This fic is going to some emotional places. :)
Empty Spaces ㅡ Part One
When Adrien pushed the door to the classroom open that Friday morning, it was to the sight of the other students crowding around Marinette's desk. Something in his gut twisted, reacting to the heavy mood of the classroom like wood to a flame.
One by one they they filed away to their own chairs while Adrien lingered by the door with his hand on his backpack strap, eyeing the vacant spot next to Marinette where Alya should have been. Upon closer inspection, he found that everyone was taking turns with a large folded card, each signing their name and leaving behind a short 'get well' message. Nino was the only one left standing there when Adrien finally plucked up the wherewithal to cross the room. Adrien patiently waited for Nino to finish up whatever he was writingㅡwhich in Adrien's humble opinion was a little on the long side for someone who was supposedly 'just friends' with Alya. He gave the guy a sneaky, knowing grin. For once Nino didn't vehemently deny the playful accusation and only shrugged his way back into the seat in front of Alya's empty one.
Then Adrien was alone at Marinette's desk.
Normally this would have flustered her a bit, and he was aware of this, so it kind of worried him that she didn't seem the slightest bit interested in her surroundings. "Hi Marinette," he offered quietly, picking up one of her colorful gel pens to leave a heartfelt message for their hospitalized friend. "You okay?"
That caught her attention. Marinette blinked out of her reverie and realized that Adrien was leaning over her desk, regarding her with sympathy and concern. "Me?" she sighed. "I'm fine."
"Woah, hey, how'd you get Ladybug's signature?!" He froze halfway through signing his own name under the ten happy-face emojis he'd just drawn when he saw Ladybug's familiar loopy font in the center of the page. There was no doubt in his mind it was the real deal; he'd only seen her sign it about a million times for their fans. The only question was: how?
"Oh," Marinette squeaked, "well, she was really worried after what happened. She came to me this morning, actually, because she knew I was friends with Alya. To ask how Alya was doing. I think she feels responsible…"
That news twisted Adrien's gut even further. He should have known something was wrong with his lady when she vanished into thin air yesterday after Alya's injury went unaffected by the standard healing spell. That had never happened before, and Adrien had been so shocked that Alya was still in pain that he had no idea what to do. There had always been injuries during akuma attacks, but by the end Lady would always patch it up, like broken bones were no more than scraped knees. He'd always admired that about her powers; after all, all he could do was break things to pieces. Mending them again was just, wow.
Ladybug was wow.
So for damage to slip by Ladybug's radar, untouched and unhealed? It was unprecedented.
"So she should," Chloe said, appearing from nowhere at Adrien's right shoulder to startle him from the ice cold memory of yesterday and grab a gold pen. With a haughty nudge to move him out of her way, she started signing her name in huge writing, half obscuring Nath's tiny 'get well' comic. "It was her fault, after allㅡ"
"You don't know what you're talking about, Chloe," Adrien interrupted. It was obvious she was upsetting Marinette, who was now biting her lip so hard he worried it might split. "You weren't even there when it happened."
"Neither were you two," Chloe scoffed.
"Fine," Adrien ground out, annoyed that he couldn't refute that with a furious yeah, I fucking was. "But Marinette is the one who rode in the ambulance with Alya to the hospital yesterday, and she's the one who made the card you're signing, so for some reason I feel like you should just shut up about it, you know?"
Ever the cavalier queen, Chloe hummed and hawed and snorted at that, but in the end didn't care enough to push the point and stalked back to her own seat. Marinette slumped down onto the now-finished card, visibly checking out of the conversation. Taking that as his cue to leave her alone, he settled into his own seat in front of her.
The emptiness of Alya's chair hung like a weight on the school all day. On Adrien especially, since he felt responsible, as Chat Noir, for Alya's injury. In a sense, he'd failed her. He should have protected her better, or he should have insisted she run when she stayed to film, or he should have crossed the room faster when the akuma turned his sights on her, or he should have gotten between them before the overpowered fist connected with her ribs. He should have done anything. One question thrummed like a pendulum throughout the day. Why, why, why? Why did her injury alone remain when everything else was healed?
