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“So? What do you think?” Marinette pulled the vintage dress from her trunk, holding it up against herself for the two little fairies to see. 

“I love the pink!” Said Tikki, the Ladybug. 

“It’s a little old fashioned,” said Plagg, the cat. 

Marinette turned and looked at it in the mirror. “It is a little old fashioned, isn’t it? It was my mother’s favorite party dress. I hid it before stepmother got rid of everything that belonged to her.” 

“It’s still very nice...” Plagg said, trying to placate her. 

“Of course. Nobles such as my parents didn’t attend parties in rags. Most nobles didn’t wear the same dress twice! But my mother loved this dress, so she wore it as often as she could.” 

“You could update it a little,” said Tikki. “The Prince’s ball isn’t for another two days.” 

“That’s not a lot of time, without a sewing machine, but I think I can pull it off!” 

“Marinette!” Called a nasally voice up the stairs. “I’ve been waiting on my snack for 15 minutes! What’s taking you so long? Ridiculous! Utterly ridiculous!” 

Marinette rolled her eyes. “I guess the dress will have to wait.” She slipped it on the dress form and let her hand smooth over the years of wrinkles from being hidden away. Updated or not, she would wear it.

Because the Prince demanded every eligible maiden, regardless of status, to attend. Technically, Marinette was of noble birth, but after the death of her biological parents, and the alienation of her stepmother, she was basically just a scullery maid. And scullery maids don’t get to attend fancy parties, even if they used to be something. 

But that didn’t seem to matter to the Prince. Or the King. Or whoever was responsible for this party. 

“Marinette!!” The young woman was pulled out of her thoughts at the shout. 

“Coming!” She abandoned the dress and hurried down the steps to do her chores. 

Her step-sister, Chloe, was waiting for her at the bottom. “What were you doing up there? You’re supposed to be making my afternoon snack!” 

“Of course, Chloe. I was just distracted.” 

“Well, stop it! And after you’ve made my snack, Mother wants you to fit Lila and I for our dresses for the ball!” 

“I’ll meet you in the dressing room after you’ve had your snack.” Marinette said cooly. “I’ll only need to fetch my sewing kit.” 

Chloe gave her a little smirk. “I’m not sure what style I want for the ball. You might be working on alterations all night!” She cackled as she walked away. 

“Guess I won’t be updating that dress very much.” Marinette huffed to herself. 

Never mind fitting or altering the dresses, Lila and Chloe couldn’t pick one to start with!

“This purple is heinous! It completely clashes with the brown in my hair!” 

“This red is too dark, too old fashioned!” 

“This sash is so ugly! I never want to see it again! Throw it away!” 

“Look at the frills on this! So last season! Get it out of my sight!” 

Each dress put more of a mess on the floor, more fabric in her hands, and more of her late father’s squandered money in the toilet. 

“Have we made a decision?” A voice spoke from the doorway. It belonged to Marinette’s stepmother, Audrey. 

“Mother, we simply have nothing to wear! None of this is good enough for the Prince!” 

Marinette swept her eyes across the room, and the now empty closets. If she had a better relationship with her stepsisters, maybe they’d let her borrow one. There were at least a dozen she envied, just at a first glance. 

But these girls were selfish and spoiled rotten. There was no ‘borrowing’ happening. 

Audrey met Marinette’s eyes over the stack of dresses in her arms. “What do you think, Marinette?” 

“Her?!” Barked Chloe. “She has no sense of fashion at all!” 

“No fashion at all!” Echoed Lila. “She hasn’t been helpful at all today!” She lied. 

“Regardless,” Audrey stated calmly as she walked further into the room. “I’m curious to see what Marinette thinks. What dresses do you think your stepsisters should wear to the ball?” 

This had to be a test. Everything that Audrey did was a test, to see Marinette’s will, her spirit, and her loyalty. The better she played the test, the less severe the punishment. 

And there was always punishment. 

Carefully, Marinette set the dresses down on the bed, then laid out each one, looking them over carefully. She occasionally looked over to Chloe and Lila, just to gauge complexions and hair colors. 

“This one, for Chloe,” she held up a mostly gold dress, with black accents along the bodice and skirts. “If I take the bustle from this dress,” she pointed to another gold dress that was the same shade, “I can add it to this one, and make it more stylish for this year.” 

Chloe didn’t argue, and came over to look at the dress again for herself. 

“For Lila,” she held up a lavender purple dress with huge sleeves and wide skirts. “If I remove the neck line, and lower the sleeves to be off the shoulder, I think that would look really nice.” 

Lila perked up a little bit, liking the idea of the off-the-shoulder look. 

“What do you think gals?” 

It turns out, Marinette was the inventor of her own punishment. Chloe and Lila instantly dove in to request outlandish alterations for their dresses. 

Things that would take up almost all of her time. 

“And before I leave, what were the items you wanted me to discard?” 

Marinette ended up leaving the room with an arm full of ‘last years’ accessories, and two huge dresses to alter. 

Many hours later, and too many pin pricks to count. Marinette finished Chloe and Lila’s dresses. 

They were amazing, elegant, and far too beautiful for her horrible stepsisters to wear. 

It just wasn’t fair. 

“Wow Marinette!” Exclaimed Tikki with eyes shining, “these dresses came out beautifully!” 

“Too bad they don’t match the souls of the wearers.” Snarked Plagg, as if he read her mind. 

“Stop,” Marinette chastised. “You shouldn’t say stuff like that.” 

“You were thinking it.” 

“...yeah, well thinking it and saying it are two different things.” 

Plagg picked up a scrap of discarded fabric from the floor and took it over to her own untouched dress. “You’ve got a lot of leftover fabric. What are you going to do with it?” 

“I don’t know what I can do. Most of this doesn’t match my dress, and the ball is tomorrow!” 

“We’ll help you!” Said Tikki, eager. “If anyone deserves a night off, it’s you!” 

Marinette smiled fondly at her two fairies. Though they could work a little magic, they couldn’t drastically fix her problems. But just having their company and friendship made her life more bearable, and a lot less lonely. 

“Then, we better get to work!” 

A careful eye is all it took. Marinette plucked the perfect scraps needed to enhance her mother’s dress. A little lace here, a sash there, and with the help of Tikki and Plagg, it all fell together, just in time. 

She even made little pockets for them to hide in, so that they could, ostensibly, enjoy the ball as well. 

Marinette hurried down the staircase just as her step family was leaving. “Wait! Oh please wait!” 

Wait they did, halting in movement and sound as she sashayed down the stairs and across the foyer. “Do you like it? It took me all night!” 

Instead of any words of kindness, not that she actually expected any, both Lila and Chloe turned to Audrey, screaming. 

“Mother she can’t go! You can’t let her go!” 

“It’s not fair! Tell her to stay home!” 

But Audrey simply smiled at the daughters, and then Marinette. “I’m afraid it’s out of my hands. Marinette is allowed to go. She finished all of her chores, and by all rights, she was invited.” 

Marinette refrained from celebrating though. There was something in her step-mother’s tone that suggested something more sinister. 

Audrey appraised her dress, her dark eyes scanning her form with scrutiny. “It’s a very lovely dress, Marinette. You made it yourself?” 

“Yes?” 

“And oh, where did you get the fabric from?” 

“I didn’t make it from scratch. It’s an updated dress I had from my mother.” 

“This lace plating,” Audrey traced the line on the collar. “It looks a lot like the lace that used to be on Chloe’s dress. Don’t you think, Chloe?” 

