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Purr-suasion - A Miraculous Ladybug Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

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Alone in his study Gabriel Agreste sat in his full-grain, leather armchair reading his favorite book, if one could call it a book. It was actually a scrapbook, lovingly and painstakingly prepared by his late wife. It contained all of the newspaper clippings and magazine articles about him from the day he first launched his own fashion label, named after himself, of course, until almost the day Emilie Agreste died. He wasn’t so vain as to continue to collect and archive the proof of his accomplishments himself after her passing, (he had his assistant, Nathalie, for that, who started a separate volume) but it didn’t stop him from enjoying the fruits of her handiwork. It would be a detriment to her memory not to do so, or so he had convinced himself. Emilie was very proud of her husband afterall. And proud she should be, too. Gabriel had become the preeminent fashion designer of Paris. Everyone who was anyone wore his clothes. Other designers could only dream of creating such artistry. No one was as fashion forward, as creative with fabrics, and as innovative with findings as Gabriel Agreste. He had built his empire stitch by stitch. Late nights. Early mornings. Meals skipped. Holidays never taken. He dreamed fashion. He lived fashion.

Emilie never bothered him when he worked. She took care of things: the house, the children, the staff. He couldn’t be bothered with such mundane things. His focus had to be higher, loftier. Emilie understood. His finger traced her smile, captured in the picture now pasted in his book. She looked so happy as she stood beside him after he had won his first ACTE award. Yes, Emilie understood. Perhaps she was the only person who did. His sons certainly didn’t.

Felix, his oldest, Gabriel tolerated best if only because he was like himself not only in looks, but also in character. They had the same platinum blonde hair, the same hawkish nose, and the same indifference to those they deemed below them in not only intelligence, but also looks, talent, and social standing. In actuality Felix was highly intelligent. Being an avid reader he knew lots of facts, some important, but mostly trivial. He could quote all of the important poets and bend the logic of philosophers to his point of view. Anyone gazing upon his features would find him attractive, being blessed with a tall, thin frame and angular features. But, the main strike against him had to be that Felix was a snob on every count and took no trouble to hide it. He thought much of himself, being his father’s heir apparent. At the age of 22 he earned the position of Vice President of Marketing at Gabriel Fashions. The only requirements necessary were having the right last name and a business degree from a distinguished university that Gabriel happened to make a generous donation to just prior to Felix receiving his acceptance letter. Felix had no real interest in fashion. He had no passion to design and no talent to do so either. Running his father’s company was a means to allow him to do what he truly loved: spend his father’s fortune.

Adrien, on the other hand, was a great disappointment to his father. Seven years junior to his brother, Adrien took after his mother, not only in looks, but also in disposition. They had the same sandy-colored hair, the same kind, green eyes, and the same gentle, patient heart. Perhaps for these reasons Gabriel avoided Adrien, because he reminded the widower of his lost wife, a woman that he loved very deeply, even though he wasn’t particularly good at showing it. For most of Adrien’s life he had been a dutiful son, trying if not always succeeding to do his best in all things. He certainly was more accomplished than Felix, being fluent in several languages, including their native French as well as English, Italian, and Mandarin. He excelled in every subject especially science. He actually thought applied physics to be “fun”. But he was no mere bookworm, but also a star athlete. Trophies, banners, and medals decorated his childhood bedroom in a myriad of sports including basketball, lacrosse, and fencing. If any area of his resume appeared a bit thin, then it was in the arts. Adrien had no talent for drawing, painting, or design, like his father. However, he had a keen ear for music and could perform as a concert pianist if he so chose that as his livelihood. But, the career Gabriel had laid out for Adrien was that of a male fashion model. Adrien became the face of the Gabriel Fashions men’s line at the age of 11. Tall for his age, he easily passed as 13 years old at the time. All of Paris and, very soon after, all of the fashion world embraced the little boy, holding him up as a paragon of male beauty. He became famous almost overnight and with that his life changed forever. His parents pulled him out of public school and hired private tutors. Felix felt no such disruption, being allowed to finish his last year of lycee with his friends before beginning university. For the next three years Adrien lived in almost perfect isolation, venturing out of the house only for private lessons and modeling shoots. His constant companion, his only companion, was his mother. When she died something in Adrien changed, although Gabriel didn’t see it immediately, but slowly over time without her guiding influence Adrien began to change.

The first sign, the large red flag that Gabriel should have see was when a few months after her death Adrien, at the age of 14, requested to return to public school. He wanted to have friends that were his own age and not paid staff. Of course Gabriel had refused, the very idea being ridiculous on several counts, especially safety. But, Adrien had rebelled, snuck out of the house and enrolled himself in the local secondary school. Ultimately, Gabriel had to relent and allow the boy to attend with the stipulation that he would obtain no less than très bien in all of his classes and he would continue to model. From there it had been downhill, coming into contact with those far below him, putting fanciful ideas into his head. Gabriel had tried to be understanding, tolerant even, but on some matters he could not abstain from putting his fatherly foot down. But it had all come to a head when Gabriel received the report of Adrien’s marks upon completion of his third semester at university. He had chosen medicine rather than business as his major field of study, which should have been acceptable, although disappointing that he did not want to follow in his father’s and brother’s footsteps and work in the family business, if only Adrien had wished to become a doctor, but a nurse? Unacceptable. Laughable, even. In his fury, Gabriel had cut all financial ties with his son, including paying for his education, removed him from his house, and fired him for good measure.

Gabriel had expected in the following months for Adrien to come crawling back on his knees, contrite and amenable. But, he hadn’t. He had come back, dutifully, for Sunday dinners and Christmas celebrations, but he never asked for his modeling job back or even for any financial assistance. He had struck out on his own, never to waver from his newfound independence. Despite Gabriel’s words of warning, his premonitions of failure and ruin, Adrien had flourished. It had been rocky at first, but his former Chinese tutor, Master Fu happily rented him a room in his house. Adrien completed his education, although it took him a year longer, since he had to work a part-time gig at the same time. With his registered nursing license in hand he gained employment at the local hospital, choosing emergency medicine as his calling, feeling that was where he could do the most good. Not longer after, he moved into a modest apartment in a decently acceptable neighborhood.

Any other parent might feel pride at his son’s resourcefulness. Did it not mirror Gabriel’s own story of breaking with his parents, building a successful fashion company from the ground up with nothing but a notebook full of ideas and a burning passion to chart his own course? And yet, the father’s favor had always been given to Felix, who had everything handed to him, and never to Adrien who from the age of 11 had worked every single day of his life. He was of no consequence, merely Adrien.       

Perhaps if Adrien’s departure from Gabriel Fashions had not had such a dreadful impact, Gabriel could have forgiven his son for his treachery. But, indeed the lack of a recognizable, handsome face wearing the latest designs in every centerfold had hurt the fashion house. The public associated Adrien Agreste with Gabriel Fashions even more strongly than the line’s own designer and namesake. Without him, the label lacked an identity and no matter whom Gabriel signed to fill his son’s shoes no one ever came close to replacing him. There were other mistakes made, although Gabriel would be loathed to admit them: a costly jewelry line that never took off, a worker’s strike at his largest factory, a petty feud with a notable critic, and an overblown marketing budget to name a few. And so, as the intervening years passed Gabriel Fashions became, well, less and less fashionable, and less and less profitable. Consequently, Gabriel Agreste became more and more in debt.

It was his current financial troubles that made him seek the comfort of his wife’s scrapbook. Indulging in its pages, the nostalgia embracing him as lovingly as she would if she were there herself. A break, he needed a break from the constant worry and belt tightening.

“Sir,” a voice called, interrupting his respite. “Mme. Michelle is here to see you.”

“Very well,” Gabriel sighed, closing the scrapbook. “Please send her in, Nathalie.”

-----o----

Adrien smiled fondly at the picture of the chubby baby in the arms of his mother. He doesn’t remember it, of course, being barely one years old at the time. Yet, based on the smile on his face, he must have been happy. How could one not be, gazing at the beauty of his mother? He sighed, closing his mother’s photo album. He placed it carefully in a box, marked on the side with the words “Family Photos”.

“What are you doing?” a condescending voice asked him. Adrien looked up with surprise. He had not heard his brother come into the room.

“Packing up mother’s things,” he mumbled as a second scrapbook joined the first inside of the box.

“Why?”

Adrien shrugged without looking up. “It doesn’t feel right to have the movers pack up her things. I’d rather do it myself.” He carefully placed a small, porcelain music box on a rolled out sheet of bubble wrap. He slowly brought one end up and around, swathing it in plastic protection.

Felix shook his head. “You shouldn’t bother. We aren’t moving. Father will come up with something.”

“Nathalie says that moving is the best thing we can do.”

“Nathalie doesn’t know everything,” Felix scoffed, crossing his arms in front of him, as he leaned against the door frame.

“She knows more than you!” Adrien countered with a smirk. He was used to his brother’s ways and had given up trying to change him. Of course, that didn’t mean he had to agree with him. On most issues he probably would have let it go, allowing his brother to say whatever came into his head, but when it came to the people that mattered, Adrien had learned the hard way that he should stand up for them, always.

“I don’t know why you think so highly of her. Who is Nathalie Sancoeur? Who would she be without father? She’s an employee , Adrien. She does what she’s told. She thinks what we tell her to think.”

Adrien shook his head sadly, “Nathalie’s the closest thing we have to a mother.”

“If Mother could only hear you now, she’d die on the spot from mortification!”

“I’m sure Mother would be very pleased and all together grateful for everything she has done for this family, especially after she passed away. You should be grateful, too.”

“She’s been compensated for her work, and very well, I might add. Nathalie doesn’t need my gratitude.”

“A thank you is always appreciated,” a familiar female voice responded.

Felix jumped in surprise. “Nathalie! I didn’t see you there.” His face betrayed his mortification at being overheard.

“No?” A smile passed between her and Adrien. “I came to tell you both that Mme. Michelle is here. She’s with your father in his study.”

Adrien was on his feet in an instant, hurriedly chasing after his brother out into the hall and down the flight of stairs. The two blondes arrived at the door to the study at practically the same moment, stopping short to knock and almost falling over each other in the process. The quick click of Nathalie’s heels as she approached at a much more dignified rate could be heard echoing behind them.

Through the door their father’s muffled voice gave them permission to enter.

“Very well,” Gabriel nodded. “The house appears...satisfactory.”

“What house?” both sons asked at the same time.

“Ah! Felix! Adrien! So good to see you,” Mme. Michelle greeted them. “I was just telling your father about the house in Milan I found for you.”

“Milan?” Adrien cried in disdain.

“Milan!” Felix cried in exuberance.

“Milan,” Gabriel confirmed with an adjustment of his glasses.

“Father, I thought we decided that a small house in the outer suburbs of Paris would be the most cost effective and least disruptive to your business operations,” Adrien asserted.

We didn’t decide anything,” Felix retorted circling his finger to include only the three Agreste men. “ We decided that if we must move, then Milan would suit us best,” he indicated himself and his father. “You shouldn’t have a say. You don’t have to move. You won’t have to live somewhere else.”

Gabriel’s silence seemed to affirm his eldest son’s statements.

“You can’t possibly hope to save money by staying in Milan!” Adrien looked to the two women for help, hoping that their expertise in real estate and business, respectively, would persuade his father toward his much more sensible option.

“Actually, the house I found for your father and brother is very nearly within the prescribed budget and is much smaller than their current home,” Mme. Michelle explained, but was quick to add, “but not so modest as to demean their good standing in society. It is in the best neighborhood, where they will rub elbows with those of the highest taste, especially in fashion.”

“Sounds expensive,” Adrien mumbled.

“Milan also affords the opportunity to make and strengthen our contacts within the Italian fashion industry,” Nathalie added. “We might even explore expanding our pret-a-porter lines, which the Milan fashion houses have made so successful.”

“Let’s not get into that discussion,” Gabriel said wearily, waving off his assistant. It had been a long standing argument between Gabriel and just about everyone at Gabriel Fashions as to how much ready to wear clothes to produce. The famed fashion designer was of the opinion that doing so diluted the brand, making it too commercial and common. Advocates for doing so argued that it was highly profitable and should at least be considered as a viable option.

“Moving to the suburbs signals to everyone that we are in some state of decline,” Felix reasoned.

“We are in a state of decline,” Adrien retorted, but he was ignored by his family.

“By going to Milan we can put on the facade that Gabriel Fashion is expanding,” Felix continued.

“And that’s all that matters, right? Appearances?” Adrien questioned with an eye roll. “Father, I feel very strongly that this is a mistake.”

“You always let your feelings guide you, Adrien. You’re just like your mother,” Gabriel chided. “Your brother is right and since we have found a house within the budget agreed upon I really don’t think that you have any reason to object, especially since, as Felix noted, you will not be inconvenienced to move there.”

That seemed to settle the subject of Milan rather thoroughly. Adrien crossed his arms protectively across his chest. He supposed that he shouldn’t be surprised that his opinion was not considered nor that his advice was not taken, yet it still chafed.

“What about renting this house out?” Adrien asked, regarding the Paris mansion. “Has a tenant been found?”

“Ah!” Mme. Michelle smiled. “I was just getting to that. Yes, I found a very good prospective tenant. It’s a couple from New York.”

“Americans,” Felix sneered.

“No, actually, they’re French, but have been living in New York for about eight years. Their daughter has business here and they wish to move back to be near her. Actually, their daughter and a niece will be living with them as well, both grown and employed. They all have excellent credit and their combined incomes are such that the monthly rent will be of no hardship.”

“What line of business are they in?” Gabriel asked.

“Let me see,” the realtor hummed as she flipped through some pages. “Ah, yes, M. Dupain is a baker. He and his wife, Mme. Cheng, have bakeries in both New York and here in Paris.”

“Would that be…” Adrien swallowed hard, “Tom and Sabine’s Bakery?”

“The very same!” Mme. Michelle laughed with surprise as she tapped the stack of papers. “It’s very popular I understand. I can’t say that I’ve ever been there myself, but…”

“This will not do,” Gabriel crossed his arms, smugly. “I will not rent out my house to a...a...baker!”

“Is there something wrong with bakers?” Mme. Michelle asked. She looked to the others for help. Felix sneered out of general disdain. Nathalie looked rather indifferent and Adrien, well, he looked like he might be sick. He sat down heavily on a spare chair and stared at the floor.

“Yes, indeed there is something wrong with bakers!” Gabriel jumped to his feet. “Their very existence is abhorrent to me. Do you not see that their goods are the very thing, the very thing that makes people obese and unseemly? And, then these are the very people who are completely unfit to be seen, trying to squeeze their flabby, misshapen bodies into my masterpieces! I assure you Mme. Michelle that there is no way possible to make fat people look good, no matter how many vertical stripes you put on them!” He turned his back on the gathering.

Mme. Michelle had never seen Gabriel Agreste so animated about anything and as such was completely at a loss as to what to say.

“Sir, you can’t place the blame for people being overweight on those who bake bread and cake,” Nathalie said calmly, trying to reason with him.

“Then who should I blame?” he asked, not turning around.

“The very people who ingest too much and exercise too little,” Nathalie answered simply, ignoring other contributing factors such as food addiction and genetic predisposition. “It sounds as if M. Dupain will be a solid tenant. He has every advantage, including multiple and steady incomes.”

“A married couple with grown children and no pets is the ideal tenant,” Mme. Michelle put in. “They will be very easy on the furnishings.”

Nathalie nodded in agreement. The two women waited as the older man mulled over their arguments. He tapped his chin with his finger as he thought. Mme. Michelle shifted in her seat. She was not used to waiting on M. Agreste as Nathalie and his sons were. Gabriel never made any decision quickly. Perhaps out of nervousness, Mme. Michelle continued to talk.

“And, Mme. Cheng sounded very sensible and reasonable on the phone. She went over the particulars regarding the terms of the rental very carefully. I have no doubt she’s a very capable business woman,” Mme. Michelle asserted. She waited a moment and then added, “And, M. Dupain is very good-natured, agreeable on all counts.”

The clock sitting on the mantel ticked loudly as they waited.

“And, the daughter and niece are in the fashion industry themselves,” Mme. Michelle offered as an additional argument in their favor, but Nathalie tried to wave her off. She knew that would not curry any favor with him.

“Hmph,” he grumbled. “No doubt trying to get to me in the hopes of advancing their careers. Are they designers?”

“I...I couldn’t say, sir,” Mme. Michelle answered, fearing that telling him the truth would only put him off. She searched her mind for something else to say, but fell short.

“I’m sure it will be of little consequence,” Felix sniffed. “We will be long gone by the time they would move in. When are they looking to move?”

“M. Dupain and Mme. Cheng are in Paris until the end of the week, making the arrangements for their daughter’s arrival in about a month’s time. If they could be allowed to see the house for an hour or so, then I’m sure all could be satisfactorily arranged…”

Adrien did not bother to listen to the rest of the conversation, not that he had heard much anyway once he had realized who it was that would be renting their house. As if in a daze, he walked out solemnly. He meant to return to his mother’s room to finish packing up her things, but instead he found himself in his old bedroom. Not much had changed since he had left. His fencing banners still hung on the wall. The shelves still full of his gaming and anime collection. He flopped face down onto the bed. The silent tears staining his cheeks hidden from view. He knew not how long he laid there. A gentle knock interrupted him.

“Adrien?” Nathalie called. “Are you alright? You left so strangely.” Upon seeing his crumpled face she hurried to sit beside him.

“I’m okay,” he sniffed. “I just wasn’t expecting to hear her name.”

“Whose name?” she asked mystified.

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng,” he answered with tears glistening in his eyes.

Nathalie blinked. No one had spoken that name. And then it dawned on her. “Is that?”

Adrien nodded miserably. She wrapped an arm around him.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “Not for the world would I have you hurt. I’ll tell Mme. Michelle that we simply cannot rent the house to Mlle. Dupain-Cheng and her parents.”

“No! Don’t do that!” Adrien wailed. “That’s worse! It’ll be like rejecting her all over again. Please, Nathalie, promise me you won’t do that!”

“But, Adrien! To have the girl to whom you were married rent your family’s house...it’s too strange, too awful to be borne.”  

“We were only married for 3 days in practical terms, 15 days by law. It’s not as if we were really married. We had no home of our own, no children, no life together...not really.”

“Adrien…”

“It’s fine, Nathalie. I’m fine.” He sighed as he brought his knees to his chin, hugging his legs. “I just wish…”

“What?” Nathalie prodded, “That you had stayed married? Adrien,” she shook her head, “you must agree that at 19 it would have been terribly difficult for you to do so.”

“But not impossible.”

“Your father was against you. He would have thrown you out of the house and cut you off financially. How would you have continued your education much less fed and clothed yourself? Neither one of you had a job. M. Dupain for all of his wealth and multiple incomes now, certainly couldn’t have afforded to take you in at the time.”

“But less than a year later father did throw me out, cut off my income, and I...I survived! I found work, I found a place to live. I had some savings from modeling. We could have figured it out, Nathalie. If only I had believed in myself...and us.” He slumped sideways, letting his head fall on the pillow and curling his body away from her.

“Even M. Dupain and Mme. Cheng agreed that you two were too young. Nineteen!” Nathalie shook her head.

“It’s not like we had just met. I’d known her for over five years and we’d been dating for over two. We may’ve been young, but our relationship wasn’t,” he reminded her.

“I know you regret her,” Nathalie said. “I’m sorry. I truly felt, indeed I still feel, that I gave you good advice.”

“I know,” he said sitting up and turning toward her with a sad smile. “I know.” Adrien had withstood the threats and bullying of his father, but when Nathalie came to him and calmly and rationally explained why his marriage was a mistake, he relented. “I don’t blame you. I only wish I hadn’t allowed myself to be persuaded. I should have been more steadfast.”

“As I recall the argument that persuaded you was not one that offered you any advantages. You agreed to the annulment for her sake.” Nathalie covered his hand with her own. “I know you made the right decision. Your father would have ruined any chances Mlle. Dupain-Cheng would’ve had in the fashion industry. She never would’ve won that contest and as such she never would’ve been discovered by Audrey Bourgeois and been taken to New York to start her own line. She wouldn’t have even been allowed to enter the contest in the first place.”

Adrien sighed, “I couldn’t allow that to happen. Becoming a fashion designer...it’s her dream. She’s so talented, Nathalie.”

“Obviously,” the older woman agreed. “She’s become quite successful. Formed her own label at the age of 20. Earned her first million during her first year of operations. She took New York and Hollywood by storm.”

“I’m happy for her. She deserves it.” He sighed again. “And now she’s coming here…” The gravity of that statement hung in the air. How would things go with Marinette back in Paris? How would it be with her living right here in his own house?

