Actions

Work Header

Honey, I'm Home

Chapter Text

“What about Honey?”

“What about honey?” Chloé responded through gritted teeth, taking a brief moment to glare at him out of the corner of her eye. Less than a second later her eyes were on the road again and Nathaniel was thankful she was at least a good driver. He would be lying if he said he hadn’t been extremely hesitant to get in a car with Chloé Bourgeois behind the wheel, but his mind had quickly been set at ease when he’d realized she wasn’t an absolute maniac on the road.

“Oh come on,” he said, “that’s a pretty common pet name.”

“That doesn’t make it any good! It’s so sappy and sticky and gross!”

“As a pet name or a food?”

“Both!”

He hummed in thought as he watched cars go by them, noting somewhere in the back of his head that Chloé didn’t even speed (hah, what a nerd). “But Honey suits you.”

“Why?”

“Because of your hair.” She briefly turned to give him a look that reminded him of the time she had tried marmite.

“What, so I should call you Tomato?”

He gave her a deadpan expression, not that she could see it. “No,” he replied flatly, “because that’s already our lycée class’s pet name for me.”

She half-heartedly tried to cover up her laugh. “Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” He wanted to glare at her, but he couldn’t exactly be mad when she looked so cute smiling like that. And after she’d been so incredibly tense all day too. It was refreshing. “I don’t get it, though,” she continued. “Why do we even need pet names?”

“How am I supposed to convince your family that we’re dating if we don’t even have pet names?”

“Having pet names isn’t some sort of relationship requirement, Nath.”

“Of course it is! Pet names are one of the best parts of dating!” She rolled her eyes, but he didn’t miss the tiny smile in the corner of her mouth.

“What about kissing and hugging and love and support?” She glanced nervously at him when he didn’t respond. “W-What?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t say sex.”

“What!?”

“Don’t tell me you’re actually a romantic at heart,” he said, chuckling. Her head sank down into her shoulders, a deep blush taking to her cheeks. “Oh my gosh, you are.”

“Shut up,” she muttered bitterly. He just laughed.

“That makes it even more surprising that you don’t like pet names though! Especially with all those different names you used to give Adrien. Let me think,” he counted off on his fingers, “Adrikins, Adrisweets, Adrifl—,”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” she interrupted. “Look, that’s exactly why I don’t like them, okay?”

“Because of Adrien?”

“No! Well, yes.” She sighed. “Because that was all so fake and impersonal. Back then I had no idea what love was, and I acted so disgustingly toward him because of it. I like to think I’ve moved on from all that now.”

Nathaniel hummed in thought. “Fair enough. We don’t need to use any pet names. But speaking of kissing and hugging,” he was pretty sure he saw her twitch just the slightest bit, “how much of a show do you want me to be putting on?”

She bit her lip and he wasn’t sure if it was a product of being nervous or just careful deliberation. He should probably stop overthinking every little move she made. “Well, holding my hand every now and then would be good, and probably hugging. You’ve dated before, right?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

“Yeah, so, you know, whatever seems natural? Don’t overdo it. I might kiss your cheek here and there, are you alright with that?”

Hell yes. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

“Okay. And as far as kissing on the lips goes…” he swallowed nervously, wondering if it was wrong of him to be hoping for her to say he should kiss her often, “we might need to for a picture or two. But other than that, it shouldn’t be necessary. I mean… Well, my Aunt Georgia watches a lot of Hallmark movies and she might ask us to kiss or something. She’s kind of gross like that. Is that… Are you comfortable with that?” she asked, eyeing him nervously.

You could hold me down and cover me in hickies and I would beg for more—He cleared his throat, hoping it might clear his head too. It didn’t. “Yeah, that’s totally fine.” He thought for a moment, then smirked as the Hallmark comment caught up with him.  “Do you realize how freaking tropy this is?”

“Tropy?”

“Yeah. You know, asking me to visit your family with you for the holidays to pretend to be your boyfriend? There are at least three fics of this in any given fandom.”

She side eyed him with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “Nerd.”

“True, and not the point.”

She rolled her eyes, still smiling. “It’s only tropy if we fall in love by the end.”

He found himself very glad in that moment that she wasn’t looking at him and therefore couldn’t see the sudden blush that he knew had appeared on his face. “Haha, yeah, true.” He nervously scratched the back of his head and stared at her. She didn’t seem to be having any sort of reaction to it and he wondered if his feelings really were one-sided. “Hey, Chloé…”

“Hm?”

“Why did you ask me to come and not Adrien or something?”

“Adrien already had holiday plans,” she stated plainly. His heart sunk.

“O-Oh. Gotcha.”

“Plus, all of France already knows he’s dating Marinette.”

“Right, of course.”

“And besides,” she shrugged, “I trust you.”

His heart thumped in his chest and he could feel that blush returning just as it had begun to calm down. “W-What?”

“You’ve been keeping my identity as Queen Bee a secret for, what? Three years now? Four? I’ve seen you lie with ease a million times, and you’ve more than proven that I can trust you. Plus, second to Sabrina, you’re kind of my best friend at this point. Honestly, I would rather face my family alone again than bring home anyone else.”

He reminded himself not to take her words as any sort of sign that she reciprocated his feelings.

But that didn’t mean that he had to ignore the warmth that he felt because of her, right? He didn’t want to deny himself this glow of love and appreciation that he felt from her. Even if the way she felt toward him was different than what he felt for her, it was still something special and he could at least take joy in that.

She glanced at him after he didn’t respond for a while. “What?” He smiled and she rolled her eyes, cheeks taking on the slightest dusting of blush. “So I said some nice words about you, don’t let it go to your head.”

He laughed. “Yes, Honey.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Nath?”

“Oh thank goodness,” he breathed, letting out a heavy sigh. Nathaniel turned onto his side so that he was facing her. “What’s up?”

“What? What was the ‘thank goodness’ for?” she asked as she turned too. The Christmas lights hanging along the outside of the house shined in through the window, vaguely lighting her in soft rainbow light, and he thanked whatever deity had granted him access to such a beautiful sight. Her blue eyes caught the light perfectly, practically glowing in the dark room as she looked over at him.

“I’ve been staring at the ceiling ever since we turned off the light, wide awake. It was driving me insane. I’m so glad you said something, otherwise I would’ve been trapped in my thoughts all night.”

She smiled at him then, but it didn’t reach her eyes, and he realized she probably had some not-so-enjoyable thoughts on her mind. He was about to ask what was wrong, but she spoke first. “Are your thoughts such a terrible place to be?”

When I’ve been holding your hand all day as you introduce me to your mother’s family as your boyfriend? When earlier today you kissed me full on the lips and it was one of the single most amazing things I’ve ever felt?? When now after all of that you’re lying here in the same bed as me looking outright sinful in a mere undershirt and pajama shorts and I have to remind myself that you and I are not in fact dating???

“Yeah,” he replied, “they can be pretty hard to deal with sometimes.” Emphasis on the hard HOLY SHIT NATHANIEL SHUT UP.

Chloé frowned. “I’m sorry, I totally forgot you’re used to a semi-nocturnal lifestyle. If you want, you can stay up and draw for a while. I won’t mind.”

He smiled at her, warmed from the inside out by her consideration. He knew she was actually a really light sleeper, and if he had even a small desk lamp on to draw, she would be left wide awake until he stopped.

“Thanks, Chlo, but I’m alright,” he said. He noticed a few strands of hair hanging in her glowing, sad eyes. Never one to keep his romantic impulses at bay, he reached out and gently tucked those strands back behind her ear, taking simple pleasure in the silky texture of her hair and the gentle sigh the action drew out of her. “What’s wrong?”

She stared at him with pursed lips as she formed the question on her tongue. He noted the movement of her jaw, betraying the fact that she was grinding her teeth again, a bad habit that she had whenever she was thinking intensely about something. He reached his hand out again to rest his fingers against her jaw. “Your dentist will complain if you keep doing that.” She immediately stopped and gave him a tiny smile. He let his hand linger just a second longer, indulging in the smallest of touches, before he dropped it to rest in the space between them.

“Have you ever had any really bad fights with either of your mothers?” she finally asked. He hummed, chewing the inside of his cheek in thought.

“I definitely have at some point. No one’s relationship with their parents is perfect. Mum and I used to butt heads a lot when I was a teenager, getting into really heated arguments over really silly things, like our favorite comic book characters. But Maman is such a peacemaker that nothing was ever allowed to fester. She kind of forced us to have an open, communicative household. So even when things were bad, they would never stay that way for long. I think the worst time was when Mum tried to get me to think about getting a backup degree in something other than art. Eighteen-year-old-Nathaniel took that to mean she didn’t have faith in my art ability being good enough to support myself with, and well… Needless to say, it was bad. Even at full peacemaking abilities, Maman couldn’t smooth that one over very easily. Mum and I didn’t talk to each other for almost a week because of it. Any time she tried to talk to me about it, I would leave the room. Maman eventually locked us in a room together and refused to let us out until we made up.” He chuckled then, and he noted that he’d managed to coax a tiny giggle out of Chloé, the sound twinkling over his ear like early morning wind chimes.

“That sounds like Lorraine,” she said.

“Yeah,” he affirmed. “She even sat outside the door and listened to the whole conversation, occasionally chiming in whenever we went off course.” Chloé’s laughter grew then, and he smiled as he saw it reach her eyes. If he did nothing else that night, he could at least pride himself in making her smile. “But that’s pretty much the worst it ever got. Relatively speaking, I think I’ve always had a pretty great relationship with my parents.” Her expression clouded again as she hummed in thought. “Why do you ask?” She started grinding her teeth again, so he gently stopped her with a hand to her cheek. Rather than remove it completely, he elected to stroke her hair softly in a comforting motion. “Nervous about seeing your mother tomorrow?” She nodded, expression weighed down by sad eyes. “How long has it been?”

She let out a heavy sigh and closed her eyes, seeming to sink into his touch. “I mean, I technically saw her last Christmas too, but we don’t talk. We exchange pleasantries and we hug exactly twice—once when we first see each other and once when we leave—and we exchange meaningless formality Christmas gifts, and that’s it.” She grimaced in frustration, voice picking up more and more anger as she went on. “Ever since she left Papa and I, we haven’t talked. She’s never apologized for leaving an eight year old with no mother and a heartbroken father, she’s never expressed any desire to know about me or my life—she may as well be some estranged cousin for all she cares about my life. Except that’s not even accurate, because my cousins and their incessant questions about my life and my relationships are the reason you’re here. They may be annoying, but at least they seem to give a shit about me and my life.” His heart sunk as he watched the first tear fall, quickly followed by more and more of them. “ She’s my mother, why doesn’t she care if my business is going well or if I’m seeing someone or how my Papa is doing?” Her voice broke then, and she brought up her hands to shield her face from view. “Why doesn’t she care?”

Unable to watch anymore, Nathaniel moved forward, pulling her into his arms. Her body shook with sobs, but she curled into him nonetheless, bunching up the fabric of his t-shirt in her fists and tangling her legs with his. He enclosed her in his arms and ran a hand over her hair, just trying to soothe her as best he could. He knew there was nothing he could say to make her feel better. What she needed in that moment was a shoulder to cry on. So that’s what he was. A shoulder to cry on until she fell asleep, nestled safely in his arms.

Chapter Text

 

“So how did you two meet?”

Nathaniel looked up from the sugar cookie he was decorating, pulled from his own thoughts by the previously silent woman across the table from him. Her disposition showed no change, blue eyes still passive and completely focused on her own sugar cookie. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought the question had merely appeared out of thin air.

Then those sharp blue orbs glanced up at him, slightly agitated, no doubt because he was taking so long to respond.

“U-Um…” he cleared his throat, centering himself. “We went to school together.”

“So what changed?” He stared at her like an idiot, waiting for some sort of explanation. None came.

“I’m sorry?”

“What changed?” she repeated, annoyance clear in her tone.

“What do you mean?”

“You went to school together, but you didn’t start dating until this year, and Chloé hasn’t been in school for three years, so what changed?”

Nathaniel gulped nervously, a strange (and quite unwelcomed) sense of nostalgia falling over him. If he thought Chloé was intimidating back in school, her mother was something else altogether.

“Well?” Fuck. What should he say? The thing that changed was…

 

He was out of breath and his legs were screaming to stop, but Nathanie l kept running as fast as he could. He might die. He was pretty sure he could taste blood, probably from running his throat ragged. He really wasn’t the athletic type, and running killed him the most. But it didn’t matter. He had to find her.

He rounded the corner where he saw her fall—where he saw Queen Bee fall—after taking a nasty blow from that day’s akuma. He had noted some scratches and bruises on Chloé over the past few weeks that she did her best to cover up. He knew no one else would notice them since no one else paid such close attention to her, knowing who she was. But he knew. He knew that Ladybug’s cure didn’t fix everything.

And he knew that she had taken a really big hit.

Down at the end of the allyway, he spotted her, signature bright yellow sweater dingy with a coating of dust, and usually pristine ponytail loose and betrayed by stray hairs. She supported her weight with a hand on the wall next to her, and staggered as she tried to take a step, sunglasses clattering to the ground. “Chloé!” he shouted upon approach, picking up speed as adrenaline kicked in.

Terrified blue eyes snapped up to him, only to filled with anger when they recognized who it was. “Oh jeez, really!? Can you do me a favor and leave? Your company is less than desired right now.”

“Chloé, you’re hurt,” he argued.

“Wow, thanks for noticing. How could you tell? Must be that artistic eye for detail. Buzz off, tomato.”

“What I mean is you’re hurt. Let me help you.”

“I don’t need your help, Kurtzberg, I need you to leave me alone.” She tried to take another step, and stumbled to the ground, hissing as her already-scraped skin made contact with the concrete.

He kneeled down and picked up her sunglasses, offering them to her. “Oh yeah, I can tell you’re doing just great on your own.” Her only response was to send him a nasty glare and snatch the glasses away, dropping them in her purse. He sighed and forced himself to soften his tone, knowing that she needed help in that moment more than he needed to bite back at her sarcasm. “Look, just let me carry you to the hospital. If you try to limp there, you’re only going to make it worse.”

“Please, I’ll just call my…” she plucked out her cell phone and tapped the home button. Then tapped it again. Then pressed it repeatedly. Dead. “…driver.”

Nathaniel  fished his own phone out from his pocket. “Want to use mine?”

She stared at his phone, then pressed her lips together in what he would later describe as stubborn shame. “I don’t know his number.”

“Then it’s settled,” he said, putting his phone away again. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“How do you even expect to carry me, being the shrimp that you are? I’m like a whole head taller than you!”

“Excuse me, you are only a few centimeters taller than me. And I am completely capable of giving you a piggyback ride.”

“Please, you’ll just drop me half way there.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

Stubborn shame.

“Chloé, just let the boy help you,” a small voice chimed. The bee-creature floated out from her purse to put a comforting hand on Chloé’s head. He had only seen the bee-creature once before, and he couldn’t imagine ever getting used to its glossy reflective eyes.

Her eyes pleaded with the bee, but those unyielding orbs held their ground. Finally, the blonde dropped her head with a grumbling sigh.

“Fine, but you’d better not drop me.”

“No promises,” he quipped, turning around so she could crawl onto his back. She flicked him right at the nape of his neck. “Okay, I deserved that.”

“Yes you did,” the bee-thing twinkled. Then it flitted back into hiding as he stood up, heaving the blonde bully/superhero up with him.

After he took a few steps, Chloé slumped down onto him, resting her head on his shoulder. He chewed on the inside of his cheek worriedly, knowing that if Chloé Bourgeois was tired enough to be resting at ease with him, she really must have taken quite the beating. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, is it?”

She hesitated. “…No,” she admitted. “It’s never been this bad before though. Usually just scratches and bruises.”

“Does anyone else know who you are? Ladybug and Chat Noir? Sabrina?”

“No, just you.”

He chewed some more, mulling over his thoughts. “Chloé, in the future… How about you call me when this happens. And I can come help you.”

“Oh please, I’m not some damsel in distress.”

“No. You’re not. You’re the hero saving the damsels in distress. And…sometimes heroes need help too.”

She didn’t say anything for a few moments, the only sound between them being that of his shoes on the pavement.

“You…haven’t told anyone…have you?” The question wasn’t phrased so much as a question as it was a confirmation of a fact that she already knew.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, so quietly that he might not have heard it had her mouth not been right next to his ear.

“I know our relationship isn’t exactly…good,” she huffed a small laugh of agreement, “but I wouldn’t do that to you. You’re secret is safe, Chloé.”

She sighed. “You know, you’re not that bad, Red.”

“Wow. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me, Chloé.”

“Don’t let it go to your head. I still don’t like you.”

He smiled. “And I still don’t like you.”

“But… I guess if you wanted to help me in the future, I can’t really stop you.”

He chuckled at how stubborn she was, even when accepting his offer to help. “Yes, your highness.”

“Ooh, your highness,” she repeated. “I could get used to that.”

“Don’t.”

 

…Nathaniel shrugged. “I guess… Once we got past our differences, we just sort of…clicked.”

He looked up to find icy blue eyes narrowed at him inquisitively, thoroughly chilling him from the inside out.

“Do you love my daughter?”

He didn’t even have to think. “Yeah, I do.”

Her expression then was completely unreadable as she watched him for several moments, almost as if she was testing his gaze. But he was resolute, his gaze steady.

“Good,” she finally said. And then she went back to frosting cookies.

Chapter Text

Was painting her under the glow of the rainbow Christmas lights too much?

Well, okay, rephrase. Was giving her a painting of herself under the glow of the rainbow Christmas lights too much? Because, if he was being honest, there was a very slim chance that he wouldn’t paint it anyway. The question was whether that would be a gift that she would appreciate or find creepy.

He had painted her before, plenty of times. And she knew that. She had even deigned to model for him on occasion. But those had all been paintings of Queen Bee, not Chloé.

Well…okay. He had also painted Chloé before. But she didn’t know that. He hadn’t told her. Just like he hadn’t told her he…loved her.

Nathaniel tasted blood. He was chewing the inside of his cheek again. Damn it. He forced himself to stop and tried to focus on the dishes in front of him instead, intently watching the way the hot water glided over the surface of the plate, washing away the soap bubbles. Not thinking about Chloé. He set the dish on the drying rack and picked up the next one. Still not thinking about Chloé. He scrubbed the frosting off the bowl in his hands. Definitely not thinking about the way Chloé had swiped a finger in the frosting when she didn’t think anyone was watching. He washed off one of the icing knives and didn’t think about how much Chloé’s face had lit up when he’d handed her a cookie decorated specially for her. He most certainly wasn’t thinking about how much he loved seeing that glowing smile on her, especially knowing that he had caused it, and especially knowing how stressed she had been all day with the various family members arriving at the house, specifically her mother.

He sighed and didn’t notice as he drew his cheek in between his teeth again. It wasn’t the first time he had seen her stressed like that of course—in fact, he had seen her much worse. Like that time when Chef Césaire and the rest of her cooking staff had fallen ill the night before the hotel’s annual investors dinner. Or the time when Papillon figured out that Ladybug and Chat Noir were both out of town so Chloé, Alya, and Nino were left to defend the city without the miraculous cure.

Compared to that and countless other times he had seen the blonde stressed out? Her mother arriving was practically nothing. Chloé handled herself with a certain level of grace—like she always did—even when her hand was squeezing his so tightly he had bruises. Even when she had to practice deep breathing exercises every five minutes to keep calm every hour when her mother inevitably said another slap-in-the-face-type comment.

She really was…such a strong person.

And that’s what made it so absolutely heartbreaking to see her break down crying the way she had the night before.

He tasted blood again. Crap. He forced his mouth to sit still, locking his jaw and glaring down at the pan in his hands as he vigorously scrubbed the burnt cookie pieces off. He just wished there was more he could do for her than just…be there next to her. All he had managed to be was a shoulder to cry on (literally) and a hand to hold (literally), but what good was that when she was still so—

Nathaniel stood upright, pausing all movement as two arms suddenly encircled his waist from behind. Not a second later, his momentary panic settled down, the familiar scent of Chloé’s shampoo falling over him as she leaned her head on his shoulder. He was glad she couldn’t see his face then—he was sure it was falling deeper into shades of red by the second.

“Thank you,” she whispered, her cool breath sending a trail of goose bumps along his skin.

“They’re just dishes, it’s no big deal,” he responded in a low voice, smiling to himself and wishing more than he ought to that they could stay in that position forever. Her hold around his waist tightened just the slightest bit, sending all sorts of butterflies fluttering through him.

“Not for that, stupid.” He chuckled at her ever-loving insults. “For being here with me. It means a lot to me.”

He huffed a tiny, self-deprecating laugh. “I feel like I’m not doing anything.” She squeezed even tighter.

“You are.” Then, Nathaniel knew he was living up to the namesake of “tomato”, when Chloé very simply pecked him on the cheek. It was funny. Even after all the cheek kisses and the lip kiss that they had shared for her family, that small gesture—because it was 100% genuine—was the one that floored him. “Thank you,” she repeated. And with one last squeeze, she was gone, leaving the redhead with a blush to match his hair and a stomach back flipping its way to the Olympics.

Chapter Text

“So when did it happen?”

It?” Nathaniel asked in confusion, looking back and forth between Chloé’s cousins, both sitting across the table from him. Isabella—the one who had asked the question—looked like a schoolgirl waiting to hear the newest gossip—despite being a 36 year old businesswoman—with the way she leaned forward over the table, eyes and ears ready to drink in whatever secrets he would give. Marianne, on the other hand, sat back in her chair, soothing cold fingers over the steam rising from her mug of hot chocolate while she intently followed the conversation.

“You know,” Marianne explained for her younger sister, “it. The pivotal moment.”

“The pivotal moment of…what?”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “The moment you knew you loved her.”

His back straightened in his chair and he shifted a bit, eyes widening and a rosy hue surely taking to his cheeks. The moment he knew he loved Chloé Bourgeois? That had been more of a gradual process. But maybe the moment he had realized she meant a lot more to him than he thought…

 

“Bee!”

He hated her. He hated her he hated her he hated her. How dare she do this to him?

Nathaniel skidded in some dirt as he rounded the corner, dirt staining the newly scuffed knees of his jeans. He quickly regained his traction and kept running at top speed. This was the first time he had been winded in a while. His lungs hadn’t burned like this for months. Apparently being Chloé’s one and only confidant meant getting a harsher running workout than Kim every day. He barely even thought about it anymore.

“Bee!” he yelled again, head turning this way and that looking for the place she had landed. He hated her. He hated her for making him look for her like this. He hated her for not answering his calls. He hated her for not having called him yet. He hated her for—

The unmistakable glow of her detransformation flashed out from the alley a block away. His legs cried as he picked up his speed even further to get to her. He knew by now that some injuries didn’t catch up to her until she was out of the suit. In other words, her pain probably just increased tenfold.

“Chloé!” he gasped, finally turning the corner. Relief flooded over him as he was greeted with her familiar yellow-white-black color scheme. That relief drained a second later as he took in the new addition of red.

She was struggling to pick herself up, desperately resting her weight on shaking arms as her legs refused to move from their place behind her. Her hair was a mess, loose from its ponytail and strewn about her shoulders in knotted, dusty strands. Blood was very quickly seeping further into her white and black striped shirt, the scarlet stain at her middle growing each second.

Tired blue eyes wandered up to him, eyelids fluttering as her muscles staggered. Her elbows buckled. Her head dipped.

Nathaniel rushed forward, skidding onto his knees and reaching his arms out to catch her just as she fell. He pulled her onto him, resting her head down on his lap. That was when he saw Pollen, curled in on herself a meter away.

“Damn it, Chloé,” he cursed. He grabbed her hands and placed them over her waist where blood was pooling. “Keep pressure here,” he said, and quickly began digging through her purse to find her phone. He needed to call an ambulance—no. Her driver. And her personal doctor. The public hospital couldn’t know about this—she would be discovered. “Damn it,” he whispered, fingers shaking as he swiped through the contacts on her phone.

He hated her. He hated her for putting him in this position. He hated her for taking so many hits for the others all the time. He didn’t care if her ability to fly lent itself to that or if protecting Ladybug for her cure was “more important”—she was important too! He hated her for—

“Nath,” she whispered, and he finally let himself look down at her as the phone began to ring for her driver. Her weary eyes were staring up at him and if there was any emotion passing within her, he couldn’t tell. She just looked so tired. “You’re crying.”

He gritted his teeth, finally feeling the sting of hot tears spilling from his eyes. He hated her. He hated her for pushing him out of the way. He hated her for taking the swing from the akuma’s stupid physics-defying sword. He hated her for soaring, body nothing but a limp doll, blocks and blocks away.

He hated her for—

“I thought you were dead,” he finally admitted, spitting the words out in furious agony. Her driver picked up a second later. “This is Nathanie l. I need you to get to 36th as soon as possible.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. He glanced down at her as he searched for her doctor’s number, lips pressed together in a tight grimace. A fist was around his heart—her fist—and it was squeezing. Hard. Perfectly manicured fingernails digging deep into his flesh with that unreadable mask of near-death shrouding her features. He took a deep breath, forcing air into his chest, and looked up at the brick wall in front of him as the phone rang. He placed his hand over hers, keeping pressure on the wound.

“Just…don’t scare me like that again.”

