Adrien had been acting off all day. He was quiet and withdrawn all morning, not smiling at all and spending a lot of time staring aimlessly out the window. Not even Nino could get him to cheer up.
And now, at lunch, he had entirely vanished.
"I don't know how to help," Nino said, looking worried. "I mean, he hasn't said anything at all. Normally if his dad is upsetting him, Adrien will at least say something."
"You're being there for him, I'm sure that helps," Alya spoke up. She was frowning. "Don't push too much, though. Adrien will talk when he feels ready."
Marinette nodded in agreement before speaking up, trying to not sound suspicious. "I really hope that you guys can find him, but... I didn't bring my lunch today, so I have to go home to eat."
"Okay, yeah." Alya sounded a bit distracted. "Nino, we should probably eat as well. I'm sure Adrien will come back in the afternoon. He probably just wanted time to himself."
Marinette backed away from her friends as they headed away to go grab their lunches. She hadn't been lying, exactly- she had decided to eat at home and so hadn't brought food, but she also wanted to pick up a bag of croissants and cookies for Adrien. He had enjoyed her parents' cooking so much that one time, and her parents always talked about comfort food...
It was worth a shot.
Marinette inhaled her sandwich in record time and packed a couple oranges in her bag for a mid-afternoon snack. Her parents were all too willing to let her pack a small bag of treats for Adrien, though she didn't tell them which classmate it was that was having a bad day.
Somehow she suspected that if she told them that it was Adrien, she would end up with half of the bakery in the bag. Her parents seemed to like him a lot.
"Merci, Mama!" Marinette said happily as her mother handed her the bag. She pressed a kiss to her cheek. "I've got to get back to school now and get these to him before lunch ends. See you after school!"
"Have a good afternoon, Marinette!" Mrs. Cheng called as Marinette dashed out the door.
A glance inside the school told her that Adrien was still missing. A few months before, she would have just assumed that he had simply gone home for lunch. Now, though, Adrien never went home for lunch. He'd been bringing packed lunches every day for a couple months.
"What are you thinking, Marinette?" Tikki asked, sticking her head out of Marinette's purse as Marinette trotted back down the stairs and hid in the bushes. "If Adrien is hiding, he probably doesn't want to talk much."
"I know. I'll just give him the cookies and leave him alone. I get that he probably doesn't want to talk to anyone." She probably could manage that, too. Since the incident with her uncle and the cooking contest, she had gotten better about acting normal around Adrien. She still wasn't completely relaxed with him, but it was a big improvement. "But I have to find him first, and the best way to cover a lot of ground is as Ladybug. Tikki, transform me!"
As it turned out, she didn't need to cover a whole lot of ground. Adrien was on the school's roof, leaning against a wall and surveying the street below. Marinette had no idea how he got up there. She wouldn't want to be up here as her normal self, since the ledge wasn't very wide.
Maybe this was a bad idea. If he had gone to all of the trouble to get up here, in an area that was definitely off-limits to students, she shouldn't intrude.
She shifted, ready to retreat backwards before swinging away, when Adrien stiffened and turned around. His eyes caught her, wide and red-rimmed.
He'd been crying. This was definitely a bad idea.
"L-ladybug?" Adrien stuttered, looking stunned. "I- um, w-what are you doing here?"
Well, she'd been caught. She might as well go along with it. Remember, you're Ladybug. Not Marinette. It looks like he needs a comforting hero of Paris more than a stammer-y admirer.
"I heard you were having a bad day," she offered, swallowing her nerves and walking forward to join him. Ladybug crouched down next to him and offered him the bag of treats. "I know cookies always help me when I'm not feeling good, so I brought some for you."
Adrien accepted the bag, wide-eyed. "I- oh, wow. Thank you! Y-you definitely didn't need to do that."
"I wanted to." Now retreat. Even Ladybug can overstay her welcome. "I- I'll go now. I'm guessing you wanted to be along, since you're all the way up here-"
"N-no! You can stay!" Adrien looked downright panicked at the idea of her leaving for a moment before he rearranged his expression. "I- I mean, I'd like your company. If you want to stay. And if there's not somewhere where you need to be-"
"I can stay," Ladybug assured him quickly. She sat down next to him, her shoulder bumping against his lightly as she settled. Glancing over, she noticed a pink flush working its way across his cheeks. What do I do now?
They sat in silence for a few moments before Adrien let out a heavy sigh and leaned into Ladybug's side just slightly. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder, trying to offer whatever comfort she could as he pulled out a cookie and nibbled at it. His head lolled to the side even more, resting against her own head. Ladybug resisted a shiver as Adrien's hair brushed against her cheek and the exposed part of her neck.
