A stray yawn escaped him as he moved into the next pose his photographer wanted.
Barely past eleven in the morning and the sweltering temperatures of July had him wishing for a shower and a cool breeze. Either would be most welcome as small drops of sweat threatened to undo all the hard work his makeup artist had done at the beginning of the prolonged shoot.
What he wouldn’t give for his boredom to abate as he moved into another flawless pose. His concentration waned more with each agonizing minute that passed and he remained trapped in the familiar park of his collège days when he spent precious hours with his friends despite his father’s vast disapproval. At least then, he hadn’t been surrounded by the sweltering heat, or if he had, he hadn’t minded because his friends kept him occupied.
He’d give almost anything to be with them as his photographer tutted over his lack of attention. He imagined an afternoon spent playing video games and listening to some new music with them. He didn’t care if Nino found an excuse to disappear with Alya. They could deny their relationship all they wanted, Adrien knew they loved each other and spent every waking hour together. It wouldn’t bother him in the least because he’d have Marinette to keep him company.
Bluebell eyes and raven-colored hair filled his vision as his thoughts centered around his sweet, sassy friend. It’d taken nearly two years for her to stop stuttering around him. Finally able to hold decent conversations with her, she allowed him to see how truly amazing she was as a friend and as a person. She became the person he trusted more than anyone, including Ladybug and Nino. He didn’t keep many secrets from her as himself or as Chat Noir. She made his days brighter just by being near. He’d never imagined he’d find a friend like her before starting public school five years ago.
A smile formed on his lips as his mind drifted deeper into thoughts of her, wondering how she was doing, if she was surviving this heat, and if she’d be willing to see him after he finished his photo shoot. His smile grew at the thought of her being glad to see him enter the bakery, welcoming him as if he belonged there.
“Yes, Adrien, yes! Perfect! Well done,” his photographer said, snapping his final shots before placing the cap on his camera. “Such a handsome smile. You should show it more often. I’m sure your pretty girlfriend loves it.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Adrien said as he returned to the matter at hand, staring at Vincent as if he’d lost his mind. A girlfriend wasn’t in his father’s plans for him. Everyone knew that. As much as he’d like a girlfriend, he knew his father would never approve of such a distraction as love. Besides, he didn’t think he could stand his father mistreating someone he loved after his father’s horrid behavior towards his friends in the past.
“So you say, young man, but I know love when I see it. You, my boy, are in love.” Vincent continued packing up his equipment, motioning for his crew to do the same. “You did well, Adrien. Your father will be pleased with the photos, I’m sure. See you next time, yes?”
“Next time,” Adrien agreed. He shook Vincent’s hand and moved toward the park’s entrance.
Pulling his phone from his pocket, he checked the time and saw an unread text from Marinette.
MDC: Saw your limo across the street. Your favorite is waiting when you’re done. Feel free to stop by.
His smile returned as he sent her a reply.
AA: You’re the best. Be there soon. ;3
MDC: You’re such a dork.
As he readied his reply while walking toward his bodyguard and the waiting limo, he missed the first stirrings of a gathering crowd surrounding the small park.
The ad for his father’s newest fragrance, Adrien II, had released sometime that morning and several people had gone scouting for him, knowing he had a photo shoot that day somewhere in Paris. The small park had always been a favorite of his photographer and soon a few passersby had spotted Adrien as he worked through the shoot, snapping covert photos of him and tagging his location on the internet. Soon, the few had grown into a small throng and more, waiting for the chance to see him up close.
So lost in thought about biting into the flaky pastry with the right amount of butter, it took the bright flash of a cell phone camera to bring him to the present, flinching from the light and stepping back towards the park’s gate in response.
“It’s really you, Adrien. This is so exciting. Can I have your autograph?” The young man held out the latest fashion magazine with Adrien’s face gracing the cover. “You’re truly amazing.”
Adrien grimaced at the compliments and held up his hands in the hope he could get away before the other man created a riot. While he didn’t mind signing autographs on rare occasions, he had no interest in endorsing his father’s latest campaign, which has sparked renewed interest in himself as the face of his father’s fashion empire.
The young man remained undeterred as he shoved the magazine at Adrien, an eager grin on his face. On top of the magazine, he placed a marker for Adrien to use, unwilling to take no for an answer. He even took a step towards Adrien, forcing the model backward, further from the safety of his limo or even Marinette’s bakery, knowing she’d protect him if he asked.
