Marinette didn't understand the state of the monarchy if it required a taste tester to protect their only Prince, but today she understood why some would make potential attempts.
"Open wide, princess," the prince sang as he presented a supple strawberry towards Marinette like some garden-variety paramour. Her temple twitched.
"Your Highness, please refrain from making my job a spectacle."
"But you're so spectacular at your job." Prince Adrien gave a languid smile which only made her eyes hurt as she couldn't roll them. "Besides, this is your favorite."
"I don't recall ever saying so," she said. "You know I heard this kingdom grows oki fruit near strawberries. Their very tiny black seeds can instantly throw a person into a coma if not carefully removed before ingestion."
Adrien's eyes flickered to regard the strawberry before shooting back a smug smile. "Your scare tactics won't work on me anymore." He didn't relent on presenting the strawberry. Marinette sulked and conceded to bite the fruit, tart juices tingling on her tongue and singing gratification to her stomach. She supposed it was her favorite, but it was a lucky guess on the prince's part.
Adrien ate the rest of the strawberry before taking a bite of a honeydew melon— not one of Marinette's favorites— from his fruit bowl and lounged in his chair.
"Plus I've caught onto your game. Your most frightening 'bites of wisdom' are always fake. Like those Black Pearl pods from the Davyphinium flower that would give me a feverish hallucinations until I wished for death? You could write a book with that imagination."
"I didn't make that up," Marinette asserted. Well, that time she did, but it wasn't good to insinuate all of her knowledge of plant life was make believe. She had pride after all. "As a prince, you're susceptible to millions of risks."
"Marinette, your mere mouth is more a threat to me than any recent assassination attempts. It's hard to sleep at night." He lowers his voice at the last phrase, and crosses his arms behind his head into a full lounge.
"If my daily dose of reality is keeping you up at night, maybe it's a sign to open your mind to more of the dangers in your kingdom. Don't cry to me about your insomnia." She crossed her arms.
Adrien remained silent by taking several more bites of fruit and tapping the fork again his bowl in a clock like rhythm. After an excruciating silence, he sighed and looked at Marinette with a modicum of disappointment and annoyance. "That went right over your head, didn't it?"
She blinked rapidly. "Sorry?"
Adrien dropped his fork on the table before standing tall. "I don't trust the remaining fruit. Please finish without me."
Adrien left the room in a presumed huff. Marinette blinked at the door, and glanced around the room, positive an entire ten minutes passed that she must have missed. "What's his problem?"
She looked at his left over bowl and all that remained was the honeydew melon. Her jaw twitched.
Definitely a lucky guess.
"I would ask if you're still mad about the fruit, but you seem to always be mad at me," Adrien started a few days later. "Do you have a vendetta on me?"
Adrien was again trying to feed her, for once a rather unfamiliar dish, but Marinette ignored his proffered mouthful and stabbed the mystery pastry with her own utensil.
"As a well educated food taster, I think I could find better ways to settle a vendetta than stewing about it." She bit the food, which was succulent and salty underneath the flaky crust. There's also a paste in there she can't finger, it was playing floral notes on her tongue which were fast addicting.
Adrien's brows raise. "So you do have one!"
"You are so paranoid. Eat your food."
"You always avoid proper conversation unless it's around food. What if I want to get to know you?"
"Why would you need to know your staff?" The food was honestly really delicious. She snuck another piece into her mouth as she spoke.
"You're not property, you're people. I'm interested in the people I meet everyday."
"How chivalrous," Marinette waved her fork. "Like a true prince."
"How kind of you to finally notice." He leaned on his arm and ran his eyes along her frame. "Are you this physically articulate with everyone?"
"What are you talking about?" Now the prince was just talking in circles, but that wasn't usual for him.
Adrien shrugged. "I just happened to notice you have a lot of emotional tells. You're quite expressive, even though you won't talk to me. It's kind of exciting deciphering it all."
