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Amour Fou

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 Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Chat Noir © Thomas Astruc

“Smile wider,” they said.

And he complied. With a stiff face and cheeks hurting from attempting to correct his expression for an elongated amount of time, he idly wondered whether it was worth the hassle.

They commanded, “Relax; look like you're having the time of your life.”

The attention he received wasn't who he wanted it from. The copious gifts that were delivered to his lavish home didn't fill the space of loneliness, and the letters and adoring words may have sung his praise, but they didn't know him—they didn't know how he spent his free time, nor the fact that the stiff clothing made him feel uncomfortable more often than not. And when there was another picture of him placed onto the wall by his father's assistant, he never received words of congratulations from the man that raised him.

“This is for your father's line,” they pointed out, “and you're lucky to be modelling for it.”

Was he? Although there were clothes specifically designed for him, made it fit his body snugly despite the sudden growth spurt, there were no caring words thrown in. The stiff conversations shared with the remaining part of his family were forced, usually within hushed tones, and there was no genuine feelings conveyed between them. His father was a broken man who'd thrown himself into his business after Adrien's mother had died, and there was still no doubt about that even over a decade later. Whenever he saw his father's tall, thin figure within the halls of their spacious home, he was often gazing at past portraits of his deceased wife with an expression of longing—one of his various expression that often flickered across his face; stiff and neutral, appalled at times, perhaps affronted. Never disarmingly happy enough to flash a wide, bright smile, and never openly sad.

His father shed no tears, and that alone was worrying.

When his mother had died, after the funeral was over and the condolences sent their way were fleeting, that was when his father had combed his straight, blond hair that was tinged with gray back with a determined expression. He had been a rising star in the fashion industry, one that wasn't well known quite yet within their home, so when he uprooted their lives and moved abroad, far away from the elegant home Adrien had once toddled through with enthusiasm, he'd taken a small and sad young boy.

“Your accent is perfect—no one would know you're a foreigner if you changed your last name,” they remarked.

The home-schooling had began the very week that they'd moved. Adrien had been drilled constantly for his pronunciation, and through the plethora of teachers that each covered one subject, he was flooded with informations and often found himself confused. After weeks went by, consisting of lessons, often lonely meals where his father was absent due to work, he no longer rubbed his red, swollen eyes in the late hours of the evening. He learned to accept that his father couldn't always be there—so, when he was home, Adrien tried his best to prove that he was pulling his weight around the home.

Chores were not permitted. There was hired help to do them for him. Cooking was not included in the lessons, and neither were household chores. So, by peeking around corners with a curious expression, he observed what was going on around him. He managed to become adept at sneaking around; so much so that the staff would gossip quietly with each other and he'd managed to catch snippets of their conversations over the years.

His father was doing well at his job. The fashion line had exploded with popularity after they'd moved, and he had countless shows and other such work opportunities, and that was the reason that he was absent from home most of the time.

There were whispers filled with sympathy, pity, and general sadness for the young boy that was growing up alone. When he heard them the first time, he'd frozen, limbs frigid and unmoving, as he looked around the corner with wide eyes. There were two of the usual staff, dusting the portraits and vases that littered the hallways, talking in tones that weren't as hushed as usual. He sank against the wall, falling to the floor and wondering how to react when he next saw them. He didn't want pity from them, certainly not, but they were... friends, he supposed. They were the constants in his life; his father's assistant, the tutors, the help that tottered around their home and remarked how he'd grown a centimetre or that he was needed elsewhere.

So, with a heavy heart, the young boy had smiled just as innocently as always and tried not to show the hurt on his face.

When his tenth birthday had passed, his father expressed his desire for Adrien to model for his clothing line. The young blond, with his short tufts of golden hair that was expertly combed and flattened, had looked taken aback momentarily before agreeing. He didn't quite understand what he was getting himself into, though, but the thought of having the chance to be closer to his father was enticing enough to agree. When he was escorted to the desired locations by his father's assistant, a stoic-faced woman who often relayed his father's messages, he was disappointed when there was no sign of him there. The staff at the shoot had been welcoming; kind, nice, with polite smiles plastered upon their faces and constantly cooing at how adorable he looked, or how lucky he was to be that man's son.

By the time he was twelve, other companies had began to make offers for him to model for them, too. And soon, modelling sessions were added into his schedule, and the loneliness grew along with the workload.

None of the staff spoke the tongue of his homeland. The brief conversations with his father were used to show his efforts from studying, to prove there was no embarrassing lisp or inability to understand a new language.

When he was alone in the confines of what was supposed to be his bedroom, he felt suffocated. The walls were painted cream, the furniture was mature and had stained wood everywhere, and there were no toys or anything else age appropriate scattered across the floor. There were no posters, no video games, or anything that a normal almost-teenager would've had. He supposed when he was older, he could indulge himself for all the things that he missed. There was simply a large bed that was more suitable for an adult, a desk that was never used as there was a study elsewhere where he took his lessons, and a full-length mirror that he'd had to plead for as it had been his mother's.

A pang of hurt travelled through him, and as heat prickled at the back of his eyes and his throat became tight, he adamantly refused to cry.

There had been whispers at his mother's funeral, back when he was a smaller child many years ago, that showing emotions too openly was a fault for men. He had been taken aback as, surely, that was a lie? When he'd gazed at his father during the horrific event, there was only a pained expression with no wetness for his eyes.