“Adrien,” Nathalie began, but then hesitated. “If she truly loved you, then why not come back for you once she had become a success?”

“Would you?” he asked rhetorically. “I hurt her very badly. It’s no wonder she’s never forgiven me. I tried to apologize. For two years I tried to make contact with her. I called her cell phone, but she must have changed numbers after moving to New York. I tried emailing her, but same thing, no response.”

“Wouldn’t any of her friends give you her new contact information?”

“No,” he replied with an empty laugh. “They hate me, too. I lost most of my friends when Marinette and I broke up. Chloe stuck with me, but she always preferred me anyway.”

A heavy silence fell over them as painful memories flooded Adrien’s senses.

“I tried calling her office in New York,” he continued. “I left messages with her assistant. I even wrote her a letter and asked Chloe’s mother to hand deliver it for me.”

“And did she?”

Adrien nodded. “But, Mme. Bourgeois said that Marinette ripped it up without even reading it. After that...I stopped trying to contact her.” His eyes began to fill with tears again. He wiped them away with the palm of his hand.

“That probably was for the best…” Nathalie replied lamely.

“Do you think…” Adrien hesitated, hope now filling his eyes as this new idea came into his head. “Do you think it means anything, her wanting to rent this house of all places?”

“I think it’s likely an unfortunate coincidence. I think her parents must have entertained the idea without realizing who the owner is. When they find out, I’m sure that will put an end to any interest in renting it,” she assured him.

Adrien nodded, “You’re probably right. Still though...to think she might live here. She might even choose my room as her bedroom.”

Chapter Text

Adrien waited to hear the news that Marinette and her parents had withdrawn their interest in renting the mansion. However, that never happened. Instead, M. Dupain and Mme. Cheng visited during a time when the Agreste family was out and, finding everything to their liking, secured the rental. A move-in date was set for the first of the month. Working back from that date, Gabriel and Felix made plans to leave for Milan two days prior.

Unbeknownst to Gabriel, Felix, and Nathalie; Adrien was also moving. Mme. Michelle had quietly found him a small townhouse located on the south bank of the Seine. The purchase price was fairly modest due to the amount of work needed to make the house livable. Over the next month Adrien split his time between work, packing up his belongings at his apartment, dealing with his contractor about improvements to his new house, and helping Nathalie pack up and store in the attic the more delicate and expensive furnishings at his father’s mansion; because goodness knows his father and brother couldn’t be bothered to help.

At last the day came for the two older Agrete’s departure. Adrien stopped by to see them off, Nathalie had hugged him before finally getting into the car. Gabriel merely nodded at him, while Felix barely gave him a passing glance. Adrien waved goodbye from the street in front of the mansion as their car pulled away, headed for the airport. As soon as their car was out of sight, Adrien hopped onto his bicycle and pedaled as fast as he could back to his apartment. He had to be completely moved out by the end of the following day.  

Two friends, Luka Couffaine and Rose Lavillant, helped with this endeavor. Rose and Adrien packed up his things in boxes, while Luka carried them down to his van, which they were using as a moving truck. It took several trips, but they were able to move all of his things, including his couch and bed, over the course of the next two days.

Adrien met Rose at university after he changed majors. They had several science classes together, since she majored in chemistry. During their first class they were assigned to be lab partners and had continued as study partners ever since. She now had a good position as a chemist at Bellevue Parfums, a perfume and cosmetics manufacturer.

Rose had a sweet disposition. She loved almost everyone at once and those she did not get along with, she still tried to see the best in them. In short, Rose was a romantic. She collected people’s love stories and archived them for posterity in her so-called “lover’s scrapbook.” Happy pairings were certainly appreciated, but Rose adored unrequited love and romantic tragedies. As such, she considered Adrien and Marinette’s love story to be of particular interest. So, it should not be surprising that she leant an eager ear and a shoulder for Adrien to cry on after his annulment. Indeed, she encouraged him to contact Marinette during the first year after their break up to at least try to make amends and get some closure. The second year after the break-up, Rose continued to support his efforts while at the same time silently wondering if he should not at least try to move on. News that Marinette had torn up his letter without reading it settled the matter.

“Adrien,” Rose said softly. “You’ve done all you could, but I believe Marinette doesn’t want to hear from you. It’s probably easier for her to just try to forget you. I think, and I know this is hard to hear, but I think you should give her up, if not for your own sake then for hers.”

Her appeal touched a cord with the lovesick boy and he agreed reluctantly that Rose was right. It seemed as if his efforts, although made with the best of intentions, were only making things hard on Marinette, and she didn’t deserve that. He never wanted to hurt her in the first place, but seemingly that’s all he was continuing to do. Because of that, Adrien stopped trying to contact his former wife.

“Come on,” Rose said brightly. “Let’s go out tonight. I bet you’ll meet someone nice.”

And so began Rose’s role as matchmaker, trying to get him a new girlfriend. Adrien was extremely attractive, and although he had quit modeling, his name and face were well known amongst Parisians. As such, he had his pick of dates; but whomever Rose set him up with always fell short, no doubt because he compared every woman to Marinette. They did not have her passion for their chosen career, nor her talent. They were not as kind or thoughtful. They did not appreciate his humor and no one would trade puns with him as she so often did. Even in looks no one could compare. No one had her sparkling eyes, her sweet smile, or her unbelievably cute freckles. There was just no one like Marinette.

“I’m done,” Adrien sighed one day after a particularly awful blind date. “I’m done with dating. I’m done with women.”

“Don’t say that! You have to keep trying,” Rose encouraged. “She’s out there!”

“Yes, she is,” he replied regretfully. “And, I screwed it up. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, Rose, but I’m done.”

Although Rose felt Adrien was giving up too soon, she did not press her opinion any further. All Rose could do was continue to be his friend, support him and love him. In truth, her love life was not much better. Although she was not heartbroken, she had not had much success in the love department, mostly due to her optimistic nature and her willingness to see the good in all people. Many interpreted these traits as Rose being at best childish or child-like and at worst dumb, but she knew she was neither of these. She still dated; still tried to find her one true love; but whoever they were, she had not met them yet. As a result, for better or worse, Rose and Adrien became each other’s default plus one. They took each other to family gatherings, to work events, and to friends’ parties to such an extent that no matter how much they denied that they were dating, everyone assumed that they were.

One may ask why it never occurred to either of them to actually date each other. The simple answer is Marinette. So much in love was he with his former bride that Adrien could not appreciate the many good qualities that any other woman, including Rose, offered. And Rose had indeed many good qualities. She was intelligent, held a good position, and made a good living. Her blonde hair, bright, blue eyes, and petite figure would be found attractive to anyone who saw her. Bubbly and kind-hearted, Rose was easy to befriend. Her only fault, if one could call it that, would probably be her overly optimistic attitude. She was so optimistic that things would always turn out right in the end that sometimes she defaulted to inaction, allowing fate to take care of things in its  own time. As such, Adrien found that Rose lacked a certain amount of drive and urgency that one might normally require. For her part, as Adrien’s confidant, she understood his heart perhaps better than anyone else, maybe even himself, and so she never allowed herself to fall down the slippery slope of unrequited love. She may be a romantic, but that did not mean that she was not also a realist; she was a scientist after all, and she was certainly not a masochist. Thus, it did not matter how much Luka teased them by scolding Adrien to “hurry up and put a ring on Rose’s finger before some guy absconds with her,” the two blondes were determined to be friends and only friends.

Adrien first met Luka about three months after starting his job in the Emergency Room. He was a frequent customer, coming in with all sorts of ailments from a sprained ankle to a broken finger. He never complained about the pain and always had a good story about how he had obtained his injuries, so the two hit it off almost immediately. Luka played guitar in a local band that had a pretty good following in both the clubs and on-line. In other words, he was semi-famous and Adrien, being a former celebrity himself and an amateur musician, found they had a lot to talk about; including crazy fans, invasive press, and nasty critics, as well as favorite bands, over appreciated songs, and underappreciated musicians. One afternoon, Luka received his discharge papers at the same time Adrien’s shift ended and the guitarist invited him out for a friendly drink.

“Let’s go out, Mate,” Luka suggested. “We’ll get drunk and make bad decisions.” Having not much else to do and feeling obliged to watch over the dare-devil having only just patched him up, Adrien joined the blue-tipped haired rocker at his favorite watering hole, a club where his band often played. At least once a week the two went out for a drink and Luka tried his best to get his friend laid, although usually it was Luka who went home with someone, while Adrien just went home. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Luka was a skilled wingman, but Adrien’s heart just wasn’t in it, something which Luka didn’t understand.

“You should be drowning in a sea of women!” Luka slurred one night. “Instead, it’s like you’re shipwrecked on the Isle of Chastity.”

“I’m just waiting for the right girl,” Adrien demurred, not letting it slip that he had already lost her.

“I get that, man, but how do you know she’s not the right one if you don’t take her out for a little midnight cruise, huh?” he winked. Adrien chuckled, bemused at his friend’s euphemism. He had grown up on houseboat and when he got drunk Luka’s vocabulary became particularly nautical. “Don’t worry. I’ll help ya. I’ll be your navigator, charting the stars, until ya land herl Yer a tasty bit o’ bait, so it won’t take long. Until then, let’s do a bit a trollin’,” he winked.

-----o-----

Rose surveyed the lounge of Adrien’s new house. “It’s wonderful, Adrien!” she enthused.

“Yeah,” Luka agreed, “it’s got a nice flow to it. Very Fung Shui.” His arms moved as if to show how an imaginary current moved through the house.

“Well, it will be in a month or two,” the new homeowner shrugged. “Once the remodeling is done. They’re going to start tearing out the kitchen tomorrow.”

“Oh? What will you do without a kitchen?” Rose asked concerned. “How will you eat?”

“Pizza and beer,” Luka answered for him, indicating the late lunch they were sharing picnic-style on the floor of Adrien’s lounge.

“Naw, that’ll ruin my figure,” Adrien teased. Although to be honest his figure was already ruined at least as far as his father was concerned. Since he had given up modeling, he was a lot less strict about what he ate. He tried to maintain a balanced diet, as much as late nights at the hospital would allow, but also did not begrudge himself a few indulgences like today’s pizza. “Chloe and Kagami have agreed to put me up for a few weeks.”

“You should have said something. You coulda stayed at my place, not that it can compare to Le Grand Paris hotel!” Luka smirked.

Adrien shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m going to help Kagami train for the next Grand Prix, so it just kinda made sense to stay there.” Kagami always seemed to be in training for one fencing contest or the next. She had fallen into a slump recently, losing several key matches, but she was keen to regain her top ranking. Adrien offered to be her sparring partner, since he had fenced in college and lycee. Kagami had readily agreed and offered him a place to stay in return.

“Suit yourself,” Luka shrugged, “but if you wanna break from those two for a couple of days, just lemme know.”

“Thanks!” Adrien grinned. He might just take him up on that.

“Well, now what?” Rose asked as her eyes scanned the many boxes surrounding them. “Want us to help you unpack?”

“No, thanks,” Adrien yawned. “I’m just gonna make up the bed and call it a night.”

“It’s 15:30, mate. Hardly time to sleep.”

“It is for me,” Adrien stretched his arms above his head. “I’m working the graveyard shift. I gotta be at the hospital by midnight.”

“Or else you’ll turn into a pumpkin?” Luka teased.

“Or else I’ll only be able to afford a pumpkin to live in,” Adrien smirked.

“Not with your two fairy godmothers around,” Rose smiled.

“Is that me and you?” Luka laughed, “Or, Chloe and Kagami?”

Four fairy godmothers,” Rose corrected.

----o----

Adrien arrived at Chloe and Kagami’s penthouse in the Le Grand Paris Hotel just before nine the following morning. He would have been there earlier, but he couldn’t help himself from cycling pass his father’s house in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Marinette. Today would be the first day of the lease. Sadly, there was no sign of her, not even a moving van. He shouldn’t have been surprised. It was early after all and Marinette had never been a morning person.

Chloe and Kagami’s butler announced and showed him above the barks of the two dogs. Lying on the couch, still in her silk pajamas and satin robe, Chloe held her mobile phone in one hand and the television remote control in the other.

“Tikki! Pollen! Quiet!” their mother yelled without lifting up her head. The dalmatian and yellow cocker spaniel ignored her completely, continuing to yelp and dance in excitement over the visitor. Adrien held up one finger, saying each of their names calmly but firmly, and then commanding them to sit. Immediately they obeyed and with large eyes, watched him intently, waiting for when he would release them with a snap of the fingers.

“You’re finally here!” Chloe sighed upon seeing her friend. “When your suitcase arrived yesterday, I expected you soon after.”

“I told you I had to work last night,” Adrien reminded her as he leaned over to kiss her cheek in greeting. “I asked Luka to drop it by for me. Kind of hard to move my stuff with only a bike.”

“When are you going to grow up and buy a car?” she asked, lazily flipping the channels on the T.V.

Adrien sat down in a nearby armchair. “When are you going to wake up and get dressed? The morning’s half over!” he chided her good-naturedly. “Have you even eaten breakfast?”

“I’m so bored! There’s nothing on!” she complained, abandoning the remote control and taking up her phone with both hands.

Adrien assumed that meant that she had not eaten. His eyes travelled to the two dogs who waited patiently. Upon making eye contact, their tails began to wag excitedly and Adrien gave up trying to be stern. He snapped his fingers and welcomed them with open arms as they leapt over to him. Pollen scurried up into his lap, kissing his face with tiny licks. Tikki, not to be out done, jumped, placing her front paws on one shoulder, licking the whole side of his face in one go. He laughed heartily at their attentions.

“Where’s Kagmai?” he asked as he petted each dog, head scratches for Tikki and tummy rubs for Pollen.

“Training, where else?” she moaned in response. “I never see her. She’s up at dawn, out for a run or a swim. Then, to the gym or fencing practice. She doesn’t come back until dinner time and only then to down a protein shake. Then, it’s off to bed.” Chloe waved her hand dismissively in the air. “And, by bed I mean sleep . She never lays a hand on me anymore! It’s really unfair how badly she treats me, Adrien. Here I am: all alone day after day. If I died, she wouldn’t even know it.” Her bottom lip jutted out into a pout.

“Well, I’m here now,” he reassured her with a smirk. “If you die, I’ll be sure to text Kagami.”

“Har-har!” Chloe snarked, lowering her phone to give her friend the evil eye. “You could say something to her for me, Adrien.”

“Like what?”

“Hint that I’m unhappy and that if she doesn’t start appreciating me, then she could lose me!”

“Would you really break up with her?” he asked surprised. Chloe and Kagami had been dating for almost four years and living together for about two. Adrien had introduced his oldest friend to his former college fencing teammate after he graduated from university. Chloe had returned from studying abroad, well if one could call it studying, more like paying someone else to do her school work, and Kagami had returned to Paris after winning a gold medal in the Olympics. Adrien took Chloe and Rose to Kagami’s celebration party and sparks flew the moment the blonde heiress met the Asian athlete.

“No!” Chloe admitted with eyes downcast, but then she looked up, wagging her finger, “But she doesn’t have to know that!”

“Come on!” Adrien rose from his chair. “You’ll feel better after you’ve eaten.” He walked toward the kitchen, trailed by Tikki and Pollen.

“I’m not hungry!” she called after him.

----o----

“Not hungry, huh?” Adrien asked with a laugh, noting Chloe’s clean plate.

“You make a mean omelette,” she complimented, wiping the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “I’m going to gain 5 kilograms with you staying here, aren’t I?”

“Not if you join Kagami and me for a run or swim everyday,” Adrien cajoled, knowing full well his advice would fall on deaf ears.

“I prefer hot yoga,” she sniffed.

“You need something to get your heart rate up to make you sweat, not the temperature of the room,” he chided.

“Running’s boring,” she complained. “And, swimming ruins your hair.”

“Wear a swim cap,” he suggested.

“Ugh! I’d rather drop dead. Heinous, rubbery things!”

“You have an opinion about everything!” he laughed.

“You love that about me.” Chloe sipped her coffee as one leg swung idly from her chair. “What’re your plans for the rest of the day?” she asked, trying to sound subtle, but failing.

“I’m supposed to meet Kagami at the fencing academy at 13:00.” Adrien’s face darkened in suspicion, “Why?”

“Play hookie with me!”

“Chloe…” he warned with an edge to his voice.

“Come on! We can go to the spa downstairs for a massage and facial. You really look haggard, Adrien, seriously!”

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Then, we can go shopping!” she clapped her hands in excitement.

“I’d love to Chloe, but my bank account…” he shook his head.

“Not another word! My treat! Come on! You need a decent suit or two if you’re going to stay here.”

“I didn’t realize the dress code was so formal here,” Adrien guffawed.

“You know what I mean,” Chloe squinted at him. “There’s bound to be parties, dinners...you need to look good as my guest.”

“I don’t need or want to go, Chloe. I’ll be much more comfortable here, hanging out with the dogs.” He gave Tikki a head scratch, who leaned in at his touch. “Besides, no one wants me at their party.”

“Nonsense! You’re a famous model…”

“I was a famous model,” he corrected.

“Well, you’re still my friend and as my friend, other people will want to know you and have you at their parties.” She turned her head sideways, nose pointing in the air. If she had had her hair in a pony tail she would have flicked it for good measure, but instead she just sniffed decidedly.

“You’re not going to take no for an answer are you?”

Chloe smirked, “You know me so well!”

Adrien looked at his watch. “Alright, get dressed and we’ll go shopping, but no spa. I’ll let you buy me one suit. Only one . And, I have to meet Kagami on time . Okay?”

“Okay!” Chloe squealed in delight as she hurried off to change her clothes and fix her hair. While he waited, Adrien found his way to the bedroom where he’d be staying. He stretched out on the bed, hugging the pillow against his chest. Chloe would be at least two hours getting ready, plenty of time for a nap.

------o------

“You’re late!”

“I’m sorry!” Adrien held his hands up in surrender at the fencing foil pointed at him.

“Let me guess: Chloe?” Kagami asked. Adrien merely nodded as he slipped on a glove. “What’s she up to now?”

“Buying me clothes,” Adrien admitted sheepishly. He had gotten away with only one suit; but Chloe had insisted on also buying him a sports jacket, several shirts, a belt, three ties, and two pairs of shoes. He had tried to dissuade her, but once Chloe had an idea, it was nearly impossible to persuade her otherwise. She was too used to getting her own way. Adrien consoled himself that by acquiescing at least he was making her happy, and that due to her position at her mother’s fashion magazine, the boutiques gave her very hefty discounts.

Kagami rolled her eyes. “That’s all she cares about: clothes, fashion, spending money.”

“She cares about you, too,” Adrien ventured placing his other glove on. “Chloe can’t stop talking about you.”

“You mean complaining ,” Kagami corrected.

“She just misses you,” Adrien explained. “I think she’d like to see you more.”

“We live together,” Kagami deadpanned.

“You know what I mean,” Adrien arched an eyebrow before joining Kagami on the piste. “Assault or bout?” he asked.

“Bout, of course,” she replied. In Kagami’s opinion, fencing was’t worth playing unless you kept score. She indicated the lamé that he could wear with the tip of her foil. Adrien picked it up and slipped on the jacket so that any hits would register electronically on the scoring machine. “The problem with Chloe is that she has nothing to do, but wait around for me all day. I get that she’s lonely, but she can’t expect me to sacrifice my dream just to keep her company. I thought getting her the dogs would help, but no such luck.”

Adrien couldn’t help but feel that sentiment sounded harsh and a wee bit selfish. If Adrien ever had the chance to be with Marinette again, he very much doubted he would ever continue to do something if it meant it would cause her pain or would keep them apart, no matter how much he might love doing it. For her part Kagami did love Chloe, yet she did not feel that their relationship, any relationship actually, was more important than pursuing her dreams. Kagami had a passion for fencing, infused within her as a child by her grandfather, who was also a master swordsman. She felt it her duty to carry on the tradition of her ancestors and represent her family and her country with pride and honor. But, she also really enjoyed it: the thrill of competition, the dedication to training, the sacrifice to win. Adrien found her determination and dedication admirable, and mused that if she had found someone a bit more kind-hearted, like Rose for example, then that person probably could have inspired Kagami to utilize her intense focus to better the world and help others. Chloe, however, was not a kind-hearted person, and as such Kagami continued to pursue her own goals no matter how selfishly.  

“What about her work? Doesn’t the magazine keep her busy?” Adrien asked.

“I suppose it would,” Kagami hummed, “if they actually gave her something of substance to do. Supposedly she’s a top fashion critic in Paris, but all her critiques have to be approved by her mother before they’re published. And you know Audrey…”

“If she doesn’t agree…”

“Which she rarely does, so she changes Chloe’s write up to her own opinion,” Kagami shook her head. “I think Chloe’s become disillusioned. It doesn’t matter what she writes. She could copy the weather report for all it matters.”