Marinette had food in her mouth, so she settled a bland stare at Adrien, whose amusement didn't drop an inch.
"For example, when you're enjoying a meal, your eyes sparkle and jaw relaxes as you savor the flavor. Your mouth also parts slightly like you're thinking rather hard about it. It's rather captivating."
Marinette hummed and reached for a glass of water, covering any such indications.
"And when you're agitated or nervous, you tend to eat more to cover it up."
"I am not a stress eater!" Marinette splashed water when she placed her cup on the table, but it was hardly noticed as she glowered at the prince.
Adrien raised his brow and looked down at his plate and Marinette's followed the gaze. It had food on it, but it was less than a morsel.
"I have yet to take a single bite, in the event you hadn't noticed."
Adrien's fork still had the one piece he proffered while Marinette's own fork was glistening in all the stabs she made at the meat and sauce. Heat ran up her face and she carefully set her fork on her napkin before rising from her seat.
"If you'll excuse me—"
"Oh, you're speaking rather kindly now."
"I believe my duties are complete—"
"What could that mean? Was I right? Do I know you too well?" His smile was infuriatingly smug.
"—for today. I have things to attend to. I'll bring your dinner tonight."
"Please ask the chef to make your favorite. Maybe I'll learn more!"
Marinette made an effort to be less expressive with her interactions with the prince. She never expected him to actually be observant, or even take notice of her life. Sure she doubted she would actually die from poisoning, but it didn't mean he shouldn't expect it at any moment and brush her away like common cloth. To be frank, ever since they met he was happy to make conversation with her. Encouraged it often, even. She wasn't accustomed to such behavior from a superior.
"How did you grow immune to poisons? Practice? Hereditary?" Adrien asked a few days later.
Marinette sighed and gave a sideways stare.
"Come on, I'm just curious."
"Practice," she admitted.
Adrien's eyes glittered. "Really? Interesting hobby for a young woman. How long did it take you?"
"It wasn't a hobby," Marinette clipped. "Do you need me to taste something?"
Adrien's eyebrows drew together, his eyes focused hard in concern. She can see his mouth parts, eager to ask more but he closed it again. Adrien instead handed her a strawberry danish from his plate on the desk. Marinette nibbled on the flaky, buttery crust, letting her shoulders fall loose.
"When I was young, my father said something to me that was a bit frightening," Adrien started. "'The world is filled with leaders and followers, climbing on each other's backs until only one stands tall. If you crumple, someone will use you as a ladder.' Failure was never scarier than when I was a child, and hobbies didn't exist. It was duties and survival. I always had to come out on top. It was hard to enjoy anything."
Marinette stopped nibbling on the crust, feeling her chest lax. Something in her reached out hard for him, wanting to prove the king couldn't be more wrong in the world. It reminded herself of her thoughts as a child, that she had an obligation to survive and succeed first, and hope the joy would follow. Look where it landed her.
"Everyone was competition, something to beat. But it quickly becomes…detached on top, alone. Getting in your own head is scary when there's no one to correct you. Luckily, I've meet incredible people that taught me to be better than my father. I didn't have to do what he did to be great.
"Yet," Adrien continued, "even after feeling like my father stole my childhood, I'm grateful him. Who I am attracted my best friends, and who knows what useless things I would've taught myself if I was in control. You can't lead a kingdom on incredible puns, after all."
A surprised snicker passed Marinette's lips and Adrien gave a quiet chuckle in return. "Sorry, that was probably uninteresting. Take it as my apologizing for prying."
Marinette bit her lower lip, rubbing the pastry crust until crumbs fall to the floor. She watched the accumulation of dough contrast on the ornate rug. "It took me seven years to become immune."
Adrien unfurled from his slouch and swiveled his chair towards Marinette.
"I do want…to become an herbalist one day. It's why I know so much about plants." Adrien's eyes are sparkling again and somehow it feels embarrassing— like she was bearing a part of her skin she never showed anyone. "It's my dream."
