Adrien avoided everything in his life that wasn't essential. Half of the Parisian media was still buzzing with the fact that an Akuma had attacked so far outside the city and the other half was buzzing about the fact that there were pictures of Ladybug kissing Chat Noir. Everyone was on edge because it had been almost a week since there had been an attack. Adrien was too anxious to face any of it. He had made it through five days of compulsive worry and it was wearing on him.
He had now added worrying about Marinette to his collection of things to stress about. She had fallen asleep holding his hand and he had stayed there for a long time, sitting on the floor by her bed and watching her sleep. He had finally slipped away in the late afternoon after missing another horrible meeting that was supposed to have started at 2pm.
He continued on with his life until Ladybug reached out again or an Akuma attacked or something changed. He went to work, he went to class. At night he patrolled rooftops and empty streets and all the places he could remember ever going with her in case he might find her or her doppleganger in one of them. He avoided going back to work unless it was essential because it was harder to hide there than it was at school. It even worked for a few days but on Thursday he had an actual appointment for a fitting and found himself trapped in a studio with the rest of the runway team.
Adrien was almost able to behave normally. It was all an act and it felt like a very thin veneer between his normal behaviour and his constantly churning worry but no one seemed to notice. He laughed with the others as Liam made a show of his status as an Akuma victim. Liam seemed to find it funny in retrospect and had set a picture of his monstrous self as the background on his phone.
"You're finally here!" a voice said and Adrien looked up to see Milo. Incongruously, Milo's voice brought up memories of that phone call from the morning he had woken up with Ladybug and Adrien barely managed to smile at him.
"What can I do for you?" Adrien asked.
"Come with me!" Milo said grabbing him by the arm and hauling him out of the studio and into an office across the hall. Milo was a tiny New Yorker who talked with his hands and couldn't always stick to a language. His French became English and then his English became Italian and then he was using American slang that didn't make sense to the rest of the world even if they did speak English.
Milo was lead on the winter line. It was an unusual position which left him in charge of coordinating everything that wasn't the actual creation of clothing. He had to manage magazine spreads and runways and interviews. The line had to have a consistent 'image' across all platforms and Milo created that. He had to wrangle web developers and graphic designers. He didn't do any of the work, he just made sure it all got done. No one doubted that it took a lot of effort. He was a tornado of a human being and spending more than fifteen minutes in his immediate presence was exhausting.
He was talking about promotional photographs at a speed that would have been difficult to follow even without the switch to Italian when he tried to explain his vision. Adrien spoke three languages and was working on a fourth. None of them were Italian.
"Milo, I don't understand. What was that about Marinette? What are you talking about?" Adrien said.
"No! You don't understand, I need a promo shot, something to lead with," Milo said.
"No, I understand that, I don't understand what Marinette has to do with it," Adrien said.
"Have you seen the pictures from your little prank shoot?" Milo said and before Adrien could answer, he was barreling on, "They're hot. You are hot in general, don't get me wrong on that but you're usually pretty terrible at doing hot with someone. We've been trying for years to train you into it but no, put someone else in the shot and you get all stilted. I don't even know what it is, it isn't any one thing. You're just not right. I want to sell a little more sex with this line and your father has decided that you're going to lead it. Nepotism at it's finest. And usually I would be annoyed. In fact, I was annoyed. It would have been easier to sell sex with Pietro who basically oozes sex, he's a little gross in person but it photographs well."
"Milo, you're rambling," Adrien said.
"But then I saw those shots of you and the little black haired girl and well, you can do sexy apparently, you just won't do it for any shoot I have managed in the last how ever many years since you hit puberty. Wouldn't have thought it was possible but good on you, kiddo. So I go find Parvana and I say, 'Where did these shots on the shared drive come from? Who is she? Have you already sold the pictures?' and I find out it was a prank shoot with the goddamn interns. She's not even a modeling intern. She's in design," Milo flapped his hands as he talked.
"It was just us messing around," Adrien said.
"Right, good, fine, then I want you to mess around for me, wearing the winter line and with proper lighting," Milo said.
"No," Adrien said, "Don't drag her into this, I can do the shoot with just about anyone else."
"Experience has taught us all that that is a lie," Milo said, "You can do awkward and posed with other people. I want you to actually look like you want to eat her and the only picture I have ever seen where you were looking at anyone like that was that girl. Which leads me to believe that it is the girl, not the clothing or the photographer or the set up of the shoot or anything else I can control. So we bring the girl. She doesn't need to do anything. She just needs to stand around and let you stare at her with that almost drooling, hungry look on your face. Mmmmkay?"