“Don’t ask me, I don’t care—AH!” She gasped. “You little thief! You ripped my dress apart just to take the piece you wanted from it?!” 

“No! No Chloe not at all! It was scrap! I was going to throw it away!” 

“Give it back!” With a firm grip and a hearty tug, Chloe ripped the thin lace right off of Marinette’s collar. This unraveled part of the front, which drooped asymmetrically. Marinette grabbed hold to keep it from falling off. 

“And that’s the sash to my dress!” Lila shouted, pointing at her waist. She grabbed hold and ripped it right off, not caring if it got torn in the process. 

“And that tassel!” Chloé shrieked, going in for more damage. 

Over and over, Lila and Chloe laid waste to Marinette’s hard work, turning the recycled ball gown into just rags. 

When it was all said and done, she was just barely covered. One shoulder was exposed, and there was half a sleeve on the other side. Her draping silk skirt was shredded, and only the white underskirt kept her modest (and even that had a slit up her leg.) 

Marinette stood in the carnage, in shock and horror, as she just took in all that had happened in so little time. 

Audrey just smiled at her as Chloe and Lila flounced out of the manor. “Goodnight, dear.” She said with a sickeningly sweet voice. 

It was too much. Marinette fled from the room, bursting through the back door and out to the garden. For so long, she had been able to shrug off their comments, to smile and turn the other cheek. Because that’s all it was, comments. Words. 

But this was too much. Cruelty to an unfathomable degree. 

Marinette collapsed on a stone bench under her mother’s favorite willow tree. The very place she held her fondest memories with her parents. It was six years since her father’s passing, and ten since her mother’s. But not a day passed without her missing them. 

But under this tree, she felt close to them. The ache didn’t hurt as much. The low draping branches caressed her hair, and she could pretend it was her mother’s hand. 

“Maman...papa...I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I let them ruin your dress. I shouldn’t have altered it. Maybe then...maybe...” she sobbed. “I’m sorry papa. You asked me to love them, but I can’t. I just can’t! They’re awful and cruel! Why did you leave me with them?” 

A tiny paw caressed her cheek. “Marinette, you know Audrey acted differently around your father. He fell for her lies. He didn’t mean to hurt you.” 

“I know. I know...I’m sorry papa. I’m sorry.” 

Still feeling guilty, she sat up and rubbed her eyes. “It’s just a silly dress...and just a silly ball.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “But I worked really hard, and I really wanted to go.” 

“So why don’t you?” Plagg asked, cheerfully.

“I can’t go looking like this.” 

“Why not?”

“It would be improper!” 

He scoffed at her. “What’s improper? You’re covered, you’re still dressed modestly. Set a new fashion standard! Beggar chic!” 

”Thanks Plagg, you always know how to cheer me up.” 

“Well, I’m glad you feel better. But it wasn’t just a joke.” 

“You aren’t seriously suggesting...” 

“I am!” He twirled in the air. “You go to that ball! You eat some fancy cheese! Get tipsy on expensive champagne! And lose yourself in the arms of some nameless stranger!” He put his paw to his head, to stir up dramatics. 

“A nameless stranger, huh?” She laughed. “Like anyone would approach me looking like this.” 

“All you need is a little tidying up!” Sang Tikki. She twirled around her, brushing the dirt from her skirt and tying back some of the material to look less like rags, and more intentional. “And...a little spell.” 

Marinette’s eyes widened. “Really? You’re going to use magic?” 

“Just a little, tiny, harmless spell.” Tikki blew on her, creating a plume of glitter. “There we go.” 

“What did you do?” 

“Gave you a little boost of confidence. It’s very attractive in people, you know. Wear your dress with pride, and don’t let anyone ruin this night for you.” 

Her shoulders felt light, her body relaxed. She could take on the world! “Thanks Tikki, and Plagg.” She added as an afterthought. 

Both fairies kept her company until she reached the castle, and then they dove into her skirt pockets. 

“One more thing,” Tikki added. “When the clock strikes midnight, the confidence spell will be broken. You’ll be on your own.” 

“That's alright. I can’t imagine staying that long.” 

Walking through the town, Marinette was given looks of skepticism and repulsion, but she just smiled and waved them off. 

Because this was her night, and no one was going to ruin it for her. 

She arrived at the castle after the majority of the guests arrived. The stairs were flanked with guards, all stalwartly standing at attention, with halberds in hand. 

She attempted to enter, but the halberds crossed in front of her, forbidding entry. 

A less confident Marinette would have taken that as her defeat and turned back. But she had confidence to spare today! “Is this not the way to the ball?” 

“Dressed like that, it’s not.” Said the guard. 

“Oh, this? I know, it looked better a half hour ago, before my stepsisters decided I shouldn’t be allowed to attend, even though I was invited. I decided not to let it bother me, and go anyways. It’s still the best dress I have.” 

The palace guards were known for their stoic faces and rigid posture. But at that moment, she saw both of them melt, and move the halberds back to their sides. “Go ahead mademoiselle, enjoy the party.” 

She curtsied. “Thank you, kind sirs.”

With her head held high, Marinette climbed the stairs, following the trickle of people, until she stood before a woman at a table. 

This woman had gorgeous red hair in an ombré, and wore a monocle. She gave Marinette a skeptical glance, and asked, “invitation please?”

Oh, this might actually be a problem. “I’m sorry. My stepmother has the invitation. She arrived before me.” 

This did not concern the woman. “Name of household?” 

“Ah, Bourgeois.” 

The woman frowned, her mouth screwing up in displeasure. She checked her list. “I’m sorry, I already have Lila and Chloe here. Are you a maid in the house?” 

“Yes, in a way.” 

“What’s your surname?” 

“Dupain-Cheng.” 

The quill the woman was holding clattered to the floor, as she looked at her, wide-eyed and horrified. “Du-Du-Dupain?! As in Thomas Dupain?!” 

“Yes, and his wife Sabine.” 

“You’re their daughter? Marinette?” 

“Yes? Um, how do you know me?” 

“Who doesn’t know the name Dupain?! Duke Thomas Dupain, married a baker from China for love. The nicest person anyone ever knew! What happened to you? Where did you go?” 

“I’ve been here, in Paris.” Marinette shrugged, shyly. 

“Everyone thinks you’re dead!” 

“I’m...dead? No, no, I just...” she looked down at her tattered dress. “I suppose that shouldn’t be all that surprising.” 

“Your father remarried after the death of your mother, correct?” 

“Yes. Audrey Bourgeois.” 

“Ah, I see now. I apologize.” She glanced over her ragged dress again. “I’ll send for a new dress for you, and I’ll give your name to the herald to announce your arrival.” 

“Oh that’s not necessary,” Marinette interrupted with an outstretched hand. “I don’t really want to draw extra attention to myself. I just came to enjoy the ball. I know that the Prince will be looking for his bride tonight, but...I just want to be a wallflower to such a fancy party.”

The woman sighed, a fond smile on her face. “Alright, I’ll let you in. But you should introduce yourself in there. People deserve to know you’re here...you deserve to be acknowledged.”

Marinette reached out and touched her hand gently. “Thank you. Right now, it’s not a good idea. But I’ll keep it in mind Miss...?” 

“Cesaire. Alya Cesaire.” 

“Thank you Alya.” She gave a little curtsy, and then headed up the stairs. The ballroom was just ahead. The doors were wide open, and even despite the enormous crowd, the room still looked empty. High ceilings, robust chandeliers, and a high, wide balcony where a man sat, watching. It was so much to take in. 

