Adrien knows what a downfall looks like.

He's spent enough time living with an emotionally distant father to be familiar with the signs of dissociation. They're the steps of disbelief he climbed as a child, ascending anxiously from one catastrophe to the next.

He learned how to read the pregnant pauses in conversation, the minimal shifts in body language and expression. To anticipate the repercussions and dissuade them with apologies before they could take root and weed out his few liberties.

But in all the time he imagined revealing his identity to his partner, it never played out like this.

The location was irrelevant – a rooftop, in the heat of a battle, (and more recently) the little room above the bakery. But the context always remained consistent; it was always a happy discovery.

He visualized her eyes crinkling with delight, arms throwing over his shoulders as he'd swing her into a fierce embrace. More brazenly, the kisses he'd shower across her cheeks, her nose, her lips…

It was always a happy occasion.

But as Adrien has so quickly discovered in his brief, young life – fantasy very seldomly coincides with reality.

The trembling breath she pulls in scatters his thoughts, quaking across his nerves, and he hardly registers the words that tumble past his lips.

"It's mine."

The statement is heavy, and it weighs on his chest, sinking past his ribs and into the pit of his stomach. Churning, souring his insides.

Quenching the butterflies that had been fluttering there only moments before.

"That can't be true," she says.

Adrien stares. Her voice is firm, a fragile conviction that's scarcely contained behind clenched hands and quivering breaths. The hollow, uncertain expression on her lovely features is caving rapidly, giving way to something stubborn and incredulous.

"It's not."

"It is," he says tremulously.

Her eyes lift, and nothing steels him for the anguish he finds there, or the way it knocks the air out of him.

"Chat must have given it to you," she says feverishly, "He's a stupid cat, and he probably thought it would be funny–"

Adrien reaches for her, and when he catches her arm, she stiffens. Eyes wide, breath short. There's a manic sheen in her gaze, and it flits restlessly across his face, searching.

He can feel all his childish expectations crumbling.

"This isn't a joke," he breathes.

"I don't believe you," she utters.

The house feels larger than before, spacious and barren. The hall behind them is dark, slivers of light from a grey sky stretching across the floorboards. His voice is loud in his own ears, accompanied only by the distant narrative of rain.

If it wasn't for the swelling drumline of his pulse, it would be too quiet.

"We started seeing each other several weeks ago, when I came to your room. It was snowing outside, and you opened the window."

Marinette's eyes round, growing impossibly wide.

"You said I could stay, and we had a pillow fight. Your mother came upstairs, we hid–"

"He told you!" she chokes.

"– and we kissed. We kissed in your room, and we kissed later, outside La Pagode. Behind the bushes, against the wall. The same place where you left this for me."

He glances down at the scarf with a halting nod. A swallowed sob bobs in Marinette's throat, her lips trembling. She shakes her head, voice watery and fearful.


"You came to my room," he says gently, urgently, "We talked until we fell asleep–"

"That wasn't me!" she cries, "And that wasn't you!"

"It was and it is," Adrien says again.

Marinette's chest heaves, hot tears spilling past her lashes. She wrenches her arm out of his grasp, stumbling back, shoulder blades connecting with the door.

"It isn't you," she says desperately, "It can't be."

Something torturous and angry springs forward in Adrien, seizing his heart. All the reservations that he shoved back, resolutely convinced that Ladybug would accept the boy behind the mask. And then all the posters, and every newfound shred of her love for him once he knew who she was – a confirmation that this was right.

That it was fate.

That he wasn't fooling himself into believing that Ladybug could love him. That Marinette could love him.

Irrationally, Adrien can feel a frightful bitterness rising in his throat. It's uncomfortable and alien, and it forces the question past his lips like bile, burning and unpleasant.


His hand tightens on the umbrella, chest squeezing.

"Why can't it be me?"

The rain is a monotonous heartbeat, prolonging the seconds and keeping time. He can see Marinette's pulse fluttering like a jackrabbit.

Her expression is disarming. In all his time by her side, he's grown excruciatingly familiar with those eyes. For a time, they were all he could glimpse of her, a window to an identity he desperately wanted to see. But they've never looked at him like this.

Like he's a stranger.

It strips the layers of resentment and incredulity, cutting to the bone, and discernment wars in his gut.

"Because Chat Noir wouldn't lie to me," she murmurs, "And neither would Adrien."

His stomach dips. Marinette cradles her elbows, looking impossibly small, a shrinking shadow against the doorframe.

"Chat Noir can be mischievous and irresponsible, but he wouldn't deceive me."

"I didn't–"

"Exactly!" she exclaims, voice rising, "It can't be you! Because that would be cruel! Listening to the things I confided in you, pretending not to know, sneaking into my room–"

Her voice breaks, and Adrien's heart slams painfully against his ribs.

