Disclaimer: I do not own Miraculous

A/N: this is a sequel to Marionette, but you do not have to read the previous story to understand this one.

Everything changes the day he turns sixteen. In terms of birthdays, it is as disappointing and lackluster as he has come to expect, making it indistinguishable from any other day. Unfortunately, it also fell on a Saturday, so he doesn't even get to see his friends and celebrate at school. Instead of a party he has a photo shoot, and father doesn't allow him to invite Nino. He doesn't even get a birthday cake. Then, before dinner, Natalie informs him that Gabriel wants him to begin doing shirtless photo shoots for the brand. As such, he was now required to follow a stricter diet regimen and training schedule, which he would start immediately. When Adrien sees the updated schedule he almost throws up. He might have if he had anything in his stomach.

His dinner ends up being barely a third of his previous meals. The food is tasteless and he can't tell if it started that way or if he's in shock. The nutrients gained from his diet are barely enough to support the calories he should be burning (the diet he had before wasn't enough thanks to his secret extracurricular activities as Chat Noir). Two days before a shoot he's not allowed to eat or drink anything, including water. The goal is to make him lose "water weight" so his muscles can be that much more defined.

When he finally drags himself back into his room Plagg is seething. The small Kwami shows off his proficiency in curse words with an astounding array of speed, range, creativity, and language origin. Still feeling sick and unsteady, Adrien curls up into a ball on the floor. Plagg stops his tirade to curl up against his chosen's chest as well as he can. Adrien cries silently, his shoulders shaking and chest heaving with the effort of holding everything in.

Over next two weeks he is so hungry he can barely see the board. His friends try to sneak him food, only to have his father somehow find out and force him to go without dinner. Natalie takes him aside and threatens to pull him out of school if he can't follow his diet. After that, he stops accepting, and they stop trying once they realize their offers are only hurting him further. After the first week he is a dozen pounds lighter. He sits through class with one hand on his stomach and a pencil in his mouth. Nino starts taking detailed notes and shares them with Adrien without being asked. Marinette spends lunch with him working on the assignments and sometimes ends up doing them for him. After all, even half-starved his grades are still expected to be perfect. It doesn't stop the guilt.

The day of the photo shoot Adrien thinks he is going to die. Every time he stands the room tilts. His muscles act sluggish and feel too heavy and unwieldy to be connected to his body. He's too sick and exhausted to even care or feel uncomfortable at his lack of a shirt. The photographers bark orders he barely hears, and the room is dark at the edges. Like a slightly burned photograph.

Then he is outside of the studio and the sunlight hurts his head. The Gorilla keeps a hand on Adrien's arm as he guides him into the backseat and hands him some juice and a granola bar. Adrien's hands fumble with the packaging long enough that the Gorilla gently takes them back and opens them for him. Then the door is open and Adrien stumbles more than walks to his room. The granola bar sits heavy in his stomach, and the room spins like he's on the carousel at the park. Plagg is tugging at his arm but it doesn't feel like his body. Adrien's body doesn't feel like it belongs to him. Maybe it doesn't. He manages two steps towards his bed before passing out.

Adrien wakes up in the hospital, two or three IVs hooked to his arms. The needles ache dully, as if his skin has to stretch around them too much, as if it knows the needles shouldn't be there but doesn't feel like putting up too much resistance. He wakes up in the hospital alone. It shouldn't hurt as much as it does. The doctor tells him that he was suffering from severe dehydration and a lesser case of malnutrition, before suggesting he eat more. Adrien doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. He stays there for three days. Natalie visits him twice—once when he first woke up (a few hours after the photo shoot), and then to check him out after dinner on the third day.

