5

Not Our First Paris

The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

The G-Man- Half-Life 2

Only sheer physical and mental exhaustion could explain Marinette's deep sleep that night. As she blinked her eyes to see the sunlight stream through her windows, she briefly stretched and closed her eyes, intending to sleep a little longer. Then her eyes shot open, her heart rate skyrocketed, and she sat up in bed. The memories of the previous day crashed upon her like a tidal wave. She placed her palm on her forehead as she recounted the insane events and new information that had completely turned her life upside down. She shivered and wrapped herself tightly in her blanket.

Tikki floated up to greet her. The smile on the kwami's face appeared forced as she said, "Good morning."

Marinette rubbed her forehead and groaned. "Tikki, is there any possible way yesterday was just some terrible nightmare?"

Her kwami's fake smile immediately shattered. "I'm afraid not. It was very real. Shouwang has returned."

Marinette's mind passed through the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon in a seemingly endless fog. Her body went on autopilot as she got up, took a shower, and had breakfast with her parents. Though she understandably wasn't very hungry, she forced herself to eat and drank her orange juice, unable to enjoy the flavor at all. More than once she stared off into space, failing to realize that her parents were attempting to talk to her until they repeated her name a few times. That trend continued as she helped them in the bakery. Often, she would have to be asked more than once to complete a task. At one point, Tom dropped an empty platter on the floor by accident. The loud unexpected sound made her heart suddenly stop as she momentarily became seized with panic. She was still breathing heavily as her mother laid a caring hand on her shoulder.

"Are you okay dear? You've been awfully jumpy today," Sabine asked.

"Oh I'm…fine," Marinette answered as she rubbed the back of her head. "I just have a lot on my mind. Sorry for spacing out so much."

Tom emerged from the back kitchen, muttering an apology over dropping the platter. Upon seeing his wife's clear look of concern, M. Dupain frowned and turned his attention to Marinette. He too had noticed her withdrawn expression and nervous behavior throughout the morning. She had helped them out without complaint, but at several points she had appeared distracted and when confronted, she would mostly avoid eye contact with them. Even now as she withdrew from Sabine and dutifully pulled some croissants from the oven, Tom could see the uneasiness in her expression. He didn't need a degree in psychology to know that something was off with his daughter.

He went to the front door of the bakery and locked it while putting up a sign that they were temporarily closed. He then turned back around and pointed upstairs.

"Alright, it's been a really slow day today," he said, "why don't we go upstairs and have lunch?"

Marinette followed her parents upstairs and reluctantly tried to eat as her mind remained a chaotic, semi-panicked mess. She ate even less than she did at breakfast and stared at the rest of her food in disinterest. She was vaguely aware of the expression of alarm shared between her parents but did not react to it. Her mother recommended that she take the rest of the afternoon off. She didn't argue and spent a good chunk of the afternoon glued to the couch as she watched TV.

Against her better judgment, Marinette switched to the news. As she feared, most of the local top stories involved their frightening encounter with Shouwang. The boy who had been akumatized as Heavyweight was interviewed. Wrapped in a shock blanket, the young man recounted in horrifying detail what it was like to witness the monster up close. Even worse, all of Paris and beyond was shown recordings of their heroes cowering and quite possibly peeing themselves in the face of this terrifying humanoid abomination. Marinette covered her face with one of the pillows on the couch.

Great, she thought, now everyone knows that we are completely unprepared for this enemy.

She remained in that depressed stupor for a long time, watching helplessly as the media pondered whether or not their heroes could face this new challenge. While she listened to these growing voices of doubt, she occasionally checked her phone. There wasn't much going on that didn't have to do with the main story on the news. She did get some texts from Alya but barely paid attention to them. It seemed her best friend was angry with an English translator for her blog for some reason, but Marinette only skimmed over the details. An hour or so later, her father reentered their apartment. He wiped his brow and got himself a glass of water. He sat next to her daughter on the couch and stretched.

"Well, I think that's enough for today," he declared as he placed his feet on the ottoman.

"It's still midafternoon. The bakery shouldn't be closed for another few hours," Marinette replied.

"Your mother and I decided to close early. We've been really slow today. Not many people are wandering in the streets in this heat."

"Then feel free to watch this depressing crap with me," she told him as she leaned her head back on the couch.

"I have a better idea," her dad said as he reached for the remote and turned the TV off, "why don't you come with me to visit a new bakery that just opened?"

Marinette smirked and tilted her head towards her dad. "Scouting out the competition papa?"

Her father shook his head. "No, no, it's not like that. They don't sell anything we do, so I wouldn't classify them as competition?"

"So…what? Is it a foreign bakery?"

"Correct," Tom answered as he stood up and stretched his arms out. "Remember when we thought we were going to move to the United States and open a bakery in New York?"

Marinette slowly nodded. "Yeah. For the fashion industry offer from Chloe's mom. I remember."

"Well, this is an American family that has moved to Paris to open a bakery here," Tom explained, "I met the owner Duke Jameson at an international baking competition in Paris last year. Great man. He barely speaks any French though."

"Then how are we supposed to talk to them?" Marinette asked as she stared out the window, "I had decently good grades in my English classes but I'm not sure I can hold a conversation."

"That won't be a problem," her father assured her with a wave of his hand. "His wife is fluent and apparently their son has also mastered the language. He happens to be around your age. I thought it would be nice for you to meet them."

Marinette remained motionless on the couch. She continued staring out the window, apparently uninterested in the idea. Her head turned in the direction of the remote, but her father had other ideas. He placed it out of immediate reach on the coffee table.

"Come on," he urged as he placed his hands on his hips, "you've watched enough bad news. I think some time outside the home might do you some good."

Marinette briefly sighed in resignation and stared up at the ceiling. I guess I have nothing better to do, she thought.

With some reluctance she got off the couch and followed her father downstairs and out of the bakery. She brought her purse with her as well with Tikki hidden inside. The midafternoon streets of Paris were mostly empty, and it didn't take Marinette long to figure out why. The August sun radiated intensely in the cloudless sky, baking the city below in constant heat. The walk to this new American bakery lasted only eight minutes or so, but she could already feel some sweat on her neck and brow by minute four. When they reached their destination, she was relieved to walk into the building's shadow and avoid the direct reach of the sun.

The bakery was located at the intersection of two cross streets in a relatively quiet neighborhood some distance away from the main avenues of Paris. To the right of the bakery Marinette could see a halal grocery store with Arabic script on the front entrance. Across the street was a small bookstore, a coffee shop, and a Chinese restaurant. Other than that, the area appeared to be mostly residential. Outside the bakery itself two small flags hung at the top of the front entrance. One was the American flag and the other was one she did not recognize. It was red, white, and blue like its counterpart, but it had only white star in a field of dark blue with a large band of white on top of a red one. Below the flags the main entrance displayed the bakery's name in gold English lettering: The Southern Market.

