt to fight transformed,” said Chloe’s indomitable opponent. “You’ll be that much more prepared when you do fight at full power.”

Pollen shrugged, and Chloe got the distinct impression that she was rolling her eyes, if compound eyes could be rolled. “Just to be clear, Mayura, the only reason I’m allowing you to boss around my Chosen is out of respect for the Guardian and our short timeline.” She flew at Mayura’s blue-tinted, feather-capped face, little wings buzzing angrily. “But a queen doesn’t take orders from little birds. So watch your words.”

Mayura’s icy green eyes were impassive and unblinking as she stared down the fun-size, talking bee, which in any other context may have been completely ludicrous. But as Chloe had quickly learned upon meeting Mayura, there was nothing remotely humorous about her or her intentions for Chloe.

“I had heard about your…particular nature,” Mayura said, looking down on Pollen over her nose. “Rest assured, I only want to prepare you, both of you, for what lies ahead. Ladybug will need all the help she can get. I have no time to pamper you.”

With a grunt, Chloe climbed to her feet and held out her hand for Pollen. “Well, this better goddamn pay off. Black and blue really clash with my complexion.”

Mayura gave her a withering look and lowered her practice sword. She had barely broken a sweat despite their grueling morning exercise. A bonus of fighting while Miraculous, Chloe thought bitterly. She wondered how much of Mayura’s insistence on keeping her glamour was to protect her identity, and how much was to ensure she could land Chloe on her ass every time they crossed swords.

Drop the guise and you wouldn’t stand a chance against me.

As though sensing Chloe’s frustration, Mayura’s gaze softened a fraction. “You’re making excellent progress. This isn’t the ideal way to acclimate, I realize, but we don’t have—”

“—we don’t have the luxury of time, yeah, I heard you the first five hundred times.” She crossed her arms.

“Get some rest. I’ll see again tomorrow morning.”

And with that, Mayura exited through the balcony doors and leaped over the edge almost without a sound. Never mind that the drop was more than thirty stories from Chloe’s live-in hotel suite at Le Grand Paris. The first time Mayura had jumped, Chloe almost had a heart attack—what would people think if they saw a crazy blue woman leaping from her balcony as the sun came up? But Mayura had been doing this for a long time, that much soon became obvious. She knew how to stay out of sight.

Pollen sighed dramatically. “Duusu certainly picked a charmer for his Chosen.”

“Duusu? Is that Mayura’s kwami?” Chloe asked as she peeled her training jacket off and let it fall on the marble living room floor.

“He’s such a whiny little chicken. I haven’t seen him for a hundred years, and I still hear his stupid sobbing in my dreams sometimes.” Pollen turned her nose up.

“Well, they’re both gone now, and I need a shower.” She winced as she stretched her arms. “Ugh, this whole fighting crime thing is the worst.”

Pollen giggled and buzzed around Chloe’s head. “But you’ll be the best at it, Honey Bee. You know, mine’s the strongest Miraculous of them all.”

“What about Ladybug and Chat Noir?” Chloe said, stripping out of her pants and padding to the bathroom, where she examined her body for the tender red areas that would inevitably blossom into more bruises to join the others from the past few days’ grueling sparring sessions.

Pollen tutted. “Chat Noir’s destructive power can be a menace, but Ladybug’s tool is a yo-yo. A yo-yo. She may be our leader, but you and me are Queen Bee for a reason.”

Chloe smirked at Pollen in the mirror while she waited for the shower to heat up. “You know, the queen is the best piece in chess, even if only the king can win the game.”

“Pfft! The king has to have some role, even if it’s just a formality.”

Chloe thought Ladybug was a hell of a lot more than a mere formality, though. Seeing her on television facing those creepy coral people had been a rush. For years, there had been hardly even a whisper of Ladybug. With Hawk Moth’s apparent disappearance, there seemed to be no need for superheroes in Paris anymore. Until now. As a girl, Chloe had idolized Ladybug and wished she could be strong and powerful like her. It had always been a pipe dream, though. There were other kinds of strength and power in this world, and Chloe was proud of how much she’d accumulated for herself over the years.

Now, though, she had a chance to live out the destiny her fourteen-year-old self would have sold a kidney to taste. But this was no Shoujo manga fantasy, and from what Mayura had explained to her, they weren’t up against a fashionably incompetent Queen Beryl and her Negaverse minions.

Twenty-three people were dead, and nobody could explain why. And now, they would become Chloe’s responsibility as she assumed the mantle of Miraculous. What if she wasn’t good enough? What if Mayura had chosen wrong? What if she just made things worse for Ladybug and Chat Noir?

What if I fail?

“Are you just going to stand there naked all morning?” Pollen said.

Chloe suppressed a shiver. “Ah, no. Just thinking…” She hissed when she tested the water—it was scalding hot. She adjusted the temperature and stepped inside.

“Earlier, you called me your Chosen,” Chloe said as she basked in the heated water. “What does that mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like. You’re my precious honeycomb, and I’m your all powerful, benevolent kwami.”

Chloe snorted. “But you didn’t actually choose me; Mayura did.”

“Pfft! That peacock is so self-important. And no, Sweetness, she didn’t choose you. We kwami always choose our partners. The Miraculous comb only activated because I accepted you. I’m very picky, and if you’d been unworthy of me, we wouldn’t be here, and your life would be oh so boring and sad for never having met me.”

“Believe me, my life is anything but boring these days,” Chloe said, her mind drifting to the memory of a night last week spent with a certain silver-tongued musician. He certainly did have a talented tongue, she had to admit. It was almost a shame she wouldn’t be seeing him again.

But Chloe had more pressing things to concern herself with than a man who could never be right for her, even if she wanted him to be. Which she did not. She had a very specific vision for her future, and it did not include struggling musicians, no matter how good in bed they were.

She finished her shower, feeling markedly better, and went to her bedroom to finish her morning ritual just as the sun was breaching the horizon. Chloe had always been a morning person, but waking up at four every morning to get her ass handed to her by Mayura was pushing it. Still, apparently Ladybug and Chat Noir needed her help—Queen Bee’s help. And Chloe would be lying if she said she wasn’t a little excited to stretch her wings and see what she could really do, figuratively and literally. Because despite the clear and present danger associated with their line of work, who didn’t dream of gaining superpowers and fighting the bad guys to the adoration of the masses?

“So you chose me,” Chloe said to Pollen as she got dressed for the work day in a black skirt suit and pale lilac blouse. “But Mayura still brought you to me.”

“So?” Pollen said. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter.”

“I get it, but why would Mayura pick me? Does she know me under her glamour?”

Pollen shrugged, and it was honest to god the most adorable gesture Chloe had ever seen. She’d never had a thing for bugs, but Pollen was more Beanie Baby than bee to look upon her. “How should I know? I’ve been asleep for a hundred years.”

Still, of all the people in Paris, why her? Under her Miraculous glamour, Chloe could not hope to know Mayura's face. She couldn’t even discern her true age with any confidence.

Or maybe it wasn’t about Chloe at all; maybe it was about Ladybug and Chat Noir. Chloe had had plenty of interactions with them in their high school days, perhaps disproportionately so. Mostly because she’d been the root cause of a number of akumatized victims.

But even so, her actions had put her in close contact with Ladybug and Chat Noir perhaps more than anybody else. Maybe Mayura had come to her because in a way, she was already involved. Chloe had no idea, but she intended to find out.

As she was zipping up her pencil skirt, her phone buzzed. Pollen was on it immediately. For some reason, she was absolutely smitten with the idea of phones, how they buzzed whenever someone wanted to talk. She was convinced bees had been the inspiration for phones as a way to connect many people across long distances with a friendly buzz. Then again, Pollen seemed to think just about everything humans did was about bees, or ought to be.

“Hey, you have a message!” Pollen said, her excitement palpable. “From Hot Luka. Ooh, who’s that?”

Chloe immediately snatched her phone. It was barely 8 a.m. and he was already up and texting her. Again. Boy didn’t know when to quit.

“Is he feverish?” Pollen asked.

“What? No,” Chloe said, distracted as she read the message.

[Hot Luka: Can I see you today?]

“Then why is he hot?”

“Hot also means good looking.” She chewed her lip, wondering how to respond. He’d been wanting to see her again since Sunday, and she’d given him excuse after excuse not to. She was busy, that wasn’t a lie, but she also wasn’t actively looking for a way to see him again.

[Hot Luka: Just coffee. Doesn’t have to be long.]

Chloe frowned. Just coffee? What did that mean? Was he not satisfied with Sunday?

Please, I blew his freaking mind on Sunday, among other things.

“Ohhhh, I see. So Hot Luka is your drone, hm?” Pollen said.

“My what?”

“Your mate. He gives you his seed. Your drone, of course. Every queen bee has at least one.”

Chloe nearly choked on her tongue. “Okay, ew, first of all. ‘Gives you his seed’? He’s just some guy I hooked up with once. I’m not trying to have his babies, Jesus. And drone? Really? Do you have to use bee words in normal conversation all the time?”

“I prefer buzz words,” Pollen said smugly. “Isn’t that clever? I read it on your Internetting. Apparently, it’s when words are especially meaningful and important. Isn’t that just perfect?”

Chloe suppressed a groan at the excruciating bee pun. “Internet, it’s called the Internet. And I don’t remember giving you web browsing privileges.” Although, that explained why her iPad’s browser history was replete with Buzzfeed articles about everything from Disney princess personality quizzes to the latest Comic-Con coverage.

“Why do you call it the web? It’s more like an infinite honeycomb with all those pockets of sweet knowledge just waiting to be mined.”

This was going to be a thing with her, wasn’t it? Were all kwami this narcissistic? Or worse, did they choose Miraculous hosts based on compatible personalities? Was she this narcissistic?

“Well…” Chloe muttered, not necessarily wanting to continue that train of thought.

“Well, what? Aren’t you going to respond to him? He clearly wants to mate with you again,” Pollen said.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Of course he does, it’s me.” But did she want to see him again? In truth, she would not have minded a repeat of Sunday. It had been a while since she was last with anybody, and there was something about him that made her want to break all her self-imposed expectations for what a romantic partner should be. Or rather, her mother’s expectations.

The thought of Audrey Bourgeois, socialite extraordinaire, meeting Luka, knowing he was the man Chloe willingly brought to her bed at night, drew a dastardly grin to her face. She fantasized about her mother melting like the Wicked Witch of the West upon learning the truth. That image alone almost made her accept Luka’s invitation on the spot.

“Are you thinking something naughty, Honey Bee?” Pollen said, matching her grin and vibrating at the possibility of mischief.

“Maybe.” Chloe ran a hand through her damp hair. She needed to blow dry it and get a move on. “But I don’t have time for fun right now.”

“Sure you do! C’mon, what’s one little coffee date, hm? And I want to meet your drone, too!”

“Oh my god, he’s not my drone. I don’t have drones. He’s just some guy.”

“Yes, a hot guy. And you’re a bee-autiful queen. I think you deserve hot things.”

Chloe looked thoughtfully at Pollen. It’s like she’s my spirit voice. Maybe their partnership really had been a touch of destiny, bee puns notwithstanding. “Well, you’re not wrong. I do work pretty hard.”

“You know what you need? Some soft hands to rub those bruises away. Does Hot Luka have soft hands?”

He did. An artist’s hands with long, talented fingers. Chloe felt a flutter of heat in the pit of her belly as she remembered flashes of Sunday night at his place. She bit her lip.

We could keep it casual, no big deal. I’m too busy with my work and now this Miraculous thing, and he’s working two jobs on top of his music to pay the bills. He’d understand.

She was already typing out a reply before she could rationalize taking relationship advice from a talking bee.

[Chloe: Okay. I’m free at 4.]

The chat bubbles bounced as he typed back an immediate reply. Pollen buzzed next to her ear, and they waited together for his text to come through.

[Hot Luka: Perfect. I’ll come to you.]

“Fuck, no,” Chloe said, her fingers flying over the touch screen of her smart phone.

“What? But you just said I could meet him!”

“Meet—what? You can’t meet him. I never said that.”

[Chloe: No that’s okay, I’ll come to you. Firefly?]

“What do you mean I can’t meet him?” Pollen whined. “It’s my sworn duty to make sure your drone is fit to please you!”

“You’re a magical talking bee god, Pollen. You can’t just meet him, or anyone for that matter. We’re supposed to keep this between us, remember? Besides, you’ll only give him a heart attack.”

Pollen looked ready to burst into tears. “Y-You think he w-won’t like me?”

Chloe pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh my god.”

[Hot Luka: Great, looking forward to it.]

Chloe dropped her phone in her purse and headed back to the bathroom to finish getting ready for work.

“W-Wait, Honeycomb! You never answered my question! Won’t he like me??”

Chloe combed out the tangles in her wet hair. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then whaaaaaat??”

Sighing, Chloe set down her brush and held out her hands for Pollen to have a seat. She looked absolutely miserable, or at least, as miserable as a bee can look. And goddamn her tenderheartedness, but Chloe felt a little bad. “He would adore you,” she said, planting a kiss on Pollen’s bulbous head and earning herself a buzz that sounded remarkably like purring. “But Mayura said we have to keep this between us. If whatever asshole is behind those coral murders found out about you…”

Chloe didn’t want to think about how dangerous that would be.

“Look, you can meet him, but he can’t meet you. He can’t know you’re there. If you promise to stay hidden and quiet, you can come along.”

Pollen sniffled. “You mean it, Sweetness?”

Chloe smiled for her. “Would I lie to you?”

Instantly, Pollen brightened and buzzed about happily, as if she had completely forgotten what had upset her. For all her supernatural presence, Pollen sometimes reminded Chloe more of a spoiled child than an omnipotent god.

“Okay, now I have to finish getting ready, so buzz off for a bit.” She blasted the hairdryer.


 

Four o’clock rolled around sooner than Chloe anticipated. She was up to her eyes in work getting ready for a big event next weekend, something for a new television premiere, as well as the quarter’s end reporting rush. She was also juggling a real estate negotiation to open up another hotel here in Paris, a boutique bed and breakfast place that would cater to the ultra wealthy looking for the flavor of Versailles in the heart of Paris. All things considered, Chloe’s time these days was so valuable that she was technically losing money by spending time on a date with Luka. Maybe she should be charging him. The thought made her laugh. Classy.

She was a little late arriving and finishing up a work email on her phone when she walked into Firefly Lounge. It looked different during the day, like a cozy hipster cafe more than a jazz lounge. Patrons cozied up on the old leather couches and round two-top tables sipping overpriced cappuccinos and big chocolate chip cookies. A slow R&B tune Chloe didn’t recognize played through the speakers in the background. The place smelled of espresso, vinyl, and pot.

“You made it,” said Luka, coming toward her from behind the espresso bar. He had a stained towel in his hands that he used to wipe them off. Like the rest of the patrons, he was casually dressed like he’d gone to a rock concert the night before and slept in his clothes.

But damn if he didn’t pull it off. His perpetually sleepy-eyed gaze caught hers, and he smiled in that pretend-shy way that sent her heart pounding a little faster. Because as she’d learned on Sunday, nothing about him was shy at all.

Okay, so he was attractive. And clearly happy to see her. That was fine.

This is fine.

As soon as he touched her, it wasn’t fine anymore. Her took her waist in one hand and her neck in the other, and pulled her in for a kiss—and she fucking let him. To be fair, he didn’t give her any warning. Also, he was a good kisser, and Chloe was not one to waste talent when it was so graciously offered up before her. Her hands (traitors!) found their way to his plaid overshirt and twisted the lapels. She felt him smirk against her lips, and soon he pulled away. Dark eyes held hers, smiling. Could eyes smile? Luka’s could.

“Hi,” he said.

Chloe tried to remember what breathing was, which was not easy considering the way his thumb pressed against the sensitive flesh behind her ear. “H-Hi.”

In her coat pocket, Pollen squirmed, excited, but remained mercifully silent like she’d promised she would.

“Been a while,” Luka said. “You look good.”

Chloe let out a sharp breath. “I look like shit. This week has been hell.”

He chuckled softly. “Are you just saying that because you want me to tell you you’re beautiful? No need to fish for compliments. I’m happy to oblige.”

She frowned and crossed her arms. “I don’t need you to tell me what I already know.”

“Fine, but that won’t stop me.” He took her hand in his and pulled her after him. “Come on, I’m on my break, and I don’t want to waste it.”

They took a table in the back where it was a little quieter, and Chloe shed her white pea coat. 

“Not a word,” she warned him when she caught him looking at her. “I know I look like a corporate leech in this.”

“Why do you think I brought you to the back where no one would see us together? I have a reputation to maintain,” he teased.

“Ha ha.”

“If it makes you feel better, I could tell people you’re my therapist here giving me important life advice.”

“Right, because it totally makes sense for a therapist to go on a coffee date with her patient. There definitely aren’t any ethical violations I can think of there.”

He laughed, and the sound made Chloe’s toes curl in her stilettos. “Then in the interest of doctor-patient confidentiality, I won’t tell a soul about this scandalous rendezvous.” He put a hand over his heart.

Chloe said nothing to that. She tried to ignore the sudden stab of guilt in her gut, though she could not really say what had brought it on. She played if off with a snarky eye roll. “So, what does a girl have to do to get a macchiato in this place? Can they even see us back here?” She waved at a passing barista taking orders from another table.

They got their coffees soon enough, along with a snicker and a wink from the barista to Luka. Clearly, they did not often see him bring women around. At least, not women like Chloe. They barely settled in with their drinks when they were interrupted again.

“Luka, we’re heading out now,” said a woman approaching from behind Chloe.

“Okay, thanks for stopping by,” Luka said.

“And who is this? Oh! Luka, are you on a date?”

Chloe wondered what kind of fine she’d be looking at for starting a brawl in a cafe. But she was already spotted, might as well just get the awkward conversation over with. She turned, smiling politely. “Hi, I’m—”

Chloe Bourgeois?” said a familiar voice from an unfamiliar face. She was dressed in a tailored suit, and her hair was pulled back in a professional but pretty bun that flattered her heart-shaped face. There was something vaguely familiar about that face, those almond eyes…

“Oh, right, I guess you two would know each other since you went to high school together,” Luka said.

And then it hit her like a ton of bricks, and Chloe gaped. “Juleka?”

“Yeah,” Juleka said, clearly uncomfortable as she tugged on a tress of her bangs. “It’s been a long time.”

“I didn’t even recognize you,” Chloe blurted out, still not quite believing that this corporate suit in front of her was the same Juleka Couffaine, a.k.a. ‘Sadako’ as Chloe had once cruelly dubbed her, who’d worn electric violet lipstick every day, a gallon of eye liner, and more Christian iconography than most evangelicals. She’d also been painfully diffident with few friends. 

“I get that a lot,” Juleka said with the tired resignation of someone who was used to the incredulous stare Chloe was giving her. Her dark eyes flashed to Luka, and then back to Chloe. “So, you’re dating my brother?”

“No,” Chloe said at the same time as Luka said, “Yes.”

That stab of guilt needled deeper in her gut.

Luka just rolled with it, cool as a cucumber. “Well, we’re not really calling it anything right now.”

The older woman with Juleka, who was dressed very fashionably in a jade, woolen poncho coat over black leather pants and designer booties, beamed. “Luka! Yatto omae kanojo ga dekitekita ne! Shikamo, honmono no bijin da shi! Omedeto.”

Luka laughed, while Juleka looked a little embarrassed to be here. Chloe did not speak a word of Japanese and was left playing the dumb idiot in the middle, knowing they were talking about her but with no clue what had been said. Thankfully, Luka did not have a rude bone in his body and came to the rescue.

“Chloe, this is my aunt, Jessika. She’s an actress based out of Tokyo, but she’s here in Paris for the season filming a new show. She just called you a true beauty.” Luka spared her a knowing smile.

Chloe, however, needed no further introduction. She recognized this woman easily.

“Jessika Fujiwara?” Chloe said. “Of Lady Moon fame?”

Jessika brightened, and it was Juleka who gaped her incredulity this time. “My goodness, you are quite well-informed! Yes, Lady Moon was my big break when I was a young woman trying to make it big in Tokyo. Ah, what a lovely memory you’ve given me!”

“Of course I know it, it’s a classic of Japanese sci-fi cinema. One of the first to make it big even by Hollywood standards,” Chloe said excitedly. “It’s a work of art.”

“Oh, you flatter me! Luka, I quite like this one. Good job.”

Chloe was too starstruck to worry about the implications there. She was talking to Jessika Fujiawara! The Jessika Fujiwara! She’d grown up watching her films before the actress transitioned into television dramas as she got older. And suddenly, Chloe remembered the event that had been sucking up all her time at work this week.

“Wait, the premiere party for Silver Soul next week, that’s your new television show, isn’t it?”

Jessika nodded. “Yes, it is. It’s an international collaboration with producers and actors from Tokyo, Milan, and Paris. I’m very proud to have been given the leading female role.”

Chloe was so beside herself that she got up and actually took Jessika’s hand in hers. “That party is at my hotel, Le Grand Paris! I’ve been handling all the contracts and operations logistics for weeks.”

Jessika, rather than taken aback at Chloe’s enthusiasm, took Chloe’s hands in hers and smiled brightly. “How lovely! Beauty and success all in one. But you are so young! How can you be in charge of such an important event? And such a grand hotel?”

Chloe grinned, feeling cocky. “Well, I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am. My father trusted me to manage his local business affairs when he retired last year.”

“Andre Bourgeois, of course!” Jessika gushed. “You must be Audrey’s daughter! She is an old friend of mine. Oh, but the fun we used to have…” She shook her head as she recalled some fabulous memories of her youth.

Chloe was not at all surprised that her social-climbing mother could be acquainted with a famous foreign actress, but the fondness with which Jessika spoke about their relationship was unexpected. She was sure that aside from Emilie Agreste a lifetime ago, Audrey had never had any real friends at all.

Juleka cleared her throat. “So, Aunt Jess, we’re going to be late for our appointment…”

“Oh! Yes, Juleka, you’re absolutely right. We should be on our way. These nails won’t manicure themselves, you know.” She fluttered her already perfectly manicured nails and smiled coyly. “Chloe, it was an absolute pleasure to meet you. And to see my sweet Luka so smitten! Well, who can blame him?”

Honestly, Chloe didn’t even care anymore. Jessika Fujiwara! “Y-Yes, you too. I’ll see you on Saturday. For the premiere party. At my hotel. I’ll be there.”

Jessika lit up as though she’d just had the most marvelous idea. “The party, of course! Luka, you must come. It will be a magnificent soiree, as you say, and wouldn’t you like the chance to see the results of Chloe’s hard work?”

Chloe froze. “Wait, what?”

“A party?” Luka said, bemused.

“Black tie not optional, I assume,” Juleka said, shooting Luka a look.

“W-Well, I mean, the guest list is pretty exclusive,” Chloe hedged, looking back at Luka. “And these things can be pretty boring.” She immediately bit her tongue, because Jessika Fujiwara. “I-I mean, boring for people not involved! In the production! I’ll be working anyway, so I’ll be busy. Super busy.”

Oh god, what have I done? She began to panic.

“Nonsense! You simply must come, Luka, I insist,” Jessika said. “As the lead actress, I may invite whomever I choose, of course. Juleka, you will also come to support your favorite auntie, yes?”

“Hard pass,” Juleka said. “Those parties aren’t my style.”

“If it’s okay with Chloe, I’d love to go,” Luka said. He looked at her expectantly, a silent question.

I’m fucked. I’m royally, fantastically fucked.

“Um…sure,” Chloe said, trying her best not to sound disappointed. “I’ll add you to the guest list.”

Trés bien!” Jessika clapped her hands together. “This will be such fun. I only wish Audrey could be here. She always loved a good party.”

Chloe bit her lip. Yeah, more than anything else in her life.

“Well, we must be going. Juleka, I know you have a meeting at 6, so we must be off. Luka, I’ll see you for dinner this evening, yes?”

“Sure, Aunt Jess. Have fun.” Luka waved.

“We will. Chloe, so nice to meet you. Don’t go breaking my precious Luka’s heart now!” she teased.

Luka shared a last parting look with Juleka, and then the two women were off.

“So,” Luka said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “You all right?”

“Huh? Oh, um, yeah. A little starstruck. All this time, Jessika Fujiwara was your aunt?”

“Yeah, ever since I was born. Apparently those things tend to stick.”

Chloe scowled. “Hilarious. You know what I meant.”

Luka shrugged. “She does her thing, Juleka does hers. I do mine. We’re a family of doers.”

They sat back down to finish their coffees, but Chloe’s had gone tepid in her neglect.

“Chloe,” Luka said. “Do you not want me to come to your party?”

Chloe stared at him like a deer caught in the headlights. That twisting knife of guilt in her gut sliced her clean open, and she squeezed her coffee mug. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

He gave her a look that was simultaneously knowing and patient. “Your lack of enthusiasm, for one thing.”

She winced. “Right, that. Look, it’s just—”

Just what? What could she say to him the wouldn’t make her sound like ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag? She hadn’t meant to sound so indelicate, but she’d never been very good at hiding her true feelings from people, especially the negative ones. Which would not normally have bothered her, as there were so few people who actually mattered enough to be careful around, anyway. So why did she feel this stabbing guilt when he looked at her like he would understand whatever bullshit excuse she gave him?

“It’s just,” she started again, licking her lips and trying to find a way to say this nicely. “You’re just…”

“I’m just…?” 

How did he do that? How did he put her on the spot without sounding the least big judgmental about it? The more time she spent with Luka, the more she got the sneaking suspicion that he was, at his core, a genuinely nice person. And it scared the shit out of her.

“It’s not really your crowd,” Chloe hedged. “I just thought you wouldn’t have any interest in that sort of thing.”

You fucking coward, a voice in the back of her head screamed at her. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t say it, not when he looked like that, not when it might actually scare him off for real…

“I see,” he said, watching her thoughtfully. He leaned across the table on his elbows and laced his fingers together. “Well, this might shock you, but unlike Juleka, I happen to enjoy the occasional party and meeting new people. And I may even have a suit stashed somewhere at the back of my closet from my high school graduation dance, if it still fits.”

He was teasing her now, trying to put her at ease. Unbelievable. 

“Why are you so agreeable about everything?” she blurted out.

“Why not? It’s obviously harder for you than it is for me. I don’t mind.”

“But why?”

“Is it that hard for you to believe that maybe I’m kind of in to you? I thought I made that pretty clear on Sunday.”

Chloe flushed. “You did.”

“Then shut that pretty mouth about it.” 

Chloe shivered a little at the glimpse of that hidden control he’d shown her on Sunday when they were alone together.

“We had fun together. I’d like to continue that. I think you do, too, since you’re here. I can see that you need some time to get comfortable with the idea, and that’s okay with me. I’m not in to labels, anyway. But if you want whatever this is to end, then you need to tell me right now.”

“No,” Chloe said automatically. “I mean, I don’t…” She took a deep breath and forced herself to look him in the eye. She at least owed him that much. “I had fun with you, too. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”

“Okay,” he said, as simple as that.

“…Okay,” Chloe said.

“So, the premiere party. Are you okay with me being there or not?”

She bit her lip, but nodded. I’m guess really doing this. “Yeah. It’s fine.”

It was going to have to be.

“Okay,” Luka said, settling back in his chair and giving her some breathing room. They lapsed into silence, but he didn’t make it feel awkward. More like he was giving her time to collect herself.

“So,” she said after a beat, “Juleka’s your sister.”

“I can tell you were pretty surprised by that.”

Chloe shook her head. “No, just… Well, yeah, I guess. She’s so different than I remember.”

“She’s a corporate lawyer. A fucking good one, from what I hear.”

“Seriously?”

“At Bell & Pausini.”

Seriously?! That’s like the Cravath of Western Europe!”

Luka looked at her funny. “Is that a good thing?”

“Yeah, or I guess depending on your perspective. Bell & Pausini’s the most prestigious law firm in Europe. Anyway, the point is, she must be a real killer to have gotten hired there.” And no desire for a personal life outside of all those billable hours…

He grinned. “I’ll let her know you said that.”

“Oh my god, don’t.”

“No, she’ll appreciate it. Juleka’s always been a little…underplayed, you could say. But she’s a boss. She deserves to hear that from one boss to another.”

Chloe couldn’t help but preen a little at his praise. “So I’m a boss, am I?”

“Only a true boss would show up here unironically in stilettos. You have no shame.”

“Oh yeah, I can be a real queen bee.”

His gaze darkened, almost hungry, and Chloe felt her pulse spike. “I’m aware.”

Damn him, she thought in a whiny voice that reminded her remarkably of Pollen. Luka knew the suggestive look he was giving her and the very immediate, very carnal effect it had on her given Sunday’s prurient escapades.

And that was her cue to get out now before she did something impulsive like sleep with him again. It was bad enough that he’d caught her in an embarrassing lie and convinced her to admit that she might actually be interested in him beyond Sunday. She didn’t need to make it worse by giving in to her baser desires again so soon.

“I should get back,” Chloe said, standing and shrugging on her coat.

“Oh, all right.” He didn’t bother masking his disappointment. He checked his phone for the time. “I guess I should probably get back to work, too.”

“You guys still serve coffee after five?”

“Nah, the bar will open. I’ll be on cocktail duty.”

Chloe made a show of shuddering. “Then I’m definitely leaving.”

He followed her as she buttoned her coat and headed for the door. “Come on, I have some skills.”

“You absolutely do not. You didn’t even know what a Floradora was until I had to explain it to you. Twice.

They made it to the door, and Chloe let herself out. Luka still followed her, and he grabbed her wrist.

“Sorry,” he said, laughing. “Firefly caters more to the beer crowd than anything else. But at least I take direction well.”

Chloe shot him a knowing look. “More like I’m a pro at giving orders.”

“Well, I won’t argue with you there.”

She was suddenly aware of just how close he was. They lingered in the covered entrance on the firefly pattern mosaic that gave the place its name. He smelled like soap and coffee and Luka. Goddamnit, I know what he smells like. She swallowed. His hand snaked around her jaw and tilted her face towards his. In her heels they were of a height, but he had a borderline supernatural way of making her look up at him all the same.

“Chloe,” he said.

And damn him and his stupid sexy voice because he knew exactly what he was doing to her.

“Yes?” she said, unable to control the quaver in her voice. If there was one thing Chloe could not resist in a man, it was the ability to steal her coveted control away. Every day she was the boss, be it in her job or in her personal life, there was no difference. But to let go of that control, to surrender it even for just a night, to trust implicitly that she’d get it back in the morning… Fuck. Him.

Fuck him.

What an idea.

“Come back to my place,” he commanded. Commanded. Somehow, in the short time they’d known each other, he had figured out exactly what buttons to push, and how to dismantle her.

That little seed of an idea had taken root and absorbed what little was left of her sanity. Who needed rational thought? Rational thought did not know her secret pressure points like Luka did.

“Okay,” she said, for there was nothing else to say.

He pulled her into a ruinous kiss that stole her breath and the last of her dwindling resistance. Yes, he would ruin her, and goddamnit she wanted to be ruined. What was it about him? At once sensitive, almost poignant, the way he sang on Sunday, like they were the only two people in the room, and yet so confident, so enviably comfortable in his own skin, like he knew exactly what he wanted and would not shy from it for decorum’s sake. He was so obnoxiously attractive to her that she could hardly think straight as he deepened their kiss.

He’d sung for her, he confessed when they were alone in his bed. She’d been wound so tightly, and he’d wanted to watch her unravel. How could someone be so vulnerable and exposed one minute, and so consuming, even ravenous, the next? She didn’t know, but she wanted to find out.

He bit down on her lip just enough to focus her attention, and she whimpered, fingers curling his shirt front insistently. She felt him smile against her lips, and he pulled away with a lingering reluctance that promised more later. His fingers ghosted the lacquered Miraculous comb tucked in her hair.

“Pretty,” he said.

Somewhere in Chloe’s coat pocket, Pollen swooned dreamily.

Chloe huffed. “I only have an hour, and then I have to get back. That’s non-negotiable.”

He smirked, eyes dancing with mirth and something much more promising. “Then I promise not to waste a single minute of your valuable time.”

He took her by the hand and led her south a couple blocks to his apartment, where he made good on his promise and cherished every minute they had.

 

Chapter Text

Gabriel Agreste’s icy gaze lingered on Municipal Police Chief Roger Raincomprix over the rim of his scotch glass as they sat across Gabriel’s mahogany desk. Unlike Gabriel, who was broad-shouldered and slim with a figure best suited to filling out a three-piece suit, Chief Raincomprix was easily twice Gabriel’s weight with hands like ham hocks and jowls that rivaled a bullfrog in chorus. His once ruddy, coarse hair had receded, only to sprout anew in his grey-streaked beard and mustache. His doughy cheeks were rosy with drink—not from the quantity consumed, but because of his natural predisposition to intolerance. He looked like the kind of man people might avoid on a Saturday night, the kind of man who needed little impetus to start swinging those ham fists.

But get him talking, and Chief Raincomprix was just Roger, former acquaintance and PTA parent, concerned citizen, and predictably, inevitably, pathetically human.

“I think it’s really great that you’re concerned enough about what’s been happening to want to help,” Roger said amiably, swirling his scotch.

The man loved his scotch, Gabriel recalled from past outings years ago, when Emilie introduced them. Gabriel had had neither the interest nor the time to socialize as he struggled day and night build up his company and take it public, but Emilie was always making friends and dragging him along, whether he liked it or not. In hindsight, Gabriel was grateful he hadn’t antagonized this forced acquaintance, although he never would have predicted that simple, pandering, Roger Raincomprix would earn his stripes and rise to the rank of Chief of Police.

“But to be honest with you, I’m not sure there’s much a civilian can do,” Roger continued. “Well, except for your civic duty, of course.”

Gabriel plastered a winning smile on his face, one practiced and perfected. He sat back in his leather chair and crossed his legs comfortably. “Of course, we all have our part to play. I can’t imagine yours has been easy these last few days having to console the victims’ grieving families.”

Roger’s face fell, betraying his genuine sorrow. “No, I can tell you it hasn’t. It doesn’t help that all of Paris witnessed the whole thing go down on live television.”

He sighed, weary with stress and exhaustion. Gabriel wondered if the man had gotten any sleep at all since Wednesday.

“Yes, it was horrifying. I saw the broadcast myself, of course,” Gabriel agreed.

“I tell you, it was some stroke of luck having Ladybug and Chat Noir show up when they did.” Roger grimaced at his drink, lost in the memory. “I lost some good men that night. Would’ve lost many more if it wasn’t for those two.”

He was too lost in his own troubled thoughts to notice the way Gabriel tensed at the mention of Paris’s masked superheroes. Gabriel willed himself to relax, to remember why he had invited Roger here in the first place.

“How goes the investigation?” Gabriel asked. “Any leads on the culprit, or his motive?”

Roger looked up and blinked stupidly. “Oh, well, not to be rude considering you invited me here as a friend, Gabe—”

Gabriel smiled to hide his displeasure at that nickname. He loathed that particular diminution of his name.

“—but you know I’m not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation with a civilian,” Roger finished. He looked genuinely remorseful as he lowered his mighty chin and looked up at Gabriel.

“Of course. I would never ask you to compromise your ethical obligations. It’s just that, well, I’m sure you can imagine how…disconcerting all this is.” He let that hang for a moment, watching as Roger’s expression furrowed with worry. “Given the supernatural element to the murders, it’s no wonder people have voiced their concerns about the municipal police’s fitness to handle this investigation.”

Roger choked on a sip of scotch and coughed violently. Gabriel watched impassively as he beat his chest like some feral ape and tried to clear his throat. When the coughing died down and Roger heaved to catch his breath, Gabriel said, “I’m sure the police have their best forensics and medical teams working day and night to determine what could possibly cause all those tragic deaths. I have no doubt that the dedicated men and women in your office will get to the bottom of this sad and horrific injustice.”

“I’ve heard the talk,” Roger said as he dabbed his sweating forehead with an old handkerchief he’d pulled from his pocket. “You know, people are scared, I understand, but they can’t just demand answers right away. These things take time.” He scowled. “M.E.s don’t even really know the right questions to be asking.”

“Nonsense! Your medical examiners are some of the brightest minds in Paris. I should know—I’m on the board of trustees at the General Hospital. You have good people working for you.”

Roger frowned deeply. “Of course, of course.”

“Of course… But with so many bodies, and pressure from the public, not to mention how thinly spread M.E.s are known to be, especially on a government salary—”

“Yes, I know, it’s been a difficult time.” Roger shook his head in frustration. “I’m doing everything I can, and so is my team, but…”

“…But wouldn’t it be nice if you had more of a cushion?”

Roger peered at Gabriel. “A cushion? What do you mean?”

Gabriel gestured noncommittally. “Oh, never mind. I think I may be meddling in police business, after all. Best to leave it at that.”

Roger licked his lips and leaned forward a little. “No, it’s all right. I’m happy to hear your suggestions. No law against that, of course.”

Gabriel smiled politely and reached for the crystal decanter on his desk. He poured another finger of scotch in Roger’s glass. “I’ve had the great fortune of meeting many highly competent professionals in the medical field. There are exciting breakthroughs coming, truly the cutting edge of the cutting edge. I could make some calls,” Gabriel said nonchalantly, as if he had offered to call up the neighbors and ask for a cup of sugar. “I’m sure your M.E.s and forensic analysts wouldn’t object to fresh eyes from some of the leading minds in their fields?”

Roger’s eyes grew large as he all but began to salivate at the prospect. “That would be…”

“Of course, the best minds come with a high price tag, I’m sure you understand. But it’s for such a good cause. I can’t bear to sit by while my fellow Parisians live in terror of the next attack. I suppose I could set up a charitable trust for the Municipal Police Force. I’ve been looking for a way to get more involved in our community ever since my return.”

“Gabe, that would be amazing,” Roger said. “With more funding and access to resources, we may even be able to figure out what caused that bizarre coral growth. You’d really do that?”

“Of course. I seem to recall that I have a civic duty. It’s my pleasure to help.”

Roger, awestruck, sat back in his chair and raised his scotch glass. “Well, I’m delighted to hear it. The Mayor will be, too.”

“Yes, I’m sure. And I hope you’ll let me know how the investigation gets along. I’m eager to see justice done.”

Roger looked at him, his smile fading as he slowly took Gabriel’s meaning. “You’d like to know…how the investigation is going?”

“Just like any other concerned citizen would. I’d like to know your progress, any developments, no matter how small…just as soon as they come to light.”

Roger was no longer smiling. He dabbed his bald forehead with his handkerchief again and set down his scotch, no longer thirsty. “Well, that’s…”

“You need time to consider your options, I understand.” Gabriel rose and headed for the door to his office. “I appreciate your time all the same, Roger.”

“You do?” Roger got up and warily approached the door.

“Absolutely. And I’m sure the National Police will be just as eager to hear my proposal if you’re not interested.”

“T-The National Police? Well, hang on a minute, what’s this about?”

Gabriel blinked guilelessly. “Well, it’s as I said, I feel that it’s my civic duty to aid law enforcement however I can to see justice served. As you can see, I’m no superhero like Ladybug.” He chuckled and indicated himself. “But I do have quite a lot of money, so I simply thought there might be something even I can do, no matter how small. If you’re not interested, though, I could always ask the Na—”

“No! I mean, yes, the Municipal Police would be, ah, very humbled by your generous support,” Roger stammered. “I myself, of course, would be most appreciative. That is, knowing my department had the faith and support of such an upstanding citizen like yourself. Yes, I think it would be excellent for morale, too. God knows we need a little of that in these dark days.”

“I completely understand.”

Roger scratched his cheek. “I suppose I could keep you abreast of any, ah, changes here and there. My job can be a bit…overwhelming, and it’s good to know I have friends who will lend a willing ear whenever I feel the need to, ah, unload anything…”

Gabriel placed a hand on Roger’s thick shoulder. “These are dark days indeed. We could all use a friend here and there. I’m honored to be counted among yours, Roger.”

Roger breathed a sigh of relief and wiped his forehead again, nodding. “Of course, Gabe.”

Gabriel smiled brightly and hoped it hid the unseemly twitch of his lips at the sound of that heinous diminution. “Well, Roger, it was good seeing you. We’ll catch up again very soon, I’m sure. Nathalie will show you out.”

Nathalie was already waiting just outside the office, and she led Roger down the stairs to the front door. Gabriel shut the door behind them and went back to his desk, where he topped off his scotch and sipped it by the window overlooking the inner courtyard of the Agreste Mansion. Something wriggled in his jacket, and little butterfly wings fluttered and settled on his shoulder.

“I’m surprised he agreed to share police intelligence with you,” Nooroo said.

“Are you? Any longer, and he may have gotten on his knees to beg.”

Nooroo sighed. For one so small and, some might say, cute, the butterfly kwami betrayed the weight of the world in that sharp little sigh. “I don’t like deceiving people.”

Gabriel’s lips twitched. He could see the shadow of his reflection in the window. His blond hair had long since turned to spun silver, but unlike the good Chief of Police, he had a full head of hair that remained the envy of men even ten years young than him. Rimless glasses perched on his straight-edged nose, and his prominent chin was as smooth as a baby’s, freshly shaved. The sun was low in the sky, almost five in the afternoon. It would be dark soon. He swirled his drink and appreciated the smoky aroma.

“Even if the lie is for a good cause?” Gabriel asked at length.

“I suppose,” Nooroo said. “But…it just doesn’t feel right.”

Gabriel downed the rest of his drink. It was liquid fire going down, but he maintained his icy composure. “It will feel right when this fiend is found and put down for good.”

He could still vividly recall Wednesday’s eerie television broadcast, those possessed audience members nothing but meat sacks, unable to think or feel beyond the need to obey some invisible master. He’d recognized the technique almost instantly watching Ladybug get surrounded as she tried to attack their ring leader. Someone was pulling their strings, someone powerful. But it was not Alec Cataldi. No, he had been as much a pawn as the others, the patient zero of their merry little zombie band.

Someone else was responsible. Someone who, like Hawk Moth fourteen years ago, preferred to remain in the shadows, unseen.

Which would have been just fine with Gabriel. He had money, a successful company, and a purpose in life. He could live anywhere, protect himself in this fortress, or even join the fight himself if it ever came to it. He was not without resources and options. But he was also not without a weakness, and the sight of Chat Noir on the scene pulling the coralized victims off of Ladybug, careless of his own safety in the process, had awakened an old fury so incandescent that Gabriel still felt the embers smoldering in his gut. It would not take much to set them ablaze once again, and he knew it was only a matter of time.

Chat Noir would not abandon Ladybug a second time, and unlike when he was fourteen, there was little Gabriel could do to stop him now. But he had to try. His only son was the most selfishly selfless person Gabriel had ever known, save for the boy’s mother.

“I know you’re worried about Adrien,” Nooroo said gently. “I am, too.”

“Then you understand the need for deception,” Gabriel said. “That boy is putty in Ladybug’s hands, then as now. He’ll die for her if he believes it will save her. I cannot allow this to continue.”

“Chat Noir and Ladybug are meant to be together. They’re partners, two halves of a perfect whole. It makes sense that Adrien would want to protect Ladybug. It’s his purpose.”

“It’s a lie,” Gabriel spat. “Ladybug and Chat Noir… Their entire existence is a farce. To force two people to bend and contort together to the satisfaction of their unbalanced kwami is unnatural. And it will only end up destroying them in the end.”

Nooroo had never been particularly pugnacious, preferring to assuage his Chosen with patience and a willing ear to air his grievances. But there were some topics about which Nooroo was not shy to voice his opinion.

“You’re wrong, Master,” he said calmly. “There is nothing unnatural about Ladybug and Chat Noir’s partnership. Since the beginning, they have always existed as equal and opposing forces. Together they may fall, but together they rise higher than all the rest of us. They are the strongest Miraculous because they have each other.”

“Yes, just as Felix and Bridgette had each other.”

Nooroo gasped and shrunk in on himself. Gabriel could feel his sadness to recall such a despicable memory—a chilling tremor that rattled his bones like a strong wind. It was a low blow, but the truth had a way of forcing the high and mighty to one knee when they towered too high. A part of him regretted bringing up such a painful memory, but he quickly smothered that guilt. Nooroo was a kwami, an all powerful god that had existed for eons. He had seen loss, death, and suffering ad nauseam. Gabriel was relatively new to the sensation by comparison, even as he looked ahead to the winter years of his life. But he did not shrink as Nooroo did, and he would not fall to his knees anymore. Not when the one thing left to him that mattered was at stake.

Gabriel fished his personal cell phone out of his pocket and called the only number in his Favorites list.

“Father, hi,” Adrien said when he picked up.

“Adrien, did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No, I have a few minutes before my next meeting. Did you need something?”

“Yes. Well, no, actually, not in particular.” There was an awkward pause as Adrien waited for him to elaborate, and Gabriel waited for him to interject. He switched the phone to his other ear. “Anyway, I’ve cleared my schedule for the evening, and I was wondering you’d like to join me for dinner.”

“Oh… Well, actually—”

“After your meeting, of course,” Gabriel added. “No rush. It’s still early, but I can have Nathalie make a reservation somewhere. Anywhere you want. Perhaps that new Greek place that opened up downtown?”

“I'm sorry, Father. I actually already have dinner plans tonight.”

Nooroo looked a little glum as he met his gaze. Gabriel cleared his throat.

“Oh, I see. Yes, I know you’ve been very busy with the quarter’s end reports.”

“It’s not a work dinner. I’m meeting friends.”

“Ah, right. Anyone I know? I realize it’s none of my business, but—”

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” Adrien interrupted him. “And some other friends from high school. I doubt you remember Nino Lahiffe and Alya Césaire. I never had people over back then.”

“I see.” Gabriel was transported back to a sterile hospital room many years ago, and the sight of his only son, bent and broken over the unconscious body of a girl who had once meant the entire world to him. The same girl who now was the reason he was putting himself in reckless danger against an enemy Gabriel knew frustratingly little about. “I remember them.”

There was a pause on the line, and then, “Anyway, I can’t make dinner. Sorry.”

Gabriel set his jaw. All he could think about was the footage of all those bodies full of holes at the Canal+ studio. “Adrien, listen to me. About your…actions on Wednesday—”

“I have to go, Father. My next meeting is here.”

“No, wait—”

The line went dead. Gabriel set down his phone, reached for the crystal decanter, and poured himself another finger of scotch. He tossed it back like tequila and poured himself another. This one, too, he drained in a matter of seconds before slamming the glass down and leaning heavily over his desk. Nooroo floated down by a paperweight and looked up at him.

“How many dinners did I miss with him when he was a boy?” Gabriel asked as he stared at his veiny hands.

Nooroo knew better than to answer that, but his empathetic stare was no less grating. Gabriel squeezed the empty glass in a white-knuckled grip.

Perhaps I deserve this.

He squeezed the glass tighter, and the thick glass cracked. But he released it just before he could shatter it.

“Master,” Nooroo said sadly.

There was a knock on the door, and Nooroo phased through the desk to hide in a drawer just as Nathalie poked her head in. “Sir, did you still want me to reserve you a table for two tonight? Adrien’s calendar shows that he’s free in an hour.”

“No, Nathalie, that won’t be necessary. I’ll be dining in my solar tonight.”

Natalie blinked owlishly behind her square glasses. “Oh, just you, sir?”

“Yes, Nathalie, just me. That will be all, thank you.”

She hesitated, but thought better of whatever foolish whim had momentarily taken hold of her and quietly closed the door. Once she was gone, Nooroo pushed the drawer open and poked his head out. Gabriel removed his glasses and sank into his chair. He rubbed his tired eyes as Nooroo quietly floated to his shoulder. They sat together in silence, waiting for the time to pass, and to take this gnawing emptiness with it.


 

Marinette was running late, and that was extremely unfortunate because she had set her alarm to leave an entire half hour early to give herself time to stop at her parents’ bakery for dessert, grab a ride share, and make the trip to Nino and Alya’s place. She wasn’t sure where she had been led astray, but it was probably somewhere during her mother’s penchant for pulling her in to conversation and peppering her with questions about her busy life. Her father had to physically separate the two of them just so Marinette could get a foot out the door, cake in hand, or she may have been there chatting for the next hour. She made a mental note to pay her parents a proper visit soon. Maybe once she was done with Jessika’s custom ball gown for her fancy party on Saturday.

The reminder of that looming deadline put a serious damper on her mood, and Marinette groaned as she hauled herself out of the back seat of her ride share, almost had an aneurysm when she realized she’d forgotten the cake, and then jogged the rest of the way through the secured lobby to the elevator. She nearly crashed into the other person who’d also rushed to grab the elevator.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, but stopped himself when they locked gazes. “Marinette, hey.”

Marinette fought to catch her breath. “Adrien! Hi, hey, what’s up?”

He smiled sheepishly. “Oh, you know, fashionably late as usual…”

“Me, too. But you pull it off a lot more glamorously than me.”

He wore a dark leather jacket and jeans, and as usual his hair was styled to messy perfection. “Nah. I only used ten of my fourteen hair products tonight.”

“Wow, you heathen, how could you possibly leave the house so unkempt?”

He grinned. “I guess you could say I’m a hot mess.”

She snorted. “I'll say.”

They smiled at each other, and Marinette felt her spirits rise a little. It was nice being around him. Fun. She could use a little nice and fun after the whirlwind week she’d had with the coral murders, as the police were now calling them, and the rocky reunion with Chat Noir. All Marinette wanted to do was eat some good food, hang out with good friends, and forget about the Chat Noir drama. The elevator dinged, and they  rode up together.

She shifted the cake box in her arms for a better grip, and she noticed that Adrien was watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. She caught his eye, and he immediately smiled politely, as though he’d been caught doing something untoward. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, and he stood a bit stiffly an arm’s length away from her.

“So don’t freak out, but Alya’s probably going to give us shit for showing up late together,” Marinette said in an attempt to break the strange tension between them that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “My advice is not to make a big deal about it. She’s like a Chinese finger trap: the harder you struggle, the worse it gets.”

“I see,” Adrien said. “So, you think I should just come out and tell her we’re late because we’re having an illicit affair and there’s no use in trying to deny it any longer?”

Marinette swallowed the lump in her throat and forced a laugh. “I mean, maybe not that explicit…”

“Oh, I get it. You want to keep us a secret. Embarrassed to show me off to your friends?”

He was smiling for real now, those green eyes alight with mirth at her expense, but she couldn’t bring herself to hold it against him. It was a much better look on him than his earlier furtive wariness.

“If they found out I was debasing myself with a guy who only uses ten of his fourteen hair products for a date, I’d be completely ruined.”

“Ah, noted. I’ll be sure not to cut any corners in the future.”

The elevator dinged again and opened to let them out. Adrien held out his arms.

“Here, let me take that. You’ve got your hands full.”

“Oh, thanks!” Marinette handed him the cake box and rearranged her purse and the shopping bag she’d brought with some of Alya’s clothes that she’d left at Marinette’s boutique the night of the Trefoil Gala.

They knocked on Alya and Nino’s door and waited to be admitted, which did not take long. Alya, dressed comfortably in leggings, a fashionably long shirt, and her trademark cat-eye glasses, answered the door. She took one look at them and grinned wickedly.

“Nino! You owe me five euros,” she said triumphantly. “I told you they’d come over together.”

Marinette shot Adrien a look that said, ‘I told you so’.

“For real?! Goddamnit,” Nino grumbled from deeper in the apartment.

“Nice to see you again, Alya,” Adrien greeted politely. “Thanks for inviting me.”

“Uh-huh, no problem.” Alya gave him a rather seedy once-over and slowly broke out in a grin that Marinette did not like one bit. Alya winked at her, and Marinette blushed furiously.

“Okay, coming through! This cake needs to get in the fridge asap!” Marinette grabbed Adrien’s elbow and pulled him inside past Alya, who had no choice but to let them pass.

“Sexy dress, Marinette,” Alya called.

Marinette bit the inside of her cheek and refused to respond to that, knowing Alya was just trying to tease her. She wasn’t even that dressed up, really. Her violet sweater dress was plain and simple over black tights and flats, nothing to write home about. But as she took the cake back from Adrien and got it in the fridge, she felt his eyes on her figure, inevitably drawn to the flattering flare of her skirt now that Alya had to go and open her big mouth.

“Marinette, hey!” Nino came into the kitchen from the adjoining living room and gave her a hug. “It’s been a while! You look great, as always.”

“Hey, Nino,” Marinette said, happy to see him. “You too. How’s the new album coming?”

Nino was comfortably casual in jeans and a long sleeve shirt with a huge peace sign on the front. He grinned at the mention of his latest project. “Eh, can’t complain too much. The artist has a ‘vision’ for what he wants his sound to be, don’t they all. Like, I totally get it, but man, my job is literally to make these dudes sound better. It’s like, let me work.”

Marinette laughed. “Sounds like you have your hands full, Mr. Producer.”