This ball, as with all of his father’s events, was dull and boring. When his father had announced he was throwing his son a party for his seventeenth birthday, he expected some sort of boring formal ball. But this, this was a whole new level of asinine mediocrity. 

All Adrien had done so far was stand in one spot and smile, then addressed every god damn eligible maiden in the kingdom with a polite, “how do you do?” 

Each one came up with the most gold digging, fake smile, and curtsied. They twirled their little dresses, like that would somehow influence him? 

Adrien was lucky that King Gabriel had allowed him to marry for love. Though he was on a time limit. Apparently, he was a year behind, because Gabriel had assumed he would have picked someone at 16. 

He was barely interested in the fairer sex right now anyways. Sure, it would be nice to have a female companion. They were soft and smelled nice. Bonus if they were married to him, he could have someone to snuggle with at night when he was at his loneliest. 

But he didn’t want a trophy. Or a ‘yes-woman’. He wanted a companion. A friend. 

And it was really hard to judge someone’s personality based on a 30 second interaction. 

He yawned, casting the action up towards his father, letting him know this entire evening was a bore. 

“Lila and Chloe Bourgeois.” 

Adrien winced internally as the girls were introduced. He knew them. There wasn’t a single person in the kingdom that didn’t know the infamous Bourgeois daughters. Pretty enough, but wickedly cruel, stuck up, and obnoxious. 

“I want to go first!” Said Chloe, elbowing her sister. 

“I was introduced first, so I get to go!” Said Lila. 

They made their way towards him, elbowing and bickering the whole time. But they pulled it together when they reached the end, and bowed low. 

Your Highness .” They both cooed in the most sickeningly sweet tone he’d ever heard. 

“How do you do?” He nodded to them. 

Then rolled his eyes at his father. 

But the girls weren’t leaving. They continued to stand in front of him, staring at him with hunger in their eyes. 

“So,” said Lila. “Which one of us is it going to be?”

“Excuse me?” Adrien asked, more insulted than confused. 

“Obviously, I’m the prettier one.” Said Chloe, with a hand to her chest.

“Yes, sister, but your voice is so hard to listen to. You wouldn’t subject His Highness to that, would you?”

Chloe gasped. “How dare you try to embarrass me in front of the Prince!” 

Adrien glanced behind the girls, trying to see the line of ladies waiting to be introduced. 

There was no more. He was done. Over a hundred eligible maidens in the kingdom, and he had to get stuck with these two at the end. So what now? Did the list start over with dancing? He certainly didn’t have that many dances in him. 

He didn’t really want to dance at all.

“Well?” Asked Chloe, waving her hand in front of his face. “What do you think? Personally, I think I have more personality. And I’m more honest.” 

“You’re more blunt, is what you mean,” interjected Lila. 

Across the room, Adrien noticed a new girl entering. She hadn’t been announced, but he hadn’t seen her earlier. And he would have remembered if he had. 

She wore a content smile, her hands folded in front of her. Her eyes wandered the venue, taking in the sights, the sounds, the ambience. She seemed to just revel in it, like she was coming home. Her shoulders were squared, her spine straight, and she smiled and nodded at passerby, servant and guest alike. 

She oozed with confidence and elegance, but also grace and dignity. The fact that she was the first guest to acknowledge the servants at all spoke volumes. 

He had never felt this way before. His heart was pounding, his face felt warm, and his breaths were never deep enough. 

Maybe she wasn’t so special, or nice, or anything he wanted. But there was only one way to know. He had to talk to her. 

“Excuse me, ladies,” he spoke absently as he parted Lila and Chloe. 

Surely his father wouldn’t be angry that he broke protocol. Not if she turned out to be as amazing as she seemed at first glance. 

“Pardon me,” he spoke, coming up to her side. 

She gave a little gasp of surprise, not expecting to be approached. 

“I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wondered if you cared to dance?” 

The smile she gave was radiant, dreamy, carefree. “I would love to dance, Nameless Stranger.” 

He tilted his head. Did she really not know who he was? “Nameless Stranger?” He laughed. 

“It’s a little joke. I promised myself I’d enjoy the evening with a little fancy cheese, a taste of expensive champagne, and to lose myself in the arms of a nameless stranger. If that’s alright?” 

“Meeting the prince isn’t on that list?” 

She actually looked sheepish. “Well, it would be nice, but I didn’t think it was appropriate while I’m dressed like this.” She gestured to her dress. 

For the first time, Adrien actually noticed what she was wearing. He had seen so many dresses that night, they all seemed to blur together. 

But hers was ripped to shreds. “Oh.” He stated, a little shocked. 

“It looked better a half an hour ago, before some family decided they didn’t want me coming to the ball.” 

“And you decided to come anyways?” He said with awe. “Even at the risk of being ridiculed?” 

“I haven’t been ridiculed yet.” She smiled. “Got some side-eyes, but I can handle that. You’ve invited me for a dance after all.”

“To be quite honest, I hadn’t noticed your dress until you pointed it out. Men don’t typically notice that sort of thing, you know?”

“Or perhaps it’s just you,” she beamed at him, eyes glittering with mirth.  

It made him blush. “Well, would you still like to dance with me? You might attract some attention.” 

“You’re being awfully kind to me, and that’s really all that matters.” 

He smiled at her widely, and extended his arm for her to take. 

Never before did Marinette get to enjoy the sensation of watching a crowd part for her. This young, handsome man led her out to the dance floor, and as they reached the center, music started to play. 

He led, and she followed, stumbling once or twice before they got their rhythm. 

“I haven’t danced in a long time. Sorry if I’m out of practice.” 

“If this is out of practice, you’re doing remarkably well.” 

“Really?”

“Really! Just last week, I danced with a girl. Well, I was forced to dance with a girl that stepped on my feet more than the floor.” 

“I’m sorry for your poor toes.” She giggled, and he had never heard such a sweet sound. 

Somewhere behind her, Marinette heard a scoff of disgust. Normally, this would have made her shrink in embarrassment, but with the confidence boost, she just said, “they’re all watching us, but I don’t think they’re happy.” 

“No,” said Adrien. “I don’t think so either. I think they’re jealous. Not a lot of handsome men to dance with, I’m afraid.” He wiggled his eyebrows. 

She laughed. “I feel sorry for the Prince then, if he had to invite all these women to have a good time.” 

“Oh, you don’t know? He’s looking for a bride tonight.” 

“I heard such a thing. An odd way of going about it, inviting every eligible maiden. Seems like a lot of estrogen to wade through.” 

He laughed, a bit too unrestrained for such a fancy occasion, in front of so many people, but he really didn’t care. And by the way her face lit up with joy, she didn’t mind either. 

“I like your spunk, Miss…?”

“Miss Nameless Stranger,” she smirked. “After all, it wouldn’t be fair if you knew me, and I still didn’t know you.” 

“Touché. But I intend to get it out of you by the end of the night. You’re far too amazing to let go of.” 

Her smile came a little sadder this time. “I’m not that amazing. But it thrills me to know you think so.” 

“Would you like to take a walk in the garden? Give these Old biddies something to gossip about?” 

She giggled. “Sounds entirely too pleasant. Lead the way, good sir.” 

Adrien held out an arm for her, squeezing her hand as she attached herself to him. 

This was nice. Extremely nice. It was fun and exciting to meet someone under the pretext of being someone else, but more so, getting to know someone without title and wealth getting in the way. 