"–and knowing my feelings, but still playing at ignorance. Seeing me every day and pretending you didn't know – you wouldn't do that, Adrien. You couldn't."

The anger drains away, leaving a staggering weakness in his knees. Adrien stares.

"It can't be you," Marinette utters, "Because that would mean that you've been lying to me."

Her words are a realization that hits him like a freight train. It crashes against his ribs, beating painfully, too physical and raw to be imagined.

It's an acknowledgement that stirs under his breast – knowing that she's right.

And quite abruptly, Adrien is filled with a disappointment so fierce that it steals his breath.

"I shouldn't have kept it from you," he admits, "But I didn't want to force you to tell me. I wanted to give you a chance–"

"When did you know?" she asks.

Adrien swallows thickly, past the shame and regret knotting in his throat. A vivid image of her spotted arms looped over his shoulders comes to mind, her body pressing against his as they soared over the snowy skyline of Paris.

Bluebell eyes gazing up at him shyly.

"So, if you'll give me just a little more time…I want to show you who I am."

But he hadn't given her time, had he? He hadn't waited.

"My bedroom," Marinette continues, "La Pagode, your house, the attic–"

A warm flush fills her cheeks, though whether from embarrassment, their encounter a moment ago, or from being caught in the rain, he isn't sure. She averts her eyes.

"How many times did you touch me, knowing how I felt?"

Too many.

Even before he knew her identity, he had touched her.

Because she was Marinette – kind, loving, understanding Marinette that made him feel safe and desired. And he would be a fool to say seeing all the photos of himself on her walls, hearing her voice a swelling love for him, knowing how enamored she was, didn't make him want her more.

And even after being aware of her identity, he'd continued despite it.

He was a lovesick fool starved for affection, and he'd used her to ease that heartache. To say it had solely been out of love would be a lie, considering at the time he'd been entirely too confused on his torn feelings between (what he'd thought) were two women.

Very rapidly, Adrien feels the guilt webbing its way through him.

She's right.

He didn't want to force her, and yet he practically had. Sending those urging messages, talking to her on the phone and playing coy. Holding her in the bathroom stall without the mask – as though she couldn't have just opened her eyes and seen him.

Secretly, he'd hoped she would, and he had placed himself in a position for it to happen.

"I'm sorry," Adrien chokes.

The statement doesn't properly convey the remorse and humiliation frogging his throat.

"When we were in that attic, you called me 'Mari'."

Her voice catches, hooking his heart painfully.

"You said my name – you knew."

"I knew," he confirms.

The least she deserves from him is total transparency, after he'd been able to see through her for so long without her knowledge.

"I knew it was you on the rooftop, the morning after we woke up in my room. You called me a 'pushy stray', like you had the first night I visited you in your bedroom."

She stares at him, eyes wide and hollow.

"Then, the fashion show, the school bathroom, all those text messages–"

"I knew," he whispers.

And this is my fault.

She pulls in a trembling breath, and he can hear the hard cry that she's desperately restraining. It's barely contained beneath the wounded look in her eyes, and he can hardly stomach it when they meet his.

"I need to be alone," she utters.

A small, selfish part of him wants to argue – to beg for her forgiveness. But he knows this isn't the time, and truthfully, if there is one thing Adrien is good at, it's relenting what he wants for what is necessary.

At the very least, Marinette deserves that from him.

He's forgotten the satchel on the floor – the scarf and scattered pieces of daily routine. They lay, scattered at their feet like elapsed ruins.

Adrien regards them for several seconds, desperately trying to collect himself before he does something stupid.

Like cry – or worse, say something else he'll regret.

When he finally ducks between them and sweeps his things into his bag, he does his best to school his features into reservation.

Marinette remains silent and unmoving as he crosses toward the door, satchel thrown across his hip.

The hallway is eerily quiet, and he steps carefully over the scattered towels on the floor. Where only minutes before they'd been entangled and warm, in a different lifetime, blissfully naïve and hidden behind masks entirely separate from the Miraculous.

Adrien's feet still as he takes the doorknob in hand, heart throbbing.

"I never wanted to hurt you."

He can still hear the rain, pattering distantly. It waits for him outside, a wide contrast from the warm outpour he'd walked through before in pleasant company.

The quiet at his back lengthens, and he gives the door a heavy tug.

Her response falls on the wood as it closes behind him.

"No," she says softly, "But you did."

It's half past midnight, and the last place Adrien wants to be is home.

He doesn't want to spend another night crying into his pillows, listening to his short breaths filling the empty space in his too-big room. And though he knows he's technically grounded, it's a trivial thought at the very back of his mind.

It's something he represses with everything else, overshadowed by a tide of grief and regret.

Nino Lahiffe doesn't question why or how his best friend shows up at his window. He doesn't question the expression on Adrien's face as he drags himself over the sill, or the way the boy's chest begins to heave with broken sobs the moment he sinks onto the bed.