Marinette followed her father inside the front entrance, grateful for the obvious presence of air conditioning. She was immediately greeted with a strange, yet somehow alluring cacophony of smells from the two display cases of baked goods behind a few tables and chairs for the as of yet nonexistent customers. Being a baker's daughter, she was quite familiar with the smell of croissants, macaroons, and other French treats. Yet while the baked goods back home always seemed to complement each other nicely, the mixed American confections before her was a confusing blend of different aromas piled on top of each other. Her nose detected a myriad of different flavors ranging from sickly sweet and fruity to nutty and buttery. Her sense of smell also picked up a fair amount of sugar. Lots and lots of sugar to be exact. So much sugar, in fact, that she could feel Tikki twitching in her purse with excitement.

Filled with sudden curiosity, she walked across the white tiled floor to the nearest display case, peering at the desserts and baked goods inside. There were the American staples she expected like donuts, apple pies, and chocolate chip cookies, but she also saw many others that she didn't recognize. Each treat was labelled in English with a French translation or at least a close French approximation underneath it. Using said translations as her guide, Marinette visually acquainted herself with a variety of U.S. desserts and baked goods such as pecan pie, key lime pie, Southern cornbread, peach cobbler, Texas sheet cake, buttermilk biscuits, bread pudding, and many others. She also noticed several round pastries filled with several types of fruit filling. The label in front of them read "Kolaches" and there were several small Czech flags surrounding them. To the left of these kolaches at the very end of the display case was a circular cake colored in multiple bands of yellow, green, and purple. A pile of beads and a few miniature Carnival masks around this pastry identified it as a Louisiana King Cake.

The sound of footsteps near the door behind the register prompted Marinette to turn her head. A woman who appeared to be either in her early fifties or late forties emerged from the back kitchen. She possessed shoulder-length black hair that was curled on its ends and a green apron that read ARMY STRONG. On said apron was a single button that matched the single star red, white, and blue flag Marinette had seen outside the store. Her mascara and overall makeup were impeccably done and as her hands touched the counter next to the register, the young Parisian also noted that her nails had clearly been manicured by a professional. Her clear blue eyes widened, and a broad smile appeared on her face to greet the bakery's new arrivals. She opened her mouth and addressed the two in flawless French, though there was a noticeable accent and an odd slow vowel accentuation in her voice.

"Bonjour," she began before motioning to the pastries in their store, "Welcome to the Southern Market. Is there anything that specific that you're looking for?"

At that point, her father stepped forward and cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm here to see Duke, though I wouldn't mind taking some donuts home. My name is Tom Dupain. I met him last year at the competition."

The smile on the woman's face grew wider in pleasant surprise. "Oh, so you're Tom. I'm Beverly, his wife. He's told me so much about you. Hold on, I'll go and get him for you. Hopefully he's done smoking the meats."

Marinette raised an eyebrow as Mrs. Jameson disappeared back into the kitchen. Smoking the meats? her mind wondered, I thought this was a bakery.

Before she could get an answer to her question, a hearty laugh resounded behind the double doors leading to the kitchen. A few seconds later, a man with a matching ARMY STRONG apron emerged from the back and immediately made his way to M. Dupain. He was slightly taller than his wife with matching black hair around the sides of his head and a large bald spot on top of his scalp. He possessed thick muscular arms and a considerably large gut that strained against the apron tied against his waist. The American baker let out a hearty, infectious laugh that filled the space of the bakery. He briefly wrapped Marinette's father in a strong embrace before separating and then slapping his shoulder. When he spoke, his French was heavily accented and almost unintelligible to her ears.

"Welcome…my friend," he greeted him before switching to English, "Long time no see….good…see you again."

Tom laughed and returned an affectionate pat on the man's shoulder. "I see your French has improved a bit," he remarked.

"Your English…worse," Duke managed, prompting another laugh from M. Dupain and a slight chuckle from Marinette as well.

"That's fair," Tom responded as he looked around the room, "I have to say, I'm impressed on how your store turned out. You've done a lot in such a short period of time."

"Papa, you should probably speak slower and in shorter sentences," Marinette suggested.

Mr. Jameson dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand. "Can understand French okay. Speaking still hard. You are…his daughter?"

Marinette nodded and shook the man's hand. "Yes. My name is Marinette Dupain-Cheng. It's a pleasure to meet you."

"Duke Jameson," the baker replied. "Nice to meet you. Have son…your age."

The man turned to his wife and switched back to his native tongue. "Speaking of which, where is our boy Zeke?"

"Still walking Maggie dear," she informed him. She approached her guests with a plate of the round fruit-filled pastries Marinette had seen earlier. "Here, have a kolache. They're on the house."

"That's very kind of you," Tom replied as he grabbed a pastry, "but I feel like we should be supporting your business, especially after you took the time to move half a world away to open it."

Mrs. Jameson politely shook her head. "No Tom, we insist. We're from the American South, a region of the country where hospitality is taken very seriously. As far as I'm concerned, you are our guests, not just customers. Besides, your advice on how to open a business in France helped make this possible."

Marinette accepted the offer and selected a kolache. She took a bite…and her mouth was transported to paradise. The American treat was doughy, buttery, and had a rich strawberry filling that instantly excited her taste buds. For a brief moment, she forgot the newfound danger in her life as she enjoyed the rest of the pastry.

She swallowed and quickly expressed her gratitude. "Thank you, Mme. Jameson. That kolache was delicious. But I noticed a lot of Czech flags around them earlier. Is it not originally from the United States"

"No, it isn't," the woman replied, "it was brought to our state of Texas by Czech immigrants in the 19th century and has been popular there ever since. I'm partially descended from those immigrants myself."

Tom inhaled his kolache and looked around the bakery. "Have you had much luck with customers yet?"

The smile on Beverly Jameson's face soured somewhat. "We've had a few curious locals come in and buy things," she replied with a sigh, "but so far we haven't had enough sustained business to-"

The rest of her sentence was cut off by a sudden explosion of high-pitched barking coming from the direction of the kitchen. The voice of a young man could be heard yelling in protest as the sound of four legging scurrying quickly drew closer to them.

"MAGGIE! Get your furry butt back here!" the young man cried out.

