“Here’s to crippling student debt, unpaid internships, working for ‘exposure’ and massive insecurity,” Nathaniel raised his glass.
“To following our dreams, no matter how soul-destroying it is,” Nino lifted his.
“To pursuing careers in the creative arts,” Marinette added and the three of them clinked their glasses together.
The cafe had been crowded when they first arrived, but the 11pm show at the Moulin Rouge had caused the place to suddenly empty, making finding a table easier. The three friends had pushed their way to the back of the cafe and found a free table. Nathaniel removed his trusty blazer and slung it over his chair and rolled the sleeves of his red shirt to his elbow, revealing muscular arms. Marinette double checked that Tikki was content inside her bag before slinging it over the back of her chair, covering it with her jacket. Nino’s blue hoodie was laid over the fourth seat, in case anyone else arrived later.
They were expecting others to join them, but life after university was more hectic than ever and it was hard to predict who would be available. Rose and Juleka popped by but left after one drink. Max sent a text to say he and Kim were held up at a party, and nobody else bothered to reply to her messages.
“Where’s Alya?” Nathaniel asked.
“On a date,” Nino winced.
“Yikes, sorry man, I didn’t know you broke up,” Nath said.
“They didn’t,” Marinette rolled her eyes. “They have an open relationship.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” Nathaniel began, uncertainly.
“Only if both sides are okay with it,” Marinette pointed out. “And Nino here...”
“...Is not okay,” Nino finished.
“Shit, sorry. Why did you agree to it then?” Nathaniel picked his glass up, absentmindedly running his finger across the rim as he looked earnestly at Nino.
“It was that or lose her and that seemed worse,” Nino stared into his own glass, not wanting to make eye contact.
Marinette looked between the two men, one face a picture of awkwardness, the other regret and sadness. When Alya told her about the decision, Marinette was surprised that Nino agreed to it; now he confirmed her suspicions about why he did. Alya and Nino had been together since collège and Alya had wild oats to sow that, apparently, she couldn’t do with Nino. She suggested the open relationship option as an alternative to breaking up. The couple had a flat together, a split would be messy financially as well as emotionally.
“Okay, I think it’s time for another drink,” Marinette said, looking around for the waiter. “Maybe something to eat, too.”
This wasn’t what she had in mind when she tried to arrange this class reunion. She knew her friends all had lives of their own and they didn’t owe her anything, but she’d hoped they could set those aside for one night.
“It’s on me,” A cheerful voice cut through her self-pity.
“Adrien!” Marinette jumped out of her chair to greet him.
The chair tipped backwards and Marinette somehow got her legs tangled in the legs of the chair and she fell forwards, slamming into Adrien. He caught her around the waist and pulled her close to him to steady her. Lifting her up, out of the clutches of her seat, he set her down next to him and picked her chair up and replaced it under the table.
“Are you hurt?” He turned his gaze on her, hands on her shoulders. Two emeralds sparkled at her from his perfect face, currently the picture of concern.
“No, are you?” She said, feeling the old stammer threatening to surface at her crush’s proximity. It was something she got over in lycée when she resigned herself to be nothing more than good friends with Adrien, though the crush never faded.
“I’m fine,” He smiled.
Yeah, you are. Marinette thought.
The commotion had alerted the waiter to the newcomer at the table and he came over to take their order. As he was doing so, Alix arrived with Mylene and Ivan. Followed closely by Sabrina, apologising profusely for her lateness. They pulled spare chairs from willing donors and all squished together around one small table. Marinette was very aware that Adrien’s thigh was pressed against hers. Their hands brushed a few times and she felt a thrill tingle up her arm when they touched.
“So, what are we celebrating?” Ivan asked.
“Nothing,” Nino replied, still grumpy about the reason for Alya’s absence.
“We don’t need to be celebrating something to get together do we?” Marinette said. “I just missed you all.”
“Aw, we miss you, too,” Mylene held her glass up and Marinette clinked hers against it.
“You’ve always been so thoughtful, Mari,” Adrien said, placing his hand on her forearm for exactly 4.5 seconds (not that she was counting).
It was a sweet moment, abruptly ruined by Alix making fake vomiting sounds.
Three more drinks later, Marinette was outside the cafe, hugging her friends goodbye. Promises to see each other more often were made and in her a-little-more-than-tipsy state, Marinette was proclaiming her love for all of her oldest friends.
“Do you need a lift home, Marinette?” Adrien asked as they waved Mylene, Ivan, Sabrina and Alix off in a taxi.
Marinette looked towards Nino who was slumped against a lamppost, looking sorry for himself.
“Thanks, but I think Nino needs you more right now,” She nodded towards their friend. “I’ll walk. Nathaniel lives near me, we’ll stick together.”
For a second, she thought Adrien might argue with her, but another look at Nino took the fight out of him. “You’re right. I should stay with him. Be safe, okay?”
Marinette turned to find Nathaniel waiting for her, leaning against the cafe wall, arms crossed. She smiled at him and he grinned back.
“Ready to go?” She asked.
“If you are,” He held his elbow out for her and she took it.
Neither of them were particularly steady on their feet, but with each other’s support, they staggered across the road toward the Cimetière de Montmartre. It was a place they occasionally spent time together, seeking out artists’ graves and sketching some of the more elaborate headstones and tombs. They turned up Rue Damrémont towards Rue Lamarck, where Marinette and Nathaniel each rented a studio flat. Marinette’s was fifteen square metres in total, with a loft bed, tiny kitchen, small sofa, folding table and not much else. Nathaniel’s was a little larger, with a bed that he folded against the wall to give himself more space, and a balcony he sat on to draw when the weather was good.
“It was nice of Adrien to pay the bill,” Nathaniel said, glancing at Marinette, searching for a reaction.
“He’s a nice guy.”
“Hmmm,” He sounded like he wanted to say something, but was holding back.
“That was a loaded ‘hmmm’, Nath. Speak your mind,” Marinette stopped walking.
Nathaniel carried on for a few steps before he realised she wasn’t there any more. He spun around and faced her.
He sighed, “I just think that maybe he was trying to impress you.”
“That’s unlikely,” Marinette laughed. “He’s a famous model and I’m a struggling wannabe fashion designer, I’m not even on his radar.”
“You’re a talented, beautiful, caring struggling fashion designer,” Nathaniel corrected. “And he’s a straight male with eyes, he can see how amazing you are.”
Marinette started walking again, taking Nathaniel’s arm when she reached him. They wandered in silence for five minutes before she spoke.
“Thank you,” Marinette said, sliding her hand down his arm until she could weave her fingers through his. “For seeing me as talented and caring.”
“And beautiful,” Nathaniel added and squeezed her hand.
He didn’t see her blush in the yellow glow of the streetlights but he felt her move closer to him. When they reached the door to his apartment, he lingered, still holding her hand.
“Are you sure I can’t walk you all the way home?” He asked.
“I’m sure, it’s not much farther,” Marinette assured him.
She leaned in to hug him and he finally let go of her hand to wrap his strong arms around her. She nuzzled her face into his chest and sighed happily. Nathaniel bent his head to hers and breathed in the vanilla and rose scent of her hair. Marinette moved away from him in surprise. Lips parted, she almost said… something... but at that moment, she forgot the words. Instead, she tilted her face towards his and kissed him. His eyes fell closed as he returned the kiss and his hands moved to her waist, pulling her closer. Soft kisses deepened and Marinette’s fingers raked through his red hair, grazing his scalp with her nails.
When they finally broke apart, they stood staring at each other, panting for breath. Emboldened by adrenaline and alcohol, he nodded towards his apartment door and cleared his throat.
“Do you want to stay here tonight?”