Nino shrugged, and finally he turned his attention to Adrien, who’d been standing there unsure how to contribute. The two former best buds looked each other over. Nino was nearly as tall as Adrien, but he was stocky and full-chested compared to Adrien’s lankier build. He had traded his glasses for Lasik, and without the eyewear his amber eyes were more piercing, sharper. For one dreaded second, Marinette thought they might hash it out. But Nino smiled easily and went in for a hug.

“Adrien, dude! You’re like the fucking green giant over here. What’d they feed you in the States, man?”

Adrien had little choice but to give in to the unexpected hug. He caught Marinette’s eyes over Nino’s shoulder briefly, and she smiled encouragingly for him. 

“I don’t know, food?” he said lamely. “I can’t think of anything clever to say, but it’s good to see you, Nino.”

Nino chuckled, and they separated. “Back at you, man. I can’t believe it’s been so long, huh?”

“Yeah…”

Alya slipped her hand in Marinette’s and rested her chin on her shoulder as they watched Adrien and Nino get reacquainted.

“About that,” Adrien said. “I know I kind of dropped off the face of the Earth back then.”

Nino rubbed his perpetual five o’clock shadow thoughtfully. “Hey, I get it. You were a big time supermodel, and your dad was, well, your dad. It’s cool.”

Adrien frowned and looked very serious all of a sudden. “It’s not cool. I shouldn’t have left without giving you an explanation. Not that I wanted to leave, but—the point is, what I’m trying to say… I’m sorry. You were a really good friend to me back then, and… I’m just really sorry it all went down the way it did.”

Marinette held her breath, and Alya squeezed her hand encouragingly.

Nino laid a hand on Adrien’s shoulder. “I appreciate that, but it was a long time ago. I know things with your dad were…complicated.” He glanced briefly at Alya and Marinette, and Marinette wondered if there were things Nino was not saying in front of them. “You moved to a different time zone before Facebook blew up, and I suck at keeping in contact. It’s not just your fault we lost touch. And anyway, you’re back now, and I’m cool if you’re cool. What do you say we start over?”

Adrien let out the breath he’d been holding as his whole body seemed to relax for the first time that evening. “Yeah, let’s start over. Please.”

Nino laughed. “Man, you’re as polite as ever. At least tell me you lived a little while you were off in the States.”

Adrien managed a small smile. “I had my moments.”

“I bet you did, Agreste,” Alya said.

“Ah, my lovely fiancé,” Nino said. “Ain’t she just the sweetest, most giving creature you ever saw?”

Alya’s smile was sickeningly saccharine. “You keep talking, Mr. DJ, and I’ll give you a kick in your cute ass.”

Nino put a hand over his heart. “Oh baby, not in front of the guests!”

Alya snickered and released Marinette to grab plates from the cabinet. “I won’t be tamed, Nino, so don’t even try.”

“Ah, she's a national treasure.” Nino said. “I’m spending the rest of my life with that woman, ya know.”

Adrien smirke. “Well, she puts up with you, so…”

Nino ribbed him playfully. “Man, you just got here and you’re already giving me shit!”

Adrien dared to laugh a little, and Marinette caught Nino’s eye.

‘Thank you,’ she mouthed silently.

Nino winked at her.

Soon, they had gathered their plates and were seated around Alya and Nino’s four-top dinner table. There was food everywhere, and they’d already made it through one bottle of red by the time they finished the stuffed mushroom appetizers. Nino had his Evening Chill playlist going on Spotify to fill the background of their conversation. The apartment was cozy and lived-in, with pictures of Alya and Nino all over the walls. Some of Alya’s published articles were framed and hanging up—Nino’s doing, Marinette knew. He was surprisingly domestic, although with Alya’s job taking her out of Paris for weeks on end on assignment, he needed to be. Nino had cooked most of the food they had tonight, to Adrien’s genuine surprise.

“You did all of this?” Adrien said. “When did you learn how to cook, anyway?”

“Please, I’ve got mad skills,” Nino bragged.

“You’ve come a long way from microwaved gas station burritos.”

“He’s just on his best behavior,” Alya said. “When I’m away, it’s microwaved burritos galore.”

“Woman, that is slander and I won’t stand for it,” Nino said.

Alya grinned and pinched his cheek playfully. “It’s not slander if it’s true.”

“How would you know? You’re not even here when I do burrito night.”

“Because I’m a sly fox who just got you to admit I’m right.”

Nino laughed and slung an arm around her. He pulled her close and planted a wet kiss on her cheek. “You’re foxy, all right.”

“Hey, get a room, you two,” Marinette teased.

“Hm, yeah, maybe we should kick you two out early,” Alya said, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

“Fine, but I’m taking the cake back.”

“No, stay,” Nino said. “That cake’s a Tom Dupain specialty. No way passin' up a slice!”

“Right, your parents own that bakery,” Adrien said. “I don’t think I ever tried their stuff before.”

“Really? I could swear I brought samples to school all the time,” Marinette said.

Adrien shrugged. “I had kind of a strict diet back then.”

“Oh, yeah…”

There was an awkward pause then as it became clear that Adrien was a little uncomfortable. Maybe it was his time as a child supermodel, or the reminder that he’d once been a part of this group before he left without a trace. Whatever the case, Marinette felt like the biggest jerk for bringing up Dupont.

“Speaking of our old school days,” Alya cut in, “Ladybug and Chat Noir are back. Talk about a blast from the past.”

Marinette and Adrien both snapped to attention.

“Oh, here we go,” Nino said, refilling everyone’s wine glasses with a little liquid courage.

“Don’t you ‘here we go’ me, Nino. This is huge, and not just because the Ladyblog’s servers almost broke from all the hits it got after that epic TV fight.”

“You’re still running the Ladyblog?” Adrien asked while Marinette took a large gulp of her wine.

“Oh yeah,” Nino answered for her and shooting Adrien a look that suggested Alya never let him forget it.

“What a rush seeing them on TV like that,” Alya said dreamily. “Ladybug’s as strong and beautiful as ever. I wish I could’ve been there to catch her in action.”

“People died, Alya,” Marinette said a little more harshly than she’d intended. “That wasn’t some cool action movie scene like back in high school. Alec Cataldi and twenty-two other innocent people were brutally murdered.”

“Whoa, chill girl, you know I didn’t mean it like that,” Alya said. “Obviously it’s beyond horrible that all those people lost their lives. But it would’ve been a hell of a lot worse if Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t show up when they did to help the police. They made a big difference, and I think that’s something to be proud of. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

Marinette immediately felt bad. Of course Alya wouldn’t make light of such a horrible tragedy despite her excitement about seeing Ladybug in action. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. That came out all wrong.” She fisted her skirt under the table discreetly, hating this feeling and unable to explain why it ate at her like acid. “I just… It was so awful.”

“Damn straight,” Nino said grimly. “I remember Hawk Moth was an annoying asshole back in the day, but whoever’s behind this is one sick psycho. I really hope Ladybug and Chat Noir find the dude and kick his teeth in before he strikes again.”

Easier said than done, Marinette thought hopelessly. She—Ladybug didn’t have the slightest clue about who could be behind the attack or why.

“They will,” Adrien said with a conviction that surprised everyone at the table. “As long as they’re working together, Ladybug and Chat Noir will absolutely get to the bottom of those horrific murders. They make an unbeatable team.”

“Here here,” Nino said.

Marinette found she could not share in Nino’s and Adrien’s confidence in Paris’s superheroes given her recent conversations with Chat Noir as Ladybug. It wasn’t Adrien’s fault—he could not possibly know how close to home his words had struck—but this talk of Ladybug and Chat Noir left her feeling hollow, and a little sad. She reached for her wine to hide her glum expression.

“You think so?” Alya said in that skeptical reporter tone she often got when she was trying to ferret out a story from a mark. “Because the way I see it, Chat Noir’s been MIA for years, and I don’t think Ladybug was all on board for that.”

Marinette froze mid sip. Just when had Alya deduced—

“What’s that supposed mean?” Adrien said.

“Just what it sounds like. I remember when Ladybug was running around the city by herself for months. I thought it was weird, obviously, her on her own when Chat Noir was basically her second shadow before. And Hawk Moth going quiet around the same time was just as suspicious.”

Damn Alya and her super sleuthing. Marinette had no idea she’d been so observant of Ladybug’s movements back then… Alya tried talking to her for an interview with the Ladyblog on several occasions after Chat’s vanishing, but Ladybug always declined, unable to face the fact that yes, she had been tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper and Chat was never coming back.

“And their fight together last Wednesday? They weren’t in sync at all. I swear, it was almost like they were total strangers just winging it compared to the way they used to fight together,” Alya continued.

“Well, like you said, you weren’t there,” Adrien said, his tone clipped. “Whatever’s going on with Ladybug and Chat Noir is between them.”

“I guess. But don’t you think it’s a little bit suspicious? Chat Noir disappeared around the same time as Hawk Moth, and now that there’s some new, creepy, murder-y super villain running around he finally decides to show up for the first time in, what, fourteen years?”

“What does that mean? Are you implying that Chat Noir’s somehow involved in this?”

Alya peered at him behind her glasses, her eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m not implying anything; I’m just saying it’s a weird coincidence. Why would he suddenly turn up now all of a sudden?”

“I don’t know, maybe because Ladybug needed him to help fight those coral mutant people. Like you said, things would’ve been a lot worse if he hadn’t shown up.”

“Whoa, okay kids, settle down. Let’s all take a deep breath, yeah?” Nino said.

“Oh, I’m perfectly settled,” Alya said, picking up her wine glass and taking a casual sip like she wasn’t hyper-focused on this bizarre, borderline hostile turn in the conversation. “Adrien and I are just bouncing ideas around, right?”

Adrien set his jaw as if he was working very hard not to open his mouth and say something they would all regret. Marinette swallowed her melancholy thoughts about Chat Noir and reached for Adrien’s hand under the table. He turned to look at her askance, and Marinette was taken aback to see the stormy turbulence behind his pretty, green eyes. There was something almost animalistic about the way the light reflected in them, and it struck a small but clear spark of dread in her.

She threaded her fingers in his and held his gaze, willing him to calm down from whatever had set him off. Almost immediately, the glimmer of hostility faded, and he glazed over. Whatever had leaked out of him receded, leaving no trace behind the invisible walls he had erected. It lasted only a second or two, but it was enough for Marinette to wonder, cautiously, about what Chloe had said about Adrien’s cracks, and about his talent for breaking the things closest to him.

“Right,” Adrien said, noticeably more subdued than he’d been a moment ago.

Marinette felt his fingers grasp hers tightly, just shy of painful, like he would sooner hurt her than risk letting her pull away again. It was an unpleasant thought, one unbidden, and Marinette felt bad for even entertaining it. What was wrong with her tonight? She’d come here to enjoy being with Adrien and her friends, and all she could do was worry about Chat Noir.

“Sorry,” Adrien said, smiling this time and reaching for his wine glass with his free hand. “I didn’t mean to get all intense there. This whole thing just has me pretty shaken up, I guess.” He ran his thumb over Marinette’s knuckles, relaxing a little.

Nino grunted his assent. “I’ll say. I bet you that coral’s some Last of Us shit, like with those spores that turn people into brain-dead fungus zombies. You see how it just dissolved when Chat Noir put down Alec Cataldi? I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kind of afraid to leave the house these days. Who knows if there’s others carrying the coral spores out there?” He shuddered.

Alya frowned deeply as she considered this. Marinette did not blame either Nino or Adrien for being afraid. She was scared shitless, and she was Ladybug. She was supposed to be brave when others could not be. That was her job. But dealing with Chat’s sudden resurgence on top of it all only exacerbated the problem. He said he was fine, that there was no trace of the akuma that had infected him left, but could she really believe that?

What if Alya had a point? What if Chat suddenly reappearing was somehow connected to this new threat? She felt awful for even thinking it, but the coincidence of his reappearance right when this new enemy revealed itself was worrisome.

Alya sighed. “Okay, so since I officially killed the mood, how ‘bout I atone by busting out that cake?”

“Yes, please,” Nino said.

“Marinette, give me a hand?” Alya asked, already up and heading back to the kitchen.

“Oh, sure.” Marinette got up, and Adrien reluctantly released her hand. She spared him an apologetic smile, and he returned it, almost sad to see her go. It shouldn’t have, but the small gesture sent a thrill right to her stupid, romantic heart.

She heard him laughing with Nino about something as she rounded the corner to the kitchen, but she couldn’t make it out.

“Grab me some forks, will you?” Alya said. She’d pulled the cake out of the fridge and was unpacking it from its box to divvy up.

Marinette rummaged around the drawers to do as she was bid. “Hey, I’m sorry again about snapping at you. I don’t know what came over me, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you like that.”

Alya said nothing, and when Marinette brought her the forks, she was surprised to find Alya just standing there watching her.

“What?” she said.

Alya put her hands on her hips. “What? Is that all you have to say?”

“I’m a little lost. What’re we talking about?”

“Marinette,” Alya began gently, her voice low. “Adrien just lost his temper in there with me. You’re not telling me you didn’t see it.”

“Lost his… What? No he didn’t. He got a little defensive, yeah, but can you blame him? Twenty-three people are dead, and we all saw it happen right before our eyes. On live television,” she added quickly. “He’s upset, just like I’m upset and Nino’s upset and everyone’s upset.”

“No, girl. He’s not upset, he’s livid. Are you seriously telling me you didn’t see the look on his face?”

“I…” Marinette recalled that brief flash of something feral in Adrien’s eyes when she took his hand, gone before she’d had time to really consider it. “He apologized.”

“Yeah, he said the words, but his fake smile practically screamed ‘fuck off, Alya.’ It was kind of creepy. How did you not pick up on any of that?”

Nino and Adrien burst out laughing about something again. Marinette frowned.

“Sounds like Nino didn’t pick up on it, either. Alya, come on. Maybe he was a little defensive, and yeah, that’s a little weird I guess, but I really don’t think he meant to get upset with you.”

“Don’t gaslight me. You know that shit doesn’t work on me. I know what I saw.”

“I’m not gaslighting you!” Marinette hissed, trying to keep her voice down. “Ugh, what’s even happening right now? Why are we fighting?”

“We’re not fighting. I’m trying to tell you something honest you don’t want to hear about the guy you like. There’s a difference.”

“Okay, great, that’s just great. I thought we talked about this. And this dinner party was your idea, by the way.”

Alya removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes wearily. “Okay, this isn’t how I wanted this to go. Let’s back up a minute.” She donned her glasses again. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it like that. I wasn’t trying to upset you, and I’m only saying any of this because I love you to pieces.”

Marinette felt her anger recede as Alya bared her truth. She could not fault her for that. “Well, now I feel like the bad guy here.”

“You’re not. Hey, hey, look at me.” Alya put her hands on Marinette’s shoulders. “You and me? We’re Thelma and Louise. You know I’d drive off a cliff with you before I let a guy come between us.”

Marinette spared her a smile. “You’re such a romantic.”

Alya smiled back. “You love me.”

“I do. So now what? Are you saying you don’t like Adrien? Is this the part where you tell me I’m making the biggest mistake of my life?”

“None of the above. Look, I’m here for you, remember? I’m just saying…be careful. That was a lot of anger packed into one very practiced supermodel package coming at me back there. Maybe you’re right, and it’s just the shit happening with this new super villain putting everybody on edge. But…maybe it’s more than that. I’m not saying I know for sure, I’m just saying—”

“—be careful, yeah.” Marinette nodded. “I will.”

“That’s my girl.” Alya winked slyly.

They got the cake and brought four plates back to the table. Whatever Adrien and Nino had talked about in the girls’ absence, it seemed to have set Adrien back at ease. He was all smiles and compliments to the chef, which Marinette promised to pass along to her father, who always appreciated when his work was enjoyed. They opened another bottle of wine and spent the rest of the evening sharing embarrassing college and grad school stories, work plans, and the latest news. There were no further mentions of Ladybug, Chat Noir, and the mysterious new evil they faced.

At the end of the night, Adrien and Nino exchanged numbers with the promise of catching up for time lost.

“I have a gym in my apartment building,” Adrien said. “Almost nobody uses it, and it beats the public gyms.”

“Seriously? Dude, I keep forgetting you’re loaded. I’m droppin’ way too much on my gym membership and I barely even go,” Nino complained.

“Well, why don’t you just come over to my place? It’s only a ten minute drive from here.”

“Hey, if it means you getting in shape, my vote is yes,” Alya said, poking Nino’s stomach playfully.

“But you love my flabs,” Nino pouted.

“Flabs?” Adrien said.

“Flabby abs,” Alya clarified. “And no, I don’t love them. More like It’s Complicated.”

Nino looked crushed. “My foxy lady, hast thou forsaken me so cruelly?”

“Don’t worry, Nino, you still have your sparkling personality going for you,” Marinette teased.

Nino clutched his heart. “Ah! A second blow to my tender man-heart! You ladies are too harsh.”

“Sounds like it’s settled, then,” Adrien said with a laugh. “To be honest, I’ve been so busy with work that I haven’t been as diligent about working out lately, either.”

“Yeah, you’re definitely letting yourself go,” Marinette said. “That second slice of cake’ll go right to your ass.”

Adrien flushed prettily as everyone present inevitably glanced at said ass, and Marinette resisted the urge to cackle.

Nino burst out laughing. “Nice one, Mar!”

“Thank you, Nino.” Marinette did a little bow.

“All right, that’s enough from the peanut gallery for one night. Nino’s flabs and I have a standing date that you two very rudely interrupted with all these dinner party shenanigans.”

They all said their goodbyes, and Adrien and Marinette soon found themselves back in the elevator heading down.

“So, I take it you’re an ass lady,” Adrien broke the silence.

Marinette shrugged nonchalantly, but she bit back a grin. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Adrien was suddenly right next to her and leaning casually on his arm. It was not the first time Marinette marveled at his wizard-level stealth game despite appearances, and she cursed her lack of vigilance now as he all but boxed her in between the wall and his arm.

“Yes,” he said, “I really would.”

Marinette supposed she deserved this. He was no longer playing coy about flirting with her. In fact, he seemed to be flaunting it in her face just to watch her squirm. She swallowed hard. His leather jacket was open in front, and damn that was a good look for him, blond and black leather…

And just like that, she was back to thinking about Chat Noir and how much he’d hurt and upset her and just…no.

The elevator dinged their arrival on the main floor, and Marinette quickly ducked under Adrien’s arm and exited. “I’ll have to keep you in suspense for now, sorry! I have to go.”

Adrien followed her outside. “Hey wait, Marinette—”

“I’m really sorry, I just remembered there’s something important I need to check on for work.” She waved and jogged down the street. “Text you later, bye!”

He raised his hand to her in a wave, looking a little dumbfounded, and Marinette felt bad, she really did. But if she had to be around him a second longer with these thoughts of Chat and the murders and everything else going wrong in her dumpster fire of a superhero half-life, she would explode. And Adrien did not deserve to end up as collateral damage to her bullshit.

As soon as Marinette rounded the corner into an alley, she pulled a sleepy Tikki out of her purse and gave her a wake-up kiss on the head.

“Hmm? Marinette?” Tikki said, yawning. “Is the dinner party over already?”

“Sorry Tikki, I don’t have time to explain right now. Transform me!”

“Wha—”

Tikki was cut off as the power of her Miraculous transformation disintegrated her into scarlet shimmers, and soon Ladybug was looping her yo-yo over a nearby fire escape and flying over the top of the building into the night.


 

The trip to Master Wang Fu’s place was long enough to leave Ladybug feeling winded when she touched down in his front yard. He’d long since moved out of the city proper and settled in a cozy one-story villa just beyond the hustle and bustle of urban life. It was modest, but it was private and homey. Ladybug took a moment to catch her breath and peer through the screened windows. They glowed with yellow light—he was home.

In the moonlight, Ladybug’s super suit glinted. After the fight against the coralized victims, Tikki explained that her super suit changed to better defend against her opponent’s strengths, something she had not needed against Hawk Moth’s various akumtized victims in the past. Where before her suit was breathable and flexible, now it was reinforced with a thin but ultra hard exoskeleton of segmented scale armor. 

Even her yo-yo had gotten a power-up. The cord was twice as thick as the previous model’s, and the yo-yo itself was reinforced with the same scale armor as her suit. Something told her the next time she faced any coralized people, her yo-yo’s cord would hold up under the pressure.

Ladybug knocked on the door and waited to be admitted.

“Ladybug, what a pleasant surprise,” Fu said warmly. “Please, come in. It’s very chilly tonight.”

“Thank you,” she said, following him inside.

He led her to the living room, where he had been playing Go with Wayzz, Fu’s sagacious, turtle-inspired kwami. The black and white stones were arranged across the board in a way that was incomprehensible to Ladybug. Her mother knew the game, but she’d never learned.

“Tikki, revert me,” Ladybug said.

“Hello, Marinette,” Wayzz greeted politely. “Tikki.”

Tikki floated over to Wayzz and sat down next to him. “Hello, Wayzz. I’m happy to see you, but I didn’t know we would be visiting you tonight.”

Marinette took a seat at the table. “Sorry, Tikki. I just… I needed to get out of there.”

Fu returned with a tray of tea and cookies, which he set on the table next to the Go board. “It sounds like you have quite a lot on your mind, Marinette.”

He sank into the chair opposite hers and passed Wayzz and Tikki one of the two plates of cookies to share. The kwami sat side by side and munched on their snacks, large eyes trained on their Chosen.

“I…” Marinette tried to find the words to begin. There was so much, too much. She felt it welling inside her like a dam fit to burst.

Get it together, girl.

The last thing she wanted to do was have an emotional break down in front of Fu after already inconveniencing him with this unplanned visit. He had always told her that as Guardian, his job was to watch over Miraculous holders like herself, and to guard the remaining Miraculous until such time as they were Chosen. But over the years of coming to him, begging him for information about Chat Noir, where he could be, if he was ever coming back, and getting nothing out of Fu, she had learned to stop asking. He was not going to give her the answers she wanted, whether he knew them or not.

But this time, it was different. Surely, he would see that she needed guidance. Surely, he would make an exception just this once. Marinette had no one else to turn to.

“It’s all right,” Fu said gently. He placed a hand on hers to comfort her. “Take your time. I’m here.”

Marinette drew quiet strength from their contact. His hands were rough and wrinkled from his extreme old age, but they were strong hands, too. She wondered, whimsically, how many other Ladybugs he’d sat across from, his hand upon theirs, waiting for them to gather their courage. 

“Chat Noir’s back,” she said in a voice so soft she almost thought he didn’t hear her.

But he sighed wearily and patted her hand encouragingly. “Yes, I know.”

And then it all came pouring out: the fight against the coralized victims, Chat Noir’s sudden return, their fight and semi-reconciliation, and his vow to earn her trust back. Once she got started, she could not stop. Fu patiently listened to her ramble on and on, never once cutting her off.

“My goodness,” he said when she finally came up for air, “that’s quite a lot for one woman to shoulder by herself, even one as capable as you.”

“Master Fu, I don’t know what to do about any of this. I don’t know what to think, or what I’m supposed to think.”

“You said you don’t believe you’re ready to trust Chat Noir again.”

Marinette warmed her hands around her tea cup and nodded, ashamed.

“It’s all right, Marinette. If you’re not ready, then you’re not ready.”

“But… You’ve always said Ladybug and Chat Noir are partners—more than partners. Two halves of the same whole. I’m supposed to trust him, but I…”

“You’re not ‘supposed’ to do anything. You cannot help how you feel any more than Chat Noir can help what’s already been done in the past. All you can do, both of you, is move forward. You feel that Chat Noir betrayed your trust and abandoned you when he disappeared. I think that’s very understandable, and it’s all right that you need time to get used to him being back in your life.”

“But the coralized victims, this new enemy—we have to stop them. How can I possibly expect Chat to help me when I won’t even do him the favor of trusting him? I wouldn’t want to help me if I were him.” She bit her lip. “I upset him, I know I did. It seems like all I’ve ever done is upset him.”

“Oh, Marinette,” Tikki said. “Please don’t say that. What’s happening with the coralized victims affects all of Paris. Of course Chat Noir would want to help you put a stop to them. He even said so himself, remember?”

Wayzz, as was his fashion, remained silent while he listened, but he caught Fu’s eye briefly, and the two of them exchanged a look.

“Tikki is right,” Fu said. “And I see now that perhaps I may have given you the wrong impression about how the Ladybug and Black Cat Miraculous function. Tikki and Plagg are, as you say, two halves of the same whole. Chaos and order, destruction and creation—these are equal and opposing forces. They may fluctuate, but in the end, they will always seek balance. This is the way of the universe, as it always has been and shall always be until the end of time.

“But beneath the masks, you and Chat Noir are human. And humans, unlike kwami, must strive to find balance within themselves. Only then can you and Chat Noir learn to heal and forgive the wrongs of the past and move forward together.”

“Beneath the masks,” Marinette said. “I don’t even know who he is under his mask, and he doesn’t know me. That’s never mattered before.”

“Then it need not matter now. You are capable of great successes, as well as great failures. You are not perfect, and you will make mistakes, as all people do. Chat Noir made a mistake when he left you. I do not excuse his actions, but I know he is trying to make amends. That is the person I chose, the same person Plagg found worthy above all others. Chat Noir is a man of fierce compassion and selflessness, then as now. If he was not, he would never have returned to you.”

Then he shouldn’t have left in the first place! Marinette wanted to give voice to her frustrations, but the protest died in her throat. Maybe… Maybe she was being too critical. Maybe Chat really did deserve a fresh start. He had even gotten down on one knee to make his pledge, a typically grandiose Chat Noir gesture that betrayed his unabashed sincerity and reminded her of the boy she once knew and trusted. She had to believe he was still there somewhere, beneath the mask. She wanted to believe it so badly.

“Thank you, Master Fu. I think I do need some time before I’ll be ready to trust him fully again.”

Fu nodded. “And that is perfectly understandable, as long as Chat Noir also knows this.”

“He does…”

Fu watched her thoughtfully. “But there’s something else on your mind, isn’t there?”

“Well…”

He refilled her tea and smiled, ever patient as he silently bade her continue. Marinette debated how to give voice to a concern plaguing her since Alya voiced her suspicions about Chat Noir at dinner.

“Earlier, you said Plagg found Chat Noir worthy, that that’s why he chose him,” she began.

“Yes, that’s right. Why?”

“I was wondering… Is it possible for a Miraculous Chosen to become…unworthy?”

Wayzz tensed, and it was all the answer Marinette needed.

“They can, can’t they? Wayzz?”

Wayzz looked at her dispassionately. “Why do you ask?”

Marinette bit her lip. “Chat Noir… I’m not saying I believe any of this, and I didn’t even really put it together until tonight, but he reappeared right when the coral murders started. And before, when Hawk Moth akumatized him, they both disappeared—”

“No,” Fu cut in. “Marinette, I know you are struggling, and I understand how tempting it is assume the worst when hope feels lost to you. But I assure you, Chat Noir is worthy of the Black Cat Miraculous, and he has nothing to do with these recent coral murders or whoever may be behind them.”

“With all due respect, that doesn’t answer my question.”

Fu watched her with the heavy gaze of one burdened by knowledge. “I think it’s best that it remain that way for now.”

“I think she should know,” Wayzz spoke up.

Fu was just as surprised as Marinette to hear the reticent turtle kwami speak. “Wayzz, please, this is not the right time to—”

“What should I know?” Marinette demanded.

Wayzz glanced and Tikki, and Marinette looked at her. She was startled to see Tikki looking so miserable all of a sudden. “Tikki?”

Tikki looked up at her sadly, pearly tears welling in her eyes.

“Tikki,” Marinette said again, holding out her hand for Tikki to crawl on. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, Marinette,” Tikki said.

“Wayzz,” Fu said a little more harshly. “I do not think this is the time. She is not ready.”

“Master, with all due respect, she has waited fourteen years for an explanation,” Wayzz said.

Fu looked very troubled. “I understand your reservations concerning Chat Noir, but surely this is not yet necessary.”

“Ladybug and Chat Noir are nothing without each other,” Wayzz said. “They should know the truth. We cannot risk history repeating itself, not when we face an enemy we know so little about. Ladybug must understand what’s at stake.”

For a cute, turtle-themed, mini god, Wayzz had an uncanny finality to his demeanor that silenced all arguments when he chose to speak. He and Fu shared a look, and Marinette had to physically restrain herself from demanding an explanation. Her heart was pounding in her ears, and Tikki clung to her thumb, sniffling. At length, Fu sighed and rubbed his weary eyes, nodding his reluctant permission.

“Tell her, Tikki,” Wayzz said.

All eyes were on Tikki now. Marinette brought her to her eye level. Her heart wrenched at the sight of Tikki’s pearlescent tears. What was she keeping that made her so miserable?

“Please understand, Marinette,” Tikki said, her voice shaky with emotion. “I wasn’t lying to you. We simply do not discuss our past Chosen, ever. That is our way. Unless…”

“Unless there is no other choice,” Wayzz said gravely.

Fu looked like he had a number of other choices to offer, but he held his tongue. His kwami, the embodiment of infinite wisdom, had spoken, and there was no swaying him.

“Tikki,” Marinette said, unable to hide her dread. “What happened last time?”

Tikki wiped her tears with her little hand. “Last time, I-I lost my Chosen.”

“You lost…?”

“She was killed.” Tikki held her large head in her tiny hands. “S-She died protecting… She was p-protecting Chat Noir, b-but…”

“But the previous Chat Noir did not take her sacrifice well,” Wayzz said when it became clear Tikki could not go on. “He turned against his fellow Miraculous Chosen and sought to fulfill his ultimate wish to bring her back by any means necessary.”

Marinette could only stare, horrified for Tikki and for the terrible memories she and Wayzz shared. “Oh my god, that’s… What do you mean, by any means necessary?”

It was Fu who answered her. The stress lines on his wizened face seemed to her deeper, wounding. “Felix—Chat Noir—never knew that the woman he loved, Bridgette, was in fact Ladybug. When she died protecting him, he lost a part of himself. He vowed to combine the powers of the Black Cat and Ladybug Miraculous to grant him his greatest wish: to bring her back. To that end, he fought against his fellow Miraculous Chosen, and ultimately lost his life. He never got his wish, among other things…”

Marinette covered her mouth in shock and sadness. She looked at Tikki, who was crying softly in her palm, and brought her close for a hug. She could not even imagine such pain, to find out the person she loved most had just died protecting her, never knowing it was them under the mask all along…

“Plagg found Felix unworthy,” Wayzz said. “He renounced their bond before Felix could make his wish on the Miraculous. It was the only way.”

“The only way…?”

“To defeat him, of course. He simply would not stop. Mayura and Hawk Moth—they dealt the killing blow.”

“Hawk Moth… No, you can’t mean—”

“Yes,” Wayzz said. “Hawk Moth, the very same you faced years ago. He brought Chat Noir’s rebellion to an end when he took Felix’s life with his own hands.”

 

Chapter Text

To be fair, Ladybug had fully intended to have a Serious Talk with Chat Noir as soon as she saw him again. If nothing else, he had a right to know what Fu had told her about their predecessors, even though she knew—she knew—he would take it the wrong way. It didn’t change the fact that he deserved to know what she knew, that he needed to understand what could happen to them if they didn’t find a way to put the past behind them.

That’s not us, she thought vehemently when she’d departed Fu’s house, her head full of questions she never thought she would have to ask.

But what if it could be? Felix and Bridgette, whoever they had been, probably did not envision the fate that had ultimately befallen them. With the coral murders to worry about, Ladybug had no idea what was in store for Chat Noir and her, but hell if she was going to let her fears get in the way of giving them the best shot they had at putting a stop to the evil plaguing Paris. It meant putting her own feelings aside and giving Chat a real second chance, no strings attached. She wasn’t fully ready to trust him again, but she would have to trust that they could get back there one day.

And then, disaster struck.

“All of you, kneel before me! I am Fashionista, the most beautiful woman in the world!” cried the newest coralized victim from her place on the catwalk. She was draped in coral growths that clung to her like rope. Branches twisted about her head like a crown of pink thorns, and at her breast pulsed another rose pin, the heart of her unnatural power and strength.

She was one of the supermodels performing in an Agreste Fashion winter show this evening. She had already coralized a few of her fellow models, and the audience was screaming and cowering in fear. Some had made it to the exits, but the coralized models were strangely fast, unlike Alec’s victims had been. They soon cut off all exits and corralled the people like cattle, where they were forced to stay and watch the ‘show’. Fashionista strutted along the catwalk, all lights on her.

Ladybug had only found out about this attack so soon because Marinette had been in attendance representing Marinette Designs. It had been a last-minute decision to go despite the work that remained to be done on Jessika’s ball gown, but she couldn’t resist the invitation from one of the contacts she’d made at the Trefoil Gala. And so, she and Manon, who’d somehow convinced Marinette to bring her along, had had a front-row seat to Fashionista’s debut.

“Talk about a fashion faux paw,” said Chat, landing hard beside Ladybug out of nowhere.

“Chat,” Ladybug said, trying very hard not to roll her eyes at that particularly ill-timed cat pun. “You got here fast.”

“I was in the neighborhood.”

“C-Chat Noir!” Manon gasped, torn between her very understandable fear over her situation and something that looked disturbingly like starry-eyed awe. “Oh wow, you’re both really here! This is so cool!”

She had the nerve to take out her phone and try to Snapchat the two heroes, but Ladybug hauled her off by the elbow and stuck her with the crowd of normal people huddling together.

“You, stay out of the way,” Ladybug said.

“Yeah, okay, whatever you say,” Manon said, filming the whole thing on her phone, anyway. “Save us, Ladybug!”

“Ladybug, help!” shouted another person in the crowd. More of them began to swarm toward her like an amorphous mass, and Ladybug was forced to leap away before they could mosh pit her. In her distraction, she missed the beginning of Chat’s fight with Fashionista.

“How dare you interrupt my show!” Fashionista screeched. Her red hair fanned out wildly. “Mangy cat, I’ll throw you back out on the street where you belong!”

With a wave of her hand, two of the coralized supermodels under her control lunged at Chat, careless of their own safety. Ladybug was moving before she could even process what she was doing. She jumped, threw her yo-yo, and crashed into one of the charging supermodels, while her yo-yo wrapped around the other one. She yanked it back with all her might, and the coralized supermodel went flying backwards. Unlike before, the cord held taut, and he struggled in vain to free himself. Coral cracked and broke where Ladybug’s knees slammed into the first coralized supermodel, who now writhed beneath her.

Chat stared at her, frozen to the spot in awe of her stunning heroics.

“Don’t just stand there!” Ladybug said.

“Y-Yeah, right!” Chat brandished his baton at Fashionista as he ran at her.

The coralized supermodel Ladybug had landed on finally regained his bearings and managed to throw her off the catwalk, and she landed hard on her back among the cowering crowd. Hands reached for her to help her up, but the coralized supermodel she’d entrapped also rolled off the catwalk and struggled against his restraints, sending the crowd into a fresh wave of panic as they scrambled to get clear of him.

“Get back, please!” Ladybug commanded. “It’s not safe!”

“Aaarrrgh!!” Fashionista cried out as she rammed her coral against Chat’s baton. Spikes of the stuff grew from her arms like jagged swords, twirling around each other thickly as Chat broke off branch after branch. “You ugly stray! Get off my stage!”

“I’ll show you ugly. Cataclysm!” His knuckles cracked with the promise of pain as he circled Fashionista like a predator on the hunt.

“Chat, no!” Ladybug said, panicking. “You can’t use Cataclysm on her!”

Chat glared at her, his cat eyes slitted menacingly. “It’s the only way to stop her!”

“They’ll all die!”

But Fashionista was quick and ruthless as she caught Chat in a deadly dance of swords. Chat was remarkably adept with his baton, wielding it like a proper sword and parrying Fashionista’s sharp jabs even left-handed. His skill only fueled her anger, however, and her movements became ever more erratic and dangerous.

“I refuse to be disgraced at my show!” Fashionista bellowed.

Ladybug punched the daylights out of the struggling coralized supermodel until she passed out, quickly retracted her yo-yo, and dashed after Chat and Fashionista. She was intercepted by two more coralized supermodels, their joints cracking as their coral armor bent and twisted to accommodate their jerky movements. The sight turned Ladybug’s stomach—these poor people had no idea what they were doing. Those hollow, bloodshot eyes spoke volumes of their silent suffering, and she hated that she had to hurt them even more to make them stop.

Spinning her yo-yo, Ladybug maintained her distance to keep the two of them at bay, but there was no way to get to Chat and Fashionista without going through them. “Chat!”

“Just die already!” Fashionista said.

She smacked Chat with one of her coral saber arms, forcing him to parry, but it opened him up to attack on his other side. The jagged coral saber pierced his flank and sank in through his super suit. He gasped and pawed at the wound, and Ladybug saw red.

“No!” she screamed.

Fashionista’s coral began to dissolve to black ashes the moment it pierced Chat’s suit and skin—his Cataclysm-drenched claw gripped her coralized arm. The two of them sank together to the floor as Chat’s blood pooled at his knees.

Ladybug lost the ability to think straight. She struck out with her yo-yo hard, knocking one of her assailants square in the forehead and round-housing the other with all her might. She heard something crack, and the two of them fell to the floor in a heap, twitching. But she couldn’t bring herself to care, her thoughts only of that police officer and the coral growing out of the gash in his head where Alec Cataldi’s victims had punctured the skin and turned him into one of them.

“Chat!” she said, landing next to him and pulling him away in her arms just as the baleful aura of his Cataclysm subsided. He grunted in pain, his hand pressed to his side where blood continued to gush out of him.

“I’m fine, just a scratch,” he wheezed.

“You’re not fine!”

Ladybug couldn’t help her tears as she clutched him to her. She pressed her hand over his to staunch the bleeding, and shuddered at the hot wetness seeping in between her fingers. But there was no time. Fashionista was struggling to her feet again.

Wait.

“She’s not dead,” Ladybug said, almost a question. “But you…”

Sure enough, Fashionista was still standing, but her coral armor had dissolved, revealing only the rose pin at her breast. The pin remained intact despite Chat’s Cataclysm, engulfed in black smoke with the remnants of his power. The other coralized supermodels were also still draped in coral and zombified.

“Ladybug, stop her,” Chat said, wincing as he gripped his side. “Hurry up!”

“Y-Yeah.” Ladybug rose, reluctant to leave Chat in his injured state, but there was no time. She threw her yo-yo in the air and shouted, “Lucky Charm!”

And she was going to give Tikki a entire box of macaroons for this one, because the Lucky Charm deposited a spotted tranquilizer gun in her hands. Ladybug quickly took aim and fired at Fashionista just as the crazed supermodel lurched toward them. The dart hit true in her shoulder, and in a matter of seconds Fashionista fell to her knees, muttered incoherently, and slumped in a deep sleep. Her coralized victims were still in play, and the two that remained conscious closed in on Ladybug.

“Hey! Over here, you coral mutant!” shouted Manon. She’d grabbed a metal folding chair from the audience and smacked one of the coralized supermodels with it.

The reckless attack bought Ladybug just the time she needed to dash after Fashionista and pry the rose pin from her dress. It burned to the touch, and Ladybug yelped in pain, unable to hold on to it. The pin clattered to the floor, pulsating with shimmering heat. As soon as Ladybug removed it from Fashionista, her coralized victims seized and fell to the floor unconscious.

“Ladybug,” Chat said, his voice strained with pain and his eyes dilated as he struggled. “The pin—”

“I’ve got it.” Ladybug unlocked her yo-yo, revealing a bath of cleansing light. Like a heat-seeking missile, her yo-yo locked on to the vibrating rose pin and snapped it up. Her yo-yo was hot to the touch, and for a terrifying moment she feared she’d done the wrong thing. But it popped back open, and the rose pin, now free of Chat’s Cataclysm spell and no longer shimmering with heat, clattered to the floor like any normal jewelry pin.

Ladybug tossed the tranquilizer gun into the air. “Miraculous Ladybug!”

Shimmering, scarlet magic swept through the studio, repairing and replacing everything the coralized supermodels had destroyed, including Chat. His blood evaporated, and his wound closed. Ladybug was so relieved that she ran to him and threw her arms around him.

“Oh my god,” she said, shuddering against him. “You stupid, reckless cat!”

He tensed in surprise, but soon returned her embrace. “My lady…”

“Don’t you ‘my lady’ me!” She pulled away from him and ran her hand over his side, where the wound Fashionista had given him had disappeared without a trace. “How are you not coralized? Chat, what did you do?”

Phone camera lights flashed, and Ladybug realized they had an audience. Manon was filming everything, and Ladybug knew this was going to end up on the Ladyblog before the end of the day. Great, just what she needed.

Sirens outside indicated the police had arrived, and soon uniformed officers burst into the studio, firearms drawn as they shouted for everyone to get down while they assessed the situation.

“I think we better finish this conversation later,” Chat said, squeezing her forearms reassuringly.

Chief Raincomprix of the Municipal Police approached the hero duo flanked by two of his officers while the rest of the officers focused on clearing everybody else out of the building. “Ladybug, Chat Noir. I see you’ve stopped another of the coralized people. Thank you for your assistance, it’s much appreciated.”

“Hey, what’s this?” said one of the uniformed officers, reaching for the dormant coral rose pin Ladybug had pulled off of Fashionista.

“No, don’t!” Ladybug said, swooping in to push him out of the way. “Don’t touch that. It’s the source of the coral power. I purified it, but we shouldn’t risk exposure all the same until we know what we’re dealing with.”

The officer immediately backed off, and Chief Raincomprix spoke through his two-way radio.

“Forensics and medical will be right in,” he said. “You’re telling me that little piece there caused all of this?”

“That’s right,” Ladybug said.

“Then we should destroy it.” 

“No. Destroy it, and we’ll end up killing all the coralized victims.”

A team of people in uniform with the word ‘Forensics’ painted on the backs of their jackets filed in and surrounded Fashionista, the other immobile coralized supermodels, and the rose coral pin itself. After some direction from Chief Raincomprix, they gathered the rose pin in a glass container, bagged it, and carefully transported it, along with the comatose coralized victims, back outside to be taken to the police station.

“Where are you taking them?” Chat asked as he and Ladybug went outside with Chief Raincomprix. It was dark out, and a large crowd had gathered to gawk.

“To be properly examined,” Chief Raincomprix said. “It’s about time we got to the bottom of these incidents. I don’t know how you’ve managed to keep these victims alive this long, but I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Er, cat.” He side-eyed Chat.

“Chief Raincomprix, I think Chat Noir and I should come with you,” Ladybug said. “I know we’re not part of your police investigation, but we need to know what we’re up against as much as you do.”

Chief Raincomprix nodded. “Normally, civilians don’t have a place in police business, but I guess you two aren't really civilians. All right, we can compare notes.”

“Meet me at the station in fifteen minutes,” Ladybug said to Chat once they were alone.

“I’ll be there,” Chat said, turning to take off in the opposite direction as her.

“And Chat—”

“Yeah, we’ll talk later. I told you, I’m not going anywhere.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but a pang of guilt at the way he said it, so dismissive, held her tongue. He was gone, bounding over the rooftops of Paris and melting into the night. Ladybug had little reason to stick around any longer, so she took to the skies with the help of her yo-yo to find a private place to revert.


 

Chat was already at the police headquarters when Ladybug arrived. They were directed to the concrete, windowless basement, where the forensics team and medical examiners had their in-house laboratory and morgue. The five coralized supermodels and Fashionista were passed out on beds normally occupied by homicide victims and hooked up to an array of medical equipment that, even to Ladybug’s lay eye, looked far more complex and expensive than what a city government budget could afford.

“Matilda Moretz,” said a curvaceous, brunette woman in what looked to Ladybug like a white hazmat suit sans helmet. “A.k.a., Fashionista. According to her medical file, she’s employed as a supermodel with Agreste Fashion. I’m guessing from her fancy dress she and the others were all part of some kind of fashion show today?”

“That’s right,” Chat answered before Ladybug had the chance. “Are they going to be okay?”

“Miss Moretz is alive, though barely.” The woman, clearly a doctor of some sort, looked at Chat  through her thick safety goggles. “I’m told you used some kind of, ah, magic on her? To stop the coral growths.”

Ladybug could not really blame her. Miraculous had no place in the realm of science, just as she suspected whatever was causing these coral murders had more of a magical than a scientific explanation. She let Chat explain the rudimentary basics of his destructive power and what he’d done.

“I just wanted to destroy the coral, not the pin,” Chat explained to the woman—Doctor Rochelle Devereux—and her team.

Ladybug looked up from where she was standing examining one of the other comatose supermodels. “What did you just say?”

Chat met her gaze across the examination table. “I only thought about destroying the coral growths, not the pin. And it worked.”

They looked at each other for a moment as Ladybug understood what he was trying to tell her. Perhaps Chat’s powers had evolved to counter their enemy’s strengths, just as hers had.

“And you’re okay,” Ladybug said, more question than statement.

He took her meaning and put a hand over his side, where Fashionista’s coral had pierced him. “I destroyed all her coral,” he said.

He hadn’t turned into a coralized zombie, so Ladybug supposed it must be true. Dr. Devereux was less concerned with their conversation as she returned to her monitoring equipment. Chief Raincomprix came down the stairs with a couple officers in tow, spotted the two heroes, and waved them over. He was examining the rose pin, along with an older Mexican man with an iPad and a look of supreme consternation on his pinched face. Ladybug soon learned that the man, Antonio ‘Tony’ Lopez, was a rather famous professor of marine biology and oceanography.

“So, Professor Lopez, what can you tell us about this pin?” Chief Raincomprix said.

Lopez spoke French with a thick Spanish accent, but he spoke with the confidence of familiarity. “Difficult to say. Preliminary tests confirm it is like coral.”

“Like coral?” Ladybug asked. “You mean, it’s not?”

Lopez frowned deeply. “I will say it simply, for you to understand. This sample here,” he tapped the sterile glass container holding the rose pin, “and that coral there,” he indicated the nearest coralized victim, still covered in branches of the mutant coral, “are the same organism. But this is not possible.”

“The same organism, as in, they’re the same continuous growth?” Chat said, his frown matching Lopez’s.

“You see? Not possible. I accept for the sake of argument that this sample here is the source.” Lopez wiggled his fingers from the pin to the sleeping victims, as if to imitate the flow of magic. “But biology is not magic. I cannot explain how it works, yet.”

“All right, well let’s say we agree that it’s all one organism, like you said,” Chief Raincomprix said. “How does it spread? How do we kill it? I’ve got five people still growing the stuff over there.”

“This answer will take time. Dr. Devereux is examining patient zero now, yes?”

“Matilda Moretz,” Ladybug said a little more harshly than she meant to. “She has a name.”

Lopez nodded dispassionately. “Yes, her. I am thinking all answers lie with her. Dr. Devereux is a virologist; she will discover the root of this cancer, I am certain.”

A cancer.

Ladybug shivered at the insidious word. She recalled Nino’s cartoonish comparison of the coral to a zombie virus and wondered briefly if he hadn’t been close to the mark, after all. And if so, how the hell were they going to save those afflicted? Even purifying the pin hadn’t reversed the damage. If these brilliant minds Chief Raincomprix had working on a solution couldn’t figure it out, what chance did she and Chat stand?

Which reminded her. “Chief Raincomprix,” she said when the three of them backed up to give Lopez and his team their space to continue to run tests on the rose pin, “since when does the Municipal Police employ specialists like Professor Lopez and Dr. Devereux?”

Chief Raincomprix puffed up. He was a big man, but he had a face Ladybug wanted to trust, an honest face. “As a matter of fact, our department received a sizable donation specifically to fund the investigation into the coral murders.”

“Wow, that’s…really incredible,” Ladybug said.

“Incredibly expensive,” Chat said. “And lucky.”

“Luck’s got nothing to do with it. Gabriel Agreste set it all up. He and I go way back, and now that he’s back in Paris, he reached out to me personally wanting to help with the investigation in any way he could.” Chief Raincomprix put a hand each on Ladybug’s and Chat’s shoulders. “Between the two of you and my team here, we’re going to get to the bottom of this, mark my words.”

Gabriel Agreste? Ladybug was surprised to hear his name in this context, and not unpleasantly so. The man had money, true enough, though he was not famous for his philanthropy. Still, if he wanted to help by providing the police more resources to fight against the coral murders, she would not stand in the way.

Beside her, Chat had gone as rigid as his extending staff. “Gabriel Agreste?” he said casually, almost too casually from the way his cat eyes had narrowed to dangerous slits. “He’s responsible for all this?”

Chief Raincomprix nodded. “That’s right. He used his connections to bring in Professor Lopez and Dr. Devereux and their teams especially for the investigation. Well, see for yourself. No way my M.E.s could handle this on their own, I’m sorry to say.”

“I see,” Chat said. He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

Ladybug had half a mind to ask Chat was his deal was when a lab tech accidentally bumped in to her trying to get by. The basement was not a small room, but between the specialist teams and all the coralized victims spread out around the space, there was little room to maneuver.

“I think we may be in the way,” Ladybug said, feeling claustrophobic. “Chief Raincomprix, thank you for keeping us in the loop. If you could let us know as soon as your team discovers anything—”

“You’ll be the first to know,” he agreed readily. “Actually, how do I contact you?”

Ladybug considered. “The flag pole. Raise a red flag with a spot light so it’s visible. It’s tall enough to see from across the city. We’ll be watching.”

He nodded, though he looked skeptical that they would actually be able to see it. “All right, I suppose that could work for now.”

“At least until you can get funding for a bat signal,” Chat quipped. “Or, rather, a bug signal.”

Ladybug took him by the elbow. “Okay, I think we’ve overstayed our welcome. Let’s get out of the chief’s hair.”

They headed back upstairs to the main station floor to leave. Neither of them noticed the small peacock feather embedded in a crack in the high corner of the basement lab, its dark eye swiveling to watch them go.


 

Ladybug and Chat Noir raced across the rooftops to their familiar haunt: the Eiffel Tower. It was late, and the tower was bright for the evening, as usual. Paris reflected its light below, the people continuing on with their lives in spite of Fashionista’s murderous antics earlier. How nice for them to be able to forget and move on so long as tragedy did not affect them. Ladybug almost wished for their ignorant bliss. Almost.

“Are you really okay?” Ladybug demanded of Chat once they had settled at their usual perch halfway up the tower. She approached him and ran a hand over his middle without waiting for permission.

“Like it never happened,” he said, placing his hand gently over hers. “I’m all right, Ladybug, I promise.”

She searched his gaze for any hint of exaggeration, but found none. “Good, then I won’t feel as bad telling you how incredibly stupid you were today.”

He winced. “Yeah, okay, I guess I deserve that—”

“You could have died, Chat! What were you trying to prove, anyway?”

“I wasn’t trying to prove anything! I just—you were busy with the other coralized victims, and I saw an opening.” He showed her his right hand. “Besides, I had my Cataclysm.”

“Which you did not know would work that way,” Ladybug snapped. “Chat, you could have killed Matilda, all her victims, and yourself. Do you even understand how messed up that is?”

He looked like he wanted to argue, but his ears drooped in shame and he averted his gaze. “I’m sorry, I just…”

“Just what?”

“I just wanted to be useful to you, okay?” He ran his claws through his messy hair and gritted his teeth. “I wanted to do my part to help you.”

Ladybug was taken aback. “Is that what you think? That you’re not useful to me?”

He grimaced. “I was there for our last tango. We weren’t exactly in sync, and look how that ended.”

She stared at him. Alya had said something similar to Marinette at their dinner party the other night, but Ladybug had not considered that Chat may have picked up on the same problem and been letting it get to him. She sighed. “Chat, of course you’re useful to me. Honestly, it was me who was practically useless the last time. My yo-yo snapped five minutes in to the fight. I would’ve been coralized if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”

He looked up at her cautiously. “You seemed pretty sturdy this time around.”

“Yeah.” She shifted in her suit, muscles flexing against the super-hard exoskeleton that coated her from head to toe. “Tikki said my suit changed to suit our new coral enemies.”

Chat snorted. “Plagg didn’t mention anything. What a surprise.”

“Well, we know now. And it’s not that I’m upset with how today went. In fact, I don’t think it could’ve gone better if we’d planned it. Just… Just talk to me, okay? Please, don’t try to take everything on by yourself. We’re supposed to be a team. Partners. You can lean on me.”

He stepped closer, the light of hope in his eyes so nostalgic that Ladybug almost forgot they were not fourteen anymore. “Does this mean you’re not mad at me anymore?”

Ladybug bit her lip. “Of course I’m not mad at you. Look, Chat, I’ve…been thinking. About what you said, about giving you another chance.” She held up her hand to silence him when he tried to interrupt her. “I think I was too harsh with you before. Of course you deserve another chance. I’m sorry that I made you doubt that at all, that wasn’t right.”