Before Adrien could do or say anything, his bodyguard had reached his side, coming to stand in front of him with a stern glare most likely gracing his typically stoic face. Without a word, he motioned Adrien to follow, clearing the way to the limo. The low hum of the engine a welcome noise as Adrien reached the curb. Without warning, his bodyguard shoved him through the open back door and slammed him inside. The dark tint kept his admirers from seeing him as he fell against the seat.
With the coast clear, Plagg emerged from Adrien’s shirt and asked, “Hey, kid, you okay?”
Unused to his kwami showing concern for anything beyond camembert, he turned and stared at the black cat in shock. Even as Plagg waited for an answer, Adrien couldn’t form a coherent sentence as he pulled Plagg close and checked the kwami for any signs of fever or other illness.
In response, the small cat squirmed from Adrien’s loose grip, glaring and hissing in the process.
Chuckling, Adrien recalled the question and said, “I’ll be fine.”
His laughter died a sudden death as the limo pulled away from the curb and he caught only a glimpse of the bakery before they turned down a side street towards his home. With a resigned sigh, he righted himself on the seat, sagging against it. With a glance at Plagg, who lounged next to him, he whispered, “I really wanted that croissant.”
“I know you did, kid.” Plagg zipped back into Adrien’s shirt and began purring, hoping to bring a smile back to his miserable Chosen. He continued to purr even as he fell asleep, curled in a loose ball.
A block from his home, the limo came to a stop in an old alleyway.
Adrien’s brows rose as he took in his surroundings, wondering what could possibly be wrong. He didn’t have long to wonder though as his bodyguard opened the back door and motioned Adrien to step out.
Quick to follow directions, Adrien glanced up at his bodyguard with a question on his lips. It died as his bodyguard held out a duffel bag for him and pointed back at the bakery, saying, “Have fun. Be back by curfew.”
With a grin forming, Adrien said, “Thank you, Lawrence.”
He didn’t say anything else as he dashed for the familiar bakery and the croissant waiting for him. He could only hope Marinette wouldn’t hold his tardiness against him.
Nervous energy kept Marinette pacing back and forth in the front area of the small bakery, her eyes looking out the windows at the slowly dispersing crowd across the street.
When she’d seen the growing crowd, she’d known Adrien would be open game once he completed his photo shoot. As much as she wanted to help him, she couldn’t leave the bakery, not when her parents had entrusted her with the responsibility of running it during their absence. So, with a sad sigh, she remained stuck indoors, hoping and waiting for Adrien to stride across the street and join her for a sweet treat.
A few customers kept her occupied as she continued to wait, asking for items she’d prepared earlier that day. She quickly handled their transactions and soon sent them on their way, wishing them well as the door closed behind them.
“Marinette, you’re staring again.”
Shaking her head to clear it, Marinette turned to her kwami with a sheepish smile, saying, “I can’t help it, Tikki. I just know something bad’s going to happen.”
“It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Marinette remained skeptical as she watched the crowd grow thicker, soon losing sight of the park altogether.
Despite a few more customers coming in, she kept her eyes trained on the park, her movements slowing when she caught sight of Adrien as he walked through the park gate. She’d heard her phone chime before he appeared, sending back a reply when she’d seen the text had come from him. She smiled as she thought about seeing him, having missed his company since school had ended and his father kept him busy. However, her smile developed into a determined frown as she watched a young man approach Adrien and shove a magazine in his face, expecting an autograph.
“Marinette, don’t do anything foolish.” Tikki fluttered near her ear, hoping to calm her Chosen. She knew Marinette had a tendency to react without considering the consequences when riled or worried despite her growing maturity these past five years.
Luckily, Adrien’s bodyguard took matters into his hands and safely delivered Adrien to the limo.
Glad he remained safe, it hit her hard as she realized he wouldn’t be seeing her that day. She hid her disappointment as best she could as another customer walked in the door. She’d be grateful when she could officially close the bakery for the day, wanting to wallow in her disappointment and sadness within the safe confines of her room.
Another chime rang from her phone.
She waited on the customer, taking the time to provide the necessary answers to their questions before she took a moment to check her phone’s unread text.
The frown disappeared as another smile formed.
“Oh, Tikki, Lawrence is a wonderful man,” Marinette said, spinning around as she read the message to herself again.
