A/N: Sorry this chapter is delayed. There are only three chapters to go after this one - unless one or more turns out to be so ginormous I have to split it - but I've got family stuff on this week and some of it's in an internet desert so I will post chapters as soon as I can but these last few probably won't be daily - sorry! Thanks to everyone who is following along with the story, I really appreciate it. Your patience shall be rewarded... (I hope)
Tuesday. Rose gushed over the electronic ticket design that Juleka came up with. The class agreed to make the theme "courage and yearning", as per the Agreste photoshoot. While it wasn't as simple a theme as "garden", it fit well with the charity they were fundraising for, and having the first thirty tickets pre-paid was great incentive to make it work. Nathaniel created a simply gorgeous poster, and Mme. Bustier agreed to use the school printer to make copies. Several of the class took selfies with Nathaniel's art and posted it on their social media accounts. Alya snapped Rose and Juleka sneaking a kiss just to the side of the poster when they thought nobody was looking, and that photo alone racked up five thousand hits by the end of the day. The word was out, at least a little. Kim and Alix spent their after-school time racing each other around the streets of Paris to see who could get their allotted sheaf of posters up fastest (Alix won, but only just). Marinette, Chloe and Lila went to a small cafe near the Trocadero. Marinette got a few sketches done for decoration they could use inside the villa, working with some photos Adrien texted her from the photoshoot. She was so buzzed about having access to unpublished photos, and so focused on their project, that she barely noticed Chloe making Sabrina move the cafe umbrellas around to what she considered the perfect position, Messaging Jagged Stone, well, really it was Penny, and recruiting them to recruit other guests, kept her from noticing the city inspector berating the cafe manager for encroaching on public walkways. She did notice when the whole sky suddenly shadowed over, and looked up to see what was blocking the light on her sketchbook pages. Above her flew the former cafe manager, now with giant sails as wings, spreading dimness out in giant whirls. She sighed and began putting her sketches and pencils in her bag. "Chloe, did you at least ask your mother to buy tickets before you started annoying people?"
"If people get annoyed over such little things it's hardly my fault", Chloe huffed. "And yes, Dupain-Cheng, once I had enough shade to see my phone without squinting, I did get my mother on side. She says she will bother a few people she knows until they buy tickets. I wasn't going to risk getting premature wrinkles for this, so lump it."
"Fine. I'm going home", Marinette announced, and walked off. The Trocadero station Metro entrance was full of people, but just beyond that was the Cimetière de Passy, quiet, with many sheltered corners to transform in.
Wednesday. Ticket sales were moving, twenty five sold by lunchtime. The centre they were fundraising for let them know that they'd managed to get the principal singer of the Paris Opera to buy tickets and promote it. Jagged Stone had happily raved about the event in an Insta post and several well-known musicians had come on board. Andre Bourgeois was coming, along with France's Minister for Youth. Prince Ali couldn't make it, of course, but had asked his charitable partners in France to consider sending someone along. That was what Lila claimed, of course, and everyone was so sad for her that she couldn't see her friend again this time. Everyone except Rose, who had been the one to call Prince Ali, and stood dumbfounded as Lila blithely took the credit. Marinette waved a hand in front of her face. "Rose, it's OK. Well, it's not OK, but this time we need to let it happen." Rose snapped her eyes to Marinette's.
"THIS time? She'll do it again?"
"She already has, so many times before", Marinette said. "Did you not wonder what she'd done to cause so many akumas?"
"Well, no, I thought it must be an accident. There was Chloe, of course, and you we..." Rose's voice trailed off as some new and dangerous thoughts crossed her mind. Marinette just looked at her.
"Lila says a lot of things. You don't have to tell me. I've probably heard it, and worse."
Tears began to glimmer in Rose's eyes. "It was your true colours finally being noticed for what they were." She squeezed Marinette's hand. "I'm sorry."
Marinette squeezed back. "Me too."
Elsewhere in the city, Fleur DuBois stretched her arms up, rotating her shoulders, tilting her neck away from her workstation's computer screen. She checked that her boss was out of sight, and opened Facebook. Three posts down was an ad for a charity party happening on Saturday, sponsored by Agreste. Fleur had always wanted to go to a swanky event like that. She looked closer at the ad. Agreste was offering some free tickets? Just take a photo of yourself showing either courage or yearning, post it, hashtag it and tag them in it, winners announced later today. Fleur smiled. It couldn't hurt. Her boss was still out of sight, so she spun her chair so the window was behind her, took a quick selfie of her looking out. Hashtag IYearnForBetter. And then promptly forgot about it. She was quite surprised when her email chimed around fifteen hundred with a notification that she'd won a ticket. Hashtag ChampagneInMyFuture.