“My lady,” he said, unable to hide his sheer delight. He took her by the elbows and squeezed affectionately.

Ladybug gently pulled out of his grasp, trying to ignore the flash of hurt in his eyes at her small rejection. “I’m really happy you’re back, Chat. And I meant what I said about us being partners. But I still…” She hugged herself, hating this wretched feeling in her belly. “I just need a little more time.”

He schooled his expression, and Ladybug winced. She did not like how easy that had been, like he’d had practice bottling up his feelings. What had happened to him these past years? She tried to remember what Fu had told her, tried to remember that under the mask, Chat was as human as she was. He didn’t deserve her rejection.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not trying,” Ladybug added. “I’m sorry, Chat, I… I know you’re hurting as much as I am. It wasn’t fair of me to put it all on you. I just need some time to get used to this again. To get used to us. Is that okay?”

“It’s not like I have a choice.” He sighed. “No, that came out wrong. I mean, it’s okay. I get it. I don’t have to be happy about it, but I get it.”

She nodded and drew closer. “Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me.”

He spared her a self-deprecating smile. “Anything for you, Bugaboo.”

Despite herself, Ladybug returned his smile. It felt so good to talk to Chat Noir after all this time. And even though she could not shake the hesitance she felt around him no matter how much he reminded her of the boy she’d once known, she wanted to get to know the man he’d become, scars and all. Fu was right—he’d come back to her. Only the real Chat Noir would have done that, no matter how hard it must have been for him.

“All this time, and you’re still using the same silly nicknames, Kitty Cat?” she said.

Chat’s smile twisted to a smirk that reminded her so much of the boy he once was, it hurt. “I didn’t know my lady expected more variety. You’ve become rather high maintenance over the years, haven’t you?”

Ladybug swatted his chest playfully. “Maybe a little.”

They shared a companionable silence then and turned to admire the city lights. Ladybug was reluctant to break it, but she knew she should. Chat deserved to know what Fu and Wayzz had divulged about the previous wielders of the Black Cat and Ladybug Miraculous.

“Hey, Chat, there’s something I need to tell you. You’re not going to like it, but you need to hear it all the same.”

He looked up at her from where he sat with one leg dangling over the edge of the rafters. “Uh-oh, that doesn’t sound good.”

His smile fell when he saw her watching him with a serious look on her face.

“What is it?”

Ladybug took a deep breath. “It’s about our predecessors. The previous Ladybug and Chat Noir.” She told him the brief history Wayzz, Tikki, and Fu had shared with her concerning Felix, Bridgette, and their tragic end, as well as Hawk Moth’s involvement. Chat listened, eerily quiet.

“I won’t lie to you,” Ladybug said. “Hearing that story is part of the reason why I wanted to apologize to you tonight for the way I treated you before. But that doesn’t mean I think what happened to Felix and Bridgette has anything to do with us,” she added quickly. “They were different people. I just… Wayzz seemed to think we should know about them as kind of a cautionary tale, considering what we’ve already been through—”

“How long?” Chat interrupted.

“How—How long, what?”

“How long have you known about the Guardian?” There was an edge to his tone that she did not like. “How long have you known about someone who knows our secret identities, that we can actually talk to about everything?”

That was what he was upset about? “I… Since I got my Miraculous. Chat, I’m sorry, I thought you knew? Master Fu is the person who gave you your Miraculous. I just assumed…”

“Well, you assumed wrong,” Chat snapped, all traces of his good mood evaporated. “How could you keep this from me?”

“I didn’t keep it from you, I honestly thought you knew. I’m sorry.”

There was a tense pause as he seemed to war with himself. “Fine,” he said at length. “It’s fine. Just tell me where to find this Master Fu.”

Chat remained short with her even after she told him where to find Fu, and Ladybug sensed that their little rendezvous was at an end. He only grunted his assent when she offered to talk to him about the revelations concerning Felix, Bridgette, and Hawk Moth’s past, bafflingly uninterested. So they went their separate ways, and Ladybug couldn’t help but wonder if she’d made things worse all over again.


 

Marinette was a miracle-worker, a genius. She’d never felt more superhuman even while she was Ladybug. She had finished Jessika’s gown for her party, and without a moment to spare. Manon had just picked it up from the dry cleaner’s when Jessika and her bodyguard, Yuki, showed up for the final fitting on Saturday morning. She was delighted with how it had turned out, and Marinette was delighted that her measurements had proven accurate—no further alterations were needed.

“Marinette, how can I ever thank you for this masterpiece? Oh! I will be the belle of the ball in this tonight!” Jessika gushed as she admired her reflection in the mirror and twirled. The short train whispered about her ankles as it flared.

“I’m just happy that you’re happy,” Marinette said with a smile. And that your generous payment came through.

“I am. I cannot wait to show off your hard work tonight. Everyone will be asking me where I found such an exquisite gown… Oh, of course! Marinette, you should come to the party tonight!”

“Oh, um? That’s really nice of you, but—”

“I insist! I cannot properly show off my new gown without the creator herself there to take proper credit. And you wouldn’t deprive my friends of their own chance to commission your work, would you?”

The gears began to turn in Marinette’s head as she considered that. Manon gave her an excited thumbs from the doorway to her design studio, and Marinette discreetly shooed her off.

I could meet some high profile actors and producers, the kinds of people who want to be seen wearing something nobody else has…

Not many people had Marinette originals in those circles. The exposure could open up a lot of previously closed doors. She could already hear Alphonse’s voice in her head yelling at her to quit being so modest and take the opportunity before it disappeared.

“Well, I do love parties, and I’m not busy tonight,” Marinette said.

Jessika lit up like Christmas morning. “Fantastic! I’ll put your name on the guest list. Oh, of course you must bring a date. Surely a pretty girl like yourself has a boyfriend, a fiancé perhaps?”

Marinette flushed. “Oh, no! I-I mean, I don’t have anybody like that, but…”

She thought of Adrien and his pretty blushes. Adrien in his black leather jacket. Adrien leaning across the table toward her, his fingers in her hair. She flushed harder, and Jessika giggled like a gossiping school girl, an image which oddly suited her girlish demeanor.

“Of course, I understand,” she said knowingly. “All the same, I look forward to seeing you and your, ah, not-a-boyfriend tonight.”

She soon left with Yuki, and Marinette had one of her staff prepare the dress for same day delivery to Jessika’s apartment. While Marinette finished up some work and thought about her suddenly busy Saturday night—what the hell was she going to wear?—Manon invaded her studio, laptop open to the Ladyblog page, and wriggled her way onto Marinette’s chair.

“Hey, I’m pretty sure this is a safety hazard,” Marinette said as she tried not to fall out of the chair.

“Shh, you have to watch this. My video of Ladybug and Chat Noir fighting that coralized supermodel the other day made it on to the Ladyblog! Look how many hits it has!” Manon said.

Marinette suppressed a groan. She’d been deliberately avoiding the Ladyblog and all mentions of Ladybug and Chat Noir’s latest appearance. Unfortunately, the videos of them—especially in the aftermath of the fight—had gone viral in a matter of hours after they were posted to Youtube and the Ladyblog, among other places. And now, the Internet was fangirling over their OTP becoming canon.

“Manon, I don’t really care about this,” Marinette said as Manon played the video for her anyway.

“Oh please, everybody cares about this. Look at that! Look how Ladybug just swooped in and swept Chat away when she saw that he was hurt.” She made a squeeing sound that curdled Marinette’s blood. “Oh my god, this is my favorite part—the hug. No, it’s more than a hug. Look how she’s basically climbing him—”

“She was not climbing him!” Marinette said, horrified.

To be fair, from the shaky cell phone video, it did kind of look like Ladybug had become part vine and curled her way around Chat Noir. Marinette repressed another groan—what the hell had she been thinking embracing him like that in front of so many people?

Oh, right, I thought he was dying.

Marinette really hoped there was a free open bar at Jessika’s party tonight.

“It’s just so beautiful,” Manon said, about to fake cry. “Look how happy Chat Noir looks. I swear, all he’s ever wanted is Ladybug’s love. He’s so pure and good.”

“What? Let me see that.” Marinette shoved Manon out of the way so she could see better. Chat was gripping Ladybug’s forearms and looking at her with the most endearing expression that reminded her so much of the boy he used to be. Except this was not a boy, but a man grown. And that was not the infatuation of puppy love in his cat eyes, but something more tranquil, more sincere. A genuine affection for Ladybug’s concern.

Marinette bit her tongue and pushed the computer away. This was ridiculous. Chat Noir had been infatuated with Ladybug in their youth, everybody knew that, but that had been fourteen years ago. They’d grown up, grown apart. He couldn’t possibly still—

“Well, I ship them,” Manon said. “And so do half the Ladybloggers.”

Marinette frowned. “What about the other half?”

Manon shrugged. “The other half is obviously blind.”

Or they saw us arguing on the Eiffel Tower and know this whole thing is a farce.

That thought put a damper on her mood, and Marinette rose from the chair. “Listen, Manon, I still have some work to get done. I was going to put it off, but apparently now I’m going to Jessika’s premiere party—”

“Can I come? Please, Marinette? Pretty please??”

“What? No, this is a work thing.”

“Well, I’m your intern!”

“The intern who convinced me to take her to that Agreste Fashion show where a coralized victim showed up and attacked everybody. Don’t think I didn’t see you jumping into the action and endangering yourself. I doubt Ladybug was very happy with you.”

“Oh, please. I bought Ladybug some precious time to save her not-so-secret cat lover. My presence was invaluable, obviously.”

Marinette’s eye twitched. Cat lover?

“…Anyway, the answer is no. One event per week is more than enough.”

“Come on, don’t be like that. It’s not like you have anybody else you’re already taking!”

“Sure I do.”

“Oh, yeah? Who? And it’s not Alya ‘cause I know she’s out of town this weekend on assignment.”

“No, it’s not Alya,” Marinette hedged.

“Well?”

“It’s, um… It’s—”

“You don’t have anyone, do you?”

Marinette crossed her arms, baffled by how a nineteen-year-old could back her in to such a corner. “I do, for your information.”

“Who?” Manon rose and got in her face, daring her to lie.

Marinette swallowed. “Well, it’s…”

“Yeah?”

“I-I was just about to call him to confirm!”

Manon watched her, nonplussed. “Really. Right now?”

“Yup! Right now…”

“Okay, then go on.”

Was that a smile on Manon’s face? Was she enjoying this?

“I want to know about this guy who’s apparently higher on your list of priorities than your favorite intern,” Manon pressed.

Fine,” Marinette huffed, pulling out her phone and scrolling through her contacts. “Here’s his number.”

“Great, I hope he picks up.”

Marinette got the eerie sensation that Manon was enjoying this way more than she should have been, but the younger girl kept her expression carefully schooled and casual. Marinette tapped the green phone icon on her touch screen with a shaking finger and pressed the phone to her ear. On the fifth ring, the line connected.

“Marinette?”

“Hi, Adrien!” Marinette said a little too cheerfully. “Hey, um, how’s it going?”

Manon made a face. “Wait, the DTF guy? With the winky-face emoji?”

Marinette covered the phone’s microphone and glared daggers at Manon. “Shut. Up.

There was muffled talking on the other line, as though he was in the middle of a hushed conversation with somebody else.

“Um, is this a bad time?” she asked.

“No, no it’s perfect. Your timing couldn’t be better.” Adrien sounded a little terse.

“Are you sure? I could call back…”

“No, really!” She heard a door close, some shuffling. “Hey, please don’t hang up. I’m here, I’m all yours. What’s up?”

Marinette’s heart fluttered at his choice of words, feeling very much the insecure fourteen-year-old for a moment there. She cleared her throat to mask her nervousness—why am I nervous? It’s just Adrien!—and switched the phone to her other ear.

“Oh, great!” She tried to sound calm and sane and totally not infatuated with her high school crush. “Well, there’s this thing I got invited to tonight. It’s really last minute, and I’m sure you have a million other things to do—”

“When and where?”

Manon waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Marinette bit back a smile. “I haven’t even told you what it is yet.”

“So?”

“So I could be dragging you over to clean my parents’ industrial-sized oven with nothing but a toothbrush, and you’d be none the wiser.”

“Marinette, I’d clean that oven out with my tongue as long as I got to spend time with you.”

“Oh come on, I’m sure we could put your tongue to better use elsewhere,” Marinette said before she could stop herself.

Manon looked absolutely wicked with delight, and Marinette realized that yes, she had actually said that out loud. In real life. Shit. Her shame went straight to her cheeks and painted them Ladybug-red.

On the other end of the line, Adrien chuckled darkly. “What did you have in mind?” he purred.

And that was when Marinette a) temporarily lost her sanity imagining him saying her name in that voice, and b) manhandled Manon out the door and locked it. She sank to the floor by the door, phone pressed between her cheek and shoulder, and hugged her knees.

“What was that?” Adrien asked.

“S-Sorry,” Marinette said. “Nosy intern… So anyway! About tonight, it’s a premiere party, actually. I designed the lead actress’s dress, she invited me, it’s a whole thing.”

“I see. Damn, so no ovens for me to lick clean?”

Marinette grinned. “No, sorry to smash all your hopes and dreams.”

“I’m not sure how I’ll go on now that you’ve crushed them.”

“Yes, I’m terrible, I know.”

“You are. I was so looking forward to putting my tongue to good use for you, Princess.”

Marinette’s throat went dry, and the next sound to come out of her mouth was a pitiful squeak. Thankfully, Adrien did not seem to hear.

“…Princess?” she managed not to sound completely pathetic.

“It’s a party, and knowing you, you’ll look the part better than any of those movie stars.”

Marinette’s smile was something stunning, and it was a damn shame he wasn’t around to see it. How could Adrien could go from borderline tempting her with phone sex to showering her with genuine affection? She was suddenly very much looking forward to seeing him tonight—it had been nearly a week since the dinner party at Alya and Nino’s.

“Then it’s a date,” she said, a little breathless.

“It is. Text me the details. I’ll pick you up.”

A real date. With Adrien Agreste. He would pick her up. Marinette could have died right there.

“I can’t wait,” she said, meaning it.

“Me, too. See you tonight, Princess.”

She bit back her silly grin at that nickname. “See you.”

She sat there just staring at her phone for a few minutes after they’d hung up in a dreamy, romantic daze. Marinette had had her share of boyfriends and flings in her day, some far more satisfying than others. But there was something about Adrien that made her feel like she could fly, like she was fourteen again in the best way possible—young and free and full of fragile, beautiful hope. More than anything, there was possibility with him like there had never been with the others before him.

After him. They all came after him.

He had been the boy who made her like boys. And now he was dropping everything just to spend time with her, just because she’d asked. From the way he’d been on the phone, she cautiously hoped they’d be doing more than simply spending time together tonight. The thought made her smile wider as warmth filled her chest. She hugged her phone close and let herself bask in that precious feeling, for just a few moments unafraid of the very real possibility that she was perilously close to falling for him all over again.

“Marinette! I know you’re still in there, open up! What did DTF Adrien say?” Manon pounded on the door.

“He said yes!”

“Damnit! Now I have to be happy for you, don’t I?”

Marinette laughed herself silly, her mood soaring. If anybody had asked her, she could not have told them with any certainty that she’d ever felt happier in all her life.


 

Adrien tossed his phone on the passenger seat of his black Jaguar F-Type and started the engine. He cast a last glance at Agreste Mansion and his father watching him from the window of his study, his shadow long and dark and disappointed. Adrien’s fleeting good mood soured at the sight of him, and he almost gave in to the juvenile impulse to flip him off. But he swallowed it—Gabriel Agreste would not get a second more of his attention today, thank you very much—and pulled out of the roundabout courtyard onto the streets of Paris.

Alone and without an audience, Plagg phased out of Adrien’s jacket pocket and plopped down on the plush passenger seat with a dramatic yawn. “Yeesh, glad that’s over.”

“You and me both,” Adrien said darkly as he wove through the morning traffic on his way to the office. The detour to his father’s home had already cost him an hour, and now he was stuck in the middle of rush hour. Just great.

Plagg peered at him askance, his expression unreadable. “You really hate that guy, don’t you?”

Adrien scoffed. “He’s my father.”

“What’s your point?”

Adrien opened his mouth to argue, but thought better of it. What was the point? He’d learned long ago that Plagg had Opinions and he stuck to them like fucking fly paper. For an ancient, all powerful cat deity, he was surprisingly ignorant on the nuances of familial dynamics.

“I don’t hate him,” Adrien said at length. “He’s my father.”

Plagg rolled his eyes. “You’re such a Dutiful Princess, Adrien.”

“And you spend way too much time on TV Tropes.”

Plagg shrugged. He wasn’t about to deny it. Ask him, and Plagg would tell you humans were nothing but a series of cliches and tropes repeated over and over and over again, ad infinitum. They never learned from the past, never cared to change, and always fell back on stereotypes and generalizations. As far as Plagg was concerned, TV Tropes was the best-kept record for understanding true human culture.

“You know, it’s okay to hate him a little,” Plagg said offhandedly, like he wasn’t really paying attention. “Just because he impregnated your mom back in the day, doesn’t mean you owe him anything.”

Adrien bristled at Plagg’s typically crass brand of brutal honesty. Still, he supposed he had a point, sort of.

“I don’t hate him,” Adrien repeated, more for his own edification than for Plagg’s. “I just don’t understand him. I never have.”

He hadn’t known what to expect when confronting his father about his involvement with the police’s investigation into he coral murders. He may have had Chief Raincomprix and even Ladybug fooled, but Adrien knew his father—Gabriel never offered his checkbook with one hand without offering the sharp end of a sword with the other. He wanted something for funding the police, of that Adrien was dead certain. And he was pretty sure it had everything to do with Gabriel knowing Adrien was Chat Noir.

“If you insist on running around while a murderer is out there hunting you, then you leave me no choice,” Gabriel had said after Adrien confronted him and all but physically forced him to explain himself.

“What I do is none of your goddamned business,” Adrien had said.

“You made it my business when you decided to throw your life away for that woman, again!”

Adrien hissed and slammed on the breaks, nearly rear-ending the car in front of him. Plagg swore as he was jostled in the passenger seat and shot Adrien a scathing glare.

“Hey, watch the road, Drama Queen.”

“I thought I was a Dutiful Princess,” Adrien said.

“Depends on how bratty you’re being.” Plagg crossed his little paws and peered up at Adrien. “So spit it out, already.”

“Spit what out?”

“Your feelings or whatever. Come on, let’s just get it over with so I can get to my nap. I don’t have all day.”

“Wow. Has anybody ever told you you have a real way with words?”

“Kid, please. I’m the pinnacle of charm. I’m a cat.”

Adrien didn’t see the logic there, but decided it was best not to argue. He crept along at a snail’s pace with the traffic. Well, there was nothing better to do, he supposed.

“I know he’s genuinely worried about me,” Adrien said softly. “But he’s acting like I’m still a kid under his control. It’s like he doesn’t trust me to make my own decisions.”

Plagg rolled his eyes. “Yeah, wow, imagine that. A controlling, emotionally abusive father having trouble accepting his only son’s independence. I never saw that one coming.”

“Don’t call him that,” Adrien said, but it came out sounding way more pathetic than he’d intended. “He’s gotten much better.”

“Adrien, he found out your secret, moved you halfway across the world just to get you away from Ladybug, and he’s still treating you like a fragile trophy instead of his son. But sure, yeah, okay, I guess he doesn’t lock you in your room anymore. Real father of the year, right there.”

“Just shut up about it,” Adrien snapped. He ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. “I get it, okay? I know what he is, what he’s done. Mom left, and it broke him. It broke us both.”

Plagg sighed and flopped on his back, defeated. “Even now, you’re still making excuses for him.”

Adrien bared his teeth. “I know he’s a shitty father. Are you happy now? I’m fucked up, and no matter how hard I try, one day I’ll end up just like him. It’s the oldest trope in the book.”

Plagg was suddenly right in front of his face, and Adrien slammed on the brakes. “Stop that. Right now.”

Adrien was so taken aback at Plagg’s sudden ferocity that he forgot he was staring down a being that could fit in his palm. No, this was Plagg the Pestilent, God of Destruction and Chaos, and he would be heard.

“You’re not fucked up, and you’re nothing like him. Don’t confuse destruction with self-destruction. I chose you, Adrien, not because you embody destruction, but because you were made to survive it. Your resilience gives you the power to wield me without losing yourself in the process. You’re more worthy of me than almost any human I’ve ever chosen before you.”

Adrien was truly at a loss for words as he stared at Plagg. He was pretty sure he had never, ever heard Plagg praise him. And all he could do was stare dumbly.

Cars honked behind him, and Adrien jumped, the moment passed. He stepped on the gas and merged with traffic once more, while Plagg returned to the passenger seat, subdued. They drove in silence for a few blocks, but it wasn’t uncomfortable so much as contemplative. As was their custom, Adrien was the first to break it.

“Do you really have that much faith in me?” he asked softly. “Even… What I did to Ladybug…?”

“Yes,” Plagg said flatly.

“Why?”

Plagg took his time answering. So much time, in fact, that Adrien wasn’t sure he would respond at first. “Because I learned from my mistake. I got it right this time.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you just missed the turn for your office. Where are you dragging me to now? There better be cheese waiting.”

Shit, Plagg was right, he’d missed the exit and now he was driving uptown. It would take forever to loop back around in this traffic. It was Saturday, though, and no one would miss him if he just worked remotely from his apartment. A part of him was tempted to drive off, as far as he could get on a three-quarter tank of gas, just leave it all behind.

But then he remembered Marinette. They had a date tonight. He was picking her up. The thought of her lifted his spirits, there was no doubt about it, but thinking of her also meant thinking of Ladybug, and the secrets she’d kept from him.

All this time, there was a person who knew everything about his double life, someone he could have talked to in his times of need, someone whose very job was supposed to be to help him. And she’d never mentioned it until now. She said she thought he’d known, but still he couldn’t help but hold it against her. Why had she never even mentioned the Guardian until now? Surely he would have remembered if she had before.

“Helloooo, anybody home?” Plagg said. “Why do you suddenly look constipated?”

Adrien glared at Plagg. “There’s cheese in the glove compartment. If I let you have it, will you be quiet for—”

Plagg had phased through the glove compartment before Adrien could finish talking. Over the hum of the engine, Adrien could hear him chewing on a block of gooey brie, completely lost to the world. Adrien leaned back in his seat, resigned.

Marinette, he told himself. Think about Marinette.

She was looking forward to seeing him tonight. She liked Adrien, and he wanted to keep it that way for as long as he could. Because every time he saw her, every time she smiled, every time she touched him, whether in or out of the mask, he knew he was in mortal danger of falling for her all over again. Maybe it was selfish, maybe even a little manipulative, but he wasn’t a saint. He spent his days in the company of the avatar of ruin and mayhem—who could blame him?

He could sweep her off her feet, and she’d let him. He could spoil her, adore her, ravish her, and she’d let him. She liked Adrien.

But Adrien was a lie.

He stepped on the gas as he pulled out of the busy, uptown traffic on to wider, quieter streets leading out of the city. Maybe it was a lie, but what did that matter? If she was happy? Why should he take that from her? From both of them? Even if Ladybug didn’t trust Chat Noir, why couldn’t Marinette trust Adrien?

“Just a little longer,” he promised himself, picking up speed. Just let me stay with her a little longer, please.

Hadn’t he waited long enough for this? Just for a taste of what could have been, what could be. Because it wouldn’t last, and one day soon, he would have to tell her the truth. He would lose her all over again.

But not yet. Just for a little while, she could be his.

Just for a little while, let me be hers.

Chapter Text

Adrien parked his Jaguar at the curb outside Marinette’s apartment uptown and texted her to let her know he was outside. In the end, he’d driven all the way to the Bois du Boulogne, spent a blissful half hour there enjoying the silence of nature, and then had to go back to his apartment to deal with a sudden work emergency. It had been a trying day, and he’d only barely had time to shower, change, and make it to Marinette’s on time. His dark suit was sleekly trimmed, and he knew he wore it well. Even so, he hoped he’d get a reaction from Marinette all the same when she saw him dressed to impress. Adrien was more than a little vain, a hazard of the supermodel life, and yes, okay, he wanted to impress Marinette. What was the harm in that?

She came down five minutes later, and Adrien pushed off from his perch against his car to greet her. He stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of her, and suddenly forgot all about his vanity. She wore a long winter coat, but underneath he could see a long-sleeved, fuchsia, body con dress that clung to her curves and made her look like some kind of fay nymph. Her hair was loose and styled wavy, framing her face. Adrien’s gaze lingered on her plunging neckline, and he wondered seriously if she was trying to murder him.

“Hi,” she said, flushed from the chill but smiling as brightly as her dress.

Adrien opened his mouth to respond like the sentient human being he was supposed to be, but all that came out was a pathetic squeaking sound. Marinette took his reaction the wrong way, and her smile fell.

“Adrien? Are you okay?” She reached for him, concerned.

Adrien snatched her wrist before she could touch him, because she was going for his face, and if she touched him like that, he would lose whatever shred of self-control that remained to him, push her up against the wall, and have his way with her right there.

“No, Marinette, I’m not,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Your dress…”

She retracted her hand and blinked at him, self-conscious. “Oh, um, I guess the color’s a little much—”

“It’s gorgeous,” he said before she could get the wrong idea. “You’re gorgeous. I just wasn’t prepared for…”

His gaze fell to her loose hair, and a wicked part of him wondered if she’d worn it down just so he could run his fingers through it. He suddenly longed to do just that. She flushed as he stepped closer, and he regained some of his confidence with a promising smile.

“Forgive me,” he said. “It’s not often I’m rendered speechless.”

Her lips parted in surprise as she looked up at him, and fuck, he was trying, okay? But if she kept looking at him like that, he wouldn’t be able to resist her for much longer. Thankfully, she soon recovered, but her blush remained.

“Well, as nice as that is, I much prefer the sound of your voice,” she said.

He couldn’t help the silly grin that spread across his face. “Your wish is my command.”

She matched his smile, and they stood together on the sidewalk grinning at each other like a pair of smitten idiots. Until Marinette shivered a little from the cold, and he realized she must be uncomfortable standing outside in heels and bare legs despite her heavy, woolen coat.

“Here,” he said, opening the passenger door for her. “Your chariot awaits.”

Marinette laughed. “Are you always this corny?”

“You bring it out of me.”

He checked that she was safely seated, closed the door, and headed for the driver’s seat. She was busy running her hands over the expensive black leather interior of the two-seater, luxury sports car when he started up the engine.

She looked so pleased, so excited, and his stupid, romantic heart soared at the sight. That was his doing, her joy. Feeling cocky, Adrien reached across her and tugged her seatbelt over her shoulder. He could smell her perfume so close to her neck and allowed himself a satisfied smirk when he felt her tense at his sudden proximity.

“Ready, Princess?” he whispered close enough to taste her if he dared.

“Yes,” she said.

Yes.

His favorite word. He could have listened to her say it over and over again, but no. This was not the time. He’d promised her a date, a real date, and he was going to deliver. His baser instincts could wait. He snapped the seatbelt in place, and soon they were off.


 

Chloe smoothed the thick, flared skirt of her sapphire party dress, her practiced eye searching for wrinkles she knew were not there. Her hair was twisted in a rope-like fishtail braid over her shoulder, her Miraculous comb tucked snugly behind her ear. Pollen was vibrating happily, off the walls excited by the prospect of a party.

“Where is he? He’s late!” she complained.

“No, he’s not. And we’re meeting at the party, not here. I already told you that,” Chloe said, distracted as she fiddled with the clasp of a diamond choker.

“He should’ve been here by now,” Pollen insisted, deaf to Chloe’s reason. “Ooh, I can’t wait to see him! What do you think he’ll wear?”

“I don’t know, a suit?” He better wear a suit, and it better have been dry cleaned in the last five years.

Chloe bit her tongue at the thought and reminded herself to rein in her inner mean girl tonight. For his sake. And, you know, she was technically on the job. So what if Luka was also going to be there? It wasn’t like she was such a smitten fool that she’d let his presence distract her. Who was smitten? Not her. He was just some guy she sometimes had passionate, wild sex with. ‘Sometimes’ being almost every night for the past week and a half. Totally casual and not serious at all.

“A suit.” Pollen hovered and stared dreamily into space as she tried to picture it. She was doing that buzzing-purring thing again. “Mmm, yes… Hey, Honey Bee? What’s a suit?”

Chloe smirked. Oh, the great wisdom she could impart to this tiny, omnipotent bee god. Really, Pollen was in excellent hands with her. “It’s a magical outfit that makes hot men look even hotter.”

Pollen was practically salivating. Could bees salivate? Chloe wasn’t sure. “Really? Oooh, where is he?!”

A part of Chloe wondered if she should feel a little jealous of Pollen’s affection. As skeptical as Chloe had been, after Pollen first ‘met’ Luka at the coffee shop date, she had instantly transformed into his number one fan girl (fan bee?). Chloe supposed that was better than if Pollen had disliked Luka, considering how much time she’d been spending with him lately, but still, it made her wonder. Could kwami love?

“Whoa, what the hell,” she said, not liking that train of thought. Nothing about what she was doing with Luka came even remotely close to love of any sort. What an inappropriate thought. Maybe Pollen’s enthusiasm was affecting her. They were bonded, whatever that meant.

The doorbell startled them both, until Pollen took off in a black and yellow blur and Chloe felt a stroke coming on.

“Pollen! What are you doing?!”

“Someone’s at the door, Sweetness!”

“Yeah, which means you need to hide!”

Pollen stopped short, and her antennae fell dejectedly. “Oh…right. I can’t be seen.” She sniffled, and her big, compound eyes shone with unshed tears. “I-I guess I’ll just b-b-buzz off.”

Goddamnit.

Chloe was going soft, and there seemed to be nothing she could do to stop it. Silently, she offered Pollen her hand, and Pollen dutifully landed on her palm. Chloe planted a kiss on her head—forgiveness was easily earned with Pollen—and gently set her in the hidden pocket in her skirt before peering through the peep hole. She could just make out Luka’s profile over a bouquet of—oh for fuck’s sake, were those yellow roses?

Freshly annoyed that he’d come here instead of meeting her at the party as they’d previously agreed, Chloe opened the door ready to tell him to leave and let her finish getting ready for work when the sight of him paralyzed her to the spot.

He wore a suit, all right. Wore the shit out of it. He was dressed in tailored black from head to toe, save for a skinny, white tie. ‘Sleek’ was not a word she would have ever used to describe Luka. Moody, yes. Dark, absolutely. Edgy, sure—those frosted, teal tips were hard to miss, for better or worse (better). But tonight, he looked like Armani had gotten their hands on a J-Pop idol for how…put together he looked.

“Wow,” he said, more coherent than her at the moment as he drank in the sight of her. His dark eyes practically shimmered with unconcealed appreciation. “I know you don’t care to hear it, but you’re stunning, Chloe.” He held out the wrapped bouquet for her and smirked. “For you.”

And like a dumbass teenager, Chloe almost tripped over herself blithely accepting the offering. They smelled sweet. She didn’t even like flowers, but goddamnit she liked these. She liked his flowers. What was he doing to her?

“Chloe?” he said, stepping closer.

She swallowed the butterflies in her stomach at his proximity and clutched his flowers to her chest like a talisman. “You brushed your hair,” she blurted out.

He looked bemused and touched his styled hair. “Aw, you noticed?”

His teasing snapped her out of her stupor, and she swallowed hard. Steeling herself, she put on her best Disappointed Face. “Thanks for the flowers, but I thought we were meeting at the party.”

He shrugged, easily brushing off her brusqueness. “I couldn’t wait to see you.”

So honest, so easy. How did he do it? How did he make it look so effortless? Chloe was sure she had never met anyone so immune to self-conscious insecurity as Luka.

“Well,” she said, unable to hold on to her annoyance when he was looking at her so earnestly, “here I am.”

He chuckled and leaned an arm on her doorframe. “Relax. It’s just me.”

Pollen squirmed in her pocket, and Chloe pressed a hand to her skirt, hoping Luka hadn’t seen the weird movement. “I’m just, uh, gonna put these in water. Wait here.”

She felt his eyes on her back as she padded through her hotel apartment to the kitchen, grabbed a crystal vase from the cabinet, and filled it with water. Pollen zoomed out of her pocket and immediately buried herself in the yellow rose petals.

“I love them!” she gushed as she rolled around amongst the petals and shoved her face in their centers to inhale the subtly sweet scent. “I have to say, I was skeptical at first, but you picked a good drone, Honeycomb. So thoughtful, so loyal… Ah! I think I’m pollen for him!” She buzzed happily while Chloe transferred the flowers to the vase and set them on the island counter.

Chloe was about to comment on that particularly heinous bee pun when she heard footsteps approaching. Pollen magically phased out of sight amongst the rose petals, and Chloe whirled to find Luka coming toward her. Barefoot, he had nearly a head of height on her, a fact of which she was acutely aware when he backed her against the opposite counter and took her chin in hand.

“Sorry,” he said, a playful glint in his eyes that suggested he wasn’t sorry at all. “I don’t feel like waiting right now.”

He watched her silently, an unspoken question passing between them, and Chloe gave in to the temptation she’d had the minute she saw him to grab his tie and pull him down for a searing kiss. She could feel him smiling through his desire, could taste his joy when she opened her mouth for him, and it drove her half mad with power. This was her doing, her effect on him. Plenty of people had wanted her, but not like this. Not with such raw intensity of feeling, like every touch, every kiss was a little piece of himself he molded to her simply because he wanted to keep her, all of her, and he didn’t care that it made him vulnerable.

His hands found their way to her thighs, and he lifted her onto the black, granite kitchen counter. Chloe wrapped her bare legs around his middle and locked him in place. He hissed as she pulled him closer, and she felt him harden against her thigh. Immediately, his lips were on her neck and his hand found her breast, a thumb teasing her through the tight silk of her dress.

“Mm, Luka,” she gasped, raking her nails over back. “The party, I’m on the clock.” Her excuses sounded feeble even to her ears as she tightened her legs around him.

He laughed—god, she was really starting to love the sound of his unguarded laughter—and pressed a long, sensuous kiss to her neck. “Yeah, I can tell you’re in a big hurry to let me go.”

She opened her eyes and had half a mind to tell him off when he bit down on her earlobe without warning. Chloe forgot her own name for a blinding moment of pleasure and rocked her hips against him. He had the nerve to pull away then, and she couldn’t help the whine of protest at the loss of him. There was heat in his gaze as he watched her shudder against him, her fingers curled in his lapels and her lips parted. And something else she couldn’t name, something silky and soft that set her skin ablaze with something other than raw, carnal desire.

“Tell me what you want, Chloe.”

“I want you to put out or get out. I don’t have all night.”

A hand on her waist drew her impossibly closer, so that there was no question that he wanted to finish this as much as she did. She bit back a moan, and then instantly regretted it at the look in his eyes. He much preferred her unrestrained.

“Then say it,” he commanded, and the sound was liquid heat between her thighs.

Where had all her power gone? Right now, she didn’t care as she wrapped her fingers around his neck and surrendered the last of it. “I want you,” she said, the longing for him a physical ache. “Luka, fuck, I want—ah!”

His clever fingers hiked up her luxuriously flared skirt and stroked her, stoking the heat ever hotter. He slipped a finger inside her to the knuckle, and then another, and she writhed, panting and completely at his mercy.

“That’s my girl.”

Chloe’s whole body hummed in tune to the sound of his voice. He knew exactly what to say to make her melt—my girl.

Mine.

He watched her all the while, sleepy eyes half-lidded with a kind of carnal reverence and an arm around her waist to support her while he fucked her with his fingers. Until she couldn’t take it anymore, she was coming undone and couldn’t hold on to anything except him, except his stupidly pretty hair, except his soft lips once more on hers as she finally let go. He swallowed her pleasure greedily, stealing every last drop of her, and she happily gave it to him.

Chloe slowly came down from the high, barely able to catch her breath as Luka drew out their kisses and traced lazy circles in the small of her back. They were not the sensual kisses from before, but softer, more intimate, with no expectation of escalation. He simply kissed her because he liked kissing her, and that thought brought a strange, but not unwelcome, warmth to her chest. Tender Luka could be just as intoxicating as dominant Luka.

They lingered there a couple minutes, neither wanting to let go. Chloe fantasized about just staying here with him all night. Her kitchen counter was well and good, but she had a very soft bed big enough for two in the next room. He’d look exquisite splayed beneath her on her down comforter…

But these were thoughts best left for later, like when she wasn’t supposed to be managing a huge party at her own hotel. As if reading her mind, Luka pressed a last kiss to her jaw and drew away so she could stand on the floor again. She wobbled a little, but he steadied her with a hand around her waist.

“Feel better?” he asked. He had the nerve to look a little smug, the jerk.

But Chloe couldn’t find it in her extremely satisfied heart to hold it against him. “As if you didn’t know.”

“I thrive on positive feedback.”

“Spoken like a true attention-whore.”

“Nah, yours is the only attention I’m interested in.”

Chloe bit her lip and tried to ignore the flare of butterflies in her stomach at his candor. “What about you? I mean, we’re pressed for time, but—”

He smiled and trailed his fingers up the bodice of her dress. “This isn’t a transaction. You don’t owe me anything, ever.” He was watching her carefully, watching her reaction to his touch. “Believe me, I got as much out of that as you did.”

“You know what? You’re kind of a voyeur,” she said even as she stepped closer and gazed up at him, letting him see her reaction to his butterfly touches.

“Well, you’re beautiful when you’re honest.”

She blushed faintly and smiled, secretly thrilled at his obvious affection.

He pressed their foreheads together and sighed contentedly. “Horecchau yo, kimi ni.

Chloe loved the sound of his voice in Japanese, even if she could not understand the words. “What did you say?”

He smiled and pressed a chaste kiss to her mouth. “Come on, we have a party to get to.”

Right, that. Chloe supposed they couldn’t stay here away from the world all night. Reluctantly, they parted and she picked up the vase with his flowers. “I’ll be five minutes. Wait here, okay? For real this time.”

He saluted her. “Yes, Boss.”

Damn right.

Hello, power, nice to see you again.

Chloe locked herself in her bedroom and set the vase on her dresser. Pollen phased out of the flowers covered in, well, actual pollen. “Oh, I’m so happy! Was there ever a more perfect drone for my Queen Bee?”

Chloe rolled her eyes and headed to the bathroom to clean up. Luckily, her dress had been spared the effects of their intimacy, though she was not happy to see a few faint wrinkles in the knee-length skirt. Oh well, every battle suffered a few casualties. She’d just have to make do. “I don’t know about perfect, but he knows what he’s doing, I’ll give him that.”

Pollen’s only response was a dreamy sigh. “You were right: suits are magical.”

Cleaned up and feeling rather fantastic, if she did say so herself, Chloe slipped on her ludicrously high heels and admired her glowing reflection in the mirror. She side-eyed Pollen, who was lying blissfully amongst Luka’s yellow roses, and she just couldn’t help herself. “Yeah, they’re bee-witching, all right.”

Suddenly, Pollen was buzzing right in her face, her compound eyes so wide they almost looked manic. “Honey Bee! Did you just—”

Chloe held up a finger to silence her. “Yes, and it was a one-time thing. You just looked very cute for a minute there.”

Pollen burst with happiness and buzzed about, full of energy. “I knew you were my true match!” She bumped into Chloe’s chest in what could only be described as a hug, if bees could hug. “I love you, Honey Bee!”

Chloe was a little taken aback at Pollen’s intensity. And for a moment, she was reminded a little of Adrien—emotionally starved, gullible, hopeless Adrien, who overreacted and indulged in even the slightest show of affection. Chloe’s expression softened, and she cupped Pollen close to her chest.

A hundred years she was locked up.

Even for an immortal god, a hundred years without so much as a friendly voice to listen to was an awfully long time to be alone in darkness.

“You know? I think I might be falling for you, too,” she said.

Pollen looked up at her, grinning from ear to ear (antenna to antenna?). “Duh, it’s me!”

Oh, they were a match, all right.

“Come on, it’s party time. You know the drill. Be good for me, okay?”

Pollen nodded vigorously. “Anything for you, Sweetness!”

Shoes on and Pollen tucked safely in her skirt’s roomy pocket, Chloe grabbed her clutch, checked her reflection one last time, and headed back out to find Luka.


 

The party was a lavish affair that hit Marinette with such a slap of déjà vu that she had to take a minute to catch her breath. She’d known it was at Le Grand Paris Hotel, but she had not quite put together that it would be in the same room as the Trefoil Gala had been.

The same room where she had met Adrien again after fourteen long years.

And now, here she was again, her arm in his, as the hotel staff checked their coats and welcomed them to enjoy the party. Marinette had to hand it to the staff—they really knew how to throw a party. The glass ceiling showed off the starry night sky, a DJ supplied a steady stream of classic beats, and the monochrome decorations gave the room a sleekly professional  air that made the guests pop in their many colors, Marinette included. Her fuchsia dress drew passing eyes, and she felt Adrien tighten his hold on her arm.

“Marinette, hello!” Jessika waved to her from a nearby table, where she’d been in conversation with a small group of people. “I’m so glad you made it. Oh! Look at your handiwork, isn’t it just stunning?” She twirled in the heavy winter gown, not at all shy about her pleasure.

“Hi Jessika. And it’s you who makes the dress look stunning, really! Thank you so much for inviting me tonight, this party is amazing.”

Jessika laughed and waved her off. “So modest! You know, it’s perfectly all right to indulge your pride now and then. Your talent is extraordinary—don’t be shy to show it off a bit more.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Adrien said, grinning magnificently and making Marinette blush at his praise.

“My my, and who is this?” Jessika asked, holding out a hand for him to kiss.

Adrien was quick to oblige and placed a polite kiss on her ringed fingers. “Adrien Agreste. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Fujiwara. I’ve been a fan of your work for years.”

Jessika giggled appreciatively. “Agreste, you say? How interesting! You Agreste men are all such silver-tongued charmers, aren’t you? Marinette, well done.”

“Thanks,” Marinette said lamely, her soul still floating on a distant cloud as she basked in Jessika’s and Adrien’s praise of her skill.

“You’ve met my family?” Adrien said, making conversation. “I wasn’t aware charm was a family trait.”

Jessika’s dark eyes glittered with secrets. “Oh, trust me, it is. But enough about us! Marinette, please come and meet some of my colleagues. They’ve all been dying to meet the seamstress behind my fabulous dress.”

“Oh, um, all right.” Marinette allowed Jessika to pull her along, slipping out of Adrien’s hold. She cast a glance back at him, but he just smiled for her.

“Go on, network a little. I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Marinette looked at him strangely—an odd choice of words, but she couldn’t figure out why. She mouthed an apology, but didn’t want to be rude to Jessika, who had just spent enough money on Marinette Designs to cover all their expenses for the next two months.

Adrien blew her a kiss, and Marinette blushed furiously. He grinned cheekily, and oh she was going to get him back for that, so help her.

But for now, she had to put on her professional face and greet Jessika’s colleagues.

“Here she is, the designer I was telling you all about,” Jessika gushed as she led Marinette to a standing table. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

Everyone gathered was dressed to impress in glitz and glam, as one might expect of famous actors at a party. But as Marinette shook hands and listened to their genuine compliments on Jessika’s dress, she could not help but feel her pride swell. Jessika was right—it didn’t hurt to be proud of her talent. Alphonse was always telling her so.

“Lila, darling, over here,” Jessika said to a woman over Marinette’s shoulder.

“Jessika, you look lovely, as always.”

Marinette turned just as Jessika exchanged greeting kisses with the newcomer, and she could not help but gape. “Lila Rossi?”

Sure enough, she was the same Lila who had spent a brief yet tumultuous semester at Dupont before transferring to a private academy back in Rome to be closer to her family. Lila was tall and willowy, a vision in a white, empire waist gown that made her look like she’d stepped out of a Greek myth. Haughty, green eyes fell to Marinette, and a slew of bad memories came rushing back.

“Sorry, do I know you?” Lila said.

Marinette’s eye twitched in annoyance.

“Lila, my dear! This is Marinette Dupain-Cheng, my personal designer.” Jessika indicated her dress and smiled magnificently. “Marinette, Lila plays my adoptive daughter in the show. She’s quite the rising star, if I do say so myself.”

The light of recognition crossed Lila’s almond eyes, which she narrowed in Marinette’s general direction.

“Okay, you thirsty party fools, I come bearing libations for all,” said an extremely fit Asian man in a suit that looked near to bursting at the seams over his tall, muscular frame. He had his hands full with a few open bottles of beer and a small tray carrying a couple glasses of wine and mixed drinks, which he set on the table for everyone to help themselves.

Marinette forgot all about Lila for a moment as she found herself shocked for the second time that night in as many minutes. “Kim?!”

Kim Lê Chiến was a sight for sore eyes as he lit up, instantly recognizing Marinette unlike his frosty companion. “No way! Marinette? Aw man, what an awesome coincidence! Come here, you!”

He pulled her into a bear hug before she could protest, and Marinette eagerly hugged him back. “Kim, wow, what’re you doing here? It’s been a long time!”

He let her go and grinned. “I’ll say. I’m an actor now, ta da! I mean, this is my first big break, so I’m still learning the ropes, you know, but everybody’s gotta start somewhere, right?”

Lila rolled her eyes. “Well, you’re not wrong.”

Marinette soon learned that Kim had a supporting role in Silver Soul, for which he’d been filming on location in Florence with Lila and some of the other cast members over the past few weeks. It was a much larger production than Marinette had been led to believe, bringing actors and producers together from Tokyo, Milan, and Paris for a romantic drama that would span three generations. It was the kind of thing Tikki would have binge watched—the lucky kwami had always been fascinated by tales of love and family and happy endings, so much so that she had her own profile on Marinette’s Netflix and a queue of sappy shows and movies in her Watchlist.

“I heard from Nino that you’d finally made it big, congratulations!” Kim said.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Marinette hedged. And then she remembered that she wasn’t going to let modesty rule her tonight. “Maybe not big big, but I did design Jessika’s dress tonight.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about fashion, but it looks awesome if you ask me!”

Lila, however, was watching her with a critical eye. “It’s not bad,” she admitted. “I don’t remember you having a keen eye for glamour, but I guess things change.”

Marinette bristled at the backhanded compliment. Lila could not know, of course, but Marinette had a particularly foul memory of her time spent as the akumatized Volpina and how she’d practically molested Adrien for attention. But that was Ladybug’s memory, not Marinette’s. And as unpleasant as Lila had been (and possibly still was), she had been Hawk Moth’s victim as much as any other others.

Just as Chat Noir had been a victim.

“Aw, c’mon, Lila, don’t be such a tease. I saw the way you looked at Jessika’s dress,” Kim teased. “It’s okay to say what you really think. Oh, hey! Maybe you can commission Marinette next time, huh? We’re gonna be in Paris for the rest of filming, anyway.”

Lila and Marinette shared a flush—Lila in embarrassment at having been called out, and Marinette in shock that Kim had actually had the audacity to scold Lila. It seemed things had changed, indeed.

Lila cleared her throat and smiled gracefully. It was a practiced smile made for cameras, and she pulled it off annoyingly well. “Maybe I will.”

Marinette set her jaw at the thinly-veiled challenge. Two could play at that game. “Let me give you my card. I’m always happy to take on custom orders.” She pulled a business card from her purse, careful not to disturb Tikki curled up in a silken handkerchief, and handed it to Lila.

“Thank you,” Lila said, though it came out sounding a little more like a threat than genuine gratitude. “Excuse me, I have other people to greet.”

She sashayed away, and with Jessika pulled in to animated conversation with even more people, Marinette found herself huddled with Kim at the table and helping herself to one of the glasses of wine he’d procured.

“Kim, can I ask you something?” Marinette said.

“Uh, sure! What’s up?”

“Are you…with Lila?”

Kim blinked guilelessly. “With her? Oh, you mean, like, dating?” He burst out laughing. “No way, that’d be so weird! She’s like my sister, man.”

“…Your sister?” Somehow, that was even more bizarre.

“Yeah, we’re close.” He shrugged. “I mean, look, I know she can come off as, uh, kinda difficult.”

“Just a little,” Marinette quipped.

“She’s just got a lot going on, you know? Her dad’s the director, and she’s got all these expectations to live up to. I mean, shit, she’s an amazing actor, like seriously. I’ve learned so much from working with her. But she just has this complex, like she doesn’t think she’s good enough, you know what I mean? She tries really hard, but I think it kind of intimidates people sometimes. Sorry if she made you uncomfortable before. She’s working on that.”

Marinette shook her head in disbelief. “No, that’s… Okay, wow, I feel a little silly now. I had no idea you were so close.” With Lila Rossi. What was the world coming to?

He grinned. “She’s cool, once you get to know her. I mean, it wasn’t easy! She’s got all these walls, but…she’s cool, seriously.”

Marinette was reminded of what Chloe had said to her at Firefly about not being in high school anymore. Was she unfairly holding on to past perceptions of people who didn’t really exist anymore? Lila, and Chloe, and Adrien, and…and…

“Are we too far gone?” Chat had asked her that first night at the Eiffel Tower.

No, Chaton, she vowed. We’ll find a way back to us. I promise.

Perhaps it was time to leave the past in the past, where it belonged.

“Hey, that a smile I see?” Kim said, grinning down at her.

Marinette raised her glass to his. “Thanks, Kim. I’m glad you’re friends with Lila. She’s really lucky to have you.”

“Aw, thanks!”

They clinked their glasses together and shared a drink.


 

Adrien had no problem mingling with the crowd while Jessika showed off Marinette to her colleagues. He missed her at his side, but the last thing he wanted to do was distract her from work. Marinette obviously put her heart and soul into her craft, and Adrien admired that about her so much. She strived for excellence in everything she did, as Ladybug and as Marinette. And they had all night, besides; he could find her later after she’d passed out a few business cards.

He headed to the open bar and ordered a whiskey neat, content to people-watch for a bit. His eyes were inevitably drawn back to Marinette in her loud, fuchsia dress that flattered her figure more than it should. It would look even better on the floor of his bedroom, decided. But those were not thoughts fit for tonight, at least, not yet. She liked him, but he didn’t want to push her too far too soon. That strategy had never ended well in the past.

“Adrien Agreste, why am I not surprised to find you here?”

Adrien turned to the familiar voice and came face to face with Aramis Legrand, Marinette’s investor and owner of the American hedge fund where Adrien had spent a busy summer as an MBA intern.

“Mr. Legrand,” Adrien said, accepting his drink from the bartender. “I suppose I should say the same about you.”

Aramis grinned. His trimmed, silver beard and mustache gave him a ruggedly handsome look, but those piercing blue eyes belied his age. He wore a smart, navy suit, and his shoulder-length black hair was tucked in a low ponytail. “Oh, I have my hands in many cookie jars,” he said in perfect English. “Just Aramis, please.”

Adrien was a little thrown by the sudden switch from their shared mother tongue, but having spent most of his formative years in the States, he was as fluent as any born and bred American and answered back in fluid English, “Aramis, of course. I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember back at Legrand Capital, you were known as a regular Wolf of Wall Street.”

Aramis laughed at that. He had a deep and pleasant laugh that set Adrien at ease. “Those fuckers. Well, when there’s blood in the streets…”

“Feast.” Adrien held out his glass for a toast.

Aramis clinked his empty glass to Adrien’s, an unreadable glint in his eyes. “You’re a predator, Adrien. This is your game, I can see it.”

Adrien blinked, unsure he liked that word. “Well, maybe it was for a summer.”

“Oh, I doubt that.” Aramis peered at him—had he even blinked once? Those blue eyes were intensely focused, searching. “You remind me a little of myself at your age.”

Adrien smiled self-deprecatingly. “Arrogant?”

“Ambitious.”

“Is there a difference?”

“For men like you and me? Absolutely.” He nodded at Adrien’s drink. “What’s your poison?”

“Glendronach 18,” Adrien said.

“Excellent.”

He ordered the same, and soon they stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs to the bar, once more conversing in English. Adrien learned that Aramis was an executive producer for the show, hence his presence here. Even retired, he liked to keep busy, keep his mind occupied and his schedule full.

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” Aramis said. “Or so they say. And what brings you here?”

Adrien nodded toward Marinette, who was across the room talking with a group of people Jessika had introduced her to. “I’m here for her.”

“Ah, idle hands indeed.” Aramis sipped his drink. “I had heard she designed Jessika’s dress. Quite lovely, of course.”

“I doubt Marinette’s hands are ever idle.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking about her, son.”

Adrien frowned at that diminution. It wasn’t unpleasant coming from Aramis, no, just…well. He did not want to think about his true father right now.

“Good for you. Both of you. But I meant what I said the last time our paths crossed. Marinette has talent, and I’ll become quite cross if I find out AF is getting ready to acqui-hire her. You don’t want to see me cross.”