"Yeah?" Adrien's pleased smile was a soft brilliance, a rare image she could never could imagine. "Never would've guessed."
A soft whisper eases in her stomach, something new and glowing, and Marinette holds onto it in a greedy grasp.
That quiet whisper in Marinette's stomach doesn't leave. With every smile, laugh, and conversation with Prince Adrien, that contentment turned into delightful flutters, then blissful flares, to ferocious flushes. For a while she was scared she ingested a poison so rare, it would tear her atom by atom from the inside out. Adrien invaded her subconscious without reserve until she dreamt of him at night and missed him by the hours.
It was a slow acting poison of the worst kind.
"Where were you?" Adrien accosted Marinette as she entered his study.
Marinette stared down at the tray in her hands. "You can take a guess."
"Yesterday. You weren't present for my meals. In fact, I couldn't seem to find you on the grounds all day."
"Well, of course I wasn't. You should've known that." He was looking for her all day? No, she shouldn't fall for that. That didn't give him the right to be sharp with her.
Yesterday was her day off, sanctioned by the king. Marinette was able to see her family, who she hadn't seen in five months, and it was hard enough it was only one day. She was positive Adrien was notified, even though in her excitement to leave she didn't double check with him.
Adrien scoffed. "Oh, I see. Good to finally know the truth. I won't bother you with my existence since its such a strain."Adrien's voice breaks in a quake, which halts Marinette's building anger.
"What is your—why are you so angry? Am I not allowed a day off? Are you really so selfish that I can't worship anyone's feet but yours?"
"That's not what I—of course you can have days off, but you didn't—" Adrien ran a hand through his hair. "I at least thought you would've stopped by—"
"Adrien." He stopped his ruffled tirade and looked at her. She rarely said his name outright. "Why was yesterday so important?"
A sort of clarity came over him at the question and his shoulders unwound, relieved. "You didn't know? It was…well," he cleared his throat, "It was just my birthday."
"Oh." Right. She did remember the frantic decorations, excessive cleaning, and the massive amount of food being cooked. But she was so excited to leave, to clear her head of the castle and Adrien's impact on her, that she blew it all off to hop the first carriage to her home.
His expression turned to utter bewilderment. "How could you not know?"
Marinette's mouth twisted. "Sorry, your highness, I didn't realize part of my duties was to stroke your ego."
"I'm not—!" Adrien groaned and tossed himself into his desk chair and faced away from her. He really looked as if her missing his birthday was a weight on him. "Sorry. You're right, I'm being…rude. We won't discuss it anymore."
Marinette took stiff steps to drop off the food tray at his desk and then stood at her customary spot on his right. He didn't signal for her to try anything and he didn't look in the mood to even acknowledge the meal. Marinette didn't know where to stare and the atmosphere got more oppressive by the second. Joy.
"Would it have really made a difference, if I was there?"
Marinette inhaled sharply, those troublesome flutters making a mess in her chest. "Why?"
"You're…well, you don't take me seriously— which is both the most frustrating and exhilarating part of my entire day. But it also means you have no expectations of me and I can be myself. You treat me like a person, not a prince. I thought— hoped— you felt the same."
Adrien stared forward and Marinette was glad couldn't see her expression.
"I made a lot of plans that were ruined, if you must know: A day in the market, adventures around the castle—"
"Yes. For both of us. An entire day! I was really looking forward to them." Adrien's pouting was more equivalent to a gluttonous chipmunk.
"I…well," Marinette tapped her heels against the floor. "You shouldn't have attacked me like that. Or accuse me of not caring, when I…well I still taste your food, after all."
"You do. By decree," Adrien retorted.
"Hey, do you know how oblivious you are? I could've poisoned you ten times over by now!"
"I'm oblivious?" Adrien swiveled his chair to stare at her and Marinette had to take a breath.
"But I should've known it was your birthday. Not just because you're a prince. You're…more important than that."