Down, Marinette. This is NOT the time to be fangirling.
"My mom vanished four years ago," Adrien spoke up suddenly, his voice quiet. "No one knows what happened to her. One day she was there, and the next... the next day she wasn't. There was no warning, and we've never found any clues."
Ladybug blinked, realization dawning on her. Was he saying that today...?
"I've gotten used to her being gone, but today's the anniversary of her vanishing, so it's... it's harder than usual." Adrien shivered in her arms and Ladybug tugged him closer.
How could she even hope to help? Marinette certainly didn't have any experience in comforting people, and even Ladybug's experience... well, the people that Ladybug comforted tended to be upset over things that, compared to this, were relatively minor. She had never lost anyone in her family that she could remember- her grandpa on her dad's side had died when she was three, and her remaining three grandparents were all still alive.
"I'll be back to normal in a couple days," Adrien sighed, shifting to curl up closer to Ladybug's side. "It's just that every year, I realize that it's been another year without my mom and it's just hard."
Ladybug nodded wordlessly, unable to do anything besides pull Adrien into a hug. He kept talking.
"She was really nice." Adrien shuddered again as a long, shaky sigh escaped him. "And pretty. Really pretty. She modeled for my dad all the time, and so she'd sometimes be gone for a couple weeks while she was at fashion shows somewhere else. She would call me every night when she was traveling, just to talk to me about my day and tell me what she was doing. So I never went more than 24 hours without talking to her."
"Do you have a lot of pictures of her?" Ladybug asked, getting the feeling that Adrien just wanted to talk about his mom to someone.
Adrien nodded against her neck and shifted to pull his phone out of his pockets. "Sort of? Most of the pictures of her are modelling pictures, which isn't the same. The smiles aren't real smiles, and... well, it's acting, really. And she was usually behind the camera when she wasn't modelling. But I still have some real pictures."
The picture he showed her was an absolutely adorable one of a younger Adrien with his mother hugging him, her head resting against his own. They both had huge smiles, their eyes sparkling.
Ladybug blinked. It was very, very clear where Adrien's good looks came from. "Wow. She's gorgeous. You look a lot like her."
Thank you, Marinette's blabber-mouth.
Adrien snorted out a teary laugh. "Really?"
"Yeah. I mean, it's the same chin, the same nose, the same hair color, the same eyes... did you not get any genes from your father at all?"
"He's blond too- or, rather, he was. I hope that I don't go grey as soon as he did, though." Adrien pulled his phone back against his chest, flipping through a couple more pictures with a wistful smile. "He used to be different, before Mom vanished. He was still busy, of course, but she would put her foot down about him working overtime, and now he doesn't have someone to do that." He swallowed. "So he's almost always gone, and he has no idea how to raise a kid. I think he has good intentions for most of what he does, but... it still doesn't make it completely better. It's like I lost both of them on that day, not just Mom."
Ladybug kept quiet and let Adrien talk.
"I do everything I can to be the perfect son and...nothing. He bails out of all the activities we were supposed to do together, like he doesn't want to spend time with me or something. I don't know what I'm doing wrong."
Ladybug's breath got caught in her throat. Is that really how he feels? Poor, poor Adrien. She scrambled to find something to say. "He's missing out on an amazing person, you know."
"You think so?" Adrien's voice was quiet and fragile.
"I know so."
They sat in silence for a bit, Adrien finishing off another cookie.
"I just want to know what happened to her," Adrien whispered suddenly, his shoulders collapsing inward. "The worst part is that no matter what happened, it's not good. It couldn't have just been an accident, because all of the detectives would have found something. If she got kidnapped and killed, that's awful. She was so nice to everyone, so I don't know... I don't understand who would ever want to hurt her." He sniffed. "And if she left on her own...why would she do that? She loved my dad and me as well, I think, but did she really if she left? There's no way to win."
It really was an awful situation.
"I'm sure she didn't want to leave, no matter what the circumstances were," Ladybug managed. What else can I possibly say?
Adrien sighed. "I want to believe that, I really do. It's just hard to know what to think when there haven't been any clues whatsoever. At least, no clues that my dad's shared with me."
"Do... do you have a favorite memory of her?" Ladybug asked tentatively. Thinking about happy memories would be good, right? Maybe?
Adrien fell quiet, eyes scanning over Paris' rooftops. He frowned slightly as he thought, eyebrows pulling together. "I... nothing is coming to mind right now. I mean, I head loads of good experiences with her, but mostly I just remember how warm and happy she was, and some of the little things she did, not... not specific events." He groaned and dropped his head into his hands. "I'm forgetting her, aren't I? I'm such an awful son."