Lawrence: Quick detour. ETA 15 minutes.
“He certainly cares about Adrien, doesn’t he?” Tikki settled on Marinette’s shoulder to read the message herself, a soft smile for her Chosen’s love interest.
Marinette hummed in agreement.
She sent a thankful text back and settled behind the register to await Adrien’s arrival.
Minutes later, loud squeals and shrieks permeated the quiet of the bakery, sending Marinette to the windows and peeking out at the commotion building in the street once again.
Chants of Adrien’s name had her rushing out the door and into the street, searching for him as she hoped to pull him to safety before the crowd surrounded him again. She couldn’t see him as the crowd drew closer, wondering what could possibly have happened and praying they hadn’t surrounded him and possibly hurt him in the process.
Dashing back into the bakery, she turned to Tikki and almost called for her transformation when Tikki zipped away as the door banged open.
She spun around and gasped as she took in the sweaty mess of a man standing in front of her. She’d never seen him look so sad and distraught. She reached out a hand to him, only to pull it back as he sank to his knees in front of her and stretched out his hands in a pleading motion.
“Adrien, are you okay?”
“Mari, I need to hide. Please, can you help me?”
She looked down at the miserable guy in front of her, ignoring the streaks of makeup running down his face from fleeing his overzealous fans and their demands on him.
The crowd’s chanting grew closer, growing in strength as several more joined them.
With the decision made, she hauled Adrien to his feet, surprising him with her strength and pushed him behind one of the display cases, hiding him moments before several fans stormed into the bakery in their frantic search for the handsome model. She watched as more of the crowd shoved their way inside the small storefront, determined to keep Adrien from their clutches as best she could.
“Where’s Adrien? We saw him come in here. We demand to see him.” Several voices began chanting their desire.
Marinette listened to their demands with a wealth of annoyance at their attitude, biting her tongue lest she angered them and they damaged her parents’ store. Her hand rested on Adrien’s shoulder, keeping him still even as she felt his desire to bolt before causing her more trouble. When his body shuddered at their impassioned demands, she developed her course of action, starting with his fans and ending with his father.
With her hand tightening on his shoulder to keep him still, she focused her full attention on the crowd, putting on her best surprised face complete with quirked brows and widened eyes. She looked around the familiar surroundings as if searching for the famous model, expecting him to spot him somewhere nearby. When her gaze landed back on the crowd, she kept her surprised face intact as she managed to squeak, “Adrien? The Adrien Agreste? You saw him come in here.”
“Yeah,” several crowd members said.
Their vehement conviction proved hard to ignore, forcing her to turn her head lest they see the mirth growing in her eyes though she continued her ruse. “Oh, Adrien, are you here? Adrien, come out, come out wherever you are.” She allowed a few moments to pass, the crowd waiting in tense silence for Adrien’s answer before she returned to the crowd and asked, “Are you absolutely sure?”
Varying answers came back to her as several began to doubt their previous conviction, backing up as if preparing to leave.
A small crease formed on the bridge of her nose as she tried to think through this newest development. She knew she’d probably teased them enough, not wanting them to leave completely disheartened and vulnerable to a possible akumatization by Hawk Moth.
“Maybe you just missed him. It’s possible he could have snuck through the side door without anyone noticing. I doubt this bakery could ever entice him to stay. You know he has that strict model diet and any dietitian worth her salt would utterly faint if she caught him here. Sneaking sweets is strictly forbidden for models, you know? Too many and their delicious bodies are in utter ruin.” She tutted over the idea of Adrien’s body being anything less than perfect due to the sweets in her shop, allowing the crowd to calm down enough before venturing with the next step of her plan.
Several murmured their agreement with her assessment of the situation though none of them made any movement toward leaving. She frowned as she considered how to spur them into doing so without causing any negative feelings to flare among them.
Glancing down at the trays of cookies in the nearest case, she grinned as an idea formed, hurrying over and pulling them from the shelves. With a few quick steps, she set them on the tables near the windows and announced, “Free cookies for all Adrien Agreste fans. I’m truly sorry you weren’t able to catch him today, but at least you can take home your favorite cookie as consolation.”