Try as they might, their teachers couldn't seem to reign in the note-passing and whispering as the students speculated about what might have gone wrong with Ladybug's powers that never had before. Nino himself seemed uninterested in that partㅡmore so in texting Alya under his desk all day when he thought the teacher wasn't looking. Adrien took to kicking him in the leg whenever he was in danger of being found out. For her part, Marinette was far quieter and reserved than she had ever been in class before. Adrien couldn't help but notice that after the initial cluster of students around her desk signing the card, no one seemed to be paying her much attention. The hive-mind was focused on Alya's absence, and no one seemed to remember how utterly distraught Marinette had been as she climbed into the ambulance behind the gurney.
About halfway through the day, Adrien craned around in his seat to look at her again, and frown at the empty seat beside her. It was obvious that she was hurting. Shouldn't one of her other friends have come over to sit by her for the day?
At the end of the long, slow school day he numbly retrieved the rest of his books from his locker for the weekend, half-listening to Nino's passionate monologue about the state of hospital food and the importance of bringing Alya something better to eat, and half-watching Marinette trudge alone through the hall toward the school doors. "Hold that thought, Nino," he said, and ran to catch up with their departing friend just outside the doors in the hot sun. "Wait," he said, resting one hand on her shoulder. "I just wanted to say…" He trailed off, a little caught off guard by how earnestly she turned back to look up at him. "It's gonna be okay," he finished weakly. "I know the doctors don't really know what happened yet, but I have a lot of faith in Ladybug's abilities. There's no way this isn't fixable. Maybe it's just taking longer than it normally does, you know?"
That brought a smile to Marinette's face for the first time all day, and the sight of it lifted his spirits immensely. "Thanks Adrien," she sighed. "I really needed that. See you Monday," she grinned weakly.
He grinned back with a lot more confidence than he felt, and waved as she walked down the steps. But then he was hit with a sudden rush of understanding, and it bubbled up like bile in his throat, choking him just the same. Something had been bothering him all day, lurking out of sight in the back of his mind, and in a second of blinding clarity as Marinette walked away from him he finally put his finger on it.
It was watching her pick her way through a crowd of friendly faces that did it, and the fact that everyone waved and smiled at her but no one went to her. No one took up the empty space next to her to walk her home, to talk to her, to lend her a shoulder or an ear or a hand. Ever since he first came to this school, Adrien had regarded Marinette as this social savant. She was so kind and amazing that everyone seemed to love her uniformly. She was the kind of person that was friends with everyone, even with people like Chloe. But as he watched everyone wave to Mari and then turn back to whoever they were talking to before, Adrien realized that Marinette was just like him. Sure she had a million friends, but was she really close to anyone save for Alya?
Everyone liked him well enough, but if Nino was the one in the hospital, Adrien knew he'd be feeling completely dejected and alone. Was that how Marinette felt?
The idea of Marinette feeling the same loneliness he himself was so familiar with coiled up in his stomach like a live thing, a snake threatening to sink its fangs in. He was such an idiot. That empty seat next to her; all day he'd been waiting for someone to take it up and comfort her. That could have been him if he wasn't such a blind moron, thinking of her as some sort of saint with a thousand friends. It was so naive of him. Mari was just a normal girl, and everyone she knew had let her down today when she needed someone to lean on.
Right then and there he decided to be that someone.
It was around 7pm that night when his burner phone buzzed. He coughed loudly to hide the sound from Nathalie (the idea of her finding out about his secret second phone was terrifying) and excused himself from the weekly meeting as soon as he was able to get a word in edgewise, complaining of a sore throat and coughing a bit more for effect. Only when he had safely locked his bedroom door behind him did he pull the tiny unassuming phone from his back pocket to see what Ladybug had said. She'd only sent a single text, so something told him it wasn't about an akuma. Sure enough, the message was rather short and to the point.
(hey i know its your night for patrol but can i come)
The idea of Ladybug actively seeking him out on her off night would normally have thrilled him to the point of driving Plagg insane. But after the incident yesterday and her instant disappearance afterward and then Marinette's comment this morning, he was decidedly worried about this newest development.
(Yes,) he texted back, (of course. Usual place, one hour?)