Adrien's annoyance blinked into something akin to astonishment. He didn't utter anything, for once being shocked into silence, and Marinette pushed forward.
"And as an important person, I should make it up to you." Adrien's fervent gaze began to leave her flustered. "A belated birthday redo."
"What?" He sent a small confused smile.
"We can still do all those activities, right? It's not fair to celebrate a birthday on one specific day. It's rather inconvenient."
"You want to? It's not to…appease me or something?"
"Unless you're going to start throwing swords at me, I wasn't exactly worried about it."
"Well, I suppose I can make an exception." His beaming smile shot straight through her chest and all frustration was scorched from her mind.
Adrien tilted his ice cream towards Marinette and she turned cross eyed staring at it.
"Your Highness?" she asked. "You do realize that's not poisoned right?"
"Marinette," he said with a long beat and stared at her with an unfathomable expression. "I can't tell if you're being obstinate or extremely oblivious."
Marinette blushed and looked around her. Adrien was known in the kingdom to rarely leave the grounds, so no one would've recognize him with golden hair let alone his ridiculous black cloaked attire with features of a cat. It was something a child would wear at a festival, which was why he said it was the best disguise.
She knew it was special to take her out to the square, that they were equals in this environment and she needed to act as such. Nonetheless, she had trouble crumbling her habits. She didn't want to get her hopes up.
Marinette tilted forward and took the proper bite, but Adrien tipped the cone so the cream smothered her nose and upper lip. He cackled at her surprised squeal and jumped away before she could pummel him.
"Not a bad look on you," he laughed and took a gleeful bite of the red ice cream.
"What, my face when I find you obnoxious?"
"Don't be like that, it was a bit of fun." He smiled. "Okay, okay, let me help you." He took a napkin from the clerk and gestured her forward when he returned. His touch was precise and attentive, as expected of well trained royalty. Marinette wondered about his fascination with being so doting and overbearing. In many dangerous ways she didn't mind it, but it made her wonder who received the same treatment.
He swiped near the corner of her lip and paused. His thumb poked from the napkin and traced her lower lip. She shot a look at his face and his eyes burned Marinette to her toes.
Her heart hammered.
Then his eyes shuttered to a relaxed teasing glint and he brought the thumb back to lick it. He hummed as if satisfied. A boiling rise of heat flashed up her body.
He whispered, "There. Perfect, as usual."
The prince turned on his heel to walk farther into the square, not glancing to make sure she followed. Her body melted into a crouch on the cobbled street as she covered her face with both hands, knowing she would need a moment before following him.
He was the death of her.
"Sit here, if you please," Adrien addressed her.
Marinette took an awkward shuffle to the marble bench inside the ornate gazebo.
It was a week after their first outing in the square, where the rest of the trip was Marinette keeping Adrien on a leash as he hopped shop to shop with too many questions and enough gold to raise eyebrows. It was a week of attempting to settle her emotions with no success at all and having an anxious weight on her shoulder trying not to over analyze every interaction.
The gazebo was a tranquil glass structure where royals had quiet picnics or means of escape. It was gorgeous and it felt rather intimate with the singular bench. Marinette sat where Adrien instructed but almost bounded back up when he sprawled on top so his head laid in her lap. Adrien clapped his hands twice and two maids walked from around the glass doors and set a table at Marinette's right. They piled it with plates of food, utensils, and napkins in a professional array.
Adrien tsk'ed at her, which he did whenever Marinette tried to address him formally, and Marinette glanced at the maids slipping out the doors.
"Adrien. What are you doing?"
"Have you never taken a nice meal outside before?"
"And you plan to eat like that?" she said, gesturing to his sprawled form.
"Why not?" Adrien remarked and waved at the table. "Pick your poison."
Marinette pursed her lips, a strong urge to stroke Adrien's hair or tug it at his childishness. She instead reached for a plate of clean cut mini sandwiches. One settled satisfactorily in her mouth, and she sighed a bit. It was much too gratifying, threats of poison or not.