Adrien remained in his crouched position, grateful for his hours on rooftops during patrols with and without his partner. He doubted his knees and ankles would hold him much longer without the practice as he waited and listened as Marinette handled the crowd with supreme patience and cunning. He admired her ability to pull people together and get them to listen to her despite her petite form, impressing him more than Ladybug as Marinette handled the crowd without superpowers.
He smiled as he imagined her determination would someday take the fashion world by storm, overshadowing even his father. No other person in his acquaintance could possibly handle the pressure with such grace and inspiration as Marinette in his humble opinion. He knew he’d made the right decision in listening to Nino years ago and mending fences with her after the chewing gum incident.
They may have had a couple rocky years in the meantime as she stuttered over her words or said some rather imaginative things in his presence. Eventually, she loosened up and became his greatest ally when dealing with his father and the crushing disappointment that his life wasn’t his own.
“Hey, aren’t you one of Adrien’s friends? I’ve seen you with him before. Maybe you’re hiding him and planning to keep him for yourself.”
The change in the store’s atmosphere froze Adrien in his spot, stuck waiting for Marinette’s response to the charge of keeping him to herself. He had to admit the idea wasn’t as abhorrent as it should have been. Chloe would be a worse option, he thought. He admitted she’s been working hard to change her attitude towards others, but her protectiveness of him could be a bit stifling at times.
The crowd’s rising voices had him worried for Marinette’s safety as they turned threatening, demanding she tell the truth about his whereabouts. He prepared to reveal himself and face the music of his notoriety when her voice stopped him again, his eyes widening in surprise at her impassioned words.
“I am one of his friends, yes, but I’d never do anything to lock him away. He’s too beautiful to be hidden from the world as his pictures attest. If he were here, I wouldn’t keep him hidden if he wanted freedom and the pleasure of your enthusiastic company. Sadly, he’s not and all I have to offer in return are these cookies and my sincerest regrets.”
He chanced a peek around the display case, catching her turning from the crowd and walking toward the register. He hoped her offering would be enough to disperse the crowd as his joints cried out for relief. Disappointing others seemed to be his forte, he thought, as he remained hidden in his small sanctuary. He hated himself as he considered the imposition he’d caused his fans, his father, and even Marinette as she hid him at his request.
He hadn’t a clue how he could make it up to her, but he planned on doing all he could to show her how much he appreciated her in his life. He’d keep trying, he vowed, even if it took him forever to convince her.
The ringing of the register and the ding of the cash drawer caught his attention, pulling him from his depressive thoughts. A small smile formed as the latest fan ordered a few other items from the cases, intent on taking the treats home to enjoy with his family. He listened as the young man chatted with Marinette for a few minutes though he bit back a growl when he heard the man ask Marinette if she was single.
“I’m so sorry, monsieur, but my heart belongs to another. If I hadn’t met him first, then I’d probably say yes to a date with you.” She wished the young man well as he walked out the bakery and turned her attention to the few others Adrien heard still milling around.
His heart twisted painfully at her words, wondering when she’d fallen in love and wishing it was him, realizing he wanted her. The thought struck him as he considered his changing feelings for his best friend, wondering when it happened. When did Marinette sneak into his heart and nestle in deep?
Even with Marinette’s lovely face swirling in his mind, thoughts of Ladybug flooded him, reminding him of his feelings for the spotted heroine. What about her? Didn’t he have any loyalty at all? He loved her, but he admitted she never once reciprocated his feelings though she assured him she loved him as a friend and partner. He wanted more with her, but she wasn’t ready.
He was in trouble without any clue how to make this situation any better.
A tap on his shoulder startled him enough to fall forward on his knees. He grunted from the pain resonating from the stiff joints.
A soft gasp followed her words as she said, “I’m so sorry. The coast is clear. Want some help up?”
“I think I can manage.” He pushed himself up, wincing at the popping of his joints as he stretched to his full height. “Thank you for saving me.”
“I was happy to help.” She wiped down the tables, lifting the trays and placing them on top of the nearest case. Satisfied with her cleaning, she turned to him and asked, “I’m closing early today. Would you care for some lunch or do you have to be somewhere?”
“Lunch sounds wonderful. Here, I’ll take those,” he said, grabbing the trays before she could reach for them and took them to the washing station, earning a smile from her. He stayed in the kitchen for a few minutes, trying to come to grips with his new realization and feelings for her as she finished her closing duties. When he felt capable of being near her again, he returned, asking, “Where’re your parents?”
