Over time, Adrien stops measuring time by days. Each one is roughly the same, a set routine overflowing with blinding lights and saccharine smiles. Each flash leaves stars dancing across his eyes, his cheeks aching with how tightly he is controlling his lips from dipping into a frown. He can't remember how he was able to bring his smile to his eyes before. In the mirror, his pupils are the gateway to a deepening Void. Away from prying eyes, his face is always blank; all his emotions feel muted now, and he struggles to feel much of anything anymore. Or maybe he's feeling too much. Maybe he's too angry to feel sad, too sad to feel angry. Beneath his skin something that feels too close to despair crawls and slithers.

He wonders why he hasn't been akumatized yet.

Ladybug is doing fine without him—better even. (He always knew he was weighing her down. She never needed him. She was right to take Plagg from him but—)

Some days, Adrien can clench his hand and almost feel the destructive power of Cataclysm running through his veins. His senses feel on high alert and he wants to curl into a ball and scream because it's Not The Same without that little voice in his head that lets him know he's not (wasn't) alone. Then the next day, the sensation of being powerful is gone, and it's back to staring at the Void of his eyes in the mirror. The some days become less and less. Most days, his chest aches and burns and squeezes and hurts almost as much as being psudo-cataclysmed in the chest. (Who is he kidding, it hurts much, much more).

Natalie watches him slipping with calculating eyes, disappointed more than concerned. Even Kagami is frustrated at his half-hearted attempts at fencing. (Who is he kidding? His heart has been rotted out of his chest). He doesn't know how to tell her that the cavity under his ribs has been scraped away. He wants to tell her that food tastes like ash and he only eats it because Natalie is watching and he's tired of hospitals. He wants to tell her that something is deeply wrong with him but he can't bring himself to care. He wants to tell her what death tastes like; that it's gritty and bitter like coffee dregs and bile, that it coats the mouth and gets stuck in the throat. It's like getting liquid stuck between a swallow and a breath; it sits in the throat and triggers the feeling of choking just enough to harbor a quiet core of panic that won't leave.

He wants to tell her that he is (was) Chat Noir.

But every time the words form they die on his lips. Kagami knows what she wants. She looks at him expectantly, looking for a confession and an apology. Sorry he hasn't been on his game fencing. He'll do better. Be better. Those are always the words that come out instead. And Kagami sighs, shakes her head, and sometimes smiles. Forgiveness with disappointment. To Kagami, an apology means nothing if it isn't backed by action. They both know she's growing impatient with him.

Across his heart, eight stitches stretch over the skin. They burn to the touch, almost like a terrible itch that won't be scratched into acquiescence. They have grown, eating around his left shoulder and across his stomach. If he thought he could hold his heart before, now he thinks he might break into pieces. Or he'll be walking one day and his guts will just slide out. (He wonders if he will notice—if he will even care when it happens).

Adrien has been sleeping a lot more. Or at least he tries to. He's constantly exhausted, but some nights he stares at the ceiling until dawn peers over the horizon, or he prowls his room, missing the feel of the wind through his hair as he jumped over rooftops.

He doesn't know how he lived this life before the Miraculous. Doesn't know how long he can live in this cage without breaking.

Unbearable loss crushes his ribs into his lungs. Why didn't he fight harder? Why didn't he try to explain himself, or tell Ladybug no? He gave up the best piece of himself when he surrendered Plagg, and now the other edges are jagged as they shift around, cutting him at every turn. Plagg's absence is a hole ragged and deep within his chest.

And through it all, his father is more absent than ever. Natalie is starting to be a note and a schedule left on his desk more than a person. He's been locked in his room for days on end. He's played the piano until his fingers lock up and cramp, climbed the rock wall and skated the halfpipe until his grip gave out and his skateboard broke. He keeps playing music or movies so his room isn't unbearably silent but he still can't feel anything but deep restlessness that slithers up his spine or a nothingness so vast it swallows him whole.

Some days he doesn't get out of bed. Natalie doesn't check in on him anymore. Neither does Kagami. No that's not fair—Kagami has an important fencing tournament coming up. She gave up distractions so she could focus on winning.

(It isn't the first time Adrien has fallen into the category of distraction. It probably won't be the last either)

Nino has stopped texting him too. It makes sense that his first true friend would leave him as well. Adrien was only wasting everyone's time by thinking he could be more than his father's puppet. No one wants to be friends with a hollow person.