She was smart, polite, and graceful. She knew how to dance. Surely she was someone of some nobility? Even if she wasn’t, his father had agreed he could pick anyone at the ball for a bride. 

There also laid excitement in unraveling her mystery. Her interests, her worldview, her thinking, her story. It was like solving a moving puzzle. 

Moving out to the gardens, he watched as her face lit up with a dazzling smile as she took in the perfectly curated blooms. 

“A fan of flowers?” He asked. 

“Oh yes!” Said Marinette. “My parents used to have this lovely garden when I was younger. It’s not as nice now, when I’m the only one able to tend to it.” She caressed the petals of a pink rose. 

“Your family has lost a lot of money then?” He asked. “Not that it’s any of my business of course. But I know rough times fall upon a lot of people.” 

“I understand. We were set for life, and I would have been too, had nothing happened. But, I lost my mother when I was six.” 

He gasped. “I know what that’s like. I lost my mother two years ago.” 

She looked pained, and reached out to take his hand, and gave it a little squeeze. “My heart goes out to you. It was so long ago with my mother, I still miss her, but I’ve had time to grieve. Same with my father. But two years ago must still be hard.” 

“You lost your father too?” He spoke, his heart breaking for her. 

“Yes. Two years after my mother. I’m not homeless though. He remarried, and she had two daughters. I still have...a family.”

Adrien noticed that her smile didn’t quite meet her eyes. 

“I’m sorry, that’s such a downer topic for such a nice evening.” She winced.

“No, no it’s fine. I’m interested in learning about your family! And besides, every time I mention my mother, I end up having to comfort whoever I’m talking to, because they usually knew her and they’re sad about her passing.” 

“She was popular then?” 

“A regular queen bee .” 

“And your father?” She asked, delicately. 

“Um, he didn’t take it well. He’s been pretty hard to read.”

She squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry, it's hard not to have family when you need them. My stepmother was pretty…cold after my father passed. So I understand the feeling.”

“What did you do? How did you cope with it?” He asked, looking into her eyes. He seemed genuine, like he needed advice. 

“I realized a stepmother isn’t the same thing as a blood relative.” She began, “So you might have better luck, but…I never really had a good relationship with her. I try to avoid her as much as possible. Instead, I found friends, and they’re my new family now.” 

His eyes widened, before a hopeful smile graced his face. “A new family, hmm?” 

“That’s what worked for me, at least. You should at least talk to your father. You never know.” 

“I suppose it’s worth a try.” He gave a little half grin. “Although these days, he’s more obsessed about me getting married and having heirs.” 

“Marriage! How old are you?”

“17. So, not out of the realm of possibility.” 

“For nobles?” She asked. 

A curious gaze came over his face. So she wasn’t of noble birth? She was just that keen and aware? “Who said I was a noble?” His eyes twinkled. 

“Oh, it was just an assumption. Your clothing looks very nice. And you said you were forced to dance with a girl last week. Sounds like you go to fancy parties fairly often.” 

He chuckled. “You figured me out. I was trying to lean into the nameless stranger role, and let you pretend I was anything you wanted me to be.” 

She squeezed his hand. “Prince or pauper, all I want is for you to be you, sir.” 

He raised her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You must be careful with such flattering words, or else I may follow you out of here like a lost kitten.” He kissed her once more and admitted, “it’s not often people get invested in me for me, and not my title or family name.” 

“That’s a shame. You seem so wonderful.” 

“I’ll have you know, that I am a delight.” He beamed, squeezing her hands in both of his. “Oh, goodness, your hands…” he felt her skin.  

“I know, awfully rough and callous?” 

“I was going to say cold.” He raised her digits to his face and blew on her hands, then covered them with his own. “Are you chilled out here?”

“Oh no, not at all. It feels nice. My hands are just always cold, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, an excuse to get me to hold your hand for the rest of the night. I’m onto your tricks.” 

She giggled. “You’ve caught me.” 

He intertwined their fingers and guided her down a walkway, delving deeper into the gardens. 

“Now, My Lady, as much as I’ve enjoyed our little game, I simply must know where to find you again. This hour alone has been the most easy and comfortable conversation I’ve had in a long time.” 

“Sadly, my good sir, it must only be for tonight. Because at dawn, I turn back into a frog.” 

“No!” He gasped. “You can’t be a frog! You must be a more graceful animal, like a swan or a cat.” But this joke fell flat. “But truly, I can’t see you again?” 

“No, I’m afraid not.” 

“Will you tell me why?” 

“No. Because I’m having too much fun with you. You know the phrase ‘the truth will set you free’? Well, it will. Set you free from me, that is.” 

He frowned. “You’re not some sort of maniac or killer, are you?” 

“Contrary to my appearance, no, I’m quite sane.” 

“Then I suppose I’ll have to be content with what you have given me. Tonight, you’ll be my princess, and tomorrow, you’ll be the phantom that haunts me for the rest of my life.”

“You’re being quite dramatic for only knowing me a day.” 

“If I must be honest, you’re a breath of fresh air. The last few girls my father has tried to set me up with have been nothing but ‘ooooh look at this lovely dress my daddy bought me!’ ‘I didn’t like my old carriage, so my daddy bought me one in pink! Of course, I wouldn’t dare ruin it by riding on the dirt streets.’ ‘Ooo mummy and I are going on holiday to Milan! We’re meeting with the Princess there! Have you ever met the Princess? She’s so lovely!’ Blah, Milan doesn’t even have a Princess.”

“People live like that? It sounds so wasteful...” she thought about her own stepsisters then, realizing it wasn’t too hard to believe and that they would have done the same sort of things with more money. Especially Chloe. 

“Yes, it is wasteful.” Said Adrien, tapping her on the nose playfully.  “Though, my family does not have want for wealth, my father is extremely against frivolous spending. Every coin must be accounted for.” Adrien didn’t disclose that the money his family had was also the money for the kingdom. If the King started to spend more and more extravagantly, taxes go up, poverty goes up, riots go up, and the guillotine blade goes up. It wasn’t a habit Gabriel wanted his family to get into.  

“I see. My stepsisters like their material goods. If they find a dress they like, they get it in every color. I, on the other hand, am lucky to get a new dress once a year.” 

“...if this is your definition of new...” he gestured to her rags. “Then we ought to have a long conversation.”

She poked him in the ribs. “As I said earlier, this dress looked better earlier today. It was an old dress of my mother’s that I updated to modern style.” 

“Ah! A seamstress and a designer! Now we’re getting somewhere!” He said with glee. “Is that something you enjoy for fun? Or necessity?” 

“A little of both,” she stated, leading him onwards down the path. “It started as a necessity, and then I started to enjoy it. I don’t often get to really design...though I did mostly make up my stepsisters dresses for this party.” 

He stopped. “Wait, they’re here? Which ones were they? I want to see!” He started to head back towards the ballroom, but Marinette held fast to his hand and tugged him back. She was stronger than he expected, and he stumbled and collided into her, standing chest to chest. 

“I’m sorry, darling. My identity must remain a secret, remember? If I point them out, you’ll know who I am.” 

The mirth in her eyes, the cunning, mischievous smile on her lips, it made him weak in the knees. He felt the warmth of her body pressed against him, and allowed his hand to rest on her back.  

“You scare me, my lady.” 

“How so?” 

“It frightens me how quickly I’m finding myself falling for you, when I haven’t known you very long.” 