He'd never seen his father cry. Therefore, to attempt to earn recognition from the one parent he had left, Adrien looked up to him and the strange mannerisms he showed. He allowed himself to cry his heart out on the one evening when the pangs of sadness were too much, when his eyes were swollen the next day from wondering what his life would've been life if his mother was still alive. The day he remembered her funeral, and grieved for the loss of such a wonderful woman.

There were whispers from the staff about the portraits of his mother throughout their home, but none had openly told each other that she was dead whenever he was listening in. It was as though she was a reoccurring story that they liked to tell each other; the sweet, beautiful woman who had fallen in with the stone-faced male, ran away together and became parents to a beautiful baby boy. Then, a wicked turn had happened and she'd fallen to illness, leaving the remaining two to live without her. They sighed when parts of the story was uttered, remarking at how lively or full of happiness his father seemed within the paintings that were with her, or the framed photographs that were bundled on the living room wall (or, rather; the room where guests ventured and waited when his father had a visitor).

He frequented the study for his daily lessons, the dining room to eat his meals alone or in the presence of a staff member, left for the required modelling activities, and only when his daily activities were completed did he have the chance to venture into his room to relax.

He'd acquired a laptop.

With mused hair and a curious expression, Adrien had explored the parts of the Internet he could until it was turned off promptly at ten o'clock in the evening. There was a time limit to his online adventures, but he enjoyed them nonetheless.

There were videos that made him smile, pictures that had him clutching his stomach from laughter, and television shows that were easily watched online. It was a gateway to a plethora of ways to amuse himself, and it was within the free hours where he was free to do what he wished (meaning, two hours or so).

So, a curious twelve-year-old Adrien with bright emerald eyes, had settled down onto his massive bed and loaded a particular site to feel in touch with his homeland. It was a site specifically created for allowing individuals search for pen-pals, per country or language. It was suggested to use it to attempt to practise a new language, or to create ever-lasting friends, but the mere fact that he could finally converse with someone in his home's tongue—well, type—had him giddy with excitement.

There were multiple students from a school searching for a foreign pen-pal to practise a language. There were no pictures to show what they looked like, as perhaps that would've attracted dangerous types of people, and there was simply a small paragraph to mention something about their personality and what they were looking for in a pen-pal.

'Nino Lahiffe. Searching for a cool dude to chill with. Need it for class.'

And that was the start of their friendship. Adrien had tentatively introduced himself through the site's e-mail function, and it had taken a good six hours to receive a reply. When he'd settled down for his free time the next day and seen the message, he'd been absolutely floored that there was an answer at all—surely, Nino had gotten other requests? Nino's advertisement had been removed when he checked, so that surely meant that he was only looking for one conversational partner.

Nino replied in the language the blond was forced to speak during the day, and Adrien replied with the rusty tongue that he longed to converse in. Their conversations were butchered, absolutely random and had no connection to the previous sentences at times, and it was wholeheartedly fun and generally enjoyable that Adrien began to look forward to the e-mails each day. The children his age that he met through modelling were rare, and if they were there they were serious, determined, and wanting to get on with the job rather than bond.

Nino was his first friend, there was no doubt about that. The letters of adorations that he received, the screams that were sometimes heard outside of the modelling locations, were not because of his words or personality; they were fans of his face—and body, despite his young age, apparently—and that was quite worrying to think about. They were attracted to what they saw, and it was utterly shallow and caused his stomach to churn uncomfortably whenever someone uttered love confessions.

He was a child, teetering along the edge of being a teenager, and there were fans a few years older shouting for him to father their children. It wasn't right, it wasn't flattering, it was—lonely. If he typed his name into a search engine upon the Internet, there were various hits and websites that he wouldn't delve into again from knowing the obsessive fans that lurked there. Even when thrust into the world that his father was conquering, he couldn't be a child.

When Nino's assignment had finished and he'd received top marks for their e-mails that he'd shown to the teachers, they continued to talk. They changed to e-mails that weren't through the site, and Adrien had been so utterly touched that his friend genuinely liked him that his cheeks had hurt from smiling genuinely for the first time in weeks.

Their topics became personal over time. By the time they were thirteen, Adrien had opened up about his distant father and the lack of friends he had, and Nino had been so thoroughly aggravated at his father that he'd claimed he'd fly over and punch him if he had the money. Adrien had laughed, a real genuine sound of amusement leaving his lips, and just imagining his face-less friend attempting to punch his father in the gut almost brought tears to his eyes (as, surely, his thirteen-year-old friend wouldn't reach his father's impressive height at that age).

When Nino mentioned his family—caring mother, busy father who ruffled his hair when they saw each other—Adrien had blinked in surprise when he'd mentioned a particular legend that was popular for when he was feeling sick, down, or sleepy.

It was one that his mother had uttered many years ago, back when there was a warm body comforting him with kind embraces, and someone to read stories after he'd been tucked safely into bed. The odd tale of seeing one's soulmate within a mirror, catching a flickering glimpse of the intended person that would fulfil his wishes and desires. It had been his mother's favourite story to murmur, and she created fantasy tales for princes and various destined partners each time, choosing a different storyline that had him smiling at. Once, she had whispered about a wizard that had seen a bat within the mirror and had been so utterly confused that Adrien had laughed heartily and wished for the story to finish that evening, rather than for it to be dragged out to hear snippets each night for a week.

They shared pictures when they were thirteen, too. Nino had messy dark-coloured hair that was in a disarray of curls that was hidden underneath a hat, chubby cheeks that would disappear with age, and thick spectacles that were almost falling off. He was the perfect example of a happy child, and Adrien had been hesitant to share a picture of himself; despite their close friendship, he hadn't mentioned his surname, just in case he was recognised (and that sounded very conceited, even in his own head).