His father does not greet him. Natalie tells him Gabriel went to the hospital with him when he first passed out. Adrien isn't sure he can believe her. He hasn't seen his father in person for over a month. He isn't sure he wants to see his father. Because if he sees him there is no way Adrien will be able to hold back his thoughts. There would be a confrontation and Adrien would lose. Because there is no winning against Gabriel. His father has threads sewn into Adrien's skin, trapping his heart to his sleeve. Humans always want the one thing they can't have, and so he wants the love of the two people who won't give it to him. It's self destructive (and he knows destruction when he sees it). It's tearing him apart but he starves himself and runs into fire hoping it will be enough to buy their love.

His room remains as clean (empty) as he left it. The space is so big and yet it feels horribly restricting at the same time. A cage he thinks. A place to wait out his days until it's time to play the perfect son again. And again and again and again. "Kid, we need a solution. You can't keep doing this. And not just because you're Chat Noir." Plagg's voice is gentle, for once lacking all the vitriol Adrien expected. He expected a flurry of curses in another language directed towards his father and Natalie and the whole modeling industry. He expected to have Plagg beg him not to transform for a few more days or unless completely necessary from now on. He even expected the Kwami to shove some of his precious Camembert stash into his hands. He did not expect being told to run away. To abandon his grieving father.

"This is not grief, this is neglect and abuse," Plagg hisses angrily. His ears flatten and his eyes look more concerned than Adrien has ever seen them. "Trust me kid, I've seen it more times than I care to count." The thought of leaving makes Adrien's breath hitch. He's not being abused (he's not he's not he's not—his father loves him he loves his father he has to his father has to love him, doesn't he? Doesn't he?) his father is just strict and grieving and wants what's best for the company and, and and—

And the seams are the only thing holding him together. If he pulls too hard he will unravel and Adrien is everything his father wanted him to be. If he is not Adrien for his father then who is Adrien for?

He wakes up on the floor with dried tear stains, making the skin along his cheeks feel unnaturally stretched. Like when he smiles. Plagg is curled against his chest, purring loudly. "Plagg, I can't—I'm sorry I'm sorry, I can't—" leave. The word lodges in his throat until he's choking on it. If he leaves he won't be able to go back to school, and seeing his friends—having friends is the best thing to happen in his life other than becoming Chat Noir. Plagg nods his head, looking impossibly ancient and weary. He whispers quiet assurances, as if the wrong words will send Adrien spiraling across the floor in shattered pieces again (they might). Plagg understands, of course; he is bonded too closely to Adrien not to.

Through burning eyes he looks at his phone. He's already fifteen minutes late for patrol. Panic seizes him. How is he supposed to explain his absence to Ladybug? He can't tell her he was hospitalized. He doesn't want to give her any more proof of his weakness. He doesn't want her condescending pity. He doesn't want to go on patrol. But in accordance with Adrien's life, he cannot have what he wants.

Her foot is tapping impatiently against the Eiffel Tower, the quick rhythm matching his rushing heartbeat. For a few moments he is hot and breathless and dizzy and he thinks he might just fall off the platform. But with his limited control he clings to consciousness and looks Ladybug in the eye. A few months, maybe even a year ago, he would have greeted her with a pun. But now even the thought of a joke feels stale on his tongue.

"You're lucky I waited," She tells him. He nods his head numbly, words struggling to form in his throat. "Well, explain yourself," she huffs and crosses her arms. Before he can even open his mouth to speak, she has already assumed his absence is his fault and that he has a poor reason for ditching her.

Adrien tries to think of the story he constructed beforehand, but his head is spinning and he can't remember what his excuse was supposed to be. "I w's sick," the words slip out before he can stop them, as if they were pulled out of his mouth.

Her brows furrow as a pout twists her lips. "Chat, we're heroes. Heroes don't get sick days. I know it sucks, but you can't just not show up like you did yesterday because of a little cold. I had to fight the Akuma by myself. I needed you and you weren't there."