How had he not noticed their absence in the bakery before this, he couldn’t fathom, but he couldn’t say he hated the company he had right then. A smile teased his lips as he watched her count the bills in the till, taking out the ones she needed for the deposit. No, he didn’t mind the company he had as her signature pigtails moved with each shift of her shoulders. He noticed her hair had grown since he’d last seen her, wondering at its exact length and appearance when free from their bindings.
Her words interrupted his thoughts as she said, “Oh, they’re attending a bakers’ convention. I’m holding down the fort until they come back this weekend.”
“It’s nice they trust you so much.”
“Yeah, but it’s a lot of work for one person. I’m glad Alya’s willing to help out when she can. Nino promised, too, though I doubt he’ll be much help.” She tossed him a smile as she wrote down some notes for herself concerning the next day. “Between them, I have every day but Friday covered. You wouldn’t happen to know someone who’d be willing to help me, would you?”
His brow furrowed as he considered her question, wondering if Nathalie had his Friday schedule yet and if he could clear it to help her. As the thought occurred, he frowned, wondering if Marinette even meant him as she hadn’t asked him outright. He feared she probably had no intention of asking him because of his tightly controlled schedule. That hurt him more than he cared to admit. He wanted to help her as she always helped others. Maybe he could convince Nathalie to clear his schedule, curious what working in a bakery was truly like. Would he like the work or was he destined to only model for his father?
“Earth to Adrien.” Marinette waved her hand in front of his face. She smiled when his eyes met hers, saying, “If you can’t help out, it’s okay really. I’m sure I can handle it alone. It’d just be nice to have a partner, you know?”
Oh, he knew all about that. He wondered if she suspected anything though her face gave nothing away.
“I’d love to help, Mari. Let me see what I can do.”
Her smile grew by megawatts as she motioned him upstairs.
He followed her happily, knowing her cooking almost rivaled her parents’. His favorite parts in visiting her home were the home-cooked meals prepared with love rather than world-class chefs and the company he had while enjoying that meal. He much preferred that than eating alone as he did when home. His father remained forever busy with his company without a thought to his son’s feelings about dining together.
As they entered her family’s small apartment, he realized how gross he felt and sheepishly asked, “Do you mind if I take a quick shower?”
She shook her head, promising to have lunch ready by the time he finished.
Marinette listened as the shower ran, using the time to her advantage. With quick, efficient movements, she set the table and warmed their lunch in the oven. As she waited for the timer to ding, she pulled her phone from her pocket and renewed her mission, determined to succeed in handling the famous Gabriel Agreste once and for all.
A glance down at her phone showed she missed a text from Nathalie.
NS: Is Adrien still at your home?
Sighing, Marinette unlocked her screen and tapped on the message, opening the app in the process.
MDC: Yes, we’re about to eat lunch. Is he expected at home?
NS: No, just wanted a status update. I’ve cleared his schedule after hearing about this morning’s incident.
MDC: Thank you! Can you do me a favor?
Marinette hesitated before she steeled her resolve, her intent clear as she typed out her request.
MDC: Can you clear Mon. Agreste’s schedule as well? I think it’s time for our mission to start.
A couple minutes passed before a chime sounded from her phone.
NS: Are you certain?
MDC: Yes! Adrien is wrecked from this morning. He deserves to live his own life.
Another minute passed.
NS: Consider it done. Text Lawrence when you’re ready.
MDC: Thank you, Nathalie.
With her plan in motion, she set her phone down as the shower turned off, pasting a genuine smile on her lips as Adrien emerged a few minutes later. She had to still her hand from rising up to fan her face at the sight of him. Freshly showered, he did a number on her heart as his wet locks lay plastered against his skin in an almost Chat Noir fashion. Something about the look had her heart rate increasing beneath her ribs.
She turned away before he could see how he affected her with the intention of pulling their lunch from the oven. However, her natural clumsiness kicked in as she burned her arm on the oven’s side in the process, eliciting a sharp hiss from her as her skin reddened from the contact.
“Mari, are you okay?” Adrien reached her side in two steps, taking the dish from her hands and placing it on the table. When he came back to her, he pulled her arm towards him with the softest grip and inspected the angry mark on her skin, noting the burn wasn’t too bad though it’d smart for a while.
“Ugh, I’m so over being clumsy.” She huffed as she ran the cold water in the sink, putting the burn under the soothing sensation until her skin felt pleasantly numb.