When Nino hadn't made a fuss and simply said he looked like he needed to eat something sweet, he'd sighed in relief and shook his head. What had he been expecting, though? For Nino to recognise his surname, run to tell his friends and brag that he was conversing with a... celebrity?

Was he a celebrity?

His father was, that was for sure. But if he was, was it for his father's efforts and therefore the family connection, or for his own work?

He hadn't done much work on his own, though. Adrien had started out modelling for his father's company, therefore he hadn't been paid for his work there, and when other companies had expressed their interest and hired him, only then did the money go into a separate bank account that his father's assistant had pointed out one evening (saying that if he were to want to buy something, he could take it out of his own savings). So, Adrien had bitten his lower lip and pondered over whether he was undeserving of his position in life. There were many that were jealous of him, yes, but he would've given anything to be in a situation where his mother was alive, loving, and for his father to be around rather than distant all of the time. He would've given his ridiculous modelling career, even.

When they were fourteen, Nino had confessed that he still had a crush on a girl he used to see from a neighbouring school when he was younger. Apparently, despite the fact that she was so utterly female, there was something about her that made him smile.

She punched a boy from his school when the boy and his friends made fun of her backpack. Her laugh was loud, heartfelt, and so wonderful that he was happy whenever he heard it. When she disagreed with someone, she'd wrinkled her nose in a disapproving gesture, and when she was nervous her feet would be facing inwards in an adorable pose that Nino had positively gushed about it before stating that it's perfectly natural to feel things about someone. Then, he revealed that when he'd finally worked up the courage to confess to her, she had transferred schools and he hadn't been able to talk to her.

A pang of longing had shot through him for reading about it. It was such a story that his mother would've adored—anyone fond of romance would've, really—and knowing that he wasn't going to experience anything like that under the thumb of the controlling schedule he experienced daily was difficult to come to terms with. Although there were fans that often professed their love, none of it was genuine. The most affection he received was through the e-mails with his first best friend, and from his father's assistant that hoovered over him at times. The tutors had been replaced as he aged, and the staff that he'd become most familiar with disappeared to care for their own families or switched jobs to another household. The different faces that walked through the halls were not ones he knew, and over time he simply smiled politely without attempting to strike up a conversation with them.

“Stick your chest out,” they said.

And despite his young age, along with the uncomfortable feeling within his stomach, he listened.

When the Internet was shut off, the staff had disappeared for the evening, and his father was either away for business or tucked away within his section of the house, the teenaged Adrien waltzed through the halls curiously.

The kitchens were always stocked, he knew that. So, when he saw an interesting video upon his laptop and wanted to see whether it could be a secret hobby for when he couldn't sleep, Adrien walked stealthily into the kitchens during the night. He shut the doors, turning the fans on so the smell wouldn't waft through their home. His skills were abysmal at first, and he often laughed when the mixture didn't turn out quite right or the consistency was utter goop that he wasn't sure where he had gone wrong. It was, without a doubt, fun. There was no one there to remark on his failures, praise his well doings, and that was perfectly fine with him. He was free to wear an oversized apron that he found hanging on a hook, free to wear his hair as he pleased and trot along in his pyjamas without anyone judging him.

There he was, the golden boy of the modelling world with icing smeared across his cheeks, batter in his hair, and a wide smile despite the sunken confectionery that hadn't been cooked long enough.

Nino had approved of his secret hobby, encouraged him, even, and sent recipes that looked particularly tasty and asked for Adrien to send him photographs of his attempts. There was someone on his side, someone who genuinely cared for him and his efforts, and that alone was motivation for continuing his secret nightlife.

One day, after a tedious session that had been filled with a modelling partner that whined after every shot, Adrien had fluffed his hair and fallen back onto his mattress, exhausted. There was no reward for dealing with such tantrums, and he knew that if he were to be the one spouting such remarks, stomping his foot to emphasise his points, that the punishment wouldn't have been worth it. He'd never really been punished, though. His father had never provided alternative activities other than books to study from, or the homework that his tutors assigned on a rare occasion, and there wasn't much he could do wrong with the provided things.

The redeeming part of his day, as always, was the hours old message from Nino. They exchanged one e-mail a day because of the time difference between them, but he still considered them precious.

So, when there were pictures attached to the e-mail, he had knitted his eyebrows together, curious. The message was rushed, riddled with mistakes and words that were absolutely wrong that Nino should have grown out of over the years of studying already, and conveyed how surprised he was that Adrien couldn't quite believe what he was reading.

Somehow, Nino had found his childhood crush's social media page. He'd said that it felt far too strange to send the address through e-mail, so he was attaching pictures instead that he claimed proved that she still looked as pretty as she had back then.

It was a picture featuring three girls. One's face was missing, so their ridiculously fuzzy sweater which was rose-coloured was visible, while the other two had their arms wrapped around each other and were grinning. The girl on right had naturally tanned skin, bouncy red hair that was wound into curls that were free and flowing, with bright sienna eyes, dark spectacles, and was clad in a large t-shirt that was meant for one of a couple. The female in the middle that was wearing the other matching t-shirt was smaller, absolutely swamped by the clothing, and he found himself snorting at how out of place she was. Whereas the other girl had a carefree appearance, this one could have been considered prim and proper. Hair accessories with ladybugs attached were holding the dark strands of her hair out of her face, and there was a lack of any make-up upon her face. She was clean, natural, and the smile upon her lips was gentle, barely there but still obvious that she was enjoying herself.