A split second later a medium-sized dog burst through the kitchen door and instantly charged Marinette and her father. She was light brown in color and possessed a thick, curly fur. She briefly slid on the white tile floor before getting up and barking like a maniac as she approached Tom and jumped on his legs in uncontrolled excitement. A blue leash followed behind her with no human at its end. The dog then turned her attention to Marinette, sniffing her and her purse which she quickly tried to move out of the animal's reach.

A teenage boy quickly followed behind, panting and grumbling under his breath as he moved forward to take control of the dog's leash. Duke laughed and Beverly shook her head in disapproval as he drew closer to Marinette and her father.

"Zeke, what have we told you about letting Maggie into the store area?" Beverly asked in her native tongue.

"I'm sorry mom," he replied, "I was washing my hands in the kitchen sink after disposing of Maggie's…you know, and had the leash tucked under my armpit. She heard the customers and escaped."

With their thick regional American accents, Marinette couldn't easily understand what they were saying. But the visual comedy of watching the boy try to hold back the hyperactive dog while simultaneously being lectured by his parents was enough to make her laugh. She briefly petted the animal, who responded to her kindness by attempting to sniff her backside in a rather invasive manner. When she yelped in protest, the American teenager forcibly pulled the dog back by the leash.

"Hey, what did I tell you about sniffing strangers' butts?" the young man asked in heavily accented, though grammatically correct French.

The dog whined and scurried with her front legs in the direction of the bakery's guests. But the adolescent's grip on the leash remained firm.

"No Maggie," he told her, "the fact that you are a female dog doesn't make that any less inappropriate."

Marinette laughed at the scene and looked up at Zeke. For a brief moment her mouth dropped, and her eyes lit up with surprise. With a few notable exceptions, the American youth was almost a perfect match to Adrien Agreste. He was around the same height and possessed the same wavy and slightly wild hair style of her crush. His facial features and chin also resembled the boy she had come to associate with perfection. The major divergence between the two came in his eye color and hair, which were solid brown and black, respectively. He was also slightly more muscular than Adrien, with thicker arms and shoulders. But the thing that most sparked her curiosity were the three small parallel scars found that could be seen next to his right eyebrow.

The young man quickly noticed that he was being stared at and immediately looked away in discomfort. "Uh. Is there something wrong?"

His face quickly lit up with horror as another thought occurred to him. "Oh my God, did I say something wrong? If I accidentally said something inappropriate, I'm really, really sorry. I still mess up my French sometimes."

Marinette unglued her tongue from the roof of her mouth and snapped out of her shock. "No, you didn't. I'm sorry, you just look like someone I know."

"Yes, you resemble a close friend of hers," Tom said with a smile and a knowing tone that she did not appreciate.

"Well, I would be happy to also be a close friend," he responded as he extended his hand. "Zeke Jameson. Nice to meet you."

She reached out and shook his hand. "Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Likewise."

"Sorry about Maggie," the young man apologized as he scratched the back of his neck. "She's a Wheaton terrier. They're a very hyperactive breed that has little sense of personal space."

"It's fine," Marinette replied before moving her bag out of Maggie's reach. The canine barked a few times before Zeke pulled her back.

"Though I'm not sure why she's so obsessed with your purse," he said as he scratched his head.

A bead of nervous sweat trickled down her face as she tried to laugh it off. "Oh well, who knows?" she replied as she shifted the purse and Tikki towards her back.

Marinette cleared her throat and looked around the room, eager for a change of subject. Her eyes landed on two wooden shapes hung up on the wall close to Mrs. Jameson. One appeared familiar, with strange jagged and elongated edges that appeared similar to a macaron that had gone horrible wrong. The second shape appeared more like a long rectangle with bumpy edges on its eastern and western boundaries.

"That carving up there, is that Texas?" Marinette, asked, pointing to the first one.

"Correct," Mrs. Jameson answered. "That's my home state. The single star flag out front also represents Texas."

"And what about the other one?"

"That's Tennessee," Zeke replied as he pulled Maggie closer to the register, much to the dog's displeasure, "that's the state where my dad and I were born."

Marinette tapped her chin with sudden curiosity. "So, The Southern Market. South means sud, right?"

Zeke nodded his head. "Yes, Texas and Tennessee are both in the Southeastern United States. That's where the name comes from."

"That's so interesting. I hope you're enjoying Paris, even if it's very far away from your original home."

"Best Paris…we ever been," Mr. Jameson declared with a smile.

Tom and Marinette looked at each other in confusion. Both assumed that the American baker had screwed up on his rather limited French.

"I'm sorry, what do you mean by the 'best Paris'?" she cautiously asked.

Zeke groaned and rolled his eyes. "My dad is trying to be clever. There are two towns in Texas and Tennessee that are both named Paris in honor of this city. We've lived in one and visited the other…that's why he's saying this city is the best 'Paris' out of the other two we've been to."

"Well, that makes a lot more sense," Tom remarked with a laugh.

Zeke's attention was stolen away by a sudden buzzing in his pocket. He checked his phone and his face immediately soured. He dragged Maggie towards the kitchen in a huff. A few choice words in English were muttered under his breath.

"Ezzy, language," his mother warned.

"I'm sorry," he said as he opened the kitchen door. "Alya's just been grilling me nonstop since I posted that video."

M. Dupain and Marinette's eyes widened at the same time. They briefly exchanged glances of surprise. Even Tikki seemed somewhat shocked. A slight noise emanated from her purse which she quickly muffled with her hand. Fortunately, the Jamesons didn't seem to notice.

"She asked you not to add your commentary on the video," Mrs. Jameson reminded him.

"To heck with that," Zeke replied as he propped open the kitchen door. "She asked me to respond to an akuma attack at the last minute for her Ladyblog and keep my mouth shut at the same time without any explanation? No thanks, she can deal with it."

As Zeke disappeared into the kitchen with Maggie, Marinette's mind quickly raced with its inevitable conclusion. No way. He's the English translator Alya was complaining about?

Once the American teenager was gone, Beverly Jameson made a slight bow and said, "Forgive my son's behavior. He's a major fan of Ladybug and Chat Noir and he's still upset that he didn't get the chance to film the new villain appearance yesterday."

A loud groan could be heard near the kitchen entrance. "Thank you for the reminder Mom!"

Marinette forced a smile as she tried to block out the memories of her encounter with Shouwang yesterday. Yes, her mind agreed, thank you so much for the reminder.

Tom, ignorant of her daughter's growing discomfort, took a few steps forward and looked at the bakery. He put his hands on his hips in a posture of approval.

"I have to say I'm impressed Duke," he declared as he locked eyes with Mr. Jameson. "I'm surprised you could afford a space like this."

