"Why are you avoiding her anyway?" Kagami asked suddenly.
Adrien looked up from his homework in surprise, "W-what?"
As Adrien had struggled to slowly build a new normal she'd noticed him avoiding the girl currently at the other end of the school library.
"Marinette." She was the reason Adrien was here instead of with Nino, whose girlfriend Marinette was best friends with. The three of them had looked puzzled when Adrien declined their invitation to study together. Kagami, however, had expected it. "Why are you avoiding her?"
A shadow passed across Adrien's face as he looked down. " . . . Shame, I guess . . ."
"You feel ashamed of yourself in front of your crush? Is that why you started stuttering in front of her?" Kagami waited for him to deny any romantic feelings for Marinette as he did every time it came up . . . But he didn't.
Adrien blushed, still avoiding her gaze. "She needed help and I . . . couldn't help her. Every time I look at her the guilt ties my stomach into knots. B-besides, I asked and she said she wasn't interested . . ."
Whether that was directed at Adrien or Marinette she couldn't say.
"So, Marinette is the mysterious partner you went on about?"
Adrien looked up at her with wide eyes. "What? No, she- She's not- I . . ." Confusion clouded his face. "Marinette." He let out a joyless laugh. "I'm such a-"
Kagami grabbed both sides of his face as his breathing accelerated. "Adrien Agreste, you look at me. Focus on me." She was not about to let him break down in the middle of school again.
As he regained his composure she tried to figure out what exactly had set him off.
Adrien let out a slow sigh, his gaze softened. "Thank you, Kagami."
She swallowed at the vulnerability in his eyes. "You're welcome."
"Bro, you okay?"
Kagami jerked her hands away from Adrien's face. Nino, Alya, and Marinette were standing beside the bookcase's far corner. The latter giving her an odd look. All three appeared worried.
With good reason.
Adrien stared at them like he didn't know who they were.
Marinette stepped forward. "Adrien, are you alright?"
"He's a bit shaken up right now." Kagami stood up. "He should be good in a-"
"I can speak for myself," Adrien's soft reprimand surprised her, but she nodded. He stood and turned a shaky smile to his friends. "I'm fine. Just had a- A moment is all."
Marinette seemed to deflate a bit at his deflection, "Oh, okay."
Nino walked up to Adrien and gave him a brief hug before holding him by the shoulders. Y'know you can talk to me about anything, right? I'm here for you, dude."
Adrien's smile became sadder and a touch . . . pained? "I know, Nino. I need some time to sort things out. I . . . Thank you," he turned to take in the others. "All of you."
Kagami noted that Nino didn't look convinced.
"A-anyway, free period's almost over. We should get back to class." If anyone else noticed Adrien changing the subject they didn't say.
"Right, bro. See you after school?"
"Father wants me back at the house for another session."
"Oh, well, text me when you're done, yeah?"
". . . Sure."
As they left Kagami briefly caught Alya's eye. She had a calculating look about her. The same look Kagami sees when she's trying to fit seemingly incongruous puzzle pieces together. It's then that Kagami realized she'd been uncharacteristically silent, not saying a word throughout her friends' short exchange.
"Of course it's you," Adrien whispered to their backs.
Kagami glanced at him in confusion and wondered if she imagined the bitterness in his voice.
Adrien reached out and pulled Plagg to the boy's chest, cradling him.
"P-Plagg," the boy's voice broke as tears began to fall. "I- I thought I'd never- I missed you!"
Plagg purred as Adrien let out his sorrow in shuddering sobs. The small vibrations lending a familiar comfort to the boy. They stayed that way for a while, simply taking in the other's presence.
". . . W-what are you doing here?" Adrien finally asked.
"Can't a kwami visit his kid?" Plagg grumbled, flying out of the boy's hands. "You got any cheese?"
Adrien smiled at Plagg's singular focus and his body relaxed as though a weight had lifted from his shoulders. "There should still be some in the mini-fridge."
Plagg swooped forward with a cry of, "Come to me, my precious Camembert!" Earning another brief smile.
Adrien wiped at his eyes as Plagg gorged himself.
"It's been so long!" Plagg bemoaned. "Can you believe I only get one wedge of Camembert every day? Oh, the indignity!"
"Well, Luka's family isn't as rich as us and that stuff is expensive," Adrien pointed out reasonably.
Plagg stopped chewing. "What?"
"I'm just saying that the Couffaine's aren't as well off as-"
"Not that!" Plagg zoomed to a stop in front of Adrien's face. "Luka! How did you know about Luka?"
Adrien blinked at him. "I . . . don't know? The first time I saw Panthera I just . . . recognized him."
". . . What happened after Weredad took the ring?"
Fear flashed across Adrien's face before he forced his features into an expressionless mask. "I fell off the tower . . . And woke up on the ground."
Plagg's ears drooped as he gazed at the boy. "Have you recognized anyone else?"
". . . Marinette is Ladybug," Adrien responded softly. "And . . . I know who Rena Rouge and Carapace are . . . Plagg, why didn't- Why can I see them? It's so obvious, so clear."
". . . Your system got quite the shock. Basically it jarred certain ideas you held dear. Having the foundation of your core beliefs shaken makes you question things. Previously unthinkable notions become not so unbelievable. Once you had all the evidence your subconscious made the connections."
"So anyone can just look at us- Them and-"
"No. You have hands on experience with a Miraculous. You know the ring, you know Luka, you know what traits the wielder of Destruction should have."
"He's the perfect choice," Adrien bit out bitterly.
"No, you were the perfect choice! And I don't care what Fu or Wayzz or you have to say about it!"
Adrien shook his head in denial of his words. "It's been three months. Three months of akuma attacks and Panthera hasn't been brainwashed, c-captured, petrified, or . . . or killed. Not even once."
"That's because she's being careful!" Plagg shouted. "Much more careful than she ever was with you!"
Adrien flinched. "It . . . It doesn't matter. They work well together. She l-likes him, I can tell . . ."
". . . She misses you, you know. She won't call Panthera any nicknames and every time you come up she only has good things to say."
"Liar," Adrien accused half-heartedly.
"Fine. Don't believe me." Plagg crossed his small arms. ". . . How're you dealing with the secret identities thing and finally figuring out Marinette is the 'love of your life', anyway?"
Pain flared in the boy's eyes and he breathed thickly. "Not- Not well . . ." Plagg swore he could hear Adrien's heart accelerating as the boy tried to keep the flood of emotions at bay. "I thought knowing who was behind the mask would be freeing, that it would bring us closer. Instead I feel like I never really knew her . . . She said she loved me. But it wasn't true. She was lying. All of it was just a ruse to protect her identity . . . From me! Wh-who does that? Was it really so terrible that I would find out!?"
Adrien curled up on his bed and squeezed his eyes shut as the tears started up again. Plagg settled into the boy's hair. "Ladybugs tend to follow the rules to a fault, kid. They can't help themselves. It's got nothing to do with you and everything to do with her."
Adrien made no response as Plagg began to purr. They both knew that he would be gone by morning, like a pleasant dream. But Plagg was here now, and for right now, that was enough.