Adrien spared him a friendly chuckle. “My interest in Marinette is purely personal. I could never imagine her anywhere near AF, anyway.”

“Is that so? You almost sound bitter, and trust me when I say you’re far too young to be bitter.”

Adrien was suddenly grateful that they were speaking in English. There were far too many people about, and the last thing he needed was gossip getting back to his father. “Not bitter, no. It just wouldn’t be the right place for her.”

“It’s your company.”

“It’s my father’s company.”

“Ah, and therein lies our proverbial wrench.” Aramis cast him a sidelong glance. “Perhaps AF isn’t the right place for you, either.”

Adrien nursed his whiskey, watching Marinette. She was talking to a buff Asian man now, someone she appeared to know already. “I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to.” Aramis reached in his suit jacket pocket and produced a heavy, black business card embossed with a silver phone number and nothing else, not even a name. “This is my direct line. Call me when you’re ready to join the hunt again. I could use ambition like yours on my team.”

Adrien accepted the ostentatious card, nonplussed. “Thank you,” he said, meaning it. It wasn’t every day a powerful, obscenely wealthy financier personally offered him a job. “I appreciate the offer, but I really am happy at AF.”

“Of course, I believe the son of Gabriel Agreste would be happy at AF,” Aramis said, smiling slightly. “And as long as you remain at AF, you’ll always be the son of Gabriel Agreste.”

Adrien frowned, though not Aramis. Was that true? It wasn’t as though he hadn’t thought about it before. AF was his father’s company, his father’s brand. Adrien had always been defined by his relationship to his father, it was true. But he’d grown up, educated himself, and he was working hard putting all his talent and learning to good use.

But he was doing it at his father’s company. Just as he’d always done as a supermodel in his younger days. Then as now, Gabriel Agreste was the looming shadow over his life, both personal and professional, and Adrien had never really questioned it much.

“Call me,” Aramis said again. “The sins of the father need not be visited upon the son.”

Adrien looked up at that odd turn of phrase, but Aramis had set down his empty glass and was already being pulled in to conversation with others—this time in sing-song Italian. Adrien watched him go.

That was…

He wasn’t really sure what it was. Something about Aramis intrigued him. In a way, anyone as cultured, articulate, and experienced as Aramis was bound to intrigue and seduce. He supposed it was a kind of professional seduction, what they had just done. And if he was being honest with himself, Adrien was not completely opposed to being wooed. He’d spent his entire working life at AF, save for that one summer in business school. What could he accomplish outside his father’s sphere of influence?

Aramis’s business card was heavy in Adrien’s hand, the simple, silver phone number glowing in the muted light. He pocketed it, and tried not to think about what his father would say.


 

Luka would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little bit overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all. He’d been to some wild parties in his day—some he even remembered in full—but nothing quite like this. On the surface, elegant dresses and drinks poured from crystal decanters gave the appearance of opulence, indulgence, a feast for gods gathered for some cosmic purpose. And these were gods after a fashion, many of their faces worshiped on the silver screen or the small screen by faithful believers tuning in to their latest mythology.

But underneath the glitz and glamour, they were merely people looking for an excuse to forget their tedious lives for a few hours, get plastered, and dance the night away in the arms of a willing partner. Well, Luka could not fault them for that. Even celebrities needed some time to unwind now and again. He chuckled to himself, content to watch these beautiful creatures in their unguarded, natural element.

One such beautiful creature was speaking into a thin, metal headset, her brow furrowed in consternation and her back rigid as she gave soft-spoken commands to some underling who’d no doubt fucked up some small detail. But that was Chloe, always sweating the little things. It was probably why she was the boss. Luka had been watching some of the staff discreetly going about their business, and not a hair appeared out of place. Chloe ran a tight ship, and her guests were none the wiser.

He let her be for now. She’d already made it clear that she had work to do, but promised she would find him soon. Luka suspected she didn’t really have that much work to do—keeping an eye on staff and being available should anything go sideways did not require her complete attention—but decided not to belabor the point. Chloe had been a little skittish when Jessika invited him to this party, and while she seemed fine now, he knew her well enough to know that even the littlest thing could cause a disturbance in the Force. Best to wait until she deemed herself on a break, and then he could distract her all he wanted.

“Can I offer you a drink?” asked a passing server in a crisp, black and white uniform.

He had a tray neatly stacked with fresh beers and champagne flutes. Luka selected a beer and offered the guy a grateful smile. “Thanks, good timing.”

“You’re welcome.” The server returned his smile. He was a young guy, maybe early twenties at best, freckled and fresh-faced with big, brown doe-eyes. “Uh, hey, this might sound weird, but would it be okay if I shook your hand? I’m, uh, sort of a fan.”

Luka tilted his head. “You know me from Hardrock?”

The server—Marc, from his name tag—brightened. “Yeah, I do! You guys’re great. I’ve been to a bunch of your shows. Well, not lately since we’ve been really busy with a bunch of events and stuff…but! I’ve been meaning to get to the next one as soon as I get a night off.”

Luka laughed, and it put Marc at ease, as intended. “That’s awesome, man, thanks. I’m always happy to meet a fellow music fan.” He held out his hand, and Marc happily set his tray down on a nearby table to shake it vigorously. “Good to meet you, Marc.”

Marc looked surprised that Luka knew his name.

“You’re wearing a name tag,” Luka said.

Marc blinked, flustered. “Oh, right! Hah, I always forget that. I mean, one time I actually did forget it, and Chloe wasn’t too happy with me…” He reddened. “I-I mean, uh, you know, I know you’re here with her, so I didn’t mean anything—”

“Chill, it’s totally fine.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “I know what a handful she can be when things aren’t 100% perfect.”

Marc laughed, and some of the tension left his shoulders. “Sorry, it’s just… You’re sort of the last person we all expected to see here with the Chloe. N-Not that that’s bad! Actually, it’s kind of awesome.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, you know, you’re this super talented musician and, like, obviously a really chill guy.” Marc gestured at him, a little embarrassed. “What I mean is, it’s really, really great seeing the boss so happy.”

“She’s happy?”

“Oh, yeah! I mean, not that she wasn’t before. It’s just, you’re not like those socialite types she’s brought around in the past. That’s a good thing!” he added quickly. “Chloe’s a great boss, seriously. This is the best hotel in Paris because she runs it that way. She works harder than all of us put together, and she’s scary good at her job… But it’s nice to see her, you know, enjoying herself.”

Huh.

Luka had noticed some of the staff eyeing him discreetly, though he was used to looks from people unused to his particular style, especially in a crowds like this where he stuck out like a sore thumb. It never bothered him—people would always form their own opinions, and all he could do was be true to himself while treating others with the basic respect all people deserved. But he hadn’t been expecting this. It was…nice. Really nice.

If Marc was at all representative of the rest of the staff, Chloe had cultivated a loyal team that respected and cared about her, personally and professionally. Luka couldn’t help the small swell of pride.

That’s my girl.

“Thanks,” he said, meaning it. “You didn’t have to tell me all that, but I appreciate that you did. Chloe’s got a good team here.”

Marc grinned toothily. “No sweat! Anyway, I guess I should get back to work before she catches me goofing off, haha! Hopefully I’ll catch your next show.”

He gathered his tray and melted back into the crowd, leaving Luka to sip his beer. Luka peered around the room and noticed Chloe following Marc with her eyes, her expression unreadable. She really did see everything. He hoped he hadn’t gotten the poor kid in trouble and made a note to talk to Chloe about it later just in case.

Luka made his way through the crowd looking for his aunt; she would want to know he was here and probably introduce him to a slew of people she barely knew herself, but that was just her way. Jessika, unlike Anarka, her younger sister and Luka’s mother, had always been the type to make friends with everyone and anyone wherever she went, and forget them again when she was gone. Well, as long as she was happy. And Jessika was always happy at the center of attention.

“Luka, hey! What’re you doing here?”

Luka was surprised to find Marinette approaching him with another man he vaguely remembered from high school, but whose face he couldn’t quite place. “Hey, Mar. I should ask you the same thing.”

“Actually, your aunt invited me,” she said with a smile. “I designed her dress tonight, so it was kind of her way of saying thank you.”

Luka grinned. More like her way of flaunting what’s hers in front of all her friends. But Jessika meant well. There wasn’t a manipulative bone in her body. “Right, Juleka mentioned something about that. Good for you.” He glanced at her own dress, a vibrant, fuchsia number that complemented her light complexion and brilliant, blue eyes. “Pretty dress. Who are we impressing tonight?”

She blushed, and he grinned wider. Even after all these years, she still reacted so predictably. It was endearing.

“Adrien Agreste,” said her companion with a knowing smile of his own. “I finally got her to spill some deets, and then she saw you and just had to say hi.”

Marinette running from a difficult or awkward situation? Yup, some things never change.

“Oh, really? So that’s happening, then,” Luka teased. “Took you long enough.”

“Oh cut it out, both of you!” she complained. “It’s just our first real date.”

“Aw, did he ask you to go steady, too?”

Marinette swatted at him, and he just laughed.

“Hey man, Luka, right? You’re Juleka’s brother, yeah! I remember now.” The man Luka sort of recognized raised his hand as if for a high-five. “Kim Lê Chiến. I was at Dupont with Marinette and Juleka.”

Ah, so that was it. He clasped his hand to Kim’s in a bro-five. “Kim, yeah, I remember. You a part of all this?”

“Kim’s a hot shot actor now,” Marinette said proudly. “I suggest we get his autograph now before he becomes too famous for us little people.”

“Congrats,” Luka said, tipping his beer against Kim’s. “From what I hear, this show’s gonna blow up.”

“Man, I hope so!” Kim fished his cell phone out of his pocket and powered up the camera. “Hey, better than an autograph, let’s take a selfie! C’mon, Marinette, you get in front since you’re so short.”

“Hey! I’m not short, I’m petite,” Marinette said, feigning indignity even as she shuffled in between the two of them.

Kim made a peace sign with his free hand and grinned for the camera. Marinette did the same, and Luka sighed, giving in.

“Say ‘Asian bloc,’” Luka said, smirking.

“Asian bloc!” Kim said, totally unironically.

Marinette laughed, and Kim ended up taking upwards of ten selfies in succession. Some of them even came out all right.

“Sweet! Aw man, these came out so good!” Kim said enthusiastically. “Here, I’ll tag you guys.”

“In all of them?” Marinette said with a laugh. “There’s, like, ten pictures there. They’re all the same.”

“Nah, it’s a burst shot. Ten pics, one epic experience. You know!”

“I’m pretty sure there’s a stereotype here, and we’re playing right into it,” Luka said, but he pulled out his phone all the same so they could all check in together at Le Grand Paris Hotel.

“Playing without us?” said Adrien, drawing up behind Marinette and slipping an arm around her waist.

“I think they are,” said Chloe, arms crossed and looking a perfect mix of put off and amused. “How rude.”

Luka grinned at Chloe and moved a hand to the small of her back. “Impossible. I hear blonds have more fun.”

She tensed under his fingers, and it took an Effort on his part not to kiss her neck right there just to tease out that reaction some more.

Marinette looked between them, came to the same realization that, apparently, Adrien already knew, and raised her eyebrows so high Luka was sure her hairline might swallow them. She mouthed a not-so-discreet ‘oh’ at him.

“Definitely true,” Adrien said, pressing his nose into Marinette’s hair and whispering something in her ear that made her smile like the smitten fool she clearly was.

“Adrien! Hey man, what’s happenin’? Marinette told me you were back, that’s great!” Kim said.

“Kim, yeah, hey,” Adrien said, flashing a hundred watt smile. “Good to see you.”

“Back at you.” Kim glanced at Chloe and, inexplicably, blushed a little. “Hey, Chloe.”

“Kim,” Chloe said politely, if not a little disinterested. “You look good.”

Kim’s blush deepened, and he scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “Aw, really? You think so? Haha…”

Luka watched their exchange, intrigued. Did they have a history? His loss. He smiled at the thought.

“We’re going to dance,” Adrien said, already leading Marinette away. “Catch up later, yeah?”

“Behave, A,” Chloe warned him.

He flashed her a shit-eating grin, and she rolled her eyes, a smirk tugging at her painted lips. Luka had the sudden urge to kiss those pretty lips.

“Well, uh, I should probably get back,” Kim said, not really looking at Chloe as he continued to fight off his blush. “I’ll catch you cool kids later, bye!”

Luka observed Chloe as she pulled out her phone and checked her messages for anything work-related. She hardly saw Kim go.

So that’s how it is.

“So, how long has Kim been in to you?” he asked.

Chloe looked up. “What?”

He smiled. She had to be the most oblivious man-eater he had ever met. Damn, Couffaine, you really know how to pick ‘em. “He clearly likes you, or at least never got over you. You didn’t notice?”

Chloe looked at him like she was trying to decipher what language he was speaking. “Why would I notice something so irrelevant?”

“You noticed me,” he countered.

This sobered her, and she clammed up, guarded. “You made it impossible not to. And you’re hardly irrelevant.”

Well, that was true. Luka was pretty sure Chloe would not notice a burning building unless it somehow affected her personally. The trick was to affirmatively grab her attention so she had no choice but to face what was right in front of her. He took her chin in hand and smeared her perfect, pink lipstick with his thumb. Immediately, her gaze darkened dangerously, but before she could act on it, he withdrew and licked his thumb clean. An innocent enough gesture to anyone watching them from afar, but Chloe knew exactly what he was doing.

“You’re so lewd,” she said.

He smiled sweetly. “You taste like me.”

“What? No I don’t—”

He silenced her with crushing but swift kiss that was over as soon as it had begun, but left them both breathless all the same. “Now you do.”

She looked up at him with those big, blue eyes, kiss-swollen lips parted in his absence, cornflower bangs framing her gorgeous face, and he knew right then that he was in trouble. He was always in trouble when it came to women, but Chloe was Trouble with a capital T. If he wasn’t careful, his big heart would run away from him before he could appreciate the danger.

Unfortunately, Luka had never been very careful.

“I need a drink,” Chloe said with the absolute certainty of one who did not need a drink, but was going to have one anyway or her head might explode otherwise.

“Great, I happen to know an excellent bartender.”

At his teasing, she relaxed and spared him a rare, affectionate smile. “Watch it, drone. You’re on thin ice as it is after that PDA.”

He looked at her, bemused. “Drone?”

And for some reason, Chloe flushed like a tomato. It was utterly fantastic. “Forget it! I didn’t mean that!” She turned and all but dashed to the bar. “I’m just really thirsty!”

He didn’t really get it, but it didn’t bother him. He followed her to the bar, intent on distracting her for the rest of the evening, if he could help it.


 

Marinette could have died right now with no regrets whatsoever. For surely, there was nothing quite so wonderful as the feel of Adrien’s arms around her as they danced, the world around them forgotten and unimportant. If she were to accept the sweet release of death now, at least it would feel like hugging Adrien.

“Marinette,” Adrien whispered against the shell of her ear. “Are you happy?”

She smiled. “Yes. More than you know.”

He smiled back, and there was such warmth in his pretty, green eyes that her heart soared. How could she have ever forgotten him? Fooled herself into thinking she could get over him in time? It was like trying to get over air.

“I think I have a pretty good idea,” he said, pressing his forehead to hers as they swayed lazily to the music. “I’m happy, too. With you.”

“Really?” she asked, daring to hope. Because this was Adrien Agreste: charming, millionaire playboy who could have anything and anyone he wanted in all the world, and the kindest, silliest, most coquettish person she had ever met. She was just Marinette, Mediocre Woman by day and Struggling Superhero by night. How could she ever make someone like him happy?

He looked at her, his smile falling. “Come with me.”

He didn’t wait for her to follow on her own, instead taking her hand and pulling her along after him to the balcony. It was cold in spite of the heat lamps blazing, and there was no one else crazy enough to be out here. Adrien ran his hands over her arms and held her close at the railing.

It was the same balcony they’d stood on the night they reunited after fourteen years apart, the Champs Élysées a sea of white light below them. The same balcony where he’d apologized so profusely, so poignantly for a wrong he didn’t really commit, that even now she did not quite understand beyond that he needed to say it, for whatever reason. As far as Marinette was concerned, there was nothing for Adrien to be sorry for. She was just happy he was here and hers.

“Marinette, I’m,” he began, struggling with his words. “Fuck.”

“Adrien, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said quickly. “Sorry, it’s just… I mean, there’s something I have to tell you.”

Oh no.

That sounded bad. Immediately, her mind began racing through the possibilities of what horrible, life-shattering news he might have for her. She imagined everything from him secretly being gay and just needing her as a beard, to having a secret wife and family back in America, to perhaps the worst possibility of all—that he just wasn’t that in to her.

At which point, of course, she felt like the biggest idiot in the world, because how the hell could that be the worst option?

He saw something of the panic (existential dread) on her face, because immediately he was running his hands over her back to reassure her. “Hey, no, don’t panic, please.”

“Adrien,” she said, her voice shaky, “do you… Are you not happy? With me?”

The look on his face could only be described as abject horror. He took her by the shoulders and pulled her close for a fierce hug, burying his face in her hair. “No, of course that’s not it. I’ve never been happier in all my life than when I’m with you.”

She froze. “W-What?”

He hugged her tighter, if that was possible, like he was afraid she might fade away. It reminded her of Alya and Nino’s dinner party, when he’d held her hand so tightly to the point of painful. There was fear here—how had she not noticed it before? But fear of what? Rejection? What else made hope doubt more than that?

She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her nose to his neck, breathed him in. “Adrien, I’m here, I’m yours. I’m not going anywhere.”

He tensed against her and moved his hand up her back to entwine with her loose, long hair. He pressed soft kisses to her shoulder, her neck, as if searching for purchase somewhere he would not slip away.

“Marinette, I’m so sorry.” 

“Please,” she said, running her fingers through his hair to comfort him. “Please, don’t say that. You have nothing to be sorry about.”

Slowly, excruciatingly, he pulled away and looked down at her. There was such turmoil in his sparkling, green eyes that it broke her heart a little. How could someone look so beautiful when they were in so much pain?

“I’m afraid,” he confessed. “There’s so much… My life, my—my family, what I’ve done… I’m afraid you won’t want me once you know the truth.”

The truth.

So that was it, what Chloe and Alya had warned her about. The cracks in him hiding a darkness nursed over fourteen years spent apart. No, Marinette supposed she did not know its true shape, and she was not so naive as to think that didn’t matter. But for the life of her, she did not see what they supposedly saw. It didn’t mean it wasn’t there, that she wouldn’t face it one day, but she didn’t care. Whatever it was, it did not have the power to frighten her away, not anymore. Adrien had shown her a piece of himself, a true piece grown from the memories of the boy she’d once fallen in love with, and she was not about to let it go. Whatever he was hiding, whatever frightened him, it would not frighten her.

He may be good at breaking the things closest to him, but Marinette was titanium. She was more than human. She would not break, not for him, not for anyone.

“There’s no force on Earth that could stop me from wanting you,” she said, taking him in her hands and savoring the silken feel of his hair between her fingers. “I want you. So please, let me have you.”

She barely finished her thought when his lips were on hers.


 

In truth, Chloe did not have much work to keep her busy. She was a bit of a micromanager, okay, she could admit that, but her staff was highly competent and knew how she operated so well, they practically managed themselves. Really, all that was left was to keep an eye on the guests and make sure nobody caused a scene—even then, she had designated staff standing by in case anything got out too out of hand.

She should have been enjoying the party. And she was, sort of. Except she felt eyes on her—her staff was watching her, watching Luka with his hand on the small of her back, watching as they briefly kissed, watching as they stood together and bantered and he managed to coax a genuine smile out of her.  One of them had even approached Luka—why? To question his presence here? What did that judgment meant?  Luka was, to say the least, different from the usual boyfriends or acquaintances she brought over. Even Adrien, her most frequent visitor, was so completely other compared to Luka that it was no surprise her staff wondered.

This was not their professional, ice queen boss, but a different person entirely, a person they did not know.

A person they maybe did not respect.

It shouldn’t have bothered her. She was the boss; she could do whatever she wanted.

But it did. Just a little.

“So, Luka, right? What do you do?” asked one of the producers Chloe had been in contact with organizing this premiere party. He was a balding man, not so easy to look upon but sharp as a tac and nice enough. He was also a frequent guest at the hotel, and someone Chloe had come to know quite well. Rich men like him could have stayed anywhere for any price, but it was for Chloe and her impeccable staff that they always returned to Le Grand Paris.

“I’m a musician,” Luka said.

“Oh, really? That’s wonderful—what label?”

Luka smiled politely. “We’re more of an independent group at the moment.”

Meaning, they had not been able to make it in the cutthroat music business yet. And probably never would, considering the odds alone. Chloe could almost see that train of thought going through the producer’s head as he nodded, equally as polite, and his eyes glazed over a little.

“I see, and how did you and Miss Bourgeois meet? I’m sure there must be a story there!”

Translation: what the hell was Chloe Bourgeois, hotel heiress and all-around HBIC, doing with a struggling musician who could barely make rent?

“Actually, Chloe came to one of my shows,” Luka said, immune as usual to social niceties—or, in this case, cruelties.

“Hey, look, isn’t that Jessika over there?” Chloe interrupted. “Please excuse us, sir. I’ve been meaning to personally welcome Jessika tonight.”

“Not at all,” said the producer, already turning away from them, relieved the conversation was over.

“Chloe? What was that about?” Luka asked as she pulled him along after her through the crowd.

“Nothing! Don’t you want to say hi to your aunt?”

“I mean, sure…”

Chloe almost ran in to Jessika in her haste.

“Chloe, hello!” Jessika said, all smiles as usual. “My goodness, you look lovely. Not working too hard tonight, I hope?”

“Hi Jessika,” Chloe said, smiling. “Not too much, no. I wanted to come say hello. I hope you’re enjoying the party?”

Very much. Can’t you tell?” She twirled the train of her dress, obviously proud of it.

“Aunt Jess, hey,” Luka said.

Jessika brightened even more. “Luka, you’re here! Iya, omae suutsu no sugata de yappari ikemen! Atarimae dakedo ne, uchi no kazoku nanode.” She ran her hands over the lapels of his suit jacket, fawning like an appreciative mother hen.

Luka just grinned and let her have her fun. “I try,” he said in French so that Chloe would not feel left out.

Jessika winked knowingly. “Chloe, please excuse me, I just can’t help but speak my native tongue with Luka and Juleka. I become so nostalgic!”

“It’s all right, I understand,” Chloe said.

“Speaking of nostalgia, I have a very nice surprise for you. Come, quickly!” She beckoned them both to follow her through the crowd, and so they did until Jessika stopped before a group of people in conversation punctuated by rounds of raucous laughter as they listened to one their number tell a story. Jessika broke her way through the wall of people like they were no match for her (they weren’t), and gesticulated excitedly. Chloe was grateful for Luka’s hand in hers then for something to hold on to.

“Jessika, my love, join us! I was just regaling our friends with the story about the time you and I stole that gondola in Venice. You remember, for the Countess’s fortieth birthday?”

Jessika laughed prettily. “Of course I remember! Oh, Audrey, you wicked thing, you must not share such frightfully embarrassing stories about me with my colleagues!”

And that was when Chloe froze. Like, literally froze, like Princess Anna from that American Disney movie, right before the vile villain cut her down with his sword.

Okay, she did not literally freeze, but there may as well have been a sword coming at her to cut her down, because the look on Audrey Bourgeois’ face eviscerated her where she stood.

Mother?!” Chloe blurted out.


 

She was kissing Adrien Agreste.

Marinette Dupain-Cheng was kissing Adrien Agreste.

And all she could think of for those first few, mind-blowing seconds was shit, he’s a much better kisser than me.

But then she stopped thinking entirely because, again, she was kissing Adrien Goddamn Agreste.

Luckily, her body was not as uselessly incompetent as her brain and responded to him in the only way one ought to respond to kissing Adrien Agreste, former supermodel and teenage dream.

He backed her up against the stone railing, and the cold bit into the small of her back, but she hardly felt it over the fire blazing upon her skin where he touched her. She buried her hands in his hair, remembering his provocative teasing about tables and grabbing and she grabbed and—

He moaned against her and twisted her own hair in his fingers. The sound revived Marinette from her braindead stupor because that was her, she had made him do that, and by god she would make him do it again.

He tasted like summer. She didn’t know how that was possible, but she kissed him and tasted sunshine and warm, starry nights and so many days wasted apart, pining, memories of a youth long lost. Pressed against him, she could feel every part of him, but it wasn’t enough.

As if sensing her frustration, he tugged back on her hair and trailed kisses to her neck, at once sensuous and insistent. Marinette whimpered and raked her nails across his back, imagining smooth, warm flesh and sinewy muscle under her fingers instead of his designer suit jacket.

“Adrien,” she said in a throaty, husky voice that only encouraged him even more.

He pulled back and caught her eye, and that look alone almost unraveled her completely. Marinette was sure she had never been on the receiving end of such honest, unadulterated desire—or maybe it was just him, his intensity of feeling, volatile, electric.

“Tell me again,” he said. “Tell me your mine.”

Marinette felt her breath hitch as all the heat he radiated pooled in the pit of her belly. “I’m yours,” she said. She touched his cheek, and immediately he took her hand and pressed the heel to his lips for a kiss that curled her toes. “And you’re mine.”

That snapped something in him, and he pulled her in for another powerful kiss that Marinette could swear shifted the tectonic plates beneath her feet. It was bruising and needy and possessive, but right now she wanted to be possessed, and to possess him. She threw her arms around his neck and held on as he swept her away.

I’m yours, she willed him to hear her as she bit down gently on his lip.

He made that desperately beautiful moaning sound again, and Marinette smiled against him.

And you’re mine.


 

“Daughter.”

Audrey Bourgeois’ smile was an ancient evil summoned from broken mirrors in the dead of night. And very much like staring down a demon come to collect its dark toll, Chloe could not look away, or she would be defeated.

Unfortunately, Audrey felt no such compulsion as her vacuous, blue eyes slithered to Luka, whose hand Chloe was no doubt crushing in her shock. She arched a perfectly threaded brow, and her smile curled, saccharine.

“And who is this?”

“Audrey, this is my precious nephew, Luka Couffaine,” Jessika said. “He’s an aspiring musician with his own band.”

Luka, who somehow remembered how to be a sentient human being with a tongue and a full vocabulary, smiled politely. “Mrs. Bourgeois. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Audrey, please,” Audrey said, her tone like silken steel. “Mrs. Bourgeois was my mother-in-law. I’m in no hurry to be lumped together with her.”

“Audrey, of course,” Luka said, not missing a beat. “I didn’t know you would be here. Chloe didn’t mention it. What a nice surprise.”

“Isn’t it?” Jessika said happily.

“Yes, it was a rather last minute decision,” Audrey said. “When I heard Jessika’s premiere party would be held here at Le Grand Paris, I had Andre send the jet to me in London. I would have called…”

But I wouldn’t have answered, Chloe finished the unspoken thought.

“That’s great,” Luka said, because he was a Certified Nice Person who actually gave a shit about people’s feelings, even when those people were swamp demons wearing people-masks.

The guests Audrey had been regaling with her story had moved away to give them space to talk. Audrey’s unblinking gaze settled on Chloe.

“Luka, it was delightful to meet you. I wonder, would you mind terribly if I stole Chloe for just a few minutes? Mother-daughter business, you understand,” Audrey said.

Luka letting go of Chloe’s hand to allow Jessika to drag him away to some other vapid conversation was the loneliest Chloe had felt all evening. And just like that, she was alone with her mother for the first time in two years.

Two fucking years.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Chloe said.

“Now, Chloe, don’t make a scene. We’re in public,” Audrey said. She flipped her dyed, chestnut hair. Audrey was a handsome woman, and in her youth she had been radiant, to hear Andre tell it. She’d been a model, and she’d landed her first job at a small, start-up fashion boutique run by a young, unknown, highly ambitious designer named Gabriel Agreste. The rest, as they say, was history.

Now, Audrey was a full-time socialite and fashion icon, attending the best parties all over the world and starting new fashion trends even in the gray years of her life. If Chloe hadn’t sworn to loathe her for all eternity, she may have had a grudging respect for the woman’s stellar career and continued success. Audrey Bourgeois was a master at reinventing herself and staying relevant and influential.

“This is my hotel,” Chloe said as calmly as she could. With her mother, the surest path to fiery, burning failure was to lose her temper. “You can’t just waltz in here like you own the place anymore.”

“Is that so? The last I checked, your father owns this hotel, and all the rest. You’re just the caretaker. Speaking of which, I expect my usual room is available?”

The fucking nerve of this woman—

Caretaker?” Chloe hissed. In her skirt pocket, Pollen wiggled, and she shoved a hand in to keep her still. Pollen latched on to her thumb. “I run this place. Me, Mother. Not Daddy, me.”

“Yes, yes, all right, whatever you say, Darling.” Audrey waved her off like she was swatting an annoying fly. “Anyway, I’ll be in Paris for a few weeks, perhaps longer—it really just depends on Pippa and James, you know how things can be with the Brits.”

Of course, leave it to Audrey Bourgeois to name-drop to her own daughter. “No, absolutely not. You can’t stay here.”

Audrey looked at her like she’d just told a hilarious joke. “Of course I can. I always stay here when I’m in Paris.”

“You have a fucking mansion in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. You know, the one you share with Daddy, your husband.”

Audrey frosted over, her patience with her stubborn daughter gone. “Chloe Louise Bourgeois, hold your filthy tongue.”

Chloe snapped her mouth shut, a mixture of shock and old habits ingrained in her bones at the sound of that voice coming from that woman. She was so taken aback that she barely put up a fight when Audrey took her by the elbow and pulled her closer to the wall, where they would not draw unwanted attention.

“Honestly, I cannot believe you. I leave Paris for a little vacation—”

“You’ve been gone for two years,” Chloe snapped, her voice low and venomous. “You didn’t even call for months. I came back from grad school to find Daddy living alone unable to tell me even what country you were in—”

“An extended vacation,” Audrey said just as poisonously. The two of them stood clustered in such a way that passersby may have thought them old friends sharing each other’s confidences, such was their practiced performance. “And anyway, that’s not the point.”

How the fuck is that not the point?! Chloe wanted to scream.

“I come back ready to congratulate my only daughter on her many accomplishments, and here you are shacking up with some starving artist—”

“I’m not shacking up with anybody!”

“Oh please, Chloe, I was young once, as you so often forget. I know his type—you like the danger, the thrill of chasing everything you know is wrong for a girl like you. Have your fun if you must, but for god’s sake, don’t bring a tin pot to a tea party.”

Chloe was silent as her rage boiled her skin. She could not believe the things coming out of her mother’s mouth.

Except, yes she could. This was Audrey Bourgeois, and Chloe was her daughter. It was not long ago that Chloe herself had been questioning everyone’s perception of Luka, too.

“He’s your BFF Jessika’s nephew,” she said in a pathetic attempt to fight her own insecurities.

Audrey turned up her nose. “Yes, foul luck, that. I feel sorry for her, you know, but don’t tell her I said that. You know I adore Jessika.”

Chloe stared in horror at this creature wearing her mother’s skin.

Who are you?

And worse, who was Chloe to let those words needle their way under her skin and stoke the embers of doubt? No one had ever been able to cut her open and bare the ugliness within like her mother could. Two years was a long time—she had forgotten just how powerful Audrey Bourgeois was, and how weak Chloe was at her mercy.

“Anyway, get rid of him quietly. I’ve already had to dodge more than a few questions from our ilk asking about him. No need to thank me, I’m your mother and I would do anything for you, as you know. Of course, I can’t do much about the help. This is your hotel now, as you say, so you’ll have to regain their respect on your own, Darling.”


 

Adrien could have made out with Marinette on the balcony of the grandest hotel in Paris all night if she’d let him, but her without a jacket in this winter weather was pushing it. So when she shivered against him not in pleasure, he immediately felt like a horrible person and wrapped his suit jacket around her shoulders.

“S-Sorry,” Marinette said, braving a smile despite her shaking. “I guess I didn’t realize how cold it is out here.”

“No, it’s my fault,” Adrien was quick to apologize. “I sort of held you hostage out here.”

Marinette smiled wider. “You and your clever tongue. I seem to recall promising to find a better use for it.”

The cold was suddenly the furthest thing from Adrien’s mind. He once more captured her with another crushing kiss with every intention of showing her just how clever his tongue could be. Marinette opened her mouth in a gasp, and he deepened the kiss until there was nothing left between them.

They pulled apart after a moment, breathless and content. She was looking at him with such longing ardor that it was a miracle he hadn’t already dragged her to the nearest empty hotel room.

“How are you so good at that?” she complained.

Adrien laughed. “I think you’re biased.”

“And I think you’re a wizard, Harry.”

“Mm, yeah, I just need a thunderbolt scar and glasses.”

Marinette giggled. “Yeah, and a tragic childhood backstory to make it official.”

She’d meant it as a joke, just going along with the inane fantasy, but all the same Adrien clammed up, and she noticed.

“Adrien? Are you okay?”

Oh no.

What the hell am I doing?

Throwing your life away for that woman again, answered his subconscious in his father’s voice.

“Adrien,” Marinette tried again. “Did I say something wrong?”

He was so fucking selfish. What had he been thinking, kissing her like this? He hadn’t been thinking, only reacting. She liked Adrien, and he’d thought that was enough, just for a little while. For just a short, sweet while, they could live out a fantasy.

But Adrien was a lie.

He was lying to her.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to trust you again.”

Ladybug. She’s Ladybug.

And Ladybug did not trust him. Why should Marinette?

She shouldn’t. I’ve been lying to her this whole time.

“Hey,” Marinette said, taking his face in her hands. “Come back. Adrien?”

There was such concern, such affection in her worried gaze, that if his heart belonged to her, surely it would break now. A piece of it did all the same.

This wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve his duplicity when she’d done nothing but open herself to him.

“Marinette,” he said, taking her hands from his face and stepping back.

There was hope in her pretty eyes, but it was shadowed by fear at his reluctance. He could practically hear the thoughts going through her head, the excuses, the justifications, the questions. Questions that, fool coward that he was, he was not ready to answer.

“I like you,” he said, imploring her to believe him.

“I like you, too,” she said, her voice high and tinny. It didn’t suit her at all.

“I really like you,” he went on, “but…”

“Yes?”

Yes.

She wasn’t making this easy at all. No, it should not be easy. He didn’t deserve easy. And yet, the thought of losing her a second time, for good this time—for how could she ever forgive him once she learned the truth, no matter what she said?—tore him apart.

“I—”

Just tell her.

Tell her, you fucking coward.

“Is this… Are we going too fast?” Marinette asked.

Before Adrien could properly think about it, the crippling weakness in him latched on to that generous lifeline.

“Yes,” he said, wincing. “No, I mean… Maybe a little. Not that that’s your fault in any way!”

She peered at him, searching him for any sign. He could see the disappointment in her eyes, but it was a far cry from the hurt and betrayal Ladybug had shown him when she cried and beat his chest and cursed him for abandoning her like trash. There was still hope there, hidden just below her disappointment.

Adrien could not bring himself to crush it.

“Marinette, really, it’s not you at all, it’s me.” He cringed at that laughably cliche excuse.

Marinette, however, had a little more class than to laugh at him. “Oh…I see.”

“No—look, that sounded bad.” He moved his hands to cup her face, his fingers in her hair. “I like you. So much that I don’t want to do anything to fuck this up. You’re so good and…” He averted his gaze in shame. “I’ve ruined so many good things.”

It was the most honest thing he’d said to her since they’d come out here.

“You won’t ruin this,” Marinette said, drawing his gaze. He was taken aback at the steel in her eyes—Ladybug’s eyes. God, even now she was tapping in to that endless reserve of strength, for him. “You couldn’t.”

“You don’t know.”

“I do. I trust you, Adrien.”

It took everything he had not to choke.

“And this isn’t all on you. Relationships… Whatever they are, they take two. You’re not alone. You can lean on me.”

I could love her.

The epiphany was so clear and true that it rang out over all his muddled doubts and fears, his father’s voice in his head, the memory of her tears. He could love her if he let himself, as he’d loved her once before, a long time ago. She’d made the same promise to him as Ladybug, and all he wanted to do was believe her.

“We can slow down,” Marinette went on, oblivious to his inner turmoil. “As slow as you want, it’s okay. Just…talk to me, okay? That’s all I ask. Don’t hide.”

He laughed, hoping she could not hear the bitter agony hidden beneath. Of course she would ask for the one thing he was too afraid to give her.

But there was someone else he might have more luck with. A stepping stone, something to tide him over, help him build up his courage. He’d never had anybody like that before, and as it was wont to do, his stupid hope flared wild and outrageous for an easy way out.

“Marinette, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I have to go.”

She visibly tensed. “N-Now?”

Adrien wished he could punch himself in the face right about now. “There’s someone I need to talk to. I know it doesn’t make any sense, and I’m being vague. Please, just… Just trust me. It’s better this way. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

She looked like she didn’t really believe him. Why should she? He wouldn’t believe him after that bullshit excuse. But he had to get out of here right now or he would burst into flames and burn her up with him.

“Okay,” she said, doing her best to mask her hurt and disappointment. “You should do what you think is best. I understand.”

He hated himself so much.

“I swear I’m not rejecting you, Marinette. I want you so much, just…there’s something I need to do first. Please believe me.”

“Of course I believe you, Adrien. It’s all right, really. You should go, it’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine. He was hurting her, and she was letting him.

“I’ll call you,” he said lamely. “And I’ll get you a cab home, of course.”

“I’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.”

It was time to go before he made this even worse than he already had.

“I’m sorry,” he said yet again, pulling away.

She smiled bravely for him, and he reluctantly turned away from her to head back inside. The last sight he saw of her was as she leaned over the balcony, clutching his suit jacket tightly around herself and shivering, alone.


 

“Chloe, what’s wrong?” Luka asked her once they were reunited and she nervously fiddled with her cell phone.

She snapped her head up. “Wrong? Why would anything be wrong?”

He looked at her pointedly. “You were fine earlier, but ever since talking to your mother, you’re completely closed off. Did she say something to you?”

Chloe felt like laughing. She could feel a particularly manic one coming on, and it was only years of training in etiquette and abject fear of her mother’s judgment that she expertly held it back. “Let’s not talk about her, okay?” She glanced at her phone again—no new work messages. “Actually, I should really get back to work…”

They were at an unoccupied table a little removed from the rest of the crowd where it was quieter. Luka continued to watch her.

“No, you don’t,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve been checking your phone every thirty seconds. I have eyes, Chloe. Nobody’s trying to get ahold of you. Your staff is perfectly fine handling things without you.”

She frowned, not liking that tone of voice. “Oh, and you know so much about how to run a hotel now?”

His expression remained placid and patient, but she noticed the slightest thinning of his lips that betrayed his frustration. “She said something to you. Tell me what’s wrong.”

Back to that again, were they? “It’s not your problem, so just drop it.”

“Chloe.” He reached for her, but she leaned away just out of reach.

She felt eyes on her—her mother’s eyes—don’t bring a tin pot to a tea party. She could feel all their eyes on her, crawling.

She’s just daddy’s little heiress, just the caretaker.

Why should anybody take her seriously? Just look at her.

“Hey, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

She couldn’t do this anymore.

“I just have a lot of work to do, okay? I need to go.”

He grabbed her wrist before she could get away. “Stop lying to me. This isn’t you.”

Chloe snapped before she could stop herself. “How do you know? You don’t know anything about me.”

Luka’s expression changed then; his dark eyes flashed with hurt. “We both know you don’t mean that.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Just because we fooled around a few times doesn’t mean you get to tell me who I am.”

“What? Of course that’s not what I meant.”

“Isn’t it?” she said defensively.

He released her. “Chloe, what’s happening? What is this? Why are you being so—”

“Bitchy? Mean? This is me, Luka. I thought you knew me so well.”

He narrowed his eyes. “For your sake, I’ll pretend you didn’t say that. You’re obviously upset, and you’re lashing out.”

“I think you should go,” she said, hating herself with every treacherous word that came out of her mouth, but she couldn’t stop now. She couldn’t face failure a second time tonight.

He looked at her like he was really seeing her for the first time—and he didn’t like what he saw. Chloe gritted her teeth hard enough to hurt, anything to outdo the crushing feeling in her chest as he looked at her like that.

“Are you…ashamed of me?” he said, tentative and almost afraid, like she’d never heard him sound before.

No, she wanted to say and pull him close, fuck what anybody, especially her mother, thought.

But she hadn’t even wanted him to come to this ridiculous party in the first place. Why else, if not because she didn’t want to be seen with him? They were from different worlds, as her mother so clearly reminded her. And really, what was she doing with Luka, anyway? What future was there with him? What could he realistically offer her, who already had everything? What could he do but bring her down, after all the work she’d put in to rise so high?

Chloe wasn’t sure when her thoughts began to sound like her mother’s voice in her head, poison in her ears.

Old habits died hard, indeed.

“I see,” Luka said, taking her silence as all the answer he needed. “Thanks for clearing that up for me. I’ll see myself out.”

He was leaving.

There was a version of this in which a much braver Chloe ran after him, threw her arms around him, and kissed him passionately in front of everyone. In that version, he kissed her back, swept her off her tired feet, and reminded her that none of the glamour mattered, that nothing and no one but the two of them mattered.

But Chloe wasn’t brave tonight, and he was already gone.

 

Chapter Text

Chat Noir sat on his haunches before a crackling hearth trying his best to act natural—at least, as natural as one could appear unironically wearing a skin-tight, black, leather cat suit in a stranger’s house. His host, however, did not seem to mind as he returned from the kitchen with a cup of tea and handed it to him before taking his seat in a plush, leather lounge chair. And then he waited.

It was amazing how much more Adrien felt as Chat Noir. Aside from the heightened super senses that came with being infused with all the power of a supernatural (su-purr-natural) cat, his emotions and perception of self were also far more acute and raw than they were in his human skin. It was like going from imagining scenes from a book to seeing them acted out in full-color, 4K high definition.

Right now, his super senses were telling him to tread carefully around his man, even though he’d come here specifically because this man, Master Wang Fu, was the only person in the world he could supposedly trust. At least, that was what Ladybug—Marinette—had told him. She’d never lied to him outright, at least not on purpose that he knew of, and yet, Adrien was wary. Cats were skeptical by nature.

And he had never voluntarily shared his secret with anyone before.

“It is good to see you, Chat Noir,” Fu said, sipping his own tea and smiling kindly.

It did not escape Chat’s attention that the old man politely chose to use his Miraculous name, a small courtesy that nonetheless put him more at ease. After all, Chat had shown up unannounced at all hours of the night demanding to speak with the Guardian, and said Guardian kindly granted him leave to barge in despite his rudeness.

“It’s been many years since I last laid eyes on you,” Fu continued. “You look very well, though I suspect you are not here for idle conversation.”

Chat said nothing as he let his senses tell him what he needed to know. Nothing here smelled of a threat, and there was no one else in the vicinity close enough to hear or see them through the walls. Fu had apparently chosen his abode with some special care for privacy, considering his role. All signs pointed logically to trust, but Chat had a long and complicated history with the idea.

Also, this Guardian for whatever reason had never seen fit to reach out to Chat himself in all these years. Why? Surely he had to know what Chat had done, what had led to his separation from Ladybug for fourteen long, lonely, miserable years.

“You don’t need to say anything,” Fu said. “If you would prefer it, we may sit a while and enjoy the fire. It’s quite cold tonight, though I fear it will only grow colder as the days grow shorter.”

Chat had no intention of remaining silent, however. “Why did I never know about you?”

Fu looked at him thoughtfully, but it was not him who answered.

“That is a question you should be asking Plagg, not my master.”

A small, green creature—a kwami, Chat was certain—floated toward him, his arms crossed. He looked a bit like a turtle, bug-eyed and sort of cute, but those eyes were old and wise and full of secrets.

Plagg.

Chat bared his too-long incisors, understanding. Of course Plagg would have known. So why had he never mentioned the Guardian?

Well, there was one way to find out, and it was worth the risk he was about to take.

“Plagg, revert me,” Chat commanded.

A flash of lime green light later, and Adrien sat on the floor in his three-piece suit sans jacket, while Plagg hovered, slumped over, and looked more miserable than he’d ever looked for as long as Adrien had known him.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, kid. The Guardian? Really?” he said.

“Hello, Plagg. How nice of you to join us,” said the turtle kwami.

Plagg shot him a spiteful look. “Wayzz. Nice for you, maybe.” He suddenly materialized in front of Fu without warning. “Old man, you better at least have some cheese for me.”

Adrien cringed at Plagg’s indecorous familiarity. Wasn’t the Guardian supposed to be revered and respected, or something? But Fu merely smiled.

“Of course, Plagg. I remember your proclivities quite well. I already prepared a plate for you.”

He retrieved said plate from the side table next to his armchair, and Plagg was on it like a fly on shit, devouring an entire triangle of camembert in one bite. Plagg tried to say something, but it only came out a gooey, garbled mess of sounds that sounded suspiciously like meowing.

“You’ve been away for some time,” Wayzz said reprovingly. “You could have called.”

Plagg snorted and cheese literally came out of his little black nose. “Pah! You got your own private line now, Wayzz? Catching up with modern technology, eh? Pollen would be so proud.”

Wayzz frowned deeply, and Adrien marveled at the sight—could turtles frown? Wayzz could. “Do not mention Courage to me. She is not your concern.”

“Heh, I bet you keeping her locked up for the last century’s gonna sting just a tad when she gets her hands on you, oh Wise one.” Plagg popped another piece of cheese in his abnormally large mouth and swallowed it whole. “I felt it when she woke up. You know I can’t stand her.”

“Pollen and the Bee Miraculous were activated by Mayura,” Fu said. “As is her right as the wielder of Truth. They are both in good hands with Pollen’s Chosen.”

Plagg’s expression darkened menacingly at the mention of that name—Mayura. “So that’s how it is.” He glared at Wayzz. “Leave it to the ultimate shield to bury his head in the sand and fortify his defenses while the rest of us’re kept in the dark. I see nothing’s changed at all. And you wonder why Tikki’s the only one I can stand.”

Wayzz narrowed his buggy eyes at Plagg, but Adrien had had quite enough of whatever the hell this was. “Plagg, why didn’t you tell me about the Guardian?” he demanded.

Plagg had the nerve to roll his eyes. “I saved you a world of frustration, kid. You should be on your knees thanking me.”

Adrien bared his teeth. “You let me believe I had no one! Not a single person in the whole world I could talk to about all this! How could you do that? After everything?”

Plagg was unmoved. “You have Ladybug.”

“Ladybug doesn’t know who I really am!”

“And whose fault is that?”

Silence.

Adrien could not help the hurt that twisted like a knife in his gut at Plagg’s accusation. Traitor, he wanted to say. But Plagg was right, wasn’t he? It was so simple, such a little thing, and it had somehow ruined not only Adrien’s night, but Marinette’s as well, and landed him here, intruding on the hospitality and goodwill of a man who was all but a stranger to him and did not deserve to be subjected to Adrien’s emotional bullshit.

“Wayzz, perhaps you could take Plagg to the kitchen for more cheese? It seems he’s finished what I brought out for him,” Fu said.

It didn’t sound like a suggestion to Adrien’s ears, and Wayzz, despite the clear animosity between Plagg and himself, nodded respectfully. “Of course, Master. This way.”

Plagg shot Adrien a look that seemed to him a warning, but Adrien could not begin to imagine what. The two kwami floated to the kitchen, leaving Adrien alone with Fu.

“I’m sorry,” Adrien said, unsure what else to say. “Plagg can be such an asshole sometimes.”

Fu laughed at that. “I would not expect the essence of Destruction to be the paragon of virtue and polity. It is nothing, Adrien, do not concern yourself with it. Plagg is wedded to his nature, just as Wayzz is. I imagine it’s quite a trying task, to embody one idea for eternity, never knowing much of anything else.”

Adrien had never thought about it that way, but hearing it aloud now, he supposed it made sense. Plagg was not a god of kindness or compassion; he was the embodiment of ruin and reaving. What did Adrien honestly expect from him?

Except.

“Plagg said I was worthy of him because of my resilience,” Adrien said. “Because I wouldn’t let his power destroy me, even as I use it to destroy the things around me.” He looked up at Fu. “Is that true? Is that why you chose me for him?”

Fu was a wizened Chinese man, though Adrien could not place his age. He looked thoughtful now as tapped his chin. “Each of the Miraculous has a positive and a negative trait. Yin and yang, this is how we maintain balance in the universe, and within ourselves. For example, Wisdom is Wayzz’s trait. At best, it manifests as prolific knowledge to be shared and passed down, and at worst, inertia born of caution and indecision. We are all constantly struggling to achieve balance within ourselves, Adrien. Sometimes one side triumphs over the other, but in the end, it is the balance that keeps us moving forward and growing.”

“So what about me and Plagg?” He was almost afraid to ask.

“Hm, yes, Plagg the Pestilent. His trait is Destruction. As you know, resilience is his most noble manifestation, something you hold in spades.”

“And the worst?”

“Loneliness,” Fu said softly. “Destruction is at its most violent when it has nothing left to fill its vastness. It can become wanton, blind to everything but the power of ruin, even against the self. I know…you have succumbed to the pain of loss before, Adrien, though not by choice.”

“Oh Chaton, I’m sorry you’re suffering.”

Adrien hung his head in shame. “By choice or not, I remember every moment of it. It was me the whole time.”

The power.

Never had he felt so powerful as when he was Chat Blanc, stripped of the burdens of emotion and inhibition. Destruction was freedom, he remembered thinking as he hunted Ladybug like an animal simply because he could. It had made him drunk, until he didn’t care anymore, didn’t care that he broke her, broke himself. There was only the hatred, the power, the desire to see this world burn.

He remembered it very well.

“In truth, I had intended to summon you after those unfortunate events,” Fu said. “But your father whisked you away to America so soon afterwards that I lost my chance. I was too cautious, and I made a grave mistake.” He cast a heavy gaze on Adrien, sad. “I am so sorry, Adrien. I failed you as your Guardian. I should have reached out to you much sooner.”

“Yeah, you should have,” Adrien said, not caring that it sounded bitter and callous.

Fu nodded in resignation. “I’m afraid that, for all the Wisdom I am supposed to embody, I am as vulnerable to imbalance as anyone. I promise, Adrien, I will do everything in my power to rectify my mistake.”

That’s not good enough! Adrien wanted to shout at him, shake him. Surely he could have still done something. This was the age of Twitter and Facebook, not the goddamned Stone Age. But Adrien caught himself—what was the point? What was done was done, and there was no changing it. Just as there was no changing what he had done to Ladybug as Chat Blanc. That was the real issue, anyway. Adrien was here because of his own mistakes, not because of Master Fu’s.

“Thank you,” he said, subdued.

Fu peered at him curiously, and his expression softened like he’d just realized something. “You’re really quite something, Adrien.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even after all this time, all that you have experienced, at your core you are still the same young man you were fourteen years ago. I was not sure when I tested you, but Plagg was quite adamant that it had to be you…”

Before Adrien had a chance to question him about that, Fu changed the subject.

“But I imagine you must have a great deal on your mind to seek me out,” he said. “I don’t know what Ladybug has told you, but as Guardian, I am here to provide sanctuary and guidance. I cannot, however, give you all the answers you seek.”

“You don’t even know what questions I have.”

Fu smiled knowingly, and Adrien wondered if perhaps he did. His chosen trait was Wisdom, after all. “I know you are at an impasse, and that you are afraid. In truth, most Black Cats of the past rarely, if ever, sought out their Guardian unless absolutely necessary. They were survivors, loyal but very independent. I sense these traits in you, too.”

Adrien ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, and a sudden memory of Marinette’s fingers in his hair made him freeze. What he wouldn’t give to feel her touching him again, holding him, kissing him. “Loyal, you said.”

Fu nodded. “Very much so. The Black Cats of old were often quite loyal to their Miraculous companions, but especially to Ladybug. You are no exception.”

Adrien smiled bitterly. “I don’t feel very loyal these days.”

“I see. Would you like to tell me about that?”

No.

But he did it anyway. He’d acted enough of a weak fool for one night. If he couldn’t talk to Marinette yet, then he would at least force himself to talk to their Guardian. And once he got going, Adrien could not stop. The truth poured out of him like vomit, bitter and vile on his tongue. He told Fu everything, about becoming Chat Blanc, what it had felt like, the power, hunting Ladybug and discovering her secret identity. He talked about Marinette, meeting her again after so long, his days spent teetering between desire and dread as he grew closer to the woman beneath the mask, all while keeping his own secret from her. And tonight, their intimacy, her raw, beautiful faith, how he did not want to shatter it and hurt her more than he already had, even if he knew it wasn’t fair.

“I see,” Fu said when Adrien finally came up for air. “So you’ve known Ladybug’s true identity beneath the mask all these years.”