“I’m sorry,” Adrien replied. “I didn’t know it had gotten that bad.”

“Yeah. well, Chloe doesn’t like to talk about it. Don’t tell her I told you.” Kagami pointed a finger at Adrien, who nodded in agreement. “If I could just find something to keep her occupied, then she wouldn’t give me such grief about training and competing.”

“There must be something…”

“Yeah? Well, lemme know. I’m desperate.” Kagami lowered her visor and readied her weapon.

“I will,” Adrien agreed, mimicking her movements. “En-garde.”

“Pret,” the swordswoman answered in return.

“Allez!”

-----o-----

“Finally! You’re back!” Chloe sighed in exasperation as Kagami and Adrien entered the suite. “Get dressed! Both of you! We’re having dinner with my parents tonight!” She turned on her heel; her ponytail swishing as her heels clicked with every step into the lounge. The dogs ran to greet them, barking and dancing in their excitement.

“Chloe! You can’t just accept on my behalf. I should have a say,” Kagami argued, dropping her fencing gear where she stood just past the threshold of their suite. “Adrien, too. Quiet, Tikki!” Kagami snapped. In her frustration, she swiped at the air near Pollen without actually making contact as a warning to get her hopping body away from her.

Adrien cringed, not wishing to get pulled into the argument that he knew was coming. He held up his finger, quieting the pooches. They sat, watching him, wagging their tails.

“Fine.” Chloe stopped, spun around, and crossed her arms. “Do you want to have dinner with my parents?”

“No!” Kagami crossed her own arms. “I’m tired! I don’t have the patience to deal with your mother. And, I’m not ruining my diet for her .”

“Adrien?”

“Um, I’m happy to do whatever you two decide to do,” he held up his hands in surrender, looking between the two women. He knew better that to get between an arguing couple, especially this couple.

“See? Adrien wants to go!”

“That’s not what he said,” Kagami corrected.

“Kagami! It’s not fair!” Chloe shouted, stalking back toward her. “You never want to do anything or go anywhere unless it’s to train or compete! I haven’t been out to dinner all week.”

“It’s Monday ,” she deadpanned.

“Mummy and Daddy want to take us to dinner. It would be rude to decline.”

“Chloe…”

“No! I never get to see her. She’s always away. She’s finally back and she wants to have dinner with me and you...you won’t go! It’s not fair!” Chloe broke down in tears, although Adrien knew all too well that they were the fake tears that she used to manipulate others to get her way.

“I’m not saying that you can’t go!” Kagami retorted. “ I just don’t want to go!” She stalked passed Chloe, heading to their bedroom.

“I never get to see you either!” Chloe continued to cry, following her. “I want to go! We’re going!”

The door slammed behind them, containing their argument at least for the moment. Adrien left alone with dogs couldn’t help but say to them, “I know Kagami’s a fencing champ, but what’s the point of fighting with Chloe? You know she’ll foil ya at every turn.”

Tikki and Pollen took his words to mean, “Jump on me and kiss me,” so they did just that.

-----o-----

Adrien adjusted his tie in the mirror of the foyer as he waited. His new shoes felt tight and they squeaked a bit as he walked around in a circle, trying to break them in. He shook his head, hoping he would be able to stay awake through dinner. Normally, he’d be asleep now. He could only hope that dinner wouldn’t take too long and he’d be able to catch some zzzs before his shift. He’d been able to nap before shopping with Chloe and again after training with Kagami, but still a few more hours of sleep would be welcomed.

“Nice suit,” Kagami smirked.

“Thanks,” Adrien smiled sheepishly. “You look good, too.” She wore a high-collared, long sleeve, black silk blouse tucked into a bright red, short skirt that showed off her toned legs. She never wore much makeup or jewelry, for that matter, but tonight seemed to be an exception. Her lips were painted a bright red and in each ear she wore a ruby stud from which fell smaller rubies, cascading against the background of her short, dark hair.

“Chlo! Let’s go!” Kagami called. “I told her we had to be home early,” she said as an aside to Adrien.

“I appreciate that,” Adrien nodded. At least Kagami was cognizant of his responsibilities. Although, it benefited her as well to get a full night’s sleep so that her training wouldn’t be disrupted.

“I’m coming!” Chloe called from the bedroom.

“Were you able to nap?” Kagami asked Adrien. He nodded his ascent and repeated the question back to her. She laughed mischievously, noting that she had a lay on the bed, but got no rest.

Ten minutes later Chloe appeared, momentarily pausing in the doorway to allow her entrance to have the most impact. She wore a sleek golden cocktail dress with a deep v down the back. Her hair was pulled up and twisted into a knot, allowing her diamond earrings to flash impressively.

“How do I look?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.

“Beautiful as always,” Kagami complimented her, kissing her lips with appreciation. “Now move that tight ass or I’ll move it for you!” She smacked her with a flat hand across the bum.

“Promises, promises,” Chloe hummed as she winked at Adrien. She looked pretty smug having gotten her way.

Downstairs in the hotel’s bar they met M. and Mme. Bourgeois for a drink before dinner. Audrey wore a black silk gown with a plunging neckline underneath a black and copper lamé jacket, trimmed in black fox fur that slumped off her shoulders. Adrien wasn’t sure what was worse, that she showed off way too much cleavage or that she was wearing real animal fur. Standing next to his wife in his typical grey business suit, Andre looked unassuming despite his high rank in the national government. After the pleasantries were exchanged between everyone, Audrey raised an eyebrow and singled Adrien out.

“Adrien, dear! Whatever are you doing here?”

“I told you, Mummy,” Chloe interjected. “Adrien’s staying with Kagami and me for a bit while his house is being remodeled.”

“Oh? Did you?” Audrey hummed. “I thought the house was being rented out, not remodeled. I’m so happy to be mistaken. I was afraid that your father is having some financial difficulties, Adrien,” she laughed.

“It’s my house that’s being remodeled,” Adrien clarified. “Father is renting out his house.”

“Oh, no!” Audrey exclaimed dramatically, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. “That’s awful! I know the past few shows have been flops, but I had no idea things are so very bad!”

“I’m sure Father would be happy to know of your concern, but he and the company are perfectly well, financially speaking,” he smiled his best fake model smile. “He just had some business in Milan and it seemed a shame to leave the house empty for so long, especially when others might be in need of it.”

“For a hefty price, I’m sure,” Audrey winked as she moved closer to him, wrapping her around his bicep. “Oh, I am so happy to hear that Gabriel is well! I was afraid it was a sign of his inevitable decline. You can’t be at the top forever, you know! Especially when there are new, younger designers coming up all the time,” she laughed.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s true,” he hummed. “The fashion world is cut throat, alright. I remember it well.”

“It’s such a shame you don’t model anymore, Adrien,” Audrey pouted. “You’re still such a handsome man!” She chucked his chin with one finger and laughed low in her throat.

Adrien chuckled nervously and shifted his feet uncomfortably. It had been awhile since he had seen Mme. Bourgeois and he had forgotten how much she liked to flirt. He looked to Kagami, who was trying and failing to hide her laughter. No help there.

“Daddy!” Chloe cut in, thank the Lord! “You didn’t say how you like my new dress.” She twirled in a circle to show it off.

“Gorgeous, my dear, simply gorgeous!” Andre enthused.

Audrey looked over her daughter from head to toe, as if just noticing her for the first time that night. “Chloe, what are you wearing?”

“The dress you bought me the last time you were in Paris. It’s a Lacroix!” She dropped the designer name as if that should end any further questioning.

“That was last season! You’re wearing a dress from last season?” Audrey questioned, the condescension apparent.

“You didn’t get to see me wear it before, so I thought…”

“And, I won’t see you wear it now,” Audrey interrupted her daughter. “Go upstairs right now and change!”

“Mummy!”

“Dearest, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Andre began. “Chloe looks wonderful! No one is going to know it’s a dress from last season.”

“I’ll know,” Audrey argued, “and so will my readers. It’s ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous for my daughter to be seen in public wearing a dress from last season!” she railed. “Honestly, Chloe! You should know better! This is exactly why the magazine can’t just publish your critiques without my approval. You can’t be trusted to make good decisions!”

“I’m sorry, Mummy!” Chloe’s lip wobbled as she hurriedly ran off.

“Chloe!” Kagami called after her. “You don’t have to…” she followed her girlfriend out of the bar and into the lobby.

“I’m so sorry, Adrien,” Audrey soothed. “Daughters are so much trouble. I’ve often thought that I should’ve had sons like your father.”

“I’m sure if you asked him, he’d say sons are just as much trouble,” Adrien replied. He bit his lip, trying to decide if he should speak up. “Audrey, I know fashion is important to you…” he began.

“The most important thing!” she stressed.

“Even more important than your daughter?” Adrien put up one hand in defense. “I speak only from experience as a child of a fashion icon. It’s daunting to try to measure up. Chloe’s trying to follow in your footsteps. She wants to be you.”

“No one can be me!” Audrey sniffed, cutting off Adrien before he could say more. “I’m one of a kind. Chloe will have to learn to live with the disappointment.”

“But...”

“Let’s not argue, Adrien dear. Arguing causes wrinkles,” she waved at the bartender to make her another drink, before turning back to him with eyes heavily lidded. “Tell me, dear, is this a new suit?”

For the next 30 minutes Adrien ping-ponged between a conversation with Andre about the causes of the country’s high unemployment rate and what should be done; and a conversation with Audrey about in her opinion New York fashion designers are much more innovative than Parisian fashion designers, but they will never garner as much respect because their clientele are mostly talentless, reality star upstarts. He had never felt so grateful to see Chloe reenter a room. She now wore a much more conservative black dress with capped sleeves. The fabric of the skirt gathered on one hip, from which a starburst of golden beads decorated the folds. A large necklace of cut citrine beads around her neck finished the look.

“Finally! You’re here!” Audrey sighed, barely glancing at her daughter. “Pierre!” she snapped her fingers. “We’re ready for our table now.”

The party followed the head waiter, whom Adrien was pretty sure was named Paul and not Pierre, to a large table beside the even larger window, facing the street. Audrey, of course, had the best seat, sitting front and center, perfect for the Paparazzi and any on-lookers to take her picture. Chloe looked rather subdued and at times down right bored, seemingly only taking solace in her champagne glass. Kagami looked like she would rather eat Audrey for dinner than the meal that was being served. She held her steak knife rather aggressively, using it to accentuate her points as she talked. Audrey and Andre prattled about fashion and the government, respectively, oblivious to the feelings of anyone at the table. Adrien tried very hard not to look at his watch, although he couldn’t help wondering how many minutes of sleep he had lost. But, just as the evening seemed to be wrapping up, the cheese course having been served, a new argument erupted.

“My dear,” Andre began to address his wife, “before I forget, I got us tickets for Wednesday night to see Hamilton .”

Hamilton ?” Audrey asked confused.

“Yes, darling, the musical about the Americans. You know, the one you wanted to see.”

“They rap, Mummy,” Chloe inserted. “It’s very hard to get a ticket.”

“Extremely hard,” Andre confirmed. “Nearly impossible! But, I managed to get four.”

“Oh!” Chloe wrapped her arms around her father, kissing his cheek. “Thank you, Daddy!”

Kagami rolled her eyes, no doubt reading between the lines and knowing she’d have to attend. Adrien sighed with relief that he wasn’t being made to go. Not that he could even if he wanted to, because he had to work, but still it was a relief not to have to live through another one of Chloe’s scenes. In fairness to the musical, he wouldn’t mind seeing it, but not with Audrey.

“Wednesday’s out of the question,” Audrey replied curtly. “We can’t go.”

Chloe and Andre began protesting at once. Chloe asserted that they must go, since practically everyone has seen it already and they shouldn’t be left out. Andre argued that tickets for any other night could simply not be found. Audrey could not be reasoned with, however, stubbornly repeating that Wednesday would not do. When pressed by her husband as to why Wednesday was such a bad day to see a musical, she replied with a surprising answer.

“I already told you, Andre, Wednesday is the party.”

“But, I thought it was…”

“No,” Audrey interrupted her husband. “It’s now on Wednesday.”

“Party? What party? Who’s giving a party?” Chloe asked excitedly. Once again, Kagami rolled her eyes and sunk lower into her seat. Chloe loved nothing so much as a party and as such Kagami would be made to escort her. She knew the time that should be devoted to training would instead be sucked up into deciding what to wear, shopping, and getting dressed even before the party began. Adrien, for his part, smiled a little to himself, safe in the knowledge that no one had invited him and no one that Audrey knew would want him at their party.

“I’m giving the party!” Audrey announced. “It’s just a little gathering of a hundred or so friends and business associates.” Andre held up two fingers, silently indicating that the guest list numbered two hundred, not one.

“Why am I not invited?” Chloe asked, feeling deeply offended.

“Chloe…”

“No! I’m your daughter and I work in fashion at your own magazine. If it’s for ‘friends and business associates’ I should qualify on both counts!”

“I didn’t invite you because I knew you wouldn’t want to go,” Audrey explained. “It’s not just any party, I’m throwing it for Marinette Dupain-Cheng.”

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng!” Chloe cried, the bile evident in her mouth.

“Oh, boy!” Kagami sighed.

“Marinette!” Adrien breathed. He could feel his heart begin to beat faster as every nerve stood on end, anxious to hear, to know.

“Why are you throwing Marinette Dupain-Cheng a party?”

“It’s a ‘Welcome to Paris’ party,” Audrey explained.

“She was born here,” Chloe snapped. “She doesn’t need to be welcomed.”

“It’s so she can meet everyone who’s anyone. Really, Chloe, I didn't think you’d want to go. You and Marinette get on so badly.”

“We do not!” Chloe argued.

“Ya do, too,” Kagami said under her breath, making Chloe scowl at her in anger.

“The last time I visited you in New York, Marinette and I got along fabulously,” Chloe insisted to her mother. “I even wrote a glowing review of her Spring line.”

“Which I edited, making it glowing,” Audrey corrected.

“She doesn’t know that,” Chloe reminded her. “Oh, please, Mummy! You can’t be so mean as to exclude me!”

“Very well,” Audrey sighed. “Come if you want.” She held her glass up in the air, indicating that it was empty. A waiter quickly came, taking it away with a promise to return with another.

“Thank you, Mummy!” Chloe enthused. “We’ll have the best time!” She smiled broadly at Kagami, who made a face and stuck out her tongue. “Well, Adrien will enjoy it with me, won’t you, Adrikins?”

“Me?” Adrien squeaked. Would he be made to go? Did he want to go? Should he protest or agree or…

“Adrien?” Audrey questioned in surprise.

“Of course, Adrien,” Chloe nodded. “He’s my house guest. If we’re going to a party, then Adrien must go. It’d be rude not to. Really, Mummy!”

“Chloe, I really don’t think…”

“Nonsense, Mummy! Adrien already knows everyone in the fashion industry. He’s a famous model!”

“He was a famous model,” Audrey corrected, “no offense, Adrien, dear.”

“None taken,” he answered demurely. Audrey’s statement was perfectly correct. He used to be famous, now he was nobody.

“I’m sure Marinette would want him there,” Chloe insisted. “They were very close.”

Again, the past tense being the operative tense. They were very close. They were friends. They were in love. They were married.

“I’m sure they were,” Audrey sniffed, “but it’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other. I’m sure you must realize, Adrien, that Marinette isn’t the same person she was when she left Paris eight years ago. A lot has changed.”

“Of course,” Adrien answered, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice, “A lot has changed here, too. I’m not the same person, either.” If only he was as wise then, as he is now.

“I really must insist Adrien goes, Audrey,” Kagami put in, not really following the conversation, but thinking of her own comfort. “I’ll be bored stiff without him to talk to.”

“One more won’t matter, my dear,” Andre cooed, trying to pacify everyone at the table. That seemed to be his lot in life. He negotiated between the members of his family as well as between different factions of the government and interested parties.

“Very well,” Audrey sighed. “You may come, Adrien, if you like.”

Normally, he would have no interest in going, but knowing Marinette would be there, that he might see her, might talk to her. Oh! It was too tempting. He could only hope that upon seeing each other the breach that had kept them apart these many years might be mended. Would it be too much to wish that they might at least become friends again? Could he allow himself to hope for more? That after all this time, she might still love him?

Coming to his senses, Adrien nodded and then expressed his thanks to Audrey. She gave a curt nod and then turned to her daughter.

“I just want to remind you that the party is for Marinette and not for you,” the fashionista advised. “I will not tolerate any scenes. Whatever happened between you two is in the past. Leave it there. The future is all the matters.”

Although, she said these words to her daughter, Adrien couldn’t help but think that they were meant for him. Audrey was the only other person at the table who knew what had transpired between Marinette and him. That had become all too clear to Adrien when he asked Audrey to hand deliver the letter to Marinette. At first, she had refused, noting that he had hurt her protégé very badly and no letter could ever make up for that. His repeated entreaties finally wore her down and Audrey reluctantly agreed. Adrien couldn’t help but feel that Audrey seemed all too happy to tell him that Marinette had torn up his letter without ever reading it.

“I hope this puts an end to the matter,” Audrey sniffed, before hanging up the phone on him without so much as a goodbye. That had been a very dark day. It felt like the door had finally been closed and locked for good measure. But now, a new opportunity, an open window as it were, had provided itself. Perhaps he was being given a second chance.

----o----

Soon enough Adrien found himself alone in his bedroom of Chole and Kagami’s suite. He had barely unpacked, and with less than two hours before his shift would start, he should be getting some sleep or at the very least changing into his scrubs. Instead, he opened his suitcase and pulled out a brown shoe box. Upon seeing the box, most people would probably assume that it contained a pair of shoes, but they’d be wrong. It actually contained his most prized possessions, even more beloved than the keyboard, drum kit, and recording equipment that he asked Luka to keep safe at his apartment while his house was being remodeled. The shoebox contained the remembrances of his relationship with Marinette, the only things he had left of her. Gently lifting off the lid, Adrien sat down on the bed to inspect its contents.

Inside was the Jagged Stone CD that Marinette had signed for him. Being a talented graphic artist as well as fashion designer, she had designed the cover art. Next, he picked up the ticket stub from the Jagged Stone concert. It was the first time he had ever been to a rock concert and he had gone with Marinette, Nino, his best friend, and Alya, Nino’s girlfriend and Marinette’s best friend. That night had been the most fun he had ever had up until that time, staying up late, eating junk food, and singing along to his favorite rock star. He and Marinette were just friends then.

That all changed on the first day of their junior year of lycee. He hadn’t seen Marinette or any of his other friends all summer, having been on an international promotional tour for his father’s fashion line. He had asked his friends before he left if there was something he could bring back for them, a present from his travels. Alya had asked for an assortment of treats, including green tea-flavored chocolate from China and waffle cookies from Holland. Nino had asked him to get self-produced music from local musicians. But, Marinette’s request surprised him.

“Just you,” she had said. “Bring yourself back, safe and sound.”

Those words had floated through his head during the whole trip. He could not stop thinking about them. They perfectly encapsulated some of Marinette’s best qualities, her kindness, her thoughtfulness, her modesty. He knew plenty of beautiful people as a model. He knew a lot of talented people from working in the fashion industry. He even knew a few smart people. But a beautiful, talented, smart girl who was also kind, thoughtful, and modest, as well as funny and passionate? He only knew one: Marinette.

Based on that logic, it should come to no one’s surprise that on their first day back at school, Adrien wrapped himself up as a present. Nino had helped him, taping the polka dotted wrapping paper around his torso and tying the bright red bow around his neck.

“Marinette’s gonna love this!” Nino had grinned.

“I’m ready,” Adrien nodded with determination. But, his sense of sureness began to dissipate the further he walked into school. He got a number of odd stares as he passed by and he was pretty sure he heard snickering along the way. If he hadn’t seen her just then, he might have turned back and given up. But, he did see her, sitting on the bench in the locker room, talking to Alya before class. And, even better, she saw him and smiled. Oh! That smile stoked the love in his heart, giving him renewed purpose.

“Marinette!” He strode over to her. No turning back now! “I…” he gulped, “I’ve brought you a present back from my trip.”

“A-Adrien!” Marinette stood up, a blush spreading across her face. She looked to Alya for help, who nudged her.

“Go on!” her bestie encouraged. “Like we practiced,” she stage whispered.

Marinette nodded, straightened, and then turned back to Adrien. “It’s so very p-prettily wrapped,” she noted, straightening the bow at his throat, “I almost love to close it. I mean, I almost hate to open it.”

“You asked me to bring myself back, safe and sound. And, I have!” he beamed.