"We wouldn't have been able to afford it, without some help from Hawk Moth," Mrs. Jameson explained.

Marinette nearly gagged on her own saliva at the mention of her secret archenemy. Tom's mouth hung open, looking at his hosts in utter disbelief. Beverly quickly held up her hands to pacify their concerns.

"Let me be clear," she said, "we want Paris to be free of that menace. But his frequent attacks have driven the rent price down in the center areas of Paris. Without that, I doubt we could have been able to get such a prime location to start our business."

Marinette stared at the floor for a minute as she absorbed this information. After thinking over the matter, she had to admit that the foreigners had a point. The two-year conflict she and Chat Noir had fought against Hawk Moth had certainly exhausted and annoyed many Parisians. While they had been able to counter the akumas every time, they had not been able to stop the supervillain plaguing the city. Many Parisian business owners and residents, tired of the constant disruption and stalemate, had packed up and moved to the suburbs or to different cities in France. The drop in real estate and rent price had been taken advantage of by a growing group of risk takers that were not afraid to weather akumatizations in exchange for the beneficial location and potential profit. She had only just met the Jamesons, but their carefree demeanor while mentioning Hawk Moth let her know that they were not likely to be scared easily and were more than willing to seize precious real estate in Paris, regardless of the akuma threat.

As Zeke's footsteps signaled his approach from the kitchen, his mother asked him to bring a pitcher of tea for their guests. A brief Yes Ma'am was heard, shortly followed by some shuffling and the distinctive sound of glass clanking against metal. Zeke then emerged carrying a platter with several empty glasses and a large pitcher of iced tea that contained a few lemons inside.

He approached their Parisian guests and cleared his throat. "At the risk of sounding extremely stereotypical, y'all want some of our sweet tea?" he asked in an exaggerated form of his native accent.

Marinette chuckled at the slightly self-deprecating joke while her father assisted in holding the platter while the American teenager poured out two glasses. Parched from being out in the heat for nearly ten minutes, she eagerly accepted the drink. Although she was more or less aware of the English word sweet and its meaning, she was still surprised when she took the first sip. Her taste buds, expecting merely iced black tea, were momentarily shocked by the sugary rush of liquid decadence that touched her tongue. It was undeniably sweeter than most beverages she was used to, yet somehow still refreshing and flavorful.

She stared at the drink with a strange curiosity. "This is…interesting."

"We don't call it sweet tea for nothing," Zeke replied.

"She seems to like it," his mother remarked, "maybe you could bring some for your fellow students after orientation."

The smile on his face quickly disappeared. His face turned red and he gave his parents a look of embarrassed horror. "What? No. I already told you I don't want to do that."

"But there's a cultural portion at the end," Mrs. Jameson reminded him a smile.

"An optional cultural portion," he replied. "There will be plenty of Americans at this school. I don't need to fulfill any stereotypes by announcing, Howdy. Y'all want some of my momma's sweet tea and cornbread biscuits? Heck, I can throw in some of my dad's ribs if y'all want."

Mr. Jameson suddenly snapped his fingers and turned his eyes towards the kitchen. "That reminds me. Time to take the pork out of the smoker."

The American baker took his leave and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. Tom returned the platter and drank some of his sweet tea. He smiled and nodded his head in approval.

"I like it. Definitely sweet, but not too much to overwhelm the tea flavor. Thank you for sharing this with us Beverly."

"I'm glad you like it. That specific recipe has been in our family for generations" Mrs. Jameson replied before glancing at Zeke, "now if only I could convince my son to bring some of it with him for his school's orientation."

Zeke, still facing Marinette and Tom, audibly groaned. The pupils of his eyes darted upwards in annoyance. Beverly lowered her eyebrows and put her hands on her hips. She loudly cleared her throat and her son's expression quickly became decidedly more nervous.

"I certainly hope you haven't forgotten never to roll your eyes at me young man," she warned him in an increasingly stern tone. She folded her arms over her chest. "And I certainly hope you wouldn't think of doing that in front of guests."

The Jameson teenager anxiously swallowed. "No ma'am, I haven't forgotten," he answered in a subdued voice.

Yikes, Marinette thought as she looked to the side and quietly finished her sweet tea, his mom does not play around.

Tom likewise looked awkwardly to the side before turning back to Zeke. He scratched his chin for a moment and reluctantly broke the silence. "So…are you excited to start school here in September?"

Zeke, apparently eager for the change of subject, quickly seized on the question. "Yes sir, I…I mean oui monsieur," he stammered as he noticeably cringed from his language error, "I am really excited. But this is a major step for me. I've never done anything like this before, and I'm not going to know anyone at Lycée International Jane Vialle."

The eyes of the two French visitors suddenly widened in surprise. Marinette briefly lost control of her glass and was barely able to grab it again before it fell and shattered on the floor. She then sheepishly placed it back on the platter Zeke was holding.

"Sorry about that," Marinette apologized as she rubbed her left arm, "what you said caught me off guard."

"Why?" Zeke asked as he put the platter back on the counter. "Is there something wrong with that school?"

"No," Tom answered before giving a knowing glance in her daughter's direction. "But you've already met your first fellow classmate there."

Zeke furrowed his eyebrows in confusion for a moment. He then turned to Marinette and his eyes suddenly widened in understanding. She gave him an awkward smile and shrug, confirming his sudden revelation. His face instantly lit up with excitement.

"You're going to be a student there?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered. "My Collège Françoise Dupont has funneled a lot of its former students to that lycée. I can introduce you to some of them if you'd like."

The American's face and shoulders suddenly relaxed as an expression of general relief appeared on his face. "That…that would be amazing," he admitted as he averted her gaze for a moment and scratched the back of his head. "I knew two thirds of the lycée would be native French students, but I didn't think I would actually run into one before I went to class. I would appreciate it if you would introduce me to your friends. This is a…new environment for me."

Sensing his discomfort, Marinette nodded and smiled. "It's okay," she said, "I'm sure it's not easy to start school here. If I were a new student in the United States, I would also want some help from local students."

Mr. Jameson remerged from the kitchen, carrying a platter with a large, blackened pork shoulder fresh from the smoker. A strong, intoxicating meat smell instantly filled the air. He placed it on an empty part of the counter and after putting on some gloves, slowly broke apart the outer bark of the meat, revealing the tender meat beneath. A puff of smoke filled the air and the powerful aroma instantly made Marinette's mouth water. She had never been a vegetarian, but ever since becoming Ladybug she had tried to limit her diet to the leaner protein options of chicken and fish. This sweet smelling American smoked meat was quickly making her rethink that policy.