(see you there)
When she swooped down to meet him on the roof of the cathedral he was already there waiting in the dark corner. "You know," he purred, "you don't have to ask when you want to crash my patrols. I love it when you drop in unannounced."
"I know. But I wanted to make sure you'd be here," she said, and there was a definite tremor in her voice. His cat ears flicked toward the sound involuntarily and his eyes strained to see her face where she stood, hidden in the deepest shadowed corner of the rooftop.
"Ladybug?" Worry colored her name, and even with most of her body obscured in the blackness he saw how she responded, the way she flinched toward him like she was about to fall. "What's wrong?" he soothed, closing the gap between them with three long strides, completely bypassing the pretence of nonchalance. He'd had a feeling this was about yesterday but he hadn't expected this. Gently he took her by the hand and pulled her out of the dark corner and into the wash of silver starlight that lit the rest of the ivory rooftop, noting, as he did, that even as she stubbornly looked the other way, she offered zero physical resistance. Starlight glistened in the corners of her eyes. "Bug," he whispered. Softly; lovingly. "Look at me."
And she did.
When she tore her eyes from the road below and looked up at him he saw something on her face that he had never, ever, ever wanted to see. Something raw and twisted and gut-wrenching. Heartbreak.
Her heartbreak washed over him like a tidal wave, settling in his lungs like actual water so that he found he couldn't breathe. Quite against his own will, his hands flew to her face. As if he could wipe that look off with just his bare hands if he wanted to badly enough. This set her off. She squeezed her eyes shut the second his palms came in contact with the rim of her jaw, and her hands flew to his wrists. For a fleeting instant he thought she was going to throw his hands away from herㅡafter all, he had just overstepped her usual boundaries by several miles. But instead she clung to him like a lifeline and collapsed.
What in the hell.
He stumbled backwards as she fell on him, reeling in every possible way, both physical and metaphysical. The sound of ragged breathing cut into his heart and he realized she was crying.
Ladybug, crying? And to him?
Swiftly he moved his hands from her face to her back, trying to get some kind of a hold on her that kept her from actually falling. He eyed the edge of the roof a couple feet to his left, wary of the idea of her slipping into the wide void between here and the street in this state. But the more he tried to hold her up the less she seemed able to stand and, after a moment more of this, he decided screw it. Bending over to catch her behind the knees with the crook of his elbow, he hoisted her up into his arms, bridal style. The fact that she said absolutely nothing as he did thisㅡdidn't quip or jump away or blush with the ferocity of a thousand sunsㅡhonestly scared him. This was so unlike her. He knew she was self-conscious about making mistakes and had known this since the day they met, but this was just wrong. This was more than 'I made a mistake.' This was… He didn't know what this was.
As he shifted her weight against his chest so he knew he wouldn't possibly drop her, she cried openly, tucking her head into his shoulder. With no idea what to do or say, he decided perhaps it was just best to let her get it out before airing his million questions and reassurances. So he inched over to the edge of the roof and eased down, dangling his legs off and letting her come to rest sideways on his lap. A day ago he'd have been thrilled out of his damn mind to find himself in this position. Now? He'd do just about anything under the sun for her to suddenly brighten up and backflip away, declaring him an incorrigible flirt with that half-wrinkled nose and that blinding smile.
But she didn't. She stayed limp where he set her, tears spilling from beneath her mask onto the leather of his suit.
They must have sat there silently for nearly thirty minutes before Ladybug's breathing finally evened out, and her shoulders stopped hitching beneath his arm. All the while he waited patiently for her to let it out, holding her up with one hand and sometimes wiping her tears with the other when the sight of them shining on her face became too much for him to handle, sometimes brushing her hair from her face when the evening wind whipped it into her eyes. Only when she seemed truly finished did he speak.
"It wasn't your fault," he mumbled, face half obscured in her hair.
Below him, Ladybug shook her head.
"It wasn't," he insisted. "Hawkmoth is the one who injured that girl, not you. And you're not infallible. You can't expect your powers to be able to fix everything, all the time, a hundred percent. There have been some things I haven't been able to completely destroy too, remember? We may be heroes, but we're still human. Neither of us are perfect."
She shook her head more insistently. "You don't understand."
"Then help me understand," he urged patiently.