She chanced a peek at Adrien and froze at the tender smile on his lips, wondering what brought it on though she’d never ask him about it. He didn’t need to know how much she still wanted to hear him reciprocate her feelings after falling hard five years ago.
She shook her head, clearing it of her wayward thoughts. She needed to focus if she wanted her mission to succeed. Everything hinged on the next hour as she pushed Adrien to open up about his past and more. If she couldn’t do that, then her plans to disrupt Gabriel’s day would be for naught. She couldn’t afford to fail.
A soft pat on her hip reminded her she had a special lucky charm.
Sinking into the chair across from him, she dished out their meal quickly and began eating after he moaned his appreciation with his first bite.
“You’re a true magician, Mari. This is the best.”
She blushed at his compliment, knowing he could flatter someone more than Chat could flirt when the mood struck him.
“I’m glad you like it.” She took another bite, taking the time to chew as she considered the best approach to getting Adrien to talk. While she knew food always loosened him up some, she doubted her cooking would spur him into revealing all his deepest secrets, which were exactly what she needed from him. Deciding her best course, she continued to eat, glancing at him every so often.
They talked about their summers and touched on what they wanted for their final year of lycée. They laughed as they reminisced about favorite memories and covered their embarrassment over misunderstandings and antics gone awry. Their easy camaraderie brought Marinette warmth as she considered how awkward she’d once been around him, glad she’d finally destroyed the pedestal she’d placed him on and got to know the real guy behind the public façade.
As their meal came to an end, she allowed Adrien to gather their dishes with the intention of cleaning them. Leaving him to his self-appointed chore, she carried her cup of tea and settled on the sofa. With her few spare moments, she turned on the TV and put on her favorite show as she also pulled out her phone to download the app she’d found a week ago. After it finished downloading, she tapped on her texting app and sent out a quick message to Alya, knowing Nino would also see it.
MDC: Hey, Alya, get ready. Will need you in an hour. Mission Adrien is a go.
“Hey, Mari, what’s next on our agenda?”
With a swift move, she placed her phone under her, hoping he wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She stole a glance at him and saw the open smile on his face, a smile forming on hers as she patted the seat next to her. “Mindless TV sound good?”
“Always.” He settled next to her, holding his hand out to her which she took in hers and laced their fingers together.
She sat next to him for a few minutes as her show played a rerun episode, allowing her the chance to steel herself for the tough part of interviewing him. She waited until the next commercial break to broach the subject, asking, “Are you happy, Adrien? I mean, really happy?”
“What’s this about, Mari?” He turned his head to face her, his features turning serious as he considered her question.
Thanking her luck silently, she pointed at the ad playing on the TV, which featured him with his father’s newest fragrance product. She kept her gaze on his face, watching for any signs of his true feelings about being the object of such overt attention. She knew how these types of advertisements brought him unwanted attention and hated it for his sake, especially since his father insisted he be the face of Gabriel Fashions.
He didn’t say anything until the commercial ended, his voice sounding raspy as he spoke. “No, not really, but it’s not like I have many options, right? My father has certain expectations and doesn’t allow anyone, even me, to fail in meeting them.”
Marinette knew he was holding back. She could feel it. If she wanted Gabriel to face what he’s done, she needed Adrien to be brutally honest with her as she pushed him beyond their friendship’s normal boundaries. She wanted her plan to work for his sake and for Gabriel’s. They deserved to salvage whatever relationship they could before Adrien went to university.
Changing tactics, she slid her phone out from her leg, making a show of checking her messages. She read Alya’s text, smiling at her friend’s willingness to help before she pulled up the recorder app she’d downloaded, hitting the record button before replacing her phone in her pocket this time.
“Okay, how about this? You’re almost eighteen. If you could have your choice in your future, what would it look like? Forget about your father and his expectations. What do you want, Adrien? More than anything in the world, what’s your passion?”
He didn’t answer her immediately.
She waited, knowing this couldn’t be easy for him. For far too long, his father controlled every aspect of Adrien’s life from his schedule to his extracurriculars to his friends. It was sheer luck and strength he’d managed to protect his friendships with Nino, Alya, and even her as each of them had disappointed his father enough to disapprove of their alliance with him. She knew they’d continue to fight his father to be in Adrien’s life, knowing he needed them as much as they needed him.