And then Milo had spun on his heel and swanned off down the hall and left Adrien staring after him in frustration. When he found Marinette at lunch, she had already been roped into the idea and spent half the meal telling him how much fun it would be to see a proper photoshoot from the inside. She was still a little quiet and a little distant but she seemed genuinely excited about it. He suspected that none of the words hungry, drooling or oozing had been used while suggesting the idea to her. Milo had set the shoot for the next day and that wasn't helping with Adrien's plans to wiggle his way out of it.
He did not want to deal with promotional shoots while his head was full of everything else. He wanted the rest of his life to be quiet so he could put all his attention on figuring out how he could be helpful to Ladybug.
He failed to figure out a way out of it. He hadn't come up with an excuse that would get him out of it and calling in sick was out of the question because it would have left Marinette alone with Milo's ideas and whoever he chose as a stand-in, probably the oozy Pietro. Adrien was not prepared to abandon her to that.
They used one of the penthouse studios, it was set as an office which just made the entire thing feel a little more dirty. It wasn't unlike his father's office and he was going to need to push that thought out of his head if he was going to survive this shoot. Usually he didn't care. It was just a matter of putting on the show and letting them take his picture until something turned out the way they wanted it to.
He did not get stage fright.
Except for today.
She was wearing her pink dress from the gala and a pair of ballet flats. Her hair had been swept up from her face and then let down in a cascade of curls over her shoulders. She wasn't a model but you could only tell in how she carried herself. She was beautiful. He was wearing one of the suits from the line. Plain black, very carefully tailored but beyond some interesting buttons, it was just a suit. He looked like a model. A pretty rack on which to hang clothing.
"They let you wear your dress," he said.
"Hips," she reminded him patting one.
He smiled but didn't say anything inappropriate about her hips or her legs or the way the muscles in her arms moved when she handed him a flower that matched the colour of her dress. She wasn't his. He had made his choice. His choice was currently in danger and alone while he was here with the flashbulbs and make up and too many people.
The shoot was going to kill him and the first few shots were just that awkward. The photographer obviously blamed it on Marinette and kept adding direction for her to try and keep straight. She was faced away from the camera and the rest of the crew and only Adrien saw her annoyance. She was still and stilted and looked like she wanted to run. He caught her face between his hands and her eyes got wide.
"The trick is to ignore everyone," he said.
"Is it?" she asked.
"Yes, even if it's a solo shoot and you're supposed to be looking at the camera, you ignore the people, people are just distracting," he whispered. There were probably people on the set who heard him but he was doing his very best to follow his own advice. Just be a model. Be a professional, get it over with and then he could get back to everything that mattered.
Marinette laughed and that made him bolder. This he could do. He could get her through this without letting them make her uncomfortable. He pulled her in another step and she let one of her hands fall to his chest. Milo was off in the corner calling out various bits of direction and Adrien did his very best to keep it from catching Marinette's attention. He put his hands where he was told but he kept her attention on him. She laughed as he made jokes, she shook her head at him when they were bad. As she relaxed, so did he.
He picked her up and spun her around and she braced her hands on his shoulders to stay balanced. She laughed in surprise and Milo made an annoyed noise from where he sat in a corner. The photographer shushed him. Adrien was aware of the camera flicking but when he put her back down she leaned in to rest her forehead on his shoulder like Ladybug sometimes did and that erased every other thought. Looking down at her, her hair all black ink spread across pale shoulders, she could have been his Lady and that derailed everything else.
"Don't lose that look but try for a smile," Milo called out.
"What look?" she asked lifting her head to look at him. He'd leaned in so they were nose to nose. It was almost a kiss. He stopped himself before he kissed her but the last time he'd been this aware of the space between himself and another person he had been sitting in the belfry of Notre Dame with a girl in a red suit. His hands on Marinette's waist tightened as he stopped himself from doing it.
Don't kiss girls just because they remind you someone.
He shook that thought out of his head.
He liked Marinette. That wasn't so strange but somehow liking Marinette had become something else when he wasn't looking. He wasn't even sure anymore when it had started. She had been just an old classmate then a new friend and somewhere along the line he'd started looking forward to seeing her and now this thrill at having her so close. He had kissed her forehead at the Gala, he'd spent a lot of money on tipping a limo driver just to drive her around while she slept, now he was about to kiss her properly. What had happened to being friends?
He took a step back and then turned and walked out of the room. Milo was yelling behind him but he didn't turn to look at either of them. He was so unnerved and he just needed to be away from the entire situation.