“It’s the best present ever!” Marinette sighed dreamily. The two stared at each other for a moment, lost in each other’s eyes, until Alya nudged Marinette again. “Oh! Right. Whatever shall I do with you, now that I have you?” She tapped one finger against her chin, pretending to think.

“Go out with me?” he asked hopefully. “On a date?”

She nodded exuberantly and threw her arms around him in a tight embrace that completely knocked him off his feet. He landed on his butt and she landed on his chest. The whole locker room erupted into cheers and applause.

“I knew one day you’d fall for me,” she quipped. And, that was it. With that one pun, Adrien knew he was in love.

He sighed at the memory, brushing a tear from his eye. He continued to look through the shoe box, finding little notes she had passed him in class, a Valentine’s Day card she had made him, and the string of pink and green charms she had given him for luck. The last thing he looked at was a pair of black boxes, ring boxes. One contained the plain, platinum band that was his wedding ring. The other contained her engagement ring. The princess cut, pink sapphire twinkled despite the low lighting of the room. He slipped his wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand and then placed her engagement ring on the pinkie of the same hand. The second ring was much smaller and only fit about halfway. He held both fingers together, side-by-side, joining them as Marinette and he should have been joined in marriage. His smile faded as thoughts of “What if?” drifted through his mind. Slowly, he removed the rings, placing them back in their ring boxes and then in the shoe box. He replaced the lid, tucking away his mementoes of happier times.

He opened up the chest of drawers and safely placed the shoe box in the top drawer. Feeling that there was not enough time for a nap, he began to undress, taking off his suit and hanging it up inside the wardrobe. He dressed for work and then unpacked his suitcase. When he reopened the top drawer of the dresser to store his socks and underwear, he came across the shoebox again. He was about to close the drawer, when he hesitated. Instead, he lifted the lid and again sifted through the items inside until he found the string of charms. His thumb worried over the largest charm as he wondered how it would be when he next met Marinette. He placed the string in his pocket for safe-keeping, thinking, “ I could use some good luck.

Chapter Text

The midnight shift provided enough distraction for Adrien to temporarily keep from thinking about the upcoming party and meeting Marinette again. But, the moment work was over, the prospect of seeing her again in less than 48 hours hit home and hard. In a panic he called Rose, who was in the process of commuting to her own job. After filling her in on the details, he asked what he should do: go or not go to Audrey’s party?

“Do you want to see Marinette again?” Rose asked, boiling down the problem to one question.

“Yes!” he answered quickly. “But what if she doesn’t want to see me? What if she hates me? What if she won’t even talk to me?”

“Then you’ll know for sure that’s it’s over, and maybe you can finally move on.”

Adrien sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. “I’m just being foolish, aren’t I? There’s no way she could ever forgive me, much less love me again, is there?” Fear made his voice quiver.

“Never say never!” Rose optimistically answered. “You won’t know until you see her. You should think about what you want to say to her.”

“Yes! Something eloquent.”

“But, simple and sincere,” Rose warned. “Do you want me to come with you to the party, you know, for moral support?”

“That would be great,” Adrien agreed.

“Although, it probably wouldn’t look good for you to show up with another girl on your arm while trying to win her back, would it?” Rose hummed.

“No, I guess it wouldn’t it!” Adrien realized much to his chagrin. Having Rose there to encourage him and keep him calm would be essential.

“I know! I’ll be at the ready and if you lose your nerve, then you can call me!” Rose strategized.

“Thanks, Rosie! You’re the best!”

“Oh! I’m so excited!” she squealed. “Okay, I have to go down into the Metro now. Call me later. We can plan what you’re going to say.”

Adrien hung up feeling much more confident until he remembered he’d have to find someone to cover his shift in order to attend the party. He turned around and walked back inside the hospital, hoping he could find a co-worker as willing to help him as Rose.

----o----

BEEP!

Adrien’s green light lit up, indicating Kagami had once again landed a hit against him and scored another point.

“Ha!” she barked jubilantly, “That’s five matches in a row. You suck.”

“I know, I know,” Adrien agreed. He pulled off his helmet. “Can we have a break?” He walked off the piste and over to grab his water bottle.

“I don’t get it,” Kagami threw up her hands in exasperation. “You were on your game yesterday . What happened?”

“Nothing,” Adrien called over his shoulder, before taking a swig of water. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just out of shape, I guess. I’m a bit sore from yesterday.” He made a show of rolling his shoulders, as if trying to loosen them up.

“Distracted is more like it,” Kagami chided as she lifted her visor. “You’re just reacting. Where’s the strategy?”

Adrien knew she was right, but he turned it back on her.  “It’s hard to think when you keep charging at me! It’s like you’re trying to settle a grudge.”

“I was picturing Audrey,” she admitted. She swiped angrily at the air with her foil.

“It works for you,” Adrien chuckled, taking another swallow of water. “You’re attack is on fire. I can’t keep up!”

“Well, at least some good came out of last night,” she sighed. “God, I could’ve strangled Audrey for embarrassing Chloe like that! I mean, she made her go change her clothes. I still can’t believe it.”

“That was pretty awful,” Adrien nodded in agreement.

“Chloe was so upset. She didn’t even want to go back down for dinner. I had to convince her. I told her, ‘Don’t let your mother ruin your night.’ Finally, she agreed. But, she just grabbed the first thing she saw in her closet and threw it on. You know, Chloe, she never dresses so thoughtlessly. I told her not to change, to just go back down wearing what she already had on, but she refused. She feels compelled to please her mother. I hate Audrey.” Kagami slashed again at the air, this time more violently. “If it had been anybody else I would’ve taken that bitch down with a few cutting remarks, but she’s Chloe’s mother.”

Adrien giggled, making Kagami look at him in confusion. “Oh!” he exclaimed, realizing he laughed out of turn. “It’s just you said ‘cutting’ and you have a sword in your hand. So...it’s funny? Sorry,” he apologized, bowing his head. Not many people appreciated word play as he did. “You were saying?”

“Only that I can’t go off on Audrey. I have to keep my temper for Chloe’s sake.”

“I tried to say something to her, but you know Audrey, she doesn’t listen unless it’s something she already wants to hear,” Adrien said solemnly.

“Thanks for trying,” Kagami smiled weakly. “I just hate that she has this power over her. You know, I love Chloe’s tenacity and self-confidence, but Audrey just takes that away from her at every chance. It’s so...infuriating! And, Chloe just let’s her do it! I...I can’t understand it!” Adrien could see Kagami, who was usually cool as a cucumber, was really getting worked up about this.

“I know you remember what it’s like to have a controlling parent,” Adrien reminded her. “You must know what it’s like for Chloe.”

“Yes, but we both got out from under our parents’ thumb,” Kagami argued, “but Chloe never has! I’m beginning to think she never will.”

“We both had help to get free. You had your coach and I had my Chinese teacher. Who does Chloe have?”

“She has us!” Kagami exclaimed with exasperation.

“You’re right!” Adrien nodded, realizing he had missed the obvious. “Of course, she has us. But...”

“What?”

“Well..” Adrien sat down on the bench with a thump. “When I broke with Father, I did something completely unrelated to what he’s known for. And for you,” he gestured to his friend, “you took control of your training but, you didn’t have to come out of your mother’s shadow; she’s not a champion fencer. But, Chloe…”

“Chloe wants to be in fashion...just like her mom,” Kagami realized sadly as she took a seat beside him.

“She’s basically trying to be her mom, to do the exact same thing. It’s practically impossible,” Adrien shook his head. “But, what if she did something else? I bet her father would give her a job running the hotel.”

Kagami shook her head. “Andre’s nicer, but still…same problem, different parent. Besides, she loves fashion. I doubt she’d be willing to give it up.”

“But, she’d get to order people around at the hotel. She loves that!”

“True,” Kagami hummed. “Running the hotel just doesn’t have the same prestige as being the city’s premier fashion critic. Everyone’s afraid of her, well, except Audrey and those that know that Audrey’s opinion is the real one that matters.”

“Okay, a job in fashion that’s prestigious and she calls the shots…” Adrien summarized. “Fashion designer would fit the bill.”

“Naw,” Kagami waved a hand dismissively, “she doesn’t have the talent for it. I think that’s why she’s jealous of that Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Chloe would love to be a fashion designer, but she can’t draw worth shit, much less sew. Mind you, she knows what’s good. I don’t care what Audrey says. Chloe can recognize good clothes when she sees them. I’m living proof of that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Chloe always picks out my clothes. That outfit I wore last night, she picked it out for me.”

“But, it was so you!”

“I know! She’s good at finding clothes that fit both my body and my personality.”

Adrien hummed in agreement. Certainly the clothes she had bought for him yesterday suited him to a tee both in fit and in style. Kagami had found the solution without even realizing it.

“A stylist!” Adrien snapped his fingers and then decisively pointed his index finger at his sparring partner. “Chloe should be a stylist!”

Kagami’s brows furrowed as she thought over the idea.

“It’s in fashion; she’ll get to tell people what to do and what to wear,” Adrien counted off on his fingers.

“Yes, but...is it prestigious enough?” she asked with concern.

“It depends...if she can make a go of it, get a good group of clientele, you know, celebrities and influencers, then I think so!”

“Yes, but don’t those people already know what to wear?”

“Some do, but most don’t. They’re too busy doing their own thing, just like you! You don’t have the time to shop…”

“I don’t even want to,” Kagami grumbled.

“Yes! Exactly! Most don’t have the time or desire or even the ability, they’d get mobbed in the street by paparazzi. They’d much prefer to rely on someone else, someone with expertise. And who could be better than Chloe Bourgeois?”

“It’s not a bad idea…” Kagami hummed. “Do you think she’d go for it?”

Adrien shrugged. “There’ll be some stylists at Audrey’s party, I’m sure. I could introduce you. We could do a little research, put out some feelers? Maybe someone would be interested and be willing to offer her a job.”

“I can’t see Chloe taking orders from anyone.”

“She’ll need to learn the business first. Once she does, then she can break out on her own.”

“Alright! Let’s do it!” Kagami thrusted out her hand and Adrien took it, shaking it as they made their pact. “Let’s find Chloe a new job!”

-----o----

After training, Adrien and Kagami returned to the suite, finding Chloe busy in the bedroom trying on different outfits for tomorrow night’s party. She insisted that they give her their opinions on each one as she flounced around the suite in dress after dress. By the sixth ensemble Adrien could not hold back his yawns and excused himself despite the pouts and protests of his blonde friend. Kagami at least spoke up for him, telling her girlfriend to give the poor boy a break as he was obviously exhausted from her kicking his ass so many times. She assured Chloe that she would help her decide what to wear, and gave her additional praise for the many dress options the expert shopper had provided her, each of which she liked better than the last.

For the next six hours or so Adrien slept more fitfully than soundly. He tossed and turned, pulling the covers this way and that, punching the pillow flat. When he finally did sleep, his dreams were full of Marinette: her face, her voice. Across the crowded room he saw her. She looked exactly the same as on their wedding day. She had the same bright, blue eyes, the same petite figure, and identical warm smile. With heavy feet he approached her. His knees shook and his palms felt sweaty. There were so many people between them. He weaved left and right, left and right, in a dizzying path. Finally, he came face to face with her. Her expression was unreadable. Was she happy to see him? Angry? Surely, not surprised? He opened his mouth to speak the prepared words, but no sound would come. His voice was completely gone. He grasped at his dry throat, trying to make a squeak, a grunt, anything to convey how he felt. He jerked back, feeling the spray of the cold  drink she threw in his face. He managed to sputter out, “I’m sorry,” only to be met with a punch to the gut. The sharp blow forced out his breath and he doubled over, wheezing painfully, trying in vain to breathe. To top it all off as he watched her walk away through teary eyes he realized he was wearing no clothes whatsoever.

He woke up in a cold sweat just as his alarm began to beep. His heart pounded rapidly in his chest as he blinked, realizing what had just happened was only a dream. A throaty moan escaped his lips, but he forced himself out of bed. He had to get to work. It would be a long day, a double shift. A necessary evil in order to attend tomorrow night’s party, but he dreaded it. Ideally, he would have preferred to have picked up a shift on a day that he would have normally had off, but unfortunately that did not work out. He was saving his vacation time to use for the Grand Prix, as he planned to travel with Kagami and be there for the competition, and so could not afford to use it now. The only other option he had was to simply call in sick, but he valued his co-workers too much to leave them short staffed or to make one of them unexpectedly come in to cover for him. He would work from midnight to 16:00, 16 hours straight. Then he would return to the hotel and sleep for about four hours, shower, dress and arrive at the party fashionably late by 21:00 with Kagami and Chloe. His plan left him no time to have dinner, but he figured he could eat at the party, although he suspected that he’d be too anxious to be hungry anyway.

Nerves fueled him the whole day as he went about caring for his patients. Being still only allowed him time to think and to worry, so he kept moving constantly. Up and down the halls, back and forth from room to room. At one point the head nurse scolded him that he had missed one of his mandatory breaks and shooed him into the breakroom. He texted Rose while downing some coffee. She texted back, encouraging him that the night would go well. They had already planned out what he would say to Marinette earlier during Rose’s lunch hour. He practiced saying it to his best friend a few times and she gave him tips, mainly to slow down and to breathe. As soon as he could, he returned to the Emergency Room floor, selfishly grateful for the ill and hurt patients to provide him a distraction.

When he got off from work, he indulged in an Uber to take him to the hotel. In the back seat, he laid his head back and lifting his glass slightly, he rubbed his tired eyes. Usually he wore his contacts, but on a day when he’d likely be awake for almost eighteen hours straight, he decided to wear his glasses to work, so that he could wear his contacts to the party. Must look his best for Marinette. He sighed, trying to still the thoughts in his head. He needed to sleep. If he had any hope of tonight going well, then he needed to have his wits about him, and for that he needed sleep. He must of dozed off as the Uber driver’s call of “We’re here!” surprised him. He blinked and rubbed his tired eyes again, a yawn escaping his lips.

His intention was to go directly to his room and fall head first into bed without even changing his clothes. He barely made it two steps into the suite before his plans were summarily thrown out the window.

“Oh! Adrikins!’ Chloe sobbed as she threw herself into his arms. “It’s terrible! Horrible!”

For a moment Adrien wondered what supposedly awful catastrophe had befallen his overly dramatic friend, figuring it was probably a split seam in her dress for tonight or a rude delivery person. But then he noticed Kagami pacing and talking frantically into her phone. Pollen barked in agitation as she hopped in front of him...alone. He looked around, concern rising in his heart, wondering…

“Where’s Tikki?”

“She’s r-run away!” Chloe blubbered. Tears, real tears, streaked her cheeks, causing her mascara to run.

“What happened?” he cried, looking to Kagami for answers, but she was still on the phone.

“That damn dog walker lost her!” the miserable canine mother cursed. “And now I’ll never see her again!” Chloe wailed.

“We’ll find her,” he soothed, petting her hair. She continued to cry into his shoulder, staining it with a mixture of make-up and tears.

When Kagami got off of the phone she succinctly told Adrien everything that happened. According to the dog walker, Tikki slipped her collar while on their normal walk in the park located a few blocks from the hotel. Adrien was very familiar with that park, since it was located across the street from his old college and the bakery owned by Marinette’s parents. He had spent a lot of time there taking long walks with her and feasting on picnic lunches that included the tastiest treats of Paris.

Despite feeling bone tired, Adrien didn’t think twice about offering his services to look for Tikki. He figured he could ride around the park on his bicycle and look for the missing pooch. Kagami said that she had been on the phone with her publicist, who was taking care of posting a missing dog notice on social media. She had sent them pictures and a description of the lost dalmatian. Their office was also making up flyers that they could hand out and hang up, they just needed to be picked up.

“You start looking in the park and I’ll go pick up the flyers,” Kagami strategized with Adrien. “I’ll join you as soon as I can. We can meet in front of the college.”

“You’re not thinking of leaving me here all alone, are you?” Chloe asked indignant.

“Chloe…” Kagami began, but was cut off.

“It’s too cruel! You can’t expect me to wait here all by myself! I’ll go crazy!” she ranted.

“I expect you to come out and help us look for her,” Kagami retorted.

“That’s ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous!” the blonde diva railed. “In the state I’m in! My nerves shot! I’m likely to faint or worse!” she threatened.

Kagami sighed and then squeezed her eyes shut, taking a moment to calm herself before replying. Adrien jumped in before their disagreement erupted into a full battle royale. “I’ll go,” he suggested. “I’ll go to the publicist and then the park. I can pass out flyers as I look for Tikki.”

“Adrien, the park is huge. You can’t cover it by yourself,” Kagami reasonably surmised.

“I’ll call Luka. He can drive over in his van and circle the edge of the park and I’ll criss-cross it.” He looked at his watch. “Rose gets off from work in about an hour. I’m sure she’ll help, too.”

“It’s very kind of you, Adrien, but…”

“Thank you, Adrikins!” Chloe cut off her girlfriend and flung her arms around Adrien’s neck to give him a hug.

“Just stay with Chloe and keep her calm,” Adrien advised Kagami. “I’ll text you and let you know how it’s going.”

-----o-----

With one foot on the ground and the other on the pedal of his bicycle, Adrien surveyed the park. He had been searching for almost two hours without seeing any trace of the missing dog. The music from the nearby carousel wafted through the air as it’s lights suddenly flicked on, shimmering in the darkening sky. Feeling tired, he had stopped for a break, telling himself he needed a moment to decide where to look next. His heart rate had slowed back down to normal now and the heat he had created by cycling had left his body. Adrien shivered against the cold March breeze. His eyes scanned the paths and lawns of the park while he zipped up his hoodie and tightened the scarf around his neck. He checked his phone, but there were no texts from Luka or Rose. They hadn’t had any luck finding Tikki either. Next, Adrien scrolled through the social media pages, hoping to see a posting that she had been found or at least seen, but nothing. He had hung up and passed out all of the flyers, save one, which he kept handy in the messanger bag slung across his chest to show anyone whom he passed in the park. The people he talked to promised to keep an eye out for her, but so far no one had seen her. Chloe had called him every 20 minutes on the dot, asking for updates. He felt disheartened at having to continually disappoint her.

Adrien cupped his hands and called out Tikki’s name. For good measure he squeezed her favorite squeaky toy. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a hamburger or a macaron, the coloring of the toy had long since faded, but the squeaker inside still worked. He hoped that she would hear it and come running.

The whole time he had been searching, he couldn’t help but selfishly watch the clock as it ticked by, getting closer and closer to the appointed hour of Audrey’s party, when he would see her: Marinette. Just two hours to go. He wondered if it would be okay for him to return to the hotel empty handed. Probably not, he decided. He had missed his opportunity to sleep, but he still needed to shower and dress. Reasonably, he could search for another thirty minutes or so, but after that it would be dark. Wouldn’t it be better to renew the search with fresh eyes and fresh legs first thing in the morning? But, would he even be able to enjoy the party knowing that Tikki was out there, somewhere lost and alone? As he struggled internally with these matters, a child’s cry caught his attention.

“One more time, please, Mommy? Please, please, pppllleeeeeeaaaasssseeeee!?!” Hearing English spoken instead of his native French, even in a city as international as Paris, was uncommon enough to at least spark his interest. When he turned to see the mother and daughter, who were leaving the carousel, he nearly fell off his bike. The young girl looked to be around five or six years old. She had dark, straight hair worn in pigtails. She wore a red dress with a flared skirt and pink fairy wings, that flapped as she moved. The mother dressed more practically in khakis, a pink trench coat, and nude ballet flats. Her hair matched her daughter’s in both color and style. They also had the same almond-shaped eyes and porcelain-like skin. The fading light did not allow him to ascertain if she had bluebell-colored eyes or not. Adrien’s mouth dropped open and his heart lurched in his chest. She looked almost exactly as he remembered her. He nearly called out her name, but he bit his tongue out of reticence of being rejected, rather than out of doubt that it was really Marinette.

His brain was not allowed any more time than a few seconds to process this chance meeting as from the opposing side a dog’s bark drew his attention. He turned to see a dalmation streak across the park with a young lady on roller blades giving chase. If he had any doubt as to the identity of the dog, it was waylaid by the woman shouting “Tikki!” as she skated after her. With a regretful glance at the quickly departing mother and child, Adrien pushed off with one foot, hurrying to catch up with the canine. As he peddled he, too, called the dog’s name and squeaked the toy. On the third squeak, Tikki looked back over her shoulder, mouth open in a “smile”, tongue hanging out. Her eyes widened in recognition and she made a quick u-turn that could only be described as ungraceful, since her back end slipped, hitting the pavement for a brief moment due to the speed of her maneuver. Undeterred by any pain she may have felt, Tikki was back on all fours and now running at top speed toward them. She reached the woman on rollerblades first, who made a dive for her as she passed. Although a valiant effort, the woman missed and Tikki kept running. Adrien slowed his bicycle and then turned it parallel to the oncoming dog. He stretched out his hand, offering the toy at about shoulder height. Tikki jumped catching one end of the toy between her teeth as Adrien held on to the other end. Despite Tikki shaking her head to try to loosen the toy from his grasp, Adrien held on tight long enough to pull out her collar and leash from the messenger bag he wore across one shoulder.