There wasn't much remarkable about her, not really. She would've been a common beauty if it wasn't for her Asian heritage—the curve of her eyelids, the darkened hair that had a natural shine that many surely complimented her on—and the fact that her eyes were a bright blue, rather than a deep brown. Her nose was small, slightly upturned, and her upper lip was thinner than the plump bottom one.

The other photograph was of the two girls again (the third girl having disappeared). The ridiculous matching t-shirts had disappeared, and instead she was clad in a severe looking sweater that was entirely too proper for school, and a skirt that fell to her knees and he had to cover his mouth to muffle the snort of amusement. She—she was just so serious! She had her dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, and was clutching books to her chest, as they were in what he presumed to be the hallway of their school, while the curly-haired girl was wrapping an arm around her shoulder and winking at the camera with her carefree hair loose.

She was shy, that was clear from the blush that was across her cheekbones, and smiling sweetly despite feeling put on the spot from the surprised expression that was still across her face.

He learned that her name was Alya. Although Nino made a point not to search through her social media to look for updates of her life and what she was doing, he still looked at her changing chosen picture from different websites and shared them with Adrien. Slowly, he began to see the girl that his friend had first described to him, many months ago. Sometimes she looked disgruntled with her arms crossed beneath her developing breasts, or positively infuriated and glaring at the camera, and as the days passed with Nino sending him updated pictures that always included the two females that were clearly best friends, he began to enjoy looking at them.

When she was smiling, he often found himself smiling, too. When there was some sort of food upon her face and the curly-haired female laughing at her, Adrien often stifled laughter as well.

Was this how his fans felt when they saw him? He was distraught as first, feeling as though he was violating their privacy by enjoying the pictures he was shown, but when he realised that, perhaps, individuals smiled when he did within a photograph, the inner-guilt settled down. Although there was an uncomfortable feeling within his stomach whenever Nino sent a message that had to do with his crush, he soon noticed that it wasn't because of the secret pictures or the fact that he didn't know her—it was because he wanted to know her, and that revelation had him utterly confused and wondering where the sudden feelings of affection had stemmed from.

He wetted his lips.

Although he'd grown up considerably mature because of the company he kept—meaning, the tutors and household staff—he was still lost on what normal teenagers did. Surely, most weren't home-schooled without many games or toys to occupy their time, and most certainly they didn't sneak into the kitchens at night to bake.

So, from conversing with his first, and only friend, in the almost late hours of the evening once a day, he supposed that it wouldn't be so bad to consider the two girls as acquaintances of sorts. Of course, he didn't know their personalities well, other than the various expressions they showed within their photographs.

To his utter horror, when he was being interviewed for a magazine and the questions had turned to his love life—as he surely had one as a popular teenager—his cheeks had warmed despite his inner protests, and his thoughts had flickered to the shy, dark-haired female that he'd seen for almost a year.

He couldn't tell Nino, absolutely not.

Running a hand through his hair, gripping at the ends as he collapsed onto his mattress, Adrien was distressed as he tried to assess his feelings to his best abilities. When had the fondness he felt for Alya evolved into something else? How had it? He'd always thought that it felt strange for others to bond with his pictures, not knowing him in person, but he was a walking, talking, hypocrite because of his sudden revelation. It—it shouldn't have happened! Yet, somehow, it had. The happiness he saw from seeing the selected pictures that Nino sent him had blossomed into a warm feeling within his chest, and the magazine was surely going to note the fact that his face had reddened from the question, despite the fact that he'd denied it thoroughly.

For the first time in his life, the love he craved for wasn't from a parental figure. It had soared past that, answering the whispers of his growing hormones and urging him to continue the traitorous trail of thought, and the back of his eyes prickled, a choked breath escaping, as he thought about how fucking wrong it was. Nino had showed those pictures while complaining about the females that were in his school, saying how he wished for her to be there beside him, or knowing where she lived without being creepy and having to travel for hours to visit her. His friend—his only friend—had trusted him with the precious knowledge of his feelings, and he'd messed it up.

And so, when Nino shared a picture a week later and mentioned he was going to consider attending a college close her, Adrien had felt a pang of pain rocket through him. He couldn't discourage his friend simply because of his selfish feelings; Nino had every right to be with the girl that he'd kept close to his heart, and he—he, the friend who valued their friendship more than the fleeting affection he felt for the one always within a photograph—couldn't find it within him to voice his insecurities. So, he replied for Nino to follow what he thought was best, that he'd support him as much as he could from across the ocean, before retreating into the kitchen and baking away his troubles.

Except, that hadn't quite worked out. With shaking hands and mixed feelings, Adrien had been distracted while handling a tray from the oven and had burnt the skin of his hand where the protective material hadn't covered him. With a horrified expression, he ran cold water over the reddened skin, but there was a prickling sensations that just wouldn't leave, and the raised white-coloured flesh that was there in the morning was a clear giveaway that he had been doing something he shouldn't have.

He had a modelling job that day, too.

At sixteen, his father found out about his hobby that he thoroughly enjoyed at night. It was the first time they had sat down for dinner together in weeks, months, maybe even years, if he thought hard about it, and the tall man was just as surly as ever. With a suit that had no creases, gray hair that had streaks of fleeting blond within it—much the opposite of when they'd first moved to the foreign country—and a stern expression that showed his disapproval without needing to voice them. He understood immediately what it was about—the shoot had been postponed because of his injury, as the damaged skin had been too tender for make-up to be put upon it, and that, surely, tarnished the family name.