 

“I…” Isabella and Marianne both leaned in further, ready for the scoop. “I’m sure you remember that Chloé was attacked last year, out on the street…” They nodded, expressions darkening at the memory of what was probably a worrying call. “Well, I guess, that pivotal moment…was when I found her.”

“And you realized you didn’t want to lose her,” Marianne completed. He nodded.

“Wow,” Isabella breathed.

“Wow, what?” came that domineering voice that he had so grown to love. The three of them turned to see the hero herself enter from the kitchen. “What are we talking about?”

Nathaniel reached out for her hand as she took a seat next to him. “You.”

She scowled at him, but took his hand nonetheless, fingers threading through his with natural ease. “What about me?”

He gazed at her then, not acting the slightest bit as absolute love, adoration, and gratitude played across his features. Her perfect blonde hair, her expressive blue eyes, her pristine white shirt; they were all perfectly intact right in front of him.

He squeezed her hand tight. “Just…that we’re glad you’re here.”

Chapter Text

“That’s a lie and you know it!”

Uh oh.

Nathaniel picked up his pace as he heard what sounded like a very heated argument coming from down the hall. Had Chloé’s mom picked a fight with her in the two minutes he had been gone?

“Are you kidding!? You’re the one who’s ignoring the comics!” he heard Isabella retort.

…Wait what?

“Screw the comics! We’re talking about the TV show here!” Chloé shot back.

When Nathaniel rounded the corner, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Aunt Georgia had left the room, probably to start preparing dinner, which meant that Chloé and her cousins had finally turned the TV away from the hallmark channel. And what had they landed on?

“But the comics informed the TV show, and the hints of BBRae are inarguably present!”

…An episode of the old Teen Titans.

None of the cousins were paying the show any mind though, with Chloé and Isabella on the floor sitting on either side of the coffee table—a safety buffer keeping them from starting an all-out fist fight apparently—and Marianne and her wife, Jasmine, on the couch acting as if they were audience members to a comedic play. The youngest cousin—Ryan, 16 years old and too young to have the same nostalgia for Teen Titans—hadn’t moved from his place in the corner where he continued to scroll on his smartphone.

“Hints being the key word!” Chloé continued, slamming her hand down on the coffee table. “Any BBRae in the show is subtle—and side note, not even as present as RobRae, which ew—while BBTerra was 100% explicitly canon!”

Nathaniel broke in before Isabella had a chance to respond. “Are you two seriously fighting over a ship war for a cartoon that was cancelled over a decade ago?”

Four of the five heads in the room then whipped to him.

“Yes they are,” Jasmine replied, snickering.

“Nath! Good!” Chloé waved him over to take a seat on the floor next to her. “Help me out here!”

He stayed put, eyeing the situation carefully. “I don’t know, it kinda looks like Ryan’s got the right idea here.” Said teenager didn’t look up from his phone, but nodded in agreement.

“Don’t be silly,” his not-girlfriend said. “Get over here and tell Izzy that BBTerra is canon.”

He carefully approached and sat down as Isabella spoke up again. “Whoa hey, I didn’t say that BBTerra isn’t canon. But it isn’t endgame! She dies!”

“Does she?” Marianne decided to chime in, leaning forward in her seat to pour gasoline on the flames.

“Yeah don’t forget,” Chloé continued, “she’s alive, she just doesn’t remember anything.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “Yeah and she told Beast Boy to leave her alone so she can go on with her new life. The Terra he knew may as well be dead, and it’s still not endgame!”

“But BBRae isn’t endgame either! Their relationship didn’t even get any attention by the time the show ended! Nath, tell her.” Three sets of nearly identical blue eyes and one set of brown fell on him then, all waiting to see what he would say.

He could feel his face flushing a brighter red by the second.

What should he say? He wanted to take Chloé’s side just for the sake of taking her side, but he didn’t actually agree with her. Not that he agreed with Isabella either though…

“I…” He scratched his head nervously, averting his gaze. Oh boy, he thought, looks like we’re getting out the shovel. Time to dig my grave. “I think the best ship is actually Terra and Raven.”

Silence.

He looked up to see everyone practically frozen in place, the only movement their intermittent blinking, as if all considering his words carefully.

“Agreed,” Jasmine finally said, breaking the silence. Marianne hummed and nodded beside her, sitting back against the couch again.

“Yeah, can’t really argue there,” Isabella acquiesced, dropping her shoulders.

Nathaniel looked at Chloé, the only one left who hadn’t said anything, and he couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face as he recognized her look of stubborn shame. Finally, she rolled her eyes with an overdramatic sigh.

“Damn it, you’re right.”

“It’s settled, Nathaniel wins,” Marianne declared. Wait, he wins? Didn’t he just bring the argument to a draw?

He didn’t have a chance to clarify before Isabella was leaning across the table and clapping him on the shoulder. “Welcome to the family, Red.”

His blush increased tenfold, not because of the statement, but because of the way Chloé looked at him a moment later.

She was beaming.

Chapter Text

“So Nathaniel, why aren’t you with your family for Christmas? Are they upset that you left them this year?”

Oh boy. Attention was on him at a table of twelve who were still dishing up and hadn’t actually started eating yet. Dangerous. He hoped his blush would stay under control.

“No, they don’t celebrate Christmas,” he replied.

Aunt Georgia—who had asked the question—looked nearly blasphemed. “What? What kind of people don’t celebrate Christmas!?”

A slight hint of annoyance in her tone, Chloé answered, “Jewish people, Aunt Georgia. Nathaniel is Jewish.”

The woman’s shoulders dropped. “Oh, that makes sense. Well don’t you celebrate Hanukkah though?”

“We do,” he affirmed as he passed Chloé the bowl of potatoes. She didn’t so much as look at them before passing them on to her cousin next to her. “It was earlier this year.”

“I thought Hanukkah was always the same time as Christmas,” she frowned.

“Sometimes it is. It varies. This year it started in late November.”

“Well, I’m glad we get you all to ourselves then. And if your family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, maybe that means you can join us in the future too?”

Nathaniel blinked, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him for a moment.

When Chloé had warned him that her mom’s entire family was a pack of vicious wolves, he had believed her. But upon meeting Aunt Georgia, he had thought that maybe Chloé had simply been forgetting about her. It wasn’t that the woman was a saint by any means, but she seemed relatively harmless. Just a 50-something year old American woman who loved her Hallmark movies and made her family uncomfortable with old-fashioned thinking. Not someone who swiped for blood like the others.

But those eyes were suddenly sharp as they asked the question, testing him to see just how serious he was, just like her mother had done before.

Not a single person at the table hadn’t picked up on it and suddenly, all eyes were on him.

His ears were definitely turning red. But he pushed down his nerves and, just as he had done with Chloé’s mom, answered honestly. “Yeah. I would really like that.”

Chapter Text

“You have a personal doctor? I know your dad is loaded, but is that really necessary?”

Chloé cast him a nervous glance as the after-dinner conversation with her cousins suddenly approached dangerous territory. How did they manage to go from arguing over Fruits Basket ships to Chloé’s health in the two minutes it had taken him to go get some cookies??

“I insisted,” he said as he approached. He handed Chloé the bee-themed sugar cookie he had specifically frosted for her earlier that day, then placed his hand gently on her back. His palm smoothed a path down from her right shoulder to her left hip, along which he could just barely feel the raised line of her first scar through the fabric of her shirt.

 

“Chloé?” He knocked lightly on the door. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah,” she replied, and he cringed as she grunted immediately after. With two towels, three of his softest washcloths, and a first aid kit stacked in his arms, he entered the bathroom.

Chloé’s bloodied shirt lay on the floor along with her sweater, pants, and underwear. The blonde herself was wearing a white bra that was quickly turning pink and the swim trunks he had given her as she very slowly lowered her body into the bathtub. From where he stood, he could finally see the full, unfiltered horror of her injured back.

Stretching all the way from her right shoulder to her left hip was a deep laceration, still profusely dripping blood that covered almost the entirety of her back. Now that he was seeing it like this, he was certain she was going to need stitches.

He hated to think what could’ve happened if the miraculous cure hadn’t already healed most of the damage.

After setting up the supplies he would need, Nathaniel pulled on a pair of gloves and sat on the edge of the tub.

“I’m going to need to take off your bra,” he said quietly. She was already reaching to do it herself before he was even done speaking, but she winced in the process and dropped her arms.

“Go ahead,” she grunted.

Swallowing a nervous lump in his throat, he reached out with shaking fingers and tried his best to unhook the clasp without disturbing the wound. Chloé immediately flinched in pain and he fumbled with it.

“Never taken off someone’s bra before, Klutzberg?” Her words held a much stronger dose of poison than they had in a while. He immediately bristled to the comment out of reflex, but reminded himself that she had a habit of lashing out when she was in pain.

“Excuse me for being nervous,” he mumbled as he finally unhooked the damn thing. Chloé hugged the front of it to her chest.

“You’re nervous? I’m the one about to get stitched up by a klutzy sidekick with shaky hands.”

“Let me take you to a doctor then!”

“No,” her voice was immediately calm then—calm and insistent. “I’ve already been to the hospital three times in the last two months. People will start to catch on if my injuries keep coinciding with Queen Bee’s.”

He pressed his lips shut in frustration. He knew she was right, but that didn’t change the danger of the situation. He had attended a three-week first aid course, not years of medical school. He had been hoping beyond hope that he wouldn’t have to use what he’d learned about stitches in that class. All he could think of was the high risk of him fucking up, of the stitches being wrong, of the wound getting infected, of Chloé contracting some awful disease because of him and—

“I’m going to start cleaning the wound,” he said, forcing his mind away from catastrophizing. He turned on the water and fussed with it to try and get it to as neutral of a temperature as he could. “Did you take the pain killers I gave you?”

“Yeah,” she grunted, “just start.”

With a deep breath, Nathaniel tried to clear his head. His hands were always notoriously steady—it was a gift he had taken advantage of with pens and paint brushes and clay. But he would be willing to give up his steady hands for the rest of his life if he could just keep them steady right there and then. All the art in the world didn’t matter when compared to Chloé’s health and well-being.

Please, please just let me do this right.

The moment he first raised the soaked cloth to her skin, she hissed in pain, flinching away. “Shit,” he immediately sprang back. “I’m sorry. Are you okay? Do you want me to sto—?”

“No,” she urged through gritted teeth, “it’s fine. Keep going.”

That sure wasn’t convincing.

He was biting the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood, but he couldn’t care less in the moment. He raised the cloth again and began to gently dab along the wound. She flinched at the first couple touches, and then held her breath and tensed her muscles rock solid for a time. She didn’t start breathing again until he took the washcloth away to rinse it.

Then a small whimper of pain escaped her lungs as he started again.

“Distract me,” she said suddenly in a strained voice.

“What? How?”

“I don’t care, just distract me. I need something to think about that’s not—,”

“I love you.”

“What!?”

She suddenly whipped around to look at him, but immediately winced and faced forward.

“Did that work?”

“Are you fucking serious!?”

“That depends, did it distract you?”

She paused then, briefly. “I fucking hate you.”

He laughed at that—a genuine laugh, if pushed through a wall of anxiety—because it just sounded so very Chloé. “Oh that’s a good distraction. How about you list everything you hate about me?”

“Where do I even start?” she snorted.

He chuckled and waited for her to begin. And waited. “Well?”

“…I can’t think of anything.”

“What?”

“I don’t hate you.”

He scowled, but kept going. “Did that akuma hit your head too?”

“Shut up, Kurtzberg, I’m being serious,” she snapped. Then she sighed. “I stopped hating you a long time ago.”

He paused to rinse the washcloth again before smiling to himself. “I don’t hate you either.” She laughed then, but the sound very quickly morphed into a cry of pain that made him cringe. “Okay, the second we’re done here, you’re hiring a personal doctor. I am not cut out for this.”

She let out a small huff of laughter. “Will do, Red.”

 

“What? Why?” Isabella immediately asked. Chloé took a bite of her cookie and leaned into him, pressing her head into his shoulder comfortably as he stroked her back. Moments like these were the easiest for him to forget that they weren’t actually dating. Moments when his affectionate, comforting touches were completely genuine and she melded into him so naturally.

“Because she’s stubborn and didn’t want to go to the hospital even though she kept getting hurt from all the akumas that target her.”

Then she jabbed him in the ribs.

Chapter Text

“When the hell did you get abs?”

Nathaniel blinked in surprise and turned to fully face the woman who wasn’t even trying to hide the fact that she was ogling him while he took off his shirt. Should he be flattered that she was staring at him so unabashedly? He wanted to be, but he was mostly distracted by how her eyebrows were knit together in intense confusion.

“Um. Okay first off,” he began as he dropped his shirt in the laundry basket, “you say that as if you’ve seen me shirtless before.” Those sharp blue eyes rose to meet his gaze with a frown. “Secondly, I don’t have abs. I just have absolutely no body fat.”

“That’s not true,” she immediately argued. She stepped closer then and he tensed up as she reached out toward his torso with cold fingers. She didn’t seem to notice though, back to scrutinizing his form. “There’s muscle here,” she said as her thumbs traced along the very soft contours on his stomach. “Do you work out?” Her tone carried across as extremely confused, because she knew damn well that he hated any gym that wasn’t Pokémon related.

“I mean,” he stared at the wall across the room and tried not to think too hard about her fingertips dancing along his skin, or the way she looked dressed in her undershirt and pajama shorts again, “I do run a lot chasing you around the city.”

She chuckled, the sound of it more sadistic than anything else. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Her hands paused a moment later. When he looked back at her, he found her gaze fixated on his side, where her fingers were tracing a delicate line he knew well. “You have a scar,” she noted, voice soft.

“Yeah. I had to have my appendix removed when I was younger.”

“I…” She blinked, fingers just repeatedly tracing the raised line above his hip. “I didn’t know you had a scar.”

She looked almost troubled at the thought. She didn’t say anything more; just kept staring at his scar and smoothing over it with cold hands.

“Chloé?”

Her lips squeezed together in a frown. She didn’t look up. “Nath, how many scars do I have?”

He blinked in surprise, but recited the information off the top of his head nonetheless. “Three big ones—on your back, your stomach, and your left arm—and six smaller ones from cuts that didn’t quite heal after the miraculous cure.” He paused, noting the way her expression darkened further. “Why?”

“I didn’t know you had a scar,” she repeated.

“Chloé, I was there for all of your scars. Mine happened when I was six. It only makes sense that you didn’t know.”

She only pressed her lips together in a stubborn display of frustration. “But it’s a scar, and I didn’t know about it. What else don’t I know about you?” Her gaze lingered another moment before she looked up. “Do you have any other scars?”

Any other time, those blue eyes focusing on him with her hands still on his skin would be driving him crazy, but in that moment all he could think about was how much sorrow lay embedded in that look. He forced himself to look away and raised his hands, searching between them for a particular red mark. “Here,” he said, holding out his right. “I burned myself on a hot glue gun.” She took up his hand in both of hers and a tiny smile donned her lips.

“Last year, when you were making that ridiculous sculpture.”

“Hey,” he rebuked, tone light in the hopes of cheering her up, “that was a sculpture of my favorite hero. I will not stand here and listen to you insult it.”

She chuckled, though the smile still wasn’t reaching her eyes. “No, idiot.” She paused to look up at him again, fixing a quizzical glare on him. “You burned yourself on the Queen Bee one.”

“I know.”

That gave her pause.

She looked down at his hand again with a smile—a real one, albeit small. The sight of it sent butterflies rushing straight through him. “I thought Chat Noir was your favorite.”

“Are you kidding? Have you seen Queen Bee?”

She shrugged, smile growing. “She is pretty hot.”

“And don’t forget strong. She could deadlift me without breaking a sweat. In fact, I think she has.” She shook her head with a small laugh. Then that sorrow seeped back in as she traced a thumb over the burn. He squeezed her hand. “Hey.” Those beautiful blue eyes rose once again and he smiled. “You know me better than anyone.”

She rolled her eyes then and he caught a glimpse of a smile as she turned and walked away. “Well duh. You’re an introverted dweeb with no friends.”

He smiled. There was the Chloé he knew and loved.

Chapter Text

“Hey Nath?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you sleeping?”

“Is that even a question?”

“Oh thank goodness.” Chloé’s rainbow-luminescent form sprang up from the bed with far too much energy. He watched as she stretched her arms up above her head. He really was such a sucker for how the Christmas lights glowed on her flawless skin, and the way her muscles flexed mid-stretch. Even in the darkness of night, she was heavenly. “I can’t sleep,” she continued, turning to him. Loose hair fell about her shoulders in smooth waves at the front, but he caught glimpses of knots forming toward the back. Somehow, the imperfection that he so rarely got to witness was even more attractive on her. “Want to raid the kitchen with me?” Light glinted off that devilish grin.

He smiled back. “You just want to binge on more sugar cookies.”

“Your point being?”

…Well, he didn’t really have a response to that.

Three minutes later the two managed to make it to the kitchen after not-so-stealthily descending the creakiest staircase in existence.

“Will we get in trouble for being down here or something?” Nathaniel whispered, noting the way she was sneaking about.

Chloé shrugged. She peeled the plastic wrap back from one of the giant plates overfilled with cookies that sat on the island in the middle of the kitchen. “Dunno. I’ve never been caught.”

“So you do this often?”

“Every year.”

Then she looked up with a mischievous glint in her eye as she bit the head off of a Rudolph cookie. After he had gone through all the trouble of perfectly dotting the nose with red too.

He smiled and tried to reach past her for a cookie but she blocked him with her body, that mischief growing tenfold. His eyes connected with hers, brows raised. Her glare proposed a duel. He narrowed his gaze in acceptance.

Eyes locked in an intense staring contest, Nathaniel lunged to the other side of her, trying to reach around for a cookie. But goodness knows the bee was faster than he was, blocking his move both with body positioning and an intercepting arm all while taking another bite of her cookie—this time, the reindeer’s back legs. He darted for the other side again and was blocked. He would need a different tactic.

Nathaniel sprung to the side, running around the island to try and reach across for the cookies. His arm was just long enough, the plate was within reach, his fingers just a centimeter away from Frosty the Snowman. Then two strong arms wrapped around his middle and spun him in the other direction. Nathaniel slid—socks gliding across tile with ease—until his back was to the counter behind him. Not a moment later, Chloé’s hands smacked down by his sides, trapping him with triumphant eyes. And all the while with Rudolph’s front half sticking out of her mouth.

A smile playing at his lips, Nathaniel enacted Plan C.

Before she could slip away, he reached out to take hold of her waist, lunged forward, and bit off Rudolph’s front legs.

The look of outrage was the icing on the cake as he leaned back, enjoying the taste of sweet sweet sugar cookie victory.

Then their attention snapped to the door as the lights flicked on.

Ryan stood there, glaring at them with an I’m too tired for this shit sort of expression. He shook his head in disgust as he walked over to the sink to refill his water glass.

“You two are nauseating.”

Chapter Text

“’Let’s go sledding,’ they said. ‘It’ll be fun,’ they said.”

Nathaniel couldn’t help but laugh at Chloé’s endless complaining as they trudged through the snow. She had been muttering angrily in French since they’d gotten out of the car and begun the long trek up the snowy mountain. Aside from Audrey—who wasn’t paying her any attention anyway, as per usual—no one in her American family spoke the language, making him the only person privy to her annoyed ramblings.

“Bunch of snow obsessed freaks,” she continued. “Wow! What a great idea! Let’s freeze our asses off hiking uphill, knee deep in snow, for for-fucking-ever just so we can spend two seconds sliding back down! And then! Let’s do it all again! And keep going until our legs fall off from frostbite! That sounds fucking fantastic!”

He pulled his scarf up over his mouth in a weak attempt to stifle his laughter, but Isabella’s head turned briefly to look back at them a moment later, indicating his failure.

Chloé smacked his arm—though he barely felt it through the three jackets he was wearing. “Stop laughing at my misery, you bitch.” That only made him laugh more.

“This is what you get for staying up eating cookies,” he said between giggles. While Nathaniel was fairly accustomed to not getting enough sleep, Chloé without at least 8 hours was automatically grumpy and slightly more aggressive than usual. It was hilarious. And stupidly cute.

“I stand by my actions,” she replied, lifting her chin in pride and crossing her arms again. “What I don’t stand by is this ridiculous notion that trudging through the arctic tundra is a required activity on Christmas Eve. Because nothing says holiday spirit like turning your bones to solid fucking ice climbing a snowy mountain and burning your face off from freezing fucking wind whipping your skin on the way down!”

Chloé spewed no less than seven more increasingly creative French profanities by the time they reached the top. Still chuckling, Nathaniel set down the sled he’d been tasked with carrying and looked at Chloé in silent question.

“No,” she immediately replied. “I’m not sledding down until we’re leaving. And neither are you for that matter,” she added.

“What? Why?” He didn’t mind—he wasn’t really all that interested in sledding unless she was in the sled with him if he was being honest—but he was still curious as to her reasoning.

“Because,” she began. She stepped up close to him—like blush-rising-to-his-cheeks-despite-the-cold close—and wrapped herself in his arms, putting her back to his chest. “It’s your job to keep me warm.”

He laughed as he settled his arms comfortably around her and began to rock her in a gentle sway. He moved his mouth next to her ear and dropped his voice to a low murmur, speaking in French just in case. “You’re really taking advantage of this fake dating thing, aren’t you?”

“Got a problem with that?” She squeezed his arms closer to her as she asked, indicating that his answer really didn’t matter; he had no choice in the situation.

Still, he smiled and answered honestly. “None whatsoever.”

“Good, because you’re still on heater duty later when we go back to Aunt Georgia’s. I’m going to be freezing for hours.”

“You mean you’re going to be frozen while we watch Frozen?” he teased. Chloé groaned, head falling back against his shoulder in agony. He shook with sadistic laughter. Her cousins had insisted on watching Frozen as a family despite Chloé’s pleas to watch ‘literally anything else,’ and he had made sure to remind her of that fact at least every hour since, finding endless entertainment in her annoyance.

“I swear to fucking god, Nathaniel, if you start singing, I’ll—,”

“Do you wanna build a—,”

“Absolutely not,” she interrupted threateningly, but it was too late.

“Or ride our bike around the haaalllls,” Isabella immediately sang, whipping around to face them.

Marianne was next, not even missing a beat. “I think some company is overdue!”

Then Jasmine beside her, “I’ve started talking to!”

And all three came together, “The pictures on the waaalllls!” They cut in perfect unison and looked to Chloé expectantly.

A few seconds passed before her shoulders slumped in an annoyed sigh.

“Hang in there, Joan.”

The others giggled and continued to sing as their voices disappeared down the mountain. The second they were gone, Chloé spoke again.

“I’m going to murder you.”

Chapter Text

“Oh! Okay, I got it. He’s the son of Mr. Important Businessman and was raised to be cold and lifeless so he could take over the company someday. She’s the owner of Tiny Family Toy Shop, which his father is going to shut down—along with a bunch of other small businesses—so that they can set up their new location. She however is waayyyy more feisty than he expects and not only rallies the people to fight back, but also steals his heart and inspires him to change his father’s business for the better.”

From where they sat on the floor in front of the fireplace, they could hear the actual Hallmark movie playing on the TV over their shoulder, but neither of them were interested in actually watching it; their guessing game was far more entertaining.

“Alright alright,” Nathaniel nodded in agreement. He sat right behind her, arms and legs parted around her form so she could sit with her back to his chest and her front to the fire, getting absolutely as much warmth as possible. Usually, sitting so close to the fire for so long would have him sweating like hell, but Chloé’s natural cold seemed to keep him in perfect balance. He held each of her frigid hands in his, mindlessly playing with them as he spoke. “So who are the side characters?”

“Well first you’ve got cold business dad of course,” she began. “Then there’s Toy Shop Gal’s male childhood best friend who ‘knows what it’s like’—,” she air quoted, “for the white upper middle class ‘common folk,’ unlike Business Son. He’s been in love with her the whole time and acts like a jealous bitch when she starts getting close to Business Son.”

“Oh, let me guess,” Nathaniel chimed in, “he does something petty to make Business Son look bad, creating The Big Drama.”

“Of course, because the only conflict you can ever have around Christmas is based purely upon misunderstandings.”

“Of course, of course,” he nodded. “Okay, who else?”

“Okay, there’s Toy Shop Gal’s mom and pop who are a thinly veiled representation of Santa and Mrs. Claus, Business Son’s shallow ex-girlfriend who’s trying to convince him to keep to his own kind and just be the heartless business man he was raised to be, and the one—1—,” she held up a single finger to emphasize, “—person of color is Toy Shop Gal’s best friend who really only exists for a couple of conversations in which she teases Toy Shop Gal about her budding affections for Business Son.”

Nathaniel opened his mouth to continue, but before he could, Aunt Edith walked in, followed by her wife, Margaret, and son, Ryan. “Using French to gossip behind our backs again?” she asked as she took a seat on the couch across the room. Margaret sat down next to her while Ryan elected to sit on the floor near their feet.

“Oh, sorry,” Chloé said, switching back to English. She turned to face them and Nathaniel repositioned himself so he could keep cuddling her keep up with his appointed heater duties. “I guess we just naturally slip back into French when we’re alone.”