“Easy, Tikki!” Adrien laughed as he struggled to loop the collar around her neck with one hand, while still holding on to the toy with the other. “Sit. Sit, Tikki!”  

“That’s not fair! I saw her first!” a voice from above cried out in protest. Adrien looked up to find the woman on rollerblades, her blue eyes flaring in anger. She had short cropped, pink hair stuffed under a black helmet. The long sleeve, black spandex shirt she wore underneath a loose-fitting, black tank top was accented with neon green snakes that wrapped around her arms and up her shoulders. Black shorts, black and pink striped socks, and black rollerblades with lime green wheels completed the look. “The reward should be mine! Not yours!” She jabbed a finger, sporting dainty pink fingernail polish, against Adrien’s chest. Her choice in fingernail polish aside, she seemed to have a very fierce nature.

“Help me get this collar on and you can have the reward,” Adrien muttered as he continued to struggle against Tikki, whose assault to free her toy was becoming more and more aggressive, threatening to pull Adrien and his bike over.

“All of it?!?” she asked in surprise.

“Hurry!” he grunted. Tikki’s spit made the toy slippery and he was afraid it would slip out of his hands and her with it. The woman quickly joined the two ends of the collar around the dog’s neck and secured the clasp. She grabbed the end of the leash, seemingly unwilling to let go of her “prize”. Adrien wearily released the toy and Tikki happily chomped on it, making it squeak, squeak, squeak in such a pleasing way that she flopped on the ground, thoroughly enticed with it, wagging her tail. Adrien couldn’t help but smile, petting her head and back and telling her what a naughty girl she was for running away and worrying her mothers.

“Thanks very much for your help,” he said to the woman as he swung one leg off of the bicycle and stood it up by the kickstand. “Where did you spot her?”

“She was hanging out in front of a bakery down the street. I think she even made it inside, but they shooed her out. That’s when I saw her, but she just took off running!” the woman said.

Adrien laughed at the story. Tikki certainly was a chow hound and would eat anything and everything if given the chance. He said as much before introducing himself. The woman, Alix, took his hand suspiciously, but she did shake it. He took out his phone and snapped a picture of Tikki as she continued to lay on the ground, panting and “holding” her toy between her paws. He sent the picture with the words “Found her!” to the group text, followed by another text as to where in the park they were located. He then asked Luka if he could come by with the van.

“About the reward…” Alix said pulling the folded flyer from her pocket, “there’s a number to call…”

“Don’t call that…” he waved her off. “That’s the publicist. I know the owners. I can call them directly.”

“Sure ya do…” Alix rolled her eyes and began dialing the number on the flyer.

Adrien’s phone rang just then. “The owners,” he said as an aside before answering the call. Alix paused her dialing, tilting her head to listen as Adrien laid the phone flat in his hand and pressed the speaker button. Chloe’s shrill “Adrikins!” greeted him. She had a million questions, most of which Adrien couldn’t quite make out, but he assured her that Tikki was safe and sound and didn’t look any worse for wear, perhaps just a bit dirty and tired. He felt much the same. When her sobs of joy became too much for him to understand what she was saying he asked for Chloe to put Kagami on the phone.

“Kagami?” Alix chirped. “As in Kagami Tsurugi?”

Adrien nodded as Kagami came on the line. He filled her in on what happened, giving her the details, but Alix kept interrupting him with questions about Kagami.

“The fencer?” she whispered skeptically.

Adrien nodded.

“You mean, the gold medalist?” she asked more excitedly.

Again, Adrien nodded.

“Kagami, I’ve got the woman here who found Tikki. Her name’s Alix. I think she may be a fan of yours. I’m going to pass the phone to her and you can sort out about the reward.” He held out his phone to Alix who stared as it if it might explode in her hands. He gave it a shake, encouraging her to take it; slowly, almost reverently she did.

“H-hello?” she rasped.

As they talked, Rose pulled up on her bike, enthusiastically greeting Adrien and then Tikki. The dog licked her hand and then sat up, holding the toy in her mouth. With a small “Woof!” she dropped the toy at Rose’s feet, eager to play fetch.

“Oh no, miss! Playtime is over for you! You need a bath!” Rose scolded with a giggle. Adrien recounted the story of how they found her while Alix continued to talk on the phone with Kagami.

“This is the best day of my life!” Alix enthused as she handed Adrien back his phone.

“Yeah, you’re 300 Euros richer!” he noted with a smile.

“Not the money!” Alix waved her hand dismissively. “I talked to Kagami Tsurugi! And, she’s promised to come see me play in my next roller derby jam!”

“Oh! Is that, um, a game or a race?” Rose asked sweetly.

“Both! It’s a match up, five on five. One person from each team, the jammer, scores by lapping the other team. The other four players on your team try to block the other team’s jammer and make holes for their jammer to skate through. Get it?” she asked excitedly. Rose and Adrien both nodded rather dumbly. Feeling she wasn’t getting her point across, Alix pulled out her phone and cued up a video of her team playing in their last match-up

“Looks violent!” Rose noted as she watched the video. Bodies clashed as elbows and knees jutted out, ramming against each other and the barrier wall of the rink. “You think Juleka would enjoy it?”

“To play? No,” Adrien replied as he looked over her shoulder at the screen. “To watch? Possibly…” Juleka certainly had eccentric tastes. It was hard to say, really, what she would like. “She might like to take some pictures. She’s been working on taking more action shots. Can’t say I could see Aurore going…” Adrien hummed.

“That’s a bonus!” Rose quipped. Adrien bit his tongue, but they exchanged a knowing look. Rose tended to be exceedingly nice and patient with everyone. She even somehow managed to get along with Chloe. Aurore was another matter. Right from the start, Rose took an instant disliking to her, not that Adrien minded. He didn’t much like her either, or at least he didn’t like how Aurore treated Juleka. Why Luka’s sister persisted in dating the selfish, wannabe starlet was a mystery to everyone who knew her, even her own brother.

“If you’re interested, then you should check out our website…” Alix volunteered. She gave the website information to Rose just as Luka pulled up in his van. The guitarist greeted his friends as he hopped out.

“Let’s go before a cop shows up!” he called, jogging to the back of the van to open up the door. He had double parked in order to get everyone loaded inside. Adrien placed his bicycle inside first. He gestured to Rose that he’d put hers in next, but she waved him off.

“You gotta get to the party!” Rose reminded him. “It’s getting late! I can make it home myself.” Adrien tried to argue with her, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

“What’s this about a party?” Luka asked. He was always interested in anything that offered free food and free drink.

“Chloe’s mom is throwing a party to welcome a new designer to Paris,” Adrien explained.

“You going, too?” he asked Rose, but she shook her head no.

His eyebrows jumped in surprise, but then a smile grew on his face and he leaned into Adrien. “Well, I’m not as pretty as Rose, but I clean up pretty good. You’d have to keep your hands to yourself. I don’t put out on the first date,” he teased.

“Sorry, man. I had to beg for my invite. I didn’t dare press to get a plus one,” the blond explained.

“Aw, well, never hurts to ask. How about you, Miss Dog Catcher, you need a ride home?” he asked Alix.

The rollerblader looked at the van as if it had “Kidnappings for Hire” written on the side of it. “Thanks, but no thanks,” she snapped. She handed Adrien the end of the leash and he encouraged Tikki to jump inside the van.

“You headed my way?” Rose asked, pointing to the direction she was headed. Alix nodded and the two rolled their way down the street in the opposite direction.

“Alright, Cinderella,” Luka joked, “Let’s get you to the ball! It ain’t exactly a magical pumpkin coach, but it’ll do the job.”

-----o-----

Their arrival at the hotel suite was announced by Pollen’s jubilant barks at the return of her sister. She sniffed Tikki from snout to tail to determine where her adventure had taken her. Chloe and Kagami came quickly to greet them, but they were unceremoniously bypassed as Adrien sprinted toward the guest bathroom. Emptying his stomach was of top priority.

“Adrikins!” Chloe wailed, feeling afronted at the lack of greeting.

“What happened?” Kagami asked of Luka, ascertaining that something was quite wrong with their blond friend. She stooped down to pet Tikki, careful not to get any dog hair on her black cocktail dress.

“Car sick,” Luka summarized. “Stop and go traffic the whole way. Took forever, but we're here, no worse for wear,” he said, giving Tikki a pat on the back. He cringed at the sound of Adrien spilling his guts. “Well, some of us worse…”

A moment later Adrien emerged from the guest bathroom, looking noticeably pale. His face had a green cast to it and his eyes looked sunken.

“God, Adrien! You look like death!”

“Hurry up and get dressed! We need to leave soon!” Chloe chided, ignoring her girlfriend’s remark and her friend’s appearance. “Jean Luc! Give Tikki a bath. She’s filthy!,” she ordered her butler as she started to leave the room, presumably to dress for the party, since she was simply wearing a pale yellow, satin robe. Her makeup and hair were already done and the jewels in her ears and around her neck sparkled.

“You can’t expect him to go,” Kagami noted in horror as she and Luka helped Adrien to a chair. “He can barely stand.”

“I’m fine,” Adrien rasped. “Or, I will be. Just give me a minute.” If the room would just stop spinning and if the lights could be turned off, then he was sure he would be able to live. He’d be wishing for death the whole time, but technically speaking he’d be alive.

“He has to go!” Chloe argued, whirling around to launch her attack. “I begged Mummy to invite him! It’s ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous!”

“Chloe...”

“No! You don’t just not go to one of Mummy’s parties,” Chloe stomped her foot like a bratty child about to throw a temper tantrum. “Don’t you know who she is?”

“Yeah, she’s a stuck up snob with no taste that didn’t even want Adrien there in the first place!” Kagami countered. “Don’t you know who he is?” she pointed to Adrien as she asked her rhetorical question. “He’s your oldest friend who just worked a double shift so he could go to this lame ass party to keep me company, only to have to go out looking in the cold for our lost dog, which he found! And now you want to make him go to a party when he’s sick?!? No, Chloe. Not. Going. To. Happen.”

“Kagami…” Adrien began, “I can go…”

“Shut up, Adrien,” Kagami snapped at him. “Luka! Help me move him.” She took Adrien by the arm and Luka grabbed him by the other. They hoisted him to his feet and shuffled him toward his bedroom. They set him on the bed and Adrien flopped sideways, head gratefully meeting pillow.

“Don’t get comfortable,” Kagami chided. “Take his clothes off,” she ordered as she disappeared into the bathroom.

“What now?” Luka asked with a squeak. His eyes flicked back to Adrien who looked up at him in confusion. They could hear the sound of the shower being turned on and then the faucet over the sink running. A moment later Kagami returned.

“Lot a help you are,” she informed Luka. “Find some pajamas for him.” She passed Adrien a glass of water. “Drink slowly,” she ordered. Leaning on one elbow he managed to swallow a mouthful. She took the glass from him, placing it on the side table. Then she grabbed the hem of his shirt. He winced and pulled away. “Don’t be a baby,” she chided. “I’ve seen you naked before.”

“Not recently!” he balked. “And, not all of me!” Before dating Marinette, he and Kagami dated briefly. They had messed around a bit, but never got past third base.

“You stink. You’ll feel better after a shower. Now, come on!” She grabbed the hem of the shirt and pulled it over his head. “Stand up.”

He hesitated, knowing full well that his pants would be next.

“Don’t worry. I’m not interested in what you got,” she smirked.

He nodded and then, with a hand on her shoulder to steady himself, he stood up. She knelt down and pulled down his pants with a sharp tug. At almost that exact moment Luka turned around, having found the pajamas.

“Dude!”

“Kagami!” Chloe shrieked, coming into the bedroom at the worst possible moment. “What are you doing?” she asked horrified to see her girlfriend kneeling before a very naked Adrien. He quickly covered his manhood with both hands.

“It’s official,” he moaned, “I want to die. Just kill me.”

“Shower first, then you can have your funeral,” Kagami joked as she stood and then helped him into the bathroom. “Don’t faint!” she ordered.

He stepped into the shower stall and stuck his head under the showerhead. The water felt warm and soothing. The flowery smell of the soap filled his nose. He sighed deeply as he leaned on one wall of the shower, allowing the water to cascade around him. When he stepped out of the shower, he did feel better and for a brief moment he thought perhaps he might be able to rally and still go to the party, until he saw the face that looked back at him in the mirror. He dragged a hand through his tangled locks and then down one cheek, noting his sunken cheeks and puffy eyes. God, he was a mess.

Opening the door slightly, he stuck out a hand asking for his pajamas. Resigned to staying at home he put them on. There was no way he could meet Marinette looking like this. When he came back into the bedroom he was surprised to see Luka standing barefoot and buttoning up one of the shirts Chloe had bought him the other day.

“What’s going on?” he asked as he slumped into bed. “They got you out of your clothes, too?”

Luka blushed. “It’s been decided that I’m going to the party in your place,” he explained.

“If we make up for the missing headcount, then Audrey probably won’t notice,” Kagami explained.

“Oh…” Adrien sighed, feeling a bit hurt that he could be so easily replaced.

“And then Chloe won’t get in trouble with her mom,” Kagami finished her explanation with an eyeroll.

“Here, put this on on!” Chole thrust a jacket from Adrien’s wardrobe in Luka’s face. Adrien quickly grabbed his glasses from the nightstand. Recognizing the jacket he immediately protested.

“He can’t wear that!” Adrien yelped. “No! Luka, you can’t wear that!” Undeterred Chloe demanded to know why. “It’s custom! I designed it, had it made, only I wear it!”

“It’s part of his Chat Noir gear,” Luka divulged quietly.

“You’re YouTube persona?” Chloe squaked. “Honestly, Adrien, you’re a grown man! Why do you still feel the need to hide stuff from your father?”

“Habit,” he deadpanned.

“Adrien’s right,” Luka agreed, “I can’t wear it.” Chloe scowled at him and he threw his hands up in surrender. “People will think I’m Chat Noir! I mean, nothing against your music, Adrien, but our styles are totally different. And there is the difference between professional and amateur. My fans would be so confused!”

“Let Adrien keep his furry costume,” Kagami snarked. “There must be something else Luka can wear.”

“It’s not a furry costume,” Adrien corrected. “There’s no fur on it! It’s faux leather!”

“Riiiight,” Kagami nodded if only to appease him.

Chloe sighed, throwing the jacket back  inside the wardrobe. She disappeared down the hall, muttering that there was nothing else as Pollen followed her, tap dancing excitedly.

“I ordered you dinner,” Kagami said to Adrien. “Think you can manage some soup?”

Adrien nodded miserably. “I really wanted to go the party,” he moaned as she pulled back the covers on one side and he slipped his feet underneath. Tucking the covers up under his chin, she patted the top of his head.

“I know. They’ll be other parties. Try to get some sleep,” she commanded not unkindly.

“I will,” he nodded. “Thanks, mom,” he smirked.

“Chloe!” Luka called. “This isn’t going to work!” He gesticulated as she re-entered the room, “The sleeves are two short.” He held his arms out showing several centimeters of skin at the wrist. He and Adrien were about the same height and size, but apparently Luka had longer arms.

“Just roll the sleeves up,” Chloe shrugged. “Here, put this on.” She helped him into a black, leather vest that Adrien recognized as belonging to Kagami. “Now for the finishing touch…” She reached up and hung two necklaces around his neck. One was a tooth pendant and the other was a small silver medallion. She stood back to look at her handiwork.

Luka spun around to let them see the look from all angles. “Well?” he asked.

“Not bad,” Kagami complimented.

“It’ll have to do! No time to do any better,” Chloe lamented. “Just try to stay in the dark corners,” she advised.

“Hey, I’ll be wherever the shrimp puffs and alcohol lead me.”

“You’re meant to be with me,” Kagami corrected, “so I have someone to talk to. I hope you’re up on the latest football.”

“Of course I am!” he replied nervously.

Just then Chloe’s butler returned with a cleaned Tikki, Luka’s newly polished boots, and a warm bowl of “Marinette soup!”  

“Wait…” Kagami hummed as she watched the butler place a napkin on Adrien’s lap before handing him the soup. “Is that named for…”

“Yes!” Chloe sighed exasperated. “Come on! We better hurry! I still need to dress,” she said to Kagami. “Feel better, Adrikins!” She kissed him on the cheek.

Kagami did the same, absentmindedly and then followed her girlfriend down the hall asking, “How does someone get soup named after them?”

“Take care, man!” Luka offered his fist and Adrien bumped it weakly. “I’ll text you tomorrow. If ya feel better, then we can set up your recording equipment. Play a song or two, ‘kay?”

Adrien watched him go followed by the butler. He looked down at his meal, stirring the spoon slowly. Of course, it would be Marinette soup. She seemed to be everywhere, at his childhood home, at the park, at the party, and even in his soup. As he ate, he thought back to the cooking contest held at the hotel that Marinette’s great uncle had entered during their first year of college. Adrien was there to act as interpreter since Chef Wang Cheng didn’t speak French, only Mandarin. Chef Wang Cheng created the celestial soup, but thanks to Chloe’s sabotage, she ruined his chances to win. Marinette uncovered Chloe’s interference and convinced the judges to give her great uncle another chance. The second batch of soup won the contest, meaning that the hotel’s restaurant had served it ever since, but only after Chef Wang Cheng renamed the soup after his niece for her help, and for believing in him when no one else had. It was the first time Adrien had witnessed firsthand Marinette’s kindness, cleverness, resourcefulness, determination, and one quality that she often hid, her confidence. It was then he knew his schoolmate and friend was someone very special, sparking the beginning of his romantic feelings for her, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.

The soup was warm and tasty. He wouldn’t have minded another bowl, but he figured it best to not push it in case his stomach decided to do a repeat performance. Just after he finished eating he heard the front door open, his friends talking, the shuffling of feet, and finally the slam of the door. They were on their way downstairs to the party. The butler arrived soon after to take the empty bowl away. He was accompanied by both dogs, who seeing Adrien in bed, jumped up to cuddle with him. Settling back against the fluffy pillow, he had almost fallen asleep when he heard a ping from his phone. He swiped the screen seeing several texts from Rose. The first indicated she had made it home safely and must have been sent when he was in the shower. The last text from her simply wished him good luck and assured him she’d be standing by if he needed her. With a sigh he texted back: “Cinderella’s not going to the ball. I’ll explain tomorrow.” Then, he switched off his phone and the light.

-----o----

The anxious yip of Pollen woke Adrien with a start. He switched on the light to find her twirling in a circle and scratching at the door. WIth a sigh he put on his glasses and check the time on his phone, almost twenty minutes past midnight.

“Guess you didn’t get your evening walk did you?” he asked the cocker spaniel. She merely whimpered in reply. Chloe had fired the dogwalker after losing Tikki and apparently it did occur to anyone that her services would be missed almost immediately. “Come on, Tikki, If I have to go, so do you.”

Gratefully Pollen seemed satisfied with just a walk around the block. Tikki walked along amiably enough, too tired to cause any further mischief. Adrien meant to return to the suite directly, but as he came to the corridor that led to the ballroom, he hesitated. He looked down the hallway wistfully at the door that blocked the party from his view, wondering if Marinette was still there. Was she disappointed to know that he wouldn’t be there? Did she even know ahead of time? Was she sorry that he was sick? What dress did she choose and how did she style her hair? Who did she enjoy meeting at the party and who was a complete bore? Does she like staying in his father’s mansion? Had she chosen his bedroom as her own? What were her plans now that she was back in Paris? These questions and many more ran through his head as he stared at the door. Then, suddenly the door cracked open and Adrien bolted, pulling both dogs by their leashes, hurrying so as not to be seen. He leaped into the elevator, and only after the door close with him safely hid inside did he slump against the wall, a relieved breath escaping his lips.

Adrien didn’t hear his friends return that night and so had no notion as to the time of their arrival. He woke up much later than normal and alone. Someone must have let the dogs out of his room. Placing his glasses on and not bother to change out of his pajamas he shuffled out of the room in search of coffee. Chloe and Kagami were seated in the middle of the longue at a small table next to a roller tray filled with breakfast accoutrements.

“Ahhhh, Sleeping beauty,” Kagami greeted at the sight of Adrien. “Although, I use the term beauty loosley. I didn’t think you would ever get up. How are you? Hungry?” She kicked an empty chair, pushing it away from the table and offering it to him to sit. “Coffee?”