“Maybe it’s the music.” The music from the ballroom was faint in the air, but did lend to the magic of the garden. 

“No, no I don’t think it is.” He said softly. 

She smirked at him and twirled out of his arms, but she did take his hand again. “So what about you, kind sir? What are your hobbies? Do you often find yourself falling in love with strange women?”

He didn’t feel offended as she pulled away or teased him. Contrary, he let her go, and was surprised that a woman wasn’t flinging herself at him. “Not hardly. Or ever. I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies. But I enjoy fencing, and playing the piano.” 

She sighed happily. “I love pianos. My mother played when I was a child. My stepsister tries to play...but she’s not very good at it.” She winced. “But I’d love to hear you play.” 

He ducked so he could face her, his nose almost touching hers. “Let me see you again, and I’ll play to your heart’s content.” 

She lightly pinched his nose. “You’re a naughty one, has anyone told you that?” 

“Nonsense,” he wiggled his nose after she let go. “I’m a gentleman. But to be honest, I’d play for you right now. Except the piano is in the ballroom, and I don’t want any of those sycophants to hear.” 

“My, it almost sounds as if you’re bitter. Best not let them hear that. After all, the Prince invited them. Every eligible maiden.” 

“Is that what the invitation said? Horrendous.” He scoffed. “But, to defend the Prince’s honor, he didn’t invite anyone. He didn’t even want this party.”

“Oh, does he not like parties?”

“I’m sure he does,” Adrien said with a little smile. “But this isn’t really a true ball. This is a job interview. You missed the part at the beginning, where he stood in front of this long line of girls, and they each came up to be introduced. They gave their prettiest smiles, and then moved over for the next girl. It lasted about two hours.” He groaned. “And he’s supposed to choose one to be his bride.” 

“After a smile and a curtsy? That doesn’t seem fair.” 

“No, it’s not.” He shook his head. “Hopefully, he gets his chance to find the girl he wants and get to talk to her. But there’s not many of them in there that came to enjoy the evening, like you. They all came with the intent to marry the Prince.” 

“I see why you called them sycophants then.” 

At that point, they had reached a fountain, and Marinette took a seat on the lip, letting her fingers drag across the surface. “What about you? Why are you here?”

“My father made me come. He wants me to pick out a bride, remember? Take home a heartbroken girl rejected by the Prince.” He looked back at the ballroom, lack of enthusiasm plain on his face. “I should be in there, looking for a bride. But...” he turned back to her. “I can’t seem to pull myself away from you.” 

“I’m sorry, I can’t be who you want me to be. I’m not the marrying kind.” 

“I’m not trying to guilt you, honest.” He moved a lock of her hair out of her face. “Besides, I wouldn’t want you to be anyone else, My Lady. If I was obligated to do anything with you, I can’t imagine this encounter would be the same.” 

“So you’re glad I’ll be gone in the morning?” She tilted her head up towards him. 

“Glad isn’t fair, because I will certainly miss your presence, with an ache in my heart. But that just means I can tell you every one of my secrets, and nothing will ever happen.” 

She rested her hand on his knee as she stared up at him through her lashes. “Alright then, tell me your secrets?” 

He smiled at her, and could not resist the temptation to press a kiss to the apple of her cheek. “I’m a hopeless romantic.” 

“That’s not surprising.” She teased. 

“It would be to anyone else. Any of my friends or family that sees me barely look at girls...they’d never guess that I desire for a beautiful, smart, funny, and kind companion. Who I would love to fall asleep with, and wake up next to.” He let his nose brush against hers, feeling the warmth of her breath over his lips. This was sinful, and so inappropriate, but it was the most fun he’d ever had. His heart was just a hum in his chest. “What about you? What’s your secret?”

“It’s not as innocent as yours, I’m afraid,” she whispered. 

“Oh please tell me,” he nearly begged. “You must have a flaw.” 

“I have plenty of flaws,” she smirked. “But for your information…I hate my stepfamily.” 

“You? Hate? No!” 

“Oh please, anyone can hate someone. I’m sure you have someone you loathe more than anything.” 

He pulled away from her, a hand on his chin in genuine thought. “Hate, hate, hate…hmm…oh! Of course.” His face darkened. “Lila and Chloe Bourgeois.”

Her face paled. “What?”

“If there were two people I hate in this world, it’s them. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

“Yes, they’re fairly infamous then?” 

“Extremely so. Cruel, obnoxious, and completely unaware that they live in proper society. Their mother is a little better, but she allows them to behave however they want to.” 

“And what of their stepsister?” Marinette asked, trying to be casual. 

“Who?”

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Their stepsister?” 

“Oh, Duke Tom and Sabine’s daughter? I’ve never met her. Don’t know anything about her, to be honest. There’s been rumors that she died, poisoned, like her father. Another reason I hate the family.” He glanced over the plants, making sure no one was around. “There’s another secret, I’m a huge gossip. They always say that gossip is an old women’s sport, but I find entertainment in listening to drama unfold around me.” 

“You can get in trouble for gossiping.” She warned. 

“Not me, surely. And I only listen. My servants—er, the um, the staff around the house, they fill me in with all the latest details from the marketplace.” 

“You don’t go to the market yourself?” 

“No, I’m not supposed to leave the house. It’s ‘unsightly for a boy of my nature to be seen in the streets’.” 

“Sounds boring.” 

“It is.” He ever so smoothly slid over so their thighs were touching. “You often go to the marketplace?”

“Maybe once a week.”

“That often?”

“Sometimes twice, if I’m lucky.” 

He looked at her like she hung the stars in the sky. “Isn’t it wonderful?” 

“Not really.” 

He frowned. 

“It’s exciting, for sure, not to completely disillusion you. But the baker and his wife don’t get along, so if I want to place an order, I have to wait through their bickering.” 

Adrien’s eyes just shone with delight. It was fresh, new, alive! “What else?” 

“The market place is always busy. I get bumped into a lot. Someone bumped me so hard I dropped two eggs one time.” 

“That jerk.”

“I know! They missed my shoes, but I had to get more eggs, and the chicken farmer is kind of skeevy, I don’t like talking to him for too long.” 

“It sounds wildly interesting,” he leaned in. “At home, I pretty much get anything I ask for. It’s just ‘yes sir’, and they disappear for a few minutes, come back and that’s that.” 

“Must be nice.” Marinette commented with a bitter smile, she tried not to be envious. 

“It’s nice and all, but if I try to do anything for myself, I get shooed out of the kitchen or whatever. Granted, I don’t often know what I’m doing...but I’d at least like to try.” 

“I wish my stepsisters wanted to try things. They just depend on me doing everything. If they ever got bored and wanted to learn how to bake a cake, I’d certainly teach them.” 

“Would you teach me how to bake?” 

She decided to humor him. “Someday, my darling. Someday.” 

He grinned at her, widely, as if he had caught her. “I’ll hold you to that, my Lady.” 

She just smiled at him, snuggling closer. “You’re naughty, has anyone told you that?” 

He wrapped an arm around her waist. Hugging her tightly. “I’m only naughty when I’m around strange, nameless women. It’s my curse.” 

She turned her face towards him. “Then we shouldn’t let anyone catch us together. Can’t let the gentry see you being naughty in the garden at night with a nameless woman.” 

“My dear, you make it sound like we’re doing something sinful.” 

“I’d never insinuate such a thing,” she kissed his cheek. “I’m a lady.” 