“Well stop,” Aunt Georgia said as she bustled in from the kitchen carrying two mugs of hot chocolate buried under mountains of marshmallows. “It’s English-speaking family time.” Isabella, Marianne, and Jasmine came in right behind her, each holding platters of various snack foods and their own mugs of hot chocolate. They each sat down on the floor around the coffee table.

“Chloé, share this with Nathaniel,” Aunt Georgia ordered as she handed over one of the hot chocolates. She gave the other one to Ryan.

Chloé plucked a single marshmallow off the top and fed it to him. “That’s all you get.” He laughed while she practically inhaled half the mountain of marshmallows.

Aunt Georgia looked around the living room as she took a seat in her rocking chair. “Where are mom, dad, and Audrey?”

“Right here!” Grandma Renee sauntered into the living room from the hall holding Grandpa Nick’s hand, Audrey following close behind. Audrey sat at the end of the couch next to Margaret, leaving the loveseat next to the tree for her parents. “Gift time?”

“Gift time,” Aunt Georgia confirmed.

Nathaniel leaned forward to steal another marshmallow. “You open gifts on Christmas Eve?”

“Mhmm,” Chloé hummed through her sip of hot chocolate. She offered him the mug, apparently deeming him worthy of such a privilege. “Just one. The rest are for tomorrow morning.”

“Alright Dad,” Edith said. “Start us off.”

“I get Renee!” he immediately said, leaning over and plucking a small wrapped gift from under the tree.

Chloé leaned back to whisper, “Grandpa claims Grandma’s first present every year.” Nathaniel smiled. Once again, Chloé’s grandparents were proving themselves to be the cutest old couple he’d ever heard of.

“And I get Audrey,” Grandma Renee continued. “Ryan, can you grab that terribly wrapped green one over there and give it to Aunt Audrey?” The boy nodded and took up his new station on the floor next to the tree.

“Okay,” Audrey replied, “then I’ll take Georgia.” She pointed for Ryan as he delivered her gift. “That red bag with the sparkly tissue paper.”

“I want Edith,” Aunt Georgia went on. She elected to get up and go find the gift herself instead of making her nephew work for her.

“I’ve got Ryan,” Aunt Edith continued. “You can grab that heavy one you’ve been eyeing all week.”

He nodded and grabbed another gift, holding it out to his cousin. “Marianne.”

“Then I’ll take Margaret,” she said, shuffling over to the tree to find it.

“Hmm,” Margaret thought a moment, “Jasmine. That lumpy blue one.”

“Okay! Love, can you find Chloé’s for me?” Marianne gave her a thumbs up.

Chloé tapped Nathaniel’s arm. “Go grab Izzy and Grandpa’s presents.”

He got up to follow orders, confused. “You’re taking two?”

“Of course, we have to.”

He had just handed Grandpa Nick his present and was about to ask why Chloé was taking two people when a gift suddenly appeared in front of his face. He looked up to see Isabella smiling at him, eyes practically sparkling. “You didn’t honestly think we were going to leave you out, did you?”

He blinked in surprise and tried to process what was happening while his hands automatically accepted the gift. “I-I— Well— Um— Th-thank you.” A fervent blush was rapidly taking to his cheeks, he could feel it. Because no, he most certainly did not expect her family to get him gifts.

Her grin widened as he handed over her gift. “Open it! I want to know if my guess was right.”

Nathaniel did as he was told as soon as he retook his place sitting behind Chloé. Her free hand naturally settled over his arm as he reached around her to tear open the gift wrap.

He blinked in surprise at the set of pastel acrylic paints in his hands.

“H-How…?” he looked at Chloé but she seemed just as confused as he was.

When the two of them had arrived two days ago, the hoard of gifts under the tree had already been complete—Chloé having sent hers ahead of time. He was absolutely positive that no gifts had been bought and added since then.

He was also absolutely positive that Chloé hadn’t told her family a single thing about him save his name before then.

And yet, somehow, not only had Isabella known to get him art supplies, she’d even gotten him the exact art supplies he had recently depleted.

“So I was right?” she asked giddily.

“Y-Yeah,” he stuttered out, looking up at her. “I just ran out of a lot of my pastel shades. How did you…?”

“We had Ryan internet stalk you.” The boy made a peace sign in confirmation. “After scrolling through your Instagram for a while, I noticed that you seemed to be going through some sort of pastel phase lately and thought you might be needing more.” She sat back against the couch holding her chin high in pride.

“Wow.” He blinked, absolutely bewildered by the lengths this family went to just to get him Christmas gifts. And a little bit scared. “I— Um… Thank you.”

“That reminds me,” Aunt Georgia spoke up, “why aren’t you two in a relationship on any of your social media?”

Nathaniel felt Chloé mildly tense up in his arms, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Publicity.” He absentmindedly stroked his thumb over her shoulder in a soothing gesture.

“Oh yeah, I suppose you’re still the mayor’s daughter, aren’t you?”

“Oh yes!” Grandma Renee chimed, “How is André?”

It was almost imperceptible, but he didn’t miss Chloé’s tiny beat of hesitation before smiling. “He’s good, Grandma. Really good.”

“And the hotel? Business is going well?” Grandpa Nick asked. Nathaniel spared a glance toward Audrey to see her even more disengaged than usual, bored eyes set on the television. Without thinking about it, he hugged Chloé the slightest bit closer.

“Yeah, it is,” she replied.

“Especially since she took over management,” he added with a smile. Her grandparents reflected it.

“Yeah?”

“Well, not to brag,” she said, completely bragging, “but employee and guest satisfaction has hit an all-time high since I stepped in.”

And as if on cue, the second Chloé was beginning to glow, Audrey decided to speak.

“Yes, well, shall we get to gifts?”

Chloé handled herself with grace as the conversation moved on. But Nathaniel didn’t miss the change in her breathing, or the way she took another drink to hide her expression.

He pulled her just a little bit closer—not enough to catch anyone’s attention, but maybe just enough to make sure she knew she was loved.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know. Saying that it hurts isn’t really accurate at this point. It’s like I’m too used to it for it to hurt.”

Nathaniel cast a worried look over his shoulder to see those blue eyes wandering off in the distance as she took another bite of her cookie. He loved those eyes—absolutely adored them—but he would give just about anything to never see them looking like that. The expression she wore was hard, jaded. The look of a woman who had put up with far too much bullshit far too consistently, and from her mother of all people.

“That sounds like it would hurt more,” he commented. He turned back to the kitchen cabinet where he was rummaging around in pursuit of a somewhat healthier snack than the sugar cookies, chocolate covered pretzels, caramel corn, and candy sitting on the island with Chloé. So far, the best option was looking like a box of Wheat Thins.

“No, you don’t get it. Sure, overall, the neglect hurts. A lot. You’ve already seen…that.” He pressed his lips together at the memory of her crying two nights prior. “But the individual interactions… There’s a sort of numbness to them at this point.”

“Tell that to my hands,” he mumbled, moving his search to the fridge.

“Excuse me?”

He held up a hand without turning. “I have bruises from your death grip. You squeeze tighter every time she says something.”

“Oh… I’m sorry…”

He paused as he pulled out a bag of grapes, her tone making his stomach drop. When he looked back again, he found those eyes now downcast, staring at the half-eaten cookie in her hands.

Shit.

He closed the refrigerator and immediately crossed to where she sat on the island, setting the grapes on the counter next to her. “Hey.” He gently took up one of her hands and purposefully positioned her fingers to wrap around his. When he looked up, she was watching him with sad eyes—eyes he was kicking himself for having caused this time. He smiled softly. “My hands are yours to bruise.”

Nathaniel blinked and when he opened his eyes, though nothing had changed, somehow her expression had shifted. Sorrow no longer weighed heavy in her gaze as she stared back at him. Rather, she seemed pensive, eyes darting back and forth between his as if heavily considering something. Something she hadn’t considered before.

Of all the times she’d looked at him, he was pretty sure he’d never seen a look like that. It brought an all-too-familiar bubbling anxiety stirring through his stomach and heat rising to his cheeks, because that was not just any look. He didn’t dare look away for fear of it disappearing, another product of his hopeful imagination.

Then she blinked. Her fingers tightened around his and the corners of her lips tilted up in a small smile, expression falling back to normal.

“Thanks, Nath.”

He let out a small sigh of relief. Regardless of what kinds of feelings that look had been giving him, having her smile back was worth infinitely more. “Always. Now please—,” he reached for the bag of grapes, “—eat something other than cookies.”

He popped a grape into his mouth and watched as Chloé’s usual attitude flooded back in, eyes flaring defiantly. Maintaining aggressive eye contact, she leaned forward and slowly, deliberately raised her cookie to take a giant chomp.

“How are you not sick of all the sugar by now?”

She shrugged and sat up straight again, swinging her legs jovially. “Maybe it’s because I’m so sweet.”

“Yeah, or maybe your lack of sweetness calls for more sugar to make up for it.” She smacked his arm and he laughed. “At least eat one grape.”

She rolled her eyes with an overdramatic sigh before opening her mouth and looking at him expectantly. You are way cuter than you have any right to be, he thought as he fed her a grape. A second later, he shifted his attention toward the clock in an effort not to think about her lips closing over the ends of his fingers and how much he wanted literally any excuse to feel those lips on his again (spoiler alert: it didn’t work).

12:34.

He smiled. “Let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas, Chloé.”

She followed his gaze before donning a warm smile of her own. “Merry Christmas, Nathaniel.”

Chapter Text

Chloé’s family was nearly as high-strung as she was (nearly), which meant that every morning they had spent there thus far had begun no later than 8am.

Chloé’s alarm went off at 7 every morning—much to Nathaniel’s dismay—and she would immediately spring out of bed to go take her shower. Meanwhile, Nathaniel would cling to what sweet sleep he could still claim before she returned twenty minutes later to kick him out so she could change. Nathaniel would spend the next ten minutes in the shower trying (and failing) to not picture the beads of moisture that rolled down Chloé’s neck from her wet hair and disappeared under her robe. Then he would return to the room to find the queen fully clothed with her hair blown dry, leaning up close to the vanity to apply her eyeliner. Her majesty would deign to allow him to plop back down on the bed for five minutes—maybe ten if he was lucky and she wasn’t—and rest his eyes until she was done with her makeup. Then hand in hand, they would brave the den of wolves downstairs.

Family tradition, however, demanded that Christmas Day be a day of rest. Thus—as Chloé had explained to him the night before—no alarms were to be set in the house that morning, allowing him to wake up slowly for the first time in nearly a week.

Pleasant, bright light shined in through the windows and caressed Nathaniel’s closed lids, gently drawing him from sleep. Under the covers, he was warm, but not too warm. This was one of those rare times in which his body had managed to find equilibrium, allowing him a full night’s rest without shivering or sweating, and he would be a damn liar if he were to claim any desire to leave that comfort until absolutely necessary.

A tiny whine escaping the back of his throat, Nathaniel pressed his face into the pillow to hide from the sun. His limbs automatically tightened their hold on the body pillow, hugging it closer to more fully absorb its delightful chill.

Then the body pillow giggled.

Was it normal for pillows to giggle? He was pretty sure it wasn’t. He was also pretty sure it wasn’t normal for pillowcases to feel like skin under his palms.

Brows knit together in tired confusion, Nathaniel’s eyes slowly blinked open.

Cold blue—bright and clear and more radiant than ever in the morning light—met his gaze, already awake and awaiting him. Her stomach rose and fell with steady breaths under his arm while her fingers lay on top, tracing mindless patterns along his skin. His legs had weaved a complicated path through hers, tying them close together, and his face, he realized, had pressed not into a pillow but into the crook of Chloé’s neck.

Her expression remained steady, calm, a tiny relaxed smile upon her perfect pink lips. She was watching him with a serene look befitting of such a slow, pleasant morning, though there was something swimming behind those eyes. Something new, just like the night before. She was thinking, contemplating, but unlike last time, she was rested and tranquil and…happy. Those novel thoughts weren’t embedded deep in a sea of sadness this time; rather, they were floating free atop the soothing waves of a peaceful morning.

Wow, he thought. He would be pretty alright with waking up to a look like that every day for the rest of his life. Or just waking up to her every day for the rest of his life. She was absolutely radiant.

…And he was absolutely tangled up in her.

“Hi…” he whispered through the morning fog in his mind. What he meant to say was something like ‘Sorry I’m so wrapped around you right now; I should have warned you that I’m an aggressive cuddler,’ or perhaps ‘Good morning, Chloé. Would you like me to disentangle myself from you?’ But he said neither of those things, nor did he move an inch. He was far too enchanted by that mystifying blue gaze to do much of anything until she chose to release him.

She giggled again, soft, and he remembered that his pulling her closer had elicited that exact sound moments ago. It twinkled over his ears—clear spring water on a hot summer’s day—and made him want to nuzzle into her neck a million times over just to hear it again.

“Hi Nathaniel,” she said, voice ten times more lucid and alert than he was—and clearly amused by that fact.

“I’m kind of…” hopelessly in love with you, enchanted by you, really happy to be cuddling you, more comfortable in this bed with you than I have been alone in my own for years, “…wrapped around you.”

There was that light, shimmering giggle again. God, he wanted to kiss those smiling lips.

“Yes you are,” she confirmed.

“Sorry,” he whispered, not really meaning it. A moment later he looked back to her eyes, realizing his gaze had lingered on her mouth.

She shrugged and finally looked away, turning her head to stare up at the ceiling. Meanwhile, he admired her profile, relishing in the sight of that beautiful, peaceful smile. “I don’t mind,” she said lightly. “You’re nice and warm.”

He sighed happily and closed his eyes, allowing his head to relax next to her shoulder again. He knew he must really be waking up when he actually suppressed the urge to skim his lips along her skin. “How long have I been like this?”

She shrugged again. “Dunno. We were already like this when I woke up.” He hummed softly. “I think I started it, actually. I vaguely remember scooting closer to you in the middle of the night to steal your heat.”

He chuckled. “Thief.”

“Oh please, I know you’re stealing my cold too.”

“Mutual theft doesn’t make you not a thief.” Wow, he really loved the way her stomach shook with laughter underneath him. His thumb mindlessly traced over the bare skin of her waist where her shirt had ridden up.

“But it does make you a thief too; so if I go down, you’re going down with me.”

I’ll go down on you whenever you wa— Nathaniel snapped his eyes open and cleared his throat, trying to force his mind away from the dangerous path it was about to go down.

“So what’s the plan for today?”

Chloé sucked in a huge breath and let it out slow. “Well, we get up whenever and eat breakfast. Once everyone’s awake and ready, we open gifts. Then Aunt Georgia will assign everyone a job and the rest of the day will be preparing Christmas Dinner. Then we’ll eat, watch A Christmas Carol, and pass out.” She turned her head to look at him again and he felt his heart stutter. “So what do you think? Should we get up and go down there, or wait a bit longer?”

Her fingers were still absently tracing patterns along his arm, each one sending tingling sensations over his skin. Without thinking about it, he tightened his hold on her just the slightest bit.

She smiled. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

“From Chloé and Nathaniel, huh?” Grandma Renee commented as she looked at the gift in her hands, eyebrow raised with a suspicious smirk. Nathaniel passed the last one to Marianne and returned to his place at Chloé’s side, naturally slipping an arm around her shoulders. She immediately reached up and threaded her fingers through his, leaning into him as she spoke.

“Yep, Nath helped me pick out gifts, so if you don’t like them, blame him.”

Grandma Renee nodded with a delightfully surprised smile. This part of their story was, for once, not a lie. It was back toward the end of July—he hadn’t even known he’d be accompanying her yet—when Chloé had asked for his help with gifts.

 

It was the height of summer and Nathaniel could barely keep cool, even with his bedroom window open and the fan on high. The season was by far his least favorite—the elevated temperatures meant overheating every single day, and falling asleep comfortably? Good luck.

But he had to admit, looking at the gorgeous woman before him in the evening twilight, he could see an upside to warm weather.

Her cheeks were flushed, painting them a lovely pink, and little strands of blonde hair stuck to her neck here and there. Her body over all boasted a thin layer of sweat, making her practically glisten at every point light touched her.

His thumb traced the delicate curve of her cheek and he watched as her eyes fell shut. With a sigh, she leaned into his touch, pressing her face to the palm of his hand. A simple smile lay upon her perfect glossy pink lips.

He wanted so very badly to feel those lips on his own—to know the taste of her. He had to know what it was to kiss a queen. The heat made him rash, but maybe—just maybe—it made her rash too.

He leaned in and pressed his forehead to hers. Those brilliant, piercing blue eyes snapped open, but she didn’t pull away. Rather, as her gaze drifted down to his lips, she tilted her head to meet his.

Then her eyes shut again, and she waited. Waited for him to—

Nathaniel groaned as a distinct buzzing dragged him from the sweet seduction of the sleep he had tried so hard to achieve. He begrudgingly slapped his bedside table, hand groping around for his phone. Without looking at the contact information, he hit the answer button and tiredly held it to his ear.

“Hel—“

“You were a teenage boy once, right?”

“…Chloé?”

Her answer was immediate, that bitchy voice that he had the oddest most unexpected but strong attraction to ringing loud and clear.

“Of course it’s Chloé; no one else talks to you.”

“Alix talks to me,” he argued drowsily. “And…Adrien. And Max. Juleka. Ro—,”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, you’re very popular. Look, I don’t know how teenage boys think.”

He was sure that somewhere in his knowledge of this woman and the goings on in her life, that statement made sense. But in his sleep deprived state?

“So?”

“So I need your help.”

“Can’t this wait until it’s not early?

“Nath, it is 9:30.”

“Which is early.”

He heard a sigh over the phone, followed by that tone she always used when she lectured him. It was oddly endearing, albeit annoying. “When did you go to sleep?”

He hesitated. “…4…”

His lie was thinly veiled behind his fatigue and her suspicious tone indicated that he wasn’t fooling anyone. “4 what?”

“…4:60.”

“So 5.”

“Maybe.”

She sighed again, a little more aggravated this time, and if he wasn’t so tired he would probably laugh at her perpetual frustration with his life habits. A moment of silence went by where he could practically hear her thinking, the sound of the cogs turning in her head soothing him back to rest…

“If I let you sleep until 1, will you come help me shop for my family?”

He hummed in thought as he tried to remember his plans for the day. Eventually he realized the reason he couldn’t remember them was because he had none.

“Make it 2 and I’ll even take a shower for you,” he finally responded.

“1:30,” she bargained.

“2.”

“1:45.”

“2.”

“UGH. Fine. I’m going to call you again at exactly 2. Exactly.”

He smiled. “Goodnight, Chloé.”

“IT’S NOT NIGH—,”

“Goodniiiiight.”

He hung up and dropped the phone back on his bedside table, arm flopping over the edge of his bed, too weak to make it the whole way back. Sleep was very quickly seeping back in. Was it wrong of him to hope he went back to that same dream?

 

“And if we do like the gifts?” Grandma Renee continued.

“Then blame me, of course,” Chloé shrugged, holding her chin high with a confident smile.

She got a few laughs and even more smiles as people moved to the task of unwrapping their presents. But along with the slight tightening of her grip on his hand, Nathaniel saw what the others didn’t: the nervous glance at Audrey.

 

“You know Christmas is in December, right?”

“Yeah, so?”

Nathaniel’s hair was already completely dry and he was feeling the beginning beads of sweat collecting at the back of his neck. Even in his most ripped up pair of jeans and a loose, extremely breezy tank top, the summer heat was still getting the best of him.

He pulled off his sunglasses and hooked them onto his shirt so he could pull his hair up in a ponytail. “So, it’s July.”

“Okay, I know you don’t celebrate Christmas, but you’re not seriously stupid enough to think that it’s a good idea to put off my shopping until December, right?” She turned around to face him, holding up a t-shirt she’d grabbed from the street vendor. “What about this?”

“No.”

“But it has—,”

“Chloé, I promise you he does not want clothes.” He smiled at the adorable pout she gave him before something over her shoulder caught his eye. “I feel like you mentioned a family member having an odd obsession with wind chimes at some point.”

“Yeah, Aunt Edith, why?” He took her shoulders and turned her around, leaning in close to point a few booths down where an artist had a bunch of wind chimes hanging from their awning. “Oh, perfect!” She immediately dropped the shirt and skipped off in glee.

Paris’s most fearsome superhero, everyone.

He put his sun glasses back on as he followed. Chloé was always radiant, but he swore she was especially so that day. Her hair was up in its usual ponytail, but with the addition of a bright yellow ribbon tied up in a bow on top of her head that bounced with every step she took. Her dress—made of a very soft-looking white and black striped fabric (not that he had been thinking about what it would feel like; he totally wasn’t)—tied up behind her neck and stayed snug around her waist before falling loose at her hip to flutter around her legs as she moved. As if that wasn’t enough already, she’d even decided to put on red lipstick that day, effectively hammering the final nail in his coffin.

She turned and beamed at him, and all he could think was that he was lucky her sunglasses protected him from that blue gaze he was such a sucker for. “Nath, come look at these! I don’t know which one to pick!”

Despite her anxieties over getting gifts for her mother’s family, Chloé was still absolutely in her element shopping at all. As much as he didn’t really care for the activity himself, he would gladly accompany her on any shopping trip, if just to see that smile.

“Do you know her favorite color?” he asked as he approached. Chloé frowned as she scrutinized them each individually.

“No…” Then her face lit up. “But she is trans!” He was just about to ask what that had to do with anything when she reached out to take one with a subtle pink-white-blue color scheme. “I’ll take this one!”

Nathaniel waited for her to pay the artist before turning to keep walking. “Okay, so who do you still have left?”

She pulled up the checklist on her phone. “Ryan, Margaret, Marianne, and my mother.”

“And you don’t have any ideas for them?”

She let loose an overdramatic sigh and walked over to the next kiosk to halfheartedly examine their dresses. “No.” She frowned. “Especially my mother. I never know what to get her.”

Uh oh, he thought. That face didn’t come out often, but it was by far his least favorite of her various expressions. She’d only talked about her mother on a select few occasions—he’d tried to avoid the subject after the first time—but every time, without fail, it cast an uncharacteristic melancholy over her. There wasn’t a single person in Paris who didn’t know about Audrey’s flight from the country years ago, but it wasn’t until he’d gotten close to Chloé that he’d thought to consider the real people—and their very real feelings—wrapped up in the whole ordeal.

His immediate impulse was to steer the conversation away, distract her with something else, but he knew this was one time when he couldn’t do that. She likely wouldn’t be able to really relax until she’d taken care of Audrey’s Christmas gift.

“What have you gotten her in the past?”

She shrugged. “What haven’t I gotten her? I’ve tried clothes, jewelry, antiques, artwork—all of the finest quality and latest trends, mind you. But the best reaction I’ve ever gotten was a—,” she turned to look at him with a flat expression, evidently imitating her mother, “‘cute.’”

He grimaced. “Eesh.”

“Yeah.” She sucked in a huge breath and let it out in a heavy sigh before continuing to walk through the flea market. “So I tried to up my game every year, getting her the best, most expensive gifts I could think of in the hopes that she would—I don’t know, love me I guess.” The bitterness in her tone alone was enough to make his heart plummet. She kept her gaze hard, unyielding, and shrugged. “I gave up a few years ago though. Now I just try to get her something that fulfills the social obligation.”

Nathaniel drew his cheek between his teeth as he watched her stop to vacantly inspect some jewelry. Maybe it was a product of being around her so often—or more likely from witnessing her cover up her secret identity all the time—but whatever the reason, it was nearly impossible for him to miss Chloé’s lies these days. And her supposed indifference towards the gifts she gave her mother?

Lie.

“Well,” he eventually posited, “I know Maman really likes things that smell good. Candles, soaps, bubble bath, things like that.”

Chloé nodded and picked up a pair of earrings to more closely examine them. “That sounds like it could work,” she mumbled. “Help me keep an eye out for apple-scented things.” Then she looked up at the vendor with a much brighter expression, quickly melting back into her cheerful shopping persona. “How much for these?”

 

Nathaniel watched as Audrey unwrapped her extravagant basket of organic, locally-made apple bath products—Chloé couldn’t do a single thing small after all. She raised a bottle of lotion to her nose and sniffed it, but showed just about no reaction whatsoever; she could absolutely love or hate it and he would never be able to tell the difference. No wonder shopping for her was so frustrating.

When he looked back at Chloé, though, he found her attention completely focused on Ryan. He followed her gaze just in time to see his eyes light up. “The new Ultimate Mecha Strike! This isn’t even out yet; how did you get it?”

“A friend of ours from school worked on it,” she explained with a wave of her hand before getting to the question that he could see was eating her alive. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” He was pretty sure that was the brightest grin he’d seen on Ryan’s face yet. “Thank you, Chloé.”

“Thank Nathaniel. It was his idea.”

Ryan turned his smile to him. “Thanks Nath.”

Wow, he wasn’t expecting the rush of warmth that came with one of Chloé’s cousins calling him by his nickname. “Y-You’re welcome.”

“Although, Nathaniel,” Grandma Renee chimed in, “Just so you know, you’ll be expected to bring your own gifts in the future.”

And there it was—that same piercing, testing gaze that her daughter had given him at the dinner table two nights prior. This time, however, it didn’t surprise him in the slightest. He grinned.

“I’ll remember that.”

Nathaniel proceeded to watch as Chloé moved on to unwrapping one of her gifts. Was he imagining the tiny blush that accompanied her smile?