Ladybug shook her head. "No, no, don't say that! I think that's a common thing, to remember more general things instead of specific events. I think I'd have a hard time remembering a favorite memory on the fly, too, and I would probably forget about a lot of things, even if they were recent." She bit her lip, trying to find the right words. She didn't want to make Adrien feel any worse than he already felt, and it seemed that her last question had done just that. "And I- I think that remembering the little things about someone is probably more important than specific events, anyway."
Adrien's face cleared quickly as he gave a small nod. "Yeah, I- I guess you're right. I just worry sometimes that I will forget her, since I was only eleven when she vanished and she was gone modelling more often as I got older."
Ladybug blinked. Wow. Could his situation get any worse?
"But I remember that she always made time for me, no matter how busy she was. Some days when she wasn't as busy, she would take over for my tutor in a couple of my subjects, just so we could spend more time together. She was the one who started me on most of my extracurriculars because they could be useful in the future- and they really are, and they're all things that I enjoy- and she would come to any exhibitions or performances that she could."
Adrien swallowed hard and Ladybug rubbed his arm as she hugged him and let him talk.
"She always wore this one necklace- I think it was a flower, or maybe a star. I never found out where she got it or why it was so important to her, but she refused to take it off for any photo shoots. She always called me her little kitten. Apparently I got the nickname because she called me a kitten once since my hair was really fluffy after a bath and then I pretended to be a kitten for a week, and the name stuck."
Ladybug couldn't hold in the giggle at that. "Do you still do kitten impressions?"
"No," Adrien claimed immediately. She gave him a look and he amended his words. "Not to the degree I did when I was little. I mean, I'm talking sitting on my haunches and licking my hand like a cat and scampering around on all fours and meowing." He let out a sudden groan, his cheeks turning pink. "Oh my god, why am I even telling you this? I must sound like a huge dork."
"No, it's cute," Ladybug said, giggling. They both jumped in surprise as the warning bell rang loudly, cutting through their conversation. Ladybug pulled out her yo-yo to check the time in surprise. "Is it really time for afternoon classes to start again already?" The time really had flown.
"I should probably get back to school," Adrien sighed, glancing down at the courtyard. Below them, the students who ate at school were packing up their lunches. They could see Nino and Alya standing together, "I'll bet my friends are worried, since I kind of vanished on them."
"Do you need a ride down?" Ladybug offered, untangling herself from Adrien so she could stand up. How had they gotten so wrapped up in each other so quickly? Adrien had practically been sitting in her lap.
Adrien nodded, accepting her hand as she pulled him up. Neither of them let go when he was standing again. "Yeah, that would be good. It's sort of a restricted area up here, so I'd rather not get caught coming down."
Ladybug smiled at him. "All right then, cat-boy. Hold on tight."
Ladybug just seemed off when Chat Noir met up with her for patrol. She was staring off over the Paris skyline, eyes unfocused and face pensive. She didn't acknowledge his presence, even as he came up behind her.
"My Lady, are you feeling all right?" Chat asked worriedly. And to think that I was concerned about her being able to tell that I was acting weird tonight...
Ladybug sighed, her shoulders slumping as she turned to face him. "Yeah, I... I guess. I was just doing a lot of thinking today and... I wish I could do more, you know? With some of the akuma victims we've dealt with, whatever was bothering them got resolved. Timebreaker got her watch fixed, Lady Wifi's suspension was revoked, and Robocop got a promotion but others... we got them free of the akuma's possession, but that was it."
Chat Noir's breath got caught in his throat. His lady was even more caring than he ever could have thought. He had suspected, of course, especially after she had hugged him for most of his lunch period, but still. "There were some that got akumatized over little things. Stormy Weather, for example. She was just a sore loser. And there have been a lot of people who have had their problems dealt with."
"Yeah, I know. But still..."
"Was there something that brought this on, my lady?" Chat Noir ventured uncertainly. He suspected that he knew, of course- the timing of Ladybug's downcast mood with their conversation earlier couldn't be coincidence. Whether or not she would be willing to talk about it with him was another question altogether.
Ladybug chewed on her lower lip. "...Yeah. A conversation I had earlier. I just wanted to do more than just lend a listening ear, and I couldn't."
"I'm sure your shining presence was a help in itself," Chat Noir offered. Ladybug gave him a flat look, and he dropped the flirting. He wondered how long she had been feeling bad about not being able to help everyone completely. It was something that he sometimes thought about, but not often. It was rare that someone got akumatized for a good reason and that reason didn't somehow get addressed.
"Ladybug, listen to me," Chat Noir insisted, stepping up to her side and placing a hand on her shoulder. She turned to him and glanced up. He smiled down at her, letting his expression melt into something tender and vulnerable as he looked at her. "We help so many people. Most of the akuma victims that got akumatized for good reasons did have their worries addressed. The world isn't always fair, and we can't always fix everything. But we can help, and it sounds like you did help someone today. Don't beat yourself up over it."