The news becomes his anchor to the outside world. Ladybug has a whole team of Miraculous holders. Rena and Carapace, Viperion and Queen Bee. The akuma battles are all over quickly. The team moves with each other, trusting Ladybug's orders and carrying them out with efficiency.

Viperion has quickly taken the role of LB's second. He watches as he whispers something into her ear and she nods in agreement. They strategize together, and she laughs at his jokes. She's always smiling and laughing during battles, now that Chat Noir isn't an obstacle.

And, doesn't it just hurt to know that the part of himself that he loved most was not needed or wanted? Master Fu chose wrong, in the end. Adrien built up the best part of himself on a lie, on a foolish, faded dream.

He has never been anything but unlucky.

After the battles Ladybug swings down, full of easy confidence and the power to inspire people. The reporters ask a few questions about the akuma, about the team she's assembled. Inevitably, one of them asks "Where is Chat Noir?" He always turns off the TV then, afraid of her answer. (He wonders if she tells them the truth. They keep asking her, 'where is Chat Noir.' As if they cared for him as a hero. Paris never—

It's stupid really. He knows what happens. He failed her. She failed him. It's only fair.

And then one day, there's a butterfly in his room. It hovers over his head, waiting for him to reach out his hand. He could. It would be so easy, to let the darkness sink in like ink under his skin. He could fight back against his life, rage in a way that makes him blameless.

Adrien has always been so tightly controlled. Not allowed to speak unless spoken to. A puppet choked by his own strings. What is one more master? Ladybug is supposed to be the best of them, and she saw fit to command him. To control him. Does that mean he is beyond saving? Beyond freedom?

No.

The akuma dissolves against his skin. It's wings crumble and fold like burnt paper, turning to ash. Adrien starts and stares at the akuma dust dissolving on the floor. His veins are racing with power, skin crackling with black lightning. Somewhere deep in his chest, he feels something almost like Plagg settle against his ribs.

He's Chat Noir, even without the ring. His heart soars. Ladybug couldn't take it from him, even when he renounced Plagg.

Something foreign stretches his lips upwards. He had almost forgotten what happiness felt like.

The moment doesn't last long. Generating a cataclysm without Plagg takes a breathtaking amount of energy. Adrien is sinking to his knees and trying to breathe even as it feels like his bones are burning. But even through the pain, Adrien is grinning.

Footsteps can be heard outside his door. Adrien immediately staggers to his feet, slipping into his role as his father's son before the doorknob begins to turn. Natalie looks slightly flustered, something Adrien has never seen before.

"Adrien," it's the first words that have been addressed to him in over a week. "Your father would like me to take you around the city to determine the location for your next photoshoot." He's ushered out of the room and into the car before he can do so much as grab his phone.

The back of his mind is strangely disquieted. He can't help but think Natalie knows something just happened. He can't help but think she is trying to get him out of the way.

Natalie and the Gorilla drag him all over the city. By the end of the day, Adrien is dead on his feet and Natalie finally takes mercy on him. When he gets home every corner of his room has been overturned.

It feels like a betrayal, the utter lack of privacy he gets. He wonders why he ever thought his room was sacred. The empty ache of disappointment is not new. But he deals with it like he always does: shoving it into a box and setting the box on fire. It's not like he can confront his father, or Natalie. As long as every waking moment of his life is in their hands, there is no fighting what they do.

All he can do is sigh and go to sleep.

The next day, a new akuma is raging across Paris, more hateful and angry than Adrien has ever felt before. His eyes are glued to the TV, the remote clutched in his hands. The outline of a butterfly masks over the akuma, and Hawkmoth's enraged voice echoes loudly across the streets of Paris.

"Where are you hiding Chat Noir, Ladybug? You can't keep him from me forever!"

Chills run down Adrien's spine. Chat Noir is dead. He is a dream that wilted. If Hawkmoth is looking for Chat Noir, he won't find him. Adrien reaches for where the ring used to be. His fingertips meet skin, but he twists anyway, trying to regain that old comfort.

"Come out, come out Chat Noir, wherever you are!" The akuma taunts through the streets. Nadia Chamack is following the events from a helicopter, but even that is not safe from the akuma's rage. Adrien's stomach clenches every time a car is hurled at the helicopter, every time the news team screams and cowers at the violence shown against them for doing their jobs. Even from high up in the air, Adrien can see the destruction on the streets. He can see Paris running with blood and fire.