He stood in a room across the hall. It was another studio. This one had unfinished floors and a rack of lighting but nothing else. It was ready to be built into a full set but right now it just looked abandoned. He leaned against the window. The glass was cold, it was still early but December and outside Paris was bright but gray. He heard the door and tried to prepare himself for the excuses he was going to have to give to Milo or the photographer or whoever had been elected to follow after him. It wasn't any of them.
It was Marinette.
Marinette in that short pink dress that was so perfectly her. Her eyebrows were drawn together and she crossed her arms and then uncrossed them as she stood in the doorway. He didn't say anything because he'd forgotten what he wanted to say. She made some decision and started towards him. She turned back and frowned at the door which hadn't shut all the way and closed it behind her with a little sigh.
"Mari," he said but it derail his thoughts. Where did he get the impression that they were close enough for him to use a nickname? No one called her by a nickname. Not even Alya. Adrien had never heard her called anything but Marinette and here he was throwing nicknames at her like she was someone else.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"No," he said.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.
She was being so nice but he couldn't quite get a hold on his feelings. He had been in emotional free fall since Ladybug's phone had rang through to nothing. Worry, anger, heartbreak, love. It was welling inside him and had been for days. Marinette and her hand in his hair had opened up floodgates.
"I think you're probably not the best person for me to be talking to right now," he said.
"Why?" she asked with a little snort and a half smile like it was a joke.
"Because I almost kissed you," he said.
"Milo would have had a fit of joy if you had," she said.
"There's model kissing and actual kissing. I was going to actually kiss you," he said in a frank and even voice like he was pointing out the weather or the colour of her dress.
"Adrien?" she said sounding almost alarmed.
"I'm making a mess of everything, even this," he said.
"It's fine. You haven't ruined anything. They're all in there eating those little sandwiches, no one cares. Apparently Nadine has once threw a chair in a diva fit. You're perfectly reasonable as far as they're all concerned," she rambled through the words as fast as Milo did. She laughed but it wasn't a real laugh. She was giving him an out, a way to let this conversation go without having to talk about it.
His heart broke a little and he hated himself for it. This was the best case scenario. He was in love with someone else and if she wasn't interested, that made it easy. They could go back to being friends and he could relearn what normal boundaries were. He needed to stop falling in love with Marinette Dupain-Cheng.
Some echo of that thought must have shown on his face because she frowned and reached out a hand. He took it and pulled her in so she was close enough to hug but the only place he touched her was her hand.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"No," she said and he could almost see another rush of words building and then she'd do that awkward adorable thing where she talked too fast and only looked at him in little flashes. She was smiling and getting ready to laugh it off again. He couldn't seem to take the offer. It was his heart was an open wound. He hadn't talked about his feelings for so long and now he didn't know how to turn the flow of words off.
"I need to stop," he said and her face fell into confusion. He was the one rambling now. "It isn't you. You're one of the best friends I have made in years. I am so happy to have gotten to know you these past few months but I need more space. I need to stop giving myself chances to think about you like this. You're perfect and you deserve so much better."
"Adrien," she said and this time it was the start of a sentence, something serious and measured and he shook his head and rushed on before she could say anything that shattered his heart.
He couldn't decide what would be worse: if she liked him or if she didn't.
"Please don't say anything. There are only two things to say to the idiot who tells you something like that. You'll either break my heart or I'll break yours. I am a selfish bastard. Here I am telling you that I want to kiss you but I am in love. I am the kind of in love that you don't recover from. I've been in love with this girl since I was fourteen and if I live that long I will be in love with her when I'm a hundred and fourteen. She's my everything," he said.
He stopped and let his eyes fall shut as he retreated a few steps before he attempted to look at her. She was staring at him with a partially open mouthed stare. He sighed and was hit by such a wave of embarrassment and anxiety that he wanted to cry. He didn't. He put his hands on her shoulders and gave her one of his very fake but very charming model smiles.
"And now that I've ruined probably the first really good friendship I have made in years, I'm going to leave. I am sorry, Mari," Adrien said. He bit his tongue but didn't take the nickname back. He forced a smile and then turned and left. He didn't stop to apologize to Milo. He did stop to put the suit back and then he transformed and headed out into the city to run until he was too tired to think.
Oh my god, Adrien why can't you stop talking. She gave you every imaginable chance to get out of that without saying it but no you just kept on declaring your love for everyone. Oh my god.
In other news, I love this chapter and awkward lovesick not-dealing-well-with-his-feelings-until-they-blow-up-in-his-face Adrien is my favourite.
I also love Milo and he is one of my favourite OCs ever.