Adrien woke up to the sound of his alarm blaring and Plagg's whining. Groaning, he whacked the alarm off, missing Plagg's face by centimeters, and sat up. With a rush, the previous day rushed back to him and he groaned again.
Great. Nino's going to have so many questions about yesterday, and I don't know if I want to answer them yet, even if he is my best friend.
The highlight of the previous day without a doubt was his time with Ladybug. He had been embarrassed at first to have her see him in such a sorry state, his eyes red and teary and his nose running, but she had been so, so kind, and then she had held him for the better part of an hour and just listened to him talk. He'd never been able to talk to anyone about his mother like that before. Nino knew that she was missing, of course, but it was just one of those topics they never discussed. Talking about his mother so freely and remembering her always made him tear up, and he didn't want to break down like that in front of his best friend.
Ladybug was different. She always was. He didn't have to put up any walls around her.
And then that evening, when she had talked about wanting to be able to help people more... even though he couldn't say anything in fear of giving himself away, it really had touched him that she cared that much. She hadn't been faking anything on that roof with Adrien-him.
She really was something else.
"You had a visitor last night," Plagg commented lazily when it started to look like Adrien was considering staying in bed all day. As expected, the blond haired boy shot out of bed like he'd been electrocuted.
Plagg snickered at Adrien's expression and pointed to his desk. Sure enough, a small bakery bag sat there, a note taped to the top. Adrien rushed over, tripping several times over the hems of his pajama pants in his hurry. When he finally got to his desk, the first thing he saw was Ladybug's signature on the note. It took a couple seconds for him to tear his eyes off her signature and refocus enough to read the rest of the note.
I hope you're feeling better today. I brought some more treats and hopefully they'll brighten your day at least a little bit. -Ladybug
Adrien smiled at the slip of paper. That was sweet of her to go pick up more treats for him, and then to write the note and got to all the trouble of coming to his house and slipping it into his bedroom in the middle of the night while he was asleep-
-and then Adrien choked on air. Oh my god Ladybug was in my ROOM while I was ASLEEP oh my god what did she see?
"Oh my god oh my god oh my god," Adrien choked, setting the bag back down on his desk just a little too fast so he could spin around to survey his room, hands clutching his hair. The room was too big and too excessive, just like always, but at least it was clean. At least he didn't have underwear on the floor, and at least it smelled all right, and at least he had decided against buying those life-sized posters of Ladybug that he had spotted online three weeks ago.
Plagg simply watched, amused as his charge completely freaked out.
"She saw me when I was asleep, Plagg! I don't know what I look like when I'm asleep! I might snore, or maybe I drool in my sleep, or maybe I was talking in my sleep and- oh my god, what if I was talking in my sleep and said something creepy while she was here? What if I was having a dream about her and moaned or something?"
Plagg sniggered quietly.
"And I have bedhead," Adrien moaned loudly, shoving his hands though his messy hair, only managing to make it stick up even more. "And bad breath too, probably, and-"
"Slow down there tiger, she wasn't making out with you while you were asleep," Plagg sniggered. It was worth it to see the irritated expression Adrien flashed at him. "She's not creepy."
"Yeah, I know that," Adrien grouched. Then he perked up with a sudden thought and turned to his kwami. "Hey, Plagg, were you awake when she visited?"
"Only at the very end, as she was leaving," Plagg lied, straight-faced. "I didn't think to check on the state of your face, if that was what you're wondering."
Adrien groaned and flopped down in his chair as Plagg snickered to himself. The mischievous kwami had actually been awake the entire time Ladybug was there, from when she swung into the window to when she left. She had seemed a little awestruck at the size of the room at first, before carefully working her way over to Adrien's desk and setting down her gift. She had been just about to leave when Adrien shifted in his bed, face scrunching up unhappily in his sleep. Ladybug's face had softened as she watched him and she had paused for a long moment before walking over to Adrien's bed and sitting gingerly on the edge. He had shifted again, and Ladybug pressed a cool palm to his forehead, brushing the messy bangs off Adrien's forehead as he settled.
It had been sickeningly cute, especially when Adrien's sleeping expression relaxed into contentment. Ladybug had left shortly after that, casting a last look behind her at the sleeping boy as she left.
Was Plagg going to tell Adrien any of that? No.Watching his boy freak out about what he might have done when Ladybug visited was too much fun...
...and it did keep Adrien's mind off the anniversary of his mother going missing. Plagg did have a heart, no matter how much he sometimes liked to deny it.