Celeste Cosmos didn't use Facebook, or most other social media as a general rule. It got in the way of her research. So she had no idea that there was any buzz of any sort, and was quite surprised when her faculty dean knocked on her door.
"Celeste, are you free Saturday? There's a celebrity charity thing happening, and the university wants to send some of its up-and-comings to see and be seen."
"It sounds ridiculous."
The dean sighed. "What's not ridiculous is that they asked for you specifically, along with three others. Someone even managed to convince Agreste to give us free tickets so that we could inspire youth about their future."
She met his eyes. "Promotional clause in contract?"
"Exactly", he agreed. "You know if we don't do it, the faculty loses funding." He smiled at her, briefly. "And you opted in your contract to help the university with promotion instead of teaching. So... book yourself a university car, and pack your telescope. You've got some stars to go and see."
On Wednesday evening, Gabriel held the list Nathalie handed him at a small distance, considering it without bending in any manner. "You've arranged for tickets for all these people?"
"Yes, one way or another. All of our likely Ladybugs are confirmed attending, and a few of the most likely Chat Noirs. Another two men on the shortlist bought tickets themselves, so I've marked them as of additional interest. The names are highlighted. I will update that if more people on our list purchase tickets of their own accord."
"Are our other requirements met?"
"It's not a locked room by definition, but it is by effect. The venue is isolated, so Ladybug and Chat Noir will need to be present on the villa grounds, and I've arranged security checks so that only the organisers and ticketed guests can enter the grounds. I'm fairly sure Ladybug and Chat Noir will take the path of least suspicion and pay to attend as civilians, should we have somehow not got them tickets already." She checked a list on her tablet. "The local emergency services have attended a free dealing-with-akuma training session, and should an akuma attack happen, they know to leave it to the superheroes instead of adding to the confusion. They will focus their efforts on ensuring that guests are accounted for and kept where they can continue to be accounted for."
"Good", Gabriel replied. "I hate amateurs."
"The powers of the akuma are in the control of the victim and yourself, so I cannot assume that those are fixed. However there are several factors likely to create the kind of emotions you would like to draw upon, and the high number of both celebrities and young people attending, plus the presence of alcohol for those of age, should ensure that your perfect opportunity occurs sometime during the night."
Nathalie barely moved while reading the list, but her stylus tapped on the last item. "And finally, the theme, as requested, matches the autumn promotion. Our marketing department have done a good job, and have enjoyed the break from their usual style. Their impact tracking so far suggests the variation has been effective for us, too. It may be worth considering something like this again."
Thursday. Ladybug was so done. Today's akuma had been face-swapping people. It was disconcerting seeing Lila's face on Cat Noir, and hard to remember that it was her trusted partner. She'd almost been unable to fight with him because she kept trying to watch her own back at the same time.
"I found it pretty weird too, my Lady", Cat Noir admitted at patrol. "Though you do make a very cute boy."
"So you'd love me no matter who the boy behind the mask was?" she teased.
"Definitely", he smiled. "And speaking of, have you heard how the fundraiser is going?"
"Not yet?" she said. Of course she had the latest ticket sales numbers from Alya, but she couldn't say that.
"They've sold fifty of the seventy tickets they need to, plus the thirty Agreste pre-bought. So they've made the seven thousand, as long as they've also made enough to cover costs. They should still sell some more if they can though, just to make sure."
She smiled. "I feel better about this knowing that something specific and good is going to come out of it."
"Yeah", he breathed. "It's certainly been a bit of a ride. I can't complain about seeing you every day, my Lady. Twice today, even."
Ladybug booped him on the nose. "Only because we've been getting enough study done that we could take the time for a patrol. And we needed to check in with each other about Saturday without the others around. Did you manage to get a ticket?"
Cat Noir flinched very slightly. "Yes, I'm on the list. You?"
"Is that an mmm of 'I need help acquiring an expensive ticket' or an mmm of 'I'm on the list and don't want to admit it in case you look at the guest list?" Chat asked. "Because I can help with the first one."