“It is not a hobby for you to indulge yourself with,” his father had remarked, looking across the table at him with a cold expression. “I expected more from you.”

Silently, he thought that he'd expected more from his father, too. He'd expected warmth, comfort, and perhaps friendship as he had grown older, but that certainly wasn't the case. The rooms were cold, unwelcoming and the distance between them was always there, no matter the setting. If they were to attend a public outing, a party or opening that they'd been invited to, his father was always a looming figure of polite smiles and there was certainly no embraces filled with warmth like he longed for.

Who exactly was he trying to impress? The man sat before him was simply a shadow of the father he had seen in the first few years of his life—he was a broken, hollow version of whom he remembered smiling brightly at his mother. He couldn't remember the sound of his own father's genuine laugh, hadn't seen him cry from sadness, and certainly hadn't felt any sort of affection more than a brief nod when he'd achieved success.

And so, he replied stiffly, “I understand, father.”

One of his secrets had been revealed, but his conversations with Nino were still hidden. The conversation from dinner was paraphrased during their e-mail that evening, and Adrien found his hands shaking as he recalled the snippets once more, wondering why he had wanted to impress the man that his father had become. He was admirable for his work, certainly, but not for being a father figure. His father's assistant was closer to being a maternal figure than he was.

That evening when he ventured down to the kitchens, there was locks on the doors. From walking silently through the halls during the day, he found out that the staff had been ordered to restrict access during the night because of his unsavoury activities. His father had phrased it so thoroughly offensively that Adrien had scrunched his eyes shut, fists clenched within the hallway as he resisted the urge to cry aloud in frustration.

It had been his escape. He'd improved over time, and although his works were rushed because of the lack of time he had in the evenings, the quality had gotten better. Even Nino had mentioned that the photographs of his creations were starting to look delicious (which had made the blond laugh fondly).

As photographers, fans, and reporters remarked that he was growing up well, Adrien felt anything but happiness from his traitorous hormones. When he awoke in the mornings, mortified from the reaction his body had each time, he adamantly refused to let his thoughts wander when he had enough to satisfy his urges. When his thoughts wandered to Alya's bright eyes and her shy smile, he denied having unsavoury feelings for her when his best friend was deeply smitten with her. It wasn't his place to get in between them—even if they hadn't met, yet—and with that thought in mind, Adrien vowed to never betray his morals and allow his thoughts to waver, and certainly never to let his dirty thoughts to blemish her innocent appearance by attempting to undress her.

When he checked his e-mail one evening, Adrien had been so utterly shocked that the laughter that had spilled from his lips was slightly maniacal. He gripped at the roots of his mused hair, pulling at the blond strands incredulously, the strangled laughter becoming breathy, confused, and not quite believing how much of an idiot he undoubtedly was.

This was the proof that even if he'd been an fool, he hadn't betrayed his friend. He could've all along, could've given into his feelings and pictured the girl of his forbidden fantasies as many times as he'd liked—but he hadn't.

“She's not Alya,” he whispered, voice shaking. “She's not.”

For the fierce loyalty to his first friend, the need to keep their relationship positive as he was his only connection to someone normal his age, he'd repressed the feelings of affection he'd had for a certain girl for such a long time—just to realise it wasn't even her.

The bespectacled girl with her bouncy curls was grinning at the camera, with messily written words scrawled on a piece of paper she was holding up saying, 'Good luck, Mari!'

Alya wasn't the dark-haired female that he'd harboured affection for. Alya was the red-headed friend that he was amused by, simply because her expressions were exaggerated a lot within the photographs, and she genuinely seemed to care about the other female. They were constantly in the same pictures, after all, and Nino only shared the selected images that Alya had as her main one of different sites.

He didn't know how to respond. His utter happiness was disarming, and as he contained the hysterical laughter that was threatening to spill once more, he was sure that he couldn't have been happier. Even if he didn't know about her personally, he knew that she liked to carry multiple books to class—unlike her friend—that she gnawed on her lower lip when she was worried, had a killer glare when she was annoyed, and clutched at her elbow in a self-conscious gesture when she was uncomfortable in the clothing that Alya had forced her into.

He knew that she was sweet, studious, didn't care much for her appearance other than pulling her long, dark tresses back into braids or ponytails, preferred to wear clothing riddled with pulled threads that was comfortable and covered her skin rather than for style, and that her name was possibly Mari.

She was so utterly unremarkable, and that was what made her special to him—for he was polished, made to wear expensive clothing that was stiff and clearly showed his wealth, while she was a free soul that looked for comfort within her favourite clothing, books, and studies. She was shy, and her cheeks had hollowed out from growing up in the short amount of time that he had watched, and the lack of style that her hair had was beautiful, even though he had been taught that perfection was the ideal.

For she was everything he had been taught not to be, and that made his feelings of affection grow fonder with each glimpse of her plain clothing, her nose within a book, or when she gladly showed the camera her score from a test with a small, proud smile.

When it came time for his examinations within the study of the lonely home, he had passed effortlessly from the countless tutors each day. He continued to study, having been denied the opportunity to attend college like most of the population his age, and he couldn't say that he'd been hoping for a different answer, truly. The question had been half-hearted and directed at his father's assistant, and she had shook her head with a sad smile and said that it wasn't time for that.

After relaying the information to Nino, he didn't feel better. There was no clear goal in life that he wanted to follow for himself. Surely, his father wanted him to continue to model and thrive in the environment he had been raised within, but that wasn't what he desired at all. He missed his night hobby of baking, longed for the smell of sweets that he couldn't consume more than a bite of without being scolded at the next weigh-in, and wondered whether he would have to deal with such ordeals for copious years to come.