Chat Noir wants to cry. He was in the hospital, spending the last three days drifting in and out of consciousness. He shouldn't be running transformed about Paris now. But she doesn't know any of that, because he hasn't told her. But if he tells her, she will know. Ladybug will see that he is not fit to be Chat Noir. And she will take his ring—she will take Plagg away, and the thought of losing this freedom terrifies him. Being Chat Noir is everything to Adrien. Chat, even under Ladybug's control, has far more freedom than Adrien. He has Plagg who knows both sides of his secret lives, and the chance to do something for himself—not for his father, or for the brand, or for the cameras. Transforming in itself is an act of free will, and he has so few opportunities to express himself as Adrien that if he didn't have the ring around his finger he would suffocate. Ladybug's stare intensifies, burns through him, and Chat realizes he hasn't responded yet.

"I know," he stutters. "But my father was watching me closely, and I couldn't manage to sneak away," he wishes more than anything that he wasn't lying. That his father could actually care enough to stay and watch over him. That he didn't have to try and keep track of how many days it had been since Adrien even saw his father, much less spoke to him.

This is not grief, this is neglect and abuse. Plagg's words resurface. For a brief moment, he is sorely tempted to tell her everything anyway. To let her save him. He wants her to understand him the way they used to. He wants the partnership they had when they first started wielding the miraculous. He wants to prove himself worthy of her and her love. He wants her to stop looking at him like a disappointment, even if he is.

(He remembers his time as Aspik, how she told him they didn't need Chat Noir. Over and over the words repeated. We don't need Chat Noir we don't need we don't. He remembers failing to save Ladybug over and over again, trying for months that felt like lifetimes, trying until he was coughing up blood. He remembers how Viperion got it on the second try.)

She deserves to know the truth. As Ladybug, as the Guardian, she needs to know the truth. He knows she has a lot of pressure and responsibility, and he knows he is only making her job harder. But at his core, Chat Noir is selfish in a way Adrien is never allowed to be. As much as he knows his own unworthiness, his own shortcomings and his inability to properly wield his miraculous at this point, he also knows Chat Noir is the only other thing keeping Adrien together. And the selfish part of him is petty. Ladybug has been the Guardian for a year, and she still keeps secrets from him. Ladybug is the one keeping the burden to herself. He doesn't know her name, or even the names the other miraculous holders. Hell, he doesn't know how to make the power ups for Plagg that are sometimes essential for akuma battles. If she still can't trust him with information that crucial, why should he tell her?

He remains silent for the rest of patrol, his mind playing a vicious game of tug-of-war between betraying Ladybug and betraying himself. He knows if he opens his mouth nothing will be held back. There would be a confrontation and Chat would loose. Loose his miraculous, loose his freedom, loose the tiny shards of trust Ladybug still has for him. Because there is no winning against Ladybug. Three years of akumas and brainwashed Chat Noirs have proven it. And if Ladybug notices his occasional stumbles, she doesn't say anything. They end patrol without a word, and Chat feels so empty inside he wishes he didn't come at all.

His return to school the next day is anything but triumphant. Makeup is the only thing giving his face color—the only thing making him look like a living, breathing, functioning human really. Plagg urges him to stay home, but Adrien is tired of his empty house. The Gorilla gives him a sympathetic look and sneaks him a handful of granola bars once he gets into the car. Nestled inside the bundle is a little note with 15€ attached. "Heavy traffic" during lunch. You will need this to buy your own food today. Adrien almost starts crying, but he is too well trained and doesn't want to ruin his makeup. The Gorilla seems to understand.

Nino greets him with a hug that almost topples him over. Everyone wants to know where he's been and he doesn't have the heart or energy to explain the sob story that is his life. He doesn't think "hey guys I just spent the last three days in the hospital because my new diet brings my organs to the brink of shutting down right before a four-hour photo shoot, and also I'm Chat Noir, which probably means I burn more calories than an Olympic swimmer," would go over well. Besides, school is the one place where he usually doesn't have to worry about either of his lives, aside from stopping akuma attacks and skipping classes for photo shoots. So instead he says that he had a series of photo shoots that kept him busy.