"You have that good an allowance? No, don't tell me", she said hurriedly. "I said I wouldn't ask how you know about these kinds of things."
"Actually", he said, leaning into her and waggling his eyebrows, "I'm friends with the Mayor's daughter, and she'd love to give you a ticket."
Ladybug laughed and pushed him away. "I happen to know Queen Bee too, thank you. I suppose I could have attended as Ladybug. I've arranged for my civilian self to be there though, so I'm alright." And not on the ticket list, but if she told him that it would narrow her identity down even further. So. "How do we want to play this on the night, you and me?"
"I was thinking we keep an eye out as our civilian selves for as long as possible", he replied. "If we show up too soon it'll attract attention and Hawkmoth will hide from us."
"He's hiding from us anyway", she said. "But yes, I get what you mean. We're more likely to spot something out of place if we aren't noticeable ourselves. And our civilian selves disappearing for a random amount of time could be hard to explain."
Cat Noir waggled his eyebrows again. "Not if we were together!" She rolled her eyes, but she could tell he wasn't very serious about it, for a change. They were both feeling a certain pressure at this point, with the possibility of only two more days to go in this long war. It was a strange feeling, half crazy even.
"What about the akuma battle? We need to make that take longer."
"And cover enough area that we have a chance of spotting Hawkmoth. We need to be searching for him during the battle too, because you know he'll be watching and listening in."
"The others could look for him as well", she said. "I'm worried though that if they do that, they'll find him."
"Yeah", he breathed again. "I think we tell them to focus on looking for who is there, rather than who isn't. When the battle starts, get them to get people safe, and pay attention to anyone that's missing."
"Kitty..." she began, then stopped. A series of thoughts played out in her mind. He could see her come to a decision. "Kitty, if they do that, they'll notice that we're missing too."
"But maybe you had the right idea. We could be each other's excuses."
His jaw dropped. "Really?" His eyes were even greener, suddenly, as if lit from within.
"Only if it comes to that", she said hurriedly. "I don't want to reveal to each other if we don't have to. But if it keeps them from confronting Hawkmoth directly themselves, then after the battle, after Hawkmoth, after everything happens, if they're still looking for two people... I don't mind if we pretend we were together."
It took Cat Noir a full two minutes to be able to speak normally after that.
"I guess that covers almost everything", he said finally. "One thing though - I was a bit worried about the teens from the centre."
"Oh?" she asked, looking at the stars.
"Some of them will be afraid of people's reactions as it is. An akuma attack at an event specifically for them would just make them feel like all the bad things they'd expected to happen were lining up." He paused. "There's a Rule for events like this, which is that you should have some token Good Examples, people who won't say anything problematic or expect to be included and who will make donors feel good about giving. Sometimes that's hard, because nobody wants to be a token and most real people are not Good Examples. But that's what gets people to give more money, so it happens." He looked at her. "I broke that Rule. I asked the centre people not to send any of the teens."
"Did you tell them why?"
"Sort of. I dropped in on them as Cat Noir and said we were expecting to be targeted by Hawkmoth for other reasons, and we had a good chat about the kids' mental health. They agreed with me that it wouldn't be a good idea for most of them to attend. Instead the guy who runs the place will come along, and make a short speech with photos with the kids' faces blurred out. One of the teens was in on the discussion and was really disappointed - he wanted to meet Adrien Agreste - but even he agreed that they should leave the party to the rich people. I ended up promising him that I'd get Adrien to stop in to the centre instead."
Ladybug smiled. "I'm sure he'd do that. He's very kind."
"You've been pretty kind yourself this week. Have you patched things up with Lila?"
Ladybug's posture suddenly changed. Even though Cat Noir would swear she hadn't moved, suddenly every part of her seemed on full alert.
"Never", she hissed in a low voice. "There is no compromise with that kind of evil."
Cat Noir was a little taken aback by her vehemence, though honestly he should have expected it. And would have, before this week. "You've been really supportive of her though."
"Of course. I'm hoping she gets enough rope to hang herself." There was a tiny but dangerous smile on Ladybug's face. "She's been so very careful this whole time. You could almost believe she was helping us from the goodness of her heart. But she's started to make mistakes. Just little ones." The smile grew even more dangerous. "Little stones start avalanches."