"I thought you were a baker, not a butcher," Tom observed.

"He is," Beverly replied. "But every other week he goes back to his barbecue roots and makes ribs or pulled pork for both the customers and us."

She sighed as she observed her husband shred the block of pork. "I didn't want to spend the money to get a smoker over here, but he insisted."

Duke looked up from his work and announced, "You…take some home."

Tom waved his hands in front of him to indicate his refusal. "Oh no, we couldn't. We've taken enough free stuff from you."

"Nonsense," Beverly answered as she loaded a half dozen donuts in a container for them, "we insist."

"We really need to support your business though," he countered.

"You can do that by telling your friends and family about us."

"Still, I must pay for something. It wouldn't be right."

Mrs. Jameson didn't budge as she handed the package of donuts to Tom. "Don't worry about it. It's on us."

Tom continued to protest as Mrs. Jameson kept trying to hand off the treats to him without charge. He was forced to redouble his efforts as Mr. Jameson tried to give him some pulled pork on the house as well. Both sides politely went back and forth, trying to convince the other to yield. Zeke walked closer to Marinette and shook his head.

Leaning closer to her, he whispered, "Knowing my parents, this is going to take a while."

Marinette couldn't help but laugh in agreement. When she finished laughing, she exhaled and subconsciously relaxed her shoulders. She hadn't expected much from the visit, but she silently thanked her father for encouraging her to come along. As she watched her father continue to debate with this strange yet charming American family, she could almost forget the danger she was in.

Ψ

After Zeke and Marinette exchanged contact information, Tom and Beverly finally ended their polite argument to come to a compromise. The donuts would be paid for. However, the pulled pork was apparently non-negotiable, partially because Mr. Jameson didn't have the French language skills to negotiate in the first place. Reluctantly Tom obliged and father and daughter said their goodbyes and prepared to leave. But Mrs. Jameson insisted on one last act of hospitality by giving them two sweet teas to go before walking back home in the heat (again, Tom's objections went unheeded). After returning home Sabine immediately lectured her husband on taking too much free food from a new business. Marinette quickly ascended the stairs to her room as her father tried to plead his innocence.

Once upstairs, she closed her trap door and put the sweet tea on her desk near her computer. She then opened her purse and let her kwami fly out.

"Sorry about that Tikki," she apologized as she rubbed the back of her neck, "I had no idea they would have a dog."

The red floating bug shuddered. "That dog was way too close for comfort. I thought he was about to take a bite of me!"

"How would Maggie know you were in there?" Marinette asked. "Could she smell you?"

Tikki shook her head. "Kwamis don't have a scent. An animal shouldn't be able to smell me out. Maybe it was the cotton T-shirt you had sewn into the bag."

The kwami turned her head and eyed the half-finished cup of sweet tea. Her antennae perked up with sudden interest. She turned her head back to her chosen, her eyes full of excitement.

Marinette sighed and nodded. "Go ahead. I know you're dying to try it."

Tikki instantly zipped over to the beverage. Somehow, she was able fit her tiny mouth over the straw. Her face lit up as she took a sip. She ended up doing a few flips in the air as the sugar rush invigorated her. Marinette sat down on her chaise longue and watched in mild amusement. Her kwami took another sip and hummed a tune to herself.

"You enjoyed it then," her chosen easily surmised.

"It has so much sugar!" Tikki announced with delight. "It gives me an instant energy boost. And I could tell that the other desserts in there also were so sweet. Oh, I wish I could smell that heavenly aroma again!"

"Assuming Maggie isn't there to give you a hard time," Marinette reminded her.

"True. There is a potential downside, not to mention the risk of being discovered. Also, I would be listening to their very strange English again."

She then giggled slightly. "Though their conversations were funny."

Marinette leaned forward slightly on the chaise longue. "You could understand them? You speak English?"

"Of course!" Tikki affirmed as she flew close to her shoulder. "We kwamis speak the language of every chosen we've ever had. Elizabeth was British, and that was only a little over a hundred years ago, so of course I know how to speak it. Though the way they spoke English was odd and…rustic? Some weird vowel sounds and also pretty loud."

Marinette's eyebrows furrowed in thought. She briefly stared out the window and then looked back at her kwami.

"So, does this mean you still speak really old languages like Ancient Egyptian?"

Tikki paused for a moment. She tapped her chin with her tiny hand as she contemplated the question. "Hmm, probably. But it's been thousands of years. Even kwamis can lose memory over that period of time. I doubt I could do much more than order food at the market. Not that it matters at this point in time."

Without warning Marinette's phone went off, vibrating violently. Said phone had been placed in her purse which was itself lying on the floor next to the chaise longue. The vibration sound resonating against the hardwood floor made an abnormally loud buzzing noise as if an insect beast was ready to claw out of the floor. Ordinarily this would have given the young Parisian only a minor jolt of surprise. But these were not ordinary times. Marinette let out a choked cry of shock before nearly falling off her chair in sudden alarm. All at once her dread, which had been kept at bay for a few hours, came thundering back. Even after a few seconds, knowing full well that it was just her phone, she still found herself struggling to take calming breaths.

"Are you okay?" Tikki asked as she flew in front of her face.

"Yes…just…I don't like these sudden…sounds."

"That's understandable," her kwami assured her. "Just try to breathe. He's not here. If he was, I would have sensed him."

Marinette nodded and laid down on the longue, attempting to compose herself. Eventually the buzzing stopped. She knew she should probably return the call, but her accelerated heartrate convinced her to wait a few moments. After a few minutes of silence, she finally reached into her purse to retrieve her phone. She saw a missed FaceTime call from Alya and clicked to reply.

After a few moments, the image of her best friend manifested on screen. She appeared to be standing in her walk-in closet, surrounded by dresses and other outfits on her left and a small arsenal of various shoes on her right. Alya immediately smiled and waved a greeting.

"Hey girl, I was wondering when you would answer me," she remarked. Her expression slightly soured when she did a quick survey of Marinette's face. "Is…everything okay? You don't look so good."

"I'm fine," she lied. "Just feeling a little under the weather."

"If you need me to call back another time-"

"I'm fine," Marinette insisted, forcing herself to look a little more cheerful.

"If you say so," Alya replied before showing two bikinis resting on hangars. One was a solid burnt orange color while the other one was darker green and strapless.

"I need your opinion," she explained, pointing to the two options. "I'm torn between these two. This orange one goes well with my hair, but I really like the style of the green one. Which one do you think I should wear to Chloe's hotel pool party?"

How can she look so relaxed and carefree after what I told her last night? Marinette thought with despondency and disbelief. Does she really trust Ladybug that much? If so, her faith is misplaced.