Deep anger burns in his gut. This city will not be reduced to rubble and broken bones for his sake. If the akuma is looking for Chat Noir, it will get Chat Noir. He will take down this akuma with or without his ring, without Plagg, without Ladybug.

After all, Adrien has Destruction sewn into his skin.

The akuma is being harassed by team Ladybug by the Louvre when Adrien arrives on the scene, wearing the costume he almost wore for the Clara Nightingale music video and sporting a bo staff he hadn't touched since before he started fencing. He watches as Rena Rouge and Carapace are swatted through the glass pyramid, wincing in sympathy. The suits are good at what they do, but certainly not perfect. There is no way the pair avoided bruises, if not broken bones or a concussion. Ladybug shouts after them, but her attention is quickly sucked into dodging the akuma's attacks.

"Where is Chat Noir!" The akuma screams.

"Chat Noir is not coming, and nothing you do will bring him out!" Ladybug yells back. She tries to restrain it's arms with her yoyo, but the akuma grabs the string and uses it to fling her to the side.

"Liar! He will come! I know he's here! You can't hide him forever Ladybug! I will raze Paris to the ground if I have to!" The akuma screeches. Adrien watches the scene with a vague sense of dread. For whatever reason, Ladybug did not outright tell the akuma that the Black Cat miraculous had been decommissioned. Surely Ladybug would have told the public that Chat Noir was retired?! Or discharged? Did the public not know that Chat Noir was effectively dead?

He wished now he had watched Ladybug's responses to the "Chat Noir question," because if she had been making excuses (lying) to the public about his absence from the field, this was a problem.

Ladybug gathered herself for another assault, only to be swatted to the side with a careless flick. Ladybug flew into the Louvre with none of the grace she was known for. Queen Bee arrived on the scene, all high kicks and snarky words, giving Adrien the cover he needed to make sure his (former) partner was not just effectively removed from the battle.

When he approached, Ladybug was awake but stunned, a trail of blood trickling down from her forehead to meet the red of her suit. The gash already seemed to be healing, but it would take a few minutes for her to rejoin the battle. Glancing back at the akuma, Adrien watched as the other heroes were once again flung away.

"Chat…on?" Ladybug's voice slurred. Her eyes were wide, her expression the most panicked he had seen in awhile. By the way her pupils were different sizes, he guessed she had a horrible concussion.

"He already took out Luk—Viperion. I don't know if Rena and Carapace and Queen are…" her voice broke as she clutched at her head. "Go now, before he sees you," she whispered. Adrien watched as Queen Bee was flung into the ground, her suit deactivating as her kwami took most of the damage.

"I'm all Paris has left," he told her, as if he alone would be enough. As if he didn't know that he was the weak link in their old partnership. Funny, how no one wanted Chat Noir until he was gone. Adrien's heart was racing, strategies buzzing in his head. With no one else to distract the akuma, it was steadily approaching the shadows where Adrien was hiding.

"You've lost, Ladybug," the akuma crowed. "Now, bring me Chat Noir, or your life and those of your teammates are forfeit."

Adrien stepped out of the shadows. The akuma's face breaks into a crazed grin as his eyes lock on his prize. "Finally, the true challenge arrives!" The akuma laughs, as if Paris is not on fire because of him, as if Adrien has not come across hundreds of corpses and streets rotten with death.

"Chat Noir! I am Perses, and I challenge you to determine which of us is the true god of destruction!"

In that moment, Adrien can feel the universe unraveling at his fingertips. He feels a shit eating grin slide over his face, lips catching on teeth that are suddenly too pointed and sharp. "Perses!" Chat Noir greets with a voice like thunder. He can feel the moment the ring wraps around his finger, Plagg sinking into the back of his mind as if he had never left. "I promise, you will lose," his ears and tail form out of the surrounding shadows, dripping like black ink. He can feel the bones of the earth, the ribs and the spine under his feet. The strings are slewing through his fingers, ready to be shaped or cut away as he sees fit. He has the power to bend light until it shatters, to snap reality like a bone, to melt time down and remake it like iron. In that moment, Adrien realizes he treads a path worse than death.

The akuma could only ever hope to hold a faint spark to his wildfire. Adrien is too far gone to stop what has been put in motion. Chat Noir is a deity of his own making. His voice, like a raging storm, calls

"Destruction!"

A/N: hey guys, sorry for the wait, but hopefully this chapter was worth it. This was originally going to be the end of the story, and while it is the end of Puppet Master, I'm already planning out a story to follow this one. So, the story will continue, but it will be something separate from PM.