She wondered if the young man in front of her had ever been given the option to consider his future without his father’s input. Somehow, she doubted Gabriel would ever allow Adrien to leave his influence and control if Adrien didn’t work to stop him. She had her suspicions about Gabriel though she refrained from telling anyone about them except Master Fu. She couldn’t break Adrien’s heart with her suspicions, knowing how broken he’d become if her beliefs were in fact true.
She shook herself from those stray thoughts since they weren’t her greatest concern at the moment. Her friend’s welfare, as they faced impending adulthood, was of more importance as she wanted him to find joy as he entered his final year of schooling before university. She knew this would be their last year altogether and none of them knew exactly what the future held for them.
“Mari, I’ve never considered anything beyond modeling and meeting my father’s expectations. I’m not even sure where to start.” His hand raked through his hair before settling on the back of his neck, another familiar trait she noticed he shared with her superhero partner.
“It’s new, I know, but I’m confident you can do this. Just think about what you enjoy doing and go from there.” She moved to face him, taking care not to hit her phone for fear of stopping its recording session.
A few minutes passed as he thought hard before he said in a soft tone, “I’ve always liked physics and playing the piano. I wouldn’t mind focusing on one of them. I think I’d make a pretty good teacher, you know? I’ve helped several people with physics. I haven’t taught piano before, but I’m sure I could do well if I found some students.”
When he looked at her, she smiled at him, hoping to encourage him to keep going. She wanted him to explore his options, which were limitless without his father’s influence looming over him. She wanted him to see how wonderful his future could be. He could be happy for the first time since his mother’s disappearance.
“I could definitely see you teaching high school students. You certainly helped me with physics when I was struggling. I wouldn’t have passed without your unique technique.” She reached for his hand, pulling it close to her as she prepared her next question to him, knowing he’d hate her pushing him. She could only hope he didn’t hate her when all was said and done. “So, what’s stopping you from being a teacher, Adrien?”
His brows shot up and his hand tightened around hers, clearly surprised she’d asked him such a question.
She admitted she knew the answer, but she needed him to say it.
At his hesitation, she pressed him, saying, “Come on, I want your complete honesty here. What’s holding you back from doing what you want with your future?”
“Mari, please don’t. I can’t answer that.”
“Why not? You know what’s holding you back. Just say it, Adrien. Say it and set yourself free.”
He jerked his hand out of her grasp, rising from the couch to stare out the windows. His fingers raked through his hair, standing tense as the sun poured into the room and warmed them with its sweltering heat.
She felt his indecision and knew she needed to back off as he prepared his next words to her. She knew he hated being put on the spot since it gave him the unfortunate opportunity to embarrass his father, something he stridently tried to avoid at all costs. She felt his pain as he wanted to tell her the truth but also wanted to protect what little respect his father held for him. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and take back all her words, hating the pain she’d caused him as she forced him to this precipice.
“This isn’t fair, Mari.”
“I know, but you need to say it. If you want, scream at me. It’ll help, I promise. What’s holding you back?”
He turned to face her, a shaky breath escaping him before he whispered, “My father.”
He didn’t say anything more as he remained tense by the windows. She watched the emotions play across his features, wishing she could record them as they showed so vividly in his summer green eyes. Each emotion proved more heartwrenching than the last as she continued to wait for him to speak again.
When he spoke again, the dam broke within him. She saw it and her heart broke as she listened to him confess it all.
“All I’ve ever wanted was his approval, Mari. Everything I do and everything I am revolves around him saying he loves me. I just want to hear him say it once. I’m willing to do almost anything to earn those three little words from him. What’s wrong with me, huh? What did I do so wrong that he can’t look at me with anything other than disdain and hatred?”
He stopped, taking a deep breath, and turned away to rub the tears threatening to spill. He hadn’t wanted her to see them, but she had, her own gathering tears at seeing them. She wanted to go to him and hold him until he felt whole again, promising he was everything to her and he never needed to prove anything to hear her say the words she’d been dying to say for five, long years.
Instead, she said, “You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing, you hear me. There’s nothing wrong with you, either.”
He laughed roughly at this, a laugh that spoke of his disbelief and disillusionment.
She hated that laugh and hoped to never hear it from him again.
“Adrien,” she began but didn’t say anything more as he returned to the couch, his head resting in her lap. She ran her fingers through his hair, wondering if he liked it as much as Chat did whenever he visited her.