Nino had enrolled in the college nearest to his home as his mother was ill, rather than seeking his childhood crush out. It seemed that Alya and Mari chose to attend the same college (somehow, he thought that Mari was destined for a more prestigious one as her grades were sure to be great, form her shown test scores).

The first picture he received of the two girls was from a romantic holiday, and it had a disgruntled Mari wearing an overly large shirt with a crudely drawn picture of Alya—from the streaks of marker for red hair, and the thickly drawn spectacles—with a phrase claiming her love for Alya. The red-head was wearing a matching one, with sharp lines of black to portray her hair, and his lips curled into a large grin from the information revealed.

“Marinette,” he murmured, trying the name for the first time.

It suited her.

She didn't grow much taller throughout college, though. If anything, it was simply her hair that grew and was constantly styled into a thick plaits that fell down to the middle of her back, with no bangs of strands framing her face. It was a severe hairstyle that showed she was strictly business, and despite the fact that Alya's style had become skimpier with their adaption to college life, Marinette's hadn't strayed into that style of fashion. The ratty clothing that she had clad herself in had evolved, rather; there were stylish skirts added in that were slightly shorter than normal, shirts with lace and dresses that were very feminine that he hadn't quite seen her in before. She was growing into her body, becoming comfortable with herself, and it was fascinating to see.

When he saw her wearing a white dress with a lace trim, he regretted ever saying that she was unremarkable. She was a vision, truly; lightly flushed cheeks from embarrassment of Alya holding her close, a blinding smile that met her bright eyes, and dark hair that contrasted beautifully against her pale skin, he couldn't find it in himself to find any flaws with her appearance.

Armed with the knowledge that she was a remarkable, beautiful young woman that surely had men after her—shaking his head to forget the fact that she could possibly have a significant other—Adrien wasn't ashamed when he was distracted after checking his e-mail that evening. He saw the picture which made it clear how smitten he was for a girl he'd grown fond of seeing, and despite the fact that his cheeks grew hit as his heartbeat fluttered and his thoughts began to race and turn to the areas that he'd adamantly refused to associate her with, he broke.

There was no denying the attraction, especially when he slipped the tight jeans off, allowing them to fall to the floor, and palmed at the obvious reaction he had to her. Biting down upon his lower lip, in a move that reminded him of the plethora of images of her gnawing at her plush lip, Adrien close his eyes as his fingers gently brushed against his arousal. It was warm against his cold fingers, and after a few moments of adjusting to the temperature, he began to softly pump the base with slow movements that caused a low groan to sound at the back of his throat.

Although he'd satisfied his needs countlessly, he'd never pictured her during. And so, while recalling her swollen lower lip from the countless bites, the small grins that were innocent and so very attractive, his hand squeezed around his member to cause sensations to course through him. Muffling the nose to biting the inside of his cheek, even though he knew the household staff had already left for the evening, Adrien moved his hand swiftly, with purpose, and gasped at the sheer pleasant feeling. He—he thought about how nice it would've been to kiss her lips, to caress her jawline and pepper kisses along the column of her neck. His thumb brushed against the sensitive tip, and he moaned lowly, eyebrows knitted together in a mixture of sheer pleasure and frustration.

How he wanted to share the experience—any, even just to see her smile at him. Adrien gasped, free hand curling around the duvet and holding tightly from the feelings. His muscles were becoming taut, tensing for the oncoming feeling of pure bliss, and as he began to pump faster, ignoring the growing ache of his wrist, the bubbling feeling of warmth within his abdomen had travelled lower, spiralling and connecting with his ever-growing pulse that was thundering within his head. The mere fact that he was imagining her flushed cheeks, the curve of her lips, caused a strangled gasp to escape him.

It wasn't long before his muscles clenched, liquid spurting and covering his hand and reminding him of the sin he'd committed, and the pleased smile that crossed his lips wasn't one that he was ashamed of. Within the three years that he had gazed at her, he had never indulged in satisfying himself while thinking of her—he had been respectful, thoughtful of his best friend, but in the end he did have hormones, too.

Perhaps if he prayed, she'd forgive him.

-x-

“You're making a name for yourself,” they murmured.

His modelling career had taken off when he fully reached puberty—the added height, the curve of his throat and the slight muscles that were from the designated workout time that had been included in his studies were all paying off. More companies had expressed their want for him to work for them, and he complied. The money was adding up, and he knew that one day, someday soon, he hoped, he would have enough to no longer depend on his father and create a life for himself.

It wasn't as though he was ungrateful for the life he had been provided. No, he was fully grateful that his absent father had kept him educated, gotten him into a successful career, but it wasn't what he wanted for himself. It was a life set out for him from an early age, and he never had much say in it.

So, when Nino had jokingly suggesting relocating and living with him, Adrien had blinked in surprise and wondering why he had never thought of it—not the living with him part, of course, as Nino was his only friend and he couldn't attach himself to the life he had. But he could move nearby, couldn't he? He could forge a home solely for him, attempt to make it his own, while finding a career that would have suitable pay to support his lonely lifestyle. The amount of money he had earned over the years was handsome, of course (being related to a celebrity did that), but it wouldn't last for the rest of his life. He wanted to be comfortable, to be able to relax and not worry about his weight and allow himself to indulge in all the things that he had missed out on.

His first goal was to have a pet.