After that somber thought, a second, more distant one came to mind. Her head perked up as her train of thought reprocessed the last thing Alya said.

"Wait, did you say Chloe's pool party? I don't remember anything about-"

"She sent out invitations like a month ago," Alya reminded her. "Don't tell me you already forgot. It's the last get together we former students of Françoise Dupont will have before we start lycée."

Marinette's mind reached back, searching for details of said party. She vaguely recalled getting an invite on her phone a while back but couldn't remember if she had confirmed her attendance or not. She scratched the back of her head and smiled sheepishly.

"Oh yeah, I guess I forgot. But are you sure Chloe's even going to let me in the door?"

"It's for all former students of Françoise Dupont," Alya emphasized with a roll of her eyes. "I know you and Chloe have never gotten along well, but she can be a good host if she has the…right motivation."

Marinette tilted her head and eyed her friend suspiciously. "What do you mean by 'the right motivation'?"

The serial blogger flashed a wide, mischievous smile. She then turned her phone screen to Nino, who was leaning against the closet entrance. He tipped his hat as a mode of greeting.

"Nino, why don't you tell Marinette the good news?" she requested.

Nino took a deep calming breath and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he raised his arms in the air and announced, "Adrien Agreste has gotten permission to go to the party!"

The young Parisian teenager did the exact opposite of taking a deep calming breath and yelped in shock, causing her phone to tumble in the air. Fortunately, said airborne phone managed to land on the longue, sparing it from any damage. She picked the phone back up and resumed the conversation in a calm fashion.

"WHAT? Impossible! His father allowed him to go to a party at night?"

Nino shrugged. "Apparently his father's assistant managed to convince him to lighten up for once and let him have fun before school starts."

Alya turned the phone camera back to her. "So, he will be there. And no doubt modelling the latest in Agreste male swimwear," she added with a knowing wave of her eyebrows.

A deep shade of crimson appeared on Marinette's face. In vain did she attempt to prevent her imagination from depicting a half-naked Adrien in her thoughts. After clearing her throat, she muttered, "How would you know that?"

"I don't," her friend admitted, "but he might. In any case, he will more than likely be shirtless at some point."

Marinette became redder and covered her face with her right hand. "Can we please not talk about this in front of Nino?"

"Look, I've known for a while," he answered offscreen. "And don't worry. I haven't said anything to Captain Clueless."

"So you're going," Alya concluded, not bothering to hear her friend's answer, "so back to the task at hand. Orange or dark green bikini? I would ask my boyfriend but-"

She leveled an accusing stare at the accusing party. "He's been less than helpful."

"I told you already that you look sexy as hell in both. It's impossible for me to decide!" he argued.

"Flattery will only get you so far," she retorted with a wave of her hand. "If you're not going to contribute, go fetch me some orange juice."

Nino groaned and trudged toward the kitchen. "Yes, my queen."

As Nino disappeared from earshot, Alya turned to face Marinette, still holding the two swimsuits. "So, what do you think?"

She managed a half-smile and said, "Personally, I think orange suits you."

"Orange it is then," she confirmed, placing the green swimsuit back on the rack, "So which swimsuit will you bring to the party? Anything special you have planned to impress him?"

Marinette covered her face with her right hand and groaned. "Don't even start with me on that. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to hold a conversation with him. It will be a miracle if I can-"

"Avoid staring at his abs?" Alya guessed.

The blush on Marinette's face returned with a vengeance. She averted her friend's gaze and coughed. "I was going to say not embarrass myself, but that might be a problem as well."

"Think of it this way. It can't be worse than the time you mixed up your love confession letter to him with a laxative prescription."

The baker's daughter covered her mouth with a pillow and screamed. She laid on her side and replied, "You had to remind me of that…"

Alya's expression softened and she briefly glanced down at the floor. When she looked up again, her facial features appeared more serious. "Look, he's been single again for months now. You're free to make a move if you want. And this party might be the perfect opportunity."

Marinette took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She scratched her neck and grimaced. "I don't know," she admitted, "I still feel guilty about what happened with me and Luka. It still doesn't feel right to me."

Her best friend nodded her head as her expression became more somber. "Look, I get it. It's ultimately your decision. But you're not the first girl to turn to another guy when the one you like is unavailable. Don't beat yourself up too much. Besides, you've already let him slip away once. You may not get another opportunity like this again."

Marinette stared blankly at the floor for several moments, her mind adrift in a sea of tumultuous thoughts. After a long pause, she reluctantly sat up and faced Alya again. "I'll think about it," she promised her.

"Sounds good to me," Alya replied.

At that moment, she appeared distracted by some notification appearing on her screen. A few seconds later, she angrily mouthed several words in Martinican Creole. She paced around her closet, taking a deep breath and then exhaling.

"Everything okay?" Marinette asked.

"Yeah, it's just my stupid English translator," Alya answered as she shook her head. "That American has been taking too many liberties with my blog."

Zeke must have refused to play by her rules, Marinette thought with a slight smile.

"Something funny?" her friend asked.

"No nothing," she answered, "If you don't mind, I think I'm going to rest now. I will see you at the pool party."

"Take care," Alya concluded before hanging up.

Once the call was concluded, Marinette laid down on the chaise longue, absentmindedly staring at the walls of her room. Tikki floated down towards her. She attempted to instigate a positive reaction in her chosen's face, but her face remained unchanged. Her lip quivered with renewed anxiety.

"That's…something to look forward to," Tikki mentioned.

"Yes, but what about Shouwang?" Marinette asked before clutching the pillow close to her body, "what if he attacks the party? I would put everyone at risk, including Adrien."

Tikki remained silent for a long time. After a while, she floated towards her chosen's shoulder and embraced her. She then ascended a half meter above her face.

"He's probably not going to make a move for several weeks at least," Tikki guessed. "And even if he's more active, it would be suspicious if Marinette cut herself off from her friends on social events. Plus, we know Hawkmoth keeps an eye on Chloe's parties. If you're repeatedly absent, it wouldn't be that hard for him to guess your identity."

The secret superhero grumbled under her breath and laid on her stomach. "So, if I go, I'm putting my friends at risk. But if I don't, I'm putting my identity at risk. This is ridiculous."

"It's not fair," Tikki agreed. "You're caught in a delicate situation. But no matter what course of action you choose, I'm here to support you."

Marinette buried her face in her chaise longue and muttered a few choice words under her breath. She had to acknowledge that Tikki had a point. Both isolation and social engagement carried certain risks. But how should she react? After some contemplation, she came up with the semblance of a plan.