“In my father’s eyes, I’m the ultimate disappointment. Sometimes, I’d think it’d be easier if I’d been the one to disappear than my mother. At least with her, he was happy.” He stopped to take another shaky breath as more tears leaked from his eyes. However, he didn’t fall silent this time.
The dam had broken within him. Confessions and fears spilled from his lips freely as he forced himself to face the truth he’d been denying for so long, a truth she knew he needed to see for himself in order to heal. He admitted to hating the man he was becoming. He spoke of his years of resentment he held towards his father. He told her how much he hated modeling and all aspects surrounding it, including the incident that morning. He hated how he couldn’t be counted upon by his friends because his father dictated his movements and his schedule. He feared his final year would be another repeat of years past, leaving him in the same rut yet again.
When he finally came to the end, he buried his face in his hands and mumbled through his fingers, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to unload on you like that.”
She shushed him even as she turned off the recorder on her phone. She had her ammunition and she fully intended on using it after she’d comforted him. With her fingers threaded through his hair, she gently tugged him until he faced her, saying, “You never have to apologize to me. I’m so proud of you, you know that? Now, we just need you to say this to your father.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, that’ll never happen. It’s not like he’d listen anyway.”
Well, he’ll be listening this time. I’ll make sure of it, she silently vowed as he relaxed into her lap further. She continued kneading his scalp, lightly scraping spots she discovered he liked until his eyes closed and his breathing evened out.
She laid him down on her sofa before slipping her phone out of her pocket. She unlocked her screen and tapped her texting app, sending out a message to both Alya and Lawrence.
Both responded after a few seconds, saying they’re ready on their ends.
With the few minutes she had to spare, she hurried to her room and changed into her favorite outfit, one she knew would help boost her confidence as she faced her one-time favorite designer. She needed her battle gear ready and willing to stand up against the verbal onslaught she knew he could give without thought to the other person’s feelings. She completed her look with her lucky charm Adrien made for her fourteenth birthday and her favorite lip gloss.
A final glance in the mirror showed her ready to battle the nasty dragon within the Agreste mansion.
“Tikki, let’s go,” she called out softly.
The little red kwami flew into Marinette’s ever-present purse and settled into her favorite space as Marinette snapped it closed and proceeded downstairs.
A knock came as she placed her foot on the final step.
She opened the door, allowing Alya and Nino into the apartment and apprised them of the situation at hand. She asked they take care of Adrien and made them promise to keep him there until she returned, not wanting him near his home while she confronted his father.
When she gained their promise, she hurried outside to meet the limo Lawrence drove for Adrien. She smiled at the large man as he held the door open for her.
“Thank you. I owe you a huge batch of cookies for this.”
“No need. Get Gabriel to listen and we’re even.”
She didn’t know how to respond to this since he rarely spoke, but she sent him another smile as she promised to do her best for all their sakes.
He didn’t waste time in driving to the mansion, pulling into the drive a few minutes later.
Once he parked, Marinette pushed her door open and took a step out, knowing she needed to show her strongest front. She looked at the imposing mansion before her and thought for the hundredth time about the serious risk she was taking by confronting Gabriel about Adrien. She prayed she didn’t make matters worse for him as she took a deep breath and stepped towards the mansion.
Tikki pressed on her hip, reassuring her by just being there.
After several steps and deep breaths, she knocked on the large doors. She glanced at their design and marveled at their craftsmanship despite their unwelcoming color. She couldn’t help but wonder about the house’s warmth even when Adrien’s mother had lived, fearing she didn’t want the answer.
Nathalie came moments later and said, “If you’re ready, I’ve cleared his schedule for the rest of the day.”
“I am. It’s time he faces what he’s done to his son. Will you still stand beside me in this? I know you’re risking a lot by doing this.”
Nathalie nodded. “Adrien is the closest I have to a son. Let’s do this. I’ll follow your lead, Marinette.”
Side by side, the women approached Gabriel’s office with Nathalie knocking on the door. With his approval, she pushed it open and announced, “Sir, Marinette Dupain-Cheng has a scheduled appointment with you.”
“She does, does she? What could she possibly want to see me about?” Gabriel demanded though his eyes never left his computer screen.
“Adrien,” Marinette said, her voice soft yet firm.
That caught his attention.