When he discussed with Nino that he had missed the opportunity to have a pet, the male had laughed before listing different ones that he could possibly have. Adrien had looked through the list, checking the price of different breeds of everything and see how much they costed to look after, just to make sure his idea was viable.

And then, Nino mentioned his old hobby of baking. He questioned whether the locks were still there upon the kitchen doors at night, and Adrien had blinked before considering venturing to find out. The staff had changed over the years, so, maybe, the ones that had been ordered to lock the kitchen tightly at night had disappeared and not relayed their orders to the new staff.

Luck was on his side. The doors were clean, no locks in sight, and he'd thrown the doors open despite the clattering against the wall and grinned openly. It was the same as he remembered; shining stainless steel, aprons hung upon a hook on the wall, with low-hanging lights that were purely decoration rather than for function. It was everything he wanted for a retreat and more. The apron wasn't large on him any more; his body had grown, definitely, and it fit snugly around his waist.

His skills were rusty again. Nino cheered him on each evening, demanding pictures of the creations so he could make his friends jealous, and remarked about his boring day of learning and rejecting a girl that had had a crush on him since his first year of college.

Alya and Marinette were attending different universities—at least, that's what he believed. He didn't want to think that the two of them had stopped being friends, as the red-head that his best friend constantly fawned over was the only link that he had to her. When there was a picture featuring the dark-haired female at seasonal parties or events, he'd sigh in relief when they were in a grinning photograph together, and Nino would comment that he wanted to man up and send his crush a message more than even. He revealed that he'd actually written her a romantic card when he was younger, and that was information that he wanted Adrien to take to his grave.

“You're a real star now,” they mused.

He didn't feel like one. Although he could sympathise with the avid fans, he couldn't understand the shouts of love nor the proclamation that they were destined to be together. Throughout his career he had grown up before an audience, and the type of reactions he'd received hadn't much changed. He smiled softly at them, rejecting their advances in the most polite way, and never uttered to a reporter, or anyone who asked, that his heart was smitten with a girl across the ocean who was blossoming into a beautiful woman.

When he and Nino had decided that a cat would be best for him, Adrien decided that he wanted to do more than that. He wanted to include his personal hobby of baking somehow, and Nino had been the some to suggest a small café. And with that crazy idea in mind, Adrien had grinned wildly and typed into the Internet browser for ideas of what exactly he could do. First, he looked up open-space to see the pricing before deciding it would be a good idea to search for a home, too. So, with that in mind, he searched specifically for an apartment above, too.

It was a good six months before a space became available.

His father was not present for dinner, as always. Adrien spoke to his father's assistant, confessing that it was an urgent matter and that he needed to speak personally to him, and it had taken a few weeks for the opportunity to occur. The stern-faced man had stood stiffly before him, eyebrows raised in surprise at the proclamation that his son wanted to leave—leave the home they had, the career they'd built, and the country.

Perhaps it had been something in his expression, but after staring at each other where the silence was almost deafening around them, his father had remarked that he wouldn't financially support his decision. He had no right to stop him; Adrien was freshly twenty-one and had every right to do what he wanted.

And with that comment, Adrien coolly replied, “I wasn't expecting you to, Father.”

The international call had been expensive, but he'd secured the space and the apartment that was still available. Nino had been disbelieving when he replied to the blond's enthusiastic e-mail, and said that if he really was moving, then they had to be close by. With a wry smile, Adrien mentioned where the café would be located when it was up and running, and the excitement was very much shared.

He didn't cry when he left home. The only possessions he took with him were his mother's mirror, a photograph of the happy family that had once been from the wall, his laptop, and his clothes.

Nino met him at the airport. He'd been so thoroughly taken aback from the fierce hug his friend greeted him with that he awkwardly patted the tanned male's back before returning it gently. His friend was the same as in his e-mails, somehow; bright personality, infectious smiles that were usually conveyed from words, and his voice was smooth, deep, and everything he'd expected and more.

There was nothing he disliked about him.

Nino was finishing his final year at university, which was located a while away, but afterwards he promised to move nearby so they could spend time together. It was touching to see the concern his friend had for him, especially when the dark-haired male pestered him via cell phone; questioning his eating habits, whether he'd cleaned the apartment, and if he was searching for suitable furniture and supplies for the café.

As he wasn't confident with his abilities, Adrien hired staff to decorate the café to his liking, and it took months of construction before it was complete. There was a kitchen that was a tiny replica of the one where he'd grown up, with the door covered by multi-coloured hanging beads that were so silly he felt very deeply for them, a supply cupboard that had a light that was turned on by a cord that he always walked into, and the décor was absolutely quaint and just great. The walls were coloured a soft cream with pictures he wished were featured within his childhood scattered across the open space, and the shelves had silly trinkets that were purely for decoration and filled with such silliness that he'd been deprived of, and the books were not for studying. He'd bought countless animals beds for the cats he was planning on getting, and there were toys tucked safely away in spaces and gaps which were clear to see from the bright-coloured accessories on them, and various scratching posts with different add-ons were placed across the room.

The decision to have one section of the café to have tall stools had been Nino's idea—it was supposed to be a secluded section if customers didn't want felines climbing over their bodies. The rest of the tables were low, with plush cushions as seats nearby the window and the other section of the space. It was so utterly welcoming and warm, just what he had craved from his empty, mature bedroom that had never offered much comfort. There were bells attached above the door, so they'd sound whenever it was open in case he was swamped and distracted. A carpenter had created his sign; it had a cat engraved upon the top, and he could write messages in chalk to place outside. He had paint stashed away in the storage room to draw on the windows when the grand-opening came.