“I tried to tell her tonight,” Adrien said. “But I just… I couldn’t do it.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Adrien sat back against the wall and hugged a knee to his chest. “Because I’m weak.”

Fu looked at him, but there was no judgment in his patient gaze. “Fear is not weakness.”

Adrien buried his face in his hands. “I just… I want to make her happy. After everything I’ve put her through, I don’t ever want to see her hurt again. If I tell her everything…”

“…Then she may reject you,” Fu finished.

Adrien could not bring himself to look at the old man. “Yes.”

There was a shuffling sound, and Adrien looked up to find Fu standing over him, a wrinkled hand on his shoulder. “Adrien, by keeping these secrets, you are not even giving her the choice whether to accept or reject you. You say you want to make Marinette happy, but happiness is a choice. We choose to be happy not in the absence of sorrow, but in spite of it. Without that choice, we are but shadows of our whole selves—hollow and easily extinguished.”

“So, you’re saying I should tell her everything.”

Fu clasped his hands behind his back and sighed. “As Guardian, it is my duty to guide and shield, not to lead and command. I cannot tell you what to do, nor can anyone. You must be ready to tell her of your own volition, for the right reasons—not merely because you feel obligated. It is not an easy task, and the reason Tikki and Plagg choose to keep their Chosen’s identities a secret for as long as possible. Unlike the other Miraculous Chosen, the Black Cat and the Ladybug are at their most powerful only when they are in harmony. To upset that harmony by involving their Chosen’s personal lives and dilemmas has, in the past, led to unresolvable conflict, even all-out war. I do not think this is the case with you and Marinette, but there are rules for a reason. Even the best intentions can lead the unsuspecting astray.”

So what am I supposed to do?

He’d come here for answers, but all Fu had given him were cryptic suggestions and more questions.

Happiness is a choice.

Adrien thought about that. It sounded so simple, for who wouldn’t choose to be happy if given the chance?

Ladybug might not.

She didn’t trust Chat Noir, and once he and Adrien were revealed as one and the same, it was just as likely that Ladybug’s suspicions would win over Marinette’s trust as the other way around. Which was stronger: Ladybug’s doubt or Marinette’s faith?

Adrien wasn’t sure, but one thing was becoming clearer the longer he lingered here.

“You’re right, Master Fu. I have no right to take away her choice.” He smiled sadly. “Even if she doesn’t choose me.”

Fu returned his sad smile. “No, I’m afraid not. And as your Guardian, I must advise you to prepare yourself for the worst. Come fire or rain in your personal lives, you and Marinette are Chat Noir and Ladybug, as you must remain until you draw your last breaths. This is the vow you made when you accepted the mantle of Miraculous Chosen. It is not so easily broken. However…”

Adrien looked up at him expectantly.

“Speaking as an old man who’s seen much and more of life, I’ve known Marinette a long time. Whatever her reservations, she is not the type of woman to give up all hope without a fight. She never gave up on you all these years, after all.”

Adrien didn’t care if it was premature or foolish; he clung to that sliver of hope like a dying man clings to his last breaths. He got to his feet and embraced Fu. “Thank you, Master Fu,” he said shakily.

Fu was surprised by the sudden display of emotion, but he returned the gesture with a comforting pat on the back. They made a strange sight—Adrien hunched over to accommodate Fu’s short stature, and Fu patting him gently as a grandfather might a young boy, rather than a man grown.

Maybe it’ll be okay, Adrien dared to hope.

Either way, he had decided. He would tell her the truth, all of it. If she wanted nothing more to do with Adrien, he would continue supporting her as Chat Noir, as he’d vowed to do fourteen long years ago.

And if she chose him, well…

I’ll make her the happiest woman in the world.


 

Marinette needed an intervention.

It was Monday, already two whole days since the party, which had somehow been the best and worst day of her life. She had not heard from Adrien, nor had she reached out to him, wanting to give him some space. She had no idea who he’d gone to talk to so late on Saturday night, but figured it had to be his therapist, or maybe his father. Who would be available to talk about whatever heavy issues were on his mind at such an hour? Marinette had no idea, and she did not have the fortitude to call him and ask.

And so, since her restless hands could not text him, they turned to other, simpler past times—namely, eating as many eclairs as her father could spare from his Monday morning batch. Groaning, Marinette realized with shame and horror that she had eaten her third chocolate-frosted pastry in the span of two hours. And they weren’t helping.

Manon and Alphonse sensed something was wrong when Marinette locked herself in her studio, that pink pastry box tucked under her arm like she was smuggling narcotics across the boarder and would shoot to kill if apprehended. They had made attempts to draw her out for lunch and coffee, but when Manon asked about the party on Saturday, Marinette chucked the empty pastry box at the door out of spite. And now she was out of eclairs.

Great, what else can go wrong?

Nothing you can’t bring on yourself, Mari-nut.

And now she was arguing with herself. Where was that intervention? Oh, right. Alya was still out of the country on assignment, and this wasn’t a phone call kind of conversation. And honestly, as guilty as Marinette felt for thinking it, she didn’t really want to talk to Alya about Adrien after Alya’s comments about him at the dinner party. Alya had Marinette’s best interest at heart, and she made no secret that she was willing to prioritize that over Adrien’s best interest. Alya could be critical, too critical even, and right now Marinette just wanted answers, not a psycho-analysis of her love life.

Which was about the state of her mental merry-go-round as she sat at her drawing desk, a half-eaten eclair in one hand and her phone in the other, opened to a contact she had been staring at for the last ten minutes in utter indecision.

“Tikki,” she said. “Look at me a minute.”

Tikki hovered over. “Yes?”

“Is this the face of desperation?”

Tikki, bless her kind heart, had the grace to look abashed. “Oh Marinette, don’t say that. I’m sure everything will work out with Adrien. You said he needed time, right?”

For all Tikki’s blessings and gifts, her ability to see the best in people was not helping right now. And she did not know Adrien any better than Marinette.

This is my best option, she reasoned. There’s no reason not to try.

If she didn’t at least try, she would implode. And so, Marinette finished off the last bit of eclair, licked the chocolate from her fingers, and pressed the call button. The line rang and rang, and rang, and Marinette worried that it would go to voicemail—or perhaps the call had simply been ignored and would ring forever.

But eventually, the line connected, and a skeptical voice answered. “Hello?”

“Hey, Chloe, it’s Marinette. Are you busy right now?”


 

The cafe Chloe designated for them to meet at was elegant and chic, one Marinette had never been to, though she rarely made it downtown unless she had a specific reason to go. Chloe was already seated toward the back, where the foot traffic was light and patrons had more privacy than at the tables by the front windows. As usual, she looked professional and put together, probably having come directly from work, but there were faint splotches under her eyes that suggested a lack of sleep.

“Thanks for meeting me,” Marinette said, sliding into the wooden booth across from her and shrugging off her winter coat to stuff in the corner. “I’m sure you’re really busy.”

Chloe sipped her macchiato, cobalt eyes observant but otherwise guarded. “You’re welcome. I am busy.”

“Right, and I really appreciate it.” Marinette nervously ate a piece of the lemon cheese cake she’d ordered, because three eclairs were clearly not enough sugar for one day. “I just… I thought you’d be the best person to talk to.”

“About Adrien,” Chloe said. “So, what’s he done now?”

“Why do you think it’s him who’s done something?”

Chloe gave her a withering look. “He’s always done something. I know him, Marinette. He’s careless.”

“Careless, huh?” Marinette thought about that. “I can see that…”

Chloe peered at her, and once again Marinette got the distinct impression that sleepless nights haunted her. Perhaps Chloe was dealing with some issues of her own. “What did he say to you?” she asked.

Marinette took a deep breath. She didn’t want to come off like she was going behind Adrien’s back or anything, or like she didn’t trust him—she did, more than he seemed to believe, and that was just the problem, wasn’t it? “The party on Saturday,” she began, tentative, “he, well, he sort of left…”

She began recounting what had transpired on the balcony, and Chloe just watched her quietly as she listened. And as the words left her mouth, Marinette found that they simply would not stop.

“I must have upset him,” Marinette said, staring at her hands. “And I know you said he’s fragile, that there are things I don’t know, things you couldn’t talk about, but I just…” She held her face in her hands, momentarily overwhelmed by the force of her emotions. She sniffled. “There’s something he said he has to tell me, something…something bad, I think, but he’s afraid to. And I can’t help but fear…”

Chloe remained silent, and Marinette wiped her nose and collected herself after a moment, looking up. Chloe was simply watching her, jaw set, eyes hard and unreadable.

Marinette swallowed hard. “I don’t want to lose him. I didn’t realize how much I…” She shook her head, trying to clear it. “Please, Chloe. I’m not asking you to break his confidence or anything like that, only…ugh, I don’t even know. Maybe just being able to talk about what happened with someone who won’t unfairly hold it against him is all I really need.”

Chloe snatched her untouched fork and took a large bite of Marinette’s lemon cheesecake. She  chewed like she had never tasted food before, and swallowing was an effort. Marinette could do little else but stare, unsure what to expect.

“You’re a piece of work, you know that?” Chloe said at last.

“I… I’m sorry?”

Chloe looked annoyed as she waved her fork absently. “Not to bring up our irrelevant high school days, but I remember you having a temper. What happened?”

“Temper? I’m not angry.”

“Why the hell not?” Chloe brandished her fork at her. “The guy you like leads you on, gives you every reason to fall for him, and then just leaves you hanging with some shitty excuse about being afraid to talk to you?” Chloe narrowed her eyes. “You should be furious.”

Chloe looked so convinced that Marinette started second-guessing herself. “I mean, I guess I’m upset, sure. But I’m more worried than anything.”

“Oh my god, stop. I’m going to tell you something now, and you’re going to hear me, okay?”

Marinette blinked. “Okay?”

“Nobody, and I mean nobody, loves Adrien Agreste more than me. I love him at his best, and at his tortured, dumpster fire worst. Because ever since his deadbeat mom walked out on him when we were twelve, Adrien’s slowly lost every other person in his life who ever gave a shit about him, starting with his dad.”

“His dad?” Marinette remembered Nino mentioned something about Adrien’s complicated relationship with his father.

Chloe’s eyes flashed. “It’s not my place to air out Adrien’s dirty laundry, but let’s just say that his mom leaving changed his dad for the absolute worst. The point is, Adrien has always blamed himself for his parents’ shitty behavior, and everybody else’s, for that matter. Moving away in high school after he finally started making real friends was the last straw. Why hold on to anybody he’d never be able to keep?” She crossed her arms. “He even tried to push me away, the dumbass. Money can’t buy love or whatever, but it can buy plenty of plane tickets to New York for visits. That counts for something.”

There was a pause as Chloe remembered something unpleasant, her pretty face twisted in a scowl. She averted her gaze. “We were sixteen, and I just happened to be visiting for spring break, couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit my Adrikins. I caught him before…before he could do any permanent damage.”

The color drained from Marinette’s face as she understood what Chloe was trying to tell her. She felt tears welling in her eyes, and she clenched her fists.

Adrien, you…

“Anyway, I had a decision to make then, so I did. And I never looked back.” Chloe steeled her expression and looked directly at Marinette. “Nothing like the raw, ugly truth to make you grow up and start putting in real effort before it’s gone forever. I’ve always been a sore loser.”

“Chloe…” Marinette was not sure what to say.

“Like I said, nobody loves Adrien more than me.” She stole another bite of the cheesecake without asking. “That’s the whole problem.”

What would it be like to be so utterly alone in the world that to vanish seemed a better option than to continue getting up in the morning? Marinette had no idea; she’d always had her loving parents, wonderful friends and coworkers who supported her dreams, and of course Tikki. What kind of person would Adrien be if he didn’t have Chloe?

Maybe not a person at all.

Marinette bit her tongue hard enough to hurt at that terrible thought. For all the years he had been just a distant memory, she could not imagine her life now without Adrien in it.

“It was a long time ago,” Chloe said. “Took a while, but eventually he accepted that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I wasn’t going to leave him alone. He got better, got help, still is. It’s a process, and it’s a part of him. Always will be. I couldn’t convince him to get away from Gabriel, but I’m a businesswoman, not a miracle worker. Anyway, the reason I’m telling you any of this is because I’ve seen him all clammed up the way he’s being with you only once before.”

“What do you mean?”

Chloe licked her fork clean. “One girlfriend got pretty serious for a couple years in college, but…” She shrugged. “Let’s just say it didn’t end well with her when she started finding out more about him. Adrien’s had plenty of women in his life since then, but nothing serious. I guess you could say he learned from his mistake.”

“But that’s awful,” Marinette said, angry and sad and frustrated at the whole situation. “You make it sound like he’s afraid of intimacy. Like he thinks he doesn’t deserve it or something.”

“He is, and he doesn’t. But it’s also the one thing he’s always wanted, so he takes it where he can find it, in whatever form it appears. Ever since college, he’s had a bad habit of conflating physical attraction with genuine affection. Which, you know, fine, there’s nothing wrong with that in a general sense. But it’s hard to tell the difference with a face and a pedigree like his.” She shot Marinette an unforgiving look. “I understand the appeal, but I swear to god, Marinette, if there’s even a remote chance that you’re not serious, that you’re just in it to ‘fix’ him or some crap, then this is the part where I tell you to fuck off.”

Marinette’s pride flared hot and offended at the blatant threat. “Of course I’m serious. I’m not trying to fix him. Just because he might have issues doesn’t mean he’s defective or something, Jesus. He’s a person, not a product—of course I know that. And I wouldn’t be here asking you for help if I wasn’t serious.”

They faced off, neither backing off for a tense couple of seconds. Until finally, Chloe tossed her fork on the plate with a clatter and leaned back. To Marinette’s supreme annoyance, she’d eaten the last bite of cheesecake. “I believe you.”

“You do?”

“Well, you wouldn’t be here talking to the heinous bitch who bullied you in high school if you weren’t.”

Marinette’s expression fell. “Don’t say that.”

“What? I gave you more than a hard time back then. It’s not a secret. I guess I should apologize for that, or something. Little late, though.”

“No,” Marinette said, searching Chloe’s guarded gaze. She was wound tight behind the sleepless shadows—why hadn’t Marinette noticed it before? “You’re not a bitch, heinous or otherwise. If I gave you that impression at all since we got reacquainted, then it’s me who should apologize. You’re a true friend to Adrien. I knew that before, but now… He’s more than lucky to have you. And I’m really glad I came to you. I think you’re pretty amazing.”

Chloe looked uncomfortable—embarrassed? “Well, that’s nice to hear or whatever, but I don’t feel particularly amazing these days.”

“Why not?”

“Oh, you know, just a surprise visit from my absentee, train wreck of a mother disrupting my life, as usual. Talk about a heinous bitch.”

Marinette winced. There was real resentment behind Chloe’s caustic words, the kind Marinette had luckily never known personally. She had a great relationship with both her parents, and she could not help but feel a deep sadness at the knowledge that both Adrien and Chloe, apparently, did not have that with theirs. Her parents were her rock, her unconditional support when she was at her lowest, the people who would have her back no matter how badly she messed up or failed. To not have that safety net, that source of unshakeable faith and love…what could it do to a person? To a young child?

Perhaps it would force them to make a tragic decision: give up, or find unconditional love elsewhere.

As Chloe and Adrien had found each other.

Oh, Chloe…

Marinette smiled, finally understanding. Chloe and Adrien weren’t friends at all; they were a found family.

“Anyway, whatever, not your problem,” Chloe said.

“It can be,” Marinette said. “I mean, if you don’t mind sharing.”

Chloe looked at her like she’d suggested they go streaking.

“I admit, I’m a mess when it comes to my own life and relationships,” Marinette said, “but I’m pretty good at listening to my friends.”

“You and I aren’t friends,” Chloe said. It wasn’t mean, just matter-of-fact. “It has nothing to do with you.”

“Well, maybe we should be. Friends, I mean. If… If that’s okay? Seems to me like you’d be a really good one, considering how Adrien turned out.” Marinette smiled. “And you know, I think I already mentioned I have a weakness for blonds.”

That got a shadow of a smirk out of Chloe. “Starting a collection, are we? You’ll have to do better than that. I’m not as easy as Adrien.”

“Oh, of course not.” Marinette eyed the clean plate between them and waved to a passing server. “Which is why I fully intend to prove my pure intentions with more cheesecake.”

“I suppose that’s a start.”

Hm.

Bantering with Chloe Bourgeois? Marinette felt ridiculously proud of herself. The server brought them another slice of cheesecake and fresh forks, and the girls each took a bite.

“Mm, why is this so delicious?” Marinette moaned.

“I think they put crack in it,” Chloe said, savoring her own bite.

“Just what every cake needs.”

They were quiet as they enjoyed the treat. The coffee shop was cozy and warm despite the grey, winter sky that threatened snow, and other patrons were huddled together around their overpriced lattes and artisanal pastries. There was something very relaxing about the warmth of this place, and Chloe seemed to be relaxing a little more herself. Marinette cleared her throat.

“So,” she ventured, grateful to have someone to worry about other than herself for a change these last few days, “your mom’s in town?”

Chloe grimaced. “Ugh, don’t remind me. I finally managed to get Daddy to make her stay at their house. She had the nerve to demand a room at my hotel—free of charge, of course. Ridiculous.”

“You said it was a surprise visit? You didn’t know she’d be coming back to Paris?”

“Yeah. Jessika invited her to the party on Saturday. I had no idea.” If possible, Chloe’s frown deepened as she dwelled on bad memories. “What a shit show that was…”

“Saturday? But I remember seeing you a few times that night. You looked like you were having a good time with Luka—well, when you weren’t working, of course.” Marinette smiled. “Actually, that reminds me. Luka and I have been friends for years, and even though I admit I was skeptical at first, I stand totally corrected. I haven’t seen him looking so happy since, well, since too long ago.”

Chloe tensed. “Yeah, well, don’t go picking out baby names. We’re over.”

Marinette gaped. “Wait, what? You broke up?”

Chloe was as rigid as a flagpole. “We were never really together, but if you want to call it that, then yeah, whatever, it’s done.”

“But… I don’t understand. You guys looked so—so good together. I thought—”

“You thought wrong, okay?” Chloe crossed her arms and sat back in the booth, closed off. She was staring out the window as if looking at Marinette would only piss her off even more. “It was just an extended fling. Now it’s run its course, and that’s it. I’m back in my world, and he’s back in his.”

Marinette was not at all convinced. Chloe was so taut she looked ready to snap at any minute. That was not the poise of someone who was indifferent to the transitory nature of casual hookups. And the way they had been together, even that first night at Firefly… Marinette did not believe for a second she was okay. But she also had a feeling Chloe would not want to hear that. “And it’s better that way, is that it?”

Chloe side-eyed her. “What?”

“No, I get it. You’re a successful hotel heiress, and he’s just a struggling musician. It would never work.”

Chloe blinked, suspicious. “…That’s right.”

Marinette gestured vaguely. “So it’s over, fine. But it was fun while it lasted?”

Chloe shifted in her seat. “Sure, I guess.” She shrugged. “I mean, yeah, it was fun.”

“What’d you like about him?”

“The sex.”

Marinette smiled. “Well, obviously. You can’t have a fling without good sex.”

Chloe narrowed her eyes. “I mean, it was more than just sex. Like, don’t get me wrong, it was good sex. Really good. He’s a quick study, and I have very little patience for training boyfriends as it is. It worked.”

“Uh-huh,” Marinette humored her. Boyfriend.

“I don’t know, I mean, it’s not like I dislike him or whatever. He’s…”

“He’s…?”

“He’s good.”

“What’s good?”

Chloe sighed, exasperated. “Funny. Deep. Patience of a saint.” She fiddled with her fork absently. “So affectionate. Makes me want to…try harder, or something. I don’t know, just good.”

“He makes you want to try harder at what?” Marinette prodded, fighting back a growing smile.

Chloe dropped her fork. “Just, like, try to be better. Than I am. Ugh, whatever, what does it even matter? We’re done.”

Marinette rested her chin on her clasped hands and let her smile spread. “Doesn’t sound like it to me.”

Chloe looked at her like she might be carrying some contagious disease. “Oh, really? And what does it sound like to you?” she said rhetorically.

“It sounds like you like him. A lot. And anybody with eyes can see he likes you, too.” And knowing Luka, the poor man was probably halfway to falling in love with Chloe, if his attention to her on Saturday was anything to go by. He’d always been something of a free-faller when it came to women, and Chloe seemed like the type to make men jump out of planes without a parachute.

Chloe glared at Marinette, but her flush betrayed her. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Marinette blinked guilelessly.

“You know what I mean. Getting me to say all those things out loud doesn’t make them true.”

“I’m pretty sure it does. And I didn’t ‘get you’ to say anything; you did that all on your own.”

Chloe slumped over the table, picked up her fork, and poked at the cheesecake crumbs on the plate between them. “It’s too late, anyway.”

“Chloe.” Marinette laid a comforting hand over hers and ceased her fork tapping. “He likes you. It’s never too late.”

Chloe opened her mouth to respond, decided against it, and dropped the fork again. “You don’t know what I said to him.”

“No, but I know Luka. He doesn’t spook easily. Whatever it is, I’m sure it can be fixed with an apology.”

“Not this.”

Marinette sighed. “Chloe, really, whatever it is can’t be so bad as to—”

“I told him I was ashamed of him,” Chloe cut in, her voice a venomous hiss. “That I was ashamed to be seen with him.”

Marinette resisted the urge to wince, careful to keep her expression calm and patient, but inside she was reeling. “You said that to him?”

Chloe smirked bitterly. “Not in as many words, but he got the message loud and clear.”

Okay, that was not great. Still, Marinette would not give up hope, even if Chloe clearly seemed ready to do just that. “You mentioned your mom showed up at the party, and you weren’t very happy to see her. Is that connected to what happened with Luka at all?”

Chloe said nothing, and Marinette knew she was on the right track.

“Did your mom disapprove of him or something?”

Chloe laughed, but there was no joy in it. “Disapprove, right. She basically compared him to a villainous peasant whose mere proximity to me would compel the landed gentry to get ahold of my entire family and put us all in the stockades.” Chloe closed her eyes and breathed through her nose to control her building temper. “And I fucking let her.”

So that was it. Chloe was not ashamed of Luka at all; she was ashamed at herself for even entertaining her mother’s bigoted views.

“So you don’t agree with your mom?” Marinette said.

“I—” Chloe grimaced. “I…considered it. And yeah, I know that makes me piece of shit, so go ahead and say it. It’s not like I don’t deserve it.”

“I don’t think you’re a piece of shit.”

“I didn’t want him to come to the party because I was worried about what other people would think. People I couldn’t care less about except that they have money and influence and might move the needle on my social and professional reputation. Normal people with hearts and fucking human decency don’t think like that. Pieces of shit do.”

“You’re not a piece of shit,” Marinette said again, this time more forcefully. “If you were, Luka would never have had anything to do with you. And I wouldn’t be here right now. Chloe, look, you made a mistake. You’re human. I mean, I don’t know your mom or what it’s like to have enough money to fill a swimming pool, I guess.”

“That’s not how it works.”

Marinette raised a hand for silence. “You know what I mean. The point is, you’re just a regular person who made a mistake, and you feel awful about it because, spoiler alert, you’re actually a good person. You feel bad because you hurt someone you care about, and his feelings matter to you. And you know what? That proves that you really do care about him.”

Chloe looked at her like she’d never looked before. There was something raw about that look, like a cut wire or an open wound, exposed. “I was so weak,” she said, barely a whisper. “Not even my mom, just…just me.”

“So next time, be brave. Hey, you’re Chloe Bourgeois! You’re a total boss who gets shit done. And to be honest? Even back in high school, I secretly admired your courage no matter what people thought about you. Nothing could ever stand in your way, not then and definitely not now.”

Chloe gripped her fork so hard, her knuckles turned white. “Well,” she said, composing herself, “I do work pretty hard.”

“And that’s all this really needs: a little work. Call him. Tell him what you just told me. There’s nothing Luka values more than honesty, trust me. All you have to do is talk to him.”

Chloe cracked a real smile and dabbed at her eyes, but no tears fell. “Jesus Christ, I’m fucking tearing up over here. Too much crack in that cheesecake.”

Marinette laughed. “Yeah.”

“Ah, I really hate talking about my feelings. Gross.”

“But just think of how much better everything will be after you do.” Marinette waggled her eyebrows, and that got a small laugh out of Chloe.

“Maybe you should take your own advice,” Chloe said, giving her a pointed look.

“Oh?” Marinette’s smile was starting to hurt her face.

“Don’t ‘oh’ me, Marinette. Adrien might be bottling shit up, but I don’t see you jumping to tell him how you really feel about it.”

It was Marinette’s turn to take her fork in a death grip. “W-Well, you know, he’s dealing with some stuff, a-and he wasn’t ready to—”

“Talk to him,” Chloe interrupted her. “Because trust me, that guy is so worried about offending the fucking air that chances are he won’t be the first to start that conversation. A little work, your words. Put it in, and maybe you won’t have to come back to woo me with more cheesecake next time.”

Marinette bit back a smile. “Point taken.”

“Great. Now let’s get the check before I order another of these sin slices and birth a crack baby.”

They got the check and headed back out into the biting winter cold. Today was shaping up to be quite an ugly day, and nobody wanted to be caught outside.

“Hey, Marinette,” Chloe said behind the folds of her thick scarf. “Thanks. For listening, I mean. I feel like I should endorse you on LinkedIn or something.”

Marinette put a hand over her heart. “Why Chloe, you move me! LinkedIn, really? How thoughtful.”

She huffed. “Okay, ha ha, fuck you. Look, I’m not… I don’t have a lot of friends besides Adrien, really. So, like, whatever. I’m just trying to say this wasn’t a total waste of time.”

Marinette grinned. “Yeah, yeah, girl power, blah blah.”

Chloe stared at her, remembering how she’d said those same, self-deprecating words to Marinette that first night at Firefly, and Marinette laughed.

“You’re welcome. And back at you. I, um, I really appreciate you telling me a little more about Adrien, what happened back then… I guess I do have a lot to talk to him about.”

It may have been her imagination, but Marinette could have sworn Chloe looked a little softer as they stood together on the sidewalk, cars and a few pedestrians bundled up for the weather passing them by.

“Yeah, you do that,” Chloe said. “I’ll see you later.”

They parted ways, Chloe back to Le Grand Paris and Marinette to the metro to head back uptown. And despite the last couple of days wallowing in uncertainty about Adrien, where they stood, and how in the hell she would face him again, her steps were lighter than they were before. And she couldn’t help but smile, tentatively optimistic about the difficult conversation that lay before her.

She was just about to duck in to the metro underground when a loud crack resounded not far from her location. People all around cried out their surprise at the earsplitting noise, and the soft rumble underfoot that accompanied it. Marinette’s heart leaped into her throat, and she ran back out onto the sidewalk, eyes searching until they landed on a red flag flying high over a building a couple blocks away: the police station.

There was a huge crack that had opened up down the face of the building.

“Oh, shit.”

Marinette dashed into a nearby alley, quickly transformed, and ran.

Chapter Text

Nino was seriously regretting taking Adrien up on his offer to work out together. It wasn’t as if Nino was terribly out of shape—no, he was pretty average, neither sluggish nor super fit. But next to Adonis—er, Adrien—any guy would feel a little, ahem, underserved.

“My ass is sore,” Nino complained after they finished their Monday morning workout and regrouped in Adrien’s obnoxiously upscale apartment to clean up and grab breakfast, as usual. “I didn’t even think that was possible!”

Adrien rolled his eyes. “Sore is good. Means you’re putting in the work.” He grabbed two Fiji water bottles from the fridge and tossed Nino one.

Nino caught it and grimaced. “Dude, even your water’s designer. You know what I love about living in a first world country? You can drink the tap water—for free.”

Adrien gasped and covered his mouth. “Really? I had no idea! You know how much I love my tap water with a healthy serving of sediment!”

“You’re such a snob, you know that? And it’s called a Brita filter, dude. Even us peasants can afford them.”

“Eh, blame Chloe. She swears by this stuff.” Adrien took a healthy gulp of water. “Guess it’s just second nature to keep up a supply for her.”

Right, there was that. “I gotta say, man, it boggles my mind that you and Chloe Bourgeois stayed as close as you did over the years.”

Adrien shrugged. “She’s family.”

Nino’s expression softened. “Well, whatever the reason, I’m glad you had someone who stuck around. We should all be so lucky.”

Adrien looked at him, stunned, and then smiled. “Thanks.”

“But hey, I seem to recall being a pretty awesome friend to you back in the day. And you may be intrigued to know that me and my mad skills have aged impeccably.”

“Like a fine wine, I’m sure.”

“I’ve been told I pair well with artisanal cheeses and mood lighting.”

“Hah, I bet you have. All right, man, I’m going to start on breakfast. Shower’s all yours.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Nino took his half-drunk Fiji water with him and headed to Adrien’s room to grab the small duffle bag he’d brought with his day clothes. He winced as he walked—goddamn, his ass really was sore. How the hell did Adrien do so many squats and still find the energy to walk upright? Nino figured he had a long way to go before he was a worthy partner. Something told him Adrien hadn’t been entirely truthful when he’d claimed not to have much time for the gym lately.

Lost in thought, he let his gaze linger on Adrien’s Spartan bedroom—king-sized bed, red duvet, sleek black dresser and matching armoire, a charcoal painting of a winter forest over the bed. There were no pictures hanging up anywhere, save for two frames on the dresser. One looked like a selfie given the amateur angle—it was of Adrien and Chloe at some beachy location, big sunglasses and hats and tan lines, and they were both laughing at something out of frame as they held on to each other. Nino smiled. Adrien looked happy in the picture, like he didn’t think anyone was watching.

The other picture was a folding frame with two separate pictures in it. One was of Adrien with his father, the latter of whom had barely aged a day since last Nino had seen him in the flesh fourteen years ago. Still steely-eyed and severe, Gabriel Agreste did not smile as he stood with an Adrien several years younger than now, both of them dressed in crisp suits at some formal function. Nino frowned; he’d never cared for Adrien’s father. That man was as cold as a Klondike bar—Nino recalled that he wouldn’t even let Adrien celebrate his own birthday with friends back in high school. Adrien smiled in this photograph, too, but it was a far cry from the joy captured in the selfie with Chloe.

The remaining picture was of a woman—a stunningly beautiful woman—whom Nino did not recognize. She posed alone, her smile small and enigmatic, as if she held a secret. Her green eyes were muted and dark against the backdrop of a Parisian sunset, and they glowed with a hidden warmth, perhaps for the photographer who’d taken her picture. Nino did not know her, but he could see the resemblance as plain as day.

This was Emilie Agreste, Adrien’s vanished mother.

Adrien had spoken of her only once to Nino when they were kids, and only in passing.

“She left,” he’d said with an air finality.

“Where’d she go?” Nino wanted to know.

“Away… Away from us.”

Away from his father. Away from Adrien. Nino would be the first to admit that he was not going to win a Nobel prize, or cure cancer, or even really do anything that would make a dent in human history one way or the other. He was no Alya, who was halfway to earning a Pulitzer nomination, if he did say so himself. But Nino had always had a flair for reading people more than he’d ever had for reading books. And despite his practiced smiles and courtesy armor, Adrien was as plain to him as the light of day.

Even now, Adrien was still looking for a way to hold on to them, these ghosts who had long ago left him behind in their own ways. But who would hold on to Adrien as he chased what wasn’t there?

Ghosts don’t haunt us; we haunt them.

Nino sighed. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he said, eyeing the younger Adrien standing with his father and trying to remember what happy looked like. “I got your back.”

He found his duffel bag in the corner and slung it over his shoulder. Something else on the dresser caught his eye as he was heading back out to the main apartment and gave him pause. It was a black business card embossed with a silver phone number.

“Hey, Nino, you want eggs?” Adrien called from the kitchen. “I’m making omelettes.”

Adrien had turned on his surround sound system, and Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle was playing softly around the apartment.

Nino picked up the card and turned it over. There was nothing on it except that flashy phone number. He wandered back to the kitchen and found Adrien wearing an apron, spatula in hand, as he leaned over the stove top and poked at the eggs in a frypan while singing along to Genie in a Bottle. Nino cracked a smile.

“Aw, honey, you’re cooking for me?” he teased.

Adrien winked coyly. “Of course, babe.”

Nino laughed. “Thanks. Hey, I found this on your dresser.” He tossed the card onto the counter. “Pretty mysterious.”

Adrien glanced at it. “Oh, yeah. That.”

“Don’t leave me hanging! What is it? Some, like, exclusive millionaire playboy club thing?”

Adrien snorted. “No, god. What do you think I do in my free time?”

Nino shrugged. “Hell if I know. But they make reality TV shows about that kind of shit.”

“Honestly, Nino, the most exciting thing that happens on any given weekday is our morning workout.” He cast a teasing look over his shoulder. “When you manage to actually haul your ass out of bed and show up.”

“Hey, don’t antagonize my ass. It’s very sensitive today.”

Adrien snickered. “Fine, fine. Anyway, that card’s just a personal phone number.”

“Oh? Anybody I should know about?”

Adrien flipped the eggs and added seasoning. “Just some guy who offered me a job.”

Nino rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Adrien, do I have to put out or something to get you to tell me? Who’s your mysterious suitor?”

“It’s not like that. It was just an offer to talk, that’s it.” He poked at the eggs experimentally. “You ever heard of Aramis Legrand?”

Nino blinked. “You mean, Marinette’s investor? That loaded hot grandpa?”

Adrien dropped the spatula and swore. Nino frowned at his uncharacteristic clumsiness. “Yeah, uh, same guy. I worked at his hedge fund while I was an MBA student. Long story short, I ran in to him at the premiere party on Saturday, and he wanted to give me a job.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome.”

“It is?”

“Uh, yeah. Why wouldn’t it be?”

Adrien looked uncomfortable. “I mean, I already have a job.”

“So what?”

“Nino, you know what. You know who I work for.”

“My point exactly.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Nino sighed dramatically. “Oh, Adrien. My son. Pull up a chair and let me talk to you about this magical thing called Being A Grown-Ass Adult Who Makes His Own Decisions.”

Adrien rolled his eyes and pulled out two plates from the cupboard to serve up the eggs.

“Let me ask you something,” Nino said, taking a bite of omelette. “Did Aramis propose marriage?”

“What? No, what kind of question is that?” Adrien said.

“Did he hold you at knife point?”

“Nino.”

“Did he make you sign a blood contract promising your first born?”

“Okay, I get it.”

“Do you?” Nino leaned forward, amused as Adrien did his best not to pout like a child. “Dude, it’s an offer. As in, he shows you around the office, treats you to a free lunch, and spends a day flattering your ego to get you to jump ship. No strings, no commitment, and you get to see how the other half lives.”

Adrien stabbed at his food petulantly. “I know that.”

“Then what’s the problem? If you decide you don’t want to work for the guy, then politely decline.”

“I just… I don’t know.”

Nino shot him a withering look. “I think you do. And seriously, what’s Gabriel going to do about it? People get poached all the time, that’s just life. And again, it’s just lunch. What do you have to lose, like, in real life?”

Adrien rubbed his eyes. “Nothing I didn’t already lose a long time ago.”

Well, shit.

“Dude,” Nino said as gently as possible as he did his best to steer them away from that can of worms. “Look me in the eye and tell me you’re happy working for your dad.”

Adrien met his gaze. “I’m happy working for my dad.”

“…Okay, that was convincing. I kind of don’t want to know how you got so good at that.”

Adrien smiled his fake smile, and it made Nino’s skin crawl.

“Ugh, cut that out. You’re giving me the creeps,” Nino said.

Adrien’s smile fell, and he just looked thoughtful. And a little bit sad.

“You know,” Nino said, “you’re allowed to choose what makes you happy. And you’re allowed to change your mind about what that is. Nobody can make that choice for you.” Especially not your dad.

The unspoken thought nonetheless seemed to resonate with Adrien. “You sound like someone I know,” he said. “He told me something similar, about choosing happiness.”

“Sage advice,” Nino said with a grin.

“Yeah,” Adrien said, a small but true smile forming.

“Hey, I know it hasn’t been that long since we started hanging out again, but you know I got your back, right?”

“Nino…”

“I’m serious. Look, I know it’s been a long time, but I get it, with your dad. I can see nothing’s changed. Just, like, know that when you do decide to walk away, you won’t be alone, okay? Whenever you’re ready, I got your back.”

The silence that passed was almost tender as Adrien watched him, bewildered, like he could not for the life of him believe that a living, breathing human being could actually care about his emotional well-being. And it was kind of a nice moment, Nino thought. Until the music changed and Complicated by Avril Lavigne began blasting around the apartment.

“Oh for—you know what? Remind me to hack your Spotify and delete everything in it,” Nino said.

“Hey, chill out, Nino. Whatcha yellin’ for?” Adrien said.

Nino cringed. “Don’t you dare. I’m grabbing that shower and getting the fuck outta here before your bad taste incepts me.”

Adrien grinned and grabbed the spatula to hold like a microphone as he followed Nino toward the bathroom. “You’re trying to be cool, but you look like a fool to meeeeee. Tell me—”

“I’ll tell you where you can shove that spatula,” Nino said, dashing to the sanctuary of the bathroom.

Adrien was laughing even when Nino slammed and locked the door. Through the door, he could still hear the muffled music as Adrien sang along with the chorus.

He laughed to himself. “Well, whatever makes you happy.”


 

Ladybug raced as fast as she could over the rooftops to get to the crumbling Municipal Police headquarters. When she touched down in front of the building, she was met with civilians running and screaming in the opposite direction, and it was not long before she saw why.

A man—or what had once been a man—lumbered, as if drunk, down the broken steps of the station, swinging his too-long, clubby arms and cracking the steps with every footfall. He was covered in coral.

From head to toe.

Ladybug stared, horrified, at the creature, for this was not a man anymore, but a mindless golem. He had no eyes, no mouth, no face at all under the twisting coral and covered every part of him like armor. It slithered over him like snakes, alive, and crunched with his every step.

He was not alone. More coralized victims were emerging from the police station, two more as completely devoured as the first, the rest newly turned and only lightly afflicted. Ladybug did not understand. Even if there was a new coralized victim running around turning people, how the hell had the infection progressed so quickly on some of them?

Mariquita!” shouted a familiar voice.

It was Professor Lopez. He was limping and bleeding from his thigh, but still mobile. Ladybug immediately went to help him. “Professor Lopez! What happened? What’s going on?”

He panted, his eyes wide with fear. “The coral, it’s attacking! The victims—Fashionista’s victims—they have woken up!”

“No…”

How is that even possible?!

The first coral golem swung at a fleeing woman and sent her tumbling down the stairs. She landed in a heap, bleeding from a wound in her head and unmoving. The sight spurred Ladybug into action.

“Professor Lopez, get to safety. I have to stop this!”

He tried to protest, but Ladybug was already running. She threw her yo-yo, leaped into the air, and swung around hard into the closest coral golem. His shell cracked where her armored legs slammed into him, and he went crashing down. But unlike in her previous encounters with coralized victims, his coral did not break off and reveal a man’s shape beneath. There was only more coral, dark and engorged with blood, like veins. There was no trace of the man this creature had once been.

Her interventions drew the attention of another coral golem and three freshly coralized people who looked like they might have been on the forensics team examining Matilda Moretz and her victims. Gritting her teeth, Ladybug ran at them, yo-yo flying and fists swinging.

“Get out of here!” she shouted at the uninfected people still streaming out of the police station. “Don’t let them cut you!”

“Help us, Ladybug!” cried one police officer whose shirt front was bloody. “He’s gone mad!”

Ladybug snared a crazed coralized lab worker with her yo-yo before she could attack a fleeing civilian and yanked her to the ground. “They’re not mad, they’re just sick!” Ladybug said.

“No, you don’t understand!” the police officer said, his dark eyes glazed with fright. “The chief, he’s—”

There was another loud smashing sound, and the crack in the building’s façade groaned as more rubble fell. Chunks landed on a man in handcuffs who was running for his life, and he went down, buried. Before Ladybug could even process the sheer scale of violence unfolding right before her eyes, a man emerged from the broken double doors and dug a huge, clawed hand through the rubble. He dug out the buried felon and yanked him up by the arm, dusty and bleeding.

“No one is escapes justice,” he bellowed. “You will atone for your crimes, villain!”

“Chief Raincomprix?!” Ladybug said.

It had once been the chief, at least. Coral growths enveloped his right arm, half his face, and snaked down his left leg, like some kind of pink cyborg. And over his heart pulsed a glowing rose pin.

Chief Raincomprix’s lone visible eye swiveled to better see Ladybug as he continued to dangle the unconscious felon. “I am Chief Justice, and I will cleanse this foul city!”

“No, wait—!”

But his crab claw fist slammed his prisoner down into the rubble, hard, and Ladybug recoiled at the ear-splitting crack with which the man’s body hit the rocks. Dark blood mingled with dust and rubble as it flowed down the steps.

Ladybug’s vision blurred with tears as she shook, momentarily overcome by fear and grief.

This can’t be happening.

“It’s that rose!” said the police officer who’d tried to warn Ladybug before. “Chief took it, wouldn’t listen to Dr. Devereux. He just wouldn’t put it down, and now—!”

No, Ladybug thought miserably. But I cleansed that rose pin, so how…?

“You, insect,” Chief Justice said, each footfall a tremor underfoot as he slowly lumbered toward Ladybug and the cowering police officer with her. “You’re next. No one is above the law!”

“Ladybug, look out!” the police officer shouted as he scrambled out of the way.

A coralized lab worker had flung himself at Ladybug, and she was forced to dodge. Chief Justice roared, civilians screamed and ran for their lives, and the coralized golems Ladybug had punched her way through earlier were back on their feet and converging on her. Ladybug swung her yo-yo and braced herself for the fight of her life, one desperate thought ringing out above the rest in her addled brain:

Chat Noir, where the hell are you?


 

“Adrien, I’m so pleased you called,” Aramis said as he handed the waiter back his menu. “And so soon since we last had the pleasure of speaking. I appreciate your decisiveness.”

Adrien folded his napkin in his lap and clasped his fingers together on the table. “Not to disappoint you, but I haven’t made any decisions. I’d like to test the waters, learn more.”

Aramis smiled warmly. “Of course. All decisions are best made with a full belly and a good night’s rest, I say. But that won’t stop me from doing what I can to make your decision as easy as possible.”

“I’m sure it won’t.”

Adrien had taken Nino’s advice and called Aramis that morning on his way to work, and to his surprise, Aramis had insisted they meet for lunch today to discuss what a future at Legrand Capital Paris could look like. They had shown up at Maison, a Michelin three-star restaurant downtown, and had been seated immediately without a reservation. They had barely settled in to their seats when the head chef-owner himself came out to personally welcome Aramis and his guest, promising to catch up for a drink soon as if they were old friends.

If Aramis were anybody else, Adrien would have cringed at the easy opulence with which he went through life, but there was a humility to Aramis that shone through his inescapable status and privilege. He was a man who appreciated the finer things in life, but he did not appear to take them for granted.

“You know, I haven’t been here in ages,” Aramis said, loosening his blue tie to get more comfortable in their booth by the window overlooking a stone garden. It had begun to snow lightly. “Christian, the owner and chef, is an old friend. We met years ago, while he was still in training. He made me dinner, and I wrote him a check halfway through the second course to put a downpayment on this place. He’s an artist, truly. Well, don’t take my word for it. You’ll sample his art for yourself.”

Adrien smiled. “You seem to be very generous with artists of all persuasions.”

“As we all should be in any way we can. Art is the essence of life, for what is life without beauty? And what is beauty without passion? Marinette, for example—she reminds me very much of Christian when he was just starting out. That passion, whether for food or fashion or any other creative pursuit, is a treasure. It would be criminal not to nurture it, when it’s so rare to find it flourishing naturally in our modern world.”

The mention of Marinette sent Adrien’s heart to pounding. He had been putting off talking to her about everything, again. Fu was right, he needed to be ready to tell her his deepest secret not out of obligation, but because he wanted her to know. And while a part of him wanted to share this with her more than he’d ever wanted to share anything with anyone, he continued to hesitate. He told himself he just needed time to find the right moment, but he wasn’t sure he would recognize it if it hit him in the face.

The aperitif arrived before Aramis noticed the tension in him, and Adrien forced himself to relax and focus on this conversation happening now, instead of the fantasy one that would inevitably happen soon enough. He was not here for Marinette, but for himself. And Nino was right, there was no harm in simply exploring his options. What did he have to lose?

“I agree,” Adrien said. “About passion being hard to find these days. In truth, it’s what I enjoy most about my current position at AF. I work closely with some of the most talented designers all over the world. Seeing them turn their visions into reality is a kind of magic. I like being a part of that.”

“Mm, yes, there’s a noble purpose in helping others achieve their maximum potential.” Aramis looked at him thoughtfully, those icy blue eyes intense and searching. “You know, Legrand Capital is much more than just a hedge fund these days. You can make money just as easily shorting stocks as you can recognizing and investing in the right people and ideas. As you know, I’m not as involved in the day-to-day business anymore, but autonomy will always be central to my company’s culture, whether in New York or here.”

“So, you’re saying if I come work for you, I could manage my own portfolio? Pick my own companies?”

“Why not?”

Adrien looked at him pointedly. “You don’t even know if I’m any good.”

“Oh, I know. Your resume speaks for itself, but it’s the killer in you that I’m after.” Aramis watched him thoughtfully.

“You said something like that to me before,” Adrien said. “What makes you so sure about me? I could just be showing you what I think you want to see.”

Aramis laughed at this, but it was not a happy laugh. “Believe me, it takes one to know one. You could no sooner hide your true nature from me than shadows could hide from the sun.”

Adrien wondered about that as their server brought out their food.

“Why me?” Adrien asked. “I’m sure you have your pick of the cream of the crop and no need for the extra effort to convince them.”

“In truth? On paper, there will always be better qualified candidates. There’s no dearth of smart, driven people when you reach a certain level of success and wealth. A dime a dozen, as our American friends like to say. But what I need is someone who sees beyond the raw numbers game. Finance is as much an art as it is a science. To borrow your words, there’s a magic to it as much as there’s magic in music or cinema. Anybody can blindly crunch the numbers; it takes vision to see why they add up. The best business schools in the world can’t teach that.”

“And you think I have that?”

“You tell me.”

Adrien wanted to think he did. His MBA internship had been very successful, and he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t enjoyed the fast-paced thrill of the game. But to be able to seek out leads on his own terms instead of simply following the ones he was handed, to find the future Christians and Marinettes of the world, invest in them, and watch them grow, that was something he could see himself doing. Loving, even. Helping people, opening up a space for them to fill with their dreams…

He smiled to himself. What could Destruction do better than carve out a space for Creation to flourish?

“I think I’d like to find out,” he said truthfully.

Aramis raised his glass. “Well then, I better give you a good reason to try.”

They clinked glasses, and Adrien let himself enjoy being wined and dined. If happiness was a choice, then he resolved to make an informed decision.


 

“Agh!” Ladybug grunted pain as she took a coralized punch to the gut from Chief Justice that sent her crashing into the side of the sandwich shop across the street. Luckily, her reinforced armor was sturdy enough to absorb nearly all her pain and keep her bones from grinding to dust, but damn if it didn’t piss her off. This was already the fourth time she’d been slammed into a stone wall today.

Unbelievably, people were filming the fighting with their smartphones, and a local news station had gotten wind of the commotion and sent a cameraman and a reporter to cover the scene. It had also begun to snow, lightly at first, but it was picking up as the fight wore on. There was something macabre about the snow as it moistened the stretches of blood and offal where Chief Justice’s victims had fallen, turning their remains to a slippery, pulpy mush.

The police officer who’d helped Ladybug before—Henri Durand, she’d learned his name—proved his mettle by taking charge of the other officers scattered around looking lost as their trusted chief went on a killing spree. He had them work together to escort civilians out of the vicinity of the police headquarters and warn off people trying to film everything, while Ladybug dealt with the many coralized victims and Chief Justice himself. Or tried to, at least.

“Only I can deliver swift justice to the villainous!” shouted Chief Justice. “Insect! I judge you ill-fit to protect Paris! Now, come quietly!”

He swung at Ladybug, and she scrambled as fast as she could out of the way. She barely made it with the help of her trusty yo-yo before he smashed his fist into the building where she’d landed. A huge crack opened up in the stone, windows burst, and somewhere inside a dog barked like his life depended on it.

Ladybug landed hard on her knees and threw her yo-yo again, this time ensnaring Chief Justice. He struggled, but the cord held taut. Something smashed into Ladybug’s back without warning—another coralized victim, this one a public defender in a tattered suit bulging with squirming coral fingers. Ladybug cried out and went down, losing her grip on her yo-yo and giving Chief Justice the slack he needed to wriggle free. She shielded herself with her arms just as the coralized lawyer came in for another swing, but a gun went off and the lawyer jerked erratically, stumbling back.

Ladybug whipped around and saw Henri, his revolver smoking as he leveled it at her coralized attacker. His dark eyes were hard, his expression pained, but his grip was steady, professional. He’d hit the coralized lawyer in the thigh, a nonlethal wound.

“Ladybug, move!” he said, already moving himself.

She didn’t need to be told twice and snatched up her yo-yo.

“What should we do?!” Henri said as they regrouped. “There’s so many of them!”

I don’t know.

“I’ll think of something!” Ladybug said, but it sounded pathetic even to her. If neutralizing the rose pin had not been a permanent solution, then what could be done? How could there be no other option but to put down the afflicted like rabid animals? And even then, she didn’t have the power to do that—only Chat Noir did.

If he didn’t show up soon, a lot of people were going to die today.

Ladybug forced herself not to panic. She had to think of something, and she would have to do it without wasting her Lucky Charm. Without Chat Noir around, she could not take the risk of having to revert while so many coralized victims were on the loose.

“We have to neutralize them,” Ladybug said, hating that this was her only option right now. “Shoot them if you have to, but not to kill. A bullet in the leg is better than the alternative.”

“Okay, but what about the chief?”

Ladybug was about to respond to that when she noticed Chief Justice going after one of the other police officers who was trying to help a skinny teenaged boy and his grandmother flee.

“Dead or alive, justice will be served!” he shouted.

Responding to his enraged promise, one of the hideous coral golems ran after the officer and her charges.

“No!” Ladybug sprinted after them, yo-yo swinging.

Henri fired off a few shots at the golem, but the bullets ricocheted off it, at best chipping the surface layer of coral. Not even gunfire could deter these mutated versions of the coralized. It was with chilling horror that Ladybug realized she was too far away; she would not make it to the kid and his grandmother in time. The police officer with them, a young woman who could not have been much older than Ladybug herself, was wide-eyed with fear as she fired her gun at the coral golem in vain until her bullets were spent. Ladybug threw her yo-yo in a last-ditch, futile effort.

Ssshhing!

All of a sudden, the coral golem stumbled and lost its footing. It groaned, a terrible clicking noise that flayed the senses, and before Ladybug’s eyes, its leg sliced clean off at the knee. It fell and tried to catch itself with a hand, but its arm slid off at the shoulder, and it crashed face-first on the cobblestone street. Slowly, the severed coral began to grow back, like vines wriggling free. They were coated red with blood, and the golem writhed in pain.

“What…” Ladybug said.

A droning sound like buzzing filled the air, and someone landed between her and the struggling golem. She was a blonde woman in a black and yellow striped jumpsuit, and she wielded a wicked, silver rapier, bloodied. Translucent wings folded over her back.

“Mindless and brittle. You coralized aren’t nearly as tough in person as you look,” she said.

“You,” Ladybug said, rooted to the spot. “Who are you?”

Her savior turned, revealing a mask that obscured her face and dark, blue eyes as sharp as her blade. “The answer to your prayers, obviously.” She lowered her weapon. “I’m Queen Bee.”

“Another insect for me to squash, fine!” Chief Justice said menacingly. “Vermin have no place in a just world!”

He came barreling in, another golem and two coralized people flanking him. Ladybug swore and threw her yo-yo, latched on to a metal fire escape beam, and swung out of the way. Queen Bee took flight, and they both came in hard around the backs of their attackers. Ladybug roundhouse kicked Chief Justice himself and sent him falling to his face, while Queen Bee sliced the coral golem from nose to navel, peeling it like a banana. Ladybug touched down and punched one of the coralized people hard in his armored stomach, and he fell back against the other one.

Chief Justice tried to get up, but Queen Bee was ready for him and stabbed him through his coralized shoulder, impaling him to the ground on his back.

“What the hell is your problem, anyway?” she demanded. “This isn’t justice, and you’re straight-up murdering innocent people!”

“Annoying flea! Justice may be blind, but I am not! Only I can discern the innocent from the damned!” Chief Justice said as he struggled against her weight and unbreakable blade.