She reached for another sandwich to hand to Adrien who gave a gloating raise of his brow. Her brow twitched in return.
"I'm not feeding you."
"Why not? Are you trying to starve me? That's treasonous."
"I already work under threat of death."
"You're too smart to be killed by finger food."
"What a magnanimous compliment that somehow both undermines the entire purpose of my position and makes you, a prince, sound like a complete degenerate. I'm swayed."
"You are so stubborn!" Adrien laughed, fondness leaking through his tone. "Fine, hand it over. I clearly can't argue against you."
Marinette's hand faltered. Adrien's radiation of joy left her weak and crumbling when he was so infuriatingly close. She felt paralyzed and her mouth grew dry.
Marinette looked forward, pretending to gaze at the near gardens and directed the sandwich towards his lips.
A firm, gentle grasp directed her wrist and Marinette was proud she didn't jump-Adrien would surely tease her. Every texture of his hand was put into laser focus the longer he held it—the softness of his finger tips, those rough corners at the joints, and how much larger they were to hers. Each second felt like an inferno that could only be cooled by touching him more.
She felt his breath, but the second his lips touched her finger tip—soft and damp— she screeched. She was suitably horrified and couldn't cover her mouth fast enough, looking to the left in the hopes he couldn't see the surging warmth on her cheeks.
"Ooh, don't do that," he teased. He definitely saw. "What was that noise just now?" He emphasized the point by stroking the wrist he still held captive and Marinette's resolve was deteriorating to porridge.
"Were you startled by something in the garden? I can fight it for you."
"I'm the best swordsman in the kingdom, if you didn't know." His hand was circling until he weaved their fingers together and Marinette knew she needed to pull away, for her dear sanity, but teasing or not, it felt too right.
"Adrien," she ground out.
"What's a princess without her gallant knight, after all."
That's when he kissed her hand. She turned and her heart had to be beating as loud as a hummingbird's wing. She couldn't settle on a single emotion, and it left her gaping foolishly as she tried to think of what to say. But the moment she thought of a word, a sandwich was stuffed into her mouth. She grunted and chewed while watching Adrien's overly beaming face. "You really are too cute when you're riled up."
She swallowed, the sandwich struggling down her throat, and admitted her defeat. She picked up a sandwich and watched as Adrien happily chewed it from her tips and held her wrist each time.
"I won't save you if you choke, Mr. Gallant Knight."
"You actually wanted to go on a walk in the gardens as a birthday activity?" Marinette asked.
"It's a place you'd enjoy. Why wouldn't I love it?"
Marinette's cheeks bloomed. "Oh, ah, well-"
"Oh stop being cute and come on!" Adrien tugged at Marinette's hand until they fell into a steadfast jog. The bright greenery of grand topiaries take up most of the view, but Marinette's eyes are glued on the back of Adrien. He was hardly phased by their urgent movement, a lively joy falling off of him like dandelions. Her breathes were already becoming quicker, but watching him urged her faster, afraid to fall behind.
Green foliage transformed into an ample field of diverse blooms, tall vines, and thriving trees. The air in Marinette's lungs took a sweet and spicy flair that unwound her exerted limbs. Suddenly she couldn't breath enough and it had nothing to do with the jog.
"What are your opinions on the court gardens, Miss Future Herbalist?"
"That's twice I've left you lost for words. It must be a sign," Adrien's hand squeezes hers. "I wasn't sure if you'd been here before, since apparently our herbalists are very protective of their plants. I can see how you would fit in. So, mind giving me a grand tour?"
Marinette squinted. "Me?"
"Just because I own the place, doesn't mean I know a wit of what any of these are."
Marinette huffed. "I'd be impressed to name half of them."
"Well then, my lady, it's high time you impressed me," he beamed. He held her close with a raised chin and steady eyes, a firm confidence in her that left her heart shuddering.