Leaping concern fills Nino as he pulls his friend into a tight embrace. He sits very still, listening to the anguished noises that emit from the other boy, resolving himself to not ask.

And he doesn't.

Not when Adrien cries for a solid half hour, hands caught in Nino's shirt and clutching fearfully tight. Not when the tears only resign to sleep, which comes fitfully.

He eases Adrien into his bed, tugging loose his shoes and hanging his jacket on the door. He replaces wet socks with a pair of fresh ones from his own drawer, tucking the blankets around the boy's feet. Nino's eyes sweep over the blonde hair mussed across his pillow, damp with rain and sweat. The boy's cheeks are stained, eyes puffy and nose pink as his ragged breathing slows.

Speculations shadow his thoughts, but it can wait. It's late, and Adrien is too distraught, too tired for prodding questions.

Nino rolls out a handful of blankets next to the mattress, eyes fixed on the pale hand that hangs loosely off the edge of the bed.

A phrase comes to his mind as he begins to drift off, uttered by his mother on many an occasion when late night arguments, nightmares, and akuma attacks would occur.

"Nothing good happens after 2 a.m."

He can't say he disagrees.

Adrien skips school.

Or, he would have if his father hadn't caged him to his room the moment he returned. But for once, he finds that he doesn't mind the isolation.

He loses track of the time, dragged into a place of hazy cognizance as his conscious dips between sleep and awareness. The glowing numbers on his phone slip by, and they're only brought to his attention when the device buzzes.

Messages from Nino, concern from Alya, appointments and reminders on his calendar that he has no intention of adhering to. Though he knows her name won't appear, his eyes still move to the screen when it glows to life, waiting for one of the messages to impossibly be from Marinette.

Adrien falls into a thankful, dreamless sleep, and he doesn't surface again until the early hours of the next morning.

Nathalie taps on his door once, and then again. She ducks in and leaves his meals with each turn of the day, but not a word is passed between them.

He used to wish for it – for conversation and acknowledgement from her, even as trivial as that could be between an assistant and a trophy child. And sometimes she would give it to him, in her own way. Shifting his schedule around to allow an hour of reprieve with his friends, or having the cook prepare something sweet after an especially stern lecture from his father.

She tried, and it was more than he could hope for from anyone else.

But at the end of the day, Nathalie is not a mother. She is not his nanny, nor his friend. She is an assistant, hired by his father to oversee his upbringing, as hollow a space as that is to fill.

And truthfully, he cannot fault her for it.

There is no expectation of comfort when she sees his balled form on the bed, the room dark and the curtains drawn. She simply reminds him of his upcoming schedule and how he is still expected to attend his lessons and his photoshoot.

Surprisingly, there is not a single word of reprimand uttered at his decision to skip school.

It isn't the next day, later that evening – when Adrien is tangled in his blankets, room still dark and windows shuttered – that Nathalie addresses him for something other than business.

She lingers a short distance from his bedside, and he can hear her crisp voice cut through the eerie, expanding silence that has cocooned the space between them.

"Your father wanted me to inform you that you will no longer be allowed to attend classes for the duration of the school year's end."

Though he hadn't given it much thought of when he'd return, devastation still manages to settle heavily in Adrien's stomach.

"Additionally, your extra-curricular activities – including piano lessons, fencing, and Chinese – will be postponed until your return from the branding tour this season."

Modeling for the Agreste Spring Collection – touring Europe in a collection of several weeks; he'd forgotten entirely about it.

"We will be departing next week, and I will adjust your schedule accordingly."

Adrien stirs, back still turned to her as he sucks in a breath.

"Will Father be coming?"

He should expect the swelling pause that follows, the thoughtful quiet as Nathalie considers an appropriate response – an adequate rejection that inevitably will come. But the disappointment still sweeps through him, and he's resentful for it.

"No, your father will be attending to business here."

He doesn't respond, and it leaves a tethered discomfort between them. Nathalie clears her throat, and after several seconds, he can hear something slip into her tone that almost sounds regretful.

"Your father has a lot of responsibility, most of which he burdens alone. When you're older, perhaps you'll understand."

Heat prickles at the back of his throat, swelling and making it impossibly difficult to swallow a breath. Adrien clutches his pillow, eyes stinging as Nathalie's footfalls recede. He can hear her hand on the door as it creaks open, and Adrien lets out a shuddering breath.

"When I'm older, maybe he'll finally understand that he's never been alone."

Her weight lingers on the floorboards, and it's several beats before he hears her shift. Her only response is the dull click of the door falling into place, and Adrien buries himself further into his sheets, his heart sinking.

The hospital is cold and eerily quiet. The reporters have been left in the corridor, locked out of the special unit ward, their cameras shuttering and lights flashing past the thick glass of the heavy doors. Nathalie had spoken with the staff ahead of time, assuring that they wouldn't be allowed past that point.