“Yeah? Well, I wish I was blind so I wouldn’t have to look at your ugly face!” She stomped on his shoulder, but swore in pain when her foot connected with his coral armor. Chief Justice struggled to his knees, and she was forced to withdraw her rapier and back off.

“Their coral armor’s as tough as steel,” Ladybug said, backing off, too. “My suit’s reinforced, so I can attack it directly, but it looks like yours isn’t. Don’t let them land a hit you, or you’ll be out cold.”

Queen Bee grimaced. “Thanks for the tip, Bug. Feel free to share any others you have before I find out the hard way.”

Ladybug frowned at that nickname, but it was the least of her worries at the moment. “Duly noted, Bee.”

There was no time to question what another Miraculous Chosen was doing here helping her. Ladybug trusted that whatever the reason, Queen Bee was clearly on her side, and with Chat MIA, she would take all the help she could get.

“Ladybug!” Henri came running with a couple more officers. “We managed to subdue some of the coralized victims. There are more inside, and survivors trapped in the basement. We’re going in after them.”

“What? No, you can’t. I only count three coral golems out here, but there were five who came in with Matilda Moretz, which means there are at least two more still inside. Your guns won’t work on them,” Ladybug said.

“But Dr. Devereux is still in there. My colleagues are trapped in there with those creatures. We can't just let them die!”

“Then don’t,” Queen Bee said. “The fewer regular people out here to get in my way, the better.”

Ladybug had half a mind to tell her off—who did she think she was, coming in here and giving out orders all of a sudden?

Queen Bee took something from her ponytail—a small peacock feather—and handed it to Henri. “Take this. Keep an eye on it so you don’t get ambushed in there. Help should already be on the way.”

Henri accepted the feather without question.

“Hey, wait just a minute,” Ladybug said. “You’re not going in there, Henri. Not while there’s still a bunch of coralized victims loose in there.”

“I’m sorry, Ladybug, but I swore an oath when I became an officer. We all did. No one gets left behind.” Henri nodded to his small team. “Let’s go!”

“Leave them,” Queen Bee said, her focus already back on Chief Justice and his coralized minions. “We have bigger fish to fry.”

The coral golems Queen Bee had taken out before had reformed and were on the move again, as was Chief Justice himself. All around, Ladybug counted coralized victims in police uniforms, lab scrubs, suits. So many infected.

Her throat clenched painfully at the thought of the end, for try as she might, she could not think of any other way to stop them.

Knocking them down proved merely a temporary reprieve, as they inevitably rose up again, impervious to physical pain and force. Queen Bee picked up right away on Ladybug’s desire not to use lethal force. Her cuts and jabs were delivered to slow down rather than shut down. The three coral golems, however, showed no signs of slowing, even when she decapitated one of them. The head grew back like a mass of wriggling vipers, curling and fusing until they formed a new pink helmet. It was as if they were no longer human at all. And as the coral festered and encircled Chief Justice and his coralized minions, Ladybug understood intuitively that eventually, they would all end up like that in time. Isolating the rose pin had slowed the cancer, but it hadn’t cured it.

What if there’s no cure?

“This isn’t working!” Queen Bee said, landing once again beside Ladybug and wiping the blood from her rapier on an unconscious coralized victim’s jacket. “We have to take out Chief Justice, it’s the only way.”

“No, destroy the rose pin and we kill all these people,” Ladybug said.

“Then what’re we supposed to do? If we don’t stop them, they’ll kill us and all the survivors still hiding out inside!”

Ladybug glared at her. “And you just had to tell Henri and the others to waltz on in there, anyway!”

 Queen Bee returned her glare. “They’ll be fine. Mayura won’t let them die.”

“Mayura?” That name sounded so familiar, but where had she heard it?

“She’s like us, Miraculous. Never mind right now, there’s no time. Look, when I signed on to this, I knew it wasn’t going to be unicorns shitting rainbows and glitter. Our options suck, but we have to make a decision, anyway. That’s what being a leader means.”

The snow was coming down relentlessly now, and Queen Bee shook her head to shake it out of her ponytail. Ladybug didn’t want to admit defeat.

If I do, I’m no better than a cold-blooded murderer myself.

Who was she to decide whether all these victims lived or died? She was no god. She was just a woman, unremarkable in every way.

Except, she wasn’t. She was here, when it could have been some other girl in her place. Queen Bee was right. She needed to make a decision.

In a last ditch effort, she threw her yo-yo into the air and shouted, “Lucky Charm!”

Scarlet light exploded, and a spotted sword that matched Queen Bee’s rapier landed in her hands. She stared at it numbly and felt Queen Bee’s eyes on her.

“Chat Noir usually handles this part, right?” Queen Bee said grimly, brandishing her rapier as one of the coral golems lumbered toward them, clubby fists swinging. “I don’t have claws, but my ultimate sword stings like a bitch.”

Ladybug looked at her. She was a young woman, perhaps of an age with Ladybug, and underneath the mask of tough airs and grim confidence, Ladybug sensed fear. Her sword hand shook. But despite her trepidation, she was willing to make the hard choice and bear the guilt in Ladybug’s stead, just as Chat would have done had he been here.

Ladybug clutched her spotted rapier to her chest and clung to the twisting pain inside. She wanted to feel it, every part of it, a small penance for what she was about to do. “Do it,” she said.

Queen Bee’s wings buzzed, and she rose in a hover. She lifted her rapier over her head and whispered her Miraculous chant, “Buzz Kill.”

And then, she vanished.


 

Adrien lost track of time talking with Aramis. They had quickly moved on from work to Aramis’s life, a subject which soon became utterly fascinating to Adrien. The man had lived in a dozen countries and spoke as many languages. He had Nobel laureates, artists, politicians, even princes in his shortlist of contacts. And above all, he was a man in love with all things beautiful.

“I paint—well, I shouldn’t say I paint so much as I fail repeatedly and learn too little from my mistakes,” Aramis said as he sipped a glass of Chardonnay that cost as much as a month of Adrien’s rent.

“It’s good to have a hobby,” Adrien said with a smile.

“Indeed. It’s been a life-long affair at this point. My wife was a painter, far more skilled than me, of course, but I caught the bug, so to speak.”

“Oh, really? Is her work featured anywhere?”

Aramis smiled wistfully. “I’m afraid not. I keep most of what she produced in her day. She passed away, many years ago.”

Adrien’s smile fell. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It’s quite all right. It was such a long time ago, though I do think of her often these days.” His gaze was far away. “She was fierce, full of passion for her craft. The light to my darkness, if you know what I mean.”

Adrien thought of Marinette as she’d been on Saturday. Marinette in her fuchsia dress making him speechless, her fingers in his hair, her soft kisses, asking to have him.

“I have an idea,” he said, holding on to those happier memories.

“Ah, thinking of my favorite designer, by chance?”

Adrien flushed and tried to play it off by taking a sip of his drink. “Well…”

Aramis laughed. “My apologies, I didn’t mean to pry. In any case, my wife’s love for painting was the seed that sparked my own passion for art in all its forms. Hence the hobby. All work and no play, as they say. The trick is to make work your play. I’m deeply fortunate to have found a way to do what I love, and enable others to do the same.”

Adrien couldn’t agree more. “That’s exactly it. That’s what I want to do one day. What’s the point of having power and influence, unless you can use it for something worthwhile? To do something meaningful? Especially if it’s for somebody who deserves it?”

“You would go far as a philanthropist, Adrien,” Aramis said. “The sad truth is most do it for the tax breaks or the reputation, or simply out of boredom. As in everything else in the world, there’s so little passion to be found. You have passion, ambition, and strong convictions. Most people only have two out of the three—I’ll let you guess which two. But I think you and I are of a like mind in this. All you need is a chance to cultivate that, a place that won’t inhibit you.”

“A place like Legrand Capital,” Adrien said.

Aramis laughed. “Well, you said it, not me. Here in Paris, I’m more interested in cultivating a venture capital project, something in the spirit of Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital or Accel. I want to attract the brightest minds in finance, and then I want them to forget everything they think they know. I want to teach them to see, beyond profits and losses, beyond ROI, and ask why.”

“I thought you said vision can’t be taught.”

“I fancy myself an exception to most rules, son.”

Adrien smiled. Unlike the last time, the diminution didn’t feel strange coming from him. “I don’t doubt it.”

They enjoyed dessert with coffee, and Aramis picked up the check.

“Aramis,” Adrien said as they got ready to leave. “Can I ask how you got in to this business? Most people I’ve met in your line of work are more, well…”

“Cutthroat?” Aramis supplied with a self-deprecating smiled. “Ruthless, perhaps? Don’t be fooled, Adrien. You don’t get to where I am without stepping on a few toes, I’m sorry to say.”

Christian popped out briefly to bid them both goodbye. He bade Adrien return anytime he wished, no need to call ahead. A friend of Aramis’s was a friend of his. Adrien thanked him for the delicious meal, and he and Aramis waited for the hostess to retrieve their coats.

“You know the difference?” Aramis said. “I’m a self-made man. Growing up, I came from a lower middle-class family here in Paris. Everything I accomplished, I accomplished on my own. No one, not even my family, ever lifted a finger to help me.”

“I suppose my situation is the reverse, then. Everything I’ve ever accomplished has been because of who my father is.”

Aramis looked at him, and Adrien got a sudden chill. “Then perhaps it’s time you made a clean break. I like you, Adrien. I think you’re exactly what I’m looking for in a mentee. As for compensation, benefits, whatever Gabriel is giving you, consider it doubled.” He put a hand on Adrien’s shoulder. “We could do great things together, you and I. All you have to do is say yes.”

Adrien had not intended it, but he felt the overwhelming urge to just say yes and be done with it. What Aramis was offering—a chance to make a real difference, to be successful and help people at the same time—was the kind of freedom Adrien had always craved. He was happy at AF, sure, the way anybody is happy in the routine of daily life. But Aramis was right: he would always be the son of Gabriel Agreste for as long as he remained in his father’s shadow.

Was it so bad to want more than that? Was it really the betrayal his instincts were telling him it was? What were those instincts, anyway? The knee-jerk reaction of a boy who’d wasted years trying to earn the love of a man whose heart had perished when his wife walked out on him. But Adrien was resilient—even a god said so, so it had to be true. He would never stop trying, not really.

But maybe it was time to try at a distance.

His phone rang, and Adrien checked the caller: Father. Immediately, his heart began to pound, as if he’d been caught in a lie.

“Do you need to take that?” Aramis asked.

Adrien hesitated for a split second. “It’s my father.”

Aramis raised his eyebrows. “Ah, caught out past your curfew?”

Adrien frowned, not liking that analogy. Still, if he didn’t answer, Gabriel would only find some way to guilt trip him later. He answered the call.

“Father?”

“Adrien, please tell me you’re not at the Municipal Police Station,” Gabriel said, his voice tense.

“The Municipal Police Station? No, why? What’s going on?”

There was a pause, and then, “Where are you?”

Adrien did not quite understand what was going on. “I’m at lunch with…a friend,” he hedged. “What’s going on? Did something happen?”

Aramis gestured to him. “May I?”

Adrien looked at him strangely and covered the microphone. “You want to talk to my father?”

Aramis smiled. “Just want to say hello to an old friend. Don’t worry, I won’t say a word about the purpose of our meeting today.”

It was a bit of an odd request, but harmless enough, he supposed. “Hold on, Father.” He passed Aramis the phone.

“Hello, Gabe,” Aramis said with a smile. “It’s been a long time. I trust you’re well?”

Adrien couldn’t hear what his father was saying on the other end, and Aramis simply continued to smile.

“Yes, I’m with Adrien now. We just had lunch. He’s quite something. Bright, ambitious, a compassionate heart. You and Emilie raised a good one.”

Silence again, and Adrien shifted his weight. He wondered if he should not have passed Aramis the phone, after all. Surely his father would get the wrong idea. Aramis was rather famous in their world, and what interest could he possibly have in Adrien except to recruit him? However, there was admittedly something deliciously satisfying hearing someone as accomplished as Aramis praise him to his forever disappointed father.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Aramis interrupted whatever Gabriel had been saying, “I’ll be sure to have him home at a reasonable hour. I’m sure you’re missing him. You and I will see each other soon, I’m sure. For old time’s sake.”

He passed Adrien back his phone and winked. Adrien raised it to his ear. “Father, it’s me,” he said.

There was a pause on the line, and then, “Adrien, listen to me very carefully. Come to the mansion. I need to speak with you in person, urgently.”

Aramis had his own phone out and was scrolling through a news report. “Oh no,” he said. “It looks like there’s been another coral attack, this time at the Municipal Police Station downtown.”

Adrien froze. “Wait, what did you say?”

“I said you need to come to the mansion right away—” Gabriel said over the phone.

“Sorry, not you, Father. What’s this about the police station?” Adrien asked Aramis.

“The attack is still underway. This is terrible…” He shook his head. “Ladybug is on the scene, but it doesn’t look good.”

Fuck.

Adrien couldn’t think of anything else. Ladybug was on the scene. Another coralized attack. And he was here having goddamned lunch at the most pretentious restaurant in the eighth arrondissement while people were literally dying. He was going to be sick.

“Adrien, listen to me,” Gabriel said harshly.

“Father, I have to go.” He hung up the phone, jammed it in his pocket, and headed for the door.

Aramis was right behind him. “Going somewhere safe? I can give you a ride,” he offered.

Outside, the snow was coming down something fierce, but Adrien barely noticed it. “Thanks, but I’ll be okay. And thank you for today. I’m sorry to duck out on you like this, but there’s somewhere I need to be.”

Aramis put up his hands. “Perfectly all right. It was my treat. But do let me know what you decide, all right? I do have my pick of the crop, as you said, and I hate to keep people waiting.”

“Of course, I’ll be in touch soon. Thanks again, Aramis.” He waved and dashed away around the corner to transform in a nearby alleyway.

Soon, Chat Noir was leaping tall buildings and heading east. Up here, he could see the red signal flag Chief Raincomprix agreed to fly when he had something to report. He also saw the ominous crack down the center of the building, as if the two halves might collapse back into the earth at any moment. All Chat could think of as the biting cold and snow smacked him in the face with each super powered jump was how utterly useless he was, after all.

Wait for me, my lady. I’m coming.

He prayed he wasn’t too late.


 

The seconds ticked by.

One…two…three…fo—

All of a sudden, Queen Bee reappeared next to Chief Justice panting, her rapier glowing white-hot and dripping with blood. For a moment, Ladybug did not understand.

And then, they fell. All of them.

Like dominoes, the coralized victims popped and cracked and fell to their knees. Their coral growths were sliced to bits, down to the last wriggling root, and shattered on the ground. The coral golems toppled, nothing but Jenga pieces cut down to chunks of rubble no bigger than Ladybug’s fist. All around her, Ladybug watched them fall at her feet, leal subjects kneeling before their queen.

The ultimate sword…

It was no Cataclysm, but it was the most systematically ordered destruction Ladybug had ever seen, and without a single lethal blow. She was running, slipping on the snow-slick cobblestone, the cold filling her lungs with a biting vengeance. It was so quiet now, as if Queen Bee had cut through sound itself and forced it, too, to kneel before her.

Chief Justice was slumped over on his knees. His coralized arm, leg, and face had been flayed clean of their growths, revealing raw, bloody skin beneath. He was covered in oozing sores, and Ladybug flinched at the sight. Even now, slowly but surely, tendrils of cancerous coral began to wriggle forth from inside him, relentless. And at his breast sat the pulsating rose pin, similarly flayed to expose the raw heart of him, ripe for the picking.

“I’ll take that,” Queen Bee said. A lightning-fast swipe of her rapier, and the pin and the roots it had wormed around Chief Justice’s heart were sliced clean off. The pin rolled on the ground, pulsing like a true heart.

The coralized victims all around them fell unconscious, as they had before with Fashionista, and the glazed, crazed look in Chief Justice’s eyes faded as lucidity returned, however briefly. When he looked up, he was Chief Raincomprix once more.

“Ladybug,” he said, his voice hoarse and cracking. “What have I…”

He looked around at the bodies that surrounded them, and Ladybug’s heart broke as he understood the reality of what he had done. Queen Bee averted her gaze and clutched her rapier, which no longer glowed. The comb tucked securely in her hair chirped, and the jeweled bee curled up on its handle lost a stripe. Ladybug’s earrings echoed soon after.

“No,” Chief Raincomprix said, his voice shaking as tears streamed down his face. “Please, I didn’t…”

“It wasn’t you,” Ladybug said, her own tears getting the better of her watching this strong, brave, kind man crack before her. “You couldn’t control yourself.”

His tears fell freely, and he looked up at her, lost. “But I did it,” he said. “All these people, and I—”

“No, please don’t say that,” she pleaded with him. “You’ll be okay. They all will be. I just have to find a way to reverse the damage for good, that’s all.”

Beside her, Queen Bee tensed. “Bug, I don’t think—”

“Some—some magic, something, I don’t know.” She showed Chief Raincomprix her yo-yo. “I-I’ll purify the rose pin like before, buy us some time until—”

Chief Raincomprix smiled through his tears. “No, Ladybug. I don’t think so.”

No? What did he mean, no? He was just giving up? She could fix this, she knew she could. She was chosen by Tikki, the literal God of Creation. She could fix anything.

Chief Raincomprix reached for her hand, and she gave it. His other hand took Queen Bee’s. “Thank you, both of you,” he said shakily, “f-for stopping me. I’m so sorry.”

“Chief, don’t,” Ladybug warned him, sniffling and wiping her tears. “Please don’t.”

Beside her, Queen Bee hung her head. “I’ll do it,” she said, barely a whisper.

“Do…” Ladybug saw where she was looking at the rose pin on the ground between them melting a hole through the falling snow. “No. No way.”

“Bug—”

“I said no!”

Chief Raincomprix’s grip on her hand tightened. “Ladybug, please. I don’t want to hurt anybody else.” He looked beyond her at all the coralized people he had infected. “They don't deserve to turn into monsters. Please…give their families the faces they know and love.”

It was too much to ask, too great a price to pay. It was not fair, to ask this of her. All those people—what kinds of lives had they lived? What would they have gone on to do if they hadn’t been cruelly unfortunate to end up here today? Would they hate her for this? Would their families curse her? She hoped they would, for it was the least she deserved.

“Stand aside,” Queen Bee said, angling her rapier over the rose pin.

But Ladybug stayed her hand. “No,” she said, and met Queen Bee’s gaze, blue on blue. “I’ll do it.”

Queen Bee looked at her with wide eyes, a far cry from the hard and tough woman prepared to step up at a moment’s notice and support Ladybug, no questions asked. There was fear there, sorrow, and a small glimmer of relief that it would not be her hand to deal the final blow. For all that she had done in Ladybug’s hour of need, this was the least she could offer her mysterious new ally.

After all, this was her decision to bear as the leader. Not everybody could be saved.

Ladybug raised her spotted sword and clenched her teeth. She spared a final look at Chief Raincomprix, willing him to understand, to hear her sorrow, her apology, her unequivocal admiration for his bravery. He closed his eyes and choked on a sob, and he smiled.

Ladybug brought down her sword. The rose pin smashed to pieces, and Chief Raincomprix fell back.

Ashes rose to meet the falling snow as all around them, every last remnant of coral disintegrated, as if it had never been there at all.

No more evil-doing for you, Ladybug thought bitterly.

Queen Bee took Ladybug’s trembling hand, and they stood there together over the bodies of the fallen, victorious.

 

Chapter Text

Chat Noir made it to the Municipal Police Station in record time and spotted Ladybug standing over the body of a large, unmoving man. Relief flooded his system upon seeing her upright and okay. But when he touched down in the square in front of the broken station house, the carnage all around gave him pause.

There were bodies everywhere, full of holes. Coralized victims, he recognized the signs. But he and Ladybug had agreed not to destroy the rose pins last time, to study the coral and try to find a way to reverse the damage without killing anybody. So why were they all dead? And then, another thought struck him:

How could Ladybug do all this by herself?

He was running again, toward her, and when she looked up, he almost collapsed right there at the look in her eyes. Her tears fell freely, her eyes were red and puffy to match her scarlet mask, and in one hand she grasped a spotted rapier. The other was clasped firmly in another’s.

“Ladybug,” Chat said, approaching. His chest knotted uncomfortably at the sight of her suffering.

Ladybug shuddered as a fresh sob racked her body, and she bit her lip. She turned away from him and wiped her eyes vigorously. The person standing with her, a masked woman Chat did not know gave her some space.

“Miraculous Ladybug,” Ladybug choked out, tossing her spotted sword into the air.

Her scarlet creation magic did its job quickly. The police headquarters knit back together, storefronts were restored, and blood and dust were swept clean, leaving only the broken bodies littered about the square.

“Where were you?” Ladybug said softly. Her long, loose hair hung in her face and hid it from sight.

“My lady, I—”

She looked up at him, and he flinched at the hurt there—the anger, the sadness, the fear. It all melted the moment they locked gazes, leaving only a desperate longing. He was at her side in a heartbeat and pulled her to him. She shuddered violently in his embrace, but he held her close and stood tall for the both of them.

“You weren’t here,” she said against his shoulder, her fingers digging in to his arms. Her voice was meek, and it didn’t suit her at all. “Why weren’t you here?”

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say. What else was there to say? He’d promised he would support her as Chat Noir, always, and he hadn’t fucking been here when she needed him most. “I’m so sorry.”

A Miraculous chirped, and Chat looked up at their third companion.  “You did this? You helped Ladybug?”

“Yeah."

Chat set his jaw and nodded grimly as he ran his fingers up and down Ladybug’s back to soothe her. “Thank you for being here when I should have been.”

She nodded and relaxed a little. “You’re welcome.”

Ladybug slowly extricated herself from Chat’s embrace and sniffled. “Right, um, Chat, this is Queen Bee. As of today, she’s part of the team.”

“I am?” Queen Bee said at the same time as Chat said, “She is?”

“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you,” Ladybug said. “And I welcome the help, if you’re willing to give it.”

Queen Bee pressed her lips in a grim line and nodded stiffly. “That’s why I signed up for this.”

“About that,” Chat said, glancing down at the man he now recognized to be Chief Raincomprix, dead. “What happened to not killing the coralized victims?”

Ladybug tensed. “I didn’t have a choice.”

“But what about purifying the rose pin? That worked before—”

“I said I had no choice! My purification didn’t work, the infection spread, and Chief Raincomprix became the new host. There was no other way to stop it.”

"But, I thought last time—”

“Last time only made things worse." Her tears had started up again, angry and bitter. She looked away, ashamed. “I made a decision. It’s over. If you want a say, next time maybe bother showing up on time.”

She stalked off toward the restored station and ran a hand through her hair to shake the snowfall from it. Chat was about to call out to her, but Queen Bee held up a hand.

“I wouldn’t,” she said. “She feels shitty enough as it is.”

Chat frowned at her. “I appreciate the concern, but Ladybug and I have been partners a long time. I know how to talk to her.”

Queen Bee glared at him and was about to respond when voices drew their attention from the station. A group of uniformed officers emerged escorting a number of civilians in various states of injury. Chat recognized Dr. Devereux among them. She appeared unharmed but badly shaken. He and Bee both started toward them when all of a sudden, a blue blur shot out from the roof. They landed on the next building over, stopping only momentarily to catch their footing, and then took off at a sprint, soon disappearing. Whoever they were, they were not normal—normal people did not jump so high and so fast across half a city block.

“Mayura,” Queen Bee said, following the mysterious figure’s retreat.

“Who?”

Queen Bee’s Miraculous chirped again, and she touched a gloved hand to the comb in her hair. “Damnit, my time’s almost up.”

“Wait, tell me about Mayura. Are they another Miraculous Chosen?”

“Yeah, the Peacock. She’s on our side, and that’s about as much as I know about her. Looks like she helped Henri and the other police officers get the survivors out.”

Ladybug was talking with one of the officers and Dr. Devereux, while the rest of the group that had emerged began wandering around the square. Some collapsed next to the bodies of the fallen, overcome with sorrow and anger at the loss of their comrades and loved ones. Onlookers filming on their phones and news reporters followed by cameras also wandered the square, cataloguing the carnage. A couple opportunistic reporters were making a dash for Ladybug, cameramen hot on their heels. Chat bared his teeth in a snarl.

“Here come the vultures,” he said, going to catch up with Ladybug. Queen Bee followed.

“I’m fine, Tony, please,” Dr. Devereux was saying. “There’s no time. Ladybug needs to know what we discovered.”

Professor Lopez, nursing a bad cut in his leg, was clammy and pale from blood loss, but looking quite determined. “Fine, but we don’t have much time.” He indicated the approaching reporters. “We’re about to be swarmed.”

“What’s going on?” Queen Bee said.

“You must be Queen Bee, the one Mayura mentioned,” Dr. Devereux said. “And Chat Noir, good, you’re all here. I’ll tell you what I told Mayura.”

Chat tried to catch Ladybug’s eye, but she was focused intently on Dr. Devereux. Her eyes were still red from crying, but she’d managed to pull herself together and stood tall.

“Tell me there’s a way to stop the coral,” Ladybug said, almost pleading.

Dr. Devereux looked grim. “There isn’t. It spreads very much like a cancer. Radiation destroys it, but it spreads so fast that it inevitably returns. I’ve never seen anything so virulent.” She glanced at Chat. “Whatever you did before, modern science hasn’t progressed enough to replicate.”

No shit.

“So even my sword didn’t do anything,” Queen Bee said.

“The only thing that works is to destroy the source,” Dr. Devereux confirmed. “I didn’t want to believe it. I should have listened to Chief Raincomprix when he insisted.” She averted her gaze in shame. “Perhaps I could have prevented all this.”

“He wanted to destroy it?” Ladybug said. “The chief did?”

“Yeah, he kept talking about it,” Henri the police officer confirmed. “Spent so much time just looking at it. I didn’t think anything of it. Chief always got invested in his cases. He cares—cared so much.”

“He wasn’t just looking at it,” Professor Lopez said. “It was calling to him.”

“What does that mean?” Queen Bee said.

Professor Lopez and Dr. Devereux shared a significant look.

“What?” Ladybug said. “What did you find out?”

Professor Lopez looked very grim. “The coral, it’s one organism—one mind. This is the only way I explain why the host is able to command the other coralized victims.”

“You mean, like, a hive mind?” Queen Bee said.

“There are a number of similar natural phenomena—entomopathogens, for example. There is a fungus that infects ants, forces them to behave unnaturally, and coopts their bodies to grow spores. This process is fatal, of course. There are many more examples found in nature,” Professor Lopez explained. “But in coral… I have never seen anything quite like this.”

“So the coral is mind controlling the coralized victims?” Chat asked.

Queen Bee shuddered. “Ugh, gross.”

“Exactly. And Chief Raincomprix was its latest victim. The coral called to him, and he answered.”

“What does that mean?” Chat asked.

“The coral emits a radiation wave of its own,” Dr. Devereux explained. “It was most subtle after you first brought it to us for examination.”

“After I purified it,” Ladybug said.

“Yes. The radiation only grew stronger in time, until it got a response.”

So the only way to stop it is to destroy it and anyone infected.

“So even my ultimate power isn’t strong enough to neutralize it,” Ladybug said, more to herself than to anybody else. She clenched her fists at her sides, and her earrings gave another beep.

“Why Chief Raincomprix?” Queen Bee asked. “Why not you? Or anybody else who was exposed to it?”

Before Dr. Devereux could answer that, fast footsteps approached and several news reporters with cameras surrounded the group.

“Ladybug!” said one female reporter. “Can you confirm that Chief Raincomprix was the culprit behind these latest murders?”

“Is it true that you kept Fashionista here at the police headquarters instead of finishing her off last time? Is that why the murders started up again?” asked another reporter.

“Hey, everybody back away,” Henri said. He and a couple other officers attempted to push back the reporters and their cameras, but there were a lot of them, and they were pushy.

“Is this a new hero? What do you call yourself?” One of the reporters shoved his camera in Queen Bee’s face.

“I’m Queen Bee. Get that camera out of my face unless you want it back in pieces.” Queen Bee put a threatening hand on the hilt of her rapier, and the cameraman withdrew immediately.

“Chat Noir!” asked the first reporter. “You were missing for the fight. How does it feel to be replaced by Queen Bee?” She shoved her microphone at Chat’s face, and he flinched.

“I—what?” he said.

“Chat Noir, are you and Ladybug no longer partners? Is that the reason you decided not to show up today to help?”

“Ladybug! What can you tell the families of those coralized victims you executed today?”

Ladybug covered her mouth in horror, and that was the last straw. Chat snatched the microphone from the reporter who’d just asked Ladybug that question and crushed it with his bare paw. The reporter gasped and scrambled to get away from Chat’s violent outburst.

“You want a statement?” Chat said, glaring at the cameras all turned to him now. “Ladybug made a hard call today, and if she hadn’t, the coralized victims would still be loose in the streets claiming even more victims.”

“But does that justify putting them down like animals?” another reporter asked, brave. “You may have super powers, but who gave you the power to judge who lives and who dies?”

“What? It’s not like that at all! Who’re you to judge? You’d all be dead if it wasn’t for Ladybug.”

“That’s enough!” Ladybug shouted, here eyes wide and fearful. “Please, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Dr. Devereux pushed her way forward. “My name is Dr. Rochelle Devereux. I’ve been working with the police studying the coral murders. I’d be happy to take your questions.”

The cameras all angled to Dr. Devereux and Professor Lopez, who began fielding questions with the practiced professionalism of those used to dealing with reporters.

Ladybug’s and Queen Bee’s Miraculous chirped again, twice this time. They were out of time.

“We should go,” Queen Bee said, already turning away.

Ladybug nodded numbly. “Yeah. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“Ladybug, wait.” Chat reached for her, but she evaded his grasp.

“Not now, Chat.” She cast him a wounded glance.

“But, my lady, I—”

“I don’t have time for you right now!” She grimaced and looked away, ashamed. “I’m sorry, I just really have to go.”

Queen Bee had already taken off, and Chat could only watch as Ladybug swung her yo-yo and disappeared over the roof of a nearby building. Chat bared his teeth in anger—anger at her dismissal, at this hopeless situation, at himself.

Most of all, at himself.

I broke my vow.

He pushed past the reporters, extended his staff, and launched himself into the air. It was still snowing, but the flakes melted on his cheeks as he ran, barely felt. There was a twisting ache in his chest like a knot, pulsing with every frantic beat of his heart. He ran faster, leaped higher, pushed himself beyond his limits, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not outrun this incandescent agony.

I failed her.

All he had ever done was fail her, as Chat Noir and as Adrien. She could have died today because he wasn’t there, because he’d put his capricious professional aspirations first. How could he have been so selfish? She was waiting for an explanation from him, and he was avoiding her like a child. If it hadn’t been for Queen Bee, Ladybug could be… Marinette would have…

He wanted to see her. He wanted to comfort her. Even strong and brave, Ladybug—Marinette—was only human. The reporters’ accusations had snapped something in her, Chat could see it plain as day. She was suffering, and she was all alone. He hadn’t been there to ease her burden, and now she was cracking under the weight of it.

He could just find her at her apartment, surely that was where she’d gone. But when he slowed, realizing his legs had already carried him there without him realizing it, the window was dark. No one was home. Where could she have gone? He knew Alya was out of town on assignment, so that couldn’t be it.

Her parents’ bakery.

That had to be it. Yes, he would find her there, he was sure of it. He would find her, apologize for failing her yet again, and tell her everything. He would make this right, whatever it took. He would prove he was committed to earning back her trust once and for all.

By the time Chat made it to the bakery, the snow had begun to stick to every available surface, fluffy and thick. He nearly slipped a handful of times and had to slow down, but eventually he landed on the roof of the building across the street from the Dupain-Cheng bakery. People moved inside on the third floor, so he leaped to the fire escape and crouched by the window.

Inside, he found Marinette, just as he knew he would. She was sitting on the couch with her mother, Sabine, while her father, Tom, returned from the small kitchen with a tray carrying three steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Chat pressed a paw to the window pane, careful to remain out of sight. He would just have to wait until she left or retreated to her old room upstairs to approach her. For now, he lingered and watched them, his sensitive hearing able to pick up on their conversation even through the closed window.

“I’m so sorry for coming over like this out of the blue,” Marinette was saying. She fisted the blanket over her lap and sat rigidly, uncomfortable.

“Honey, there’s nothing to apologize for.” Sabine soothed her with a hand on her back.

Tom sat down on Marinette’s other side and put his huge arm around her. “Your mother’s right. We’re glad you came. In fact, you should stay with us for a few days. I’d sleep better knowing you were safe, what with these horrific coral murders going on.”

Sabine took a tissue from the box on the coffee table and dabbed her eyes. “I just can’t believe it. All those poor people, just gone. And Roger was the gentlest, kindest man. How could this happen?”

Marinette shrank into the couch and her father’s embrace. “Yeah,” was all she could manage.

But Chat saw her pain clearly, even if her parents did not. The guilt, the remorse, the anger. It was all over her face, try as she might to hide it. He bared his teeth, hating that look on her. If her parents had any idea what she was going through, how alone she felt, they wouldn’t be so insensitive about what had happened. But how could they? No one knew the truth. No one except for Chat.

“Poor Ladybug,” Tom said. “The news cameras caught it all. I just can’t believe she had to take all that on her shoulders alone. She’s so young.”

“Yes, it’s not fair,” Sabine agreed. “No one should have to make such an impossible choice. I’m just glad she has that new hero, Queen Bee, helping her. And Chat Noir, of course.”

“No,” Marinette said. “Chat Noir wasn’t there today.”

The ache in Chat’s chest twisted, and the pressure from his claws cracked the window glass. He withdrew before Marinette and her parents noticed him and pressed his back against the stone wall, breathing hard. He could still hear them talking.

“Well, either way, I’m glad it’s over,” Sabine said. “As soon as I saw the news, I was so worried about you, honey!”

“I’m fine, Mom,” Marinette said. “I wasn’t there.”

“We know,” said Tom, “but all the same. We want to know you’re safe. We love you, you know.”

It got quiet then, and Chat’s curiosity got the better of him. He chanced another look in the window. Marinette was hugging her father and sobbing into his broad shoulder while her mother rubbed her back. She was shaking like a leaf, so small in Tom’s arms.

“I love you guys, too,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I love you so much, and I’m so, so sorry.”

“Oh honey,” Sabine said, wiping her own tears. “It’s all right, it’s all going to be all right, you’ll see. We’ll all pull through this together.”

“Shh,” Tom said. He wrapped his arms around Sabine and held them both, rocking gently.

Chat watched the intimate moment, unable to look away. The longer he watched them together like that, the uglier the pain in his chest became. It clenched and warped, a creature waking from slumber, hungry. He recognized the shape of it now.

Marinette wasn’t alone at all. This was her sanctuary, the place she retreated to when she was at her lowest, and her parents welcomed her with open arms and loving hearts. Chat Noir—Adrien did not have this. He hadn’t even recognized it until it was staring him in the face.

And he envied her for it.

He pressed his claws to the cracks in the window pane and felt the agony of this loneliness wash over him. I was an old friend, tired and true, but the years had tempered it. Adrien Agreste had so many privileges that others would never know—wealth, status, looks, connections—but he was looking at the one he could never have, for it had been lost to him the day his mother left and took the pieces of his father’s broken heart with her. But Marinette…

How could I take that from her?

He shouldn’t be here. He’d thought telling her everything now, after what happened at the police station, would fix everything. To know she wasn’t alone, that he understood every part of her, that he was the same as her, would be catharsis. It was all she wanted, all she had asked of him that night at the party.

No, he thought as he watched her with her parents, it’s all I want.

Chat had been selfish enough for one day.

So he slipped away, a shadow in the falling snow, fading into the grey, Parisian evening. Never seen, and not missed.


 

It was dark when Chat arrived back at his apartment. He let himself inside through the balcony door, easily scaling the seven stories to his floor. He was in a black mood and had every intention of raiding his liquor cabinet after he fed Plagg. But the moment he slid his balcony door shut behind him, he froze. His senses were on high alert and blaring—something was not right.

He was not alone.

Green cat eyes adjusted easily to the murky darkness of the quiet apartment, and he peered over his shoulder to the living room. A figure sat on the sofa, arms and legs crossed, and looked up at him. The dim moonlight caught the glare of his glasses. Chat could smell him from the across the room.

“What are you doing here?” he growled.

Gabriel rose and approached him. “I told you to come to the mansion hours ago.”

Chat bared his teeth, and his cat ears flattened over his head. Gabriel had known his secret for years, ever since that fateful night fourteen years ago. They never spoke of it, Adrien having all but given up being Chat Noir while he was living in America. Without Ladybug or even Hawk Moth around, there was no point in being Chat Noir. It was only recently, when the coral murders had started up, that Adrien donned his mask anew, and Gabriel had been relentlessly hounding him to stop before he got himself killed.

Gabriel glared at him, icy blue eyes unforgiving. “You went to the police station.”

“Of course I did, I’m Chat Noir,” Chat said. “It’s my job.”

“You deliberately disobeyed me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Father. Have you come to discipline me?”

Gabriel stood opposite him. They were of a height, but unlike Adrien, Chat towered confidently before him. Despite Gabriel knowing his identity, Chat had always felt close to invincible in the mask, as if Adrien were nothing but a shadow of another’s life, another’s fear. Gabriel knew it, too, and stopped a few paces from him, out of arm’s reach.

“Often I wonder if some discipline might do you some good,” Gabriel said venomously. “This is your life, Adrien.”

Chat advanced a pace, and Gabriel tensed but held his ground. “I’m not Adrien when I wear this mask. Don’t presume to address me so informally.”

Impossibly, Gabriel’s icy gaze turned icier. “In or out of the mask, you’re still my son.”

Chat held his tongue. Somehow, Gabriel always knew what to say to dismantle him, no matter how dour his mood. He thought of Marinette, safe in the arms of her own loving father, and the pang of bitter jealousy he’d felt watching them together. And despite everything, the shadow of Adrien hidden beneath Chat’s mask cried out desperately to give Gabriel a chance—what did it matter if this one would inevitably be ruined, just like all the others before? At least for a little while, they could pretend.

“I know that,” Chat said.

Gabriel sensed the lull in Chat’s hostility and cautiously took a step closer. “You’re my son, and I only want you to be safe. Your life means something to me.”

Chat looked at him, half in shadow and half in moonlight. It was like looking through the filter of a lucid dream, that moment between worlds just before waking, where fantasy is vivid and reality is just an idea. “I know,” he said.

“Good,” Gabriel said. “Which is why I think it’s time you gave up your Miraculous.”

Adrien would have stared dumbly, would have questioned Gabriel—why? What reason could he have to ask such a thing? He had asked before, of course, even begged, but backed off when Adrien had assured him he had no further reason to become Chat Noir, until now. Adrien would have protested, would have argued, and eventually, he may even have agreed to some sort of compromise, especially after the utter failure of a day he’d had. After all, Gabriel was his father, and Adrien was his only son. Who could blame a father for wanting to see his son safe?

But Adrien was not here.

Chat bared his teeth, exposing too-long incisors, and snarled, “You must be joking.”

“Adrien, listen to me. You don’t understand—”

Chat was on him faster than the human eye could have detected. His claws were snug around Gabriel’s throat as he pinned him to the wall. “I understand that you just tried to manipulate my feelings to get what you want.”

Gabriel closed his fingers around Chat’s wrist, but he did not struggle, and he showed no fear—only supreme frustration. “Adrien, don’t—”

“I understand that no matter how many times I fall for it, it gets me every fucking time.”

Gabriel struggled more, but his efforts were in vain against Chat’s super strength. “You’re misunderstanding. If you’d just let me—”

“What I don’t understand,” Chat all but hissed in his face, “is why you even bother anymore. I know it’s all a farce. I know you don’t love me. Maybe you did once, before Mom left, but not anymore, not for a long time.”

Gabriel bared his teeth in anger. “Stop this. That isn’t true, and you know it!”

“I know I love you!” Chat released Gabriel roughly and stalked across the room, needing to move before he did something stupid like injure his father. “I know I’ve tried, that I’ll never stop trying, no matter how many times you spin the same lie.”

Gabriel remained at the wall, but Chat could feel his gaze on his back. “Whatever your issues are with me, they’re not important right now. Adrien, this is not a joke. I need you to listen to me—”

“Stop calling me that!” Chat shouted. “If you can’t even tell me I’m wrong, then at least have the decency to stop lying to me!”

“This isn’t about you!” Gabriel shouted back. “Everything I’ve ever done since the day we left Paris has been to spare you!”

Spare me? You ripped me away from my home! From everyone I knew! The first real friends I ever made, and for what?”

“For you! I did it for you!”

Chat laughed bitterly and flexed his claws. The nails clicked, sharp as knives. “God, you’re good at that. You really make it seem like you believe it. I never stood a chance against you, did I?”

“I’m not the villain here.”

“You’ve always been the villain!”

“You’re my son!”

“And you’re my curse!” Chat’s throat twisted as a familiar agony welled up, suffocating, and he shook. “I’ll never break you. I’ll never even try, not really. But you’ve always known that, haven’t you?”

“Adri—Chat Noir,” Gabriel corrected himself, grimacing. “Please.”

“Aramis was right,” Chat said as the first hot tears fell silently over his mask. “I don’t want to be the son of Gabriel Agreste anymore.”

Gabriel’s face was shrouded in shadows, but Chat’s keen eyes saw every angle of him. He flinched. “Aramis Legrand,” he said the name as if the very shape of it offended him. “How long have you been meeting with him?”

“Long enough to know he’s treated me more like a son than you ever have.”

Gabriel set his jaw, and a flicker of…something flashed in those unforgiving eyes. Anger? Betrayal?

Fear?

“That man harbors no love for you, I promise you that. You cannot trust a word he says.”

“Because you just know everything,” Chat spat.

“I know him,” Gabriel spat right back. “And I know you’re no match for him as you are.”

“No,” Chat said, unable to help his shaking hands as they clutched his staff. “No, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to look out for me now when you never did before. I won’t fall for it again, goddamnit.” He angrily pawed at his tears, hating that no matter what he did, Gabriel always managed to eviscerate him to the core with a few choice words. “I don’t want to want your love anymore, but I can’t help it. So please, just let me go.”

Gabriel was silent, perhaps taken aback. But his face was once more a cold mask, and there was no telling. “If that’s how you truly feel about me, then so be it. I know I’ve been a poor parent to you over the years.”

Chat stared at him, incredulous. Gabriel may as well have admitted that water was wet.

“Clearly you harbor some…opinions about me, opinions with which, admittedly, I can empathize. And if…talking…about them, about our relationship, will convince you to listen to what I have to say, then you have my word that we’ll talk all night if you want. But right now, I need you to hear me.”

Un-fucking-believable. The knot building in Chat’s chest ached, demanded release. But it would get none. He swallowed it whole, a familiar tonic, and fixed Gabriel with a hollow look.

“Have you ever once thought about anybody but yourself?” he asked, truly curious.

“Adri—Chat Noir.” Gabriel’s face twisted in frustration. “Damnit, if you’d just listen—”

“No,” Chat interrupted. “I’m done listening to you. Get the hell out of my apartment.”

“Not without your Miraculous.”

“I’m not going to tell you again.”

Gabriel began approaching again. Chat’s enhanced senses immediately registered a threat, like a primal, knee-jerk reaction. “Enough,” Gabriel said, incensed like Chat had rarely seen him. “Hand over the ring. Rage at me all you want, but you’ll thank me later.”

Chat brandished his claws. He couldn’t quite say how the dull ache in the pit of his stomach morphed into something as vile as hatred, but that was all he felt in this moment—for Gabriel, for the situation, for himself for ever letting it come to this. For one powerful moment, he was terrifically unafraid of his father. “Go fuck yourself.”

Gabriel stopped, and despite the gloom of the apartment, Chat read the shock clearly on his statuesque face, and the hurt. Sadness, as fleeting as the wind, suddenly weaponized. Gabriel was steel made man, and a little thing like family would never sway him from his intended path.

“You’re upset,” Gabriel said. “I can see that you won’t give it up willingly. I had hoped… Well, it doesn’t matter now. You’ve left me no choice.” He slipped a hand in his jacket and retrieved something small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. It moved.

And then, it talked.

“Master, please,” came a small voice. “I don’t think this is a good idea. He’s much too unstable right now!”

“All the more reason to put a stop to this before it’s too late,” Gabriel said.

What…

“Adrien,” Gabriel said, that flicker of regret a shadow over his ice-white eyes. “Forgive me.”

Chat opened his mouth to speak, but the words escaped him. He could only stare at the two dark, compound eyes looking back at him, the creature’s bulbous head, and the delicate, lilac butterfly wings as soft as silk.

No.

Please, anything but that.

“Nooroo, transform me,” Gabriel commanded.

Bright, indigo light seared Chat’s sensitive eyes, and the sound of a hundred fluttering wings thundered like an avalanche.


 

Nooroo’s power rose around Gabriel like wings taking flight, feather-light. A hundred incandescent butterflies filled the apartment, banishing the shadows, moths of flame drawn back to him. His helmet offered reliable protection, and the armor woven in to his super suit had tempered blades and fists alike in times past. The last time Hawk Moth had come face to face with Chat Noir, he’d barely escaped with his life.

But that was a long, long time ago, and Hawk Moth had been a young man, fit and full of life. Now, he was a shadow of his former strength, weathered and jaded by time and failure. A new Chat Noir stood before him, strong and determined and just as foolhardy as the last. As splintered as the last, too, but not yet too far gone. There was hope, there had to be.

He is my son, Hawk Moth reminded himself even as he rose to his full, imposing height and tapped his steel cane on the floor, a warning. I will not fail him.

And if he had to fight his own son to keep him safe, then he would.

The fiery butterflies that fluttered around Hawk Moth pulsed with colors only he could see—sapphire for sadness, lilac for confusion, yellow for fear, and the deep, bloody crimson of unrestrained rage. Chat Noir stared, open-mouthed and shaking like a leaf, at the shape of his nightmare.

“You,” Chat said, his voice cracking. He clutched his staff close to his chest like a shield.

“Me,” Hawk Moth said, soft but firm. His butterflies fluttered around Chat, changing colors as they reflected the tidal wave of emotions pouring out of him. “If you’d only let me explain things, it wouldn’t have to be this way.”

Chat bared his teeth, and the butterflies around him blazed crimson in his fury. “If I… You’re blaming me?”

“I’ll use force if you make me. Hand over your Miraculous, and I’ll tell you everything.”

“You’re Hawk Moth!” Chat said, his voice breaking on a sob. Red pulsed blue and back to red as he teetered on the edge of insanity, his emotions roiling like a hurricane.

I don’t have much time, Hawk Moth knew instinctively, watching Chat unravel like a frayed hem. I have to stop him before it’s too late.

“I’m still your father,” Hawk Moth said, daring to approach, a hand on his cane ready to draw the hidden rapier within if it came to that.

“You’re a monster,” Chat said, stronger this time as yellow fear brightened his crimson fury. “You’re the villain! You’re—you’re my…”

As if seeing was finally believing, Chat finally lost the last of himself. He collapsed to his knees, dropped his staff, and doubled over, retching all over the living room carpet. The butterflies flashed around him in a strobe-lit disco, hazy and dizzying. Hawk Moth felt his son’s pain as if it were his own, and something else. Something…cold.

“Adrien,” he said, mustering his confidence. “I mean you no harm. Please, I’m trying to help you.”

Chat shuddered on the floor on all fours. His tears joined the stain of vomit on the floor, the smell sour and putrid. “All this time,” he said weakly. “Fourteen years ago…” His razor blade nails ripped in to the carpet.

“I didn’t know it was you then,” Hawk Moth said, though the words sounded pathetic even to him.

The butterflies pulsed bright orange around him, ashamed for him.

“You… It was you,” Chat said in a broken voice as his sobs robbed him of his strength.

Hawk Moth saw his own breath mist as he hissed. The cold was no longer in his head, but as real as the floor beneath his feet. The crimson butterflies around Chat had all since faded to a deep, navy blue as his melancholy, his betrayal took root. The cold made Hawk Moth sluggish, and he would have liked nothing more than to shy away from this heavy despair lest he catch it. Transformed, he felt others’ emotions like needles in his skin, injected straight to the bloodstream. He imagined Chat’s claws digging in to his flesh, flaying him raw.

“I’m sorry,” Hawk Moth said, afraid like Chat, despairing like Chat, but strong enough yet to dull the pain.

“You ruined me,” Chat said, barely a whisper. The kaleidoscope of lights had dimmed to a low, muted blue, growing ever darker. Hawk Moth failed to notice that Chat had stopped shaking. It was so cold in here.

“Please, I can explain everything. Adrien.” Hawk Moth reached a hand for him, slowly so as not to provoke him. The cold was strongest this close, and it moved.

That’s it, let it out.

He was so close.

“Stop calling me that,” Chat said, but the voice came from everywhere at once.

Hawk Moth looked up, and all the butterflies had bled to black. They swirled like locusts, but every flutter was silent. He grew very still, and with his hand outstretched, he focused on Chat still hunched over and channeled all his feelings into a single touch. White wings blossomed between his fingers, shy at first as they uncurled and searched for purchase in the broken man below.

“Chat Noir,” Hawk Moth tried, coaxing the pale, pure butterfly toward him. He was so close, and it would all be over soon. He would fix his mistake.

Frost bloomed on his gloved hand, burning cold, and the white butterfly between his fingers seized. Dark tendrils unfurled over Chat’s back, growing thicker as the little, black akumas hovered above like carrion flies.

Just a little more.

Hawk Moth thought of Adrien, as he’d been as a small child, so curious and full of wonder, always smiling. He thought of the pure joy he’d felt watching him take his first step, fall asleep under his watchful eye, coo at his mother.

Emilie…

He thought of her, too, as she had been before. Those blazing green eyes so full of love, impulsive and fierce, yet unwavering in her loyalty. So beautiful, so strong, so much like the son they shared.

The white butterfly fluttered, encouraged against the frostbite, and descended on Chat, fearless.

“Guess again,” Chat said.

In the next five seconds, everything happened so fast but so clearly, so enunciated, that Hawk Moth felt their passage like stabs to the gut. The black wings opened up over Chat and swallowed the white butterfly whole. The akumas circling overhead swarmed, broke formation, and exploded, tearing cracks in the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, Hawk Moth himself. Each one was a razor blade, hatred-cold. He stumbled back, drew his sword, and swung in an attempt to fend them off, but sliced only shadows. Frost filled his lungs, and he choked.

Before him, Chat rose, an inky black mass under those wings that refused to leave him no matter how tempting the bait. Gabriel Agreste’s fondest memories were a small price to pay for his son’s life, for while Empathy could draw on the strength of others to fight, its greatest power lay in imparting the self to others without shame. He would gladly part with every one of his cherished memories if it meant he could pull Adrien out of the war path, even if the price was his son’s eternal hatred.

But what a hatred it was.

It coiled, spread its great wings, and screamed, rising with Chat until Hawk Moth was staring at the shape of his selfish desire, corrupted beyond repair. It burst, abysmal and freezing, and all at once receded, hidden, controlled. Destruction was chaos, disorder, emotional and passionate. Art. But strip away emotions, take away feeling, and all that was left was a ruin, ocean-deep, insatiable. Fourteen years was a long time to nurse an appetite.

Malevolent magenta stared back at Hawk Moth behind a bone-white mask. His tears still fell, and bile glistened on his lips. He wiped them with the back of his white, gloved paw. And when he smiled dispassionately, it only amplified the frigid despair he radiated like a bad smell.

“Hello, Father,” said Chat Blanc.

Hawk Moth was too slow to evade the lightning-fast swipe, and he went crashing into the glass coffee table, shattering it on impact. Pain exploded in his cheek where Chat’s nails  had torn into his flesh. His helmet had protected him from the worst of it, but his blood was vile iron on his tongue as he scrambled to his feet and swung out with his sword blindly.

He struck something, at once relieved to have bought some time and horrified that he’d just struck his own son. But Chat did not seem to care that he was now bleeding heavily from his shoulder where the blade had kissed him, and he gleefully rebounded on the sofa and lunged once again, staff in hand. Hawk Moth was on his feet in an instant and parrying the attack. Thus commenced their duel in the darkness, Chat’s magenta eyes and the shy moon the only light by which to see.

Hawk Moth could not think as he parried his son’s expert blows, recalled from years of grueling fencing training he had insisted upon, a family tradition. Old bones were not what they used to be, even under Nooroo’s Miraculous protection, and he was tiring faster than Chat. He needed something to give him a leg up, just long enough to get Chat’s ring.

Get the ring, he told himself. Extract the akuma. Save him before—

But Chat was blindingly fast and ruthless, seemingly impervious to pain even as blood soaked his wounded, dominant shoulder. And he was laughing. Cackling.