That made her finally look up into his eyes, for the first time since he'd picked her up and moved to the edge of the roof. Her eyebrow furrowed, just slightly, like she was trying to put her finger on the answer to a riddle. Then, she looked down. First at his chest, then at his arm, then at herself, and she seemed to finally register where she was and what they were doing. With a start she jostled to life, crawling off him, a tinge of red to rival her mask itself creeping down into her cheeks. However, when she settled in next to him it was without any of the usual space she silently insisted upon. Their legs pressed together and her shoulder came rest on the middle of his bicep, almost like she would have welcomed the idea of him putting his arm back around her. She folded her hands anxiously in her lap, biting her lip.
"Ladybug," he tried again when it grew clear she wasn't going to answer. "Come on, I've never seen you like this before. You're scaring me a bit. Please," he added softly, his fingers itching to reach over and curl into hers. Not now. This isn't the time, Agreste. "These masks are like this… wall," he sighed, for lack of a better word, "between us. You're my best friend and yet, somehow, I'm helpless to comfort you when you need it."
Slowly she released her lip from the death grip she was biting it with before. "I'm your best friend?"
He wasn't sure how to interpret her carefully colorless tone, so he opted for total honesty in his answer. "Well," he said, "yeah. I have one really good friend in my civilian life. He's the best," Adrien grinned, a brief montage of all his greatest moments with Nino running through his head. "But he's not you, you know?" And it wasn't even because he was in love with herㅡwell, it was definitely that, but it went far beyond that too. "You and I have seen some shit together," he laughed, and to his delight the corner of her lips curved upward, just a smidge. "You're… everything, to me."
She turned to him, loose hair falling into her face and spilling over her shoulders along with the whims of the breeze. It struck him that he'd only ever seen her hair down as Ladybug a couple of times; and even then, it was usually because they'd been called out of bed at 3am to fight an akuma, and she usually paused between blows to tug it into a loose bun. Seeing her like this, with her hair untethered, it felt like she was allowing him to see beyond Ladybug. Beyond the mask to the girl underneath.
"You really think of me like that?" she wondered at him. Before he could answer with a resounding yes, she blinked at him once, slowly, the way a cat does when it's deciding whether to let you pet it. "I think of you that way too. I guess that's why I had to see you tonight," she went on, unaware that he'd almost just fainted dead away off the edge of the building. "I didn't know who else to turn to."
The thought of Ladybug struggling alone with this heartache was too much to bear; he'd always imagined she was the kind of girl with a million friends. Like Marinette. This thought stopped him cold; the revelation that Marinette didn't have a million shoulders to lean on after all was still new, and the idea that he had made the exact same misconception about Ladybug threatened to strangle him alive. How could he be so dense?
Adrien blurted it out before thinking, aghast at the injustice of it. "You don't have any support in your civilian life?"
His question only served to furrow her eyebrow again, leaving her with that look. That 'trying to figure you out' look. "Alya is my support," she finally said, and then tore her eyes away, training them again on the road far below. "Usually."
He fought the urge to dig his fingers in his ears and clean them out. He couldn't have heard that right. "You know Alya on a personal level?" he phrased carefully.
"I don't just know her," Ladybug sighed, and tears pricked her eyes once again. "She's my best friend, Chat. I know I shouldn't tell you this because it's a giant clue, but I trust you not to go digging for my identity. And besides, I don't have anyone to talk to about this. I feel like I'm going to lose my mind. Alya is my best friend and I totally, completely let her down yesterday. Ladybug is her hero and I failed her."
The only words crossing his mind as she spoke were 'no way,' repeating over and over, louder and louder, until she finished speaking and looked back at him again. When she did it was like she'd turned a lighthouse beacon on him, and the 'no way' became a 'hell fucking yes way.' Her gaze hit him like a tangible heat, scorching his skin, hurting his eyes. In that moment she may as well have been sitting there in the clothes she wore to school earlier, that cute patchwork sundress and the matching blue hat, for all the good her mask did to hide her from him. In that moment he saw her. Nothing she did or said from here on out would ever again be the same, because in the span of a few seconds 'Ladybug' had vanished forever from his life. And he wasn't sad. Wouldn't miss her. Because in her place was someone wonderful and precious and larger than life itself. In her place was Marinette.