Chapter Text

“No way! I can’t even picture her crying, let alone sobbing over the phone.”

Nathaniel laughed as he meticulously constructed the next spinach puff. He was only on his third one while Jasmine had already filled up half of her muffin tin across the table.

“It doesn’t happen often, that’s for sure,” he affirmed. “Needless to say I was shocked to have her call me in absolute hysterics.”

“What was it about?”

He chuckled as he spoke. “She had just bought the house she has now, and she had hired an interior designer to paint and decorate and everything. But she—,” he interrupted himself with a laugh, “—she told them she wanted something springy. So her designer—I kid you not—picked out the brightest most vibrant shade of green—like we’re talking the kind of green they use for green screens in movies—and just painted the walls solid.”

Jasmine looked up, eyes wide and jaw dropped in horrific amusement. “No.”

He nodded, grin splitting his cheeks. “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. When you walked inside, the light would reflect off the walls to make your skin turn a sickly green. It was incredible.”

Jasmine laughed before continuing, “So she called you to fix it because you’re an artist.”

“Yep. You should have seen her when I showed up though. She had fired the designer before they furnished the place, so she was just sitting on the floor in the middle of an empty living room, curled up in a ball with pools of makeup under her eyes.”

“Oh my goodness Chloé,” she chuckled, shaking her head.

“I felt bad, but even at the time it was hard not to laugh. She had had the biggest meltdown I’d ever seen, because of paint.” He shook his head, smiling at the memory of her yelling and smacking his arm while he giggled at her distress. “It was so very Chloé.”

“So what’d you do?”

“Gave her some dark chocolate and took her to the store to get new paints,” he shrugged. “We spent the next few weeks painting the house much calmer shades and taking care of the interior design ourselves.” A wistful smile took to his lips then. His more-than-platonic affections for her were in their infancy back then. Needless to say, getting into more than one paint fight with her and seeing her laughing with streaks of green and yellow on her cheeks was… Well, his fate was sealed. “She hasn’t been willing to trust another designer since then, even for hotel events.”

“She should have just called Georgia. I’m sure she would have happily taken the excuse to fly to Paris.”

Nathaniel looked up from his fifth spinach puff—how was Jasmine already reaching the end of her muffin tin?? “She’s an interior designer?”

“Yep,” she nodded. “One of the best in New York.”

“That explains why the house is so well decorated.”

Jasmine nodded but said nothing more, focusing on stuffing her spinach puffs. She set aside her first muffin tin and began filling up a second one. Nathaniel was on number six.

“So Aunt Georgia is an interior designer, Audrey is a fashion critic, Isabella’s in business. What about everyone else?”

“Well Marianne is a lawyer,” she looked up with a playful smirk, “so you really don’t want to get into arguments with her, trust me. Edith is a medical doctor, and Margaret is a psychologist. And then Nick is a retired master sergeant in the marines and Renee was a hospital corpsman in the navy.” He thought that would be it, but right as he was about to speak, she rolled her eyes and added, “Oh and Ryan, even though he’s only 16, is really into game design, and is working on learning how to code for that.”

“Wow,” he said, stunned. “Is it just me or is everyone in this family kind of…” he paused to search for the right word and she took the opening.

“Overly ambitious and ridiculously successful? Yeah tell me about it, I’m a kindergarten teacher.”

Something about the bitterness in her tone immediately had him stifling a laugh. She looked up and for a second he thought he was dead—she may only be related by marriage, but she was definitely Chloé’s cousin. A second later though, the fake glare melted away to a smile and she laughed with him.

“It’s kind of intimidating,” he admitted, looking down at his eighth spinach puff. “Not gonna lie, I’ve been wondering if I’m good enough for Chloé since long before coming here.”

He could already see Jasmine shaking her head in his peripherals before he was done speaking. “Don’t worry. If I know anything about Chloé, it’s that she does what she wants regardless of what others think. And she clearly loves you.”

Nathaniel smiled to himself, a storm of butterflies fluttering through his stomach, and hoped she didn’t notice the way his face was heating up. He sure wanted to believe her, and a growing part of him might even be starting to.

“I won’t lie to you though,” Jasmine continued, immediately making him nervous. “The family is definitely judging you.” He paused and looked at her with what was probably a frightened look. Having people judge him was a huge insecurity of his in general, but for it to be the family of the woman he was(n’t) dating?

She looked up and smiled, the expression only easing a bit of his tension. “Don’t worry. They judged me too.” She shrugged as she started with her next spinach puff. “Now they love me. You just have to prove yourself to them.”

“How would I—?”

“Nope,” she cut him off, shaking her head. “Can’t tell you that; otherwise you’ll fuck it up.” He pursed his lips and stared down at his spinach puff. He was still on his eighth one while she was quickly making her way through her second muffin tin. “But don’t worry,” she continued. He could feel her looking at him and raised his eyes to meet her gaze.

This time, the look she gave him made his nerves settle with his next breath out. He could definitely see how someone with that sort of presence would end up being a kindergarten teacher.

“You’re already off to a good start. Trust me.”

He huffed out a sigh and smiled. “I hope you’re right.”

Not a second later, a head popped into the doorway, blonde ponytail swinging out underneath her. “Hey Red, we’re missing some ingredients so Aunt Georgia is sending me to the store.”

He blinked at her. “Okay?” She just stared at him expectantly. A moment later he smiled and nodded his understanding. “And you want me to come with you.”

“Yes.”

Nathaniel looked at Jasmine in silent question. She leaned across the table and stole his muffin tin. “Go ahead; you’re slowing me down anyway. Besides,” she added, sending Chloé a devious smirk, “you don’t want to keep Miss Green Room waiting.”

He bit back a laugh and looked at Chloé. She stared at Jasmine for a few seconds with a blank expression before fixing a cold, lifeless glare on him.

“You’re dead.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, Nath, look! I found your long lost twin!”

“Chloé, if I turn around and you’re holding up a fucking tomato, I swear— Ginger. Ha. Very original.”

Chloé snickered mischievously as she set down the ginger root and he had a hard time keeping his deadpan expression in the face of that childish joy. He shook his head with a smile. “Come on, if we take too long your aunt will kill us. Can you go get some bell peppers?”

She groaned out an overdramatic sigh and trudged over to stand next to him while he went back to picking out an eggplant. “Nath, you clearly don’t understand.” She reached into his jacket pocket, fishing out the folded up shopping list they had. “I brought you here so you could do the work and so I could stand here and look pretty.” Well, you’re certainly succeeding at that, he thought. He side eyed her to sneak another look at that deep maroon shade painting her lips. It matched her turtleneck sweater perfectly and he was still having trouble getting over the fact that she had managed to look beautiful, sexy, and wholesome all at the same time.

Those heart-stopping lips turned down in a frown. “She didn’t specify what kind of bell peppers she wanted.”

Nathaniel leaned in to look at the list over her shoulder as he dropped the eggplant in the basket on his arm. “Yellow would probably go best with the recipe.”

She shrugged and stalked off toward the peppers. “Whatever you say. You’re the cooking genius.”

He scoffed as he followed after her. “I think we both know that I am light years away from being any kind of cooking genius.”

“Oh that’s right, how could I forget? You once poisoned me.”

“Hey now, that’s an overreaction.”

“Poison,” she sighed theatrically. “My tongue may never work right again. How will I ever trust your cooking in the future?”

He watched her with an amused smirk, one eyebrow cocked as he reached above her head to grab one of the produce bags. “You’re ridiculous.”

“And you’re an attempted murderer.”

Holding her challenging blue gaze in one of their informal staring contests, he reached for her hand and placed the bag in it. “Pick out two peppers.”

Her overdramatic groan carried after him as he walked over to the carrots. “Naaaaaath.”

“Keep this up and I won’t make chocolate chip cookies for you anymore.” The gasp she emitted had him looking over at her again. Chloé wore an expression of utter blaspheme as she approached, bag of bell peppers hanging from her fist.

“First attempted murder and now you’re threatening me?”

He rolled his eyes and grabbed a bag of carrots, placing it in the basket just as she unceremoniously dropped in the peppers. He snatched the list out of her other hand and like the fully grown adult that she was, she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Going from too little sleep to too much really messed with you, huh?” he chuckled, eyes scanning through the items.

“Seriously, I don’t know how you exist like this. I simultaneously feel like I have all the energy in the world and like I might pass out any second. The world seems like it’s way too in focus, and if I hold my head wrong, it starts swimming. It’s disorienting.”

He nodded as he began walking her along the aisles, all too familiar with the sensations she desribed. “Yeah, all the coffee you drank this morning is definitely not helping that.”

“Why didn’t you stop me?” she whined. He tried not to blush, warmth blooming in his chest as she dropped her head on his shoulder. She leaned heavily on his side and shuffled her feet like a zombie as they moved forward.

“I tried,” he laughed. “You threatened to pour hot coffee on me in retaliation.” Her only response was to giggle sadistically. “Sometimes I think you’re a greater threat to my life than akumas.”

“You’re probably right.” She stood up straight again with a deep breath. “What do we need in this aisle?”

“Your long lost twin.”

“What?” Chloé’s brows knit together in confusion. Then she watched as he reached for a bottle of honey. When he chanced meeting her gaze again, her expression could only be described as thoroughly unimpressed.

“I hate you.”

Chapter Text

Nathaniel stirred to the gentle press of soft lips to his. He was swimming in blue—blue eyes much too beautiful to belong to any mortal creature—and all he knew was her and her lips and her kiss smooth like honey but sweet like the strawberry lip gloss she painted herself with.

“Chloé?”

The whisper escaped his mouth on a quiet breath, slipping through the space between kisses.

“I’m not Chloé.”

The ethereal voice that echoed through his mind was familiar—a voice so very closely resembling one that he loved, adored—but it was right. It wasn’t hers.

“Who are you?”

The words carried on the electric pulse that ran from his fingertips to her cheek, dancing along the leisurely caress of soft skin. Then he was lost again, lost in blue eyes as deep as the sea and as bright as the sky as they eased their way into his soul, down to his core, until she found the very center of his being and released her words in a flurry of butterflies beating their wings up through his heart.

“The ghost of Christmas future.”

A mischievous giggling pulled Nathaniel from his dream and he slowly opened his eyes to the soft light of Aunt Georgia’s living room, illuminated only by the tree on the far wall. He blinked groggily as the forms of Isabella and Jasmine came into focus in front of him, the former holding up her phone as if…

“Why are you taking a picture?” he asked sleepily, raising a hand to rub his eyes.

“Because this will make a great Christmas card next year.”

He stared at them in confusion for a few seconds, attention only drawn away by movement at his side. Chloé rubbed her head into his shoulder with a soft whine before lying still again, breathing deep and steady in the comfortable hold of sleep. Without thinking about it, he reached out and tucked a stray hair back behind her ear, a warm smile taking to his lips as she turned her cheek to meet his touch.

“You two fell asleep during A Christmas Carol,” Jasmine whispered. “You’re not the only ones.” When he looked up she was smiling fondly at the couch over to the right. He followed her gaze to see Marianne curled up with her head resting on the arm of the couch and Ryan on the floor still sitting up against the base of the couch, both completely checked out.

“It’s honestly part of the tradition by now,” Isabella sighed.

Earlier that morning, he had assumed she meant going to bed at the end of the night, but now Nathaniel wondered if this was what Chloé was talking about when she had said ‘watch A Christmas Carol and pass out.’

He turned to the woman at his side and gently squeezed her shoulder. “Come on, Chloé, let’s go to bed.”  She groaned softly and pressed her face into his shoulder. He chuckled. “We both know the bed is more comfortable than my arm.”

“Mm-mm,” she negated, rubbing her forehead against him as she shook her head.

“Isabella already got a picture of you sleeping; do you want her to get more?”

“Actually I already got three.”

Chloé frowned and peeked an eye open to glare at her cousin. He heard the telltale click of another picture being taken and more of the same snickering that had woken him up.

With a tired groan, Chloé stood, taking his hand with her. “Night bitches, see you tomorrow.”

Both laughed and chimed their goodnight’s as she lead him away and up the stairs.

“Turn around,” she mumbled quietly as soon as he closed the bedroom door behind them. She was just beginning to lift the hem of her sweater when he did as he was told, pulling out his own sleeping clothes to change as well. Then the light was off and they were both slipping under the cool sheets of the bed.

Sleep was very quickly seeping back into him, its tendrils snaking their way down to his bones and into his core. Without thinking about it, he wrapped his arm around Chloé’s waist and pulled her close. She let out a contented sigh and melted into him, back folding into his chest and cold toes meeting warm feet with perfect ease.

A winter night had never been so warm as it was curled up under the blankets with her.

Chapter Text

December 26th was what Chloé referred to as “limbo.”

With Christmas finally done and settled and New Year’s Eve right around the corner, Aunt Georgia (and by extension, everyone else) only had a brief moment to breathe before the rush was on to prepare for The Party™.

“Tomorrow, Aunt Georgia will start preparations for her big New Year’s Party,” Chloé had explained to him that morning. “Over the next few days, she will be bustling about 24/7 and will slowly require more and more of our help. But today, December 26th, is the one day that she will not do anything. At approximately 9 am, you can expect to see her sit down on the couch and turn on the Hallmark channel. Then, until roughly 9 pm, she will not move except to eat and go to the bathroom.”

“So what does everyone else do?”

A shrug, and then, “We are in limbo.”

Thus the circumstances under which Nathaniel now found himself actually somewhat invested in his second Hallmark movie of the day.

He sat on the couch perpendicular to the TV, leaning back against the arm with his legs out in front of him. Chloé sat nestled between his legs, her back to his chest, paying half attention to the movie while she scrolled through various social media platforms on her phone. Every once in a while she would hold up her phone to show him something—memes, fanart from animes they shared, etc. Meanwhile he kept up a steady rhythm of combing his fingers through her hair.

Initially, he’d had his arms crossed in front of her chest in an easy hug, but over time he’d gotten more restless. His hands had started gently running along her arms eventually, and at one point as his left hand had reached her wrist, she had held her hand up to take his, still just scrolling through twitter with her right. So he’d twined his fingers through hers, untangled them, rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, etc., just mindlessly playing with her hand. Eventually that turned into him using both of his hands to massage hers. She had put down the phone and leaned back against him then and he would give anything to have seen her expression in that moment.

She of course insisted he massage the other hand, so he did, and after about ten minutes of that, he moved on to her arms. He gently squeezed along her muscles, definitely not thinking about how sexy her toned arms were, slowly making his way up to her shoulders. And it was as he smoothed his thumbs along the backs of her shoulders that he heard the first contented sigh.

Oh what he would give to hear that a million times.

Eventually his massage had taken him up along her neck and to the base of her head, and it was there that she had reached up and pulled out her hair tie. In all the time he had known her, never had he seen Chloé take her hair out of its ponytail except to go to bed at night. Yet here she was, letting her hair down in the middle of the day, so that he could…what? Massage her head?

“Braid my hair,” she whispered. Then he had laughed.

“I don’t think you want me to.” Her only response was to lean her head back to look up at him with a pouty face. He had wanted to kiss her nose. He almost did, before remembering that she still was not actually his girlfriend. Still, he smiled. “Alright, I’ll braid it but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

He had to stop the first braid half way through because he managed to mix up which section was which enough times that it started to un-braid instead. The next one went a little better, but got all fucked up because loose strands of hair kept tangling into it all over the place and getting in his way. That was when Chloé pulled up a step-by-step tutorial of some semi-complicated braid on her phone and made him try it. It went a lot better than he expected—he was pretty alright when he had instructions with pictures in front of him—but that’s really not saying much.

Soon, though, he realized she didn’t actually want her hair braided; she just liked having her hair touched. So he took to using his fingers to brush out the tangles he’d made, and then once that was done, just found a rhythm of running his fingers through her hair. She seemed content with that, and thus they carried on into the second movie.

They were now at the part where the main love interests were leaning in for a kiss. But they were only an hour into the movie, so inevitably, a friend ran up and interrupted them. The look on her face was that of complete obliviousness—as if someone could really walk up to two people whose eyes were closed and faces two centimeters apart and not realize what was happening. But such was the way, and Main Female Protagonist got dragged away, casting a regretful look over her shoulder at Main Male Protagonist.

Then began The Big Drama, where Main Male Protagonist’s secret got revealed—something about him having been the one to fire a bunch of doctors or something—and Main Female Protagonist got mad.

Main Female Protagonist was in the middle of crying about how she’d gotten close to Main Male Protagonist when Chloé leaned back to say something. She dropped her voice below even the whisper they had been using until then, and spoke in French. “Hey, Nath?”

“Yeah, Chloé?” he replied, leaning forward so his ear was closer to her mouth.

“Remember how you said we were being tropy with the fake dating thing? Like a hallmark movie?”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s skip the part of the movie where the protagonists are turned against each other. Deal?”

He huffed a tiny laugh, “Deal,” and went back to playing with her hair.

It wasn’t until the camera was slowly panning out from the main protagonists making out in the middle of a Christmas festival that he realized.

Does that mean we’re not skipping the part where we fall in love by the end?

Chapter Text

Checking over everything one last time—he was sure there was still at least one typo still in there—Nathaniel finally uploaded the new chapter online and shut his laptop. Finding time to work on his comic since coming here had been near impossible, but thankfully the lull of December 26th had finally allowed him enough space to pump out that week’s chapter. Now he could put it away and stop worrying about it until he was back in France.

As his laptop screen shut off, Nathaniel was suddenly plunged into unexpected darkness. When he had started, it was still well within daylight hours. He hadn’t even noticed the sun going down.

…When was the last time he ate?

Nathaniel could hear the TV playing another Christmas movie as he made his way downstairs, so even before he pulled his phone out of his pocket, he knew it couldn’t be later than 9. 8:43. Okay, so at least he only missed one meal this time. Not the worst he’d done.

“I think you’re just in denial.”

“What??”

“Seconded.”

As he rounded the corner into the kitchen, the voices of Chloé, Isabella, and Marianne progressively got louder.

“Aren’t you two even listening?” Isabella complained. “He isn’t even that cute.”

“But he is cute,” Chloé fired back.

“And you spend practically all of your free time with him,” Marianne continued.

“I do not!”

“But he is the one you’ve been texting nonstop, isn’t he?”

From the window in the kitchen wall, Nathaniel could see the three of them sitting at the far end of the dining room table snacking on cheese, crackers, and chocolate as they made their way through the first of several bottles of wine sitting on the table next to them. Chloé’s hair was still down around her shoulders and her smile as she teased her cousin was infectious, eyes practically sparkling with joy.

“Yeah, but not about anything important! Just random mundane life shit.”

“Izzy, that only hurts your case even more,” her sister rebuked.

“Yep,” Chloé agreed. “You two are definitely dating.”

Isabella slumped down, forehead thumping on the table. “Oh my god we’re dating,” she whined miserably. The other two burst into bubbling laughter.

Nathaniel smiled. He could see that light pink tone in Chloé’s cheeks that she got when she’d been laughing steadily over an extended period of time. It probably had to do with the wine, but she looked so much more comfortable and unrestrictedly happy than she had nearly the entire trip. Seeing her so freely laughing with her cousins… It was beautiful.

“Ah I see tonight is wine night.” Nathaniel nearly jumped out of his skin as Jasmine suddenly materialized behind him, watching over his shoulder. She chuckled as he turned to her. “Wow, you spook easily. I’ll have to remember that.”

He gave her a brief glare before turning back to the window. “So they do this often?”

She nodded. “Every year since Chloé turned 21. I don’t think they even mean for it to happen, but they always find the wine left over from Christmas dinner and stay up all night drinking and catching up.”

He had lost track of the conversation, but evidently it was Chloé they were embarrassing now because her face was lighting up in increasingly deep shades of red he hadn’t even seen on her before.

“You say ‘they.’ You don’t join them?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Nah. I see it as a cousin bonding thing and don’t want to interrupt.”

“What are we looking at?” Nathaniel only jumped a little bit this time (but still jumped, to his dismay and Jasmine’s delight) as Margaret stepped up behind them. “Ahh I see the tradition has passed down.”

“The others too?” Jasmine asked.

“Yep. Edith and her sisters stay up gossiping over wine once every year.”

“Must be some sort of family thing,” he mused.

Margaret stepped away to start looking through the cabinet and he and Jasmine followed suit a moment later, leaving the cousins to giggle in peace.

“I think it’s because it’s the only time they ever really get to catch up,” she said, pulling out a bag of pretzels. “This whole family is so distant, not just emotionally but physically as well with Chloé in France, Audrey away in the city, you two,” she pointed at Jasmine, “down in DC, Isabella wherever work takes her, and Edith, Ryan and I over in California. With everyone busy with work all the time, they hardly ever talk to each other outside of this house. So they have to make up for it all in one night.”

Jasmine pulled some of last night’s leftovers out of the fridge. “Not to mention that without any alcohol in their system, they all suck at communicating in general.”

He laughed. “So it’s not just Chloé?”

“No,” the other two said in unison.

“If anything,” Margaret continued, “Chloé’s explosive nature makes her one of the better communicators in the family. It may not be constructive, but at least she gets her feelings out at all.” He grimaced, making her nod in response. “Yeah, no kidding.”

“Want some?” Jasmine asked him, holding out the tub of leftovers after scooping some onto a plate for herself. “I’m guessing you skipped dinner too.”

He smiled and took it. “Thanks.”

Margaret chomped down on a pretzel and shook her head. “Every year.”

“Yep,” Jasmine replied, starting up the microwave. “That’s Limbo for you.”

Chapter Text

“Then she said—and I swear this is word for word—‘Hi. I’m Edith. I’m a mess. And you’re really pretty. Nice to meet you, bye,’ and she booked it before I could say anything!”

Nathaniel struggled to drink his water while laughing. Jasmine, on the other hand, popped pretzels into her mouth like it was popcorn at a movie, absolutely enthralled. “What?? Then how did you two even end up going out?”

Margaret could barely speak through her giggles. “I saw her again in that coffee shop nearly three months later.”

“Did she recognize you?”

“Oh she didn’t have a choice. The second I saw her, I charged forward, slammed my hand down on her table,” she slammed her hand down on the island for emphasis, “and said, ‘Hi, I’m Margaret, you’re really pretty, and it was nice to meet you. Now give me your number.’”

“Shit,” Nathaniel gawked, still laughing, “I wish I had that kind of confidence.”

“How did she react?”

“You have never seen a blush this furious, I promise,” she said, a self-satisfied grin spread across her cheeks. “She was frozen fucking solid. If it hadn’t been for Audrey sitting there to write down her phone number for her and hand it over, I’m not sure we ever would have happened.”

“Not sure what would have happened?” a tired voice asked from the doorway.

“Hey,” Margaret greeted, her face lighting up with an affectionate smile, “speak of the devil and she shall appear.” She stretched out an arm and Edith slipped under it, pressing her face into her wife’s shoulder.

“Talking shit behind my back?” her muffled voice asked.

“Always,” Margaret replied, rubbing her arm. “You look tired.”

“I hear that’s a common symptom of being tired.”

She chuckled. “Okay, let’s go to bed. Goodnight you two.”

He and Jasmine both echoed goodnight’s as they left. As they started putting away all the snacks they had pulled out, he glanced at the clock. 1:56.

“Oh jeez, Chloé is so not going to be happy in the morning.” Looking through the kitchen window, he could still see Chloé and her cousins giggling, two empty bottles of wine on the table next to them and a third looking dangerously low. Her hair was a little messy—as if she’d been pushing her fingers back through it all night—and her cheeks seemed to have taken on a somewhat permanent pink hue. It was…really cute.

“Oh shit, I didn’t realize how late it was,” Jasmine said as she looked at the clock. “We’d better get them to bed.”

With a nod, they walked out into the dining room.

“Nathaniel!”

Bright, sparkling blue eyes, pink cheeks split in a wide grin, arms thrown up in the air as if celebrating a point in a sports game. Everything about Chloé in that moment was pure joy like he had never seen, and it was all directed at him.

“Hey there, Tomato,” Isabella quipped. The three of them giggled and for a second he swore he was back in collège.

He glared at Chloé with pursed lips and she only giggled harder and more mischievously. She kept her arms raised as he moved to stand behind her chair, craning her head back to look at him with that big breathtaking smile.

“I suppose this is what I get for telling Jasmine about the green paint,” he said, trying to hold back a smile as he stared down at her. In all the time he had known her, Nathaniel had never seen Chloé drink more than one or two glasses of wine with dinner. He had to admit, she was pretty freaking cute like this.

She nodded vigorously and wrapped her arms around his torso in a weird backwards hug of sorts. He laughed and smoothed his hands along her arms. “Come on, it’s time to go to bed.”

Across the table a series of boo’s sounded. Marianne and Isabella both managed to throw a few chocolate chips at him before Jasmine took the bowl away from them to take back to the kitchen. It was more funny than anything, since most of them missed and the ones that didn’t bounced off his sweater anyway.

He laughed but otherwise ignored them and looked back down at Chloé. She was giving him an utterly adorable pouty face

“It’s already 2 am, and you hate being tired, remember?”

Her eyes went wide as if having the revelation of a lifetime and she whispered in far too serious a tone, “oh my gosh you’re so right.” That bubbly grin was back a moment later though as she reached her arms up again and made a grabbing motion with her hands. “Carry me.”

Why are you so fucking cute it is not fair.