"Dude, no offense, but you look like absolute shit and you've been gone for over a week. How many photo shoots did your dad make you do?" Nino asks him incredulously. Adrien swears his heart stops. A week? He was only unconscious for a few hours, and then he spent a couple days at the hospital, right? His first instinct is to look at his phone and check the date, but he knows that is too suspicious. So instead he smiles and scratches the back of his head sheepishly before replying, "oh, just four or five. Father gave me a few days to recover afterwards, but I didn't have my phone with me and I wasn't allowed to leave the house."

Nino's hands are on his shoulders and they burn. Suddenly hands are around his back, trapping his arms to his sides. He can't breathe, he can't move he's stuck he's trapped he can't breathe he can't—

"Adrien, dude, are you sure you're okay man? You're shaking." All the air seems to enter his body at once, filling his head until it spins. His muscles feel tight enough to snap, trembling with tension.

"m' fine," Adrien chokes out. "I jus' missed you, tha's all" Nino lets go just as quickly as he latched on.

"You really don't look fine dude," Nino sounds uncertain. "Maybe you should go home."

Adrien's heart stops. "NO!" His outburst is loud in his own ears and he can't consciously remember saying it and now he's rambling all sorts of things and his mouth won't stop.

"—and my home is so empty and I can't stand it and I missed hearing your voice and I missed school please don't make me go home please—" he finally seems to regain control of his mouth again, closing it with an audible snap. Nino's eyes are wide. Adrien doesn't even remember what he said. He doesn't know how much he's given away, if he said something he shouldn't have. He'll have to ask Plagg later but right now Nino's hand is on his face and why is his best friend suddenly touching him so much?

"I think you have a fever bro. Are you sure you should be at school like this?" Adrien nods resolutely, and Nino sighs. "Alright then bro, but maybe you should try to get some sleep before class starts. Adrien gives him the closest thing to a smile he can manage before dragging himself to class.

He manages to get what feels like three minutes of sleep before someone is poking him awake. Marinette is standing in front of his desk, holding out a slightly shaking cup of coffee from a nearby cafe.

"Nino-uh- told me you needed an up me pick I MEAN a pick-me-up so I uhhh got you coffee on the way to school I don't know what you like or even if you like coffee but I tried and—yeah," she stutters, trailing off at the end. Without another word, she all but shoves the coffee in front of him and stumbles up the stairs to her desk.

Exhaustion has already started tugging at his head, and class starts in thirty seconds, so without debate Adrien takes the coffee and sips at it tentatively. It's a little colder that he would like, and much too sweet, but he appreciates Marinette's efforts and drinks the whole thing anyway. He plans to thank her after class, but then an akuma attacks and Adrien's life as Chat Noir begins a further downward spiral.

He dies. Minutes after he transforms his vision starts going blurry and he gets lightheaded. Ladybug shouts orders that sound like water in his ears, and only years of fencing and battle-honed instincts keep him going as long as he does. But it's inevitable when the akuma is another member of his fencing team. Ladybug demands he distract the akuma, and the second the world tips he feels a sword slip underneath his ribs.

The pain roars up in a wave, quickly superseded by shock. His lungs hitch and blood slides out of him, dripping off the blade. It's red. His eyes are completely focused on the sight of his own mortality strung in front of him. And then his knees cease to exist. He's cold and hot at the same time, as if the universe is unraveling every thread that made him, trying to pull him back in the fold. Chat Noir comes undone.

And opens his eyes on a rooftop, Ladybug's cold eyes contradicted by the tears running down her face. "You stupid cat," she begins. Her mouth opens and closes, hands playing with her yoyo string. Her earrings beep. "You're lucky the Miraculous Cure brought you back." With that accusation, she leaves. Chat Noir smiles sardonically to himself. He's the Black Cat. The only luck he's ever had is stale.

A/N: thank you to guest with a lot of ideas, who inspired me to write a sequel. It took a while to figure out, but I hope the wait was worth it :)