I'll act normal, she concluded, I'll go to the party. But I will try to keep a respectful distance from everyone. I want to keep them safe. Especially Adrien.

She shuddered as she thought over the possibility. The last thing I want is to allow him to get hurt.

Ψ

On the second day after being subjected to demon venom, Adrien Agreste again awoke to tremendous pain around his right thigh. The previous day he had been lucky enough to not have any activities scheduled. But as his alarm went off, he realized that his schedule would force him to be more active and social than he would like to be. After reluctantly pulling himself out of bed, Natalie came in and informed him that his breakfast would be ready soon. He mumbled in a groggy haze that he would take a shower and be down shortly.

With some difficulty he dragged himself into the bathroom and turned on the faucets. As steam filled the shower space, he slowly disrobed, trying not to move his right leg too much. Too much movement caused spasms of sharp pain to shoot through his legs and up his torso. After successfully removing his clothing, he hobbled into the shower space and let the water drench him. He leaned against the wall and sighed in relief. As he shampooed his hair, he looked down at his thigh. The two fang marks had scarred over and were now solid black in color. The residual pain from his encounter with Shouwang was not as strong as it was yesterday, but it was by no means easy to ignore.

Adrien placed his head directly under the stream of water as he contemplated his day. Chinese tutoring at 10 am should be easy enough, he reasoned. The photoshoot at Place des Vosges would be more of a challenge. His photographer Vincent would certainly make him move around a good bit if he wasn't satisfied with his initial results. Even worse, he would be there with Lila. A chill went up his spine as he thought about that in more detail. It was hard enough to hide his current physical discomfort. A flawless smile would be even more difficult if she tried to make a move on him again. And then after that he had a private fencing lesson with D'Argencourt.

Oh God…Adrien thought as he grimaced with dread…that's going to suck.

Adrien exited the shower and dried off. As he got dressed and examined his hair in the bathroom mirror, Plagg popped out and looked down on his chosen.

"You look pale," he remarked as he crossed his arms, "are you sure you're going to be able to handle today?"

"I can handle it," he answered as he gripped the bathroom sink and leaned forward.

"Shen was bedridden for three days the first time he was bitten by Shouwang," his kwami informed him.

"Shen also wasn't a teen model with a strictly controlled schedule," Adrien retorted. "I'll be fine. I'm not going to shirk my responsibilities just because of this wound."

After a quick breakfast, Adrien returned to his room and laid down on his bed, hoping to get twenty minutes of rest before his tutor arrived. He opened his workbook to try to go over the material from last week, but his brain refused to cooperate. Before he knew it, he was drifting off again and breathing deeply.

A knock from Natalie quickly woke him up again. He sat up on his bed as she entered.

"It seems there's been a slight change of plans," she informed him.

"What do you mean by that?"

"The agency has sent M. Chan as a replacement to M. Qian today," she said as she turned to leave, "he's already downstairs."

As Natalie exited, Adrien's face suddenly fell. A sudden onset of panic flooded his mind. He grabbed his head and looked around, contemplating his options.

He circled around his couch and asked, "Can't I just turn into Chat Noir and get out of here?"

"What happened to 'I'm not going to shirk my responsibilities'?" his kwami dryly asked.

"This is different!" Adrien exclaimed as he endured the pain and ran toward his window. "Plagg, claws-"

"Fleeing somewhere?" came a familiar voice from behind.

Adrien groaned as he heard his bedroom door close behind him. He reluctantly turned around to face Master Fu in the flesh. The Guardian smiled innocently as he took a seat on the couch.

"Let's begin the lesson, shall we?" he announced as he motioned for Adrien to sit. "I think we will begin with a random conversation in Mandarin."

The young hero sat down a meter or so away from his master. Fu cleared his throat and addressed Adrien in his native language: "So, do you want to explain what happened when you fought Desperada?"

The teenager swallowed nervously and placed his hands on his knees before answering. "Ladybug offered me the snake miraculous, and I wanted to accept it. I thought that if she wouldn't like me as Chat Noir, she might like me as a new hero."

"So you abandoned your duties as Chat Noir for selfish reasons," Fu concluded as he shook his head.

"If I had refused, she might have suspected who I was," Adrien countered.

"But concern for your secret identity was not the reason why you accepted," Fu reminded him with a knowing stare.

Adrien's resolve broke in the face of the accusing glare and he stared at the floor and sighed. "No. I got lost in the moment and I accepted when I shouldn't have."

"How many times did you use the snake miraculous?"

Adrien bit his lip and placed his head in his hands. "I used it more than 25,000 times before I gave up," he answered.

For a few seconds Fu didn't react at all. Then, after a ten second pause, he sighed and shook his head.

"Timetagger may have ensured Shouwang's return, but your carelessness laid its foundations."

Hot, angry tears began to fill Adrien's eyes. He grabbed one of the cushions of the couch and squeezed it. "How was I supposed to know?" he demanded. "I didn't learn about Shouwang until two days ago."

"No," Fu stated with a sigh. "It's true you didn't know what you might unleash. Perhaps I should have taken the risk of telling you both about Shouwang. Nevertheless, even if he didn't exist, what you did was a gross abuse of power."

Adrien stood up and slowly walked toward the foosball table, his back facing Fu. "That's easy for you to say. You're not the one who has to spend time with the girl of your dreams. And no matter how many times you try to win her heart, it amounts to nothing. Try spending time in my shoes before you judge me for the Desperada incident."

Fu groaned and shook his head. He stood up and put his hands behind his back, facing away from Adrien. "You think you are the first hero to ever neglect his responsibilities in the name of love?"

"What do you mean?" Adrien asked.

Fu approached the window and stared out in the sunlight. He rubbed his forehead and sighed. "More than a hundred years ago, there was a hero who wielded the turtle miraculous. He was deeply in love with the hero of the fox miraculous, a woman named Mei. One day this turtle hero was tasked with watching the cave Shouwang was sealed in during the month of the winter solstice, keeping watch and performing a special Guardian ritual every night to make sure the monster wouldn't get out during that month. On the second to last night of his watch, the turtle hero learned that Mei was to be sent out the next day to deal with enemies of the Guardians in the far north of China, a journey that would keep her away from him for more than a year. He couldn't bear that absence, so he shirked his responsibility and visited her that night. The cave hadn't made a sound for weeks, so he thought he was safe. But Shouwang escaped that very night."

Adrien's expression softened. He walked towards the couch and slowly sat down. "That turtle hero was you, wasn't it?"

Plagg flew up above his chosen's head and rolled his eyes. "What was your first clue?" he sarcastically asked.