He glared at her and she only grinned wider. He rolled his eyes and moved to bend down beside her chair. “Fine,” he said as he slipped one arm behind her back and the other under her legs, “but only because you’re really cute drunk.”

She hooked her arms back behind his head as she’d done a million times before, but unlike usual, she pressed her face into his neck. “Fuck you,” she said in far too sweet a tone, “I’m always cute.” He tried not to think about the way her breath ghosted his skin as he stood up straight, heaving her up in his arms.

“Wow, you’re a lot stronger than you look,” Isabella commented. He looked up to see that Jasmine had returned and now had her arms down around her wife’s shoulders, all three of them watching him and Chloé.

He huffed a small laugh. “Yeah, I get a lot of practice,” he said, nodding to the woman in his arms. She let loose that trademark sadistic giggle of hers, only this time it was higher pitched and so ridiculously cute. He rolled his eyes. “Goodnight.”

A chorus of goodnight’s followed them out.

As Nathaniel finally set her down on the bed, he realized she must have been right when she said he had some muscle, because carrying her all the way up the stairs wasn’t nearly as hard as it should have been. He stood up straight and rolled his shoulders. Ow. Still hard though.

Chloé was already starting to fall asleep on the walk up; as soon as she was lying down, she checked out. He smiled and pushed some hair back from her face and just like the night before, she turned her head, pressing her cheek to his palm. He leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. She hummed a tiny contented sigh and when he stood up again he could see the softest of smiles on her lips.

God, she was beautiful.

Nathaniel left to go to the bathroom and change into his sleeping clothes. When he came back, she had made her way under the covers and seemed to be sleeping soundly. He turned off the light and tried not to the jostle the bed as he lay down.

He had just barely settled under the blankets when she rolled over to face him. “There you are,” she murmured in a dopey voice.

He opened his mouth to respond, but his words died on his tongue, a wave of butterflies rushing through him as Chloé came close and aggressively cuddled up to him. She forced her way under his arm so she could rest her head on his chest and wrapped her limbs around him as if she were a koala, squeezing him tight.

He wondered if she noticed his heart racing; she was certainly in the right position to hear it.

I think…I dreamt this once.

Chapter Text

“But Naaaaaaaaaaath.”

“No. Carrying you to bed is one thing, but I am not tying your laces.”

Chloé groaned, dropping her head back in agony. “How can you have no mercy for your poor hung-over girlfriend?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “I know those painkillers worked; don’t try that with me.” She puckered her lips in a stupidly cute pout. “No.” She leaned closer, encroaching on dangerous territory. “No.” She batted her eyelashes, blinking those bright, beautiful blue eyes up at him. He pressed his lips together and attempted to hold his ground in this staring contest.

She blinked again.

“Damn it, okay, fine,” he sighed.

“Yes!”

Chloé turned to face him on the bench and leaned back on her hands as she laid her feet across his lap, thankfully being careful not to stab him with the blades on her skates. He shook his head, hating his own smile for betraying him. “I hate you.”

“Impossible,” she shot back. He glanced up from the laces intertwined with his fingers to see her watching him with her trademark confident smirk. She was too cute for his paper-thin will, it wasn’t fair.

“You’re ridiculous,” he laughed.

“And you love me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he rolled his eyes.

He was nearly done lacing up her second skate when what he had just said actually sunk in. It had felt so natural to agree with that he nearly missed it. He blinked, willing his fingers to keep moving and hoping beyond hope that the rink was cold enough to keep his blush at bay.

Even if friends said things like that to each other all the time, they never had. And if he was being quite honest, his agreement with the statement was not said with a platonic intent behind it.

He swallowed down a nervous lump in his throat. “There you go,” he mumbled, taking her legs and lowering them back to the ground.

“Thanks, Nath.” Her words suddenly held a genuine gratitude that contrasted with the entitled royalty tone she had been using until then and when he looked up he was confronted with one of those warm smiles of hers that absolutely floored him.

He smiled, stepping back into rhythm, and rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome. Now go skate and don’t fall down.”

“Don’t jinx me!” She smacked his arm and he laughed. “You’re going to come join me, right?” she asked as she stood.

He glanced over her shoulder at the ice and grimaced. “Yeah…eventually.”

“Come on, don’t be scared. I’ll hold your hand the whole time.” He glared at her for the mocking tone and she only smiled wider.

“I’m pretty sure that would only make my balance worse.”

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Don’t keep me waiting long, Red.” And then she was off.

“Wow, Ryan was right, you two are nauseating.”

Nathaniel chuckled as he turned to his other side to face Edith. “What do you mean?”

She smiled and shook her head as she continued lacing up her skates. “Just that the two of you are really cute.” She sat up and both of them looked out at the ice. “It’s funny; the whole family’s been wondering for years what kind of person she would end up with.” Nathaniel smiled as he watched Chloé raced up behind Isabella and grabbed her hands, scaring the poor woman to death. “Not a whole lot of people can keep up with her.”

“That’s certainly true,” he agreed, admiring the radiant smile on her face as she dragged her struggling cousin around.

“Seeing you with her though…” Edith’s pause stretched on a little too long and he eventually tore his eyes from Chloé. He found her observing him with that deadly blue gaze characteristic of the family, a tiny smile at the corner of her mouth. “It makes sense.”

He huffed a small laugh and tried to contain his blush as he turned to watch his not-girlfriend again. “Thanks. I like to think so too.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, we have to go back out on the ice after I finish drinking this. Walking feels all wrong.”

Chloé used her free hand to hold onto his arm for balance as her legs wobbled a little bit. In the back of his mind, he noted that she never pulled it away, continuing to walk with her arm hooked around his. The strangers walking past them as they made their way back from the café probably thought they were a couple.

Every day it was getting harder to remind himself that they weren’t.

“Skating more will only make it worse later,” he said, more than a little happy to have literally any excuse to not go back out.

“But it’ll make it so much better now,” she argued. She paused to take a sip of her hot chocolate. “Why do you hate it so much anyway? You’re not even that bad.”

He shrugged, but offered no explanation, taking a drink of his own hot chocolate instead. He felt her eyes on him before he turned his head. Sure enough, there she was scowling up at him with those blue eyes that shined even brighter in the winter sun. He frowned at her.

Her gaze softened the slightest bit and she gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “Come on, Nath, tell me what’s up.”

“It’s really nothing important.”

“Duh, otherwise you wouldn’t have skated with me at all.” Still, she kept that persistent gaze on him. He sighed.

“I just got hurt ice skating once when I was younger, that’s all.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “No, it’s not.”

“What?”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“No, that’s really all it is.”

“No, it’s not.” They had just re-entered the building when Chloé stopped, holding onto his arm to make him face her. “I’ve seen you lie enough times to know what it looks like, Nath. Tell me the truth.”

He bit the inside of his cheek, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t like it was something that would upset him to talk about; it was so long ago, he really didn’t care anymore. It left a bit of a lasting mark on his relationship with ice skating obviously, but of all things, that really didn’t matter to him.

It was just her that he didn’t want to tell.

He knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t going to let it go though.

Nathaniel sucked in a deep breath and let it out slow. “It was on a school trip. With you.”

She blinked, brows knitting together as she tried to remember. Then realization washed over her. Her hand fell from his arm.

“I made fun of you. A lot.”

Fuck. That guilt, right there. That was why he didn’t want to tell her.

“Chloé, it really doesn’t matter. I was over it long before we even became friends.”

“But it still affects you.”

He shrugged. “Sure, but it’s just ice skating, something I’ve never cared about in my life. You made fun of my art too—a lot more in fact—and that turned out fine, because it was actually important to me. I never got over the ice skating issues because I felt no need to.”

“Still—,”

“Still what? Do you expect me to hate you for something you did when we were ten?” She pursed her lips, and he felt his own don a soft smile. “You’re so much more to me than just a bully, Chloé.”

She narrowed her eyes, a tiny smile quirking at the corner of her lips. “But still a bully?”

His smile grew as he felt himself slipping back into his usual tone with her. “Well yeah, you made fun of me just this morning for my bedhead.”

“Your hair actually looked like a rats nest though!” He raised one eyebrow and smirked at her. Her shoulders slumped. “Okay you’re right, I’m still a bully.”

“But not just a bully, and that’s what’s important.” Her frown was back, and he could see by the movement in her jaw that she was grinding her teeth. He reached out and gently pressed his fingers to her cheek. She stopped, but…was he imagining the way she turned slightly into his touch? While…awake?

“I was lying, you know,” she said, dragging him from his thoughts. He let his hand drop to his side. “When I made fun of your art. Even back then.”

He huffed a small sigh and smiled. “I know.”

“Did you know then?”

“No,” he gave her a teasing grin, “I just thought you had bad taste.”

She laughed—though it was softer than he would have liked—and looked down at the cup in her hands. “I’m sorry.”

“I know you are. And I’ve long forgiven you for all of that. So please,” he touched her cheek again and this time as she looked up at him, he was absolutely certain he wasn’t imagining it. He forced himself not to think about it though and gave her what he hoped was a comforting smile. “Stop apologizing for every little thing.” She sighed and smiled softly. “Besides,” he said, dropping his hand and picking his usual tone back up, “if you try to apologize for everything we’re going to be here a long time.”

She scoffed, jaw dropping in a mixture of laughter and outrage. “You are such an asshole!” She smacked his arm and he just laughed, glad to see her back to normal.

She was mid-eye roll when she paused, something on the ceiling apparently catching her eye. “Oh my god,” she sighed, dropping her head to one of her hands. As she started chuckling to herself, he looked up.

Mistletoe.

Was it even legal to put those up in public?

“What is this, the sixth time now?” she asked, still chuckling.

He laughed with her and hoped she didn’t notice him blushing at the memory of every kiss they had shared so far. “Seventh I think.”

“Jeez,” she shook her head. “It’s one thing at the house where Aunt Georgia has them up all over the place, but even here? It’s like we’re some sort of mistletoe magnet.”

“Yeah, really,” he laughed. It really was weird; out of all the couples in the house, they had gotten caught under the mistletoe more often than anyone else. And he swore he wasn’t trying to—not on any conscious level at least.

“Well,” she said, looking at him again. “I won’t make you skate more if you don’t want to, but I want to get back in there.” He nodded, ready to keep walking. None of her family members were around to see them, so it only made sense that they wouldn’t—

She took a step closer, set a gentle hand on the side of his neck, and pulled him into a small, delicate kiss.

He responded automatically—eyes sliding shut, free hand resting on the small of her back, and lips moving with hers—while his brain practically flat lined. All thought processes died, everything cleared away, and all that was left was her and the tenderness of her lips, the cold touch of her hand, the sweet scent of her perfume and the soft press of her chest to his.

It was objectively no different from each of the six kisses before this one, but in his system it was so much more.

It was real.

She parted from him a moment later and smiled as if nothing was different. “Let’s go.” Then she took his hand and led him back to the ice rink.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you’re still carrying medical tape in your pocket!” Chloé angrily whispered in French as he wrapped her wrist. “Have you had that with you the entire time?”

He nodded. “Every day.”

“Why!?” She quickly glanced around to make sure no one was listening. “I couldn’t even transform if I wanted to; Pollen isn’t here!”

“No, but you are,” he remarked with a cheeky smirk. She frowned at him. “Pout all you want, but you can’t deny that I was right to bring it.”

She slumped forward with an aggravated sigh and grumbled, “I can’t believe we’re on vacation and you’re still patching me up.”

He chuckled. “I’m starting to think I should go to medical school or something.” He paused as he finished up the wrap. “Alright. Fingers?”

She wiggled them. “Good.”

“Tightness?”

“Fine.”

“Pride?”

At that she said nothing and looked up with a glare. He grinned.

“There you are!” The two of them looked up to see Renee approaching, awkwardly hobbling over in her skates. “Oh no, honey, what happened?” She sat down next to Chloé and took her hand to inspect her bandages.

“It’s nothing, Grandma. I just fell and twisted my wrist a little. Nathaniel is just overly cautious.”

“I wouldn’t be if you hadn’t already sprained that wrist three times.”

She opened her mouth to complain, but Renee spoke first. “This is good work, Nathaniel.”

“Thank you, I get a lot of practice,” he replied, fixing Chloé another teasing smile. She glared and stuck her tongue out at him in retaliation.

“Chloé, honey, why don’t you go join the others? I think they’re planning what to do tomorrow.”

Neither of them missed the fact that the invitation was for Chloé and Chloé alone. Glancing from him to her grandmother and back again, she nodded and got up. “Okay, I’ll see you over there.”

Renee reached down to start unlacing her skates as Chloé walked away. “You know, Nick and I met like that. With me repeatedly patching him up.”

“Really?”

“Yep,” she smiled fondly. “That man is the clumsiest marine I’ve ever known.”

He chuckled. “So that’s where Chloé gets it from.”

“Oh yes,” she laughed. “I mean, I won’t pretend that I’m the most graceful person in the world,” she set her skates aside and started pulling her shoes back on, “but yes, that clumsiness is all Nick.” As soon as Renee finished up with her shoes, she sat up straight and turned to him. “So Nathaniel, you’re an artist. How do you make money? Commissions mostly?

Nathaniel felt a small but very real wave of anxiety roll through him. As if sending Chloé off wasn’t evidence enough, everything about Renee in that moment told him he was under investigation—her posture, her tone, and more than anything, her gaze. Nick may also have blue eyes, but the rest of the family definitely got that critical, earth shaking gaze from her.

This was no casual conversation.

“Um, yeah,” he nodded. “I do a lot of commissions for people. I also post a weekly comic online that gets me a bit of money, and I sell works in some galleries around Paris.”

“And how much do you make?”

He hoped his nervousness didn’t show. “I’m not rolling in money or anything, but I make enough to live comfortably.”

She nodded and seemed to mull that over for a second. “And you like it? Your art?”

Finally, a question that didn’t make him tense up. He huffed a small sigh and nodded, a smile taking to his lips. “Yeah. Art’s been my passion ever since I picked up my first crayon. I love it more than anything.”

“More than Chloé?”

Nathaniel paused as the weight of that question settled down over them like a thick, suffocating blanket. He looked to Renee in confusion and mild panic, and only felt his anxiety increase tenfold as that cold, calculated blue gaze skewered him. He felt like frigid water was being poured down his back.

“What?”

Her expression softened the slightest bit, but it did little to put him at ease. “I want to know, Nathaniel. If it ever came down to your art or Chloé, which would you choose?”

“I don’t believe Chloé would ever put me in that position,” he immediately replied, his tone probably a little too hard considering he was speaking to Chloé’s grandmother.

“You’re right; she wouldn’t. But I want to know. Art or Chloé?”

Nathaniel tasted blood and realized he was biting the inside of his cheek a lot harder than usual. Okay, Renee was officially the most terrifying member of Chloé’s family.

She kept her gaze steady, eyes hard, frozen like the ice mere meters away. Her brows rested in place and her mouth sat in a straight line. Everything about her expression was so neutral it chilled him more than if she had been outright glaring at him.

Years of dealing with Chloé had left him more than prepared to hold his own against that stare though. He kept his eyes level with hers, and responded in an even tone.

“If we’re talking about Chloé’s health and well-being, I’ll give up my art any day.”

He couldn’t count the number of times his comic had updated late because he’d had to drop it for her. He had delayed his commissions for two weeks during the time she was in the hospital after her biggest accident because he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her alone. He knew he would give anything to keep her safe, even his life’s passion. But…

“But if we’re talking about my relationship with her, I would have to pick my art. Life without Chloé would be awful, but life without art…would be nothing.”

He pressed his lips together, frustrated with his own words because he knew them to be true and hating this crushing feeling in his chest at having to say them out loud.

Renee showed no visible reaction. She merely sat there, looking back and forth between his eyes. She made no effort to hide the fact that she was testing him, but unlike the other tests this family had confronted him with, he had no idea if he had passed.

It didn’t change anything though. This was the way he felt—this was who he was—and lying to her about it would do no good.

Eventually, she nodded and stood up from the bench.

“Why?” he asked before she could walk away.

Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit as she turned to him again. “I wanted to know if your priorities were in line.”

“And?”

She watched him a moment before letting her expression fall to a small smile.

“Let’s go join the others.”

Chapter Text

“Oh my god, I’m not going to elevate my wrist, Nath.”

“Come on, just to be safe!”

“No!” She flicked the light switch, leaving the Christmas lights outside the only thing illuminating her form as she walked over to her side of the bed. “It’s not sprained. I know what a sprain feels like and this is not it. It’s going to be completely fine by tomorrow.”

“You know what’ll assure that even more? Elevating it.”

In the dim light he could just barely see her glare at him as she crawled into bed, though the amused curl of her lips was unmistakable. “Drop it, Nathaniel.”

“Ooh switching from nickname to real name,” he commented. “Scary.” He was pretty sure she was rolling her eyes as she plopped down on her back. He was still sitting up next to her, waiting for her to respond or grab a pillow to elevate her wrist. She did neither. “Alright, hard way it is.”

“What—? Nath!” She giggled his name as he forcefully pushed a pillow to her chest, throwing an arm over her middle to hold it in place and curling up at her side so she was forced to move her arm up. “Oh my gosh,” she said, shaking with laughter. “You’re ridiculous.” With an exasperated sigh, she finally resigned and laid her arm to rest atop the pillow. “You’re going to stay like this the whole night, aren’t you?”

“Yep.”

He felt more than heard her laughter as her stomach shook under his arm. He smiled and naturally tangled his legs with hers, finding her cold feet under the blankets. She finally settled with a sigh.

“Thanks,” she said softly. “For always taking care of me.”

“What are sidekicks for?”

She huffed and used her free hand to flick the arm he had over her. “Don’t be stupid.” Then her hand settled over his, fingers tracing delicate patterns into his skin. “You know you’re more than just a sidekick to me.”

It was dark, and in this position she couldn’t see him, so for once he didn’t worry about hiding his blush or the smile that took to his lips. “You’re more than just a hero to me,” he replied. “Though admittedly, that’s a much higher bar to pass.” She laughed again, softly, and the sound was heaven. He loved that laugh. He would give anything to hear it over and over again.

Well, maybe not anything.

He opened his eyes. He hadn’t even realized they’d fallen shut—he must have been starting to drift—but suddenly he was wide awake and reliving his conversation with Renee earlier that day.

“Hey Chloé?”

“Hm?”

“You know how your family has been testing me ever since we got here?”

She chuckled lightly. “Yeah, why?”

“I think I might have failed your grandmother’s test today.”

When she replied, her tone was light, as if she were genuinely surprised. “Really?” He nodded, his head rubbing against her side. “How?” she asked, her voice sounding like she didn’t believe him.

“Well first she asked me about how much money I make.”

She laughed. “You passed that, don’t worry.”

Now he was the disbelieving one. “Really?”

“You’re stable and content with how much you make on your own. That’s all she was assessing. She wanted to make sure you weren’t a gold digger or something. What else did she ask?”

He forced himself to stop gnawing the inside of his cheek as he willed himself to tell her the truth. “She…asked me which I would choose if it came down to it…you or my art.” Her fingers stilled on the back of his hand for just a moment before carrying on, but he noticed it nonetheless. “What’d you say?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light.

He breathed in and let it out slowly. “I said your health and well-being were more important than my art any day, but…that I would choose art over my relationship with you.”

Her fingers didn’t still this time, but she didn’t respond. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds of silence, but he could hardly breathe under the worry of how she would react. Was she upset? Did that hurt her?

Then her stomach started to shake again—lightly and sporadic at first, but quickly growing until she was laughing a full, hearty laugh. It was so far from any reaction he might have expected that it honestly scared him even more. He picked up his head to look at her and found a wide smile stretched across her cheeks, eyes squeezed shut as she cackled. “Chloé?”

“You’re an idiot,” she laughed.

“So I failed?”

“No.” She vehemently shook her head. “You passed.” She finally looked up at him, still laughing violently. Even in such little light, he could see the way her cheeks glowed like they had the night before when she’d been giggling for hours.

Wow. That smile was infectious.

“You passed with flying colors.”

Chapter Text

Nathaniel felt useless.

Hands awkwardly stuffed in his pockets and standing in the center of what would be the dance floor come New Year’s Eve, he merely watched as Chloé, Georgia, Isabella, and Audrey discussed (argued over) where certain decorations should go. All around him, others worked like a well-oiled machine setting things up for the party, as they had been since they’d arrived. It seemed like Georgia didn’t even need to give anyone orders; they all had just immediately jumped to their tasks as if they were some sort of hive mind.

Over to the left, Marianne stood up at the top of a ladder to fasten lights to the walls while Edith continually untangled long strings of them for her and held the ladder steady. Meanwhile, Renee and Margaret made their way around the room putting tables in place, Jasmine in tow setting tablecloths and centerpieces. They all moved quickly and efficiently as if this were a well-rehearsed dance, and Nathaniel felt terribly out of step.

He was pretty sure even the arguing was part of the plan.

“Don’t worry.” He started as a hand suddenly clapped down on his shoulder, but quickly relaxed as Nick stepped up to his side. For a seventy-something year old ex-marine who towered half a head over him, the man had a surprisingly soothing presence. Nathaniel thought it was something to do with his gentle voice, or the soft—not piercing—blue of his eyes, or maybe how all his wrinkles pointed to years of smiling rather than scowling. Whatever the reason, Nick seemed to offer the perfect balance to the absolute terror that was his wife. “I always feel out of place too.”

“Does this happen every year?”

“Yep,” he nodded, taking his hand back and idly crossing his arms. “I’ve tried to help before but I only manage to get in the way.”

“So what do you do?”

“Ryan and I go find a good place to get donuts nearby and bring some back for all of them. If you haven’t noticed, this family runs on sugar.” The smile he gave him made him feel like they were sharing some sort of inside joke and Nathaniel found himself reflecting it.

“Another thing Chloé got from this family I see.”

He nodded. “We’re going to leave once he finishes whatever game he’s playing right now.” He looked back over his shoulder and Nathaniel turned to see Ryan sitting in one of the abandoned chairs in the corner with a determined look on his face as he stared at his phone. “Want to come?”

He let out a sigh of relief at the idea of having something even mildly helpful to do. “That sounds great.”

Nick smiled at him a moment before looking back at the four women bickering over some sort of star wall ornament. “So tell me Nathaniel, do you love Chloé?”

He watched her flick some hair back over her shoulder—an attitude move that she only brought out in situations where she needed to assert herself—and smiled. “Yeah, I do.”

“Does she know that?”

He blinked and turned to look at him again. “I’m sorry?”

Again, that smile that set him at ease. “Have you heard of love languages, Nathaniel?”

“Like…the ways different people like to communicate love? Through words, touch, gifts…” he paused, trying to remember the others, “acts of service…”

“And quality time,” Nick finished for him. “Do you know what Chloé’s languages are?”

He bit the inside of his cheek as he thought, staring at Chloé and trying to remember everything he’d ever done that she’d appreciated. “Not words,” he eventually decided. That he knew for certain, seeing as how the vast majority of their favorable interactions involved anything but words, and especially considering how it took forever for either of them to even say out loud that they didn’t hate each other.

“She likes gifts,” he continued, remembering her excitement every time he’d given her a drawing of Queen Bee. But he also remembered the way she struggled with buying things for her family. “They aren’t one of her main languages though.” He thought of how once they really became friends, she liked being around him, but would consistently kick him out after a few hours, saying she was sick of his presence or something. “She likes quality time, but she also needs her space.”

Then he thought back to that first time he helped her after learning she was Queen Bee. How carrying her when she was having trouble walking made her just the slightest bit kinder toward him and how everything he did for her after that made her warm up to him just a little bit more. “She really appreciates acts of service. A lot. But…”

Fingers dancing along the back of his hand, face turning to his palm, drunk backwards hug, tracing his scar, leaning on his shoulder, hands coming together with natural ease…

“Her main love language is definitely physical touch.”

…A gentle kiss under the mistletoe with no one around to see.

He snapped out of his thoughts as Nick’s hand came down on his shoulder again. He turned to see the man smiling at him in approval. “Then make sure to hold her hand every day.”

Nathaniel slowly smiled, finally realizing why he was asking these questions in the first place. He nodded. “I will.”

Chapter Text

“Okay tilt it a little to the right… A little more… A little more… Wait that’s too much.”

Chloé cursed under her breath in French, using some very creative words to describe her aunt as she continued directing her in positioning the painting on the wall. Nathaniel snickered, the only one who could hear her from where he stood at the foot of the ladder.

“I don’t know, Georgia,” Audrey said, tilting her head as she stared up at it. “I still think you should put the other one there.”

“I think you’re right,” Georgia sighed. “Okay Chloé, dear, take that one down.”

She grumbled some more profanities for his ears only as she complied and carefully handed the painting to him. He traded it with the one Isabella was holding out to him.

“Hold on a sec,” Chloé said. Nathaniel waited as she pulled her arms out of her cardigan and leaned forward to drape it over his shoulder. “Hold that for me.”

“Yes, your highness,” he replied in monotone, handing her the painting. He wasn’t really annoyed in the slightest, but even if he had been, that mischievous smile she flashed him would have changed that for sure.

He took extra care to hold the ladder steady as she reached up and set the painting on the wall hook. She had just placed it when both of them turned to an audible gasp on their left.