For the next few hours, Marinette could, in fact, name a rather large portion of flowers and tree species, but remained baffled by the rest. Adrien was enraptured by her every word nonetheless and even discussed mentioning her to the court herbalist for some books to study at her leisure. He asked questions, he picked bundles of flowers to form a crown, he never let go of her hand. It was definitely something out of a dream, in which she might have pinched herself a few times.
"So…" Marinette bumped Adrien's shoulder. "You know my dream, yet you never told me yours. How is that for fair?"
Adrien scoffed. "I thought it was obvious, it'll be embarrassing if I have to spell it out."
"You can spell?"
He tugs at her hand until she stumbles in her stride and she hits his shoulder in retaliation. "Well, if you must know," he licks his lips and looks anywhere but at her. The pause is long enough that Marinette was about to take back the question. "My dream is...well, it's you."
Marinette freezes in her steps and stops atop the hill leading back to the castle. The wind filled her ears, ringing loudly until the only thing grounding her was Adrien's firm grip. "I think I'm misunderstanding—"
"I think I'm being pretty transparent." He eyes are steady and swimming in emotions that leaves her mouth dry. "I've been transparent for a while now, but you're just...impenetrable." His chest rumbles like he's uttered some personal joke.
"I have surprise for you. Well, another one, apparently." Adrien smiles, pulling Marinette through the castle doors and back towards his study. The patio doors to the wide balcony are open and the wind flutters the heavy curtains.
When they're close enough, Adrien turns into a grand gesture. "Ta-da!"
It's a table of food, not as garish or professional as his usual meals as many dishes look out of proportion or unevenly cut. It leaves her a bit confused but the clumsy work reminds her home cooked meals, which calms her arising nerves.
"Is this another birthday activity?" She jokes around the swelling in her chest.
"More like, I wanted to show off to you." He pulled out a chair and Marinette followed his lead. She pondered the table to piece together his statement.
"You… didn't cook all this did you?"
His responding smile was somehow sheepish. "I'm glad you're surprised. I do have some hobbies." He took the seat next to her and took a forkful of a mixed dish that looked surprisingly appetizing.
Among all of this, she still hadn't had time to sort her feelings and watching Adrien fall into his usual doting habits left her to go to hers.
"You know, since you made this, I technically have no reason to eat it."
Adrien's tentative cheer fades to a brooding pout and the fork hovers low.
"This is, ironically, the last food in the world I'm required to try."
The fork was placed back on the dish, though Marinette can see the twitch in his hand.
"I mean, what prince would be dumb enough to poison himself?"
He stared hard, a scowl covering the soft resignation in his cheeks. It shakes her, and not because he thinks she's going to reject him, but because he was so troubled of the same.
"I have a surprise for you, too."
He raised a speculative brow. "Yeah?"
"It's a confession. I'm not actually immune to all poisons."
Adrien rolled his eyes. "Oh my, how less impressive you are."
Marinette couldn't hold her smile. "I'll show you. Just…hold still."
She saw his short alarm before she shut her eyes and leaned forward.
Adrien tasted warm and right. It was nothing like she ever ingested in her life and she wanted to memorize it to the last breath. He was startled the first moment their lips brushed, freezing like a statue beneath her, but he grasped her waist in an unyielding grip a moment after. She opened her mouth to taste hints of mint on his tongue, something she wasn't aware he ate this morning, and she almost chuckled. She was shivering by the end of the kiss, every nerve in her body trying to prolong it after waiting for so long. It was everything.
They pulled away in hard puffs, hands clutching at hair and clothes like they were afraid of the other would dissipate in the air.
"So…is this your way of saying I'm fatal?"
Marinette chuckled. "A fatal mistake to fall for, maybe."
"Oh," he grinned. "So you've fallen for me?"
"Yes," she strokes his cheeks, "Because you are a poison worth taking."
And forever after, they agreed, it was the lamest and most cherished words ever said between them.