"Yes," Fu answered as he leaned against the window, "my selfish desires that night cost me and my fellow heroes dearly. Even worse, the night I gave in to desire with my dear Mei ended up sealing her fate. Shouwang ended up devouring her sometime later because I couldn't control myself."

Adrien's cheeks turned slightly red. He cleared his throat and looked away from the Guardian as he asked, "Now, when you say you "visited" her that night…?"

The old Guardian rubbed his temples and turned around to face the young hero. "This country has a rather thorough sexual education curriculum. Do I really need to spell it out for you?"

Adrien bit his lip and stared down at the floor. "No, that won't be necessary. But if that happened to you, why are you so upset with me?"

Fu turned and walked toward the couch and sat down. He continued staring out the window, refusing to make eye contact. "I'm upset because I see history repeating itself. My foolishness as a youth has led to your foolishness. Mei and several others paid the ultimate price because I failed to fulfill my duty. I fear that I am about to see the same thing occur a second time."

"Ladybug and I are not going to let that happen!" Adrien protested.

"For your sake, I hope you're right," the Guardian coldly replied. "the guilt of losing your allies' lives to your enemy due to your poor decisions is a terrible thing to deal with. I pray that you don't have to face that burden. Because it is something you will never recover from."

Adrien appeared lost for a moment as he contemplated the possibilities. The thought of Ladybug's chosen allies falling one by one made him sick to his stomach. Disturbing scenarios of Rena Rogue and Carapace meeting their end due to his stupidity filled his subconscious. His hands grasped his head and he consciously tried to avoid the worst implications of these conclusions.

He sat back down on the couch and took a deep breath. The pit in his stomach seemed to grow deeper as he sat there, lost in thought. The fingers on his right hand drummed on his knee in quick succession. A small current of anger began to filter into his thoughts.

"Well I can't exactly fix this now, can I?" Adrien pointed out. "Unless we want to use the rabbit miraculous to fix my mistake."

Fu shook his head and paced behind the couch. "That would likely accomplish nothing. Going back to fix your mistake would likely only make the tear in the fabric of time worse. Shouwang would be able to escape again. The damage is already done."

"Then what do you want me to do?" the young hero questioned, his voice beginning to elevate.

"I want you to learn from this error in judgment and to remain focused on your duties as a hero. I sympathize with your feelings, but you can't afford to be distracted by them any longer.

Adrien clenched his fists together and inhaled sharply through his nose. "I won't let myself get carried away again, I promise. But you said Ladybug and I have to get closer in order to get stronger. Elizabeth and Shen were a couple, so doesn't that mean-?"

Fu held up his hand and cut him off. "It's not for me to say how your relationship will grow. I can't say if it will be platonic or romantic."

The young Agreste scooted slightly on the couch and leaned towards his master. "But that's the way it normally goes isn't it? I saw how they combined their power. There was nothing platonic in the way they danced and looked at each other."

The Guardian avoided his gaze and glanced at the floor. Twice he opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out. As the silence deepened, Adrien's eyebrows furrowed in mounting frustration.

"Is the relationship between Ladybugs and Chat Noirs normally a romantic one? Yes or no?" he asked, his tone growing harsher.

Fu turned to face the young hero's penetrating stare with a stone-faced expression. "I can't say," he replied.

The steady stream of angry thoughts in the teenager's head grew into a torrent. His heart rate increased significantly as he gritted his teeth and glowered at the Guardian. He then stood up suddenly and growled, "Why not?!"

He quickly regretted that abrupt movement. Several more spasms of sharp pain shot from his thigh and reverberated up his spine, prompting him to let out a slight, strangled cry of pain. He quickly sat back down, leaning back on the couch and groaning in renewed discomfort. Fu watched Adrien's reaction and grimaced.

"I would advise you not to make sudden movements," he cautioned. He shot the hero a cryptic look before adding, "or allow yourself to lose your temper so easily."

Adrien ignored the concerned look from the Guardian as he rubbed his right thigh. He pushed the hair on his brow upward, feeling beads of cold sweat leaking from his scalp. He remained silent for a moment as the pain subsided, though a slow current of aggressive thoughts continued to flow through his mind.

"As you can see, I'm already paying for my mistake," he observed with obvious bitterness in his voice, "so I can promise you I will do everything I can to fix it, and make sure no one goes through the pain I'm going through or worse. Especially Ladybug."

"I have no doubt about that," Fu noted as he scratched his goatee in thought, "though I can only hope she is more forgiving than I am should you reveal your identities to each other, and she discovers what really happened with Desperada."

Oh…f***, Adrien thought as he facepalmed and cursed under his breath, I didn't even think about that.

"Right, I hope so too," Adrien remarked with exasperation, "Is there anything else you want to say?"

"Just that I will be needing back the Dog Miraculous now."

Adrien cast a furtive glance toward his bathroom door, and then immediately hoped the Guardian hadn't noticed. He cleared his throat and replied, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Fu raised an eyebrow. "Explain?"

"Ladybug thinks I have the Dog Miraculous. If she comes back to retrieve it and it's not here, I'm not going to have a good answer. And if she finds out the miraculous is back with you, she'll know you were here. If we decide it's still not safe to reveal our identities, then…"

As Adrien's voice trailed off, Fu stared at the floor, contemplating the matter. After a ten second pause, he shook his head, apparently unconvinced.

"Look, it's not going anywhere," Adrien argued, "it's buried in a bunch of old towels under my sink. No one is going to touch it."

Plagg, who up till now had been sitting on top of Adrien's TV and watching in feigned disinterest, finally spoke up. "I hate to admit it, but lover boy may have a point. We're watching it like a hawk, and I don't think we should complicate the situation more than it already is."

With some measure of reluctance, Fu nodded in acceptance. "Fine, but if you do reveal your identities to each other…"

Adrien threw out his hands as a broad gesture of welcome. "Then fill free to take it off my hands."

Fu checked his watch and then stood up. "I believe we are nearing the end of our lesson."

"So it seems," Adrien responded with a sarcastic smile. "thank you for coming today…teacher."

The elderly man made a slight bow before speaking again. "You have a right to be frustrated, but please try to understand. The bond between you and Ladybug must develop as naturally as possible. If I reveal too much too early, it could affect that trajectory and hurt you both."

Adrien frowned but after a moment's pause, he returned the bow. He apologized for the outburst and promised to take the Guardian's advice. A minute later Natalie returned and escorted "M. Chan" out of the Agreste manor. As he sat back down on his couch, he wondered in silent trepidation how Ladybug would react when she discovered the truth. Or if they would live long enough for him to find out.