He laughed. A little too hard, if he was honest. But she had just used his joke against him, and it was thrilling. No matter what happened, who she turned out to be, he knew he wanted to kiss her by the end of the night.

But then he remembered something. “Oh! What were the other things you wanted to do this evening? Champagne and cheese?” 

“Yes, but those aren’t necessary—“ 

“Nonsense!” He stood. “Wait right here, my lady. I’ll go fetch some. I want to make your night complete, so you can leave here without any regrets!” And he hurried off. 

“Hmm I might still have some regrets,” she said solemnly, as he disappeared into the foliage. 

She glanced over at the clock. It was 15 minutes past midnight, the confidence spell was over. But she was speaking so honestly and openly with her date, she didn’t even need any help. 

“What a dreamboat!” Said Tikki, emerging from the skirts. “Are you going to tell him who you are?” 

“...I might.” Marinette said, biting her lip. “But then again, in the morning, I don’t want him to have any regrets or obligations. I don’t want him to feel like he needs to rescue me. Or for him to feel dirty for being so...cavalier with a scullery man. No, tonight is just a night of fun and relaxation. It has no bearing on the future.” 

Plagg’s ears and Tikki’s antenna both dropped. 

There was a rustling in the foliage, and Marinette turned attentively to await the arrival of her date. Tikki and Plagg went back to hiding. 

Instead of a handsome stranger, Audrey Bourgeois emerged, enraged and livid. “You!” 

Marinette stood quickly, prepared to run. 

“How dare you! You made me look like an absolute fool!” 

Marinette trembled in her stepmother’s anger. That confidence spell would be really nice to have again right now. “But—but I was invited.” 

Audrey clamped down on her arm. “Proper ladies were invited, not scullery maids!” She yanked her and started pulling her away from the castle, towards the gates. “You’ll never know how humiliating this evening was for me! For you to show up like—like that! And to dance with—and take his attention—!” She was so angry and frustrated, her sentences were constantly cut off, not knowing what to be angry about first. Her sharp nails dug into Marinette’s arm as she was pulled further and further away. 

“But—“ 

“No buts!” Audrey approached the gate and shoved her past the guards. “This little pickpocket was caught trying to steal from the Baron Raincomprix! Don’t let her back in!” With that, Audrey collected herself and went back to the party. 

Marinette stood frozen, dejected, and heartbroken, staring at the halberds that made an ‘X’ in front of her. 

“Go home, Miss Pickpocket.” One of the guards stated. “Or we’ll be forced to arrest you, and put you in the dungeon.” 

Marinette looked longingly back at the garden, desperate to see a smear of blonde hair. But alas, it was too dark. 

“I didn’t steal anything,” she informed the guards. “I’m just not wanted here.” 

They didn’t move, just kept their spears crossed, and glared her down. 

Slowly, she walked away. What was the point anymore? 

“Oh Marinette,” Tikki said sadly. “I’m so sorry. You didn’t even get to have your champagne.” 

“Yes, well, it was lovely while it lasted. He was lovely…I knew it couldn’t last forever—where’s Plagg?” 

Tikki shrugged. 

“Oh! That silly cat! I bet he followed my Nameless Stranger to find the cheese! I have to go find him!” 

“Marinette, they aren’t going to let you back into the palace. And besides, Plagg knows where we live. He’ll come back when he’s full.” 

“…I suppose.” She sighed, her feet dragging on the ground. “I just wish I could have said goodbye. But now he’s going to think the worst, and that I was waiting to bolt at the first chance I got.” 

“Don’t worry about him anymore, Marinette. Just go home and get some sleep.” 

“You know best, Tikki.” 

Adrien, now with his man-servant Nino in tow, made his way back into the garden. “She’s over by the fountain, and you’re sure you’ll be able to identify her?” 

“I’m 97 percent sure,” Nino smiled, walking as briskly as his tray of cheese and champagne would allow. “As long as she’s really from this kingdom. And Alya checked everyone in at the door. We’ll get her name, Your Majesty.” 

“Hush, she doesn’t know who I am.”

“Oh, that’s right, um, sir.” 

“Better.” 

As they came to the clearing with the fountain, they found it empty. 

“That’s odd. She was right here…”

“Do you think she went to powder her nose?” 

Adrien frowned. “I would have thought she would have waited to tell me…” He called out across the garden. “My Lady! My Lady where are you!?”

There was no answer. 

“She couldn’t have left…could she?” 

Nino shrugged. 

“Perhaps I could help?” Said a new voice. It was dark enough in the garden, that it looked like a floating pair of green eyes were staring at him. 

“Ah! What are you?”

“I’m a fairy, name’s Plagg, is that Camembert?” He swooped over and landed on Nino’s tray, helping himself to the cheese. 

“You’re a—what?”

“A fairy, keep up man.” 

“Like…a fairy god…father?”

“Yes, for that girl that you were calling out for.” 

Adrien perked up. “You know her? Can you tell me who she is?”

“Kid, I’ll lead you right to her house.” 

“Why did she leave? Why didn’t she say goodbye?” 

Plagg polished off one wheel of cheese, and then went for the next. “She didn’t want to. Her stepmother found her and dragged her out by the arm. She’s long gone now.” 

“Her stepmother…” Adrien frowned. “Who is my mystery lady? What’s her name?”

Plagg smiled, his fangs gleaming in the light. “You were basking in the presence of Marinette Dupain-Cheng, late daughter of Duke Tom Dupain, and stepsister to Chloe and Lila Bourgeois.” 

Adrien paled considerably. 

“Late daughter? She’s a ghost?” Asked Nino. 

“No, no…I commented that it’s widely believed that Marinette was killed by her step family. I had no idea—God, I’ve been such an idiot! She’ll probably never want to speak to me again!” 

“In a way, they did kill her.” Plagg said, quietly. “They beat her into submission, insulted her, destroyed her self worth, they killed her spirit and self love.” He floated up in front of Adrien. “But she’s still so driven, so kind and funny, and so so smart. She has a hard time loving herself, but she has so much love for others. She could really use someone like you to love on her. Would you?” 

“Where can I find her?” 

“The Bourgeois Château, just on the edge of the kingdom. They make her work as a scullery maid in their kitchen.” 

“Audrey makes her own step daughter her servant? That’s awful.” Nino commented.

“It is! All she wanted was to come out here tonight and have a good time. She made her own dress and made sure all her chores were finished, but they wouldn’t let her have it.” 

“Why didn’t she say who she was?” 

“I don’t think she came here to look for a rescue. I think she came out for a nice night.” He played with his tail. “And I think she was nervous that you wouldn’t like her after you found out who she was.” 

Adrien shook his head. “If anything, I respect her more! She lives with those…she-devils and she’s still so…” he sighed happily. “I must go tell my father that I’ve found a bride, and then tomorrow, we’ll go rescue her!” 

In the morning, Adrien dressed and was ready to fetch his wife at sunrise. It killed him to have to wait until the carriage driver was on duty, and the Chancellor, the King’s trusted advisor, Nathalie, to get ready. 

The King hadn’t initially been thrilled that the girl his son had picked was a scullery maid, but he changed his tune when Adrien clarified it was Marinette Dupain-Cheng, daughter of a Duke. That was one step down from being a Princess. And then of course, when King Gabriel finally realized this high born woman was being forced to be a maid, he insisted that Adrien go and rescue her, if not only to give her a proper place in society. 

So here he was, bouncing in his seat as the carriage drove through the countryside. 