He adopted a kitten first. A lazy little thing that constantly stuck to his side like glue, and Adrien couldn't find it within himself to be annoyed at the affection. It was what he had wanted; it was just from a small thing, covered in short black fur with emerald eyes that were often droopy from sleepiness when he wasn't playing.

The navy-coloured bedroom that housed a large bed, the picture of his lost family on the wall, and the full-length mirror that was his last reminder of his mother, was soon invaded with a scratching post, though. A large one with two levels and a hanging bed in an attempt to coax the kitten from sleeping within his hair—especially because he often became playful within the blond tufts and scratched him lightly—to no avail.

By the time he'd gained the correct permissions and was legally allowed to open the café, Nino, Alya, and Marinette had university. He had no idea what had happened to the two females, but Nino had moved thirty minutes away and gotten himself a entry-level job that was doing well for him in the meantime, until he could search for his desired one. The dark-haired male still sent photographs of Alya when he was feeling down, when someone had questioned his sexuality, or if someone had attempted to coax him into going on a date with him. Adrien had proposed the question of why he hadn't added her on social media and said they'd known each other as children, but Nino had thoroughly refused and said it would've been far too awkward if Alya replied that she didn't know him. He wasn't prepared for the rejection, and he could thoroughly understand.

Although the pictures of Marinette had dwindled over the years, his feelings hadn't. He knew that the affection he felt for her was odd, really, as they had never met face-to-face, but he still indulged himself when arousal was paired with fantasies involving her, and it had been going on for so long that he couldn't find it within himself to whisper a quiet apology after he'd finished any longer. He wasn't waiting for her to magically appear in his life—he could've taken his own advice and added her on social media, if he managed to find her, but he was perfectly fine with her having a warm place in his heart for making him see that perfection wasn't all that was beautiful.

The last he'd seen of her, she'd cut her dark tresses short so it was brushing her collarbones (that were often shown from the recent pictures, and he had no complaints), with bangs that ended above her shaped eyebrows that had never been bushy, nor uncontrolled. The cut had emphasised her exotic eyes, making the bright colour easier to see, and there was still no denying that she was so utterly attractive that even a picture of her smiling had his body reacting.

He adopted six cats from the local animal shelter. He'd asked to see any available that were considered friendly—as he couldn't have a feline attacking a customer on a daily basis—and looked to see which ones were the most open with strangers, and whether they were timid and reserved. They lived in the downstairs of the café, as the ones that had wandered upstairs had met Plagg who was the resident grouch who retreated into the confines of the apartment to be safe and alone, and never much enjoyed sleeping elsewhere. They thoroughly enjoyed their new environment for a good two weeks before Adrien decided to place flyers throughout the nearby streets to set a date for his first day.

The grand-opening came. He'd painted silly paw prints upon the glass at the front, worn a large white apron that had paw prints printed upon it, and worn his shiniest shoes but left his hair untouched. Although he still wore the pieces of clothing that he'd liked from his... previous life, he'd acquired t-shirts and other such items to fill his wardrobe, as he wouldn't be attending prestigious events often.

The strict ten o'clock curfew and early tutoring had made it easy to wake up early in the morning to take his time baking his selected items, and despite his worries from his order of menus still not having arrived (though they said they would be by then, he was going to complain), there was a large smile upon his lips. There were stuffed mice and other toys within every pocket, just in case he had to distract the felines from causing trouble, and he was almost bouncing in excitement when the first customers came through the doors.

He allowed the group of children to name the six cats. The names had been normal, at first, before they began to attempt to outsmart each other and select the perfect name—Félix, Bridgette, Lila, Fang, Nooroo and Wayzz was the result, and despite the ridiculous thing he'd have to utter each evening, he was so happy to see that people were enjoying themselves.

The only issue was that he was running around, attempting to greet the new comers, deliver the coffee and sweet treats, and manage the whole place by himself.

The fourth day was when Nino announced that he was coming with a surprise. His friend had wanted to come for the grand-opening, but had been caught up at work and wanted to make it up to him by buying as many confectioneries as possible (he had grown fond of them, especially when tasting the ones that Adrien wanted to sell within the shop to give his cry of approval).

It was midday by the time that customers started to trail in. Adrien ran a hand through his hair, trying hard not to look positively frazzled from the workload, and delivered orders to the small group that was seated upon the table with the tall stalls, out of reach of the pesky cats that wanted to lap at the drinks when they weren't looking.

Then, when he turned around from the tinkling of bells and saw a small female taking in the café, he had to stop himself from gawking. She was there, smiling widely from taking in her surroundings, and there was already a feline bounding over a curling around her slim, pale legs, brushing against the skin that he'd only ever seen immortalised within pictures. She was wearing a soft lime-coloured shirt that did wonders for her figure, tucked into dark shorts that weren't too high up, and a black blazer with much the same lace trim that he'd admired on a dress on her once. And then she was kneeling, showing her hand with a gentle smile to the cat that had began purring, accepting her offered affections and greedily taking her attention.

She wasn't unremarkable. She was a vision of everything he'd hoped she'd be; soft lips that were curled into a smile, exotic-shaped eyes which were bright, friendly, and so full of colour, cheeks that were thinned from maturity, flushed pink from what he hoped was happiness, and just seeing her move made him so irrevocably happy that he was grinning, well aware that he was staring across the room.

And so, he took steps forward and schooled his expression, trying not to let the affection show in his eyes, and readied himself to greet her like any other customer.