Georgia was staring at Chloé with wide eyes, and Isabella wore a look of concern behind her (Audrey was just looking at the painting). “Goodness, sweetie, what happened to your arm?”

They both looked at her arm then, and realization struck them as they were reminded of the long pink line that stretched all the way from her shoulder to her elbow.

 

Why couldn’t she ever land somewhere nearby?

Nathaniel quickly rounded the corner to the street he was pretty sure she’d finally dropped down on. He thought for sure that Chloé must get some sort of sadistic pleasure out of making him run great distances. Otherwise, she would find an alley to detransform in that didn’t require him to rush halfway across the city.

At least his legs weren’t burning this time. In fact, he was having a somewhat easier time breathing than he usually did when he chased her.

…He was getting used to this.

He skidded to a stop as he finally reached the alleyway and was thankful to find her standing this time. She and Pollen had their attention on her left arm, where she had a hand clamped down over a growing red stain in her white sweater.

He had been watching from behind safety lines as the akuma possessed Chat Noir and turned him against her. He’d been hoping the gash his claws had torn through her wasn’t as bad as it looked from there, but it must have been even worse than he thought if it was still bleeding this much after Ladybug’s cure.

“You’re getting better at this,” she commented, not bothering to look up as he approached. He pulled a small bag of sugar cubes out of his pocket and handed them to Pollen. The small god took them and disappeared into Chloé’s purse. “It’s been less than a minute since I landed.”

He glanced up at her before focusing on her arm. “You seem less sassy than usual,” he noted as he gently pulled down on her neckline to take a look at her wound. Her sweater was thankfully one of those ones meant to stretch across her shoulders, so he didn’t have any trouble peeling it back enough to see her upper arm.

“I’m just mad because this is a new top and I can’t even yell at Chat Noir for it.”

It looked like the slice started at her shoulder, and went down at least to where Chloé’s hand sat near her elbow. He used her sleeve to dab away some blood in an effort to get a better look at it. Definitely a deep one.

“You hired a personal doctor, right?” he asked quietly, putting her clothing back in place. “I really don’t want to give you stitches again.”

She laughed lightly. “Seconded.” He started pulling off the dark purple flannel he was wearing as she continued, “Don’t worry; I hired someone before my back even healed so they could take a look at it.”

“Here, put this on.” He held the flannel up for her to slip her arms through and she frowned, wrinkling her nose at what was probably terribly out of fashion. “Or attract everyone’s attention with blood drenching your arm,” he shrugged. “That works too.” Blue eyes flicked to him in stubborn shame. He gave her what was probably a very obnoxious smile.

“Fine,” she grumbled. She hissed as she let go of her arm and he did his best to help her get the left sleeve on without disturbing the cut too much. “You did a good job by the way,” she mumbled as he lifted her hair out from under the collar.

“What?”

She sighed and spoke a little louder. “The stitches. My doctor said you did a good job.” She paused, turning around to face him. “I didn’t… Um…” Blue eyes met his gaze with a certain sincerity he’d never seen in them before, and he suddenly felt something stir in his gut. Something new. “Thanks.”

Nathaniel smiled and it felt more like a nervous reflex than an actual expression of happiness. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, suddenly feeling extremely awkward. He wasn’t used to Chloé expressing gratitude like this. He didn’t know how to handle it. “I’m just glad you’re alive.”

For once he actually breathed a sigh of relief when she rolled her eyes and stalked past him out toward the street.

“You better hope no one we know sees me in this. I don’t want anyone thinking we’re dating.”

This time he laughed and it was much more natural. “Please,” he said, catching up to her in two steps. “Anyone who knows us knows we would never date each other.”

 

Nathaniel smiled, only just now realizing that that day was the very beginning of his crush on Chloé Bourgeois.

“She had an unfortunate run in with a cat,” he said in response to Georgia’s question. Chloé snorted in a halfhearted attempt to hide her laughter and his smile only widened.

Two years later and here they were, laughing together every day.

Two years later and here he was, absolutely undoubtedly head over heels.

Chapter Text

“Okay but you have to admit it was nice at least.”

“Yeah yeah whatever it was nice, the lights were pretty, the animals were cute, the hot chocolate was great, and thanks to you it wasn’t even that cold, but that doesn’t change the fact that right now, in this moment, I am tired and cranky.”

Chloé didn’t even make it all the way to her side after flicking off the lights, electing instead to face plant at the foot of the bed with half her body still hanging off the end. He didn’t even try to stifle his laughter.

“Let’s go look at the zoo lights,” her muffled voice went on, seemingly mocking Georgia, “that won’t be tiring at all after being on our feet decorating all day!” She proceeded to mumble some profanities that he couldn’t quite parse out through the blankets.

“You know you’re only prolonging your suffering by not getting into bed, right?” He chuckled as she proceeded to flip him off, offering no further response. “How’s your wrist feeling, by the way?” he asked, noticing the bandages in the dim glow of the Christmas lights.

Chloé turned her head so she wasn’t speaking into the bed, but she still grumbled in her annoyed monotone. “It feels completely fine. I kept the wrap on all day like you told me to. Please don’t make me elevate it again; I hate sleeping on my back.”

He moved to lie on his stomach as he took her arm and gently applied pressure to the area around her wrist. It didn’t feel swollen at least. “Does this hurt?”

“No.”

He carefully squeezed a different spot. “At all?”

“At all.”

“You promise?”

“Oh my god, Nath,” she groaned, finally moving up onto the bed and sitting on her knees. “I promise. My wrist is fine.”

Nathaniel searched for her eyes in the darkness, looking back and forth between them for any sign that she might be lying. He had unfortunately known Chloé to hide her pain on occasion in the past. She didn’t do it as often these days—not with him—but he still worried, especially since he knew she would probably avoid making a big deal out of an injury around her family at all costs.

Her gaze as she stared back at him was steady—tired, and mildly irritated as a result, but steady.

Nathaniel sighed and gave her hand one last squeeze. “Okay.” He moved back to get under the covers. “I hereby grant you permission to sleep however you like.”

“Thank you,” she said with an exasperated sigh.

When Chloé crawled up to get under the blankets, he noted that she was further toward the center of the bed—further toward him—than he would have expected. She then proceeded to lay down a lot closer than he expected—as in, nestling her way under his arm to use his chest as a pillow and rest her hand over his heart. It felt a lot like when she’d snuggled up to him drunk, except this time she was most definitely 100% sober.

“I like how warm you are,” she murmured, her voice sounding like she was already falling asleep.

He sighed as her toes found his, offering the perfect balance to his heat. He settled his hand over her arm, gently running his palm along her scar as he sank into her.

“I like how cold you are,” he whispered. The hand that lay trapped between them lightly smacked his ribs and he laughed. “What? I’m talking about your body temperature.”

Her face nestled further into his chest as she mumbled, “You were making fun of me and you know it.”

Nathaniel chuckled. He loved lying close to her like this—loved her nuzzling into him, loved the sound of her sleepy voice, loved how her attitude never dropped even a single moment, loved…her.

He pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “Nothing gets by you, my queen.”

Chloé sighed contentedly and nodded. “Nothing.”

Chapter Text

December 29th had been a surprisingly easy day. Really surprising, seeing as how it began with a full family search of the house to find Georgia’s missing tablet, and went on to wrapping up the rest of the party preparations for tomorrow’s trial run.

Chloé was put in charge of managing the crew of servers Georgia had hired—meeting them, briefing them, scaring them into subordination, etc. Having run her fair share of hotel events, she was fairly used to the process, and was especially skilled in the art of making people fear for their lives should they mess anything up. She was also, however, used to dealing with the same team of workers who had been employed at the hotel since she was a teenager—a team she was familiar with and who already knew to fear her.

It went well though. Georgia didn’t skimp on the help she hired, and Chloé had no problem teaching them her ways; Nathaniel never even had to step in to calm her temper—which, if he was being honest, he had been fully prepared to do.

Meanwhile, Georgia and the rest of the family had gotten all the other details settled, and the party was ready for its trial run by dinner time.

All surprisingly easy, painless.

…Until Audrey happened.

At the time, Nathaniel had been wrapped up in a conversation (argument) that Jasmine and Isabella were having over who Katara should have ended up with. So he didn’t know exactly what happened, or the context. All he knew was that the hand holding his under the dinner table tightened its grip to bruise-giving levels right at the same time he heard the name “André” in Audrey’s voice.

“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” Chloé asked the woman sitting across from her.

Audrey picked up her wine glass and didn’t even deign to look at her daughter as she replied in French, “Chloé, this is not the time or place for this.”

Chloé automatically slipped into French as she responded, “You’re right, this isn’t the time or place to be talking about my father.”

Nathaniel might have been the only one at the table able to follow at that point, but the others didn’t miss the agitation in their voices. Conversations were quickly falling silent around them.

“Chloé, please, you’re making a scene.”

“And you’re insulting my family.”

“Stop it, this behavior is inappropriate.”

“No, what’s inappropriate is casually insulting my father over dinner, and right in front of me no less. What’s even more inappropriate is talking down to me like I’m some sort of child, and giving me orders as if you were my mother.”

Audrey was finally looking directly at her then—blue eyes even icier than usual, with a voice to match. “I am your mother.”

Choé scoffed lightly, her voice maintaining that same tense calm that Audrey used. “Clearly I should have gotten you a dictionary for Christmas as you seem a bit confused on the meaning of that word.”

“This is ridiculous, Chloé,” she put down her wine glass with a certain finality, tone severe, “drop it.”

“Me defending my father is not ridiculous. Ridiculous is dropping all of your responsibilities to your family and flying off to another continent to avoid your problems. Ridiculous is abandoning an eight-year-old girl without a word and then expecting her to still regard you as her mother. You left me and Papa alone, and even though he didn’t know what he was doing, he tried his absolute best to make up for the damage you caused, to clean up the mess you made. You have no right to insult him—no right to even speak his name.” Her hand slipped from his then as she stood up, ready to leave. “Constantly spouting snide comments about me is one thing, but you had better hope I never hear you utter another word about him.”

“Oh please, Chloé, you really think you can threaten me?”

Chloé Bourgeois was Nathaniel’s childhood bully. He had seen her upset, spiteful, and menacing any number of times. Later on, she became a superhero and while that didn’t make her completely abandon that side of herself, she learned to refine it. Hone in on it. She became ten times more dangerous when that happened because suddenly it wasn’t petty pranks and “my Papa will hear about this” every five minutes; it was deliberate, calculated insults and threats reserved only for when she needed them.

He had seen significantly less of that, as it was mostly used when business partners tried to take advantage of her, but he’d still seen it nonetheless, like when a photographer wouldn’t leave Marinette alone after news got out that she and Adrien were dating. Nathaniel had watched as she cut into the man, dropped a few names of people she could contact to utterly ruin him, and all the while used a certain tone that seemed to make him shrink below her despite him being significantly taller. It was terrifying, and by far the most venomous Chloé he’d ever seen.

Until now.

Slowly, deliberately, Chloé placed her palms flat on the table and leaned forward so she was face to face with Audrey. When she spoke, her voice was level, controlled, but rigid and seething with a cold, searing anger the likes of which he had never witnessed.

“Maybe I need to remind you that while you’re a match for me with money, I am still the daughter of a very influential man and close friends with not one but two leading figures in your line of work.” She paused for just a moment to lean the slightest bit closer. “You do not want to cross me, Audrey Bourgeois; I learned from the best.”

She waited a second to let that sink in, holding her gaze steady while Audrey merely stared back with that neutral, unyielding glare of hers. Then without another word, Chloé stood up straight and stalked out of the dining room.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel closed the bedroom door behind him carefully, warily eyeing the woman across the room as she studied the charm bracelet her mother had given her for Christmas that year.

“Chloé?” he asked softly. She showed no immediate response. “Are you…okay?”

Chloé let loose a tiny laugh that sounded more bitter than anything else. “Of course,” she said in a tone that was far too casual. “Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not like any of that was unexpected.” She set the bracelet back in its box. “Or like anything that was said just now was surprising in the slightest.” She closed the box and unceremoniously dropped it in the open suitcase on the floor. “I can’t even say that I feel bad for anything I said down there, because,” she finally turned around then and when she looked at him, all he could see was a mask, “I don’t. I really ought to feel at least a little bit bad for,” she lightly laughed as she continued, “for threatening my mother over dinner, but I don’t!” She tossed her hands out to her sides for a moment before letting them drop. “I don’t feel bad. I would do it again.”

Nathaniel took a seat at the foot of the bed as Chloé began pacing back and forth, her real emotions slowly rising to the surface as she spoke.

“At worst, she drops passive aggressive comments about me. At best, she completely ignores my presence. And I never say anything about it. She’s been like that my whole life; I’m used to it. Sure, it hurts, but whatever, I can handle it. But insulting Papa?” She didn’t seem to have anything to say about that, just shook her head with an incredulous look.

Then she laughed again, another heartless bitter sound. “And who the fuck does she think she is, ordering me around like that? I’m 25 years old for fucks sake! She has no right to treat me like a child, and far less to treat me like hers! She even switched into French so that no one else would know what we were talking about—so that she could scold me in private. What kind of bullshit was that!?”

She stopped with an aggravated sigh and dropped her head in her hands, palms digging into her forehead. This time when she spoke, her voice was much quieter, allowing for the hurt to carry over that much stronger.

“I’m just so fucking sick of this shit.”

Nathaniel stood and approached, tentatively placing his hands on her shoulders. She immediately stepped forward, closing what little distance remained between them to hide her face in his chest. With a sigh, he wrapped his arms snug around her form and held her close.

He hated that he had nothing to say, nothing to do except hug her. He hated seeing her like this, but he was powerless to change it. There was no quick fix, no magic spell, nothing that was going to make her feel better any time soon. He couldn’t even think of anything that could help in the long run because if he was being honest, that would depend too much on Audrey making changes that he was certain she wouldn’t. He felt like a spectator trapped on the sidelines, cursed to watch his best friend face a never ending cycle of frustration and pain over and over and over again.

A few long moments passed before Chloé spoke, her voice hardly above a whisper and so so vulnerable.

“Am I a terrible person, Nathaniel?”

He couldn’t hold back the tiny huff of laughter that escaped him. “For what? Defending your father?”

“For threatening my mother?”

“You mean for threatening a woman who consistently treats you like crap?”

“And for not feeling bad about it?”

“You’re asking if you’re a terrible person for not feeling bad about defending your father by threatening a woman who consistently treats you like crap?”

“…Yes?”

“No.”

Her body shook with a tiny laugh and she pulled away just enough to look at him. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips underneath tired eyes. “You’re biased.”

“Yes I am.” Some of her hair had fallen out of place and now tangled with her eyelashes. He smiled as he pushed it back behind her ear. “I know your secret identity and the person you are when no one’s looking. Under those circumstances, it’s a little hard not to be pretty fond of you.” He was just about to let his hand fall when hers came up, fingers delicately wrapping around his wrist to hold him there as she pressed her face to his palm, soaking up his warmth.

Gosh he loved the feeling of cradling her head in his hand, and the serene expression it gave her.

“I’m right though,” he continued, voice low. He dragged his thumb across her cheek and watched as a certain tenderness took to her eyes that he wasn’t sure he’d seen before. “Your worst side comes out when you’re defending those you love. In a way,” he shrugged lightly, giving her a soft smile, “I think that makes it your best side.” And I love that about you.

I love absolutely every part of you. So if you’re a terrible person, then so am I.

As she looked back and forth between his eyes, something changed. Her fingers tightened on his wrist just the slightest bit. The sadness melted away and suddenly all that was left was consideration—that same pensive look he’d caught only a select few times. But it was different this time—stronger. A lot stronger.

His breath hitched in his throat. His heart rate doubled. Suddenly he was all too aware that she was only centimeters from him, with a hand on his chest and his arm around her waist. That arm tightened its hold. Her hand bunched up his shirt in a fist.

He didn’t realize he was gravitating closer until his forehead met hers. He paused, unable to think with his heart hammering in his ears and the sight of Chloé’s half-lidded ever pensive blue eyes watching him, waiting. He could feel her pulse under his fingertips—could feel it racing like his.

He wanted… But did she…?

“Nathaniel?” His name was a whisper on her lips and he swore it had never sounded so sweet.

“Yes Chloé?”

“I think…” Her grip tightened further a moment before she slowly let go. She pressed her lips together and her brow creased, a look of loss and frustration taking to her eyes as she drew her head away. “I think I need you to be my friend right now.”

It took a long moment for the fog in his head to clear before he understood. A part of him wished he didn’t—wished he could be selfish.

But it wasn’t meant to happen like this—not when she was in an emotional state after coming out of a tense and stressful situation. This wasn’t the time.

Nathaniel ran his hand around to the back of her head and pulled her in to place a gentle kiss on her forehead instead. She sighed and seemed to settle into him again, taking comfort in his hold.

“Always, my queen.”

Chapter Text

A quiet breath in. A quiet breath out. In. Out. In. Out.

Nathaniel lay in bed, focusing on Chloé’s breathing as she slept soundly. He continued to gently comb his fingers through her hair and watched the delicate movements of her eyelids, hoping the sleep she had finally captured was granting her peaceful dreams. Her waking hours were giving her enough grief as it was.

After venting and processing for hours, she had finally fallen asleep somewhere around 1 am. It was nearly 3 now, and even if Nathaniel felt exhausted, he was wide awake. He was trapped in his thoughts, in a storm of anger at Audrey and protectiveness of Chloé and helplessness over not knowing what to do about any of it. He had watched Chloé cry off and on throughout the night as she opened up, telling him all of the worst things her mother had ever said or done to her. She cried out of anger, out of frustration, out of hurt and all he could do was pull her close and keep stroking her hair until she finally fell asleep.

He sighed. He wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon.

Nathaniel slowly pulled his arm out from under Chloé’s head—only just now realizing it had gone numb. She sounded a small whine of complaint, but quickly settled as he brushed through her hair again and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. Then he got up and quietly went downstairs.

He had just entered the kitchen when he heard Audrey’s low voice coming from the dining room.

“Of course I don’t hate my daughter; what kind of mother do you think I am?”

“Well, honestly Audrey,” he heard Edith respond, “I don’t think you’re really much of a mother at all.”

Nathaniel’s eyes went wide and he paused in the middle of taking a glass out of the cabinet. He shut it as quietly as he could and leaned back against the counter to listen.

There was a pause before Georgia spoke. “Don’t make that face; you know she’s got a point. You left her at a young age, you never supported her, and now even when she’s grown into a successful adult, you constantly criticize her. The poor girl walks on eggshells around you.”

“Not to mention she tries her absolute best to make you proud,” Edith added.

“No, she tries to impress me.”

“Oh tomato-tomahto, Audrey, come on.”

“Don’t ‘Audrey, come on,’ me. Look I know I fucked up by leaving her too when I left her dad. I should have at least talked to her more or something. But André, the incompetent father that he is, spoiled that girl rotten in my absence. Anything she wanted, he gave her. Clothes, toys, money—hell, even people. She hasn’t earned a single thing in her life—now he’s even handing her his hotel for god sake.”

“Which she’s learning to take over slowly,” Edith argued, “after getting her degree in business!”

“Oh please, I know how André raised her. That girl cheated her way through school.”

“Chloé, Audrey,” Georgia butt in, sounding irritated, “her name is Chloé.”

“Alright, listen up you two.” He heard her set something down—it sounded like a wine glass. “I know I’ve been a shit mother to her—maybe you’re right, maybe I’m no mother at all. But anything I did to screw her up is already done. I can’t fix it now. I can’t fix her and I can’t fix my relationship with her. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”

Nathaniel didn’t budge as he heard Audrey approaching; his feet were nailed to the ground where he stood. He looked up as she entered and while he didn’t know what kind of expression he was making, he knew it couldn’t be good.

She flinched when she saw him, stopping dead in her tracks. “What are you doing here?”

He didn’t realize he had his jaw clenched completely shut until he opened his mouth to reply. “I needed water,” he said evenly, holding up the empty glass in his hand. His fingers were squeezing it so tight he worried he might break it.

He set it down on the counter, never once dropping his glare. Audrey didn’t move as he approached.

A million things went through Nathaniel’s mind, things he wanted to say. He wanted to scream—yell at Audrey as loud as he could as if volume could possibly reach her. He wanted to correct her on everything she’d said, but more importantly he wanted to make her understand that their past didn’t justify the way she treated Chloé now—how that was just her being a shitty person. He hadn’t felt this level of sheer anger in years. He could feel a tidal wave of rage sitting in his gut, just waiting to crash.

It rang clear in his voice as he pushed his words out in a forced level tone.

“You don’t even know her.”

He held that ice cold stare with one of his own just a few seconds more before walking past her and out of the kitchen.

Chloé was still sleeping soundly in bed, curled up where he had been only minutes ago. When he crawled back in, he wrapped his arms around her and she folded into him with ease. He buried his face in her hair as his muscles constricted around her, holding her tight.

Finally, Nathaniel forced himself to breathe, drawing a shaky breath in and pushing it out.

In. Out. In. Out.

Chapter Text

When the Christmas lights outside turned off, Nathaniel was silently ranting to himself about how Chloé’s efforts to impress Audrey were founded in her neglect. She only tried to be something noticeable—something to be proud of—because of her lack of a mother. If Audrey hadn’t booked it to New York for bigger and brighter things—or if she had even just paid her a little bit of attention—Chloé wouldn’t have felt the need to impress her at all. Then Audrey rejecting her efforts only made it worse—only made Chloé feel more unwanted and made her try even harder, thus annoying Audrey more and creating this ridiculous toxic cycle.

By the time the room was completely filled with sunlight, he was thinking about how Audrey wasn’t completely wrong; Chloé did cheat her way through school—through collège. Then she became a hero in lycée. He didn’t know she was Queen Bee back then—and he really genuinely hated her at the time—but he would’ve had to be blind not to notice that she was trying—actively trying—to be a better person. And that started with Sabrina. Little by little she asked her best friend to help her with her homework—not to do it for her. By the time she finished lycée, her grades were her own. And university? That was all her. She excelled in her classes—with the exception of biology, but that was more his fault than hers. Her degree was well-earned and she only continued to learn more every day she worked in the hotel. André may have handed her a lot of things that she didn’t deserve, but his business was certainly not one of them.

Nathaniel was in the middle of considering how he was going to help Chloé through the day—through what were bound to be thick, tense interactions with Audrey—when the god awful buzzing of her alarm went off. That had to be the worst sound in the world. He understood why Chloé had it set to that ear-scraping noise—she wouldn’t get up to turn it off otherwise—but hearing it was worse than nails on the chalkboard to him.

It was only on its second buzz when he leaned over and pressed the stop button on her phone, reaching his arm back at an awkward angle to hit it while his other stayed pinned under Chloé’s head. She shifted a bit as he came back to her, but her eyes remained shut, breathing deep. He returned his hand back to its place on her shoulder.

“Chloé,” he gently squeezed, “it’s time to get up.” The most delicate of whines escaped her lungs and she used the arm around his waist to pull herself further into him. “I mean, if you want to stay in bed longer, you know I won’t fight you.”

Tired eyelids slowly blinked open. Blue eyes focused on him, thankfully no longer bloodshot like they were the last time he’d seen them. The area around her eyes was still a little puffy though, and the skin slightly red. He could still see some of the streaks on her cheeks from the makeup she hadn’t washed off, even though she’d tried to rub the tearstains away.

She herself looked at ease now though, and that was all that mattered.

Chloé blinked—some strands of hair stuck in her lashes. He gently combed them back from her face.

“Good morning.”

“Morning,” she mumbled, still lost in a sleepy haze.

“How are you feeling?”

“Good…” She barely sounded present, no doubt more tired than usual. As if the emotional exhaustion of Audrey wasn’t enough, she hadn’t even been able to sleep much. This was probably going to be another of her shut-up-I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep days.

He could feel her bunch up his shirt in a fist as she seemed to zone out a little bit, her gaze drifting down from his eyes to his…

“Chloé?”

She blinked, suddenly looking much more alert. Her eyes snapped back up to his in mild alarm and her cheeks—

“It’s morning,” she stated. “I need to get up.”

And then she was up, springing out of bed like her life depended on it and pacing across the room to grab her hairbrush. That was weird; she usually drank some water and checked her notifications first.

She spoke again before he could ask what was wrong. “Why are you awake?”

“I um…” he squinted at her reflection in the vanity as he sat up. He definitely wasn’t imagining the color in her cheeks. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“At all?” She caught his eye in the mirror and angled herself away just the slightest bit so her hair shielded her face. “The whole night?”

“Yeah…” He trailed off, confused by her behavior.

“Why? Something wrong?”

“Um…” he paused, unsure of what to say. He hated to lie to her, but… “No, just one of those nights.” …he didn’t really think telling her what he had heard was a good idea.

Her movements briefly slowed and he could hear the frown in her voice. “Okay… If you say so.”

Nathaniel opened his mouth—ready with a question on his tongue as to what was wrong with her—when he remembered.

He almost kissed her last night.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel leaned against the wall next to the door and slowly made his way through a cup of coffee as he watched Chloé repeatedly lose (brutally) against Ryan on Ultimate Mecha Strike. Her competitiveness had come out more and more as they played and now she was standing on her knees furiously button mashing as she screeched “no no no no no nooooooo!”

Victory – GameBoiRy.

“Best seven out of thirteen!” she wagered.