"What?" she said, switching from sorrow to bemused confusion. "Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Oh, nothing!" he choked, only locating his voice box after a frantic search. "I just find it unfortunate that your best friend happens to be the girl that runs the Ladyblog. That must make things difficult."
That satisfied her curiosity, and she wrinkled her nose up at him. "Like you wouldn't believe. Look, Chat..." His heart stammered so hard over its next beat he was briefly worried for his health. Marinette, his blood thrummed. Like a prayer. Marinette. "You mean the world to me too. Sometimes I don't know what I'd do without you. You're right about the friends thing. Alya is the best, but sometimes I need someone who just understands. About everything. About both sides of me."
He didn't miss the way her eyes flitted to him momentarily.
"I could be that person for you," he murmured. Please, let me be that person.
"I know," she answered quietly, and without any hesitance swooped in to kiss him on the cheek. "Thank you for cheering me up, bff."
His hand flew to his cheek like a magnet as she stood and stretched, trying to keep the warmth from escaping into the night air. "Butㅡbut I didn't do anything," he spluttered. He'd meant to sweep her off her feet and vehemently deny the idea that she had failed in any way; to reassure her that she was like the golden light from heaven and she'd never done wrong in her entire life. He hadn't managed to spit out any of it!
But Ladybug only giggled, and ruffled his hair. "Yes you did," she assured him. "See you tomorrow, minou."
"See you Maㅡmy lady," he slipped. It was in stunned silence that he watched her go, running and gliding across the sloping rooftops in the general direction of the Dupain-Cheng bakery until she was nothing but a dark speck passing in front of the intermittent city lights, like an actual little bug. "Marinette," he whispered to himself, only when she was truly gone, vanished into the sprawling urban maze. "Marinette…"
He sat up there for a long while, flat on his back and watching the stars as he travelled backward in his memories, counting all the missed clues that preceded this night. At the end of his mental journey he was back to today. To the hunch in Marinette's shoulders. To the way she said, "I think she feels responsible..." in regards to Ladybug. The way she risked totally exposing herself by signing that card as LB, just because it would make Alya smile. The way she had looked so alone without her best friend.
About an hour after Ladybug's departure, Adrien gave in. He couldn't stand waiting to see her until tomorrow. He transformed back and ignored Plagg's sullen demands for food as he dug his cell phone out of his jeans and brought up Marinette in his contacts.
(Hey Mari,) he finally settled, after typing up and deleting a thousand different introductions, all while trying to dodge Plagg's barrage of questions and playful taunts. (I know this is super out of nowhere, but how open would you be to the idea of me coming over to your house right now?)
It took her less than a minute to respond, in three rapid-fire texts.
(very open I guess?)
(my parents though, like 0% open to that. it's almost midnight)
Adrien had to bite back a smile at her response, which only set off Plagg even more. (Let me rephrase then,) he typed out. (How open would you be to the idea of me coming over without your parents knowing?)
This time she took almost five whole minutes to respond, so by the time she did he was almost hyperventilating from the torture of awaiting her verdict.
(um.. you're right, this is kind of out of nowhere haha. but i'm definitely open to that.)
(however, idk how you would possibly get in without them seeing. my bedroom is at the top floor, remember? my parents are downstairs watching tv. idk how you'd sneak past them)
(i guess i could distract them?)
(That won't be necessary,) he answered, already standing and getting ready to recall Plagg to his transformation. (I'll manage. See you in ten?)
(whatever you say haha. if you get caught tho im throwing you to the dogs. i mean i like you and all but im NOT going down with you on this m. agreste)
That was such a Ladybug thing to say. It took every fiber of his being not to quip back at that with an equally Chat response, involving some manner of pun about a cat being thrown to the dogs. He typed up, (That's fair, but I promise it won't be necessary.) But then, before he could stop himself, he added, (I've got a catlike tread).
Stay tuned for part two!
And yes, there will be an actual answer as to why Alya wasn't healed properly. No loose ends here.
And yes, that was a Pirates of Penzance reference at the end there. (If you don't know what that is, don't worry about it. If you do, eyyy. *finger guns*)