“You seem nervous,” Plagg announced, watching as Adrien’s leg twitched. 

“I am a little. She didn’t want me to know who she was. And I’ve gone against that. And this time, she’ll find out I’m the Prince. It’s going to change everything.” He looked out the window. “It always changes everything.” 

“But Marinette isn’t like other girls,” Plagg insisted. “She’s not going to act differently around you, just because you’re the Prince. I mean, maybe in front of other people, but when you’re alone…it’ll be just like last night. Trust me.” 

Adrien rubbed his head, right between the ears. “Thanks Plagg. I hope you stick around.” 

“If you keep feeding me Camembert, I’ll be sure to.” 

Finally, the Chateau was in sight, and the carriage pulled into the drive. 

How sad. 

The chateau looked like it was being eaten by the nature around it. Everything was overgrown, half-dead, and filled with weeds. The house itself was falling apart, with missing shingles and broken windows, and cracks in the bricks. Once upon a time, this would have been a gorgeous house, but time and lack of funds had brought it to ruin. 

If Audrey and her daughters allowed this inherited house to fall, what was the state of the daughter that came with it? 

“You best let me do the talking,” Chancellor Nathalie spoke, as she got out of the carriage. 

Adrien was hot on her heels, resisting the urge to fidget. 

The herald in attendance rang the bell and then called, “open in the name of the king!” 

It was a long while before the door opened, Audrey Bourgeois answering herself. “My my, welcome honored guests. What can I do for you?”

“It is known that you have a Marinette Dupain-Cheng living here under your roof. We have come to speak with her.” 

“Marinette Dupain-Cheng has not lived in this house for many years.” Audrey said gravely. “She died along with her father.” 

“And the maid you have working for you?”

“I have no maid, I can afford no help. It is just I, and my two daughters, Chloe and Lila, in this house.” 

“And no one else?”

“No one.” 

“So you do not know the identity of the girl in the pink dress at the ball last night?” 

“No idea. No one knows, I’m very sorry.” 

Adrien clenched his fist. He was two seconds away from bursting in the door on his own. 

“Well, thank you for your time, madam.” Nathalie bowed her head. 

“Of course, Your Grace.” And she shut and locked the door. 

“She’s lying,” said Plagg. “I’ve lived in the house for years. Marinette’s in there, probably on her hands and knees, scouring the floor. 

Adrien frowned at the thought. 

“We will return with guards and take her by force,” said Nathalie. “Then we will arrest Madam Bourgeois for refusing to cooperate.” 

“As wonderful as that sounds,” interrupted Adrien. “Can I try something?” 

“Of course, Your Majesty.” 

“Plagg, there’s a backdoor by the kitchen, isn’t there? Can you show me?” 

The fairy lit up with mischief. “Follow me!” 

Marinette was exhausted. She was awoken early in the morning, after a nearly sleepless night. Her step-family had been merciless to her in the wake of her presence at the ball. They left bruises and scratches all over her skin, her face. And all day, even though it was early, they had been working her to the bone.

Marinette tried to hold back tears, as she scrubbed the floor in her rags. She was elbow deep in filthy mop water, and what wasn’t muddy was dusty or covered in soot or cobwebs. 

Audrey appeared in the door to the kitchen. “You disgusting, stupid wench. I should have killed you when I had the chance! They came here, looking for you. They know you snuck into the ball. They were coming to take you away, to arrest you for your burdensome presence at the ball last night. But I convinced them not to. I at least let you eat, don’t I? You have a bed to sleep in, don’t you? No shackles, no bars. You should be grateful I let you work here. No one else wants you.” Then she tipped over the mop bucket, thoroughly soaking Marinette from the knee down. “I don’t even want you.” 

Marinette was then left alone as the woman’s heels clacked against the floor. She only took a moment to gather her emotions, before getting back to scrubbing. “It was worth it.” She whispered. “Just to be in love for a few hours, it was worth it.” 

A knock broke her out of her thoughts, and she turned to the half-open dutch door. A man stood there, pity scrawled all over his face. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m looking for someone.” 

It was the boy from the ball! The one that kissed her cheek and said he was in love with her!

She was mortified. 

She turned her face to the floor, trying and failing to conceal her identity. “O-oh, uh…yes? Who are you looking for?” 

“My Princess. The most beautiful, amazing, wonderful girl. You see, she stole my heart last night, and I simply can’t get her out of my mind.” 

“Doesn’t sound familiar,” Marinette said to the floor. “I can’t help you.” 

“I know it’s you, Marinette. I know you’re my phantom.” 

She stopped scrubbing, and just trembled. “How did you find out?” 

“You left your cat behind. He ate all my cheese.” 

Plagg swooped up to her face and kissed her cheek. “Sorry, kid. I just wanted you to have your happy ending.” 

“Scullery maids don’t get happy endings.” She recited, just like her step family always said. 

“But you aren’t a maid,” Adrien clarified. “You’re the daughter of a duke.” 

“A deceased duke!” She stood, her disgusting brown dress clinging to her legs. “I have nothing now! Look at me! You can’t honestly say you want me!” 

His heart broke for her. “I do. I want you so badly it hurts.” 

She shook her head. “I can’t give you anything. Your father will be angry that you threw your chances away. Please, please leave me alone. You don’t want me. You don’t want me.” She cried. 

“But—“ 

Just then, the bells on the other side of the room started frantically ringing. “Marinette! Marinette!” Chloe and Lila screamed from upstairs. 

“I have to go. Goodbye.” She didn’t even look at him, before she fled the room.

This time, Tikki stayed behind with Adrien and Plagg. “You’re not going to give up on her. Are you?”

“Nope!” Adrien smiled, despite the heartbreak. “She just needs to see how sincere I am!” He opened the door and let himself in. 

Looking around, he saw a lot of half-finished projects. Things that Marinette had started that her family interrupted, only to make her work on something else. 

He took off his very nice jacket and rolled up his sleeves, then got to work cleaning the dirty dishes in the sink. 

“What are you doing?” 

“Helping.” Adrien said simply, whistling a tune. The wet food was pretty gross, but the water was warm and soapy. He didn’t really know what he was doing, but when a dish looked clean, he put it on the rack to dry. 

Soon enough, Marinette was back. “Ack!” She shrieked, seeing him at work. “What are you doing!?” 

“The dishes…I think?” 

“No! No that’s not for you!” She took the dish out of his hands and dried him with a towel. “You don’t need to do my chores, please.”

“Then what can I do to help? You won’t let me take you home, you won’t let me do dishes…” 

She reached up to touch his face, but stopped when she saw the dirt on her hands. “My darling…I can’t be what you want me to be.”

“What do I want you to be?” 

“I…I don’t know? Someone of great importance, of value. But I’m not. I’m nobody. Just me.” 

“But I just want you to be you. I fell in love with you, as you. Not as the daughter of a duke, or a scullery maid. I fell in love with a girl that doesn’t care about what people think. A girl that knows what she wants. A girl that teases and jokes and—“ 

“I’m not that girl,” Marinette insisted. “Tikki cast a spell on me before the ball,” she gestured to the Ladybug fairy. “She gave me a confidence boost so that I could handle the judgement better.” 

“Actually, Marinette…” Tikki piped up. “I didn’t do anything. I said I did so you’d have confidence in yourself. That was all you.” 