Ryan grinned as he started up another match. “I’ll beat you as many times as you want, cuz.”

“Just you wait. I’m getting the hang of this.”

Note: She was not getting the hang of this.

He smiled into his coffee mug as he watched her lose half her HP in the first fifteen seconds. It was refreshing to see her enjoying herself again. With the party’s trial run scheduled for 10am, the family was enjoying a slow morning. Everyone was in different parts of the house doing their own thing—with Audrey thankfully nowhere in sight. He was willing to wager that just about everyone was feeling a little less than fond of her at the moment.

He wanted to feel bad for her, but any sympathy he might possibly have for the woman—which was admittedly very little to start off with—evaporated in the face of Chloé’s joy. The playful energy she shared with her cousins was something he had never expected to see, but now that he knew it was there, he was eternally grateful for its presence. And if Audrey’s absence meant that side of her got to come out, he certainly wasn’t going to complain that she’d shut herself away.

It was especially nice to see her so carefree after she’d been acting weird around him all morning. The guilt that had settled deep in his stomach stirred anew. He was pretty sure that was going to be sitting with him all day.

“Has Chloé managed to hit him at all?”

Nathaniel started as Georgia suddenly materialized in the kitchen doorway next to him, watching the game. He sighed with a tiny laugh.

“Yeah, a couple times.”

“Huh,” she said, brows raised, “she’s getting better then.”

He chuckled, but offered no further commentary, slipping into a comfortable silence for a few moments as Chloé lost another match. Georgia’s voice when she spoke again was soft, but not what he would describe as gentle—just low so she wouldn’t be overheard.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that last night.” He tried to hide what was probably an sour expression behind another sip of coffee. “I love my sister, but she’s one train wreck after another—to herself and the people around her.” Well, that was certainly a level of blatancy he wasn’t expecting. Nathaniel blinked at her in surprise as she went on, her eyes staying on the game and her expression completely casual as if she was talking about something as insignificant as the weather. “She was a horrible wife to André despite the fact that the poor man loved her to death, and she hasn’t been a good mother to Chloé a day in her life.” She shrugged. “Edith and I—and even Mom sometimes—have tried to get her to stop being such a bitch, at least to Chloé, but…”

Yeah, that facial expression pretty much confirmed what he’d already suspected.

He sighed and drank some more coffee. It was getting sweeter with every sip, the sugar apparently all hiding at the bottom.

“Just the other day, I was watching Chloé talk with Marianne and Isabella, and I was so captured by how happy she was interacting with them. Seeing that, and seeing her with Ryan now—seeing her with all of you… It’s nothing like I expected. She was absolutely dreading coming here; she said she hated visiting family.” That’s why I’m here in the first place, he added in his head. Because she didn’t want to face her family alone again. He noticed that familiar pink glow in Chloé’s cheeks as she laughed at some particular move Ryan did (which killed her).  “But that’s not true at all. She loves her family. It’s just…”

“It’s just Audrey.”

They shared a moment of silence as the heavy weight of understanding settled around them.

Nathaniel forced himself to stop biting the inside of his cheek. “There’s no hope for the two of them is there?”

“Well,” Georgia replied, her tone suddenly far too light for the conversation, “I’m addicted to Hallmark movies; I’m inclined to believe there’s always hope. But,” she shrugged, “things have been this way for 24 years. Sometimes the best we can do is leave things as they are and just try to avoid further damage.”

He sighed helplessly. “I just wish I could do something to help.”

“Oh please, you do more to help her than any of us.”

He huffed a small bitter laugh. “Like what?”

“Like pulling her closer when her mother pushes her away.” He paused with his cup halfway to his lips. “Or letting her squeeze your hand until it’s bruised.” Nathaniel turned to blink at her in stunned silence and found those blue eyes staring straight through him. They were soft though, as if they could see everything that he was and approved of it. Approved of him. She smiled. “I know; I’m a lot more observant than I look.”

A smile slowly spread across his lips and he chuckled lightly, shaking his head. “Chloé warned me her family was dangerous.”

“That we are.” They paused for a moment to watch Ryan win again. “So tell me, Nathaniel.” He looked at her again and was immediately greeted with one of those testing gazes, albeit a fairly easy one. “Are you going to marry her?”

Nathaniel looked away, heat rising to his cheeks as a nervous smile took over his expression. Chloé’s screaming caught his attention. “Oh my god, yes! I can’t believe that actually hit—aw damn it.”

His nervous smile melted into a much more genuine one and he laughed.

“If she’ll let me.”

Georgia patted his shoulder. “Atta boy.”

Chapter Text

“Wait, seriously? You hated Chloé in high school?” Ryan craned his neck around from the passenger seat to stare at him in disbelief.

“Yeah,” Nathaniel laughed. “I even tried to kill her once.”

It wasn’t until after he saw Ryan’s look of horror that he realized maybe he shouldn’t drop something like that so casually. “You what!?” Meanwhile Nick just laughed and kept his eyes on the road, thankfully understanding without explanation.

“I think he’s talking about the akumas.” He glanced at him in the rear view mirror. “People become super villains over there, right?”

“You’ve been one of those!?”

Nathaniel nodded, trying not to laugh too hard at the kid’s shock. “Yeah, and so has Chloé. It’s kind of normal back home.” Seeing Ryan’s reaction, he was reminded that places outside of Paris lived without akumas and superheroes. He had always known there were no miraculous in other parts of the world, of course, but it hadn’t really occurred to him just how strangely accustomed to it Paris had become.

“And when you were an akuma, you tried to kill Chloé?”

“Yep,” he nodded, scratching the back of his head nervously. “She was the reason I became one in the first place.”

“Why? Did she reject you or something?”

“Oh god no,” he laughed, “We wanted nothing to do with each other back then. She just mocked me for drawing a girl I had a crush on at the time.”

“I don’t get it though,” Ryan turned more in his seat, nearly fully facing him. “If you hated each other back then, how did you get together?”

“We ended up going to the same university, and uh,” he laughed, a lot fonder of the memory now than he was at the time, “kind of got stuck together.”

 

Nathaniel took a deep breath as he approached the bio lab. She’s not going to be there, he told himself. And even if she is, you can just avoid her like in class. She’ll avoid you too. It’ll be fine.

He had known that Chloé was attending the same university as him this whole time of course—he had known since he bumped into her on day 3 and they promptly walked away from each other. No words were ever exchanged, but they shared a mutual understanding that their days of acknowledging each other’s presence had ended with lycée.

That understanding had gone swimmingly for three and a half years. He was studying art and she was studying not art, and therefore, their paths rarely crossed.

Until he walked into the first day of Biology 101 on Monday and immediately met those cold blue eyes that he so very much wished would get out of his life already. She looked about as thrilled to see him. No problem though, she was sitting in the front row and he was happy to take a spot way in the back where he was more comfortable anyway. Again, no words exchanged, but a silent agreement to ignore each other.

Lab, though. That was where he was nervous. Each lab section only had 16 students in it, and they would be put into pairings on day 1 that would remain in place for the entire semester. According to his friends, though, the pairings were usually just based off who sat next to each other. So as long as he didn’t sit next to Chloé, everything would be fine. Thus, he had made sure he was actually early to class for once, just to make sure.

He pushed open the door to the lab, still with two minutes to spare. Blue eyes snapped up to him from the only table left with an empty seat.

Not early enough.

“No,” she said as he walked in. The rest of the class thankfully went on with their own individual conversations. “You can’t sit here.”

He sighed and set his bag down next to her, resigning himself to death. “Nice to see you too, Chloé.”

“Hey,” she leaned across the table and interrupted two students in the middle of an animated conversation. “One of you switch seats with him.”

The two looked at each other, clearly good friends. “Um. No. We purposely signed up together so we could be lab partners.”

“I will pay you.”

He wanted to be offended, but honestly if they took the offer, he wouldn’t have to work with Chloé for the next three months, so he stayed quiet.

“What? No,” one of them responded, frowning at her. “Just suck it up and work with your ex, jeez.”

Nathaniel snorted, not even trying to hide his laughter as he watched Chloé’s appalled expression. Then those eyes zeroed in on him, absolutely deadly. “I see you’re still as obnoxious as ever,” she spat.

“And I see you’re still using money to get your way.”

“Apparently not,” she muttered through gritted teeth, sending the person across the table a death glare. He was glad to see the two of them had already picked their conversation back up and didn’t notice the woman trying to terrorize them.

“Oh good, everyone’s here.” They both looked up to see the professor walking in. “That rarely happens.” She set her book bag down on the table at the front of the room and started pulling out haphazard stacks of paper. “I hope you all like the person sitting next to you, because they’re going to be your lab partner for the semester. Take a minute to introduce yourselves while I find today’s handout.”

“Hi, I’m Nathaniel,” he immediately said with a cheap smile, holding out his hand. “And you are?”

“I hate you.”

He dropped his hand, but not the sarcastic attitude. “Wow, you know, that name really suits you. Like, the second I look at you, I just immediately think I hate you.”

She narrowed her eyes, mouth falling open in offense. “I take back what I said earlier, you’re even more obnoxious than you used to be.”

“High praise from an expert like you.”

“Why are you even here? I thought you weren’t good at anything but art.” Was he crazy or was there a little bit of a compliment buried in there?

“Probably the same reason as you,” he said. “I pushed off the core requirement to the last minute.”

She scoffed. “Oh please, don’t compare me to your irresponsibility. It just didn’t fit into my schedule until now.”

“Alright.”

“And this is the only lab section that works for me, so you’re going to have to switch.”

“I hate to break it to you, Chloé, but this is the only one that works for me too.”

“Then go sit somewhere else!”

“I would, but I don’t think that’s an option at this point.”

“Then—!”

“Found them!” the professor exclaimed, holding up a stack of papers in triumph. She started walking around the room, handing them out as she explained the introductory lab session they would be having that day.

Even if she wasn’t speaking, Nathaniel could practically hear the poisonous things Chloé was thinking about him, the hostility just radiating off of her and her perfectly manicured nails as they clicked a steady rhythm on the table.

He rolled his eyes and pulled the pencil out of his hair, letting the bun fall free. As soon as he received the handout, he scribbled a note in the bottom corner and slid it over to Chloé.

Idk bout you, but I hate science classes. I just want to get through this. So can we just make a truce to work together for the next few months? After that we never have to see each other again

She passed it back a moment later.

Fine.

 

“Lab partners?” Ryan asked dryly. “Really? Do you know how cliché that is?”

“Yeah,” Nathaniel laughed. We hated each other when we were kids, we got stuck together as lab partners, and now we’re even fake dating for the holidays. “We’re pretty cliché in general.”

Chapter Text

“I thought you were getting donuts.”

All around them, the room was bustling with serving staff running around trying to keep up with the tests Georgia and the rest of the family were throwing at them, but there in the center of the room, Nathaniel stood still with Chloé as she frowned at the apple in his hand.

“We did get donuts,” he affirmed, “and you can have one after you eat something healthy for breakfast.”

“But I did eat something healthy for breakfast!” she complained, looking up to pout at him. A second later, the look was gone, blue eyes darting back down to the apple. That guilt swam circles in his stomach.

“Eating half of a granola bar while playing Ultimate Mecha Strike doesn’t count.”

Usually, Nathaniel would expect her to argue further, probably jabbing at his own inconsistent meals and bringing up the time he had gone a whole day without eating because he got too sucked into a painting.

Instead, she rolled her eyes with an annoyed sigh, feigning normalcy. All he saw was a mask. “Fine, but you better save a donut for me.” And without waiting for a response, she plucked the apple from his palm—taking care not to touch his hand in the process—turned, and left. Still no eye contact and still wearing a mask.

His shoulders slumped as he watched her walk away. He didn’t know what to do. Their interactions had been like that all day—awkward and strained but pretending they weren’t, tiptoeing around the elephant in the room. Chloé could hardly look him in the eye for more than a second at a time, and when she did, it was different—and not in a good way. It was an act—her best attempt to make it look like nothing was wrong when in reality there was no doubt a storm raging in her mind. It was so unlike her it hurt. Avoidance was not Chloé’s usual strategy, especially not with eye contact. She was one of the most confrontational people he had ever met, and she fought the bulk of her battles with staring contest. He had gotten used to that, he was familiar with that. This he was not familiar with. He had no idea how to deal with this.

“Something wrong?” Nathaniel snapped out of his thoughts at the sound of Nick’s voice. He was still just standing in the center of the room staring at Chloé as she spoke with one of the serving staff—eating the apple, thankfully. Nick followed his gaze before he could speak. “Uh oh. Lover’s quarrel?”

He was biting his cheek again. He forced himself to stop with a frown. “Yeah, I guess.” Tearing his eyes away from her, Nathaniel turned to look at Nick. “What do you do when Renee avoids talking about something?”

He was already shaking his head before the whole question was out. “Nope. Chloé and Renee are two very different people. You’ve gotta approach this from a Chloé angle, not a Renee one.”

His frown only deepened, that guilty pit in his stomach dropping with the added weight of helplessness. “This is just so different from usual. I’ve never seen Chloé act like this before. I don’t know what to do.”

“No, come on now. You’ve known her a long time, even if you didn’t always get along. You must have seen her like this at least once before. Think.”

He drew his cheek between his teeth again as he thought. A time when Chloé avoided eye contact?

“I guess…” he pushed a hand back through his hair, “there was one time.”

 

Nathaniel yawned as he scrolled through his Twitter feed, desperately clinging to consciousness as he waited for the caffeine to kick in. His empty coffee cup still sat on the desk in front of him. He told himself he would get up and throw it away before class started, but he knew it was just going to inhabit his workspace throughout lab. Maybe it would annoy Chloé. That was a nice thought.

Having stayed up through the night finishing an art history paper, Nathaniel had had nothing better to do that morning than shower and show up to class ridiculously early. He had managed to stay alert enough to write the paper, but now he could feel his system crashing. He would have skipped class if missing lab wasn’t an automatic 5% grade reduction. He just had to get through the next few hours, and then he could take a nap. An 11 hour nap.

He paused his mindless scrolling to watch the news coverage of yesterday’s akuma attack. The clip showed a guy dressed up in medieval gear going toe to toe with Queen Bee. The queen was untouchable; she was far too fast for him to land a single hit, especially in such heavy armor. She dodged every attack with ease, doing nothing more than just flitting around him—he assumed to stall until the others could get there.

That ended when the akuma suddenly turned from her to focus his attention on a civilian. She managed to intercept him before his sword could come down on the crying child, but that move left an opening for him and suddenly Queen Bee was caught in a choke hold.

The camera zoomed in closer and, as frightening as the image was, Nathaniel couldn’t help but admire the fierce determination in her eyes. The armored guy had her neck in a fist and held her half a meter off the ground, yet she still glared at him with that utter wrath and fearlessness that she always wore. She was incredible.

“God, can you watch literally anything else?”

Nathaniel jumped as Chloé suddenly appeared over his shoulder, slamming her textbook down on the desk. Queen Bee was just escaping from the akuma’s hold, so he didn’t have to worry. He closed Twitter and checked the time. It was still insanely early, but he supposed that made sense for someone as high strung as Chloé.

“What’s wrong? I thought you liked superheroes.”

She immediately grabbed the coffee cup and went to throw it away. His eyes followed her across the room and back, waiting expectantly, but as she sat down next to him, he realized he probably wasn’t going to get a response.

He was just about to go back to his phone when something caught his eye.

“You should use yellow concealer,” he said, the words escaping his mouth before his stupid tired brain could tell him it was a bad idea. “It’ll correct the color better.”

She turned to him in a mixture of confusion and indignation. “Excuse me?”

“Or just tell your partner not to go so hard if you don’t want anyone seeing them,” he went on with a shrug, “that would probably work too.”

The crease between her brows only deepened. “What the fuck are you talking about? You’re my partner.”

She really didn’t know what he was referring to. An amused smile taking to his lips, Nathaniel pointed to his neck, tapping the exact spot where on her, four dark bruises peeked out from under a thick layer of makeup.

That confusion remained on her face a few more seconds before it was replaced with ice cold realization. The color drained from her face and she smacked a hand down over the marks, eyes blown wide in horror.

He dropped his playful demeanor, suddenly worried; that was far from any reaction he was expecting. Without a word, Chloé grabbed her bag and practically ran out of the room.

The rest of the students were starting to trickle in when she finally returned. She had put a fresh layer of powder on, the bruises hardly visible now.

“Hey,” he said carefully as she sat down again. She wasn’t looking at him. She did her best to make it look like she hadn’t even heard him as she got her class materials out, but he could see her shifting nervously. That didn’t sit right. He had seen her irritated—at him no less—any number of times, but he had never seen her like this. Chloé Bourgeois was not the type to avoid eye contact; if anything, it was her weapon of choice. To see her like this—anxious and trying her best to hide it while refusing to look at him—it felt wrong. “It’s no big deal, you know.” Still nothing. He leaned forward and dropped his voice. “When I have hickeys, I wear them with pride.”

That seemed to give her pause. She watched him warily out of the corner of her eye. He gave her what he hoped was a peaceful smile.

“Yeah, well,” she finally said, looking back at her notebook, “your father isn’t the mayor.”

He laughed, more out of relief than amusement as that worry finally abandoned her eyes, returning them to the cold, stinging blue that he knew.

“Fair enough.”

 

“There you go,” Nick continued, thankfully not asking for any details. “So how did you solve it last time?”

Nathaniel was still biting the inside of his cheek, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He had no idea what was even going on back then. He didn’t know that the bruises weren’t hickeys and he didn’t know that her worry was of him finding out about her identity, not some partner.

His gaze had gravitated back to Chloé, as it seemed it always would. This and that were completely different issues, but at the same time, if he was able to mend things back then—when he didn’t know anything about her and she still absolutely hated him—he really ought to be able to mend things now. At the very least, he wanted her to look him in the eye again.

He blew out a long sigh and thought hard. No doubt, her relief that day had come from the realization that he had no clue who she was—that her identity was completely safe. “I guess I just…made her feel like she had nothing to worry about.” So maybe that’s what he needed to do; make her feel safe again, let her know that she didn’t have to worry.

“Perfect.” He looked up again as Nick’s palm landed on his shoulder. He was giving him that encouraging, comforting smile again. “Do that. Reassure her; make her feel secure.”

Nathaniel was starting to understand why Chloé’s grandparents had one of the best relationships he’d ever heard of. “Thank you, Nick.”

“Anytime. Now go talk to her; you don’t want to let this sit.”

He nodded and, with a deep breath, walked away. As if on cue, Chloé’s conversation ended and the other person left right as he approached. She didn’t notice him as she wrote something down on her clipboard, holding the apple with her teeth. Out of habit, he set his hand gently on her back.

She immediately stiffened, drawing in a short breath of surprise, and that same look took to her face that she’d been wearing around him all day—the act that nothing was wrong. Fuck.

He stuffed both hands in his pockets. “How is everything going?”

She finished scribbling down a note before reaching up and replying around a bite of apple, “Good.” Even as she looked up from the clipboard though, she still didn’t look at him—electing instead to watch Georgia do something across the room.

“Chloé?”

“Hm?”

Nathaniel shifted awkwardly. He didn’t know how to start—or even what he wanted to say exactly—but he needed to say something.

And it was on that thought that he blurted out, “I don’t care about last night.”

He paused briefly to try and get a bearing on what he was saying. Chloé visibly slowed mid-bite as that statement sank in. “And I don’t care what happens moving forward,” he continued, surprising himself with how true the words were. “Things can go on how they always have if you want.” It would be the feat of a lifetime for him to get over her, but he would do that if she wanted him to; he knew he would. Her eyes finally found his and the mask was gone, leaving only that worry and hesitation he knew she had been shouldering all day. Breathing a small sigh of relief for at least having her eyes again, he looked back with a soft gaze. “You’re my best friend, Chloé. Whatever happens, I just want that to stay true.”

She held his gaze, looking back and forth between his eyes as she seemed to process his words. He definitely hadn’t phrased it as well as he could have, but there it was; he could only hope she received it well.

You’re safe, he said in his mind. You can think as long as you want and no matter what you decide, I’ll still be here.

In that blue he could see a storm of unease and deliberation, but the longer she watched him, the more her expression melted into a certain tenderness—an understanding and appreciation, and finally, a warm relief.

“You’re my best friend too, Nathaniel,” she finally said, voice soft, but not weak. A tiny smirk threatened the corner of her mouth and she added, “Don’t tell Sabrina.” He could feel a wide grin slowly spreading across his cheeks as a familiar warmth bloomed in his stomach, that pit finally dissolving. Her own smile grew and she rolled her eyes, already looking so much more like herself. “Don’t let it go to your head, tomato. I’m still not ready to forgive you for making me eat an apple.” As if to punctuate that statement, she took a bite.

He laughed, probably a little too hard, but he couldn’t help it with this intense relief washing over him at having his Chloé back. She was eyeing him quizzically with that sassy smirk of hers and all he could do was beam back at her.

“Yes, your highness.”

Chapter Text

“Oh my god, when are you going to drop the fucking flowers!? I’ve already apologized like ten times!”

“And there it is,” Ryan announced with a nod. “The flowers are out.”

Audrey and Edith’s arguing went on in the center of the room, their not-quite-screams fading into the background as Chloé replied, “How long do you think until they pull out the beach trip?”

“I give it about four more oh my god’s. But,” Ryan countered, holding up an index finger, “will that be before or after the cookie theft?”

“Ooooh.” Chloé hummed as she considered that. “I’m going to say before; Aunt Edith’s out for blood.”

“My bet’s with after because of your mom’s blood sugar today.”

“You willing to place anything on that bet?”

“The usual?”

“The usual.”

And with that, both cousins sat back to eat their donuts and watch the drama unfolding in front of them, leaving Nathaniel confused in the middle of the bench, still looking back and forth between them.

“So…” he began, “this happens often.”

Edith and Audrey’s fight had started over something stupid—he was pretty sure it had something to do with where they should put the chocolate fountain or something—but it had quickly grown to a heated argument that was apparently much bigger than this party. He would think it should be cause for worry, but was surprised to find the rest of the family carrying on as usual—with the exception of Chloé and Ryan who were apparently making a game out of it.

Ryan nodded at his left, but Chloé was the one who answered him. “Yep. Those two butt heads more than anyone else in the family.”

“Two biggest grudge holders,” Ryan added.

“They seem a bit more angry than usual though,” Chloé went on with a frown.

“Yeah, they’ve been tense all day. Any idea whattup?” She shook her head. “What about you, Nath?”

“No,” he lied, shaking his head as well. Ryan seemed to accept that, nodding into his next bite as he kept watching the fight. Chloé, on the other hand, immediately turned to stare at him, brows pinched together in suspicion. “What?” he asked, putting on his absolute best innocent act. He was so used to lying these days that he was certain the act would work on anyone—anyone else at least.

“I know when you’re lying, Nathaniel,” she said with a frown. “What do you know?”

He could feel another set of blue eyes settle on him from the left and tensed up, realizing he was trapped. Shit. “I just…” he said uncomfortably, really not wanting to tell her what happened, “overheard them arguing last night. That’s all.”

“Over what?” Ryan asked.

He couldn’t tear himself away from Chloé’s inquisitive gaze, pleading with his eyes. “I would really rather not say.”

That was certainly no lie. After a moment, though she looked hesitant, Chloé thankfully accepted that and changed the subject. “Well,” she sat back again, “at least we don’t have to worry about one of them getting akumatized here.”

“Have you ever actually seen someone turn into one of those things?” Ryan asked. “I mean, aside from yourselves?”

Nathaniel’s eyes snapped up again just as Chloé turned to look at him. Meeting that gaze, he knew she was thinking the exact same thing he was.

“Sara.”

 

“Now you pour in the hydrogen peroxide.”

“Right.” Nathaniel stared at the various tubes in front of him filled with various liquids. “Which one was that again?” he asked, bracing himself for another jab from Chloé. He couldn’t even blame her at this point, really; this was the fourth time he’d done this today.

“Oh my god,” she groaned disgustedly. “Okay—,” she slid the workbook over to him and started pulling the lab materials to her side, “—we’re switching jobs. Just read me the instructions word for word.”

He tried not to let his relief show too much.

Chloé pushed up her sleeves a moment later as she prepared herself and Nathaniel tried not to look—really, he did. Okay, maybe he didn’t try hard, but he did try not to glance at her skin in search of—

Those bruises were new. At least they looked pretty light this time—he was sure they’d be gone by next lab—but overlaid with all the tiny scratch marks she had been gathering over the weeks, they were still cause for worry.

He risked a glance at her eyes. Still just as cold and unyielding as ever. He wanted to ask. He had wanted to ask for the better part of a month, but even the slightest bit of conversation not related to the lab was always met with hostility; he could only imagine inquiries into her personal life would only be worse.

Fingers rapidly snapping in his face pulled Nathaniel out of his thoughts. “Zone out on your own time, Kurtzberg; stop wasting mine.”

“Right,” he said, dropping his gaze back to the workbook. “Okay, the next part says to—,”

“No, I’m telling you it’s that one!” Both he and Chloé looked across the table where Sara and Michelle’s argument was starting to reach unnecessary volumes. It wasn’t the first time those two had bickered through a lab by any means, but they were usually at least more quiet about it. He supposed tensions were probably higher with midterms looming over them.