Adrien nodded eagerly. She turned over the coffee cup, setting it upright in the saucer before pouring the dark, rich liquid. The heavenly scent filled his nostrils. His eyes scanned the trolley, finding all sorts of delicious pastries. He reached for one, but Kagami smacked his knuckles.

“No carbs! You’re supposed to be in training with me,” she chided, poking him in the belly with one finger. “Soft boy! Here!” she placed a tall glass of dark green liquid next to the cup of coffee.

Adrien swallowed hard and then stuck out his tongue in disgust. He remembered all too well drinking those protein shakes.

“Leave him alone, K,” Chloe muttered. She sat leaning back in her chair with her feet propped up on another. A cold pack was on her forehead and a slice of cucumber covered each eye.

“You been up long?” he asked as he added milk to his coffee.

“Long enough to swim twenty laps, shower, and dress,” Kagami boasted. “Mademoiselle, here,” she indicated Chloe with a flick of the wrist, “got up about ten minutes before you.”

“How was the party?” Adrien ventured, eying the chocolate eclair seductively sitting on the trolley.

“Borrrrriiiiinnnngg,” Kagami intoned. “You could count the number of people under thirty on one hand. Not one of them sports fans.”

Adrien giggled. “Luka’s sparkling conversation failed to entertain?”

“Uh-huh. He’s much more charming when he’s holding a guitar,” Kagami quipped. “I would’ve had a lot more fun with you there.” She patted him on the shoulder and he smiled back, appreciating her sentiment. “Anyway, less than a half hour into the party he ditches me to follow around that Marinette like a lost puppy dog.”

“Oh?” Adrien asked in surprise, almost spilling his coffee in his lap.

“Yeah, she was the star of the show,” Chloe grumbled. “Everyone couldn’t get enough of her. They were tripping over themselves to fawn at her feet. Everyone loooovvved Marinette!”

“Jealous much?” Kagami smirked over her protein drink.

“Shut it,” Chloe snapped, catching her girlfriend’s dig at her.

“Yes, but...Luka...was he really so taken with her?”

“Oh yeah,” Kagami chuckled. “No doubt he’s writing her a love song right now as we speak.”

“What about Marinette? Did she seem, um, do you think she likes him?” Adrien asked, but hoping with everything in his being that his friends would answer him in the negative.

Kagami shrugged, “I guess? I don’t know. She was a nervous wreck when she first arrived, all twitchy and klutzy. Remember how she was in college? But, then she seemed to calm the fuck down once everyone began kissing her ass.”

“It was thanks to me,” Chloe piped up from behind her cucumber. “A few words from me and she found her confidence. I’m very good at that, you know. I’m the best at helping people.”

“Oh…” Adrien sighed. “What did you say to her?”

“I dunno know,” the blonde diva shrugged. “Probably the usual shit you say at these parties: so good to see you, glad you could come, you look amazing or so young or so thin, whatever.”

“Did, um, did I come up at all?” he squeaked.

“Oh yes! I told her you weren’t coming.” Chloe shook her finger at him even though she couldn’t see him. “Yes, that’s right! I told her all about how Tikki ran away and you were so gallant to go out looking for her.”

“I explained you’d just worked a double shift,” Kagami added, “and that the extra exertion of looking for Tikki knocked you on your ass. Poor dear, so delicate.” She patted him on his head.

Normally, Adrien wouldn’t let Kagami get away with such condescison, but this time he let it slide if only to get more information out of them. “So....how did she seem when you told her? Disappointed?” he asked excitedly, nodding his head. “Or happy?” he asked nervously, shaking his head.  

“Ugggghhh! Do we have to keep talking about her? Honestly, if I hear her name one more time today…”

“Marinette, Marinette, Marinette,” Kagami teased.

Chloe peeled off the cucumber from one eye and flung it at her. She batted it away, barking with laughter.

“You’re definitely going to be hearing her name today, or have you forgotten?” Kagami asked. “You agreed to a tour of her Paris offices and boutique. You better get dressed. She’ll be here soon.”

“I don’t wanna!!!” she moaned, pulling both feet off of the chair and then dropping them on the floor with a bang.

“Mummy said you have to...it’s for the magazine,” Kagami taunted, shooing her away with her napkin.

“Marinette is coming here ?” Adrien yelped.

“I’ll go!’ Chloe pouted. “But I won’t like it!” She rose and threw her napkin down with a huff. She stomped away, blustering about how unfair it was.

“I better go hurry her along. Tell Marinette when she gets here that Chloe will be out tout de suite.”

“Kagami!” Adrien pulled roughly on her sleeve. “This is important! Does Marinette know I’m staying here?”

Kagami shrugged. “I don’t think I mentioned it. Maybe Chloe or Audrey did...”

She pulled her arm out of his grasp, which he allowed as he dumbly sat there. She briskly left the room, making her short hair swish side to side. Adrien sat frozen for a minute, trying to decide what to do. If Marinette didn’t know he was staying here, then she would be walking blindly into a very awkward, probably painful scene; one that by sheer luck she had avoided last night and would be wholly unprepared for today. He would not want to cause her any discomfort, especially if his mere absence could so easily avoid it. And yet, what if she did know? What if she was disappointed that she hadn’t seen him last night and was hoping to see him this morning? Maybe this would be their opportunity to reconcile. She could be here at any moment...what to do? WHAT? TO? DO?

In a panic, he hopped up and looked down at his lower half, realizing he was still dressed in his pajamas. There was no way after eight years he could see Marinette again in his pajamas! His hand brushed nervously through his uncombed hair and came around to his neck and the side of his face, which he discovered to his horror hadn’t yet been shaved. Oh, no! He was wearing his glasses! Hastily he pushed his chair out of the way about to sprint to his room when he heard the butler utter three words that up until now he never would have guessed would have filled him with such a sense of sheer and utter dread.  

“Mademoiselle Dupain-Cheng!”

Chapter Text

“Marinette!” Adrien breathed. There she was, standing right before him, not a dream, not a delusion, but the real thing. She looked different than when she left Paris almost eight years ago. She had cut her hair for one. It framed her face and clung to the nape of her neck, no longer long enough to pull into pigtails. He knew that, of course, from the many pictures he had seen of her in the media, yet when he thought of her, Marinette always wore her hair in the low pigtails of their school days. This new hairstyle made her look older and more sophisticated as did her clothes. She wore a red trench coat accented with black metal hooks that fastened the jacket shut through matching black rivets. The clasps made the coat uniquely a La Coccinelle design, since her fashion line was known for sporting unexpected details. She seemed to stand a little taller or perhaps a little straighter than he had known her to do. Everything about her exuded confidence and elegance. This was not the Marinette he had met, befriended, and fallen in love with in school. This was the self-made career woman, captain of a successful fashion line now operating internationally.

“Adrien.”

He stood, staring at her. His mouth opened at if to speak, but words failed him. From behind her, he could see the butler depart and he wanted to cry out to him not to leave them alone. What could he say? What could he do?

As if sent by heaven, the dogs chose that moment to bustle in from the kitchen, barking and running excitedly to greet the new visitor. They sniffed her shoes and up her legs. She bent down to pet them, cooing softly.

“Which one of you ran away yesterday?” she asked them as if they would talk back to her.

“Tikki!” Adrien answered, grateful that his mouth reacted without him thinking. “The dalmatian.”

“Ahhh...so you’re the troublemaker!” she laughed, petting Tikki on the head and then down the back.

“The other one is Pollen,” he added, trying to fill the silence until Chloe or Kagami reappeared. Marinette seemed content to pet and praise them, at least until they heard a noise from the back bedroom and ran off to investigate, leaving the two humans alone again.

“I’m taking Chloe on a tour of my new offices and boutique,” Marinette said as she straightened and then dusted her hands. She looked around her for any sign of the loud blonde. “Is she ready?”

“Not yet, I’m afraid,” he replied, wondering exactly how long Chloe would be. “Kagami’s gone in to hurry her along.”

They stood awkwardly standing in front of one another, looking at anything except the other person.

“Can I take your coat?” he offered, but then wondered why the butler had not done so.

“No! I’m fine!” she snapped, but then catching herself, she forced a smile. “I’m sure Chloe won’t be long.”

“Actually, it might be awhile...” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand nervously. “You know, Chloe…”

She chuckled lightly as the corners of her mouth curled up and she gave a slight nod.

“Would you like to sit?” he asked offering her a seat on the couch. “Some coffee? Oh! I remember you prefer tea. I can go make some.” He was about to hurry out of the room when her words stopped him.

“Coffee is fine,” she said. She unclasped her coat, slipping it off and then draped it over one arm of the couch. “I’ve learned to drink it. I actually prefer it now,” Marinette informed him as she sat down.

That was certainly surprising to hear. He could remember with distinct clarity her refusals to drink coffee during their late night cram sessions in school.

“It tastes bad and smells worse! And, it makes my stomach hurt,” she would complain. “Tea is much healthier and has almost as much caffeine. I just have to drink more to stay awake.”

“I think the verdict is still out over which is really healthier, Princess,” Adrien countered, “but if tea is what you need, then I’ll put the kettle on. It just means more coffee for me.” He had winked at her and she had laughed.

That was over eight years ago. Of course, some things would have changed in that amount of time. He poured the coffee into a cup for her. “I suppose this means I’ll have to share the coffee,” he quipped, still thinking of their study sessions.

“If you don’t have enough…” Marinette began, waving the coffee away.

“No, no!” he cried. “It’s not that. I was just thinking back to when...well, you only drank tea and I only drank coffee...and, um, well...nevermind, it was a stupid joke. You know me and my stupid jokes...” Adrien tried to laugh it off, but he could feel his face burn.

“Yes.” She smiled, but she looked uncomfortable. Her eyes flicked over his shoulder as if searching for someone who might rescue them.

“Here you are,” he said offering her the cup. “How do you take it?”

“Regular. Coffee regular.”

“Oh…” Adrien paused mid air with the creamer in one hand and the sugar bowl in the other. He had no idea what “coffee regular” meant. Did that mean black coffee? Regular made it sound untouched, so what else could it mean? He set the creamer and sugar down on the breakfast table, then took a seat opposite Marinette on the other couch. He would have preferred to sit closer. Maybe he should have? She looked questioningly at him. Hmmm...better try to save it with a compliment.

“You’re looking well,” he said with a smile. “Your suit is very...Spring-y, I mean, not springy , it’s suitable for Spring. Ha! A suit able suit!” he laughed, but bit his tongue when he realized she didn’t find it funny. Clearing his throat he tried again as his discerning eye took note of the details of the dark grey jacket, matching capris pants, and bold fuchsia blouse. “I love the lace detail at the cuffs of the jacket and the pant leg. It’s very unexpected. Your best designs always have some type of unexpected detail,” he said, making an effort to be serious, but then realized his words could be taken as a backhanded compliment and hurried to correct them. “Not that all of your designs aren’t your best. Of course, they’re all wonderful! But, you don’t need me to tell you that!” He clapped his mouth shut, suppressing his nervous laughter. He rubbed his hands on his legs, trying to dry the sweat that had been building up.

“Would you mind if I crack the door?” he asked, jumping out of his seat. “It’s a bit hot in here.”

“I thought it rather chilly,” she replied.

“Oh,” he stepped away from the balcony door without opening it. “Must just be me.” He sat back down, folding his hands in his lap. He searched for something else to say. “How’s your coffee?”

“Is there any cream?” she asked.

“Of course!” he leaped up again and brought the creamer over, handing it to her to pour as much as she liked.

“And sugar?” she asked as she passed the small pitcher back to him. Without waiting to reply he bounded over to the table and fetched the sugar back to her. With great care she spooned two heaps of sugar into her cup.

“Coffee...regular,” he said now understanding what she meant. She gave a small nod and a quiet thank you.

He returned to his seat. She sipped her coffee now that the taste had been perfected. Adrien took a breath, trying to steady his nerves and calm his heart. He knew what he needed to say and this seemed like the perfect opportunity even if it wasn’t exactly as how he had envisioned it. The romantic mood set by the low lighting and soft music of last night’s party was no longer an option. For a brief moment they locked eyes, but quickly each looked away. Lacking something to do, he played with the silver ring on his finger. It was a gift from his Chinese teacher. Master Fu said it had been in his family for years and since he didn’t have a son of his own he wanted Adrien to have it. He spun it around and around on his right, ring finger. Faster and faster he spun it, causing friction and discomfort against his skin, but it felt better than the awkwardness he felt sitting across from her. At last, he could withstand it no longer.

“Marinette…” he began, but the suddenness of him speaking surprised her, jolting the cup in her hand. He quickly passed her a napkin from the table, but she waved it off, murmuring that she was fine, apparently she hadn’t spilled her drink.

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng!” a voice called out and Adrien closed his eyes in frustration. He had missed his chance.

“Hello, Chloe!” Marinette rose from her seat and offered her cheek to the blonde, who kissed the air near it and then did the same on the other side.

“Adrien’s been keeping you occupied?” Chloe asked of her, but before she could respond the blonde continued. “Such a good boy!” she praised Adrien. “He had such a horrid day yesterday! Did he tell you?” she asked Marinette.

“No, but you did.”

“Double shift just so he could go to Mummy’s party only to have to miss it because of the incompetence of that dog walker!” Chloe crossed her arms. “You’ll be happy to know I fired them.”

“I’m not happy to hear that,” he replied shaking his head, although he was not surprised by it. “It’s not Jaxx’s fault.”

“Whose is it then?” Chloe demanded

“No one’s. It’s just an unfortunate accident. I’m sure they feel horrible about it.”

“Well...they should,” she sniffed, her nose jutting up into the air.

“You know Tikki and Pollen love them. They’ll miss them terribly,” he argued.  “And as for me, I didn’t get sick from looking for Tikki. I shouldn’t have done that double shift, that’s all.”

Chloe peeked a glance at Adrien and then sighed. “I’ll think about it, Adrikins.”

He thanked her, but it was drowned out by Kagami calling for her.

“How is it that I’ve dressed for the second time today and you’re still in your bathrobe?” her girlfriended demanded. “Hello, Marinette.” she said as an aside.

“Hi, Kagami,” the designer greeted.

“You’re being very rude by keeping Marinette waiting,” Kagami scolded.

“Marinette doesn’t mind,” Chloe defended herself at the expense of her friend.

“Well, I do. If I’m being dragged along on this shopping spree, then let’s go and get it over with it,” Kagami urged. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, Marinette. I do, but this is the third time this week my training has been interrupted by this one.” She pointed at Chloe accusingly.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about!” Chloe claimed, throwing her hands up in surrender. “I merely suggested and everytime Kagami jumps at the chance. Honestly, I don’t think she even likes to train, especially when it takes her away from me! I’m all she thinks about, you know.” She blew Kagami a kiss as she sauntered away into the bedroom. “I won’t be long!”

“Famous last words…” Kagami muttered as she rolled her eyes. “Please do me this favor, Marinette, and find her something to wear. I picked out four different outfits and she’s rejected everyone.”

Marinette nodded and set her coffee cup down.

“I apologize, Adrien. I won’t be able to train with you this afternoon…”

Adrien didn’t hear what Kagami was saying. He could only think about Marinette, who was leaving and he hadn’t told her anything. She had no idea how he felt and he had no idea how she felt. At least, she hadn’t hit him at first sight, but she hadn’t thrown her arms around him either.

Ahhh!!! She’s leaving! ” he realized in panic. “ She’s walking right out of the room! Say something! Anything!!!!

“Marinette!” Adrien cried out, interrupting Kagami and startling Marinette. His former wife turned around slowly. He could feel Kagami’s eyes on him, but he concentrated on Marinette. She was looking at him now, fully and with wide eyes, waiting. He swallowed hard. “I’m sorry!” he squeaked. “I’m so very sorry.”

“Sorry?” Kagami asked, bewildered. “What do you have to be sorry for, Adrien?”

“I...I…” he stammered. “ Idiot! You forgot Kagami was in the room! No one is supposed to know! Or have you forgotten the non-disclosure agreement? If anyone finds out, Father will just assume it was Marinette and begin legal proceedings. Stupid! Think, dammit!

“He’s just sorry for missing the party last night,” Marinette supplied.

She always was quick on her feet. He chuckled as relief ran through him. “Yes! Right! I’m sorry about missing Marinette’s Paris debut. I really wanted to be there...to support you.” He said “support”, but what he meant was “love”.

“You can’t blame him for that. He was sick. In fact, if it was up to him, he would’ve gone, but I persuaded him to stay home. So, if you’re going to be mad at anyone, then you should be mad at me,” Kagami supplied.

“Is that so?” Marinette quirked an eyebrow at them. “Well, to be fair then, I’ll be mad at both of you.” She crossed her arms and looked at them sternly. A beat past, during which time Adrien felt his insides turn to mush, before she erupted into laughter. Kagami looked questioningly at Adrien for help, who was too stunned to know what was going on.

“Relax, Kagami!” Marinette giggled, as she wrapped an arm around the other woman “I couldn’t be mad at you for that!” Marinette laughed as she walked down the hall, having wrapped her arm around Kagami’s shoulder, leading her toward the bedroom. Kagami joined in, but Adrien could tell it was the fake laughed she used at Audry’s parties. Over her shoulder the Japanese athlete gave her friend a pained look, probably wishing she could train with him instead, before resuming the over the top cackling for Marinette’s benefit.

Adrien watched them go. He couldn’t help, but feel he had pointedly been left out, not only of their company, but also of the pardon Marinette had given.

-----o-----

“It couldn’t have been that bad, Adrien,” Rose soothed as she ran her fingers through his golden locks.

“No,” Adrien murmured into the fabricated countertop of Rose’s cubicle desk, “it was worse. It was awful, abysmal, wretched. A catastrophic failure!”

“I dunno…” she hummed, “some girls like the ‘just rolled out of bed look’.”

“I look like I rolled off the bed and into the street where a mac truck hit me.”

“It’s not that bad!” she laughed. “Your hair’s a mess, but some people take ages and bottles of product to get that look. Your glasses make you look smart and the stubble is kinda sexy.”

“The pajamas though! Why’d she have to see me in my pajamas?” he whined

Rose pushed him back so she could see his t-shirt. “I still say it’s endearing,” she insisted as she stifled a giggle. His t-shirt read “Hot Lips” with a big lipstick mark kiss in the middle of the “o”. It was a birthday present from the other nurses in the emergency room, who knew he was fan of old American TV shows. “And your pants are sweats, so they’re not embarrassing. Perfectly normal.”

“The only thing normal,” he complained as his head hit the desk again. He sighed and then raised up only to slump back into his chair. “I just thought she’d react, you know?” Rose shook her head not understanding. Adrien got up and began to pace. He always paced when he was upset. “To seeing me, I mean. I thought she’d be mad, that maybe she’d hit me or throw a drink in my face. I even dared to hope she’d be happy, that maybe I’d hear her nervously stutter or she’d smile warmly at me, but…”

“But?”

“She wasn’t mad or happy. She was...indifferent, like seeing me was the same as seeing any other old school friend that you’d lost contact with a long time ago.”

“And that’s bad?” Rose asked, unsure.

“Yes! That’s bad! Don’t you see?” he asked, slipping back into his seat and leaning his elbows on the desk as he shook his hands in the air. “It means she doesn’t care! She doesn’t care enough to be happy or mad! She doesn’t care enough to love me or...even to hate me.” His head plunked down on her desk again. It was too much to bear. He wanted to be lying down in bed with the covers over him, but for all he knew Marinette was still in the hotel suite, eternally waiting for Chloe to get dressed.

“Oh, Adrien! I’m so sorry,” Rose soothed, patting his shoulder. She attended to him for some moments, given him all of her sympathy. Perhaps realizing that she wasn’t going to get much work done, she suggested going outside for a walk to get a cup of coffee and a pastry. “I won’t tell Kagami if you don’t.” She winked conspiratorially and managed to get a small smile from him as she removed her white lab coat and pulled on her long, thick cardigan sweater.  

During their walk and snack, Rose endeavored to distract Adrien. She talked of finding Tikki and of meeting Alix. She informed him that she had shared with Juleka the video clips Alix had shown them. Rose felt very pleased that Juleka had expressed interest in going to one of the roller derby jams.

“There’s one tomorrow night. Kagami’s going to go with us if she can convince Chloe. Why don’t you come, too?” Rose asked. “It’ll take your mind off of you-know-who.”

Adrien smiled and nodded. Any distraction would be welcomed. He had tonight and tomorrow night off, so there would be no work conflict. “Sounds fun,” he replied, brightening at the thought.