“I should thank you,” Chat said as he put all his weight behind his staff, forcing Hawk Moth to take a knee. “I forgot how much fun this could be!”

“Adrien, listen to me,” Hawk Moth said, reaching for the latent empathetic connection he shared with all the akumatized. “I know you can hear me in there. You have to fight this!”

Chat lashed out with a claw, uncaring that the weight shift let Hawk Moth’s blade slice the side of his jaw all the way to his mouth like a bloody smile. It was just enough to throw Hawk Moth off balance and give Chat the opening he needed to sink his claws deep into Hawk Moth’s chest.

Hawk Moth cried out in pain and shoved with all his might, but the damage was done, and he now had four deep, bloody gashes across his chest. It shouldn’t have been possible—why was Chat Blanc so much stronger than Chat Noir?

Does he hate me so much?

Hawk Moth did not have time to think about that.

“Metamorphosis!” he commanded, releasing his ultimate Miraculous power. He reached for the akumatized butterflies still fluttering around haphazardly and thought of the joy he’d felt the first time he’d sold a design, the first time he’d laid eyes on Emilie, the day Adrien was born and placed in his waiting arms, such a small, perfect little thing. The nearest butterflies shed their black like ashes and pulsed bright pink. Weaponized, they swarmed to do Hawk Moth’s bidding.

Chat grunted in pain when the butterflies slammed into him, and he swatted in vain at them with his staff. They phased through his staff and his claws, pummeling him with magic and sinking in through his leather super suit, searching for a hold. The assault slowed him down, but it wouldn’t for long.

Hawk Moth swallowed his pain, sheathed his cane sword, and swung as hard as he could. He hit Chat in the back of the head, and he went down hard. And then, silence.

Hawk Moth slumped against the nearest sofa, torn asunder under his blade and Chat’s claws. His Miraculous pin chirped a warning, and Hawk Moth sighed tiredly. He need to call for help before Chat lost too much blood.

“Nooroo, revert me,” he said.

The remaining butterflies disintegrated, and Nooroo emerged from the Miraculous pin, leaving Gabriel in his ruined, bloody suit on the couch. Immediately, the pain of his injuries spiked without magic to dull it, and he hissed and clutched a hand to his flayed chest.

“Master!” Nooroo cried out, afraid. “Oh no, this is very bad! You need help!”

“I’m fine,” Gabriel wheezed. “Adrien, he needs help more than me.”

Nooroo fluttered to examine Chat Blanc, who was out cold on the floor and still bleeding. “I sense such a hopeless despair in him. And this hatred… He’s suffering so much.”

Because of me, Gabriel thought, squeezing his eyes shut to stop the tears that threatened to fall. I did this.

He’d always feared this would come back to haunt him. But when he’d tried fourteen years ago to extract the akuma from Adrien’s ring while he slept unawares, nothing had happened. It was as if there was no trace of it in Adrien at all. It was odd, but even Nooroo did not have the answers. And since Adrien had never transformed into Chat Noir again after they left Paris, it was eventually forgotten.

But now…

Gabriel fished around his pocket for his cell phone and dialed the police. “Hello, this is Gabriel Agreste. I need to report an attack on myself and my son, Adrien Agreste,” he spoke slowly and gave Adrien’s address. “Please, send an ambulance.”

The operator on the other line asked for more details, but all Gabriel said was, “Get a message to Ladybug. Tell her Hawk Moth was behind this attack, I witnessed it myself. Please, hurry.”

He hung up before the operator could press for more information and lay back.

“I’ve never seen an akuma behave like this before,” Nooroo said as he continued to hover over Chat.

“Can you help him?” Gabriel asked. “Anything, whatever it takes. Just tell me what to do. He can’t be Chat Noir anymore.”

Nooroo sniffled, holding back his tears. He often became emotional over the smallest things, and Gabriel was honestly impressed at how well he was holding it together in this dire situation. “I don’t know. I think… I need to speak with Plagg.”

“Plagg?”

“The Black Cat’s kwami. He won’t like it, but…” Nooroo trailed off self-consciously.

Gabriel set his jaw. Keeping his secret from Adrien had been a non-starter over the years, despite Nooroo’s pleas for the sake of the akuma that had infected Adrien. Nooroo had given up, especially when it appeared the danger had long since passed, but now there was no point in hiding anything. The damage was done, and Gabriel would have to face the consequences.

But as long as Adrien is safe, it doesn’t matter what happens to me.

He struggled to stand, clutching his chest. His fingers were slick with blood, and his face ached where Chat had sliced him. It hurt to talk, even to grimace. Slowly, he kneeled down next to Chat Blanc and slid the Miraculous ring off his finger, careful not to touch it directly. In a swirl of magenta light, the transformation forcefully reverted, and Adrien lay on the floor face down. The ring itself smoked white from a small crack in the metal.

“Plagg is bound to the ring,” Nooroo explained. “He can’t come out unless he’s bonded to Adrien. You have to return the ring now that Adrien’s reverted.”

“I will do no such thing,” Gabriel said. “Not while that fiend is alive and well. I won’t risk my only son.”

“A father’s love, how touching,” said a voice from the shadows.

Gabriel stiffened. That voice awakened something dead inside, something that should have stayed buried. “What do you know of love?”

“Quite a lot more than you, clearly. Your own son prefers me over you.”

Gabriel turned, ready to transform again if necessary to finish the job he thought he’d completed years ago, but blinding pain exploded in his chest, and his vision doubled. The agony was so intense and so abrupt that he could not even form a coherent thought as he sank to his knees on the ground. Somewhere, Nooroo wailed as if the blow had been meant for him instead.

Baleful, pink eyes watched him from the gloom, the figure swathed completely in shadows and silent. But impaling Gabriel was a gnarled branch of coral, slick with his blood. And though it had pierced his heart—how can you live without a heart?—he was somehow still breathing. The coral throbbed, pumping in place of his shredded heart. He coughed, and the bloody slices in his face smiled.

A man stepped out of the shadows. And though he had changed—older, burlier, bearded, golden hair dyed jet black—those glacial, blue eyes were just as harsh, just as unforgiving as they had always been.

“Felix,” Gabriel said, gasping for breath.

“Actually, it’s ‘Aramis’ these days. I couldn’t very well let you realize you didn’t finish me off that day,” Felix said. He paused and looked down at Gabriel, passingly curious. “You don’t look very well.”

“Master!” Nooroo gasped, fluttering to his side. The little kwami blubbered, his tears pearlescent and thick as he pawed at the coral embedded in his Chosen, helpless. “Please, no!”

“How like Empathy to shed tears even for the wretched,” Felix spat, disgust twisting his features.

“Nooroo,” Gabriel said, struggling to breathe. The pain was a continuous wave, ripping through him like lightning. “Go, now. Take the Miraculous.”

Nooroo sobbed openly. “I w-won’t leave you!”

“Such loyalty. You’ll do just fine,” Felix said.

His grievous wounds and lethargy made Gabriel too slow to struggle when Felix plucked the Butterfly Miraculous from his collar. Nooroo screeched in protest, but he was silenced as soon as the Miraculous touched another. He faded in a cloud of purple sparkles. Gabriel reached for Felix, but the coral impaling him twitched and sent a lancing pain through his body. He seized and coughed up blood.

“Ooh, careful now,” Felix chided. “Pravala is quite mercurial.”

Pravala…

The wraith-like figure said nothing, but those glowing eyes seemed to smile at the mention of their name, almost gleeful with affection.

“Now, what to do with you?” Felix had turned his attention to Adrien still unconscious on the floor, and the discarded Black Cat Miraculous lying next to him, dormant. He kneeled down and examined it, but dared not touch it. “My own nephew… Plagg, you greedy son of a bitch.”

Gabriel heaved. “Leave him alone,” he said. “Take the ring if you must. Adrien’s no threat to you now.”

“He’s something, you know,” Felix said, ignoring him. “So much like his mother, I’m sure you’d like to think, but no. He’s your son, Gabe. Such passion, such drive, the desire to help others… Well, not all others, as I recall.”

Gabriel said nothing even as he bristled at that awful diminution. Felix had always been the only person to call him that, and he’d never abided it from anyone else. Gabriel’s head swam. The pain was nearly unbearable, and yet he hadn’t passed out yet. It was as if something was tethering him, forcing him to stay awake.

“So lonely, but so goddamned devoted… It’s almost like you served him up to Plagg on a platter yourself. Or was that your intention all along?”

Gabriel bared his teeth. “Never. I never wanted this for him.”

“No, I imagine your son’s life means a little more to you than your brother’s ever did. Although, that isn’t saying much. Adrien had a lot to say about you, you know.”

“Fuck you, Felix.”

Felix smiled, but it didn’t reach his vacant eyes. “Is that any way to talk to your beloved older brother after all this time?”

Gabriel glared up at him, but the pain made him flinch and gasp. “Please,” he begged, no longer caring for his dignity or even his anger. “Just leave him out of it. You have your revenge.”

“Gabe, you wound me. You honestly think I would harm my own nephew? I’m not a monster.”

Felix’s smile was almost enough to make Gabriel lash out and claw his eyes out, but the pain was so great that he could barely remember his own name.

“And besides,” Felix said, laying a hand on Adrien’s head affectionately, “he and I understand each other. He’ll help me achieve my goals, like you never did.”

No, don’t you dare touch him!

Gabriel wanted to protest, but all that came out was a strangled, bloody choke.

“I admit, I didn’t expect to grow fond of him, but life is so full of surprises…” He pulled a silken handkerchief monogramed with the initials ‘A. L.’ from his suit jacket pocket, picked up the smoking Black Cat Miraculous, and gently slid it back onto Adrien’s finger. “Even rabid animals have their uses, especially Ladybug’s favorite pet.”

A mass of black magic swirled over the Black Cat Miraculous, and the ring’s kwami materialized. Plagg shook erratically on the floor as fronds of magic smoked from his jet-black fur, thick and white. Unseeing eyes cracked open, delirious and the same malevolent magenta as Chat Blanc’s had been. He crawled toward Adrien, mumbling something incoherent, but soon lost his energy and passed out.

“Why?” Gabriel asked, though of course he knew why. Ever since he heard Felix’s voice through Adrien’s phone this afternoon, he’d known why. But why did Adrien have to suffer for Gabriel’s sins? If only the boy hadn’t been so stubborn about giving up the ring, he wouldn’t even be in Felix’s path.

“You know, I never did have children of my own,” Felix mused. “Lost my chance, as you well know.” He continued to stroke Adrien’s hair as he bled out on the carpet. “I think I could do a much better job than you, although admittedly that bar is set quite low.”

It was too much. Just the thought of Felix anywhere near Adrien made Gabriel sick with dread. Once, he would have jumped at the chance to involve him in Adrien’s life, the brother he’d loved more than anyone in the world, and who’d loved him back until everything fell apart. But that person had died a long time ago, after all. This man was nothing but a husk filled with nightmares and old grudges. He would self-destruct, and he would drag down anyone who came too close. Gabriel could not abide it.

“Don’t you dare,” he said in as scathing a tone as he could.

Felix looked at him. “Oh, I dare, Little Brother.” He reached out and took Gabriel’s face in hand, digging his fingers into the gashes Chat Blanc had drawn down his cheek. Gabriel cried out. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave you to die alone like you did to me. Family always comes first.”

Pravala twisted the coral embedded through Gabriel, and he felt more than heard something snap. His hazy vision slid to Adrien, thankful that at least he wouldn’t have to see Gabriel reduced to this. It was more kindness than he deserved, he knew. He had failed Adrien spectacularly, and in the end he couldn’t help him at all.

“Please, just let me go.”

Gabriel’s tears mingled with the blood on his cheek, stinging. Perhaps, at least, Adrien could be free without him now. It was a small kindness, but a kindness nonetheless.

It was his last thought as closed his eyes to the darkness for the last time.

Chapter Text

Marinette approached the mahogany casket and stopped a moment to look at the framed picture of Gabriel Agreste perched next to it. He was not smiling for the camera and he stood ramrod straight in a pressed, grey suit. The funeral was closed-casket to spare the guests, but Marinette—Ladybug had seen all there was to see that dreadful night last week. She tried not to think about that as she laid her white rose on top of the others, a small offering to a man she had not known personally, but whom she had admired greatly from afar.

Alya laid her rose down after Marinette, and they linked arms and headed back to their pew to take their seats. The church where Gabriel’s funeral was being held was large and high-vaulted, beautifully rendered with brightly-colored frescoes, stained glass windows, and white marble. A string quartet and pianist played a dirge, slow yet elegant. Several hundred guests dressed in their mourning blacks had all come to pay homage to Gabriel’s memory and legacy. Marinette was blown away by the sheer number of people Gabriel had apparently affected in one way or another in his prolific fashion career—for that was who these people were. Everything Chloe and Adrien had said about Gabriel painted the picture of a man very much alone on his throne, with almost no personal life or friends to speak of. Yet even so, it felt as though the whole of the Parisian fashion industry had turned out to mourn his passing. If nothing else, he had left an indelible mark on their world.

“Hey,” Nino said, scooting over to make room for Alya and Marinette in the pew next to him. “Shit day for a funeral.”

Outside, a storm raged. Snow and sleet battered the high windows of the church, and the wind howled as if it, too, was in mourning.

“Shit week for a funeral,” Alya said sedately. “Why does it feel like people are dropping like flies all of a sudden?”

“Because they are,” Marinette said, her eyes drawn to the front of the cathedral, where two blond heads—Adrien and Chloe—stood together greeting guests. Or rather, Chloe greeted everyone and thanked them for coming, while Adrien just stood there looking half a corpse himself. His cheek was no longer bandaged, but black stitches zigzagged from the back of his jaw nearly to the edge of his mouth, the skin raw and pink.

This was the second funeral Marinette had been to this week. Roger Raincomprix’s funeral two days ago had been a sad engagement, but uplifting as members of his team told stories of happier times, old cases cracked, memories that would live on. But today’s event was distinctly more somber, quieter, as people whispered to each other and kept their grief to themselves, as if afraid to speak too loudly and draw the dead’s ire.

But many and more funerals were being held all over the city for the coralized victims this week, too. Marinette had considered attending some of them as Ladybug, but ultimately decided against it. The last thing the coralized victims’ families would want to see was the face of the woman who had stolen their loved ones from them. 

“I know his dad wasn’t the greatest guy in the world,” Alya said, “but I can’t even imagine what Adrien’s going through now. I wish there was something I could do for him.”

“Just being here for him is enough,” Nino said, pulling at his suit tie, uncomfortable in the crisp formalwear. “The last thing Adrien needs is to feel like he’s alone.”

“Did you hear?” whispered a man in the pew in front of them. “Apparently, Gabriel was murdered by Hawk Moth. That’s what the papers said. Hawk Moth’s back.”

“I can’t believe it,” said the woman seated next to him. “First the coralized murders, and now Hawk Moth?”

“And to do it right in front of his son.” The man sighed, as if this knowledge was a burden he alone carried. “I feel so sorry for Adrien. First his mother leaves without so much as an explanation, and now his father’s been killed for no reason anybody can name. It’s like the poor man is cursed or something. Bad luck follows him like a second shadow.”

“What the hell is Ladybug doing? This has to stop,” the woman said, annoyed. “Honestly, if Hawk Moth and these coral people aren’t caught soon, all of Paris will take up arms and start doing her job for her. This is getting ridiculous—who’s next?”

Alya must have seen something of Marinette’s growing distress overhearing the conversation, because she tapped the man and woman each on their shoulders and told them they’d be next if they didn’t stop gossiping at a freaking funeral. A man was dead, in case they forgot. They got up to find other seats, embarrassed, and Marinette shrank in on herself.

“Assholes,” Alya said, taking Marinette’s hand in hers. “Honestly, who talks shit at a funeral? There’s probably a special circle in hell reserved for them.”

“It’s fine, Alya,” Marinette said.

“No, it’s not,” Nino said. “Adrien’s not cursed. Don’t listen to them, Marinette. They don’t know what they’re talking about, okay? Trust me.”

Marinette wasn’t so sure. Adrien seemed to be having terrible luck these days as one unfortunate event after another brought him ever lower. Marinette was ashamed to be one such problem—they still had not cleared the air between them since Jessika’s party, and at this point, Marinette knew it was not going to happen anytime soon. How could it, when Adrien obviously had more important issues to deal with? And those people were right—Ladybug wasn’t doing shit to make it right.

It was by chance that she’d gotten Henri’s signal to meet. She’d been at her parents’ house in her pajamas on the couch and flipping through channels late on Monday night after the coral attack. Her parents had long since gone to sleep, but Marinette was awakened by nightmares about the fight earlier that day, and soon gave up trying to sleep. Live news coverage caught the telltale red flag being raised anew over the Municipal Police Station, and Ladybug raced over despite her exhaustion and dread over the thought that there could possibly be another attack so soon.

From there, Henri had briefed her on the distress call they’d received from Gabriel Agreste and his message for Ladybug, and he took her to Adrien’s apartment to examine the scene of the crime. The police were already going through it when she arrived, and an ambulance had already taken Adrien to the General Hospital for treatment. He was alive but injured, but Gabriel was found dead when the police arrived, his body badly mangled. Ladybug looked through Adrien’s apartment as though she were watching another in her skin. The whole experience had been surreal, like something out of a nightmare, and she wondered more than once if she was still at her parents’ home sleeping fitfully. But no, it was as real as the deep gashes in Adrien’s couches, the shattered coffee table where someone had crashed during the struggle that had taken place here, the blood stains on the white living room carpet where Adrien had fallen, where Gabriel had drawn his last breaths.

“These look like claw marks,” Ladybug had said as she forced herself to look at Gabriel’s ruined body while the M.E. took preliminary notes.

“Could be, they’re shallow enough,” said the M.E.

But Hawk Moth didn’t have claws—had he akumatized someone? Nothing made any sense. Nothing, that is, until Professor Lopez confirmed that the strange bits embedded in Gabriel’s chest were pieces of coral. Somehow, Gabriel’s death and Hawk Moth’s involvement were linked to the coral murders, though this one was nothing like anything Ladybug had encountered previously. Until they knew more, the police had decided to keep the coral element of Gabriel’s death a secret, even from Adrien.

“Makes you wonder how Adrien managed to survive whatever happened,” Henri had commented as the M.E. oversaw transport of Gabriel’s body out of the apartment to the morgue for autopsy. “Looks like a couple of wild animals tore through here.”

Unable to stomach the smell of death and bile in Adrien’s ruined apartment a moment longer, Ladybug headed for the hospital to check on Adrien. The staff allowed her access when they saw it was Ladybug following up on the attack that had landed him there in the first place. Someone had stitched him up, cleaned him up a bit, and bandaged half his face. The sight of him made her queasy with shame and fury—how could she let this happen? On her watch? Was no one safe anymore? Hadn’t Adrien been through enough already?

She approached his bedside and gingerly ran her gloved fingers through his dirty hair. Whoever had cleaned him up got most of the blood out, but there were trace amounts, dry and crusty on his scalp. Even pale and moribund, he looked so peaceful, as if none of his worries could reach him here.

“I’m so sorry, Adrien,” she’d whispered, her eyes watering with tears.

“Marinette,” he said softly, green eyes cracking open.

Ladybug had frozen then, unable even to breathe as she locked gazes with Adrien. Did he just…? No, it couldn’t be. He couldn’t possibly know—

“Please, I need Marinette,” he said, his tongue thick in his mouth and slurring his speech. “I want…”

Ladybug breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll call her, Adrien. Don’t worry, you just rest.”

“Wait, please,” he said, reaching for her. “Don’t leave me.”

She smiled for him and squeezed his hand gently. “I’m watching over you. You’re not alone, I promise.”

It was Alya’s hand she was squeezing now as they rose for the priest’s sermon about valleys of shadow and death, Marinette wasn’t sure. She hadn’t been paying attention, so lost in the onslaught of memories leading up to this terrible and tragic end. Soon enough, everyone was once again seated, and Adrien approached the podium. A hush fell over the room that seemed to echo like white noise, deafening. Marinette held her breath as she watched Adrien, wishing she could go to him now, hold his hand, anything to ease his pain even a little bit.

He’d been grateful to have her at his side as he recovered, and Alphonse had graciously told her not to worry about Marinette Designs, her personal life was more important right now. But Adrien had been reticent, unwilling to talk about what had happened beyond what the police had questioned him about. Ladybug was privy to the investigation’s details in a way Marinette could not possibly be, so she played it safe and didn’t press him for more information than he was willing to give. Mostly, he simply wanted her physically there, at his side, for as much time as she was willing to spend. He didn’t want to feel alone, and Marinette could not begrudge him that. It was such a small favor when she would have given him the world if he’d only asked.

At the podium, Adrien had some notecards with him that he was staring at. No one spoke as they waited for him to speak. Gabriel’s picture frowned solemnly next to him. At length, Adrien pocketed his note cards and looked out across the room. His gaze was empty, as if he hardly saw them at all.

“Thank you all for coming,” he spoke into the microphone. There was another pause, and he drummed his fingers along the edges of the podium, took a deep breath, and then another. He rubbed his eyes as though he was tired, or perhaps just fed up with all the spectacle. “This is so stupid.”

No one spoke, but many of the guests exchanged questioning looks.

“My father wasn’t religious at all,” Adrien said, gesturing at the priest who was standing off to the side respectfully. “Neither am I, but…I guess this is what you do when somebody dies. You go through the motions, say the words, put them in the ground. And then, it’s over. Life goes back to normal…or something.”

Someone coughed. A baby gurgled. Marinette clutched Alya’s hand so tightly she was sure to cut off the circulation.

“I had a whole speech prepared,” Adrien went on. He tugged at his black tie to loosen it. “All these words about sacrifice, and loss, and family, forgiving but never forgetting. What a load of bullshit.”

Whispers rose, and the priest shot Adrien a reproachful look, but Adrien didn’t even notice him.

“Half of you I’ve never even met before, and the other half are names I never bothered to learn. But we’re all here for the same thing, to remember the life of Gabriel Agreste: fashion pioneer, world-class designer, businessman, family man.” Adrien laughed, but there was no joy in it. “The truth is, I knew my father about as well as most of you, which is to say, not at all.”

The whispering continued as Adrien took a moment to look at Gabriel’s photo perched next to him.

“Here’s what I do know,” Adrien said. “Gabriel Augustine Agreste, born February 23, 1956 in Paris. Married to Emilie Delphine until she walked out on him sixteen years ago, at which point he closed himself off from the world and everyone in it, including me. He lived alone, had no real friends, no family… And the night he died, I told him to go fuck himself.”

The priest looked nervous and gently tried to get Adrien to sit down, but Adrien shot him a scathing look, and he backed off.

“The truth about my father?” Adrien continued. “He was a liar and a thief. He was a subtle beast, pernicious like cancer. A monster by choice, and I’m his son.” Adrien closed his eyes, and his shoulders fell, resigned. “I wonder what that makes me?”

Some people had gotten up to usher Adrien off stage, including Nathalie Sanceour—Gabriel’s personal assistant—and Audrey Bourgeois who overshadowed everyone in an enormous, black hat. But Chloe was faster than all of them and at Adrien’s side in a flash. She took his arm in hers and hissed something at the priest as he just stood there flabbergasted. Chloe escorted Adrien through a side door out of sight, and awkwardly the priest took the podium again and invited everyone to join him in a hymn of remembrance. But people were too busy whispering and gossiping among themselves.

“Shit,” Nino swore, already ducking out of the pew. He grabbed Alya’s hand, and Alya dragged Marinette along with them.

Marinette reeled, barely registering her feet carrying her after Alya. Her skin shivered with the chilling effect of Adrien’s fury, because that was the only way she could describe what she had just witnessed: raw fury, despair, even hatred. It was not the first time she had seen Adrien react so viscerally, but it didn’t disturb her any less.

She’d been at the hospital with Henri and another officer as Ladybug, and they were taking Adrien’s official statement about the attack. He’d barely given more than one-word answers to Henri’s questions, and Ladybug got the impression that he was only half paying attention as he stared off into space, dead-eyed.

“So, Hawk Moth attacked you and your father,” Henri read back the notes he’d taken based on Adrien’s statement, “and you defended yourself?”

Adrien stared back at him, unblinking. He looked gaunt after that long and horrible night, shadow rings around his eyes, unshaven, pale as a corpse. Ladybug didn’t expect him to look glamorous, but there was something almost haunted about him, as though he’d been the one to die that night instead of Gabriel.

“Yeah,” Adrien said.

Henri looked a little bit uncomfortable. “All right… And you said you don’t remember anybody else being there?”

“No.”

Henri nodded and rummaged through his notes awkwardly. “Right, okay…”

Ladybug hated to bring it up when Adrien was clearly not in a healthy state of mind, but someone had to. “The blood under your fingernails—the M.E. tested it, and it was Gabriel’s blood. There was no trace of another’s, not in the entire apartment, actually. How did you say you got his blood on you, again?”

He hadn’t said, and the vacuous look he fixed on Ladybug then sent a chill down her spine. This was not the Adrien who had reached for her and begged her not to leave his side when he came to, the Adrien who had clutched at Marinette when she came to him and wouldn’t let go. Ladybug didn’t recognize this person staring back at her as though she had done this, as though she was to blame for it all, as though she had dealt the killing blow herself.

“Hawk Moth attacked me,” Adrien said. “I fought back. Gabriel fought back. The space isn’t big, and it was dark. I ran into him.”

“With your nails,” Ladybug said.

Adrien’s gaze darkened ominously, but he swallowed whatever troubled him and looked away. “Yeah. I guess.”

Henri had put an end to the questions then, noting that Adrien was tired and still reeling from the trauma of his father’s sudden and violent death. Anyone would be, and Ladybug readily agreed, apologizing to Adrien for her intrusive questions so soon after the event. He had been through something horrific, and no matter what his relationship with his father had been, anyone would have been suffering after an ordeal like this. But she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling like something didn’t quite add up. Hawk Moth had never displayed such a level violence before—why start now?

The memory, and Marinette’s discomfort revisiting it, took a back seat as Alya and Nino dragged her out a side door in the main congregation room to the hallway, where Chloe and Adrien were huddled together and having a conversation in hushed, heated tones.

“Look, I’m not telling you off,” Chloe was saying, “but a little warning next time before you drop the f-bomb in a church would be nice.”

Adrien looked like a put-off teenager enduring a scolding as he stood with his arms crossed. “Whatever, it’s not like any of those people give a shit either way. They’re only here to keep up appearances and network.”

“I know, but Jesus, Adrien, we talked about this. That’s why I made you those notecards. Ugh, forget it, what’s done is done.”

“Hey, man, you all right?” Nino said as their trio approached.

The two blonds stiffened at having been overheard, but Chloe relaxed when she saw who’d ambushed them. Adrien remained as taut as a bowstring and crossed his arms tighter. The black stitching in his face grimaced with him, a ghastly sight.

“Peachy,” Adrien said, still holding on to the anger he’d displayed back in the church but visibly reining it in. He locked eyes with Marinette and let his arms fall to his sides.

“Adrien,” Marinette said, moving to his side. “Hey.”

He said nothing, but he didn’t pull away when she touched his arm.

“Marinette, perfect timing,” Chloe said. “Stay with him for me. I have to go back in there and make sure nothing’s on fire.”

“I don’t need a babysitter, Chlo,” Adrien said with an edge to his tone. “I’m not gonna snap and shoot up the place.”

“Whoa, everybody just chill for a sec, okay?” Nino said, getting in between Adrien and Chloe. “Nobody’s babysitting anybody. What we are doing is grabbing some of those free donuts they set out by the entrance. How’s that sound?”

Marinette latched on to that peace offering eagerly. “That sounds great, Nino. I could use something sweet. Chloe?”

Chloe rubbed her tired eyes. She looked almost as gaunt as Adrien. Marinette knew she’d been heavily involved organizing the funeral arrangements, but she wondered what else Chloe was up to. She looked like she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in days.

“Save me a chocolate sprinkles one,” she said, already heading back inside. “I have work to do. Make sure he gets to the burial—half an hour, Marinette, I’m not joking.”

“You got it!” Marinette said, but Chloe was already gone back inside.

Adrien sighed and scratched at his stitches. Alya looked between Marinette and the door Chloe had disappeared behind.

“So I think I saw an espresso machine out there,” Alya said. “Who wants a cappuccino? I’m making cappuccinos.”

Adrien stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Sure, whatever.”

Marinette squeezed his arm reassuringly and caught his eye. She smiled for him, and something in him melted a little bit. He leaned on her, as if it had become too much to hold himself up alone, and she accepted his weight.

“Hey, you guys won’t believe the scoop I got over in Beirut,” Alya said as they all made their way toward the church’s entrance. “One of my sources smuggled me in to a secret meeting and everything. It was wild.”

Nino sighed dramatically. “Woman, are you trying to give me a heart attack? This is how journalists get kidnapped!”

Marinette appreciated Alya’s efforts to change the subject of conversation when Adrien’s visible discomfort seemed to dissipate, and he grew quiet but subdued. Perhaps they would get through this trying day yet.


 

Chloe was among the last to leave the church and arrive at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the twentieth arrondissement that afternoon. It was a shitty, grey afternoon that would have been better off succumbing to nightfall rather than dragging out this dreary faux-dusk. The cemetery staff were nonetheless prepared for all varieties of inclement weather and had set up a large tent to house the mourners as they gathered around the Agreste family tomb. It was a newer structure, black and white granite commissioned by Gabriel himself years ago during his meteoric rise to fame and fortune. Here, he had interred his parents and grandparents, among others. And it was here that he would join them, sooner than he’d imagined, no doubt.

Chloe wasn’t paying much attention to the final prayers the priest gave. Everything was on schedule. Of course it was—she had planned it all. It was the least she could do for Adrien. Nathalie Sancoeur, Gabriel’s personal assistant, had been an emotional wreck in the wake of the news, though she did her best to put on a brave face. Chloe knew how close she and Gabriel had been—a working relationship that spanned the better part of two decades was nothing to sneeze at—and so she had taken it upon herself to deal with Adrien while Nathalie handled things with the fallout at AF.

Chloe had been at home with Pollen recovering after the shit show that was her debut as Queen Bee helping Ladybug deal with the coralized victims at the Municipal Police Station when she received a phone call from the General Hospital. Adrien had listed her as his next of kin. He’d been attacked in his home, and Gabriel had been murdered.

And so, cutting short an extremely uncomfortable conversation with Pollen about what the hell she was doing messing up her amazing life by pushing Luka away, Chloe dropped everything and rushed to the hospital.

Adrien was awake when she arrived. They locked gazes, he reached for her, and Chloe threw her arms around him. Neither of them said a word as they crushed each other, like it was a competition. Adrien shuddered and wept on her shoulder—an ugly cry, all hiccups and snot and shuddering—and she wormed her way onto the bed next to him and let him. He smelled like blood.

“Fuck,” he said, the only coherent word she could make out as he gasped for air between sobs.

“Yeah,” Chloe said, holding him closer and rubbing his back.

Adrien’s relationship with his father was strained at best, toxic at worst. There were times when Adrien had openly fantasized to her about a world without Gabriel in it. But for it to happen like this…

She learned the story from the nursing staff who’d treated Adrien’s wounds. The idea of Hawk Moth returning after all this time and lashing out violently—murderously—left Chloe reeling. The police would not be long in coming to question Adrien about what had happened.

“What’re you going to tell them?” she asked once they were alone and Adrien’s face was freshly stitched up and bandaged.

“I don’t know,” he said numbly, eyes red and puffy from crying. “God, I just… I don’t even know. I didn’t see it.”

“But it was Hawk Moth who attacked you.”

Adrien looked at her. “He was there. I…saw him.”

Christ, A. This was not good. Chloe took his hands in hers and sat on the edge of the bed. She kept her voice quiet. “Then that’s all you need to say. You didn’t see it happen, right?”

“I…no. Not exactly.”

“Then tell them that. You were fighting Hawk Moth, and somewhere along the line, you passed out. Blow to the back of the head, that’s what the doctor said. End of story.”

Adrien’s gaze was unfocused, but he began to understand what she was trying to tell him. “I know it looks bad,” he said, barely a whisper. Afraid. “We had a fight.”

Chloe squeezed his hands. “Families fight. They don’t magically impale each other through the chest with enough force to pierce concrete. A, look at me.”

He looked at her, and for a moment, they were sixteen again, scared shitless in the face of something twisted and ugly, a secret that would tear them apart forever. Chloe had not given up on him then, and she would not give up on him now.

“You didn’t do this,” she said fiercely. “Whatever happened in your apartment, you did not do this. No matter how much Gabriel fucked up, all you’ve ever done is try to love him.”

“Chlo…”

“Say it. ‘I didn’t do this.’ I want to hear you say it.”

At length, Adrien said, “I didn’t do this.”

Chloe took his bandaged face in her hands and searched his eyes. “I believe you.”

He let her lay him back on the cot, and they sat there together in silence a moment. Chloe listened to him breathing, and his grip on her hand relaxed a little. She loved this man more than any flesh and blood family, but god did he love to play the martyr. The last thing either of them needed was Adrien implicating himself in something they both knew he was incapable of doing just to punish himself for some perceived guilt. Gabriel had always had a special talent for turning Adrien into his own worst enemy, even in death, it seemed.

Not this time.

“A,” Chloe said. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Adrien stared at the ceiling, dead-eyed and distant. Chloe imagined the fog of memory parting behind his glazed eyes, revealing a twilit world hazy with half-truths. After a while, Adrien responded.

“White,” he said. “I remember…everything faded to white.”

Chloe had not known what to make of that and could only suggest not to say something so strange to the police when they questioned him. When she’d asked the doctor overseeing him, the doctor had advised her that head traumas were tricky. It was not uncommon to suffer from lapses in memory after getting hit in the head. The likeliest explanation was simply that Adrien had tried to defend Gabriel from Hawk Moth, taken injury, and then passed out after getting clocked in the back of the head, end of story. Chloe was no lawyer, but she was pretty sure there was no chance in hell one could plausibly claim that Adrien had killed his father, even with the literal blood on his hands. It simply wasn’t possible for a human being to inflict the kind of damage Gabriel Agreste had suffered.

In fact, there was something distinctly super human about it.

Chloe had asked Pollen about it once more details came to light about the terrible wounds that had taken Gabriel’s life.

“Nooroo’s tool is a cane sword,” Pollen said rather snottily—she was still steamed at Chloe for the way she’d treated Luka at the premiere party, but she was making a very special exception to talk about the attack on Adrien given the supernatural elements involved. “If Adrien was slashed up, it could have been from that.”

“Yeah, but what about Gabriel? He had a hole through his chest bigger than my fist. A sword can’t do that, Miraculous or not,” Chloe said.

Pollen shrugged and lay back among the yellow roses Luka had given to Chloe. They were still in bloom in the crystal vase she had set the up in, and even seemed to be flourishing somehow. Chloe suspected that was Pollen’s doing, but she didn’t ask.

“It’s not like I have all the answers,” Pollen said with a huff. “And even if I did, it’s not like you listen to me.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “I know you’re upset about Luka, but this is not the time, Pollen. Hawk Moth is back and apparently graduated to murder.”

Pollen buzzed angrily in her face. “It’s never the right time because you’re scared. I only choose the bravest humans to wield me, but right now you’re being weak letting your fear control you.”

“I’m not weak,” Chloe said, glaring down at Pollen. “I’m just more concerned about Adrien right now than Luka.”

Pollen gave her a look that may been the bee equivalent of an eye-roll. Her antennae drooped and she plopped back down among the soft petals. “Fine, fine. You want to know about Nooroo? He’s agreeable, always wants to please his Chosen. He doesn’t have a counterpart like the rest of us because he doesn’t need one. He’s Empathy, and he has the power to bring out the best or the worst in others. In others, Honey Bee.”

“So you’re saying whoever killed Gabriel, it wasn’t Hawk Moth?”

“I’m saying he wasn’t alone. Empathy never is.”

Chloe had chewed on that as she planned Gabriel’s funeral and made arrangements for Adrien to move into Agreste Mansion—his apartment was an active crime scene and totally destroyed.  She had been against the move, even offering to give him a room at Le Grand Paris at a discount rate until they could find him a new apartment, but Adrien declined the offer.

“You hate this place,” Chloe had argued as they walked the halls together after he was discharged from the hospital. A grave painting of Adrien as a young teenager with his father looked down on them as they passed. “Honestly, I’m not a fan, either.”

Adrien stopped and leaned on the railing overlooking the downstairs main entrance. “Everything I hated about this place is gone,” he said. “It’s just a house now.”

Chloe did not know what to say to that. She had never heard Adrien say he hated his father, even at his lowest points. But then again, Gabriel had never died before. And she couldn’t blame Adrien, anyway. If she were him, she’d hate the guy, too. She did, in her own way. Now, it just didn’t seem to matter anymore.

It didn’t matter as she stood with the other mourners around the Agreste family tomb and watched as a small team of staff carefully slid the coffin into a stone alcove, which they would then seal with concrete and cover with an engraved plaque. Adrien stood with Marinette on one side and Nino on the other opposite Chloe. He had a far away look in his eyes, as if he were somewhere else. Marinette looked up and caught Chloe’s eye, but didn’t smile. She nodded resolutely, as if to say, ‘I’m here with you, too.’

Most of the people who had turned up for the main service were not here—they would be at the formal reception later, hosted at Le Grand Paris. It was Audrey’s only good idea to have it there instead of at Agreste Mansion, and Chloe had agreed—anything to keep these vultures out of Adrien’s hair. Chloe had asked her to go ahead to the reception to greet the guests, and Audrey had taken the bait like the socialite she was. She was nothing if not consistent.

The priest waxed on about how Gabriel would be missed, gone but not forgotten. Chloe’s eyes wandered as she thought about what the hell was going to happen now. Adrien had problems with Gabriel around, but with him gone? Aside from the outburst in church earlier and his initial reaction breaking down crying at the hospital, he’d been strangely reticent, gloomy. It was to be expected, but something about his dourness ran deeper than usual, a wound that was slowly festering beneath the surface. Gabriel’s death affected him deeply, there was no doubt about it, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than that.

All that blood on his hands—Gabriel’s blood. Why?

Something didn’t add up. There was something Adrien wasn’t telling her, but what? She didn’t know, and a part of her didn’t want to know.

The priest asked for everyone gathered to take a moment of silence to pray or reflect or simply remember Gabriel, and all fell quiet save for the winter winds outside the tent. Chloe didn’t pray, and she didn’t care to think about Gabriel. She thought instead about Adrien, about how he’d truly lost both parents now, and the only family left to him was her.

I’m not going anywhere, she thought, clenching her fists.

Whatever danger the coral murders and now Hawk Moth could throw at her, she would not die like Gabriel had. And she would never, ever abandon Adrien like Emilie had.

“Thank you all,” the priest said as he stepped aside to let everyone pay their respects as they wished. “Go in peace.”

Pleasantries were exchanged, and Chloe only half heard them as she made her way aimlessly through the small crowd toward Marinette and Adrien. They’d disappeared behind the moving people, but Chloe spotted a shock of blond hair behind a balding man she recognized as one of the AF executives and started making her way toward it. When she got closer, she realized the person was moving in the opposite direction, as if to leave the tent entirely. Chloe opened her mouth to call out to Adrien, but a glimpse between two taller heads revealed a feminine figure all in black. She donned a black bonnet and ducked out of the tent, but not before shooting a final glance back at the mourners and the tomb behind them.

That woman…

“Chloe,” said Marinette. A hand tugged on her sleeve.

Chloe turned to find her there with Alya, while Adrien was a ways off with Nino talking with the AF executive Chloe had spotted earlier. “Hey,” Chloe said.

She turned back around, but the woman in black was gone without a trace.

“We’re going to head out, I think,” Marinette said. “Adrien wanted to leave earlier, but now that it’s over, I figured, you know…”

It took Chloe a minute to understand that Marinette was asking permission to take Adrien. “Oh. Yeah, sure, take him.”

“What about the reception?”

“Forget it. He’ll be better off staying away, trust me.”

“After his speech at the church, I’d have to agree,” Alya said soberly.

Chloe glanced at Alya. They’d never been close by any stretch of the imagination, but Chloe had nothing against her. “Yeah, well, he’s going through some shit, obviously.”

Alya frowned. “I know that.”

“No, you really don’t.” The look on Marinette’s face gave her pause. Chloe pinched the bridge of her nose. “Sorry, that came out bitchy.”

“Chloe, you should get some rest, too,” Marinette said, touched her wrist. “You don’t have to go to the reception either, you know.”

“Unfortunately, I do. My mother’s there, and I’d rather not see anyone get possessed by a demon at my hotel.”

Alya looked at her suspiciously, but Marinette just nodded sympathetically. “Okay, well, I’ll stop by later or something.”

“Yeah,” Chloe said. “That’d be nice.”

They parted, Chloe said goodbye to Adrien, and then she was left to oversee the rest of the mourners until they departed, as well. Eventually, the storm had died down to a quiet, grey sleet and the winds quelled. She was back at Le Grand Paris in time for dinner. The night was a bit of a blur, and Chloe broke her one-drink rule at work-related functions and nursed her second glass of wine, because fuck this entire goddamned day and everybody in it. Pollen didn’t know how lucky she was to have been able to sit this one out. Chloe was tempted to go up to her room and talk to Pollen, put this stupid animosity behind them, and just apologize. Anything was better than watching her mother put the ‘party’ in ‘funeral party’.

She took out her phone to check her messages—none. Of her old texts, most were from Adrien, some recent ones from Marinette, and up until last Saturday night, from Luka. Liquid courage in hand, she was half tempted to text him and say hi, maybe see if he’d even respond, but her thumb hovered over his contact card, unmoving.

Hot Luka.

Pollen still called him that, like it was his actual name. She was so ridiculous, honestly. What did she know about human relationships, anyway? She was a talking bee. A talking bee who’d been asleep for a century, totally unversed in the ways of twenty-first century romance. And this wasn’t a romance by any stretch of the imagination, anyway.

And yet, she couldn’t get Marinette’s words out of her head. “There’s nothing Luka values more than honesty.”

Well, that was just great. It didn’t matter, since clearly she wasn’t going to see him again. He hadn’t spoken to her once since the party. What was his problem, anyway? He couldn’t manage even one lousy text? Had he moved on that fast? Chloe imagined him singing with his band at Firefly, some other girl in the audience listening, enraptured, and him finding her after the show for a drink, a hand on her knee, a whispered invitation to go somewhere quieter. The image got her so worked up that she squeezed her phone just to give her fingers something to dig in to.

She realized too late that she’d accidentally clicked on his contact card, and the phone was ringing. He picked up after two rings.

“Chloe,” he said on the other line.

Chloe’s throat clenched at the sound of his voice, but it was too late now—he’d already picked up and it would be crass to try to pass it off as a butt dial. Even so, her voice would not obey her.

“I—” she began. She what? She didn’t have a clue what to say to him.

“All black’s not your color,” he said.

“What?” She looked around. “Are you…?”

“Your two o’clock.”

Chloe glanced to her right, and sure enough, through the crowd, she found him watching her from a table alone, phone to his ear. And despite everything, she stared. He wore jeans and a collared shirt, nothing fancy, appropriately black for the occasion. Just seeing him in person now after everything that had transpired on Saturday literally made her weak in the knees. How was he able to draw such a visceral reaction on sight? It felt like she hadn’t seen him in months.

“What are you doing here?” she said over the phone.

“Marinette called me.”

Meddling Marinette. Chloe would have been annoyed if not for Marinette’s genuine concern about her having to oversee this reception alone. And goddamnit, a part of Chloe was so relieved to see him here that she couldn’t be pissed at all.

Luka started toward her, and soon he was here, standing in front of her, an arm’s length away. He hung up the phone and stuffed his hands in his pockets, but he didn’t try to touch her. He hadn’t even smiled.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to come over here,” he said. “But then you called, so…”

“I didn’t mean to,” she said.

He looked at her, and they both knew she was lying. And yet, he said nothing.

Chloe bit her lip. It was so stupid, this unbalance between them. And it was her fault entirely. “Look, I’m…not great at this.”

“Try,” he said, calm but stern.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” she said a little defensively.

“It looks like you’re making excuses and wasting my time.”

Ouch. But Chloe guessed she deserved that and more. He was being frighteningly civil about the whole thing after she’d basically called him low-class and kicked him out of her hotel. Why?

“I deserve that,” she said.

Luka frowned, and she read the hint of frustration in his sleepy eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh my god, stop. Don’t apologize for my shitty behavior.”

“Chloe—”

“No, let me say this,” she interrupted him, smoothing her bangs self-consciously. “Just…just give me a sec.”

He gave her the time she needed to steel herself and work up her courage, because goddamnit if she could be brave for Adrien on one of the worst days of his life, she could be brave for herself, too. “What I said to you on Saturday, I meant it. At least, a scared, insecure part of me meant it. And I know that sounds horrible, but I hear honesty’s the best policy with you, so this is me being honest.” She wrung her hands and forced herself to look him in the eye. “I’ve done some shitty things in my time, and I’ll do more shitty things in the future. I’m not like you. And I know that’s not an excuse or anything, but you’re so… You’re so good, and I’m just…not.”

Luka reached for her then, and Chloe almost lost her nerve at the feel of his fingers curling around hers. “That’s not true.”

“It is, and that’s the whole point,” she said, careful to keep her voice down so as not to attract the attention of the funeral-goers. “There are things about me, about my family, my background, that are ugly. I used to be worse, but Adrien… He helped me be better. He gave me a reason to get better, because if I didn’t, I’d lose him. But you…” She took a shaky breath and held on to his hands like he might slip away at any moment, but she had to get this out. It was the only way forward without regrets. “I’m not a good person, but I want to try to be. With Adrien, I try for him. But you make me want to try for myself. I’ve never had someone like that before, someone… Someone who makes me feel like I’m worth…” Her voice cracked. “Like I deserve to be adored. All of me.”

Luka was quiet as he waited for her to finish. Chloe swallowed the knot in her throat and closed her eyes.

“I don’t have the words to tell you how sorry I am,” she said. “You’re the last person in the world who deserves to be treated like trash, and I’m so sorry I made you feel even for a moment that I thought less of you in any way.”

His fingers under her chin forced her to look up at him, and the look in his eyes stole her breath. There was such raw, beautiful affection there. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to hear.”

“Are you… You’re forgiving me?”

He smiled. “How could I not forgive you for being honest?”

She couldn’t help but tear up at how easy he made it sound. It almost didn’t feel fair. “But I was such a bitch to you. I was so…” So weak. “I was such a coward.”

“And today you’re brave.” He took her face in his hands. “I told you, Chloe. You’re beautiful when you’re honest. And I’m tired of being mad at you. I miss you.”

She sniffled and put her hands over his. “You miss me?”

“How many times do I have to tell you I want you?” He pulled her close and touched his forehead to hers.

“I’m afraid I’m not good enough for you,” she whispered her deepest insecurity against him.

“You just proved that you are,” he said fiercely, pressing a kiss to her mouth and tracing her temples with his thumbs affectionately. “And I’ll do whatever it takes until you believe that.”

Chloe blinked a few stray tears away and found that she couldn’t control the silly smile that spread across her face. His grin matched hers, and soon she was biting back a laugh as he pressed chaste kisses to her mouth, her cheeks, her forehead. A few of the guests saw them together and looked, but no one approached them. Chloe hardly noticed them.

“Damnit,” Chloe said, dabbing at her eyes and hoping her makeup wasn’t totally ruined.

“What?” Luka said, still smiling.

“I think I owe Marinette a really expensive cheesecake for calling you here.”

He took her waist in his arm. “Sounds right. She’s one of the greatest friends you can have, trust me.”

“I think I’m figuring that out.”

“So, what now? You have to stay and keep an eye on things here?”

Chloe looked around. Her parents were both engaged in deep conversation with some other guests, and neither seemed to be aware of anything going on around them. “No,” she said. “If there’s one thing I can count on my mother for, it’s to throw a party. No one will miss me.”

“You want to get out of here?” He tightened his grip on her waist in not-so-subtle suggestion.

“Come upstairs. I’ve been wanting to see how you look on my bed.”

Luka smirked. “You’re the boss.”

She grabbed his wrist. “Yes. And I’m putting you in charge for the next few hours, if you think you can handle the responsibility.”

Luka’s gaze darkened and he pressed a discreet kiss to the shell of her ear. “I think you could do with a good hair pulling.” His fingers curled around the back of her neck, promising.

Yes, I could.

Chloe had to stop herself from practically running out of the room to the elevators.


 

Marinette took Adrien home to Agreste Mansion after the funeral services. It was strange being here after so many years. She’d only ever been in the foyer, but Adrien had moved in to the master bedroom, and she was sitting on a king-sized bed with a scarlet comforter thinking about how just last week, this had been Gabriel Agreste’s bedroom. She supposed it made sense that Adrien, as the sole occupant, would take the master bedroom for his own. But something about it felt weird all the same, as if Gabriel’s presence still lingered in these walls, his corpse only freshly interred not three hours past.

Nino and Alya had gone home, but Marinette did not want Adrien to be alone today. She’d sent Luka to Chloe in the hopes that Chloe could take a little bit of time for herself after all the time and energy she’d been spending on Adrien lately, and hopefully make up with the guy she was clearly far more interested in than she let on.

Adrien hadn’t said too much, but he also hadn’t left her side since the burial, hardly breaking physical contact. She wanted to ask him about his harangue back at the church, but didn’t want to make him upset or feel like she was interrogating him. She’d done enough of that as Ladybug already. It just wasn’t fair to push him so soon after Gabriel’s death, no matter how curious she was. Instead, she resolved to be here for him in any way she could, to show him he was not alone, that she would never push him away, just as she’d promised at Jessika’s party.

Adrien got a phone call just after they arrived at the mansion, and Marinette was surprised when he put it on speaker until the caller identified himself.

“Adrien, it’s Aramis. I don’t mean to bother you, but I just wanted to convey my deepest condolences for your loss. I’m so sorry,” Aramis said.

Marinette was surprised to find him calling Adrien, and even more surprised at Adrien’s apparent ease of familiarity with him.

“Thanks, Aramis, I appreciate that,” Adrien said tiredly. “Marinette’s here. I’ve got you on speaker.”

“Excellent, I’m glad to hear it. In our darkest hour, we are lucky to have those we love and trust to support us. I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Hello, Aramis,” Marinette said, blushing at his sincerity. “You’re not interrupting. I’m glad you called.” She glanced at Adrien. “We both are.”

“I won’t keep you two lovebirds long,” Aramis said, a smile in his voice. “Adrien, needless to say, please take whatever time you need. Business can wait. Let me know if there’s anything at all I can do, son.”

Adrien cracked the ghost of a smile at the endearment. “Thanks, Aramis. That means a lot. But I don’t need any more time. I made my decision about the job. Count me in.”

So that was it. Marinette should have guessed Aramis would be interested in recruiting Adrien. But for him to jump ship and join Aramis so soon? He’d lost a father, and AF had lost its leader.

“I’m pleased to hear it, but are you sure? AF will be in turmoil losing not only their founder and president, but their new majority shareholder if you decide to leave now.”

“I’m sure,” Adrien said readily. “I’m all in. This is what I want. The sooner I can get to work, the better.”

“Then consider it done. My team will be very happy to hear it. And I mean it, Adrien. Anything you need, anything at all, you give me a call. We’re family now.”

Marinette held Adrien’s gaze. He didn’t smile. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks, I will.”

He hung up the phone, and Marinette took his hand. “Hey,” she said. “Not that it’s any of my business, but that’s a big decision you just made. Are you really sure this is what you want?”

He frowned at her. “Yeah, I’m sure. I may be walking landmine right now, but I’m not stupid, Marinette. I know what I’m doing.”

“Of course I don’t think that. I just meant that it’s a really big change, and so soon after everything that’s happened—”

“Maybe I want a change, okay?” Adrien interrupted her. “I want this. Is that so bad? For me to want something for myself?”

“Of course it’s not bad,” Marinette said, shocked that he would even entertain such a depressing thought. “You deserve to be happy, Adrien. If this is what you want, then I support you one hundred percent. I just meant that you have a lot going on right now. I’m worried about you, that’s all.”

He tightened his grip on her hand. “I want you, Marinette.”

Marinette stared at him, surprised at the sudden change in his look from pained frustration to dark, needy desire. He reached for her arm and locked her in place on the bed.

“I want you so much,” he confessed. “You make me happy.”

Marinette remembered that she required air to stay alive and sucked in a breath. Heat raised a fantastic flush upon her neck and cheeks to match his duvet. “You make me happy, too.”

“Then let me have you,” he said, leaning in close and pressing his lips to her temple. His sutures tickled her skin, rough spun.