Marinette opened her mouth to protest, because normally, she wouldn’t have been that brave, she wouldn’t have convinced the guards or Alya, or him…

“The way you entered that room, it was different from everyone else. Everyone else said ‘I’m desperate, look at me!’ and you just said, ‘I’m here.’ And it spoke louder than anyone else.” 

She hesitantly pulled away from him, her walls crumbling quickly. “But…I don’t deserve that. I don’t deserve you. I didn’t go to the ball to be rescued. I just…I just wanted a night to feel like a Princess.” 

“I can make the rest of your life feel like that…” 

“…I don’t deserve it,” she whispered, trying to convince herself. 

Adrien knew he just needed one last push. “Fine, I’ll leave. But on one condition.” 

“What’s that?” 

“You owe me a baking lesson.” 

She let out a sardonic laugh. “I knew you’d try to pull that on me…” 

“Please? A cake, and then I’ll leave.” 

Plagg and Tikki joined in on his begging. “ Please? ”  

“Fine,” she said. “A white cake. My stepmother won’t be happy if I waste ingredients…” 

“I’ll pay for them, not to worry.” 

It seemed like he had a way to break down every bit of her argument, so she relented. 

“Alright, so we need a mixing bowl, a cake pan, and a spoon to mix with.” She introduced each item as she got them out. “How much experience do you have in the kitchen?”

“Well…” he held up the mixing bowl. “This is a bowl.”

“Oh boy.” 

“But I’m a fast learner.” He grinned. 

She smiled at him so fondly, but it was filled with so much sadness and pain. “So…we’re going to grease the pan,” she rubbed the butter on the edges of the pan. “And then we’ll start with butter and sugar.” 

“Why did we grease the pan?”

“So the cake won’t stick when it’s done.” 

“Ah.” 

“Next, we’re going to fluff the sugar into the butter,” she poured the two in the bowl and started mixing. 

“Oh! I can do that!” He took the bowl from her, and mimicked her whisking motion. “Like that?”

“Yes, fold the sugar into the butter, try to trap air inside too, to make it fluffy.”

“Got it,” he worked diligently as she gathered the next ingredients. 

“Alright, next is the eggs. Would you like to crack them?”

“Um…you go first.” 

She tapped one perfectly on the bowl, breaking it in half, and added it to the mixture. “Easy, right?”

Adrien took the other egg, and nearly smashed it, some of the white landing on the counter, and some of the shell into the mixture. “Whoops.” 

“It’s alright.” She picked out the shards and mixed the batter. “Not bad for your first egg.” 

“What’s next?”

“Next, we need to sift the flour, salt, and baking powder.” She got a sifter out from under the counter. “You just pour the dry ingredient in the top, and then pull this trigger to sift it.” She demonstrated. 

“I can do that too,” he wrapped his hand around hers, taking the sifter away. 

He worked diligently, getting flour all over his nice clothes, and not caring one bit. When he finished the flour, Marinette poured the other ingredients in too. 

“Um…my hand is cramping. Sorry…” He sheepishly handed the sifter over to her. 

She chuckled. “Again, it’s fine. My hand always cramps when I sift. We’re almost done. We just need to add this, milk, and vanilla.”

She walked him through, step by step, as they finished off the cake. In the end, he blasted himself with flour too many times, and his black pants turned gray. 

“I would offer to wash your clothes, but I don’t think I’d do it right,” Marinette blanched, looking him over. “I’m not used to such nice clothes.”

“It’s not a problem. I’m actually very excited to see some people’s reaction when I come home covered in flour. Pandemonium.” 

“So…you’ve made your cake…”

“Now we wait for it to bake! You can’t send me away without letting me try it!” 

“I guess that’s fair…”

“How long will it take to bake?”

“About a half an hour.” 

“Perfect, plenty of time to let me convince you to come home with me!” 

She sighed. “Please don’t…” 

“Marinette,” he said softly. “Answer me honestly. What do you want to do?” 

“I have to stay here—“ 

“No, not what you have to do, what you want to do.” 

Her brows furrowed, her arms wrapping around her herself. Then she looked up with teary-eyes. “I never think about what I want. It never happens to me, and it always ends in heartbreak. They find out…and they ruin it for me. They ruin everything. They can’t ruin you too. Please…”

“They won’t. They can’t. There’s nothing they can do.” He stepped up to her, arm draping over her waist. “You’ll find that I have the power to do anything. Whatever you want, just say the word. Jail? Execution? Eviction? You name it.” 

She giggled. 

He brought her hand, cold, callus, and dirty, up to his lips and kissed her knuckles like she was a queen. 

She trembled, and a tear tracked a streak through the soot on her face. “Can I kiss you before I decide?”

“Nothing would make me happier,” he uttered, before capturing her lips with his. 

Marinette’s heart leapt, butterflies took flight in her belly, and she swore her legs would give out. If not for his strong arms around her, she might have ended up on the floor. 

Love poured out of him, as he drifted his hands over her back and arms, uncaring if he smeared dust or flour around. He finally got to kiss his lady, damnit, and nothing was going to ruin it! 

She pulled away first, her arms around his neck, and fingers in his hair. “So that’s what kissing is like.”

“I can see what all the fuss is about.” 

Marinette blushed a little. “This is rather funny…but it just occurred to me…I don’t know your name.” 

He laughed. That laugh that always seemed to come out around her. Loud, unrestrained, and full of joy. 

“Shh!” She hushed, giggling. 

He kissed her again, briefly. “It’s Adrien, darling.” 

“Adrien…Adrien?” She frowned, the name sounding familiar…but where?

The kitchen door slammed open, and there stood Audrey, Lila, and Chloe, staring in equal parts horror and shock. 

“Y-y-your majesty?!” Audrey stammered. 

Marinette felt her soul leave her body, as she turned to look at the man she was so engrossed with. “You…you’re the prince…”

He kissed her. The Prince kissed her! On the lips!   “I am.” 

“But—“

He stooped slightly and wrapped an arm under her damp legs, hoisting her into his arms. “She’s mine now,” he announced. “I’m taking her back with me to the castle, where she’s going to teach me how to bake all sorts of delicious things. Then, I’m going to buy her the prettiest, richest, most fashionable dresses and sparkliest jewelry. Then every night, after we make sweet love, I’m going to fall asleep next to the love of my life. The hardest working woman I’ve ever met…and you all will just be rotting in prison.” 

“But-but, Your Majesty!” Audrey cried. 

“Darling, would you grab my coat?” Adrien asked, as they passed by the coat rack. 

Still in shock, Marinette reached out and grabbed it. 

Once outside, Adrien called back, “you can expect the guards here in the morning to arrest you. But feel free to help yourselves to the cake in the oven!” 

At that, Marinette couldn’t help but giggle. 

“Marinette!” Audrey shouted back. “Please! Tell him this is all a misunderstanding! Tell him how well I took care of you!” 

For the first time, in a long time, Marinette truly felt like she was free from consequence. She turned and smiled at her groom, kissing his face. Then she turned back to her stepmother. “No, I don’t think I will. Imagine, if you had been nicer to me, you could have come with me!”

“Marinette!” Audrey screamed back. 

But the couple was too busy giggling and running to the front. 

Adrien helped his bride into the carriage first, still so full of joy and mirth. 

Nathalie looked up from her documents to the absolute mess that blew into the carriage. “I don’t want to know.” 

“I learned how to bake a cake.” 

“I’m sure your father will be thrilled.” 

“And this is Marinette, my wife to be.” 

Nathalie actually smiled at that. “Now that , your father will be thrilled to hear.”