As they chatted and enjoyed their snack, Adrien began to feel more at ease. The worst was over, he told himself. He’d seen her and the world didn’t end. And, it’s not like they’d be seeing each other again anytime soon. He no longer worked in the fashion world as she did. Their only points of contact were Chloe, Audrey, and his father’s house. He had no reason to go to the mansion. Audrey would likely be returning to New York soon and even if she didn’t, it’s not as if he expected to see her again unless her daughter insisted. Chloe and Marinette probably would continue to see each other due to their work, but that had nothing to do with him. As long as Marinette didn’t come by the hotel, which now that she knew he was there, she undoubtedly would not, there should be no fear of ever seeing Marinette Dupain-Cheng again. That thought, which should have brought him comfort, actually made him feel depressed. He sighed.

“Who’s your text from?” Rose asked, pointing to his phone, before taking another sip of coffee. So lost in thought was he, that he hadn’t heard the notification sound. Adrien opened his phone and replied it was from Juleka.

“Oh!” Rose exclaimed excitedly, leaning into see the screen. “What does she say?”

“She wants to know if I can come by her apartment to record some music. Luka asked me yesterday if I could, but I didn’t commit since I was sick.” He scrolled through her texts and then laughed. “Sounds like Luka’s driving her nuts. She says, ‘He won’t shut up. I haven’t been able to write a single line of code. Come, before I kill him.’”

“You better go save her!” Rose laughed. “Or rather, him!”

“Can’t,” he replied morosely. “I left my Chat Noir gear at the hotel.”

“Go get it.”

“What if Marinette is still there? You know how long it takes Chloe to get dressed.”

Rose giggled, “Why didn’t you change out of your pjs?”

Adrien shrugged, “I panicked! I just grabbed my phone and left.” He shivered. “I should’ve brought a jacket.” Although there was no breeze, unlike last night, the air still felt chilly against his bare forearms.

“If only to have covered up that t-shirt,” Rose teased. She pulled on the sleeves of her cardigan to cover more of her cold hands. “Just text Chloe or Kagami and ask if they’ve left.”

Adrien shook his head, that might lead to questions, questions that he did not want to have to answer. “You could ask, though,” he spoke as an idea began to form in his head. “Can I borrow your phone?”

Rose handed it to him without question. She watched as he took a picture of her half eaten millefeuille.

“What are you doing?” she asked mystified.

“Trolling Kagami,” he replied sweetly as he texted the picture to their friend. “Just wait.”

Less than half a minute later, they received a reply: Bitch. U know I’m on a diet. WTF?

Adrien laughed as he read the text meant for Rose.

“You are evil!” Rose accused.

“Evil genius,” Adrien winked as he continued to text.

“Don’t make her too mad at me,” Rose warned as she tilted her head to read the screen.

“You’re not scared of her, are you?”

“Umm... yeah! I mean, she’s a swordsman...swordswoman? She might cut me!” Rose kidded.

“Nah, it’s fine!” he replied dismissively. “See, now that’s she’s cursed me out, or rather you, I can casually ask how training’s going…”

A series of pings in rapid succession followed as text after text was received. Adrien scrolled, summarizing for Rose as he read. “Kagami’s pissed she got roped into another one of Chloe’s distractions....it took Chloe an hour to dress even with Marinette’s help...Chloe’s pouting because she was rushed.” Rose giggled as he typed back. “I’m asking her what Chloe is wearing.”

He tilted the screen so Rose could see the reply.

“Guess she’s wearing blue,” Rose shrugged. “The amount that Chloe cares about clothes is in exact proportion to how much Kagami doesn’t care.”

“And vice-versa but about sports,” Adrien added. “I’d say Chloe will definitely be at the roller derby jam tomorrow. Payback for today and last night.”

“Oh! She sent a picture,” Rose noted. “They’re in the car, so they must’ve already left the hotel.” On the screen Chloe smiled coquettishly wearing a blue maxi dress as she sat in the back seat of their town car. As he held the phone another picture came through this time of Chloe alongside Marinette. Adrien felt his heartbeat stutter. God, she looked so beautiful.

“Is that her?” Rose asked, craning her neck so she could see the screen better. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. “She’s very pretty.”

Silence fell over them as Marinette filled Adrien’s thoughts. Rose continued to look at her phone, reading the texts from Kagami that explained who Marinette is and how they knew her.

“At least you know it’s safe to go back and change. Why don’t you text Juleka and tell her you’ll be there soon?” she suggested. Adrien merely nodded, not really hearing. His thumb rubbed absent-mindedly against the side of Rose’s phone as he thought, wondering if he dared…

“Adrien!” Rose waved her hand in front of his face. “Can I have my phone back now?”

“Umm...just a sec.” He hurriedly began typing again. When Rose asked him what he was doing he replied, “I’m asking Kagami if Marinette said anything about me.”

“Adrien! Don’t!” Rose exclaimed, reaching for the phone, trying to grab it out of his hand. “I wouldn’t ask something like that! Kagami’s gonna know it’s not me! You’re gonna get caught! Adrien!” But, Adrien persisted, dodging this way and that to keep the phone out off her reach while still spelling out his question. He hit send without considering the ramifications of his actions.

“What if you don’t like the answer?” Rose whispered as they both waited with baited breath, staring at the screen for a reply. They didn’t have long to wait.

Kagami: She said she barely even recognized him LOL

Chapter Text

“It doesn’t mean anything!” Rose reassured him, and at the same time snatched the phone out of his limp hand. She turned it off completely for good measure. No sense risking him seeing anything else that might upset him. He looked like a balloon that had slowly deflated days after a birthday party.

“The last time she saw me, I was still modeling. And now…” His voice tapered off.

“You’re still very handsome,” she insisted, “just in a more...normal sort of way.”

Adrien pushed his plate of croissant away from him. He felt fat and ugly. The rejection stung. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced since being a model. Back then his looks and weight were constantly scrutinized by his father, the photographers, the marketing department, fans, and the entire public. Despite the strict diet, overzealous workouts, and outrageously priced beauty products, he never felt handsome enough. When he quit modeling, it had felt good to walk away from their judgment and the pressure to maintain his looks. But, now he felt regretful that he had not made more of an effort. Marinette had expected to meet Adonis and instead had come face to face with Hephaestus.

After thanking Rose for trying to cheer him up, Adrien bicycled back to the hotel. In his bathroom, he surveyed in the mirror how badly his looks had deteriorated during the eight years of their separation. He certainly wasn’t as thin or muscular as during his modeling days. He flexed his pectorals and then his biceps, noting the lack of definition. He silently reaffirmed his promise to Kagami and made one to himself, right there and then as he examined his body in the mirror, to stick to the eating plan she had designed and to put more of an effort into their daily workouts.

With a sigh he noted the dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep and the beginning of worry lines on his forehead from dealing with brusque doctors, surly patients, and overbearing family members. He decided he should never wear his glasses again unless absolutely necessary, in which case he should splurge for better frames. The thick, black frames did him no favors. At least he was grateful that he still had a full head of hair, but cringed at how it stuck up in the back like chicken feathers due to falling asleep with it wet the night before. No amount of product could tame it and he was forced to rewash it with another shower. While shaving his face he noted how chapped his lips looked and how dry his skin felt. Even his eyes, normally a bright, emerald green, looked dull and lifeless. He seemed a mere shadow of his former self.

Marinette, on the other hand, seemed more beautiful than he had ever known her. She exuded confidence, a master of her art and a leader in the industry. This new found confidence suited her. She seemed to glow as if from within, lighting up the world around her with her designs, her ideas, and her smile. How much they had both changed in such a short time!

On any other day Adrien probably would have gone back to bed. Wallowing seemed like a reasonable response to the day’s events, but Juleka’s insistent texts spurred him to leave the safety and comfort of his room to visit his friends. Maybe playing some music would cheer him up or at least keep him from thinking negatively.

Juleka answered the knock on the apartment door by pulling him forcefully over the threshold as an exasperated “Finally!” escaped her lips. Without another word she turned on her heel and flopped on the futon that doubled as her bed with a huff, making her long, dark hair streaked with magenta momentarily fly upwards as it caught the air. She stretched her long legs out across the duvet and propped her laptop on her thighs. She pulled up the hood of her black sweatshirt, closing off as much of the world from her peripheral vision as the fabric could hide, so that she could concentrate. Between her lips she held one end of the hood’s pull tie, alternating between chewing and sucking.

“Deadline?” Adrien asked. Juleka merely hummed an acknowledgement. Already intently gazing at the screen, her purple painted fingernails flashed as she rapidly typed the code that her boss was impatiently waiting for. In some respects, Adrien envied Juleka. As a coder she could work from home and make her own hours. Her employer didn’t really care how much or when she worked as long as it got done timely and right. This was in sharp contrast to his own job at the hospital, which had set shifts, strict oversight, and endless rules and regulations.

“Luka?” he asked, wondering where her brother was, although given the smallness of the one bedroom apartment, there weren’t that many options.

“Bedroom,” she mumbled without looking up.

Adrien nodded more to himself than to the woman who was otherwise occupied with her work. He was used to these types of conversations anyway. In her texts and with her songwriting, Juleka could be particularly expressive, but face to face she rarely spoke more than a few words at a time and when she did, they were often mumbled, making it difficult to understand. Her brother was also usually pretty efficient when talking, leaning more on his music to express himself. No doubt Juleka’s complaint that Luka was too talkative today seemed uncharacteristic for the guitarist. Adrien walked down the short hallway and into the bedroom. The room felt claustrophobically small. Adrien’s drum kit had been set up in one corner, sandwiched between the dresser on one side and a large wardrobe on the other. Several boxes that Adrien recognized as his own were stacked at the foot of the bed against which the stand for his keyboard and the keyboard itself leaned precariously. A small window above the bed provided the only light, diffused by the partially opened Venetian blinds. The sweet smell of pot and incense hung in the air. He found Luka sitting on his bed picking out a melody on his guitar that Adrien didn’t recognize.

Greeting him with a broad smile, Luka asked his friend, “Which do you like better? This?” He played a phrase on the guitar. “Or this?” he asked before playing a different phrase.

“The first one,” Adrien responded. “What are you working on?” he asked as he sat down at the foot of the bed, turning the notepad that laid beside Luka toward him so he could read it.

“A love song...for Marinette.”

“A what!?!” Adrien choked out.

“I know, I know,” he chuckled as he shook his head, making his dark, shaggy hair tipped in blue sway ever so slightly, “it’s not really my style, but this girl...oh man, she is something special!”

To his chagrin, Adrien quickly understood the reason for Juleka’s complaints about her brother. Luka talked endlessly of Marinette and of nothing else.

“She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met,” Luka enthused. “Her eyes are like two huge, blue reflective gazing balls. And, her laughter sounds like wind chimes.” He smiled to himself. “She has the sexiest body, her breasts are like…”

“Hey!” Adrien jumped off the bed as if it was on fire. “Let’s set up to record some music, huh?”

He hurriedly began to unpack the boxes he had left with Luka, pulling out his recording equipment, including microphones, cameras, and stands. He made a big show of making as much noise as possible; grunting as he lifted things out, plopping them down onto the floor, carelessly knocking them against each other. Under no circumstances did he want to hear Luka describe Marinette’s breasts or any other part of her body. As he began to set things up, Luka continued to talk from the bed, all the while playing on his guitar.

“It’s too bad you missed the party,” Luka mused, “but your bad luck, is my good fortune! Ahh…” he sighed, a silly grin spreading across his face. “You should have seen her last night, all dolled up for the party. She wore this smokin’ red dress. I suppose she designed it?”

“No doubt,” Adrien grumbled.

“Fit her like a glove. No one could take their eyes off of her. She looked like a...like a…”

“Princess?” Adrien asked, pausing for a moment to utter the nickname he used to call Marinette by.

“Yes!” Luka abruptly stopped his playing to point a black polished finger at his friend. “Exactly like a royal princess. A queen! A goddess!”

Adrien huffed as he unfolded a tripod. “Hand me the camera, will you?” Luka reached over, passing it to him, but then settled himself back on the bed. “Hey, I’m doing all the work here. You gonna help any?” His voice betrayed his annoyance as did his frowning face.

“Okay, okay,” Luka responded in surprise, throwing his hands up in the air in surrender. “I didn’t realize!” He laid his guitar aside and stood up, asking what he should do. Adrien directed him on how to set up the microphones as he continued to fiddle with the camera. Thankfully, they now worked in relative silence, although Luka continued to hum the tune he had been writing.

Adrien’s face burned red and he could hear the blood throbbing in his ears. Luka liked Marinette. It shouldn’t have surprised him. Everyone liked Marinette, well, nearly everyone. Chloe was the exception to the rule, at least while they were in school. Now she seemed to have warmed up to her a bit. Probably the fact that the blonde diva had acquired validation as a fashion critic helped to soothe her jealousy of the talented designer. Kagami always seemed rather indifferent to Marinette, not outright hating her as Chloe did, but not ever acknowledging her unique specialness; but then, the gifted fencer lacked an appreciation for all things fashion related anyway. Then, there was Lila Rossi, another former classmate. Why Lila hated Marinette, Adrien could not say, but whatever the cause, the feeling was mutual on Marinette’s part. Those were the only people Adrien could think of that disliked the beautiful, kind, talented designer, besides his father, of course; although Gabriel Agreste didn’t really like anyone.

Most of his classmates had been in love with her at one point or another, and not just the boys. She was really that wonderful. It never bothered him before, since she only had eyes for him, so he never had any doubts of Marinette’s affection for him. That was no longer the case. It was blatantly apparent from this morning’s meeting that she didn’t love him anymore. His heart ached at the thought. Now that she had moved back to Paris, he supposed he was going to have to get used to people talking about how wonderful she is, and even falling in love with her. He just wished it wasn’t his best friend. At least she didn’t return Luka’s feelings, that really would be awful. He took a moment to breath in and out, trying to calm himself.

“You okay, man?” Lukas asked, quirking an eyebrow at him. He sat on the bed and reached for his guitar. “You seem a little…” He played a series of frenetic notes. His fingers became a black blur as only the color of his nailpolish could be discerned due to their speed. The lack of melody sounded harsh and chaotic.

“Yeah, I’m not quite myself today,” Adrien admitted with a weak smile.

“Hmm…” Luka laid down his guitar and crossed his legs underneath him. One knee protruded out from the hole in his faded blue jeans that he had covered in little doodles of various colored permanent marker. “Meditate with me.”

Adrien tried to shrug him off, but Luka insisted, saying that he seemed stressed and needed to relax. He made Adrien sit opposite from him on the bed in the same way with his legs crossed underneath him.

“Close your eyes, breathe deeply,” Luka instructed as he closed his eyes. “Try to clear your mind of all thoughts.”  

That proved more difficult than one would imagine. Adrien tried to not think of anything, but ended up thinking of, well, Marinette. Pictures of her taken at last night’s party were all over social media. He couldn’t of helped but see them, even though he had done an extensive search for them this morning. Luka was right, she looked amazing. The color of the dress brought out the pink blush of her cheeks and her ruby lips. Dark sequins, clustered at her waist and scattered above, along the straight neckline, and below, down the skirt, glinted in the light almost as brightly as her blue eyes shined. Most importantly, as she stood smiling next to various icons of the Paris fashion scene, from Ines de La Fressange, to Hedi Silmane to, Dominique Sirop; Marinette looked like she was meant to be there, she belonged.

His mind wandered to their conversation this morning. How tense the atmosphere felt! How unlike the close relationship that they once shared. It had been easy then, easy to talk to each other about anything and everything, easy to understand each other with the smallest inflection of one’s voice. Even without words, they communicated through warm smiles, gentle glances, and soft touches. Perhaps it was the romantic in him, but Adrien felt that no two hearts were as synchronized as theirs was. But, that was no longer the case. He misunderstood the simplest thing: how she took her coffee! No wonder he had watched her go feeling unsure as to whether or not she had forgiven him. Had she even understood that he had been trying to apologize? Was she laughing at him?

“Done yet?” Juleka asked, popping her head in through the bedroom door and disturbing their meditation session.

“We’ve got just about everything set up,” Adrien responded, standing up from where he had been sitting.

Juleka smirked, “I meant Luka. Done talking about that girl?”

“Her name is Marinette and I will never not stop talking about her...or singing about her. She’s like a catchy tune that’s gotten stuck in my head.”

“You're in love with an earworm! How romantic!” Juleka deadpanned.

"I'll work on the phrasing," Luka assured her as he scratched his cheek, rereading what he had written in his notebook.

"Later," Juleka advised.  “Ivan’s here. Let’s eat!”

Ivan, the band’s drummer, worked at a local restaurant. His shift having just ended, he came by with food to share with his friends. Luka, who now had a new person to talk to, told Ivan all amount the amazingly beautiful, miraculously talented Marinette. Hearing the lovesick boy for a second time adversely impacted Adrien’s appetite, so he merely picked at his lunch; which was just as well as he had promised himself to go on a diet after seeing himself in the mirror with fresh eyes, or rather with Marinette’s eyes. With Luka too busy talking, Ivan and Juleka enjoyed the lion’s share of the burgers and fries.

“She’s so cute!” Luka sighed between bites. “You know, when we met, she was so nervous. Chloe introduced me to her and even though she said Marinette’s name, Marinette still said her own name when she shook my hand, but she stuttered. She said, ‘Hi, I’m M-Marinette.’ So, I said…” Luka chuckled to himself, “I said, ‘Hi, M-Marinette. I’m L-Luka!” He shook his head as he laughed.

“Yeah, funny…” Adrien murmured before excusing himself and going to the bathroom. He ran cold water from the faucet. Scooping it up with his hands, he splashed his face, trying to relieve the intense heat making his skin burn bright red. He stared at himself in the mirror.

Just because she stuttered doesn’t mean Marinette likes Luka ,” he thought to himself. “ She stutters when she’s nervous, and meeting a crowd full of new people is plenty of reason to be nervous. Marinette doesn’t have a crush on Luka, okay?”

Adrien sighed, dropping his head, unable to meet the gaze of his own reflection. Mariette’s lack of stuttering around him this morning was another sign of her no longer having feelings for him. When she had a crush on  him in school, and even when they first started dating, she almost always stuttered around him. The more time they spent together and once she felt assured that her feelings were returned, the stuttering lessened, although never completely went away. Adrien found it endearing, especially once he understood that it was an uncontrollable manifestation of her feelings for him. Everytime it would happen, he would inwardly cheer and often he would outwardly show some type of affection in return, a warm smile, a squeeze of the hand, or a peck on the cheek. He never thought he would ever suspect that her stutter might be for someone else.

When he returned to the group, Adrien found Luka still talking about Marinette to the others.

“And she’s rich!” Luka enthused. “She owns her own company and apparently it’s really successful. She’s even expanding operations. That’s why she’s in Paris.”

“Ready to record your song, Juleka?” Adrien asked in a desperate attempt to change the subject. Juleka had a new song that the band had been rehearsing and was ready to share with their YouTube followers. Although, not an official member of the band, Adrien often sat in on their rehearsals playing piano or, if Ivan was not available due to work or family commitments, drums. He also helped them translate all of their songs from French to English. Both Couffaine siblings felt more comfortable songwriting in their native French. Since Adrien had the privilege of a private tutor from London, his English was considered superior to theirs, which had been learned in public school. As a result, he had offered his services as a translator.

“You sure?” Adrien asked her, pointing to one of the lines from the chorus. “‘I don't really feel you’. I mean, it’s American slang, so…”

“Nah, it’s cool,” she said, laying the sheet music on the bureau, so she could refer to it as she sang and played. “I like it.”

Adrien slipped on his black leather jacket. From one of its pockets he pulled out a compact mirror and black eye liner. He darkened his eyelids and the skin underneath his eyes before putting on the black cat mask, taking on the persona of Chat Noir, as he was known on YouTube. Luka touched up his own eyeliner, which he wore everyday regardless of whether he performed or not. He pulled out a light colored, carved jade bracelet from the top dresser drawer and slid it onto his wrist. It matched the snake tattoo that encircled his bicep, the head of which just peeked out from beneath the sleeve of his gray t-shirt. Juleka removed the hoodie, revealing a fitted black t-shirt underneath. She brushed her hair, making sure that her magenta tinted bangs fully covered her left eye and cheek. With added care she pulled her long, black tresses over her left shoulder, making sure that it covered her neck and shoulder. Ivan, who was always ready to play and didn’t give much thought to his looks, banged on the drums happily.

“Sweet kit,” he nodded at Adrien. “Thanks for letting me borrow it.”

Adrien smiled back, giving him a two fingered salute. He wouldn’t be able to use it until he moved into his new house anyway, so he might as well let Ivan use it. The unfortunate drummer had been forced to pawn his own kit due to recent money troubles. Adrien didn’t know the specific details, but understood it had something to do with Ivan’s brother.