“Sara, which of us is the better biology student?” Michelle snapped back. “I know what I’m doing!”

“Just because you do better than me on the tests doesn’t mean I don’t know how to do the lab!”

“No, but messing up our last three labs does!”

“Just ignore them,” Chloé said, sounding about as tired of their bullshit as he was. “What’s the next—,” she cut herself off with a gasp, “Oh no.” Nathaniel looked up again in confusion as she leaned across the table. “Sara, Michelle,” she said hurriedly, tone suddenly serious, “You have to think positive thoughts.”

She was too late, he realized, just as he saw what had her so alarmed: the murky black butterfly that came to land on Sara’s pencil.

Michelle was just starting to back up in fright when a strong hand suddenly clamped down on his head and shoved him under the table. Not a moment later, he was ducking with his eyes squeezed shut and hands over his ears as a loud explosion went off—he assumed from Sara.

Chaos erupted in the classroom, students screaming as they fled and Akumatized-Sara calling for Michelle to come back while he stayed hidden under the desk.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw Chloé crouching down beside him, blue eyes hard in a way he’d never seen on her and darting about as if assessing the situation. The image looked familiar somehow, but wrong—kind of like seeing a teacher outside of school; recognizable but out of place, not where it should be. Why was her expression conjuring such a jarring feeling? Why did it look so different, yet so familiar? Like something he had studied for hours on end—something he had drawn a million times.

He was pulled out of his thoughts as Chloé moved to stand up, almost as if to chase Akumatized-Sara in her rampage down the hall. His hand darted out, catching her wrist. “What are you doing!? We’re way safer in here than out there!”

“Let me go,” she commanded with a tug, eyes fixed on the door to the hall outside. He tightened his grip.

“Are you crazy!? Just wait here; I’m sure the heroes will come soon.”

“No they won’t; they’re all the way across the city!”

“What?”

A bloodcurdling scream suddenly carried down the hall. “Help!!” Michelle.

Chloé cursed under her breath before turning to face him, eyes possibly more deadly than he’d ever seen them as she seemed to contemplate something. “What?” he asked.

“Turn around.”

“What?”

“Turn around, Kurtzberg!” she snarled. “If we’re going to be trapped in here, then I don’t want to look at you, okay!? Turn around and don’t talk to me!”

“Alright, whatever!” he relented, raising his hands in defense. She seemed disproportionately agitated for the situation, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to incur further wrath. “But can you please calm the fuck down?” he continued as he turned, “It’s just an akum—FUCK, what was that!?”

Nathaniel’s first thought when he saw a sudden yellow flash reflecting off the bottom of the lab table was that Akumatized-Sara must be sending some sort of crazy laser toward them or something. What he found when he whipped his head around, however, was not an akuma.

Quite the opposite in fact.

“Are you fucking serious!?” No. No, this could not be happening. “You had one job!” There was no way that was Queen Bee standing there where Chloé had just been, yelling at him with Chloé’s voice, glaring at him with Chloé’s eyes.

“Y-You’re—!”

Queen Bee swooped forward, jabbing a finger into his chest threateningly. Nope, he was wrong earlier, that was the deadliest look she’d ever given him. “Not. A. Word,” she hissed through gritted teeth.

Then she was gone in a blur of yellow and black, leaving Nathaniel alone and very very confused.

 

A tiny smile curled at the corners of his mouth and he could see it reflected in that blue as she held his gaze, sharing that moment with him as if sharing an inside joke. Sharing a secret that was only theirs.

Ryan’s voice pulled them out of it. “Did Chloé cause it?”

Nathaniel snorted in a weak attempt to hide his laughter while Chloé puffed up in outrage. “What!? No!”

“No,” he laughed, turning to Ryan, “but she’s certainly caused her fair share of them.” She smacked his arm and he only laughed harder.

“Dude, why are you dating her?”

The answer slipped out before he even had a chance to think about it. “Because I love her.”

“Are you sure?” he pressed, “Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed but she’s kind of a bitch.”

Still chuckling, Nathaniel nodded. “Yes she is and I love her for it.”

Ryan shook his head. “You’re crazy, man.” Then he dismissed the conversation with a bite of his donut. Back to watching the drama.

As Nathaniel turned back, though, he found that Chloé hadn’t resumed spectating. Rather, she was staring straight at him, her expression catching him off guard.

Why was she looking at him like that?

Chapter Text

Nathaniel stared at the ceiling in the dark, finding images in the shadows the outside lights cast over the little dips and bumps in the paint. He was on hour 41 without sleep and yet it seemed further than ever—further even than Chloé, who lay all the way on the other side of the bed, silent but likewise awake.

He knew she was awake, even if they’d said goodnight nearly an hour ago. He could hear it in her breathing, feel it in the air.

He wanted to say something. He wished he could say something. But he didn’t know what he would say even if he did speak. There wasn’t anything wrong—nothing for him to address or unpack with her, nothing to apologize for, nothing to mend. Just the mutual but unspoken awareness that they had gotten used to cuddling at night sitting over them like an awkward blanket in the aftermath of him almost kissing her.

“Hey Nath?”

Oh thank goodness.

“Yeah?”

The backs of her knuckles brushed against his—hands side by side on the bed but afraid to come together. “You awake?”

His fingers itched to reach out and intertwine themselves with hers. He settled for gently nudging them instead. “Always.”

He could hear the smile in her sigh. Her pinky finger curled around his. “Do you remember when I was in the hospital?”

Sitting and staring at her unmoving form for hours on end. Knowing she was okay but her not looking okay. Trying to draw over and over again but always returning to that same image no matter how hard he tried to shove it away.

Two of his fingers latched onto hers. “Yeah.”

“When I woke up, it was the middle of the afternoon,” she began softly. “There were flowers and cards and a stupid cat plushy on the table, so I knew the others had been by. But the only person in the room was you—curled up in a tiny chair in the corner, passed out.” He remembered. Two days after bringing her in. “You were wearing your work pants—those jeans that are hardly even blue anymore with all those stains—and your old Magma t-shirt that you only wear when you’re on a creative binge, and there was even a little bit of green paint clinging to the ends of your hair. And I remember thinking…that that was the last thing I had seen you wearing. Even the green paint.”

“I didn’t leave,” he murmured, even though she already knew that. She had known that later that day when she’d thrown a pillow at him and told him to go home and shower. It was the happiest he’d ever felt being yelled at.

“The weird thing,” she continued, “was that it made sense. Waking up to you. Having you there and no one else. It…made sense.” Her fourth finger wrapped around his. “What was even weirder was that I was glad. I didn’t want to wake up to anyone else—not Sabrina, not Adrien, not Papa. Just you.”

Nathaniel turned his head to look at her. The soft glow of the Christmas lights caressed the edges of her skin and glistened in her eyes, illuminating her face just enough for him to see that that same pensive gaze had returned as she stared at the ceiling. He watched her chest rise and fall with the weight of one long breath.

“That was the first time I realized just how comfortable you made me. How being around you made me feel safer and more at ease than anyone else.” That pensive look softened with a smile that had a sudden warmth blooming in his chest. “I woke up in the hospital, but I wasn’t scared at all, because you were there.” She chuckled softly. “And I came here a few months later and all I could think,” she turned to look at him then and the sight of that blue had his heart stopping dead in its tracks, “was that I wished you were here with me.”

A moment or two passed just like that—breathless and lost in the warmest of blues, with no words to say and no need to say them. Just there, together.

She released his hand and turned onto her side so she was fully facing him. As he did the same, he noticed her lay her hand back down in the space between them, palm up. Taking a risk, he settled his hand over hers.

When their fingers wove together, it was like nature itself.

“Will you come back with me next year?” she whispered.

He nodded. “And the next,” he said. “For as long as you want me.”

“And if I want you to come every year?”

“Then I’ll come every year.”

She watched him, watched his eyes, that pensive expression back again. “You weren’t lying, were you? To Ryan.”

Because I love her.

“No.”

Her grip on his hand tightened the slightest bit. “Can I be selfish?”

Nathaniel nodded; even if he didn’t know what she was asking for, he knew he would give it to her.

She let go of his hand and moved forward. Her arm settled around his waist and her legs tangled with his and he swore no one could ever fit into his arms so perfectly.

As she sighed, he felt his muscles finally relax, 41 hours catching up with him at last.

“I missed you today,” she whispered. He could hear the sleep seeping into her voice just as it seeped into him.

“I missed you too.”

Chapter Text

The first thing that stirred Nathaniel from possibly the best sleep he’d gotten in years was the most irritating noise on the planet and the feeling of something very nice being pulled away from him. Still mostly asleep, he had whined and pulled it tighter, reluctant to let it go. But a soft giggle and an even softer kiss on his forehead accompanied the relaxing combing of his hair and altogether, they lulled him right back into his dream.

The next time he’d woken, it was to a voice that he loved telling him to do something he did not love: get up. He remembered making an effort to move, even just the slightest bit. He thought he’d opened his eyes and even stood up at some point only to realize a moment later that he’d imagined it and was still trapped under the blankets with a force ten times stronger than the pull of gravity itself. He would go to the ends of the earth for that voice—obey any of its orders, meet any of its demands—but getting out of bed was apparently not within his range of capabilities. No sooner had the voice pulled him from his rest than it lost him once again.

He woke for the third and final time that morning only minutes later. Weight pressed down on the bed on either side of him and something cold and wet dripped on his face.

“Nath, get up.”

Every drop of water was a pinprick on his skin, icy and unpleasant and worst of all, inconsistent in pattern. Groaning and rubbing his face, Nathaniel finally opened his eyes.

To an angel.

A corona of light burst forth from behind a head of glossy hair and her cheeks glowed with a certain flush they didn’t normally carry. Heavenly blue eyes, clear as the morning sky, stared down at him as beautiful, perfect lips moved to shape words in that voice he loved.

“Nath, come on, wake up.”

His vision was replaced with rapidly snapping fingers and Nathaniel was finally drawn out of his haze. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Chloé was leaning over him with her hands on either side of him as she attempted to wake him up. Her head had managed to perfectly block the light on the ceiling, giving her that glowing backdrop, and she must have just come back from the shower because her hair was still wet and dripping on him.

“Hi,” he murmured. Even without dream-vision, waking to her leaning over him like this—before styling her hair or putting on makeup and wearing only a bathrobe—was still a heavenly image.

She rolled her eyes. “Hi, welcome to the world of the living. Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“The suit,” she said insistently. He got the impression she had already stated this while his half-asleep brain neglected to listen. “Where are the formal clothes I told you to bring for the party?”

It took him a few moments to respond as he tried to remember what formal clothes were and then tried to remember what he’d done with his. “Hanging up, I think.”

She stood up straight and Nathaniel winced as bright light flooded his vision. He sat up to watch her walk across the room, admiring the way the silk robe complimented her form as she disappeared into the walk-in closet. “Where?”

“In the back, I think?”

He heard a bunch of shuffling as she pushed around the hangers of various items Georgia stored in there.

“Grey?”

“Yeah?”

“Damn it, I knew I should have checked sooner.” A nervous pit dropped in his stomach.

“Why?”

She emerged again a moment later and went straight to the vanity to plug in her hair dryer. “Get up; we’re going shopping.”

Chapter Text

“I still don’t know how I feel about you buying clothes for me,” Nathaniel said as he put his arms through the vest Chloé was holding up. “Especially expensive ones.”

In the mirror, he could see her barely listening to a word he said as she smoothed down (imaginary) wrinkles and critically analyzed the outfit just like she had with the seven others he’d already tried on. “Too bad.”

He turned his head to glare at her as she moved around to his front. It took a moment of his silence for her to look up and actually notice.

She fixed him a smile that was far too charming and he had to swallow down his nerves as her fingers trailed down the front of the open vest. Even through the coarse fabric, her every touch had him on edge. “Okay,” she said, taking a grip of the vest and stepping up even closer than she already was, “think of it this way.” She tugged just the slightest bit before starting to fasten the buttons and he had to actively try not to lean into her. He didn’t miss the tiny (evil) smirk that brought her. “I’m not buying clothes for you. I’m buying them for me.” He could practically feel the path that gaze took down his neck and chest to where she was smoothing her hands over (again, imaginary) wrinkles. “They just happen to go on you.” Those eyes flicked back up to his, the spark in them at such close proximity making his heart rate spike.

She smiled and it just about killed him. “Besides,” she continued, releasing her entrancing hold on him and backing up a step to get a full look, “the suit you brought doesn’t go with my dress, so you don’t have a choice.”

He did his best to shove down his nerves before speaking and only came out somewhat successful. “You could have warned me ahead of time.”

“Yeah,” she said absently, eyes back to traversing his form for any small out-of-place details. “I could have.”

After a moment of standing there thinking, her jaw started to move in that way again and he reached out to gently press his fingers to her cheek. The grinding immediately stopped and without seeming to think about it, she tilted her head into his palm, critical eyes still fixated on his clothes. Nathaniel shamelessly stole the moment to openly admire her.

Technically speaking, she didn’t look different from any other day in her trademark ponytail, winged eyeliner, and a white knit sweater he’d seen a million times. But to him, everything was different. Waking up that morning felt like the sky after a storm—refreshed, new, bright, beautiful. He and Chloé were back to themselves, but now, she knew. She knew and she was still here, sassing him like always and even sinking into his touch. And definitely taking some sadistic joy in teasing him, but honestly he had that coming.

He didn’t realize it was possible to appreciate her even more than he already had, yet here he was.

Chloé sighed and moved to stand behind him again. “What do you think? This vest or the last one?”

Nathaniel looked himself over in the mirror. Aside from the black vest, he wore a crisp white collared shirt, black dress pants, and polished black shoes. All in all pretty standard formal wear, but he was positive he had never looked this nice in a suit before—and the suits he had weren’t even bad. This was just very high quality.

He stared at the vest. It could only be told apart from the last one by the slightly different cut of the sleeves, and quite honestly, it didn’t change anything.

After what happened with the coat though, he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell her that.

“This one,” he said with a fake definitiveness.

She nodded. “The last one it is.”

He shot her a tiny glare in the mirror and she responded with an impish grin that was far too cute to even possibly be annoyed at.

“Okay, all that’s left is the tie,” she said, grabbing the four different gold ties she had picked out earlier. She draped two of them over each of his shoulders and pulled out her phone, moving to stand before him again.

Nathaniel leaned forward to try and sneak a peek at the screen and without even looking up, she put her hand on his sternum and pushed him out to arm’s length. “Nope.”

“Why not though?”

“Because.”

That was as much of an explanation as she’d been willing to give him all day. At least now he knew there was gold involved. The thought had images of that one gala last year stirring up in the back of his mind. She was stunning in gold.

Chloé found the picture she was looking for and held up the phone so she could look back and forth between the screen and the ties. She quickly tossed one of them aside then frowned at the rest.

“You know, colors are kind of my thing,” he said. She ignored him and tossed another one aside. “I could help you pick if you showed me—,”

“Nope.”

Chapter Text

“Wait wait no, my favorite time was definitely at Alya and Nino’s engagement party.”

The long groan of dismay Chloé emitted only made Nathaniel laugh harder. “I thought we agreed not to talk about that,” she grumbled.

“No, you agreed not to talk about it,” he retorted, grinning at her annoyed glare. “I agreed to remind you of it forever.”

“How very considerate,” she remarked with a cheap smile. “How exactly did this conversation change from mocking my present drunk aunt to mocking my past drunk self? Because I would very much like to return to my aunt.” She gestured to Edith, who was still dragging her helplessly-laughing wife around the dance floor in a series of terrible moves.

“You started it by trying to tease me about Halloween,” he continued, turning to look back at her, definitely not taking advantage by her attention being elsewhere to admire her form in that dress again. “You should have known I would fire back.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re right. You need to get plastered drunk more often so that I have more ammo in conversations like these.”

“I’m good, thanks,” he chuckled. “Besides, if I’m not sober, who will take you back to bed at the end of the night?”

…Wait.

Chloé raised a single brow at him, the corner of her perfect red lips quirking into an amused smirk. He could feel heat quickly rushing to his face. “That’s not— I meant—,” that smirk was growing to a sadistic grin the more he stammered. “I didn’t mean like— D-Do you remember the other night?”

Chloé opened her mouth to respond, but he never learned what she was about to say (though based on the look she was giving him, it probably would have killed him) because it was at that exact moment that Audrey Bourgeois chose to acknowledge their presence for the first time in over 24 hours.

That playful demeanor dropped as the distinct clicking of heels approached and Chloé’s hand curled around his arm, squeezing just a bit too tight.

The cold, analytic eyes of a fashion critic briefly swept over them and—much to his surprise—she opened the conversation with a casual, “You two look nice.”

Understatement of the century, he thought, stealing another glance at the gorgeous woman on his arm. Chloé’s New Year’s Eve dress was nothing short of heart-stopping, made of a smooth black fabric that hugged her every curve and adorned with classy gold bead embroidery that shimmered as she moved. It was sexy and refined, eye-catching and subtle, radiant and deadly. So very deadly.

Her grip on his arm tightened. “Thank you,” she recited, but he could hear the twinge of confusion embedded in the formality. That was by far the nicest thing Audrey had said to her this entire trip, maybe even her whole life.

It didn’t last long. “I won’t be awake tomorrow to see you off,” she continued. The statement lacked the sentimentality Nathaniel would typically expect from family bidding each other goodbye, reminding him more of a cordial business farewell. “Have a good flight,” she said in that same monotone, pulling Chloé into a mechanical hug. Chloé didn’t let go of him, hugging her back with only one arm.

Audrey parted after exactly two pats on Chloé’s back; the same exact hug he’d seen her give when she arrived.

She backed up a step and turned to acknowledge him with that unreadable expression of hers.

“Take care of my daughter, Nathaniel.”

That sharp gaze was exactly the same as the one she had given him over a week ago—the first time she’d spoken to him. When she’d broken the silence over a table of sugar cookies out of the blue.

Do you love my daughter?

Yeah, I do.

Good.

The only other time he’d seen her express any interest in her daughter’s life.

“I will,” he replied, eyes steady.

It was almost imperceptible, and he might have even imagined it, but Nathaniel could swear he saw the very corner of her mouth tilt up just a little bit. “Happy New Year,” she said, and walked away.

A few seconds passed before he turned to see Chloé watching her mother walk away, brows pinched together in a confused sort of scowl.

“You okay?”

Slowly, she nodded. “Yeah.” He wasn’t sure if he believed her at first, but when she finally tore her eyes away from Audrey and looked at him again, the crease in her forehead smoothed out and he could see the playful energy from earlier quickly returning. “Let’s dance.”

He grinned as she tugged on his arm, leading him toward the dance floor. “Okay, but I should warn you that I suck at dancing.”

“Oh I know,” she laughed, facing him and setting a hand on his shoulder. “You have the physical coordination of a baby giraffe.”

He put a hand on the small of her back and used it to pull her in as their free hands found each other. “Rude.”

“Yes I am,” she said, eyes practically sparkling as they connected with his, “and you love me for it.”

Warmth bloomed deep in Nathaniel’s chest as he took in that beautiful blue and that impish grin. She was positively glowing. “Yeah,” he replied, voice much softer than before, “I do.”

He watched as the playful energy faded from her expression, leaving behind only a warm smile to match his. She melted into him, two complimentary bodies fitting together with the ease of nature itself as they swayed to the music.

As Chloé’s head came to rest on his shoulder, all Nathaniel could think was that no one’s hand could ever feel so perfect in his.

Chapter Text

Chloé’s giggles were all the music Nathaniel needed as he spun her around in haphazard circles. They could hear the sounds of the jazz band and the party inside trickling out to them through the open balcony doors, but they had long left that rhythm behind in favor of their own—or rather, in favor of Nathaniel’s lack of rhythm. Knocking into five other couples on the dance floor had been enough for Chloé to drag him out here where they couldn’t hit anyone else and if he was being quite honest, he was happier that way.

“You’re terrible at this!” she squealed as he made her lose balance again.

“I warned you!” he laughed.

“You’re going to make me fall!”

At that, Nathaniel decided to turn sharply and lean just so, making her lose her footing altogether. She shrieked, hands clawing at his shoulders for a better grip as she held on for dear life. “Nathaniel Kurtzberg!” He only laughed harder at the angry face she was trying (and failing) to make.

He stood up straight again, still holding her safe and secure. “See? You won’t fall.”

Though her voice still shook with subsiding laughter, she spoke with a surprising softness in her tone and sincerity in her eyes. “I don’t believe you.”

Nathaniel paused. The look she was giving him wasn’t the look you gave someone who you believed would drop you.

That blue gaze glowed in the soft lantern light as it darted back and forth between his eyes and the longer he looked at it, the more he thought he might be understanding the meaning behind her words. An easy smile spread across her lips and he felt himself mirroring it as her head drifted closer. Her eyes fell to half-mast. His palm found her cheek.

“10! 9! 8!”

Their eyes snapped back to each other in surprise as the crowd inside began to count down.

“7! 6!”

Chloé smiled anew. “Happy New Year, Nathaniel.”

“5! 4!”

He grinned. “Happy New Year, Chloé.”

“3!”

Her breath tickled his cheek.

“2!”

Their eyes fell shut.

“1!”

Chapter Text

“Remind me again why I shouldn’t sleep the whole plane ride,” Chloé grumbled, voice muffled by the sleeve of his sweatshirt. It seemed her double shot of espresso had lasted just long enough to drive the rental car back to the airport. Now that they were seated and waiting for the plane to take off, the less than four hours of sleep she had gotten were rapidly catching up with her.

“Because if you do, you’ll be wide awake when we get home.”

“What time is it going to be again?”

“Around 9.”

“AM?”

“PM.”

“Damn it.” He chuckled and tried to move his arm under her head. She tightened her vice grip in response, whining, “What are you doing? This is my pillow.”

“Of course it is, your highness,” he laughed, “I just want to adjust it so that it doesn’t go numb.” She groaned dramatically, but nevertheless loosened her grip just enough for him to set his arm comfortably on the armrest between them. “Thank you, my liege.”

She nuzzled her face back into his shoulder, hugging her pillow close with one hand and using the other to idly trace along the backs of his knuckles. “Why are you awake enough to sass me? It’s not fair.”

“Because I didn’t sleep.”

“That makes no sense.”

“It does when you’re a professional night owl.” She muttered something into his sleeve. He couldn’t quite parse it out, but it sounded mean. “What was that?”

She rolled her head to the side to speak more clearly. “I said you’re a fucking weirdo.” A flight attendant squeezed her lips together in an effort to stifle a laugh as she walked by, but Nathaniel made no such effort. “Stop laughing,” Chloé complained. “You’re making my pillow shake.” That only made him laugh more. “Damn it, Nathaniel.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he lied as he settled down. “I’ll try to keep still.”

“Good.”

“Don’t fall asleep though.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“You’ll regret it later,” he teased in a sing-song voice.

She groaned and turned her face back into his arm. “That is my bad decision to make and yours to deal with later.”

“What? How is it mine to deal with?”

“I can’t hear you; I’m sleeping now.”

Shaking his head with a tiny smile, Nathaniel gave up and sat back in his seat, braced for a long flight ahead. He hoped she didn’t actually expect him to stay up with her later, because he knew quite well that if she wanted him to, he would and that would be a terrible addition to his lack of a sleep schedule.

He imagined she was probably kidding. After spending the entire holiday season with him, she must want a break, right? He was pretty sure they had never gone this many days in a row of even seeing each other, let alone spending all of their time together and sharing the close proximity of a couple. He had no complaints, but knowing Chloé, she would probably want a few days of space to let things settle back to normal.

…Back to normal.

What even was their normal now? Were they going to go back to the way things were before the trip? Back to most of their conversations being long text rants sent from work? Back to the majority of their physical contact being solely from him patching her up after battles?

Back to really truly being just friends?

It wasn’t like Nathaniel didn’t want that. Okay, he didn’t obviously, but it wasn’t like he had a problem with them being just friends if that was what Chloé wanted.

It was all of the habits he’d fallen into that he worried about. It was the touching her cheek when she was grinding her teeth, the putting a hand on her back every time he approached, the cuddling up with her whenever they were even sitting together. Being Chloé’s “boyfriend” had felt so natural, all those little things had easily become their normal over the last week and a half. To suddenly put all that away, go back to the way things were before… Could he even do that? Did she want to do that?

As if on cue, Chloé shifted at his side, rubbing her head against his shoulder.

…Wait.

Nathaniel slowly turned to look at her, hesitant to give into the revelation creeping over him. Chloé still hugged his arm close and though her eyes were closed, he knew she was still awake because her free hand continued to trace aimless lines into his skin. She had held his hand or his arm almost the entire time they had been in the airport and last night, as the New Year fireworks went off, she had kissed him.

All well out of sight of her family.

“Chloé?”

“Hm?”

“…Am I your boyfriend?”

The question slipped from his tongue with ease and perhaps the only thing that surprised him was how not nervous he was to ask it. How stable his heartbeat, how steady his voice.

He wasn’t even surprised when she didn’t have to think about her answer.

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, gently nodding her head. That was it. No picking up her head to look at him, no further explanation, not even any sass.

Somehow, even that didn’t surprise him.

Nathaniel turned his hand so it was palm up and her fingers immediately locked with his. The warmest of smiles rising to his lips, he pressed a kiss to the crown of her head and together, they went home.