A singular reporter had tastefully been allowed access to this visit, as Gabriel Agreste had polite interest in allowing a photo or two reach the press outside of these walls. It was in their reputation's best interest for this to be documented, and Adrien had been groomed accordingly.

His clothes were nothing less than sophisticated, hair carefully combed, and a light application of makeup applied. If he hadn't known better, he might have thought they were attending a photoshoot.

Nathalie had informed him earlier in the morning that they would be paying a coordinated visit to the hospital to visit a victim of the fashion show's akuma attack. It would look good under the media's illumination – the Agreste boy paying kindness to a poor soul, life impacted by the unfortunate events that occurred. Reconciliation and forgiveness. Truthfully, Adrien hadn't heard most of what she had relayed to him, and so the purpose – while he knew was carefully constructed and probably made sense – was lost on him.

The reporter follows close behind them as they wind down the halls, shoes squeaking against the immaculately clean tiles. The Gorilla throws a look of distaste in the small man's direction, and the reporter shrinks back, his polite smile wavering.

Adrien can feel his pulse thrumming in his ears as a nurse guides them through a corridor, coming to stop at another pair of thick, fortified doors. She waves her badge, eyes darting nervously between Nathalie and Adrien's bodyguard.

He knows what she's seeing – a manicured rich boy flanked by his overpaid subordinates, paying an idle visit to lowly commoners for the sake of appearance. How wonderfully blinded she is, he thinks, that she can't see a prisoner being ushered by his guards.

The ward is very quiet as they step inside, save for the distant beeping of machines and the soft shuffle of feet and equipment.

"He has stabilized within the past two days, so you're quite lucky that he's able to have visitors now," the nurse says.

She gestures in the direction of a room on the left, two doors away from where they enter.

"I would be cautious, however," she utters, "He's still not very present mentally. It would be best to keep any interactions to a minimum."

"Thank you for your assistance." Nathalie says shortly.

She places a hand on Adrien's shoulder, gently steering him toward the room. The nurse clamps her mouth shut noiselessly, her expression shifting to something he's familiar with. It's a comparable mixture of intimidation and resentment, and he's no stranger to seeing it in the people Nathalie deals with.

He schools his features into careful reservation as they enter the room. The Gorilla stays outside, planting himself near the door, and Adrien is thankful for one less person to be filling the space. He can scarcely breathe as it is, and when his eyes fall on the figure bundled on the bed, his chest tightens so violently he chokes.

Jean Compte.

He recognizes the face from the many articles that covered the aftermath of the event, many of which he desperately thumbed through to find any news of the akuma victim's condition.

Hospitalized and under critical condition.

At the time, the news had filled him with immeasurable relief. But now, looking at the man's sunken eyes and gaunt figure, he can only feel fault. Raw, consuming guilt. It churns his gut, and Adrien swallows down the urge to vomit.

The paragraphs had outlined Jean's desolate situation. It's a story that Adrien has read and witnessed a hundred times. A model, pressured and dragged into a corner by their own company and management, driven to desperation and malnutrition. The fact that it was under the supervision of his own name, his father's vision and administration, drives something dark and foul into Adrien as he stares down at the bed.

My father's company. My Cataclysm. My fault.

Nathalie's hand slides a fraction past his shoulder, resting against his back.

"He's doing much better now. Your father has arranged for his medical expenses to be paid by the company."

The monitor above the bed beeps softly, glowing lines bobbing in steady waves beneath shifting numbers.

"Of course, this wouldn't have even been necessary if those heroes had just fixed everything, like they're supposed to," the reporter remarks from behind them.

Adrien watches as the man rounds the side of the bed, camera poised between his hands as he glances disdainfully at the monitors.

"If they can't even protect people, then why are they even out there to begin with?" he sighs.

The nausea rolls through him, and Adrien's visions swims. He locks his knees, fighting the spiking urge to collapse. Nathalie lets out a long breath behind his ear.

"Very true," she murmurs.

The statements are incredibly damning, coiling the pit in his stomach even tighter than before. But a soft voice at the back of Adrien's mind can't help but agree with their displeasure and judgement.

If he had tried harder, done more, then maybe…

Maybe things would be different.

For that one reader who checked up on me regularly, sent encouraging messages, and kindly expressed their love for this fic even when I had no inspiration to spare. Your encouragement was one of the only things that drove me back to writing this when I felt like no one would care anyway.

Thank you.

I could fill this space with all the excuses for my absence, but I feel like that wouldn't really matter. So! Rest assured with the knowledge that I already have the last few chapters outlined and the next one is already half written. I apologize that this chapter was fairly angsty, but it was story driven and I promise you'll have some satisfactory content to follow.

Thank you to every single one of you for your continued support and comments. Sometimes you're the only reason I keep writing.

- Avelyst