She reached for him automatically, her stomach a whorl of butterflies and pulsing heat hearing him repeat her own words back to her. It was sudden and intense, this desire, and it threatened to sweep her away. She soon forgot all about their worrisome conversation from before as she lost herself to the moment. His kiss was bruising and hungry, like he needed to feel her to breathe, and soon Marinette was on her back on the bed, sinking in to his expensive duvet as he pinned her.

“Adrien,” she moaned when his fingers trailed up her thigh under the hem of her skirt. She buried her fingers in his hair, a thumb carefully brushing his stitches.

There was nothing Marinette wanted more right now than to have him, to shower him in her growing affection, to heal these raw wounds no stitches could ever sew back together. And despite her questions, despite Hawk Moth, she wanted him, as much as he was willing to give. The rest could come later, in time when he was ready.

“Please,” he said, digging his fingers into her hip in a crushing grip that would surely bruise later. “I want to feel happy.” He pulled down the shoulder of her dress and ripped a seam in his haste.

Marinette froze, but he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. His kisses were insistent, teeth on her collarbone, a thumb hooking under the lacy strap of her panties. She tried to grab his wrist to slow him down, but he was stronger than her and brushed her off.

“Adrien, wait,” she said.

He rocked his hips against her, giving her every reason to believe that yes, he meant it when he said he wanted her, and any other day Marinette would have jumped at the opportunity to feel him so intimately close. But not like this.

“Adrien,” she said more forcefully, tightening her grip in his hair. “Just wait a second, please—”

He silenced her with a kiss so forceful it was almost feral. Marinette could not breathe. Eyes wide, she summoned her strength and pushed against him with all her might. Adrien gasped and rolled off of her. Immediately, he was on his hands and knees, eyes narrowed as if looking for danger. Marinette pushed herself up into a sitting position and did her best to look calm and understanding.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I just… This is fast, with everything you’ve been through.”

His expression slowly morphed from alert surprise to something that looked alarmingly like resentment. “You’re rejecting me?”

Marinette quailed. “N-No, of course not! That’s not what I meant at all.”

“But that’s what you’re doing,” he said, unable to hide the hurt he clearly felt. On his hands and knees on the bed, he reminded her of a cornered animal, untrusting and potentially hostile.

Marinette tugged at her sleeve, which was too big to stay on her shoulder now that the seam had been ripped. “That’s not what this is. I just think we should slow down. You’re not in a good place right now, and I don’t—”

“You’re pitying me?” he said, aghast.

“What? No, I’m not—”

“Then you don’t trust me.”

Marinette was taken aback at his growing hostility. Where was this coming from? When had she ever given him reason to believe she didn’t trust him implicitly? Now more than ever, she was convinced stopping was the right move. Adrien was clearly not in a healthy emotional place right now, understandably, and complicating things further with their relationship could only make things worse for him.

“What on earth ever gave you that idea?” she said, not bothering to hide her offense. “I just don’t want to take advantage of you while you’re like this.”

“Like what? Broken? Victimized?” He narrowed his eyes. “Relieved?”

“Adrien—”

“That’s what you want to know, right?” he said, not giving her time to explain herself. “About my father, our relationship. Would it bother you to know I’m glad he’s dead?”

“Don’t say that,” she said, struck by a gripping despair for him, for the pain that was so plain to see. “We both know you don’t mean that.”

“How would you know? He was a monster, Marinette. A villain. He was—”

“It doesn’t matter what he was! No matter what problems you had with him, you need time to grieve because you’re human, not a machine. Adrien, look around—we’re in the room he slept in until, like, a week ago. You can’t erase him just because he’s gone. This isn’t normal.”

He looked at her with that deadened look she’d seen on him before, when he bottled up Adrien and presented as something else, something she didn’t recognize. “So you think I’m fucked up.”

“No,” Marinette said readily, reaching for him. He moved away out of reach, and that hurt. She tried to ignore the rejection as best she could and stay calm. “I’ve never once thought that. I like you, Adrien. I even…” She blinked rapidly to stop herself from tearing up. “I want to do this right. Everything you’re going through, all the things you say you haven’t told me, I want you to want to trust me. But this isn’t the way.”

“I think you should go,” he said after a moment. “I want to be alone.”

“Adrien, please. Don’t push me away.” She reached for him again, but he got off the bed and showed her his back.

“Just go, Marinette. Before I say something we’ll both regret later.”

Every instinct told Marinette that leaving him alone now was the worst thing she could do, but what choice did she have? This was his house, and he didn’t want her here. He was rigid, shaking a little, like it was all he could do to keep from physically lashing out.

“Okay,” she said, defeated. “But you have me, Adrien. Whatever you need, I’m here. Please don’t forget that.”

“Yeah,” he said, still not looking at her.

It felt like the hardest thing she’d ever done, leaving him like that. She thought about texting Chloe to check on him later, but Marinette didn’t want to interrupt what she hoped was a night of much-needed resolution with Luka.

Nino might have better luck than me.

She resolved to call him later. Maybe he could get through to Adrien where she had just spectacularly failed. Marinette’s footsteps echoed in the huge, empty house, and Gabriel Agreste’s portrait above the grand staircase looked down at her sternly as she let herself out the front door.

 

Chapter Text

The thing about the Miraculous was that there was no single, all-powerful Miraculous; rather, each possessed a unique gift which, in certain circumstances, made each individually the most or the least powerful of the set. The Peacock, for example, was known as the perfect sight, bearer of universal Truth. It was a weak shield, for Truth is meant to bare and expose, not armor and protect. Perception was Truth’s weapon, and Mayura had honed hers to a wicked point.

Her feathered Eyes saw all—a couple kissing in an alley away from prying eyes, a madame counting the night’s earnings as her girls entertained paying Johns, a concrete basement at the Municipal Police Headquarters where officers and medical examiners puzzled over a mountain of research nobody quite knew how to resolve. Tonight, Mayura’s Eyes followed an elusive figure in the shadows along the banks of the Seine. She kept her distance, cautious, but her jumps along the rooftops were quick and anticipatory—she could not lose them this time, not when she was so close.

Movement along the water, and Mayura grew nervous. Had she been spotted so soon? No, she would not let them slip away again, not when she was the only one capable of tracking this yet unknown enemy. Ladybug’s team had their part to play, but this was not a job for swords and shields. Mayura spread her oversized fans like iron wings and leaped off the edge of the building she’d landed on. They controlled her descent to the stony banks of the Seine, and she steadied herself on the railing.

There was not a soul in sight. She took a peacock feather from her cap and brushed her blue-gloved fingers over it. The Eye shimmered and blinked like a true eye, revealing a hazy picture of the Seine upriver. She swiped her fingers across it, and the image changed to a shadowy street not far from here. But as she scrolled through the images, the only figure she saw in them was herself, each angle different and distant. Another dead end. It was the fourth time in as many days.

Perhaps Fu was right—she needed help. The perfect sight was all but useless without anything to lure out her prey. Mayura had had help once, many years ago, though not from her true match. It was so long ago now that she hardly remembered what it was to have another watching her back, coming to her aid in her time of need. And in any case, what was done was done. If she had to do it all over again, she would make the same decision, as painful as it had been.

But that was before Gabriel Agreste was found murdered in his son’s apartment. The police officially attributed the killing to Hawk Moth, returned with a violent vengeance after years off the grid, but Mayura knew the truth; she knew her old partner could not have killed Gabriel Agreste simply because they were one in the same. And thanks to her Eyes, she knew what the police knew: that whoever was behind the coral murders was also linked to Gabriel’s murder. All she needed was proof.

And so, here she was, risking everything she had worked to protect all these lonely years for a chance to bring down her old partner’s killer. It was too much, and she could not remain hidden in the shadows any longer. The consequences? She would simply have to deal with them if and when they came to fruition, and hope she had trained Queen Bee enough to support Ladybug and Chat Noir when the time came.

Mayura deftly leaped over the railing and landed on the unprotected stone walkway lining the bank of the Seine. Down here, it was dark as pitch away from even the few foggy, yellow street lamps. A thin layer of ice crunched beneath her boots, black as the night sky and treacherous to the unwary. She began to walk, her fans open at her sides, eyes wide and dilated as she peered through the gloom.

The waters were dark and still. It was not snowing tonight, but inky clouds blotted out the moon and stars, and Mayura felt the chill of winter bone-deep even through her Miraculous glamor. She parted her lips, her breath misted, and she listened. Nothing, only the gentle flow of the water below, languid in the cold. It crunched softly, its edges frozen over where the river met the stone banks.

If not for her heightened Miraculous senses, she may have missed the distinctly unnatural rush of water beneath the babble of the river. But she felt it more than heard it, and her body reacted on instinct honed over years of running and hiding and surviving. She jumped and spun in the air, her fans spread and spinning with her. They sliced through something hard and moving, and the force tipped Mayura off balance and into the stone wall below the railing.

There was no time to catch her breath because another deadly projectile came hurtling straight for her out of the Seine, and she was forced to roll ungracefully out of the way. Thick, gnarled coral embedded in the stone where her head had been just seconds ago, ramified and dripping water. Mayura was already running toward higher ground as a figure rose out of the water on a bed of rose coral that squirmed, alive. Even in the darkness, she could see a pair of baleful, pink eyes lock onto her. The figure raised a delicate arm covered in a thin, spidering layer of coral, and with a flick of the wrist, two more thick branches shot out of the water like tentacles hunting for prey to squeeze.

Mayura jumped just in time to avoid one of them narrowly, but she was not so lucky with the second. The coral pierced her super suit and cut a deep gash in her side. She bit back a curse and slashed hard with her fan, slicing clean through the coral. She threw her other fan as hard as she could at her attacker directly and heard a shriek when the blades ripped through coral and flesh.

Exedo,” hissed the leviathan.

Mayura froze for a second, and it was a second long enough to foresee her demise. The roiling coral tentacles took on a life of their own and expanded like so many serpents. They plunged through water and stone alike, unstoppable in every direction, and they converged on Mayura.

She jumped and called upon her Miraculous’s ultimate power. “Divination!”

The coral branches rushed at her and impaled her ten times over. She was dead before she hit the ground.

The scene changed, and this time she twisted right, avoiding the brunt of the rushing coral, until at the last moment two more tentacles swung around and ran her through from behind.

Again, this time left, but she lost her balance, hit the ground, and ended up buried under the writhing coral fingers.

Over and over again, each scene different than the last, but each outcome the same, bloody end. Mayura rejected them all, until finally one showed her a way out with her life and person intact. She ran headlong toward the coral, leaped high with the help of her remaining fan, and dove into the Seine. Unable to see her, the coral bent and thrust erratically, shots in the dark, and she swam as best she could away. Her super suit dulled the freezing water to pulsing numbness, and adrenaline got her to the other side of the river. She’d chosen her fate, and releasing her power, she followed it to the other side of the Seine.

Behind her, the waters churned furiously as the enemy tried to fish her out, but Mayura had seen every possible path the coral could take, and she maneuvered around it as deftly as she could. When she reached the other side, she found her second fan embedded in the stone wall, bloody and crusted with bits of coral. She quickly drew it, ignored the beep of her Miraculous, and leaped into the air. The fans gave her lift, and she shot toward the figure in the water still stabbing out blindly. Pink eyes and a face covered in snaking coral stems slackened in shock when Mayura collided with them, and the two of them plunged into the freezing river waters.

The struggle lasted only seconds, and when they broke the surface, the telltale chirps of two Miraculous forced them apart. The enemy was more graceful in water than on land and managed to disengage on the opposite shore, but not unscathed. Mayura’s fan had grazed them before, and now the coral growing around their face had cracked and peeled away in places. The lighting was poor and Mayura struggled to stay afloat nursing her wounds, but she could have sworn the smooth jawline had a distinctly feminine contour to it underneath the mask of coral—a woman?

The Miraculous chirped again, and the enemy cast her one final, furious glare before dipping below the water once more. The river churned, and she shot off faster than Mayura could ever hope to follow, a bullet below the surface.

Now I know how she’s been avoiding detection, Mayura thought bitterly.

And a new piece of information—the source of the coral was a Miraculous wielder, as Mayura had suspected already. It didn’t narrow things down too much, but it was a something.

It was time to pay the Guardian another midnight visit.


 

For the record, if this was how Chloe’s life was going to be from now on, she needed to start charging by the hour. Luka had literally just said goodbye to her this morning as he headed for the metro station down the block from Le Grand Paris when panic broke out. Someone was terrorizing people—probably another coralized victim—and it was fucking pandemonium right here on the Champs-Élysées.

Chloe immediately dialed the police and told them to put out whatever signal they had to summon Ladybug and Chat Noir, and then she dashed back inside the lobby and locked herself in the small back office. Pollen was out of her pocket in an instant to transform her, and soon Queen Bee was out the window and flying over the streets, her blue eyes searching for the source of the panic.

What she found was… Well, it was something.

“Fellow countrymen! No longer shall we be oppressed by our bourgeois betters! I am Guillotine, and together we shall rise up and take back our beautiful Paris!”

The highly offended party—Guillotine—was a man transformed into a series of knives and swords linked together. He was a man and a half tall with legs like stilts and blades for feet. They cut into the cobblestone as if it were styrofoam. He swung his arms around, and the blades armoring them sliced through anything they touched—mostly expensive sports cars, a couple lamp posts, and an unfortunately placed mail box. But he’d set his sights on Le Grand Paris and the well-dressed people streaming in and out of it in an attempt to find safety, and now he was swinging at them.

An akumatized victim? Queen Bee stared openly. Adrien had been attacked by Hawk Moth, after all…

“We shall have our cake and eat it, you aristocratic scum!” Guillotine said as he slashed at a fleeing restauranteur, slicing clean through his paper chef’s hat and sending the poor man tripping over the curb.

“Yeah, and I’m Javert,” Queen Bee said through gritted teeth. “Fucking perfect.”

She was about to draw her blade and go after Guillotine when Luka, that frosted cupcake too pure for this world, dashed from the metro station to help a fleeing gentleman with two young children who were slowing him down and crying. He tried to rush them away from the five star restaurant next door to Le Grand Paris, but Guillotine saw them attempting to escape and came in swinging.

“This is a revolution!” Guillotine shouted.

Queen Bee took off flying, rapier drawn, and intercepted Guillotine’s attack just in time. The clang of steel on steel racked her body, but her super suit gave her inhuman strength and absorbed the shockwave. She pushed back with all her might and sent the akumatized victim reeling, wincing as he crashed into a parked, cream-colored Lamborghini. The owner shouted a curse as she scrambled to pull some shopping bags from the passenger side and also maybe avoid getting chopped up as an afterthought.

“Get out of here!” Queen Bee shouted at Luka and the gentleman he’d been helping.

The children cried louder, and Guillotine was already getting up.

“Hey, I know you,” Luka said, winded. “You’re Queen Bee, that new hero who helped Ladybug and Chat Noir before.”

Queen Bee couldn’t help but cast him a cursory glance to make sure he was okay. “Yeah, and I’m a little busy, pretty boy. So move—”

She didn’t have time to finish her thought when Guillotine came in swinging again. Queen Bee parried, which was easier said than done when her opponent’s body was literally made of blades, any of which could slice her to ribbons on contact.

Good thing she could fly.

“Annoying beetle! How dare you impede my revolution!” Guillotine said. “What I do, I do for France!”

“Beetle?! I’m obviously a bee, you asshole! And I’ll impede you all I goddamned want!” Queen Bee came down hard, forcing him to catch her blade with both arms, and they were locked in a momentary test of strength.

If he’s an akumatized victim, then Ladybug should be able to cure him, right?

It had been a long time since Paris had seen any akumatized people, but Queen Bee remembered them all too well, having caused more than a handful of them herself. Well, nobody ever said she was perfect. And anyway, once Ladybug got here, she could purify the akuma infecting this otherwise innocent person. Easy.

But of course, nothing could ever be easy. When more screams erupted down the street, Queen Bee paled at the sight of several coralized people grabbing anyone in range and spreading their infection. And of course, Luka was among the courageous and able-bodied trying to help the very young and very old avoid certain demise. She was seriously going to kill him later if the coralized people didn’t get to him first.

Abandoning Guillotine in favor of the more deadly concern, Queen Bee flew as fast as she could down the block and slashed at the nearest coralized victim, relieving her of the hefty shield on her arm and exposing bloody flesh beneath.

“Everybody, get as far away from here as you can!” she shouted to be heard.

“I shall not be silenced!” Guillotine was at it again, this time defacing a chic coffee shop.

“I beg to differ!” said a blessedly familiar voice.

Ladybug had arrived on the scene, picked up the totaled Lamborghini from before, and tossed it at Guillotine like it weighed nothing at all. He easily defended and slashed the car to ribbons, but it was enough to draw his full attention to her and allow the frightened coffee shop patrons to escape to safety.

“About time, Bug!” Queen Bee said.

Ladybug caught her eye and nodded grimly. She drew her yo-yo and began to spin it as she circled Guillotine. Queen Bee, meanwhile, focused on the coralized victims and their fleeing human targets. To her horror, a couple coral golems were among them—how the hell had the coral progressed so fast? There was no time to worry about it, and Queen Bee flew in with her sword poised to go all Kill Bill on their asses. As before, the golems were slow and ungainly compared to their partially armored comrades, and her sword cut cleanly through them like butter. She was paring down the second one to size when suddenly a coralized victim clocked her hard in belly.

The air rushed out of Queen Bee’s lungs, her ribs cracked and pliant under the coralized fist. She crashed unceremoniously into the side of a building and dropped her rapier a short ways away. Groaning, she struggled to sit up under the rubble and coughed from the dust, which stung even worse.

“Shit, are you okay? Can you stand?”

Queen Bee opened her eyes and found Luka hovering over her, his face a mask of worry and concern. He had her rapier in one hand and reached for her with the other. There was dust in his hair and blood trickling from a cut in his hairline. She took his offered hand and managed to stand awkwardly.

“I’m fine. I’m a superhero, obviously,” Queen Bee said with a wince, wiping blood from her lips. Thankfully, her super suit was already working to absorb the pain from her injuries enough to make them tolerable, but she could not afford another direct hit from the inhumanly strong coralized people.

“Right, yeah, of course. Uh, here.” Luka handed her back her rapier.

“What’re you still doing here? I told you to get the hell away.”

He had the decency to look abashed. “Well yeah, but if I hadn’t been here, who would’ve brought you back your sword?”

Queen Bee was about to answer that when the first golem she’d dismantled (now fully reformed—seriously, were they getting better at this?) came charing straight for Luka and her. Without time for so much as a warning, she threw her arms around Luka and jumped with all her might. Her wings carried them up, and not a second too soon before the golem collided with the wall and opened up a hole to the shop on the other side.

Luka gasped in fear and clung to her, and Queen Bee struggled to keep them airborne with the added weight unbalancing her.

“Stop squirming!” she shouted.

“I’m sorry!” Luka said, fumbling for a better grip on her that wouldn’t interfere with her buzzing wings. Unfortunately, his hand passed over her butt and startled her enough to veer them off course. Luka held on as Queen Bee did her best to maneuver them to a nearby rooftop, where they landed in a heap.

“Ow,” he said, rubbing his back after the hard landing.

Queen Bee was instantly on her feet and out of his hold, flushed red. “Hands to yourself!”

“It was an accident!” Luka said.

“Yeah, well your girlfriend might not see it that way!”

He looked at her strangely. “How do you know I have a girlfriend?”

Queen Bee realized her slip too late and scowled deeply. “Well, you won’t for much longer if you go around groping smoking hot superheroes!”

“Real paragon of modesty, aren’t you?”

A sudden crash, followed by Ladybug’s scream, drew Queen Bee’s attention, and she all but forgot about Luka as she ran to the edge of the building and surveyed the scene below.

“Oh, fuck,” she said. Below, the coralized had suddenly changed their trajectory and converged on Ladybug all at once, as though lured. Chat Noir had arrived at some point, and he was pummeling his way through them with his staff in an effort to get to Ladybug while she did her best to dodge one of the coral golems and Guillotine coming at her together. Her left arm hung limply at her side, and there was a hint of desperation in her blue eyes.

“Go, I’ll be fine,” Luka said, joining her at the edge.

“Don’t you dare leave this rooftop, or I’ll punish you myself.” Queen Bee took off without waiting for his acknowledgment, sword drawn for a killing blow, and swooped into the thick of battle to help Ladybug and Chat Noir.

By the time she got down there, Chat had beaten his way through upwards of ten coralized victims and was now engaging Guillotine. Queen Bee came in hard and fast at the coral golem and slashed him down the middle, breaking him apart just as he lunged himself at a cornered Ladybug. Coral bits and blood landed on her, but she was spared a deadly pummeling at the last minute.

“You okay there?” Queen Bee said.

“I am now, thanks Bee,” Ladybug said. “But I need to purify the akuma.”

“Do you hear the people sing?!” Guillotine bellowed as he swung his sword arms around violently.

Chat’s skill with his staff was even better in person than Queen Bee remembered seeing on television. He moved with the grace and confidence of one trained in the art of the sword, and he seemed to grow more powerful with each parried blow.

“All I hear is the sound of your death rattle, akuma,” Chat snarled as he delivered a vicious blow to Guillotine’s head.

“Chat! We have to find the akumatized object!” Ladybug said as dodged another coralized victim and snared him with her yo-yo.

“Look out!” Queen Bee said.

Ladybug took a nasty kick to the gut from a rabid, coralized woman and went down hard. Queen Bee swooped in and sliced the offending leg clean off, and the woman screamed her fury.

Chat, meanwhile, was getting the upper hand on Guillotine and pummeling him with his staff. The metal blades covering his body dented and even cracked, some of them falling away. What they revealed underneath, however, was not the human host, but a layer of pink coral. Chat seemed to come to the same realization as Queen Bee in that moment, sheathed his staff, and flexed his claw.

“Cataclysm,” he snarled, activating his ultimate power.

Ladybug saw what was happening and struggled to her feet. “Chat, no!”

But there was no stopping him now. He slammed his hand on the ground, and Queen Bee watched in disbelief as the black miasma coating his claws ripped through cobblestone, concrete, and anything else unlucky enough to stand in its path. Guillotine saw the danger, too, and leaped out of the way, but the path of destruction changed course and followed him like a homing missile.

The ground split where Cataclysm opened it up, revealing a deep crag that leaked more black miasma. A coralized victim stumbled across it, and the dark energy caught him like fly paper, clinging to him. He roared and tried to claw his way free, but the force entrapped him and slowly disintegrated him where he stood. His legs turned to ash, and the rest of him followed as he clawed his way over the street in vain.

“Holy shit,” Queen Bee said, momentarily stunned.

Chat hardly seemed to notice or care, his eyes dark with determination as he directed his attack to follow Guillotine. When it finally caught up to him, he tripped and hit the ground hard. Only then did Chat rise and pounce, claws bared.

“Chat Noir, stop!” Ladybug screamed.

Queen Bee was faster, and she slammed into Chat before he could reach Guillotine. They fell together, and a parked car cushioned their landing. Chat immediately shoved her off him and bared his teeth in a snarl. Queen Bee stared at him in shock. Those were not human teeth, far too long and sharp, and those luminous, green eyes flashed with something sinister and violent—a trick of the light? For a moment, she could have sworn they’d almost changed color.

“Stay the hell out of my way!” he said.

But the damage was done. Guillotine’s blades disintegrated, revealing the coral rot beneath. A black akuma fluttered helplessly, shedding ashes as it fought against the effects of Chat’s Cataclysm.

Ladybug was on her feet again and half running, half limping after the akuma. “No, no! Wait!”

She threw her yo-yo and caught it, purifying it in a matter of seconds, but her magic was not enough to reverse the effects of Cataclysm. It was already eating through Guillotine’s coral armor, revealing an old man underneath. He gasped for breath, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets as he clutched at his heart and the rose pin embedded there. The other coralized victims fell where they stood, their fate linked to his, and soon all was quiet.

“No!” Ladybug wailed, falling to her knees over the old man, his eyes glassy with death.

Chat loomed over her, his expression cold and unreadable. “You couldn’t have saved him, anyway. He was coralized.”

“So you put him down like an animal?! We could have at least talked to him, like we did with Chief Raincomprix! What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me. I just see things clearly now. There’s no middle ground here, Ladybug. It’s kill or be killed. I thought you learned that the last time.”

“We’re not here to kill indiscriminately!”

“Maybe we should be! The enemy obviously is!”

“Hey, cool it, pussy cat,” Queen Bee said.

Chat shot her a venomous look. “You stay out of this. You have no place here.”

Ladybug held out her hand as if to shield Queen Bee. “Yes, she does. Bee’s as much a part of this team as you are.”

The look on Chat’s face made it clear how he felt about that. Queen Bee returned his glare, not liking his attitude. Something was off about him, and she didn’t like it one bit. But there was not going to be much time to hash it out now that the threat was neutralized. People were already emerging back out on the streets, their cell phones taking video and pictures. Most of them were angled at the three heroes, recording their argument. Police were also on the scene and attempting to cordon off the area until the medical examiners could come for the bodies of the fallen. Chat’s Miraculous gave a warning chirp, and he scowled.

“Whatever, I’m out of here,” he said. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“Chat, wait a minute,” Ladybug said.

But he was already leaping away with the help of his staff.

“Bug, anything you can do about the damage? My ribs could use your yo-yo magic,” Queen Bee said.

Ladybug sniffled and looked around at the gathering crowd with their cell phones recording everything. “Yeah, okay.”

A Miraculous Ladybug spell later, and everything was back to normal, including Queen Bee’s injuries.

“Bee, I think we should talk later about what’s been going on,” Ladybug said.

“You want to have a team meeting?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, after Chat Noir’s little performance today…”

“Let me worry about Chat. Listen, there’s a person called the Guardian.” Ladybug looked around at the people with their phones. “With Hawk Moth back and possibly working with whoever’s behind the coral murders, I think it’s time we all sat down together.”


 

Marinette received Fu’s summoning later that week, and it could not have come soon enough. She’d hardly slept much between work responsibilities, worrying about how to patch up her relationship with Adrien after their unfortunate encounter after his father’s funeral, and of course everything going on with the coral murders. It felt like everything in her life was going wrong all at once—all except work, that is. Jessika had been so pleased with Marinette’s work on her gown for the premiere party that she’d commissioned five more to start. She’d become one of Marinette’s top customers practically overnight, and Marinette had her team working on Jessika’s custom orders day and night to satisfy the hefty price tag Jessika was paying. At least it was one aspect of her life that wasn’t in the gutter.

She and Tikki made the trip to Fu’s place out of costume together, and Marinette fretted the entire way there. Would Chat Noir be there? Would she finally meet him under the mask? After the stunt he’d pulled fighting Guillotine, a part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to meet his civilian self. And what about Mayura? Marinette had so many questions, and she hoped that this time, Fu would have some answers for her.

He was in the living room with tea and a fire blazing in the hearth when she arrived. Wayzz hovered toward her and welcomed Tikki and her.

“It’s good to see you, Marinette, Tikki,” Wayzz said politely.

“Hello, Wayzz,” Tikki said, smiling.

“Marinette, please come in and have a seat,” Fu said.

Marinette did as she was bade and looked around. “Am I the first one here?”

“You are. We are waiting on Queen Bee. She will arrive soon.”

“What about Chat?”

Fu regarded her. “Chat Noir will not be joining us today.”

Marinette frowned over her tea. “Why not? Were you unable to reach him or something?”

Fu and Wayzz exchanged a look. “It’s not that,” Fu said. “I’m afraid what we have to discuss today may be best done without Chat Noir present, at least for now.”

“But he’s my partner,” Marinette said. “He has a right to be here.”

“One thing at a time,” Wayzz said. “You’ll be meeting Queen Bee out of costume today. After that, we can discuss what to do about Chat Noir.”

Marinette wasn’t sure she liked that answer, and she caught Tikki’s eye. Tikki only looked apologetic as she munched on a cookie. Before she could say anything further, there was a knock on the door. Fu got up.

“That will be her now, I expect,” Fu said.

He went to open the door, and Marinette was momentarily left alone with Tikki and Wayzz.

“Hey, I don’t like leaving Chat in the dark,” she said. “What’s this about?”

Wayzz was inscrutable. “I know you have questions, Marinette. Trust that all will be revealed in due course. If there is one thing I’ve learned about you humans in my eons in this dimension, it is that you have certain emotional proclivities and instincts which often lead to poor decisions.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Wayzz sipped his tea from a thimble. “One thing at a time.”

Tikki just nodded, and Marinette realized she would get no help there. Before she could say anything more, she heard Fu talking with a woman as they approached the living room.

“So you’re what, like, the Miraculous equivalent of Professor X?” said the woman.

“I don’t know about ‘Professor', but I am the Guardian,” Fu said.

“Ooh, I like this game! Who does that make us, Honey Bee?” said a high-pitched voice Marinette didn’t recognize. “Storm? Ooh! Maybe Mystique?”

“Pheonix, obviously. She’s the best one.”

Nothing could have prepared Marinette for the sight of Chloe walking into the living room with Master Fu and a tiny, talking bee that could only have been a kwami. As soon as Chloe set foot in the living room, she and Marinette locked gazes and stared at one another.

“Chloe Bourgeois?” Marinette said, not recognizing her own voice.

“Oh my god,” Chloe said. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng?!”

Under any other circumstances, Marinette may have laughed at their reversion to using each other’s full names.

Fu smiled. “Oh how wonderful, you already know each other out of costume. That makes things much easier.”

“No way,” Chloe said. “The whole time?”

“Y-Yeah, since high school.” Marinette stood up. “Sorry, I’m just… Wait, that day at the police station, after the cafe, you—”

“Yeah, Mayura came and got me, said Ladybug—you needed help…”

“Oh my god..."

Meanwhile, Chloe’s kwami buzzed over to Tikki.

“Hello, Pollen. It’s so good to see you,” Tikki said politely.

“Of course it is!” Pollen puffed out her furry little chest. “A hundred years without me is a tragedy.”

Tikki only smiled. “It has been a long time, yes.”

“Pollen,” said Wayzz.

Pollen turned on Wayzz and narrowed her compound eyes. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t my favorite little turtledove. Don’t you look happy to see me?”

Bizarrely, Wayzz looked a bit flustered and averted his gaze. “I am happy to see you…”

Pollen’s buzzing intensified and she got right in his face. “Oh, really? Is that why you kept me locked up for a hundred years with no Chosen?”

“Pollen—”

“Oh no, I get it. You just couldn’t find anybody worthy of me, huh? I’m sure you searched far and wide—but wait. That’s right, it wasn’t you who picked out my Chosen at all.”

Pollen was getting noticeably worked up, and Wayzz shrank into his shell a little. “Pollen, please, I can explain—”

“In fact, you didn’t help at all, did you? No, it was that whiny featherbrain who finally remembered to wake me up! Ugh, how insulting!”

Wayzz was nothing but a pair of wide eyes and a floating shell now as he trembled under Pollen’s wrath. For a bee that could have fit in Marinette’s back pocket, she packed one hell of a punch.

“It wasn’t the right time,” Wayzz said feebly.

Pollen didn’t seem to care about his excuses. “And now that I’m finally awake again, what do I find? Humans have invented an entire Inter-webbing full of amazing new things! There’s Tweeter and Buzzfeed and Netflix and—”

“It’s Twitter, Pollen,” Chloe said. “You post Tweets, but the site’s called Twitter. We literally went over this last night.”

“Whatever, the stupid bird one, you know,” Pollen said, still focused on Wayzz.

“Pollen, I’m sorry you were asleep for so long,” Fu said gently. “For quite some time, there was no need to initiate more Miraculous Chosen, but I’m afraid that time has passed. You are needed now more than ever, and I am very grateful to have your and Chloe’s assistance now.”

Pollen rushed at Wayzz, and the poor turtle kwami was so startled that he retreated completely in his shell and zoomed backwards. Tikki caught him with an ‘oomph’. Pollen smiled triumphantly.

“Yeah, yeah, Guardian, I’ve heard it all before. You only summon me when things get really sticky.” Pollen peered at Marinette. “Tikki tends to pick the soft and sweet ones, but I remember how you stood up to my honeycomb when she was sulking about Hot Luka. I guess you’ll do.”

“Um, thanks?” Marinette said, glancing at Tikki.

Tikki had managed to coax Wayzz out of his shell and sighed, as if to say, ‘It’s not worth it.’

“Chloe, Pollen, may I offer either of you some tea? Perhaps with a bit of honey?”

Pollen turned up her nose. “Only if Wayzz mixes it for me. Or did you forget how I like my tea the way you also forgot about me?”

Wayzz looked about as miserable as a turtle could look. “I remember…” He floated off to do Pollen’s bidding like a whipped puppy.

Marinette could only stare. Wayzz had always come across as so composed, like nothing could get under his skin or set him off.

“So, the turtle’s your counterpart I’m guessing?” Chloe asked Pollen.

“That’s right,” Fu answered for Pollen. “The Bee Miraculous embodies the ultimate sword, while the Turtle Miraculous embodies the ultimate shield. If wielded together by capable Chosen, they have the strength of a hundred warriors.”

“Try a thousand, Guardian,” Pollen said proudly.

“Well, I’ve seen what Queen Bee can do,” Marinette said. “I’m glad you’re part of the team, Chloe. And you too, Pollen.”

Chloe crossed her arms self-consciously. “Yeah, well, I’ll be honest—you’re not at all what I expected. But…I guess I could get used to the idea.”

Marinette smiled. “I hope so. I’ve never had a friend I could share everything with. This is actually pretty cool.”

Chloe looked at her strangely, like she couldn’t quite believe it. Wayzz returned then with Pollen’s thimble of honeyed tea and offered it to her like a manservant hoping to assuage his lady.

“Not quite as sweet as I like it,” Pollen said after taking a sip, “but I guess I can live with this.”

Wayzz frowned at his little feet, and Tikki gave him a reassuring pat on the shell.

“Marinette, Chloe, please have a seat. There’s much to discuss.” Fu ushered them both around the living room table, where they sat next to each other with Fu across from them. The fourth chair remained empty.

“Wait, what about Chat Noir and Mayura?” Marinette asked. “I thought… I mean, if Chloe and I get to know each other’s identities, Chat Noir deserves to know, too.”

“Mayura does her own shit,” Chloe said dismissively. “Even I haven’t seen her under the glamor.”

“Yes, I know this is not the answer you may want, Marinette, but Mayura’s function is to support you indirectly. The Bee and the Turtle are your sword and shield on the battlefield, but the Peacock and the Fox are your eyes and ears. They are best left in the shadows unseen, gathering information and intelligence discreetly. Mayura won’t be joining us today. The less you know about her, the safer you both will be.”

“But what about Chat Noir?” Marinette insisted.

“What about him?” Chloe said. “Didn’t you see him basically lose his shit against that coralized akuma? Maybe it’s better that he’s not here.”

“How can you say that? I meant it when I said you’re part of this team, but the same goes for Chat.”

Chloe was unmoved. “I get that, but I’m telling you, something about him was off. Like, creepy off. He went after Guillotine after you specifically told him not to. You said yourself that he wasted any chance we could’ve had to talk to the guy, even if his fate was sealed. That doesn’t seem even a little weird to you?”

Marinette wanted to respond to that, but she couldn’t find the words. After all, Chloe was right. “…He’s my partner. He has some issues, I know, but he’s always been my partner.”

“Well I’m your partner now, too, and I don’t know if I want him to know who I am after what I saw go down.”

“Marinette,” Tikki said sadly, touching a tiny hand to her clenched knuckle.

“I just feel really weird about this. It feels wrong to exclude him,” Marinette said.

“I understand that,” Fu said, “but please trust me—what Wayzz and I have to tell you both today is best said without Chat Noir present.”

“Why?” Marinette demanded. “He’s on our side. He deserves to be here as much as we do.”

“It’s not Chat Noir that concerns us, but his kwami,” Wayzz said, recovered somewhat after Pollen’s temper tantrum.

“Plagg? What does he have to do with anything?”

Pollen and Tikki exchanged a look, but neither of them said a word. In fact, it seemed to Marinette that aside from Chloe, everyone present knew something she did not. And it kind of pissed her off.

“More secrets,” Marinette said. “Why are there always more goddamned secrets?”

“Pfft,” Pollen said. “That’s what I’m always saying.”

Wayzz shot her a reproving look, but Pollen ignored him.

“Secrets are no more evil than truth is good. It depends on the purpose, the circumstances,” Fu said. “Balance is key. Mayura has been a Miraculous Chosen for far longer than the two of you, and even though her trait is Truth, she understands very well how the keenest insight may be perceived as callous, even dangerous. Please trust me. Wayzz and I have spent quite some time coming to this difficult but necessary conclusion.”

“Fine,” Chloe said. “I’m listening.”

Marinette looked at her, but Chloe looked determined. She supposed there was nothing she could do for now, but she didn’t have to like it. “I’m listening, too.”

Fu and Wayzz shared a look. Then, Fu said plainly, “To get right to the point, we are now certain that the person behind the coral murders is a Miraculous Chosen.”

“Wait, you mean like, one of us?” Chloe said.

Marinette, however, was beside herself. “A Miraculous Chosen? But that can’t be!”

“I’m afraid it is. Mayura confirmed it. She managed to track down the fiend and engaged them in battle. It was a risk she ought not to have taken considering the danger, but her encounter has given me the confirmation I required to be absolutely certain.”

“But I thought you had all the Miraculous. You’re the Guardian, isn’t that your job?”

“There are many Guardians,” Wayzz spoke up. Despite his pocket size, he looked very serious as he folded his arms on his lap and leaned back on his shell. “And many more Miraculous. Every time a new idea is born, a kwami is created to embody it. You humans have amassed many ideas over the years—Truth, Courage,” he nodded toward Pollen. “Wisdom.” He indicated himself.

“So this other Miraculous,” Chloe said, more composed than Marinette, “you’re saying it’s, what? From a different place?”

“We believe so, yes,” Fu said. “There are Guardians scattered all over the world, each charged with guarding a set of Miraculous. We do not communicate with each other for safety reasons. In the event that a Miraculous Chosen uses their power for ill, they will not be able to endanger other Guardians and their Miraculous. The danger, of course, is that these rogue Miraculous Chosen may attempt to recruit others to their cause. By remaining separated and hidden, it becomes much more difficult for them to recruit others.”

“Well it’s a little late for that,” Chloe said grimly. “Considering our last fight, Hawk Moth is definitely working with the coral murderer.”

Marinette suddenly felt ill.

“Yes, that is grave indeed,” Fu said, staring thoughtfully at his tea.

“It was not always this way,” Wayzz said. “We learned to stay divided from other Guardians and their Miraculous charges the hard way, many millennia ago.”

“So, there was…a Miraculous war or something?” Marinette said.

“Yes,” Tikki said sadly. “It’s how Wayzz, Pollen, and I ended up together, with the rest of the Miraculous in our set. The Chosen who survived became the first Guardians and fled to the ends of the Earth, never to see each other again. We’ve been separated ever since. I can hardly remember most of our fellow kwami, it was so long ago.”

“So that’s it,” Chloe said. “You think whoever’s behind the coral murders is trying to build an army.”

“And Hawk Moth is the first recruit,” Marinette finished the thought. She and Chloe shared a sobering look.

“Unfortunately, it does appear that way,” Fu said. “And despite Mayura’s efforts, we still do not know who wields the Coral Miraculous.”

“The Coral Miraculous.” Saying it out loud made Marinette shiver. “Why would anyone use their Miraculous for such a dark purpose?”

“Because that is the Chosen’s wish. Kwami do not live by the same moral and ideological codes as humans. Good and evil are abstract concepts with no more or less significance than, say, knowledge or sadness. They are all parts which add their weight to the great balance of the universe.” Fu sighed. “It is also most likely why Nooroo, Hawk Moth’s kwami, remains with him. He is the embodiment of Empathy and always sees a way to understand the wishes of his Chosen. In the end, one Chosen may last as long as a human life, and often not quite so long. In the grand scheme of things, a Hawk Moth who uses his powers for personal gain is as much a drop in the bucket as a Ladybug who uses her powers to bring him to justice.”

“That’s depressing,” Marinette said. “So you’re saying everything we do is basically pointless in the end?”

“Pretty much,” Pollen said.

“No, of course not!” Tikki said. She frowned at Pollen. “It’s not pointless at all. It matters so much. The universe and time itself are vast and infinite, just like we kwami. But you humans, you’re each a universe unto yourselves. Your actions matter. They affect those around you, even the rest of the world sometimes. Master Fu only means to say one Hawk Moth, or one Coral Miraculous gone astray, won’t doom humanity or the universe. We will always return to balance in the end, even if it may not seem that way right now.”

“Well full offense, but it really doesn’t seem that way right now,” Chloe said. “The body count’s past sixty with that last attack. And that was before Hawk Moth decided to crash the party. Shouldn’t you, like, be prepared for something like this? If you’re the Guardian, shouldn’t you have some kind of contingency plan? There’s no way this is the first time something like this has happened.”

“There are some Miraculous that naturally embrace a darker purpose, to borrow your turn of phrase, Marinette,” Wayzz said. “And you’re correct, Chloe: this is not the first time we have seen violence such as this. The Coral Miraculous is the embodiment of Pride. She is an Ancient One, one of the very first kwami to ever exist, and one of the most powerful.”

“You know this kwami?” Marinette said.

Wayzz shook his head. “I do not. Very little is known about her, including her true name…” He glanced at Tikki, who said nothing.

“Tikki?” Marinette pressed. “Do you know something?”

“No, Marinette, I don’t, but…”

“But Plagg may,” Wayzz said. “His Chosen have often, ah, wandered. I heard a rumor that many eons ago, Plagg may have had contact with Pride and the other Deadly Sins—”

“—which is just a rumor,” Tikki interjected. “And anyway, Plagg and I have always been together. Whatever contact he may have had was passing. I would know.”

“Ancient Ones,” Pollen said, clutching her tiny teacup. “They’re not so tough. Maybe you don’t care to remember, but I never forget a fight.”

“Pollen,” Wayzz said, a warning in his tone.

“You fought this coral kwami?” Chloe said.

“Not Pride, no, but there are other Ancients.” She peered at Chloe. “You know, Honey Bee, I wasn’t always fun size. My stinger was the sharpest in this dimension and the next. Not even Fear can stand up to Courage when I get going.”

“There’s a kwami for Fear? Seriously?” Chloe did not look happy to know it.

“He’s a weak little worm. We haven’t heard from him since the Dark Ages.”

“Well, Pride is no worm,” Wayzz said, “she’s an Ancient One—a Sin. I may not remember the fighting, but I remember brute force never worked against them.”

Pollen sighed dramatically. “You’re still so cautious. You always get like this when I’m asleep too long!”

Marinette was no longer paying attention to them as she reeled at Fu’s revelations. She paled with dread as she finally understood his reasons for keeping Chat Noir in the dark today. It just wasn’t possible. Even if he was upset with her for whatever reason, there was nothing in this world that would ever pit him against her. He was her partner, and even a fourteen-year absence—even a near fatal attack had not been enough to turn him against her. It was simply impossible.

But what about Plagg?

Tikki was awfully quiet while Pollen and Wayzz continued to argue about Ancient Ones and Deadly Sins and other kwami business Marinette did not fully understand.

“As fascinating as your reminiscing is, I’m more concerned about what’s going on right now,” Chloe said impatiently. “What are we supposed to do about this problem? People are literally dying in the streets.”

“Mayura and I will focus on gathering more information about our enemies,” Fu said. “Chloe, Marinette, you now have no secrets between you. I want you to make the most of this opportunity. You must learn to work together as partners, both in and out of costume. It is imperative that you trust each other implicitly.”

“What about Chat?” Marinette said defensively.

“I will speak with Chat Noir,” Fu assured her. “For now, I would like to keep what Wayzz said about Plagg between us. The ways of kwami are different from ours, and I do not want to alarm Chat Noir unnecessarily.”

By the time Marinette and Chloe left Fu’s place, it was already growing dark. Marinette was supposed to meet up with Alya for coffee today, but she was still in such shock after everything she’d just learned that she didn’t have the energy to put on a smile and pretend like everything wasn’t falling apart. It wasn’t fair to Alya—she didn’t know what Marinette knew.

“I need a drink,” Chloe said as they walked down the sidewalk to a busier street where they could grab a cab. “There’s a bar I know a few blocks from here. They’re nothing fancy, but they open at four.”

It took Marinette a moment to understand that this was an invitation—not for a fun girl’s night, but for the very thing she needed now more than ever. The one thing she’d never had before.

“Aren’t you busy with work?” Marinette asked.

Chloe snorted. “Please. I’m the boss; I can do whatever I want. And right now, I want to sit down with a glass of wine and feel like I’m not losing my fucking mind.”

Marinette nodded. “I know the feeling.” She pulled out her phone, debating.

Should I cancel on Alya?

She would have to if she was going to spend time with Chloe. Alya would understand. They were both busy, things came up all the time, it was just life, at least as far as Alya knew. How many times had Marinette swallowed her true feelings and thoughts for her best friend’s sake? For the sake of this secret she’d carried half her life? Walking next to Chloe, she’d never quite realized just how lonely it was, how empty.

Alya would understand, like she always did. After all, what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Maybe for once, it wouldn’t hurt Marinette as badly, either. She pulled out her phone and texted Alya that something had come up, she couldn’t meet for coffee today.

“A glass of wine sounds good right now,” Marinette said.

“Or three,” Chloe said grimly.

“Yeah.”

Marinette had no idea what would come next for them. She had no idea what would happen now that Hawk Moth was in the mix, or how Chat would react when Fu spoke to him. But for the first time in her life, she didn’t have to not know alone.

They approached the bar, and Marinette held the old painted door open for Chloe. A blast of warm air and the smell of cloves hit them like a wall.

“Hey, Chloe?” she said.

“Hm?”

“Thank you.”

Chloe’s expression softened just a little, and Marinette couldn’t help but stare a bit. All these years, was this the Chloe that Adrien had always known?

“Yeah,” Chloe said.

They went inside and left the cold behind.

 

Chapter Text

Luka sat up in bed and rubbed his tired eyes. A quick glance at the nightstand clock told him it was very late. He yawned and scratched his bed head as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Beside him, Chloe slept like the dead. She wore a T-shirt she’d stolen from him, her long hair loose and splayed over the pillow. Under her short sleeve, he could just make out the shadow of a fading bruise—fencing practice, apparently. She’d gotten back in to fencing and trained in the mornings. Luka didn’t know anything about fencing, but he found it just a little odd that such a traditionally aristocratic sport would make the same physical demands as jiu jitsu. She assured him it was perfectly safe and, also, none of his business, and that was the end of that conversation. He supposed she had a point.

He gently ran his fingers through Chloe’s golden hair, softly so as not to wake her, though considering the way he’d found her back here more than a little tipsy after an extended happy hour with Marinette, he wasn’t surprised. She didn’t want to talk much about it, and Luka didn’t press her. Considering how both women were close with Adrien Agreste, he didn’t have to wonder much about what they could have to commiserate about together. He just hoped this was a sign that Chloe had found a real friend in Marinette—knowing her, she could really use one these days.

Luka slipped out of bed and grabbed his phone from the nightstand for a light to guide his way through Chloe’s spacious bedroom. He was wide awake, much to his dismay. He briefly considered waking Chloe up, but decided against it. She needed the sleep, and he had access to her 4K television in the living room. He’d just browse YouTube or something, maybe watch a movie, doodle some chord progressions he’d been thinking about until he passed out. Insomnia was a tried and true nemesis, one he’d been fighting a losing battle against for years. Sometimes, it was best not to resist it. Yawning, he padded through the living room to the kitchen sink for a glass of water.

The yellow roses he’d brought Chloe on the night of Jessika’s premier party were resting in a crystal vase on the kitchen counter, and he stopped to admire them. On closer inspection, he was a little surprised to find them still in dazzling full bloom despite how much time had passed. Cut flowers could last a while with proper care, but there appeared to be no signs of wilting in these at all. Chloe didn’t strike him as the type to have a green thumb.

Luka leaned in close and smelled the flowers. Their scent was heady and saccharine. He felt suddenly warm, and he smiled a little. Their water was getting low, so he poured his glass out over them.

“Hey! I’m trying to sleep here!” shouted a high-pitched voice.

Luka was so startled that he gasped and dropped the glass. It would have shattered on the floor, but it never hit because something swooped down and caught it, lightning fast. Something small, yellow, and soaking wet. It frowned up at him as it balanced the empty glass in its little hands.

“Watch it! You break it, you buy it.”

There was a protracted silence as Luka stared openly at what he could only describe as a talking bee. It—she?—twitched her antennae quizzically, and Luka regained his motor functions. He scrambled back until he bumped the corner of the counter, lost his balance, and fell to the floor ungracefully. The bee abandoned the empty glass and buzzed right in his face, a look of inexplicable concern in her compound eyes.

“Oh no! Hot Luka, are you hurt? Say something!”

Did that bee just call me hot?

Before he could say anything at all, the bee buzzed around him and poked at his shirt, in his hair, searching perhaps for signs of injury.

“Please say you’re okay!” she pleaded with him, sounding a little frantic.

“I-I’m fine,” Luka said.

I’m talking to a bee.

He was dreaming. This was a dream. Bees didn’t talk.

“Oh good!” The bee brightened like the morning sun, all traces of her concern gone as she practically vibrated.

Luka rubbed his eyes. He didn’t feel like he was asleep. Was he high? He couldn’t even remember getting high. That…was never a good sign. “Sorry, are you…real?”

The bee giggled. “I’m real crazy about you. Oh! I’ve been wanting to meet you ever since Honey Bee first showed you to me! But she said it wouldn’t be a good idea…” Inexplicably, the bee fell into a depressive slump and sniffled like she might burst into tears at any moment. “I-I thought maybe you w-wouldn’t like me.”

Luka had experimented a fair amount in his day, but nothing had ever made him hallucinate talking, emotionally vulnerable insects. He tried to remember the last time he’d smoked. Was that tonight? No, last night. He was stone cold sober right now. “Um, how could I not like you when I don’t even know you?”

The bee trembled self-consciously. “W-Well, I’m Pollen…”

“Pollen, huh? I guess that’s a perfect name for a bee.”

Pollen’s antennae quivered hopefully. “You think so?”

I think I’m losing my goddamned mind. “Sure I do.”

Pollen lit up again, and before he knew it, she had slammed into his chest and seemed to be hugging him. Solid and kind of warm, there was no doubt now that she was, in fact, tangible and sentient.

Okay, then.

“You are the perfect drone!” Pollen gushed.

Drone? “Chloe called me that before…”

Yes, he remembered now. It was at Jessika’s premiere party. He hadn’t given it much thought, though he remembered it being a strange choice for a pet name. When he’d asked her about it, she blushed furiously and snapped at him to forget about it, so he did.

“Duh,” Pollen said, looking up at him cutely. “Every Queen Bee has to have a perfect drone to keep her happy!”

Wait.

Queen Bee…

“The superhero?” he said.

No way.

She had saved him the other day from those coralized people. She’d all but lost her temper with him for foolishly putting himself in the danger zone trying to help others. He hadn’t thought much of it at the time, but she had been very short with him, almost personally offended even though they’d never met before. And she’d known about Chloe…

Pollen glowed with pride. “The one and only.”

Oh god, he couldn’t unsee it now. Of course it was Chloe—brash, brave, beautiful Chloe. All those bruises from her ‘training’ had to be because of this. And yeah, okay, the presence of a talking, magical bee was pretty damning evidence. No wonder she was exhausted all the time—she was practically working two full-time jobs.

She could get herself killed.

That sobering thought snapped him out of it, and he gently pried Pollen off of him. She sat in his palms and looked up at him like he was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen. “Pollen, if Chloe’s Queen Bee, that means her life is in danger whenever she fights those coralized people.”

Pollen scoffed. “Please! She’s got my magic to keep her safe. Besides, I wouldn’t settle for anybody but the bravest as my Chosen.”

Luka had seen the news coverage of Chief Raincomprix’s tragic demise, and he’d witnessed what happened to Guillotine just recently. There was no saving those afflicted, so it seemed, and Queen Bee was putting herself right in harm’s way standing up to them.

“Magic or no, it’s really dangerous for her. For Ladybug and Chat Noir, too,” Luka said.

Pollen’s expression fell, and another extreme mood swing hit her as she gazed up at him forlornly. “You… You don’t like my magic?”

Luka wasn’t sure what to say to appease her. “I can’t honestly say I’m thrilled at the idea of my girlfriend risking her life like that.”

Pollen sniffled, and pearly tears welled under her huge eyes. “B-But we’re strong! A little coral won’t s-scare us.”

“I believe you, but it sure as hell scares me.”

To Luka’s horror, Pollen burst into tears and began to bawl like her life depended on it. Suddenly afraid all the racket would wake Chloe, he cupped Pollen and held her against his chest to muffle her sobbing. Her tears dampened his T-shirt and smelled faintly of burned sugar.

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said. “Hey, I didn’t mean to make you cry—”