Adrien pulled out the box filled with masks and passed it to Ivan before setting up his own instrument. Like last time, Ivan chose a blue-colored bull with a ring through its nose and curved horns stretching out the top. Luka selected an aqua-colored snake with fangs. When the box reached Juleka she rummaged unhappily.

“Where’s the dragon?” she asked.

“It got damaged during the move,” Adrien replied regretfully as he placed the keyboard on the stand. “I had to throw it out.”

She dropped the box disdainfully on the floor. “I’m not wearing those,” she groussed referring to the only two remaining masks, a tiger and a unicorn.

“Jules…” Luka’s tone was a warning to his sister.

”No. Adrien wants to be anonymous. Fine. But, our fans already know who we are,” she said as she gestured to her brother, Ivan, and then herself.

“He’ll look silly if he’s the only one in the mask,” Ivan reasoned.

“Come on, Jules,” Luka coaxed. “Just put one on. What’s wrong with the tiger?”

“It’s a cat. I hate cats,” she spat, crossing her arms decidedly.

“You can’t say that in front of the Chat Noir!” Luka replied dramatically, shielding his friend as if from being attacked.

“How can you be in a band called Kitty Section and hate cats?” Adrien asked in confusion.

“I was out voted on the band name,” Juleka scowled at Luka and Ivan.

“The tiger’s magenta,” Ivan pointed out. “Your favorite color.”

“It’s a punk tiger!” Luka picked up the mask and shook it at her. “Roaar!”

“It’s okay,” Adrien said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I don’t even have to play. I can shoot the video instead.”

“No, don’t do that!” Luka cried. “Come on, Jules. Adrien got a lot of extra hits on the video we did together. This one’s gonna go on our channel. We’re bound to get more hits with him in it.”

“I’ll ask Rose to make a new dragon mask for next time,” Adrien offered.

“Rose made these?” Juleka asked, her resolve beginning to crack. She looked down at the box with new eyes.

“Yeah, they’re left over from a Halloween event we did at the hospital. She made them for the terminal kids and then we went around and passed out candy to them. These ones were left over, except for the unicorn. Rose wore that one,” Adrien explained.

“Oh.” Juleka reached down and carefully picked up the masks. Her eyes lingered over one and then the other as she turned them in her hands, examining the small details. After a moment she stood up and placed the rainbow colored unicorn mask over her face. “Ready.”

Adrien blinked. Juleka certainly changed her mind quickly. He looked at Luka who had his mask propped on the top of his head. He grinned broadly at his sister as if understanding her ways all too well. Adrien couldn’t help wish that he and Felix were like that. He rarely understood his brother.

Not wishing to tempt fate, Adrien merely shrugged. Ivan banged his drum sticks together, giving them a beat of four. Piano music filled the room followed by Juleka’s breathy alto:

“I don't believe in the smile that you leave

When you walk away and say goodbye

Well, I don't expect the world to move underneath me

But for God's sake, could you try?”

The disappointment in Juleka’s voice permeated the room. Even though Juleka and Aurore had been dating for a few months, it was pretty clear that their relationship was mostly one-sided. From the few hints that Adrien had gathered, including the lyrics of this song, it seemed that Juleka had recently become disillusioned with always being the giver and Aurore always being the taker. The song’s melancholic longing to be loved fed Adrien’s current mood. He felt grateful for the mask he wore to hide the evidence of his sorrow.

As the guitars and drums joined in at the chorus, Juleka sang out, “Where is your heart? ‘Cause I don't really feel you”. Adrien nodded his head as he played, relating to the lyrics. He wondered about Marinette, wondered where her heart was, since he couldn’t understand it as he used to be able to do. His voice cracked a bit as he harmonized with the others.

“Where is your heart?

Where is your heart?

Where is your heart?

Where is your heart?”

After playing the song through once, the band felt confident enough to try it for “real”. Adrien switched on the camera and the audio recording equipment just as Juleka’s phone beeped. Despite the groans of her bandmates she opened her phone to read the text.

“Aurore’s coming over,” she informed them. More groans. Her eyes snapped up at them accusingly.

“What?” Luka shrugged. “Let’s play!”

“I gotta get ready,” Juleka mumbled, removing the guitar from her neck.

“Ya got time!” Luka waved his hand dismissively. “She’s always late.”

Adrien nodded in agreement. Aurore always made Juleka wait. She would say she was on her way and would be there in 10 minutes. Two hours later she would show up. No apology. No excuse. She’d just waltz in as if nothing was amiss, all smiles.

“Yeah, Juleka! Let’s play!” Ivan encouraged. Not waiting for a response, he tapped out a beat. Juleka rolled her eyes, but slipped the guitar strap back over her head, acquiescing to the others’ desire to record the song.

An hour later they had recorded several takes of the song, utilizing the camera to get different angles so that each person could be highlighted at different points. Adrien offered to edit the video and splice it together. Having something to do would take his mind off Marinette. Luka gratefully agreed, since he preferred playing to editing. Juleka disappeared into the bathroom to get ready for her date, who still hadn’t arrived. Ivan left, needing to pick his kid up from daycare and start dinner for his family.

Luka flopped back onto his bed, tossing his snake mask into an opened box before picking out the same tune he had been writing earlier. He tried different notes here and there, asking Adrien which he preferred as the blond carefully removed his own mask and jacket, packing them away in his messenger bag. Using a facial wipe he removed the eye makeup, making his transformation from Chat Noir to Adrien Agreste complete. Then, he set to work disassembling the tripod and microphone stands, packing up the opened boxes, and rearranging them so that they supported the weight of his keyboard. When he was done, Adrien opened his messenger bag and took out his laptop. Seated on the floor in a plush, patchwork bean bag, Adrien began the arduous process of downloading the video footage from the camera and then splicing it together to create a coherent video. With his headphones on, so that he could listen to the playback and make sure that the cuts synched up correctly, he jumped what felt like three feet into the air when Luka’s door suddenly burst open.

“Hello, Luka!” a tall, blonde bounced into the room, eyes shining.

“Aurore,” Luka drawled in acknowledgement.

“Hiya, Adrien!” she said sweetly, fluttering her eyelashes at him. Adrien returned with a small nod and a weak smile.

“How’d ya get in?” Luka demanded.

“My key, of course, silly!” she responded with a dismissive wave.

“You should’ve knocked.”

“Juleka doesn’t care,” she shrugged. “Where is she by the way? We’re late!”

“Whose fault is that?” he mumbled accusingly. When she didn’t answer, perhaps not hearing him, he simply murmured, “Bathroom,” while strumming his guitar.

As quickly as she entered the room, she left it, apparently to find her girlfriend.

Adrien leaned over to quietly ask his friend, “When did Juleka give Aurore a key?”

“About a month ago…” he whispered back, “...about the same time my guitar pick went missing.” He pointed to his rack of autographed picks that hung on the wall. It was full, except for one slot, which formerly housed the autographed guitar pick of Serge Teyssot Gay  of Noir Désir, Luka’s favorite band.

“You really think Aurore stole it?” Adrien’s eyebrows jumped in surprise.

Luka shrugged, “I got no proof...just a feeling.” He resumed strumming his guitar. Adrien was about to ask him another question, but quickly bit his tongue when Aurore returned to the bedroom.

“She’s not ready yet,” Aurore huffed. “I texted her over an hour ago, you’d think that would be enough time to cake on deathly pale foundation and don funeral clothes, but I guess not!” Her hands flew up in the air as she laughed at what Adrien perceived to be a joke, but sounded more like a dig at Juleka’s expense. He felt offended on behalf of his friend and his mouth screwed up in annoyance. “You got anything to eat?” she asked, but not waiting for a response, she turned, leaving again, this time for the kitchen.

Adrien waited for a moment, eying the door in case the blonde actress decided to make another surprise entrance. Finally, he whispered, “Hey!” getting Luka’s attention. “About you-know-who…” he pointed toward the door. “Is my stuff safe here?” Adrien asked. “You don’t think she’d steal anything else, do you?”

Luka shrugged, “Dunno, maybe. I always lock my door now when I leave, so don’t worry. Plus, after tonight it won’t matter anyway.”

“Why?” Adrien asked, setting his laptop aside and crawling closer so that they could talk easier. “What’s happening tonight?”

Luka leaned his head closer, “Juleka’s gonna…” His words were abruptly stopped by the reappearance of Aurore. The two men broke apart quickly.

“Oh!” Aurore cried. “Am I interrupting something?” She quirked an eyebrow mischievously, but then became paranoid. “Are you talking about me?” Her hands landed accusingly on her hips as she stared them down, making the bag of chips she held in one hand crackle loudly as it hit against her thigh.

“Hey!” Luka scowled and then swiped at her, “Those are mine!”

“Not anymore!” Aurore scoffed, swinging the bag out of his reach and then ripping it open to quickly stuff a handful of chips into her mouth. She smirked as she chewed. Luka merely sighed as he laid back on the bed, likely deciding that she wasn’t worth the effort of a fight. “You don’t really mind, do you, Luka? I’m just sooo hungry.”

Standing there, towering above them, she ate...and ate. Adrien tried to ignore her, returning to his editing work on the laptop, but out of the corner of his eye he could see her. Crumbs stuck to her pink lipstick and fell from her mouth onto the carpet. Every so often she would dust off her oversized chest, which was on partial display thanks to the scoop neck of the light blue babydoll dress that she wore. Crisp, white stockings; black patent leather Mary Jane shoes; a pink, teddy bear backpack; and her hair parted into high pigtails completed the look. Aurore always wore clothes that were of a particular “character” as she called it. No doubt her character du jour was a five year old girl. Of course, it didn’t matter what she wore, Aurore always acted the same. Ever since Adrien met the former model, now actress, she had always been self-centered, opinionated, and nosy. She made it her business to figure out what was wrong with you and throw it up in your face, sometimes aggressively and other times passively, but always relentlessly.

When she had completely finished the bag of chips, she crumpled it up and tossed it toward the small waste bin. She missed, not that she cared, taking no effort to pick up her litter. It was within arms reach of Adrien. Although he knew it wasn’t his responsibility or even his room, he nonetheless felt compelled to pick up the bag and place it into the bin. Aurore took no notice nor did she offer any thanks for the assist. Her eyes were lasered focused on Luka, her intended target.

“Ahhh...I needed that,” she sighed, dropping herself heavily onto the bed, making Luka jolt upwards. His lips pressed together slightly in annoyance, but his fingers never stopped their playing. “Normally, I don’t eat junk food, but, I haven’t eaten all day. Not even breakfast, for reals! I looked for something healthy, buuut beggars can’t be choosers.” Her eyes flicked from Luka to Adrien, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement. When none came, Aurore continued her monologue.

“What are you doing? Writing another song?” She reached for Luka’s notebook, but he got there first, closing it and pulling it to his chest before she could read it. Unphased she swung the backpack off her shoulder and rummaged inside it until she found what she was looking for: a purple lollipop. “I suppose some might consider playing an instrument to be cool,” she mused, unwrapping the sweet and popping it into her mouth. She let the wrapper drop unceremoniously to the floor. Adrien’s left eyebrow twitched at her disrespectful manner.“I mean, around a campfire or at a kid’s party one does appreciate musical entertainment, but really !” She laughed as if what she was about to say was perfectly obvious, “Really! As a career? It’s not at all practical, and honestly a tad bit pathetic !” She paused to twirl the lollipop across her lips before taking a lick. “I mean, it’s all well and good for someone in their twenties to be in a band, but by the time you’re thirty, you really should’ve settled down and gotten a real job.”

Adrien cringed, fully understanding Aurore’s meaning. Luka was two years older than his sister. He’d be turning thirty in a few months. Unlike Juleka, he didn’t have steady employment. In the summer months he worked for his mother on her boat, The Hardrock , giving riverboat cruises along the Seine to visiting tourists. The rest of the year he did odd jobs, like moving furniture, delivering take out, and waiting tables, as they would pop up. Periodically when cash got really short he had even made deposits at the local sperm bank in exchange for a quick Euro or two. However, Adrien’s suggestion to record the band’s rehearsals and upload them to YouTube had recently improved the balance of Luka’s bank account. The band now enjoyed a healthy following on-line that provided an ad revenue stream, allowing the guitarist to devote more time to writing songs, playing in clubs, and hustling for gigs.

“I’ve got a job,” he scowled.

“Strumming on the street for handouts...” Aurore tsked.

“It’s none of your business,” he hissed back.

“It’s my business because it’s Juleka’s business. I’m only looking out for her, poor thing. Someone has to! She’s supporting you. Letting you live here...”

“I asked Jules to live with me ,” Luka corrected.

“Oh, yes! That’s right, how silly of me to forget!” she chuckled. “As I recall, you were on the verge of being evicted and begged Juleka to move in.”

Luka gave her a cold, hard stare. He was a good natured guy, but like anyone he had his limits.

“And now, your behavior is jeopardizing her job!” she continued undeterred.

“Pffftt..”

“She just barely finished her work by the deadline,” she argued. “No thanks to you, I hear,” she scolded, wagging a finger. “If you had a job, then you wouldn’t be here all the time, distracting Juleka, holding her back…”

“I’m not holding her back…” Luka grumbled through clenched teeth.

Adrien, whose eyes had been ping-ponging back and forth between the two, cringed again. The room felt thick and hot. His stomach tightened as the two argued, spurring him to do something, say something..

“Well, that’s not what her friends think,” Aurore’s eyes flicked to Adrien. He had the distinct impression that he was being implicated even though he knew himself to be innocent.

“They don’t,” Luka insisted, not believing her.

I defended you, of course,” she continued, placing a hand over her heart. “I said that the band’s playlist doesn’t just feature your songs.”

“Because it doesn’t.”

“Of course, it doesn’t!” she agreed, nodding her head heartily. “Although...two songs isn’t exactly even, is it?” she smiled prettily as she asked her question. “You know some people, not me of course, but some people might leap to conclusions.” Her eyes flicked mischievously from Luka to Adrien and then back again while she waited for them to ask her to what conclusions some people might leap. When they didn’t take her bait, she nevertheless continued. “Some people might think that you’re threatened by Juleka’s superior talent.”

Luka abruptly stopped playing. “Threatened?” he hissed.

“Hmm...maybe your afraid she’ll outshine you? That maybe she should be leader?” She leaned in close to him and Adrien knew the next words out of her mouth would be devastating. “Maybe…”

“How’s your acting going, Aurore?” Adrien blurted from his corner, interrupting them before she could finish her thought.

The actress blinked, then pulled back from Luka, allowing the change in topic if only to talk about herself. She turned to face Adrien with a broad smile.“Wonderful! My agent’s submitted me for a big part,” she replied, flipping one pigtail in air, “in a Hollywood movie! It’s an action movie, a spy kinda thing with…” she paused for effect, “Chris Hemsworth!”

“What’s the part?” Adrien asked.

“A corpse?” Luka quipped.

“No!” she snapped at Luka. Turing back to Adrien, she composed herself before answering his question. “I’d play Chris’s wife. I get kidnapped and then…”

“Killed?” the guitarist asked.

“Dying believably takes a lot of talent and skill,” she corrected him, wagging a finger. “My acting teacher says that I’m the best he’s ever seen.”

“You’ve certainly had a lot of practice at it,” Luka agreed, nodding his head. “Let’s see…” he mused, “...you’ve been shot, stabbed, poisoned…”

“Hit by a car,” Adrien added, understanding what his friend was doing. When Aurore pushed Luka too far, he would push back, not physically, of course. Luka was no fighter. He abhorred violence of any kind. But, he wasn’t above employing her own tactics against her.

“Yes, and electrocuted…”

“Hanged…”

“Stung by killer bees…”

“Oh!” Adrien chirped, remembering another, “Frozen.”

“I think you mean, hypothermia,” Luka corrected, “but frozen sounds better.”

“Drowned!”

“Eaten by a shark!”

“Eaten by an alligator!”

“Don’t forget burned at the stake…”

“And by a dragon!” Adrien giggled.

“But, my personal favorite has to be dying of a broken heart.” Luka lowered his eyes mournfully as he covered his chest with one hand. “That took real skill, considering you don’t have a heart.” He his eyes flicked upward, flashing anger.

“Ooooh! Burned again!” Adrien cackled.

“At least I work!” Aurore cried, leaping to her feet. “Juleka!” She stomped out of the room, hitting the cymbals of the drums with her fist in anger. Adrien barked his displeasure at the rough treatment to his instrument.

“She started it!” Luka called after her. Laughing he offered his fist to Adrien, who bumped it with his own. “Nice one, bro!”

Less than a minute later the blonde returned with her girlfriend in tow, now wearing a different all black outfit. “Your brother and his friend are being mean again!” Aurore pointed an accusing finger at them.

Luka shrugged, “We were just asking about her acting.”

“Yeah, she was telling us about her new part, wife of Chris Hemsworth,” Adrien explained.

“May she rest in peace,” Luka quipped, dissolving into giggles with Adrien.

“Be nice,” Juleka scolded her brother. “Just for a bit longer,” she murmured. That seemed to pacify Luka, he merely nodded and took up his guitar again. Turning to Adrien, Juleka asked, “Did ya show Aurore?”

Adrien shook his head, but immediately unplugged his headphones and cued up the video to the beginning. He clicked play and turned his laptop around so that both women could see. He was a little bit more than halfway through editing. Aurore watched for all of about five seconds before declaring that it was awesome, although her enthusiasm lacked sincerity. She turned on her heel pulling Juleka along with her, complaining about being late and still hungry.

Returning to his editing, Adrien placed the headphones back on if only to drown out Aurore talking. From his seat on the floor he could see through the doorway as Juleka walked this way and that in the apartment, the whole time Aurore dogging her heels. After about ten minutes of this, Juleka stuck her head back into the bedroom to proclaim, “We’re off!”

Luka gave his sister two thumbs up and a hearty “Good luck!”

From behind Juleka, Aurore asked, “Ya got the tickets?” Juleka moaned in response, disappearing back into the apartment. Unphased by the delay Aurore bounded back into the bedroom swinging a different bag of chips in her hands. She stood in front of Luka, banging the bag against her knees as she chomped.

“Too bad we can’t stay!” she sighed. “I really did want to see your new video, but we are so very late!” She flopped back onto the bed and shoved another handful of chips into her mouth.

Adrien eyed the girl, wondering what she was thinking. “See ya, Aurore! Have fun!” He tried his best model smile and waved. She waved back, then continued to eat as if she had all the time in the world.

“Are we going or not?” Juleka huffed with her hands on her hips. Presumably she had found the tickets.

“Yes! I’ve been waiting on you !” Aurore loudly heaved herself up and then conspicuously dusted her dress of crumbs. “Well...we’ll be going now!” The tall actress turned on her heel to go, but then stopped and spun back around. “Is that a new camera?” she asked pointing at Adrien’s camera. “Is it yours, Juleka?” But Juleka had already walked out of the room. The rightful owner protectively picked it up and hugged it to his chest.

“No on both counts,” Luka replied, abandoning the guitar in favor of rising to his feet. “‘Kay, ‘bye.” He gently, but firmly pushed her out of the bedroom and closed the door in her face. Adrien heard the lock click.

A muffled, “RUDE!” could be heard from the other side of the door.

With a sigh the guitarist returned to his spot on the bed. The two friends refrained from saying anything to each other until they heard the apartment door slam shut.

“Hey!” Adrien got Luka’s attention. “You know that stuff Aurore said about the band...you know I don’t agree with her, right?” he asked, feeling nervous that his best friend might have been hurt by Aurore’s words.

“No worries, man,” Luka replied with an easy smile. “Aurore always trying to stir the pot. She keeps trying to start a fight between me and Jules, but, I see through her.”

“Good,” Adrien grinned. “I don’t how you put up with her. I don’t know why Juleka is even dating her!”

“Neither does Jules,” Luka winked. “She’s gonna break up with Mlle. Sticky Fingers tonight ,” Luka said smiling with a tinge of pride in his voice. He strummed his guitar happily.

“Really?” Adrien squeaked. “That’s awful…”

“Why?” Luka’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and his hand suddenly stilled. “I know you don’t like her. None of us do.”

“Yeah, but…” Adrien sighed and shook his head in dismay. “Break ups suck. I feel bad for Aurore...and for Juleka.”

“You should feel bad for me,” Luka snarked as he resumed his playing. “I’ve had to put up with Aurore’s antics and Juleka’s pouting. Ahhh…” he stretched his hands above his head, “the Couffaine luck is finally changing. Juleka’s getting rid of Mlle. Wrong and I just found Mlle. Right.”

“Yeah, Mlle. Right,” Adrien echoed as he placed the headphones back on his head. He pressed play:

“Where is your heart?”